"I wouldn't be surprised if he's off brooding on a precipice somewhere, planning his revenge."
"It is daytime, perhaps he's decided that it's not wise to come out when the sun's out."
"That could be, too."
"I'm thinking that the sun might hold a tiny, tiny grudge."
"He was up at least for one dawn, slaughtering orcs."
"Yeah, but at dawn."
"What a complete bastard."
"He's not a complete bastard, he doesn't have that much class," she replied, rooting through her satchel. "Here we go. You guys might want to leave."
"What are you doing?" I sighed.
"Oh, absolutely nothing. Just leaving him a posie, just a little tussey-mussey."
"I'll meet you outside," Gannon said.
"Coward," I muttered.
"Breathing," he shot back cheerfully.
"I'm still breathing. For the moment. What are you putting in this one?"
It was the same bunch she'd given the dead on Samhain, additionally wrapped in marigold, angelica, and Solomon's Seal. As we departed, she flung it at the sword. It burst into flames on contact; message delivered. She also scattered red and white rose petals on our way out. Whatever it was in the moat swam back and forth under the bridge. We went back out through the maze's other side, picking a gingerly path among bloody roses, to find ourselves (for a change) where we expected to be.
"This guy has to go down, hard," Meara remarked.
"I don't think you're going to find much argument there."
"I know. If worse comes to worst, we might be able to serve as bait to lure him out of that castle so the people who are really pissed off at him can kill him."
"That's a really long list of people."
"I know, but I'm thinking about one particular personage."
"Him." I was thinking about me. "The question is how to go about finding the son of a bitch."
Crossing the ridgeline on the way back, we were at the right angle and height to see the drag marks leading from Balor's prison toward the Keep.
"I like this less and less," I remarked.
Meara echoed the sentiment. "I'm thinking he's not completely and totally out, because I'm thinking that certain people might have noticed that, but I'm thinking that every time the new moon rolls around they get a bit more of him free."
"That would explain things."
"So, how exactly are we going to launch our war on the castle anyhow, ma'am? Besides the old fashioned way. We could wait for the full moon."
"That would be one thing to do."
"Do we want to try to enlist the orcs? Think they'd go along with it?" Llweder suggested.
"They didn't seem interested in doing much," I shook my head.
"We can try, but they might be concerned that it would irritate, y'know, the guy with the really gaudy castle."
"He's just going to come back and kill the rest of them eventually," the druid pointed out.
"That's true. They could be hoping that next year he'll decide to go after the fishing village for his little happy solstice party."
"I think we should check with Gudrun," I decided. "See if she can tell us anything."
We waited until sundown out of politeness. There were fresh heads on the stakes around her house, mostly orcish. The door opened at our knock.
"Evening, ma'am," Meara greeted.
"It's us again."
"You've had visitors lately," I noted in reference to the heads.
"An irritatingly large number of them, evidently," Meara added.
"Yes." Gudrun hadn't changed her loquacious ways.
"Sorry to add to the ongoing stream to your door."
"You knocked," the trollwife pointed out. "I'm assuming you didn't come here for a bowl of leech stew?"
"We find ourselves in a quandary," Meara told her. "Basically knowing that certain things need to be done, and having absolutely no clue. Did you know thatwhat was that prick calling himself? oh yeah, Wynnhas set himself up this really godawful marble castle inside the rose maze, that both sides now lead to one spot, and he's carrying around a sword named Hunger?"
"That would explain it," she murmured. "I was wondering what form of stupidity had bothered to possess him. He wasn't always an idiot," she explained in response to our questioning looks.
"When did he start?" I inquired.
"Oh, hundred or so years ago. He was a young up and comer in the Unseelie Court, actually the most productive, useful member of that court to be seen in ages."
We went, "Hm."
"Kind of cute, he's like a lovely combination of Black Plague and a barrelful of knives."
"Lovely," I murmured. From her perspective, no doubt it was.
"And then he got odd. Well he always had the rose motif, but it's gotten away from him a bit."
"He has a moat of rose bushes, okay," Meara told her.
"Does it work?"
"Well, it's got something swimming in it...."
"Then I'm not sure what the problem is."
"I know, but that to me indicates that perhaps he's living his motif a little too far."
"Could be; I was willing to say it before that, not based on that. I've seen his new castle, thank you."
"Ma'am, it seems that he has become an abomination upon the land," Llweder spoke up.
"Yes, actually he has."
"He can use iron," Meara noted. "Rather fond of it."
"We're a little bothered about this."
Llweder wanted to know, "We were wondering if you have any advice as to how we could go about eliminating him."
"Sword through the guts usually does it," I muttered. "Long as you go all the way through."
"She's right," Gudrun allowed. "Go all the way through and then saw until you come out the side. And make sure you cross the spine."
"Don't worry about that."
She looked thoughtful of a sudden. "Describe his sword."
Meara did so, in detail.
"Now I understand what happened to him.... Like I said, he was ambitious. Not particularly any more ambitious than a young lordling should be. I'll bet you he went into that mine and forged himself a sword off the chains."
"Ew," Meara remarked.
"How the hell did he get down there in the first place?" I wondered.
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al