R6 Greta: Jupiter, part 1 of 3

Late in the afternoon on the following day, the group came to the edge of the swamp.  From there, after a short bit of grassland, they saw the stone city wall, two stories high in most places.  Nudd called the city Samarvant, and he pointed off to their right where the road went up to a gate, the road they would have taken if they traveled the normal route, twenty-one days on the high road from the village of the Dragon Clan. Off to the left, they saw the river that Nudd called the Olevant.  The little ones called it the river Heartbreak, but Greta had another name for it.

“The Scythians own the Ukraine, but I hope we are beyond their area now,” she said.  “These great swamps and bogs and woods cover the border area, and they rest on higher ground where a thousand streams join together to form the river. The river on the future map that the Storyteller is looking at is called the Oka, it runs due north for a long way before it detours to the east where it runs straight into the Muskva River, and that is where we are going.”  Everyone looked at the river where it skirted the swampy area they were in and ran north along the edge of the city.  Everyone looked at the water since it was the route they would have to take, but the water was not the only thing they were looking for.

“Over there,” Alesander pointed toward the southeast side of the city where the wooden roof of a tower could just be made out. It looked burned.

“I see the scorch marks on the stones,” Mavis reported.  “But I see no one on the walls or around the gate and I hear nothing to indicate life.”

“Bogus?”  Greta turned to the dwarf.

Bogus shook his head.  “I smell trouble, but I cannot say what kind.  I think Wolv, but…” Bogus shrugged.  “Too much lime smell.”

“No cooking fires,” Pincushion added.  “This time of day I should smell cooking fires.”

“Briana?”  Greta turned again

“I sense danger.”  That seemed all she could say for sure.

“I recommend we wait until dark,” Ulladon said.

“Why wait?” Lucius spoke up. “No reason why we can’t find our way to the docks and grab a boat before they even know we are there.”

“Better after dark.  We can’t protect you until after the sun sets,” Lord Crag interrupted. “Rotwood,” he yelled in a voice that gave Nudd the willies.  “Run back and get the trolls and Bonebreaker, and hurry.”  Rotwood hurried, and Greta sat, so everyone found a spot and sat with her.

Pincushion, Ulladon, Hermes and Mavis set about building a fire to cook some supper.  Briana sat with Alesander and they looked at the city wall once in a while.  Lucius sat near them and stayed quiet except for the comment that he thought they ought to just go, now.  He said they would be all right and let the subject drop, but Greta wondered how he would know one way or the other, and surely caution would be called for.  She considered Lucius on this journey.  He had not betrayed them.  He had not done anything overtly to indicate he might be under the spell of Mithrasis, if she did not count almost being killed by his rockslide on the Rumbling Ridge; but there were subtle signs.  He urged them to return to Roman lands at the Dragon Village.  He went out all day from the elf village and Vedix said he and Lord Horns separated from him for a time, but that did not mean he met with anyone or set up any ambush.  Now, he urged a lack of caution, like he knew something but would not tell. There were probably other things as well, but her mind felt clouded.

“Lady,” Bogus and Vedix interrupted her thoughts with an argument.  “I thought maybe Chobar and the Dog Clan came up before us, and maybe that is the dog smell we are sensing, but Vedix says even if Chobar brought every dog, there would not be enough to attack a city like this.”

“I wish it was something as simple as Chobar and his dogs, but no,” Greta said.  “This is a city of the Bastarne people, as Ulladon said, and that is a Germanic people. I thought one or more of the outlying Scythians types might have attacked the city, like maybe the Capri or Costoboci, but no.”

“Why not?”  Vedix wondered.

Greta pointed.  “That roof is still smoldering, so whatever happened, it happened in the past day or two at most.  And there are no dead bodies or equipment, broken or otherwise, to indicate an assault on the city.”

“Maybe it got taken by stealth and subterfuge,” Bogus suggested.

Greta shook her head, but said, “Maybe.”  She twirled her right-hand pigtail, considered how light her blond hair was, and wondered if she could get away with being ditzy and feigning ignorance about the world.  No way, she thought.  Not if she knew words like feigning.  She sighed and considered their predicament instead.  No one said the city got razed by Wolv, but it was what everyone thought. Greta was probably the only one who knew that it would not take more than a dozen Wolv to kill a thousand men, women and children.  The Wolv had shielding and advanced weapons, and true, the weapons were pretty old and worn out, but even with their claws and fangs, and speed alone, they were pretty unstoppable.

“Lady.”  Nudd interrupted Greta’s thoughts this time.  She looked at him, but still had her mind wandering through La-la land. Poor Nudd.  He had not left her side since just about Movan Mountain, and she could not be sure if he opened his eyes even once in the swamp.  “Lady,” he repeated, which got her to pay better attention.  “I’ve been thinking about Samarvant.  I was very young when I came here, but I remember some.  I remember they built big underground tunnels, drains they called them, to take away rain water and filth from the streets.  I remember because they scared me when I thought about getting lost down there.  I feared wandering around forever and never finding my way back up again.”  Nudd got lost in his own memories, and from the look on his face, they were probably memories of nightmares he had as a child about getting lost in a labyrinth of underground tunnels.  Greta paused while the information sank in.  Then she shouted.

“Alesander.  Bogus. Lord Crag.  There may be a way through the city.”  She softened her tone to speak again to Nudd.  “Do the drains empty out into the river?”

“Yes,” he said and shivered.  “And sometimes they flood the tunnels to clean them out.” He closed his eyes and turned away while the others came to listen.

It took almost no time to figure their route. Lord Crag’s people explored all the tunnels when they were first constructed, including their path through a couple of natural underground caverns.  Crag and his people wanted nothing to do with those caverns since they were so wet and full of stinky limestone, and since the townspeople sent flood waters through every now and then, but his people knew all about the tunnels, and several had maps in their heads and claimed they could take them right to the drain opening next to the docks on the river.

“The only problem is we will have to enter the city by the gate to get to a drain opening,” Lord Crag said.  “The ground beneath the city wall is solid, and you folks can’t walk through solid rock.”

“They will smell us,” Greta pointed out, though no one had yet said Wolv with certainty.

“If we move quick, we should make the drain, unless they are standing on it, and the underground smells only of limestone,” Lord Crag countered.

“Indeed,” Bogus spoke up.  “I can smell it from here.”

With that, they settled in for a good supper while they waited for the sun to go down.  Mavis, Ulladon and Briana made sure Nudd got more than enough to eat. They seemed determined to overstuff the poor boy.  Ulladon even called him the poor and needy son she never had.  Briana smiled at that description.  Mavis let out a true elf grin, and Greta smiled for them, even if she felt a bit left out.

Feeling left out felt like nothing unusual for Greta. She remembered when she turned ten and eleven-years-old and started to seriously study with Mother Hulda, the woman of the ways.  People treated her differently almost from the beginning, though her childhood friends hung on for a time.  She only turned sixteen when Mother Hulda died in a night, and the burden of the people fell on her shoulders.  She felt unprepared for that.  She felt like she hardly knew enough to come in from the rain, but the people had no one else.

Greta looked at Mavis, Ulladon and Briana. They were becoming good friends, but sadly, Briana thought of her as one who spoke to her goddess Rhiannon like Rhiannon was the child in need of instruction.  This did not make Mother Greta appear like a normal woman, like a person one could have as an ordinary friend.  As for Mavis and Ulladon, Greta was their goddess, and no doubt that had seeped into Briana’s thinking as well.  She could never be just friends with any of them. She remained the Kairos.  She had lived too many lifetimes over too many years if she added it up, though it did not honestly add up that way.

Greta paused to think through what it meant to be the Kairos, the goddess of history, though out loud she insisted on being called the Watcher over history.  She claimed only to watch history, but she admitted that sometimes it became a struggle to get it to turn out the way it was written.  It felt curious how that written history extended as much into the future in her mind as into the past.  As an ordinary human, she had no idea what tomorrow would bring.  The next hundred years or so always stayed a mystery. But through whatever future lives she currently remembered, she could understand how things turned out and look back to see what endangered the present.  Things were happening that could throw the whole of history out of whack if she did not act.  A Mithraic pantheon of gods ruling over Rome was not in the books.  Greta sighed and considered the future more closely.

R6 Greta: The Swamp of Sorrows, part 3 of 3

They found a woman under the canopy, waiting for them.  She looked slim, and graceful in a way that Oreona, the elf Queen and Goldenrod, the fairy Queen could hardly match.  She also smiled, which set people at ease in the dark, until they got close enough for a good look.  The woman had very sharp teeth, little horns above her ears, pink eyes that glowed a bit in the dark, a serpent’s tongue, too long and thin and with a fork at the end, and up close, the woman’s arms had a shine to them and a green tint that suggested something like lizard’s skin.

“Welcome,” the woman said, in a voice that sounded sweet but suggested she had a candy house in the woods with a great big oven.  “I am Ulladon, lady of the swamp.  You are most welcome.”

“You sent the ogres,” Greta said, as she stepped to the front, Mavis on one side and Briana on the other.  The men kept back.

“I was afraid for you,” Ulladon admitted.  “And ogres have no fear of the sun.”

“No, that was good of you,” Briana said. “Only it might help the men if the big one was not following us.”

Ulladon laughed, but it sounded like a nice laugh and not at all wicked.  “Bonebreaker,” she raised her voice.  “Keep to the back so you don’t scare our guests.”

“Yes Lady,” Bonebreaker said from the back in a startlingly deep and gravelly voice.  He sounded like he was breaking bones even as he spoke.  The men shuffled up a little closer to Greta and Stinky seemed nervous.  Hermes tried to calm the mule.

“There,” he said softly.  “At last we found something that stinks worse than you.”

“Oh yes,” Greta spoke up nice and loud. “He is frightening and disgusting both.  Why, I can hardly bring myself to look at him.”  Briana looked around and wondered why anyone would say such an insult to an ogre, but she glanced at Bonebreaker who stood in a patch of light, and she saw him lift his head in pride.

