Sara woke with a start, the dream still vivid. The sun hurt her eyes and she put her hand up to her face as voices and sights filled her mind. She didn't always remember her dreams so clearly, which was perhaps a good thing as the jumble of memories made her slightly uncomfortable. She felt stiff, closed her eyes again and stretched, hoping to feel more like herself. Not a very sensible place to fall asleep: her seat was hard. Sara blinked a few times to wake herself up and as a thought struck her, looked down. Why was she sitting on a tree stump? Surely her mum had got the deckchairs out.
What she saw confused her even more: green wool clothed the lower part of her body. As she stared at the weird clothes she was wearing, voices floated through her mind – 'But I have this one that Hergyth found specially. I would not like to be rude and wear another after she was so kind as to look it out for me. Had she said that, or were the words part of the odd dream? Sara put her hand up to her neck feeling for the embroidery she somehow knew would be there. Her heart thumping when she confirmed her suspicions, she drew her hand down to her left shoulder. Gasping she caught hold of a brooch and turned it upwards to look at the design. The image of the Swan-ship burned into her consciousness. Suddenly all the memories, sounds and bizarre scenes sorted themselves – it was no dream. She felt sick; she wanted to curl up and sleep again; she wanted to go back to Rohan. She wanted to cry.
'Sara! What are you doing here?'
Sara started at her sister's voice, but Jessica carried on before she had chance to say anything. 'All the times I tried to persuade you and then you just turn up.'
Turn up where? Sara looked around, taking in her surroundings for the first time. Her tree stump was on the edge of a large field, a field covered in stalls. A market or something. But then she realized her sister was wearing the blue gown she had helped her make. Of course, it was the medieval gathering where her Tolkien Society had a stand.
'Are you okay, Sara. You look very pale.'
'Yes, I am fine.' Sara stood up, not feeling fine at all. She wondered if she would ever feel fine again.
Jessica grabbed her hand. 'You look wonderful,' she said standing back to look at the Rohan dress, 'you must have made that on the sly. Why didn't you say? We could have come together.'
'I… I was tired after mum's lunch. But after you left I thought I would call in for a short while to see what it was like.' She'd never lied to her sister, but this was something they could not share. At least not yet.
Jessica linked her arm. 'Well come on, there's only an hour or so to go. You missed the sword fighting, but have a look around at the rest.'
Still in a daze, Sara allowed her sister to lead her towards the stalls. She hoped she made the right noises as they viewed people doing all sorts of traditional crafts from weaving and spinning to a big, bearded guy putting the flights on arrows and lots of leather workers whose main output centered around swords and armor. Strangely none of this felt quite so alien to her as before…her adventure…escapade? She had no idea what to call it. Had it all really happened? Sara put her hand up to the brooch, the memory of Prince Imrahil giving it to her so intense it made her stumble.
Jessica grabbed her arm. 'Are you sure you're all right. You don't seem your usual self.'
'Just a headache,' Sara mumbled. 'I think I had better go home.' She wanted time alone to think.
'So, you managed to persuade her to come.'
'Oh, hi, Penny.' Jessica greeted her friend. 'Yes, Sara decided to take a look. Doesn't she look great?'
'Hmmm…' Penny's eyes slid over the green dress, taking in every detail, her gaze finally landing on the Swan-ship brooch. 'Not very authentic though: the embroidery is far too intricate for the Rohirrim and you've mixed your cultures. That brooch has Dol Amroth insignia. It shouldn't be there.'
Oh, yes it should! Sara bit back the remark she was about to make: that would really be stupid. She needed to keep quiet or they would think her mad.
But Jessica jumped in, always ready to defend her, a grin on her face. 'What's that you're drinking, Penny?'
Penny looked down at the large polystyrene cup in her hand. 'Oh, it's a double shot, caramel latte.' She waved her hand towards the other end of the field. 'There's a coffee cart near the entrance.'
'Oh, very authentic.' Jessica smirked. 'I imagine they drank lots of those in medieval Britain. Are they doing Paninis as well?'
Sara laughed. Her sister was always so quick.
After a frustrating few days when Sara went through the motions of trying to lead a normal existence after all that had happened, she wondered if life would ever be the same. If she could accept the enormity of her experience and move on. Jessica kept asking her what was bothering her, but so far Sara had felt unable to share anything. Probably she never would.
