M4 Festuscato: Gaul in the Balance, part 2 of 3

Chlodebaud and Etheldrood came from one direction, their armor covered in blood, and they laughed and slapped each other on the back like the best of friends.  Merovech and Childeric came from the other direction looking more somber, Adalbert trailing behind.  They were not nearly as bloody, though no one would doubt they had been in battle.  Gregor, who surprisingly stayed with Festuscato in the tent, sipped his drink and spoke softly.

“I think I finally understand what you say.  Sometimes men have to fight, but peace is always better.”

“We pray for peace,” Bran said, and they went back inside the tent.

Merovech arrived first.  Childeric had a sword in his fifteen-year-old hand, and he looked down at the sword while Merovech spoke.

“You must thank Strongarm for me when you see him.  He and his dragon men got Childeric and myself out of a pretty jam.”

“I will say something,” Festuscato said, and thought that Strongarm and his people were supposed to guide the Franks to the right position, but they were not supposed to participate in the battle.

“Sun will be up soon,” Adalbert said as he entered the tent.

All that while, something itched at the back of Festuscato’s head.  It would be impossible to say whether Festuscato, Aetius or Attila thought of it first.  Perhaps they thought of it all at the same time.  A small ridge angled across the open field Attila had selected to bring battle to his enemies.  It rose slowly from north to south to somewhere near the north-middle of the field and petered out quickly in the south after the high point.  No telling what happened with Aetius or Attila, though rumor has it, Attila whipped himself several times for his stupidity.  Festuscato merely shouted.

“The heights!”

From there, they could observe the whole of the battle and bring men down on the enemy, or at least force the enemy to fight uphill.  “Marcellus, get the men moving, now!  Get them moving ten minutes ago.  Dibs, mount up!”  He turned his head back into the tent and spoke calmly.  “Merovech, get together with Aegidius to set the troops on this end of the field.  You need to hold the north flank of the battle, though after last night I doubt the Gepids and their Germans are in any position to be trying anything.”  He smiled for Childeric and shouted again.  “Bran, Gregor, you coming?”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Gregor said.  Bran just came.

###

Festuscato heard the thunder of his hundred and thirty men all decked out in their dragon tunics.  They saw few enemies in the dawn, even when they cut the corner of the field and probably strayed through enemy territory.  No Huns made a move to stop the dragon men, but then maybe they did not need to.  The Huns were closer, and Attila sent two thousand men under his son, Dengizic to take the ridge top.  Aetius had the auxiliary cavalry troop he brought up from Italy also riding as hard as they could from the other side, but they were furthest away.

Dengizic and his men arrived at the base of the ridge and looked up, not far to the top.  But there they stalled.  Two men stood on the height, and when the light stopped buzzing around, it became a third man, if they were indeed men.  The short one that stood in chain mail to the ground and the dragon tunic had a face that was all beard.  He also cradled a wicked looking ax in his arms.  The tall one, also in a dragon tunic, had a bow already strung and ready.  The third one, who might have been an ordinary man in a dragon tunic if it had not been a flashing light moments earlier, had a sword and shield, and showed the dragon also on the shield.  Behind them, at the very top of the ridge, waved the banner of the dragon, and too many Huns were not going up there.

Dengizic had been there when the messenger came and brought his father the ring of the dragon.  He had been there when they first encountered the dragon north of the alps, all those years ago.  He ran in that first encounter and thought now that he had been wise.  He heard all about how the dragon threw Megla and his entire Hun army out of Britain and declared Britain off limits, and even if the story got exaggerated over the years, the story did not sit well in the Hun psyche.  Then the dragon sent a message and another ring to Attila before they reached Orleans.  He never saw his father rage so much, and he had seen some great moments. In fact, if he did not know better, he might have imagined his father was afraid.

“Lord,” the Hun captain sought his attention.  “Lord, too many of the men are refusing to go up there.  If the dragon has taken the high point, they say the high point is lost to us.”

Dengizic said nothing.  He growled and turned his horse away from the ridge and his two thousand men followed.

Festuscato brought his men to the ridge line and rode them along the top.  Aegidius had his legions already digging into the ridge, small as it was on the north side.  Festuscato thought when they reached their destination, he would send back a man to put the Roman cavalry on short notice.  He imagined several scenarios when he might need several thousand horses to back him up.  Then he thought, of course Aegidius did not think to secure the top of the ridge.  Lord knows, he probably did not want to spread his men too thin. 

Once at the top, they found Luckless lounging with Strongarm and Birch around a fire, sipping some thick dwarf grog.  He told the men to be prepared for Huns to try to take the position, but Luckless said, “Too late.  About two thousand or so already made the attempt, but they turned around when they saw our dragon banner.  How do you like it?  Strongarm’s wife made it.”

Festuscato looked and nodded.

“For the record,” Birch spoke up.  “It was Luckless who thought to take the high point.  He says hanging out with you has made him think of things he never thought about before.  Hogtick has his thousand dug in behind us here.  They are mostly going underground.   Strongarm has as many elves in the woods that start just on the other side, on the down slope.  My men are…around.”

“So Merovech says thanks,” Festuscato turned to Strongarm.  “Remind me later to yell at you since you were not supposed to take part in the battle.”  He pulled up a seat by the fire as Strongarm opened a keg of elf amber ale that Gregor and Dibs loved.  Gregor said he tried the dwarf grog more than once, but it made him burp too much.  Marcellus and Bran preferred Birch’s fairy wine.  Festuscato stuck with water for a while.

The men, taking their cue from the command staff, tied off their horses, set up a bunch of tents against the overcast and started any number of their own fires.  That became the condition General Aetius found them in when he and his four hundred arrived.  Festuscato stood and made sure the Roman troops had a clear lane, where the four hundred could pass through and reach the north side of the ridge, because there really was not enough room at the top for so many men and horses, even if the dwarfs stayed underground and the elves stayed on the back side, and the fairies did not take up much room.

“You are passing them through?” Aetius asked.  Flavius Aetius, the commander in chief of all the Roman armies in the Western Empire, had become like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.  He answered only to the Emperor Valentinian, as did Festuscato.

“I figure now that you know the height is secure, you are going to want to see how Aegidius is deploying his legions, and maybe pay a diplomatic visit to the Franks and Saxons.  We had a battle last night.”

“Oh?”  This came as news, and after he waved his men to pass through the camp two by two, he sat down to hear all about it.  Strongarm did most of the telling, being there, though Festuscato noticed Birch filed in some gaps.  Aetius, meanwhile, caught sight of Strongarm’s pointed ears and finally turned to Festuscato with a comment.

“You were telling the truth about your governess, weren’t you?”

“A house elf, as God is my witness.  Now Queen of the Geats and happily married.”

“Geats?”

“A much longer story which I will be glad to share some time if you ever come to visit.”

“Visit?”

Festuscato nodded and looked at his water.  “After we kick Attila’s butt, I plan to go home.  I haven’t had a good orange in forever.”

Aetius stood.  Men were waiting with his horse.  “I am glad you have confidence in our chances.”

“I do, but come to think of it, be careful with the Franks.  Merovech and his brothers might not be happy with you considering you, or your men, killed Clodio, their father.”

Aetius stopped.  “I’ll keep that in mind.”  And he left.

M4 Festuscato: Gaul in the Balance, part 1 of 3

Two days later, Festuscato tried hard to explain the facts to Aegidius, a stubborn, hard-headed man who also happened to be the commanding general of the Roman forces for northern Gaul.  The northern part of Gaul that would one day be called Neustria, was about the only area still ruled by Rome, that and a strip of land that ran south between the Burgundians and Visigoths and the southern coast around Provence and in Septimania.  All Aegidius could see was he was safe in Paris and the Huns would not come there as proved by the fact that they turned away.

“Look.  Aetius is coming up from the south with more than thirty-thousand men from Italy, Provence, Burgundy and Aquitaine.   Budic from Amorica and Sangiban of the Alans will soon be under siege in Orleans.  If we move out soon, and I wouldn’t give more than a week or two, we can threaten Attila from the north and make Attila back away from the city.  If we stay here, it will go down in history and for the rest of time that the last Roman general in Gaul was a coward.”

“What do you mean, last?”  One of the legion generals spoke up.

