Querna

                                    Chapter 1

                                    The Beginning of a Race

            Dreana sighed, but grudgingly took out her mat anyway.  It was time for prayer.  Her stomach lurched unpleasantly at the mere thought of a nice two-hours worth of sitting.

            Sitting.

Sitting.

Okay, so she was supposed to pray, too, but that wasn't exactly Dre's forte.  Her muscles would ache after just one hour of inactivity, yearning desperately for motion: running, jumping, hunting, walking—anything that involved moving.  Instead, she had to sit.  And sit.  And sit.

She didn't have the best level of concentration.  One hour of prayer time involved just praying, and mostly prayers of thanks.  You could only ask for so many things.  "Geeze," Dre thought, "there are a lot of regulations in prayer."  The other hour was meditation.  This was the worst.  Dre couldn't do any of that—she couldn't sit still.  She wanted to move.  She was desperate to move.

Unrolling her prayer mat, Dre took a seat and flipped over the hourglass that would measure two hours.  Fridara, the leader of the Natresses, had given Dre one after discovering her outside before prayer time was over.  Dre innocently had replied by telling Fridara that she had thought two hours had long past.

They hadn't.

Dre couldn't help looking out the window.  It was so beautiful today after the nice rain they had yesterday.  Sunlight came through the trees, dappling the earthen floor with light; the plants looked to be at their greenest in a while after the rain yesterday; it was the perfect temperature, not too hot, not too cold…

Dre closed her eyes tightly.  She.  Had.  To.  Concentrate.  There was no way around praying. 

In the pictures that would be drawn of her later, she was always pictured glowing with divine light.  A scarlet circle, not unsimilar to a ruby, would be sparkling on her forehead.  Her face was calm, collected, cool.  She had an ominous air to her in these pictures; you would not want to cross her.  These pictures were usually backed with beautiful forests, animals leaping about her.  She occasionally had her bow drawn, looking with piercing eyes upon her prey. 

Dre was very unlike this in reality.

Far from fat, her features were sort of rounded, if that's how you would describe it.  She had a circular head; her small nose in the nub of her face was surrounded by freckles.  When open, her eyes were warm and the shade a striking emerald-green.  A thick, dirty blond mess of hair fell, tangled, to her shoulders.  A circular scar rested exactly on the middle of her forehead; it was as if someone had carved it with a knife on her head.  Dre had a very happy look, even with the dirt smudges on her face and the large quantity of earth stored under her fingernails.  She was the sort of person one would like to befriend; the air around her was inviting.

Even with her eyes closed, Dre could feel the cool breeze from her open window.  She thought of all the small animals, which would be scurrying to and fro around her hut.  It was spring; everything was still emerging from its slumber.  The forest was awakening.  She could hear the mating calls of the birds, the occasional grunts of an awakening bear…

She scrunched up her face.  "I have to concentrate!" she told herself firmly. 

"Why?"  she suddenly wondered.  "Why pray?"

"It pleases Savonna!" she thought in response.

"How do they know that?"  she pondered.  "Hm?"

Dre reprimanded herself for thinking this.  They—the teachers who had taught her to pray, older Natresses—knew best.  Dre was quite ignorant compared to them.  She knew it.

She opened one eye and glanced at the hourglass.  The results were grim.  Probably a twentieth of the sand had hit the bottom.  That was all.  She sighed glumly.  "Is this ever going to be over?

Be optimistic!  Soon it will be over.  Just… nineteen-twentieths left.

That didn't help!  Nineteen-twentieths… way too much to be hopeful. 

"No it isn't," she chided herself.  "I can look up!  It'll end eventually!"

Eventually.  Eventually.  That was the key word.  It wasn't over now.

"Stop it!  I don't want to be pessimistic!"  Dre bit her lip and clenched her fists.  She.  Must.  Look.  Up.  Couldn't.  Be.  A.  Pessimist.

She usually wasn't this anxious.  What was happening?  I mean, sure, she was always eager to get out of prayer, but not this unfocused.  "Maybe something's up,"  she thought.  "Maybe something exciting is finally happening!"

