Avalon 7.9 The Inns and Outs, part 2 of 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t fly at all,” Boston grumped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deacon Galarius tried to smile and swallowed.

Avalon 7.4 People in the Middle, part 5 of 6

Lydia and her Romans got to Bactra before the Travelers and Zhang She’s slow moving train.  They had a meeting before entering the town and opted to remain disguised as Greco-Syrian merchants with hired mercenaries to guard the goods.  The Roman armor and weapons filled two of the wagons, covered over by tarps.

The Romans made their way to a field beside the marketplace where caravans regularly came and rested.  Of course, in town, they dared not make an identifiable Roman camp, but David-Marcus set guards through the night, just in case.  They did not expect trouble, but all the same, in the dead of the night, Lydia woke.

She kissed David’s cheek.  He mumbled and turned on his side, as she rose from her bed and slipped into her dress.  She stepped out by the well-kept fire and found Varina sitting, staring at the flames.  Lydia turned her head at the distant sound of a howl.  It sounded human, and not human at the same time.  She felt the chill in the air and put her hands toward the fire as she sat.  One of the night guards walked past before Varina spoke.

“The gods have gone away.  The demons are out of the pit, and the children are afraid in their beds,” she said. “The rulers are pretending that nothing is happening, but the people know better.  Some have fallen to the seductive darkness and become possessed with evil.  Some have been killed.”  Lydia looked up when she heard another howl.  Varina looked at Lydia.  “You may rest safe, mistress.  The demons will not come here.”

Lydia nodded and got up to step into the tent; but she only went to fetch something she could wear as a shawl against the chill in the night.

Bactra got one or two caravans per week, and most were headed for more distant locations, so the Romans hoped to hide and rest for a few days without revealing themselves.  That plan did not work, of course.

On that first full morning, Kushan soldiers came into the marketplace and expected them to offer gifts to the king.  That happened in several places, and Tribune Valerion began to fear they would arrive at the Han capitol with nothing to show for it.

“A token of respect,” Lydia suggested.  “A rug.  Some more glass beads.  And a small bag of gold and silver coins should do it.  Just make sure there are no coins that might be identified as Roman coins.”

In front of the king, Shehan spoke in Aramaic with David and Aritides.  They avoided speaking in Greek which would certainly be understood.  They absolutely avoided any words in Latin, and that was why Valerion did not go with them.  Valerion did Latin and Greek, but he stumbled on Aramaic.  They spoke casually, like men who did not expect anyone to understand them.  But their words were carefully planned, assuming that even in Aramaic, someone would understand and later translate for the king.

“We are poor merchants from Syria and Armenia who had to spend too much of our money on cheap mercenaries to guard us in the wilderness.  We are not rich Parthians who come bearing gifts for kings.  We hope only to reach Kashgar and find a merchant of the Han who may have precious silk for us to carry into the west.  That would make this trip worthwhile and help feed and care for our families when we return.  We have traveled for one hundred and fifty days and are dusty and weary.  We will travel a whole year before we reach home again.  Presently, we are grateful to the Bactrian people, to the Lords of the Kush, and to the king of this wonderful city for providing a place to rest in our journey, and we are glad to offer a token of our gratitude.  The rug, soft for your feet, has golden threads woven into the fabric by the lovely women of Armenia.  The glass beads and jar are from Syria, made with great care under the searing heat of the desert sun.  And let us humbly share a fair bit of the gold and silver, what little we have, with which we hope to buy the silk to bring to our home.  Perhaps, if we are successful, on our return, the king might accept a roll of silk for the kindness you have shown us.”

The king was in a good mood that day, and said he appreciated the gifts and wished them well.  It was always touch and go in such situations.  One king in a bad mood, and they might lose everything.  Then again, kings sometimes offered gifts in return, so it became more of an even exchange.  The king of Bactra offered nothing, so he could not have been in that good a mood.

The next day, the travelers with Zhang She came into town.  The Romans needed to make room in the field, but it was not too bad.  Two caravans at once was not normal, but not that unusual.  A third might be a tight squeeze.

