R6 Greta: Cleaning Up, part 2 of 3

When Greta woke, she did not want to move. She rested in Darius’ arms, and she wanted to just stay that way forever.  Sadly, they were in Kurt’s small bed, so they had no room to move. One move of her arm, and Darius woke, and Mavis woke from her place on the floor.  Greta considered that at least her bed was bigger than Padme’s bed where Hans and Berry were sleeping.  Berry slept on top as Han’s blanket, which she would not be able to do much longer, when she began to show.  Kurt and Padme squeezed into bed with Bragi and Karina.  Father slept in the chair, which he did not mind since he often slept sitting up to reduce his snoring.

“My family,” Greta sighed softly, and got up. Darius wanted to hold her some more, and that made her smile and kiss him before she killed that thought.  “We both have work to do,” she said, and he reluctantly understood.

Pincushion, in the other room, had already started cooking things that smelled wonderful.  That was what woke her, and Greta knew the others would come stumbling out of the back room soon enough.

“I have work, I don’t know about you,” Darius said. “We will probably spend the next week burying the dead, and Hadrianus and the elders of Porolissum have plans to turn our temporary battements into a permanent city wall.  They want it big and made out of stone.  I have to write letters to Marcus and the emperor telling them everything that happened here and about our plans.  I am going to ask for a second legion in the province since we are sticking out the way we are into enemy territory and have the longest, most indefensible border in the whole empire.”

“I understand,” Greta said as she sat beside him and took and squeezed his hand.  “And the enemy?”

“We watched and got reports in the dark that they all moved off.  I suspect by this point there won’t be one in sight.  They had orders to wake me if that was not so.”

“Just as well,” Greta said, and pecked at his lips.

Greta paused while Darius seriously kissed her.

“I got that feeling that you were about to go somewhere,” he said.

Greta nodded, but Pincushion interrupted.  “Not before breakfast.”

Then Mavis interrupted. “Not without me.”  And Greta sat and waited as others came out to join them, and they all ate wonderfully well, and too much.

After breakfast, Greta took Darius out the front door, Mavis following, and Greta explained her intentions.  “I may be gone a few days.  I don’t know how badly the Wolv transport may be broken.”

“All right.  But come home as soon as you can.  I am going to need your wisdom to craft the letter concerning General Pontius and his followers.”

Greta shook her head.  “Mithras will probably keep the cult alive as long as he is alive, but it won’t be the same.  The rituals will become just that, rituals, and the compulsion to devotion will be gone. I hope he will find the courage and be willing to end his journey in the next hundred and fifty years or so.”

“You were shaking your head?”  Darius knew her.  She had something else in mind.

Greta smiled and tapped on his chest.  “You, Mister Governor who is not yet retired, need to work on turning the Goths and Slavs into serious friends and allies for the future.”

“Not the Celts?”

Greta shook her head again.  “I have a feeling the Lazyges may become ornery in the next twenty or thirty years and the Celts may try to blend in with the Latin population of Dacia, and maybe extend the western border a little to include them, for their own protection.”

“So they should be like citizens of the Province?”

“Ask Rhiannon if you can catch her, but I think so, more or less.”

Darius nodded and stepped back, ready to move out when they saw Alesander, Briana, Hermes, Vedix and Bogus coming down the road, a loaded down Stinky trailing along behind.

“No, no,” Greta said.  “Not this time,” and she went away so Danna could take her place, and Danna grabbed Mavis’ hand and they vanished from that place altogether.

###

Danna was able to make sure no one watched when she and Mavis appeared just outside the Great Hall of the Governor’s residence in Ravenshold. Danna traded back to being Greta before anyone noticed, and Mavis let go of Greta’s hand so she could carry Greta’s red cloak.

