The following morning revealed a huge camp. They hadn’t realized how many people there were; at least twenty thousand. This seemed odd in that they were obviously far from any town.
Irascible smiled. “This is the border with Rome, which is on the other side of those mountains.”
He continued with a brief history of Dana’s Child. As on Earth, the Romans had invaded Celtic lands. Here the Celts had thrown them out, decisively defeating them with a combination of guerrilla warfare and sudden mass attacks. The resident Celts were the equivalent of Gauls, geographically. Their land had been liberated in three months. The city of Rome itself was burned to the ground in the following six.
A peace was achieved, the Romans confined behind the huge mountains, much bigger than the Himalayas. Rome here was a country which resembled Spain, a fat peninsula. They were on the extreme western part of the continent.
After this defeat, the local Huns had arrived in Roman lands from the outer ocean islands, larger versions of the Balearics. The Huns stayed to rule. That was a hundred years earlier. Now the Romans were resurgent, conducting a campaign of subversion against their neighbors, first with merchants, then priests, and then with Hunnish troops. They were still a puny force militarily, but were making headway with trade and religion.
It was difficult to approach, let alone penetrate, the Celtic lands. An area within a hundred kilometres of the Roman side of the river was deliberately left uninhabited. No towns or roads existed in the zone, just goat tracks, and Celtic troops in large numbers trained and regularly patrolled throughout the area. The Celts had informed the first Roman traders that if they approached any Celtic town the Celts would finish the job they started a century before.
The Romans persisted, using their foreign clients as go-betweens. The Celts spied, using their merchant friends from other nations that traded with them. The Roman Great Priest had sent an emissary through the local version of the Greeks, offering to come in person and try to reach some understanding. The Greeks, who loathed the Romans and detested the Huns, had happily assisted in this process. They reasoned that any contact between their insufferable Roman neighbors and the aggressive Celts was in their interests.
The idea of seeing the Great Priest interested the Druids, who had heard much of the new Roman faith. They had heard nothing they liked, and were curious to meet this paragon. Eventually the western Celtic leader, Og MacOg, decided to allow the meeting.
As it happened there was to be a trade fair in the region, usually held in the buffer zone to prevent enemies from using it as an entry to the Celts’ territory. Traders arrived in the buffer zone, traded, and were guided back to their ships without ever seeing a town, or a road.
These were deadly times, and the Celts had decided to play the game hard. There were conspicuously large numbers of Celtic troops to be seen on every border. Incursions received instant and ferocious reprisals. After a hundred years of successful ripostes and pre-emptive attacks, the Huns, Goths, Saxons, Norse, (who’d started early on this world) and other tourists had found it advisable to alter their travel itineraries rather than approach the Celts.
MacOg had decided that the traders’ fair was as good a time as any to hold the meeting with the Great Priest. At least the people could do business as well, and the traders, who’d been useful as spies, could be present without arousing any suspicions.
Reggie had noticed that a lot of the Celtic men appeared to be warriors, not traders. Irascible said that there was a small army here in case the Romans were trying to set them up for a surprise attack. There was also another camp nearby in the hills, full of troops. MacOg was taking no chances. The shepherds were lookouts, and Irascible wouldn’t have been all that surprised if the sheep were troops in disguise.
The Great Priest was due to arrive that day, and MacOg had kept a watch on his progress through the mountains, on a pre-agreed route. So far the Priest had done everything as demanded, bringing only a small retinue and guards. This was the first time Romans had appeared on Celtic land since the war, and the Celts wanted to see how they were armed and disciplined.
Here, Reggie learned, Roman discipline had been a liability; the Celts, under the famous Camulus, had discovered that the rote learning of tactics went only so far, and had attacked using many different stratagems and different weapons. This required therefore many different responses from the Romans. They lacked the generals, and they couldn’t adapt. Every time they developed a counter to one tactic, several new methods were used against them.
Innovators usually win wars. Even the stolid Romans had a limit. During the battle before Rome, the legionaries, tired of being set fire to, ambushed, overrun in the night, and having their camps stolen from under them, had despaired. They simply fled, throwing away their weapons. The last emperor, seeing this, committed suicide. The Celts entered Rome to find a defenseless and undernourished population cowering in their houses.
Camulus questioned a representative of each identifiable social group. He had a gentle way with people, when not slaughtering them, and his style of conversation soon found some willing respondents. He learned that the current Roman general was a drunkard, and the senators, who had also vanished in the rout, were essentially pets of the late emperor. They lorded it over the poor, and some of those were very poor indeed. Merchants ruled the land, and others simply had to survive in an indifferent society. An edifice, it seemed, had fallen.
Normal Celtic practice would have been to enslave to population and destroy and loot the city. Camulus, however, had an idea. He was later famous for his wisdom, but many thought his sense of humor was better. He had to, and wanted to, allow his troops their rewards. However, he also wanted to punish the Romans for their desertion of their people, as well as make sure they were never again a threat, and a gratuitous slaughter was at least ethically wrong. There was also the question of whether to pursue the Romans or not. These problems provided a solution to themselves which appealed to him greatly.
