“I know what it is!” Festuscato shouted and sat straight up in bed.
“Festus?” Hilde snuggled down deeply under the covers.
“Not now,” Festuscato said, pushed her away gently despite her protests, and got up to dress hurriedly. When ready, he went and banged on Mirowen’s door. “Mirowen,” he called. “I know what it is.” He waited until Mirowen came to the door, her fairy clothes shaped into a comfortable white nightgown.
“In some places, they call it a harlot,” Mirowen said.
“What? No, Hilde’s a nice girl. No. The monster. I know what it is.”
“My pardon, Lord Agitus. I am not yet awake.” Mirowen raised her arms and her gown shape shifted and changed color to its former style, though it looked as if just cleaned and pressed, while her hair pulled itself up into a small bun that left a ponytail which fell to the small of her back. Mirowen also looked like she had just bathed and been preening all morning, and she smelled of hyacinth and roses.
“You do that on purpose to drive me nuts,” Festuscato said.
“I can hardly drive you to where you already live,” Mirowen responded with a grin that ever so lightly creased the corners of her mouth.
“Like your hair,” Luckless said as he came around the corner with a fist full of pork loin. “Sets off your ears.”
Festuscato paused to look out the window. The sun just began to lighten the Eastern horizon. “Breakfast already?”
“Pre-breakfast snack,” Luckless said. “The cook likes to watch the little guy eat.”
“Who can sleep with all that snoring?” Seamus came around the same corner, stretching and yawning.
“Gregor?” Festuscato did not really have to ask.
“Makes me hungry,” Luckless admitted. “Anyway, Bran can.”
“A good soldier can sleep anywhere,” Festuscato told him.
“Hold it!” Mirowen shouted. “Would you all like to come in?” She threw the door wide open and moved aside. The men looked at each other and Luckless swallowed.
“Er, thanks.” Festuscato accepted the invitation for all. He stepped in, followed by the others. Mousden darted in just before Mirowen closed the door. She ended up leaving it open a crack.
“I was wondering when you would show up,” Mirowen frowned.
“What did I miss?” Mousden asked in his most excited squeak.
“You said you know who it is?” Mirowen turned Festuscato away from the window and the sunrise and completely ignored Mousden.
“Who is what?” Festuscato asked.
“You said.” Mirowen started, and he remembered and hushed her with his hand.
“I said I think I know what it is,” he corrected her. “I have no idea who.” He began to ponder that question.
“Well?” Seamus seemed the impatient one, probably from lack of sleep.
“It’s a hag, I think. A servant of Abraxas.” Festuscato came out of his reverie.
“Can’t be.” Luckless spoke while licking his fingers. “It’s a male.”
“All right.” Festuscato took a step back. “Then son of a hag, but the look, the strength, the speed, the size, it all fits.”
“Something near enough like it anyway.” Mirowen did not disagree.
“A hag?” Seamus asked.
“A Doctor Jeckel, Mister Hyde.” Festuscato said and then he quickly had to wave off their questions. “A normal enough person most of the time, but a secret devotee of the god, empowered by the god to take on enormous power and strength at times to serve the god’s nefarious purposes. Here’s the key. Unlike a werewolf or other such nightmares, a hag retains her mind, or in this case, his mind. They can still think things through, and talk.”
“And how do you know this?” Seamus did not question. He got curious.
“Greta had to kill one once. Cooked her in her own oven. And Margueritte just faced down Curdwallah; but that’s the future. I guess I’m not supposed to talk about that.”
“So it is a hag.” Mirowen nodded.
“Or near enough like it,” Luckless repeated her words.
“I knew it!” Mousden fluttered down from the ceiling, and he sounded and looked very agitated. “Monster talk.” He shivered visibly at the whole idea. “I thought we weren’t staying or getting involved in that business.”
“We won’t, much. Let the Geats handle it.” Festuscato assured the little one. “That’s why it is so important you stay on the roof at night and keep your eyes peeled for a sail on the horizon. If the Kairos’ timing holds up, the Geats should be along any day now.”
“Yeah, but now I’ll have daymares and won’t be able to sleep.”
“Geats and hags.” Seamus shook his head and sat in a chair. “Who will believe it?”
“But the creature stayed quietly absent from the hall last night,” Mirowen pointed out. “Unless the creature shows itself, how can we know who it is?”
“No trail to follow does make it tough,” Festuscato admitted.
“We could set Gregor to sleep in the hall as bait,” Seamus muttered. Mirowen’s jaw dropped open.
“Such a suggestion. And from a Cleric!” she scolded.
Seamus shrugged, and turned as red as Festuscato’s hair.
“Wouldn’t work,” Luckless said. “All that snoring would just scare the poor creature away.”
