M3 Festuscato: What It Is, part 2 of 3

“Are you mad?”

“I’m nuts,” Festuscato said.  “Remember?  But actually, I was wondering if this Aschere has some link with the Jutes.  He may have heard the truth already.  That might be why he is asking.”

“Your suspicious gland?”  Mirowen asked.

“No,” Festuscato shook his head.  “Men don’t have suspicious glands.  Just idle speculation.  But if Aschere is secretly working for the Jutes, it would give him a motive to shred the Danish warriors in the night, if he is the Grendel.”

“If.”  Mirowen mused.  “But tell me, how do you know the Geats will come?  Vingevourt!”  She answered her own question.

“Now that is a suspicious gland,” Festuscato pointed.  “Of course, I asked the water sprite to tell the young man about the monster and prod him into taking on the adventure.”

“You don’t leave much to chance, do you?”  Bran said.  He listened in.

“Not if I can help it,” Festuscato admitted.  “I spoke with the king earlier, and Wulfgar and Heinrich the Bard were both present.  But first I have to ask a serious question.”  He turned from them and tapped Gregor on the shoulder.  “What’s wrong?”

Gregor trained his one good eye on Lord Agitus and blinked only once.  “Hardly slept a wink last night.”

Festuscato knew better than to suggest that thoughts of the monster kept Gregor awake.  That would have been near to calling Gregor a coward.  So instead, he made light of the whole thing.  “That’s not what I heard.”

Luckless picked up on that comment right away.  “Ha!  You were a whole room away.  You didn’t hear the half of it.”

“What?”  Gregor looked at the two and did not quite follow what they were suggesting.

“You snore,” Bran said plainly.

Instead of getting angry or trying to deny the accusation, Gregor laughed.  “I do take after my father.”

“Quiet,” Mirowen said.  The king started speaking, and Mirowen translated for the table.

“Lords, chieftains, friends and honored guests.  It has been long years since joy has come to the hall of Heorot, but I have in my heart hope on this day.  We have friends who have heard of our trials and have traveled all the way from far in the West to encourage us in our struggle against that which plagues us.  You may call me an old fool, but I believe that soon laughter will once again grace this hall.”

At that point, someone tripped Ragnard while his hands were full of dishes.  He fell face down, spilling drink, food, plates and cups across the floor.  It became a wild flight, while he tried to juggle his load to keep from breaking as much as possible.  Men laughed, as if on the king’s command.  Ragnard appeared terribly humiliated.

“Clean that up,” Aschere barked at the servant, and Ragnard rushed to get what he needed.

“Not funny,” Wulfgar shouted above the continuing snickers.

“How sad,” Mirowen said quietly.

“Exactly,” Festuscato whispered.

“Friends.”  The king sought everyone’s attention once more.  “Let us believe in the goodness that is to come.  Let us be entertained as in the old days.  Heinrich has said there is a special story to tell on this day.”  King Hrothgar stopped and turned the floor over to the bard.  The king looked spent from the exertion and he seemed content to sip his medicine and listen.

Heinrich strummed his harp and began.

Oswald, son of Griswald / Grandfather of Onela

Husband of Heilburh / Daughter of Hrothgar

(When he was) Full of youth and pride / To seek a fortune

A treasure for the Swedes / Set sail on the sea

Across the whale road / With twelve companions

Twelve warriors of the rich / All were fell warriors

Youth and Strength was theirs / They sailed to the west

Following the gold of the sun / To where the sun touched the sea

To seek a fortune of gold / Into waters unknown

Where no one had gone before / West toward the sun lands

Beyond the Roman shore / Beyond the long arm of Rome.

Festuscato settled back and heard and somewhat remembered the story this way:

A storm came up in the night, one like a hurricane.  It tossed the ship mercilessly until all sense of direction was lost, and all that Oswald and his men could do was hang on for dear life.  When the storm finally passed, they found themselves in a strange sea full of islands.  The water felt warm, but the wind was down after the storm so they had to row among the rocks.  At last they found an island with a good beach where they could come ashore.  The ship had survived the storm in good condition, but they had no idea where they were.  They even had no idea what time of day it might be as the sun remained hidden above the gray, cloud filled sky…

“What land is this?”  One voiced what they all wondered.  “See how the river flows seamlessly into the sea.”

“And there, on the hill, a hall so large I thought at first it was a whole city.”  Another pointed.

“And the field in the distance looks ripe for harvest, though this is only mid spring.”  A third wondered.

“Look.”  A fourth shouted, and they saw in the distance, men coming to them, the likes of which have never been seen in this world.  One was dressed all in gold which was polished to such a degree, it was hard to see even with the sun behind the clouds.  One was dressed in silver, but with a long black cloak that streamed out behind.  One was dressed in what looked like diamonds, but when they got close it was seen to be the finest chain mail ever fashioned, and it was indeed studded with diamonds, as well as rubies and emeralds.  The fourth was dressed in Bronze polished as bright as the suit of gold, but this one wore a necklace of purest amber.  And in the midst of this magnificent foursome stood a plain man dressed in a plain brown robe with only a crude chain of iron around his waist from which hung a simple cross.  Behind them, prancing in perfect precision, were two dozen of the finest warriors on horseback.  Each was covered in steel plates from head to toe, and each carried a lance pointed perfectly at the sky.

Oswald and half his men fell to their knees.  The other half fell to their faces.

“Welcome.”  The man in the plain robe spoke.  “And stand up you men.  You have no need to be afraid.”

Oswald alone stood.  He was afraid of no man.

“I am Veritas,” the man said.  “To whom am I speaking?”

“I am Oswald, son of Griswald, grandson of Oren, Prince of the Swedes, and these are my men.”  He assumed he was addressing the servant of the Great Ones that stood before him.

“Welcome,” the man repeated.  “This is Lord Eddinas, king of the elves of light.”  He pointed to the golden man.  And he likewise pointed to the silver, the chains of diamonds and the man in bronze, named each in turn.  “Lord Timbender, master craftsman of all the dwarfs, Lord Batswing, king of all the dark elves that live under the earth, and Lord Longleaf, king of the fee.”

With that, Oswald fell to his knees as one of his men mouthed the words.  “The land of the gods.”

“Hardly,” Veritas laughed.  “This is the place of the Kairos, this and the seven isles and the innumerable isles that trail out from here.  Normally, it is in the careful hands of Lady Alice, but alas, my hands are the ones present at the moment.”

“Most favored of all men,” Oswald began, respectfully.  “Please assure your Lords that we are mere sailors come here by the storm and we will gladly leave this holy ground as soon as we get our bearings.”

“I will, certainly,” the man in the plain robe spoke again with a laugh, and then the strangest thing of all strange things happened.  He spoke to those Great Spirits like he was the master and Captain of their ship.  “My thanks, my Lords, but it seems you are making our guests nervous.  Please return to the castle and I will be along when we are finished here.  My knights of the lance, I see no threat from these men to our home.  Allow me some private time with these men, so we may speak, man to man.”

The horsemen saluted and turned to ride away.  Each Lord in turn bowed low and walked back toward the Great Hall on the hill.  Only the last hesitated.

“Is my Lord sure?” he asked.

“Quite sure, Longleaf, my friend.  These sailors are merely confused by the storm and lack only directions to find their way.”  And Veritas smiled while Longleaf nodded, bowed like the others and became small, floating briefly on wings too fast to see before he flew off to join the others.

“What wonder is this?”  Oswald spoke.  “That even the Spirits of the Earth bow before a plain man.”

“It is no sorcery, if that is what you think,” Veritas said.  “It is simply what I am authorized to do.”

“Authorized?”  Oswald asked.

“What God in His wisdom chose for me,” Veritas explained.  “As you are authorized to be prince of the Swedes, captain of your ship and explorer of lands unknown to other men.”

Oswald thought for a minute.  “This is true.”

“And I am authorized for one more thing,” Veritas said.  “By imperial order of his August Emperor, Constantine, I am authorized to be Bishop of Cyrene, the Emperor’s representative in the great councils of the Church, and the one to speak to Oswald and his men of the Word made flesh.”

He expounded to them, then, the story of the Word, how he came into the world, took the form of a man and gave himself to die.  Though he was innocent, he was condemned.  Though he was horribly killed, yet he lives.  And when he was done with the telling he said simply that it was time for Oswald and his men to go home.

“But which is the way?”  Oswald asked.

“The Word is the way, the life and the truth,” Veritas answered.  “Look to the Word and I am sure you will find the way.”  And with that, he turned and walked off slowly, not one daring to ask him any more questions.

