Secret Santa fanfic for stealingpennies for the primeval_denial secret santa exchange.
I know you like historical/pseudo-historical AUs, so I tried something a little... different. Please excuse any errors in historical detail, or, for that matter, *lack* of historical detail!
Also, the word count sort of... got away from me. In my defense I was *aiming* for about 4k. I think it's safe to say I missed...
Title: The Siege of Shelim Oasis
Pairing/characters: Becker/Connor (pre-slash), Emily/Jess (implied), Matt, Ryan
Warnings: Mild violence, 19th century aristocracy AU (sort of)
Disclaimer: Not mine. ITV and Impossible Pictures own them.
Word count: Approx 7871
Summary: Lord Becker is bored with his life as lord of the manor. Until one night a boy from the village stumbles in with talk of a missing carriage and a strange light in the road...
AN: Secret Santa for stealingpennies, using the prompts “Does anybody here speak English?”, and Spices, and also the request for snow and blood (although some of those may be a little blink-and-you-miss-them).
AN2: Fills the trope bingo square ‘AU: royalty/aristocracy/feudal’.
Lord Hilary Becker was three mouthfuls into his evening meal when he became aware of a commotion outside. He glanced up to the window and in the rapidly falling darkness he saw a lone figure struggling through the snow towards Arc Hall, arms waving.
“Mary, would you be good enough to see what is going on?”
“Right away, sir.”
The serving girl hurried off, and Becker continued to eat. After dinner he was supposed to be dealing with matters of unpaid rent, and organising a dinner party he was meant to host in a couple of weeks. In truth, though, all he really wanted to do was spend the evening with his collection of guns, and plan a shooting trip for the following day, so long as the snow had stopped by then. Being the lord of the manor really involved far more administration and paperwork than his father had ever told him about.
It was only when he heard shouting in the hallway that Becker began to take more of an interest. With a last, longing glance at the half-eaten roast dinner, he stood up and went to investigate.
The entrance doors to the hall were open, despite the wintry weather and the cold wind. Of more concern, however, was the bedraggled young man shaking snow off himself in the doorway, and babbling about some sort of bright light and an accident. Mary seemed to be trying to shoo him back outside, while Matt, the doorman, was looking both worried and confused at the same time.
“What is the meaning of this? Who are you?” Becker demanded, striding over.
The young man looked up at him, and his eyes widened in surprise.
“Connor, Lord. Connor Temple. I live in the village.”
Becker glanced over him a little more closely. Yes, he had the look of the villager about him. All patched and mismatched clothing, and ever so slightly grubby and dishevelled. Actually, make that very dishevelled. Becker almost unconsciously straightened his immaculate shirt and waistcoat, just to make sure.
“We need help, your lordship sir. There’s been an accident. A coach has disappeared and there’s a weird light and there’s no sign of the horses or the coachman or anyone!”
“You’re not making any sense, boy,” Becker snapped. “How can a coach just disappear? And what light?”
“That’s what I mean! The coach disappeared into the light!”
“Are you drunk, boy?”
Becker frowned and leaned as close as he dared and sniffed. He couldn’t smell any alcohol, but to be fair, he hadn’t actually got very close. Given some of the dirt and stains on the boy’s clothes, he suspected distance was probably wise.
“What? No. Look, are you going to come and help or not? Because if not, I have to get to the village and find someone and that’s ages away and it’s snowing and who knows what might have happened to Lady Emily by the time I get back again.”
“Lady Emily? It was her coach?”
Connor nodded, shedding more snow all over Becker’s otherwise immaculate hallway, and earning a glare from both Matt and Mary (the latter of whom would no doubt have to clean up the mess).
“Why didn’t you say something sooner?” Becker demanded. He turned to Matt. “Fetch my rifle. And get your coat. We’re going to investigate and rescue Lady Emily.”
Matt hurried to obey, and Becker grabbed his long outdoors coat.
“Where did this happen... Connor?” he tried the name out, slightly unsure if he was correct or not. At the point where the boy had introduced himself, Becker had been paying rather more attention to the mess and commotion he was creating.
“Down the lane past the end of your driveway. That’s why I came here first. I saw it happen. Sort of. I’d passed them not long before it happened, that’s how I knew it was them.”
Matt reappeared with the gun, and Becker checked them himself before slinging the rifle strap across his shoulder. He trusted Matt, but he was still a soldier at heart, and when it came to weapons he believed in the philosophy that there was no such thing as ‘too careful’. It was one of the few useful things he had ever learned from his father.
“Can I borrow a gun? Please? It might be dangerous. I could help.”
Connor was staring at him with a fascinated expression.
“No, you most certainly cannot.”
Connor shrugged. “Worth a try.”
