M4 Margueritte: Watch and Rescue, part 3 of 3

Luckless and his dwarfs started milling around the courtyard, waiting impatiently for someone to break in.  Grimly and his gnomes were still moving livestock back into the makeshift pens in the collapsed barn.  Goldenrod went down there.  The dogs got free when the kennels busted and the fence got knocked down, and now Goldenrod rode on Puppy’s back trying to corral the chickens that were still running wild all over the yard.  Margueritte almost laughed.  Then she caught sight of the boys.  Somehow, they escaped the underground and the clutches of Lolly and the dwarf wives.

Margueritte jumped up.  Her mind raced.  In seconds, every little one in the area had Pepin, Cotton, Weldig Junior and Martin corralled.  Somehow, the boys talked them into letting them climb the back wall, to watch the battle. Margueritte thought extra hard, though she hoped it did not come across as yelling.

“Heurst.  If you let them watch, you better make sure they don’t escape and try to join the fight.  If your men are needed, you better send sufficient men to escort them back underground, safely.”  Then she had a headache and imagined if she did much more of that she would get a migraine.

Margueritte refused to watch the battle.  She heard enough commentary from Elsbeth and Margo. She heard nothing from Calista and Melanie, but inside she understood they were both disappointed at not being allowed to be down in it.  Still, they did not mind guarding the women.  They understood the women, and children needed to be kept safe.

At the same time, Margueritte wondered what made certain elf maidens so bloodthirsty.  She hoped there was not some subtle influence she gave off or had given off through the centuries.  She had to admit, it was probably her fault.  Even without looking, she understood what happened down on the battlefield better than Margo or Elsbeth, who watched and explained.  Both Gerraint and Festuscato said it was not their fault.  The Princess and Diogenes both begged off responsibility.  Both Greta and Doctor Mishka said they were in the business of trying to save lives, and the storyteller said, peace baby, though no one laughed.  Margueritte answered them all.  It is all of my fault, and something terrible about the human race.  Sin, as Patrick or Boniface would say, and there will be no avoiding it until the Lord returns.

Margueritte finally looked when the big charge was due to come.  Ragenfrid tried several smaller attacks, individually, and several at once, but they got beaten back.  He tried sneaking men closer by using the cover Michael and David so conveniently put out, but that just got his men picked off by the elf archers on the wall.  Now it became time for the all-out attack.  Margueritte looked, hoping David and Michael had the good sense to pull back into the castle.  she squinted, but she could not send mental messages to Michael and David as she could to her little ones.  Just as well.  She was not down there and maybe they had an idea she did not think of.

“Hey,” Elsbeth shouted.  “Whose men are those?”

“What?” Margo asked and tried to see where Elsbeth pointed.

Margueritte saw and sighed a great sigh of relief.  “Hunald,” she said.  “From Aquitaine.  Probably advanced units on the point.  I hope Michael and David can hold the fort.  It would be terrible to have the enemy break in at the last second.”

“The charge came, but David and Michael apparently got the word, and so did Peppin and duBois.  Their men came out of the gates and struck the charge on each side.  Ragenfrid got boxed in, and did not advance, though the fighting got bloody.  As Hunald’s men moved more and more into the town on Ragenfrid’s rear, he finally gave up and squirted past duBois and back down the Paris Road.  He left his wounded where they lay, and now he had to think hard on how he would possibly break into the castle.  He still was not ready to concede defeat, even if Amager got ready to go home to Tours and Bouchart stayed frozen with indecision.

###

Hunald moved his five thousand men up into the half-burned town before dark.  David, Michael, duBois, and Peppin brought their men inside the castle.  There were lots of wounded to tend and Doctor Mishka took the first shift.  The elves, kobold, brownies, fairies, local dwarfs, and gnomes all went back into the woods.  Luckless and his smiths stayed, as did Grimly and his horse breeders, but they stayed to their place and tasks and otherwise made themselves scarce.

At sundown, having treated the worst that she reasonably felt she could save, Doctor Mishka checked with Doctor Pincher who treated the wounded among the little ones.  Doctor Pincher did not hide the fact that there were casualties, though being confined to bowshot distance, outside of a few hardheaded dwarfs, the casualties were slight.  Even so, Doctor Mishka cried for each one, and when Margueritte returned, she cried some more.

Margueritte went out to meet Hunald, followed by the ever-present Calista and Melanie, and a dozen men assigned by Childemund and Peppin.  King David, Michael of Nantes and Childemund himself went with her.  Walaric had the young men guarding the stables, the forges, and the horses they had to care for.  Peppin walked with Elsbeth and Margo and had one of the castle clerics write down everything they could find that needed repair.  He was still compiling the list at sundown when Margueritte went out.

Hunald waited for her, and spoke up right away, even waving to her from a distance, and smiled in a most pleasant way.  Margueritte came up to him and right in front of his captains, her hand flew up to his cheek, and stopped short.  Hunald squinted but did nothing to stop her.  His captains gasped, but then she touched his cheek gently, while he spoke.

“Sorry it took us so long.”

“Your timing was our salvation,” she said, and got on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek and then hugged him.  The captains relaxed when she said, “Your father is one of my best friends in the world.  Thank you for coming,” and she turned to those captains.  “And make sure you let Odo know how grateful I am.”  The captains smiled and nodded and assured her they would.

“I was glad to do it,” Hunald said as she let go of him.  “After that business in Tours, I need the penance.”

“Amager is here,” Margueritte said.  “On the other side, but he has not attacked us and is packing to leave.  I don’t think Ragenfrid was honest about the situation here and got him to come under false pretenses.”

“Well, I’m glad,” Hunald said.  “I thought he was a nice man.”

“As did I,” Margueritte said and turned Hunald by taking his arm.  “Now let me introduce you to some more nice men.”  Michael, Childemund, and David all looked like they had been through the wars, which they had.

“We have met,” Hunald said as he shook Michael’s hand, and Michael confirmed as much.

“Childemund came here escorting Charles’ wife, Rotrude.  He has represented Charles in our talks with Ragenfrid.”

“Pleased to meet you.  You talked with Ragenfrid?”  Hunald looked surprised.

“For three days,” Margueritte admitted.  “We were hoping to stall him until you got here, and once you arrived, we hoped he would think twice about attacking us.”

“I see.”

“But please, let me introduce David, King of Amorica, what you might call Little Britain.

“David?”  Hunald looked confused.  “Bogart?”

“His mother calls him David, and so do I.  He is my cousin, you know.”

“Either name will do,” David said, and in such a friendly manner, Hunald swallowed the words, “Your majesty.”

“And this, is Prince Hunald, son of Duke Odo the Great of Aquitaine.”

Hunald also swallowed his guffaw.  “Odo the Great?”

Margueritte shrugged.  “But we must get back to the great hall, and you must come to supper.  The dwarf wives are cooking something special in the way of pork, and applesauce.  Bring any men you want.  Your captains are welcome.  I am sure there will be enough for all.  Please ignore the hole in the ceiling, and the courtyard where so many men are resting.  And there are wounded, so if you have a physician with you, it would be greatly appreciated.

“Of course,” one of the older captains said.

“Oh, my apologies.  I should have thought of that right away.”

They returned to the castle, and Hunald and his captains got a good look at the damage, but the pork supper turned out as great as promised.  There were no complaints there.

One of the captains said the courtyard looked like a small scale of what they had after the battle of Toulouse when they drove the Saracens from their land.

“Hold that thought,” Margueritte said.  “I am sure Charles will want to hear all about it.”

“Charles?” Hunald asked.

“By my best estimate, he should be here with the Frankish army about the same time tomorrow that you came today.”

“That will end the rebellion,” Childemund stated flatly.

“Yes, but that does not mean Ragenfrid will not try something foolish in the morning.”

“Sadly, you may be right,” King David said.

“This is an excellent apple pie,” Hunald said.  “My compliments to the cook.”

“Sadly, I did not make this pie,” Margueritte said.

“Did your lovely sister make it?” he asked, looking at Elsbeth.

Margueritte, Margo, and Jennifer started to laugh, loud.  Elsbeth showed her tongue and gave them all her best raspberries.

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

MONDAY

Margueritte feels pulled back to Roland’s home, but she has to settle things on the Breton March first.  Until next time, Happy Reading

*

M4 Margueritte: Prisoners, part 1 of 3

Margueritte:  The New Way Has Come

After 697 AD: Francia

“Shut-up.  Shut-up,” Margueritte whispered with as much strength as she could and still keep quiet.  “If you two don’t shut-up we will be discovered.”

“He started it,” Grimly pointed.

“You made a crack about my mother,” Pipes came right back.

“Catspaw,” Margueritte whispered.  Catspaw put her hands over the mouths of the boys and she looked at them like two birds she would have for supper if they protested.  Margueritte ignored the three gnomes that should have been named Moe, Larry and Curly and peeked out from behind the big tapestry.  They found no one in the hall two hours before sunrise.  She knew it would get busy soon enough.

