A WHIRLWIND IN TIME
It was a storm to end all storms, and when it was over Sebastian Foster and his five unexpected house guests--all refugees from the fury of the wind and rain--should have been happy just to be alive. But when the clouds finally cleared, the world outside Bass's home was no longer the twentieth-century America they all knew.
Instead, through some bizarre twist in time, the six of them had ended up in England's past. But it was a past that never existed in any history book, a place where the Church was waging a holy war to depose Arthur III and make his nephew king of England and Wales.
Thrust into this barbaric world of bloody combat, the time travelers were quick to realize that their modern weapons and knowledge could change the whole course of this England's future--and maybe help them find their way home again--if the warring factions didn't destroy them before they even had a chance to get started…
Robert Adams (1932-1990) was a career soldier whose Horseclans series drew on his military background to lend verisimilitude to the exploits of 26th Century of immortal mutant warriors in a balkanized North America. The Coming of the Horseclans (1975) was the first of 18 novels in the sequence, which ended, with The Clan of the Cats (1988), only on account of the author’s death.
His non-Horseclans work included two other series. Castaways in Time (1980) and its five sequels were a mix of alternate history and time travel. The Stairway to Forever and Monsters and Magicians (both 1988) were the only volumes to appear of a projected fantasy series.
He also co-edited several anthologies, among them Barbarians (1985, with Martin H. Greenberg and Charles H. Waugh), four Magic in Ithkar volumes (1985-87, with Andre Norton), Robert Adams' Book of Alternate Worlds (1987, with Pamela Crippen Adams and Martin H. Greenberg) and Robert Adams' Book of Soldiers (1988, same co-editors).
One of the best time adventure stories I've ever read.Andre Norton
An enthralling adventure by a master storyteller.Gordon R. Dickson
Bass Foster sat directly under the ceiling vent, bathed in the cool flow from the air conditioner, watching the Collier woman swill straight vodka and trying to think of a tactful way to cut her off—his modest supply of potables would not last long under her inroads; she had guzzled the last of the gin hours ago.
The professor, her husband, seemed to have barely touched his own weak highball, but he had used the last of the tobacco in his own pouch and now was stuffing his pipe out of one of Bass’s cans of Borkum Riff. Mid-fiftyish—which made him some ten years Bass’s senior—he seemed as quiet and courteous as his wife was loud and snotty. His liver-spotted hands moving slowly, he frowned in concentration over the pipe, his bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows bunched into a single line.
Across the width of the oversized cocktail table from the couple, Krystal Kent sat with one long leg tucked beneath her, doing yeoman work on a half-gallon jug of Gallo burgundy, and taking hesitant drags at one of her last three cigarettes. Bass shifted his eyes to her; she was far nicer to look at, with the sunlight delineating bluish highlights in her long, lustrous black hair.
Bass and the other three carefully avoided looking out the big window at the impossibility that commenced beyond the manicured lawn. Each time Bass’s thoughts even wandered in that direction he felt his mind reel, start to slip, and he assumed the others suffered the same, for all the five people who now shared his house had seemed in one degree or another of shock when first they had arrived at his doors—the Colliers at the front, the other three at the back, first Krystal Kent, then Dave Atkins and the grubby little teenager who went by the name of Susan Sunshine.
Eschewing chairs, the two were lying side by side on the wall-to-wall carpet before Bass’s stereo. One of his very few tapes of acid rock was in place and both Dave and Susan had fitted padded earphones on their heads. They, at least, were not slopping up their host’s booze; Dave had rolled a double-thick joint—of the diameter of an ordinary cigarette and almost as long—and, smilingly, they were passing it back and forth. Despite the efforts of the air conditioner, the room already contained an acrid reek of burning rope.
According to the story given by Collier when first he and his wife had arrived, yesterday noon—both of them soaking wet and he slimed all over with reddish-brown mud, his hands and shirtfront smudged as well with greasy black grime—they had been driving from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Washington, D.C., had gone off at the incorrect beltway exit, become lost and spent seeming hours driving the backroads and byways of rural Maryland. Finally, a blowout of their right rear tire had forced a stop on a muddy shoulder under the driving rain of the approaching storm.