Oswald and his men pushed their ship back out into the waters.  “Look for the Word,” Oswald said like a man who had much to consider.  In that moment, there appeared on the sea, shimmering in the return of the sun, an arch like one might find in a great hall of a king, but big enough for the ship to sail through.  This they did, and when they came out the other side, the sea of islands was utterly gone, and they found themselves not far from home.

Oswald spent the rest of his days exploring the world, but secretly they say he was looking for the Word made flesh.  Whether or not he ever found it, no man can say.  And thus ends the story of Oswald, son of Griswald, Grandfather of Onela, husband of Heilburh, daughter of Hrothgar.

There was a moment of silence as Heinrich the Bard ended the tale before Seamus burst out, “Here is the Word.”  He held up his scripture for all to see.  He rushed to the center of the room, and Luckless had to go with him to translate, while Bran stayed at the table to later critique the cleric’s work.

M3 Festuscato: What It Is, part 1 of 3

“I know what it is!”  Festuscato shouted and sat straight up in bed.

“Festus?”  Hilde snuggled down deeply under the covers.

“Not now,” Festuscato said, pushed her away gently despite her protests, and got up to dress hurriedly.  When ready, he went and banged on Mirowen’s door.  “Mirowen,” he called.  “I know what it is.”  He waited until Mirowen came to the door, her fairy clothes shaped into a comfortable white nightgown.

“In some places, they call it a harlot,” Mirowen said.

“What?  No, Hilde’s a nice girl.  No.  The monster.  I know what it is.”

“My pardon, Lord Agitus.  I am not yet awake.”  Mirowen raised her arms and her gown shape shifted and changed color to its former style, though it looked as if just cleaned and pressed, while her hair pulled itself up into a small bun that left a ponytail which fell to the small of her back.  Mirowen also looked like she had just bathed and been preening all morning, and she smelled of hyacinth and roses.

“You do that on purpose to drive me nuts,” Festuscato said.

“I can hardly drive you to where you already live,” Mirowen responded with a grin that ever so lightly creased the corners of her mouth.

“Like your hair,” Luckless said as he came around the corner with a fist full of pork loin.  “Sets off your ears.”

Festuscato paused to look out the window.  The sun just began to lighten the Eastern horizon.  “Breakfast already?”

“Pre-breakfast snack,” Luckless said.  “The cook likes to watch the little guy eat.”

“Who can sleep with all that snoring?”  Seamus came around the same corner, stretching and yawning.

“Gregor?”  Festuscato did not really have to ask.

“Makes me hungry,” Luckless admitted.  “Anyway, Bran can.”

“A good soldier can sleep anywhere,” Festuscato told him.

“Hold it!”  Mirowen shouted.  “Would you all like to come in?”  She threw the door wide open and moved aside.  The men looked at each other and Luckless swallowed.

“Er, thanks.”  Festuscato accepted the invitation for all.  He stepped in, followed by the others.  Mousden darted in just before Mirowen closed the door.  She ended up leaving it open a crack.

“I was wondering when you would show up,” Mirowen frowned.

“What did I miss?”  Mousden asked in his most excited squeak.

“You said you know who it is?”  Mirowen turned Festuscato away from the window and the sunrise and completely ignored Mousden.

“Who is what?”  Festuscato asked.

“You said.”  Mirowen started, and he remembered and hushed her with his hand.

“I said I think I know what it is,” he corrected her.  “I have no idea who.”  He began to ponder that question.

“Well?”  Seamus seemed the impatient one, probably from lack of sleep.

“It’s a hag, I think.  A servant of Abraxas.”  Festuscato came out of his reverie.

“Can’t be.”  Luckless spoke while licking his fingers.  “It’s a male.”

“All right.”  Festuscato took a step back.  “Then son of a hag, but the look, the strength, the speed, the size, it all fits.”

“Something near enough like it anyway.”  Mirowen did not disagree.

“A hag?”  Seamus asked.

“A Doctor Jeckel, Mister Hyde.”  Festuscato said and then he quickly had to wave off their questions.  “A normal enough person most of the time, but a secret devotee of the god, empowered by the god to take on enormous power and strength at times to serve the god’s nefarious purposes.  Here’s the key.  Unlike a werewolf or other such nightmares, a hag retains her mind, or in this case, his mind.  They can still think things through, and talk.”

“And how do you know this?”  Seamus did not question.  He got curious.

“Greta had to kill one once.  Cooked her in her own oven.  And Margueritte just faced down Curdwallah; but that’s the future.  I guess I’m not supposed to talk about that.”

“So it is a hag.”  Mirowen nodded.

“Or near enough like it,” Luckless repeated her words.

“I knew it!”  Mousden fluttered down from the ceiling, and he sounded and looked very agitated.  “Monster talk.”  He shivered visibly at the whole idea.  “I thought we weren’t staying or getting involved in that business.”

“We won’t, much.  Let the Geats handle it.”  Festuscato assured the little one.  “That’s why it is so important you stay on the roof at night and keep your eyes peeled for a sail on the horizon.  If the Kairos’ timing holds up, the Geats should be along any day now.”

“Yeah, but now I’ll have daymares and won’t be able to sleep.”

“Geats and hags.”  Seamus shook his head and sat in a chair.  “Who will believe it?”

“But the creature stayed quietly absent from the hall last night,” Mirowen pointed out.  “Unless the creature shows itself, how can we know who it is?”

“No trail to follow does make it tough,” Festuscato admitted.

“We could set Gregor to sleep in the hall as bait,” Seamus muttered.  Mirowen’s jaw dropped open.

“Such a suggestion.  And from a Cleric!” she scolded.

Seamus shrugged, and turned as red as Festuscato’s hair.

“Wouldn’t work,” Luckless said.  “All that snoring would just scare the poor creature away.”

Festuscato snapped his fingers to regain everyone’s attention.  He was again watching the sunrise, but he spoke to the point.  “I figure the best candidates are Aschere, the king’s Counselor.  There is something of slime about him.  Heinrich the Bard.  It is hard to tell how much of their own stories such men believe.  Wulfgar, the king’s Herald, though he seems a good man.”

“Svergen, the officer of the Coastal Watch.”  Bran spoke up from the open doorway.  “Shouldn’t be heralding this into the hall,” he said, as he stepped inside and shut the door tight.

“It isn’t the king,” Mirowen said.  “He is too old, and too sincerely crushed by it all.  Twelve years is a long time for humans to suffer.”  She looked up and saw the others looking at her.  “I spoke with queen Wealtheow,” she explained.

“Isn’t the cook,” Luckless said.  “I don’t hold for human food, but this cook is not half bad.”

“Can’t speak for the other half,” Festuscato mumbled softly.

“No, and that servant of his, Ragnard is afraid of his own shadow,” Luckless finished with a chuckle.

“The rest of the men are too transient.”  Mirowen said, by way of conclusion.

“Except Unferth,” Seamus said

“Hrugen’s father?”  Festuscato asked.

Seamus nodded.  “He wouldn’t be the first to use drink as a cover for something else.  And he has the reputation, at least in the alleged killing of his brothers.”  Most nodded, except Bran who smiled.

“Leave it to an Irishman,” Bran said.  It seemed hard to tell if that was a compliment or an insult.

“So then, that’s the short list.”  Festuscato wanted to get it right.  “Aschere the Counselor, Wulfgar the Herald, Svergen the Coast Watcher, Heinrich the Bard, and Unferth the Drunk.”  He shook his head.  Having tasted those names on his tongue, he was not sure if any of them felt quite right.  He went to the door.  “Suns up.  Breakfast time.”  He opened the door and found Luckless already in front of him.  Bran chuckled quietly from over his shoulder.

“Festus.  Festus.”  He saw Hilde’s head poke out from behind his door.

“Keep good notes, Seamus.  I’ll catch you up.”  Festuscato disappeared into his room to a roll of Mirowen’s eyes.

It turned high noon and time for the main meal in the hall when Festuscato finally did catch them up.  “What did I miss?”  He sounded a bit like Mousden.

“Nothing,” Gregor said grumpily.  “Can’t get any of these Danes to arm wrestle.”

That did not sound like jovial Gregor, but Festuscato did not have time to ask as Wulfgar came straight to the table on Festuscato’s appearance.

“Roman.  I would not have my king filled with false hope.”

“Quite right,” Festuscato responded.  “But sometimes there is only trust.  I would not want to see your king hopeless, either.  I have felt hopelessness.  It isn’t fun.”

Wulfgar thought about that for a minute before he responded.  “I hope that what you say comes to pass,” he said, and paused again before adding, “For your sake.”

“If I am wrong, I won’t be the first in these twelve years,” Festuscato said, and Wulfgar moved off with things on his mind.

