I woke up on the side of a hill.
Well, maybe “woke up” isn’t entirely accurate – maybe “came to” would be a better description.
I once saw a comic – I don’t remember exactly who, but it might have been Ron White – who said, “One of these days, I’d like to wake up rather than come to.” The audience roared with laughter, but I didn’t find it all that funny at the time. Back then, I spent most mornings (and more than a few afternoons) coming to rather than waking up.
I shook my head. It didn’t feel like just waking up, but I sure wasn’t coming to from a blackout drunk, either. Believe me, I know what that feels like. I was fighting something weird in my head, though. Had I taken some other drug? What did I remember?
Not much. My brain was slow in turning over. The last thing I distinctly remember was watching a coin spiraling up into a moonlit sky. Then nothing.
I sat up with a gasp. The previous two days of my life came flooding back – and they were bizarre! I had been a 50-year-old loser with a dead-end job and a drinking problem. I frequently bitched about how I could have made my life so much better if I had only known then what I know now. I mostly did this at Wu’s, the neighborhood watering hole. After a particularly hard night of drinking and bitching, I had woken up – in my 8th grade history class.
My adult consciousness was unchanged, but had been projected backwards nearly 40 years to inhabit my 13-year-old body. It was disconcerting, to say the least. After two days of reliving the nightmare of early-80’s junior high school, I had discovered what had happened, sort of. Dr. Wu, the old man who owned the bar (although it was run by his son, Mike) had heard my grousing and had somehow sent me back in time to relive my life. He said he’d done it as a favor, but it had the flavor of a mean-spirited prank. The last thing I remember was standing in Bitch Hill Cemetery with a 40-years-younger version of Dr. Wu, watching his three-headed nickel spinning into the night sky.
After that, nothing.
Until now. I stood up, and my head spun, then settled. Where was I now? More importantly, when was I now? It sure as hell didn’t look like I was back in 2019 Seattle, nor did it seem like I was in my hometown of Weaverville, Pennsylvania in 1982. I was on the side of a treeless hill, surrounded by woods and zero sign of civilization.
I looked down at myself. It was hard to tell for sure, but I was fairly certain that I was no longer inhabiting the body of a thirteen-year-old. I plucked at my shirt and looked down; there was hair on my chest. Definitely not a thirteen-year-old’s body. I felt OK – there were none of my previous dissipated 50-year-old’s ailments: no aching back, no sore feet, no constant low-level headache or sour stomach. Definitely older than thirteen, but not as roached-out as I had let myself become at 50.
I checked out my clothes. The shirt was weird – it seemed to be made of a course type of linen. It was a pull-over, with rawhide laces around the v-neck opening. My pants were definitely not the Tuffskins I had put on the last time I’d dressed. Instead, they seemed to be made of some sort of soft leather, like buckskin. On my feet were boots made of a thick, soft cloth like felt, with hard leather bottoms. Fortunately, the air was mild and warm so my simple wardrobe was adequate for protecting me from the elements. I really wanted to find a mirror, but there were none in the immediate vicinity, so that would have to wait.
In fact, there was nothing in the immediate vicinity. I couldn’t stay here, but had no idea where I was or where I was supposed to go. I hiked up to the top of the hill to see where I was.
At the top of a hill was a ring of stones, perhaps twelve feet in diameter. It reminded me of Stonehenge. Curious, but of no immediate use in locating myself.. The sun was almost directly overhead, so no help there in orientation. The hill dropped away steeply to my front and right. It seemed to drop further off to my right to a valley or dale that ran from behind the hill to as far as a could see in front of me. I could see glimmers of water through the trees in the valley – a river or creek of some sort. In front of me it wasn’t as steep, and didn’t drop as far. Another shallower valley ran across the base of the hill and seemed to feed into the larger valley with the river.
I squinted. It looked like there were columns of smoke rising from the trees in the river valley, maybe three or four miles away There was also something that looked like a church steeple poking up, although it might be a tall evergreen. That seemed to be the best direction to head; the most likely opportunity for me to find civilization. It was too steep to descend directly into the river valley, so I began walking down towards the smaller valley that fed into it.
After descending about three hundred yards, I came to the tree line. I looked back up the hill, and something about it struck me as familiar. I had no idea why; it was just a big grassy hill surrounded by trees. Geography was never my strong suit. I shook my head, turned and walked into the trees.
I had gone another hundred yards before I spied the track that would through the shallow valley. Cautiously, I walked down to it. It was a narrow dirt trail with grass growing on the center crown. It didn’t look like it got a lot of use. There was a pile of shiny dirt a few yards down the track. While I was pondering this, I heard a percussive noise in the distance that was quickly growing louder.
