M4 Festuscato: Huns, part 3 of 3

By the first of April, Cologne, Tournai and Trier were sacked as expected and Cambrai and Metz were in flames, ruined by the two fists of Attila.  The Huns were headed for the edge of Frankish territory and would soon enter Roman Gaul.  There, Festuscato expected at least Amiens and Reims would fall.  After that, he thought Attila and his fist might head for Troyes while the northern fist under his eldest son, Ellak, who commanded his fist under the seasoned hand of Ardaric, king of the Gepids, headed for Paris.  When he originally thought this through, he imagined the Huns might reunite their armies at Paris, but Orleans would do around May or June, and from there they could face the Visigoths, either to invade Visigoth land or negotiate a Roman style treaty of non-aggression.  Now, Festuscato wondered if they would even get that far.

It seemed a long way, when late in the afternoon, Chlodebaud, King of the Ripuarian Franks, came into the command tent spitting mad about something. He usually stayed mad about something, and he regularly reminded them how Attila’s son, Dengizic, brought his Huns across the Rhine last fall and despoiled all the land around Nijmegen.  His men were the worst about being patient.  Of course, Festuscato, Bran, Heinz and Gregor had the good sense not to tell Chlodebaud why the Huns did what they did.

Merovech’s brother Adalbert, Duke of Moselle, looked up at his brother Chlodebaud, but said nothing.  He generally kept quiet and went along with whatever the others decided, but his men were good fighters, and proved it in the few little skirmishes they had thus far had with Ardaric’s rear guard.  Merovech himself sat with Gregor and Dibs, sipping ale and laughing.  Etheldrood, alias Egbert the Saxon sat there too, looking sour, but he responded.

“I understand your frustration.  My men are not used to waiting.  We see the enemy and we want to attack.”

Chlodebaud spit again.  “I heard when the Hun came in the front door, you Saxons with the Jutes and Angles snuck out the back door and ran away to Britain.”

Etheldrood looked angry for a second before he softened and admitted, “Yes, some have done that,”

Heinz, chief of his village, thought to add a word.   He often sat beside King Etheldrood and kept the man under control, as Lord Gregor instructed.  “But in this case, if we were to jump to the attack, the whole Hun army would turn on us, and we do not have the strength yet to stand up to them.  Once we get to Paris, that will be another story.”

Chlodebaud and Etheldrood both gave Heinz the same unhappy look, even as Marcellus came to the door.  Marcellus had arrived from Britain in March.  He brought a hundred Amoricans, all dressed in dragon tunics, who after twelve years defending the Pendragon, and now with Constantine gone and Constans taking over, decided they wanted to go home.

“Lack of patience can get you killed,” Dibs spoke up.

“There will be plenty of time for action,” Gregor said.  “But you must learn to relax when you can.  Not to stop being vigilant, mind you, but relax, like my friend Merovech is learning.”  Merovech looked a moment at his drink and nodded.

“Lord Festuscato will pounce like a great cat in the wilderness, but not before we are ready and only when we have the greatest chance for success,” Marcellus spoke up.  “I have seen him play this game with the Huns before, and in the end, he kicked them right off his island.”

Chlodebaud took a seat and looked at Etheldrood.  They would be good and wait.

At that same time, Festuscato, Bran, Luckless, Ironwood, Lord Birch, the fairy lord from the Atlantique province, Strongarm, a local elf lord, and the ever quiet four elf horsemen that Festuscato called his four horsemen of the Apocalypse, were questioning three captured Hun scouts.  The Huns were down on their knees, but not tied.

“So Ellak the coward and Ardaric the senile old man ran away,” Festuscato tested them.  One young Hun started to stand to give answer to the insult, but Bran’s hand on his shoulder quickly dissuaded him.  The other two old warriors hardly flinched, and one spoke in a calm voice.

“We escaped your trap where you would have crushed us against the Romans in Paris.  Now Lord Ellak and the great king Ardaric are lost in the wilderness and you have only guesses.  For all you know, they may be circling around behind you.  And we will not tell you where they have gone.  We are prepared to die.”

Festuscato let out a little chuckle.  “Ironwood,” he said.

“They are headed toward Orleans.  They will meet Attila along the way which will put all sixty-thousand together for the assault.”

“Lord Birch.”

“Yes, Lord.  The Alans around Orleans are prepared to fight, but King Sangiban appears to be undecided.  Attila has offered to leave him the city if he opens the gates, but King Budic of Amorica will get there first and he and his men may put some backbone into the old king.”

“You see?” Festuscato spoke frankly.  “I need no information.  That is not why you were captured, alive.  I have spared you because I want you to take a message to Attila.  Tell him, if he takes his army and goes back across the Rhine, I will spare his life a second time, and give him this ring as a sign.”  Festuscato took a gaudy, diamond studded ring from his finger and gave it to the old Hun who spoke.  “Fail to give the message and I will know it and nowhere on earth will be safe for you to hide.  But if you give him the message, be warned.  The last man I sent to Attila with a message lost his head.”

“What last man?” the young one asked in a snarky, unbelieving voice.

“Megla,” Festuscato said, and clearly all three Huns had heard the story.

“You are the dragon?” the old Hun asked.

“I am, so please give him my message and my ring.”  Festuscato and Bran stepped back.  “You are free to go.”  Festuscato waved and three elves brought up the Huns horses.  The Huns stepped warily to the horses and mounted.  The older scout who said and did nothing during the interview, turned on Festuscato the moment he got hold of his spear. Festuscato did not flinch as the man became a pincushion of elf arrows.  The horse bolted but settled down after a few yards and the dead body slid out of the saddle.

“Such a shame,” Festuscato said, as the other two Huns rode off without looking back.

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

MONDAY

General Aetius has come up from Rome and is trying to raise the men and keep the Burgundians and Visigoths pointed in the right direction.  The Alans in Orleans may be pressed for a time.  Everyone hopes King Budic can arrive in time to help.  Bran the Brit calls it a daft plan, but if the men arrive it just might work.  Gaul is in the Balance.  Until Monday:

*

 

 

M3 Margueritte: Roland, part 2 of 3

Roland looked up and Marguerite turned, both having rather silly smiles, just as Hammerhead stuck all six potatoes in his mouth at once and chewed and announced.  “These are good to eat.”  Margueritte barely stopped him before he disgorged his chewed bits into the good bin.

