Avalon 6.0 Monkey Brain Fever, part 3 of 6

The little people came out from hiding.  They had their feast, with plenty of stories, songs, and good cheer, but it did not seem like the great celebration they planned.  Lincoln explained as he read from the database. The world of the Olmec people was being all but destroyed by a disease more ruinous than the bubonic plague.

Katie and Lockhart sat beside the fire and whispered little to each other.  Lincoln and Alexis sat near them and said nothing that evening.  Decker stayed on watch, despite the promise of the little people, that they would keep their eyes and ears open for intruders.  Elder Stow kept watch with his portable scanner, and set it to put up an impenetrable particle screen as soon as his scanner picked up human life forms headed in their direction.  Only Sukki and Boston clapped and danced with the little ones in the night before everyone had to get some sleep.

In the morning, all the little ones turned out to shout good-bye and good luck.  Many reminded them to stay between the fields of corn.  Katie waved, and Lockhart confided to her, “If Lincoln or Decker start singing about follow the yellow corn road, I’m going to hit them.” Boston heard with her good elf ears, and hummed through the morning, but she did manage to keep her mouth from singing the words.

Since he could not ride out on the flank, Decker took the point. Often enough, he rode back to Lockhart and Katie at the front of the group to double-check his take on turns in the road where the corn became less evident.

Lincoln and Alexis took the center, and appeared to take up Lockhart and Katie’s idea of whispering to each other every now and then.  Boston and Sukki straggled in the rear, with Elder Stow acting as rear guard.  He only looked up every now and then, and generally only when a deer or other large animal could be seen or heard out among the corn rows.  For the most part, he kept his eyes glued to his scanner. It acted as their main version of an early warning system.  Boston, with her elf senses, could tell when humans came near.  Katie, with her elect intuition, could sense when something or someone got near that might pose a danger to the group.  Still, the scanner could plot one to several miles distance on a grid, and track whatever might be in the area.

Lunch became a somber affair.  They had plenty of food, gifts from the little people for their journey; but no one felt much like talking until Lincoln broke the ice.

“This journey seems spooky for a change.”

Decker and Lockhart laughed at the “for a change” comment, but Alexis responded kindly.  “It does feel a bit like a funeral procession.”

Elder Stow nodded.  “Good thing we have not come across any villages.”

“Especially ones full of dead bodies,” Alexis agreed, and people paused to think about it.

“That necromancer sounds creepy,” Boston said.  “Maybe, in that village, the dead bodies will be walking around.”

“I don’t like that idea,” Sukki said, and shivered.

“I prefer not to think about that possibility,” Lincoln commiserated.

“So, explain something,” Lockhart wanted to change the subject. “If this disease has been rampaging around the countryside for five years, who has been around to plant these cornfields?”

Katie spoke up.  “I assume Maya has kept the corn growing in season.  I imagine she is spread rather thin, trying to hold things together.”

“Maya said, only half of the human population will die,” Elder Stow said.

“Over half,” Lincoln corrected him.

“Still,” Elder Stow continued.  “The other half has to be around somewhere.”

Alexis shook her head.  “Probably got infected and sick, even if they did not die from the disease.  We have no way of knowing what shape they may be in. They might not be able to plant, and Maya might be keeping them alive by growing the corn for them.”

Decker offered a thought.  “Probably ran away to escape being eaten by the diseased half.”

“Stop,” Sukki raised her voice, looked down at her lap and shut her eyes.  Elder Stow took her hand.

“There, there…”  He gave it his fatherly best.  “We will be all right.”

“I know just how you feel,” Boston, the empathic elf looked at her with exceptionally big eyes.

An hour down the road, they came across a crow that hopped back and forth on the road, and apparently, had been doing so for some time, since they saw a clear, visible line indent in the road.  Decker stopped to watch, and when the others came up behind him, they all watched.

“What is it doing?” Sukki asked.

“Ask him,” Decker said with a grin.

The crow stopped and faced the travelers.  Then it spoke.  “I’m pacing, trying to decide which way to go.  I found this great path through the wilderness.  I have been turned into a crow, in case you didn’t notice.  I need help, only I can’t go both ways.”

Boston pushed up front.  “We’re going to the Emerald City to see the wizard—the wizardess of Oz.  Maybe she could help.”

“City of Jade,” Lincoln corrected her.

“Still green,” Boston said, and gave her best elf grin to Lockhart, who rolled his eyes.

“Why don’t you fly there?” Katie wondered.

“Eagles, Hawks, Falcons,” the crow responded.  “Besides, I’m new to this flying business.  I’m not sure it would be safe.”

“I guess you better come with us,” Lockhart decided, with a hard look at Boston.

The crow thought about it before Alexis interrupted with a question. “How did you get turned into a crow?”

“It was the monkey god,” the crow said.  “He said I was immune to his disease and that was not allowed.  He changed me, probably thinking I would be eaten by a predator soon enough.  I found this path first thing in the morning.”

“You survived so far,” Katie praised the bird.

“I had some immature corn last night,” the crow said.  “It was okay.  But then this morning, all my pacing dug up a couple of worms.  I found that disgusting, but they tasted pretty good…”

“Here,” Alexis said.  “You can ride in Misty’s mane.”

“Your very big animal?”

“My horse, yes.  Misty won’t mind as long as you hold his hair and not scratch him with your claws.” She started to get down to pick up the crow, but he flew up to settle on Misty Gray’s neck, so Alexis kept her seat. The horse nodded twice, to shift the bird to a more comfortable spot.  Then they rode, and the crow said his name was something like Wexalottle, or it sounded like that.  It seemed hard to pronounce with a bird beak and tongue.  They settled for calling him Mister Crow.

Another hour down the road, and Elder Stow’s scanner started making that annoying alarm sound.  “People coming,” he shouted from the rear.  Boston and Katie both looked in that direction, like they sensed the people, and sensed they were hostile.  Lockhart directed everyone to the opposite side of the road, and Mister Crow returned from overhead, once Elder Stow turned off the alarm.

“I see them,” Mister Crow said.  “They are running straight at us.”

“I have them on the grid,” Elder Stow added.  “They will arrive any minute.  No time to put up a screen to halt their progress.”

“Arm up,” Decker yelled as he arrived from the point and got down from his horse.  It was not Decker’s place to say that, but Lockhart was not going to argue with that assessment.  Seconds later, faces appeared in the corn rows.  Clearly, they were diseased faces.  Seconds after that, guns began to fire, and in only a minute, ten bodies stretched across the road.  Less than a minute later, Alexis cried out.

“They are children.”  She wept. The eldest looked maybe fifteen. Everyone but Decker and Lockhart found some tears.  Lockhart, the former policeman, remained stoic.  Major Decker remained a marine.

Mister Crow returned from overhead.  He got angry. “Why have the gods permitted this?”

“The gods have done this,” Katie said.  “I assume the monkey god is not working alone.”

“Probably why Maya couldn’t leave the city long enough to bring us there the easy way,” Boston suggested, and Sukki and Katie agreed.

“Keep moving,” Lockhart interjected.  “Walk ‘em.”  He moved them out of the area as quickly as possible.  Lincoln did what he could to comfort Alexis.  Mister Crow sat on Alexis’ saddle and cawed a couple of times. Sukki, Boston, and Elder Stow followed along behind, heads lowered like people in mourning.

As the sun began to set, the travelers came upon a forest.  The road left the corn fields and moved in among the trees.  They had not been warned about the change in their surroundings, but clearly the road went among the trees for some distance.

