Avalon 7.12 The Guns of Camelot, part 6 of 6

Diogenes caught a glimpse of who stood in the courtyard.  He changed to Gerraint as soon as he got through the window and finished helping Enid and Guimier down.  Gerraint gave Guimier a fatherly kiss, and kissed Enid like a faithful husband and went away again so Danna, the mother goddess of the Celtic gods, could come from the deep past and stand in his place.

The first thing Danna did was make Coppertone, the pixie stop fluttering around the courtyard and change into her big form.  She turned from a two-foot tall clawed and winged harpy-like creature into a four-foot-tall matronly lady, a bit round, and with gray hair sneaking into her brown.  Danna found Belle, an elf maiden short of three hundred years old, and made sure her glamour of humanity was secure.  She thought to have Belle and Coppertone tend to their mistress and the princess, by which she meant Enid and Guimier.  Belle curtsied, though Danna was not there to see, she knew Danna would see.  Then she hurried to Enid’s side.  Coppertone went skipping along the side of the great hall, despite appearing far too old to skip like a little girl.

“Can’t take the pixie out of the pixie,” Danna thought with a smile before she spoke to the beauty that stood in the courtyard.  “Rhiannon.”

“Mother,” Rhiannon answered as Danna joined her.  “Coppertone flew all the way to the Lake of the Moon to find me, and I am glad she did.  Arthur’s soldiers have the fort again, and twenty-three prisoners.  But these three are the ones from Sussex making the guns and powder.”

Danna nodded.  She raised one hand and made a fist.  Those three disappeared, and no one asked where they went.  Lockhart, Katie, Percival, Thomas, Peter, and Tristam walked up from one direction.  Arthur, Gwynyvar, Bedivere, Guimier, Enid and her two handmaids walked up from the other direction.  Piebucket and Bogus the dwarfs walked up from a third direction.  The dwarfs had in mind to complain, but Danna pinched her fingers so neither dwarf could open his mouth.

Rhiannon made Odacer and Harwic appear.  Harwic was dead.  Odacer had a minute of life left.  “Gunter and Sven,” Danna called them by different names.  “We will meet again.”  Odacer said nothing.  He closed his eyes and died.

Rhiannon raised her hand and the wraith appeared, badly broken by the explosion.  “Mother.  What do you want me to do with this one?”

Danna did something before she explained.  “I have removed the compulsion of Domnu.  Lockhart, she will bother you no more.  I believe I will send her to Alice.  Alice may send her through the Heart of Time, back to her proper days.  Then Alice will have to put a hedge around the time gates and all the land between against the wraith, so the wraith cannot interfere with herself as she travelers through time, chasing after the travelers.”  Danna quickly held up her hand for silence.  “I don’t know if she can do that just yet.  The Storyteller is still missing, and things are still very confused.  Alice may need to keep the wraith in a safe place until that can be accomplished, but at least she will not bother you anymore.”  She looked around at the fort and generally at the sky as the wraith disappeared.  “Time flies,” she said, as the last of the sun sank into the west.

“Yes mother. I will be going over to the other side, soon, but there is one more.” Rhiannon tried to smile.

Danna did smile.  She kissed the goddess on the cheek.  “I know but be sure it is soon.”

Rhiannon found a genuine smile then and waved to the travelers.  “Good to see you all again.  Sorry, must run.”  She disappeared and took nearly all the little spirits with her.

Danna turned specifically to Boston.  “Be gentle with me,” she said, and went away so Gerraint could return to his own time and place.  Boston raced up, paused, and hugged Gerraint most gently.  He still said, “Ouch.”  He added, “And tell Alexis her services will not be needed, either on myself or on the wounded, dead, or dying in the fort.  I am sorry, but that is how it must be.  We fight our own battles and take our lumps as they come.”

“So we are learning,” Tony said, and the other travelers agreed.

“You will stay a few days before you move on?” Gerraint asked, and people nodded.  “The place is a bit of a mess right now, but Gwynyvar and Enid love Cadbury in the spring.”

Katie looked at the older woman that Gerraint indicated was Gwynyvar, and she got that groupie look in her eyes.  They all did a little on meeting Arthur, and Lockhart had the good sense not to say, “I thought King Arthur was a myth.”

Sir Thomas said, “So what was that all about?  What just happened?”

Percival turned to the Admiral.  “As I am sure Bedivere will tell you from years of following Gerraint around, sometimes it is better not to ask.”

###

The travelers spent a week in Cadbury watching Gerraint heal.  Gerraint sent Scorch and Spark home with his thanks, and the thanks of Arthur and Gwynyvar.  “Don’t forget us if you need to blowed up some more things,” Spark said, as they vanished.

Most of the little ones that came with Rhiannon, went home to the British highlands and the lake.  The dwarfs got to escort the Saxons back to Sussex.  “To put the fear of God in them?” Nanette asked.

“No,” Gerraint said.  “But it might put the fear of dwarfs in them.”

Boston finally laughed.

Sukki sat quietly, thinking about what she did in taking down the wall.  Nanette moped.  Katie and Enid, who had become quite friendly, both came to ask what was wrong.  Nanette did not want to talk about it, so Boston told, snooty little sister that she was.  “She is upset that Sir Thomas is taking all of Decker’s attention.”

“I am not,” Nanette denied it, but the women could tell.

When they got to the south coast, Sir Thomas gave them free passage across the channel.  Boston and Lincoln had determined that the time gate had to be on the continent.  “If not in Brittany,” as they called it, though Sir Thomas mostly called it Amorica, “Then right next to it.”

“Bad area,” Sir Thomas warned them.  “Back when; a man named Claudus took the Roman military left in Provence and Septimania and tried to reestablish so-called Roman rule in the provinces.  Truth is, he ruled under the Visigoths, and sometimes played the Visigoths and Burgundians against each other.  Then the Franks came.  Then the Ostrogoths came out of old Rome and settled things.  Provence, at least, came nominally under the Eastern Roman Empire.  Claudus thought that was great.  He took his army and tried to expand his territory.  The Visigoths, Burgundians and Franks did not budge, but Claudus managed to capture the Atlantique province, alongside Amorica and south to about Bordeaux.  Then he tried to take Amorica, and Arthur brought the army over to help his cousins.  Claudus was defeated and killed in the battle.”

“Move forward.  The Atlantique province is now tributary to the Franks, but the Sons of Claudus have gained power and are again threatening Amorica.  And the Franks are sitting back, watching, to see how it goes, because they have spent their forces for the time being driving the Visigoths south of the mountains, not counting Septimania.”

“And we are heading right into that mess,” Lincoln said.

“Not so bad,” Boston countered.  “We will only be there about a day inland.”

“We might go before they know we have arrived,” Alexis agreed.

“I know a port that is safe,” Sir Thomas said.  “At least it was safe last I heard.”

“Great,” Lincoln let out his full sarcasm.

The port turned out to be safe enough, but the travelers had to wait in the port for three days until Lancelot showed up with three hundred men on foot.  They would be escorted to the time gate and left in the morning.  Around noon, Lancelot, who rode in front beside Lockhart and Katie pointed to the trees off to their left.

“The lake,” he said.  “What the Franks call Dulac.  It is where the Lady of the Lake had her residence and held court.  She trained me to the sword as she trained my son, Galahad.”

Katie nodded.  “She has moved to the British highlands and the Lake of the Moon.  She says she has one more to train.”

“How would you know this?” Lancelot asked.

“Sometimes, you just have to trust,” Lockhart said, and Lancelot accepted that.

Later that day, Lancelot admitted that things were not going well.  “Bohort and Lionel are backed up to the west coast.  The King’s city is besieged.  I will be going with Thomas back to Britain to try and raise an army.  The Sons of Claudus with their Frankish help have wasted the countryside, slaughtering whole villages.”

“I wish you well,” Katie said.  “Maybe Arthur will help.”

Lancelot shook his head.  “Arthur will not prevent me from raising men at arms, though I hope they bring their families to repopulate the land.  But Arthur says he is getting too old for foreign adventures.”

That ended the conversation.  Alexis kept talking about how lovely the spring was, but Sir Thomas and Lincoln were almost as morose as the three out front.

They camped that evening before the time gate, in an open field on the edge of a great forest.  They stayed quiet most of the evening and took advantage of letting Lancelot’s men take the watch in the night.  The following morning, Sukki asked a serious question.

“How much longer do we have to travel?”

“Are we there yet?” Boston said, with just enough whine in her voice to make Lockhart chuckle.

“As I count it,” Lincoln said.  “We have twenty-four more time zones to go.”  He waved to Lancelot and Sir Thomas and paced the mule as Tony drove and they disappeared in time.

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

MONDAY

Having read the travelers’ encounter with Arthur, the Pendragon, and before that, their encounter with Festuscato and the Vandals in Rome, it is only right to share the stories of the Kairos from those same days.  First, to see how Festuscato gains the trust of both the Pope and the Empress, not to mention how he gained a wife.  Then, Gerraint in the last days of Arthur leading to his final battle, when all is lost.  Beginning Monday.

*

Avalon 7.12 The Guns of Camelot, part 5 of 6

Arthur, Diogenes, Bedivere, Gwynyvar, Enid, and Guimier hid in a back room of the great hall.  The room had a big enough window that looked out on the barracks and the new tower.  They could not see much of the central courtyard where most of the activity seemed to be taking place, but in any case, Diogenes made everyone stay away from the window.  He said they had to wait until dark.  With that, Diogenes sat on the bed in that room and went away, so Gerraint could return and hug his daughter, who was worried about him.

