Avalon 6.12 The Road Ahead, part 3 of 5

Things did not go quite as smoothly as Meng Shi presented it to the captain.  Wang Jian refused to see him and sent word that if he discovered Meng Shi was in any way responsible for the ruin of the magic powder, Meng Shi’s life would be forfeit.

Meng Shi slowly led the travelers down the line, and found the body of young Billy Porter.  Boston cried.  She said she liked Billy.  Millie offered her thought.

“He was not just young, and innocent in a way. He was simple.  The kind of young man that might have benefited from some institutional help.”

No one said a hundred years after Millie lived, they got rid of those kinds of institutions.  Society no longer liked institutionalizing people, not to mention the expense.  Sadly, the result was such people, instead of being helped, they got discarded—basically, thrown away.  They often ended up homeless and living on the street.

They buried Billy right away, just before Alexis found one last barrel of unexploded gunpowder.  The soldiers driving the wagon became surprised when a giant gust of localized wind knocked that heavy barrel right off the wagon. It hit a rock and split wide open. It dumped more powder after the travelers got finished examining the evidence.  Then it seemed to set itself on fire.  No one could explain that.  It was not even near a campfire.  People ran away. but this time, it did not goBoom. It made something like a big Poof, and that was it.

Meng Wu only saw Meng Shi because they were related, but he said plainly that Meng Shi had to have something to do with the disaster.

“The famine is not an answer,” Meng Wu said, once he stopped yelling.  “Tell King Zheng he will have to do something better to break this stalemate.”

Meng Shi nodded.  “I will send word. Right now, I have to get back to Meng Yi in Anyi.  That is a stubborn, reluctant city, and your son Yi is still young and inexperienced.”

“I have every confidence in my boys,” Meng Wu said, and lifted his hand to the shoulder of his elder son, Tien. Tien at least had the kindness to wave good-bye.

###

Meng Shi and the travelers moved quickly from the Qin camp before Wang Jian changed his mind and the questions became too pointed.  They took Billy Porter’s horse, saddle, and guns.  Nothing from the future got left behind in the Qin camp.  It took a week from there to reach the city of Anyi, even traveling mostly on roads of a sort.  Meng Shi stayed quiet most of the way, but he did tell the travelers a couple of things.

“King Zheng will eventually conquer all of the other warring states and establish the Qin dynasty as the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang-Di.”

“I’ve seen it mostly written Qin Shi Huang,” Katie said.  “Without the Di.”

“That is because he styled himself as a god-like king.  That is not a god-king, like in the Middle East or among some of the crazier Roman emperors.  He isn’t looking for the people to worship him, necessarily.  But he wants to be honored and revered, and his name to carry weight even in distant lands.  And he will not permit his decisions to be questioned.  The thing is, the people that come after him do not venerate him in that way.  His rule is rather harsh and cruel.  So mostly, they drop the god-connection.”

“Just as well,” Decker said.

“But he will succeed?” Millie said, like a question.

Meng Shi nodded.  “I have seen that level of intense, single-minded ambition a few times over my many lifetimes.  Alexander was that way.  Caesar, though he isn’t born yet.  Patton, mostly.  The thing is, King Zheng doesn’t need gunpowder added to the mix.”

“Gunpowder was a Chinese invention,” Evan pointed out.

“Yes, but not for another thousand years,” Meng Shi countered.

###

The next day, Katie woke up with a serious thought.  “I’m confused.  The way it was explained to me, you always have one or more future lives you remember, for example, you remember the twenty-first century where we come from. But the immediate future is unknown to you., or so you claim.  I have heard you say, the next hundred years are a mystery, because they are just now in the process of being written.”

“Your question?”

Katie took a moment to frame the question, and the people around the fire waited patiently.  “Qin Shi Huang will conquer the warring states, as you say.  If I did not know the history, exactly, I could read it in Lincoln’s database.  But that will happen in the next ten years or so, which is far less than the hundred years you say is a mystery to you.  How is it you know this?”

