The travelers went right up the middle of the Swiss Plateau. They reached the Aare River midday on the fourth day. It took another three and a half days to reach Habsburg, still a few hours from the Rhine. They figured early on that if they were on foot, like infantry, and maybe had a wagon and a mule, a flatboat would seriously cut the time in the field. But they were on horseback, like cavalry, and would not fit on a riverboat. They would also have to stop and rest regularly, walk the horses plenty, and could not float along through the night, not that they assumed the flatboats did that.
In Habsburg, they found a road that would cut the corner of where the Aare flowed into the Rhine. By taking the road, they might reach Basel in two long days.
“Still ten days since entering this time zone,” Lockhart pointed out over supper at the inn.
“Not twelve or fourteen days,” Katie countered. “At least the zones stopped getting bigger.”
“It would have been more than twelve days if we didn’t find the roads we found, and if the Romans did not build such straight roads,” Lockhart said. “Winding back and forth around every little hill would have taken forever.”
“But it would have been less if we could have gone straight to Basel,” Katie countered. “We had to take two sides of the triangle instead of the hypotenuse to get around the Jura Mountains.”
“Why is that guy looking at us?” Boston asked. Nanette stopped eating to look.
Decker spoke softly. “Our track record of meeting people at an inn has not been good.” Katie nodded, but the man already left his two companions to come to the table.
“Pardon me for listening, but did I hear you say you are traveling to Basel?”
“Overland, on the road,” Lockhart said.
“To Rheinfelden, and Basel the next day.” Katie added, “Why?”
The man humbled himself. “My companions and I have some business to take care of in Basel, but we are afraid to go there. Too many soldiers on the road makes for dangerous passage.”
“I would think the soldiers would scare the thieves away,” Boston said, but Tony answered.
“Soldiers can be as dangerous as thieves if their officers are not there to watch them.”
“Indeed,” the man said. “Sometimes the officers encourage the looting. Soldiers agree to fight for the loot and to enrich themselves, but they are not always particular about where that loot comes from.”
“You have a name?” Decker asked.
“Thirteen is unlucky,” Tony mumbled.
“Half of my crew are women,” Lockhart pointed out.
The man nodded to Lockhart. “But this one with the yellow hair, and the big one at the other table have the look of Rhine maidens. They are known to be fierce warriors.”
Katie smiled. “I can’t deny that.”
Lockhart looked at Decker who shrugged, Tony who looked at his food, and Boston who kept her mouth closed, and Lockhart spoke. “We will leave early, hopefully sunrise. Meet us then if you want to go with us.”
“Yes, thank you, thank you,” the man said and went back to his supper. Almost immediately, the three men finished and left the inn, and Boston spoke.
“I don’t know. Something fishy about that guy.”
“I did not sense any danger to us,” Katie said.
“But what?” Lockhart asked. Katie shook her head. She was not sure.
“Too convenient,” Decker tried a thought. “Too coincidental.”
“Or a lucky break for them,” Nanette tried.
“They might have come in here every day for a week waiting to find a group headed for Basel,” Tony suggested.
“Maybe,” Decker said, and dropped the subject.
“So, we keep an eye on them,” Lockhart said, and that was the last thing they said about it until the morning.
When the morning came, the travelers found the three men up and waiting for them. It did not take long to saddle up and hitch Ghost to the wagon. The road to Rheinfelden was not in the best repair, but it was Roman straight and maintained well enough. It got some regular traffic.
Boston and Sukki took the point, as usual. They spent the day riding ahead and coming back to report what they found—mostly farmland. Decker and Elder Stow did not wander too far out on the wings. This was farm country, and the people were wary. Farmers tended to lose their grain and livestock when soldiers, and in particular foreign fighters came through the area.
Katie and Lockhart led the group. Engelbroad rode behind them, mostly by himself, though sometimes Sukki, and once Boston fit themselves in beside the man. They offered to let Engelbroad lead the party, but he said he had only been on that road a couple of times, and it was a road, not a trail they had to follow through the wilderness.
Tony and Nanette followed the man, while Lincoln and Alexis drove the wagon. Hoffen and Budman brought up the rear and said nothing, except occasionally to each other. Katie asked where they were from, and Engelbroad did not mind answering questions.
“I was raised in Ufenau, on the lake south of Zurich, if you heard of it. Budman is from Konstanz on the big lake, where the bishop resides, and Hoffen lives between us in Kyburg. Our families have been partners in business for many years.”
“And what is it you sell?” Katie tried to encourage the man to open up without sounding like she was prying.
Engelbroad seemed to accept her natural curiosity. “The land between the lakes is full of stones and not given to crops, but for horses and cattle, it is well made. We hope to make a deal with the army, to supply cattle and horses for the war. Everyone is gathering along the Rhine, Alemanni, Burgundians, Swabians, and some Bavarians and Thuringians. The call went out two months ago, and they must be about ready now to march. I do not know exactly where they are going, but it will be a fight. What I know is we would like to sell our beef and horseflesh and have some coins, rather than have the army just take our livelihood on their way through.”
“And you figure to go to Basel?” Lockhart asked.
Engelbroad sounded certain about that. “I heard that is where the great Charles, King of the Franks and his Uncle Bernard are gathering the leaders of the various army groups and setting their plans, wherever they are going. They would be the ones to talk to if I can.”
“The great Charles?” Lockhart asked Katie.
“Right now, everyone is subject to the Franks. The great Charles is a safe thing to say. Soon enough it will be Charlemagne, which means the great Charles in the Frankish tongue.” Katie shrugged.
“Yours is a fine horse,” Tony spoke up from behind, distracting Engelbroad. The horses, at least in Europe, were beginning to catch up to the quality of the mustangs the travelers rode.
Engelbroad looked back to say thank you and stared at Nanette for a second before speaking again. “Yours is certainly a strange crew. Where are you from if I may ask?”
Lockhart looked back and felt glad Lincoln was driving the wagon and mostly out of earshot. Normally, Lincoln would have blurted out something that might not be the best thing to admit.
“Far in the west,” Katie said. “We have a friend to visit in Basel before we head into the west.”
“Francia?” Engelbroad asked.
“Most of us have British blood,” Lockhart said.
“From Brittany?” Engelbroad asked. “You are Celtic?”
“From England, or Scotch or Irish,” Lockhart guessed. “Tony still has some family around Rome.”
“And your Black people?”
“Originally from Africa, south of the Muslim intrusion in North Africa, but they have lived in our country for several generations.”
Engelbroad took a breath of relief. “I thought for a minute you might all be Muslims. The Franks and Muslims do not get along well, you know.”
“Baptist,” Nanette raised her hand. “Decker is AME, whatever that is.”
“We were in Constantinople not that long ago,” Tony thought to add.
“Ahh,” Engelbroad sighed. “Pilgrims. That explains much. And you being from Celtic lands explains much as well.”
After a brief lunch, somewhere in the midst of a long afternoon, they saw an Ape ship, a shuttle of some sort, fly overhead. It paused to examine the people from above but made no move to stop them as it flew quickly to the horizon. Everyone looked up. Sukki, for the moment, rode beside Engelbroad, and Nanette got her attention. They noticed Engelbroad looked nervous, but not surprised to see a spaceship overhead. They would mention it to the others over supper, or when they had a chance.
Nanette figured a man from 773, if not frightened, would at least be surprised and staring, not trying to hide like she imagined him doing. Sukki pulled out from the group and caught up with Boston who was coming back, pointing overhead. She did not need to point out the obvious. Everyone saw, and many of the travelers wondered what the apes might be looking for. They clearly got the message the Apes were looking for something.