R6 Greta: Downriver, part 3 of 3

At four in the morning when people began to stir, Festuscato got his turn, and he did not gripe because at eight o’clock, Gerraint stepped in, which meant Festuscato still had the next turn.  The sun was due to come up, not that they would see it through the fog.  More important, the width and depth of the river changed overnight.  In some places, there were obstructions in the river and the place of safe passage narrowed.  Everyone needed to be awake and poles ready just in case they needed to fend off any rocks or other obstructions in the water.  Gerraint felt confident that his water babies would guide them safely to the dock, but it would be better to be prepared, just in case.

Gerraint picked at breakfast, and at eight o’clock he traded places with Diogenes.  Diogenes was not hungry, th-thank you.  He sat in the middle of the deck, pulled his sword and laid it across his lap.  Then he spent the next four hours making Lucius uncomfortable by staring at the man and trying to puzzle out just where the man’s loyalties lay.

At noon, Doctor Mishka took a turn.  She was more animated than most and did not mind sharing lunch and several stories from the future about the very land they were traveling through.  She kept her voice low, but she figured after all that snoring the night before, surely the Wolv knew where they were.  Unless, as she hoped, they were checking out the Muskva River awaiting their arrival.

There came one moment when the boat came rushing around a corner as it turned to the east.  The boat swayed and tilted heavily to starboard as it got caught in a side current.  Hermes almost slipped and fell overboard, but Mavis grabbed him and they both tumbled to the deck, laughing.  The rest of the group shouted Wee! and Aah! like they were on a log flume ride before the boat settled down in the new current.  The boat then slipped into the calmer waters behind a jetty, which had been built out into the river.  A short while later, they came around a second jetty, and there they came gently to the dock of a fine-looking village.  They did not exactly stop perfectly.  They felt a bit of a bump, but Vedix and Hermes jumped to the dock with the ropes and tied the boat fast.

“Where are we?” Alesander whispered, having spent the day without speaking at all.  People looked up and all around as the fog lifted from their immediate vicinity. They could still see where it clearly covered the river downstream and back upstream, but after twenty-four hours, the fog started to feel a bit suffocating.  People breathed, and looked all around.

The village where they docked had been carved out of the hills and short cliffs that penned in the river.  They found several buildings by the docks that looked to be warehouse buildings, and a three-story tower about where the central village square ought to be.  The houses looked odd, a style of building unfamiliar to both the Romans and the Celts, though to be fair, they had not gotten a good look at the houses of Samarvant. Mainly, there did not seem to be anyone around.  There were no signs of life in that village.

Mishka kept back to see which way Lucius might be interested in going.  He moved immediately to the left off the dock where the village actually ended at a kind of small fort.  The fort looked shut up tight and showed no one on the walls, so Mishka assumed the fort was as empty as the rest of the place.  True, she could not be sure about the dungeon.  She saw another big building there beside the fort, like a great hall for meetings, but it also looked to be closed, and probably locked. That building stood beside what looked like a cave entrance that let people inside the hill itself.  Lucius became self-conscious when he realized everyone followed him, and he said something to ease any suspicion the others might have had.

“I think we go this way.  I think the cave should take us under the heart of the goddess.”

Greta came back, letting the good doctor Mishka return to the future.  She looked at Mavis, but Mavis shook her head.  The only thing Greta remembered saying was they had to go north.  Neither Greta nor Mavis told anyone about the signs they had been following.

“Where is everyone?  Where are the people?” Hermes interrupted.

“Deserted the village,” Alesander suggested.  “Ran away, or headed downriver to get away.”

“At least there aren’t any half-chewed bodies in this place,” Vedix offered.

“Quiet,” Greta said, and they quieted and looked at her while Greta sighed at having to face her own cave.  I would rather have a bridge to burn, she thought, but she said something else.  “Alesander, Briana, stay out here and keep hidden.  Be prepared for us to come racing back out in case the cave is full of Wolv.  Bogus and Pincushion, see if there are any people around, but stay invisible.   My guess is this is a Venedi village, so they may become friends.  Mavis and Hermes, see if there are any horses here for the borrowing.  From here on we follow the Road of Dreams.  Lucius and Vedix, you go with me to check out Lucius’ cave.”  Greta turned to Lucius.  “After you.”

“Lady?” Mavis did not exactly protest, but Greta waved her off.