“Mother,” Greta called as she stepped into the hall, and for one moment it felt like she never left.  Mother was right there, feeding Marta, and Gaius sat on the floor with Selamine, playing with his wooden soldiers.  That moment ended with shouts and running

Greta had to kneel down to hug Gaius, who got there first.  She felt sure she could not lift the big five-year-old in her condition. Fortunately, Selamine scooped him up so Greta could stand and hug her mother who wept.  Then she picked up Marta with a word.

“Careful.  Ugh. You don’t want to hurt the baby.”

“Greta!”  Mother noticed.  “Boy or girl. Oh, but now you are home, and just in time I would say.”

“I hope it is a boy,” Gaius piped up.

“I hope it is a girl,” Marta said, just to be contrary.

“Sibling rivalry?  But they have gotten so big.  Mother, I have missed so much and I will never get it back.”

“Hush,” Mother took Greta’s hand and helped her to the table where she returned Marta to her chair and took one for herself. “You are home now.  That is all that matters.”

“But I am not home now,” Greta said.  “I am not really here.  There is still unfinished business, but I missed my children so much.” Gaius wriggled out of Selamine’s arms so he could come up and put his hands on his mother’s thigh and look up into her face.  She tussled his hair.  “He is starting to look like his father.”

“I look like you,” Marta said and reached her hands out for another hug.  She was dark haired like a Celt or Roman, not very light blond, and she had a skinny face instead of Greta’s round face, and she had clear skin without a freckle, so the truth was she did not look at all like Greta.  Greta imagined Marta would grow up to be a beauty, but Greta hugged her and she scooted Gaius up on to her lap and only moaned a little.

“What do you mean you are not really here?” Mother was thinking.

“I mean word has not reached here yet, but in a couple of days, riders will arrive from the north and say Porolissum is under attack. Well, it already happened and everyone is all right.  Hans and Berry are home safe, and Bragi, Karina and their children are all safe. The legion from Apulum with some help from our Celtic friends and others defeated the enemy and drove them off.”

“Your father?”

“Father is fine,” Greta smiled.  “And I hope we will all be home soon, safe and sound. and you know what?”

Gaius knew enough to say, “What?”

Greta talked to him. and poked his little nose. “Your aunt Berry is going to have a baby too.”

“What?”  Mother sounded surprised.  “But they are just children.”

“They are growing up, and so are my children. Gaius is getting to be a big boy.” Gaius squirmed for a more comfortable seat and Greta moaned and smiled at the same time.

“Now, that’s enough.  Selamine.”  Mother spoke and Selamine picked up Gaius again.

“Mother, I really have to go,” Greta said as she stood. She kissed Marta, her mother, and Gaius, though Gaius turned shyly from the kiss and buried his face in Selamine’s shoulder.  Greta started toward the door, Mavis on her heels, and she thought to distract her mother with a question.  “How is that new tutor, P. Cassius Andronicus working out?”

Mother had to stop walking to think a minute. “Not much for him to do, so far,” she said, but by then she came a dozen steps behind.  By the time she got out the door to the Great Hall, Greta had vanished with her handmaid and her red cloak.

R6 Greta: The Sun Runner, part 3 of 3

Gerraint put away his sword, and when the titan fell dead on his face, he leapt up on the titan’s back, grabbed the lance, and finished pulling it all the way through.  He thanked Hephaestus for the fingerless gloves that protected the palms of his hands, because the lance felt as hot as fire itself.  Grassly had a bucket of water, as Rhiannon instructed him, and Gerraint stuck the point in the water and watched it steam for a minute.

By the time Stinky arrived, Manannan also arrived, and he had a pouch in his hand.  “Poppy seeds,” Manannan said.  “To help it sleep.”  He tied the pouch around the lance point and held it until the lance stopped wiggling.

“Don’t go far away,” Gerraint commanded as was his nature as a king and a knight of the Round Table.

“Never far,” Manannan insisted, before he and the lance vanished.

“Lord,” Grassly shouted to him as Gerraint mounted the mule.  “The knights and the enemy are about to meet.”

