R6 Greta: Porolissum to Work, part 3 of 3

The men in the field were given the option to be arrested as traitors and locked up to await trial, or to return to their duty to protect the gold and other mines and the people of Dacia.  The auxiliary units selected by General Pontius were given a similar option, to return to their places on the roads and their village forts and guard the roads and the people, or face execution.  Everyone chose to go back to work with the understanding that any action to support the Mithraic rebellion would mean instant crucifixion.

“We can’t keep this many men locked up in Porolissum,” Festuscato explained.  “These are mostly good men and good soldiers outside of their perverse worship.  Rome can’t afford to lose good men.  But here is the thing.  If the Scythians and whatever Mithrites they bring to the border can overcome us, Rome will be in far more trouble than whatever these few hundred men and half-dozen auxiliary units can do.  But if we beat back the Scythians, and I have every good hope that we will, then we will also have saved some good men for Rome.”

“Your confidence is contagious,” Alesander said.

“But what do we do about the general and his staff and officers?” Centurion Hadrianus, leader of the escort cavalry troop asked.

“Well,” Festuscato drew out his answer.  “If I was home, I would turn them over to Gildas. He has a favorite expression. “Kill the Bastards.”  Festuscato looked at Darius and smiled.  “But as a Senator of Rome, steeped in Roman tradition to the point where the pot has boiled over, and carrying a small reflection of a spark of Justitia as I do, I understand justice has to be considered. I recommend you hold them in irons and refuse to hear their case on the grounds that you might not be objective, and I would send them back to Rome at the first opportunity with a letter explaining their duplicity with the Scythian Mithrites.  Let Antonius Pius hear the case, and may he have mercy on them; but at least they will be out of Dacia.  Then I would write a letter to your friend Marcus Aurelius and suggest he send true Romans as replacements, and you would not even mind Christians if he wants to get the Christians out of Rome, but if he sends more Mithrites, you will just send them back.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Darius thought about it. Festuscato made a pucker face.

“So do you want to kiss me now or wait until we get back?” Darius jumped back.  Alesander laughed, and Centurion, soon to be Tribune Hadrianus raised both eyebrows.

###

Rhiannon walked up to Greta and Mavis who were seated in chairs that Greta had the morning guard bring out to the battements. “The enemy looks endless,” Greta sighed and began to plan for an orderly withdrawal and evacuation of the town, should that prove necessary.  Scythians were riding off the distant mountain in one long line, and they were settling on the hill across the valley.

“We will have to find the tail of that dragon and feed it to the mouth so it can consume itself.”  Rhiannon waved her hand and a third chair appeared.  She sat carefully in her armor.  It was well made chain and leather, not unlike the armor Greta wore when she wasn’t busy being pregnant, but it did not look worn very often so it appeared a little stiff.

“Gobinu’s work?” Greta asked, and Rhiannon nodded. “Thank you again for raising the Celts. Every bit helps.”

“Twenty-five hundred from the hills beyond the mountains isn’t very much, but they do need to start integrating.  I am glad I remembered the auxiliaries from Britannia, Gaul and Hispania scattered around the province.  I can weed out the ones like Chobar and his Dogs from my people. I’m sorry.  I can’t vouch for the Egyptians and Syrians and others.”

“Quite all right.  Four thousand total almost doubles our number.  With Bragi and Drakka raising a thousand local Dacians, that gives us ten to their ten.  The Scythians do have ten thousand, don’t they?”

Rhiannon nodded again, but she said nothing out loud.

“Ladies.”  Father stepped up and Rhiannon waved her hand to make a chair for him.  “Very considerate,” he said and sat with a great sigh.  “I’m disappointed with my own people.”  He stepped right into the conversation.  “But I understand their reluctance to fight for the Romans.”

“They think if they stay home they can defend their farms if the Scythians get that far,” Rhiannon suggested.

“Even the large number of Romans that have emigrated to the province are more interested in the price of grain than they are in the price of a good sword,” Greta added.

“Sergeant.”  A watchman interrupted their conversation.  “We got more coming from both the left and the right.  They must have come through the mountains in other places.” He pointed, the Sergeant swore, and called several men to send word to different outposts and to the command tent.

Greta shaded her eyes and took a look to the left and right.  “Mavis,” she said, and Mavis took a good look.

“I see sun symbols and lion-headed representations on the left.  I can’t tell on the right because the sun is glaring.”

“You can see that far?” Father squinted.

“Lazyges and outsider Dacians on the left,” Rhiannon said.  “About ten thousand.  And on the right, Costoboci, Capri and Roxolani.  Another ten thousand.  You’re welcome.”

“Not fair,” Greta complained.  “We paid the Roxolani to stay away.”

“My guess is they used the money to buy weapons,” Father said.

“Sergeant,” Greta called.  The Sergeant came over and listened carefully while she explained the new arrivals.  Rhiannon had gone and took her chair with her.  Father stood stiffly, and his chair disappeared.  Greta and Mavis stood and Greta watched as the messengers returned and went right back out again.  Greta waved to a soldier and thanked him for the chairs while Mavis took her arm and Father’s arm and walked them back to the house for lunch.  After lunch, Greta planned to take a nap.  Then she had to work on a serious plan of escape, should that become necessary.  Greta was not good at panic situations, and tomorrow was going to be a long day.

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

MONDAY

The Battle Lines are drawn and tested.  Until then, Happy Reading

*

R6 Greta: Porolissum to Work, part 2 of 3

“Scythians.  Thousands of them on the main road just over the mountains.  They will be here in three days, and it is just Chip if you don’t mind.”  Chip, older than Snowflake, appeared as a fifteen-year-old in his big form.  That made him a full-blown teenager, and Father had practice dealing with those.

“Mavis,” Greta nudged her handmaid who had hardly left her side since Greta arrived in Porolissum.  “Take Chip to find Darius.  Give Darius the message and then come back here.”

“What are you thinking?”  Greta’s father asked and waited for Greta to answer.

“General Pontius left the legion fort two days ago. He will be here right at the same time as the Scythians.  How did he know when to start for Porolissum?”

“He had to have got word from the Scythians to time things so well.” Father came to the obvious conclusion, and Greta confirmed as much.

“Darius, Alesander, Bragi and the others have been arguing about whether or not to trust General Pontius.”

