User:MarianLH/Where Tree Fails Chapter One

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Chapter One: A Wizard Did It

Author: MarianLH

In the years to come, Melanie would look back on the girls fondly, if only out of gratitude, but on that blustery February day they were driving her up the wall. The two teenagers were chatting away, oblivious to how inconsiderate they were being to the rest of the library patrons. Mel had tried shushing them once—she wasn't actually a librarian, just a minimum-wage book-shelver—but they didn't know that.

Not that it made a difference. They were back up to full volume in less than ten minutes.

Finally they left, giving her a baleful look and muttering just loud enough about "the fat old bitch". It stung, not the least because it wasn't entirely untrue. She was overweight, and if 39 wasn't yet "old", it certainly wasn't young either. I was their age once, she thought bitterly. I used to have a future to look forward to.

More to distract herself from brooding than because there was any real rush, she stood up and went to reshelve the books they'd left lying on the table. One of them was a romance novel, with a hunky guy dressed up as a too-clean pirate, distressed damsel lying passively in his arms. Oh, to have some romantic adventure, she thought. The pirate was gazing out of the cover with his cheeky grin, seeming to look right at her, and she imagined him pulling her into the story, his hand coming up out of the book like in that 80s music video. I wouldn't be some silly delicate maiden, though. She looked scornfully at the woman on the cover—probably what passed for the book's heroine. I'd be right there beside him in the big battle, cutlass flashing, like Geena Davis in that pirate movie. Like Xena. Or Tauriel. She'd just heard about Evangeline Lilly's upcoming appearance the second Hobbit movie, and couldn't wait to see it. She spent a few happy minutes imagining herself as some kind of badassed warrior-elf like Lilly's character.

Okay, that's enough self-indulgence for one day. She gathered up the books on a cart and started putting them away.

When she got to the end of the cart there was a book she didn't recognize, a large hardcover with plain brown binding. It looked old. She picked it up, and there was a flash of light, then nothing.

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When Melanie came to, the first thing she felt was cold. She was lying on something smooth and hard and chilly, which proved to be a marble table top of some kind when she opened her eyes. It was covered with dust, except where her movements had brushed it away.

She sat up with a moan, and the next thing she noticed was that she was completely nude. For a moment she was so shocked her brain simply locked up, refusing to process what was happening. Her first thought, when she could think again, was that she'd been abducted by some horrible creepy stalker. The cops'll find my body buried in his backyard in an oil drum, like that guy in Kansas. But how could he have gotten her body out of the library without anyone seeing? There was no way anyone have possibly—then, in her mind's eye, she again saw the strange brown book, her hand picking it up, and the flash of light....

The book. Holy shit. It had to be. Part of her brain was still trying to argue, to insist there had to be a rational explanation, but it was arguing with the part of her that was freezing-ass cold, naked, in a dusty dark room. Hard to argue with reality. Especially when reality meant "horrible creepy stalker." Please let it have been the book....

She pushed herself off the table and stood up, looking around. She felt lightheaded and off-balance, and her first few steps were tentative, with one hand on the table for support.

The room was dim, with no obvious source of light, but she could see about as well as on a moonlit night. There was dust everywhere, like on the table, and the air smelled musty. It was about as big as the library's front lobby, and there were several other tables scattered about, seemingly at random. Unlike the first one, they were made of wood. One of them had been smashed to pieces, and she stepped carefully around it. The last thing she needed was a splinter in her foot.

Going around the table brought her face to face with a gruesome skeleton hanging in a corner of the room. She shrieked, jumping back and bumping into a table, which gave way beneath her as one of the legs snapped. The loud crash echoed through the empty room.

For a moment she stood still, heart pounding, until the adrenaline wore off. Then, feeling a little silly at her overreaction, she stepped back up and took a closer look. The skeleton looked real, yellowed and old, with a long crack in the skull. Whoever it had belonged to must have been a really big guy in life. Next to it, against the wall, was a tall wooden thing that looked like a bookshelf or rack of some kind. It was empty, and discolored by a long vertical stain, and she went cold all over as she realized it was dried blood. Then she found the rotted remains of leather straps, just in the right places to be wrist and ankle restraints....

Shit shit shit, this is not good, she thought. Just because some stupid magic book transported you to Narnia or Deverry or wherever, it doesn't mean you can't still be axe-murdered by a crazy person. She whirled around, half-expecting to find a guy in a hockey mask sneaking up behind her right that moment. But there was no one. The room was just as empty and silent as before.

She was genre-savvy enough to turn around again and make sure the skeleton hadn't started coming to life behind her as soon as her back was turned. But no, it still just hung there, like some grisly taxidermy experiment.

Something was still off, a feeling that something wasn't quite right, but she couldn't put her finger on what. Still creeped out, she resumed exploring the room, but with purpose now, rather than curiosity. She wanted to find some clothes, and maybe something she could use as a weapon.

The broken table leg did for the latter. It was thick enough to make a sturdy club. She swung it a few times, thinking Just try it, Leatherface. I'm on to you. But although she went over the whole room, there was nothing that would pass for clothing. Not even drapes or a towel.

There was only one door, and it opened onto another identical dusty room full of tables. It didn't have any other doors either; there seemed to be no way out. It did have shelves full of glass jars and clay pots full of various unknown substances, but she left them alone after finding a whole black cat in one of them, preserved in some kind of clear liquid.

