M3 Gerraint: Revived Romans, part 1 of 3

Gerraint awoke to the smell of fried eggs, biscuits and plenty of bacon.  They slept on the grass not far from the lake, but it felt quite comfortable, all things considered.  He opened his eyes, slowly.  Uwaine and Kvendelig were already up and by the fire.

“Lolly!”  Gerraint shouted and woke the rest of the crew.

“Lord.”  Lolly said without looking.  Her eyes were focused hard on the pair trying to snitch bits of breakfast before it was ready.  Kvendelig, the less experienced of the two, had already felt the rap of her cooking spoon on his knuckles more than once.

“Here.  Gerraint.”  Kvendelig protested.  “Uwaine says this dwarf female is one of yours, whatever that means.”

“And if I am?”  Lolly was also not one to take back talk or be maligned in any way.

Kvendelig drew his hand up and away from the spoon.  “I was just going to ask his majesty if perhaps he could convince you to let me have my breakfast now.  A man could starve to death waiting to be fed around here.”

“Chief Kvendelig!”  Gerraint pretended offence but he clearly smiled on the inside.  “I would not dream of asking the good woman for such a thing.  She will feed you when it is good and ready, and not one moment sooner.”

“Trouble is,” Uwaine pointed out.  “You haven’t eaten anything in four days.”

Lolly’s spoon snapped out and everyone heard Menw yelp.  “Give it up,” Gerraint said.  He imagined he could just make out the outline of the man, but then it might have been a trick of the rising sun.  Menw became visible.

“But I’m with Kvendelig,” Menw complained, as he became visible in a place Gerraint had not guessed.  “I’m starving.”  Menw sucked his wrist.

Gerraint smiled but while the others laughed his eyes snapped back to the place where he had imagined the outline of a man.  It appeared gone, but Gerraint wondered.  He might be a little slower and less agile than in his youth, but his senses were not diminished.  In some ways, they were sharper.  He had felt someone there, looking at him.  But then, he could not be sure if perhaps it was not the light after all.  He said nothing about it.

“No nun ever snapped a better ruler,” Gerraint said instead, to everyone’s incomprehension, but by then, Lolly started serving up, and in typical dwarf fashion, they had twice as much as they could possibly eat, even with three of them half starved.

“I don’t understand,” Menw said.  “My legs are like rubber, and I’m so tired.”

“I have a terrible headache,” Gwarhyr admitted.

“I remember,” Kvendelig said, plainly, and it became clear in that moment that all three remembered all at once, and they were embarrassed beyond words.

Gerraint stared them down, one by one.  “There is no way to Melwas through the lake.”

“Gwynwas,” Gwarhyr said.  “In the Welsh, its’ Gwynwas for Gwyn who guards the gate to the island.”

“It has many names,” Uwaine suggested.

“But is that certain?” Bedivere said his first words of the morning.  He still seemed a little uncomfortable, being so near the dwarf.

“Does any doubt the word of Rhiannon?”  Gerraint asked.

“The Lady Nimue?”  Kvendelig asked and Gerraint nodded.  They had imagined she was a spirit or a fairy of sorts.  They did not know going in that it was the goddess, herself.  Slowly, Kvendelig nodded, and Gwarhyr and Menw nodded with him.  “No point in arguing with a goddess once she has her mind set,” Kvendelig said, and that seemed to settle the matter.

“Now we seem to be missing someone.”  Gerraint looked around.

“No sir.”  Bedivere counted.  “All present and accounted for.”

“Ah, Luckless!”  Gerraint shouted.

“My Lord,” Luckless said as he brought in their horses, saddled and loaded with precious gifts, blankets of elfin weave, small saddlebags of silver and gold, and not a few jewels, and the weapons of the three Welsh Lords all made like new, if not replaced by better.

Luckless cleared his throat.  “The Lady of the Lake says let this be a gift for your trouble and the fine entertainment you provided for the court.  Do not return, however, or the fine things will all turn to dust.”  The dwarf did not like speeches, and immediately turned to his dwarf wife.  “Got any seconds?  Leftovers?”  He looked famished, but Gerraint felt sure he had eaten his fill before the men awoke.

“Always for you, my sweet.”  Lolly handed him the most enormous plate of all.

“Young love?”  Uwaine asked.

Gerraint nodded again.  “Quite young.  She’s only about two hundred years old.  Luckless is about three hundred.”  Bedivere swallowed on their ages and nearly choked in the process.  A sharp slap on the back by Gwarhyr was needed.

“Perhaps they are yours after all,” Kvendelig concluded.  “Always thought there was something odd about you.”

“And vice versa,” Gerraint said, but he did not explain as he got up and turned toward Luckless and Lolly.  “Many thanks,” he said.  “Will you be traveling with us?”  He asked and found himself a little disappointed when they declined.

“Little ones,” Lolly said, a little embarrassed, and Luckless puffed out his chest.

“I got me a young one to hand down the family treasure,” Luckless said, proudly.

Gerraint quickly turned to the Welshmen.  “He means iron tools, like a blacksmith or tinsmith might use, not real dragon-type treasure.”  The three Welsh faces drooped, but they understood and did not doubt.

Soon enough, the six men were off on the road, headed toward Howel’s castle and the coast.

“That was easy enough.”  Bedivere whispered when he had the chance.

“Not home yet.”  Uwaine pointed out.

That afternoon, they crossed a trail which Kvendelig said was freshly made by troops of some sort.

“Romans?”  Uwaine wondered.

“In search of what?”  Gwarhyr asked.

Gerraint looked around at those with him and shrugged.  He turned to the trail and put Kvendelig in front.  Despite his enchantment at the Lake, Kvendelig really was a first-rate hunter and tracker.

Not much further along, Kvendelig signaled them to be quiet.  He and Gerraint pushed up ahead to look and dismounted just before they came to the edge of the trees.  Howel stood there, with Lionel and three guards of Amorica.  Two other guards appeared to be dead along with three Romans, but twenty more Romans had them prisoner.  Odyar had led the king and Lionel into a trap and Odyar clearly commanded the Romans.  Neither Gerraint nor Kvendelig could hear what they were saying.  A shallow hill covered with meadow grass stood before the clearing in which the men stood.  But then, Gerraint did not need to hear what they were saying.

M3 Gerraint: To the Lake, part 3 of 3

“The lake?”  Bedivere barely got it out when they were there, in the courtyard of a great castle such as would not be seen in that part of the world for another three to five hundred years or more.  The horses were all there too, and looked to have been just groomed.  And their own clothes were also fresh, as if they had not just ridden for several days, and sweated as prisoners or been in a fight.

“Nice trick Goreu,” Uwaine said.

“Thank the Lady,” Gerraint said, and then everyone came out of the palace to greet them.  Many looked like great men and women apart from the fact that they were nearly all young and beautiful.  These were the fairy lords and ladies and certain kings and queens among the elves.  Some looked less and less like men and women, such as the dwarf lords and gnomes, hobgoblins and the like.  These were the subjects of Gerraint in his guise as the Kairos, but there were also many present who were not his.  Many were sprites, of the water, the air, the earth and from under the earth.  Some were little spirits and lesser spirits and even a couple of lesser Gods.  The Naiad of the lake herself was there, but she looked old and said she was ready to go over to the other side.

Bedivere kept passing back and forth between utter delight and abject fear.  He nearly ran at the sight of the ogre, but Uwaine, who had some experience, steadied him.  Uwaine got frightened, himself, by some of the people, and for that matter, Gerraint did not exactly feel comfortable even though he knew that all present were subject to Rhiannon.

Shortly, they were escorted inside where, like it or not, a great feast had been prepared for them.  Gerraint quietly made sure the fairy food would not have an ill effect on his friends.  When a normal mortal eats fairy food, they become subject to the fairies, like men and women who no longer have a will of their own.

Bedivere fell to the feast like a starving man.  His every favorite dish sat in front of his place and that did away with his fears once and for all.

“But where are the Welshmen?”  Uwaine whispered to Bedivere after a few minutes.

“A fair question,” Rhiannon said from half the distance of the enormous hall away.  Through all the talk and noise in the hall, Rhiannon knew everything, every word and virtually every thought that passed by.

“Ears like Math,” Gerraint quipped while a holograph-like image appeared in the center of the hall.  Somehow, everyone could see.

The first picture was Kvendelig the hunter.  He appeared to be tracking something around a rock.  It looked like a big rock and the anticipation grew as he came all the way around and stopped.  He looked up and around and then knelt down to examine the dirt.  “Good Lord!”  Kvendelig expostulated.  “Now there are two of them.”  He started out again to uproarious laughter.

“Round and round,” Gerraint said.  “I saw that one in Winnie the Pooh.”

Rhiannon smirked and changed the picture.  This time they saw Gwarhyr, the linguist.  He sat beside a different boulder where a branch, beyond his sight, periodically scraped up against the rock and another tree every time the wind blew.  “Say that again?”  Gwarhyr was saying.  “I did not quite catch it.”  The wind blew.  The branch scraped, and Gwarhyr tried to imitate the sounds.  “I’m going to learn the language of the little people if it takes all night.”  He looked determined.

“How long has all night been so far?” Gerraint asked.

“Four days,” she answered.

“Boring!”  The noise from the crowd rose.  Rhiannon waved again and the room filled with the lively sound of music.

This was true fairy music, highly contagious to anything mortal, and Rhiannon had to immunize Uwaine and Bedivere, quickly, before they started dancing, uncontrollably.  Once they were safe, Gerraint looked and saw Menw, trapped in a stone circle, dancing up a storm.  He kept smiling, but it was clear to see he danced utterly under the spell of the music.  Suddenly, he went invisible and all they could see was the footprints and dust being kicked up.