“It is a great compliment.  You are so kind,” Ulladon said to Greta.  “Please, follow me so we can get away from the light.  I fear my already weak eyes have been hurt all the more staring out into the morning.  Please, only stay in line.  The ground is not always solid if you don’t know where to put your foot.”

“Briana.  Alesander. You go out front,” Greta said.

“Yes, dear,” Ulladon spoke to Briana.  “Bring your man.  Sorry my husband Crag is snoring in the day.”

“Lord Crag.”  Briana remembered the name the elves in the forest gave.  She also remembered what Greta explained, that most of the names in the various languages of the spirits of the earth translated into Latin, like Bonebreaker, Grassly and Treeborn.  Oreona did not translate well because it came out “one who swallows moonbeams until her eyes glow” and that would not do for a name. “What does Ulladon mean?” Briana asked. Ulladon looked back and waved Briana to step up beside her, which Briana did without hesitation, though it surprised Alesander to see it.

Ulladon whispered, but Greta could not help herself and listened in.  “It means “large lizard”, and that is not an image I want to promote.”  Ulladon patted her own perfect little behind while she and Briana glanced back at Alesander.  He appeared to be looking around at the scenery at the moment.

Greta considered the relationship between women and the spirit world.  Most women liked fairies and some less liked light elves, like Mavis, well enough. Fewer liked dwarfs but most screamed and ran away from goblins.  Rarely, there were women who felt attracted to goblin women, and often many of those rare women and goblins ended up lifelong friends.  At the same time, Greta felt her butt had been too big even before she had children.  Her right hand reached around, as if it had a will of its own, and punched at her own cheek. It slapped several times on her hip as if that might slim it, while Mavis stepped up and whispered.

“Did I ever tell you how your armor makes you look so trim and fit?”

Greta stopped her hand.  “I swear Darius picked you because you are a natural born politician.” She added a note.  “I’m over the morning sickness and entering the moody stage so watch yourself, and don’t take it personally.”

“No.” Pincushion raised her voice.  Greta thought she was being interrupted, but to be sure, she had not realized Pincushion went with them.  “My mother is a light elf,” she explained to Bogus and Vedix. “She works in fairy weave.  Most of the gnomes and fairies, and even these dark elves wear her handiwork.  She moved with her troop down to the Black Sea some years ago, about the same time my father moved up toward the Urals.  He said he wanted a fairy.  He said he had a fairy once and wanted another before he died.”  Pincushion laughed.  “Mostly, I would say my mother had him.”  She laughed again, and Greta turned her ears off.  She really did not want to hear the gory details.

It felt better to hear Mavis say, “Watch your step.” Nudd still had not opened his eyes.

It took until late afternoon to reach the goblin lair, an exceptionally dark and dank place where the overlapping branches above let no sunlight in whatsoever.  All the way there, Ulladon stayed careful to avoid the places where the sun broke through the leaves and shot sunbeams to the swamp floor.  Other than that, they walked a steady pace and arrived in one piece, about three or four in the afternoon.

“Rotwood,” Ulladon kicked the sentry who slept, standing, but leaning against a tree.  Ants crawled all over his hand and arm, but he did not seem bothered by it.  He woke when kicked and made noises of protest, but did not actually protest.  Instead, he tipped his hat to the group as each one walked by, until Stinky came up and he whistled and shouted.

“Mule ribs!”

Bonebreaker arrived last and shook his finger at the goblin.  “No, no. Lady said don’t eat the mule.” Greta heard and sighed.

Ulladon brought the group to a nice, sandy mound with a large flat area on top.  She chanted something that Briana could not quite catch, sprinkled something like water and salt all around the mound and then stood up in the center of the flat space and threw her arms out, wide.  Everyone saw ants, spiders, lizards, frogs, wasps, rats, mice and roaches vacate the area at all speed.  A number of goblin women came up to the edge of the area and captured some of the things to cook, no doubt, for the goblin breakfast pot.

Several goblin children came up to the flat place, their arms loaded down with wood.  They built a nice pile in the middle and set some bigger logs to the side for later.  Ulladon took a stick, or a wand as Greta thought, and she chanted some more before she waved the stick at the woodpile and walked all the way around it in a circle. At last she struck the pile three times and a fine fire sprang up.  Like the fairy fire, the smoke went straight up all night.

“But like the dwarfs,” Bogus said.  “Some of that is in the ventilation.”  Vedix thought they were outside and what ventilation? But he said nothing.

Supper, fortunately, was not frogs and roaches. They had venison and all sorts of vegetables, which Pincushion knew how to cook until it melted in their mouths. “Perfection,” Bogus called it, and held out his plate for more.

“You see?”  Ulladon said to the women who sat together.  “Everyone has some talent.  As an elect, you certainly know that.”

Briana nodded.  Mother Greta nodded.  Mavis voiced a thought.

“At least the women are talented.”  The women laughed.

“Light elf.  I think I like you,” Ulladon said.

“Dark elf, the same,” Mavis said, and the two looked at each other before they spoke in unison.

“I won’t tell if you don’t tell.”

Briana was still back on the women having talent. “I think if the women ruled the world we might all be better off, like no wars and stuff.”  Mavis and Ulladon shook their heads.

“If women ran the world we would still be sending men out with stone spears to kill the beasts, because why change what works?” Mavis said.

“We would still be risking men to kill the bear so we could have the skins to keep ourselves and our babies warm,” Ulladon added.

Greta had a thought as well.  “We would still send the old ones and the children to gather the roots and berries while we sat around sipping fine wine and eating chocolate.”

“As you say,” Briana ended that conversation.

Lord Crag came by to assure them that they could sleep and they would be fine in the night.  Greta thanked him, and when he moved on she told Nudd he could come out from beneath his blanket.

Alesander came over to see Briana, as everyone knew, but his excuse was to ask how on earth Greta thought of turning the Dacians and Scythians against each other.

“Scotts and Danes,” Greta said, and then as so often lately she felt the need for further explanation.  “I figured Mithras has seven pieces broken off and every piece probably wants to prove themselves to be the big cheese.  It was some risk, but not hard to imagine those pieces competing and turned against each other with the right incentive.”

“Brilliant,” Alesander said, before Briana said she wanted to show Alesander something that Ulladon pointed out.  They walked off and Greta decided she felt tired and needed to lie down.  That left Ulladon and Mavis to talk about everything in the universe and scheme ways to get Bogus and Pincushion together.

“I don’t know,” Mavis said.  “She already has him eating out of her hand.”

“He is certainly interested in seconds,” Ulladon agreed.

“I would like seconds,” Nudd spoke up from his blanket. Mavis got him some and told him to go to sleep.

“Like a child,” Ulladon said.

“Makes me feel all motherly.” Mavis grinned at the thought.

“I would like a child,” Ulladon moped.

Mavis moped with her, empathetic elf that she was. “At least you have a husband.”

Ulladon rolled her eyes as they heard again from Nudd. “I would like a wife.”  Mavis kicked him.

About an hour later, Greta got up. She went to Stinky, gave him a carrot and patted his nose.  She thought about what Rotwood said, and thought about how she might protect their only beast of burden, a mule that despite everything had become part of the gang.  She knew Mithrasis knew Nameless and assumed she knew Danna as well, since Greta traded places with those two, recently.  She thought of Amphitrite, but decided on Junior.  He belonged somewhere between Egypt and the Middle East.  Maybe Mithrasis could get a headache trying to puzzle him out.

Junior let his protection cover the mule, to the tip of his tail.  Anyone that tried to have Stinky for lunch would be in for a shock, literally.  He made it enough voltage to drive away whatever goblin, ogre or troll got hungry in the night.  Then he let Greta return and she held her breath and kissed the mule on the nose.

“Who was that?”  Mavis spoke from her blanket when Greta went back to bed.

“Amun Junior, son of Ishtar, and go to sleep.”

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

MONDAY

Greta and company get escorted by the goblins to the city of Samarvant.  There are wolv, and the lion-headed piece of Mithras who is called Jupiter.  Until then, Happy Reading

*

R6 Greta: The Swamp of Sorrows, part 2 of 3

Greta looked hard at Lucius before she continued. “It was by trick, and with some help, I got Mithras out of the land of the dead.  He faced down Baal again, and this time he won, and Baal got sent over to the other side, and the world was saved, Hooray!  But Mithras got badly broken.  At the time, I had no idea how badly broken he was, but you know, I had a different life too, at that point in history.  Lydia had other worries, like her own husband and children, and trying to get the Han and Roman ambassadors to meet and peacefully discuss trade rather than posture from too much testosterone.”

“And Mithras did not volunteer to go over to the other side after his task was done,” Treeborn interjected.

“No,” Greta nodded.  “He went to Apollo.”

“The sun god?”  Hermes breathed.

“Yes, but Apollo, father of Aesculapius, was also a great healer.  He helped Mithras heal, though Mithras was technically dead, but Apollo could not heal the brokenness.  Apollo went over to the other side, and I wept for him.  He took his sister, Artemis, and I still weep for her because she is my best friend in the whole world, forever.  But Mithras would not go.  Instead, he fell apart.  Seven pieces of him formed themselves like a new pantheon of gods.  There is the Raven Mercury; the Nymphus Venus, Mithrasis as she calls herself; the Soldier Mars who has brought many into submission, including the Wolv; and I no longer think the Wolv are being controlled by Mithrasis. Then there is the Lion-headed man with the serpent at his feet, which is Jupiter, the judge; the Persian who is the moon and the stars, a powerful person of Magic who carries the sickle of death and rules the scorpion of the sky; Helios, the sun-runner, a demon who holds the whip of the fire of the Sun; and the Pater, Saturn, the father of them all.” Greta stopped talking, and it took a moment before anyone dared ask another question.  It was Bogus in the end.

