The travelers left as early in the morning as they could, which meant when Berry and her two boys were ready. Hans proved a patient young man, expecting first thing in the morning to be a relative phrase, even with Lavinia, Boston, Sukki, Nanette, and Alexis all helping. Nanette and Sukki eventually went out to help with the horses. Too many moms just added to the confusion and provided too many distractions.
Hans hitched up his family wagon, and checked the harness on his ox three times, just to be sure. He talked casually with Lincoln and Lockhart about life in Dacia. He talked with Katie and Tony about the Roman Empire, while Tony imitated Hans by checking the hitch on Ghost three times. Decker and Elder Stow did their best to sit on the front porch and watch the people in the street. They made little commentary. Decker mostly chewed on some local version of jerky. Elder Stow mostly fiddled with his equipment.
Bragi came back from checking on the bird when the group finally got ready to pull out. He stood with Karina and the girls on the front porch and waved. Boston especially returned the wave and shouted good-bye but moved to the front before Lockhart or Katie yelled at her.
Once out of town, Boston and Sukki took their regular position out front, and pushed ahead now and then, even if they only planned to follow the road. Decker and Elder Stow did not wander far out on the wings, being in what they considered friendly territory. Two soldiers rode at the very front where Lincoln, Alexis, Tony, and Nanette grouped up at the head of the line. They talked and laughed most of the way, though the soldiers probably did not understand most of what they talked about.
Hans and his family wagon came next, trailing two horses he and Lavinia could ride, if needed, while Berry moved the boys and the wagon off the road. Berry, Lavinia, and the boys presently rode in the wagon with plenty of blankets and cushions against the rock bumps and potholes in the dirt road. Hans had the Latin equivalent of Haw and Gee down pretty well, but he did not have to say much. The ox seemed content to follow the contours of the road. Hans did not have to use the goad stick very often either, as long as the ox kept moving and kept up.
Katie and Lockhart took a turn driving the traveler’s wagon. Ghost the mule did not mind the slow pace, being able to go only as fast as the ox in front; and the ox only went as fast as Hans walking. The fairies Willow and Reed traveled with the couple, and those four were the only ones who talked about giant trouble and which lesser spirit might be responsible. It felt like something kept their minds focused and on track.
Lockhart finally decided it had to be the wraith.
“But no god would endow such a wicked creature with such power,” Willow protested.
Lockhart shook his head. “Ashtoreth, Moloch, Asherah, Baal, or any number of others might have done it before going over to the other side, as you say, in reference to the death of the gods.”
“Not all of the gods cared for us,” Katie slowly came to agree with the idea. “In this jurisdiction, maybe Eris or Hecate.”
“Maybe Loki?” Reed suggested, but Katie shook her head and Lockhart spoke.
“No. Loki did not seem to me to be stupid enough to empower a wraith. He did not strike me as the vindictive type.”
“Baldur,” Katie whispered, but Willow spoke over top.
“He could be vindictive, but he always liked to stick around and see how his wicked schemes worked out.”
“True,” the others agreed, and Lockhart took a moment to look back.
They were being followed by six more soldiers, an honor guard for the brother of Mother Greta, wife of the former governor of the province. They did not expect trouble from the locals, though the people did not seem happy with the current Roman governor, Marcus Italicus. But sometimes, outsider Dacians or Scythians of one sort or another snuck over the border in small raiding parties to see what they might steal, and the way the travelers headed would skirt the gold and silver fields in the province, the place where the raiders mostly turned up.
Lunch, with plenty of fruits and vegetables to make Alexis, Sukki, and Elder Stow happy, seemed more like a three-hour picnic beside the road than the typically efficient, mostly game-shot lunch of the travelers. For some reason, neither the travelers nor the soldiers seemed worried about giant beasts in the wilderness, which would have been very odd if any of them had the presence of mind to think about it.
After lunch, Lincoln and Alexis took a turn with the wagon, and Reed stayed with them to talk. Willow rode in Katie’s horse’s mane. She said, the idea of an elf turned human to marry a human made her uncomfortable. Lockhart laughed.
Greta pushed her group. They got past Aquae that first evening, and Greta found a bath to luxuriate in. On the first day the travelers moved, Greta wanted to reach Apulum, home of the legion fort. It would be another two days after that, over and around the hills, to reach Potassia. She hoped without dragging a wagon, they might make it to Potassia in a day and a half. She wanted to get there before or at least at the same time as the travelers.
They made it to Apulum that day, but after dark. They tried to sneak into an inn, unnoticed. Greta forgot. It turned out to be the inn where she saved the life of a girl raped by Roman soldiers. The girl had since grown and married. The soldiers lost their heads. But Greta forgot, and now there would be no hiding. The whole town would probably turn out in the morning.
As for Darius, he hardly got in the door when he got noticed by several legionnaires. He stayed up most of the night drinking and talking with most of the legion commanders who either privately complained about the new procurator, Marcus Italicus, or reminisced about how much better things were when Darius took temporary command of the legion and the governorship in the province.
Greta had to hold audience in the morning, as she suspected. They only escaped for the road in the end after she said she rode on an errand of mercy and had to get going. They escaped around noon, a whole half a day late, and Darius, who napped in the morning, was in no condition to ride hard and make up the lost time.
Greta spent most of that afternoon calling to the goddess Rhiannon in her heart, and sometimes with her mouth, but for some reason, Rhiannon did not answer her.
The travelers stopped for the night about half-way to Napoca and settled into a continuation of their picnic lunch. They had good conversations and plenty of laughter. Only Lockhart appeared to remain worried about the wraith and what giant predators might be lurking about in the wilderness. Something nagged at him, and he could not help the way he felt. The rest of the travelers seemed content to let the soldiers take the night watch, but Lockhart insisted on the regular watch for everyone. No one honestly complained. It had become their routine. But only Elder Stow caught some sense of Lockhart’s concern. He promised to set his screen device for quick deployment if that should prove necessary.
The following morning, the same morning that Greta left Aquae for the legion fort at Apulum, Boston and Sukki, sat on a log to watch the sunrise. They talked knowingly about the way Decker and Nanette appeared to be hitting it off.
Sukki felt a slight nudge in her spirit. “Wait,” she said, and her eyes felt drawn to the grass. “Wait,” she repeated, stood up, and kept rising until she floated twenty feet in the air. Boston gasped. Sukki pushed the power she had been given out of her hands. She felt it and did it deliberately this time. The result was a big smoldering spot in the tall grass, and Sukki floated back to the ground without actually realizing she flew.
Lavinia, who had gotten up to get breakfast started, and both soldiers came running over. They found thirty feet of serpent in the grass, now missing its head. It looked big enough to easily swallow a couple of people.
“A viper of some kind,” Lavinia decided. “Very poisonous.”
“But they don’t get this big,” one soldier protested.
“I once saw a Black Sea Snake that size,” the other soldier whispered.
“Way to go Sukki,” Boston praised her sister, even as Sukki realized she flew and got excited.