Meng Shi understood.  “Two reasons,” he said, and then framed his own thoughts. “First, I think by the grace of God, I always seem to know what does not belong in the time I am living, like gunpowder. Such things stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, and I get the overwhelming urge to do something about it.  Normally, I understand I am the only one who can do something about it.”

“Like, knowing us when we show up?” Boston said, putting it together in her own mind. “You always know us right away, because we don’t belong in this time period.”

Meng Shi agreed.  “Like knowing you.”  He smiled for Boston, and she returned the same.  “At whatever point in my life you find me, I remember who you are and what you are attempting to do.  I remember the time gates around this time zone; things I normally don’t know about, or at least have no reason to think about.  I remember some of your past journey, and some of your future, which I am not at liberty to talk about, and I remember the twentieth and twenty-first centuries which is your home.  Of course, after you leave, it becomes like real memory.  I remember you being here, and whatever time I spent with you, but I believe the deep past and future memories mostly fade, unless there is some reason to remember.”

“Okay,” Katie said.  “But that does not explain how you know about Qin Shi Huang. As I understand it, he does not take that name until after he finishes his conquests, ten years from now.”

Meng Shi sighed, like he did not really want to talk about it.  “Well, first, when something odd, like gunpowder shows up, I generally get glimpses of the broader picture surrounding the issue.  Maybe the best way I can explain it is I get like two competing visions of the immediate future.  I see one that feels right, even if King Zheng would not have been my pick to win the battle of the states.  Then, I see a vision with gunpowder, and eventually guns, and that feels terribly wrong. That is why I know I have to do something about the gunpowder, for example.”

“And the second reason?”  Katie asked.  “You said there were two reasons.”

Meng Shi frowned and stood.  “Sometimes, when I near the end of the life I am living, I glimpse some of the future, both of the life I am currently living, when work is unfinished, and some inkling of the life to come.”  He stepped away from the fire and toward his horse, and mumbled. “I feel I may be a woman next time. I will have to ask my wife about that.”

###

No one dared ask Meng Shi what he meant about the end of his life until two days later at supper.  Lincoln said Meng Shi could not be over forty. “Thirty-eight or so.  I read the years in the database and did the math.

“Forty is plenty old for this day and age,” Meng Shi countered.  “But I know what you mean.  Still, I am not immune from diseases or accidents.”

“Maybe you will die in battle,” Decker said.

Meng Shi appeared to think about it, but ended up shaking his head, no.  “Not battle, but I sense violence.”

Lockhart added what had been on his mind. “You said even without gunpowder, your king will conquer the other kingdoms in this land.  Some connection to all that fighting would be a reasonable guess.”

“Stop being morbid,” Alexis complained. “You are talking about the man’s death.”

“I am certain King Zheng will find a way to win,” Meng Shi said.  “But I won’t be there to see it.”

“Why do you feel that way?” Alexis asked for his opinion, and people sat up to pay close attention.

“It is complicated.  There is a servant of the masters in the capitol. He is introducing germ warfare. He is growing bacteria—some disease.”

“Any idea what?” Alexis the nurse asked.

“Plague of some kind, you can be sure. But what is worse, he has captured the ear of the king with talk about being alive two thousand years in the future. Now, you know, like me, he will die and be reborn in the future… This is complicated.”

“Who are the Masters?” Millie asked.

“Demons from Hell,” Meng Shi answered, but he grinned.  “No.  Mostly I refer to them as the enemy from the future. I assume some people in the far future don’t like the way things turned out and are determined to change history. Somehow, they know about my many lifetimes, and figured out a way to give a future life to various people scattered throughout history.  These servants of the Masters then train and teach the future life, to give the skill necessary to accomplish certain tasks in the past life, as the two lives link in time and information gets shared between the two lifetimes.”

“Like what?” Millie asked.

“Like assassination, or developing some plague.  Early gunpowder, guns, and weapons of mass destruction is something that the Masters are usually involved with.  And it is all for the purpose of changing history, to make it turn out more the way they want.”

“So, there are people who have another life in history after all,” Katie said.