“Besides,” Gerraint said, “Any trouble we face will come from the door, not the window, and that will only happen if they discover we have escaped from our cell.”

“You know I don’t like not knowing what is going on,” Arthur said.  “But we will wait.”  He examined the sword he held, the one they took from a sleeping Saxon.  The man had probably been posted to guard the downstairs cell, but figured since the cell was locked, he could take a nice long nap.  They took the man’s things without waking him.  Bedivere got Gerraint’s long knife, Defender, and gave Enid Gerraint’s cutting knife.  Arthur took the sword and grabbed the man’s wicked looking knife that had been set on the table.  He gave the knife to Gwynyvar.  No one doubted the women knew how to use those knives, and would use them expertly, if they had to, and to protect Guimier.

###

Outside Cadbury Fort, Elder Stow handed Sukki an invisibility disc and said, “Be careful.  A lucky shot can still hit you, even if you are invisible.  I have mini self-screens in my belt array, but you have no such help.”

“She has pressurized fish skin,” Boston said.  “She got shot once before, but the bullet did not penetrate far and quickly fell out.”

“But it hurt,” Sukki said.

Elder Stow assured her.  “If you cut along the bottom of the wall while I press down from the top, you should be able to finish cutting before they figure out where you are.  Hopefully, I will distract them, so they may not even realize what you are doing.  And when you are finished, you need to rush straight back here to the others.  Is that clear?”

“Yes Father,” Sukki said.  “I am ready.”  She rose up into the air, and Elder Stow touched his belt to fly up and join her.  Then he touched in another place on his belt and the two of them vanished from sight.

###

Inside the fort, the Saxons hurried to reinforce the east wall with their guns.  “They will be charging into the setting sun,” Odacer pointed out.  “That is one more point to our advantage.”

“It will be a slaughter,” Harwic agreed.

“It will be a waste of your weapons and powder,” the wraith appeared, and yelled.  “I care nothing for the men of this age.  You should talk.  I have seen humans talk before they fight.  You should insist the man and woman who lead the travelers be there.  Also, the one who carries the memory in a box, and his wife.  And the big, African.  Then, when they are all present, you can shoot them with your gunds, and kill them.”

“Guns,” Harwic corrected the wraith.

Truth was the wraith came from the year 3585 BC.  Domnu, the Titaness who tried to take the old lands of Vanheim for herself, laid a geis on the wraith.  The compulsion to kill the travelers would never go away on its own.  The wraith honestly had no idea what guns were, but she knew the travelers had guns, and somehow, she became convinced she needed guns to kill the travelers.  It would be an understatement to say the travelers frustrated her and made her mad. Wraiths are angry creatures, by nature, and mad as well, for that matter.  But she remembered.  She had to kill the humans traveling through time.

When she first followed them through the time gate, she aged about sixty years all at once.  It all but killed the human men that followed her, but sixty years is not so much for a wraith whose lifespan is counted in centuries.  After the initial shock of ageing so rapidly, she almost turned back.  She found she could not.  The compulsion to kill the travelers felt too strong to resist.  She hesitated before following them again through the next time gate, but discovered after going through the first gate, she aged normally, no matter what.  The travelers could have explained to her that once she went through the first gate, she became displaced in time and aged according to her own personal timeline without regard to what time period she entered.  Of course, she would not understand that.  She just knew the travelers had to die.

She had enough sense to lay low while the gods remained active in the world.  The gods seemed to favor the travelers, and while she made a few slight attempts, she dared not do more than follow them.  Then the day came when the gods all went away, and she felt, surely, she could kill them.  But then she realized the Elder Race man had a thing that she could not break through to get at her prey.  And he had weapons that posed a danger to her.  And the girl who had been an Elder Race girl had dangerous powers.  She contrived a way to break the thing stopping her and got the guns in that day to attack the travelers, but the travelers proved too strong.

“Talk to your enemy,” she yelled at the gun makers.  She had to resort to trickery, but that was something she was very good at.  The two men grabbed the idea the wraith put in their heads.

“Our supplies of powder and shot are about two days away, I would guess,” Odacer said.  “Talking would delay the battle and help preserve what supplies we have.”

Harwic looked over at the barracks where the powder got stored.  They all looked over and saw a girl going inside.  The men thought nothing of it, but the wraith knew it was no ordinary girl.  She screamed, even as an invisible Elder Stow, that she could see perfectly, began to clear off the men from the top of the wall.

The wraith sent something like a fireball at Elder Stow, but it dissipated around the elder’s personal screen.

“Save the powder,” Odacer shouted.  His suspicious nature told him the girl did something.  That girl came out the door, transformed into a ball of flame, and raced to hide in the cooking fires.  The wraith screamed once more and flew to the barracks, easily getting inside the powder room.

“Get down,” Diogenes glimpsed Spark flying away and shouted to the others.  No one questioned him.  They all got to the floor, and Enid, Guimier, and Gwynyvar ducked behind the bed.

Elder Stow finished sweeping the wall clean of men as Sukki finished cutting the bottom of the wall.  The wall did not rumble for long before it fell, though it may have been helped when the powder room exploded.  That massive explosion knocked Odacer and Harwic to the ground where they got skewered with splinters from the barracks.  It provided enough push to make most of the east wall fall outward, like a cleanly cut tree.  Spark had to hold on to her log to keep the kitchen fire from being scattered everywhere.  Any men in the barracks, died.  And the new tower shook, right down to the new dungeon cells down below.

It felt like an earthquake, but the two Saxons managed to throw their prisoner into the cell before they slammed the door shut and raced back up the stairs, followed by the two assigned to guard the prisoners.  Inside the cell, a sergeant of the fort soldiers stepped forward.

“Who are you?”

“A friend of Arthur,” Scorch said, while in the back of his mind he thought, “good girl, Spark.  I love you.”  He heard her answer his thought.

“I love you, too.”

Scorch looked at the men.  “So, are you ready to fight the Saxons?”

“Sure,” the sergeant answered.  “But we appear to be stuck here.”

Scorch just grinned and got one finger hot enough to melt the lock on the door.  “I don’t much like metal,” he said, softly.  “Leaves a bitter aftertaste.”  He swung the cell door open, and the men piled out.  One grabbed the keys left hanging on the wall.  He opened all the cells.  Two went to a cupboard where the weapons of the soldiers were not so neatly stacked.  As soon as the first ones were armed, Scorch yelled, follow me, and he practically flew up the stairs.

###

Arthur’s men saw the wall fall.  Percival did not blink.  He shouted.  “Prepare to dismount and climb over the wall.”  He expected the order would be passed along by the leaders of the various groups, not that what they had to do would not be obvious.

Sir Thomas, standing beside Lockhart and Katie, put his own spin on the order.  “Boarding party ready?”

“Aye, Captain,” one man answered.

The little army mounted, but before they even sat on their horses, they noticed about fifty dwarfs already halfway to the goal and charging with all their might.  They saw an equal number of elves rush passed them, running at a much greater speed, but even they could not match the fairies who looked like mere streaks of light.

“The sun is almost set,” Katie said.  “I am sure the dark elves will want to take a turn, too.”  The travelers started their horses at a walking pace, so Percival and the army matched that pace.  Boston laughed, and then reported to the others.

“Piebucket said those skinny wickets and fly-balls better leave something for them to do.”

Avalon 7.12 The Guns of Camelot, part 2 of 6

The castle gate swung open, and three wagons full of barrels of black powder came in.  It was near suppertime, but the men would not eat or rest until all the gunpowder got stored in the castle barracks room that had been designated the powder room.  It would be guarded, not the least to be sure no fire got close enough to set anything off.

Up in the great hall, the Saxons Odacer and Harwic the blade argued.  The other Germans in the room, both at the table waiting for supper, and standing by the doors, guarding the room, knew better than to open their mouths.

“I tell you, it is perfect, ironic,” Odacer said.  “This is the very fort where all that Pendragon crap got started.  It is fitting that New Saxony should begin here.”

“You won’t think it is so perfect if they bring the army down from Caerleon,” Harwic countered.  “We could have built our forces in the safe haven of the south Saxon shore and had a good port from which to overrun the continent.”

“Bah.  You worry.  Besides, we will not leave enemies at our back.  We must control this island before we extend our empire.  We have the rifles, the same Trajan used to conquer Mesopotamia.  Once the men are trained, we will crush the whole world and make everyone slaves to the new order, rule by the New Saxons.”

“We do not have rifles,” Harwic countered.  “We have smooth-bore muskets, basically muzzle-loaded matchlocks.”

Odacer did not seem bothered by that.  “The design will improve as we improve the equipment to make them.”

“But what if they bring the army from Caerleon before we are ready?” Harwic asked, seemingly stuck on that thought.

“So?”  Odacer scoffed.  “We have this lovely castle to defend.  More men are coming every day to join us, while the fools in Caerleon think we are engaged in peace talks.  And even if they figure it out, we have hostages.  We have Arthur and the Kairos, the King of Dumnonia, and the women to ensure their cooperation.”  He paused while people brought in food and laid it out on the table.  Then he added, “You worry too much.  Tomorrow, we will begin training the men and use the guards from this castle for target practice.”

The wraith appeared in the hall, and everyone looked.  She felt pleased to see more than one turn away and vomit from her appearance.  She spoke.  “The powder is here.  Kill the Kairos.”

“Now, wait a minute,” Harwic stood.  Odacer shriveled in the face of the wraith.  “You said your chief desire is to kill the travelers, and the travelers have guns from the future.  I appreciate your help in taking this castle from the inside, and I know you did it because we also have guns, not out of altruism.  But our men need to be trained to use those guns if you wish us to kill your travelers.  Meantime, we are vulnerable until our men are trained.  If the British send an army before we are ready, we will need to keep the ones in the dungeon as hostages.”