“It will be all right,” she said, as she stepped toward the darkness.

Lucius drew his sword, but Diogenes said in Greta’s head that it was for show.  Lucius walked slowly up what appeared to be a wide and well-kept path, not unlike the back-door path in the village of the Dragon Clan.  Vedix fingered his wristwatch shield, thinking worst case scenario.  Greta found a stack of torches by the entrance and lit two with her little bit of flint.  She handed one to Vedix while Lucius stared off into the dark.

They did not walk far before they reached a great chamber, like a massive entrance hall carved out of the dark.  It looked like a smaller version of one of the great dwarf halls they saw in Movan Mountain, but this looked strictly human made, with great columns regularly spaced to support the ceiling.  Greta saw the path continued up and out the back of the chamber, but first she became concerned to light the torches that she found spaced regularly around the walls.  She figured this would be the way her group had to go, and guessed that they were beneath the Heart of the Goddess, whatever that was.  She managed to only light the first torch before all the torches around the room came to life as if by magic.

Vedix growled like a true member of the Bear Clan as Greta’s eyes shot to the exit tunnel on the other side of the room.  A small man in a long cloak and Phrygian cap stared right back at her.

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

MONDAY

Greta faces the second piece of Mithras, the Persian.  Until next time, Happy Reading.

*

R6 Greta: Jupiter, part 1 of 3

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

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

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

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

“Bogus?”  Greta turned to the dwarf.

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

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

“Briana?”  Greta turned again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”  Vedix wondered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mule ribs!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t tell if you don’t tell.”

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

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

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

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

“As you say,” Briana ended that conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like a child,” Ulladon said.

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

“I would like a child,” Ulladon moped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONDAY

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

*

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

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

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

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

Whisper.

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

Whisper.

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

Whisper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

“We know the basic story,” Alesander said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goldenrod looked down.  “My apologies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are Slahbs?” Alesander asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Nudd shrugged.  “Fun?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Me too,” Greta agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONDAY

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

Until then, Happy Reading.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R6 Greta: Movan Mountain, part 1 of 3

Mavis came in from the cold fall night and woke Greta before dawn.  “Lady. Bogus and Vedix have found the back door,” she said.  It took a few minutes to figure out what Mavis was talking about, but by then Briana came awake and got ready and several members of the Dragon Clan were there to escort them.

“The people of the dragon are determined to keep the notion that they have a back-door secret,” Bogus explained.  “But Chobar and the men of the Dog Clan are reported to be in the territory, only half a day away, and they are willing to make an exception for you in order to insure your safety.”

“This way,” The dragon elder led the way into a barn that butted up to the cliff face.  Greta smelled the animal droppings in the hay, which said the barn actually got used as a barn, and she tried not to step in anything as they made for the back wall.  Several men stood there to remove a well disguised bit of wooden planks and reveal a cave opening in the cliff.  The dragon elder continued to lead as the men brought torches to light the way up a broad path that wove through the inside of the rock cliff.

“Where are Alesander, Lucius and Hermes?” Greta asked quietly.  Her words echoed softly in the tunnel.

“Gone ahead to scout out the terrain above,” Bogus answered, and directed his voice to Greta’s ears so he would not disturb the underground.  Greta considered that ability.  Bogus the Skin wore the glamour of an old man, a ragged looking prospector, but Greta and Mavis, probably Vedix, and likely the rest of them knew he was in reality some sort of dwarf.  In fact, Greta knew Bogus’ father had been an imp and his mother a fairy, an odd combination to be sure.  Bogus had wings after a fashion, but he showed no indication his wings worked, or could work well enough to lift his imp sized body.  Certainly everyone, except maybe Vedix, knew Mavis as an elf, though presently they preferred the glamour that made her appear human rather than be confronted with that reality.  With that in mind, Greta decided that the ragged looking prospector look was not a bad choice for the imp.

“I can smell the outdoors,” Mavis whispered, like a person who had some trouble breathing.

Greta nodded.  She smelled it too, and she felt glad that Mavis was not like some elves of the light who were naturally claustrophobic and absolutely no good underground.

Up top, Hermes and two men of the Dragon Clan sat around the fire cooking eggs and burning toast.  After a short while, Lucius came in from the southeast with another man of the Dragon Clan.  He reported the road back to Porolissum and Roman lands looked open.  He urged them to take that route before he sat quietly and burned some of his own toast.  When Alesander came back from the north, he reported the way looked difficult, rough but passable.  Greta had something else to say.

