The River Goddess has destroyed Teleron's castle but Teleron himself is missing. The slaves began escaping when the castle started to collapse and when the last of them crossed the drawbridge the rest of the castle collapsed with most of it crumbling into the river. Spike and the goats were speechless with awe at what they'd seen but the Elves seemed pleased, like they weren't greatly surprised at this denouement. Many were rushing over to help the slaves. Somehow the rubble had ignited about fifteen minutes after the collapse and was now a raging inferno. Many of the slaves had left already, anxious to return to their homes, but a sizable group still remained, watching the flames consume their late prison. There was no sign, not a trace, of Teleron and it was believed he'd perished in his castle along with his apprentice Glar and the six minions who had stood by his side through it all, keeping the evil enterprise going.
“No loss there,” people muttered as the gossip circulated.
Spike, Brak and Jant made their way to the group of remaining ex-slaves and began checking faces, looking for Ishyate and Elvisher. It took a while and Spike was getting frantic by the time they finally found them, sitting in the shade of the forest, completely ignoring the fire while talking to a couple of women. It was clear they were all ex-slaves by their dirty, unkept appearance and their sallow faces, especially the women's.
Ishyate and Elvisher's faces lit up at the sight of Spike and the goats and they jumped up to hug each other while the two women sat and watched, smiling at their friends' joy.
“Oh golly, sweet Robin are we glad to see you!” Spike gushed, unable to control his relief and joy. He kept wagging his tail too hard, disappearing then reappearing a couple meters away. Brak finally came over and sat on that wagging tail to keep Spike in one place.
Ishyate gestured at the women, “Hey guys, this is Lagretta and Magnella, friends we met while inside.”
Elvisher smiled in agreement and added, “Even though they've been here much longer than us they came and offered us whatever aid and assistance they could.” The women smiled but said nothing.
“Thank you,” Spike said, “Thank you so much! These two are dear friends.” Brak and Jant nodded their concurrence. Spike continued, “I don't suppose anyone knows anything about an Agitha Gladstar, reported to be here . . .”
Lagretta and Magnella both sat up with smiles, “We do!”
“Is she here now?” Spike asked feeling a surge of excitement.
“No,” Lagretta answered. “She's been gone for a long time now. No one knows how or where but she musta done it with magic.”
“That so,” said Spike. “So she's a . . .?” The women squirmed but did not answer. “Witch maybe? Sorceress?” he prompted.
“Dunno,” Lagretta answered looking down.
“She could just do lots of stuff,” Magnella interjected, “sometimes we couldn't tell how she did it but that was okay, I mean . . .”
“She knows tons of things, things you never heard of,” Lagretta said forcefully. Spike could see that both the women admired and looked up to Agitha.
“How long ago did she . . . uh, leave?” Spike asked.
“Hmm, what, a week ago?” Lagretta answered looking inquiringly at Magnella.
“Yeah, but now I think on it, maybe more like three or four days ago,” Magnella offered.
“That's not a long time,” Brak muttered.
“It is here, or was, blessed be,” Lagretta said. Her gaze clouded with anger and loss as she turned toward the now smoldering ruins. “Few lasted more'n a month, some a couple but I never heard of anybody lasting longer. Me and Maggie been here 28 days.” Spike was shocked. They both looked emaciated like they'd been prisoners for years.
The group of ex-slaves was dwindling rapidly. Many were meeting arriving friends and family, some wandered off in groups of two or three. But no one came for Lagretta and Magnella.
“You guys got a place to go?” Spike asked them.
With a worried glance at each other they both shook their heads no.
“Well, we don't either. Our place is quite a ways south of here so maybe we should all camp together tonight?”
They found a nice spot by Columbia's River about a klick south of the ruins and settled in.
Father Sun was just past his zenith when their camp was fully set up. They spent the rest of that afternoon in leisure pursuits, talking or sitting by Columbia's River, enjoying the peace. With food and water Lagretta and Magnella or Gretta and Maggie as they asked to be called, were already looking much better.
Spike and his fellows talked more with Gretta and Maggie, trying to discover more about Agitha Gladstar. Apparently, she and another woman named Hortense disappeared one night without leaving a single clue. Gretta and Maggie finally admitted that they were sure Agitha, or Aggy as they called her, had used magic to escape mostly because she'd been teaching them magic but also because of how impossible it was to break out at night.
“It was darn lucky the Goddess came during the day because at night we'd have all been locked in,” Gretta remarked.