Becker resisted the urge to roll his eyes. It really wouldn’t do to let one of these village types see what he thought of them. He was the lord of the manor, and landlord of the village and surrounding country. He had an image to maintain. An image that really did not want to be associated with this boy, Connor Temple, but needs must, and there was a Lady in danger. Possibly.
“Take us there, Connor.”
Connor gave another hopeful look at the guns, and then took off into the darkness of the evening, ploughing a path through the snow that was already shin-deep on the long driveway of Arc Hall.
Becker and Matt followed, the Irishman wrapped up in thick brown leather coat, and carrying a hefty walking stick that he had grabbed on the way out.
“Do you think he’s telling the truth, or is this all some elaborate game?” Becker asked Matt in a low voice.
“I wouldn’t like to say, sir. He’s making very little sense, but from what I know of him he’s a good lad. He wouldn’t waste everybody’s time if there wasn’t something to it.”
Now Becker had had time to think, he thought he remembered the boy. Connor was apprentice to Cutter, the carpenter. Although rumour had it that while Connor was a decent carpenter, he rather fancied himself as some sort of inventor, and spent much of his time building machines and strange things that sometimes worked, often didn’t, and occasionally exploded. Okay, perhaps only one of his creations had ever exploded, but the villagers tended to have long memories when it came to such things.
Arc Hall was surrounded by a high wall, so Becker couldn’t see the road until they reached the gates at the end of the drive. Connor was still ahead of them, and waved impatiently.
Becker struggled out into the lane and turned the way Connor was pointing, and then he stopped dead.
A great, shimmering light filled the road a few hundred yards away, brighter and whiter than any artificial light Becker had ever seen.
Behind him, he heard Matt muttering something that sounded like a prayer.
Connor was already wading through the snow towards the light, and Becker followed him. As he got closer, he could see that the light seemed to hover a little way off the ground, and that it was constantly moving, rotating and shifting slowly, like a thousand shards of glass suspended in the air.
It was utterly impossible. It couldn’t exist, and yet here it was, right before him. If it wasn’t for the presence of Matt and Connor, and the fact that they too were mesmerised by the light, Becker might have imagined he was dreaming, or that he had drunk too much and listened to too many ghost stories.
It was just a light, he tried to tell himself. A strange light, yes, but just a light, nonetheless. And yet, there was something about it that filled his heart with fear. Some unspecified malevolence that men ought not to interfere with.
“Look! Look at the tracks.”
Becker’s attention snapped to Connor, who was standing right in front of the light and pointing at the ground. Becker looked, and after a moment of confusion he realised what Connor meant.
There were the unmistakeable tracks of a carriage and horses, beginning to fill with fresh fallen snow, but made within the last half hour at the longest. They travelled along the road past the Hall along the way they had just come. And they stopped right in front of the light. Connor had said the coach disappeared into the light, but surely that could not be possible?
Becker walked around the light, making sure to keep his distance, and examined the road on the other side. The snow was pristine and undisturbed by feet, hooves, or wheels.
“How can this be?”
“See? I told you. The carriage went into the light.”
Connor was practically bouncing, although Becker wasn’t entirely sure whether that was due to excitement or simply an attempt to keep warm.
Becker was about to question the boy further, to ascertain whether he was sure that it was Lady Emily’s carriage, but he stopped himself. It did not matter whose carriage it was. Some poor soul had vanished, and as lord of the manor it was his responsibility to investigate. And, a tiny part of him had to admit, this was the most interesting thing that had happened to him since he had been summoned home all those months ago.
Becker checked his rifle again and turned to the other two.
“What exactly did you see, Connor?”
“Not much, to be honest. I was way down the road when it happened, and I was walking the other way. I only looked round when I heard the horses panicking. The light must have appeared right in front of them, and I think they were too close to stop and then they just disappeared.”
“Nothing can vanish without trace,” Matt said. “Did the light destroy the carriage?”
“Right now you know everything that I do. There wasn’t a flash of light or an explosion or anything.”
“I’m going in,” Becker decided. Someone needed to do something; otherwise they were just going to stand here all night arguing about it.
“No, sir, you can’t. What if you vanish like the carriage and those poor people?” Matt, apparently had other ideas.
“It’s my responsibility.”
“You’re the lord of the manor. What’s going to happen if you disappear?”
“Hang on,” Connor interrupted before Becker could reply. “Can I borrow your stick, mate?” He held his hand out to Matt, who looked confused for a moment, and then handed over his walking stick.
Connor eyed the light for a moment, and then held the stick out and pushed it slowly into the light. He held it there for a moment, and then pulled it back out. The stick appeared intact, and unchanged.
“That was great,” Connor said with a sudden grin. He looked at Becker. “It also means that the light doesn’t necessarily destroy things. So it might be safe to go into it.”
Might was definitely the operative word in that sentence.
Becker hefted his rifle, took a deep breath, and stepped into the light.
