Well, I've been kicking this idea for a while now, so I figured...what the heck! I do plan to update regularly, but since I'm writing a bunch of other stuff at the same time it may be more than a week sometimes between updates. Just wanted to let you know so you wouldn't worry if there are gaps at some point.
One: Into the Abyss
You know, if my friend Mike hadn't been such an über-Lord of the Rings geek, none of this would have happened. While I had read the books when I was in high school and really enjoyed the movies, it's not as if I went out of my way to have much to do with LOTR. But then he got this crazy idea to have a Lord of the Rings-themed party for his twenty-first birthday, and that's how this all got started.
Bit of background on Mike. I've known him since eighth grade, and he was always that scarily brilliant kid that you knew was just going to end up at Harvard or MIT or something like that. We'd always been just friends, not boyfriend and girlfriend, although he had rescued me to take me to the senior prom when my date came down with tonsillitis, of all things. He was vaguely appealing in a scruffy sort of way, but not really my type, and I guess I wasn't his, either, since he'd never made a move on me. To be perfectly honest, he didn't seem that into girls. Not gay -- I'd asked him about that point-blank once, and he'd just shrugged and said, "Time enough for girlfriends later." Which was true, although not exactly the norm for a teenage guy.
He had decided to go to Caltech because he didn't want to give up the Southern California weather, or the cushy English Tudor–style house he inherited from his paternal grandfather, seeing as Mike was the only grandchild and the family was San Marino old money. My family did all right -- we wouldn't have been living in San Marino otherwise -- but we were definitely not in the same league as the Westerfields. My father was a lawyer and my mother taught high school English, and neither one of them had been exactly thrilled when I announced during my senior year of high school that I wanted to get a degree in fashion and go to work as a costume designer. Not exactly the most stable career, I know, but I'd been sketching fancy dresses and mooning over fabric for too long for them not to realize what direction I wanted to go.
So I went to the Fashion Institute in downtown L.A., and I was just starting out my senior year when Mike got the idea for The Party. At that point he decided that a LOTR party was the way to go, simply because he apparently shared the same birthday as Bilbo and Frodo (September 22nd, for those of you who care), and what better way to celebrate finally being able to buy alcohol legally than to force all your friends to dress up in Middle Earth garb?
I told him I didn't think it was such a great idea. After all, it wasn't as if we were all costumers or something. I mean, I knew I wouldn't have a problem -- and I was already thinking that copying one of Arwen's gowns would make a good project for my Advanced Sewing class -- but the rest of Mike's group was composed of either more Caltech geeks, none of whom could sew their way out of a paper bag, or friends from high school who had stuck around to go to Pasadena City College or Citrus before moving on to the wide world of a four-year university and who were similarly challenged when it came to dealing with a sewing machine.
"Well, you could help, couldn't you, Sarah?" he asked me. His brown eyes were guileless.
Typical. Mike seemed to think that just because I wasn't busting my brains with calculus or theoretical physics or whatever arcane stuff he was taking over at Caltech I must have unlimited time on my hands. "Sure, I'll just squeeze in sewing T-tunics and bodices for thirty people in between my 20-unit course load."
But that, unfortunately, was pretty much what I ended up doing. Mike had this way of convincing you that going along with his ideas was the most logical thing in the world. If he weren't shooting for a doctorate in physics I'm sure he could have had a great career in politics. At any rate, since it was the beginning of the term I wasn't quite as busy as I would be say, in November or early December, so I took the measurements people gave me and the pile of fabric I'd bought in downtown L.A.'s fashion district with funds Mike provided and churned out enough simple costumes -- with some help from my mother, who knew her way around a sewing machine, thank God -- that pretty much everyone who was coming would have something to wear.
I'd lucked out and found a length of bluish violet silk velvet that would work for a copy of one of Arwen's gowns, along with some silver trim that had to have come straight from India. In the evenings I put my feet up in front of the TV and worked on beading the sleeves, and prayed it wouldn't be too nightmarishly hot on the day of the party. Late September in Southern California tended to be warm, but if you were lucky you'd get just a mildly hot day and not one of those Santa Ana–inspired blasts that felt as if you were walking into an oven every time you opened the door.
But my luck held. Cool breezes came from off the ocean the day of the party, and I was able to finally put on the gown and not feel as if I were going to die of heat prostration. The dress had turned out really well, and luckily my coloring was similar enough to Liv Tyler's that the soft purplish-blue velvet and silver beaded trim looked good on me as well. Other than that, I didn't really resemble her very much, but at least I'd let my hair grow the last few years of college, and it now hung almost to my waist. Mike had found a place online that sold Elvish ear tips, and I stuck them on grimly, hoping all the while that the damn spirit gum wouldn't give out halfway through the party.
Driving with those enormous gossamer sleeves was no fun, but at least I didn't have a stick shift. That would have been a real party. Since I'd helped Mike out so much he'd reserved a spot in his driveway for me -- good thing, as I was running a little late, and the party was already in full swing by the time I got there, the narrow tree-lined street crowded with cars. Probably Mike's neighbors would be less than thrilled, but at least this wasn't the sort of party that would be blaring loud rap or death metal or something else guaranteed to disturb the peace of the upper-crusty neighborhood.
