Time for A Change

Elke Jones is a Time technician, a good job, no hassle and the boss is quite cute too!
So how come she's now on the run with her boss and two sisters from mysterious H'llam?
This is one of my early Sci-Fi stories,
should it go on?

Time for A Change

by Maddy Bell

Copyright © 2004, 2010 Maddy Bell
All Rights Reserved.

 

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Time for A Change

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"Bing-bong... The next time shuttle will depart in eleven minutes for the year 3014"

Although dreamed of for centuries, time travel had only become possible a little over four years ago, in 2009. For once the Europeans had stolen a march on the Americans and Japanese; an EEC sponsored project centred in Wroclaw, with research centres in Bavaria, the English lakes and in the Russian capital Moscow, had come up with the goods. Originally thought of as a transportation system to help relieve the Europe wide road congestion, its other potential was soon picked up on and work started afresh.

After zapping innocent pieces of fruit and then small rodents around Europe it was but a short step to alter time co-ordinates as well, to give effective time travel. Things moved rapidly after that, with scientists asking themselves questions that in the future they could answer; to save confusion its easier to say that much of the advanced technology arrived from the future.

It soon became apparent that tight restrictions were needed to ensure that time paradoxes didn't occur. Travel back in time was severely restricted to special research teams, who had of course to take a mobile unit with them to ensure their return. Going into the future was less of a problem, but a unanimous decision by the European Parliament, the first such ever, meant that you could not travel to a time where you could meet yourself, thus the usual minimum time shuttle was fifty years, and you had to be over forty years old. The authorities thought they had every possibility covered, and they did - almost.

Elke Jones was a time technician. Apart from her training she hadn't travelled the time vortices, and that had only been a couple of hours round trip to 2030. However that didn't stop her from dreaming of what she would do given the opportunity. There weren't many time technicians as yet; Elke still didn't know how she had managed to pass the interview. Perhaps it was her qualifications, or on the other hand perhaps it was just her karma. In reality it was nothing so profound, the man hiring staff had simply fallen for her lock, stock and barrel. Doctor John Sargent still wasn't sure himself why he had given her the job - was it her wonderful dark blonde hair, or perhaps the encouraging glint of the stud she wore in her right nostril, or it might just have been that face. That face he had often thought would be ample reason to launch a thousand ships like that had for Helen of Troy. However, John Sargent had yet to make a move for her affections although she remained stubbornly single and in his life.

As her boss watched from his office, Elke adjusted the machinery for the next shuttle, a special research group back into the late eighteenth century - one of only three trips into the past sanctioned for the whole year. These trips always required greater accuracy than forward trips to avoid materialisation in awkward spots like in a wall or twenty feet off the ground.

John Sargent joined Technician Jones in watching the arrival of the Historians making the trip. The part consisted of a woman and two men, each dressed in carefully researched costumes and the mobile unit had been disguised as a travelling chest. From what Elke knew of the period they ought to fit in well. A ringing phone beckoned to the Doctor, which left his assistant to launch the party into the past.

The countdown ran down, eight...seven...six... Everything was on track for another successful launch into time, four...three... A red light began flashing 'abort' in front of her eyes. Elke made a grab for the emergency evacuation switch but before she could activate the device her world dissolved around her. John Sargent stood watching, unbelieving, as the entire apparatus blinked from sight, taking his technician with it.

Inside the rather misnamed shuttle, the party of historians were so keyed up that they noticed nothing amiss before they were spewed out into the English countryside. A few feet away the form of Elke Jones joined them a moment later. As a wall separated them it was several minutes before the two parties became aware of each other; Elke, although in shock strained to look over the wall for the source of the voices. Only then did the others sense something amiss.

"What are you doing here?" the older man asked sharply. "Your presence endangers all of us."

"The...there was a malfunction with the unit, I am, was, the technician."

A look of dread crossed the other woman's features.

"So we may not be where we hoped to be."

Elke knew it could be worse than that. "Er... not just where but when as well, although", she glanced around, "it does appear we have headed into the past."

"Yes," the younger man started, " we are certainly earlier than 1880, a railway should run through here after then."

"That's all very well", the woman interjected, "but the mobile unit didn't come through with us."

It was true; by whatever quirk Elke had come, the chest and its contents hadn't. In fact the chest was where it should have been, it was the human travellers who had gone astray. Location wise they were spot on, however they were a little over six hundred years further back, and to cap it all, not even in their own plane of reality. Even without knowing this, the older man's next words were more than true.

"Oh shit, we're in trouble."

"Mark Neaves" the younger man addressed Elke; he indicated the others in turn. "Dr Sarah Ballantyre and Professor Stephen Morris."

"Elke Jones" she replied automatically.

"We'd best get out of sight," Neaves went on, "until we have some clue to when we are."

With daylight failing the unlikely looking group made their way to a nearby area of woodland, the doctor more than once tripping on her dress. Elke rarely wore a frock and felt for her companion, thanking her lucky stars she was in the regulation work suit. The younger man had by mutual consent taken charge and, using a small tinderbox he carried, had a small fire going.

They assessed their belongings while warming themselves. Both men had tinderboxes and small hand knives, the doctor carried a smaller knife, Elke had to admit that she had no possessions they could utilise - a couple of pens, a propelling pencil, a couple of scrunchies, and one and a half European Dollars. The others did come up with a quantity of coinage in gold and silver which would no doubt be infinitely more use than Elke's carbon discs, whenever they were. Their immediate need was for food and shelter although the Prof assured them he could build a bivouac.

The two men went to look for food of some sort while the women collected branches and bracken for the bivouac. By the time they regrouped daylight was over the western horizon and the stars began to make an appearance. The food search had been surprisingly successful with chestnuts, blackberries, some mushrooms and a few tart apples. They even had meat; purely by chance they had found a pheasant with a broken wing that they had managed to finish off. The women meanwhile had gathered more than ample material for the bivouac and to keep the fire going for a good while.

Sarah Ballantyre revealed herself as an exceptional cook, producing a surprisingly good stuffed pheasant with the blackberries to finish with; although not great in quantity each was fed enough to sate their immediate hunger. While the food was cooking their shelter took shape, a simple lean to affair covered with bracken and branches, more bracken provided a basic mattress.

Now as they sat finishing their meal, Elke studied her companions closer. The professor was a well built individual of around fifty with thinning dark brown hair and of a height with her own five foot seven inches. His companions were both much younger, the woman around thirty and the man perhaps five years less. Mark Neaves was a reasonable specimen of manhood, six feet plus, well muscled with green eyes and hair a dark ginger. The good doctor was a smallish woman, not much over five feet tall but well in proportion with an unremarkable face and long, black hair doing its best to remain in place. "What a collection" she thought as she idly plaited her hair into two braids, "what a collection."

Tiredness took any caution away with it and they all retired to their makeshift shelter before the real cold of night descended.

They awoke next morning to the sound of voices nearby; female, they spoke in a language none could quite place. Their shelter obviously blended in well with the surrounding woodland as they remained undetected, but the unlikely companions agreed to reveal their presence. The voices might be friendly or not, they would have to take the gamble.

Who was more surprised it was difficult to tell. The owners of the voices were two young women dressed in buckskins, each bore a bow, currently unstrung, and one carried a brace of partridge. Obviously sisters or close relations, both wore their fair hair in a single waist length braid, but certainly the things that captured the attention were the markings each carried on their face. The younger one sported a compass-like device covering most of the left side while the other had a vertical stripe running from her hairline to disappear under the buckskins. Both girls' decoration was a rich mauve in colour, but you could not quite tell how they were applied.

The two parties eyed each other wanly, before Mark could get a word out however, the elder of the girls was brandishing her bow at them, her colleague followed suit. The time travellers took a step back and instinctively started to make protestations of their peaceful intentions, but from the others' reactions it was painfully clear that English was not their language. Their still silent audience watched as between them they went through French, German, Latin, Greek and Swedish, with only occasional eye movements showing some understanding.

To be entirely truthful Cherryh and M'lenie were more than a bit frightened by the sudden appearance of four strangely dressed individuals in the woodland. They were not of their own people, none wore facial tattoos, but they were not of any people they had ever come across either. Two of the strangers were obviously male - the tall redhead and the old man. Of the others, one was certainly a woman, the last of them wore different clothes that confused the body's shape but Elke's braids suggested another female.

In a reflex action they gripped their bows stave fashion but although having superior numbers the others backed off. The girls glanced at each other as first one then another spoke using different tongues. Cherryh thought she recognised some words, but mostly it sounded like gibberish. Something she hadn't noticed before, the four in front were unarmed - no one, but no one travelled far from bow, sword or axe.

"They are unarmed, M'lenie."

"Yes, did you understand their speech Cherryh?"

"No but I don't think they mean harm to travel unarmed so, or encumbered like the woman by such skirts in the forest."

"What should we do then?"

"I think, sister, we take them to the village, to Cam." With that she lowered her bow slightly and then spoke to the strangers. "Come with us." Seeing their lack of understanding, she repeated herself this time motioning for them to follow. "Come, come this way, hurry."

M'lenie had hurriedly strung her bow and already had an arrow nocked.

What Cherryh now considered their prisoners quickly grasped the meaning of the actions and moved to follow her, M'lenie took up a position to the rear as her sister led the way to the village of Streines.

The two women began to chatter to each other after Elke tried her Swedish on them again. The four of them glanced at each other and then back to the girls before them. The elder then turned her attention back to them and said something incomprehensible. When she repeated it with arm motions and with the other now with a strung bow it was obvious that the intention was to take them somewhere. Their situation could hardly get worse, so with Elke in the lead, Sarah behind, the Prof and Mark then preceded the younger woman.

The strange party moved at a steady pace through the trees, Elke guessed they were going north by the sun's position when they crossed a small clearing, and they were slowly but steadily climbing. Being behind the young warrior gave her a chance to more carefully observe their captor. She guessed her age at around eighteen; the rearguard would be about two years less. Beneath the leather pants and shirt she was of athletic build but not overly muscled. She wore knee length boots that matched her garb in colour, a dun that could easily dissolve into the background of the forest. The girl'' long braid swung as she moved silently through the undergrowth, its movement regular as a pendulum. The girl checked on her charges regularly, Elke realised her face decoration was not the simple stripe she had at first seen, but an interlocking series of blocks each edged with a border in pale orange. She realised that what she had assumed was makeup was actually a tattoo.

Their route became steeper and large boulders of dark rock littered the forest floor as the path they were on took to following the course of a tumbling brook. Elke checked her watch; they had been walking for an hour now with no sign of a let up. Sarah was doing all she could to keep up, the Prof despite his years was fit enough, Mark - she had discovered last night -played rugby so was untroubled, she herself kept herself in condition.

The narrow valley they had followed for some way eventually opened out again and suddenly they were on open moorland, a plateau of rough grass, bilberry and heather which in the distance was crossed by stone walls, beyond that smoke could be seen.

