M4 Festuscato: The Last Gasp, part 3 of 3

They had two soldiers there to row, and the centurion insisted on coming.

“Poemon,” Festuscato called, though he thought the sprite’s name should have been Pokemon.  A gelatinous blob that looked otherwise like a gingerbread man came up out of the water.  “Can you make a bridge so Dibs and I and the four horsemen can walk across the river?”

“Who is the boat?” Poemon asked in a sweet voice.

“Pope Leo, meet Poemon the water sprite, Prince of the Po River.”  The pope stared.

“Hello, your holiness,” The water sprite waved.  “Wonderful to meet you.  Sure, we can make a bridge, but only if the four horsemen behave.  They are very scary.”

Pestilence chuckled.

The boat started out, and Festuscato stepped on the water with complete confidence.  He took Dibs by the arm and brought him along.  The horsemen followed.  Gaius looked over and objected, because it looked like Festuscato walked on the water.

“That’s cheating.”

“Not,” Festuscato answered.  “I am just using the natural gifts that God almighty has placed in my hands.  There is no magic or witchery or any such thing here.  Anyone can do this, if the spirits are willing.

Pope Leo remained calm about it. He talked to Gaius.  “Apparently, the maker of heaven and earth made more things than I ever knew about.”

“There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Festuscato shouted.  “Those words were written by a playwright that will be born about eleven hundred years in the future.”

“Like I said,” Gaius spoke to the pope.  “Sometimes you just have to ignore him when he says things like that.  He has been doing that since he was a child, or at least since I was three and my father moved us from Tivoli.”

“I see.”

By the time they reached the other side of the river, a great crowd had gathered on the shore.  Attila stood there, surrounded by his generals and his shaman.  Attila looked old, his face covered in wrinkles of age and worry.  He looked stressed, and Festuscato wondered if the man’s left eye was perhaps a bit crooked.

“Dragon,” Attila said.  “I knew it was you.  Only you would have the audacity to walk across the water.”

Festuscato smiled.  “I am not the messenger this time.”

“You haven’t come to offer me my own life for a third and final time?”  Attila pulled a necklace from beneath his breastplate.  It had two rings on it, one big ruby and one diamond.

“Not this time,” Festuscato said.  “But in keeping with tradition,” he said as he pulled a ring off his finger.  It had a gaudy emerald in it.  “For your losses.” he handed it over and stepped back as the Pope finally got up the embankment.  Festuscato did the introductions.  “May I present his holiness, Pope Leo, Bishop of Rome and primate of the catholic church.  Attila the Hun.”

Both men looked at each other for a long time before Attila broke.  “So, what do you have to say, holy one?”

“I am here to tell you to leave Rome alone.  In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you shall not enter the city.”

“And I should listen to an unarmed old man in a robe?”  Attila laughed.

“Rome has been claimed by the one, eternal, ever living God as a holy city and his own possession. Do not desecrate the holy city with the spilling of blood or your blood may be required of you.”

“Are you threatening me?  I have been threatened by the very best and they all fill their graves, but two.”  Attila looked down at the emerald ring in his hand.

“I am not threatening you.  I am calling you to give up your pagan ways and recognize the one God who made heaven and earth.  It is to him that we will all have to answer in the end, whether we are destined for Heaven or for Hell.  Take care what you do, lest you end up where you do not wish to go.

Attila looked up and his eyes got big.  He saw something, and Festuscato had nothing to do with it.  “Your Peter and Paul,” Attila said.  “The one above wields the sword.”  Attila put his face in his hands and wept, and Festuscato, Gaius and Dibs knew enough to turn his holiness back to the boat, even if the centurion did not understand what was happening.

Festuscato whispered in Pope Leo’s ear.  “You are supposed to bang your staff and say, you shall not pass.  Next time.”  Then he let Gaius hand the pope to Father Falius.

Attila turned away from the riverbank, but Dengizic caught up with Festuscato before they left.  Gaius still stood on the shore with Dibs, and they listened in.

“Father is seeing things that are not there,” Dengizic said.

“I give him about a year, tops,” Festuscato said.  “You can waste your men on the walls of Rome where Aetius is dug in, or you can prepare for the future.”

“I can see why father fears you,” Dengizic said.  “You speak sense, and you speak truth, and he does not know how to handle that.  Plus, you see things that other men cannot see.”

“Sometimes men don’t want to see,” Festuscato said, and he shoved off the boat.

Dengizic nodded and left as Gaius protested missing the boat.  “Walk with me,” Festuscato said.  “Poemon, one more for the return journey.”

“Right you are.”  The water sprite head stuck up from the water, but nothing else.  “A pleasure to take the cardinal.”  The head burst back into water.

“There is no telling what Attila saw,” Festuscato said as he gently took Gaius’ arm.  “It may have been his sickness.  It may have been real.  But, you know, even if it was his sickness, it was mighty well timed.”  Festuscato took the first step.

“It feels squishy,” Dibs warned Gaius, and Gaius stepped out, but he looked down at his feet, expecting to fall through any minute.  He later castigated himself for his lack of faith.

###

Festuscato cried two years later when Aetius got murdered right in front of Emperor Vaentinian.  He cried again a year later when Vaentinian got murdered by Hun friends of Aetius.  That happened in 455, the year the Vandals sailed into Rome and sacked the city.  Festuscato tried to stay out of it and avoided the Vandal King Geiseric, but for the two times.

In truth, he avoided Ricimer, who became the general in chief in the west after Aetius.  He avoided all the subsequent western Roman emperors, as they came and went almost too quickly to keep up.  And he avoided the church, but that became difficult, because Hillarius became pope after Leo and Festuscato laughed and laughed.  Then Gaius had the bad sense to take the position and chose the name Simpicius.

“Simplify, simplify,” Festuscato told him, but he groused, because Hillarius spent all his time worrying about controlling the church, like who was bishop here and who was in control over there.  In Gaius’ mind, that was not what was important.

“Petty bureaucrat,” Festuscato called the man.

“He missed the forest for the trees,” Gaius explained with one of Festuscato’s expressions.

“I prefer, Lord, what fools these mortals be, these days.  That was penned by the same playwright fellow who will be born one thousand and eighty years from now.  My, how time flies.”

“But seriously.  All the Germans, the Vandals, Goths and even the Franks are Arian heretics.  And in the east, there are Monophysites heretics, and they all want to take over and ruin the true faith.”

“Not even poly-physites?”

“Be serious.  The true faith is at stake.  Chalcedon is in the scales.”

“A fish scale.  I was at Nicaea, I think.  I’m not sure if I was at Chalcedon.”

Gaius nodded, ignored Festuscato, and continued on his thought.  “There are some Arians and Monophysites among the cardinals.  The only good thing is they hate each other worse than they hate us Catholics. “

“You got Childeric,” Festuscato pointed out.  “I remember how excited you got when you showed me the letter.  That young fellow in Reims, the one you recommended for bishop despite his youth.”

“I worked with Childeric and his family during all those years we were waiting for you to show up.”

“Yes, well, wait long enough and maybe your heretic cardinals will die off.”

“I should live so long.”

“My wife keeps me young,” Festuscato said, as Morgan came in and sat beside him.  She just turned fifty and Festuscato thought she was as lovely as ever.

“It isn’t fair, you know,” she said.  “Sibelius looks as young as the day I first met her.”

“I remember the way you looked the day I first met you, with your knife, ready for action, and the sweat on your brow.”  Festuscato made a couple of stabs at the curtain with his empty hand.

“And you.  I thought, here is an arrogant fellow.”

“Cad,” Festuscato said.  “Arrogant cad.”

“If you’ll excuse me,” Gaius said and stood.  “I must be getting back to work.  Thanks for straightening out that little misunderstanding.”

Festuscato heard, but as he looked at his wife, he already had other thoughts in mind.  Morgan caught the look.  “We have a daughter and four sons.  Isn’t that enough?”  She was past the point of having children, but that did not deter Festuscato one bit from trying anyway.

************************

MONDAY

We move about sixty years into the future for the final tale of Gerraint, son of Erbin in the days of King Arthur.  It will post over the next six weeks.  To tide you over until Monday, have a Dragon Tunic, worn by Festuscato and all Pendragons everywhere.

Happy Reading.

*

 

Avalon 7.11 The Sack of Rome, part 2 of 6

Meg, the wraith, smelled the Vandals.  She smelled a feast in the making.  She watched them tear down the aqueducts and zeroed in on one troop that she might use for her purposes.  The leader of the company, some three hundred and fifty men, was Godamer.  She thought it a good name.  His lieutenant was Hawdic, a fool easily manipulated.

“All the real money is in the villas on the road, the Appian Way,” Godamer said, as the last of the aqueduct towers came down.

“How do you know that?” Hawdic asked.

“I heard,” Godamer said.  “Besides, it makes sense that the money would be where the rich people live.”

“I guess.  Shouldn’t we tell the king about your idea?”

Godamer formed an evil grin on his face.  “What Gaiseric doesn’t know can’t hurt us.  Besides, look at the walls of Rome.  I have no intention of getting myself killed trying to break in there.  While King Gaiseric wastes the time and men, we will be enriching ourselves beyond our wildest dreams.”

“I don’t know.  I’ve had some pretty wild dreams.”

“More Roman gold than you ever dreamed of, Hawdic.” Godamer watched as the aqueduct wasted its water on the ground.

“I like the sound of that,” Hawdic matched Godamer’s evil grin, and called the men to gather up.

Meg sighed.  Maybe that was too easy.  Still, the Kairos was too dangerous to attack directly, but she could cause him pain and torment by killing the ones he loved.  Then, it should be an easy thing to set a trap for the travelers as they come up the road.  So much death, destruction, fear, pain, and misery.  She could hardly wait.

###

Festuscato and his troop rode through the Vandal line without incident, until the end, right before the gate.  Maybe they had no orders to keep people out of the city; only to keep people in.  They might not have known what to do.  More likely, however, they heard about the dragon and the part he played in destroying the Huns.  He and this Pope turned Attila back from the very gates of Rome and within a year, Attila died.  No one dared interfere with the dragon, until he reached the gate.

