Avalon 7.4 People in the Middle, part 4 of 6

Boston, Sukki, Captain Ban and a dozen of his soldiers rode back from the point with a warning.  The ones out front stopped, and eventually, the whole train came to a stop.  Yuezhi bandits were hidden in the grass and small hills of the open land, ahead, just on the other side of the trees.  They could not say how many, though certainly thirty.  No doubt many more.  The hill suggested a small army.

“Not good,” Zhang She said.  “I had hoped we lost them once we got free of Pamir.”

“Elder Stow, can you get a fix on them?” Katie asked.

“I’ll take a look,” Decker volunteered and stepped from the group to sit and meditate.”

“Captain Ban…” Zhang She started to give orders, but Lockhart interrupted him.  

“Wait until we see what we are dealing with.”

It did not take long for Elder Stow to report.  “The scanner says three hundred and seven human life signs.  There appear to be less than a hundred horses ahead.  Here, let me show you.”  He held up his scanner and projected a holograph of the area ahead.  “See.  We are in blue, here, on this side of the group of trees.  I am green.  Boston does not appear, but I would make her red.  The bandits are all in yellow, which is the color of danger.  See the dots, here, just on the other side of the trees.  They are on both sides of what you call the road, and on this side, up this hill.”  He paused to let Gan Ao and Zhang She stare.

“No,” Elder Stow said before Katie or Lockhart could ask.  “I could put a stationary screen around this big a group, but not one we could move with.  Too many obstacles to account for on such a large projection.  Trust me.  And a Decker Wall will not stretch nearly far enough to cover even one whole side of the group, in case you were thinking of those things.”

“They are not moving?” Boston asked.  “I figured they would move, once they were seen.

“No,” Elder Stow shook his head.  “Not moving.”

“Because they certainly saw us,” Captain Ban said.

“They tried to shoot us,” Sukki added, with a little huffing and puffing, like she ran away, personally.

Katie pointed at the projection.  “They appear to be settled down.  My guess is they are arguing.  They probably believe you saw a few bandits, like thirty at most, and you will expect them to flee once your big group appears.  There is no reason you should expect three hundred and seven ready to spring an ambush.”

“They are probably also mad that some jumped too soon,” Captain Ban said.  “We escaped unharmed.”

“Decker?” Katie called as Alexis, Tony and Nanette came up to ask what was happening.  Decker also came, and he had a plan, having seen the land ahead through the eye of his eagle totem.

“Captain Ban.  You already have your troops divided to march along the left and right sides of the train.  Send one group to where the trees end, and then follow the far side of the trees to the back of a hill.  The enemy is hidden in the rocks on the other side of the hill, but it does not look steep.  You should be able to climb up and easily see them.  You can fall down on them from above and drive them out on to the road, then use the rocks and the height as cover for your own troops.”

“And the others?”

“Send your other group three hundred yards the other way.  That is, three hundred large paces.  Send them through the woods and have them spread out in the grasses and stay hidden.  Tell them to get their bows and arrows ready and try to not be seen.  If the bandits want to stay off the road to avoid soldiers and civilians, they will have to run through the grass where your archers will be waiting.”

“You got it all figured?” Lockhart said.

Decker nodded.  “Elder Stow can put his screen around us in the front.  We will move to the exit from the woods and a little way out into the open area beyond.  The train can move up some but stay behind us and stay in the woods to not be exposed.  We can occupy the bandits’ attention while Captain Ban gets his two groups in position.”

“Will you not fear to risk your lives so?” Zhang She asked, concerned about his guests.

“Elder Stow’s screen will protect us,” Katie said, only to be interrupted by Alexis.

“Nanette and I will bring up the wagon.  We will send Lincoln to you, but I have no intention of participating in killing people if I don’t have to.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Nanette agreed, and they wheeled around and rode back down the line to their wagon, gently nestled behind the wagon for Zhang She’s things and the wagon for the map maker.

Captain Ban sent six men off to get each column to do their job, but he and a half-dozen riders stayed with him in the front.  Gan Ao rode down the line to tell the wagon drivers to stay in line, move up, but stay on the road and in the woods.  Zhang She stayed close, not willing to miss what this screen business was all about.   They waited a half-hour, to allow the troops time to get in position, then they moved slowly through the woods.

Elder Stow had his scanner out and kept one eye on it.  He had his screen device hooked to it, as usual, and spoke.  “A few more horses than expected, but I have programmed in the trees and ground, so they will not be disturbed by our passage.”  They got partially exposed when Elder Stow said, “Stop.  Stop moving.”  The group stopped moving.  “There is a boulder underground ahead.”  He flipped a couple of switches and slid his fingers on the device.  “A bit larger… Around the boulder… Okay.  Move on.”  The people moved until they became completely exposed.  They stopped again when they saw the first head pop up from the ground.

Decker fired.  The man spun and fell.  A rain of arrows followed.  Zhang She and several horsemen wailed before the arrows struck and bounced off Elder Stow’s screen.  Two dozen men rushed up with long spears.  They also bounced off the screen, and Lockhart ordered Decker not to kill them unless they went around and headed toward the wagons.

“Now,” Captain Ban said, looking up at the top of the hill.  “Now, already.”

About eighty horses came from around the hill in a cavalry charge.  Elder Stow got quickly down and set his screen device against the ground.  “if I did not set this in a solid location, the horses would have pushed me right off my horse and thrown me back some distance, with the screens driven back as well.  But by setting the screens, they should bounce off like the arrows.”

Katie imagined letting the horses break on the screens would be cruel.  She flipped her rifle to automatic and Decker saw and did the same.  Katie, at least, imagined shooting and killing a few horses in the front to stall the charge would be kinder.  She and Decker opened fire.  Horses certainly went down.  The charge stalled as expected, then Decker actually stopped firing first.

Lincoln fired behind them.  “Tony and I are watching the rear.”  Some bandits were trying to find a back door to the screens.

“I’ll help,” Boston said, and she pulled out her wand and shot a stream of fire to one side and then the other.  No bandits got badly burned, but they all decided to run.

Then the men sent to the hill came pouring down on the enemy among the rocks, and things happened very fast.  The men in the rocks tried to escape down the hill.  The men in the grass on that side of the road got caught up in the panic.  The horsemen, utterly confused, rode off across the field, which got the men in that field to abandon their position.  They ran into a wall of arrows, and Boston thought it looked like more arrows than she expected.  She got mad and yelled, full volume.

“Brusher.  Cut that out.  If any of you folks get hurt, Lydia will yell at me, now, come on.”  She did not notice any slack in the number of arrows, so she decided not to look.

Plenty of bandits, in particular, the ones on horseback, made it through the line of archers and escaped.  Plenty escaped by turning and running down the road until they got far enough away to head across country.  But quite a few bandits got put down, and they only had to wait a while as Captain Ban’s men made sure the ones left behind were indeed dead.

Boston got a quick visit from Brusher and his band of gnomes.  They wanted to assure her that none of them got hurt, so maybe she would not mention it to Lydia.  Boston wondered why they got involved in the first place.  Brusher said the god, Tien Shang-Di ordered them to.

“No good can come from avoiding what the god says.  The law says we have to listen and obey the gods.  It is part of our job, you know.”

Boston nodded and said she would not tell Lydia, but then pointed out that Lydia probably already knew.  As she watched the gnomes disappear back into the wilderness, she wondered what they would do when the gods finally and fully went away.  That was happening very fast, from her perspective, traveling though time the way she was.  She feared briefly that the little spirits of nature might run amok, being suddenly set free without the gods looking over their shoulders.  But then she remembered that her god, the Kairos, would still be active in the world.  Besides, the little ones, like the human race, had over four thousand years of learning, training, and growing up.  Hopefully, they had matured enough in that time to stick to their tasks and not run wild.

“Time to grow up and start adulting,” she said out loud, without explaining to anyone.  She called Sukki to join her out on the point.  Captain Ban and some of his soldiers also joined them.

Avalon 7.4 People in the Middle, part 3 of 6

Lydia felt very happy, hard as this journey had been.  They made it out of Merv and beyond the Parthian Empire with most of their goods intact.  They assumed the disguise of a Syrian merchant caravan, and certainly, the thirty Syrian and Armenian merchants they had with them, the ones who presumably knew the road, helped.  A company of one hundred legionnaires with thirty cavalry men in a support troop would not have gotten far across Parthian lands without the disguise, even if they were mostly Greeks.

Of course, they started with the full quota of a hundred and forty legionnaires, counting the ten who brought the two scorpios.  Presently, they had a hundred and thirty Romans, a few of whom were wounded and assigned to the scorpios, and only twenty-seven merchants remained, but the road was not easy, and full of bandits.  Five wagons with a dozen mules and a dozen merchant camels filled the complement.  The mules and horses had the roughest go of it, but twenty miles per day was not too difficult.  That was a distance that legionnaires in full gear trained to travel in five hours across all sorts of terrain.

“David.  David-Marcus,” Lydia stuck her head out of the tent and called.  When she heard no answer, she turned to her maid, Varina.  “Do you know where my husband has gotten to?  I need to know if he wants these rugs back in the wagon or tied to one of the camels.  I assume he doesn’t plan to carry them on his poor horse.”

Varina looked up at the top of the tent, like she might be thinking about it.  “I believe your centurion is with the Tribune Valerion and Master Shehan discussing the route ahead.  Shehan, the merchant, says we are in Kushan territory now, and fourteen days from the next big city, Bactra.”

Lydia sighed.  “Fourteen days and stop for a week.  Then fourteen more days and stop for a week.  I have been away from my children for a hundred and forty days already.  Maybe Valerion was right.  Maybe I never should have come.”

“I am sure David’s mother and family are taking wonderful care of your children.  You need not worry,” Varina said.  “Besides, after Bactra we will only have a month to get to Kashgar, and Master Shehan says that is more than half-way there.”