A busy week at school gave her no time to think through all that had occurred, but lying in bed struggling to sleep one night she made a decision: It was no good trying to ignore her feelings – they were real and she needed some outlet for them. That made her feel a little better. She had been putting off delving into her sister's world, but attempting to push aside the strange things that had happened to her was not working.
The next Sunday, alone, and with her prep and marking done, she took a deep breath, grabbed her laptop and typed in the fatal words – Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth.
'One Wiki to Rule them all' was the first thing to come up. She absorbed the main details on the page. Well, presumably they had the facts right as per Tolkien's writing, but the picture of her prince was naff. A thought struck her – was she the only person to know what he really looked like? And what about the other characters she had met? Quickly she looked up Éomer and Lothíriel. Images from the film for Éomer – not a good likeness at all. And why had they used an actor with naturally dark hair? Black eyebrows and fair hair didn't work. As for Lothíriel – well the artist's impression certainly didn't do her justice.
Sara looked through a few other sites but nothing came up to the reality. Reality? She closed her eyes. Was she going slowly insane? She sat still for a moment staring out of the window before she got up and walked hurriedly into her bedroom and pulled out her bedside drawer with a yank. Her fingers clutched the silver Swan-ship brooch – no, she was not mad. But she had to find a way to live with the knowledge she had.
Back at her laptop Sara wondered how to proceed: she wanted to find out as much about Imrahil as possible. When she had casually mentioned him to her sister she had found out he hadn't appeared in the films, a fact which had annoyed a lot of people. But then she had heard her sister rant on about how badly some of the characters were portrayed by Peter Jackson even though she watched the films avidly. And often.
Sara started typing again, this time trying FanFiction, having heard of the site from Jessica. A few filters applied and she had the stories up that included Imrahil. Most of them seemed to be about Éomer and Lothíriel, not actually Imrahil. Halfway down the page she came across a story called Hidden Currents by someone called Thanwen – 'How did Prince Imrahil meet his wife.' Sara hesitated, wondering whether to read it. It would have been set before she met him anyway, so it wouldn't hurt to have a look.
Two chapters on and Sara had to admit that the writing was excellent; she would have to take back all the rude things she had said about fanfic writing. But the story was only going to tell her one person's impression of the prince. Maybe she should read what Tolkien said about him first before she read another's imaginings. She left her seat and walked over to the bookshelf, to search through Jessica's books. No paperbacks there, only the huge hardback. Sara took it out feeling the weight; not very easy to read. But her sister had certainly bought a beautiful copy, although Sara had never seen her actually reading it either, only leafing through looking at the illustrations and the maps. She must keep the paperbacks in her room. Sara knew she would have to wait: they lived together and got on great, but some of that came from respecting each other's privacy, after all they were two grown women. So neither would go into the other's bedroom without asking. Sara sat back down at her laptop, but before she could continue reading she heard the front door open. A moment later Jessica was in the room.
'Hi,' she said dropping down on the sofa with a sigh, 'have you finished your marking? I felt sorry for you this morning; glad I'm not a teacher.'
'Yes, I've finished.' Sara hesitated: this would probably give her sister a good laugh. "Jess, I think I might like to read Lord of the Rings at last. Could I borrow your paperbacks?'
Sara shrugged at Jessica's stunned expression. 'If you can't beat them, join them,' she said with a grin.
'Right, of course.' Without any more reaction Jessica jumped up and disappeared inside her room, returning moments later with three paperbacks. She handed them over. 'If you really want to read it I can give you a digital copy, then you can load it onto your Kindle. It makes reading the whole thing a lot easier.'
Digital copy? Sara bet that didn't come from Amazon. 'Thanks, that would be great.' And she could use the search to read about Imrahil. But as she thought it she dismissed the idea. Having met so many characters, it would be nice to find out what Tolkien said about them all. And she remembered that when she had been at Edoras she'd vowed to read the book.
In all fairness her sister never said another word until the next weekend when Sara had read the whole book and admitted she had thoroughly enjoyed it.
'Well, I thought you would, once you gave in and tried,' Jessica said, looking just a little superior. 'It really is a classic, and Tolkien created such a believable world, not to mention the skill he had in inventing new languages. It's no wonder people like me become obsessed with the story and the characters.'
'I suppose so,' Sara agreed. Not that she would admit becoming obsessed with a character. She wondered how she could slip Imrahil's name into the conversation when her sister gave her the opening.
'Who was your favorite? Most people start by liking one character over the others.'
'I like a lot of them, Faramir, Aragorn and Éomer. But definitely one of my favorites was Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth.'