The citizens were assembled. He explained to the nervous Romans that war with the Celts was a dubious blessing. Their towns were ruins, their soldiers had deserted them, and their rulers had kept up their tradition of self-interest at the expense of the people, to the very end. Sympathetically Camulus informed them that they were to be split into groups and some would be returned to the Romans and some would be taken to the Celtic lands. The Romans had expected to be enslaved and/or butchered, so that was a pleasant surprise.
Camulus could have done this arbitrarily, simply selected those to be taken or returned, and made no explanation, but he’d wanted to gauge the reaction of the Romans. They dithered. They argued. They had no idea what this meant, or why it was being done. That was what he wanted to know. The Romans would not understand what he was sending them.
He chose the ugliest and the most querulous, the frail and the fatuous, the weak and the stupid. He found the least comprehending, the most pompous, the most pedantic, the unhealthiest, the vapid and the merely facile. These he sent to the Romans, great liabilities all, many thousands of them. About 60% of the citizens, as it turned out. The few surviving ex-Roman slaves he offered safe passage to their homelands. A few were Celts, and they were welcomed back with feasts.
Then they burned the place, looted to their hearts’ content, and took their captives home. Their treatment was generally good, if rough by some later standards. The captives, being the more useful members of their society, and thus the more disaffected, adapted, intermarried and became effectively free Celts within a generation.
The Celts left a genuine, thorough, rather cute, wasteland behind them and returned home. Even in mint condition, the place hadn’t been worth occupying; afterwards it was uninhabitable. It was said that the returnees had surrounded the Roman remnants like seagulls around a whale carcass. They plagued the legions in their begging hordes, and crushed the few remaining towns with their numbers. Roman society, already crippled, failed to take the burden, and collapsed. Vae Victis, with vengeance.
Camulus had sent them one further, delayed-action, gift. Many of those sent to the Romans were those of breeding age. A generation of feeble Roman idiots in crumbling towns had greeted the Huns as elegant saviors fifty years later. Peace was achieved.
Carruthers’ parents arrived. Charm was in a robe; the first time Reggie had ever seen him wear anything but leathers. He noticed that all were wearing torcs. He’d quite forgotten to ask about that.
“Mimbly, I appeal to you. Do I or do I not look totally out of context?” asked Charm, about half seriously.
“You do, and I must say it suits you,” said Irascible, equally seriously.
“Ah, Dad, about these torcs…we aren’t chieftains?” asked Reggie, not able to drag his eyes away from Crusher’s silent reaction to his father’s quip.
The look of Patient Hostess With Un-housetrained Guest, very much overdone. As Vixen and Carruthers entered, his father, also having trouble ignoring Crusher’s mime show, replied.
“We are, here. MacOg knows who and what we are, and so does O’Neill, the Arch Druid you’ll see today, but nobody else does. Well, Gwyn will know…you’ll meet her. These torcs put us beyond too much inquisitiveness on the part of the locals. People generally don’t bother chieftains. It was thought to be the best way to avoid ………will you two stop?”
This remark was directed at Venom and Crusher, both looking very much over-sympathetically at Charm, whose stifled laughs were no longer quite so stifled. Venom had been inspecting the fabric of the robe and smiling at Crusher, who was nodding sadly.
Madge entered, took one look, and rushed over to Charm, saying, “Quick, we can still save him! Bring a scourer and a purgative!”
Any sense of order gave up the struggle then. Reggie, Carruthers and Vixen, who was still giggling, sidetracked Irascible who’d gone outside chuckling as the desperate attempts to save Charm continued.
“We still don’t know how we got here, Dad,” said Vixen.
Irascible managed to get into some sort of order.
“Oh, yes. See if you can follow this logic. You three are very attuned to each other, exactly like a harmony. Where one of you is, the others can travel there very easily. As it happens you, Vixen, are the empathic one, and the better traveler at this stage of your development. You can fetch the other two simply by thinking of them. Reggie is the power source, whether he realizes it or not, and Carruthers is the navigational function.”
“We sound like a machine, of some sort,” said Carruthers.
“You are. You notice that Venom, Madge and I are actually a very similar arrangement, two siblings, one other?”
“Which doesn’t answer our question,” said Vixen, suspiciously.
“No, it doesn’t, does it? Work it out. You remember I told you, Reggie, that Vixen brought you here? Now, extrapolate from that.”
He paused, made some sort of smile that seemed very affectionate and deeply concerned, and went on, far more seriously,
“This is important, you lot. You will spend eternity being faced with the need to understand how things happen, to know how to deal with them. Learn. We’ll help, but it is vital that you develop the habit of analyzing these phenomena yourselves and getting your answers right. Fair enough?”
They agreed, looking at him intently and trying to appear as though they weren’t.
Irascible lightened up considerably.
“Anyway, it’s fun. Nothing more enjoyable than outwitting infinity.”
That reassured them, although they didn’t see why it should.
“Mimbly! Help! These blasted women are trying to decide what my tomb should be made of!” cried Charm, obviously still under siege.