“And what are we supposed to do about them?”

“We have to kill them, to finish the job.”  Greta spoke in a very flat voice.  “Anyone who wants is welcome to quit and go home.” Greta pulled up her blanket and laid back down where she would not have to look at them.  She was serious.  She would not blame them if the whole gang just left her to her fate.

###

Another day later, they still moved in and out of the trees.  The steppes, Greta recalled, were not necessarily endless grasslands.  Just before four in the morning on the third day, about an hour and a half before sunrise, reports came in that enemies had been sighted on the treeless section they had to cross, both to the left and to the right.  The horsemen to the left were likely Scythians.  They were the people with the sun symbols on their tunics. The horsemen to the right were the Dacians from the other day, heavily reinforced if the report proved correct.

“That is a pickle,” Hermes said.  “And when we are almost there.”

“We try to cross to the swamp and we will be crushed between the hammer and the anvil,” Briana suggested, and Alesander praised her.

“Good image.”

“We cross now,” Greta said, without a second thought.  “Pack the camp and be quick.”  She called for the fairy King.  “Treeborn, I need two volunteers, and they must be genuine volunteers because I cannot say they will come back alive.  And not you.” Treeborn’s face fell.  He thought of being one of the two.  It took a moment before two old warriors of the fee arrived, and she instructed them one at a time.

“Go seek out the chief of the Scythians and tell him the followers of the Lion, Jupiter are across the field.  Tell him the Lady and her quest will be crossing the field at dawn and point out to him that the favor and reward of Mithras cannot be shared, and then get out of there and come back to join us, and turn your natural light down so they cannot follow you with their eyes.”  The message became the same for the Dacian chief, but to suggest that the worshipers of Helios, the sun-runner were going to get the prize first if the Dacians did not move to stop them.

“Ready.”  Grassly stepped up to Greta.  Mavis had her medical bag, and Greta put it on her shoulder, over her head, and looked to see that her blanket got picked up.

“Time to move,” Alesander said, and Greta felt glad the Romans had the discipline to break camp quickly.

“Vedix and Bogus out front,” Greta said.  “Fee to the left and gnomes to the right. Come on Stinky.”

Moving as fast as they could during that hour and a half of darkness got them half-way across the field.  Then the sun touched the horizon.  They heard the horses, and should have been plain as day to the riders, but the fairies and gnomes put up a powerful glamour to make the people appear like bushes blowing in the wind, and all but invisible to the human eye. The horses pounded the earth in a full charge and Greta, and several others yelled.  “Don’t stop.  Keep going.”

Greta avoided screaming when the Dacians rode through their line.  The horses were able to sense the people and the mule and managed to avoid them, but it felt terrifying to be in the way of a cavalry charge.  A great roar split the air when the Dacians and Scythians met, fifty yards off.  Greta and her group kept moving.

They were a thousand yards from the forest at the edge of the swamps when thirty Scythians, still on horseback, and some fifty Dacians, mostly on foot, moved to cut them off from their goal.  It seemed someone woke up and remembered what they were there for, and Greta felt out of options.  The group stopped moving

“Shields on,” Alesander yelled, and the five who had shields clicked the button on their wrist-watches.

“Nudd, stay behind me,” Greta grabbed the boy and pulled him back while everyone got out their bows and swords.  They walked forward, slowly, while the Scythians got down from their horses and pulled their own bows and swords.

A volley of arrows came from the Dacians who were off to the side, in the direction of the battle.  The arrows missed or bounced off the shielding, and one bounced off Greta’s chain mailed breast and would leave a slight bruise.  Stinky bucked as one arrow grazed his flank.  Fortunately, a second volley did not follow as the Dacians charged.  Treeborn’s fairies raced out to meet the Dacians after the men only took a few steps, and they sped around the heads of the men until the Dacians began to get dizzy. Then they backed off as the gnomes stepped up.

The gnomes stood only two and three feet tall, but with their fairy weave clothing they were all but impossible to see in the tall grass.  That negated any advantage the men might have had due to size and reach, and it gave the gnome’s long knives a field day.

When the fairies backed off a few yards, they took on their big form and looked resplendent in the morning sun.  They were man sized, but wore armor and breastplates that glistened in the sun.  They began to walk forward in formation, and the Dacians decided it was not worth the effort.  Soldiers were disappearing into the grass as three and four gnomes took down one after another.  Now faced with these fairy warriors, the Dacians wisely turned and fled.

Meanwhile, the Scythians ranged themselves between the people and the swamp woods.  They looked ready to charge the oncoming group as Greta and her people walked slowly forward, but the Scythians paused when Treeborn and a half-dozen fairies landed in front of the group and took on their big size.  Grassly and a dozen gnomes stepped up with the fairies and made themselves visible.  Greta knew, unless the Scythians concentrated on them, her group still looked like bushes blowing in the wind.  But when the Scythians caught sight of what happened to the Dacians, the got back up on their horses.

“Ready for a cavalry charge,” Alesander yelled and the soldiers, Briana and Mavis made sure they had their bows and arrows ready. Greta thought she had suffered the better part of valor, and Festuscato complained so loudly that it was his turn, she just had to oblige.

“Stay behind me,” Greta told Nudd in her own voice before she went away and let Festuscato fill her boots.  He came with the helmet of Mars and all the weapons any unreasonable person might need.  He also held tight to his bow, a bow that sadly had seen plenty of action.  Mavis stepped up beside him, determination on her face.  She looked ready to die beside her mistress, even if her mistress was a man at present.

The Scythians had spears which they lowered in Samartian fashion, like Arthur and his lancers, and they were well disciplined to wait until the others crossed most of the ground on foot. They looked ready to charge when a horse and rider got tossed twenty feet through the air to land in a lump on the ground.  The Scythians started to scream, and Nudd joined them, but he only screamed once before he closed his eyes.  A whole family of ogres came tumbling out of the swamp-woods behind the horsemen.

Scythian bows and arrows were of no use at such close range.  Swords cut the ogres, but not bad or deep into their rock-hard skin, so that only made the ogres mad.  The spears were all pointed the wrong way, and when the Scythians tried to turn around to get some weight behind their spear thrust, the horses knew better and ran.

It was all over very quickly.  A dozen Scythians were down and torn up, several with their heads popped from their shoulders.  Three horses had to be put down, and the gnomes got terribly upset by that.  In fact, Grassly and his people were ready to attack the ogres right then for their carelessness, and would have if Greta did not return and yell.

“Grassly.  Take your people home and leave the ogres alone.”  She yelled to the ogre father.  “Bonebreaker, take the horses and take your family home, now.  Take your family home.”  She repeated it because ogres were not always quick to get the message.  Greta never would have been heard by people with all the yelling and screaming and thundering horses, but Greta knew her little ones would hear her loud and clear, and she hoped they heard the determination in her voice.  “Thank you Grassly.  Thank you Treeborn and Goldenrod,” she added and walked toward the tree line, Mavis beside her and Nudd stumbling behind.  Mavis had reached out and grabbed Nudd’s hand to pull him along, since he still had his eyes closed.

“And you were?”  Mavis asked quietly.

“Festuscato, Senator of Rome, and he felt disappointed that there was not a good fight.  Even now he is arguing that the turn did not count because he did not get to do anything.”

“Indeed?”

“He is weird,” Greta said.  “And a future me.”

They paused the conversation as they stepped among the trees and the morning sun faded and then vanished altogether, hidden above the canopy.

R6 Greta: The Swamp of Sorrows, part 1 of 3

Morning found a middle-aged gnome woman in the camp. She looked about three hundred years old, or so Greta guessed in her sleepy mind.  The gnome woman cooked and whistled around the fire, and Greta had a moment of fear that the gnome woman might be an imp cooking her friends.  She blinked twice.  Goldenrod sat there, trying not to kibitz about the cooking, so Greta figured it was safe.  Greta squinted and then turned up her nose when she discerned the gnome’s name and thought the name translated into the Latin as Pincushion.

“Ah!  The sleepy one is awake at last.”  Pincushion raised her voice when she saw Greta move under her blanket.  “Late to rise fills a person with lies.” Pincushion had to stop to decide if that was a bad thing or not.  Goldenrod whispered in Pincushion’s ear.

“What?  I had a goddess once.  I didn’t like her so I threw her back.”

Whisper.

“No.  Just for us? I thought we were an independent lot, libertine and all that.”

Whisper.

“With child?  Lazy mama won’t get the house clean.”

Whisper.

“Oh.”  Pincushion put on a haughty face.  “We have servants for that sort of thing.  Hey!”  Pincushion’s hand snapped out quick as a snake.  Bogus had come up to the fire and tried to snitch a bit of breakfast.  He got his hand seriously slapped.  “Not ready yet,” Pincushion stared Bogus down, not an easy thing to do, while Goldenrod continued with the whisper, whisper.

“Lady.  Over here.” Mavis called from the reeds, and Greta staggered over to wash up in the lake.  She paused to see if she would throw up, but she got to thinking she had passed that stage.  Once the reeds stood between her and the fire, Pincushion’s voice got cut off, loud as she was.  That felt fine.  Greta had seen the hungry dwarf and fussy cook game played out a thousand times.

The lake water proved frigid, and Greta imagined it would freeze in the winter.  Greta hardly got in before she got out.  She dressed with only a thought and a call to her armor.  She knew the fairy weave she wore beneath her armor would absorb all the excess wet and yet remain comfortably dry.  It was a miracle with sweat.  Greta took the time, then, to braid her hair into pigtails.  The lake had been too cold to stay in long enough to wash her hair, but she had to do something with it, so she braided it, and Mavis helped.  When Greta got good and ready, and had some blush on her cheeks over her freckles and some pink on her lips because she felt like it, she and Mavis returned to the fire.  Everyone sat there, waiting patiently, even Bogus, though he had his fingers in his mouth which told Greta he tried more than once for a little advanced taste.

