Another example of "mix-and-match" mythology (a la the legendary Ray Harryhausen).
, Vore Characters:
Brobdnignagian (51 ft. to 100 ft.)Shrink:
Female Self-Gigantism Through The Ages
November 13 2011 Updated:
August 10 2012
1. Chapter 1 by Carycomic
2. Chapter 2 by Carycomic
3. Chapter 3 by Carycomic
4. Chapter 4 by Carycomic
5. Chapter 5 by Carycomic
6. Chapter 6 by Carycomic
7. Chapter 7 by Carycomic
8. Chapter 8 by Carycomic
9. Chapter 9 by Carycomic
10. Chapter 10 by Carycomic
11. Chapter 11 by Carycomic
12. Chapter 12 by Carycomic
13. Chapter 13 by Carycomic
14. Chapter 14 by Carycomic
15. Chapter 15 by Carycomic
16. Chapter 16 by Carycomic
17. Chapter 17 by Carycomic
18. Chapter 18 by Carycomic
19. Chapter 19 by Carycomic
20. Chapter 20 by Carycomic
21. Chapter 21 by Carycomic
22. Chapter 22 by Carycomic
23. Chapter 23 by Carycomic
24. Chapter 24 by Carycomic
(Translated from medieval Russian.]
* * * * *
I, Ilya Muromets, do hereby avow on my deathbed that the following tale is true.
In the Year of Our Lord Eleven Hundred and Ninety-nine, I was captured by slave raiders of the Volga Bulgarian Khanate, and sold at auction to a cotton merchant from Egypt. Upon his return, to that ancient land, he did put me to work in his cotton fields as one of his harvesters. A sad fate, indeed, for a might bogatyr such as myself!
Twelve years, did I labor in those fields. Each day, praying for deliverance from my bondage. Then, one day, the Good Lord finally saw fit to answer my prayers. I was ransomed by a Basque Mercedarian named Lupo De La Cruz, who would harvest cotton in my stead. When I asked how I could repay such selfless generosity, he replied:
"Repay the debt forward. Help the Dane return home."
Naturally, I was puzzled.
"Dane? What Dane?"
"The Carolingian paladin, Holgar, son of Gudfred. He is held captive in the Land of Apples, which is far to the east of here. Held captive by the giantess Ovaria. Middle sister of the evil Melissae!"
I had never heard of these Melissae, and admitted as much. Whereupon, he nodded and bade me journey to the Greek monastery on the island of Chios.
"Seek out Brother Iosef, the head monk. He will tell you more about them than I can. If they do not grant you admittance, right away, show them this."
Whereupon, he did give me a white silk hand kerchief with a most strange emblem upon it. The head of a stag with a golden cross between its antlers!
Before I could inquire as to the significance of this emblem, he was escorted away by the burly bodyguards of my former master. So, with no other choice, I did as he bade me and journeyed to Chios. Arriving there within two weeks of my freedom's restoration.
As anticipated, the monks who kept the front gate of the monastery initially declined to admit me. Whereupon, I did show them Brother Lupo's hand kerchief. And, their faces became flushed with puzzled excitement!
One of them immediately went to show the hand kerchief to Brother Iosef, remaining gone for twenty minutes. Upon his return, he told me that Brother Iosef would see me now. Whereupon, I was guided to his private chambers.
Upon my being left alone with him, the head monk did gesture for me to take a seat. He then asked me where I had obtained the hand kerchief. So, I told him. And, the expression on his face, as he sat down, was most troubled.
"So!" he muttered: "One of them still walks the Earth, then."
"One of whom, good brother?" I pointedly inquired.
He looked up at me, and replied:
"The Melissae! The evil daughters of Priapus and Lamia!"
Upon seeing, by the blankness of expression on my face, that I did not know of whom he spoke, he stood up again. Beckoning me to follow him. This, I did. And, soon, we were in what I initially thought a mere wine cellar. That is; until Brother Iosef did lead me to the rear wall of that cellar.
Upon touching a certain brick in that wall, the entire central portion did slide open and inwards! The pair of us then entered. Whereupon, I did see row after row of items that beggared description or counting.
"What...? Where...? How...?" I stammered.
Brother Iosef smiled.
"What you see before you is but a small fraction of what was once stored at the Library of Alexandria. Stored (and, later, rescued from destruction) by my ancestors."
"Bogatyr:" medieval Russian equivalent of a knight-errant.
With this pronouncement, Brother Iosef guided me towards the rear of this secret chamber. There, he did unlock a chest with a most un-nerving seal. I do say "un-nerving," because the seal was embossed with the images of three bees. Each bee bearing the head of a human female. And, each head did have a most fiendish smile.
From this chest, Brother Iosef removed several parchment scrolls. And, from these I learned the legend of the Melissae.
" 'Born, they were, upon the island of Gorgona. Labia, Ovaria, and Heraclitoris; the Melissae. Also known as 'the Gorgonii' (from their birth-place), they were half-sisters of the Telchines. Those same nine sons of Zeus who were begotten of him, by the demi-goddess Lamia, upon the island of Rhodes. And, when the Telchines became too proficient at the wielding of certain forbidden magicks, they were destroyed by the gods of Olympus. Driving their mother to become a child-killing demoness in her despair!' "
" 'Upon meeting Priapus (a son of Aphrodite), he did use her grief to couple with her. And, she did raise their three daughters to hate all men who worshipped Zeus and the other Olympians. Such is the reason why their own worshippers, the Amazons of Libya, did abduct the Princess Andromeda. She who was betrothed to Zeus' son, Perseus.' "
" 'Huge and mighty was the army which the Greeks of Argos did raise to rescue the princess. For, the Amazons of Libya did intend to sacrifice her to Lamia's mother, Atargatis. Ancient Syrian goddess of the sea! And, only when the Amazons were on the verge of defeat did the Melissae take direct action. Materializing above Cyrenaica in the form of anthropocephalous bees. Each one, the size of the island of Sicily!' "
" 'It was only the direct intervention of Pallas Athena--and the petrifying gaze of a falconry-trained cockatrice--that did snatch Argive victory from the jaws of defeat. In consequence of which, those Amazons who did not die in battle were forced into marriage with the bachelors among their victors. Thus endeth the true story behind the legend of Perseus and the Gorgons.' "
"A most fascinating tale, indeed, good brother," I replied: "But, what happened to the Melissae, themselves?"
"According to the ancient Greek who penned this account (one Timon the Scrivener), Heraclitoris was shrunken to the size of a seed pod; sealed in Hyperborean amber; and hidden far to the west. While Labia was similarly exiled far to the north. So, it was assumed that Ovaria--the fertile queen of the trio--had been similarly exiled to the Far South! But, evidently, this assumption has been proven false."
"What of this Holgar Gudfredsen?" I asked: "Brother Lupo referred to him as a Carolingian paladin. Yet, did not that dynasty become extinct after the death of the Princess Adelaide, nearly a hundred years ago?"
Said Brother Iosef: "Again, according to Timon, the routing of the Libyan Amazons was witnessed by the Melissae from another dimension. A world parallel to ours in semblance. Though, not in the passage of time. For even just one day, there, would equal five score of years, here! And, that fills me with trepidation."
"In what way?" I now inquired.
"Like mortal queen bees, Ovaria can have many offspring from just one mating. And, if she seeks to breed herself an army, she could find no worthier sire than a paladin of Charlemagne's line. Unfortunately, he would never live to see them reach adulthood. For, she would devour him immediately after the consumation!"
I pondered this information for several silent moments. I then asked how and where I might find my way to this parallel world. Assuming, of course, that my quarry currently resided there, along with he whom I was to rescue.
Brother Iosef read, from a third parchment, how the gateway to Ovaria's realm was located on an island. And, that this island was in a lake to the north of Almatu. A city far to the south and east that was better known to some as...the Land of Apples.
Whereupon, I voiced my next concern.
"Brother Lupo did not mention a specific time limit. Yet, I sense I cannot risk tarrying too long in getting to this Almatu. The camel he bequeathed to me, however, I was forced to sell, in the port city of Jaffa, for my boat passage, here!"
Brother Iosef pondered this disclosure. Then, did he smile. Evincing that he had thought of something.
"You must seek out Svyatogor, last of the true Varangiants."
"Varagiants?" I echoed.
He nodded: "Swedish Norsemen whose magical power, to achieve unnatural size, did protect the Byzantine Empire from invasion and usurpation for many years. Svyatogor, alone, has the power, now. And, he dwells north of here, in the city of Jomsborg. Home of those stubbornly pagan mercenaries; the Jomsvikings. If you can secure his help, he will get you to Almatu faster than the seven-league boots of popular myth!"
While I could not disagree with the last pronouncement, it nonetheless raised certain other questions...which I did voice aloud.
"How do I get to this Jomsborg? When I do, how do I persuade this Varangiant to my service? And, even assuming that can be accomplished, how do we get to Ovaria's realm upon reaching that island?"
Brother Iosef bade me wait where I stood, while he went hither and yon, throughout this wondrous repository, gathering various items. Upon completing this task, he brought them over to me.
"First," he intoned: "A map that shows a secret route to Jomsborg. Secondly? A small glass vial, containing ash from a cremated bone of St. Nicholas of Lycia. A most holy man, to whom no door was ever barred! Next? A longbow and quiver of arrows once owned by an English friar named 'Tuck,' who did briefly stay here while returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Something he did witness in the Holy Land (exactly what, he refused to divulge) made him shatter the bow over his right knee. To emphasize his promise to never, again, take up any weapon for any reason! Perhaps, if you are any good at horse archery, you can repair and modify it?"
Upon my nodding in affirmation, at these two veiled inquiries, he smiled and continued.
"Last, though not least; one of the gold coins with which one of the Seven Sleepers did try to buy food, in the Ephesian market place, upon reawakening from their miraculous slumber."
At this disclosure, I felt my eyes bulge with amazement. For, even in my birth-place of Murom, I had heard the tale of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. Persecuted Christians who had hidden themselves in a cave, near that Anatolian town, to protect themselves from the soldiers of the Roman Emperor Decius. They fell asleep in that cave for what they initially perceived to be one night. Upon trying to purchase food the next "morning," however, they discovered that they had slept for two hundred years!