She found some footprints in the dust—large ones—which gave her a bit of a fright at first. But upon consideration they didn't look recent. They were just somewhat less dusty than the rest of the floor.

It was only after she'd given up the search, and was sitting on another table looking forlornly down at herself, that she realized what had been feeling off this whole time. Her body had been...altered.

The absence of flab about her middle was the first thing she noticed. She touched her stomach, and it was firm and hard under her fingertips. Holy crap, the magical diet. If I could bottle this I'd make a killing in LA. After awhile, though, she realized the changes went beyond just losing weight. Her breasts were different too—not just smaller, but differently shaped. They'd been round and a little saggy—okay, a lot saggy—and big enough that she hovered between a B and C cup, depending on the bra. Now they were tiny little things, barely an A, and instead of being round they were pointed and curved up. The kind of shape a friend of hers had once sneeringly referred to as "ski-jump tits" back in college.

Everything else was smaller too. Her arms and legs were, well, not skinny—they felt toned and muscular, just like her belly—but they looked narrower, more slender. So did her torso and hips. And her skin was smooth and unblemished, no varicose veins, no wrinkled knuckles. She felt good, too, limber and energetic. Young.

She was thrilled. Sure the place was gloomy and creepy, and there was no apparent way out, but there definitely seemed to be some perks as well. She was starting to feel good about the whole situation.

That, of course, was precisely when things went to shit.

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The first sign of trouble was a scraping sound, stone on stone. Off to her right, a section of wall pushed inward, and then swung open like a door. Stepping through the threshold was—

Oh fuck

—a big, green, mean-looking creature the size of Andre the Giant. He was carrying a long pole tipped with something sharp and ugly. Shit, that's, like, a spear or something. He turned his head and spotted her instantly, despite the dimness. And he had three more friends who followed him into the room.

Melanie scooted off the table, and the creature followed her with the spear-tip. She dropped her makeshift club, knowing it wasn't going to do her any good, and raised her empty hands. "Um, I surrender?"

The brute gave her a toothy grin, that turned into a leer as his eyes traveled down her body. She was reminded of her nakedness, and felt hideously vulnerable. Was she about to get gang-raped by a bunch of big green ogres? Fear clamped her tight—a loathsome, clammy fear, curling in her belly.

But no, thank god, he just gestured with the spear, while his buddies spread out around her. He was pointing toward the doorway, and she started to move toward it—slowly, in case she was misinterpreting him. He just gestured again, more impatiently, and she quickened her step.

In moments she found herself moving down a hallway, being guided by shoves and the occasional jab with a spear—the butt end, thankfully. The creatures towered over her and made her feel tiny—the top of her head barely came up to their chins. And they were ripped. Her body—her new body—was toned and athletic, but these guys had biceps and pecs that rivaled Sylvester Stallone in his glory days. They had broad faces, with heavy brows, and heavy jaws with a prominent underbite, but they could have passed for humans—really big humans, anyway—if it weren't for the olive-green skin. Well, and the yellow tusks that jutted up from their lower jaw.

Just to add insult to injury, they stank.

After several twists and turns, they came to a medieval-looking wooden door, closed with a crude iron padlock. One of them produced a key and unlocked it, then pulled it open and shoved her inside. Immediately the door slammed shut again behind her, and she heard the sound of the lock.

The room inside was filled with warm yellow candlelight, the first real light she'd seen since her arrival. It lifted her spirits, even as she realized she wasn't alone.

Sitting on a decrepit bed was a large, heavyset man, looking at her in astonishment. She felt another moment of naked vulnerability, but at least he wasn't leering at her. He just looked deer-in-the-headlights stunned, and the absurdity of the situation began to overcome her embarrassment. Remembering a line from a movie, she mustered as much dignity as she could, stood up straight, haughtily crossed her arms and said "I want a meal and a bath" in her best Sean Connery.

That broke the spell, at least. The man looked away, and stood up, walking over to where a long coat hung on the wall and taking it down. Still averting his eyes, he thrust it at her, saying something in a language she didn't recognize. She took it, noticing as she did that he towered over her just as much as the green guys outside did. Big guy. His coat—no, it turned out to be a cloak, of all things—was big on her too, puddling around her feet. And it was scratchy wool and smelled a little, too, but it was better than nothing. For the first time in what seemed like hours, she felt warm.

He said something else in his own language, and she shrugged. "Sorry, buddy, I can't understand you. Hablo ingles? Sprecken-zy...uh...dutch? Dootch?" He just shook his head, and spoke again. It sounded like he was trying a couple different languages too, but not only did she not understand them, she didn't recognize them at all.

He was very dark-skinned, with curly black hair, but he didn't look African-American. Or African, for that matter, not that she was an expert. He didn't look Indian either. Pakistani, maybe? Iranian? She was pretty sure she'd recognize Arabic if she heard it, but didn't Iranians have another language?

Then again, with everything else that had happened, she was probably on another planet. Maybe another universe. Transported here by a magical whatsis, she thought, and of course I woke up starkers. It was almost funny. Just call me Joan Carter. The question is, of where?

They did have one breakthrough, eventually. Remembering how it was sometimes done in movies, she pointed to herself and said, "Melanie," then pointed at him. After a couple times back and forth he figured it out, or seemed to, and introduced himself as "Panharam."

