Helga, Heidi, Hans, and Pater hid behind a fallen log in the forest. They all peeked into the clearing where the breakfast fire burned their breakfast and the half-struck tents flapped in the wind. Pater’s old dog settled down quietly beside his master, lucky for them. The old hound was not inclined to bark at strangers, or anyone else for that matter. Helga’s cat, equally lazy, lay in the open tent and watched, seemingly unconcerned. The mule, being high strung, pushed a bit more into the woods, but he remained tied to the rope so he could not wander far. The witch, Ursula floated a few feet off the ground, seated on a broom. And she cackled.
Hans whispered. “I hate clichés.”
The four mercenaries Pater hired to escort young Helga and her maid back to Switzerland had their hands up. The witch’s seven men got the drop on them, and three had matchlocks. Hans only got the girls to hide in the woods because Helga was relieving herself. Pater and his old hound followed Hans.
Pater had five soldiers two days ago. Franz said he was born in Bavaria, and he led them to the east side of the Germanies to avoid all the trouble around Worms. They came through the Bavarian Forest and to a town where Franz said he had some friends. He told the bar maid Ursula about the rich girl, Helga, and the Bremen knight’s son, Pater, who had plenty of coins as well. He thought to betray the group, but Sergeant Adolph and old man Herman figured it out. The group escaped. Franz lost his life.
And Ursula turned out to be a witch, Hans thought. No doubt a servant of the Masters.
“Where is the girl?” Ursula the witch demanded an answer. She floated forward to face the young one, Kurt. She avoided the old soldiers, Sergeant Adolph, his right-hand man, Ralph, and old man Herman. She showed Kurt her open hand. “Where is the Kairos?” She made a fist and Kurt arched his back and cried out in pain. Adolph, Ralph, and Herman shuffled their feet, looked empathetic, but said nothing. The witch opened her fist and Kurt breathed.
Hans glanced to the side. Heidi had her hand over Helga’s mouth. He glanced the other way. Pater had his mouth open and his eyes as wide as they could go. The hound panted as Pater turned toward Hans. Hans whispered. “I’ve called for help.” Pater nodded, imagined what kind of help, and decided to close his eyes.
“Where is the girl?” the witch closed her fist again, and again Kurt shouted from the pain.
Helga managed to pull Heidi’s hand down from her mouth, and she shouted, “Kurt!”
Heidi and Hans both shook their heads. Pater opened his eyes again to look at the girl. The expression on Pater’s face asked how anyone could be that stupid. Then he curled his lip when he remembered that originally, he was supposed to marry the girl.
Ursula the witch put one hand to her ear for dramatic affect. “Hark. Do I hear the maiden’s call?” She cackled again, but before she could move, three arrows came from the woods. The three men with matchlocks died from three perfect shots to the heart. An ogre roared. Two handfuls of dwarfs came from the trees and bushes, their axes sharp and ready for battle. Two of the witch’s men quickly got chopped to bits. The other two began to run, but the dwarfs chased them, and no doubt would catch them. The witch screamed and took off through the trees, the ogre hot on her tail.
Hans stood and mumbled, “Star Wars. Maybe the witch will run into a tree trunk and explode.”
One elf stepped from the woods. He appeared human enough and dressed in green like a hunter. One dwarf joined him. He hardly looked human and had something to say.
“That witch is a power to reckon with…”
“…I reckon,” Hans said, and gave them names. “Legolas and Gimli. Sorry I don’t have a ring.” The elf and dwarf looked at each other, questions on their faces. Heidi looked at Hans and smiled for him. Pater laughed even if he did not know what he was laughing about. “You can put your hands down,” Hans told the soldiers. “Allow me to introduce our saviors. The kobold is Alderman, and the dwarf is Bushwacker.”
“Happy to meet you,” Heidi said. Pater just stared.
“My lady,” Alderman bowed his head.
“My pleasure,” Bushwacker removed his hat.
Heidi looked at Hans again, and she grinned. Hans pointed at the little ones and grimaced. “Now, don’t you start.” Alderman and Bushwacker also grinned as Hans turned to Heidi and then explained for the elf and the dwarf. “I am only the son of a baker, and not a very good baker at that. Pater and I grew up together because his father kept riding off to wars and his mother loved the cinnamon rolls my father made. Being friends with a young lord does not make me anything special.”
“So?” Heidi smiled and also explained herself. “My father was a poor miller before he ran afoul of his creditors. He is indentured now. I came to watch Helga with the promise that Helga’s father would cancel my father’s debts. That is the only reason I am here.”
Heidi and Hans stared at each other. They both smiled, but neither looked willing to budge.
“Just ignore them,” Pater said. “Helga is over there, crying on Kurt’s chest and hugging the stuffing out of the fellow. The rest of my troop of mercenaries who got caught napping is Sergeant Adolph, old man Herman, and Ralph, the one Hans calls the wrecker.”
Alderman nodded. “I suggest we pack up and move from this place. We might find breakfast down the road more appetizing.”
The soldiers looked at Pater who looked down like a young man who rarely had to make a decision. Without hesitation, the soldiers looked at Hans who said, “Pack it up.” Pater nodded.
“I’ll drive the wagon if you don’t mind,” Bushwacker said and went for the mule. “I am not much good on a horse.”
“We only have three horses between us,” Sergeant Adolph said. “We mostly walk.” He signaled the men to finish packing the tents and load them in the wagon. Helga let go of Kurt to bend down and pick up her cat, who had gotten up and presently rubbed her legs. Helga got right in the wagon and called to Sir Bert, Pater’s old hound. The dog got right up in the wagon with her and the cat.
Heidi went to the wagon to be sure everything got properly loaded. She would walk with Hans and Pater. Kurt would walk behind the wagon and keep Helga entertained. Herman, Ralph, and Sergeant Adolph would take the horses and ride out front, beside the walkers, and in the rear to guard the way.
It hardly took an hour before they arrived on the Danube and the city of Regensburg. Helga complained. The spoiled girl was hungry, and Kurt supported her. Bushwacker, who put on a glamour to appear more human, said he knew of a place by the bridge. He called it the cookshop near the crane, and they all had boiled sausages for breakfast, and they were quite good.
“So,” Sergeant Adolph spoke while they ate. “We have to assume the witch won’t give up.”
“Makes me nervous just thinking about it, which makes me hungry,” Bushwacker said over his third sausage.
“Worse,” Hans admitted. “Ursula knows about the Kairos which can only mean she is a servant of the Masters. In that case, she will definitely follow us, unless she has another assignment. Pray that is not the case.”
“You want her to follow us?” Heidi asked, some surprise in her voice.
Hans nodded. “Any other assignment would be to assassinate someone important or start a war. I would rather take her attention until I can figure out how to deal with her.”
“How do you deal with a witch?” Kurt asked.
“Maybe the ogre got her,” Pater suggested.
Hans looked at his friend and mouthed the cliché. “Don’t hold your breath.”