Do NOT read this if you're not okay with reading the first chapter of a story and then nothing more. I've always had a bunch of ideas rattling around in my head and I'm trying to write some of them out, but I don't want to write an entire novel just yet. So this is just the start of it. I doubt I'll do anything more with it.
At first I thought I was hurt, perhaps even dying, which was admittedly an improvement over what I had expected in that last second. I knew, vaguely, that I had been driving blithely, and that I should have been one lane over or at least paying better attention to my surroundings. It was a winter morning and the highways were clear of snow, the road was lit by the city streetlights and the headlights from the scattered cars making their way to work in the early hours, before rush hour came around. I was careless in my familiarity of the routine. I did not have enough warning that the car to my right was going to merge into my lane without looking, and even if I did, I wasn't certain I would have had the presence of mind to react.
My body hurt, though not in a specific way – it was as if the pain had seeped into each muscle individually and wormed its way down into my bones. I wasn't certain if I could move and more importantly, if I should. There had been an accident. I was laying on my belly in the snow and my vision was blurred to the point I could only see the white of the land around me, darker shapes marking scattered trees. There was sunlight, wan and filtered as if through clouds, and I wondered how long I had lain there. It was quiet save for a roaring in my ears and I wondered if perhaps I had struck my head, if this was some sort of concussion I was experiencing. The sounds of the highway were gone. I could see nothing moving around me. I thought that perhaps I should wait, that someone had seen the crash and help was on the way, that an ambulance would be here soon and the paramedics would know what to do. I wanted to close my eyes and sleep until they came and even though part of my mind dimly screamed that this could not be, that I might never wake up, I let myself slink back into darkness. Help would be here soon. They would save me.
I woke to someone touching my back, so light it could have been the wind. The fingers moved deliberately though, tracing up between my shoulderblades to gather up my long hair and set it aside. The strands fell across my cheek and I stirred further to consciousness, dimly wondering why all sensation had vanished. The ringing in my ears had dulled to a whine and I still could not hear the highway, nor did the flash of sirens dance across the snow. Yet there was someone here and I wondered, frantic with fear born from a mind that could not collect itself, if perhaps I'd been forgotten, if the paramedics had not bothered to find me and packed up and left me to die. The searching hands slipped beneath the collar of my jacket and I felt two fingers press against my neck, in the hollow where the artery lay, and they remained there for a moment. Then, a voice, from behind and above. The words were unintelligible. I tried to move and the pressure on my neck vanished. There was a crunch of snow as the stranger shifted and then he touched the back of my head.
Feeling returned in a rush. I gasped, too shocked to cry out properly, as I was made aware of how desperately cold I was. My fingers and toes were beyond tingling, it was like needles directly into the nervous system and I squeezed my eyes shut at the pain, my breath coming in sharp bursts now. I started shivering desperately, frantic jerks that shuddered all the way down muscles that still hurt so bad I doubted I could even move them. I started to cry from the shock and terror of it all. I had been in an accident. I could have died, but I didn't, and now I didn't know what was happening to me.
There was another crunch of snow and I felt someone kneel on the opposite side of me. I opened my eyes and saw a thick blue jacket, coarsely woven, and leather gloves. He reached for something close to my head and I saw him draw back with my glasses, which he tucked away into an inside pocket. My gaze traveled up to his face – round-cheeked, a sharp jaw with two day's worth of brown stubble, his skin pale and burned red by the wind. His eyes did not appear concerned – merely curious. I was reassured by this somewhat. I was not dying.
"Where?" I asked weakly, trying to rise. The man sat back on his heels and let me, making no movement to help. I saw his gaze flick up to the person that knelt at my back and some sort of understanding passed between them that I was not privy to.
