Black Rock Hold

{Recently I wrote about my first tale with the Elf, Exitus Terrarum. This is part two, which was originally called Pullus Silus Arcis. Apparently I made it WAAAAY too difficult to figure out who the girl is, so as you read it through, understand that the woman is Princess Diana. See if that changes the story for you.}


“What sort of Elf are we having?” This was the line that greeted me when I told my friends I was going to write another column on my adventures with the Elf. (He said I could not reveal his real name, but his nickname “Tav” was fine to share.) You see there is a lot of what he calls “misinformation” out there about Elves. Much of it is through the media and popular entertainment, with made up Elves like Legolas (from Lord of the Rings) and Dobby (from Harry Potter) getting major attention. Even the Keebler Elves and those North Pole sweat-shop slaves are often in the public eye.

I found this out first-hand when I began to ask people about Elves; what they look like and what they do for a living. “They’re horse-jockeys,” was one popular answer. “They make toys,” was another. (More influence from that lazy slave-driving work-once-a-year alcoholic.)

“What do Elves look like?” I asked. “They wear overalls.” “They live in a tree and make cookies and are three inches tall.” “They live on Rice Krispie boxes.” This wasn’t getting us anywhere.

Finally I asked our server who came back with an answer so quickly that I was forced to conclude she’d either been waiting all night for someone to ask her about Elves or had just recently seen someone like this (or was seeing them now; you never know with the grave-yard shift types): “He has purple hair and a green face with a pink nose,” she began, as if from memory. “He has yellow and white polka-dot socks and baggy trousers. He paints the stripes on hard candy for a living, and in his spare time he repairs vending machines.”

When I told Tav about these descriptions—especially the last one—he laughed like a hyena. (To protect him and the other Elves, I’m not going to describe him so you people won’t harass his kind if you see them.) “She did get one thing right,” Tav mused. “Elves make up 89% of the vending machine repair-guild.”

Mostly, he told me, Elves do things they are particularly good at. Contrary to popular belief, making toys and cookies are not among their chief skills. Weather forecasting is. Have you ever heard the term “Doppler Radar Forecast” on the news? Doppler is a Sanskrit word meaning “Elf-derived.”

Fashion is another skill. All the major designers and fashion magazines have Elves advising them quietly behind the scenes. (Even Puff Daddy finally got an Elf, which is how his clothes went from “Ghetto-Clown” to respectable.) Tav even admitted to me that some Elves are money-launderers; an ignominious but naturally abundant skill among them.

More than anything, though, what Elves are good at is finding things. They are used to find everything from new veins of precious metals to U.F.O.s (The government hotly denies this but it’s no coincidence that most Elf conventions take place in Roswell, New Mexico.) Elves are particularly good at finding people; especially those who someone doesn’t want found.

This is what Tav does, and is he quite excellent at it. Tav wouldn’t go into many specifics, but I glanced at his email address book once and I saw Jimmy Hoffa and Amelia Earhart on it. (I bet you thought they were dead, huh? The truth, when I drug it out of him, is far stranger, but another time.) Tav is very cagey about his recent work, but I did get a postcard from Baghdad about the third week in December last year (if that rings any bells) with his handwriting penning my address. The postcard read, “I’m glad you’re not here!”

Tav did tell me that I could relate one story of finding someone to you—one that I was personally involved in—now that several years have passed. This was right after I’d rescued him from the dumpster and the feral dogs (which I wrote about in #140 Exitus Terrarum.)

When I found Tav he was actually looking for a woman, although why she’d be in a dumpster behind a Holiday Inn by the Atlanta airport Tav would never say. He did mutter something about “discarded shoes” but I never got the full story.

Anyway, Tav was contracted by some pretty important people to find an even more important woman. (I cannot tell you who she is or who hired Tav, but trust me; you know both parties.) It seemed like there was no way he would ever find this particular woman, but as I had no pressing matters at hand, I asked to go with him on his search. Tav was reluctant, but it’s difficult to say no to someone who has just saved you from feral dogs.

We rented a car (a 1998 dark blue Chevy Tahoe, if that kind of detail is important to you), and set out toward the Midwest, where he thought the girl had been taken. (I say “taken” now, in hindsight, but to be honest, there was some question at the time as to whether the woman was behind her own disappearance, which would make sense, if you knew her.) Along the way, we stopped in Missouri, at the Field of Forgotten Heroes. Tav explained that there were many heroes of days gone by that were no longer remembered. Sometimes it was because bigger battles came along, or we didn’t realize how important a certain event was. Most often, however, the men who wrote the history books and told the legends—whether through ignorance or malfeasance—just plum got the details wrong. These heroes, then, were unable to live on in the printed page, or even memory, legend, or myth, and needed some place to go. So, they came to Missouri, to the Field of Forgotten Heroes. There they would joust and spar, and mostly talk about old times.