“Nudd.  Why are you here?”

Nudd looked at his cousin Briana and shuffled his feet.  “I can help. I’ve been up this way before, all the way to the city of Samarvant on the River Olevant.  Father used to trade with the Dacians there.  I can help.”

“Samarvant on the River Heartbreak,” Mavis whispered.

“We go north.”  Greta wanted to say more to Nudd, but she thought she better get in that word before the others started expressing opinions and maybe tried to talk her out of it.  They took a moment to say good-bye and thank you to the men of the Dragon Clan.  Greta watched them expertly cover the hole to the underground so no one would stumble upon it by accident; then they sat alone with the sun just below the horizon and the eggs ready.  Greta nibbled with one eye on Stinky the mule that Hermes had struggled to bring up from down below.

“He can carry hard bread and bacon for a while,” Hermes said.  “I figure his natural smell will keep the predators away.”  A few laughed softly, but they seemed to be waiting for what Greta had to say.

“Nudd, why are you here?”

“Mother said to stay with you.  I can help,” Nudd repeated.

“Nudd,” Briana took up the cause.  “You will just get yourself killed.”

“So will you,” Nudd protested with some steam in his voice.  “Maybe I can get killed in place of you.”

“That isn’t helping,” Alesander pointed out.

“We go north,” Greta slipped that in again while Briana argued with her cousin, and since no one objected to going north, she thought she might try a piece of burnt toast.

Alesander and Briana took the point as before. Lucius and Hermes walked in back, behind Greta, Mavis and Nudd, with Hermes dragging stinky in the rear. Bogus the Skin and Vedix the hunter took the wings and kept their instincts open to warn against any predators, and especially to watch for Wolv.

“We ran into a Wolv on our way up to the village of the Dragon Clan,” Vedix said.

“You might say we saw eye to eye,” Bogus explained. “I can’t say what sort of senses they have, but it sniffed us much like a dog sniffing our identity.”

“Sharp.  All their sense are extra sharp, but the nose especially,” Greta said.  “Go on.”

“Well, after a good sniff, it didn’t seem interested in us and moved on.”

“Bogus put the whammy on it,” Vedix said, with a little laugh.

“Didn’t get a chance to,” Bogus said.  “But now I know what to look for.”

“Me too,” Vedix said, more seriously.  Greta put Bogus and Vedix on the wings, though she had serious doubts they would get much warning if any Wolv suddenly showed up.

All that day, they made a path and cut their way through forest and thorn covered meadows.  They stopped now and then to catch their breath at that high elevation, but the real mountain peaks stayed always to their right hand.  They found a small clearing before a ridge lead down into a deep valley, and camped before the sun set.  Hermes thought they made good progress, but Greta knew this would be a long journey.

In the morning, Greta got her bag and handed a watch-like shield control and a Humanoid pistol to Alesander, Briana, Lucius, Hermes and Vedix.  That was all she had.  Bogus and Mavis had other ways of protecting themselves, ways the humans did not have. Greta let go of her dress and red cloak and called to her armor.  It stayed shielded by the magic of the little ones who helped make it and by the power of the god Hephaestus, himself.  Likewise, the cloak, which she turned the sliver side to a green camouflage with a mere thought, had been made by Athena and proved many things proof, as the goddess declared.  She hoped it might be proof against the energy blast of a humanoid weapon.  She apologized to Nudd and told him whatever happened, he should to stay beside her until she could secure another wristband and weapon.

Greta made sure everyone knew how the equipment worked, and then got them to turn the equipment off unless and until needed. She could not be sure what kind of battery life the equipment had and wanted to preserve it, she thought, until needed.  She understood the need would be inevitable.

The group got out of the trees and came to a grassy ridge top, well before the descent to the valley.  When they stepped closer to the edge, they felt the wind in their faces.

“The way of the winds,” Mavis spoke softly.

Greta pointed as everyone stopped to look.  “My guess is the north wind funnels through a gap in the mountains over that way.  I assume that will be the pass of the ogre’s jaw.”

“And straight ahead?” Alesander asked.

“The rumbling ridge.  It covers the whole far side of the valley.  The instructions said the pass would be the only way through.”

