Bronwyn awoke all at once, startled into consciousness. She lay still, not opening her eyes, running the dream through her mind. It had been so clear, almost like it had happened yesterday. But she had been what, ten at the time? So Angie must have been…seven. And the dream had certainly turned dark at the end. As far as she remembered, after the fairy ring nonsense, they had just walked home, and forgotten all about it.
She shifted, and felt something stick painfully into her back. Startled, her eyes popped open, and then her whole body froze as she looked up into an unfamiliar sight.
She was not lying in bed, safe in her room at home. Gazing upwards, all she could see were branches and waving green leaves that stretched far above until they ended in a canopy. Sunlight was streaming through, but only dimly.
Perhaps it was still a dream. But it didn’t seem that way. It was easy enough to tell when you’re awake for real. She shifted again, trying to get away from the root or rock poking into her, and felt around with her hands. Only then did she realize that her hands were sticky. Confused, she turned her head. She brought one hand up; it was red and slimy. Blood. She knew where it was from, and with that realization she sat up, her breaths coming in great gasps. Other images, like memory, like dreams, flashed into her mind, and she thrust her head between her knees, covering her head with her hands, shaking all over.
No, surely that was not real. Surely that had also been a dream…but what of the blood on her hands? It was too fuzzy to remember clearly. Slowly, she regained control of her breathing. It had been dark when she entered the woods, but now it was daylight. She must have been out for hours.
But how had she come to the woods? Now that she thought about it, she didn’t actually recall entering them. Did she? And what woods were they? Standing now, she looked around, brushing her hands on her jeans without looking at them, trying to get the congealing blood off. As she did so, she felt dread creep over her. Something about her surroundings sent cold fingers of fear down her spine. As she looked about, she saw strange herbs and bushes she had never seen before, and the tree next to her had unfamiliar bark. At its base was a clump of red flowers, and she felt her heart leap into her throat, thinking of pimpernel, and her sister lying on the ground…but no, they weren’t pimpernel.
Wondering what on earth was happening, she took a step forward, her slick boots slipping on the leaves. Slipping? She looked down at them, feeling within that the socks were wet. Soaked, even, and there was a small puddle where water had leaked out while she was on the ground. But how had they gotten wet? There were no ponds around her, and the ground elsewhere was completely dry. She looked around…
“Who the rutting hell are you?” Said a shocked and angry voice behind her.
Bronwyn turned sharply and faced a sword tip. The sword was in the hand of the biggest man Bronwyn had ever seen. She looked up and up into his face, dark, lined, and furious. And scared, if she saw rightly.
“Uh, what?” She said blankly. Her voice scratched and hurt, as if it hadn’t been used in ages. She felt sweat begin to bead on her temples.
“Where did you come from?” The man said, taking a step closer, the sword tip coming nearer Bronwyn’s heart. It was shaking ever so slightly, and this confused her even more.
“I…I came from Glynneath,” she said quickly, “I was asleep. I must have sleep-walked here, but I don’t know…where here is.”
“Glynneath?” The man repeated, looking more frightened now. “What country? What kingdom?”
“Kingdom?” Bronwyn said, the game of fear lobbying back and forth. “Glynneath, Wales, United Kingdom of Great Britain.”
At the words “Great Britain,” the man gave a mighty shudder, and his sword tip dropped for a moment. Then he put a hand to his eyes, and the tip righted and did not shake.
“I see. And your name?”
“Well, Lady Bronwyn, you need to come with me. You’re far from home now, and there’s nothing but these woods for miles. Can you ride a horse?”
Bronwyn nodded, and the man looked relieved.
“Good. Did anything else come with you?”
Bronwyn looked around vaguely, not really sure what to look for. She didn’t register the oddity of his question, but shook her head and followed him into the woods.
She watched him as they walked; he walked lightly for a man so large, but he had put his sword back in the scabbard strapped at his side.
“Who are you?” She asked finally, deciding it couldn’t hurt.