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Some time later, the door opened again, and one of the green brutes pushed in a bowl and pitcher, then shut and locked the door again. The bowl had some kind of nasty greasy stew in it, and the stuff in the pitcher tasted like flat beer. They ate and drank anyway, using their hands since there were no utensils, and wiped off afterward with a moth-eaten blanket. Later still, nature took its course, and the man introduced her to the back corner of the room he'd been using as a privy. From the evidence, he'd been imprisoned for at least a few days already. She gagged at the smell. There wasn't any privacy, but he pointedly turned his back while she did her business, and she did the same for him when his turn came.

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That set the pattern for the next several days—at least she assumed they were days. It was hard to tell, but it certainly didn't feel like they were fed very often. She was hungry all the time, and Panharam seemed to be suffering even more. As big as he was, he was probably used to eating well.

On the plus side, infrequent meals meant infrequent bathroom breaks.

There wasn't any toilet paper, of course. Panharam had already torn the bed linens into strips, and they did well enough while they lasted, but it didn't take them long to run out. Remembering something she'd once read about Middle Eastern customs, Melanie started eating only with her right hand and cleaning only with her left. She tried not to think about cholera.

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They did their best to breach the language barrier, but without a language in common they were reduced to pointing at things and learning each others' words for them. And there were only so many things to point at.

Some adventure, she thought glumly, sometime after the sixth meal. She was pretty woozy from hunger at that point. Sure, those guys didn't impale me on a spear, or...or worse, but I'm not exactly saving the day. She glanced sideways at Panharam, who was sleeping. And he's not exactly Fabio. That thought made her feel guilty. Sure he was plump, heavyset and old enough to be her father—about as far as you could possibly get from a romance novel hero—but he'd been nothing but kind. Despite the fact that they were both starving, he never tried to hog what little food they were given. He respected her privacy when she had to relieve herself, and never tried to take advantage of her—or even peek—even though he was so big he could easily overpower her. She was still wrapped in his cloak, for want of any other clothes.

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She drifted in and out a lot, falling into a trance she assumed was some kind of hunger-induced fugue state. Then, sometime after meal thirteen, Panharam shook her awake. He nodded at the door, and she heard shouting and banging beyond it. There was a heavy thump that shook the door, something that sounded like gasping, and then silence.

After a lingering moment, she heard the key in the lock, and the door opened. The first thing that came through was one of the green brutes, making her start. But he was obviously dead, liberally splashed with blood, and the way he fell in implied he'd been laying against the door. Hands grasped the body and pulled it back out of view, then a man stepped in.

He was deeply tanned and rugged-looking, with a thick bushy red beard, and like everyone else so far he towered over her. He was wearing some sort of medieval-looking metal ring armor, which after everything else she'd seen shouldn't have come as a surprise, but it was still kind of mind-bending to see it for real. And to cap it off, he had a bloody sword in his hand.

He spoke to her cellmate first. "Panharam bala Tenh?"

Panharam nodded, looking ecstatic. "Ardat ji," he replied. "Ardat ji, Ardat ji!" He'd said the same phrase to her a few times during their captivity; from the way he used it she'd guessed it meant "thank you." The newcomer helped him to his feet, then turned to her. She struggled to stand as well, before they could help, although the effort left her lightheaded and trembling. He asked her something, and Panharam replied for her—telling him she didn't speak the language, probably. They talked back and forth a bit, obviously about her, then the man called over his shoulder. "Naithuanna."

Another person appeared in the doorway, and Melanie's eyes bugged out in disbelief. It was an elf, a female elf. She couldn't be anything else—it wasn't just the pointed ears, her whole face was inhumanly exotic, and there was just something, well, alien about her.

Melanie felt well and truly beyond the looking glass now. Her head swam. Is this Middle Earth after all? Am I in Moria or Dol Goldur or someplace?

No, Tolkien's elves were as tall or taller than humans. Galadriel was, like, over six feet or something. This elf is my height. She barely comes up to the bearded guy's shoulder.

She' height....

Slowly, as if in a dream, Melanie raised her hands to her own ears, feeling along the upper edges...and found pointed tips.

"Of course," she said, "I should've known." And then she fainted.

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When she came to, she was lying on the bed, with her cloak—well, Panharam's cloak—draped over her like a blanket. He and the bearded man were gone, and the door was closed, but the elf sat on the floor, eating something. When she saw Melanie was awake, she stood up, picking up a bundle of what looked like clothing and bringing it over. She set it on the bed, and then added what looked like a square of shortbread she took out of a cloth wrapping. "Tenya ent clatha," she said, "nes nehel."

"Uh, thanks," Melanie replied, sitting up. She held the cloak to her chest, and reached for the food. It proved to be some kind of hard, flavorless biscuit. It certainly wasn't lembas. She didn't care; after who knew how many days of near-starvation, she'd eat anything. It was gone in three bites.

"Thank you," she said again. "Um, hannon le." It was one of the few elven phrases she remembered from the Tolkien movies, but this elf showed no sign of recognizing it.

"Naithuanna ynili," she said, "ent 'Meloni' ynehel, cyëf?"

Well, that was easy enough to puzzle out. She must have gotten the name from Panharam. "Close, Melanie." She pointed to herself and repeated, "Melanie."


"Close enough," Mel replied. She pointed to the elf. "And you're...Nigh..thwanna?"

"Naithuanna," the elf corrected. "Esti nehel doës hinual?"

