January 1636, Dover, England
Four large bay mares walked quietly down the gangplank and on to the quay. Their heads lifted, nostrils widened, and ears swiveled taking in the new sights, odors, and sounds but they showed no signs of distress. Wilfram Jones smiled in relief. The mares were his gift to his family and the last of his group's horses to be off-loaded. The English Channel had been choppy and not all of the horses had been as phlegmatic.
"That's it, Wilf," Reichard Blucher said, coming up behind him. "All our gear and animals are off that miserable excuse for a ship."
"It got us here without charging a king's ransom," Wilf answered, "and the captain didn't overcharge us for what your horse did to his ship." He glanced up at the clouds and frowned. "We need to get on our way. It's a long ride to our destination and yon clouds look like they hold snow."
Wilf directed Christian du Champ, Dieter Wiesskamp, and Reichard to manage the packsaddles and packs. Mike Tyler joined him in saddling the riding animals. In less than an hour all five men were mounted and each held the lead of a packhorse.
"Okay, let's go," Wilf called out and started his horses off through Dover.
"You should say 'Move 'em out,' Wilf," Christian said with a wicked grin.
"No, no!" Dieter chimed in. "It's 'Head 'em up! Move 'em Out!' but only if you're leading a cattle drive or a wagon train. Ask Mike."
"Don't look at me," Mike Tyler replied. "Westerns never were my favorites. You guys are the ones who spend all your spare time watching Rob's old tapes."
Wilf ignored the banter and concentrated on winding through the crowded streets. Once clear of the town he led them off the Dover to London road and onto a smaller lane leading west. He kept them moving for half an hour before calling a halt to check cinches and give the horses a rest.
Dismounting, Wilf drew in a deep breath of cold, damp air.
"Ah, the smell of England. As we're upwind of the town, the worst stink is cow dung."
"How long has it been," Christian asked, "since you've had a lungful of English air?"
"Years. I came back once, but never made it past the docks." Wilf frowned at the memory. "I was just turned twenty and thought to show my father and grandfather that I'd survived and even had money in my pockets." His memories of that aborted visit stirred up a number of other unpleasant memories.
"What happened to stop you?" Christian asked softly
"At a dockside inn a whore reminded me that mercenaries are the scum of the earth. She did find my money as good as any other's, though." Wilf faced his old friend and lifted an eyebrow. "No doubt, someone similarly informed you."
"None so kind as a whore. My grandfather ordered me out. Ordered that my name be removed from family records. He told me that I wasn't even fit to beg on the streets so that left becoming a mercenary."
The quick smile that crossed Christian's lips didn't fool Wilf. His own memories still festered and he suspected that Christian's did so, also. Movement among the horses drew his attention.
Reichard's gelding had his head up, a clump of grass hanging forgotten from his mouth. The horse's attention focused on the road behind them. One by one the other horses lifted their heads and subtly tensed.
"Get mounted," Wilf ordered, "someone's coming." Before he was fully settled in his saddle his right hand had moved his up-time pistol from its holster to his coat pocket. "Michael, take the packhorses and stay behind us. If a fight starts, ride off down the road as fast as you can manage. We'll catch up."
"Are you expecting a fight?" Tyler asked calmly. Wilf smiled at the sight of the pistol ready in Michael's hand. The young man had come a long way from the shy, nervous boy he'd first met. Briefly Wilf wished that Rob Clark was with them. Rob had several times proved capable of handling a pitched battle. Michael was still green when it came to a life-or-death fight.
"No, but I picked this road because there shouldn't be much traffic." He paused, listening. "Our visitors are mounted. That could mean soldiers or an organized band of thieves. Not that there's always a difference between the two." When Tyler nodded thoughtfully Wilf turned away and moved to the front of his little band. He noted that Christian held an up-time style shotgun instead of his usual blade. Dieter had his pistol out, but held it down along his leg, hidden from a casual glance. Reichard's pistol looked like a toy in his big hand and it, too, was held out of sight.
Satisfied, Wilf reined his horse to a spot ahead and to the right of Reichard. The first of the approaching group came around a bend in the road and Wilf allowed himself a smile. They were soldiers and he recognized the man in the lead.
