Natalia Roshenco sat up in bed, screaming. She glanced around her and everything was still black. After a moment her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. It was still night and she was safe in her cabin on the Kairn. The images of the night terror that woke her were locked in her mind. Her heart pounded so hard she felt it may pop right out of her rib cage. Nataliaís breathing was rapid and she was starting to feel more than a little dizzy.
She lay back, trying to stop the images that were replaying themselves in her mind. Slowly her breathing slowed and her heart didnít pound so hard. The images of her night terror were still etched in her mind.
Natalia closed her eyes, trying to relax herself. She watched the images, her gaze transfixed on them. She couldnít turn away. It was like watching an accident. She could not help but watch. Natalia called on her training from the Academy of Wizardry back home. She began chanted. "Ninga ratha clom." Mystical energy flowed through her body and her mind relaxed, the images of the night terror no longer plagued her.
As the feelings started to subside, Natalia heard a knock on her cabin door. "Natalia," Mrs. Roshenco said. "May I come in? I heard you scream."
"Come in, Mom."
The door opened and lamp light spilled into Nataliaís room. Nataliaís mother was a petite woman, not much taller than Natalia. Her black hair and blue eyes matched Nataliaís. She rushed across the room and sat at Nataliaís side, chasing away the shadows. "What happened? Are you okay?" She put her lamp on the bedside table.
"I had a night terror, Mom. It has me very worried." Natalia rubbed her eyes. "It was very scary. Iím afraid that it was one of my premonitions." Ever since Natalia could remember she would see things in dreams that would come true. Usually bad things but sometimes they were good. She plopped back on the bed and tried to calm down her breathing and heart beat.
"What has you so afraid?"
"A terrible storm, unlike anything Iíve seen before hits the Kairn. The ship was broken to pieces and only I survived."
"That sounds awful. Iím sure it is nothing more that a bad dream. It is still night time. Why donít you try and get some more sleep? Try and forget about the dream and try to dream of something wonderful."
"I can stay with you a while, if you want me too."
"Iím fourteen, Mom. I donít need you to watch over me."
"Very well." Her mother bent down and kissed her on the forehead. She picked up the lamp as she left Nataliaís room.
Natalia closed her eyes, but all she could see was the storm from her night terror. Over and over again, she saw the Kairn break a part during the storm. Natalia tried the relaxation exercise she learned at the Academy of Wizardry. Her mind went blank. She no longer saw the Kairn breaking apart. She was able to find sleep. It only seemed like a few moments had past when she was woke by a knock at her door. She looked out the port hole and was surprised to see that it had been daylight for some time.
"Come in," Natalia said, sitting up. The images from her night terror were gone but the
feeling that she was in danger persisted. She didnít feel safe. Her dreams were prophetic at times and she just knew that this dream was going to be one of the dreams to come true.
Nataliaís sleek black cat, Moonbeam, raced past her mother and jumped up onto Nataliaís
bed. Natalia picked up her cat and scratched her softly behind her ear. The cat purred and nuzzled close to Nataliaís face. "I love you too," Natalia said.
"Are you feeling better, dear?" Mrs. Roshenco asked.
"I think it was more of a vision of something that is going to happen more than a dream. It just felt so real. I donít know what to think."
"I talked with the Captain and he says there is nothing but smooth sailing ahead. Why donít you get something to eat?"
"Okay, Mom," Natalia said. "Iíll be in the mess after I change into something a little more appropriate."
Mrs. Roshenco left Natalia alone with her cat. Moonbeam was purring loudly. "Did you chase mice last night?" Natalia asked, snuggling the cat close. Moonbeam tilted her head slightly and answered her with a soft mew. Moonbeam was what kept Natalia going. She was all that Natalia had of home. She wished that her father had never been named ambassador to the Caledon Empire. It was far from her home. They traveled by horseback for a week to the port city of Lininski. Once there they boarded the Kairn and they had been at sail for three weeks now. From what Natalia could remember, it would be another week before they arrived in Thalos, the capital city of the Caledon Empire.
Natalia wasnít happy about it though. She liked her life in Killian as a wizardís apprentice. She had many friends and things that she had to leave behind. She wished, now more than ever, that she was back at home with her friends. She was afraid for her family, that the storm she had envisioned would take them from her. She shook her head, praying to the gods that everything would be okay.
Over the last few weeks she learned the tongue of the people of the Caledon Empire. It was quite different from the tongue of the Sarthagon Empire. It was a great honor for her family to be chosen to be diplomats to the distant empire. Natalia decided to try and make the best of it.
