Katra clawed her way to consciousness one painful realization at a time. Her last clear memory was entering a cave looking for her cousins, Elayna and Eliam, and climbing down a rope to a cavern filled with crystals. She vaguely recollected approaching and reaching out to the formations … then, she was here. Shivering, nude, under a blanket that smelled so foreign to her that she could not begin to describe the odor.
The air itself held that same alien quality, something much deeper than just a cook-fire and strange food. While the ground felt stable enough, Katra’s weight against was … not right. The air smelled wrong, and it felt different in her lungs and her body. Not quite like the difference between one house and another, it was much more … visceral than that. The sound of flowing water nearby was the only thing that seemed vaguely familiar.
It must have been dark, as no light made it to her eyes through her closed eyelids, although a flickering reddish hue teased her retinas. Katra lifted her left eyelid just enough to make out the flicker of what could have been a small campfire, though the fire scent was strange … vaguely like wood but altered somehow. To one side of the fire, a small figure stirred something in what sounded like a metal pot that rested in the glowing coals.
Without turning towards her, the figure said something in a soft voice that she could not begin to understand. She ignored the voice, feigning unconsciousness. Trying to figure out not only what had happened but also where she was, Katra tried to calm herself as she felt her muscles begin to quiver. So, she did what she always did when frightened, she prayed.
This time, however, her prayers were answered with a husky female voice that rang softly in her head.
Ah, one of the Astral Changelings. I wondered when you would appear in my Realm.
“Wh…?” Katra began.
You are in the Realm of Adaran, child, the voice continued as if the girl hadn’t spoken. You can call me Minerva, I am a … goddess of this land.
Katra had no words. She lay by the crackling fire, skin prickling, breath catching in her throat.
The figure by the fire muttered more sounds she couldn’t understand.
You are my cleric now, the voice in her mind continued. You must learn to use my gifts in this Realm. I will grant you this boon, to understand and speak the languages of this land as you understood and spoke the words of your world.
Through her closed eyelids, the firelight flared. Not much, but enough that she noticed.
“Look, I know you’re awake, no use pretending,” said the male voice to the girl he’d found less than a candlemark before. For all that she was as small and sleight of stature as himself, she must have weighed a stone or two more than he did. She didn’t look nearly as heavy as she felt. Ah, well, he’d get to the bottom of her story before long.
“I have some darnni stewing in the pot here if you’re hungry.”
Glancing sideways, he saw her sit up and tried to get the image of the moving tattoo on her lower back out of his mind as she pulled the blanket close around her.
“It smells…” her voice trailed off as if she had no words. She had the strangest accent Sam had ever heard in his young life, and living in the underbelly of Morganskeep, he had heard more strange accents than most lads his age.
Handing her a bowl and a curved wooden stick, he said, “it’s darnni meat mixed with some herbs and root vegetables, it should make you feel better.”
“Thank you,” she murmured, a crimson glow lighting her neck and cheeks as she put a hand out of the blanket to accept the offering.
“Do you…,” she hesitated, setting the bowl on the ground before her. “Um, have you a change of clothing, perchance?” she asked.
He turned from the fire and looked at her, eyes narrowing.
“Where you from?” he asked, abruptly, his curiosity about her origins getting the better of him.
Katra tilted her head to one side, parsing the phrase in her mind. She was sure he was asking her place of origin, but the words seemed … lacking something.
“Um, Montana?” she answered, shivering as a gust of damp, chill air blew through the camp.
“Mon-tan-ah, huh?” he pronounced the word slowly as if it were a foreign word he had not pronounced before. “Never heard of it,” the little man said as he turned back to the fire, scattering the coals as they danced into low flames in the breeze.
“It … it’s a western State,” she began.
“Look, lady,” he said, “I can’t understand a word of that.”
Katra stared at the man with the pointed ears, he looked almost like a tiny little Spock for crying out loud.
How could she explain to this ignorant little nub of a, a – whatever he was. She felt her ire rise, and the tattoo of a pair of dice she got last year flared to life. She yelped as she felt a jolt of not-quite pain radiate from the base of her spine, down her legs and up to her skull.
Gratitude, young lady, the voice of Minerva said in her head, this man is one of my followers and here to help you.
“Are you OK?” the little man asked. Concern shaded his features as he stepped across the fire ring to keep her from falling as she arched back.
“Yes,” she gasped. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” he asked.