“What have you been up to?”  Mirowen asked, but before Festuscato could answer, Aschere came up.  It appeared as if the Danes were taking turns.

“Roman.”  He began as Wulfgar began, but his conversation turned in a different direction.  “Yours is the strangest crew that has ever been seen or heard of.”

“A preposition is something you should not end a sentence with,” Festuscato said, with a straight face.  Mirowen stopped translating half way through and gave him a hard look.

“This woman who speaks the king’s tongue like a native is a beauty such as few men have ever imagined,” Aschere said.

“That’s true.  He’s got you there,” Festuscato said and delighted in the way it reddened Mirowen’s ears, though of course Aschere could not see her in her true elven form as Festuscato saw her, so he did not get the full ear effect.

“Tell him I thank him for the compliment.  You have always been like a big sister to me, when you are not acting like my mother.”  Festuscato said and gave the elf a kindly frown.  She told Aschere something.  Aschere nodded as if he understood.  He turned then to his mediocre Latin.

“And this little man,” Aschere went on.  “I see no good in him except to fill his stomach.”

“He is my tinker and blacksmith,” Festuscato said.  “He is as good with gold and silver as he is with iron and steel.”

“I have seen his tools.”  Aschere admitted.  “Some are very finely wrought.”  He made the admission.  “But then what of the boy?  Where is he?”

“Sleeping.”  Festuscato said and shrugged as if to suggest that was what all young boys did.  “He stayed up late.”

“In truth,” Aschere said with a sly grin.  “I found him this morning up on the pinnacle of the roof, though without a ladder, I am at a loss to say how he came there.”  The man clearly asked.

“All right, if you insist,” Festuscato said.  “In truth, as you say, Mirowen is a light elf, Luckless is a dwarf, and Mousden is a dark elf with wings.  He flew to the roof to look through the night for the sail I am expecting.”

Aschere looked taken aback at first.  He raised his eyebrows, but then he began to chuckle.  He left laughing, certain that Festuscato had to be joking, but fortunately he did not see Mirowen slap Festuscato on the shoulder or hear what she said.

M3 Festuscato: To the Hall of Heorot, part 3 of 3

Aschere’s thin lips curled a little.  “Wulfgar.”  He introduced the man who was every bit as big as Bran.  “The king’s herald.”  He gave the title.

“Mirowen.”  Festuscato said, and she stepped to the fore and in perfect Danish, introduced the group.  Wulfgar took it all in and only asked one question before he signaled them to follow.  Soldiers kept their horses.

The walk to the Hall of Heorot proved not far from that gate.  Indeed, the hall did not appear to be far from any gate, as it dominated the city more like a palace than a simple hall such as they found in the countryside.  They were told to wait in the entrance-way while Wulfgar went in alone.  They did not wait long, before the double doors swung open and they were invited to an audience with the king.  Mirowen stayed close to Festuscato’s ear and only just told him Wulfgar’s comment by the gate.

“He said he hoped Hrugen and his father might become reconciled, but he doubted it.”

“Come.”  The clear, but old voice rang out from the podium.  “Welcome.  Let me see.”  The man said, and he squinted hard as the crew walked within view.  “Yes.  I see the midget and the boy.  Yes, she is a remarkable beauty, isn’t she?”  Several voices quietly agreed while the king went on.  “I am Hrothgar, king of the Danes.  What brings you to my hall?”  He got direct.

Festuscato bowed.  “We are admittedly a strange crew, but we were bound for the Germanic shore when a terrible storm arose.  Our ship was wrecked off the shore near the place of Ingut the shipwright.  He sheltered us and guided us to this place, and told us of the great generosity of the king and how he does good for strangers and wayfarers in the land”

“Those belly boats of the British are useless on the real sea,” Wulfgar interrupted.  “You were bound to wreck.”

“No, it was taking the woman on the ship.”  Another man spoke up.  “There’s a real curse for you.”

Festuscato merely smiled.  “Would you leave her behind?” he asked, knowing all eyes were on her.  Mirowen’s ears turned red as she translated the words, and purple when, after a pause to consider and some little laughter, the man conceded the point.

“And the boy?”  The king asked, staring like he saw something more than the boy.

“My cabin boy.”  Festuscato designated him with a title unfamiliar to that day and age.  “A whiz with numbers.  Better than a dwarf.  The keeper of my accounts and something like a son to me.”

“Aw.  What do you know,” a man said, rudely, and staggered to his feet.  “Who are these fools?  I thought we were done with the days of fools daring to face the Grendel.  I get tired of hearing screams in the night.  A man can’t sleep.  Say, who are you?”  The rudeness of the man at the very feet of the king startled Festuscato a little.  He had been raised, thanks to Mirowen, to maintain proper respect wherever and whenever possible, but the king said nothing.  He had his head in his hand as if struggling against a terrible headache.  Wulfgar looked disgusted with the man, but said nothing.  Aschere appeared ready to explain, but gave way when Mirowen took a half step forward.  She repeated the introductions given at the gate, word for word, until she mentioned Hrugen, son of Unferth and the man’s eyes grew wide and turned wild.

“Hrugen?”  The man shouted and struggled mightily against the alcohol that flowed so liberally through his veins.  “That no good, runaway, coward.”  He reached the table and found a sword which he pulled and spun around almost too fast.  “Where is he?”

Hrugen stood in the back, trembling for fear of the moment.

“Now, Unferth,” Wulfgar stepped between the drunk and the crew, but Aschere pulled him back.  He wanted to see what would happen.  No other man in the hall moved, and even the king seemed transfixed by the scene, alternately squinting and rubbing his eyes.

“Boy!”  Unferth shouted again and brandished his sword.  “Did you come home with a wife to care for me in my age?  Did you bring children?  Did you get gold?  Treasure?  I better not find you an empty-handed loser!”

Unferth struggled to focus himself and could not seem to find his son who stayed mostly hidden behind Gregor and Bran.

“He brought something more precious than all of those things,” Festuscato spoke and gained the man’s attention with Mirowen practically shouting the translation.

“What!  What?”  Unferth said.

“Friends.”  Seamus responded and Festuscato took a step toward the drunk who unknowingly took a step back from the confrontation.  Gregor smiled and stepped forward with Bran beside him.  Seamus pocketed his quill for once and joined them, though the cleric proved rather useless in a fight.  Luckless came up.  No one noticed where he got his axe, but they all noticed how well he cradled it in his arms.  With a little judicious staring, Unferth dropped his sword which clattered to the ground, but then, in a moment of stubbornness, he pushed forward.

“My son,” he said and squeezed between Festuscato and the Saxon who did not stop him, now that he went unarmed.

Hrugen did not tremble anymore.  He looked at his father, and the man looked back at him.

“Loser.”  Unferth said and raised his hand to strike his son, but Hrugen shoved him and the man fell to the floor.

“Drunk,” he said.  “Sober up if you want to talk to me, otherwise I have nothing to say to you.”  Hrugen stepped to a table on the opposite side of the room from where his father drank, and he sat, and after a moment, all but Mirowen and Festuscato joined him.

“No.”  The king pushed away some tonic that a young man tried to force on him.  The king knocked the drink with his hand, though accidentally due to his eyesight.  “I have had enough of treatments and medicines,” he said, while the cup fell to the ground and spilled its’ contents.  “Ragnard, get back to the kitchen,” he commanded the young man, who looked embarrassed, like all in the hall were watching him, and laughing, while he retrieved the fallen cup and retreated from the hall.

“Now dear.  You must take your remedy.”  An elderly woman spoke from a back door as she entered the room.

“Queen Wealtheow,” Wulfgar announced, and every man in the room stood briefly to pay their respects.  The old woman walked up beside the king and leaned forward to kiss his cheek, but she did not actually touch her husband except with the sentiment as he waved her off and grumbled.  Then he raised his head to look at the Roman.

“Have you come to try your luck against the monster?” he asked outright.

“Gods forbid!”  Mousden squeaked from the table, and not too quietly.  A few men laughed lightly.

“We have only just heard of the plague on your magnificent hall,” Festuscato said.  “If it was in my power.  I will do all that I can, but alas, my ragtag crew would hardly be a match for this beast as I have heard tell of him.”

“Cowards, all.”  Unferth said, having resumed his seat and his drink.

“On the contrary,” Festuscato responded.  “Rome has always been practical about such matters.  Rushing headlong with promises is folly, and I am no fool.  I will wait until the opportune moment, until the time is ripe.”

“Wisely spoken,” the queen said, and Festuscato nodded his head as a slight bow to her well-aged beauty.

