"We're not hassling anyone. If he killed our exchequer, I need to know about it."
"True. Something ripped the exchequer to shreds," she added to Gudrun.
"Who's on the throne?" Apparently trollwives didn't get out much.
"Ap Rhys. His queen is ap Rose."
"Oh, not him. Only thing dumber than that would be killing off an Owen's exchequer," she judged. I allowed myself a tiny glow of pride. "Then not only do they come and find you, they charge you for the cost of the exchequer."
"And the mule and the fifty pounds of fish that were buried with him," Conner added.
"Especially the mule, they're harder to replace than exchequers," Gannon nodded.
"If you're heading up to the keep, if you follow the river back up and bear a little to your left go out that door, you'll be on the other side of the river."
"At night," Meara added.
"Well, yeah. But there is a roadway right here, it'll save you having to go all the way back."
"Thank you very much," I told her.
"I don't really suggest you go up to the keep."
"That's all right, we'll go anyway."
"Done my part. Warned you," she shook her head.
"Particular reason?" Meara wanted to know.
"Dead people don't make good hosts."
"I think it might be because there's a ghost up there," Conner whispered. "And only one person has talked to the ghost in years and lived. These to me are all sound reasons, but not enough to stop an ap Rhys."
"I just want to make sure that there isn't something else that we should know about," Meara explained.
"Else. She wants there to be something else," he told the ceiling. "Oh, good. Gannon, we're traveling with madwomen."
"I hope you didn't just realize that," I told him with a smile.
"You're looking at somebody who looks as if she sat there with a dagger, or somebody else sat there with a dagger, going like this around her eye nine times," Meara touched her left eye.
"That is indeed an interesting scar you bear," I noted.
"I'll tell you about it sometime. According to my father it was the damn funniest thing you've ever seen."
"Interesting man, your father must be."
"My mother loves him dearly."
"We are indebted to you, Madame Gudrun," I told our hostess a bit more formally. "Thank you very much for your help."
"Nice house," Conner added, and we went down the passageway that opened into darkness. Meara had a spell that allowed her to see in the dark, but the rest of us were moving cautiously as we emerged on the other side of the river. The hut, viewed from this side, was also on the other side of the river. Interesting trick. Conner stared at it for a while, trying to figure out how it was done, before giving up.
We could sort of see the daylight on the other side of the river, which was somehow stranger than the reverse. We walked up the river, came out of the swamp, and reached the main causeway to the keep, which was a good five chariots wide.
"Damn. What kind of army did they have up here back then?" I wondered. And more importantly, why? Emer had had only twenty men under arms when his doom had fallen. The column Conner had seen had been about fifty beings.
"It was obviously very impressive, they've got the walls," Llweder noted.
Meara nodded. "That's a fair-sized keep, that's a fair investment. Do we want to check out the mine and the druid circle first?"
I shrugged. "Doesn't really matter what order we go in." Not to me, at least. The ghost might be miffed that we were wandering around his land without asking permission; on the other hand, the more information we had when we spoke to him, the better off we might be.
"Let's check out the druid circle, see if Tree Boy here can find any secret oghams in the trees."
"That makes a lot of sense. Let's do so," he agreed, ignoring the Tree Boy bit.
We avoided the keep and headed up the other side of the valley; things were far more overgrown there than on the daylight side, despite the constant darkness. Conner picked up a few herbs with magical properties, just so that later on he'd be able to say, "These were grown in total darkness!" We passed through some pear and apple stands in flower.
The druid grove was very nice; Llweder could tell that many spells had been cast there of which he had only heard, young as he was. Someone had cast the protective Grove of Dreams on it as well as other warding spells. There was a full complement of trees, and a vast number of oghams.
"This was obviously a great kingdom, with a huge druidic presence," he stated.
"A long time ago." Meara looked around at the grove while he started trying to figure out the organization behind the oghams.
"Should we light torches?" Conner asked hesitantly. "Or would that attract too much attention?"
"I think as long as we're not tripping over our own feet, we should do without," I replied.
"It's a clear night," he sighed wistfully, looking up at the moon.
Gannon poked around in the underbrush, looking for anything that seemed unusual. The body pinned to the tree probably counted. Given the torc around its neck, it had probably been one of the druids, maybe even the high druid, pinned through the chest by a massive spear. The haft had rotted away, but had been as wide as a man could fit both hands around. Ogre-sized at the least. The bronze head was badly corroded after fifty years of exposure to the elements.
Meanwhile Llweder looked for mentions of the keep in the oghams, trying to find a starting point. The grove's record seemed to begin with the ancient willow in the center, and spiraled out clockwise from there, so the end should be... there, in that small stand. After all the years of births and deaths and celebrations and normal community goings-on was a record that began, "Emer getting odd. Has asked the head druid to research," followed by a word he didn't recognize, comprised of oghams for eye and one that might have been prison, fortress, hiding place, or tomb. That was the last entry.
"Hm. Looks like Emer got into things over his head. Perhaps he was dealing with evil forces," Llweder said, translating for the rest of us. Meara recognized the unknown word as being ancient, but could not give a better translation for it. None of us knew what it meant.
"So that would fit with the iron mine theory," Conner said, to general agreement.
"Could something have been imprisoned down there?" I thought.
"Something the goblins are now following.... What'd you find?" he asked Gannon.
"Oh, just a body. Pinned to a tree with a spear."
"Are there oghams on it?" Llweder wanted to know. We all trooped over to look, and to ponder the massive spear.
"It's wearing a torc, you could take it back to your grove," Meara offered.
"Does this mean we're going to have to stop and give this guy a decent burial again?" I sighed.
"Yes, actually, now that you mention it," Llweder replied.
"I think that was pretty much a given," Conner sighed. "That'll take us the rest of the... night. After that it'll be... night." Just then he sensed something watching him, turned slowly. A big, greasy-looking crow perched on a branch just outside the grove, staring at him. Conner waved at Meara and Llweder to get their attention, and stared right back. It squawked angrily as he avoided being dragged into the sickly green fire of its eyes. "There's something wrong with this bird, guys...."
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al