She thanked the little ones and asked them to see if Luckless or Tomberlain might need their assistance.

“Always glad to be of service,” Grimly said, and Roland rolled up his sleeves and helped.

“That gnome still has a lot of imp in him,” Margueritte said, and that sparked a good discussion, but the kiss they both thought about never got mentioned.

When the evening came. Marta came to Margueritte’s room where she helped brush Margueritte’s hair.  That near black hair, when taken down, now fell to the floor which made it more than five feet long.  Marta had begun to help her care for it, though she also bore the brunt of nearly every other duty in the house.  Margueritte was grateful, and they were both rather giddy that night, though Margueritte became a bit miffed by bedtime.  She could hardly get a word in about Roland.  Marta kept talking about her Weldig, the potter, whom she called, Mister Potter.  And every time Margueritte did mention something, it only reminded Marta of something else.  Marta was not long for this world, Margueritte reminded herself, and she reconciled herself to having good dreams, which she did.

By the time they reached Vergenville that next day, Margueritte felt rather grumpy.  She knew what was going on, physically, but she thought the timing rather poor.  While she waited at the inn for Roland to deliver his letters to the king, all the talk around her was of the dragon.  The people hoped that now that the king had come from his western court, something might be done about this scourge.

“I heard it was as big as a tower,” one said.

“Big as the whole village,” another countered.

“I heard it ate a whole fishing boat in one gulp, fisherman and all,” one said.

“A whole fishing fleet,” yet another spoke.

“It’s big, but not that big,” Lord Bartholomew turned to the table.

“You’ve seen it then,” the baron concluded.

“I have,” Sir Barth nodded, and stopped Margueritte’s hand.  “No,” he said.

“Father.”  She complained, rolled her eyes, but acquiescing in the end.  She contented herself with unfermented cider, though she thought she ought to be able to try the harder stuff.

“Bartholomew.”  Lady Brianna called from the doorway.  Owien stood there, and Elsbeth was going, too.  Bartholomew stood and downed his drink at once.

“Coming,” he said.  “Time for the Fens.”

“But I thought the king said you were not supposed to do that anymore,” Baron Bernard questioned, with a smile.

Bartholomew shrugged.  “Young Owien has so been looking forward to handing out the soap, I hate to disappoint the boy,” he said.

“You’re not going this year?”  The Baron asked after they left.  Margueritte shook her head.  “Oh, that’s right.  Your young man.”

“I bet he gets to drink the real stuff,” she said, in an attempt to not turn red at the thought of her young man.

“You had better wish he doesn’t like the stuff,” the baron suggested, as Constantus came crashing in the door, all but swearing.

“Don’t bother,” Baron Bernard said.  “Bartholomew’s gone to the Fens.”

Constantus calmed down instantly, got a drink and took a seat with his friend.  “That dragon got my Gray Ghost.”

“Ah!”  The Baron smiled, knowingly.

“It didn’t.”  Margueritte felt concerned.  Constantus looked up and patted her hand reassuringly.

“It was the Gray Ghost number two,” he said.  “And really too old to be racing again.  The truth is Gray Ghost number three is not ready.  Still too young.”

“Too young?”  The Baron asked.

“Yes, and not a true gray in any case.”

“Too bad,” Margueritte said.  “Father has been breeding Arabians to get a winner, and now he’ll never know.”  They all had a little chuckle at that thought.

Not long after that, Roland returned with the bard, Thomas of Evandell.  Margueritte slid down the bench so Roland could sit comfortably beside her, and then he, the bard, the baron and Lord Constantus had a grand old time all around her.

At last, Marguerite sighed, and Roland got the hint.  “I think it would be good to see this fair of yours, Thomas,” he said.  He rose-up and put his empty tankard which had been full of ale on the bar counter, and Thomas rose with him.  “And would my lady like to accompany us?”  Roland added.

Margueritte rose immediately.  She said nothing but merely took Roland’s arm, and then Thomas’ arm as well for balance.  Together, they went into the market fair.  Thomas said, “Well I’ll be,” more than once, because as long as he held Margueritte’s arm, he saw what she and Roland saw.  Every little one, every sprite, elf, dwarf and fee in the market area, though otherwise invisible to the people, came and paid their respects to the girl before they began to pilfer their little bits.  Odd, though, that Thomas was not truly amazed, nor the least bit frightened by it all.  He said he could not tell all those stories for all of those years without believing at least some of them.  He did ask, however, why they could see the sprites when no one else could and why the little spirits were so careful to pay their respects to Margueritte.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Roland teased.  “Clearly my lady’s charms surpass those of other, ordinary mortals.”

Margueritte struggled and at last produced the littlest burp.  “Excuse me, Gentlemen,” she said, and Roland fell over for laughing.

When they came to the end of the royal fair, they found a small gypsy camp had been set up.  Margueritte thought it odd that there were no little ones among the gypsies, but she said nothing to the others.  She felt reluctant to enter the area herself, but with some persuasion she came along, and the first place they came to, was a tent with an older woman who claimed she could tell fortunes in a man’s palm.

M3 Gerraint: Glastonbury Tor, part 2 of 3

“Mmm.”  Gerraint nodded before Luckless said too much about the Lady’s virtues to trigger a jealous spell in Lolly.  “We don’t know what we will find on the other side.  This whole thing smells of intrigue and powers at work.”

“Yes, I heard that Abraxas fellow has been poking around this area.”  Luckless pulled his beard.  “I hope we don’t have to tangle with him again.”

“I think Talesin may be tangled up here as well.”  Gerraint finally admitted what he felt way back in Arthur’s court when those ghostly hands carried the ghostly cauldron across the room.

“That breed child of the Danna-Fee has been no end of trouble.”  Luckless shook his head to give Gerraint all his sympathy.

“Yes, you would think after four thousand years he would grow out of that teenage rebellious stage,” Gerraint said.  “But the point is, I don’t know what we will find in Tara when we arrive, or on Avalon of the Apples if we must go there.  Your job is to stay with the Lady, no matter what, and be sure no harm comes to her.”

“Yes.”  Luckless thought about it.  “I see what you mean by hard duty.”