************************

MONDAY

Festuscato and his crew figure out what it is, and have an encounter with the monster.  Until then, Happy Reading’

*

M3 Festuscato: To the Hall of Heorot, part 2 of 3

Festuscato called a halt to their progress before they reached the first house.

“Lord?” Mousden asked as he flitted back and forth between the trees.

“I was thinking,” he said.  “It is one thing to parade through the halls of a king, but quite another to have you traipsing through the countryside with the plain folk of this world.  A party like ours is bound to attract a lot of attention.”

“This is a bad thing?” Gregor asked with a smile.

Festuscato nodded. “The sightings of little ones is becoming a rare and special event, something relegated to the ancient days.”

“And that is how it should be,” Bran spoke up

“Indeed,” Seamus added.  “Rare enough that I hardly know what to put in the journal.  Who would believe me?”

“Mousden, get big,” Festuscato commanded.

Mousden looked clearly reluctant.  He flew in a circle before he settled down and landed beside the horses.  He did not look at his Lord, but took a deep breath and changed.  His wings vanished and he stood around three feet tall, his mottled skin turned into a ruddy complexion, with a few freckles.  For all practical purposes, he looked like a nine or ten-year-old boy, and he growled when Gregor laughed and let down a hand to take him on as a passenger.

Mirowen did not need to be told.  She effected glamour to make herself appear like a mortal woman and Luckless as a more ordinary little person, and in this way, they would walk among the people of the land, still a strange enough group, but not one beyond the pale. Ingut said nothing while they took on their disguises, but when they were set, he led them into the village.

All day, they had traveled the inland road, which Ingut said would be faster.  It was not faster, of course, but everyone knew he wanted to keep Festuscato away from his daughter, Inga.  Festuscato felt sorry about that.  That young woman had a real future on the rescue squad.

In this village, there were wild, unverifiable rumors about the monster that haunted the halls of Hrothgar.  Some thought it was the ghost of a man seeking revenge on the house of Hrothgar, and they could name several dead men that fit the bill.  Some, however, imagined it as a troll, or an ogre as Mirowen had guessed at first; but then a few thought it might be something worse, something which they would only identify with a whisper.

Festuscato stopped listening after a while.  He would get no real information there, or probably in any of the places they might stop along the way.  He would have to wait until they arrived to hear the truth, and maybe see with his own eyes, if he could figure out how to do so safely.

By evening, Festuscato got back to being his normal, slightly impish self.  When the chief of the hall apologized profusely for not having any bard or singers to entertain his guests, Festuscato volunteered his crew to provide the entertainment, and in this way, they paid their way, so to speak, all the way to the Danish capitol.

Festuscato told the story of the three dwarfs at the bottom of the well, Mirowen translating perfectly.  It seemed a little awkward waiting for two sets of laughter, but even Luckless laughed more than once, and he had heard the story countless times.  Bran twice told the story of King David cutting the tassel from King Saul’s robe, and both the Jutes, and later the Danes were very impressed with David.  They judged him a king worth following.  Luckless once tried to sing the dwarf work song, the song often heard in the deeps, but it sounded so strange and alien to human ears, he chose not to sing it again. Mousden, on the other hand, had a sweet tenor, and delighted the people with his rendition of the cradle song.

When they came to their first Danish village, the reception felt less warm at first, until they discovered Hrugen as one of their own.  After that, their reception turned very welcoming, until they found out who Hrugen’s father was.  The chief of the village became quietly angry to the point where the crew began to fear for their companion.  The chief had been friends with one of Hrugen’s uncles, and he still bore a grudge against Hrugen’s father who, all these years later, remained under a cloud of suspicion of having killed both of his brothers.  Though the chief had a poet and myth-teller in the hall, and a very good one, Mirowen herself stepped up that evening.

All of the eyes of the men remained on the elf, that is, the woman, wherever she went. The glamour she wore did nothing to diminish her beauty, so it became no hard thing for her to gather everyone’s attention as she stepped to the center of the room.  The harp from nowhere came to her hand, and she stroked the strings like a mother might caress her child.  Everyone, Dane and Britain, understood her every word without the need for translation as both the words and melodies contained great magic.  She sang the tragedy of the lovers, and everyone in the hall cried, bitterly.  She sang the comedy of Raven’s Fall, and everyone laughed so hard, they began to cry again from the laughter.  Last, she sang the elfish lullaby so well-known and imitated, but never duplicated by the bards of the British Isles, and everyone in the hall, but Festuscato himself, fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.  Without a word, Mirowen laid down on one side of Hrugen, and Festuscato laid on the other side.  Thus, they slept well until morning.

With the light, they quickly went on their way to avoid any trouble.  Festuscato even relaxed a little, knowing that Bran ahead, Gregor behind, and Mousden overhead kept a sharp eye out against being followed and for any signs of treachery until they were well out of that territory.

When at last they came to the sea and the edge of the city which would one day be called Copenhagen, Ingut began to make noises that he had to be going home.  His job was done.  He said the king would expect his ship and payment was not yet due.  He said he should not enter the city because there was still a year and a day before the agreement concluded.  At last, he pointed to a gate, instructed Mirowen in some way, and wheeled around and rode off at some speed.

“I wonder what’s the matter with him?”  Festuscato mused out loud.

Mousden, who had been agitated during the whole journey, and not simply for being made to get big, chose that moment to finally speak what was on his mind.  “Do the words “bite sized pieces” mean anything to you?” he shouted.

Festuscato laughed.  “I did not say we were going to stay.  Just have a look.”  Of course, he had every intention of staying.  He had read the book several times in the future, and if things worked out, he should be seeing the young Beowulf within the week.

“Halt.” They were stopped at the gate. “What business have you in the city of the Danes?”  The guard at the gate looked sharp enough.  Festuscato responded in a straightforward way.

“I am Festuscato Cassius Agitus, Senator of Rome,” he said and let Mirowen translate.  “And these are my traveling companions. Gregor One-eye of the Saxons, Bran the Sword of Britannia, Seamus the Cleric from Eire’s emerald shore, Luckless the Tinker of Wales, young Mousden of Cornwall in the West, the Lady Mirowen from the heather highlands, and Hrugen the Dane, son of Unferth.  As a member of the Imperial Senate of Rome and Ambassador of his most August Emperor, Valentinian III, I have come to pay my respects to your king.”

With that little speech, the guard at the gate no longer looked as sharp.  It seemed as if he had some difficulty trying to make all of that information fit inside his brain.  Fortunately, a well-dressed gentleman stepped out of the guard house and he appeared to have no such difficulty.  He ate a piece of fruit, and took a moment to look carefully at everyone.

 “I am Aschere, counselor to king Hrothgar.” The man said, in very imperfect Latin. “We have been expecting you. Indeed, I have been waiting all morning. Where is Ingut?”

“He mumbled something about the ship not being ready yet and left.”  Festuscato said in all honesty, not even attempting to disguise his thoughts.

The normally stoic Bran got blatant about it.  “Coward,” he said.  Gregor chuckled.

Aschere shared the chuckle.  “Yes, he is,” he said.  “But I take it you are not.”  Bran shrugged ever so slightly.  Festuscato could see Gregor was dying to say something, but his Latin was not nearly good enough.  Then all eyes turned as two men rode up quickly to the gate.  They dismounted, and Festuscato took the cue, dismounting himself, and his crew followed his lead.

M3 Festuscato: To the Hall of Heorot, part 1 of 3

In the morning, everyone had to wait until Festuscato got up and about.  At one point, out of boredom, Gregor pointed behind Mousden and shouted, “Bear!”

“Where?” Mousden asked from half way down the street where he flew in the blink of an eye. Seamus laughed.  Even Bran smiled.

“Now come, little one.  Do you really think these Jutes would let a bear wander the streets?” Gregor asked.

Mousden shook his head after a moment’s thought.  “I suppose not, though mortal humans are still very strange to me.”

“Quite all right,” Seamus said.  “They are strange to me, too, and I am one of them.”

“Sorry.” Festuscato spoke up from the doorway. Without another word, he went straight to his horse and mounted.  “Lead on Macduff.”  He waved at Ingut who volunteered to lead them into Danish lands and to the hall of Hrothgar.  Ingut the shipbuilder, became one of the few, in those times of tension, who could continue to move freely across borders.  Ingut did not understand a word Festuscato said, but he understood the intent. He turned his horse into the lane, and everyone fell in behind, Luckless with his arms still full of breakfast.

Mirowen had her own horse then, and as soon as they passed through the city gate, she nudged up to ride beside Lord Agitus.  “Vingevourt had duties, but he said he might see us at Heorot.”

Festuscato said nothing.  He looked deep in thought.

“You missed breakfast, so Luckless ate your portion,” she tried again.

