When Pelleas entered his bedchamber the bed was empty. But as he shrugged out of his tunic his wife arrived. "You make me hear bells," he said.
"Ha ha," she grinned. She began to undress as well. "Sorry I'm late. How goes kingship?"
"Phew. It's both easier and harder than I thought." Pelleas paused in his disrobing to shake out his right hand. "Today I signed things all day. Now I know why Father gave me a shorter name than his! How'd you fill your time?"
"Another interplanetary invasion thwarted. A long time from now; you wouldn't've heard of the place."
Naked, they climbed into the huge bed from their opposite sides, meeting in the middle under the fat furry blankets. "I suppose I can excuse the tardiness," mused Pelleas, "if I'm properly compensated ..." He kissed her.
"Pelleas," said Nimue.
Pelleas and his wife jerked in surprise, turning to the unexpected voice at his side of the bed. "Who are you?" demanded his wife. "Why do you look like me?"
"Pelleas, this is an illusion," said Nimue calmly, though there was a flush of pink in her cheeks at the tableau before her. "We've entered the Tumulus. We're looking for someone."
"An illusion?" snapped the woman in Pelleas' bed angrily.
"A siren, a lotus. The Tumulus immobilizes you with your ... fondest wish." Now the pink went red.
Pelleas looked over at the woman in his bed. "I have to go," he told the illusion of Nimue, feeling his own cheeks flush hotly. Nimue turned her back as he got out of the bed and dressed, and by the time he was finished the scene was gone, replaced with a forest path. "Okay, I'm done." Nimue turned around. With difficulty they each forced themselves to meet the other's eyes. "What ... what did you see?" Pelleas asked her.
"Er," said Nimue, turning pink again. "Much the same thing, actually." After a moment Pelleas grinned. Instantly Nimue grinned back. She held out her hand. "Come along," she said, as he took it in his, "we've got work to do."
They started up the path. From ahead on the trail came the sound of wood-chopping.
Robin of Locksley strode out onto the bridge of Straight and True. Somehow having a ship had brought home to him that he was a Crown knight commander in a way that running the station never had. "What's the news?"
Little Joan handed him a pad and then told him what it said. "The Alliance has moved their fleet out from Brest. It'll be at Sherwood Station in less than two days."
Robin tapped an intercom. "Mr. Illan to the bridge. Joan, does this mean we've broken an Alliance code?"
Little Joan shrugged. "No, it doesn't. This was sent in clear. I guess they don't think they have anyone listening to be afraid of."
"Well, let's teach them the error of their ways. Illan," Robin turned to the Evilspace native arriving on the bridge, "there's been a change of plans. I'm taking Straight and True back to Sherwood to wait for the Alliance fleet which is now en route there. I'm going to ask you to continue on to your rendezvous with your ... pendragon, in your own boat. With your permission, I'll send one of my knights with you."
"Agreed," said Illan.
"Joan, go with him. No better backup for his story than a Joan Little who isn't the Sherriff of Sherwood. Nimue has those coordinates, and she and her special passenger -" Illan still didn't know who that was going to be. "- will still meet you there."
"After you, Lady," said Illan.
Little Joan led Illan to the elevator, but turned back at the door. "Robin ... unless we can persuade the resistance leaders to help, it'll be just Straight and True against that fleet. And there's not much time."
"Then you'd better be persuasive. On your way."
The old man gazed in wonder at the group of Round Table knights milling
about the room. He was suddenly, as were they, wearing the uniform of a
knight from the days of his early service on Excalibur. Merlin and an
apprentice - not yet Nimue - were also present.
"The day we met," he murmured.
"An illusion from the past," said Nimue. "It's all said and done already."
"If I had to do it over ..."
"You wouldn't change a thing and you know it. Not even for her."
The old man looked over at the time-travelers. Nimue, Pelleas and the CAVE stood waiting for him, no one else aware of the time-travelers (Why should these shadows of the past be aware of them?). Nimue had on her Merlin face. The old man still wondered exactly what had happened to the sorcerer, that at his disappearance his lover had suddenly taken on not only his CAVE but so many of his attitudes and mannerisms. "Eighty years, you said," he repeated to the sorceress. "Three more Excaliburs, each with its own captain, you said. What difference could I still make?"
Next to Nimue, Pelleas started struggling not to smile. "You wouldn't believe," he answered.