During which time, of course, Rome had adopted Christianity.
In any event, Brother Iosef escorted me from the repository to the monastic smithy. There, he did whisperingly instruct the blacksmith to forge the coin into an arrowhead. While the latter attended to this, I waited in the good brother's office chambers. There, I did watch him write two letters. The first one of which he gave to me, to read, while he commenced the second.
It was addressed to the captain of a Venetian merchant ship, currently in port at Chios, waiting for the monastery's latest batch of mastiha. And, this particular captain was entreated by Brother Iosef to take me as far as the Templar fortress at Vrana, in Dalmatia.
When I handed this missive back to the good brother, he did show me the second letter. It was addressed to the chief chaplain at this fortress, entreating him to serve as my intermediary with the fortress commander.
Upon remarking that these letters showed admirable foresight on his part, I nonetheless inquired of Brother Iosef as to what I should do, in the event the Knights Templar proved just as reluctnant to admit me, at Vrana, as his own gatekeeping subordinates had been, here.
Whereupon, he did return to me Brother Lupo's silk hand kerchief.
"Show them the emblem, upon that, and they will not fail to grant you admittance."
"But, why?" I persisted: "What is the significance of the stag's head with the golden cross?"
Brother Iosef took several silent moments to answer this.
"It marks the bearer as a member of the Society of Saint Hubert. The demon-hunting arm of the Roman Catholic Church!"
Mastiha: a brandy-based liqueur made from the resin of the mastic gum tree. It's a very popular beverage in the eastern Mediterranean.
* * * * *
Of my trip to Jomsborg, I will condense as much as I am able.
During the four days it did take to journey from Chios to Vrana, I did repair and modify the English longbow as Brother Iosef had hoped. Even so, I did keep keep the map, the ash, and (most of all) the golden arrowhead secreted away.
At Vrana, I did rest and resupply for a day and a half. The letter Brother Iosef had written to the chaplain of the fortress did gain me access to the Templar commander, who did prove most hospitable. Among other things, he did give me a change of clothing more suited to the temperate climes ahead (as opposed to the Bedouin's robe I had been wearing since first I left Egypt).
He did also write a letter to the commander of the sister-fortress at Klis, to where I did journey next on a naval vessel of the sea-going Narentines. For the latter did work in conjunction with the Templars of Klis to protect Adriatic shipping from Muslim piracy!
At Klis, the fortress commander did give me several sacks of gold coins with which to bribe the Jomsvikings to my cause. And, should monetary inducement prove insufficient, he did also give me a bottle of Venetian glass containing an amber-colored liquid.
"Irish whiskey," he did explain: "From the Norse-founded port of Limerick. A Burgundian wine merchant did pass by this way, last year, selling many such as these. Claiming that bottled whisky was proving most popular. A strange notion, to say the least!"
I did ultimately disembark at the seaport of Trieste, where a coterie of Templars from the fortress of Ljubljana I did find awaiting me. These did accompany me, via the Brenner Pass, into Austria. And, from there, through the Bohmerwald*, to the foothils of the Krkonose' Range. Also known, locally, as the "Mountains of the Giants."
There, after three long weeks of hard travel, I did take my leave of the legendary Templars. For, I had been expressly told by Brother Iosef (during our final farewell on the docks of Chios):
"You must be sure to arrive alone. For, mercenaries though they be, still are the Jomsvikings distrustful of large companies of strangers."
Thus, did I proceed through the secret pass, alone. Except, of course, for my saddle mount and pack mule. Yet, even as I proceeded, I did feel like I was being watched!
On my second night of traversal, I was rudely awakened by the panic-stricken whinnies and brays of my saddle mount and pack mule. And, these, they did issue in time with another, far louder sound. That of thunderclaps too rhythmic--and increasingly too close--to be natural!
Then, suddenly, everything did go dark.
When next I was able to see again, I did look upward. And, there, I did behold the most beauteous visage I had ever glimpsed. That of a blue-eyed, golden-haired giantess wearing a helmet that did resemble a swan-winged tiara.
"I am Skogul," she did proclaim: "Captain of the Jomsborg Valkyrjur. And, you are trespassing! Give me one good reason why I should not crush you to a bloody pulp, here in the palm of my right hand."
"My name is Ilya Muromets," I did shout upward in reply: "And I do seek an audience with the jarl of Jomsborg. The Varangiant known as Svyatogor!"
The giantess did arch her eyebrows in amazement for a moment...before grinning and proclaiming:
"Then, you do seek an audience with my father."
*Bohmerwald: German for "Bohemian Forest."
* * * * *
With that pronouncement, she did enfold me in her hand, once more. Doubtless, so I could not see, and thus memorize, the direction to Jomsborg from my encampment. This guess was confirmed when she did re-open her hand...
...and I did behold a giant of one hundred English feet tall.* His white-bearded face gazing down upon me!
"I am Svyatogor; jarl of Jomsborg. And, my daughter Skogul (captain of the shield-maidens who do serve as my personal bodyguard), you have already met. So, then, tell me, little man! Why do you seek an audience with me?"
Whereupon, I did re-tell my now-familiar story. And, upon disclosing the name of him I had been entrusted to rescue, I did espy a look of recognition pass between father and daughter.
"The name is known to you, then?" I inquired.
Skogul nodded: "Holgar Gudfredsen is my mother's long-lost grandfather!"
She did then recount how this paladin had been banished from the seat of Carolingian power, for a time. The result of unwittingly killing Charlemagne's son, Prince Charlot, in retaliation for the latter's killing of Holgar's brother! And, how, during this exile, he did take the hand-in-marriage of Ilse (half-Saxon daughter of Ansegranus, king of the Langobards).
"His son, who did grow up to achieve renown as Edric Half-dane, did take as his own wife one Swanhild Ragnarsdottir. Alas! Holgar did not get to behold the birth of his grandchild. For an envoy did come from Charlemagne, one day, stating all had been forgiven. And, Holgar was free to return to court."
"Then, many weeks later, a second envoy did come to Jomsborg, demanding to know why Holgar had not yet returned! When told of Holgar's departure with the first envoy, both the second envoy and Edric Half-dane were most perplexed. Thus, they did adjourn to the hut of our shamaness Vulda (who is whispered to be part fox!)."
"Vulda did scry into a pan of boiled water. And, she did ultimately reveal that, within two days of their departure from us, the coterie escorting Holgar and the first envoy had been attacked. By the vile troll hag, Baba Yaga!"
"The latter did massacre everyone but my great-grandfather. Him, she took prisoner. And, when my grandfather heard this, he was most distressed. For Baba Yaga takes prisoners for one reason, only."
"To fatten them up for her dining pleasure, later."
* * * * *
For a moment, there was awkward silence. Then, something did occur to me.
"Brother Iosef told me that the Melissae only employ female acolytes and disciples. So, if this Baba Yaga is one such servant, it could be that she took Prince Holgar prisoner for Ovaria's carnal pleasuring. Meaning, he might still be alive."
Skogul looked at her father, and vice-versa. The latter then came to a decision.
"We will consult Vulda."
Whereupon, I was placed back upon the ground, with Skogul revealing that she had held my saddle mount and pack mule in the palm of her left hand. She then shrank down to the size of an ordinary mortal, simultaneous with her father! And, together, they brought me to the hut of Jomsborg's resident shamaness.
"Wise One!" Svyatogor called out: "I bring someone who seeks your visionary counsel."
"Enter, Milord Jarl," replied a clear-yet-raspy voice: "You, too, Ilya Muromets. And, bring the Irish whiskey, as well."
Needless to say, I found it momentarily disconcerting hearing her voice my name before I had even given it! Yet, I did as she bade. And, when I stooped to enter through her rather low doorway, I beheld the woman called Vulda.
She knelt before a smouldering fire. Her silvery white hair hanging down the front of her shoulders in twin braids. The rest of it disappearing beneath a headdress made from the head and shoulders of a red fox. And, I swear, the reflected glow of the firelight in its eyes gave me the feeling it was still alive!
Vulda grinned, as if she could read my thoughts, and gestured for me to sit before her. I did as she bade. Following which, I put the bottle of whiskey into her proffered hands. With adroitness that belied her years, she did uncork the bottle, and imbibe from it. Then, upon removing it from her mouth, she did smack her lips together and sigh most contentedly. All before picking up a small wooden bowl, and pouring a bit more of the whiskey into its miniscule depths.
She scried for what felt like an eternity. Whispering certain words and phrases that were most unintelligible. Then, she did finally look up.
"The Greek priest was right. As were you, Man of Murom! Holgar Gudfredsen still lives. Ovaria seeks to make him the sire of her next army of progeny! But, he must offer to do so, of his own free will. So, she seeks to seduce him into doing so, even now. Yet, while he has been able to resist her wiles, thus far (for what he perceives to have been a day and a night), he cannot hold out much longer."
"You must therefore rescue him, as swiftly as possible. Something you will not be able to accomplish alone. You will need the help of _two_ Varangiants! And, one of them...must be female."
There was only one such woman in all of Jomsborg who answered that description: Skogul Svyatogorsdottir.
"Where is the entrance to her realm?" I now asked.
"On the island known as Avar-aral. It lies at the peak of an archipelago that does divide Lake Balkhash in half. This lake lies north of Almaty; a vast city in the Land of Apples, just east of Cathay's westernmost border. Beware, though; many will try to stop you. And, even if you succeed in reaching the island, you will still have Baba Yaga, herself to contend with. Particularly as she does dwell within a house mounted on wooden pillars carved to resemble chicken legs. Legs she can magically animate to act as such, too!"
"How may I repay you for your sage advice, O Wise One?" I asked, with as much humility as I could muster.
"Leave me the Irish whiskey," she replied (without the slightest hesitation): "And, distribute the gold you brought with you amongst the less fortunate of your host's subjects."
I did as she bade, after leaving her hut. Then, Skogul took me to a guest hut, where I would spend the night, while Svyatogor did take leave of his wife in the age-old manner of warriors marching off to a distant campaign the next morning.
Well, I could understand this, as I had caught a glimpse of Kara Halfdansdottir, just before the complete draping of a hanging carpet across the doorway of the jarl's hut. And, if not for her age, she could be Skogul's identical twin!
