Wake-up call.

Hans awoke to the sound of someone knocking loudly on the door frame.

“Awake Friends. Awake My Lord. My Lady begs your presence,” came a familiar, little-girl voice.

Hans pulled back the rug covering the doorway. He’d wrapped himself in a woven blanket and with bleary eyes looked down at, cleavage, in a red bodice. Red would be Kiet, maybe, waiting there.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize we’d slept late.”

Kiet tilted her head and smiled sweetly. “No, it is early yet. But My Lady has become eager for discourse and bade me rush to awaken you. My apologies if you find it ungracious.”

Hans rubbed at his eyes. “No that’s not it at all. I was just having the strangest dream.”

Hans looked down at the tiny handmaiden. It occurred to him that her attire from the day before didn’t show as much cleavage as it did today, nor had it been so taut against her breasts so that her pert nipples. . .

Hans shook his head. He was going to get in trouble if he kept letting his eyes get away from him like that.

Dave stirred and grunted from within, “Waz- What’s up?”

Looking back into the hut, Hans said, “The queen wants to see us right away.” He turned back to Kiet. “Tell your queen we’ll be along as soon as we’ve dressed. I’m not sure what my reception would be like, wearing only a blanket.”

The handmaiden smirked. “Better than you might think, My Lord.”

With that she dashed away. Hans let the rug fall back over the doorway.

Inside, he picked up his tartan and tried to don it without dropping his blanket. He failed.

Dave shielded his eyes theatrically. “Do you always sleep in the nude Madison?”

Hans frowned. “You try sleeping in a leather skirt some time.”

Jinsoku was on his knees by his cot. “Ok, where’s my socks?”

Dave commented, “You could at least get a loin cloth or something.”

Hans quipped, “You could have brought some underwear in my size.”

Jinsoku added, “Remind me to show you how to tie a fundoshi style loincloth. It’s remarkable comfortable, once you get used to the permanent wedgie.”

Finally, with everyone at least presentable, Hans pushed the rug over the doorway aside. Dave and Jinsoku stepped out first, followed by Hans. Dave was still combing his hair and badly in need of a shave.

Hans suspected the raven watching them leave was the same one as last night.

* * *

Intercepted by Kiet, who was not even short breathed for all the distance she had clearly run, they were quickly led back into Gná’s hall. Gná was seated on a short couch at the far end of the room. This time she was wearing a simple brocade surcoat of dark red linen. A little form fitting, but at least Hans didn’t have to worry about it falling to the floor any time soon. He tried not to think of any conditions that might lead to its ending up on the floor.

Za stood to one side wearing a beige tunic tucked into an unpatterned skirt. Hans looked to her and they exchanged nods. It’s easy to not think too many lustful thoughts about a woman that can kick your ass. Even if, in comparison, she’s as beautiful as her sister.

Gná stood. “Good morning, friends. I trust your rousing was not too unsettling.”

Hans bowed. “Not at all, Your Highness. I was having a strange dream. I’m glad enough to have been awakened from it.”

Za raised a brow. “A dream?”

Gná held up her hand, cutting Za’s inquiry short.

“I am glad, then, that the summons was fortuitous. You may dispense with the human honorifics. Bowing and scraping are not done here. Nor am I in a state of grace or elevation. I am queen merely by the will of my people. My Lady or Queen Gná will do in public. Among the five of us, Gná will do. Is that not true, Za?”

“Yes, My Lady.”

Gná sighed. “Always so formal, Sister? Even among friends?”

Gná gestured to a bench.

“Please sit. We will have a meal shortly. Simple fare in that I have awakened us all early. Not even poor Za has had chance to don armor. Hmm, is armor all you have to wear Good Madison? We’ll have to see about . . .”

Gná suddenly seemed to notice something. Hans realized that his legs weren’t crossed and snapped them shut. Gná waved Tiek over and whispered in her ear. The handmaiden tittered, and rushed off. Hans decided it must be an elf thing. Gná smirked. Dave and Jinsoku snickered.

Having no need to regain her composure, Gná continued as though nothing were out of the ordinary, “Let us get to the matter at hand. Lord Madison, I fear we may need keep you in hiding longer than I thought. Loki’s forces are stirred like never before, looking everywhere for you. Most of my subjects have gone into even deeper hiding.”

Hans asked, “Is it possible you could send me back to Earth? Only for a day? I’ve learned that my father thinks I’m dead and I want to let him know I’m all right.”

Gná shook her head. “Sadly, no. Your friends’ forced transit has greatly disturbed the aether. I could not open a portal to set you even a bowshot away, much less your home. I fear your father’s grief may have to wait to be assuaged. But why is it you are thought dead?”

Hans looked to Jinsoku.

“There was a fire in his home the night he disappeared.”

“That is not the nature of my portals. I cannot offer an explanation, save that Loki is God of Fire. I pray no one else was harmed.”

“No, it was just his father in the house and he’s fine. Though, Madison, I just realized, I haven’t seen your bird since then, either.”

“Bird?” Hans wondered what Jinsoku was talking about.

Before he could ask, Tiek burst in, yelling, “My Lady, My Lady! We are invaded. Ogres are within the vale.”

A bell began to toll an urgent pattern.

Gná stood up abruptly. “So soon?” She looked about. “I knew they would find us some day, but . . .”

She recovered and took a commanding presence. “Captain Za, muster your troops. Lord Madison, I hope you and your friends feel up to our defense.” She looked to Tiek, “When did they reach the gates?”

“Not yet, My Lady. They were some great ways off when a host of ravens and crows drew the attention of morning gatherers. They say the birds acted as though mad, crowing loudly and diving on the approaching horde.”

Gná replied, “It is perhaps the prospect for carrion that excites them. See to it that those not needed to defend the gate flee to the old castle. I pray that it remains concealed.”

“My Lady, you must go as well,” said Za.

“My place is with my people, Za.”

“And your people are fleeing to safety, at your command. They will need you to restore order. I war, you rule. Let us each tend to her own duties.”

Gná took her sisters hands in hers. “Very well, Sister. But my final command is that you not get yourself killed. I shall be most displeased should I find you among the dead,” Gná said as she was practically dragged off by Kiet.

Za seemed wishful as she watched her sister leave. “Goodbye Gná. I pray I do not disappoint you.”

Jinsoku stood. “Our gear is in our hut. We’ll need it.”

Za nodded. “Go then. I need don armor as well. I shall meet you at your hut or send another to collect you.”

Za watched the three men dash out the door. How did it come to be that all hope would hang on two human youths and a handsome changeling?

“This couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” she commented aloud, though no one else was present. “Or better, depending on one’s plans,” was a private thought.

Za humphed and left the hall through a side door. There would be time enough later for working this puzzle.

Next: CHAPTER 14–BATTLE

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This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to persons living or dead is coincidental.