by Brian K. Asbury
“I’ve got to say, I’m feeling much better, now I’ve got some food inside me,” said Becca Bennett, wiping the last of her bread around the lip of the tin dish she had been eating from.
“The way you’ve wolfed all that down, I’d never have guessed,” said Sandie Bremmer, who had been watching the redhead intently. “You’re still very pale, though. I’d guess it’ll take more than just one meal to get you back to normal.”
Becca nodded. “It was very welcome. Tom did the right thing, ‘liberating’ supplies from those soldiers. But I’m still feeling very weak, actually. But at least I feel human now. Give me a night’s sleep, and I’ll be OK, I think. I don’t have to make up all of my lost mass by eating.”
“No. Once I’m able to change to my energy form, I’ll be able to just absorb a rock or something into myself to make up the difference.”
Sandie whistled. “That’s amazing! I had no idea you could do that!”
“I’m nothing if not versatile,” said Becca, grinning.
“So I see. You know, sometime when this is all over, you and I must have a long talk about your powers. You never did tell us how you got them in the first place.”
Becca frowned and lowered her eyes. “There’s a good reason for that. I don’t really know how I got them…”
Whatever she had to say following that remained unsaid as Lodestone descended from the treetops where she had been keeping vigil. “Heads up, gals. The boys are comin’ back!”
Seconds later, the sound of muffled jets came to their ears, and Lionheart dropped from the sky, carrying the Bowman of Britain.
Rhea Jones sniffed. “Well, I gotta say you guys took your time,” she said. “And you, like, smell of beer, an’ all.”
“Hello, it’s nice to see you again, too,” grumped Lionheart, removing his helmet and shaking out his blond thatch.
“She’s just jealous ’cause you didn’t bring her any,” quipped Becca.
“Nope. She’s ticked off ’cause she’s been freezin’ her ass off up a tree while you guys have been boozin’!” Rhea said, her Southern accent exaggerated by her annoyed state.
“OK, OK, calm down,” said the Bowman, once again finding himself in the role of peacemaker. “I’m sorry we were longer than we anticipated, Rhea, but Oxford’s no small city to scout, even in this time, and we had to get our information somewhere.”
“And what better place than a tavern to find off-duty soldiers willing to talk to us for the price of a pint?” added Lionheart. “We could hardly have plied them with ale and not drunk any ourselves. It would’ve looked suspicious.”
“Anyway, did you find out what we need to know?” asked Cameo. “About this oddly dressed stranger, I mean?”
“We got a description,” Tom Archer said, “but that’s about all. Neither of us recognized him from it. The only thing for certain is that his outfit sticks out like a sore thumb in this time and place, much like ours.”
“But as I pointed out to the Bowman,” Lionheart said, “it doesn’t mean he’s a time traveller. He could be a stranded alien — that’s one other possibility, anyway.”
Rhea considered this for a moment. “D’you know where they’re holding him?” she asked.
“Most of the Royalist forces have already left the city, making for a town called Market Harborough,” Tom replied. “They only came there in the first place because Sir Thomas Fairfax’s army was besieging the city, but he’s now withdrawn to the vicinity of Naseby, where the battle’s going to take place. King Charles himself is still in Oxford, though, and he’s using one of the University Colleges as his headquarters. There are strong vaults under the chapel, and he’s using them as cells. He’s got other prisoners down there besides our mystery man — suspected spies for the most part.”
“You didn’t get a chance to get in there and take a look at him, then?” Sandie asked.
“No. The place is surrounded by guards, as you’d expect. Richard and I could probably have fought our way in with little difficulty, but we’d rather not risk becoming one of history’s mysteries. This is going to take subtlety, not brute force.”
“Well, subtlety’s my middle name,” said Sandie, smiling. “Actually, my middle name’s Carmen, but you get my drift!”
“We’ll need the power of magnetism on our side, too, Lodestone,” said Lionheart. “You up for it, or are you just going to sulk because your bum got chilly?”
“There’s no need to be, y’know, nasty. I’m ready when you are.”
“Me, too,” said Becca, struggling to get up.
Sandie put a hand on her shoulder. “Oh, no you don’t. You’re safer here, outside the city.”
“I’m OK, now,” the redhead protested.
Lionheart frowned. “No, you’re not! You’re weak, and your powers haven’t yet returned. You wouldn’t be able to do anything, and frankly, I’d rather not be watching out for you when I should be watching my own back!”
She feigned a mock smile. “That’s what I like about you, Plante — your charming personality. Speak your mind, why don’t you?”
“He’s right, though, if a bit bluntly put,” said Cameo. “You’re staying right here, honey. Don’t worry — if all goes well, we won’t be long.”
She nodded to Rhea, who formed a magnetic force-bubble around them to lift them into the air. Becca watched them go, slumped against a tree. She petulantly tugged at a hank of grass and hurled it into the campfire. As she did, she realized a mouse was sitting nearby, staring curiously at her.
