R6 Festuscato: 6 The Witch of Balmoor, part 3 of 3

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.

“There is some water worth avoiding,” Lord Flahartagh said.

“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.”

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

MONDAY

R6 Festuscato: 7 Travelers: The tinkers bring spooks with them.  Don’t miss it.

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R6 Festuscato: 6 The Witch of Balmoor, part 2 of 3

Dibs laughed and took Gaius by the robe to pull him back up the hill.  Patrick looked at the hillside and asked a question.

“How can you be following the snakes when there are no snakes?”

“I’m following the trail, I’ll admit, backwards.” She looked once around and started to walk.  Bran and Patrick followed, and Patrick praised his shepherd’s crook more than once as he pushed through the underbrush.  “I am from two hundred years before Christ, if you must know,” the Princess talked.  “I got blasted by Artemis, goddess of the hunt herself.  Festuscato, quite by accident, got a small spark, really a reflection of the spark given to his reflection, Diana.  Diana of Rome got sparked by Diana, the goddess, but I got blasted with the full enchilada.  The Storyteller says I could track Jesus over the top of the water, er, sorry Bishop. I can rope and ride, and I’m pretty good with a bow and arrow.”

The Princess stopped and called for the cloak of Athena, black side turned out.  She reached into the pocket and pulled out her bow and quiver of arrows.  The bow came pre-strung, and she placed an arrow on the string and started walking again.  “Let’s see what I can take on the fly,” she said.  Bran looked around, having some idea of what she might be talking about. Patrick took it wrong.

“You are a huntress?”

The Princess made no response, but turned on the third step and shot her arrow into some nearby trees.  They heard a squeal and a shout as the Princess ran toward the sound.  Bran pulled his sword and followed, and Patrick did his best to keep up in his robe. A young man, about fifteen or sixteen had his cloak and shirt sleeve above the shoulder pinned to a tree.  He looked ready to disrobe and run off, but paused on sight of the Princess.  She could do that to young men.

The Princess shifted her bow to her left hand and reached for Defender, the long knife she carried across the small of her back. “You have a name?” she asked.

“Don’t hurt him,” Patrick blurted out.

“Giolla,” the boy said, and he closed his eyes and prepared himself to be stabbed, but with a wink at Patrick, the Princess used defender to dig out her arrow.

“Sorry about the clothes, but I don’t appreciate being spied on.  Who paid you to spy on us anyway?”

“Lord Flahartagh.  He said to watch the road in case any of those Christian men decided to go traveling.”

“Why?” Bran asked the operative question, but Patrick interrupted.

“What is wrong with Christian men?”

“Lord Flahartagh says he likes things the way they are.  He says Fionn, his druid spouts more foolishness in a day than a man should have to hear.  He says I should tell him right away when someone comes.”

“We will all tell him, together.”  the Princess put her knife away and Bran sheathed his sword. Patrick stepped up to the young man and Giolla surprised him.

“I know you.  You’re Patrick.  I went to MacNeill’s barn and took my mother, more than once.  She says she wants to hear more about your Christ.”

“And it will be my pleasure to tell her,” Patrick said. He slipped his arm around the boy and they followed the Princess who stepped through some bushes and up on to a crude, two-rut wagon road.

“Aha!  The road to MacNeill’s fort.  I thought we might run into it, given our direction.”  She paused and looked down at the tracks, took a few steps and made a pronouncement.  “The snakes slithered down the road.  I feel we are getting close.  Isn’t this exciting?”  Bran shrugged and Patrick stayed busy talking to the boy.

“It is the word of life,” he said.  “And not only for this world, but when our labor here is done we have the promise of life eternal.”  Giolla did not understand, so Bran explained.

“He means you get to live forever, and in a better world.”

They walked the road for an hour, and stopped when the Princess saw the place where the snake first came up to the road. “There,” she said, and pointed out across the clover filled moor they had seen from the hilltop.  “Rest for a minute before we trudge back across the wilderness.”

Patrick nodded.  He was the elder.  Giolla could have run off at any time, but he sat by the man, eager to hear more.  He stood again when he heard what the Princess heard when she said to rest.  There were horses on the road, not pulling a cart, but ridden.  Four men rode up to them as the Princess shouted.

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”

“Matthew,” Patrick said.

“The Baptist,” Bran suggested.

The Princes shook her head.  “Isaiah.  I was born two hundred years before Christ, remember?”

The men on horseback said nothing as they stared at the people on foot.  Two horsemen kept to the rear while two pushed out front.  One appeared a big man of about thirty-five or forty years.  He had red hair, but a beard that looked golden, and it gave an odd, miss-matched look to his face, especially when he scowled. The man beside him seemed younger, maybe thirty, but his beard looked long, dark and dirty, like he never trimmed it and never washed it.  Giolla stood uncomfortably with the others before he felt obliged to step up and speak.

“Lord Flahertagh, this is the Christian man, Patrick. We were just coming to see you.” The big man frowned before he got down. The one with the dirty beard looked surprised.  The Princess and Bran noticed the look on that bearded face and the Princess made a wild guess.

“And you must be Fionn, the local druid.”  The Princess stepped up and read on the man’s face that she guessed correctly.  She stuck out her hand.  “I am Princess Cassandra, Lord of the Athol and Princess of all Greece.  I am Greek, on holiday from all those responsibilities of ruling and making all those decisions.”  She grabbed the older man’s hand and shook it.  “And you are Lord Flahartagh.  It is wonderful to meet you.”  She clearly channeled Festuscato.

“Princess,” the big man mouthed the word, and he managed to crack a small smile to look at her.  “You have a strange enough accent.”

The Princess took her hand back and looked at the others.  “I do not have an accent.”

Patrick and Bran spoke together.  “Yes, you do,” and Bran almost smiled.

Giolla pushed forward and said something that was not really a surprise.  “Father. The priest brings the word of eternal life, and Mother wants to hear more about it.”

“I bring the word of life in peace,” Patrick interjected.  “I bring only words of life for all the people.  Surely it takes no great courage to listen to words.”

Fionn objected.  “I hear these Christians eat the flesh and drink the blood of men.”

“Only bread and wine as daily reminders that as we participate in the death of the Lord, we shall also be raised with him to new life, even life eternal.”

Fionn was not finished.  “I also hear these Christians make a man go under the water, and hold him there while they say strange things over him, and when they let the man up, he is so near drowned he will do and believe anything they tell him.”

The Princess interrupted before Patrick could give answer.  “It is for cleansing and a sign of being included, but mostly for cleansing, like a good bath, you know, the thing you never do.”  Lord Flahartagh tried not to laugh.  “The only thing Patrick drowned was the snakes sent to attack him.”

“That’s right,” Giolla spouted.  “The snakes attacked him and he took them to the sea and cast them in to drown in the sea.”

“All the snakes in Ireland drowned in the sea,” Bran said.

“So what I want to know.”  The Princess got in Fionn’s face, and then took a step back because of the man’s bad breath.  “Did you send the serpents, or did you pay someone to do the dirty work for you?”

“Me?”  Fionn pleaded innocence, but he did not seem very good at lying.  “I sent no serpents to attack the priest.”

“Lord Flahartagh.”  The Princess took the man’s arm and turned him to face the place where the snake trail left the road and came through the woods.  “Who lives in this direction?”

Lord Flahartagh shook his head.  “That is Balmoor, the land that separates my land from MacNeill. Only the Witch lives there.”

“Let me check.”  The Princess stepped back and went away, and Greta came to stand in her place.  She ignored the shouts of surprise that came from the Irish and raised her hand.  She wished Briana was there.  Briana’s elect intuition could sense danger miles away. What Greta sensed was a power of some sort, and she spoke.  “Take me to this witch.  She needs to hear some of my words.”

Greta stepped down into the woods, and the men on foot felt obliged to go and protect the poor woman.  Flahartagh only paused to tell his two men to hold the horses.

The woods quickly gave way to the great field of clover.  There were ferns in places and bushes here and there, and even a tree now and then, but the field itself got squishy underfoot and shoes would soon be soaked. Greta had on her waterproof knee boots with her armor, so she paid little attention to the wet.  They climbed over several small ridges, more like rocky lumps in the ground, and came at last to a hollow below the main ground level.