Melanie sighed. "I'm guessing that's 'Don't you speak elvish, you dork?' I'm sorry, but I don't." She gestured to the clothes. "Do you mind if I get dressed?" The elf looked at her uncomprehendingly. I really need to stop thinking of her as 'the elf', Melanie mused. I'M an elf. Holy fuckballs, I'm an elf!

It took some emphatic gesturing, but Mel was finally able to get across that she wanted Naithuanna to turn around. She looked puzzled, but finally turned her back.

The clothes turned out to be a pair of pants that laced up the outside of each leg, and a long shirt with sleeves that were closely fitted to mid-forearm and then belled out over the hands. The material felt like silk. Probably her spare clothes, Melanie thought. Naithuanna was wearing some elaborate leather costume studded with metal bits—presumably some kind of armor—but from what Mel could see of it, the clothing underneath was similar.

It felt almost sinfully luxurious, to be wearing clothes again. And it was nice to feel warm. On the down side, she felt the cold stone floor more keenly now under her bare feet, despite having endured it for almost two weeks. Too bad Naithuanna didn't have a spare set of boots.

Seeing Mel was ready, Naithuanna opened the door and led her out. There was a small crowd of people in the hallway outside, Panharam and the bearded man among them. The others included—didn't it just figure?—a tall man with a wizard's staff, and a hobbit. The wizard didn't have a pointy hat or a beard, at least. He looked like a guy in his twenties. And the hobbit was a girl-hobbit. That was different.

But far more salient, at the moment, was the little campfire the hobbit was tending, with a bubbling stewpot perched over it. Seeing the way Mel's eyes lit up at the sight of it, the hobbit laughed and dished up a bowl. She said something incomprehensible but cheery-sounding as she handed it over, adding a spoon and a hunk of brown bread.

Everyone else was already eating, so Mel didn't stand on ceremony. She sat down next to the hobbit and dug in, doing her best to eat like a civilized person and not scarf it down like a starving animal. She almost succeeded. When Panharam, who had a head start on her, showed no compunctions about asking for a refill, she followed his example.

He'd deteriorated a lot, she realized, even in the two weeks or so she'd known him. He'd been a fat man, and he still was, somewhat, but not nearly as much. His skin hung loosely on him, and his face was gaunt. There was a chalky undertone to his dark skin. She wondered if she looked similarly starved.

Naithuanna, meanwhile, was having a confab with the red-bearded man, the alleged wizard, and another armored man who kept casting suspicious glances her way. He was bearded too, and she mentally dubbed them "Redbeard" and "Brownbeard" to keep them straight in her head. They were obviously talking about her. As she watched, Naithuanna asked the wizard something and got a headshake in response.

When everyone was done eating, Brownbeard got up and made some kind of announcement, gesturing at her, then walked purposefully over to her, fiddling with something around his neck. Mel began to feel nervous, but everybody else seemed calm, and the hobbit-girl said something reassuring to her.

The "something" around Brownbeard's neck turned out to be a gold pendant in the shape of a stylized sun, with squiggly rays all around it. He thrust it at her like it was a cross and she was Dracula, intoning something. Mel couldn't help but wonder if he was saying, "Back! Back, creature of the night!" She tensed up, wondering if he was about to stake her—or conjure a lightning bolt out of the sky to smite her, for all she knew—but nothing happened. After a moment everyone seemed to relax minutely, including the priest, if that's what he was. His expression softened, and he gave her a fatherly pat on the shoulder and turned away. Everyone else started packing up.

"What the hell was that all about?" she asked plaintively, but no one answered.

Naithuanna picked up a long bundle that Mel realized was a quiver, containing an intricately-carved bow and several arrows. To her surprise, the other elf offered it to her, saying something in elvish.

"I don't know how to use that," she protested, holding up her hands and shaking her head. Naithuanna's eyebrows rose in astonishment, and Mel could practically read her mind—What kind of elf doesn't know how to use a bow? Everybody else looked surprised too.

Naithuanna then offered Mel her sword instead—she had a long, slender one buckled to her waist—but Mel shook her head again. The other elf shrugged, as if to say "suit yourself", and slung the quiver over her shoulder. This was followed by a leather pack, and then she picked up an odd-looking contraption that could have passed for modern art at the Met. Only once she'd buckled it to her left forearm did Mel realize it was a small shield of some kind. One that strapped to the arm and left her hand free for the bow. Redbeard and Brownbeard had shields too, but theirs were more historical-looking round ones that didn't leave their hands free. Brownbeard's shield had a sun painted on it that matched his pendant.

Redbeard and Hobbit-girl used the campfire to light torches, then the fire was put out. Mel realized she was still carrying Panharam's cloak, and went over to offer it to him. He demurred, though, gesturing that she should keep it, so she wrapped it around herself again, rolling it up at her shoulders to keep it from tripping her. Away from the fire she was still a little cold, even in Naithuanna's spare clothing. One of the perils of being thin, she mused. I guess it's a fair trade.

They set off down the corridor, with Redbeard in the lead. It was the same one the green guys had brought her through—she remembered the way it zig-zagged. After maybe half an hour, they came to an intersection she recognized, and around the corner the hallway straightened out.

It was then that Mel noticed she didn't see Naithuanna anywhere. Redbeard was in the front, with the wizard behind him, then Panharam, then herself and the hobbit girl, and Brownbeard was bringing up the rear. Naithuanna was nowhere in sight.