“He has the power of invisibility, you know,” Rhiannon said.

“Ah, yes.  Quite an accomplishment for a normal mortal,” Gerraint agreed.

“Yes, he thought to sneak up on us without our knowing it,” Rhiannon said seriously, and then she laughed, deeply.

Various groups in the room began to join in the dance as Menw once again became visible.  Some placed bets on the side, and Gerraint could hardly imagine what they were betting on.  Then Menw’s head went invisible and some of the gold got picked up.  Once, Menw was visible, except in the middle, like head and shoulders hovering over a set of legs.  The dwarfs in the room especially liked when he got down to nothing showing but feet.

“Shoes!  Shoes!”  The dwarfs shouted, and a great deal of gold exchanged hands.

“Good enough.”  Rhiannon stood and clapped her hands and all the noise, the pictures, the whole crowd and the banquet disappeared altogether.  Bedivere, Uwaine, Gerraint and Rhiannon seemed the only persons in a big, empty hall.

“When can we have them back?” Gerraint asked.

“Surely not before morning,” Rhiannon said and took Gerraint by the arm and lead the three men out through a door at the back of the hall.  There were stairs, and fairy lights spaced every third step or so.  At the top, they found rooms with big featherbeds, clean sheets and plenty of blankets to crawl under.

“Is it safe?”  Bedivere wondered out loud.

“It is not safe to question the hospitality of the lady,” Uwaine responded, wisely.  “Any lady.”  He added for good measure.

“See you in the morning.”  Gerraint noticed the fairies fluttering about, beginning to dim the lights.  Rhiannon kissed his cheek with a word of love for dear Enid, and he slept well that night.

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MONDAY

The Welshmen  may have been stopped, but that does not mean Gerraint, Uwaine, and Bedivere are home free  Until Monday, Happy Reading

 

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M3 Festuscato: The Jutes, part 1 of 3

The so-called city of Thorengard sat on the bank of a broad river that emptied into the sea. It got surrounded, more or less, by a stockade, which had been partly built of stone and partly of whole trees planted deep in the earth, lashed together with rope, and caulked with mud. Ingut called them to halt on a small hill which gave a good view of the city below, and he pointed out certain features including the docks, the market area, and the roof of Yut-Heim, the hall of the king.  Festuscato noted that the man did not speak like a proud native.  He said it all just matter of fact.  As they began to descend toward the main gate, Luckless turned to the Roman.

“And what is on your mind?” he asked.

Festuscato turned up one corner of his mouth.  “I was just understanding once again why people like these would fall on their faces in fear and trembling at the sight of the city of Rome with her tremendous walls, broad avenues and thousands of alleyways, dozens of great ships in the harbor from all over the Mediterranean, and a half million people all bustling about on important business.  This city should barely be called a town, and even that word is generous.”

“Rome must really be something,” Luckless said.

“It is,” Festuscato confirmed.  “But even Londugnum would give these people pause and it is nothing compared to the Great City.”

“So you have said,” Luckless reminded him.

“Yes, but your Rome has become like a fat cow.”  Gregor nudged into the conversation.  “It may be great in size and beauty, but it is subject to the butcher knife.”

Festuscato grew silent.  He knew in his heart that Gregor was more or less right.  He had a commission from the Emperor and the Imperial Senate which stated that after he established peace in Britain, he was to seek out the reason the Germanic tribes were pushing so violently and permanently into the west. He was to resolve the problem, or at least find a way that Rome could counter those migrations and thus preserve itself.  Such thinking, however, was foolishness.  Before he even arrived in Germany, he understood that all he would likely find were people who were glad to take advantage of Roman weakness.

To discover the reason Roman power was waning and collapsing in the West, the Emperor Valentinian III needed to look in the mirror.  Indeed, all Romans needed to look in the mirror, but this they would never do.  One of the surest signs of civilization’s collapse was when the prevailing wisdom turned away from personal responsibility and toward blaming others for every ill.  When people stopped depending on themselves to make their lives as good as they could and hand to their children better than they got, and they turned instead to government to give it to them, as if government acted like some living god independent of the people governed, then civilization became doomed.

“What ho!” Vingevourt’s pipsqueak voice came up from the ground ahead.  “I came up the river and have waited here a long time for your arrival.”

“And here we are.”  Mirowen smiled for the little one.

“Ungh!” Ingut grunted at him.

“Good to see you,” Festuscato said to turn his mind from his depression.

“Come aboard, Majesty,” Gregor said with a big smile.  “See?  I have set a clean cloth just for you to leak on.”

Vingevourt climbed up.  “I will say, you are a thoughtful mudder.”

Gregor guffawed. “No.  I’m just an old fart.”

“Smells like a new one if you ask me,” Mousden mumbled before he flew ahead to get a closer look at the city.

When they came to the gate, they found a half dozen men laying about in the late afternoon. They came somewhat to attention on the sight of such a big party, but any semblance of order fell apart when they saw the contents of the party.  The men were strange enough in their dress, though they probably recognized the German and perhaps even the Britain.  The Roman and the Irish cleric might as well have been from China, but then the little ones really grabbed their attention.

Dwarfs were not yet strangers in the world, but they were not common, while elves, like trolls and gnomes were often heard of, but rarely seen.  Fairies had always been shy of humans, but this Cornish pixie with the slight greenish tint to his skin, his bat-like wings and claw-like hands and feet with their prehensile toes hardly fit the pattern.  They did not know what to make of Mousden, but Vingevourt they knew, at least in type.  They were astonished, however, to see the water sprite out of the water.

If Ingut had not been leading them into the city, there might have been some question as to whether or not they would have been allowed in.  Some believed the sighting of any little one was a sign of good fortune to come, but many more firmly believed they were an ill omen, and Festuscato felt sure he heard Odin’s name used as a curse as much as in prayer.

The trip through the town and its’ terribly muddy and garbage-laden streets did nothing to raise Festuscato’s impression of the place.  He found the royal stables hardly worth the name.  The hall of Yut-Heim at least appeared to be well built, a solid log construction with a kind of shingled roof found on a number of buildings and houses in the town.  It looked to be a marked improvement over the thatch they found elsewhere.

“Ingut.” His name came easily to the group of men inside the hall.  Everyone knew the ship builder, and because so much of their lives and livelihood depended on their ships, whether for fishing or war, Ingut seemed to have the run of the place.  In this instance, his first duty was to march up to the king’s table and nod his respect for the king before he spoke.  Mirowen quietly translated for the group who followed in Ingut’s train.

“He’s telling the king about your wreck at sea during the great storm and how he found you washed up on his shore.”

“His shore?” Festuscato mouthed, but listened.

“You are the Roman, and we are your companions, sworn in allegiance to you, and there is great power of magic in us all, as can plainly be seen in the Roman’s choice of companions.  When the ship got driven to the rocks of Heyglund, Ingut realized it must be because the gods decided we must be a gift for the people of this war-torn land.”

“Didn’t know I was a magician.”  Gregor muttered.  Mirowen kicked him to be quiet.

“Naturally, Ingut thought of his great king, Hroden, and brought the Roman here first of all, knowing that the king would understand these things far better than the lowly ship maker.”

King Hroden eyed them with an eye of serious consideration and another eye of amusement. A couple of men at a table laughed at the sight of the strangers, but the king quickly raised his hand for silence.

M3 Festuscato: Saved, part 3 of 3

It did not take long before they began to pass people—the huts of the workers.  Women were fixing the leaks while children ran amok. A group of children ran and played alongside the train for a while, but they gave it up when the travelers came to a hill.  The house of Ingut stood on the high ground, but when they reached it, it hardly looked like the house of a prosperous and successful man.  In fact, it hardly looked different than the huts of the workers.

The old man sat outside on the front stoop, whittling with a wicked looking knife, and having a rather wicked look on his face.  That he had been there most of the night seemed evident from the number of wood chips piled around.

Luckless got down, and the old man did not even bat an eye in the face of the dwarf. Vingevourt raised the man’s brows a little, but he knew and respected the sprite, even if he did not particularly like him.  It seemed hard to say exactly what their relationship might be.  It also seemed hard to say what he thought Mousden might be. He batted at the Pixie like Mousden was a giant insect or bat until Mousden confronted him, face to face.  The man blinked and took a step back.  Seamus came up, having fallen to the back of the pack, and Mirowen slipped off the back of the beast and stepped straight for the door.  At this, the old man took a big step out of the way, and bowed.  He might not care for Dwarfs, or Vingevourt, or giant insects, but he knew a light elf when he saw one.

Bran, Gregor and Hrugen kept a wary eye on the workers who appeared at the top of the hill. Mirowen opened the door, followed by Seamus, Luckless, Vingevourt, and Mousden.  Festuscato still lay in bed with Inga, and though covered, it was evident that both were stark naked.  Inga let out a little embarrassed peep and covered herself further.  Festuscato put down his plate.

“I can’t eat another bite,” he said.  His clothes were dry, but he could hardly stand naked in front of the ones staring, open-mouthed.  He let his heart and spirit reach out to his place, the place of the Kairos, the island that stayed forever in the Second Heavens.  He caught hold of his armor, the chain and leather which had been the gift of Hephaestus, and the elf spun cloth that shaped itself to whatever life he was living.  In an instant, he became clothed in that glorious armor and stood, even as Mirowen spoke.

