by Brian K. Asbury
Alien marauders streaked across the sky, firing salvo after salvo at London’s defenders. Tom Archer, leaping and dodging among the rubble, returned their fire with his bow. It felt slightly ridiculous to be using such an archaic weapon against these faceless foes with their high-tech armament, but this bow was no ordinary length of yew, or even of aluminium or African hardwoods like modern bows — it was an antique weapon known as the Thunderbow, and the shafts he was firing were arrows of the imagination, generated by the bow itself and his own willpower.
But although every shot brought an alien vessel screaming down into the river Thames, still more and more came. Tom watched in dismay as, one by one, his comrades fell. The lovely Godiva was first, her unique hair burning to nothingness as she was blasted down. Then the Knight and Squire, their horse-like motorcycle exploding beneath them.
Tom raced to help them, but the explosion took them farther and farther out of his reach. He could see his teammate Cameo also running towards them, but a strange ray from one of the attacking ships struck her, and her glowing two-dimensional form shattered into several pieces and finally disintegrated altogether.
He could only gape in horror as a similar fate befell his other comrades, one by one — Firebrand, Lodestone, and even the two battle-suited warriors sent by Edward Stacker to join the defense. Lionheart and Prominence went down under a hail of ray-blasts and ceased to move.
Then, to his surprise, a new figure appeared on the scene. Percy Sheldrake, the Earl of Wordenshire, rumbled up in a wheelchair resembling a small tank. He enjoyed a few moments of success, firing what looked to be old-fashioned cannonballs from a huge gun mounted at the rear of the chair, until a falling Gordanian fighter landed right on top of him and blew up.
No! Tom exploded in rage, firing shaft after shaft at the attackers — but for every ship he brought down, three more seemed to appear. Other defenders joined the fray. Three non-costumed individuals rushed up — a middle-aged man, a younger man carrying a guitar, and a beautiful young woman. With a cry of, “We are the Bat-Squad,” they sprouted bat-like wings and flew up towards the invaders, only to keep on going until they reached the stratosphere, where they exploded like fireworks. Nearby, a group of grounded Gordanians watched the spectacle and burst into spontaneous applause.
He rubbed his eyes. What the hell? This doesn’t make sense.
“No, it doesn’t, does it? Still, never mind, old chap. Tallyho!” A figure in blue and red flew past. Thank God! thought Tom. It’s Superman! He’ll save us!
But Superman looked exactly like Ken Hanson, the Scotland Yard detective chief superintendent who was the Paladins’ police liaison. And he was followed by a baying pack of hunting hounds — flying hunting hounds who wore red capes. And suddenly the attacking ships looked for all the world like foxes, foxes which were spitting apples at Superman and his hounds…
Uh…? thought Tom. And as the thought came into his head, the scene started to break up. He felt something hard under his back and realized that he was lying down. And his eyes were closed.
Dear God, he thought. I’m dreaming this. I’m asleep. Which, of course, meant that he was no longer asleep. His awareness of his real position sharpened as he started to regain consciousness. Then suddenly he was fully awake.
He sat up and opened his eyes. He was lying on a long, dark-stained wooden bench or seat, and leaning over him was a man, dressed mostly in black, who peered at him through crude-looking round eyeglasses.
“Ah, ye’re awake, my son,” said the stranger. “Perhaps now, by God’s grace, we’ll have some answers about ye and your motley companions!”
Tom took a good look around, and it suddenly became clear where he was — well, if not precisely where he was, what sort of place he was in, at least.
“This is a church,” he said aloud.
“That’s right, friend,” the man in black said. Tom stared at him. Of course — he was wearing ecclesiastical costume of some sort. Not typical Church of England or even Roman Catholic garb, though. The large, elaborate white collar with its two descending wings was more reminiscent of the sort of uniform a traditional Scottish Presbyterian minister might wear. The man’s accent was certainly not Scottish, though. In fact, Tom couldn’t quite place it.
“How did I get here?” he asked. “Are my friends OK? Did we beat back the invaders?”
“Invaders?” said the priest. “D’ye mean the soldiers of Parliament? Or mayhap those of the King? Whose side be ye on?”
Tom’s senses reeled. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about!” He raised himself higher to take in more of his surroundings. He had been lying on one of the pews, and he could see other figures lying on other benches. One was clearly Lionheart, though his helmet had been removed. There were three others, all covered by blankets, although their heads were visible. He recognized Lodestone, Firebrand, and Cameo. They were also unmasked, as, he realized, reaching up to feel his own face, was he.
“All right,” he said, swinging his legs to the floor. His head swam as he did so, but he looked the priest directly in the eye. “What’s going on here? Where are we, and where are the others?”
