R6 Greta: The Persian, part 3 of 3

Bogus shouted.  “Pincushion spent too much time with the gnomes.  The horses think she is their mother.”

“They do not,” Pincushion yelled and slapped Bogus on the arm to stop him from laughing.  “You—”

“Hush,” Greta said quietly, and Pincushion hushed, but she slapped Bogus once more, just because.  The men, who stopped and took a step back on the appearance of the dwarfs all saw how those same dwarfs answered to the lady in armor.  They got doubly surprised when that same lady scolded the woman who got them out of the fort dungeon.  “Mavis, why have you taken on your glamour of humanity.  I thought you were going full elf in the wilderness.”

Mavis looked back once at the men who had stopped and turned a bit red.  “These men are not so wild,” she said in a voice directed to Greta’s ears.

“Hush,” Greta repeated her word.  “These men are plenty wild, and if they get ideas about a beautiful young woman, they will show you how wild they can be.”  Greta snapped her fingers and Mavis’ glamour fell away to reveal the elf beneath.  Mavis looked down, now fully embarrassed, but Hermes squeezed her hand in support.  “Now,” Greta said to the men who stared at Greta with mouths open.  “Venedi?”

One older man with black hair and eyes stepped forward.  “Chief Venislav of the Moldav,” he introduced himself, Mavis translating, and another man, a tall blond stepped up beside him.

“Olaf of the Goths of the Elba, but this town is Venedi. We came here to form an alliance against the barbaric Scythians who are stealing our land and raiding our crops, but the people betrayed us and threw us in the dungeon.”

“How do we tell one barbarian from the other?” Hermes whispered, as Alesander and Briana came up holding hands.  Vedix still seemed determined to fetch the bones out of the water.

Chief Venislav put his hand up to the big Goth and took up the story.  “They fed us for two days, but on the third day they claimed the terror from the south was coming and they abandoned their homes in fear and panic.”

“Cowards,” Olaf scoffed.

Greta could not help the curtsey.  She still felt empowered from just being the goddess Amphitrite and from successfully overcoming the Persian.  “I assume they meant me.  Do I frighten you?  I mean you no harm.”  Greta saw the smiles on the strangers faces and knew the thoughts they were thinking were anything but frightening.  “We are travelers on an errand of mercy in the north, to save my family and friends from the Land of the Lost.”  The men lost that look and took another step back, like they knew the place and had lost friends or family there.

“The Wolv have come and rule the forest there,” Olaf said.

“Yes,” Greta sighed.  “But one thing at a time.  I am glad we could set you free.  You are free to go, to retrieve your horses and return to your people in peace. I am Mother Greta, woman of the ways for the Dacian people, wise woman for the Romans and druid for the Celts. My father is the high chief of the Dacians in the Roman province and my husband is the governor appointed by the emperor himself.  If you wish to make a friend in your fight against the Scythians, come talk to my husband and my father.”

Olaf shook his head though Venislav looked willing. Venislav clearly did not know the Romans except maybe by distant rumor, but Olaf spoke.  “We want no Romans in our land.  They are worse than the barbaric Scythians.”

Alesander stepped up and answered the man.  “I am Alesander, a war chief among the Romans, and I can tell you Rome wants nothing of the Germanys or the steppes.  Dacia provides what Rome needs and otherwise, Rome is happy with the Danube and the Rhine as borders.  Rome wishes only to live at peace with her neighbors.”

“The Scythians know nothing about peace,” Greta added.  “One man might die.  Two might be injured, but three and four men can kill the wild bear.  You need not give me an answer, but meanwhile, go in peace.”

The men looked prepared to do that very thing when Bonebreaker stepped up beside Greta.  Hermes let out a little shriek and pulled Mavis aside to give the big fellow plenty of room.  “Lady,” Bonebreaker spoke in a voice that encouraged the Goths and Slavs to take a couple of more steps back.  “I feel much better.  This is good.”

“It is,” Greta said, with a warm smile.  “But your big, ugly, smelly self is frightening our new friends,” Bonebreaker lifted his chin a little at the compliment.  “You need to go home now, and thank you for all your help.”  Greta put some urgency in the go home part, and Bonebreaker felt strongly that going home was the thing he wanted most.  He turned to walk off, but after two steps he vanished as Greta sent him home.

“If you pledge friendship, I will meet these Romans of yours,” Chief Venislav said.  He looked like a man who thought it best to stay on Greta’s good side.

“I will think about it,” Olaf agreed with that much, and they and their men sought out their horses among the herd.  What blankets, saddles and equipment they had got stored in the barn out behind the big building, though Greta could not swear they did not take some extra things.  For her crew, Bogus, Pincushion, Mavis and Hermes found eight good horses.