“I think we still need to stay to the road,” Lockhart said.  People agreed, and settled down to eat something before bed.  “Regular watch,” Lockhart insisted.  That put Alexis and Lincoln up first, from six to nine in the evening.  Katie, her elect senses stretched into the wilderness, and Lockhart with his police instincts got the nine to midnight shift. Decker, the marine, and Elder Stow with his scanner took the wee hours, which left Sukki and Boston with her elf senses in the early morning, to watch the sun come up.

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

MONDAY

Following the yellow corn road isn’t so easy, and there are infected people in the way.

*

Avalon 6.0 Monkey Brain Fever, part 2 of 6

Katie and Lockhart walked up to the group holding hands.  Decker followed, and it appeared as if he put his rifle in the holster for once, not expecting trouble in this peaceful village of good people.  He looked naked without it, but no one said anything.  Instead, Decker found a reason to say something.  It came out in swear words, and he ran to retrieve the weapon.

Four humans, three men and one woman, came crashing through the bushes and into the village square.  They looked bruised and bloodied from a thousand cuts.  Alexis thought to help them, but the look in their eyes spoke of insanity.  The drool from their snarling mouths made them appear hungry, and not particular about what they ate.  They screamed unintelligible sounds.  The little people just screamed and scattered to hide.

Two of the mad men rushed at the group around the bonfire.  Boston, Alexis and Sukki screamed well enough. Lockhart, the former policeman, still had his police special by his side, and drew it quickly.  Katie slipped the knife from the sheath that rested on Lockhart’s other hip.  Lockhart shot one man.  Katie cut the other across the hand and face.  That man barely paused, but long enough for Elder Stow to reach up from behind, grab the man’s head and snap his neck.

The third man got distracted by Decker’s movement, and followed him. The major had enough of a head start to reach his horse, pull his handgun, spin and fire three times.  As the man fell, dead, Decker grabbed his top-of-the-line marine rifle, the one the Kairos assured him would never run out of bullets.

The insane woman rushed to the back-side of the bonfire, where a deer roasted, half-cooked.  She ripped off a chunk of the deer tartar, fell to her knees and began to chew, not unlike an animal.  The travelers watched, uncertain about what to do.  They once unwittingly helped a werewolf in the daytime.  He appeared as a broken, cut and bruised man who left sanity so far behind, he could no longer form words.  Of course, they did not know he was a werewolf, and he escaped.  He got their scent.  He then followed them through a couple of dozen time zones, often enough in wolf form, trying to kill and eat them.

“We have to help her, if we can.”  Alexis finally spoke.

“I don’t know if we can,” Lincoln said, as he ran up from the other side.

The naked, bleeding woman grunted a couple of times, but mostly she howled, not like an animal, but like a person subject to constant, terrible, stabbing pain. She hit her head several times.  She began to weep.

No one dared approach her.

She chewed until she screamed, dropped the deer meat and put both hands to her head.  Her tears turned red with blood.  Her ears began to bleed, and she fell over.  People still feared to touch her.  Decker and Alexis checked.  She definitely died.

“This man’s ears are bleeding,” Katie and Elder Stow watched the blood drip, though the man already died.

“Don’t touch him,” Alexis said, nice and loud.

“Don’t worry,” Katie responded, and pulled her hand back a little further, though she realized both she and Elder Stow touched one of them.

“Incoming,” Decker shouted, and everyone looked up as a man with a long monkey tail appeared near the horses.  The man lifted a hand toward the horses, like he tested something with his senses and needed to concentrate.  He stepped toward the wary travelers, pausing only briefly at the four dead people.  He lifted his hand toward the travelers, again, seeming to test something he had to think about.  Then he spoke.

“There is an aura of protection in this cursed place that spares you from the virus.  Do not think it will spare you from the infected ones, though I can do nothing to harm you.  Since you wear the protection of the gods, I would not dream of doing such a thing. But I take no responsibility for what the mad humans may do.”  The man grinned, his monkey tail whipped back and forth, and he vanished, and mercifully took the four dead bodies with him.

Everyone breathed.

The little people began to make sounds of relief all around, before they shouted “She is here.  She is here…”  The travelers watched a woman float through the air and come gently to the ground, only to be surrounded by happy, cheering little people.

“Ozma?” Boston ran, but stopped when she saw who it was.  “Maya.” She remembered the name of the Corn Woman, the goddess she met in Otapec’s day, and then again at Katie and Lockhart’s wedding.”

Maya pushed through the little ones to give Boston a hug.  “You have certainly changed since the last time you were in my area.”

“Katie married,” Boston said, as if the goddess needed reminding.  Like a true little one, she showed utter joy at marriage before she dropped her head, sadly, and spoke.  “But I lost Roland.  He got taken to the future.  But I know he is alive.  He has to be alive.”

Maya gave Boston a second hug and an encouraging word.  “I have every good hope that you will see him again.” She turned to Katie.  “So, now you are married, and to Quetzalcoatl.  I had little time to do this at your wedding.” She hugged Katie and looked at Lockhart. “You are a very lucky man, to marry an elect.”  She apologized to Katie.  “I really am glad I could be there for you.”

“Me too,” Katie said through her smile.  Being hugged by a goddess is a remarkably wonderful thing.

“And Lincoln,” Maya said.  “I see you found your wife.  The first time I met you, she went missing.  Dear Alexis.” Alexis lowered her eyes and curtsied, but Maya hugged her as well.  “And Elder Stow, I see you found a daughter of your own.”

“Sukki,” she gave her name, smiled, uncertain, and looked at Elder Stow for reassurance.

Maya hugged her, too, and whispered in the girl’s ear.  “I saw you at the wedding.  Now, you just take care of that old man, and all of your friends.”

Sukki looked again at Elder Stow, and the others with a genuine smile and a word out loud, because Gott-Druk were not good at whispering. “I will.”

“And finally, Major Decker, man of the eagle.  You will be pleased to know that the Olmec representations of your head have become so stylized, they hardly look like you anymore.”

Decker grunted, but seemed pleased.  He thought to speak.  “We had four visitors attack us when we arrived, and a god with a monkey tail that came to fetch them.  I don’t suppose you would care to explain what is going on.”

Maya frowned, took a couple of steps to where she could address them all, though she already had their full attention.  “The monkey god,” she said.  “When my friend, the Kairos Kartesh, in the ancient times, reworked her Shemsu people to give them their unique telekinetic abilities as well as the math and engineering skill along with the Agdaline symbols and stellar coordinates, the monkey god got the idea that life was something to play with. Among his experiments, he designed this virus.  My friend, the Kairos Ozma calls it monkey brain fever.  It is deadly in over ninety percent of the cases.”

“Have we been infected?” Alexis had to ask.

“No,” Maya insisted.  “The hedge of the gods protects you, and also I have made this place a protected area, just to be sure.  However, it cannot stop infected people from coming into this place, and though they cannot spread the disease here, it cannot cure them by coming here.  It has been five years.  The disease has spread.”  Maya stepped up to Katie and asked to touch her thoughts, which felt very odd, to hear a goddess ask anything.

“I don’t mind,” Katie said, and shut her eyes while Maya touched her head.

“I see,” Maya said.  “I see.” And the others got the idea that she somehow bypassed the hedge of the gods to retrieve some information.  Then she spoke.  “The disease has spread from what will be Mexico City to El Salvador. It is virulent, and more than half of the human population will die in agony.  But Ozma tells me the disease will eventually settle in the monkey population where it will remain dormant for many centuries.  Pray that it be soon.”

“Ozma,” Boston said, her face lit up.  “Can you take us to her?”

“I cannot,” Maya responded, with a shake of her head.  “I am not really here.  To do that, I would leave the City of Jade unprotected, even if only for a few brief moments.  But I have made a way.  There is a wide path, a protected road, between here and La Venta Island, where Ozma and her people remain trapped, but safe.  Stay on the path.  Beware those you meet along the way.  They are infected, or they are dead, and doubly wrong.  Beware the necromancer who carries the elixir of life.  Stay on the path.  It runs between the fields of maize.  Do not put one foot to the left or right, lest the monkey god find a way to infect you.”  The image of Maya began to fade.

