Chapter 3: Me, Myself, & A Ranger
"Well, you certainly handled that well."
I didn't bother to open my eyes. I already knew I was dreaming again. I was far too painless to still be awake.
"Since when do figments of my subconscious know how to use sarcasm?" I groaned, not moving from where I lay flat on my back on what felt like soft grass.
"Since you do, obviously." The voice replied with a little dash of a smile, as if it was the silliest question in the world.
"I don't suppose you're here to tell me how the hell I managed to get from the college campus to the middle of a nightmare forest, are you?"
"Well being, in your words; 'a figment of your subconscious', I can't know anything that you don't. So no, I'm afraid I can't tell you that."
I groaned again and rubbed my hands over my still closed eyes, "Wonderful, then this conversation is already pretty damn pointless then."
"That's rather rude. At least you have someone to talk to now. Haven't you been wishing for days now?"
"A sarcastic and unhelpful second personality isn't exactly what I had in mind." I snapped, "Maybe I've finally started going crazy."
"Lets hope not, that would be bad for the both of us." The voice hesitated for a moment as if she was thinking, and I could almost feel her eyes on me. "Are you going to just lie there for eternity? Or are you going to get up and do something?"
"Wake up?" She suggested, "Or you could keep talking to me. We could ponder your intriguing nature of your predicament together."
"Because so far you haven't said anything remotely helpful." I said snippily.
"Well, maybe you just haven't asked the right question."
I paused for a moment to contemplate this.
"There's no point in me talking to you. You're not real. You're just a trauma induced invention of my subconscious, at best. You can't help."
"Even so, you don't have to be so harsh about it. I was just making a polite suggestion."
"And I can't remember asking for your opinion," I replied sharply, and then added tiredly, "Whoever the hell you are."
There was a ghostly chuckle and the sound of rustling on the grass next to me,"Well, why don't you just open your eyes and find out?"
I sighed. I didn't really care about who I was talking to really. I knew I was just dreaming, and in theory I could just wake myself up in an instant, if I wanted to. But either way, that would still require opening my eyes. So, reluctantly I allowed my eyelids to slowly open…
And I found myself staring directly into my own face.
My figment — or whatever she really was — had the exact same oval face, with the exact same full mouth, narrow chin, small nose, and wide almond shaped eyes as me. Her hair was admittedly longer and better kept, tumbling all the way down to her waist, but it was exactly the same shade of chestnut brown as mine. If I had been standing, I was be willing to bet my life that the two of us were within a centimetre's difference in height.
It was like staring into a mirror, only my reflection had come to life right in front of me. The only part of her appearance that was in any way different from mine were her eyes. Where I knew mine were bright jade green, hers were an almost luminous shade of amber.
I stared at her with my jaw hanging slack, and my other self just smiled fondly from where she was knelt down next to me. We even had the same tiny dimple in our left cheek when we smiled.
"There we go, that's much better."
And then the world fell out from underneath me again.
Pain was the first and only thing that registered in my mind as I felt myself coming back into reality. My legs, my stomach, my head, my arm. Especially my arm. My whole body just hurt. I didn't dare try and move. Just thinking about moving made me feel sick.
I realised after a moment's groaning that I was lying on my back, which was a start. There was something rough and scratchy supporting my head. I tried shifting just enough to feel all the muscles in my body complain for the small effort. Something heavy had been draped over my body, and despite the constant aches and hunger pangs, I felt shockingly healthy for someone who had their arm cooked medium-rare. My neck burned with pain as I forced myself to turn my head and crack my eyelids open. Early morning sunlight flooded my vision and illuminated the world around me.
I was still in the clearing where the camp had been set up. The shabby old tent had been taken down and the fire rekindled. Instead of a stew pot, there were now four small fish on sticks resting over the flames. I was lying close enough to the embers to feel the warmth on my skin, and smell the meat cooking. My stomach moaned in desperation, but the second I tried to get up off the ground a sharp and intense pain shot up my left arm. A throaty cry escaped me, and I curled into a ball on my side.
My burned hand and forearm had been placed by my side, supported on a separate piece of heavy but clean cloth. My sleeve was completely gone, ripped off at the elbow, and the skin looked clean around where several large flat leaves were covering the worst of the burns. I could feel something damp and cool covering the welts in a thick layer under the makeshift plasters. Although still tender and fresh, the burns didn't hurt half as much as I had been expecting them to. I'd been half prepared to wake up screaming in agony. Whatever had been applied to my skin under the leaves was obviously doing something to lessen the pain, and I felt a pang of gratefulness to whomever had attempted to patch me up.
But the gratitude died quickly when I remembered that the only person I'd seen in days had been the man with the scary eyes and the sword. The same man who had very nearly tried to kill me yesterday.
