M3 Margueritte: Backed into a Corner, part 1 of 3

Chief Brian took a deep breath.  “Please understand.  I love our people and I expect the witch’s plans will not be in their best interest.  I assume, though I may be wrong, that you may have the power to undo her wicked scheme, whatever it may actually be.”

Margueritte paused once more to consider.  “But how do you know I am not also a witch, maybe worse than the other?” she asked.  Brian looked at her again, briefly before he looked away once more.  He seemed to laugh.

“Because I have seen you and know you, and your mother and family as well.  If there is anything in you, it is purity, not wickedness.  You have the Christ in you.  And you have shown no signs of wanting to take over anything or bend anything to your nefarious will.  Why, you are no more witch than I am.”

“But what of the king’s left ear?  Surely, he has some sense there,” Margueritte said, but Brian sighed.

“Alas, his left ear is occupied by Finnian McVey, and that Irishman is only in it for himself.  Lord knows his agenda, except he is nobody’s fool, not even for the witch. But you see, now, whether the king turns to the left or to the right it will not go well for us, not well at all.”

Margueritte had a lot to think about, though she was not sure there was anything she could do.  She hardly had time to think, though, because as she stood to walk, she found herself cornered by Finnian McVey himself.

“Young Margueritte,” he said and turned up his thin lips in what Margueritte imagined he supposed was a friendly smile.  “A weard, if you would be so kind.”

“Of course,” Margueritte said, curious enough after what the village chief just told her.

“Over here, if you don’t mind,” he said and took her by the elbow and lead her to the edge of the woods.  “What I have to ask is delicate and I would not have untoward ears listening in.

Margueritte extracted her arm before she was pushed into the actual woods, but she found herself well within the shade of the trees and her back to one great tree, while Finnian blocked her way back into the light.  “I am sure there is nothing I might tell you which is worth such secrecy,” she said.

“Ah, but there is.”  He pressed his hands together and put his fingers to his lips as if deciding exactly how to phrase things.  He stepped closer, and she took a small step back, and so he moved her more surely into the shadows.

“I have it on authority that around your home there are certain powers in the world and spirits of the darkness.”

“Then your authority is wrong.”  Margueritte said quickly even as she wondered who else knew the supposed secret.  “For I would entertain no darkness around my house, and neither would my mother nor my father who is Count of the Frankish Mark, lest you have forgotten.”

“Light and dark,” Finnian said with a step to force her back.  “These are relative terms.  They say there is a god, Abraxas, who bears the burden for both.  Of that, I would not know, but of the cratures that surround you, I am certain,” he drawled.

“Sir,” Margueritte said.  “I must return to the grounds before the others miss me.”  She was not really with others apart from Roland, Tomberlain, Owien and her father, and they were engaged in the games, though Finnian did not need to know that.  She started to walk, but he put out his arm and stopped her steps.

“Not yet,” he said.  “For I also know these powers worship the ground you walk on and will do whatever you ask.”

“Sir.  Even if that were true, it would be in the asking,” Margueritte said.  “Your spirit belongs to you and for that only you are accountable.  Would it be any different with any other spirit?  I think not.  Whatever you have heard, each one belongs to him or herself, not to me.”

“Ah, but if you were to ask, you could give one to me and then I could see what is what,” he said, and Margueritte took two steps back on that note.

“I am not one to endorse slavery, especially to the likes of you.”

His hand came very close to her face, but he withheld his slap.  “I am not asking you, missy,” he said instead.  “I am telling you to give me one of the little people, one with power in this earth, and you will, soon, if you know what is good for you.”

“Never.”  Margueritte charged toward her freedom, but Finnian caught her and dragged her deeper into the woods.  Her eyes yelled for help, but her mouth got covered by his hand.  She dreaded the taste but bit him all the same.  He yelped and she got out one “Help!” before he hit her, hard.  The smile appeared long gone from Finnian’s face as his thin lips turned down in a growl.

Finnian let go suddenly when a little one ran up his back.  He giggled, even as he caught something out of the corner of his eye.  He spun round and round and tried to get a good look, but the fee moved too fast and stayed always just in his peripheral vision.  When he fell over from dizziness, an impish lady gave him a wet, slobbering kiss right before the two below pulled on the string that held up his pants.  He fell, face down into the puddle of mud, not there a minute ago.  Finnian got up, angry, but his pants stayed around his ankles and there came a great roar, like a lion got right behind him, though it came thundering out of the littlest dwarfish creature.  Finnian screamed for his life and ran.  He tripped several times because of his pants as he ran back to the ground of the games.  Margueritte fell-down, laughing.

M3 Margueritte: Year of the Unicorn, part 2 of 3

Things were about settled when Marta came sheepishly in and interrupted.  “Your pardon, but I must set the table.  There will be eight and the children?”  She asked, judging the table too small for that many.

“Let the children and Tomberlain,” Brianna added to single him out, “eat with you and Maven this evening, unless my young squire would rather share with Redux?”  Tomberlain said he might carry enough to the barn to do that very thing.  “And here,” she said.  “We will help.”

“I’ll help Maven with the cooking,” Elsbeth said, but Margueritte grabbed her arm.

“You need to think harder than that to get out of work.  You can’t cook, or did you forget?”

Everything got settled amicably that evening, and the supper went very well overall.  Margueritte helped Marta serve since Lolly was not there and Maven got so tired out from all that cooking.  Elsbeth went with her brother and Redux, and the little ones, probably had a wonderful time dancing to the sound of Luckless’ mandola and Grimly’s flute.  But that was all right.  Margueritte did not mind.

They almost got into trouble when Chief Brian wondered where that midget had gotten off to?  The others became excited for the possible distraction since the supper table was not exactly tension free.

Marta stood stiff as a board, her eyes darted back and forth, with sweat ready at any moment to break out on her forehead.

“She had to go home.”  Margueritte spoke up quickly and sent Marta outside to the kitchen.  True enough.

“Drat,” Chief Brian said, and he explained his encounter with the little one, embellishing it just enough for a good laugh.  By then, Maven had come in, presumably to help clear dishes.

“Yes.  Dear Lolly had to get on home,” Maven said.  “She has seven mouths of her own to feed, you know, in that little rundown old shack of hers.  Why, the place barely keeps out the rain, it does, and that does not help her husband, arthritic and all the way he is.  He can barely farm enough to keep his family from starving, though he might have done better if his oldest and only son had not lost a foot in the badger hole.  Come to think of it, they would have had eight children, that is a second son, if the wart hog had not got him when he was a young one.  I almost forgot about him.  Of course, Lord Bartholomew, saint that he is, does everything he can for the poor, wretched family, but there is only so much one can do.  And here, Lady Brianna, the good lady let Lolly come up to cook just for her king whom she loves with the hope that in his abundance he might send her just a little to see her and hers until they can get in the rest of the scraggly bits of grain from the field.  Even with all the little girls helping, though, I can’t see how they will get it in before the frost.  Yes, I really feel for the poor old dear and help her myself every chance I get.”