“Caramel!” yelled Irascible. “Goes with your gown, you hussy, you!”
Carruthers grinned. “Mum said she’d been waiting for 2000 years to find out what Dad looks like in anything other than leathers. She says it’s like having your own pet crocodile.”
It was a standing joke with all who knew the Carruthers family about the contrast between the forever-refined Crusher and the earthy, warlike, Charm. He always looked as though he was about to destroy a civilization; she always looked as though that might not be such a good move. Their son wore tweeds, which more or less proved both points.
At this point their host arrived. Og MacOg was a cheerful looking small bull of a man with a friendly and perpetual grin in his eyes, which was very encouraging to those meeting him for the first time. Irascible introduced his children and Carruthers.
“Pleased to see Venom and Crusher are carrying on their genes. How’s Charm getting along with his clothing problem?”
The “question” was phrased in the context of Charm’s current hasty exit from the tent. Shrieks of laughter came from within.
“Og MacOg. You’re the madman that wanted us to get all dressed up to meet this Roman cockroach. Why?” asked Charm.
“Wasn’t my idea. It was Gwyn’s. She thought up the idea of doing this at the same time as the festival, too. Anyway, ready for the big show? The sentries say the Great Priest will be here this afternoon, late. We were wondering why he was taking so long, and it turns out that he’s brought a sedan chair of solid gold with him. They have to change bearers every few miles. Add to that his baggage and food, and it’s as though he brought his house with him.”
Charm smiled and turned to the younger immortals.
“Gwyn, I should explain, is the reason nobody will ever hang MacOg. If it was her idea I’ll go along with it. Is she about?”
“Just settling a dispute between a Greek and an Indian about a trade deal they made.”
“Doesn’t that require an army?”
“If you want to do it the slow way.”
Venom joined them followed by Madge and Crusher.
“Gwyn’s here? Can we get her to check our robes? Does she have time?” asked Madge.
Very puzzled looks arrived on the faces of the younger Mimblys and Carruthers. Madge, asking for advice on clothing, of all things, was a bit of a departure from the text. Vixen in particular, Madge’s number one fan, was shocked.
A small girl appeared. She was wearing a dress of a strong fabric of woven sunlight in a meadow of designs, and a pair of knee boots embroidered with challengingly intricate traditional Celtic motifs. Like wearing The Book of Kells. The older immortals burst into greeting. This, it seemed, was Gwyn, and she was about eight.
Irascible looked at Og. Irascible said thoughtfully, “I see Dana’s genes are doing well.”
Vixen gaped and then realized she shouldn’t. No wonder the others were so impressed with Gwyn. The girl’s voice was like a song.
“Did you settle their deal, Gwyn?” asked her father, rhetorically.
“I said it was no gain to either of them to come all this way and fall out, just over one simple trade. They both knew their markets, knew what their minimum prices were, and really only needed to be more specific about it. So I asked Karma and Lycurgus how much they wanted to make. They said they needed to double their money.
I looked over their stock and said that if Menelaus of Tyre was any guide they both stood to make about 800%. They seemed surprised, but I know that the trade in cultural knickknacks is very fashionable in Greece and India now. They did some calculations on that Chinese abacus they use, and then they did some more on paper, and asked me how I’d figured it out so fast.
I said that Menelaus had told me that the price tended to double with each person that handled goods, and that they’d cut out at least four people by dealing directly with each other. So now because of me the Greeks will be awash with jeweled elephants and scents and the Indians with Acropolises, vases, and Doric columns. They gave me these. They said I could probably find a use for them.”
She produced from her pockets two large objects. One was a monster ruby, which she could barely grasp, and the other a giant opal of about the same size.
“Lycurgus asked me to tell you that if you ever want someone to fight a war for you, be sure to ask them first.”
She turned to Madge. “Your robes, you said, Madge?” she asked, and they went into the tent. That was interesting to Vixen, in that Gwyn hadn’t been anywhere near when Madge was speaking.
Vixen tagged along, introducing herself. Gwyn smiled and said it was good to meet a younger Mimbly. “These two are a bit teenage for me,” she quipped at the combined four thousand years of the others.
Outside Og was explaining that Lycurgus was a Spartan prince, and Karma was an Indian general, and they operated as traders largely for military reasons. They also wanted to trade with each other on neutral ground away from the competition and middlemen, so this achieved both ends. They too were there to study the Great Priest. He added that it seemed they were also about to become colonies of Gwyn’s, and that any dispute between the Greeks and Indians had to be stopped before it started.
Here the Greeks hadn’t had their civil war, and had somehow managed to debate their way into a unified Greece. The Spartans ran the army, the Athenians the navy, and the Thebans and Corinthians the commerce, and it worked well. The Romans had ultimately bounced off Greece, which was historically one reason they’d made their fatal move toward the Celts. Greece was to the south of Rome on Dana’s Child.
In the tent Madge showed Gwyn the robe. It had seemed flawless to Vixen. White, lustrous fabric, a pearl in cloth form. It was the one Carruthers had told Madge she looked overdressed in.