“I have heard the arguments,” Father admitted.

“I would say this is circumstantial evidence, but it says don’t trust him.”  Greta moaned a little.

“The baby?” Father asked and held out his arm for her before he paused to rub his own leg.

“My ankles are swelling in this cold and rainy weather,” Greta answered.  “I calculated the middle of June, but I may have miscalculated.  I may be entering my eighth month now.  I may be due in the middle of May, about six, not ten weeks from now.”

“I could limp you home,” Father offered.  He did that, but as they got to the door, Greta had to ask.  “So, no questions about the fairy?”

“Only if you want to tell me,” he said.  “I decided a long time ago some questions were best not asked.  I decided that back when Mother Hulda died, and then that awful woman, Brunhild came to town, and then you disappeared into the haunted forest.”  Greta reached up and kissed her father on the cheek.  “Of course, if your mother was here, I would ask her.  But that is safe because she doesn’t know anything.”

“Papa!”  Greta protested and went inside only to find Snowflake in her natural fairy size, wings fluttering, riding a wooden toy horse across the kitchen floor while Padme followed with her doll and Karina stood at the wash basin on the kitchen counter where she was washing up the breakfast dishes.

“Careful, young woman.”  Karina spoke kindly to the fairy.  “You are supposed to be watching Padme, not encouraging a madhouse.”

“Icechip came by a few minutes ago,” Greta said as she found a chair to sit while Father went into the other room to rest by the fire.

“My Icechip?” Snowflake asked, excited, and Greta nodded.

“Another fairy?  How many fairies do you know?” Karina asked and dried her hands.

“A very big number,” Greta answered.

“All of us,” Snowflake said.  “And elves and dwarfs and spooky dark elves and everyone.”

“Lady,” Mavis came in, followed by a streak of light. Chip caught Snowflake and they circled and danced in mid-air while Karina scooped up Padme.  “Everyone is coming to discuss what to do,” Mavis finished her announcement.

“Father,” Greta called, and she heard the moan of an old man who would rather be taking a nap.  “Snowflake.  You need to sit on my shoulder and be quiet.”  Snowflake flew over, Chip beside her.

“Yes, Lady,” Snowflake made herself comfortable. Father did not have far to go to sit in the end seat.

“Chip.  You need to sit on my father’s shoulder, and please don’t say anything unless you are asked a question.”

“Yes Lady,” Chip said, and to Father he added, “It is an honor, sir.”  Father brushed off his shoulder with one hand and when Chip got seated, Father found he had a few questions after all.

As Darius, Bragi and the others came in for the meeting, Karina spoke just loud enough for Greta to hear.  “Padme and I will be in the back, sitting on the pot.   I am sure we will be more productive than one of your meetings.”

###

The troop rode through the night and arrived at the legion camp well before dawn.  Everyone had their assigned tasks, and they moved swiftly after swearing the guards and the night watch to silence.  The word they put out was the Scythians had been spotted and they were there to discuss the situation in Porolissum, just in case word went ahead of them.  There always seemed to be one suck-up who would go running to the General.  They claimed to be gathering the officers for a conference, but in truth they rounded up two tribunes, six centurions, a dozen top sergeants, a standard bearer, a trumpet master, three scouts and several other commanders, and they arrested them along with the General.

Mithraism remained a religion whose ceremonies and sacraments were closely guarded secrets of the initiates.  But Mithraism itself got on the list of officially approved religions of the empire because Mithrites could also claim to worship the traditional gods of Rome, and even sacrificed to Antonius Pius’ dead wife, the love of the divine emperor.  Because of this, many men were open about admitting they were Mithrites. Christianity, by contrast, did not get on the acceptable list, primarily because Christians only worshiped Christ. Christians refused to participate in the pagan worship and festivals around them and steadfastly refused to sacrifice to the emperor.  This regularly got painted as disloyalty to Rome, true or not, and at times Christians got killed as traitors no matter how much they protested.  Thus, Christians tended to keep to the shadows in most places, but in this case, Darius and Alesander sought them out.

One hundred confessing Christians brought down from Porolissum now formed the foundation for the guards who held eight hundred Mithrites in an open field.  General Pontius had been working on his legion over the years, but affecting the various transfers seemed a bureaucratic nightmare and a very slow process. The general’s staff all got arrested, but some of general’s officers and troop commanders appeared to be Mithras free.

“Of course, we will still have to watch them.” Alesander stated the obvious.

R6 Greta: Porolissum to Work, part 1 of 3

Briana seated next to Hobknot the hobgoblin might have made her supper a bit strange, but Hobknot wore the appearance of an elderly man, the same as he appeared whenever he and Fae came to visit Berry in Greta’s home in Ravenshold, so this was not entirely a new thing for him, and Greta assumed that Briana, having been exposed to dwarfs, elves, fairies and goblins, would be nonplused and pleasant with the grumpy old hobgoblin, but spend most of the night with her attention on Alesander in any case.

“It is the best I could do,” Greta told Mavis.

“And exactly why I want to eat on the floor with the children,” Mavis said.  “Your brother and sister-in-law deserve to hear all about your adventures, and the children make me happy, and you know I am good with children.”  It was true.  After their nanny, Selamine, Gaius and Marta loved Mavis best.”

“If they make you happy,” Greta said and Mavis sniffed, but nodded.

Tales were indeed told, and the dwarfs, elves, fairies and goblins all got a human scrubbing to make them palatable to human ears. When it came to the Wolv, however, no one held back.  And no one hesitated to talk about Mithrite fanaticism.  “They will not hesitate to give their lives to further their cause,” Alesander said, which Father and Darius listened to closely where they might have argued with one of the women.

“But what is their cause?” Father asked.

“To crush the Germans and overrun Rome.  To turn the Empire into the Empire of Mithras,” Alesander concluded, and he stated it like a fact.  He did not say I think or I believe or I feel.

Darius took a breath and looked at Greta. Father looked at Darius and spoke. “I think they will find that Rome is not so easily overcome.”

Greta responded to her husband’s look. “General Pontius is a confirmed Mithrite.  You say he has the legion on alert in Apulum and is waiting to see if the Scythians come and where they strike.  I tell you, when the Scythians strike, General Pontius may bring the legion to fight on the Scythians’ side.”

