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-II-

Sir George held himself under iron command as Denmore's butchered body struck the deck. Behind him, he felt a fury which matched his own, but all the white-hot anger of his men was chilled by the terror of the demon-jester's demonstration of power. He understood that terror, for he shared it ... and not simply for himself. But he couldn't permit himself to dwell upon the danger to Matilda and Edward, lest it unman him when he could not afford to be unmanned. And so he simply stood there, gazing at the demon-jester.

"Now," the demon-jester's piping voice was as emotionless as ever, as if Denmore's murder meant no more to him than swatting a fly, "we may proceed with your processing. I advise each of you to remember that none of you are irreplaceable."

He stood for one more moment, considering the motionless humans with all three eyes, then turned his back upon them. The door by which he had entered opened as swiftly and unexpectedly as before, and he stepped through it without another word.

Sir George watched him disappear, wondering what was to happen next and doing his best to appear confident and uncowed. He doubted that his pose could truly fool anyone into believing he was either of those things, but the same rules which required him to pretend he was required his officers and men to pretend they believed him. The thought brought a small, unexpected smile of genuine amusement to him, but that smile vanished as another voice spoke from thin air.

"You will follow the guide lights," it said. It was the same voice which had first greeted them, and it was quite unlike the demon-jester's. In some ways, it sounded closer to human, for its even tenor tone held none of the high, piping note his had, and although it was equally emotionless it was also less ... dead-sounding. "Males will follow the red light. Females will follow the green light."

Sir George's shoulders stiffened, and his hand slid once more to the sword hilt at his side. He drew a sharp breath and opened his mouth, but before he could speak, another hand fell upon his elbow.

He turned his head, and found Matilda at his side. Her dark blue eyes were haunted by the same fear of separation he knew was in his own, and he felt a sudden burn of shame as he saw the grief for her father's death under that fear. She had lost even more than he, yet she held her head up proudly, and despite their fear and sorrow, her eyes held his steadily. She said nothing, yet nothing was required, and he drew another breath, deeper and slower than the first, and made himself nod.

She was right. The reek of seared flesh and ruptured organs and blood from what had been Sir John Denmore reminded him only too clearly what price resistance might carry. Yet it was hard, hard to submit.

"Males will follow the red light. Females will follow the green light," the invisible voice repeated. It paused for a few seconds, then spoke yet again. "Males will follow the red light. Females will follow the green light. Failure to comply with instructions will be severely punished."

There was no more emotion in the final sentence than there had been in any of the earlier ones, yet the threat woke Sir George from his momentary immobility, and he shook himself, patted the slender hand in the crook of his elbow, and turned to face the men and women behind him.

"It would appear we have no choice but to obey," he said flatly. "I like it no better than any of you do, yet we have all seen how readily these ... creatures will kill. We have no option, for now, at least, but to do as we are bid."

Something like a sigh seemed to ripple through the ranks of exhausted, saltwater-soaked humans, and he felt the urge to rebellion run out of them. He waited a moment longer, to be certain, then gave Matilda's hand a final squeeze, removed it from his arm, and raised it to his lips. He kissed it, then released it, and watched her turn, her head high, and walk towards the green light. Lady Margaret Stanhope, wife of Sir Bryan Stanhope, stepped from the crowd to follow her, and then other women did the same. Sir George watched his wife with burning eyes, torn between pride in her, fear for her, and shame at his inability to protect her, then turned to where his son stood among the other men and boys.

"Edward," he said quietly, holding out his hand, and his heart swelled with pride as the boy came to him. Edward's face was white and strained, and his eyes carefully avoided the mutilated body bleeding on the deck, but he held up his head with all the courage of his lady mother, and if his hand trembled as he put it into his father's, it gripped firmly.

Sir George squeezed back, trying to communicate even a little of the pride he felt in him, then turned resolutely to the red light, bobbing gently in midair, and walked toward it.

The other men fell in behind him, first by ones and twos, and then in clumps, and two of the wart-faces came behind them all with a strange, hopping gait fully in keeping with their froglike appearance.

 

The light led them across the bronze floor of the huge compartment for what seemed miles. It wasn't, of course, but that didn't change the way it felt. Perhaps it was because none of them had ever imagined a room the size of the one in which they found themselves. The greatest cathedral in the world was as nothing beside it. Indeed, Sir George suspected that any building he had ever seen—and most entire villages, for that matter—could actually have been placed inside this one, vast, metal-floored chamber. The abandoned cogs were no more than discarded toys behind them when they finally reached a clifflike wall of the same bronze-colored alloy.

The red light never paused, and another of those sudden doors appeared before them as the light passed through it. Sir George followed it, not without a fresh sense of trepidation. After the vast expanse of the cavern about them, the passage beyond the door felt small and cramped, even though it was at least ten feet across and equally high. He looked down to give Edward an encouraging smile but didn't even glance over his shoulder at the other men.

He heard the louder echoes of their feet on the metallic floor as they followed him into the passage's closer confines. He also heard the mutter of their uneasy comments, but they were careful to keep those mutters quiet enough that he could pretend he hadn't.

Their journey down the new passage was much shorter than the hike across the original compartment had been, and then another door opened and the lead ranks of their corridor-narrowed column stepped into a fresh chamber. This one was far smaller than the first one had been, and additional doorways opened off of it. There were ten of the arched openings, and red lights flashed above nine of them while another red light burned steadily above the tenth.