"Well, I better get changed," Natalia said, putting the cat on her pillow. Natalia took off her night gown and put on a pretty blue dress that matched her eyes. She went to the mess hall and nobody was at the table. She put some fruit on her plate and some bread smeared with strawberry jam. She was about finished when one of the crew came in. He smelled like rotten meat and his hair was oily and unkempt. He was swaggering as if he were drunk, which didnít surprise her.
"This is a doomed ship," the crewman said. "I can feel it on the wind. Nobody will survive."
"The Captain says he will get us to Thalos." Natalia finished her breakfast. Yet she couldnít help agree with him. She hoped against all hope that they were wrong.
"Stick close to the lifeboats," the sailor said.
Natalia left the mess and went on deck to look over the sea. She could see dark clouds coming in from the west. She went to the helm to talk with Alexi. The helmsman was a very large man. He was easily the largest man Natalia had ever seen. He always had a smile for her. "What is that to the east?"
"Thatís the shore of the Caledon Empire."
"And what is that black thing in the distance?" Natalia asked, pointing to the west.
"Looks like a storm, a big one at that. If I were you, Iíd go to my cabin. Itís not going to be safe on the deck."
Natalia paid heed to the helmsmanís words and went below to her cabin. Gradually the wind started to pick up and the ship was rocked by giant waves that reached the port hole of Nataliaís cabin. A loud rumbling startled Natalia. It sounded louder than anything Natalia had ever heard. Natalia looked out her port hole and could see a funnel cloud heading straight for them. Water was starting to seep into Nataliaís quarters. Natalia picked up Moonbeam for comfort.
The sound of wood cracking rang in her ears. She was thrown forward as the ship ground to a halt. She went to the deck and was nearly washed off by a giant wave. She couldnít see anybody on deck. Natalia ran around the ship looking for a way to get off. To her surprise all of the lifeboats were accounted for. "Mother, Father, Captain, anybody?" She screamed but the noise of the storm drowned out her words. She took Moonbeam to the nearest lifeboat, put her in and jumped in after her. Another large wave swept over the ship, nearly sending Natalia and Moonbeam into the sea. She fiddled with the ropes and was able to lower the boat. The waves were too strong for her to row her way to shore. She picked up Moonbeam and held her close. She was as scared, as if she was standing face to face with a dragon. The storm raged on, it was unlike anything Natalia had seen. The Kairn was being torn apart, plank by plank. Natalia couldnít see how anybody could have survived.
As quickly as the storm came, it continued on its path. Natalia started to row, heading to the east. It took several hours for her to reach the shore. Natalia came to shore on a sandy beach and Natalia could see a village near by, three or four miles away. She didnít have the energy to make the walk to the road. She was tired, sore and wet not a good combination in her mind. Poor Moonbeam was also soaked and she looked very undignified. Natalia picked her up and took a better look around. Just to the east was a road running north to south, a couple hundred yards away. A wagon was being pulled by something that looked like a horse but it had six legs and golden scales that flashed in the orange sun.
She was assaulted by more and more things that were alien to her. The flowers were quite unusual, unlike any she saw at home. Many birds flitted to and fro. Some of them seemed to be able to hover in one spot then flit off to a new flower. She was awestruck by the beauty of the place.
Natalia pushed past her fatigue and she began the walk to the road. Her eyes drank in the wonders. As she walked to the road, she saw what looked like some berries. Being very hungry, Natalia decided to pick a few of the berries. They smelled sweet and they were very juicy. She came to the road and follow the road to the village that cart had come from. She could see a cart traveling her direction. She got a good look at the animal that was pulling the cart. The creature had teeth like a cat, not a horse. Instead of hooves, the animal had padded feet with claws. Truly a magnificent beast, unlike anything Natalia had seen before. This was truly a magnificent land.
The wagon was filled with what looked like fruit or vegetables. They were bright orange with red splotches. They smelled a little like a peach and an apple combined together.
The men on the wagon were very dirty, probably farmers. Their clothes were tattered and patched in many places. More patching was in order. The taller of the men wore a red beard and his hair was matted. He had the most amazing green eyes Natalia had ever seen.
The other man was shorter, even shorter than she. He had very broad shoulders and was packed with bulging muscles. He had soft brown hair which he kept short. Natalia blinked in disbelief when she saw his violet eyes. She wasnít prepared for all of the newness of the realm. Natalia didnít realize that things would be so different.
When the cart got close enough, Natalia heard what the men were saying. "Are ye ready for the festival, Lyam?" The taller of the two men asked.
"Once we get this lot to the city I will be, William. Do you think you will find a wife this year?"