No it isn't.  Natress life was boring.  Why would something happen?  It never had before.

"Stop it!  Being a Natress is exciting enough,"  Dre assured herself.  She was exasperated.  Her mind just wasn't following directions.

Heh.  Enough.  That didn't mean it was truly exhilarating.  Just enough to keep anybody occupied.

Dre clenched her fists harder.  She needed to stop thinking so irreverently of Natress life.  And, speaking of irreverence, she needed to pray! 

"Thanks Savonna for giving me your Gifts,"  Dre began in her mind.  That was how she always started.  Sometimes she wondered how blessed she was with these gifts.  Maybe they were the reason she had been abandoned as an infant.

Hm.  Now there's a reason she hadn't thought of.  As a baby, she had been left with the Natresses.  She had a feeling she was abandoned; for some reason, she knew her parents were still alive.  It didn't really bother her.  Maybe they had a really good reason for doing it.  They had left her in good hands anyway; the Natresses had raised her well.

Being a Natress was the only life she'd ever known and she had never been out of the forest.  She'd come close once, though, when chasing a small rabbit on the hunt.  She had arrived at the very edge of the forest, and saw people.  Real people at work.  She guessed they were farmers; she had read about them in books.

Dre snorted.  That might have been the only thing she ever got out of those cursed things.  Books were evil.  Dre couldn't stand them.  A lot of the words didn't make much sense and she was hopeless at writing.  Absolutely hopeless.

Oy!  There she was, getting unfocused again.  But somehow, she didn't think she could possibly get praying.  "I guess I can… skip prayer today,"  Dre murmured to herself in the most nonchalant tone she could manage.

Natresses were not allowed to skip prayer.

Not even Dre, with all her talent at hunting.  It just… didn't work.  Savonna would not be happy.

"Thanks Savonna for everything; I honor you and hope you'll forgive me.  I just have another way of worshiping you."  Dre quickly strung together these words while kneeling with her head to the ground.  Getting up, she began to dress.

During prayer, they were only supposed to wear their white underclothes.  It symbolized… curse it.  Dre couldn't remember that lesson.  "Bah," she murmured to herself.  "It doesn't matter."

She pulled a tan shirt over her undershirt, and pulled a skirt over her shorts.  She tied it quickly, and then pulled a brown vest on.  She draped her quiver of arrows, which also contained her bow over her shoulder and got up when—

CRASH.

She was overcome by dizziness and tripped over a stray bowl she had left around.  Her head spun from her dizzy spell and throbbed from the pain of falling on it.  She lay there for a few moments, looking at the ceiling as it came in and out of focus.

"There's something going on," she told herself.  "I know I've heard something about this kind of predicament before…"

Her lessons.  She needed to think back.  There was something, something she had been taught.  She knew it.  Somewhere deep within her mind, there was information buried about this situation.

It was hard trying to think with the dizziness.  She needed to figure this out; it was important.  And she needed it to stop.  Her lightheadedness was beginning to get steadily worse. 

Ah hah!  It was… a disturbance.  That was the word.  A disturbance in nature.  She needed to report to the Shrine.  She hadn't been there in a while.  It was about a half-a-mile from her hut.

Now, if she could only get up.

Dre rolled over and onto her stomach—it took major effort.  She lifted herself onto her knees, very unsteadily, with her hands.  Her whole body shaking, she took her leg out in front of her.  Now the other leg and then she lifted herself up...  She was on her feet.  Her sense of balance was completely out of wack.  She swerved this way and that, trying to stand up straight.  She couldn't stand still, the dizziness was far too bad.  She grabbed onto a pole, sweat dribbling down her face…

And she vomited.

"Gross,"  she thought quietly.  "I can… get to it later…"

Her knees buckled.  She began to feel sick again.  "No!" she told herself firmly.  "No matter how dizzy—I need to get to the shrine." 