"You will pass through the door with the steady light," the disembodied voice informed them, and Sir George and Edward stepped towards the unblinking light. Other men followed them, but still others split off and headed for different doors, and Sir George stopped.

Most of the others paused, as did the much greater number still passing down the corridor towards the antechamber.

"He said the steady light," Sir George said.

"I know, My Lord," someone said. It was Walter Skinnet, the sergeant of Sir George's mounted men-at-arms, and he raised his hand and pointed at an arch three doors to the left of the one surmounted by the unblinking light. "That one," he added.

Sir George stared at him, then looked back at the door towards which he and Edward had been headed. The light burned a steady blood red while the one above Skinnet's chosen door flashed jaggedly.

"I see the steady light here," Sir George told him, gesturing at his own door.

"So do I, Sir," an archer said.

"Me, too," someone else offered.

"I see it over there," a seaman from one of the cogs said, pointing at still a third door.

"No," yet another man said, his voice edged with fear. "It's over there!"

He pointed at a completely different door, and Sir George's nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply.

"All right, lads!" He made his voice come out firm and crisp. "After all we've already seen, let's not let a thing as small as this unman us!"

The incipient panic eased, and he gave a sharp, barking laugh.

"I don't know how it's done," he went on, "but clearly they've some clever trick to make each of us see our own steady light where they want us to. No doubt it's their way to split us into smaller groups, and if none of us care much for that, it's hardly unexpected, either, now is it?"

One or two men shook their heads, and he shrugged.

"Very well. You men there in the passageway pass the word back up the hall so the lads behind you will know what to expect. The rest of you." he shrugged again, "follow whichever light looks steady to you."

He paused long enough to see his orders obeyed, then gave Edward another smile and stepped through their own door.

The chamber beyond was larger than the antechamber, though still enormously smaller than the one in which they had met the demon-jester. More men followed him and Edward into it, until there must have been almost a hundred of them. The crowd filled the compartment but without undue crowding, and Sir George looked about him curiously.

The chamber was oval, with walls of the same ubiquitous bronze metal. The ceiling was much lower here, but it wasn't really visible. Not clearly, at any rate. Looking up, all he could see was an opalescent glow of light. It was odd, like everything else that had happened to them from the moment the bronze shape appeared among the clouds, but the light seemed to fall not from any single source but as if from some deep well or shaft. He had the distinct impression that there was a definite roof or ceiling above him, but he couldn't seem to see it.

He lowered his eyes from the light and they narrowed as he realized that despite the seeming brightness of the illumination which filled the chamber, his vision wasn't dazzled in the least. He had just filed that observation away beside all of the other strange things which had enveloped them all when the tenor voice spoke again.

"You will remove all clothing and place it in the storage compartments," it announced, and the featureless bronze walls shifted suddenly as scores of narrow doorways flicked open. Sir George stepped over to the nearest one and examined the shelf-lined space beyond it.

"You will remove all clothing and place it in the storage compartments," the voice repeated with inhuman patience, and Sir George grimaced. He cared no more for this order than any of the others they had been given, but as with the others, he saw no option but to obey.

"Help me with my armor, Edward," he said calmly.

 

The "storage compartments" disappeared the instant the last garment had been placed in them. Sir George was hardly surprised, but that made him no happier to see his arms and armor disappear. He looked around and saw the same unhappiness in each of the now-naked men sharing the compartment with him and his son, yet despite his own dislike for being separated from his sword, he also felt a slight but undeniable sense of relief. The demon-jester had amply demonstrated the futility of attempting to attack him, but as long as the men possessed weapons, the temptation to use them would exist. He felt not only vulnerable but demeaned at being deprived of the sword and spurs which were the emblems of his knightly status, but the knowledge that no more of his men would be slaughtered as young Denmore had been—or not, at least, for the same reason—was partial compensation.

"You will now be cleaned," the voice told them, and someone cried out as a thick vapor began to fill the chamber. It arose from the floor, climbing quickly up past knees and thighs, and Sir George felt Edward's hand clutch his once more as it enveloped them.

The baron squeezed back reassuringly and smiled at his son with a sudden quirk of genuine amusement as he realized how the need to reassure Edward distracted him from panic of his own.

The thought was a fleeting one, and he looked back down as the vapor rose above his hips. It was warm, almost sensually comforting once the immediate surprise had passed, and he felt himself relaxing as it wrapped itself about him. He had never felt anything quite like it. It was almost like plunging into a hot bath, but there was a tingle to it, almost like kneading fingers massaging skin and muscles, which felt undeniably pleasant.

He looked around as the vapor rose to chest height and saw echoes of his own relaxation in the faces of the others in the compartment. Then the vapor rose over his head, and he inhaled deeply, drawing the freshness and the sense of cleanliness deep into his lungs.

He was never certain afterward how long he and his companions stood enveloped in the clinging vapor. He doubted that it could have been as long as it seemed, yet he was confident that many minutes passed before the vapor withdrew as silently and swiftly as it had appeared. He felt like a man awakening from a deep sleep, and when he looked down he realized that the salt sores on his face and the dark rings of chest bruises left by the brutal hammering his lifeline had administered aboard the foundering cog had disappeared.

His exhaustion and weariness had gone with the bruises, he realized. Indeed, he felt fresh and renewed, filled with energy, and he saw shoulders straightening and backs stiffening throughout the chamber as the others reacted to the same sensations.

