“Not too tight.” Greta said, but her captors ignored her. Then Greta realized her mistake. Gerraint and Festuscato both told her. These were old Celts, the people of the land before the Dacians moved against them. That had to be three hundred years ago, or certainly since the days of Decebalus, some seventy years ago. The old Celts once filled the entire border land between Olympus and Aesgard, stretching all the way from Gaul to Galatea in Asia Minor. She realized that she understood their language the night before and could speak it now if she chose, because she received help from another life. Danna, the mother of the gods of the Celts, filled her with this new tongue.
“Not too tight.” She repeated in the local Gallic dialect. They stopped. The woman nearly dropped her end of the rope which had the noose around Greta’s neck. The old man stepped back, though he did not loosen his grip on her shoulders. The young man gave up trying to tie her wrists altogether. Greta looked closely at the young one. He looked to be about twenty-eight, but from the look in his eyes and the grin on his face, Greta could tell these people were in trouble from too much inbreeding.
“You are a Druid?” The gruff man asked.
“I am the Woman of the Ways.” Greta said, giving her own name for the position. “And I am willing to go with you freely without the need for any ropes at all.”
The old man looked at her. He scrutinized her face and looked deeply into her eyes. He made a command decision and removed the rope from her neck.
“Is that wise?” The man’s wife asked.
“Kindness is never foolish.” Greta answered. The old man laughed at his wife, and the young man laughed, too, though he was not sure what he was laughing about.
“She even sounds like a Druid.” The old man said, and added, “Follow.” They walked, skirted the bog, and headed right back to the old road where Greta started that morning.
Her captors were Vilam of the Manclugh, his wife, Mayann, and their son Finbear, and they were indeed the remnants of the Gaelic peoples who hid in the great forest at the coming of the Dacians—the Gatae and the Yellow Hairs. Despite Greta’s own experience in the forest, she felt certain that these people were the main reason why those who entered the woods were never heard from again. They had the secret of their existence to protect and what better way than to make sure no one got out alive?
“We are the only ones who live on this side of the river.” Finbear talked without stop, much like Hans sometimes talked, except Finbear kept staring at her in a way that made her feel very uncomfortable.
“This side belongs to the Vee Villys,” he said.
Greta looked curiously at Mayann who looked clearly unhappy with Greta’s presence, but who spoke out of courtesy. “The Old folk, The Spirits of the night and day, the Good People of the Earth, the blessers of true believers.” She said that last rather loud, but Greta understood. Her own people lumped them all together as elves of light and dark, and then as an afterthought, put dwarfs in between the two elf types.
“How is it they let you live here?” she asked Mayann, but Finbear answered.
Ravenshold, that is, Sarmizegetusa is probably a good market for lumber.” Greta thought out loud. “And they probably don’t ask too many questions.”
They stopped. Vilam looked at her in a way which confirmed her thought, and he did not look too happy that she had guessed correctly.
“This is the way.” Vilam said, but Greta stopped him. She touched his arm when she recognized the rise.
“No, up there. I need to show you something,” she said. “I need to show Mayann.”
“Come now.” Vilam said, gruffly, though with kindness still in his voice. “You said you would go freely without ropes.”
“This will only take a minute. It concerns Liam.”
“Liam?” Mayann spoke and started up the rise. The rest were forced to follow.
From the top, they could see the cross some distance down the other side. “That new grave is Liam. The Nameless god had mercy on him. He did not suffer.”
Mayann ran down the hill and fell on the grave in tears.
“Gvidion’s praise.” Vilam said, before he turned curious. “Why would the Nameless god of the Yellow Hairs do good for Dagda’s people?”
“Because he cares about all of the people in the land,” she suggested.
Vilam was not slow to grasp her suggestion. “You Yellow Hairs, and those Romans, too, have no business here. This is our land.”
“But we are here,” Greta said. “Business or not. So why can’t we make peace and make life better for all?”
After a while, she helped the woman rise and walk. She assumed they were headed for the village which she rightly supposed would be on the other side of the river. Vilam gave her that look again, but she explained herself.
“Finbear did say you were the only family living on this side of the river in the territories of the Wee Willies.”
“Oh, yes.” Vilam nodded. “I forgot that he said that.” He looked relieved, but Finbear had to correct her pronunciation.
“Vee Villys,” he said. “I have never seen one, myself, but they say they are like ghosts, frightening and strange, and they can be invisible, so they might be anywhere and you would never know it, and they do terrible tricks on those who displease them.” He tried to scare her.