He stepped out onto a lush green hillside in what felt like the midst of summer. Becker stopped and stared, his mouth hanging open. This wasn’t possible. There was no snow, the sun was high in the sky, and as he looked around he could see several more of the sparkling lights scattered across the hillside.
Something shoved him from behind and suddenly Connor was standing next to him.
“Oh! Oh, this is... where are we?”
Connor sounded both awed and curious. If he was even half as confused and, quite frankly, scared, as Becker, he was doing a very good job of hiding it.
“I’ll go get the other bloke,” Connor said when Becker remained silent. He turned and ducked back into the light, and came back a moment later dragging Matt with him.
“Looks like it goes both ways, so at least we know we can get back,” Connor said cheerfully.
Becker was still trying to take in the scene before him, but he knew there was something important that he was missing. It took him several moments to work it out.
“Where is the carriage?”
They all looked about, but there was no sign of the carriage or horses, or Lady Emily. Not until Matt looked down at their feet and saw two parallel lines of flattened grass appear in front of the light and carry on down the slope. The track appeared to jink left and right, and in more than one place at least one wheel seemed to leave the ground, but one thing quickly became obvious – the carriage had been heading downhill at speed and straight towards another of the lights.
“They must have lost control,” Becker said.
“Yeah, that’s obvious,” Connor replied. “The more important question is why haven’t they come back?”
“Let’s go and find out.”
Becker started striding down the slope in what he hoped was a far more confident manner than he felt.
“Hang on!” Connor shouted.
Becker paused and looked back. Connor appeared to be scraping at the ground with the walking stick. He glanced up and grinned.
“X marks the spot. So we know which one will take us home if we get lost in this lot.” Connor gestured at the myriad lights scattered across the landscape.
Becker could have kicked himself. He was supposed to be in charge here, and yet he hadn’t even thought of something so simple and yet so necessary. Perhaps there was more to the boy than he had initially given credit for.
He nodded to Connor.
The three of them hurried down the hill until they came to the next light. There was no doubt from the churned up ground that the horses and carriage had gone through this one as well, and at some considerable speed by the look of it. Becker waited until they were all ready, and then led the way yet again into the unknown.
It was dark on the other side. His feet sank into soft ground, and he could smell smoke. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he realised that somewhere to the left of them there was the orange glow of fires.
“There!” Matt cried out. He was pointing to a dark shape ahead. It took Becker a moment to realise it was the carriage, but it had tipped over onto its side.
They ran down what seemed to be a sand dune and scrambled to a halt by the overturned vehicle. The sand was obviously churned up around it, but there was no sign of either passengers or horses. Matt checked the front of the carriage, and held up the remains of the reins and horse tackle. Becker was no expert, but even he could tell that most of the leather straps had been hastily cut through with a blade.
“Lady Emily!” Becker shouted into the darkness.
For a moment there was silence. Then he heard a shout from the direction of the fires. It wasn’t a woman’s voice, though.
“Uh, Lord Becker?” Connor’s voice was uncharacteristically quiet. And worried. “I think you might have attracted something’s attention. And I don’t think it’s Lady Emily.”
Then Becker heard a low growl.
He turned and aimed his rifle into the darkness, but he couldn’t see the animal. Then he heard another growl. It was down slope, and nowhere near the first. So either whatever it was moved very fast, or...
“I think there’s more than one of them,” Connor whispered.
A dark shape launched itself out of the darkness. Becker fired his rifle on instinct as the animal flew towards him. He caught a momentary flash of fur, a muzzle, big teeth, and then it hit him and he was knocked off his feet and staggered back against the upturned carriage. He heard shouting and a thwack and felt the impact of something hitting the animal. He shoved hard to get it off himself, and suddenly hands were grabbing him and pulling him free. When he looked, Connor was standing over the creature wielding the walking stick in both hands like a club.
“It’s a wolf. Dear god it’s a wolf,” Matt exclaimed.
It was, but it was the biggest, heaviest wolf Becker had ever seen. It lay still, and in the moonlight Becker saw that blood was matting its fur. He silently thanked god that he was good shot.
“Hey!” Another voice sounded in the night. This one was a woman. “If you wish to live you should come to the camp now. Before the wolves get you.”
There was another growl, and it was uncomfortably close. And Becker had a horrible suspicion that the rifle may have been damaged in the impact with the first wolf.
He looked at Connor and Matt.
“You heard her. Run.”
They turned and ran as fast as they could towards the firelight. A howl split the night behind them. Ahead, the fires slowly resolved themselves into the light of several torches mounted on a wooden barricade, or held by the people who were sheltering behind said barricade. Becker pushed himself to move faster, dragging in breaths of dry air. He heard another howl, and saw a shape move to their right. His instincts were telling him to stand and fight, but he had no idea how many wolves there were, and in the darkness he had even less idea where they were. And if they were all the same size as the first one, he knew he stood little chance should they all attack at once.