Boston wanted to run off and find Lydia right away, but Lockhart made her, and everyone else, bring the horses and Ghost with the wagon to a secure place.  Then he insisted they make camp before they ran off shopping.

“Hey!” Alexis protested the obvious sexist comment.

“Not a bad idea, actually,” Katie said.  “I haven’t been shopping in a long time.”

“Might be fun,” Nanette agreed.

“Can I go now?” Boston whined, like a teenager, and Sukki giggled.

“Yes, you can go,” Katie said, but when Boston turned to run off, she saw two women already standing there.  The trouble was, Boston did not know which one was Lydia.

“Hello, Boston, dear,” Varina said, and Boston ran to her but stopped short.  Varina was a goddess, but not her goddess.

Boston lowered her eyes and heard clearly in her head, “Don’t say it out loud.”  She looked up and saw Lydia had her arms open.  She rushed into the hug.

“You almost fooled me,” she said.

“I said it would not work,” Varina admitted.

Lydia said nothing.  She gave Sukki a much-appreciated hug, and then introduced her followers.  “Varina takes care of me in this wild land.  My husband, David-Marcus, is with Tribune Valerion, the Decurio, Aritides, and Shehan the merchant chief meeting the Han, with Crumbles the imp-head to interpret.”

Lincoln, Decker, Tony, and Elder Stow walked up to hear what the women were saying, and to watch the two men with them.

“David insisted I be escorted by these soldiers around the strange looking men.  Tobias is the Staff Sergeant or Master Sergeant of the company.  Jonathan is the signifier, which is the standard bearer, and he doubles as paymaster.”

“Good to meet you,” Lincoln said, and introduced the travelers.  Only Jonathan had something to say, and it got directed to Boston.

“I love your red hair.  Are you Gaelic?”

Boston looked at the man, and his smile, and said, “I’m an elf and married.  Sorry.”

Avalon 7.4 People in the Middle, part 3 of 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, Psst,” Crumbles said.

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

“Sorry to interrupt,” Bogtan said.

“Yeah, sorry,” Crumbles echoed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did he tell them?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“You speak Scythian?” Aritides asked.

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

“Your wife?”

David-Marcus nodded, and grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

Avalon 7.3 Down to Egypt, part 6 of 6

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

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

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

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

“So, what now?” Lincoln asked.

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

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

Lockhart stepped forward.  “Yes,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

Lockhart only asked, “Who was that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lincoln spoke.  “Land of Goshen.”

“Land a Goshen,” Decker corrected.

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

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

MONDAY

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

*

Avalon 7.3 Down to Egypt, part 5 of 6

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

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

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

“Invisible, mostly,” Decker said.

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

“They seem to be gathering,” Decker noticed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

“Are you ready?” Elder Stow sounded impatient.

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

“Where did that gnome go?” Decker asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Katie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avalon 7.3 Down to Egypt, part 4 of 6

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

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

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

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

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

“Decker!” Boston scolded him.

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

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

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

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

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

“Boston?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Princess approved.  I checked.”

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

Decker spit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And that is why we need a distraction.”

M3 Gerraint: Revived Romans, part 3 of 3

They found plenty of lumber around the edge of the woods.  It proved easy to find some good pieces for a splint.  On finding some rope in his things, Gerraint remarked that Luckless had a way of thinking of everything.  He tore up Menw’s cloak to tie the splint.  Menw just stared and made no objection.  With the rope, he made a travois and carried the still dazed Lionel to where he could tie down both the man and the leg.

“Bedivere.”  Gerraint called out.  The young man came, his arm in a sling.  “You ride this horse.”  Gerraint said.  “You feel the bump in your arm, slow down or go around because Lionel will feel it ten times worse.

“Yes, majesty, and I really am sorry to have taken that blade,” Bedivere said.

“Howel,” Gerraint called.  “Will you tell this puppy he has done nothing to be ashamed of.”