“He is only human, after all,” she said, meaning it as a simple fact and not entirely as an insult.  All the little ones bowed, to Ingut’s surprise.  Ingut had been watching from the doorway.  He pushed his way into the room and stepped up to Festuscato with a most curious expression.  He held one hand over one of Festuscato’s eyes.  Perhaps Gregor had given him the idea.

Festuscato shook his head, hid his left hand behind his back and pointed to his wrist as if his arm ended there.  Ingut’s eyes got wide as he imagined which god Festuscato might be, until Festuscato revealed his hand with a broad grin.  Then Ingut guessed.  He spat.

“Loki,” he said.

“Loki!?” Festuscato felt insulted, while Mirowen giggled.

“Who is Loki?” Seamus asked.

“Trickster,” Luckless said.  “Not a nice fellow, I understand.”

“He wasn’t,” Vingevourt said, as he pushed himself forward while Ingut stepped back. Vingevourt fell to his wobbly knees and begged forgiveness for his inaction and innocence in not knowing who was aboard the fateful ship.  He said the whole little speech in the language of Jutland, reverting from the British without thinking; but Festuscato understood it all, though he did not speak the tongue of the Jutes, because he heard it in the heart.

“Do not worry, great king,” he said, and resisted the urge to kneel which would have insulted the little one.  “You have no power over the storms, and I did not call out for help.  Perhaps it was my time to die.”  Festuscato had to pause on that thought.  “You never know.”

“All the same,” Vingevourt began, but Festuscato cut him off.

“Will you travel with us for a time?” he asked.

“I will,” Vingevourt said, without hesitation.  “But where are we going?” he asked.

“Thorengard.” Ingut said.  He had been listening in.  “Yut-heim.  Thorengard.”

Festuscato looked at his host and lifesaver.  He pulled a big ruby ring from his finger and gave it to the man.  “Would you tell him thanks for saving my life.”  Vingevourt hesitated.  Mirowen told him.  Ingut looked at Festuscato with some shrewdness in his eyes.

“And where is Yut-Heim?”  Festuscato asked.  Mirowen asked Ingut and then translated the response.  “In Thorengard.”  She shrugged.

Ingut stepped outside and began to bellow orders to the gathered crowd like a man accustomed to being obeyed.  Some of the men peeled away and came back in a very short time with two saddled horses and some bread, cheese, some smoked fish and watered down mead.  Bran, Gregor, Hrugen, Seamus and the little ones had little time to eat, however.  Ingut said something to Festuscato who had come outside with the others while Inga dressed.

Vingevourt translated this time.  “He says he assumes this is your horse he found wandering down by the beach.” Festuscato looked and nodded.  He mounted as Inga came running out of the house, calling his name.  He leaned over and gave her a long kiss and lifted her gently off the ground to do it, but then he set her down.

“Thorengard?” he asked.  Ingut pointed, and Festuscato started out without waiting for the others.

“But I’m not finished eating,” Luckless complained.

“So what else is new?”  Gregor said and nudged the dwarf as he got back on his horse to follow.  Fortunately, Vingevourt had run back to the sea as fast as the gingerbread man could run.  He promised he would be waiting for them in the city.

“For a small one, you eat more than anyone I’ve ever known,” Seamus said to the dwarf.

“High metabolism,” Festuscato shouted back.

“I’ll explain,” Mirowen promised, as she took her place behind the cleric.

“But I’m not done!”  Luckless shouted and realized he was last.  He grabbed as much bread and cheese as he could carry and climbed up on his pony.  “Wait up!” He kicked the animal to a trot and cursed for dropping half his booty.

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MONDAY

The Jutes.  Ingut, the ship builder, takes Festuscato and his crew to the Jute capital to meet the king.  No telling what kind of reception they might get.  Until Monday, Happy Reading.

*

M3 Festuscato: Saved, part 2 of 3

“The Kairos is sometimes female, except then he is our goddess,” Mousden said, confusing poor Hrugen further who shook his head in bewilderment.

Gregor asked a serious question.  “I thought, didn’t you say there was only one God, or three?  Unless you count that devil, too.”

“The jury is still out, as Festuscato would say, on who in fact Lord Agitus serves.” Seamus looked serious.

“The almighty, surely.”  Bran needed no convincing.

“Judging from these little ones, I would guess mostly himself.”  Gregor stirred the pot.

“Well, where is he?  I must apologize.  It would have been a black mark on my family for generations to drown my own god.” Vingevourt ignored the Saxon and sneered at Luckless.

Hrugen mumbled. “How can you drown a god?  It doesn’t make sense.”

“He’s not here.” Mousden said, right before Luckless shouted.

“My tools!” Luckless danced.  “Blessings, Master Sprite.  Please let me beg your pardon for misjudging your character and motives.  If there is anything you want, do tell.  I would gladly make goblets of gold for your banquet table, if I had any gold.”

“No need.” Vingevourt became gracious in return. “The only thing metal is good for in the sea is rust.  So which one is he?  What do you mean, not here?”

“I fear he may yet be dead,” Bran said.  “And I will have failed in my mission.”

“Not dead, master swordsman.  Do not be dismayed,” Mirowen told him.

“Not dead, I know it,” Mousden said, as he flew around in several circles and tasted the air. Everyone looked at Luckless as he contained his joy for a moment.  Dwarfs have an unerring sense of direction from living most of their lives in an underground warren of caves and mines more complicated than any labyrinth ever conceived by men.  They can also find any other given dwarf in that place with a sniff of the air and a sense that humans don’t have.  Luckless sniffed, closed his eyes, turned three times in a broad circle and finally pointed up the coast and slightly inland.

“And that’s not easy out in the open air,” he said in search of a bit of praise, if not sympathy.

“Easy or not, we should move,” Bran said.  “If the Lord has moved off the coast, he may be a prisoner in this strange land, or in other danger and in need of our help.”  Bran immediately rose and began to remove the ropes from his improvised raft. He would need them to tie their things to the backs of their horses and pony.  Gregor and Hrugen helped by saddling the beasts.

They were off soon enough, Luckless on the pony, leading the way.  Mirowen rode behind Seamus the Cleric while Gregor, Bran and Hrugen rode the other three horses.  Mousden flew most of the way, but landed occasionally on one horse or another.  Gregor, good heartedly invited the water sprite to ride in front of him.  His horse bucked once when Gregor mounted.

“Settle down, supper,” he said to the horse.  He called all horses supper.  “You stood around half the morning getting fat on scrub grass.  Now it’s time to work.”

The water sprite seemed reluctant to ride at that point, but Gregor stared him down with his one eye.  “It will be fine,” he said.  “It’s a horse, not a plow mule.”  When Vingevourt got up, Gregor added, “Won’t likely buck more than a dozen more times.” He laughed, and then regretted his invitation.  “Master Sprite, you’re leaking.”

“It’s perpetual,” Vingevourt said, having turned his words to the British spoken by the rest of the party.  He was a well-traveled sprite.

Gregor thought about that, but he did not really understand the word.  “Aren’t you afraid you’ll leak out eventually and disappear?”

“No.  It’s perpetual.”  The water sprite repeated with some annoyance.

“Magic.” Mirowen turned her head back to explain in terms Gregor could understand.  “No matter how much water appears, Vingevourt will not get any smaller.”

“Oh,” Gregor said, and he asked the sprite to please perpetual on the horse as much as possible.

“Easy for you. You’re nothing but mud.  A little water might clean you up if it doesn’t melt you,” Vingevourt said.  “More than likely I’ll be the one who will get filthy.”

“Huh!” Gregor huffed, but he said no more.

The trail seemed easy enough as they came quickly out of the rocks and to a sandy shore. There were three ships there, well up on the beach, all in various stages of building.  One appeared just a skeleton.  One looked nearly finished.  The third, somewhere in between.  There were two other ships as well, like ships in dry dock, being in various stages of repair.

“Easy,” Bran whispered loud enough for them all to hear.  He nudged a quick finger toward one ship in dock.  There were a dozen men, some standing around, but most examining the ships in the morning light for signs of damage from the storm.  The men watched the strange procession, but they neither said a word nor did anything to stop their progress.  The danger soon passed, and Hrugen spoke as soon as they were clear

“Ingut, the shipwright,” he said.  “I would bet this is his place, unless he died in the last twelve years, then it would be his descendant’s place, or another like him.”

“Ingut,” Vingevourt nodded.  “I know him well and his silly splinters of wood he floats across the surface of my realm.”

“This tells us nothing,” Gregor said.

“He is a Jute, but he owes allegiance to no one in particular,” Hrugen explained.  “He will build for any king or lord who will meet his price.  Jute, Thane, Dane, Swede, Norwegian, Geat, Frisian.  It doesn’t matter.”

“So, Lord Cato might be safe, or in trouble?” Bran asked for clarification.

“Safe, I would imagine,” Hrugen said.  “His clothes speak of money, and his shipwrecked condition speaks of needing a ship.”

“Sharp thinking.” Gregor complimented Hrugen.

“Let’s hope Ingut thought of it.”  Luckless shouted back from the front.  Dwarves had good ears as well as noses.

Avalon 6.10 Alexander’s Eyes, part 6 of 6

Five people climbed the rocks to where Lysimachus slept.  From there, they had the best view of the fortification that blocked the pass, and the field that sat between the rocks and the fort.  Katie and Decker carried their rifles and had their military-issue night goggles.  Elder Stow had no doubt much more sophisticated goggles of a sort for night vision.  Bogramus, of course, could see perfectly fine in the dark as might be expected for dwarfs. Lockhart was the only one who couldn’t see anything but dark, and Lysimachus the same when he awoke.  Katie had to describe the scene.