The camp loomed out of the darkness and suddenly Becker realised they were running straight at a wooden barrier. Where was the entrance? He heard shouting from within, and the woman’s voice again. A large shape darted towards them from the right and Becker swung his rifle round like a club. He impacted the wolf’s muzzle as it snapped at him, and then it fell back again beyond his reach. If they couldn’t get into the shelter of the camp they would be easy targets.
Just as he thought they would crash right into the barrier, a section of barricade swung inwards and they lunged for the opening. People on either side waved burning torches to discourage the animals, and suddenly Becker found himself stumbling to a halt and gasping for breath, surrounded by people speaking in a language he didn’t understand.
He looked around, saw that the gap in the barricade had been closed again, and then registered what hadn’t been immediately obvious. The people of this camp were all dressed in long robes and headscarves, and all appeared to be of eastern complexion. One edge of the camp seemed to be marked by low trees, although the only thing Becker could compare them to were the subtropical trees he had seen on the Mediterranean coast of Spain when he had been on campaign with the army.
Where the hell were they?
Beside him, Connor and Matt appeared as confused as he was.
A young man was speaking to him, but Becker had no idea what he was saying.
“Doesn’t anybody here speak English?” he asked, more from hope than expectation.
“Yes,” came the female voice.
A vaguely familiar woman pushed her way through the group, followed by a smaller girl and a tall blond man who appeared to be limping. They, at least, were all dressed in clothing that Becker recognised from home.
“Lady Emily, I presume?”
“Yes. This is my maidservant Jess, and Ryan, my driver. Did you follow us through the strange light?”
“We came to rescue you. I am Lord Hilary Becker of Arc Hall. This is my manservant Matt, and that is Connor. I don’t suppose you have any idea where we are, do you?”
Emily gave him a particularly scathing look. “If this is a rescue, I fear it’s not a very successful one. Now you’re just as trapped as we are.”
Becker resisted the urge to say that he wouldn’t bother coming after her next time. Now he remembered why he tended to avoid Lady Emily whenever they happened to be attending the same society functions.
“As for where we are,” Emily continued, “It seems to be some sort of oasis in the desert. I believe Karim called it the Shelim Oasis, although I must admit we have fairly limited conversation ability. He speaks a little Latin and Greek, as do I. But that appears to be our only common language.” Emily glanced across his little group, her sharp gaze barely resting on Matt or Connor for more than a moment. “I suppose it would be pointless to ask if any of you speak any form of Arabic?”
Connor shrugged. “Cutter reckons I barely speak proper English half the time.”
A howl outside the camp drew their attention. The wolves didn’t seem to have attempted to follow, presumably the fire was keeping them back, but Becker didn’t fancy waiting around to find out.
“Right. We need to get back through the lights and get home,” Becker said as decisively as he could.
“Do you think we have been waiting here twiddling our collective thumbs?” Emily demanded. Behind her, Jess giggled.
“I didn’t say that!” Becker protested. “But I do notice none of you seem to be armed.” He held up his rifle and raised his eyebrows at Emily. “At least some of us came prepared.”
Emily returned his look with interest. “Yes, the next time we are driving along the road we will all be armed to the teeth just in case of unexpected lights that lead to other times and places. Because that is such a common occurrence in southern England.”
Becker was still struggling to find a suitably sarcastic retort when Connor suddenly interrupted.
“Hang on. Did you just say other times?”
Emily gestured around them at the Arabs.
“I believe even the Arabic lands have progressed beyond swords and bows and arrows in the nineteenth century.”
Becker looked around, and realised what she meant. Those few of the Arabs who were armed were indeed armed with swords and bows. There was not a single gun in sight, save the one that Becker held in his hand.
Before Becker had time to fully contemplate the meaning of that, someone cleared their throat, and Becker realised Ryan was looking at him.
“I don’t wish to speak out of turn, Lord Becker, but I think you might find that gun isn’t much use any more.”
Becker glanced down and realised what the man meant. The barrel of the rifle was bent, only a little, but enough to prevent it from firing.
Becker swore quietly. He had used it as a melee weapon in the rush of the chase, and now it was useless. It was an elementary mistake, and one that a trained soldier should not have made. He was becoming complacent now that he was out of the army and in charge of the manor.
“Fine. Well, that doesn’t change the fact that we still need to get home. And we really ought to do something about those wolves rather than abandon these fellows to deal with them alone. So, I’m open to suggestions.”
When no answer was immediately forthcoming, Becker looked around the camp again, this time paying more attention. Most of the barricades consisted of hastily thrown together fences, and upturned carts. There were several horses gathered in the centre of the camp, along with a large lumpy pile of... something... that was hidden under a sheet or tarpaulin. Now he looked, there were about eight Arabs, and only five of them were armed with real weapons (although a further two of them had picked up sticks or torches and were using them to guard the perimeter). The remaining one was glaring suspiciously at them, and loitering by the pile of stuff.