“Wait.”  Boston reached out.

“I will see you in the city,” Maya said, and disappeared altogether.

R6 Greta: Battle Lines, part 2 of 3

“Quiet,” Greta insisted.  “Everybody just be quiet for a minute.”  The little ones got quiet right away, and the humans followed after Briana finished her sentence.  They heard a sound from the back room.  A child was calling.  Karina got up right away, and Mavis excused herself from Ulladon’s company to follow. A moment later, Karina returned, struggling to keep six-year-old Kurt up in her arms, her hands clasped beneath the boy’s butt and a look on her face which said how heavy the boy started getting. Mavis carried Padme, and they giggled. She sat down facing Ulladon, Padme in her lap, and Padme immediately protested.

“Let me see.”

Ulladon looked at Greta who shrugged, so Ulladon let her glamour drop and Padme clapped and reached for Ulladon’s horns.  She giggled again when Ulladon stuck out her skinny and far too long forked tongue.  Padme tried to grab the tongue, but her little hands were not fast enough.  They played that game for a while and the rest of the group watched and smiled until Kurt woke up enough to look around and scream. He continued to scream after he shut his eye and Karina took him toward the door.

“No offence,” Karina said.  “But he might never get back to sleep.”

“Rather a compliment,” Rotwood said with a big tooth-filled grin, and he tipped his hat to Karina and again to the boy, even if Kurt screamed in his face.  Bragi got Karina’s cloak.  Kurt stayed wrapped in his blanket, and mother and child went outside.

“Now,” Greta began to get everyone’s attention again, but Bogus interrupted, as soon as everyone got quiet.

“Lady, I must protest again.”  Bogus looked around the table and apologized to the newcomers before he spoke.  “I have more than a thousand spirits in every shape and size waiting just south of the town. They are all volunteers from all over the province.  You know, normally we want nothing to do with human conflict and human wars, as you have taught us.  Some believe the world would be better off if the mortals just killed themselves off and were done with it.  But in times of rebellion and invasion, the world becomes a dangerous place, even for us. People run everywhere through the woods and hills, and they tend to kill everything that moves.  I am glad our friends from beyond the mountains are willing to help in this time of need, but you have people right here who are willing to help as well.”  He dropped his voice to a mumble.  “I was just waiting for a safe time to tell you.”  He sat down.

Greta nodded, and she reviewed the actual numbers, or as close as the various little ones were willing to admit.  “So that adds up to about four thousand extra arms,” Greta said, pleased that she added it all in her head without having to write it down.

“So, they only outnumber us two to one,” Darius whispered to Greta and Greta lost her smile, and doubly so when she had a thought.

“Wait a minute.  Wait a minute.”  Greta got everyone quiet again as she looked around the table.  “Where is Willow and her troop of frost fairies?”  People looked around the room and shrugged. “Chip?” she asked out loud. “Snowflake?” she asked more softly to the fairy on her shoulder.  They did not know.  They had not thought about it.  They became worried.

“Why weren’t we warned this morning, or a couple of days ago come to think of it, when the new armies came in from the east and west?” Darius asked.

Greta stood and turned to face the kitchen, the only open space in the room, and she called.  “Willow.  Willow!” She had no response, and Rhiannon and Darius stood on each side of Greta for support while everyone else watched. Greta got worried because only the greatest of powers could block her ability to contact her little ones.  Greta felt some urgency and grabbed Rhiannon’s hand for the extra power boost while she went away and let Danna, the Celtic mother goddess take her place.  “Willow,” Danna commanded with that single word.

Danna’s voice sounded soft, but it had an intensity about it that reminded some of the roar of a hungry lion.  It reverberated through everyone’s insides, like it searched their souls, and not finding what it was after, it went out into the town to echo down the streets and alleys.  By the time it reached the Roman, and Celtic battle lines, it rumbled, like a belly ache deep inside a mountain about to go volcanic.  It knocked down men and tents in the enemy lines where the earth itself shook, and men wondered if this invasion was really a good idea.  The little ones in their camps looked up and felt encouraged and loved, and the millions of little ones who were insubstantial and invisible and working hard across the face of the wilderness, paused and said a little prayer to their goddess.  In the wild places, the wolves of this world howled, the owls looked at the rising moon and hooted, while the great cats roared in echo to the roar of the queen.  The startled deer ran while badgers, beavers, rabbits and songbirds kept their young ones close in the dark.  Far away, in a secluded northern forest by the Muskva River, the Wolv who do not have a word for fear in their vocabulary, looked up and felt afraid.

Deep in a cave in the Carpathian Mountains, the call found its reason for being.  A picture formed in the air of Bragi’s kitchen, and everyone saw poor Willow, beaten, broken, burned and in despair.  She had been badly tortured, and everyone became furious, but Willow looked up and spoke.

“I never stopped believing.  Lady, it is the Helios.  The Sun-runner has held us captive for three days.”  She stopped talking when she ran out of energy, and Danna pulled the window back to broaden the view.  The whole troop of fairies was there, in cages, and the titanic demon was there as well, by a great fire in the middle of the cave.  It turned to look at them.  People screamed and looked away, not because he looked scary like a goblin, or detestable like an ogre, but because he looked like a nightmare, a demonic presence who bore more than the fires of the sun.  The fires of Hell itself danced in his eyes, and at the sight of Danna’s distress, he looked ready to laugh and spit in her face.

Danna grabbed an apple off the table and heaved it. It went right through the window, which surprised the Titan, and it hit the demon right between those eyes, which caused him to stumble and raise his hands.  Danna already started yelling.

“Rhiannon.  Pull.” Willow came through the window, followed by two, then three, then the whole fairy troop.  By the time the Titan found his angry face, Danna snapped her finger and the window vanished.

Willow flew to Danna’s worried face and hugged her. Snowflake and Icechip flew around the room, hugging their families and cousins and friends.  The kitchen became full of flashing lights, but Fae wisely stood and opened the door.  Clouds had pushed up from the south in the last half-hour and it began to drizzle, but most of the fairy troop went out into the cool of the evening and were glad to let the water drops cleanse them from the terror and pain of the last three days.

Greta came back to her own place and sat heavily in her seat.  She put her hand to her belly and cooed for a second to her baby, but she spoke out loud to whomever listened.  “See what we have to look forward to?”

###

Lord Crag and his goblins and trolls did their job in the night.  They came up from the solid earth, out of sight from the enemy and their guards. They took any that wandered too far from the camps, and screams could he heard here and there throughout the night. Going against orders, Lord Crag and Rotwood formed several teams to race through various camps to burn the tents and scatter the men and equipment only to disappear again in the dark.  They scared off plenty of horses, and though the horses did not wander too far, despite how frightened they were, some at least were stampeded through the camps, and the goblins found that great fun.

By dawn, the enemy had lost some good men and had little sleep, but their commanders offered their men no respite and plenty of men were angry enough to want revenge.  By mid-morning, the Scythians were ready to charge.  The Lazyges and Dacians on the left and the Capri, Costoboci and Roxolani on the right all sent a couple of hundred men as a token of support for the initial attack when the Scythians charged.

R6 Greta: Battle Lines, part 1 of 3

Just after sundown the family gathered one last time around the double tables, with Cecil of the Eagle Clan, there to represent the Celts, and Mavis and the Tribune Hadrianus squeezed in.  A place also got set for Rhiannon, in case she decided to show up.  The children were in bed, and the conversation stayed quiet enough not to wake them.  In fact, very little got said, out loud, because no one could think of what to say. Their position might not be hopeless, but it felt near enough to cause silence to fall over the table like a shroud.