“Is this the right vent?” she asked.

Grimly said, “Mumphs mus mumph mum.”

“He says yes,” Catspaw whispered.

“Get it open.  Pipes, the rope.”

Grimly got out a fold of fairy weave cloth and covered the pegs which he then popped out without a sound.  Pipes tied one end of the rope securely to the fixture that held up the heavy tapestry and Catspaw let it down into the dark as soon as Grimly and Margueritte moved the vent enough to squeeze through.

“Now, Catspaw.  You know what to do,” Margueritte said, as Grimly shimmied down to where he could light a small light and check the room to be sure it was empty.  Margueritte followed carefully, hand under hand, until her feet touched down.  The room was small, but a crossroads of a sort.  They saw two open corridors, a staircase, and two big wooden doors.

“Which room?” Grimly asked.  He pointed to the big doors.  All he knew for certain was the prisoner was in this general location.

Margueritte pressed her dress down with her hands, wiped off some dust and dirt, and shrugged.  “The locked one,” she suggested, and reached for the door on her left.  It popped open and three soldiers jumped.  “Oops,” Margueritte said quietly, before she thought fast.  “Why isn’t one of you out in the hall?” she yelled.  “This prisoner is to be guarded at all times.  I hope for your sakes you weren’t sleeping on the job.”

Two of the soldiers straightened up and made military type excuse noises, but the third wasn’t so easily taken.  “Who the hell are you?” he asked.

“Countess DeWinter, here from Cologne to question the prisoner, on the authority of the church and my good friend, your mayor’s mother.  It is only an hour before sunrise, and I can’t sleep so I see no reason why the prisoner should sleep.”

“You have papers?”

Margueritte stepped up and slapped the man.  “Your lord got my papers when I arrived last night.  Can you even read?  Now, come along and open-up.  I need to make the man miserable.”

One man got some keys from a hook on the wall, picked up and lit a torch out of a brazier, and nodded toward one of the others.  One of the men mumbled that she was obviously talented at making people miserable.  Margueritte knew the third man would go upstairs to check on her authorization, and she could only hope it took time to wake the old lord of the fortress.  Even so, she would have to be quick.

After the man lit the two torches in the small central room, he unlocked and opened the other door.  He stepped in first with the torch still in his hand while his fellow soldier stayed outside in case there was trouble.

“Charles,” Margueritte yelled.  “I come with greetings from the outside world.”

The short but broad-shouldered man, under thirty, though with the bearing of one much older, sat on a rough-hewn slat bed that only had straw for a mattress and no covers.  The way he had been chained around his wrists and ankles suggested he had a hard time lying down, so the uncomfortable bed hardly mattered.  He looked up at his name, but his eyes seemed to be having a hard time adjusting to the light.

“Come.  Let me look at you so I can see who it is that is speaking.”

“Now Charles, are your ears bound as well so you do not know my voice?”

Charles shook his head.  “Who would have thought you would be here for me rather than the other way around? Last I saw you, what? you turned sixteen, still a child and tied up to be burned at the stake?”

“Seventeen and just married, and now I am eighteen and in some circles that makes me a full-grown woman.”  She turned to the guard and smiled.  “What do you think?”

He returned the smile as he looked her once over.  “That was never a question.”

“Charles, I brought some friends who want to hear what tales you have to tell.”

“Not the big fellow, I hope.”

Margueritte knew the big fellow was Hammerhead the ogre that Charles met once and said that was enough.  “No, but I can call him if you like.”

“All clear,” Grimly spoke from the hall.  The guard inside the room turned, but Margueritte raised her hands.  An electrical charge flowed out of her fingers and struck the guard.  He jiggled and jiggled before he dropped the torch and collapsed to the floor.  Margueritte called to Grimly and bent down to move the torch before it set the straw on fire, and then searched through the pile of keys.

“Never mind,” Grimly said.  He applied a little gnome magic and popped the wrist and ankle chains open.

“I hope you’re not too stiff.”  Margueritte helped Charles stand.  “We have some climbing to do, up and down.”  They went into the hall and stepped over the unconscious guard that Grimly took care of.  Grimly called to Catspaw to let the rope back down.  When the rope hit the floor, he shimmied up and gave the all clear.

“Ladies first,” Charles said, always the gentleman.

“No way,” she nudged him.  “If I get caught, I have friends who can help, but this may be the only chance to get you out.  Climb, mister.”  He did, but it looked painful and slow.  By the time Margueritte grabbed the rope, she heard noises down the hall.  While she climbed, she called her armor out of Avalon in the Second Heavens.  It replaced her dress in an instant.  The chain mail, made by the god Hephaestus in the ancient days, would repel about any weapon, and the knee boots with the hard soles would protect her feet at a dead run equally through gravel and briars.  The fingerless gloves helped her grip the rope better, and her cloak, woven by Athena and turned black side out, would make her all but invisible in the night and in the shadows.  Sadly, at present she felt all too visible.

Margueritte got half-way out of the vent when a man reached the rope beneath her feet.  That man yelled and yanked on the rope to shake her loose, but Charles grabbed Margueritte’s hand and pulled her the rest of the way out.  Margueritte breathed her thank you before she said flatly, “Now we run.”  True, her hard-soled boots made a clop-clop sound in the hall, but that hardly mattered with all the yelling.

At the end of the hall, Catspaw urged them on.  Pipes stood at the top of the stairs and indicated the all clear.  They stopped short of the very top when they reached a watch room with slit windows for bowmen.  Grimly opened the door and he yelled, “Keep your heads down.”  They burst through the door and ran down the wall of the fortress.

“How about a little fire, Scarecrow,” Margueritte quipped.

A big rope had been tied fast to the top of the wall, and again Margueritte insisted Charles go first.  “Lord Birch, stay with him.  He may need the Peter Pan treatment if his hands give way.”

“Right,” Birch, the old fairy lord responded even as Lord Yellow Leaf let out a Cherokee war cry and let loose another arrow.  Margueritte saw several dead guardsmen littered about, barely discernible in the torch light.  It was hard to tell how many, but there were plenty more soldiers where the first ones came from, and they would all arrive soon enough.  Margueritte felt an arrow strike her back.  It bounced off the armor, did not even penetrate the cloak of Athena, but it proved time was short.  Margueritte did not wait for Charles to reach the bottom.  She scrambled over the top of the wall and grabbed the rope while Grimly, Catspaw and Pipes jumped over the side and floated down.  The gnomes could not exactly fly, but they could float pretty well.  Last of all, the fairy lords Larchmont and Yellow Leaf got small, their normal fairy size, and exited the wall.  They had horses down below, and Charles did not have to ask what they were for.

A hundred yards out from the fortress, and they ran into Roland with a party of thirty men.  Roland yelled as loud as he could, much louder than all the yelling so far, and Margueritte wilted a bit, but they did not stop.  They had a hard ride ahead of them.

M4 Festuscato: A Little Romance, part 2 of 3

Festuscato looked at the half-elf and waited for her to explain, but the young woman with the brown hair and fascinating Margueritte-like hazel eyes spoke up.  “Macy is the eldest.” she pointed at the half-elf who seemed tongue tied in Festuscato’s presence.  Mother was pregnant with her when she married my father.  It didn’t matter.  As soon as Macy was born with her pointed ears, it was clear that my father was not her father.  But my father tried to raise her like his own.”  Macy nodded to say that was so.  “At least until she was six.”

“And your name?”

“Morgan, and I am twenty-one and all alone in the world apart from my sisters.”  Morgan looked into Festuscato’s eyes and batted her own, just a little.  Festuscato wanted the rest of the story.  He frowned before he saw the tears in the corners of Morgan’s eyes and chastised himself for thinking his crude thoughts.

“So, what happened to your father and mother?” Festuscato asked, tenderly.

“My father got killed by Huns when I was three.  Macy was six.  Mother and Mercedes’ father survived when the Visigoths counterattacked.  They say it was a terrible battle, but after life settled down again, mother was lucky to remarry, and she had another girl.  Mother died of the plague when Mercedes was five.  I was nine and Macy was twelve.  Poor Father Flavius, Mercedes’ father, and Lucas at sixteen had three girls to take care of, and Lucas was kind of slow, if you know what I mean.  We all thought life would be better when we got to Arles.  We sold our home, and the deal was going to be secured when Mercedes married.  Father Flavius promised to find us husbands when we got to Arles, but now we have no hope.

Morgan began to cry softy, and Festuscato hugged her to comfort her.  She did not resist him.  Macy held Mercedes in very much the same way, and Heather stood right there, in her big size, crying along with everyone else.  Festuscato noticed Clover came back to comfort Heather, but since he said nothing, Festuscato figured the immediate area had to be Hun free.

After a moment, Festuscato separated from Morgan and Morgan wiped her eyes.  He had decided something and felt he needed some space, though he kept his hands on Morgan’s shoulders.  He called the head gnome that helped him steal one of Theodoric’s horses.  The gnome thought a minute without saying a word and Festuscato nodded.  Suddenly, there were twenty gnomes in that little part of the forest.  Morgan looked delighted.  Mercedes looked scared again, but Macy smiled, except she began to cry again.  

