“Alexis, Katie, Lincoln, and Mingus, see if any enemy wounded might be saved,” Lockhart ordered. “Decker, watch them. Elder Stow, see if your scanner can pick up any more in range, and let me know which way they head. Boston, with me.”
People moved, and Lockhart lead Boston back to face Shanjo. His old police instincts were acting up. “So what exactly do you have in those bags of yours?” The twelve donkeys had a double bag slung over their backs so they had one bag on each side for balance. Those twelve bags looked exactly alike. The travelers assumed they did not all have the same thing inside—but maybe they did.
“Close your mouth,” Boston began with a laugh. Shanjo and his men were staring with their mouths open at what just happened.
“A powder,” Shanjo said. “It is a powerful medicine we are bringing on command of the Lord Hsia.”
Lockhart opened one satchel and found dozens of smaller bags inside. He pulled one out, opened it and found it was indeed a rough ground powder, like some spice. He looked toward Alexis to identify it, but she was needed on the field if they hoped to save any of those men.
“What is it?” Boston leaned over Lockhart’s shoulder.
“A powder made from a flower. That is all,” Shanjo swore.
Lockhart licked his finger and took a small bit to touch it to his tongue, but it was rough and raw, and he could not identify it right away from smell and taste. Boston tried a small lick and began to sing.
“Camptown ladies sing dis song …”
”Poppies. Opium,” Lockhart named it immediately. He knew it had an odd affect on elves. They had been through this once before with Mingus but unlike Mingus, Boston was not the least embarrassed by it. When Mingus and Lincoln ran up to see what was the matter, Boston spread her arms, twirled around, and sang.
“The hills are alive …”
“Opium,” Mingus did not hesitate to name the substance, even without seeing it.
“At least Boston can carry a tune,” Lockhart nodded.
Lincoln looked around at the donkeys and their packs, and calculated. “There must be a billion dollars’ worth, street value in our day.”
Lockhart, the former police man, nodded again.
Alexis came up and took a pinch. Once she heard and saw Boston singing, she also knew what it was. She added her pinch of raw, ground poppy seeds to a cup of water and offered a word. “Two are dying more slowly than the others. You people were pretty thorough. This much may kill them, but at least they shouldn’t feel any pain.”
“There,” Elder stow pointed generally at the hills in the direction they were headed. “But they are at a distance that makes it hard to tell numbers, or really anything about them.”
“Not much help,” Major Decker said. “I better have a look.” He stepped off to where he could sit quietly and meditate. His horse, Weber, followed him, but did not bother him, being content to munch on the scrub grass that covered the area.
“I am not equipped for such an expedition,” Elder Stow sounded defensive. “I have only such small things as an officer carries, including my weapon. This scanner is practically a child’s toy.”
“Don’t let it bother you,” Lockhart said. “You are doing fine and have been a great help so far.” He considered giving the elder a reassuring pat on the shoulder, but got interrupted. Lincoln plugged into the database music library and turned on Born to be Wild. He turned it up, and Boston sang along, and danced like a wild woman as well. The opium compelled her to sing until it worked out of her system. It did not necessarily compel her to dance, but she did not let that stop her. She was always one with too much excess energy. Becoming an elf and gaining elf metabolism only exacerbated that problem. Lockhart expected her to start running up and down the road at about fifty miles an hour any minute. He saw Decker move further away for some quiet.
“It is used for medicinal purposes,” Alexis explained over lunch. “It at least numbs the pain. If Lin, the Lord Hsia, is still fighting battles with nomads and such, she was probably willing to risk a small side bar of history to bring her people some relief.”
“Nuwa did tell us the Silk Road was used mostly for drugs, slaves, and occasional armies,” Lincoln added.
“Not much of a road,” Boston interjected. Her voice sounded a little rough, but at least she did not have to sing it.
“Mine is not the first expedition to retrieve the seeds of the poppy,” Shanjo offered. “But most of the others never returned.”
“And I can see why,” Lockhart said.
Katie had a thought. “I would bet the brigands burned the first stuff and got hooked on the smoke.”
Lockhart nodded. “Something like that, and I would guess we haven’t seen the last of them.” He paused as Decker walked up and grabbed a piece of deer. It was beginning to turn in the heat, but Shanjo had men smoking what they could to save for later. The evening meal would be something like deer jerky.
“We got bigger troubles than thieves,” Decker reported. “My eagle totem showed me three groups in the wilderness. The thieves are camped above a valley, about a thousand of them, and they are keeping a sharp watch on the people down in the valley. It looks like a small army, about two hundred men, with dragon flags and other banners. They are camped along the edge of a big lake. Very Chinese looking men and banners. I would guess our friends here need to make it to the protection of the army group, though the thieves have them outnumbered at least five to one, so that might not help.”
“And the third group?” Elder Stow wondered.
“Right in our path, on the edge of the desert, in the next place where it gets narrow, about where we should stop for the night. A good place for an ambush,” Decker said, and when he had everyone’s attention, he said, “Ghouls.” He took a big bite of deer meat, and added, “I am guessing the next ten.” That got everyone talking at once, but eventually, talking led to planning.
“As far as I know,” Mingus said. “The ghouls ability to see through a good glamour is no better than humans.”
“The database confirms that,” Lincoln said without looking up from his reading. “It specifically states that while they are masters of making others see things that are not really there, and can cast glamours over their enemies to make them appear and sound like someone else, their own ability to see through glamours is surprisingly stunted.”
“The dragon is the emblem of Gingsu, the governor of the far west and defender of the border,” Shanjo said, not really keeping up with the rest of the conversation. “I am sure if we can get there, he will grant us safe passage the rest of the way, though I worry that he is so far from the border. There are many days yet to travel with the army before we can be truly safe.”
“One problem at a time,” Lockhart said.
“Let me take Alexis and Miss Riley,” Mingus pressed his suggestion. “We can disguise ourselves to look like these merchants, and our horses to appear as shaggy ponies, and walk beneath their noses. And we should have enough firepower between us to hold back the brigands, should they try another attack.”
“And the rest of us can circle around and come up behind the unsuspecting ghouls and pick them off from the rear,” Katie understood what Mingus was suggesting.
“For the record, I don’t like it. I don’t like dividing us up,” Lockhart said.
“We still have these wrist communicators,” Lincoln pointed out, and raised his wrist to show the watch. Everyone else simply looked at Lockhart.
“But I can’t think of anything better,” Lockhart said. “We go with it, provided Mingus gives the prototype amulet he took from Avalon to Katie, in case we get seriously separated.”
Mingus paused, smiled and pulled the amulet out from an inner pocket. “It is not as sophisticated as the other, and harder to read accurately,” he said. It had a gold chain that fell to the ground as he held it. Lincoln spoke as Mingus handed the amulet to Katie.
“Captain Harper has the brains to figure it out while the rest of us stand around and look at it, dumbly.”
“Those are your words,” Mingus said with a grin as Katie slipped the chain around her neck.
To Be Continued…
Be sure to return Monday (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday) for the concluding posts of Avalon, Episode 4.0. Happy Reading.