by Brian K. Asbury
As Tom Archer took in the enormous implications of what he had just heard, the priest remarked, “It seems yon lass is stirring.” He started to move towards the pew where Rhea Jones, alias Lodestone, lay.
Uh-oh, thought Tom. If he sees her eyes before I’ve had a chance to prime her on what’s happening, it could mean trouble. This is an age where they still burn witches at the stake, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what someone from this era — particularly a churchman — would make of someone who can see with eyes which lack either iris or pupil!
“Er… perhaps, then, you’d best go get those clothes you mentioned, Father, uh…”
The priest’s eyes widened in alarm. “Nay! Not ‘Father,’ young man! No Papist am I!”
“I’m sorry,” said Tom. “I don’t know what to call you. My name’s Tom Archer.” He held out his hand.
“Master Archer,” said the priest, taking his hand with an accompanying nod of his head. “I am William Cobblepot, rector of this parish these twenty-two years.”
“Good to meet you, Rector,” Tom said. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rhea’s eyelids flickering. Lionheart and Cameo also seemed to be stirring. “Those clothes?” he added, steering the Reverend Cobblepot away from his companions.
“But of course, my son. I shall attend to it straightaway. You, er…” He glanced questioningly towards the others.
“I’ll still be here when you return, never fear,” said Tom with a reassuring smile. “I’ll tend to my friends as they awake.”
“Of course, of course,” said Cobblepot, skipping away in a curiously birdlike fashion.
As the rector left, Tom turned towards Rhea and shook her gently. “Rhea! Are you OK?”
“Ummm… no, don’t wanna get up yet… what?” Rhea suddenly sat bolt upright. “What happened?”
“Take it easy,” said Tom. “I’ll explain where we are and what our situation is when I’ve checked on the others, but for the moment, I want you to do something for me.”
“Uh… what?” She looked around her. “Hey, is this a church?”
“Yes. Listen to me, Rhea. Can you act as if you’re blind?”
“It’s vital that no one except for ourselves realizes you can see. Do you understand?”
“No, I don’t. What–?”
Tom glanced nervously around. “There are people here who won’t understand how you can see with solid-white eyes, Rhea. They could think you’re a witch or something, and that could put us all in peril.”
“A witch? Are you serious?”
“Very serious. Now promise me you’ll act blind when we’re not alone.”
“Yeah, I guess. But…”
“Just stay there, and if anyone else comes in before I’ve had a chance to explain, take your cues from me. OK?”
But Tom was already moving towards Lionheart, who was moving into a sitting position and rubbing his eyes. “How do you feel?” he asked the blond agent.
Richard Plante, alias Lionheart, stared at him with eyes that didn’t seem to quite focus. “Lousy. Bowman? Is that you?”
“Yes. Call me Tom. Your name’s Richard, right?”
“Not to you, sunshine. Hey, where’s my helmet?”
“I don’t know. I suspect it’s probably in the same place as my bow and quiver. Look, I know you don’t trust us very much, Lionheart, but something extremely weird has happened, and we’re in a very dangerous situation. Let me just check on Cameo and Firebrand, and I’ll try to explain.”
“You can explain now!” growled Lionheart, gripping Tom’s arm.
Tom pulled free. “That sort of attitude will get us all killed!” he said angrily. “Listen, just sit tight, and I’ll explain as soon as I can. But you must not do anything hasty. You have no idea–“
“Bowman? Lionheart? What’s going on?”
Tom rolled his eyes ceiling ward. Great. Now Cameo was awake and demanding explanations, too. He looked towards the fifth member of their group. Firebrand was still out cold and showing no signs of stirring. OK, OK. It meant doing it twice, but it might save trouble in the long run.
“Well?” demanded Lionheart, struggling groggily into a sitting position.
“All right,” said Tom. “What I’m going to tell you is going to sound pretty unbelievable, but it’s the truth, as far as I can tell. So listen closely, all three of you, because I don’t know how much time I’ve got to explain before our host comes back…”
“You weren’t bloody kidding when you said this was going to sound unbelievable!” snapped Lionheart. “We’ve been thrown back in time? We’re in the seventeenth century?”
“I think I believe it,” said Cameo, her expression thoughtful. “Look around you, Lionheart. There’s nothing at all about the twentieth century in this place. No electric lights — and those candles burning are tallow, not wax like modern ones would be.”
“We should stick to first names here,” Tom said. “He’s Richard, I’m Tom, Lodestone is Rhea, you’re Sandie…”
“My full Christian name — Cassandra — would sound more in-period,” said Cameo.
Lionheart growled. “Don’t change the bloody subject.” He turned back to Tom. “Listen, Bowman, how the hell could we have come back in time?”
Cameo spoke up before the Bowman could answer. “There was a massive burst of energies, remember? We were trying to disable the entire attacking alien force with one big E-M pulse. The mothership fired at us just as we did so.” She shrugged. “I dunno — maybe the combination ruptured the time-barrier somehow, hurling us back over three-hundred years.”