'That doesn't surprise me; you were wearing that Swan-ship brooch. Which reminds me, I've been so busy I never asked you where you got it.'
'Somebody I met gave it to me.' And that was all she was going to say.
Jessica waited for more but when it didn't come she gave Sara a sly grin. 'Fine, keep it to yourself.'
Sara grinned back; pleased she had got away with that. 'I looked up Imrahil in FanFiction, but there are not a lot of stories where he is the main character.'
'No, he's not so popular, although there are a good few good ones. Thanwen wrote a great story about him meeting his wife, and so has Lady Bluejay, with a different wife of course,' she said, raising her brows suggestively. 'That's the great thing: Tolkien encouraged people to write about his world using their own imagination. The majority of stories are about the Hobbits, Aragorn and Legolas: Tolkien tells us a lot about them, but with others, Imrahil and Lothíriel for instance, we don't know much, which means the authors can really be inventive. Although I like the stories best that weave their way around the facts Tolkien gave us. You might like 'The Sell-sword and the Prince', it's part of a series by Lady Bluejay. Starts in Dol Amroth at Éomer and Lothíriel's wedding, but goes back to when Imrahil was a young man.'
'But King Éomer didn't get married in Dol Amroth,' Sara blurted out before she could stop herself. 'The wedding took place at Edoras.'
Jessica laughed. 'See, that's your take on it. Tolkien only gave us the year, not the place, so authors can choose. Although I agree, a king is more likely to get married in his own hall. Perhaps you ought to write your own story, Sara, you have plenty of time. You don't seem to be going out much.'
No, she wasn't. Mooched around dreaming mostly. She made an instant vow to change her life; she needed some excitement in the real world.
But as time passed Sara could not settle to anything. Being honest with herself – nothing much interested her and how could anything be more thrilling than falling into another world. A fantasy world that seemed so real she had started to wonder about the partition between reality and the imagination. Maybe the idea of veils between universes that could be drawn aside in the right conditions was not so bizarre an idea as many people thought. Perhaps Jess was right and she should write her own fanfic story. But from what she could gather most of them included romance and she was certainly not going to write a romance for Imrahil, not without her being involved, anyway.
Summer passed slowly and she knew she needed to shake herself out of her lethargy or winter would be long and dull. Maybe she should go on holiday before school started again. An adventure holiday perhaps. But even when she booted up her laptop and started trawling through various sites, her interest didn't last long and she irritably pushed it aside and stared out the window instead. The swallows were gathering on a nearby telephone wire – a pity she just couldn't fly away with them.
'You look more miserable than ever. Are you going to tell me what's wrong?' Jess's voice made Sara start and she guiltily looked around at her sister. She'd been so deep in thought she hadn't ever heard the front door go.
'Sorry, Jess. I know I am a drag at the moment, I suppose I am bored and don't quite know what to do about it…' She stopped before she said anything else and stared at her sister, frowning. 'Well, I think it suits you.'
Jessica laughed. She'd had her hair lightened; her dark brown hair now sported blonde and gold streaks. 'A bit mad, I know, but there is a very good reason.'
'Oh?' Sara grinned at her. 'And is that reason called Oliver by any chance.' She'd met her sister's latest flame a couple of times. Blond and beautiful, and she supposed when he was dressed up at one of their gatherings he would look as near a Rohirrim as anyone could in the twenty-first century.
'Of course. We have our end of summer tournament in a couple of weeks and I wanted to be more authentic.'
'It must be serious this time,' Sara remarked. 'You have changed your hairstyle and colour many times but never for a man.'
'Jessica rolled her eyes. 'One has to make sacrifices.' She hesitated over the next words. 'Which reminds me, there is something I want to ask you.'
Sara cocked her head to one side, waiting. She had a pretty good idea what her sister wanted. 'Yes?'
'Could I borrow your Rohirric dress? There's not a lot of time to make a really good one. And yours is great.'
Sara would have felt mean saying no, although she nearly did. Naturally the dress was special to her and she had hung it carefully in her wardrobe, getting it out every day and staring at it. Just like she did the brooch. The only evidence of what had happened to change her life. Curtail her normal life that was. "Yes, of course you can, but don't spill any mead over it, or anything else for that matter.'
'Oh, thanks, I knew you would agree.' Jess pulled her into an enthusiastic hug. 'Look why don't you come? It will be a great day. Oliver will be in the archery competition, firing from horseback. That's always fun. And he'll be taking part in the sword bouts. Since I am going to be wearing your dress you can wear my blue one. Your brooch will be great with that.'