Gerraint said nothing, but he did not want to look. He felt sorry for the Sarmatians being, by comparison, such amateurs.  Gerraint heard the titan deflate and saw it start to liquefy.  He saw the spark of life leave the titan body and shoot up to the man-made ridge where the Pater, Mithras undoubtedly still stood.  He thought about the thousands of men on each wing that were about to press the attack, but in the center of the field, with the gnomes all but invisible, it looked like only one man stood.  One woman, he thought, and traded back to Greta’s life.  He brought back her dress and red cloak, and she reached out to pet her mule.

“Walk gently, Stinky,” Greta said, though Stinky seemed inclined to do that very thing, and several of the gnomes accompanied her to help.

Greta almost got back to the Roman lines when she had company.  A man appeared out of thin air.  He rode on a plain horse and said nothing.  Greta knew who it was without having to look, and for all of her efforts, she still did not like the man.  It was a personality thing, she decided.

“I wonder if this was how Mary felt riding into Bethlehem,” Greta said.  She shifted to ride side-saddle, and that relieved a bit of the pressure.  Lucius made no response, but Greta knew Lucius had no doubt to whom she referred.

Greta had to dismount when she reached the ridge fortification.  No way she could force her mule to climb that.  The gnomes brought Stinky.  Greta held her belly as she climbed.  The man beside her dismounted when she did, and he saved the horse by letting it vanish and go back to where it came from.  He offered to help Greta up the hill, but she withdrew.  She did not want him to touch her.

Up top, Greta found the women standing to one side, Rhiannon out front.  The men all stood on the other side, with Darius, Manannan and Alesander keeping a wary eye on the man in their midst.  Mithras stood alone, in the same spot where he had been when he first arrived. The whip had gone, but his staff remained, and he leaned heavily on it.  He looked every bit like a very old man who suddenly felt his age.  Greta stopped, said nothing, and looked at the man as he spoke.

“Apollo prophesied that the seven pieces of Mithras would not be made as one until time herself lifted her hand against them. For a while, at first, I though the seven pieces meant I would have seven children.  Even when I became shattered and I guessed Apollo was talking about you, the Kairos time, that did not make sense.  You were a man, turning back an invasion of Wolv and fighting against Trajan and his weapons in Mesopotamia.  Early on, when Mithrasis and I trapped each other in the north, I managed to persuade a young man to come north in search of his grandmother. I thought, just in case you came this way, you might make the effort to free your half-spirit of the earth, and him being only a half spirit, I knew I could hang on to him and force you to come. But then Mithrasis brought down a Wolv transport and I became forced to turn that man into a dragon for my own protection.

Suddenly, you were born a woman in this place, and I started to put it together, but I was trapped in the ancient dome and it seemed impossible to reach you.  Then, entirely by chance or as you Christians would say, by providential grace, I discovered that my soldier-self, my Mars, felt ready to rebel.  He tried to hide among the Romans, but I got word to him.  He is the one who told Mithrasis about the leftover guns of Trajan that were hidden in the Temple Mount of Ravenshold. But when I saw how her plans failed so spectacularly, I truly began to despair.  Then my soldier-self told young Hans and Berry where Berry could find her father.  The rest you know, except let me say this, that I have never known such love or good company than I had these last two years with Hans and Berry, Fae and Hobknot. You, my dear, are a very lucky woman to have such a family to love.”  Mithras wiped one eye where a tear wanted to fall.

Greta said nothing as Lucius stepped forward to face the man, Mithras.  “It is time for us to go,” he said.  “As was made clear to me often enough on our journey north; the old way has gone.  The new way has come.  The time for the gods is over and we must go over to the other side.” Lucius said no more as he reached out and hugged the old man.

“No, no.”  Greta understood right away, and she felt awful about it and wanted to protest. She looked at her faithful Centurion, Alesander, but he could only look away.   Darius would have done it for her, but he could not.  Only she could do the deed.  Manannan and Rhiannon showed no expression.  Mavis cried.