“And what happened to the aliens?” said Lionheart. “Oh, God — don’t tell me they’re back here, too?”
“I shouldn’t think so,” Tom said. “I think the rector might have mentioned if there was a fleet of alien ships attacking. It’s the sort of thing that would tend to be noticed in this time.”
“OK, OK, no need to get sarky, mate.” Lionheart sat back, his expression suggesting he had just thought of something.
“So how do we get back to our own time?” said Rhea, looking intently at the still-unconscious Firebrand. “And what about Becca? She looks terrible!”
Tom Archer and Sandie Bremmer both moved to join her. The young Afro-Caribbean woman felt her prone teammate’s brow. “Firebrand was right at the heart of what we were trying to do,” she said. “She must have taken the brunt of the blast.”
“Is it my imagination, or does she look thinner — a lot thinner?”
Sandie frowned. “She generates energy by directly converting her body mass. She must have consumed quite a lot in whipping up that big E-M pulse.”
“So will she be OK?”
“I really don’t know…”
There was a cough from Lionheart. “If I could have your attention, boys ‘n’ girls, there’s something important you ought to know. Assuming we are back in the past, as our arrow-slinging friend seems to think, it’s essential that we get the hell out of here, ASAP!”
“How?” said Rhea. “Do you have a time machine built into that suit of yours?”
“There are people in our own time who can time travel,” observed Sandie. “Superman, for instance. It might be possible to create something in this time that could be found in ours and tell them where — or rather when — we are. They must surely be looking for us!”
“Assuming anyone even realizes what’s happened to us!” said Tom. “And while Godiva, Prominence, and the Knight and Squire don’t seem to have come back with us, it doesn’t mean they haven’t been sent back to a different time. Or a different place, of course. Remember, we were in London when we were fighting the invaders. According to the rector, we’re in Naseby, which is in Leicestershire, if my memory serves me correctly. We must be at least a hundred miles from where we started, if not more.”
“The Knight and Squire weren’t with us, remember?” said Rhea. “They’d, y’know, gone back to the shuttle to warn the air force to stay clear of our blast.”
With an impatient growl, Lionheart strode up between them. “I’m not talking about getting back to our own time!” he said gruffly. “That’s important, sure, but what’s immediately important is putting some distance between this place and ourselves!”
“Why?” said Sandie.
“Don’t you get it?” He looked at their faces, one after another, but saw only puzzlement there. “Good God, don’t any of you know any history? Don’t you realize where and when we are? The Bowman said this was June 12, 1645. And we’re in Naseby!”
Their expressions were still blank. “Oh, chuffing hell!” he swore. “Look, I’ll spell it out. June 14, 1645 is a highly significant date in English history. In two days, the climactic battle of the Civil War is going to be fought just a stone’s throw from here. Believe me, we do not want to get caught up in it!”
“The Civil War?” said Rhea. “That’s crazy! We’re, y’know, more’n two-hundred years too early for that, and you said we were still in England!”
Lionheart turned and mocked banging his head against a pillar. “Not the American Civil War, love — ours. The English Civil War! King versus Parliament. Cavaliers versus Roundheads!”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?”
Lionheart glared at her. “Why should I qualify it? Do you Yanks ever refer to ‘the American Civil War’?
“Uh, no, I guess not. But I’m not a Yankee! I’m from the South.”
“So sue me. The important thing is that we’ve got to get out of this area, or we’re likely to get caught between two bloody great armies.”
“You’re right,” Tom said. “We could end up affecting the course of history, and that would be disastrous.” He rubbed his eyes. “I’m sorry, Richard — I should have realized. The rector even mentioned Cromwell, and the significance of the date still didn’t register with me.”
Rhea sat down, shaking her head. “Y’know, I don’t even know what you guys are talking about! Who’s Cromwell? What was your Civil War fought over? Who are these caterpillars and squareheads?”
“Oh, God!” exclaimed Lionheart, turning away in disgust.
Tom sat down beside her. “OK, Rhea, quick history lesson. The English Civil War was basically about who rules England. King Charles I wanted to be sole ruler. Parliament had other ideas. Eventually, the row blew up into a full-scale war with Charles’ armies on one side, and the forces loyal to Parliament on the other. There was a religious element to the conflict, too, and the Parliamentarians were pretty much Puritans. The short haircuts and round steel helmets of their New Model Army earned them the nickname of Roundheads. By comparison, the King’s forces were flamboyant and swashbuckling — or at least their commanders were — so they were called Cavaliers.”
“Oh, I see.”
“The most successful commander on the Parliamentary side was Oliver Cromwell,” continued Tom. “This is simplifying things greatly, but, in a nutshell, after the Royalist forces were defeated — and the decisive battle will be here at Naseby two days from now — Charles was captured, but refused to come to a compromise with Parliament. In the end, they executed him, and Parliament tried to govern alone. However, it all started to fall apart, and eventually Cromwell seized power himself and became Lord Protector of the English Commonwealth — in effect, dictator. From Charles’ death, England was actually a republic until 1660, when his son Charles II was restored to the throne.”