“Surely not,” Darius said, and Father opened his mouth but remained silent.

“Surely so,” Greta countered, and Briana added a thought.

“You already tasted rebellion in the Roman ranks. Why should your legion not suffer the same?”

Father got it and stood.  He almost knocked his chair back into the fireplace.  “By the gods, we will stop them here,” he shouted.

Greta had grabbed Darius’ hand to keep him seated. Hans got Father’s chair and helped him sit again.  Alesander added fuel to the fire.

“The gods are working on it, I think,” he said. “But they will not do it for us. It is up to us.”  he looked at Greta who nodded for him and for Darius.

“We must cross our own bridges when we come to them, and if we have to build the bridge first, so be it.”

“Grandfather,” Berry interrupted with a look at Bogus. “What are you mumbling about?”

“I was just thinking your great-aunt Pincushion could win them over with a few good meals.”

“Great-aunt?” Fae looked up.

“Yes,” Greta said, grateful for the change in the subject.  “Pincushion and Bogus are half-brother and sister.  Same father.”  Pincushion and Bogus both nodded.

Fae and Berry stared at Greta.  Berry asked, “How did you know?”

Vedix spoke.  “It is not our way to question how the druid knows what she knows.”

###

The town became heavily fortified by the end of March, and none too soon.  Darius had pulled his troops back from the frontier passes to shore up the border defenses in January on condition that Greta send her little ones to spy and give word of any enemy advancement.  For that, Greta turned to Willow and her winter fairies.  Most of the fairies volunteered for the mountains, like their home in the Urals, but some were willing to keep an eye on Apulum and the legion fort.

April first arrived; a day when the sun stayed behind the clouds, but no more snow fell.  It was a day when the wind whipped and turned the cheeks red before a person walked ten steps.  Greta walked with Karina and the children when a bright streak of light came up from the south and stopped in Greta’s face.  Karina stopped moving, but Padma reached out with both hands from her mother’s hip where she rode.

“Fairy,” Padma spoke first.

“Lady,” the fairy spoke in a young woman’s voice. “The whole legion is on the road. They will be here in five days.” The girl’s voice shrieked with happiness.  “I remembered the whole thing!”

“Snowflake, get big,” Greta commanded.

“Fairy,” Padma reached for her.

Snowflake got big and appeared as a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl.  The girl looked shy and began to blush until Mavis reached for the girl’s hand to steady her.

“Mavis, take Snowflake to find Darius and tell him the message.”

“Yes, Lady,” Mavis responded and she coaxed the fairy to move away, even as the fairy recognized the children and began to reach for them.  Kurt did not buy it, but Padma looked upset to see the fairy go.

“Berry.”  Karina had a sudden revelation.  “She was a fairy.”

“She was, but completely human now,” Greta said. “Poor Hans.  He never stood a chance.”

“He doesn’t seem to be hurting,” Karina said and thought while they walked back to the house where she verbalized one thing. “And you have other strange friends, I guess.”

“They are not so strange.  Mostly good people once you get to know them.”

“I’ll have to take your word for that,” Karina opened the door and Greta waddled inside to sit by the fire.  She seriously wanted some tea.

Two days later, when it started raining instead of snowing for the first time in months, the boy, Chip, came racing into town.  He zoomed up to Greta’s face right in front of her father, and hovered for a second to catch his breath.

“Look out,” Father yelled and swatted at what he imagined was the biggest fly in history.

“Father.  No,” Greta stopped his hand and turned on the boy.  “Icechip, get big.”  It was not a request.  Father’s eyes got big along with the fairy, but he said nothing.  “Speak,” Greta commanded.

R6 Greta: Home to Porolissum, part 3 of 3

“You have lovely children,” Rhiannon said, recognizing Karina’s continued distress.  Poor Karina seemed to be deciding if Rhiannon was not a goddess, she ought to be.  Poor Greta felt very ordinary.  She had her yellow hair braided down her back at the moment because, while it was as clean and set as it had ever been, if she let it loose, it had a mind of its own and would never behave.  Besides, she had freckles, and a big nose, and short legs and a big butt, and fat hands, and she constantly fought against getting fat like her mother, and she would have gone on for a while if she did not hear a call from the distance.

“Lady!”  Mavis raced up, jumped before the horse even stopped, and fell into Greta’s arms for a hug. “I thought I lost you forever, too.  But Pincushion said you were still alive, and I felt it.”  Mavis cried.

Darius was the next to arrive, and Mavis stepped aside so he could throw his arms around Greta and squeeze her.  All thoughts about life and war and death went away for a while so Darius and Greta could get lost in their kiss.  When they took a breath, Greta scooted back a little and looked at her belly with a word.  “You don’t want to crush the baby.”

“Are you?  Did you?”

“Of course.  What did you think you were doing before you went away?”

“Making good memories?”

“You made more than good memories,” Greta patted her belly which was beginning to bump, and grinned as she thought through her own memories.

“Hello baby,” Darius leaned down.  “Are you Marcus or another girl?”

“I’m only half-way there, not even half,” Greta protested as if to say she had no way of knowing for sure.  Honestly, she knew he would be Marcus, but she wanted to tease Darius first.  Before Greta could say anything else, the crowd showed up.  Bragi ran to her and Hans.  Father tried to run, but his leg where he got wounded stayed stiff and uncooperative.  Alesander, Vedix and Briana were all there.  Pincushion even ran to yell at Bogus, but Hermes was not there.  Mavis began to cry, and this time Greta ignored the others and went to hug her handmaid.

“He was like a father to her,” Briana explained later. “She said she had no father, since he died in the days of the Wolv invasion, which you didn’t tell us about. She said she followed her mother up here from Thrace a hundred years ago to escape the memory of their loss.”

“On Hermes’ part,” Alesander took up the telling. “He had a family in Greece, but they were killed by brigands who were pirates in the Aegean and sheltered in the Pindar Mountains.  He joined the auxiliary troop to hunt down the brigands, and he succeeded, but then he had nothing to go home for, so he stayed with the military.  He served all around the Black Sea and in Asia, including once in Syria, before his troop got assigned here after the last rebellion. He said Mavis reminded him of his daughter and was about the age his daughter would have been.  I don’t know about that, but they were close.”

