Greta was met at the bottom of the Mount by two men. She did not recognize the older one, but the younger, the one who hugged her, turned out to be her brother Bragi.
“You should not be here.” Bragi spoke plain.
“Who is this fool?” the older man asked.
“She is my sister,” Bragi said. “The young Mother in Waiting.”
“Mother Hulda is dead.” Greta told them both. They had not heard. “I am the woman of the ways now.”
Bragi hugged her again. “I’m sorry, Greta. That must be a terrible loss for you.”
“What is your business here?” The older one asked rather than demanded, though he clearly did not seem overly impressed. He knew Mother Hulda. He did not know Mother Greta.
“You should not be here,” Bragi repeated himself.
“My business is a peace offering for the gods. This statue is consecrated to the gods and it is for the high priest, Vasen, and for his hands alone.” She spoke with as much authority as she could muster, but it fell on deaf ears.
“Give it. Let me see.” The man sneered and grabbed the cloth covered statue from Greta’s hands. When she tried to hold on to it, he shoved his straight arm into her shoulder, bruised her shoulder and knocked her to the ground where she fell on a fairly sharp rock.
Bragi stepped between and protested, but the older man stared him down. Bragi’s fist clenched and unclenched before he turned to help his sister.
“That is dedicated to the gods.” Greta spoke up. “How dare you touch it.” The man, however, uncovered it and his eyes nearly leapt from his head for all of the inlaid gold and precious stones.
“I am sorry for you, but you must consider your hands forfeit.” Greta said. It had been a part of the plan which she had hoped she would not have to activate. The Lords Burns and Madwick shot from the statue and attached themselves to the man’s hands. The man screamed and dropped the precious object, but too late. The fire got on him. He could not put it out or shake it off or rub it out on the grass, or in any way save his hands. His screams brought other men who stared, helpless and horrified. Greta picked up the statue. Burns and Madwick sped quickly back into the bear and the lioness, and Greta covered the statue again before anyone else got too close.
The man wept. It all happened rather fast. Even in that short time, the man’s hands were red, full of blisters and with a couple of blackened spots. “This is a peace offering consecrated to the gods.” Greta repeated herself for the others who had come. “It is for the hands of the priest. It is not for you to touch.” She considered the men around her. She pointed to one and gave the man a small jar of salve she had prepared for this possibility. “I cannot heal what the gods have decided, but this may help soothe the pain and suffering a little.”
“Yes ma’am, thank you,” the man said, and took the jar most carefully.
“Mother Greta,” Bragi announced. “Mother Hulda is dead.”
“The Little Mother,” someone said. Greta did not see who, but she guessed it was a man from Boarshag.
“Please escort me to the temple.” She decided it would be better to ask for an escort than have some newly arrived fool repeat the mistake of the first one. Bragi took his sister’s arm. Greta tried not to limp, and after a short way she walked better. Everyone else walked either in front or behind, and kept their distance, besides.
“Papa was right,” Bragi whispered. “War is not the answer.”
Greta nodded. “You fought?”
Bragi took a deep, shaky breath. “I killed a man,” he said. “During the battle I felt nothing, but after, I felt something I never felt before and never imagined feeling.”
“What was that?” Greta had to ask.
“I felt ashamed,” he said, and Greta put her arm around his waist to return a bit of his hug. They walked in silence for a minute, but near the top, Greta felt she had to speak, quickly.
“Much has happened since you came here with Papa. None have spoken, but many wonder why the son of the high chief opposes his father.”
“Kunther is the high chief,” Bragi said. “Papa is a sham meant to fool the Romans.”
“No, Bragi.” Greta spoke quietly but clearly. “Papa is the true high chief, and that is how nearly all of the people see him. That is why the people have not risen up to Kunther’s call, because the high chief has told them not to. And Papa would be here, himself, fighting Kunther, if he were not wounded.”
“What?” This all came as news to Bragi, and the important thing being Papa’s wound.
“Yes,” Greta said. “Lady Brunhild tried to have him assassinated.” Greta had to be quiet, then, and Bragi could not respond. They were at the door to the Temple, and Kunther stood there, waiting. Obviously, word had run ahead.
Kunther looked her over closely as Vasen got escorted forward.
“Mother Greta,” Vasen said, and gave her the respect due, heedless of the dirty look Kunther gave him. “You should not have come.”
“Only I could come, safely,” Greta said, and gave Kunther a look that said he had better not do something stupid; a look with which Kunther seemed all too familiar, having seen it in his mother’s eyes so often. “I have been given this gift of peace, dedicated to the gods and for service in the temple.”
Kunther turned away to examine the hands of the man from below, so Greta simply walked in. She got followed by Bragi and Vasen, and then the whole crowd, but altogether they barely filled a fraction of that great, pillared shrine. The Temple looked like an enormous building, more like a medieval cathedral than a pagan temple. She did not doubt that Rome was impressed. She felt impressed, herself.