The little group continued to follow the stream across the open expanse; at the top of a slight rise their guide pointed toward the drifting smoke and uttered "Streines" which they took as the name of their destination. As they came closer they could see the small group of buildings nestled close by another stretch of forest. The path now fell slightly downhill between the dry stone walls of the fields. Voices drifted up from the village but no one was yet in sight.

The little group descended the path with a little more caution than previously which allowed the visitors to take in a little more detail. The village, for it seemed to consist of few buildings, was based about an open central area, not so much a green as a roadway as it was open on two opposing sides. There were probably around a dozen buildings that could be seen although smoke gave away the position of others further on. Some buildings were of stone, others timber or a combination of both. Most had two levels, the lower sunk below ground level, shingles provided most of the roofing material though some of the outhouses were the owners of thatch coverings. Each cottage had a walled garden to the rear where vegetables could be seen growing.

People were going about their usual daily chores, feeding livestock, tending their gardens, gossiping, children playing, a group of about half a dozen practising archery. The arrival of the strangers id not at first arouse much interest, only when their escort was seen did the occupants of Streines take more note.

Cherie called out, "Adrie, Adrie".

A man of about the same age made his way through the gathering throng. "Yo, Cherryh ".

"Adrie, go fetch Cam P'gnole, tell him we have brought these strangers who speak not our language or any that I know, we will meet him at the Moorcock".

The youth looked the strangers over before departing back through the villagers. The crowd were not hostile, rather more curious, as they followed the small procession to the hostelry. The new arrivals studied them in return, they were mostly of fair complexion, as mixed a bunch as you might expect; the women all wore some tattoo on the left of their faces, the men on the right, only the children were not adorned. From the age of the youngest tattoo wearers they guessed they were applied in some coming of age ceremony. They wore a variety of costume, the men mostly wore some type of shirt and loose breeches or a kilt, the women more usually had a costume most worlds identify as medieval although the term did not really apply here. The one unifying thing was with only one or two exceptions every villager wore their hair in either one or two long braids.

By now the little group and their escort were at the building known as the Moorcock, the rudimentary depiction of a grouse like bird hanging outside left no-one in much doubt as to the purpose of the building, even if the accompanying script appeared as so much gibberish to Elke and Co.

Cherryh and M'lenie ushered their charges inside, the younger woman preventing the straining crowd from following. The barkeep, seeing the strangers, was quick to draw half a dozen beakers of the sour local brew. The girls indicated their charges to a booth, once seated they were presented with the refreshment. The girls returned to the bar where Cherryh gave her father the pheasant she still carried.

"Who are they daughter?" The girl's father was an amiable chap who wore an abstract design on his cheek.

"I don't know father, we found them down beyond the gap, near the low fields. They speak many tongues but not H'llam or any I know. M'lenie thinks they came from the south by their garb, how they came here though, who knows."

"You've sent for the elder?"

"Yes, Adrie has gone to fetch him."

Left alone in the booth with their drinks, the time travelling group had a chance to discuss what they had seen. Between sips of the beer the professor spoke first.

"One thing's for sure, we are not in eighteenth century England,"

"Great" Elke put in.

"...But," the Prof continued, "I think we are still in England, the terrain is much as the area we should be in, but we appear to have gone much further back, probably to the middle ages by their costume."

"I agree," Sarah put in, "the costume fits, but their tattoos - I've never seen or heard of their like before."

"It may be that they speak some form of old English, there's not much documented evidence of these languages, and that script outside looks runic in origin." Mark concluded.

"So" Elke ventured, "we may be in England a thousand years before we were born, and stuck here."

"That my dear appears to be the long and short of it, it only remains to try and save our necks although we don't appear to be in any immediate danger." The professor concluded.

The historians, although concerned by their plight, seemed quite excited while Elke realised that she would miss the byplay with John Sargent, she had meant to get together with him eventually, but now who knew what would happen. She sipped at her drink while the others swapped observations, the Prof produced pencil and paper and made a few jottings, and fully an hour had passed before a noise at the door drew their attention. The youth they had seen earlier came in followed by an old man in floor length robes, his hair white as snow hung loosely to his waist, both cheeks were decorated with some type of cartouche.

Cam P'gnole ignored those waiting at the bar and approached the waiting group in the booth.

"I am Cam P'gnole, the village elder." Seeing his audience's incomprehension he turned to sign language and tried again. "Me Cam P'gnole."

This brought recognition to the foreigners' faces. The older of the men repeated the gesture. "Profisor Mooris" then indicating his companions, "Dokta Balluntine, Mark Neevs, L'Kee Jowns."

Cam returned their smiles and sank into a chair Adrie had hurriedly placed behind him. "Where you from?" He could see that they didn't quite grasp that one. "Here Streines"

This time the one who called himself Profisor Mooris seemed to twig, and after a quick exchange with the others started a short discourse. With much waving of arms he was obviously trying to infer that they had come a good distance, but the only thing that sounded like a place was Burminham that he hadn't heard of, which only seemed to back up their story.

"Why you here? What you want?" He sensed the others understood the substance of his query but seemed to lack the ability to do more than smile at him like idiots. Well, it was fairly obvious that if they meant harm to his people they would have come armed which they were not. He sat and thought for a while, taking several pulls of the ale Cherryh had deposited in his hand. It struck him that the newcomers had only his name and that of his village, so he introduced the others in the room; at least they could manage that. He was shaken by the younger woman making a grunting noise then seeing her hand motions realised she was asking for food, the grunt did sound a bit like 'fude' now he thought about it.

M'lenie also grasped the meaning and went off, returning shortly with bread and cheese for their 'guests'. Cam named the foods, the strangers repeated the words and he left them to eat, joining D'mecks and his family at the bar.

"We must find out who they come from and why they are here, but I fear we need to learn more of their language and they ours before we can ask these questions, they learn quickly but it would be well not to publicise their presence here."

D'mecks undertook to talk to the people of Streines in that light.

"In the meantime we should take them to my cottage, can you girls bring them by the back way, I must see Fey Rada before I go back."

"Yes Elder, when they have eaten we shall bring them."

Cam P'gnole left with D'mecks then.

*****************

John Sargent knew that something major had gone wrong; with alarms ringing all around all he could do was stare at the empty spot where the apparatus had stood, then with an almighty flash the machinery was back where it should be, minus technician Jones and its cargo of historians.

Over the ensuing days and weeks the whole unit at the Midland Time Unit was checked and re-checked, calibrated, tested and repeated again, but no fault could be found. A rescue party was despatched from the London Time Unit, but all they could locate was the mobile unit, no sign could be found of the human cargo. The official report described the four victims as 'Missing In Time'. But John Sargent was sure that there was or perhaps would be a way to find them, his sense of loss over Elke certainly didn't hinder his research into the possibilities.

Six months had passed since the disaster before he came up with an idea that might throw some light on what happened. So it was that he booked himself a trip to the next century, he managed to wangle it on expenses. Once there he had some extensive research to do. For a couple of weeks he studied all the available texts on time travel, he even checked the records to see if there was any mention of the lost souls but, as he realised later, they would only appear after the time of their disappearance if they were rescued, up to now they hadn't been just one of the time paradoxes. He was on the verge of giving up when he came across an article on time and plane vertices. To cut through the jargon, it suggested that so called 'time bandits' could be located through their time eddies which research had shown were different through the ages.

After returning to the twenty first century, Sargent continued his research and had soon located by trial and error the eddy frequency he needed to search for. That was the easy bit, now he only had to find a way of checking back through the centuries, and perhaps even the planes of reality.

They finished eating and Cherryh and M'lenie led them through the rear of the inn and out through the garden into the woodland beyond. This time without a nocked arrow at their back, their guards turned them along the trails away from Streines, but after about fifteen minutes they came to a cottage amongst the trees.

Cherryh indicated that this was Cam's house and they were to wait for him. They all settled down to wait; the Elder however was but a few minutes behind them carrying a small packet. He urged them into his parlour and despatched the inn keep's daughters with instructions to return later. Mark was starting to get an inclination of the language; a mixture of Latin, some Scandinavian features with what he guessed was some kind of Old English.

Cam had decided on a crash course in the language of H'llam and so he dashed around the house collecting objects before starting his lessons for the strangers, the first stage in discovering why they were here. The others watching his antics realised his intentions and so were prepared when he settled down to start. They worked their way through his larder and furniture using the tried and tested method of him naming an object and his pupils repeating the name. By late afternoon they could name most of the objects around them and were just starting on more abstract ideas when M'lenie arrived with a crock of beer and another of stew, at which point they broke the lesson to eat.

They were at the point now of stringing together simple sentences, the Elder was surprised at how quickly they picked up his language. His own attempts at what they called Inglish were less successful; they seemed to use strange intonations that he couldn't get to grips with. His pupils by late evening were leading the 'teach-in' by asking specifics. When Cherryh and Adrie arrived late on they were trying, it had to be said with some great success, to explain that they were lost and didn't know how they came to the area.

Cam P'gnole decided to call a temporary halt and with Adrie and Cherryh helping soon had sleeping accommodation organised for his, village's guests. After he had retired to his own bed and the others had returned to the inn, the time travellers discussed the day's happenings before dropping off into an exhausted sleep.

Next morning they awoke to find Cherryh and M'lenie preparing breakfast for them, Cam had evidently risen early and gone out on some errand or other. The two girls were today dressed much as the other village women they had seen which set Sarah to thinking and suggesting to the others that it might be wise if they could obtain local costume. When their host returned later in the morning, the good doctor voiced their idea, which Cam heartily agreed to.

The girls were dispatched to see what they could find for the women and Mark; the Prof was soon outfitted by the Elder in one of his floor length tunics. They practised their newly learnt language throughout what remained of the morning, gradually getting across a more cohesive story, but it was becoming evident that Cam felt they were holding something back, and so with a concerted effort they did their best to explain how they came to Halum. Rather than outright disbelief he listened with great interest and surprised them all when he said that he had heard of other time travellers. They urged him to expand but his knowledge was limited. Their captors arrived with both lunch and clothing at that point, so that conversation was temporarily halted.

A vegetable broth and fresh bread were followed by some of the small, tart forest apples and more of the sour brew favoured hereabouts. Afterwards they changed into the garb that had been found for them. Mark was a problem with his height, but they had gotten around that with a woollen shirt and a knee length kilt since no one had breeches that would fit the man. The doctor was helped into a shirt and long skirt of the coarse wool cloth they used for everyday garments, Elke came out perhaps best being of a size with Cherryh she was soon wearing one of her dresses which of a finer material did not a lot in covering her bosom, but with her hair in a single braid she could almost pass for a local.

Now that Cam knew more of them he was more willing to answer more of their questions. The afternoon was taken with explaining the local political situation, they soon realised that they were now embroiled to some degree in the local power play. They also quickly realised that they would be in some danger if the local Baron, one Sho G'lyte, were to discover them. It was Elke who realised what even their hosts had missed, or at least not mentioned, even in native costume they stood out by their lack of facial markings.

