by Brian K. Asbury
“Well, this is strange,” said Jeff Smith. “The Time Sphere’s tracking instruments are picking up the translator disks that Rip, Bonnie, and Corky were wearing, but they’re over thirty miles away. I can’t figure why they’d wander so far away from where we crashed…”
“Let’s have a look,” said Lionheart. He picked up one of the Time Masters’ maps and compared it with the display. “That would put them maybe in the town of Nuneaton.”
“Why would they go there?” asked Lodestone.
“Beats me. But we can get there easy enough in the Sphere. Hold tight, and I’ll set the coordinates.”
The hum from the Time Sphere’s mechanisms grew momentarily louder as it slipped sideways a little within the time stream.
“We’d better make this fast,” said the Bowman. “There’s only an hour or so left before the sun comes up. How accurate a fix can you get on these things?”
“Well, they weren’t strictly speaking designed to be homing devices, but they do give off a very distinctive electronic signature. I can set us down within a few hundred yards of them — better be outside the town, though — we don’t want to scare any early risers.”
The hum rose again, then died as Jeff materialized the Sphere back into the real world. “I’d better go,” said Rhea Jones. “My, y’know, special vision should enable me to find anything producing an electronic signal around here. Let’s face it, there shouldn’t be anything else doing it!”
“OK, but I’ll go with you,” Lionheart said. “My suit’s now powered back up to full strength, thanks to being able to plug it into the Time Sphere.”
“I’d better go, too,” said Jeff, “if one of you can carry me. Rip and the others don’t know you, after all.”
“I don’t see the necessity… oh, all right,” said Lionheart. “I suppose there’s some logic in it. But let’s not waste any time.”
The door opened, and the light streaming from within the Sphere showed that it had landed in the middle of a ploughed field, whose as-yet-unidentifiable crop was just beginning to shoot. “Some farmer isn’t going to be too pleased with us,” observed Firebrand as she watched them rise into the air, impelled by Rhea’s magnetic powers.
The trio flew swiftly towards the darkened town, noting that there was already a faint glow of pink on the eastern horizon. “It’s going to be a good day for a battle,” said Lionheart.
“Pity we’re not going to be around to watch,” said Jeff.
Lionheart threw him a disapproving look. “I’ve been in real battles as a soldier, mate,” he said gruffly. “It isn’t a bloody spectator sport.”
“I didn’t mean–“
“Will you guys pipe down?” said Lodestone. “I think I can see something.” They were now fast approaching the town’s main street and the distinctive market cross in its center.
“Where? I don’t see a thing,” said Jeff.
“Yeah, but you can’t see magnetic fields. Down there! Look!” She pointed towards a large town house silhouetted in the gloom. They drifted towards it. “They’re in one of the rooms on the top floor.”
“All of them?”
“I think so. There are several things, all together. They’re so close I can’t make out how many.”
“That doesn’t bode well,” said Jeff.
“Any people about?” asked Lionheart. “I can see somebody standing in front of the building at street level with my infrared filters, but how about inside the house?”
Lodestone concentrated. “Yeah… there’s another magnetic field inside the room that’s probably a person.”
“Man or woman? And one of theirs, or one of ours?”
She shrugged. “I dunno. Can’t tell through the solid wall.”
“Only one way to find out, then. Can you get us in — magnetically open a window or something?”
“Sure. The windows and shutters have metal latches. You want I should open the nearest one to whoever that is?”
“Right.” She moved her magnetic force-bubble round until it was opposite a certain window, and gestured. The shutters and the window they were protecting swung open silently.
“Good girl. Now, nobody follow me until I give the sign.” With a lithe bound, Lionheart leapt onto the casement and vanished inside. A few seconds later, he reappeared at the window and gestured for the others to join him.
As Jeff, then Rhea, clambered inside, he gestured for her to close the shutters and then detached a small portable lamp from his utility belt and activated it. Jeff moved to the bed. “Recognize him?” asked Lionheart. Jeff shook his head. “It’s OK. He’s not going to wake up.”
Rhea’s hand flew to her mouth. “Lionheart! You didn’t!”
“I didn’t kill him, no. I’m not that stupid. But one thing we learned in the SAS commandos was how to make sure a sleeping man stays asleep. He’ll have a headache when he wakes up, and a few bruises he won’t remember acquiring, but that’s all. He’ll be OK.”
“Well, that’s a relief!” said Jeff. “But I don’t know who this guy is. A soldier, judging by the clothes piled up over there.” He pointed towards a large chest.
Lionheart crossed to the chest and picked up a round steel helmet with a red plume sticking out of it. “On the Parliamentary side, obviously. And an officer, I’d say. But his identity isn’t important. Lodestone, where are the translator disks?”
“Right there in that chest. Hang on…” She gestured towards it, and the padlock that secured it dropped off.
“Handy girl to have around if you’re a burglar,” muttered Jeff.
Lionheart swept the officer’s clothes off the chest and hauled it open. Inside, among various items of contemporary clothing and bric-a-brac were three green uniforms, similar to Jeff’s, of varying sizes. Each had a metallic object fastened under the collar.
“All three of them!” breathed Jeff. “They must’ve been captured and had ’em confiscated.”
“Right,” said Lionheart. “So now how do we find them?”
Major Gerald Pickering, presently serving in the New Model Army of Parliament under General Oliver Cromwell, was not used to rude awakenings. His orderly had instructions to wake him one hour after dawn with a mug of hot milk laced with brandy — certainly not to pour cold water over his head.
Needless to say, as he woke up spluttering and coughing, his first instinct was to bellow a demand to know what in God’s name was going on. However, as he found a strong gloved hand — unnaturally strong, for he was unable to dislodge it in the slightest — covering his mouth, and equally strong hands pinning back his arms, all he could do was thrash around helplessly on the bed.