“Two Scythians drew their swords on us in the meeting.  Hermes saved my life,” Vedix added.

“He saved all of our lives,” Briana said.

“Lucius is the Mars.”  Alesander blurted it out and stiffened his lip to speak without emotion. “He said he had been moving among the Iranian people for a hundred and fifty years and infiltrated the Roman ranks a hundred years ago.  He said everything was ready to build the new Empire of the Gods, but he decided some time back that the others were just using him to do all the leg work and build the new army.  He said it was easy to get lost in a Roman legion and attached himself to my century ten years ago in Gaul.  But he was not surprised when I got transferred to the Gemina XIII in Dacia. The others conspired, he said, to position him for the plan.”

“What plan?” Greta wondered out loud.  “That is the question.”

While Pincushion and Karina fixed supper, Rhiannon stepped up to Greta for a private moment.  “I have all I need from here,” she said.  “But I have stayed too long at the fair.  I have my own work to do and must leave.  Besides, Briana and Vedix will eat better if I am not seated at the same table.”

“So, what did you figure out?” Greta asked quickly before Rhiannon could vanish.  Darius stepped up and slipped his arm over Greta’s shoulder while he smiled for their guest.  Not to say it would have been possible to look at Rhiannon and not smile.

“No, no.”  Rhiannon returned the smile and shook her finger.  “That is for me to know and you to find out.  But I will say, I think Mother may be right.  It is past time to let go of the Gaelic enclave and Latinize my people.  They need to be integrated into the Roman fold to avoid being wiped out by the Lazyges, if nothing else.”

“Sounds like work,” Darius said, not quite following the conversation.

Rhiannon smiled again at that thought.  “I would rather have something to do.  Sitting all day long, guarding the apples of Avalon and playing chess would bore me silly.”

“Who?  No, wait. What brought the apples of Avalon to mind?”  Greta got suspicious and Rhiannon’s face showed that she said too much.

“Apollo took the last basket full I know of.  The rest are safe,” she was continuing to spout, and knew it.  “I have to go.”  Rhiannon vanished, and Darius opened his eyes as wide as they could open.

“She was not one of your little ones, I could tell,” Darius said.

Briana ran up and pointed at the empty spot where Rhiannon had been.  “That was—”

“Yes, it was,” Greta said, and she took Darius inside where she could get warm.

Supper became an interesting affair.  Bragi borrowed a neighbor’s table and put it end to end with his own table to fit everyone.  As it was, Father at one end had his back to the big fireplace, which he said he did not mind, cold as it was outside, and Bragi at the other end sat up to the door, and got cold, but he did not complain.  Karina sat next to her husband on the kitchen side where she could fetch whatever was needed and keep one eye on the children who sat on the kitchen floor.  Then came Pincushion, Karina’s fellow cook, followed by Bogus, Vedix, Greta and Darius next to Greta’s father.

Hans sat next to Father on the other side, followed by Berry, Alesander, Briana, Hobknot and Fae next to Bragi.  Fae was a wise human woman for seventy years before she became a dwarf, so Greta figured her conversation should be safe for brotherly consumption.

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

MONDAY

Time get to work. The enemy is on the horizon  Until then, Happy Reading

*

R6 Greta: Land of the Lost, part 2 of 3

“I was able to bring in food and we have blankets and such things, but I did not have the power to take us out.  My power is greatly diminished and the more so when I am blocked by the Nymphus.”

“You are broken, old man,” Greta responded.  “Why have you not gone over to the other side?”

The old man smiled a little, but it did not look like a warm or welcoming smile.  Greta saw something calculating in that smile.  “How can I pass over when I am not every whit whole?”

Greta shook her head.  “Your brother Varuna would be very unhappy with you.”

The old man’s visage changed.  He gritted his teeth and furrowed his brows.  He did not expect that comment.  “My brother surrendered to the invaders and gave everything to that moron, Indra.  My brother got reduced to the lowest of the low, a simple god of the sea, not even allowed to set his foot on the dry land.”

“Your brother saved millions of people and ended a war among the gods that might have killed every living thing.  And Amphitrite says she does not appreciate your prejudicial attitude about sea gods.”

The old man looked startled, but then he softened. “Yes, I forgot.  She would see things differently, though as I recall, she did not get counted among the gods of Olympus.”

Before Greta could respond, a voice came from the doorway.  “Get him. Kill him so we can end this.”  Mithrasis showed up.  She stood in the doorway and pounded once on the invisible door that kept her out.

“Where is that dragon?” Mithras responded sharply. “The agreement was to keep you away and I care for his daughters.  Nymphus, you have no part in this conversation.”

“But she does,” Greta interrupted.  “I intend to put her in her bed.”

“What?”  Everyone but Fae asked.  Fae kept her mouth closed.  Mithrasis looked seriously interested.

Greta, who wore her armor since Samarvant, called for her weapons.  They appeared, attached in their proper places, so the sword called Salvation rested on her back with the handle sticking out over her left shoulder, and the long knife called Defender rested comfortably across the small of her back, or as she thought, across the top of her big butt.  Greta looked at Mithrasis.

“Let me in,” Mithrasis yelled.  The Nymphus liked Greta, but paused when Greta went away and Nameless stood in her place.

“And I intend to put her in her bed, personally,” Nameless said.  Mithrasis paused before Nameless heard the click and Mithrasis doubled her effort to get in.  “But first, Mithras, I want to know what game you are playing.”  Nameless whipped out defender and put it to Mithras’ throat faster than anyone could see or react.

Mithras dared not move, but he spoke.  “I am an old man, as you see.  I should be on the other side, but I am not whole.  I thought if I could get your help, you might find a way to repair the damage and set me free.”

“He lies,” Fae said softly.  It was her one true talent, to tell truth from lies.

“Kill him, and we will all be free,” Mithrasis yelled.

“She lies,” Fae added.

Nameless raised one brow.  “I don’t believe anyone has told the whole truth this whole time. And whose stupid idea was it to pull down a Wolv transport?”

“Hers.”

“His.”

Nameless merely waved his hand and the force field around the dome ruins came down.  Nameless stood in his element, so to speak.  In the Land of Aesgard he was counted as a Prince.  As the last child of Aesgard in his own jurisdiction, his will became final.  Neither Mithras nor Mithrasis could overrule what he decided.  At least that was how it was before the time of dissolution.