"Well, lads," he said with a chuckle, "I'm not about to kiss our new 'commander's' arse, but that turned out better than I feared it might!" Several of the others laughed, and if there was a tinge of hysterical relief in their laughter, he ignored it as he inhaled hugely, expanding his chest. "I'd not say no to a week's rest or so, but we've made a fair start on recovering."

"So we have, Sir," one of his men-at-arms replied, and Sir George clapped him on the back.

"Best to remember that not everything that happens to us will be ... unpleasant," the baron pointed out, and pretended not to hear the slightly dubious edge of the mutters of agreement. "I—"

"You will follow the red light out of the compartment," the emotionless voice interrupted him, and he grimaced.

"Our master's voice," he observed ironically, and this time the answering laughter sounded much closer to normal.

"You will follow the red light out of the compartment," the voice repeated, patient as the very stones, and Sir George shrugged and led the way through the suddenly appearing door with Edward at his side.

 

"As you yourself said before we were 'processed,' My Lord, I see no alternative but to accept that ... that ... creature's demands." Father Timothy's tone was heavy. "For the moment, at least."

"I mislike such advice," Sir Richard Maynton sounded like a man drinking soured wine, "yet I have no better to offer in its place, I fear."

"Nor do I." Sir George kept his own voice calm and measured, though he doubted that it fooled anyone. Or perhaps it did. After all, at the moment most of the men in this compartment undoubtedly wanted to be fooled.

The baron leaned back in the obscurely uncomfortable chair the bodiless voice—"Computer," if he'd understood the outlandish name aright—had provided at the demon-jester's orders. None of the humans had the slightest idea of how that chair and the others like it had been made to appear. They had sprung up out of the metal deck like fairy toadstools, and they appeared to be made of the same alloy as that deck. How anyone could make bronze or steel "grow," or make it soft and yielding beneath the weight of their bodies, was yet another of the unending mysteries which had enveloped them, but at least this one gave them someplace to park their arses.

It would have been nice if the chairs had been properly proportioned for the people sitting in them, but it was obvious that the otherwise luxuriously enfolding furniture had been designed for something with longer legs and shorter torsos than any human would ever have. It was yet one more reminder of how completely outside their previous existences they had been thrown.

Nor was it the only reminder.

Sir George looked down at the odd garment he wore. It was like and yet unlike the garments worn by the demon-jester and his dragon-man guards. It was a different color, to begin with—a dark green, with black trim along the sleeves and legs—and it didn't cover his hands as theirs did. It did include incredibly comfortable "boots" that were extensions of its legs, and it was also a looser fit than any of the alien creatures aboard this ship seemed to prefer. For all of that, its fit was far snugger than anything he had ever worn before. And more comfortable, he admitted almost against his will.

He and the men who had been "processed" with him had found the peculiar, one-piece garments waiting when they emerged. All had appeared to be of one size, and none of them had known how to open the strange seals which served in place of buttons or laces. The baron hadn't been alone in his dismay at the sight of the strange clothing, but the tenor voice had insisted that this was what they must wear, and then it had patiently instructed them in how to unseal the garments' closures and get into them.

Once donned, each garment had shifted size as required until each man was more comfortably fitted than any of them, including Sir George, had ever before been, and more than one hardened soldier's face had creased in a huge, childlike smile of delight at the comfort of the integral boots' thick, cushioned soles. Men who spent so much of their lives marching towards and away from battle appreciated well-fitted boots, and surely no king had ever boasted more comfortable ones than these!

Sir George had to admit that he shared their happiness over the boots, but he was less than completely delighted by the garments. He wasn't the only one wearing one of them at the moment, for everyone in the chamber, including Matilda and Father Timothy, wore precisely the same thing, and he felt a fresh stir of resentment as he glanced at his wife. The clothing that was simply "snug" for him clung to every supple curve of Matilda's body, and he would have been more than human not to note how the eyes of the other men in the compartment were very carefully not noticing that.

Matilda, on the other hand, appeared completely oblivious to how revealing her clothing was. He doubted very much that she could be as calm as she chose to appear, but he would not embarrass or shame her by showing his own anger at seeing her so displayed. Besides, she was undoubtedly correct. Irritating and infuriating as their captors' insistence on clothing all of them in these same, revealing garments might be, it was minor beside all of the other things which had already happened to them. And which might, as she had quietly reminded him on the way to this compartment, happen yet.

And if he had required any additional reminding, there were the two wart-faces and the pair of the dragon-men standing against the compartment wall. Sir George suspected that the watchful guards were there precisely to remind them of their helplessness. Certainly, if the demon-jester's words and those of the other voice which had guided them through their "processing" could be made to sound in their very ears, then their captors could also listen to anything they said without being physically present. The guards were simply the demon-jester's way of reminding them of his presence ... and demands. No doubt the baron would have called exactly such a meeting if left to his own devices, but he had not been given that option, and the demon-jester's order to call it had stung. Sir George was a soldier, accustomed to obeying commands, as well as giving them, but he had never chosen to serve the demon-jester, and the ridiculous looking creature's uncaring arrogance was infuriating. He gave his orders as if Sir George and all of the other humans with him were of less importance than the same number of hunting hounds.