“Huh?”  She at least got that much before he said something that did not really make sense.  “My breakfast was eaten by a person you would least expect, but not find surprising, but it wasn’t me.”  He fell again to thinking.

“Will my Lord be having gloom for lunch as well?” Mirowen asked.

“Huh?” Festuscato looked up then, and seemed to focus.  “I’m sorry. I’ve been thinking about this monster. Twelve years is a long time not to have some lead on where the beast comes from.”

“From the place of the great swamps and dreaded pools,” Mirowen reported what she had heard.

Festuscato shook his head.  “Speculation. It has never been seen.  In fact, the tracks of the beast always disappear at the gate to the city, and not always the same gate.  You know, an animal, even a monster, can be tracked, and all animals, and especially monsters, cannot help leaving a trail of some kind.  But the trail of this beast apparently disappears at the edge of the city.  I know, because I stayed up most of the night bothering people and asking questions.

“But how?” Mirowen started to ask, but Festuscato caught the gist of the real question and answered before she could finish.

“The king found a girl who spoke the British tongue, a slave of sorts I guess, but a nice lass, as Patrick would say.”

Mirowen looked at him, as if the answer to her concern simply raised another whole series of questions.  “You overslept,” she confirmed.  Festuscato nodded slowly and Mirowen frowned and thought she could not have been that nice a girl, at least in the way Patrick would have meant it.  Then she had another thought.  “I know with the spirit of Diana inside your heart, the gift given to your reflection in the old days, you know more than most about tracking animals. I do not doubt what you say is true. A monster, certainly ought to be easy to follow.  But right now, I suspect it is the other gift shared with your reflection; it is the spirit of Justitia which is driving you.”

“Ah, yes.” Festuscato smiled.  “Your suspicious gland is functioning very well I see.  Every woman has a suspicious gland, you know, and you are exactly right.”

Mirowen ignored the insult, and after a pause, she spoke again.  “How so?  How am I right?”

Festuscato did not answer directly.  “Did you notice the monster always attends the hall, but he never seeks victims in their homes or apartments?”  He asked, though he made it a statement of fact.  “It might become evident, you see, if one house never got attacked, or the houses of friends, if any.”

“But is it not a monster?”  Luckless rode right behind them and he had been listening in with those excellent ears, at least between bites.  “Don’t monsters just go for blood and gore and that sort of thing?”

“If it is a monster, it is an intelligent monster,” Festuscato said.

“Like a Troll or Ogre?” Mirowen asked, but Festuscato shook his head.

“I said intelligent,” he joked.

At least Luckless laughed.  “If it is one of ours, it must be a dark elf to come only at night, like a Goblin,” he suggested.

“No.  It is not one of my little ones,” Festuscato said. “I checked that out first.”

“Surely you don’t think an ordinary man would do all I hear this Grendel has done,” Mirowen said.

Festuscato paused to look at her closely.  “Tell me. Do you know what a werewolf is?”

“I have only heard the word,” Mirowen admitted, while Luckless shook his head and wondered.

“It is a disease, actually,” Festuscato said.  “Of the few humans who are really susceptible, most carry the gene without ever knowing it.  But they pass it on through the generations, until it surfaces at some point.  It happens when the moon is full, like the pull on the tides, and the man, like the Were people of old, changes into a wolf and is driven half mad in the process because human people are not built to be transformed.  These people become mostly mindless killing machines, and I suspect this Grendel may be something like that, only with his mind still intact somehow.”

“Oh, I see,” Luckless said, not really seeing at all.  But Mirowen understood perfectly.

“So, you think the monster may be an ordinary person by day, and it may actually be a person in the hall itself, every day,” she said.

“Exactly. And I think if anyone figures this out, there are plans already set to see someone else, someone innocent, accused. I feel it in my gut, but then I may be wrong altogether.”

“No.” Mirowen shook her head.  “It is the only explanation I have heard that makes any sense at all.”  She dropped back to consider the problem in her own private world.  She said very little the rest of the day, and nothing at all about the monster.  Then again, no one said much that day, until just before night when they entered a village in the forest where they were refreshed and could be bedded for the night.

M3 Festuscato: The Jutes, part 3 of 3

Shortly, a new target got brought into the room and a Jute stood up with two spears in hand.

Gregor leapt at the chance.  “Gods I love this,” he said.  He really enjoyed the sport, like a football addict with seats on the fifty-yard line.

The man holding the spears looked at his king as if wondering if it would really be fair to contest with a one-eyed man.  The king merely sat back, shrugged and nibbled on a piece of fat from the deer set before him.

The Jute went first, and like the huntsman, he made a fair throw that landed in the target, not on, but near the center.  Gregor picked up the other spear and examined it as if he was not sure how to hold it. He fingered the point and winced as if it felt really sharp.  “Forgive an old man.”  He said, luckless translating for him.  “With one eye my aim isn’t what it used to be.”  He waggled the spear like practice throws all around the room.  Men ducked for their lives until he lost it.  He started laughing, loud, and some joined his laughter when they realized he was just having fun, until he suddenly turned deadly serious.  He bellowed a Saxon war cry and heaved the spear toward the target.  It hit dead center and split the target in two where the boards had been fitted together.  The rest of the target splintered and fell apart, and Gregor started to laugh again, paused on his return to the table to slap a Jute hard on the back.

King Hroden who had sat straight up and stopped chewing, squinted at the end of the room. “Can’t tell where it hit, exactly. Another draw,” he decided.  Again, Festuscato did not argue, but the Swede began to laugh, embarrassingly for the king.

“Axes.”  The king roared.  His anger started rising.  A new target got hustled into the room and a new man stepped to the line. Luckless came up to take his turn.

“No magic.” The king reminded the contestants of the rule.

Luckless looked at his opponent.  “Won’t need any,” he announced.  He threw first, and his throw proved as perfect as the arrows of Mirowen and Gregor’s spear.  The axe man of the Jutes just stared for a minute, and then angrily hit the dwarf on the head with the butt of his axe.  Luckless went down.

Festuscato leapt out of his seat and over the table before most people knew what happened. He reached out to the second heaven and called to his armor, cloak, helmet, sword and long knife and he became instantly clothed as one ready for war.  The sword called Fate jumped to his hand, and he slid on his knees to Luckless’ side. Mirowen stood on the table, another arrow at the ready.

Everyone in the room came to their feet, and two angry looking Jutes stepped forward to defend their Axe man, but discovered nothing they could do about Mousden.

Mousden flew around the axe man fifteen or twenty times before the axe man could turn a quarter turn.  But Mousden just built up steam.  In the next moment, the axe man rose a few inches off the ground and started spinning uncontrollably to the point of throwing up, carried along by his own little tornado.  He slammed into the wall, hard, and slid to a seat, unable to hold anything in his stomach.

The other two men came at Festuscato and the dwarf, but the first hit a wet spot and slipped, his arms flailed in the air as he fell back and banged his head, hard on the edge of the table.  It would have killed him, surely, if his head had not been harder than the wood.

“Perpetual!” Gregor’s gleeful voice rang out from behind.

The last angry Jute drew his sword as Luckless shook his head and came back to his senses. Most men backed up.  Festuscato grabbed Fate’s hilt with both hands and when the two swords met, though the Jute’s sword looked much bigger and meaner, it shattered like a piece of rotten wood against a grinder.  Festuscato then stood and slapped Fate sharply against the stunned Jute’s shoulders.  Immediately, the Jute’s chain and leather harness slipped to the floor and Festuscato pressed Fate hard against the Jute’s nearly naked heart.  The Jute looked to his king to plead for his life, and the king responded.

“Halt,” he shouted, nodded to Mirowen slightly before she got tempted to shoot one of those illusion arrows at one of his people.  “I told the Roman we have no quarrel with Rome.  That goes for his people, too. Is that understood?”  He did not really ask.  “Roman, you are my honored guest.”  The king pointed to the seat beside himself.  “And I have a proposition.”

Festuscato sheathed his sword and with everyone watching, brought his comfortable clothes back from the second heavens and sent his war suit home.  He deliberately took his time returning to sit between Mirowen and the king.

“Neat trick, that,” the king said.  “Though I would have gotten a better look at that sword of yours.”

“A gift of the gods,” Festuscato said.  That was all he intended to say.

“Made by the gods?”  He got that much.  “And how did you come by it?” he asked.

“It was a going away present,” Festuscato said.  “I’ve had it for about four hundred and some seventy years.”

Hroden looked serious, but only for a minute.  He decided Festuscato was joking and had a good laugh.  “You are everything friend Ingut declared you to be,” he said.  “And I think there is something I would discuss.”

