Flern needed a minute to collect herself. She still shook from the attack of the night creatures. The others, and certainly Wlkn could not blame her.
“Who is in there?” Andrea pointed at the cave as Boritz stepped up and took her hand.
“Mother Vrya,” Flern responded. “Sylvan, I suppose. I don’t know who else.”
“Well,” Badl said. “A bit of practical might help at this point. I say the rest of us need to camp here and wait. No telling how long she might be in there.” Moriah agreed, and they set about making a fire.
“I know this place.” Boritz looked up the mountain. “There is a mountain village not far from here. They might be encouraged to trade so we might get some supplies.”
“I think we should stay where we are,” Laurel said. “We can find our own supplies.”
“Vote on it,” Flern said.
“What does it mean, vote?” Elleya asked. No one was quite sure, so Flern explained.
“How many want to try the mountain village?” She asked. “Raise your hands.” Boritz, Andrea and Elleya all raised their hands. “Put your hands down. And how many want to stay here and wait?” Wlkn, Badl, Moriah and Laurel all raised their hands with Elleya. “Elleya, you can’t vote for both.
“I want to stay with my Wilken,” she said.
“All right,” Flern responded. “So the vote is five to two in favor of staying here. So everyone voted and you can stay here until I am done.”
“But what is to keep us from going to the village anyway?” Andrea asked.
“Nothing,” Flern said. “But the group voted to stay here so you will be going on your own. It depends on what you feel is most important, going to the village or keeping the group together.”
“I see.” Boritz rubbed his chin. “That certainly settles things much better than trial by wrestling.”
“Less bloody, too.” Badl agreed.
“You should go.” Laurel encouraged Flern and Moriah nodded her support over Laurel’s shoulder.
Flern shook her head, looked down at the dirt and spoke just loud enough to be heard. “I’m afraid.”
“Of what?” Boritz looked surprised. “Red, I can’t imagine anything in the entire world that you can’t handle. I have seen you in action. You fly, you are as strong as I am, you are faster than anyone, you carry weapons the like of which have never been imagined, and these little ones, as you call them, jump at the chance to do what you ask. Why, you just navigated the Were plateau safely. Hella’s lair, you got the Were to do your will besides. And that doesn’t even count the people you have stored up inside. I would think we have not seen the half of it.”
It was a big speech, but Andrea had to quiet the man as she saw it started having an effect on Flern the opposite of what was intended.
Flern’s face turned red, and her eyes began to glare. The anger did not take long to come out. “I failed,” she shrieked and threw her hands up. “I lead the ghouls straight to that innocent village and many good people died and many more were injured for me. Heck, I was not content with just getting people killed. I had to fetch a bunch of dwarfs to get killed, too. And all because I was afraid and wanted to be safe and protected. Then what? I lead us up the mountain and would have made things worse for you all if Carpasis had not interfered. All I did was make the giants angry. Then I did not dig the pit wide enough, and I wasn’t smart enough to think the night creatures might be burrowers. I would have got us all killed, again, if Father Vry had not shown up.”
“You helped the unicorn,” Moriah reminded her.
“Whoop-de-doo.” Flern rolled her eyes.
Flern spouted. “I honestly don’t even know why you are all still here. If it was me following someone who clearly does not want to lead and has no idea how to lead anyone except from one disaster to another, I would run for my life.”
“Now hold on,” Skinny Wlkn stepped up and Flern shut up for the moment. “I knew Wlvn since he was a little thing, and I came along to share my older head with him, but since I got young again, I learned two things. First, that Wlvn and I are now friends, and second, that Wlvn has a wisdom in him that I cannot hope to fathom; the same as I see in you. It helps me see that you two really are the same person after all. But then we found Badl and Moriah, and I feel they are here of their own free will, and to be sure, I don’t think you will be able to find one without the other after this journey.” Moriah looked at Badl and he puffed out his chest while she looked away and her elf ears turned scarlet. “She is his Moriah after all. But then we found Elleya, and I thought she might be happier with her own people, but I see that she is like the rest. She is here by her own free will.”
Elleya sat and she raised both hands and both feet. “See, I am voting to stay with my Wilken,” she said. “I make four votes because I have feet. I never had feet before, but I don’t mind as long as I am with my Wilken—” Wlkn looked at her and she took a breath before she continued. “You see? I am learning. When my Wilken is saying something important, I have to be quiet and listen.” Wlkn put a gentle hand across her mouth, and she looked up at him and nodded before he removed it.
Flern let out a little giggle because the Storyteller kept quoting Bugs Bunny in her head. “Shad-up shadding-up.”
Wlkn continued. “Then we found Andrea and Boritz, and I think they found each other. And just so you know, no one would think less of them if they decided to go up to the village.”
“No,” Andrea spoke with only a glance at Boritz. “I think we will stay with the group and finish this adventure.”
“Attached like a remora to a shark,” Elleya interrupted. Not the best image, but Flern knew what she meant.