But however infuriating their "Commander" might be, Sir George had no intention of allowing his fury to show. He might not be able to read the demon-jester's emotions or expression, but that didn't necessarily mean the reverse was true, and the demon-jester had made his readiness to kill to make a point only too clear. So when he had ordered Sir George to "inventory" his guild's new "assets," the baron hadn't even been tempted to argue. Nor had he been blind to the need to establish and maintain an unshaken internal human chain of authority, and now he considered the six men and one woman in the compartment with him. He and Matilda had taken the two chairs at the very front of the chamber with a calm assurance of their right to precedence. The baron had allowed no sign of hesitation or doubt to cross his face or color his manner, and he'd been just as careful to conceal his undeniable sense of relief when none of the other men challenged his authority.

The fact that Father Timothy and Sir Richard had settled down to his and Matilda's left and right respectively had helped knock any temptation to challenge him on the head. Father Timothy would have supported him under any circumstances, but Sir Richard was another matter. Given how the death of Earl Cathwall and the uncanny fashion in which they had been rescued—or captured, depending on how one cared to look at things—had turned the planned expedition to France into chaos, Sir Richard might very well have seen an opportunity to seize power for himself. After all, less than a third of the total surviving men-at-arms and archers had been under Sir George's personal command. Almost half had been recruited by Earl Cathwall, and he supposed it might technically be argued that their oaths passed to Matilda and so, indirectly, to himself upon her father's death. The point, however, might have been argued, and the remaining soldiers and all of the surviving mariners could legitimately claim never to have been under his own orders.

On the other hand, all of them knew by now that none of them would ever see France or their own homes again, and all of them were desperate for someone to tell them what to do.

"What are our numbers, Father?" the baron asked after a lingering moment of silence.

"Better than I had feared, My Lord," the Dominican replied. As Sir George's confessor, Father Timothy had assumed the duties of chief clerk for the baron's portion of the expedition from the very beginning, and Earl Cathwall's clerk had perished with him. That had elevated Timothy to the role of record keeper and quartermaster for the entire expedition. It was one he was well suited to, for he had always had a gift for numbers, and his priestly calling had also made him a reassuring presence as he circulated among the survivors. Now he pursed his lips as he cast his mind back over the numbers he had collected. Sir George knew the priest well enough to guess how badly he longed for something to have jotted his notes and counts upon, but they had neither parchment nor paper nor ink, only Father Timothy's memory.

"Of the seventeen vessels with which we set out for France, nine survived," he began. "I haven't been able yet to make a completely accurate count, but God has been even kinder to us than I had first thought, and, through His mercy, far more of our people have survived than I had believed possible. My current, rough calculations are that our present company includes one hundred and eighty-two seamen, four hundred and seventy-three archers, two hundred and fourteen men-at-arms, four knights, nine squires, and, including myself, six clerks. In addition, we have another fifty-seven able-bodied men, including drovers, cooks, horse farriers, fletchers, laborers, and two blacksmiths. In total, we can thus count nine hundred and forty-five fit men in all, most of whom are trained and under arms."

Sir George nodded. Father Timothy was right; the numbers were much higher than any one in the compartment could have expected, although they were still small enough, given his suspicion that the members of their small company were all the Englishmen—indeed, all the human beings—that they would ever see again.

"And the women and children?" he asked.

"Including your own lady wife," the priest said, "we have thirty-two wives, not all of whom have ... ah, enjoyed the sanction of Mother Church upon their unions, and twenty-seven more women who are no one's wives. We also have a total of twenty-six children under the age of ten, and six babes in arms. Finally, there are in addition fourteen apprentices of differing ages bound to various of our craftsmen and drovers."

"I see." Sir George nodded, his face carefully expressionless, as he digested the numbers. Fifty-nine women was more than he had anticipated, but it was only one woman for every sixteen men, and God only knew where that sort of imbalance would lead in the end. From Father Timothy's tone, the priest was already considering the same sorts of questions, and Sir George was devoutly grateful to have Timothy and not some other, narrow-minded cleric along. The Dominican's experience as a soldier had left him with more pragmatic and less condemning attitudes than many of his fellow priests, and they were going to need all of the pragmatism and understanding they could find.

"Very well," the baron went on after a brief pause. "Thanks to Father Timothy, we know what strength we possess."

"At least what strength in men, My Lord," Sir Richard put in, and leaned forward to look across Sir George at Father Timothy. "Have we any good idea of what livestock survived, Father?"

"Not yet," the priest admitted. "I don't expect to discover that very many of our animals lived, particularly given that both horse transports were among the missing vessels, but so far I've seen at least a few chickens, and Mistress Nan's swine seem to have survived."

"I suspect that we may rely upon our captors to feed us, at least," Matilda Wincaster said.

If any of the men in the compartment were surprised to hear Lady Wincaster speak up, they were wise enough to keep their tongues between their teeth. Sir Richard and Sir Anthony Fitzhugh, the expedition's two senior knights after Sir George himself, were too courteous to comment, and Father Timothy knew Matilda and Sir George too well to feel the least surprise. The other three men present—Rolf Grayhame, Walter Skinnet, and Dafydd Howice—were as familiar with Matilda's outspokenness as the priest. Grayhame had commanded Sir George's bowmen for over six years, while Skinnet had served as the master of his horse for almost ten. Howice had never been part of Sir George's household, but the gray-haired, oak-thewed Welshman had been the second in command of Earl Cathwall's guard since Matilda was eleven. Sir Adrian du Col, Howice's superior, had died with the earl, and the Welshman had succeeded to his spot. Sir George regretted du Col's death, but Howice was a welcome addition to his own officers, both as an immensely experienced soldier and as someone whose loyalty to Matilda was absolute.