“So, who are these people?” he asked Emily.
“Traders. Al Aric is in charge,” she indicated the man who was loitering by the pile of stuff and glaring. “Most of the rest are his assistants or hired mercenary guards, from what I have been able to understand. They stopped to camp at the oasis overnight, and then the light appeared, and shortly afterwards the wolves started to attack them. And then we arrived as well.”
“They’re really not having a good day,” Jess commented.
“Neither are we,” Ryan muttered.
“We could just wait until dawn,” Matt suggested. “The wolves probably won’t attack in the light.”
“Dawn is hours away,” Emily said.
“And what if those lights disappear the same way they appeared?” Connor threw in casually.
It only took a second for the implications of that to sink in with everyone.
“Right, we definitely need to get home, sooner rather than later,” Becker repeated.
“Fire keeps them away,” Connor said. “So a really big fire might make them run away completely.”
“And what exactly are you planning to burn?” Emily asked.
Connor was quiet for a moment then he grinned. “Well, there’s a wrecked carriage out there that we aren’t using for anything else.”
“That’s my favourite carriage!” Jess exclaimed.
“No, it used to be your favourite carriage. Now it’s very nicely painted firewood.”
That earned Becker a glare, which he studiously ignored, no matter how cute Jess looked when she was pouting.
“It’s also a long way off, and there are wolves between us and it.” That was Emily again.
Connor looked around.
“Can’t we fire a flaming arrow at it?” His eyes suddenly opened wider. “Oh! Becker! Do you have any ammunition left? The gun might not work, but we can still use the gunpowder to cause a pretty decent explosion. I don’t know of any animal that won’t run away from an explosion.”
Becker nodded, not even caring enough to correct the boy’s informal manner of address.
“Even if we can cause enough of a distraction to get away, that still leaves these traders facing the wolves alone,” Ryan pointed out. “They’ve sheltered us here since we crashed. I won’t just abandon them.”
Becker nodded. “I agree. What we really need is to persuade the wolves to retreat through the light thing. Go away completely.”
“Karim seems to think they came from the light in the first place,” Emily said.
“So we need to make it so unpleasant for them to stay here that they go back to wherever they came from and stay away.”
“Or whenever they came from,” Connor said. Despite the situation, his eyes had lit up with enthusiasm. “If these things really do go back in time. How amazing is that?”
Connor was momentarily startled, and shot Becker a look that bore a remarkable resemblance to the big brown eyes of Becker’s spaniels when they knew they were in trouble. Becker sighed.
“I’m sure it’s fascinating, and we can discuss the meaning of it all when we get home. But not before.”
Connor grinned again, and Becker could have sworn that his heart skipped a beat.
He shook his head and came back to the matter at hand. Because that was not happening right here and right now. Or, for that matter, anywhere at all. Connor was a scruffy villager, and absolutely not the kind of person Becker ought to be associating with.
Becker cast his gaze around the camp again for anything they could use.
“What is that?” He indicated the pile under the tarpaulin.
Emily turned to a young Arab and began speaking in what Becker suspected was Latin, although he had to admit that was one of his lessons in which he had paid very little attention.
“It’s their trade goods,” Emily replied a few moments later. “Although I don’t understand the word he’s using.”
There was suddenly a shout from the middle of the camp. Becker swung round to see Al Aric shoving Connor so hard he sprawled on the ground.
“Hey!” Becker yelled, moving to intervene.
Al Aric shouted at him in his own language, gesturing at Connor and waving his hand round.
“I was just seeing what it was, in case it might be useful,” Connor protested.
“Etiquette suggests you should at least have asked first,” Emily pointed out.
“Not in a life or death situation,” Becker said, glaring at Al Aric.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter anyway, it’s just spices,” Jess said.
Becker looked up and saw that she had taken advantage of the distraction to flip aside the corner of the sheeting to reveal hessian bags underneath.
“Fine,” Becker sighed, biting back the disappointment. Why couldn’t they have met people who were trading weapons?
“What sort of spices?” Connor asked. He ignored the near apoplexy of the trader and crawled over to where Jess was.
“Look, Connor, leave it alone, stop antagonising the man,” Becker said.
Connor sneezed. He glanced up guiltily, holding a pouch open. Then he grinned.
“Becker, I’ve got an idea.”
“Are we all ready?”
Becker looked round at the group. They all nodded. The Arabs hefted their bows or swords. Al Aric, the chief trader, still looked like he wanted to kill the lot of them, but it seemed his mercenary guards had opted to go with the plan that involved them surviving rather than the suggestion that they should protect the cargo at all costs, so he was left fuming quietly over what was left of his trade goods.