“Oh my,” Chief Brian said.

The king frowned.  “I may be able to send a little something.”

“And I will, too.”  Chief Brian agreed.  Everyone agreed, except Bartholomew who seemed to be having a hard time to keep from laughing, and Brianna whose ears were red from hearing such lies, and Finnian McVey who looked up at Maven and tipped his hat ever so slightly to a master.  Finnian was apparently no slouch in the matter of lying.

Going out the back door with the dishes, Margueritte turned to Maven.  “You lie like an elf.”  She said it bluntly and did not mean it as a compliment.

“Well, having a few around has given me some chance to practice,” Maven admitted.

###

In the morning, almost before day had fully broken, Margueritte and Elsbeth were dumped, not too softly, in a pile of leaves.  Obviously, the place had been well worked out in advance as the riders shot for it in a straight line.  Margueritte wondered what other parts of King Urbon’s plans he had neglected to share with her father.  But then Goldenrod and Little White Flower showed up and the girls got busy having fun.

“I told the ogrees like you asked,” Goldenrod said.  “That was scary for me, the most scary, ever.”

“I bet it was,” Little White Flower said.

“How come fairies don’t always talk right?”  Elsbeth asked out of the blue.

Margueritte had to think for a minute.

“Is it because when they are young, their little brains can’t hold it all in?” Elsbeth suggested.

“Mostly too many feelings in this world,” Little White Flower said.  “It’s hard to be happy, feel proud at having done well, and scardy remembering all at the same time.”

“No,” Margueritte said.  “Well. Probably something like that, but I think it is because young fairies were made to be terminally cute and sweeter even than cotton candy.”

“What’s cotton candy?” Elsbeth wondered.

“Whipped sugar,” Margueritte answered.

“I knew some cotton fairies once,” Little White Flower said.  “But I never knew a cotton candy.”

“Hmmm,” Goldenrod interrupted.  She wanted to say something intelligent, too, but she could not think of anything to say.

“Unicorn.”  Elsbeth called out when she remembered her instructions.

“Unicorn.”  Goldenrod echoed, and for a while they all called, though none of them seriously supposed the creature would come.

Meanwhile, King Urbon had moved the entire male population, and quite a few females out of the village of Vergen, and also brought about a hundred members of the court along to make nearly seven hundred people altogether.  He even offered a lesser sentence to those stuck in the fens if any would be willing to help.  These people slowly spread out at first light until they made a line, a mile in length.  Ever so slowly, they moved into the Banner.  They carried whatever nets, fishing nets, cloth or sacks they could which might help to catch a unicorn.

After a while, the girls stopped calling.  The sound of hounds could be heard, far away, closing from the other direction.

“I’m cold,” Elsbeth admitted, and she and Margueritte got up and began to walk in a great circle.  The calling started again but stopped quickly when they heard a rustling in the leaves not far away, but out of sight.  They stiffened as a face popped out from behind a tree.

“Owien, Son of Bedwin.”  Both girls called out together.

“I see you bathed,” Margueritte said.

“Look nice,” Elsbeth added.

“No time for that,” Owien said.  “I came to warn you.  It’s a trap.  The people are circling all around to keep the unicorn from escaping, but Mother says they will drive all beasts to the center, and not just the unicorn.  That means Bears and Great Cats and Wart Hogs and snakes, too.”

Elsbeth shrieked at the word, “Snake.”  They paused again, because the leaves rustled once more.  A man jumped out and grabbed Owien, took him down, and held a big knife.  Owien fought well, but the man, or rather boy was much bigger than him.  Margueritte hit the boy in the arm.

“Tomberlain,” she yelled.  “Leave Owien alone.”

“Yes, leave him alone,” Elsbeth agreed.

“You know this boy?”  Tomberlain asked.

“Of course,” Margueritte explained.  “He risked himself to come and warn us about the circle closing around us.”

“Oh, sorry,” Tomberlain said and he sheathed his knife and helped Owien to his feet.  “I thank you for caring about my sisters.”

“No, thank you, Squire,” Owien said.  “I never wrestled with a real squire before.  It was an honor.”  Margueritte thought she better step in before Tomberlain’s head swelled to where it became too big to fit between the trees.

“What can we do to get out of here?” she asked the practical question.

“No broomsticks handy,” Tomberlain said.  “But I brought my horse.  He is young and strong and might carry the four of us.”

“Three,” Owien said.  “I can just blend in with the circle as it closes.”

“Nonsense.”  Margueritte and Tomberlain spoke together.  Tomberlain finished.  “You’re in as much danger here as the rest of us.”  For a third time, everyone stopped then, to listen.  The leaves sounded agitated this time.  To everyone’s surprise and wonder, the unicorn came into the little clearing.  It would not let the boys near it, but it seemed to be offering itself to the girls to ride and to take them out of danger.

“Looks like the matter’s settled,” Tomberlain said.  “We have two chargers, but we have to hurry.”  They could already hear the drums and distant shouts.  “It took too long to find you,” Tomberlain admitted.  “But we can make a dash for it.  Hurry Owien.”

M3 Margueritte: Year of the Unicorn, part 1 of 3

In the fall, right before Samhain in the same year that Elsbeth danced, not being the year to go to Vergenville, King Urbon, Duredain the druid and Finnian McVey paid their own visit to the triangle along with Chief Brian, his druid Canto, and a very wary Roan and Morgan.  They brought a dozen men at arms, three strong hunters, and plenty of hounds.

Lady Brianna welcomed them most regally and apologized that her small manor home hardly had the room or the facilities to entertain royalty.

“Never mind,” the king said, as he pointed his men toward a newly mowed field.  “I’ve brought our hunting tents.  We will be quite comfortable in the field.”

Sir Bartholomew rode up, having gotten the word from Little White Flower.  Tomberlain rode beside him as did several peasant Franks, but Grimly was nowhere to be seen.  Luckless the dwarf also absented himself from the forges, and, in fact, Margueritte went down into the lair of the little ones in the side of the hill beneath the barn to make it very clear to all of them that they were neither to be seen nor heard during that whole visit.  Fortunately, Hammerhead the ogre had been given two cows which he took off as a present for his family in Banner Bein.

“He certainly earned them.”  Bartholomew remarked to his wife’s question.  Hammerhead was one little one who did not mind working.  In fact, he rather enjoyed it, and he certainly did enough around the farm that spring and summer to earn a great deal.

“Lord Urbon,” Bartholomew said.  “Your majesty graces our poor home with your presence.”

