Journey to the centre of Middle Earth
I really couldn't remember how it all had started. My memories were blurry at best. One thing I knew for sure though was that I could be home right now, listening to my friend's banter and happily doing whatever was to be done. Maybe I would be preparing some stew, cleaning a bit around the living room or simply writing notes in my book.
If I closed my eyes tightly enough, I could almost imagine the warmth of the hearth, the smell of the stew, and sounds of cheeky voices; I could hear them bantering, complaining, joking. I could hear the tankards clang loudly, smell the smoke rise from the pipes, and listen to the songs and instruments. And people laughing, yes, I could hear them laughing so loudly.
It was what I thought of when my mind drifted to think of home. Home meant warmth. Home meant laughs and loud discussions. Home meant them being around.
Funny how I had so quickly forgotten the rest. The far past, or so I called it.
Home will always be there now, in the heart of the mountain and never would I be able to think of my birth place as something else than a dreamlike experience. Yes, deep, deep down under the mountain was where I felt at ease. I had tried so hard to escape the protection of the stone walls, and now, I wished for nothing else than just go back there.
I wanted to be home with them.
Yet those memories didn't explain how I ended up in this situation.
My head was hurting and I could feel the blood dripping and coating my long brownish hair. My lungs were burning and I gasped to try and breathe some more but my chest was painfully crushed under the beast's fingers.
I felt its grip on me tighten and I couldn't help but let out the little air I had in my lungs in a painful whimper. With my eyes I tried to look for something that could help me, someone that would save me.
But my gaze only met the terrifying sight of a fire burning high.
Fear coursed through me. A fear that was unlike any I had felt before.
The creature lifted me higher and closer to its face and took a whiff at my hair while I had to concentrate hard to avoid puking. Being hung upside down, near such a stinking creature apparently had a churning effect on my stomach.
My situation couldn't be worse. I was going to die, alone in the wilderness and no one could or would come and help me. Nothing could save me now.
The creatures were talking together but I didn't pay attention. I could feel the blood rushing to my head and was steadily growing dizzier and fainter.
I could only see black dots clouding my vision. My heart clenched painfully and my brain stopped looking for solutions to this situation. I couldn't explain why, but I thought about my friends. They would never know what happened to me, where I went and disappeared. I knew they were going to be sad and most likely feel slightly guilty too.
Guilt rushed through me. It felt as if everything that had been done, everything that had happened, meant nothing. Every difficulty I had unexpectedly overcome, every painful lesson I had learned, all of it…in the end it meant nothing. I was going to die in the most stupid way possible, and it was my fault.
Yeah. I really outdid myself this time and I messed up once again.
I wouldn't even have the chance to apologize for being stupid enough to run in the wilderness by myself. There wouldn't even be a body left behind.
Their faces appeared in front of my closed eyes and I addressed each of them a silent apology, praying for them, hoping they would at least be safe.
My ears seemed to stop working and the only sound that registered in my brain was a rushing noise. My eyes were unseeing. The burn in my chest was all consuming. The pounding in my head was stronger than ever.
And then nothing.
Two years before
I really should have listened to my instinct. Really who would be stupid enough to follow someone in a dark, humid and scary cave for fun? Well, clearly I would.
I would admit that I had been curious to go in and see the famous stalagmites and stalactites, which formed together a renowned natural architecture. The plan had been to come in, follow the guide and the path, enjoy the view and go back out with nice memories.
Now my luck or stupidity had decided for me to be slightly behind the group when a strange whizzing noise occurred and all artificial lights suddenly shut down. For a second there was an airy silence and I caught my breath, both surprised and if I were honest a bit scared. Even though the lights had nothing to do with the room temperature, I suddenly felt cold. A shiver ran down my spine and I brought my arms around me protectively.
I was starting to feel really uneasy when I heard the guide's voice, instructing to the group to stay close together and wait patiently.
Why, oh why hadn't I just stood there?
Why did I think I'd be able to join with the group in the pitch black cave?
I really was stupid, wasn't I?