One Vandal got his bow and tried to shoot the dragon in the back.  The arrow snapped in two and bounced off the armor of the Kairos that Festuscato wore.  It would not even leave a bruise.  The same could not be said for the Vandal.  Faster than most of the others could see, the Four Horsemen grabbed their bows and put four arrows in the offending Vandal, two in the heart, one in the throat, and one in the eye.  The man died standing up, and then fell over.  The Four Horsemen had their bows put away as fast as they got them out.

“Senator Festuscato Cassius Agitus,” Festuscato announced himself.  “I have an appointment with the Pope.  Open up.”

The gate guards opened the gate a crack, let Festuscato and his troop into the city, and slammed the gate shut again as fast as they could.  They did not need to do that.  Any Vandals close enough to cause trouble in the gate still stood gawking at the dead man.

Once inside the city, Festuscato went to his favorite inn.  The innkeeper found a room for him.  Festuscato did not ask too many questions, like who the innkeeper had to dislodge.  The city looked overcrowded with people.  Much of the countryside emptied, though with such short notice, most people headed for the hills.  Festuscato sent his own mostly Gaelic and British tenant farmers to the hills.  He wanted to send Morgan with them, but she refused to give up the house.

“We are half-a-day’s ride from the city,” she said.  “There is no reason to suppose the Vandals will come this far, or even notice us.”

Stupid and stubborn, Festuscato thought, though he knew better than to say it out loud.  He got Atias and Roan to help set a defense for the house, and he came to town.  He sent Ironwood, the fairy to set up the meeting with Geiseric, King of the Vandals.  Ironwood was technically Festuscato’s brother-in-law, since he married Morgan’s half-sister, Macy. Macy was a half-elf, half human who stayed tongue-tied in Festuscato’s presence.  It was complicated.  But Macy and her young son should be at the manor house by nightfall…  He hoped the Vandals stayed around Rome and ignored the houses further down the road.

Festuscato sent the fathers and friars back to the Pope with the word that he should be ready to go in the morning.  It was not uncommon for the besieged city to send representatives to the invading army under a flag of truce.  They would talk and see if there was some way to resolve things without bloodshed.  That seemed unlikely.

Geiseric had been cleverer than Attila.  He moved into Carthage, captured the Roman fleet there, and waited for the Huns to tear down the last gasps of Roman power in the west.  Add to that, several years of bad harvests, and Rome, with Italy are on their knees.  So, when Rome is as weak as a kitten, Geiseric strikes.

Festuscato went to the common room for a quiet supper.  Two of the Four Horsemen were present.  Two would be in the downstairs common room all night while he slept upstairs.  Dibs and his short company would house in the barn while the horses stayed fenced in the yard.  Festuscato, last Senator of Rome as he sometimes referred to himself, could eat alone, and think.  This would be a tough nut to crack.

He got a bunch of pig-headed, warring tribes in Britannia to form a kind of confederation under the Pendragon to hold the island and beat back the invading Huns, Germans, Picts, Irish, Danes… It would work for a while.  Later, he recalled General Aetius from Rome, the head of what remained of the Roman army in the West, and he cobbled together enough Fedoratti troops—even got Saxons and Franks to work side by side, so together they could drive back the invasion of Gaul by Attila and his Huns.  This, though, would be tough.  Rome did not have anything left but stout walls and not enough guards to hold back a serious assault.

“Trouble,” one of the Four Horsemen spoke up.  Festuscato guessed it was Pestilence.  Even he could not tell them apart, sometimes.  He stood and went to the door, still chewing on the boiled beef that had too much gristle.  He caught the glint of gold in the moonlight, shining from the back of a wagon that got dragged behind a group of people.  He saw Dibs and several men with the other two of the Four Horsemen, watching from the edge of the building.  He heard a woman scream as she got knocked to the ground, and a young girl screamed with her.

The little caravan got near the gate.  The inn was not far from the gate.  But they did not move fast enough.  A great, angry mob with torches would catch them.  Festuscato wondered if the mob had any pitchforks, as he signaled Dibs.  Festuscato, Dibs with his men, and the Four Horsemen, got the woman and her two daughters out of the midst of the men in the street, only injuring two of the men in the process.  They brought the women to the inn and set up a defensive perimeter around the building to protect them.  They did not have the strength to stop the oncoming mob from catching the men and their gold.  They watched the slaughter from the steps to the inn.

It did not last long, but long enough for the mother to get her daughters inside and come back out to see.  By then, Dibs had his whole troop up and armed.  The mob seemed angry, and as full of mindless murder as it may have been, it was not stupid.  After the deed was done, the mob melted back into the streets, and took the gold with them.

Festuscato swallowed his gristle and turned to see who he saved.  It was the Empress of Rome, Valentinian’s widow, Licinia Eudoxia.  The two inside had to be her daughters, Eudocia and Placidia.  He did not feel surprised.

“Sorry about the loss of your husband,” he said.  “I actually liked Valentinian.”

The Empress nodded and found a soft little tear in her eye.  She pointed at the dead men in the street and spoke.  “The usurper, Petronius Maximus.  He was never a husband.  And his son, Palladius, who forced himself on my daughter, Eudocia.”  The Empress found some anger in her tears.

“My Petronius is a dragon,” Festuscato said to the air.  Dibs shrugged and took his men back to the barn.

“You were right,” the Empress said, dredging up a memory from a long time ago.  “I had a girl.”

“Two girls,” Festuscato said, and smiled.  Licinia Eudoxia began to cry in earnest.  He wrapped her up in his arms and escorted her into the inn.  All Four Horsemen followed, and Festuscato simply assured her and her daughters that they were there to make sure nothing untoward happened in the night.  The innkeeper made rooms for his guests.  The innkeeper’s wife fainted at who she had in her inn.  Festuscato turned to the younger daughter who he guessed was about twelve.  “Have you eaten?”  The girl shook her head.  “The beef is not bad if you can chew past the gristle.”  The girl smiled, and that made everyone at the table smile while Festuscato thought.

Geiseric, King of the Vandals in Africa, and Emperor Valentinian made a deal for peace.  Geiseric’s son, Huneric was supposed to marry Valentinian’s daughter, Eudocia when Eudocia got a little older.  That deal got interrupted when Petronius Maximus had Valentinian killed and usurped the throne.  He forced a marriage between himself and Licinia, and between his son and Eudocia.  Geiseric used that as an excuse to say the peace deal was broken.  Thus, he invaded Rome.

Festuscato frowned, privately, at what he was thinking.  He had lived as a woman often enough to despise the use of women for political unions.  But, at the same time, maybe Rome had something to offer Geiseric after all, to mitigate the rampant death and destruction that usually came when an invading army overran a city.

Avalon 7.9 The Inns and Outs, part 2 of 6

Captain Ardacles seemed a rough man, but gregarious in his way.  He liked to talk and laugh, though usually he laughed at the expense of others.  His mate, Pinto, was more the skinny and slick type who kept all his thoughts and feelings to himself and maintained the outward appearance of a stoic.  Boston did not like the mate, but she said it might be a personality thing and not necessarily that he was a bad man.

Captain Ardacles sailed what people in the Middle Ages would call a belly boat.  It appeared roundish, with a big hold where they could squeeze in all those horses.  When loaded, it sat low in the water, so it was not very fast.  It had oars, but mostly moved dependent on the wind in the sails, and to that end, it had a lateen sail in the bow to catch whatever wind might be blowing.

When the tide came in, the ship rose beside the dock until the door to the hold ended up in line with the dock.  The horses could walk straight into the ship, only a little downhill to the hold where they could be safely tied for the voyage.  They had food and plenty of water for the animals, so that would not be a problem for the couple of days they expected to be aboard the ship.

Lockhart and Katie got up a couple of hours before dawn to supervise the loading of their horses, Ghost the mule, and their wagon.  Tony and Boston helped. Tony, from 1905, grew up in a world of horses, and probably had more practical experience with them than any of the other travelers.  Boston, being an elf, proved invaluable.  The horses listened to her.  Besides, she rode in several rodeos in her youth and teen years.  She was probably the second most experienced horse person in the group.

“Come on, Cocoa,” Boston yelled at Sukki’s horse.  “Strawberry is already on board, so it won’t be so bad.”  Strawberry was Boston’s horse, and the two horses often rode side by side.

Lockhart followed.  “Elder Stow’s horse, Mudd?”  He was not sure, but Boston and Katie nodded.  “You would think he is the stubborn mule.”

“Use the carrot, not the stick,” Tony suggested.  He got some fodder to entice the hungry horse, and in that way, led Mudd to the trough.

Later, when the sun came up, Katie remarked on how many merchant ships were in the port, and how many Roman warships were also present.

“How can you tell which is which?” Lockhart asked.

Katie pointed.  “The long ships, like there, and there.  They are the warships, and fast oared ships, triremes and biremes.  They don’t depend on the sails so much.  Besides, they have mounted ballistae and catapults that you can see.”

“I thought catapults were medieval, or maybe for cities.”

“The ram, the big tree that sticks out in front of the ship, just below the water line, is still the main weapon.  It makes the ship like a manned spear.  It is connected to the spine of the ship, so when you ram another ship, the impact is spread more or less evenly throughout your whole ship.  Hopefully, the other ship sinks when your oars pull your ship back.”

“Must be hard to hit a moving ship at sea with a catapult,” Lockhart guessed.

“Not much harder than hitting a ship with an eight-pounder such as they used on the Spanish Main,” Katie responded.  “A good naval artillery man knows how to mentally adjust for speed, pitch, and the rest, to know just when to fire for the most likely hit.  It takes practice.  Not all artillery masters are good at it.”

Lockhart nodded, while Lincoln and Alexis came aboard with Decker and Nanette.  They would take the day watch, not that they distrusted Captain Ardacles and his crew, but they did not want to let the horses and equipment that far out of their sight.  Once Boston, Tony, Katie and Lockhart went ashore, Pinto and the crew moved the ship out into the deeper waters of the port so another vessel could pull up to the docks.

Father Flavius and Deacon Galarius came aboard after morning devotions.  The deacon promptly took a nap.  Decker and Nanette stood apart, by the rail, whispering.  That left Father Flavius, Lincoln, and Alexis to carry on a lively conversation.  They talked mostly about history and current events, and the peace that Constantine finally brought on the empire.  They talked about how the day seemed to be dragging on.

