World of Difference
Written for fun.
Something was tickling her nose. Sara batted away the irritant impatiently, but whatever insect had chosen to plague her was persistent and annoying, hovering right over her face. Sighing, she sat up and blinked hard… what the... How long had she been asleep? Certainly not long enough for her father's neatly mown lawn to turn into…a hay meadow? No, not a hay meadow, as looking around she saw that the grasses seemed to stretch forever – well at least to the foot of the distant, white-topped mountains. Mountains – in Surrey!
Sara let out a sigh of relief, she was dreaming of course. Falling asleep after one of her mother's famous Sunday lunches – not to mention the sherry and the wine – was inevitable, and normally pleasurable. Then why did she feel a deep unease creeping over her? Pinch yourself, that's what they said to do when in that world between dream and reality. She grabbed hold of her calf muscle, and squeezed hard. Oww! That was too hard, it hurt, and she bruised easily. Sara closed her eyes, opened them again and the mountains were still there.
Before she could comprehend any more, she became aware of shouting in the distance, shouting and the thunder of hooves. Getting to her feet she shaded her eyes with her hand and looked to where the clamour was coming from. A dozen or so horsemen were charging in her direction, they seemed to be chasing something. As they got closer she saw they had spears raised as though they were about to throw them. Spears? Sara felt the first fluttering of real fear in the pit of her stomach.
Then, unbelievably, she saw that the men on horseback were chasing some kind of wolf. Bigger and uglier than the ones at the safari park – bigger than any wolf she'd ever imagined. And it was coming her way. Panicking she looked around for escape, but saw nothing to aid her except a stunted tree some distance away. Could she get to it before the thing reached her? But suddenly the animal became aware of her presence, it swerved, heading for her and cutting off any chance of flight. Sara could see its jaws open in an evil grin as if already relishing chomping through her flesh.
Rooted to the spot, too frightened to move, she saw the lead rider raise his spear high above his shoulder. He pulled back his arm and launched the weapon, which seemed to glide through the air in slow motion as it tracked towards her. Wolf or spear, whichever, her end was near.
Blood soaked her shirt, splattered up onto her face, the smell making her retch. The animal slithered forward until its snout rested right against her foot, then with no more than a couple of jerks, it lay still, the spear still quivering in its body.
She turned away from the horseman closing on her, vomiting into the grass. When she looked up again, the man was studying her through the slit eyes of his helmet. His gaze left her face, travelled down her body and landed on the tops of her suntanned legs. His eyes lingered on her exposed limbs, took in the brief white shorts and her bare feet and then returned to her face as he barked out a terse question.
'Who are you, woman? And what are you doing in the Riddermark?'
Riddermark? What was he talking about, and what a strange accent, she could only just make out what he was saying. Sara wiped her hand across her mouth and stood up straight, trying not to be intimated by the unfriendly greeting. Unfortunately the size of his horse meant she had no chance of looking him straight in the eye.
Best not to show how scared she really had been, which would put her at a further disadvantage. She drew herself up to her full height. 'I am not doing anything,' she said as haughtily as she could. 'You, however, are hunting and we both know that is against the law.' At least fox hunting was banned; the beast dead at her feet was as far removed from a fox as a lion from a kitten.
'Hunting banned?' He sounded so incredulous that she wondered if she had got it wrong. With a swift movement the rider removed his helmet and shook out a mane of dark blond hair, before fixing stormy eyes on her. A tanned and handsome brute, used to getting his own way, she imagined.
'Hunting is not banned here, lady. And even if you Gondorians are too soft to hunt wargs yourselves, then I doubt you would want the creatures running amok over your lands.'
Another rider came up; he'd already removed his helmet. With his fair hair braided at the sides he looked younger and less frightening than his companion, but not nearly as arresting. 'What's going on, Sire? Who's this? She looks like she's lost all her clothes. Don't say a warg tore them away.'
Sire? What...! He didn't look like a king. And then Sara realised – she must have been so fast asleep that her Lord of the Rings mad sister had taken advantage of the effect of lunchtime drinking and bundled her into the car, dragging her to the Medieval event going on in the next village. The Tolkien Society had a stall there, she remembered. Wait till she got hold of Jessica, frightening her like this! Nothing to worry about, she told herself: the mountains were some kind of set, and the beast at her feet clearly not real. Pretty good though, as the cow blood or whatever it was had pooled in the grass where the spear had struck the model's side. How on earth did they make the thing move so realistically?
'You need to cover yourself,' the 'king' said. He clicked his fingers at his companion and the young man deftly removed a cloak from where it was tied behind his saddle. He threw it at her with a face devoid of expression. She caught it instinctively, her fingers closing over coarse, scratchy wool.
'Why would I want to put this on? It's not cold, and anyway wool makes me itch.'
'Cover yourself,' the 'king' ordered. 'It is not seemly to show your legs like that.'
Well, of all the cheek! How dare he boss her about! 'Just because you want to parade around dressed like...some sort of medieval warrior, I don't have to join in. I never did see the point in grown men playing at war games, and as for the women dressing up in kirtles and laced bodices then no thank you! And,' she felt she had to make her point, 'if I ride a horse, I do so in the proper attire and don't risk getting tangled in my own skirts!' Besides, she had always hated dressing up. At the last event her sister managed to drag her to, everyone had worn really weird garb, and Sara knew it would never suit her to be bundled in skirts and petticoats. The food had been quite good though, especially the honey cakes. But even the sweet cakes hadn't been enough to make her the slightest bit interested in even pretending to go back to a time when women were not free to do as they pleased. 'Next,' she said witheringly, 'you will be expecting me to cook for you!'