Lucius spoke.  “Looks like there is a ledge half-way up the far side.”

Alesander continued.  “The ledge probably goes to the pass, but I would not want to try for it and climb up all those rocks.  They look unstable.”

“Rockslide, do you think?” Lucius said, before he got interrupted by Nudd.

“I remember this place from when I was young. There is a way to that ledge, but it is many days that way.”  He pointed at Vedix who just then came running in from the forest.  He only had to shout one word.

“Wolv!”

R6 Greta: The Wolf and the Wolv, part 2 of 3

In the morning, Greta found herself in the bed while Mavis, Briana and Eofach had apparently pulled up spots on the floor. Receiving special treatment happened now and then in a number of her lifetimes, but it felt like something Greta would never get used to.  Greta decided the least she could do for the use of the bed was help fix breakfast, bad a cook as she was.

Greta, as a young mom, had long since given up the idea of sleeping in.  Eofach was an older woman who likely did not need the sleep of the young, so she was awake. Mavis came instantly awake as soon as Greta sat up in bed.  Only Briana looked comfortable, but Greta judged from the look on Briana’s face that she either snuck off to visit Alesander at some point after Greta fell asleep, or she was having wonderful dreams, or both.

“We have to move on today.”  Greta spoke over her warm day-old bread and water, that is, once her eyes opened and her brain started to function.

“Why the rush?” Briana asked

“You only just arrived,” Eofach added.

“Rhiannon’s warning.  Chobar of the Dog Clan has given himself to Mithrasis, and he is coming with a large group of armed men to stop us from continuing on our quest.  I assume they plan to kill us if necessary.”

“But the Dog Clan is many days from here,” Eofach said.

“Rhiannon said they were two days behind us.  And she said there are friends planning to meet us in the village of the Dragon Clan for the next leg of the journey.  We need to be there so we can move on as soon as they arrive.”

“I’ll get the men up and ready,” Briana volunteered.

“I’ll get the horses and Stinky,” Mavis said, and they both looked at Greta who yawned before speaking.

“I have to tell the elders of the Raven Clan not to resist Chobar and his men.  There is no need for bloodshed.”

“What can I do?” Eofach wondered.

“You can come with me,” Greta said.  “I may need your help to convince a bunch of stubborn old men not to make a fuss.  You and Gwydden don’t need practice bandaging bloody arms and legs.”

“Oh, I understand that,” Eofach said with conviction. The woman could just imagine.

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The travelers left before noon, about as well as could be expected, but now Dunova and his men from the Wolf Clan became doubly determined to see they reached their destination safely.  Greta tried to ignore them all, but as a result, she ended up riding beside Lucius so Mavis could ride beside Hermes and Briana could ride beside Alesander.  Lucius made Greta uncomfortable, but she figured that maybe he was just a soldier with a sour disposition after all.  She tried hard over four days to convince herself it was just a personality thing.

On the very first evening, Greta took Mavis and Briana apart, and she quizzed Briana on all that Rhiannon taught her.  Briana was skilled in many forms of combat, but after only a short while, Greta realized one thing was missing.

“Let go of your thoughts,” Greta said.  “Let your feelings settle down and let your mind wander back along the trail we just took.  Let it go back step by step to the village of the Raven Clan.  Tell me what you feel, more than what you see.  Tell me what you sense. As an elect, you should be able to sense an enemy on the horizon if you know what to look for.”

Greta quieted, and Briana closed her eyes, but after only a moment, she shook her head.  “I’m not sensing anything.  Maybe I’m not doing it right.”

“I am sure you are doing it just fine.  Every woman is to some degree intuitive, but the senses of an elect are directed and focused on potential threats and danger. Trust your intuition.  I imagine Chobar and the Dog Clan are not yet in range. We will try again tomorrow night.

The party moved as quick as they could through the foothills, but it did not seem very fast.  Dunova had the idea that the women needed regular stops and plenty of time to rest.  Greta wanted to hit the man for being a sexist moron, but she held her tongue and simply tried to move things along as well as she could.  Greta knew Briana, with the constitution of an elect, could travel three days to the Dragon village without stopping, and Mavis, being an elf, would be right there with her.  Only Greta had to stop now and then, though not nearly as often as Dunova supposed.

They found no more Lazyges on the path, but that did not mean they were not being watched.  The farms and little hamlets they passed by looked the same as before, but on the third day they began to move up into the mountains, and that slowed them considerably.

