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

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

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

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

Whisper.

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

Whisper.

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

Whisper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

“We know the basic story,” Alesander said.

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

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

R6 Gerraint: Mount Badon, part 2 of 3

Gerraint mounted, waved to those present, with a special wave to Flora who watched both her sons go off to war, and he took Bowen and Damon to meet Lancelot and Lionel.  It did not take long to plan what they would do.

Gerraint would take Damon and a hundred men down the forest path, to where they could hit the Saxons on the flank.  Bowen, the elder brother, would guide Lionel, Lancelot and the four hundred to the place of the fallen tree, as they called it.  Then they would cut straight to the mountain village from there and strike the Saxons from the rear.  The plan seemed simple enough, but Gerraint would arrive two hours ahead of the others, so he would have to remain hidden and quiet for a time, and wait.

Gerraint and his men reached the edge of the wood around three that afternoon.  They could see the village from there, and saw it burning brightly.  The Saxons were on foot below a cliff face, their horses kept back in Gerraint’s direction, away from the fire and smoke.  There were several cave openings that could be seen in the cliff, some ten or twenty feet up the rocks.  It looked like the Little King gave up the village begrudgingly. Gerraint, with his fairy good eyes, counted more Saxon bodies than British ones.  Now, the Saxons were below the caves, but behind cover where the arrows could not reach them.  It looked like a stalemate, as long as the Little King’s supply of arrows held out.

Gerraint, Sergeant Brian and Damon sat at the lookout spot, though Gerraint was the only one who could see clearly at that distance.  The others could only make out the gist of what was happening when Gerraint pointed things out to them.  They waited a half hour, which seemed an eternity, and a true little man came up to Gerraint, right out in the open, and removed his hat out of respect.  This man stood only two feet tall, what one might call a gnome or nature spirit, and Gerraint quickly realized the man had to be invisible to the others, so he did not let on that they had a visitor.

“Lord,” the gnome said.  “The Saxons are building ladders and are about done.  They have many men hidden behind the big building that is not burned, and plan to attack all at once with the ladders.  Some are going to places where they can hide behind cover and shoot arrows at the cave openings.”

Gerraint picked up his head for a better look, but the smoke and remaining buildings in the village made things difficult. “Thank you Lemuel.”  Lemuel was the gnome’s name. “You know what would be really good?  If those Saxon horses broke free of their binds and tethers all at once and stampeded right across the base of the cliff face.  It would be especially good if that happened when the Saxons came out with their ladders.  Do you understand?”

“The Saxons have ladders?”  Brian squinted his eyes.

Lemuel answered at the same time.  “I understand.  That should not be hard.”  He scooted off and vanished in the tall grass while Gerraint slapped Damon on the shoulder.  “All right, son.  Let’s get the troop up and ready to ride.”

“What?  Aren’t we supposed to be waiting?”

“Not if the Saxons have ladders,” Brian said.  “Fat chance those horses will stampede, though.”

“Trust in the power of positive thinking,” Gerraint said, and trust in luck, or Lemuel, he thought.  It felt like a lot to expect a gnome to get it right and not stampede the herd too soon or too late, but the edge of the herd was all he could see from horseback because the trees stood in the way.  He had to trust.

Gerraint separated Brian and thirty men from the rest of the troop.  They got torches and had special instructions to ride the back street of the village. They were to set the last of the buildings on fire, the ones that the Saxons were using for cover, in order to drive the Saxons into the open.  He gathered the rest of the troop and gave easier instructions.  He called for lances and then they waited.  It amounted to ten minutes sitting on the horse.  Brian began to think Gerraint had lost the nerve, but suddenly the Saxon horses broke free and they could hear them as they rumbled out of sight.  Brian grinned and went to lead his group while Gerraint yelled to the seventy.

“Ride along the cliff straight through to the other side to drive their horses out of reach.  There, we will turn and charge at them again.  Ready?  For Arthur.”

The men responded and charged.  When they came around the edge of the forest where they could see the battleground, they saw the last of the Saxon horses trampling along. Honestly, Gerraint did not have to ride through to drive the Saxon horses out of reach of the Saxons.  Most of the smoke and the smell of the fires being blown in that direction encouraged the stampeding horses that were not going to stop until they cleared that area.  Still, Gerraint had long since determined that men with lances had the advantage riding through the lines.  Once they stopped to fight it out, they became like an awkward Gerraint fighting the Little King.  The horseman had the height advantage, but the flexibility stayed all with the man on foot.

The Saxons, who had thrown themselves up against the foot of the cliff when the horses came, recovered what ladders they had left and renewed the assault.  More men came from the village, so they had a crowd at the base of the cliff when Gerraint and the RDF plowed into them.  Some Saxons thought the stampede was over and were surprised.  Some thought it was another group of wild horses from the same pack.  Some only belatedly realized that these horses had lancers on top.  For quite a number, it was the last realization they ever made.

Gerraint formed up his line while Brian finished and came to join him.  Brian lost six men somewhere among the fires and smoke.  Gerraint turned at the front to yell.  “We go straight through again and sweep the Saxons from the cliff. When we get to the other side, we turn immediately and charge to stay and fight.  Remember, you have height on horseback, but quarters are tight among the wreckage.  Do not hesitate to dismount if it is to your advantage.

“Straight through.”  Gerraint turned.  “Once more into the breach,” he whispered before he yelled, “For Arthur.”  Again, the troop responded and charged.  Some bright Saxon chief had gathered a few archers, but it seemed a pitiful thing.  The troop easily swept the cliff base clean of Saxons.  The Saxons had to run for the now burning buildings.  Some ran further into the charred remains of the rest of the village.  Some did not stop running when they reached the village edge.  Gerraint gave those last ones no thought at all, knowing that Dayrunner would not let any of them escape.

When Gerraint turned the troop for the final charge, he saw that his hope had not been misplaced.  Rope ladders came down from the caves and some fifty men followed the Little King into battle.  That evened the odds a bit, but Gerraint knew this would be where things got tricky. The RDF wore a virtual uniform and were easy to distinguish, but telling the men of the little King from the Saxons might not be so easy.  He told Damon to stay by his side, and then they charged.

The Saxons were already beaten in their spirit and it became only a matter of cleaning up the mess.  On a normal battlefield, more than a hundred would have escaped, at least on foot, but in this case, none made it out of the woods. Gerraint and his troop fought well, but the Little King and his fought with a raw vengeance.  They let none escape, even if they were trying to surrender, and Gerraint did not yell at them until the end.  There were fifty on their knees at the end, twenty of whom only escaped out of a building right before the burning roof collapsed.  The Little King counted his survivors apart from the women and children that were safe up in the caves.  Gerraint lost some men, but few when compared to the Saxon losses.

“Sorry I couldn’t get here sooner,” Gerraint said.

“Me too,” the Little King agreed.  He eyed their prisoners and wondering if the village had enough rope left to hang them all.  They paused when they heard the four hundred thundering across the fields. When they arrived, they slowed as Lionel and Lancelot quickly assessed the situation.  Lancelot bounded from his horse, ran up to Gerraint and complained.

“I missed it?”

“The Saxons had ladders,” Brian said gruffly. “We couldn’t wait.”