Finally, around mid-day, Lockhart, Katie, Boston, and Tony returned in the long boat which brought very little in the way of supplies that day.  Katie and Lockhart brought lunch, and food they could have for their supper, not imagining the ship’s cook could wring much worth eating out of the larder.

“Where are Sukki and Elder Stow?” Alexis asked.

“Elder Stow says he is at a critical point in his repairs,” Katie responded.  “He says it has been hard enough trying to make repairs while we are moving all the time.  He has not had that much free time to work on his device, but if the makeshift part works, we may have our screens back.”

“And if it doesn’t work?” Lincoln asked.

“Back to the drawing board.”  Katie shook her head.

“Sukki is staying with her adopted father to keep him company, and make sure he is not disturbed in his work,” Boston said.  “They will be along later this afternoon.  Meanwhile, I have to go pick on my sister Nanette.  She is getting too comfortable with Decker.”

The others knew enough to leave Decker and Nanette alone to work out whatever they worked out.  “But try telling an elf to mind her own business,” Alexis said with a laugh at the thought.

The afternoon dragged on.  Captain Ardacles showed up around four, but went straight into his cabin, to check the charts, he said.  The little castle in the back of the boat held the cabin that belonged to the captain.    The forecastle cabin held the larder and the kitchen.  It also had something of a bathroom, right next to the food.  The travelers tried not to think about contamination.  The crew quarters were below, squeezed extra tight because of the horses taking so much room.  The passengers were expected to sleep on the deck and hope it did not rain.

Six o’clock, the captain came barreling out of his cabin shouting orders.  “Get that sail up.  We have a favorable wind,” he yelled at Pinto.  “The tide is beginning to go out and we can ride it straight to the Bosporus.”

“Wait.”  All of the travelers yelled.  “Elder Stow.  Sukki.  Wait.”

“We have to go now,” Pinto told the group.  “Otherwise, we have to wait until the morning.”

“Elder Stow,” Katie spoke into her wristwatch communicator.  “The ship is pulling out into the straight.  You need to try and catch us.”

“I just talked to the long boat people at the dock,” Sukki interrupted.  “They said it is too late to catch the ship.”

“It is okay,” Elder Stow responded.  “We can fly out to the ship.”

“What?  Wait,” Lockhart said, but he did not say it into his communicator.

Elder Stow hooked his screen device to the other devices he carried on his belt—the belt Boston called the Batman belt.  “Are we ready?” Elder Stow asked, and held out his hand.

Sukki shook her head.  “I would like to try it on my own.  The goddesses gave me a Lockhart heat-ray power, super strength, pressurized skin, and one gave me the gift of flight, though I am not sure which one did that.  But I haven’t had much chance to practice.”  She lifted herself about five feet above the dock and smiled at the feeling of being weightless and being able to control it.

The long boat men ran off, except one who appeared frozen and staring.  One screamed as Elder Stow touched his anti-gravity device and rose up to join her.  In only a moment, they headed out over the water and would reach the boat in a few minutes.  When they got near, they found Nanette had risen up to join them in their landing.  All three flew, but in different ways.  Sukki had been gifted, and Elder Stow had a device.  Nanette had her magic, which was rooted in a telekinetic ability to move objects with her mind, like a Shemsu, Katie said before she changed her mind.  The Shemsu lifted things in a fourth way, because their genes had been manipulated to give them that ability in the ancient days.

They landed on the ship, Sukki still smiling and happy, but tired.  She had not been gifted to fly long distances.  “Me neither,” Nanette confessed.  

“I can’t fly at all,” Boston grumped.

“But you are speedy girl,” Sukki said, and Nanette nodded.

“Only with Roland,” Boston answered, and both the true cave woman, Sukki, and Nanette from 1905 covered their mouths and looked embarrassed, while Boston grinned her best elf grin.

Elder Stow ignored the girls and went back to work on his screen device, while he still had some daylight. Alexis stepped up and made a comment.

“I think you scared Pinto half to death.  He escaped to the kitchen and may hide down in the crew quarters.”

Lincoln, who never let Alexis get too far away, added, “Captain Ardacles looks pretty pale, too.”

Lockhart, Decker, and Katie all looked at the captain and wondered what he might be thinking.  Father Flavius explained to Deacon Galarius.

“These folks are from a future full of wonders.  Be glad they are friends with his grace.”

Deacon Galarius tried to smile and swallowed.

Avalon 7.6 Food of the Gods, part 5 of 6

Even with the giant snake in the grass, for some reason the travelers and soldiers kept their Sunday afternoon picnic attitude.  Alexis figured it out when she felt a nudge, and she convinced Lincoln as they rode toward Napoca.

“It is the wraith,” she said.  “It gives people a false sense of security, almost lulling them to sleep.  Then, when she moves in for the kill, the terror is that much more absolute.”

“Absolute terror.”  Lincoln shook his head, not to disagree, but to clear his head of the wraith’s influence.

“That is how she feeds,” Alexis explained, dredging up the information from her childhood nightmares.  “She feeds on fear, fright, and feelings of hopelessness and despair, and she sucks on the soul until the body is utterly drained and collapses, an empty, shriveled husk.”

“Something to look forward to,” Lincoln responded.

Alexis and Lincoln spent the morning trying to convince the others that they were in grave danger, but they only got blank stares in return.  People shared stories and laughs around the lunch campfire when Lincoln and Alexis looked up.  They heard howls in the distance.

“Wolv?” Lincoln wondered.

Alexis shook her head.  “Just ordinary wolves.”

“Giant ordinary wolves,” Lincoln corrected her, and he got the people packing up to travel.

The wolves followed them through the afternoon.  Some of the howls sounded loud enough and close enough to get at least the temporary attention of the soldiers and travelers.  They got to about a half-hour from Napoca when the wolves circled in for the kill.  That woke people up.  Boston and Sukki raced back from the point.  Decker rode hard to reach the group from where he wandered off to the side.  Even the soldiers following hustled to catch up.

Elder Stow watched carefully, and when everyone came inside the circle, he turned on his screen device.  He stared at the device and wondered why he had not reset it and turned it off in the morning.  Running all day in ready mode used up ten percent of his charge.  It did not matter much, now that he had the charging unit supplied by the god Hephaestus, but still…  He could be a bit obsessive-compulsive about his equipment and leaving it in ready mode all day did not feel right.

Elder Stow got out his weapon.  Five giant wolves came roaring in from all four compass points.  They ran into the screen, and the travelers got out their guns like it was routine.  They put down three of the giant beasts before the other two ran off.

“Rather anticlimactic,” Lincoln said, as he spied a very frustrated looking wraith in the late afternoon sun.  He fired at her, but she shrieked and vanished.

“Good thing Elder Stow had his screen device set to deploy,” Boston said, and Nanette and Sukki agreed with her.

“But that is just it,” Elder Stow said.  “My Mother and Father, I should have turned it off and put it away this morning, but I never thought of it.  It was only by chance accident that I was able to place a screen around us with such speed.”

“Thank you, all the same,” Lockhart said. 

“But you don’t understand,” Elder Stow tried again.  “I left it running all day, but I would never do that.  I believe something has gotten into our thoughts.”

“The wraith,” Alexis said.

“Maybe someone is watching over us,” Katie suggested.

“That may be also,” Elder Stow said.

“Like a competing power that will not show themselves,” Alexis wondered.

“Maybe the Kairos,” Boston imagined.

“No,” Hans and Berry came up while Lavinia had the boys. “My sister has no such natural power.”

“Maybe one of her god or goddess lifetimes,” Berry wondered.

Hans shook his head.  “She would show herself.  She would not stay hidden.”

Lockhart nodded.  “Okay.  We have the wraith trying to get at us with giant predators, and someone might be helping us that doesn’t want to be known.  We need to get to Napoca as quick as we can.”

“Before the wolves come back with more friends,” Decker agreed.

“An inn in town might, make a good defensive place, depending on what the wraith throws at us,” Katie said, quietly.

“The inn and stables,” Lockhart nodded.  “If Elder Stow wouldn’t mind, maybe we could get a screen around both tonight.”

Elder Stow glanced at the sun.  “That might work.  I should have enough time to charge the equipment before sunset.  We will have to see how big an area my little hand-held toy will have to cover.”

That night, the inn got attacked by bats the size of cars.  Thanks to Elder Stow, the people, and the horses in the stables, slept safe.  Elder Stow’s screens apparently stymied, and no doubt frustrated the wraith.

In the morning, around the breakfast table, they warned each other that when Elder Stow turned off his screens, they would be once again subject to the mental manipulations of the wraith.  They promised each other to stay vigilant, and not fall back into the same careless attitude of the day before.  Alexis suggested a more realistic approach.

“Potaissa, where we planned to meet the Kairos, is a short day from here.  Why don’t we pledge to get there as quickly as possible?”

###

When Greta, Darius, Mavis, and their troop of soldiers finally got out of Apulum, Greta pushed them to ride as hard as they could.  They got about half-way to the salt mines at Salinae, which meant they would have a full day yet to travel.  Greta made them camp in the wilderness and decided it was just as well they did not make it to the fort at Salinae.  The soldiers there would have only slowed them down.

Greta said they would leave at first light and not stop until they got to Potaissa.  She ate little.  She tried to sleep.  She remembered how glad she was that Marcus Italicus dallied in Romula-Malva, nowhere near their area.  She wondered where Rhiannon had gone.  She felt reluctant to ask Danna to trade places with her and call her child.  She was not sure Danna would do that based only on some uncomfortable feelings Greta had.

Greta pecked at Darius’ lips and turned on her side to face the fire.  Darius turned to spoon with her.  Good.  She needed to be held.

###

The travelers stopped for lunch two hours shy of Potaissa.  Despite warning each other over and over, they got sloppy again.  Elder Stow noticed.  No one watched the perimeter.  Elder Stow at least kept his eye on the scanner.  Decker also noticed, and tried to keep his eyes and ears open, but Nanette kept saying they were almost there.  “In the home stretch, “Lincoln kept repeating, as if arrival in Potaissa would magically fix everything.