“You understand?”  Gerraint asked.

Luckless nodded and they were introduced and paired up, ready at last for the journey.

“Bear to the left,” Macreedy said at the stone of starting, and they began the seven-fold path to the top.

Gerraint had to concentrate a little to make the magic work.  It was magic given to him; not natural like for the others.  Then again, the others had to concentrate a little as well to bring their charges along with them.  The result was most of the conversation ran between the humans, and little else got said.

The morning began spring beautiful, but after the first turn, it felt like they walked into an oven.  Everyone began to sweat, except the elf maidens, and the people began to think that perhaps they should have packed less thoroughly.  They told a few jokes about what they did not need to bring, but no one complained, yet.

After the second turn, the wind picked up.  Not far along, the dust began to blow up in their faces.

“Can’t hardly see where we’re going,” Gwillim said.

“Yes, you would think after all the rain we had it would be too muddy to blow dust,” Mesalwig responded.

“I’ve a feeling things are just beginning,” Uwaine said, softly.

“Don’t look at me,” Bedivere said.  “I’m practicing keeping my mouth shut this time.”

“Ours is not to reason why,” Lancelot started again.

“Knock it off,” Gerraint interrupted.

“Ooo, the bugs!”  Gwynyvar objected for everyone.  As they made the third turn, the bugs came with the dust and heat.  They flew up in their faces, like the people were race cars and the bugs were trying to splatter against the windshields, though they had no windshields.

“What do you mean you have a recipe for spite bugs?”  Everyone heard Trevor’s objection, and it did sound rather awful.  Everyone tried to keep their mouths closed, and as far as possible, their eyes as well.  Some of the flies were rather large, and some were rather bloody when they splattered against the arms and legs.

“Now, it is a pleasant journey,” Peredur said, held tight to his elf maiden, and smiled as much as he could.  No one could tell if he was serious or not, so no one responded.

“I must say, this never happened when we were working on the fort,” Mesalwig added, but by then they reached the fourth turn.

They all heard a loud crack of thunder. No one saw the lightning, but at once the sky opened up in torrents of rain.  The sky had been virtually clear of clouds only moments earlier.  No one could see but a few feet ahead, and they had to shout to be heard above the crash of the water.

Macreedy tried to pick up the pace as much as possible, but they were slow going against the squall.

“At least it might lessen the damn heat,” Lancelot yelled.

“God willing.”  Gwillim puffed a little from the climb.

They began to feel the water at their feet.  It cascaded down the path, and the water started rising.  “It will only get worse if we don’t hurry,” Macreedy spoke at last.

It got ankle deep at the half-way point, and at their knees by the time they neared the turn.  No flash flood ever bore such strength as it seemed to want to push them from the path and keep them from completing the journey.

“Ah!”  Gwynyvar shrieked and would have been washed away if Luckless had not held tight to her hand.  Lancelot grabbed her other hand, and they pulled her ahead, and lifted her at the last and pushed through the water by sheer determination.  Neither the elf maidens nor Luckless let go that whole time.  They did not seem as effected by the flood as the others.  Then they rounded turn five, and the rain stopped as suddenly as it started.

“Beware the quick mud,” Macreedy warned.  “Once it grips you, it won’t let go as easily as quicksand.”

Everyone paused.  Without a word, they all felt it prudent to let Gerraint, Arthur and Macreedy pick out the safe way, and they followed in their steps.  Without the heat, the dust, the bugs and the rain, this leg did not seem so bad, provided they were careful.  The elf maidens guided their charges well, and only Trevor became temporarily stuck when his foot slipped on a wet rock and landed in the mud.

“Help.”  He yelled briefly before he thought to pull his foot from his boot.  They watched the boot get sucked under in only a few seconds and it made all sorts of disgusting gurgling sounds in the process.

They were nearing the top when they made turn six.  It looked from the turn like a pleasant walk.  They even found some trees at this level, and with the shade they felt that at last the heat might not be too oppressive; but then everything returned with a vengeance—the wind, the dust, the bugs and the rain, and this time the lightning came with it.

M3 Gerraint: Glastonbury Tor, part 1 of 3

They did not leave as early in the morning as Gerraint would have liked.  Despite Rhiannon’s claim of protection, he started getting very worried.  All the same, they arrived at Glastonbury before nightfall, and Mesalwig made them a great feast.  No telling exactly what the old man thought of Arthur and his companions at that point, or how he might respond to the presence of Gwynyvar, whom he once held captive for nearly a year, but there was no doubt of his interest in adventuring on the quest, once the details had been explained to him.

“The old fort at the top has been torn down,” Mesalwig explained.  “I must tell you, after a series of terrible dreams I took great pains not to ruin the spirals.  Apparently, it worked the same for my father when he built the fort after the Romans left.  I had no idea the paths went anywhere, though.  But say, how can we climb a hill in the marshes and end up in Ireland?  It makes no sense to me.”

“Me, either,” Gwillim admitted.

“Ours is not to reason why.”  Lancelot started, having heard Gerraint use the expression often enough; but this time Gerraint interrupted him.

“It is part of the old ways itself,” he said.  “I am still reluctant to travel that way, but there appears to be no other choice.”

“But will they be there?”  Arthur generally questioned everything.  It was one of his talents, to help men find the way for themselves and take their own ownership of the results.

Gerraint nodded slowly.  “We should arrive just before or just after them if I calculated correctly.”

“After?”  Arthur wondered.

“The way to Avalon from Tara is hidden and difficult.  Even after should be sufficient to catch them.  I can’t imagine they can get the kind of help that would move them along quickly from Tara,” Gerraint said.

“That would be a betrayal of the first order,” Macreedy agreed.  He looked at Gerraint.  Both knew it was possible, but neither was willing to speculate further on the matter.

“So, will you be building a new fort at the top?”  Lancelot got curious and always thought in military terms.

Mesalwig shook his head.  “Not with the Saxons cowed.  All I see is peace.  Maybe I’ll give it to the church.”

“Not a bad choice,” Peredur said.

“What a waste,” Macreedy mumbled at about the same time.

Mesalwig looked at his ale and then smiled.  “As for me, I would like to know about these maids you have taken for you hand.”  He turned the conversation in Gwynyvar’s direction.