“Grr,” Lydia said, and pulled her small wooden cross from beneath her dress.  It hung from a golden chain around her neck, and she never took it off.  She held it, dearly, and stepped out of the tent where she could see the rising sun.  She knelt and prayed for her children.  Then she prayed for David-Marcus, and for his family.  Then she started to pray for the members of this expedition and thought the Emperor Claudius asked too much.  Well, with Artabanus, the Parthian dead, and his two sons preoccupied with fighting for control of the Parthian Empire, there might not have been a better time to sneak through to the land of silk.

Varina watched Lydia pray, and got a small tear in her eye, thinking it was time for her to go away, forever.  She caught sight of the mounted men, Scythians on the horizon, but they were an hour away.  She decided not to interrupt her friend.  Unfortunately, Bogtan the dwarf had no such qualms.  Bogtan, Crumbles, and a whole group of what Lydia called “Imp-heads” followed them up from the Zagros mountains.  They swore it was their duty to see the caravan safely to its destination, though they had been no help so far.

“Psst,” Bogtan hissed for Lydia’s attention.

“Yeah, Psst,” Crumbles said.

Lydia frowned before she looked up.  “What?”  Her word sounded sharper than she meant.  So much for prayer time.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Bogtan said.

“Yeah, sorry,” Crumbles echoed.

“You got horsemen, about two hundred coming down out of the hills, headed right toward you.”

“Kushan bandits?” Lydia asked.  Bogtan shrugged.  Varina, who had stepped out to stand beside her mistress, suggested otherwise.

“Scythians, from the north country, about an hour away.”

Lydia got up from her knees and spoke to the point.  “Varina, please finish the packing and get the squad to take down the tent and pack it in the wagon.  Rugs in the wagon, too, I guess.  Thank you Bogtan.  Thank you, too, Crumbles.  I will have to get the rest of the camp up and packed and tell Valerion he has company.  We shall see what the Scythians want.”  She did not doubt what Varina said.  She walked straight to Valerion’s tent.

Tribune Valerion did little to beef up the defenses in the camp.  They did not have the trees, but between what palisade they could build and the trench they dug, it would be enough to stop a cavalry charge.  David-Marcus gave the orders to be prepared to form up outside the palisade.  They would use the camp as their fallback position, if needed.  The men at least dressed to look like soldiers.  The fourteen velites with their darts and twelve Armenians out front all had bows and arrows as well, as may be needed, and the scorpios were set to catch the enemy in a crossfire.  They could not do more.  They waited the hour.

The Scythians stopped out of bowshot, like a well-disciplined troop.  They watched.  Valerion signaled the trumpeter who blew the call.  The legionnaires marched out of the camp and formed the characteristic three lines.  The soldiers said nothing, and the silence spread across the way.  Suddenly, Tobias, the optimo, shouted out, “Repellere equites.”  Without a word, the formation shifted to an open square to repel horsemen.

Valerion did not wait long.  With the Centurion David-Marcus, Aritides, who was the cavalry Decurio, and Shehan the merchant chief to translate, he rode to the center of the field and waited.  Five men rode out from the Scythian lines to talk.  Valerion introduced himself, his officers, and the chief merchant, and ended by saying, “We have no quarrel with the Scythian people and would rather move on with our journey without the needless spilling of blood.”

One of the Scythians rubbed his scraggly beard and said, “Roman.”  Shehan translated.  “You fight good.  I have seen Romans fight.  You are not so many, but you have horses hidden behind the rocks.  Not many, but enough to sting.”

“We are headed to Bactra and Kashgar.  We would rather go in peace.”

“You have big bows on the rocks,” the man said, and pointed at the two scorpios set up on rock outcroppings where they could fire over the heads of the legionnaires.  “You would never hit a man on a swift horse with those.”

“No,” Valerion admitted.  “But they can kill horses pretty good.”

The man paused, like he had not considered that.  “But I see women.”  He pointed again.  Lydia and Varina had crawled up on one of the outcroppings beside a scorpio where they could see, and Bogtan could hear and report what was being said.  “And I see little men.  What are those men?”

David laughed as Valerion shook his head.  “They are our friends,” David-Marcus said.  “More than you can count.”

The man turned to his men and had a quick conversation in his native tongue.  Shahan probably did not know the tongue, but if he did, he opted not to translate what the man said.  When the man turned back to Valerion, he looked shaken, but determined.

“All Romans are rich with gold and silver,” he said.  “Maybe for some gold, we go on our way.”

“Crumbles?” David looked down, so everyone looked and saw the dwarf standing in the grass as he answered in Latin, which Shehan did not know and could not translate.

“The lady says no coins or amber or drugs.  She says nothing that will entice them to want to come back and take the rest of it.  A couple of rugs and glass beads will be a fine token of friendship and enough so the chief does not lose face.”

Valerion frowned at David-Marcus.  “Your wife is annoying,” he said, also in Latin.  “But smart as a whip.”  He spoke in Greek so Shahan could translate.  “So, go and fetch a gift for our friend, here.”

“Crumbles,” David said, and reached down to haul the dwarf up behind him.  “Hold on.”  They rode back into the camp where other dwarfs had already piled some of the trade goods.  David-Marcus got three cavalry men to carry the gifts, and they returned to the impatient Scythians.  Crumbles immediately explained the gifts and their inestimable value, as he called it.  And he spoke in the Scythian tongue so Shahan could not to translate, and the Romans would not have to hear his lies.

“Alas, these poor and humble soldiers do not have the gold and silver you seek.  You know how badly soldiers are paid.”  Crumbles was a convincing liar.  “But this special rug has some gold threads woven into the fabric.  See how it shines in the sunlight.  And this glass jar is from Rome itself—you can see right through it.”  It was from Syria, but why quibble?  “It contains many glass beads so highly prized by the Han.  I bet your wife, er, lover would be very grateful for a necklace made of the beads.  Oh, and that is asbestos cloth.  It is not fireproof, but fire resistant, so, you know, any fire you might start, you could wear that and have some protection.  A very rare and special commodity.”

“Hey, Crumbles,” Crumbles’ group of dwarfs seemed to appear right out of the grass.  “That rug was supposed to be for the Han emperor.”

“Oh, well, I am sure our new friends here will enjoy it more.”

The Scythian chief stared at the dwarfs but managed to signal his men to gather up the things.  They all turned without another word and the whole two hundred rode off down the road toward Merv.  Crumbles and his dwarfs disappeared, and Valerion turned to David-Marcus.

“What did he tell them?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“You speak Scythian?” Aritides asked.

David-Marcus shook his head.  “But I seem to understand dwarf pretty well.”

“Your wife?”

David-Marcus nodded, and grinned.

Up on the rock, as the soldiers helped Lydia and Varina get down, Lydia asked a pointed question directly at Varina.  “Did you convince the Scythians to go away?  You know, you are not supposed to interfere in that way.”

Varina shook her head.  “I didn’t have to,” she said.  She did not say she would not do that.  Even Bogtan caught it.

“Slick,” he said.  “Slick as a skinny elf in a grease pit.”

Valerion stopped by the women to complain.  “My men are getting fat and lazy.”

A few of the soldiers heard and laughed, though they tried to not be seen laughing.  But honestly.  Marching twenty miles a day over the past five months with hardly a half-dozen weeks of rest was not making them fat.

Avalon 7.4 People in the Middle, part 2 of 6

Inside the tent, Lincoln pointed at the map Zheng She got out and laid over top of the new map they were making. He said it was a copy of the map made originally for the Emperor of Han by Zhang She’s ancestor, Zhang Qian.  

“Bactria,” Lincoln said, checking the map against the one in the database.  He pointed.

“Soon to be called Balkh,” Katie said.  “Avestan, mostly, I would guess.  Mostly folk religion and Zoroastrian.  I don’t know how far Buddhism has penetrated.  It could be all Buddhist by now, but I doubt any Nestorian Christians have gotten there.  Not yet.”  She looked up and saw the Chinese men in particular staring at her, like women should not speak in the presence of men.  “Sorry,” she said, and Lincoln continued.

“Here, where it is marked Dayuan.  That is as far as the Greeks under Alexander reached.”

“He got that far?”  Lockhart was impressed.

“Up here, marked Kangju, is Sogdinia.

“Where Roxana, Alexander’s wife came from.” Katie tried to whisper.

Lincoln ignored her.  “Back here, across the Tarim Basin is where the Yuezhi come from. They have pushed down into all this area and pushed out the Parthians, more or less. Merv, here, is on the edge of Parthian territory these days.”

“The Anxi?” Zheng She asked, seemingly unsure who the Parthians might be.

“The Arsacid dynasty of Parthia,” Katie spoke up again.  “The Chinese name an area after the people, usually after the king’s or emperor’s dynastic name, being generally applied to the people.  China is presently the land of the Han, though eventually, the name China sticks.”

“But here?” Captain Ban got interested and did not hesitate to ask the woman.

“The Yuezhi form a confederation of five?  I think five tribes.”  She looked at Lincoln who started to look it up in the database before she waved him off.  “The important tribe is the Kush.  They eventually take over the old Greco-Bactrian empire, push up into Sogdinia and eventually all the way to the Hindu Kush, and they form the Kushan Empire between China and the Parthians.  Pushing from their end, and with the Romans on the other end, they weaken the Parthians who eventually fall to the Sassanids.  A Parthian civil war doesn’t help.  The Scythians invading from the north and killing a couple of Parthian kings doesn’t help, either.  To be honest, the Kushan empire is never strong, being made up of various loosely connected tribes.  But they do control the road, here, between the Tian Shan and the Taklimakan desert.”

“Not at all,” Zhang She said.  “That whole area has been made the Western Protectorate of the Han.  It was a hundred years ago the great general Zheng Ji drove the Xiongnu out and made the land a protectorate of the Han.  That is another reason for our journey.  After these hundred years, much has changed in the west, and the great Han emperor wishes to know what has transpired.”