“You’re right. Too pale, in daylight, with your skin,” pronounced Gwyn.
Venom and Crusher got the seal of approval. They both looked quite relieved. Vixen asked diffidently what Gwyn thought of her gown.
“Red is right for you in this world. Otherwise I think you’d feel...out of place.”
Red is the color of the Other World for Celts on Earth, and this hyperbolic concern got a giggle out of Madge, indoctrinated for years in the meanings of colors.
Gwyn was all business. Gathering the older women she herded them out to go to see a trader friend of hers at the markets. Reggie and Carruthers were dragged along in the cultural undertow.
Everybody seemed to know, and like, Gwyn. They were halted by a youngish man.
“Gwyn; have ye a moment? It’s Shamus,” said the man.
That got a reaction from the child. Concerned, she asked, “Oh, is he not well, Flynn? I meant to come and see him.”
“He’s well enough for a prickly old coot but he’s all of a blather.”
Diverting, they entered the marquee of the young man’s father. The place was stocked with a long lifetime’s worth of practical things. The marquee itself was clearly new, like a grandchild at a wedding. The various domestic things were very old, and very clean. A cauldron produced a beautiful smell of spicy broth with vegetables; a huge sword stood by the bed.
The older man, about 70, with a sword scar on his face and an expression as though he’d just informally bitten a log in half, looked up.
“Young Gwyn! That unethical son of mine’s got ye here!”
“Shamus Fion, have you been using your liniment I gave you?”
“I ran out. I was going to ask Gray to ask ye for more…”
“That’s not the problem, is it, Shamus?”
“Ah, there’s no hiding from ye even in the grave, Gwyn. No it’s not. Look.”
He produced a robe with a tear the size of a small sheep in it.
“What can I do with this? Leave the robe and wear the hole, I’m thinking. I’m supposed to meet this golden fool.”
“How did that happen?” asked Gwyn, rummaging through her bag.
“He was carrying a bull calf and it got a bit agitated,” explained Flynn, grinning.
“The mad thing thinks it’s a goat. I had it over me shoulder and it ate part of the robe before I knew what it was doing.”
“It was at festival. O’Neill wanted the bull calf for the Solstice Gathering and Shamus was being nice to everyone. Serves him right for being so out of character, I say,” said Flynn, grinning.
“There, you see the sort of son I’ve got, laughing at his father’s misfortune,” said Shamus pitifully.
“Just remember, you two, that I’ll be able to tell your grandson all about this,” said Gwyn. “Father with a broken hip on the mend carrying bulls about at festival, when he should be sitting with the other dear old things eating millet and knitting. A son telling his sweet aged parent that he’s too nice, when he knows he’s not. You both try and live that down.”
The Fions looked at each other.
“I think we’ve been warned,” said Shamus.
A silence matured as Gwyn expertly threaded several needles each with four different colored threads. Reggie tried to watch her hands, and simply couldn’t. They were moving with horrifying speed. Vixen unashamedly joined the hovering crowd and was fascinated to see a design appear across the joined tear. She wasn’t sure what it was. The girl’s hands switched to another needle, which she’d placed in the fabric an age earlier, at least twenty seconds ago. This also had four different colors, and the rapid blur of movement obscured the work, now rainbow-like. It was as though someone was flipping a series of still pictures much too fast.
Reggie and Carruthers, lost by the technique, and demurely pushed out of the way by the women, were now admiring the sword. A big and venerable beast, it had scratches and nicks, some blade-made grooves in the hilt, and the leather grip had evidently been repaired many times. It shone with years worth of sweat, tanned again by its owner.
“This wasn’t used to cut cabbages,” opined Carruthers.
“It looks so heavy, too,” said Reggie.
“Hold it in your hand,” said Shamus, smiling.
“Hand? I’m not sure one hand is enough,” said Carruthers.
He picked up the sword gently and was surprised to find that it was as heavy as it looked, but it was easy to hold in one hand.
“That’s the balance,” said Shamus. “As long as you hold it correctly, the handshake grip, it’s easy. Now try holding it without the thumb in position. Move your thumb anywhere but where you have it.”
It felt as though he’d just picked up an anvil with his fingers. He quickly returned to the original grip and passed the sword to Reggie, who tried for himself. He also tried with thumb displaced, and got the same effect.
“Use two hands, and it’s light as a feather; ye could cut your hair with it,” said Shamus. They didn’t argue.
“Seems to have taken a few hits from other swords in its time,” Reggie commented.
“Those are axe blades that did that. No sword will do much damage to that blade. The balance makes it a very good sword to parry with. It’s broken other swords, although you’ll see there were a few scratches from good ones.”
Reggie looked. There were uncountable numbers of fine lines on the blade, when held to the light.
“The little nicks you see are from the wars with the Norse. Battle axes. We soon found that trying to block an axe with a shield was a waste of time, because you still took the full force of the blow. But if you can block with a blade to the axe blade, you deflect the force.”