"Even such as he must realize that people must eat," Matilda went on now, "and he scarcely gave us the opportunity to bring any great store of food with us." She grimaced wryly, and one or two of the men chuckled. "It follows that we may assume he intends to feed us from his own stores, I would say."

"Assuming that whatever they eat is anything but poison for human folk, My Lady," Fitzhugh agreed, jerking his head at the wart-faces and dragon-men standing silently against the wall.

"I doubt that our 'Commander' would have stolen us away without first determining that he could keep us fed, Sir Anthony," Matilda replied. "I don't say that I look forward to discovering what he might consider food, but there would be no more point in taking us to poison than in taking us only to see us starve."

The knight looked at her for a moment, then nodded, and she shrugged.

"However that may be, though, I suspect that you were thinking of more than eggs and bacon, Sir Richard," she said.

"Indeed I was, My Lady. As Father Timothy says, we lost both of our horse transports, and that was a most serious blow."

Sir George nodded gravely. The same point had already occurred to him. Indeed, there was no way it could not have occurred. Even without the loss of the two transports, they would have had all too few horses for their needs, because they had intended to rely upon the mounts Sir Michael had spent the last two months and more procuring for the expedition in France. Of their total strength of men-at-arms, almost two hundred were trained to fight mounted. That would have been a small enough cavalry force at the best of times, even given their relatively high percentage of archers to offset their weakness, but without horses, those mounted men-at-arms became only so many more infantry.

"From what the ... 'Commander' has said," the baron said, picking his words carefully, "I believe that one of his purposes in demanding an accounting of our resources may well be so that he might procure at least some of the items and supplies we require. Certainly," he snorted with bitter humor, "he can have little doubt that we have lost many of the things we need, given the manner in which his guild 'recruited' us!"

"With a commander of our own kind, I would be certain you're correct, My Lord," Sir Richard said with a small nod. "On the other hand, these ... folk are so different from us, with such different ways and powers, that they may not realize what our true needs are."

"An excellent point," Sir George agreed, and it was. It was also one which had already occurred to him, but he was glad to see that Sir Richard had considered the same possibility. "However," the baron continued, "if that's the case, it will be one of my tasks to explain those needs to the ... 'Commander.' "

"I trust you'll forgive me, My Lord," Sir Anthony said, "but I'm just as happy to leave that task to you!"

"As anyone with wit would be," Matilda said dryly. "At the same time, my lords, I think we would be both wise and prudent not to ascribe too great a power to our new 'Commander.' "

Most of the men in the compartment looked very much as if they wanted to stare at their liege's lady in disbelief, but Father Timothy nodded firmly.

"Well said, My Lady!" he agreed. "Well said, indeed. Whatever powers these creatures possess, they are far less than the power of God, and the Lord will be with us wherever we may fare."

"Of course He will, Father," Matilda said. "Yet that wasn't precisely what I meant." She glanced at Sir George, and her husband nodded for her to continue. "What I meant, my lords," she went on, letting her gaze circle the compartment very much as her father might have, "is that I think it would be wise of us not to mistake these creatures for demons or devils. That they are strange to us, and possess arts and abilities we don't yet even know of, far less comprehend, is undeniable. Yet I think the 'Commander' would have been less ready to demonstrate his weapons' power or to post such guards over us while we speak—" she nodded at the wart-faces and dragon-men against the compartment wall "—if he were not himself mortal. There would be no need for him to teach us to fear him or to watch over us so carefully if he were truly more than mortal."

"No doubt you are correct, My Lady," Father Timothy said after a moment. "Yet whether they be mortal or not doesn't change the fact that their powers and abilities are far greater than our own."

"Indeed it does not," Matilda replied firmly. "Nor do I mean to suggest for one instant that the fact of their mortality should tempt us to follow in Sir John's footsteps. Wherever these folk spring from, and whatever it is that they desire of us in the end, they have already demonstrated, as I'm sure they intended to, that our weapons cannot harm them. No, my lords, I meant only that I believe that their abilities spring not from the powers of Hell but from mortal skills and knowledge which we simply do not possess. We must remember in our dealings with them, and most especially in any dealings with the 'Commander,' that for all their power and all the wonders of this vessel, they are no doubt fallible and so may fail to fully understand our essential needs unless we explain them carefully."

She did not, Sir George noted, suggest that the fact that their captors were mortal implied that they could be killed even if merely human weapons couldn't harm them. It was a point worth putting away for future consideration, but also a dangerous one, and not simply because discussing it might prompt the "Commander" to take additional precautions. No, it was dangerous because dwelling upon it might tempt someone to attempt to act upon it, despite the grisly object lesson of young Denmore's fate.

"I will certainly bear that in mind in describing our needs and capabilities to him, my love," he said, with a careful emphasis on "capabilities," and she smiled slightly as she nodded back.

"Very well," the baron said more briskly, returning his attention to the men in the compartment. "We know roughly what our numbers are, and that we don't have the mounts we require. I believe my lady is correct in her belief that the 'Commander' intends to feed us and has the means to do so. Since these folk have said they will require us to fight for them, however, reason suggests that we must next consider what our needs of arms and other equipment may be. Given our numbers, I would be most surprised to discover that the 'Commander' intends for us to undertake siege operations without additional support, or to storm a city or fortress. If he does, then he clearly overestimates our capabilities ... which," he added dryly, "seems unlikely."