Back in the village rumour upon rumour had followed their arrival, people although curious were nervous of strangers and Cam had realised this soon after their arrival, but he was devious to say the least. Only the innkeeper's family and himself knew any different but he leaked slowly that they were traders from afar who had been waylaid and their possessions seized. As in any community there were those that did not believe the general wisdom, usually for their own reasons, but most of the village readily accepted Cam's story as plausible and indeed tales of such attacks were often to be heard from visitors.

The doctor and professor were compulsive researchers and even in their current predicament they hadn't lost the desire for information and so they swapped information with Cam, being careful not to give too much information regarding twenty first century technology, even though it would be of little use to this society. Mark and Elke meanwhile spoke with Cherryh and M'lenie across a variety of more mundane subjects, food, clothes, the village, the significance of their tattoos, even religion. By the time they retired for the night again they were quite fluent in the language and had a good grip on the life and times of Streines.

Elke again voiced her concerns about standing out through not having tattoos, but the professor had been thinking on the subject since she had mentioned it earlier.

"Well I think I have part of the answer." He retrieved from his gear a jar of almost black powder. "Ink, or to be more precise a waterproof synthetic ink, it doesn't wash off skin very easily, I know, I've tried. I was supposed to write down my observations but I think it would work great for 'temporary tattoos'."

"Spot on Prof," Elke admitted, "Mark and I asked the girls about the whole tattoo thing. They get them during a coming of age ceremony, they don't have any particular meaning, they pick their own designs usually in agreement with the Elder, so if we're all in agreement I think that's our next step in the morning."

None of them were exactly overjoyed at the idea but all realised that if they were to survive long without endangering their hosts it was a wise move. When they spoke with Cam next day on the subject he was surprised that they had given so much thought to it and even had the solution worked out. He willingly set to with pen and parchment producing ideas he thought suitable for each of them.

For the professor they settled on an oak leaf design that, Cam explained, was a quite traditional design. For Mark a somewhat more geometric and graphic design, for Ballantyre a floral design which would be coloured with vegetable dyes but would be which would be easy enough to freshen the colour as needed, Elke was to have a more contemporary design which bore a resemblance to Cherryh's but with a more complex border of vines. When the girls arrived later in the morning they were quick to lend a hand to the face painting efforts, so that by early afternoon the travellers all wore convincing face decoration.

The one thing they had been putting off was the question of what now? They couldn't remain in Streines indefinitely, although return to their own time seemed unlikely they had to at least explore the possibility, and their point of arrival seemed as good a place as any to start. After considerable discussion on the subject a plan of action was arrived at. Cam, Adrie and the three historians would return to the 'arrival zone', they would check out the area thoroughly and return a couple of days hence. Elke as the one easiest to integrate into the village would remain as 'hostage' and would join D'mecks and his daughters at the Moorcock. That part of the exercise was put into action that evening, the rest would proceed at first light.

Having had only a chance to look at the bar room on her previous visit, Elke was not quite prepared for the rest of the building. After breakfast the elder sister showed the guest around. The ground floor was taken up mostly by the barroom with its booths and great fireplace, the bar itself stood along the back wall and served as much as a stand for the kegs of ale as aught else. The local tipple was the sour beer they had sampled, but also available was strong mead and Cherryh explained fruit wines dependent on season. They also served meals, what they had eaten the last couple of days was the usual fare.

Behind the bar, as seen from the front of the building, were the kitchens, a good size area with everything one might need at hand - spits, cauldrons, a bread oven and a roasting pit, to one end was the well stocked larder and next to that a rudimentary water-supply. Between bar and kitchen the main stairway, built onto the side of the chimney, led to the upper floor.

Upstairs was divided into a confusing tumble of rooms on a couple of sub-levels. The family's rooms lay furthest from the stairway, D'mecks had a room of his own, Adrie likewise, the girls shared a large room in the apex of the roof from which led a stairway that exited through the larder below. Elke had been allocated a small room next door; the other rooms were used as dual guest or storerooms as required.

Outside was a washroom and next door was the privy. Water was piped to most of the village using stone channels and a siphon affair a little west of the village. As with the rest of the village, some fowl and crops occupied the yard, with a large quantity of stacked firewood. The inn itself was stone built with smallish windows, shuttered but also glazed with fairly primitive glass, the whole roofed with neat shingles.

After the tour, Elke joined the sisters in their chores. Their mother had died not long after Adrie learned to walk and so they had for several years helped their father run the hostelry. From around noon a steady stream of customers came and went. Elke, especially wearing clothes borrowed from Cherryh, was ignored. Interest in the visitors had subsided greatly when Cam left the village with them; no one counted how many went. So it was that by the evening when the place was bustling with the folk of Streines, Elke found herself as assistant kitchen maid and barmaid, her grasp of the language was well enough for the job and she found herself enjoying the work.

Day two went much the same way as the previous one; Elke found herself slipping easily into the routine. The women talked as they worked, Elke picked up more of the language, her hosts some welcome change of company. However when a third and fourth day went by without Cam's party returning Elke started to become concerned, those around her too although they tried to hide it.

Late on the fifth day Cam returned without the others.

*****************

After a lot of exhaustive checking and re-checking, John Sargent finally entered the co-ordinates the computer had given him, then after a final check he threw the switch. The computer checking had gone remarkably well and with the processing capacity at his disposal it had taken only a little over a week for the micro-circuitry to come up with the co-ordinates which, when he checked, were only slightly different from those originally used. The idea had been to send a probe first then he would follow after, but what actually transpired was somewhat incredible.

It was a pure fluke that which found the three historians back at their arrival point when the switch was thrown. Cam was down by the woods, Adrie in the next field, the three time travellers were searching for any sign of their arrival when first the floating probe appeared from nowhere. At their shout of excitement Cam started up the field towards them, Adrie on the other side of the wall started to clamber over it much as Elke had several days before. However he hadn't reached the top before a blinding flash erupted around them and the Midland Time Unit replaced H'llam.

Sargent at first did not realise what had occurred but hearing a moaning sound found first Adrie, then the missing party of historians. Although delighted to see some success for his work the non-arrival of Elke Jones sent him into a mood of some melancholy. Besides that he had a new problem, somehow they were going to have to return the young man who had appeared to his own space/time co-ordinates. The other problem was that the unit had been damaged and would take time to put to rights. A third problem was keeping the media at bay; the sudden rescue through time was unprecedented, Adrie's arrival however they did manage to keep under wraps, at least for the time being.

*****************

Cam P'gnole sank onto the bench with an air of despair, barely noticing the arrival of a bowl of soup in front of him. Innkeeper, Elke and the inn keep's daughters waited patiently while the Elder ate and drank.

"Where are the others?" Elke ventured.

"Gone." His voice was not much above a croak. But finally getting his wits went on, "But you should hear from the start. When we left here what five - is it only five, days ago, er, yes, the first day we reached the lower fields soon after noon but decided to make camp before exploring the area, however we barely had camp set up when a mist enveloped us, so thick you could see only about two lengths" (Elke guessed that to be about twenty feet) The old man paused for a moment before continuing.

"The mists didn't clear until late on the second day, we managed to cover only a small area before nightfall. Adrie went off to hunt the next morning, the rest of us set to surveying the fields, but perhaps their memory was not quite accurate for we didn't find the place you all arrived," he addressed the last to Elke, "Adrie returned with some ground squirrels for dinner and we decided to call a halt for the day." He paused again and took a long swig from his mug before going on.

"Yesterday we started again, Sarah Balluntine found where we sought, I returned to camp, I forget why now. As I got back to the field I could see Adrie in the next field, then your friends started shouting. I started to make my way up to the field, I remember seeing Adrie climbing the wall, then there was a great flash that took away my sight for a moment. When I looked again up the field they were all gone. I looked all about where they had been, not a sign other than the trampled grass.

"I must admit I went into a bit of a panic then, I sat by the wall, when I came to my senses it was well into the second part of the night. I went back to the camp, as much for the warmth of a fire as anything else, I fell asleep and woke again at dawn. I gathered what I could carry and set out to return, I lost my way more than once but made haste as best I could. I'm afraid they have gone for good, and I fear Elke that there will be no going back for you. I think too that we have lost Adrie to us."

Silence descended on the little group, Elke left to find a corned on her own while the family comforted each other, Cam helping as he could with a kind word here and there.

The next couple of days were difficult for everyone. When news of Adrie's untimely 'demise' spread the whole village wanted to pay their respects. In the absence of a body for a burial they instead held a wake for the lad, his family planted several acorns, if one or more produced a tree it would be a good sign for the village and Adrie would be well honoured. Elke kept herself out of the way but still hadn't really grasped that instead of her high-tech life she would live the rest of her days in a fairly primitive society, and whichever way you looked at it she would be alone.

It was several days later when Cam sought her out. "Good morrow Elke"

"Good morrow Elder, what can I do for you?"

"Ah, more like what can I do for you. Do you wish to stay with us here in Streines or do you plan to move on?"

The question threw the young woman.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to be so abrupt," Cam went on, "We know that you grieve for your own kind, so if you wanted to travel alone you may leave here with our blessings, we will help as we can. Against that you are more than welcome to remain here, the innkeeper and his family would like you to stay with them, or if you preferred we could find you other lodging. There, its out, we would like you to stay but will not force you."

Elke was dumbstruck and not a little taken aback by the Elder's speech.

"I will leave you now, let us know your decision." With that the old man left her to her thoughts.

The way he had put it brought the whole subject into closer focus for Elke Jones. "Yes" she thought, "I could go and explore this strange land, I could always return here later", but deep down she knew she wouldn't, she would make Streines home - at least it had some familiarity now.

When she saw her reflection later that day she realised that it wasn't a case of just settling here, she would have to become one of them with all that might entail. She held off telling anyone of her decision for a couple of days before going to Cam's cottage to let him know.

"Hullo young lady"

"Hullo Elder, I've made my decision"

"Well come in, sit down, I'll get you some refreshment"

She settled herself into a chair while Cam fussed with cups of a herbal tea for them both. She took a sip before speaking again. "I'm going to stay, I shall make Streines my home"

A smile crossed the other's face, she continued.

"I think that will involve more than just arranging lodgings and that sort of thing, I am still quite ignorant of your customs."

"For now child, just know that you are welcome. Yes there are many things, which you are as yet ignorant of, I, will speak with Cherryh and M'lenie, they can instruct you. This deserves a celebration!"

"No, no, please, I don't want a fuss. I will let the others know and you may tell who you will but I don't think I could manage any sort of gathering just yet."

"Well, as you like, we'll put it on hold. I'll talk to the girls later."

They made small talk for a while before Elke made her excuses and left. She had got to know a lot of the villagers since her arrival; they mostly thought her a relative of D'mecks, a story both she and Cam did little to discourage.

It was the next day that Cherryh and her sister took Elke to their room up in the eaves. Cherryh started the conversation.

"The Elder has asked that we instruct you on what will be required of you to become one of us, I think your ways are far different to ours. You know about our faces for you can see that plainly, but it would be easier to show you than to explain."

