The travelers arrived in the bay after dark. The tide had already gone out, so they had to wait until the early morning hours to dock and unload the horses. Lockhart set Pinto’s hands free, thinking the man could not do anything, and he needed to be able to feed himself. Besides, he wanted his handcuffs back. All the same, people slept on the deck with their weapons handy. Boston slept with one ear on the horses below, and Lincoln slept with their money bag nestled securely between himself and Alexis. Alexis complained, but she felt tired enough to sleep no matter what.
Sure enough, in the early hours, a couple of crew members joined Pinto in stealing the long boat. They rowed to shore where they could get lost in the crowd and not have to answer any questions the harbor master and his legionnaires might ask. Captain Ardacles said good riddance, and a mate is no good if you can’t trust him. The travelers did not believe him. Several suspected that after they got unloaded, Pinto and his friends would be back on board to continue their thieving ways.
Once free of the dock, all the papers signed in duplicate, they found the dozen monks of Barke, waiting patiently for them. Deacon Galarius introduced them all, but only Alexis, and maybe Nanette and Katie would remember all those names. Lincoln was quick to thank them for helping the ship get safely through the storm. They nodded, smiled, and said don’t mention it.
“We will walk with you on the road to Nicaea,” Deacon Galarius said, and several monks nodded. “That way, we can keep the wraith away, not to mention the thieves. The road is full of thieves looking for an isolated priest or bishop with a bag of gold.”
Lockhart looked around at the group and did not argue, even if it meant walking the whole way. They all began to walk, together, and brought the wagon along, slowly.
“What has that creature got against you folks, anyway?” Father Flavius opened the conversation.
“Not sure,” Lockhart answered.
“If it is the same one,” Lincoln said. “And not everyone agrees that it is.” He paused to start again. “If it is the same one, it followed us through a time gate about three thousand years ago and stayed mostly hidden until after the time of dissolution.”
“What is that?” Deacon Galarius asked. “The time of dissolution?”
“It is when the old gods gave up their flesh and blood and went back to being forces of nature.” Lockhart offered what he understood.
“It is when the holding places for the spirits of the dead, like Hades, gave up their dead,” Katie added.
“The advent of our Lord,” Father Flavius suggested with a nod.
“Basically,” Alexis agreed.
“Anyway,” Lincoln continued. “This wraith somehow got the idea that she is supposed to have our souls, and so far, we have not been able to stop her or talk her out of that idea.”
“I see,” Father Flavius said, though he did not explain exactly what he saw.
In the afternoon, they began the slow climb into the hills and Deacon Galarius came up front to warn the travelers. “The thieves are mostly here in the high country. The legion patrols the valleys, but apparently, they don’t get paid enough to climb into the hills. Besides, the hills are filled with off-road trails where a few men can scurry away to hide among the trees and rocks.”
“Welcome to Sherwood,” Lockhart said.
After a moment, Katie guessed, “Robin Hood?”
The group camped in a field where they had a fair view all around. They did not find much game, but the monks brought food stuffs for the journey. It included plenty of vegetables so Alexis, Boston, Sukki, and Elder Stow were happy. They also brought some beer, which helped everyone relax as they settled in for a night of careful watch. The thieves stayed away, but one visitor did show up in the early hours when Boston and Sukki awaited the sunrise.
“What?” Boston said, much too loud. “What do you want?”
The wraith hovered over the grass, just outside Elder Stow’s screen. The slight breeze that blew her ragged dress around, showed no feet to stand on beneath the dress. She looked old, a bit like a wrinkled and rotten fruit, but her many teeth looked clean and plenty sharp. Her voice sounded like the creak in the shutters of an old barn.
“I don’t want you, little spirit. You are no longer of any consequence,” she said, with a grin that showed all those teeth, but suggested she might change her mind. “And I have no interest in the elder ones, either the girl beside you that used to be an elder, nor the elder man that continues to travel with you. Nor do I have a claim on the new ones, neither the man, nor Nanette, who has proved a great disappointment. But the other five…” The wraith held up her hand. The fingers appeared wispy and seemed to have a hard time solidifying and coming into focus, but it was enough to count. “Yes, five. You must give them to me. I am charged by Domnu herself to feast upon their fear and drag their souls to the land of the dead where they will live in eternal torment.”
