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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
Wonder replaced fright. She would have to work out a way sort this conundrum –after all the children got back from Narnia okay, didn’t they? Anyway, she still might wake up and find it all a dream. Not seeming to be in any immediate danger, and with nothing she could do for the moment, Sara decided to enjoy what the experience offered for a while. After all hadn’t she been told she possessed an adventurous spirit? And her gap year spent travelling had not passed without the spice of danger.
‘How far to Edoras?’ she asked the king. Or Éomer as she thought of him to herself. Could she call him that to his face? No, best keep to being polite until she knew exactly how things were. Although it would stick in her throat to call anyone Sire, let alone a character from a book!
He pointed to a distant hill at the foot of the mountains. ‘Not long, but we will slacken pace soon to cool the horses.’
Good. The stallion had a smooth gait, but it was still not comfortable bouncing around in front of a solid, leather-clad warrior. And her inner thigh would likely be raw from contact with his saddle. She tucked the cloak in a bit more, glad of its protection. From the saddle and from the man. He and his men certainly seemed to be real flesh and blood. Somehow she had thought they would be more unearthly, having come from a story, but she had seen scratches on the back of his hand when he had removed his glove. His flesh definitely bled, and the heat of his thigh against hers left her in no doubt that there was some kind of life in the handsome shell. He smelt alive too, of sweat, horse and clothes that had been worn for too long.
True to his word Éomer slowed the party to a walk as they approached the town. There were big gates and houses climbing up the hill, which was crowned by a large building. Probably the hall. She remembered seeing it on one of the films her sister insisted on watching over and over again. That was the trouble with sharing a flat. One thing was different though – there were no long faces. The film had portrayed a wretched group of people that had put her right off. But all were smiles here and the king warranted no excessive salutations, just a polite bow from happy looking adults and children alike.
The houses were also a lot prettier than those miserable dwellings shown in the film. Roses – the open, single petal ones that smelt so gorgeous – twined up many of the supporting pillars. And herbs grew beneath the windows, some she recognized like thyme and sage, but others were strange to her, looking more like weeds. Sara looked around her with interest, taking in the intricately carved decoration on the houses that bordered the stone steps leading up to the hall.
‘We dismount here.’ Éomer’s deep voice woke her from her contemplations. Already a young man stood at the horse’s head waiting to lead the stallion away. ‘I normally take Firefoot to the stables myself, but I felt you shiver,’ he carried on. ‘I deem it best to get you cared for, lady.’
Well, it might have been a tremble he’d felt, after all who wouldn’t be a bit nervous, but it certainly wasn’t a shiver. Wrapped in wool against a hot male body had left her burning. But he obviously meant well and came across as compassionate. It could have been worse.
Without saying any more Éomer jumped down from behind her, immediately reaching up to lift her to the ground. Here goes, she thought, blanching a little at the fix she was in. She felt in no immediate danger, but how soon would they realize she was not of their world?
‘Found her out on the plains, Hergyth.’ Éomer shrugged at the housekeeper’s startled expression. ‘We’ve no idea where she comes from and she doesn’t seem to know either. Perhaps a bump on the head accounts for it. I’ll leave her to you to look after. She has no apparent injury, but the healer should be called to examine her.’
Hergyth, a middle-aged, stout woman with a rosy complexion, looked her up and down with a bemused expression on her face.
‘Tell me what you find out, Hergyth.’
The housekeeper nodded. ‘I’m deciding where to put her, lord. Looking at her hands she might be a lady.’
Éomer grabbed hold of one hand, staring at the manicured nails. ‘Very likely, doesn’t look as though she’s done a day’s work in her life.’
‘Oh, I haven’t,’ Sara put in quickly, her whole body shaking. ‘And I am afraid I don’t know how to cook either.’ At least she still had her wits in spite of the terrible predicament she was in – if she was going to stay for a while, she certainly didn’t want to be treated as a servant.
He continued to examine her, his keen gaze fixing on the gold chain around her neck. ‘Yes, I think we must assume she is of noble birth, Hergyth.’
Éomer narrowed his eyes, looking for some hint in her demeanor. Or perhaps some truth. ‘Are you sure you don’t know who you are or even where you come from, lady? It would help if we knew.’
It was no good saying England, that meant nothing to them. Best to be vague until something happened to get her home. ‘I remember my name, it’s Sara.’ She had to be called something after all. He frowned, presumably at the strange name. ‘But nothing else,’ she said quickly. ‘Although I think my home might be somewhere to the west and north. But it’s only a feeling I get.’