“A group of men are kneeling by some bushes off to your left, there.  Three have come up to Elder Stow’s screen and look puzzled.  They appear to be trying to find the edge of the obstruction, or find a way through.  That must be frustrating.”

“Can they get through?” Lysimachus asked.

“No,” Katie said, and handed the night goggles to Lysimachus to take a look.

“The screens are like a globe or a ball completely around us,” Lockhart explained.

“They even project under the earth,” Elder Stow added, just before an arrow struck where the three Thebans stood outside the screens.  The arrow did not penetrate from inside the screens, so it bounced back to the rocks.

“Hold your arrows,” Lysimachus shouted.

“Not single-sided?” Decker asked.

Elder Stow grunted.  “Bullets can go through.  Arrows are too slow moving and do not have enough force driving them.”

“Don’t get any ideas,” Lockhart said, when Decker raised his rifle to look through his scope.

“My mother and father,” Elder Stow said. “Shall I send out a blast of light?”

Decker immediately pushed his night goggles up on his forehead.  Katie got hers back and held them with a look at Lockhart.  “Go ahead,” Lockhart said, and closed his eyes.  “Maybe it will scare them off without having to kill them.”

Elder Stow nodded and took two sticks from an inner pocket of his shirt.  One was his sonic device with which the travelers were all familiar.  The other stick looked like an enlarged toothpick. He appeared to squeeze the toothpick, and a stream of light shot into the sky where it formed a small globe like a miniature sun.  It would only last a few minutes, but in that time, the whole area became bathed in light.

The Theban soldiers became easily visible, no matter how hard they tried to hide in the bushes.  The enemy officer recognized they were caught, and quickly hurried his men back to the fortification.

An orange light snaked out from the fortification and touched Elder Stow’s blast of light.  The light flared and went out.  The travelers and Lysimachus blinked.  Bogramus spoke.

“Powerful witch, that one.”

“I feel like we’ve fallen into a sword and sorcery novel,” Katie said.

“More like science and sorcery,” Lockhart countered.

“Equipment and enchantment.  Maybe machines and magic,” Decker suggested.

“Maybe we should get some sleep,” Katie said, and took Lockhart by the arm.

“Knowledge and necromancy?” Bogramus spoke up.

“No,” Decker shook his head as they prepared to follow Katie and Lockhart back down the rocks. “It has to start with the same letter.”

“I will stay here for a while to keep watch,” Elder Stow volunteered.  Lysimachus nodded, and went back to lie down.

When Boston came to the lookout at four, to relieve Elder Stow, she suggested, “Elves and engineers.” Lysimachus had gone back to sleep, but Harpalus sat there keeping Elder Stow company.  He asked what she was talking about.

“I have no idea,” Elder Stow admitted. “Is Decker still on with that?”

Boston nodded.  “Bogramus likes dwarves and devices, but Decker says it should be technology and something magical that begins with a “T”.  He says he will have to wait for Lincoln to get up and search the thesaurus in the database.”

“What are elves?” Harpalus asked.

“I am,” Boston said, before she could stop her mouth.  Of course, then she felt she had to show the man.  She lifted her glamour of humanity, but only briefly before she put it right back on again.  Harpalus smiled and almost applauded.  He turned to Elder Stow.

“And are you an elf?”

“Certainly not.  I am a Gott-Druk, and my people used to own all this land before you humans came here.  We lived in peace for a-hundred-thousand years before the stupid Agdaline ruined everything.”

“Gott-Druk?” Harpalus asked.

Elder Stow lifted his own glamour for a second before he restored it. Harpalus looked shocked by Elder Stow’s appearance.

“Are you human?”

“Genus homo, yes.  I am human enough, only not sapiens like yourself. Homo-neaderthalensis.”

Harpalus did not understand.

“Where is Sukki?” Elder Stow asked. “We have father-daughter things to do.”

“I’ll get her,” Boston said.

An hour later, Lysimachus was up and ready to lead the Macedonian cavalry against the gate.  Erigyius agreed to lead the men on foot, provided he did not have to have contact with the dwarves or fairies.  That would not be a problem.  Bogramus already took his dwarves around to the other side of the fortification where they could fall on the enemy in the rear.  He left the camp saying, “Dwarves do damage.”

Katie, Lincoln, and Evan with Katie’s handgun went with the men on foot.  Katie kept her rifle.  Lockhart lent Lincoln the shotgun in case he got close.  Lockhart, Decker, Sukki with Boston’s handgun, and Boston, wand in hand, rode their own horses with the cavalry.  Boston said she would burn a hole in the fortification wall if necessary. Wallace also insisted on going, to Evan and Millie’s surprise.  He borrowed Elder Stow’s horse.  He got Decker’s handgun at Decker’s insistence.  He said he had no intention of hurting anyone.  He just wanted to be there for Nanette.  He imagined she needed him to come and save her, and no one could tell him otherwise.

A few Macedonians got assigned to hold the rocks and protect Alexis and Millie who stayed with the wounded in the grassy area.  The rocks would be the fallback position in case the assault did not go well.  Elder Stow stayed with Harpalus in the lookout spot. In daylight, they could see most of the fortification that blocked the pass.  Harpalus had Decker’s binoculars, and repeated the notion that the gunpowder with which the Thebans mined the road had to be in the barrels in that makeshift shed.

“To keep it dry and out of the rain,” Elder Stow had agreed.  It should not matter to the sonic device.  He had the correct frequency to set off the black powder.  The question was whether he could project it far enough and direct it on a narrow band with enough strength to reach the powder.  He only had small devices such as a ship’s officer would carry, including his handgun.  They were trinkets, really, and not designed for constant use, much less designed to do so many of the things he made them do.  Their power sources remained limited, and needed to be recharged on a regular basis.

Elder Stow spent his time on watch and Sukki and Boston’s watch time as well, working on the sonic device.  He attached it to whatever power sources remained, and imagined after this, his equipment would be useless.  Once again, he wished young Garron survived the sudden and utterly unexpected trip into the deep past.  Garron knew the equipment—the hardware, and the programing.  Garron might have easily done all those things Elder Stow had to struggle with and figure out for himself.  Garron might have known how to more easily recharge his power sources, or maybe how to use those Reichgo batteries that Katie and Decker still carried around.  Elder Stow felt glad he was able to make the equipment do things they were not designed to do. He felt glad that he had not broken the whole lot of them.  Trinkets, he thought of them and waited.

“Are we ready?” Harpalus asked, with a small touch of excitement in his voice.

“Not yet,” Elder Stow said.  He heard Lockhart’s voice in his communicator. Harpalus jumped at the voice and stared at the communication device.  Katie chimed in a moment later.

“Just need to keep Erigyius back a bit. Don’t want to get too close.  We don’t know how big the explosion may be.”

“Mother.  I appreciate the confidence you have in me,” Elder Stow answered.  “As the father might say, let’s hope this works.”

Elder Stow picked up the sonic device and switched it on.  Elder Stow and Harpalus stood for a good fifteen seconds, before the distant powder exploded, all at once.  It sent up a great plume of smoke and fire.  It loosened the face of the cliff that edged the fortress, and sent boulders crashing into the camp.  The blast shattered the little shack to splinters and sent men flying and broken. It knocked down the nearby palisade, where the Macedonians from one side and dwarves from the other hoped to attack the Thebans on foot, while the cavalry kept the rest busy on the remaining wall.  To be honest, the plan might have worked, once the Macedonians and dwarves closed their mouths and got moving; but instead, they all stopped moving altogether. The travelers did not freeze in their tracks, but they got transported with all of their horses and equipment to the other side of the pass.

“What?”  Lincoln asked, but no one else said anything.

Athena stood before them, sadly shaking her head.  “I see why the stupid Kairos says it is too soon for guns and gunpowder,” she said. “I think for once I agree with him. I know where it is being made, and I will remove it, and the knowledge of it from my jurisdiction.”

“Thank you,” Lockhart said, as he and the other riders got down from their horses.

“Nanette?” Wallace had to ask.

“Your witch and your cowboy rushed to the time gate, and with the twister of the witch, they are even now moving into the next time zone.”

“But she is not our witch,” Alexis spoke quickly before the goddess vanished.  “She is your witch.  You make her in the future.  When Evan and Millie, and Wallace too, decide to explore the past, Nanette, the real Nanette asks for some way to go with them, to help them.  You make a duplicate Nanette, like an identical twin.  As I understand sometimes happens with identicals, the real Nanette is the good one, and this Nanette has become the evil twin. I suppose you will have to make her when the time comes.  This one has made a mark on history that should not be erased, but we would appreciate it if you dealt with this duplicate Nanette before she does any further damage.”

Athena stared, stone faced.  “I noticed my fingerprint and wondered,” she slowly nodded.  “I will think on it.”

“Athena,” Katie stepped up.  “May I talk to you?”  Katie looked back at the others.  “In private.”

Since Athena was prevented from reading Katie’s mind by an act of all the gods, she got curious, a rare treat for the gods.  Katie and Athena disappeared and reappeared up the way, well out of earshot, even for Boston, the elf.

Athena said nothing

“It is about Justitia,” Katie said, and found the courage to add, “She seems a wonderful girl.”

Athena looked genuinely surprised for all of a second before she looked to the side and confessed, without explaining.

“Apollo once privately prophesied that I would have a child wiser than myself.  I denied him.  I was the virgin goddess for a reason.  Then Troy. Almost a thousand years later, and I still love him.  The Kairos, of all people.  I know Aphrodite and I were on opposite sides, but… I don’t know if I will ever forgive her.”  Athena found a tear and Katie dared not interrupt.