The others surprised themselves by chuckling, and the baron's white teeth flashed in a bearded smile.

"I think we must assume that this guild the 'Commander' has spoken of intends to employ us as a field force. Why anyone with the powers and abilities they possess should need such as we to do their fighting I don't pretend to understand at this time, but I cannot believe they would go to such trouble to force us to serve them unless their need was both real and great. If that's true, then I think we must also assume that whatever battles they set us to fight will be hard ones, and also that it will be in their interest to see us as well equipped to give them victory as possible."

Several of the others nodded slowly, and all looked thoughtful as Sir George continued.

"This vessel of theirs, and all of the wondrous tools and powers they possess, suggest to me that they ought to be able to meet any reasonable request we might make of them. Surely, not even King Edward's exchequer could provide even a tiny fraction of what their ship alone represents! Bearing that in mind, I would have you all consider not simply what we may have lost of weapons and equipment, but also what we might wish to have had but never did." He smiled thinly. "Let us make the best of our situation, my friends. If we must fight for demon-jesters, then let us do it as the best equipped army England has ever sent afield ... even if England never knows she has."

 

"I have considered your needs and the supplies you wish to request." The demon-jester's voice was as childlike and emotionless as ever, and Sir George wished yet again that the strange little creature had something a human could recognize as an expression. He stood facing the "Commander" across a beautiful, delicately wrought table of what appeared to be finest crystal. The demon-jester was seated in a comfortable, thickly upholstered chair which fit him perfectly and would have been far too small for any human, but no chair had been offered to Sir George. Nor was the baron unaware of the two dragon-men who stood protectively behind the demon-jester, watching him with their strange slit-pupilled, silver eyes.

The "Commander" paused, his own eyes fixed upon the baron and his foxlike ears half-cocked. No doubt the position of his ears was an expression—of sorts, at least—the baron reflected. If so, it wasn't one he recognized, yet he had the distinct impression that the demon-jester was waiting for him to react to his bald pronouncement.

"But I haven't yet told you what it is that we require," the baron said carefully after a moment.

"It is not necessary for you to do so," the demon-jester told him. "I have heard all that passed between you and your subordinates, and the computer has generated a complete list of all of the items you discussed."

Sir George remained far from certain what or who "Computer" was. Although the demon-jester spoke of him as dismissively as he might have referred to some minor clerk, the baron had already deduced that he was much more than that. Indeed, from what Sir George had already seen—or heard, rather—it was clear that Computer was a combination of the demon-jester's bailiff, military commander, and chief minister, and the English had already become accustomed to hearing Computer's tenor voice instructing them in the rules and regulations to which they were now subject. He had also initiated them into some, at least, of the mysteries which surrounded them and was busy instructing them in how to activate and deactivate some of the wondrous devices in the shipboard quarters to which they had been assigned. How any one being could discharge all of those duties simultaneously was more than Sir George could imagine ... and so was the reason which could make someone that capable so obviously subservient to someone like the demon-jester.

Not that any of that mattered very much at a moment. What mattered was that the "Commander" already had (or thought he did, at any rate) the details of all that the baron was about to request ... and that he (or Computer) had, indeed, been able to eavesdrop on all that was said. Sir George took careful note both of that confirmation and of the need to remind everyone to watch their words most carefully at all times.

"Most of what you think you need will not pose any great difficulties," the demon-jester continued in that unearthly voice. "The personal armor, the weapons, the harness and saddles—all of those can be readily produced by this ship's machine shops and synthesizers. Indeed, the only possible difficulty may be that the equipment you have described is so primitive. The industrial modules are configured to produce spares and other components for the ship and its support systems, and it will take us some time to properly program them to manufacture such crude items."

Once again, Sir George felt himself afloat upon a sea of half-understood and completely foreign concepts and ideas. Whatever device or magical power translated the demon-jester's own language into English obviously found itself required to create completely new words to label some of those concepts. That was undoubtedly a marvel. Unfortunately, simply attaching a label to something did nothing to explain what that something was. Not that the demon-jester seemed particularly concerned about explaining anything to someone he manifestly considered so far beneath himself.

"The one need you have identified which may pose some small challenge," the half-sized creature said, "is the matter of the horses. For technical reasons which need not concern you, the transport of such large animals is sometimes difficult. In the case of some similar species, the phase drive survival rate is low. We do not yet know whether this would be the case for your 'horses,' but the possibility exists."

He paused, looking—expressionlessly, of course—at Sir George, and the baron frowned.

"Are you saying ... Commander, that there is no point in acquiring them in the first place?"

"I am saying that it may turn out in the end that there is no point," the demon-jester corrected. "That, however, is something we do not yet know for certain. Nor do I know how essential such beasts truly are for your military efficiency. While you and your subordinates discussed your need for horses at some length, you clearly felt no need to analyze precisely why you require them."

"Why we require them?" Despite himself, Sir George couldn't quite keep all of his incredulity at such ignorance out of his tone.

"You are primitives," the demon-jester told him in that infuriatingly dispassionate voice. "Your weapons and your tactics are so crude that no civilized species is remotely familiar with them. While the fact that you are such primitive barbarians is the very thing which gives you value to my guild, it also means that we do not possess the background data to fully evaluate ideas and practices which you obviously take completely for granted. It would be like expecting a civilized being to understand the techniques involved in skinning an animal for its pelt with nothing but one's teeth."