“But the Kairos is too dangerous to be allowed to live,” the wraith yelled.

“Dangerous to you, maybe,” Harwic responded.  “But to us, he is just a man.  We will kill him when we are ready, not before.”

The wraith screamed, a sound to frighten the strongest of men.  She raced up to one of the guards and sucked the life out of him, slowly.  Her scream got replaced by the scream of the man, which sounded even more frightening to the listeners.  She left a husk of shriveled flesh that collapsed to the floor, and she flew to the table.  Men ran from their chairs, except Odacer, who appeared frozen in place.  She touched a roasted pigeon with her finger and sucked all the moisture and life from the flesh, leaving an empty carcass where even the bones cracked, being emptied of their marrow.

“See that you kill him,” the wraith said, as she licked her finger and vanished, pleased to notice that more men around the room vomited.

Odacer finally pushed his chair back from the table.  “I lost my appetite.”

###

Down in the dungeon, Gerraint woke and tried to sit up.  He got as far as his elbows before he collapsed back down to his back.  Everyone rushed to his side, but only his daughter and squire said anything at first.

“Daddy,” Guimier cried.

“We didn’t know if you were going to make it,” Bedivere said.

People waited while Gerraint managed to lift his hand and brush the hair from his little girl’s face.  He tried to smile for her, but he was not sure if his puffy lips and face actually managed it.  He turned to Enid but spoke to Bedivere.  His words came out slurred, and soft, but understandable.

“Squire Bedivere.  Ye of little faith.”  He spoke to Enid.  “I don’t think any bones are broken.  I may have a couple of cracked ribs.”

Enid quickly lifted her hands from his chest, as Gwynyvar spoke.  “Bedivere is full grown.  He hasn’t been your squire for many years.”  She may have wondered if the torture addled his brains.

Gerraint smiled, better that time.  “Once a squire, always a squire,” he said.

“Master.  Your Majesty.  Uncle.” Bedivere acknowledged as much.

“So, where do we stand?” Gerraint asked.  He wanted to sit up but could not manage it.

Arthur spoke.  “I am working on a way to get us out of here, or barring that, to get word to Caerleon to call up the rapid deployment force.  Even a company of RDF might be enough to get us out of this predicament.”

“Might get us killed,” Enid objected, and Gwynyvar agreed.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Gerraint said, but Arthur cut him off.

“You are not in any condition to do anything right now except heal.  Enid said her handmaids, Belle and Coppertone managed to escape the fort, but I am not sure there is much hope in handmaids.”

“More than you know,” Gerraint whispered and closed his eyes.  He knew Belle was a house elf, and Coppertone was a Cornish pixie.  Who knew what forces they might raise?  Belle in particular was sensible enough.  Hopefully she would go directly to Percival in the nearby midlands, or maybe Tristam at Tintangle in the other direction.  He slept again.

###

Having said good-bye to Brennan, the travelers moved one day through a mix of farm fields and wilderness.  They only saw a few people, and those mostly from a distance.  In the morning, Boston suggested they were only a day away from the Kairos.

“And an easy day at that,” she said, as she and Sukki rode out to the point to see if the way was clear.  Lockhart and Katie watched them race.

Tony and Nanette had taken to riding together when Elder Stow and Decker moved out on the wings.  Lincoln drove the wagon and spent most of the time complaining.  “These old Roman roads have not been well kept in some places.  Poor Ghost has had to really work to keep us moving.  I’m surprised we haven’t thrown a wheel, or worse, busted an axel on these roads.”

Tony leaned back from where he rode in front of the mule.  “I could drive if you don’t feel comfortable driving.”

Lincoln shook his head and spoke up.  “You drove most of the way through the mountains.  I can take my turn.”  He grumbled softly, and Alexis beside him grinned and gave him a brief hug.

Boston and Sukki did not get far before they found two odd looking men who blocked the road.  Sukki pulled up and looked at Boston.  Boston saw right through the glamour of humanity.

“Lockhart,” she shouted back, and could make herself heard even over that distance.  “Boss, we got dwarfs.”  She turned and spoke to the two in the road.  “You might as well take off your glamour.  It doesn’t matter to us.”

“Dwarfs?” Sukki asked.  She could not see it.  She only saw two exceptionally grubby, bearded men.  But one, and then the other removed their glamours of humanity to stand in their natural, fully bearded form.

“You will notice, the dirt and grubbiness are natural, not part of the illusion of humanity,” Boston said and Sukki covered her grin.

One dwarf growled and got a tight grip on his axe.  The other put his hand out to keep his fellow from doing something stupid, and he spoke.  “Name’s Chief Bogus.  You will have to forgive Piebucket here.  He doesn’t like elves much.”

“I’m Boston,” Boston said and gave them her best elf grin.

“We know, Princess,” Bogus said, and gave a slight bow.  Piebucket lowered his axe, but he still growled.

“What’s up?” Lockhart asked, as he and Katie rode up.  The others came along more slowly with the wagon, while Decker and Elder Stow moved in from the wings.

“Don’t know,” Boston said and turned to Bogus to explain.

Bogus nodded and looked at the road.  “You are headed to the Lord at Cadbury Fort.  Well, in an admirable bit of trickery, the Saxons have taken the fort.  The village is deserted, but right now, they got the Lord and his lady, and their baby girl with the Pendragon, Gwynyvar and Squire Bedivere in the dungeon cell beneath the great hall.  And the Lord has been tortured.”  Bogus shook his head, and Piebucket gripped his axe tight again, and growled.

“How can we get them out?” Boston asked Lockhart, some desperation creeping into her voice.

“Well, first you need to wait for reinforcements to get here,” Bogus said, before Lockhart could answer.  “There is a hundred coming down from the forts at Caerleon and Caerdyf.  They may pick up a few more on the way.  There’s eighty coming with Percival from the Midlands, and another thirty from around Swindon will join them, compliments of old, bed-ridden Bedwyr.  There’s about seventy coming up from Dorset and the British shore.  Admiral Thomas and his brother Gwillim are bringing them.  Both are Knights of the Round Table. And there’s around a hundred and thirty coming from the west.  Tristam is leading the men from Tintangle and Devon.  The Lord’s own son, Peter, is bringing the rest from Cornwall.”

“A pittance,” Piebucket said.

“Sudden notice,” Bogus nudged his fellow dwarf.  “As soon as they heard, they grabbed those they could and came on.”

“Four hundred?  Four-fifty?  Hardly enough men to take a fort like Cadbury.”

“These powerful folks might help too,” Bogus said.  “If you treat them right and stop growling at the elf.”

Piebucket tipped his hat and did his best to put on a smile, doofy as it was.  For once, Boston did not burst with laughter.

“I thank you dwarfs for your help and invitation,” she said.  “We will gladly help.  After all, he is my Lord, too.”

The others had caught up by then, so Lockhart did not have to yell too loud.  “Lunch.”

“We will be near,” Bogus said, and the two dwarfs vanished into the nearby woods.  With that, Lockhart took Boston aside.

“That is not your decision to make,” he said.  “I used to yell at others for getting us entangled in things that are none of our business.”  He let her stew for a moment, until she looked down and worried her hands.  “In this case, I agree with you.  Katie would never forgive me if we left without seeing Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.  Guinevere is just icing on that cake.”

Boston smiled again.  “Gwynyvar,” she corrected him, and then hugged him.  He was the best boss, ever.

Avalon 7.11 The Sack of Rome, part 6 of 6

The Vandals strung out, moving through the woods.  After a half hour, Velleius Fulvia, contrary to what everyone knew about the man, got his forty mercenaries to sneak up on the rear of the column of barbarians.  Someone did point out later that the man, being a miser, hired and paid the mercenaries to protect his own house during this emergency.  Since his own house was not threatened, he probably wanted to get his money’s worth.

In any case, the hired mercenaries stealthily attacked the rear of the column, even as the front of the column came out into the open before the tenant houses.  From there, Hawdic planned to turn on the back of the house, but he had to wait for all of his men to catch up.  They bunched up to hear their commander’s orders, and thirty, and then thirty more arrows came out from the tenant houses.  Bunched up as they were, it seemed impossible that any of those arrows would miss.  Nevertheless, half of those arrows missed, but half struck someone and put some thirty Vandals out of the fight.

The dwarfs could not hold back.  They charged, and the men reluctantly followed.  The dwarfs gave no quarter, and the Vandals tried to run back into the woods, only to run into Velleius Fulvia’s mercenaries.  The Vandals got slaughtered.  Hawdic survived because he fell to the ground and played dead.  Festuscato lost one farmer who was mourned greatly by the community.  Velleius Fulvia lost a half-dozen mercenaries, and did not mourn for any of them, though their families may have mourned their loss if they had families.

The man up the orange tree reported everything he could see.  It was enough to know that Hawdic was finished.  Godamer cursed everything and yelled for his men to charge.  They charged like berserkers screaming for blood.  They got surprised by the rain of arrows that poured from the house.  Godamer realized he seriously underestimated the number of defenders.  Some men crouched behind the wall, to use the defenders own wall against them.  They shot toward the open door and windows, but no one could tell if they hit anything.  With all that, the Vandals almost made it, but a family of ogres chose that moment to arrive.

One of the clerics in the pantry nearly had a heart attack as the ogres tore through the house.  Before anyone could say stop, or wait, or no, the ogres rushed out the front door and immediately began to pound Vandals into the dirt.  The surviving Vandals screamed and ran, as any man would.  Godamer saved his skin by fainting.  Some Vandals ran down the road.  Some ran back toward Rome.  But neither got far.