Becker had borrowed a sword, as had Ryan (who, it turned out, also had a background in the army), Emily had acquired a bow, and both Matt and Jess were armed with hefty sticks. Only Connor was without a weapon, but he had something else entirely to bring to battle.
They had already attempted to fire flaming arrows at the carriage, but it had failed to catch alight, and so they had aborted to plan B (after a great deal of arguing and Emily telling Becker he was completely insane and Becker silently suspecting she might be right, even while he argued).
Outside the camp, the wolves were still prowling, occasionally coming close, but always backing off before anyone could get a sword or an arrow near them.
Becker gave one last look over them all, making sure he looked each one of them in the eye. He thought perhaps he ought to make a speech, something rousing and morale boosting, but all he could think of was scattered bits of the St Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare, and even that he suspected he might get wrong, and then Emily would no doubt feel the need to correct him, and it would really rather defeat the entire object of the exercise.
“Good luck,” was all he said in the end.
Becker mounted one of the horses which had previously been puling Emily’s carriage. It wasn’t ideal, it had no saddle to start with, and it was a draught horse, not a riding horse. But still, needs must. He adjusted the sword strap across his shoulder and checked the sword was secure at his side, and took the burning torch that Ryan passed to him once he was settled on the horse. Then Ryan helped Connor to get on the horse behind Becker. The boy wrapped his arms around Becker’s chest and clung on as if his life depended on it. Becker did everything he could to ignore the thought that Connor’s arms fitted around him rather snugly, and how strangely comfortable it felt.
Because, again, that was not going to happen. And anyway, he had more important things to be concentrating on right then.
“You all right, Connor?”
He sounded less than convinced, but there wasn’t time to change their minds now.
Becker took a deep breath and nodded to the mercenaries on the gate. The barricade swung open, and Becker charged.
As soon as he was clear of the camp and into the darkness beyond it, the wolves were on him. Becker ignored them, spurring his horse faster across the ground, cursing the sand that shifted underfoot and slowed them down. Fire arrows began to come down around him, chasing the wolves back to give him a clear path. Under the covering fire he raced towards the carriage until the dark shape loomed out of the night right in front of him.
He leapt down from the horse, and held a hand out for Connor. Connor ignored the hand and fell off the horse with a surprised yell, and quickly picked himself back up again.
Connor passed him a flask of oil from a bag slung across his shoulder, and Becker poured it liberally across the broken remains of the carriage. Next Connor handed over a handful of rags and he soaked them with what was left. Becker thrust the burning torch into the wreckage and waited for the flames to catch.
He swung round and drew his sword. A wolf launched itself out of the night and Becker threw himself to the ground at the last second. He rolled and scrambled to his knees ready to face it. Connor flung a small pouch at the wolf, hitting it squarely in the muzzle. The bag burst open in a cloud of powder, and the wolf yelped, shook its head, and then sneezed. An arrow streaked out of the night and impaled the wolf in its side. It yelped again and backed off amidst a flurry of missile fire.
“Cool! It works!”
Becker resisted the urge to investigate the possibility that Connor hadn’t been confident in his spice bomb idea before trying it out in combat. They didn’t have time for the inevitable argument.
He turned back to the carriage, now well alight. He needed to wait a little longer, though, to put the next stage into effect.
That was when everything went to hell.
A wolf launched itself at them. It barrelled into Becker, throwing him off his feet and almost into the burning carriage. He swung wildly with his sword, shoving with the other hand as he felt the hot breath of the creature in his face.
“Becker!” Connor looked like he was going in his bag for another spice bomb.
“No Connor! You’ll get me too!”
He rammed his knee up into the animal’s underside and it scrambled backwards for a moment. Becker swung his sword again, groping with his free hand for the burning torch he had dropped moments earlier. Connor hurled another spice bomb at the wolf but this time it missed, whizzing past its nose, and worse, attracting its attention. The wolf turned to face Connor, and suddenly a hail of arrows flew out from the camp and peppered the ground around the wolf. Connor hurled a second spice bomb and this time he did not miss, and the wolf again retreated, coughing and sneezing and shaking its head in confusion.
Becker pulled the little pouch from his own bag and eyed the fire again. Was it enough?
“Not yet, Becker,” Connor warned.
“We can’t wait much longer. The wolves aren’t being scared off by this fire.”
“Just another minute. Let the fire get stronger first.”
“Connor, there isn’t time!”
Two wolves attacked simultaneously. Becker fought hard, slashing with his word and yelling curses at the creatures.
Suddenly he heard Connor yelling as well.
“Hey! Hey! Over here! Look at me! I’m causing a distraction! I’m giving Becker time to make a really big fire!”
Incredibly, the two wolves were distracted, and Becker shoved his sword into one’s chest. It slumped as the other wolf launched itself at Connor. Connor turned and ran down the slope of the dune, shouting and waving his arms and making himself into the biggest damn target on the battlefield.