Meanwhile the younger sister had disappeared, when she did reappear at Cherryh's call she was naked, which in itself surprised Elke but that was not the only thing. Seeing her reaction Cherryh began to make her explanations. M'lenie had rings through her nipples and navel, that however wasn't the thing that grabbed Elke for she knew people in her own time who wore similar appointments she could live with that, it was the girl's crotch area which drew her attention. Where her own folds were there was nothing but a small hole. Cherryh was talking, Elke only half listening.

"...A year old all children, boys and girls, are closed, they won't be opened again until they pair up in marriage."

Cherryh, with a now re-dressed M'lenie, went on to explain in more depth but although she listened Elke wasn't taking it all in, it only sufficed to say that she herself was going to be trotted thus. She went over what she was taking on, facial tattoos, multiple piercing and enforced chastity. From what she could work out these young women would not have a period even until they were wed, apparently something in their diet prevented either sex developing, only when they wed would they be made privy to the antidote. She wondered how this would affect herself, then realised that she should have had a period last week, yep it was effective sure enough.

Generally a child's mother closed them but that was obviously not on the cards in this case, friends would carry out the piercing and Cam was in charge of the tattoos. The villagers' religious beliefs were few but things did have to be done in sequence, which meant that Elke would have to be closed first. Cherryh, although only having watched the practice once, was the only real choice, to bring in anyone else could endanger all of them.

So it was that two days later Elke shaved her bikini area and took a good dose of the painkiller the Elder had given her. It worked well; she soon had no sense of felling below the waist, and needed M'lenie to help her onto the table where the 'operation' was to take place. Cherryh set to work with the catgut, Elke watched as the needle went in and out; she could feel a slight tugging now and then but nothing more. When it was threaded the two edges that would meet were opened with a sharp blade and then the whole thing drawn tight, the knot in the catgut pushed inside out of reach.

There was surprisingly little blood but Cherryh bound the wound with an antiseptic pad whose astringent qualities reached through the painkiller and caught the bearer by surprise. The feeling was however returning now to her lower body but at least she had not felt too much discomfort, the children would not normally have that luxury.

As long as it was in the correct sequence there was no particular time-scale to follow, so Elke decided to get as much as possible over as quickly as possible. Cherryh was even now sterilising the needles for the piercing procedure. Knowing from personal experience, M'lenie held Elke's shoulder down whilst her sister carefully pushed the needle through a nipple then carefully positioned the heavy ring through and secured it. The other nipple didn't seem quite as bad but Elke still only just prevented herself from screaming. The navel by contrast she barely noticed as her attention was on her throbbing breasts. Loose clothing would be in order for a couple of days.

Cherryh's salve was remarkably good, within a couple of days her piercings were clear, she barely noticed the weight of the rings, each of which were over an eighth of an inch thick although only around three quarters in diameter. What really surprised Elke was the way her nether regions had healed, although when she moved in a certain way she could feel a slight pulling, on the surface only a quickly fading red line marked where her opening had been, she had seen on M'lenie that even that would disappear. Only a few fine hairs, more like body down, replaced her previously bushy mound, another result of the mystery dietary ingredient.

The temporary tattoo that she wore would suffice a while yet, the young woman wanted to put that off as long as possible, instead refining the design she would finally wear. Like Cherryh's design it would run from her hair line down her face, over her eye, down her cheek then down her neck, finishing just above her collarbone.

She stayed on at the Moorcock and helped the sisters with the general chores, she was getting a dab hand on the beer taps too, barmaid came into the job as well and most evenings she would be between kitchen and bar. As her knowledge of the language improved she understood more of the stories and jokes and noted more than one favourable comment about herself. However, after the indignity of being 'closed' she had no intention of being 'opened' again so soon, however good looking the man.

Days and weeks passed, soon she had been in Streines almost six months. She spoke fluently in H'llam, even if she couldn't understand everything. She now had her own wardrobe that she had, with some assistance from the sisters, made herself; she was learning to use a bow, D'mecks had given her one of his spares. The only thing that on sight drew her apart from the people of Streines was the stud she refused to remove from her nose, "it reminds me of home and someone I once knew". It puzzled her actually, despite every woman, her included, wearing heavy rings in nipples and navel, they pierced nothing else, not ears or nose, or some of the other places Elke had seen pierced. Her own ears were pierced, twice in each, but from lack of use they were now closed and barely to be seen.

Eventually she could put it off no longer, the tattooing would have to be done - supplies of the professor's ink were just about finished and without that her 'virgin' skin would soon become evident. She arranged to go to Cam's house for a few days, she could hardly be seen in the village with a fresh tattoo, and for a last time scrubbed her face clean, after today it would always wear a design impervious to soap and water.

The tattoo equipment was fairly primitive but Cam was skilled in its use. However Elke knew remarkably little of the experience, she fainted much to her later disgust after only a couple of minutes. Cam skilfully drew in the outline, a series of blocks down the young woman's face, tilted to the contours. The main block of colour followed, a turquoise that almost shone. The fine detail and colour of the surrounding borders took longer; it was well into the evening when Cam finally finished. Elke had stirred only once, he left her now with a blanker over her. He was exhausted himself after starting midmorning and pausing only briefly to eat an apple.

Elke woke with a start, not recognising her surroundings at first, when she realised where she was she tentatively touched her face. It was tender and slightly swollen, a fine scab covered Cam's work, but the magic salve would have that gone within a day or two. She didn't dare look in a mirror. Although she knew she had looked upon an almost identical visage for these last months somehow knowing it was permanent frightened her.

The salve duly did its work and only two days after Cam had worked his magic Elke's face was healed and she returned to the inn. Careful not to be overheard her friends congratulated her and admired the Elder's handiwork. When she got the chance Elke studied it closely too, the lines were so perfect and fine, the detail exquisite, the strength of the colour incredible, even by his standards he had excelled himself this time.

Along the way she had discovered a lot of the reasoning behind the various practises, strange, perhaps even barbaric, to someone from her own time. The tattoos were meant to show maturity - the wearer chose the design, and maturity would give them a design they could live with till they died. Only occasionally were changes or rather remedial alterations allowed, usually only if one became an Elder.

The women's piercings were symbolic these days, but were the remainder of a tradition when the men folk pierced their women and chained them up, the women continued with the practice to show their strength over adversity, although the original purpose had long since ceased. Elke knew from the pain during the piercing where they were coming from.

The 'closing' of the sex organs and forestalling of sexual development was another concept again. In an age where rape and pillage were not uncommon, the only way to prevent misuse by unknown others was to seal a woman up. This eventually developed into the 'organic chastity belt' it was now. Mothers started carrying it out earlier and earlier to prevent unnecessary suffering, and the practice soon spread to the male babies as well, which served to confuse any raiders looking for the females.

The re-opening usually took place at puberty but as years went by that changed until the present state where only married couples could be opened. The tradition now was for the partners on the wedding night to open each other, it was actually less painful than you might think, however it was usually about six months before intercourse could be successful hence it was rare for a birth within the first, settling in, year of marriage. The associated dietary supplements, although closely guarded from 'innocents' were only common herbs.

With this information and a willing teacher in Cam, Elke was getting to grips with what made these farmer-hunters tick. Life in Streines wasn't always the idyll that the young woman had so far encountered, war and strife were always only just around the corner, few people travelled in these days and few of them any distance but news was no slouch moving about the countryside. What Cherryh called the 'arrow post' could see messages travelling at surprising speed.

Elke studied with Cam so that she was soon proficient in reading and writing the runic symbols which passed as text hereabouts, it was in fact simple beyond belief to her twenty-first century eyes, once you had got the basics. With only twenty-four symbols you could convey easily even subtle nuances, although everyday use tended on the more perfunctory level. Although anyone could have access to learn the skills few bothered, D'mecks could manage the basics, his daughters could only recognise certain words and phrases, for example they knew it said 'The Moorcock' outside the inn, but they couldn't read it.

*****************

John Sargent should have been relieved at knowing that his assistant's well being, but he wasn't. Although he now knew where and when she was, things were not as straightforward as all that, he had to get Adrie back to this 'Hallum' as well as locate Miss Jones and return her to the present. The big problem was with the apparatus itself, for monoplanular travel it worked perfectly, but when it went interplane it had a tendency to short out hence there was no guarantee it would work again quickly after the 'outward' journey, there could be a delay of several days, even possibly weeks.

Since the rescue run things had gone into overdrive, Adrie and the professor had given him a crash course in the language, he was fluent enough to get by in a first encounter at least. Doctor Ballantyre had a costumier produce a good copy of Adrie's travel clothes, with the technology at hand a temporary tattoo was easy enough to arrange, he chose a design of three ears of barley. However, despite his urgency, it was a month later that he and Adrie joined their gear in the Time Unit, the switch was thrown, man and boy materialised at the correct co-ordinates, however something was obviously amiss - the weather was wrong, it was bitingly cold and the trees were bare.

*****************

Summer was drawing to a close, Elke and her adopted sisters, Cherryh and M'lenie, were out on the moors to the west of Streines hunting for Moorcock. M'lenie saw it first; smoke from a fire only a handful of miles east of the village. The odd thing was that no one from the village had gone that way today, and no one lived there. The girls had taken Elke that way a couple of weeks earlier to collect bilberries so Elke knew it was mostly open moorland that way with a few patches of woodland in sheltered hollows.

They were not the only ones to spot the smoke, by the time they reached the village again the whole place knew and Cam was organising a scouting party. The village was filled with a mixture of excitement and fear while the scouting party were away, when they returned shortly after dark Cam spoke with them alone. When he dismissed them he wore a worried expression, with most of the village in the inn he addressed them there, using the stairs as a pulpit.

"You have all seen the smoke today"

Those gathered murmured confirmation.

"Our scouts have returned with grave news"

Another murmur went around the room, this time of consternation.

"It would seem that we are being invaded tomorrow. I will go with a small group of ambassadors to meet with these people, I will tell those concerned later."

The Moorcock erupted into frenzied discussions, the crowd kept the staff well occupied that evening, as they planned, plotted and generally discussed the problem.

The Elder was determined to keep his embassy small, there had been no shortage of volunteers, but eventually the number was whittled down to just six. Cam was to lead the group, Elke was not sure she wanted to go but Cam insisted, her knowledge of languages might be needed, the rest of the group were experienced hunters who carried their bows with practised ease, the girl carried hers also and like the men wore a collection of garments to keep in the warmth, including woollen leggings, so that she was barely identifiable from the men.

The little group set out at a steady hiking pace down the valley that dropped away to the east. They made good progress; an hour saw them just over half way to their destination. When they finished climbing up onto the moor from whence the smoke came they could not believe their eyes. A force of men, perhaps as many as a hundred, were camped just below a low brow, but on the hill above their camp was a structure that none recognised in form or construction.

Most of those camped on the moor were working on the structure; they had already built a mound some thirty feet high to which they were still adding material. Others were constructing a palisade from logs hauled in by horses, which surrounded the ever-growing mound. Their presence was soon noticed, an envoy was despatched to them under the blue flag of truce recognised hereabouts.

