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Mythic Tales: City of the Gods

Every Road Has Its Toll - By Wynn Mercere

D‘Molay found trips to the Celtic lands pleasant. The roads were smooth, the villages were mostly free of troublesome gods, and the Celts kept their noses in their own business for the most part. Unless a visitor was mindlessly brutal or brutally stupid, plenty of profit or pleasure could be found in the company of the lords and lackeys of this realm. So, when the High Priest of Zeus asked D’Molay to extract a calf from the livestock auction in New Camelot, he didn’t hesitate to take on the job. It was a simple, straightforward mission to buy an animal, even if that calf was in truth a bastard son of Zeus transformed and hidden in a herd to cover evidence of his infidelity. Zeus’ wife Hera had not discovered his transgression, but the plan was still on the verge of failure. Zeus, immortal and distant, had forgotten that death still roamed the City and its realms. The farmer to whom he had entrusted his son had been killed by a wyrm. Today, his herds were being sold to pay for funeral rites and a tomb.

Retrieving the boy from the sale would pay D’Molay very, very well. So well, in fact, that he had invited his old friend and occasional tracking partner Sergius to come along. D’Molay had little use for money beyond his basic needs, but Sergius bore the curse of Roman ambition. He was always talking up some new enterprise that he hoped would provide a living easier than slaving or running errands for the gods. Lately he’d been dreaming about opening a tavern. D’Molay counted it just another of his ill-conceived notions, but listened patiently to Sergius’s speculations on how much he would have to charge for wine and food, how many serving wenches to employ, and what part of the City was the thirstiest. His friend’s conversation dried up, however, as they drew near New Camelot and had to concentrate on threading their way through other travelers, at times riding separately as each found his own path around obstacles.

The road was choked with farmers driving animals in for the sale and merchant wagons loaded with feed and tack to peddle to those who would purchase them. Milling between the herds were individuals of all ages and descriptions heading into town for the auction. Progress was annoyingly slow. D’Molay had to rein in his horse several times to avoid trampling careless children. Enough was enough when he noticed that Sergius was riding with feet spread wide purely for the fun of nudging the oblivious in the back of the head with his hobnailed boots.

“Zeus’ son will be sold, skinned, and tanned at this rate,” D’Molay said, reaching over to tap Sergius on the arm. “The woods will be faster.” He guided his horse off the road and into the trees with Sergius following closely. Fifty paces in they found a narrow deer track that paralleled the road. The trees around it towered and the way was dark, but mounds of interesting bright flowers grew in clumps along the trail. D’Molay committed them to memory so that he could illustrate the trail accurately on the map he’d been working on. With nothing to block their way, they soon passed the traffic on the road and emerged from the trees. A short canter across a sparse stretch of pasture delivered them to the lot just outside town where the crowds were gathering.

“Look at this confusion,” Sergius said as they dismounted to tie their horses to a stone road marker. “Why aren’t these farmers in a queue? I could run a more organized auction dead drunk on Etruscan wine.”

D’Molay patted his mare’s neck to settle her. “Just push past. Most of these people aren’t here to buy. They’re just --”

“In our way,” Sergius smirked. He picked a short club out of his saddlebag and flipped it cockily into the air. It spun twice before coming to rest with a slap in his palm. “Don’t worry, D’Molay. I actually do like people, as long as they’re making me money. I won’t break too many heads.”

“I can ask for nothing more,” D’Molay responded, unconsciously assuming his old manners of a sarcastic French courtier as he wondered why his force-fond partner had ever left the joys of the Roman army. Nonetheless, his hand drifted to his hip to check the readiness of his own weapon as they moved into the mass of Celts and approached the auction platform. D’Molay was aware of some additional grumbling from Sergius, but his words were lost in a din of booing that suddenly went up from the crowd. Their ire seemed directed at a short man on the platform who was rapidly losing control of the event. In response to the booing, he had scurried to the edge of the stage and flapped his arms for silence. This only encouraged the hecklers in the crowd to mock him with quacking noises.

“Get on with it!” a dark man near D’Molay shouted at the platform. “Ain’t got all day!”

“What’s the hold up?” D’Molay asked him.

“Dunno,” the man shrugged. “Stupid fool won’t start the sale.” He began to shout again, clearly enjoying the opportunity to bellow.

Sergius leaned in close to D’Molay’s ear. “I see we haven’t missed anything.”