“You looking at me? You looking at me?” she said irritably. She pointed a finger, and a feeble spark issued from it, grounding several inches from the mouse, which squeaked in annoyance and ran off.
Oh, great, she thought. I’m literally so weak I can’t handle a bloody mouse…
The two guards on sentry duty at the side entrance to the chapel of St. Luke’s College were bored. Sentry duty was tedious at the best of times, but especially so tonight. There was a battle brewing, and most of their companions in arms had been given liberty tonight to get drunk, go wenching or gambling — even, in some cases, to pray — whatever they needed to get out of their system before tomorrow’s march to meet the Parliamentarian forces. Somebody had to stand guard duty, though, and George Pratchett and Bill Adams were among those who had drawn the metaphorical short straw — although it would be more accurate to say that their company sergeant, who hated their guts, had drawn it on their behalf.
There was little point in complaining about it, though. Duty was duty, and they had, after all, taken the King’s shilling and sworn to obey orders. Failure to do so would result in a public flogging or worse. So they stoically stood in position, ready to challenge anyone who dared to approach the chapel unauthorized.
From ground level, that was. What they did not realize was that three shadowy figures were lurking atop the roof of the nearby college refectory and watching them intently. Furthermore, though it was dark and moonless, two of those lurkers could see them perfectly — one by virtue of the infrared lenses in his helmet, the other because their bodies’ magnetic fields shone like beacons to her unique eyes.
“OK, let’s do it,” whispered Lionheart. Lodestone nodded and made a subtle gesture.
There was a clank at George’s feet. Both he and Bill jumped in shock. “S’blood, man,” swore Bill. “What was that?”
“Sorry,” George said sheepishly. “’Twas my dagger.” He bent to retrieve it. “Strange, but I could’ve sworn ’twas securely in its sheath.”
“Well, don’t do it again, ye poltroon!” Bill grumped. “It fain near scared me white-haired!”
George grinned and replaced his weapon in the small scabbard on his belt. There was a second clank, and both men started again. “Holy mother of Christ!” Bill exclaimed. “Now my dagger has fallen!”
“And ye had the brass effrontery to call me a poltroon, ye dunderhead!” laughed George.
Bill scowled as he picked up the knife. “‘Tis no laughing matter, man! This is not natural!”
“How do ye — ahh!” George exclaimed out as his cross-belt suddenly dropped to the flagstones. He jumped back. “By God’s wounds!” he swore. “Did ye see that? Did ye see it? My belt — it… it unbuckled itself!”
“Nonsense! How can…?” said Bill as his own belt followed George’s to the ground.
Both men jumped back, and then stared in horrified fascination as both belts began to creep across the ground away from them.
And so preoccupied were they with this sight that they completely failed to see a glowing white shape appear behind them and creep through the crack between the double doors and into the chapel.
There are distinct advantages to being able to become two-dimensional! Cameo smiled to herself as she crossed the deserted interior, looking for a way down into the vault that was currently serving as a dungeon for the King’s prisoners. Her energized form had enabled her to slip inside without any need to open the doors, but the diversionary tactics engineered by the others had been necessary to make them look away — she was the first to admit that she was rather conspicuous in this state.
She quickly investigated a number of side doors. One led to a closet containing the vestments of the choir, while others were storerooms or meant for private contemplation. The last door, though, was more promising. It was locked, and there was the faintest glimmer of light from under it. Well, it’s no barrier to me, she thought, getting down and slipping herself under the crack at the bottom, then emerging at the top of a winding stairwell.
It was obvious now that there was a lamp or candles lit at the foot of the stairs. She made her way silently down, resuming her human form before the last bend so as not to give herself away by her own light. Peering around, she saw that there was, indeed, a lamp. There was also one obvious occupant — a fat, unkempt guard snoring in a chair. She grinned, resumed her energy-form, and crept up to him.
Since gaining these powers, she had been practicing hard in determining the best way to use them, and she knew that her energized touch, which could severely disrupt the human nervous system, was most efficiently applied to the back of the neck. She grimaced at the man’s greasy, probably lice-ridden hair, but thrust her fingers into the appropriate spot. He keeled over — not merely asleep now, but unconscious.
Twisting her rings once more, she retrieved the guard’s keys and picked up his lantern, her nose wrinkling in disgust as she did so. This place stank.
Several doors led off this central chamber, which contained a number of sarcophagi and other relics. Presumably a number of these contained prisoners, but which one held the man she sought? She tried a door, lifting up the lantern to view inside. Two wretched-looking ragged men shrank away from her. She locked the door again — she felt sorry for them, but it would probably be a mistake to free them. For all she knew, their being held captive here was important to history in some way. She prayed that it were so, anyway, for her conscience’s sake.
Two more doors were opened fruitlessly before she found the man she was looking for. He was lying in a heap, his hands and feet manacled. As the soldier in the tavern had said, he was a very tall man, with black hair, and he wore a kind of green jumpsuit with a red collar and belt, although somewhere he had lost his boots. The outfit was filthy and ragged, but it was still clearly not something that belonged on this world at this time in history.
