Boston and Sukki rode out front, as usual. Decker and Elder Stow still took the wings, but on this trip, Harpalus and one of his soldiers came behind Boston and Sukki. Katie and Lockhart got relegated to the third place in line, with Lincoln and Alexis, and then Evan and Millie behind them. Wallace rode at the back, next to the mule that drew the wagon full of the traveler’s things. That would have been it, but Harpalus assigned his last two men to act as a rear guard. They rode thirty paces back and passed the time with quiet conversation.
The group made good time, but they would not reach Thermopylae until afternoon on the second day. Then, it would be a few days across the Thessalian plains, and they figured they would find the time gate just shy of the Macedonian border.
King Phillip had sent word to the Athenian garrison that had been assigned to block the pass. Harpalus assumed the Athenians abandoned their position and returned to Athens and a Macedonian garrison now watched the narrow place. He had an optimistic view on life, and his conversation came out as positive and complimentary.
“I can tell you folks are used to traveling in the wild,” Harpalus said over lunch on that second day. They had stopped just shy of entering a copse of trees before the pass. “You seemed uncertain at the inn, last night. But here, out on the grass, under the blue sky, you seem perfectly at ease.”
“Lots of practice,” Elder Stow responded, absentmindedly.
“Plus, we have a few secret weapons, like a fire starter,” Alexis said, pointing at Boston.
“And a good cook to compliment the good hunters,” Lincoln agreed, and gave Alexis a pat on her shoulder as he leaned over to smell the roast.
“Everyone does their job and it works out,” Lockhart suggested.
“We go with our strengths,” Decker added, as Evan, Millie, Wallace, and two of the soldiers came from tending the horses.
“What?” Boston watched Katie who had her eyes turned toward where the road ahead entered the trees.
“Yes, what?” Millie looked up and echoed the question. Sukki turned her head to look down the road to see if something might be coming.
Katie shook her head and appeared to come back to reality. “It’s just… We have been a day and a half and haven’t run into a single trap set by the witch.”
“I hear that,” Decker mumbled.
“Maybe we went in an unexpected route,” Lockhart suggested. “We came up to the coastal road, rather than traveling the one we were on.” He made a space beside himself.
“Maybe,” Katie said, as she took that seat by the fire. “But Thermopylae is a narrow place. If she expected us to go this way, that is the place where we need to look out.”
“I’ve been looking out for traps this whole way,” Boston said.
“Me, too,” Sukki echoed.
“Me, too,” Lincoln whispered.
After lunch, the woods appeared darker and more foreboding than before. The sky did not darken, and the woods did not crowd the road any more after lunch. The travelers just spent lunch thinking about Katie’s words, and the witch, and they got wary. Elder Stow scanned the little wooded area and saw no sign of people, but it did not prevent anyone from being careful.
Boston rode out front to where she could see the road exit the little woods. The soldiers in the rear just moved fully into the woods. Boston got ready to shout about the light at the end of the tunnel, when the trees moved. They did not pull up their roots and move, but they bent over the road, like trees in a strong wind, and the branches grabbed at the people.
People shouted. They panicked. Swords and knives came out to hack at the branches. People pushed their horses toward Boston and the edge of the woods. Even as the rear guard closed the gap with the group, Sukki got snatched right out of her saddle. The branches tried to close around the girl, but Sukki flexed her Gott-Druk muscles, grabbed one of the branches, and ripped it right off the tree. She fell to the ground.
“Get out,” Lockhart yelled, though it was unnecessary. After the initial shock, people rode for the exit from the woods as fast as they could. Boston rode back to Sukki, and shot flame from her wand, setting that tree on fire. In true rodeo style, she reached down. Sukki grabbed Boston’s hand and leapt up behind her.
The ground beneath their feet began to shake. Boston and Sukki on Honey rode like wild women as the ground started to open up. Honey had to leap over a tear in the ground at the end, but they made it to the grass beyond. They got down right away to try and stand while the ground trembled. It would not have been good to stay on horseback during an earthquake. The people and horses protested, but it ended quickly. People made sure everyone got out in one piece.
Katie and Lockhart stepped up, and Harpalus limped over to the edge of the road, while Elder Stow checked the readings on his scanner. They examined the crack in the surface of the road which ran into the woods for as far as they could see.
“Strictly local,” Elder Stow reported. “Not really an earthquake. No depth to it.”
“That crack in the ground would have ruined the horses if we hadn’t gotten out of it,” Lockhart said.
“We might have broken our own legs,” Katie agreed.
Harpalus smiled. “Good thing I already have a limp.”
“Speaking of broken legs,” Lincoln joined them. “Alexis says the mule is down. Decker says the wagon is still in good shape.”
“Pioneer built for the Oregon Trail,” Lockhart said.