On the third night, as the clouds moved in and it began to drizzle, Briana caught the sense that they were being followed.  She got excited before she felt sure she was doing it wrong.

“Trust your intuition,” Greta said as she estimated that the Dog men were a full day or more behind.  That was acceptable since they would make it to the Dragon Clan village by late afternoon.  Greta just hoped that whoever might be coming to join them would already be there waiting. She wanted to get out at dawn and be gone before Chobar arrived.

Mavis woke Greta in the dark of the night before dawn.  The rain had finished for the time being and though it felt cold, people were able to wrap up and sleep.  Briana got up, having suffered a nightmare.  Alesander was there to comfort her, and Lucius and Hermes were sleepy but curious. Only Dunova and the men of the Wolf Clan remained asleep.

“It was awful.”  Briana recounted her nightmare and wept a little.  “It felt like the Were people you were telling me about, and how they always took the form of the wolf to hunt under the full moon.  I got so frightened.”

“Hush,” Alesander prompted.  “Greta has assured us the Were people died out long ago.”

“She mentioned werewolves,” Lucius said, not being at all helpful, but Hermes countered him quickly.

“Not a full moon.”  He pointed to the sky even if the moon stayed hidden by the clouds.

“But it is worse now that I am awake.  I can still sense them, more than ever.” Briana raised her eyes to look at the clouds and shivered.  Alesander held her but quickly let go when Greta appeared at the tent door, like he was a teenager caught by Mother Greta.

“Mavis,” Greta said, as she stepped out beside the fire, Mavis on her heels.  Mavis knew what she wanted and spoke right up.

“Yes, Lady.  I sense a great evil, but it is strange, like nothing I have sensed before.”

“That is because they are not of this world.” Greta got that much out before they heard a great howl echo through the hills.  Lucius and Hermes both looked up and all around, their eyes open at last. Briana and Alesander grabbed hands. Several of the men of the Wolf Clan shifted in their sleep.  “I also had a vision, or a dream.  I saw a streak through the sky in my mind’s eye.  It struck the earth hard and the grass and trees were set aflame.  Let us hope it is an escape pod with no more than six, or at worst a scout ship of ten or twelve.  God help us all if it is a transport of fifty or more.”

The howl came again and seemed closer than before. The men of the Wolf Clan began to stir. “But what is it?” Alesander asked.

“On this world, they have been called Wolv.” Greta looked as frightened as the rest and that did not help the others one bit.   “They were the front-line troops of what I called the Humanoid Empire, an empire in space ruled by people who look much like us.  Let me say the Lords of the Hachari rarely had to send in the second line.  But the Wolv rebelled more than a century ago.  They stole many ships to fly between the stars, and since that time they have eaten and torn their way across many worlds, shredding civilizations, even hunting some people to extinction.  They are not intelligent to repair the technology when it brakes, or in this case crashes to earth, but they are clever enough to use the technology, and to be disciplined, and to eat.  Pray they have not come here in force.”

Greta quieted while the howl came again, this time from a different direction.  She began to rouse the men of the Wolf Clan, and the others helped without asking any more questions.  They had to ride fast and hard to get behind the walls of the Dragon village before they were cut off or pulled down from behind.  Greta prayed for the rain to return, believing it would help disguise their scent and signs of passage.  The rain waited, but the skies opened up when they got near the village.

The village of the Dragon Clan rested in the middle of a cliff with the majority of the village built inside a great cavern carved out of the cliff side.   Eyes on the wall looked out from under the overhang of rock that continued to rise straight up above the stockade wall.  They saw a narrow path that zig-zagged up the side of the cliff.  They reached the base of that path and felt safe before they saw their first Wolv.  It stood on its hind legs at the edge of the forest, beyond a harvested field, on a hill at a distance where it could just be made out in the rain against the trees. It watched them in return.  Hermes could not quite see it, but he had no doubt it was there when the thing reared its head back and let out a chilling howl that echoed up to the gate.  That got followed by several bark-like sounds and something of a roar.

The travelers and their escort scurried up to the village as fast as was safe on the slippery path.  They got the gate shut tight, but then had to convince the Dragon Clan that they were in danger of immanent attack.