Down the road, Felix, his son, and their four men all had their bows ready.  Kate and Decker had their rifles.  The others had handguns, all except Alexis who stayed out of it, and Elder Stow, who went back to work on his screen device.  Only a few of the Vandals survived, when they dropped their weapons, fell to their knees, put their hand on their heads, and cried from the terror of it all.

In the other direction, the Vandals ran into Festuscato and his troop.  Most of those quickly surrendered since the ogres chose to chase them.  Besides, the Four Horsemen were as deadly as any rifle.  Festuscato had to intercede with the ogres.

“Stop.  Sit.  Stay,” he yelled, though the ogres would have heard him no matter the volume.  As expected, he had to say everything twice before the commands got into their ogre brains.  The ogres sat and stayed but continued to roar for some time.  They tore up the cobblestones in that place, but at least they stopped killing people.

When Festuscato arrived in front of the house, he saw the travelers already arrived with some prisoners of their own.  Felix went up to the house and called for Fetus.  The travelers saw a woman come to the door, a pregnant woman by the look of it, not put off in the least by all the dead men in her front yard.

“Felix.  Gaius is here.  Dibs and Festuscato went to Rome to bargain with the Vandal King,” she said.

“I have friends of the Kairos,” Felix said, pointing back at his group.  “They are very powerful people come to us from the future.  Come and meet them.”

But then, Festuscato came into view and Morgan ran from the door to him.  The elves and fairies had already vanished from the house.  The dwarfs marched off, looking forward to a real meal.  They said they had to go back to the hills to protect the women and little ones, though they did not specify if they were talking about the farmer’s wives and children or their own wives and children.

“Husband,” Morgan said.  Festuscato got down, grabbed Morgan, and picked right up where he left off with his kiss.  Boston rushed up, but she had to wait.

Sibelius turned to Boston and offered a curtsey.  “Princess,” she said.  Lord Roan and Lord Atias walked up, nodding, while Gaius and Felix came from the house.  Lockhart and Katie walked up from down the road.  Dibs got down to join his friends, as Felix spoke.

“The Fearsome Foursome back together.”

“I’m not a princess yet,” Boston responded to Sibelius.  “My husband is still missing.”

“Yeah,” Dibs responded to Felix.  “A Centurion, a Cardinal, A seller of fine silk, and we are still not sure what Festuscato is.”

“I don’t have a husband,” Sibelius said, and lowered her eyes.

“Not fair,” Boston protested, and turned to Lord Atias, the only other elf present.  “You have to get her a husband.”  Atias smiled and nodded but Sibelius looked up at that thought.

“No, please.  No,” she said.

Festuscato took a break from loving his wife to give Boston her hug.  Then they all spent the next few hours preparing wagons to carry the dead to a field out back where they dug a mass grave.  In the morning, they would carry the armor, weapons, and shields of the near two hundred dead, along with the hundred and fifty survivors back to Geiseric, some fifty of whom would have to ride, being too severely wounded to walk.  Godamer and Hawdic were tied up, of course.  They would be sent back to Geiseric with a message.

The homes of the people outside the city are not part of the deal.  Stick to your agreement.  You have two hundred dead and some who are near dead.  Godamer and Hawdic are your headache.  Meanwhile, the dragon is not pleased that he lost one farmer in the struggle.  The man will be sorely missed.

Finally, everyone met everyone, and the clerics in the kitchen had to work overtime to get everyone fed.  Alexis, Lincoln, Nanette, and Sukki all helped, along with the household staff, but they had to feed a lot of people.

Katie talked with the empress, Licinia Eudoxia, and her daughter Eudocia.  Lockhart sat and said pleasant things, rarely.  Katie was learning not to say too much, but she had so many questions, and felt the least she could do was encourage Eudocia who might well be headed into a bad situation.  

“She will have children and raise them right,” the empress said.  “Things will get better.”

Morgan took Placidia under her wing right away.  Festuscato called her his ward, so Morgan hugged the girl, mightily.  Placidia was not sure about the arrangement—about leaving her mother and sister, but her attitude improved when she discovered Sibelius was really a house elf.  She became convinced, though, when she met Violet, a young fairy who agreed to be her friend.

Violet was roughly seventy-five years old, which is very young and not even full grown for a fairy.  In her big size, she appeared to be about fifteen, maybe sixteen.  Placidia liked the idea of Violet being older, especially, since she would be losing her older sister.  She did not yet realize that when she turned eighteen or twenty, Violet would still look sixteen.  When she turned thirty, Violet might pass for seventeen, probably not eighteen.  In fact, Violet would not be considered full grown until Placidia turned forty.  That could be very annoying if you were not prepared for it.  Still, for the present, both Placidia and her mother were happy with the arrangement.  The empress thought the older girl would keep Placidia’s feet on the ground.  Clearly, she did not know fairies at all.

Tony spent most of the night, and most of the six days the travelers stayed talking with Festuscato, almost monopolizing the man.  The travelers stayed to perform some basic maintenance, on the wagon, and particularly on the horseshoes.  When they got ready to go, Clyde the Celt promised to guide them through the hills to the other side of Rome, where they could pick up the main road to the north.  They thanked him and waved when they left him behind.

Tony spoke to Decker before the colonel moved a small way from the road to watch their flank.  “So, World War One, here we come.  I can’t imagine it, much less World War Two, or Three if there is one.”

“Two by my time,” Decker said.  “And did you happen to mention to the Kairos that the Wraith evaded us again?”

“I think everyone mentioned it,” Alexis said.

Decker looked at her sharply, before he nodded and moved out.

Up front, Boston, Sukki, and Nanette rode on the point, a little bit out from the rest.  They let their horses walk side by side and talked.  Nanette suggested Supergirl.

“Taken,” Boston said.  “And so is Wonder Woman.  I thought of those right away.”

“You mean, in the future…” Nanette did not know what to ask.

“No.  Just in fiction, but Sukki might get in trouble with the copyright people and all that.”  Nanette nodded as Boston spoke again.  “How about Astoundo Lady?”  Both Nanette and Sukki turned up their noses. “Well, something astounding, or astonishing.”

“How about Mega Girl,” Nanette suggested.

Boston shook her head.  “Sounds too much like Lego blocks, or maybe diapers.  It sounds like an anime character.  It sounds fat.”

“What’s wrong with fat?” both Nanette and Sukki asked at the same time.

“Where I come from, I don’t know.  I think it has become a swear word, as stupid as that sounds.”

“That is just because you are such a skinny bean,” Nanette said, and Sukki nodded.

They rode in silence for a minute until Boston exploded.  “I know.  Why don’t we name Sukki some take-off on Neanderthal, or Gott-Druk, or whatever?”

Sukki, who rode in the middle, finally had enough and spurred her horse to move out front.

“Where are you going?” Nanette asked.

Sukki shouted back.  “Someone has to keep an eye on where we are going.”

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

MONDAY

Another person known to regular readers. The travelers arrive in Britain looking for Gerraint the son of Erbin in the days of Arthur, Pendragon. They find the wraith got there ahead of them. Don’t miss it, The Guns of Camelot, Monday. Happy Reading

*

Avalon 7.11 The Sack of Rome, part 5 of 6

Katie remarked to Lockhart and Felix for the third time in three days that there did not seem to be very much traffic on the road.  Last time they came through, during the time of Julius Caesar, the road actually got crowded.

“Often, the crowd included soldiers,” Lockhart added.

Felix glanced back at his son, his four men and two wagons full of linen and a good bit of silk brought up from Egypt.  He agreed again and spoke again from his knowledge and experience.  “Italy has suffered from drought and bad harvests for almost ten years now.  Famine has reared its head in several places.  There isn’t much business going on.  As for soldiers, the nearest legion is south, facing Sicily, or north, facing the Huns.  I am not sure either is fully manned, and it would take them a month to get here in any case.  The one in the north is mostly comprised of Goths.  The one in the south is full of barbarians as well.  They might all fight for the Vandals.  Most Romans don’t fight these days.”

Lockhart copied Felix and glanced back.  Decker and Nanette followed the three out front.  Lincoln and Alexis presently drove the wagon.  Elder Stow sat in the wagon and worked on his equipment when Tony, who followed, did not interrupt him with conversation.  He turned his head to look out front.  Boston and Sukki were somewhere ahead, making sure the road was clear.  He had a serious question and turned again to Katie and Felix.

“Who is defending Rome, the city?”

Felix opened his mouth but did not get to say anything as Boston and Sukki came racing back with news.

“Barbarians.  Maybe thieves on the road, but I think barbarians.  They have long swords and shields with funny pictures, and they don’t look very Roman.  About fifty of them.”

The column stopped.

“They are getting off the road to hide in the trees, like a trap,” Sukki said.

“Ambush,” Boston told her, and Sukki nodded.

“Ambush.”

Lockhart looked at Katie, who looked at Felix, and Felix spoke.  “We are close enough to the city, so this road is the primary way from here.  We might cut down to the coastal road to Ostia, but that would put us into the hands of the Vandals, and the nearest cutoff is a couple of miles back.  We want to get to Festuscato’s manor house.  I am sure he has some clever way of keeping out the Vandals, but that is off this road.”

“Do you think they are attacking all merchants on this road, headed for Rome?” Lockhart asked.

“Not enough traffic to warrant that,” Katie answered.  She thought about it while Decker and Nanette squeezed up from behind.

“I smell a wraith,” Decker said.  “Or something like her.”

“Me, too,” Boston blurted out.  Sukki scanned the treetops and sky, expecting the wraith to appear at any moment.