Festuscato snapped his fingers to regain everyone’s attention. He was again watching the sunrise, but he spoke to the point. “I figure the best candidates are Aschere, the king’s Counselor. There is something of slime about him. Heinrich the Bard. It is hard to tell how much of their own stories such men believe. Wulfgar, the king’s Herald, though he seems a good man.”
“Svergen, the officer of the Coastal Watch.” Bran spoke up from the open doorway. “Shouldn’t be heralding this into the hall,” he said, as he stepped inside and shut the door tight.
“It isn’t the king,” Mirowen said. “He is too old, and too sincerely crushed by it all. Twelve years is a long time for humans to suffer.” She looked up and saw the others looking at her. “I spoke with queen Wealtheow,” she explained.
“Isn’t the cook,” Luckless said. “I don’t hold for human food, but this cook is not half bad.”
“Can’t speak for the other half,” Festuscato mumbled softly.
“No, and that servant of his, Ragnard is afraid of his own shadow,” Luckless finished with a chuckle.
“The rest of the men are too transient.” Mirowen said, by way of conclusion.
“Except Unferth,” Seamus said
“Hrugen’s father?” Festuscato asked.
Seamus nodded. “He wouldn’t be the first to use drink as a cover for something else. And he has the reputation, at least in the alleged killing of his brothers.” Most nodded, except Bran who smiled.
“Leave it to an Irishman,” Bran said. It seemed hard to tell if that was a compliment or an insult.
“So then, that’s the short list.” Festuscato wanted to get it right. “Aschere the Counselor, Wulfgar the Herald, Svergen the Coast Watcher, Heinrich the Bard, and Unferth the Drunk.” He shook his head. Having tasted those names on his tongue, he was not sure if any of them felt quite right. He went to the door. “Suns up. Breakfast time.” He opened the door and found Luckless already in front of him. Bran chuckled quietly from over his shoulder.
“Festus. Festus.” He saw Hilde’s head poke out from behind his door.
“Keep good notes, Seamus. I’ll catch you up.” Festuscato disappeared into his room to a roll of Mirowen’s eyes.
It turned high noon and time for the main meal in the hall when Festuscato finally did catch them up. “What did I miss?” He sounded a bit like Mousden.
“Nothing,” Gregor said grumpily. “Can’t get any of these Danes to arm wrestle.”
That did not sound like jovial Gregor, but Festuscato did not have time to ask as Wulfgar came straight to the table on Festuscato’s appearance.
“Roman. I would not have my king filled with false hope.”
“Quite right,” Festuscato responded. “But sometimes there is only trust. I would not want to see your king hopeless, either. I have felt hopelessness. It isn’t fun.”
Wulfgar thought about that for a minute before he responded. “I hope that what you say comes to pass,” he said, and paused again before adding, “For your sake.”
“If I am wrong, I won’t be the first in these twelve years,” Festuscato said, and Wulfgar moved off with things on his mind.
“What have you been up to?” Mirowen asked, but before Festuscato could answer, Aschere came up. It appeared as if the Danes were taking turns.
“Roman.” He began as Wulfgar began, but his conversation turned in a different direction. “Yours is the strangest crew that has ever been seen or heard of.”
“A preposition is something you should not end a sentence with,” Festuscato said, with a straight face. Mirowen stopped translating half way through and gave him a hard look.
“This woman who speaks the king’s tongue like a native is a beauty such as few men have ever imagined,” Aschere said.
“That’s true. He’s got you there,” Festuscato said and delighted in the way it reddened Mirowen’s ears, though of course Aschere could not see her in her true elven form as Festuscato saw her, so he did not get the full ear effect.
“Tell him I thank him for the compliment. You have always been like a big sister to me, when you are not acting like my mother.” Festuscato said and gave the elf a kindly frown. She told Aschere something. Aschere nodded as if he understood. He turned then to his mediocre Latin.
“And this little man,” Aschere went on. “I see no good in him except to fill his stomach.”
“He is my tinker and blacksmith,” Festuscato said. “He is as good with gold and silver as he is with iron and steel.”
“I have seen his tools.” Aschere admitted. “Some are very finely wrought.” He made the admission. “But then what of the boy? Where is he?”
“Sleeping.” Festuscato said and shrugged as if to suggest that was what all young boys did. “He stayed up late.”
“In truth,” Aschere said with a sly grin. “I found him this morning up on the pinnacle of the roof, though without a ladder, I am at a loss to say how he came there.” The man clearly asked.
“All right, if you insist,” Festuscato said. “In truth, as you say, Mirowen is a light elf, Luckless is a dwarf, and Mousden is a dark elf with wings. He flew to the roof to look through the night for the sail I am expecting.”
Aschere looked taken aback at first. He raised his eyebrows, but then he began to chuckle. He left laughing, certain that Festuscato had to be joking, but fortunately he did not see Mirowen slap Festuscato on the shoulder or hear what she said.