“Not mine,” Gwynyvar said, though the maids sat around her and to some extent behind her, depending on the Lady’s protection in this strange land.  “These are Macreedy’s daughters, if the report is true.”  She did not doubt Macreedy, exactly, but like Arthur, she knew enough to know the little ones sometimes played loose with relationships and were not inclined to complete truthfulness in any case.

“True enough,” Macreedy said and looked at Gerraint again.  He wrinkled his face where Mesalwig could not see, took a deep breath and another swig of Mesalwig’s home brew.  Gerraint caught the thought from Macreedy who wondered how humans could survive on such bile.  Macreedy imagined it was one reason why humans lived such a short lifetime.  In this case, though, the rest of the crew had an equally hard time swallowing the stuff, except for Peredur, who seemed to have had his taste buds blunted with age, and Gwillim, who seemed a man who could wring pleasure out of almost anything he could get past his lips.  Finally, Gerraint’s answer to the problem was a simple one.

“If you don’t mind, I would like to bed down,” he said.  “I would appreciate an early start in the morning.”  He started off, but Gwynyvar reached for his hand.

“I am sure they are all right,” she said.  “I am believing and praying with all of my heart.”

“Here, here.”  Several agreed.

Gerraint just smiled and went to bed.

After a nearly sleepless night, Gerraint woke everyone at dawn.  They made him wait for a good breakfast, and then wait again while they packed such supplies as they imagined they might need.  The elf maidens packed nothing, of course, and looked as fresh as the springtime they inhabited.  Macreedy waited patiently and only Gerraint understood how difficult that was for him.  Bedivere got impatient for the both of them.  Uwaine learned to be more sensible about such matters.

At last they traveled the short way to the hill.  The marshes seemed especially soggy from all of the spring rains and winter melt, but they walked a wood plank path that led to the base of the oval hill.

“The stone of starting is just a little way up,” Macreedy said.  He held Arthur’s arm.  Arthur joked that he wasn’t that old yet, but he understood.  Besides, it seemed Macreedy had things he wanted to discuss with the Christian Lord, and Arthur knew any conversation would be better than none on a long, dreary climb.

The six elf maidens had others by the hand.  They were Uwaine, Bedivere, Peredur, Gwillim, Mesalwig and Lancelot.  Gerraint looked around for his other escorts, but did not have to look hard.

“Well met,” Macreedy called out as they climbed.  His sharp elf eyes saw the hidden couple well in advance of the others.  Luckless and Lolly waited by the stone of starting.  Gerraint immediately took them aside.

“Lolly, I apologize, but you will have to escort Trevor.  He is a would-be sailor, but in truth he is a cook, and a rather good one as far as humans go.”

Lolly’s eyes brightened.  She wondered how this man knew her so well, Kairos though he might be.  “Maybe we could share some recipes along the way,” she thought out loud.

“I knew I could count on you,” Gerraint said, with a smile, and he turned to Luckless.

“True to your name, you will have the hard duty,” he said.

“Wouldn’t expect less.”  Luckless sighed.  “It is my lot in life, you know.”

“Yes, well, you will have to escort the Lady Gwynyvar,” Gerraint said.

“I am honored,” Luckless said, and he looked genuinely pleased, almost too pleased for Lolly.  “But I thought you said hard duty.”  He knew the Kairos well enough to squint and wait for the other shoe to drop.

M3 Gerraint: Kidnapped, part 1 of 3

Gerraint was the first to wake, just as the days turned and the snow began to melt.  Macreedy and the elf maidens were all prepared for the awakening.  Gerraint could even smell the bacon frying.

“The Lady Rhiannon moved up to the British highlands while you slept,” Macreedy reported.  “She brought four horses as a gift, but she would not let us wake you early.”

Gerraint stretched.  “And I thank the lady most heartily,” he said, and yawned.  He felt wonderfully well rested, but not diminished by his sleep of several months.  This was not like the more or less normal sleep Margueritte had slept under the enchantment of dragon song.  Gerraint felt normally hungry, but not famished and weak.  He paused to think.  He imagined it worked more like the Agdaline in their suspension chambers aboard their sub-light sleepers.  “No dragons around I suppose,” he said.

Macreedy raised a brow.  “An odd question, but none near.  The lady did say she is keeping an eye on a couple, though.  Odd you should bring it up.”

Gerraint smiled and stood.  “Ladies.  I think you had better wake the others.”  The elf maidens bowed, slightly, and giggled.  One headed for Gwillim, one for Uwaine and four fought over being the one to wake Trevor.  “Any idea how we might explain all this, the long sleep and all?” he asked.

“Already taken care of.”  Macreedy grinned a true elfish grin.  “Such dreams they had.”

“Ah.”  Gerraint did not understand exactly, but he understood well enough.  They probably dreamed of fox hunts and rabbit hunts, telling stories around the great fire and board games and contests and on, with such things as men entertain themselves through the dreary months of winter.  He looked at Macreedy and paused as something came to mind.  “And your sister.  Are you angry with me?”

“Not you, Lord,” Macreedy said, quickly.  “But with your former life, I was for a time.  I came to this place in the wilderness for seclusion, to ponder.  I think I understand better now.  Apart from the child, I know you did all you could to give her what her heart desired.  How could I stay angry at the one who made my sister so happy?  I miss her, though.”  Macreedy added.

“I miss her, too,” Gerraint nodded.

“I know,” Macreedy nodded as well.  “And that also helped heal my heart at her loss.”

“Gerraint,” Gwillim called.  “Is today the day?”  He meant the day that they left.

“Not before breakfast,” Gerraint said.

“A man after my own heart,” Gwillim responded.

“I’ll never remember all of those recipes,” Trevor said, as he came into the room.  “I hope I can at least remember the best.”

“Me, too,” Gwillim encouraged him.

Uwaine came last, yawning and stretching.  “So how long did we sleep?”  He asked as Gwillim and Trevor went to the table.

“Two or three months,” Gerraint said quietly to Macreedy’s surprise.

“As I thought.”  Uwaine nodded with one last yawn.

“He is rather hard to enchant.”  Gerraint felt he needed to explain to the elf Lord.

“So I see.”  Macreedy wrinkled his brow.