“Yes, yes.”  Urbon waved off the formalities.  “Bartholomew, we have to talk.”  They went inside with Finnian and Duredain, even as Margueritte came out from the barn, having climbed up the underground stairs to the secret door.  Urbon’s men were already half-way down the hill.  Chief Brian appeared to want to speak with her first, privately, but Canto held his arm and led him also into the house.  Roan and Morgan dared not look at her and they quickly hustled their few servants down the hill to set up Chief Brian’s tents.

Elsbeth squirted out the front door, looking for Little White Flower.  “psst.”  The word came from the mistletoe oak and both girls looked up.  Little White Flower risked coming down to kiss Elsbeth on the cheek and added a bit of motherly advice.  “Be good now,” she said and wagged her tiny finger in Elsbeth’s face.  She curtsied to Margueritte and sped off to the fairy glen—a good ten miles into the Vergen forest.  Margueritte knew it would take Little White Flower almost a minute to get there.  Margueritte faced her sister who wore a devilish grin.  It was not the first time Margueritte wondered exactly what the relationship was between her sister and the fairy, but that thought got interrupted when Elsbeth spoke.

“You forgot Lolly,” she said.

Margueritte put her hand to her mouth before she said something rude.  She feared what might happen, but inside she laughed.  They ran to the side of the house, to where the kitchens were out back, and saw that Chief Brian had already walked out the back door for a little repast, as he called it, after his long, long journey.  Lolly had already slapped his hand once with her cooking spoon, and Marguerite, herself, knew how that would sting.

“Wait ‘till it’s ready, you big fat slobber, or next knock will be on your noggin,” Lolly said.

Brian was taken aback for a moment, not the least to nurse his hand, but then he laughed out loud.  “I didn’t know Bartholomew had a little person about.  I love you midgets. You always make me laugh.”

“Little people hitting each other,” Margueritte said quickly, not knowing what else to say.  She wanted to get Chief Brian’s attention before he looked at Lolly too closely.  “That’s what Napoleon liked, too.”

“Huh?”  Brian asked.  “Who’s that?”

Margueritte shrugged.  “You wanted to ask me some questions?”  She reminded him while Elsbeth hustled Lolly toward the barn, and not without some argument.

“Huh?  Yes,” Brian said.  “But I’ve quite forgotten what it was, exactly.  Anyway, I do hope all my questions will be answered tomorrow after you girls are dropped off in Banner Bein.”  He went inside.  Margueritte followed, shocked by what she heard.

Inside, the subject had already been breached, and Sir Barth stood red with anger and only refused to do anything foolish in his own home.

“Come now.”  Duredain spoke up.  “You Christians are always claiming Christ as your true protector.  You should not fear for your girls.”

“Besides,” Finnian added in his Irish drawl.  “The unicorn is reparted to be a most gentle and loving crature who is most kind to young innocent garls.”

“No.”  Bartholomew repeated himself for the hundredth time.  “You’ll not use my children as bait.  And besides, I am not a Christian.”

Poor Lady Brianna did not know what to say.  She was moved to speechlessness by the whole suggestion.

“Then by your own pagan Gods.”  Duredain looked ready to spit.

“I’m not exactly asking,” Urbon said, mostly to Lady Brianna who remained a native of Amorica.  “But it would be greatly of value to the whole kingdom and a benefit to all the people.”  He knew he had little or no say over the Franks.  In fact, having three Frankish Lords on his border watching over him rather spoke for the opposite.  Still, he hoped to appeal to the Lady as one of his own, whose daughters were at least half his.

Lady Brianna shook her head when Margueritte stepped up and Elsbeth came in the front door.

“What?”  Elsbeth asked straight out.

“Baby,” Brianna explained.  “The king and his men propose to try and catch the unicorn, if they can, and save it for all the people, for the purity and health it will bring.”

“But what?”  Elsbeth spoke again.  Apparently, she heard enough before coming inside to ask.  Margueritte stood quietly at her mother’s shoulder looked up and down the row of faces seated at the table and did not like any of them very much.

“Baby.  They propose to take you and Margueritte to the woods, alone, in the hope that the unicorn will return to you.”

“Bait,” Elsbeth said what her father said, and she turned her eyes on the men at the table.

“To Banner Bein?” Margueritte confirmed.  At least Chief Brian nodded.

“Think on it.”  The king rose so everyone rose with him.

“You will come for supper,” Brianna said.  It was a statement of invitation, not a question.

“Of course,” the king answered.  He planned to settle the matter that evening.  He stepped out, Duredain on his heels, and Finnian who sauntered a bit.  Chief Brian sent Canto on ahead but tarried until it became safe to speak.

“Care, Sir Barth.  There is much talk about you Franks being responsible for this Christian business and the dissolution of the old ways.”

“What?  Get out!”  Lord Bartholomew roared.  Chief Brain shrugged, but Brianna walked him to the door and thanked him.

“It was only a fair warning.  He risked telling you,” she said.  “It was not a threat, veiled or otherwise.”

“Oh.”  Bartholomew got it, but his ire was so engaged, he could hardly hear anything unthreatening.

“Father.”  Margueritte spoke as Tomberlain came in from caring for the horses.  “Isn’t Hammerhead in Banner Bein visiting his family?”

Bartholomew looked at her and Lady Brianna was not sure what she might be suggesting, but Elsbeth seemed to understand.  “Oh, yes.”  She clapped her hands together.

“And I don’t see why, with a little help, if you know what I mean, we might not be safe enough.  Far be it from Elsbeth and me to break the peace between the Franks and the Breton.”

“Margueritte!”  Brianna’s voice scolded, but Lord Bartholomew clearly thought about it.  If the girls could pull it off, whether they got their unicorn or not, it would give him certain leverage on the king.

“What’s it all about?”  Tomberlain asked, and Margueritte explained her plan more fully, accepting the ways in which her father amended those plans, and Brianna, though not believing her ears, nevertheless did not object.

M3 Margueritte: And Secrets, part 2 of 3

A crack of lightening split a rogue apple tree down the middle, and a roar came that sounded like thunder.  “I am here.”  Horses danced and skidded away in pure fright, and everyone paused, in the midst of their life or death struggles, to look.

They saw three men, dressed resplendently for battle.  They all glowed a bit with an unearthly glow.  Somehow, Margueritte knew them all by name.  Birch, the eldest fee, stood full sized, big as a man.  He had gray hair like a well-seasoned warrior.  He came dressed all in German-like chain mail of black and silver, though much finer than any German made chain, and the silver looked to be real silver.  Beside him stood young Larchmont, also a full-sized fairy lord, dressed like a druid prince in black and gold that matched his golden hair.  The third was a sight, in wooden chest protection, feathers on his head, a wicked looking war club in one hand and a wooden shield in the other on which the thunderbird had been painted.  Yellow Leaf was his name, and he was not long arrived from the other side of the world.