Had she left? Was she so disgusted by an elf who couldn't use a bow—or even talk—that she'd taken off on her own? A niggling little voice of doubt in her mind insisted it was so. Yeah, zapped into a fantasy universe and given a full-body Mary Sue makeover, and you're still a worthless loser.

Hobbit-girl noticed her looking around, and guessed the reason. "Kandad beh Naithuanna?" She pointed ahead and said something more, and Melanie recognized the word haskat—corridor—from Panharam's vocabulary lessons.

"Scouting ahead?" Mel guessed, making a show of peering about with her hand shading her eyes. The hobbit grinned and nodded. Then she pointed to herself and said, "Leske." In case there was any doubt about her meaning she then pointed at Mel and said, "Meleni," then back at herself and repeated "Leske."

"Leske, huh?" Melanie said. "Nice to meet you, Leske."

The hobbit nodded. "Leske Thindelgabben."

Don't laugh, don't laugh, it might be a mortal insult to laugh, and her sword may only be a foot long but that's still enough to gut you like a fish. It was hard—Thindelgabben?—but Melanie managed to keep a straight face.

And besides, for all that Leske was about eye level with Mel's belly button, she didn't look like someone you'd want to laugh at. Like Naithuanna, she was wearing leather armor, although hers had a different cut, more utilitarian and not so, well, elvish. The effect was pretty intimidating—less Frodo, more Emma Peel. Well, Emma Peel's mini-me, anyway.

In addition to the sword, she was armed with at least three hatchets tucked into her belt. They reminded Mel of the tomahawks Daniel Day Lewis had been throwing around in Last of the Mohicans. Contrary to the Tolkien stereotype she wasn't barefoot either, and her feet didn't look especially big.

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They walked for another couple of hours, occasionally turning corners and passing side-corridors and doors. At one point, Melanie was pretty sure she spotted the hidden stone door to the rooms she'd first arrived in.

Around the next turn after that, there were some...corpses. More of the green brutes, shoved out of the way to one side of the corridor. Mel stared at them in horrified fascination—it was one thing to read about dead bodies in a novel, or even see them on TV. Encountering them in the literal flesh made her skin crawl. And the stench was horrible.

The bloodstains on the floor were still relatively fresh, and nobody else seemed surprised to see them, so Mel figured her new companions were responsible for their current unbreathing state. Despite trying to step carefully, she managed to put her foot down in a sticky puddle of blood, and cursed under her breath.

Naithuanna was waiting at the next intersection, with her bow drawn and an arrow ready. As the rest of the group came up she put a finger to her lips and nodded her head to the next corridor. Redbeard and Leske immediately doused their torches, plunging the hallway back into moonlit darkness. Behind Redbeard's back, the wizard opened a complicated-looking pouch on his belt and took out something that glowed faintly. While they had a quick whispered conversation, Leske and Brownbeard moved up to the intersection. Leske shrugged off her pack and plucked a tomahawk from her belt, while Brownbeard took out a nasty-looking metal club.

Melanie felt her pulse racing, and not in a good way. Holy shit, there's going to be a fight, she thought. This is really happening. So much for being a heroic adventurer. I think I'm going to hurl.

At Redbeard's nod, Naithuanna and Leske darted out into the intersection and opened fire. Shouts and bellows of pain came around the corner. They each got a second arrow or hatchet off, then hurried back. A spear clanged off the stone wall, just missing Naithuanna.

The wizard was next, tossing whatever he'd taken out of his pouch into the intersection and shouting something arcane-sounding. The little bit of whatever-it-was exploded into a bright golden light, filling the hallway and prompting cries of pain from around the corner.

The sudden light hurt Melanie's eyes too, and she covered them with the heels of her hands, turning away. As a result, she didn't see what happened next, but she could hear the clanging and banging, the shouts, and some awful meaty thunks.

By the time her eyes stopped hurting it was mostly over. Naithuanna joined her, holding a bloody sword, and checked her eyes. She said something in an amused voice, and Melanie could guess what it was. Don't look directly at the light spell, dummy.

The two Beards came back around the corner then. Both of them also had bloodstained weapons, and Brownbeard was limping a little. Naithuanna wrinkled her nose, and Mel couldn't blame her—the guys smelled like a gym locker. I guess swordfighting is quite a workout.

Leske came rushing up then, sounding excited. She had a little pile of gold coins in her hands, which prompted a lot of interest and babble from everyone. Redbeard called Panharam over, and he picked one up and looked closely at the design stamped on it. Melanie saw his eyes narrow in speculation. There was some back-and-forth conversation between him and Redbeard and the wizard, and his expression grew angry.

It must have something to do with why he was being kept prisoner here, she thought. She wondered what the story was, but unfortunately there was no way they could tell her. She made up her mind then to start learning the local language.

Everyone went around the corner again, and when Melanie followed she saw them all wiping their weapons on the dead guys' clothes. Ew. The bodies were still more of those big ugly green guys.

Remembering their earlier vocabulary exchanges, Melanie nudged Panharam and pointed at them, saying, "Orcs?" They didn't really look like Tolkien's orcs—or Warcraft orcs for that matter, although that was closer. But she didn't know what else to call them.

As before, he responded with the word in his language: "Genka." Naithuanna, noticing the exchange, added what Mel assumed was the elvish word: "Cehakar." She was trying to carefully work one of her arrows out of an orc's ribcage, but despite her best efforts it snapped off, right behind the arrowhead, and she sighed.