"Aye, if you donít scare her away like you did last year." William let out a loud belly laugh.
The wagon stopped just yards from Nataliaís position. The creature looked like it was smelling the air. It started stomping the ground and rearing up on its hind legs. "Easy," Lyam said. "Something has her spooked." He was having difficulties calming the beast.
Lyam saw Natalia first. He grabbed William and pointed in Nataliaís direction. "Sheís a witch! Look at the demon she is carrying!"
"Look at her eyes and hair!"
"Letís get out of here," William said, coaxing the beast to move. The creature balked not moving.
"Wait, I mean you no harm," Natalia said, in her tongue without thinking.
"Sheís trying to cast a spell on us," William said.
"No, wait, I mean you no harm," she said clumsily in their language. They didnít want to hear it though, they kept urging the beast to go. Some of the wagonís cargo fell to the road. They got their cart going and Natalia watched after it for may long minutes. After they were gone, Natalia went and picked up some of the fruit that had fallen from the cart, long after they were gone. It tasted very sweet, like a combination of fruits, mostly it tasted like a peach.
"Well," Natalia said to Moonbeam. "That went well, donít you think?"
Natalia watched the cart roll down the road. She sat on the road and petted Moonbeam. Where was she to go? What was she to do? She had no money and nobody willing to listen to her. She wished that her parents never traveled to this land. They were headed for Thalos as ambassadors from the Sarthagon Empire. She didnít even know if her parents were alive or dead. She was in a strange country and didnít know what to do. To the south was the village that the cart came from. Maybe she should go there, hoping that her parents made it to shore.
She stood and cuddled Moonbeam in her arm and started the walk to the village. Natalia traveled for a good hour, being careful to stay away from the wagons traveling north. It was getting close to sunset as she peeked from her hiding spot on the outskirts of the village. She waited for the cover of darkness before venturing from her hiding spot.
A small hut was near by. She carefully made her way to the hut, staying out of sight of the guards patrolling the village. As Natalia approached the hut, a plethora of strange scents assaulted her nose. It was like walking into an apothecary shop. She could hear somebody inside whistling. Gathering her courage, Natalia peeked into the window.
It was just one room inside the hut. The wall across from Natalia was filled with vials. She could also see plants hanging from the bottom shelf, drying. She saw an old man sitting at a table, with his back to her. The man was probably in his sixties. His hair was silvery and cut long.
He was working at grinding some herbs. The man stopped whistling and turned to face Natalia. She bent down and cursed silently to herself. "Come in," the man said. "You have nothing to fear from me."
Natalia wanted to run but for some strange reason she trusted the man. She stood and
looked in the window. The man had a gentle face, a face without fear. Natalia went to the door and walked inside.
The smell of spices and wild flowers was overwhelming. She looked around the hut. A lantern hung from the ceiling. A straw sleeping pallet was in the corner. Two chairs sat at the table. Shelf after shelf was filled with ceramic containers. Each jar was labeled with magical runes. Natalia could understand some of them and others were unlike anything that she had ever seen, probably writing in the Caledonianís tongue.
The old man sat before her, smiling softly while he ground what looked like a ginger root. "Come in," the man repeated. "Or at least close the door."
Natalia walked inside the hut and closed the door. She sat in the chair across from him and put Moonbeam down on the floor. "You arenít afraid of me?" Natalia asked.
"No, I do not fear you, my dear," he said. "Though Iíve never seen hair or eyes the color of yours. Your animal is amazing. What is it called?"
"She is a cat," Natalia said. "Sheís my best friend, my only friend now."
"So, who are you? You donít look like you are from the empire and your accent is very thick."
"My name is Natalia Roshenco. I was on my way with my parents to Thalos. They were to be ambassadors from my home in the Sarthagon Empire. We were caught in a vicious storm, I think that Moonbeam and I are the only survivor." She felt like she was going to cry, the reality of her situation was sinking in. She was lost all alone in a foreign land with no way to support herself. She didnít have any skills except the rudimentary skills she learned at the Academy of Wizardry. What she did know wasnít very much though. She would have to rely on charity if she was going to survive.
"It is so nice to meet you," the old man said. "My name is Walter, Iím an apothecary, I make potions. We did have a bad storm today. I could feel it in my bones. When you get to be my age, well you have a symbiotic relationship with the weather. Iím surprised that you survived."
"Perhaps you can help me," Natalia said. "I have no idea where I am. No idea of what to do. Iím more than a little scared."
"Right now you are in Pennington. It is a small village about twenty days ride to Thalos but I think that you should go to Lexington. Baron Harkin would most likely help you. And it isnít very far. On a matlath you could probably make it in a day."
