The following day, they rode extra hard. Lockhart’s horse and Decker’s horse nearly gave out, having carried such big men for so long. Sukki’s horse, Freedom, struggled. Boston’s Honey and Elder Stow’s horse seemed fine, but Lockhart grew concerned. Their journey through time was long enough and hard enough as it was. The horses made it tolerable. He could not imagine walking the rest of the way back to the twenty-first century, especially since the time gates began to get further and further apart as humans started traveling greater distances from home.
After lunch, they crossed a couple of rivers and moved into the foothills of Mount Othrys, leaving the coast behind them. They knew they were getting close, and this time they would not stop at dark. Even so, they had to get down and walk the horses now and then. During one of those times, Arias told them about the Athol.
“It is an isolated valley nestled in the foothills of Mount Othrys. The road bypasses the valley, running through a gap in those foothills. The little Athol River is not much of a river. In the dry season, you can wade across it in spots. It runs into a small, but deep bay where there are great docks for merchant shipping. The people of the Athol have a great reputation making weapons and branding the horses that run in the hills—some of the best horses in Greece. They have a silver mine, a copper mine, and an iron mine in those hills with hamlets scattered here and there.”
“Weapons?” Lockhart asked.
“They made the bronze weapons used at Troy. They made the iron weapons Alexander used against the Persians. The city is barely a town. It has a wall only part way around; never finished. My husband Damon teaches the martial arts at the Athol Academy. Sophia’s husband is the Princess’ older brother, Darien. He is a Roman citizen, a tribune for the province, charged with keeping an eye on Phillip and his Macedonians.”
“And the Princess is married?” Boston asked.
“Yes, of course. Her husband, Julius, is the son of a Roman Senator. It is a long story.”
When they rode again, they did not get far before they saw another horse, struggling among the trees. Arias sensed something and raised her shield before the arrow struck. Lockhart pulled his handgun and fired at the tree. Decker fired three shots from his rifle. Elder Stow did one better. His handgun was on a low setting, but it still flashed bright in the afternoon and set the tree on fire. The dead man that fell to the ground looked badly burned.
“Mylo,” Arias identified him.
Boston nodded to confirm Arias’ perception before she complained to Elder Stow. “A little overkill, don’t you think?”
“Sorry young Boston,” Elder Stow apologized. “It is at a low setting, but I see I need to lower it some more.”
Althea said, “Wow.” Meriope and Aurora appeared to have trouble closing their mouths. Sophia did not look pleased.
“I agree with the Princess,” she said. “I hate the killing part.”
Barely an hour later, the group topped a rise and saw two large companies of men camped across the road from each other. They were not fighting but looked ready to go at it at any moment.
Arias pointed when they stopped. “On the left it looks like two or three hundred actual soldiers, Athol guards and maybe Damon and some fourth-year students from the Academy. Not long ago, the Romans camped on Euboea, the army of the Aetolian League camped just below Thermopylae, and Phillip and the Macedonian army camped around Thebae. They circled the little valley, all about a day away, and they stared hard at each other. The Athol mustered four—less than five thousand men, and some women, for self-defense, and that just about emptied the valley.”
“It doesn’t sound like a very big place,” Lockhart said.
Arias agreed. “It isn’t. That is one of the reasons it has survived at peace for all these centuries. It is isolated, of no strategic importance, and never had a population big enough to threaten anyone.” Arias turned her eyes. “On the right, the collection of what may be a hundred and fifty or so men, is Xitides and his brigands. They are the ones who look like three pirate ships emptied their dregs on the beach.”
“Why is he here?” Sophia pushed forward and asked. “Thermopylae is only a long day away. He could be half-way to the Peloponnesus by now.”
“Waiting for us,” Arias answered. “He wants this settled and doesn’t want me chasing him all over Greece.” She started her horse down the other side of the rise, and the others followed.
It did not take long to find the Princess. Arias paused to kiss her husband, Damon, and while they clearly loved each other, neither appeared the type to go in for public shows of affection. Sophia, by contrast, ran into the arms of her husband, Darien. They adored each other and did not care who saw. Boston ran into the Princess’ hug but hugged carefully around the baby. The Princess smiled, before she put one hand on her belly.
“I remember you from the future,” Boston grinned as hard as she could. “I saved that up all this time so I could see Lockhart shake his confused head, about remembering the future.”
“No,” Lockhart shook his head and disappointed Boston. “At this point, I have that one figured out.”
“Pooh,” the Princess said.
“Oh, pooh,” Boston said at the same time.
“My husband, Julius,” the Princess said, as she let go of Boston and reached a hand behind her. Julius came and took it and acknowledged Boston in the right way.
“I used to be human,” Boston admitted. “Alexis used to be an elf, so we kind of evened out.”
“Yes.” The Princess looked around. “Where are the others.”