Sara said nothing for a moment, her mind on overdrive. A blue dress; her Swan-ship brooch. She didn't know if she could do it. The whole thing felt too poignant.
'Come on,' Jessica pressed. 'You need to get out. You've done nothing much all the holidays. You will be back at school soon.'
Why not? She had to get her life back. Mooning around the fanfic archives was doing her no good at all. Sara nodded. 'Okay, I will. But don't expect me to do any weaving or stick holes in bits of leather.'
Jessica had high hopes of the coming weekend – studying the weather forecast avidly and keeping Sara updated not only on the prospect of sun but as to what would be taking place at the tournament. It sounded as if the main events would consist of fighting and eating. But in truth, having read Tolkien's masterpiece, Sara realised that though the Hobbits spent their time eating, most others spent theirs fighting. So she couldn't fault the authenticity.
'I don't know whether to leave my hair loose or braid it.' Jessica twirled around in front of the big hall mirror.
'Braid it.' Sara answered straight away. 'The Rohirric women don't wear it loose.'
Jessica stared at her. 'You are reading too much fanfic. It's only the writer's imagination, no one really knows. Except Tolkien, I suppose, and he wasn't great on women.'
'I suppose that's true,' Sara conceded. She would have to be really careful what she said at the tournament or she would get into trouble. How complicated everything had become. 'But if you leave it down I would put in a couple of braids like you see in the medieval paintings. Shall I do it for you? Then you can do mine.'
Sara had her own braids wound around her head; she had liked it when Bregwen had styled it like that, thinking it suited her. Jessica agreed she looked good with her hair off her face, but refused to have all hers up, obviously influenced by Éowyn, who rode to war with unbridled hair tucked beneath her helmet. Sara was sure a few braids would not have stopped the shieldmaiden being recognised as a woman.
Finally ready, they walked arm in arm to Jessica's car. 'Should we have hired horses?' Sara asked. 'Not very realistic arriving in this.' Jessica drove an old jeep.
Jessica laughed. 'There will be lots of horses, but most will get there in horseboxes, I imagine. Oliver shares one with his friend.'
A whole way of life. Sara didn't know if she really wanted to get involved. No make-believe world could take the place of her real fantasy.
The field was crowded when they got there, although none of the bouts had started so they hadn't missed anything. As always there were many stalls, but no coffee-carts Sara noticed with a grin to herself, determined not to spoil her sister's day by being miserable.
'Come on, let's go over to the horse lines, that's where Oliver will be and I want to wish him good luck.' Sara went with her; happy to be led along and hoping she would enjoy herself – something that hadn't happened much lately.
'There's Oliver.' Jessica pointed to where the horses were tethered. Sara glanced that way, and immediately noticed two men. Both were wearing similar outfits of full-sleeved shirts, leather breeches and boots. Oliver she recognised immediately, big and blond, you couldn't miss him. But her eyes were drawn to the elegant figure beside him. Tall and dark, his long hair tied back in a tail. She closed her eyes. She must be dreaming. Or she really was losing her mind.
'Oh, great.' Jessica squeezed her arm. 'Brennen's here, I didn't know he was back from New Zealand. That will make the competition fun. He's ace with a sword.'
'Brennen?' Sara stuttered. Luckily Jessica didn't notice her discomposure. 'Yes, it means prince; he blames his Irish grandmother for that. Come on, I'll introduce you. He and Oliver are great friends; it would be really nice if you got on.'
Sara could hardly put one foot in front of the other; frightened her imagination was working overtime, hoping against hope it wasn't. Luckily Jessica still held onto her arm or she would never have covered the distance without falling over. It just couldn't be him, all sense told her that. But nothing had made sense since the Sunday afternoon she had fallen asleep in a deckchair on her parents' lawn. As if from somewhere far away she heard her sister's voice introducing them. A poke in the ribs from Jessica stirred her to mumble a hello. Jessica and Oliver moved away slightly and Sara looked up into familiar grey eyes, which held an amused gleam. She could not utter a word. But as always he knew exactly what to say.
'You look wonderful in that outfit.' Smiling openly now, his hand briefly brushed against the silver Dol Amroth brooch pinned on her shoulder and he dropped his voice, although Oliver and Jessica were immersed in one another and taking no notice. 'I always thought blue would suit you.'