“I'll bet that's why she did it, came in the morning like that,” Elvisher said.
“Yeah, I agree. She wanted to spare the innocents,” Ishyate added.
“What kind of work did you guys do in that place?” Spike asked.
“We built armored vehicles with mounted cannon,” Gretta answered. “First we forged the metal from ore that was delivered every week, then we bolted and welded sections of that metal to make large cars where the driver and a couple others could hide inside and be totally protected from the outside warfare.”
“They brought in large engines from the mythical lands,” Maggie continued, “powerful engines that could move the cars through most anything,” Maggie scowled. “and those cannons mounted on the cars can shoot balls of iron a great distance causing untold violence and mayhem.”
“That's what me and Maggie did,” Gretta said shaking her head, “was make cannon balls. Eleron prepared magic powders that touched to a flame would explode and cause the ball to hurtle through the air.”
“How many of these cars were made?” Spike asked.
“I dunno,” Maggie answered looking at Gretta who shrugged. “I do know there were two downstairs mostly finished and one completely finished because I was working on them when the Goddess attacked,” she finished.
“Downstairs?” Spike asked.
“Yeah, there was a basement where the finishing work was done. Very secret. I had a hunch that people who worked down there would disappear after they were done so I was especially glad that the attack happened when it did,” Maggie replied.
“I was engaged in packing the magic powder into tubes at the time,” Gretta explained, “I'm not sure what the tubes would do but they seemed like they could be missiles. I'm sure it was this magic powder that caused the castle to burn. The stuff is very flammable and I'd heard of other workers getting burned or even killed by accidents with it.”
That night they were awakened a couple times by distant roaring that was still loud enough to shake the ground. The first time it happened Spike jumped up and ran to the campfire. Elvisher and Maggie were already there looking off to the north.
“What was that?” Spike asked.
“Dragons,” Maggie answered with a grim look. “We're not too far from a Thrym Dragon hold. We heard them occasionally in our cells at night, but they seem a lot louder now. ”
“Yeah, the most terrible and vicious of the dragons. Eleron kept them away somehow and now with him gone I fear they might show up.”
Spike looked to the north, “I'd sure like to just bolt south except we haven't found Agitha yet.”
“Yeah, that's the problem all right. And we don't have a clue as to her whereabouts,” Elvisher said.
That morning they managed to scrape together a meager breakfast from their three remaining backpacks.
“Any ideas about where we should go from here?” Spike asked the group. “Where could Agitha be?”
“Well, I've been thinking,” Maggie spoke up. “There was something Aggy said the day before she disappeared.” This got everyone's attention.
“What'd she say?” Ishyate prompted.
Maggie remembers something that Agitha Gladstar said just before she disappeared from the fortress.
“She said the last Grandmother had passed and that was a very big reason why she hadda get out of there now. We heard all kinds of sad stories in there and I didn't think much of it at the time.”
“I sure felt something when she said it, though,” Gretta added, “Like it was my own Grandmother. Gave me chills.”
Spike thought of Oxxy and how she'd disappeared, just collapsed leaving nothing but her clothes. “There was a witch who passed recently on the farm but her name was Moran, not Gladstar,” he said.
“Moran! That's my name,” Gretta blurted. “I'm Lagretta Moran.”
“Wow! That's amazing. Oxxy Moran was an ancient witch, one of the last I thought, who with three others, ruled Gladstar farm.”
“I'm probably related to an ancient witch!” Gretta crowed. “Really! Because like how many Moran's are there? Not many, I'm thinking, and the few that are have to be related. Have to. There just aren't enough to not be.
Everyone gaped at her. Spike wasn't one who believed in coincidences. He spoke, gazing curiously at her, “Well, once, long ago, there was a witch named Lillow Gladstar who was, I thought, the last of the Gladstars, but that was long ago and long before I heard of Agitha. I mean I was truly surprised to hear there was still a Gladstar, unbeknownst to us. Wow. So now, here she is, a new Gladstar to run the farm if we can find her. And it was Oxxy, the ancient witch that told us to find her and bring her back.” Everyone was watching and listening with rapt attention. “And the curious part is her name was Moran, just like Gretta's. Now, looking for the last Gladstar at Oxxy's bidding we find her possible descendant.” There was silence, as Spike looked around. He seemed to remember Oxxy mentioning something about others. Well, this might be what she meant. He continued, “There were four witches back then, Lillow Gladstar, Oxxy Moran, Laura Mercy and Rosy Rivitir.” He stopped when Maggie gasped.