“First time you’ve been bloodied?”  Howel asked.  Bedivere nodded.  “Well, don’t worry about it.  It happens to everyone.  In fact, I would tell you about my first time, but it was too embarrassing to speak of.”

“Thanks a lot,” Gerraint said.  That was hardly what Bedivere needed to hear.

Once they were set, they did not linger in that area.  They took their own dead, of course, and all of the horses that had not run off, but they left the Romans in the field.  Howel said they were headed to meet a larger force just south of the Lake and if they did not show up soon, there would certainly be scouts.

“But what can I do?”  Howel asked Gerraint.  “Much of our strength was spent in Britain over the past years.  Now that we are facing our own crisis, I do not know if we have the strength to meet it.”

“The Sons of Claudus do seem to be intruding,” Gerraint said.  “But I thought their hands were being tied up by the Franks in the East.”

“I am afraid they may make a treaty with the Franks, and then we would really have to struggle,” Howel said.

“Well then.  I guess you will just have to get there first.”  It seemed a common enough expression.

“I’m sorry?”  Howel did not quite grasp the idea offered.  “What do you mean?”

“I mean, you make a treaty with the Sons of Claudus first and offer your help against the Franks.  That way, they will be in your debt, and more importantly, their army will be in debt to your army and, if you play it right, they may even respect your army.”

Howel shook his head.

“Now, think.  It is very hard to get men to invade a land whose army they have come to respect.  Help is the best way to peace.  If your father’s father had not come to Uther’s aid, he might not have stayed long on the throne of the War Chief.  In return, Arthur came out against Claudus.”

“Yes, I suppose that is a point.  Way back then, Claudus was a real threat, and my father did have a fight on his hands.”

“Are you kidding?”  Gerraint said.  “We kicked Claudus so bad it took his sons twenty years just to climb out of the hole.  And for your information, it was not way back then.  I was there, too, and I’m only forty-seven, not an eighty-year-old dotard.”

Howel smiled before he turned serious again.  “But it still would not work.  There is too much bad blood between our families, and maybe because we beat Claudus so badly.  And, don’t forget, both Lancelot’s and Lionel’s fathers lost their lives in those battles.”

Gerraint shrugged and offered another cliché.  “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he said, then he made a sour face.  “And I hate clichés.”

Back at Howel’s castle, Gerraint let his armor go home and returned to wearing his comfortable clothes.  He spent a week being sure he did not miss one opportunity to soak in a hot, indoor tub.  It did his muscles wonders and he thanked the Romans, privately, for instituting the idea.

“We send Kvendelig, Gwarhyr and Menw home and see what has turned up in our absence,” Gerraint said, plainly enough.  Besides, he was missing Enid, and little Guimier, too.  He just wondered what it might be like to have a good, Cuban cigar to smoke, not that he ever smoked, or even knew exactly what tobacco was, when Uwaine summed it up in his way of few words.

“One down, one to go,” he said.  And so it appeared.

This time, the Channel crossing went uneventful.  Gerraint got promises from the three Welsh Lords that they would give up their quest and stop threatening the future by dredging up the past.  He did not feel entirely satisfied with their pledges, but they were men of the Round Table, and as such, he accepted that their word could be trusted.

Once home, Gerraint felt delighted to find that Enid missed him too, and so did Guimier.  Indeed, it was hard for him to decide which one hugged him longer and harder. Sadly, he also found a messenger waiting for him, even as he pulled into the docks.  Urien, the Raven and his sidekick Arawn had been seen and traced.  Weldig, Nanters, and Ogryvan had all noted their passage.  Only old Pelenor seemed to have missed them on this trip.  Perhaps their lack of a warm reception the last time around, when Peredur was there, made them avoid those lands.  Perhaps Pelenor was just getting old and just missed them, Gerraint thought.  In any case, they appeared headed for the North coast of Wales, and from there, Gerraint guessed they would head for the Isle of Man.

In the evening, while Enid lay peacefully beside him, Gerraint knew Manannon, the old son of Lyr, God of the Sea, still roamed around.  Rhiannon remained.  Manannon had been reported by sailors and fishermen from time to time.  He guessed Urien went on those rumors.  He imagined they headed for the Isle of Man on the strength of such gossip.  It made sense.  Surely a god would know the way to Avalon, or Annwn, as Urien of Leogria would call it.

