Aria and Tora in Arda
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Aria has spent the morning following the trail of a giant snake. Its smell is unfamiliar to her, and it is too long since she met new life in these lands. It is fast, but it does not travel in a straight line; and Aria does not tire when she hunts, the wind in her fur and Tora at her side.

The poor creature seems to have tried to swallow a giant mirror. It's clearly exhausted and hurting, with its mouth forced wide open for hours or days. Snakes aren't made for long chases; it must have been maddened by the discomfort.

Aria spends a few minutes calming the snake down, and then she tries to pry the mirror loose as gently as she can, but her paws aren't made for delicate work; she carelessly touches the reflective surface and -

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She's still in a grassland, but dryer grass - not brittle, but at the point where it's clearly been feeling the heat and could use some rain.

To one side of her are some snow-capped mountains in the distance, and (closer) some farms and a village.  If she's got good hearing, she can hear some cows lowing; if she's got good eyesight she can see more villages in the distance, following the range of the mountains.

To the other side, on the grasslands - a little ways away; they haven't sensed her yet - is a herd of horses.

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Aria has excellent senses in her smilodon shape, but they only serve to deepen the mystery! Was the mirror a teleport trap? It did look magical, but it hadn't done anything to the snake except stick in its mouth, so she'd assumed it was safe to touch...

She sniffs the grass. It doesn't match any kind she's familiar with, at least not precisely, but she'd be the first to admit she neglected her studies of flowering grasses in the past century, and it might well be some rare variant that's actually quite common somewhere out east.

The problem with this theory is that no matter how far east, it should still be winter. It might be late summer somewhere in the far south of Garund, or in south of any of the great continents for that matter. Did she just get greater teleport-trapped? That sounds like a ridiculous proposition for a mirror she found in the middle of nowhere but, if there existed a resettable greater-teleport trap, it might well land the poor snake that tried to eat it in the metaphorical middle of nowhere!

She has to find someone she can pay for a couple of plane shifts back home; poor Tora will be going mad with worry!

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Who, of course, chooses that moment to appear behind her. She looks a little worried, but mostly smug.

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This is in fact very reassuring!

"What happened? I was transported here when I touched the mirror - the reflective side. What did you see?"

(She can only talk to Tora for a few minutes each day without using a spell, but she has the spell and so she never tries to conserve the ability.)

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"You disappeared. And I only saw myself in the mirror. So I deduced you did it by touching the mirror, and I touched it too and followed you, because I am clever."

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"You are!" She doesn't quite want to hug and wrestle Tora about it while they're in an unfamiliar place and it's remotely possible they're in danger, but she is definitely going to rub against her flank contentendly for half a minute.

"We don't know where we are," she says eventually. "Let's explore."

This place is quite pretty, and she's in no particular hurry, but she does want to find out where they are. Random villagers may or may not know the name of a kingdom big enough to find on a map, but they'll point her towards the nearest bigger settlement, and eventually she'll find someone who's heard about continents.

She'll get close enough to be able to see people, and then, if they look basically unthreatening, she'll shift human to be less threatening herself and go for a chat.

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Sveyn is trying to decide just how many of his sheep to sell this fall.  Ordinarily, he'd only sell one or two for money for the winter, but there's disturbing news this year.  The White Wizard has turned evil, the Dunlendings are threatening to invade, and the Dark Lord of the East has been raiding horses.  And as if that isn't enough, they say the king is looking like he'll be on his deathbed soon.

With all that, maybe it'd be wiser to sell more sheep now rather than risk them dying in a war?

(Maybe right after harvest, which's looking like it'll be soon?)

He's still throwing the matter back and forth in his mind when he looks up and sees two huge cats approaching from the north.  He stares dumbfounded.  They're bigger than anything he's seen - one of them looks like it might be even bigger than the beasts from the old songs - and they're coming straight toward the village!

He calls for his dog, and then checks an order to round up the sheep - they'll be less of a target scattered - and blows his horn.

