R6 Festuscato: 6 The Witch of Balmoor, part 2 of 3

Dibs laughed and took Gaius by the robe to pull him back up the hill.  Patrick looked at the hillside and asked a question.

“How can you be following the snakes when there are no snakes?”

“I’m following the trail, I’ll admit, backwards.” She looked once around and started to walk.  Bran and Patrick followed, and Patrick praised his shepherd’s crook more than once as he pushed through the underbrush.  “I am from two hundred years before Christ, if you must know,” the Princess talked.  “I got blasted by Artemis, goddess of the hunt herself.  Festuscato, quite by accident, got a small spark, really a reflection of the spark given to his reflection, Diana.  Diana of Rome got sparked by Diana, the goddess, but I got blasted with the full enchilada.  The Storyteller says I could track Jesus over the top of the water, er, sorry Bishop. I can rope and ride, and I’m pretty good with a bow and arrow.”

The Princess stopped and called for the cloak of Athena, black side turned out.  She reached into the pocket and pulled out her bow and quiver of arrows.  The bow came pre-strung, and she placed an arrow on the string and started walking again.  “Let’s see what I can take on the fly,” she said.  Bran looked around, having some idea of what she might be talking about. Patrick took it wrong.

“You are a huntress?”

The Princess made no response, but turned on the third step and shot her arrow into some nearby trees.  They heard a squeal and a shout as the Princess ran toward the sound.  Bran pulled his sword and followed, and Patrick did his best to keep up in his robe. A young man, about fifteen or sixteen had his cloak and shirt sleeve above the shoulder pinned to a tree.  He looked ready to disrobe and run off, but paused on sight of the Princess.  She could do that to young men.

The Princess shifted her bow to her left hand and reached for Defender, the long knife she carried across the small of her back. “You have a name?” she asked.

“Don’t hurt him,” Patrick blurted out.

“Giolla,” the boy said, and he closed his eyes and prepared himself to be stabbed, but with a wink at Patrick, the Princess used defender to dig out her arrow.

“Sorry about the clothes, but I don’t appreciate being spied on.  Who paid you to spy on us anyway?”

“Lord Flahartagh.  He said to watch the road in case any of those Christian men decided to go traveling.”

“Why?” Bran asked the operative question, but Patrick interrupted.

“What is wrong with Christian men?”

“Lord Flahartagh says he likes things the way they are.  He says Fionn, his druid spouts more foolishness in a day than a man should have to hear.  He says I should tell him right away when someone comes.”

“We will all tell him, together.”  the Princess put her knife away and Bran sheathed his sword. Patrick stepped up to the young man and Giolla surprised him.

“I know you.  You’re Patrick.  I went to MacNeill’s barn and took my mother, more than once.  She says she wants to hear more about your Christ.”

“And it will be my pleasure to tell her,” Patrick said. He slipped his arm around the boy and they followed the Princess who stepped through some bushes and up on to a crude, two-rut wagon road.

“Aha!  The road to MacNeill’s fort.  I thought we might run into it, given our direction.”  She paused and looked down at the tracks, took a few steps and made a pronouncement.  “The snakes slithered down the road.  I feel we are getting close.  Isn’t this exciting?”  Bran shrugged and Patrick stayed busy talking to the boy.

“It is the word of life,” he said.  “And not only for this world, but when our labor here is done we have the promise of life eternal.”  Giolla did not understand, so Bran explained.

“He means you get to live forever, and in a better world.”

They walked the road for an hour, and stopped when the Princess saw the place where the snake first came up to the road. “There,” she said, and pointed out across the clover filled moor they had seen from the hilltop.  “Rest for a minute before we trudge back across the wilderness.”

Patrick nodded.  He was the elder.  Giolla could have run off at any time, but he sat by the man, eager to hear more.  He stood again when he heard what the Princess heard when she said to rest.  There were horses on the road, not pulling a cart, but ridden.  Four men rode up to them as the Princess shouted.

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”

“Matthew,” Patrick said.

“The Baptist,” Bran suggested.

The Princes shook her head.  “Isaiah.  I was born two hundred years before Christ, remember?”

The men on horseback said nothing as they stared at the people on foot.  Two horsemen kept to the rear while two pushed out front.  One appeared a big man of about thirty-five or forty years.  He had red hair, but a beard that looked golden, and it gave an odd, miss-matched look to his face, especially when he scowled. The man beside him seemed younger, maybe thirty, but his beard looked long, dark and dirty, like he never trimmed it and never washed it.  Giolla stood uncomfortably with the others before he felt obliged to step up and speak.