Sir George was very careful about his expression, but his jaw muscles bunched. It was hard to decide which was the more infuriating—the demon-jester's dismissal of the English as little more than dumb brutes, or the casual completely, matter-of-fact fashion in which he did it.

Nonetheless, the baron decided, there actually was some reason to what the creature had just said, for it was clear that Matilda had been correct. The demon-jester and his guild were limited in their understanding of things the English took completely for granted, if only because it had been so long since they had been required to understand them.

The demon-jester had paused once more, and Sir George gave himself a mental shake.

"We use horses for many things, Commander," he said then. "On the other hand, although we as yet understand very little about your ... guild's abilities, it seems likely to me that we will no longer need to do some of the things for which we use horses, or oxen, for that matter. I speak here of draft animals for carts or wagons, or beasts to plow the fields, and such matters as that."

He paused, and the demon-jester's ears moved slightly once again.

"You will not require draft animals or farm beasts," his piping voice confirmed.

"I thought that might be the case," Sir George said with a nod. "But while we may not require them for those purposes, we will continue to need them for warfare, if we are to fight most effectively. At need, any of our men-at-arms can fight dismounted, but it isn't what some of them are best trained to do, and it would require us to sacrifice much of our mobility. None of the men with us are trained as heavy horse, but their ability to move rapidly about the field of battle and the ... shock or impact when their charge strikes home make them far more effective than they would be afoot."

"I see." The demon-jester sat back in his chair and was silent for several seconds, then turned his attention back to Sir George.

"You say that your men will be 'more effective' on horses. Can you quantify the degree by which their effectiveness will be increased?" The creature paused, and Sir George looked at him, uncertain just what he was asking.

"You are even more primitive than I had thought possible," the demon-jester said after perhaps three heartbeats. "It is, I think, a sufficiently simple question that even you ought to be able to answer it, however. What I wish you to tell me is whether your 'men-at-arms' will be twice as effective mounted as on foot, or three times, or four."

"I would say that they would be at least twice as effective," Sir George replied after only the briefest pause of his own. He spent another few seconds ensuring that he had a firm grip upon his temper, then continued as reasonably as possible. "At the same time, Commander, it would be a mistake to consider only their effectiveness in the direct exchange of blows as the single factor in deciding whether or not to provide them with mounts."

"Explain," the demon-jester commanded.

"They are only one portion of my—your—total force. Each portion has its own strengths, its own weaknesses, its own part to play upon the field, however. If one portion of the total is weakened, then all are weakened, and what the force as a whole might accomplish is lessened. If I have no horse, then my mobility, my ability to react quickly to events or to recognize and exploit opportunities, will be greatly reduced."

He paused again, thinking hard, then shrugged.

"I suppose, Commander, that much depends upon what enemies you expect us to face, and why. In a purely defensive fight, the loss of my horsed element would pose less of a difficulty. I would still miss them, and their absence would be a handicap, but it would be a smaller handicap. In an attack upon a fortified position, again, horse is of less importance and wouldn't be missed as greatly. But if we're to fight open field battles, where maneuver is necessary and the features of the ground to be fought over may vary greatly from battle to battle, then the loss of my mounted force would create a serious weakness."

"I see," the demon-jester said. "I had not considered that something as antiquated as an actual riding beast could possess such significance for military operations. But as I have said, my guild is not accustomed to thinking in such primitive terms. For most of our history that has not mattered greatly, but of late things have been ... different. So perhaps it behooves me to pay even greater attention to you and your warriors' requirements and capabilities than I had thought."

He paused once more, and for a moment Sir George assumed that the pause was for silent thought. Then he realized that the creature's speaking mouth was still moving, although he could hear nothing. For that matter, he realized now, he had never heard the demon-jester's actual voice, only the voice of whoever or whatever translated the "Commander's" language into human speech. Was that because the guild's arts kept him from hearing the other? Or was it because of something else? Was it possible that human ears simply couldn't hear the demon-jester, and if so, why not?

He gave himself another mental shake as he realized that the demon-jester's speaking mouth had stopped moving. The alien, purple-furred face gave no hint of what the creature might have been saying, or who or what he might have been saying it to, and the baron found himself longing passionately for some way to make an expression—any expression—cross it.

"I have given orders to return to your world," the demon-jester told him, and, despite himself, Sir George swallowed hard. It wasn't truly a surprise. He'd known from the very beginning that the stupendous, bronze vessel had never been born of any world peopled by humans, and the inevitable implication of that had been that he, his wife and son, and all of their people were bound for other worlds. He had no idea where those other worlds might lie, but he had thought he was as prepared as a man could be for the knowledge that he and his had been exiled to them, yet to hear it confirmed so casually hit like a fist.

"We will obtain the necessary genetic material and clone sufficient horses to meet your needs," the demon-jester continued. "There are drawbacks to this approach, but it offers advantages which more than outweigh the disadvantages. Among others, it will provide us with an ongoing supply if, as I fear is likely, these animals prove poorly suited to phase drive stasis. With the proper timing and techniques of forced growth, we can produce fresh mounts for your men for each battle."

Sir George drew a deep breath and asked God for patience. Not that God seemed to be paying a great deal of attention to his prayers of late.

"Commander, I don't understand a great deal of what you just said. In particular, I don't understand the word 'clone' at all. But if I've grasped the core of what you propose, I fear you are underestimating the 'disadvantages' of what you intend."