R6 Greta: The Wolf and the Wolv, part 1 of 3

It became several hours wait, and Greta had to cut Ardwyn before there was a successful delivery.  Ardwyn stayed very brave, but the cut was small and better than a tear.  She had a boy, and Greta immediately recited a litany of dos and don’ts.  She especially emphasized that Ardwyn must eat plenty of greens against iron poor blood, and the baby must get plenty of sun, a precaution against jaundice.  Once that got done, and they finished the tea, and the women and Gwydden were all cleaned up, they made for the feast.  It had been dark for a couple of hours, but in the way such things go, the party just started getting into full swing.

“I must say, I never realized what it meant to give birth.  It is far more complicated and dangerous a thing than I ever imagined.”  Gwydden grinned like a proud father, which was just as well because Meloch became speechless.  Ardwyn’s mother, aunt and cousins all showed up and threw Meloch out of the house altogether, and now Meloch plodded along trying to come to grips with the idea of having a baby.

“And painful,” Greta added.  “You have no idea.”

“Painful,” Eofach agreed.  “But let me add, if I was alone, I don’t know if Ardwyn and the baby would have survived.  You claimed to have no miracles, but what you did to relieve the pressure inside where you could not see was as close to a miracle as I have ever seen.”

“The goddess surely has blessed you,” Gwydden added.

Greta looked at Mavis who just grinned, but Greta had something else in mind.  She knew Mithrasis was not on her side.  She caught that much when Nameless kissed the woman.  So, which goddess were they talking about?  For that matter, which goddess trained Briana to the sword?

They came into the light and Meloch ran off to tell his friends the good news.  The elders of the Raven Clan came up to offer Greta a special seat, and Gwydden and Eofach sang Greta’s praises and said she deserved the best the clan had to offer, but Greta had something else in mind.  She spied Briana seated with Alesander and the Sergeants and headed straight toward her.

“Which goddess?”  She blurted out the question and threw her hands to her hips for emphasis. There were a few moments before Briana and the others figured out what she was asking.  An elder of the Raven Clan gave the answer.

“Why, Rhiannon.  Surely you knew.  To us she is simply the goddess.  She first appeared and saved us when we were driven from the land.  She brought us here and has watched over us ever since.” The man spoke like this was something even the smallest of children knew.  He got shocked by Greta’s reaction, and so was everyone else except Alesander, and Mavis of course.

“Rhiannon!”  Greta called to the sky, and her voice sounded angry.  “Rhiannon, show yourself here, now.”  Greta stepped away from the bonfire.  “Rhiannon, I mean it.  You are a hundred and fifty years passed the time of dissolution and I need an explanation.”

“What do you know about such things?” A lovely woman asked as she appeared beside the fire.

Greta grinned beneath her frown.  “I get the first crack at you, you naughty girl.  I know you are not Talesin, but turn around.”

Rhiannon turned slightly red but before she could voice her objection, Greta went away and let Danna stand in her place.  Greta considered the political implications of what she was doing.  “Mother?” Rhiannon breathed as Danna made them disappear from the sight of the people so they could talk in private

“I said turn around.”  Danna tapped her foot and Rhiannon turned, slowly.  Danna stepped up and slapped the goddess sharply on the butt. “You naughty girl.”

Rhiannon squeaked and turned again with one hand rubbing away the sting.  “Ouch,” she added.

“It wasn’t that hard,” Danna smiled for her. “I know you have work yet to do, but you need to stay away from my elect.”  Danna pointed at Briana.  “You may have some men to train in the future, but you have no business training women in force of arms.”

“But Mother.  She was so alone and afraid of her natural gifts.  I just showed her she had a purpose, a high calling to defend the women and children when the men were away at war.”  Rhiannon stomped her foot.  “I served on the Amazon High Council.  That must be worth something.”

“I won’t quibble,” Danna said.  Rhiannon served a couple of times when Pendaron was preoccupied. “But we have reached the age where the one-in-a-million warrior women have to work things out for themselves. Besides, the larger issue is this enclave of Celtic people you have built and hidden away.  You know this cannot be sustained.  All of this land belongs to the Germans and Greco-Romans. It is old German or Latin with a touch of Scythian or Slavic influence.  Your people here will have to integrate or they will be wiped out.”

“But Mother.”