“Lord Flahertagh, this is the Christian man, Patrick. We were just coming to see you.” The big man frowned before he got down. The one with the dirty beard looked surprised.  The Princess and Bran noticed the look on that bearded face and the Princess made a wild guess.

“And you must be Fionn, the local druid.”  The Princess stepped up and read on the man’s face that she guessed correctly.  She stuck out her hand.  “I am Princess Cassandra, Lord of the Athol and Princess of all Greece.  I am Greek, on holiday from all those responsibilities of ruling and making all those decisions.”  She grabbed the older man’s hand and shook it.  “And you are Lord Flahartagh.  It is wonderful to meet you.”  She clearly channeled Festuscato.

“Princess,” the big man mouthed the word, and he managed to crack a small smile to look at her.  “You have a strange enough accent.”

The Princess took her hand back and looked at the others.  “I do not have an accent.”

Patrick and Bran spoke together.  “Yes, you do,” and Bran almost smiled.

Giolla pushed forward and said something that was not really a surprise.  “Father. The priest brings the word of eternal life, and Mother wants to hear more about it.”

“I bring the word of life in peace,” Patrick interjected.  “I bring only words of life for all the people.  Surely it takes no great courage to listen to words.”

Fionn objected.  “I hear these Christians eat the flesh and drink the blood of men.”

“Only bread and wine as daily reminders that as we participate in the death of the Lord, we shall also be raised with him to new life, even life eternal.”

Fionn was not finished.  “I also hear these Christians make a man go under the water, and hold him there while they say strange things over him, and when they let the man up, he is so near drowned he will do and believe anything they tell him.”

The Princess interrupted before Patrick could give answer.  “It is for cleansing and a sign of being included, but mostly for cleansing, like a good bath, you know, the thing you never do.”  Lord Flahartagh tried not to laugh.  “The only thing Patrick drowned was the snakes sent to attack him.”

“That’s right,” Giolla spouted.  “The snakes attacked him and he took them to the sea and cast them in to drown in the sea.”

“All the snakes in Ireland drowned in the sea,” Bran said.

“So what I want to know.”  The Princess got in Fionn’s face, and then took a step back because of the man’s bad breath.  “Did you send the serpents, or did you pay someone to do the dirty work for you?”

“Me?”  Fionn pleaded innocence, but he did not seem very good at lying.  “I sent no serpents to attack the priest.”

“Lord Flahartagh.”  The Princess took the man’s arm and turned him to face the place where the snake trail left the road and came through the woods.  “Who lives in this direction?”

Lord Flahartagh shook his head.  “That is Balmoor, the land that separates my land from MacNeill. Only the Witch lives there.”

“Let me check.”  The Princess stepped back and went away, and Greta came to stand in her place.  She ignored the shouts of surprise that came from the Irish and raised her hand.  She wished Briana was there.  Briana’s elect intuition could sense danger miles away. What Greta sensed was a power of some sort, and she spoke.  “Take me to this witch.  She needs to hear some of my words.”

Greta stepped down into the woods, and the men on foot felt obliged to go and protect the poor woman.  Flahartagh only paused to tell his two men to hold the horses.

The woods quickly gave way to the great field of clover.  There were ferns in places and bushes here and there, and even a tree now and then, but the field itself got squishy underfoot and shoes would soon be soaked. Greta had on her waterproof knee boots with her armor, so she paid little attention to the wet.  They climbed over several small ridges, more like rocky lumps in the ground, and came at last to a hollow below the main ground level.

Greta stopped and got her bearings first.  She saw a cave, a hole dug out of the earth, and a fire out front with a big cauldron filled with something that bubbled. A very old woman in a plain black dress stood behind the fire and occasionally stirred and cackled.  She seriously cackled.  Only one more thing to note.  A very well weathered oak branch with what looked like long-dead mistletoe, and an equally weathered branch of another kind of wood, perhaps holly, looked to be floating in mid-air in a spot by the cave.  It suggested a hole in the world, a hole to the Other Earth where the creative and variable energy that people called magic could seep through into our earth.  The thing was, those branches had to be under enormous pressure to keep the hole open seventy years after the two Earths went out of phase.  Clearly, that seepage had to be the source of the Witch’s power, and while Greta relaxed to think it was not a half-breed with the ability to tap into some great spiritual power, she recognized that this had to be a very powerful witch to keep a hole open seventy years after it should have slammed shut.

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