It must have been the right thing to say because his eyes opened wide. ‘Of course, the black hair. I thought she was from Gondor, but she must be one of the northern Dúnedain.’
Dúnedain, who the heck were they? Should she deny it? Best say nothing and hope that this nightmare would end.
‘Then what’s she doing here, lord? And dressed so strangely in materials I have never seen before.’ Hergyth, who had been staring at her cotton t-shirt, frowned. ‘But Lord Aragorn will be here for your wedding, so perhaps he will be able to shed light on this mystery.’
‘Maybe.’ Éomer stared at her once more. ‘Very well. Treat her as an honored guest, Hergyth. Prince Imrahil will arrive soon? He is astute and far seeing, so may tell us more. And anyway, perhaps…Lady Sara… will recover her memory.’ With a nod he turned, striding back towards the entrance to the hall, and Sara was left with Hergyth.
‘Well, I am not sure where to put you, my lady. We are going to be that crowded, what with the wedding. And our soon-to-be queen is coming tonight, earlier than we thought. I wonder if she would mind you sharing with her until she moves in with Éomer King. If you are Dúnedain as Éomer King suspects, then it would be fitting.’
The woman couldn’t make a decision, so Sara helped her out. ‘I suppose she can always object when she gets here. Do you know what she is like, Hergyth?’
The housekeeper shook her head. ‘No, and Éomer King has only met her once. But I will say for all their high status, neither Prince Imrahil nor his sons are too high and mighty to join in with the common folk. Hopefully Lady Lothíriel is the same.’
Sara shuddered; the poor girl, coming to a strange place to marry a man she had met only once. But it was not her business. ‘Then if there is nowhere else, I suggest I use that room until the princess says differently.’ Goodness, Sara almost chuckled out loud, when did she start being able to give orders? It must be the teacher coming out in her, not to mention her bossy nature.
Perhaps giving orders was the right thing to convince Hergyth of her ‘noble blood’, as the as the housekeeper gave a decisive nod. ‘Of course, my lady. I will take you there right away. I imagine you might like to clean up a bit once the healer’s seen you. And I had better find you something suitable to wear.’ She gave some instructions to a maidservant, who hurried off, and then beckoned to Sara to follow her.
The housekeeper led her through the hall to the rear and Sara hardly had time to take anything in except an impression of a richly tiled floor and the sun slanting through high windows. Hergyth opened a door to the right of the raised dais, revealing a corridor that led to a number of rooms. She pushed open the door to one.
‘This used to be Lady Éowyn’s room before she went to Gondor to marry Lord Faramir. She’s not coming to the wedding, owing to being near her time, so I put Lady Lothíriel in here. There’s a spare bed you can use.’ She pointed to a tapestry couch that stood along one wall. ‘I will make up a truckle for the princess’s handmaiden, or they can share. Some do.’
The main bed was quite large with a canopy over the head end, covered by richly embroidered material. Sara would have liked to sleep in it, but supposed a princess would take priority. To be honest she was lucky not to be on a straw pallet in the servants’ quarters. Her reverie was interrupted by a knock at the door, and in came two maidservants. One carried what looked to be a pitcher of hot water and the other a tray bearing a cup of steaming liquid and a plate of small cakes. They were closely followed by a tall, thin man – the healer no doubt.
But although he carefully examined her head, he found no bump, not surprising Sara at all. After a few murmurings about overwrought females when he felt her pulse he left, saying he would send a draught later to calm her. Calm her! Let him be dragged through a portal into a blasted book and see how calm he felt! Sara took a deep breath, panicking wouldn’t help!
‘You might want to wash up before you take some sustenance, Lady Sara. And change.’ Hergyth’s gaze fixed on Sara’s bare legs poking out from the cloak and with a tut, she gave orders to one of the maids to search the cupboards for suitable clothing. ‘The tea will keep hot for a while.’
Tea! Oh just what she could do with. Perhaps things weren’t so bad, maybe they had Earl Grey. But after she had washed her face and hands Sara discovered that ‘tea’ was rather a misnomer. ‘What is it?’ she asked after taking a sip.
Hergyth looked surprised. ‘Barley tea, flavored with some of the first bramble fruits and a bit of clover honey. Aren’t you familiar with it?’
She had better be careful what she said. At least until she figured out how to get back to her own time. ‘Ah, well we do have…bramble tea. But the barley is new to me.’ Well, she was familiar with lemon and barley water of course, but barley in tea?
‘That’s strange, I am sure they must grow it in the north.’ Hergyth frowned, but luckily her attention was taken by the maidservant returning with a couple of dresses thrown over her arm.