“I denied the baby for seven hundred years.  Apollo and Artemis tricked me into delivering the girl.  I tried to blind the girl.” Athena sniffed.  “Artemis hurried her away, and took her to her father, though the present life of the Kairos was that woman in Rome.  I let it go.  I watched, sometimes.  She is a lovely girl.”  Athena sniffed again, and wiped an eye.  “I often stand in for Zeus and Hera, you know, Jupiter and Juno in Rome.”  She smiled slightly.  “It was Cronos who confined his father to the Roman peninsula, but Zeus who gave him the name, Saturn.  He reciprocated by insisting everyone else have different names in his part of the world… Except Apollo.  He liked Apollo for some reason.”

“You know, the girl will never be wiser than her mother unless you love her and teach her,” Katie said, softly.

Athena turned her stone face to Katie. She gave the same look as when she said she would think about dealing with the witch.  She might have nodded a little.  Katie was not sure, but instantly, she found herself back where she stood with the Macedonians, ready to assault the fortification.  It was not much of an assault.  The Thebans and Athenians immediately surrendered. Bogramus said his two-dozen dwarves were very disappointed.

“Maybe next time,” Katie said.

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

MONDAY

Shipwreck.  The travers head for Sicily, but first, they have to navigate a water gate, and that is never easy.  Plus, the witch has not given up, but now the gods are on notice.  Who will get there first, and in one piece?

Until next time, Happy Reading

*

Avalon 6.10 Alexander’s Eyes, part 5 of 6

Lockhart, Katie, and Boston got down, with Harpalus and his soldier behind them.  At that point, two lights flashed up to Boston, and they spoke.

“Lady Boston.  They got a witch,” Maren, the young, and Boston thought very young fairy wife screeched.

“They got a cowboy,” Philoxes said, some excitement in his voice.

Katie smiled.  “And do you want to be a cowboy?”

Philoxes and Maren both looked surprised at being seen.  Most humans who tried to see fairies saw only swirls of light and colors, and heard only faint sounds unless the fairies fully manifested.  These travelers seemed able to see them clearly, and Harpalus saw them, which suggested he spent plenty of time in his youth hanging out with the Kairos, Diogenes.

“That is the temptation, Ma’am,” Philoxes said.  “I reckon.”

Lockhart laughed before Maren got serious.  “But they have a witch.”

Wallace, who spent so much time with Diana, and Justitia, had no trouble hearing, and he turned in the direction of the enemy fortifications.  “Nanette,” he yelled once.  He knew his voce would not carry that far.

“Harpalus,” a young man, roughly the same age, rushed up and gave Harpalus a hug.

“Erigyius,” Harpalus named the young man. “I forgot you were assigned to come and hold the pass.”

“Lysimachus is really in charge,” Erigyius said.  “But I volunteered to come to get a break from the master.”

“The master?” Evan asked, as he, Millie, Decker, and Elder Stow came up from tending the horses.

“Our Tutor, Aristotle of Stagira.”

“Haven’t you graduated?” Millie asked.

“We are all in our last year,” Erigyius said. “Me, Harpalus, Ptolemy, Alexander, Hephaestion…”

“What about Diogenes?” Boston asked.

Erigyius spat.  “That left-handed freak graduated last year,” he said. “Lucky for him.”  Like Hephaestion, Erigyius did not talk like he had anything against Diogenes, as a person.  But he spoke like Diogenes was of no account, and generally to be ignored and forgotten, even if he was Alexander’s cousin.

Erigyius wanted to take Harpalus to Lysimachus in the upper rocks where they could look down on the Athenian fortification, and plan how to dislodge the enemy from their strong place, but he had to wait for Harpalus to settle his charges.

“You can set your tents by ours,” Harpalus said, and pointed to the two big tents that blocked the entrance to the hollow.

“Wallace and Evan, would you mind? Lincoln can help.” Katie asked. “And Millie, you might help Alexis with the wounded.”

“I was just going to do that,” Millie said, and they walked off.

“Alexis will do what she can, but sometimes men die or cannot be fully healed,” Katie explained to the Macedonians, and added, “No promises.”

Harpalus nodded.  “Diogenes explained to us more than once, the gods don’t make promises.”

Maren settled down on Boston’s shoulder, and just then, Philoxes accepted an invitation to rest on Lockhart’s shoulder. Lockhart squinted when the fairy settled down, like he thought it might hurt, but of course it did not.  Erigyius’ eyes got big as he noticed the fairies for the first time.  Decker had to grab the young man’s arm to keep him from running away, and Lockhart laughed.

“I reacted that way the first time I met an elf—an earth sprit.  But I am living proof you can get used to anything,” Lockhart said.

“You have an enemy to deal with, soldier,” Decker sad.  “Don’t let the little things distract you.”  Decker grinned at his own turn of phrase.

Katie had her rifle and her scope. Decker never put down his rifle. Lockhart pulled out his binoculars, and spoke.  “So, let’s go get a look at this enemy.”

Erigyius led the way up the hill. Some of the soldiers among the rocks watched, but said nothing.  Lysimachus, a man who looked to be in his early twenties, frowned at their approach. Lockhart thought to mollify the man. He held out his binoculars. “Here, try looking through these.” And he helped Lysimachus focus them, who then smiled.

Decker held up his rifle, looked through his scope, and said click, click, as he looked around the Athenian compound.  Boston just looked, and could easily see without the need for binoculars.  The fairies could see well enough to make out the threads in the enemy clothing.

Elder Stow studied his scanner for a minute, before he began to program adjustments to his screen array.  “It is a serious stretch.”  He mumbled while he worked.  “Like when I stretched it out to keep the werewolf out of that Celtic village. That was a long time ago.  Lincoln would know when…”  His voice trailed off when Lockhart got his binoculars back, and shared them with Harpalus.  He got a good look though Katie’s scope, which she had detached from the rifle.

“So, what are your plans for dislodging the Athenians from the bottleneck?” Lockhart asked.

Lysimachus paused, because he glimpsed something on Lockhart’s shoulder.  Besides that, he did not know what a bottleneck was, but he understood well enough.  He prepared to speak when they got interrupted.

“Bogramus,” Boston said, and smiled her biggest smile.  “Good of you to join us.”

The dwarf, and four others with him appeared out of the rocks, or they gave up the glamour of looking like rocks so the others could see them plainly.  Boston held back from her inclination to hug the dwarfs when Maren offered a name for them. “Grubby Doodles.”  It sounded like she had her nose turned up.

The other travelers, who understood that dwarfs rarely traveled alone, hardly blinked; but Erigyius’ eyes got big and his mouth clamped shut.  Harpalus saw and laughed.  Lysimachus also got big eyes before he squinted and spoke.

“The people of legend,” he named them.

“What?” Bogramus stepped forward and objected.  “We live here, local, over in Bog Mountain.”  He pointed behind him and then pointed at the travelers.  “These are the people of legend.”

“And good of you to come,” Katie said, echoing Boston’s thought, and Bogramus, and two others took off their hats. The other two stayed busy giving the humans hard, mean stares, which risked appearing comical on those bearded faces.

“Glad to help out, Lady—your majesty. Ragtide and Bellywattle could not be kept back once they found out you folks from Avalon were around.”

“But the princess did not say there was a witch,” one of the dwarfs spouted.

“I hates witches,” another one added.

“We were just about to hear how Lysimachus planned to deal with the witch and dislodge the Athenians,” Lockhart said, and Lysimachus shook his head and got back to the situation.

“They are mostly Thebans,” he said. “Only a few Athenian officers.” He shook his head again and got down to business, doing his best to ignore Lockhart’s shoulder passenger, who he now saw clearly, and the dwarfs, who apparently did not like any ideas. Somehow, they ended with a plan that the dwarfs did not hate.

That evening, around the fire, Lincoln finally got to read some out of the database, which he could not read while others were present.  Philoxes and Maren were present, but occupied with each other.  Bogramus and his four dwarfs had their own little fire going and had their own deer cooking.  Of course, they would eat their deer down to the bones, where the eleven travelers, and two fairies, would not eat half of theirs.  Alexis and Millie, tired as they were, planned to share the rest with the wounded soldiers.

“Diogenes,” Lincoln said, in answer to Katie’s question.  “The reason he does not appear in the history books is because he is not considered important enough to write about, even if he is Alexander’s first cousin.  His mother is the older sister to Alexander’s mother, Olympias.  His father was one of Phillip’s bodyguards, which in these days means close, personal friend.  No doubt he introduced Phillip and Olympias.  She is a Melossian Princess, as is her sister.  His father died protecting Phillip when Diogenes was four and Diogenes’ younger sister turned one.  His mother went half-mad… that is what it says.”

“So Hephaestion called Diogenes the Melossian,” Katie remembered.

“And they call him fatherless.  And he stutters.  And he ls left-handed.  His friends all respect him,” Lincoln said.  “But they consider him of no account, and so do Phillip’s and Alexander’s official biographers.  Apparently, Diogenes and Alexander’s official biographer, Callisthenes of Olynthus, had words, and Callisthenes scratched his name out from every place it got mentioned. Alexander, however, found great use for his cousin.  Diogenes commanded a Thessalian cavalry troop in battle, but mostly, Alexander sent him out well in advance of the troops, not just to scout and track the enemy, which he did sometimes, but mostly to spy on the enemy, ferret out their intentions, and discern their weaknesses.  Diogenes contributed more than maybe anyone else to Alexander’s success in Asia, but he was rarely around, so his contribution never got noticed or recorded.”

