Everyone looked startled, except Laurel, and the lions gave Andrea and Boritz a double start since they understood what lions were. At least Andrea did not shriek.
“Oh, yes,” Elleya clapped her hands. “They are lovely.” Wlkn thought that perhaps it might be because they moved with grace, like a fish in water.
“Good to see you again.” Andrea said to the lionesses, and they appeared to nod in her direction before they settled down beside a tree to watch. The old man sat comfortably by the fire and looked around the circle of faces before he spoke again.
“The god of light said our great queen would return to us and we should guard and protect her in her journey across the land. Some of us were unable to believe this word since she died some seventy-eight years ago now, in the days when I was just a little pup. Some of us remembered, though, that the Queen was the daughter of the god of light, so he ought to know, and we remembered the last time we crossed the gods. Those were difficult days, when Aesgard and Vanheim were at war. We were threatened with invasion and our very lives were at risk, so we all agreed to wait and see. Now I have come to clear up the mystery.”
No one said anything, but several fingers pointed at Flern.
“I see,” the old man said. “But the evidence is not clear. Your hair is much too brown, not Beauty’s flaming red, and though you travel with the spirits of the earth, the exact relationship between our queen and these spirits is unclear.” He waved generally at Laurel, Badl and Moriah. “They say Queen Faya counted among the gods in some way, and she could change her human shape after a fashion, even before she became as one of us.”
Flern looked down at the fire and at the moment she honestly did not care how much the others understood or not. “I was Faya in another life, but I cannot seem to reach her for some reason. The Storyteller says my first eighteen lives are out of bounds for the most part, like if I go back into those days, I might inadvertently change something vital in my character and make-up, though I don’t see how that would matter. I suppose it would be like changing your childhood in some way, you know, the root of your personality and such. I don’t know. Anyway, Nameless says he would not mind trading places for a bit. He has the red hair and black eyes—you forgot to mention the eyes, and he says he would not mind visiting with an old friend, if that is all right with you, Carolen. It is Carolen, isn’t it?”
The old man raised his eyebrows. He knew full well he had not given his name.
“Here, take my hand.” Flern said and reached out. “And Moriah, take my other hand.” Moriah had to scoot around to do that. “And don’t let go no matter what. Nameless says it is sort of a tradition.” Carolen the Were moved slow to hold this mortal’s hand, but he did at the last, and Flern went away and Nameless immediately took her place; but no, it was not Nameless. Faya herself, who had been there all along on the edge of Flern’s consciousness, waiting patiently for this time. Both hand holders let go despite their promises. Moriah had to put her hand to her mouth to avoid the shriek of surprise. Carolen had to turn because a great eagle landed, hopped up two steps and transformed into a young man. The lions got up at this sight and their tails began to twitch with agitation.
“Lord Carolen.” The young man spoke and gave a slight bow. “There are creatures in the valley of the harvest moon. Borello the bear stood against them, but they killed him with hardly a scratch on their hides. They stripped him of every bit of flesh in no time and have crunched most of his bones as well, and they are headed this way at a rapid pace.”
“How long before they arrive?” Carolen asked.
“Six hours, maybe five. It is hard to tell.”
“Enough time to set a trap.” Faya interrupted, and Carolen looked at her for the first time. He paused and swallowed while Faya put her hand to his cheek and stroked it gently. “You are my good little boy,” she said with a truly warm smile, and Carolen fell to his knees, weeping.
“Now, I need three owls.” Faya said. She turned to the lions and placed a slim, thoughtful finger against her cheek. “Do you children know where I might find them?” The cats did not hesitate to change to owls and receive their instructions. “Stay away from those nasty creatures, but I need to know their progress. Fly high and keep us informed. Be careful, my children.” And the owls took to the air and disappeared in the night sky.
“Now, I need diggers.” Faya spoke to the man who had arrived as an eagle. “You need to fetch that little army you have near here and on the double. It takes a deep pit to trap a tiger.”
Five hours later, the group stood at the far end of a large upland meadow apart from Andrea and Elleya who held the horses a hundred yards further back by the edge of the trees. There were lions and tigers, bears and bristle-backed boar, wolves and other predators all around the edges of the meadow, and there were eagles, falcons and hawks in the trees, watching. Any ordinary human would have been frightened to death to know what hovered around them in that field, but they hoped the night creatures would not see it as anything but nature and anyway, by that point, the humans who stood as bait were only frightened by what was coming.