While Arbor Collier sat and fumed in the car, nipping at one of the several pints of gin she had hidden in various locations for the long trip, Collier had jacked up the aging Ford and gotten the wheel off with much effort and was kneeling in the slippery mud, putting the spare in place, when he felt the shoulder under him seem to become fluid... and Arbor had chosen that moment to open the passenger-side door and make to step out. Collier had tried to shout a warning, then he was falling....
Seconds later, or eons, Collier had found himself lying—still muddy, still gripping his lug wrench—near the base of a stone wall. Arbor was sitting, dazed, a few feet away, in her sensible traveling suit and with her huge purse still slung from her shoulder. The grass directly under Collier was wet, but that surrounding him was dry as a bone under the bright, hot sun.
“William!” Arbor had shrieked. “Where are we? How... how did we get here and... Where’s our... car? All my clothes are in the car, William, my medicine and my vitamins, everything. You’ve got to find the car!”
She had continued the same selfish, shrewish litany all the way to Bass’s trilevel—maybe a hundred feet. But when she discovered that Bass stocked a fair amount of the “medicine” she required, in varying proof and flavors, she had set about dosing herself, even taking a bottle of gin up to bed with her.
This morning, she had mechanically eaten the breakfast Bass and Krystal had together cooked, then had sought out the liquor cabinet. She had nagged her husband for a short while about Bass’s lack of any more gin, but had soon settled on one of the couches with a water glass and a bottle of 100-proof vodka.
With his eyes on Krystal Kent’s slender loveliness, Bass had allowed his mind to slip back to pleasurable thoughts of last night with her—two frightened people, taking solace and comfort in each other.
“...ster Foster, I’m speaking to you!” The nasal, strident, supercilious voice was Arbor Collier’s.
Bass turned his head to face her. “Uh, sorry, I was... was thinking, Mrs. Collier. What is it?”
Arbor smiled a nasty, knowing smirk. “Yes, I know the way you dirty men all think when you’re looking at women the way you were looking at Miss Kent,” she sniggered.
Bass felt his face going hot. Forcing calm, he inquired coldly, “If that was all you had on your pickled brain, Mrs. Collier, it could have been left unsaid. I don’t like you any better than you apparently like me. If we continue to ignore each other, maybe we can make it through the day without coming to blows.”
“Mr. Foster,” hissed Arbor, clenching her half-glassful of vodka until her bony knuckles shone white, “you are a rude, crude lout, ill-bred and uneducated; I knew that the minute I met you. You are the type one thinks of whenever one speaks of ‘dirty old men’—a lewd, low, lascivious, middle-aged Lothario. I think—”
“I don’t know how you can think, Mrs. Collier, with all the booze you’ve been slopping down since breakfast,” said Bass in frigid tones, adding, “And I warn you, ma’am, if you don’t just shut up, I’m going to heave you out that door on your damned ear!”
Arbor raised her plucked brows, then nodded. ‘The final argument of barbarians, force. But let me warn you, Mr. Foster, my husband served with the OSS, during the war. They were taught how to kill with their bare hands.”
“Now Arbor,” Professor Collier began. “You know that I never left Wash—”
“Shut up, William!” she snarled, “I’m talking to this male chauvinist pig!”
Then she returned her attention to Bass. “I insist, Mr. Foster, that you make those two, filthy, disgusting hippies stop using narcotics in this house.”
Before Bass could frame an answer not obscene and physically impossible, Krystal Kent spoke up.
“Mrs. Collier, they’re smoking pot... marijuana. It’s not a narcotic, it’s a hallucinogen, and—”
“Miss Kent,” Arbor snapped coldly, “I was addressing Mr. Foster, if you please. I, for one, do not care to have my friends hear that my husband and I were arrested at a house where a dope orgy was going on.”
Krystal threw back her head and laughed throatily. “Orgy? Two kids smoking a joint? You call that an orgy? I’ve heard of prudes, in my time, but you—”
Arbor pursed thin lips. “Prudence, Miss Kent, is not prudery. Though I suppose a woman of your kind would call anyone less licentious than herself a prude.”
“And just what,” snapped Krystal brittlely, “is that remark supposed to mean, Mrs. Collier? What kind of woman do you type me as? Or, need I really ask?”
The older woman picked up the half-full glass, drained it effortlessly, and smirked. “Oh, Miss Kent, do you really think my husband and I didn’t hear you sneaking up the hall and into Mr. Foster’s room, last night? Think we didn’t have to endure the sounds of the unhallowed filth you two committed together?”
