The Eighth Story in the Time Travel Adventures of Ross Murdock
All four men on the team from the future reflexively reached for weapons as the quartet of raging Axmen charged. Suddenly Ai pushed past Assa and Rossa, held forth the rune covered amulet she wore around her neck, and then loudly cried out in a language the rest of her party could barely understand.
Three of the Axmen abruptly stopped and cringed as if confronted by their worst horror-filled nightmare. The leader of their band stopped too and half-bowed but as he looked up to peer at the woman opposite him, rage and hate still filled his eyes.
“Daughter of Gaea. Think not the Axmen of the North are so easily swayed by your powers. We flee something much worse.”
Assa could follow most of the conversation, but Rossa, Borr, and Hunn caught only a few words from each sentence.
“Why did the Axmen attack the peaceful Beakermen Traders?”
“How know we that you are not in league with our enemy or are even the very ghosts from whom we wish to escape?”
“What of these ghosts, Axman?”
The leader’s three companions slowly regained their composure and stood, but well behind the chief, half ready to follow him into battle and half ready to run away. The rest of their party had retreated over the rise, though Borr saw a two men, one on each side of the trail, scrutinizing the scene from behind trees.
“If you swear by Gaea that you are not foes, either as men or spirits, then we will sit together by a fire, eat, drink, and speak of terrible things.”
Ai turned to Assa and whispered in his ear for several seconds. Then Assa nodded ‘yes’ and Ai continued to talk to him. Finally Assa stepped forward and held his empty right hand outward. “Assa of the Traders swears that we are peaceful and that we are men. What say you to a truce and breaking bread, Axman?”
“Ord of the Axmen swears a truce as well, trader. Let us eat in friendship and we will share tales.”
The path traveled by the Axmen and Traders was not far from a cove and it was there that Ord led both Assa’s people and his own. The clan leader grunted a command and several women immediately went about setting up camp. Fires were lit, and by the time two Axmen hunters returned with a freshly killed deer, the women were ready to prepare and cook it.
With he and his band sitting around a fire in the camp’s center along with Ord and his three headmen, Assa fumbled with a pack and brought out the “beaker” which was the identifying mark of his clan. He measured into it a portion of the sour, stimulating drink which the traders introduced wherever they went. The cup passed from hand to hand, its taste initially unpleasant on the tongue, but comfortingly warm once in one’s middle.
Normally, a woman wouldn’t be part of this discussion, but Ai was the only one of the traders fluent in the Axmen’s tongue. The other time travelers could make out some of the conversation, but it would be up to the daughter of the Earth Mother Gaea to translate. Even Assa needed Ai to help him understand much of what was said.
“Last moon, our hunting party followed a bison track many leagues to the north, near the five villages of the clans. Our prey turned northwest toward the forbidden lands. I, Ord, did not believe the tales so I led my hunters after the bison.”
As Ord told the story, his three men looked anxious. One even looked behind him and then beyond the edge of the camp as if trying to see any “ghosts” who may have been listening.
Ord paused to let Ai translate what he said to Assa and the rest.
“Then a strange mist arose and surrounded us. There were the shouting of men, if they were men, but I could not understand the speech. Shadows appeared in the mist, like men but not men. They shot tongues of fire. Four of my hunters fell. Two more were burned but but stood, and we got them out of the mists. One died on the way back to the villages. The other three days later.”
Rossa looked at Borr and Hunn. They nodded at each other figuring that the Soviets set up some sort of smoke generator to conceal themselves, then used flame throwers to kill some of the hunters and frighten off the rest.
“The clans in the five villages say we are cursed. They will no longer share the hunt with us. We are cast out so we go south, away from the ghost lands.”
Assa and Ai whispered back and forth for a few seconds, and then, guided by his “wife,” Assa spoke. “Will the villagers trade with us?”
“Axmen are wary of strangers but some have heard of the tradermen. You would be welcome but stay away from the ghost lands. Hunters enter and do not return or as with my men, return cursed, burned and scarred by ghosts and demons.”
Ai and Assa exchanged another round of whispers and then Assa said, “We Beakermen do not believe you are cursed and we grieve at the loss of brave hunters.”
“My clan and I welcome your words, Assa the Trader.”
“Come,” Assa continued. “Let us share more of our drink in friendship.”
“Agreed. I see our meal has come. Taka and Shin, my wives bring our food.”
Generous amounts of fire roasted venison were brought on polished wooden platters. Ord used his stone knife to slice chunks of meat away. Assa as the clan leader was served first. Rossa noticed that Ai bristled slightly at having to retreat behind the men, but even a daughter of the Earth Mother Gaea must respect the privilege of hunters and warriors.
The sun was setting by the time festivities were drawing to a close, so the Beakermen and the Axmen clans camped together for the night. Ai may not have liked it, but she played the role of a Bronze Age Beaker well, helping the women of Ord’s clan including his two wives and three daughters secure the remaining game and tend to the camp. Besides the physical and psychological dangers to 21st century women visiting the distant past was the indignity of having to surrender their modern rights for the sake of the mission.
Axmen and Beakermen took their turns at guard duty. Like their counterparts in ancient Britain, the Norsemen did not like being out in the open at night where they were vulnerable to spirits as well as nocturnal predators. It did give them some peace that Ai, the Daughter of Gaea cast spells and placed protective runes around the camp’s parameter.
“Fucking barbarians,” Ai angrily whispered into Assa’s ear as they lay together in their tent under their coverings.
“I thought you were a historian, Ai. You didn’t expect having to play the role of a traditional woman in the Bronze Age?” Assa knew he was taking a bit of a risk taunting Ai, but the two had been friends a long time and he enjoyed the opportunity to tease her a bit.
