“To the high ground and prepare to defend yourselves,” Lockhart shouted, and the marines moved before they noticed what the others saw right away. The people did not follow them. None of the people so much as stepped on the mound. They looked like they did not dare touch it, and after only a moment, they began to wander back to whatever they had been doing, as if the travelers were never there.
“Very primitive construction.” Doctor Procter had already moved on to examine the crude tent. It appeared to be no more than a number of overlapping animal skins held up by some precious lumber. It seemed larger than Lincoln thought when he saw it from a distance, and might easily hold a dozen or more people. He sketched furiously, but at the same time, he imagined a good gust of wind could blow it apart.
Alexis smiled. “On my bad days, Benjamin calls me a witch.” She looked at her father. “But he says it with love,” she added.
Boston got herself spun around to face a pair of angry eyes. Lockhart did not look happy. “You nearly got us all killed. I said leave the food alone.”
Boston dropped her eyes. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“You’re lucky they didn’t mob you and tear you to pieces looking for the food.”
“Don’t be too hard on her,” Roland came to her defense. “She was thinking and just trying to help.” Boston heard, but she was busy. She looked up into Lockhart’s eyes. She saw that he loved her and the scolding was out of love, and that made her happy.
“I won’t do it again,” she said.
“Yes you will.” Lockhart softened a little as the relief he felt washed over him. He hugged her. “You just need to remember I’m the director here in Bobbi’s absence. Maybe I can’t tell these elves what to do, but I’m still your boss.” He looked up. “And that goes for you, too.”
“Yes boss.” Lincoln spoke absentmindedly since he was busy. Alexis grimaced and gave a sloppy little salute.
“Oh!” Doctor Procter got ready to open the front flap of the tent when he got surprised instead. A woman came out and held the flap open. She opened her hand to invite them in.
“Careful,” Lincoln whispered, as they walked into the dark tent one by one.
“Come in, come in.” They heard the man’s words before their eyes adjusted to the dim light. It turned out to be not much of a tent. It had no furniture, just some straw in the corner to sleep on and a big stump to sit on. The man looked very old, but when he stood up from the stump, he also proved to be a very big man. “We do not often have strangers here.” He examined them as closely as they examined him.
“Where are we, exactly?” Lincoln asked.
“In my world. And my people, as you have seen, are hungry.” He took a step and paused in front of Mingus. “I do not traffic much with elves.” He stepped over to examine Doctor Procter. “And there is something different about you. Something wrong.”
“He is a half-elf,” Boston offered.
The man shivered a little, reacting the way Lockhart reacted when he first thought about it. “But you others.” He paused to point at Alexis. “Six, I think. You six are my people. You should be helping with the tower. You should be building the monument to my eternity.” A compulsion filled his words. For a moment, Lockhart felt very much like that was what he wanted to do; but then Alexis touched him. He watched Roland touch the two marines while Alexis touched Boston and took her husband’s arm. The feeling of compulsion faded.
“So that is how it is.” The old man stared at them for another moment before he noticed the doctor’s amulet. Of all the sophisticated things they had, the big old man went for something he might call familiar. “And what is this?”
“It is just a bit of sentimental wood.” Doctor Procter practiced that lie.
“No, wait. Don’t tell me. It is, how should I call it, a locator.” The big old man smiled at himself. He obviously had special powers of discernment as well as compulsion. “I should have this, but then you know how to use it.” Doctor Procter could do little more than nod. “I need you to locate something for me.” He turned his back on them to walk again to the stump and bed where he lifted a spear as tall as the tent top. “Please.” He said that last word without facing any of them, and it sounded like it came out, forced through gritted teeth.
“Well, I don’t know. It isn’t…” The doctor started to speak, but stopped when Mingus bumped him. Mingus, a full-blood elf, knew the sound of a bargain when he heard one.
“What would you have us find?” he asked.
The big man stood with his spear. “There is a creature,” he said, before then he thought to explain. “My people are hungry because the powers in my world have rebelled against me. They have made this unnatural abomination and kept the food to feed it and help it grow. This travesty must stop. You must help me find it so I can end it.”
The big old man turned and eyed the elf with big, sad eyes. “My people are hungry,” he repeated.
“A true manipulator,” Mingus spoke, with a bit of admiration in his voice. He would have said something else, but Lockhart interrupted.
“We will do it.” Several eyes shot to him in wonder. “Doctor, we can follow the direction on your amulet and I am sure this fine man will help us with the crowd.”
“Yes, of course.” Alexis stepped up and took the doctor’s hand. “We will follow the direction pointed out on the amulet and this man will help us through the masses of people.” She turned to the big man. “We will help you because the people need food. People should not starve. That isn’t right.”
The big man smiled weakly but called with some strength. “Moragga!” The woman poked her head into the tent. “Gather the men. We are going on a hunt.”