I was astonished to learn such a place existed, and asked Tav how this could be without Disney or Universal turning it into a theme park. Tav told me that besides being forgotten (meaning few knew of it), there were plenty of places like this all over the world. Not for heroes, but just places that were unknown. Some only half existed in this world. Others, you couldn’t get there unless you were already there. (I didn’t understand that either.) Still others were common, but filled with uncommon people.

The Field of Forgotten Heroes was like no place I’ve ever been. I could write a whole column just describing it, but as that’s not the point, I’ll save that for another day. Tav asked around, but no one had heard anything. Then this one young man named Varrus Corinus, who was sitting on an elephant, came over form where he’d been jousting with some Chinese soldiers (who Tav whispered had founded Vermont). Varrus said he’d heard from a fellow with the initials C.K. (he said that with eyebrows raised significantly) that the girl had been taken to Pullus Silex Arcis. Everyone sort of blanched at that name, except Tav, who just looked grim. Tav thanked the man and we left.

“How do you know we can trust him? I asked, back on the highway.

“First of all,” said Tav, "that is Varrus Corinus, the man who single handedly defeated Hannibal. Secondly…”

“Wait,” I broke in. “I thought Scipio defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama after Hannibal had defeated Rome 14 years earlier at Cannae.” Tav laughed at me.

“Who do you think wrote that? Roman scribes, that’s who. Scipio never fought Hannibal. Varrus was a farmer, and saw Hannibal coming over the Alps, and caused an avalanche that buried Hannibal and his entire army as they were crossing. Only one elephant survived.”

“Oh.” I said, feeling stupid.”

“Secondly,” Tav continued, “Varrus said he got the information from a C.K., and no one would lie about that.”

“Who’s C.K.?” I asked. “Calvin Klein?” Tav wouldn’t talk to me for three hours.

When he finally would speak, I asked him what Pullus Silex Arcis meant. Tav pursed his lips, as if the mere words brought a sour taste to his mouth. “That’s another place like the Field of Forgotten Heroes,” Tav explained, “that exists only on the periphery of understanding. It means Black Rock Hold, and you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We will have to buy horses.”

“Why?” I asked naively.

“Because,” Tav growled, rolling his eyes, “one does not approach Black Rock Hold in a 1998 dark blue Chevy Tahoe.” No more was said on the matter.

Two days later we had made it to Iowa and purchased horses. Mine was a dusty roan I called “Alaina,” while Tav’s was a bay he called “Dexter.” We got a third, and gun-metal grey gelding Tav immediately named “Camilla” with a small chuckle. Tav had asked for a purple horse, but the ranch owner spat his tobacco and said they didn’t exist. From the rancher’s level of vehemence in his response I assumed there was some subtext I was missing, but I didn’t press the matter.

We got the horses just south of a town called Storm Lake. We left there heading south-west with enough provisions for three people for five days. Tav did his Doppler thing and said that it wouldn’t rain for at least a week, so we didn’t bother with a tent.

I hadn’t ridden a horse for some time, and it took some getting used to, but my roan Alaina was patient with me. We stopped that night early, as Tav said that Black Rock Hold was nearby, but no one entered after dark. That night, we talked for hours, and he told me many great stories (hopefully some of which I’ll get to tell you one day).

The next morning we broke camp and headed over the low-rising mesa and into the valley where Black Rock Hold was. I assumed there was a large black rock somewhere near, that the town was either named for or carved out of. (A “hold” is like a fort.) Tav told me it was a different kind of black rock they were talking about.

The town itself looked like a movie about the Old West If that movie was directed by Tarrantino). Everywhere there were townspeople, just sitting on the side of the road staring at us with hate and distrust in their eyes. I kept half-expecting someone to play an off-key piano ditty in a minor chord. You could actually feel the venom in their gazes, and everyone I saw took not that there were three horses, but only two of us.

Tav, for his part, was doing his best Gary Cooper/Clint Eastwood impression, and seemed impervious to each stare. He rode confidently like he’d lived there all his life to the middle of town, and stopped outside a building with a sign that read “Fairplay Saloon.” We tied our horses to the hitching post (which was ornately carved with Celtic crosses and Ankhs), and I followed Tav inside.

The place looked like Gunsmoke on acid. Kitty Russell would have fainted. Nobody looked up when we entered, but I felt like everyone noticed. Tav went up to the bar and ordered two whiskeys. The bartender poured some foul-smelling liquid into two dirty glasses and set up before us. Tav passed over a couple of coppers. The drinks weren’t touched again.

“I haven’t seen one of your kind here in awhile.” The bartender said, his eyes searching us for clues. “Not since the Troubles.”