Enid pulled up and laid her arm across Gerraint’s chest.  She threw her leg around his and he pushed the hair from her back to see her face.  Enid was not able to sleep, either.

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

MONDAY

Gerraint is needed again.  Urien, the Raven is headed for the Isle of Man and Gerraint will have to stop him.  Until Monday, Happy Reading.

 

 

 

 

*

M3 Gerraint: Revived Romans, part 2 of 3

Gerraint returned to his horse and mounted, unstrapped his lance at the same time, turned the point to the front and tucked it securely in place.

“What are you doing?”  Kvendelig asked, as if he did not know.

“For Arthur!”  Gerraint shouted and he shot out of the woods at full charge.  The men behind him were a little slower, but Uwaine and Bedivere were quick enough to almost catch up.  Menw and Gwarhyr were a little quicker than Kvendelig, who swore first before he added his voice to the charge.  “For Arthur!”

The Romans still had twice the men, but Howel now had six mounted warriors on his side.  They rode through the Romans first of all, evening the odds a little as they did.  As they turned, Gerraint saw Howel and Lionel arm themselves in the confusion.  The fight was on again, but several of the Romans had quickly mounted and found spears of their own.

This was no joust such as became almost a sport in the late Middle Ages.  This was ancient men with spears, lances, clubs, swords, whatever they could find with which to kill.  This was war, and Gerraint knew the business well.  He put down the first man he faced without the other’s spear even touching him.  The second, however, grabbed the shaft of Gerraint’s lance as he fell, effectively ripping it from Gerraint’s hands.  Indeed, Gerraint knew well enough to let it go and pull his sword.

Unfortunately, with Gerraint’s progress slowed, a Roman became able to grab him by the leg.  Gerraint let go of the reins, directed the horse with his knees alone, and pulled his long knife across the face of his attacker.  The man cried out and fell away, but Gerraint got poked from the other side by another Roman with a spear.  The spear head was not strong enough to penetrate Gerraint’s armor, but the strike landed hard enough to shove Gerraint right out of the saddle.  He hit the ground, hard, and nearly got caught in his exposed face by that same spear.  He ducked in time and swung up and out with Wyrd.  The Roman spear got cut in two at the shaft.

The Roman then arched his back and his eyes glazed.  They heard the sound of whizzing and buzzing all around, as the air filled with arrows.   After barely a minute, the sounds of battle ended.

Three men, dressed in hunter green and carrying bows stepped from the trees on the other side of the clearing.  Two were rather old and grubby looking.  The third, a youngster, looked about Bedivere’s age, but clearly not one to be overawed by the men of armor he faced.  They came up to Gerraint, and the eldest bowed slightly.

“My Lord,” he said.  Gerraint pointed at Howel.

“Not me.  There’s your king.”

The man looked at Gerraint briefly and whispered for his ears only.  “The lady thought we might be better help than the dragon.”  Then he turned to the king and bowed more regally, but very much like a real, old hunter in the woods might bow to his king.

“More of yours?”  Kvendelig distracted Gerraint with the question.

“You never know,” Gerraint said, but he knew the young one was young Larchmont.  One thing seemed certain.  No three pairs of human hands wiped out twelve or fifteen Romans in the span of sixty seconds; and nearly every arrow a perfect shot.

“Odyar?”  Gerraint asked Uwaine when he came up.  Uwaine pointed at the body.

“But Bedivere is hurt, and Lionel,” Uwaine said.

Gerraint looked at Kvendelig who stood at his shoulder and shook his head.  It would not be prudent to bring a more experienced healer into the present.  At least Gerraint needed to examine the patients first.

“Master.  I am so ashamed,” Bedivere said.

“No need.”  Gerraint smiled.  The wound was not bad. “You won’t have nearly the scar I have in my shoulder.”  The bleeding got staunched.  Uwaine could see to Bedivere.