There came a knock on the door and Bragi slid his chair out of the way so Alesander could answer it.  They assumed it was some report from the front line.  It turned out to be a woman.  She appeared to be a fine looking young woman from a family of money, and it took those who knew her a minute to see through the glamour she wore.

Briana jumped up and hugged the woman.  “Ulladon. I almost didn’t recognize you.”

“You weren’t supposed to recognize me,” Ulladon said, with a big smile.  “I have a friend of yours outside, and one for you, Mavis my friend.”

“Me?” Mavis raced to the door.  There were several men outside holding torches, and Rhiannon stood near, lighting up the area with more light than the moon and stars would normally provide, not that anyone particularly noticed.  Mavis and Briana ignored the goddess and ran to the men.

“Nudd!”  Briana hugged him and then saw he had a young woman beside him.

“Heidi,” Nudd said.  “This is my amazing cousin, Briana, the sister I was telling you about.”

Heidi said something so soft it was too hard to hear, and then she dropped her eyes to the ground.  She seemed terribly shy.

“Papa,” Mavis ran into Hermes’ arms and wept. Hermes still felt sore from the wound in his side, but he was whole, and he hugged Mavis with his whole heart and shushed her because now everything would be all right.

Bogus, Alesander and Greta all spouted at the beast that stood between the two men.  “Stinky!”  The mule pushed up to Greta and bobbed its head, looking for a carrot.

“I found them on the hill, trying to sneak through the Scythian lines.  I thought you might want them.”  Rhiannon grinned.  “More to the point, you must hear what Hermes has to say.”

“Come in,” Bragi invited them all, but the men with the torches opted to stay outside on watch, and hold the mule, which would have otherwise followed them right into the house.

Karina and Pincushion were by the kitchen counter dishing out the supper, which had miraculously doubled, with plenty of duplicate plates and cups, enough for all.  The table, now melted into one big table, got magically extended to sit everyone comfortably, with a half-dozen empty seats besides.

Bragi still sat at one end, and Father did not seem too far away at the other; yet somehow everyone became able to sit and see and hear everyone.  Father squinted his eyes to try and see how it was done.

“Now you know I can make a chair or two,” Rhiannon said to him with a touch on the old man’s hair.

“And kind of you to do so,” Father said, and let his smile replace his scowl.

“Lady,” Cecil touched his head since he had no hat to tip.  He had seen the lady about when she trained his daughter, Briana, but he never knew her name, so it was just Lady.  Vedix’ eyes got very big, and he nudged Cecil, but Bogus was right there with a hand and a word.

“Steady now,” he said, and he helped Vedix sit and stay quiet.

“My Lady is the kindest and most wonderful person in the whole world,” Briana spouted and found some tears as she sat an innocent Nudd in his chair and put Heidi between them.

Alesander took over the conversation with a nod from Darius.  Darius appeared too busy enjoying the show to begin any serious discussion.  “Time for pleasantries later.  We all want to hear about Nudd’s adventures, but right now we are facing a terrible enemy that has the skill and numbers to overcome our defenses and set the whole province to flames.  Hermes.  I understand you have something to tell us.”

Hermes stood, patted Mavis’ hand and gave a nod to both Ulladon, who sat beside Mavis, and Rhiannon, who sat on his other side, beside Greta.  He cleared his throat.  “I spoke with Lucius.  He is still the man of few words we all know, but he spoke this way.  After a hundred and fifty years, he has come to realize that the time for the gods is over.  Though he bears the name of Mars, he is not consumed with the blood lust like Ares.”  Greta nodded. Mithras was always a meek and humble soul; a bit of a scaredy-cat, truth be told.  Hermes continued.

“Since living in the Land of Aesgard, he has come to hear about and admire Tyr of the one hand, the war god of Aesgard.  He says war and combat must be noble and an act freely entered into for the sake of faith and high ideals.  He says in the old days, the gods encouraged and supported and inspired the people, but they never controlled them.  Now, the aspects of Mithras have twisted men’s minds and stolen their hearts, and he wants no part of that.  He says it is time for Mithras to go over to the other side, and time to give the people a chance to make peace.”  Hermes sat down.

“If only peace was so simple,” Greta said softly.

“Maybe we can use this division in Mithras to our advantage,” Darius suggested with equal quiet.

“Like Scops and Dames,” Alesander heard and spoke up.

“Scots and Danes,” Greta corrected.  “But we don’t have the time to sew distrust between the tribes that have gathered, and I don’t know if it would work as long as Mithras is twisting the men’s minds, as Hermes said.”

“And there are more men coming from the north,” Ulladon said.  “But I have brought some good help, if the Lady will let us help.”

Darius and Rhiannon both grinned, but Greta put her head in her hands.  Everyone waited and Greta finally sighed, “Bring them in.  I suppose it won’t hurt to hear what they have to say.”

Ulladon stood and stepped to the door.  She opened up and waved, and then put her fingers to her lips and let out a shriek of a whistle.  Briana turned to Heidi.

“It’s all right to close your eyes.  Nudd is very good at closing his eyes.”

“I am.  See?”  He showed her and she giggled, gave him a peck on the lips and shut her eyes with him.

“You didn’t bring Bonebreaker into the camp, did you?” Greta asked.

“No,” Ulladon responded with a roll of her eyes. “Give me some credit.”

“That closing the eyes thing sounds like a good idea,” Karina said.

“I think you don’t want to miss this,” Bragi responded as Alesander and Hobknot together held Tribune Hadrianus to his seat.

The first to fly in the door were Icechip and Snowflake who landed in front of Greta and Chip asked in a loud voice, “Can we watch?”  Greta invited Snowflake to her shoulder and Father wiped off his shoulder.

“Well, son.  come on.”  Chip waited for no further invitation.

The Lords Longbow and Horns came in talking about the Scythians on the hill, like they were in the middle of a private conversation.  Lady Oreona said hello to everyone, and especially to those she knew before she took a seat.  Lord Treeborn and Lady Goldenrod came in full sized, so apart from their extraordinary beauty, they seemed normal enough.  Portent the dwarf came in and Bragi and Hadrianus shifted in their seats at this obvious sight of someone that was not human.

Portent introduced his friend.  “My General, Redbeard.  We brought a whole army from the Alps to retake Movan Mountain.  But I figure we might as well get some practice.”

Grassly the gnome scooted in without many noticing because the last to arrive came on his heels, and they were the Lord Crag and Rotwood, the goblins.  Hadrianus opted to close his eyes.  Karina shrieked but tried to hold it in.  Bragi and Father on each end of the table turned pale and looked away.  The only reason everyone kept their seats was because Rhiannon caused a feeling of calm to fall on the people.

“Are we all here?” Lord Crag asked, and Cecil only stayed in his chair on the chilling sound of the goblin voice because Briana reached across the table and grabbed her father’s hand.  Greta thought it curious that anyone heard anyone, because by then the whole house became full of little conversations everywhere.

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.

R6 Greta: Movan Mountain, part 3 of 3

Portent looked up and looked worried for a second. “I was going to give you the tour, but I think we best get back to our families and move on.”

“But what is this place?” Hermes asked.

“Movan Mountain,” Portent said, as he picked up the pace and they started moving.  “It was a dwarf home ages ago, but abandoned when the gold and silver and copper finally gave out.  That was about two thousand years ago.”  Briana whistled, but Greta explained.

“That is only a few generations ago for dwarfs. Two thousand years is not that long when you live to be six to eight hundred.”  Greta paused when she heard Hermes whisper to Mavis.

“And how old are you?”