“My name's Mercy. Magnella Mercy. And I'm pretty sure Tenner's name is Rivitir.”
“Yeah, I remember, she told us, “Gretta spoke up, “Hortense Rivitir she said, claiming it was an old and distinguished name.”
“She told me her Great something-Grandma was a witch but I didn't pay no never mind,” Maggie said. “I mean everybody wants to be related to a witch nowadays.”
Spike was too shocked to speak. He'd started off not believing in coincidences but this was beyond the possibility of coincidence. Could these four women be descendants of the original four witches? Are they the 'others' that Oxxy spoke of?
Spike sat down feeling dazed and was comforted to see Ishyate also sitting with a totally dazed look. “I am the eighth Ishy after Ishmael.” Ishyate muttered. He looked at Gretta and Maggie with wonder. “I love the old stories, old history, you know? But now, somehow, it's like the old stories are happening again, like history might just be repeating cycles that slowly become something new while keeping something old.” He looked at Spike who could only look back with wide, uncomprehending eyes.
“So we just need to find Agitha and, what was it? Hortense?” Elvisher asked, breaking their revery.
“That's how it looks,” Spike answered, looking around and feeling relieved somehow. “Well, what do you guys think?” he asked the group. “Maybe Maggie and Gretta should come back to the farm with us after we find Agitha and Hortense?”
“Yes, absolutely,” Ishyate said. “And when we find Agitha and Hortense the farm will be complete again.”
Brak and Jant both brayed agreement. Spike was oddly relieved at the thought of someone else taking charge of the farm.
Maggie and Gretta smiled and accepted. They hadn't mentioned to anyone that they'd both lost husbands at the fortress and were now homeless so this seemed a wonderful good fortune.
Father Sun was well into the morning and well into curious observation as well, for he too wondered where Agitha Gladstar and Hortense Riviter had disappeared to. The engine of his discovery was the very band led by the bulldog Spike. Depending on who you ask, Ishyate and Elvisher are either co-leaders or seconds in command. In any case it was decided that two groups would form, one, consisting of Spike, Brak and Gretta, was to explore northward while the other, consisting of Ishyate, Elvisher, Jant and Maggie, was to explore southward, all in search of Agitha and Hortense.
“Look for any sign, any clue, anything that could lead us to Agitha and Hortense,” Spike directed the group, “I have a feeling they're close by,” he finished. They divided into their two groups, agreeing to meet at that spot again before dusk became dark.
Spike's group headed north and were soon back at the fortress ruins, only they didn't find any ruins. What they did find was a small hillock covered with flowers of every color and shape. A couple small trees grew near the top where birds sang and butterflies flew. They stood gaping in astonishment at the rare beauty before them where but two days earlier lay the burned-out, smoking ruins of an evil fortress. They approached the hillock slowly, almost fearfully, despite or perhaps because of its beguiling beauty and were soon enveloped in a cloud of floral scents and passions that were in every way as enticing as their flowery source.
“Okay, everybody back away,” Spike ordered loudly, backing up. “This is a flower spell and it can hypnotize you.”
Everyone backed beyond the scents and their overpowering visuals and huddled under some nearby trees. “Something strange here, and dangerous too,” Spike growled, looking back at the hillock. “Somehow the flowers can pull you in until you are mesmerized and lost to their desire. I've seen this before with Lillow many, many years ago.”
“The first witch? Gretta asked, reverently.
“No, the last, we thought,” he answered, looking back at the hillock.
“So what's the flowers' desire?” Brak asked, looking nervously at the hillock.
“Food usually,” Spike answered, watching the flowers intently, for they were all facing them, as if watching them. He couldn't recall if they'd been facing them before when they'd arrived but he sort of thought they hadn't been.
“Food?” Brak and Gretta moaned in unison.
“Usually,” Spike answered, keeping his eyes on the flowers. “But these guys seem interested in something else.” He watched for a moment more then gestured them to follow further back into the forest where he found a spot where they could observe the hillock without the hillock observing them if that's what it was actually doing. As they watched from their hidden glen the flowers slowly turned away until only those directly in front of them stayed watching. A three hundred and sixty degree look-out Spike thought with admiration. But a look-out for who, or what? As they watched two women opened a door that was magically hidden in the flowers and emerged, quickly running toward the river.