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The new corridor was very long, but at the far end she could see a tiny dot of daylight. It took the better part of an hour to reach the exit, and Melanie was tired and footsore by the end, but finally they emerged into a bright, sunny day.

They were standing on a rocky hillside, above a broad meadow. It was a cloudy overcast afternoon, but Melanie didn't care. The cool grass felt so nice under her bare feet. It was wonderful to be out of that dank, smelly...what the hell was that place, anyway? She turned around to look at the opening. It looked like a natural cave from this side, partially obscured by vines and other vegetation. There was no hint of the huge, obviously artificial underground complex from the outside.

"'Dungeons deep and caverns old'," she quoted, shaking her head in wonder. They didn't stop, once they were outside. Redbeard led them on across the meadow, and Melanie bit back a complaint. Even through the clouds she could tell the afternoon was getting on. They weren't going to walk all night, were they? Despite the psychological lift she'd gotten from seeing daylight for the first time in a couple weeks, she was pretty sure she couldn't go much further. Panharam looked as bad as she felt. And Brownbeard's limp was getting worse.

Finally they stopped, where a small river meandered through the meadow, with copses of trees along its banks. Leske immediately got to work kindling a fire. Melanie sat down with a groan, and for a moment she just sat there in an exausted stupor. Until she noticed everyone else was busy working, setting up camp. Guilt warred with fatigue and eventually won, but when she tried to get up and help, Leske quite firmly gestured for her to stay put. Panharam got the same treatment, and what sounded like a stern lecture as well. The hobbit even shook a ladle at him. Apparently there were some perks to being the rescuee instead of the hero.

So she sat, for some unknown amount of time, lost in a kind of exhausted trance, while the sun went down and the daylight dimmed. Eventually Naithuanna came over to join her, carrying two bowls of food.

She wrinked her nose again as she sat down, and this time Mel couldn't blame it on the guys. Yeah, she thought, I probably stink. Who knows how many days without toilet paper, with that nasty gunk they fed us running through my system, not to mention no bath or shower. It's a wonder they didn't just throw me in the river. She looked at Naithuanna. And then she just lets me put on her clothes, without a complaint. "Thank you," she said, trying to put as much sincerity into the words as possible, hoping it would get her meaning across.

It seemed to work, because Naithuanna smiled and nodded. "Coësen ynehel," she replied.

Melanie looked speculatively at the river. Maybe they could bathe after dinner? Naithuanna followed her gaze, and shook her head with another smile. "En clatha, fuamelèd," she said in a teasing tone. Mel guessed that meant something like, "Eat first."

Whatever Leske had put in the stew, it was savory, and she found herself mopping up the last of it with a piece of bread. As before, Panharam and she both went for seconds. She felt full and warm inside for first time in who knew how many days.

Naithuanna, meanwhile, was rummaging through her own pack, setting out various items. Among them were a cake of hard soap, an ivory comb, and an earthenware bottle. Then she pulled out what looked like a flannel blanket, and Melanie had to suppress a smile. There's a frood who really knows where her towel is. Hoopy.

Leske joined them when they trooped down to the river, after speaking very firmly to the guys—probably saying something like, "Don't you dare peek." Naithuanna found a spot with a good thick line of trees between them and the camp, set down the blanket and supplies, and then pulled her tunic over her head without a trace of self-consciousness. Her pants followed as quickly as they could be unlaced, and then she was striding out into the river.

Melanie's eyes bugged out. No wonder I had such a hard time getting her to turn around so I could dress. I guess elves aren't big on modesty. I suppose it fits, though—elves are usually a bunch of nature-loving free-spirited tree-hugging hippies. It stands to reason they'd be shameless nudists too.

Leske apprently didn't share the elven disdain for modesty, though. The little hobbit had disappeared behind a bush to disrobe. Melanie was sorely tempted to emulate her, but Naithuanna was giving her a Look. You're one of us, girl, it seemed to say. Don't puss out on me this time.

With a sigh, she started unlacing her pants. Behind her she heard running and then a splash, as Leske dashed from the safety of her bush to the concealing water.

She finished undressing, remembering how she had stood on her dignity with Panharam, those first few moments before he'd given her his cloak. She did it again, managing to walk calmly into the water instead of dashing like Leske. Naithuanna seemed to approve.

The water was cold, but Melanie was so eager to get clean she didn't care. She took the soap and scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed until her skin was raw. And the earthenware bottle proved to hold some kind of shampoo. Leske declined—apparently special hair soap was a prissy elven thing—but Melanie luxuriated shamelessly in it, much to Naithuanna's amusement.

Night had completely fallen by the time she was done washing. She relaxed for a bit, floating serenely in the cool water. It was a bright, moonlit night, with the kind of ethereal, glowy light that only happened on clear nights with a full moon.

Except when she looked up, there wasn't any full moon.

She did find a moon—two moons, as it happened—but they were both slender cresents, and partially obscured by clouds. Naithuanna followed her gaze, and pointed upward. "Tel'cenodel," she said, "Lafael ent Celên."

But Melanie didn't care about moons at the moment. She was looking around at the brightly-lit night, and remembering. Remembering how the dungeon rooms and corridors had seemed dimly lit, even though there was no light source at all before Panharam's candle. Remembering how it had seemed like a bright sunny day when she first emerged from the dungeon, even though the sky was overcast and cloudy. Remembering how much the light spell had hurt her eyes.