Left over fear from the previous night brought on another wave of nausea, and I tried to sit up again, using my unharmed arm as a clumsy lever. If it hadn't been for my bizarre new talent for hearing things that were a ridiculous distance away, I wouldn't noticed through the haze of pain as the said man trudged back into the clearing through the surrounding trees.
Our gazes met, and panic instantly flooded my senses again. Before I could think of what to do, I was scrambling backwards away from him on my one good hand and butt. The man instantly stopped his approach, obviously seeing the fear that must have been apparent on my face. He raised both of his hands in a universal gesture of peace.
"Av 'osto, hiril vuin.*" he said, and pointed to the bundles and pack that were lying where the tent had been the night before. Hesitantly, I ceased my back-pedalling and glanced over at the pile. The man's sword had been unbuckled from his belt, safely sheathed and was leaning innocently against a small tree a good few feet away. The intended message was obvious: he didn't mean me any harm.
Relief washed over me, but it was followed seconds later by confusion. I had been so dazed with panic moments ago that I had only just realised that when the man had spoken to me, it had been in a different language.
Weird, he was speaking perfect English yesterday…
I looked back to find him slowly moving towards me again, slower this time. I felt silly for being so jumpy, but my whole body froze like a spooked rabbit in headlights. He stopped again, a kinder expression in his eyes that before. Not that it helped. He was still scary as hell even without the sword.
"Man i eneth lín?**" He said, and I realised that he was asking me a question. One that I couldn't answer, seeing as I didn't even have the fainted idea what language he was speaking in.
"I-I..." I cringed at the frail croak of my voice and irritably cleared my throat to strengthen it, "I'm sorry, but I don't know what you're saying."
The man looked at me in confusion, his eyebrows pinched together. His hands dropped to his side again and for a second I was truly scared he was going to reach for his sword.
"A nin ú-cheniathol?***" He spoke in that strange tongue again, but then seemed to rethink his words. He still wore a look of confusion, but it was now mixed with suspicion at me, "How is it that a she-elf does not know the language of her own people?"
I was genuinely torn between bursting into tears and bursting out laughing. Had he really just said that? Had I really got myself lost in the woods, and then miraculously stumbled into an outdoor convention for fantasy nuts? Well, what other explanation could there possibly be?
My half amused, half petrified inner monologue must have shown on my face because he glared down at me with impatience when I didn't respond. I half giggled, half hiccuped in alarm and spluttered out an answer.
"Because I'm not a she-elf."
The man continued to stare down at me with narrowed disbelieving eyes.
"No? Then pray tell, my lady, what are you? Because you are certainly no man, nor a halfling." He said in a disbelieving, almost mocking tone and I was humiliated to feel my eyes being to swim a little.
"I'm human, of course." I said blankly.
He raised an eye brow at me, "Human?"
That was when the last shred of my self control withered and died.
"Yes! I'm a God damned human!" I burst out in a sudden frustrated shriek, my fear and desperation turning itself into rage. I'd had more than enough of this. If this all turned out to be some kind of game or lame joke, I was going to be putting someone's head through a wall when it was over.
"I'm not a man, elf, halfing, or whatever the hell else there is to be around here!" I screamed furiously at him, throwing my hands into the air, "I'm lost! I've been lost for two sodding days! I'm exhausted! I'm starving! And I'm—ah!"
I had been so caught up in my fury and confusion at the man, my situation, everything, that I hadn't realised that some of the leaves covering my burned arm had come off. Just a brush of the back of my hand on the fabric of my clothes was enough to cut my angry rant short. I gasped in pain, my whole body shaking as I cradled my wounded arm against me. Tears welled up behind my eyes, although I wasn't sure whether they were ones of pain or frustration anymore. I could feel them as they spilled down my cheeks, cutting little channels through the dirt on my face.
It took less than a second and no more than three strides for the man to move across the camp and kneel beside me, gently taking hold of my arm above the burns and turning it over. I instinctively resisted at first, but quickly ceased my struggling when he began quickly applying a thick clear balm over my hand. The pain instantly began to subside.
"Forgive me, I did not intend to upset you." His voice had gone from harsh and intimidating to what passed as gentle in mere seconds. Despite the pain, I couldn't help but find it a bit irritating, "Its best if you try not to move too much. You arm was badly burned yesterday."
He didn't bother to ask for my permission before treating the rest of my arm. Quick and skilful as any stone age first-aider could be, he removed the old leaves from my skin and began re-covering the burns with the strange tingling gel. Still feeling a little disarmed by his sudden kindness, and more than a little awkward that I'd yelled at him, I sat still and let him work. I could see that the skin on the back of my forearm and hand had blistered and become red and inflamed overnight, but I only winced when he pressed a new set of leaves over the burns.
"One question at a time." He said gently, taking the cloth that my arm had been lying on and tearing it into long strips, "First, what is your name?"