When Pincushion got good and ready, and to be fair it happened about when the sun first stuck a fraction of an inch above the horizon, everyone got more food than they could possibly eat.  It tasted wonderful, and no one spoke at first for fear of breaking the spell.

“This is as good as the elf feast,” Vedix finally admitted.

“Better,” Greta said quickly to prevent Pincushion from throwing a fit.

“Much better,” Bogus agreed, and held out his empty plate for seconds.

Once breakfast was done, and it took almost no time to clean up, King Treeborn arrived with thirty fairies, all volunteers, he said.  At the same time, a true gnome named Grassly arrived with six others just like him, the tallest of which stood about three feet tall. They were clothed in a kind of fairy weave that imitated the environment they were standing in, so they were hard to see; virtually invisible, without having to make an effort to be invisible.

“Grassly, here, has volunteered to walk with you to the swamp so we don’t fly too far ahead,” Treeborn said to Greta, Mavis, Briana and Alesander who were hanging around the breakfast fire.  Hermes, Lucius, Vedix and Nudd were packing while Bogus tried for fourths.

“We got more volunteers,” Grassly said.  “But they will be ranging out to the fields where they can keep an eye on any horsemen who might happen along.” Grassly called, “Pincushion.” He waved, and turned again to Greta.  “Sorry about her.  She doesn’t do gnome very well, but who else will have the unfortunate child of an imp and an elf?”  Greta looked closely.  Bogus stood a bit less than four feet tall.  Pincushion stood a bit shorter than that, but certainly taller than any of the true gnomes.  “I hope she didn’t poison you or make you sick or something, but she insisted on helping and, well, she cooks okay.”

“All are well,” Greta said.  “Lead the way.”  She looked at Treeborn who nodded and tried not to grin.  Obviously Treeborn and Goldenrod set this up.  No telling if Bogus the Skin and Pincushion might end up together. It kind of depended if Pincushion decided to trap him with her good cooking.  They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but that is even more true with certain dwarfish little ones.  Those two might not end up a couple, but Treeborn clearly grinned at the notion, and Greta thought, God help the world if they ever had children.

That thought caused Greta to miss her husband and her children.  She thought of them most of that day and hardly said a word.  When they arrived in a small wood, around four in the afternoon, Grassly said they did not have enough daylight to make it to more open land before nightfall.  Greta said nothing.  She just plopped down on the grass, damp though it was in that spot, and moped while everyone else set up the camp.

Greta said nothing during supper, and nothing when she went to lie down early, but her mind slowly turned from being homesick for Darius and the children to other, truly disturbing thoughts.  She imagined Darius as an old man, and their children all around him.  They fell prostrate before a man hidden by a fancy red robe with the hood raised to hide his face.  All Greta could see was the man’s hands.  He wore a big ruby ring on one hand, and held a staff in the other, a staff that exuded unimaginable power.

Mithrasis stood beside the man, and she laughed her wicked laugh and pointed at the action, which drew Greta’s eyes to the outside. They were in Rome.  Greta recognized the forum, and the great coliseum where she had a bird’s eye view of the proceedings.  In the great open space where they raced chariots, and gladiators fought to the death, and Christians were crucified or filled the empty bellies of the lions, She saw a great raven chained to a perch.  It feasted on people who lined up to the lower doors.

Outside, a man with a lion head, and a serpent worthy of Eden wrapped around his legs, divided the endless line of humans.  Some went to the right and disappeared into the streets.  Some went to the left and entered the line for the evening meal.  Some few objected.  Greta saw the ichthys on them.  The lion headed man had lightning in his fingertips and fried all objections. Greta wanted to look away, but the birds eye view shifted again.

In the streets of Rome, the people were being herded into the line by soldiers.  Some of the soldiers were Romans.  Some of them were barbarians.  Over all of the soldiers were the Wolv, and Greta remembered again that the Wolv were front line soldiers of the old Humanoid empire.  Their allegiance might have changed, but the work seemed the same. Now, she really wanted to look away, but again, her view shifted.

Greta looked down on the coliseum and saw the one forcing people into the raven’s beak.  He looked like a demon, with horns and fangs and claws in place of hands. He appeared a titan-like creature, being twenty feet tall, and in his claw, he held a whip of flames.  Any person touched by the whip became charcoal and then ash to blow away on the wind, but mostly the creature just snapped the whip, and laughed a very Mithrasis, wicked sort of laugh. Suddenly Greta wanted to look under the hood of the man with the ruby ring, and she forced her sight to go back to where old man Darius kept trying to keep the children behind him, to protect them.

Another man stepped up to the left of the hooded man, as Mithrasis stood to his right.  This man appeared darker skinned, not like a tan but like a true Persian. He wore a Phrygian cap and carried a sickle.  Greta thought he should have had a robe, a black robe because death with the sickle always wore a black robe.  The man laughed like Mithrasis and pointed his sickle at Darius and the children to suggest they were next to die.  Then he did the one thing no one does in dreams.  He looked directly at Greta and waved, and Greta sat up from beneath her blanket and screamed.

###

Greta could not speak right away.  Everyone gathered, concerned, but she indicated she needed some water.  Her throat tasted dry and her palms sweated.  Finally, she spoke in a soft voice so everyone had to stay still and quiet to listen. “We are being used.  Someone is betraying Mithras, and is using us to do the dirty work.  Berry, Hans, Fae and Hobknot are prisoners in the Land of the Lost to force my hand.” Greta sipped her water and thought things through as well as she could, given her limited information.

“I had a nightmare,” she said.  “It was not a vision and it was not a dream.  All day long I felt homesick and thought if Berry and the others were safe I should go home and not worry.  I think someone started working on my mind, because when I think clearly about it, I know if Berry and the others are trapped I am very worried.  But I was missing Darius and the children very much and leaning toward going home, so the aspect of Mithras that is betraying the others gave me a terrible dream. I saw what the future might look like if I don’t follow through with this quest.  It was a nightmare.”  Greta sipped again, and Alesander dared to interrupt.

“The aspect of Mithras?” it was a question.

“How can I explain this?”  Greta took one more sip of water and handed Mavis the cup.  She sat up and spoke a little louder, with her eyes closed so she could focus on the story.  “When the time came for the dissolution of the gods, the great sign for them was all of the lands of the dead, like Hades, emptied, and all the spirits of the dead gathered through the centuries vanished and went over to the other side. Most of the gods went with them, but some refused.  Baal, god of the dead from the sea coast of Asia, the bull god refused.  He wanted to refill the land of the dead that he ruled, and he did not care if he had to kill the entire human race to do it. Only Mithras stood against him.”

“We know the basic story,” Alesander said.

“Mithras lost,” Greta said to everyone’s surprise. “He went to the deepest pit in Baal’s kingdom.  Technically, he died.”

“But that is not true,” Lucius objected. “Mithras defeated the bull…”

R6 Greta: The Lake of Gold, part 3 of 3

Some fairies came from the woods and the lake with all sorts of things to cook on the fire and share for supper.  Most of it was vegetables and fruit, but also some fish, well filleted.  They had warm bread that steamed when broken open in the air, and a fine wine that Alesander called excellent.  It seemed a good contrast to the hearty brew of the dwarfs and the light, amber ale of the elves.

Most of the fairies remained hidden, both in the evening and in the next morning, but a couple of fairies took on their big size to do the cooking.  Greta thought that was good and she felt grateful because if she tried to cook that fine food, she determined that she would just mess it up.  Hermes paid attention to what the fairies did to prepare the feast, and so Mavis paid attention, but the rest were content to wait, and more content when supper got served.

As the sun set, King Treeborn and Queen Goldenrod came in their big form to sit by the fire and talk.  Young Prince, Waterborn had been put to bed, but Goldenrod admitted that he spied on them from the reeds.  Lots of fee watched, especially the young ones.  The travelers looked all around, but confessed if they were not told, they would have imagined they were alone beside the lake.

“In the morning, we will head out for the swamp.” Treeborn talked to Alesander and the other men, though around the campfire sort of got spoken to everyone. “That will be about two days the way you folks travel, even moving by secret ways, but we will watch all the way to insure your safe arrival.”  Alesander thanked the king and the king grinned and nodded as if to say it was the least they could do.

Greta and Goldenrod talked about children with Mavis being all ears and Briana not wanting to miss what the men were saying, but interested in what the women were talking about.

“I never thought much about children before,” Briana confessed.

“And how many will you and young Alesander have?” Goldenrod asked, and Briana turned red.  She could not disguise such a thing as love from a fairy.

“I think that is supposed to be a secret,” Mavis said, in a voice meant to be a whisper but loud enough for all of the women to hear.

Goldenrod looked down.  “My apologies.”

“Think nothing of it,” Greta smiled for Briana as much as for Goldenrod.  “They are not fooling anyone.  Even us clunker humans can see it as plain as day.” She turned to Briana who only turned redder and would not look at her, and Greta explained.  “Love in the fairy world is not the complicated mess we humans have made it.  When a male and a female like each other, they are friends, plain and simple.  Then one says, “You are my heart.”  And the other says, “You are my heart,” and that is it. They marry and they usually have children, though to be sure, the little ones reproduce slowly.”

“So, what say you?” Mavis asked Briana the question that Greta would not touch.

Briana finally turned scarlet, but whispered, “He is my heart.”

“There,” Goldenrod smiled, and reached for Briana’s hand which Briana slowly gave as she looked up.  “Doesn’t that feel better?”

“But what if I am not his heart?” Briana asked.

“Very sad,” Goldenrod said.  “It is not unknown, and sometimes fairies pout for a whole day, even two whole days.  But in this case, I can tell you that you have nothing to worry about.  It is plain on his face that you are the only one he wants to be with.”