“Sangiban won’t last long, and my information says Attila is trying to get Sangiban to switch sides.  Then, General Aetius will not last long with two to one, and a veteran army against him.  Then how long do you think your earthworks will hold up when Attila returns to Paris with three times your number?”

“He wouldn’t,” Aegidius began to sound like a coward.

“I won’t ask your Legions to abandon Paris and join up with general Aetius, but maybe they have to decide which general to follow, and don’t think Aetius is going to be happy with you hiding in Paris.  I will give you a compromise.  You have ten days and then I take the Franks and Saxons to Orleans to support Aetius.”

One of the legion generals stood and began to walk off with the comment, “I better get packed and get my men ready to travel.”

Aegidius threw his hands up even as he growled at Festuscato.  “All right, we go to Orleans to support Aetius with the last of the Roman power and presence in Gaul, but I pick the route, and if the Huns turn on us, we race back to defend Paris.”

“Vir Illustris?  Imperial governor?” one general asked.

“Comes Britanarium,” Bran confirmed, and the general nodded that he was satisfied.  An imperial governor and general in chief of a whole province outranked the Magister Millitum in his mind, even if Festuscato was technically the governor of Britain, not Gaul.

At nine days, people were having trouble keeping their feet still.  At ten days, they left, though he had said they would allow ten days to get ready, it might have been interpreted as leave on the tenth day.  Lord Birch and his crew took over the spying duties from Ironwood and the other young ones from the Frisian shore.  Strongarm and his elves watched the perimeter and insured that any Hun scouts saw only what they were supposed to see.

Luckless caught up with the group in Paris.  He brought nearly a thousand dwarfs from the deep mines around the Rhine valley, the Moselle and the Meuse.  Hogtick, the dwarf king, had a fine daughter, a young dwarf woman named Lolly, and she seemed taken with Luckless.  Many of the other dwarfs teased him, and even Hogtick teased him, but Luckless would not be talked out of it.  Lolly had the makings of a great cook.

“But now I have to do something right and earn her hand,” Luckless said, and everyone encouraged him, but in their hearts, everyone said congratulations because they knew Luckless would not be long for the single world no matter what happened.

It took several days to move the whole army into position just north of Orleans, or Aurelianum as the Romans called it.  They found the Alans and Amoricans backed up behind the city wall, such as it was, and the surrounding suburbs were firmly in the hands of the Huns.  Attila still negotiated, and King Sangiban seriously considered opening the gates and joining the Huns.  Festuscato felt sure if the king did that, the men would be slaughtered, as surely as the people of Mainz were slaughtered, even though they surrendered and put up no resistance.  But Goar, the Alan general and King Budic of Amorica were not for giving up.  

The situation looked like a stalemate.  If Attila turned on Festuscato’s army, Goar and Budic would be at his back.  The Huns, Gepids and Ostrogoths together might win that battle, but they would be so devastated, the whole plan of conquest would be bust.  Attila’s only hope seemed to get Sangiban to surrender.  Then he could reasonably enter the city to loot and pillage where Festuscato could not get at him to stop him.  The only thing then would be to get back out of the city without becoming trapped.  That probably came to Attila’s mind when he pulled out suddenly and headed back east, the way he had come.  People wondered why he would do such a thing.  Festuscato had one answer.

“Aetius is close.”

General Aetius quickly set the battle order, keeping the various groups where they were and setting the Alans and Amoricans in the center so they could all move up quickly without having to move whole armies around.  Attila stopped in the flat open fields around Chalons where his preponderance of horsemen would have the advantage.  The problem for Aetius was even keeping his groups in the same order, it would take about three days to get there and get ready. The problem for Attila, was he pulled back from Orleans so quickly, even his veteran troops would string out for miles and need time to catch up, and by the time he built an encampment he could use as a redoubt, that would also take three days.

Attila proved a good general.  No one ever said otherwise.  He turned to Ardaric and his Gepids to set up a rear guard to insure all of his troops had time to get in position and get ready for battle.  Ardaric had mostly infantry, and he knew the Visigoths were the only group that had the horsemen to challenge the Huns, but he figured Aetius would hold them back and make every effort to be sure they did not get ahead of themselves.  The Alans in the center also had some good horsemen, but not in great numbers.  They did not bother him.  His men beat the Alans and Amoricans around Orleans and would have ruined the city if they had enough time.  Then he hardly gave Aegidius a thought.  The man seemed determined to preserve his legions and had no plans to spend them.   Thus, the only enemy that worried Ardaric became the Dragon and his Franks and Saxons.  He and Attila knew the Franks gathered around Liege several months ago, but at the time they seemed a minor inconvenience.  They never imagined so many Franks in one place, nor that the Saxons and Franks would work together.

Ardaric took the Frank Cariaric and his Hessians and Turingians, about five thousand men.  He took ten thousand of his own men, and they set up a line against the north to forestall any incursions into Attila’s strung-out lines.  It seemed a good position, and they were arrayed behind the woods where any unsuspecting enemy troop would run into them and be trapped before they could escape.  The problem for Ardaric, what he could not have known, was Festuscato knew exactly where the Hessians and Gepids were, how many there were, and where they were spread too thin to cover the whole northern flank.  Festuscato came into the command tent rubbing his hands.

“Gentlemen,” he said.  “We have been presented with an opportunity.”  That was how he saw it.  “Cariaric and his Hessians and Thuringians are on the east end of the line, furthest from the Hun gathering point I imagine because Ardaric considers them the most expendable.”  Festuscato took a moment to set up a little scene on the table and took various plates and utensils to represent the different groups, while Etheldrood spoke.

“I volunteer my men to crush the Hessians and Thuringians.”

Chlodebaud interrupted. “I was thinking Cariaric and his Thuringian wife need to be taught a good lesson.”  The two men looked at each other and all but shook hands.

“As I was thinking,” Festuscato said.  “But the Gepids, once they realize their line is in trouble, might turn their end of the line and try to hit you on your flank.”

“Adalbert and I can be waiting in the woods to hit their line instead.” Merovech caught the idea.  “We can turn their very woods against them and surprise them.”  Adalbert looked game for the idea.  Festuscato just smiled.  He did not have to say anything more.

The fight became bloody.  Fifteen thousand Franks and Saxons broke fifteen thousand Gepids, Franks and Thuringians.  Ardaric clearly got the worst of it, but when he pulled his troops back, the Franks and Saxons were in no condition to follow up their victory.  In a way, Ardaric got the victory because he kept the Franks and Saxons too busy to invade Attila’s lines and disrupt the battle preparations, so mostly it became just a bloody confrontation with nothing really gained by either side.

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:

*

 

 

M4 Festuscato: Huns, part 2 of 3

“Put a finger up,” Festuscato said.

“What?  I don’t see how—”

“No, I mean right now, put a finger up.”  Merovech did and Festuscato explained.  “That finger represents you, the Salian Franks, a strong people, but alone.”  Festuscato raised his hands and started with his left thumb.  “Now on this side we have Attila and about fifteen thousand Huns, and he has with him at least another fifteen thousand others.”  With each name he turned down a finger until he made a fist.  “Ostrogoths under Valamir, Bavarians, Suebi, Avars.”  He turned to his right hand and started with his thumb again.  “Here, we have the sons of Attila with another fifteen thousand Huns, and with them we have Ardaric and his Gepids, Goths, Thuringians, and your brother Cariaric and his Hessians.  Tell me how a finger alone is going to stand against two big fists.”

Merovech put his finger down and looked awkward for a moment.  “I understand.”

Festuscato continued.  “Why do you think the Huns hold sway over such a large empire?  It is because all of the various German and other tribes try to stand up, one finger against the fist.  I don’t know why.  Stupidity or pride, I guess.  They are often the same thing.  I spent the last nine or so years listening to great tales of courage and valor, but in the end, the people bow to the Huns and pay tribute.  But I was thinking if a few of those German tribes joined together to make their own fist—”

Merovech interrupted.  “I see, Chlodebaud and Adelbert.  We join forces.  Salian, Ripuarian and Mosen Franks together, like our father Clodio tried to do.”  Festuscato simply nodded while Merovech thought it through.  Childeric had come over to listen, Heather resting comfortably on his shoulder.  He put his elbows on the table and looked back and forth between Festuscato and his father.  “But that is only three fingers.  We still cannot come near to matching even one fist.  If each fist is thirty thousand as you say, and I do not doubt it, we can raise maybe ten thousand.  Not much more.”