Greta stopped and got her bearings first.  She saw a cave, a hole dug out of the earth, and a fire out front with a big cauldron filled with something that bubbled. A very old woman in a plain black dress stood behind the fire and occasionally stirred and cackled.  She seriously cackled.  Only one more thing to note.  A very well weathered oak branch with what looked like long-dead mistletoe, and an equally weathered branch of another kind of wood, perhaps holly, looked to be floating in mid-air in a spot by the cave.  It suggested a hole in the world, a hole to the Other Earth where the creative and variable energy that people called magic could seep through into our earth.  The thing was, those branches had to be under enormous pressure to keep the hole open seventy years after the two Earths went out of phase.  Clearly, that seepage had to be the source of the Witch’s power, and while Greta relaxed to think it was not a half-breed with the ability to tap into some great spiritual power, she recognized that this had to be a very powerful witch to keep a hole open seventy years after it should have slammed shut.

R5 Greta: The Lady’s Doom, part 2 of 3

Greta opened her eyes and saw lady Brunhild’s hand stretched toward her like one warming themselves at a fire.

“There is more in you than appears, but I perceive you cannot sustain it.  I do not know what you were trying to do, but it will not help you.”  She dropped her hand and curiosity crossed her face.  It happens when you can’t read minds.  “One thing puzzles me,” she said.  “What did you hope to gain by coming here?”

“I plan to destroy the weapons of Trajan,” Greta said, seeing no reason to disguise her intention at that point.  “They don’t belong here.  They should not even be invented for another thousand years.

Lady Brunhild laughed again, and it was becoming annoying.  “But be my guest,” she said.  “They are old and broken and mostly useless.  They do not matter.  I know the formula for the powder and how to fabricate the weapons.  That is my confidence that I will rule the world.”

“So Trajan thought,” Greta said, urged by Ali. “Does the name “Masters” mean anything to you?”

“Why, no.  Lord Mithras, bless him, is my only master.  Why?”

“No reason,” Greta said, and small consolation, she thought.

They were interrupted then by men who came in from the front of the Temple.  One man walked slowly, helped by another man, and there were two more with them.

“Ah!”  Lady Brunhild perked right up.  “My Lord Eldegard.  How good of you to come for this elegant occasion.”

“Lady Brunhild,” Eldegard said with a sideways glance at Greta.  “Kunther has taken the men to attack the outpost as you commanded.  But now that the battle is about to begin I must see to the defense of the Temple.  Why have you demanded that I attend you at this time?”

Greta could see that Eldegard was not bewitched. Bewitched men generally did not fight well.  Even so, Greta thought Eldegard would be a man very hard to bewitch and it gave her hope that Marcus might be in his right mind as well.  At the same time, she saw that Eldegard walked in very bad shape. His left leg looked like it had cracked and after a week, it did not heal very well.  He limped, badly, and his left arm hung at his side.  He was also missing his right eye, and it seemed a wonder that the man was still alive.

“Because I know your heart, my dear Eldegard.  You are beginning to doubt and that troubles me.” She cozied up to Eldegard like a woman who cozies up to a man with whom she has been intimate.  Eldegard stayed reserved.  Whatever may have happened in the past, Brunhild was now a beautiful young woman, younger than his daughter, and Greta could see that Eldegard did not entirely feel comfortable with that.  She remembered that Papa had chosen Eldegard because the man straddled the fence.  Apparently, having fallen off one side, he now got back up on the fence again.

“You must see with your own eyes and be witness to the righteousness of our cause,” Lady Brunhild said.

“The way you talk, aren’t you afraid of angering the gods?”  Greta asked.

Lady Brunhild looked surprised.  “My dear Greta.  And from you?”  It came as a question.  “You know for certain that the gods have all gone away.  Only my dearest Lord Mithras has stayed to begin anew.  Don’t you see?  After I have brought the whole world under the divine god Mithras, and after I have given Marcus sons to rule after him, I shall become a goddess and bear the children of Mithras.  Do you not see?  I shall be the divine Mother of the new gods.”

“Now I know the gods are angry for your arrogance and presumption.”  Greta said, and she saw that Eldegard felt the same way.

Lady Brunhild shook her head.  “I told you.  The old gods have all gone away.” she said, and she made a show for Eldegard. “I invoke the mighty Zalmoxis.  Great Zeus, come and bring your wisdom to this council.  Do you see? The statue has not moved.  It is merely stone.”  She laughed and went on.  “I invoke mighty Dayus the horseman to bring judgment to this gathering.” She looked at Greta.  “I invoke your Nameless god.  Come now, O Light of Heroes, Lord of the Valkyra.  Strengthen our arms for battle in the name of Selvanus, Lord of the Forest, and strengthen our hearts in purity and nobility under the name Epona and Bendi the Huntress.  Come, Nameless one.  Even now, come.”  Lady Brunhild laughed aloud one last time, but Greta heard a word.

“Don’t mind if I do.”

Greta vanished from that place, but no one knew, because as Nameless came to take her place, he made a glamour far stronger than the one Thissle could make.  It showed an illusion of Greta that Brunhild could have no hope of penetrating.

“Stand there.”  Brunhild turned on what she thought was Greta and commanded her. “Stand there.  Don’t move.  Don’t speak.” Braggi and Vasen let go, and Nameless played the part well, but of course, he felt nothing.  It would have been easier if Brunhild had tried to tell the galaxy to stop spinning.

“You see.”  The Lady spoke to Eldegard again.  “No one has come.  The gods have all gone away.  That is why we must give our allegiance to the one living god, Mithras, bless his name, who died and was raised to rule the world.”

“How about Abraxas?”  Nameless said in Greta’s voice, and then he thought, “Oops!” as he remembered that he was not supposed to be able to speak.

“Silence!”  Lady Brunhild yelled, her face turned ugly and distorted.  “Even if he should turn half the world to hags, that pretender will not survive the onslaught of the one, true god,” she said, and let her steam dissipate, slowly.  “But now, I take too long.  Enough of this foolishness.”  Her voice sounded cruelly wicked.  All semblance of girlish playfulness had gone.  Indeed, she sounded very much like the Lady Brunhild that Greta first knew and despised.

“At first I thought you would make a good lap dog, only now I think a jackass would be more appropriate.  You can bear my burdens for the rest of your days, but do not fret, you will never know it.  You will never remember being human at all.  Your transformation will be thorough and complete.”  Brunhild waved her hand, but it all appeared to be in slow motion to the nameless god.  Nameless could actually see the magic form and leave Brunhild’s fingers like so many sparkles of light or specks of gold dust.  Of course, the magic would have had no effect on him, but all the same, he put up a magic mirror, which let Brunhild pass judgment on herself.  It was actually a very easy thing to do, even if he had not been a god.

“Let this woman who would lead the people in the wrong direction be shown for the jackass she really is.”  Brunhild spoke for Eldegard, but in fact, Brunhild pronounced her own fate.

“Now, Thissle, now,” Nameless thought with ease while Brunhild’s magic struck the mirror and bounced back into her own face.

“Yes, Lord.”  Thissle said, and took only a moment to curtsy out of respect for one of the true gods of the little ones.

“Good girl,” Nameless said.  “Stay invisible and be careful.”

Lady Brunhild’s own magic hit her squarely and immediately her ears began to grow and her hands began to turn into hooves. Poetic justice, Nameless thought, and he dropped the guise of Greta.

R5 Greta: The Lady’s Doom, part 1 of 3

The morning came quicker than Greta imagined. When they opened the door, the sun looked ready to rise, and even though the light remained very dim, it took Greta a moment to adjust.

“Come out,” Lady Brunhild commanded, and Greta stumbled out to see a girl barely older than herself.  Instead of attacking her, though, the Lady surprised Greta by twirling around in her dress like an excited school girl, and asked, “How do I look?”