“And not all servants of the Masters. My own friends in the future, as I sometimes call them, have similarly given a second life, or even a third life to some people who have been a tremendous help at certain critical points in history.  There is, however, a limit on how many times a person can be reborn in that way.  I manage almost a hundred and fifty lifetimes, because there are no great gaps between lives.  At least, I don’t think so.  Also, when I was made, I had all the genetic material for a man and a woman, but all jumbled up in one person, me.  The ancient god, Cronos, figured out how to make that work, so I could be born.  Fortunately, my friends in the future that took over the work decided it would work better if I took turns, more or less, between male and female. I think being both makes me more of a complete person, like the first Adam before the woman and man became separated.  As long as I stay more or less balanced between male and female, like the two sides of the same coin, I might be reborn forever.  God, I hope not.  But for most one-sided people, too many times in a row as the same sex, and a person becomes mentally unhinged, among other things.”

“That would not be good,” Boston said.

Meng Shi shook his head.  “I think Rasputin was his seventh rebirth, and he was loony as a dodo.

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

MONDAY

The gunpowder factory needs to be shut down, and the cowboy-outlaws need to be stopped.  Monday.  Until then, Happy Reading.

*

Avalon 6.12 The Road Ahead, part 2 of 5

Alexis asked one question in the morning. “When was the last time we were in China?”

Lincoln looked it up and rattled off the answer.  “We were in Tibet about three hundred years ago.  But Rajish came from India, so that might not count.  China proper, at least on the Wei River, we found Shang Feyan in the days when the Zhou overthrew the Shang.  That was more than seven hundred years ago.  Before that was Yu Huang in the sacred mountain, after the Shang took over from the Hsia. Then Lin—Chin Shao Lin, founder of the Hsia Dynasty, and before that, Nuwa.”  He stopped.

“How long ago was Nuwa?” Katie wondered.

“About twenty-five hundred and maybe forty years ago.  Call it twenty-five fifty.”

“I remember the hoopers,” Lockhart said.

Decker let out a small, “Haw”.

“Nuwa is my friend,” Boston said. “The dragon, I mean.  I love my goddess.”

Jing Ke swallowed his breakfast and got that old look on his face.  “You know Nuwa?”

“We met,” Katie said.  “She traveled with us for a few days, but she was very busy.  The sky fell, you know.”

“She certainly knows us,” Lockhart added, and felt the nudge which he was learning was wife-speak for shut-up.

Jing Ke looked at the woods and the horses.  “There is a mountain,” he said. “It is not far from Handan.  They say it is the place where Nuwa fixed the sky.”

“She made the Pendratti and Sevarese go away in their space ships and reestablished Earth as a no-fly zone,” Lincoln told Evan and Millie, and he supposed Sukki, too.  Jing Ke shook his head, like maybe Lincoln said that in French, for all he understood.

“Pack it up.  Get the horses.  Time to move.”  Lockhart got up and changed the subject.

Boston had one thing to add before she rode out ahead.  “You know, we’ve been in this time zone ten whole days, and nobody has yet tried to kill us, or anything.”

“Boston!”  Alexis yelled at her, but it was too late.  Sure enough, they did not get out of the woods before they became surrounded by a hundred soldiers.

The travelers had to get down and walk their horses, under escort, with soldiers on both sides.  When they came out of the woods, they saw a great wall and two forts, one near and one barely discernable in the distance.  It was not a great wall of China wall, but it looked like a serious obstacle for any opposing army that carried only swords and spears.  That opposing army appeared spread out in tents that stretched to the horizon.  The Zhao army had their own tents behind the wall, where the travelers walked.  Jing Ke dared to speak to Lockhart, and Katie while they walked.

“Li Mu took the year of the earthquake and the year of famine to build his fortifications.  I understand he used every natural resource in the landscape he could, like rivers, mountains, and forests.  He did not dare spread his men too thin, but patrols, like this one, keep a watch on all ways.”

Lockhart understood, but Katie added her own thought.  “Thermopylae is a natural choke point.  Three hundred Spartans can hold it, as long as the enemy does not discover the secret path over the mountains.”