Heather reached out for Mercedes, and the girl moved to be close to Heather and Clover who were both in their big size and looking like ordinary people.  At least Mercedes did not scream when the gnomes got to work.

They found the wagon, and the oxen that had wandered off.  They hitched up the beasts and packed the tents and everything neatly in the wagon.  Two fetched Festuscato’s horse and red cloak.  Festuscato sent the red cloak back to Avalon the moment he saw it.  He tried to do it without being noticed, but Morgan saw and kept her thoughts to herself.  The gnomes also dug two graves.  They were shallow, but sufficient when the gnomes piled stones on top.  They seemed to have a knack for pulling mostly buried stones right out of the soil.

When they were done, it became noon and they had not moved an inch.  Festuscato made two crosses out of sticks, and the gnomes did something to make them root in the soil.  Then he did not know what to say, so he assured the women they would find a priest and say a mass for the dead.

Festuscato turned to his gnomes and thanked them all for their good help. “I owe you,” he said.

“Nothing,” the chief gnome spoke up.  “You have already given us everything through the centuries, since the day you first made us out of those wild imps.  You owe us nothing.  We were glad to be allowed to help, and would do it again, anytime.”

Festuscato glanced at Morgan who absorbed all of this like a sponge.  He knew there was no doing this quietly.  He clapped his hands, and the gnomes all disappeared, and he felt an explanation might be necessary.

“I sent them home.”

“And a lovely home it is, I am sure,” she said, smiled a lovely smile, and slipped into his arms for more hugging.  “Thank you for your kindness,” she whispered, and snuggled in a way that woke Festuscato right up, before she took a step back and a curious look crossed her face.  “But I don’t know anything about you, or your name other than you said you were the dragon, whoever that is.”

“Festuscato Cassius Agitus, knight errant for the duration while I deliver you to Arles.”

“Festuscato I caught,” she said.  “And I accept the offer of escorting us to Arles, but you will have to explain the rest, and all of the things you haven’t explained.  I never heard of Huns running away.”

“We should start moving first,” Festuscato suggested, and she collected her sisters while he tied his horse to the back of the wagon and Clover and Heather stepped out front to get the oxen moving.

Festuscato looked at Morgan and felt the smile in his stomach.  She looked at him and smiled outwardly in return, and Festuscato realized that nothing less that the whole truth would do for this one.  She seemed bright enough to understand and not one who would be willing to accept half measures.  In that moment, he felt like he very much wanted to explain it all, like it became a great burden on his soul.  Sadly, they barely started when Ironwood came racing back.

“Lord, the Huns have moved on to the road to the shore, but that Visigoth captain and his troop are on the road, coming back, and they almost got by me.”

Festuscato looked up as Macy said, “Men coming.”  She pointed, and Festuscato barely had time to say, excuse me, before he traded paces with Gerraint who came back in his armor, complete with helmet and swords in the right places.  Morgan squeaked like a cute little mouse.  Mercedes tried not to look.  Macy began to cry again.  Ironwood got big and stepped up to keep the girls quiet.

When the captain called his troop to a halt, Clover and Heather halted as well.  The Captain recognized the armor and got suspicious as to why a lone soldier would be out on the road.

“Soldier.  What are you doing in this wilderness?”

“Escorting this family to Arles.  As you can see, it is a most peasant duty for an old soldier.”  He removed his helmet and showed the gray hair of age.  He smiled for the captain and the captain softened his expression.  He asked about the red-haired man and the dapple-gray horse, but Gerraint could only say he saw no such man.  Morgan covered her mouth to stifle her giggle.

“Take care, old man,” the captain said.  “I heard rumors of Huns on the road.”

“I heard we crushed the Huns up north and sent them scurrying back across the border to lick their wounds.”

“We did,” the captain said as several of the men nodded, like they were there.

“Well good luck to you.  I hope you catch your man.”

The captain shook his head.  “This was an unlikely direction.  The rest of his party all went to Narbonne and by now they have probably taken ship for Rome or unknown places.  We ride.”  The captain and his men rode out and Gerraint turned to Morgan.

“How do you like my disguise?”

Avalon 7.4 People in the Middle, part 4 of 6

Boston, Sukki, Captain Ban and a dozen of his soldiers rode back from the point with a warning.  The ones out front stopped, and eventually, the whole train came to a stop.  Yuezhi bandits were hidden in the grass and small hills of the open land, ahead, just on the other side of the trees.  They could not say how many, though certainly thirty.  No doubt many more.  The hill suggested a small army.

“Not good,” Zhang She said.  “I had hoped we lost them once we got free of Pamir.”

“Elder Stow, can you get a fix on them?” Katie asked.

“I’ll take a look,” Decker volunteered and stepped from the group to sit and meditate.”

“Captain Ban…” Zhang She started to give orders, but Lockhart interrupted him.  

“Wait until we see what we are dealing with.”

It did not take long for Elder Stow to report.  “The scanner says three hundred and seven human life signs.  There appear to be less than a hundred horses ahead.  Here, let me show you.”  He held up his scanner and projected a holograph of the area ahead.  “See.  We are in blue, here, on this side of the group of trees.  I am green.  Boston does not appear, but I would make her red.  The bandits are all in yellow, which is the color of danger.  See the dots, here, just on the other side of the trees.  They are on both sides of what you call the road, and on this side, up this hill.”  He paused to let Gan Ao and Zhang She stare.

“No,” Elder Stow said before Katie or Lockhart could ask.  “I could put a stationary screen around this big a group, but not one we could move with.  Too many obstacles to account for on such a large projection.  Trust me.  And a Decker Wall will not stretch nearly far enough to cover even one whole side of the group, in case you were thinking of those things.”

“They are not moving?” Boston asked.  “I figured they would move, once they were seen.

“No,” Elder Stow shook his head.  “Not moving.”

“Because they certainly saw us,” Captain Ban said.

“They tried to shoot us,” Sukki added, with a little huffing and puffing, like she ran away, personally.

Katie pointed at the projection.  “They appear to be settled down.  My guess is they are arguing.  They probably believe you saw a few bandits, like thirty at most, and you will expect them to flee once your big group appears.  There is no reason you should expect three hundred and seven ready to spring an ambush.”

“They are probably also mad that some jumped too soon,” Captain Ban said.  “We escaped unharmed.”

“Decker?” Katie called as Alexis, Tony and Nanette came up to ask what was happening.  Decker also came, and he had a plan, having seen the land ahead through the eye of his eagle totem.

“Captain Ban.  You already have your troops divided to march along the left and right sides of the train.  Send one group to where the trees end, and then follow the far side of the trees to the back of a hill.  The enemy is hidden in the rocks on the other side of the hill, but it does not look steep.  You should be able to climb up and easily see them.  You can fall down on them from above and drive them out on to the road, then use the rocks and the height as cover for your own troops.”

“And the others?”

“Send your other group three hundred yards the other way.  That is, three hundred large paces.  Send them through the woods and have them spread out in the grasses and stay hidden.  Tell them to get their bows and arrows ready and try to not be seen.  If the bandits want to stay off the road to avoid soldiers and civilians, they will have to run through the grass where your archers will be waiting.”

“You got it all figured?” Lockhart said.

Decker nodded.  “Elder Stow can put his screen around us in the front.  We will move to the exit from the woods and a little way out into the open area beyond.  The train can move up some but stay behind us and stay in the woods to not be exposed.  We can occupy the bandits’ attention while Captain Ban gets his two groups in position.”

“Will you not fear to risk your lives so?” Zhang She asked, concerned about his guests.

“Elder Stow’s screen will protect us,” Katie said, only to be interrupted by Alexis.

“Nanette and I will bring up the wagon.  We will send Lincoln to you, but I have no intention of participating in killing people if I don’t have to.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Nanette agreed, and they wheeled around and rode back down the line to their wagon, gently nestled behind the wagon for Zhang She’s things and the wagon for the map maker.

Captain Ban sent six men off to get each column to do their job, but he and a half-dozen riders stayed with him in the front.  Gan Ao rode down the line to tell the wagon drivers to stay in line, move up, but stay on the road and in the woods.  Zhang She stayed close, not willing to miss what this screen business was all about.   They waited a half-hour, to allow the troops time to get in position, then they moved slowly through the woods.

Elder Stow had his scanner out and kept one eye on it.  He had his screen device hooked to it, as usual, and spoke.  “A few more horses than expected, but I have programmed in the trees and ground, so they will not be disturbed by our passage.”  They got partially exposed when Elder Stow said, “Stop.  Stop moving.”  The group stopped moving.  “There is a boulder underground ahead.”  He flipped a couple of switches and slid his fingers on the device.  “A bit larger… Around the boulder… Okay.  Move on.”  The people moved until they became completely exposed.  They stopped again when they saw the first head pop up from the ground.

