Patrick started down the rough path, which became a bit of a climb to reach the floor of the hollow. Bran and Greta followed him, and Giolla came and pushed up to stay near the priest. Lord Flahartagh followed reluctantly, and Fionn came last and looked like a man who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“Come, come,” the old woman cackled. “I have been expecting you, but tell me, druid, how did things turn?”
“You failed, old woman. The priest lives, and I should take my money back.”
“Curious,” the old woman cackled. “They were the most poisonous serpents in the world. But who can control serpents?”
“Patrick can,” Giolla shouted. “He cast your serpents into the sea where they all drowned.”
“You paid her to attack the priest?” Lord Flahartagh caught up with what was going on and he hit his druid and knocked him down. “You know what happened last time,” he roared.
“What happened?” Greta asked. She wanted the conversation to continue while she thought of what to do. She felt sure any direct movement toward the hole in the world would be stopped by the witch.
Lord Flahartagh explained. “My father’s grandfather got cheated by the MacNeills and the King of Leinster when the King ruled in favor of the MacNeills and they took possession of the whole of the fens. He came to the witch and she called up the dragons who terrorized our lands as readily as they terrorized MacNeill and Leinster.”
“Who can control a dragon?” the witch asked in a gleeful voice.
“Festuscato can,” Bran said, and Greta looked up at the man.
“Hey, I healed the dragon. Oh, okay.” Greta threw up her hands and went away so Festuscato could fill his own boots. The witch looked startled, and the Irish yelled again, though not as loud as the last time. Festuscato returned in his white tunic with the dragon on the front, and sent the cloak of Athena away. “Good to be back,” he said, and winked at Patrick, while he walked around as if seeing things for the first time, and in truth positioned himself to take a stab at the branches as soon as the opportunity arose.
“You are the dragon,” the witch said, and with the sound of respect in her voice. “I have heard of you.” Clearly, hearing and understanding what she heard were two different things. No human witch, no matter how powerful, could probe the depths of the Kairos.
“So, what’s cooking?” Festuscato asked and leaned over as if to get a look.
“The soup of life in the cauldron of life.”
“That is never the cauldron of life,” Festuscato objected. “Dagda’s Cauldron was big enough for a man to stand inside it. Cauldron of life?” Festuscato scoffed.
“Patrick’s words are the words of eternal life,” Giolla spoke up.
“Jesus is the giver of life,” Patrick said, and the witch screamed and covered her ears. That told Festuscato that the witch was not just a sorceress, she was demon possessed, a complication, and no doubt the source of her knowledge.
“I control life here,” the witch insisted and she lifted her spoon to mumble incoherently and wave her hand above the bubbles. Spiders began to crawl over the edge of the cauldron and several bats flew up into the sky, to dive bomb the people.
“Mousden!” Festuscato called, and since Mirowen presently held the boy’s hand, she came with him.
Mousden took one look at the witch, reverted to his pixie form, screamed and raced to hide behind Patrick’s robes.
“Mousden, come here,” Mirowen scolded and Mousden looked up and took a breath long enough to mouth another word.
“Lunch.” The bats flew for their lives. The spiders were not so lucky.
By the time the witch closed her mouth at the unexpected turn of events, Festuscato had Wyrd out of his sheath. One swipe of that sword, and the old branches got cut off. He punched the remains of the branches, hurt his hand, and the wood popped out the other side of the hole, somewhere on the other earth. The hole itself snapped shut with an audible SNAP.
The witch screamed. Mousden screamed again on principle. Festuscato more accurately shouted his words. “Get out of the hollow!” He grabbed Patrick’s robe as Mirowen scooped up Mousden, and they began to climb. Bran went right there with them, but the others were a bit behind. When the witch collapsed, she began to decay rapidly. She had to be over ninety. Maybe she was over a hundred-years-old. Maybe she was already dead and just being propped up by the demons that inhabited her. They would never know. As they reached the ground level above, the walls all around the hollow gave way and the hollow filled rapidly with water. They watched while in the end it became a pond in the wilderness, and when it overflowed in one spot, it became a little stream.
“No,” Festuscato shook his head. “What do you think, Springs?”
A little head popped up from the stream and spoke. Flahartagh got startled, but he did not yell this time. “Lots of muck in the water from that blasted soup the witch was cooking. Come back this time next year and we will get things nice and cleaned up for you. That old witch kept us out for a long time, but I knew she could not keep us out forever.”
“Thank you, Springs,” Festuscato said. “Good to see you.”