“What the hell business of yours is it,” Krystal grated from between clenched teeth, “whether or not Bass and I sexed last night... or any other time, for that matter?”
Arbor’s death’s-head face assumed the look of a martyr. “Mr. Foster would not allow my husband—and my husband is a full professor, with tenure, and he holds no less than six doctorates!—and me the use of his big, airy room and a private bath, no, he showed us into that squalid little guest room, with that old, musty bed.” Abruptly, the martyred look disappeared, to be replaced with a cold anger.
Professor Collier had again snapped out of his study. “Now Arbor, dear,” he said slowly and tiredly, “this is Mr. Foster’s house, and who but he has better right to the master bedroom? He wasn’t in any degree obligated to afford us accommodations, you know. I feel—”
“You feel?” snarled his wife. “You feel? Why, you bumbling, overeducated jackass! You, William Willingham Collier, never had a feeling, an emotion, in your life! You’re so weak, so passive-natured that anyone can manipulate you... and generally they do, too. That’s why you weren’t even really considered for department head when that old queer Dr. Ellison died.
“If I played dutiful little wife and left it to you, I’d be nothing but a doormat for all the world to walk on. God knows, in the twenty-two years I’ve been married to you, I’ve tried to make something of you, make you something I could be proud of, but...”
Stonefaced, Krystal picked up her glass and the winejug and padded into the kitchen. Foster, too, felt embarrassment at being unavoidably privy to what should have been a private matter.
Muttering, “My ice is all melted,” to no one in particular, he followed the young woman.
But even with the door to the dining room firmly shut, still the pudgy woman’s strident tones penetrated.
“...in one ear and out the other. You’ve never heeded any advice I’ve ever given you, never stood up to people the way you should, the way a real man would. You’re always off in a fog somewhere, like you just were; allowing your own wife—a good, decent, Christian woman—to be compelled to be around degenerate dope addicts and fornicators and, for all we know, adulterers and perverts, and you didn’t open your mouth once. No, as usual, I had to be the one to protest these outrages against decency and God’s Law. You always, you have always...”
In unvoiced concord, both Foster and Krystal descended the three steps to the laundry room-workshop and thence to the spacious den. The addition of two more closed doors finally made the noise emanating from the living room almost inaudible.
Krystal sank into the fake-fur double lounge, shaking her head. “Oh, that dear, sweet, gentle man. Bass, just think of it! Twenty-two years in hell! Christ, I’m ready to kill the bitch after only twenty-odd hours”
Foster shrugged. “Human beings have a bad habit of manufacturing their own hells, Krys. I’m sure Collier didn’t marry her at gunpoint.” He grinned. “He doesn’t strike me as the type.
“I just hope,” he went on as he seated himself beside her and placed a hand on her bare knee, “that your father doesn’t have a shotgun.”
She almost smiled. “Poor Poppa doesn’t know one end of any gun from the other.”
“Big, mean, nasty brothers, then?” he probed.
“I only have one brother, Bass, and he ran off to Canada to keep from getting drafted. He’s still there... living on the money Momma sneaks out of what Poppa gives her.”
“Oh, your brother was an anti-war activist?”
She barked a short, humorless laugh. “Baby Brother Seymour said that he opposed ‘the unjust, illegal war,’ of course, but that’s not really the reason he cut out. He was just afraid somebody might force an honest day’s work out of him, for the first time in his pampered, sheltered life, that’s all. The snotty little leech! If he wasn’t so goddamned lazy, he wouldn’t have flunked out of dental school and been liable to the draft to start out.”
“Not much love lost on your little brother, is there?” Foster chuckled. “Don’t you ever feel guilty about hating your own flesh and blood, Krys?”
Her short, softly waving dark-brown hair rippled to the shake of her head. “Brother Seymour’s not worth a hate, or a shit, for that matter. I don’t hate him, Bass, I despise him. He’s never ever tried to do one damned thing to please Poppa and Momma, while I’ve always broken my ass to make them happy, to make myself into a person they could take pride in... that’s why I thought it so unjust, so unfair, that he should be fat and spoiled and utterly useless and alive up in Canada, while I ...” She trailed off into silence, a sudden fear darkening her eyes.
“While you what, Krys?” There was all at once an almost-desperate intensity in Foster’s voice. “While your brother was alive in Canada and you what! What were you about to say?”