“The land of the dead has been emptied,” Deacon Galarius said as he stepped up behind Boston and Sukki.
“Yeah,” Boston spouted. “When was the last time you went there and checked?”
The wraith grew suddenly angry. The people took one step back in the face of that fury, but all the wraith could do was pound on Elder Stow’s screen and yell, “You lie. Give me the mortals. Give them to me.”
By then, the two monks on the watch stepped forward, and with Deacon Galarius, they appeared to pray. A mist, barely discernable, came from the monks and slipped right through the screens. It caught the wraith in mid-curse and pushed her further and further from the camp, until she disappeared behind a far hill. The yelling and cursing could be heard until the end.
Decker came running up, rifle in his hand. Nanette followed him, only a couple of paces behind. “Damn,” Decker said. He fired once in the general direction before Nanette caught him and took his arm.
“Next time,” Nanette said. Decker did not answer.
As the travelers and their escort followed the river down into the valley, toward the lake and the city of Nicaea, Alexis asked a serious question. “I thought the church frowned on sorcery.”
Father Flavius nodded as Deacon Galarius explained. “The church frowns on the misuse of power and the ungodly misuse of whatever talents or position the Lord gives. To violate a person’s conscience is the temptation—because with every gift there is temptation.”
“The Lords and rulers in this age, instead of leading and guiding people, they have most often sought to control people,” Father Flavius said. “They tried to make people think, act, and talk a certain way, and for years, threatened torture and death if, for example, the people were unwilling to sacrifice to the emperor. The government is not to be worshiped.”
“People need to make their own decision how they will act, think, and talk. People must come to Christ in their own heart, and neither threats nor magical trickery will do,” Deacon Galarius said. “The monks of Barke understand this and do everything that they do with prayer and supplication, being most careful not to violate others in their work.”
“It is for salvations sake,” Father Flavius agreed. “All gifts and talents are given for the building up of the body of Christ. Magic is a most rare, and honestly, most dangerous gift to be treated with the utmost care and oversight. But when it is misused in order to force or control others, or make things come out the way the magic user wishes, then it is sorcery, and the church does frown on that.”
“So, what you are saying.” Lincoln wanted to get it straight. “Nothing is evil of itself. It all depends on what people do with what they have been given.”
“God created all things and called them good,” Father Flavius said. “Without Christ, nothing was made that was made. Magic was made.”
“The rich man and the poor man lived side by side, and when they died, the rich man went to torment and the poor man went to paradise.” Deacon Galarius tried to explain. “When the rich man complained, he was told he had every good thing in life, and he did nothing to relieve the suffering of the poor man. Now, in death, the poor man has every good thing, and the rich man gets to suffer.”
“That is not exactly the story,” Father Flavius said. “But the rich young ruler was told to sell all that he had and give to the poor and come and follow Jesus. The rich man went away sad, because he had many things.”
Alexis offered her thought. “Back home, some think the rich should be forced to give up their money so it can be given to the poor.”
“No, no,” Father Flavius said. “Conscience, remember? The rich have been given a great gift, but they must find it in their hearts to give and help those in need. That is when it means something, has value, and God will bless. To take, by which I assume you mean steal, will accomplish only evil.”
“There are many talents and gifts with which the Lord gifts his people,” Deacon Galarius said. “Don’t make the gift of magic more than it is. Personally, I believe the most gifted person in the monastery of Barke is the cook. Without any magic whatsoever, he can take the most meagre rations and produce a feast worthy of the name.”
“Now, I’m hungry,” Father Flavius said.
Lockhart overheard and called, “Lunch.”
They stopped on the last small rise before the lake and the city, both of which they could see perfectly well down the hill. Elder Stow did not need his scanner. Decker did not need to meditate and let his eagle totem show him the countryside. Decker did, however, get out his binoculars. He sensed something wrong. All of the monks and the travelers that were sensitive to such things felt the same.
“Fire in the city,” Decker said, and handed his binoculars to Lincoln so he could have a look. Katie got out the scope for her rifle while Lockhart got her binoculars, which he handed around so some of the others could take a look.