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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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