I was no equestrian, but I had seen enough Westerns to know the sound of hoofbeats. The shiny dirt was horse manure, and clearly this was some sort of riding trail. I thought I’d wait and flag down the rider to find out just where the heck I was. The hoofbeats got louder and louder. I had a clear view for nearly a quarter of a mile, but could see nothing. Now I could feel the ground shaking, and a sense of atavistic dread washed over me, and my amygdala screamed RUN! I scrambled up the hill and ducked behind a dense clump of bushes.
As soon as I ha concealed myself, a horseman rode by. His horse was a huge white beast. The rider was wearing a suit of chainmail, and a round metal cap. There was a vest or tunic draped over the chainmail. It had an insignia that looked like a knot or a clenched fist – I couldn’t tell for sure from my vantage point. He also carried a banner that appeared to have the same insignia. He thundered down the hill towards the river.
Almost as soon as the horseman passed out of sight, another thunderous ruckus could be heard from the direction in which he had come. I shrank further back into the bushes as the noise mounted. It grew louder and louder – much louder than the first rider – and I could actually see rocks and twigs jittering on the ground as the hoofbeats pounded the earth.
I was terrified but fascinated. I curled up into a ball but made sure I had a clear view of the road below me. The noise continued to get louder, and I was almost to the point of clapping my hands over my ears when five more horsemen burst into view. The one in the lead was on an enormous black charger. It was jet black and looked to be nearly seven feet tall! The rider was also enormous, and decked out in a full suit of metal armor, silver-blue in color, with a purple plume on the helmet that was blown back almost flat from the speed of their travel. Behind the armored rider were four more riders in chainmail like the first. They, too, wore the knot/fist insignia, but didn’t carry any banners. The knight at the lead bore no markings.
They thundered by as I cowered in the bushes. It took a long time for the noise to diminish. I was on the verge of emerging from my hiding spot when I again heard booming hoofbeats heading my way. I retreated back into the bushes, wondering what the hell else was going to come galloping by.
The men and chainmail and the knight were an odd enough sight to see, but I was totally unprepared for what came behind them. It was an enormous wagon, about the size of half of a mobile home. It thundered down the track on six huge wooden wheels that churned up the dirt like a plow. On a seat – almost a balcony – on the front of the wagon, a man wearing the same knot/fist tunic wildly whipped the beast pulling the monstrous wagon.
I had no idea what sort of animal it was. It looked like a camel, but it was much larger than any camel I’d ever seen, and larger even than the huge black charger the knight had been riding. It’s head was at least ten feet above the ground. It had a camel’s elongated face and large nostrils, and its coat was the same sandy dun color. However, it had a long, stark-white mane than ran the entire length of the back that rippled wildly in the wind as it ran.
It also had six legs.
I couldn’t be absolutely certain, as the beast’s legs were churning wildly as it ran. There were definitely more than four legs. My mind scarcely knew what to make of what my eyes were seeing. Part of me wanted to curl up in a tighter ball and hide, but I was really too gobsmacked to even move. I sat motionless until the beastly wagon had passed and the hoofbeats became inaudible.
Then I sat motionless some more. For nearly half an hour I sat, as my mind freewheeled, trying to make sense of what I’d just seen. The lead rider in chainmail would have been remarkable enough; the knight and his entourage doubly-so. However, the strange creature pulling the house-on-wheels was a total mind-blower.
I leaned back against a tree trunk, my heart beating wildly. What the hell situation had I gotten into now? Correction, I thought. What the hell situation had Dr. Wu gotten me into now?
Because clearly this was his doing. He had already shot me back 40 years in time – he had said as much. Now, he had somehow shot me sideways in reality. Judging from the appearance of the men on horseback, I was now in some sort of medieval era Either that, or there was a helluva Ren Faire in town. But that wouldn’t account for the bizarre six-legged creature that had been pulling the wagon. Just thinking about it made my brain hurt.
It was scary – no, terrifying – but I couldn’t just cower under a tree. For starters, I was beginning to get hungry. More than food, I wanted answers. Where was I? When was I? And what the hell was that beast pulling the cart? My best bet was to get down to the river I’d glimpsed through the trees and follow it to the town I’d seen in the distance.
By now, it had been half an hour since the strange cart had a thundered by. There had been no other traffic on the road. Cautiously, I climbed down from my hiding place and stepped onto the track. It was empty in both directions. I began walking downhill towards the river, sticking close to the edge in case I had to hide quickly. There was no one or nothing on the road. After a little while, I began to relax a little bit.
But I couldn’t help but feel that I was being followed.