“Can’t say it’s my favorite vacation spot,” Tav began wryly, “but when it’s important, I still make house calls.”

“I suppose yer lookin’ for Boss Eisley,” the bartender said, his voice lowered and his eyes darting to see if anyone was paying undue attention.

“You know there’s only one reason I would come here.” Tav answered. “And that’s for HER.”

The bartender nodded like he hadn’t expected anything different. “You want Her, or anything else in this town, you have to see Boss Eisley.”

Tav nodded and pulled out a piece of parchment paper and an envelope. He wrote no words on the paper, but rather drew a symbol I’d never seen before. The bartender’s eyebrows shot up. Tav put the parchment in the envelope and sealed it; stamping a ring he was wearing over the flap.

The bartender whistled and a young boy of 8 or 9 came over from one of the tables. Tav handed the boy the envelope and a gold coin; from where I couldn’t tell. The boy looked astonished at the coin (as did the bartender, before he recovered), but the boy disappeared quickly up the stairs against the back wall. About thirty seconds later the boy was back and said, “He’ll see you now.” Tav nodded and got off his stool, and I started to follow when Tav said to me in a low voice, “Stay here and keep an eye on things.” He handed me half a dozen of those gold coins and wordlessly followed the boy up the stairs.

While I was just sitting there feeling kind of nervous these two men came up to me. One was a tall thin albino, with long flowing white hair, and a huge sword which rose from a scabbard on his back. The other looked so much like Che Guevara it was all I could do not to stare.

“Care to wager for those coins, good sir?” the albino asked in stilted formal tones.

“Wager, how?” I asked, still feeling uneasy and wondering how long I was going to be alone.

“A little game we call Gilding the Lilly;” Che replied. He smiled, showing too many teeth. I politely declined, wondering what Gilding the Lilly was. They wished me a pleasant day and moved back to their tables.

Soon after a lady approached, beautifully dressed and made up. She offered to show me the nine-horse hitch, and though I didn’t know what that was either, I acted like I did and told her thank you, no. She also wished me a good day and moved—sashayed is a better term—back over to the wall. I pondered at how everyone seemed to be polite (never a good sign) and wondered if I had just been propositioned.

I was kind of looking forward to who would walk up next, but at that moment Tav appeared at the head of the stairs, leading the woman with him. I couldn’t believe She was actually alive. She looked half-mad and half-scared, and in my experience you don’t want to be around a woman when she is either of those things let alone someone as powerful as She.

Tav came up to me and took the coins, handing them to the bartender. “Drinks are on me ‘til these run out.” There was a loud roar that went up from the assembled crowd of saloon patrons, and general “Huzzahs!” in our direction as we left. (Tav later told me that with the money he left the entire town would be drinking for days, and indeed, that may have been his strategy to get away without any trouble.)

We walked out and untied the horses. When I told her that her horse was called Camilla she got a sour look on her face. We rode out without a backward glance.

That night we made camp, with me doing most of the work, as Tav showed no inclination and I not about to ask her. The woman took up an argument she’d had with Tav the whole trip thus far.

“I can’t believe you name-dropped like that!” she exclaimed. “Claiming I’m the god-daughter of Antoine Durochér! If Boss Eisley thought you were lying none of us would have survived!” I swallowed at this news, but Tav seemed unperturbed.

“That’s the thing,” he said, smiling slowly. “No one in their right mind would lie about a thing like that.” She just Hmmmmmphed and looked cross.

I tried to change the subject. “I got a couple of offers I didn’t understand while you were up there playing with our lives,” I began. “Two men wanted to bet on something they called Gilding the Lilly. What is that?” Tav laughed and explained it to me:

“You stand 20 feet apart, both against a wall, facing each other. You each take three shots of whiskey, and then throw a dagger at the other. The goal is to have the dagger hit the wall between the other’s legs. The dagger that comes closest to your, uh, you know, family jewels, without hitting it wins.”

I felt the blood drain from my face. “I’m sure as hell glad I didn’t do that!” I said fervently. “It almost makes me scared to ask the other.”

“What is it?” Tav asked. She looked interested too, although she was trying to hide it.

“This woman approached me and asked if I wanted to see a nine-horse hitch. What is that?”

Tav laughed so hard he spilled his coffee, and I have never seen a woman blush like that. The rest of the night I tried to get Tav to explain it, but every time he tried She would get so flustered he’d have to stop. (He finally told me later on the way home, after we dropped her off.)

That was my adventure to Black Rock Hold; one I’ll never forget. Thankfully I’ve never been back, although I have met two people who have. We did stop by the Field of Forgotten Heroes on the return, and met the most interesting woman who had given birth to…but I guess that’s another story.

July 22, 2004

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