Decker fired.  The man spun and fell.  A rain of arrows followed.  Zhang She and several horsemen wailed before the arrows struck and bounced off Elder Stow’s screen.  Two dozen men rushed up with long spears.  They also bounced off the screen, and Lockhart ordered Decker not to kill them unless they went around and headed toward the wagons.

“Now,” Captain Ban said, looking up at the top of the hill.  “Now, already.”

About eighty horses came from around the hill in a cavalry charge.  Elder Stow got quickly down and set his screen device against the ground.  “if I did not set this in a solid location, the horses would have pushed me right off my horse and thrown me back some distance, with the screens driven back as well.  But by setting the screens, they should bounce off like the arrows.”

Katie imagined letting the horses break on the screens would be cruel.  She flipped her rifle to automatic and Decker saw and did the same.  Katie, at least, imagined shooting and killing a few horses in the front to stall the charge would be kinder.  She and Decker opened fire.  Horses certainly went down.  The charge stalled as expected, then Decker actually stopped firing first.

Lincoln fired behind them.  “Tony and I are watching the rear.”  Some bandits were trying to find a back door to the screens.

“I’ll help,” Boston said, and she pulled out her wand and shot a stream of fire to one side and then the other.  No bandits got badly burned, but they all decided to run.

Then the men sent to the hill came pouring down on the enemy among the rocks, and things happened very fast.  The men in the rocks tried to escape down the hill.  The men in the grass on that side of the road got caught up in the panic.  The horsemen, utterly confused, rode off across the field, which got the men in that field to abandon their position.  They ran into a wall of arrows, and Boston thought it looked like more arrows than she expected.  She got mad and yelled, full volume.

“Brusher.  Cut that out.  If any of you folks get hurt, Lydia will yell at me, now, come on.”  She did not notice any slack in the number of arrows, so she decided not to look.

Plenty of bandits, in particular, the ones on horseback, made it through the line of archers and escaped.  Plenty escaped by turning and running down the road until they got far enough away to head across country.  But quite a few bandits got put down, and they only had to wait a while as Captain Ban’s men made sure the ones left behind were indeed dead.

Boston got a quick visit from Brusher and his band of gnomes.  They wanted to assure her that none of them got hurt, so maybe she would not mention it to Lydia.  Boston wondered why they got involved in the first place.  Brusher said the god, Tien Shang-Di ordered them to.

“No good can come from avoiding what the god says.  The law says we have to listen and obey the gods.  It is part of our job, you know.”

Boston nodded and said she would not tell Lydia, but then pointed out that Lydia probably already knew.  As she watched the gnomes disappear back into the wilderness, she wondered what they would do when the gods finally and fully went away.  That was happening very fast, from her perspective, traveling though time the way she was.  She feared briefly that the little spirits of nature might run amok, being suddenly set free without the gods looking over their shoulders.  But then she remembered that her god, the Kairos, would still be active in the world.  Besides, the little ones, like the human race, had over four thousand years of learning, training, and growing up.  Hopefully, they had matured enough in that time to stick to their tasks and not run wild.

“Time to grow up and start adulting,” she said out loud, without explaining to anyone.  She called Sukki to join her out on the point.  Captain Ban and some of his soldiers also joined them.

M3 Margueritte: Rapunzel Set Free, part 2 of 3

Thomas was considering breakfast when he heard a horse and rider.  He thought it better to hide, though he could not remember ever having seen Curdwallah on horseback.  Indeed, that image put a hold on the idea of breakfast.

The bushes rustled and a cat jumped out.  She immediately began to lick herself, as if trying to remove some unpleasant stain.  The horseman followed.

“Why have we stopped?”  The horseman asked.

“Roland.”  Thomas came out from the bushes.

“Thomas!”  Roland got down.  “You found her.  But what are you doing so near the gypsy camp?”

“But, no,” Thomas said.  “We’re just a few miles from DuLac.  So close that I was almost afraid to sleep last night.”

“What?”  Roland looked confused.

“You slept?”  Catspaw looked surprised as she reverted to her elfish form.  “I would not have guessed.”

“Well, I might not have if Grimly had not pointed out the safety of this fairy circle,” Thomas admitted.

“What fairy circle?”  Catspaw asked.  “All I see is a few rocks thrown around.”

Thomas swallowed as Roland interrupted.

“Hold on.  How can we be a few miles from DuLac?  We just left the gypsy camp a couple of hours ago.”

“Would have been sooner if you had listened sooner,” Catspaw said.  She had collected some of the rocks with some sticks and got ready to light a fire.

“I am sorry,” Roland said.  “I don’t understand cat talk.”

“There’s the pity,” Catspaw said, as Thomas quickly fetched a larger bit of wood and a small log.  “I suppose you’ll be wanting breakfast.”

“I was just thinking the same thing,” Thomas said.  He sat by the fire.

“No.”  Roland seemed to want to pace.  “We have to get her out of that place.”

“Come, Roland.  Have a biscuit,” Thomas said, and he offered some to Catspaw.

“Faugh.”  She turned it down, produced a frying pan from a secret pocket, a half-dozen eggs and a good bit of bacon to grease the pan.  “You need to keep up your strength,” she said.  “You’ve ridden all night, know it or not.  At least let your horse have a breather.”

“But the gypsy camp has to be three- or four-days ride from DuLac.”  Roland groused as he sat.  “How can we be so close?”

“There’s ways,” Catspaw said, and handed Roland a wooden bowl already filled with scrambled eggs and bacon.

“That was amazing,” Thomas said, having watched the cooking process.  “Can I watch that again some time?”

“Maybe,” Catspaw sounded non-committal.

“But wait,” Thomas had a thought.  “I imagined all of you brownies were vegetarians.”

“Cats are carnivorous,” Catspaw said, the only explanation she was going to give.

Thomas sighed.  “Eat,” he said, and turned to Roland to make it as much of a command as he could, though he was not very good at such things.  “She’s been enchanted for nearly a year.  Another morning won’t hurt her, but you might not be able to help her if you don’t get some sustenance.”  Roland picked at his food.

When they finished, and cleaned up, Catspaw grinned like a cat.  “Now, you’ve eaten fairy food.  You know you are both my prisoners forever.”

“No offense, but there is only one lady who owns my heart,” Roland said, gently petting his horse.

Catspaw screwed up her face.  “It’s gone that far already, huh?  I guess you’re right.   Fairy food isn’t going to affect you.”

“But I’m your prisoner,” Thomas said, as he brought his horse carefully to the road.

“Naw, have your freedom.”  Catspaw waved her hand.  “I wouldn’t mind a tune or two along the way, though.”

“It would be my pleasure,” Thomas said, and fetched his mandola.

Catspaw paused, and it made Roland turn to look in the same direction.

“I thought the others, or at least Grimly would be back by now to join us,” she said, and Roland nodded, better understanding the delay for breakfast.

“We will just have to do,” he said, and Thomas began to sing.

They had a hard time keeping Roland from rushing on ahead, but at last they came to the spot that strange party of gnomes and lone minstrel had reached the day before.  The tower could be seen, and the manor house sat directly ahead.  Thomas put his hand out to keep Roland from rushing headlong into the unknown.

“We stop at the house first to see if the witch is home,” he said.

Roland nodded.  He understood but appeared terribly impatient.

“I’ll be near if you need me,” Catspaw said, as she faded from sight.

This time, Thomas did not bother with a polite knock.  He pounded on the decrepit door until he heard the shuffling feet.  The door creaked open.

“Her Ladyship is not here.  Go away,” the man said.

“Still not here?  How unfortunate.  Good to see you again, though.”  Thomas smiled.

“Her Ladyship is not here.  Go away.”  The man gave his speech, and they turned their horses toward the tower.

“What’s wrong with him?”  Roland whispered.

“No idea,” Thomas said, as they heard the door close.  “But he’s an interesting fellow.  I was haunted all night with a strange tune to set to those words.  Her Ladyship is not here, go away,” Thomas sang.  “Her ladyship is not here, go away.”

“My minstrel.”  Margueritte shouted from the tower window.  “How glad I am to see you.”

“Margueritte, my friend,” Thomas shouted back and waved.

“And who is this fine-looking knight who rides beside you?”  Margueritte asked, with just a touch of shy in her voice.

“Roland is the most noble and upright sword in the whole land.”  Thomas said with a bit of surprise in his voice.  “I am surprised your mother has not told you.”

“Mother Curdwallah is a woman of few words,” Margueritte said.  “But I am pleased to make the acquaintance of such a noble knight.  What say you?”

“You are every bit as lovely as the good bard has said.”  Roland spoke graciously, going straight to the plan.  “And your mother of few words has often praised you.”

“Kind sir, you know my mother Curdwallah?”

“We are friends for some time, and I am pleased, now, that she has given permission for the master storyteller and I to entertain you in your room so that your days may not be so long and tiresome.”

