The animal kept barking, Ash kept still and it wasn't long (though it seemed a very long time to Ash) before she spied a strange-looking figure approaching from her right.
"Freckles! Heel!" And this time the animal obeyed. Still growling (just like a dog! Ash thought) it back away a few feet, then stopped and kept staring right at her. "Well, boy, what have ya caught yerself this time?"
The words were English and the voice sounded like a man's, but the figure, as it approached, was clearly not human. He - or it? - stood no more than four feet tall, with thick arms that hung nearly to his ankles. He was bow-legged and stocky, but with surprisingly smooth, lightly-tanned skin. He wore heavy mud-stained boots, baggy bright red over-alls and a loose shirt of a green so bright it almost shined. His hair
The figure stopped short, next to his animal. He stared at her, apparently just as shocked by her appearance as she was by his.
After a moment he looked down at his beast and patted its head. "Well, well, Freckles; what have we here?" He looked at her again. "It's no moppit, nor a dwarf, that's sure." He shook his big head. "Never seen the like; it's the strangest beastie I've ever seen ..."
Suddenly, Ash had had enough. Fear and confusion gave way to sudden anger. She didn't know what was going on but she was not going to stand around and let Tolkienesque farmer examine her like some animal.
"Why don't you just ask me?" she shouted. "Or introduce yourself? Who are you, anyway? And for that matter, what are you and where the fuck am I?!?"
The ... whatever he was looked startled and then embarrassed (if, Ash thought, she could read his strange apple-like face accurately). His words, though, confirmed her impression.
"Oh! my pardon!" he said. "It's just I've never seen your like before, and times bein' what they are, you've gotta be careful.
"I am Jorslem, son of Saarina. I am the overseer of Bellona's farm, which is where you are.
"And who and what are you? And don't you have any clothes?"
"Yes," she said. "I mean no. I've ... lost them. I don't know what happened to them. Or how I got here for that matter." Her left hand still shielded her crotch; her right forearm was still pressed to her chest, more or less covering her breasts. Another reason, she thought, to be glad mine are small. "My name is Ash," she added, "Ashera. Do you think you might be able to lend me ... something to wear?"
Jorslem nodded slowly, as if realizing that was a good idea or wondering why she hadn't asked sooner, Ash wasn't sure. "Nothing that will properly fit someone so tall as you, but I think the mistress might have something halfway decent for you. Come," he said, and turned and began to walk.
They soon passed through what turned out to be only a narrow stretch of trees and crossed onto a path through a wide, furrowed field, from the mounds of which poked delicate-looking green shoots. The air was still and carried on it a sweet smell, like a just-opened jar of wildflower honey. The sky itself looked strange, looked wrong somehow, the blue just a little off, though she wasn't sure how.
"Oh no ..." Ahead, just above the far horizon, peaking over the trees on the other side of the field, the sun rising. No, not "the sun", a sun. "No, no, NO! NO!" She stopped in her tracks, her nakedness utterly forgotten.
This was tiny, was white, was not the sun.
Jorslem had stopped and turned around ahead of her, as had Freckles, but she barely noticed until he called out, "What's the matter, Ash?"
But she couldn't answer, just kept muttering, "No, no, no, no ..."
Vaguely, she noticed the little ... creature, man, thing, whatever he was, making his way back along the path towards her, a look of concern on his dumpling face.
"I must be insane," she whispered. "This just doesn't happen in real life ..."
And then Jorslem's stocky little frame blotted out that impossible orb. Ash realized that she was gasping for breath and that her eyes had filled with tears. The presence of the ... alien before her reminded her that she was still naked and she found the wherewithal to more or less cover herself again.
"What doesn't happen in real life?" Jorslem asked.
Ash shook her head. She couldn't speak, she literally was unable to force her mouth to make the necessary moves and besides, her breath was still coming in ragged gasps.
"What can I do to help?" Jorslem said, in a gentle, caring whisper. Ash wondered if he was really there - maybe a nurse in the nut-house, maybe someone she knew - or if she was simply hallucinating him along with that hateful mockery of the sun.
"Please come with me," he said, "you've clearly had some great shock. Come to the house. The mistress will put on some tea and we'll find you something to wear, and you can rest until you can tell us what is the matter." And he stretched out his hand, offering it like a living life-line and she let her arm fall from her pointless covering of her breasts.
His skin was warm and surprisingly soft, and he squeezed her hand gently, reassuringly, then once more turned and started to walk. Ash forced her feet to move, to follow him and did not look anywhere but at the black earth beneath her feet.