By the time the Riders all stopped at the cave entrance, Vedix had all the bones he could reach stacked up with plenty of dry wood against the scorpion carcass.  He set it on fire, pronounced a Celtic curse against the bones of an enemy, and they all rode through the cave before the smell got too bad.  As expected, the tunnel led them to the back side of the hills and cliffs that penned in the river.  There, the Goths went off to the northwest.  The Slavs rode off to the northeast.  Greta and her group headed straight north along a wagon trail.

“Under the heart of the goddess,” Mavis said.

Greta nodded since she had figured it out. “Carpasis, Oread of the Carpathian Mountains buried her pet dragon here.  She probably created the hill to do it.  That old dragon got loose in the end and ate his way straight across the Ukraine.  He finally fell to old age, here in this place.”

“As you say,” Mavis said, and fell quiet.

“The road of dreams,” Briana called it, and she looked at Alesander like she might be dreaming about something.

“I seem to be missing someone,” Alesander said quietly to Greta.

“I told you,” Greta responded.  “Lucius is a Mithrite.  He kind of gave himself away back there.  I hope we don’t see him again, but I bet he will follow us.”

Alesander nodded, and spurred up front to ride beside Briana.  Hermes and Mavis rode behind Greta, and Bogus and Vedix took the flanks.  Sadly, that put Greta next to Pincushion.

“I know how to handle these horses,” she spoke too loud.  “But I never thought I would have to ride on one.  My legs hurt already and my butt is going to be so sore in the morning it will probably swell up to three times its size.”

“Shh,” Greta said.  “The baby is sleeping.”  She patted her belly, and Pincushion got mostly quiet for a while.  Mostly.

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

MONDAY

The Road of Dreams.  Until then, Happy Reading

*

R5 Festuscato: Over the Alps, part 2 of 3

Every few days they stopped to hunt or fish.  Most of the company had been made up of men from the Italian countryside, not from Rome itself.  Many of them were raised hunters and fishermen, where winters could be lean, even in sunny Italy.  A few of them were very good, like Tiberius who first picked up a bow and arrows at age seven, though he admitted he never saw anyone as good on the hunt or as good with a bow as Festuscato.

Early on morning, the sun just having cracked the horizon, Festuscato, Tiberius and Julius found themselves in the woods, on the trail of a deer.  Festuscato complained that he did not have a haunted woods, like Greta.  He wanted a haunted woods, but he did not explain himself at that time.  They came to an upland meadow full of spring flowers and Festuscato hushed his companions.  He saw the deer.  It turned out to be a small herd, contentedly munching away.  The others did not see them until a couple of them moved. Festuscato pointed to the two easy targets and got ready to take down a third.  It took a lot of food to feed fifty-seven people.

“Now,” Festuscato spoke softly.  His deer fell.  Tiberius crippled his and finished with a second arrow.  Julius shot a bit off.  The deer would die in time, but it could run.  Fortunately, Festuscato anticipated this and had a second arrow ready. The herd ran off, of course, but they had three good kills, and what they did not eat that day or the next, they could smoke and chew on all week.  “Good thing Mirowen has people out gathering greens, berries and tubers.  I would hate to have everyone down with scurvy, though I don’t mind Atkins so much.  Tiberius.”

“On my way,” Tiberius said.  He would go back to camp and bring men and horses to carry the meat, while Julius and Festuscato defended it.  He did not get very far.  A dozen rough looking men, Goths more than likely, moved up to surround them.  They were on horseback, and the obvious leader, a tall blond, triggered Festuscato’s mouth.

“Riders of Rohan. We have been tracking a party of orcs. They have two hobbits with them, little people.  They would look like children in your eyes.  Have you seen them?”  The blond and several others got down from their horses.  About half of the Goths remained mounted.

“Orcs?” the blond asked with a playful look.  He felt confident that he had the upper hand.

“What you would call goblins.  They will have gone to ground come daylight, but they can’t be far.”

“Goblins?” The man certainly knew the word, and he scoffed.

“Of course. This is the haunted forest, or about as good a one as you can get around here.”  Festuscato complained again.  A couple of Goths laughed, but the blond shot them a hard look.  He got tired of this foolishness.  “Just a minute,” Festuscato interrupted the idea of getting down to business.  “Pinewood,” he called.  Pinewood fluttered in, which made the Goths all take a big step back.  The fairy changed to his big size and went to one knee.

“Yes, Lord.”

“Please inform Mirowen that we may be a bit late for lunch, and remind Marcellus that he has passengers to defend.”