Nameless held out his hand as Mithrasis tumbled into the circle.  She hesitated and squinted at Nameless’ hand, but Nameless was a love god on his mother’s side, and that became too hard to resist.  Mithrasis took the hand and while she did not exactly snuggle up to his shoulder, it was near enough.

“So what game are you playing?” Nameless asked again.

“Kill him.  Be done with it,” Mithrasis whispered in his ear.

“It is no game,” Mithras said.

“Then let me put Mithrasis in her bed,” Nameless said, and he turned, and once again in a move too swift to follow, he slipped Defender up under Mithrasis’ ribs and into her heart.  Nameless did not want to lie for fear Fae might inadvertently say something, but he thought the whole time of putting Mithrasis in her death bed.

Mithrasis’ eyes got big.  She began to shake, like one suffering an internal earthquake, and she began to sparkle, like the light inside her started burning out.  “But I’m on your side,” she said, even as she fell apart.  This time, they all saw the one spark of light rise up from Mithrasis’ crumbling remains and shoot into Mithras’ mouth.  Mithras let out a great shout, and he collapsed, unconscious to the ground.

“This is the third time we have seen this,” Hans said, while Fae knelt down to check on the old man.  “He should stay out for several hours.”

Hobknot stepped up and spoke to Nameless. “Lord.  We spent the other two times arguing about whether the Mithras was a friend or foe.”

“But he fed you, and cared for you, and kept you all alive,” Bogus said.

“So said the women, but young Hans and I had our doubts.”

“And I questioned some,” Fae said.  “It was not that he lied, but he told such half-truths as fit his agenda.  I could not help wondering if the whole truth might speak against his agenda.”

“A true progressive politician,” Nameless said, and turned toward Berry, but before he could speak to her, a giant shadow fell on them.  The Raven, the giant bird, the Roc, appeared to be coming right at them.  “The shield has been removed.”

“Wait,” Hobknot said.  Nameless waited as Hobknot pointed.  “It is not after us.”

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

*

R6 Greta: The Persian, part 2 of 3

The Persian waved his hand, and a scorpion appeared.  It looked the size of a rhinoceros, though flat and low to the ground like a true insect. The horn on this beast appeared, not on the head, but at the end of the multi-jointed tail where it waved slowly up and down, ready to strike at any moment.  Its six legs made the creature shuffle back and forth, and it made a great clicking sound with its jaws, but it did not charge.

“Oh, Lovely.”  Greta clapped like an excited schoolgirl.  “A teleport device.  I can do that.”  The Persian looked confused again as Greta called.  “Bonebreaker!”

The ogre appeared beside his goddess as he had no choice.  He looked confused about what just happened and where he was, but looking confused was not an unusual thing for an ogre.  The poor ogre looked cut up, a few deep cuts, and he looked burned in several places, but he lived and would heal.  Greta touched Bonebreaker’s upper arm, about as high as she could reach, and the ogre felt strength and healing enter his body.

“But you can’t do that,” the Persian protested.  “You are just an ordinary, stinking, mortal human.”

“And this is my ordinary, stinking ugly friend,” Greta asked the ogre a simple question.  “Bonebreaker, dear.  Would you smash the scorpion?”

Bonebreaker grinned, which made Alesander and Briana look away and made Vedix swallow to keep from throwing up.  “Yes, Lady,” Bonebreaker said.  Ogres lived to smash things.

The scorpion moved, but Bonebreaker leapt and both fists came down at once on the scorpion head.  He grabbed the clicking jaws and with a great roar, ripped them out. The scorpion insides and brains began to leak out on the dock even as the stinger struck Bonebreaker in the shoulder. Bonebreaker howled, but grabbed the tail below the stinger and yanked.  Reflex kept the stinger in attack mode, but Briana let out a great scream of her own and leapt.  One swing of her sword and her sword broke even as the scorpion stinger flew off into the bushes.

Briana landed hard on the ground, the wind knocked from her lungs and the strength gone from her arms.  Alesander raced up and grabbed her.  He carried her to safety even as she protested that she could walk.  He told her to shut-up and kissed her to keep her quiet.

It turned out a good thing Alesander pulled her back from the action, because Bonebreaker shifted his hands on the scorpion tail and began to swing the scorpion to the left and the right, smashing it against the ground on the left and on the docks to the right.  When the scorpion became sufficient pulpy, Greta said stop, and Bonebreaker stopped and fell to his knees.

Greta rushed up.  The scorpion venom started having its way.  Greta was not a goddess, but even as a human, she remained Bonebreaker’s goddess, and she was the woman of the ways for all the Dacian people, and not without training and some small power.  She prayed as she touched the big ogre on the shoulder.  She emptied her mind and focused as well as she could, even as Mother Hulda taught her, and the venom collected next to the wound and forced itself out of the hole in the shoulder.  It dribbled to the ground and the earth steamed where it landed.

“That’s not possible,” the Persian shrieked.  “You are not a god.”

“I am human, but as Mother Greta, you know I have some small power.”  Greta turned and her eyes were hard and cruel enough to startle the Persian.  Her hand once again shook a finger at the Persian like he had been a naughty child.  “You claim to be a god, a claim I dispute.  So let me put you to the test of water, fire, earth, air and ether.  We will see if you are truly a god or not.”

The Persian looked surprised, but soon enough the sly look returned to his face and he accepted the challenge.

“We are here by the river,” Greta said in her stern voice and left little time for the Persian to think.  “Since I am already soaked from the rain, let us begin with the water test.”  Greta sat down on the dock and dangled her feet over the side.  “Let us see which of us can stay longer under the water.”  She slipped off the dock and sank beneath the waves.  The fish gave her plenty of room as instructed, and the water sprites surrounded her with a bubble of air and kept her supplied with plenty of oxygen.  The Persian slipped into the water to stand beside her, a smug look on his face before he realized she tricked him again. The water sprites that protected Greta could also feed off the pressure at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, and they pressed in on the Persian and would have crushed him utterly, before he could react, if they were not followed by the Piranha.  It took less than thirty seconds to strip the Persian of every ounce of flesh.  Greta surfaced, as a spark of white light shot out of the water and zoomed into the north.  Then the gnawed bones floated up.

