Sam left the lean-to at dawn.
“Stay here,” he said. “I’m gonna check me snares and see what I can find fer yer feet. By th’ look of ’em, they ain’t seen dirt for a while. I’ll try ta be back a’fore high sun.”
Katra blushed. She knew he was right. The only times she went barefoot was indoors or on the family estate’s manicured grass, surfaces that caressed her feet, not build callouses. She had a feeling that the next few days, if not weeks, would be painful while her soles adapted.
“Thanks,” she murmured, crawling out from the low shelter. Katra used a branch to sweep a spot large enough to move around without bruising her soles. She spent the next couple of hours tending the fire and learning how to cope with her new environs’ slight gravity difference.
Several hours later, hearing noises coming from the direction Sam had left earlier, Katra found a place to hide. She didn’t want to face whatever was causing the disturbance if it was hostile. A few moments later, Katra thought she heard Taliesin’s deep voice say her name. Peeking out from her concealment, she saw his familiar form as he entered the clearing.
“Tal!” Katra bolted from behind the lean-to and threw herself at her brother. “Oh, my god! I thought I’d never see you again!” Taliesin lost his balance, and they tumbled to the ground.
“Me too, you,” he replied when he caught his breath. “I brought reinforcements.”
Katra looked up and saw Dreyah and Chase standing awkwardly a few feet away. She leaped toward her cousins, wrapping them in a group hug. Taliesin joined them after picking himself up off the ground. The four of them held each other for long moments.
Sam sat near the fire with a brace of darnni and set to cleaning the rodents. He watched the reunion and wondered if this group of youngsters had anything to do with the rumors he had heard in the town he had raided for their clothing.
Probably, he thought.
When he’d found this group, naked and shivering a half a league away, he thought he had recognized the words “Mon-TAN-a” and “Katra” through their gibberish. He watched them tiptoe gingerly across the forest floor, just like the waif he’d found last night. When the halfling stepped out of the trees, hands out to his sides, he uttered one word: “Katra,” and the group froze.
He repeated her name, pointing in the direction of where he had left his new friend. He put his hands apart about four hand-spans, to indicate how far away his make-shift camp was.
“Katra is that way,” he said as he pointed. “About a half-league away.” He motioned the group to stay and wait, not knowing if they would understand. “I’m going to find you something to wear,” he said, gesturing to his clothing, then to them. “Wait here. I’ll be back, I promise,” he put his hand on his heart.
With more than just himself and Katra to feed, he set a couple more snares on his way into the village. He would need more than one darnni to provide for them all. And he’d need to gather extra clothing and footwear for everyone.
Listening for the latest town gossip as he traversed the alleyways and rooftops on his quest for necessities, Sam heard that two more people had appeared out of nowhere day or so before. Must ‘a happened after he passed through, he reckoned. At least the halfling had a bit of information to give Katra. Remembering how big the two young men and the girl were, he found trousers and tunics. He had to make a guess on the footwear but managed to come close enough that the youngsters were grateful when he arrived.
Sam checked his snares as the group worked their way toward his camp. Four darnni. He hadn’t hunted that well since he started this journey. Minerva was indeed watching over him this day. Sending a thankful prayer to the Goddess of Fortune, Sam led the cousins through the forest on silent feet. He cringed at the noise the group made as they crashed through the brush. Sam knew had his work cut out for him if they thought they’d survive Adaran. But first, if he were going to keep this group of children alive, he would need to know how well they could defend themselves.
Somehow, he didn’t think he was going to reach Aernon anytime soon.
Katra couldn’t believe she heard Taliesin’s voice. For all his faults, she knew he would do anything for her. Apparently, that included jumping into the unknown.
“You guys fell down the rabbit hole, too, I take it,” she said.
“A magic crystal,” replied Dreyah, “but yeah, looks like.”
“If we’re all in the same place,” said Chase, “maybe this is where Eli and Ela landed.”
“Good point,” said Taliesin.