Boston sat with Katie and Lockhart and watched Sukki and Alexis cook.  She glanced at Nanette, but the girl appeared focused on Decker and Boston did not feel like interrupting.  She glanced at Lincoln and Elder Stow, but Lincoln looked absorbed in reading in the database, and Elder Stow fiddled with his equipment.  He did that lots lately.  Boston wondered if he started feeling uncomfortable now that Sukki chose to become human.  He said he felt happy for her, but everyone knows, what a person says and actually feels might be two different things.

Tony screamed.

Everyone looked up.

Boston ran faster than the rest.

“No, it’s all right.  It’s all right,” Tony repeated.  “I came to check on Ghost, and it was just a squirrel, or bird, or something—normal size.  It just startled me.”

“Too much stress,” Boston said, and looked at the others to see if anyone disagreed.

“I have been worried and anxious of late,” Tony said, softly, and he lowered and shook his head.

People went back to lunch looking a bit more sober, but Elder Stow and Decker noticed they did not hurry lunch, or hurry to get into town after lunch.  Boston resumed her seat and wondered if her uneasiness might be because she finally started feeling like a true elf and got stuck, now, around so many clunky, mortal, humans.

Avalon 7.6 Food of the Gods, part 4 of 6

The travelers left as early in the morning as they could, which meant when Berry and her two boys were ready.  Hans proved a patient young man, expecting first thing in the morning to be a relative phrase, even with Lavinia, Boston, Sukki, Nanette, and Alexis all helping.  Nanette and Sukki eventually went out to help with the horses.  Too many moms just added to the confusion and provided too many distractions.

Hans hitched up his family wagon, and checked the harness on his ox three times, just to be sure.  He talked casually with Lincoln and Lockhart about life in Dacia.  He talked with Katie and Tony about the Roman Empire, while Tony imitated Hans by checking the hitch on Ghost three times.  Decker and Elder Stow did their best to sit on the front porch and watch the people in the street.  They made little commentary.  Decker mostly chewed on some local version of jerky.  Elder Stow mostly fiddled with his equipment.

Bragi came back from checking on the bird when the group finally got ready to pull out.  He stood with Karina and the girls on the front porch and waved.  Boston especially returned the wave and shouted good-bye but moved to the front before Lockhart or Katie yelled at her.

Once out of town, Boston and Sukki took their regular position out front, and pushed ahead now and then, even if they only planned to follow the road.  Decker and Elder Stow did not wander far out on the wings, being in what they considered friendly territory.  Two soldiers rode at the very front where Lincoln, Alexis, Tony, and Nanette grouped up at the head of the line.  They talked and laughed most of the way, though the soldiers probably did not understand most of what they talked about.

Hans and his family wagon came next, trailing two horses he and Lavinia could ride, if needed, while Berry moved the boys and the wagon off the road.  Berry, Lavinia, and the boys presently rode in the wagon with plenty of blankets and cushions against the rock bumps and potholes in the dirt road.  Hans had the Latin equivalent of Haw and Gee down pretty well, but he did not have to say much.  The ox seemed content to follow the contours of the road.  Hans did not have to use the goad stick very often either, as long as the ox kept moving and kept up.

Katie and Lockhart took a turn driving the traveler’s wagon. Ghost the mule did not mind the slow pace, being able to go only as fast as the ox in front; and the ox only went as fast as Hans walking.  The fairies Willow and Reed traveled with the couple, and those four were the only ones who talked about giant trouble and which lesser spirit might be responsible.  It felt like something kept their minds focused and on track.

Lockhart finally decided it had to be the wraith.

“But no god would endow such a wicked creature with such power,” Willow protested.

Lockhart shook his head.  “Ashtoreth, Moloch, Asherah, Baal, or any number of others might have done it before going over to the other side, as you say, in reference to the death of the gods.”

“Not all of the gods cared for us,” Katie slowly came to agree with the idea.  “In this jurisdiction, maybe Eris or Hecate.”

“Maybe Loki?” Reed suggested, but Katie shook her head and Lockhart spoke.

“No.  Loki did not seem to me to be stupid enough to empower a wraith.  He did not strike me as the vindictive type.”

“Baldur,” Katie whispered, but Willow spoke over top.

“He could be vindictive, but he always liked to stick around and see how his wicked schemes worked out.”

“True,” the others agreed, and Lockhart took a moment to look back.

They were being followed by six more soldiers, an honor guard for the brother of Mother Greta, wife of the former governor of the province.  They did not expect trouble from the locals, though the people did not seem happy with the current Roman governor, Marcus Italicus.  But sometimes, outsider Dacians or Scythians of one sort or another snuck over the border in small raiding parties to see what they might steal, and the way the travelers headed would skirt the gold and silver fields in the province, the place where the raiders mostly turned up.

Lunch, with plenty of fruits and vegetables to make Alexis, Sukki, and Elder Stow happy, seemed more like a three-hour picnic beside the road than the typically efficient, mostly game-shot lunch of the travelers.  For some reason, neither the travelers nor the soldiers seemed worried about giant beasts in the wilderness, which would have been very odd if any of them had the presence of mind to think about it.

After lunch, Lincoln and Alexis took a turn with the wagon, and Reed stayed with them to talk.  Willow rode in Katie’s horse’s mane.  She said, the idea of an elf turned human to marry a human made her uncomfortable.  Lockhart laughed.

###

Greta pushed her group.  They got past Aquae that first evening, and Greta found a bath to luxuriate in.  On the first day the travelers moved, Greta wanted to reach Apulum, home of the legion fort.  It would be another two days after that, over and around the hills, to reach Potassia.   She hoped without dragging a wagon, they might make it to Potassia in a day and a half.  She wanted to get there before or at least at the same time as the travelers.

They made it to Apulum that day, but after dark.  They tried to sneak into an inn, unnoticed.  Greta forgot.  It turned out to be the inn where she saved the life of a girl raped by Roman soldiers.  The girl had since grown and married.  The soldiers lost their heads.  But Greta forgot, and now there would be no hiding.  The whole town would probably turn out in the morning.

As for Darius, he hardly got in the door when he got noticed by several legionnaires.  He stayed up most of the night drinking and talking with most of the legion commanders who either privately complained about the new procurator, Marcus Italicus, or reminisced about how much better things were when Darius took temporary command of the legion and the governorship in the province.

Greta had to hold audience in the morning, as she suspected.  They only escaped for the road in the end after she said she rode on an errand of mercy and had to get going.  They escaped around noon, a whole half a day late, and Darius, who napped in the morning, was in no condition to ride hard and make up the lost time.

Greta spent most of that afternoon calling to the goddess Rhiannon in her heart, and sometimes with her mouth, but for some reason, Rhiannon did not answer her.

###

The travelers stopped for the night about half-way to Napoca and settled into a continuation of their picnic lunch.  They had good conversations and plenty of laughter.  Only Lockhart appeared to remain worried about the wraith and what giant predators might be lurking about in the wilderness.  Something nagged at him, and he could not help the way he felt.  The rest of the travelers seemed content to let the soldiers take the night watch, but Lockhart insisted on the regular watch for everyone.  No one honestly complained.  It had become their routine.  But only Elder Stow caught some sense of Lockhart’s concern.  He promised to set his screen device for quick deployment if that should prove necessary.

The following morning, the same morning that Greta left Aquae for the legion fort at Apulum, Boston and Sukki, sat on a log to watch the sunrise.  They talked knowingly about the way Decker and Nanette appeared to be hitting it off.

“You know,” Boston said.  “Since Nanette is our sister now, it is our duty to tease her, only not too much because she is a sensitive girl.”

Sukki felt a slight nudge in her spirit.  “Wait,” she said, and her eyes felt drawn to the grass.  “Wait,” she repeated, stood up, and kept rising until she floated twenty feet in the air.  Boston gasped.  Sukki pushed the power she had been given out of her hands.  She felt it and did it deliberately this time.  The result was a big smoldering spot in the tall grass, and Sukki floated back to the ground without actually realizing she flew.

Lavinia, who had gotten up to get breakfast started, and both soldiers came running over.  They found thirty feet of serpent in the grass, now missing its head.  It looked big enough to easily swallow a couple of people.

“A viper of some kind,” Lavinia decided.  “Very poisonous.”

“But they don’t get this big,” one soldier protested.

“I once saw a Black Sea Snake that size,” the other soldier whispered.

“Way to go Sukki,” Boston praised her sister, even as Sukki realized she flew and got excited.

Avalon 7.6 Food of the Gods, part 3 of 6

Greta, Mavis, Darius, and their small troop of soldiers left the city, but not at first light.  Greta had to settle things at home before she could go anywhere.  The sleeping children were easy enough to kiss, and Selamine, their nurse, would watch them well.  Father and Mother were another issue.

Father sat up, awake in his bed.  That was not unusual, as he woke and slept at odd hours.  Mother sat by the bed, nodding from exhaustion, until Greta came in.  Greta kissed her father and explained what she would be doing.

“Friends of mine.  Ancient friends appeared in the north and are coming down to meet me. But they are in trouble, and I have to go to them, or they may not survive the journey.”

“Appeared?” Mother interrupted.

“Like the gods.  They appeared out of nowhere,” Greta said.

“Trouble?”  Mother did not like the sound of that.

“I will be fine.  It is them I am worried about.  Lord knows they will not stay in Porolissum where they are safe.  I am sure they will try to bring me the terrible news as quickly as possible.”  She began to think out loud.  “Maybe I can reach Willow and convince Hans and Berry to go with them.  That should slow them down so I can get there.”

“But Greta, what about your father,” Mother protested, no doubt still thinking about the trouble.  “You need to stay and take care of him.”

Greta looked at her father, and he gave it his best half-smile.  He tried to talk, but the words slurred, and everyone strained to catch the gist of it.  “I once tried to stop you from going into the haunted forest.  I learned my lesson.  You do what you must, Mother Greta.”

Greta leaned over to give her father another kiss.  A tear formed in her eye.  “You just be here when I get back.”  She turned to leave, but Marcus, her five-year-old came racing into the room and jumped into her arms.  She said, “Ugh,” loudly, as she caught his embrace.  Selamine followed, carrying two-year-old Hildi, and Greta wondered what Marcus did this time.