Festuscato became all ears, but both his and the king’s eyes were where the gold had been. The king looked away, thinking someone had snitched it in the confusion.  Festuscato felt pretty sure Mousden had taken it back, or at least that the Pixie would get it back.

“It is the monster,” King Hroden said, to get his guest’s attention.  After all, the Roman won the competition fairly, even if it was one point to none.  “Grendel is the name, and he has been like a plague on the Danes for these past twelve years.  The ranks of their brave and strong have been decimated by the beast who they say is stronger than ten men and who cannot be cut by any blade forged by men.”

Festuscato nodded. The sword of the gods had not been made by men, but he decided for the moment to just listen.

The king downed his drink, but when he heard no response, he continued.  “You live with monsters, begging the good Lady’s pardon, eh?”

“Not exactly,” Festuscato said, quietly.

“Still, I have a feeling about you.  You know about these things.  I can tell. If anyone can help the hapless Danes, I believe you and your strange crew can do it.”

Festuscato finished his own drink and turned to stare.  “And why would you worry about the poor Danes?” he asked, flatly.

King Hroden slammed his open hand on the table.  “Because they are weak.”  He shouted and got some attention from the room.  “Surely you, a Roman, understand that.  Isn’t that the Roman way?”

“Not exactly,” Festuscato said, still flat in his voice.  “Rome understands when her enemies are weak, but she always finds an ally, a local people who have a grudge against the weak ones and Rome moves in to help.  Once the help is given and the weak one is easily overwhelmed, Rome never moves out, and the result is invariably two kingdoms for the price of one.  This is the way empires are built.”

King Hroden looked grim for a minute and then laughed.  “And here is Olaf, the Swede.”  He announced before he suddenly lost his laugh and turned his grim look on the hapless Swede, who shrunk in his chair.

“I will go south,” Festuscato announced to regain the king’s attention.  “For a comfortable stay for me and my people this evening and good care taken of my horses.  If in the morning, we are well fed and well rested, I will go.”

“Good, good.”  King Hroden said.  He put his hand on Festuscato’s shoulder.

“Of course, after Ingut’s daughter, it will be rather hard to sleep without some distraction,” Festuscato added.

“What? You?”  He looked at the shipbuilder who was fortunately just out of earshot, and back again at the Roman before he laughed at last, like Gregor, while Mirowen’s pointed ears turned deep red.

************************

MONDAY

The the Hall of Heorot.  Ingut the shipbuilder gets roped in for further duty, to guide the Roman and his crew to hall of the king of the Danes, where the monster haunts the night.  Until Monday, Happy Reading.

*

M3 Festuscato: The Jutes, part 2 of 3

Mirowen went on to whisper the king’s response.

“He is thanking the fine ship builder for his thoughtfulness and is offering him a ring of gold for his trouble.”  The king stood and gave the gift.  “He is telling Ingut to stay and be refreshed.  He will get the finest rooms to spend the evening and can make a fresh start home in the morning.

“Ingut says his poor dear daughter will miss him in the night, and how he hates to be away from his only living kin.”

“The king says, here.  This inlaid necklace should soothe her fears.  Now please be seated and say no more about it.”  The king sat back down while men at the table to the king’s left moved down to make room for the shipwright.  Festuscato took Mirowen by the wrist and stepped forward.

“Festuscato Cassius Agitus, Senator of Imperial Rome and Ambassador of his most August Emperor, Valentinian III, the Divine Caesar, ruler of the Western World, it is an honor to be at your table,” he said, Mirowen translating.  The king slowly grinned.

“Ruler of the Western World?” he questioned.  There were a couple of muffled laughs at that.

“The civilized world,” Festuscato said, eliciting a very loud burp from a man at the back. “And many a man has underestimated the power and reach of Rome.”  He spoke plainly, not threatening.

“We have no quarrel, Roman,” the king said.  He made no other comment and looked over the crew, instead.

“Lady Mirowen.” Festuscato began the introductions with her.  “The big Britain is Bran the Sword, and these other good men are Gregor One Eye, the Saxon, Seamus the cleric, is Irish, Luckless from the mines of Wales, Mousden, the Pixie from Cornwall, and of course you know Vingevourt, king of the sprites of the Baltic.”  Festuscato began to look around.

“I was not aware they had names,” King Hroden said.

“And ah, there he is.”  Festuscato pointed.  “And Hrugen the Sailor.”  He knew better than to name the Dane, as a Dane, but then Hrugen surprised them by stepping forward.

“I am Hrugen son of Unferth, grandson of Edglaf of the Danes,” he said, proudly.  Several benches got shoved back and several men reached for their weapons, but the king stopped them with his hand.

“I have heard of your father,” Hroden said.

“I fled my home twelve years ago when my father killed his two brothers,” Hrugen said. “I feared for my life, but I have conquered that fear and I am returning home to confront my sire, once and for all.” He sounded far braver and more confident in that assembly than he really was.

“He is a stinking drunk,” Hroden said.  “He sits at Hrothgar’s feet in Heorot and fears the monster that assails them.  He is a drunk and a coward.”  The king baited Hrugen, but Hrugen did not bite.

“What you say may be true,” Hrugen said.  “I have not been home in all these years.”

The king frowned at his lack of success, so he broadened his jibes.  “Still, I suppose we can encourage enmity between Danes. You may stay.  As for the rest of your crew, however, they seem no threat. Even the big one looks docile enough. Stay and eat.”

“I thank the king for his generosity,” Festuscato said.  “But before you underestimate Rome, may I suggest a friendly contest or two?”

“Eh?”  The shrewdness returned to the king’s eyes.

“Something to entertain and pass the time,” Festuscato shrugged.  “Perhaps archery to start, if you have a target.”

The king nodded. He indicated to a man who called for the target.  “But what if you lose?” the king asked.

“Mousden.” Festuscato called.  The Pixie came forward and produced a small leather purse out of nowhere.  He handed it to Festuscato and flew back to the others.  Festuscato took out a couple of pieces of gold as if judging how much to bet.  He looked around, and then smiled, dumped half the bag of nuggets on the table before the king and set the rest of the bag beside it.  “But what if we win?”  Festuscato countered.  The king’s wide eyes looked up at the Roman.  “Rome is a fat cow,” he reminded the king.

“Enough,” the king promised.  “I will give enough.”  He stood. “But my men will not lose.”  He roared to be sure everyone got the message.  A table, one back from the front, was cleared for the strangers, but the king stopped Festuscato.  “You sit with me,” he said.  “And the Lady of Light.”  He literally threw a man out of his seat to make room at his own table.  When he sat back down, the man beside him whispered in his ear.  He laughed. “Olaf the Swede has bet on you and your crew.”  He laughed again.  “Yonstrom!” He called out.  The king’s hunter stepped forward, arrow already on the string. A line got drawn on the floor and the target set across the room far enough away to not make it too easy. Yonstrom shot, and it appeared a good shot.  It was not centered, but close enough to take down a stag.  The king smiled and looked at Festuscato.

“Mirowen.” That was all he said, without looking. She jumped on the table itself, adding another twelve yards distance to the target, produced a bow seemingly out of thin air and shot, not once, but two arrows so close together the second was away before the first one hit the target.  The first hit dead center and the second one hit so perfectly on the end it drove the first nearly all the way through the hardwood, but without splitting the first shaft.

Mirowen got back in her seat, the bow gone, and she looked demure and sweet before the men could hardly react.  Then they broke out.  Some hooted. Some hollered.  All praised her, in amazement, and only Festuscato noticed that she turned a little red.  When the king bent over to say something, she spoke first to cut him off.

“My Lord Agitus is far better than I am,” she said.  Festuscato shook his head.  He knew his reflection in the past, Diana, his genetic twin, had been graced by both the goddess Justitia and the goddess Diana, her namesake.  He reflected her sense of justice and power of negotiation as well as her ability to hunt and use the bow, to fire the arrow of justice as he called it, but Mirowen remained the best he had ever seen.

“Perhaps,” the king said.  “But he did not shoot.  Magic does not count.  I will have the target examined in the morning to see if the arrows are still there or if it was all just illusion.”  He looked at Festuscato and considered whether or not he might be better than the elf.  “We will call it a draw,” the king concluded.  “Swords.”  He announced.

Mirowen wanted to protest, but Festuscato held her hand down.  He looked.  Bran did not have to be called.  His opponent was a big Jute, though not quite Bran’s size.  Neither was the Jute’s sword as big as Bran’s early broadsword. They did not wait for the word, but went at it evenly at first.  When Bran looked to be gaining the advantage, and the Jute appeared to be tiring, a man at the table stuck out his own weapon, and Bran lost his grip.  The broadsword clattered across the floor and king Hroden looked pleased.