“Yes, Lord. I believe Dumdiddle and a number of locals are watching from the woods.  I am sorry, though.  The goblins did go to ground with the sunup.”

“Quite all right. I’ll catch up with them at a later time.”

“Very good, Lord.” Pinewood immediately got small again and flew off with some speed.

“Now, I believe you were about to tell me something.”

The blond Goth gave Festuscato a much closer look.  This did not appear to be your typical rich Roman, lost in the woods.  He spoke, but it came out loud and not without some fear in his voice.  “This is our hunting ground.”

“Excuse me,” Festuscato interrupted again.  He shouted. “Don’t kill them.  I’ll let you know if I need you to hurt them.” Festuscato noticed the eyes of Julius stayed steady as if the appearance of Pinewood in his fairy form simply confirmed what he guessed; or maybe Mirowen, or worse, Drucilla told him. Tiberius had his eyes as wide open as any Goth, but he held his tongue.  “I am Senator Festuscato Cassius Agitus.  My centurion is Julius and my archer here is Tiberius.  Do you have a name?”

“Heinrich,” The man said, while his eyes carefully scanned the trees.

“Good to meet you.”  Festuscato reached out and shook the man’s hand before Heinrich knew what was happening. “Now, I apologize.  We had no idea this was a claimed hunting preserve.  You are welcome to our kill, though one to share with my men would be very nice.”  He gave his warmest, friendliest smile.

Heinrich saw nothing in the trees.  He pulled his sword and the men on foot with him pulled theirs as well.  “What I want is your gold.”

Festuscato never lost his smile and he patted himself down.  He had taken to living in the armor of the Kairos because he said it made dressing in the morning so easy, and the fairy weave he wore beneath the leather could be cleaned and freshened with a thought.  “Sorry.  No gold with me.  But I’ll tell you what I can do.  Why don’t I hire you.  We are heading over the alps and could use a good guide.  Do you know the mountains?  It would be good if we avoided any highway robbers or brigands or that sort of thing, and I pay well.”

“Lord Agitus?” Julius did not like that idea, but Festuscato hushed him.

“Maybe you and your lieutenant.  I have a big enough troop as it is to try and keep fed.  But, as I said, your men are welcome to these deer.  Oh, but I don’t know if you can trust your men to keep things while you are away.  Still, it is a fair offer, I can pay in gold if you like and no one will follow after you to try and take your head, if you know what I mean.”

Heinrich clearly thought about it.  He stepped back to confer with his men, one in particular who Festuscato would remember by the scar down the man’s cheek.  When he turned, he smiled, but it looked a bit fake.  “Gotlieb and I will show you the way over the mountains,” he said. “Two,” he shouted to his men and they took two of the deer, mounted and rode off, Scarface last of all.  Heinrich and Gotlieb grabbed their horses while Julius helped Tiberius get the last deer up on his shoulders.  “Gotlieb was born and raised on the other side of the mountains and I know this side and the passes very well.”  Heinrich started exactly in the direction of the camp and said, “So where is this camp of yours?”

“Not far,” Festuscato said, as Pinewood met them at the edge of the meadow in his big form, to walk with them.

“Dumdiddle is happy things worked out, but he says he has a very disappointed ogre that didn’t get to pound anyone.”  Pinewood spoke freely, but he spoke in Greek assuming that the Goths did not speak Greek. Julius did.  Festuscato nodded, but did not respond.  Pinewood spoke again after a moment.  “The Lord under the Mountains says he will watch the camp in the night.”

“Very good.” Festuscato thought about it.  “But Julius, tell Marcellus he needs to set up a regular watch through the night.  At least four men per shift, three shifts in the twelve hours.  They need to guard the perimeter and keep at least one other in sight at all times. Maybe five men, middle shift, in the dark of the night.  They need to keep their eyes open for Goths that may be following.  This night watch needs to become routine, from now on, Goths or no Goths.”  Festuscato reverted to Old German so Heinrich was sure to understand.  “Oh, and Pinewood.  Please tell the Lord under the Mountains that his people are not to eat any Romans or any passengers as well.  What he does with outsiders is up to him to decide.”

“Very good, my Lord.”

Festuscato and Julius had no illusions and imagined that Scarface and the rest of Heinrich’s men would follow them, but they never came close enough to the camp to be a bother.  In part, that may have been because Festuscato and Julius halted the group everyplace they found level ground.  There, they spent a few days going through their lessons before moving on.  No telling how the company might perform in battle, but at least they were proficient enough at their tasks to be impressive to any observers.  “The chief object is to not have to fight,” Festuscato said, and Julius agreed.  Father Gaius added an Amen, just to be clear.