“Trick or treat!” Greta said sharply to him, which surprised him, and he jumped a little, having scared himself. Greta smiled but otherwise kept silent. She did not feel in the mood to argue with the young man. Somehow, she could not imagine Berry as frightening and strange, or playing terrible tricks on people, though there was the matter of Hans.
When they reached the river, Vilam uncovered a log raft which had been well hidden in the bushes. They had two long poles to go with it, and though it seemed easy crossing the calm water that slowly worked its’ way out of the swampland, it was not exactly dry going. If she stood, she felt too wobbly and unsteady. If she sat, her dress got wet. Finally, she decided to sit. The dress would dry.
“I like her, father.” The ever staring Finbear spoke over Greta’s head as if she was not even there. “I want her.”
“No.” Mayann rose to Greta’s defense. “She is not for you, my son.”
“Father?” Finbear was not for giving up, but Vilam only laughed, except that the laugh seemed to Greta to carry the unspoken words, “We’ll see,” as if he actually considered it.
From the river, it did not appear far to the village gate. Greta saw fields there that stretched out beyond her sight, carved out of the forest and irrigated by ditches that drew water straight from the river. The village itself sat behind a strong wooden stockade, so it looked like a fort from the outside. The gates were open, however, and there were several men and dogs in the gate.
Ever since seeing Sanger, Greta had a good idea who the village captives might be. Drakka, probably Rolfus and maybe Jodel, she was not sure. She only hoped she was not too late. The word “sacrifice” scared her.
After Vilam talked privately with the men in the gate and pointed to Greta several times, Greta got brought to the central square. After a short wait, a man came out from one of the houses, followed by one of the men from the gate. The man from the house had a chicken leg in his hand, and he appeared to be annoyed at having his lunch interrupted.
“Well, Vilam. Quite a catch.” The man spoke as he walked around Greta and eyed her with a mixture of suspicion and lust.
“Baran, I claim the right of capture,” Vilam said.
“Yes, we’ll see,” Baran responded. “A druid you say.”
“Yes.” Both Vilam and Mayann spoke up at the same time, which caused Baran to pause and raise an eyebrow.
“Liam’s dead,” Mayann said. “She showed us the grave.”
Baran looked again at Greta with suspicion. “Maybe, and maybe not,” Baran said. “Fae has been sent for. We will test her when Fae gets here in the morning. In the meanwhile, put her with the others.” Baran went back into his house. He had nothing else to say.
“Father?” Greta heard Finbear raise his voice while two ruffians led her away.
“Hush son,” Vilam said, as he watched. “Can’t do anything until morning.”
“Hello?” Greta heard the word in the tongue of her people.
“Who is there?” She whispered in the dark.
“Greta?” She felt a strong set of arms surround her and hug her hard. It was Drakka. She did not have to see him. “Greta, why are you here? Don’t you know we are to be sacrificed tomorrow?”
“I came to save three fools,” she said. “Who else is here?”
“Save us?” She heard Rolfus’s voice. “I think you just became another body for the feed.” He laughed, but it did not sound like a pleasant laugh.
By then, Greta’s eyes started adjusting to the dark. The slats in the hut were not perfect so some light leaked in. She saw Koren in the corner, weeping softly, and she thought that at least Jodel had the good sense to stay home.
“Why did you follow me into the forest?” Greta asked straight out. Drakka almost flinched before he lied.
“Because I love you more than life,” he said, and subtly kicked Koren to keep him quiet. “I was afraid for your safety.”
Greta stared. He said the words she always wanted to hear, but she knew in her heart that it was a lie. She became angry with herself for not believing him.
“Well, then,” she said, and sat down. “I will just have to save you from the sacrifice.”
“No, he didn’t.” She paused because she did not want to remember that vision, not in the dark, alone. Yet, she decided she had to tell them since they all looked at her, waiting. “Sanger is dead, not by the hands of these people, but by the succubus in the swamp. I saw his body, shriveled and emptied of life.” She put her head in her hands and shuddered. Then she began to cry. It all got to be too much.
Rolfus made a sound of absolute revulsion and horror and turned away. Koren looked filled with fear. Only Drakka seemed unmoved, except he said he was sorry, and how horrible it must have been for her, and he sat down beside her and willing held her and let her cry on his shoulder. And that was no lie. He had a heart. That was what she knew and loved about him. Somewhere beneath it all, he had a good heart.