This beauty was enhanced the next morning, as she came to the main gate of Jomsborg dressed in an indigo-dyed bearskin robe (trimmed with white ermine fur on the collar), and a golden crown that did resemble a twelve-pointed jeweled star.
She did embrace her daughter and husband, most ardently. Then the latter did grow to giant size, as one. With Skogul picking me up, and placing me on her right shoulder, as we headed for the Khazarian Sea.*
*Khazarian Sea: medieval nickname for the Caspian Sea.
* * * * *
We did journey mostly by night. So that none dwelling between Jomsborg and Almaty might be alarmed by the immense size of my allies. Thus, by dawn of our first night out from the western end of the Krkonose Pass, we did encamp on the outskirts of Kiev (whither I had been found when first I was captured by the slave raiders).
And, in wading cross the Khazarian Sea the next night, we did pass close to its northernmost port of Saksin-Bulgar (in the slave market of which I had been bought by the Egyptian cotton merchant).
During each daytime stop, we did sup on jerked beef and drink of orpine leaf-tea.*
By dawn of the third day, we had reached the outskirts of Almaty. We did rest for a few hours, of course. Then, did we journey to the gates of the city, itself. Upon reaching its market place, we did half-pretend to be interested in various fruits and vegetables. Yet, each time we did broach the subject of Avar-aral's precise location, the merchants so questioned became immediately frightened. Telling us, quite angrily, to be off!
Towards early evening, we did sup in the outer courtyard of a local inn. Enlightening each other as to our respective failures to elicit the desired information.
"If I had any doubts as to Vulda's veracity," proclaimed Svyatogor: "...they are dispelled. Clearly, Baba Yaga has engendered much fear among these people, if they prove so reluctant to even mention her island's name."
"Agreed," replied his daughter: "But, we should be wary. For, that kind of fear can cause our presence to be whispered of in the wrong set of ears."
"I think it already has," I remarked.
Whereupon, I did point towards the main gate serving as both entrance and exit to this courtyard. Coming through it, straight toward our table, was a score of the city guard. Each of them carrying scimitars in his right hand!
"You!" said the officer in charge, pointing at us: "Come with us. Now!!"
I did look at the two Varangiants, who nodded as one. And, together, we did spring to our feet. Overturning our table in the direction of our would-be captors!
The latter did react on instinct and leap backward. Granting Svyatogor and Skogul ample opportunity to achieve ten English feet in height. And, with them, their saxes and shields of brass-studded, fire-hardened oak, accordingly!
The startled city guardsmen did lose a quarter of their comrades to a right-to-left stroke from Skogul. While her father did fell just as many with a slashing motion from the opposite direction. I, myself, did parry a blow from one, with my spiked buckler, which did allow me to disembowel him with my falchion, before clashing with his immediate comrade for only slightly longer!
We then left the rest behind as we retreated to the street. Only to see two ranks of spear-wielding horsemen advancing upon us from both flanks. Whereupon, Skogul's father ordered her to resume normal height. While he conversely increased his!
There were naturally both screams and panic-stricken whinnies when the latter did occur. Which is precisely the effect Svyatogor had hoped to engender! And, those dismounted spear men who did not immediately run off, after their far more sensible horses, did wind up crushed to bloody pulps beneath the venerable old Varangiant's boots.
Upon reaching the main outer wall of the city, he did easily step over it. Whereupon, he did stride very swiftly in the direction of Lake Balkhash. Not stopping until not even his gigantic eyes could glimpse Almaty in the distance.
"Mayhap, they only wished to banish us," he did venture to opine: "If so, we have achieved their purpose for them."
So saying, he continued on towards the lake. Not resuming normal size until we had reached its shore, so that he might help us set up camp. When this had been accomplished, we had our usual evening meal before turning in.
When we awoke the next morning, however, it was to behold a most unexpected sight. A bald man of Cathay (conical rice-frond hat and all), sitting alone in a rowboat, with a grin most mischievous!
"Greetings," he did call out to us...in perfect lingua franca.
"Good morn to you, sir," I did reply: "Are you a fisherman of these parts?"
"Nay! I am here to aid you in your cause."
"Our cause?" echoed Skogul, suspiciously.
"You seek to vanquish the she-demon who dwells on Avar-aral? Then, you will doubtless seek to travel there, stealthily! And, in these parts, there are none who can do so more stealthily than I. I being...Lin Kuei."
Orpine: a shrub once referred to as "the live-long plant."
Cathay: obsolete Occidental name for China.
Lingua franca: a sort of pidgin-French, used as a commercial trading dialect throughout the medieval Mediterranean world.
* * * * *
In response to this, I did introduce the three of us. I then told him that, even if we were to accept him as telling the truth about his offer, there was only room for two passengers in his rowboat. At which comment, Skogul's frown did become a most mischievous smile.
"A flaw easily remedied," she said.
Whereupon, she grew once more into a hundred foot-tall giantess. Simultaneously grabbing me up, with her left hand, and stuffing me into the exact center of her bosom! This was followed by such a wave of dizziness that I confess I did black out. And, upon reawakening?
I did see Lin Kuei in the bow of the rowboat, acting as pilot. While Svyatogor sat in the middle, doing the actual rowing. And, Skogul sat in the stern, using her right hand to manipulate the wooden rudder.
Her left hand was preoccupied holding my shrunken self.
"God's Blood, woman!" I shouted up at her: "What have you done to me?"
She giggled: "Fear not, little warrior. I shall re-enlarge you once we reach our destination. Though, I must admit; you are so cute in your present state, I am half-tempted to make you thus, again, after our mission is accomplished!"
To plainly change the awkward subject (and thereby thwart any escalation of arguement), Svyatogor did ask our new acquaintance why the island was called Avar-aral.
"The only Avars I know live in the Caucasus Mountains," he did add.
Lin Kuei nodded at this.
"Indeed. And, this island was once home to the Wu Sun Clan. A piratical off-shoot of those same people. The she-demon you call Ovaria did use that clan as the nucleus of a new army, with which she intended to reconquer the lands west of the Khazarian Sea. Yet, the advance of this army (now known to you Occidentals as 'the Hephthalites') was halted at the Tanais River Delta by a confederation of Maeotian tribes.* A confederation led by the Aspurgiants, and reinforced by the Bastarnae (elite mercenary warriors of mixed Galatian and Vandalic descent)."
"You are surprisingly well-versed in Occidental history," observed Skogul, her suspicious frown returning.
"I have traveled the Silk Road more times than you have golden hairs on your head, my dear," he did smilingly retort: "And, I have conversed with many learned men. Among them, Fray Lupo the Hubertarian."
That so startled even Svyatogor that he nearly dropped both oars overboard!
"When did you meet him?" I demanded, scarcely able to believe my shrunken ears.
"In Byzantium, where I did help him escape from dagger-wielding Assassins trying to steal from him that which should never have left the Land of the Indus."
"And, what might that be, pray tell?" asked Skogul's father as he resumed rowing.
Lin Kuei half-smiled: "That... is another story."
By noon, we had reached the western-most fringes of the archipelago Vulda the shamaness had foretold me of. At which point, Lin Kuei astonished us once more. From within a rucksack he removed from his shoulders and back, he did remove a semi-circular globe made of glass. Within, that globe was half-filled with water. And, floating atop that globe was a piece of wood with a lodestone bound to it.
"Observe!" he commanded: "The lodestone points the way to true north. Thus, your destination lies slightly more eastward. We shall rest here, for tonight. Upon the morrow? You may re-enlarge and use these islands as literal stepping-stones to your final objective."
Whereupon, Skogul half-smiled at me: "It would appear I get to keep you like this, for one more night."
As I wished to save my strength for the coming battle, I did reluctantly keep myself from protesting.
*Tanais River: obsolete name for Russia's Don River.
Aspurgiants: another linguistic pun, referencing the (possibly Indo-Iranian) Aspurgiani tribe.
Bastarnae: genuine name for Danube River plains dwellers of Celto-Germanic stock.
"That...is another story:" See DIARY OF A NAZI ARCHEOLOGIST.
In which battle is (finally!) joined.
* * * * *
We did retire for the night following our evening meal. The latter consisted mostly of some of Lin Kuei's own store of tea and fishcakes, which he not only graciously shared with us. But, also, did he graciously cook it for us!
And, as I lay upon Skogul's mountainous chest, trying to let sleep overtake me, she did pick me up with her left hand and bring me before her azure-eyed countenance.
"Ilya; do you think Lin Kuei was being totally truthful with what he told us?"
I stood up in her palm and shrugged.
"I must concede that I have heard of the Bastarnae. Quite frequently opponents of the ancient Romans, they were."
"And, I have likewise heard of the Aspurgiants," replied Skogul: "Father often told me, when I was a little girl, how our Svear ancestors inter-married with that tribe, during the earliest days of Kiev's founding. Thereby endowing their children with the power that gave rise to the first Varangiants!"
"Then, what arouses so much suspicion, of the Cathayan, within you?" I asked.
"There was his sudden appearance on the lakeshore, this morning, for one thing," she replied: "Plus, his mutual acquaintance with the very man who first set you upon this journey. Two 'coincidences' too good to be true, I think!"
It was at this point that I was forced to cover my mouth, as it did succumb to a yawn I could no longer stifle.
"I think we should talk more of this, tomorrow night. So that we might get proper rest for tomorrow morning."
Skogul half-smiled and nodded. Yet, she did not immediately return me to whence I had been trying to sleep. Instead, it did look as if she were considering something more. Then, she half-smiled again, and nodded to herself. All before suddenly engulfing my entire form with a swift kiss!
"Sweet dreams, Little Warrior."
* * * * *
The next morn found us preparing for battle.
In addition to sharpening their seaxes, Skogul and Svyatogor did examine their round, brass-studded shields of fire-hardened-and-polished oak wood. While I not only sharpened both my falchion and my spiked buckler. I also did test the string upon my new horse bow. Reassured, after three resounding "twangs," that it was of sufficient stretchability.
I also did remove the iron arrowhead, from one of my shafts, in order to affix the golden one that had been fashioned from the blessed Ephesian coin. When all this had been accomplished, the three of us did have a light breakfast. Although, as I was still shrunken, my breakfast was lighter than even Skogul's. And, I did state as much aloud!