"Ho, there!" the leader called out. His eyes went wide when he saw Reichard and he broke into a grin. "God's Blood! If it isn't Wilfram Jones! I should have known when the city guard reported a giant and a dwarf rode through." The soldier turned to the man beside him. "Sergeant, hold the men here. These villains are old friends of mine, dangerous only to beer and wine kegs." He rode forward and shook hands with Wilf.
"Robert Masters, you pox-ridden, out of luck whoreson! What are you doing here and who is the idiot that put you in charge of more than a pike?"
"Good to see you, too, Wilf," Masters replied genially. "And it's Lieutenant Masters now. Captain Bryce put together a company and, being a man with vast military knowledge, he begged me to join him."
"Your Captain Bryce wouldn't be Thomas Bryce, would he?" Wilf asked innocently. When Masters nodded, he added, "Then your band is lead by a drunken fool who's named the village idiot as his second. What are you doing in England?"
"Aye," Masters sighed dramatically, "that sums us up. Now that jobs are scarce on the Continent we'd have been more fools to not take the King's coin." Masters paused and looked back at his troopers. Lowering his voice he continued. "It's said that King Charles is pissing himself in fear over those supposed histories from the future. He's hired a number of mercenary companies, our amongst them, to keep what happened—what is going to happen . . . "
"What happened in another universe," Wilf finished for him. "We all get tangled dealing with four hundred years of future history." Scratching his chin, Wilf regarded Masters. "Hasn't anyone explained that just because it happened in that other universe doesn't mean that it will happen in this one?"
Masters shrugged. "There are those who say that speaking sweet reason to the king is a waste of one's breath. Such talk may be moot. Rumors have the king at death's door. Whoever it is giving orders, be it the king or some other, he's as vicious as Satan. I've seen people gaoled on the slightest suspicion. God's Blood! What were we to think when Archbishop Laud ended up in the Tower?" Shaking his head, Masters smiled and gave Wilf a speculative look.
"Still, a job is a job. We're waiting for the last of our company to come across before heading up to London next week. Most of the company is green as grass. Thomas and I could use some dependable old hands."
"Sorry, Robert," Wilf said, returning the smile, "but we aren't mercenaries anymore. No, now we're respectable horse traders. Christian's become so respectable that he's married and has children. Dieter and I are courting a pair of widows. He's made more progress with his suit than I, but I have hopes."
"So that rumor is true," Masters mused. "You are living in the town from the future. Do they know that you were mercenaries?"
"Aye, we live in Grantville. They know very well that we were mercenaries considering that they captured us on the field of battle. Among their strange ideas is that a man's past shouldn't be held against him if he wants to change. When you tire of the mercenary life come look us up."
"I may do that. What, pray tell, brings you to England in these troublesome times?"
"I've a client who thinks that a certain stud farm has some interesting stock. The client is paying for us to come and fetch a few choice animals. As the stud is near my family's village, I intend to see if any of my family still lives."
"Walk softly, Wilf, and keep your thoughts to yourself," Masters counseled. "Especially if they are about the king. Stay well clear of London, too. It sounds like your new friends made a right mess of the Tower. Some of the rumors have Satan sending the Angel of Death to strike men down with an invisible sword and then five hundred fiery demons emerging from the very gates of Hell to pull down the walls. Impossible, of course, but how else could they bring down even part of the walls without siege cannon?"
"Ah, yes." Wilf grinned wolfishly. "But then, you've never met Harry Lefferts and his wrecking crew." He hesitated for a moment. Considering all the talk and wild tales he'd heard across Europe, it was certain that Robert had heard about Julie Sims. Wilf didn't know where Julie was but, should she be in England, it wouldn't hurt to polish up her reputation. He lowered his voice and, in a solemn tone, cautioned the mercenary. "The 'Angel' is a slip of a girl with the eyes of an eagle and a rifle from the future. Her targets never see her. Pray that you never, ever give her cause to hunt you. I helped bury eighty Croats she killed when they attacked the school at Grantville."
Robert Masters blanched. "May God preserve us! I'd thought those tales were wild exaggerations."
Wilf shook his head. "When you come to Grantville you can see the grave for yourself." He waved a hand at the rest of his group. "Neither you nor the king have any reason to worry about us. Our destination lies well away from London. We're no more than a company of simple horse traders."