Mike's house was vaguely hobbit-y anyway, with its English country styling and the antiques he'd inherited from his grandfather. But he'd done it up really nicely, with banners that looked as if he'd taken them straight out of the movies, and some fun props lying around -- replica swords, picture frames, even a whole Middle Earth chess set. I think he must have bought out the entire LOTR stock from one of those catalogs that sells pricey reproductions. The big tree in the backyard was hung with lights, and copper torches burned at each corner of the deck.
"Nice," I said, when I had finally located Mike. He was in the kitchen, pulling a tray of mushroom turnovers from Trader Joe's out of the oven.
"Thanks," he said, without looking up. Then he straightened, and stared at me for a moment. "Wow -- you look -- " He hesitated for a second, then finished awkwardly, "Um...really good."
Since I'd often thought I probably could have dyed my hair blue without Mike noticing, that was high praise. But to call him on it would probably just embarrass him even more, so I just shrugged and gave him a noncommittal "thanks" in reply. Then, to defuse the tension, I asked, "Drinks?"
"Out back. The table under the tree has a bunch of stuff sitting in ice."
"Great." And I went back outside, intercepting thanks from a couple of people for their costumes as I did so. Truthfully, everyone did look great, and looking around me I thought it really had been worth the hours of work involved. Besides, now everyone had something to wear for Halloween or to go to the Renaissance Faire, if they were so inclined.
The next couple of hours passed uneventfully enough. Full dark finally fell, and the backyard looked even more otherworldly under the light of the torches and a gibbous moon. I'd never been much of a drinker -- at a full six months older than Mike, I'd enjoyed the rights of legal drinking age much longer than he had -- and I stuck with hard cider, partly because it wouldn't get me as hammered as drinking wine would, and partly because if someone bumped me and I spilled on my silk velvet it wouldn't be the end of the world.
But I couldn't say the same for everyone else. Some of those Caltech geeks could drink, let me tell you. I don't know if it was because they were trying to make up for time lost in high school or what, but a couple of them were starting to get out of control, and I had to fend off some unwelcome advances before I decided maybe it would be a good idea to hang out in the living room for a while. Most of the wild partying seemed to be going on in the backyard anyway.
I turned, and had started to move back toward the house when someone grabbed my arm. Annoyed, I glanced over my shoulder to see Drew Cummings, one of the group that seemed to hang out at Mike's house on a regular basis -- probably because Mike would always pick up the tab for the pizza and beer. I'd always thought Drew was a jerk and had told Mike so, but he'd just sort of shrugged and said I didn't like Drew because he was always trying to get into my pants.
He had a point.
"Do you mind?" I asked icily. "That's silk chiffon you're sweating on."
Drew stared at me blankly for a minute, then looked down at my sleeve and finally withdrew his hand. "You're not leaving, are you?"
For a second I wanted to snap back that I was just going to take a pee, but that would have been rude and not even the truth. Instead, I just said, "I'm going inside. I want to sit down for a while."
"That sounds great!" He took another swig of beer, and I cursed mentally. Great -- the last thing I needed was this dork following me around like a drunk puppy dog.
I looked around, hoping I could find Mike and have him distract his loser friend, but of course Mike was nowhere in sight. It figured. I'd have to get rid of this twit myself. My half-empty cup of cider gave me the inspiration. "OK, Drew -- but I'm almost out of cider. Could you go refill this for me?" I handed him the plastic cup, which he took with an air of inebriated solemnity.
"Absolutively," he said earnestly, as if I'd just given him the quest to throw the Ring into Mount Doom. But at least he turned and headed off in the direction of the drinks table, thus giving me the escape I needed.
Of course, if he thought I was going inside, then I had to do just the opposite. The side yard had also been fitted up with tables and chairs, and I hadn't spent much time there so far this evening. It would probably take Drew quite a while to figure out where I had gone -- if he didn't get distracted by some other female who was a little less elusive. Well, one could hope, anyway.
Even with all the lanterns in the backyard, it still wasn't that well-lit. I picked up my long skirts and started moving quickly toward the side yard, and I suppose it was my haste that was my downfall. My foot caught on something, and before I could recover my balance I fell forward. I put my hands out to catch myself, but instead of the trampled grass of Mike's backyard I felt -- nothing. My stomach seemed to drop out of me, the way it felt the one and only time I went on "Supreme Scream" at Knott's Berry farm -- you know, one of those rides where they take you way up on a tower and drop you off. Even as I began to wonder whether I'd hit my head and was hallucinating, I finally felt the ground come up beneath me. But what scraped my hands was some low-lying bushes, not Mike's well-manicured lawn. Shocked, I hit the ground hard, feeling the wind knocked out of me, and the sudden bite of cold air against my face.
For several long seconds I lay flat, gasping for breath, wondering what could have happened. Maybe there was a hedge or something I hadn't seen...