But Krystal maintained her silence. Arising, she took glass and jug with her when she strode over to the sliding glass door, opened it and took a step onto the concrete patio, then she half turned. Her voice low but as intense as his own, she said, “Please, Bass, let it go ... let it go, for now. If things keep going as good for you and me as they promise to, I’ll tell you ... I promise. But, please, just let me alone for a while; I have to think.”
Alone for almost the first time in the last full day, Foster faced the fact that he, himself, had some thinking to do.
Just what in hell had happened?
He remembered the big, beefy state trooper, soaking wet in the driving rain and shouting to make himself heard above the storm, the rushing of the near-floodstage river and the roaring of the ‘copter.
“A’right, Foster, I am’ got no right to force you to abandon yore prop’ty, but I done tol’ you the way she’s stacked. The river’s goin’ to crest ten, fifteen foot higher’n it is right now, and way yore house’s sitchated, it’ll be at leas’ two foot of water in the top level, even if you don’ get undermined an’ come all apart.
“An’ thishere’s the las’ roun’ the choppuh’s gonna make, an’ yore friggin’ lil boat won’ las’ two hoots in hell in thet river, iffen you change your min’ later. So, you sure you ain’ comin’ with us?”
Foster shook his head forcefully. “No. No thank you, officer, I appreciate it, but no.”
The trooper blew at the water cascading off his nose. “A’right, citizen, it’s yore funeral.. . iffen we evuh fin’ yore body, thet is.”
And he remembered sitting in that same living room now filled with the bitchy sounds of Arbor Collier. He remembered watching the rampant river tear away his small runabout, then his dock, sweeping both downstream along with its other booty—animal, vegetable and mineral.
He remembered thinking that that trooper had been right, he had been a fool to remain, but then he had sunk everything he owned into this, his home, the only real property he had ever been able to call his. And he was damned if he would leave it to the ravages of wind and water or to the unwelcome attentions of the packs of looters sure to follow. Besides, he trusted less the dire pronouncements of “authorities” and “experts” than he did his own unexplainable dead certainty that both he and his house would, somehow, survive the oncoming disaster.
Not that that certainty had not been shaken a bit when, hearing odd noises from above, during a brief lull in the storm, he had discovered all three of his cats in the low attic, clinging tightly to the rafters and mewling feline moans of terror. All three—the huge, rangy black torn, the older, spayed queen, and the younger, silver Persian torn, which had been Carol’s last gift to him—were good hunters, merciless killers, yet they shared the rafters with several flying squirrels plus a couple of small brown house mice... peaceably. That had been when he started getting worried and started calling himself a fool, aloud.
That was when he had decided to phone Herb Highgate, who lived a half mile upriver and who had, like Foster, vowed to stay with his house and property; but the phone proved dead. Then the lights went out, so he had dragged a chair over to the picture window, fetched a bottle, and sat, watching the inexorable rise of the angry gray water, reflecting upon the joys and sorrows, the victories and defeats, the wins and losses, which had marked his forty-five years of living. And, as the water level got higher and the bottle level got lower, he thought of Carol, grieved again, briefly, then began to feel that she was very near to him.
The hot, bright sun on his face had awakened him, had blinded him when first he opened his bleary eyes.
“Well, what the hell, I was right after all. Christ, my mouth tastes like used kitty litter. Ugh!”
Stumbling into the kitchen, he had flicked the wall switch from force of habit. And the light came on!
“Well, good God, those utilities boys are on the ball, for a change... either that or I slept a hell of a lot longer than usual. Well, since it’s miracle time, let’s have a go at the phone.”
But the telephone had remained dead. With the coffee merrily perking, Foster had decided to walk out and see just how much damage his property had sustained.
He took two steps outside, looked about him in wondering disbelief, then reeled back inside. Slammed the door, locked it, threw the massive barrel bolt, sank down into the familiar chair, and cradled his head in his shaking hands. Drawing upon his last reserves of courage, he had, at some length, found the guts to look out the window, to see ... to see ...
It could not be called a castle, not in the accepted sense, although one corner of the U-shaped house incorporated a sixty-foot-tall stone tower, and the entire complex of buildings and grounds was girded by a high and thick wall of dressed stones, pierced with one large and two smaller iron-bound gates.
A creepy-crawliness still gnawed at Foster whenever he looked across his well-tended lawn to behold, where the river used to be, the windows of that huge, archaic house, staring back at him like the empty eye sockets of a grinning death’s-head.