Wandering aimlessly in the direction where I thought the voices were coming from, I ended up walking slowly, hands in front of me to try to find a wall or a cord or anything really that would indicate where in the natural room I was.
I couldn't tell how long it took me to realize that each time I heard the guide's or the others' voices, they seemed to be further away from me. I kept on walking though, not even thinking about how strange it was for me to not even be able to touch anything.
What were the odds really? I was walking blindly in the dark, in a cave, and still hadn't hit a wall. That didn't sound logical, especially not for me and my blasted nonexistent luck.
At the moment where I started to ponder about those issues, I saw from the corner of my eyes a light flickering on my right.
I didn't even bother to think this through I just went directly towards it, walking with renewed energy and purpose.
The funny part was that the further I seemed to walk, the further the light seemed to be. Well others might have found it funny, but in reality that was damn annoying and creepy. I could tell that my hands were starting to shake a bit and I clenched my fist to stop it.
What was going on?
I was starting to doubt my sanity when that useless speckle of light went out completely.
Now, I had to say that the noise I made was not a whimper, nor a shriek. Nope. It was an awkward mix of both.
I stilled completely and stood in the suddenly oppressing darkness and silence. I couldn't hear the voices of the group anymore, hadn't heard them in awhile actually. I had no idea what to do. Should I stay there and wait for the guide to find me? How far had I ventured in my attempt to find the group?
I took a tentative step forward. I didn't know it, but apparently I was afraid of closed, silent, dark places. Now was not a good time to discover I had some claustrophobic issues.
I swallowed the lump that was forming in my throat and blinked several times to keep the tears at bay. There was no shame in admitting that I was quite afraid at that moment.
My eyes were wide open but it made no difference whatsoever as there wasn't even the tiniest bit of daylight. I took a deep shaky breath and started to wonder in which direction I should go, for I couldn't bring myself to wait here. Trembling I decided to go forward in the general direction where I'd seen a light, intensely hoping it hadn't been my brain playing a trick on me.
I felt my chest tightened and my heart started to beat wildly. I was not scared. I was terrified.
After a few steps my head painfully got acquainted with the wall and I fell to the ground with a yelp. Bringing my hands to my left temple I felt a wet and sticky substance under my fingers. Great, a head wound was just what I needed.
The pain did manage to take my mind from the fear I had been feeling but my respite didn't last long. I felt cold, colder than I ever had felt before. I clenched my fist tightly and bit my lower lip. I had to control this anxiety or I'll be stuck in this bloody cave forever. It took me quite a while and many deep calming breaths before I felt slightly better.
Gingerly I tried to find back my handbag that had fallen from my hands. After several long minutes of me crawling around, not finding anything but rocks under my fingers, I gave up. I would have to find a way back to the hotel without my phone, car keys and credit cards. I pulled a face at the thought.
Damn my luck. Damn. Damn. Damn.
I put my hands on the wall and slowly rose to my feet again. With one hand on the rock and the other extended in front of me, I started to walk again. I felt dizzy and my head hurt, but sitting wouldn't help me now so I had no other choice but to keep on going. I couldn't help but wonder how big this cave was. Were there miles and miles of unexplored tunnels? If this was the case, I would most certainly meet a dreadful death.
After awhile, and several more bumps in various walls, stalactites and stalagmites, I finally saw a light in front of me. It was nothing but a small, clearer point in my sight, but my hopes were high again and I walked with more energy, though carefully.
This time, the light didn't move away and the more I walked, the closer I was to it and the clearer my surroundings became.
I could finally avoid the natural traps and further injuries. It did take me quite some time, but I ended up in a large cave and I could see a small hole in the distance whence the light came. As I stepped in the cavern and away from the dark tunnels, I felt a soft breeze on my face.
Immediately I smiled and didn't lose time. I made my way as quickly as possible toward the hole that provided light. It was on top of a rocky and clearly unstable slope so I ended up half climbing half crawling on the sharp rocks that scratched my palms and were digging painfully in my knees.