Greta looked at Alesander and Briana, but they were busy kissing.  All the same, she positioned Vedix between her and the lovers before she traded places with Amphitrite.  Amphitrite bent down to the water and thanked her water sprites first of all.  Bubbles popped up from the water and she petted his head like a mom might brush the hair out or her little one’s eyes. Bubbles turned from a gray-blue color to slightly pink and broke to water pieces.  Amphitrite looked up to the sky sprites, and made a point of thanking them as well as singling out the winds that helped.  She turned again to the water and called her Piranha to the surface.  When they jumped from the water, she sent them all the way home to the Amazon, a little less hungry.

“They would not have survived in these cold waters,” she said, and went away so Greta could come back.  “Better they go home,” Greta finished the thought before she added, “I wish we could go home.”

Vedix nodded.  “As you say,” he said, while he got a boat pole and hook and tried to fish the Persian’s bones out of the water.

“Lady!”  Greta heard Mavis’ voice and looked around.  Lucius was nowhere to be seen.  Greta walked off the dock and headed toward the fort where Mavis and Hermes started walking toward her, followed by a great host of hard looking men in leather armor, round wooden and some metal shields, long spears and great swords that hung from leather straps that fit over the opposite shoulder. Bogus and Pincushion came from the big building with dozens of horses in their trail.

R6 Greta: The Persian, part 1 of 3

The man’s cap looked like a wizard’s cone hat, but bent so it flopped over in the front.  It showed the image of a fingernail moon, while the man’s wizard cloak of the same color as the cap, a deep navy, almost black, looked studded with a thousand stars.  The man himself looked richly tanned and stared at her with dark eyes beneath full and black brows.

“Persian,” Greta called him, and Vedix came up to stand beside her.

“Kairos.”  The Persian returned a word to show that he certainly knew who she was.  Greta looked for Lucius and found him standing back, quietly watching.  Lucius had his sword put away and made no hostile move as the Persian talked and stepped toward the center of the room.  “That was a beautiful trick, sharing false information.  You have the Wolv all searching for you up river, but I saw through your clever ruse and now I stand between you and the Road of Dreams.”

Greta looked again at the Persian and understood what she had to do, dangerous as it might be.  “Jupiter is dead,” she said with a smile.  “He went over to the other side as all the gods should.  And your pretend Jupiter, the lion-headed freak is dead as well.”

The Persian paused, uncertain how to respond. Greta assumed from his perspective there was so much wrong with what she said, he choked on where to begin.  “He was not a pretend Jupiter,” the Persian spit out at last.  “He was the true god.”

“No,” Greta interrupted, with a kind and friendly shake of her head.  “If he was a true god he would have gone over to the other side some time ago with all the real gods.”

The Persian got flustered.  “He was a real god.”

Greta shook her head.  “Well, he was not exactly immortal.  Why, he was no more a god than you are.”  Greta forced a casual laugh.  “What are you, a third-rate magician?”

“I – I…”  The Persian stuttered before he threw his hands in her direction.  “This should have been done a long time ago.”

Greta felt herself turning into a donkey and quickly went away so Junior could stand in her place.  Junior was a true god of the Middle East as well as Egypt, and while he technically did not cover Persia, he had plenty of dealings there in ancient days and so imprinted his impression on the Persian people.  Junior shook his finger at the Persian, like the Persian was a naughty boy, and Junior smiled as the Persian’s eyes filled with a touch of fear and he took a step back.

“You picked up a matter transformer from the Wolv,” Junior said, like he was Greta speaking, which in a way, he was.  “Very impressive, but still just a trick.”  He tossed a bit of dirt in the air and Greta came back to have the dirt fall on her.  Immediately, the compulsion to become a jackass went away and she returned fully to her ordinary, human self.

“I have no matter trasfigurer, or whatever you said,” the Persian raised his voice.

“Sure,” Greta rolled her eyes.  “I forgot.  You are pretending to be a god.”

“But I am a god.”  Greta just stared at the man like the man had a few loose screws.  “But I am,” he repeated.

“I tell you what,” Greta said in a very casual voice. “I figure you have your tricks set up in this room so it would not be a good test.  Let’s go back out by the river, into the sunlight and see what you are made of.”  Greta grabbed Vedix’ hand and dragged him behind her.  She walked quickly, and the Persian followed, still mumbling.

“But I am a god.”

Outside, Greta waved to Alesander and Briana who stood, concerned, but then curious to see what she was up to.  When the Persian came into the light, and blinked at the sudden brightness, Briana drew her knife and growled like Vedix.  Greta thought it must be a Celtic thing.  She turned and faced the man only when she got near the docks.  The lion-headed one had been a god of the sky, the air and lightning.  The sun-runner, whichever that one was, appeared as a fire demon with a whip of fire.  Mithrasis, the Nymphus stood for Venus, the water one.  Greta wondered why women were always the water ones.  It hardly seemed fair.  But then the Roc flew over the beasts of the earth, quite literally from five thousand feet up, while the soldier stood over the human race, again of the earth, though it seemed like the Wolv were willing to play his game as well. That left the father figure, the Pater, but Greta figured he stayed above it all.  And the Persian, over the moon and the stars, had to be over the fifth element, ether.  That meant earth air water and fire were not his forte, so this might work.

“So, magician,” Greta turned and spoke up as soon as she reached the edge of the water by the ship and the dock.  “Lets see what you got out here in broad daylight. I’ll be watching to see if I can figure out the trick.”

“It is not tricks.”  The Persian turned from confusion and upset to anger.  This became the dangerous point and Greta had to be careful.  The Persian let his anger touch the sky and with a wave of his hand, dark, foreboding clouds moved in and lightning flashed between the clouds.  The thunder echoed through the village, and Alesander and Briana grabbed each other while Vedix jumped.  It began to rain, hard, but Greta laughed.

“That was very good.”  Greta knew a compliment would be needed to soothe the Persian’s anger. “I did not see how you did that, at all. Excellent.”  The Persian grinned.  “But really.”  Greta pointed to the sky.  “Five-year-old children on Katawba Three can change the weather with a push of a button. Weather control is old hat.”  The Persian looked deflated as Greta whistled for her air sprites and thought her instructions rather than speak out loud. The sprites began to push at the darkness and enlisted a couple of spirits of the winter winds to help.  The thunder stopped and the rain slowly slackened and stopped as the sun returned to the dock.