“Hey! That's them! That's Aggy and Tenner!” Maggie yelped jumping up and screaming “Aggy! Tenner!” as loud as she could but Aggy and Tenner didn't hear her as they dove into the river. They watched in wonder as the women didn't surface, not even bubbles burbling up. Then the ground began to vibrate and an immense yet distant grumbling could be heard.
“What's that?” Brak asked with a worried look.
“Dunno,” Spike answered with the same worried look.
The sound grew louder as the ground shook more fiercely. Spike was having trouble standing and sat as Gretta had already done. Brak skittered about staying upright and braying loudly. When the sound and shaking had reached a peak the side of the hillock collapsed as a huge, armored vehicle with a large cannon poking out the front pushed through, smoking and grumbling.
While the sky darkened with the clouds of an impending rainstorm Spike, Brak and Gretta watched, horrified, as an armored vehicle, clanking and smoking, drove to the path and headed east. They knew a fork lay ahead with its northern way leading to the Elven kingdom Elvenstead and the southern way leading to Gladstar Farm.
“Should we follow that thing?” Brak asked.
Just then there was giant crack and Spike twirled around expecting to see smoke from the cannon's end but instead was buffeted by a strong gust of wind followed by a torrential downpour. They ran to the shelter of some thick trees but even there they were soon drenched. The sky grew darker and darker, interspersed with a series of bright flashes as lightning streaked earthward followed quickly by booming cracks and crackles. What a spectacle did Mother Earth provide that day, so much so that it rained long after in grudging respect. It was an early, cloud-besotted dusk that greeted their wet and shaken return to their campsite headquarters. They had a roaring fire going in short order and were drying themselves in front of it when the other group returned.
“Nothing going on in the south as far as we could tell,” Ishyate stated walking up to the fire. They'd found a little better shelter during the storm but were still wet and soon everyone was circled around the fire, staying close even when the smoke blew their way.
“Thought we heard one of them slave trains in the distance during the rain but that couldn't be right, could it?” Elvisher asked. “I mean that was a serious downpour, no troop of chained slaves could have walked through it.” He stopped on seeing Spike and Gretta's expression. “What? How?” was all he could muster.
“It was an armored car with enormous power that easily traversed that storm, by what we could see anyway, clacking and clanking like the very monster it is and carrying within a person or persons unknown whose intentions are also unknown but likely unfriendly,” Spike told him.
“The darn thing busted right out'a the side of the fortress wreckage, which was somehow just a sweet, flower covered hillock when we got there,” Gretta continued.
“It was one of the cars we worked on, wasn't it Gretta?” Maggie asked.
Gretta looked down then looked up into her friend's eyes and slowly nodded yes. “I'm pretty sure it was the car we'd finished,” she whispered.
“After that heavy rain I doubt we could follow its tracks,” Elvisher said.
Everyone was silent, absorbing all they'd heard. Then Spike said, “Another thing that happened is that just before that car busted out of the hillock two women who Gretta says were Agitha and Hortense, came rushing out a hidden door and ducked into the river before anyone could stop them.”
Maggie looked at Gretta, “It was them? You sure, in that darkening sky and all? It was Aggie and Tenner?”
Gretta looked stricken, “I think so Maggie. I was sure at the time but I've sorta gotten doubts since.”
“What doubts?” Maggie asked fiercely. “I mean you either saw them or you didn't.”
“Well they was a long way off and it was darkening, like you mentioned, but yeah, okay, it was them.”
Gretta nodded glumly.
“Why the face?” Maggie asked.
“They never came up Maggie. They dived in and just stayed under, never came up that we could see.”
They were all silent and solemn as they huddled and dried around that fire until night's somnolent embrace sent them off to sleep. During the so-called wee hours a black silhouette, like a large dragon might make, glided gracefully across the sky, visible only when it blocked the starlight. No one of the group saw it, even Elvisher who was the guard at that hour, for despite having not fallen asleep, he simply hadn't looked up at the right time.
They were all up before Father Sun's golden caresses cleared the horizon, eager to get on with their search.
“Today we must also find food, as our provisions are nearing depletion,” Spike told them.
“Got it, food and Agitha,” Ishyate agreed. “So how do we start? I don't think search parties are doing any good. There are food markets as you near Elvenstead but I don't think that's going in the right direction.” He paused. “You see, it's becoming abundantly clear to me that our real job is finding and stopping that armored car, further, I think there's ample evidence that the car went south.”
