by Brian K. Asbury
The rector rushed to meet the newcomers. “Captain! These are the ones! Arrest them!”
“What the hell is this?” blurted Lionheart. He picked up his helmet again.
The Bowman grabbed his wrist, stopping him from putting the helmet on. “No! Not here!”
“Why the hell not?”
“One — this is a church.”
“Big deal. I’m hardly worried about offending God. In the words of Freddie Mercury, mate, I don’t believe in Peter Pan, Frankenstein, or Spider-Man!”
“And two,” hissed Tom Archer between gritted teeth. “Things that happen in churches tend to get written down. Get my drift?”
Lionheart stared at him. Reluctantly, he nodded.
Meanwhile, the captain of the soldiers had approached them. He was dressed in a rather flamboyant green and blue uniform with an ornate plumed hat and black thigh-boots. His spade beard and mustache were neatly trimmed, and his hair long and flowing. Definitely the King’s Men, thought Tom. No Puritan would ever have dressed like that!
“So — ye be the Roundhead spies that our good rector reported, hey?”
“Spies?” said Sandie Bremmer. “We’re not spies!”
“Silence, woman!” The captain glared at her. “A motley collection, this! Two strapping, able-bodied men who should be serving their King and Country, an Ethiope or some such, and two… I suppose ye are sisters, with the same red hair,” he said, studying Rhea Jones and Becca Bennett. “A pregnant blind woman and a consumptive.”
“Exactly,” said Tom, smoothly. “That’s what my friend means. If we’re spies, we’re a little conspicuous, wouldn’t you agree? We’re no such thing. We’re loyal subjects of King Charles.”
The captain turned to the Reverend Cobblepot. “How say ye these be spies, Rector? Yon fellow’s words do make sense. Spies would not travel with such baggage!”
“Hey, watch who you’re calling baggage!” slurred Becca feebly.
The captain ignored her. “Well?”
“Good Captain,” said the rector, his beak-like nose bobbing as he spoke. “We found them in the churchyard, not dressed as ye see them now, but garbed most strangely, like acrobats or tumblers in tight raiment made of materials the like of which I have ne’er seen afore. We believed them at first to have been assailed by lawless men, and indeed they affirm this — but lookee, sir — why would robbers not steal yon ornate helmet that the blond fellow carries? Also, the brown-haired wight bore a bow and arrows, which surely footpads would have claimed as a prize!” As if to illustrate this, Mistress Cobblepot, who had briefly left the main chamber, returned with the bow and quiver.
The captain took the bow from her and examined it. “A good point, Rector.” He turned his gaze back on the Bowman and Lionheart, ignoring the three women. “So tell me — if ye be not spies, then what? Why are ye not fighting for our king? And what right have ye otherwise to be bearing arms?”
“The bow was just for defense, Captain,” said Tom. “It’s, er, an antique longbow that once belonged to my grandfather. He fought in the armies of Queen Elizabeth against the Spanish. It takes a great deal of strength to pull it, so maybe the thieves left it because they couldn’t use it.”
“Or maybe,” added Sandie, “they were disturbed by Reverend Cobblepot and his wife and thought the bow and Richard Plante’s helmet would weigh them down trying to escape. After all, they’d taken all of our clothes other than the costumes we were wearing…”
“I shall not tell ye again, negress!” barked the captain. “I was not addressing ye, and interrupt again, and I shall have ye flogged!”
“Now, look here…!” Richard began.
Tom held him back again. He shook his head as the angry agent met his gaze.
“I apologize for the impudence of my, ah, servant, captain,” he said. Sandie looked furious, but said nothing. “But she’s telling the truth. We’re just poor play-actors and tumblers. We’re not spies. And as for why my friend and I are not in the army — well, as you can see, one of our sisters is ill, and the other expecting a baby. We’re their only protection.”
“A poor story,” grunted the captain. “Where are these strange clothes ye say they were garbed in?”
“Here they are, Captain,” said Margaret Cobblepot, bringing him Rhea’s costume and Tom’s.
“We offered them a change of clothing to delay them whilst the verger fetched ye and thy men, captain,” said the rector.
The captain took the costumes from her, examined them for a moment, and then called one of his subordinates.
“What make ye of these, Sergeant?”
The sergeant, a rather scruffier individual whose dark blue uniform was stained and scuffed, felt the spandex between his fingers. He shook his head. “Not like the other fellow wore, Captain, but still most queer.”
“Even so,” the captain mused, “‘Tis too much coincidence. Eh, well — we’ll convey them straightaway to Oxford. The King will be most pleased, methinks.”
“But…” began Tom.
“Silence! Seize them!” The soldiers moved forward and grabbed Lionheart and the Bowman, grabbing the former’s helmet out of his hands. They also seized hold of the three women.
“Careful!” protested Sandie as Becca was roughly hauled to her feet. “Can’t you see she’s ill?”