Greta felt glad of one thing, the one advantage she had in this game of wits.

“The Persian has no wits?” Festuscato asked in Greta’s mind.

“That’s wit with a “t”,” Gerraint said, and after a very brief pause, he said, “Twit.”

No, Greta thought to herself along with the words, “shut up.”  The Persian could not read her mind, thank God.  Given her knowledge of the actual future, sometimes called the most dangerous knowledge in the universe, even the gods were prevented from reading her mind, and that prohibition included the Persian.  He would have no way of knowing that matter transmutation was way beyond humanoid technology, so he could not have gotten a machine from the Wolv to do it. And it would be a thousand years in the future before the people on the planet of Katawba had the technical capacity to change the weather with the push of a button, but Greta was not going to be deterred by the details.  What the Persian did not know, she would not tell him.

“Hey!” Greta shouted as she leaned over and wrung her hair out on the dock.  “I may be willing to confess you are a real wizard and not just a magician with a bag of tricks. But if that is the case, where is your familiar?  I thought all witches and wizards had a familiar.”  Greta remembered there was something, like the lion-headed man had a serpent by his feet, but she could not exactly remember what the Persian had.

The Persian still looked angry as he watched his storm get pushed away, but soon enough, his expression turned to sly.  “Indeed,” he said, and he did not even protest that he was a god, not a wizard.  “You should meet my familiar.”

R6 Greta: Downriver, part 3 of 3

At four in the morning when people began to stir, Festuscato got his turn, and he did not gripe because at eight o’clock, Gerraint stepped in, which meant Festuscato still had the next turn.  The sun was due to come up, not that they would see it through the fog.  More important, the width and depth of the river changed overnight.  In some places, there were obstructions in the river and the place of safe passage narrowed.  Everyone needed to be awake and poles ready just in case they needed to fend off any rocks or other obstructions in the water.  Gerraint felt confident that his water babies would guide them safely to the dock, but it would be better to be prepared, just in case.

Gerraint picked at breakfast, and at eight o’clock he traded places with Diogenes.  Diogenes was not hungry, th-thank you.  He sat in the middle of the deck, pulled his sword and laid it across his lap.  Then he spent the next four hours making Lucius uncomfortable by staring at the man and trying to puzzle out just where the man’s loyalties lay.

At noon, Doctor Mishka took a turn.  She was more animated than most and did not mind sharing lunch and several stories from the future about the very land they were traveling through.  She kept her voice low, but she figured after all that snoring the night before, surely the Wolv knew where they were.  Unless, as she hoped, they were checking out the Muskva River awaiting their arrival.

There came one moment when the boat came rushing around a corner as it turned to the east.  The boat swayed and tilted heavily to starboard as it got caught in a side current.  Hermes almost slipped and fell overboard, but Mavis grabbed him and they both tumbled to the deck, laughing.  The rest of the group shouted Wee! and Aah! like they were on a log flume ride before the boat settled down in the new current.  The boat then slipped into the calmer waters behind a jetty, which had been built out into the river.  A short while later, they came around a second jetty, and there they came gently to the dock of a fine-looking village.  They did not exactly stop perfectly.  They felt a bit of a bump, but Vedix and Hermes jumped to the dock with the ropes and tied the boat fast.

“Where are we?” Alesander whispered, having spent the day without speaking at all.  People looked up and all around as the fog lifted from their immediate vicinity. They could still see where it clearly covered the river downstream and back upstream, but after twenty-four hours, the fog started to feel a bit suffocating.  People breathed, and looked all around.

The village where they docked had been carved out of the hills and short cliffs that penned in the river.  They found several buildings by the docks that looked to be warehouse buildings, and a three-story tower about where the central village square ought to be.  The houses looked odd, a style of building unfamiliar to both the Romans and the Celts, though to be fair, they had not gotten a good look at the houses of Samarvant. Mainly, there did not seem to be anyone around.  There were no signs of life in that village.

Mishka kept back to see which way Lucius might be interested in going.  He moved immediately to the left off the dock where the village actually ended at a kind of small fort.  The fort looked shut up tight and showed no one on the walls, so Mishka assumed the fort was as empty as the rest of the place.  True, she could not be sure about the dungeon.  She saw another big building there beside the fort, like a great hall for meetings, but it also looked to be closed, and probably locked. That building stood beside what looked like a cave entrance that let people inside the hill itself.  Lucius became self-conscious when he realized everyone followed him, and he said something to ease any suspicion the others might have had.

“I think we go this way.  I think the cave should take us under the heart of the goddess.”

Greta came back, letting the good doctor Mishka return to the future.  She looked at Mavis, but Mavis shook her head.  The only thing Greta remembered saying was they had to go north.  Neither Greta nor Mavis told anyone about the signs they had been following.

“Where is everyone?  Where are the people?” Hermes interrupted.

“Deserted the village,” Alesander suggested.  “Ran away, or headed downriver to get away.”

“At least there aren’t any half-chewed bodies in this place,” Vedix offered.

“Quiet,” Greta said, and they quieted and looked at her while Greta sighed at having to face her own cave.  I would rather have a bridge to burn, she thought, but she said something else.  “Alesander, Briana, stay out here and keep hidden.  Be prepared for us to come racing back out in case the cave is full of Wolv.  Bogus and Pincushion, see if there are any people around, but stay invisible.   My guess is this is a Venedi village, so they may become friends.  Mavis and Hermes, see if there are any horses here for the borrowing.  From here on we follow the Road of Dreams.  Lucius and Vedix, you go with me to check out Lucius’ cave.”  Greta turned to Lucius.  “After you.”

“Lady?” Mavis did not exactly protest, but Greta waved her off.

“It will be all right,” she said, as she stepped toward the darkness.

Lucius drew his sword, but Diogenes said in Greta’s head that it was for show.  Lucius walked slowly up what appeared to be a wide and well-kept path, not unlike the back-door path in the village of the Dragon Clan.  Vedix fingered his wristwatch shield, thinking worst case scenario.  Greta found a stack of torches by the entrance and lit two with her little bit of flint.  She handed one to Vedix while Lucius stared off into the dark.