"Whatís a matlath?" Natalia asked.
"They are related to dragons but they arenít sentient. They do have scaley hides that are almost impervious to weapons."
"I donít want to seem rude, but do you have any food, Iíve only had some berries and a couple pieces of fruit since Iíve come ashore."
"Iíll make you and your cat some dinner."
"Iíd appreciate it." She picked up Moonbeam and pet her. She watched as Walter rushed about the hut mixing up some roots and fruit.
"I donít know what your cat likes to eat," Walter said. "Is there anything that your cat will eat?"
"Fish, meat, eggs," Natalia said. "Her favorite is cream though."
"I have some dried meat, do you think she would like that? What is cream?"
"If I cut it up in small pieces. Cream is something that we get from cows. You do have cows?"
"I donít think so. Iíve never heard of such a beast."
Walter brought her a plate and a knife with the meat. Natalia started to chop the meat into small pieces. Curious what it was, she tried a little piece. It was very salty and it made her lips pucker. It didnít taste like anything she had eaten before. "What is this?" Natalia asked.
"It is the meat of a jarlbeast," Walter replied. "Every year they migrate from their home in the north lands to the south."
"You are very generous." Natalia put down the plate for Moonbeam. The cat sniffed at it
for a moment then cautiously took a bite. It must have been good because she continued to eat it. Natalia ate the food that Walter had prepared.
"That was good," Natalia said when she finished her meal.
"It is getting late," Walter said. "How about you get some sleep and we will figure out what to do about your situation in the morning. You can take the pallet."
"I donít want to put you out," Natalia protested.
"Donít worry my dear," Walter said. "I will be just fine."
Natalia curled up on the crude bed and Moonbeam joined her. Natalia dreamed of home and her parents. She hoped that they too some how made it to the shore but she didnít see how.
Natalia opened her eyes and saw Walter standing over her with a brown package. "What time is it?" Natalia asked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
"Early morning," Walter said. "I guessed at your size, hopefully this will fit. I will wait outside for you to change."
"Thank you," Natalia said. She stood up and unbound the package. Inside was a beautiful purple dress with puffy sleeves and a pair of soft leather boots. Natalia changed and opened the door.
Walter looked at her and wiped a tear from his eyes. "You look just like my daughter, may the gods watch over her."
"Thank you," Natalia said. "Would you show me around your village?"
"It would be best if you left Moonbeam behind. The people of this village are very superstitious."
"I have to find a way to get to Thalos or back home to Killian," Natalia said.
"Iím afraid the people of the village may have a hard time accepting you with your eyes. They are likely to think you are some kind of witch," Walter said. "Take my arm and I will show you the town."
Natalia put her arm in the crook of Walterís arm and he led her through the village. First they went to the marketplace. A couple dozen stands were around the square. Most of them peddled food. Many different fruits and vegetables caught Nataliaís eye and nose. One of the stalls sold fish. "Can we get a fish for Moonbeam?" Natalia asked.
"Can we have a salmon?" Walter asked the merchant.
"I donít sell food to witches," the merchant said.
"She isnít a witch. She is just a young girl who lost her way."
Natalia looked at him, trying to look as weak and helpless as possible. "Very well," the pedlar said. He took one of the salmon and wrapped it in paper. "That will be four silver."
Walter opened his coin purse and he took out four coins. He took the fish and they continued on their way.
One of the merchants had the most beautiful stones that Natalia had ever seen. Her favorite one was a light purple in color. But there were many others, of all different sizes and colors. She could have spent the entire day looking at the stones.
A few peddled clothing and one sold iron weapons. The people would stop talking as they passed. Then whisper quietly after they were gone. Natalia felt like all eyes were on her, that the people around her thought she was some kind of witch. It didnít seem to bother Walter though. He seemed unaffected by the behavior of the villagers.
"Youíd think they never saw a stranger before," Natalia said.
"I told you to expect it," Walter said. "Letís get some lunch. I will help you learn the name of things here."
They came to a large stone building, about five times the size of Walterís hut. A sign hung above the door. A dragon was painted in the middle of the sign between the words, "Dragonís Claw."
They went in side. The inn was filled with five tables and a long bar. Walter and Natalia went to an empty table. It wasnít long after they had sat that a serving girl, not much older than Natalia, came to their table. She wore a rather tight dress and her hair was very curly. "Iím Myrna," she said. "What can I get for you?"
"A bottle of wine, the 940," Walter said. "And two bowls of stew and a loaf of bread"
"Okay," Myrna said. "Iíll be right back."