Briana took back her hand to touch her cheek. Her scarlet embarrassment turned to a true blush as her eyes wandered to the other side of the fire.  “But you need to tell him,” Greta added.

“You’re an elect.  You can beat him up if he gets stupid,” Bogus said as he dashed his wine on the fire to fill his cup with plain water.

“Bogus!”  Greta, Mavis and Goldenrod all scolded him, but he merely shrugged.

“I have a bone or two to pick,” Bogus said, and he sat where he could take in both Greta and Goldenrod.  He started right in.  “You made me and mine give up the free space we had east of the Bear Clan River. It was only a little space between the river and the road, but you said the time for separate places was over. But here, we have been to a protected elf village, we are sitting in a protected fairy nest, and we are going to a swamp full of dark elves who I am sure have their own place as well.  What gives?”

“Bogus.”  Greta tried to keep the sharpness out of her voice.  “I explained.  This world belongs to the human race now.  You were crowding the people of the Bear Clan and keeping them out of land that was rightfully theirs.  Presently, men have not moved into the swampland, and won’t for some time.  The goblins are keeping it from no one. Likewise, these fine fairies live in a very small and unobtrusive area.  They are preventing no one from using the land or the lake.  Then the elves live some distance from the nearest humans, but I imagine as the humans move up into the hills beneath the Carpathian Mountains, the elves will move further and further up the land until Miroven itself may be revived.”

“Miroven.”  King Treeborn raised his voice from the other side of the fire.  “There is a name of legend.”

“Indeed,” Goldenrod said.  “But I wonder, young Bogus, who might your mother be?”

Bogus paused.  He did not expect that question.  “Willow,” he said, and wisely listened.  It took some time to figure out which Willow, because Goldenrod knew three of them, but at last, it got determined Bogus’ Willow went with the snow fairies that moved up to the Ural Mountains more than a hundred years ago and now lived in the land of the Lavars, whom King Treeborn called a brutal and savage people.  The fairies had very nice things to say about Bogus’ mother, and Bogus sat quietly for the rest of the night.

“So, who are these Lavars?” Hermes asked.

“People that Rome does not know,” Greta answered. She grinned at her own thoughts, but as usual she had to explain.  “The Germanic tribes are moving west.  Already the emperor is having a hard time holding the Rhine, the western border of the Empire.  It is only going to get worse in the next couple of hundred years, but meanwhile, other people have moved into the east here, to fill the empty spaces.  All the many tribes of Scythians like the Lazyges and Samartians have moved into the plains above the Danube and around the Mountains of Dacia, which Rome currently holds as an enclave in Scythian land. But the northern half of those old German lands, the old lands of Aesgard, are being filled with Slavs, pouring out of the east and Siberia, and eventually they will settle down to farm and build towns and villages.”

“What are Slahbs?” Alesander asked.

“Lucius is a slob,” Greta said, and did not explain. “But the Slavic people are Indo-European remnants from the east around the Caspian and west of the Aral Sea, kind of a loosely defined people, and right now, like King Treeborn described them, they are savage and brutal.  They have pushed from the Ural Mountains to the Baltic Sea and into Belarus.  They are leaking into Poland and will one-day push down to the Danube, but for now, the Scythian-Iranian stock own the Ukraine. The Scythians won’t be pushed out until there is a back-up at the Rhine and South becomes the escape valve for the Goths and others.”

No one spoke for a moment because they were not sure they understood all she said, but then Alesander grasped at something. “Are you saying the Germanic Goths will one day push to the Danube and into Dacia?”

“They will swallow Dacia whole, but not for a couple hundred years.”

“Sounds like a game my brothers used to play when we were young,” Nudd said.  “We would set up bricks in lines and knock the first one down which knocked down the next and the next until the whole line got knocked down.”

“What was the point of that?” Lucius asked.

Nudd shrugged.  “Fun?”

“Dominoes,” Greta called it.  “That image is used for more than a thousand years, and not a bad image.  The Scythians push the Germans, the Slavs push them both.  The Germans get backed up by the Roman wall at the Rhine and curve south to where they push back at the Scythians.  But then the Huns will come out of the Caucasus Mountains and overrun everybody, but that won’t be for a long time.”

“And to think, we get to go into the middle of all this pushing and shoving,” Briana said.

“Expect everyone we meet to be on enemy thinking unless we can prove friendship in some way.” Alesander nodded.

“Like running the gauntlet,” Hermes said, and Lucius laughed at that thought for some reason.

“I’m more worried about the Wolv,” Nudd said.

“Me too,” Greta agreed.

“They won’t come here,” King Treeborn insisted. “This area is covered by a magical dome that makes all who are inside invisible.”

“The Wolv found their way into Movan Mountain,” Hermes pointed out and Mavis nodded vigorously.

“They have air ships,” Greta explained for the fairies.  “And there is no telling what natural magic their instruments might penetrate from the air. My only hope is this group is about the size of a typical Scythian or Dacian or German hunting group and so the Wolv might have a time trying to figure out which group is ours.”

“Slim hope,” Lucius popped that balloon, and everyone sat and sulked for a minute.

“Well, at least the humans won’t come here with all their pushing and shoving,” King Treeborn spoke into the silence, and Alesander added a thought.

“Get some rest.  We have a long day tomorrow through enemy territory.”

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

MONDAY

Greta and her friends pick up another traveler as they move on to the swamp of sorrows.

Until then, Happy Reading.

*

R6 Greta: The Lake of Gold, part 2 of 3

The morning journey started out damp and cool, a reminder winter would be just around the corner.  The sky stayed overcast most of the day, but by lunch the ground had dried and the going got easier as the trees around them began to thin. They traveled by secret elf paths and covered an four-day journey in only two days.  By two o’clock on the third day they topped a rise where they saw the lake in the distance.  The forest in that place gave out altogether so only small clumps of trees dotted the landscape between them and the water.

“A lake on the Dnieper,” Greta called it, but the others ignored her.

They crossed the river to put the lake on their left side and then Longbow explained.  “Look up river, over the water to the other side of the lake.  If your eyes are sharp enough you might just make out a tent camp of the Samartians, or maybe Scythians.  It is hard to tell you human folk apart.  This is the only safe side of the lake, and when you get to the top of the lake, you will have to cross a half day of grasslands before you enter the swamps.”

“Our eyes are not quite that good,” Hermes admitted. “Especially mine.”  He squinted all the same, but as the sun had come out after another overcast morning, and it started dropping down in the sky, and glaring in their eyes, the reflection off the water became increasingly hard on the eyes.

“Get the sun near the horizon, and I can see why some might call it the lake of gold,” Vedix said, as he raised a hand to shade his eyes and tried to make out the tents Longbow talked about.

“Longbow.  My Lady!” Lord Horns came up with three young elf men that were outfitted in armor and all sorts of weapons.  All of the elf men were volunteers.  Greta insisted, but the whole elf village wanted to volunteer, so her insisting really did no good.  In the end, she let Horns and Longbow select a reasonable company, which became more than she would have chosen, but less than there might have been. “There are riders in the south, coming up fast,” Horns reported.  “Dacians I think.  They must have got word of our travels.”  Everyone assumed he meant Mithrasis had a big mouth.

“Quickly now,” Longbow got them moving, but it did not appear as if they would cover the whole ground to the lake before they were overtaken.  After a bit, Longbow sent out scouts who by magic or otherwise, caused the horsemen to slow.  The Dacian chief sent riders to the lake on the left and the trees on the right, but continued forward with the bulk of his men.

Greta’s first thought was, at least they were not Scythians.  Her second thought confessed that this far from the Carpathian Mountains would hardly count them as real Dacians.  They might have some Thracian blood in their ancestry, but they were likely as Iranian as the Scythians, and thus as easily swayed by Mithrasis.  The Germanic tribes that mingled with the original Dacians lived far to the north and were cut off by Scythian and Samartian incursions in the area that began several centuries ago.  Greta hoped they were going far enough north to escape the Scythians altogether, not that she expected better treatment in the land of the Vandals, Goths and truly barbaric Slavs.

Longbow stopped, so everyone stopped with him. The sky filled with little flashes of light, visible even in the late afternoon sun.  One flash of light came up to Mavis and Greta and took on the form of a chubby, middle-aged Lord.  “My Lady,” he said with a bow.

“No time for that,” Lord Horns interrupted.  “You need to get men in the trees with bows ready. My men will take the ground and set a wall against the oncoming horses.”

The fairy King agreed and called several light flashes to escort the traveling party to the nest, as he called it.

“Follow the lights,” Bogus yelled, and the party hardly had time to say good-bye before they came to a small group of trees, a half-dozen lights leading the way, and whatever might be happening behind them got cut off from their sight and sound.

“These trees do not go all of the way to the nest,” a floating light said in a woman’s voice.  “But they will bring us close, and then it is only a short way across the grass to the lake.”

“Thank you, Goldenrod.”  Greta named the fairy queen.  “And you, too, Waterborn.”  She noticed the little light, the prince beside his mother.  He could not have been older than fifty, which in human terms made him about a nine or ten-year-old.  He spouted and squealed at being recognized, and Goldenrod, his mother, hushed him.

Mavis smiled for the little one and looked back at Hermes who dutifully led Stinky, now burdened with food and gifts from the elves of the forest.  Hermes suddenly jerked and collapsed, and Mavis screamed.  Several arrows came from the trees.

“Ambush!”  The fairies and men yelled together.  The fairies raced into the woods to rout out the Dacians.  The men and Briana drew their swords.  Mavis knelt, hovered over Hermes, and pulled a wicked looking long knife. The look in her eye must have made the three men who stepped from the trees pause, not to mention the fact that as an elf, she undoubtedly knew how to use that knife.   That pause cost the men, dearly.

A very big man in the armor of Hephaestus, complete with helmet but lacking the cloak of Athena stepped up to face the three men. He had the sword Wyrd in his right hand and the long knife Defender in his left.  He showed no quarter, and two men quickly went to the ground, dead. The third did not follow, but only because Stinky tried to kick him as he ran away.