When I finally reached it, I realized the hole was barely wide enough for me to go through. As I was forcing my way out, the stone dug in my back and I had to muffle a cry. This clearly was not my day and I was going to give that creepy guide an earful. This cave was clearly not safe and the path of the visit was not properly signalled. It was dangerous and I couldn't fathom how they could dare bring people down in the caves in such conditions.
My grumpy thoughts were brutally stopped when I tumbled out, falling on the side of a slope and rolling all the way down without being able to stop my fall. I rolled down before my body painfully came to a stop.
I remained on my back, unmoving, breathing heavily. I wanted nothing more than to take a hot bath and then curl under my covers on my bed while watching whatever movie would catch my interest. Yet I couldn't find the strength to move away from my landing spot. Actually I couldn't find the strength to even move away from the rock that was painfully digging in my lower back.
I didn't know how long I had walked in this bloody cave but I was exhausted and my whole body was hurting both from the wandering and the fall. My head was pounding, miserably reminding me that I had hit it against a wall.
I felt my eyes close and didn't fight it, though it probably wasn't such a good idea to fall asleep after a head injury.
I didn't wake in a jolt. Nope. I woke slowly. Though I didn't, or rather couldn't open my eyes I could still hear voices around me.
Thank whatever deity or deities out there, some good Samaritans had found me. If I had had the strength I would have cried from relief.
I tried to force my brain to focus on what they were saying, though it took me some time.
"Poor lass." A first voice said.
"What happened to her?" This second voice sounded much younger.
"Well, we better make sure she's safe for now." That was the first voice once again.
I realized that I probably lost consciousness once again after hearing them, because the next time I started to wake, I could feel the ground below me was softer than before. There was something heavy and warm on my chest and I could hear the voices not too far away. At least I wasn't cold anymore, but the sounds around where different than the ones I would have expected to hear. There was no beeping sounds indicating a monitoring of my body, nor were there any movements or sounds that could be interpreted as being in an ambulance. Instead I could hear birds chirping not too far from where I was. Maybe the ambulance was on its way? Well, thankfully at least, someone had found me.
I tried to force my eyes open and blinked several times. My vision was blurry at first and when I stupidly tried to sit up, I moaned loudly from the pain and let myself fall back. My head had just hit the ground when I heard ushered footsteps coming closer. My eyes that had closed back on their own volition were forced once again to open.
I blinked some more until I could focus on the blurry shape next to me. As soon as the shape took a human form I forced a small smile on my lips.
Wow, my voice was so hoarse I sounded like a frog. I cringed and tried to clear my throat, only eliciting a coughing fit that had my whole body trembling and all my nerves sending pain signals to my brain.
"Easy there missy, drink this."
The old man seemed nice enough and I smiled weakly at him when he helped me into a sitting position. I could feel his large hand supporting my back while he brought a cup to my lips.
The feel of water against my lips suddenly brought to my attention how thirsty I truly was. I was so thankful for the clear, cold water that I could have cried. It occurred to me that I was turning into a cry-baby and I didn't like it in the least. I drank the whole cup quickly enough and the old man helped me lay back with gentle and careful moves.
"Thank you." I croaked softly.
"T'is nothing miss, now, are you feeling particularly faint or hurt?" He said in a soft, kind voice.
"My head, I remember hitting my head. I think…" I tried to touch my forehead but gave up as I felt too weak.
"Aye. I took care of that already. Were you hurt elsewhere?"
His soft tone and gentle eyes almost immediately made me trust him. I was really a trusting fool and this was no exception. But this man, this kind old man, had helped me; he gave me water and took care of me so far. I didn't see any reason not to trust him.
I slowly shook my head to answer his question, even though I couldn't move, I was fairly certain my assessment of my own health would be accurate.
"Just a few bruises, nothing much."
He simply nodded, smiled and then muttered just one word.
"Good" His smile was kind and I felt once more as if I could trust him. "So, do you feel strong enough to join us around the fire and have a bite of some warm stew?"
Fire? I looked at his grey, almost white hair and quirked an eyebrow. Wasn't he a tad too old for camping? Still I couldn't say no to the idea of warm food in my stomach so I nodded. I was perhaps too eager as I winced from a sudden pain in my head.