With one hand on her belly and tears in her eyes, Greta called to her long knife, Defender.  It appeared in her hand, and she shoved it into Lucius’ back where his heart ought to be.  Neither Lucius nor Mithras made a sound.  Greta pulled Defender back out, and Lucius began to crumble.  They saw a flash of light, and Mithras stood alone on the ridge top.  Greta cried great big tears while Darius ran to her, to hold her and offer every ounce of comfort he had.

“I am whole again,” Mithras said quietly.  “I must think about the other side.”

“You can do it,” Greta interrupted her cry.  “You have the courage.  I have seen it.”

Mithras made no answer.  He simply faded until he vanished.  Curiously, Danna’s disobedient children who themselves had yet to let go of this life had also gone from sight.

Darius still cooed when Greta pushed back.  “Oh, but Darius,” she pointed.  The enemy on the wings were starting the attack, and though the Sarmatians withdrew completely from the battle, perhaps because they concluded the magic turned against them was too great for victory, there were some seven thousand Scythians determined to get some revenge for their beating the day before.  That still added up to some twenty-one thousand men attacking some sixteen thousand human defenders.  Greta knew, if it was not for the addition of her little ones, the defenders in their bunkers and behind their make-shift walls and ridge would be hard pressed to fight off such an attack.  Greta buried her face in Darius’ chest.  She did not want to watch.  She did not do well in panic situations.

The Goths on the left, with their Roman and Celtic allies fought like the berserkers Greta called them.  As they showed no quarter and drove back the Lazyges and Outsider Dacians with their fury, the Romans and Celts were impressed that these men were serious about war, and very good at it.

On the right, the Slavs, with their Celts and Romans had a bit more difficulty, in part because the Slavs kept attacking, like they were the aggressors, not the defenders.  Small pockets of Slavs kept getting surrounded by the enemy, and it took some serious work to rescue them.  When they did, they usually found a pocket of Slavs surrounded by dead bodies, and the Slavs laughing and ready to do it again.  Indeed, Venislav seemed to laugh the whole time, even when he hacked an enemy in two.  The Romans and Celts came away from there thinking that these Slavs were warriors and great fighters, but also insane.  Eventually the enemy figured this out as well, and when they withdrew, no doubt some felt they were lucky to get away from those mad men.

In the center, Drakka, Bragi and the men of Porolissum were backed up by the Romans and Celts.  Nudd and his brothers fought there, and Hans finally got to use that sword. Father was in charge, and when the Scythians dismounted outside the trenches and spikes, he charged, Slav style. The Scythians were not ready for that turning of the table, and they withdrew.  Father ran his people back to their wall and bunkers, before the arrows started to fly again.

Father pulled that off twice, but by the third time he figured he might be pushing his luck and kept his men back to await the attack. It proved wise, because the third attack came with less men on foot and more men still in the saddle firing arrows to keep the Roman and Celtic heads down.  Once the Scythians on foot got near enough to be in the way, the Scythians had to hold their arrows, and many of them dismounted and joined the attack. They got close, too close for many of the defenders, but this time, Father used his advantages.  He let loose the goblins, the trolls, ogres and dwarfs with their big axes and their most frightening aspect.  Most of the Scythians screamed, turned and ran to be picked off by elf and fairy archers, who rarely missed.  Those who did not run right away became meat for the grinder. By the time the Romans moved out in formation, backed up by the Celts and Bragi’s locals, they only had some cleaning up to do.

Greta yelled at her father the minute she heard. How dare he put her little ones in that kind of danger.  They were there, kind enough to back up the humans.  They were not there to take the lead.  Some of them got killed, and Greta did not talk to her father for a whole day. The only thing that made it palatable was the fact that the little ones all praised her father for what he did, and thought things like it was about time they got the chance to really fight, and said things about how they hated to always have to be in the background.