D’Molay nodded then gestured toward the animal pens beyond the platform before turning his back and heading that way. He knew his partner was following from the indignant yelps and curses of people the impatient Roman was shoving out of his way. When he reached the pens, D’Molay was faced with a lumpish herdsman guarding the livestock to be sold. The man’s face was framed with dark curly hair that hadn’t seen even an accidental washing in months. One of his fat thumbs was carefully guiding a small knife with a chipped blade under the rind of a bluish-white cheese as he leaned against a pole inset with iron rings. Two skinny goats tied together to one of the metal hoops nattered loudly, hopeful a scrap would fall from the herdsman’s knife.

“Now that’s a stink worthy of note,” Sergius said of the herdsman, his lunch, and the smell of goats as he caught up with D’Molay. He swiped his wristband across the underside of his nose to appease his senses with the comforting smell of oiled leather. “Hurry it up, D’Molay, before we’re permanently mired in manure.”

“I can see why you never took a soldier’s retirement as a farmer,” D’Molay said.

“I’m no fool,” Sergius shot back, opening his arms wide to encompass the mire of mud, straw and animal waste that surrounded them. “I chose glamorous adventure.”

The two old friends shared a laugh while the herdsman barely glanced at them. D’Molay visually searched the huddle of calves in the back section of the pen. The son of Zeus was easy to pick out when one knew what to look for. One of the russet brown calves was marked by a telltale golden spot on its right ear, the thumbprint of his immortal father. All that need be done now was to prevent the calf from going to auction. For that purpose D’Molay had prepared a bluff.

“I have a contract of sale,” he lied to the herdsman as he eased the end of his rolled-up map of the realms an inch out of his coat. “Point me to your master so I can pay.”

The man levered a fresh glob of cheese into his maw and sucked on it slowly as he stared at the butt of parchment. At the sound of a grunt, D’Molay instinctively thrust his arm out sideways to prevent Sergius from moving forward to pick up and pitch the slow-mannered herdsman in with the swine. “Patience, Sergius.”

The herdsman blinked at them doubtfully as he swallowed his food. “Sir Cedric mayn’t be takin’ money this late,” he mumbled.

“A Celt who won’t take coin. That’s new,” Sergius said. There was a low threat in his voice.

“He’ll take mine,” D’Molay smoothed over. “Is he inside?” The herdsman betrayed his boss with an uncertain glance toward a door of the attached building framed by an arch of stone. “Good.”

Leaving the indecisive herdsman and his foul smells in their wake, Sergius and D’Molay entered the building and stopped to look into the first room they found. In it, a red-haired man garbed in the style of a village leader or minor noble sat at a table before a counting box. He started at the sight of them, as if he’d been caught napping. His fingers quickly scrabbled across the table to grab a stick of charcoal lying atop a parchment list.

“Enter, enter,” he said, waving them in. He then pointed at an hourglass that had almost run through its sand. “If you’re here to buy, be quick. There will be no direct sales once the auction starts.”

D’Molay immediately displayed his money pouch and the man nodded in approval.

“There is a calf outside with a blazoned ear,” D’Molay said. “That’s the one we’re buying.”

“Calves bring ten, with a presale premium of five,” the Celt said flatly, extending his hand.

D’Molay fished out fifteen gold coins and exchanged them for a long strip of rope attached to a strap with a leather tag threaded onto it. A symbol was burned onto the tag.

“This shows I’ve paid?”

“It does. Collar the calf and my man will let you take it off the lot.” D’Molay handed the lead to Sergius who left to secure the animal. The money counter looked up expectantly. “Is there something else you want to buy?”

D’Molay was doubtful about the next part of his mission, but his job was merely to make the delivery, not see it through to its end. He placed a hundred more gold coins from Zeus on the table. “I would like this money to be added to the final auction tally due the estate of the man whose calf I just bought. An anonymous friend wants to help his family.”

The man’s eyes lit up. D’Molay immediately suspected that the bounty would go no further than the greedy fellow’s own pockets. Woe be to him if he indeed stole the coins, but that wouldn’t be D’Molay’s problem. Zeus would see him punished. Setting snares for humans was always a game of the gods.

When D’Molay stepped back out into the sunlight, Sergius was waiting with the calf in tow. “Change him back into a boy,” Sergius said quietly. “He can ride with one of us easily and we can travel faster.”

D’Molay reached for the cord he wore around his neck and worked the enchanted amulet Zeus’ priest had given him for just that purpose free from the collar of his coat. “Agreed. But let’s do it back in the woods where no one from the auction will see and think we’ve cheated them somehow.”