“Comes from hanging out with me so long, I suppose,” Gerraint said, and he added a last yawn of his own.

“They were some lovely dreams, though,” Uwaine said quickly, to praise his host.

The elf maidens came then and dragged them to their chairs.  Macreedy let it go and proposed a toast.  “To friends well met.  Eat hearty, it is a long way to Caerlisle.”

Actually, they were not that far away from Hadrian’s wall, a meaningless boundary line since the Romans left, and really since the Ulsterite Gaels began the massive migration into Caledonia above the old Antonine Wall.  The Picts, decimated by centuries of struggle against Romans, Danes, Irish, and finally after Arthur invaded the north, had no way to stop it.  They fought back, encouraged now by the British, but they became so outnumbered, their only recourse was retreat to the highlands and the far Northern islands.  Gerraint knew that in time they would be swallowed up altogether. Only a reminder of their underground culture would sneak into the future. The greatest being their system of tribes and nations, now clans, which would be sufficiently corrupted by the so-called Scots to where certain English kings—Plantagenets—would be able to take advantage of their divisions.

“The road,” Uwaine pointed, but Gerraint shook his head.

“Parallel, but not on,” he insisted.  He knew the borderland on both sides of the wall for many miles currently made a no man’s land, and safe haven for all the brigands, thieves and petty chiefs and warlords the island had to offer.  “And Robin Hood has not even been born yet,” Gerraint smiled as he pulled into the woods.

This made their journey a couple of days longer, but it did not take that long before the old town of Guinnon and the fort of Caerlisle were spotted.  The walls of the fort were part stone and part wood, and well kept, since Kai had been on the Northern watch.  Kai got surprised by their arrival, but made them most welcome and kept them there for nearly a week.  He sent word south by the swiftest courier, but then he had to hear all about their adventures.

M3 Gerraint: Winter Games, part 3 of 3

Gerraint went back to the warming fire while Gwillim looked around the room.  Gerraint felt sure that Gwillim had been completely taken in by the glamour that surrounded him, making the cave appear like the most lavish of manor houses, with great tapestries lining jewel encrusted walls, and even glass in the windows.

“A mighty fine home you have, my Lord, for one so deep in the wilderness and in the wilds of the North.”  Gwillim also saw Macreedy as a plain noble chief rather than the elf he was.  For that matter, Gerraint looked over and noted that Trevor’s discomfort came from being attended to by a half dozen most beautiful young women, and Trevor did not see them as elves at all.  “Are you sure the Scots won’t find us here?”  Gwillim finished on the practical note.

“The Scots won’t come here,” Macreedy reassured him.  “In fact, would you like me to call the Slaugh to visit them in the night?”  That question got directed to Gerraint.

“Heaven forbid,” Gerraint responded.  “They have two deaths now to mourn and were just trying to defend themselves, even if they don’t know that revenge is never an answer.  Let them be.”

“Very gracious of you, my Lord,” Macreedy said.

“Yes,” Gwillim added.  “Especially since we just avoided being whipped half to death and thrust naked into the frozen wastes.”

Gerraint simply coughed, and there followed a moment of silence.

Macreedy stood and walked down to them.  He slipped his arm around Uwaine’s shoulder and turned him toward another part of the cave.  “You seem a man of wisdom.  You hold your tongue well,” Macreedy said.  Gerraint was simply not sure how far Uwaine got taken in by the glamour.  “I suspect, though, you may just be hungry.  What do you say we repair to the dining room?  The feast is all prepared.”

“Food,” Gwillim shouted, but then remembered his manners.  “With the lord of the house’s permission, of course.”

Macreedy stared hard at Gwillim for a moment.  Some little ones could be sticklers for the most miniscule bits of propriety, but then he laughed.  “Permission granted,” he said, and he waved to the ladies to make sure they did not let Trevor leave the fire.  Instead, two of the women pushed passed the men and came back with a plate full of delights.  They appeared to be thrilled with cutting and spoon feeding Trevor, and then wiping his chin with the softest elf cloth.  They laughed merrily most of the while, and Trevor did not mind that at all.

“For you, my Lord, we killed the fatted calf,” Macreedy told Gerraint.  Uwaine, who had glanced at Gerraint once or twice, looked fully at his lord when they came to their seats.  Gerraint explained.

“The food of the light elves is normally very light and delicate, like gourmet food.  Not much substance for flesh and blood.  Macreedy is saying they cooked up some real food for us, and don’t worry, I have decided the food of the little ones will not affect you, Gwillim or Trevor to any harm.  So, eat and enjoy.”  That was all Uwaine needed to hear.

“Pork loins!”  Gwillim shouted again in his excitement.

Gerraint certainly ate his fair share, but by then, his mind had turned once again to Cornwall, his home.  He imagined poor Enid fretting away, with no word from him to hold on to, and sweet Guimier sleeping in his place beside her mother until he again could be with them.  He stood, let the others remain seated, and stepped to the door.  It opened without his thinking about it, though an invisible barrier remained in place so neither the wind nor cold could penetrate the cave.  Outside, it started snowing again, completely obliterating their tracks.

As Gerraint looked out on the beauty of the white upon the northern forest, his heart began to sing, and his mouth whispered at first.

What child is this who laid to rest,

on Mary’s lap is sleeping?

Whom angels greet with anthems sweet;

While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the king

Whom shepherds guard and angels sing.

Haste, haste to bring him laud,

The babe, the son of Mary.

He let his voice trail off as he found the others gathered around his back.  The elf maidens were all on their knees.  Gwillim smiled with a serious smile.  Even Trevor stood, staring at the beauty of the world outdoors.

“Must be Christmas,” Gerraint said, and turned to Macreedy, who had a tear in his eye, which would have aroused his great anger with anyone but Gerraint, his Lord.  “Remember this word.”  Gerraint told the elf, as he put his hand gently on the little one’s shoulder.  “That the whole world might be saved through him.”  Gerraint felt better and a little less alone.  “Remind Manannan of this, will you, when his time of sorrow and dejection comes on him because of the monks.  I worry about that boy.  And as for us, I suppose a bit of sleep would not hurt.”

Having eaten, now exhaustion overtook the men.  Gerraint could see it in Uwaine’s eyes.