“You’d need to be a pretty good swordsman to do that.”
“The alternative was to be a very dead swordsman. We learned.”
Gwyn had finished her work. She held up a brilliantly colored, hole-sized, falcon. The red brown and gold bird was chasing a pigeon across a sunlit field under a pure blue sky, the picture framed in a delicate tracery of gold filigree.
“The Fions have always been keen falconers. There, Shamus, ye shall go to the festival.”
“Ye are a Sidhe in no disguise whatever, Gwyn.”
Reggie was no authority on needlecraft, but it seemed to him that there were thousands of stitches. Carruthers and Vixen were authorities, both having run fashion businesses when they were living on Slum, and said there were at least that many. In bare minutes this had been accomplished.
Venom, Crusher and Madge seemed in a trance. The picture was quite breathtaking. No explanations of this obvious impossibility were forthcoming. They said their farewells to the Fions, and went in search of a robe for Madge. Traders were scoured and a dazzling deep blue fabric located. Gwyn was given this fabric by the trader, who was thankful for her assistance in recovering a debt. Madge noticed that the price of similar fabrics was enough to retire on; at least on any world she’d ever visited.
Shepherded by their small leader back to Og’s tent, she went to work constructing another work of art. Madge was lost in awe as the girl produced a strange contraption, which seemed to be a cross between a loom and a sewing machine.
There was a muted non-automated hum as the machine went to work. Gwyn gave the appearance of steering it as a series of complicated maneuverings of the frame were done. The girl handed Madge the finished garment. She hadn’t even needed to take measurements. It fit perfectly, hung beautifully, and Gwyn was quite right, the blue was perfect for Madge’s complexion.
Madge was universally considered a beauty by all who met her. She now looked radiant even by her standards. The normally diffident Carruthers said honestly,
“You’re a work of art now, Madge.”
“Oh, and this, from the Fions. Flynn’s a good goldsmith,” said Gwyn.
A brooch, a perfect golden rose, complete with thorns, and even a ladybug, was attached. The combination of this and Madge, her ferocious hair as wild as ever, was quite a sight. Gwyn fussed about getting Madge into the right light. Everybody else wondered what else could be done with such a vision.
Irascible and Charm arrived.
“Almost as good as your singing, Madge,” said Irascible.
“Come in fashion outcast number seven,” said Charm.
They discovered from Madge, who had happily reverted to schoolgirl enthusiasms with her new robe, that Gwyn had invented the machine she was using. It could weave and stitch, direct from the spun fibre. She’d invented it when she was six, to save time, she said.
Gwyn added a real rose, also with thorns, apologized about not having a ladybug available, and pronounced satisfaction. The immortals applauded, and Gwyn curtsied. Madge actually blushed. Sincere praise can be quite a shock to a beautiful woman, particularly one far too used to the transparent sort over a couple of millennia.
The conversation led them back to the fact that it was Gwyn’s idea to meet the Great Priest in this manner. That, coincidentally, told them nothing whatsoever about what was planned. From what they’d seen of her, they reasoned the idea must have some purpose. Intrigued, they waited impatiently for the arrival of this slow moving deity.
The Great Priest eventually arrived. He was clad in gold, seated in gold, and shone nobly, a sole light among the mountains. Until he reached the Celtic camp. There he was submerged in colors. He seemed to vanish. His mighty Hun warrior guards strode forth to find themselves in some cases a foot shorter and puny among the crowd.
He was met by Og and O’Neill and proceeded to the meeting area, where a horde of Celts and traders had gathered. The Great Priest had been expecting a herd of dirty barbarians. This was more like a fashion parade in Athens. Marvelous smells from fresh food blended with some music. A turbulent sea of cheerful faces contrasted with memories of the astringent Roman crowds. Gwyn was a very good psychologist.
A stage had been constructed with a cup-like audio bowl under it, which sent the sound of voices to the multitude. On the stage was a tube fluted like a vase with a small cup. This took the voice and passed it to the resonating chamber with the metal bowl, which amplified the sound. A portable amphitheatre.
The Great Priest mounted the stage to be formally met by O’Neill and MacOg. Also present, seated around the stage, were Madge, Gwyn, Shamus Fion, Charm and Irascible. The Great Priest was again oversupplied with elegant images very much at odds with the bloodthirsty reputation of the Celts. They were big, healthy and armed, however, and Shamus, Charm and Irascible did nothing to convince him that the Celts had become pacifists. The piercing woman in blue was worse, somehow.
Reggie, near the front of the crowd, remembered that Madge was also an Arch-Druidess, and was there because of the spiritual component. He wasn’t sure why Irascible and Shamus were there. The Greek, Lycurgus, also arrived, as did the Indian, Karma.
The Priest was invited to speak first. That was the invitation to commit himself, spiritually and bodily, and he didn’t recognize it. He stood, not very imposingly, and spoke tentatively into the bowl. He was surprised at the volume of sound that issued below his feet. Like most salesmen, he reverted to spiel. MacOg had learned all he needed in that few minutes. He saw his daughter smiling. The Roman began to speak.
