Chapter 2: Down the Rabbit Hole
The last time I'd had a dream that vivid, I'd ended up sleepwalking and been found facedown on the front lawn the next morning by my brother.
It had been years ago, not since I'd been twelve years old. But recently my sleep had become more and more restless — the substance of my dreams containing far less fluffy bunnies and a lot more Weeping Angels from Dr. Who. A metaphor for all the stresses that come with being a final year degree student a psychologist might say, if I ever cared to ask for one's opinion.
My breath hitched and my heart beat surged painfully as I pulled myself out of the dream turned nightmare. I gasped and coughed through the sudden throbbing ache in my chest. My eyelids felt like they'd been glued together. My mouth was dry and I felt strangely dizzy, a little like the time I'd been persuaded to drink too much rum at a party during my first year.
Funny, I couldn't remember drinking enough to get a hangover. Actually… I couldn't seem to remember much of anything…
I searched my head, trying to recall the memories of arriving home, but they wouldn't come. I could remember leaving the student bar, and walking towards the bus stop, staring at myself in a shop window…
Did I make it home? Did I even reach the bus stop? A worryingly large chunk of my memory was just gone. The more I struggled to retrieve it, the more it seemed to slide away. Had my drink been spiked? No, I didn't think so, or it would have kicked in sooner. Maybe I slipped and hit my head? A concussion would certainly account for the splitting headache I had.
With an irritated groan, I decided it didn't matter. I rolled over and tried to feel around the nightstand for my phone.
At least, I tired to roll over. I only got about half way before a sharp pulling sensation on my left arm and leg stopped me. Baffled, I peeled open my sticky eyes and craned my neck to look down at myself. It was almost too dark to see at all, but there was just enough dim light to see that whatever I was lying on was definitely not my bed. It felt hard and uncomfortable, but not nearly as uncomfortably as the tree roots that were pinning my other arm and both my legs to the floor.
Hang on… tree roots?
I was supposed to be in my bed at home, not lying on a stone floor in the dark covered in tree roots. I forced myself to breathe. Dream or not, at the very least I wanted the option of moving my limbs.
"Ok. You can worry about the 'why' and 'how' later. Get your arms and legs free first, Eleanor."
I sat up a little more carefully. My eyes had adjusted enough to see the roots that were keeping me pinned. Two were coiled tightly around my left arm while three were bound even more tightly around my lower legs. At first it looked as if someone had tied them to me, but the more I struggled to free myself, the more I saw that they'd must have grown around me while I'd been asleep. Not that that was possible.
My hand were shaking as I worked to pull the stems away. By the time I managed to get the last roots off, my fingers were bruised and sore. When my legs were finally free too I had to keep from jumping to my feet as the rest of my environment finally began to sink in.
I was in a cave. A cave. And I wasn't dreaming. The continuous pain in my head, chest and hands was making that obvious.
It was so damn dark, but my eyes had adjusted just enough to see the tunnel wall. I began to follow it towards what I hoped was the exit, trying to stay calm. I couldn't help but feel a rush of relief when I finally saw sunlight streaming in from just around the next corner. I ran for it.
I ran so fast it shocked me, only slowing when my foot caught on a stray root or stone that seemed to exist only to trip me. Finally, I burst from the mouth of the cave like a mad woman, gasping for fresh air as if I'd been held too long under water.
I probably would have just kept running out of blind panic if my senses hadn't been viciously assaulted by the world outside. The light and colours were all so bright it felt like someone had made me look into the sun through a telescope. My pounding head was suddenly filled with the sounds of streams and birdsong, so loud and clear it was as if someone had turned up the volume on the entire world.
It was all too loud and too bright. And it hurt. God it hurt.
Only one thing I managed to register before the pain became too much and I screamed, falling to my knees on the rocky outcrop with my hands clamped over my ears and my eyes clenched shut.
I wasn't in London anymore.
Everything after that was a blur. A painful, colourful blur.
Whether though fear, confusion or adrenaline fuelled survival instinct, I had very little recollection of the days that followed. What little I did remember consisted of working out that I'd ended up somewhere between a small range of rocky hills, and a wood that stretched further than I could see.