Greta frowned.  The young Brunhild looked very beautiful, and Greta, by contrast, felt rather ordinary and plain looking.  Then Thissle’s words came back about the need to outshine, and she could not help herself. “You have a zit.”  Greta said.  “On your nose there.”  Greta pointed.

“What?”  Brunhild went into an absolute panic.  “Bring me a mirror,” she demanded.  “Hurry!” Her finger went along her nose to try to feel it.  When the brass came, Greta started snickering.  Then the Lady surprised Greta again by genuinely laughing when she saw her clear skin.  It seemed a pleasant laugh, too, and she did not appear to be mad at Greta at all.

“Too bad,” she said.  “Under other circumstances, you with Darius and me with Marcus, I think we might have been friends.  I reminded myself last night that you are no fool, and I would dearly love a friend who has a semblance of a brain, not to mention someone who knows what I am talking about when I mention India or China.”

“Too bad?”  Greta asked, thinking she would no more be friends with this woman than she would with a succubus.

Brunhild nodded.  “Too bad I have to kill you,” she said, sweetly.

“So, what shall we do?”  Greta asked.  “Pistols at ten paces?”

Brunhild genuinely laughed again.  “A sense of humor, too,” she said.  “It really is too bad.”  She walked toward the back of the temple near the altar and statue of Odin, but where the wall looked clear and uncluttered.  Everyone else followed.  “First we see what is happening down below.”  She waved her hand against the wall.  A picture formed on the wall like a movie or a television picture, but it appeared like they looked from the Goodyear blimp.  They zoomed down to the road where they could hear the noises and see the fortifications.  Greta noted with glee that a morning attack would force the Quadi to ride near enough into the morning sun.

“Such a pitiful few horses the Romans have,” Brunhild said.

Greta did not think it looked that pitiful, but then she realized that Brunhild could not see the knights of the lance, though the way they gleamed at sunrise, they became almost all that Greta could see. And it looked like more than a hundred! Greta began to count, but before she could send a stern word to Sunstone, the scene shifted.

“But see?”  Brunhild said as they zoomed over to the Quadi line.  “Three thousand men in the first wave.  They are expendables, really, designed only to break your lines.” The picture zoomed further back behind the first wave.  “You see? Ten thousand warriors ready to ride in the second wave.”

“I see.”  Greta said, and she thought Yin-mo saw as well, though she could not be sure. Brunhild looked at Greta as if sensing the subliminal message, but before she could speak they got distracted by the sound of drums.  The Quadi also heard the drums, and their front line had a hard time holding their horses in check.

“What is this?”  Lady Brunhild looked genuinely surprised.  She zoomed over to the forest and tried to peer down between the trees. The drums, so many drums, sounded as if they were getting louder and louder.  “I see.”  The Lady said as she must have seen something.  “Very clever. Outflank the Quadi.  Who will win?  But then, who cares.  I will win.” She laughed, and this time Greta heard no pleasantry in her laughter.  “All the same, it is exciting, isn’t it?”  Brunhild touched Greta’s hand in girlish excitement, but Greta pulled her hand away, feeling that she might have to scrub her hand with a Brillo pad.

“It is not exciting,” Greta returned.  She knew war too well.  “What if Darius gets killed?” she asked.

“That should hardly matter to you at this point.” Brunhild shot at her, taking Greta’s snub, personally.  Then she appeared to soften, like a snake.  “But if it is any consolation, I will find someone nice for Darius’ bed.  He will not be unhappy.”

“Aren’t you afraid Marcus may be killed?”  Greta asked.

“Oh, no,” Brunhild said.  “Marcus will not be fighting.  I have seen him already, and he has promised to stay out of it.”

“No!”  Greta leapt forward to get her hands around the woman’s throat.  She wanted to break Brunhild’s neck before this went any further. Unfortunately, two men grabbed her and held her by the arms like the night before.  They could do this easily enough because they were going after Greta, not her armor.  Even so, Brunhild took no chances.  One who grabbed her was Vasen the Priest.  The other was Bragi, her brother.  Both were deeply enchanted and Greta almost wondered how they could even see out of eyes so glazed.

“Bragi.  What are you doing?”  Greta asked and put what little she had into the question.  Bragi did pause, but then answered firmly.

“I do what the Lady wants,” he said, and Lady Brunhild laughed again and made no effort to disguise the wickedness in her laughter.

Greta had to close her eyes for a minute.  She found Thissle safe but not sure what to do. The rocket was already sticking straight up at the ready, where Bragi had set it the night before.  Thissle, Greta thought.  You will have to light the fuse when I tell you.  Then run straight to Berry.  Stay away from the fighting and horses, and stay invisible.”

“Yes, Lady,” Thissle said, and Greta felt sure this time that the little one heard her.

R5 Greta: Confrontation, part 3 of 3

Immediately, the two men who held Greta’s arms jumped back. This proved good, because Greta needed to collapse to the floor and take a moment to herself, to recover from the brink of death, and fortunately, Lady Brunhild gave her that moment.  The woman stared at her and seemed to be recovering a bit of her own strength as well, but outwardly she appeared to be examining the armor as if deciding what to do.

“I must tell you.”  Greta breathed as she struggled to her feet.  She would have appreciated the opportunity to pass out, but she was not about to stay prostrate before the woman.  “The armor belongs to the Nameless god.”  She spoke of the one with whom Brunhild and the men with her were most familiar.  “Defender and the sword, Salvation, have a mind of their own.  I do not want you to be hurt.”

Even as Greta finally got to her feet, Lady Brunhild spit in her face.  “Strip her.” She ordered.  The two who had been holding her arms stepped up and touched her.  Greta cried out.  She felt the power surge through her.  It struck the two men like lightening and shot them twenty feet through the air where they crumpled, unconscious, if not dead.

Greta caught her breath again, but found it much easier this time, as if the armor protected her from more than just arrows. Lady Brunhild stared hard at her and began to pace, once again to decide what to do.

“Ruby slippers,” Greta said, and Brunhild squinted at her, not understanding.

“I saw these weapons and this armor in a dream.” Brunhild began to speak.  “It was before Boarshag and it may be why you startled me so at the time.  The great God, Mithras, bless his name, revealed to me that if I could take them from the one wearing them I would receive riches and power beyond counting.” She stopped in front of Greta’s face and Greta tried to smile for her, and it would have been a truly obnoxious smile if her cheeks were not hurting.  “Give it to me, now!”  The Lady said and threw her every ounce of compulsion behind the words.

This time, Greta hardly felt it, though she knew it had to be very draining for the Lady.  She knew Lady Brunhild would sleep well that night, but for Greta, she merely smiled more broadly.  The Lady, however, did not attack Greta.  Greta remained as vulnerable and human as ever.  But the Lady went after the armor of the Kairos, and as such she had zero chance of success.  Greta watched the Lady’s face flush and she could almost taste the anger that rose up in the woman’s veins.  By contrast, Greta stood very calm and resolute, and smiled as much as her cheeks allowed.  Finally, the Lady grabbed the hilt of Salvation which stuck up over Greta’s shoulder. This time, the charge appeared sufficient to glue the Lady’s hands to the sword.  The more the Lady tried to pull, the more she got drained, until a small surge kicked her free before she killed herself.

“I told you, you cannot have it,” Greta said, and something rose up in her from all the days in the ancient past.  “And your Mithras will not help you.  He has no given authority in this region, and he knows if he shows his face he will be killed for real, and this time I will not be there to bring him back.”  Nameless got tired of the game, and he was a master game player, arguably second only to Loki among the northern gods of old.  Indeed, some of the men thought they were hearing directly from the Nameless god, the reported owner of the armor, and they would not have been wrong in that assumption even though Greta remained where she stood.

Meanwhile, Lady Brunhild fainted in Kunther’s arms. “Watch her tonight,” she said and promptly passed out.  They took Greta away at sword point because no one would touch her.  To Greta’s disappointment, however, they did not return her to the room with the others.  Instead, she got driven into a real storage closet which did not even have a window.  When they shut the door, she sat in utter darkness.