"There, there. Don't move too fast. I'll help you."
When had standing become such a painful process? I bit on my own lip and limply made my way to a fallen log where the old man helped me sit.
When he helped me walk, I realized he was quite short for a man, actually we were approximately the same size and I wasn't known for being tall, quite the opposite actually. Apparently I had gained my nickname of pixie from my mother's side of the family; from what my very short aunt had told me. All the women in my mother's family had been short. Really short.
I looked up and saw two other men, or rather a man and a younger one. The second one couldn't possibly be older than me. They were both staring at me so I averted my eyes, choosing to look at the fire instead of observing them. I didn't really like to be the centre of attention. I shifted slightly, trying and failing to be comfortable on the log.
When the old man gave me a bowl with a spoon and hot stew I smiled largely at him.
"Thank you Mister…hem, sorry I forgot to ask your name." I felt my cheeks heat up a bit at this sudden realization.
"Oh, no worries Miss." He once more smiled at me. "I'm Dori, at your service." He bowed as he spoke and I frowned a bit at the oddity. "And these are my two younger brothers."
He made a gesture towards the two others and I forced myself to look at them. I felt my eyes widen at the sight. I hadn't paid attention at first but these men were probably the strangest persons I ever encountered, what with the hair and beards and weird clothes?
"I'm Nori, at your service."
The older one said the corners of his mouth quirking slightly upwards before he bowed his head. He had probably the oddest hairdo I had ever seen; his hairs were shaped in a design that reminded me immediately of a starfish, though there were only three branches in his star-shaped hairdo.
I looked at the youngest one when he spoke.
"I'm Ori, at your service." And he too, bowed his head as he spoke.
Were those actual names? It sounded more like nicknames to me. How odd. Usually when people greeted each other they used their real names. And what was this weird bow they had made each time? The three of them looked at me intently and I felt yet another blush creep up my cheeks.
"I'm Amelia, pleased to meet you." I chose not to give my whole name, considering what they had given me.
They seemed a bit put out by my greetings but didn't say anything. I wondered if it was because I didn't bow to them. Instead of pondering on this though, I started to eat the stew which ended up being rather tasty. I kept glancing in their directions, observing them without really realizing it.
I didn't know whether to be scared or amazed at their sight. The older, gray haired man, Dori, had a beard and moustache that were braided quite prettily I must say. His beard even adorned an impressively long metallic bead. He was talking with his brother so my gaze shifted to the second one, Nori.
I was utterly shocked to see such a masterfully braided beard. The whole beard and moustache were braided in multiple tresses that were then held together in three distinct parts with large metallic beads. That must have taken quite some time to do. I did wonder what the matter was with this man and the number three, for it seemed like a significant number in his hairdo.
When my gaze shifted slightly upward from his beautiful beard, I met his eyes and felt myself blush again at being caught blatantly staring at him. I thought he would glare at my rudeness but he simply smirked and winked at me cheekily before focusing on his own stew.
"Lady Amelia, if I may ask, why is it you were alone in these lands?" Dori's voice forced me to look up.
I frowned slightly at the whole "lady" part but still managed to answer.
"Well, I was visiting the caves nearby when I lost the group and the guide. I don't know how long I've been stuck in there, but let me tell you I was damn glad to see daylight again."
Looking at the sky I realized it must have been quite a long time, for the night was quickly falling now. How come no one had alerted the authorities yet? Surely a lost visitor was some kind of priority right? They had to know I had lost my way, right?
The three men reacted strangely at my words. Frowning and clearly puzzled by something I had said. Maybe they didn't understand why I decided to visit a cave, after all none of my so called friends had wanted to come with me. An unwelcomed feeling of shame started to blossom in my chest and I had the urge to explain myself, which was utterly preposterous.
"You see, I just got the results for my finals and I failed. I wanted to change my mind and I thought that a holiday and the visit of this cave would cheer me up. It did actually at first. It's truly an amazing sight, the columns and stuff…"
I stopped talking entirely as I saw that they seemed even more lost than before after my little explanation. Now that I was actually able to think relatively properly, I wondered at how it could be possible for me to meet three weird looking men who spoke perfect English, albeit strongly accented, in the middle of the French countryside.