She and Svyatogor did laugh at my little quip. Whereupon, the former did perch me on her left shoulder and shoot once more upward to a hundred English feet tall. In perfect concert with her father, at that!
In this fashion, did we begin our advance upon the island of Avar-aral. The terminus of the second leg of our journey.
As Vulda the shamaness had foreseen, the island was located at the apex of the lake's archipelago. And, my companions did reach it by using all the islands before it as literal stepping stones. Much as Lin Kuei had advised.
The foreseen cabin occupied the exact center of the island. And, also as foreseen, it did stand on two great wooden pillars carved in the semblance of rooster legs. So, that the front door of this residence was at veritable eye-level to the two Varangiants!
It was at this point that Skogul's father stepped forward one pace.
"Baba Yaga? Baba Yaga, come forth!"
The door burst open.
"Who dares call my name in such imperious fashion?"
The face that did look upon us was most horrible to behold. Full round, it was. Like a puffball just prior to the bursting of its seams. So, too, her right eye. While her left was as white and featureless as a hen's egg. And, her hair! Like charcoal-blackened straws on a broom that had seen better days. While what teeth she had left had all been filed to dagger-points.
Truly, Vulda had been kind when she had called this troll hag "loathsome!"
"I, Svyatogor Tyrsson, demand that you let this man pass. For, he has urgent business with your mistress."
Whereupon, Skogul put me back upon the ground. As she did so, I did shudder at the gaze that Baba Yaga did cast upon me. And, even more discomforting was her grin upon seeing me.
"By all means, then. Let him pass beneath...if he can."
No sooner had I accepted this dare than her cabin's clawed right leg did raise itself and try to descend upon me! Only to encounter the timely shield of the comely Skogul!!
Whreupon, her father did swing his seax towards the roof of Baba Yaga's cabin. Seeking to cleave the residence in two.
But, the right leg did sidestep the blow. While the clawed left leg sought to rake itself cross both of Svyatogor's knees. He jumped backward, however. Following through upon this with an attempt to return the favor. A backward swing of his seax at the knee of that left leg.
And, thus, was battle finally joined.
* * * * *
For the first five minutes, I did watch the battle most anxiously. For, with each lunge, Svyatogor sought to sever one of the wooden chicken legs beneath the troll hag's house. Each attempt only succeeding in focusing her attention on him. Yet, this is precisely what he sought. For, that left his daughter Skogul free to try and cleave the entire domicile in twain!
Alas! Baba Yaga did magically perceive each and every one of the latter attempts. Thereby, thwarting the Jomsviking giantess, as well.
As a result, I did begin to fear that this three-way deadlock would never be broken. Which is why I finally decided to act, myself.
Slowly I circled round behind the bewitched house. Hoping to sneak beneath its elevated rear wall, while Baba Yaga's attention was monopolized by the two Varangiants. And, fervently praying that she was so distracted, thus, that she did not have power enough to magically perceive my stealthy approach.
Alas! The opposite proved to be true. A fact evinced by the right chicken leg suddenly casting its shadow directly over me!!
"Ilya!!!" screamed Skogul, as she did behold my peril.
Whereupon, she did throw herself belly-first upon the ground. While simultaneously raising her shield so as to place it between myself and the sole of that bewitched wooden leg. Thus leading to a new impasse.
For, each time that the Varangiant shield maiden did try to regain her feet, Baba Yaga did make some arcane gesture with her right hand. Causing the foot of that wooden right leg to once more descend, with renewed (and doubtlessy increasing) pressure upon Skogul's shield. This, in turn, would force the warrior giantess once more on to her stomach. Making the troll hag cackle with glee.
This did prove Baba Yaga's undoing, however. For, so engrossed did she become in her fiendish delight of torturing Skogul, that she forgot about the Varangiant shield maiden's father!
"Thor and Odiiiiiiiiiiiiin!" he did shout, at the top of his lungs, as he swung his gigantic seax--once last time--at the now-vulnerable left wooden leg.
"Ahhhhhhh!" screamed Baba Yaga, as her bewitched domicile began to wobble back and forth like a ship on a storm-tossed sea.
Skogul, seeing this loss of balance, was quick to seize the opportunity. Once more, she pushed upward with her shield. And, this time, the house fell backwards! With Baba Yaga screaming even louder, now. That is; till the house did crash to Earth, altogether. Whereupon, Svyatogor did seek to end the battle, by springing forward and aiming his seax for a vetically downward killing stroke.
Alas! We had all of us forgotten the right wooden leg.
The talons of that bewitched chicken foot did lash out at the left side of the elder Varangiant's left boot...and connect.
"Arrrrrrrrrrrrgh!" he screamed, falling to one knee.
Whereupon, Skogul did spring back on to her own feet. Her own, equally gigantic seax delivering the final stroke. But, whether or not Baba Yaga screamed one final time, I will never know. For, as soon as the wooden house had been cleaved in twain, it did explode with a fiery thunderclap!
We did wait a few moments, to see if the troll hag would reveal herself to be fireproof. Yet, when we had ascertained that she was not, Skogul turned to her attention to Svyatogor.
"Are you all right, Father?"
"Yes-yes-yes!" he muttered in reply: "Hardly even a flesh wound. Which is why I think _that_ merits more of our attention."
He did point behind me, prompting Skogul and I to turn as one. There, back-lit against the central portion of the semi-circular wall of flames, was the portal to Ovaria's realm. Although, in truth, it did bear a greater resemblance to the _mirage_ of a simple wooden door: shimmering and transparent.
It was then that I withdrew the second of Brother Iosef's gifts: the ash of St. Nicholas. Pouring some of it into the palm of my left hand, I walked up to that portal and, upon reaching point-blank range, threw it.
Once again, there was a thunderous explosion. Yet, miraculously, I was not thrown backward! Merely blinded, for a brief moment, by a flash of white light. When that light had dimmed, I did look--and gasp--in wonder.
There, before me and my two companions (who had now resumed normal size), was a veritable hole in space.
* * * * *
Upon getting over my initial amazement, I did cautiously insert my falchion through that hole, blade-first. Then, I withdrew it. After carefully examining it, and seeing not even a blemish on its polished surface, I did proceed through the hole, bodily. First, my head; followed by my upper torso and left leg; and, finally, my right leg.
Svyatogor did come after me, with Skogul bringing up the rear. And, when we all stood shoulder-to-shoulder, once more, we did gaze with wonder at our surroundings.
How best to describe it?
Well, for one thing, we did behold in front of us a hill surrounded by an orchard. With each tree of this orchard bearing golden fruit on its branches. But, not solid gold! Rather; more of a burnt orange, with a blackish-colored slit on the bottom of each fruit.
"Dragon's eye apples," exclaimed Svyatogor: "I heard tell of these, once. From Bedouin silk merchants, in the Byzantine market place, when I was Skogul's age."
"Well," replied his daughter: "If these trees are guarded by a real dragon, as in the legend of Fafnir's Treasure, then we had best resume our giant sizes.
Her father agreed. Whereupon, they simultaneously became a hundred English feet tall, once more. Skogul then picked me up, in her left hand, and placed me on her left shoulder. Apologetically half-smiling for any presumption on her part.
So, I replied (whispering in a tone of voice that I hoped only her giant-sized left ear could hear) that I did not mind. Even so, Svyatogor did meaningfully clear his throat, at this point. He then gestured, with his seax, at the hill beyond the orchard.
Atop that hill was a castle that I had never seen the like of, before. Imagine a beehive the size of a mountain! And, made of gleaming polished brass, to boot!!
This is what my stalwart companions began proceeding toward. Our intended destination, the seemingly unprotected north gate of this edifice. Although, we were well aware that--on a battlefield--nothing is ever as it seems.
Carefully, the Varangiants traversed the orchard, so as not to crush any of the trees. Svyatogor delicately placing one foot in front of the other, as he went up one row. Skogul doing the same, to his right. Upon reaching the foot of the hill, they separated only as long as it took to circle round it.
That is when it happened.
Suddenly, a voice did ring out from within the hive-shaped castle, reverberating with the same quality as echoes within a cathedral. And, its utterance was most concise.
"Arise, Korybantes! Arise, and defend your mistress!"
Whereupon, a swarm of bee-like robber flies did issue forth from the castle! Each one the size of a prize bullock. And, each one ridden by a warrior, armored in black.
The last thing I saw, before Skogul and I were surrounded by a living tornado of giant insects, was her father being likewise enveloped. And, when I say "enveloped," I do mean that they did cover his entire body, from head to foot!
I soon discovered the reason for this, as Skogul was soon so covered, herself. Oh, she did resist as best and as long she could! Depositing me upon the ground between her boots, while she cleaved left and right, with her mighty shield and seax. Trying to, at least, stir the air enough to dislodge our assailants from their perches. If not outright cleave them in twain, en masse.
Ultimately, however, there were so many that did land upon her face that she could not breathe. And, so, she did collapse.
The moment that Skogul and her father did fall to the ground, they began to shrink back to normal size. Whereupon, two of the robber fly-riders did land. Each slinging one of the Varangiants across the saddle of his unnatural mount. When this had been accomplished, they and the rest of the swarm did return to the Brazen Hive.
As for myself? Knowing that I was vastly outnumbered, I had run back into the fringes of the orchard to hide. Trying to convince myself that to stand over their bodies, in stalwart defense, would only have meant my own capture.
"You did the right thing," said a voice behind me.
Like the wind, my falchion flew from its scabbard! My right hand swinging it, from left to right, at throat level. Only for the blade to be caught between the bare hands of Lin Kuei!
"God's Blood!" I exclaimed: "How...?"
He smiled as he explained how, on Skogul's assuming giant size, back our camp, he had slipped on to the laces of her left boot. Only to slip off when she and her father had shrunken back down, to follow me through Baba Yaga's portal. He had then followed them through, just before the portal closed!
"And, when Skogul once more resumed being a giantess," he concluded: "...prior to traversing this orchard, I stowed away aboard her right boot."
"I like not such skulking around," I replied, bitterly: "Especially, on my part."
Whereupon, he did repeat that I had done the right thing.
"It would have been futile and fool-hardy to follow your first impulse. For it would have made you just as much a prisoner of the Korybantes as those two!"