“My Great Lord.”  Macreedy nodded his head.  He clapped and the elf maids lead each to a bed where they helped them in and covered them well.  “They will sleep until spring with so many of the little ones,” Macreedy said.  “But we cannot do the same for you unless you let us.”

Gerraint nodded and gave himself over to the glamour.  “Just make sure I am first awake,” he said, and he closed his eyes.  He knew he was safe under the protection of his little ones, but in the spring, there would be far to go.  He would have to stop to visit Kai at Caerlisle, and then Old Pelenor in the Midlands, Arthur in Caerleon, and Tristam in Devon on the south watch.  At that, he might not get home until June, but he imagined Enid running to him in joy, and he felt the joy also deeply in his own soul, and with that he fell asleep for a long winter’s nap.

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

MONDAY

The trip home is long, but something itches in the back of Gerraint’s mind.  Somehow, Enid and Guimier do not feel safe.  Monday.  Don’t miss it.  Happy Reading

*

M3 Gerraint: To the Lake, part 3 of 3

“The lake?”  Bedivere barely got it out when they were there, in the courtyard of a great castle such as would not be seen in that part of the world for another three to five hundred years or more.  The horses were all there too, and looked to have been just groomed.  And their own clothes were also fresh, as if they had not just ridden for several days, and sweated as prisoners or been in a fight.

“Nice trick Goreu,” Uwaine said.

“Thank the Lady,” Gerraint said, and then everyone came out of the palace to greet them.  Many looked like great men and women apart from the fact that they were nearly all young and beautiful.  These were the fairy lords and ladies and certain kings and queens among the elves.  Some looked less and less like men and women, such as the dwarf lords and gnomes, hobgoblins and the like.  These were the subjects of Gerraint in his guise as the Kairos, but there were also many present who were not his.  Many were sprites, of the water, the air, the earth and from under the earth.  Some were little spirits and lesser spirits and even a couple of lesser Gods.  The Naiad of the lake herself was there, but she looked old and said she was ready to go over to the other side.

Bedivere kept passing back and forth between utter delight and abject fear.  He nearly ran at the sight of the ogre, but Uwaine, who had some experience, steadied him.  Uwaine got frightened, himself, by some of the people, and for that matter, Gerraint did not exactly feel comfortable even though he knew that all present were subject to Rhiannon.

Shortly, they were escorted inside where, like it or not, a great feast had been prepared for them.  Gerraint quietly made sure the fairy food would not have an ill effect on his friends.  When a normal mortal eats fairy food, they become subject to the fairies, like men and women who no longer have a will of their own.

Bedivere fell to the feast like a starving man.  His every favorite dish sat in front of his place and that did away with his fears once and for all.

“But where are the Welshmen?”  Uwaine whispered to Bedivere after a few minutes.

“A fair question,” Rhiannon said from half the distance of the enormous hall away.  Through all the talk and noise in the hall, Rhiannon knew everything, every word and virtually every thought that passed by.

“Ears like Math,” Gerraint quipped while a holograph-like image appeared in the center of the hall.  Somehow, everyone could see.

The first picture was Kvendelig the hunter.  He appeared to be tracking something around a rock.  It looked like a big rock and the anticipation grew as he came all the way around and stopped.  He looked up and around and then knelt down to examine the dirt.  “Good Lord!”  Kvendelig expostulated.  “Now there are two of them.”  He started out again to uproarious laughter.

“Round and round,” Gerraint said.  “I saw that one in Winnie the Pooh.”

Rhiannon smirked and changed the picture.  This time they saw Gwarhyr, the linguist.  He sat beside a different boulder where a branch, beyond his sight, periodically scraped up against the rock and another tree every time the wind blew.  “Say that again?”  Gwarhyr was saying.  “I did not quite catch it.”  The wind blew.  The branch scraped, and Gwarhyr tried to imitate the sounds.  “I’m going to learn the language of the little people if it takes all night.”  He looked determined.

“How long has all night been so far?” Gerraint asked.

“Four days,” she answered.

“Boring!”  The noise from the crowd rose.  Rhiannon waved again and the room filled with the lively sound of music.

This was true fairy music, highly contagious to anything mortal, and Rhiannon had to immunize Uwaine and Bedivere, quickly, before they started dancing, uncontrollably.  Once they were safe, Gerraint looked and saw Menw, trapped in a stone circle, dancing up a storm.  He kept smiling, but it was clear to see he danced utterly under the spell of the music.  Suddenly, he went invisible and all they could see was the footprints and dust being kicked up.

“He has the power of invisibility, you know,” Rhiannon said.

“Ah, yes.  Quite an accomplishment for a normal mortal,” Gerraint agreed.

“Yes, he thought to sneak up on us without our knowing it,” Rhiannon said seriously, and then she laughed, deeply.

Various groups in the room began to join in the dance as Menw once again became visible.  Some placed bets on the side, and Gerraint could hardly imagine what they were betting on.  Then Menw’s head went invisible and some of the gold got picked up.  Once, Menw was visible, except in the middle, like head and shoulders hovering over a set of legs.  The dwarfs in the room especially liked when he got down to nothing showing but feet.

“Shoes!  Shoes!”  The dwarfs shouted, and a great deal of gold exchanged hands.

“Good enough.”  Rhiannon stood and clapped her hands and all the noise, the pictures, the whole crowd and the banquet disappeared altogether.  Bedivere, Uwaine, Gerraint and Rhiannon seemed the only persons in a big, empty hall.

“When can we have them back?” Gerraint asked.

“Surely not before morning,” Rhiannon said and took Gerraint by the arm and lead the three men out through a door at the back of the hall.  There were stairs, and fairy lights spaced every third step or so.  At the top, they found rooms with big featherbeds, clean sheets and plenty of blankets to crawl under.

“Is it safe?”  Bedivere wondered out loud.

“It is not safe to question the hospitality of the lady,” Uwaine responded, wisely.  “Any lady.”  He added for good measure.

“See you in the morning.”  Gerraint noticed the fairies fluttering about, beginning to dim the lights.  Rhiannon kissed his cheek with a word of love for dear Enid, and he slept well that night.