“They still make that game?” Katie asked.
“Thanks a lot,” Lincoln frowned. “Now I am going to have that song running through my head for the rest of the afternoon.”
Harpalus could not even imagine what they were talking about, but he could laugh with Katie and Lockhart.
Sukki found her horse Freedom, safe and sound. The horse had followed the others when Sukki ended up in the tree. She got right up, but then had to wait while they hitched Wallace’s horse to the wagon. Wallace would still ride the horse as it pulled the wagon.
“Just don’t expect me to ride very fast,” he said. The others understood, but up until then, the whole trip had been at a walking pace. Sukki got sent back to keep Wallace company, which neither minded. Wallace liked the big girl, though he did not really grasp the concept that she was a Neanderthal wearing a magical, human-looking disguise. He got shown back in Diana’s day, but he forgot. Katie suggested that the fact that Wallace did not remember details well could be why he was not a very good scholar.
“No,” Lockhart countered. “He reminds me of lots of people I know. He has a very narrow and limited view of reality. Anything that doesn’t fit with his pre-conceived notions he justifies or rationalizes away, or just erases from his memory.”
Lincoln butted into the conversation. “What a sad little way to go through life.”
Alexis nodded, sadly, but Katie added a thought. “If we can get him back to Professor Fleming, we need to encourage him to stay there. He will never survive this journey.”
They all looked back.
Sukki, on the other hand, also liked Wallace well enough to talk to him, where she stayed shy around some of the others, so it worked out well for the moment.
Katie and Lockhart moved up to the front, and put Boston behind them. They opted to keep to the road for the present, but Katie and Lockhart wanted to keep their eyes open. Decker and Elder Stow sharpened their watch on the wings.
Boston extended her elf senses, trying to find any little spirits that might be in the area. She sensed a dwarf village in a nearby mountain, but when she sent her thoughts ahead, the dwarfs, in typical fashion, had no interest in helping. One dwarf named Bogramus said he might meet them in Thermopylae. Closer to the pass, she sensed a fairy camp well off the road and in a different section of woods. Most of the fairies took the same stance as the dwarfs. Boston felt their reluctance to get too close to the humans that seemed bent on killing each other at every turn. Philoxes and Maren, a young fairy couple, thought they might look ahead, but they were not sure what they were supposed to be looking for, and Boston felt reluctant to mention the witch.
The travelers came to a rise in the road and Harpalus spoke as they started down the other side. “Up ahead, there, where the mountain presses toward the sea, is Thermopylae.” He expected them to stop and gawk, but the travelers pressed on.
“We have been here before,” Lincoln explained from behind.
Katie spoke from the front. “Here, three hundred Spartans stood against all the hordes of Asia.”
“True enough,” Harpalus said, and nearly fell as his horse stopped suddenly. Lockhart and Katie stopped, and Boston stopped short behind them all. Lockhart pulled out his binoculars. Katie grabbed the scope for her rifle. They saw bodies of dead men up ahead, near a fortified position.
Elder Stow’s voice sounded out from the wristwatch communicators. “Get to a defensive place,” he yelled. They saw him riding hard, being chased by a troop of soldiers. Though the soldiers were still some distance off. Lockhart turned his binoculars in that direction and saw one of the cowboys leading the pack.
Decker came up from the other direction, waving for them to join him. He also got followed by a dozen riders, but these looked like Macedonians or Thessalians. “Get off the road. The road is mined.” Even as he spoke, the two in the rear hit something. It exploded between the two horses, and the horses went down while the riders got tossed to the ground.
Four of the Macedonians broke from the pack and bravely went to check on their compatriots. The rest, with Decker, stopped short of the road, while the travelers quickly vacated the highway. Wallace got the wagon to the grass, and wisely did not stop. Sukki, Evan, Millie, Lincoln and Alexis stayed right with him and encouraged him in the direction from which the Macedonians had come.
Decker pulled his rifle. As Elder Stow neared the road, Decker let loose with several streams of automatic fire. The cowboy recognized the sound and backed off, letting the others get in front of him, even though he could outrace them all on his big mustang. Several men and horses in the attacking party went down before Elder Stow crossed the road, and Decker turned to ride with him. Elder Stow pulled out his sonic device and let loose behind him. He expected the pursuing horses to complain, but he managed to set off several of the explosives buried in the road. They were large enough to damage anyone close, and while the enemy did not yet reach the road, they stopped short and looked hesitant.
The travelers found a sheltered hollow in the rocks that held nearly a hundred horses, nibbling on whatever they could find. The Macedonians filled the rocks, and most had bows and arrows to defend their position. They had several wagons, but only had two tents set up, so clearly the men had slept in the rocks over the last two or three days.
Alexis found wounded men in one of the tents, so she, with Lincoln to assist, got right to work.