Chapter 4: An Unwilling Suspension of Disbelief
I didn't sleep for two days after that.
Well, not really. Sleep had just refused to come to me for any sustainable length of time, no matter how much I tossed and turned. I'd stayed awake for hours every night, whenever Aragorn decided we would stop our marching and rest until dawn. Given my situation, I had had little choice but to go along with him, especially since he had made it clear that his moral code would not permit him to leave a defenceless woman on her own in the wilds.
No arguments from me.
Even a whole day after the initial shock (which had involved a lot of cursing, swigging from the friendly booze flask, and Aragorn serenely telling me to calm down), I still couldn't fully believe what was happening. The rational part go my brain kept trying to beat my other senses into submission, repeating endlessly that none of this could be real. Even when I reached up and feel the warm and sensitive tips of my pointed ears, I still couldn't quite convince myself that any of this was really happening. It was as if I'd been thrown into one of the fan-character stories I'd written as a teenager.
My memory treated me to a flashback of something with painfully bad grammar and excessive use of the term 'violet orbs', and quickly shoved the thought away with a cringe. This was ridiculous. I was not a she-elf. That I was not somehow in Middle Earth. And I was definitely not being led through a forest by one of my childhood heroes…
I didn't really know quite what to make of him. He was very different from how I had imagined from the book I'd read as a child. He was taller, and older looking. I hadn't imagined his demeanour to be quite so severe and intimidating, nor his speech to be quite so abrupt.
Never the less, he was kind to me. Sort of. He didn't talk much, and whenever he did it was usually only to answer one of my frequent questions, and I'd had more than enough of those to make up for the one-sided conversation.
I asked about the forest, the rivers, the animals, the mountains I could see way off in the distance to pass the time, but I steered clear of anything too personal. I didn't want to risk him getting suspicious as to how much I already knew about him. That was a conversation I really didn't want to get into. But anything and everything else I could think of, he answered.
My arm and hand also seemed to be improving surprisingly quickly. The pain and tingling was almost completely gone by the second day, but Aragorn still insisted that I keep the bandages on to keep it clean. He checked the state of my burns occasionally, but it quickly became apparent that that was as far as his skills as a medic stretched. Still, he never complained when I begged to stop and remove them for a while because the itching was driving me mad. But despite my endless stream of questions, I found it strange that he never once asked me about anything more than my immediate condition.
He never asked after my home, family, or where it was that I claimed to have come from. But I didn't mind. In fact I was glad he didn't ask. Every time I so much as thought of home my eyes would swim and a painful knot would appear in my throat. I caught him looking at me out of the corner of his eye a couple of time when I'd been like that, but he'd chivalrously turned away and pretended not to have noticed. I was grateful to him for that, even if he only did it because he thought I was insane.
We had travelled south for a day and a half before finally coming to a trail that took us through the outer edge of the forest. Whenever we stopped, Aragorn would set up a small camp fire and the tent, and we would eat a simple meal in near silence before one of us would take the first watch. Aragorn had told me during our traveling together about the dangers of the forests, and of the things that only came out after the sun dipped below the horizon.
"Do you think it merely a coincidence that it has the word 'troll' in the name?" he had asked me with a raised eyebrow, and I'd felt my insides squirm. "Though it's unlikely to find any this far from the Misty Mountains, there are still things in the wilds of this wood than I don't care to risk attracting with complacency."
So we took turns staying awake while the other rested. Not that I slept well. I'd quickly found that I physically couldn't sleep for more than an hour or two at a time, no matter how hard I tried to force myself to. Part of me wondered if it had something to do with the fact that I was apparently now in a she-elf's body. But my own personal Ms. Logic still insisted that it was more likely because my real body was comatose or something. After all, you can't fall asleep inside a dream — and whatever all this was, it sure as hell wasn't Inception.
Still, the feeling of not being able to really sleep bothered me. Whenever it was my turn to rest, I would curl up in the tent, close my eyes, and pretend that I was home again. I pretended to dream of my warm bed back in my cosy college flat. Of Katie and all my friends from my college. Of my family's home in the middle of the English countryside. Of my mother, and father, and my little brother who had just left senior school. I'd shed tears during those first few nights, but although the pain of longing for my family never really diminished, I found that the tears didn't come as often by the time we reached the edge of the forest.