"Who are they, anyway?" I demanded: "These Korybantes, I mean."
"The warrior-eunuchs who do serve and protect the Melissae. The first of that name were also called 'the Curetes,' after the Anatolian tribe from which they were originally drawn. But, this current crop is of mixed stock. Descended primarily from the Wu Sun Clan...as am I."
For a moment, I was stunned speechless. Then, did my open-mouthed astonishment become frowning suspicion.
"You had best explain yourself," I snarled.
And, he complied (with the type of half-smile that a parent might wear, when humoring a sullen child).
"When the Cathayan state of Wu did fall to its arch-enemy, the state of Yue, during the close of the Spring and Autumn Period, the subjects of Wu Fukai did flee in three different directions.* Some fled to the mountain range now known as the Wu Tang Shan. Others fled to the far eastward islands now called Nihon (joining, there, other descendants of Wu Taibo). And, still others fled to Kazakhstan, where they did become one with the Uar (ancestors of the Avars), and terrorize the Ili River Delta as pirates."
"Then, came Ovaria. Using her supernatural wiles, she did convince the clan leader, Wu Sun Ling, that she was Hsi Wang Mu, herself! Come to bestow upon him eternal rulership of the world, in her name, by letting him eat one of the fabled Peaches of Immortality. Yet, that 'peach' was truly one of these dragon's eye apples. Each one cursed with her magic, so that whoever did bite of one would become her obedient slave for the rest of his or her life!"
"When her ambition to reconquer the West was thwarted, however, by the Hephthalite defeat at Lake Maeotis, a mighty Taoist wizard named Chang Sen Feng did appear. Seizing the opportunity to do battle with her, personally. And, wielding--as his chief weapon--the fabled Golden Dagger-Axe of Hsia Jie!"
"By this means, did he ultimately (though, not without some difficulty) defeat Ovaria. Upon doing so, he did banish her, and the remainder of her retinue, to this parallel-realm. All, that is, save one. Ovaria's personal hand-maiden; Baba Yaga. And, in the many years since then, the troll hag slowly gained enough magic power that she could enter and exit this realm, at will. Bringing along with her...fertile male sacrifices for her mistress. Sacrifices that have allowed Ovaria to regain enough of her own power that she can now procreate!"
"And, I--as Chang Sen Feng's apprentice, and the last living direct descendant of Wu Taibo--have been tasked with preventing that. At any cost!"
* "...close of the Spring and Autumn Period..." Circa the 5th century B.C.
Wu Fukai: the last king of the state of Wu.
Wu Taibo: legendary eponymous founder of Wu.
Hsi Wang Mu: pre-Taoist Chinese creator goddess, also known as "Queen Mother of the West."
Chang Sen Feng: a supposedly immortal Taoist priest, credited with developing the forerunner of Tai chi chuan.
Lake Maeotis: early medieval nickname for the Sea of Azov (northeastern arm of the Black Sea).
P.S.---I'm using the Wade/Giles anglicizations as historical flavoring. The modern Pinyin stuff is too recent for my peace of mind. Plus, it strains my eyes to the point of head-achiness. ;-)
* * * * *
"I already have the means to destroy her," I did finally deign to reply: "A blest arrowhead! But, I had counted upon firing it into Ovaria from atop the shoulders of either Skogul or Svyatogor. And, obviously, both are now her captives!"
Lin Kuei did nod in understanding: "Plus, there is a veritable labyrinth beneath the Brazen Hive's entrance hall. So, were we to try and traverse it on foot, we would become lost in its myriad twists and turns, all too easily."
Once more, I did frown with suspicion.
"How come you to know that?" I demanded.
And, he did grin with mischievous delight: "Suffice it to say that this is not my _first_ visit to this parallel-realm."
Then, he grew serious anew, as he added how we would need proper guidance to find Ovaria's personal bedchamber within the aforementioned labyrinth. Plus, a suitable means of transport with which to follow said guide. When I asked him (with wry bemusement) if he knew where we could possibly find either one, at that exact moment, his grin did broaden.
Whereupon, he did withdraw from the right pocket of his grayish-colored jacket what I first took to be a hooded kestrel. That is; till I saw it enlarge into a brown-and-white breasted honey buzzard!
When I had recovered my wits enough, to reunite lower jaw with upper, Lin Kuei did place the small bird-of-prey upon my left sleeve. The better so he could unfurl the strange fabric occupying most of his walking staff's center. A fabric of mixed hues (copper, cream, and black).
"Behold!" he exclaimed: "A Persian horsehair rug like no other. For, it was woven together from the mane and tail hairs...of a flying horse!!"
Naturally, my first thought was to doubt such a claim. Even though the dominantly black center of the rug was, indeed, offset by the cream-colored silhouette of a winged horse.
Lin Kuei, however, paid no heed to my doubt-laden visage. He merely sat down, to the right of the image. His legs seeming to fold up into the semblance of an Arabic numeral eight. And, with his staff laid across his lap.
He then bade me to do likewise. Although, to the left of the image. When I had done so, he bade me to un-hood the honey buzzard. Following which, I was to utter the Latin word for "seek." And, upon carrying out those instructions, the small bird-of-prey flew off...in the direction of the Brazen Hive.
Whereupon, Lin Kuei did utter the Latin word for "follow." And, the rug did, indeed, start to fly in pursuit of the honey buzzard!
This gave me to sense that the final confrontation was soon to begin. It would not be easy, however. Oh, yes; we gained the entrance hall, easily enough. Both the honey buzzard and ourselves taking the minimal number of sentries by surprise. But, no sooner had we borne to the right (the carpet still following the bird-of-prey) than horns of alarm did start to blow!
Both long and loudly.
* * * * *
We were not deterred, however. Instead, we flew ever further downwards into this bizarre stronghold's labyrinth. Not so swiftly that I failed to note the resemblance of the flanking walls to the honeycomb of a more worldly beehive. Yet, not so slowly that I could memorize landmarks for our escape route, either. To worsen matters, I soon heard the tell-tale buzzing of the same giant robber-flies that had been the downfall of my Varangiant comrades, much earlier!
"How much longer can this bird fly before we are overtaken?" I cried out in inquiry.
"He begins to descend, even now," replied Lin Kuei.
Indeed, the honey buzzard did proceed to land. Doing so in front of a brace of massive wooden doors with knobs and hinges of the same highly polished brass as this stronghold's outer walls. Whereupon, Lin Kuei (with a strange battlecry that did sound like "key-aye") did leap forward, right foot first. Kicking the doors inwardly open!
Hurriedly, I did nock the arrow with the blest head to my bow. Then, at a nod from Lin Kuei, we did charge across the threshold of the doorway, shoulder-to-shoulder. And, upon entering the vast bedchamber beyond, we were confronted by three sights.
The first thing that greeted our eyes was a semi-circle of black-armored men, with spears and shields worthy of ancient Rome. The second thing was a topless woman with long, raven-black hair sitting on a polished brass throne...ten English feet tall. And, last but not least? We saw, being dangled over her un-naturally wide-open mouth, a man.
A naked, middle-aged man no bigger than a vole!
It was at this point that one of the spearmen--the one with the tallest plumes on his crested helmet--did speak.
"I am Laphrianides. Captain-General of the Korybantes. And, in the name of Her Majesty, Queen Ovaria--also known as Hsi Wang Mu, Cybele of Phrygia, Ishtar of Babylon, and Artemis of Ephesia--I demand you to surrender and lay down your arms. Surrender! Or, the Norse barbarian dies...in exact preview of your own deaths!"
I did gape like a fish out of water. That poor soul was Svyatogor???
I did look at Lin Kuei, who returned my gaze and nodded. Slowly, we placed our weapons upon the floor. No sooner had we done so, though, than Lin Kuei did swiftly snatch up the blest arrow. While simultaneously crying out like a hawk! Whereupon, the honey buzzard did fly into the room. While, at the same time, Lin Kuei did hold the arrow over his head. And, when the bird of prey had seized it in both his feet?
Lin Kuei did shrink down to the size of a bug, so that he was clinging to the arrow, for dear life, as the honey buzzard flew off it!
"Guards!" screamed the Captain-General: "After him! At once!"
The next moment, there were only six Korybantes between me and the demi-giantess. It was at this point that the latter did rise to her feet. Her now-closed jaws transforming into a most seductive smile. And, her tall, supple form only partly concealed by the cape of gold-leaf mesh that did fall from her shoulders to her ankles.
"So, you are Ilya Muromets," remarked Ovaria: "The Norsewoman did not do you justice. Who knows? Perhaps, you might even prove a worthier sire, for my progeny, than Holgar!"
* * * * *
I ignored her thinly-veiled suggestion.
"Where is the Lady Skogul, and what have you done with her?" I demanded.
Ovaria did half-smile: "I have shrunken and devoured other men for being only half so impudent! But, my spies in Alamtu say you were quite impressive, the way you fought to escape from the Kazakh city guard. So, come with me and I will show you."
Thus, did we leave Ovaria's bedchamber. With the demoness leading the way; and myself, flanked on either side by three Korybantes a piece.
Countless minutes later, we reached what I can only describe as a "bath house." Only, the naked maidens I beheld were not bathing themselves in tubs, or even pools, of soapy water. Rather, they were immersed in a substance that I had heard brewers of mead call..."royal jelly."
It was then Ovaria directed my attention toward the far back wall of this vast chamber. And, there, bound-and-gagged to that wall with shackles of beeswax, was the beauteous Skogul. Ten English feet tall; and also stark naked.
"What in God's name...?" I began to exclaim. Only to have Laphrianides swat the back of my head.
"No infidel oaths in Her Majesty's presence!" he shouted: "Queen Ovaria is the only true deity, here."
I did half-smile, most unpleasantly.
"Give me my falchion and buckler, and we shall see which deity does better protect whom."
This did cause the demoness to laugh.
"An excellent idea! A duel-to-the-death between the captain-general of my bodyguard; and the champion of Murom."
I did glare angrily at her.
"What makes you think I would agree to such madness, you...you self-aggrandizing succubus?"
Never before had I received such a look-of-daggers from a woman.
"Agree to the duel...or I shall devour both the Norse wench and her father before your very eyes!"