Lincoln made a knowing sound before he spoke.  “There was a rival dynasty set up some years back and the Han got involved in their own civil war.  The Han won and reestablished the dynasty about five, or less than ten years ago. My guess is, now that things have settled down, the Han want to know what has happened in the west, which is a long way from home.”

“The Western Protectorate,” Captain Ban nodded.

“Protectorate, yes,” Katie agreed.  “But you do not live here.  The Yuezhi have moved in with many western peoples.”

“So I have seen,” Zhang She said.

“Our primary trouble these days remains with the Xiongnu, not the Yuezhi.  The Xiongnu pushed the Yuezhi out of the western lands and across the desert,” the captain said.

“The Mongols,” Katie named them.  “But look.  The Tian Shan, the mountains in the north, and the Kunlun Mountains in the south with the desert in between make an affective barrier separating the Mongolian tribes from the Yuezhi.  And in the steppes, the Scythians have moved in and make an equally affective barrier against the Mongolian hordes.  It will be twelve hundred years before the Mongolians build enough strength and numbers to break through those barriers.”

“What is down here?” Gan Ao asked, sort of changing the subject.

“That points to India,” Katie answered.  “Shendu,” she read the name on the map.  “Probably Sindhu, a name for the Indus valley, roughly modern Pakistan.  It is an area still heavily influenced by the Greeks, like Bactria and Sogdinia were.  The actual India, of the Ganges, is further over.”

“My great ancestor. Zhang Qian failed to find a safe way from the Han to the Shendu people,” Zhang She said, out loud.

“The Himalayas.”  That was all Katie had to say.

“The Hindu Kush.  From the Kushan of the Yuezhi people?” Gan Ao asked.

“No doubt,” Katie said, and looked at Lockhart.  “And it occurred to me I am probably saying too much.  Most things are best to find out on your own.”

“I wonder if Tien is still around,” Boston said, pointing to the Tian Shan on the map.

“Tien?” Zhang She asked, while the four men of Han stared at Boston’s red hair.

“Tien Shang-Di,” Boston said happily.  “A really nice guy, and a good friend.”

“You mean, the god of heaven?” Gan Ao asked.  He grinned again, like he knew something.

“I guess so,” Boston said, confirming the guess, but not committing to it.

“Boston,” Katie scolded her.  “You know perfectly well that is who you are talking about.”

Boston grinned and shrugged.  “Yeah, but I’m ready for breakfast, and you will just stand around talking maps and history and stuff till the cows come home.”  She left the tent.

“Food must be ready,” the map maker, Djo-Djo agreed, and they all piled out of the tent to where the cooking fires burned.  Nanette complained.

“They are all eunuchs.  There are no women at all in this camp.  Only broken men.”

“The eunuchs serve, as is their duty and right,” Zhang She said, not exactly understanding the complaint.

“The Romans and Egyptians have slaves,” Decker said again, as the others came to the fire at the same time.

“Yes,” Lincoln said.  “But in Rome a man can earn his freedom.”

‘But we treat our eunuchs well, and if they serve well, they can win titles and lands with great honor,” Captain Ban said.

“But in Rome, a man can earn his freedom with titles, lands, and honor, and still have his manhood, to have children to pass down his prosperity to the next generation,” Lincoln said.

“Stop it,” Alexis said.  “There are eunuchs even in our day, the result of cancer, and other things.”

“There were Greco-Roman Eunuchs too,” Katie said.  “And in the middle east and Egypt, for centuries.  They are all over the world.  It probably started as far back as Sumer.  The Persian empire was full of Eunuchs in imperial service, and Alexander did not end the practice.  You might as well get used to the idea because we will probably run into eunuchs several more times during our journey.”

Lockhart turned up his nose and shivered but said nothing.  Decker remained stoic, but he looked at Nanette, and she looked at him with a look that said she could deal with it if he could.  He nodded slightly, but they also said nothing.

“And what does the one with flaming hair say?” Djo-Djo asked.

“Yes,” Zhang She said.  “I have seen yellow hair among the Yuezhi, though only once or twice.  I have seen blue eyes, but I have never seen hair the color of the flames.”

“I say we should eat and get moving or Lydia will get to the city ahead of us.”

Avalon 7.4 People in the Middle, part 1 of 6

After 14 A.D. Bactria on the Silk Road

Kairos 89: Lydia, the Prophetess

Recording …

The travelers came through the time gate early in the morning.  The sun just hit the horizon at their backs.  Anyone watching might have thought they came right out of the light.  And there were about two hundred people watching; at least the ones that were awake.

“Company for breakfast,” Boston announced, seeming more her affable self, now having forgiven herself for getting carried away in the last time zone.  Boston and Sukki came through first and stopped to stare at the people watching at them.

“What do you think they want?” Sukki wondered, as people came to the other side of a rough road, to stare.

“That is probably what they are wondering about us,” Katie said, as she and Lockhart came through next, followed by Elder Stow and Decker.

“No guns,” Elder Stow reported, looking at his scanner.  He looked up at Lockhart.  “Unless the Masters changed the composition of their metal.”

 Decker spit.  To Lockhart’s disgusted look, he said.  “Last piece.”

Lockhart and Katie got down to face the people, some of whom found weapons of some sort or other.  At the same time, a fat and sleepy looking middle-aged man, still slipping into his jacket, came to the other side of a road.  People made room for him.  A young man of about twenty years came with him, to help him dress and present himself properly.  The fat man whispered in the young man’s ear, and the young man nodded and turned to face the travelers.

“My master, the great lord Zhang She of Xi’an, servant of the Great Emperor Guangwu of Han asks, who are you to disturb his rest at such an early hour?”

“Hold that thought,” Lockhart said.  “Decker and Elder Stow.  You need to step back to let the wagon through.”

“Of course,” Elder Stow said.  Boston and Sukki also stepped back on the other side as Ghost the mule crossed the threshold of the time gate.  The wagon followed, driven by Tony, his horse tied to the back.   Lincoln, Alexis and Nanette all came through on horseback, but stopped short when they saw the men across the way.  Some of those men now looked like soldiers.

The fat man, Zhang She appeared to open his mouth and stare as the wagon and riders came out of nowhere.  His young servant stayed more composed, even when Lockhart, the giant man, and Katie, the woman with yellow hair, stepped across the road to talk to him.

“Do you have a name?” Katie asked.

“I am Gan Ao, your humble servant.”  He bowed, but he smiled for some reason, almost like he might have been expecting them.

“Zhang She?” Lockhart asked and pointed at the fat man.  Gan Ao nodded.  “Tell Zhang She we come in friendship.  We humbly apologize for disturbing his slumber.  Where are we headed?”  He directed the last to Katie, but Gan Ao answered while Katie pulled her amulet from beneath her dress.

“To Lanshi, home of the Daxia people.”

Katie pointed while Lincoln and Boston came to add their two cents.  Lincoln had his face in the database, and Boston had hers in her amulet.  Lincoln spoke first.

“Lanshi is Bactra, and the Daxia people are the Bactrian people.”

“Boss,” Boston said.  “We are about ten days, maybe two hundred miles from a small city. The thing is, maybe we can take our time.  It looks like the Kairos is moving, except he is coming toward us instead of away from us this time.”

“She,” Lincoln said.  “Lydia of Tarsus.”

Boston confirmed Katie’s direction.  Lockhart turned to Gan Ao.  “We thank you for your kindness.  It was good meeting you, but if you will excuse us, we will be moving on and out of your hair shortly.”

Gan Ao put his hand to his head to feel his hair.  Zhang She shouted. “No.  Wait.  We are headed in the same direction and there is safety in numbers on this miserable excuse for a road.  Please stay with me and break your fast.  I have many questions.”  He turned to the people, many of whom still stared in awe.  “These strangers are “Hands off.”  If you have something you must say or ask, come and tell me or my faithful servant, Gan Ao.”  He turned to Lockhart.  “Come.”

“Free breakfast,” Boston said.

Lockhart shrugged when Lincoln said they appeared to be on the Silk Road, and Katie said, “Safety in numbers.”

They came to a big fire outside a semi-circle of tents with one extra big tent in the middle of the group.  “Come, come,” Zhang She said, as he went into the big tent.  Eight people could stand comfortably there around a table covered in paper.  Someone appeared to be making a map of their travels.  Lockhart, Katie, Boston, and Lincoln all pushed inside.  Besides Zhang She and Gan Ao, a fat, one might say, blubbery old man by the name of Djo-Djo sat by the table with ink and brushes.  Evidently, the map maker.  A Han soldier, the commander of the soldiers, came in to keep a wary eye on the strangers.  He got introduced as Captain Ban.

“Paper,” Katie noticed right away.  “Real paper.”  She said no more.

Outside, Elder Stow and Sukki helped Alexis and Tony get the wagon off the road and into a position where they could ride as soon as they were ready.  Decker dismounted by the fire outside the tents where he could keep one eye on the tent and one eye on the wagon.  Nanette came to join him, sent by Alexis to see what might be cooking for breakfast.  There appeared to be several men running around in a panic, trying to figure out how to cook enough and stretch the food to feed so many strangers.

When Nanette tied her horse with the other horses, and she came near the fire, Decker stared at her and said something unexpected.  “I heard you could have married anyone in Rome you wanted.  Why didn’t you?”

“I was something strange and different, like a toy.  I never would have been accepted. and they never would have understood the experience of my people.”

“They have slaves.  They had plenty of people uprooted from their homes and carted off to Rome as slaves.”  Decker spit.  “On this journey, I have come to realize that back home we have some people that make such a big deal out of an historical no big deal.”

“Is that what you think?  It has nothing to do with slavery.  I know nothing about that beyond stories from my grandmother.  I am talking about being dark skinned in a light skinned world.”

Decker nodded.  “We got rid of segregation in the sixties, though we are far from a perfect world on that score.”

Nanette affirmed what he said. “When I marry, it will be to a dark-skinned man, like myself.”

