The Tree at World's End

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Einar was on his mobile when the police car turned up at his office.

“Hold on a minute,” he told Carl. “My ride’s here. Don’t hang up!”

He locked the door and braved the knee-high snow that had covered the ground since he’d shovelled it clear no more than a few hours ago.

When he reached the car, an officer opened the rear door for him.

“But I don’t understand,” he continued as soon as he was inside and the car had pulled out into the late morning traffic. “Explain to me why they want an interpreter. This can’t be anything but a hoax, right?”

He could almost see Carl shrug.

“No, they’re dead serious, Einar. They sent the sound file out to heaps of places throughout the State Department and on to dozens of linguists with the more prominent universities. You were the closest one to respond, the only one who didn’t have to be flown in from Europe or god-knows-where. So, you’d better believe they’re serious.”

“But for Christ’s sake, Carl, Old Norse? Really?”

“I know. I know! But I have to say, they were definitely not telling me everything, and whatever it was … I can tell that it’s got them really spooked. The sense I got is that they just want the whole damn thing to go away...”

“And what am I,” he cut in, “their garbage disposal guy?”

“Look, don’t worry about it; just send them a whopping big invoice when you’re done…”

“So, tell me again,” Einar interrupted. “What do they want me to do?”

“They just want you to get them talking, that’s all. Find out everything you can. Who they are, where they’re from, what they’ve done with their passports … and oh yeah, ask them what they want.”

“What they want?”

“Yeah. Just talk to them, okay?”

Einar hung up, then promptly dialled his wife.

He got message bank.

“Sweetheart, it’s me. I’m going to be home late, a situation’s come up and … well, I’ll tell you all about it when I see you. If I’m not back in time, remember to check out the eclipse, if the clouds give you a chance to see anything. It’ll peak just after three-thirty.”

He put the mobile away and absently watched as they ploughed through traffic and snow.

The car pulled up not far from Franklyn Square. He got out and was immediately intercepted by a young cop with a hard, unsmiling face.

“Please follow me, sir.”

He complied, trailing after the officer as he made his way towards a large white tent that had been erected over part of the sidewalk.

The whole street had been cordoned off and closed to through traffic.

“What’s happening?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t be able to say, sir. I wasn’t here when it started.”

“What’s with the tent?” he asked.

“The subjects are inside, along with four officers, so you won’t be alone with them.”

He paused before the tent, then reached for the flap.

“Just one thing, do not touch them. Not under any circumstances.”

Einar decided he didn’t like this young man one bit.

“Why?” he challenged. “Are they contagious or something?”

A slight hesitation.
“They might be, but I don’t know for sure. All I know is what I’ve been told to tell you. They were very emphatic about the not touching.”

Then he opened the flap.

Einar studied the cop’s impervious expression for a second longer.

Bullshit, he thought as he stepped inside.

The tent was roomy, dwarfing those inside. There were six people in all: four officers, posted at the corners, and then the two he had come to see.

They sat on the pavement, one male and one female, looking up indifferently as he entered.

They were young, in their twenties.

The male was solid. Blue eyes with a luminous quality, long red hair tied at the back, and a beard, also red, parted in two.

The female had an unusual face: prominent brow, strong jaw, and a quality of determined intensity. Her hazel-green eyes were even more penetrating than the man’s.

But more than anything else, it was their clothes that got Einar’s immediate attention.

The man wore a long scraggly woollen shirt with frayed ends and baggy woollen pants that were bound tightly from his ankles to just beneath the knees. The woman wore a rough woollen shift that covered her pretty much all the way to the ground. A cloak was draped over her left shoulder. Their shoes were little more than wraps of hide fastened tightly at the ankles.

Einar took a deep breath.

He was here to talk, so he had better get started.

“Halló, ek heiti Einar,” he said, introducing himself in Icelandic.

The two exchanged a glance but showed no sign of understanding, so he tried again.

“Heill, minn namn ir Einar.”

He felt utterly foolish speaking the old way, but was rewarded when the man’s eyes widened with sudden comprehension.

“Hälsa, órr namn eru Fjiorn ok Åsa!” he responded eagerly.

So far so good, Einar thought. Fjiorn and Åsa. And that was the easy part dispensed with.

They had exchanged a basic greeting, but the next words that the man spoke might as well have been in Mongolian for all that Einar understood. From that moment onward their attempts at conversing became awkward and laboured.

“Speak slow,” he managed to convey with the aid of hand gestures. “Old Norse language hard speak. Fast not understand. Speak slow good.”

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