"Nmmmmph! Nmmmmph! Nmmmmph!" muttered Skogul, trying- but-failing to shake her head in her attempt to dissuade me.
"If I agree...and win," I replied: "...you must let the Varangiants (and Holgar Gudfredsen) go. Alive and unharmed!"
Ovaria did smile in triumph.
"On one condition! Should you win? YOU shall father my new army! After which, you will be castrated...so you can serve me as Laphrianides' replacement!!"
"If I agree to that condition," I countered: "...I must have a sign of good faith. Release Skogul into my custody, so that we may share whatever quarters you assign me in the interim preceding the duel."
The triumphant smile became a most feral grin.
"But, I shall hold on to her father, as a sign of _your_ good faith!"
Grimly, I nodded. In response to which, Skogul did try to lower her head in shame and frustration. Only, her waxen gag would not permit this. So, there was no way to hide the tears in her eyes from mine.
An hour later, I was in a bedchamber fit for a nobleman...and dressed in a blue toga.
Suddenly, a gong sounded, and the doors to the bedchamber did open. Through those doors came Skogul; still ten feet tall. But, now dressed in a white toga, with only her left shoulder bedraped. And, with her long blond hair braided in the Frankish style.
"Skogul!" I began, as I approached her: "Are you al...?"
The right-handed slap she did give to my face did almost send me to the floor!
"Are you crazed?!" she did yell at me: "How could you accept that harlot's terms? And, why did you do so?"
"I was trying to buy time," I replied.
I did then explain how Lin Kuei had managed to escape. Taking with him the blest-headed arrow.
"I am thereby hoping that the preparations for the duel will divert all manpower from the search for him. So, that he can return the arrow, to me, at the crucial moment. Along with the bow to fire it!"
I did then change the subject by asking her why she and Svyatogor had not resumed giant-size, upon regaining consciousness, and escape from Ovaria under their own power. Unfortunately, this did only serve to make her break down in tears anew!
"The wound inflicted on him, by Baba Yaga, was worse than he let on. It did allow Ovaria to cancel out his size-altering magic with her own. By pouring juice, from one of her accursed fruits, into the wound! She then did likewise to me...by pouring that same juice down my throat while I was still unconscious. So that, presently, I can grow no taller than this!"
Needless to say; this, I had not counted on.
* * * * *
We then took to bed, where we. . .distracted each other from our mutual unease, in the age-old fashion long-practiced by other men and women, in similar situations.
To elaborate further, however, would be unchivalrous. Suffice it to say that we were unaware that we had fallen asleep, in each other's arms, until we were rudely awakened by the clanging of brass cymbals! Whereupon, Skogul was compelled to leave the bed, reclothe herself, and follow the Korybantes from the room.
Only then did I likewise leave bed, and begin to prepare for the duel.
What did seem like an hour later, I entered a sand-floored arena. Flanking me, to left and right, were semi-circular galleries filled to over-flowing with Ovaria's female acolytes and their male servants. While against the far back wall, directly opposite the gates that did now close behind me, was a royal-style viewing box. Occupying it were Skogul (seated to Ovaria's left); a clean-shaven, fair-haired man of noble bearing (presumably Holgar Gudfredsen, who was seated to Ovaria's right); and, in the center, the fertile Melissae-queen, herself.
From a tunnel, beneath the viewing box, did emerge my opponent. Like myself, he was clad in a sleeveless chain-mail shirt; the leather equivalent of a Gaelic kilt; protective knee-high boots; and a bowl-shaped helmet with screen-like visor. But, where I was once again armed with my trustworthy falchion and spiked buckler, he was armed with a trident in his left hand. While dangling from his right was a net that he did swing in a slow circle. Much like an English knight might twirl a morningstar!*
When Laphrianides was fully within the arena, a wrought-iron portcullis descended behind him. Closing off any retreat into the square mouth of the tunnel. And, it was at this point that Ovaria did proclaim:
"All present know the terms of this duel from the grist-mill of rumour. So, we shall brook no more delay. Let the game begin!"
Then, did we advance toward each other, until we had reached a point of equidistance between us. Whereupon, we did slowly commence to encircle one another. With Laphrianides still twirling the net, while leveling his trident level with my chest.
Then, with a most loud battlecry, he did charge at me. And, I countered. Upon getting within range of me, he did lash out with the net. As if seeking to entangle my left ankle within its mesh!
This, however, was merely a feint intended to make me dodge to my right. So, that the calf of my left leg would be momentarily exposed to the tines of his trident. I did see through this, however, and deflect those tines with my falchion. Following which, I aimed the spike upon my buckler towards his visor!
Laphrianides leapt backward, however. Covering his retreat with a right-to-left lash of his net towards the left side of my face. I did instinctively duck beneath this.
And, in the process, I did expose the left side of my throat to the trident! Yet, as before, I did deflect the tines away. Though, this time, with a left-to-right motion of my buckler.
All of this, to the sounds of blood-thirsty exultation from the galleries and the viewing box. While my opponent and I did momentarily retreat back to the point of equidistance, so that we might regather ourselves.
*Morningstar: traditional name for the mace-and-chain combo seen in so many vintage medieval-era swashbuckler films. As opposed to the teenage Southern Californian designation of "that nunchaku thingie with the spiked ball on the end of it."
* * * * *
It was now I who made the first move. Echoing my opponent's earlier battlecry, I did lunge forward. My spiked buckler held before me, at eye level, while my falchion I held above and behind me. As if to cleave Laphrianides' skull in twain, helmet and all!
He, too, lunged forward. And, when he was within range, he did lash his net towards my right ankle, seeking to entangle it within the mesh. Yet, this is what I wanted him to do! For, I did evade it to my right. Thereby allowing me to strike downward with my falchion. Pinning one end of the net to the ground, while simultaneously ripping the other end free of Laphrianides' right-hand grip!
I then sprang back on to my feet. Using the momentum of that spring to spin from left to right and aim my buckler at his eyes, yet again. But, now, it was the Captain-General who did evade to his right. Spinning full circle so that the handle of his trident was introduced to the back of my helmet. And, as a result, I fell to the sandy floor of the arena, face-first. My ears ringing like a churchbell!
By the time I had rolled over, on to my back, I did see Laphrianides standing astride me. The visor of his helmet now raised, so that I did see him smiling, most fiendishly, down upon me. While his trident he did have raised overhead in a two-handed grip. His intent clearly being to implant its tines in my heart!
It was at this moment that he made his fateful mistake.
For, as with every other warrior I had ever faced, who was ten years my junior and who had fought too long a string of lesser-skilled opponents, he had come to love savoring the look of terror in his enemies' eyes, during their last moments of life. Thereby making him o'er-confident!
Consequently, when he did finally lunge downward with the trident, I did roll to my right. So, that the tines did miss me, entirely! And, his astonishment at this did stun him long enough for me to reverse-roll to my left.
Thereby allowing me to implant the spike of my buckler in the exposed calf of his left leg!!
His scream continued as I sprang, yet again, to my feet. Using the momentum of the subsequent spin to lodge my falchion, horizontally, within his mid-ection. Only then did his screaming cease.
Nor did it resume as I disemboweled him with the violent removal of the falchion from left to right. A retraction which did literally bring him to his knees. I then raised the falchion above my right shoulder. Following which, I did bring it back down, in a curving arc, from right to left. Thereby slitting Laphrianides' throat!
And, so, it was he who now fell, face-first, into the dirt.
In the stunned silence that ensued, the only sounds one could hear were the last gurgling breaths of the Captain-General. So, it was I who ultimately broke that silence.
"I have won! My opponent is dead. Thus, in keeping with the bargain we made earlier, I respectfully ask that you release my three fellow prisoners."
Whereupon, Ovaria did grin, most fiendishly.
"Oh, I shall grant them release, alright. Starting with this one."
Following which, she did lift the shrunken Svyatogor to her open mouth...and swallow him whole!
"NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Skogul and I did scream together.
But, with as much anger and anguish as that base and horrifying betrayal did fill me, it had much greater effect on the Valkyrie of Jomsborg. For it did enable her to throw off the effects of Ovaria's magic fruit juice. Allowing her to once more assume a height of fifty English feet!
"NOW, WE END THIS, YOU VILE WITCH!!!"
* * * * *
"BARBARIAN SHE-DOG!" Ovaria did heatedly exclaim: "How dare you address a goddess in such a way?"
No sooner had she said this than she was equal in height to the Valkyrie of Jomsborg!
Whereupon, they did spring at each other. Each clutching the other's throat in a two-handed grip. And, each trying to sweep the other from off her feet, so as to complete the strangulation while sitting on her mid-riff!
Yet, all they served to accomplish, by the latter, was plow furrows into the sand-covered arena floor. Or, failing that, they did unknowingly crash into the wooden grand stands around them. Crushing the latter into kindling; and flattening those acolytes too slow to flee with the others!
It was then I heard the shout.
I did instantly look up and espy a familiar brownish-colored bird descending toward me.
"Lin Kuei?!" I exclaimed.
It was, indeed, that self-same Chinese pilgrim. No sooner had the honey buzzard landed at my feet, than he did leap from its neck and re-enlarge himself!
"No time," he replied, immediately thrusting the bow and arrow into my hands (after divesting me of the falchion and buckler).
"No time for what?" I demanded.
His response was the shrinkage of us both.
Again, he replied that there was no time for elaborate explanations. Instead, he did bodily haul me upon the back of the honey buzzard's neck. Whereupon, the bird did bear us aloft!
"Are you crazed?" I shouted at him: "We cannot abandon Skogul to fight this fight, alone!"
"And, we are not," he hastened to assure me: "But, neither can our feathered friend, here, hover like a fly o'er a dung heap! He must circle around until such time as we have an opportunity to prove your skill as a horse archer."
That opportunity did arrive sooner than we could have anticipated. One moment, both giantesses were evenly matched. The next moment, Ovaria did collapse to her knees! Her mouth gasping and retching, and both her hands now folded cross her stomach, as if she were a first-time sailor upon the high seas during a storm.