“Company,” Boston interrupted.

Bogramus came up, hat in hand. “The boys said I should ask if you have enough to eat.  Ragtide admitted to stealing the bigger one, but felt guilty about it after.  That is not an easy thing for a dwarf to do.”

“What?  Stealing?” Lincoln asked.

“No, feeling guilty,” Boston clarified.

“No, thank you,” Katie said.  “You enjoy your feast.”

Bogramus made a face.  “Personally, I don’t have much of an appetite right before a fight.”

“I have that same problem,” Lockhart confessed.

“Not me,” Decker said.  “You learn to eat when there is food, especially before battle, because you never know when you might get your next meal.”

“There is that…” Bogramus agreed and turned to get back to the dwarfs before the others ate it all.

“More company,” Boston said, softly, and patted herself on the back for knowing when humans were present.  It was something all of the little spirits of the earth had to do to avoid contact with the mortal world.  Though a learned skill, Boston knew that eventually it would become automatic, like a habit requiring no special effort.

Harpalus, Erigyius, and Lysimachus came to the fire.  Lysimachus stayed focused on the human travelers.  He had questions.  Erigyius came to hear the answers, but he turned his back on the dwarfs and tried very hard not to look at the fairies.  Boston considered removing her glamour and showing the man her true elf form, but she imagined that would be mean.  Harpalus sat and watched the dwarfs eat, and laughed.

Lincoln put away the database.  He figured he would not get in anymore reading that evening with the Macedonians in the camp.  Besides, after they ate, he, Boston, and Sukki, helped Alexis and Millie bring the remains to share with the wounded soldiers.  Harpalus helped with that, and Erigyius, though maybe because he started feeling uncomfortable with dwarf eyes on his back.  Evan and Wallace stayed with Lockhart, Katie, and Lysimachus; Evan because he was curious, and Wallace because he was lazy and did not think to help.

Lockhart kept everyone to the watch, even if Elder Stow’s screens protected the camp.  He said in this case, it was not the witch so much as he wanted to watch out for the Thebans and Athenians.  He suspected the Thebans might try to get at them in the dark, or at least scout their position and prepare a better defense for the morning. He wanted someone up to watch for that and be able to get everyone up if necessary.

Katie agreed, and sure enough, around two-thirty that morning, Elder Stow said his scanner picked up about twenty men crawling out from the enemy fortification.  Decker and Elder Stow had the watch, but Katie and Lockhart were not yet asleep.

“Don’t wake the others,” Lockhart said. “Let’s take a look first.”

“My sentiments, exactly,” Bogramus said, which startled the travelers who did not realize he stood there, listening.

Avalon 6.10 Alexander’s Eyes, part 4 of 6

Boston and Sukki rode out front, as usual.  Decker and Elder Stow still took the wings, but on this trip, Harpalus and one of his soldiers came behind Boston and Sukki.  Katie and Lockhart got relegated to the third place in line, with Lincoln and Alexis, and then Evan and Millie behind them.  Wallace rode at the back, next to the mule that drew the wagon full of the traveler’s things.  That would have been it, but Harpalus assigned his last two men to act as a rear guard.  They rode thirty paces back and passed the time with quiet conversation.

The group made good time, but they would not reach Thermopylae until afternoon on the second day.  Then, it would be a few days across the Thessalian plains, and they figured they would find the time gate just shy of the Macedonian border.

King Phillip had sent word to the Athenian garrison that had been assigned to block the pass.  Harpalus assumed the Athenians abandoned their position and returned to Athens and a Macedonian garrison now watched the narrow place.  He had an optimistic view on life, and his conversation came out as positive and complimentary.

“I can tell you folks are used to traveling in the wild,” Harpalus said over lunch on that second day.  They had stopped just shy of entering a copse of trees before the pass.  “You seemed uncertain at the inn, last night.  But here, out on the grass, under the blue sky, you seem perfectly at ease.”

“Lots of practice,” Elder Stow responded, absentmindedly.

“Plus, we have a few secret weapons, like a fire starter,” Alexis said, pointing at Boston.

“And a good cook to compliment the good hunters,” Lincoln agreed, and gave Alexis a pat on her shoulder as he leaned over to smell the roast.

“Everyone does their job and it works out,” Lockhart suggested.

“We go with our strengths,” Decker added, as Evan, Millie, Wallace, and two of the soldiers came from tending the horses.

“What?” Boston watched Katie who had her eyes turned toward where the road ahead entered the trees.

“Yes, what?” Millie looked up and echoed the question.  Sukki turned her head to look down the road to see if something might be coming.

Katie shook her head and appeared to come back to reality.  “It’s just… We have been a day and a half and haven’t run into a single trap set by the witch.”

“I hear that,” Decker mumbled.

“Maybe we went in an unexpected route,” Lockhart suggested.  “We came up to the coastal road, rather than traveling the one we were on.”  He made a space beside himself.

“Maybe,” Katie said, as she took that seat by the fire.  “But Thermopylae is a narrow place.  If she expected us to go this way, that is the place where we need to look out.”

“I’ve been looking out for traps this whole way,” Boston said.

“Me, too,” Sukki echoed.

“Me, too,” Lincoln whispered.

After lunch, the woods appeared darker and more foreboding than before.  The sky did not darken, and the woods did not crowd the road any more after lunch.  The travelers just spent lunch thinking about Katie’s words, and the witch, and they got wary.  Elder Stow scanned the little wooded area and saw no sign of people, but it did not prevent anyone from being careful.

Boston rode out front to where she could see the road exit the little woods.  The soldiers in the rear just moved fully into the woods.  Boston got ready to shout about the light at the end of the tunnel, when the trees moved.  They did not pull up their roots and move, but they bent over the road, like trees in a strong wind, and the branches grabbed at the people.

People shouted.  They panicked.  Swords and knives came out to hack at the branches.  People pushed their horses toward Boston and the edge of the woods.  Even as the rear guard closed the gap with the group, Sukki got snatched right out of her saddle.  The branches tried to close around the girl, but Sukki flexed her Gott-Druk muscles, grabbed one of the branches, and ripped it right off the tree.  She fell to the ground.

“Get out,” Lockhart yelled, though it was unnecessary.  After the initial shock, people rode for the exit from the woods as fast as they could. Boston rode back to Sukki, and shot flame from her wand, setting that tree on fire.  In true rodeo style, she reached down.  Sukki grabbed Boston’s hand and leapt up behind her.

The ground beneath their feet began to shake.  Boston and Sukki on Honey rode like wild women as the ground started to open up.  Honey had to leap over a tear in the ground at the end, but they made it to the grass beyond.  They got down right away to try and stand while the ground trembled.  It would not have been good to stay on horseback during an earthquake.  The people and horses protested, but it ended quickly.  People made sure everyone got out in one piece.

Katie and Lockhart stepped up, and Harpalus limped over to the edge of the road, while Elder Stow checked the readings on his scanner.  They examined the crack in the surface of the road which ran into the woods for as far as they could see.

“Strictly local,” Elder Stow reported. “Not really an earthquake.  No depth to it.”

“That crack in the ground would have ruined the horses if we hadn’t gotten out of it,” Lockhart said.

“We might have broken our own legs,” Katie agreed.

Harpalus smiled.  “Good thing I already have a limp.”

“Speaking of broken legs,” Lincoln joined them.  “Alexis says the mule is down.  Decker says the wagon is still in good shape.”

“Pioneer built for the Oregon Trail,” Lockhart said.

“They still make that game?” Katie asked.

“Thanks a lot,” Lincoln frowned. “Now I am going to have that song running through my head for the rest of the afternoon.”

Harpalus could not even imagine what they were talking about, but he could laugh with Katie and Lockhart.

Sukki found her horse Freedom, safe and sound.  The horse had followed the others when Sukki ended up in the tree.  She got right up, but then had to wait while they hitched Wallace’s horse to the wagon.  Wallace would still ride the horse as it pulled the wagon.

“Just don’t expect me to ride very fast,” he said.  The others understood, but up until then, the whole trip had been at a walking pace. Sukki got sent back to keep Wallace company, which neither minded.  Wallace liked the big girl, though he did not really grasp the concept that she was a Neanderthal wearing a magical, human-looking disguise.  He got shown back in Diana’s day, but he forgot. Katie suggested that the fact that Wallace did not remember details well could be why he was not a very good scholar.

“No,” Lockhart countered.  “He reminds me of lots of people I know.  He has a very narrow and limited view of reality. Anything that doesn’t fit with his pre-conceived notions he justifies or rationalizes away, or just erases from his memory.”

Lincoln butted into the conversation. “What a sad little way to go through life.”

Alexis nodded, sadly, but Katie added a thought.  “If we can get him back to Professor Fleming, we need to encourage him to stay there. He will never survive this journey.”

They all looked back.

Sukki, on the other hand, also liked Wallace well enough to talk to him, where she stayed shy around some of the others, so it worked out well for the moment.

Katie and Lockhart moved up to the front, and put Boston behind them.  They opted to keep to the road for the present, but Katie and Lockhart wanted to keep their eyes open.  Decker and Elder Stow sharpened their watch on the wings.