“That is why we get the Saxons to join us,” Festuscato said.

“Saxons?”  Merovech almost objected.  The Franks and Saxons were not good neighbors, and the prejudice could be heard in Merovech’s voice, even if he only said the one word.

“Who do you think you have been drinking with at Felix’s tavern these past few months?”  Festuscato asked, knowing full well that Merovech went by the tavern any number of times. 

“Why?  Only that one-eyed loudmouth of a Saxon.  He is a rude, crude braggart and displays everything that so many don’t like about the breed.”

“Granted,” Festuscato nodded.  “But he is not a bad man.”

“No,” Merovech admitted.  “He is not a bad man.”

Festuscato nodded again.  “He is also the king of the Saxons, or father of the king, anyway.”

“What?”  Merovech bounded out of his seat with enough force to knock his chair to the floor.

Festuscato finished nodding.  “Gregor will keep his son in line and pointed at the enemy. or he will kick Egbert’s butt.”

“Etheldrood,” Childeric said.

“Yes, thank you,” Festuscato smiled for Childeric and Heather.  “Etheldrood will bring about four thousand men or more, ready for battle, men who have come to despise the Huns.  Indeed, it will probably be difficult to hold them back and stick to the battle plan.”

Merovech picked up his seat.  “So, if my brothers and I can raise about ten thousand between us, that still leaves us short.  Even with the Saxons, we will have only half of one fist.”  Merovech shook his head again as he shook his finger at Festuscato.  “But somehow I feel you have an answer.  Son,” he spoke to Childeric.  “This one is sly.  Maybe you can learn from him.”

“Yes, father.  I have been paying attention,” Childeric responded.

“Liege,” Festuscato said.  “The hills around give good cover, and the town is not a capital or of the size to be tempting to the Huns, plus it is about in the middle for you and your brothers.  Cologne will have to be abandoned, and Tournai, and probably Trier as well.  Let the men come to Liege ready to fight and let the women and children seek refuge in the country.  Leave enough treasure and food in the cities like an offering, so the Huns are not tempted to scour the countryside.  That would lead to too many unnecessary deaths.  So, leave enough food and treasure to make it worth their while and they will move on.  Remember, buildings can always be rebuilt.”

Merovech shook his head again.  “What you ask will be hard, but I see we will not be nearly ready to meet them in time to defend even one city.  And I see if we try to defend our own cities, we will not have the force on our own to stop them.”

“Or even slow them down,” Festuscato agreed.  “So, we gather around Liege, and when the Huns pass out of Salian territory, we will follow them carefully.  We might pick off their stragglers, but we must stay prepared to back away if they turn.  They will know we are behind them.”

“But wait.  You haven’t answered about the fist.  With my brothers and the Saxons, we have only four fingers.  Where is our thumb to complete the fist?”

“Aegidius,” Festuscato said.  “Right now, he has three legions with auxiliaries, about twenty thousand men building earthworks around Paris.  When the Huns arrive at Paris, Ardaric and Attila will be facing a wall.  We may be able to crush them against that wall, though I doubt it.”

“Eh?”

“They will know we are behind them.  It will be April or May, so the weather will lighten up.  They may turn to join up with the other fist and avoid the bad position we will put them in.”

“That would be bad.  If they rejoin their two fists, they will once again badly outnumber us.  How can we hope to counter so many wild dogs?”

“General Aetius,” Festuscato smiled for the man.  “I have it on good authority that General Aetius has returned from Italy and raised many men in Provence.  He has a large number of men coming from Burgundy in the spring and is talking to the Visigoths.  Thorismund, the son, has given me his word that he will bring what men he can, and I believe if the son comes to fight, his father Theodoric will not let him get all the glory.”

“Visigoths,” Merovech sounded thoughtful and pulled on his beard.

“And you know the Visigoths do nothing by half measure.  When they come, it will be twenty-thousand or none.”

Merovech began nodding at last.  “But you give me Romans, Burgundians and Visigoths, a great army, but the fist is not complete.”

“I expect them to reach Orleans by the end of May.  There, they can pick up King Sangiban and the Alans, maybe another ten thousand.”  Merovech waved his pinky finger, but Festuscato just smiled.  “King Budic of Amorica will bring his men from the west and meet them at Orleans.  Then we will have Attila between two armies, two fists, so whichever way he turns, he will have an army at his back.”

Merovech smiled at last.  “The plan is good, even if nothing ever goes exactly to plan.  And to think you arranged all this while sitting in my prison cell.  Makes me tremble to think what the dragon will do if I set you free.”

“That reminds me,” Festuscato said and stood.  He stepped to a certain spot and kicked the floor.  They all heard the hollow sound, and a trap door opened a crack.  “Tell Branhilde I’ll meet her in the inn after an hour or so.”

“Very good, Lord.”  The deep, booming voice sounded out before the trap door closed.

“Horeburt,” Festuscato called.

“Yes, Lord.  Majesty.”  Horeburt came to the door and acknowledged both Festuscato and Merovech, his king.

“When I escape, you better go with me so you can say you are still guarding the prisoner and not get into trouble.”

“If it is all the same to you,” Horeburt responded.  “My brother has a place up north on the shore.  I was thinking of taking my family and going for a visit.”  Clearly Horeburt had listened in and thought about the Huns coming to Tournai.

“Wise move,” Festuscato said and turned again to Merovech.  Merovech smiled at the jailer’s good thinking when something sunk into his brain.  He stood suddenly.

“Why am I sitting here?  I have so much to do and only a couple of months to do it.”  He headed for the outside door but returned a thought.  “Jailer, let the rest of the prisoners out before you go.”

“Yes majesty,” Horeburt responded while Festuscato began to collect his things.

M4 Festuscato: Huns, part 1 of 3

Festuscato stayed in his prison cell for a month, waiting for Merovech to return from Soissons. Gaius came to visit every day.  Childeric came almost every day, often with Gaius.  Luckless took up with a nearby dwarf clan so he was not around much.  Tulip and Waterborn were in love, so also no help whatsoever.  Tulip and Waterborn visited now and then, but their minds were far, far away, in love, and young fairies, meaning less than five hundred years old or so, have a hard time staying focused as it is.  To a human, it might have appeared like a whirlwind romance, but for fairies that was often the way it worked.  The fairy world never made the horrible mess of love and relationships we humans made.

Fortunately, the young male fairies Ironwood and Clover, and the young female fee, Heather, were a great help and company.  They often entertained Childeric when Festuscato and Father Gaius went into confession mode, and Festuscato had a lot to confess.  But Festuscato had to keep one eye open during his confessions because Heather in her big form appeared to be about seventeen, and beautiful, as all fairies are, and he feared it might be too much for Childeric at almost fifteen, hormones raging as they undoubtedly were.

Gregor and Bran settled in at Felix’ place, and Dibs fit himself right in when he and his troop of thirty men, all sporting their dragon tunics, returned from the meeting with Aegidius, the new Magister Millitum of northern Gaul, which is to say, the chief General of the Roman province in the north.  It looked for a while like Merovech, the king of the Salian Franks might settle in Cambrai for the winter, but come mid-November, when the last of the harvest came in, he returned to Tournai with some serious questions for his guest.

“Aegidius says I should keep you locked up and throw away the key,” Merovech said.

“I was not aware that cliché started this far in the past,” Festuscato mumbled before he spoke up.  “But to the point, why?  I am no threat to you.  I am only here to help you.”

“That is what I am afraid of.  We have had our fill of Roman help, all my life.  My father got tired of it and rebelled.  He got killed by Romans, not that many years ago.  So why should I trust you?”

“You don’t have to trust me.  You just have to prepare your men for the Hun hurricane.  Attila has brought his victorious armies up from the border of the eastern empire and is even now preparing to explode on to the western stage. My spies tell me he intends to overrun Gaul, and don’t think he will let the Franks be at his back.  I suspect he will take you down first before he ever meets a single Roman in battle.”