“You’re all crazy,” Greta shouted.

“So I keep saying,” Venislav agreed.  “Your sprites are hard to trust and all crazy in the head.”  Coming from Venislav, that did not help.

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

MONDAY

Greta is angry and upset, and the Scythians refuse to leave the battlefield, even though they know the tide has turned against them.  Greta dreads what she will have to do to clean up the mess.  Monday: Cleaning Up.  Until then, Happy Reading.

*

R6 Greta: Battle Lines, part 3 of 3

The Scythians knew their business.  They made a line several men thick and swept from left to right across the face of the defenders, firing arrow after arrow at anything and everything.  When they reached the far end of the wall the town erected, having ridden outside the trenches and pikes set out against cavalry, the Scythians turned away to circle around and get in line for another go.  Roman, Celtic and Elf archers all returned fire when they could, but they mostly had to keep their heads down because the Scythians were very good at this tactic.

The Dacians and the Roxolani on the ends became the first to attack.  The other outsiders followed them and then several thousand Scythians joined them in the center while their fellow Scythians continued to send wave after wave of arrows over their heads and into the Roman and Celtic lines.

The Romans built well, as always.  The enemy could not bring their horses up through the pikes and ditches to impact the fight.  They had to dismount and charge on foot, a great disadvantage for horsemen forced to charge uphill.  The Romans in particular had the height and the skill, training and equipment to hold the line at all costs.  The fighting became intense in several places, but it did not last long.

When the Scythians started to withdraw, the Celts could not contain themselves.  They followed the retreating enemy with a charge of their own, so the Celtic Auxiliary units, which contained most of the Celtic horsemen, felt obliged to back them up. Then the Roman cavalry wanted some of that action.  Then several cohorts of the legion followed, and the orderly retreat of the Scythians turned into a route.

When the Scythians reached their hill, they thought to turn and drive the Celts and Romans back, but they found a surprise waiting for them.  Thousands of Goths and Slavs had come up in the early morning, just itching for a fight. The rout of the Scythians turned into a slaughter, and the Scythian line busted in two, with some fleeing to the Lazyges and others fleeing to the Roxolani.

“Bring them back,” the Princess said.  She stood on the battlement beside Darius, Cecil and the others.  “We don’t have the men to hold the center.  We are spread too thin to hold the town.”

“Alesander.”  Darius shouted.  “Sound the recall.”  Alesander did that, and trumpets blared out across the field in the late morning. Cecil agreed and signaled his men to sound the drums.  The Romans returned in order, and the Celts in disorder, but they returned, and the Goths and Slavs followed them at a safe distance.

The Princess went away.  Greta returned and gave Darius a great big kiss.  Then she asked for his help down from the battlements.  He asked, “Where are we going?”

“To introduce you to Olaf and Venislav.  Then you need to figure out how to fit a bunch of berserker Goths and barbaric Slavs into the line of defense.”

“Thanks a lot,” Darius said, but Greta already turned to the next thought.

“Redbeard.”  She spoke in her normal voice, at normal volume, but she knew the dwarf, a half mile away, would hear her.  “Get your men back here.”  The dwarfs were searching for surviving Scythians in order to finish the job, an act of mercy, they said.

###

The afternoon started quiet enough.  Darius, Alesander, Hadrianus, Olaf, Venislav and Cecil, a most odd command group, discussed a serious strike on the Roxolani wing where the large number of diverse tribes might make it hard for them to work together in a coordinated defense.

“We are pretty diverse,” Hadrianus pointed out.

“But we work together with you Romans pretty good,” Venislav nudged the Goth.  “Do you think my friend Olaf?”

“I like the idea of a quick attack, but I am not sure about pulling back again,” Olaf said, ignoring Venislav.

“Like a sortie from a city wall,” Darius explained.

“A feint,” Alesander said further.  “The object is to draw them into the hollow where two thousand archers are waiting.  The elves and fairies rarely miss, and we use our strengths and turn their numbers and many tribes stumbling over each other against them.”