She tried to get up again.  Beads of sweat rolled down her face, the effort she put into this was large.  When she finally accomplished her task, she unsteadily walked through her door.  Animals scurried in front of her path, collecting acorns and food.  Birds chirped at each other as they flew past.  The Natress passed an unfortunate worm being pulled out of the ground by a hungry bird.  Dre would typically adore these kinds of things, but she was a tad preoccupied. 

She would usually run to the Shrine, happy for the stimulation.  Now, however, she could barely get herself to put one foot very slowly in front of the other.  This all her concentration, and she would still falter often.  And, occasionally, she would fall flat on her face into a large, wet puddle of mud, as she had just done.

"This is great fun,"  she murmured quietly, wiping off her eyes and regaining her semi-balance when she got back onto her feet.  She just let the rest of the mud drip-drip-drip off of her.  She didn't have the energy to wipe it off.  In fact, she didn't have much energy at all.

Drip-drip-drip-drip-drip-drip.

After falling twice more—no more mud incidents, just into the dry earth—she could finally see the Shrine in sight.  She gave a silent cheer and tried to pick up the pace, but fell again, so she grudgingly kept her time-consuming pace.  Finally, she arrived and ended her unbearingly slow trek.

She sat down next to the other two Natresses who had arrived, bowing slightly to Fridara, the leader of the cult.

The remaining Natresses filed in; the amount ending up being about twenty.  It was a tight squeeze under the tin roof of the Shrine.  A few of the Natresses had a chuckle over Dre's muddy appearance.  Fridara gave them a look that quickly silenced them.  She got up.

"Hm, well, you're obviously here for information about the disturbance."  Nods from the cult members followed this statement.  "Well, I assure you, there is nothing seriously wrong.  In fact, the disturbance never really was a 'disturbance;' it was just a way to gather you in one spot."  Dre didn't like this piece of news; all that discomfort for nothing.

"Savonna's first attendant was killed in an unfortunate accident during the hunt they had yesterday.  The first three who arrived will have the privilege of participating in a race to see who will fill this position.  The two who arrive after the winner will still have the privilege of becoming Savonna's attendants." 

Fridara paused as the Natresses took in these words.  There was a lot of murmuring; most of the Natresses thought this was a ridiculous excuse for all the discomfort.  Others were excited.  Most wondered who the first three to arrive were.

Dre had realized she was one of the first to arrive.  "Wow," she thought to herself, "a chance to be Savonna's first attendant!"  She smiled.  "See brain, something is happeningNatress life isn't all that boring." 

The murmuring subsided; all the speculations had been discussed.  None of the guessing had figured Dre to be among the special three.  Fridara stood up and cleared her throat.

"The first to arrive were Sharina, Delani, and Dreana.  You all must report here in the morning, when details about the race will be given and the race will begin.  You can return to your huts now."

The dizziness, which had subsided, now returned to Dre in full measure.  She didn't think it was because of an outward source though; she was dead nervous about this "race" or whatever it was.  She hoped she could win.

Dre glanced at her competition.  Sharina had shiny raven hair, tied into a beautiful and complex-looking knot of some sort.  Her black, piercing eyes were hard to read; Dre could not tell if she was nervous or not.  Her dark clothes, though simple, were elegant and showed Sharina's figure in the best light.  Sharina had never rubbed Dre the right way… She seemed kind of showy.  She had never been nice to Dre anyway, ignoring her and seeming to never sense her presence no matter how many times Dre had greeted her with a polite "hello."

Delani on the other hand was a nice, round sort of girl with a beautiful smile that she almost never failed to have on.  Dre liked her, though they never really had any time to interact; their huts were situated on opposite ends of the Shrine.  She had short, light brown hair and light blue eyes.  Right now, Delani was almost shaking with nervousness.

Dre trudged quietly back to her hut, a little frightened of what was to come. 

                         * * * * *

  The next morning, after dreams Dre was sure had much to do with her nervousness, Dre got out of bed and began to shove a few things into a cotton bag.  She packed her other set of clothes—Natresses only had two, and traditionally they both looked exactly the same—and some food.  She also made sure she had a few bowls and things to make her meals, but she was uneasy.  What if she had forgotten something she needed?  Dre hadn't ever left the forest for travel or had to pack a bag. 