Margueritte hesitated.  “She spoke nothing of this to me,” she said.

“It was in passing just now,” Thomas said, and he pointed toward the road as if the event had just occurred.  Meanwhile, Roland dismounted and came to the base of the tower.

“But I don’t know.”  Margueritte sounded wary.

“Fine Lady, I understand your hesitation because of all the ills you have suffered, but to show you we have permission, let me say the magic words.”  Roland cleared his throat.  “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”

Margueritte hesitated no longer.  She had spent nearly a year bored out of her wits and it did not take that much convincing.  Her hair dropped quickly.

“Get ready.”  Roland whispered as he climbed to the window.

Thomas dismounted and the invisible Catspaw took the reins of both horses.  “Not bad lying for a couple of amateurs,” she whispered.  Thomas kept quiet, though they could hear nothing of what transpired in the tower.  All was still until they heard a clang!  This got followed by Margueritte, her hair cut to waist length, flying out of the window. Thomas broke her fall, but he ended up on his back with the wind knocked out of him.  Margueritte, on top of him, at least appeared unhurt.  Roland jumped from the window, but it proved high enough from the ground to twist his ankle a little when he landed.

M3 Margueritte: Rapunzel Set Free, part 1 of 3

Thomas rode slowly to the manor house.  He dismounted.  He knocked.  He waited and knocked again.  He waited some more until at last, he heard some shuffling from inside.  The door creaked open.  It appeared badly in need of repair as was the whole manor.  A man stood there squinting in the sun, with his eyes glazed over like a man of few thoughts.

“Her Ladyship is not here.  Go away,” the man said.

“I am Thomas of Evandell, come to pay my respects,” Thomas started.

“Her Ladyship is not here.”

“Might I come in and wait?” Thomas finished.

“Go away,” the man finished as well.

Both stood in silence for a minute, Thomas looked more closely at the man, and the man stared into the distance like one who could not quite focus on what he was seeing.

The man began again.  “Her Ladyship.”

“Yes, I know,” Thomas interrupted, though the man continued to say the whole speech.  “Not here.  Go away.”  Thomas finished ahead of the man.

“Go away,” the man finished.

“Well then.”  Thomas backed up to his horse.  “Tell her I came by and it was nice speaking with you.”  This set the man going again even as Thomas mounted his horse.  He turned rather lazily toward the tower and did not hear the manor door close until after the man said, “Go away.”  Though there was no one there to be talking to.

Thomas had a thought.  He pulled out his mandola and began the tune of the girls, the unicorn and the ogres.  Sure enough, a face came to the first-floor window of the tower.  It was Margueritte’s face.  She said nothing but listened intently to the story and even cried a little for joy as he sang of their heroic escape and safe return to the arms of their loving family.

“Oh, master storyteller,” Margueritte spoke at last when the song finished, and Thomas dismounted.  “That was the loveliest story.  Please tell me it was not make-believe.”

“True as rain, my lady,” Thomas said.  He was wary, not sure how deep the enchantment ran in Margueritte’s mind.  “And there are many more, wonderful, exciting, romantic stories I would be honored to share with you.”

“Oh, yes, please,” Margueritte said, excited.  “You have no idea how bored and lonely I am to be in this tower day and night without so much as one to talk to.”

“Why don’t you come down and join me for a bite to eat around a cozy fire.  I could tell you many tales,” Thomas suggested.

“Oh, I mustn’t,” Margueritte said.  “Mother Curdwallah says if I leave the tower, I will lose my mind again and have to start over, not even knowing my own name.”

“Mother Curdwallah?”  Thomas had to ask.

“Oh, yes,” Margueritte responded.  “But I hardly think so sometimes.  She can be very stern and so easily gets cross.”  Margueritte held her head up proudly but clearly had to fight back tears.

“Dear Margueritte,” Thomas said.  “Curdwallah is not your mother.  I know your real mother, and she misses you, terribly.”

Margueritte was about to say one thing, but she changed her mind with a second thought.  “You know my name?  You do not serve the evil one, do you?”

Thomas was taken aback for a moment.  “Hardly,” he said at last.  “Though it pains me to speak so of any Lady, the only evil one I know is Curdwallah herself.”

That struck a note in Margueritte’s heart.  Thomas could see the wheels turning, and he was about to say more when he heard a whisper in his ear.

“The witch is coming.”

“Alas, I must go for now,” Thomas said, quickly.

“Must you?”

“Yes, but grant me a boon sweet lady.  Keep my visit a secret and I will come again with special stories to lighten your days.”

“I shall,” Margueritte promised.

“Hurry.”  Grimly whispered.

Thomas led his horse back into the few trees and bushes out beyond the tower and suddenly found the brownies circled around him.  “No time to run.”  Grimly explained, and after a moment Grimly, Catspaw and Pipes became visible again.

“But won’t she see us?” Thomas asked.

“Hope not,” Pipes said.

“No.  You’re invisible now, like us,” Catspaw explained.

“Oh.”  Thomas understood, but suddenly started.  “But my horse.”

“Deer dew!”  Grimly swore and they all tried hard, but the tail simply would not go away.

“Gots to do,” Grimly said.

“Shhh.”  Thomas hushed him.  Curdwallah had arrived and he was intent on eavesdropping.

Curdwallah stopped beneath Margueritte’s window and took one long look around, to be sure no one was watching or listening in.  She paused and rested her eyes on the bushes where Thomas and the little ones hid.

“Damn.”  Thomas breathed to himself.  He scooted down deeper beneath the brush as Curdwallah came close.  Grimly and the others got as small as they could.

“And what’s this?”  Curdwallah said out loud as she reached out with uncanny speed and grabbed the horse’s reigns, having judged their location based on the sight of the still visible tail.  “An invisible horse.”  She said and checked the saddle area.  “Abandoned by the rider, I see.”  She raised her voice in a shout and stood nearly on top of Thomas.  “And it better stay abandoned if you know what is good for you!”  With that she brought the horse to the back side of the tower where Thomas assumed she had some place to tie off the horse.

After a moment, Curdwallah returned to the tower window and after one more look around, she shouted up.  “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”  Thomas watched as Margueritte let her hair down.  It fell within two or three feet of the ground.

Curdwallah, though she looked like an old and frail woman, grabbed hold of the hair and scaled the tower wall as easily as a monkey climbing a tree.  “Where did you ever come up with Rapunzel?”  Curdwallah asked.

“I don’t know,” Margueritte answered.  “But you said I had to pick a name other than my own.”

That was the last they heard as Curdwallah and Margueritte got lost in the tower.

“Strong woman,” Grimly whispered.

“Supernaturally strong,” Thomas agreed.

“Super-duper natural,” Pipes added.

“Better get your things while you can,” Catspaw said, and Thomas was glad at least one of them was being sensible.

It did not take long to get several miles away.  Then plans had to be made, but immediately Grimly and Pipes began to argue.  Catspaw finally settled the matter.

“I’ll go and fetch Roland from the gypsy camp,” she said.  “You boys are too slow, anyway.”

“There is that,” Grimly nodded.

“She is the fast one,” Pipes agreed while Catspaw rolled her eyes for Thomas’ sake.  He was not sure he followed it all, but he did get the distinct impression the little ones had no love for gypsies.

“I guess I better go back to the triangle, since the family knows me, you know,” Grimly said.  “Pipes, that leaves you with Little White Flower down on the Atlantique.”

“Even by secret ways that’s a two-day trip,” Pipes complained.

“You could have the gypsies,” Catspaw offered.

“Forget it,” Pipes said and rubbed his feet to get ready.

“Wait, wait.”  Thomas interrupted.  “Baron Bernard’s home is at least six or seven days from here, if not more.  How do you figure two days?”

“There’s ways,” Grimly said, softly.  The others said nothing until Catspaw transformed suddenly into something akin to a bobcat.

“Better be off,” she meowed and bounded into the brush.

“And what should I do?”  Thomas asked.

“Stay here,” Pipes said, and he started out, whistling as he went.

“But.”

“Fairy circle.”  Grimly pointed out the stones.  “Might help some if the witch comes by, but only because I like you.”  And he was gone, too.

M3 Margueritte: In the Tower, part 2 of 2

“What ho.”  They turned as they heard the sound.  Thomas of Evandell came to the triangle, and he had a whole train of followers.  Elsbeth rode right behind, with Goldenrod sitting between her horse’s ears.  Tomberlain and Owien brought up the rear.

“Thomas.”  Lord Barth and Roland spoke at once, but before they could ask what news he might have, everyone paused to watch Goldenrod fly straight to Brianna and Little White Flower.

“We were on a searchy,” Goldenrod said.  “We looked all the way to the standing circle in the Vergen, but no finding.”  That last was spoken with some melancholy, and Little White Flower could not resist becoming little to give Goldenrod a proper encouraging hug.

“I thought you might like to have them home,” Thomas said, and looked toward the sky.  “It will be dark soon enough.”