“I agree,” Katie finally said.  “The Vandals want gold, and there isn’t much to be had on this road.  The wraith wants us dead, for some reason, and would know we are coming.  She would be the one to set a trap.”

“Ambush,” Boston and Sukki spoke together, and grinned at each other.

Lockhart nodded.  “Nanette and Felix.  Stay here and explain it to the others.  Decker, Boston, and Sukki, come with us.  We will scout ahead…”

“No!”  Meg, the wraith, appeared in front of them, fifty yards down the road.  She looked especially pale, hovering in the sunlight.  “How can you know?  How can you figure it out?  I hate you.  Die.  You must die.”

Boston shot a fireball at the wraith, but the wraith vanished.  As she did, they saw the fifty barbarians not more than a hundred yards off, running at them, screaming murder, holding their shields and swords.  Boston’s fireball struck two of them, but the others did not appear to even notice.

Decker and Katie pulled their rifles, and a half-dozen in the front row went down.  The rest just went around or leapt over their fallen men.  Lockhart and Boston pulled their handguns, as did Tony who rode up front to see what was happening.  Nanette did not have time to reach Decker’s handgun.  Sukki froze, not sure what to do.  The barbarians would surely reach them.

Elder Stow recognized the danger and stopped walking toward the front about half-way there.  He held his screen device.  He had it pre-set, to test it.  He shut his eyes and turned it on.  It sputtered and let out a spark.

“No, no, no,” he complained, and banged it against the palm of his hand.  It turned on, and Elder Stow grabbed the edge of the silk wagon with his free hand to steady himself against the impact.

Three Vandals made it inside the screen.  They stopped when they saw the rest of their men crash against the screen and fall back onto the road.  Everyone stayed too busy shooting the barbarians to notice, but Nanette saw and yelled for Sukki.  Sukki raised her hands, and the three got bathed in a bright light.  They collapsed straight to the ground. and Sukki got down from her horse, tears threatening to break out of her eyes at any moment.

“Please don’t be dead,” she said.  She met Nanette on the ground, and Alexis was not far, having walked up beside the wagons on the other side from Elder Stow.  “Please don’t be dead,” Sukki whispered.

The gunfire stopped when the surviving Vandals, about fifteen, turned and ran off, screaming.  Some thirty lay in the road, dead, or near enough.

Sukki felt relieved when the three proved to be knocked out, but other than terrible headaches, seemed undamaged.  “I tried to just stun them,” Sukki said.

“And you did,” Alexis responded, while Sukki’s sisters, Nanette and Boston both hugged Sukki and told her how proud they were of her.  Sukki was the youngest sister, after all.

The three got tied up and tossed into the back of one of Felix’s ox-drawn wagons.  Then, Lincoln would not let Alexis try to heal any of the others.  They spent an hour dragging the dead men off the road and forced the disarmed ones that were only wounded to sit with them.  Then they moved on.  Felix, and for the most part, all of the others felt certain if the wraith attacked them, she must be attacking Festuscato’s home at the same time.  They hurried to get there.

###

“What do you mean you can’t find Clorismund?” Godamer shouted.

Hawdic ducked.  “He must have taken his troop further down the road, or maybe he stopped at one of the other homes we passed.”

Godamer gave Hawdic a mean look but hit the man next to Hawdic in the chest, hard.  That man made a face, took two steps back and rubbed his chest, but he knew better than to fight back.  Godamer already turned and started yelling.

“Get your hundred,” he said to Hawdic.  Godamer took a breath and calmed a little.  “At the side of the house, there, you see a long, gentle slope of grass that ends in some trees at the bottom of the hill.  There, in the direction of the Tenant houses that can just be seen out back.  Take your hundred through the woods to the huts in the distance and circle around to come up on the back of the house.  You can attack the rear of the house where they might not be prepared.  Besides, now that they know we are here, we don’t want them running away with all their gold.”

Hawdic nodded but said nothing as he turned to get his men ready.  Godamer had it all figured.  Once Hawdic attacked the rear of the house and drew away the defenders, or some of them, anyway, he would charge his two-fifty… his two hundred… his one seventy.  But anyway, it would be enough to break in and kill the defenders.  He did not count more than thirty or forty archers behind the wall and in the house.  Then he added a thought.  “Curse Clorismund.”

Inside the house, Morgan got the defenders ready.  She had ten members of the household staff, led by Sibelius, all elves good with a bow and arrows.  Lord Atias had twenty more elves, all experts with the bow.  Lord Roan only had fifteen fairies.  Most of his and Lord Atias’ people were in Rome, keeping a watchful eye on the Vandals there.  But Porculus showed up with thirty dwarfs, and while they preferred the axe, they could shoot well enough.  Then, Clyde, the Celt arrived with another thirty men, tenant farmers who returned from the hills to defend their homes and the manor house.

“Lord Agitus has kept us fed in these hard times,” Clyde said.  “He provides good homes, and we have good lives and a fair wage, besides.  We don’t want to lose that.  Vercinex has thirty more at the houses to defend our homes.”  He tipped his hat to Morgan who leaned forward and kissed the old man’s cheek.

Porculus hooted for Morgan’s attention.  “I left Hawgtic and his band at the houses with the other defenders.  They are no good with a bow, but magic with the axe, in case the enemy is stupid enough to get close.”  He leaned forward in expectation of a kiss, but Morgan just tussled his hair like one might acknowledge an obedient child.  She smiled for him, which was almost like a kiss.  The only thing that would have been better would be if she had a plate overflowing with food.  

Porculus sighed, and Morgan thought.  She had over a hundred defenders stuffed into her house, since the elves and fairies abandoned the wall.  They remained outnumbered about three to one, but that had to be far more than the Vandals counted on.  Every window and door would send arrows by the handful, if the Vandals were foolish enough to press the attack.  And, if it got to where they had to withdraw, they had fifty more people to strengthen them when they reached the tenant houses.  She felt they had more than a fair chance to save her home, until Sibelius came running up.

“Lady, Mistress.  The vandals are moving through the woods that border the land of Velleius Fulvia, next door.  About a hundred.”

“Lord Roan?” Morgan called.

“They are obviously getting around behind us, to cut off any escape, and to attack us from the rear.  The Lady could escape now and be safe.”

Morgan shook her head.  “No.  My husband would not be happy with me if I gave up now and ran away.  We fight.”

Porculus offered a suggestion.  “We could tie her up and force her to leave.”

“You will not touch my Lady,” Sibelius shrieked, stepped in front of Morgan, and pulled her knife.  Morgan’s sister, Macy, heard from the window and stepped over to support her sister.  Ironwood, of course, supported his wife Macy, though Ironwood gave his fairy king a shrug and Lord Roan hid his grin.

“I’m not sure we could,” Lord Atias admitted to the dwarf.

Gaius, flanked by two clerics, came out of the back room.  “I know it is not over.  I should be in prayer, but my knees can only take so much,” he said.  “What?” he asked

Porculus merely shrugged and went to his window to wait.  “Could use something to eat while we are waiting,” he mumbled.

The others broke the tableau and went to their assigned places.  Macy gave Ironwood a kiss.  Sibelius curtsied for her mistress and returned to the side window to keep an eye on the Vandals in the woods.

“What did I miss?” Gaius asked.  Morgan merely smiled for him, stepped over to give Porculus a kiss on the cheek and then returned to her place.

Gaius shrugged, took the two clerics to the pantry and watched them get to work.  It occurred to him the defenders were probably hungry.

Avalon 7.11 The Sack of Rome, part 4 of 6

After the days of waiting, when both Vandals and Romans had been instructed about the terms of the agreement, the gates of Rome opened, and the invading army entered the city.  It took all day to bring the Vandals inside and set their living accommodations for the next two weeks.  Some tents were set up in various squares and open spaces around the city.  Many more families were displaced so the soldiers could stay in people’s homes.  Most of those families sought shelter in the churches of Saint Peter, Saint Johns, Saint Paul, and others.

When the army came in, Festuscato prepared to slip his small troop out of the gate to the Appian Way.  He took Empress Licinia Eudoxia, and her daughters, Eudocia and Placidia, and disguised them as soldiers, complete with dragon tunics.  They could ride well enough, so that was not a problem.

“We will know in two weeks if Geiseric keeps the agreement or not,” Festuscato said.  The empress agreed, but looked away, a sad expression on her face.

“I know Valentinian set this up,” she said.  “Eudocia is willing, even if it means marrying a barbarian.  It was her father’s wish.  Besides, she will be queen one day, and I have tried to raise her to do right.”

“Why are you fretting?

“It’s just, Africa is so far away.  I hear they have wild men there, and barbarians rule the city.  I fear for our safety in such a barbaric and strange place.”

“Hush,” Festuscato said.  “When your father sent you to Rome to marry Valentinian, a stranger to you, in a strange land, you found the courage, and held your face up high, even in front of Valentinian’s mother.”

“Not very high in front of her,” the empress admitted.  “That would not have been wise.” 

“Mother-in-law.”  Festuscato grinned.  “But Carthage is not that different from Rome.  Geiseric did not burn the city when he took it.  He wanted to rule there, not ruin the city.  It is full of Romans and a very Roman city.  Why, it is one of the five greatest cities in all of Roman lands.”

“Five?” the empress asked.

“Rome and Constantinople are obvious,” Festuscato responded.  “But Carthage and Alexandria in Egypt are close seconds.”  He handed the Empress his handkerchief.  She wept softly and wiped her eyes.

“And the fifth?”