House and tower and two stretches of wall were clearly visible, now, through the front window of the paneled den, and Foster forced down his repugnance in order to really study the view, this time. Compared to the wall, the house looked new, the stones of the house walls not only dressed, but polished and carved, as well. A wide stairway mounted up to a broad stoop—actually, rather more a terrace—on a level with the second story of the house, where was what was apparently the entrance door, recessed within a stone archway.
Shifting his gave to the walls, Foster could see that they were crenellated and wide enough for a couple of men to walk their tops abreast. But, in several places, the merlons were askew and at last one of the huge, square stones had fallen completely off its setting, back onto the top of the wall.
On sudden impulse, he arose and crossed to his guncase. Kneeling, he unlocked the bottom drawer and took out the pair of bulky 7x50 binoculars that had departed the army with him, years back. Then he dragged a chair closer to the window and set the optics to his eyes.
The details leapt out at him then... and some were more than a little sinister. The askew merlons all showed cracks and chips—recent, unweathered ones. There were cracks and scars, as well, on the rough masonry of the square, brownish-gray tower—obviously, on closer scrutiny, far older than either house or walls. But there was no visible damage to the house, nor could Foster detect any sign of life or movement anywhere within or about it.
Absorbed, he nearly jumped out of his skin when Krystal laid a hand on his shoulder. “Oh, God, you’re a Peeping Tom! Why is it that every man I like turns out to be a kook?”
“Just trying to see what my new neighbors are like.” He forced a grin and a light, bantering tone. “But nobody seems to be home.”
Setting down the half-empty wine jug, she sank onto her haunches beside the chair and reached for the binoculars. “May I?”
Wordlessly, he handed them over.
After adjusting the lenses, the young woman swiveled from left to right and back, slowly, studying details of the view. At length, she stiffened, then said in a low voice, “Bass, I... I could have sworn I saw some... something move. It was inside those windows just above the door to that... that place. Do you think... ?”
He shook his head and stood up. “Krys, I don’t know what to think or imagine about any of the happenings of the last day, and I gave up trying several hours ago. The time’s come to find a way to get into that building, for I’ve got a ... a feeling that there’s a lot of answers in there.”
Opening again the drawer from which he had taken the binoculars, he removed a web pistol belt, two small web pouches, and a leather holster.
“Krys, if you can take a few seconds of that old biddy’s yapping, I wonder if you’d go up to my bedroom and look in the closet. There’s a brown canvas shell vest up there. You know what a shell vest looks like?”
“Okay, bring it down to me, huh? And the pair of army boots, too.”
With only her long-suffering spouse for audience and sounding board, Arbor Collier had wound down and was lapping up alcohol in silence until Krystal came through the room. Then she smirked nastily.
“I’ll bet I know what you two have been doing down there!” she crowed.
Krystal’s smile was icily contemptuous. “A woman like you could read pornography into Pilgrim’s Progress, but”—deviltry shone from her eyes and a hint of mockery entered her voice—“this time is so happens you’re right. Bass and I spent all the time we were gone in mutual analingus. You should try it sometime.”
Arbor Collier appeared to be still in shock when Krystal came back down the stairs with Foster’s boots and vest. Glass clenched tightly in her hand, her jaw hanging slackly, she just stared at the younger woman in mute horror. The grin of triumph on Krystal’s face abruptly dissipated, however, when she reentered the den to see Foster feeding shells into the loading gate of a short-barreled pump shotgun. The web belt was now clasped around his waist, and the holster clipped to it now contained a big automatic pistol, and as well as the two pouches, there was also a nasty-looking knife sheathed over his right hip, a coil of nylon rope and a canteen over his left, and an angled flashlight clipped opposite the holstered pistol.
“Good God, Bass! You said you were going to try to get into that house, but you look as if you’re getting ready to go to war. A shotgun? A knife, I can see, but two guns?”
He kicked off his short Wellingtons and, sitting down, pulled on the jumpboots and began to lace them as he spoke.
“Krystal, I’m going to say some of this again, upstairs, but I’ll say it to you first. We—none of us—really have the slightest idea where we are, how we got here, or what our situation actually is, now or in the future. The forty-odd years I’ve lived, my dear, have taught me at least one thing: when faced with the unknown, always expect and prepare for the worst; that way, you’ll not be disappointed or taken by surprise.”