An hour later, they entered the fort and left their horses on the ground. Decker had his binoculars and the scope for his rifle.  Lockhart grabbed the other pair of binoculars and Katie got her scope, and they climbed up to the wall, now seriously guarded.  They left all their knives with the horses, but they took the handguns, plus Decker and Katie carried their rifles.  Lockhart slipped the shotgun on his shoulder, and they climbed the stairs.

The travelers got stopped not far down the wall, as the captain stepped forward.  He whispered to one of the middle-aged men, and stood back.  An older man stood there leaning on a cane, not due to his age, but seemingly from a wound that appeared mostly healed.  A third man, maybe forty or so, continued to look out on the enemy, but the first two turned on the travelers.  The middle-aged man spoke.

“If you are spies sent by the Qin to test our defenses, speak plainly.  You have been caught.  You will be locked away, but at least you will not be tortured.”  He paused, and took a closer look at the group.  “You are strange looking people.  What are they growing in Qin?”

“We are not spies,” Lockhart responded calmly.  “We are not native to any of the lands here.  We are travelers who have come a long way and still have a long way to go.”

The middle-aged man prepared to speak again, but Jing Ke stepped forward and interrupted.  “I am Jing Ke, servant of King Xi of Yan.  We left Yan ten days ago to come to you.  Yan has no army to send at this time, but I have been instructed to see if there may be other ways we may provide for your relief.  I was told to speak to Guo Kai, to see if there is some way, in my king’s name, I can help find a path to peace.”

The old man laughed, and the middle-aged one growled.  “Twice, now, in the same day I have been presented with words impossible to verify. This one speaks of a magic powder in the hands of the Qin that will make holes in our wall.  And now, you say you have been sent from Yan to speak of peace. Are all of you from Yan?  I have never seen yellow hair before.”

“Not much of a spy,” Alexis said softly to Jing Ke.  He responded, like it did not matter.

“I have watched you in these past ten days and heard you speak openly and honestly about things no one on this earth could possibly know.  But I believe you, and I have learned that sometimes honesty can get more of the truth of the matter than subterfuge will ever know.  My king can do little right now, but he genuinely wants to help.  It may be for selfish reasons, to put off the invasion of his own land for as long as possible, but what difference does that make if I can help.  Maybe I can find that elusive path to peace.  Who can say?”

“Wait.  There is more.  Let me show you,” The third man said as he turned at last to face the group.  “Lockhart, lend me the binoculars,” he said, before he opened his arms and said, “Boston.”

Boston had a man holding her arm and holding a sword by her side.  Boston slipped from the arm and raced into the hug before that man could otherwise move. The man who spoke, clearly, the Kairos Meng Shi, removed Boston’s glamour so she stood there in all her elfish glory.

“Now I feel kinda naked,” she said.

“Hush,” Meng Shi said.  “Tell me what you see.  I am looking for barrels of black powder.  I followed one of the outlaws, and a whole troop of wagons to this place, but lost them in the camp.  I am sure they have brought them to Wang Jian and my cousin, Meng Wu.  I am sure it is only a matter of time before they bring them forward and boom, no more wall.”

The old man laughed again on seeing the elf, but the middle-aged man found his voice after his initial shock. “That would be a disaster.  They have twice our number.  We are barely able to hold this strong defensive position.”

Meng Shi introduced the other two men. “Li Mu, general in charge, and my laughing friend is his assistant, general Sima Shang.  Sima Shang has the defense against the south and came up here for a strategy session.”

Katie and Decker already started looking through their scopes.  Elder Stow also got his goggles, and the soldiers backed off a little, but stayed ready.

“Li Mu.  I am honored,” Jing Ke said, and made an appropriate bow.  “These travelers have been sent by the gods. You have heard the demon guardian from the burning court of Diyu speak.  They have all been empowered by the gods to find the three evil ones making the magic powder, and stop them, by sending them back to the land of torment.”

On the mention of the Chinese hell, the guards took another step back.  One looked ready to run, but his fellow guards held him in place.

