“Probably animistic. I would guess they worship the spirits that inhabit the animals, the trees and the grasses and don’t think in terms of a larger picture that would include gods and such.”
“What?” Pincushion looked up from her cooking. “They worship the gnomes?”
“And others, more or less,” Greta felt uncomfortable with that thought, but Bogus, Vedix and Briana laughed. “Rain is down to a drizzle,” Greta changed the subject. “We are going to have to put the fire out if the rain stops, even if it is in this sheltered spot.”
People objected to that idea until Hermes and Mavis returned from the horses. “There are several campfires out on the steppes, two miles or so distant,” Mavis reported. “They are northeast, the way we have been heading.” Mavis pointed, but of course no one could see anything but the shelter of the rocks and trees. Besides, they were busy putting out the fire and preparing for another cold night.
They got up cold and hungry before the dawn and headed out into the dark. They saw no sign behind them of campfires, but they all guessed there were men out there, traveling to what end, no one knew. They might have been friendly, but no one was going to stop and find out. Vedix pointed out that hunting parties did not build more than one campfire, and Alesander reminded everyone that even the Gurt-groups, as they called them, were built around a single big fire at the center.
“This was definitely many fires,” Hermes said. “It looked like a small army. More than a raiding party.”
“I used to depend on Lucius for that sort of information,” Alesander said, with a frown. Lucius had hardly been mentioned since the deserted village because Alesander became clearly upset with what he considered the betrayal of a friend. Alesander did not call Lucius a traitor, but that was what he meant and evidentially felt.
“Never fear,” Greta interjected. “Lucius is out there, following. He may not be right behind us, but he is out there, looking with the rest of them.”
As the sun came up, the group quickened their pace. It seemed the only way to shake off the cold, though the lack of good rest, the poor meals, and the exposure to the elements began to have an ill effect. These were strong and hearty people. Briana had the constitution of an elect. Alesander and Hermes were soldiers, trained to hardship and long forced marches. Bogus and Pincushion had the indomitable spirit of the dwarfs, and Vedix was a hunter, used to being in the wilderness at all times of the year, and for a week or more. Mavis started wilting a little. As a spirit, she could handle it, but she was an elf maid, not an ogre. Greta was the one who suffered the most. The thing that kept her going was believing that they were almost at the forest that marked the edge of the Land of the Lost.
The group stopped in a small copse of trees when the sun came fully up. Vedix spoke as he shook his head. “We spent two hours walking our horses in the rain northeast to angle away from the Road of Dreams. Now, we have been about three hours riding northwest, and I see no sign of the road. Unless it curved to the west or came to a dead stop, I would say we lost it.”
“It was not much of a road anyway,” Bogus answered him.
“Quite right,” Greta spoke up. “We just need to go north from here, and we should run right into the forest. The rocks where we slept last night are on the edge of the change in the land. The land here is rising and falling in little hills and showing rocks here and there like it previously showed trees here and there. Soon enough, we should run into a great forest. It surrounds the whole area where the rocks fall off and the River Muskva runs. That forest is the Land of the Lost. The great dome of the Ancient Master is just over a bend in the river.”
“The Wolv also live in that forest,” Briana pointed out.
Greta said nothing about that. She mounted her horse and rode. The others followed, and it seemed only a couple of hours before they reached the edge, like a hard line of unending trees that sprang suddenly out of the grasslands and stretched out to their left and right as far as they could see. That whole area appeared to be still covered with snow because the rain apparently did not reach that far north.
Greta walked her horse along the edge of the tree line until she found an outcropping, where the rocks appeared to grow right up out of the grasslands. The snow did not seem too deep in that area. She dismounted, and the others followed her lead.
“It isn’t as nice as where we stayed last night, but it isn’t raining. It will give you and the horses some shelter against the wind, and you can light a fire if you are careful. I only need three days. If I am not back by then, you must promise to return south, find Ulladon, and you will get home in about three weeks. Do not stay here. Do not follow, and if I don’t return in three days, promise me you won’t tell Darius or my family what happened. They would only make a bad situation worse.”
Greta took a breath and everyone yelled at once in protest. Greta chose to respond to Mavis.
“Not this time,” she said. “Mavis. You must go back and be with your people. You have been the best help and friend anyone could ask for. Remember me.” Greta smiled for her, but Mavis began to weep. Hermes stood right there to comfort her, and Greta thought she might never know what was between those two.
Alesander shook his head. “I am pledged to follow you to the edge of the earth, even if it is round, like you say.”
“Bogus and I will brave the land of the lost, alone. Berry and Fae are Bogus’ granddaughters, and Berry is still my ward, Hans is my brother and Fae and Hobknot are my special responsibility. Alesander, I am counting on you to get everyone home, safe. This is one time you must not follow me.”
“But you can’t ride right into the Wolv jaws,” Vedix protested and tried to sound reasonable.
“I don’t intend to ride in,” Greta said, but she would not explain. “Pincushion, how about lunch?”
Pincushion shook her head sadly, but had a sudden change of mind and looked up with a smile that actually showed some of her elf mother’s beauty. “Don’t worry. I’ll make your last meal a special one.” She set about gathering stones and wood for the fire, and reluctantly, the others helped.