Boston extended her elf senses, trying to find any little spirits that might be in the area.  She sensed a dwarf village in a nearby mountain, but when she sent her thoughts ahead, the dwarfs, in typical fashion, had no interest in helping. One dwarf named Bogramus said he might meet them in Thermopylae.  Closer to the pass, she sensed a fairy camp well off the road and in a different section of woods.  Most of the fairies took the same stance as the dwarfs.  Boston felt their reluctance to get too close to the humans that seemed bent on killing each other at every turn.  Philoxes and Maren, a young fairy couple, thought they might look ahead, but they were not sure what they were supposed to be looking for, and Boston felt reluctant to mention the witch.

The travelers came to a rise in the road and Harpalus spoke as they started down the other side.  “Up ahead, there, where the mountain presses toward the sea, is Thermopylae.”  He expected them to stop and gawk, but the travelers pressed on.

“We have been here before,” Lincoln explained from behind.

Katie spoke from the front.  “Here, three hundred Spartans stood against all the hordes of Asia.”

“True enough,” Harpalus said, and nearly fell as his horse stopped suddenly.  Lockhart and Katie stopped, and Boston stopped short behind them all.  Lockhart pulled out his binoculars.  Katie grabbed the scope for her rifle.  They saw bodies of dead men up ahead, near a fortified position.

Elder Stow’s voice sounded out from the wristwatch communicators.  “Get to a defensive place,” he yelled.  They saw him riding hard, being chased by a troop of soldiers.  Though the soldiers were still some distance off. Lockhart turned his binoculars in that direction and saw one of the cowboys leading the pack.

Decker came up from the other direction, waving for them to join him.  He also got followed by a dozen riders, but these looked like Macedonians or Thessalians.  “Get off the road.  The road is mined.”  Even as he spoke, the two in the rear hit something.  It exploded between the two horses, and the horses went down while the riders got tossed to the ground.

Four of the Macedonians broke from the pack and bravely went to check on their compatriots.  The rest, with Decker, stopped short of the road, while the travelers quickly vacated the highway.  Wallace got the wagon to the grass, and wisely did not stop.  Sukki, Evan, Millie, Lincoln and Alexis stayed right with him and encouraged him in the direction from which the Macedonians had come.

Decker pulled his rifle.  As Elder Stow neared the road, Decker let loose with several streams of automatic fire.  The cowboy recognized the sound and backed off, letting the others get in front of him, even though he could outrace them all on his big mustang. Several men and horses in the attacking party went down before Elder Stow crossed the road, and Decker turned to ride with him.  Elder Stow pulled out his sonic device and let loose behind him.  He expected the pursuing horses to complain, but he managed to set off several of the explosives buried in the road.  They were large enough to damage anyone close, and while the enemy did not yet reach the road, they stopped short and looked hesitant.

The travelers found a sheltered hollow in the rocks that held nearly a hundred horses, nibbling on whatever they could find.  The Macedonians filled the rocks, and most had bows and arrows to defend their position. They had several wagons, but only had two tents set up, so clearly the men had slept in the rocks over the last two or three days.

Alexis found wounded men in one of the tents, so she, with Lincoln to assist, got right to work.

Avalon 6.8 Archidamian War’s End, part 4 of 6

The Spartans and Athenians dug three trenches on the slight rise, and they piled up rocks on the dirt they excavated to make like mini-walls.  Some of the Spartans, and to be fair, some of the Athenians did not like the idea of keeping their heads down, or throwing their javelins rather than stabbing the enemy in the face when the time came.  Some called bows and arrows cowardly weapons.  All Ophelia could say was they will probably get close enough for tooth and claw no matter what we do.  Then, gods help us.  Nicias and Styphon kept the troops focused.  They had no reason to disbelieve a woman who commanded fairies.

They waited all morning.  They waited until Zeuxides said he was hungry and ready for lunch.  Then they came.

They looked like wolves, albeit, dressed in vests and far bigger than any wolf seen by humans.  Ophelia made out the three Humanoids who kept back to bark out orders.  She raised her bow.  The Athenian archers, and some of the Spartans and their allies all raised their bows.  Ophelia tried to wait, but when it appeared they were not getting closer, she said, “Loose.”

The arrows barely went the distance, but two of the Wolv looked put out of commission.  Ophelia knew better.  It just made them mad.  She saw the Wolvs back out of range, and then had to yell again.

“Get your heads down.”

The Wolv pulled out weapons and several men reacted too slowly.  They got fried, and the rest of the men got an object lesson, encouraging them to keep their heads down.  The Wolv did not fire for long.  They had nothing but hand weapons, and that would take all day to cut through the fortifications.  Flaves showed up and helped Ophelia hear the barked orders.  Ophelia yelled

“Javelins.”

Fourteen of the twenty Wolvs attacked. The men stood and about a third threw their best, but the Wolvs moved too fast.  Only two got taken down that way.  Three bounded up to the top trench where the more lightly armored Athenians and archers waited.  Nearly thirty men got torn to shreds or were grievously wounded before they put down the three Wolvs.  The Athenian regulars in the second trench hardly did better when four Wolvs arrived. More than twenty men died there, and almost twenty more died among the Spartans in the first trench where they fought off the remaining five.  The Wolvs fought for victory or death.  They had no thought of retreat, but neither did the Spartans.

Ophelia got spared when Zeuxides, who kept his javelin instead of throwing it, stabbed a Wolv in the back, the same time two Spartans struck it from the front, one cutting off the Wolv’s arm. The Wolv hardly slowed by the loss of an arm, but then it was only a matter of time to put it down, completely. Six Spartans went down to five Wolv, along with nineteen Spartan allies who died or were wounded unto death.  Of the two hundred and ninety-two captured on Sphacteria, two hundred and forty-eight would make it home.  Zeuxides wept for his friends, and no one thought less of him for it, but Ophelia lifted her eyes to the three Humanoids and the remaining six Wolv.  What she saw angered her, greatly, and she stomped down from the fight to confront the situation.

During the battle in the trenches, the whole fairy troop landed in secret behind the enemy.  They got big and had their bows.  The Humanoids and Wolv became pincushions for Fairy arrows.  As she stomped across the field, Styphon, Antiphas, and Porocleon of Olympia saw and followed her.  Flaves arrived as the fairy troop got small and scattered, having seen the look on Ophelia’s face.  The anger of the gods is a terrible thing to behold.

Ophelia stopped, and made sure the Wolv were dead.  She noted that even with a half-dozen arrows in their backs, the Wolv still turned to attack, and only went down when another half dozen or more arrows struck their front.  Nicias, with a handful of Athenians and a few more Spartans jogged up when Ophelia got to examining the Humanoids.  She paused before she spoke, and then it was to Styphon, not Flaves.

“I want the Humanoid heads.  We will take them to Isthmia.”  Styphon and the others got right on that grisly job without question.  Ophelia looked at Flaves.  She knew Fairies were capable warriors in war and battle, but they would have been irreparably injured if forced to perform such a macabre task.  She turned to Nicias.

“We need to move out at dawn. Leave as many here as you need to care for the wounded, but I want to be in Isthmia before dark tomorrow, so we can end this”

Nicias nodded and began doling out orders.

###

Dawn in Corinth saw the Wolvs fire on the city walls.  They only had handguns, but they put some holes in the stone and shook the foundation. The Corinthians did panic a bit, but one Captain got mad enough to gather a company of like-minded soldiers. Lockhart, Decker, and Katie, who had gotten to the walls by then, all urged the man to not act like a fool. but he was determined.

“Stubborn and stupid,” Elder Stow called the man.  “I recognize the symptoms.  Gott-Druk are very good at stubborn and stupid.”

“A strong human trait,” Alexis agreed. “Homo Sapiens as well as Homo Neanderthal.”

“Yes, but we have long since mastered it.”

Decker got to one section of the wall and readied his rifle and scope.  Katie took a section far enough away to spread the Wolv fire.  On a field, they might catch the enemy in a crossfire.  Elder Stow stood about half-way between the two where he could relay words without using the watch communicators, which might be on a frequency the Humanoids could tap into; but he was not to do anything unless he caught sight of the Humanoid commanders.

When they were ready, forty men poured out of the Corinthian gate, and charged, shields up, swords at their sides, javelins in their free hand.  The Wolvs were close enough to the wall so the men had a chance to get there before they all got cut down with Wolv weapon-fire.  Plus, Decker and Katie fired from above, struck several Wolvs, and at least distracted most of the others.  Only a few Wolvs returned fire to the wall.

At the end of the engagement, forty Corinthians lay dead on the field, and about half of the Wolvs sustained injuries. Three got seriously injured. Three Wolvs died, mostly from bullets. But then Elder Stow caught sight of one of the Humanoids and fired, once.  A streak of power lit up the sky.  The humanoid, though not directly struck, melted, and the big, old oak beside him exploded into splinters.

The Wolvs began to pull back into a copse of trees.  No doubt, the two remaining Humanoids needed to consider this new development.  Katie looked content to let them do that, but Decker flipped his rifle to automatic.  He never got to fire on the Wolvs, however, because roughly two hundred dwarfs came seemingly out of nowhere and attacked, about six or eight dwarfs to each Wolv.

“Damn,” Lockhart said.  He stood by Elder Stow and watched through the binoculars.

“Oh, Bergeron is in big trouble,” Boston said, and grinned for the dwarfs.

“We better get down there,” Alexis said, foolishly thinking some of the Corinthians might still be alive and need her help.

The Corinthians were more than willing to let the travelers ride out, but there were no Corinthians left foolish enough to follow them.  It looked like a gruesome battle, with human, Wolv, and some dwarf pieces strewn all over the place.  Bergeron survived, though he had a cut in his arm.  He, and his dwarfs looked content, even if they were in trouble.