Lockhart handed Meng Shi the glasses and spoke on the strategy meeting.  “If they break through the wall, no strategy meeting will help much. You will mostly have screaming and panic.”

“There,” Lincoln shouted and pointed. “One of the cowboys.”

Meng Shi tried to look where Lincoln looked.  He said, “Elder Stow.  Can you scan the line there and see where they may have brought up the barrels of powder?”

“Of course,” he said, and removed his goggles to give them to Evan.  He pulled out his scanner, and shortly projected a holographic image of the line, with yellow dots indicating where the gunpowder barrels stood, several together, in several locations down the line.

“I would say they are preparing to move,” Decker said.

“Definitely,” Katie confirmed his assessment.

“Quick,” Meng Shi moved down the wall toward the travelers.  “Elder Stow, your sonic device.”  He held out his hand and Elder Stow handed over the device before he thought about it. Meng Shi turned up the device to full power, and pointed it at the line.  It would drain fast, but he hoped it would do the trick.  “Hold your ears,” he said, and let it rip.  People shouted, screamed, and threw their hands up to cover their ears.  A few fell to roll on the ground in agony.  One by one, the stacks of powder exploded, as Meng Shi turned the device to point at each stack that showed on Elder Stow’s projection.  Even with the naked eye, they saw men, animals, tents, campfires, and everything else, including bushes and trees get tossed and broken.  They heard the thunder and saw the tremendous plumes of fire and smoke rise up into the sky.

Then the screeching whine stopped as suddenly as it started, and Meng Shi said, “We need to get down there and make sure they all got destroyed.”

Li Mu, who grabbed the edge of the wall and left his mouth hanging open, turned quickly and said, “Wait.”

Meng Shi responded before the general could form a clear thought.  “What? Are you going to go there and make sure they all got destroyed?  You going to send your army?”

Li Mu took a step back and waved him off. “No.  I understand.”

“You’re welcome,” Meng Shi said, and guided the others to the stairs

“Take my horse,” Jing Ke shouted.

“No,” Meng Shi shouted back.  “Your horse blanket proves you are from Yen. Li Mu has horses below, including the one I came on.  If I can’t find mine, I’ll take one of his.  Call it an even exchange.”

Li Mu nodded and waved for the Captain to get Meng Shi a horse.

When the captain caught up, he said, “But aren’t you afraid they will kill you for destroying their surprise and killing so many?”

“I did what?”  Meng Shi smiled while men prepared his horse and the travelers got ready to ride.  “Li Mu turned down my proposal, that since the famine last year, his food stores must be running low, so Wang Jian would graciously accept an honorable surrender.”

“But no,” the captain said.  “The spring crops were good and the summer harvest looks to be bountiful.”

“Do, you see?  I got turned down and I prepared to leave, when I found my friends, here, captured by a hundred of Zhao’s finest.  Suddenly, everything began to blow up, and we raced to safety in all the confusion.”

Meng Shi mounted and the captain hurried them out the gate.

Avalon 6.12 The Road Ahead, part 1 of 5

After 267 BC, Qin. Kairos lifetime 84: Meng Shi and the First Emperor.

Recording …

Lockhart and Katie led the travelers away from the oppressive heat of the forges under Mount Etna, and into a pleasant garden of flowers and flowering trees.  Several buildings, haphazardly placed here and there around the garden, looked oriental in the extreme.  Katie chided herself for not remembering.  Katie’s blonde locks and Major Decker’s African appearance aside, at least Boston, Sukki, and Elder Stow could adjust the glamours they wore to appear more oriental.  Alexis could produce a glamour for herself as well.

As they stepped into the wonderfully fragrant garden, they startled many young women, who screamed and ran to the buildings.  Men screamed as well, but Katie imagined they were the eunuchs that watched over the concubines of whatever great house they invaded.  Katie at least got a good look at the clothing of these women, and changed her fairy weave clothes into a more modest replica of what she saw.  She nudged Lockhart, but he seemed too busy staring.