Beside those three fairy lords, there were three more figures.  Grimly, the hobgoblin stood only three feet tall, pink faced, and dressed all in green like a midget Robin Hood, but no one doubted the determination written all over his grim face, and no one wanted any part of the long knife he brandished with what appeared to be great skill.  Beside him, and a foot taller, stood Luckless the dwarf.  His armor showed neither gold, nor silver, but it looked ancient as if made before human beings ever entered that part of the world, and it also looked like it hardly fit him.  The double headed ax he held, however, appeared to fit him very well.  Last came Hammerhead, the ogre, the youngster from Banner Bein.  He stood eight feet tall, almost as broad in the shoulders and ugly enough to make a stomach turn just to look at him.  The tree trunk of a club he held over his shoulder seemed superfluous.

Lord Birch spoke first into the stunned silence.  “Unhand the Lady.”  He pointed his glimmering steel at the two who held Brianna to the ground.  They did not argue.  They let go immediately and backed away.

Margueritte took that moment to try wriggling again.  “Let go of me.”

“Yes!”  Luckless the dwarf yelled to gain everyone’s attention.  “Let go of our special lady.”

The soldier that held Margueritte did not move and may have even tightened his grip a little out of pure, unthinking fear.

Hammerhead took one step forward and opened his mouth like a shark, wide enough to bite a man’s head off and showed several rows of teeth.  “Let-Her-Go!” he said like thunder and with a great wind that exploded from his gut.

The soldier dropped Marguerite like a hot coal, screamed, and ran off down the road the way he came without even stopping to collect a horse.

Margueritte fell hard onto the mud and rocks.  Concern quickly crossed the faces of Sir Barth and Lady Brianna, but it passed when Margueritte came up laughing, wrinkled her nose and waved her hand through the air.

“Good Lord, Hammerhead,” she said.  “When was the last time you brushed your teeth?”

“I’m supposed to brush them?”  Hammerhead responded in his more normal deep gravel, and honestly, quite scary enough voice.

The Franks laughed, however nervously.  The Saracens were mortified to finally realize that these apparitions actually answered to the young girl.  Immediately they began to grab what horses they could, and each other, to run, except Ahlmored, who took the distraction to take a swing at Bartholomew.  Sir Barth was not so distracted, though, when any enemy threatened his flank.  He blocked the swing of the sword and followed up with a thrust of his own that went right under Lord Ahlmored’s chinstrap, through his throat, and out the back of his neck.  It only stopped against the chain that draped down from the back of Ahlmored’s helmet.  With that, the enemies were all gone.

“Tomberlain!”  Margueritte remembered.  Tomberlain moaned and tried to sit up.  He bled beneath his helmet.

“Luckless!”  Margueritte turned quickly.  “Is there a doctor?”

“Doctor Pincher might be available,” he said with a bow.

Margueritte grinned at the name and made the call.  “Doctor Pincher,” she commanded his attention in a voice she did not know she had.  Doctor Pincher, a half dwarf, appeared out of thin air.  He looked confused at first until Luckless pointed to Margueritte.

“Ah, so it is true,” he said.  “Great Lady.”  He bowed low to Margueritte, but she was concerned for her brother.

“Tomberlain.”  She pointed.  “He got bonked on the head.  Help my brother.”

“Hmm.  Let me see.”  The doctor drew a big black bag out from the inside of his coat, though the bag clearly looked bigger than any pocket he might have had inside the coat.  Immediately, he helped Tomberlain remove his helmet and quickly announced, “It’s only a flesh wound.  Nothing to worry about.”

Margueritte then remembered her manners.  “Thank you, Lord Birch.  Thank you, Lord Larchmont.  Thank you, Lord Yellow Leaf and welcome to this side of the Atlantic.” The three fairy Lords bowed without a word and became small together and flew off into the woods.  Lady Brianna crawled up beside her daughter and helped Margueritte and herself to their feet.  She held Margueritte because Margueritte appeared to have twisted her ankle a little.

“Thank you Grimly, Luckless, and dear Hammerhead,” Margueritte said.

As she held her daughter and saw for a moment as if through Margueritte’s eyes, Lady Brianna asked her daughter a quick question.  “Are all these yours?”

“Yes, indeed, m’lady.”  Grimly tipped his green hat.

“No, mother,” Margueritte answered.  “They belong to themselves as we belong to ourselves, but sometimes they help me and do what I ask, and I am always grateful.”  She smiled for her mother because her mother seemed to understand far more than most would on such short notice.

“And the unicorn?”  Sir Barth asked.

Brianna answered for her daughter.  “No dear.  Nothing so grand.  Only the littlest spirits and certainly not even all of them.”

“Elsbeth!”  Lady Brianna and Margueritte reacted together.  They paused to listen and heard giggles come from under the wagon.  They peeked.  Elsbeth lay on her back and tried in vain to catch the fairy that buzzed around her face, and she giggled.  Beside her was a dwarf wife who held her cooking spoon like a war club.

“Is it safe?”  The dwarf wife asked.

“Yes Lolly.”  Margueritte called the spirit by her name.  “You and Little White Flower can come out now.”

“Elsbeth.  Stop playing with the fairy and come out here so I can look at you.”

“Aw, Mother,” Elsbeth protested, but complied.  Little White Flower grabbed onto Elsbeth’s hair, came with her and took a seat on Elsbeth’s shoulder.  “This is Little White Flower.”  Elsbeth introduced her friend.  “And this is Lolly, my other friend, even though she is threatening to make me learn to cook.”

“Hmm.”  Lady Brianna saw that her daughter was unhurt.  “That would take some very strong magic.”

“Well, that’s that,” Doctor Pincher interrupted.  “All bandaged, disinfected and cleaned.  Some dead though.”  Three Saracens and one of the Franks would move no more.  Two other Franks were bandaged, but like Tomberlain, neither had been wounded too seriously.  The Africans seemed to have taken their wounded with them, which spoke well for their training to have done so despite the loss of their leader, and the fact that they were frightened out of their minds.  “If you don’t mind my saying, you might tell these mudders it would not hurt to get clean once in a while.  The water won’t melt them, mud though they be.”

“Thank you, Doctor Pincher,” Margueritte said.

“Yes, thank you,” Lady Brianna added.

“Ahem.”  The doctor coughed.  “Don’t mention it, but I do have lots of ‘pointments this afternoon.”  He whipped out a list which stretched to the ground.  No one asked where his black bag went.

“Oh, yes,” Margueritte said.  “Go home.”  She waved her hand and the dwarf instantly vanished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Festuscato said nothing.  He looked deep in thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I said intelligent,” he joked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M3 Festuscato: Saved, part 1 of 3

It did not take long for Mousden to have the driest wood he could find stacked in a neat pile. Unfortunately, no one could get it started until Luckless came along from the opposite direction.  Dwarfs can nearly always get a fire started.