I remembered discovering that I was no longer clothed in my black and blue halter and jeans, but something much older, worn out and dirtier than I could remember ever owning. It looked like the remains of a long red dress, but I couldn't be sure since it had been hacked off just below the knee. I also remembered the sunlight hurting my eyes so much that I only dared venture out into the world when my thirst and hunger pangs finally got too strong. The world seemed so much bigger and more daunting around me that I could ever remember it being, like I was seeing it all for the first time.
The next two days melted together into a mesh of scavenging what little food I trusted my shaky survival knowledge with, and following the flow of the river downstream. Fishing really wasn't an option, but luckily there were several abundant fruit trees and berry bushes growing along the forest's edge. It wasn't enough to keep the hunger at bay for long, but at least it kept me sustained enough to just keep walking. It was pretty soon after my second day of this that I realised that, despite my hunger, I was not tiring the way I'd expected to. My body seemed determined to not grow weary, even after walking for miles in bare feet without stopping.
'It's just the adrenaline,' I told myself a hundred times. 'You're frightened and confused, it's sharpened your senses and boosted your endurance. That's all…'
None of this however was enough to distract me from the constant fear of my unfamiliar surroundings. I was still scared out of my mind. The only distraction I found was to just keep moving, only stopping occasionally to eat, drink or wash myself as best she could in the freezing cold river. By the second morning, I was ravenous with hunger and still hopelessly lost. I'd hoped that by following the river I'd at least have come across a village or town. It was only on the night of my third day of wandering that I finally spotted the lights glinting through the trees.
The relief and excitement had been like a shot of warm brandy. I rushed through the trees as quickly as I could, almost falling over myself in my haste to get to them.
In hindsight, it was a stupid thing for me to move as silently as I did. I should have called out for help, or at least announced my presence — but by then the fear and hunger had beaten my better judgement into submission.
I crept into the clearing without so much as a whisper.
A rather haggard and old-school looking tent was set up in a small clearing, with a single flickering lantern hanging from it's supports. A small supply pack and a few cloth sacks lay in a pile next to the tent, but I completely ignored all that in favour of what they were centerer around. In the middle of the camp was as old log lying close to a dying fire, the embers still glowing faintly. Hanging over the coals was a small cooking pot, and from what I could smell coming from inside, someone had left out the remains of their dinner before turning in for the night.
I felt my stomach growl painfully at the smell. I couldn't remember the last time I'd smelled anything so wonderful.
A small nagging part of my mind repeated that this was a stupid idea, but I ignored it. It had been days since I'd eaten anything more substantial than a handful of berries, and I was close to going mad with hunger.
Slowly, quietly as I could manage, I crept into the clearing and over to the fire, being carful not to stand on any of the fallen leaves or sticks. Just as I thought, when I peered inside the pot what looked and smelled like a freshly prepared stew was still simmering in its base. I couldn't tell what kind of meat it was, but it smelled so damn good that I honestly didn't care.
I was just reaching for the ladle when my persistent inner voice kicked in again. Something about this felt wrong, but I couldn't think clearly enough to understand why…
My hand had frozen in mid air as my eyes fixed on the lantern hanging from the tent support. Something whirred and clicked into place inside my exhausted mind. If its owner was already asleep in their tent, then…
Why was the lantern still lit?
Too late I realised my mistake. Before I could jump to my feet and make a dash for the trees, something cold and sharp pressed into the space between my shoulder blades, right behind my heart.
"Don't move." A deadly calm masculine voice growled from directly behind me.
Every nerve ending in my body felt like it had been jabbed with a taser. I went rigid, my hand still outstretched reaching for the stew pot.
"Stand up, slowly." The voice commanded from behind me.
Under any other circumstances, I would have not hesitated to ignore the command and make a mad dash back into the safety of the trees. But whatever it was that was being pressed against my spine felt like a very good reason to swallow my panic and cooperate.
I obeyed, standing up as slowly as I could without turning, and raising both hands either side to show I was unarmed.
"Who are you?" The male voice demanded in a voice that sounded closer to a growl than speech.
"I-I'm lost." I babbled before I could think about what was coming out of my mouth.