Portent picked up the story.  “About ten years ago, Piebottom got the notion that there has been a lot of earthshaking here in the last thousand years.  He thought maybe the goodies in Movan filled up again. I don’t know.  My great-great grandfather said they left because they struck water and the water got too deep to dig, but Redmold said that now that we know how to pump out the water, maybe there are more goodies, just underneath all that wet.  Then King Diggerclaw said the place where we were, over in the Alps, started running dry, and some already moved into Gaul and some all the way to Britannia, but me and mine figured we would check out old Movan to see what we could find.”

“Redmold?  Diggerclaw? Piebottom?” Briana asked.

“Nicknames, mostly.  But it is hard to translate dwarfish into a human tongue.  Some names are ludicrous, even hilarious to human ears, but the nicknames are easier to remember than Gleffondre, Porledwert and Ableminisco.”  Portent stopped and stared at Greta.  The dwarves stopped with Portent, so the others stopped as well.

“You must be the one,” Portent said.  “I never would have guessed.  You look like ordinary flesh and mud to me.”

“I am ordinary flesh and blood,” Greta responded. “And getting tired of these tunnels.”

“Just coming to that,” Portent said, with a grin, and led them into yet another great chamber, only this one still had some furniture, a stone table and stone chairs, and a big stone ring waiting for a cooking fire.

“How far do these tunnels go on?” Alesander wondered.

“Through the whole mountain.  We are half-way to the northeast door at the foot of the ogre’s pass.”

“You mean a real ogre,” Briana said.  It did not sound like a question.

Portent nodded.  “They used to charge a fee to go through,” he said, while the other dwarves and dwarf women magically found some lumber and started a fire.  No one saw where the food came from, but it soon smelled wonderful.

“It is mostly not magic,” Mavis explained to Hermes. “It is the design and ventilation that draws the smoke away from the chamber and into deep chimneys.”

Bogus explained to Vedix.  “It is pixies and Hobgoblins and such who live near the surface. They play the middle men between the light elves and dark.  Now, light elves prefer to work in simples, like wood and cloth.  Dark elves, what some call goblins dig deep, far below the scratches men put into the earth, and even below what the dwarves normally dig. Hobgobs make a good living keeping light elves and goblins on edge with each other, but dwarves, now they keep to themselves.  They hold on to their homes and mind their own business, mostly.”  He shrugged.  “But the concern is most times dwarves abandon their homes because they dug something up that isn’t so nice.  Goblins deal with that mostly, though they got a sense about it and know when to leave certain places alone.  Dwarves got no sense and sometimes don’t leave enough ceiling to keep it from collapsing.”

Briana took Nudd’s hand and made him let go of Greta’s cloak.  “You can open your eyes now,” she told him.  He blinked a few times, but mostly he did not want to see.

The food got ready at the same time they heard another boom.  It sounded very loud, but the roof of that cavern seemed solid enough.  Then there was another boom, and another, and every eye looked at Greta to explain.

“If they arrived in a troop shuttle or transport, there may be as many as a hundred Wolv, and they would have access to several smaller vehicles, like fighter-bombers.”  They did not understand, so she simplified it as much as she could.  “They can fly in a machine and shoot explosives at the rock and fire bigger and stronger heat rays than these little pistols you carry.  If they don’t break open the door, they could melt it.”

“Melt the rock?” Lucius had to think about that.

“One way or another they will get in, and soon,” Greta said.

“And we must be moving.”  Portent did not sound like he liked that idea.  “Eat up,” he hollered, while his fellow dwarves extinguished the fire.

A good hour, they heard a distant howl in the echo of the caves.  Only Mavis heard anything earlier with her good elf ears.  Portent stopped to sniff the air and announced that the Wolv had indeed gotten in, but they were a long way off.  Everyone wanted to panic, but held tight to their courage, until they heard a roar behind them, between them and the Wolv.  The roar sounded much deeper and more earth-shattering than any Wolv roar.

“Bogie beast, or worse,” Bogus mumbled, as Portent started to run.  Everyone else raced after him.  A couple of runners tried to pass him.

After an hour, they all huffed and puffed, and stopped in a grand hall where two dozen more dwarves were waiting patiently for Portent and his crew.  Mavis shivered, and her feet kept stomping, like she had not finished running, but Hermes stood right there to comfort her.  He turned her to poor Stinky who sweated and stunk up the whole place like only a mule can do.  Mavis hugged the mule in sympathy.

Alesander and Briana had their swords drawn and stared into the dark passage they just exited.  Lucius stood there to back them up, but he only fingered the hilt of his sword, like a man waiting to see the whites of his enemy’s eyes.  Nudd kept clinging to Greta’s cloak, his eyes closed and weeping.  Bogus once again explained to Vedix as the two huffed and puffed for air.

“Of course, after two thousand years or more, other things, dark things that avoid the light, tend to find their way in to abandoned Dwarf homes and set up housekeeping.”

“But what was that?” Vedix asked.  Bogus just shook his head since Portent started yelling.

“Ring around the May pole, make a right, sweet merry-go-round.”

The dwarves made a circle around the room and began a soft chant.  The chant rose in volume until it became a shout and something ghostly, like a wraith moving fast in the night, shot off down the ten corridors that emptied into the room.

“Our scent and signs of our passage will be found down each of these halls and tunnels.  Some go to living quarters, some to mining operations.  Four go to outside doors from this antechamber.  We take the second tunnel, to the northeast door that lets out at the foot of the mountains below the ogre’s pass.”

“But how will we get through the pass?” Hermes wondered.

“We won’t have to,” Greta said.  “We traveled to the other side of the mountain in a day.”

“Quite right,” Portent said.  “And we best move before we hear more roars in the distance.”

It still took an hour or more to the door, and then they had to wait another hour while Portent sent dwarves to the portholes and spy nooks to be sure nothing lurked just outside.  Once they opened the door, a string of wraith-like ghosts sped off in every direction.

“The scent and signs will give out in a mile or so, but at least if your enemies make it to this spot it will make them pause to decide which way you actually went.”

“Thank you, Portent.  Thanks to all of you,” Greta said, and waved and smiled for her dwarves.  They smiled back, but clearly, they had their own path to go.

“I think maybe the Roman side of the Alps.  I hear there are rich veins waiting to be discovered.”

“There is gold in them thar hills,” Greta said, and she took her people into the woods that covered the foothills on the north side of the Carpathian Mountains.  They walked for several miles, until dusk, and then had a cold supper before bed since they were not willing to light a fire.

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

MONDAY

Now on the trail, the next direction is to go through the forest of fire.  See you Monday.

*

R6 Greta: Movan Mountain, part 2 of 3

Hermes grabbed Stinky’s reigns with one hand and Mavis with his other hand and backed them away from that spot.  Nudd awkwardly drew his sword, and no doubt would have foolishly charged the Wolv, but Bogus had the good sense to magically glue the boy’s feet to the ground.  Alesander, Lucius and Briana remembered their shields and drew their guns as the Wolv came bounding out of the trees on all fours.

It paused and sniffed, then it stood on its back legs and pulled its own weapon.  It opened its mouth and began to drool.

“Ready,” Greta said with as calm a voice as she could muster.  “Aim.” She was not especially good in panic situations.  “Fire.”

Briana and Alesander fired together.  Lucius seemed a second slow.  The Wolv returned fire, but one weapon had little effect on the shield wearing humans, while their three weapons together caused the Wolv shield to glow orange, then red, and then with a great crackle, burn out altogether.  The Wolv wrist burned badly, its chest caught fire and one leg looked burned to the bone. With a great howl, the Wolv returned to all fours and bounded back into the woods.