“But that's the direction of Gladstar Farm!” Brak interjected.
“We're all aware of the southern road's route, thank you,” Spike said, feeling a little agitated that nothing was working as it should.
“I think Ishyate is right,” Elvisher spoke up, “I think if we find that car, we'll find whoever's behind all this plus I think that somehow that's where we'll also find Agitha and Hortense, likely there for the same reason we are.”
Spike was unable to argue against Ishyate and Elvisher's reasons for going south, especially since he had no plan of his own. He could see too, that their arguments had merit. Clearly, they must hasten south to prevent the car's arrival at Gladstar farm, and that would be a cause that would surely attract Agitha, if she's still around.
“Alright people!” Spike barked, suddenly conscious of urgency, “Lets head out! We need to make haste.” He marched down the road as his company scrambled to follow. They marched in a generally eastward direction until they came to the crossroad. Spike glanced north knowing the Elvenstead food marts, considered the best in the world, were near, well fairly near. He knew that Elvenstead had more food marts than any other city in all of Fæirie Land. His mouth watered and he was certain he could smell their heavenly scents, yet he valiantly held true to their cause and stalwartly led his band south.
After an hour or maybe two they heard a commotion over the next rise. There was loud clanking and clacking, similar but not quite like the slave trains. Sort of like the armored car moving with a new clanking like something hitting something metal followed by a loud boom, a time of silence then repeated. Having developed something of a cautious nature they crept as close as the could and, hopefully without being seen, peered over the top. Below, mired in a pool of mud and rocks up to its middle, sat the armored car, unable to move as the repeated spinning of its wheels proved. Spike wondered why the car's driver or helpers didn't get out and clear the rubble, when his question was answered. Carefully the car's hatch on top slowly opened, showing no sign of the occupants, then suddenly a group of three, humans or Elf he couldn't tell, appeared quickly from the forest, and threw rocks, as big as they could handle down on the car whose hatch promptly shut. Spike watched in amazement as the cannon swiveled around, aiming at the spot where the group stood then letting loose a tremendous boom firing a cannon ball at them. Except they weren't there anymore and the cannon ball plowed a fair sized crater in their place, tossing dirt and debris quite a ways. Then there was silence. It seemed to Spike that the silences were getting longer.
Finally a woman's voice, commanding and fierce rang out. “Surrender Teleron and we will spare your life. Continue and you die!” Spike could see the speaker was not too far from where they hid so when the cannon swiveled around, he ordered a hasty retreat. They were running when the cannon ball hit behind them, knocking them off their feet and spraying them with debris.
Spike looked back and saw the woman jumping fearlessly across the recently excavated crater. She smiled at him as she neared, “Spike, I believe. Late of Gladstar farm if I'm not mistaken?” she looked at Spike with questioning eyes. He nodded a wary yes. Grinning wide she announced, “I'm Agitha Gladstar.” Another woman appeared out of the woods as yet another group appeared across the gully, tossing a rocky barrage downward then watching as the cannon swiveled their way. There was a loud boom and a cloud of smoke which, when it cleared showed another sizable crater and no sign of the rock-throwing group.
The new woman shook her head at the blast behind her and smiled at Agitha before turning and scrutinizing Spike's group. “This is them, huh?”
“Yep'” Agitha answered. “That's Spike and that's Ishyate,” she said pointing at each. “Not sure about these others but I'd say they're farmers for sure.”
The group agreed readily to this assessment as Gretta and Maggie stepped forward. Agitha grinned in surprised wonder, “Hot dang here's my girls! I was worried you wouldn't make it but I shoulda known better, huh? Tenner, just like I told you, here's Maggie and Gretta, it'll be the four witches again.”
There was a clank and Teleron's angry scream rang out behind them, “I'll never surrender!”
“He's finally out of cannons,” Agitha said with a grim smile. “Time to end this madness.”
They watched as a huge cloud of smoke came billowing out of the gully followed by a solid thonk, like an arrow hitting its mark. When the smoke cleared a minion lay slumped over in the hatch with an arrow in his chest. No sign, not a hint, footprint, nothing was found of Teleron who Agitha and the Wood Elves had clearly seen had been there. They destroyed the car, making sure it would never terrorize anyone again. Eleron, if he persists, will surely be tomorrow's problem, Spike thought ruefully, joining his band behind the farm's hereditary witches, Aggie, Tenner, Maggie, and Gretta. The magic is back, his mind and soul sang