Standing again, he shrugged his arms into the vest and crossed to the cabinet to begin slipping gun shells into the elastic loops, while continuing his monologue. “I really hope to God I am being overcautious, Krys, but I get bad vibes, as Dave would say, every time I look at that tower, even from this distance. And I’m going to be a helluva lot closer to it before long.
“Now, you haven’t told me that awfully much about yourself, your background, I mean, but I get the impression sometimes that you’re into psychology or psychiatry or medicine. Under the circumstances, just consider the Winchester”—he tapped the gleaming buttstock of the shotgun—“and my Colt as security blankets. Believe me, I’d feel damned insecure if I had to go closer to that tower without them. Damned insecure!”
She smiled then. “I’m sorry, Bass, you’re right, of course. It’s just that I was raised in a home where there were no guns—they’re illegal to own in New York City, you know, and my father is a very law-abiding man. I got that feeling of ... of lurking menace, of something so far beyond the ordinary as to be unnatural, supernatural, even, when I viewed the tower with your glasses, so you’re most likely right to go prepared.”
She stepped closer and swiftly kissed his lips. “Please be careful, Bass. Take care of yourself, huh? I’ve become very fond of you in a very short time.”
Taking her head in his free hand, he returned her kiss, with interest. “You’re a sweet gal, Krys, I’ll do my best. Believe me. Now, please do me another favor. See if you can snap Dave out of his fog long enough to get him down here ... and the Professor, too, I guess.”
But only she and Collier came back into the den.
She shook her head disgustedly. “I suppose those two are into something other than, stronger than, grass; they’re practically comatose up there. I did everything but kick him and he never even twitched.”
“Okay.” Foster nodded shortly, then asked, “Professor, have you ever fired a shotgun?” He proffered the Winchester Model 21 double twelve which had been his father’s pride.
The older man took the fine weapon gingerly, touching only the wood surfaces. There was a hint of almost reverence in his voice when he said, “This piece is truly beautiful, Mr. Foster, a work of art, nothing less. But in answer, yes, I am conversant with most categories of firearms, though I do not hunt and have not owned a weapon since my marriage.” With a note of apology, he added, “My wife, you see, considers the acquisition of firearms to be a dangerous waste of one’s resources.”
Foster ascended the broad stairs, feeling, as he had since the door of his home had closed behind him, the weight of unseen eyes upon him, feeling some sentience marking his progress from within the brooding pile he was reluctantly approaching.
The doors, when he got up to them, proved to be fabricated in some dark, dense-grained wood and liberally studded with nailheads each an inch or more in diameter. Nor was a knob or handle of any sort in evidence. The doors yielded as much to the shove of his shoulder as would have the high stone walls, so he made for the nearer row of windows. But only a cursory glance was necessary to dash his hopes of a quick and easy entry. The small, diamond-shaped panes were set in lead and could have been easily removed; however, a few inches behind them were heavy shutters, appearing to be of the same dense wood as the doors and looking every bit as resistant to penetration.
“Well,” he muttered to himself, “we’ve only seen one side of this place, so far. Maybe...” Slowly, he set off to his right, walking well away from the house walls, but going nearer to examine each set of windows, only to find that all were as thoroughly secured as the first. The flagstones under his feet were, he noticed, fancifully carved, though rather worn-down in places. But no plant of any description sprouted between them, and this fact, added to that of the well-kept formal garden below, reinforced the feeling that, for all its lack of apparent life, this fine house was no deserted one.
As he turned the corner and started down the side he began to realize just how big this house was. “House, hell,” he mumbled, “this is the size of a palace!”
But it was not until Foster had rounded to the rear that the awesome size of the structure became truly apparent. The paving of the side terrace blended into the plainer paving of a wide, deep courtyard stretching away from where he stood to lap about the base of that brooding tower, nearly a hundred feet away. Off to his right was a cluster of smaller buildings, most of stone but one or two of timber, the larger ones with roofs of slate, the smaller looking to be thatch or turf. The nearest of these buildings was pierced, just under the eave line, with rows of small, round holes, and Foster tried vainly to recall just where he had once seen a similar building.
It was then, however, that he noticed several birds fluttering and hopping about a darkish bundle lying near the foot of that grim tower. Resisting an impulse to cross the open courtyard, he set himself back to his original task, but every rear window as well as the two smaller doors he found were shuttered or tightly bolted from within.