Wlkn nodded and had one more thing to say. “The only thing left is to tell you, Flern. We all care about Wlvn and are concerned about him. He has our devotion, though Boritz has not met him. But since you have been here, we have all come to love you dearly and I think we would do whatever we can to see you succeed at this quest. And Wlvn, just to be straight, you make a very fine-looking young woman.”
Flern felt the tears come up into her eyes and thought it best to turn toward the cliff. A moment later she spoke softly. “I love you all, too,” and she headed into the cave.
Flern did not walk very far before she heard a sound that made her stop still. It sounded like a girl, a young woman crying, and after a few quiet steps, Flern saw the girl around the corner, sitting on a rock. She seemed lovely. She looked beautiful despite the tears and maybe more so because of them. What Flern felt for this girl seemed very strange to her, but the only word she could use to describe the feeling was love.
Flern loved her friends, both here and back home, but that would not exactly describe how she felt at the moment. It was not friendship she felt. It felt like more. She loved Kined, when she got honest with herself, and had loved him for years. She would marry Kined, but that was not the kind of love she felt here, either. She honestly did not go that way, to quote Ydunna. She loved her family. That felt closer to the truth, but not exactly right. She loved her little ones, even the mean ones and the knuckleheads, and she loved her horse, and Wlvn’s horse Thred had been great, but nothing she could think of fit the parameters. Still, she knew she loved this girl dearly, even though this was the first she saw her, and what is more, that love brought a name to mind.
“Shana. Why are you crying?”
Shana stopped crying in an instant and stood up, startled. Flern saw that the girl was very pregnant. Shana took one look at Flern, and the wailing returned.
Flern stepped forward. ”But Shana, you are going to have a baby. You should be happy,” and she reached out to hug the girl, but Shana pulled back.
“No, Flern. Not you.”
“But where is your husband?” Flern asked, and Shana just wailed all the louder and flew into Flern’s arms. Flern did her best to bend around the baby and comfort the girl as words came slowly.
“He is gone. Maybe forever. The goddess brought me here. She said things are complicated. No Doctor. Apollo might help. My son.” On that last word, Shana stopped crying, grabbed Flern’s hand and put it to her belly. “Look,” she said. “Look, he is kicking.”
“I feel him,” Flern got caught up in the excitement. “Such a strong baby. Oh, good for you, I am so happy for you.”
“Uh-huh. His father is very strong, and wonderful.” Shana stopped and looked ready to fall back into tears. “But maybe I will never see him again.”
Flern found her own tears as she spoke. “It can’t be that bad. At least you will have a son to remember him. I have nothing. Kined and I never—and now I might never see him again. I want a baby.” Flern got ready to cry but stopped when she saw Shana with big eyes.
“I don’t know. He has not asked me yet. Now he might never get the chance to ask.”
“Oh, but that is wonderful.” Flern looked at Shana, like the girl might be slightly mad. How could her and Kined be wonderful if she might never see him again? “I never thought that you might have a man. All this time I thought you were a man that got changed into a woman.”
“No.” Flern smiled at the thought. “I was born a girl, or I will be about six hundred years from now. Wlvn is the man.” Flern stopped and stared as Shana started to grin. Flern pointed to the baby in Shana’s belly. “Wlvn?”
“Wlvn is your husband?”
“Uh-huh.” And suddenly everything became clear in Flern’s mind. She loved Shana in a way that perhaps no other human being in all of time might understand. Not the love for a friend or a spouse or family, though family might come closest to the mark.
“And you are the swan.” Flern got on a roll.
Flern rolled her eyes. “Leave it to Wlvn to turn down the mermaid, the lovely half-elf and the beauty of Greece for a Swan Princess.”
“Your father is the chief?”
“Oh, yes, though not exactly in the way you understand the word.”
“Uh-huh,” Flern imitated Shana. “Now I really have to go home so Wlvn can come back here. I would make a lousy husband. Besides, I want a baby of my own.”
“I don’t blame you. Mine is wonderful.”
“Mother Vrya!” Flern called.
“Goddess?” Shana sounded more tentative, but they walked deeper into the cave, hand in hand, like the best sisters ever.
“And there you are,” Vrya said. “Come Flern. Lie down.” They had a bed in the cave fitted between the stalactites and stalagmites and Flern found that a bit strange. She did as requested but immediately sat up.
“Shana said you said there are complications. Shouldn’t Doctor Mishka be here?”
“There is more than a month. It’s not time yet. Lie down.”
Flern sat up again. “But what are you doing.”
Vrya pushed her shoulders to get her down this time. “The same thing I will do six hundred years from now with Wlvn. Now, be good. This is not just an accidental double trade with two of your lifetimes. This is a trade of reflections and that seriously complicates things. Exponentially, as Martok might say.”
“Hush. Sleep.” And Flern did.
Wlvn returns to find he will not get the help he needs and it is time to face the Titan, ready or not. Until Monday, Happy Reading