Throwing her quiver and her bag over her shoulder, she ran rapidly to the Shrine.  She sat down next to Delani, the only other one who had arrived.  Wow—she was early.  Luck was on her side today, it seemed.

Delani looked queasy, almost as if she was going to vomit.  Dre smiled at her and said, "It'll be okay, I'm positive."

The other Natress blinked a few times.  "Oh, I don't know.  I'm a clumsy oaf and you know it—I'll never win; I'll probably never even make it to the end of the race."

"With that attitude you won't,"  Dre remarked.  "Just relax.  You'll make it, and you'll probably win.  Personally, I'm rooting for you.  Sharina had better not win."

"Why aren't you rotting for yourself?"

Dre shrugged.  "I guess I never really figured I could win.  I'm more concentrated on finishing the race in one piece and I began to feel a little frightened—I've never been outside the forest that I could remember.  But now that you mention it, maybe I can…"  Dre thought of the possibilities.  This thought seemed impossible, yet maybe she would win and become Savonna's first attendant.  How wonderful that would be!  She smiled blissfully at the thought.

"I bet you'll win,"  Delani said.  "You're a lot faster than me and Sharina."  Dre shrugged again.

The other Natresses filed in, and soon Fridara appeared.  She took out three envelopes, which looked rather full.

"So, the race will begin here.  Depending on when you arrive, you will begin.  Sharina, you arrived first, you start first.  Delani second, Dre third.  You will receive clues that will lead you to the end of the race."  She gave Sharina, Delani, and Dre each one of the envelopes she was holding.  "You may open them now.  And Sharina, go ahead and start.  Delani will begin twenty minutes after you; Dre twenty minutes after her."

Dre only half-listened to these last words after opening her envelope.  She couldn't make head or tail of these beautiful characters on the paper.  She wasn't good at reading regular languages, and this seemed like something ancient.

She groaned inwardly.  She hadn't even started, and she was sure she wasn't going to finish.  If she couldn't understand the clues, how would she?

She watched Sharina retreat into the distance.  Nervousness filled her.  Sharina may already be a step ahead of them—she was gifted in languages.  Delani, however, Dre knew had just about as many clues as herself.  Confusion was written all over the poor girl's face.

Dre examined the interesting characters.  They reminded her of water because of the way they seemed to flow gracefully on the page.  They reminded Dre of nothing at all; no letters, shapes, pictures, or anything Dre could think of resembled these letters.

Delani left, and twenty minutes after, Dre followed.  She walked through the forest, wondering uneasily about what to do with these clues. 

Suddenly, a blast of sunlight hit Dre head-on, causing her to cover her face.  She had stepped out of the forest without realizing it.  "Oh wow,"  she gasped.  Small farms were about a half-mile away from her, people working hard in the fields.  The Natress fingered her envelope glancing about the open land.  There were hardly any trees in sight; that wasn't right.  So many people were around the farms: talking, working, cooking, and a large score of other things Dre had never really witnessed properly.  Dre had never seen this amount of people in what spot.  She was also trying to adjust to the sunlight; she was used to the beams being sheltered by the trees.

Everything was so different.  Dre started to get a little panicked.  What if she didn't have enough knowledge of the land outside the Sher Woods to make it?  She knew she probably didn't.  Oh dear…

She made herself think about the clues to get her mind off of the amazingly different land around her.  Think.  Where would someone be who could decipher this language?  Somebody, anybody, who understood it?

It hit her.  "A library."

                         * * * * *

Oh wow, I finally got Dre out into the world; she has been in my head for a long time.  I'm actually happy with this chapter.  I've written it a billion times, and they all proved sort of unsatisfactory. 

Savonna is greatly influenced by Artemis of Greek mythology, so don't bug me about it.  That's because the first Dreana I ever had was a nymph attendant of Artemis.  So, yeah.