Morning found a middle-aged gnome woman in the camp. She looked about three hundred years old, or so Greta guessed in her sleepy mind. The gnome woman cooked and whistled around the fire, and Greta had a moment of fear that the gnome woman might be an imp cooking her friends. She blinked twice. Goldenrod sat there, trying not to kibitz about the cooking, so Greta figured it was safe. Greta squinted and then turned up her nose when she discerned the gnome’s name and thought the name translated into the Latin as Pincushion.
“Ah! The sleepy one is awake at last.” Pincushion raised her voice when she saw Greta move under her blanket. “Late to rise fills a person with lies.” Pincushion had to stop to decide if that was a bad thing or not. Goldenrod whispered in Pincushion’s ear.
“What? I had a goddess once. I didn’t like her so I threw her back.”
“No. Just for us? I thought we were an independent lot, libertine and all that.”
“With child? Lazy mama won’t get the house clean.”
“Oh.” Pincushion put on a haughty face. “We have servants for that sort of thing. Hey!” Pincushion’s hand snapped out quick as a snake. Bogus had come up to the fire and tried to snitch a bit of breakfast. He got his hand seriously slapped. “Not ready yet,” Pincushion stared Bogus down, not an easy thing to do, while Goldenrod continued with the whisper, whisper.
“Lady. Over here.” Mavis called from the reeds, and Greta staggered over to wash up in the lake. She paused to see if she would throw up, but she got to thinking she had passed that stage. Once the reeds stood between her and the fire, Pincushion’s voice got cut off, loud as she was. That felt fine. Greta had seen the hungry dwarf and fussy cook game played out a thousand times.
The lake water proved frigid, and Greta imagined it would freeze in the winter. Greta hardly got in before she got out. She dressed with only a thought and a call to her armor. She knew the fairy weave she wore beneath her armor would absorb all the excess wet and yet remain comfortably dry. It was a miracle with sweat. Greta took the time, then, to braid her hair into pigtails. The lake had been too cold to stay in long enough to wash her hair, but she had to do something with it, so she braided it, and Mavis helped. When Greta got good and ready, and had some blush on her cheeks over her freckles and some pink on her lips because she felt like it, she and Mavis returned to the fire. Everyone sat there, waiting patiently, even Bogus, though he had his fingers in his mouth which told Greta he tried more than once for a little advanced taste.
When Pincushion got good and ready, and to be fair it happened about when the sun first stuck a fraction of an inch above the horizon, everyone got more food than they could possibly eat. It tasted wonderful, and no one spoke at first for fear of breaking the spell.
“This is as good as the elf feast,” Vedix finally admitted.
“Better,” Greta said quickly to prevent Pincushion from throwing a fit.
“Much better,” Bogus agreed, and held out his empty plate for seconds.
Once breakfast was done, and it took almost no time to clean up, King Treeborn arrived with thirty fairies, all volunteers, he said. At the same time, a true gnome named Grassly arrived with six others just like him, the tallest of which stood about three feet tall. They were clothed in a kind of fairy weave that imitated the environment they were standing in, so they were hard to see; virtually invisible, without having to make an effort to be invisible.
“Grassly, here, has volunteered to walk with you to the swamp so we don’t fly too far ahead,” Treeborn said to Greta, Mavis, Briana and Alesander who were hanging around the breakfast fire. Hermes, Lucius, Vedix and Nudd were packing while Bogus tried for fourths.
“We got more volunteers,” Grassly said. “But they will be ranging out to the fields where they can keep an eye on any horsemen who might happen along.” Grassly called, “Pincushion.” He waved, and turned again to Greta. “Sorry about her. She doesn’t do gnome very well, but who else will have the unfortunate child of an imp and an elf?” Greta looked closely. Bogus stood a bit less than four feet tall. Pincushion stood a bit shorter than that, but certainly taller than any of the true gnomes. “I hope she didn’t poison you or make you sick or something, but she insisted on helping and, well, she cooks okay.”
“All are well,” Greta said. “Lead the way.” She looked at Treeborn who nodded and tried not to grin. Obviously Treeborn and Goldenrod set this up. No telling if Bogus the Skin and Pincushion might end up together. It kind of depended if Pincushion decided to trap him with her good cooking. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but that is even more true with certain dwarfish little ones. Those two might not end up a couple, but Treeborn clearly grinned at the notion, and Greta thought, God help the world if they ever had children.
