They found a woman under the canopy, waiting for them. She looked slim, and graceful in a way that Oreona, the elf Queen and Goldenrod, the fairy Queen could hardly match. She also smiled, which set people at ease in the dark, until they got close enough for a good look. The woman had very sharp teeth, little horns above her ears, pink eyes that glowed a bit in the dark, a serpent’s tongue, too long and thin and with a fork at the end, and up close, the woman’s arms had a shine to them and a green tint that suggested something like lizard’s skin.
“Welcome,” the woman said, in a voice that sounded sweet but suggested she had a candy house in the woods with a great big oven. “I am Ulladon, lady of the swamp. You are most welcome.”
“You sent the ogres,” Greta said, as she stepped to the front, Mavis on one side and Briana on the other. The men kept back.
“I was afraid for you,” Ulladon admitted. “And ogres have no fear of the sun.”
“No, that was good of you,” Briana said. “Only it might help the men if the big one was not following us.”
Ulladon laughed, but it sounded like a nice laugh and not at all wicked. “Bonebreaker,” she raised her voice. “Keep to the back so you don’t scare our guests.”
“Yes Lady,” Bonebreaker said from the back in a startlingly deep and gravelly voice. He sounded like he was breaking bones even as he spoke. The men shuffled up a little closer to Greta and Stinky seemed nervous. Hermes tried to calm the mule.
“There,” he said softly. “At last we found something that stinks worse than you.”
“Oh yes,” Greta spoke up nice and loud. “He is frightening and disgusting both. Why, I can hardly bring myself to look at him.” Briana looked around and wondered why anyone would say such an insult to an ogre, but she glanced at Bonebreaker who stood in a patch of light, and she saw him lift his head in pride.
“It is a great compliment. You are so kind,” Ulladon said to Greta. “Please, follow me so we can get away from the light. I fear my already weak eyes have been hurt all the more staring out into the morning. Please, only stay in line. The ground is not always solid if you don’t know where to put your foot.”
“Briana. Alesander. You go out front,” Greta said.
“Yes, dear,” Ulladon spoke to Briana. “Bring your man. Sorry my husband Crag is snoring in the day.”
“Lord Crag.” Briana remembered the name the elves in the forest gave. She also remembered what Greta explained, that most of the names in the various languages of the spirits of the earth translated into Latin, like Bonebreaker, Grassly and Treeborn. Oreona did not translate well because it came out “one who swallows moonbeams until her eyes glow” and that would not do for a name. “What does Ulladon mean?” Briana asked. Ulladon looked back and waved Briana to step up beside her, which Briana did without hesitation, though it surprised Alesander to see it.
Ulladon whispered, but Greta could not help herself and listened in. “It means “large lizard”, and that is not an image I want to promote.” Ulladon patted her own perfect little behind while she and Briana glanced back at Alesander. He appeared to be looking around at the scenery at the moment.
Greta considered the relationship between women and the spirit world. Most women liked fairies and some less liked light elves, like Mavis, well enough. Fewer liked dwarfs but most screamed and ran away from goblins. Rarely, there were women who felt attracted to goblin women, and often many of those rare women and goblins ended up lifelong friends. At the same time, Greta felt her butt had been too big even before she had children. Her right hand reached around, as if it had a will of its own, and punched at her own cheek. It slapped several times on her hip as if that might slim it, while Mavis stepped up and whispered.
“Did I ever tell you how your armor makes you look so trim and fit?”
Greta stopped her hand. “I swear Darius picked you because you are a natural born politician.” She added a note. “I’m over the morning sickness and entering the moody stage so watch yourself, and don’t take it personally.”
“No.” Pincushion raised her voice. Greta thought she was being interrupted, but to be sure, she had not realized Pincushion went with them. “My mother is a light elf,” she explained to Bogus and Vedix. “She works in fairy weave. Most of the gnomes and fairies, and even these dark elves wear her handiwork. She moved with her troop down to the Black Sea some years ago, about the same time my father moved up toward the Urals. He said he wanted a fairy. He said he had a fairy once and wanted another before he died.” Pincushion laughed. “Mostly, I would say my mother had him.” She laughed again, and Greta turned her ears off. She really did not want to hear the gory details.
It felt better to hear Mavis say, “Watch your step.” Nudd still had not opened his eyes.
It took until late afternoon to reach the goblin lair, an exceptionally dark and dank place where the overlapping branches above let no sunlight in whatsoever. All the way there, Ulladon stayed careful to avoid the places where the sun broke through the leaves and shot sunbeams to the swamp floor. Other than that, they walked a steady pace and arrived in one piece, about three or four in the afternoon.
“Rotwood,” Ulladon kicked the sentry who slept, standing, but leaning against a tree. Ants crawled all over his hand and arm, but he did not seem bothered by it. He woke when kicked and made noises of protest, but did not actually protest. Instead, he tipped his hat to the group as each one walked by, until Stinky came up and he whistled and shouted.