Another bout of shivering wracked me and I collapsed under it, laying slack in the snow. I turned my head up, towards the sky, and saw there was a second man kneeling beside me, at my back. He was dressed similarly, though his own jacket seemed of a finer material and there was embroidery done in silver around the cuffs and hemline. It was far more delicate than anything I would expect to see in a store. His hair was drawn back in severe ponytail, pale blonde, almost white in the sun. His face was far thinner, all fat burned off, and his eyes were steel-blue and I saw little in them. Unreadable. He met my gaze for only a moment before languidly drawing away, pushing himself to his feet. Then his companion was edging his arms underneath my legs and shoulders, and he grunted and stood, a bit at a time, holding me in his arms. I clutched at his shoulder and tried to contain my shuddering from the cold. I gazed about me in numb detachment as he carried me towards where two horses stood waiting. My eyes hurt, as if I had been reading for too long without my glasses.
I was in a forest, an old one, judging by the width of the trees and how the canopy drove out the underbrush. There were not forests like this in the city. I wasn't even certain if there were forests like this in the midwest at all – we had trees, but I had not seen a forest so vast and so open. There was no sign of human life at all. No highway. No sign of my car, no sign of anything save the hollow in the snow where I had been laying and the two men and their two horses. There was an ache beneath my heart, as if I'd been punched, and I thought that if it weren't for the physical reaction to my disbelief I would have thought this a dream. The horses were saddled simply in a style I recognized as neither western or European, although I knew very little about horses. They were stocky and thick legged, their hooves sheathed in a swath of hair like a Clydesdale, but I thought them too short to be that breed. Both were brown. I looked aside at my two rescuers, studying them more carefully now. Their jackets were hooded and I could see that they were lined with fur, real fur, and they closed not with zippers but with fabric ties at regular intervals. Their boots were leather, lined with fur, and each wore a belt bearing a sword. The curious-eyed man had two, a shorter blade positioned at an angle at the small of his back. There was a bow and quiver tied to the saddle of one of the horses, a wooden recurve that was worn smooth about the grip with use.
I had very little sensation other than a distant pain in my feet and hands. My shoes were work shoes, dress flats that barely covered my toes and the fabric was soaked through by now. My jacket was still dry on the inside, but I was wearing a short-sleeved blouse underneath as I never had any idea what temperature the office I worked at was going to be on any given day. I wondered distantly if my shivering was indicative of hypothermia and if these two men would know how to handle that.
The hard-eyed man said something and I realized with a distant shock that it was not a language I recognized. Then he moved in a rush, hoisting himself up and swinging one leg over to the other side of the horse. He squirmed for a moment, pushing himself towards the back of the saddle, and then twisted and leaned over, hooking an arm around my middle and drawing me towards the horse, putting my back towards him. I heard him say something, sharp, and between him and the other man I found myself easily pulled into the saddle, the man's arms hooking beneath my legs and seeing that I was situated in front of him, my back against his chest. He slipped his arms past my waist and took the reins, pulling the horse's head back and then directing it into a sharp turn. My muscles went tight and flashed with pain once more as a result and my hands clenched weakly at air. Then he kicked the horse into movement and I realized, finally, that this was really happening and these men were taking me somewhere I didn't know in a land that was not my own.
I had no way to measure time and with no frame of reference, I couldn't even judge what part of the day it was. There was a cloud cover, dull gray, and it obscured the sun from view. They took me through the forest and then down out of it into rolling hills. There was a stretch of even land that I supposed was a road of sorts, although it was covered by snow like everything else. The horses moved slower now that the snow was thicker, picking their way and the two men let them take their own pace. The man I rode with took one hand off the reins and put it flat against my back instead and at first I edged away from the contact, but he did not take it away and he did not seem inclined to try anything more, so I let it be. I felt warmer now, which worried me. My shivering had stopped and I did not think I was actually warming up, for now that we were out of the woods the wind was sharper and it brought moisture to my eyes. At one point, the man had reached for my hands and folded them, tucking them into the sleeves of my jacket and I kept them there, letting him support me for balance. If he had let me, I would simply have fallen from the horse's saddle. We rode for some time along this road and I believe I may have fainted at some point, or perhaps I fell asleep from exhaustion. It could have gone either way. I came to again when noise managed to pierce my mind, but I was only faintly aware of my surroundings, as if still asleep. The man held me around the chest now, just at my solar plexus, and my head was back against his shoulder. I heard the horse's hooves striking stone and dimly, I saw the edges of roofs passing by on either side. There were people, but they were few in number, and I thought this must be a small settlement. Some called out to the man that held me and he replied in single syllables that I did not understand. Then, as he drew the horse to a stop, I fell back into the darkness.
