Boston and Meriope rode out front. Meriope kept a watchful eye on the trail, while Boston watched everything else. As an elf, her sense concerning humans, especially potentially dangerous humans, had been greatly enhanced. Her eyes, in daylight, could pick out a hummingbird a half mile away, and if she tuned her ears in that direction, she could hear the little buzz of the wings.
The trail ran right down the road, as Lockhart surmised, and it looked clear enough, even in the drizzling rain, that Lockhart could have followed it himself. But after a while, he complained.
“They can’t have gotten that much of a head start.”
Lockhart, Decker, and Elder Stow brought up the rear, but rode better on bareback than they thought they could. Elder Stow slid around a little with his shorter legs, but with the fairy weave they wore, they were able to compensate some for the lack of saddles. Boston showed them how to separate a piece and have it reach around the horse’s belly, and form into something like a seat. Elder Stow even managed to make something like stirrups, after he learned how.
“I don’t think we should try to gallop,” Decker said.
“Certainly not,” Elder Stow agreed
“Should not have to,” Lockhart said. “That wagon has to be pretty slow moving.”
Around two o’clock, the rain slackened off, though the clouds never went away. Boston shouted, and Meriope looked up at the top of the next hill. Boston saw a bunch of men, clearly, and the mule drawn wagon stuffed with all their things. Even Meriope saw the man turn and wave to them. Then the man lifted something.
“Get down,” Boston shouted, just before a bullet creased the trunk of a tree. People scurried to get themselves and their horses under cover. The man let off five rounds of automatic fire that tore up the ground and a couple of bushes. Then Boston saw him wave again and walk off, dipping below the horizon of the hill.
“I don’t understand,” Meriope said. Decker let out a string of curse words and she said she was not asking about that part.
Lockhart pulled out Katie’s pistol to show. “They have most of our guns,” he said. “They work like a compact, all-in-one version of your bow and arrows. They fire a projectile, like an arrowhead.” He put a bullet in a tree, and Meriope jumped at the Crack! though her horse remained steady. “They are very deadly.”
“And they have our two rifles,” Decker added. “They are much bigger guns and can fire a long distance.”
“How did he figure out how to use it so quickly?” Elder Stow asked.
“The Masters?” Boston suggested. “I mean, they might work for the Masters.”
“That would be my guess,” Decker said.
“Or help,” Lockhart countered, and pointed toward the sky. “But I can’t honestly think of any gods in this jurisdiction that we might have pissed off.”
“Come,” Meriope said, lest they talk away their advantage. “They are not far. We have a chance to catch them.”
The group rushed as much as they could down the hill they were on and up the gradual incline to where the wagon had been at the top of the next rise. They stopped when they got there, and stared. Twice the distance they just traveled, and up at the top of a small ridge, they saw the same wagon and the same man, laughing and waving. At least, Boston could see them and described them to the group. She saw the man raise something and she shouted.
“Back down. Behind the hill.”
No one argued. They did not see or hear the bullets, but they felt certain some got fired. They talked while Boston got down and snuck up behind a bush to spy on the enemy. With a glance at Meriope, she went invisible, but also let the bush hide her for fear the thieves had help, and her being invisible might do her no good at all.
“Help from an outsider I would say,” Elder Stow cast the tie vote. “But I also cannot think of any gods in this place that we have angered.”
“Well,” Decker said with a look at Meriope. “They can’t have traveled twice our distance on foot, with a heavy wagon pulled by one mule, without help.”
Meriope nodded for Decker, then looked down. “I am praying for Artemis to come and guide us to victory in our hunt.”
“And it has been raining for two days now?” Boston asked as she scooted back down the hill and leapt up on Honey’s back.
“This is the third day without the sun,” Meriope said.
“Boy,’ Boston said, when Honey settled down. “Apollo has to be unhappy.”
“Why?” Lockhart asked. “I thought Katie said he was the god of healing?”
“And music and poetry, truth and prophecy, and other things,” Meriope said.
“His chief job is god of the sun,” Boston said.
“No. Light and warmth, but Helios drives the sun,” Meriope corrected her. “Every day, Helios drive the golden chariot of the gods across the sky. Over the ocean, they say the dwarfs of the mountains dig out the gold. The nymphs in the dark fashion it to make the chariot. The nymphs of light make the harness and the reins. And every day, Helios hitches up his fiery horses and rises in a new chariot.”
“The day comes up fresh and new every morning,” Decker encouraged her, and Meriope smiled and looked again at the ground.