Bonebreaker arrived last and shook his finger at the goblin. “No, no. Lady said don’t eat the mule.” Greta heard and sighed.
Ulladon brought the group to a nice, sandy mound with a large flat area on top. She chanted something that Briana could not quite catch, sprinkled something like water and salt all around the mound and then stood up in the center of the flat space and threw her arms out, wide. Everyone saw ants, spiders, lizards, frogs, wasps, rats, mice and roaches vacate the area at all speed. A number of goblin women came up to the edge of the area and captured some of the things to cook, no doubt, for the goblin breakfast pot.
Several goblin children came up to the flat place, their arms loaded down with wood. They built a nice pile in the middle and set some bigger logs to the side for later. Ulladon took a stick, or a wand as Greta thought, and she chanted some more before she waved the stick at the woodpile and walked all the way around it in a circle. At last she struck the pile three times and a fine fire sprang up. Like the fairy fire, the smoke went straight up all night.
“But like the dwarfs,” Bogus said. “Some of that is in the ventilation.” Vedix thought they were outside and what ventilation? But he said nothing.
Supper, fortunately, was not frogs and roaches. They had venison and all sorts of vegetables, which Pincushion knew how to cook until it melted in their mouths. “Perfection,” Bogus called it, and held out his plate for more.
“You see?” Ulladon said to the women who sat together. “Everyone has some talent. As an elect, you certainly know that.”
Briana nodded. Mother Greta nodded. Mavis voiced a thought.
“At least the women are talented.” The women laughed.
“Light elf. I think I like you,” Ulladon said.
“Dark elf, the same,” Mavis said, and the two looked at each other before they spoke in unison.
“I won’t tell if you don’t tell.”
Briana was still back on the women having talent. “I think if the women ruled the world we might all be better off, like no wars and stuff.” Mavis and Ulladon shook their heads.
“If women ran the world we would still be sending men out with stone spears to kill the beasts, because why change what works?” Mavis said.
“We would still be risking men to kill the bear so we could have the skins to keep ourselves and our babies warm,” Ulladon added.
Greta had a thought as well. “We would still send the old ones and the children to gather the roots and berries while we sat around sipping fine wine and eating chocolate.”
“As you say,” Briana ended that conversation.
Lord Crag came by to assure them that they could sleep and they would be fine in the night. Greta thanked him, and when he moved on she told Nudd he could come out from beneath his blanket.
Alesander came over to see Briana, as everyone knew, but his excuse was to ask how on earth Greta thought of turning the Dacians and Scythians against each other.
“Scotts and Danes,” Greta said, and then as so often lately she felt the need for further explanation. “I figured Mithras has seven pieces broken off and every piece probably wants to prove themselves to be the big cheese. It was some risk, but not hard to imagine those pieces competing and turned against each other with the right incentive.”
“Brilliant,” Alesander said, before Briana said she wanted to show Alesander something that Ulladon pointed out. They walked off and Greta decided she felt tired and needed to lie down. That left Ulladon and Mavis to talk about everything in the universe and scheme ways to get Bogus and Pincushion together.
“I don’t know,” Mavis said. “She already has him eating out of her hand.”
“He is certainly interested in seconds,” Ulladon agreed.
“I would like seconds,” Nudd spoke up from his blanket. Mavis got him some and told him to go to sleep.
“Like a child,” Ulladon said.
“Makes me feel all motherly.” Mavis grinned at the thought.
“I would like a child,” Ulladon moped.
Mavis moped with her, empathetic elf that she was. “At least you have a husband.”
Ulladon rolled her eyes as they heard again from Nudd. “I would like a wife.” Mavis kicked him.
About an hour later, Greta got up. She went to Stinky, gave him a carrot and patted his nose. She thought about what Rotwood said, and thought about how she might protect their only beast of burden, a mule that despite everything had become part of the gang. She knew Mithrasis knew Nameless and assumed she knew Danna as well, since Greta traded places with those two, recently. She thought of Amphitrite, but decided on Junior. He belonged somewhere between Egypt and the Middle East. Maybe Mithrasis could get a headache trying to puzzle him out.
Junior let his protection cover the mule, to the tip of his tail. Anyone that tried to have Stinky for lunch would be in for a shock, literally. He made it enough voltage to drive away whatever goblin, ogre or troll got hungry in the night. Then he let Greta return and she held her breath and kissed the mule on the nose.
“Who was that?” Mavis spoke from her blanket when Greta went back to bed.
“Amun Junior, son of Ishtar, and go to sleep.”
Greta and company get escorted by the goblins to the city of Samarvant. There are wolv, and the lion-headed piece of Mithras who is called Jupiter. Until then, Happy Reading