Usual disclaimers and thanks: nothing is mine, etc., etc. Many thanks to my betas: eekfrenzy, Amedia and Rose; all errors are my own.
Yes, yes, the 'fall into' storyline has been done to death, but love it or hate it, this one's mine. And folks…I know what you're thinking, but this is not, repeat not, a case of authoress self-insert. It is simply written in 'first person.' Call me Ishmael.
01 On the Cold Hill Side
My name is Barb Sanderson and this is the story of what happened to me in Middle-earth. It's not a pretty fairy tale, or an old Celtic myth, or an epic fantasy adventure—as a matter of fact, some of it was pretty awful. I guess it's no wonder I missed out on most of the High Romance—I was a grad student, after all, not a beautiful elven princess.
When Mom gave me the sterling silver necklace that looked so much like Arwen's Evenstar, I thought at first that it was a movie tie-in from the Fellowship picture. But no, she said she'd picked it up years ago when she was in college herself. She was a big LOTR fan then, back when they had just the books. You have to understand—my mother's always been nuts about this stuff. In the sixties she was a Trekkie, in the seventies she migrated to Star Wars. It drove me crazy for years, until I finally got used to it. Now, of course, she was big on LOTR again, and she was bound and determined to haul me off to see The Two Towers on Christmas Day.
But first I was going to a party on Christmas Eve with some high school friends. When they found out I'd come home from Colorado for the holidays I was invited at the last minute. I quickly dug through my suitcases to find out what party clothes I'd brought along, and realized that the 'Evenstar' actually looked pretty decent with midnight blue velvet. Fortunately, nobody at the party recognized the necklace; I'd gotten more than enough "movie heroine" jokes back in high school.
As you may recall, 2002 was the year of the big East Coast snowstorm. I was driving home around midnight, creeping along at 20 mph and praying that I wouldn't wind up in a snow bank, when a pair of headlights came up right in front of my car and blinded me. The icy dazzle spread and spread and spread until it seemed that there was nothing left in the world but brilliant white light. And then I blacked out.
When I finally woke up, I opened my eyes to see a clear blue, practically cloudless sky. It was well after dawn. My whole body hurt, and I was lying on a patch of frozen, rocky ground that was sucking all the warmth out of me. The air was still really cold, but I was wearing my ski jacket over my party dress, so I thought I'd be okay if I got up and moved around. Trying to shake the cobwebs out of my aching head, I picked myself up and took a good look at where I was.
I couldn't believe my eyes.
The car was gone. And the road was gone. And the snow was gone. The morning was bright and crisp, and somehow there was no trace of last night's snow and sleet. I was standing in the middle of a dry grass prairie. Where were the trees I'd been driving through? Had somebody clearcut them all? It looked like I was lost in a totally strange place, a place I'd never seen before. This was crazy!
I was pretty scared, but my first order of business had to be to find out where I was. And locate someplace warm that had coffee. I thought I smelled wood smoke coming from the direction of the mountains to the south (judging my direction by the sun), so I decided to hike toward them. Maybe I'd run into a forest ranger.
The tall grass of the prairie rolled on and on for uninterrupted miles until it finally reached a range of white-capped peaks that shone like glass Christmas tree ornaments. The mountains were beautiful, but they certainly weren't the Blue Mountains of Pennsylvania that I'd driven through the night before. They looked more like the Colorado Rockies, all pointy and sharp-angled. But I couldn't have been transported over fifteen hundred miles overnight! Anyway, the Rocky Mountains ran north to south. These mountains ran mostly east to west.
So I began to walk, and kept looking all around in the hope I'd recognize my surroundings. And I started to feel a chill that had nothing to do with the cold air. To be lost in the wilderness with no outdoor gear was dangerous. But even worse, I was in a situation that made absolutely no sense. Where on Earth could I possibly be? Why didn't I see any roads, or telephone poles, or jet trails? And what mountains were these? The Adirondacks? The Grand Tetons? The Himalayas?