The state of grace Greta had felt, left her with the light.  She tried to reach out to Yin-mo.  She tried to tell him it would be all right to plan for the morning attack, as he thought best, but please limit his and the knight’s contact with humans as much as possible.  She felt he acknowledged her, but she could not be sure.

She searched for Thorn in her mind’s eye, but he seemed to be asleep.  Thissle, on the other hand, seemed awake and curious.  She and Bragi were half-way down the Mount on night watch.  They had been busy.  Thissle left the glamour that Lady Brunhild found.  She left it to fool the guards when Bragi stole the real statue and took it to the diggings.  After hiding the statue beside the powder, they talked to any number of men. Thissle tired from all of that. More than once she had to step up and break the spell Lady Brunhild had set like a glaze over the men’s eyes. That seemed the only way they could be sure about the men, and then Bragi went on duty with a rocket-like flare which would be the signal for all of the men to vacate the Temple.

All at once, Greta seemed to be seeing out of Thissle’s eyes and hearing with her ears.  Thissle yawned and Greta yawned with her.

“But in reality,” Bragi said.  “I think Karina is so very beautiful, it has made her shy. She is shy around men and shy about outshining all of the women around her.”

“Silly boy.”  Thissle yawned again.  “Human women live to outshine each other.  Why, for some, if they can’t outshine their neighbors, life is hardly worth living.”

Greta jumped back into her own skin.  That felt like a strange experience, and now Greta had a monster headache on top of her hunger and all of her other pains.  She did not expect to sleep.

She tried to reach out to Berry, to see how she was.  She imagined her and Hans, Fae and Hobknot all sitting in Fae’s tent worrying about her. It seemed a sweet thought, but then, Greta felt sure it was only her imagination.  Greta smiled at the thought and got struck with a vision, like the opening of a curtain on a scene that looked all too real.

She saw a young woman, screaming and terrified. She looked about Greta’s age, perhaps seventeen, but absolutely beautiful.  Greta well understood her terror.  A worm, a dragon hovered over her, looking at her like a tasty morsel.

Bragi stood there, yelling at the monster. Greta could not hear the words. But no, it was not Bragi.  She heard the young woman.

“No, father.  Please!  Hans, help me!”

It was Hans, but Bragi’s age.

“Berry!”  Greta snapped out of it, shouted the word out loud.  But how did she age so much in her big form?  She should have still looked thirteen, even if Hans looked eighteen or nineteen.  It seemed a mystery.  She would have to puzzle it out somehow, but even as she began to think, she fell fast asleep.

R5 Greta: Confrontation, part 2 of 3

“You really are an ordinary looking girl,” Brunhild said at last, squeezing Greta’s cheeks.  “Funny that you should have gotten so close to power and then failed at the last.”

“Whatever do you mean?”  Greta asked through fish-like lips.

“Silly girl.”  Brunhild smiled wickedly and let go, scratching Greta’s face with her nails. “My god, the Lord Mithras, blessings on him, has pledged to take over the whole world, beginning with Rome.  I shall marry the next emperor and rule the world, my dear.”

At first, the idea of Rome taking over the world brought a bad episode of Star Trek to mind; but then Greta’s eyes widened. “No,” she said.  “You cannot have him.  He will not serve you.”

“So, you know.”  Lady Brunhild mused.  “Yes, I must remember that you are no fool.  At first I thought my Lord wanted me to use Trajan’s weapons against Rome, ironic as that would have been.  But now I see that in his all-powerful turning of fate, all of this, the rebellion, certain Romans being here in this hinterland, the Quadi, all of it was simply to bring Marcus to my side.”

“No.”  Greta still shook her head.  “It won’t happen that way.”

“Why, yes, my dear.”  The lady had a flashy grin.  “And when I put my Germanic peoples together with the Romans, no force on earth shall stop us.”  She laughed. “Now don’t you think Marcus will make a good puppet?”

“He will make a good emperor.”  Greta spoke carefully.  “But he will never be the puppet you imagine.  Be careful, lest you end up serving him.”  Greta shook her head.  “Oh, I forgot.”  She spoke with determination.  “You won’t be there with him.”

Lady Brunhild slapped Greta’s face and started her lip bleeding again.  Then her smile returned and she pinched Greta’s cheeks once more.

“Now, what makes you think that?” She asked.

I’ll stop you, Greta thought, but she said nothing. All the same, Lady Brunhild laughed. She might not have been able to read Greta’s mind, but she could easily read Greta’s face.

“Let’s see your toy.”  The lady said, and scratched Greta’s face again as she turned toward the altar.  She looked carefully, and so did everyone else.  Lady Brunhild slowly circled the altar until she stood right behind it. Then she laughed again and waved her hand right through the object.  The statue wavered for a moment in the wind, like a vision of heat rising from the rocks, and then it vanished altogether.  “Very good.”  Lady Brunhild appeared impressed.  “I knew you had some power by blood, though I thought it was only a little from your grandmother.  I had no idea you were capable of such an illusion.  Such magic!”  She was not really impressed, but spoke to Greta like a mother might speak to a toddler. She came to pinch Greta’s cheeks a third time, and now it started to become very painful, but there seemed nothing Greta could do about it.  Her arms were still held tight.  “You may even have something of a lesser Spirit about you and that may be why I can’t quite catch your thoughts.”  She let go once more, and the scratch in her face began to bleed.  “But no matter.  My power has been granted to me by a god, by the Divine Mithras himself, blessings on him.  You startled me well in Boarshag, but I was not nearly so strong then as I am now. Perhaps this time I can startle you.” She giggled a very girlish giggle at her own thoughts and it made Greta want to gag.

“Mother.”  Kunther interrupted at no little risk.  “I mean, Brunhild.  These are the result of no illusion.”  He brought forward the man with the burned hands.  Brunhild touched them and closed her eyes.  Greta could see the strain on Brunhild’s face, but slowly, the blisters went away, the blackened flesh turned red and then fair again, and soon enough, all of the red had gone.  The man began to weep in gratitude, but Lady Brunhild brushed him off.  She had to catch her breath.  She clearly looked worn.

“There are other ways to burn a fool than by a spurious statue,” Brunhild said.  “As you told me, he dropped the statue, but the fire stayed on his hands.”

“That’s true.”  Several men confirmed, and Lady Brunhild brushed off any further discussion on that matter as well and turned back to Greta.  Greta steeled herself, calmed her insides and wondered what would happen next.

“That armor you manifested that day in Boarshag.  I would have it.”  She came right out with it.

“It is not mine to give.”  Greta responded.  It was hers, but only in her lifetime.  In truth, it belonged to her greater self, to the Kairos, and got passed down from Traveler to Traveler, from life to life.

“Manifest it now!”  Greta felt the power of Lady Brunhild’s demand hit like a brick.  It struck her mind and twisted her gut. Greta had no power like that.  She could not resist, but the armor resisted. It remained rooted too deep in the works of the gods of old.  Lady Brunhild might kill her, Greta thought, but the woman would never have the armor.

“Now!”  The Lady got impatient, and Greta could see her straining.  She forced the issue and Greta nearly went unconscious.  Then voices came into Greta’s head.

“She would do better if she relaxed and kept herself free of her emotions and impatient will.”  Danna spoke through time.

“I would not suggest it, though.”  Salacia quipped.

“Go ahead and show her the armor.”  Nameless finished.  “Trust.  You are the Kairos now.”

Greta did not exactly understand what Nameless meant by that, but she understood that her work throughout history was always a struggle, full of human foibles and failings.  Invariably she had to trust in the source, as the gods used to call it. She knew now, and for the last hundred and fifty years or so, what she had always known but was never allowed to speak about.  She knew what Gerraint knew, what Arthur learned despite Merlin, and what Festuscato knew as well.  She had to trust in the source, now called the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, which is to say, the God of the gods.  She called to her armor, and the call sounded strong, though she had nearly fallen into a coma.  She could always call for her armor, she knew, whether she found herself beneath the ocean or sucked into the vacuum of space, her voice would make the sound, and her armor would come.

R5 Greta: Confrontation, part 1 of 3

Something bothered Gregor.  “And where will you be in all of this?” he asked.