“Brendan. I’m a King’s Hand.” As though that explained it.
“Not yours. I know you have questions, but I’m not in a position to answer anything. Mostly because I don’t know, so you’ll just have to wait.”
Bronwyn was silent, and after a moment more Brendan turned to look at her. He seemed a little sheepish, but she looked back steadily and he nodded. She knew it was foolish to follow a stranger, and a man at that, but what else was she to do? Whether she was in her land or not, she was lost in unfamiliar woods, that stretched for miles, he had said, so what else…what else?
They walked for an hour at least, through trees that never changed. Bronwyn stared around her as she did, and what she saw did not lessen her fright or confusion. The plants were all wrong; shapes similar to the ones of her home were the wrong color or were too many. The right flowers grew on the wrong stems, the heights were all off, and the smells of the more pungent were totally foreign.
Her heart was beating rapidly, her stomach in knots, her palms sweaty despite the cool air. Being familiar with fairy tales, especially the old Welsh folklore, gave her a script to follow in this situation – she had been spirited away, or taken, or some such nonsense, into another land – but her rational 21st century mind rebelled against this. It could not be true. It would not.
Surely she had been drugged and kidnapped by normal people, or had sleep-walked into a far region, though that seemed less likely.
Or, and this was the most terrifying idea – she had simply gone mad, and entered a world of mind. This thought made her pause, and stumble, and the big man, Brendan of the King’s Hand, looked back at her. She shook her head, fearful that he would offer her help. She didn’t want him to notice the blood on her hands. As they had been walking, she had been scratching it off bit by bit, but it was now caked around her fingernails, and her sleeve cuffs were stained at the tips.
At last they came out of the clearing, and the bright sunshine and air did much to clear Bronwyn’s head. She breathed deeply, facing the strange hills and unknown rivers below, for they had come out at the top of a shallow valley, and a road to their left curved down between the hills and went far west, into the sun now setting.
“We should ride fast,” said Brendan, eyeing the sun.
“Is there danger?” Bronwyn asked quickly, thinking of every story where darkness heralds evil.
Brendan shrugged. “Not especially. But it’ll take a few hours to reach the city and I don’t want to camp out here, do you?”
Bronwyn shook her head before noticing the obvious discrepancy.
“But where’s your horse?”
Brendan grunted and jerked his head towards the road. Bronwyn could see then, just at the side of the road, a horse waiting patiently, it’s bridle connected to a weight on the ground.
It swished its tail idly as they approached, its ears pricking, but otherwise not seeming perturbed at the wait. Brendan scooped up the weight before helping Bronwyn mount, then swung himself up behind her. In this position, his height and breadth was apparent, for Bronwyn, of fairly average build, sat with her head squarely in the middle of his chest.
As they set off down the road, Bronwyn continued to look around, though the unfamiliar landscape did nothing to ease her nerves.
“Why did you leave your horse and come into the woods? I only ask in case you had reason to look for me there, or if you came on me by chance.”
“I wasn’t looking for you, no. But be glad it was me who found you.”
“Who else might have? Bandits?”
“Of a kind. Gangsters, most likely, or weirdos living in the woods. You shouldn’t wander through them if you’re unarmed.”
Bronwyn didn’t respond. That didn’t seem too ominous – she’d given pretty much the same advice to her sister the first time they’d gone together to harvest herbs.
The landscape did not change much as they continued west; and as the sun set it was difficult to distinguish what they were passing or what lay ahead. Bronwyn was glad, when darkness crept up, of Brendan’s large, solid chest behind her. Whether by magic or madness, she was grateful not to be alone in a new land.
The night had fallen fully for some time before the path leveled out at last, and Brendan nudged her arm.
“You can see the city walls now. See the torches?”
Bronwyn squinted. Fog had fallen with the night, but she could vaguely make out lights shimmering through the mist; flickering and shifting like so many fireflies.
“How much longer now?” She asked. Her legs were aching, and she was starving.