“Let me see if Sam knows anything,” said Katra. At the name Sam, a slight jolt ran up her spine.
Manners, my dear, the voice of Minerva whispered in her head.
“Oh, yeah,” she said as she caught her breath. “This young man is ‘Sly Sam,’” she said his name in a close approximation of the Adaran pronunciation. Turning to Sam, she said, “Sam, these are my family.” Pointing to each in turn, she said their names as Sam repeated them back.
“You can speak their language?” asked Chase incredulously. “How?”
“Um,” began Katra, not sure where to start. “I found myself here last night. Apparently, Sam found me somewhere in the perimeter of his camp.” She waved her hand around the area. “You know me when I stress, I pray.” Staring into the coals, she continued. “This time, I got a … an answer. As in words in my head in a voice I didn’t recognize.” Her eyes looked at each family member. “She said she would grant me, how did she put it? ‘this boon, to understand and speak the languages of this land as you understood and spoke the words of your world.’ Or some-such crap.”
At that, a slight jolt ran through her body, reminding her that Minerva was present and paying attention.
“You OK?” asked Dreyah as the cousins rushed over to keep her from falling.
“Yeah,” Katra grunted. “Apparently, I’m her cleric, and she’s keeping an eye on me.”
“Could you try praying that the rest of us can understand the folk around here?” asked Chase. Hooking a thumb at Sam, he added, “like him?”
Katra stared at her cousin. Would it work? What was the worse that could happen? No, she didn’t dare ask that. She had a feeling that this world could get a whole lot worse, and until she knew whether Ela and Eli were trapped somewhere on Adaran, she didn’t want to find out how much worse life could get.
Sitting cross-legged on the ground, Katra stared into the coals, mesmerized by the changing shades of red, orange, yellow, and white as a slight breeze wafted through the tiny clearing. She didn’t see Sam sprinkle a few fragrant leaves onto the coals but noticed when the air became redolent with a scent that smelled faintly of sage, mint, and bergamot. As she breathed in the aroma, her vision shifted, and she saw a beautiful woman seated on a dais, a staff lying across her lap, a crown resting on her brow.
You learn, Minerva said into her mind.
My Lady of Fortune, Katra thought. I ask that you grant my family the gift to speak to the people of this Realm.
And what do you offer, my child?
Katra was taken aback. Wha…? Before the thought was complete, she knew the answer.
To be your representative while in this Realm, she thought back at the deity. I ask your patience as I learn to navigate this world.
The goddess was silent for long moments.
Very well, Minerva raised her left hand, waving a gesture. Those in this Realm who carry the same blood as you can speak and understand as in their world.
Many thanks, My Lady, said Katra, bowing and bringing her palms together at her forehead.
Remember, said the goddess as the girl’s vision faded, you are my cleric now. Choose wisely.
“Co-o-o-ol,” drawled Chase as Katra came out of her trance. He turned to Dreyah and Taliesin. “Did you see her glow?”
“Tha’ u’d be the magic and power of Minerva,” said a voice from behind as Sam approached the group, “our Lady of Good Fortune.” He handed Katra a strip of dried meat. “Here, gnaw on this, it’ll make ya feel better.”
Katra took the offering with a nod. The meat had a sweet and smoky flavor that made her mouth water. He handed her a skin with liquid, which she also accepted with thanks.
“So the gods really do exist here?” asked Taliesin, skepticism lacing his words. For all that he had faith in a Higher Power, he had never witnessed anything close to what he had just seen happen with his sister.
“Hey!” said Chase to the tiny man with the pointed ears. “I can understand you now!”
“Aye,” said Sam, puzzled, “th’ gods are always here, and if ye listen close, ye’ll hear ’em.”
Taliesin studied the man for long moments, trying to gauge how much to believe. He could tell they were … elsewhere. Not only did the air smell different than anywhere he had been on Earth, but his balance was off—something he had never experienced. He knew, deep within, that he was no longer on the planet of his birth.
Gods help us all, he thought.