Trapped (The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book Five) (9 page)

BOOK: Trapped (The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book Five)
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“No, that’s not it at all,” I said, puzzled that she didn’t see the miracle here. “She’s inspirational, Granuaile. A strong, brave woman like Amelia—well, the world could use a few million more of her.”

Granuaile paused to consider, an angry set to her jaw at first, but after a moment it relaxed into regret and she shed a tear for Amelia. She wiped it away impatiently. “So is that what you have up and down this river? Bits and pieces of history?”

“That’s exactly it. Some of it is accidental—lots of those missing ships from the Bermuda Triangle wind up here—and some of it is purposeful, like Amelia. Here we preserve what otherwise would have disappeared forever.”

“Have you preserved anything here?”

“No, too dangerous for me to keep coming back here when Aenghus Óg was around. Too tricky to retrieve things anyway.”

She frowned. “I thought you said you couldn’t retrieve things. Don’t you slow down when you try to access them?”

“Think of those arcade games you see in restaurants and grocery stores, where a hook comes down and epically fails to snatch the plushie. They use hooks on really long staffs. As long as the majority of the staff remains in this timestream, it won’t slow down. It just moves superfast in the slow stream, which means you need to be careful about touching objects—they’re easily breakable. And that illustrates the point about why we can’t save Amelia: If we tried to yank her out of her plane, we’d break her neck or snap her spine.”

“Okay. I think I’ve seen enough. Can we go?” Her words were clipped, annoyed.

This hadn’t gone the way I’d imagined. When I was first shown the Time Islands by my archdruid, I’d been filled with wonder. So had all my previous apprentices. Granuaile, however, had become upset. Occasionally this happened: Modern values and the ancient ones I grew up with were radically different, and sometimes I misjudged rather badly what was cool and what was repulsive.

“Sure,” I said, walking over to the nearest tree. We needed to talk about this, but there was no need to do it in front of the many faeries in the canopy, who no doubt were eavesdropping on our conversation. Not wanting to take Lord Grundlebeard at his word, I placed my hand on the trunk and attempted to find the tether to one of my favorite spots in Gaul—or, rather, France. It wasn’t there. Nor were any other of my accustomed destinations in Europe. Resigned, I searched all available points to which we could shift and chose a tree in the eastern foothills of Mount Olympus. I pulled us through to that spot and half-crouched, listening and scanning the area, expecting trouble. When nothing like trouble presented itself, I straightened and enjoyed the view below us.

“Well, here we are,” I said, gazing down at a town of seven thousand souls, orange-tiled roofs, and white buildings in a cushion of green; beyond it, the blue flag of Poseidon’s sea stretched to the horizon, where it met a lighter sky. We were underneath the canopy of a pine; most of the trees here were pine, cedar, or fir. Olympus loomed behind us, and the path to the summit was visible nearby.

“Where is here?” Granuaile asked.


“That is Litochoro, Greece. ‘City of the Gods,’ if you want to buy the tourist name. Lots of people come through here. We need to find a place off the beaten
path where we can safely get to work on your binding. When we need supplies, we’ll come down to this town to get them.”

“All right,” Granuaile said. “Lead the way.”

I led the way, picking a careful path between trees and staying on the south side of the trail. I was heading for the course of a natural wash in the foothills; there would be some runoff there for water and plenty of deadwood for fuel. Oberon kept pace beside me instead of zipping off through the forest to sniff that tree or mark that bush.

Oberon said.

Yeah?


I know she is, buddy. I’m not sure why, but I’m going to find out tonight once we make camp. Now is not the time to press her. She might not know precisely why. The hike will give her time to mull things over
.


Not really. A wise man wouldn’t have irritated her in the first place. Do us a favor?


Scout ahead a little bit, but not too far—make sure you can hear us. We’re looking for a good place to make camp, but it has to have little to no evidence of human traffic, and we need a thornbush
.


Usually. This is a special case, however
.

Oberon trotted ahead, his nose low to the ground, searching for spoor. Granuaile and I hiked behind him in silence, keeping our meager human senses alert for any sign that we might not be bushwhacking alone.

Normally I am not the sort to indiscriminately whack bushes. The undergrowth grew thicker, however, as we climbed the slope and strayed ever farther from the path, until there was no space between the brambles. We had to push our way through what turned out to be rather thorny bushes indeed. I could almost feel Granuaile’s mood worsening behind me as scratches appeared on our arms, and occasional punctures through our jeans made us curse. My own mood was beginning to sour as well.

“Can’t you ask the earth to clear a path for us through this stuff?” Granuaile finally asked.

“I could,” I admitted, “but that sort of thing might draw the wrong kind of attention here.”

“Whose attention?”

“The Olympians. Both sets. We’re in their territory now, and it’s not just them we need to worry about—it’s all those nymphs and dryads and the entire mythological zoo that the Greeks dreamed up and the Romans ripped off. If I take off my sandals and start drawing on the elemental here, it’s a fair bet the Greco–Romans will be tipped off that someone’s using magic in their backyard. I haven’t completely given up on my paranoia yet. I want us stationary and isolated if possible before I take any risks.”

The two of us silently fumed as we waded and picked our way through a sea of uncomfortable thorns and woody branches. After a half hour of this, Oberon’s voice in my head was a welcome relief.


A broad black wingspan sailed overhead, moving from my right to left, angling toward a steep hillside.

I see it
.


Normally, vultures alight in trees or they alight on the ground next to something dead; they are not cave
dwellers. But this vulture sailed right into a sizable cave entrance up on the hillside, and I could plainly see that there were thornbushes nearby.

How’d you spot this?