Decker and Nanette stared at each other until Decker spit.  “I’m thirty-six.  Maybe old enough to be your father.”

“I’m twenty-six.  You could not be my father unless you had a child when you were ten.”

“At ten, I wouldn’t have known where to stick it.”  He spit again.

Nanette looked shocked and disgusted.  “Where were you born?  In a barn?”

“In the hood.  Low-income housing in Charlotte, North Carolina,” he said.  “Besides, I was married for five years.  It didn’t work out.”  He turned and Nanette watched him walk away to help with the wagon, and he mumbled. “Aphrodite is as cruel as I always imagined her to be.”

Nanette shivered at her thoughts, but she could not take her eyes off the man as he walked away.

Avalon 7.3 Down to Egypt, part 6 of 6

“My father,” Elder Stow yelled to Lockhart.  He dragged Boston by the hand.  Boston looked down at the ground and would not look up for anyone.  “My father, I must tell you.  We scared the horses well.  There was no way they would ride to catch you or follow you.  But young Boston, here, fired three explosive arrows unnecessarily, killing men and horses.  And she seemed happy to do it.  My father.  I am Gott-Druk as you know.  I spent most of my life wanting to kill homo sapiens.  But even I would not slaughter men from behind, and when I am invisible, no less.  That is cheating.  A man should be able to face his doom.  And having killed, I would hope I would not feel happy about it.”

“Sorry.  Sorry,” Boston said, and looked at the ground.

Lincoln, Decker and Katie stood around, not condemning Boston, but seriously concerned.  Lockhart put one gentle hand on her shoulder.  “You always spoke wild and crazy,” he said to her.  “But you were always kind and gentle.  Now that you are no longer human, I would hate to see you lose that good heart.  I am willing to believe you did what you thought best, and we will say no more about it.”

Boston began to cry.  She grabbed Lockhart around the middle and hugged him so she could cry on him.  Katie stepped to the two to offer her support, a few tears in her own eyes.

“So, what now?” Lincoln asked.

“I am the Gott-Druk,” Elder Stow said.  “I will do what I should have done at the first with these humans.”  He pulled out his sonic device and adjusted the setting.  He did not wait for anyone to say anything.  He held it up and let it squeal.  Romans and travelers alike held their ears against the sound, and Boston screamed, but in a matter of moments, black powder began to explode all over the field.  A number of horses got killed when the saddle bags they carried exploded and sent great plumes of flame and smoke into the sky.  They heard the rifle men scream as the pouches of powder they carried mostly burned.  Then Elder Stow finished, and he had a tear in his own eye.

Everyone stood in the silence, when a man, near seven feet tall, appeared in front of the group, out in front of the roadblock. He had a jackal head.  “You are finished?” he said, without turning around.

Lockhart stepped forward.  “Yes,” he said.

The jackal-headed man raised a hand that came with claw-like fingers.  Fifteen surviving gunmen appeared before him.  Many of them looked badly burned.  All of them trembled in fear, facing that monstrosity, but one protested.  He looked different in some ways, but he was recognizably the same Roman officer who stood in the gate back in the days of Bodanagus.

“This isn’t right.  You should not be here.  You are gone.  All the gods have gone.  It isn’t fair.”

The jackal-headed man simply closed his hand, and the gunmen squeezed together into a ball of flesh and crushed bones, with a great deal of water and blood poured out on the ground.  Then the jackal-headed man disappeared, and he kindly took the ball of former human beings with him.

Gaius sent Marcus with a squad of men to gather what horses survived and kill the wounded animals that could not be saved.  “Do not touch the weapons or whatever else the men may have had with them.  Those things will be collected by others.”

“The little ones,” Katie guessed, and Gaius nodded, while he instructed Tiberius to get the remaining men to strike the camp and remove the roadblock. Then Gaius, on horseback, and Lockhart on Seahorse, led the group down the road, while Katie rode next to a very sad Boston.

Lockhart only asked, “Who was that?”

“Anubis, the defender of Egypt, and servant of his father Osiris, lord of the dead,” Katie said.

“Yes.”  Lockhart vaguely remembered.  They had seen Anubis before.

In less than an hour, they arrived at the camp of the children.  They found Alexis, Tony, Nanette, and Sukki sitting around a cooking fire with a few other guests.  As the riders dismounted, a tall, thin, and good looking, though older African woman with gray hair walked to them.  Gaius removed his helmet to reveal a full head of hair that appeared almost silver.  The couple hugged and kissed, and the travelers left them alone, including Boston, while they got their horses ready for the night.

Sukki came up to Boston and said, “She won’t let us go into the camp with the families and children.  We have to stay out here.  She even posted guards to make sure we don’t mingle.”

“Just as well,” Boston said, sadly.  “I would probably just screw it up.”

“No.  Not so,” Lockhart and Katie interrupted.

“Young Boston,” Elder Stow came over to scold her again.  “We all have lessons to learn.  What you did may have been a step too far, but not something you should feel guilty or condemn yourself about.  Just learn and be wiser next time.”  He hugged her.  He hugged Sukki as well.  “For example.  I have learned on this journey that touch is a very important thing for people of all sorts.  To be sure, for people who are as family oriented as us Gott-Druk, we don’t hug nearly enough.”

They headed toward the fire and heard a voice.  “Boston.”

Boston ran, but stopped, until Candace opened her arms.  She raced into the hug and began to cry.  Somehow, Candace made herself heard.

“Boston.  It is not nice to sneak up on people, invisible, when they don’t know you are there.  Sometimes, it may be unavoidable.  That means you may have to.  But to blow up men and horses when they don’t know you are there and have no chance to defend themselves is cheating.”  Candace used Elder Stow’s word, but squeezed Boston, and it felt like she squeezed all the tears out of her.  “I still love you” Candace said.  “I still want my hug, you know.  I would be very sad if I didn’t get my hug.”  Boston began to cry again as Candace let her go and spoke to the others.

“Alice in the future was able to send a few more things back to Alice in the past.  Tony has a Colt M1911 handgun on a belt complete with a high-quality, Mark 1 trench knife, so he won’t have to borrow Katie’s anymore.  Sad to say, he may need the weapons when he gets home.  Nanette has a fine elf made elm wand, though her magic should come and go as you move through the future.  I have had a long talk with Nanette, and Alexis has volunteered to train her in her magic, so she will stay on the straight and narrow path.”  People smiled for Nanette and Tony as Candace walked up to Decker and waved for Katie to come near.  “Now, I had to wait for you to give these two last items.  Major Decker.  Here are the silver leafs of a lieutenant colonel.  I believe you need to pass on your major insignia to Katherine Harper-Lockhart”

Decker accepted the insignia graciously, but he had a thought.  “I don’t understand how you manage these promotions without going through the proper board procedures.”

“It is not important for you to know,” Candace said.  “Suffice to say, these promotions are genuine, and I have been promised your promotion to full bird colonel if you make it back to your proper time.  Leave it at that.”

Candace stepped back while Katie and Decker saluted, and the two strangers by the fire stepped up.  The woman, Aphrodite, stepped straight to Colonel Decker.  He still stood at attention and dared not move.  He could not smile.  He stared at her like a man wondering how much it was going to hurt.

“I hate unfinished business,” Aphrodite said, in her best, sexy voice.  She took Decker’s face and pulled his head down to plant a kiss on his forehead.  “Have a lovely life,” she said, with a knowing smile, and vanished.  Everyone wondered what Aphrodite knew.  No one saw Nanette turn her eyes to the ground.

Decker sighed, like he just dodged a bullet; if that was what he did.

The other visitor turned out to be Ptah, the god of Memphis.  He smiled for the group.  The group returned his smile and found themselves, horses, wagon, and even the cooking fire, not far beyond Alexandria on the far west side of the Nile delta.  Boston whipped out her amulet and protested.

“Great.  Now the time gate is two or more days behind us.”

“It will catch up in about three days when Candace reaches the edge of the land of Goshen.  Meanwhile, you have some friends who want to visit you before they go, including my daughter, Sekhmet.

Katie turned to hug her friend Artemis, who stood there, waiting.  Artemis also hugged Boston, whom she still called Little Fire.

Lincoln spoke.  “Land of Goshen.”

“Land a Goshen,” Decker corrected.

“Now, don’t you start,” Lockhart said.

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

MONDAY

The Ambassadors from Rome and the Han empire will run into each other somewhere around Bactria.  Beginning Monday, The People in the Middle.  Don”t miss it.  Until then, Happy Reading.

*

Avalon 7.3 Down to Egypt, part 5 of 6

Lockhart, Katie, and Decker took an hour to ride out of their way.  When they cut towards the back end of the wadi, they watched the enemy through their binoculars.  Fortunately, the same ridge that kept the horsemen from being seen by the defenders on the road, also quickly cut off sight of the travelers.  Some of the men sneaking up on the roadblock with their rifles might have seen them, but they figured those men were far enough away to make the picture unclear to the naked eye, and by the time the riflemen reported back, they would be among the trees, sparse as they were.  As long as Elder Stow and Boston kept the men on horseback busy, so if they were seen, the men could not give chase, they should make it to the roadblock in one piece.

Lockhart felt the creep climb up his back as they moved.  He kept nearly seeing something—movement of a sort in the corner of his eye.  From the beginning of their journey, he felt uncomfortable around the nature spirits, including fairies, dwarfs, elves, and especially dark elves, a name he preferred over goblins.  He could not describe it well, except to say these purely natural spirits felt unnatural.  Alexis had been one who became human to marry Lincoln.  She still showed some creepy attributes now and then, though the others insisted that was not the case.  Boston became one.  What was wrong with that girl?  She was starting to get regularly creepy.  That probably just meant she was starting to fit in with her elf kind.

“We got company,” Katie said, clearly having noticed the same movement Lockhart noticed.

“Invisible, mostly,” Decker said.