“It was bound to happen, eventually,” he said, quietly.  “We can’t expect the time gate to always be hidden behind a tree.”

Katie nodded, and as the others came through, she made sure they made the proper adjustments in their appearance.

Boston and Sukki led their horses, Honey and Freedom.  Boston helped Sukki adjust her glamour.  Alexis, Lincoln, Millie, and Evan came together, and Alexis immediately helped the others do what they could with their clothing.  Dog followed them, bringing the wagon behind.

Decker and Elder Stow came last, leading their horses.  Elder Stow made quick adjustments in his look, but Decker made the rest of the people in that garden scream louder and cover their faces.  Decker thought it a good idea to check his rifle, but he had no interest in changing out of his camouflage fatigues.

The travelers did not have to wait long. Three men came to greet them. One, middle aged, stared, open jawed. He winced on seeing Decker, and mumbled something about demons of the gods.  The elderly one got down on his face and prostrated himself.  The young one in the middle spoke, kindly, though carefully.

“Welcome to Ji and the court of King Xi, my father.  I am Prince Dan of Yan.”  He bowed slightly before he continued.  “The one beside me is Jing Ke, one who works for my father in many special ways.  The old man at your feet is Ju Wu, my father’s most trusted counselor.”  He paused before he apologized.  “I am sorry my father is not here to greet you himself.”

“Quite all right,” Lockhart said. “We are pleased to meet you. Please tell Wu Ju to stand.  We are not gods.”

“Ju Wu,” Katie corrected, and added, “But we are friends with many of the gods, and would like to be your friends, too.” She gave it her friendliest smile.

Lockhart looked at her, but did not question her sixth sense about such things.  “I am Lockhart, and my wife is Katie.”  Lockhart tried to match Katie’s smile, but Prince Dan looked up at the giant in front of him and swallowed.  He repeated Lockhart’s name with no problem, but turned Katie’s name into two names, Kay-Di, which made Katie sigh before she shrugged.  Di would indicate a clear connection to the gods, like their friend, Tien Shang-Di, the high god of the heavens.

Ju Wu did stand, though he trembled a bit, as Lockhart introduced the rest of the group.  When he got to Boston, she appeared to be focused on conferring with Lincoln.  She had out her amulet, and Lincoln had out the database.  Lockhart tried not to yell.  “Boston, your horse is eating the flowers.”

“Honey!”  Boston did yell, and went to fetch her animal.  “Sorry, boss.”

“We have a long journey ahead of us,” Katie said, to continue the conversation.  “But we thought it only right to pay our respects to the king of the land we are traveling through.”

Katie had no idea what might have gone through Prince Dan’s head, but he suddenly returned their smile and confessed, quietly.  “Right now, my father is hiding with the women.”

“I don’t blame him,” Katie said.  “It must have been shocking to see us appear out of thin air like that.”

“Indeed,” Ju Wu found his voice. “And where have you come from?”

“Most recently, from a land of fire under a mountain,” Lockhart said, honestly.

“I felt the heat,” Prince Dan said, softly, and Lockhart turned his head.  The time gate opened when they went through, and the heat radiated into this place. But now that they were not moving through the gate, it seemed to have closed up, or deactivated, or whatever it did to keep ordinary time-locked folks from stumbling through.

Katie took up the telling.  “We came from more than four thousand years ago, and have more than two thousand years still to travel, helped by the gods, as you saw.”

“Boston?”  Lockhart spoke only her name.

“We checked against the map in the database.  The Kairos appears to be outside a city.  Anyi, we think.  He may have a home there, but my guess is he is moving toward us.  Lincoln guessed we will meet him in Handan.  That looks like Zhao territory.”

“Your friend?” Prince Dan asked.

“The Kairos, one counted among the gods,” Katie said.  Katie felt the need to play up the god hand as a way to insure their safety.  Her instincts proved accurate when the third man, Jing Ke, spoke loud and clear.

“You carry weapons and ride horses like the three evil ones who came here two months ago.  They killed my friend, Li Ao, and now, have you come to finish the job?”