“Yes.”  Bartholomew scratched his chin.  He had instructed his son to stop these aimless searches through the woods, and his instructions to Elsbeth had been unequivocal; but perhaps that was not the time to let off his steam. “Come in and stay the night.  We will talk.”  He spun around before the temptation to explode got the better of him and Brianna stepped up while everyone dismounted.

“I expect you and Aden to come as well.”  She mentioned to Little White Flower who nodded and fluttered back to the chapel.  “Roland, do you mind?”

“Not at all,” Roland said, as he took the Bard’s horse and gave Tomberlain and Owien a look.  Tomberlain and Owien understood it would be up to them to take care of the horses while Thomas and Brianna went inside.  Elsbeth went with her mother.

Later that evening, after supper, they sat around the table and compared notes.  At last, when Tomberlain and Owien went back to the barn and Elsbeth went out to the kitchen to visit with Goldenrod and Lolly, Brianna asked what they could do next.

Everyone shrugged before Aden spoke.

“I think I may visit Baron Bernard and Lady Jessica.  I am not sure we have fully searched the Atlantique province.”

Everyone nodded but said nothing.  One fear was that somehow the Saracens had returned with a raiding party and Margueritte might even now be resting in some Arabian harem.

“I believe,” Roland started, but Barth interrupted.

“You need to be in Paris.  I see a good fight on the horizon in Belgium.  Charles needs you.”  He wagged his finger.

Roland merely shook his head.  “Gypsy camp,” he said.

“Again?”  Thomas asked.

“You’ve searched it six times this past year and always come up empty,” Aden pointed out.

“Yes, but I was thinking.  The dragon has been rather quiet these past twelve, really eighteen months; but little children are still going missing, and on a fairly regular basis.”

“But the gypsies have lost several children of their own,” Lady Brianna pointed out.

“All the same,” Roland said.  “I feel they are mixed up in this children business, and for the life of me, I cannot help believing Margueritte is somehow connected to it as well.”

“So you have said.”  Barth pointed out and turned to their guest.  “Thomas?” he asked.

Thomas of Evandell sipped his wine before he spoke, but it appeared clear he had something in mind, so everyone waited.  He smiled when he spoke.  “I was thinking I might visit DuLac.”

Some shuffling of chairs followed, and Little White Flower spoke right up.  “Brave man,” she said.  Thomas shrugged.

“It is the other place that has not been thoroughly searched,” Aden said.  “Certainly, Brittany has been covered from one end to the other.”

“Exactly,” Roland said with a yawn.  He stood.  “If you will excuse me, I think I’ll go to bed for an early start.”  That was pretty much that.

On his way up the stairs, Roland plucked a flower from the vase at the bottom.  He paused at the door to Margueritte’s room, then he stepped in and laid the flower on Margueritte’s pillow.  When he turned, he saw Elsbeth standing in the doorway.

“I don’t know if I will be good for you or for your family.”  He spoke as if to explain himself.  “But once I’ve made up my mind, I never retreat.”

“I think you will be just fine,” Elsbeth said, and she stood on her tip toes and kissed him on the cheek before she said good night, and then she wondered what it might take to get Owien to give her some flowers.

The next day, Thomas of Evandell left in the morning and rode lazily toward the north.  It was his habit to let his horse walk the road while he strummed on his instrument and sang softly to himself.  In this way, the next morning arrived before he came to the place where he agreed to meet Grimly.  He stopped there and wondered how long he might have to wait, but he hardly dismounted before Grimly came up with two other gnomes in his trail.

“Thomas the music man, this is Pipes, and his lady is Catspaw.”  Grimly made the introductions.  Thomas had to look close to see that Catspaw was indeed a female.  On first notice or from a distance he never would have guessed.

“Pleased to meet you,” Thomas said.  “I appreciate any help you might offer.  This will be a dangerous outing.”

“Don’t I know it.”  Grimly shook his head.

“On the contrary,” Catspaw said.  “We appreciate the help you are willing to give us.  She is our lady, after all.”

Thomas nodded.  “And Pipes, is it?  What have you to say?”

“I don’t take to human beans,” he said, gruffly.  “Most can’t hold a tune, and mudder music is all hollow.”  He looked determined to be contrary, but Thomas merely laughed.

“So, then you heard the one about how the young girl rode on the back of the unicorn to save her sister from the ogre’s lair?”  Thomas asked.

“Heard it?”  Pipes looked offended.  “I wrote it.”

Grimly elbowed Pipes in the ribs while Thomas smiled broadly.  “No.”  Thomas said.  “Actually, I wrote it.”

“You did?”  Pipes questioned until Grimly nudged him again and nodded.  “Oh, you’re that mudder.”  Pipes said with a smile and changed his tune.  “Well, that one’s not half bad.”  He said.  “Can’t speak for the other half, but it is not half bad.  No, not at all.”

“Well, thank you, but I am sure you know some marvelous tunes yourself,” Thomas said.  “I have heard the music of the sprites is legendary and I imagine by your name you must be a wonderful musician.”

Pipes grinned, until Catspaw spoke up again.  “Don’t compliment him too much or his head will swell and there will be no living with him.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he confided to Catspaw.  “Now, shall we go?”

“Let’s go,” Grimly said.  “Don’t know what we’ll find.  Probably our end but might just as well get it over with.”  Thomas mounted and they walked off toward DuLac, Thomas strumming and singing, Pipes adding the perfect counterpoint on his pipe, and Catspaw drumming along on a previously unnoticed bit of percussion.  Grimly simply walked, grim determination on his face.

By early afternoon, they approached the area of DuLac, and Thomas left off his music to ask some serious questions.  “Tell me again about this hole in the world.”

Grimly floated along beside him at that point.  “Well, it’s like this,” he said.  “Us sprites cover about every square inch of the land by the things that grow or move across it.  Others know the ways under the earth, and still others take to the sky.  Reports started about a month ago when Nimbus, from up there,” he pointed to the sky.  “He said he saw a young woman atop a tower by the lake.  We’ve been watching the witch especially hard these last few months.  Suspicious, you might say.  When the ground crew checked it out, from a safe distance, mind you, they found no tower.  On closer look, we found a tower there to the eye, but nothing there to our senses, if you know what I mean.  It was like a sort of hole in the Earth where the tower was there in one way, but kind of not there in another, like it was partly in another world.  I’m not saying what world, mind you, but I know the door to Avalon has been closed to us for a bit of a while now, and that is not natural.”

Thomas did not follow everything the brownie said, but he did get one thing.  “A girl in a mysterious tower,” he mused.  It was the best lead they had in months.

When they came near the manor house, Grimly pointed to the tower and stopped.  “We’ll be invisible now, if you don’t mind,” he said.  “If our Lady was here, she could make it so you could still see us, but that’s too tricky for our bit of magic.  It is safer, though, if we were not here, in case the witch is around; and you might could use some invisible help at some point, though I hope it won’t come to that.”

Thomas took a deep breath.  “So, I guess I’ll start by seeing if the Lady is home.”

“Lady?”  Pipes quipped as the gnomes joined hands, danced and sang and faded from sight.

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

MONDAY

We shall see how the prisoner in the tower does.  Until then, Happy Reading

*

R6 Greta: The Swamp of Sorrows, part 2 of 3

Greta looked hard at Lucius before she continued. “It was by trick, and with some help, I got Mithras out of the land of the dead.  He faced down Baal again, and this time he won, and Baal got sent over to the other side, and the world was saved, Hooray!  But Mithras got badly broken.  At the time, I had no idea how badly broken he was, but you know, I had a different life too, at that point in history.  Lydia had other worries, like her own husband and children, and trying to get the Han and Roman ambassadors to meet and peacefully discuss trade rather than posture from too much testosterone.”

“And Mithras did not volunteer to go over to the other side after his task was done,” Treeborn interjected.

“No,” Greta nodded.  “He went to Apollo.”

“The sun god?”  Hermes breathed.

“Yes, but Apollo, father of Aesculapius, was also a great healer.  He helped Mithras heal, though Mithras was technically dead, but Apollo could not heal the brokenness.  Apollo went over to the other side, and I wept for him.  He took his sister, Artemis, and I still weep for her because she is my best friend in the whole world, forever.  But Mithras would not go.  Instead, he fell apart.  Seven pieces of him formed themselves like a new pantheon of gods.  There is the Raven Mercury; the Nymphus Venus, Mithrasis as she calls herself; the Soldier Mars who has brought many into submission, including the Wolv; and I no longer think the Wolv are being controlled by Mithrasis. Then there is the Lion-headed man with the serpent at his feet, which is Jupiter, the judge; the Persian who is the moon and the stars, a powerful person of Magic who carries the sickle of death and rules the scorpion of the sky; Helios, the sun-runner, a demon who holds the whip of the fire of the Sun; and the Pater, Saturn, the father of them all.” Greta stopped talking, and it took a moment before anyone dared ask another question.  It was Bogus in the end.

“And what are we supposed to do about them?”