Hearing the trill of a birdsong from a clump of grass, I squinted intently into its hiding place to see if I could recognize the songbird. If I'd been able to identify its species, that might have given me a clue to my location. But I'm no naturalist—all little brown birds look pretty much alike to me.
After I'd walked for about a mile, I caught sight of three men riding on horseback in the distance. I yelled as loud as I could and waved my arms to catch their attention, and sighed with relief as they galloped forward to meet me. But when they got closer, it became clear that they weren't forest rangers—they were all dressed up in medieval armor. Metal helmets, shields, chainmail, swords —that kind of stuff.
That was pretty nerve-wracking, but somehow they didn't seem deranged or anything. When their horses reached the place where I was standing, the man in front leaned down to get a good look at me. I couldn't see much of his face, what with the helmet and all, but I could tell that he was tall and burly and had long reddish-brown hair and a beard.
"Lady, this is no place for a woman to walk alone," he told me in a harsh but kind voice. "There are many evil things entering Rohan from the north these days—wolves, orcs and even worse. They would cut your throat without thinking twice."
Now I was really scared—and it wasn't because of the armor he was wearing, or the 'orcs and wolves,' or even the 'throat-cutting' thing. I was scared the most because I realized that he was speaking in some sort of old Germanic dialect that I'd never encountered before—but which I could nevertheless suddenly understand perfectly. It was like the 'Universal Translator' in Star Trek, and as a student of linguistics, I knew that wasn't possible.
Who'd been messing around inside my head while I was asleep?
"Where am I? Who are you people? What's going on here?" I heard myself asking him in the same language.
The armored man swung down from his horse, a big bay gelding with a "touch me without my permission and I bite" look in its eye. "I am Háma, Captain of King Théoden's household in Rohan. Who are you? Have you companions who need rescue as well?"
"I…no, I'm alone. My name's Barb. And I don't understand what's happening…" My voice was shaking but I don't think I actually screamed. "Please help me!"
Háma, bless him, didn't bother trying to interrogate a near-hysterical woman. He simply remounted and swung me up behind him as if I was a sack of potatoes. I'm not much of a horsewoman, and I didn't think I could manage to ride sidesaddle, so I hiked up my skirt and hauled up my right foot over the saddle so I could grip the horse's sides with both legs. My nylons had already died the death, anyhow.
Before we got going, I couldn't help but ask one forlorn, stupid question. "I don't suppose we're anywhere near Harrisburg?"
"I have never heard of the Harrisburg. Do you mean the Hornburg? It is about ten leagues to the west."
I shook my head and Háma clicked his tongue at his mount to turn the horse around. As we rode along in the direction they'd been going, the two of us somehow managed to survive the ride—although I did have to train myself not to dig my fingers into Háma's side every time we hit a bump. One of his men followed behind us, while the younger horseman broke away to ride back to the north.
Riding behind Háma wasn't easy. It was hard to keep my seat on that flat-as-a-pancake saddle. Besides, his fish-scale armor was jabbing into me constantly, and his back was so broad that my fingers didn't meet when I stretched my arms around it. Eventually I just grabbed onto his wide leather belt and held on for dear life.
Now that I'd encountered Háma and his medieval coterie, I was able to tick off some more alarming new discoveries—together with a few that I'd been trying hard to ignore. This 'Universal Translator' business, for one thing. The fact that I'd somehow appeared in a country where they spoke Old Germanic, for another. And finally, what about my injuries from the car accident? I didn't have any! Not even a chipped nail!
There had to be a rational explanation for it all, but what was it? So many weird things were happening that I felt like I'd been dropped into the Twilight Zone! I really wanted to panic, but then I asked myself, "What would Mom say about all this?" Mom's middle name might as well be 'Moonbeam'—she loves this kind of weirdness!
What I came up with was: "Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune, but do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness."
Believe it or not, I felt a lot better after that little 'Desiderata' moment. Mom would have been proud of me. And sooner or later, if I kept my eyes and ears open, I would figure out a rational, logical answer about where I really was.
After a couple of hours of riding, we crested a little rise and I saw a big old building that was sitting on the very top of a distant hill. It was a wood and stone castle painted all over with golden Celtic knotwork. The castle was surrounded by a high stake palisade and a whole hillful of crummy little thatched huts. And no, you don't have to tell me—there are no castles in Pennsylvania.