“Connor!” Becker yelled after him.
“Distraction!” Connor yelled back.
Becker looked back at the fire. It still wasn’t big enough. Was it?
He heard snarling, a sharp cry, and then a howl.
Stuff the plan. He needed to save Connor.
Becker grabbed the horse and swung himself onto it, and spurred it down the slope towards the sound of shouting and growling. Arrows flew around him. Somewhere a wolf yelped.
“Light! I need light here!” he yelled at the camp. He was riding into darkness. He couldn’t see where Connor was, and if he couldn’t find him he couldn’t rescue him.
A fire arrow streaked through the night and plunged down ahead and to his left. For a brief moment he saw Connor, his face smeared with blood, surrounded by wolves.
Becker yelled a war cry and charged through the pack, scattering wolves in his wake. He swung around Connor and slashed down with his sword, screaming at the wolves to back off. Connor threw a handful of spice bombs at the nearest remaining wolves. Becker reached down and grabbed Connor’s arm and hauled him up onto the horse, Connor flailing and waving his legs until he managed to wrap his arms around Becker again. More arrows rained down around them, and Becker spurred the horse back up the dune towards the burning carriage. Beyond it, the strange glittering light still lit up the desert, inviting them onwards to danger and adventure.
“Becker! Do it now!”
Becker nodded. They raced towards the carriage, and Becker pulled one last little pouch from his bag, hanging onto the horse with his other hand. As they passed by he threw the pouch as hard as he could into the flames, then spurred the horse on even faster.
Behind them the gunpowder exploded. Wolves howled and yelped and Becker risked a glance back to see them scattering. A cheer sounded from the camp, and another volley of arrows persuaded the panicking wolves to turn away from the camp and run in the opposite direction. Another two horses broke out of the camp, one carrying Emily and Jess, and behind them Matt and Ryan on a horse borrowed from the Arabs. Emily was still firing her bow from horseback as Jess controlled the animal, and Becker had to admit he was impressed.
Hemmed in by the burning carriage on one side, and the camp on the other side, and now riders driving them upslope, the wolves had nowhere to go but towards the light. Becker swung wide to try to prevent them escaping another way, and he saw Matt and Ryan doing the same on the other side, while Emily kept firing at them from behind. The wolves ran through the light, each one vanishing as it leapt into the glittering shards. Becker was the first one through after them, and he swung the horse around in time to see a grey tail fleeing through another one of the lights in the green meadow.
“Woohoo!” Connor cheered, one of his arms tightening a fraction around Becker’s waist. The other arm, Becker suddenly noticed, was now hanging limp.
“Connor? Are you hurt?”
“Um, maybe? A bit. Ow!”
Becker twisted to look, and saw that the sleeve on Connor’s left arm was ripped open, and blood was dripping freely down his wrist and off his hand.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” he demanded.
“Bit busy trying not to get killed.”
Behind them, the other two horses followed them and they all gathered, blinking in the sudden sunlight after the darkness of the desert night.
“I’d say that was mission accomplished,” Becker said.
Much as he wanted to ride hard to get home and have his doctor look at Connor’s arm, there was one more thing they needed to do first.
Matt and Ryan jumped down off their horse, and Matt led it back through the light, reappearing a moment later without it.
“It’s a shame, it was a damn good horse,” Matt commented.
“And they saved our lives, the least we could do was give it them back.”
“So, which one do we need to get home?” Ryan asked, staring around at all the strange lights scattered across the landscape.
“Connor marked it so we would know it again,” Becker said. “I think it’s that one up there, though.”
He pointed upslope, following the tracks left by the carriage on its initial journey through.
Jess frowned. “Is it just me, or does it look fainter than the last time?”
They all looked at each other. Then, as one, they raced up the hill, Matt and Ryan running to try to keep up with the horses. Becker let Jess and Emily go through first, and then shoved Connor.
“Get off! I’ll go back for Ryan, he’s injured.”
Connor slid off the horse, landing in a crumpled heap as his legs buckled when he hit the ground. Becker swung his horse back round and charged down to his remaining comrades and urged Ryan onto the back of the horse.
Matt continued to run, as Becker hauled Ryan up and they followed, racing towards where Connor was waiting beside the fluctuating light, waving and shouting encouragement.
“Go! Go!” Becker yelled.
At the last moment before they were upon him, Connor flung himself through the light, and Matt staggered after him and only then did Becker urge his horse through as well.
The freezing winter air was like a slap in the face and the horse reared up, protesting at the exertion and the sudden change. Becker and Ryan both fell off and landed in the snow, and Becker turned in time to see the light abruptly wink out of existence, plunging them into darkness as if it had never been there.
