It took a long day to reach the woods that served as the border to the domains of the Titan. Once they entered the woods and passed the one-way barrier, they would be trapped again in the land of abomination. Wlvn stopped the riders. Shana needed a rest.
“Why have we stopped?” Wlkn looked anxious to get home and see if any of his friends survived. After their abrupt exit from the land of the Titan, they feared dire consequences for their neighbors.
“It is getting late. We can camp here, and get home tomorrow morning,” Wlvn said before he focused on his wife. Mother Vrya took Brmr in hand and brought Strn and Gndr to the fire. Wlkn started it with the sticks that came to hand while Elleya supervised. Badl and Laurel went to the forest edge to gather some more wood and to check for whatever they might find that was tasty. Since Badl and Laurel were not human, they were not bothered or hindered by the barrier to the land.
Moriah and Boritz went out across the grasses in search of game. Moriah managed a fine cow and Boritz carried it. Andrea went to the nearby stream to fill the skins and then got her carefully collected spices ready to cook the cow. Of course, Moriah insisted on doing most of the actual cooking, and no one had any complaints.
Once people were settled for the night, content around the fire where they could watch as the remaining portions of the cow they cooked sizzled and send sparks toward the moon, Wlvn spoke again. “In the morning, we will pass through the barrier to the land. It should allow us to pass easily, but once we are inside the barrier, it won’t easily let us back out again—except maybe Badl and Laurel, and I don’t know about Elleya. The thing is you don’t have to go.”
“I remember getting out the first time,” Wlkn shook his head. “But now that I am here, I am anxious about my friends and neighbors.”
“Why would we not go with you?” Laurel asked.
“The journey isn’t finished,” Boritz added, and several heads around the fire nodded.
“I’m going,” Brmr spoke up. She sat on a log and rocked a little in the attempt to keep herself awake. Gndr and Strn already laid out on their blankets, and if not asleep, they were near enough.
Wlvn shifted in his seat. “What I am saying is I don’t know if I will kill the Titan or be killed. If I fail, and that seems likely, I asked the gods to take you to safety, but I don’t know that they will, and I would hate to see you trapped in hopelessness. Wlkn, if you and Elleya decide to follow the river to the sea, no one will blame you. And Badl, if you and Moriah want to make for Movan Mountain, that would be fine.”
“I’m going,” Brmr repeated herself.
“The rest of us,” Laurel interrupted. “It is up to us. And I am not leaving as long as I can maybe help. If there is danger, that just makes it like the rest of the journey.”
“And the Journey isn’t over yet,” Boritz also repeated himself, and Andrea scooted in close and took his arm.
Wlvn gave his wife a kiss. “Shana won’t leave either,” he said and stood to walk away. “Brmr, go to bed,” he added even as Wlkn said the same thing. Brmr groused but got her blanket ready beside the boys.
Vrya met Wlvn just out of sight and earshot from the camp. Wlvn had tears in his eyes, and she waited patiently for Wlvn to speak. “I am crying for the people who have lived for so long in slavery and absolute hopelessness,” he said.
“It has been going on for a long time,” Vrya confirmed.
“No, not entirely. I am crying for my mother and father whose lives were consumed by Loki and the Titan and the Gott-Druk.” Vrya said nothing, so Wlvn asked what was on his heart and mind. “Will you go with us tomorrow into the land of abomination?” Before she could answer, he added a thought. “The truth is I am crying because I am afraid”
“I understand,” Vrya said. “And I will go with you in your heart, but I cannot go in the way you see me now. I have helped Brmr so she can stay on her horse, even if you need to run, and also your wife will be safe riding with Brmr so you can be free to ride if necessary. But from here on, it is up to you. I can do no more.”
“Before you leave.” Wlvn spoke quickly. “A question please.”
“One question,” She responded with a smile.
“Are there more night creatures and zombies that may disturb us in the night?”
“The night creatures that used to walk the perimeter have not been replaced, and the living dead have been shut down. Loki overstepped himself there in appealing to his daughter Hellas for help.”
“And what about the Gott-Druk?”
Vrya stood. “You have had your one question, but you don’t need me to tell you how stupid and stubborn the Gott-Druk can be,” and she vanished from that place.
In the morning, no one remembered or realized the goddess was not with them, and Wlvn opted not to tell them. He figured it would not go over well, psychologically, if they all thought the goddess abandoned them. So instead, he got ready in silence. He helped Shana up on the horse Brmr rode, as the goddess suggested, and when he got up on Thred’s back, he simply turned and walked his horse toward the woods.
Gndr and Strn fell in beside Brmr and Shana. The others followed, making a slow and silent line of horses, like a funeral procession. Even Elleya had nothing to say that morning, and it was in this solemn way they came to the edge of Wlvn’s village by midafternoon. Wlvn felt something most curious as he stopped and looked ahead to the abandoned huts and barns he once called home. He felt homesick. It felt odd to miss a place that he imagined he despised worse than any place he would ever despise, even if he lived a hundred lifetimes.
Gndr and Strn moved up to the front along with Wlkn and Elleya. The boys looked ready to ride ahead and dismount in front of the house where they were raised, but Wlvn had a bad feeling about the quiet, and he said so.
