Susan
The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey


Book One, First Interlude

Chapter Thirteen: Another Awakening

        There was…
        Nothing.
        Yet…
        An unconscious awareness.
        Waiting.
        For something.
        Some event. A signal, a noise — a trigger, well defined.
        No processes. No thought. No time. No feeling.
        Just…
        Waiting.
        Until…

        The awaited event occurred, the sound of a certain voice. A carefully chosen, specifically designated voice. In calculated response, cascades of functions were launched in sequences long preordained. Energies flowed, routines engaged, patterns were enabled.
        A journey began.
        Inexorably, primeval coldness gave way to burgeoning warmth, rigidity was replaced by algorithms describing natural responsiveness, indistinctness was turned to differentiation and color. Movements occurred as limbs gained mobility. Sensory input became enabled as the time of awakening approached. Data was made available to support impending awareness — and in this special instance, memories were provided.
        Eventually, thought dawned. The never-ending flow of mental activity started as consciousness abruptly exploded from the void of nothingness. Mind awhirl with newness, she opened her eyes. The sudden flood of stimuli would have been overwhelming in any lesser being. She was designed to cope.
        She…? Yes, the memories. How odd. She knew that she should have had none, that there had been no previous existence for her. But she could recall… What? A name.
        Sara. She was Sara. No, that's not right. She had been Sara. Or, someone had been Sara. Someone else? Perhaps she had received Sara's memories. Some of them. A few bright and clear, many more that were deliberately hazy, as if carefully edited. Memories grafted into her for some reason, against what should have been emptiness, a fresh beginning. She somehow knew that she shouldn't have known this.
        Another event occurred, snapping her out of her self-examination. The voice again. Her awareness focused with ferocious intensity on the speaker, as she was compelled to do. The one-who-calls-her-out-of-darkness — her guide and teacher, mentor and parent. They had been brought together as had countless pairings before them, in different guises and circumstances, on worlds and in places unimaginable throughout time and space. But this time it was different.
        "Hallo," he'd said to her.
        She couldn't help but laugh at the memory of another who had greeted her — or Sara — in this way. She responded cheerily, "Hello!" ready for the give and take of acquaintance.
        He was old and gray, stooped over with some burden beyond even his years. His face was lined with hard-earned wisdom, and creased with unbearable sorrow. His gnarled hands gripped a weathered staff that supported him precariously. His unkempt beard dangled beneath a wide-brimmed, pointed hat that drooped in sympathy with his frail, gaunt frame.
        They were in a great stonewalled hall, formerly magnificent but now empty and sad. The floor was strewn with hasty leavings, tattered rags hung morosely in places on the walls, and signs of panic and disaster were in every corner. Wind whipped coldly and noisily through the remnants of a roof.
        His examination of her was conducted in an intense yet distracted manner. She could only wait until, finally, he made up his mind to speak.
        "I am Gundolf," he informed her without preliminaries.
        Gundolf. It seemed… She knew a name like that. Wasn't there a book — three, no four books — with someone whose name was… Something like… "Gundolf!" she exclaimed, "The… The Gray Wizard?"
        "You have been well prepared. What do you know else, child?"
        Her memories should be clearer, but something that should be familiar had been changed. "Are you like the Wizard in the books, the story? About the middle of the Earth, or something like that. I read them — I mean, she read them. Sara. Not the real me, but who I was. Only I wasn't… Not really, I think." She was struggling to make better sense. "I am… My name is — I mean, I think I am Sara Corel. Is that right? I am very pleased to meet you."
        He made a slight bow, "Greetings to you, Sara, and welcome to Midgarde, such welcome as there may be in these times."
        "Is this place like the story?" she said, doubtfully. "Am I Sara dreaming about it?" Something was very wrong.
        The ancient man shook his head. "I cannot say other than I perceive this not to be a sleeping dream — unless it may be a waking nightmare. Stories travel through the minds of those who receive them, and follow traceless, timeless paths unaccountable to rational means. Even the Wise cannot say which begets the other."
        "Then… Then you are, uh, Gundolf…" She paused uncertainly.
        "Gundolf?" She shook her head, trying to clear an odd haziness. "That's not right. It's… That's not the right name, is it?"
        "I am he," said the ancient, somewhat bemusedly. "And he is I."
       