“Be still and be quiet, and you’ll come to no harm,” said a male voice from nearby. “We don’t want to hurt you, but we will if you make any trouble.” He continued to struggle for a few seconds, then concluded that this was folly. He stopped fighting his assailants and allowed himself to go limp.
“That’s better,” said the voice. A man moved into his field of vision, although he could not make out what was illuminating the room, as the shutters were still closed. The man tugged at his own clothing. “Recognize the style?” he said. “Nod once if you do.”
Pickering nodded. “Good.” The man picked up a pile of similar garments from somewhere and held them up. “Now, I’m going to ask you politely just once, friend — where did you get these?” Pickering blinked helplessly. “So that you can answer, my associate is going to remove his hand from your mouth. Don’t get any ideas about calling for help when he does. If you raise your voice above a whisper, he’ll hit you hard — and believe me, you don’t want to know how hard he can hit. Understand? Nod once for yes. OK, then. Lionheart?”
The hand released itself from Pickering’s mouth. “Who… who are ye?” he whispered. “Be ye agents of the King?”
“That doesn’t concern you,” growled a second voice from behind his head. “Answer the bloody question! Where did you get those clothes?”
“From… from people dressed like him,” said Pickering, nodding in the direction of the visible man. “We found them near Grafton, wandering along the road. They ran from us, so we gave chase and assailed them. Aye, we quickly overpowered them, for they carried no weapons, though the two men did try to fight — especially the taller one, who my sergeant had to cuff mightily to persuade him to cease his struggles.”
The man covered his eyes. “Oh, boy, that sure sounds like Steve Cleaves, all right — the big lunkhead. He’s too stupid to give up quietly.”
“I beg thy pardon?”
“Never mind. What happened to these people? Where are they now?”
“They were brought to me for interrogation. Naturally, I assumed them to be spies for the King, though they denied it.”
“Dressed like this? Don’t you think that’s a tad unlikely?”
“Aye. So they said, also. In the end, I gave them a choice — prove their loyalty to their Parliament by serving in the New Model Army, or be hanged as traitors.”
“What? That’s crazy! You enlisted them in the army? All of them?”
The second voice spoke. “There was a boy and a woman among them. Don’t expect us to believe you drafted them, too, sunshine. Where are they?”
Pickering tried to turn to address the unseen speaker, but a light cuff on the side of his head dissuaded him. “The boy we made a drummer for the 18th Foot Regiment. The woman is here, in this house.”
“If you’ve harmed her–!” snarled the visible man, taking a step nearer.
“Nay! I am a Christian man, sir! I would not harm a woman! She serves here in the scullery.”
“Bonnie? A scullery maid?”
“Aye! ’Twas either that or the pillories. She must do penance for daring to go garbed as a man. ‘Tis against the scriptures!”
“Where is she?”
“The servants’ quarters are in the basement, sir. But they are securely locked until the house rouses.”
“That’s all we need to know,” the man said. “Lionheart — can you do another of those famous commando nerve pinches?”
“With pleasure,” said the unseen speaker. And the lights went out.
Bonnie Baxter came instantly awake as she heard soft noises from the corridor outside the tiny room that had been her prison now for three days. Silently getting to her feet, she picked up the filthy blanket that had been her only bed with one hand and groped to find with her other a cast-iron skillet that she had managed to conceal last night under the voluminous ragged dress they had given her to wear.
Hearing muffled voices outside, she positioned herself by the door. OK, she thought. This is my one chance. They’re letting me out to slave for them another day, but they’re about to get more than they’ve bargained for!
Although she had heard no key being placed in the lock, there was a click as the bolt was shot, and the door started to swing open. A dark shadow moved into the opening. Now! She hurled the blanket over the newcomer’s head and shoulders and brought the skillet down with all her strength.
There was a loud clang-g-g-g of metal on metal. “What the bloody hell?!” exclaimed a voice from beneath the blanket. She hit out again, and again. “Christ! Stop it, will you?”
Another voice rang out from the corridor. “Bonnie! Stop! He’s a friend!”
Bonnie stopped in her tracks and looked out. A tall man stood there; in the gloom, she could not make out his features, but the voice was unmistakable. A second silhouette — a pregnant woman? — stood by him.
“Jeff?” she said, dropping the skillet and running to him. “Jeff, is that you?”
“It sure is,” he said as she hugged him. “Are you OK?”
A voice from Bonnie’s prison room said, “Oh, great. Are you OK, Bonnie dear? Lovely! Nobody wants to know if I’m OK. Don’t mind me, I’ve only just been bashed on the noggin three or four times with a ruddy great frying pan!”
“Oh, don’t be such a baby, Lionheart,” said the pregnant woman. “You’re wearing your helmet, so don’t pretend it hurt.”
“It may not have hurt, but my ears are still ringing!”
Bonnie withdrew from her friend. “Jeff, who are these people? Have you seen Rip and Corky?”
“No, but we know roughly where they are,” replied Jeff. He indicated the other two. “These are friends,” he said. “Fellow time travellers from the future.”
“Reluctant ones, though,” said Lionheart, joining them. “Listen.” There were sounds of stirring from upstairs. “That’s no surprise,” he said. “We’ve made enough noise to wake the dead down here — or at least you have, trying to turn my helmet into a chuffing bell!”
“Save it,” said Lionheart. “Let’s get out of here so we can figure out how to find your friends from among thousands of other people on a battlefield!”
As they made their way back up the cellar steps, Lionheart muttered, “Gawd! Have you ever had some days when you just wish you hadn’t got up?”