Invisible.  Lockhart felt the chill in his spine.  He couldn’t help it.  Oddly enough, he had no problem with Elder Stow going invisible.  Traveling with a Neanderthal did not bother him.  And if the man had access to technologies well beyond his understanding; he could accept that.  The man had a device that let him go invisible.  Okay.  Boston, on the other hand, had no device.  She just went invisible on a whim.  She went creepy invisible, like by magic.

“They seem to be gathering,” Decker noticed.

Magic was another thing, and both Boston and Alexis had that, and Nanette would have magic when they came to a time period where the other earth came close.  He tried to remember.  The other earth, in another dimension, had an energy of sorts the Earth, his Earth—universe, did not have.  They called it creative and variable energy.  He understood it as magic energy, which empowered a rare number of individuals.  But the other earth, for some reason, cycled closer and further away, like the cycles of the moon went from full to dark and back again.  For three hundred years, the other earth leaked magic energy into his world.  For three hundred years, it moved too far away.  Lockhart checked with Lincoln in the database.  The other earth was presently out of phase, as Lincoln said.  It would be out in the next time zone as well.  It would come into phase in the zone after that.  Then Nanette would discover she could do magic.  That seemed scary.

“I think we need to stop,” Katie said. They stopped, and Lockhart felt glad Katie was paying attention.

The clone of Nanette, the one Minerva-Athena made, became a monster once she discovered she could do magic.  They said it was because in the spiritual world identical twins sometimes produced a good twin and a bad twin.  The clone Nanette had been the bad one, so logically, that said the real Nanette should be the good one.  Lockhart was not so sure.  He imagined that kind of power would corrupt absolutely.

“Howdy folks,” a little one manifested in front of the group, and he had a dozen more like him in attendance.  Lockhart guessed they were desert imps, or gnomes, or maybe dwarfs come down from the hills.  He could not call them elves, but he was not sure.  To his eyes, they all looked alike, and they all looked unique at the same time, which did not make sense.  Mainly, they did not fit well into neat categories.

“Howdy,” Katie returned the greeting.  And she smiled.  Katie smiled!  Lockhart pulled himself together.

“We are trying to get to the roadblock to reinforce the defenders,” he said.  “Any chance you can help?”  Lockhart bit his tongue the minute the words escaped his mouth.

“Well, let’s see,” the imp said.  “We might help, but we might not.  That sort of depends on what you might be willing to pay for…”

“We are going to find Candace,” Katie interrupted.  “How much should I tell her you asked for your services?”

“Er…” the imps smiled, and two even removed their hats.  “A token.  Just a token to feed our poor families, mind you.  Not for us, personally.  No.”

Katie did not mind.  She had a small purse.  They all carried one since they entered the days when money mattered.  “Here are three gold pieces for us, and five silver for the horses.”

The imps looked pleased, but the speaker for the group had to say something.  Lockhart figured it was an instinctive compulsion.  “Mind you, we have very big families.”

“Don’t push it,” Decker said, and every head turned as they heard several explosions back behind the ridge.  The smoke poured high into the sky.

###

Boston and Elder Stow easily snuck up to the back of the horsemen.  The gunmen were arguing.  Several wanted to ride right over the Romans, and they got loud.  They did not look behind and would not have seen two invisible people if they did.

Elder Stow stopped them when there was still some distance between them and the horsemen.  He did not want Boston trampled by panicked horses.  Each of the horsemen had the reigns of at least one other horse, so there were twenty-five or so horses, but only twelve with riders.

“I thought you were working on letting me see you,” Elder Stow whispered.

“I will,” Boston said.  “Maybe not right now.”  She got busy turning her magic on three arrows, the way her husband showed her.  She thought she was getting good at making explosive arrows.  She paused.  Maybe she was getting too good at it.

“Are you ready?” Elder Stow sounded impatient.

Boston put the first arrow on her string and said, “Ready.”

Elder Stow had his sonic device on the right frequency.  He let it rip, and the horses bucked.  Some threw their riders.  Other riders held on for their life.  The free horses broke free of their handlers and bolted to get away from that sound.  Boston fired her three arrows.  They exploded on contact.  Men got tossed.  Horses staggered from the concussive blast.  Boston felt she did a good job, but found her hand grabbed by Elder Stow.  Maybe he could not see her, but the arrows became visible as soon as they left her person, and he could guess.

Elder Stow lifted the two of them ten feet in the air, and just in time.  Three horses, in their panic, raced right at the source of the squealing sound that scared them so much.  They would have run over Boston without realizing it, her being invisible and all.  She did not notice, concentrating as she was on making her explosions.

“That is quite enough,” Elder Stow said, with his gruff voice.  Boston did not argue as he flew her invisible self to the roadblock.

###

Lockhart, Katie, and Decker walked their horses behind the imps for an hour, until the imps vanished, and the travelers found themselves surrounded by Roman soldiers.

“We have come to help defend the road,” Lockhart said, quickly.

“Where did that gnome go?” Decker asked.

“Is that what it was—he was?  I guessed imp,” Lockhart said.

“Or dwarf,” Katie said, and shrugged.  “But cute.”

Lockhart made a disgusted face as the imp came back with a centurion.  “And I am cute,” the imp said.  “Lord Gaius will take it from here.  I got work to do.”  He walked off and vanished among the trees.

“Come,” Lord Gaius said.  “Boston and Elder Stow flew into the road camp some time ago.  They appeared out of nowhere, like the gods, though they claim to not be gods.  They are strange ones, though.  Your Boston I know to be one of the little ones of my lady Candace.  The elder.  I don’t know what he is.  He is a strange one.  When he appeared out of nowhere, I know he scared the skirt off Tiberius here.”

“Did not,” Tiberius protested, but several soldiers around him heard and chuckled.

“You seem informed of something,” Lockhart responded.  “But I hardly know what to say.  I don’t know what they told you.”

“Not them,” Gaius said.  “We expected you, if you got here in time.

“What?” Katie asked.

“The goddess, Astarte.  She came to the camp of the children.  She said she wanted to say goodbye to her friend, Princess Candace.  She brought your fellow travelers.  No.  Don’t tell me.  Lincoln, Alexis, Anthony, Nanette, and that big girl… Sukki.  They warned us what was coming.”

“We barely got the road blocked in time,” one man said.

Gaius continued.  “Marcus here says that Sukki looks very strong.  He would not want to wrestle her, but Tiberius said he would not mind a tussle with the girl.”

“Lord,” Tiberius complained.  The man turned red, obviously thinking about it.

“I’m surprised Lincoln did not come with you,” Lockhart said.

“Oh, he did,” Gaius said.  “He is at the road, and so are we.”

Avalon 7.3 Down to Egypt, part 4 of 6

“She keeps moving,” Boston groused.  “She has been moving this whole time, and the time gate keep getting further and further away.”

“She is trying to get a precious cargo to safety in Egypt,” Katie said. “I’m surprised she stops.”

“Like us,” Lockhart said.  “She has to stop every day, like it or not.  Especially if she is escorting families with lots of small children.”

“This one is even known among the Gott-Druk,” Elder Stow said.  “Most Gott-Druk sadly still reject anything connected to homo sapiens, but there are some believers among my people, too.”

“There are some few believers among the homo sapiens, too,” Decker said.

“Decker!” Boston scolded him.

“Okay.  Ride.” Lockhart said, to cut off the commentary.  They mounted and rode some more.

In the early morning, when the wagon left Bethlehem, the five riders out front got a guide and cut across country to Rafah.  They arrived in two days and figured if the wagon stayed on the road to Ashkelon before picking up the coast road, that put them at least two days behind.

“More like we are two days ahead of the wagon at this point,” Katie said.

“The question is, by cutting across country, did we get in front of the gunmen?” Lockhart asked.

“No.”  Elder Stow said, definitely.  “I just picked them up on the scanner.  It is the metal they use in the gun barrels.  They are ten miles away, maybe half a day.  We picked up a half day, I would say.”

“Boston?”

“The Kairos is two days away, probably three by the time we get there since they are still moving.  I figure they move about ten to fifteen miles a day, which is probably very good for a bunch of children.”

“Donkeys, camels, and wagons,” Katie suggested.

“We need to rest, and the horses need to rest,” Lockhart said.  “Try to sleep.  We leave at first light.”

The travelers got three miles closer on that first day.  They picked up five more miles on the second day before they had to stop for the night.  At that pace, they hoped to catch the gunmen by mid-afternoon on the following day.  That was cutting it close.  They expected to reach the camp of the Kairos later in the afternoon on the same day.  This time, they left before the first light.  The moon was up and the sky cloudless, so they had enough light.  They still had the lanterns that came in very handy at times, but Lockhart felt reluctant to give themselves away.

Lunch on that day was brief.  They came to a spot where the horses could graze a bit, and Lockhart deliberately made a fire and cooked something.  Katie paced.  Boston bit her nails.  Elder Stow never looked up from his scanner.  Decker spit.

“All right,” Lockhart said.  “All right, Decker.  You have been spitting since the Athol valley.  What are you eating?”

“Dwarf beef jerky,” Decker said.  “Guaranteed to last two hundred years, and right now we are at two hundred and two years.  That’s okay.  I only have a couple of pieces left.”

“Some dwarf told you it would last for two hundred years.  And you believed him?”

“Princess approved.  I checked.”

“That’s the longest expiration date I ever heard of,” Katie said, as she came to the fire.  She squatted, stirred the fire, and got up to pace some more.

Decker spit.

“Are we ready?” Lockhart asked.  People checked their weapons.  The fire got put out.  People mounted.  They generally nodded to each other, and set off down the road, slowly picking up their pace as they went.  They did not have to go far before they heard gunfire in the distance.  They stopped in the road.

Boston whipped out her amulet.  “Not the camp yet,” she reported.  “The Kairos is still a couple of miles away.”