One of them asked me a question though, thus stopping that trail of thought.
"I'm sorry milady, but what cave?" It was the youngest one who spoke softly.
"It must be close by, though I forgot its name and lost the prospectus in the dark. Actually, I lost everything in the dark…" I sighed silently cursing myself, how unlucky could I be to lose my handbag and all my belongings in a dark dingy place?
I had absolutely no chances to ever see them again.
Glancing up I saw the three men exchange glances as they clearly seemed surprised by my answer. I started to frown. Something was wrong. Well, something aside me getting lost and ending up with such a crowd.
From their appearance to the fact that they were camping in the middle of nowhere, something just wasn't right. It started to worry me slightly to say the least.
My gaze shifted from the cauldron, yes cauldron, on top of the fire to the metallic bowl in my hand that was beautifully crafted. Then I glanced at the men, their beards and hair, their strange looking clothes, their weird apparently leather boots.
As I was observing intently my companions for the first time, I finally ended up looking at a strange looking wooden stick. Analyzing it I realized it was more of a sort of hammer than a walking stick, with the dangerous looking metallic end of it that even had some spikes.
My eyes widened slightly and wandered to a very lethal looking sword near Dori.
Ok, now there was a problem.
Who were these guys?
Starfish, or Nori if I wanted to be polite, apparently saw that something was suddenly wrong with me. Well, the fact that I let a perfectly good bowl of stew falling on the ground was sort of a dead giveaway.
I wasn't really proud of my reaction. My hands had started shaking violently as images of violent deaths started to play in my mind.
"Milady, are you alright?" The old man worriedly enquired.
My gaze fixated on Dori and I felt my mouth dry and a large lump form in my throat. I could guess that I was turning pretty pale too. I felt faint and light headed, but now was not a good moment to lose consciousness. I forced myself to swallow the lump and muttered in a sickeningly shaky voice.
"Who…who are you guys?"
"I'm sorry, milady?" Dori seemed genuinely surprised by my sudden change of mood.
"What…why do you have those?"
I pointed at their weapons and idly wondered if I should try to stand and prepare to dash away. I was really starting to freak out. They had the indecency to look surprised by my question. As if wandering around with medieval and most importantly lethal weapons in our days and age was a common occurrence.
Dori answered, he was the only one who was really speaking with me so far, the other two simply looking at the exchange. Though the youngest, Ori, looked at me with curiosity and wonder, while the other, Nori, seemed more serious in his appraisal.
"Do not fear us milady" Dori gently tried to calm me. "We only travel with those for our own protection."
Yeah, right. I could bet many victims heard this speech before.
"Protection? Against what?"
I managed not to snort, but barely. These guys took me for an imbecile if they thought I was going to believe them. I just had to try and play for time, I needed to bolt away but right now I knew I couldn't. My whole body protested at the simple thought of running away in the forest.
When Dori answered though I realized I was in a bigger problem than I previously thought.
"Well, orcs, goblins or other creatures found in these parts, mostly wolves around here."
These men were mad.
They believed they were living in some kind of magical land with monstrous creatures. It was just my luck to end up being rescued by such weirdoes.
Now, how should I play this? Bluntly telling them orcs and goblins didn't exist might generate reactions I didn't care to witness. Should I make them believe I was living in the same fantasy as them? It might be safer for now to act along.
"Right, how silly of me." I forced a smile on my lips as I replied.
There was a short silence before I cleared my voice. I wasn't sure this would be a good idea, but it truly seemed that I wouldn't have much choice anyway so I had to ask them for help.
"Do you think you could…hem" What was the word to use with medieval freaks? "Yes, hem, would you mind escorting me to the nearest city or town?"
"Of course not milady, we wouldn't let you travel along these parts alone. It's far too dangerous; as I said, wolves have been seen recently in these mountains."
"Right. Wolves. Hem where is the nearest town, I'm a bit lost." I tried to put aside the unbelievable bits of information he clearly thought were true.