“Others? I know not of any others, my son. Ye and these four are all who were brought to my humble sanctuary. As for ‘what is going on,’ methinks ’tis ye who owe an explanation. Thy garb is outlandish — ‘specially thy young womenfolk. Dost not ye know that the Holy Book commands that women should not garb themselves in men’s raiment?”
Tom rubbed his eyes. This guy’s speech was weird. What was he — a Quaker or something? But surely Quakers didn’t build churches like this — did they? The décor was more like a medieval Catholic church, with painted frescoes and lots of gold leaf. In fact, it did look downright olde worlde. The only form of illumination other than the sunlight streaming in through the high stained-glass windows was from candles. He couldn’t see anything resembling electric light fittings.
“Look, I’m sorry,” he said. “I really don’t know what you’re talking about. But we shouldn’t be here. We’re the Paladins. We have a job to do out there.”
“The Paladins, hey? Travelling players, is it?”
“Be ye travelling players, friend? Try as I might, I cannot fathom another explanation for yon costumes. Mayhap you be acrobats and tumblers?”
This is insane! thought Tom. I don’t know how we got here, but this fellow is clearly off his head. He heaved himself up to a standing position, holding on to the back of the pew for support as his senses began to spin again.
“This is not wise, my son,” said the priest. “Whatever ails ye, I know not, but it is clear that ye and your companions are not well. My sexton found ye lying unconscious in the churchyard, and yon others lie in swoon yet. Sit, and I shall send for my wife to bring ye a hot draught. Also, we must find ye more suitable apparel.”
“My ‘apparel’ will do just fine, thanks. I’d like my bow back, though.”
“Thy bow and quiver are safe in the vestry, but I will not allow weapons in God’s house, my son. What are ye doing?”
Tom was making his way to the pews where the others lay. He pulled the blanket from Cameo. There were a few scuff marks on her costume and, as he had previously observed, her mask was missing, but otherwise she looked unharmed. What had happened to them? Why had he been unconscious? Why were the others still so?
The priest had walked up behind Tom as he examined his teammate. “‘Tis many a year since I did see a darkie lass in this shire,” he mused quietly. “Hail ye from coastal parts, to have such a one in thy company?”
“Darkie?!” repeated Tom incredulously. “Good God, man, I didn’t think anybody used words like that anymore! Have you any idea just how insulting that is?”
The priest seemed taken aback. “I did not mean to cause offense, friend. But yon maid is clearly of some foreign race. We see little of her kind in England as a rule. Be she thy wife? I have heard of sailors taking native women to wife. Indeed, I once met an innkeeper from Bristol who–”
“I’m not a sailor, and she’s not my wife!” snapped Tom. “Why did you remove her mask? And mine, for that matter?”
“Truly I have seen mummers and players go masked upon the play-stage, but why dost ye need a mask in the house of God?” asked the priest. “The Lord seeth all.”
He took the end of the blanket from Tom’s hands and covered her again. “We should, however, cover her lest my sexton or other men come in here. It is not apt that a female’s — ah — curves should be so revealed. Indeed, I have never before seen women take up the raiment of players, although it is said that such things are common in France.
“As I said, we are endeavouring to find more suitable garb for your companions. We have clothing donated for the poor, and though you all be quite large, my wife is an adept seamstress and will make necessary alterations.”
Tom turned away from him. His head was starting to clear now, but he was starting to lose patience with this strange priest and his bizarre manner of speech. “I told you — we don’t need ‘more suitable garb.’ Our costumes will do just fine.”
“But… ah, methinks ye do not understand your predicament. When we found you, it was as ye are now. If ye had any further goods or raiment, whoever attacked ye must have made off with it. And ye cannot wander abroad clothed in such a manner. If the Parliament’s men do see ye in such state, then thy lives may be forfeit! I am a broad-minded man, my son, but to a Puritan, a woman garbed as a man is little better than a witch!”
Tom started to form a reply, but halted before a word came out. That was the second time the priest had referred to Parliament’s men. A horrible suspicion began to dawn upon him. “Is… is there some sort of historical reenactment going on near here?”
“Reenactment? I know not what ye mean.” The priest gently sat him down again. “Friend, the army of Parliament, under Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, is camped less than ten leagues from here. If ye venture out, ye may well encounter their scouts. It is thus paramount that we make ye appear more normal.”
Tom’s heart had skipped several beats during that speech. Oliver Cromwell? Oliver Cromwell?
“T-tell me,” he said, haltingly. “What is this place? And what is today’s date?”
“Why, this is the Church of St. Mary and St. Martin at Naseby, my son. And the date is the twelfth of June.”
“In what year?” The priest blinked incredulously, but Tom grabbed the front of his black robe and repeated the question. “In what year?”
“Please, my son, remember that I am a man of the cloth,” said the priest. Tom released him. “That is better. In answer to thy question, friend, it is the Year of Our Lord, Sixteen-Hundred and Forty-Five. Why dost ye ask?”