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

MONDAY

The Welshmen  may have been stopped, but that does not mean Gerraint, Uwaine, and Bedivere are home free  Until Monday, Happy Reading

 

*

Avalon 6.1 Little Things, part 5 of 6

Rama scooted up to the back of a hut. Lakshme and Libra followed.  Libra had her bow out and said she practiced. She said she was going to protect Lakshme to the death.

“You better not die,” Lakshme responded, gruffly.

Pokara, Salipsa and the gang followed more noisily, but they came prepared for a fight.  Someone saw them and shouted.  Men and women came pouring out of their homes and gathered in the village center.

Rama stood, figuring, what was the point? Lakshme stood and Libra pointed her arrow at the people.  What the people did surprised them all.  The people fell to their knees and faces and pleaded.  “Help us.  Help us.”

Rama needed no more enticement.  He turned toward the cave entrance and shouted. “Rakshasa.  Show yourself.  The universe rejects your existence.”

They heard rumbling in the cave. They saw a very big hand, followed by an equally big arm, and finally a head, that when the Rakshasa stood, he looked about twenty or more feet tall.  The Rakshasa laughed as it looked on them.

“Perhaps I reject your existence.”

Rama paused, not because he was afraid, but because it became Lakshme’s turn.

“Titan in the wilderness, hear me. You have chosen the path that leads to destruction.  No good end will come of your days if you continue down that path.  I am forgiveness.  I offer a path to grace and mercy.  Repent of your wickedness, turn to the path of righteousness, and live among the gods once again.”

The titan reached out and snatched Lakshme, lifting her with one great hand.  “Maybe I eat forgiveness.” he said.  Lakshme screamed as three things happened in quick succession.  Libra let her arrow fly.  A stream of light came from the forest and put a hole the size of a basketball in the titan’s chest.  And Rama leapt up to the titan’s head, and with one sweep of his sword, he cut the titan’s head off.  Then Libra’s arrow arrived.

Lakshme fell to the dirt and twisted her ankle. Pokara, Salipsa and Libra all arrived at about the same time, but Lakshme got up, livid.  She leaned on Libra.  “Elder Stow,” she yelled.  “You almost killed my friend.”  She swallowed and glanced at Rama.  “And thanks for saving my life.”

The travelers came sheepishly from the trees.  The locals made plenty of room, afraid that this might be a new terror.  They breathed some relief when Lockhart got down from his horse and they realized he and the horse were two separate beings. Of course, they did not breathe much relief, him still being a six-foot man in a five-foot world.  Then again, after the titan, he did not look very big at all.

“Welcome friends,” Rama said. “Your faces look oddly familiar. Even the monkey man.”

Lakshme growled and yelled again. “Major Decker is not a monkey man. Decker, please ignore him when he says stupid stuff.  He is a person.  These are people.”  She pointed at the locals who were all dark-skinned Dravidians.

“My name is Lockhart.”  He stuck out his hand and Rama knew enough to shake that hand.  “My wife, Katie.”

“Yes,” Rama said.  “My wife, Sita, is back in Valmiki’s ashram.”

“I look forward to meeting her,” Katie said, and bit her lower lip to keep from saying something, or maybe shrieking like a groupie.

“It is sort of like tromping around with Heracles,” Lakshme admitted.  “Althea already did that.”  Lakshme shook her head.  “At least Rama is calm and collected.  I don’t think I have ever seen him get angry.”  Lakshme made the rest of the introductions.

They ended up staying the night. The titan’s body got dragged back into the cave and Elder Stow kindly used his sonic device to collapse the entrance. The titan’s head, however, got set up on the ledge by the cave, and no doubt would be set up on a pole, as soon as they managed a tree bit enough to handle the job.

The celebration seemed almost caveman primitive to the travelers.  Sukki might have been the only one to appreciate certain parts of the party. Even Rama found the festivities backward.  He asked what was wrong with calling them monkey people?

They got the recipe for bug repellant, and first thing in the morning the headed for the ashram.  Lakshme got to ride behind Katie, and Rama rode with Lockhart. Libra rode behind Alexis, scared though she was.  Pokara, Salipsa and the gang had to use their own feet, though Lakshme admitted that they would probably move by secret ways and get back ahead of them.

About two hours out, Katie had a question.  “So, explain to me why in India, the Devas are the good gods and the Asuras are the bad ones, while in Iran it is the opposite, with the Ahuras being good and the Devas being bad.”

Lakshme looked at Lockhart and Rama.  “Would you two mind riding to the point?” she asked.  “When we walked this way yesterday, I did not have horses in mind. I would like to be sure the way is safe for the horses.”

Lockhart nodded and spurred to ride out front, hopefully out of earshot.  Then Lakshme explained.

“The Ashri were the native gods in this jurisdiction.  The Divas, as in either divine or devils served the Brahman next door, really Afghanistan, in the center of the old world.  You remember the titan Bhukampa held Iran itself.”  Katie nodded.  “Well, when the Indo-Aryan people invaded, and the Divas came, it was trouble putting two houses together, peacefully.  Eventually, the Ashri who fit themselves into the new house of the gods got called Devas, whether they were, originally, or not.  The ones who refused to fit in remained Ashri, which became Asuras. They resisted the new order and caused much trouble.  Still are causing trouble. Sita will be kidnapped by an Asura.”

“I understand that part,” Katie said. “But in Iran the names are reversed.”

“Well, when the Divas came into India, some Ashri moved into Iran and Afghanistan, which were pretty depopulated, god-wise.  Mita, who became Mithras went there.  Varuna, who moved into the sea, kind of touched both places.  Agni, the fire god is still straddling the fence.  But in any case, the reverse happened.  With much less struggle, a new house got formed there, only this time the ones who fit in with the immigrant Ashri came to be Ashri, which became Ahuras.  The resistors there, which is to say, the troublemakers became the Devas who stayed Divas.  You see?”

“I get it.  But now, what about the Aesir.  Where do they fit in?”

“Same root word in the primal language of the Caspian peoples.  Some moved east, into India and Iran.  Some earlier moved down into Greece, Italy, and all the way to Iberia.  Then came the Celts, who eventually got pushed west by the Germans, who eventually filled Germany and Scandinavia, when they were pushed in turn by the Slavs, and in the south, the Scythians that had kind of Iranian connections by then.  The Hati, the Hittites, then the Scythians.  There were others, but they were all rooted in the original people between the Black Sea and the Aral Sea, and the language they spoke.  Aesir.  Ashri. Ahura.  All from the same root.  Even Diva if you follow it back far enough.”