“We have to kill them, to finish the job.”  Greta spoke in a very flat voice.  “Anyone who wants is welcome to quit and go home.” Greta pulled up her blanket and laid back down where she would not have to look at them.  She was serious.  She would not blame them if the whole gang just left her to her fate.

###

Another day later, they still moved in and out of the trees.  The steppes, Greta recalled, were not necessarily endless grasslands.  Just before four in the morning on the third day, about an hour and a half before sunrise, reports came in that enemies had been sighted on the treeless section they had to cross, both to the left and to the right.  The horsemen to the left were likely Scythians.  They were the people with the sun symbols on their tunics. The horsemen to the right were the Dacians from the other day, heavily reinforced if the report proved correct.

“That is a pickle,” Hermes said.  “And when we are almost there.”

“We try to cross to the swamp and we will be crushed between the hammer and the anvil,” Briana suggested, and Alesander praised her.

“Good image.”

“We cross now,” Greta said, without a second thought.  “Pack the camp and be quick.”  She called for the fairy King.  “Treeborn, I need two volunteers, and they must be genuine volunteers because I cannot say they will come back alive.  And not you.” Treeborn’s face fell.  He thought of being one of the two.  It took a moment before two old warriors of the fee arrived, and she instructed them one at a time.

“Go seek out the chief of the Scythians and tell him the followers of the Lion, Jupiter are across the field.  Tell him the Lady and her quest will be crossing the field at dawn and point out to him that the favor and reward of Mithras cannot be shared, and then get out of there and come back to join us, and turn your natural light down so they cannot follow you with their eyes.”  The message became the same for the Dacian chief, but to suggest that the worshipers of Helios, the sun-runner were going to get the prize first if the Dacians did not move to stop them.

“Ready.”  Grassly stepped up to Greta.  Mavis had her medical bag, and Greta put it on her shoulder, over her head, and looked to see that her blanket got picked up.

“Time to move,” Alesander said, and Greta felt glad the Romans had the discipline to break camp quickly.

“Vedix and Bogus out front,” Greta said.  “Fee to the left and gnomes to the right. Come on Stinky.”

Moving as fast as they could during that hour and a half of darkness got them half-way across the field.  Then the sun touched the horizon.  They heard the horses, and should have been plain as day to the riders, but the fairies and gnomes put up a powerful glamour to make the people appear like bushes blowing in the wind, and all but invisible to the human eye. The horses pounded the earth in a full charge and Greta, and several others yelled.  “Don’t stop.  Keep going.”

Greta avoided screaming when the Dacians rode through their line.  The horses were able to sense the people and the mule and managed to avoid them, but it felt terrifying to be in the way of a cavalry charge.  A great roar split the air when the Dacians and Scythians met, fifty yards off.  Greta and her group kept moving.

They were a thousand yards from the forest at the edge of the swamps when thirty Scythians, still on horseback, and some fifty Dacians, mostly on foot, moved to cut them off from their goal.  It seemed someone woke up and remembered what they were there for, and Greta felt out of options.  The group stopped moving

“Shields on,” Alesander yelled, and the five who had shields clicked the button on their wrist-watches.

“Nudd, stay behind me,” Greta grabbed the boy and pulled him back while everyone got out their bows and swords.  They walked forward, slowly, while the Scythians got down from their horses and pulled their own bows and swords.

A volley of arrows came from the Dacians who were off to the side, in the direction of the battle.  The arrows missed or bounced off the shielding, and one bounced off Greta’s chain mailed breast and would leave a slight bruise.  Stinky bucked as one arrow grazed his flank.  Fortunately, a second volley did not follow as the Dacians charged.  Treeborn’s fairies raced out to meet the Dacians after the men only took a few steps, and they sped around the heads of the men until the Dacians began to get dizzy. Then they backed off as the gnomes stepped up.

The gnomes stood only two and three feet tall, but with their fairy weave clothing they were all but impossible to see in the tall grass.  That negated any advantage the men might have had due to size and reach, and it gave the gnome’s long knives a field day.

When the fairies backed off a few yards, they took on their big form and looked resplendent in the morning sun.  They were man sized, but wore armor and breastplates that glistened in the sun.  They began to walk forward in formation, and the Dacians decided it was not worth the effort.  Soldiers were disappearing into the grass as three and four gnomes took down one after another.  Now faced with these fairy warriors, the Dacians wisely turned and fled.

Meanwhile, the Scythians ranged themselves between the people and the swamp woods.  They looked ready to charge the oncoming group as Greta and her people walked slowly forward, but the Scythians paused when Treeborn and a half-dozen fairies landed in front of the group and took on their big size.  Grassly and a dozen gnomes stepped up with the fairies and made themselves visible.  Greta knew, unless the Scythians concentrated on them, her group still looked like bushes blowing in the wind.  But when the Scythians caught sight of what happened to the Dacians, the got back up on their horses.

“Ready for a cavalry charge,” Alesander yelled and the soldiers, Briana and Mavis made sure they had their bows and arrows ready. Greta thought she had suffered the better part of valor, and Festuscato complained so loudly that it was his turn, she just had to oblige.

“Stay behind me,” Greta told Nudd in her own voice before she went away and let Festuscato fill her boots.  He came with the helmet of Mars and all the weapons any unreasonable person might need.  He also held tight to his bow, a bow that sadly had seen plenty of action.  Mavis stepped up beside him, determination on her face.  She looked ready to die beside her mistress, even if her mistress was a man at present.

The Scythians had spears which they lowered in Samartian fashion, like Arthur and his lancers, and they were well disciplined to wait until the others crossed most of the ground on foot. They looked ready to charge when a horse and rider got tossed twenty feet through the air to land in a lump on the ground.  The Scythians started to scream, and Nudd joined them, but he only screamed once before he closed his eyes.  A whole family of ogres came tumbling out of the swamp-woods behind the horsemen.

Scythian bows and arrows were of no use at such close range.  Swords cut the ogres, but not bad or deep into their rock-hard skin, so that only made the ogres mad.  The spears were all pointed the wrong way, and when the Scythians tried to turn around to get some weight behind their spear thrust, the horses knew better and ran.

It was all over very quickly.  A dozen Scythians were down and torn up, several with their heads popped from their shoulders.  Three horses had to be put down, and the gnomes got terribly upset by that.  In fact, Grassly and his people were ready to attack the ogres right then for their carelessness, and would have if Greta did not return and yell.

“Grassly.  Take your people home and leave the ogres alone.”  She yelled to the ogre father.  “Bonebreaker, take the horses and take your family home, now.  Take your family home.”  She repeated it because ogres were not always quick to get the message.  Greta never would have been heard by people with all the yelling and screaming and thundering horses, but Greta knew her little ones would hear her loud and clear, and she hoped they heard the determination in her voice.  “Thank you Grassly.  Thank you Treeborn and Goldenrod,” she added and walked toward the tree line, Mavis beside her and Nudd stumbling behind.  Mavis had reached out and grabbed Nudd’s hand to pull him along, since he still had his eyes closed.

“And you were?”  Mavis asked quietly.

“Festuscato, Senator of Rome, and he felt disappointed that there was not a good fight.  Even now he is arguing that the turn did not count because he did not get to do anything.”

“Indeed?”

“He is weird,” Greta said.  “And a future me.”

They paused the conversation as they stepped among the trees and the morning sun faded and then vanished altogether, hidden above the canopy.

Avalon 3.5 part 2 of 5, The Interview

The giant was only nine feet tall, though perhaps bent over a bit from age. His hair and beard were gray, and his hands and face showed signs of a long life. There was an ordinary woman in his trail, about five-three, which was tall enough for a woman in that age. She had deeply tanned skin, but she had straight brown hair and bright green eyes which suggested something other than strict middle eastern heritage. The giant took a seat at the head of the table and kept one eye on the people while he gave the appearance that he was ignoring them and did not care one whit about them.

“Lockhart, I am sorry,” the woman spoke in English.

“Tara?” Lincoln asked, but they all knew who it was.Tara 3

Tara nodded. “Roland and your horses are safe for the moment. Roland is in the workhouse, talking with the gnomes about liberating your equipment. The dwarfs are being stubborn. They want to know how everything works. It’s complicated.”

“Are there humans here?” Alexis asked.

Tara nodded again. “Most of the workers are human slaves, including my people who were caught migrating through the no-man’s land.”

“And the giants?” Lincoln wondered.

“Half-breed titans, and they have found it easy to force others to do all their work and they eat anyone who does not cooperate. Somehow, we have to convince them to let you go, without eating you.”

“I thought we were under the protection of the gods,” Boston said.

“Surely,” Tara agreed. “But the gods mean nothing in this place. These half-human children of the titans worship no one in this no-man’s land. That does not mean the gods are powerless. I am sure that after they eat you, they will face terrible consequences.”

“Great!” Lincoln hardly got to start his complaint when the giant at the table interrupted.

“Woman. What are you telling these slaves?”