Darius came in.  “The troop is ready,” he reported.  Mavis followed him and brought Greta’s well-worn red cloak.

Greta put Marcus down, and put her foot down in such a way, the boy thought it safest to go stand by his grandmother.  “Darius.  Mavis and I need our horses.  We will not be riding in the wagon.  Mavis, get the cook up and get something for the road.  Selamine, you have the children, and Marta can help watch the little ones.  Tell Gaius I expect him to help Johannes with the house and grounds, and he better be a good help, or I will hear about it.  Mother take care of Father.  There, did I forget anyone?”

People shook their heads.

Greta walked to the door, walked back to give her mother a kiss, tussled Marcus’ hair, and kissed Hildi’s cheek on the way out where she raised her voice.  “At this rate, we will be lucky to make it to Aquae by nightfall.”  More softly, she added, “Well, at least I can get a good bath there.”

###  

In the late afternoon, the travelers arrived at a big house in town.  The fairies, Willow and Reed stayed with Katie and Lockhart.  The young fairies, Icechip and Snowflake raced ahead to loudly announce their arrival.

Two women sat on the front porch, sewing and talking.  The older one, a beauty in her mid-thirties, introduced herself as Karina, Bragi’s wife.  It was her house, she said, greatly expanded since they had some trouble on the border some years earlier.  The younger one in her mid-twenties, almost too beautiful for words, was Berry, Han’s wife.  Lincoln had to explain that Hans and Bragi were Greta’s brothers.

“Welcome,” Karina said.  “I’m sorry the men are not here to greet you properly.  Nad-fia!  come here and greet our guests.  My daughters, Nadia and Sofia.”  The twins, five-year-old girls were sneaking off, but came back with sour expressions on their faces until they saw Willow.  They beamed for the fairy.  Apparently, Icechip and Snowflake were old news.

“Karina has girls.  I have boys,” Berry sighed and pointed to the two at her feet.  “Lucas is four.  Andri is two. And Lavinia is the best help in the world.  I don’t know what I would do without her.”  Lavinia, the young elf, blew at the hair that had broken loose from her bun and straggled down in her eyes.  She tried to smile but caring for two young boys was dirty business.

Boston removed her own glamour of humanity and stepped up to encourage the girl.  Lavinia recognized her, lowered her eyes, and said, “Princess.”  Boston did not appear to know how to respond.  Sukki grinned for her, and after a moment, Nanette joined in the grin.

“More like a Disney Princess,” Alexis said with a grin of her own, as she, Katie, and Willow followed Karina and Berry inside.  Boston stuck out her tongue, even if Sukki and Nanette did not understand the reference.  The men, Tony, Lincoln, and Lockhart had to take a turn with the horses, once Berry pointed out where to take them.

Caw!

Something very big, like a giant Raven flew overhead.  The men were taken by the size of the shadow. The women also looked and dropped their jaws at the size of the thing.  Lavinia grabbed the two-year-old and hugged him, while the four-year-old shouted the second century Latin version of “Cool.”

Decker and Elder Stow stood between the two groups, and Decker pointed to where he could barely make out the wraith, leading the bird.  She appeared so pale in the glaring light of the setting sun, she almost looked invisible.

“If she sky-writes Surrender Dorothy, I’ll kill her,” Decker said.

“We probably need to,” Elder Stow agreed, not understanding the reference.  “But I think the big bird needs to come first.”

Both men got their weapons.  Elder Stow kept his handy after the bear.  Decker never let his get out of reach.  Two men ran up in time to see Elder Stow fire and slice the sky with his weapon. The energy stream stopped moving when the bird head fell in the street.  The bird body fell on a house several blocks away.

Meanwhile, Decker laid down a pattern of fire.  He tried to lead the wraith, like a hunter might lead a bird in flight.  He did not imagine he hit the wraith, but he heard her shriek and race off into the light.  Decker would have to fire into the setting sun, so he lowered his rifle.

The younger man shouted, “Wow.  What kind of weapons are those?  Where did you get them?  Can I see them?”  Decker shook his head while the older one asked a question.

“Where did the bird fall?”  He eyed the bird head, not a hundred yards away.

“Probably on a building,” Elder Stow said.  “I hope nobody got hurt.”

“Great!” the older one threw his hands up.  “The magistrate will blame me, and I’ll have to clean it up.”

“Free food,” Decker said. “Unless you charge so much per pound.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” the older one said, rubbing his beard in anticipation.

“Come on in,” The younger one said.  “I want you to meet the wives.”

Elder Stow and Decker followed without mentioning that they already met.  Boston followed after the boys got settled, and the other men followed after the horses had their turn.  Lockhart made an announcement when he ducked under the door lintel and came inside.

“We can’t stay here.  It is for your own protection,” he told Karina, Berry, Hans, and Bragi.  Willow, in her big size, clearly the most beautiful of them all, responded.

“Lady Greta suggested you might stay here until she can arrive, but I told her about the bird, and she said you should meet her in Potassia in three days.  She is riding up to meet you, and she says, be careful.”

“We will go with you,” Hans said, reaching for Berry’s hand.  “We wat to see Father.  He is sick and may be dying.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Alexis said.  “Maybe I can help.”

Hans shook his head.  “Greta calls it a stroke.”

“What about the children?” Katie asked.

“Lavinia will come to help with the boys,” Berry said.  “Karina and her children will be staying here for now.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Karina confirmed.

“Yes,” Bragi, the older brother agreed.  “I’ll have to stay and clean up the bird.”

************************

MONDAY

The travelers and their new friends head for the midpoint in Dacia, but are followed by the wraith, and Greta tries to get there in time. Next time. Happy Reading

*

Avalon 7.6 Food of the Gods, part 2 of 6

The travelers came through the time gate first thing in the morning, beside a river that rushed off to the north.  They stopped there to take in the lay of the land before they moved on.  The trees they stood by included pine and fir among the oak, spruce, and beech.  The meadow appeared covered in crocus, fuchsia, and daisies.  At first glance, it looked similar to the land they traveled in Syria, but the change in trees, flowers, and meadow grasses proved they landed somewhere else on the planet.

“Dacia,” Lincoln guessed.  “Modern day Romania.”

“We go south.”  Katie looked at her amulet.

“Late summer,” Boston announced as she pulled out her own amulet to confirm the direction.  “South,” she said, and pointed.

“Good thing it is not winter,” Katie said.  “We look headed into the mountains.”

Lockhart interrupted.  “Lincoln.  Help us get the wagon through.  This tree is right in the way.”

They had to coax Ghost the mule to pull to the right immediately on entering the new time zone.  Lincoln feared a corner of the wagon might not have enough room between the tree and the edge of the time gate, but apparently, the time gate had enough flexibility to let through whatever needed to come through.  Tony held the reigns, but Lockhart and Lincoln, on their horses, flanked the mule to guide it.

The travelers had decided to let Tony guide the wagon in the morning through the time gates.  He grew up driving wagons in the eighteen-nineties and early nineteen-hundreds, so by far, he had the most experience.  

Once they were all present and accounted for, Sukki pushed off to the west, Decker scouted the east, and Boston headed south, their expected direction.  They looked mostly for a road, or at least a well-used path that would not be too hard on the wagon.  Lincoln looked around for a landmark that he could set in his mind. He still remembered the landmark he saw when they traveled through the very first time gate, back in the days of the Tower of Babel.  Of course, he since learned that the time gates moved when the Kairos moved, but by then, he had developed the habit to look.

“Just wilderness,” Elder Stow spoke up.  “I see what looks like a road and habitations, but some distance from here.”  He studied his scanner and shook it once to be sure.

“Okay,” Lockhart responded, but he, Tony, and Katie focused on getting the wagon ready for cross country travel.  Alexis and Nanette stayed on their horses and kept their eyes open, but kind of supervised the work.  They did not pay much attention to the woods around them.

Sukki returned and reported nothing in her direction.  Decker stayed out, but Boston came racing back, screaming, “Bear.  Bear.”

People grinned, and a couple almost laughed until they heard a roar that sounded more like a monster than an ordinary bear.  The bear stopped shy of the group and stood.  They got a good look when the bear towered twenty feet over them all, reaching for the tops of the trees.  People scrambled for their guns.

Lockhart took the first shot, but he imagined his shotgun slug would not be worse on that monster than a bee sting on a normal sized bear.  Katie and Sukki followed.  Katie aimed at the bear’s face and tried to put out an eye.  Sukki, afraid of the power within her, nevertheless shot her handgun twice at the bear’s middle, before she turned to help Lincoln and Tony get the horses, mule and wagon away from there.

The bear responded by taking a step forward.  It roared again when it had trouble moving the other foot.  Alexis magically called up the wind to press against the bear, to keep it back.   Nanette concentrated to lift the monstrosity a smidgen off the ground, heavy as it was.  It clawed at the ground and tore up the grass and bushes at its feet but could not get any traction.  It roared in protest and scratched at the air but could not move forward.

Boston put her Beretta away and slipped out her wand.  She sent a ball of fire into the face of the bear but realized that was a good way to set the whole forest on fire.  She put her wand away and went for her bow and arrows.

Decker came riding out from the trees, firing his rifle.  He had to get down when his horse balked against getting too close.  They all got to their feet.  Lincoln, Tony, and Sukki had their hands full keeping the horses together and trying to keep them from running off.

Boston fired her best arrow.  She put as much magic as she had into the point.  Decker and Katie shot for the head.  Lockhart pumped shotgun slugs into the middle of the beast.  A dozen arrows came from the trees and riddled the beast, even as Elder Stow shouted.

“Move.”

Lockhart and Katie separated.  Elder Stow stepped between them.  He fired his weapon once and put a hole the size of a basketball through the center of the beast, about where the heart should be.  Boston’s arrow landed just below the neck and exploded, tearing out most of the muscles in the neck.  The head tilted to the side, and the bear body followed in that direction as Alexis stopped her wind and Nanette could not hold the beast up any longer.  The bear bounced once on the meadow before it stopped moving.

“Twenty feet, at least,” Katie said, as she, Lockhart, and Elder Stow walked up to look at the head and jaw.

“Maybe thirty feet,” Decker said, as he and Boston stepped up to examine the big hole in the middle of the beast.

“How did it get so big?” a young boy’s voice said.