An hour yet before sunlight, when the moon still stood in the sky, it shed its light on the meadow so shadows and movement could be seen in a twilight sort of way all across the field. Skinny Wlkn saw the night creature first, the scout that came in front of the others. The beast came to the center of the field, stopped still like a statue and a wail went up—a great sound of sorrow and helplessness. It echoed from the trees and got answered by the sound of a baby cry.
Ten minutes later, the first creature was joined by a second and in another ten minutes the rear guard came. The three night creatures edged forward together, but instead of the growls and roars the people expected, and the charge they anticipated, the creatures all began to wail and cry out like they lost their reason to live.
“They are looking for Wlvn,” Badl suggested.
“They probably tracked the group,” Boritz began.
“Perhaps the horses,” Laurel interjected.
“But they are likely hunting for Red,” Boritz finished.
Faya agreed. “Then we must give her to them,” she said it, but it took a moment of internal argument to convince Flern to return. Faya stepped forward to the edge of the semicircular pit that was twelve feet wide and twelve feet deep and she stopped. After another moment, Faya went away and Flern returned, trembling.
At once, the sound of the creatures changed from wailing to roaring and the charge was on. Flern steeled herself. She could not see them well until they were nearly in her face, but the first stumbled into the pit, the second tried to jump the pit and did not make it across, but the third one did. Flern immediately shot up into the air. She could not exactly fly like Wlvn, but she could float out of reach.
With a night creature beneath her feet, leaping to get at her, the whole plan went bust. They hoped to get all the creatures in the pit. Boritz, Badl, Wlkn, Moriah and Laurel would come with their bows while Faya floated up and let out a stronger light than Flern could produce. The Were planned to run from hiding and bring their bows as well, so altogether they could turn the night creatures into pin cushions. But one made it across the pit and now the humans were backing away and the Were did not know what to do.
Flern changed back to Faya all the same, which appeared to confuse the night creature at first. She let out enough of her natural light so everyone could see. It was the heritage of her father, Vry, god of the sun, but all it did was show the night creature as it turned to face Flern’s friends. Then something rather unexpected happened. One of the night creatures in the pit had burrowed its way back to the surface, and the third appeared not far behind.
Faya chided herself for not thinking things through. Of course, these creatures had to be able to burrow into the earth to keep out of the light when the sun rose. Even as Faya prepared to change back to Flern and her friends looked ready to make a dash for the horses, a man appeared in their midst. The light that came from him looked like the thunderbolt Odin gave to Wlvn, but subtler, more filled with light than power. He made a light that made everyone blink and shut their eyes tight so only Faya could watch. Her eyes alone could handle the sun. All three creatures shriveled under the light, and the wails they let out were the cries of pain and death. Then it was over and Faya flew into the arms of the man.
“Father,” she said.
He grinned and gave her a big fatherly hug before he let her go and spoke. “But you should not be here,” he sighed. “I miss you very much and love you dearly, daughter, but you should not be here.”
“And I love you, Father” Faya said and let herself return to the past so Flern could return to the present.
“You know,” the man said. “Odin has forbidden us from interfering with the Titan, but I figured these were creatures of Loki and not strictly speaking the Titan. I may get in trouble.” The man shrugged as Flern found the courage to take the man’s arm and speak.
“Why should you get in trouble for coming to see your daughter?”
The man smiled, like that might be an angle he had not considered.
“Boritz, Wlkn, Moriah, this is Vry, Faya’s father.” Flern felt she did not have to introduce Vry to Laurel and Badl since the little ones instinctively knew the gods and since they were already down on one knee.
Vry patted Flern’s hand in a very fatherly way as he spoke. “Yes, but unlike my sister, I do not feel I have earned the right to call Flern my daughter even when she is not my daughter. My fault, I’m afraid.”
“An old story,” Flern assured him there were no hard feelings as she looked up at the man who hardly looked old enough to be anyone’s father.
“And a long one,” Vry admitted. “But now I believe my sister has need of you, and they all vanished from that place along with Andrea, Elleya and the horses and appeared at the foot of the mountains on the far side of the plateau. They found a big cave there, one that Elleya said would make a fine grotto in the sea, and Vry pointed to it as he spoke to Flern. “In there,” he said. “She is waiting.” And he vanished from their midst.