Somehow, when I absorbed the sight of that golden hall, the puzzle pieces suddenly snapped together. Rohan, Théoden, orcs—I'd heard those words before. They were all names from 'Lord of the Rings', the trilogy that I'd done my best to avoid ever since I stepped off the plane from Colorado. But these people weren't a bunch of fantasy reenactors—this was reality!
Obviously I wasn't in Pennsylvania anymore. Could I actually be in Tolkien's Middle-earth?
Rolling the idea around in my head, I discovered that I didn't like it a bit. This was the sort of thing that would happen in one of Mom's sci-fi movies. Not to me! I was a normal person with a normal life, and I hadn't fallen down any rabbit holes recently.
But ever since my parents got divorced, I've known that there's no point in disbelieving something just because you don't want it to be true. I'd been looking for an explanation for the day's impossibilities, and here it was. It just wasn't rational or logical. Everything I'd seen and heard since I woke up matched Professor Tolkien's books perfectly: the unfamiliar mountains, the ancient prairie untouched by a plow, the men's costumes that looked medieval, but were also well-worn—and above all the archaic tongue that seemed to be the language du jour. I'd never read The Lord of the Rings, but Mom had told me all about Tolkien's invented languages—she thought that I'd be interested in his linguistics, at least. I was, kind of—that's a lot of work just to write a fantasy trilogy.
It would have been much easier to believe that I was dreaming, or in a coma, or something—except that I never dream in color. So I didn't need to pinch myself—I was awake. If I was going to believe what I'd seen with my own eyes—and believe me, I didn't really want to—I'd been dumped right into the middle of the movie I was supposed to be watching that very day. The one that was so full of exciting battle scenes.
Why was I here? Who or what had brought me to this place? And most important of all, how could I get back to where I belonged? My first instinct was to scream as hard as I could for help. But there was no use in screaming; nobody would be able to help me. I'd be much better off if I kept my mouth shut and waited to see what was going to happen next.
When we finally rode into the castle courtyard, the commoners on the ground scurried hastily to either side so they wouldn't be ridden down by the horsemen. High above us on the battlements I saw a flash of white—just a glimpse of a woman with really long, pale blonde hair—then Háma dismounted and helped me get off his horse as well. I felt sorer than ever.
Háma brought me into a big central hall that smelled of dust and hay, with a certain tang of horse manure. The hall was full of carved gold-painted pillars, so it seemed smaller than it actually was. It was also pretty dark, almost gloomy, although by then it was midafternoon. The windows were few, and covered with shutters. There were a few candles mounted here and there on the pillars, and some charcoal braziers, but they didn't give off much light.
We were met by raised voices coming from a cluster of armored men standing next to the faded tapestries on the opposite wall. Two big fellows in armor (Éomer and Théodred, I later learned) were yelling at a smaller greasy-looking guy wearing dark stringy robes. An older man whose long white hair made him look a little like Santa Claus entered through a hallway door, and everybody fell silent, as if they were embarrassed. 'Santa' made a quick chopping gesture with his left hand and left by the same door with the greasy Mr. Iago.
Immediately after that, the blonde woman from the battlements walked in through another door. She must have hurried very fast to have gotten down to the hall so swiftly.
When I first saw her coming toward us I knew she had to be important, because all of those big strong men moved instantly to the left or the right to let her pass. Besides, her gold-embroidered white gown probably cost ten times more than any dress I'd ever bought in my whole off-the-rack life.
"Háma, who is this stranger you bring to us?" The fairy-tale princess was speaking in the same Germanic tongue as Háma, but her voice had a bit of a foreign accent from some other language that wasn't quite as guttural.
Háma's answer sounded quite deferential. "She told me that her name is 'Barb', Princess Éowyn. We found her wandering by herself in the plains north of Edoras. I thought that surely she must have companions, so I sent Haldred north to look for them. But she says she's alone."