“Cromwell was a bastard!” came a shaky voice from behind them. “He massacred the Irish Catholics when they rebelled against him…”
They all turned to see Firebrand trying to sit up.
“Becca! You’re OK?” said Cameo. “How do you feel?”
“Lousy. Weak as a kitten. What happened? Where are we? Why the hell are you talking about the Civil War, of all things?”
Before anyone could reply, a door opened on the other side of the church. “We don’t have time to explain right now,” said Tom quickly. “Look, no matter how odd this seems, just keep still and say nothing until we’re alone again.”
“Yeah, OK,” slurred Firebrand. Then she passed out again.
“So how long is it, lass?” said the old woman.
Rhea Jones looked puzzled. “How long?”
The woman patted Rhea’s swollen abdomen. “Thy baby, lass! How long are ye with child now?”
Rhea flushed red. “Uh… around five-and-a-half months,” she replied, trying hard not to stare. After all, she was supposed to be blind.
“An’ yon baby’s father? Be he one o’ these strapping fellows?” She indicated the Bowman of Britain and Lionheart.
The Bowman stepped forward. “Rhea’s husband is away, mistress. In, er, in the army.”
“Oh? Which one? For the King or the Parliament?”
“The, er, king,” said Rhea uncertainly.
The woman’s mouth curled slightly at the edge. “Which regiment?”
“Look, what is this, the inquisition?” growled Lionheart. “We’re grateful for the clothes, madam, but stay out of our business!”
“Richard!” said Cameo. “There’s no need to be rude. Mistress Cobblepot was only making polite conversation!”
“Nay,” said the rector. “Master Plante is right, Margaret. Ye have no call to pry into these good folks’ affairs. Shame on ye, wife!”
“I apologize most humbly,” said Margaret Cobblepot, returning to her task of adjusting a dress for Rhea.
The Bowman, Lionheart, and Cameo exchanged a knowing glance. “Nearly slipped up, there,” whispered Becca Bennett, who was sitting up on one of the pews nearby, having been helped into a borrowed frock by Sandie behind a screen that had been hastily improvised. She gave a hoarse cough to follow.
The birdlike Rector Cobblepot turned to Tom. “Yon lass is surely consumptive,” he observed. “‘Tis not right that ye should be considering moving her, Master Archer. By Jesu, she does not look well at all.”
Tom frowned. The priest was right, of course. Becca, normally the most powerful of them, was incredibly weak from her exertions and kept drifting in and out of consciousness. What she needed was a prolonged period of rest and plenty of food inside her to put back the body mass she had consumed in fighting off the alien invaders. But getting clear out of this area had to be number one priority, even above finding a way to get back to the future. If they were to get mixed up in the Battle of Naseby then, as Lionheart had said, it could be disastrous for history as they knew it.
Lionheart was examining his helmet, which had been returned to him when the rector and Mistress Cobblepot had brought their change of clothes to them. Unlike the others, he had not changed out of his costume, but had put the ragged peasant suit on over it. He now slipped the helmet over his head.
“Richard,” said Tom. “What are you doing?”
“Making sure everything still works,” muttered the blond government agent. “It’s all right for the rest of you. Without the helmet, the suit is useless.”
“Yes — but you’re being stared at!”
Indeed, the rector and his wife were staring in utter bafflement at Lionheart’s action. “A curious mask, my friend,” said Cobblepot. “‘Tis like the semblance of a lion’s face, methinks. What does it signify?”
“A lion. Yeah,” said Richard blankly, taking the helm off again. “That’s right. I’m a lion.”
“‘Tis passing strange that the robbers who waylaid you should not take it. And likewise Master Archer’s bow and arrows were not stolen. These were most curious thieves, would ye not agree?”
“Right. Very curious.” Richard looked at each of his companions. “Is everybody ready? Can we go now?”
Cameo nodded, helping Becca to her feet. My God, she thought. She feels as light as a feather! Just how much of herself did she consume with that blast?
They were all now dressed in the clothes that Mistress Cobblepot had found for them. They were old, ragged, patched, and none too clean, but at least it made the five of them look more like natives of this time. Except, thought Sandie, for me! Being black makes me stick out like a sore thumb in this era!
The Reverend Cobblepot did not look too happy with this situation. “Nay, my friends, what is thy hurry? Stay and partake of victuals with us. Yon lass Rebecca looks in dire need of sustenance, and I daresay ye all would appreciate a good meal in thy bellies afore ye go.”
“Thanks,” said Tom. “That’s most generous, but we’ve imposed on your hospitality enough already. We really need to be on our way. If you could return my bow and quiver now?”
Cobblepot opened his mouth as if to reply. However, whatever he had to say remained unsaid, as the doors to the church burst open, and in marched a squad of heavily armed soldiers.