“Katie and the others should be along tomorrow at about this time,” Lockhart said.
“We have to end this,” Arias interrupted.
“Elder Stow and Sukki. Would you stay here?” Lockhart continued. “And Boston—”
“No way, boss.”
“—I know better than to ask you to stay with them.”
Arias spoke. “Meriope and Aurora, stay with them.” The rest of the crew, including the Princess and various husbands, crossed the road.
Xitides had already come out. He looked an imposing sight and had a dozen big and mean looking men to back him up. He looked like he might snarl, but he also looked at the men behind him, like he wondered if he had enough.
Arias stepped forward, stopped several yards back from the brigands, and said one word. “Explain.”
Xitides stepped right up to Arias’ face. He looked as big as Lockhart and Decker, a bit over six feet tall, and was one man in Greece that could actually look down on Arias. It didn’t help. When he got close, he fell to his knees and whined, like a schoolyard bully caught in the act.
“I’m sorry. We went around. I respected Amazon land. Philocrates took his company and did that all on his own. When I found out, I threw him out right away. You have to believe me. I would never do such a thing. It wasn’t me. I didn’t do it. I’m sorry. You have to believe me.”
“Okay. I accept your apology. Where is Philocrates.”
Xitides got slowly to his feet. He appeared to be thinking… but thought better of it. He wiped one eye with his thumb which put a dirt streak across his cheek. He waved, and Philocrates got brought out kicking and screaming through his gag. He was tied, but it still took four men to carry him. They threw him at Arias’ feet.
Philocrates got to his knees, barely raised his head, and did not get to plead, when Arias pulled her sword, fast as a gunslinger. Philocrates head bounced in the dirt. Then Philocrates’ body fell to join it.
“Amazons don’t suffer rapists to live,” Arias said, and turned her back on the whole mercenary army. Xitides put his hand to his own throat and stared, and so did any number of his men. Sophia hid her face. Lockhart and Boston dropped their jaws a little. Decker Spit, and Arias spoke to the Princess. “You want this pirate for something?”
“Not me,” the Princess said. “I can’t stand the smell of him. He is stinking up my beautiful hills.”
Damon, Darien, and Julius all stayed with the little Athol army. The brigands would move off for Thermopylae in the morning. They got the men to bury Philocrates’ body beside the road. After so many centuries, it was hardly the first such grave. It would serve as a reminder, and mostly a warning to any thief, pirate, brigand, mercenary group, or army that might be tempted to see what silver or other goodies the Athol might have to offer. The others, Amazons and Travelers, followed the Princess and her four guardsmen along the trail-road through the hills to her little city.
Two days later, Katie and the others arrived, and in the morning, the Princess and Julius took the travelers to one of the dozen stables around the field. The stables got used when the people brought horses down from the hills and in from the surrounding plains for branding, training, and sale.
The stable she took them to had ten young mustangs, one mule, and a new wagon for the road. “They are four or five, about the age of the horses you started with. If you treat them well and give them regular rest as you have been doing, I hope they will last the two plus years you have left to travel. Glen says hi, by the way, but I dare not bring him here to say hi himself. Sophia mentioned that you started this journey three years later than I have access to his life. It would not be good to have you tell him what he has to look forward to, not that he would remember.”
“But what about Honey,” Boston looked ready to cry. She loved her horse, like a pet.
“I hope to send your horses and the cowboy horses back to Casidy, so he can recoup some of the money he spent. I don’t know. I needed Athena, Apollo, and Artemis all working together to get these horses here. I don’t expect the same help to send yours back. I may have to put them out to stud, which might be like a reward for a job well done. The Athol already has a reputation for the best horses in Greece. A few mustangs bred into the mix would cement that reputation forever.”
“And the mule?” Lincoln asked.
“As strong and hearty as they come. I had a mule once. We called him Stinky. We made him bring up the rear. You can imagine.”
“When was that?”
“About three hundred and fifty years in the future,” the Princess said, without so much as a grin.
Lockhart smiled for her. “That’s my Kairos.”
The Princess went on. “The horses are all tied to you, just like at first, though for Millie and Evan, the tie did not take as well. I think I didn’t know Millie and Evan as well when I did that. But they won’t wander. You may notice the Roman saddles. I cheated and gave you stirrups, and horseshoes, with extras in the wagon, but you can’t go back to western gear until about a thousand years from now; or about a year from now, travel time. Your stinky mule may need replacing at that point, and maybe your wagon, but we will have to see what I can do without the help of the gods.” The Princess shrugged and slipped into Julius’ arms for some hugging. She had one more thing to say. “Just don’t screw anything up that I can’t fix. From here on, history is in the balance.”
Next time, the travelers find themselves in Galilee and pick up three very strange passengers. Until then, Happy Reading