“I got them,” Elder Stow said.  He pulled up a holographic projection of the area.  The projection looked clear, not being that far away.  The road looked blocked at the edge of a wood.  Trees were an unusual sight on the north coast of the Saini, but Katie pointed to a stream that meandered through the woods that might account for it.

“A wadi,” she called it.  “Probably doesn’t have water in it half the year.”

“Enough to grow some trees,” Lockhart said, offhandedly.  He kept staring at the enemy in the projection.

“The trees probably get some extra rain off the Mediterranean,” Boston suggested, as she also looked at the projection

A pocket of a dozen horsemen sat exposed, but behind a ridge from the trees, so out of sight from the roadblock.  They looked ready to ride as soon as the roadblock got removed.  A dozen men on foot had gotten close to the block in the road and appeared to be firing their rifles, trying to pick off the defenders.  A few arrows came from the roadblock when the gunmen got too close, but generally, there seemed nothing else the defenders could do outside of keeping their heads down.

“The whole thing looks like it is moving in slow motion,” Decker said.  “With those single shot, muzzle-loaded weapons, it could take them a couple of days to break through if they don’t come up with a better plan.”

“The road is barely a scratch through mostly desert,” Katie said in her curious voice.  “Why don’t they ride around?  A hundred yards to the left or the right should hardly matter.”

“Must be some reason,” Lockhart said, and looked at Elder Stow, who shrugged.

“Little ones to the left and right,” Boston said, and grinned.  “The message I got is they will prevent the enemy from riding around, but otherwise, they don’t want to get involved.  There are three dead men that tried to go around, and six dead horses, and, Ew! Gross.  There are a couple of disgusting ogres who are happily eating the horses.”

“So, the road is the only way through,” Lockhart concluded.

“We got a group not looking in our direction,” Katie said. “Probably the main group led by our former centurion from the Roman gate.  We can catch them from behind, but the land is so flat and empty, how do we get there without being seen, and without giving them enough time to take up defensive positions?”

“Elder Stow?” Lockhart asked, but Elder Stow shook his head.

“Not long ago, I would have been delighted with the chance to go invisible and kill some humans.  But I am no more judge, jury and executioner than any of you.  If we can get them to surrender, the people, or these Romans may decide on the death penalty, but that is not my job.”

“This is war,” Decker said.  “Ambush and attack from the rear are acceptable.”

“Robert?” Katie looked up at Lockhart, who was thinking.

“Okay.  We take the middle ground.  Boston, will your friends let us circle around so we can get to the roadblock?”

“Yes.  They know we are here, and know we are hedged by the gods.  They will not interfere.”

“Good,” Lockhart said.  “Then we just need a distraction.”

Elder Stow pulled out his sonic device.  “I can do that.  Their horses will not be able to follow you.”

“I’m staying with Elder Stow,” Boston said

“I was going to suggest Elder Stow fly over top, invisible, and meet us at the roadblock,” Lockhart said.

Elder Stow did not have a problem with Boston staying.  “I carried this whole crew in a screen, once.”

“Yeah, and crashed us in the city,” Decker remembered.

“Too much weight,” Elder Stow admitted.  “But it was no trouble lifting Boston and Alexis from the water and carrying them away from the eels and sea serpent.  I think I can carry a skinny elf to the road.”

“I want to practice my invisibility,” Boston said.  “I want to make a window so an invisible Elder Stow can still see me, even if no one else can.”

“This is not the time for experiments,” Katie said.

“You take Strawberry and Mudd with you,” Boston said, and went invisible.

Lockhart simply said, “Come on.”  Boston had been hard-headed as a human.  Now that she became an elf, she only got worse.  Lockhart technically remained her boss, but Boston had a mind of her own and he could not force her to do anything.  “Katie and Decker keep your binoculars handy.  We need to keep an eye on the enemy while we ride outside human, visual range.”

“Not possible,” Decker said.  “In a flat desert environment, people can see for miles.”

“And that is why we need a distraction.”

Avalon 7.3 Down to Egypt, part 3 of 6

The travelers marched in, while the guards tried to pay attention, and ignore the invisible elf.  They may have temporarily looked like guards, but not by much.  Archelaus ignored them, preferring to be fed by the slut that sat next to him.  A sleazy looking man grinned at them, however, and walked around them like a man examining a prime cut of meat.  Then he raised his voice.

“Lord Archelaus, friend of Caesar, soon to be King of the Jews.”  The man announced.  “I bring you the Ruin of Damascus, the criminal gang wanted for murder and arson on a grand scale, burning down a full quarter of the city, and murdering the servants of my Lord.”

“You have us mistaken for someone else,” Lockhart began, but Archelaus yelled.

“Silence.”  Archelaus paused to frame his thoughts.  “My father heard from wise men that there is one born in the City of David who they call the King of the Jews.  I checked with my scholars, and they all agree.  I have contracted with servants who will kill the pretender and that will be the end of it.”  Archelaus turned red from anger.  “By Caesar, on the death of my Father, I will be the Ethnarch, the only King of the Jews. I will have no rival.  My servants will kill who they have to, and you will not stop them.”  He calmed as he began to point at the travelers.

Herod Archelaus was not a big man and did not appear too bright.  He put the harlot off and got up from his seat, counting the travelers as he came.  He had to start over several times, until at last, the sleazy man had to ask, “My lord?”

“I count only seven.  My servants said there were ten following them.  Where are the other…”  He paused to count on his fingers.  “Where are the other three?”

The sleazy man shrugged. The sergeant did not have that luxury.  “We got all that were at the inn,” the sergeant said, and then backed up to get lost in the crowd of guards.

“What?”  Archelaus did not sound happy.  One of the guards, one perhaps not so intelligent, stepped forward.

“This man said he had an invisible elf and two invisible companions.  Those three would make ten.”

“What?”  Archelaus shook his head in disbelief and went back to his seat.  “Put them in the waiting chamber.  I will decide what to do with them in the morning.”  The prostitute looked happy to see him and picked up an egg to feed the man.

“This way.”  The sergeant hustled them out, hoping that in the morning the Lord Archelaus might not remember which sergeant brought only seven out of ten travelers.

“Not yet,” Lockhart had to say it twice, to Decker and Lincoln, and once said, “Let Elder Stow work it out.”  They ended up in an underground room where they were thrown into two cells with tall iron bars on the front and solid brick the rest of the way around.

“Put your things on the table,” the sergeant said.  Rifles went there, but the travelers kept their gun belts.

“And the knives,” Boston said.  “I want all the knives you took on the table.”  Boston became visible in all her elfish glory and brushed back her red hair to show her pointed ears.  “Don’t make me chase you to get the knives back.  You would not like that.”  She went invisible again before the guards dared to move.

Knives clattered to the table, including two that did not belong to the travelers.  Two men screamed and ran away.  The sergeant tried to hold things together.  He ordered men to stay in the room and watch the prisoners, but to a man, they said they were not staying in a room with an invisible elf.  Boston laughed out loud when the door got shut, and she became visible again.

“I hope the horses are okay,” Katie said, not doubting for a second that they would break out.

“We have been good so far,” Lockhart said.  “I hope we don’t have to kill anyone on the way out.  Boston?”

“Okay,” she said, knowing what he wanted without him having to ask.  “You know, being invisible is still very draining.  I’ll check for the way out.  Be back in a minute.”  She went invisible again and opened the door.  After not finding any guards, even outside the door, she stepped into the hall, where she shouted, “Once more into the breach,” in the High Elf Roland had been teaching her.

Elder Stow and Sukki became visible as Elder Stow stepped to one cell while Sukki looked in the other.  Elder Stow thought about it.  Sukki did not think.  She grabbed the bars, saw that they were old and partially rusted, and yelled as she pulled them apart.  One bent outward.  The other popped out of the ceiling causing bits of brick to fall to the floor. Sukki easily pulled the bar the rest of the way from the floor and smiled.  Alexis, Lincoln, Tony, and Nanette came out of that cell.

“You could do that?” Lockhart asked Katie.

“I am not sure I can to that,” Elder Stow admitted.  He had them stand back while he pulled out his weapon and cut three bars at the bottom and the top.

“Strong as a man,” Katie said.  “You and I can wrestle.  But I am not nearly that strong.”

“Some holdover from her Neanderthal self?” Decker wondered.

“No,” Katie said.  “Probably one of the gifts of the goddesses.  We will have to wait and see what else she may be capable of.”

Elder Stow punched the three bars.  They made a tremendous clattering and clanking sound when they banged each other on the dirt floor of the cell, but Decker, Katie, and Lockhart easily stepped free.

People collected their things, including their knives, when Boston came back.  “Hush,” Boston said, and led them out of the building by a quick route that bothered no one.  The guard at that door was snoring.

###

The travelers decided not to split up at first, but they left Jerusalem right away.  Fortunately, the horses had been untouched as well as their bags of coins, surprisingly enough.  They counted all their equipment before they left to be sure nothing was missing.  By sunrise, they came into Bethlehem where they found people frightened and wailing for the dead.  The gunmen came into town and found out that a number of families ran away.  The gunman killed several people; but mostly killed babies and children, just in case it was the child they were after, or to threaten people for information, or just because they could.  They got the information they needed and rushed out of town again, but the families left a week earlier, so it would be a while to catch up.

Alexis and Nanette were drawn to heal some of the residents, and that got the people talking.  They got especially talkative when they found out the travelers planned to find the gunmen and stop them before they did any more damage.

By noon, rightly or wrongly, the travelers figured they were not being followed.  Elder Stow used his scanner to check the road for as far back towards Jerusalem as he could.  He reported no movement of any sort of group that might be soldiers in a hurry.  With that assurance, Lockhart, Katie, Decker, Elder Stow and Boston set out to chase the gunmen.  Alexis, Lincoln, Nanette, Sukki, and Tony would follow in the morning with the wagon.

Lincoln spent the afternoon reading from the database and reported over supper.  “The name of the Kairos is Shakheto.  Amanishakheto is what we would call Princess Shakheto of Meroe in Kush.  She is Kushite, or Nubian.  That is unclear.  She may be both.