Finally I pushed myself upward, not even wanting to glance down and see what damage I might have done to my dress. And the second I stood upright and took a good look around, I realized that a torn gown was most likely the least of my problems.
Wherever I was, it sure as hell wasn't Mike's backyard.
I stood on the edge of a plain of yellowed grass, broken here and there by some gorse-like bushes -- one of which had apparently broken my fall. Off to my left I could see what looked like the outlying edges of a huge forest, and rising beyond that was a grim-looking mountain range. Of course I had no way of knowing what time it was, but something in the quality of light told me that it was late afternoon, edging toward evening. Clouds covered most of the sky, but it seemed as if the sun was dipping down toward my left, which meant the mountains and forest lay to the west. And it was cold. Not just the cool night of a Southern California autumn, but really cold. I wasn't a skier like a lot of my friends, but I'd been up in the mountains a few times, and that's what the chilly air reminded me of. It couldn't have been more than 40 degrees, probably -- definitely not the sort of weather my silk velvet gown and its sheer sleeves had been designed for. And it seemed as if the longer I stood there and thought about how cold it was, the worse it got.
Not knowing what else to do, I started walking. At least I thought that might help to warm me up a bit. As I trudged through the dry grass, part of my mind was screaming at me to make some sense out of what had happened, but I couldn't. Randomly I wondered whether Drew really had gotten me that drink after all and then tipped a little date-rape drug into it, just for kicks. But if that were the case, then why would I have been left here by myself? And anyway, I didn't feel like I'd been drugged. If anything, I felt overly sharp and alert, as if the cold had burned away the slight buzz the cider I had been drinking had given me. Besides, I'd lived in Southern California all my life, and the landscape around me didn't remotely resemble anything I'd ever seen before.
The day grew darker, and I kept walking, thankful that the Arwen costume had at least called for flats and not something with heels. Finally I'd looked down at my dress to see how badly I had banged myself up, and the damage wasn't quite as bad as I had feared. The main portion of my gown looked more or less intact, although there was a nasty smudge near the hem. One of the sleeves was pretty much a loss, though -- the thorns of that gorse bush or whatever it was had caught in the delicate fabric, shredding it along one edge. I sighed and told myself that I had extra fabric at home and could always make a new sleeve at some point.
If I ever got out of here. If I even was able to find out where "here" was.
I walked with my arms crossed against my chest, desperately trying to keep in as much warmth as I could. If it was this cold during daylight hours, I didn't even want to think what it was going to be like once the sun went down fully. Besides, I couldn't keep walking after dark. Even now, as the light began to fail, I stumbled occasionally, my little embroidered sari shoes catching roots and pebbles. I wished I'd had the sense to put some of those gel insoles in the shoes. At the time I had figured, why bother? I was only going to be wearing them for a few hours, after all.
A few hours. Right. I wanted to laugh at myself but was afraid the laughter would turn to tears. I didn't want to admit it, but somewhere during my walk I had passed from worry to fear to outright terror. Where the hell was I? Was I doomed to trudge through this freezing, desolate place forever?
As if in answer to my unspoken questions, I suddenly heard the whinny of a horse from somewhere up ahead. A horse? Well, that settled it. Wherever I was, it was obviously a long ways away from San Marino. But horses probably meant people nearby, and at this point I was so weary of my isolation I didn't really stop to think about who might be up there. Whoever they were, maybe they could help me, or at least tell me where I was.
Given a sudden purpose, I strode forward, gathering up the awkward velvet skirts of my gown so that I wouldn't trip over them on the uneven ground. Through the gathering dusk I spied what looked like a stand of scrubby trees about a hundred feet ahead. And under those trees I thought I saw the movement of a large black horse. I couldn't make out much more than that, but at least the sight of the horse told me that I hadn't imagined its whinny.
Heart pounding, I all but ran to the trees, almost losing a shoe in the process. With a curse I paused long enough to shove the annoying slipper back onto my foot, then continued on my way. As I drew closer I could see the vague shapes of several more horses -- it looked as if there were five of them altogether. And once I was level with the first animal I spotted a saddle and bridle, so I knew they had to belong to someone and weren't just straying wild. But where were their riders?
I paused for a moment, looking around. It seemed a likely place to make camp for the night -- the trees would offer some shelter, and somewhere beyond the little grove I heard the sound of water. Maybe the horses' owners had gone down to the stream to refill their canteens or something like that.
"Hello?" I called out.
One of the horses swiveled its ears at me, but other than that I saw no response to my shaky call.
I tried again. "Anyone there?"
The darkness behind the trees seemed to take shape as five shadows moved out from between them. At first I couldn't seem to focus on what I was looking at, until the tallest shadow stepped out in front of the others, and a chance gleam of dying sunlight caught on the heavy hooded robes he wore. I stared at him for a long moment, my brain apparently unwilling to process what it was seeing. Finally I realized what I was looking at, and the knowledge was enough to run an icy finger of terror up my spine.
The shadowy figure was a Ringwraith.