"At least she doesnít seem to think Iím a witch," Natalia said. "In truth maybe I am a witch. Iím a woman and I know magic. Maybe women here donít know magic."
"Women here are not allowed to read," Walter said.
"There are very few women who read. It is forbidden, except for priestesses."
"I thought this was an enlightened empire."
"There are probably some things in your culture that we would find as hard to believe."
Natalia thought about it. It was true. Her culture was very different than anything she had seen here. But not being allowed to read? She found that very sexist. In her culture a woman could hold any position a man could.
Myrna came back with their order. She laid it out on the table. "That will be eight silver," she said.
Walter opened his change purse and took out a gold coin and gave it to Myrna. "Keep the change," Walter said.
The stew was still very hot so Natalia tried dipping some of the bread in it. She tasted it and found it to be very good. Almost as good as the stew her mother would make back home. She felt tears welling up in her eyes as she thought of her parents. Where were they? Did they make it to shore? Natalia had at least one hundred questions but not a single answer.
She took a glass of the wine and sipped it. It was unlike anything she had drank before. "This tastes strange," Natalia said. "It tastes a little like the fruit that I had yesterday."
"It is made from fermented trula," Walter said. "It is very good and a little intoxicating."
They ate their lunch then walked back to Walterís hut. Moonbeam was scratching at the door. Walter let her out. "Donít be long," Natalia said. "Iíve got something for you."
Moonbeam disappeared into the long grass. About half an hour later she came back. Natalia put the salmon on a plate and put it down for her. Moonbeam quickly started to eat the salmon.
They left the hut and spent the rest of the day wandering the village. Walter would point out things that would be of interest to Natalia. He told her more of the land in general. Natalia found herself in a barony on the outer edge of a large empire. Very little was known about what was outside the baronyís boundaries. Natalia told Walter of her home.
She told him of the grand structures that made her city. She told him of the Academy of Wizardry and her master, Bilowius. How he was teaching her the basics of magic. She mentioned her friends, who she missed now more than ever. And she told him of her home, a rather large building, three times the size of his hut.
Walter guided Natalia back to his hut. Moonbeam was curled up on the pallet and looked up when the door opened. "Come here, precious," Natalia said. Moonbeam stretched and slunk over to where Natalia was standing. She picked her up and started petting her. The cat started to purr loudly.
Natalia sat at the table while Walter started to make dinner for them. A loud bang on the door startled Natalia. "Open the door, old man. We know that you have the witch in there," a gruff voice said.
Walter sighed deeply, looking at Natalia. "Leave it to Marcel to interrupt a delightful dinner," he laughed, getting up from the table. The banging came at the door again and Walter yelled, "Be patient, Iím just an old man and canít walk very fast."
Walter opened the door and Natalia was shocked by the size of the man at the door. He was even bigger than the helmsman of the Kairn. He wore a suit of armor and had a sword strapped to his side. "Well, where is she?" Marcel pushed his way past Walter and finally getting a glimpse of Natalia with her cat in her arms.
"Iím right here. We were just going to have some dinner, would you care to join us?"
"Donít play games with me witch!" Marcel reached and drew his sword from its scabbard.
"Would you leave that alone! And stop calling our visitor a witch. She has come a long way, from across the sea. She was on her way to Thalos with her family when they were caught in the storm the other day. She has just been trying to find her parents or somebody to help her find her way to Thalos."
"Then why did she hex these men?" Marcel pointed to the farmers that Natalia had seen the day before.
"I didnít hex them. I was just talking in my native tongue."
"Is this true?" Marcel asked, putting his sword back in its scabbard.
"Of course it is truth. Iím just a young girl who has lost her family. I have to rely on the generosity of others. Something that only Walter has shown me."
"Begging your pardon, my lady, Iím only doing my job," Marcel turned and glared at the farmers that led him there. "I think that you should come with me, back to Lexington."
"Why? So I can be charged as a witch?"
"Not at all, my lady. I canít speak for everybody but people will be fearful of you because of your eyes, your hair and the animal you carry. Maybe we should get you a cloak."
"May we leave in the morning?"
"As you wish, my lady," Marcel said. "You two, come with me."
Marcel left then and closed the door. Natalia watched them leave. Walter finished their dinner. It was good, but a little too spicy for Nataliaís liking. After the meal, she picked up Moonbeam and went to bed with the cat beside her.
She dreamed of her home in Killian, of her friends and her teacher at the Academy. She thought of her parents and offered a silent prayer to Rejeena, goddess of luck. She hoped that they too had made it to safety. She felt a tear starting to well up in her eye and she wiped it away. Hopefully tomorrow would be a better day.