"Explain," the demon-jester said again.

"If you are proposing to somehow magically 'grow' fresh horses for us before each battle, then you are overlooking the need for us to train those horses and to accustom them to us even as we accustom ourselves to them. It takes a great deal of time—years—to properly train a horse for war, Commander. It isn't something which we could do in a day or two before taking them into battle. Moreover, each horse and each man are different, yet for a mounted man to perform at his best in battle, he and his mount must thoroughly understand one another. They fight not as individuals, but as one ... as a team, and so we must also allow sufficient time for them to learn one another's ways."

"This is most unfortunate," the alien said. "Are you, then, saying that we must somehow provide you with trained mounts?"

"That would certainly be best," Sir George replied honestly. "If that proves impossible, however, we have the knowledge and skills to train them ourselves, assuming that we can be provided with sufficient space and time in which to do so."

"That would be better than nothing, I suppose," the demon-jester said, "but it would still be less than ideal. It would not be possible for us to operate our phase drive at higher than fifty percent power while you performed that training. Given the efficiency and translation curves, that power reduction would have serious consequences for our mobility."

"Commander, you are speaking now of things so far beyond my knowledge that I would have no idea at all of how to advise you," Sir George told him.

"Obviously," the demon-jester told him in what was probably a condescending tone, although there was no way for Sir George to be certain. The alien gazed him for several seconds, then continued.

"On the other hand, there are other things upon which you can advise me. For reasons which need not concern you, it is desirable for us to limit contacts—which will be remembered, at least—with your kind on your planet. To be honest, it was for that reason that we selected your force to meet our needs in the first place. You would have perished without us, and your fellow humans will simply assume that that is precisely what you did do. If, however, we return to secure these horses for you, we risk being seen and leaving witnesses behind. This could create ... undesirable complications for my guild. It will therefore be necessary for us to find a location in which the beasts you require, preferably already trained, can be obtained with the least risk that we will be observed obtaining them."

"I assume," Sir George said very carefully, "that you wouldn't wish to consider the possibility of sending me or one of my senior knights to purchase them for you?"

"You assume correctly," the demon-jester said.

"In that case, and given that you don't wish for anyone to see you, or any of your other servants, then undoubtedly the best opportunity would be a raid on some great noble's stud farm, preferably by night, when no one could see you or your servants clearly."

"And these 'stud farms' are isolated? There would be few humans about?"

"Depending upon the manor in question, yes," Sir George replied. "Much depends upon which manor you choose, of course. In even the best case, however, there will be some people about. Grooms, horse trainers, farriers... . There are always at least some peasants and their families who might well see you, even on the darkest night."

"You need not be concerned about that aspect. It would be as well to choose a manor where the numbers of humans present are relatively low, but those humans who might see us will never have the opportunity to report our presence to anyone else."

The calm announcement sent an icy chill through Sir George. It was impossible to mistake the demon-jester's meaning, and the baron felt a stab of bitter guilt. He was tempted to tell the alien that he had changed his mind, that the horses were unimportant—certainly not vital enough for the demon-jester to risk a return to Earth! But it would have been pointless. The half-sized creature wouldn't have believed him anyway, not after the way in which Sir George had just finished explaining exactly why he did need them. And even if the demon-jester had been likely to believe his sudden change of heart, he owed the men under his command the truth. Those horses wouldn't simply make them more effective in combat; the mounts would also make it far more likely that his men-at-arms would survive battle.

None of which made him feel any better about the realization that he had just unintentionally sentenced the entire population of some remote manor to death.

"The question, of course," the demon-jester went on, as if completely unaware that anything he might have said could have distressed Sir George in any way, "is which manor we should choose?"

The speaking mouth moved soundlessly once again, and the tabletop changed suddenly from diamond-clear crystal to an exquisitely detailed image. The alien waved Sir George closer, and the baron frowned. There was something about that image... . He couldn't put his finger on what that something was, for he had never seen anything quite like it. Or had he?

His frown deepened, and then he inhaled sharply. No wonder it looked so odd! Surely no human had ever dreamed of gazing down from such a height upon the earth below! Could even the highest-flying bird ever reach such a dizzying altitude? Before the huge bronze shape had appeared in a storm-sick sky to rip him away from all he had ever known, the baron would have said positively that nothing could have attained such a height. Now, however, he had learned that "impossible" meant far less than he had ever believed it did.

His wondering eyes moved slowly across the incredible image. He had never seen its like, not in the most beautifully detailed map, but surely that island was England. There was Ireland, as well, and the Irish Sea, and the Channel! And there—

His sense of wonder deflated suddenly as he recalled why he was looking at this dizzying picture of the world from which he and his people had been stolen. Somewhere upon it was a manor which was doomed to utter destruction ... and the demon-jester would make Sir George Wincaster choose the slain.

He gazed longingly at the island he would never see again, but then he looked away. If someone must die, they would not be Englishmen. Nor would they be Welsh—or even Scots! No. If he must condemn innocents to death, he would at least choose them from among someone whose destruction might weaken the enemies of the monarch who had made him a knight.

He looked up at the demon-jester, then back at the map, and reached out a finger to the magically detailed folds and valleys and trees of France.

"I would recommend one from this area," Sir George Wincaster, Third Baron of Wickworth, told the small, bizarre creature which had made itself his master.

 

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