That thought caused Greta to miss her husband and her children. She thought of them most of that day and hardly said a word. When they arrived in a small wood, around four in the afternoon, Grassly said they did not have enough daylight to make it to more open land before nightfall. Greta said nothing. She just plopped down on the grass, damp though it was in that spot, and moped while everyone else set up the camp.
Greta said nothing during supper, and nothing when she went to lie down early, but her mind slowly turned from being homesick for Darius and the children to other, truly disturbing thoughts. She imagined Darius as an old man, and their children all around him. They fell prostrate before a man hidden by a fancy red robe with the hood raised to hide his face. All Greta could see was the man’s hands. He wore a big ruby ring on one hand, and held a staff in the other, a staff that exuded unimaginable power.
Mithrasis stood beside the man, and she laughed her wicked laugh and pointed at the action, which drew Greta’s eyes to the outside. They were in Rome. Greta recognized the forum, and the great coliseum where she had a bird’s eye view of the proceedings. In the great open space where they raced chariots, and gladiators fought to the death, and Christians were crucified or filled the empty bellies of the lions, She saw a great raven chained to a perch. It feasted on people who lined up to the lower doors.
Outside, a man with a lion head, and a serpent worthy of Eden wrapped around his legs, divided the endless line of humans. Some went to the right and disappeared into the streets. Some went to the left and entered the line for the evening meal. Some few objected. Greta saw the ichthys on them. The lion headed man had lightning in his fingertips and fried all objections. Greta wanted to look away, but the birds eye view shifted again.
In the streets of Rome, the people were being herded into the line by soldiers. Some of the soldiers were Romans. Some of them were barbarians. Over all of the soldiers were the Wolv, and Greta remembered again that the Wolv were front line soldiers of the old Humanoid empire. Their allegiance might have changed, but the work seemed the same. Now, she really wanted to look away, but again, her view shifted.
Greta looked down on the coliseum and saw the one forcing people into the raven’s beak. He looked like a demon, with horns and fangs and claws in place of hands. He appeared a titan-like creature, being twenty feet tall, and in his claw, he held a whip of flames. Any person touched by the whip became charcoal and then ash to blow away on the wind, but mostly the creature just snapped the whip, and laughed a very Mithrasis, wicked sort of laugh. Suddenly Greta wanted to look under the hood of the man with the ruby ring, and she forced her sight to go back to where old man Darius kept trying to keep the children behind him, to protect them.
Another man stepped up to the left of the hooded man, as Mithrasis stood to his right. This man appeared darker skinned, not like a tan but like a true Persian. He wore a Phrygian cap and carried a sickle. Greta thought he should have had a robe, a black robe because death with the sickle always wore a black robe. The man laughed like Mithrasis and pointed his sickle at Darius and the children to suggest they were next to die. Then he did the one thing no one does in dreams. He looked directly at Greta and waved, and Greta sat up from beneath her blanket and screamed.
Greta could not speak right away. Everyone gathered, concerned, but she indicated she needed some water. Her throat tasted dry and her palms sweated. Finally, she spoke in a soft voice so everyone had to stay still and quiet to listen. “We are being used. Someone is betraying Mithras, and is using us to do the dirty work. Berry, Hans, Fae and Hobknot are prisoners in the Land of the Lost to force my hand.” Greta sipped her water and thought things through as well as she could, given her limited information.
“I had a nightmare,” she said. “It was not a vision and it was not a dream. All day long I felt homesick and thought if Berry and the others were safe I should go home and not worry. I think someone started working on my mind, because when I think clearly about it, I know if Berry and the others are trapped I am very worried. But I was missing Darius and the children very much and leaning toward going home, so the aspect of Mithras that is betraying the others gave me a terrible dream. I saw what the future might look like if I don’t follow through with this quest. It was a nightmare.” Greta sipped again, and Alesander dared to interrupt.
“The aspect of Mithras?” it was a question.
“How can I explain this?” Greta took one more sip of water and handed Mavis the cup. She sat up and spoke a little louder, with her eyes closed so she could focus on the story. “When the time came for the dissolution of the gods, the great sign for them was all of the lands of the dead, like Hades, emptied, and all the spirits of the dead gathered through the centuries vanished and went over to the other side. Most of the gods went with them, but some refused. Baal, god of the dead from the sea coast of Asia, the bull god refused. He wanted to refill the land of the dead that he ruled, and he did not care if he had to kill the entire human race to do it. Only Mithras stood against him.”
“We know the basic story,” Alesander said.
“Mithras lost,” Greta said to everyone’s surprise. “He went to the deepest pit in Baal’s kingdom. Technically, he died.”
“But that is not true,” Lucius objected. “Mithras defeated the bull…”