Princess Éowyn looked me up and down me in wonderment, as if I was some sort of exotic animal or foreign celebrity instead of a lost waif. By that time I'd made up my mind what I was going to have to say. 'Guess what, you're in a movie' wasn't going to cut it. If I was going to survive, I had to act and talk as much like the locals as possible, and not raise too many awkward questions.
"I have no idea how I got here, Princess Éowyn—and my name is Barbarella." Yeah, my mom named me after Jane Fonda's character in the sci-fi movie. Barbarella really is a girl's given name—if you happen to come from France! But it did sound more or less 'forsoothly,' which is what I needed right then. I would have curtseyed if I'd known how to do it right. Instead I looked down at my feet and tried to look bewildered, which turned out not to be difficult at all. "I must have been in some kind of accident, because I don't remember what happened to me, but I know that I'm not from anywhere around here."
Éowyn reached past Háma and patted my hand as if she was my elderly maiden aunt instead of a young woman of about my own age. "Do not be afraid, Barbarella. Someone may already be looking for you, and I will take charge of you and protect you until we find your people."
When I heard her say that, I felt safe. In the midst of all this weirdness I'd found somebody who understood how afraid I was, and who cared whether I lived or died—even though I'd done nothing whatsoever to deserve her help. Either she was a lot more charitable than I am, or unselfish kindness was the Rohan National Trait.
Well, of course "my people" didn't show up to claim me, so Éowyn decided to take me on as her new handmaiden. Nobody in the court of Rohan seemed surprised about this appointment, which was actually quite an honor. I guess they assumed that any woman who wore velvet and had uncalloused hands had to be nobility at least.
It turned out that the Princess had desperately needed an assistant/gopher for some time. She was almost as much alone in this hall of men as I was. No other women lived in Meduseld—that was the royal household—except for scullery staff and elderly widows of warriors. Her uncle, King Théoden, had obviously let domestic matters slide for a long time, and hadn't given Éowyn much support to fix up the castle.
Just running Éowyn's errands seemed to help her a lot, and almost made me feel like I was earning my keep. I couldn't sew worth a lick, but I could at least brush and hang up her clothes, and see that they were kept in good order, so she didn't have to bother. As you can imagine, ancient castles = no closets.
There was one time that I did try to do my medieval duty and tackle Éowyn's sewing. It was a bright clear morning, the only possible time to do fine work in a gloomy place like Meduseld, and I'd taken Éowyn's sewing basket to her sunroom. As I was sorting through the clothes heap, I instantly rejected the stockings that needed darning and the stiff wool skirt with the kicked-out hem. The nightrail with the unraveling cross-stitch was also a no-go, but her blue linen blouse only needed a single horn button. I figured that even I might be able to handle that.
Putting on a button wasn't as easy as I'd assumed. After I'd squandered considerable time struggling with a large, stiff needle, I heard a soft footstep and looked up to discover that Éowyn had found me at my work. She watched me for awhile and then asked with some amusement, "Barbarella, didn't your mother ever teach you to sew?"
I shrugged and let the blouse drop into my lap. "No, she never did. She did teach me to macramé, though."
"Give me my riding shirt and I'll show you how to do it," Éowyn ordered with a smile.
A trifle humiliated, I obediently handed Éowyn the shirt and the needle and thread. She sat down right next to me on the wooden bench and set to work with a flourish. After watching her for a while, I cleared my throat and pointed out diffidently, "Um…I think you're sewing that button on the wrong side."
Surprised, Éowyn turned the garment inside out to examine her stitchery and realized that I was right. Then she laughed. "You know, my mother never taught me to sew either."
Throwing down the shirt, she said suddenly, "Let's leave this task for the seamstresses. They sew so much better than I do, and I'd rather teach you how to ride instead. Horsemanship is much more important in Rohan than sewing, anyway."
So after all, my life as a handmaiden was not all drudgery. Mostly, that's the way things worked out for me in Meduseld—Éowyn made sure that my life was wasn't too hard to bear. In return I tried to make sure that her life was bearable too.
Ultimately, it turned out that what Éowyn needed the most was another woman to keep her company in the dark hours of the night.