“Stay with the group and stay on horseback. The village has been abandoned so you won’t find your friends here. Besides, I smell the work of the fires from heaven.” As he looked more closely, he saw numerous scorch marks from the use of high radiation weapons. A few of the homes were burnt to the ground.
“Lord,” Badl spoke. “I can smell the Gott-Druk from here, but I don’t know if they are present, or it is just the leftover smell from the last time they came through.”
“Wlkn. Boys. I will go into the village first and alone to see what I can see. You keep everyone here. Do you know the path from here that skirts the village and leads eventually to the road to the center of the universe?” Both Wlkn and the boys said they knew the path. “Good. If the village is safe, I will call you to join me. If it is not safe, you will know. Escape by way of the path that leads to the road and make a camp for the night where you can watch the road but not be seen. I will get there when I can.”
“Wlvn.” Shana reached out for him in her concern.
Wlvn leaned over and took and kissed her hand. “I will be fine. I think they want me alive, but I think they will just kill all of you as unnecessary baggage.” He let go quickly and rode into the village before they could ask any more questions. He wondered if that was why Mother Vrya left as quickly as she did in the night.
Wlvn, dressed in his armor with his weapons close to hand, paused at the edge of the first house, not sure. Badl had been correct. Something did not smell right. The village certainly looked deserted, but it felt impossible to say what might be lurking in one of the unburnt houses or behind the trees that surrounded the dwellings. Wlvn’s village nestled in the trees, as far from the center of the universe as possible. The fields they cleared and farmed were back in the woods or along the road.
Wlvn patted Thred’s neck. The horse seemed anxious, no doubt smelling home, so Wlvn let Thred lead him into the open space at the center of the village. They stopped there. It turned out as Wlvn expected. Six Gott-Druk stepped out from the houses and trees to surround him. They probably picked up their movement on a long-range scanner and tracked them. The Gott-Druk Captain stood out front, a radiation weapon in his hand, and he spoke.
“They want you alive, but I would not mind if you tried to escape.”
“Why should I escape when you will take me where I want to go?” Wlvn only then noticed the Gott-Druk shuttle camouflaged among the trees. “But you know the Elenar are coming. After nineteen years at near light speed, they ought to be here by now.”
“Bah,” the captain said. “They are not coming. You are a liar.”
“Huh,” Wlvn responded. “Why do liars think that everyone is lying?”
The captain turned red and showed his unnaturally sharpened teeth. “I can always just say you tried to escape.” He fired. Wlvn got knocked from his horse, but the shield Frigga gave him protected him from harm. It would take more than a high radiation weapon to break through the shield of the goddess. Thred, however, had no such protection. Half of his face and his foreleg became dust and the horse fell to lie there smelling of burnt flesh and death.
Wlvn got pissed but paused at the sound overhead. A two-man Elenar fighter got attracted to the energy discharge. The first shot from the fighter turned the captain to a cinder. Wlvn only wondered if the captain had time to admit he was wrong before he died. Two more Gott-Druk were killed even as they scattered for the trees. Then the Elenar fighter backed off as the Gott-Druk shuttle sprang to life. Gott-Druk shuttles carried a powerful main weapon. Wlvn wondered why the fighter did not try to take it out while it sat grounded and vulnerable. His question got answered when he saw the Elenar cruiser coming in overhead. He did not want to be there when the cruiser melted the shuttle and set the forest on fire.
He ran at super speed and stayed to the road where he sometimes took to flight. When he reached the spot where the road joined the path around the village, he sped into the woods and stopped. He found a place where they could watch the road, be covered by the trees from overhead, and have something of a clearing in which to sleep. He figured he was the first to arrive. He waited for the horses. Then he was surprised to see only Laurel, Shana, Brmr and the boys. Brmr shouted to him before he could hush her.
“Wlkn has taken the others to another village to get help.” Wlvn got his little sister down with a hand pasted across her mouth. He helped Shana down and then wondered what help Wlkn thought he might get from another village, or even villages.
“I wished him luck.” Laurel spoke quietly. “He said whether they succeed or fail, the time had come to stop living in hopelessness.”
“Wlkn has the least courage of anyone I know. A year ago, he would have run away from his own shadow. Succeed or fail, can I do less?” Shana just held him, one hand on her tummy.
“I am very full,” she said. “It is a wonder if I don’t go into labor right now.”
Wlvn nodded. He thought to make them move down the road in the night, under the cover of darkness, but instead, he decided to let them rest.
“No fire. No food unless Laurel knows of something. But we will rest for a time.”
The horses got tied off. Laurel did know something they could at least chew on. But it got very dark that night, as much from the clouds and fires of battle as from the night. Brmr did not stay up, but she had uneasy dreams. Laurel promised to watch the road. Wlvn watched the path and the forest, and Shana held on to him until she fell asleep, her head on his lap. Gndr and Strn, free of the watchful eye of the goddess, had questions which they asked through their yawns. Gndr especially asked about the Titan since he had seen Ymir, however briefly. He cried and thought of Wlvn as going to certain death. Strn cried with him, sure that they were all going to die.
Well before dawn, Wlvn woke everyone and got them mounted. Laurel took Brmr on Brmr’s horse so Wlvn could ride Number Two. Shana held on to Wlvn as well as she could, and she tried not to cry when the late afternoon arrived, and they came in sight of the great dome at the center of the universe.