“I have to confront the Lady Brunhild,” Greta said.  “Which reminds me, Thissle.  Under no circumstances are you to be in the same room as Lady Brunhild.”  She turned to Bragi.  “I do not know the extent of her powers, but I will not risk Thissle, Okay?”

Bragi nodded again.

“I understand, my Lady,” Thissle said.  “I don’t like witches.  No, no, no.”

“She said that right,” Bragi interjected. “Lady Brunhild is a witch.  She bewitched us all.  I know you have the sight, but you have no power like hers.”

“She turned one man into a dog,” Gregor said. The others looked at him as if he had lost all sense, but he insisted.  “It is true.  Hagen confronted her and she turned him into a dog right in front of my eyes.”

“You can’t confront her,” Bragi said.

“But I am the only one who can,” Greta responded. “And this rebellion will never be over until Lady Brunhild is finished, one way or the other.”

“Bragi.”  The guard stuck his head in the door.  “The Lady is returning from the Quadi camp.  You need to get out of there before Kunther finds you.”

Greta gave her brother a last hug.  “Good luck,” she said.  “Take care of my Thissle.”  Greta let go, and Bragi left with the invisible Thissle beside him. The door got shut and bolted once again.

After that, Vasen became full of questions for Thorn. Curiously, no one questioned her authority over these gnomes except for Vasen’s one comment near the end.

“Truly you are Mother Greta.”  Gregor started it.  “Only the woman of the ways would know such things.”

Vasen shook his head.  “There is more here than mere tales of the woman of the ways.”

“Yes, that’s right.  Much more.”  Thorn started, but Greta hushed him.

“You don’t want to be a tale teller,” she said, as she went over to examine a tapestry on the wall.  Thorn shrugged, but got the message and got quiet.

“There is a lot of fairy work in the wall hanging,” Thorn said after a while.  “I can smell it.

“Yes,” Greta agreed.  “Grandfather Woden had it on the wall when this served as his hunting lodge.  The haunted forest started as his hunting preserve, you know.”  Thorn smiled.  Greta rolled her eyes and slapped her hand to her mouth almost hard enough to start it bleeding again.

“Grandfather Woden?”  Vasen caught it.

“The wise woman keeps silent, but the fool’s tongue cannot keep still,” Greta said through her fingers just before they heard a sound at the door.  “Thorn. Behind the tapestry.”  The little one complied.

Four guards stepped in and then stepped aside to let Lady Brunhild enter.  She looked as haughty and cruel as ever, Greta thought, yet something else as well. It disturbed Greta to look at the woman because she could not pinpoint what was wrong with the picture.

Lady Brunhild glanced at Greta, looked at Gregor who had a scowl on his face, and looked briefly at Finbear who did not look sure he knew what was going on.  Vasen turned his back on the Lady, but she stared at him, and he knew it as everyone saw the back of his neck turn red.  She walked casually to the tapestry and examined it, as if she sensed something.

“An exquisite piece of work,” she said. “Don’t you think?”  Greta heard something different about the woman’s voice as well, but it still eluded Greta’s grasp.

“Fairy work, one might say.”  Greta spoke pleasantly.  “It is very finely done.”

“Indeed,” the lady said.  Her hand came away from the tapestry to focus more fully on Greta. “I have been smelling the annoying things all over the Quadi camp all day.  No wonder they were in no condition this morning to mount an attack.”  She took a few steps closer and looked at Greta as if trying to penetrate her mind, but Greta, or more precisely, the Kairos would not let her in.  “Why do I feel you know something about all of this?” she asked.

Greta shrugged and smiled.  The woman would not read her thoughts, and after a moment, Lady Brunhild gave up trying.  She turned quickly toward the door.

“Bring her,” the Lady commanded.  Two men grabbed Greta roughly and seemed to delight in dragging Greta into the sanctuary.  It felt like Vedix all over again.  They returned to the alter which got towered over by the Odin statue, and there the men held her and did not let her so much as touch the scab forming on her lip. Greta saw her own small statue still on the altar, but then she realized it was only a glamour left by Thissle to fool the men.  The real statue had already gone.

Kunther also stood there along with a half dozen other men, including the man with the burned hands.  “Mother.”  He started to speak but became silent when she looked up at him, sharply.

“You must remember to call me Brunhild, Kunther dear, now that I am younger than you, Mother will not do.”  She said it.  That was it!  Lady Brunhild was no longer an elderly woman in her late fifties.  She was now no older than twenty-five, or perhaps twenty, and she spoke as if she expected to get even younger.  She walked up to Greta and squeezed Greta’s cheeks with her boney fingers. She caught the moment of recognition on Greta’s face and thought she might try once more to penetrate Greta’s mind; but no way she could.  Lady Brunhild had obviously gained a great deal of power and strength since their last meeting.  She was probably even more powerful than the Hag at that point, but the Traveler knew too much about the future.  Greta’s mind had been covered under the contract, so to speak, that the ancient gods in unison made millennia ago in the halls of Karnak.  It was the same contract which allowed her to manifest a power far beyond her natural abilities in relation to the little ones for whom she had been made responsible at that same meeting.  For Brunhild, no matter how strong, the attempt to read Greta’s mind became like a fly attempting to penetrate a concrete wall.

R5 Greta: Betrayal, part 3 of 3

Jodel and Yanda talked wedding and had the first of what would one day be called counseling sessions.  Then Greta went to see Jodel’s father.  He had figured it out, as anyone with any insight at all could, and he happily accompanied Greta back to town to see Yanda’s father.  Yanda’s father, however, became a different matter.  He seemed fine with the wedding, but Greta thought his haggling about the dowry would drive her crazy.  In the end, they had to leave some things to be decided later. All seemed well, until he surprised her as she prepared to leave.

“I assume you will be at the meeting tomorrow.”

“Meeting?” Greta asked.  She knew at once, but she needed to hear it out loud.

“The elder’s meeting,” Yanda’s father said.  “Lady Brunhild says she has been sent by her son to speak for her son on important matters.”

Greta turned red with anger.  Even her freckles could not hide the emotion, but she spoke in a very soft and controlled tone of voice.  “There will be no rebellion,” she said.  She knew exactly what Lady Brunhild would be promoting.

“Do you really think that is what it is?” Jodel’s father asked.

Yanda’s father spoke.  “Some say it is so we can hear Kunther’s views on the land distribution.  Some say it is so he can begin building our force to defend the border.”

Greta stood up and the men stood with her.  “At high noon?” she asked on a whim.  Nameless might not like clichés, but there was a reason such things became clichés in the first place.

“Yes,” Yanda’s father confirmed.  “I thought you knew.”

Greta’s mind had been too busy dealing with poison and the aftermath.  She should have known.  She should have surmised.  “Rebellion will simply get us slaughtered with nothing gained,” she said.

The two men looked at each other.  They were elder elders who remembered the last rebellion.  Clearly, they agreed with her.

“There will be no rebellion,” Greta said through gritted teeth.  She left, but the joy of the day had all gone.  By bedtime she felt beaten back down to reality.  Even worse, her right leg throbbed, and she could not imagine what she might have done to strain it.

She slept fitfully, woke early and tried hard to think things through.  Her leg still hurt, so she had to limp her way outside. She believed that on her own she was no match for the witch, and clearly the word “witch” described Lady Brunhild. Perhaps she gave more credit than due, but the woman seemed a first-class witch and Greta decided not to underestimate her.  Nameless would not help her.  He was not authorized, and neither, apparently, were Salacia or Danna.  She sought out the others.  Bodanagus felt distant.  Ali, the life she lived right before her own, felt unsearchable.  Even Festuscato and Gerraint with whom she began to feel very close, seemed aloof.  Only one thing came through to her with crystal clarity, and it seemed to come from the Storyteller, the Princess, Diogenes and Doctor Mishka speaking with one voice in her mind.  This was Greta’s life.  There might be times when an intervention through time became warranted, but mostly Greta had to make her own way in her own life, and, as Gerraint underlined, fight her own battles.  Too bad, because Greta felt certain that on her own, she would lose.  She asked the Most-High God in Heaven to watch over her. She couldn’t die yet.  There were still guns somewhere that she had to locate and dismantle.