“My pleasure.” Springs saluted, and broke apart into the water from whence he came.
“I see you have lots of friends,” Lord Flahartagh said, and Festuscato nodded.
“Like my housekeeper Mirowen, and her ward, Mousden.” Mousden went back to walking, looking again like a nine-year-old, and it would have been easy to forget his pixie appearance or blame it on the witch casting illusions, but Mousden chose that moment to let out a big belch, and Mirowen scolded him. “He ate too much,” Festuscato suggested. Lord Flahartagh’s eyes got big for a second before he began to laugh.
Patrick and Fionn the Druid kept up a lively debate all the way back to the road. To be sure, Fionn did not want to crowd his lord and remind him he went to the witch in the first place. No one really listened to the debate, unless Bran listened, but it did seem to the casual observers that Fionn kept losing.
By the time they reached the road, Fionn started reaching for arguments that were no more than thinly disguised insults, like a man who lost the debate, and knew it, but was damned if he would admit it. He started insulting Patrick when they reached the road and Patrick had enough.
“No one is forcing you to listen to the good news, but as young Giolla plainly told you, what I am bringing is the word of life.” Patrick slammed the butt of his shepherd’s crook on the ground for emphasis. Unfortunately, the ground seemed extra soft on the side of the road and the staff sank into the muck. A second later, Patrick had to let go as the staff got hot. They all watched as the staff sprouted leaves, and they watched the roots grow.
“Dern,” Festuscato said. “I liked that staff.”
Fionn got scared when they went to see the witch. He got frightened out of his mind when he saw the pixie, and then the water sprite, but he could pretend they did not exist. This became too much. The fear covered Fionn’s face and he yelled the last weapon in his arsenal.
“I will call upon the gods and tell them to strike you down.”
“I don’t think that will work,” Festuscato said. “The gods don’t appreciate being told what to do.” He stepped aside and traded places through time with Danna. She called sweetly, “Rhiannon.”
Rhiannon did not have to come, but she came because it is polite when Mother calls. “What is it this time?”
“This druid wants you to strike down Patrick.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t. He is such a nice man.”
“That’s what I thought. I told him the gods did not like being told what to do.”
“Oh, don’t I know it. Mannanon can be as stubborn as the sea.”
“He can’t help it.”
“Oh, I almost forgot. Clugh ate a whole goat and slept for almost twenty-four hours.”
“He is growing up. You did cook the goat.”
“Of course, He made the cutest little whine when I tried to give it to him raw, so I cooked it for him and he squealed. He was so happy.”
“So, you’re not mad at me for giving you the dragon?”
“Oh, how could I ever be mad at you, Mother.” Rhiannon stepped up and kissed Danna on the cheek, waved to everyone and vanished. Danna turned to the Druid who stared, mouth wide open. She stuck her finger in his face.
“Listen to Patrick. He is telling you the truth. In the words of my good friend Yul Brenner, his god is God. Now close your mouth, and if you are good, and I said if, mind you, you just might find something special in your stocking … no, wait … Frosty the Snowman. Anyway.” Danna hugged Patrick, and then she gave him three pieces of gold and some advice.
“The women, especially rich women will give you gifts. Remember in this culture, they will be insulted if you don’t accept them. But on the other hand, men will accuse you of accepting gifts from women. You will have to do your best to turn those gifts to the church to answer your critics, and otherwise, go with God. Use the gold to buy a new shepherd’s crook. It suits you.” Danna stepped back. “The old way has gone.”
“The new way has come,” Patrick said, and Danna vanished, and she took Bran, Mirowen and Mousden with her.
They appeared on the road just beyond MacNeill’s fort, and Danna changed back to Festuscato. He let his armor and weapons go away in favor of his comfortable clothes, and he spoke. “I believe I have tempted history here far enough.”
“So, explain how the shepherd’s crook sprouted and grew,” Bran wondered.
“Maybe if he had some natural magic in him,” Mirowen started, but Festuscato interrupted.
“Can’t be natural. The source of the magic got cut off when the hole closed between this earth and the other earth.”
“But then, how?” Now Mirowen was curious.
“Some mysteries are best left alone. It is time that we go,” Festuscato said, but he paused when he saw a half-dozen wagons beside the fort where they blocked the view of the town and dock. Festuscato made sure Mirowen had her glamour on and Mousden stayed in his big size. “I smell visitors, and something else.”
“Yourself,” Mirowen suggested. “You need a bath.”
R6 Festuscato: 7 Travelers: The tinkers bring spooks with them. Don’t miss it.