They did not walk far before they reached a great chamber, like a massive entrance hall carved out of the dark.  It looked like a smaller version of one of the great dwarf halls they saw in Movan Mountain, but this looked strictly human made, with great columns regularly spaced to support the ceiling.  Greta saw the path continued up and out the back of the chamber, but first she became concerned to light the torches that she found spaced regularly around the walls.  She figured this would be the way her group had to go, and guessed that they were beneath the Heart of the Goddess, whatever that was.  She managed to only light the first torch before all the torches around the room came to life as if by magic.

Vedix growled like a true member of the Bear Clan as Greta’s eyes shot to the exit tunnel on the other side of the room.  A small man in a long cloak and Phrygian cap stared right back at her.

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

MONDAY

Greta faces the second piece of Mithras, the Persian.  Until next time, Happy Reading.

*

R6 Greta: Downriver, part 1 of 3

Greta slept in the moving boat while Alesander, Lucius, Hermes, Vedix, Bogus and Briana took turns with the poles and kept as much eye as they had on the dark riverbanks, at least to be sure they did not get too close in the dark.  Pincushion slept in fits, getting up and down through the night.  She fretted about how she could make food that anyone could eat. Her nose was good, and she said she would smell the Wolv if they got close, but that did not help keep them from starving to death.  Mavis got up several times in the night and spent Hermes’ shift with him.  She said her eyes were not made for the dark like Ulladon, but her ears were sharp.  She told them when she heard movement along the banks, but she said she sensed beaver and once a bear, not Wolv.

When Greta woke in the morning, Briana asked if maybe the Wolv lost the trail.  “Not a chance,” Greta answered.  “They have eyes like a fairy, I should say, like an eagle, ears like an elf or a bat, and noses like true dwarfs, like bloodhounds that can smell us miles away.”

“My turn,” Hermes butted up with a question. “I don’t understand why this boat was just sitting there untouched.  If Wolv attacked my city, escape by the river would be an obvious option.”

“Boat’s too big?” Briana guessed.

“Probably single people or maybe a family went for the river, but there were probably smaller boats for the taking,” Alesander added.

“This big freighter was probably more than one or two could handle, especially if the attack came at night.  We only got it because we had the hands.” Briana finished the thought.

“They probably came at night” Greta wanted to explain.  “But you must remember, they are like people, they are smart, they are not animals. They probably moved right away to cut off the river as an avenue of escape.  They maybe even swam the river to close the port first thing.”

“They can swim?”   Hermes looked from bank to bank, but he sounded a bit like Nudd.

“Doggie paddle.”  Greta nodded and she took a moment to sigh for Nudd.  “But wait.”  She had another thought.  “This boat does not exactly have a shallow draft.  You men don’t know this river, the currents or the deep-water channels. How is it we haven’t run aground?” Greta imagined that might be what the Wolv were waiting for, but Mavis knew the answer.

“Water babies,” she said.  “They came early in the night when we set out and promised to keep us in the deep water and away from the banks.”  Mavis let out a mighty grin because water sprites were the cutest things.  That gave Greta an idea.  She stood and called to the sky.

“Sky babies, please come and hear me.  Water babies, listen.”  Then she waited because they were not like ogres who had to be told everything twice.

It only took a moment for the waves around the boat to form into dozens of little gingerbread-like jelly babies.  The one who jumped up on the deck shouted, “Good Lady,” in a sweet baby voice

“Bubbles,” Greta called the sprite by name and offered a small curtsey.  “Thank you for your good care of my person.”

“Think nothing of it.  A pleasure.  A real pleasure,” Bubbles said before people were distracted by two small clouds that looked to be falling from the sky.

“Lady calls,” one cloud spoke.

“Calls to us,” the other cloud agreed.

“We are here,” the first said.

“Here we are,” the second agreed.

“Fluffer and Sprinkles, welcome,” Greta said, as the two clouds took on human-like form to stand on the deck.  They were not much bigger than Bubbles, and even though they had a head, arms, legs and such, they never lost the look of little clouds. The people on deck stared and Briana wondered if the clouds were male and female, though she had no way of telling, and when she asked Mavis, all Mavis could do was shrug.

“How can we help?” One of the cloud people asked.

“We want to help,” the other echoed.

“Now babies, I have a request.”  Greta got down on her knees and whispered.  She did not want Lucius to hear.  It took a little time, but when she finished, she stood and said, “Thank you.”  The cloud people reverted to clouds right away and rose again into the sky.

“We will do everything you ask,” one cloud spoke.

“All you need to do is ask and we will do it,” the other agreed.

Bubbles stood as tall as he could, just over a foot tall.  He appeared to salute as he made his way to the edge of the boat.  “You can count on us,” he said in his sweet voice.  “We will bring you safely to the place I am not talking about.”  He waved from the edge before he dove back into the water and disappeared.

Greta stood with the inevitable grin on her face. “No need to pole,” she said.  “The sweet water sprites will carry us safely.” The others smiled as well until Lucius broke the spell by asking where they were going.  Greta answered, and as the saying goes, she lied like an elf.

“When we join up with the Muskva, we will turn upstream for a few miles and pull in to the north shore at a place where I hope the Wolv won’t find us.”  Greta knew she was no good at telling lies.  Mavis, Bogus and Pincushion all caught the lie, and Mavis gasped, but Bogus spoke right up to provide cover for the words.

“Those water sprites will have a hard job pulling us against the current, but I am sure they are up to it.”

Greta wisely said no more about it, and Pincushion changed the subject.  “Lady. Did you arrange for us to build a fire somewhere?  I can’t hardly cook on thin air.”

“Let’s see what we can find,” Greta said, and she, Pincushion, Hermes and Mavis scrounged through the hold beneath the deck. What they came up with was a bronze shield that might work as long as no one stepped on the edge and tipped it. The fire would have to be small and stay centered, but Pincushion said she could work with that, even if she could not do much.

“We have two buckets,” Hermes said, and lifted them. He found some rope and handed one bucket to Vedix.  Vedix filled his right away while Greta, Mavis and Pincushion found a place amidships where they could lay the shield and prop it with other artifacts to prevent it rolling.