The travelers looked surprised and did not know what to say until Decker spoke up.  “They are outlaws.  We have come to find them and stop them.”

“The gods will judge,” Prince Dan spoke to Jing Ke.

Ju Wu had another thought, and he sounded very surprised.  “Your demon guardian speaks?”

Lockhart looked back.  “Demon guardian?”  He grinned.

Decker shrugged.  “I can live with that.”

Evan stepped up.  “We have several assignments, and things the gods have asked of us. But, you know about special assignments for the king, don’t you Jing Ke?” Jing Ke appeared to understand very well, and as he considered it, Evan turned to Katie.  “Lincoln let me read some about this time period from the database.”

Katie nodded.

When they finally got to meet the king, the minister Ju Wu told a fanciful tale to introduce them.  They were sent by the gods to capture the outlaws and drag them back to Diyu, the Chinese Hell, where they belong.  In fact, the travelers just came from the burning court of Diyu, where they picked up their demon guardian, and now are on the hunt. The king was pleased to know the three evil ones would get their just reward, but he became more afraid than ever. The travelers spent the night, but in the morning, they all got horses with the hope that they would be out of Yan territory as soon as possible.

Prince Dan went with them three days, to the edge of Zhao territory, where he added some silver to the purse they carried.  Jing Ke accompanied them ten days, all the way to Handan, the capitol of Zhao, which appeared to be under siege by the armies of Qin.

“I have been charged to spy on the generals Sima Shang and Li Mu of Zhao,” Jing Ke said, frankly.  Jing Ke seemed an affable fellow, once he got to know the travelers a little.

“Slick as a used car salesman,” Lincoln described him.

Jing Ke, now more relaxed in the presence of the travelers, finally told more of the real story of the outlaws, as they sat around the evening fire, in a small clearing in the woods.

“Two of them came through just outside the city almost three months ago.  They killed Li Ao with their magic weapons, their “gunds”, and fled to the south, where I hear they joined with King Zheng of the Qin and promised to make some magic powder.  The third came to just south of Ji about a month ago.  The king sent a troop of soldiers to catch him, but his horse proved too fast and strong to catch.”

“So, the three are together,” Lockhart concluded.

Jing Ke nodded, and added some thoughts. “King Xi has sent me to check on the Zhao.  The Qin have already conquered Hann.  If Zhao falls, the king fears Yan may be next.  I know Li Mu, the Zhao general, has built and strengthened the great wall, and built fortifications to hold off the Qin, but will it be enough?”

“He won’t fight?” Lockhart asked.

Jing Ke shifted in his seat.  “Li Mu beat the Qin in battle once.  He is about the only general to do so, but his losses were so great, he believes he only has enough army left to defend the capitol.  Two years ago, the ground shook in Zhao.  We felt it in Yan, 1000 li from Handan.  Smaller shakes in the earth followed, and many died, as houses and whole villages collapsed. People rebuilt, but then in this last year, floods came where there had been no floods, and the earth dried in places where rivers and streams used to run.  The crops were not many.  More people died of hunger.”

“Sounds like the general has limited resources,” Decker said.

Jing Ke agreed.  “The Qin sent two armies, not just one.  They came, one from the north and one from the south. The Zhao, under Li Mu have fortified the ways, and the Qin have become frustrated, unable to break through.  Whether they are frustrated enough to turn around and go home, who can say?  The ministers are talking.  I believe ministers are born talking.  It does not necessarily mean anything.  I suppose they may find a path to peace, but I believe King Zheng of Qin does not want peace.”

“It sounds like you already understand the situation very well,” Katie said.

Jing Ke agreed again.  “But I will look and report to my king what I find.  Li Mu may make the taking of Zhao too expensive, so the Qin may reconsider and go elsewhere for a while.  Like to Wei or Chu.  That may give Yan time to make alliances and build our own formidable army. Who can say?  That is the future.”

Things wound down, and people got plenty of sleep that night.  When they got up the next morning, they stayed mostly quiet.  They had some very strong morning tea, and Lockhart said thank you before he mumbled, “It still isn’t coffee.”