"I asked who you are, not what condition you are in." The man retorted without sympathy, although he seemed to pause upon hearing that my voice was female, "Your name, girl."
I swallowed. Half of my mind was screaming at me to run, but the other half was too paralysed with fear of what I guessed was a blade being driven into my back. I couldn't remember the last time I'd been so petrified. So it was a slight shock to me when my brain decided it was a good idea to say; "Why would I give you my name when I cannot even see who you are?"
I mentally kicked myself. Brilliant Eleanor. Perfect opportunity to show off your rapier wit, when there is a frigging knife in your back.
To my surprise though, the stinging pressure in between my shoulder blades was suddenly relieved.
"Turn around." The growling voice instructed sharply.
It would have been a lie to say that I handled the situation bravely. I was so frightened that I had to consciously force my legs to move. Slowly, I turned on the spot, keeping both my trembling hands raised to just below my shoulders.
The man that stood before me was both terrifying and surprising all in the same glance. He was very tall, well over six feet, with a slightly overgrown mane of dark brown hair and stubble bordering on a beard to match. He was dressed in what she could only be describe as a shabby mediaeval war re-enactor's get-up; complete with dark, rough fabrics and a heavy looking leather belt loaded with small weapons. He also had a small star shaped pin that was holding his drab coloured cloak closed at the neck. He was dressed for resisting the elements, but even then I could tell by the way he held himself that he was not only strong, but fast too.
Hard core cosplay mugger or not though, if I had ever claimed to have seen a man that looked truly hardened by the harshness of the world, it was him.
He was glaring down at me with the starkest pair of grey eyes I'd ever seen on a human being, and it was enough to make my legs shake. Also, and much to my horror, the sharp object I had felt being pointed at my back only second before turned out not to be a knife, but an actual full sized sword.
Oh, and it was pointed straight at my chest.
"I will not ask a third time, girl." His voice was ten times more intimidating with the face to go with it, "Tell me who you are."
I opened my mouth to answer, but all I could focus on was the sword being aimed directly at me. The tip was less than an inch away from cutting into the skin under my collarbone.
It all happened in less than five seconds.
Without realising what I was doing, I took a step back, completely forgetting my close proximity to the camp fire. My heel caught on the stone sitting around the embers, and I began to stumble backwards. My arms pinwheeled, frantically trying and regain my balance, but the momentum sent me tumbling backwards. My elbow smacked into the makeshift stove, sending the cooking pot flying as I crashed to the ground.
Then I screamed.
I screamed as I felt my arm and hand fall directly into the still glowing embers. The sleeve of my dress offered no protection against the hot coals, and before I could react fast enough to pull my hand away I felt and smelled my skin scolding.
Quick as lightning, the terrifying man lunged forward and grabbed my arm, yanking it none too gently from the dying fire. He swatted with his gloved hand at my sleeve, hastily putting out the flames that had caught on my dress. When he did not relinquish his grip on my burned arm, I started thrashing and kicking against him in blinding agony, shrieking even louder than before.
"Be still! You'll injure yourself more!" I remember him yelling at me, trying to hold me down without touching my burned arm.
In hindsight, I couldn't really remember why I fought against him so hard. Maybe it was the pain, or maybe I was still running on bare instincts. A small part of my rational mind realised that whoever this utterly frightening man was, he was trying to help me. But as far as the rest of my mind was concerned, he was being about as helpful as a rampaging elephant in a ceramics factory.
The pain was too much. The fear was too much. The confusion was too much. Everything was just too much. And he wouldn't stop shouting at me to stop moving. So I did the only rational thing I could think of…
I drew my fist back, and punched him as hard as I could across the face.
I watched as his head jerked to the left, and a small spattering of blood erupted from his mouth. Time slowed down as the edges of my vision began to go fuzzy and dark. He slowly turned a faintly stunned looking face back to look down at me, and I saw with a small pang on guilt that I'd split his lip. There was blood dibbling down his chin through his beard and onto his shirt.
Had I the breath in my lungs to speak I might have instinctively blurted an apology, but the tunnel vision chose that moment to take hold, and I'd sagged back on the grass into darkness.