Greta spent the better part of the morning stinking up the kitchen.  She made a sleep potion, a healing balm with some antiseptic qualities, a strong inhibitor which could cloud the mind for a time, a hemp based uninhibitor, which could act something like a truth serum, and some pain killer.  She had no idea what she might need, if anything.  Mama’s only comment was she now understood why Mother Hulda built her house so far away from the village.  Greta smiled, briefly, but it hardly seemed a joking matter.  The time for the meeting had arrived.

Greta had her red cloak on and pulled her hood up to hide her face and hair.  She did her best to blend in with the men, who entered the council room, and she sat in the back where she hoped she would not be noticed. Lady Brunhild had not arrived, yet. No surprise.  Greta imagined the woman planned some grand entrance after everyone else got there.

Yanda’s father came up and sat beside Greta on one side.  Jodel’s father sat on the other side.  They must have talked.  The men who visited her home the other morning sat in front of them.  It felt like an honor guard and clearly some protection to be sure she did not get hurt.  She felt grateful.

Sure enough, when the small talk had been going on for a time, Lady Brunhild, the priest, and some of the lady’s escort came in loudly, drawing everyone’s attention. The priest helped the lady into the seat that faced the collected elders.  The young men were dressed for war.  The priest immediately said an invocation to begin the meeting.  He called on Zalmoxis, the Alfader, the god Sabazios of the horse, and the goddess Bendi of the Hunt.  He praised Sylvanus, Lord of the ancient forest, and bowed to all the Lords of Olympus.  Last, he called on the Nameless One whose right hand is the fist of battle and whose left hand is the open palm of peace.  He asked for peace in the deliberations, but hinted strongly that they were going to talk about the fist of war.  Greta smiled broadly at the description of Nameless, no doubt prompted through time.  Shut-up, she told herself.  She tried to focus.

Greta stood before Lady Brunhild could speak.  “There will be no rebellion,” she said in the hush.  “Last time the Romans showed mercy.  They will not show mercy again.”

“Silence!” Lady Brunhild’s voice shot out and many of the men were startled by the rudeness of her interruption.  “Child, you have no business here.  You may speak again only when I give you permission.”

Greta sat down. She said what she needed to say so it no longer mattered that she could not speak.  It felt as if her vocal chords were frozen.  She felt a constriction around her throat that made her breathing shallow.  She felt powerless to do anything about it, but she told herself it did not matter. The meeting began.

Lady Brunhild, supposedly speaking for Kunther, was persuasive.  Greta wondered how much came in the words and how much was magic. The people in the North all of the way up to Prolissum followed the lead of Ravenshold, but in the South, people looked to Boarshag.  Ravenshold seemed too far away, on the other side of the merciless forest.  Greta knew if Lady Brunhild could turn the men of Boarshag to follow Kunther in rebellion, soon enough the whole southland would be in flames.

They neared a vote, and it began to look as if Lady Brunhild might have her way.  The vote would be close.  Greta had to do something, but she began to panic and thus far she had not done well in panic situations.  One of the elders got up and opened a window.  It brought daylight streaming into what Greta only then realized was a dank and dark world.  The evil seek the darkness believing their deeds will not be found out, she thought. The righteous rise to the light. Greta stood.

The elders made way as she walked slowly to the front.  The pain in her thigh would not let her move faster.  When she got to the front and had everyone’s attention, she did the one thing she knew she could do whether she stood out in an open field or under a witch’s spell in a stuffy room in Boarshag.  She called out for the armor of the Nameless god.  It was her armor.  It was her lifetime.  Immediately, the constriction on her voice broke as her dress and red cloak were replaced by the chain mail of Hephaestus, the black and white cape of Athena, the helmet of Amon and the boots of her little ones, the little spirits of the earth, from the same crowd that made Thor’s Hammer, she thought, and that thought made her smile.  Unfortunately, the sword Salvation, which rested on her back, would be much too heavy for her to handle.  Besides, she had no experience with such weapons.  The long knife that rested across the small of her back, however, was another matter, being thinner, not as long as a Roman short sword, but longer than most knives.  “Defender!”  She put her hand out and called to the knife and instantly, the knife jumped perfectly into her hand.  This, too, had been a gift of the gods, and compared to the ancient gods, all the magic the witch could muster became like a drop of water to the ocean.

A collective gasp came from the men, and many hastily mumbled prayers, including several to the Nameless god which made Greta smile.  It appeared very showy, to call to her long knife, but it seemed like the only way she could be sure not to accidentally cut herself, and a good show was what she was presently after.  No one needed know that inside all of that glory, there stood the same little girl of small magic who felt no match for the witch.

Lady Brunhild shrieked at the change.  She leaned away from Greta when Greta turned and pointed Defender at her face like the accusing finger of fate.  “You came South to steal the best land before anyone else had a chance.”  Greta accused the Lady.  “Go and steal it if you can but leave Boarshag alone.”  Command came from Greta’s voice.  She felt armor inspired.

“No, no.” Lady Brunhild lied, and the lie became obvious to more people than just Greta.  Despite everything, the witch drew herself up as well as she could, and just started coming back to her wits, when a raven fluttered into the room.  Not one of the two greater spirits that used to serve Odin in Aesgard, to be sure.  As far as Greta knew, they passed over to the other side with their master in the time of dissolution.  Yet it was a raven all the same, so it had to be related in a sense.  It seemed drawn to Greta’s armor where the scent of the gods still lingered.  Greta put out her left arm, thinking fast, and the bird landed heavily on her wrist shield.

“Tell the Alfadur that all is well here,” she said.  “I think I can handle one little witch and her mindless escort.”  She pushed her wrist toward the window and the raven returned to flight with a “Caw.”  Instead of flying out of the window, though, it headed for the rafters.  “Yes.”  Greta said as if speaking to the bird.  “You can stay and watch.”

That became too much for the witch.  When Greta turned again to face her and point Defender at her, she shrieked again.  When Greta commanded, “Go!”  The witch hiked up her dress and fled, her escort trailing behind.

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

MONDAY

R5 Greta: Desperation.  Greta may have won the first skirmish, but the war is not over.  The witch has other tricks up her sleeve, like assassination.  Don’t miss the coming week, and…

*

R5 Greta: Betrayal, part 2 of 3

Greta woke up around three in the morning.  Hans started groaning in his sleep.  She went to check on him and found him sweating, his heart beating much too fast. She thought of the stew.  It had been meant for her.  Lady Brunhild must have added poison to the recipe, and Greta knew she did not have enough time to find a cure.  She almost started to cry, but Nameless came to her mind.  He said he did not feel it was time for Hans to die, and maybe he could do something.

“Could you?” Greta whispered out loud.  Then she learned how to consciously trade places in time.  She went away and Nameless came to sit in her place beside Hans.  He came dressed in his armor again.  He certainly would not have fit into Greta’s nightshirt.

“It is all a matter of authority,” he whispered, knowing Greta would hear and remember. “Ares, or as the Romans say, Mars was authorized for war.  Aphrodite, which is Venus was authorized for love.  A god can do almost anything, but they could no more intervene in each other’s sphere than the sun could come up at night.  Of course, sometimes the authority is not obvious.  Even the gods of old had to walk by faith at times, but in this case, I just don’t feel it is Han’s time to die.”  As he spoke, he easily drew all of the poison to Han’s pinky, and then out altogether.  He kept it in a little blue bubble and let it float by his shoulder.  He normalized Han’s heart and breathing and even fixed a couple of cavities and trimmed Han’s nails and hair with a thought.  “After all, he is my brother,” he said, and smiled when he heard Greta’s protest that he was her brother.  “All the same,” Nameless responded with a smile.

Hans woke up. “Quiet Hansel.”  Nameless said softly, and he ruffled Han’s hair in the way Greta sometimes did.

“Hey, you promised.”  Hans complained, as in that place between waking and sleeping he instinctively knew his sister, even if at the moment, it was a man and a life she lived more than fourteen hundred years earlier.  When Hans came more fully awake he realized his mistake.  “Hey!”  He sat straight up.