I looked at him wearily for a second.
Benevolent as he was being, I still didn't like the fact that he had pointed a sword at my back only the night before. I didn't generally make a habit of introducing myself to potential murders. Still, it couldn't hurt to at least give him my first name. At least it was better than being called 'girl' or 'my lady' again.
"Eleanor," I answered, trying to hold still as he carefully wrapped the cloth around my arm over the leaves, "My name's Eleanor."
"An unusual name for a she-elf." He commented.
"Maybe because I'm not an elf." I said exasperatedly once again, but this time he ignored me and continued treating my wounds.
"You are a long way from any kind of settlement, Lady Eleanor. How did you come to be out here by yourself?"
I opened my mouth, and then closed it again, biting my lower lip. Even if I did trust him enough to tell all; how the hell was I supposed to answer? I barely had and idea myself. The last thing I could remember was walking bare foot down the frozen streets of my college campus. I didn't have any kind of logical reason for why or how I'd ended up in a cave in the middle of nowhere. I supposed I could try and lie, but something told me that this man would have no trouble seeing straight through me. Plus, I'd always been bad at lying.
So, the truth seemed like the best option. Just maybe not all of it.
"I don't know." I said slowly, watching his reaction carefully, "I was just walking home from a party, then all I can remember is waking up in a cave in the side of a hill. I don't know how I got there. I've been following the river for almost three days trying to find out where I am."
Finally he finished with my arm, tying the cloth he'd wrapped around it in a secure knot near my elbow before meeting my eye again.
"Well, that I can answer for you, my lady. You are on the western edge of the forest of Trollshaws. The river you were following was the Hoarwell ford which runs south as far as the Angle, where it then meets with the ford of Bruinen, or Brandywine River." He spoke with the knowledge and authority of someone who had obviously studied the land by experience rather than pouring over maps. I sat there and soaked in the names in silence. The names of the forest and river sounded awfully familiar, but I couldn't remember for the life of me where from.
Also, the fact that he kept calling me 'my lady' hadn't escaped my notice, and it was starting to get on my nerves. Seeing the thoughtful look on my face as I listened, my attacker/saviour continued.
"Where exactly is it that you are from? Your speech and accent are unlike any I have heard, and for a young…" he hesitated, and I was sure that he was trying his best to avoid calling me a she-elf again, "…female to find herself alone in this part of the world is a rarity, and not a lucky one."
You could say that again, I thought grimly, pretending to assess the condition of my arm before answering.
In for a penny, in for a pound, I guess.
"London," I said softly, "I'm from London. I'm a third year English Literature student at the Imperial University."
I was only half surprised to see the look of bafflement on his face. The more I spoke to this man, who I realised I still did not know the name of, the more I was beginning to believe that I was much deeper water than I'd first thought.
"I'm afraid not familiar with this 'London' you speak of, nor this 'Imperial University'." He said, and he looked both genuinely bemused and a little mistrustful of me. I felt my hopes whither and die as my gaze fell back to my wounded arm. My eyes begin to water again and internally cursed. I hated the fact that I always seemed to tear up when I was frustrated or angry.
"Though perhaps I am merely unfamiliar with the name itself. Regardless, when I said you are far from any kind of settlement, my lady, I mean by at least a fifty miles in any direction." He spoke gravely, "You are obviously not a traveller, nor do you appear to be experienced in roaming the wild alone. So I must ask again. Do you speak the truth when you say that you really have no idea how you came to be so far from your home?"
I stared at him. I had been right about him being able to see straight through me. I could practically feel his eyes scanning my face for any hint of a lie. I nodded my head and bit my lip, not wanting to risk speaking for fear of collapsing into a gibbering mess. The uneasy tension was broken though when my stomach decided that enough was enough. It let loose a groan that sounded more like a miniature roll of thunder, and I felt my face flush with embarrassment.
"Then that brings us to your second problem." He spoke a little more warmly, turning to the fire and removing the fish that were now fully cooked. He handed one skewer with two toasted river fish on it to me and took the second for himself. Simple as the meal was, the fish smelled and tasted divine, and I had to physically force myself to chew slow enough so I wouldn't choke. Within minutes I was finished with the first fish and was deliberately savouring the second at a slower pace. When I was finally finished I put down the skewer, wiped my mouth and eyed the man tentatively as he continued to eat slower than I had.
I still found him frightening and was hesitant to trust him any further than I could kick him, but the fact that he had treated my wounds and fed me at least put him in my good books, for now.
"So… I've answered your line of interrogating questions." I said tentatively as he ate, "Isn't it about time I got to ask you some of my own?"
He looked at me over his skewer. He gestured more with his eyes and chin than verbally saying 'ok', but that was good enough for me.
"Ok, first question: why did you attack me when I first came into the camp?" I asked him, and he finished chewing a mouth full of fish and swallowed before answering simply.