“The Lady is on her way to Isthmia. We need to meet her there,” Bergeron reported.  “She wants the Humanoid heads.”  A few quick dwarf-strikes with their axes and the heads got wrapped in fairy weave for transport.  The dwarfs remained stoic about their losses.  They were not going to show any emotion in front of the humans.  “Best get moving,” Bergeron said, and he went out front.  The travelers came behind him in silence.  Appalled by the events.  Most of the dwarfs marched behind the travelers, where even the most gregarious ones only whispered.

Avalon 6.8 Archidamian War’s End, part 3 of 6

Lockhart and Katie got down in front of the inn where the guard in the gate directed them.  At first, he was reluctant to let them into the city.  He asked which side they were on.  Lincoln stupidly said Persia, because it was the only coins they had, from back in Xanthia’s day.  Rajish certainly had no coins to give them.  But the old Persian coins were silver and gold, so the gate guard did not argue too much.  He directed them to an inn where they did not ask questions.  It did not appear to be in the best neighborhood.

“Boston, Sukki, Evan, and Millie, please stay with the horses,” Lockhart said.

“Alexis and I could stay,” Lincoln suggested.

“No mister Persia.  You need to come and keep your mouth closed.”

“Good thing we came through when we did,” Katie said.  “Not that many years ago, Persian coins would have gotten us in real trouble.”

Krack!

Lincoln looked at the door.  “That sounds like…” Decker, Katie, Lockhart, Alexis and Elder Stow all ran by him.  Even Boston raced ahead.  “…gunfire.” Lincoln followed.

The inn had a dining area, not necessarily expected.  A man lay on the floor, bleeding out.  A woman knelt beside him, weeping.  Three other men and one older woman looked on in horror.

“Alexis,” Katie called.  Alexis got down beside the man, and Lincoln got down with her.

“Who did this?” Lockhart asked the people, but they stood there with dumb looks on their faces.

Decker found the back door, but paused when Boston shouted from the window.  “It’s one of the outlaws.”  They heard a “Yip-yip,” and the sound of a horse ridden hard.  Decker had to grab Boston to prevent her from jumping out the window to pursue the horse on foot.  With some elf speed, she might have caught a horse hampered by city traffic, but then what would she do with the man?

“Come here,” Katie caught the old woman’s attention and brought her to a table.  “Tell me what happened.”

That seemed to shake the men free of their stupor.  They all began to spout at once.

“Decker.  Lockhart.  Help me get him up on the table,” Alexis insisted.  Lincoln had the weeping young woman in a hug, to comfort her.

“Careful, careful.”  They got him up.  “Decker, cut the dress off him to expose the wound.  You may have to hold him down.”  Alexis dug into the medical pack that she carried like a purse.  She pulled out a jar of something and checked for the green dot on the bottom before she managed to get some down the man’s throat.  He moaned, and the young woman wanted to go to him, but Lincoln would not let her go.

“Boston,” Lockhart said.  “Aren’t you supposed to be watching the horses?”

Boston shook her head.  “Alexis might need my magic, or to cauterize the wound or something.”

Alexis reached to the bottom of her pack and pulled out a long, thin knife, the one she got back after the necromancer turned to dust.  She said, “I had hoped I would never have to use this.”  Then she added, “I wish Doctor Mishka was here.  She is an actual doctor, and a surgeon with battlefield experience besides.  I’m just a registered nurse.”  She leaned over the man to cut into the wound, and added a word for whomever might be watching.  “We have to get the bullet out if we want him to heal.”

Elder Stow interrupted her.  He had the device with which he pulled out bullets before.  Alexis gladly put her knife away while Elder Stow passed his device over the wound many times.  It took a while, and Alexis interrupted several times to staunch the bleeding, but at last, the bullet came to the surface and came out of the wound.

Alexis had Boston put a hand on her shoulder, so she could draw on a touch of Boston’s fire magic.  Then she placed her hands gently on the wound and a golden glow filled the area.  Eventually, the wound closed up, and both Alexis and Boston took a deep breath.

Lockhart went to Katie where the old woman and the three men began to babble.  It took almost as long to get a straight story from them as it did for Alexis to perform her healing.

Meanwhile, outside, Sukki got impatient. She finally told Evan and Millie that she was just going to check, and she would be right back.  She no sooner stepped in the door when Millie got grabbed from behind.

“Don’t cry out,” the man said in English. He had a knife to Millie’s throat. “Billy, check him,” he said.

The young cowboy checked to make sure Evan had no weapons.  He took the knife Evan had been given, but then balked.  “I can’t frisk no lady.”

The other man rolled his eyes. “Come with us,” he said.

Evan stepped up beside Millie, and did not argue.  Instead, he asked a serious question.  “You are a red Indian?”

“Apache,” the man said.  “Though I had a French grandfather.  Juan Reynard, at your service.”

“I’m Billy Porter,” the young man said, with evident pride.  “Me and my brother Tom robbed every bank on the Rio Grande.  Maybe you heard of us.  The Porter brothers.”

“Sorry,” Evan said.  Millie shook her head as they came to a building across the way from the inn.  “But if I was home, I might look you up.”

“Where is home?” Reynard asked.

“The United States, 1905.”  He added the date, because the others showed him that not everyone came from the same year.

“1875,” Reynard said.  “Inside.”

They went in, and Millie spouted, “Nanette.”

“Yes, Millie.  Good to see you.  And Evan, you are looking well.”

“What is this about?” Evan asked, not concerned about propriety.

“Why so suspicious, or do you not trust a darkie?  But look. My palm is as white as any white woman. It is light and bright.  The back of my hand is dark.  See?  Light and dark.  Look at my hand.  Light and dark… Light and dark… Light and dark… Now, when I count to three, you will close your eyes.  Light and dark… One… two… three.”

Millie and Evan closed their eyes.

“You will not remember seeing me or talking to me, or seeing these cowboys.  But there is one thing you must do.”  She explained, that they must wait until the others were asleep and bring all of their weapons to her, but in the next time zone.  “Now, when I say go, I want you to return to your horses, and touch your horse.  When you touch your horse, you will wake, and remember nothing of our conversation, except you will remember to do your job in the next time zone.  Now, go.”  Millie and Evan turned and walked back to the horses.

“Why the next time zone?” Reynard asked.

“Because the space monsters have come into this place.  We will have to ride hard up the west coast to avoid them.”

“Maybe the space monsters will eat the travelers so we won’t have to worry about them,” Reynard suggested.

Nanette rolled her eyes and stepped up to Billy.  “Billy, you are not to bring me anyone’s weapons.  You will wake up, remember what was said here, and make a sound like a chicken.”  She slapped Billy.  “Wake up.”

Billy said, “Cluck, cluck.”

###

The travelers sat around the table, feasting.  Dionysios, the wounded man, stayed upstairs, resting, but Helene, his young wife stayed with the travelers, grateful for their saving her husband’s life.  The old woman who ran the inn loaded them up with food. These people had gold, and the war over the last ten years really hurt the business.

“Tell me, Helene.”  Millie spoke kindly.  “How old is your husband?”

“Dion is thirty-six, but he is such a nice man.”

“My age, poor fellow,” Decker said, to everyone’s surprise.  “And how old are you?”  He asked in a way that suggested the answer meant nothing to him, personally.

“How old do I look to you?”

Decker shrugged. “Twenty-one?”  Helene smiled at the answer.

“Not more than eighteen,” Lockhart tried, and Katie tugged on his sleeve to quiet him.

Helene lifted her chin in pride. “I am just sixteen, but that is more than old enough to be a good wife, and young enough to have many children.”

“Start with one,” Alexis suggested. “Then see how you feel about it.”

“You should listen to my wife,” Lincoln said.  “She is old and wise.  Me? I’m sixty-eight, though I don’t feel a day over thirty.  Maybe twenty-eight.  She is much older than I am.”

“How could that be?” Helene scoffed. “She can’t be older than twenty-four. Maybe twenty-one as the Egyptian said.

“Last I counted, she is two hundred and thirty-eight years old.”

Alexis slapped Lincoln’s arm for telling, even as Decker spoke up again.  “So, I am an Egyptian now?  Good to know.”

“You’re not?” Helene looked surprised. “I thought all dark-skinned men were Egyptians.”

Decker got ready to explain, but stopped when Boston stood and knocked over her chair.  “You might as well show yourselves.  Do you have word from Ophelia?”

Bergeron the dwarf and two other dwarfs with him dropped their glamour of invisibility.  Bergeron introduced himself, said he knew who they were, and said, “Yes and no.  You see, it is like this, Miss Boston.  An alien transport landed up the coast in the village of Isthmia, and right now you got three Humanoids and twenty Wolv looking over the city walls, and the Lady won’t let us get in between.  We been watching these humans fight each other for ten years, and the lady would not let us help, even when she got taken captive and spent the last four years in prison.  Well, I got buckets full of dwarfs that are just itching for a fight, but the lady says the humans have to fight their own fights.”

“I’m human,” Decker said, and reached for his rifle, which was never out of reach.

“I was hoping you would say that,” Bergeron said.  “We wouldn’t have to fight, just sort of protect the women folk, if you know what I mean.”

“What do you mean?” Lincoln asked.

“I mean if the women are in danger, we might have to attack the Wolvs, just defensively, you know.”

Boston grinned.  Katie spoke.  “Your logic is so flawed, I don’t know where to begin.”

“Thank you, Captain.”  Bergeron tipped his helmet.  “I take that as a great compliment.”

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

MONDAY

The groups clash and try to find a solution that does not cost too much blood…

Until then, Happy Reading.

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