“But what evidence do you have?  Only the word of these dragon flies.”

Festuscato smiled.  “That is very good.  The dragon and the fairies.”

Merovech grinned at his own wit, then he left Festuscato where he was, in jail.

Six weeks later, around the new year, word came that the Huns laid siege around Strasbourg.  Merovech returned to hear what Festuscato had to say, or maybe to gloat.

“The Huns have entered Swabia.  It is a great army, as you said.  My report says ten thousand Huns and ten thousand others, Germans of all sorts, what the Romans call Auxiliary troops, like Bavarians, Goths and others.  But Strasbourg is a quick route to the heart of Gaul.  My men say from there he will surely fall on the Burgundians and pass us by.”

“Surely, he will not,” Festuscato responded.  “I have it from Maywood, King of the fairies along the Rhine, that the Huns have a second army, the main army coming up from the south and headed right for Worms.  Ellak, Attila’s eldest is leading the Huns, some fifteen thousand.  Ardaric the King has ten thousand Gepids and Valamir the Ostrogoth has some ten thousand men as well.  Keep in mind, these are battle tested and hardened troops that have defeated the legions of the east three times in the last several years.  What is more, the Thuringians and your brother Cariaric with his Hessian Franks are waiting just north of Worms, near Mainz.”

“To fight and try to turn back the Huns?”

“No.  To join the Huns, but sixty thousand troops is too much for the land to support, especially in February.  I would guess Attila will divide his forces more evenly into two or three groups, and plan to rejoin them after the spring harvest is in, maybe around Paris.  Exactly which direction they will head after they ruin Mainz is a guess, but they will have to take cities to steal the winter food store along with whatever loot they can pillage.”

“Why would Cariaric despoil Mainz?  It is his own city.”

“My spies tell me the city fathers rejected him and closed their gate to him.  I imagine he wants revenge for the insult.”

Merovech pulled on his beard.  “Yes, that sounds like Cariaric.”

“He is the eldest brother, isn’t he?”

Merovech nodded before he turned toward the door.  “My men say the Hun will turn on the Burgundians.”

“He is not going to leave you Franks like a big knife in his back,” Festuscato protested.

Merovech nodded again.  “But I am listening,” he said, and left Festuscato in jail for another month.  

When Merovech came back for the third time, he brought a chair to sit and face Festuscato, and he looked worried.

“As you predicted.  Mainz has been burned.”  Merovech threw his hands up and spouted his disbelief.  “They surrendered.  They gave no struggle.  They turned over everything they had, and they still were killed and burned.  The Huns are like wild dogs.  How can we fight them?”

“Very carefully,” Festuscato said.  “Go on.”

“Well, it looks like Attila will split his force in two, as you said.  How did you know?”

“Common sense.  Armies have to be fed, even in winter.  Go on,” Festuscato encouraged him.

“Well, it is too soon to say which way they will turn, but I would guess one will head down the Moselle and the other will come here.”  Merovech shook his head.  “What can we do to stand against him?”

M4 Festuscato: Saxons and Franks, part 3 of 3

“And how do you know what Attila will do?” Gaius asked the obvious question.

“We just spent the last eight or nine years mostly in the empire of the Hun.  We saw more cowed people than you can count.  Maybe we did not deal much directly with the Huns, but we heard all the stories.”

“Paper,” Felix came to the table, having stepped away for a moment.  He set paper, a jar of ink and several quills on the table.  “My wife keeps the accounts and keeps a supply handy.”

“Luckless,” Festuscato held his hand out to the dwarf.  “Four pieces if you don’t mind.”

Luckless grumbled as he pulled four gold coins out of his vest pocket.  “Not much left, you know.”

Festuscato nodded and handed them to Felix.  “One for the rooms, one for the food, one for the care and feeding of the horses, and one for your wife, for the paper and ink, and maybe you buy her something.”  No doubt, it was more gold than Felix had seen in a long time.

Festuscato took the paper and ink to a separate table, one with the afternoon light, and he spent the afternoon writing letters.  Father Gaius helped some with the more diplomatic parts.  He went to bed tired but woke up early and wrote some more.  Then he sealed the letters and finally coaxed Tulip down from the rafters.

“Yes Lord, I understand, but we are closest here to the coastal fairies and I do not know who they might be,” she said.

Festuscato risked a migraine by reaching his thoughts out to the coast.  He caught a few names and was pleased with what he found.  “Treeborn and Goldenrod,” he called, and with a look at Tulip, he added, “And the son, Waterborn.”

Three fairies appeared on the table.  It was still early enough in the day, so it caused no stir among the patrons. Treeborn looked old and seemed to be having trouble figuring out what just happened, but Goldenrod, his wife figured it out readily enough and turned him to Festuscato.  She curtsied.  Treeborn squinted at him.  Waterborn did nothing since his eyes were occupied with Tulip.  That was fine, because she just stared right back at him.

“Forgive me.  I should have changed first,” Festuscato smiled and went away so Greta could take his place.  “It is good to see you again,” she said.  “But when did you leave the lake of gold on the Dnieper?”  Goldenrod gave another curtsey and this time Treeborn seemed to recognize her.  He gave a slight bow before he answered.

“When the Goths came south and slaughtered so many as they pushed through Dacia, all the way to the Danube.  They built a settlement on the lake, and we went nomad, always moving to the northwest, until at last we found a place along the coast and among the Frisians.”

“Father?”  Waterborn looked over and Tulip offered a curtsey of her own as they took a break from their staring contest.

“I see you have grown,” Greta said with a smile.  In her day, he had hardly been a child of fifty.  Now he had to be near three hundred.  “Are you ready for another adventure and another battle?”

“Yes, Lady.”  Waterborn finally offered a bow.  “But I heard you had passed on.”

“I did.  This is not my life.  It belongs to Lord Festuscato Cassius Agitus, and he has some very important letters to be delivered.  I need a dozen volunteers.  Time is not of the essence, but time is fleeting, might you ask—”

“I know just the crew,” Treeborn shouted.

“Here,” Greta said in the right way, tapped the table, and closer to twenty fairies appeared as Waterborn frowned.

“Father!” Waterborn complained with the word, and Greta caught a glimpse that these were his friends and Treeborn thought of them as lazy lay-abouts. 

“The lady has messages to carry, letters to be exact, and she needs volunteers to carry them.”  Treeborn rubbed his hands together, while Goldenrod had a practical thought.

“Perhaps you should go in teams of two.  You can pair up.”

“Where do you want them sent?”  Treeborn already reached the next step.

“Only if you are willing,” Greta insisted, and she waited until she heard from them all.  Then she prepared to tell them about the letters and about delivering them in private and not being caught, but to give also a verbal message to help underline the letter, but they got interrupted.  A dozen Franks came in with swords drawn.

“Where is the Roman?” one man asked while Greta raised her voice.

“Bran and Gregor, don’t you dare resist.  It is just my escort to my winter quarters, that’s all, so put your weapons back where they belong.”  Fortunately, the Franks paused on seeing the fairy troop, so no one got hurt.  One of the Franks ran back outside.  He looked scared half to death.  But a young man of about fourteen or fifteen years came right up to the table to watch.  Greta looked and guessed.

“Childeric?”  The young man nodded while Greta went right back to instructing the fairies about the letters.  “I’ll be with you in a minute,” Greta said, and she saved Merovech’s letter for last.  “This one is for your father,” she said.  “He must be prepared to evacuate Tournai as soon as the Huns show their ugly faces.”

“The Huns work for the Romans,” Childeric said.  “The Romans killed my grandfather, Clodio when I was twelve.”

“No, dear,” Greta said, and she raised her voice loud enough to be heard by all the Franks who were standing around the inn by then, thinking about getting a tankard of ale.  “The Huns killed your grandfather, and now we have good information that they are going to rebel and start killing Romans.  They want to take over Gaul.  You might not like the Romans, but they are better than having Huns in charge.”

“At the risk of sounding like a Christian,” Gregor spoke up and winked at Father Gaius.  “I say Amen to that.”

Greta turned back to the fairies.  With the last letter gone, Tulip and Waterborn and three of Waterborn’s friends remained.  Treeborn and Goldenrod also remained, and Greta told the elderly couple how glad she was to see them again, and how happy she was that they found a good home, away from all the fighting around Dacia.  “I hope we can keep the fighting away from you this time.  Please, may I borrow Waterborn and his friends for a while?”