“Jerusalem,” Festuscato admitted.  “Though when I visited there, it was hardly a village.  But the history…”

The empress nodded.  She blew her nose and put on her smile.  She kept a brave front for Eudocia and Placidia.  Eudocia turned seventeen and well understood her part in the play.  Placidia just turned thirteen and found it all exciting because everything was exciting at thirteen.  “We should join the others.”

“Wait.”  Festuscato said and had to frame his thoughts.  He chided himself.  His glib and loose tongue used to rattle things off without having to think first.  “You and Eudocia are facing a secure future.  Placidia is only facing uncertainty.  Eudocia’s charm and beauty will serve her well.  I have no doubt you will find a good place in Carthage and Geiseric’s court.  But Placidia, though bright, is a bit of a tomboy, neither graceful nor beautiful.  Her future in that environment will be risky and questionable.”

“What are you suggesting?”

Festuscato took a deep breath.  “I could keep her here.  She would be safe, and when she is of age, I can marry her to a good family.  I know a few where she will be both safe and happy.”

The empress stood and changed the subject.  “Would you consider taking the throne in the west?”

“Not me.  Not ever.  I hate politics.”

The empress nodded.  “You are as wise as I always imagined you to be.”  She went to join her daughters and Festuscato noticed she did not say no.

###

Godamer, Hawdic, and their three-fifty arrived outside the manor house and paused.  The house appeared to have been fortified, though they saw no men manning the fortifications.  All the same, Godamer thought to be careful even as he said, “This is the house.”

“We passed several wealthy houses to get here,” Hawdic said.  “Why this house?”

“While you spent the last two days, fretting, I checked with some of the locals,” Godamer answered, and sent several men up in the orange trees that lined the road to see what they could see.  “This is the house of Senator Agitus, reported to be one of the richest, if not the richest man in Rome.  The man owns land all over Italy, and all that wealth comes here.”  Hawdic did not respond, but he grinned and nodded.

“I see movement,” one man shouted down.

“I don’t see any people manning the walls,” another added, so the first man shouted down a suggestion.

“Maybe it is just chickens, or farm animals let loose.  The people may have headed to the hills.”

Godamer growled.  Maybe they took all their gold and silver into the hills with them.  He had not thought of that.

“Maybe they escaped with their treasure,” Hawdic said it out loud.  Godamer hit him.  Hawdic thinking was not something to be encouraged.

“Let’s see,” Godamer said.  He waved for the nearest group.  Fifty men began to move slowly up the slight rise toward the house, wary of the newly constructed walls, even if they could not see any men at those walls.  They got about half-way there.  Suddenly men popped up from behind those walls and let loose dozens of arrows.  The archers were amazingly accurate.  Godamer’s men turned and ran back to the road, but only about half made it.  The front yard of the house became littered with bodies, few of which lived long enough to moan and cry out.

Godamer would need to plan this out.  “At least we know the people are still there,” he said.

“That means maybe the gold is still there,” Hawdic said, hopefully.

“Damn,” Meg said.  She did not plan on the house being protected by the little spirits of the earth.  They could be a problem.  She dared not fully manifest.

Upstairs, Morgan gave her half-sister a hug.  Macy was a half elf, married to the fairy, Ironwood.  She was an excellent archer, but she did not like killing.  She shot one arrow from their second-story window and probably killed the man.  Now, she wanted to cry.  Ironwood flew up, got big and took over the comforting role.  Megan turned immediately to her elf handmaid.

“Sibelius, your thoughts?”

Sibelius lowered her own bow.  “We may have to consider plan B.  We should probably go downstairs, collect our parcels, and get ready to run the planned route to the tenant houses.  From there, we can get lost in the woods and make for the hills to join the others already there.”

“I don’t like giving up my home so easily,” Morgan said.

“I count roughly three hundred Barbarians in the road.  If their commander doesn’t care about his losses, a concerted charge could overrun the house in no time.”

“Compromise,” Morgan decided.  “We will go downstairs and get our things but stay by the front windows to watch.  We won’t run, unless we have to.”

“Lady,” Sibelius wanted to protest.  “In your condition, you should get a head start on the running.”

Morgan did not answer her.

Avalon 7.11 The Sack of Rome, part 2 of 6

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

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

“How do you know that?” Hawdic asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avalon 7.10 Guarding the Future, part 3 of 6

The day started out hot as ever, but they soon came to a green place in the wilderness.  No one would ever call the area lush with greenery, but there were trees, and in the distance, it looked like a field of grain.  Elder Stow rode in when they stopped.  He checked his scanner and said there was a town in that direction.  Lincoln looked it up and called it Taif.

“I don’t know,” Lockhart said.  “The path we are on looks like it avoids the town.”  He waited to hear from the others.

Katie shook her head.  “Remember Italy, where we found Evan.  All the local Latin tribes were fighting each other?”

“Where they treated strangers like shoot first and ask questions later?” Lockhart clarified.

Katie nodded.  “That is the feeling I get about this place, like all the tribes are fighting each other.  No telling how they treat the caravans.”

Lincoln spoke up.  “I’m not comfortable in this place, but I figured it was just the heat.”

Alexis spoke for the other side.  “But the town might have fruit, maybe cold melons, or at least dates.”

Decker rode up from the other wing.  “The city looks like an armed camp.  They have soldiers all along the walls.  I recommend we avoid going there.”

“Boss,” Boston rode back from the point.  She had her amulet out and shook her head.  “I was checking the direction.  It looked like we were going to have to veer to our left and go over the mountains.  I was hoping we could avoid doing that.  But all of a sudden, the Kairos moved, like when the gods used to move us in an instant.  She is almost due south, now, well, south-southwest.  The time gate shifted, too.  Hopefully, we won’t have to go to sea, but look.”  She held out her amulet for Lockhart to look, but he did not have elf eyes to read such a small map.

Katie got out her prototype amulet and confirmed Boston’s words.

“Town or no town?” Tony asked, wanting to get back on topic.  He was not sure what Boston meant when she said the Kairos moved in an instant, like when the gods used to move them.

“We go around,” Lockhart said, just before the travelers, their horses and even the wagon and trees felt a massive pull toward the southeast.  The wagon lifted on two wheels before it settled down again.  Nanette, who just dismounted, and Lincoln both fell to the ground in that southeast direction.  Several tree branches snapped off and flew a short way to the southeast, as if a great tornado-like wind came crashing in from the northwest, but they felt no wind at first.  The air moved, as people and horses struggled to keep to their feet.  Then the air seemed to change its mind as it came rushing back from the southeast at almost hurricane speed.  It was not long before they heard the sound of rolling thunder.  The earth beneath their feet began to shift and tremble.  Lincoln looked, but no great flash of light came, and no mushroom cloud rose over the horizon.

“Sand,” Alexis and Katie both yelled at the same time.

“Turn the horses.”

“Turn your back.”

People expected the worst, but Elder Stow clicked a button, even as the sand came.  The screens held the full seven minutes of the horrendous sandstorm.  The people watched it tear up the trees outside the screen area.  They saw it rip through the distant fields of grain before the sand built up on the outside of the screens and obscured their vision.

“As good a time as any to test the screens,” Elder Stow said.  “I can see fluctuation in the stabilizers.  I still have to work on it, but hopefully, they will stay up until the sandstorm stops.”

“Seven minutes,” Lincoln said, having timed the event.

“The legend says when Ubar sank into the sand, the sandstorm lasted for seven days,” Tony said.

The wind shifted and began to blow back in the direction from which it had been driven.  The ground finally settled down, but the returning wind blew hard enough at first to knock down a couple of those broken trees.  Soon enough, the wind became a simple breeze.  Boston said she could smell the Red Sea in the distance, but the others only smelled the heat.

“So, anyway,” Lincoln said, even if it sounded like a street name, “Sweny Way.”  He said, “No town.”

“No,” Lockhart said.  “And no, Alexis.  You can’t go there and heal everyone hurt by that storm, or whatever it was.”

Alexis looked unhappy but nodded.  Nanette gave her a hug before they all mounted and started.  Alexis did have a suggestion.  “We should stop and have lunch before we leave the trees.”

Lockhart agreed with that, so that was what they tried to do.  They found a troop of baboons clambering around the rocks and in the trees.  The baboons spent lunchtime yelling at the travelers and occasionally throwing pebbles and twigs at them.  Nanette countered with an offer of elf bread.  They all watched the big male as he checked it out and tested it.  He screeched, and the travelers put out a dozen loaves which the baboons collected before they ran back to their rocks and trees.  As far as Boston could tell, about a third of the bread got eaten.  The rest got played with, which mostly meant squished.

While they rested in the heat of the afternoon, Decker meditated and let his eagle totem up into the sky.  He looked to the southeast, over the mountains, but saw nothing to indicate the reason for their seven-minute sandstorm.  He figured it had to be too far away to see.  He also figured it had to be a massive explosion, and if it was too far away to see, Lincoln had been right to look for a mushroom cloud.

Elder Stow suggested a dual-concussive gravitron bomb.  He explained that it sucked everything in and squished things close enough, almost like a miniature black hole.  Then, after the initial action, it exploded back outward, more powerful than a simple atomic explosion.  He said a big enough bomb might affect an area of a thousand miles around, or more.  “An old fashioned, but powerful device,” he called it.  No wonder Decker could see no sign of it, even from the limits of his eagle flight.

Decker wheeled his eagle to the south.  He saw scrub grass, and hills broken by sections that looked like good grass and even trees.  He saw some towns and villages in that direction.  He figured the land they were moving through still had plenty of good grazing land, which accounted for the herd animals they saw in the night.  Hot as it was, their journey should not be too difficult if they did not push it.