Yeah. And probably up for grabs too. Either that’s a nest or there’s something dead in there. We can probably use it either way
.

I pointed the cave out to Granuaile and said we should go check it out. She merely nodded in reply and followed me in grim silence.

It’s funny how when someone is Not Talking to You their every movement speaks volumes. Granuaile had little holsters on either hip, each with three flat, leaf-bladed throwing knives nestled on top of one another. She could throw them accurately with either hand to finish off opponents or take them out to begin with; her staff was more of a defensive weapon, meant to disarm or trip rather than deliver lethal blows to someone in heavy armor. Her knives made a soft clinking sound with every step she took, though I hadn’t heard them before. Perhaps I simply hadn’t noticed. Now, however, they communicated her burning desire to draw one and toss it between my shoulder blades.

Negotiating the hill was tiresome, and the clinking of the knives soon tapped out a different message:
This had better be worth it
.

We were joined by Oberon, who was panting happily, his tongue lolling out. The forest was full of wonderful smells to him.

“Hi, Oberon!” Granuaile said, stopping to pet him. “Are you having a good time?”

he replied,
using his nickname for Granuaile. He called her that about half the time, having developed a fine appreciation for her habit of sparring with me verbally as much as physically.

I repeated this for Granuaile’s sake and she laughed.

“You are certainly top dog,” she said to him.


Yep. Every time she strokes your ego
.

That light feeling evaporated after a few minutes as Oberon wandered sideways to investigate a rustling noise. The accusatory clinking of Granuaile’s throwing knives resumed behind me, and I began to wonder when she would say something. Since we were by ourselves she couldn’t be waiting for a private moment, so I had to conclude that she was waiting for something else. I would simply have to wait along with her.

Oberon halted abruptly as we approached the mouth of the cave; he laid his ears back flat against his head and grumbled softly in his throat.


I stopped hiking and so did Granuaile. She didn’t have to ask what was going on; she could tell Oberon was talking to me.

What’s wrong with it?


A human and a bear? That makes no sense. Unless the human is wearing a bearskin
.


Maybe it’s a bearskin rug
.


Well, let’s go check it out. Cautiously
.

I drew Moralltach as silently as I could from its scabbard and knew that Granuaile would be readying a knife and her staff behind me. I crept forward, the soft noises my feet made in the gravelly hillside unnaturally loud to my ears. I heard some scratching ahead and the soft, dry rasp of a bird’s throat.

My sword crested the lip of the cave’s mouth first, and I paused to see if anything wished to attack the bare blade. When nothing did, I risked a peek.

Two black eyes glared at me over a sharp beak. Oberon’s vulture was perhaps ten yards away, standing in a pile of bones and rotting tissue and watching me. There wasn’t anything suggestive of a nest; it was more of a mess hall, with an emphasis on the mess. It wasn’t convenient to water and it reeked, but it would work if we cleaned it out. The high ceiling was kind of a bonus. We had to convince the current resident to leave first.

“It’s just the vulture,” I said. “Come on up, but watch out for the beak.”

Vultures have no strength in their talons to speak of, because their prey typically doesn’t try to run away from them. Their beaks, on the other hand, are perfect for piercing skin. Strangely, the vulture showed no signs of alarm when I advanced to the lip of the cave. Even when Granuaile hauled herself up, I didn’t see a threatening display of the wings. The bird continued to stare as if it expected us to drop dead and provide it with lunch.

It was when Oberon appeared that the vulture finally showed signs of alarm—and also showed signs of not being a vulture.

Oberon barked and growled, showing his teeth, the hair on the back of his neck raised.

What?


As we watched, the vulture screeched, spread its wings,
and grew—but not into a nastier vulture. It morphed into something else entirely. The neck thickened, the beak became a snout, and fur replaced feathers. Stubby vulture legs became stubby human legs, but what roared at us from the top half—


“Gods damn the Greeks and their unholy hybrid monsters!” I muttered, then addressed the creature in Greek. “Are you a talking bear-man or just hungry?”

The bear roared again and Oberon tried to bark louder, but then the creature spoke in a malicious rumble: “I am Agrios of Thrace, son of Polyphonte. Who are you?”

I was tempted to tell him “nobody,” but I wasn’t Odysseus and he wasn’t Polyphemus.

“I am Atticus of … Attica,” I replied. Saying anything else would be meaningless to him. His myth was coming back to me. This fellow had been turned into a vulture by Hermes and Ares long ago; his mother and brother, because they were the “kind of nice” Thracian abominations, were only turned to owls. Agrios was the loathsome one. He’d been spawned because his mother, Polyphonte, had managed to tick off Aphrodite, so the goddess of love made her couple with a bear, and
rawr
, Agrios and Oreios were born.

“Aren’t you supposed to stay a vulture?” I asked.

“I was taught how to transform by Thracian witches. I served them for a time, until I opened their bellies and ate them. Olympus has forgotten me. As long as I don’t hunt the puny mortals and take only that which is given me, I am left alone. It has been many years since I was sent a sacrifice. Who sent you?”

“Whoa. Hold on. We’re not sacrifices. We’re just out looking for the handsomest caves in Greece and thought this was a likely one.”

I shot some quick instructions to Oberon:
When we
fight, circle round behind him and bite him on the back of the hams
.


“You
like
my cave?” Agrios said, idly scratching his belly in confusion.

“Oh, yeah. Love what you’ve done with the carrion. Most people don’t think of using carrion as an accent for their décor, but I think you’ve stumbled onto something special here. It’s trendsetting.”

Granuaile whispered to me in Russian, “What are you doing?”

“Knives only. Do not engage him,” I whispered back in the same language.

BOOK: Trapped (The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book Five)
11.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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