“By all means,” Goldenrod said sweetly.

“Please,” Treeborn said, but in a way where it seemed hard to tell if he meant a polite be my guest or please get them out of my hair for a while.

“Now watch this,” Greta said, and Childeric leaned over to watch.  Greta clapped her hands and Treeborn and Goldenrod vanished.  They would reappear back in their home on the Frisian coast.

“How did you do that?”  Childeric looked impressed, and vocal at fourteen.

Greta smiled and placed a gentle hand on the boy’s cheek.  “A secret,” she said in a conspiratorial voice which only intrigued the boy all the more.  She turned once again to the fairies and looked them over.  Waterborn’s remaining friends were two younger boys, Clover and Ironwood, and a girl named Heather who looked so young.  She just recently turned over a hundred-years-old and thus barely qualified as an adult.

“Now Tulip,” she said.  “No more hiding in the rafters.  You need to take your friends and introduce them to the others.  Don’t forget to include Felix and Father Gaius, and Sergeant Dibs when he gets here.  And be good to Luckless.”

“Yes, Lady,” Tulip said, and with some glee in her voice she grabbed Waterborn’s hand and dragged him over to meet Bran the Sword and Gregor one-eye.

“Now Childeric,” Greta turned and spoke up again to get the attention of the Franks.  “I believe you came to arrest me.”

“No, not you,” Childeric said.  “We were looking for the Roman, a man.”

“But that is me,” Greta said.  She smiled again and went away so Festuscato could return in his comfortable clothes.  Childeric shrieked.  The two Franks who had taken seats to wait, jumped to their feet.  The leader of this squad of men let out a bellow, like a buffalo driven off the cliff.  Festuscato ignored them all and put his hands out.  “I surrender,” he said.

The Franks escorted Festuscato to jail.  It was a pleasant walk since none of the Franks dared touch him, and Gaius came along for company.

“There are enough Christians in town,” Gaius said.  “I say mass every morning, extra early this morning in anticipation of finishing the letters.  Merovech is accommodating, but I feel he just does not want to be on the wrong side of any gods.”

“Good.”  Festuscato was not really listening.  It took until they were almost there before Festuscato opened up and said what was on his mind.  “I think we should have most of the winter for you to hear my confessions.  Trouble is, everything indicates Attila will move in the coming year, but there is no telling how soon he will move.”

“Burn that bridge when you come to it, as you say,” Gaius quipped, and they arrived.

It looked like a jailhouse in the old American west.  They even had an office out front, but through the big door at the back of the office sat a long room full of torture devices on the left and cells on the right where the prisoners could look out on the torture devices and think about it.  The jailer, a man named Horeburt, appeared as big, mean and ugly as one might expect.  Not having the experience of the fairies in the tavern, Horeburt thought nothing of reaching out to roughly grab the prisoner.  The chief Frank himself stayed the man’s hand.

“I don’t recommend you touch this one, at least not before Merovech gets back.”

“I’ll take the cell on the end here,” Festuscato pointed.  He had looked and this one was the cleanest and had a small, barred window through which Tulip could visit.

Horeburt got the key and the Franks stayed long enough to see Festuscato securely locked in.  Gaius left when Festuscato assured him he would be comfortable.  Then Horeburt got a chair.  There were three other men in three other cells, but Horeburt only seemed curious about the Roman.  He set his chair outside the bars that made up the door to the cell and he watched as several fairies fluttered in the window carrying a fine lunch.  They set it on the small table in the cell, and carried on a conversation, which Horeburt recognized as Latin even if his Latin was not good enough to know what they were saying.

The fairies went away while the prisoner ate, but returned soon enough with fresh straw for bedding, several blankets and a first-rate pillow.  Festuscato looked through the bars and told Horeburt he was going to take a nap and would appreciate some privacy.  Horeburt watched as a troll rose up right out of the ground inside the cell.  The troll had another blanket which he draped over the bars to act like a real door and cut off Horeburt’s sight.  Horeburt decided the chief Frank had been right.  He never would have permitted another prisoner to cut himself off so he could not be seen, but in this case, Horeburt decided he did not want to see anymore.  He looked down where his feet touched the ground, slowly stood and put the chair back where it belonged.  He went out to the office room and sat in the big chair there, then he pulled his feet off the floor before he tried for his own nap.

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

M0NDAY

Festuscato does what he can from jail all winter long, because he expects Attila and his Huns to move in the spring. Until Monday, Happy Reading

*

M4 Festuscato: Saxons and Franks, part 2 of 3

Two days later, Festuscato, Heinz, Bran and Tulip sat on the edge of a short cliff, looking down on three Hun scouts who were camped in the valley.  They appeared to be taking only minimal precautions against being found.  Either they thought they were in Hun land, or they thought Saxony was well under their thumb, or both.  Yet they were scouts, so they were looking for something.

“They are too close to the village,” Heinz whispered.  “If we take them here and men come to look for them, they will surely find us.”

Festuscato grinned.  Heinz had started learning.  Sadly, not everyone did.

“There are other men down there,” Tulip said, quietly, and pointed, not that anyone could follow her little finger.

“Morons,” Bran used Festuscato’s word.

“Hey.  No.”  Heinz tried to stand and shout, but Festuscato put his hand over the man’s mouth and they waited.  Six Saxons surprised three Huns and the final score was Saxons three, Huns two, though when Greta examined one of the Saxons back in the main camp, she pronounced the score three to three.  The man did not live two days.

“And that was taking them by surprise,” Festuscato said calmly.

“You idiots.”  Heinz did not sound so calm.  “Now when the Huns send out a whole troop to look for them, how will we avoid being found?”

“Morons,” Bran repeated.

“I like that word,” Festuscato said.

“Morons,” Heinz repeated.  “And I don’t even know what it means, but you are it.”

They got the Hun camp cleaned up and brought the bodies in with the horses and all the equipment.  Festuscato had an idea, but he waited until Gregor got back that evening.  Gregor came in smiling, his whole troop intact.  Luckless got down and spoke first.

“Didn’t hardly need to sniff out the boy,” he said.

“We caught them unprepared,” Gregor boasted.  “The terrors of the wilderness, and we caught them flat footed.  Let me tell you, it was fierce.”

A young man stepped up.  “I went to relieve myself at the edge of the camp.  There were only two guards.”

“We snatched him up and ran,” Luckless finished the story.

Gregor stared at the two with his one eye and made an expression like they were no fun.  “But it was fierce running,” he said.

“Okay!  Listen up!  Here’s the plan.”  Festuscato got everyone’s attention, and after two days of fairies and miracles, the Saxons learned to listen, even if he was a Roman.  “Gregor.  You need to leave Egbert in charge here so you can go with us.”

“Etheldrood,” Etheldrood corrected.

“But I like Egbert,” Gregor said with a laugh.

“Etheldrood.  You need to take these people to the new site.  We know the Huns have scouted all in that area, so you should be safe for a time.  You need to get word to all the other people, the ones in hiding and the ones still at home.  Don’t trust anyone with your location but tell them to be ready to turn out when the Huns pull out to go to war.  I’m guessing a year.  Tell them they will also be going to war and joining Roman and other allies to kill the Huns.  Anybody want to kill some Huns?”

“Yea.  Aye.  Aye.”  At least some of the men were ready.

“Heinz.  You know what to do with the bodies.  Are you up for it?”

“I will do my best for my king,” he said.  “Even though it cost me my life.”

“Not me,” Gregor said.  “I’m retired.  I would move to Florida if I knew where that was.  Lord Agitus says it is a warm, sandy beach and has scantily clad women who bring you drinks while you relax in the sun.  Sounds to me like that place, Heaven, that those Christians talk about.”

“Retired?”  Etheldrood got stuck on the word.

“It means you get to be king with all the headaches now and I get to go play and have fun.”  Gregor said more quietly, and Etheldrood thought that was still strange.  “It’s the least you could do for your old man.”

“All right,” Festuscato took back the conversation.  “So Etheldrood, you know what to do.  Make sure they are ready when the call comes.  And Heinz, you have your assignment.”