Festuscato showed no emotion as the big Jute moved in for what he believed would be the deciding blow, but as he moved in close to strike, Bran did the opposite of what was expected.  Instead of backing away, Bran stepped in even closer and hit the Jute with a wicked uppercut followed by two jabs and a right hook that slammed the Jute against the wall, unconscious.  Bran rubbed his knuckles a bit before he retrieved his broadsword and laid it at the Jute’s throat.

“One for me.” Festuscato said to the king’s great displeasure.  He called for food and thought quietly while everyone ate and drank.  He called a man close and whispered to him.

M3 Festuscato: The Jutes, part 1 of 3

The so-called city of Thorengard sat on the bank of a broad river that emptied into the sea. It got surrounded, more or less, by a stockade, which had been partly built of stone and partly of whole trees planted deep in the earth, lashed together with rope, and caulked with mud. Ingut called them to halt on a small hill which gave a good view of the city below, and he pointed out certain features including the docks, the market area, and the roof of Yut-Heim, the hall of the king.  Festuscato noted that the man did not speak like a proud native.  He said it all just matter of fact.  As they began to descend toward the main gate, Luckless turned to the Roman.

“And what is on your mind?” he asked.

Festuscato turned up one corner of his mouth.  “I was just understanding once again why people like these would fall on their faces in fear and trembling at the sight of the city of Rome with her tremendous walls, broad avenues and thousands of alleyways, dozens of great ships in the harbor from all over the Mediterranean, and a half million people all bustling about on important business.  This city should barely be called a town, and even that word is generous.”

“Rome must really be something,” Luckless said.

“It is,” Festuscato confirmed.  “But even Londugnum would give these people pause and it is nothing compared to the Great City.”

“So you have said,” Luckless reminded him.

“Yes, but your Rome has become like a fat cow.”  Gregor nudged into the conversation.  “It may be great in size and beauty, but it is subject to the butcher knife.”

Festuscato grew silent.  He knew in his heart that Gregor was more or less right.  He had a commission from the Emperor and the Imperial Senate which stated that after he established peace in Britain, he was to seek out the reason the Germanic tribes were pushing so violently and permanently into the west. He was to resolve the problem, or at least find a way that Rome could counter those migrations and thus preserve itself.  Such thinking, however, was foolishness.  Before he even arrived in Germany, he understood that all he would likely find were people who were glad to take advantage of Roman weakness.

To discover the reason Roman power was waning and collapsing in the West, the Emperor Valentinian III needed to look in the mirror.  Indeed, all Romans needed to look in the mirror, but this they would never do.  One of the surest signs of civilization’s collapse was when the prevailing wisdom turned away from personal responsibility and toward blaming others for every ill.  When people stopped depending on themselves to make their lives as good as they could and hand to their children better than they got, and they turned instead to government to give it to them, as if government acted like some living god independent of the people governed, then civilization became doomed.

“What ho!” Vingevourt’s pipsqueak voice came up from the ground ahead.  “I came up the river and have waited here a long time for your arrival.”

“And here we are.”  Mirowen smiled for the little one.

“Ungh!” Ingut grunted at him.

“Good to see you,” Festuscato said to turn his mind from his depression.

“Come aboard, Majesty,” Gregor said with a big smile.  “See?  I have set a clean cloth just for you to leak on.”

Vingevourt climbed up.  “I will say, you are a thoughtful mudder.”

Gregor guffawed. “No.  I’m just an old fart.”

“Smells like a new one if you ask me,” Mousden mumbled before he flew ahead to get a closer look at the city.

When they came to the gate, they found a half dozen men laying about in the late afternoon. They came somewhat to attention on the sight of such a big party, but any semblance of order fell apart when they saw the contents of the party.  The men were strange enough in their dress, though they probably recognized the German and perhaps even the Britain.  The Roman and the Irish cleric might as well have been from China, but then the little ones really grabbed their attention.

Dwarfs were not yet strangers in the world, but they were not common, while elves, like trolls and gnomes were often heard of, but rarely seen.  Fairies had always been shy of humans, but this Cornish pixie with the slight greenish tint to his skin, his bat-like wings and claw-like hands and feet with their prehensile toes hardly fit the pattern.  They did not know what to make of Mousden, but Vingevourt they knew, at least in type.  They were astonished, however, to see the water sprite out of the water.

If Ingut had not been leading them into the city, there might have been some question as to whether or not they would have been allowed in.  Some believed the sighting of any little one was a sign of good fortune to come, but many more firmly believed they were an ill omen, and Festuscato felt sure he heard Odin’s name used as a curse as much as in prayer.

The trip through the town and its’ terribly muddy and garbage-laden streets did nothing to raise Festuscato’s impression of the place.  He found the royal stables hardly worth the name.  The hall of Yut-Heim at least appeared to be well built, a solid log construction with a kind of shingled roof found on a number of buildings and houses in the town.  It looked to be a marked improvement over the thatch they found elsewhere.

“Ingut.” His name came easily to the group of men inside the hall.  Everyone knew the ship builder, and because so much of their lives and livelihood depended on their ships, whether for fishing or war, Ingut seemed to have the run of the place.  In this instance, his first duty was to march up to the king’s table and nod his respect for the king before he spoke.  Mirowen quietly translated for the group who followed in Ingut’s train.

“He’s telling the king about your wreck at sea during the great storm and how he found you washed up on his shore.”

“His shore?” Festuscato mouthed, but listened.

“You are the Roman, and we are your companions, sworn in allegiance to you, and there is great power of magic in us all, as can plainly be seen in the Roman’s choice of companions.  When the ship got driven to the rocks of Heyglund, Ingut realized it must be because the gods decided we must be a gift for the people of this war-torn land.”

“Didn’t know I was a magician.”  Gregor muttered.  Mirowen kicked him to be quiet.

“Naturally, Ingut thought of his great king, Hroden, and brought the Roman here first of all, knowing that the king would understand these things far better than the lowly ship maker.”

King Hroden eyed them with an eye of serious consideration and another eye of amusement. A couple of men at a table laughed at the sight of the strangers, but the king quickly raised his hand for silence.

M3 Festuscato: Saved, part 3 of 3

It did not take long before they began to pass people—the huts of the workers.  Women were fixing the leaks while children ran amok. A group of children ran and played alongside the train for a while, but they gave it up when the travelers came to a hill.  The house of Ingut stood on the high ground, but when they reached it, it hardly looked like the house of a prosperous and successful man.  In fact, it hardly looked different than the huts of the workers.

The old man sat outside on the front stoop, whittling with a wicked looking knife, and having a rather wicked look on his face.  That he had been there most of the night seemed evident from the number of wood chips piled around.

Luckless got down, and the old man did not even bat an eye in the face of the dwarf. Vingevourt raised the man’s brows a little, but he knew and respected the sprite, even if he did not particularly like him.  It seemed hard to say exactly what their relationship might be.  It also seemed hard to say what he thought Mousden might be. He batted at the Pixie like Mousden was a giant insect or bat until Mousden confronted him, face to face.  The man blinked and took a step back.  Seamus came up, having fallen to the back of the pack, and Mirowen slipped off the back of the beast and stepped straight for the door.  At this, the old man took a big step out of the way, and bowed.  He might not care for Dwarfs, or Vingevourt, or giant insects, but he knew a light elf when he saw one.

Bran, Gregor and Hrugen kept a wary eye on the workers who appeared at the top of the hill. Mirowen opened the door, followed by Seamus, Luckless, Vingevourt, and Mousden.  Festuscato still lay in bed with Inga, and though covered, it was evident that both were stark naked.  Inga let out a little embarrassed peep and covered herself further.  Festuscato put down his plate.

“I can’t eat another bite,” he said.  His clothes were dry, but he could hardly stand naked in front of the ones staring, open-mouthed.  He let his heart and spirit reach out to his place, the place of the Kairos, the island that stayed forever in the Second Heavens.  He caught hold of his armor, the chain and leather which had been the gift of Hephaestus, and the elf spun cloth that shaped itself to whatever life he was living.  In an instant, he became clothed in that glorious armor and stood, even as Mirowen spoke.

“He is only human, after all,” she said, meaning it as a simple fact and not entirely as an insult.  All the little ones bowed, to Ingut’s surprise.  Ingut had been watching from the doorway.  He pushed his way into the room and stepped up to Festuscato with a most curious expression.  He held one hand over one of Festuscato’s eyes.  Perhaps Gregor had given him the idea.

Festuscato shook his head, hid his left hand behind his back and pointed to his wrist as if his arm ended there.  Ingut’s eyes got wide as he imagined which god Festuscato might be, until Festuscato revealed his hand with a broad grin.  Then Ingut guessed.  He spat.