‘Ah, some Lady Éowyn left behind.’ She looked Sara up and down. ‘You are much of a size, so they should fit.’
Goodness, she had never thought she would wear anything like the dress handed to her – jeans and t-shirts being more in her line. So much material! But she did like the soft green color and guessed it to have been dyed with some plant. Not that she had any idea what – not being a bit knowledgeable in that sort of way. She taught maths and business studies for heaven’s sake!
And it was a bit odd to have someone dressing her, or braiding her hair, that hadn’t happened since she was a child. But she supposed if she was masquerading as a lady she had better get used to it. The maid stared at her lace panties like they were something evil, but Sara didn’t react, instead wondering if she could wash them out every night, as there seemed nothing except a sort of linen chemise to wear under the gown. Luckily it being hot back in Surrey, she was not wearing a bra – that would no doubt have caused even more astonishment.
She eyed the suede shoes warily, so flat and with pointed toes, but there didn’t seem to be anything else on offer. Luckily they fitted, even if they were not the most comfortable things she had ever worn. But as the maid tied the last lace on the dress Sara did admit to feeling slightly good – rather feminine in fact. Something she had never bothered about before. Perhaps that haughty, golden Adonis who called himself a king would look at her more favorably now.
Hergyth, who had disappeared when she was dressing, reappeared looking a little flustered. ‘They’re here. We all need to go to outside to welcome them.’
‘The princess, you mean?’ Sara asked.
‘Yes, and her father and brothers. Prince Imrahil is always esteemed, being a good friend of Éomer King, but Lady Lothíriel needs a special welcome as she is going to be our queen.’
She bustled out again and Sara followed – biting back a chuckle – who would have thought she would be mixing with royalty! Surely she would wake up soon.
By the time she reached the platform outside the hall she could see that a dozen or so horses and riders were arriving at the bottom of the steps. King Éomer didn’t bother to wait with the others, but ran down to meet them. He clasped a tall, elegant, dark haired man around the shoulders, embracing him in what looked to be a genuine enthusiastic welcome. Likewise with two other men, from what she could see probably the prince’s sons. Then King Éomer turned to the lady, who pushed her hood back from her head before making a formal bow. Sara watched fascinated as King Éomer took her hand to his lips.
After a few words the whole party started to ascend the steps – the princess on the king’s arm.
Oh, she was pretty, Sara realized. Black hair worn in a long plait, delicate features and a slim but shapely figure. Studying the lady as they got nearer, she thought her eyes were grey; they were certainly long-lashed. She supposed if it was what they called an arranged marriage, then the king had done well, as long as the Lady Lothíriel had a temperament to match her looks. The Princess held her head high, looking around her with interest, although Sara, with nothing to do but observe the tableau in front of her, detected an undertone of wariness. Understandable – the poor girl had only met her future husband once and they would be married within a few days. She hoped a princess could handle an arrogant king.
Sara gave her attention to the others as they milled around greeting men they knew. The prince’s sons were good to look at; in fact the younger one reminded her of Luke Pasqualino, the guy who played d’Artagnan in the Musketeers – another of her sister’s TV must sees. Why Jessica had such a mania for swords and fighting, Sara couldn’t fathom. She was a gentle little soul really.
The older one, a little more muscly and strong featured than his younger sibling, suddenly noticed her. ‘Who’s this, Éomer. A new face?’
‘Ah, this is our mystery guest, Lady Sara. We found her alone out on the plains.’
Immediately all eyes turned to her speculatively, causing her face to heat.
‘She has lost her memory,’ Éomer continued, ‘possibly from a blow on the head. She seems well and we are hoping she will soon remember who she is. Imrahil,’ he turned to the prince, ‘she has the look of your race, but says she comes from the North. I am hoping Aragon will be able to shed light on her identity, but you might like to talk to her and see what you can discover.’
‘Of course.’ Prince Imrahil stared at her with a slightly puzzled but compassionate look. Under his calm scrutiny something happened to Sara’s insides, a sort of nervous fluttering she couldn’t remember feeling before.
Then he smiled reassuringly, grey eyes full of concern. ‘I will wash up and take some refreshment and then we will sit down and talk, my dear. See if I can help you.’
Prince Imrahil smiled again, sending Sara’s senses whirling. His two handsome sons had caused barely a ripple to her equilibrium, but there was something in his smile and in those fathomless, wise eyes… good heavens, her heart pounded against her ribs – she had never fancied older men. Why now!
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