The tower was certainly very much older than the mansion and outbuildings; its base was fabricated of massive, cyclopean stones, but the stonework was crude, primitive, and the only window he could see on this side—if “window” the foot-wide aperture could truly be called—was a good thirty feet above his head. Before he examined it in more detail, he decided to check out that object about which the birds still were congregating.
Foster gagged, his stomach heaving, as the interrupted crows and starlings circled, cawing vehement protests, above and around him. He stood over the huddled body of a man. The eyes of the corpse were both gone, the lips and tongue and most of the flesh of the face shredded away from white bone by the sharp beaks of the carrion birds.
The means of the man’s death was obvious—standing out from the bridge of what was left of the nose was the leather-fletched butt end of the shortest, thickest arrow Foster had ever seen. When he was once again master of his stomach, he was able to take note of the singularly strange clothing and equipment of the body.
The close-fitting steel helmet had certainly been of no protection this time, though old nicks and dents evidenced that it had served its function in times past. Nicked and dented too was the steel breastplate. Heavy, clumsy-looking leather boots encased most of both legs, their tops being tightly buckled high on the thighs, well under the skirts of a stiff Jerkin of dun-colored leather. The hands were hidden in gloves reaching almost to the elbows, patterns of tiny steel rings sewn to the backs and cuffs. The stretch of shirtsleeves visible between those cuffs and the areas just below the shoulders seemed to Foster of the consistency of tent canvas, horizontally striped off-white and faded red-brown.
A handspan-wide belt, mounting the biggest brass buckle Foster had ever seen, rested on the right shoulder and bisected the breastplate, a cased sword attached to its lower ends. Laying the shotgun near to hand, Foster drew the weapon and hefted it. The straight blade was at least a yard long, wide and thick and heavy, double-edged and basket-hilted. Foster had fenced, in prep school and college, but he had never before handled a sword like this. The only one he remembered even seeing at all like it had been a Highland broadsword. There was no balance to the dead man’s weapon, all the weight being in the blade. Even so, its condition testified to lengthy and hard service.
He was trying to pull a leather pouch of some kind from under the dead weight of its former owner when the shrill scream of an infuriated horse came from among the outbuildings and he glanced up just in time to see a man garbed exactly like the dead one level what looked to be a sawed-off shotgun and fire in his direction. Something spannngged on the corpse’s breastplate and caromed off, leaving a smear of silvery lead on the steel.
But Foster did not see it. He had grabbed his own gun and was frantically rolling across the bare flagstones toward the tower, an angle of which offered the only nearby cover. He heard two more of the booming reports before he gained the partial protection of the rough-hewn stones, but arrived there unharmed, save for bruises and abrasions.
A cautious peek around the angle of the tower revealed only the outbuildings; the man or men who had been shooting at him were nowhere in sight, though he could hear a voice shouting something or other from that area.
Abruptly, a trio of helmeted men trotted into sight from behind the largest of the buildings, each armed with two of the thick, stubby firearms. They seemed oblivious to the fact that they were ail within easy range of the rifled slugs in Foster’s riot gun as they jogged forward, silent but for the jingle of their equipment and the clump of their boots, their stubbled faces grim.
The man in the center had a good start of a reddish beard and he showed a gapped set of yellow-and-brown teeth in a wolfish grin when Foster’s first shot—fired mostly in warning—plowed up dust and stone shards a few feet in front of his muddy boots, crackling something that sounded like “Unduhsharshed!” before bringing one of his own weapons to bear on Foster’s hiding place.
As he shook the bits of rock and moss from his hair, Foster decided to stop being civilized and to start playing for keeps, as the approaching trio so obviously were. Jacking another shell into the chamber, he put the twelve-gauge slug into redbeard’s unprotected face. The force of the lead lifted the man clear off his feet, throwing him backward so hard that his armored shoulders clanged onto the paving fully eight feet from where he had stood.
At this second shot, a mob of at least a dozen of the helmeted men poured from among the outbuildings, shouting and waving those long, heavy swords. With only four rounds left in the shotgun, Foster dropped the two gunmen first. As the two closest men tumbled, the mob stopped, wavered for a moment, then came on again, but more slowly this time, clearly no longer so sure of themselves.