“Lord?”  Mavis looked up at the man, but the man paused to see that Alesander, Briana, and the men, with fairy help, made quick work of the rest of the Dacians.

The big man then removed his Ares designed helmet and knelt down to Hermes.  “Gerraint, son of Erbin,” Gerraint said in his native Cornish, which Mavis understood perfectly, and Hermes did not understand at all.  “I thought borrowing a life from the future might give Mithrasis a headache.”  He laughed, but the tears came up into Mavis’ eyes.

Gerraint went home and Greta returned to her own time and place.  She kept the armor in place of the dress and red cloak she wore all day, but sent the weapons and helmet home and recalled Athena’s cloak.  It came still turned out with camouflage in place of the silver side. “Let me look,” she said even as Hermes moaned.  She had to push Mavis out of the way because Mavis seemed inclined to hug the man.

Hermes had an arrow scrape along his hard head. It bled a bit, as cuts to the head tend to do, but he would not need more than a little ointment and a bandage for a few days.  She helped him sit up while she bandaged him with supplies from her side pack, and she turned to look at the others.

Six Dacians were dead.  Greta saw the image of a lion headed man on their tunics, a great serpent curled around the lion-man’s feet.  She also noticed that none of the Dacians were wounded, but Greta did not ask any questions.  Nudd had a cut on his arm; but not a bad one, or deep, and he took it well.  The soldiers and Briana looked untouched, as did the fairies.  “A two hitter and final score of six to nothing.  I’ll take that,” she said at last.

“As you say,” Alesander and Briana spoke together.

“Wow.  That was great.  Do it again,” a young voice shouted near Greta’s ear.

“Young man,” Greta spoke sternly as she bandaged Nudd’s arm.  “Sit here and mind your own business.”  She tapped her shoulder, and the young fairy hesitated.  “You can hold my hair, just don’t pull it hard.”  The boy sat with his face completely scrunched up in case it hurt.  Alesander, Lucius and Briana all saw and laughed.  Bogus and Vedix made a reappearance from the trees.

“They have gone completely,” Vedix reported.

“Indeed,” the queen’s voice confirmed.  “They had horses waiting at the edge of the woods. They rode off, fast.”  Greta nodded.  She understood fast as a relative thing.  A fairy could fly around the entire lake of gold, stop to flap the doors of the Scythian tents on the other side and be back by the count of ten.

“How is Hermes?” Briana asked.

“He’ll live,” Greta said, and she looked to see him on his feet.  Mavis stood right there, arm around him, helping him stand and walk.  Stinky nudged up behind them.

Greta would not violate Mavis’ thoughts.  She did not think after walking all day she could handle the migraine it would give her.  But soon enough she would have to find the right time to ask just what was going on with those two.

They started walking again, and Greta became inundated with questions from a certain young fairy on her shoulder. Fortunately, Goldenrod flew alongside and pointed out to her son which questions were not appropriate.

The short space of grassland between the trees and the lake took an hour to cross so the sun started setting by the time they reached the water’s edge.  Lord Treeborn caught up with them there.

“It was disappointing, really,” he said.  “When they got close enough to take a look at us, they stopped and argued about it.  Some of the humans were determined to try us, but some were equally determined that they were not going to do that.  When the men came riding up from the flank, and now I see they were the ones who ambushed you, the arguments became really intense.  The elves finally quit the field, and we came here as soon as you were safely in the circle.  By the goddess, I swear they may argue all night.

Goldenrod coughed.

Everyone got silent.

No one especially looked at Greta but she felt nothing but eyes turned on her.

“It’s all right,” Greta said, before Lord Treeborn tried to apologize.  “I would rather you not swear at all, either by heaven or earth or anything beneath the earth, but if you can’t help yourself, better you swear by my name rather than so many other things that can get you in real trouble.  Say no more about it.”  She turned and stepped toward the lake.  The others followed to where they found a fairy ring of stones and a small clearing by the water.  The water itself looked full of reeds, but the ground seemed dry and with more than enough room for the travelers to sleep.

A group of fairies came in while the humans got out their things to set up camp.   The fairies dropped twigs, branches and logs into the circle and then they began to fly around the fairy circle fast enough to make a small tornado.  The humans could not guess how they escaped being sucked into the whirlwind and mercilessly tossed about, but somehow the wind only happened inside the fairy circle.  The circle of speeding fairies began to rise, and as they did, the circle contracted in size until all at once they vanished and the fire sprang up on the wood deposited within the circle.  The smoke rose straight into the night sky, and it continued to rise straight up no matter how strong the wind that came off the lake.

R6 Greta: The Lake of Gold, part 1 of 3

The group stayed one day and a second night with the elves, but the men all insisted that to stay longer would be dangerous.  Bogus called the elf village enchantingly comfortable and said even staying one day would tempt the humans to stay a week, or a month, or years.  Alesander said the longer they stayed, the more they gave their enemies time to gather their forces and set traps for when they left the sanctuary of the elves. Hermes got more honest about human nature.  He said they were sharp when they were on edge and struggling to stay alive in the wilderness, but too much comfort would leave them soft and lazy and more easily taken by surprise.

Greta nodded to all they said, but let them get a little soft and allowed them at least one lazy day.  The elves understood and took the people on a tour of the village.  They offered Briana and the soldiers time in the fields and some pointers in practicing their martial skills which might well be needed in the days ahead.  Bogus got carted off by several elf ladies and treated well.  Nudd chose to stay around the big house where they slept and ate, and that was fine. On Greta’s insistence, Mavis disappeared and spent the whole day with her own people.  She returned in the evening, happy.

Greta stayed by the big house.  Several elves came to see her, and a couple had serious problems and complaints that she could not simply fix by divine fiat.  She had to call on her every ounce of wisdom and training as Mother Greta to not disappoint her petitioners.  Even so, by evening she felt like a poor excuse for a goddess.  Oreona helped some.  She said they all understood that in this life Greta was a mere human with all the human frailties and limitations, and they could only expect her to do her human best.

“Elves are people too,” Oreona added.  “And people have to work out their own problems and relationships and not demand that the gods do it all for them.  The gods never said life in this world would be easy or fair.  We all need to do our best and hope that when the day comes and we travel to the other side, we may receive grace and mercy.  You see?  I used the Christian words.  I hope I used them correctly.”

“You have,” Greta said, and her hand reached for the cross she always wore around her neck only to remember she gave it to Berry on the day Berry went in search of her father.  “And like so many times, past and future, I feel very inadequate for all the faith and trust you put in me.  I am no goddess.”

“But you are.  You are the Kairos.  We chose you as our god and goddess all those millennia ago because you are frail and fragile and you regularly die, even if you are reborn and don’t really die.  We would not have an immortal over us.  We believed it was more important to have one that understood limits and mortality, hardship and pain.  I am eight hundred and sixty years old, and if I live another hundred and fifty years, I will have lived a full life, and thanks to you and the many lives you lived before you were born as Greta, I will travel to the other side with faith, hope and love, not fear and tears.”

Greta nodded, but turned her head to wipe a tear of her own.  The words helped and made it worse at the same time.  She could not promise her little ones anything when age or some trouble took their life and they left this world and headed into the unknown. All she could do was what she had always done; grant them hope, encourage them to goodness, kindness, peace and love and then pray every day that the God of the gods might have mercy on them.  It was not much to give.  It was not enough, but it was all she had.

“Tell me about Berry and Fae, Hans and Hobknot,” Greta asked to change the subject.  “Did they come this way?  Do you know?”

“They did, but we did not bother them and they did not seek us out.  As far as I know, they moved without incident or trouble.  Even the human horsemen did not impede their progress.”  Greta nodded, glad they were not troubled, but she did not get the chance to say so out loud.

“Lady?”  Nudd came out from the inside and sat on the far side of Greta, away from the elf.  He meant no offense, and Oreona did not get offended, but clearly Nudd felt uncomfortable with the whole idea.

Greta found a handkerchief, wiped her eyes and blew her nose.  “Don’t be afraid,” she told Nudd.  “These good people will not hurt you.”

“I know this,” Nudd nodded.  “But I can’t seem to convince my spine or the hair on the back of my neck.”

“Maybe a blindfold would help,” Oreona suggested, with a truly elfish grin.

“His reaction is not uncommon,” Greta said, and they waited for her to explain.  “I have found about ten to twenty percent of the human race is uncomfortable and afraid at the whole idea of being face to face with the spirits of the earth. About ten to twenty percent are enchanted in their hearts.  They love the little ones and only want more.  But the vast majority, some sixty to eighty percent are muddled in the middle. Most can adjust to being in contact with the spirit world, but they don’t love it and are not entirely comfortable with it.  It is kind of like politics.  Twenty percent for, twenty percent against and sixty percent in the wishy-washy middle.”

“As you say,” Nudd mumbled and tried hard to sit still and not fidget before he went back inside.

Mavis came back at sundown in full elf regalia. She asked if it was all right if she quit the glamour of humanity for the time being.  “Here in the wilderness?”  She asked, sweetly.  Greta gave her a warm smile and a kiss on the cheek for an answer, and then thought she better say something.

“Just be watchful and gentle with poor Nudd.  His fear is primal and too deep to counter. He can’t help it.”

“Oh, I will, Lady.  I will continue to treat him like the poor and needy son I never had.”

“I thought that was my job,” Greta said.

Briana stepped up at that moment and gave Mavis a happy hug, seeing her in her true elf form for the first time.  “That is everyone’s job.  I assume you are talking about Nudd.”

“It’s true,” Alesander said.  “Poor and needy son I never had.”