“Unless I’ve lost my tinder, too,” Luckless grumbled.  He had not, and in a moment, the flames rose with the sun.  The rain was over.  “I see you saved your books,” he added, with a nod to Seamus.

“It was Bran,” Seamus explained.  “We were able to stay aboard ship until there was nearly enough light to see.  The pounding of the waves made the ship lean more and more terribly to the weak side, where the hole was.”

“List,” Hrugen interrupted.  “Ships list, they don’t lean.  I don’t know why.”

“Yes, well, all that time, Bran kept tearing up boards and lashing them together with what rope he could find.  In the end, he said we were in danger of turning over altogether and he dropped the raft on the side closest to the water.  I got down with the books and Bran dove in and hauled the raft free of the ship, which by the way did turn over shortly after we escaped.  We came to shore, and it was a miracle the books are not more soaked.”

“Common sense.” That was all Bran called it.

“I don’t suppose you saw my tools?” Luckless asked.  The poor dwarf was still wringing buckets of water from his clothing. Dwarfs were not good swimmers in calm water.  Their legs and arms were too short.  They had a tendency to sink like stones.  The others all shook their heads, but Seamus turned and pointed to the sea.

“You’re welcome to take a look,” he said.  “The ship is not very far out.”  He pointed, and sure enough they could see the hull just above the water line in the distance.  It could not entirely sink, being grounded there on the rocks, but in time it would be broken to pieces by the relentless sea and become driftwood for someone else’s fire.

Luckless warmed his hands.  “What’s the point?” he asked.  “All is lost and it is all my fault.  If I hadn’t come along, you would have had clear sailing to the Danish coast where the Lord wanted to land.  I’m such a jinx.”

“No.” Everyone spoke together, but Luckless felt convinced.  The only reason they hit that storm had to be because he was a jinx, and he lost his precious tools as well, the last gift of his father, and now he would just sink into the rock until he was no more.  He felt miserable and he would not be talked out of it.

A couple of hours later, they caught sight of Mirowen.  They were hungry and just about to give up waiting and go in search of food, when she appeared, meandering sweetly down the coast.  She looked perfectly dry, her long black hair flowed in the light breeze, every hair in place, and her dress looked like it had just been cleaned and pressed.  By contrast, the men looked disheveled in their muddy, damp and wrinkled clothes. Hrugen’s blond head looked brown from the mud.

Gregor one eye was the first to notice that she was talking while she walked.  “I can’t hardly make out what it is, though, she is talking to,” he said.

Luckless squinted. His eyes in the day were barely better than Mousden’s.  “Water sprite.  I think.” He did not sound sure.

“Be back.” Mousden announced and flew off to greet the Lady.

Mirowen arrived with not one, but a whole train of water sprites in her trail.  They were true little ones, from eight to twelve inches tall and looked like a gelatinous mass roughly in the shape of a person, with a shimmer along the edge, which made a casing, like a nearly transparent exoskeleton that held them together.  The chief walked beside the elf and had a voice high pitched like a mouse, but sounded sweet as a baby.  The others, what Festuscato might have called liquid gingerbread men, carried all of the boxes and personal things that could be salvaged from the ship.  They also brought two more horses and a pony.

“Gentlemen.” Mirowen spoke when she got close enough. “May I present Lord Vingevourt, king of the water sprites and ruler of the Baltic.”

“The whole sea?” Hrugen asked, and looked ever so uncomfortable.

“No,” Vingevourt squeaked in Danish.  Mirowen had to translate.  “I’ve got a nephew in the North Sea, and a third cousin in the Channel.  I don’t know about the Arctic, what ice blob has that at present.”  Luckless and Mousden, of course, understood every word.  The little ones had the uncanny ability to understand each other regardless of the language, but even as Mirowen translated, the rest of the crew looked at Hrugen who shook his head.

“Not proper Danish,” Hrugen said.  “Jutland dialect which is difficult and has some strange soundings.”

“Odd pronunciations.”  Seamus returned the favor.  “Words are pronounced, not sounded,” he said.  “I don’t know why.”

Vingevourt continued while his train set down the cargo and dove back into the sea to disappear. “Imagine my horror when I came to discover through this fine Lady that I nearly drowned my own god in that storm.”

“Your god?” Hrugen asked.  He was the new member of the group and didn’t know the full story of Festuscato.

“Sure,” Gregor said with a sly grin.  “Didn’t you know your captain was one of the gods?”

“God only for the sprites of the earth,” Luckless said.

“God for us, too,” Vingevourt responded.  “Many sprites of the waters, the air, and the fires under the earth belong to him as well.”

“Mostly, you might think of him as the Watcher or a Traveler.”  Mirowen explained before the argument hardly started.  “But he is just an ordinary human to you.  That is inevitably how he or she is born.”

“She?” Hrugen raised an eyebrow.

“Of course.” Mirowen nodded.  “You don’t suppose he should always be born a male, do you?”

M3 Festuscato: Shipwreck, part 2 of 3

“Mousden!” Festuscato shouted to the top of the mast where the last member of the motley crew spent most of his time. “What do you see?”  The light seemed to be fading too fast and Festuscato started becoming concerned about the possible storm.  He wondered if he should turn the ship toward the shore to seek shelter.  Certainly, the sea began to turn rough.  Fortunately, the Cornish Pixie’s eyes were very sharp in the dark.

“I see the usual collection of lazy layabouts on the deck,” Mousden shouted down.

The men looked up. “Hawk!”  Gregor shouted and suddenly pointed.

“Hawk?” Hrugen looked up, but Mousden had already shrieked and flown to the deck faster than an eye could see.  He crawled under a coil of rope to hide, being only a foot and a half tall, altogether.

Gregor laughed with the others, and after a moment, even Hrugen thought it was funny. Mousden, however, got mad.

“How would you like a hot foot,” Mousden threatened Gregor for the millionth time, but everyone knew the old, one eyed Saxon really cared for the little winged man. Even Mousden could see that much.

“Ahem!”  Festuscato cleared his throat.  “I meant, what can you see at sea?”

“Oh.” Mousden nodded.  “Just some monsters spouting water and headed right for us.”

“Whales on the whale road.”  Hrugen jumped to the railing and Bran caught him before the pitch tossed him.  All the men, carefully strained in the growing darkness to catch a sight of the wonder.

“Ahem,” the captain said.  “I meant the clouds.  Is there a storm coming?  Should we seek the shelter of the shore?”

“Oh, yes, Lord,” Mousden said, frankly, but without the least comprehension of what he was saying.  He was just not very used to moving among men and did not fully understand human needs in the face of a hostile universe.  For that matter, most of his life got spent in caves and such, and he still just started learning about things like bad storms.  “There’s a big storm coming.  A monster storm.”  Festuscato had already turned toward the shore.

“When?” Festuscato asked.

It started to drizzle.  “About now. Why?”