“Lord Veregoth.” Tara dipped her head in a slight bow toward the giant seated at the table. “I am explaining that they have been fortunate to have been selected to serve the great masters.”

“And you speak in strange words. How is this? I know every word spoken by blood or spirit.”

“They are words that do not yet exist. The words are from the future as are these people. They were headed back to the future when we interrupted their journey and brought them here.”

old giant“Woman.” Lord Veregoth shook his head. “You are speaking nonsense. People cannot travel into the past. You would have traveled into the past and taken your people by a different road, if you could. Do not deny it. And the only way to go into the future is wait until tomorrow.”

“Truly,” Tara began to speak when Lockhart put his hand quickly over Alexis’ mouth.

“Keep it in English,” Lockhart instructed everyone. “He does not need to know that we can understand him.”

Lincoln had his mouth open, and pivoted toward Tara. “Ask him how he knew where we were to capture us.”

“Young Lord Vinasa had a vision that pinpointed your exact location. That was strange since he has never had such a vision before,” Tara responded.

“Smells like a set-up,” Katie said.

“Exactly,” Lincoln agreed.

“Stop.” The giant at the table was getting agitated. “What are they saying? What are you telling them? Speak, woman.”

Tara offered another slight head bow. “They asked how you knew about them. I mentioned young Lord Vinasa and his vision, though he never had such a vision before.”

“Yes. Strange thing that he saw these people, only I see his vision did not show him everything.” Lord Veregoth eyed Lockhart and Decker. “These are bigger than most. They should do a good day’s work.” His eyes turned to Boston and Katie. “And the strange red and yellow hair might interest Lord Hoth. He likes different things.” Lord Veregoth shrugged. “But the ugly one,” he said of Elder Stow. “I do not know what he is. He seems strange to me. Can they explain?”

Tara translated and Lockhart answered, with Tara translating again. “The red and yellow hair are future colors and do not belong here. Elder Stow is of the Gott-Druk, the people who once lived in this land and were driven out to the stars in the days of the flood. We are all from the future and are trying to get back there as quick as we can. The gods have made a way, but it is a hard and long journey.”

“Enough!” Lord Veregoth shouted and stood. “Do you think I am a fool? No one comes from the future. That is impossible. We are all going into the future, but it is day by day. No one can get there faster.” Lord Veregoth looked down on the travelers, and he had murder in his eyes, and maybe supper.

Alexis shook her head and Lincoln whispered. “The brilliant and stupid share the same flaw. Instead of adjusting their thinking to fit the facts, they adjust the facts to fit their theories.”

Alexis responded with a whisper of her own. “I was thinking he is a radical twenty-first century atheist who denies any reality that doesn’t fit with his preconceived worldview.”giant madman

“Quiet,” Lord Veregoth roared and slammed a hand on the table, but then he paused in his anger as a young ten foot giant burst into the room, and left the door open.

“Vinasa,” Tara managed to name the giant before the giant pointed at the travelers and laughed.

“Now your days are finished,” Vinasa said. “Behold the dead will eat the living.” There was a wild look in his eyes, and an insane sound in his laughter. “The great one speaks. The dead will eat the living,” he repeated before he collapsed.

Two young men came running in through the open door, shouting, “Tara! Tara!”

Lord Veregoth dropped his jaw, looked at the unconscious Visana spread across the entrance, and seemed to have trouble framing his question.

Avalon 3.5 Strange Bedfellows, part 1 of 5

After 2914 BC in the Persian No-Man’s Land. Kairos lifetime 38: Tara of Sumer

Recording …

At the beginning of the journey, back in the days of primeval chaos, at the beginning of history, Lincoln and Alexis, a couple in their sixties, were restored to their youth. Lincoln claimed to be twenty-nine because Alexis appeared to end up closer to twenty-four. Yet, despite their youth, Lincoln and Alexis argued like only old, married couples know how to argue. Lincoln tried to end it by saying Alexis was right, but Alexis did not end it because she knew Lincoln was lying and just trying to end the argument. The first interesting thing about it all was they were arguing about something that was none of their business—the way old, married couples so often do.

“But if Roland becomes human, that would kill father,” Alexis said.

“Your father Mingus has pretty much abandoned us as far as I can tell,” Lincoln responded. “Why should it matter what he thinks?”elf1

“Oh, he is still out there,” Alexis assured him. “He may be watching us this very minute.”

“Good,” Lincoln said, and he reached over and gave Alexis a kiss. “But I just don’t see Boston willing to give up her humanity to become an elf. That is a choice Roland will have to make, as you did.”

Alexis squirmed in her seat. “Boston already has a lot of elf in her, the way she talks and acts and thinks. The physical change would not change her much on the inside.”

“But some. Enough. It would be a tremendous difference on the inside in some ways, and on the outside. I mean, what would her parents and brothers think?”

“There are ways,” Alexis hedged. “She has enough magical ability to cover herself with a glamour. They would not have to know.”

“Ah! But what about children?”

“Elves don’t conceive but maybe once in a hundred years. They might not have any children until after her parents are gone, and maybe after her brothers are gone too.”

campfire 1“Maybe. Might. I just don’t see her willing to give up her humanity.”

“Well, I don’t see Roland giving up being the elf he is. It would kill father if both of us became human.”

“Having second thoughts?” Lincoln used that phrase often enough in all their years of marriage.

“Benjamin, you know I am not,” Alexis responded and gave him the kiss she always did.

Of course, the second interesting thing about it all was they were supposed to be on watch. It was near midnight, the horses were tied and quiet, and everyone else was asleep. To be fair, they had ridden all day and not seen any sign of people. And also, the sleeping potion, a poppy derivative, came wafting into the camp on a gentle breeze and Alexis and Lincoln were asleep even before it worked its way into the tents.

The horses were carted off by gnomes who learned the hard way that these horses were not for eating. Two gnomes tried to cut Boston’s Honey, and a third went for Alexis’ Misty Gray, and they all received electric shocks strong enough to incapacitate them for a good half-hour. It was the hedge of the gods and particularly, the work of the Kairos. They did not try that again.

The tents and equipment were all taken by dwarfs. They tried to take the clothing as well, but found the fairy weave only responded to the person to whom it belonged. They might have taken Elder Stow’s space suit, but they decided they did not want to deal with a naked Gott-Druk. They were content to take the Elder’s artifacts.

The people, including the Gott-Druk, were taken by the Giants who ruled this stretch of land. The gnomes and dwarfs and the human beings who were their slaves dared not complain, or even point out the obvious. Nothing makes a giant angrier than the belief that you are speaking down to them, like they are stupid or something. And nothing is worse, well, little is worse than an angry giant. In this case, the giants thought they had new slaves and horse bacon. The gnomes decided to let the giants learn for themselves about the horses. And the dwarfs, and in fact the little ones in general by then knew something about the travelers. They dreaded the consequences if the giants tried to have their way.desert at dawn 1

Roland woke up in the wee hours before dawn. He woke several hours before the others because he had a high metabolism. It was not the kind of metabolism that made him want to eat second breakfast or thirds at lunch, like a dwarf. But it was the kind that kept him skinny. In this case, the sleep of the poppies wore off sooner than it did for the others.

Roland found himself left where he slept. The Giants did not want the elf. He hummed a little tune as he searched the area. The tents were gone and the horses were missing, not to mention his fellow travelers, and when he reached to his side, he found even his knife was gone. Somewhere out in the dark, he heard the roar of a lion. He stood, thinking it was not a good thing to be alone in the wilderness, especially one that Lincoln had described as a no-man’s land.

Roland had to think. Tracking the group would be easy enough. He was a hunter, after all. But what he might do when he got there, he would have to think hard. He saw the giant tracks even in the dim light of pre-dawn.

The rest of the travelers awoke in a one-room log house made out of whole trees notched like a child’s Lincoln logs and with a twenty foot ceiling over a dirt floor. There were thin cut windows spaced evenly along the walls, barely wide enough to shoot an arrow through, and just the one door that Lockhart guessed was more than twice his six feet in height. There was also a table with three chairs on each side and one at each end. Lockhart, at over six feet, could sit in a big chair and barely reach his chin above the table. He looked like a child.

“Giants,” Lincoln said. “I would guess the ten foot variety.”

“There are houses off to the side here.” Alexis was peering through a window at the far side of the building.

“Barn in this direction,” Boston said. She was looking out the opposite direction, through a window by the door. “It’s a really big barn. I wonder if they have giant chickens or something.”

“I would guess our horses, guns and equipment are in there somewhere,” Katie said.big wooden door 2

“Looks like a graveyard out here,” Decker said, and everyone went to the side wall to look. There were only four slit windows along that side wall, but it was enough to see the graves.

“Between the houses and the barn,” Alexis said. “Like a warning.”

“Like a threat,” Decker countered.

“Do what you are told or end up here,,” Lincoln agreed.

“Visitors.” Lockhart heard the latch on the door and quickly got down from the chair. The others bunched up around him.