“Loki,” he said.

“Loki!?” Festuscato felt insulted, while Mirowen giggled.

“Who is Loki?” Seamus asked.

“Trickster,” Luckless said.  “Not a nice fellow, I understand.”

“He wasn’t,” Vingevourt said, as he pushed himself forward while Ingut stepped back. Vingevourt fell to his wobbly knees and begged forgiveness for his inaction and innocence in not knowing who was aboard the fateful ship.  He said the whole little speech in the language of Jutland, reverting from the British without thinking; but Festuscato understood it all, though he did not speak the tongue of the Jutes, because he heard it in the heart.

“Do not worry, great king,” he said, and resisted the urge to kneel which would have insulted the little one.  “You have no power over the storms, and I did not call out for help.  Perhaps it was my time to die.”  Festuscato had to pause on that thought.  “You never know.”

“All the same,” Vingevourt began, but Festuscato cut him off.

“Will you travel with us for a time?” he asked.

“I will,” Vingevourt said, without hesitation.  “But where are we going?” he asked.

“Thorengard.” Ingut said.  He had been listening in.  “Yut-heim.  Thorengard.”

Festuscato looked at his host and lifesaver.  He pulled a big ruby ring from his finger and gave it to the man.  “Would you tell him thanks for saving my life.”  Vingevourt hesitated.  Mirowen told him.  Ingut looked at Festuscato with some shrewdness in his eyes.

“And where is Yut-Heim?”  Festuscato asked.  Mirowen asked Ingut and then translated the response.  “In Thorengard.”  She shrugged.

Ingut stepped outside and began to bellow orders to the gathered crowd like a man accustomed to being obeyed.  Some of the men peeled away and came back in a very short time with two saddled horses and some bread, cheese, some smoked fish and watered down mead.  Bran, Gregor, Hrugen, Seamus and the little ones had little time to eat, however.  Ingut said something to Festuscato who had come outside with the others while Inga dressed.

Vingevourt translated this time.  “He says he assumes this is your horse he found wandering down by the beach.” Festuscato looked and nodded.  He mounted as Inga came running out of the house, calling his name.  He leaned over and gave her a long kiss and lifted her gently off the ground to do it, but then he set her down.

“Thorengard?” he asked.  Ingut pointed, and Festuscato started out without waiting for the others.

“But I’m not finished eating,” Luckless complained.

“So what else is new?”  Gregor said and nudged the dwarf as he got back on his horse to follow.  Fortunately, Vingevourt had run back to the sea as fast as the gingerbread man could run.  He promised he would be waiting for them in the city.

“For a small one, you eat more than anyone I’ve ever known,” Seamus said to the dwarf.

“High metabolism,” Festuscato shouted back.

“I’ll explain,” Mirowen promised, as she took her place behind the cleric.

“But I’m not done!”  Luckless shouted and realized he was last.  He grabbed as much bread and cheese as he could carry and climbed up on his pony.  “Wait up!” He kicked the animal to a trot and cursed for dropping half his booty.

************************

MONDAY

The Jutes.  Ingut, the ship builder, takes Festuscato and his crew to the Jute capital to meet the king.  No telling what kind of reception they might get.  Until Monday, Happy Reading.

*

M3 Festuscato: Saved, part 2 of 3

“The Kairos is sometimes female, except then he is our goddess,” Mousden said, confusing poor Hrugen further who shook his head in bewilderment.

Gregor asked a serious question.  “I thought, didn’t you say there was only one God, or three?  Unless you count that devil, too.”

“The jury is still out, as Festuscato would say, on who in fact Lord Agitus serves.” Seamus looked serious.

“The almighty, surely.”  Bran needed no convincing.

“Judging from these little ones, I would guess mostly himself.”  Gregor stirred the pot.

“Well, where is he?  I must apologize.  It would have been a black mark on my family for generations to drown my own god.” Vingevourt ignored the Saxon and sneered at Luckless.

Hrugen mumbled. “How can you drown a god?  It doesn’t make sense.”

“He’s not here.” Mousden said, right before Luckless shouted.

“My tools!” Luckless danced.  “Blessings, Master Sprite.  Please let me beg your pardon for misjudging your character and motives.  If there is anything you want, do tell.  I would gladly make goblets of gold for your banquet table, if I had any gold.”

“No need.” Vingevourt became gracious in return. “The only thing metal is good for in the sea is rust.  So which one is he?  What do you mean, not here?”

“I fear he may yet be dead,” Bran said.  “And I will have failed in my mission.”

“Not dead, master swordsman.  Do not be dismayed,” Mirowen told him.

“Not dead, I know it,” Mousden said, as he flew around in several circles and tasted the air. Everyone looked at Luckless as he contained his joy for a moment.  Dwarfs have an unerring sense of direction from living most of their lives in an underground warren of caves and mines more complicated than any labyrinth ever conceived by men.  They can also find any other given dwarf in that place with a sniff of the air and a sense that humans don’t have.  Luckless sniffed, closed his eyes, turned three times in a broad circle and finally pointed up the coast and slightly inland.

“And that’s not easy out in the open air,” he said in search of a bit of praise, if not sympathy.

“Easy or not, we should move,” Bran said.  “If the Lord has moved off the coast, he may be a prisoner in this strange land, or in other danger and in need of our help.”  Bran immediately rose and began to remove the ropes from his improvised raft. He would need them to tie their things to the backs of their horses and pony.  Gregor and Hrugen helped by saddling the beasts.

They were off soon enough, Luckless on the pony, leading the way.  Mirowen rode behind Seamus the Cleric while Gregor, Bran and Hrugen rode the other three horses.  Mousden flew most of the way, but landed occasionally on one horse or another.  Gregor, good heartedly invited the water sprite to ride in front of him.  His horse bucked once when Gregor mounted.

“Settle down, supper,” he said to the horse.  He called all horses supper.  “You stood around half the morning getting fat on scrub grass.  Now it’s time to work.”

The water sprite seemed reluctant to ride at that point, but Gregor stared him down with his one eye.  “It will be fine,” he said.  “It’s a horse, not a plow mule.”  When Vingevourt got up, Gregor added, “Won’t likely buck more than a dozen more times.” He laughed, and then regretted his invitation.  “Master Sprite, you’re leaking.”

“It’s perpetual,” Vingevourt said, having turned his words to the British spoken by the rest of the party.  He was a well-traveled sprite.

Gregor thought about that, but he did not really understand the word.  “Aren’t you afraid you’ll leak out eventually and disappear?”

“No.  It’s perpetual.”  The water sprite repeated with some annoyance.

“Magic.” Mirowen turned her head back to explain in terms Gregor could understand.  “No matter how much water appears, Vingevourt will not get any smaller.”

“Oh,” Gregor said, and he asked the sprite to please perpetual on the horse as much as possible.

“Easy for you. You’re nothing but mud.  A little water might clean you up if it doesn’t melt you,” Vingevourt said.  “More than likely I’ll be the one who will get filthy.”

“Huh!” Gregor huffed, but he said no more.

The trail seemed easy enough as they came quickly out of the rocks and to a sandy shore. There were three ships there, well up on the beach, all in various stages of building.  One appeared just a skeleton.  One looked nearly finished.  The third, somewhere in between.  There were two other ships as well, like ships in dry dock, being in various stages of repair.

“Easy,” Bran whispered loud enough for them all to hear.  He nudged a quick finger toward one ship in dock.  There were a dozen men, some standing around, but most examining the ships in the morning light for signs of damage from the storm.  The men watched the strange procession, but they neither said a word nor did anything to stop their progress.  The danger soon passed, and Hrugen spoke as soon as they were clear

“Ingut, the shipwright,” he said.  “I would bet this is his place, unless he died in the last twelve years, then it would be his descendant’s place, or another like him.”

“Ingut,” Vingevourt nodded.  “I know him well and his silly splinters of wood he floats across the surface of my realm.”

“This tells us nothing,” Gregor said.

“He is a Jute, but he owes allegiance to no one in particular,” Hrugen explained.  “He will build for any king or lord who will meet his price.  Jute, Thane, Dane, Swede, Norwegian, Geat, Frisian.  It doesn’t matter.”

“So, Lord Cato might be safe, or in trouble?” Bran asked for clarification.

“Safe, I would imagine,” Hrugen said.  “His clothes speak of money, and his shipwrecked condition speaks of needing a ship.”

“Sharp thinking.” Gregor complimented Hrugen.

“Let’s hope Ingut thought of it.”  Luckless shouted back from the front.  Dwarves had good ears as well as noses.