It wasn't until our second night on the road that I realised I hadn't bothered to ask Aragorn where he was taking me, although I was fairly sure I knew the answer before I finally worked up the nerve to ask him.
"To Rivendell, my lady." He answered me with a glint of warmth to his eyes, "To the house of Lord Elrond."
Oh boy, as if I wasn't living enough of a cliche already…
And yet, for some unfathomable reason, the idea comforted me more than it logically should have.
The night before we reached where our trail met the edge of the wood again, Aragorn gave me the sheathed knife that I had used as a mirror a few days before.
"Have you ever wielded a hunting blade before?" he asked me, and I shook my head without hesitation, eyeing the blade a little skittishly. With a grunt, he took my good hand by the wrist and placed the knife's hilt in my palm. He angled it so the tip was pointing backwards towards my elbow with the blade facing outwards. "Hold the blade like this. You're small, so this will make it easier for you to defend yourself if your opponent is stronger than you. Only use it if your life is in danger. If you can escape without drawing your blade, you run. Understand?"
I swallowed and nodded sombrely. Well, at least that's something I knew I could do well. Run away.
He nodded, satisfied with my non-verbal answer and handed me the sheath and belt. I tied it awkwardly around my middle since the buckle was far too loose for my considerably smaller frame.
"You think we're likely to be attacked then?" I spoke nervously, running my hand over the wooden hilt of the knife. Aragorn didn't answer immediately, which made me think that he was probably sugar coating the answer for me.
"I think it unlikely, but it pays to be cautious when wandering in this part of the world."
"Great, I'll take that as a resounding 'yes' then." I mumbled more to myself than to him. He gave me what I guessed was meant to be a comforting look.
"We are not far from the valley of Imladris, but not yet close enough to be out of harms way. Just keep your wits about you."
"Right, my wits. Nooo problem." I chuckled with a hesitant little smile at him, to which he returned with a simple nod.
It wasn't long after that that the trail finally began to taper out as we headed down hill. The terrain became noticeably more stony than grassy. When we finally came to the bottom of the long slope, I saw that we were walking in the base of a large river bed. The River Bruinen that ran down from Rivendell, I guessed. Thankfully it must have been the dry season, because the river was little more than a wide stream running up to our ankles.
The water was almost painfully cold, but the feeling of the it washing over my sore feet was like heaven. I hadn't stopped to think about the state of my legs and feet over the past few days. I'd been far more concerned with the state of my arm, or my new status as a she-elf to even think about the fact that I'd been running through the forests in bare feet for a week.
I stopped when we were about half way across, bending down to gently rub the grime from my filthy bruised toes. As I did, I caught my reflection in the slow moving surface of the water. It wasn't the first time I'd seen myself in my new body, but it still left me a little stunned ever time I saw my pointed ears poking out from under my tangled hair. The rest of my face and body was too plastered in mud, dirt and sweat to see if it was an improvement on my human self. But the one thing that I could clearly see that hadn't changed were my eyes.
They were still that exact shade of green with a tiny ring of gold near the centre. The exact same eye colour I'd shared with my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. They were the one part of my appearance that I had always been truly proud of.
Delirious hallucination or not, out of everything else that had changed about me, I was happy that they had remained the same.
Then the stream of water suddenly became more intense, and my reflection vanished back into the ripples again. I heard Aragorn call for me to hurry and not linger from not far ahead, but his voice seemed to be quieter than usual. It was difficult for me to hear him over… what was that sound?
Still stooped over the steam, I slowly stood and turned my face curiously upstream. I was sure I could hear something else, deep and rumbling and not far away, and it was getting louder. Something like muffled thunder.
'No. More like… water.'
"Move!" Aragorn's voice suddenly thundered through to me and my head snapped towards him. He was half way up the river bank, beckoning frantically for me to follow quickly. I would have done so if I hadn't seen what had been the cause of his alarm.
What I could only describe as a wall of water was charging down the gully straight towards me.
I froze in terror, my whole body refusing to move from where I stood.
"Eleanor, run!" Aragorn bellowed at me, and something about the sound of my name snapped me out of it.
I ran. I couldn't remember running so fast in my life. My feet barely made splashes in the flooding stream as I flew over the riverbed in a sprint. But even then I only just made it to the bank as the river crashed down around me.