The king's mouth thinned to an angry line. 'You, woman, are in my realm, and you will do anything I say, or anything I wish.'
'In your dreams, sunshine! I am going home. You lot,' she waved a hand at the group of riders who had gathered around, astonished looks on a dozen faces, 'had better get going too. It's Monday tomorrow and you'll have to forget all this nonsense and return to real life.'
'Lady.' Sara shuddered at the ice in his voice, causing her to hesitate. Something was not right here. She looked down at the wolf at her feet, the blood clotting over thick grey fur, the pool of it dark in the grass. She smelt the stench of the animal, saw the way its eyes had clouded and flies clustered around the wound. Truth dawned – of course the thing was real, what had she been thinking? What was this? Involuntarily, she started to shake.
The king's dark gaze impaled her; lethal and deadly, just like his spear. 'You are coming with us.'
Swallowing, she nodded, trying desperately to stop the trembling in her legs, which threatened to have her back on the ground. 'Right. Okay,' she capitulated, not seeing any choice. 'But tell me where I am. One moment I was asleep on my parents' lawn in Surrey, the next...'she waved a hand in an incredulous gesture towards the range of high mountains, it being patently obvious to her now that it was not the backdrop to some bizarre festival. 'I have no idea how I got here.'
'She must have lost her memory', the man at the king's side offered. 'Perhaps she's taken a blow to the head.'
The king nodded, his hard expression softening a little. 'So it seems. Hopefully she will recover and we can find out what goes on here and why she has been left in this destitute manner.'
'Am I still in England?' Sara asked hesitantly, annoyed as her voice came out in a frightened whisper.
'England? I do not know this England. You, lady, are in the Riddermark, land of the Horse-lords. And I am the Lord of this land,' he said not unkindly.
Her mind froze for a moment and then a terrifying thought pierced through her numbness. She wasn't in England; she might not even be on Earth. Oh god, she'd been taken by a UFO, deposited on some planet where they would observe and experiment on her. See how humans reacted to such appalling experiences perhaps.
Before she had time to assimilate her dreadful situation, the king – she had to consider he might really be one now – jumped down from his horse. He took the cloak from her shaking hands, wrapped it right around her and lifted her effortlessly off her feet.
She struggled in his arms, panic setting in. 'What are you doing?'
'Cease worrying, lady. I am taking you to where you can be cared for. Perhaps your senses will return and we will find out how you got here and what happened to you.' Before she could protest any more, he deposited her on top of his horse, swung up himself in one easy movement and tucked her against him.
Sara tried to relax, difficult when wrapped in a scratchy cloak and sitting hard against a man clad in stiff leather. Not much room between him and the high pommel of the saddle either. And whatever the thing was that protected his knee dug into her calf, and her thigh chaffed against the saddle. She was hot. And she bet he was too under all that armour. The motion of horse and the warmth made her sleepy, but she needed to keep alert and work out how she was going to get out of this nightmare. How she was going to get home.
'Where are we going?' she asked after a while.
'Straight back to Edoras. I am hoping that was the last of the wargs, but I will send another patrol out tomorrow to make sure.'
Edoras? Wargs? Something sounded familiar, but she couldn't place the words even though she was sure she should recognise them. Racking her brains produced no results. Suddenly she became aware of a ripple of excitement, or perhaps just awareness, running though the group of riders. Looking up from contemplating the king's large hands and how he expertly controlled his stallion with barely a movement, she saw two riders galloping towards them.
The king held up his hand and all slowed to a halt behind him. They waited for the two galloping riders, the king's stallion blowing nosily down his nostrils. Threat or greeting, she wouldn't like to say.
The man in the lead reined in at the last moment, pulling his horse around so he ended up right next to the king. His eyes flicked over her for a moment before he bowed his head.
'Éomer King. A message came from Prince Imrahil. They are only half a day away and will be here by nightfall. We thought you would like to be in Edoras to greet the Prince and Lady Lothíriel when they arrive.'
Sara felt a slight tensioning in the king's big frame before he answered. 'They are two days early, I was not expecting them so soon.'
'Evidently a storm threatened and they thought to get over the mountains before it hit.'
The king nodded, looking towards the mountains where dark clouds now obscured the peaks. 'I need to get home in time to welcome my friend and my betrothed, lady. We will set a faster pace, but I will not let you fall.'
Sara was hardly listening. Her thoughts jumped around like firecrackers. Éomer and Lothíriel – she had certainly heard those names before. Her sister, unable to get her to read the book or any of the fanfic stories she glutted on, had insisted on reading out some passages from one of her favourites fics only last week. Sara had to agree the piece had made her laugh – it was about Princess Lothíriel being given marital advice from some prude of an aunt. She even remembered the name of the story – Lothíriel's Journal. In it the poor princess was going to marry King Éomer even though she had never met him. It was funny, but it wasn't real. Not that Lothíriel seemed a bit put out. In fact she was thrilled with the prospect.
And if that wasn't real then what the hell was this? Sara ran through all the options she could think of before deciding that she must have gone through a portal into another time and place like Alice. Gone into a magic land like Narnia. No, her head pounded, it was even worse, she had gone into a book! Éomer, she remembered, was the King of Rohan, and her sister had drooled over him. And, heavens, was she in Lord of the Rings itself or in some rubbishy fanfic story?
With many thanks to Lia for her excellent Beta work and also to the Ladies of the Garden of Ithilien Workshop for their continued support. LBJ