Lockhart and Katie faced the elder council together while the rest of the travelers, with the help of many locals, rubbed down Ghost and the horses from their ice water bath. Kerga, the village chief, stood flanked by two ship captains, Jarl and Harrold. They appeared to be the ones who would make any decisions that had to be made. Old man Kerga did not seem to have a problem talking to the big blonde woman as an equal, unlike so many elders in so many other cultures, but it made more sense when Boston came up with Inga and spoke.
“This is Kirstie’s home village. She was born here and sailed from here several times on raids,” Boston said.
Inga interjected. “She went from here with the king’s men to a place she calls Oslo to join the Swedes in their fight against the Geats.”
“But she is on her way home,” Boston said. “She should be here in about a week. I vote we stay here and wait for her.”
“That should not be a problem,” Inga said with a look at Kerga. Kerga made no objection. “Only one thing,” Inga began, and Boston interrupted.
“They got Flesh Eaters in the woods. Two eaten down to the bones, and the third drained of all her blood.”
“Damn.” They heard Lincoln. He kept rubbing his horse but listened in.
“You know what plagues us?” Captain Jarl asked.
“You can do something about it?” Captain Harrold asked at about the same time.
“We will do what we can, but I am not sure what we can do,” Lockhart said.
“Kirstie may have an idea when she arrives,” Katie said, and saw some heads nod.
“That is why we sent for her,” Inga said.
“Yes,” Kerga spoke and looked around. “The king sent a man, Engel Bronson, to see what the king might do about our problem. I sent for him. Where is he?”
No one had an answer, until Jarl had a suggestion. “He may be exploring the woods again.”
Kerga nodded. “Come,” he started to say and changed the word to “Eric.” A young man arrived, anxious to help. “When they are warmed and ready, bring these people to the big house. They can make temporary shelters in the long meadow.” He walked off with a final word. “Inga.” She followed him.
Eric grinned and looked overwhelmed with questions while a young woman skipped up and took his hand. She grinned the same kind of grin Eric had, and she spoke up right away.
“I am Astrid. I am Eric’s wife of three whole months. I am going to have a baby.”
“Good for you,” Katie barely got the words out as she and Lockhart went to see to their horses.
“You have hair the color of Kirstie,” Eric said, though plenty of people in the village appeared to be blond. “Are you a shield maiden like her?”
“Yes,” Lockhart spoke right up, and explained to Katie. “I figure that is the Viking equivalent of a Rhine maiden.” Katie did not argue.
“So, where is this long meadow?” she asked.
“Ah,” Eric said. “I will show you. It runs right along the edge of the forest, so be careful if there are enemies in the woods.”
Lockhart understood. Kerga was positioning them to act as a wall between the Flesh Eaters and the village. Later, when they arrived at the long meadow, Elder Stow stepped up with a word.
“My father. I can set the screen around the meadow and our camp, but it will not stretch far enough to cover the whole village. I can also retune the discs for the family to carry. They will relay the fourth screen and filter out any Vr energy the Flesh Eaters may have.”
“Can you scan the forest?” Lockhart asked. “To see if there is a Flesh Eater ship parked somewhere in the woods.”
“I can,” Elder Stow said. “But the range is not what it was. I had increased the range and details before the Kairos broke it. Now, it is at factory specs, like the screens, which I am still working on.”
“So, if you don’t pick up anything in the immediate area, that would suggest they are not within range.”
“Yes, it would,” Elder Stow said, and stepped off to see what he could do.
On the morning of the fifth day, Sukki and Boston sat out to watch the sunrise. The others were up, mostly puttering around the fire or seeing to the horses. Lockhart sat and stared at the fire, sipping on this time zone’s version of morning tea, and thinking about coffee. Alexis stretched whatever food they had left to come up with some kind of breakfast.
The travelers ate in the big house, the village meeting hall on the first day, but said they did not mean to put a strain on the village resources and should take care of their own meals. The village elders were more relieved and grateful than offended, which was good.
On the second day, Decker, Katie, and Tony explored down the road that headed south, and took Eric to guide them. They found it wholly unacceptable for the wagon, which meant they were stuck waiting for Kirstie. Decker and Katie found a herd of deer, wary of the humans, but not out of rifle range. Eric shouted at the sound of the rifles, and that may have helped scare the deer, so they scooted back into the woods. Still, they bagged three in the end and contributed two to the village larder. Old man Kerga almost smiled. Inga thought to say thank you.
Inga introduced the travelers to Soren, who was Kirstie’s thirteen-year-old son, and his friend in trouble, Hodur, who was Eric’s baby brother. She also introduced them to Eric’s and Hodur’s mother, Hilde, who was a widow often left with the troublemakers, Hodur and Soren to watch.
“I honestly don’t mind,” Hilde said. “It is better than letting them run wild through the village, though they eat more than anyone I have ever seen.” She smiled, but Eric had a different take on the subject.
“I’ve been escaping being stuck with those two brats for as long as I can remember.”
Back on the third day, Lincoln asked about contracting the king’s ship that sat at the dock. Captain Harrold said that would not be possible. Some of the king’s men stayed on the ship. Some went with the king’s representative, Engel Bronson, into the woods. Curiously, the man had been back to the village twice, but he never asked about the strangers, so the travelers never met him. Meanwhile, Lincoln started getting antsy, and maybe thought too much about possible Flesh Eaters in the woods. Lockhart teased him.
“Whatever happened to my desk jockey who would rather sleep at his desk than be a field agent?”
“It’s this trip,” he admitted. “I can’t seem to sit still anymore.” He thought about it and amended his statement. “I just want to get home so I can get back to my quiet, peaceful desk.”
Lockhart understood and Alexis smiled.
On the fourth day, Tony, Nanette, and Sukki found a farmer willing to sell a cow. It had not calved in three years and so it had no milk. The man thought with the right price, he might get a younger cow to replace it. Tony and Nanette were not about to pay him enough for an old cow so he could buy a new, young one, but they gave more than the cow was worth, so he got a good start on raising the funds for a new one. He threw in two big baskets of fruits and garden vegetables, so it felt worth the price.
Then, on that fifth morning, as the sun rose, Boston jumped up and looked away from the sun. “Visitors?” Sukki asked. Elder Stow had his screens set around the camp all night, and the villagers had learned the hard way, through stubbed toes and noses, that the screens needed to be lowered to let people in and out.
“No,” Boston responded. “In the sky. There.” she pointed.
Sukki stood and saw what Boston pointed at. Lockhart stood. Decker grabbed his rifle. Elder Stow touched his screen device and the screens appeared tinted slightly yellow but still completely see through. The alien ship pulled up from its intended landing site and landed on the long meadow a hundred yards beyond the screens.
“Flesh Eaters?” Lincoln asked.
“Apes, I think,” Katie said. She recognized the markings on the outside of the ship.