Lionel’s problem looked a little more difficult.  His leg broke and Gerraint did not imagine he had the skill to set it.  So much of that sort of thing was by feel, and he was not sure what he was feeling for.

“Will I lose it?”  Lionel asked.  Howel looked worried as well.

“Afraid not,” Gerraint said.  “Rather, it is whether you will run or limp.”  He looked around.  The hunters were still there.  The eldest caught the gist of what was needed.

“My king,” he called, and Howel stepped over reluctantly to speak with the hunter, and his guards accompanied him.  Gerraint did not wait.  He let himself slip away and Greta came to take his place.  Gerraint knew he lived as a real surgeon in the early Twentieth Century and probably set more broken legs than could be counted, but the Good Doctor felt too distant in his mind at present.  Greta, the Woman of the Ways among the Dacians, felt much closer in time and in his memory.  She also served as a healer, and a good one.

While Lionel gasped and Greta told him quietly over and over to hold his tongue, she quickly made sure her golden hair got securely hidden by her helmet.  She fluffed out her cape with the hope that from the rear no one would suspect she was not Gerraint.  Then she took Lionel’s leg, carefully, and examined it.  “A clean break,” she said.  It should heal completely if you stay off of it for a while.”

“But.”  Lionel wanted to protest at her presence, but he did not have the strength.  He struggled too hard against the pain and against passing out.

“You can talk to Bohort about it when you are better, and Lancelot if you need to, but no one else.  Do I make myself clear?”  She shot a thought to the hunters.  They instantly reverted to fairy form and flew off even as she snapped Lionel’s leg in place.  Lionel stayed busy saying yes to her question about it being clear, so that delayed his scream.  By the time he let out the sound, and Howel and the others shook themselves free from the wonder of the fairies, and came running, Greta had gone and Gerraint was home.

“Keep still,” Gerraint ordered Lionel, though Lionel had passed out at that moment.  “Have to immobilize it.”  Gerraint stood and swung his fist into the image which Greta, with her own gifts of sight, had seen.  Gerraint’s fist landed square in Menw’s invisible face.  As the man fell to the ground, dazed, he lost his concentration and became visible.  Gerraint picked him up, right off his feet, and stepped him back a couple of steps.  The others laughed, not sure what they were laughing at, when Gerraint whispered straight into Menw’s ear.  “If I catch you trying to look down my dress again,” he said.  “I’ll make you a eunuch.”  He tossed Menw about five feet to where the man fell on his rear and yelped.

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 1 of 3

They slept in the wilderness, and in the morning, headed straight for the North road.  “The main way down the center is just as quick and probably easier traveling,” Gerraint explained.  “But this way will take us by the old Cairns, the burial places of the kings.”

“You think the Welshmen came this way?” Bedivere asked.

“No.”  Gerraint spoke plainly.  “I think they must already be at the Lake, or near enough.  But we are less likely to be pursued in this direction.  I doubt any trouble would guess we even know about this road.”

“Trouble?”  Bedivere asked.  “I thought last night you said that was all cleared up.”

“Odyar,” Uwaine said.  Gerraint liked his old squire.  He had a gift in the judgment of character.

They stayed at a coastal inn that next night, and again, on the night after that.  The following evening, they had hopes of reaching the lake, but they were surprised around midday by the last thing Gerraint expected.  Instead of swords from behind, they ran smack into swords ahead.  Even as they turned to the Southeast and toward the actual lake, they were surrounded by about thirty swords of the Romans coming up from the south.  Gerraint knew the lake area was like a kind of no man’s land that separated the Romanish lands from Amorica.  He felt distressed to see the revived Romans making incursions across the border and again, he did not doubt Howel’s concerns about a possible war in the near future.

Gerraint would not let Uwaine draw his sword against such odds.  They surrendered quietly.

Ondyaw was the Captain of the Romans, despite his obvious Gallic name.  Gerraint looked at him closely and immediately saw the family resemblance.  “Odyar’s brother?”  He asked.  Ondyaw confirmed as much with a slap across Gerraint’s face.  Bedivere struggled against the ropes, but Uwaine knew better and kept still.  Bedivere only hurt his own wrists.