“I smell a power at work,” a man’s voice murmured.  “Doing something not natural.  Something stolen.”

“We got company,” Lincoln shouted.  He had rushed up from the horses when Alexis and Nanette collapsed to the ground.  They sat on the grass to catch their breath.  They would be all right in a minute.  Meanwhile, they stared at any number of little lights dancing around their heads.

“Fairies,” Nanette named the lights in a delighted tone of voice.

“Like seeing stars,” Alexis said, and when Nanette and Lincoln did not understand, she said, “Cartoon-like.”  At least Lincoln understood.

“My name is Willow,” a fairy woman spoke softly to the group.

“And I’m Snowflake,” a young fairy girl added, rather loudly.

“Yes, dear,” Willow said.  “And I think it is a good thing Lady Greta sent us out to find you.”

“Name’s Reed,” a fairy man told Lockhart, Katie, and Elder Stow.  “Icechip, here, was the one who thought we might find you along the Samus River.  Good thinking for one so young.”

“I’m not that young,” Icechip protested, but the travelers all heard the teenage tone in the protest.

“But what do you mean power?” Boston asked.  Decker followed her to join the group around the jaw of the beast.

“What do you mean, something stolen?” Katie asked as well.

“Young elf,” Reed said, turning to Boston.  He seemed most comfortable talking to her.  “I mean a power, much greater than us.  Someone that should have gone over to the other side at the time of the dissolution of the gods.  Only the food of the gods could make giants out of the ordinary, and that was a closely guarded secret of the gods.  If it isn’t one of the gods still here, then some power has learned that secret, though what they have against you folks I cannot imagine.”

“There are still a few gods around,” Willow explained to Alexis, Nanette, and Lincoln as they went to check on the horses.  Sukki looked delighted with the fairies.  Tony simply stared with his mouth open.

“Rhiannon is around,” Snowflake interrupted.  “She is Celtic.”

“And Mithras.  And the great sea god of the Celts,” Willow agreed.  “But I know of none that are not friendly with our lady, so I can think of none that would have anything against you travelers.”

“So, we are talking about a greater or lesser spirit,” Alexis concluded.  She stopped walking, so Willow hovered in front of her.

“Not a greater spirit, surely,” Willow decided.  “They are too tied to the earth and the natural order of life.  The lesser spirits sometimes interact with the human world, and some of them can be quite nasty, but I can’t think of any capable of stealing the secret of the gods.”

“Unless some nasty god gave him the secret before going over to the other side,” Lincoln suggested.

“Or her,” Willow said, and she and Alexis thought and shivered a bit on imagining some nasty lesser spirit getting their hands on the food of the gods.

Avalon 7.6 Food of the Gods, part 1 of 6

After 128 A.D. Dacia

Kairos 91: Mother Greta, Woman of the Ways

Recording …

Greta woke, sweating.  Nightmares, she thought.  Then she thought she needed to lose about twenty pounds.  She sat up in bed.

Her mind shot first to her children, Gaius, Marta, Marcus, and little Hildi.  Gaius became a handful when he turned eleven, but he remained her good son.  He did what she asked of him, if she could pry him loose from his friends.  Marta turned eight and could not decide if she wanted to be rough and tough or sweet.  She was a pretty one.  Sweet suited her better.  Marcus turned five.  He was her troublemaker.  But he was smart, her own slick little bean.  She saw his hands all over trouble, but he rarely got caught.  Hildi entered her terrible twos and they were as terrible as reported. Greta concluded that she did not wake because of the children.  If there was a problem, their nurse Selamine would come to fetch her.

Greta put her hand on Darius’ shoulder.  He turned on his side, away from her.  She did not mind.  When he slept on his side, he did not snore so much.

Her mind turned to her father.  Mother brought him to Ravenshold when he suffered his stroke.  Mother brought him to Mother Greta to see what could be done.  Mother Greta was the Woman of the Ways for all of the Dacian people.  She was the only one in the whole province.  The Romans called her the Wise Woman of the Dacians.  The Celts called her a Druid.  She could read and speak a half-dozen languages.  She remembered the stories—the history of her people, and in the telling, provided social cohesion to the disparate people in the province.  People, from the lowest slaves to the greatest chiefs came to her for counsel.  She taught healers and midwives and served as apothecary and physician wherever there was need.  But she could do nothing for her own father.

Mother cried but understood.  They could make him comfortable, but he would not live long.  The thing is, if he was a simple farmer, or even the chief of the Tibiscum tribe in and around the town of Boarshag, people would mourn, and that would be the end of it.  But that was not the case.  Greta’s father was the high chief of the Dacians, elected twelve years earlier by representatives of the many tribes that made up the Dacian people.  The Romans refused the title, king.  He was technically the high chief.  But the Romans allowed that for the sake of stability and to maintain peace in the province.  And he did his job, but he could not control the future once he died.

Mother Greta trained since childhood under the former Woman of the Ways.  Mother Hulda taught her many things, including how to read the signs of the times, and extend her little bit of magic into the wind to see what she might see.  Greta saw the sparks of anger and resentment against the Romans, and the thousands of Romans that moved into the province since Trajan.  Ulpia Traiana, the capital that most Dacians still called by the old village name, Ravenshold, called Sarmizegetuza on some maps out of deference to the old Dacian capital, though it was not the old Dacian capital, was in truth a Colonia of Romans laid over the top of the old village.  There would be peace in Ulpia Traiana—in Roman populated Ravenshold.  But the rest of the province was another story.

Greta closed her eyes and held out her hand as if that might clarify her feelings.  She suspected rebellion might come once her father died.  The only thing that made the people hesitate was fear, not of Roman retribution, but fear of the tens of thousands of Scythians and other Iranian descended tribes that pressed in on the border—not to mention the Germanic tribes, like the Quadi and Macromanni, and the Goths—not to mention the more distant Slavs.  The question became whether anger and hatred of the Romans or fear of being overrun by barbarians would win out.

Greta rolled out of bed and went to her desk.  She got out a piece of velum, a jar of ink that looked mostly liquid, and a quill—the sharpest she could find.  She would write a letter to Marcus Aurelius, Darius’ childhood friend.  Marcus’ adopted father, Antoninus, was the Roman Emperor.  She guessed it might be 157.  She turned twenty-nine earlier in the year.  Now, the summer was nearly over.  She paused and looked at the side door.

Mavis, her handmaid, her elf-maid in her little alcove room was awake, no doubt.  It had been a struggle, but after many years, Mavis learned to keep to herself and only come when called.  Thank goodness.  She put her quill to the paper.

Dearest Marcus,

Allow me once again to congratulate the Emperor, Antoninus Pius, your father, for appointing Marcus Sedatius Severianus at the end of 151 as a replacement for General Pontius over L XIII G., and to replace my husband Darius as governor of the province.  The man had a brain and a heart and was not slow to take advantage of our drubbing of the Iranian tribes and Scythians in the north, at Porolissum.  Between Marcus, Darius, and my father, the province has known peace and prosperity these six years, and much of that prosperity has flowed to Rome to enrich the empire.

Having praised you and your father, please allow me to point out that your new governor, Marcus Statius Priscus Licinius Italicus…  Greta paused to make sure she got all the names correct.  …is a moron, and a harsh, cruel, insensitive jerk who may be perfect for the empire somewhere else but is all wrong here.   Instead of supporting the peace and prosperity of the people, he is driving the people to anger and hatred for Rome and Romans.  I am sure that is not what you want.  Please do not be surprised if the people rise up and kick the A-hole out on his A-hole.

Greta read what she wrote so far, before she finished.  My father has suffered a stroke.  He will not live long.  I cannot vouch for what the people may do when he is gone.  Consider this your warning.  Please consider it also my plea for your father to have mercy on my people should that prove necessary.  Remember that they are not responsible for the intolerable situation they are in.  For the stubborn mule that is Dacia, the carrot works better than the stick.  Besides, given our exposure, you can be sure the Lazyges, Roxolani, Costoboci, and many others are just waiting to see us divided and fighting one another.

Marcus.  I pray all are well with you and yours.

Your friend,

Mother Greta

The moment she signed her letter, Greta fell into a vision.  Mother Greta was well known for having visions of what was to come.  She managed to fall gently to the floor.  She also managed to whisper “Mavis.”  Her elf heard and came running.  After only a moment, Darius woke and carried her to bed, but Greta focused on something else.

Lincoln, Alexis, Sukki, Katie, and Lockhart stood in a courtyard behind a makeshift fort, firing their weapons at an enemy.  Romans and Dacians stood with them making a wall around the civilians behind them.  The soldiers kept their javelins and swords in hand to face whatever got close.  The fort consisted of a tipped over table, several chairs, and a dresser.  The view pulled back.  Greta saw giant vipers, and giant rats with them.  The view pulled further back.

“Where are the others?” Greta yelled, even as she saw they were in a town.  “Rhiannon,” her heart shouted for help.  She imagined in the north.  “Rhiannon.”  They were in an old fort of some kind.  She spoke out loud.  “Where are the others?”

“The other what?” Darius asked.

Greta opened her eyes.  Her hand grabbed Darius by the arm.  “We have to go,” she said.  “We have to go yesterday.  Mavis…”

“I’ll start packing,” Mavis did not question the order, but Darius did.  

“Go where?  What about your father?  What about the children?”

“Mother,” Greta said, as if that answered everything.  “Mavis, get the troop up and ready.”

“Yes, Lady.”

“Go where?”  Darius blocked her way.

“North.  I thought the giant spiders were the work of the witch.  Apparently not.”  She stepped around him to get to her dresser.  She paused to calculate distance and days of travel and made an educated guess where the time gate might be.  She closed her eyes and let her thoughts reach out seven days ride to the north.  Chip and Snowflake sometimes visited in her brother Bragi’s house.  She needed them to gather the winter fairies, to search and find the travelers, and guide them safely to Bragi and Karina’s house in Porolissum.

Greta cut the connection to the fairies.  She began to weave, feeling dizzy.  She put her hand to her head.

“Greta?” Darius reached out and held her up.

“I’m fine,” she said and went back to her packing.  “I’m just going to get a monster headache.”