Nanette perked up.  “She is Negroid?  Like me?”

“Yes,” Alexis said.  “But we say black African.  No one says Negro or colored in our day.”

“I understand,” Nanette said.  “Decker explained that to me, and I asked why I can’t be a Negro anymore.  He still hasn’t come up with a good answer.”

“That is just the way of it,” Lincoln said.  “Negro, and derivatives, suggest slavery.”

“Sometimes, we have to accept things on face value, even if we don’t understand the reasons for it,” Alexis added.  Nanette shrugged.

“Anyway,” Lincoln continued.  “Her mother became badly wounded before Shakheto turned seventeen, and war broke out with Roman Egypt.  It had to do with trade, grain mostly going to Rome and none to Kush.  All the kingdoms in Africa, from places we know as Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, even Sheba across the Red Sea, all that trade goes through Meroe.  On the other end, it mostly filters through Egypt, and some through Libya, and from there, to Europe and the Middle East.  Kush is like the funnel.  All the ivory, iron ore and all go to Egypt, and mostly grain comes back, except now Rome is taking all the grain.”

“Hard to live with nothing to eat,” Tony understood.

“So, war.  Shakheto is sixteen.  Her mother, the queen, lost an eye among other things.  So, Shakheto has to lead the people in the war.  The war lasts on and off for about six years.  She kicks Roman butt pretty good, because, of course, she knows Roman ways.  In fact, she ends the war when she gets Bodanagus to sit down with Octavius, that is Caesar Augustus, and they come up with a favorable trade agreement.  Her mother lives about another twelve years, but during that time, Shakheto’s betrothed falls in love with her little sister.  It is a sad story, but Shakheto steps aside for Amanitore. Amanitore marries Natakamani, though he is a good bit older than her.

“That must have been hard for her,” Nanette said.

Lincoln agreed.  “So, in around ten or eleven BC, at thirty-three years of age, Shakheto becomes queen.  She rules for roughly four or five years and the country prospers mightily because of her agreement with the Romans.  Then, in five BC, she decides she has an errand.  It isn’t clear in the record, so I don’t know if ruling was too much, or her sister’s happiness became too much.  She makes her little sister queen and the husband king, and takes off, at the age of thirty-eight.”

“We know from history that Herod the Great died in four BC.,” Tony said.  “That hasn’t happened yet.  But Herod is sick and gone to Jericho where people believe he died, so we figure right now it is four years in the BC.”

“That makes Candace about forty.  That is her name, now.  The word for queen in Meroe is Kantake.  The Romans pronounced it Candace, in the Latin.  Candace has taken that as her name.  She says her sister is Kantake now, and she has gone back to being a princess.  Princess Candace is how she is known.”

“And it looks like she is taking the child to Egypt,” Alexis said.

“And the gunmen are looking for Joseph and Mary,” Lincoln said, as plainly as anyone had yet said it.

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

MONDAY

The race is on.  The gunmen must be stopped.  Until Monday, Happy Reading.

*

Avalon 7.3 Down to Egypt, part 2 of 6

The travelers reached Jerusalem without catching the gunmen.  They figured the gunmen rode about a day ahead of them, but at least they did not widen the gap.  Lockhart felt anxious, mostly because Alexis, Katie, Nanette, and Boston kept bugging him.  They feared what the gunmen might do, and who they might kill.

The travelers found an inn that evening.  They stabled the horses and Ghost and gathered inside to see what they might eat for supper.  They got two tables.  Lockhart, Katie and Boston sat on one side of the big table.  Decker, Elder Stow, and Sukki sat on the other side, and they discussed their options.  Alexis, Lincoln, Nanette and Tony had the smaller table and got into a conversation of their own.

“They are in town, here, somewhere,” Elder Stow insisted.  The metal used in the gun barrels is distinctive enough.  In the countryside, on the road, the thirty or so guns were easy to track on my scanner.  But in town, here, there is plenty of metal of the same or similar composition.  They are lost in the crowd.  All I can say is I have not picked up such a group leaving the city on the road to Bethlehem.”  Elder Stow finished his report and returned to his meal.

“Maybe Boston could ask her little ones to search the city,” Sukki suggested.  She smiled, a pretty smile on that young face.  Since becoming human, as she called it, she started to open up and make more effort to fit in with the group.  She tried not to be so shy, at least around her fellow travelers.  So, she made a suggestion.  People looked at her while they considered her suggestion, and it took several whole seconds before she turned red and looked away.  She was improving.

“No way,” Boston said.  “The little ones, or nature spirits, or earth spirits, or whatever you want to call us; we don’t live forever.  We have families, and children, and work to do in the earth as long as the earth abides.  And we do get old and die, even if some live as much as a thousand years.  But for the gods, the immortals, and that includes most of the greater spirits and lesser spirits; these are the days they go away.  Most of the little ones are afraid, watching, and waiting, and not inclined to get involved in human events.  Our work has always been in the natural world, not the human world, and for once, we are sticking to our assigned tasks and not getting involved.  But it is fear and uncertainty that is driving us.  We don’t know what the world will be like after the gods have gone.”

“So, there isn’t a fairy troop willing to fly around town and look for the gunmen,” Katie concluded.

“No way,” Boston repeated.  “Even if there was a troop nearby, they wouldn’t do it.”

“As long as the group is here in town, they aren’t on the road to Bethlehem,” Decker pointed out.  That suggested there was time before the gunmen rode off to fulfill their assignment and shoot whoever they planned to shoot.

“But they will be on the road soon enough,” Katie said.  “And being slowed by the wagon, we have not been able to catch them.”

“We need to split up again,” Lockhart came to his own conclusion, and looked at Katie which suggested they discussed this.

“Okay,” Katie readily agreed, and pulled out her prototype amulet and her handgun.

“No.” Lockhart let his frustration out.  “You need to guard the rear group.”

Katie just shook her head.  “Not this time,” she said.  “Alexis.”  She handed her the amulet.  Alexis put the chain over her head and promised not to take it off.  “Tony.”  She handed him her handgun.  He had already made a makeshift holster for the weapon.  “Lincoln can stay this time, with Alexis, Nanette, and Sukki.  Tony will drive the wagon, and the five of us can catch up with the gunmen, however many there are.”

“Why can’t I go?” Sukki protested.

“Because we don’t want you to get hurt,” Lockhart said.

Elder Stow echoed that sentiment.  “So you stay safe.”  He gently patted Sukki’s hand.

“Guns are still new to you,” Decker added.

“Someone has to ride out on the point to make sure the trail is safe,” Boston suggested the work she and Sukki had been doing for some time.

Katie reached for Sukki’s hand, and Sukki willingly gave her hand and paid attention as Katie spoke.  “Lincoln is your elder.  He will be in charge.  Alexis has the magic, the healing, and the vitamins to keep you healthy.  But they will be busy making decisions and Nanette and Tony are too new at this traveling business.  They could use someone with some experience to keep them on the right road.  You have your knife?”  Sukki nodded and smiled a little.  It was the best knife she ever imagined.  “We go with what we are best at.  The rest of us will take our weapons and confront the bad guys.  We are soldiers and field agents trained for this work.  Your best will be to help Lincoln and Alexis on the road and help Tony and Nanette for a time until they have enough experience on the road to know what they are doing.  Can you do this?”

Sukki nodded.  “I can do this.”

Lockhart looked at Decker and Boston, but neither of them were going to say having Katie along was a bad idea.  In fact, Lockhart got the impression they liked having the elect and her rifle around, no offence to Lincoln.  Though a good enough field agent, Lincoln honestly worked best behind a desk.  Lockhart nodded, even if he did not like the idea.

“We go with that plan,” he said, and Katie took his arm, happy that he was not happy putting her in harm’s way.

As it turned out, it would be a while before they could start.  They had some fine food and thought about rest when a big sergeant and a dozen soldiers came in and arrested them.

Boston felt the trouble just before the soldiers entered the room.  She went invisible, and nudged Elder Stow, so he went invisible, too.  Sukki, still having Elder Stow’s disc in her pocket, joined the invisible crew, but the rest got caught.  Katie felt the trouble the same time Boston felt it, but other than opening fire on the soldiers, there was not anything she could do.

“See what they want,” Lockhart said to Decker’s frown.  What they wanted was the travelers to go with them.  “It is not nice to come into man’s territory and not pay respects,” the sergeant said.

“We are going to see King Herod?” Katie asked.

“You go where I tell you,” the sergeant said, gruffly.

Lockhart and Decker stood and towered over the sergeant.  “We will go peacefully,” Lockhart said, calmly.

The sergeant looked up, took a step back, and waved his men forward.  “Take their knives,” he said.  The soldiers hesitated in the face of these giants, but the travelers handed over their knives without complaint.  They shouldered their rifles and followed, and the sergeant had nothing else to say.

Once they got out the door, they saw a man on horseback.  He appeared to have a rifle, but it had gotten dark so they could not be sure.  He rode off when they came out, no doubt to report to his fellow gunmen, and that former centurion.

“I wonder if Mylo and Phil-o-craties are around,” Lincoln said.

“Philocrates,” Alexis corrected him.

“No,” Lockhart said, as they walked.  “That would be four lifetimes.  The Kairos said three was enough.”

“Five was the limit,” Katie said.  “Before the mind started to slip.”

“One life would have to be in the far future where the Masters can pass on their instructions,” Lockhart said.

“So, for Philocrates, this would be the fifth life.”

“Unless the Kairos meant three or five lives not counting the one in the far future.”

Katie nodded.  “We will have to ask her about that when we see her.”

“Him?  Her?… Her.”  Lockhart had to remember.

Katie nodded again.

When they arrived at the palace, they got brought to a hall outside big double doors.  They had to wait.  The sergeant went into what looked like a banquet hall, while the guards relaxed.  It didn’t take long before one of the guards asked.  “Who are you people, anyway?”