I can see in the dark, she marveled. Right, because I'm an elf now, and of course elves can see in the dark. Somehow that was the last straw, the final bit of weirdness that really brought home to her what had happened. I'm an elf. I'm not human anymore. She stood up, waiting for the water to calm, and then looked at her reflection.

For the first time, she saw her new face.

Her coloration was different, and she was still gaunt from her ordeal, but otherwise she looked a lot like Naithuanna. She was paler, and her hair was silvery-blond instead of black, but she had the same kind of narrow, finely-boned face, the same high cheekbones and delicately swept ears. The same eyes, almond-shaped and slanted inward, and just a bit too large for her face. And unlike Naithuanna's green, hers were an utterly unhuman shade of violet.

She felt a wrenching, disorienting sense of loss. She had a vision of herself—her original, middle-aged, overweight, human self—reaching out to her from across a chasm, and she reached back, but the chasm grew wider, and she couldn't reach....

She realized she was crying when the tears dropped on her reflection, rippling it. Naithuanna came over and put an arm around her shoulders, saying something that sounded soothing, but her alien-ness, her inhuman features and incomprehensible language, just reinforced Melanie's sense of isolation. She pushed away, walking deeper into the river.

I'm not me anymore, she thought. And if I'm not ME, then who the hell am I? She suddenly felt like her own body was something other, something separate, not a part of her, a prison of flesh that enveloped her. She was smothered by it. She wanted to shout and rage at the heavens—but even the sky was alien, here.

She looked up at the moons again. Moons, plural. It was more than just herself that was wrong, it was the whole world.

Melanie didn't have anyone who would miss her. No husband, no boyfriend, no real friends. Her parents were gone. She wouldn't particularly miss her job. And she certainly didn't like pushing forty, or struggling with her weight. And yet she mourned the loss of her world, of everything familiar. She'd never see a movie again. Never eat a cheeseburger. No more chocolate, no TV, no ice cream. Never hear English, except when she talked to herself. Never drive a car. Never take that vacation trip to Japan. Ever.

It was too much. She felt overwhelmed, consumed. The sense of loss was too great, too all-encompassing. It rose up and swallowed the world.

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Eventually the emotional storm passed. Melanie wasn't sure how long it lasted, but when she looked around, Naithuanna and Leske were on the riverbank, and Leske was dressed and looked dry except for her hair. Naithuanna was kneeling in the grass and drying her hair with the towel.

She felt spent. Empty. Unbidden, a line from an old story wafted into her mind: "You lost a whole world. That's a lot to grieve for." Somehow, that thought made her feel a little better—it put things in perspective, at least.

She swam to the riverbank and joined the others. Both of them gave her a concerned look, and she mustered a wan smile. When she pointed at the towel, Naithuanna didn't hesitate to hand it over. "Sorry for the waterworks," she said as she began drying off. "I'm better now."

Leske gave her a sort of one-armed snug, and then headed back to camp. Naithuanna waved goodbye to her and then sat back and started plaiting her hair into some elaborate braids. When Melanie had finished towel-drying hers, Naithuanna did the same for her. It was nice and relaxing. I've missed having girlfriends, she mused.

By the time Naithuanna was done it was starting to get chilly. Mel cringed at the thought of getting back into soiled clothing after she'd gotten so nice and clean, but to her surprise their clothes were clean and dry when she picked them up. Her expression must have betrayed her, because Naithuanna smiled a smug little smile, and said, "Cinreth nili deynal hlei."

"I hope that means 'I used a magic laundry spell' and not 'you were out of it so long I had time to hand-wash silk and hang it up to dry'."

Naithuanna didn't understand, of course, but Melanie's wry, bantering tone seemed to reassure her. "Fuatenyal, fonkin," she replied in a teasing tone, and picked up her tunic.

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She shared a tent with Leske and Naithuanna that night, but found she couldn't sleep. Naithuanna didn't seem to want to sleep either; instead, she sat cross-legged in some kind of meditative pose, and went into a sort of trance. Melanie left her to it, lying on her back and staring at the canvas roof of the tent.

Why an elf? she wondered. Why didn't I come over as myself? Or at least still human? Or if not human, why not, say, a hobbit? Or an orc, for that matter? Would anyone who picked up that book have become an elf? Or been transported at all?

She thought back to that moment when she'd touched the book. I was dreaming of an adventure. Maybe that's why—the book somehow picked up my wish, and gave me an adventure? She snorted in wry amusement. It could have given me a nicer one. Not so much with the starving. Oh well, she HAD thought the pirate on the romance novel cover looked too clean to be real. That wasn't a problem she'd had, after her ordeal.

Still, why an elf? She thought back, trying to reconstruct what she had been thinking about, and then it came to her. Tauriel. I was thinking about Tauriel. Miss 'I can do everything Legolas did, only backwards and in high heels'.

With the conundrum resolved, Melanie felt herself slipping away. Her last thought was, Maybe those muscles on my arms aren't just for show.

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She got a chance to find out the next morning. Naithuanna shook her awake shortly before dawn, and after they'd dressed, took her out to a copse of trees for archery lessons. And sure enough, she was able to draw the bow. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't as hard as it should be, either.