Finally, Decker wheeled around and examined the city they avoided.  The city wall crumbled in a few places in the direction of the explosion.  He saw plenty of people out in the fields, no doubt trying to save whatever crops they could. Then he saw some thirty soldiers headed straight toward their camp.  He circled around.  He saw the wraith leading the soldiers and knew it would be trouble.  Fortunately, the wraith did not see him.

Decker let go of his totem and stood.  “Everybody up,” he yelled.  “We got trouble coming.  About thirty soldiers from the city, and they look to be led by the wraith.”

“Pack it up,” Lockhart yelled.

“They will be here in about five minutes,” Decker added, knowing there was no way they could get everything packed and they could move in time.  Decker did not exactly adjust the time from as the eagle flies to travel on the ground.  It took more like ten minutes, and the travelers did get everything packed, more or less, but the soldiers surrounded them, so there was nowhere they could go. Fortunately, Elder Stow got his screens up again so the soldiers could not get at them.  It sliced through a couple of rocks and trees, but it held.

“I don’t know how long they will hold, though,” he said.  “I’m still seeing serious fluctuations in the stabilizers.  They could collapse any time.”

Two soldiers walked up and cracked their toes against the screens.  One fell forward and slid down the front.  Two soldiers in the rear fired arrows at the travelers—maybe warning shots intended to get them to not put up a fight.  One arrow snapped in half and fell harmlessly to the ground.  The other bounced off at an angle and nearly skewered one of the other soldiers.

The wraith, who had been hiding in the back, rushed forward to point a boney finger at the travelers.  “These are the ones,” she shrieked.  “These made the earthquake and sandstorm.  They killed your people.  They must pay with their lives.  Kill them.  Kill them!”

One soldier who appeared to have a brain, set his hand against the screen, and asked, “How do we get at them?  They seem to be protected by the gods in some way.”  At the suggestion that the gods might be protecting the travelers, several soldiers backed away.

“It is not the gods,” The wraith yelled.  “The gods have all gone over to the other side, you fool.  Just kill them.”

A sudden hot breeze smelling of sand got the attention of soldiers and travelers alike.  A face of sand hovered over them all, looking down on them.  The first thing the face said was, “Hello Meg.”

The wraith looked up and screamed.  She raced off as fast as she could, south, toward the next time gate.  The face appeared to shrug as a hand of sand formed next to it.

“Meg is the wraith’s name?” Katie asked.

“Wraiths have names?” Lockhart mumbled.

The hand pointed one finger and touched the top of the screens.  They popped like soap bubble, and Elder Stow protested.

“No, no, no.”

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

MONDAY

The Djin proves friendly and will take the travelers to the Kairos, they hope.  Happy Reading

*

Avalon 7.9 The Inns and Outs, part 5 of 6

The travelers arrived in the bay after dark.  The tide had already gone out, so they had to wait until the early morning hours to dock and unload the horses.  Lockhart set Pinto’s hands free, thinking the man could not do anything, and he needed to be able to feed himself.  Besides, he wanted his handcuffs back.  All the same, people slept on the deck with their weapons handy.  Boston slept with one ear on the horses below, and Lincoln slept with their money bag nestled securely between himself and Alexis.  Alexis complained, but she felt tired enough to sleep no matter what.

Sure enough, in the early hours, a couple of crew members joined Pinto in stealing the long boat.  They rowed to shore where they could get lost in the crowd and not have to answer any questions the harbor master and his legionnaires might ask.  Captain Ardacles said good riddance, and a mate is no good if you can’t trust him.  The travelers did not believe him.  Several suspected that after they got unloaded, Pinto and his friends would be back on board to continue their thieving ways.

Once free of the dock, all the papers signed in duplicate, they found the dozen monks of Barke, waiting patiently for them.  Deacon Galarius introduced them all, but only Alexis, and maybe Nanette and Katie would remember all those names.  Lincoln was quick to thank them for helping the ship get safely through the storm.  They nodded, smiled, and said don’t mention it.

“We will walk with you on the road to Nicaea,” Deacon Galarius said, and several monks nodded.  “That way, we can keep the wraith away, not to mention the thieves.  The road is full of thieves looking for an isolated priest or bishop with a bag of gold.”

Lockhart looked around at the group and did not argue, even if it meant walking the whole way.  They all began to walk, together, and brought the wagon along, slowly.

“What has that creature got against you folks, anyway?” Father Flavius opened the conversation.

“Not sure,” Lockhart answered.

“If it is the same one,” Lincoln said.  “And not everyone agrees that it is.”  He paused to start again.  “If it is the same one, it followed us through a time gate about three thousand years ago and stayed mostly hidden until after the time of dissolution.”

“What is that?” Deacon Galarius asked.  “The time of dissolution?”

“It is when the old gods gave up their flesh and blood and went back to being forces of nature.”  Lockhart offered what he understood.

“It is when the holding places for the spirits of the dead, like Hades, gave up their dead,” Katie added.

“The advent of our Lord,” Father Flavius suggested with a nod.

“Basically,” Alexis agreed.

“Anyway,” Lincoln continued.  “This wraith somehow got the idea that she is supposed to have our souls, and so far, we have not been able to stop her or talk her out of that idea.”

“I see,” Father Flavius said, though he did not explain exactly what he saw.

In the afternoon, they began the slow climb into the hills and Deacon Galarius came up front to warn the travelers.  “The thieves are mostly here in the high country.  The legion patrols the valleys, but apparently, they don’t get paid enough to climb into the hills.  Besides, the hills are filled with off-road trails where a few men can scurry away to hide among the trees and rocks.”

“Welcome to Sherwood,” Lockhart said.

After a moment, Katie guessed, “Robin Hood?”

The group camped in a field where they had a fair view all around.  They did not find much game, but the monks brought food stuffs for the journey.  It included plenty of vegetables so Alexis, Boston, Sukki, and Elder Stow were happy.  They also brought some beer, which helped everyone relax as they settled in for a night of careful watch.  The thieves stayed away, but one visitor did show up in the early hours when Boston and Sukki awaited the sunrise.

“What?” Boston said, much too loud.  “What do you want?”

The wraith hovered over the grass, just outside Elder Stow’s screen.  The slight breeze that blew her ragged dress around, showed no feet to stand on beneath the dress.  She looked old, a bit like a wrinkled and rotten fruit, but her many teeth looked clean and plenty sharp.  Her voice sounded like the creak in the shutters of an old barn.

“I don’t want you, little spirit.  You are no longer of any consequence,” she said, with a grin that showed all those teeth, but suggested she might change her mind.  “And I have no interest in the elder ones, either the girl beside you that used to be an elder, nor the elder man that continues to travel with you.  Nor do I have a claim on the new ones, neither the man, nor Nanette, who has proved a great disappointment.  But the other five…”  The wraith held up her hand.  The fingers appeared wispy and seemed to have a hard time solidifying and coming into focus, but it was enough to count.  “Yes, five.  You must give them to me.  I am charged by Domnu herself to feast upon their fear and drag their souls to the land of the dead where they will live in eternal torment.”

“The land of the dead has been emptied,” Deacon Galarius said as he stepped up behind Boston and Sukki.

“Yeah,” Boston spouted.  “When was the last time you went there and checked?”

The wraith grew suddenly angry.  The people took one step back in the face of that fury, but all the wraith could do was pound on Elder Stow’s screen and yell, “You lie.  Give me the mortals.  Give them to me.”

By then, the two monks on the watch stepped forward, and with Deacon Galarius, they appeared to pray.  A mist, barely discernable, came from the monks and slipped right through the screens.  It caught the wraith in mid-curse and pushed her further and further from the camp, until she disappeared behind a far hill.  The yelling and cursing could be heard until the end.

Decker came running up, rifle in his hand.  Nanette followed him, only a couple of paces behind.  “Damn,” Decker said.  He fired once in the general direction before Nanette caught him and took his arm.

“Next time,” Nanette said.  Decker did not answer.

As the travelers and their escort followed the river down into the valley, toward the lake and the city of Nicaea, Alexis asked a serious question.  “I thought the church frowned on sorcery.”

Father Flavius nodded as Deacon Galarius explained.  “The church frowns on the misuse of power and the ungodly misuse of whatever talents or position the Lord gives.  To violate a person’s conscience is the temptation—because with every gift there is temptation.”

“The Lords and rulers in this age, instead of leading and guiding people, they have most often sought to control people,” Father Flavius said.  “They tried to make people think, act, and talk a certain way, and for years, threatened torture and death if, for example, the people were unwilling to sacrifice to the emperor.  The government is not to be worshiped.”

“People need to make their own decision how they will act, think, and talk.  People must come to Christ in their own heart, and neither threats nor magical trickery will do,” Deacon Galarius said.  “The monks of Barke understand this and do everything that they do with prayer and supplication, being most careful not to violate others in their work.”

“It is for salvations sake,” Father Flavius agreed.  “All gifts and talents are given for the building up of the body of Christ.  Magic is a most rare, and honestly, most dangerous gift to be treated with the utmost care and oversight.  But when it is misused in order to force or control others, or make things come out the way the magic user wishes, then it is sorcery, and the church does frown on that.”

“So, what you are saying.” Lincoln wanted to get it straight.  “Nothing is evil of itself.  It all depends on what people do with what they have been given.”

“God created all things and called them good,” Father Flavius said.  “Without Christ, nothing was made that was made.  Magic was made.”

“The rich man and the poor man lived side by side, and when they died, the rich man went to torment and the poor man went to paradise.”  Deacon Galarius tried to explain.  “When the rich man complained, he was told he had every good thing in life, and he did nothing to relieve the suffering of the poor man.  Now, in death, the poor man has every good thing, and the rich man gets to suffer.”