Alesander, Briana, and Vedix, now that he turned around and had others at his back, all started after the Wolv.  They stopped short when Greta screamed, “Stop!  You don’t follow a wounded Wolv into the trees. What, are you crazy?  We need to move on while we can.”  And she started down the side of the ridge into the valley of the winds.  The others followed, but they were not even fully down the hill before they heard great howls, barks, and yip-yips coming from the trees and the wounded Wolv.

“They have our location pinpointed.”  Greta continued to yell, this time against the wind. “They are expecting us to head for the pass.  We are going to have to climb the rumbling ridge and try to get to the ledge.   The only way we will get clear to the north side of the mountains is to go around their traps.”

“I don’t recommend it,” Alesander said.

“It is the only way,” Greta repeated, as she tried to hurry everyone along.

“Oh, I know that.  I just don’t recommend it,” Alesander also repeated himself, as he and Briana stepped to the front to lead the way.

Bogus finished yelling at Nudd.  “You are not supposed to get yourself killed as soon as possible.”  He went out to the wing, in the direction of the pass.  Vedix tended to stay closer to the group and clearly did not like the continuing howls and yips coming from the ridge.

Greta counted it an act of grace and mercy that they reached the boulder-covered ridge on the other side of the valley without incident.  There, they heard a pack of Wolv not far from their heels.

Hermes, Vedix and Mavis all struggled to find footing for the mule and dragged the beast from boulder to boulder.  Briana followed Alesander.  Nudd followed Bogus who kept yelling at him to be careful. Greta found herself behind Lucius, and did her best not to panic when the Wolv reached the spot beneath them.

The climb proved slow and laborious, but fortunately, the Wolv were even more poorly designed to make the climb, and had to move more slowly.  Stones regularly came loose in their hands and by their feet.  The ones above tried not to crush the ones following them, though everyone hoped they might knock a Wolv, even if by accident.

By luck, a little elf magic, and because Stinky decided to be afraid of the Wolv; Hermes, Vedix, Mavis and the mule got to the ledge first.  Alesander and Briana were not far behind.  Bogus and Nudd were slower, even with Bogus helping Nudd in ways Nudd was not aware.  Lucius topped the ridge, but his foot slipped, either by accident or on purpose, and that whole section of the ridge began to avalanche.  Greta screamed, but Nudd reached out and grabbed her hand. He pulled her to the side, to safety, as she watched the avalanche strike the Wolv.  She had not counted them, but she determined at least two had to be as good as dead.

“They are on the ledge, coming from the pass,” Alesander yelled as Greta hauled herself to safety.

“Damn.”  Greta could hear them roaring and coming on fast.  She looked at the others and saw a strange little man gleefully watching the collapse of that portion of the ridge.  She did not hesitate to take advantage of the situation. “Portent.  We need to escape the Wolv.  Quickly, open the way to Movan Mountain.”

The little man gave Greta the strangest look before he offered a bow and waved his hand to the wall of rock.  They found an opening no one noticed before, and the man spoke, “This way.”  The people saw the Wolv climbing again, and heard the others just around a corner on the ledge, so they ran into the dim light of the cave.  One moment they could see well enough to move into the dark, the next minute they heard a slam, like a big, stone door closing, and they stood in absolute darkness.

###

“Not funny Portent,” Greta said, softly.  “We need some light.”

“Just getting to that,” the word came back, and three torches flared at once.

They found themselves in a big cavern with a vaulted ceiling that rose into the dark, beyond the torchlight.  There were six dwarfs present besides Portent which added up to three males, two females, though the humans could hardly tell the difference, and two children.  Mavis made a fairy light, a floating globe of light which she let rise up above the group to give more general light.  To be fair, only Nudd screamed, and only once, even if a few others clearly looked uncomfortable.

“I was told to fetch you, that you would need our help,” Portent said.  “Though I must say, I have never been asked to help human flesh and mud before.  I suppose the light elf and the other, breed though he be, but mortal humans seems strange.”

“What about the Wolv?” Alesander asked, but Greta hushed him.

“Who told you to help us?” she asked.

“Mithras.  Didn’t you know?”

“Mithrasis?”

“No.”  Portent shook his head.  “Not that woman.  She doesn’t ask.  She has a bad attitude.  No, Mithras himself, stuck as he is in the place of the unknown.”

Greta breathed and Alesander tried again. “What about the Wolv?”

A dwarf woman whispered in Portent’s ear and his eyes got big for a moment as he turned to Briana.  “Well, well. An elect.  I haven’t seen one of your kind since, well, since I’ve never seen an elect before. You are very rare, you know, one-in-a-million.  Some say there are not more than a hundred elect in the whole world.”

Briana spoke with Alesander this time.  “What about the Wolv?”

“Oh, they won’t get in here.  Nasty brutes, those.  Still, I suppose we better get moving on.”  Portent and all the dwarfs with him turned and began to walk away. The others followed, but Nudd had some questions, now that he got reminded of the Wolv, and now that he settled in his mind that these were just little people and not dwarves at all.

“Lady, I don’t understand.  How could animals be smart enough to set traps.”  He evidently heard what she said, but his mind could not process it.

“Because the Wolv are not animals.  They are not wolves like we have in the mountains and the forest.  They are Wolv, a people who just look something like wolves, and they are smart and talk in their own language and they are clever, very clever, and hungry all the time as far as I can tell.”

“Are they like man-wolves?  I heard tell that back in the days when we were hidden from the Dacians and Romans they had a man-wolf near the Bear Clan.  I heard he was a person most of the time, but he became a wolf under the full moon.”

“No, Nudd,” Greta said gently, as they paused to get Stinky through a rough spot in the path.  “Liam was a good man before he caught the wolf disease.  It drove him mad, so he could not help the terrible things he did, but he stayed mostly a man and as you say, he only became the werewolf under the full moon.  These Wolv are Wolv all the time, and they are smart and clever and very capable warriors. This is not a good time for them if they should invade.  I believe the Roman legions and the armies of the Han would give them a good fight. But these are not invaders.  I think these came here by accident and have fallen under the sway of Mithrasis.  Our only real hope is for them to lose the scent.”

Everyone paused as they heard a great boom in the distance.  “Explosives,” Greta said.  “They are trying to blow a hole in your door.”  The sound echoed through the halls, caverns, and tunnels underground. Dust and pebbles fell from overhead.

R6 Greta: The Quest, part 2 of 3

“Hobknot.”  Greta called him and gently compelled him to come to be sure he did not run away and hide for the next fifty years.  “You are also the eldest,” she said.  “And a little one with a good, sensible brain.  Use it.  I expect you to think clearly if the way gets muddled, and speak sense, even if the way appears nonsense.”  Greta took off the ring of Avalon.  It had the seal of the Kairos.  She put it on Hobknot’s thumb and it fitted itself snugly there so it would not come off. “I am trusting you to speak in my name. Just make sure it would be words I would actually say.  I want you helped, not hindered along the way.”

“Hear that, all of you?” Hobknot said, proudly. “My lady says you got to listen now when I talk sense.  I speak for the lady.”

“Fae.”  She called her over.  “Don’t let it go to his head.”

“Never worry,” Fae said.  “If his head swells up, I’ll just knock him down and sit on him until the swelling goes away, I will.”

“Listen everyone,” Greta said.  “Don’t forget Fae knows truth from lies.  Listen to her carefully, especially when she warns that someone is lying.”

“I wish I was there when the messenger came,” Fae said. Greta agreed.

“Fae, dear.  I made a small bag for you.  It has salves, physics, bandages and potions in it.  Everything is labeled, and since you served your people for seventy years as their druid, I know that you know the good they may do.”

“Thanks, my lady,” Fae said, as Greta fitted the bag over her shoulder.