Avalon 7.5 Ali Baba and the 40 Guns, part 6 of 6

“Bodies,” Decker reported what they could all see.  The few men they saw looked shredded.  The Wolv they saw appeared dead, or at least not moving.

“I don’t see movement in the fort.”  Lockhart looked through Katie’s binoculars.

“I see… Thirty some Wolv in the trees by their ship,” Elder Stow said.  “My guess is the EMP worked, and they are trying to figure out what to do about it, now that thy are vulnerable.”

“Visitors,” Boston said, and added the words, “Friendlies.”  Katie sensed them and pushed up beside Boston to block the view in case Decker or Lockhart thought to shoot first and ask questions later.

Boffo, the dwarf came from the trees, holding tight to an iron bar.  It looked like a duplicate of the one Schaibo carried, but it looked like it fit Boffo’s big hand.  Maruf the cobbler led the three women out of the trees and on to the road.  Princess Nuronnihar looked terribly frightened and confused.  Almeria and Peribonou came holding hands, while Jasmine rode on Almeria’s shoulder and held tight to Almeria’s rich, black hair.  Aemir the elf chief followed, while Cedar, still holding the EMP transmitter, fluttered up to Baba.

“We did just like you said,” Cedar reported.  “We got here just before the Wolv charged, and Jasmine was very brave to press the button.”  He handed the device back to Baba as Aemir took up the tale.

“We had their instruments fooled, but they must have picked up traces of the metal used in your guns.  They found us by visual sighting.  Sorry we couldn’t make the whole camp invisible.”

“Survivors?” Lockhart asked.

“Mostly,” Aemir answered.

“We got the women out while the Wolv danced,” Maruf said.

Baba explained. “When their personal screens burned out, they probably got a bad case of electrical shock.”

“Their charge did not go as expected,” Boffo said, and grinned.

“I got people left and right,” Aemir continued.  “They won’t be able to flank the camp, if that is what they are thinking.”

“Right,” Baba said.  “Almeria, take my horse—Tony’s horse.”

“And what are you thinking?” Almeria asked, sharply, as Baba gave her a quick kiss and showed her how to use the stirrup.  

“Princess get up behind Boston.  She will keep you in your seat.  Peri get behind Sukki.  You all need to ride back to the wagon.  Peri, you need to talk to Alexis.  She used to be an elf and became human to marry.  I’ll get up behind Lockhart. Maruf with Decker.  Aemir with Elder Stow.  It is open ground, but if Elder Stow can manage a wall screen on our side, the rest of us can make a dash for the castellum.”

“Boss,” Boston protested.

“No arguments,” Lockhart said.

“Boston,” Baba continued.  “You need to keep your senses flared in case a group of Wolv break away to follow you.  You have your Beretta, and Sukki has the power in her hands to protect you, if that should be necessary.”

“I don’t think we have time for that,” Elder Stow interrupted the plan.  “We have eight or nine sneaking up on our flank, and the rest, maybe twenty-six or twenty-seven look ready to charge the fort.

“Damn,” Baba said.  “Maruf, take the rest of the horses back into the woods to keep them out of the line of fire.  Cedar and Jasmine get big to help with the horses, please.  Keep them calm and quiet… Well?”  He looked at Boston, who all but growled at him.

“Come on,” Boston shouted, and led the women back the way they came.

Baba turned to the travelers.  “Elder Stow?”

“Just a minute… There.  The screens are set around us and the horses.  The women have moved out of range, but we should be safe.  They should not be able to get at us.”

“Good.  Decker, Katie, and Elder Stow focus your fire on the ones charging the fort.  Lockhart, Maruf, Aemir, and I will deal with the ones that come up to the screen.”  He called and became clothed in the armor of the Kairos, sword over his shoulder and long knife across the small of his back.  He left his helmet, shield, spear, and the cape of Athena on Avalon, but he could call to them if he needed them.

“And Elder Stow,” Lockhart added.  “Please take the safety off your weapon this time.”

“Automatic,” Decker said, interrupting Elder Stow’s grumpy response. “Three round bursts,”

“Sir,” Katie acknowledged that she heard.

Baba and Maruf loaded their primitive rifles.  They fired a good-sized mini ball with enough force to penetrate armor, though not nearly with the force of Lockhart’s shotgun.  Aemir and Cedar got out their wands, but they were not sure what they could do, exactly.

The Wolv sneaking through the woods divided when they saw the horses ride out.  Four came to the screened travelers, not knowing about the screens.  Four chased the horses.

Boston rode at a fast trot, but did not push them to gallop, wary of their passengers.  Peri enjoyed the ride behind Sukki, though the Princess screamed in Boston’s ear, shut her eyes, and held on to Boston for dear life.  Almeria kept up on Tony’s horse, not because she was a great horsewoman, but because the horse stayed with the group.  They got less than five minutes away when they saw two riders coming toward them.  Lincoln and Nanette stopped in an open field as the others rode up.

“Tony and Alexis have the wagon,” Lincoln shouted.

“Look out!” Nanette shouted and pointed.  The Wolv were able to move fast enough through the woods to catch the horses.  They came racing across the meadow, and people reacted.  Lincoln and Boston pulled out their handguns and both managed to fire on the same Wolv.  It ran out front.  It eventually stumbled, and with enough bullets in it, it collapsed.  Boston whipped out her wand and turned her flamethrower on the beast, just to be sure.  Lincoln turned on the other two.

One attacked Sukki on the left side, and the other ran around to the right.  Sukki screamed, not being able to turn her power in both directions.  She did not know if she could turn the power on.  She did not know what she was doing. She panicked, and the power came from her hands, outstretched to hold off the beast, much like it did before, only this time the whole mid-section of the beast turned to dust and ashes.  The head and legs fell.

Nanette screamed.  She had her wand but did not know what she was doing any more than Sukki.  The Wolv to Sukki’s other side leapt.  It kept going up, until it floated twenty feet in the air.  It clawed and scratched at the air, and roared, but could not come back down.  Lincoln fired, over and over, and Boston had to distract Nanette with a word of praise.

“All right, sister!”

“I panicked,” Nanette admitted, as the dead Wolv crashed to the ground.

“I panicked first,” Sukki said.

“No, I did, as soon as I saw them,” Nanette countered.

“No, as soon as we started riding to escape,” Sukki insisted.

“God,” Boston interrupted.  “I love having sisters.”

The group turned and found the wagon not far away.  They also found another Wolv body.  Tony shouted to them.  “Alexis held it back with her wind, and I shot it with all six bullets in my gun.  Alexis told me there were more bullets, so I shot it three more times, and twice more after I got down to make sure it was dead.  I checked.  The gun is still fully loaded.  What kind of magic can do that?”

Lincoln shrugged.  “The gun will never run out of bullets.  We have had that grace since the beginning, like Alexis’ never-ending vitamins and the never-ending bread crackers.  Just keep in mind, the gun can still overheat and break if you abuse it.”

Tony nodded, looked at his handgun and said, “I wonder how the others are doing.”

The others, at that moment, were destroying the Wolv charge.  Decker, Katie, and Elder Stow dropped one after another of the beasts as they raced across the field.  Nothing came from the makeshift fort until the Wolv nearly arrived at the palisade.  Then they heard the orders shouted.  A volley from fifteen rifles put holes in about ten of the beasts.

“Second row.  Ready.  Fire.”  They heard the echo through Elder Stow’s screens.  A second volley of fifteen rifles fired, and the charge of the Wolv stalled before they could get their claws on the wooden stakes that made the palisade. The Wolv might have torn through that wood like paper.  They heard, “Third row…” but it got interrupted by the sound of Lockhart’s shotgun, and the two rifles behind them.  Baba shot a big hole in the middle of one. It would not live long. Maruf caught one in the face.  Lockhart blasted a Wolv back to slam into a tree and added a second blast just to be sure.

Aemir managed to raise a root from the ground over which the last Wolv tripped.  The Wolv slammed his face into Elder Stow’s screens, and found his foot tangled in the root.  While it clawed at the root to get free, Lockhart came over and blasted it, twice.  He made sure the rest were dead even as the Wolv attacking the fort turned to attack the travelers.  Some semi-bright Wolv decided the travelers posed the bigger threat.  Between Decker, Katie, and Elder Stow, none of the Wolv made it as far as the screens.

The Romans and Parthians came out from the fort holding javelins and swords, and very few rifles.  They planned to make sure the Wolv were dead.  The Arabs and Persians wisely stayed behind the palisade.

“Elder Stow, the ship?”  Baba asked, and Elder Stow put down his weapon and pulled up his scanner.

“No sign of engines working.  I am guessing most, if not all of the systems have burned out.  They are probably repairable if the Wolv haven’t torn them apart.”  He paused before he added, “I see three Wolv still aboard.  Probably as near as they have to engineers.”

Baba nodded.  “’l will need you, Boffo, with Schaibo and Boston when they get here, to go invisible and clean the Wolv out of the ship, if you don’t mind.  I’m sure Boffo is disappointed at not using his iron bar.”

“Actually,” Boffo said.  “I am not like Schaibo.  I have no need to smash things.”

“Awe, come on,” Baba said, and patted the oversized dwarf on the arm.  “Hulk smash.  You need to practice that.”

###

When the others arrived, Ali Baba gave them a purse of gold and silver coins, mostly Parthian, but some Roman.  They volunteered to stay and help him repair the ship, but he turned them down. “I’m going to give it ten days,” he said.  “If I can get it in flight, I’ll take this crew to Moesia.  I have to gather the legions to face the main body of Wolv there, though I feel better about our chances now than I did before, knowing that we can short out their personal screens and their weapons.”

“What are the odds?” Boston asked.

“Four legions, with auxiliaries make about twenty-four thousand men against five or six thousand Wolv.  That may not be enough men.  But anyway, don’t dawdle.  You have ten days to reach the next time gate.  Don’t worry.  We will watch through Prince Ali’s tube.  I won’t leave and shift the time gate until you are gone.”

“See you next time,” Katie said, and everyone waved.