"Forgive my bluntness, my lady, but in your haggard and soiled state I assumed you to be either a wandering thief or a very well dressed orc."
Had there been anything in my mouth, I would have likely spat it out. "An… orc?! Are you serious?" I all but laughed in his face. Unperturbed by me and my cackling, he took a flask casually from his belt and I instantly smelled the thick scent of brandy as he uncapped it.
"I'll admit, it's unusual to find orcs this far west of the Misty Mountains," he reasoned seriously, ignoring my near laugh as if his answer was the most reasonable thing in the world, "But you were too small and too slight to be a troll."
He took a long swig from the flask and once again I was torn between bursting into maniacal laughter or just screaming. Seeing as neither would have made for a helpful reaction, I opted for just sitting there with my jaw slack and my eyes bulging like pingpong balls.
Seeing the look I was giving him, he raised an eyebrow and gingerly extended the flask to me. I ignored it.
"You're joking right?" I spluttered, trying to keep my tone jovial but it sounded more hysterical than cheery, "There's no way you can be serious about all this! Orcs! Trolls! No offence to your fandom or anything, but wandering into the woods with a cloak and sword? Are you a hard core cosplayer, or just a fantasy nut who camps in the local forests at the weekends?"
I laughed a little insanely at my own joke, but he didn't respond. He just gave me a genuinely puzzled, almost pitying look.I could practically see the thought brewing behind his eyes: 'Poor, mad girl, she must be half way off her rocker.'
Like I was the crazy one here.
There was absolutely no way in hell or heaven that he could be serious… was there?
'No.' I told myself firmly. There was no way I was going to even let myself think along those lines. Not at least until I had every last one of my questions answered.
"Ok, second question!" I fired back, jumping quickly back into my interrogation, "What is with this 'she-elf' nonsense that you keep calling me?"
The man hesitated for a moment, as if judging the best way to answer that question. Finally, he got up and moved over to the pack lying a few feet away. He picked up a thick curved hunting knife and I jumped as he unsheathed it. He saw my reaction and gave me what might have been a comforting look, carefully turning it over in his hand and offering it to me.
"See for yourself." He answered simply, and pressed the blade hilt into my palm.
Confused, I looked from him to the hunting knife. I could see the faint reflection of my own grubby face staring back up at me from the surprisingly well polished steel.
My own reflection…
Realising what he had meant for me to do, I held the blade up in front of me like it was a hand mirror. If it hadn't been for the distinctive shape and colour of my eyes and the small dimple in my cheek, I would have hardly believed it was me. My face was barely recognisable under all the grime, dirt and dried sweat. My hair was a mess of tangles, leaves and dried mud, and I didn't even dare contemplate the state of my clothes. But I ignored all of that — reaching up and pulling back the matted brown locks so I could clearly see my ears.
"What the hell?!" I swore softly, almost letting the knife slip from my fingers.
Sure enough, the tips ears were no longer round, but delicately pointed. Pointed.
My first thought was that they had to be fake. Some kind of latex costume prop that had been put on me while I was asleep as a stupid joke. I ran my hands over them, even pulled hard on them, but all I could feel was the warm pulse of my own flesh and blood.
They were real. It was all real!
"Oh, bloody hell!"
In hindsight, it was strange to think that out of everything I had experienced over the past week, it was this small change to myself that really rang as the biggest shock. More than the cave, more than being attacked with a sword, more even than having my arm burned to a crisp. But even so, it was still stranger to think that in all that time, that tiny changes had been there all along. All I need have done was stop long enough to look at my reflection in the river.
My internal monologue quickly sank back into hysterical gibbering as the logical part of my mind frantically tried to search for another explanation. But it could find none.
Swallowing thickly, I found myself almost dreading the words that I could feel forming on the tip of my tongue. I was already fairly sure what answer I was going to get.
"Last question. Well, it's actually two questions." My voice came out as barely louder than a whisper, "Who are you? And… what is the name of the continent I'm on?"
It was obvious that he didn't understand the significance of my second question, but he humoured me anyway, and answered both in the same sentence.
"My name is Aragorn, Ranger of the North, though most in these parts call me Strider." He spoke her sombrely, "And in the common language, this continent is known as Middle Earth."
I was utterly silent for ten very long seconds.
Then I let out a strangled, wheezing chuckle that quickly turned into a frantic, hysterical laughing fit.
I laughed, and laughed, and laughed. I laughed until my stomach rolled and I thought I was going to be sick, and all the while Aragorn just looked faintly alarmed by my reaction. It took a while, but I slowly calmed myself down again and regained my slightly shaky composure.
"On second thoughts," I croaked weakly at him, "I think I will take that drink after all."
* "Don't be afraid, my lady."
** "What is your name?"
*** "You can't understand me?"