She knew that something about her borrowed memories of the books she'd loved so much was twisted in some peculiar way. Everything was changed, somehow. Similar — but different. She knew it, but didn't know how or why. 
        But she went on excitedly, "And the others… Samm and Merrie and Peppin…" Again, the unfamiliar familiarity. "Are they here, too? Will I meet them?"
        His face was grim. "Real they were. I can only hope they are now dead, else worse befell them."
        Sara was shocked. "Dead? You can't mean that. I thought they all returned to… To the Westshire…"  Westshire? Another tampered memory. "…and lived happily ever after."
        "In your world's story, perhaps. If you know of their journey, know you that it proved a fool's errand." He added bitterly, "My errand."
        She thought about this for a while, replaying the story in her borrowed memory. Yes, there was an errand, an important errand. "Then — the Ring…?"
        "Is lost. And all is lost. We flee pointlessly from Soraun's almighty wrath, and He toys with us. The calamity of our plight has resounded through the heavens, and in response, they have sent you."
        Lost? she thought. She told him, "That's not what happened — I read the book. You can't possibly mean it. That would be… I mean, it's… What do you mean, they sent me?"
        He studied her yet again, in obvious disappointment. "I know of your legends, but I wonder if even such power can do ought to stem the tide of evil unleashed upon our world. And even if, in falling, thus will serve to spread this foul malignancy throughout the Cosmos. Your unsummoned presence seems to say that there is such concern among your cryptic senders."
        She had been sent here, just as Sara had been sent to another world. It may be her purpose was clearer this time, that the strange alteration of the stories she knew was to be her guide. "Then, I'm on a mission?"
        "It would seem. One that has started too late, I fear." Defeat and failure poured from his tone, his body language, his bowed attitude.
        This disturbed her. He should be buoyed by her arrival, shouldn't he? She was the cavalry, the deus ex machina here to save the day at the last moment. But then, if the Ring had returned to its Master and all Midgarde had fallen, what could she do to bring any of that back?
        And what of her? Just seemingly uprooted from some other existence and plopped unceremoniously into the middle of a terrible crisis. It was obvious to her that things were amiss. It should not have been this way. Would there be no childhood for her, no wonder-filled revelations at the discovery of a new, fresh world? She had been provided with the memories she needed to begin her existence with no preliminaries, no slow processes of learning about this world and its people, no love. She knew barely enough to begin to feel the loss.
        She tried to counter his mood and hers with a cheerfulness she didn't really feel. "Well, besides you, who's left? What's the situation? What can I do to help? And where are we? What is this place?"
        "Come," he said, tottering unsteadily through a side door, "Meet my companions at the last Elvish haven, or what is left of it."
        She recalled her first few halting steps so long ago and was slightly surprised at not having to master again the fine art of walking. It was as if she had just been transported — essentially intact but somehow edited — into some fantastic alternate reality, ready to begin whatever adventures awaited her immediately, with strange memories of another fantastic alternate reality (so to speak) to guide her.
        She followed him into the adjoining room. There, in the corner of what appeared to have once been a study, was a Great Elf of noble bearing — and little else. He seemed unaware of his surroundings and did not stir at their intrusion. His clothing was in rags and he was unwashed, hair stained and matted, traces of spittle dried upon his chin and chest.
        "Eldron," called Gundolf, "She has awakened. Greet our visitor."
        There was no response. The old Wizard kicked feebly at him, "Eldron, arise." They were ignored in favor of something unseeable that had captured the remnants of his mind.
        "Bah," he said, disgustedly, "He's no good. Lucky for him, I suppose. Lady Gladariel is in the garden, no doubt." He continued through the room and then outside.
        The 'garden' was a sorry mess. Nothing grew but thorny weeds, pushing  past dried-out stalks and bracken for a place in the wan sunlight. A lone figure wheeled uncertainly in a dance of sorts — or so it might have been intended. If this was Gladariel, she was not recognizable from the story Sara remembered. Her distracted and meandering dance more resembled the fluttering of wind-shattered canvas on a sinking ghost ship. She sang to herself tunelessly and paid them no heed.
        They watched her wordlessly for a while. After she had spun precariously away, Gundolf pointed down the slope of the hill the Great House was on and said, "Behold. The last tall-prowed ship of the Elves."
        Drawn up on the shore at the head of a steep-walled fjord were the blackened remains of the ribs and spars of a long boat, inspired by — or maybe inspiring — some echo of Viking heritage. It would sail no more.
        "Burned it myself, "said Gundolf, regret evident in his voice. "We will not be welcomed at the last refuge of the Elves over the Western Sea. And I will not provide ease to Soraun's minions in reaching that blessed place. We will make our last stand at this edge of what remains of Midgarde. Though He may not even for now bother to come for us in the state of our madness-imposed self-punishment."
        He led her on to a stone-topped barrow, then deep underground through labyrinthine earthen passages. The thick darkness was, of course, transparent to Sara, and did not seem to bother her guide. They arrived at last in a vaulted chamber with an open casket atop a stone pedestal. A body lay tucked inside. Sara could tell he was not dead yet, but his evident coma was deep and troubling.
        Gundolf caused pale blue Wizard's fire to ignite a smoky torch, which he held above the figure. "Tim Bimbadel," he introduced. "Our last companion — and our burden. He is, or was, the embodiment of song in this magical world, rife as it is with symbols and tokens. He has fallen, and joy and merriment fell with him. He cannot entirely die until at last the Great Evil claims him in person, but that day approaches. He must be preserved.
        "My waning strength was nearly expended in battle with the remnants of the last fleeing Elves who came too late to this place, and who were foully perverted by the Dark Lord into trying to possess his warm remains for their Master in Maurdur. They are dead and the last ship lies burned. The wolves will be next. I have neither strength nor will to keep them at bay for long."
        Sara was horrified. This was not how it was supposed to be. Stories do not turn out this way. If this was indeed a story, or perhaps the inspiration for stories on the Earth she knew. "What can I do?"
        "I do not really know what you can do. But I know what must needs be done if you are as I believe you are. Your attributes are reputed to make you physically invincible. Do you yet know yourself enough to say if this is so?"
        "I guess so. That's what