“Noble Celts and friendly traders, I come to seek peace between our peoples, in the name of Rome.”
There was a stir, which the Great Priest took to be interest, but was actually unease. A crow had alighted on the stage.
“Macha is here,” muttered the crowd. They were concerned that Macha The Fury, the Battle Goddess, had appeared at that moment. Macha is known on all the Celtic worlds as the Crow, and her form gives all the description of her nature in this aspect that is required. Crows are not social callers.
A riderless horse appeared. That made the Celts more concerned.
“Epona,” they said. The Horse goddess. Horses carry people into battle, and away from danger. The two goddesses combined could only be an indication of something very important.
The Great Priest continued, certain that he had awed them.
“Let me tell you of our new enlightenment. Our Great Golden God has turned us from the ways of war to those of plenty. We were lost in our armies, our empire, and our sad squabbles over money. The Golden God saved us from these minor concerns and showed us the way to peace and harmony.”
“Which is why he’s brought those nice peaceful and harmonious Huns with him,” said a Celt next to Carruthers.
“Where we once fought we now praise our Golden God. We dally enchanted among the wonders of his world…”
This phrase, “his world”, was a blunder of no small proportions. Dana’s Child is the proprietary name given to their planet by the Celts. It means literally that the world is the child of the goddess Dana, and the Great Priest had trodden efficiently on the toes of all Celts present in two words.
“…There will come a time when the Great Golden God will lead humanity from its miseries. His marvelous golden wind shall raise us from our ignorance and poverty to the fruits of righteousness…”
The Great Priest had no end of things to say about his Golden God. Everything, evidently, translated into gold. Rhetoric as dogma has the redeeming virtue of curing insomnia. Post-hypnotic babble is much the same. Those susceptible to suggestion receive it. Those who do not are irritated. The combination of the two produced a lot of bored and irritated Celts.
The Great Priest eventually subsided, after taxing the limited patience of the Celts further than would ever be safe under ordinary circumstances. They wanted to hear O’Neill refute this tonnage of golden manure, and they were sure the Crow and the Horse were there for a reason.
O’Neill was brief. He was brief largely because he’d been watching the Crow, which hadn’t moved since it arrived on the edge of the stage. The Horse was also quite still.
“Thank you, Great Priest, for that revealing speech.” Any irony was lost on the Roman, who had only now noticed the Crow. It seemed to be a very large bird, and it was looking at him intently.
“As I understand it, one difference between our beliefs is that we can see our gods, while yours defies vision. Is that correct?”
“His body is gold, and all gold is his life. My chair is his vehicle, made of his flesh on this world.” He managed to miss the remark about being able to see gods, while not answering the question, either. Good technique.
This didn’t appear to surprise O’Neill.
“So if we see gold, we see in part your Golden God?”
“Gold is truly a precious and incorruptible metal, yet it may be worked, may it not?”
“To meet the inscrutable purposes of the God, it may.”
“You will have noticed that there is a large Crow perched on the stage. In our belief it is the emissary of the goddess, Macha.”
The priest smiled indulgently. He didn’t know how to smile any other way. He then realized that there was, actually, something odd about a crow which had evidently come to listen to a spiritual debate. Vixen noticed that one of the Huns suddenly looked very concerned indeed. “Macha” was the name they heard roared from the mouths of thousands of warriors when the Celts had driven them from the mainland on their one and only abortive raid on Celtic territory.
“I have here a piece of gold which in my ignorance I thought a mere large rock. I place it here and show it to the Crow.”
The “large rock” would have bought a Roman city. The Great Priest was truly staggered by its size, and it shone like a small sun. Instinct told him to be careful, but his mind, self-hypnotized by years of repetition regarding the meaning of gold, interfered with his logic.
The Crow walked, not hopped, over to the gold, in a very human stride. There was an intake of breath from the Celts. Macha was not given to trivial actions. The Great Priest’s mouth was now open as the bird inspected the gold. It was a huge bird, he saw now, why hadn’t he noticed that?
The Crow pecked the gold. A large hole appeared in it, as though scissors had been driven through tinfoil. Silence was now absolute. From the piece of gold came a cry as if from some void of despair. A voice rose from the metal, a horrendously loud wail, amplified by the stage:
“Lucullus, we are poor. May we not eat?” A different voice: ”Flavius has said we cannot stay in the house unless our debts are paid. Why do you take our children?”
A woman’s voice screamed, “This plague is killing all in the towns and now is here! We must have medicine! What more can we pay?”
A series of loud groans issued from the gold. A child cried erratically but stridently and endlessly from somewhere in its depths. The gold turned red. Blood poured in huge amounts from the wound in the giant nugget, drenching the stage.
The Crow was now the size of several men. Its eyes were like volcanoes, ablaze with hot fire.
It spoke in a voice of ashes and thunder. “Gold may turn to coin, and coin may turn to death, whatever may be said of it. See, Celts, what you already know.”
The Crow vanished. The Great Priest was trembling with terror. Rightly so.