“If you must work and cannot join your brothers and sisters on the other side, go to Gaul, Amorica, the British Isles, maybe Galicia.  That is your natural place, but not here and not now.  The days when the Celts, and the Amazons for that matter, were used by the gods as a border people, a buffer between the jurisdictions of the various houses of the gods is passed.  Work in your rightful place, but not for too long.  The time of dissolution has passed and even I do not belong here.”

“But mother.”

Danna stepped up and kissed the goddess on the cheek. “There now.  All better.  And now poor Greta will have some explaining to do.”

“Tell her Chobar of the Dog Clan has given himself to Mithras and is two days behind with many warriors, but there are others coming to go north with her so she must wait for them in the village of the Dragon Clan.”  Rhiannon said no more.

“Cryptic as a Celtic goddess,” Danna said and Rhiannon let out her radiant smile.

“I dare not say more.”  Rhiannon offered a small curtsey before she vanished.

Danna sighed.  She would not search the location or the mind of the men of the Dog Clan, and would not hinder them.  This was Greta’s life.  Greta had to fight her own battles, and cross her own bridges, and Danna could not be sure if Rhiannon said too much saying anything at all. Danna made herself reappear behind the crowd and became Greta once again. She called softly knowing Mavis would hear and respond.

“Lady!”  Mavis got enough attention as she pushed through the crowd so the crowd slowly turned around to see Greta standing there.  Alesander, Briana, Dunova and the elders of the Raven Clan followed, but Greta asked a question as soon as they were able to hear.

“What just happened?”  She really wanted to know what they saw and what they think happened, but if they got the impression that she did not know what happened, she would not dissuade them.  “I came up here from Ardwyn’s house and then I found myself standing here behind the crowd.” Greta always stayed careful not to actually lie.

“I remember the story,” Dunova spoke with enough volume to announce it to the many who were present.  “The mother goddess once possessed you and appeared in your place among the Bear Clan.  That is a story the people will not easily forget.  Well, it happened again.”

“Danna can be good in that way,” Greta admitted as she took Mavis’ hand and grabbed Briana’s hand and dragged them up to the platform that had been set up for her.  She knew how this worked.  They would seat her in the place of honor and promptly ignore her.  She became determined to have some company.  Either that, or she would sit down and fall asleep from exhaustion, not that the people would especially notice.

When they reached the platform and two more chairs were fetched so Mavis and Briana could sit on either side of her, Greta whispered.  “But then, Danna won’t be helping us.  She says we have to cross our own bridges.  Grumble.”  She turned to Briana and spoke up against the music.  “So, what do you think?”

“That was Rhiannon, the goddess.  I didn’t know she had a mother.”

Greta frowned.  “More like her great-great grandmother, but Danna doesn’t like to think that way, so all her children and grandchildren and so on call her mother.” Briana bowed her head to the wisdom of her druid and did not question how she knew what she knew.  That made Greta frown again.

After a time, Greta asked Mavis how she liked the music.  Briana, who clapped along, called it wonderful, thinking Greta was talking to her. Mavis shook her head.  “A bit flat,” she said, and then added, “I could call a few friends to come and liven it up a bit.”

“Don’t you dare.”  Greta imagined a bunch of little ones, fiddlers, drummers and flautists enchanting everyone so they danced until they dropped.

A short while after that, Greta did what she feared and fell asleep in her chair.

R6 Greta: The Elect and Her Cousins, part 3 of 3

One of the Wolf Clan men turned out to be Nudd, and after minding his own business all day, he cornered Greta when they stopped to camp for the night.  Nudd could not say how happy he was, and he could not thank Greta enough for removing what he called the curse around his mother and his home.  Nudd came across as a very agreeable fellow, and Greta realized that being agreeable was what Nudd was best at.  Nudd began to tell all about the women Devon and Hyfer were seeing, and that turned to farm life and the oft repeated refrain that one day Nudd hoped to find a good wife, too.  He only punctuated his one-sided conversation with occasional glimpses at Mavis.  He did not seem to notice how Briana covered her grin every time that happened.

Greta got rescued when Dunova and a few of his men came over to request a story. She gladly told the story about how Beauty in the ancient days found her cousin Raini in this very wilderness with the help of an old dwarf named Bain.  She told how they sheltered from a terrible storm in the house of a Troll, and lived to tell about it.  She told how they came safely home and Raini met Beauty’s birth-mate and fell in love.

“His name was Koren,” she said with a glance at Briana.  She saw Briana listened, but her attention was all for Alesander.