“Hush,” Nameless said, not wanting to wake Mama.  “To paraphrase the way my own Mama used to put it, you could say I’m your sister, even when I’m your brother.”

Hans shook his head, confused.  This was the second time he had been surprised by this man.  “Who are you?”  He asked quietly.

Nameless smiled. “Grandfather Odin once said I was his favorite grandson,” he answered.

Han’s eyes widened.  Nameless knew what the boy thought.

“Grandfather called me a light to heroes and such, and he placed the Valkyra sort of in my hands. I get invoked a lot on the battlefield, but truth be told, mine is a special calling.  It is the little spirits of the earth, the sprites, dwarfs, elves light and dark that have been placed in my hands, and Greta’s hands, too, though she does not yet know this truth.  It is part of the burden of the Kairos.”  He ended with a sigh and saw Hans begin to tremble at his own thoughts. “Do not be afraid,” Nameless insisted. “I am on your side.”

Hans suddenly remembered how sick he had been.  He got prompted to remember.  “You made me well.”  He understood and relaxed a little.  Nameless pointed to the blue bubble that hovered just above his shoulder.  “What are you going to do with it?”  Hans asked.  He started to reach out to touch it, but Nameless caught his hand.  Greta stayed poison free, but he checked Mama, just to be sure, and he took the remains of the stew and buried it ten feet beneath the garden where even the birds and small animals could not get to it. Then he spoke.

“I am going to send the poison back to the one who sent it here,” he said.  “But only enough to make her ill, not kill her.”

He got the distinct impression of Greta speaking in his mind.  “You should turn her into a frog.”

“Authority,” Nameless reminded her.  “Maybe it was not Han’s time to die, but maybe it is not Lady Brunhild’s time either. Besides, I hate clichés.”  He turned his head and blew softly.  The blue bubble pushed a little way from the bed and began to wobble.  It popped and vanished.

Nameless smiled at Hans and pushed him back down under the covers.  He began to sing.  His mother Frya was, among her many talents, a goddess of music.  Thus, he sang the lullaby she used to sing to him.  His favorite.  Hans smiled and did not resist.  He fell asleep before Nameless finished the song.  Then he could not resist one more ruffle on the hair of the sleeping boy before he traded places through time with his own Greta.

Greta leaned over her sleeping brother and kissed him sweetly on the forehead.  She thanked Nameless for remembering her nightshirt this time and not leaving her in his armor, though she supposed it counted as her armor now.  Once again, she had much to think about, but at the moment she felt too tired.  She crawled into her own bed and had the best sleep she ever had in her life, and when she woke up in the morning she felt warm and soft.

For the first time, she imagined what it would be like to have a man beside her, to love her and share her feelings.  She thought of Drakka, but she felt a coldness there which she could not break through. She tried not to think of the Roman, and while in the past, those thoughts might have shattered any good feelings and killed her mood, in this case she simply felt too snuggly to feel bad. She thanked her Nameless self for leaving behind a residue of love.

Hans had already run off in the morning.  Who knew what story he might be telling his friends, not that they would believe him. Mama puttered around the kitchen, and hummed.

“Good morning,” Mama said.  “And how is my Little Mother this morning?”

“Oh, Mama.” Greta smiled as they kissed. “What are you humming?”

Mama finished what she was doing.  “I heard the most beautiful song last night in my dream.  I am trying to remember how it went.  I can’t quite remember, but it was the loveliest song I ever heard.”

Greta smiled, and indeed, she could hardly stop smiling.  She picked up the jug for her trip to the central fountain and Mama followed her outside.  They saw some early morning riders coming up the road.

“Excuse me,” Mama said.  “I have some mushrooms to remove from my garden.”  She walked around the side of the house even as the riders turned off to approach the house.  Lady Brunhild, Vasen the priest, several of her escort, and a couple of the elders from town stopped at the gate; not what Greta wanted to see.  She frowned, but she doubted Lady Brunhild knew what she frowned about.  The Lady did look a little green.

“Good morning.” The priest spoke and the elders from town politely nodded in her direction, acknowledging Greta after a fashion.

“Yes, of course.” Greta’s smile came back and a real joy in her voice which simply would not go away.  The town elders heard it, perked right up, and returned Greta’s smile. Even the priest brightened a little. “And what brings you here so early on this lovely morning?” Greta asked.  “Is someone ill?  Have you come to seek counsel?”

“No, Little Mother,” one of the elders spoke.  “All are well enough.”  His eyes shifted to Lady Brunhild and back to Greta.  Lady Brunhild looked like she kept trying to keep her breakfast down, if she had eaten any breakfast, which Greta doubted.

“Did we eat some bad mushrooms?” Greta asked with great concern.  “They can make you ill for a time, but I am sure it will pass.”

Mama chose that moment to come back around the corner of the house.  “Oh, it’s you,” she said rather harshly.  “Your son and my husband have to work together, but that is as close as you and I have to come.  You are not welcome here.”

Lady Brunhild looked about ready to croak, but in a massive effort of will, reflected in her cruel face, she jerked on her reigns.  “It does not matter,” she said.  “This changes nothing.”  She trotted off, the priest and her escort on her heels.

Greta curtsied to the elders, turned down her eyes and humbled herself before them.  They virtually saluted, and in the wind of their salute, Greta caught a wisp of what had transpired.

Lady Brunhild woke them early claiming some sixth sense told her there was trouble at the house. She expected to find one or more of them dead, or at least all of them deathly ill.  Greta imagined Lady Brunhild already did not feel well at that point, but this was important.  She probably carried the antidote for the poison so she could “heal” whomever was still alive.  This would prove she had great power and deserved all of their respect and attention. It would greatly strengthen her position, especially if the Woman of the Ways lay among the dead.  But, of course, Greta thought, it would not occur to the woman to use the antidote on herself since she did not know what was wrong. It certainly spoiled Lady Brunhild’s party to find everyone up and full of joy on that lovely spring morning—and it was a lovely morning.  Greta imagined Lady Brunhild would be sick all day.

###

Greta spent the morning with the babies in town and she felt pleased to see nothing of the witch or her entourage.  That afternoon, she walked with Yanda out to the farm of Jodel’s father.  Jodel’s older brothers and their wives were all out in a field, clearing a new acre of stones and stumps.  They came running to the house and poor Greta got forced to eat and drink more than she liked.  She vowed to watch herself after that lest she end up as fat as a prize hog.

A long time passed before Jodel, Yanda and Greta could be alone.

“So, when do you want to marry?”  Greta asked before they could speak.  They looked at each other and laughed.

“I told you she knew,” Jodel said.

“I know,” Yanda replied.  “But she is my best friend.  It is hard to think of her that way.”

R5 Greta: Betrayal, part 1 of 3

A month went by, and Papa stayed away for most of that time.  They were surveying the river lands for distribution.  Greta kept busy doing what she trained to do.  She put Yani on a strict diet of greens when she determined the baby was a bit anemic, and another baby got born during that time. There were spring animals to be born as well, and a small spring festival that went with the birthing days. Greta told the stories that reminded the people of their heritage and culture, and made their hard-working, difficult lives a little easier.  Naturally, not all of the newborn animals survived.  Greta clearly said there would be times when a mother or child or both might not survive.  It was the way of all things.  Life and death did not cease.  They were like the seasons and would go on until the end of the world.  Oddly, she found some comfort in that thought.  It helped her grieve for Mother Hulda.

At the end of the month, Lady Brunhild, mother of the new War Chief Kunther, came to town. She came accompanied by an entourage of men and women, the chief of which was Vasen, the priest of Deyus’ Temple on the Mount of Kogaionon in Ravenshold.  Boarshag had its’ shrines and priests of a sort, but nothing compared to the great stone and marble Temple on the Mount.  That massive temple even impressed the Romans.  Greta felt certain it was nothing her people constructed. She imagined it already got old by the time the people migrated down from the North and up from the Tessalian plains and Macedonia to merge into the Dacian people.