My dreams were unsettling and at times I wondered if they were really dreams. I lay on my back and there was a man, pressing both his hands on first my bare legs, then the skin of my stomach. I felt pain at each touch and I arched my back and cried out, fighting this, and yet some pressure bound me there and I could not break free. Fingers dug into my wrists, holding them still, and it seemed that this pressure was like rings of fire, burning into bone. Then I sank into a deeper darkness and my dreams shifted inward.
I felt that there was an intruder, someone trying to get in, although I was surrounded in darkness and could not find any definite boundaries. I only knew that I was not alone in this sanctuary, that someone scratched at the walls and sought entry. I could not see him in this formless space and so I huddled in the darkness, afraid, and like water seeping away at stone, I felt that he had found a way in and I was no longer alone. I woke almost immediately after, brought out of sleep in a rush, gasping at the sudden snap to alertness.
I was on my back in a narrow bed, my clothing gone and replaced with something else, I was warm and dry. The roof above me was low and slanted with a single wooden crossbeam connecting to the stone wall. A single wooden door, a lit fireplace, and a chair set close to the bed itself. The man from before sat there, the one that had carried me in front of him all the way back from the forest. I turned my head to look at him and he seemed drawn, pale and tired as he looked back down at me.
"Do you understand me?" he asked softly. I made to sit up, astonished, and he gave a gentle shake of his head.
"You're weak," he chided, "We found you almost frozen to death, between that and your fall through the river, it's going to take some time before you're well."
"I – don't understand." I tried to relax, letting my head rest back on the pillow and I stared at the ceiling.
"You're still speaking your own language. I gave you my memories of language while you slept, and while you're unconsciously using them to understand me, it'll require some focus to find the words you need to speak."
I thought about the dream I had. Had he been the intruder – and if so, did this mean that magic or psychic powers of some kind existed in this world? I would have rejected such a notion offhand, if it weren't for the fact that I was undoubtedly in another world. It seemed that everything I knew needed to be reevaluated. I was surprised at my own calm at this and wondered if perhaps it simply hadn't sunk in, if the hysterics would kick in later.
I focused on what I wanted to say. Now that I was thinking about it, I felt something strange inside my mind, like I was remembering a dream, but it was a dream that someone else had described to me and the memory had a foreign taste to it. This must be what he was referring to. I touched this path of memory and scraps of words came to me, each associated with a meaning. I took my time, bringing up each thought in turn and ascribing a word to it.
"Where am I?" I finally asked.
"That's actually not easy to answer," he replied with a low laugh, "Another world, but I think you already realized that. We call our land Tria. Where you are in relation to your homeland – that, I cannot tell you. I felt the touch of the void and went searching for the source, and found you. But I do not have the skill to trace back into the void to where you came from, and even if I did, the river would have obliterated any path."
Again, the river. I had no recollection of water.
"Will you be able to get me home?"
He was quiet for a moment.
"That isn't up to me." His words were cold now, detached. "We are very careful in our dealings with other worlds and so the matter will have to go before the king."
A monarchy. That and the swords gave me some idea as to what kind of time period this world was in, although most of my knowledge was gleaned from popular portrayals and I doubted that was accurate.
"Then, you know of other worlds," I said. The words were coming easier now that I was starting to get a feel for how to reach into the memories that had been left with me. "Do you know of America?"
"I have never heard that name."
As quickly as it had flared, my hope died. I drew in a ragged breath, held it for a moment, and let it out again. There was silence in the room save for the crackle of the fire. I felt exhaustion creeping up on me again, as if I had stayed awake too long and now sleep was finally catching up in a rush, the body pushed to its utter limits.
"What is your name?" he asked.
I was drifting away again. The man stood and I watched through heavy-lidded eyes and noted how he moved carefully, as if he too was drawn with exhaustion.
"We'll talk more later," he said, and I think I nodded in agreement before I fell asleep once more.