The captain strode up to her and struck her across the face. “That is enough! To Oxford with them — and this one I intend to teach some humility on the way!”
The soldiers picked up pace as they left the churchyard and made their way through the village surrounding it, forcing the Paladins to move along with them. Rhea and Sandie were having little difficulty in keeping up, but the captain had seen Becca’s predicament and had ordered one of his men — a big brute of a corporal — to carry her.
Even so, Richard Plante was visibly seething. “This is crazy,” he hissed to the Bowman of Britain, who was trotting alongside him. “I could have taken them inside the church, but now I don’t even have my helmet. I’ve still got my laser sword on my belt — I don’t think they realized it was a weapon — but there are too many of them to take on without my suit in fully active mode.”
“Look, don’t worry about it,” said Tom. “There’s plenty of time to make our escape, and for the time being, we’re heading in the direction we want to go.”
“Are we? Damn it, man, they’re taking us to see King Charles. It doesn’t matter which army we’re heading for, they’re still going to come together in the Battle of Naseby in a couple of days, and we’re going to be caught up in it!”
Tom shook his head. “Didn’t you hear? When he examined our costumes, that sergeant said, ‘Not like the other fellow.’ What does that suggest to you?”
“I dunno. Enlighten me.”
“Well, it suggests to me that there’s someone else here dressed out-of-period besides us.”
“You mean another time traveller?” gasped Sandie, who was right behind them.
“It’s a possibility. And if he’s at Oxford with the King…”
“Jesus, Archer!” swore Lionheart. “That means there could be somebody here deliberately trying to mess with history! Suppose… suppose he fills the King in on what tactics the Roundheads are going to use? Suppose he even supplies the Royalist forces with modern weapons!”
“Right!” said Tom. “It would probably assure the continuity of the Stuart line of kings and have a knock-on effect on history thereafter. Suppose when the American colonies rebel there’s a more able monarch than George III on the throne? Or someone willing to compromise with their demands? It could mean the USA never gets founded, and what would that mean for our own time?”
“Be silent, ye rogues!” grunted the sergeant, who had come back to see what they were talking about. “Or I’ll knock some quiet into ye!”
They fell silent. The phalanx of soldiers continued towards a nearby wood, which they skirted around, coming to a small encampment of tents on the other side. The captain, who was the only member of the party on horseback, dismounted. He yelled to some other soldiers guarding the camp.
“He’s telling them to strike camp,” said Tom. “Obviously he doesn’t want to waste any time getting us to the King.”
Apart from a few men left to guard the Paladins, the soldiers set about dismantling the camp, loading most of the equipment into two wagons. The captain strode back towards his prisoners. Shoving past the men, he made straight for Sandie. “And now, my black vixen, I’ll show ye how we treat insolent heathens like ye in this man’s army.” He grabbed her arm and roughly hurled her to the ground. “Beg for forgiveness, and I may go easy on ye, blackamoor!”
“Leave her alone!” cried Rhea.
The captain snarled. “And ye be next if ye be not quiet, harlot!”
“Oh, big man!” Sandie spat, trying to sit up. “Threaten a pregnant blind girl, why don’t you?”
The captain offered no reply, but an evil sneer as he raised his foot and aimed a kick into her midriff.
At which juncture, she changed.
Suddenly, the captain screamed in agony as his foot passed partially through the glowing, white form of Cameo. Sandie leapt to her feet, and he screamed again as her energized fist made contact with his jaw.
“Uh-oh. It just hit the fan big time!” said Rhea.
“You can say that again!” said Lionheart. He twisted out of the grip of the soldier holding him, who was staring openmouthed at Cameo, and brought the heel of his hand up to strike him on the point of the chin. The soldier went down, and Lionheart tore at his borrowed clothes to reach the stub of the laser sword still attached to his belt.
At the same time, Tom viciously dug his elbow into the midriff of the soldier guarding him and leapt for his bow and quiver, which were lying nearby in a heap with their costumes and Lionheart’s helmet. Having no time to string the bow, he snatched a colour-coded arrow from the quiver and hurled it with all of his strength into the centre of the camp, where it exploded into a reddish-coloured cloud of gas.
Meanwhile, Rhea was surrounded by a glowing purple nimbus as she drew upon the Earth’s magnetic field to augment her strength and toss soldiers around like rag dolls.
The battle was over in seconds. The soldiers packing up the camp quickly succumbed to the Bowman’s knockout gas arrow, while the others were no match for their super-powered opponents and were soon all unconscious.
“Well, so much for remaining anonymous,” muttered Tom. “These men are going to wake up thinking they’ve been assaulted by a bunch of witches and sorcerers — and they’ll have our descriptions as such all over the district in no time flat!”
Cameo twisted the rings on her fingers and reassumed the solid form of Sandie Bremmer. “Sorry,” she said. “I guess I let my temper get the better of me.”
“Hey,” Rhea said. “If you hadn’t done it, one of us would’ve. You didn’t think we’d, like, stand by and let that thug beat you up, did you?”