They waited whilst the small greeting party made their way across the moor to them. Elke was quick to recognise the approaching group, although she could not quite believe it, they were Romans. From sandaled feet to crested helmets they were dressed exactly as any text book illustration she had ever seen, these men though were obviously not of Mediterranean stock, their short hair tended to the lighter shades of brown more common in northern Europe.

Elke tried to remember her history lessons, this group of men didn't appear large enough to warrant a tribune, most likely it would be a, what was it now, oh yes a Centurion. The Roman party stopped about five yards away, all four giving a sharp salute to the group from Streines who, Elke included; found themselves giving a bow of the head in return. Cam just beat the Roman leader to the first words.

"Greetings strangers, who are you and why are you here?"

Elke expected some reply in Latin, of which she could recognise just a few words, but the Roman's words were if not in H'llam then in a closely related language, for despite an appalling accent he was easily understood by the locals.

"Greetings, I am Sextus Minucius of the seventeenth Legion under the Emperor Augustus Caesar. We are an advance party of his excellency's forces in the Angles."

Cam and his deputation didn't recognise all the words, Elke grasped most of it, but the gist was easy enough to follow, they were but part of a much larger force.

The legionary continued. "Unless your people are in league with the Celtonii, we mean your people no harm."

Stories of the Celtonii were a common theme of the stories that did the rounds in the Moorcock; it was their attacks aeons ago that had prompted the Halum's practice of anti-rape measures. However those barbarians came from much farther north, Elke assimilated them with the Celts of her own history.

Cam had his chance now, and grabbed it by both ears. "I have heard of your legions, far to the south. The Celtonii are far to the north. Why come you here? They are our enemies but we do not go to seek them."

"I would know your name old man" Sextus replied.

"Apologies, I am Cam P'gnole, Elder of the village we call Streines in the country of Hallum"

"Well Cam P'gnole," Elke could see the Roman gauging his reply, "those barbarians have attacked our ports on the east coast for several years, arriving by ship, razing the stores and houses to ashes and taking our women and children, the men and the old they put to the sword. The Emperor has decided that we must wipe these attackers from the earth.

The talk of attacks on towns and villages stirred the villagers more than almost anything else would. "What would you and your Emperor have of us Roman?" Cam asked.

Relaxing a bit now, Sextus Minucius knew the delicate part was nearly over. "We wish only to pass this way unhindered and to use this," he indicated the still growing mound, "as a way port for our troops."

"Of the first" Cam replied, "if your men trouble us not, we shall bide theme. Of the second, I doubt that we could stop you; this will obviously be a substantial fortress. It may be that your presence will protect our people or as likely put them in peril. Be that as it may, we are as one in our enemies so we treat with you as allies."

"Well said" Minucius answered. The slight tension in the air between the opposing delegations dissipated. "I would invite you to eat with me," the Centurion offered, but Cam rejected the offer.

"We must decline, our people await our quick return."

With that the Romans saluted their new allies and returned to their camp, the party from Streines watched them go and departed themselves. Cam was not one however to leave his back unprotected and so one of his archer escorts was posted to keep an eye on the Roman camp. Being largely uphill on the return it took a good while longer than the outward journey. It was late in the afternoon when they arrived back in the village.

On the way back Elke told Cam what she knew of Romans, the old man was a little surprised at her knowledge, incomplete as it was it was far more than he knew of the legions. In some respects he was reassured, in others an element of concern was planted. However the Elder knew their choices were few in this, the nearest village to Streines was Drunfyld away to the southeast, it was a similar distance north to Hulmfirth, the land was sparsely populated and the Romans were professional soldiers. Cam was content that he had made the best decision for his people.

He called a village council that evening and told the assembled people what had transpired. The people, although obviously concerned, accepted the Elder's words without argue, all respected the old man and they trusted his decisions. Elke had expected some dispute, even that some hotheads would go to the Roman camp to cause mischief, but nothing like that transpired. Instead a relief was sent for the lone bowman keeping watch and a rota to continue the watch agreed upon.

The next several days, Elke found herself spending a large amount of her time with Cam filling in his knowledge of Roman practises. The young woman was surprised by what recalled, names sometimes eluded her but her explanations were more than adequate to make up for that. The more he learnt the more Cam knew he had taken the right decisions, to be allied with these people was far safer than to be set against them.

Those returning from watch duty gave more and more details of the structure going up on the hillside, now visible from the village. The original mound they had seen was now close on ten men high with a ditch about a further two men deep. The palisade was now complete, only a single entrance was visible, accessed by a timber bridge. A further palisade was now going up at the top of the mound; timbers were being drawn up the slope of the mound by pulleys for its construction. The Roman camp itself now resembled the models that Elke had seen, a square breastwork with tents pitched inside in orderly rows, even though the scouts had not said, she knew its form, its sighting this time was unique in her knowledge in that it provided a bailey to the motte under construction, the access to the bridge being through the camp.

The Romans under Sextus Minucius behaved as good as promised, for that matter they had little opportunity for mischief, being worked in military practise each morning before work on the castle continued in the afternoon. Supplies arrived each morning by packhorse train, thus it was only water and timber they took from the land, excepting the occasional game bird. Both Cam and Elke were surprised by the incredible speed at which 'Bradforte' was constructed.

Although things in Streines ran on much as usual, an undercurrent of change was apparent. Archery practise was taken more seriously, the fletcher was kept busy, and likewise the blacksmith found himself spending a greater percentage of his time casting arrowheads rather than producing tools. There was no divide in the sexes, men and women each prepared in their own way, they weren't sure what for, even Elke was drawn into it all, she was fast becoming a fair archer herself. The new fortress was completed only ten days after their visit, Sextus Minucius sent a Maniple to invite Cam and his 'aides' to inspect their endeavours.

The Maniple, under one Julius Gaius, withdrew to make camp on the moor above the village while Cam organised his embassy anew. D'mecks came this time, despite her protestations Elke was once again included, the farrier, a man named M'Vic, was included, two of the younger men, C'arre and Jaronne made up the numbers to six. With the Romans as honour guard the delegation left next morning, this time dressed less warlike, Elke despite her protestations was to wear a dress when they arrived although for travelling Cam allowed her to wear travel garb.

They reached the Roman camp about midday; having stopped briefly while Elke donned her gown. They were escorted along the Vin Principalis to Sextus Minucius' tent where he formally greeted them. He dismissed Gaius' Maniple and introduced his junior officer Vorenius Callenia and a more typical looking Roman, Marcus Phellus, his command's medic. He gave his visitors a guided tour of the camp, explaining as he went the various features; the breastwork was now surmounted by a good stockade and sturdy gates stood at each of the entrances.

M'Vic's interest was mostly geared to the armoury the Romans used, the Gladii, the Pila and the burnished Cuirass' that the officers wore. All were impressed by the order of the camp, discipline was obviously strict, and the Centurion was saluted at every turn. Sextus then took his allies through the eastern gate and onto the bridge to the mound. From this angle it was an incredible sight rising high above them, Vorenius Callenia explained how the bridge was rigged to be destroyed in case of attack that would make the mound almost insurmountable.

They crossed the moat, all thirty feet of it; Elke noted that the foot of the ditch was quite wet, even if anyone was fool enough to try, that would be another hazard to overcome. Once across, another substantial gate guarded the mound inside the palisade, a path encircled the place. In front a path followed a switchback route to the top of the motte and another gate. Even unhindered the climb was difficult, if attackers got this far it was doubtful they would reach the top. Once through the upper gate they found themselves in a courtyard perhaps forty feet across, the palisade would be effective to defend the site, however Sextus explained it as much a look out post as a defensive site and then he took them up onto the scaffold that served that purpose. The field of view from up here was incredible, Elke guessed that the view east extended perhaps thirty miles or more, and a good ten to fifteen in the others.

The villagers were well impressed. The party returned to the outer camp where the legionaries had prepared a meal for their guests. Well made, if temporary, tables and benches provided a good site for an excellent meal. The Romans didn't stint in the fare offered, they favoured spicy food, but in deference to their guests had even let up on that practice to some extent. Quail and venison were offered and ground vegetables and pulses matched a fine trout from the river below. Sweet honeyed cakes were served as dessert while the Romans' favoured tipple of sharp wine was available in copious quantities to wash the meal down.

Darkness had arrived before they finished eating and they retired to a fireside site where all consumed more of the wine, Elke quite liked it, at least better than Streines beer.

When the gathering retired for the night the men folk of Streines were shown to an empty legionary tent, Elke was allocated a similar unit to herself. Even amongst so many men however she felt safe, the men of the Legions were renowned for their discipline and Elke thought to herself they wouldn't get far anyway as she felt her sealed crotch area, a smile on her face. For the first time she realised what peace of mind her sealed labia meant.

The villagers broke fast with Sextus after which Cam decided it was time for his piece. "You Romans have honoured us during our visit for which we thank you. You have been at pains to show us your strengths, we are, it must be said, impressed."

Sextus allowed himself a small smile.

"We however didn't come to sight-see" The other villagers nodded, Cam continued, "We would offer what help we can with archers, we have some skill in that area, to accompany your troops."

This didn't fluster the Centurion as it might some, he had expected something of the sort, would in fact have been surprised if the offer had not been made. "On behalf of the Emperor I thank you for your offer, I will pass it on to my superiors."

Soon afterwards the village delegation left the roman camp, this time without escort.

It was only a matter of a few days before the Roman force received a significant increase in manpower with the arrival of the Third Cohort of the Seventeenth Legion led by a Tribune with a most un-Roman name, Hastur Dornier. The Third Cohort was in itself a fair military machine consisting of mostly foot soldiers but also a brigade of cavalry. Also under Dornier's command was a small force of native irregulars, the main force could easily cope with a pitched battle but guerrilla action was not their forte - the Roman leadership recognised the need for native expertise in that area of operation.

The Tribune met with his Centurion as soon as the newly arrived force were organised. Heartened by what he saw and heard he told Sextus of their next orders. As the country hereabouts was deemed friendly, a squad of Romans would remain at the castle while the main force would move north in a pincer movement with the Forth Cohort, who were far to the east. The terrain they would be crossing would restrict their daily progress; they would be on the march for a good few days before they were likely to engage the enemy.

Hastur welcomed Cam's offer of archers, even in a set piece engagement they had their place, so the Maniple of Julius Gaius was again despatched to Streines, this time on a less social cause. The villagers, being aware of the main force of Romans arrival, were a little dubious at first but with Cam's reassurances they began to treat the Maniple as long lost friends and soon Romans and villagers were ensconced in The Moorcock.

The Third Cohort was to leave two days hence; the villagers who were to join the force were to join with the Romans at daybreak just north of the castle. There was no shortage of volunteers among the people of Streines, however with a population of fewer than two hundred there was a limit to the number who could sensibly be spared for this exercise in war. The final force that left the village was twenty strong, men and women, Cam had allowed only singles to go, so that most of the group were youngsters with only a couple of older men and women who had lost their partners and were childless. Cherryh was along and Elke found herself there as Cam's representative, she was not happy about that, but the villagers were so she could do little to argue, she was at least competent with a bow.