“I do not know your future,” she told her.  “I don’t know what all you will face.  I had to guess what you might need.  There are no miracles in the bag.”  Greta felt very inadequate.

“Quite all right, Lady.”  Fae answered graciously.  “You would think after all of those years I would have thought of this for myself, but I didn’t.  So, you see? I had nothing, but now I have everything.”

“Hans.”  She made him repeat his three words again.

“But what do they mean?”  Hans asked.

“Stop.  Do no harm. Friend.”  Greta told him.  “They are Agdaline words.  Very hard for the human tongue.”  Greta paused to look at the fading stars above.  She supposed they did not need to know who the Agdaline were, nor that those strange people never expected their little pets to get loose, get big, and go wild. She spoke again.  “They are Dragon-speak,” she said.  “They are in the ancient tongue to which all dragons are bound to obey,” she said, hopefully.  Sometimes when dragons went wild, they got mighty slow in the obedience department. Still, it had been bred into the beasts. It was genetic, and even if they only paused on hearing the words, it might be enough time to let the quest get to safety.

Hans said the words once more and Greta felt satisfied that he said them well enough.  Agdaline was not easy.  Then she gave Hans a gift.

“Here,” she said.  “Take good care of it.  It is the sword of Avalon.”

“You have more than one sword?”  Hans looked surprised, though when he thought about it, he decided he should not have been surprised.

“I have had several,” Greta said.  “My very first got broken when Sekhmet took it and started to wipe out every living thing in Egypt.  Then I lost one up the nose of the wolf.”

“The wolf?” Berry asked.  She slid closer to Hans.

“Fenrus.”  Greta nodded like no big deal.  “Loki’s son. Then there is Wyrd, and Salvation, swords that you know.  This one is special.  It usually hangs over the fireplace at home and has not been used very much since the days of Alexander the Great.”

“Why is it special?”  Fae asked.

“It was made by little ones, not actually by the gods, but under contract, if you know what I mean.  The same crew that made Thor’s hammer.”

“Does it have a name?” Hans asked.

Greta nodded again.  “Excalibur,” she named it.

Hans drew it out and even in the dim light of the dawn, it glowed and glistened, almost as if it had a fire of its’ own.  “Wow.”

“Don’t cut yourself,” Greta intoned.

“We must go,” Berry said, stepped up and took Greta’s hands.  Berry had become a strikingly beautiful human woman.

“You are very young,” Greta said.  “As is Hans.”

“Older than you when you stepped into the haunted forest,” Berry reminded her.

“Yes, but I had encouragement and help that you do not have.  I am only twenty-two even now, but in a special way, I may be the oldest person presently on this earth.  You, on the other hand, have only your hope, faith, and wits to guide you.”

“We will find him,” Berry said and squeezed Greta’s hands.  She firmly believed what she said.

“And I believe you too.”  Greta smiled for her.  “But here, let me give you my heart.”  Greta wore a small, Celtic cross on a simple gold chain.  She had two made four years earlier in anticipation. Vasen, the old priest of Odin never took his off, and now she gave hers to Berry.  “Let my God be your God.  Look to the source to guide you and be your shield.  He is an ever-present help in time of trouble.”  Berry placed it around her own neck and then hugged Greta.

“I love you Mother,” Berry said.

“Oh look,” Greta interrupted and placed Berry’s hand on her tummy.  “Little Marta is saying good luck.”

“I feel her moving,” Berry said with delight. Her eyes went straight to Hans. He did not catch it, but then everyone crowded in close.

“Tight in there,” Greta said.  “Not much room to move around.”  Greta looked once more at the four.  “Go on,” she said, “before I change my mind.”  She turned without looking again and went into the inn to rest. Alesander sat waiting for her there, and Darius sat with him.  She had not told Darius, but somehow, he found out.  He always did.

“Will Berry be all right?” he asked.  He had become like a father to her, and Greta smiled because she knew he would be a good father to all of their children.

“I pray that she will,” Greta said.  “But who can know the future.  It isn’t written yet, more or less.”

Darius hugged her and they kissed and hugged some more while Greta’s eyes caught sight of a Celt who walked straight up to the Dacian innkeeper.  The Celt held out his hand and the innkeeper grasped it in a strange handshake while the Celt said, “Pater.”  Greta knew they were Mithraites, members of that ultra-secretive cult, and something in her heart turned cold, but then Darius finished with his hug.

“And you.”  He stared into her eyes and his eyes were dancing with joy.  “You should not be running off this close to delivery. I worry about our son.”

“Daughter,” Greta said, and tried to shake the image of coldness from her heart.  “And there is another month yet, at least.”

“And how is my son today.’  Darius spoke to the baby.

“Daughter, Marta,” Greta said.

“Son, Marcus,” Darius said, and Greta let him have the last word because she knew a month or so later she would have a little girl, and she did.

R6 Greta: The Quest, part 1 of 3

Only four years married, and Greta already started sneaking away from the house in the dark.  Her husband Darius, the roman governor of the province of Dacia would go looking for her, but by the time he found her, she should be finished with her task and on the road home.  Greta pulled the hood of her cloak over her face.  She was the woman of the ways for the Dacians, called a druid among the Celts, and the wise woman of Dacia for the Romans as declared by Marcus Aurelius himself. It was a triple whammy which meant she could not hide in a crowd, any crowd.  But this task felt important, so she covered herself as well as she could with her red cloak and hood, and tried to go unseen through the early hours before dawn.  She feared Darius might try to stop the others if he found out what they were planning. He would certainly try to stop Greta if she had any thoughts about going with them.

Greta had no such thoughts.  She just entered her eighth month with child number two.  A daughter to go with her son.  She smiled about that the whole way, and to her credit, she only once thought the others could have timed things better.  She also tried concentrating on what was to come as her faithful Centurion Alesander led the ox cart along the new forest road. He would follow her to hell if that was where she was going.

They arrived late in the afternoon at the Celtic village of the Bear Clan.  Greta rested at Mayor Baran’s house, as was her custom.  Several men came to pay their respects, but Baran’s wife turned the rest away.  The woman knew full well what the eighth month could be like.

In the wee hours before dawn, Greta got up and went out to the new stables beside the new inn.  The Dacian who ran the place made a home brewed ale which seemed very popular with his Gaelic patrons.  This was a good thing, Greta thought.  Dacians, Celts, and Romans needed to mingle and not be so divided.

She made herself as comfortable as she could on a small stool.  She waited, but she did not have to wait long.  She heard a bang.

“Shhh! Quiet.”  She heard a woman’s voice, one that Greta knew very well.

“Oh shush yourself, you old biddy,” the response came out of the dark.

“Old goat,” the woman came right back.  “I hope that was your head and it knocked some sense into you.”

“It was my toe,” the man responded.  “And if it wasn’t hurting I would use it to kick your butt.”

“Quiet, both of you,” a young woman spoke.  “If you two don’t stop making love we’ll never get anywhere.”  She called it right, and Greta heard a young man laugh.

“Ahem!”  Greta cleared her throat.  “Over here,” she said.  She just turned twenty-two, a young mother in her prime.  She could have easily gone to them, eighth month or not, but why?  Let them find her.  “Over here,” she repeated.  They knew her voice, too.

Berry and Fae were the first to come out of the shadows.  They came timidly, holding hands as sisters should.  The odd thing was no one looking at them would imagine they were sisters, much less twins.  Berry looked to be seventeen, and though fully human, she still reflected the beauty of the fairy blood she once bore.  Fae now had all of the fairy blood, the inheritance of their half-blood father, which made her much smaller, but a fine-looking dwarf woman in her way, and a bit of an imp besides, a match for Hobknot, the grumpy old hobgoblin of the hardwood.  She was seventy years old.  They both were, but that is a very long story.