“Two hours. But once we arrive, someone will need to speak with you. And they won’t trust you as easily as I did.”
“I didn’t actually spear you, did I?” He had a point.
“Why didn’t you then?” And then she had a thought. “Am I not the first to come this way?”
Brendan didn’t reply, which told her everything she needed to know. Well, she wasn’t sure if that made her feel better or not.
“I would tell you not to worry, but, well, I can’t guarantee a warm welcome.”
Bronwyn nodded. “Right.”
After that they did not speak. Bronwyn withstood her aching legs and empty stomach, but she could not hold back the sigh of relief when they at last approached the high wall of the city. As they came near, she saw it stretched some fifty or sixty feet in the air, and was made of large white stones. Windows were cut along at three levels, indicating passages at those heights. At the top the were battlements, and between she could see figures in light colored cloaks passing behind large gas lanterns. Gas, not electric. Excellent.
Brendan spoke to the armored guard wielding a wicked looking spear. The guard stared at her around Brendan’s shoulder, as he could not see over it, but grimaced at length and let them pass. Bronwyn avoided his gaze as they trotted through the smaller one-man gate, and flinched when it closed with a bang behind them.
They passed through what looked to be a market courtyard. Empty stalls were pushed back up against the wide walls, but she could make out their brightly striped awnings even in the darkness.
The mist had turned to fine drizzle. Bronwyn could feel her hair curling upwards, and began to shiver. As they passed more houses, most dark, Brendan drew up his cloak and put it around her. She clutched it to her, and fought the fear that was now rising steadily. Soon they would arrive, and soon she would be questioned about things she had no idea of. Perhaps she might find answers, and go home, or be imprisoned forever in an unknown place.
The city was massive, and it took them at least another half hour to come to the center. Here a large hill sat, overlooking the outlying regions, and on its summit was a great house. It should have been a castle, but without towers and battlements of its own, it resembled more an oversized mansion. But it was obviously the seat of power, for it was walled as well, and guards in more resplendent armor barred the gate.
They bowed to Brendan, but looked at Bronwyn and did not lower their spear.
“A visitor,” Brendan said shortly, who was a King’s Hand.
“It’s late for visitors, Brendan.”
“I was in the Argan, Perth. He has special reason to see this visitor, anyway. Don’t be a dick.”
Perth smirked, but they raised their weapons and the gate opened from within, and they went through.
The cloak had kept most of the rain from them, but Bronwyn’s hair was a mess, and now she would be meeting…someone.
“I’m going to see the King?” She hazarded. Brendan grunted.
“No, you’ll see the First Prince, Dominic. The King is away.”
Well, a First Prince. As if that was better.
They rode through the gates and into a vast courtyard, at the end of which was a stable. Bronwyn could smell the manure and hay, and the smell was oddly comforting. Something so prosaic seemed to ground her leaping heart, and she took a deep breath that was almost steady. Brendan helped her down before him, and she leaned over, thumping her legs to give them some feeling. Brendan returned from giving his horse to the stable hand, and she followed him into the castle through a side door. The main gate was around the corner, but Bronwyn was glad they opted not to be noticeable.
It was about this point that Bronwyn made a concerted effort to stop caring about what happened to her. Always in life she had feared death, as anyone would, for it would put a stop to her potential future plans. It wasn’t that she had a great life, or anything worth saving, but that her life might get better kept her hoping, and that the hope might be crushed was what frightened her.
But she had passed into some other life, a life that was impossible to predict. And whether she lived or died now seemed to be something apart from her, that didn’t matter. And somehow, wouldn’t count. She had a strange suspicion that if she died in this world, for she was now utterly convinced that she was indeed in another world, she might wake up in hers again. She was in a situation where only a story script could explain what was happening to her, and stories never ended in the main character’s death, did they?
So as she walked, her nerves loosened, and her back straightened, and if Brendan noticed the sudden gleam in her eyes and the slacking of her mouth, he didn’t comment.
Next Chapter>> Coming Soon!