Then he stands, spear in hand, trembling.  If these cats want to take just one or two of the sheep and go, he doesn't think he'll be able to do anything.  But if they're after more, or after the village, he'll do what he can while the others are coming.

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That's really very brave of him! (Not to say suicidal; even an ordinary wild dire tiger wouldn't be deterred by one man with a spear, if it had reason to attack). She doesn't want to scare him needlessly, though; she shifts human at a good distance, and asks Tora to stay behind before she gets anywhere close to him (or to the sheep).

Human-shaped, Aria looks like a fairly ordinary adventurer; likely to be a ranger or a druid or something in that vein, to the discerning eye, but an adventurer regardless. She has no metal on her; she wears a coat of leather stitched in layers from leaf-shaped pieces over a green-and-brown robe, a circlet of green threads tying back her hair, and carries a gnarled blackwood staff, along with various rings, pouches, pendants, and other mainstays of the adventuring lifestyle. (This is much like the backpacking lifestyle, but graduated to bags of holding.)

"Hello!" she calls out, once in loud-voice-but-not-yelling range. "I come in peace, and would ask some questions!"

Her tongues tells her that the language the man hears isn't one she's familiar with.

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Was that just skinchanging?

Sveyn boggles.  Things are walking out of legends now.  He blows the horn again while he still can.

Now the skinchanger - wizard or Elf or wolfman or something even stranger - is looking like something halfway between a Rider and the sort of herdsman who stays out too long and goes strange.  "Hello, sir," he says.  And then he takes another look and corrects, "Er, ma'am.  Who are you and what brings you here to Aldsdale?"

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"I am called Aria," she says, coming closer. "And my companion is Tora. I am unsure myself how I came to be here; it appears I am rather lost. So I would ask of you the name of this land, its people and settlements and powerful mages and the gods that you worship, and then probably directions somewhere where my questions would be better answered. And anything else that I should know but do not know to ask, being a stranger in this land."

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She doesn't know the name of the country?  Well, Sveyn isn't sure whether Elves care about countries.

"... This's Rohan.  If you're looking for the king, he's in Edoras.  You can follow the road there, if you want."  He points east, along the mountains.  "Or the Marshal Erkenbrand is at Helm's Deep."  He points the other way along the mountains.  "If you're looking for a... powerful wizard?... the White Wizard's in Isengard, but he's gone evil.  They say the Lady of the Wood is up north in the forest?"

He isn't quite sure what she means by "people who do wizardly things", if she isn't just asking about wizards?  And he's going to try to dodge her question about the Powers; he doesn't really remember much about them himself.

Some more people are now running through the fields toward them, in answer to Sveyn's horn-call, so he dares to ask a few questions himself.

"Er, where are you from?  And how can you skinchange?"

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"I am from the Verduran Forest, which is on the continent of Avistan, in the human nations of Taldor and Andoran. I could draw you a map of the world if you think you can find Rohan on it. And I can shapechange because I'm a druid." That the word translates is encouraging.

"An evil, or" - wait, what? What kind of (human) language doesn't have a word for Evil? Food for thought.

"...an evil wizard does sound troubling, to those who live nearby; you have my sympathies. Who is the Lady of the Forest?"

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She can skinchange because she's a skinchanger?  ... All right, she doesn't want to explain.

"She's an Elf.  They say she can send out mists to blind you, and she just look at you and know everything you're thinking and you're never the same again... but I don't know much about her, ma'am."

 

Just then, some other men from the village run up - Osbald and Little Tam and Gunnar - with their work-axes in hand.  Their alarm turns to cautious surprise on seeing Aria.  Osbald nods politely.  "Welcome, lady, to our humble village in these unsettled times."

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That's two out of two locally-known spellcasters who are feared by the common folk. Not terribly unusual, but the lack of mention of any local clerics is troubling.

Aria greets the newcomers, and repeats her introduction. "What makes the times unsettled?" 

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Sveyn waits to let Osbald answer - he's more respected in the village.