“Tell us how you and your brother made it safely through the forest of the Bear Clan,” Dunova said.  And with a look at Nudd, for once Greta did not mind telling the tale. After seven years, it had become what Mavis called an elf perfected story so it was a good one, punctuated in all the right places.

On the second day, they passed an invisible line into what Dunova called Raven territory.  The hamlets and farms all looked the same to Greta so she would never know.  At the end of the day, they came up to the expected stockade, behind which lay the village of the Raven Clan.  Like before, word had somehow gone ahead, and the whole village, and many from the countryside turned out for yet another feast in Greta’s honor.

Greta’s only comment was, “I really should get out more often.”

Dunova and a chief man of the Raven Clan, brought the women straight to the house of the woman healer.  They had a man in the village by the name of Gwydden, who they called the village healer.  The woman Eofach was the midwife, and presently, she seemed too busy to talk.

Greta stopped in the doorway to give a blessing before entering, but her nose added a thought.  “I smell pain killer and a sleep aid.”

Eofach looked up from her mixing and cooking.  A right good chemistry set, Greta thought.  “If you can tell that from the aroma, you may be the druid they say,”

“I have some drugs already prepared.  How far along is the patient?”

Eofach stopped and appeared to concede something in her mind.  “Ardwyn is in labor, but her mother ran long so I expect her to do the same.  Her husband Meloch will fetch us if we are needed. Gwydden the healer is with her to watch, though I would not expect the man to deliver the baby.”

“You are concerned because there has been distress with the mother and child,” Greta surmised.

Eofach nodded.  “I fear the baby is turned the wrong way, and if that is so we may lose both mother and child.”

“So, let me help you here, and then we will go see what we might do,” Greta said, and Eofach nodded again before she turned back to her brew.

“Lady, there is a feast for you and for the goddess tonight,” Mavis spoke in her soft way.

“Briana.”  The young woman still stood in the doorway, basking in the late afternoon sun and watching. “Tell the men I will be along once this matter is settled, one way or the other.  You will have to stand in for us until we can get there, whenever that might be.  No promises,” Greta sent her armor away and recalled her dress, her red cloak and hood, and a medical bag that she wore on her shoulder like a purse.  She turned to Eofach.  “I carry no miracles.”  Eofach closed her mouth and nodded again.

“The baby’s heart is erratic,” Mavis said as they entered the home.  Meloch paced and worried outside of the bedroom.  Apparently, Gwydden the healer threw him out.  Greta pulled the stethoscope from her medical bag.  It had been a gift of her little ones in ancient days.

“She is not full sized yet,” Gwydden said, referring to Ardwyn’s state of dilation. Eofach nodded as the three women entered the bedroom.  Mavis went straight for the towels and took them out to get the water boiling, not that Greta had any hope they might be made sterile.  The cleanest ones she would keep dry to wrap and warm the baby after birth.  Mavis had done this work before.

Greta took Eofach by the hand and helped her listen through the stethoscope, first to Ardwyn’s heartbeat, and then the baby’s heartbeat while Greta checked the woman’s pulse.  Then she let Gwydden listen and insisted he stay when Eofach wanted to throw him out.

“If a twelve-year-old boy got injured in battle, which of you would seek to help him?”  Greta spoke as she helped Ardwyn turn to her side.  Gwydden and Eofach looked at each other before Gwydden answered.

“We both would.”

“And so you should work together and stop this his-work, her-work business.  One day, Gwydden may be needed to save a life of a young mother and Eofach may save an old warrior from certain death, even if not today.  Today, the baby has turned, but there is compression on the umbilical cord.  Pray it isn’t wrapped around the baby’s throat, because Doctor Mishka is prepared to perform a caesarean if necessary, but it is not preferred.”

“I once saw a baby cut from the mother’s stomach,” Eofach said.  “But the mother had already died.”

“It can be done so the mother and baby both have a chance for survival, but it would be better not to risk it.  Sometimes, just changing the mother’s position can relieve the pressure on the cord.”  Greta listened again with her stethoscope as Mavis came in with cups of very strong tea.

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MONDAY

After things get settled in the village of the Raven Clan, the crew heads toward the last Celtic village in the north, the Dragon Clan, but they find they are not alone.  The Wolf and the Wolv.  beginning Monday.  Meanwhile, Happy Reading.

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