The sound of laughter interrupted the meeting. Greta, Mavis, Berry and Briana were sitting in chairs not far away.  Venislav stepped up to Alesander and named them.

“Mother Greta, her elf maid, the beauty of the land and your woman?”

Alesander nodded.  “Just as soon as her father gives his blessing,” he said.

Cecil frowned.  “I’m still thinking about it.”

Olaf got it and let out a loud guffaw.  He slapped Cecil on the back and guffawed again.  “I think maybe we do this feint.  My father taught me to never trust the Romans, but this time we fight on the same side, eh, Venislav.”

“From what I see, I think fighting on the same side is better than fighting on the against side.”

Naturally, things did not exactly go as planned.  To prevent incidents of what Greta called friendly fire, Darius assigned the Romans, Celts, Goths and Slavs four different points in the enemy camp so they attacked four different tribes.  When the recall got sounded, the Romans were disciplined, and the Goths and Celts responded well enough, especially the Celts who were mostly auxiliary troops, but the Slavs took their time.  Their enemy tribe collapsed and ran right into a fifth tribe, and it looked for a bit like the Slavs might end up routing the whole enemy field, but the Roxolani stood firm, and when the Slavs rode back as fast as they could, they had a host of people chasing them, and the Slavs appeared to be laughing and whooping and having a great time.

The Slavs rode right through several large groups of men who were already pinned down in the archery area.  By luck and hastily shouted orders, only three Slavs got hit, and none fatally.  When the big group of men that were chasing them arrived, they took the men already there for the enemy and as hoped, Mithrites killed Mithrites.  The archers simply had to keep them penned in.  To be sure, it did not take long for the enemy to figure it out and hastily retreat from the hollow, but by then, the enemy dead outnumbered the allies by three to one, at least according to the fairies that flew over the enemy camps.

Everyone shouted for joy until Bogus put a damper on the celebration.  “We need to do that every time, since they outnumber us three to one.”  The numbering was actually closer to two to one, but the point got made and the men sobered.

All this while, Greta and her friends watched the Scythians move warily back up on the center hill across the valley.  The Ladies Oreona and Goldenrod got chairs and joined the group and they were invaluable in describing what happened on that far hill; Goldenrod in particular with her fairy eyes.  There were arguments down in the Lazyges and Dacian camp.  The Roxolani, Capri and Costoboci still licked their wounds and were in no condition to mount an offensive.  And the Scythian burned their dead.  Greta concluded.

“It’s about two o’clock.  Plenty of sunlight left, but I doubt there will be another attack today.”

“We do seem to have put them off their intentions,” Father said as he walked up and kindly acknowledged all the women, human and non-human alike.  “Bragi and Drakka have already sent the local men home for the night, to come back to position before dawn.”

“Fair enough,” Lady Oreona said.  “Our enemies were decidedly unsuccessful today.  With any luck, some of the tribes may rethink this whole enterprise in the night and begin to pull back by morning.”

“Once the sun sets, I am sure Ulladon and her people can handle the night watch just fine,” Briana said.

“The Romans can take the afternoon well enough,” Mavis agreed.

“Wait a minute.  What is that?”  Berry saw something and pointed.

“I was wondering myself,” Goldenrod said.

A flash of light, and Rhiannon arrived, and Karina and Padme in her arms arrived with the goddess.  Padme shrieked and giggled and clapped her hands at disappearing from one place and instantly reappearing somewhere else.  Karina looked a bit disoriented, but Rhiannon spoke.

“Sarmatians.  Their horses and men are armored and they have big lances meant to crack the Roman phalanx.  Another ten thousand, as you say.”

“Fudge,” Greta said, and she really said fudge. “And we’ve come such a long way already.”

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

MONDAY

The SunRunner shows himself, and some Wolv…  Until Monday, Happy Reading.

*

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.