There was some muscle-memory working in her favor, too. Her body sort of knew what it was doing when she drew an arrow and nocked it. But she wasn't magically imbued with new skills. Her shooting was probably better than it should be for someone who'd never used a bow in her life, but she still didn't come anywhere close to matching Naithuanna's speed or accuracy.

When her arms started to get tired, they put aside the bow and Naithuanna drew her sword. This started a whole new round of lessons, with Melanie holding the sword and Naithuanna standing behind her like a golf pro, guiding her hand and arm through a series of different swings. Despite its length—the blade alone was almost three feet long—the sword moved easily through the moves Naithuanna was putting her through. The heavy pommel at the bottom of the grip seemed to be acting as a counterweight, and whenever she hit that balance "sweet spot", the sword seemed to almost flow into place.

That didn't happen often, though.

Melanie's arms felt like lead when Naithuanna finally called a halt. She'd also begun to feel the call of nature—to put it delicately—during the exercise, and was wracking her brain trying to figure out how to tell Naithuanna without humiliating herself in the process.

Fortunately, it turned out to be unnecessary; Naithuanna had to go too. Or at least that's what Mel thought it meant when she led her into the privacy of the trees and started plucking some particularly large, broad leaves. She gave Melanie an inquisitive look, as if to say, "You need some of these too?" When Mel nodded she plucked more and shared them out.

Two weeks ago Melanie would have been disgusted to settle for using leaves as toilet paper. She'd never been an outdoorsy person, and had regarded the few camping trips she'd been on as something to be endured, not enjoyed.

But after her ordeal in the dungeon, leaves were a step up. All she felt was grateful.

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When they got back to camp everyone else was up too. Brownbeard was kneeling, facing east toward the rising sun. He seemed to be praying to it. Redbeard was standing outside his tent, holding a leather sack that he was shaking vigorously, and from the shnk-shnk-shnk metal sound coming from it, his armor was in there. The wizard was reading a book, and Leske was cooking breakfast. "I really should learn the rest of their names," she mused. Naithuanna looked curiously at her. She shrugged and did the pointing thing again, starting with herself, then Naithuanna, Leske, and Panharam, saying each name in turn. Then she pointed at Redbeard. Understanding dawned in Naithuanna's eyes. "Denys," she said, also pointing at Redbeard. Brownbeard was "Galthesar," and the wizard was "Crosus."

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After breakfast, Crosus stood up and beckoned Melanie over. Everyone dropped what they were doing and gathered around, looking interested, which made her feel nervous.

As she approached, the wizard took a pinch of something out of his magic-stuff pouch, rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger. Then he tried to touch her forehead. The stuff on his thumb looked sooty and black.

She shied away, looking around at the others for some clue what was happening. Naithuanna gave her an encouraging nod, so she braced herself and let the guy smear his stuff on her face. Then he raised his arms and made some complicated-looking gestures with his hands, while intoning something harsh and sibilant. Nothing seemed to happen when he was done. "Is that supposed to be some kind of magic spell?" she asked.

To her surprise, he nodded. Melanie's eyes bugged out. "You can understand me?" Another nod. She felt like a huge burden was lifted from her shoulders. They could communicate! "God, where should I start?"

He shrugged.

Wait a minute.... "What's with the mime routine? Say something!"

The wizard shook his head, and Panharam's language.

She felt her hopes fall. "Crap. Can you cast it again, to go the other way?"

He shook his head again.

"Oh for fuck's sake," she snapped. "A translation spell that only goes one way? What kind of balls-up stupid is that?"

He stared at her in amazement at that, then burst out laughing.

Everyone else was looking confused—apparently the spell only worked for him. But he spoke to them, obviously translating or describing what she said, because they all started grinning. Except Naithuanna, who wore a disapproving frown. I guess proper elven ladies don't swear.

She sighed. "I guess I should just talk, then. Um, well, my name is Melanie—Melanie Foster—and I'm really, really not from around here. I don't know how I got here either. For that matter, I have no idea where 'here' even is. All I know is that I picked up a book that must've been magical, and bam, I was zapped here. Into that...awful place—" She jerked her thumb north, back the way they'd come. "I guess, as the old joke goes, 'a wizard did it'."

"Zelligar," Crosus said.

"Is that the name of that place?"

He shook his head, and pointed to his staff.

"Oh, lemme guess, that's the name of the wizard who built the place."

Another nod.

"Well FUCK YOU, ZELLIGAR!" That part she turned and shouted back north. Crosus snickered behind her.

Melanie turned back to face them and sighed. Should she tell them the other part? The really big part? Yeah, maybe it'll help them understand why I'm so weird. She looked at Naithuanna. Please don't hate me for this.... She took a deep breath and said it. "When I was transported here...I was also...changed. I wasn't an elf before. I was human."

Crosus looked shocked. She waited while he translated that for the others. Naithuanna looked...hurt. Betrayed. Shit. She plunged ahead. "There aren't any elves where I come from. Or magic. They only exist in stories. Myths and legends. I...this is all very strange to me. I don't know what to do. I don't even know who I am, anymore." She felt her throat tighten up, and squeezed her eyes shut, struggling not to cry.

Something touched her hand. She looked down, and saw that Leske had taken it into her own. She looked up at her with compassion in her eyes, and gave it a gentle squeeze. It seemed the hobbit, at least, was willing to accept her.

Naithuanna was another story.