Lockhart, with Tony’s help, moved the wagon through the time gate, and then through the hole in the wall and into what looked like stables. Boston directed them with hand signals toward the back of the building where she said the roof supports remained solid. She could not vouch for the front of the building.
“This is the exact same place” Alexis whispered, as she and Lincoln came next. “We moved forward in time from a vibrant city to ruins but stayed in the exact same place as far as I can tell.” They immediately dismounted and began to gather the horses while Tony set Ghost, the mule, free of the wagon.
“Some years later,” Lincoln responded with a nod.
Lockhart looked around at the condition of the building. “I would guess the Romans lost the city to the Persians.”
“Sassanids,” Lincoln corrected him.
“Must have been some battle,” Boston said.
“Where’s Katie?” Lockhart asked, as Sukki and Nanette came in. Elder Stow had to stay in the shadow of the hole in the wall to keep the particle screen in the time gate in order to keep them from being followed. They had seen time-locked men try to step into the future and age fifty years in a matter of seconds. It was not pretty.
“Keep to the back of the building,” Boston told her sisters, and added, “Come on.” She led Lockhart to the front, one eye on the ceiling, until they came to a rubble-filed front end where the ceiling had collapsed. Katie hid in the rubble and watched the activity in the street.
The buildings across the street were almost entirely rubble. They looked like they had been burned down at some point, and after some years, now appeared as mere ruins. Without those buildings blocking her way, Katie could see to the city wall, and the holes someone made in that wall.
Lockhart and Boston snuck up carefully, and Lockhart asked, “Where’s Decker?” Katie pointed up, as if to say he somehow crawled up on the roof. She handed Lockhart her binoculars and got out the scope for her rifle. He took a look.
A whole battalion of soldiers sat in the street down toward the city wall. He guessed they were supposed to be hidden, ready to repel invaders when called. On the crumbling wall itself, he saw defenders with spears, probably bows, and he definitely saw some rifles, which were utterly out of place in that time period. He imagined they were single shot, muzzle loaded matchlocks, like they ran into before. Individually, they would not be much more effective than bows and arrows—less effective when he considered the time it took to reload. But they had stopping power arrows did not have. Bullets could punch right through enemy shields and armor. If they massed a volley, or managed several volleys against a marching army, they might turn them away. They also had better range. Much better than a shower of arrows.
“Where did they get the rifles?” Lockhart asked.
“Ramin Lajani,” Boston said. “He was the young merchant boss that survived when Xalazar got killed.”
“I think I see where the cavalry is located,” Katie spoke, without taking her eye from her scope. “They must have cleared a road down by the wall, near that gate there.”
“Someone is walking into a trap,” Lockhart concluded, even as they heard trumpets in the distance. All eyes, including Boston’s elf eyes tried to see through the spaces in the wall. Word came down from Decker over the wristwatch communicators.
“There is a Roman army marching in the distance. They will probably send spies, or a small troop to check out the city before getting too close. At least, I would. But they probably won’t have any idea how big an ambush they are walking into.”
“Why come here?” Lockhart asked.
“The city looks abandoned,” Katie answered. “And if they are crossing into Sassanid territory, this place still has bridges across the Euphrates.”
They heard the crack of a rifle overhead. Lockhart and Katie got on their wristwatches to admonish Decker, but Boston looked with her good elf eyes. She saw a soldier with a rife fall off the wall. She softly mouthed her own Wilhelm scream
“Decker,” Lockhart said, as Tony came to join them. Tony had a message but had to wait.
“People with guns are enemy combatants,” Decker responded.
“It’s all right,” Elder Stow interrupted. “I have managed a full Decker screen around the stables. Young Boston is correct. The front-end load bearing pillars are weak, probably from years of weathering. To compensate, I had to enlarge it enough to take in the alley and the houses on both sides. It is stretched, but manageable.”
“People?” Katie asked, without spelling out the question.
“There are seven life signs in the house across the alley,” Elder Stow responded. “And a half-dozen below the house, like in the basement, perhaps. Alexis and Lincoln have gone to check it out.”
Decker fired again, and another man with a rifle fell off the distant wall.
“Decker,” Lockhart yelled into his wristwatch this time, even as Alexis and Lincoln exited the hole in the stable wall. They saw a woman, maybe in her late thirties, in the door of the house across the way—a house which surprisingly still looked in good shape. The woman gasped on sight of Lincoln and Alexis and fell to her knees.
A young girl, maybe six, and a boy about ten came to stand behind their mother. “What is it?” the young girl asked.