Before I knew what was happening I was yanked violently back, lifted up off my feet, and swept sharply sideways as the water surged. I fought hard to keep my head above the surface, but the current forced me down again and again. I gasped for air and instead was rewarded with mouth full of river water that made my lungs burn. I lashed out frantically with my arms and legs, searching for something, anything to cling onto.
The current surged again, and my arm struck something hard as I was pulled under. My fingers automatically latched around it, and I pulled with all my strength to get my head above the water. My chest burned as I choked and coughed, trying to suck in as much air as I could. I couldn't pull myself far enough out of the water to breathe anything other than foam.
I heard Aragorn yelling my name again, but before I could so much as figure out which direction he was shouting from, another crash of water hit me square in the face. My tired and weak fingers gave up completely and I was once again swept back under the river. I remembered hearing more than feeling the crack as my head smashed into the rocks. My vision instantly went dark, and the sound of the raging waters seemed to fade from a roar to a low rumble around me.
Somewhere far off I heard a splash and someone shouting.
Or maybe it was someone shouting and then a splash.
Either way, I didn't have time to really think about it much before everything went quiet and wonderfully painless.
"Finally back again are we?" My subconscious dream self's chuckle rang through my head.
I tried to give my intended insulting reply, but I dismally noted I was lying flat on my face, and my witty response was ruined by the fact that I had a mouth full of grass. My other self laughed merrily.
"Is this going to happen every damned time I manage to fall asleep?" I demanded.
"It would seem so."
I pushed myself up into a sitting position and glared at her. She was sitting on the remains of a small stone wall with her legs neatly crossed in front of her. She still looked like an eerily familiar and yet strangely alien reflection of my own face, but I couldn't help but notice she was in far better condition than me.
She was dressed in a plain red dress with long tight sleeves which made her strange golden eyes gleam and her hair shine. I on the other hand, still looked like something that had spent the night in a skip, and it irritated me more than it should have. I spat out a few stray blades of grass in her general direction and she gave me an amused smile.
"Though, I feel obliged to point out that you're not asleep per se. I think asphyxiated into unconsciousness would be a more accurate description."
"Yeah well, having your arm cooked medium-rare and then getting a river dumped on you will do that."
"Trauma to the head too." She added in a nonchalant tone, "That tumble against the rocks looked like it hurt."
"Yeah it did. Pity it didn't get rid of your attitude along with what's left of my sanity."
Her face fell into a deep frown and she placed a hand over her heart, "You could at least try and show a little gratitude. I'm only here because of you after all, and all you've done so far is-"
"Ok, ok, fine. I'm sorry." I interrupted, getting impatient with myself already. Honestly, even in my own head I couldn't get any peace. "I'm an ungrateful wench, you don't need to rub it in."
My inner self sniffed regally and looked down her nose at me. I had always taken no small amount of pride in the fact that despite being on the smaller end of 5'3, I'd mastered the art of being able to look down my nose at people miles taller than me. Now being on the receiving end of the metaphorical stick, I could see why the trait was so effective when I needed to deliberately piss people off. She was technically me anyway, but I still couldn't help but feel irked by how well she employed my own technique.
"Anyway, I'm not here to chat." She went on, sliding neatly down off her perch on the wall, "I'm here to help you."
"Help me?" I questioned.
She walked calmly over to me, eyeing me with the irritating expression of an elder sibling forced to babysit a difficult toddler.
"Well, help us really. Since I am you." She added offhandedly, "And yes, I'm here to help. God knows you need it. Honestly, I can't believe how clumsy and thoughtless you've become over the past few days. Are you trying to get us killed before we get any answers?"
"Clumsy? Thoughtless? Are you serious? I just spent the past two days lost in a wood, hallucinating that I'm in Middle Earth. The only person I've seen almost murdered me, then turned out to be a hard core cosplayer of a fictional character. And none of includes the fact that my real body probably unconscious freezing to death in a ditch somewhere outside this messed up dream." I spewed indignantly, "Tell me, how the hell were you expecting me to deal with it?"
"Better than this. Low expectations breed low standards." She answered with a contemptuously flick of her hand, "And I should know. I know what you are capable of, what you're incapable of, your limits, your unconscious thoughts, and I know that you're headed for a nasty end if you keep this up."