At first, I took this to mean Skogul's grip had proven the stronger. But, I soon learned differently. For, an instant later, Lin Kuei did shout:
This was to the honey buzzard, rather than to me. For, the bird of prey did swiftly descend and land amidst the flowing strands of Skogul's beauteous golden hair. Whereupon, Lin Kuei hauled the both of us off its neck. And, when he had once more made us the height of normal men, he told me to make ready.
"For what?" I demanded, again.
He did point below me, with the forefinger of his left hand. I did look in the indicated direction. And, I soon espied what had given Skogul her temporary advantage.
"God's Blood!" I muttered.
For, Ovaria's stomach had suddenly begun to expand, like an over-filled goatskin of wine! And, upon reaching the limits of that expansion?
It did similarly explode!!
This explosion, in turn, did cause Skogul to involuntarily leap backward. Thereby, broadening my field of vision. By this means, I did espy...that Svyatogor had returned to Earth!
* * * * *
For what seemed like an eternity, I stood there, aghast. Wondering how Skogul's father had regained his power of growth-alteration. Then, was I struck by realization.
Just as Skogul had regained her power, via the anguish of seeing her father swallowed alive, so, too, must the physical pain (caused by Ovaria's digestive juices) have had a similar effect on him!
Lin Kuei, gazing upon my countenance, did yell at me:
"Stop gaping like a fish, man! Nock the shaft, and let fly, before she fully regenerates!"
This was true. For, Ovaria's entrails were beginning to re-enter her body (via the gaping hole in her stomach) like a lure-bag being pulled on a rope in the training of scent hounds! So, I did put the blest-headed arrow to the bow. I did pull back on the string. I did lean backward, ever so slightly, to insure proper aim. And, then, I did release it!
Up, up, UP, it did arc. Naturally pausing at the zenith. Then, slowly at first, it did commence to descend. Finally, lodging itself...
...in a fragment of one of Ovaria's intestines.
This fragment then rejoined its fellows in Ovaria's body, before the hole in her stomach did completely close. Whereupon, the demoness sprang back on her feet. A grin of malicious triumph once more on her face!
That is; till the divine energy within the golden arrowhead did finally begin to take effect. Something I did find easy to ascertain. For, the grin swiftly turned to a frown of puzzlement. Followed by a wide-eyed expression of panic co-mingled with chilling realization. Whereupon....
...Ovaria did finally burst into flames.
To Be Concluded
* * * * *
Upon seeing the giant demoness combust, Lin Kuei did look toward the ceiling and shout something in Cathayan. Whereupon, his flying horsehair carpet did soar down to where we stood, atop Skogul's head, like the honey buzzard that had borne us, earlier. Upon arriving parallel to us, Lin Kuei did reach out his left arm...and push me before him!
Almost simultaneously, did we land upon the carpet. Whereupon, we did fly past Skogul's eyes, so that we could get her attention.
"Follow us!" he did cry out, upon doubling back: "For, whilst in hiding, I did discover that the trappings of this place are not of polished brass. But, frozen honey! And, when it melts, we will be buried beneath it, if we do not hasten ourselves away!!"
Whereupon, the carpet did take off. With Skogul following us; her father strewn lengthwise across her shoulders, like a water bearer with a two-bucket yoke. While, behind us, the flame-ridden empusa giantess did utter outcries of pain louder than the trumpetings of a hundred thousand elephants!
As we flew, I did see that Lin Kuei had been telling the truth. For, the walls of the corridors we traversed did begin to dribble and run like amber from a conifer. And, this effluvium did converge and congeal behind us. Almost literally upon Skogul's heels!
Not once along the way, however, did we encounter any Korybantes. Either they had already fled; or, in their slavish devotion, they were vainly trying to protect Ovaria's loyal acolytes. In any event, we soon began to ascend. Reversing the corkscrew pattern of our much-earlier descent!
Upon reaching the entrance hall, we found that vacant, as well. So, we exited, unopposed.
"If nothing else," I shouted to the Cathayan: "...at least that ungodly effluvium will bury Ovaria's accursed fruit!"
I did point to the dragon's eye peach trees we flew over.
"I fear we shall be buried along with them," he grimly replied: "Unless, of course, you still have some of that bone ash."
He smiled when I did show him the Venetian glass vial. But, that smile vanished, just as rapidly as it had appeared, when he saw the spot where we had first come into this realm. Instead, a look of utmost concentration replaced it, on his face, as he willed the carpet to land.
The moment we regained our feet, I did hear the crunching of wood behind us. I looked and beheld (with utmost relief) the Valkyrie of Jomsburg crashing through the orchard straight towards us. Svyatogor still safely lodged upon her shoulders.
Upon reaching us, she did shrink herself down to normal human-size. Her father automatically doing likewise, as a result. Following this, there was a shrill cry from directly overhead. Whereupon, the honey buzzard did alight atop the conical rice frond hat worn by Lin Kuei!
The latter did briefly grin. Then, he looked back up the hill, toward the castle-hive, before turning back to me and shouting:
"Now!! Use it now!!!"
Whereupon, I did throw the remainder of St. Nicholas' ash before us. And, once more, the white circle of light did appear!
Skogul and Svyatogor leaped through first, upon my insistence. Followed by Lin Kuei and the honey buzzard. Then, lastly, myself. And, none too soon! For, as I jumped, I did smell something sweet (and hear something bubbling) behind me.
When my vision had cleared, again, I was overjoyed to see that we were once more upon Avar-aral. Once again...on Earth!
* * * * *
So elated was I, initially, that it was many moments before I realized it.
"God's Blood!" I exclaimed: "Where is he? Where is Holgar Gudfredsen!"
"Fear not," Lin Kuei replied: "He is quite safe."
Whereupon, the Cathayan did smile and remove something from around his neck. Something that had previously been hidden by the folds of his saffron robe and matching cloak. It was a small burlap pouch on a rope. And, what he transferred from the interior of that pouch to the palm of his left hand...was the very man we had come so far, and endured so much, to rescue!
Then, did Lin Kuei place this man upon the ground, in order to re-enlarge him. And, only then, did I get my first satisfactory glimpse of Holgar Gudfredsen.
I did look from him to Skogul. And, I could, indeed, see a family resemblance. What could best be described as a "grim pout" around the jaw lines of each one's visage.
"Well," I began (seeking to end the awkward tension I did sense between them): "What will you do, Lin Kuei, now that Ovaria is no more?"
"Ovaria?" muttered Holgar: "T'was not Ovaria you vanquished. T'was her old maternal aunt and wet nurse! She who was variously known, to the ancient Greeks, as Artemis Laphria; Potnia Theron; and Echidna ('Mother of Monsters')!* "
"What???" screamed Skogul.
And, Svyatogor weakly nodded: "He speaks the truth. During those first few agonizing moments that I did spend, within her digestive juices, a vision somehow came to me. Showing me the truth! Where the true Ovaria is imprisoned, even Echidna has never been able to ascertain. But, she was determined to avenge all three of her nieces, never-the-less. Towards that end, she even dedicated her own son...whom she promoted to Captain-General of the Korybantes."
"Regardless of whose demise we accomplished," rebutted Lin Kuei: "Her dream of re-conquering this world has died with her. And, I must needs return to my other duties."
Whereupon, he did shrink back down to the size of a bug; leap back on to the neck of the honey buzzard; and off they flew!
When they were beyond our sight, it did become Skogul's turn. She did resume the height of a hundred English feet tall. Whereupon, she picked up her father and Holgar Gudfredsen in her right hand. While using her left to perch me upon her left shoulder.
And, when this had been accomplished, she began her march.
Where she and her father had required stealth, to come this far eastward, they had traveled at night for three straight nights. Yet, now that it was merely Skogul, this Valkyrie giantess marched westward, in broad daylight. And, with unapologetic swiftness!
It was sunset by the time we reached the easternmost shore of the Khazarian Sea. But, she did not stop. Instead, she waded across, as swiftly and directly as possible. Not caring what fishing boats might accidentally be capsized, in the process!
It was approximately the ninth hour preceding midnight when she came out upon the northwestern shore. And, yet again, she did proceed without stopping!
It was the third hour past midnight when she finally did stop. Yet, surely, there must be some mistake. She must have taken a wrong turn, somewhere, amidst all her gigantic striding. For there was no fortress-city, here!
Merely a series of gray, rectangular stone walls that did bear a resemblance to nothing less than...
...a giant stone coffin.
*Potnia Theron: literally, "Mistress of Animals." Reportedly, one of many Hellenicized names for a pre-Hellenic creator-goddess.
* * * * *
To confirm or decry, as to whether she might have lost her way, Skogul did place her father upon the ground with her left hand. Beseeching him to grow to similar size, as herself, so that he might scan both ground and night sky with his well-practiced hunter's eyes. This, he did. Although, with some troubling difficulty.
After a few moments, he grimly nodded.
"We are in the correct position. Yet, I see naught but this...!"
He gestured with his head toward the stone coffin.
"But, we were gone for little more than a day!" exclaimed his giantess daughter: "How could Jomsborg have disappeared, and the forest reclaimed so much open ground, in so little time?"
That is when I became stricken with my most horrible realization, yet.
"Brother Iosef!" I muttered.
"What say you?" Svyatogor inquired, having heard me with his giant ears.
"The head of the Greek monastery, back on Chios," I replied: "He did warn me that the passage of time, in Ovaria's realm, was much slower than that of our world. Such that one day, there, might equal a hundred years, here!"
Skogul gasped: "You mean...?"
Now, it was my turn to nod, most grimly.
"Your mother, and all the rest of your people, might now be a century dead."
"No-no-no-no-NO!" she shouted, shaking her head in denial: "That cannot be!"
As if in response, there was an outcry from Svyatogor that did sound more like a groan of pain and exhaustion. Which did not surprise me, when I espied that he had lifted off the massive lid of the stone coffin. Revealing, in the process, that its top and bottom were covered with runic inscriptions.
Ones that Prince Holgar did readily identify as Danish in origin. So, I did beseech him to translate them for us.
Here is what he read:
"I, Swanhild Ilsingsdottir (named for the daughter of Ragnar of Rok; she who was taken in marriage by Edric Halfdan), do hereby recount in writing the tale that was handed down to me, by word of mouth, from Kara Halfdansdottir and her child's children. A tale of the treacherous doom that came to Jomsborg, following the disappearance of her jarl and their eldest daughter."