“And what will you be doing?” Heinz asked.

“Gregor, Bran, Luckless, Tulip and I will be talking to Merovech, King of the Salian Franks about that alliance, and if the Ripuarian Franks want to join with us in going after the Huns,” Festuscato shrugged.

“You are a scoundrel,” Heinz said.

“He doesn’t like to leave things to chance,” Gregor said and poked his son in the chest with a big finger.  “A trait you would do well to learn.”

“Every little bit helps,” Tulip gave it a positive spin.

“He doesn’t start the trouble,” Luckless chimed in.  “But he is good at ending it.”

“Cad,” Festuscato said, and when Bran looked at him, he said, “I’m a cad, not a scoundrel.”  Bran nodded.

###

Two days later, Heinz of the Saxons with four men rode somberly into the Hun camp.  They had three dead Huns on their horses, and the Huns were not pleased to see them.

“What is this?  What is this?”  Dengizic, Attila’s second son came racing out of his tent while the Huns grabbed and threatened the Saxons.

“We found them and thought you might like them back.  A kindness,” Heinz said.  Dengizic took a moment before he waved off the men who were holding the Saxons.  Those men only backed up one step.

“What happened?” Dengizic asked.

“Ripuarian Franks.  They crossed the river in the night and attacked us, looking for easy loot.  I guess they heard we were hiding from the terrible Huns and they figured we took our loot with us.”  Heinz grinned a very Festuscato grin.  “They must have found your men.  They carried off their dead and wounded from the attack so as not to leave evidence, but they had to be the same Franks who attacked us.”

“So, you bring them here with this tale and think we will believe you?”

“With this message.  Not everyone supports Etheldrood.  There are many of us who hate the Romans and are willing to fight, but you need to give us time to convince Etheldrood or remove him.”

Dengizic would have to think about that.  He considered his dead men.  “Thank you for returning our men.  You will have some time, I think.  We will be busy for a time paying the Franks a visit.”

Heinz nodded.  “I am Heinz.  I will see you again,” he said, and he and his men mounted, rode out, and tried hard to keep their horses at a steady pace and not look like they were running away, because, as Festuscato said, the dog will not attack until you turn your back to run.

###

Festuscato rode into the city of Tournai, the capital of the Salian Franks with all eyes watching him.  Luckless the dwarf could be seen as a short man with too much beard.  Gregor the Saxon looked like a Saxon, and while he might have gotten mixed reviews from the people, he was not an uncommon sight.  Bran the Sword, also not an unusual sight, apart from his size.  The Salian Franks had a good trade with Britain.  But Festuscato not only looked like a Roman, he looked like a rich Roman, and whenever such a man showed up it inevitably meant trouble and annoyance for the people.  When Tulip abandoned the horse’s mane to hide in Festuscato’s hair and sit on his shoulder, the people looked twice.

“Here we are.  Home at last,” Festuscato shouted when he came to a tavern and got down from his horse.  “The Dragon Inn.”  Festuscato read the sign and added, “Go out in the street and drag ‘em in.”  No one understood a word since he said that in twenty-first century English, but they joined him on his feet.  “Tie them off and let’s see if the ale is dragon strong.”

“Gotta be better than the last place,” Gregor said, and nodded when Luckless added his note.

“Piss water.”

“About time you got here,” someone spoke from the porch.  Festuscato took a close look before he shouted.

“Felix.  What brings you here?  You are about the last person I expected to see.  Still trading in wool and silk?”

“No, no.  I own this place.”

“Hope the ale is better than the last place,” Gregor said.

“Piss water,” Luckless added.

Bran followed them in but Festuscato turned to his childhood friend.  “So, any word from Father Gaius or Dibs?  I seem to recall telling them I would meet them here.  I suppose I’ve taken longer than planned.”

“About nine years longer,” Felix said, before he amended his statement.  “Make that ten years.  Anyway, a bit more than the three years you said.”  Felix grinned, like he had several jokes prepared, but an interruption came bursting out the door.  Father Gaius grabbed Festuscato in a big hug and Festuscato responded with a serious face and a word.

“Forgive me Father for I have sinned.”

“I look forward to hearing all about it,” Gaius said, and he and Felix brought Festuscato into the inn.

“Lord Agitus,” Luckless spoke right up.  “Dibs is apparently with his troop down around Soissons.”

“Where is Tulip?”

Bran pointed up while Gregor spoke.  “Can’t get the little lady to come down from the rafters.”

Festuscato sat and thought about it while Felix brought a mug of ale.  He tried it and protested.  “Felix.  This is good.  I know there is no way you made it, Roman that you are.”

“Murgen’s recipe,” Felix confessed.  “The Brit has his brewery out back, and in case you forgot, most of my neighbors back home were Brits as well.”

“True,” Gaius agreed.

“So, what is the next step?” Gregor sounded impatient, but not complaining.  He may have been uncomfortable being the lone Saxon in the midst of all the Franks.  Then again, Festuscato was not sure that was right because he could not remember ever seeing Gregor uncomfortable.  Festuscato nodded.

“All right,” he said, and thought a second.  “We find Merovech, king of the Salian Franks”

“That’s easy.  He went with Dibs to Soissons to meet with the new Magister Millitum, Aegidius,” Felix said.

“Now wait.  I know that name.”  Festuscato was still thinking.  “Wasn’t Aegidius General Aetius’ aid de camp?”

“He was,” Gaius confirmed.  “But what of it?”

“I have to write some letters.  Too bad Seamus isn’t around.  He always had parchment and ink handy.”

“Letters?”

“Thorismund of the Visigoths, Budic of Amorica, Sangiban of the Alans down in Orleans.  You remember him from our time there.  Let’s see.  Aetius in Italy, and I guess Aegidius in Soissons or Paris or wherever he ends up.  Then I need to write to Merovech and his brothers, wherever they are.  We need to gather what men we can, and then the hard part will be holding them back until the opportune time.  When Attila is ready, he will strike hard and fast and cities are going to burn, maybe this city.  We need to gather, to be ready to strike when the time is right and not spread ourselves out trying to defend every city.  If we spread out like that, Attila will have us for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

“That will be hard for the Franks,” Gregor said.  “They are not known for patience.  They will defend their crops and homes, and you won’t be able to stop them.”

“They will get themselves killed and not stop the Huns,” Bran decided.

“We will see,” Festuscato said.  “A lot will depend on the Visigoths and Aetius and what they come up with and are willing to risk.  I can see Theodoric sticking to his own border and maybe trying to buy off Attila.  That would be like trying to buy off a lion with a steak.  The steak, once eaten, might just whet the lion’s appetite.”

M3 Margueritte: The Hag Undone

People watched the hag melt.  They could not turn away.

“The Wicked Witch of the West,” Margueritte said, as she took a big Lord Birch’s hand and stepped away from the wood pile.

“I remembered what my Lucky told me,” Lolly said and waved her water bucket with a big smile.

“Is it Lucky now?”  Brianna asked as she ran up and hugged Margueritte.

“Abraxasss!”  The Hag called out one last time.

“I told you he will not dare show his face here,” Margueritte said, but she looked around and up at the sky because she felt she was really bluffing.  She heard Danna’s voice, however, inside her head, echo down the halls of time.

“I never bluff,” Danna told her.

Soon enough, the hag became no more than a wet lump of fur on the ground.  She was not actually a child of the god, like the Grendel, and had no convenient lake to jump in to retain her shape in death.

Then they heard horses coming up fast.

“Majesty.”  Brianna spoke to Lady LeFleur, but she had already gotten out her wand and in a second, every little one in that area became invisible.

“What is happening?”  Urbon said as he came out from under the spell.  Without Curdwallah to focus through, Abraxas could not maintain the enchantment.

All the people began to come to their senses.

The Franks rode into the village square.  It looked like the whole army.

Margueritte felt surprised to see Duredain at the front.  Owien rode there, too.  Roland leapt from his horse and came running up but stopped.  Tomberlain hid a smile which Margueritte did not understand.  Charles, of course, lead the way, and he was aware enough of what was happening to hold his men in check before unnecessary fighting broke out.

“What?”  Margueritte looked at Roland and wondered why he stopped.  She wanted so much to throw herself in his arms, but she did not dare.  What if that was not what he wanted?