The sounds of bidding and the lowing of livestock faded behind them as they collected their horses and headed back to the woodland trail. They rode into the cover of the trees, the calf drawn along by the rope Sergius held. Halfway down the deer path, where the bright flowers grew, D’Molay dismounted. Sergius followed suit and walked over to the calf, slackening the rope. The playful young bull danced a few steps away, its hooves crushing a clump of bright amber petals.

“Trespass!”

D’Molay and Sergius came to full alert at the sound of the scratchy, bitter voice.

“Who’s there?” D’Molay demanded to know. He and Sergius both peered into the woods for the source of the complaint.

"Trespass!"

The single word came again, this time in a chorus of voices, some as rough as the first and others pure and melodic.

“I’m mounting up,” Sergius said, pulling the rope back toward his horse.

The calf suddenly froze and squealed in pain. D’Molay looked over to see one of its rear legs being stretched back from its body. A cluster of small beings, some delicate and winged, others covered with thick, knobbed skin, had seized the calf’s hoof. A crushed flower dangled from some mud stuck to its underside. Tiny hands and claws tore at the calf’s fetlock.

“Faeries!” D’Molay yelled, a warning which was immediately followed by a third denunciation of trespass delivered in a single, sad, whisper. As the word’s last breathy syllable faded, a thick mist rose up to blind and deafen them. D’Molay could just barely hear Sergius cursing somewhere nearby. Reaching out sightlessly, he grabbed randomly in hopes of securing Zeus’ son, but dozens of small hands pushed his arms in the wrong direction. Then a hundred more pressing palms yanked his feet out from under him. D’Molay fell, sliding down a shaft that had opened in the earth. He rolled a half dozen times before he managed to stop and right himself. He immediately called for Sergius, but there was no answer. His mind was working out whether this bode good or ill when a flash of light dispelled the mist.

“Sir Geas escaped,” a sultry female voice announced as D’Molay’s eyes adjusted to the brightness and the startling proximity of a curvaceous body. “But you didn’t, so you must be the one to pay.”

“Pay . . . for what?”

D’Molay knew he was at peril of falling into the enchanting spell of the beautiful creature. He hardened his heart and narrowed his eyes, focusing on the devilishly pointed tips of her ears to avoid the deep loveliness of her green eyes and full pink lips. She took a step back from him as if she knew of his determination to keep his wits.

“Your calf destroyed our blossoms. Do you know how long it takes to grow firedrops? Children of our children will be born and die before new seeds can stretch their way into new blooms.”

“I’m sorry,” D’Molay said cautiously, watching the female pace slowly about the chamber. He could now see he was in a cell. Bars crisscrossed an opening above his head. “But what could I possibly pay that is of equal value?”

The faerie glanced briefly toward the overhead bars as a muffled, repeating scraping noise reached the cell. D’Molay kept his eyes pinned to his captor, even as his hopes rose to meet the sound. He’d bet the remaining gold in his pouch that it was Sergius trying to dig him out.

“I am a Faerie Nymph. Your people say we like sweets and babies and the finest spun silk. You’ve none of those, have you?”

D’Molay shook his head in the negative, wondering if striking her would do more harm than good. He could be certain of nothing where faeries were involved. What he’d heard of their sorcery was enough to chill his blood. He silently urged Sergius to dig faster.

“Well, it wouldn’t matter if you did,” she scoffed. “What they say of us are lies.”

“Then you’ll have to tell me what you want,” D’Molay ventured, “if everything I think I know is wrong.”

She folded her arms and regarded him with a smug expression. “Since you are willing to admit you know nothing, I will teach you something.” In an instant, she closed the distance between them and D’Molay felt her lips press against his and her fingers play about his throat. Before he realized what she was doing, she had snatched the magic amulet from his neck.

She pulled away from him triumphantly. “What we really like is magic. This trinket of yours has saved your life.”

“You don’t want to take that,” D’Molay tried to bargain. “It belongs to Zeus, the main god of the Olympian Realm.”

The Faerie Nymph began to laugh, barely managing to get her words out between giggles. “That bearded old man who sits on his mountain? We’re not afraid of him,” she said. Then as quickly as her demeanor had turned jolly, it flipped to mock sadness. “Oh, poor man. Will losing this get you in trouble?”

Get the book to find out what happenes next! There are 17 other stories with tales of Circe, Glaucus, Set, Loki, Hermes, Mazu, Sekhmet, Quetzalcoatl, and many others. Try it today.

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