“So, not too shabby a rescue after all?” Becker commented. He sat back in his favourite armchair and sipped at a glass of wine, letting the warmth of the fire seep back into him even after being home for an hour already.
Emily and the others were all likewise gathered in his sitting room around the fire, wearing borrowed clothes where appropriate and wrapped in thick blankets where not.
“I admit it wasn’t a complete shambles,” Emily allowed. She took a sip of wine, and then shot Becker a sly smirk.
“How very gracious of you,” Becker smiled back.
“Oh, come on, it was brilliant!” Connor grinned.
Becker rolled his eyes, and Emily and Jess, who was curled up at Emily’s side, did likewise. Trust Connor to completely miss the subtleties of society conversation.
Connor. Becker kept finding his gaze drawn back to the young man who was currently sitting cross legged in front of the fire, wrapped in at least three blankets while his clothes dried off. Without Connor, Emily and her entourage would have remained trapped in the desert, perhaps forever. And Becker had to admit that while he himself had been the instigator and the commanding officer of the final escape, most of the ideas (particularly anything involving explosions and bombs) had come from Connor.
The boy was wasted as a simple carpenter, that much was clear. Becker began to wonder if Connor might be interested in a position at the hall, although he had no idea what job he could offer the boy. Inventor in residence?
As for himself, he had to admit that even with the danger and strangeness of it all, the events of the evening had been the most fun he had experienced in a long time, ever since he had left his position as an army officer and been forced to return to the hall and take control of the manor on his father’s death. He was a soldier, he belonged out there, fighting and protecting people, not stuck here concerning himself with rent and building repairs and society balls.
“Why are you staring at me?” Connor asked, a confused smile on his face.
Becker realised he had indeed been staring for some time, and took another mouthful of wine.
“Just thinking you are wasted as a carpenter’s apprentice.”
Connor’s brow furrowed in confusion.
Jess suddenly stifled a small giggle, and Emily squeezed her shoulder. Jess pouted, and then shot Emily an entirely too mischievous grin.
Suddenly Becker thought he understood why Emily had insisted they only needed one room.
“I think perhaps we should retire for the evening,” Emily announced, which rather confirmed it as far as Becker was concerned.
All the men began to stand, but Emily waved them back down.
“Oh, please. We have all just stood shoulder to shoulder in combat against monsters. I think we can overlook ceremony for one night, at least.”
“I’ll remind you of that the next time you are casting disparaging remarks on my ability to host a dinner party,” Becker said, deadpan.
Emily struggled to hide a smile.
“Well, I did say for one night only.”
The two ladies departed to the room that Becker had offered them for the night, and shortly afterwards Matt and Ryan also made their excuses and retired.
Becker sighed and sank back into his armchair. He felt... comfortable. Happy, even, for the first time since he had inherited his title.
“You did well tonight, Connor,” Becker said, trying to sound casual.
Connor gave him a cheeky grin.
“You weren’t so bad yourself.” He paused for a beat. “You know, for a posh dandy.”
“Oi!” Becker reached forward and swiped at Connor’s head, mussing his hair. Connor tried to dodge, and then attempted to flatten his hair, without success. Without thinking about it, Becker patted it down for him, and then tugged Connor to lean back against his armchair.
“Matters of etiquette aside, we might never have got out of there if it wasn’t for you, Connor.”
“Well, you saved my life, so I think we both did pretty well.” He twisted round and looked up at Becker with a strangely sincere expression. “Thank you for that, by the way.”
“Well, someone had to be sensible after you ran off like that. ‘Look at me, I’m causing a distraction’? Really?”
Connor giggled, a light and entirely unself-conscious sound.
“It worked, didn’t it?”
Becker ignored that, and instead looked down to Connor’s injured arm. He reached out and took Connor’s wrist so he could look closer, but there was nothing to see except the bandage and the edges of a darkening bruise where the bandage stopped. Becker knew he was on dangerous ground, that he shouldn’t care so much about a simple injury to a villager he hadn’t even known before he sat down to dinner that day.
But the truth was he did care, and no amount of arguments about social standing and inappropriateness were going to change that.
“How does that feel now?”
“Still hurts a bit. Might even get me out of work for a few days, but probably not, because it’s my left arm.” Connor gave a self-deprecating grin, and shrugged.
Becker pushed away the image of Connor surrounded by wolves, and wondered what might have happened if he had been a few moments later getting to him. It wasn’t a thought he liked in the slightest.
Connor gave him a curious look, and Becker realised he was still holding Connor’s wrist. He let go, suddenly self-conscious. Connor just gave him a lop-sided smile, and then, instead of retreating, or even moving to one of the now vacant chairs, he stayed where he was sitting on the floor, and simply settled back against Becker’s leg. Becker hesitantly reached out and let his hand rest on Connor’s shoulder. Connor sighed and leaned into his touch, and made himself comfortable.
Sod etiquette and society.