I don't mean that the way it sounds.
You have to understand, in Meduseld a handmaiden sleeps right there in the lady's bower with her. When it came time for us to go to bed, I'd change into nightclothes, set a warm charcoal brazier in its holder at the foot of Éowyn's great big four-poster, close the heavy brocaded drapes to keep in the heat, then slip under the covers alongside her. After that we'd discuss the things and the people that had worried us that day, until we finally went to sleep.
Of course most of my worries I couldn't talk about, even to Éowyn. I was willing to admit that I was scared that I'd do the wrong thing and shame us both, that I was afraid I'd never get back to my home, that I feared I'd forget everything I'd ever learned as a scholar. Once I even broke down and told her that I hoped my mother thought I was dead, so she'd stop worrying about me. But say to a princess of Rohan that I belonged in another world—no.
Anyway, it was much more suitable for me to listen to the Princess's troubles, and poor Éowyn sure had an awful lot of them. Everyone knew that we were getting more orc attacks all the time. Her cousin Théodred and her brother Éomer were holding them off so far, but Rohan's forces were beginning to lose men. Her uncle, King Théoden, was failing in health very rapidly. Some people—and I was one of them—thought that his judgement was slipping too. And what was even worse, Théoden's chief counsellor Gríma was systematically taking control of the King's mind.
The Princess couldn't understand why her uncle kept listening to Gríma. He was a slimy guy who loved to rub his hands together and make nasty cutting remarks about the warriors who were risking their lives to save Rohan, he was doing his best to discredit all of the King's relatives so that the King wouldn't listen to anyone else but him, and finally—this was the capper—he was never seen wearing anything but black villain outfits. No wonder all the warriors called him 'Gríma Wormtongue' behind his back—and sometimes to his face. From a movie trailer or something, I knew that Gríma was a pawn of the evil Wizard Saruman, but even excluding that, could any sane person honestly believe that he wasn't a traitor?
I'm not sure which of us, Éowyn or myself, finally brought up the big question one night:
"Do you think Théoden is being poisoned?"
In the darkness of the bower, I heard a long, whistling sigh. "Over and over," she confessed, "I have drunk from the King's cup. I have eaten morsels from his plate. But every time, I taste nothing unusual."
For a moment I was stumped, but unlike Éowyn, I'd read quite a number of mystery novels. "That doesn't necessarily prove anything. There are lots of other kinds of poisons. Contact poisons, for example. A dust sprinkled on his pillow, a venom into which his shirt is dipped, an ointment rubbed on his saddle. Or gaseous poisons. A puddle that slowly becomes a lethal vapor, a tainted incense or perfume, a tarry lump that emits noxious fumes when it's burned…"
The bedcovers rustled as Éowyn sat up and crept on her knees to the foot of the bed. Wordlessly, she flipped open the heated brazier at our feet. Illuminated by the reddish glow of the fire, she stared in horror at the seemingly innocuous charcoal inside it. "So the poison could be almost anywhere, almost anything. You frighten me, Barbarella. Who taught you all these terrible practices?"
Uh oh. This could be really bad. "I swear to you, Princess—I have never touched a poison in my life. I told you—I was a student. All I know is what I have read in books."
There was a long, dead moment of silence, then Éowyn clinked down the copper lid and scooted back under the heavy covers. "I believe you. If I cannot tell the difference between a false heart and a true heart, then I can believe in nothing. Tell me, what else do you know?"
I was okay then. When Éowyn gave you her word you could take it to the bank. Suddenly one more LOTR memory surfaced. Wasn't there supposed to be a spider somewhere in The Two Towers? I frowned, trying to remember. "By the way, has the King ever complained about insect bites? I've read of lands where there are so many venomous creeping things, you have to shake out your shoes before you put them on."
From Éowyn's side of the bed, I heard a giggle. "I don't think even Gríma Wormtongue could harness a bedbug to his will. And no, my uncle has never complained of being bitten." Calming down, she said with total determination, "Any of the awful possibilities that you describe may in fact be happening. Somehow we must find a way to hinder this villainy."