“We should move before we lose the trail,” she said.
“Right,” Boston agreed, but Lockhart teased her, having guessed at something.
“Everyone, follow the nymph.”
“Not funny,” Boston groused.
The trail remained easy, and after some thought, Boston asked how Meriope knew so much about the gods, and in particular, Apollo. She confessed.
“When I was young, my father brought us out of Thessaly and into this land. We were pushed out from our land by new people, great horsemen in their own way. My mother died when we came to Corinth. Father brought her to the temple of Apollo, seeking help, but the healers could do nothing for her. My father stayed in the temple to pray, and when he was done, he dedicated his life to the god.”
“You were orphaned?”
“No,” Meriope laughed at the thought. “But I was raised in the temple, and around the priests, and the few priestesses who served in the alcove dedicated to Apollo’s sister, Artemis.” Meriope shrugged. “I suppose it was my destiny to serve Artemis, but I don’t mind.”
“So, how did you end up living in the wilderness?” Boston asked.
“I was driven. I was young. But I kissed my father and left without anyone the wiser. I walked on the road to see where it would take me, and as the day was coming to an end, I found myself outside the shrine. One old woman was the last, and she told me the story before she died.”
“Good,” Boston said. Since entering into a world with no television, no internet, and not even any printed books, she had come to appreciate a good story.
“Out behind the sanctuary, there is a spring that makes a small pool before it becomes a stream and runs down the hills to join the river and flow to the sea. One day, Artemis came to that spot and thought to refresh and relax herself after her hunt. She stripped naked and entered the clean water, and her nymphs attended her. Shortly, a hunter came, following his hunting dogs. The dogs were attracted to the goddess, as all such dogs are. The hunter spied on Artemis in all her beauty and decided he would rape her. She kindly put out his eyes and charged his dogs to take him home where he would live out the rest of his days a blind man, whose last sight was that of the goddess, Artemis, in all her glory.”
“I heard she turned him into a stag and his own dogs did not recognize him and tore him apart,” Boston said.
Meriope shook her head. “That is not the story I was told by the old woman who claimed to have seen Artemis herself in that place.”
Boston shrugged and asked the question she really wanted to ask. “So, tell me about the nymphs. What are they like? What do they look like?”
“How can you not know?” Meriope sounded surprised. “The people in the villages and small homes in the wilderness all pay homage to the nymphs of the wild. They seek their protection and help in time of trouble, and leave regular offerings so the nymphs do not turn against them. Some are tall as men, but thin, like they have little substance. They have sharp eyes and sharp ears, even such as yours…” Meriope paused, and Boston had to prompt her
“Go on, or is that all you know?”
“No. There are small ones, too. No longer than my forearm, and they dance in the air on gossamer wings, or wings like the butterfly. They all have great magic, and play tricks on poor mortals when they get cross.”
“Go on. You mentioned dark ones, and dwarfs.”
“Yes, dwarfs. They are said to stand no taller than half human height, but they are strong like stone, and they are all covered in long fur, though many believe it is hair…” Meriope paused again, but this time she appeared to be thinking. “The dark ones I cannot say. They are great craftsmen, but I have heard they can be frightening to look at. I would rather not meet one, if it is all the same to you.”
“I thought so,” Boston said, without explaining. “But the ones of the light would not be so bad.”
“Indeed,” Meriope replied. “It must be wonderful to be so close to the gods, to serve them day and night.”
“Sometimes being that close to the gods is not a safe place to be,” Boston said, softly, and Meriope stopped her horse half-way up the ridge. “Tell me what you know of the gods,” Boston asked. “I know Artemis is a wonderful person. Most of them are good, but do you know any that are maybe not so good, or inclined to do some not so good things?”
Meriope shook her head. “Even if I knew of one or two, I am afraid even to think of them, and I will never say their names out loud.”
Boston nodded and kicked her horse to make the top of the ridge. She looked ahead, but saw no wagon this time. She saw Corinth instead, and after judging the sun, she shouted behind her. The city is up ahead. I bet that is where they have gone. We should be able to make it before the sun sets.”
Elder Stow straggled up from the back to stop with Deker and Lockhart where Meriope stopped. “What is up ahead?” he asked.
“Corinth,” Meriope said.
Monday, Christmas Day, Only a Merry Christmas post.
The second half of Avalon, episode 5.5, Artemis Home will post on Tuesday, Wednesday, AND Thursday. Don’t forget Thursday this coming week to read the conclusion of the episode.
A bit late, but like Christmas, it’s the thought that counts…