“It must be the gods,” the woman said.
A man in his early forties and a dwarf came to the door, and the man smiled and spoke first. “No, dear. It is Lincoln and Alexis. I remember. Where is the rest of the crew?”
“Where is that red-headed elf?” the dwarf asked, recognizing the travelers for who they were. Having their home caught inside Elder Stow’s particle screens sort of gave it away.
“It’s not Zenobia,” Lincoln whispered and put his arm out to prevent Alexis from running forward. But Alexis had already paused. She squinted at the man before she came out with her thought.
The man nodded and helped his wife up from her knees. “I have aged. You haven’t. I was wondering how this time travel thing you talked about worked.”
“But I remember you,” Arman’s wife spouted, and pointed at Alexis.
“My wife, Aleah. My younger son, Loran, and my younger daughter Leah,” Arman introduced them.
“Prenner,” the dwarf introduced himself.
Arman nodded. “My older boy is down in the dwarf house with the dwarf boys.”
“Messing up the place, no doubt,” Prenner said.
“My older daughter is with Bitsies making super.”
“Bitsies?” Alexis asked.
“My wife,” Prenner answered.
“Lockhart,” Lincoln got on his wristwatch communicator. ‘We got Arman living next door, right where we left him.”
“Arman,” Katie answered.
“Keep him there,” Lockhart responded. “It isn’t safe out here.”
Three soldiers from the battalion came up the street to see what was making that noise. Decker ignored them. They carried nothing more than spears, or javelins, and he figured they would stop at whatever point the edge of Elder Stow’s screens reached. He fired once more, and another gun toting man peeled off the distant wall. The men there began to seek cover, so he would not likely get another clean shot.
Katie arrived at the hole in the wall the same time as Sukki. Sukki spoke softly. “Nanette and father have the horses, but they wanted to be sure Arman and his family were safe.”
“So far,” Katie responded. “But not if Decker keeps shooting enemy riflemen.”
“What?” Lincoln needed to know, and Katie told him.
“The Sassanids have an ambush planned in the city. A Roman legion is marching right into it, and the Sassanids have riflemen on the city walls. Probably matchlocks, but effective enough.”
“Sergeant,” Arman yelled. “Sergeant Vespavian.”
A grizzled old man limped around the corner and stood at the end of the alley. He put his hand up to feel for the edge of Elder Stow’s screen, like he was familiar with the concept. “So, your friends came back,” the sergeant said. “You know, the governor wants to see you, twenty years ago.” He laughed.
“You heard?” Arman said.
“I heard,” the sergeant answered. “The problem is, the enemy has every exit from the city covered. There is no way my few men can ride out and warn the legion. As for attacking them, even from the rear, even by surprise, even if we had bunches of Prenner’s people with us… why, that would be just plain mad.”
Katie did not hesitate. “Can you get your men up on the roofs?” She pointed at the top of the house and a building across the street that still stood. “You will need a way of escape if your position is about to be overrun, but in the meanwhile, if we draw some of the soldiers to attack us, you can catch them in a crossfire.”
“But what if they send the whole army after us?” Lincoln objected.
“They won’t,” Katie said, confidently. “Their first concern is the oncoming Roman army, but we may be able to help by drawing off some of their troops and sting them from the rear with our guns. Plus, the sound of our guns may alert the oncoming Romans to the pending ambush.”
The men paused to think it through, until Arman said, “Vespavian?”
The old sergeant nodded. “That might work for a couple of volleys in the right circumstances. If they bring up a whole troop, though, we may have to run quickly.”
“Do it,” Lincoln said. He was not sure how that would work, exactly, but he had learned to trust Katie’s military instincts.
“Do it,” Arman echoed.
The old soldier nodded slightly, and still thinking about it, he disappeared around the corner. A moment later, they heard him yelling.
Katie turned, and Sukki mumbled that she would be up front as soon as she and Nanette secured the horses. Lincoln followed, but Alexis paused to say, “Stay here, in your home, where you are safe.”
Arman turned to his wife, Aleah. “Stay here.”
Aleah turned to Prenner the dwarf. “Keep the children here and safe,” she said, even as the little girl took hold of her dress, and the boy ran ahead.
Prenner turned in time to see his two boys and Aleah’s fifteen-year-old boy come tumbling out of the side door and follow the others. He paused. Whatever his wife, her mother, and Aleah’s daughter were cooking sure smelled good, but he turned to follow the others and only mumbled about how he might starve to death if this took too long.