At that moment, a giant swell washed the front of the boat, nearly swamped the whole bow. Mirowen held to her place, like a magnet to iron, but she got soaked head to foot and reacted as any woman would. Festuscato had one moment to view her glorious water soaked figure and the sheer vulnerability of her in her state, and the heavens opened up.

“Hrugen! Gregor!  Tear that sail.  Bran! Seamus!  Loose the horses.  Mousden to Mirowen.  We need your eyes in the dark.  Mirowen! Call out direction.”

“To port.” She spoke right from the beginning. “There are rocks to starboard.”

The lightning began and rapidly came in sheets like the driving rain.  It took only moments before Gregor and Hrugen cut the chords of the sail and the ropes began whipping in the wind.  They still had enough tension in the canvas to give the ship some real impetus and direction, but not enough to cause the mast to snap. That would have been a real danger. As for direction, Gregor and Hrugen quickly joined their captain at the tiller.

“To Port. We’re drifting,” Mirowen said.

“I see the land. I see it,” Mousden shouted, excited, though how the men at the tiller imagined he could see anything was beyond them. He bobbed up and down about a foot above Mirowen’s head, barely able to stay aloft in the wind.  He got hard blown toward the sea twice before a particularly close lightning strike made him quit his post and seek out his hiding ropes.  Luckless had already come back on deck with his precious bag of tools.  Seamus also came back up, his precious books in hand. He held the ropes across the deck from Luckless and hunkered down over his papers.  Bran came last, rubbing his shoulder where a terrified horse kicked and grazed him.  All the same, he joined the men at the tiller.

“More to port.” Mirowen shouted, her words somehow got through against the rain.  The swells came, and the little ship began to bob up and down like a cork in water. They began to take on water, but there seemed no point in bailing.  Everyone had to hang on for dear life as the sea took them for a ride.

For three hours Mirowen shouted, “To port!”

And Festuscato shouted back.  “She’s hard over already.”

For three hours, Mousden shivered under the ropes, Seamus and Luckless protected their priceless cargos and four men kept the ship turned hard to port, though whether they went to port or were driven to starboard in spite of everything, none could say.

“There are rocks to starboard!”

The lightning flashed, and the rain and thunder crashed, near deafening.

The sail ripped altogether in the third hour.  It flapped in the wind and the ropes flailed about and became dangerous for those amidships. That condition did not last long as the mast cracked in a snap as loud as the thunder.  When it broke altogether, it fell into the sea right over Luckless’ head.

“Luckless!” Seamus shouted.  The dwarf did not answer.  Leaving his books to the wind and rain, Seamus crawled toward the spot.

“I’m okay,” came the call.  “Mousden snatched me away in the nick.”  Seamus crawled quickly back to his spot by the railing.

“More to port! We’re getting too close to the rocks.” And they did get too close, first to hear the horrifying sound of an underwater ridge scrape up against the bottom before a boulder, taller than the rest, crunched into the ship’s side and caved in a portion of the deck below.  The ship jerked to a stop and Festuscato got thrown overboard.  He barely missed the rock itself as he plunged headlong into the cold waters of the Baltic.

M3 Festuscato: Shipwreck, part 1 of 3

Festuscato:  The Halls of Hrothgar

After 416 A. D., Outside the Western Roman Empire

Festuscato 1:  Shipwreck

The clouds gathered, gray and dark on the eastern horizon, but the evening was near and Festuscato was not sure if the darkness got caused by a storm or the slowly fading sun. He considered the problem when his eyes became utterly taken by another vision.  Mirowen came up from below where the seven horses, and two ponies sounded restless, even against the sound of the wind and the waves.

“Lord.”  She acknowledged him in the way she did ever since they left Rome on this impossible journey.  Long gone were the days of his childhood when she called him sweet names, and his teenage years when she called him spoiled brat.

“My Lady.” He responded and watched her walk to the bow to stand, statue-like; her habit of the past seven days.  Everyone else watched as well and only returned to their various distractions after she came to a stop.  Festuscato, held the tiller dead on and had nothing better to do than stare.

Mirowen’s long green dress flowed out beside her with the wind and made it seem as if any moment, the beauty might take to flight.  She appeared, not so much a beauty one could point to, Festuscato decided, but more of an unearthly kind of something that made her impossibly attractive. It could be seen in the perfection of her form and figure, in the grace of her every gesture, in her long black hair and pitch black eyes, in her elvish ears with those perfect little points. Festuscato decided she needed a mate, if one could be found to match her perfection.  Sadly, at present, all he could do was sigh for her and turn his eyes away.  Besides, Hrugen seemed much more interesting.

Hrugen claimed to be a great Danish sailor.  He volunteered to guide them safely through the waves, once he found out their proposed route would take them near his homeland.  He said he had nothing against living in exile in Britain, but secretly, Festuscato imagined the man just got homesick.  As Festuscato suspected, the man proved to be no sailor at all.  In fact, Festuscato had started calling the man Gilligan, from time to time, even if that made himself the Skipper. Presently, Hrugen tried again to tie down the sail in the corner where it came loose and flapped, furiously. Gregor One Eye, the old Saxon, finally got tired of watching him and did it himself.

“I was about to do that,” Hrugen said, defensively.

“Nothing compared to what I was about to do,” Gregor said.

“Yes,” Festuscato thought.  “Seven days at sea could be interminable.”

Gregor sauntered over to where Seamus, the Cleric and Bran the Sword sat quietly.  Seamus wrote in his book, and Bran leaned on his sword, contemplating the cross.  The first was a cleric in the true sense, a priest of the Irish, a present from Patrick. Bran was a puritan through and through, and also a present, given by Constantine whom Festuscato anointed as the first Pendragon to rule Britannia in the name of Rome until such time the Romans returned, if ever.  Bran had been charged to defend the Senator’s life until Festuscato could safely return to his home along the Appian Way.

“What is it you write in that book of yours, anyway?”  Gregor asked as he sat on the cleric’s other side where he could keep watch with his good eye.  “You’ve been writing for seven days now and I have not heard a word except out of that other book of yours, that Bible thing.”

“I am keeping a record of our journey and adventures,” Seamus said.

“Adventures?” Gregor let out a hearty laugh. “Haven’t had any yet.”  Bran, craned his neck a little as if to take a look, though he had not yet shown anyone reason to believe he knew how to read.

“If you must know.”  Seamus spoke fast, corked his ink and set it and his quill in the pouch he always carried. “I have just written how we came into the Baltic from the outer sea yesterday morning, rounded the height of Jutland and came within sight of the coast which ran from horizon to horizon.”

“That’s all there is at sea.  Just horizon every way you look.”  Hrugen spoke as he joined the group.  The others paused.  For one minute, it appeared as if Hrugen might be sick, again.  “I try not to think about it.”  He finished, and looked down at his shoes.