The villagers, like the Romans they would be joining, carried everything with them. Their accommodation consisted of four man tents whose components were spread between the occupants as were cooking kits and supplies, each carried two quivers and spare bow strings for their long bows. Although they carried spare clothing the favoured 'battle dress' consisted of what Elke called 'Robin Hood' garb, close fitting hose topped with a jerkin reinforced with leather on the bow side, each member also wore their braids knotted atop their heads out of the way.

They left the village, after a lengthy round of goodbyes, late in the afternoon to camp at the rendezvous site. The little band were disciplined in their own way, as Cam's representative Elke would serve as go between while a man by the name of Marek was the nominal commander for combat situations. Out of natural tendency the women and men tended towards their own gender, a dozen men and eight women in total.

Good as his word, the Tribune's force was ready to march as the first strains of light passed the horizon. The new recruits to his force had slept little anyway and so were not much behind the Romans. Hastur Dornier viewed the new arrivals appraisingly, they for the most part appeared what he had expected, his guess as to the number had been fairly accurate, and Sextus' intelligence on the village was quite accurate. He was less keen when he realised that nearly half the group were women, he hoped that would not prove a problem later, not all troops were as disciplined as the Romans at his command.

He gave them a short speech of welcome and the group's leader made herself known to him, a mere slip of a girl, he guessed she was in her early twenties, an intricate tattoo covered much of the left of her face, all the group wore facial tattoos, the girl was the only one with any other decoration, a small stud through her nostril. Sextus had mentioned such a woman and believed her high in their hierarchy, her presence here confirmed that, pretty name for a barbarian though, Elke Joanus.

The Streinian group were slotted in the marching order just ahead of his cavalry who brought up the rear. His other native troops were separated from them by a couple of squads; Dornier was not one to risk petty squabbles in his force even if there was no apparent cause for concern.

They moved out northwest across the moors at a steady pace, the Romans knew from experience the most economical speed to march any distance at. By the first halt mid morning they had covered maybe six miles, the wily Centurion kept the force on a straight-ish track, he rotated the Roman squads so that each spent time breaking the path through the heather and bilberry.

For a force of such size Elke was surprised by the lack of noise, or to be precise, chatter usually associated with gatherings of humans. She could hear occasional drifts of conversation from the other non-Romans ahead while the cavalry behind them spoke amongst themselves in low tones between long silent stretches. The Streinian archers spoke in twos or threes and walked along as a loose group behind the Roman troops ahead who, for the most part, marched in file in silence.

It was still quite early when the force halted for the day on a plateau some dozen or so miles from their starting point. The Romans soon had the basics of their camp organised, the villagers were allocated a campsite, Sextus suggested their efforts would best be put to supplying some fresh meat for the camp while the breastworks were excavated.

When they returned with a mixed bag of birds and hare, the camp was all but complete, guards stood at each gate and the interior was covered with a neat grid of tents. Only the cavalry unit was not camped within, they occupied a smaller enclosure with their mounts, a lozenge shaped affair with several entrances, only the glow of their fires gave away their position in the darkness of the evening.

Day two of the march went much as the previous one, the archers took what game they could on the go and by the time camp was announced already had a fair supply of meat to eek out the camp's supplies. They had dropped off the high moors for a while, then after fording a river climbed again up a steep and long hillside. Sextus led them in a series of less steep throws first left then back again to the right, producing a series of switchbacks at which they camped in a large clear area just beyond the level of regular tree growth which had hidden them during their switchback climb.

The pace was such that even with the distance covered each day, even those not used to the walking remained in fair condition if a bit footsore. Another day passed, they used a more circuitous route to avoid two deep, steep sided valleys so that by late afternoon they had twenty miles march behind them but not much more than half that in a forwards direction. The countryside could have been anywhere in the Pennines of England, the forest stretching up the steep sided valleys to give way to moorland which rolled away until dissected by another of the deep valleys.

Still a good march from any possible confrontation, Dornier decided to utilise the open space for some military exercises. The Tribune divided his forces next morning, the non-Roman contingent he set to practising their various skills. The force that would act as attackers were marched off by Sextus Minucius and were soon lost to sight. The remaining force, which included the cavalry, began at once to build an earthwork. By early afternoon a breastwork, Elke guessed it to be a good quarter mile long, had been built, gladius and Pila wrapped with leather for safety and this 'defending' force were on the alert. The Streinians and other allied troops watched from the safety of the camp, as the Centurion's force appeared some little way off.

The mock engagement was a noisy and earnestly fought affair, each squad, each Maniple wishing to show their mettle to their commander who directed his troops from the front, the sound of Bucculators and the muffled slapping of swords filled the air for a good couple of hours before the trumpet of 'disengage' was sounded. Although only training several legionaries had suffered serious hurts which the Cohort's doctors tended with as much precision as the troops had fought with.

For Elke who had read books about the Romans, this was a unique chance for personal observation, how the professor and his colleagues would have enjoyed this. To the rest of the watchers it was a sound showing of force, a show of strength, which if that was its intention served its purpose well. In the evening the Romans were more animated then Elke had seen them on this venture, as soldier traded story for story till late into the night.

They moved out next morning leaving their way camp and the seemingly purposeless earthwork behind. They soon fell into the familiar march order again, today they had to cross a much wider valley late in the day and for the first time they camped in an area of forest not far from where they had forded the river. Ditch and breastwork were not possible here, instead a timber felling operation on an incredible scale produced a sturdy stockade to the usual pattern, tents although conforming generally to the accepted pattern were less uniform in their alignment as they were pitched between stumps and one or two remaining trees. This time the guest troops played a more active role in the camp's protection, more used as they were to forest living than the Romans who preferred open expanses.

The small fort was left intact when they departed the next morning, it could be reused on their return or by following troops. They moved once again onto high ground with a clear view across the rolling moors and to the east the low-lying plains that the other Roman Cohort would be crossing. In all their march so far they had seen but a few distant villages, the settlements they had seen had all been smaller than Streines, significantly so.

In general though, the country was devoid of significant features, the moors all looked much the same, as did the valleys. The weather was good for the season, cold at night, still fresh through the day, they were kept warm by the continual march by day, small fires tried and failed by night. The half expected problems the Streinian women may have caused were not forthcoming, perhaps it was their mien, with their tattoos and strong bow arms they would have been no pushover even for a trained legionary.

*****************

The arrival of Adrie and the stranger in Streines late one evening was to say the least unexpected. The lad was widely believed to have died several months before by falling into a ravine, so his sudden reappearance was a shock, only his immediate family and Cam knew that his disappearance was under entirely different circumstances. However Adrie was seen by only a handful of inebriated men so the problem was not as great as it may have been.

Cam P'gnole was surprised, thankful, well he wasn't really sure what he felt, relief probably came out on top. The stranger he had brought with him was called Jon Sargent, a friend it seemed of Elke. The full story of Adrie's disappearance and subsequent return was to say the least incredible to the ears of Cam and his family.

When the new arrivals learnt of the Romans and the departure of Cherryh, Elke and the others they were both dismayed, Adrie as he felt he should be in on the enterprise, John because the love of his life had gone to some as yet unknown fate. The immediate problem was explaining to the rest of the village Adrie's rise from the dead. Cam came up with a scheme that seemed just about plausible - unknown to Cam; Adrie had survived the fall although unconscious. Jon had heard his calls for help sometime later and rescued the injured youngster, who he had then taken back to his own village beyond the high pass.

John was fairly well disguised with his temporary face tattoo and gear much like their own, the story was accepted by the villagers, his strange accent and short hair throwing further credence on the story, everyone knew that those from 'over the hill' wore their hair short, both men and women.

Cam understood only too well that if it was possible for Elke to return to her own time it would be the best course for everyone, he had already seen the young woman's restlessness in the short time she had been in Streines - multiply that by years and she would go haywire. He knew what would have to happen but first came some preparation and more information from this latest time traveller.

For John Sargent the developments were altogether very worrying. The Romans with Elke in tow had left the district nearly three weeks previously and would almost certainly be a considerable distance away. As he had told the old man, Cam, the mobile unit would work from any location so they would not by necessity return to Streines if and when he caught up with Elke Jones and co. He knew that was what he would have to do, go track a considerable force of soldiery, then get to Elke, preferably undetected. Easier said than done. He was going to need help and one hell of a lot of luck, Cam had promised what assistance he could muster; he hoped it would be enough for the job before him.

Tracking a couple of thousand troops was not in itself a difficult task. Even weeks later they left an easy trail to follow for the most part, heather on the moors didn't recover that quickly. Adrie's sister, a pleasant looking girl was acting as his help, much to the younger man's disgust. With just the two of them they were less likely to attract undue attention plus they could move with relative speed. They travelled light, bivouacking at night, the girl was a dab hand at finding suitable sites to stop, his own skills were, he had to admit, minimal.

M'lenie was inquisitive; asking a continued stream of questions to fill the gaps in her knowledge learnt from her adopted sister Elke. In return John topped up his own knowledge learnt from Adrie and the party of historians whose brief sojourn to this time reality had nevertheless produced an incredible amount of knowledge. They found the strange camp and earthwork a couple of days out, they both marvelled at each new campsite they came to. John had only seen the castle at Bradforte from a distance, but he was impressed by the time it had been constructed in.

They moved steadily in the wake of the Roman force, by degrees catching up, John estimated they had travelled three days for every four of the army, in fact they had done better than that on occasion as more than once the Romans under Dornier had spent two nights in one camp. However their quarry was still moving ahead of them towards the Celtonii, the northern barbarians, who were the foe of civilisation for the whole kingdom of Angle.

*****************

As the Roman Tribune began to trust the Streinians so they were, with the other non-Romans, allocated to work as scouts, scouting was becoming more and more necessary as they continued to move north. They had been on the move for eleven days when a full squad was left in the legionary camp when the rest of the force moved out. Elke asked the Centurion, Sextus, later in the day, his reply was as obvious as her facial tattoo, the squad was to act as a supply station and also provide a rearguard. As an incidental they would also begin construction of a more secure camp. Although he didn't say as much, Elke read that to mean another motte and bailey like the one they called Bradforte.

By now the native forces were mixing amongst themselves but also with the Romans with whom they travelled, gaming and storytelling with them in the evenings after the setting up of the camp. The Streinian group were as social as the rest, many of the Romans, even after a couple of weeks, didn't know that there were women with them, they took them for youths not yet matured into manhood, only the oldest woman drew more attention but only because they thought, and Dornier encouraged the rumour, that she was an effete man.

Although they could often see the low plains to the east, Dornier kept his force on the high ground, a fact rued by most as the winds now swept across the high moors unceasingly, chilling the air and bringing with it the first signs of the soon to approach winter.

