The morning journey started out damp and cool, a reminder winter would be just around the corner. The sky stayed overcast most of the day, but by lunch the ground had dried and the going got easier as the trees around them began to thin. They traveled by secret elf paths and covered an four-day journey in only two days. By two o’clock on the third day they topped a rise where they saw the lake in the distance. The forest in that place gave out altogether so only small clumps of trees dotted the landscape between them and the water.
“A lake on the Dnieper,” Greta called it, but the others ignored her.
They crossed the river to put the lake on their left side and then Longbow explained. “Look up river, over the water to the other side of the lake. If your eyes are sharp enough you might just make out a tent camp of the Samartians, or maybe Scythians. It is hard to tell you human folk apart. This is the only safe side of the lake, and when you get to the top of the lake, you will have to cross a half day of grasslands before you enter the swamps.”
“Our eyes are not quite that good,” Hermes admitted. “Especially mine.” He squinted all the same, but as the sun had come out after another overcast morning, and it started dropping down in the sky, and glaring in their eyes, the reflection off the water became increasingly hard on the eyes.
“Get the sun near the horizon, and I can see why some might call it the lake of gold,” Vedix said, as he raised a hand to shade his eyes and tried to make out the tents Longbow talked about.
“Longbow. My Lady!” Lord Horns came up with three young elf men that were outfitted in armor and all sorts of weapons. All of the elf men were volunteers. Greta insisted, but the whole elf village wanted to volunteer, so her insisting really did no good. In the end, she let Horns and Longbow select a reasonable company, which became more than she would have chosen, but less than there might have been. “There are riders in the south, coming up fast,” Horns reported. “Dacians I think. They must have got word of our travels.” Everyone assumed he meant Mithrasis had a big mouth.
“Quickly now,” Longbow got them moving, but it did not appear as if they would cover the whole ground to the lake before they were overtaken. After a bit, Longbow sent out scouts who by magic or otherwise, caused the horsemen to slow. The Dacian chief sent riders to the lake on the left and the trees on the right, but continued forward with the bulk of his men.
Greta’s first thought was, at least they were not Scythians. Her second thought confessed that this far from the Carpathian Mountains would hardly count them as real Dacians. They might have some Thracian blood in their ancestry, but they were likely as Iranian as the Scythians, and thus as easily swayed by Mithrasis. The Germanic tribes that mingled with the original Dacians lived far to the north and were cut off by Scythian and Samartian incursions in the area that began several centuries ago. Greta hoped they were going far enough north to escape the Scythians altogether, not that she expected better treatment in the land of the Vandals, Goths and truly barbaric Slavs.
Longbow stopped, so everyone stopped with him. The sky filled with little flashes of light, visible even in the late afternoon sun. One flash of light came up to Mavis and Greta and took on the form of a chubby, middle-aged Lord. “My Lady,” he said with a bow.
“No time for that,” Lord Horns interrupted. “You need to get men in the trees with bows ready. My men will take the ground and set a wall against the oncoming horses.”
The fairy King agreed and called several light flashes to escort the traveling party to the nest, as he called it.
“Follow the lights,” Bogus yelled, and the party hardly had time to say good-bye before they came to a small group of trees, a half-dozen lights leading the way, and whatever might be happening behind them got cut off from their sight and sound.
“These trees do not go all of the way to the nest,” a floating light said in a woman’s voice. “But they will bring us close, and then it is only a short way across the grass to the lake.”
“Thank you, Goldenrod.” Greta named the fairy queen. “And you, too, Waterborn.” She noticed the little light, the prince beside his mother. He could not have been older than fifty, which in human terms made him about a nine or ten-year-old. He spouted and squealed at being recognized, and Goldenrod, his mother, hushed him.
Mavis smiled for the little one and looked back at Hermes who dutifully led Stinky, now burdened with food and gifts from the elves of the forest. Hermes suddenly jerked and collapsed, and Mavis screamed. Several arrows came from the trees.
“Ambush!” The fairies and men yelled together. The fairies raced into the woods to rout out the Dacians. The men and Briana drew their swords. Mavis knelt, hovered over Hermes, and pulled a wicked looking long knife. The look in her eye must have made the three men who stepped from the trees pause, not to mention the fact that as an elf, she undoubtedly knew how to use that knife. That pause cost the men, dearly.
A very big man in the armor of Hephaestus, complete with helmet but lacking the cloak of Athena stepped up to face the three men. He had the sword Wyrd in his right hand and the long knife Defender in his left. He showed no quarter, and two men quickly went to the ground, dead. The third did not follow, but only because Stinky tried to kick him as he ran away.
