On our way back to the village we stopped by the iron mine, just in case, as Conner said, something "odd" had been happening there. Our boots were stained with rose blood.
"And maybe we could hire some people to start carrying the iron back in the mine," he added.
"That's actually not a bad thought," Meara agreed.
"Surely the local depressed fishing economy would be looking for something else to do."
"I'm thinking your average fisherman in this village is going to look at us like we've lost our minds."
"I've been getting that since I walked into this place!"
"Excellent point," Gannon agreed.
"Believe me, the way I look I've been having people stare at me since I hit puberty," he muttered.
"I didn't come out this height, Mom would have been really upset."
The pile of ore seemed smaller than it had been; the orcs had been coming at night and taking some back to their warren for use in their smithying.
"We'd better do something about that," Conner said.
"Exactly what? Even if we put it back in the mine they're simply going to go into the mine and carry it off at night," Meara replied.
"But it would still slow down the thing from the mine getting out tomorrow. Can we just put it back in?"
"You mean we're actually going to get to go into the mine?"
"No, we're going to hire people to carry it in, and then we're going to knock over the hillside on it."
"All right, then, so we go check out the mine first"
"No! No checking out, just carry in, bury!"
"I think we have to check it out," I weighed in.
"Yeah, we can't send poor helpless, defenseless fisher folk in here, although Artos would love it...."
"I've been watching him kick her butt for the last week," Conner snapped, pointing at me. "What poor helpless defenseless fisher folk?!"
"You can stay outside, all right? Just be quiet," I told him.
"Particularly if you're going to be shouting," Meara added. "I mean, it's a small, narrow, confined space...."
"Conner, suck it up!" Gannon told him, whacking him again.
"I think Conner's losing it," Meara said quietly.
"I don't think he had much to lose," I muttered.
Meara and I went in to look around, which required a degree of courage; the tunnel was indeed very confined, and didn't look all that stable thanks the fires the orcs had set. I'd been hoping to find out how far back it went, but we traveled only a hundred slow and wary feet before turning back.
After that there was a lot of arguing about what the orcs might be doing and what, if anything, we should do that might be effective against them. At long last we settled on a plan and returned to the village that afternoon to find Rhonwen in the hall.
"Any idea how many orcs there are about three days north of here?" Meara asked in lieu of greeting.
"There are orcs three days north of here?"
"Lots of orcs."
"I'm afraid we have some bad news," I said.
"Your husband might not think it's bad news," Conner asked.
The reaction to this announcement was mixed. Artos was grinning widely. Gaenor and some others of the warband looked interested. Rhonwen looked tired.
"The problem with this is that they are probably using the iron that was dug out of the mine north of here to arm themselves," I explained.
"Well, we wouldn't want them to be underarmed," she sighed.
We gave her our best estimates on the numbers of orcs, and our plan for dealing with the mine. Of course, even with that they might still come back and dig tunnels of their own now that they knew the mine was there, in which case the villagers might be in for a fight regardless.
"I'm really sort of hoping that Emer gets off his little bony ass and takes care of that problem," Meara said at that point.
"You know, if he does listen to us every time we say his name, I'm sure you just got further into his good graces, there," Conner told her.
"I'm trying hard."
"Okay," I said, pleased that everything had finally been settled. "We'll guard the mine tonight, and get to work tomorrow." That first part was my own addition.
"I'm sorry, wait a minute...." Conner started to object.
"Well, we don't want them taking any more," I pointed out, quite reasonably I think.
"Hey, Artos, want to come with us?" Meara asked.
He looked at Rhonwen, looked at Gaenor, and said, "Damn straight!"
Everything went more smoothly than I had expected. Conner and Meara stayed on the nearest watchtower so she could cast her see-in-the-dark spell on his already-excellent vision and give us advance warning of attack. The rest of us stayed below with some of the warband to defend the place if need be. Somewhat to my disappointment (not to mention Artos'), no orcs showed up. The next day the fishing fleet stayed in, and every able body in the village pitched in to move a couple tons of iron ore back where it belonged. Then we had to figure out how to collapse the tunnel.
"If you just want to knock the entryway down...." Artos said. "How thoroughly do you want it knocked down?"
"As much as possible without burying you in it," Meara said.
He started grinning.
His wife said, "No. Don't even think about it. You can't."
"No. You can't. I know what you're goingno," she warned.
"Oh, I can do this the easy way." He sighed, reached in with a boathook and yanked the ceiling timber free with negligent ease, dust billowing dramatically around him. The collapse was minor but as far as we could tellnone of us knowing much about miningit looked like a decent barrier. Meara planted a tree and said some prayers.
Back in the village she told the chief, "We really have to go to Rutland. We're going to have to leave for a while."
"How much is a while?" Rhonwen wanted to know.
"Depends on how fast we can get to Rutland."
"I expect we'll back in spring," I said. I wasn't happy about leaving, but there didn't seem to be any way we could stay. Never mind the orcs, "There's an Unseelie who might be looking for us, possibly me...."
"Do you think he's mad about that whole cutting him open thing?" Conner wondered sarcastically.
"Did you kill him?" she wanted to know.
"Oh. Well, then I'll tell him you're waiting in Rutland."
"You can do that." Time to start learning to sleep with one eye open.
"If you'd like I'll tell him you'll be back come spring."
"If you're planning on being back in spring, I don't think that's a problem," she judged. "Tends to get quiet around here during the winter. Might be odd this year, it's been an unusually active year, but things tend to get quiet during the winter. Come spring, they might come looking."
"We'll be back," I promised.
"They'll probably have trouble getting through the swamp. I hate to annoy Gudrun."
"So would I."
She nodded. "We'll take your word for it, you say you're coming back."
"There's a lot of unfinished business here," Meara understated. "Someone will maintain the shrine while I'm gone?"
"Three'll get you five they forget about it," Conner bet Gannon quietly.
We were on the road that afternoon. I wondered how one goes about unseating a ghost king. Never mind dealing with the likes of Wynn, holding off potential orcish invasion, and maybe even doing something about the horrors of the right-hand side of the rose maze. Hopefully, someone at home would have some advice.
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al