"That should do for anyone who doesn't know you." Masters nodded and smiled grimly. He glanced back at his men. The sergeant was haranguing a pair of troopers over loose girths. Judging from their faces neither man understood what the sergeant was saying. "Given what I've seen and heard, you may find me at your doorstep within the year."
"You'll be welcome, Robert." Wilf said.
"I'll be off, then. That is, if Sergeant Donaldson can get yonder whoresons mounted and whip them into some kind of order." He motioned to the sergeant and turned his mount back down the road.
The horse traders waited in silence until the soldiers disappeared.
"What now, Wilf?" Reichard asked mildly.
"We change roads. I hadn't planned on going by the London road." He shrugged. "But now I think that we'll join it for a bit and swing west north of where I'd planned."
"Why change roads?" Michael asked, his face showing nothing more than curiosity.
"Ah, well, not to put it too nicely, I don't completely trust our old friends Robert and Thomas. They may feel the need to prove themselves to their new paymaster. It could cross their minds that an easy way to do so is by arresting us. We'll change roads to avoid them. By the time we return to Dover they'll be in London.” Wilf sighed. England was the land of his birth, his home. Perhaps it was just the perspective of his years as a mercenary, or perhaps because he'd left England at sixteen, but England now felt like a foreign land.
“The regular Dover authorities shouldn't be a problem. We landed legally and carry all the right papers. From the look on the customs clerk's face, we are probably the only people ever to pay our fees without arguing." He stared down the road before continuing. "When chaos stalks the land, strangers are easy targets. We might appear suspicious to those who don't know us."
"Actually," Michael replied with a wide grin, "those who know you guys best have no trouble considering you suspicious."
"Ah, Young Michael," Wilf replied lightly, "You wound me! Come on, daylight is burning." He ran a critical eye over the group as they started up the road. God help anyone fool enough to tangle with them, even young Tyler.
"Nine days, given our detour, the state of the roads, and the weather, isn't bad time for the distance we've come." He peered at the map in front of them. "Wylye lies here. Stonehenge lies there, north and a bit east of it. Avebury is another twenty, twenty-five miles from Stonehenge. The stud farm we want is just north of Avebury." Wilf traced the route on the map. " We're twenty miles or so from Wylye tonight, about here. My family's farm is just outside a village about here." His forefinger thumped the map. "Too small to appear on Rob's map. Or, mayhap, long gone to plague or war by the time this map was drawn." He settled back and lit his pipe. Reichard and Christian looked at the map and nodded. Michael leaned forward, peering closely at it in the dim light the inn's candles offered.
After a moment Wilf took pity on the young man. "You'll get to see Stonehenge and Avebury, Michael. While neither are presently a tourist destination, people do visit them to gawk at the stones. One more band of awestruck yokels won't stand out. Unfortunately, the same doesn't hold for these other piles of stones we've passed. Dolmens, I think you called them. Many consider such stones cursed or the Devil's altars, and poking about them would draw the kind of attention you don't want. "
Things had indeed changed since he'd left England. The villagers had been always been a bit wary of strangers but now suspicions ran dark and deep. Even the innkeepers greeted travelers warily. Foreigners were watched closely.
Since they'd left the Dover-London road Wilf had insisted that everyone speak only English. People were used to travelers from elsewhere in England having odd accents. After four years in Grantville even Dieter's English could pass for "not from around here but not foreign."
Wild statements about the king's health and mental state floated on every breeze. Each new rumor seemed to bring a spasm of activity by military patrols. The group had been stopped and questioned half a dozen times.
After knocking the dottle out of his pipe Wilf reached out and carefully folded the up-time map. He got up from the table and pointed to the stairs. "Enjoy your sleep tonight. There's no inn where we're going so tomorrow night we may end up sleeping in my grandfather's barn."
"Who be ye?" the voice trickled out from behind a solid oak door.
"Wilfram Jones. Second son of William Jones, grandson of Paul Jones, the horse breaker."
"Wilfram Jones be long dead," the voice muttered. "Dead and gone in some foreign land."
"I've been a long time in foreign lands but I'm most certainly not dead." Wilf stated firmly. He couldn't puzzle out if it was a man or woman behind the door. The voice and phrasing sounded elderly. It had been too many years since he'd heard his family's voices and he had no idea if the voice was family or a servant.