“We can analyze the situation later,” said Lionheart, who was putting on his helmet and activating his battle-suit. “Right now we have to put some distance between us and these people. Lodestone, if I fly under my own power, can you carry the others magnetically?”
“I guess so. Sandie, how’s Becca?”
Sandie was bending over Firebrand, who had been sleeping since they arrived at the camp. “Weak, but she’s just asleep. She seems no worse than before.”
“OK, then, we’ll… What are you doing?” said Lionheart, as the Bowman started walking towards the camp.
“Call it foraging,” Tom called over his shoulder. “We need supplies, and they seem to have plenty here. My gas will keep these men unconscious for a few hours, so I don’t think there’s any particular hurry. So are you going to help me, or what?”
“Aye,” said the veteran foot soldier propping up the tavern’s bar counter. “They do say yon fellow was most strange in aspect. As tall as ye, my friend, and both ye and thy companion are uncommon tall. And hair black as the raven.”
“Jonas do say ‘e were a Spaniard,” said another scruffy-looking man lounging nearby. “A spy, most like, for King Philip.”
“What do Jonas know?” the first man scoffed. “Why would a Spanish spy garb ‘imself in such outlandish raiment?”
“How outlandish, friend?” asked the tall hooded man who had bought the speaker the flagon of ale that he was quaffing with a relish. “What were his clothes like?”
The speaker thought for a moment. “Green, mostly,” he said. “Aye, wi’ a queer red collar an’ funny boots ‘o the same hue. Oh… and an amulet o’ sorts at his throat.”
“And he spoke in Spanish?”
“Nay, in English, o’ sorts. Take no heed o’ Jebediah, friend. He pays too much account to Jonas Quimby an’ his cronies.”
“Now listen ‘ere, Eli Brown, Jonas is in the King’s own guard,” said the affronted Jebediah. “Who should know better but he what goes on in the royal camp?”
“Jonas romances too much,” grunted Eli into his flagon. “Me, I was on guard duty when the stranger was brought in — an’ not by Jonas’ troops, neither. I saw ‘im and heard ‘im. I knows o’ what I speak, I’ll have ye ken!”
The tall man who had been asking the questions felt a tug on his sleeve. “I dunno about you, but I sense a punch-up brewing here,” he said. “Time to move back a bit out of it, I think.”
The questioner nodded and followed his companion to the other side of the taproom, leaving Eli Brown and Jebediah to continue an argument that increasingly included shoving and poking. “So what do you think, Richard?” he asked when they were out of earshot of the soldiers.
Richard Plante shrugged. “The description doesn’t mean much to me. Green outfit with red trim and amulet? I can’t recall seeing that in Stacker’s files on super-villains.”
“We don’t know he’s a villain,” said Tom Archer. “In fact, from our friend’s account there, he was brought in very much against his will.”
“Doesn’t mean he’s one of the good guys. And who do we know who can travel in time among the super-hero set, anyway? Superman? The Flash? Not in those colours!”
“A Green Lantern, maybe?”
“The G.L. colours are green, black, and white, not green and red, mate. No, whatever side this bloke’s on, he must be somebody we haven’t heard of. In fact,” Richard added, taking a sip from his own mug of ale, “we have to face the possibility that he might not even be from our own time.”
“I hadn’t even considered that!” said Tom. “But you’re right, of course. It’s unlikely that the twentieth century has a monopoly on time travel. He could be from any century! Maybe a thousand years in the future or more!”
“What do you mean?”
Richard set down his mug. “Think about it, Bowman. We hear mention of somebody dressed in clothes as out-of-period sounding as our costumes, and we immediately jump to the conclusion that he must be from another time, like ourselves. But why should he be? We know that there are plenty of human-looking aliens out there in the universe. He could be a space traveller from Thanagar or somewhere like that, here to observe the primitive Earthlings or whatever. In which case, he’s no help to us at all!”
Tom sighed. “There’s only one way to find out. We’ve got to get to him!”
“Right. And tonight. Tomorrow, King Charles and his army march for Naseby. If they take the prisoner with them, it’ll be practically impossible to get to him through thousands of Royalist soldiers.”
“It’s not going to be easy, anyway. You saw the place Charles is using for his headquarters when we scouted the town out earlier. It may not be a castle, but it’s bristling with guards. And we can’t just fight our way in. We’ve been seen by too many people already. A few soldiers getting bested by apparent witchcraft might well go down as a mere tall tale, but super-heroes busting a prisoner out from under the nose of the King of England…!” He blew out a breath of exasperation. “I can’t imagine how that could fail to go down in history!”
Richard nodded. “Which we can’t afford to happen, if we’re to get back to our own time without screwing up everything history records in between.” He drained the dregs from his mug. “Come on — time to get back to the girls, I think, and see if we can’t come up with a plan to spring this bloke in green without getting in the history books!”