Hurriedly, Foster jerked shells from the shell vest and fed four into the gun. Snapping his lanyard to the ring of his pistol, he drew it, jacked a round into the chamber, then removed the clip and replaced it with a full one.
“Six shells in the Winchester, eight in the .45,” he mused to himself, aloud. “I may not get all the bastards, but they’ll damn well know they’ve been in a firefight!” He loosened the trench knife in its scabbard.
“I’d forgotten, after all these years,” he thought. “Forgotten how exhilarating this kind of thing can be. I wonder why I didn’t stay in the army after Korea?”
When the vanguard of the enemy—now grown to more than a score, as more men trickled out from among the outbuildings—had gotten to the bodies of the three gunmen, Foster opened fire, carefully, making every lead slug count. He got five before they broke; a sixth one he shot in the back.
Slipping an arm through the sling of his hot-barreled weapon, gasping with the exertion, he was feeling for his canteen when a section of the wall behind him fell away and several pairs of strong hands dragged him down, into blackness.
Shortly after Foster left his house, Arbor Collier passed out and her husband carried her up to the guest room, where she snored loudly enough for Krystal to hear above the sounds of the water in the sink and the rattling of the glasses and dishes she was washing.
Collier himself sat at the kitchen table, sipping at cold coffee. The shotgun lay on the tabletop, and thrust under his belt was a pistol he had found in the back of the gun cabinet
As she let out the water and turned from the sink, wiping her hands, just about to speak her mind about how silly this entire gun business seemed to her, there was a booming report from somewhere beyond the big, stone building, followed, almost immediately, by two more.
Collier carefully set down his mug and grasped the ornate two-barreled gun, his jaws clenched, and Krystal thought he no longer looked at all gentle.
“Was ... is that Bass’s gun, Professor? Do you think it was?”
He shook his gray head. “No way of telling, my dear. I can only say that it was definitely a smooth bore, not a rifle or a pistol.”
Before she could think of anything to say, a fourth boom reached them, then a brief pause and another, another pause and a sixth. At that, she started for the door, but the seated man closed a powerful hand around her arm.
“Where do you think you’re going, young lady?”
“To help Bass. To see what’s going on, anyway.”
But he shook his head again. “No, I’m sorry. Mr. Foster is well armed and he seems quite a capable man, in all ways. He said that we were all to remain here and that is precisely what we are going to do.”
She jerked savagely against his grip. “Damn you! Let me go. Who the hell are you to tell me what to do?”
Though he smiled, his grasp never slackened. “For one thing, Mr. Foster left me in charge, in his absence. For another, I’m easily old enough to give you fatherly advice. And for a third, I’ve had far more training than I care to recall in combat and general mankilling. You’re unarmed; what good could you do him if I did let you go to wherever he now is?”
While he spoke, they had heard the shouts of many men, dim with distance, then two more booms, in quick succession.
“Dammit! Then you go find him!”
“Who’s going to take care of those two in the parlor, and my wife?” He elevated his shaggy brows.
“Hell, I will. Give me the pistol.” She held out her free hand.
Smiling, he pulled the weapon from his belt and extended it, butt first. “Do you know how to use it, my dear?”
“I...well, I think so. That is, I’ve seen people shoot them,” she stuttered.
“All right.” He let her arm go. “Stand at the head of the stairs, there, and fire a round into that stack of logs in the fireplace. That’s a nine-millimeter; those logs are sufficiently thick to stop the slug.”
“All right.” Her lips tight, she raised the pistol, held it wobbling at arm’s length, shut both eyes, and jerked the trigger. Nothing happened. Opening her eyes, she tried it again; still nothing. She looked, felt with her thumb, for the hammer they cocked on television shows, but this weapon had no such thing. At the sound of a dry chuckle behind her, she reddened, spun about, and thrust the pistol back at Professor Collier, saying angrily, “It doesn’t work. What’s wrong, did you take the bullets all out?”
“No,” he answered gently. “The Luger is fully loaded and armed, it simply has the safety engaged. Miss Kent, you clearly know nothing whatsoever concerning firearms. Until you learn a modicum of their usage, you’ll be far safer to let them entirely alone.”
Before she could answer, there were six more booms, evenly spaced, at least one scream, then total silence for a moment... before the clop-clop of horses’ hooves sounded from the front yard and something metallic began to pound against the front door.
And Krystal found herself rooted where she stood, unable to move an inch, as Collier snapped the shotgun closed and headed for the door.