Greta carried water from the central fountain as the traveling party rode up in a loud and leisurely manner, causing a scene.  Greta tried to get to the side of the road, but to no avail.  The Lady stopped, and so everyone else stopped.

“Girl.”  The Lady spoke to Greta.  “Take me to the house of Lady Olga, wife of Lord Vobalus the high chief.”  She gave a command to an underling hardly worth her contempt.

“May I ask your business?” Greta shot right back, without flinching.

For a second, it looked as if the lady might bite Greta’s head off, but she relented.  “I am Lady Brunhild of Sarmizegetusa,” she said and gave the ancient name for Ravenshold, the capital of Dacia.  “My son is Lord Kunther the high chief who shares that honor with Lady Olga’s husband.  I would pay my respects to the lady.”

“We have come on behalf of the Woman of the Ways.”  The priest interjected.  Lady Brunhild gave the priest a sharp look and he cowered momentarily, but otherwise, the lady did not lose her composure.

“You have found the Woman of the Ways.”  Greta said to the priest and ignored the lady.  Greta stood, poorly dressed, having just slopped the hogs before she fetched water, but Mother Hulda had always said one’s dress proved far less important than one’s bearing, and Greta bore herself well.

Lady Brunhild’s eyes shot straight to her, and Greta stared right back, and again she did not flinch.  Lady Brunhild appeared to be trying to get inside Greta’s mind, but Greta stayed busy making her own assessment.  Mother Hulda had taught her that the eyes were the mirror to the soul.  Greta saw the hate, treachery, a boundless, power-hungry, controlling ambition, and something very wrong inside the woman, which Greta could not quite name.

The lady laughed. “Child,” she spoke after she caught her breath.  “You flatter yourself.”  Some may have thought the woman laughed to cover her embarrassment at having made a bad first impression, but Greta heard the ridicule.

“I am going to Lady Olga’s home,” Greta said, as calmly as she could.  “You may follow if you wish.”  Greta started to walk, slowly.  Most of the party dismounted to lead their horses, but, as Greta surmised, Lady Brunhild was not about to give up her lofty perch.  It is difficult to manage a horse at a very slow pace, but Greta carried water and she saw no reason why Lady Brunhild’s ride should be a pleasant one.

When they arrived at the house, Greta set down her burden and turned in time to see Lady Brunhild turn up her nose at their plain and simple dwelling.  Mama worked in the garden and Greta went to fetch her.

“Mama,” she whispered.  “Kunther’s mother, Lady Brunhild, and the Priest from the Temple Mount are here.” Mama looked up, not quite comprehending at first, while Greta helped her to her feet.  “Lady Brunhild is the war chief’s mother,” she whispered more quietly in her mother’s ear.  “Watch out for her.  She is a stuck-up, overbearing, sly, two-faced bitch.”

“Greta!” Mama sounded shocked by her mouth.

“Did you hear what I said?” Greta asked.  She had chosen her words to be sure her mother heard.

“Yes,” Mama responded, kindly.  “We do not speak such words, and I am not a child who needs instruction.”

Greta hugged her. She knew her Mama would not be snookered.  “Allow me to introduce you,” Greta said, as soon as they came to where the others were waiting.  “Lady Brunhild, widow of Kroyden and mother of Kunther, the new war chief, and Vasen, high priest of the temple on the Mount Germisara.  She pointed to Mama but kept an eye on the priest and Lady Brunhild as she spoke.  “And this is Lady Olga, my mother.”

The priest got it and gulped, and his eyes widened.  Lady Brunhild, who now should have been doubly embarrassed, did not bat an eye, and Greta realized that Lady Brunhild would have treated her with the same contempt for an underling if she had known her to be both the Woman of the Ways and daughter of the high chief from the very beginning.

“Please excuse my appearance,” Mama started right in.  “And I am afraid the house is a mess.  You know, when the men go away it just is not the same.  But, of course you know.”  She sought the woman’s sympathy and tried to find some ground on which to commiserate.  “I was just gardening,” she went on uninterrupted.  “Would you care to see?  It would be most kind of you if you did.”  Mama took Lady Brunhild’s arm and guided her toward the side of the house. Greta grabbed the priest before he could tag along.

“You have come because of Mother Hulda?” she asked, but it was not a question.

“Outwardly yes, I mean, yes.”  He showed much more grace to Greta than before and perhaps even a little respect.

“And what have you heard?” she wondered.

“That the gods are angry with us.  That they sent a demon from the haunted wood to take our dear Mother away.”

“Yet she gave me the full blessing of the gods before she died so that I could follow-after her,” Greta mused, out loud.

“I know, Little Mother.  Everyone has heard this.  But Lady Brunhild says she will have no Woman of the Ways among her people.  She says it is only her ways that we must follow.”

Greta understood that there was an ego.  Forget a thousand years of collective memory and tried and true understandings, it is her way or the highway.

“Priest!” Lady Brunhild called.  She must have noticed he was missing.

“Right here.” The priest spoke up, but he whispered before he turned his back.  “Beware, she has powers to be reckoned with.”  He ran.  “I am right here.”

Greta wandered off the road to a place where she could sit but neither be seen nor heard. She spent a long time puzzling through what had been presented to her.  At last, when she felt it safe, she went home.  The coast looked clear.  Mama had started cooking.

“Sit down, dear.” Mama said and touched her arm. Immediately, Greta went stiff and had to sit down.  She saw Lady Brunhild clear as day speaking to the priest.

“She will grieve,” the woman said.  “But she will give no trouble, no trouble at all.”  Greta had to shake herself free of the vision.

“Eat, child,” her Mama said.  “You must stop daydreaming.  You will be married soon enough and your husband will want a responsible wife, not a dreamer.”

“Dreaming?” Greta asked.  Mama knew the signs of her visions.

“Sitting idly,” Mama said.  “Looking like you are thinking deep thoughts.  A child like you should not have to be troubled with deep thoughts.”

Greta’s mind became crystal clear, and she saw the glaze over her mother’s eyes.  She stood and slapped her mother, hard.  “Mama, come back to me,” she commanded.  Her mother looked surprised, then shocked, and finally looked terribly confused.  Greta knew this had to be a powerful enchantment.  Ordinary means would not work.  She steadied herself and remembered her lessons.

Capturing her mother’s eyes, Greta cleared her mind and heart of any imbalance.  Very quickly images of her and her mother together came floating up to the surface.  Shared memories bubbled-up, and as they surfaced, they passed through Greta to her mother, triggering Mama’s deep self to come back to the surface.

She came, as Greta became more and more drained.  “Greta?”  Mama came back, slowly, and asked, as if recognizing her daughter for the first time. Then she shouted, “Greta!” and caught her daughter before Greta collapsed to the floor.  She set Greta gently in a chair.  “Are you all right?” she asked.  “What am I doing?”

“It’s all right, Mama.”  Greta regained herself quickly.  She could see the magic of Brunhild, broken.  “Who am I?” she asked to be sure.

“Greta, of course. Do you feel sick?”

“No, Mama.” Greta asked again.  “Who am I?”

Mama paused. “My daughter.  Daughter of the high chief.”

“Yes.” she said. “But who am I?”

Mama did not pause this time as she understood.  “You are the Woman of the Ways for all of the people.”  She spoke with a touch of both humility and pride. She smiled at the thought, and Greta felt satisfied the bewitching had been completely broken.  At the same time, Greta felt exhausted and she doubted it cost Lady Brunhild as much.  Powers to be reckoned with, Greta thought.  No wonder the Priest seemed cowed.

Hans chose that minute to burst through the door.  “What’s cooking?  Smells great. I’m starved.”  He stopped talking, suddenly aware that Mama and Greta stared at him with their mouths part way open.  “Oh, women talk,” Hans guessed.  He helped himself to the stew he found on the table, and sat, to stare back at them.  “Go ahead, I’ve heard it all.”

Greta shook her head.  “I’m tired,” she said.  “I’m going to lie down.”  And she did. Mama stayed up long enough to put Hans to bed, but she had much to think about and only chewed on a crust of bread and had a cup of water.  She had lost her appetite.