Gerraint got a fine room and an excellent supper. He was glad the village elders waited until he finished eating before they invaded his space.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “If Arthur does not send men down the mountain road, I will bring men this way. You might fortify your village as well as you can and be vigilant in your watch for any stray Saxons or scouts that come this way. But when Arthur’s men get here, I say let the brave among you go with Arthur to the battlefield.”
“Shouldn’t we ask for a garrison of men to help us defend our homes?” one of the elders asked, one who was obviously not one of the brave.
“No,” Gerraint shook his head. “Arthur needs all the good men he can get on the battlefield. If Arthur wins the battle, your homes will be safe. But if Arthur loses, no garrison will stop the Saxon army from doing as they please.”
The elders made no commitment, and Gerraint moved on in the morning. Festuscato had shared the night’s sleep, since both he and Gerraint spent about half the day each, present and awake. The Roman only needed breakfast, but Gerraint secured some foodstuffs for the journey, and it proved sufficient.
Gerraint traded places again with Festuscato as soon as he got out of town, and this time he sent his lance to Avalon with Gerraint’s armor. That way, he looked more like an ordinary traveler on the road and less like a knight of the Round Table.
By late in the afternoon, Festuscato came upon a tree across the road. He had been following some tracks, a half-dozen horses with the characteristic Saxon horse-boot print. Festuscato traded places with the princess, and she confirmed the half-dozen horsemen, their recent passage and their direction, but she said she could not confirm the Saxon boot. She was familiar with the Roman hippo-sandal the men of Arthur put on their horses and she said these prints were made by a different boot, but she could not confirm Saxon. Festuscato said that would be fine. He recognized the Saxon print and appreciated her confirmation. He slowed down until he stopped and faced the fallen tree.
He imagined something familiar about the tree, but somehow, it had to do with Gerraint. Gerraint came home to his own time, took his own armor in place of the armor of the Kairos to complete the transformation, and then looked hard at the tree. Of course, it was not the same one as before, he thought, but he did not exactly remember the one before.
Gerraint got out his rope and tied it to the tree and to his saddle. He lugged the tree far enough to make an open way on the road. He returned his rope to its bag and then avoided walking his horse as something in the back of his mind said, be prepared. When he rode around the edge of the tree, he became confronted with a dozen large and well-armed men. Gerraint paused before he called to Avalon for his lance. It appeared in his hand, and he imagined that bit of magic might not be something the opposing horsemen wanted to see.
“I know you,” the man out front spoke up in a voice Gerraint recognized. The man dismounted and Gerraint exclaimed.
“Little man.” He also got down from his horse. “I see you are up to your same tricks. Must we fight to teach you better manners?”
“No, no,” the little man said. “I have kept your pledge. We have kept the road safe for travelers. Not two weeks after we met, Arthur himself came with many men. We hosted him in our village on the mountainside and he confirmed the words you spoke. On my honor, we have kept the road safe.”
“So why then the tree?”
“Not two days ago, we found six Saxons, poorly disguised. We slew them, but not before we discovered they were scouts sent out by the army. We sent a rider to Caerleon to give warning. The Saxons are coming.”
“This I know. I carry a message for Arthur’s eyes only.”
“Lord, let me prevail upon you to share our hospitality. My men would be pleased to host so noble a night in their midst.”
Gerraint shook his head. “As you said, the Saxons are coming. Time is short. But Arthur will send men this way, or I may bring them myself. When we come, I invite you and your men to join us. We can use good men in the coming battle. Just make sure the men are brave enough. We need no cowards on the battlefield.” Gerraint mounted and had another thought, but waited.
“Do not doubt. My men are brave enough. We will be ready.” As Gerraint started to walk off, the little man said one more thing. “But Lord, Arthur was vague in the telling. Do tell us who you are.”
“The Lion of Cornwall,” Gerraint owned the name and rode out of sight. When he was far enough away, he called. “Pinewood.” He knew no one followed him or watched because Pinewood and two others appeared in fairy form. “Is what the little man reported accurate?” he asked.