Bran still craned. “It’s poetry,” he said.  “It’s not supposed to make sense.”

Seamus shut the book even though the ink was not quite dry.  “It makes sense,” he said.  “It’s just poetic.”

“Latin?” Gregor asked.

“Of course,” Seamus said.  “Just because we were wise enough not to get entangled with Roman overlords, doesn’t mean every Irishman’s an uneducated lout.”

“Quite true,” Gregor said with a big, friendly grin.  “Well, partly anyway.”

Bran stifled a laugh and stood up for the cleric.  “David was a poet.  I’ll grant you that,” he said.

“A barbarian of high esteem?”  Hrugen asked.

“A king for God’s people,” Seamus said.

“God’s chosen,” Bran said, almost at the same time.

“Which god?” Gregor asked, and then relented.  “That’s right, you only have one, so you say.”

“The Danes know of the Alfadur.”  Hrugen suggested.

“Can he protect my tools from salt water?”  A new voice joined the group.  Luckless the dwarf had come up from below where he hourly checked on his precious possessions.  “Pray that they don’t all rust.  Some of them were my great-grandfather’s, brought all the way from the mines of Movan Mountain.”

“But I thought your father was in the thick of it when the dwarf lords drove you out?” Seamus said.

“I don’t blame him,” Luckless said, with half a heart.  “Got to seek my fortune.  Besides, what would you do with a bad luck charm?”

The two Christians shook their heads.  The other two, however, looked like they would throw the dwarf overboard in a minute if he was not under Lord Agitus’ protection.

Avalon 6.5 Zombies, Murder, and Mayhem, part 5 of 6

“You were here,” Labash started, and looked around.  “Most of you were here with Ishtar when Babylon was founded.  Assur founded Assur—creative name—about two or three hundred years earlier, a small time in the life of the gods.  But you may recall Ishtar saying, in effect, that now that the boys each had their own place, they would have to take turns.  That was around 2000 BC.”

“I remember,” Boston said.

Assur raided southern Mesopotamia. Then Marduk raised up Hammurabi.”

“I remember Hammurabi,” Boston interrupted.  “What a dweeb.”

Labash smiled for her.  “Not to say they were the only players.  Hebat sort of cheated and her Hittites took two turns. But the Mitanni, the Hurrians, the Gutians, and others, all got a turn, all being supported and encouraged by various gods.  Enlil and Enki sort of supported the Elamites, who never went away until they got absorbed by the Medes and Persians.  Marduk did not mind.  He sort of held on to southern Mesopotamia and minded his own business.  Assur, though, got mad.  I think because he seemed closer to the front line, as Decker calls it.  About 1366 BC, he had enough.  He took a 300 year turn and shoved everyone back, taking on the Hurrians, Hittites, Mitanni, and the rest.  He messed with Babylon and southern Mesopotamia some, but not much.  Then it should have been Babylon’s turn, but Babylon had become occupied by Kassites.  You might call them the first Hippies.  Peace, man.”

“Far out.”  Lockhart couldn’t help himself.

“Groovy,” Lincoln countered.

“They were some serious vegetarians, well, meat got so expensive.  Marduk called it his mellow period.  They endured the pull and tug of Assyria and Elam, and for the most part lived quiet, peaceful lives.  Meanwhile, Assur went on a rampage, rearranging all his furniture.  The Assyrians again came out to play after a hundred and forty-some years of Babylonian do nothings.  This time, they overran everything in sight, including Egypt, but that is a different story.  Oh, I guess you met Tobaka.”

“Yes,” Katie said.  “He was Nubian, and his family ruled Egypt, but he said the Assyrians came in and threw his family out.  Killed most of them.”

“He wanted revenge,” Labash nodded. “But he never made it further than the Levant.  So, Assur made a big mistake when he burned Babylon to the ground.  That was about seventy years ago.  He got rid of that king and made sure the next one rebuilt the city and apologized to Marduk, personally.  But from then on, they would not be in the same room together, and I think Marduk plotted.”

“So now, we have two brothers fighting for the Assyrian throne,” Evan said.  “And I imagine Assur is behind the one in Nineveh, and Marduk is ready to support the other.”

“I became a frog,” Labash reminded them. “But, yes.  Marduk appeared in his temple and yelled.  He caused a small earthquake in the city.  He demanded Nabopolasser get off his rump and take the army out to support Sinsharishkun.  He said he wanted to see some Assyrian butt-whooping”

Decker laughed softly.  Boston spoke up.  “I wonder where he heard that term.”

“Yes, well, you know Sinsharishkun killed his brother, and I don’t know how it happened, exactly, but Marduk killed Assur at the same time.  By some trick, I am sure.  But the boys were pretty good at being able to read each other.  I don’t know, but the deed is done, and Marduk has suffered ever since.  I figure he will either come out of it, or in maybe fifty or less years, he will flip out entirely.  I dread dealing with a split personality, or worse, a multiple personality disorder.”

People waited while some especially loud screams reached their ears.  Several got up and stepped to the edge of the building to see how much of the city might be on fire.  Katie sort of regained their attention with her question.

“Nebuchadnezzar goes sort of loopy in his older years, do you think?”  She did not spell it out.

Labash frowned at her for talking about the future so flagrantly.  “Perhaps,” he said.  “But I don’t expect to be here by then.  In the new palace, I am building a wing for captive kings.  I said they can make it into a museum.  I have also built a great camp area for strays and captive people. Nabopolasser has already moved some Arameans and Suteans into the area.”  Labash appeared to enjoy shrugging.  “That is about all I can do; that and exert what influence I can on Nebuchadnezzar for the future.  I imagine I will be gone when Jerusalem falls. God, the source, seems content to let things work out that way.”

People nodded as they thought about it. Then Evan had another question.

“So, what is happening now?  How do things stand?”

Labash shrugged.  “Sinsharishkun is sitting on the Assyrian throne, but it is not exactly a safe seat.  Many of the provinces have rebelled during the civil war, and have thrown out or killed the Assyrian presence. They would need to be conquered all over again, but too many Assyrian officials see Sinsharishkun as a usurper, even if he is a son of the emperor.  And without Assur behind them, I think the Assyrian people are tired of war.” Labash shrugged again.

“Nabopolasser retook Nippur.  You know, the pro-Assyrian hotbed where Sinsharishkun planned his rebellion.  That did two things.  It put all the cities in southern Mesopotamia on notice that Babylon is back and ready to enforce the law, so they better cough up their tribute, and fighting men, and not be slow.  Babylon can just as soon flatten their cities as he did Nippur.  It also gave him a chance to throw the Assyrian army units out of his territory, which he did.

“So, now there is stalemate,” Katie suggested.