I didn't realise it until I was at eye level with her that I was on my feet.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?!" I snapped angrily at her, "I don't see how standing here getting chastised by my own freaking subconscious is supposed to help me! You're not real! None of this is real! You're a trauma induced shadow of my own sarcasm at best! And I still don't know why the hell you are even here!"
I saw rage flare behind her strange amber eyes and watched in bizarre fascination as the reflection of my own lips twist into a snarl. I must have blinked because the next thing I knew she was an inch from my face, staring me down almost nose to nose.
"Why do you think I'm here?" She spat in a voice so hot and furious that it actually made me step back a pace, "I'm your coping mechanism, you idiot. I'm here because you are literally tearing your mind in half trying to convince yourself that this is not happening. Your brain is loosing it's ability to cope because you keep trying to rationalise away reality!"
I just stared at her, suddenly feeling like a very young child being shouted at by an older sister. It made no sense since the one doing the yelling was technically me, but it rattled me anyway.
"Rationalise away reality?" I repeated blankly, the words obviously not really hitting their intended meaning. My other self came close to rolling her eyes, I could see it in the face that was identical to mine.
"Yes." She said, and her tone suddenly turned from angry to pitying in under a second, "Heaven help you, I know better than anyone how you use logic and rationalisation to solve your problems. But I'm sorry to say that right now that isn't going to do you any good."
"W-what do you mean?" I asked, a little frustrated that my voice had suddenly chosen that moment to turn croaky.
"Look, I won't beat about the bush here, boss." She said gently, "The bottom line is that everything right now is actually happening to you, it's 100% real, and if you don't start taking it seriously it's going to get us very dead, very quickly."
I was still for a very long moment, just staring at her, at me. It wasn't until she reached out and took hold of my hand that I realised I was shaking. Her hands were cool and soft, and I could feel the small raised scar on her right index finger that was identical to the one on mine. She led me over to the small wall that she had been perched on and sat me down gently. I couldn't seem to stop myself from trembling.
"So, what can I do?" I croaked out at last.
"Simple." She said flatly, sitting next to me, "You have two choices. You can either go on pretending that this is some kind of dream, and eventually get yourself killed because you can't face reality. Or you can accept that this is actually happening, and move forward…"
She hesitated, and for a moment I could swear I saw genuine fear flicker behind her eyes.
"But I can only help you if you choose the latter."
I found myself nodding slowly. I forced myself to inhale deeply, the scent of grass and flowers filling me. I looked up at the sky, and realised that I could see far more than just stars hanging in the sky. I could see rolling nebula, far off comets, tiny wisps of cloud reflecting the moon's light. It was impossibly beautiful.
"W-will…" I stumbled over my words, no longer bothering to hide my fear, "Will you help me then?"
"I can't give you flat answers. At least not ones that you don't already know the answer to. But I am your subconscious, your intuition. I can help steer you in the right direction. But you have to ask the right questions."
"Right." I continued to stare up at the sky, choosing to focus on a couple of falling meteors that glowed gold as they passed through the atmosphere. "So what about all this? Right here I mean. Is this real too?
"Well… kind of." She answered, following my gaze.
"So this is all just a dream then?"
"Yes, and no." She said hesitantly. I sighed.
"Well that's delightfully unhelpful." I forced out in a poor attempt at humour.
"What I mean is that yes you are asleep, but no this isn't a dream." She spoke seriously, completely ignoring me, "Something happened to us before you came here. That much should be obvious even to you; otherwise you would remember how and why we ended up in that cave in the first place."
"Okay," I said, trying to clear my head enough to unscramble my thoughts, "So can you tell me what happened?"
My other self looked noticeably uncomfortable, like her answer left an unpleasant taste.
"I can't say, because I don't know. And I don't know, because you don't know. I am you, remember? You're going to need to work that one out yourself before I can help."
"It figures. No rest for the wicked, huh?"
I sighed, looking down from the sky and putting my hands on my knees. I could feel a slight ache appearing on the right side of my head, and across my right arm. When I looked down, my body was beginning to fade.
My other self gave me a sideways glance and put a hand on my shoulder. Either she was turning to smoke right in front of me, or my eyes were going out of focus again.
"Looks like its time to wake up again." She said with a small smile that managed to look both grim and hopeful at the same time. She was going steadily more blurry and dark as the world faded into inky blackness.
"This might be our last chance. Lets make it count."