“I see.  But Divas?”

“James is James in most major Western European languages, French, German, Spanish, but in Italian it is Giacomo. Go figure,” Lakshme shrugged.

Avalon 6.1 Little Things, part 3 of 6

Decker moved from his rock with bad news, even as Elder Stow came to more or less the same conclusion.

“In the distance, beyond the river,” Decker reported.  “Though I could only see and not fly that far and get back, I saw swarms of what looked like nasty insects.  They swarmed outside the forest areas, but I have no reason to suppose they are not in the forest as well.”

“More jungle, I think,” Elder Stow said. He looked up, aware that he interrupted. “More jungle-like than forest. Sorry.”

“And people who hide when the swarms come near a village,” Decker continued.  “Though they look like tents more than houses, so no telling how mobile these people may be.”

“Elder Stow?”  Lockhart turned the question.

“Much the same,” he said.  “I did not pick up swarms, exactly, but what Major Decker says makes sense of the data.  Meanwhile, I mapped several alternate routes to the river, and where I believe we may cross, though it is hard to tell exactly from this distance.”

“Alternate routes?” Katie asked.

“One that is mostly straight.  One that avoids the people.  One that avoids the people and the jungle.”

Lockhart nodded, but made no decision. “Sleep on it,” he said.  “Keep the screens up tonight, in case one of those swarms decides to visit.  In the morning, we will see if you can identify the swarms from a distance. That might be good.”  Elder Stow nodded.  “Standard watch,” Lockhart said.

“Boss,” Boston whined.  “We got the screens up.  Why do we have to watch?”

“Better to stay in practice,” Katie answered, and thought she might take a nap before the nine to midnight shift, if Lockhart would lie down with her.  They did not get the chance.  They got most of their supper cleaned up when Devi arrived.

“Sorry,” Devi said, first thing. “It took a second to figure out how to get through Elder Stow’s screens.”

“Hey…” Alexis, Katie, and Boston all got hugs, and Boston introduced Sukki, who also got a hug, since Devi seemed to be in a hugging mood.  She acknowledged the men, and they all sat around the campfire while she explained the situation they were facing.  She explained the swarms of insects, but then told them about the spiders.  That did not sound good.  She said she had work to do, and could not travel with them, but maybe she could figure out how to charge up Elder Stow’s equipment, and that might help.  Then the women sat and talked about life and everything, like dear old friends catching up on all the news.

###

In the morning, Pokara and his sidekick, Salipsa moved out front. The rest of the Yaksha followed behind. These ones were mostly like elves, Lakshme decided.  They were certainly not dwarfs, though a few had stubbly beards.  They were not goblins being out in the daylight, though some people called any such things, goblins.

“Elves,” Lakshme said out loud, before she added, “Mostly.”  Lakshme recognized they could act rather impish at times.

“Elves,” Rama said.  He walked beside her and otherwise said nothing.

Lakshme looked back.  Libra dutifully followed in her footsteps despite her protests.  Rama took a look back, and Lakshme spoke again.

“Once they get attached, they are very hard to separate.”  Rama nodded, as Lakshme looked ahead again.  “They are loyal, once they make up their minds.  But they do have minds of their own.”  Lakshme clicked her tongue.  “Like people, I suppose.”

“Like any sentient being,” Rama said. “Even the gods.  They decide for themselves, and then there are consequences.”

He was saying he knew why she came. He did not say, don’t offer a chance for the Asura to repent of their wicked ways, only that he came prepared for them not to repent.

That ended the morning conversation. Lunch would have also been a quiet affair if Pokara and Salipsa had not argued the whole time about the cooking. Libra had to good sense to put her fingers in her ears.

###

The travelers had to pause, and eventually stopped for lunch as a swarm of insects came upon them.  Devi put up a screen, much better and stronger than even Elder Stow’s recharged equipment could produce.  The travelers and their horses remained comfortable, while the insects might as well have been trying to break through a fifty-foot thick brick wall.

“I must not go further,” Devi said. “I have neglected my work long enough.”

“You have people to care for?” Katie asked.

Devi nodded.  “But not like you think.  Lakshme is teaching Karma Yoga.  Like attracts like.  Doing good, even in the least little things, attracts good.”

“I thought opposites attract,” Boston said.

“No,” Alexis explained.  “I think this is more like birds of a feather.”

“Maybe what goes around comes around,” Katie suggested.

Devi pointed at her, like she got it right.  “Lakshme says as you sew, so shall you reap.  She confesses no action will ever be perfect, clean, pure, or holy without extraordinary grace.  She sometimes calls it good deed doing.  But sometimes, she says between Martha and Mary, this is Martha devotion.”

“Hey, I know that story,” Boston spouted, and Alexis interrupted.

“And not one you should tell a thousand years ahead of time.”

Boston looked down, and so did Devi as she spoke.  “The future. I understand.  I will not pry.”

By the time lunch was over, Elder Stow declared himself ready to throw up his screens as soon as he identified incoming insects or spiders.  Devi said again that she had to go.  She had victims of those insects and spiders to tend.

“Poor Valmiki has had his ashram overrun with victims.  Even with Doctor Mishka’s medicine, not all survive.”  She vanished, and Katie looked hard at Lincoln.

“Valmiki?” she asked.

Lincoln looked up and nodded.  “And Rama, Sita, and Rama’s brother, Lakshmana. I thought it best not to talk about it with Devi around.”

“Wow,” Katie’s eyes got big.  She looked excited.

“Wait a minute,” Elder Stow interrupted. “Where are we?”

Boston had her amulet out to check their direction.  She first said, “Thank you.”  Then she explained.  “I think Devi just took three or four days off our journey.  Lakshme is only a few miles that way.”  She pointed.

“Can we reach her?” Lockhart asked.

“Maybe in the morning,” Boston said with a look at the sun.

Lockhart nodded and turned to Katie. “So, who is Rama?”

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

MONDAY

The groups will meet in the face of the demon, but first, the travelers will be introduced to the cowboy-outlaws and the real wicked witch.  Until then:

*

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.

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MONDAY

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

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