“Just once,” he said, and turned a quick look to Tomberlain.  “Just once I wish you would let me rescue you all on my own.”  There, he said it.

“I promise,” she said.  “Next time you can rescue me, and I won’t help a bit.  All right?”  She looked pensive.

“All right,” Roland said, and he stepped up and took her and kissed her and bent her to his desire, even as she was eager to bend, cliché though it may be.

“Ahem.”  Sir Barth coughed and looked away.  Brianna came up and took Barth’s arm and helped to turn him away.

“I told you I would be back,” Owien said, proudly.  Elsbeth reached up for his hand, but her eyes were all on her sister and Roland.

“Jennifer?”  Father Aden asked Tomberlain because he did not know who else to ask.

“She’s fine, and the baby,” Tomberlain said through his smile.  “With Constantus and Lady Lavinia having a wonderful time.”

“Sir Roland.”  Charles spoke from horseback.  He paused to wait, but Roland did not pause.  “Roland.”  Charles said it again and drummed his fingers on his wrist and finally rolled his eyes.  “Sir Roland!”  He insisted.  Roland and Margueritte barely parted.

“Sir?”  Roland said, as if he was listening, but not by much.

“This young woman has caused me no end of trouble.”  That got Margueritte’s attention and she looked up, so Roland turned his head a little.  “Every time she gets in the middle of it, you go rushing off, and I lose you for weeks or months.  I can’t have this.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Roland said.

“Me, too,” Margueritte spoke in a whisper.

“Therefore, I have decided.  As your superior I command you to marry the woman and bring her to the camp.  Next time at least you won’t have so far to run.”

Roland and Margueritte, still held each other as tight as they could and looked dumb for a second before they smiled.

“Yes sir!”  Roland shouted.

“It would be my pleasure,” Margueritte said, softly.

“No, mine,” Roland said.

“No, Mimmm.”  Her word got swallowed up in a kiss.

 

M3 Margueritte: The Maiden and the Dragon, part 2 of 4

Canto came in, followed by Morgan with his usual foolish grin, and Roan, who looked mean and serious.  They were followed by Finnian McVey, who smiled like the Cheshire Cat.

“Margueritte, dahrlin’,” The Irishman drawled.  “So good to see you again.”  His accent was positively honey-dripping.  He took the other chair.  “I am sure you would have some kind word of greeting for me as well, but I see your tongue is a little tied right now.”  He thought he was so funny.  She turned away from him, contempt in her eyes, but he grabbed her chin and turned her face back.

“I thought you might be interested in what has been happening at Caern Long since you’ve been away,” he said.  That caught her attention.  She assumed the dragon had simply gone to sleep, and that it would probably sleep for several years if not decades.  “Ah.  I see you are interested.  Well, it is this way, if I may do the tellin’.”  He took a moment to get comfortable before he went on.

“When the king refused to do anything about the beast, the people in all this part of the country got together and talked about what we could do.  They had a parlay, you might say.  Someone suggested it might be a good idea to simply take food to Caern Long and feed the beast.  That way they might keep their homes and farms flame free, if you understand.  Then someone else reminded everyone about all the missing children, and they decided that the beast must have developed a taste for such.”  He shrugged.

Margueritte’s eyes got big.

“Of course, no one would give up their sons, so it has been eighteen young garls in eighteen months.”  Margueritte shut her eyes tight and turned her head away, repulsed by what she heard.  Sheep would have been fine, she thought.  She did not want to think about it.

“Oh, I argued against it.  Truly,” McVey said quickly.  “But in a room full of stupid, stubborn farmers.”  He shrugged again.  “Most villages and towns cast lots.  I suppose that is fair, but you know, Vergen has yet to make a contribution.”

Margueritte’s eyes got big again, and Finnian McVey’s countenance changed suddenly from calm and conversational to hard and cruel.  “You know what I want,” he said.  “But perhaps you will ask the wee folk to help you out.”  He shrugged again, but Margueritte surmised he hoped she would.  He undoubtedly had some plan to capture a little one and hold it prisoner.  She dared not call for their help, even if she had a voice.  She would never willingly put her little ones in danger.

The men left.  She cried, but only a little as she thought hard about how she might escape this fate.  She could think of nothing, not even when Canto came back near nightfall with some bread, soup, and cider.  Roan untied her hands, rather roughly, and Morgan removed the gag and they waited outside.

“I am not sure this is wise,” Canto started right up.  “I am not sure it will get us what we want.  I see a penchant for self-sacrifice in you; longsuffering as Aden the Convert calls it.”

“And what of Chief Brian?” she asked, wondering how far this plot reached.

“Brian has no part in this.  In fact, he has ordered us to stay out of it,” Canto said.  He sat carefully on the other chair.  “In truth, Brian has refused to participate in the sacrifices.  Vergen would never make a contribution if it was strictly up to him.”

Good for Brian, Margueritte thought.  “So, I suppose Duredain is behind this.”

“No, actually, the king’s man has no idea about this, any more than the king.  I doubt they even know about the sacrifices.  People understand you have to keep quiet about such a thing.”  Canto started being so friendly and open, Margueritte became suspicious.  “Of course, my brother in wisdom would no doubt be pleased to have a good person of his own, not to harm the creature, mind you, but for purposes of study; that sort of thing.  No.  This is Finnian McVey’s idea, and though I don’t know how wise it may be, you know how persuasive he can be.  I must also warn you.  He is very determined to get what he wants.  There is not much I can do to help you.”

Margueritte pushed her supper away and Canto called.  She thought if she could escape the room, somehow, perhaps Chief Brian could give her sanctuary.  Surely Brian was wise enough to not want the dragon on his head; but then being closest to the border he would not want the Franks on his head, either.

Morgan came in and retied her hands.  He was not very gentle about it, but he had the decency to say, “Sorry, sorry,” when she complained.  Then McVey came crashing into the room followed by Roan.  Canto quickly got between them.

“Why did you feed her?”  McVey said, rudely.  “She should have gone hungry to sharpen her thinking.”  Roan, meanwhile, tried to put the gag back on her, but he stopped when McVey reached out, grabbed her chin, and drew his face close to hers.  “A shame to waste such prime female flesh when it hasn’t even had a chance to know what it is good for.”  He looked like he might force a kiss on her, but Margueritte stared at him with such a bold hardness in her eyes, he hesitated.  Canto drew the Irishman back.

“She is still a young lady,” Canto said.  “Whatever else she may be.”

McVey snapped his hand from her chin, scratching her with his nails, and he appeared to turn his anger toward the druid.  Margueritte, though her jaw hurt, nevertheless had a thought which made her smile.

“Good cop, bad cop,” she said, knowingly, even as Roan finally replaced her gag.  She stood up, still smiling to the amazement of all present, lay down on the army blanket, turned her back on them all, and dared them to disturb her.  After a moment, she heard the door close and she knew she was alone.

M3 Margueritte: Samhain, part 2 of 3

The strange looking man spoke much too loudly.  “The Great Lord Ahlmored requires you to stand aside so his train may pass.  Then you may follow up after as you please.”

Bartholomew looked shocked for a second at the audacity.  He looked at his men and laughed loud and long.  “You go back and tell your Lord Al-mud the Franks stand aside for no one.”

“Eat our dust,” Margueritte whispered to Tomberlain, who snickered.

 “Hush.”  Brianna quietly scolded the children and turned to speak as if she was the only one to fully realize the seriousness of what was happening.  “Young lord.”  She spoke up, and Sir Barth and the Frankish soldiers looked to her, being accustomed to her good counsel.  The stranger looked taken aback, at the sight of a woman speaking, and an unveiled one at that.

“The soil of this land is full of sand and I understand how difficult it can make traveling, but here it is near mid-day.”  The lady looked up through the trees as if judging the sun.  “Perhaps your lord may be willing to pause and refresh himself while we push on.  Surely by the time he is done, our dust will be well settled.”  It seemed a fair suggestion, only the stranger simply could not hear a woman’s words.

“If you will not move, you may be made to move, kafir!”  The man growled and spun his steed to the rear and sped off.