************************

MONDAY

The travelers catch up to a friend of regular readers of this blog. They find Greta, Woman of thee Ways of the Dacian people, or she find them. The Wraith also finds them… Until then, Happy Reading

*

Avalon 7.5 Ali Baba and the 40 Guns, part 5 of 6

“I remember the thousand and one nights,” Alexis finally admitted, softly.  Nanette rode to her right and Lincoln to her left.  Tony had the wagon, and Katie and Lockhart, with Baba behind him, rode out front in their own conversation.  Schaibo ran ahead with Boston and Sukki where they presumably could not hear.

“What?” Lincoln asked.

“Ali, the middle son, won the archery contest and married Princess Nuronnihar.  Hussain, the older son became a priest, like his father.  Sasan was a priest before he took the Persian throne.  Ahmed, the youngest son, secretly married a fairy—a Peri, Peribonou.  She is, or was, a tulip fairy.  When Ahmed’s father, King Sasan finds out, he starts making all sorts of unreasonable demands of his son.  Sasan gets paranoid.  He fears his son will dethrone him.  Sadly, one of the demands is Ahmed should find an extra-small man with a beard longer than himself who carries an iron staff.  Schaibo shows up, gets ridiculed, and uses his iron staff on the king and most of the court.  He gives Ahmed and Peribonou the throne.  Peribonou is his sister, I think.”

“Half-sister,” Nanette said.  “Same fairy father, but fairy and dwarf mothers.”

“That may be why Schaibo is so short,” Lincoln suggested.  “Fairy father,” he clarified.

Alexis nodded, but then shook her head.  “Maybe.  But no.  The world of the little spirits of the earth usually doesn’t follow logically like that.  But the point is, it has not happened yet.  We can’t say anything.  I get the feeling Ahmed’s father hasn’t found out yet about his marriage.  I probably should not have told you.  Benjamin, you can’t let on that you know anything.”

“Don’t worry,” Lincoln said.  “I have read lots of things in the database and kept my mouth closed.  They won’t hear it from me.”

 “I won’t say anything,” Nanette said.  She dropped her voce and her eyes.

“I almost wish you would,” Alexis told her.  “Tony doesn’t say much, but neither do Lockhart, Decker, or Elder Stow.  Most males are not talkers.  You can’t judge men by my blabbermouth husband, Benjamin.”

“Witch,” Lincoln returned the compliment.  Alexis gave him a hard look.  “Of course, my lovely witch wife is smart.  You should listen when she talks,” Lincoln added, and Alexis smiled for him.

“I won’t say anything about the thousand and one nights, but I understand what you are saying,” Nanette said.  “I was a talker back home.  I learned to talk around the Romans, once the Professor explained that being shy only made me more alluring to the powerful people there.”

“So, what is the problem with us?” Alexis asked.  “Even Benjamin’s a likeable fellow.”

“And I underline, witch,” Lincoln said, and returned Alexis’ smile.

Nanette shook her head.  She noticed the horses stopped moving, as Lockhart and Katie stopped.  Boston and Sukki, with Schaibo were returning from the front, and people were dismounting to walk the horses for a while.  Nanette got down, but Alexis was not going to let her go without a word.

“So, what is it?” Alexis asked.

Nanette found a tear in her eye but held it back.  “I’m still coming to grips with the fact that you are all, mostly, white people, and I’m a black woman, but you treat me like an equal.  I grew up in 1900.  My grandmother was a slave.  I’ve never been friends with real white people before.  Even the professor and the others treated me more like a servant than a friend.  They did not mean bad.  It was just the way they thought—the way we thought.  But now, I have seen how much you like and respect Decker, though he is a black man.  You treat him like an accomplished soldier, like the military colonel he is, and without any hesitation.”

“More like family, as Elder Stow would say,” Lincoln interjected.  “But don’t tell him I said that.”  Nanette nodded, dropped a couple of tears, but then laughed as she thought about it.  Alexis stepped up and hugged Nanette.  Katie, Lockhart, and Baba watched, as Katie spoke her mind.

“We are from a hundred years after your day, but you see, we have learned a thing or two,” she said.  “America is something the world has never seen before.  We have struggled with the old way of doing things.  The struggle against slavery got bloody.  But free and equal is the way we are all trying to be, even from the beginning of America.  There are some in our day that refuse to let go of the old way of thinking.  They want to keep us divided by race, sex, religion, and money and success, and all that—what they call identity politics, though most realize outward things like skin color do not make a person…”

Lockhart nodded.  “Some people think they are smarter than others, and deserve to run things, and that ordinary Americans are stupid.”

“We call them Democrats,” Lincoln interjected, and Alexis nudged his shoulder.  

“…But most people just want to be good neighbors and don’t let race, color, creed, or social or economic circumstances and all that get in the way,” Katie finished.

Alexis added, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female in Christ, the apostle said.”

“I remember that quote,” Baba said, and smiled at some memory.

Boston ran up and hugged Nanette, clearly having heard some of the conversation.  “Welcome to the family,” she said.  “Now you can be sisters with me and Sukki.  I never had sisters before.  I grew up with a bunch of brothers.”

“An offer from an elf—” Alexis began.

“—You can’t turn that down,” Sukki interrupted.

Nanette nodded and kept back the tears as Lockhart shouted at the sky. “Lunch.”

“I’ll get the leftovers from the wagon,” Alexis said.

“I’ll help,” Sukki and Nanette said together, and smiled at each other, and looked at Boston.

“No.  You don’t want her to help,” Alexis said, sounding like a mom.

Boston stuck her tongue out at Alexis, and said, “Fine.  I’ll get the fire started.”

“We go with our strengths,” Decker said, as he rode up.

Katie turned to Lincoln.  “And we need to check a couple of horseshoes.  I think Robert’s horse picked up a stone.”

Lunch did not take long.  They just ate up what they had.

“Not much of a lunch,” Schaibo described it after they finished, and tried hard not to complain about the meager repast.

“You’re a dwarf,” Boston teased.  “Since when are you not hungry?”

Schaibo grinned at the thought.  “I like you, too, Miss Boston.  Even if you are an uppity elf.”

The others ignored them.

“My boss is a black woman,” Lockhart said, having finally thought of something to say.

“Wait,” Tony objected.  “I thought you worked for the Men in Black, whoever they are.  How can a woman be a Man in Black?”

“Good lawyer, too,” Alexis added.

“Well, obviously, she is not a man,” Lincoln said.

“A lawyer?” Nanette sounded surprised.

“But she is black,” Baba said, and smiled again at some more memories.

“Bobbi, er, Roberta,” Lockhart named her.

“We recruited her out of the FBI,” Lincoln said.

“Wait,” Tony started again.  “FBI?”

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation.  They are like federal detectives.” Lockhart explained

“A woman detective?” Tony asked

“A black woman, who is a lawyer and an FBI detective?” Nanette shook her head in disbelief.

“Like I said earlier,” Katie spoke to Nanette.  “We learned a few things in the hundred years since your day.”

Nanette would have to think about it all.

After lunch, Nanette tied her horse to the wagon, while the others packed to travel.  She would ride with Tony to Lord Baba’s camp.  She stepped out from the others to think about where they might be headed.  They had a long way to go to reach the nineteenth, or rather the twentieth century.

Nanette stood in a field of yellow flowers under a blue sky, and decided it looked like the place she grew up.  She tried to imagine being home.  Her mother would wonder where she had been for the last seven—more like nine or ten years by the time she got home.  She wondered if her mother would like Decker.  She wondered how Venus imagined that would work since her experiences and his were separated by a hundred years.  Where would they live?  She could not imagine following him into the future.

Nanette shrugged off her worries.  She would trust God to work things out.  Besides, they might not survive the journey.  None of her worries might matter.  They had a road to travel, first.  She looked in the direction they headed, held out her hands and closed her eyes to try and glimpse where they were headed.  She screamed, over and over.

It took a few moments for the group to calm her down enough to get a word out of her.  She looked at Decker.

“The Wolv.  They found the camp.  The big ship is coming.”  She turned to Baba.  “The Wolv think,” she said, and barely kept from screaming again.

Katie extended her elect senses in the right direction.  “I sense something, but nothing clear.  They are not a threat to us, yet.”

Boston looked with her elf senses, and caught the thoughts of Aemir, the chief little one in the camp.  Aemir warned the people there, who immediately took up positions behind the makeshift Roman palisade.

Lockhart said, “Damn.”

Baba reacted.  “Boston?”

“Aemir is warned,” Boston said.

“Elder Stow?”

“The scout-transport is still too far for details, but I am picking up an energy signature, like they are charging the engines for flight.”

Baba turned to the group.  “Schaibo, stay with the wagon and guard the people.  Lincoln, Alexis, Nanette, and Tony, bring the wagon, and Tony, let me borrow your horse.  The rest of us need to ride.  Elder Stow, bring the transmitter we have worked on.”  He marched off to Tony’s horse, and the rest got ready as quickly as they could.

They had something like a road, so the ride was not too difficult, but they were still an hour away.  Elder Stow tried to keep one eye on his scanner, but it bounced too much to see it well, not to mention he needed to watch where he went.  They rode hard and fast.

Fifteen minutes from the camp, Elder Stow’s voice rang from the wristwatch communicators.  “Stop.”  People stopped, but some had to come back to hear.  “The Wolv transport has reached the camp.  The three in the scout ship that found the camp kept back to wait for the others, but they look like they will charge as soon as they form up.”

“Damn,” Baba said, in English.  He called.  “Jasmine and Cedar.”  A young fairy couple appeared, and Baba took the Wolv transmitter from Elder Stow.  “Cedar,” he said to the fairy.  “Hold this carefully.  Don’t drop it or break it.  You need to fly this ahead to the camp and when you are between the Wolv ship and the Romans, Jasmine, you need to press this button.  No!  Not until you are in between the Wolv ship and the Romans.  Now, fly.  Fast as you can.”

“Lord,” Cedar said, but Jasmine hurried him.  They flew out of sight in maybe a second.

“Good luck,” Decker said.  The others were polite enough not to say anything as they started to ride.

The travelers rode hard for ten minutes, and extra hard when they saw the smoke in the distance.  They stopped on a small incline where they could see the camp to their left and the metal edge of the scout-transport to their right, among the trees.  The palisade that protected the castellum burned and sent billows of smoke from the treated wood high into the sky.  A few trees on their right also smoldered, but Baba figured the transport main guns increased the size of the small meadow so they could land safely.