O’Neill looked at the Horse. It mounted the stage, also with a human gait, which seemed impossible for a four-legged animal. It examined the bleeding gold. A hoof was raised and the bleeding gold was crushed to a talcum powder consistency. It spoke like a mountain.
“Gold may turn to be no more than dust where folk can see nothing else. Make beauty, not farce, of what you find in your lives and your homes, Celts.”
The Horse vanished. The Hun Vixen had been watching appeared on stage, and rushed over to see what had happened to the gold. The stage was still awash with blood from Macha’s demonstration. The Hun tasted the gold... He tasted the blood. It was real, and bitter. The Hun howled, a cry quite hideous, and ran gibbering from the camp, crashing into things. His companions in the Great Priest’s retinue joined him, falling over things as they ran. There was a satisfied smile on the faces of the crowd, and bemused looks on the faces of the Greek and the Indian.
The Great Priest had fainted. That was a good move. He couldn’t hear the laughter of twenty thousand Celts. A warrior arrived some time later and reported that the Huns were almost five leagues from the camp and still running.
The Spartan, Lycurgus, looked inquiringly at MacOg.
“I take it we’re not going to be doing business with the Romans?”
“It would seem not.”
“Sic transit aureum,” said the Greek.
The trade festival was a great success. The goldsmith, Flynn Fion, did a tremendous trade in commemorative golden crows and horses. Reggie and Vixen, taking Epona’s advice and Macha’s warning, spent their gold buying beautiful things, of which there seemed to be no end. Carruthers went for things of comfort with the assistance of his Indian friend as advisor. The older Mimblys and Madge were busy being shown the finer points of needlework by Gwyn. It was the leather stitching that interested Charm.
The Great Priest had meanwhile been scooped up, revived, and he and his sedan chair returned to the Roman border, where he arrived ahead of his guards and retainers. The Celts had left him sitting in his golden chair to wait for them. He chose to inform them that the Golden God had transported him to the place. The Roman went in search of easier converts, the Huns in search of drink.
A few days passed happily and Vixen believed she’d solved some of the riddle of how they arrived on Dana’s Child.
“I seem to be the nexus for what we three do together, for some reason. What I don’t understand is that we all went to a place we would have wanted to be, even though we didn’t even know it existed.”
“Doesn’t that presuppose that we managed to find it, even though consciously we’d never heard of it?” asked Carruthers.
“It must be the Celtic thing, again,” said Reggie, vaguely, but accurately.
“The link. Again,” muttered Vixen. As usual, the answer “Celtic” produced the questions.
Ever since their joint initial experiences they had been closely oriented to the Celtic idiom, in which they were all trained to Travel. That at least made some sense. A subconscious link to that was reasonable as an explanation, to a point. It did give them a reason to be where they were. It also failed totally to answer how they’d simply upped and left Mimbly to arrive at Dana’s Child, loaded with gold, torcs, and horses.
They found their parents and Madge in Og’s tent, with Og, Gwyn, and O’Neill. Explaining to what extent they’d been able to solve the problem, a general grin appeared on the listeners, except Gwyn, who looked apprehensive for some reason.
“You better explain this, O’Neill,” said Irascible, “You’re the trained teacher.”
“Very well. This involves you, too, Gwyn, so stay awake.”
The chuckle that followed related to her look of extreme alertness, self-consciousness of which got a laugh out of her as well.
“You’re about 70% right. The idiom is the medium of travel, in this case. Like water, forces tend to act on each other through the medium.”
He produced a bowl of water, and put some dried herbs into it.
“I stir the water, and see what happens.”
The herbs, evidently willing to cooperate with gravity, formed a group.
“Now, do you suppose that the herbs were aware of the gathering, or were drawn to it?”
Silence said they got the point.
“Because we are participants in the water we gravitate according to where it is, like the tensions in water attract objects to each other. This requires no conscious thought. That’s the first part.”
He picked up three small dried peas and put them in the water. The same thing happened, taking slightly longer.
“You three have a shared affinity, and a likeness to each other, like the peas, which at the moment has Vixen as the medium, Reggie as the power source, and Carruthers as the orientation.”
Carruthers looked at O’Neill. He wasn’t aware he had a role as such.
“These roles can change, because people change. This is only the current basic structure and is really an oversimplification.”
True enough, they silently thought to themselves, it was inconceivable to each of them that the other two would be left out of anything that was fun or interesting. They were very close friends. They did tend to gravitate together.
So Vixen became the medium for the travel, being more developed at the moment in her skills, Reggie the power source at his level, and Carruthers became the adaptor, since he was in the process of developing orientations of his own. Naturally there was no information forthcoming about how this translated into their traveling to Dana’s child.
“My skills, O’Neill, being what? I’m not a great visionary,” asked Vixen, hoping to pin down whatever it was that kept her mind in overdrive.
“There you’re being a bit unjust to yourself. Are you not deeply involved in your environs, forever searching among things?”
“Well, yes, but how do you know that?”