He blinked against the sudden light. “Leave me alone,” he groaned, in American-accented English.
Sandie lowered the lamp. “It’s OK,” she said. “I’m here to help you. I’m called Cameo.”
“Cameo?” He stared at her. “You’re wearing a mask — and that’s no outfit for this era! Dear God, are you a time traveller? Did Rip send you?”
“I don’t know who ‘Rip’ is, but yes — I am a time traveller, though a reluctant one. What’s your name?”
“Jeff. Jeffrey Smith.” He struggled to his feet. “Look, you can’t get these irons off me, can you?”
“No, but I have friends who can. Do you think you can walk enough to get out of here?” He nodded. “OK, then,” Sandie said. “Let’s waste no time about it. Follow me!”
“Well, I’m not going to pick them up,” said Bill. “Loath am I to even touch them!”
“We have to, man,” said George. “‘Sblood, should the sergeant come and find us out of uniform so, we’ll be for a flogging!”
“Aye, but they be bewitched, George. Ye saw it, even as I did — they moved of their own accord.”
“But has been some small while since, and they have remained still,” George observed. “Mayhap there is some mundane explanation for this.”
“Oh? Like what? The wind blew them off? Aye — and did unbuckle them first.”
They both stared at the fallen belts. “We should pick them up,” George said.
“Aye, so ye did say five minutes ago! George, man, if thou’rt so keen, then take the lead. Thy belt be there — stoop and pick it up, and will I do likewise. George? What ails ye now?”
His companion was staring at the door. Even in the wan torchlight, he looked pale. “A… a hand!” he gasped. “Bill, ’twas a hand! I swear!”
“A hand? Where?” Bill said, puzzled. He looked around but could see nothing.
George pointed to where the double doors to the chapel met in the middle. “There, man! Between the doors! ’Twas ghostly white and shining, like some necrous mist!”
Bill snickered. “Talk not such rot! How could a hand reach between the doors? I could not get my dagger’s point in the join!”
George grabbed his shoulder. “I tell ye, man, by Jesu, I saw it! Thin, it was — like paper — and its thumb was pointing up like so.” He demonstrated a thumbs-up sign with his own free hand. He pulled close to Bill. “Thou’rt right, Bill. This place is foully haunted.”
“Then what say ye? Should we flee?”
“How can we? How can we leave our posts? We’d be hanged for desertion if they caught us!”
“Then what would ye have us do? Shall I go fetch the sergeant?”
“And leave me here alone? No fear!”
“Then what? If we stay, we may be damned by ghosts and fiends. If we go, we’ll be deserting our posts! George, what should we do?”
“You could start by putting up your hands,” said a voice. They stared out in that direction, to see a masked man in ragged clothes striding towards them. In his hands was a longbow, with an arrow nocked to its string ready to fire.
“Who… who…?” began Bill, now more confused than ever. They had not seen the man approach, nor could they imagine how he had got around this side of the building without being seen by the guards at the front or back.
“I’m quite serious, gentlemen,” said the newcomer softly. “Put up your hands, and don’t even think about crying out an alarm. I can put an arrow through each of your throats before you can even draw breath to shout.”
The two hapless guards raised their hands. “Thank you,” said the Bowman. “Now, please turn around to face the wall — no, not the door. Move away from the doors, please.”
“Who is this fellow? Should an enemy spy be this polite?” whispered Bill to George.
“No talking!” commanded the Bowman. Unable to see anything but the wall now, Bill felt his keys being lifted from his belt. Odd, but the archer could not have closed the distance so quickly without being heard, he thought. He must have had a confederate hiding in the shadows nearby.
A key turned in the lock, and he heard the creak of the doors opening. “Well done, Cameo,” the Bowman said. “Any trouble?”
“No,” said a woman’s voice. “There was just one sleeping jailer inside. He’s sleeping even more soundly now.”
“Is this one of the friends you mentioned?” said a male voice, differently accented from the Bowman.
“Don’t worry, friend, you’re in safe hands. OK, folks, let’s go.”
There was a rush of moving air, as though the wind had suddenly whipped up beside the guards. They stood still for what seemed like long minutes, but nothing happened. Nor was there any sound. Finally, George could resist it no longer. He looked around.
They were alone. “They’ve gone,” he informed his companion.
“Oh, Jesu,” swore Bill. “What are we to do now? We’ll be flogged for sure!”
George suddenly reached up to his collar and tore it. “Not if we’re smart about it. Rip thy uniform, man, and we’ll scuff each other up. If anyone asks, we fought like demons, but were overwhelmed by at least a dozen Roundheads.”
“Aye!” said Bill, tearing his own clothes and rubbing dirt over his face. “That we were. In fact, ’twas more like a score.”
“Two score, even!”
“Aye! Even Prince Rupert himself would have fallen before such numbers.”
“Mayhap we could even get a commendation for braving such overwhelming odds,” suggested George as they ran off to raise the alarm.
“Aye, that we could…”