Labash shook his head this time. “Sinsharishkun fears the support of his generals is only lip service.  Right now, he doesn’t want to go there.  Nabopolasser honestly needs three to five years to build his forces before he can make a move.  Who will get there first?  Will Sinsharishkun find his courage, and his generals obey him, or will Nabopolasser have the time to build up his forces and take the war to the enemy with some chance of victory?  It’s exciting.  Like a three to five-year horse race, but that is about as exciting as it gets around here.”

“Lord,” one of the dwarf wives interrupted. She stepped up with a goblin in tow.  Labash and Boston recognized her as a female, but the others weren’t sure. She looked like a brute.

“Yes, Missus Hearthstone?” Labash asked what she wanted.

“This is Miss Thrasher.  You got company.  Tell ’em if they get hungry in the night, we left some meat and bread by the fire, there.  You tell ’em just be asking and Miss Thrasher will be getting.  There’s some vegetables there, too, and she is passable to cook them up if you want.”

“Thank you very much, Missus Hearthstone,” Labash said.  “Miss Thrasher,” he acknowledged his goblin, and smiled for her, which made her turn away and turn a bit red under the gray. “I am sure we will be fine. Personally, I intend to have a good night’s sleep.”

“Not right a young man like you should spend so many nights alone.  If you wasn’t my god, I would do something about that.”

“I am sure you would,” Labash said, with a touch of fear on his face.

“Good night,” she said, and she and Thrasher walked off into the dark

“Good night,” several people said, only to be interrupted by Decker.

“Here they come.”  That was all he had to say.

R6 Greta: Porolissum to Work, part 1 of 3

Briana seated next to Hobknot the hobgoblin might have made her supper a bit strange, but Hobknot wore the appearance of an elderly man, the same as he appeared whenever he and Fae came to visit Berry in Greta’s home in Ravenshold, so this was not entirely a new thing for him, and Greta assumed that Briana, having been exposed to dwarfs, elves, fairies and goblins, would be nonplused and pleasant with the grumpy old hobgoblin, but spend most of the night with her attention on Alesander in any case.

“It is the best I could do,” Greta told Mavis.

“And exactly why I want to eat on the floor with the children,” Mavis said.  “Your brother and sister-in-law deserve to hear all about your adventures, and the children make me happy, and you know I am good with children.”  It was true.  After their nanny, Selamine, Gaius and Marta loved Mavis best.”

“If they make you happy,” Greta said and Mavis sniffed, but nodded.

Tales were indeed told, and the dwarfs, elves, fairies and goblins all got a human scrubbing to make them palatable to human ears. When it came to the Wolv, however, no one held back.  And no one hesitated to talk about Mithrite fanaticism.  “They will not hesitate to give their lives to further their cause,” Alesander said, which Father and Darius listened to closely where they might have argued with one of the women.

“But what is their cause?” Father asked.

“To crush the Germans and overrun Rome.  To turn the Empire into the Empire of Mithras,” Alesander concluded, and he stated it like a fact.  He did not say I think or I believe or I feel.

Darius took a breath and looked at Greta. Father looked at Darius and spoke. “I think they will find that Rome is not so easily overcome.”

Greta responded to her husband’s look. “General Pontius is a confirmed Mithrite.  You say he has the legion on alert in Apulum and is waiting to see if the Scythians come and where they strike.  I tell you, when the Scythians strike, General Pontius may bring the legion to fight on the Scythians’ side.”

“Surely not,” Darius said, and Father opened his mouth but remained silent.

“Surely so,” Greta countered, and Briana added a thought.

“You already tasted rebellion in the Roman ranks. Why should your legion not suffer the same?”

Father got it and stood.  He almost knocked his chair back into the fireplace.  “By the gods, we will stop them here,” he shouted.

Greta had grabbed Darius’ hand to keep him seated. Hans got Father’s chair and helped him sit again.  Alesander added fuel to the fire.

“The gods are working on it, I think,” he said. “But they will not do it for us. It is up to us.”  he looked at Greta who nodded for him and for Darius.

“We must cross our own bridges when we come to them, and if we have to build the bridge first, so be it.”

“Grandfather,” Berry interrupted with a look at Bogus. “What are you mumbling about?”

“I was just thinking your great-aunt Pincushion could win them over with a few good meals.”

“Great-aunt?” Fae looked up.

“Yes,” Greta said, grateful for the change in the subject.  “Pincushion and Bogus are half-brother and sister.  Same father.”  Pincushion and Bogus both nodded.

Fae and Berry stared at Greta.  Berry asked, “How did you know?”

Vedix spoke.  “It is not our way to question how the druid knows what she knows.”

###

The town became heavily fortified by the end of March, and none too soon.  Darius had pulled his troops back from the frontier passes to shore up the border defenses in January on condition that Greta send her little ones to spy and give word of any enemy advancement.  For that, Greta turned to Willow and her winter fairies.  Most of the fairies volunteered for the mountains, like their home in the Urals, but some were willing to keep an eye on Apulum and the legion fort.

April first arrived; a day when the sun stayed behind the clouds, but no more snow fell.  It was a day when the wind whipped and turned the cheeks red before a person walked ten steps.  Greta walked with Karina and the children when a bright streak of light came up from the south and stopped in Greta’s face.  Karina stopped moving, but Padma reached out with both hands from her mother’s hip where she rode.

“Fairy,” Padma spoke first.

“Lady,” the fairy spoke in a young woman’s voice. “The whole legion is on the road. They will be here in five days.” The girl’s voice shrieked with happiness.  “I remembered the whole thing!”

“Snowflake, get big,” Greta commanded.

“Fairy,” Padma reached for her.

Snowflake got big and appeared as a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl.  The girl looked shy and began to blush until Mavis reached for the girl’s hand to steady her.

“Mavis, take Snowflake to find Darius and tell him the message.”

“Yes, Lady,” Mavis responded and she coaxed the fairy to move away, even as the fairy recognized the children and began to reach for them.  Kurt did not buy it, but Padma looked upset to see the fairy go.

“Berry.”  Karina had a sudden revelation.  “She was a fairy.”

“She was, but completely human now,” Greta said. “Poor Hans.  He never stood a chance.”

“He doesn’t seem to be hurting,” Karina said and thought while they walked back to the house where she verbalized one thing. “And you have other strange friends, I guess.”

“They are not so strange.  Mostly good people once you get to know them.”

“I’ll have to take your word for that,” Karina opened the door and Greta waddled inside to sit by the fire.  She seriously wanted some tea.

Two days later, when it started raining instead of snowing for the first time in months, the boy, Chip, came racing into town.  He zoomed up to Greta’s face right in front of her father, and hovered for a second to catch his breath.

“Look out,” Father yelled and swatted at what he imagined was the biggest fly in history.

“Father.  No,” Greta stopped his hand and turned on the boy.  “Icechip, get big.”  It was not a request.  Father’s eyes got big along with the fairy, but he said nothing.  “Speak,” Greta commanded.