“And where are you headed?” he asked.  “My brother’s message was rather vague on the details and said only that I should stop you.”

“To the Lake of the Vivane,” Gerraint said.  He saw no reason to hide it.

“That accursed place.  I should take you there and dump you.  I doubt you would last the night.”

“Fluff and mirrors,” Gerraint said.  “Rhiannon just likes her privacy is all.”

Ondyaw slapped him again.  “That great Lady’s name should never touch your lips.”  Gerraint felt it in his jaw, and for a moment, he was sorry his hands were tied so he could not put his hand up to help wiggle his jaw back into place.

“Sorry,” he said.  “But I thought you were Roman.  Shouldn’t you be defending Diana and Venus instead?

Ondyaw struck him one more time just for that, or perhaps just for fun, because he could.  Gerraint decided silence was called for.  He had to pause in any case until the dizziness passed.

“Tell my brother all is well.”  Ondyaw spoke to the man who was waiting.  “The men are still watching the lake and I will send more when I know more.”  The man left and Ondyaw turned as if he had something else to say, but then decided against it.  He left and the three were alone in the tent.

“Are you all right?”  Bedivere asked while Uwaine spoke at the same time.

“Now what?”  Uwaine asked.

“Now we leave.”  Gerraint showed anger.  They had freely surrendered and honorably submitted to being captive.  They did not need to be tied.  They certainly did not deserve to be beaten, not by any standard of civilized behavior. “More like barbarians than Romans,” Gerraint said and spat out a tooth.  “Damn.  Now I’m really mad.”  He had to calm down and think for a minute.

Margueritte came immediately to mind and when he traded places with her once more, her feminine, eleven-year-old hands and feet slipped right out of the ropes.  She had on her red dress, of course, and would from then on until she changed it.

“Let me see your wrists,” she said to Bedivere.  They were chaffed raw from his attempts to tug himself free.  “Now you were so smart with the horses,” Margueritte scolded him.  “How could you be so stupid now?  How are you going to hold your sword with your wrists hurting so?”  She shook her finger at him and frowned.  Bedivere melted.

“But she’s so cute,” he said to Uwaine.

“Yes, and dangerous I’ll warrant.”  Uwaine responded.

“Not.”  Margueritte insisted, but she was getting nowhere with her young hands and fingers against the knots.  She felt obliged to trade once again with Ali.  He still wore the Armor, and though his nimble thief’s fingers would soon have them free, he pulled his long knife, not wanting to take forever.

Once Bedivere and Uwaine were up, and Ali had to say hush three or four times, they got their weapons back as they had simply been dumped in a corner of the tent. Ali then cut a small slit in the back of the tent which grew bigger as he looked and saw no one back there.  “Allow me to steal our horses,” he said.  “Must keep in practice, you know.  Be right back.”

Ali slipped from the tent and, quiet as a snake in the grass, he wound his way around the camp to where their horses were tied but unguarded.  He considered the problem, and then went back for his companions, believing the men might move more quietly than the beasts.  Perhaps they did, but they were still too loud.  The Romans would have got them but for the noise from above and the shadow that crossed over their heads.  As soon as the beast landed, the tent they had just vacated went up in flames and a roar and fire shot up into the sky.

Uwaine stared.  Bedivere screamed, though not nearly as loud as some of the Romans.  The camp turned into chaos while the dragon nosed through the burning tent.  On finding nothing edible, the dragon set its’ sights on the scattering men.

“You!”  Ondyaw saw them and pointed.  “Cursed.”  He shouted and he and three other Romans attacked.  Gerraint came back, of course, Ali having returned to his own place in time at the first sign of trouble; and none too soon as far as Ali was concerned.  Gerraint drew his sword and the long knife he had sheathed and he and his friends went at the Romans, even as the dragon contentedly swallowed a piece of charcoal which only vaguely retained the shape of a man.