Bruten, Grogor and Thag had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. They were rude, uncouth, unclean, stank and were prone to make noises some of which also stank. Alexis referred to them as Neolithic rednecks. Boston called that an insult to all true rednecks while the women moved to the other side of the fire, and then some.
Lockhart, Captain Decker and Lincoln tried to stay on the friendly side of the fire. Curiously, neither Mingus nor Roland seemed offended by any of it. “I thought that was normal human behavior,” Mingus said later, and with a straight face. Roland admitted he put up some kind of magical shield that protected his eyes, ears and nose from the worst of it.
The travelers were all inclined to make for their tents early that evening and paused only for a minute when Bruten asked where they were headed come the morning.
“North, generally.” Lockhart had already decided to not give out any more information than necessary, and apparently the others came to the same conclusion.
Bruten nodded, though certainly he had no idea which direction was north, or what north was for that matter. “You are headed for the fortress people on the side of the mountains. We are, too. We know the way. We will take you.”
“Boston,” Lockhart called and she glanced at her amulet. She tried not to make a show of it. Grogor and Thag sat up straighter when the redhead came close.
“We are going—“ Boston started to speak, but Bruten interrupted.
“That way,” Bruten pointed, and he was exactly on target. “We know the land and the people there. We will take you.”
Lockhart was not the only one to wonder what they might expect in return, and it took some courage on his part to say it, but he said, “We can go together.”
“The red hair knows the way,” Grogor said to his father.
“Well, of course she knows the way,” Bruten shoved the boy. Thag laughed and showed off all of his teeth. Boston thought there might be nine altogether.
“Well, goodnight,” Lockhart smiled and shoved Boston behind him to scoot her off to her tent. As he came to his own tent, he found Lincoln, armed and ready.
“First watch. Wake you in three hours?” Lockhart glanced back at the three by the fire and then responded.
“Watch out for anything in orange.”
Lincoln nodded. “And the werewolf, and the bokarus, and the ghouls.” He wandered back to the fire.
“The hair is right, but she is too young,” Bruten was saying.
“A daughter?” Thag suggested.
“Must be,” Grogor said.
Lincoln shook his head. It had to be in code.
No one and nothing bothered the travelers in the night, and the three rednecks slept and snored all night long, hard as it was for the others to hear. It did have the virtue of keeping the guards awake.
In the morning, the three goons were anxious to get moving. Bruten said it was a full day, or two if they did not get moving. Boston confirmed that they were about seventy-five miles or so from the next gate, so they hurried.
All through the day, Lincoln and Lieutenant Harper pointed out where the trail their guides followed was better than following the straight line given by the amulet. When they came to a cliff they would have had to climb and the three guided them a half-mile to a sheltered trail that lead gently up the side. Captain Decker told the others to shut-up, and at least Lieutenant Harper said, “Yes, sir.”
The sun was very low in the sky by the time they reached the foot of the mountain. They stood at the top of a small hill, in an open field where they had a fair view. Bruten explained as he pointed up the mountainside.
“You see? Real mountains. Not like the hills we have walked through. They say beyond the mountaintop is a high country, much higher than the land we have been on. No one goes there. There are stories.”
Grogor interrupted. “The Were people live there. The stories say they can appear as a bear, and once as an eagle. They say when the moon turns full they hunt as wolves.”
“Stories to frighten children,” Bruten interjected.
“But Bruten,” Thag had something to say. “Tonight the moon will be full.”
Bruten slapped the big man on the arm. “Child,” he said.
“What is that?” Alexis wondered.
“Transylvanian Plateau,” Lincoln answered, but it was not what she was pointing at.
“A wall of trees,” Roland answered. “I would say our fort.”
“Yes,” Bruten smiled and nodded for the elf. “Your eyes are like the eagle. That is the way up, blocked by the great wall. Behind it is much flat land and the village and they say a way to the high country that does not have to climb the mountain peak.”
“You don’t know?” Lockhart was suspicious.
Bruten paused before he answered. “We trade, skins and such, but only at the village edge. We have never gone past the wall.” If it was a lie, it was skillful.
“We best move if we expect to get there before dark,” Captain Decker said, and they started down the other side of the hill.
It was dark by the time they arrived, but just twilight dark. The land was covered with spring and the light stayed long in the sky. If it had been winter, they never would have made it. As it was, the men at the gate were hesitant about letting them in. They told them to go away and come back in the morning. Lockhart figured he had nothing to lose.
“We have an important message for Faya and it cannot wait until morning.” He pulled Roland to the front so they could get a good look at the elf.
“A message from the gods?” One of the guards asked.
“It cannot wait until morning,” Lockhart simply repeated those words and with that they were let in but told to remain by the gate until the elders could come. So they waited, and sat, and waited some more until Captain Decker made a confession.
“I wish you brought a deck of cards, too.”
Then they waited some more until at last they were approached, not by village elders, but by a lone woman, a beauty of the first rank.
“Faya?” Alexis said.
“No. Hair is all wrong,” Lincoln answered
“I am –“
“Wait, wait. Don’t tell me.” Lincoln had the database out and announced the woman’s name. “Raini. She is Faya’s younger cousin.” The woman smiled and then several men came up to join her.
“And you are?”
“Robert Lockhart, Mam. Ben and Alexis Lincoln, Captain Decker and Lieutenant Harper.”
“Military,” the woman interrupted. “And with weapons I have never seen before. I can see they are formidable.”
“Yes, and Roland and Mingus are friends. Mingus is father to both Roland and Alexis.”
“Yes, the elves,” Raini said. Both had removed their hats out of respect for the Lady and though this was no goddess, they all felt she was not far from the designation. “Welcome to our homes.”
“And Boston,” Lockhart paused. “Boston?” He raised his voice. “Where has that girl gotten to?”
“Where are Winken, Blinken and Nod?” Alexis wondered, referring to their three trail guides. Katie Harper thought to speak into her wrist communicator.
“Boston. Are you there? Where are you?”
The answer came back. “Help! I’ve been kidnapped. Bruten and ow!” The voice cut off.