"We are a few days away from the village of Beinne, milady."
That made me pause for a minute. I had never heard of such a village, but on the other hand I wasn't very familiar with the area. Maybe I had walked under that mountain longer than what I had previously thought.
"I'm not sure where we are exactly." I admitted.
"We're north of Forlond milady."
This man was an expert with answering questions in a way that I had no choice but to ask him some more.
"I'm sorry, but where is that?" I insisted.
"North of the Gulf of Lune, in the southern area of the Ered Luin." He replied patiently, though I could tell that his brother was becoming more suspicious after each new question I asked.
I didn't pay attention to the brother though. I wanted to scream right now. This man was not making any sense, I had never heard of any of these places and there was no gulf in the close area. Even the names sounded foreign.
I could see that Nori was observing me with a deep frown, while Dori seemed to wonder why we apparently couldn't understand each other. The old man talked once more, breaking my musing.
"Milady, where do you hail from?"
He was starting to seriously annoy me with the 'milady' he uttered at each sentence and all the other silly vocabulary and notions he seemed to enjoy using. Seriously these creeps were living in their fantasies quite thoroughly. Well, anyway there was no harm in answering that question.
"I'm from UK. I came here for holidays. As I told you I wanted and needed a change in atmosphere."
Why did they look like I was talking in Chinese every time I spoke? It was starting to grate on my nerves, my tiredness not helping me being patient.
"We are … not familiar with such city. Is it in the southern parts of Eriador?
"Nope, it's Western part of Europe, the islands west from France and Belgium. And it's a country not a city."
Here it is again, that annoying look that says 'we really don't get a word you're saying'. Who didn't know Europe or UK for that matter? These men were camping in France and were unaware of its geography? I was seriously wondering whether they were actually sick and not just weird. Maybe they had escaped from a nearby mental hospital?
Oh, I did not want to think about the creepy possibilities such a thing entailed. Nope, I'd rather believe they were happy dudes living their dreams during their holidays.
"We never heard of such a country. But you said it's an island in the West? Are you by any chance an elf?" The youngest, Ori asked in a sweet voice.
I couldn't help it. Really I couldn't.
I laughed. I couldn't remember when was the last time I laughed so much that my stomach started to hurt like this. These men were both scary and awesome in their craziness. That was quite a feat. It took me quite some time to calm down my sudden laugh and I brushed away some tears that had spilt on my cheeks. Catching my breath I looked at them, checking the expressions on their faces.
"Wait, you're serious?" I startled at the realization.
"No, I'm sorry milady, I spoke without thinking." Ori kindly shook his head.
I sighed, relieved, that he admitted he had been joking. Though his next words made me freeze and realize these guys had serious troubles.
"You couldn't be an elf, you're clearly too short and don't look like one at all."
It probably was the young one's serious nod that told me to listen to my instincts this time. I felt a growing sense of dread pooling in me and I frowned deeply. After gathering what little courage I had, I looked the old man, Dori, in the eyes.
"Are you actually serious?" I asked completely serious.
He seemed both surprised and a bit offended by my question, so I spoke some more, trying to explain myself.
"I mean, you're not joking right? You really believe…I mean you really thought…"
I stopped right there, actually unsure of what to say or how to say it.
"Milady, you should probably lie down, I think the hit on your head was maybe harder than we previously believed." He said instead of replying.
Now I was offended.
I huffed but had to agree with him with one point; the hit had been hard and I still felt slightly dizzy. And the truth was that I was indeed tired and that awkward discussion had not helped in that matter at all, quite the opposite actually. I nodded at him and he politely came to help me stand once more.
My muscles were horribly sore and standing up made my head spin a little. I grabbed him for support and he nicely provided it without saying a word. He guided me toward the woollen blanket where I had previously been and gently patted my shoulder once I was lying down.
"Don't worry milady, you're perfectly safe with us."
I smiled at him, not entirely believing his words but not wanting to show it to them. They had been nice so far and hadn't hurt me in anyway. I should at least be thankful for that.
To my utter surprise it didn't take me long to swiftly drift asleep that night.