Hans and Hobknot came behind with Hobknot’s mouth running.  “I told you it was no good sneaking off.”

“And I told you I was not going without saying goodbye to my sister,” Hans said.  “But I was not worried.  I knew I would see her.”

“Oh, you did?”  Greta got up slowly.  “Hansel.” She reached out and Hans came quickly to help her to her feet.  She hugged him and whispered three words in his ear.  She made him repeat the words over and over until he could say them perfectly.  Meanwhile, she hugged all of the others, including Hobknot who turned a perfect red and covered his face with his hands in case she thought of giving him a kiss.

“So, where is your father?” Greta asked Fae and Berry.

“She knows,” Berry said with surprise.

“Of course she knows,” Fae said with certainty.

“From the dragon village we go north.”  Berry spoke as if repeating a lesson.  “We must go over the Toothless Mountain and beyond the Way of the Winds.  Through the pass called the Ogre’s Jaw which is the only way through the Rumbling Ridge. Down the other side, we go through the Forest of Fire and pass the Lake of Gold which must be on our left hand. We must go through the Swamp of Sorrows until we reach the river called Heartbreak.  From there we travel down the river beyond the Giant Rock and the Troll’s Eyes until we see the Mouth of the Dragon.  The Mouth will take us under the Heart of the Goddess by the Road of Dreams and at last, at the end of the road, we will find the Broken Dome of the Ancient Master.  It is there that a secret door leads to the Land of the Lost, and our father is there, still living among the lost.

“North over the Transylvanian Alps and plateau to the Ukraine.  How far, then?  To Kiev? All the way to Moscva?” Greta translated.  “Sounds exciting, and complicated,” she said.  “You will remember all that?”

“Oh, yes, Mother Greta.  I will not forget,” Berry said.

“We will remember,” Fae insisted.  “We seek our father’s blessing on our marriages.”

“You and Hobknot,” Greta teased, and Hobknot spun around several times in embarrassment before he settled on a spot with his back to them all.  He turned scarlet.

“You didn’t have to tell her that part,” Hobknot protested.  “Make me sound like a love-sick puppy.”

“But you are.”  Fae, Berry and Hans all said more or less the same thing in near unison and then laughed.

R6 Festuscato: 9 For Peace, part 3 of 3

They arrived in the woods and held the men back so the chiefs and lords could get a good look.  Saxons covered the grass below the fort, looking as numerous as the blades of grass themselves.  Festuscato wondered how Pinewood came up with the number of five thousand, unless he counted everyone.  It mostly looked like a lot, and several men whistled softly at the sight.  It looked for the moment that the Saxons were stymied by Cadbury Hill.  They had to overcome the three or four terraces that ran all the way around the hill before they could get to the fort itself.  Presently they had no easy way up, but the Saxons had catapults and slings so it would only be a matter of time before the wall came tumbling down.

Festuscato grabbed a handful of grass and let it fall. He felt the wind in his face, and it felt strong, but he knew in Somerset it could be changeable.  He looked at the grass which felt dry, perhaps dangerously dry, and tall where it still stood despite the Saxon footprint. As far as Festuscato knew, it had not rained in the three weeks since he had been back on the island.  He called to his little ones.  Yes, they could keep the wind at ground level blowing in the right direction and could easily set fire to the grass.  He explained what he wanted them to do, and then divided his men.

He had five hundred horse and added five hundred foot men to the count.  He sent them through the trees to the head of the open fields.  Their job would be to prevent any Saxons from escaping, especially horsemen.  The other fifteen hundred men had bows, or prepared themselves with long spears to protect the bowmen.  When things started, they would happen fast.

“Not a very good siege to leave these woods unprotected,” Mirowen commented.

“It isn’t a siege,” Festuscato said.  “They figure the Welsh are busy fighting the Irish, and York and North Britain are too far away to bother, and even if York sends some men, they still have the advantage in numbers.  Obviously, they have their men concentrated in these fields because they have brought the necessary equipment to smash down the walls. Once that onager, that primitive trebuchet makes a big enough hole in the wall, a concentrated charge with massive numbers of men will get the Saxons inside well enough.”

“And now?” Dibs asked.  He knew what an onager was.

“Now I want the siege engines burned along with as many Saxons as possible.  I expect the Saxons to try and escape out from the line of fire.  So we have a thousand men, half on horseback to hunt them down.  I expect most to make for these woods, and we might not survive such an attack, but we should take most of them with us, and the ones who break through will find Dumdiddle and his dwarfs waiting.  I expect some will try to jump the line of fire, but they won’t live long.”  He did not repeat the part about their not surviving, and no one asked, so he gave the signal to begin.

A long line of fire rose up on the other side of the fields and started to move across the field like disciplined soldiers on parade. The Saxons fought the flames, but fire sprites kept it burning and the wind stayed relentless, blowing smoke in the Saxon faces.  When the fighting got fierce on the edge of the woods with all those Saxons that slowly decided to try to escape, Festuscato got word that Constantine and Cador of Cornwall were ready to come out of the fort and attack the Saxons head-on if Festuscato could stop the moving fire.  He did, and sent word to his foot soldiers on the end of the fields to hit the Saxons from behind when those Saxons turned to fight off the men from the fort.  The elves stayed behind the fire line, so any Saxons who tried to jump the fire would be picked off.   Festuscato brought up his dwarfs to hold the trees while he organized a charge of his own.

When the men with the dragon tunics and the men with the lion of Cornwall tunics poured from the fort, the Saxons turned to meet the threat, as expected   The fire hemmed them in, but there remained plenty of room to fight.  When the five hundred fell on the Saxon rear, the Saxons were shaken. When Festuscato lead a thousand men from the woods to hit the Saxon flank and push the enemy into the fire, the Saxon resistance fell apart.  Some tried to force past the five hundred and escape south, back to Sussex, but the Welsh and British horsemen tracked them and caught many.  Others still found the woods their best bet, if they could make it past the dwarfs.  Not many escaped, but some did.  When the Saxons found enemies pressing in on every side, one great line of Saxons jumped the fire at once with the plan to make for the far woods and turn south under cover.  Some got passed the elfish archers, but only by sheer numbers, and they got tracked by Pinewood and his fairies in the late afternoon, and the goblins and trolls after dark.

Only dribs and drabs of Saxons returned to Saxon lands tell the tales, and they were tales to frighten the children, tales of the Roman and his sorcery, of elfin magic and demon terrors in the night. One tale that made it back to Saxony on the continent, and from there up into Danish lands and across the water to the Swedes and Geats was the tale of miraculous dwarfish armor, magical, made with such skill and cunning no sword or ax could break it.  In truth, six dwarfs caught sixty Saxons trying to escape through a gully near the fort.  Six Saxons survived and four made it home alive.  Of course, the tale got stretched, in a literal sense, and expanded until the chain of armor came with a whole trove of cursed treasure, but that came later.  In the near term, the chain of Weland showed up again, but that is a different story.

In truth, Luckless found his Uncle Weland in a pool of blood.  The unbroken chain did not protect everything.  Weland was missing a hand and a foot and leaking from innumerable cuts around his face and neck.  “The jinx of the family,” he breathed out his recognition of his nephew.  “Make your way well in the world.  I never believed in that unlucky stuff.  Here, take the chain.  It may protect you and bring you luck.”  That was all he said when he died, and Luckless cried in the night and said his Uncle was the only one who ever believed in him, and what was he going to do now?

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MONDAY

R6 Festuscato: 10 Londugnum:  After the battle is cleaned up, and the people of Britain, Wales, and Cornwall are convinced that this Pendragon idea might work after all, Festuscato and his crew escape to London…and then, from London.  Until Monday, Happy Reading

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