“You learn a bit in three thousand years. Clarity of Tir Na Nog said that you had powers you may take centuries to develop. Flight and telepathy are just the start. Wait until you have to create new senses.”
That silenced Vixen. Reggie asked,
“What about me? I’m not aware of any so-called power at all,” He really had no idea what he’d done, and wanted to know.
“Power is ultimately the ability to affect things. If you aren’t aware of your power, it is very deep and very well-tuned. It can destroy those poorly attuned to it. Power makes weak people neurotic. You and Vixen interact naturally. If she senses something, you will react. True?”
“In principle, yes. But surely I need to be aware that she’s sensed something?”
“Again the water metaphor, I think. Our idiom of existence is represented as water in this case. Assume one drop of water is sentient, and it can deliberately move other droplets. Suppose this drop has a bond with two others, which tends to result in their joint actions. Clear?”
“Yes, but I wouldn’t like to try to explain it. You mean we are of the water, therefore affected by it, and able to affect it?”
“Exactly.” O’Neill didn’t elaborate, and he did it so emphatically Reggie didn’t want to take his questions any further.
“Which leaves me simply dripping with anxiety as to my part in all this,” said Carruthers, dryly.
“You are more gravity sensitive, in the simplest description of it. You react better to the action of the water. The other two are more solitary. You have an extra element, which helps you mix better with the rest of the water.
Admittedly, this time, we were aware of your receptivity and sort of steered you here, and added the torcs you wear, but you came because of your orientation, traveled under your own power, and you equipped yourselves from your own minds.”
So they were loaded with gold, which none of them had even been thinking about. So they had horses they didn’t know how to ride. Very effective subconscious minds we must have, thought Vixen. Carruthers subsided. There are few things more unsettling than discovering you have abilities, which you aren’t even able to define, let alone control. One of those things is having it proved to you by people with thousands of years’ experience who you can’t argue with because you don’t know yourself very well.
“How would I relate to the water, O’Neill?” asked Gwyn quietly.
“You’d have it doing trade deals, settling disputes, and sewing brilliantly while healing the sick. On the other hand, you are unique in my experience.”
O’Neill looked at the young immortals seriously, if gently.
“One reason you’re here is that we need Gwyn to meet the Sidhe and go to Tir Na Nog and Earth. You three will be Gwyn’s escorts.”
Three mouths opened. They looked at Gwyn, who obviously had been told all this previously. She smiled nervously, and for once looked like an eight-year-old child.
“What…” Vixen found she had a maternal instinct she’d never suspected.
“But we hardly know…” Carruthers located a sense of responsibility which refused to be silenced, and wondered where it had been hiding.
“How do we help her when we don’t understand even half of what we do ourselves?” came from Reggie, who had decided to bulldoze his way into this idea whether anyone liked it or not.
He even silenced O’Neill with that, although the Arch Druid was grinning from ear to ear.
“It’s a very great…too great…responsibility,” explained Reggie. “I couldn’t bear the thought of being the cause of any difficulties for Gwyn, especially through my own ignorance. Neither could Vixen or Carruthers, I’m sure. We could cost Dana’s Child a real asset. We’re very new at all this, Gwyn.”
“About 80% of the argument, Irascible, not bad,” said Og.
“Left out a few things, though. Reggie, Gwyn is something quite new among even immortals. Added to which, although you rightly point out that she’s pricelessly valuable here helping solve everyone’s problems, don’t you see that she’s getting far too much of other people’s business put on her plate? The answer to everything is becoming “Let Gwyn sort it out”, not maliciously, true, but because they trust her. Does that strike you as a healthy way of running a world?” Irascible looked at his son with great interest.
“So they’re not solving their own problems?” Nothing more annoying than a parent with a good argument, thought Reggie.
“Not really. She has given them some great examples, though. We want to allow the people to try to sort things out themselves based on what they’ve learned from her. Also we can’t really tell how or what she needs to be taught, or, for that matter, not taught. The Sidhe will have to be asked. As a matter of fact we also need to consult your grandfather, Thunder. He would be the one person other than O’Neill that might be able to fathom all this.”
Thunder. That settled it for Reggie, who looked at O’Neill. “You knew all this was going to happen, obviously. How?”
“Can you tell where water is likely to flow? Oh, yes; and doesn’t it look right that Gwyn should travel to another land with chieftains?”
Three grunts replied. They went back to Mimbly, with Gwyn, that afternoon, fully aware of about a quarter of the reasons for going.
 God of War, Camulus Of The Invincible Sword, the name symbolizes heaven.
 “Woe unto the vanquished”. A quote from a Celtic warrior after an early war with the Romans on Earth, which the Celts won. The tribute paid to the Celts was being weighed on a scale, and a Roman complained that the weighing was being done unfairly. “Vae Victis,” said a Celtic warrior, throwing his sword on the scale to unbalance it still further. Ha!.. Done more consistently, this might have made European history more readable.
 Blue; woad colored. The war color, appropriate for meeting Romans.
 “So passes gold”. Refers to Latin phrase “Sic transit Gloria”, or “So passes glory”. What a coincidence.