“Lord?” Mavis looked up at the man, but the man paused to see that Alesander, Briana, and the men, with fairy help, made quick work of the rest of the Dacians.
The big man then removed his Ares designed helmet and knelt down to Hermes. “Gerraint, son of Erbin,” Gerraint said in his native Cornish, which Mavis understood perfectly, and Hermes did not understand at all. “I thought borrowing a life from the future might give Mithrasis a headache.” He laughed, but the tears came up into Mavis’ eyes.
Gerraint went home and Greta returned to her own time and place. She kept the armor in place of the dress and red cloak she wore all day, but sent the weapons and helmet home and recalled Athena’s cloak. It came still turned out with camouflage in place of the silver side. “Let me look,” she said even as Hermes moaned. She had to push Mavis out of the way because Mavis seemed inclined to hug the man.
Hermes had an arrow scrape along his hard head. It bled a bit, as cuts to the head tend to do, but he would not need more than a little ointment and a bandage for a few days. She helped him sit up while she bandaged him with supplies from her side pack, and she turned to look at the others.
Six Dacians were dead. Greta saw the image of a lion headed man on their tunics, a great serpent curled around the lion-man’s feet. She also noticed that none of the Dacians were wounded, but Greta did not ask any questions. Nudd had a cut on his arm; but not a bad one, or deep, and he took it well. The soldiers and Briana looked untouched, as did the fairies. “A two hitter and final score of six to nothing. I’ll take that,” she said at last.
“As you say,” Alesander and Briana spoke together.
“Wow. That was great. Do it again,” a young voice shouted near Greta’s ear.
“Young man,” Greta spoke sternly as she bandaged Nudd’s arm. “Sit here and mind your own business.” She tapped her shoulder, and the young fairy hesitated. “You can hold my hair, just don’t pull it hard.” The boy sat with his face completely scrunched up in case it hurt. Alesander, Lucius and Briana all saw and laughed. Bogus and Vedix made a reappearance from the trees.
“They have gone completely,” Vedix reported.
“Indeed,” the queen’s voice confirmed. “They had horses waiting at the edge of the woods. They rode off, fast.” Greta nodded. She understood fast as a relative thing. A fairy could fly around the entire lake of gold, stop to flap the doors of the Scythian tents on the other side and be back by the count of ten.
“How is Hermes?” Briana asked.
“He’ll live,” Greta said, and she looked to see him on his feet. Mavis stood right there, arm around him, helping him stand and walk. Stinky nudged up behind them.
Greta would not violate Mavis’ thoughts. She did not think after walking all day she could handle the migraine it would give her. But soon enough she would have to find the right time to ask just what was going on with those two.
They started walking again, and Greta became inundated with questions from a certain young fairy on her shoulder. Fortunately, Goldenrod flew alongside and pointed out to her son which questions were not appropriate.
The short space of grassland between the trees and the lake took an hour to cross so the sun started setting by the time they reached the water’s edge. Lord Treeborn caught up with them there.
“It was disappointing, really,” he said. “When they got close enough to take a look at us, they stopped and argued about it. Some of the humans were determined to try us, but some were equally determined that they were not going to do that. When the men came riding up from the flank, and now I see they were the ones who ambushed you, the arguments became really intense. The elves finally quit the field, and we came here as soon as you were safely in the circle. By the goddess, I swear they may argue all night.
Everyone got silent.
No one especially looked at Greta but she felt nothing but eyes turned on her.
“It’s all right,” Greta said, before Lord Treeborn tried to apologize. “I would rather you not swear at all, either by heaven or earth or anything beneath the earth, but if you can’t help yourself, better you swear by my name rather than so many other things that can get you in real trouble. Say no more about it.” She turned and stepped toward the lake. The others followed to where they found a fairy ring of stones and a small clearing by the water. The water itself looked full of reeds, but the ground seemed dry and with more than enough room for the travelers to sleep.
A group of fairies came in while the humans got out their things to set up camp. The fairies dropped twigs, branches and logs into the circle and then they began to fly around the fairy circle fast enough to make a small tornado. The humans could not guess how they escaped being sucked into the whirlwind and mercilessly tossed about, but somehow the wind only happened inside the fairy circle. The circle of speeding fairies began to rise, and as they did, the circle contracted in size until all at once they vanished and the fire sprang up on the wood deposited within the circle. The smoke rose straight into the night sky, and it continued to rise straight up no matter how strong the wind that came off the lake.