They seemed to have been on the go for an unfathomable time, rise, break camp, march 'til mid afternoon, set up camp, sleep, and so on, to the Roman legionaries it was a way of life, to Elke it was fast becoming tedium. She had given up keeping tabs on what day it was after several days of particularly foul weather, gales, rain, and if that wasn't enough fog set in afterwards. In another time and plain of existence the place they were at now would be part of Durham. The hills for the last couple of days had tended to drop in elevation, they were now amongst a more rolling countryside, much more forest covered the land, their leader had to keep them out of that as much as possible, a prime place for ambush even of his considerable force.

*****************

Sargent and M'lenie came across the supply camp and an already far advanced motte in the last vestiges of the grey day's light. Their cover story in case of running into any Romans went into full swing; they were posing as messengers to their fellow villagers. The officer in charge of the small garrison recognised them as Streinians, allies he knew, and so their story was accepted. He offered them a camp site within the confines of the Roman camp, which they accepted as it included food and the use of a legionary tent for the night, for the last week they had slept in the open, tents were unknown to the natives, those used by the Streinians with the Roman army ahead had been hurriedly copied from the Romans.

The news from the supply depot was good, they had made good time and if they hurried a supply caravan was but a couple of days ahead, they could travel with that to up the main force. John wasn't so sure about that, but M'lenie thought it might add a bit of security to their trip. So it was that they set off in pursuit of a supply train that in turn chased the main force, its advantage being the use of mules that covered the ground marginally quicker than the foot soldiers before them.

The chasers caught the supplies and still with some misgivings on John Sargent's part, joined the native herders who under the supervision of four legionaries were taking supplies to the main force. Neither newcomer had ever seen such numbers of mules, they estimated a couple of hundred in all, each carried a load of either grain, or salt or even fresh vegetables - carrot or turnip to supplement what scavenging parties could supply by way of meat and wild vegetables and culinaries. Each of the herders was responsible for ten of the load carriers, making twenty of them; the Roman escort would be better than useless in case of attack.

M'lenie fell into the role cook, her experience at the inn setting her in good stead, John helped each night and morning as each beast had to be loaded or unloaded and at night pickets set up, they went asleep each night to a cacophony of braying and snorting mules. The mules and their supplies had apparently been on the trail before them all along, however they had missed their passage in the trail of the Roman cavalry whom they trailed by a good few days.

The Celtonii were not what Elke had expected. From what she had gleaned from Streinian legend and odd words with other members of the Roman force she was under the impression that their foe were an undisciplined hoard of barbarians. None of that came anywhere near accurately describing the force now ranged before them.

Their opponents were big men, big in every sense; she guessed that most of them were around six feet tall, their impressive helms adding perhaps around half a foot to that. Although not as disciplined as the Romans facing them, they were however no rabble, being drawn up in what, by their differing garb, were most likely clan affiliations. The men wore loose trousers and jerkins of a similar coarse material over boiled leather armour, one or two boasted more impressive iron pieces, each carried a broad round shield painted in lurid designs, the majority had swords at their side although axes and maces were favoured by some.

To the front of each group stood a standard bearer and, it varied, up to four drummers with good-sized instruments. A group towards one side of their opponents seemed to include the Celtonii leadership, their more ornate headgear certainly stood then apart from the line troops. With them were several other figures in flowing white robes, Elke's guess was they were druids. The two forces drawn up in the valley were fairly evenly matched but for the Roman cavalry.

The young woman turned her attention to the Roman force. By squad the legionaries were lined up in classic formation. At the far side of the valley the other native volunteers waited, arrows nocked, the cavalry waited beside the Streinians to the left of the main Roman force, although small in number the force of which she was part were deadly archers and an essential part of the Roman strategy.

For several days they had been harried by the Celtonii, a handful of legionaries were lost, several more injured in the encounters, the enemy suffered similarly. Now they were to be part of the first major contact with the opposing force. Each side now stood waiting, waiting for the signal that would lead to death and mutilation for many of them, and defeat for one side or the other. She could see Sextus standing next to Tribune Hastur Dornier in the midst of their troops in direct contrast to their foe.

The Celtic force were the first to move, which was to the Romans' advantage. They began to close the couple of hundred yards between the forces, weapons drawn, their progress of an easy trot. The Romans formed a shield wall and prepared Gladii and pita for the onslaught. Adrenalin was pumping through Elke's veins just as much as her colleagues as they prepared to let loose the first volley of arrows. The trot became a run and then suddenly the Celtonii lines broke in a dash for the enemy. The legionary force held its ground then with the enemy finally in range a barrage of pita was let loose, followed soon after by a second and third. Men went down, others discarded fouled shields, a great roar of voices and for the first time Elke heard the pounding of the drums, the answering call of the Roman horns creating a strange background to the fast developing battle.

The archers received their signal and let fly, their arrival in their foes midst did little to slow their advance and soon Romans and Celtonii were in close combat, the archers continued to ply their skills, the cavalry held its place for now. The battle was fairly evenly balanced; first surging one way then the other, some Celts at the rear broke off and produced bows and set to returning the archery from the Roman flanks. The battle was becoming a stalemate, Dornier signalled for the cavalry who immediately broke to harry the rear of their foe.

With their attention split, the legionaries pressed their advantage; over the clash of metal on metal the sound of the Roman horns then Celtic drums could be heard. The battle raged on, the archers despite the supplies they had brought were fast becoming desperate for ammunition, which would soon take them out of the confrontation. Both sides had taken considerable hurt but the Roman cavalry were the deciding factor and after a particularly useful charge by the horsemen, the Celtonii sounded the retreat.

Dornier's troops followed the retreating force before the Tribune sounded the hold. The troops, exhausted from several hours, willingly returned to rank as their enemies beat the retreat. After ensuring that the Celts' retreat was not a trick, the Roman command set their men to preparing camp, even after such a battle there was no let up in their defences. Medics meanwhile tended to the injured, another detail collected those Romans whose lives had ended on the battlefield for burial.

The Streinians had lost three of their party to Celtic arrows; another half dozen had taken some injury although none were serious. They tended to their own dead and injured and in the truce of twilight went onto the now quiet battlefield to retrieve what arrows and fletching they could. If this encounter was anything to go by, a fifteen percent loss could be expected in any future confrontation then it didn't look like their life expectancy would run that far. Elke actually felt worse now than before the battle and that thought did little to help.

Already though a Roman messenger was winging his way south to hurry up the expected reinforcements.

*****************

Sargent had slept little the last few nights, the sound of the pack animals and a general feeling of unease combined to disturb his sleep. He awoke to the sound of horses, not the pack animals but a horse coming at some speed. He wasn't alone; by the time the rider reached them everyone in the camp was awake. The messenger was more than pleased to meet a friendly party and over breakfast told them of the battle just two days since. John's heart leapt at the news, partly in expectation, partly in fear, it would not be long now before he located Elke.

*****************

The morning after the battle the Tribune sent out a scouting party, but there was no sign in the immediate vicinity of their enemy. Squads, Maniples were brought up to strength, men promoted, soon the Third Cohort although reduced in number were ready for action once again. The Tribune started his force in the wake of the Celtonii withdrawal, he was under no illusion as to their victory, he could be leading his men into a great deal of trouble. Sextus had voiced that possibility and so the scouts were increased and they marched in battle readiness.

If the Celtonii had not been split on two fronts it would be the Romans in flight, but almost simultaneously the two Roman Cohorts had engaged the big northerners. The other battle near the coast had almost gone their way, but a flukeish landslide had taken a good many Celts to their deaths and raised the Romans' fright, it was then almost a rout as a once disciplined force broke in disarray. So it was that now the Celtonii were being chased on two fronts, nearer and nearer to their homeland in the great forests of Keelda, which stretched from coast to coast, and north for several days.

Two days after the original confrontation, the party that Dornier chased stood to fight again. This time the Celts had a geographical advantage; they launched themselves from atop a hill at the Roman force. However the Romans were equal to the task and within a mere handful of minutes the entire force was within a defensive square, only the cavalry without who withdrew a ways. The square protected the archers who layed down a veritable barrage on the fast approaching Celts.

Then they were on them, both sides giving as good as they got. The Roman cavalry dove in, this time the Celtonii were prepared so that the attack was less successful than on the previous occasion, however a man on foot is not really much competition to one upon a galloping horse. The unexpected appearance of another great force of horses behind the Romans was enough to send the Celtonii running for what cover they could find.

*****************

They could hear the sound of battle not far ahead, John Sargent was uneasy, soon they would be in sight of the fight. The pack animals balked at the sound of clashing metal but the Roman escort urged the herders on so that they came in sight of the battle soon after. The Roman force was under siege from all sides; only the cavalry worried their foe. Then, as unlikely as it was, the Celts broke from the fight and headed for the hills.

The Roman force was dumbfounded at the sudden turn of events, then in ones or twos laughter started to roll through the ranks as their unknown 'allies' drew closer and they realised that the rout had been caused by a supply caravan. The Streinians joined in before Sextus set to securing their position, the Celtonii would not be fooled for long and could return at any time.

The Romans fortified their position rapidly, breastworks were soon raised, guards set. The supply train was swiftly unloaded; the animals picketed by the cavalry camp, a breastwork joined the two camps. Sargent and his young companion eventually made their way to the Streinian camp, now reduced to sixteen as another had gone down to a stray arrow. Elke was not around when they arrived, but the others reassured him that she was alive and well.

He didn't recognise his colleague when he first saw her in the Roman camp. A thin young woman in tights and tunic like the others pitched her way around the waiting troops. A long braid of blonde hair hung over one shoulder, a bow on the other, a stripe of colour ran down the face, then a glint in the sunlight, another then confirming the first as it glanced off her nose stud. He looked again, the familiar smile had been replaced by a drawn and weary expression, she came on without noticing him, her mind elsewhere. When she was but a handful of yards away he called to her.

"Elke is that you?"

Confused at first, he had spoken in English, she looked at the newcomer. "John? John Sargent?"

"Yes, yes, its your boss come to rescue you"

"How..." Lost for words she collapsed in tears into his arms and stayed there for long minutes. When she finally came round she began again. "How, how did you come here?"

"That's a long story for later, the important thing is that I am here, I've brought your 'sister'," the latter with irony, "with me. That's not the only thing I have," he patted the pack on his shoulder, "A way back home."

"Oh John" and again she hugged the man in front of her.

It was obvious even to John that they could hardly zap out of existence in the middle of the group, even if that had been his original plan. The other obstacle to that course was Elke Jones herself, he could see that unless he used force there was no way that she would come with him just now, she was too involved with the here and now.

With no new attack, Dornier ordered camp to be set up and soon the fortified area was host to the sound of mallets and the more relaxed sounds of legionaries cooking and settling in for the night. The Streinian party having lost the occupants of a full tent had ample space for the new arrivals, the sisters Cherryh and M'lenie joined Elke and John in the vacant tent. Newcomers and quasi Romans exchanged tales of their journey up country from Streines, then exhausted, they returned to their bedrolls.

The next couple of days the Roman Cohort stayed at the same camp, on the third morning a messenger from the Fourth Cohort found them. The news was good, only twenty miles away the Fourth had run into the Celtonii fleeing the Third and had taken their leaders. The two forces would now meet up a day's march north before moving into Keelda. When John heard this he became quite alarmed and sought out Elke.