"Lady, the king is old and ill, and the White Wizard isn't speaking to us anymore, and the orcs and Dunlendings have been raiding.  They say there'll be war soon."  And the weather has been too dry - he's thinking that might be the Wizard's doing too - but he's not going to trouble this strange foreign Rider-lady about that.

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"War with the Dunlendings? Who are they?" War with orcs is a given.

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"They live the other side of the Gap."  He points west.  "They've hated us since our grandfathers' grandfathers' time.  Call us strawheads" - he touches his blond hair - "and robbers, but they're the ones who rob us!  And they mark up their own faces."

Osbald saw some Dunlendings twice - once several years ago when an embassy was going to Edoras, and again last month when some prisoners had been taken from a raid - and he doesn't know much more about them.

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Sigh. Humans are almost always at war, and joining into bigger nations just makes the wars bigger and more destructive. These Dunlendings probably know as much of the men of Rohan - strangers who have always hated us, robbers and enemies.

It's natural for humans but that doesn't mean she has to like it, just that she won't interfere without a reason.

"I see. Do you have a" - she stumbles again. Why wouldn't cleric translate? "An empowered priest here, a servant of a god who uses their magic on your behalf?" Clerics are often better informed, and a local cleric might be her best bet for information-gathering before she leaves, but she's also curious now about their situation with the gods not meriting an answer and 'cleric' not translating at all.

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They look at each other, confused.

After a moment, Sveyn offers, "Maybe that's what the Elves are?  They say some of them came from the Powers?"

Little Tam interjects, "But they don't ever use magic for us!"

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"At the capital, then? Or do you mean there are none in all your lands?" That would be - well, definitely not true, but for random villagers to think so is extremely suspicious. 

...unless she landed somewhere specific, and these people are not random villagers at all. She'll be on her guard. If it's a trap, though, it's probably not one where telling people she knows about clerics is what makes them hostile.

"Where I come from, and in all the lands I have been to, the gods choose people who are - aligned with the particular god and their ideals and goals, and grant them magic. Healing, of course, and many other spells besides. Humans, as well as elves and dwarves and other races. In many lands, most towns have an empowered cleric within a day's ride. I have never been anywhere with no clerics at all."

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Again, they look at each other confused - and also wistful, this time.  Sveyn is remembering his brothers who died of the fever, and his love who died of the cough... it's been a long time since he thought of it as anything but a distant ache and a fact of life.   But if there's somewhere in this world where the Powers give people the power to fix things like that -

"That sounds wonderful, lady."  (Sveyn is echoing Osbald's form of address for her now, even though she doesn't seem to have minded either one.)  "But - where have you been where people can do that?"

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"Most of Avistan, northern Garund, a few places in Tian Xia. That doesn't mean anything to you, does it." She sighs. Considers offering her own limited healing resources before she moves on. She's not pressed for time, it's just that - healing sick and injured animals by the roadside is slightly frowned upon, because it goes against nature. A druid isn't supposed to help people who are in balance with their surroundings, and death is a natural and inescapable part of life. And she's not Good right now.

On the other hand, people are normally healed by clerics. Humans sighing wistfully about the clerics they've never had is not natural. And she is Chaotic right now, and not obeying any hard and fast rules.

"If you truly have no clerics, I might be able heal those of you who need it before I go," she offers. "I am no cleric, and my powers are limited, but if you are in need I may be able to help."

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It doesn't feel natural to anyone else either - but that's because they'd never seriously considered any other possibility.  They're all stunned by her offer.  Osbald - whose daughter is currently in bed with a fever - staggers back almost collapsing.

"Thank you!  Please, come - the village isn't far!"

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Sveyn whistles for his dog to round up the sheep.  He's not going to stay out here while this's happening.

As the dog happily leaps to work, Sveyn glances at the tiger with a little concern - is Aria going to bring it into the village too?

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Aria is glad to see the humans have good relations and some communications with their working dogs! She waves for Tora to come up.

"I've decided to spend an hour in the village. Do you want to come with me or stay here? We'll keep travelling later, I think."

Speaking to Tora with her human mouth and face doesn't produce anything the other humans can understand, but it should be clear enough that it's communication.

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