Skogul did look at me
"Eldest?" she did echo in bewilderment.
Svyatogor gestured for Prince Holgar to continue.
"The Templars who did escort the Man of Murom to the Bohemian mouth of the secret pass...did not return whence they came. Instead, they merely encamped! Waiting for a much larger force of Templars to arrive. A force compiled from the fortresses of Ljubljana, Vrana, and Klis. And, when they came, at last, they did bring with them a brace of Dalmatian hunting dogs."
"These, with their affinity for horses, did follow the scent trail of Ilya Muromets' saddle mount and pack mule through the Krkonose. And, all the way to the outskirts of Jomsborg!"
"Then, did they commence to lay siege to the city."
"First, they did drive the field hands back to the city gates. Skewering with their lances, and crushing to bloody pulps beneath the hooves of their war horses, all those too slow to make it."
"They did withdraw from their clamoring, at the main gate, only after a few of their number had been fatally un-horsed by the arrows of our yeoman archers. Regrouping safely out of range, the rest of the invading force did encamp. As if waiting for reinforcements."
"They stayed, thus, for two days. At dawn, of the third day, the sentries atop the wall saw that reinforcements were precisely what the Templars had awaited!"
"For the invading force had been joined by a company of Beszormeny turcopoles.* Along with a company of Byzantine evzones. The banners of the latter identifying them as the Athanatoi, from the Mani Peninsula of Sparta."
*Beszormeny: Hungarians of Muslim descent, long since assimilated into the Slavic/Magyar population.
Turcopoles: medieval horse archers who often worked as soldiers-of-fortune. So named for initially being Turkish mercenaries.
Evzones: Greek name for elite mountain infantry. The traditional uniforms of which are still worn by the Honor Guard of Greece's head of state.
Athanatoi: roughly translates, from the Greek, as "the Deathless Ones."
* * * * *
Prince Holgar did continue his translation of the runic inscriptions.
"Then, did the Templar commander of the besieging force ride forward, under flag of truce, to demand our unconditional surrender. Queen Kara's only reply was to cast aspersions on their parentage (or lack of same)!"
"Moments later, the attack came."
"A troop of turcopoles rode forward; shielded from our own arrows by accompanying Templars. Likewise, the torch-bearing evzones who followed them. And, when all three contingents had come within range of the main gate, the turcopoles did let fly a volley of shafts. The arrowheads of which had been lit by the torches. And, upon striking the main gate?
"They did thunderously explode on impact!"
"T'was much later that the 'fortunate' survivors of the massacre did learn the truth. While the turcopoles had fletched them with real feathers, those particular shafts had been naught but hollow tubes made of Venetian glass. And, contained within said tubes?"
"The unholy liquid referred to, in Constantinople, as...Greek fire."
"Two more such flights were loosed towards the main gate. And, within half a score of minutes, the latter had been reduced to smouldering charcoal. Whereupon, more evzones did run forward. Each one carrying a basket full of powder-ground serpentine, which they did throw on the charcoal to cool it further. Whereupon, the invaders did charge forward!"
"Now, did the turcopoles use wooden shafts! While the Templars did skewer with their lances and cleave with their swords. And, the evzones did dismember with their battle-adzes. Those people of Jomsborg who could not wield weapons, for any reason, did try to flee through the rear gate of the city to the woodlands nearby."
"Only to find another body of Templars waiting in reserve! And, those who did not die fighting (like Queen Kara and her shield-maidens), did ultimately find themselves enchained and herded southward to slavery."
"All, that is, save two."
"In the months between Svyatogor's departure and the perfidious siege, it did become obvious that the jarl's last night with his wife had borne fruit. The stress of the two-day siege, however, did cause her to belabour, prematurely. So that, what had been done to the mother of Julius Caesar, had need to be repeated with Queen Kara!"
"Thus, two days into the forced march, Vulda the shamaness did shrink the infant (a girl-child dubbed Svipul) to the size of a mouse. Followed by her own transformation into a fox! Whereupon, Vulda did flee with her shrunken charge to the land of the Sudovians. A northern-dwelling sub-tribe of the Prussian Balts."
"There, she did learn of a childless couple who dwelt among the Sudovians. One Dobryna Nikitch (a bogatyr from Rostov-on-Don); and his Cuman-Kipchak wife, Nastasia Polyanitsa."
"These two great warriors did love adventuring as much as they loved each other. Yet, while the former had earned them countless minstrel-sung praises (most especially, for aiding the Balts against their oppressors, the Livonian Brethren of the Sword), not once had the latter ever blessed them with any progeny."
"Thus, did Vulda take pity on them. Re-enlarging the infant Svipul, to normal size, before placing her upon a bed of sweet-violas next to the couple's hut. And, upon finding the child, through her cries, they thought not twice about adopting her and raising her as their own."
"Consequently, they did name her...Violka Dobrynovna."
Special note: serpentine is the obsolescent term for asbestos, in its raw mineral form.
* * * * *
"Twenty years later, word did reach the ears of the good Duke Stepanovich (heir to the throne of Galich-Volhynia) of a warrior woman called the Wild Huntress. Of her leadership of a band of club-wielding outlaws known as the Kylfings. And, of their depredations against the Teutonic Knights (assimilators of the Sword-brethren)."
"Alas! I do not have space enough left to fully detail how he did win her love while besting her. Of how their son Ilsing did grow up and finally learn of his true heritage from the shade of his maternal grandmother (who did help him capture the Black Swan of the Underworld, in order to win him the hand-in-marriage of Thora Modisdottir). Of how his own daughter did finally manifest the power of self-giantism 'pon reaching adulthood."
"Nor, of how she did use this power ('pon visiting the ruins of Jomsborg) to carve a giant stone coffin for her great-grandfather. As his return, to this world, had been prophesied to Ilsing by Queen Kara's shade."
It was at this point that Prince Holgar did complete his translation of the runes. At the same time, Svyatogor did smile, most strangely.
"She waits for me," he muttered: "But, before I go, I must bequeath what is left of my power to you."
Skogul did look at him, in puzzlement.
"Father...?" she began. Only to be gently shushed by a right fingertip to her lips. He then kissed her on the forehead, before placing the thumb of each hand upon it.
The invisible energy that did pass from him to her, in this manner, was such that it made the Valkyrie giantess tremble. Nay! "Shudder" would be the more apt term. For, Prince Holgar and I did nearly fall, from her right-hand's palm, to the ground far below. Yet, somehow, she did manage to hold on to us until she slowly fell to the ground, herself, on both knees.
As such, Prince Holgar and I were only slightly bereft of wind upon impact with the ground. Yet, at the same time, Svyatogor did stagger and fall backward into the stone coffin. Landing flat on his back!
Upon finally perceiving this, Skogul did collapse even further. Resting her head upon her left arm while weeping her eyes out. This act of sorrow, in turn, did cause Prince Holgar and I to forthwith start running about. As, from our vantage point, each of Skogul's teardrops were more like liquid boulders!!
Eventually, however, she did exhaust her reservoir of tears. Whereupon, she did slowly place the rune-inscribed lid back atop the coffin.
"What now, Milady?" I did formally inquire. For, even though Jomsborg was no more, still was she jarl, now.
She looked downward at us.
"My father did give you his word that we would help you see the Danish prince home. So, I will honor his word. But, make no mistake! Once we reach the southern-most borders of Denmark, there shall I leave you two. For, somewhere, I have a nephew and grandniece I have never known. And, they are truly the only family I have left."
To be (finally/really/truly) concluded
* * * * *
I did nod in understanding.
"Fear not, though," I added: "Who-so-ever does enquire, I shall tell them (providing they are not men or women of the cloth) that Prince Holgar is a Crusader. And, that I (an erstwhile saqaliba *) did help him escape from Muslim slavery."
That was nearly two score years ago.
Upon parting with Skogul, we did journey to the Danish village where King Gudfred and his queen consort had ruled. And, the weed-covered graves we did find there did, indeed, confirm that Brother Iosef had been right about the slower passage of time.
The prince's son Edric, of course, had long since died, as well. With his remains cremated in typical Norseman fashion. But, as to the disposition of Queen Kara's body, following her death? Only one person on Earth might be able to answer that question: Vulda the shamaness.
"Even if she does not possess supernatural longevity," I said: "...she might have descendants among the Sudovians. For any woman who can shrink infants, and change into a fox, might certainly be able to bear children of her own. Even when wearing the semblance of an elderly mortal!"
"Either way," Prince Holgar did reply: "...such a task will entail our endeavouring to join the Teutonic Knights! If only to secure horses, and funds for the journey."
I nodded in understanding.
"You will need a yeoman turcopole, of course," I added: "...if only to strengthen the imposture.
He did smile and nod, understandingly, in return. And, many were the adventures we did subsequently have on the way back to Sudovia. Some of which I have already dictated to the good brothers, here, at the Monastery of St. Anthony of the Caves. Including that one wherein I did learn of the son Skogul had borne me!
But, now, I grow fatigued. The fatigue of one whose body has become weaker and less willing than his mind. Thus, do I--Ilya, bogatyr of Murom--take leave of this world. In this Year of Our Lord; Thirteen Hundred and Fifty.
* * * * *
MONASTERY OF ST. ANTHONY OF THE CAVES
SOMEWHERE NEAR KIEV, USSR (1931)
Brother Piotr brought two candles into the monastic library. The one in his left hand; to light the way. And, the one in his right hand; to aid Gustave Liebenkraft in his studies.
"Ach! Danke schoen!" said the beaming archeologist.
"You are most welcome," replied Brother Piotr, with a smiling bow: "How goes your research, doctor?"
"Slowly, but surely, Gut Bruder. I have nearly finished the transcription! Hopefully, the Board of Regents at my alma mater will reconsider their earlier stance, and grant me further research funds."
Brother Piotr partially frowned: "One should always be half-prepared for disappointment, doctor. For, as the Good Book says: 'There are none so blind as those will not see.' And, those responsible for worldly education can be the blindest ones of all!"
In response to this, Gustave Liebenkraft partially smirked.
"Perhaps! But, as the Amerikaners say: 'There is more than one way to skin eine Katzen!' "
*Saqaliba: generic medieval Muslim term for any mercenary of Slavic descent.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.