He had devised a plan for the pair of them to leave the Roman force but was still unsure of the safety of those left behind, Elke when he spoke to her was still not convinced of the urgency. Sargent had to come up with a new plan and fast. When the idea came to him it came in a flash and that was going to be the answer. The Roman force reached the rendezvous in good time and set about preparing the camp, John joined the Streinians in tent pitching then scavenging, he could afford no suspicion amongst these strangers.

His plan was going well, he was to share with the sisters and Elke again but more importantly Cherryh and M'lenie were assigned as camp guards for part of the night. Elke wasn't going to like it, so Elke wasn't going to know about it. They ate and retired to their respective tents and bedrolls, the sisters departing for their duty. Sargent waited till he was sure his companion was asleep before making his plan go on. As it went it was a simple idea, start a fire in the tent then immediately use the travel cube to exit the inferno. It would be assumed that they were completely incinerated in the blaze so no questions.

Well that was the idea. He gathered their immediate belongings ready and set a pile of bedding for the fire. Even the best plans can go wrong, but so far things were going well, Elke remained asleep, the camp was quiet, time to set things alight. John ducked outside to retrieve a brand to start the blaze, he didn't notice two figures approaching the camp, who it must be said didn't see him either.

The bedding wouldn't catch at first, a delay that would soon prove a problem. Cherryh spotted the flames first.

"Quick M'lenie, we've got to get Jon and Elke out"

The two sisters ran toward the tent and burst in as John activated the time cube. It wasn't two people who left the tent but four, outside the flames took hold of the tent itself, which was what roused those sleeping nearby, however the flames had too great a hold to do anything about it. A nearby legionary had heard Cherryh's shout and so it was presumed that the two girls had died with their friends in the blaze, trying to rescue them. John was right on one thing at least, the fire left but a pile of ashes, a few melted blobs of metal and the remains of a knife.

John didn't at first realise that the sisters were with them; his back had been to the doorway of the tent, his attention on the device in his hands. He wasn't sure who was the more surprised they or he when they materialised in his lab a split second later. He was right in one respect at least; Elke was annoyed at him, not so much for carrying out the plan but more for not telling her. His saving grace at the moment was that the place was deserted, at least that gave him a chance to organise things with the sisters. Number one was to get them all out of the time centre, his own absence in real time was only a few hours, but he nevertheless checked his office out, changing into his regular clothing while he was there.

Elke meanwhile had raided the locker room, coming up with a selection of gear to cover their own garb and a kit bag into which went their weapons. It was a strange group who met John shortly after, Cherryh had a mismatched leisure suit, M'lenie had acquired only a short skirt while Elke had come up with a jacket and shorts for herself, and let out her now long tresses so that they flowed around her. A bit strange in appearance still, but hey would pass a cursory glance. Then John remembered their faces, he had removed his own design, for speed however they would have to take a chance, Elke could remove hers at his place, the others would have to wear makeup for now.

John ushered his charges to his transport and got them inside and covered up, he still had to run security. Fortunately getting out was not a problem, they only checked on the way in, if you got in, you got out. Once past the gate and away from the site he let his cargo sit more comfortably as he turned the wheels in the direction of his house fifteen miles away.

The sisters were still not sure what had occurred, they only knew they shouldn't be here. Once away from the Time Centre John relaxed some, Elke too let out a sigh of relief more at being back in her own time than in running the guards at the centre. The relief however was mixed with a certain amount of misgiving, would they be able to return her friends to Streines? If not, what then? She couldn't answer those questions, when she asked John he was no surer than she.

"I've found you some more suitable clothes" John called to Elke when he spotted her heading for the bathroom next morning "and that tube of soap should take your face paint off."

Over the sound of the toilet and shower going on all John heard was "thanks".

The two unwitting guests were still asleep, it was quite early yet even though John had been about for a while and had even been to the local mega-mart 'Always open, just for you' where he had taken a run on their sizes and bought outfits for each of the young women, cheap sandals would adjust to whatever size their feet were, a regular plethora of makeup completed his purchases, they raised some funny looks when he paid, but he didn't even notice.

While Elke showered he made coffee and started to worry over what came next. The be-towelled figure of Elke came out of the bathroom.

"Clothes over there, there's makeup too" John looked up at her as she passed. "Soap not work?"

"Er, I think you should know, it'll take more than soap to remove this, it's the real thing."

John was taken aback. "But why?"

"Well," she sat down, "coffee first." The man passed her a cup of brown steaming liquid. "Thanks" She tried to gather her thoughts. "After the others disappeared I was resigned to staying in Streines for weeks, I hoped someone would come back for me but nothing. Eventually I decided that I would either have to stay in the village or leave altogether, the inks I was using for the temporary face design were fast running out and with them likely my safety in the village. I decided to stay and Cam tattooed me soon after." She didn't mention her other indoctrinations. She went on, "At that time not in my wildest dreams did I think that I would return to my own time."

John sat quietly for a moment. "What's done is done, if you want to cover it, and the others, there's makeup with the clothes, it might be prudent not to stand out too much just now."

"Thanks" the young woman finished her coffee and returned to the room where her friends were just stirring, collecting John's purposes on the way. John went into the office adjourning the living area, he heard Elke show first M'lenie then Cherryh how to use the shower and toilet with some hilarity. Then it was all quiet for a while as John tapped away at his terminal, he tapped into his work unit, things however were not looking good, although they had not caused any damage to the time unit it just would not accept the co-ordinates for Streines, it seemed that the machine was working as designed only.

The sound of the women in the other room brought John back to the here and now, and he went back into the main room. He barely recognised the three of them, Elke had managed to produce acceptable outfits for all three from his purchases. M'lenie had a tunic over leggings, her hair still braided but curled atop her head, Cherryh was in a blouse and skirt of the current mid thigh length, she had put her hair into two braids which hung over each shoulder. Elke likewise had a blouse but she had shorts instead, her own locks were tied loosely behind her, she had managed as well to disguise their tattoos with liberal doses of the makeup, although the makeup and clothes didn't quite go, they would pass.

John then tried to explain their current dilemma, they didn't believe him at first but after he had shown Elke his failed attempts on the terminal to program the unit Elke unwillingly had to admit he was right. Leaving the sisters fascinated by the vidbox, he and Elke retired to the office to go over their options, John had a half-baked idea but it needed to be worked through, fortunately it was Saturday, the centre was shut so his computer activities went unobserved.

The two Streinian women were picking up the basics of English from watching the vidbox. They didn't say so, but like Elke back in Streines, they already were coming to grips with not going home, it would hit them harder later but for now the hurt that had brought was replaced with a sense of adventure, a chance to see strange things, people and places. Their brother in his short time in the twenty-first century had not left the centre, they already had seen more. The girls flipped from channel to channel, from stern faced newscasters, to animation, little animals chasing each other across the screen, then to singing, people in strange costumes, another re-run of Star Trek, some they watched for a while, others they passed over straight away. When their host returned to the room they were glued to the porno channel, a young girl clad in thigh boots and sheer body stocking was writhing on a bed with another naked but for some small tattoos and sporting a hairstyle currently popular, her head shaved at each side and tattooed there. They were discussing this when the others came in.

Elke chuckled. "They are here two minutes and already they're being corrupted". John had to join her, as the two innocents looked their way.

The plan was set, they could but try, the basic idea was to go forward in time and hope that the later machinery would or could cope with the co-ordinates for Streines. John had held onto the mobile unit and it was that they would use. As the quote goes, 'if at first you don't succeed, try again' and that was the basic concept of the plan, it could turn into a regular time romp, they had some preparation to do before hitting the time waves.

*****************

So it was that two days later the four time travellers assembled their gear in John's transport, Elke had, with the vidbox's help, taught the sisters the rudiments of English, the three women had been on a shopping expedition, there were things John had not bought such as underwear and they now each had a shoulder bag for their belongings. John had armed himself with a small pulse gun, Elke found a decent bow in a sports shop, she was at least competent with that, the sisters still had their own weapons. Other than weapons, clothing was the bulk of the rest; John had his terminal but that about wrapped things up.

John headed his vehicle north into the hills which at one time and plane Streines was located in. Even now there were still places where few people ventured, it was to one such area they were headed. The hills were quiet and those aboard the vehicle each felt trepidation of the moves to come. Elke set the co-ordinates; the others prepared themselves as best they could, then light intense as the sun, then an equal amount of darkness. Their surroundings appeared almost unchanged. They had jumped but twenty years, would it be enough or was this the first of many such jumps? The now veteran vehicle rolled down the road out of the hills once more, they needed to be closer to a time unit to tap into its control circuits.

They eventually parked up on a lane near the city of Derby, which in this time sported its own time centre attached to the university. John set to with his terminal; the others ate from their meagre supplies while he tinkered with the keys. When he put it down again his news was not only not good, it was worse than they thought possible.

"The good news is that the mobile unit is accurate, but that's the only good news. First the time units here are not much advanced from 2013, worse than that though, I don't know how or why, but the authorities know about us, there is an arrest warrant out for us."

As John had used English, Elke tried to clarify matters for the others, on hearing confirmation of the last part their faces dropped.

John went on "We'll jump again, then we must dump the car, it's too obvious to keep using."

They organised themselves, John re-stowed the terminal, Elke set the next set of agreed co-ordinates, but John suggested they go two steps to 2110. Elke hit the button once more. It was dark when they materialised, the dial showed they were on target time wise. John gunned the engine and headed into the sprawl that was Derby in 2110. Not much traffic was moving, even so their museum piece would soon attract attention, so it was with relief that they turned into a quiet precinct where much to John's delight one of the ground effect cars that served in this time was parked.

The low, sleek machine was without wheels being effectively a hovercraft, and apparently without doors. The Fokker 21 however was a user-friendly machine, at least for the new arrivals, Cherryh inadvertently releasing the door catch as she ran her hand along the bodywork. The vehicle opened like a huge clam, the motor started its warm up, the 'time bandits' bundled their gear inside and followed themselves. This time with Elke at the controls they left the precinct and quickly made their way toward the express route to put some space between them and the abandoned vehicle. As they drove along John played on his terminal keys and with a flourish let out a sound of success.

"Ta dar!"

"What?" Cherryh asked.

"I've managed to bypass the tracking device on this car, the police won't be able to home in on us so quickly now."

"Well that's one thing off my mind," Elke put in, "what about the other?"

"I'm working on it, but we need to be nearer to a time unit, there's one in Nottingham, that's not too far."

"Left here then" M'lenie had spotted the unfamiliar name, her knowledge stretched to a basic concept of letters and sound related to them, something people born to the language never get to grips with. They turned up onto the other road and headed east across the low hills of south Derbyshire, even now still a political region. They crossed other routes, local roads mostly but then the busy even at this hour Route 1, which ran from up in Scotland to end in Athens.

The University campus hove into view, now they just had to get in, find the right building and avoid detection!
 

*          *          *

 

Maddy Bell 05.06.04  © 2004

 
 

The End?



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