“That is not exactly the story,” Father Flavius said.  “But the rich young ruler was told to sell all that he had and give to the poor and come and follow Jesus.  The rich man went away sad, because he had many things.”

Alexis offered her thought.  “Back home, some think the rich should be forced to give up their money so it can be given to the poor.”

“No, no,” Father Flavius said.  “Conscience, remember?  The rich have been given a great gift, but they must find it in their hearts to give and help those in need.  That is when it means something, has value, and God will bless.  To take, by which I assume you mean steal, will accomplish only evil.”

“There are many talents and gifts with which the Lord gifts his people,” Deacon Galarius said.  “Don’t make the gift of magic more than it is.  Personally, I believe the most gifted person in the monastery of Barke is the cook.  Without any magic whatsoever, he can take the most meagre rations and produce a feast worthy of the name.”

“Now, I’m hungry,” Father Flavius said.

Lockhart overheard and called, “Lunch.”

They stopped on the last small rise before the lake and the city, both of which they could see perfectly well down the hill.  Elder Stow did not need his scanner.  Decker did not need to meditate and let his eagle totem show him the countryside.  Decker did, however, get out his binoculars.  He sensed something wrong.  All of the monks and the travelers that were sensitive to such things felt the same.

“Fire in the city,” Decker said, and handed his binoculars to Lincoln so he could have a look.  Katie got out the scope for her rifle while Lockhart got her binoculars, which he handed around so some of the others could take a look.

Avalon 7.9 The Inns and Outs, part 4 of 6

Captain Ardocles sat that whole time with his mouth and eyes as open as they could be. He said nothing until they began moving rapidly against the prevailing winds.  The he said, “Ten points to port if you are headed back to the Gulf of Astacus.”

“Ten points to port,” Lincoln echoed, nice and loud, and the men on the rudder followed orders.  Tony, Boston, and Katie went below to check on the horses.

Pinto sat that whole time with his eyes shut tight, like a man who did not want to see what was happening.  When Lockhart removed the gag, the man began to weep, and spoke like a man half-mad.  “I didn’t know.  You have silver and real gold.  And horses worth the treasure of Midas himself.  I should have known you were of the gods.  I was blinded by my greed.  Gods forgive me.  I sent messengers on the morning tide while we waited the day.  I didn’t know.”

Boston came up from down below, having heard the gist of the man’s confession.  She removed her glamour to reveal her true elf self.  Pinto saw her and screamed.  He wet himself, as Katie scolded Boston.

Lockhart stepped up to Captain Ardocles and put a hand on the man’s shoulder.  “We don’t normally get a full confession like that without persuasion.”  Of course, the travelers would never deliberately hurt anyone other than in self-defense, and they certainly would never torture anyone, but Lockhart thought it safe to let Captain Ardocles think what he will.

The captain widened his eyes and pointed at his mate.  “Pinto was in the nest and reported storm clouds in the gulf.  I turned south toward Apamea for your own safety.  I didn’t know he had pirates waiting.”

“It was his idea,” Pinto shrieked.

Captain Ardocles shook his head.  “Poor fellow.  Wanting to cast the blame rather than face up to his own misdeeds.”

“Maybe,” Lockhart said, but he let the captain go about the business of getting them safely to Nicomedia.

Nanette gave out first, so the bow of the ship splashed again into the water, but Alexis could not sustain the wind much longer.  By then, they reached the mouth of the gulf and found a wind they could use, so Alexis let it go and imagined she would sleep well that night.

 

When they entered fully into the gulf, they found storm clouds had indeed settled over the water.  “Very unusual for this time of year,” Captain Ardacles said.  He looked up at the darkening sky and sounded sincere.

“It doesn’t feel natural,” Boston admitted.  She turned her head to the side and tried to figure out what, exactly, it did feel like.  Decker stayed with an exhausted Nanette.  Lincoln stayed with Alexis.  Tony kept watch on the rudder, while Lockhart and Katie kept the captain and his crew in sight.  Father Flavius prayed for Deacon Galarius, who got seasick, again.  Sukki stayed faithfully with Elder Stow who thought he might be at the point in his repairs where he could test the device.

That all left Boston free to fret about the storm overhead.  The wind came from the north.  The crew had to be careful to keep the ship from being pushed toward the southern shore.  The captain said they would soon reach the place where the gulf narrowed, considerably.  That would not give them much room to maneuver.

The storm started with the wind and the sea, as the waves grew, and the boat began to bounce along.  It bounced.  It did not cut through the waves.  The sky began to drizzle, a wet to match the spray of the sea, when Boston caught sight of the shoreline, north and south.  It looked like the woods, grasslands, and hills all moved closer, to hem the ship in.   It began to rain in earnest, but as soon as it started, it stopped.

“Hey!” Boston shouted, before she noticed the rain did not stop.  It simply shifted to outside the ship, while no rain at all fell on the ship.  She overheard Elder Stow explaining to Lockhart and Katie.

“It is a Decker wall, which I have set as the default.  Right now, I have it overhead where it can act as an umbrella for the ship.”

“Decker wall?” Tony asked, not remembering the term.

Elder Stow nodded.  “It is set so things with sufficient mass and speed, like bullets, can go out through the screens, but nothing can come in.”

Tony nodded, even as a big stroke of lightning struck directly overhead.  Elder Stow’s screens flashed a brilliant yellow light and went out.

“No, no,” Elder Stow shouted, and grabbed the screen device, and replaced the eyepiece with which he worked on the device.  “No,” he said again, as the rain returned to pelt the ship.

“Lightning is a big electro-magnetic pulse,” Sukki said, and looked to the sky for fear of another strike.

Boston finally shouted and got everyone’s attention.  “It is the wraith.”

A second lightning strike came, but it missed the ship by several yards and discharged harmlessly in the sea.  The wind picked up and turned contrary to their motion.  Alexis had to stand and fight back with a wind of her own, though she already felt exhausted.

Lockhart, Katie, and Decker all armed up, but they had little hope of shooting the wraith, unless she was foolish enough to manifest within range.  They scanned the sky, as Nanette closed her eyes and stretched out her senses with her hand.

“I can’t seem to pinpoint the wraith’s location,” she said.  “Maybe I’m not doing it right.”

“You are doing it just fine,” Decker said, without taking his eyes off the sky.

 

“I can’t get a fix on her location either,” Katie shouted through the rain.

“She is up there,” Boston said, and scanned the sky from horizon to horizon.

“The wraith won’t manifest,” Elder Stow said, and stopped his repair work to see what he could pick up on his scanner.  

Sukki wanted to fly up there for a closer look, but Boston and Nanette kept the girl’s feet glued to the deck.  Then the wraith showed herself in a place no one expected.  The travelers and crew all looked north, where the storm came from, and where the cold, north wind came that tried to push the ship to crash on the southern shore.  The wraith appeared over the southern shore and laughed loud enough to draw everyone’s attention.  True, the travelers were not nearly as afraid as the crew, but the wraith seemed to relish the idea of the travelers dying so she could feast on their souls.

Decker fired first, though Katie came a close second.  The target appeared pretty far away, but their military-style weapons would reach that far.

Boston took a second to grab her wand and grab Alexis by the shoulder so she could draw on Alexis’ wind magic.  Boston sent a fireball in the wraith’s direction, but that was all Alexis had left in her.  She collapsed to the deck.  Lincoln caught her, and gave Boston a hard look, but Boston pretended not to notice.

With the fire-ball half-way across the sea, and blocking the Wraith’s view, Elder Stow pulled his weapon.  He fired his energy weapon at the wraith, and Sukki followed with the heat-ray she had in her own hands.

The wraith shrieked, and vanished, but the travelers felt sure something struck home and wounded the creature.  Like all spiritual beings, when they took on physical form, they become subject to physical things, like bullets and alien heat-rays.  They certainly heard the wraith up in the rainclouds, screaming like one in pain.

Another stroke of lightning came down, but it missed the ship by a good bit.  Lincoln had a thought which he shared.  “I guess the wraith can trigger the lightning, but she can’t control it very well.”  Another stroke came, but landed on the other side of the ship, even as Captain Ardacles said they were being pushed too close to the southern shore.  He looked at Alexis for help, but Lincoln shook his head.  “She is finished for the day.”

“I may help,” Father Flavius interrupted everyone.  He pointed, as the ship appeared to enter a tunnel of favorable winds, calm seas, and no rain.  The dark rain continued all around but stayed outside the tunnel. The lightning came again and again, like an expression of the wraith’s frustration.  It did not enter the tunnel, but rather slid harmlessly off the roof of the tunnel and discharged harmlessly into the sea.

People looked at Elder Stow, but he shook his head, like he did not do it.  They looked again at Father Flavius and noticed Deacon Galarius was not throwing up for a change.  He seemed to be meditating, and Father Flavius explained.

“Deacon Galarius is a monk from Barke, where his order practices strange and unusual—some would say unnatural talents.  There are a dozen monks in Nicomedia, awaiting our arrival.  Once we got close enough, Deacon Galarius was able to reach out to his fellow monks, and together, they have made this safe way to port.  The storm, and any demons that would hinder our progress will be held at bay until we arrive,” he whispered to Katie and Lockhart, and Boston heard with her elf ears.  “Provided the connection with Galarius is not broken by sea sickness.”

“Alexis says, it is hard to concentrate on two things at once,” Nanette overheard and understood.

“Hard for Boston to focus on one thing at a time,” Lockhart teased.

“Boss!” Boston protested, but not too loud, as Lockhart and Katie both reached out and hugged the elf.