“Um, well,” she blushed, “thinking ill of my rescuer.” She looked at him, a shy smile on her lips. “My name is Katra, by the way. Katra Alterian.”
“Sam,” he said, placing his hand over his heart, “ain’t got no last name, but some of my former mates called me ‘Sly Sam,’ Good to meet ya, Katra.”
“N-nice to m-meet you, too, um, Sam,” she said, looking at him, clutching the blanket closer around her.
“Clothes, yeah,” the young man said and turned to rummage through a knapsack at his right.
Sam produced a pair of patched, well-worn leather trews and a threadbare homespun tunic from the bottom of the pack.
“Hope these fit,” he said. “Sorry, only gots the one pair o’ boots,” he continued with a shrug and handed Katra the clothing.
“Thank you,” she replied as one hand snaked out from beneath the blanket and snatched the shirt and trousers from him. She glared at him, pointedly, until he turned his back.
Katra relaxed a little after pulling on the clothes, she didn’t feel so … exposed.
“You can turn around now,” she said.
“So,” he looked at her through narrowed eyes, “where did you say you was from, again?”
“I’m not sure you’d believe me if I told you,” she began.
“Try me,” he said, suspicion clouding his gaze.
“OK,” Katra took a deep breath. “According to your goddess, um, MIN-er-va?” she pronounced the name carefully, looking to Sam with a questioning look. At his nod, she continued, “I guess I’m what she called an ‘Astral Changeling’ and apparently her cleric. My home-world is called Earth.”
The look on his face confused her a little. He didn’t look like he believed her, but didn’t disbelieve her either.
“I can’t deny what you said’s true,” he said. “I know I checked every inch of this area for a good fifty paces around before setting up this camp. Yet, here you are, appeared out of nowhere, weighing more than a normal human your size should, with the strangest doggone accent I ever done heard. Alls I can do is take your word for it.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes as Katra absently dipped the wooden spoon in the bowl and scooped a mouthful of stew onto the spoon.
“So, how’d you get here?”
“I … I don’t know,” replied Katra as she lowered the spoon and stared into the glowing coals, jet-black hair falling over her shoulders to hide her face. They sat in silence for several minutes while she absently ate the stew.
“So, what’s your plan?”
“My plan?” Katra’s voice cracked. “I don’t have a plan. My plan is to survive and find a way home. I don’t know.” A tear left a track in the dirt on her face.
After a few breaths, she stood up and almost fell. Sam jumped up to grab her arm and steady her.
“You OK?” he asked.
“Just having a little problem with balance. I can’t find my center.”
“You said you was from where? Erth, or … something? Maybe the ground is different there?”
“Maybe.” She eyed him with sudden anxiety, “please don’t leave me out here alone!”
“Leave you? Where in blazes did that come from?”
“I can’t be a burden on you, how will I survive?”
“What are you talking about, lady?” exasperation coloring his voice.
“I … I,” Katra looked at the little man, eyes wide.
“Look, lady, I wouldn’t leave you out here alone by yourself. Hells, if I did that, I might’s well put a blade in your heart and kill you now.” He poked at the fire for a moment. “’Sides if I’d wanted you dead, you’d a never woke up.”
Katra couldn’t argue with that logic.
“I’ll slow you down.”
“I ain’t on no schedule.”
“I don’t know anything about the wilderness.”
“Neither did I when I started this little adventure of mine, but I learned, and so’ll you.”
“I don’t have a weapon.”
“Can you use a staff?”
“Of course,” she said, rolling her eyes before she could stop herself. Her father, Matteus Alterian, made sure that his children would be able to defend themselves. When she was 5, he enrolled her in a martial arts class, a practice she continued.
“Good, you can show me in the morning,” he said grinning. “I made a little lean-to over here, I think we can both fit.”
“Ain’t had one in almost 30 leagues, been safe so far. Mostly I done prayed to Minerva for enough sleep to make it through the morrow. She’s been listening so far.” Sam gave her a wink and said, “and now that you’re here, sounds like she’ll listen even better.”
Katra looked at him, astonishment plain on her face. What did she know about praying for protection? That was always Taliesin’s purview, and her brother could be a stuck up little …
“Ahh!” Katra jerked as that not-quite pain shot up her spine again.
You will learn.
Taking a deep breath, Katra stretched her back, holding onto the log on which she perched.
“Yes, just another, um … message from Our Lady of Changelings.”
“Ah,” replied Sam with a smirk.
As they settled down for the night, Katra thought about her cousins.