“Strangers,” Lincoln said.

“Mysterious strangers,” Alexis said, and in a way that got Nanette to giggle.

“Seriously.” A second guard came to stand beside his fellow guard and stare at the travelers.  Most of the other guards ignored them.

Lockhart shrugged for Katie and said, “Lincoln,” as a kind of permission given.  He wondered how Lincoln might describe things, and if he might be tempted to say they were trying to get back to the future.

“We are people from more than two-thousand years in the future, and we have come back here to stop some men who have escaped from the future and are trying to ruin these days.”  Lockhart looked to see how Lincoln’s near-truth words might be received.

“We got Archelaus over us,” the guard said.  “Can’t get much worse.”

“King Herod is ill and has gone down to Jericho,” the other said.  “He isn’t much good either, but with him away, Archelaus figures he can take over, and he is worse.”

“His brother, Herod Antipas is not in town,” the first one added.

“You could maybe take Archelaus into the future with you?”  It came out as sort of a question.

Some of the guards overheard the conversation and looked worried, until one nudged the two speakers.  “He is pulling your spear.  People from the future, my arse.”

Several of the men began to laugh but stopped suddenly when they heard a voice out of nowhere.  “Are you calling my brother-in-law a liar?”

“Did we mention our invisible elf and her two invisible companions?” Decker said, with as straight a face as he could muster.

The wide-eyed guards might have said something in response, but they had to straighten up.  The sergeant returned with a word.  “Bring them in.”

Avalon 7.3 Down to Egypt, part 1 of 6

After 44 B.C. The Levant

Kairos 88: Candace, Nubian Princess

Recording …

“I said I heard gunfire,” Boston whispered.  Katie, Lockhart, Lincoln, and Decker spied on the gun shop across the street using the binoculars and the scopes from the rifles.  Elder Stow had his own spyglass, so to speak, and Boston could see better than human with her elf eyes.  At that distance, in the daylight, she needed no assistance.

Nanette, Alexis, Sukki, and Tony who held Katie’s handgun just in case, kept the horses and the wagon.  Sukki wanted to talk to Alexis, who had once been an elf and became human to marry.  Sukki wanted to know everything there was to know about being human, now that she was one.  Though she had been told over and over there was no real difference between being Homo Sapien and Homo Neanderthal, Alexis did not mind mothering the girl a bit.  Sukki only turned twenty-one, after all.

Tony was older.  He had been born in 1884, and Nanette in 1887.  Tony turned twenty-one in 1905, Nanette was eighteen when they got sent through time to Rome in the time of Caesar.  After seven years in Rome, Tony turned twenty-eight, and Nanette was about to turn twenty-six.  Needless to say, they both knew about horses, mules, and wagons, from their upbringing, if not from Rome.  Tony regularly took a turn driving the wagon, and even helped some of the others learn how to do it properly.  Nanette often rode with him in the wagon, so they could talk about shared understandings from their youth, and about Rome, and the people they knew.  Nanette regularly prayed for Evan and Millie, though mostly that they be happy.  She sometimes wept for Professor Fleming, and Tony did what he could to comfort her.

“They have a rifle range in the back,” Decker said.  Lockhart shifted his binoculars, but he did not have the angle to see the back of the house.

“Someone is coming out the front,” Katie said.

The man came out carrying a rifle.  He looked like an Arab from some old black and white newsreel, or maybe from Lawrence of Arabia.  The rifle looked that primitive.  But instead of a camel, the man got up on a horse.  An old man came to the door and said something.  The man on horseback responded with something before he rushed off down the street.

Decker followed the man on horseback with his scope, and his rifle, until the man went out of sight.  Lockhart turned to Boston, who heard the conversation with her good elf ears.

“The old man asked, how will you find them?  The one on horseback said, my information says Bethlehem.  That was it, but I think the man on the horse looked like the centurion in the Roman gate.”

“Me, too,” Lincoln said, and Lockhart put down his binoculars and rubbed his eyes.  Katie rubbed his shoulder as a sign of support, having a good idea what he was thinking.

“We are not made to be judge, jury, and executioners, no matter how strong the evidence,” Lockhart said.  “My every police instinct objects.”

“I considered it,” Decker said.  “But marines are not trained assassins.  We don’t shoot unsuspecting people in the back outside of a time of war.”

“Major,” Katie said.  “I understand the hesitation, but I think we need to consider this a war against the Masters.  Some innocent bystanders may suffer.  That is always the risk in war.  But I think going forward, anyone with a gun in this day and age needs to be considered an enemy combatant and taken out.”

“I double that idea,” Lincoln said.

Decker slowly nodded.  “I can do that.”  He did not sound entirely convinced, but he was a marine, seal trained, and he would do his job.

“Elder Stow and Boston.”  Lockhart sat up.  “Elder Stow with your weapon and Boston with your wand.  You need to melt any guns and all the gun making equipment in the foundry at the back of the house.  We don’t just want the building burned down.  We want to put them out of business before we burn the building.  Katie, protect Boston.  Decker, go with Elder Stow.  Lincoln, you and I need to look for invoices, or whatever evidence we can find that might tell us how far spread this gun maker’s work may have gone.  We can’t follow up, but the Kairos might appreciate the information.”

“We need to get to Bethlehem,” Katie said, some worry in her voice.

“Are you thinking about a baby in a manger?” Boston asked.

Katie nodded.  “I checked with the innkeeper.  The census of Caesar Augustus was two years ago.”

Lockhart pulled out his revolver, walked the group across the street, and knocked on the front door.  When an old woman answered the door, the travelers pushed inside.  Katie and Boston went up to the living quarters, and checked the guest room, the upper room, and the loft.  Boston checked the roof, but it was empty.

Decker and Elder Stow went out the back door and into the foundry building.  Decker shot all three men working there, and then began to pile up the tools in the center of the room.  Elder Stow turned his weapon on the pile and turned it into a useless slag heap.  They made a point of utterly destroying any futuristic equipment they found, like the hand-turned lathe.

“Most of this is typical blacksmith material,” Elder Stow said.  Decker grunted as he tore down the furnace.

The old man and old woman sat quietly on the rug while the policeman Lockhart, and the former spook for the CIA, Lincoln, tore the room apart, looking for what they might find.  The downstairs appeared to be one big room, apart from something that might have been a closet room in the corner.  A thick piece of leather served as the door to the closet room, but they heard nothing back there.

Lockhart pulled his handgun and turned on the couple.  “Who has gotten the guns?  Where have you sent them?”  The old man shook his head.  Lockhart did not expect an answer, and he would not resort to torture even if he had the time and knew what to do.  Perhaps the couple knew that.

“We can’t water-board them,” Lincoln said, as he began to tap the walls, looking for a hidden chamber.  He used the English words for water-board, not having an equivalent term in the local tongue.

The old woman laughed.  “Water-boarding will get you in trouble,” she said, entirely in heavily accented English.

Katie and Boston heard as they headed down the stairs.  They also saw a young man pop through the curtain to the closet room, a handgun in his hand.  The young man pulled the trigger.  He had a one-shot, primitive sort of gun, so he had no second bullet, and the first went wide, between Lincoln and Lockhart, like at the last second, he could not decide which man to shoot.

Katie returned fire from the stairs, and the young man curled up and died.  Katie looked at Lockhart, but Lockhart did not want to think about it.  He shot the English-speaking old woman so she would not suffer and turned on the old man.  “Where have you sent your guns?”  He wanted an answer, but the old man could only wail and cry.

Katie and Boston went to the back where Elder Stow and Decker were working.  Decker said, “The barn.  Be careful.”

“Sir.”  Katie nearly saluted and spoke to Boston as they walked out back.  “You left the upper room on fire.”

“Mostly mud brick.  It will burn slowly,” Boston said.

“But we don’t want to attract a crowd until we are done and away from here.”

“Yeah.  Sorry,” Boston said, as she put her wand in her left hand and pulled out her Beretta.

The barn was not really a barn.  There were two oxen tied out back that Boston tried to scare away.  Otherwise, the building appeared to serve as a warehouse.  They found piles of ingredients to make gunpowder, and barrels of gunpowder already made.  They also found no one around, and Katie thought, Thank God.

Finding no real information about how far and wide the guns may have spread, and getting nothing out of the old man, Lockhart stepped to the street.  He looked for neighbors and such, but it seemed a very quiet street.

“Katie?” he spoke into his wristwatch communicator.

“The back building is full of cases of gunpowder,” she responded.  “I recommend Elder Stow’s sonic device from a distance.”

“Decker?”

“Mostly blacksmith stuff.  All melted.  Elder Stow suggests one blast of his weapon, and that will reduce the building to charcoal

“Alexis?”

“Here, boss.”

“Bring the horses and wagon to the front of the house.  We are done here.  The rest of you need to meet out front.”  Lockhart paused when he heard a gunshot from inside the house.  Lincoln came out, and Lockhart apologized.  “Sorry, Lincoln.  I didn’t mean to leave you with the old man.”  Lincoln nodded, but said nothing in return.

People arrived and went to their horses.  Tony and Nanette took the wagon, their horses already tied to the rear.  They moved a short way down the street.  Lockhart asked for Elder Stow’s sonic device.

“No,” Elder Stow said.  “I will do it.  Cover your ears.”  About twenty seconds of high-pitched squeal, and the building Decker called a barn exploded and sent a ball of flame and smoke a hundred feet in the air.

Boston looked sad, and when her ears stopped ringing, she said, “Fresh cooked oxen.”

Elder Stow went invisible and lifted out of his saddle.  He flew over the house and foundry, and turned his weapon to full strength, wide angle.  One shot, and both buildings burned, cracked, and crumbled like there were struck with a piece of the sun.

“We need to get to Bethlehem,” Katie reminded Lockhart.

“I’m not doing that again,” Lockhart said.  As he started down the street, I’m not doing that again seemed all he was willing to say.