Little Joan and Illan had agreed it would be best if she disembarked from his boat with her hands in the air. They were meeting on a barren, uninhabited asteroid that nevertheless contrived to have a breathable-enough atmosphere. Illan had landed his boat some fifty yards from the other already arrived, which was a different model but in the same state of quasi-repair. There were two scruffily-dressed people walking toward them from it, meeting them halfway. Little Joan didn't assume that this was the only ship nor these the only people around.
"Well, Illan," said the Ulsterman's pendragon. "You've brought us a prize."
"Yes, but not what you're thinking." Little Joan lowered her arms.
"She is from the other side," said Illan. "She is an ally."
"The other side, eh?" She looked Little Joan over, giving Little Joan a chance to assess her back. As Nimue had suspected, Illan's pendragon was this universe's Dierdre.
Little Joan had seen data on Queen Dierdre of the Boglands just before the deposed king of Ulster, Fergus, had gone searching in the Boglands earlier in the year on his starcruiser Maeve, searching for her and the Ulster knight who had defied King Conor and married when Conor wanted Deirdre for himself. Both Maeve and Deirdre's ship Red Branch had vanished. This Dierdre had her hair bobbed short and didn't look like she ever smiled. At her side, yet obviously a subordinate, was this universe's Fergus. He looked - something Little Joan had read once said it best - not a tame lion.
"You're here because you want something," said Dierdre, not troubling to make it a question.
"The Alliance is on the verge of invading the United Kingdoms," Little Joan said, matching Dierdre's hard brevity. "That's bad for us in the short term and bad for you in the long term. Illan says your organization could coordinate several resistance groups to help stop the invasion."
"Maybe. What kind of time frame are we talking about?"
"The invasion fleet will be to its crossover point at Sherwood in 38.3 hours," said Illan.
"What?" said Dierdre. Undoubtedly Illan had chosen to reveal this fact himself because, if Little Joan had said it, Dierdre would have spit in her face. At best. "How big a fleet?"
"Approximately a dozen, including at least three heavy cruisers, according to the intelligence acquired by Will Scarlett," Illan continued.
"The entire sector fleet?" asked the lion. "What do you think we can rally against that in a day and a half?"
"I have seen Robin of Locksley's ship," said Illan. "It would not require the assistance of the equivalent of more than eight light destroyers to neutralize even such an Alliance fleet."
"Fergus is right," said Dierdre. "Even if what Illan says is true, there's no way I can gather half that much firepower in that time!"
"Maybe you can't," said Little Joan. She snuck a look at her timepiece. "But we think there's someone who can, with your help."
"Who?" Dierdre demanded.
"I'd rather not say yet," said Little Joan, "until we're sure we have him."
"The new sorceress," said Illan, not entirely hiding a displeasure that mirrored Dierdre's, "has gone in search of this mystery personage, and was to meet us here."
Dierdre nodded with affected geniality - then snarled, "She has until my business is done. And she's your ride," she added, punctuating each of the last two words with a poke in the air at Little Joan.
"No problem," said Little Joan, meeting her eyes, for she had heard the start of the distinctive chiming that accompanied the CAVE's materialization. It was landing equidistant from both boats but about twenty-five yards from the four watchers, as if to form an isosceles right triangle, with the boats defining the hypotenuse. Little Joan saw it took the resistance fighters down a notch to have the CAVE materialize here without any warning from the lookouts they must have posted, especially as innocuously dilapidated as it looked in its disguise as a large wooden door against a rockface. They were going to be wary - and probably ill-tempered - with its passengers.
Nimue got out of the CAVE, then Pelleas, then a third person. Little Joan breathed a quiet sigh of relief; they'd got him.
Little Joan had never heard of the man until her first crossover, high king or not. But for two years she had been first knight to a knight commander who was the foretold messiah of her planet's religion. She had learned to set her feelings aside, most of the time, to get her job done - but she instantly recognized the looks on Dierdre's and Fergus's faces when they saw who was approaching, swiftly taking the lead among the three CAVE travelers.
"It's impossible," said Dierdre.
"The way he moves," said Fergus. "It's him."
He walked up to them casually, though if he was the man Allan-A-Dale had described to Little Joan he couldn't be unaware how they were looking at him - no one could. He smiled boyishly (Little Joan hadn't any idea how old he was), stuck out his hand to Dierdre (having instantly recognized her as the leader here, no doubt), and said, "Arthur Pendragon, King of the Britons."
To Chapter 5
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