“Can’t fool me,” Hermes said as he came up and slapped Alesander on the shoulder.  “You two are just practicing for the future, using Nudd as a poor foster child.”  He took Mavis’ hand, not the least surprised by her appearance, and they went in to find Nudd.  Greta figured Mavis already showed Hermes her true look, but she was not too sure the handholding was called for.  Meanwhile, Alesander put on his most stoic look, an emotionless face worthy of Marcus Aurelius himself.  Briana blushed, glanced at Alesander and Greta and made a dash for the inside.

“Lady,” Alesander said with a slight bow.  “My intentions are honorable.”

“Of course,” Greta said, having known the man over the last seven years.  “I would be surprised if they weren’t.”

Alesander went inside with another bow as Bogus came up surrounded by a bevy of elf maidens.  “Farewell,” Bogus told them in a moment of melodrama, and two of the women giggled, appropriately.  He paused and waved until the elf maidens were presumably out of earshot, though he knew full well elf ears were miraculous things.  “I don’t know why I ever had trouble with the elves of light. They are fine people, even if a bit too honest for my tastes.”  He looked around and spoke before Longbow arrived.  “Where is the would-be hunter, Vedix?”

“Lady.”  Longbow answered when he arrived, having heard the whispered question from twenty feet off.  “Vedix and Lucius went for a ride this afternoon.  They said they wanted to scout the territory and the way you would travel in the morning.  Horns went with them, but it seemed to me they were up to something.”

Greta nodded but held her tongue.  Vedix was not in the anxiety twenty percent, and he appeared to be used to Bogus, but clearly, he did not appear comfortable around so many earth spirits.  That might have been all there was to it.  Then again, Lucius still bothered her when she thought about it.  Mostly she had not thought about it, but in this case, she wondered what he might be up to.

Lady Oreona invited them all inside.  “Come in,” she said. “We killed the fatted calf.”

R6 Greta: The Forest of Fire, part 3 of 3

Alesander stood when the lady came in and he took the moment to introduced the group before he sat.  The elves were good to wait until the introductions were over, but they appeared to nod as if they already understood as much.  Alesander ended with Mavis, whom he called the Lady’s handmaid, and Mother Greta, whom he called by her Dacian title without any other title.

“Mother Greta.  So I see,” Oreona said with a smile, and Greta was the only one who understood, besides Mavis.  Greta nodded and responded.

“I have to be careful what I eat at this point. I have been feeling sick in the morning.”  Everyone suddenly looked at Greta as if for the first time.  Greta could see the wheels working in several minds that wondered if such a journey was wise in her condition.  She ignored them.

“Morning sickness.  A human affectation I am glad elf-kind does not share,” Oreona said.

“We thank you for this supper and the promise of a time of rest, but you should know we are being followed,” Alesander took back the conversation and turned everyone’s attention from Greta, for the moment. Lord Longbow interrupted.

“By the followers of Mithras and the Wolv of Mithrasis. This we know, but rest assured, they will not come here.”

“And who told you we were coming?” Briana asked this time, and Greta smiled her approval.  As an elect, Briana naturally began to pick up on such things and ask for herself.

“Mithras,” Oreona said.  “The male one, and I do not understand what game the old man is playing.” Oreona glanced at Greta who quietly nibbled on a bit of venison and bread.  The elder elf looked at her hands and took a deep breath, which made it look like a time of confession.  “By my art, I have seen the monstrous crow, the lion in the thunder, the Persian whose magic is great and terrible, and the sun-runner, a magnificent beast, and I have discerned that all of them, including Mithrasis, appeared just over a hundred years ago, certainly less than two hundred years.  For some reason the soldier and the Pater, the Father are hidden from me.”  She paused and Lucius interjected a question.

“How could this be?  I thought the gods were there at the beginning of all things.”

Greta spoke up to answer the man.  “In the ancient days, when a god or goddess was born, reality changed to accommodate this new god, and the people all knew the god or goddess by name and believed this new one was as old as the others, being from the beginning of history.  When Apollo and Artemis were born, the people in the jurisdiction of Olympus, not everyone in the world mind you, but those subject to Olympus and the little and lesser spirits knew them and believed they were born at the beginning of history with all the others.  In truth they were born later, I won’t say how much later, but suffice it to say they were imagined to be grown up even when they were only babies. Mithrasis was born or created less than two hundred years ago.  It is only the reality adjustment that is telling you she is from the beginning of time.”

Greta saw Hermes, Lucius and Briana shake their heads, so she offered a bit more.  “Think about it.  You know that once the Titans ruled the earth, and the gods were born long after time began.  Zeus, that is Jupiter, was the youngest of his siblings.  He set his siblings free and they overcame their father Cronos and banished Cronos to the deepest pit of Tartarus.  And Briana.  You know Rhiannon calls Danna “Mother.” and I told you it was more like great-great grandmother, but you know that had to happen at some point after time began. Think about it.”
“And Salacia?” Alesander asked.

Greta took a deep breath, but could not imagine any harm coming from the telling.  “This age began between ten thousand and forty-five hundred years ago, with a flood and a foolish tower.  Salacia is less than two thousand years old.  She was born after the days of Hammurabi; just after the Hyksos invaded Egypt, and just before the Hittites sacked Babylon.”

“Two thousand years is still a long time ago for us poor mortals,” he said.

“That is a long time for us elves as well,” Lady Oreona added.

Greta paused and turned to Oreona.  “Since the time of dissolution, Mithras seems to want to build a new pantheon, and where better these days than Rome?  Mithrasis is the Nymphus, the female groom, the masculine bride.  What worries me is there are six altogether out there with her, but I cannot be certain about that because Mithras seems to be changing his mind.”

“She is trapped.  I have seen it.” Oreona responded.  “And the old Lord Mitra is trapped with her.  He warned us of your coming in a dream.  We only wish to help.”

“And I thank you,” Greta said for the group. “But good food and a good night’s rest is the best help.”  She would not ask the descendants of the elves of Miroven to risk anything more.

“But here, we have it all worked out.” Lord Horns interjected, and Longbow took up the telling.

“In a few days, when you are fed and rested, we will take you to the Lake of Gold.  There we will give you into the hands of Lord Treeborn, the fairy King. He and his will then guide you to the edge of the Swamp of Sorrow where Lord Crag and the goblins hold sway. They have pledged by every mighty word to guide you safely through the swamp to the city of Samarvant on the River called Heartbreak.  The river flows northeast from there, but after that point, you will be beyond our help.

“Goblins in the swamp?”  Poor Nudd had his eyes closed most of that time, and Greta took a moment to run a hand through his hair.

“Hush.  It will be all right.”

Vedix spoke up in the common Gaelic of the people. “Eat up, boy.  It may be some time before you get another feast as good as this.”

Nudd smiled a little, but having his eyes closed had not prevented him from eating plenty.

“I knew a goblin in a swamp once,” Greta said as a matter of conversation.  “I met Friend in China when I was cursed and sent to the hell of the Nine Gods.” Greta let her voice trail off as she reminisced.

“What happened?” Lord Horns asked, before Hermes could voice the question.

“He helped me escape from that hell, so as a reward I turned him into the first hobgoblin in history.  To this day, I am not convinced that was a wise decision. Hobgoblins, by definition are no end of trouble.”  Greta paused and came out of her reverie to look around the table.  Most mouths were open and staring, and the elves looked especially wide eyed at being reminded just what their goddess could do.  Greta decided it might be best to retreat.

She rose first from her seat, and after thanking her hosts and hostess, she made for the back of the room and the nearest bed. She sent her armor away with a thought but kept the fairy weave she wore beneath, and she curled up under the covers. She would let the others argue about the details of the journey.  After a moment, she heard Mavis curl up in the bed beside her, but then she slept like a baby.

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

MONDAY

Greta and her friends soon need to leave the elves behind and travel to the lake of gold.

Until then, Happy Reading

*

R6 Greta: The Forest of Fire, part 2 of 3

Greta remembered a river being near the base of the forest, but she thought after something closer to four thousand years, the river might have gotten trapped in one place to form a lake and further along, probably further up river, it might have bogged down into the swamp they called Sorrow.  She thought of the elves of Miroven, how they loved the woods.  She remembered the dwarves of Movan Mountain when it was a thriving community.  She feared to think what might be living among the trees all these centuries later, with the dryads and their protective warmth long gone, and she wondered why it would be called the forest of fire.  She did not like that name.

On the fourth morning, she found out what Portent meant when he talked about earth shakes in the area.  They came across a geyser, and then found some pools of hot, sulfur smelling water and Greta thought of Yellowstone.  “The earth has shaken in these hills over the centuries. There is still hot steam and probably lava deep beneath our feet.”  Greta spoke over lunch.

“Then we should move on quickly to get out of this area,” Alesander said.  His eyes went back up the hills in an automatic search for signs of Wolv following. Most of the eyes followed his, and even Greta looked, though she looked to the sky and wondered why the Wolv had not tracked them with whatever auxiliary craft the transport offered.  Despite Lucius’ warning, the group might be forgiven for not looking ahead since they thought the Wolv were behind them.  They were also not looking for men or horses, and so it came as a surprise when they ran into a dozen Scythian warriors.  The men, all on horseback, were richly armored and wore tunics finely embroidered with symbols of the sun.  They were across a short meadow and easily saw the group as soon as they were seen.

Greta cupped her lips and shouted in her best Festuscato voice.  “Riders of Rohan.”  That was all she got out before the Scythians lowered their spears and charged.

“Heliodrom!”  The warriors yelled the name like a great war cry.  The group made a dash back for the trees when half-way across the meadow a line of fire sprang up in front of the charging warriors.  Horses bucked, shied away and turned from the flames, but it did them no good.  The flames cut off any attempt to renew the attack and then began to chase the warriors, even moving against the wind.

