Flern squeezed Kined’s hand and smiled up into his eyes.
“Everyone else is happily married,” he said. “You and I are the last ones.” His eyes returned her smile.
“Not the last,” Flern responded with a nod of her head. Riah and Goldenwing walked close to the riverbank while Flern and Kined sat on the blanket where they could look out over the deep blue water of the Danube. Riah and Goldenwing were not holding hands, but they might as well have been.
“She is his heart,” Kined nodded his agreement before he clicked his tongue. “I can’t believe I am worried about her being so young. I mean, she is over seventy years old.”
Flern’s eyes never left Kined’s face. “Am I your heart?” she asked.
Kined dropped the blade of grass he worried with his thumb and forefinger and slipped his arm over Flern’s shoulder. “Let me say it this.” He scooted right up beside her so they were touching, side to side and Flern felt a sudden flush of desire. “It has been a long, hot summer. Now you say it will be a good two months to follow the Danube to the sea. A couple more months to winter on the sea, and a couple more months to follow the Dnepr to the town at the foot of the pass. From there it will be across country back to the Dinester and home so we might get home by late spring, more than a year after we left.” Kined turned his eyes to the river and his voice dropped to a soft whisper. “I don’t think I can wait that long.”
Flern also chose to look at the river. She had told Kined she would not marry him until the adventure was over. She secretly figured if she died, she did not want to leave him a widower. But another six or eight months sounded like forever to her, too. “I don’t think I can wait either.” He turned her head and kissed her.
Flern reveled in his kiss until his kiss suddenly went cold. Flern pulled her head back to look. Kined looked frozen, and Flern had to wiggle out of his arms for a better look. He seemed completely unmoving, like a statue, or someone stopped in time.
“Who is there?” Flern stood up and quickly looked around. This could only be the work of one of the gods. “Show yourself.” The shimmering image of a man appeared, though never became fully manifest. A shimmering image of something Flern did not recognize appeared beside the man—but Flern recognized the man well enough. “Loki!”
Loki looked up at Flern and looked surprised. Clearly, he imagined himself to be invisible. But as soon as the shimmering something became manifest, Loki did disappear—or left the area. To be sure, Flern’s focus turned elsewhere, because as soon as the something manifested, Flern felt a great sucking pain in her gut, like something started being drawn out of her. Immediately, the shimmering something took on Flern’s exact shape down to the unbuttoned top button on her dress.
Flern screamed. “Doppelganger!” But the replica screamed at the same time and yelled the exact same word in the exact the same way.
Kined, suddenly set free, spun around to see the two Flern’s facing each other. Riah and Goldenwing rushed up from the riverbank but stopped to look on with uncertainty.
Flern fell to her knees, but so did the anti-Flern. Flern pointed and said, “It is sucking the life out of me,” but so said the other Flern.
Pinn and Vilder ran up, wearing leather aprons, their skin grubby from coal dust. Pinn yelled, “But which one?”
“Try the Princess, or Wlvn,” Kined suggested.
“I can’t,” two Flern’s said while two hands went to two stomachs. “I don’t remember how.”
“Flern?” Vilder had to ask.
The two Flern’s began a slow crawl toward each other. It looked like at least one of them resisted, but which one? “Don’t let it touch me,” both Flerns said as Gunder, Tiren and Andronicus rode up on horseback.
Vilder grabbed one of the two Flerns and Gunder dismounted and grabbed the other.
“Call for your armor.” Kined was still thinking, but Flern’s mind felt too dizzy to concentrate.
“Which one?” Pinn asked again.
“I can’t tell. I can’t tell,” Riah admitted.
The boys held the Flerns to their feet by sheer arm strength. Flern, herself prepared to black out when a bright, white light came streaking down the hillside. The unicorn came, and it appeared to know which one, in answer to Pinn’s question. Gunder and Vilder were both blown back by some force of light and wind as the unicorn leapt. The anti-Flern put her hands up and breathed, “no.” Flern stopped with her hands half-way up. The unicorn horn went through the doppelganger and the ganger dissipated in a puff of smoke and twinkling lights. Flern felt all of her essence rush back into her gut and she collapsed.
The unicorn turned and kept everyone away by snorting and stomping its foot. It came to Flern and nosed her until she sat up, groggy, but alive. It put its nose to Flern’s back and shoved her toward Kined.
“Okay. I was going to say let’s get married now. Don’t be pushy.” Flern did not move, however, but Kined dared the unicorn. He came in close and scooped her up in his arms.
“That is the one,” Pinn said, with a nod of certainty. “Why do today what you can do tomorrow?”
The unicorn snorted once more before it turned toward the river. It ran and bounded and made one great flying leap a half-mile over the river to the other side, where it landed gently and disappeared into the distant forest.
“I think that is the last I will see of the unicorn,” Flern said softly. Kined looked down at her with questions on his face, so she explained. “They only visit with very young, innocent children and virgins.” Kined’s shock looked priceless.
Three days later, Vinnu tugged on Flern’s wedding dress to make sure it covered her ankles while Thrud complained about it being too hot for a wedding. Pinn wisely stayed outside where she could keep an eye on the food. She was not sure what the boys were doing, but it seemed to involve a great deal of punching in the arm.
When Flern and Kined stood before the village priest, he stepped aside for a woman. Flern recognized as the goddess Hestia, but she said nothing. She looked back once and saw Artemis and Aphrodite, and Aphrodite stayed good. She did not molest anyone.
On the other side of the aisle, Vry and Mother Vrya sat side by side and looked happy. Frigga sat behind them, next to the old man, himself. He seemed impossible to miss, big eye patch and all, yet none of the locals or her own crew seemed to recognize the strangers in their midst, if they even recognized them as strangers.
Hestia asked. “Do you, Kairos, take this man to be your husband?”
Flern spoke loud and clear. “No.”
There were gasps from the witnesses, but Hestia did not even blink. She turned calmly to Kined and asked, “Do you understand?”
Kined looked briefly at Flern before he said, “I do.”
Hestia gave a little smile before she began again. “Do you, Flern, take this man …”
“Yes,” Flern interrupted.
“… to be your husband?”
“I mean, I do.”
After the ceremony, Flern came face to face with Frigga and Odin. The queen of the gods held tight to the old man’s arm and told Flern she looked beautiful. The king of the gods looked down at her with a face impossible to read. Flern felt a touch of discomfort while he cleared his throat.
“I have placed a hedge around you and your companions so that none of the gods may interfere directly or indirectly with your quest and confrontation. You humans need to settle your own human problems, and that includes the Wicca. Now, where is the cake? I always like a good wedding cake.”
Flern and her friends return home to find an army gathered. Flern needs to face the Wicca. Until Monday, Happy Reading