“Mostly,” Pinewood said. “He extracts a contribution from grateful travelers and merchants to continue his work of keeping the road safe, a contribution which is not always graciously given. But he has stopped the killing and he does not beggar them.”
Gerraint nodded before he turned in his thoughts. “I traveled this road before, the other way, with Enid.” Pinewood said nothing, because Gerraint did not ask a question. “Find me a place where I can camp tonight and not be disturbed,” Gerraint said. “If you would be so kind.”
“It would be our pleasure,” Pinewood said, and he guided Gerraint to a small house and farm off the road and well hidden by the woods. An old woman lived there with two strapping sons. The farm looked well enough tended for an impossible, rocky side of a hill, but Gerraint almost turned down the offer, not wanting to impose on a poor widow.
“Lord,” Pinewood encouraged him. “She is a seer. She may help you find what you are searching for”
Gerraint nodded and rode up to the house where the two sons waited. “Lord,” they said. “Please come in and refresh yourself. Let us tend your equipment, and the children of the grass have come to tend to your steed.”
“Thank you,” Gerraint said. He felt tired, though Festuscato spent most of the day in his place. He entered the home and the woman already had a meal set out for him.
“Lord,” the woman said, and she took his cloak with hands trembling from fear, not from age. “Please be welcomed in my house. You are a man of great power, not of this world. All are welcomed here. The bed is prepared.” She stepped back to watch, and Gerraint did not disappoint her. He went away so Festuscato could come and enjoy the food.
“Well spoken,” Festuscato told the woman, and when he finished eating, he added, “Now I must rest.” The bed felt comfortable, and Festuscato fell asleep in no time. Some seven hours later, just a couple of hours after midnight, Festuscato woke and washed. Then Gerraint returned to speak to the woman who appeared still up, puttering about.
“The boys feel it,” the woman said. “But not as strongly as I.”
Gerraint nibbled on the bread and slurped some of the remaining stew. “And what do they feel?”
“That you have the answers to my life and to their life. We have walked a strange road, in the dark of knowledge, yet in the light of knowing things in and around this place that other people cannot imagine. The children of the grass have come to tend your horse. The whispers in the wind fly from tree to tree and watch over you in the night. The children of the earth make your armor shine beneath the moon, and the horrors of the night fill your pouch with gold and precious jewels. Who are you to command such honor from the spirits of life?”
I am an ordinary man as you can see. I am forty-three, and yet I have lived for thousands of years in one way or another.” Gerraint stuck out his hand toward the woman because he sensed something in her he could not define. She misunderstood and took his hand to kiss with her lips and her tears, like a supplicant might kiss the hand of the pope in Rome. Gerraint meant to shrug her off, but when she touched him, a clear vision came to his mind. He knew who she was, and by extension, her sons. He took back his hand gently, and wondered if Pinewood brought him here because she was a seer or because she was in need of a seer.
“I understand,” he said. “Please sit.”
The woman sat at the table, but her hands continued to tremble. “Your father built this place to get away from the world, but the world caught up with him and he died young. Your husband was pleased to marry a wise woman. The people all around here depend on your wisdom and your cures. The Little King in his mountainside village hears you when you speak, though he hears no one else. But for all your cures, you could not save the Little King’s wife when she was waylaid by three robbers on the road, or your own husband when he was taken by the flu. Still, your boys keep the farm and you hear the little spirits in the night, like they come to you, unbidden, only you do not understand.”
“All that you say is true, though not many know these things and I have told you none of it.”
“This much I know,” Gerraint said. “Your grandfather, your father’s father was an elf of the light, Dayrunner, brother of Deerrunner, the elf king. Your father’s mother was a lovely woman who ran to the woods to escape from soldiers and became lost. Dayrunner saved her and made her his wife for as long as she lived, and they had a son, your father. He built this place away from other people and by the woods to be near his mother and father. But the soldiers came again. He and your mother were killed when you were a child, and your grandfather kept you safe, and raised you as a foster father, though you thought he was just a woodsman. In time, you found a husband of your own, and had a fine family. Only now the soldiers are coming again.” Gerraint paused. The poor woman started to weep.