One bit of flame broke away from the rest and appeared to fly up to land and face the group that still stood at the edge of the forest, mostly with mouths wide open. Neither were they more surprised when the flame took on the form of a finely dressed gentleman.  “My Lady.”  the flame-man bowed.  “Mithras said you might need help crossing through the forest of fire.  Allow me to guide you to where you can be safe and find refreshment.

“Thank you, Lord Fritz,” Greta said.  “Lead the way.”

Lord Fritz bowed again, turned and started to walk opposite the way the Scythians were driven.  Mavis stepped up beside Greta as Greta heard Bogus explain to Vedix.

“Fire sprite.  I thought I saw scorched trees and stumps along the way that would indicate as much.”

“Your eyes are better than mine,” Briana said. “I sensed the Scythians, but I did not understand what I was sensing, so I didn’t say anything,” she explained mostly to Alesander.  “I’m just learning, but I did not sense the fire sprites at all.”

“Because they are not enemies, at least not to the Lady,” Bogus butted in and responded to her.  “Your elect senses and intuition are very good for a human, but very focused. You sense the bad guys.”

The walk took all afternoon to get to a point where the forest suddenly turned dark, like a day full of deep gray clouds in the sky. They all felt something foreboding about where they headed, and it took some real courage to keep moving forward. Alesander, Hermes and Vedix all looked to Briana, but she did not seem especially troubled by it.  Bogus shared a thought.

“This is nothing.  You should have seen the hexes and whammies I put on the forest east of the River of the Bear Clan.”

“So I recall,” Vedix muttered.

Several fire sprites came in fiery form to guide the group through the dark and up to the inner circle.  There, suddenly, like stepping from night to day, almost like Dorothy from Kansas stepping from black and white to color, they came to an elf village and paused to take in the wonders of it all.  The enormous trees there looked bigger and stronger than any they had seen, and there were ladders and tree houses and walkways between the tree houses made of ropes and vines, planks of wood and oversized leaves. Greta called it the Ewok village, though no one understood her.  There were houses at ground level as well, one and two stories tall, with real glass in the windows and flowers absolutely everywhere, including growing in the roofs of the houses.  The streets were stone, flat and perfectly paved, and they had drainage ditches guaranteed to carry off the most torrential rain.  Most of all, the smell of a Roman, Dacian, or Celtic village was missing.  Everything smelled fresh and newborn.  Nothing smelled of dirt and manure—not even the stables where they left Stinky.

“It would take some strong magic to make this mule smell better,” Hermes said.

Every eye went to Mavis, at least now and then, to try and pierce the glamour she wore.  She kept it up, out of habit, and to not shock the humans, but of course the elf residents had no trouble recognizing her for who she was.  Some of the residents paused on Bogus. It seemed clear they had few good thoughts for the half-breed, but they kindly said nothing, and Bogus did not push the issue.  To be honest, in the universe of the little ones, at least among the earth spirits, most were some sort of mixed blood.  There were very few pure-breeds among them.  Darwin might have speculated that all the spirits began from one root spirit or couple and only differentiated over time into light people and night people, and every in between like dwarves, imps, gnomes, pixies, ogres, trolls, hobgoblins, leprechauns and so on came about from cross breeding.  That would not be correct, but one might speculate that way.

The group came to a long house where they could sleep on soft beds and where they found a table set with a marvelous feast. Lucius, Vedix and Bogus went straight for the food.  Hermes and Nudd waited for Miss Mavis and Mother Greta to be seated.  Alesander and Briana sat down together, Alesander on the end seat, and they appeared to be in a private conversation, so the others left them alone.  Greta noticed that Briana’s Latin was improving.  Vedix still had some to learn, but he functioned with Bogus’ help. They all began the feast before three elder elves came in and introduced themselves as Lord Horns, Lord Longbow and Lady Oreona, a name for which they had no easy Latin translation.  They took three seats at the end of the long table set for twelve, which filled the table nicely, and everyone noticed the elves gave the end seat at the head of the table to the Lady Oreona.

“Welcome,” Oreona said.  She had a warm smile and took a piece of fruit from the table. “Please.” She waved at the food and those who stopped eating on the arrival of their hosts began again.  “You have come some small way, but not nearly as far as you will go, I think.”

R6 Greta: The Forest of Fire, part 1 of 3

The travelers spent the next three days moving through the woods that Greta called the Brugh.  They were mixed fir and pine at the higher elevations, but deciduous further down the slopes.  It did not look like a forest of fire to anyone, especially when it rained on the second day.  Much less did they expect to find a lake of gold.

“Believe me,” Bogus declared.  “If there was a lake of gold, the dwarves would be mining it right now.”

On that first night, Greta finally sat down with Bogus and let him speak what stayed on his mind and in his heart.  “I dearly love my granddaughter, Berry,” he said. “When she was just a baby, three-quarters human and all, so many of us worked so hard and with every ounce of magic we could muster to release the fairy within her.  And we succeeded.  She found her wings, and though she could not fly as fast or as far, or reach as high as a real fairy, like my mother could, and though she had no magic of her own to speak of, I loved her dearly and took the very best care of her I could.  I did.”

“I know you did.”

Mavis and Nudd finished caring for Stinky and came to sit and listen while Vedix and Hermes tried to put together something edible without a fire.

“And her twin sister, Fae, though she found a small bit of magic in her one-quarter spirit blood and despite her three-quarters human blood, I kept the agreement and never sought her out, and never knew her at all.  Berry was given to us and Fae was given to the humans, and I left Fae to her own people, though it broke my heart every day to know she was out there, but I would never know her”

“I know that is true.”

Lucius came in from the south and sat.  He picked at a bit of dried beef that they brought from the village of the Dragon Clan and had left over from their time in Movan Mountain.

“But then, Lady, when you came along after seventy years, and Berry as a fairy was just a teenager of maybe thirteen or twelve human years in looks, and Fae as a human was a poor, old woman of the full seventy years, I thought something might be done, even if I could only have both of my granddaughters together for a short time.  I was determined to be content to love them for however brief a time I had, but then you made a miracle, you did.  Poor Fae, when she was struck by that arrow in the battle, she was sure to die, being as old and frail as she was.  But you took all of Berry’s fairy blood and gave it to Fae, and filled Berry with Fae’s human blood, so Berry became a one hundred percent human, poor child, and Fae became half-fee, like her father.  And then, as easy as a blink of your eye, you healed Fae and brought the fullness of her spirit blood out, so seventy was suddenly not so old, and Fae was a happy dwarf.”

“I know that she is happy.”

Alesander and Briana came in together from the north where they scouted out the land and saw no sign of the Wolv.  They were not holding hands, but they might as well have been.

Bogus took off his hat and laid it gently in his lap before he continued.  “I’ve never been so honest and straight-forward in all my whole life. Normally, for spirit folk it goes against every fiber to be pure honest, but I honestly don’t mind telling all of this to you.  It is like a confession those humans talk about, and a great, life-long burden lifted from my heart.”

“Go on.”

Vedix and Hermes joined them so everyone began to listen, and everyone had the good sense not to interrupt.

“Well, I can’t say I am happy that Fae has taken up with that old curmudgeon, Hobknot the Hobgoblin of the Hardwood, but Berry being married to your own brother I don’t mind at all.  He is a fine young man, human though he is, and I will tell anyone the same.”  Bogus paused and looked down at his hat.  “It is not my place to question the way of the gods, but I don’t know what might have possessed you to let those four go off on such a daft errand.”

“They wanted to find their father,” Greta said quietly.  “It is not my place to say what my little ones do.  I can encourage, inspire, enthuse and ask, but I will not control. Ultimately, what you decide to do will be up to you.  You make your own choices, and have to live with them.”

Bogus nodded slowly.  “It was still daft,” he said.

“But you have not spoken of their father, your son.”

Bogus nodded again and began to worry his hat. “Damn stubborn and stupid boy.  He went off in search of his grandmother, my mother, and got himself trapped in the Land of the Lost.  And now Berry and Fae have followed him into the same stupid place.”

“Softly,” Greta said, and she touched Bogus and calmed the hands on his poor imp hat.

“I loved her, you know.  Sweet Clarissa.  She was so young and vulnerable when the Romans came stomping into the forest. She was hurt and cried so softly, like a bird with a hurt wing.  I hid her and cared for her as well as anyone could.”

“And you fell in love with her.”

Bogus paused at that stark statement.  He stared at Greta before he looked down and began to worry his hat again.  “I would have kept her, enchanted, you know, but she was so sweet and fragile I knew keeping her in a cage would kill her, so I let her go, knowing I could not go with her.  She ran, I tell you.  She ran into the arms of that man from the Eagle Clan, but she was with child, and the son she had was mine as he proved many times.  Oren was a beautiful child.  When he was older, he began to spend some time with me and some of the others, which I felt was only fair, him being half mine. He found out his grandfather was an old imp who ran off at the ripe old age of eight hundred and fifty-two, about the time Oren was born, and he cried for his grandfather, though he never met the old bastard.  But when he found out his grandmother, my mother Willow, was the sweetest fairy of light this world has ever known, he became obsessed.  There was no living with him.  He began to range far and wide through the land, calling her name, even though he knew, some two hundred years earlier, her troop had migrated into the north and would not likely be found by any means.”

“I tried to stop him,” Bogus’ words burst out.  “I tried to tell him not to go, but his younger brother, my Clarissa’s human son was old enough to help keep and raise the family, and he said he was free to go.  Stupid and stubborn, I tell you.”  Bogus let his words trail off and thought the rest quietly to himself. Greta felt glad for that.  He did not need to say some of those words out loud.

“Fae and Berry found their father,” Greta took up the telling.  “But they are all prisoners in the Land of the Lost.  We have to go and set them free.”  With that, she laid down, turned her back on them all and pulled her blanket up to her shoulder.  She feigned sleep until sleep finally came for her, and she would not answer any questions, though she did hear some of the conversation.  Lucius, of all people, got it right.  They were headed right into the jaws of the Wolv and the home of the goddess.