“Form up.”  Sir Barth understood the threat well enough.  He pushed the wagons out front with orders to move on to the village as fast as they could.  “Don’t draw sword unless I give the word,” he said.  It did not take long for Margueritte to hear the sound of approaching horses before a dip in the road obscured both the sight and sound.

“Mama.”  Tomberlain may have wanted to say he would be a man and take care of them all, but he clearly felt afraid.

“Hush,” Brianna said again.  She listened for something the children could not hear.  Margueritte guessed she was praying.

It turned out not long at all, perhaps twenty minutes, before they heard the horses again, coming up fast.  Lady Brianna breathed deeply, and the children cheered when they saw Sir Barth.  Old Lord Bernard rode beside him, trailed by some fifteen well-armed Franks.

“Lord Ahlmored was as loathe to draw arms as we were, but he had about two dozen men and no doubt planned to move us off the road by force of strength,” Bartholomew explained.

“Luckily, I had just caught up with his slow-moving procession.”  The Baron jumped in.  “It took a minute to figure out what was happening, but then we came straight on while my wagons pushed right by the fools.  Jessica should be along in a minute.”  He looked back for his wagons while Sir Barth finished the tale.

“I guess they decided not to try us once the numbers were more or less equal.  I will say, though, he is an arrogant son of a—”

“Bartholomew!”  Brianna did not want to hear the rest; especially in front of the children.

It took more than a minute for the Baron’s wagons to catch up, and Brianna had a chance to welcome Lady Jessica.  Then with five good wagons and some twenty men at arms, they made quite a procession when they entered the village.  A nearby field had been set aside for the servants and soldiers to set up camp.  The nobles and their families went on to the inn.

Constantus, the Roman, and the first great house just south of the triangle, had already arrived with his wife, Lady Lavinia.  Old acquaintances were renewed, but Margueritte sighed, because the baron’s youngest was sixteen, and Constantus’ youngest was fifteen, and they were both boys.  Tomberlain would be a rare sight during their stay as he would be hanging with the boys.  That left only three-year-old Elsbeth for comfort, and she was small comfort.  Thus, Margueritte decided she would have to leech herself to her mother and act grown up the whole time they were there.  It would be hard, but it felt better than being alone and left out of things.

Urbon, king of Amorica, had come into town the day before and already established himself with his court in the great house with the wooden towers, which was his only residence for the once-in-four-years visits.  Meanwhile, the village square and another adjacent field were already set up with booths and festivities and Margueritte’s mind turned to sweet meats and toys.  All they had to do was check their rooms and they could be off to the fair.

“You will love this, Elsbeth,” Margueritte told her sister.  “Everything about the Fall Festival is wonderful.  I know I loved it when I was your age.”  Of course, in truth, she could hardly remember it when she was three, but since then, and especially in the days of anticipation before coming, it had been built up so wonderfully in her mind, Margueritte was in danger of disappointment lest the reality not live up to her imagination.

Elsbeth chose that moment to scream and Margueritte screamed with her.  As they walked into the inn, a woman startled them terribly.  She was the most wrinkled and ugly, half-toothless, gray haired hag of a lady Margueritte had ever seen.  The woman’s eyes glared at the children as if piercing to their souls, and it seemed those eyes looked without blinking.  Lady Brianna picked up her baby and Margueritte found herself in her father’s firm grasp.

“I must have frightened them.”  The woman expressed a touch of glee in her voice as if she felt delighted by that prospect.

“Startled, perhaps is all,” Lord Bartholomew said, as he acknowledged the woman.  “Lady Curdwallah.”

The Baron broke in.  “Once again, m’lady, let me express our deepest condolences on the loss of your husband and children, though it was now so many years ago.  We have not forgotten him, or you, and we continue to remember you in our prayers.”

“Faugh!”  Curdwallah said.  “Thank you, but it would be better if you stopped bringing it up every time we met.  It is done.  That is that,” she said, and walked out toward the village square and the king’s house.

“A hard woman,” Bartholomew breathed after her.

“Indeed,” the baron said as he directed them to a table.  Margueritte got carried along with them.  They got drinks, though Margueritte found her portion of cider watered to almost nothing.  She looked at it, but only for a moment.  Traveling was thirsty business, and then she did want to hear what they were saying about the hag.

“I, too, have written to the king.”  Baron Bernard was speaking.  “And concerning myself as much as Lady Curdwallah.”

“No.”  Bartholomew protested, but Bernard simply moaned and rolled his arthritic shoulder in response.

“Indeed,” the baron continued after a sharp, strong drink.  “The king and the mayor do not appear overly concerned with the Amorican Mark.  Too many years of peace, plus he is older now as I am, and the political wrangling has stepped into the power gap.  I have seen the same thing happen before elsewhere, in type.  Some say the Roman Cicerus is to be watched, but my money is on Ragenfrid.”  He took another drink and added an afterthought.  “I can’t say as I like the man, personally, though.”

“What about that young Charles fellow?” Bartholomew wondered.

“I don’t think we can count him out, being of the mayor’s issue, but at this point he is terribly young, I would guess around seventeen.” Bernard agreed. “He is a fine young man and has a good military mind.  If the peace is broken with the Saxons or Burgundians, or for that matter, with Amorica or Aquitaine, however unlikely that may be, and something should happen to Pepin, I would not be surprised to see him elevated all the way to Mayor of the Palace in his father’s place, next in line to the king himself.”

There came a break in the conversation as a commotion outside drew them all to the door.  Margueritte watched from the feet of the two men who ignored her completely. Ahlmored, the ambassador from Africa had finally arrived with his twenty-four soldiers and his servants and terribly slow-moving baggage train.  The people crowded around to see this strange sight while Lord Ahlmored seemed both attracted by the attention and waved grandly like a conquering emperor might wave to the admiring masses and repulsed by the thought that one of these unbelievers might actually touch his person.

The baron picked up where he left off in his thoughts about war.  “Then again, these arrogant Africans may be looking to extend their empire and infernal religion into the heart of Europe.  Who knows?  This Ambassador may be the first salvo in a war we cannot yet imagine.  Those basted Moors, or whatever they are called, have marched with little resistance right across North Africa.  In any case, I suspect this Ahlmored fellow will be more of a spy than anything else.”

“I’ll warrant,” Sir Barth agreed before they turned back into the inn.  Margueritte stayed outside and watched for a minute more before her mother came and snatched her up.

“I swear,” Brianna said.  “Your father would lose his sword if I wasn’t there to point to his side.”  Margueritte got placed with Elsbeth in the capable hands of Lady Jessica while Sir Barth and Lady Brianna made a trip to some of the poorer places with gifts of hope.  Maven and Marta fixed the rooms as well as they could, checked on the arrangements for supper, and helped the grateful innkeeper as much as possible.  The rest of the troop had time off, except for the command to stay ready in case they were called

Lady Jessica bought the girls some sweets and each a toy.  They spent a lot of time fingering various bolts of colored cloth, but it had already gotten late in the day, and much of the festival started to close for the evening.  Thoughts turned to suppertime, and the sun would soon set.  When they returned to the inn, the Franks sat all around a big table and the Lady Jessica was nobly welcomed.  Margueritte and Elsbeth got to sit at the children’s table.

Margueritte knew they would have all the next day for fun and games before they came home to be kept by Marta and Maven.  Mother and Father would eat with the king of Amorica that night, and then all the fires would be extinguished except the king’s fire from which all the fires in the world would be relit, or so they said.  Then the day of Samhain would come, and it would be more fun and games before an evening to relax and an early start home in the morning. 

Margueritte nodded and thought about how traveling could be a tiring business, and she might have fallen asleep at the supper table if Tomberlain had not chosen that moment to stagger in.

“Son?”  Lord Bartholomew looked up.  “Have you supped?”

“Yes shir,” Tomberlain said.  “Me and Michael and Sebalus…us.”

“And had a bit to drink I would guess.”  Bartholomew looked stern.  Brianna looked mortified.  Tomberlain opted not to speak.  He simply shook his head up and down.  He shouldn’t have done that.  He ran toward the fire and promptly emptied his stomach.  No one laughed.

“I think I’ll have a talk with that son of mine,” Constantus said.

“Indeed,” the baron added.  “And my Michael.”

Margueritte and Elsbeth got promptly carried to bed.