“There’s a difference between understanding the role and living it, Assa, and you’d better watch your mouth or you’ll be sleeping outside.”
Assa chuckled. “Welcome to time travel, Ai. Good night.”
“Good night, Assa you sexist pig.” Ai wasn’t as angry at Assa as she sounded. As much as it galled her, she knew he was right. She wasn’t studying history or teaching it. She had become a living part of the past, which for her and the team, was now their very real present. She was suddenly sobered by the idea that they might fail in their mission and die here.
Just after dawn, the camp came awake. Rossa had pulled the final shift at guard duty so he noticed when Ord and another of the Axmen left the camp heading for the cove. He followed them at a discrete distance until they’d reached some unusual rocks next to the waves crashing to shore.
“Come closer, friend Rossa.” Ord called to the Beakerman in a loud voice to be heard above the sea and the birds. He should have guessed there’d be no way to follow these people unseen.
Rossa walked over to the clan leader.
“This is the manner of our people. We will speak to the other clans who pass this way. A warning about the ghost lands and the tale of our friendship with the Beakermen.”
Rossa watched as the other Axman pulled a container out of his pouch and then a rough brush. More quickly and precisely than the time trader would have thought possible, this Bronze Age artist created several new pictographs on the rock next to numerous others. This was the Rock Art Ai had spoken of. What did she call it? A Bronze Age version of Facebook?
Rossa wondered how the art would have changed if Ord knew that the traders were actually travelers from 4,000 years in the future. He knew that in an hour, Ord and his clan would continue their trek south, while the Beakers would continue north toward the five villages to set up their trading post. The former thief found himself already missing this rough but friendly Axman.
Ulffa, chief of the five villages, welcomed the traders. It seemed that Beakermen had already attempted to set up an outpost here nearly a year ago, but were wiped out by a band of unknown raiders. The raiders only destroyed the Beaker trading post and did not molest any of the nearby villages. Ulffa supposed it was because the places of the Axmen were better protected, but he could not fathom why the peaceful traders had been attacked.
This was good news to Assa, as he did not relish being thought of as cursed because his supposed clansmen had been murdered, although they thought it odd that the raiders hadn’t also looted the trading post. From the ruins, Ulffa’s men had taken a bronze razor, two skinning knives, some fishhooks, and a length of cloth which Ulffa’s wife Frigga appropriated.
The four male Beakers were busy constructing the outpost while Ai established herself with Frigga and the leading women of the five villages. Frigga as the chief’s wife was pleased to associate with the wife of the lead trader and she who was also a priestess. However, her ambition was not to trade for goods but to learn the secret of weaving such cloth as the Beakers offered in barter. Eyeing the bronze razor worn on her husband’s belt and the blade on Assa’s, she desired that the men also learn how to make this wondrous metal.
Upon their arrival, Assa had sent a message south with a band of hunters traveling to what one day would be Stockholm. The message, which would eventually be carried by ship to Beakermen in Germany, would invite additional traders to participate in the newly constructed outpost of Assa the Trader. It solidified their cover if Assa’s group could attract authentic Beakermen to be part of the trading post, but it would be months before it was delivered and a suitable party of traders could travel to this remote location.
After the evening meal, Borr and Hunn set out by cover of night to recon the edge of the ghost land. The Axmen did not venture out by night, not only because of their general fear of spirits, but because it was said those in the ghost land ventured forth toward the villages in the darkness. No one wanted the ghosts to breathe their fire upon them.
“We’ll be back before dawn, Assa,” said Borr.
Rossa was surprised to see the pair produce two 9A-91 assault rifles, slap magazines in each, and then conceal them under their heavy cloaks.
“I thought no modern weapons in the past, Assa.”
“This isn’t a normal mission, Rossa. If we’re expected to at least potentially destroy a Soviet base, we’ll need all the edge we can get.”
Rossa looked at Ai, who seemed to have a casual attitude about this revelation. “Yes, I know about it, Rossa. Assa is the operational leader, but I supervise the overall mission. Kelgarries and I gave the override order to allow munitions to be brought back.”
During the conversation, the two scouts left out the back, which faced away from the nearest village.
“They aren’t our backups, are they?”
“No, Rossa. They’re both specially trained Army Rangers. They replaced the backup team for this mission for what should by now be obvious reasons.”
“Dammit, Ai. Why was I kept in the dark?”
It was Assa to responded. “We needed you focused on your role, not worrying about what we’d have to do to accomplish the overall mission. Borr and Hunn are the military experts on our team. It’s their responsibility to determine if we can reasonably sabotage the Soviet base. We’re here to back them up and convince the locals that we are authentic Beaker traders.”
“So if Borr and Hunn can find a way in, they’ll be the ones to blow the base. Just two men.”
“You’d be surprised what just two men can accomplish if they’re the right two men, Rossa.”
“I hope you’re right, Assa. Otherwise, they’re marching off to their deaths.”
Fortunately, there was enough of their trading post constructed so that it provided adequate shelter from the cold. The three huddled close to the fire pit. Even though they were alone, Assa and Ai continued to sleep together under the same coverings as if married. Rossa tried to sleep nearby but restless. Finally, he got up and walked outside looking in the direction of the ghost land. It was still hours before sunrise. Anything could be happening out there. Cold finally drove Rossa back inside to the fire.
He woke up with a start, surprised that he’d managed to get any sleep.
“Wake up, Rossa.” Assa had grasped his shoulder. “It’s an hour after sunrise and both Borr and Hunn are missing.”
Assa explained to Ulffa that their two companions had left right at first light to travel southwest, to villages of other Axmen clans at least four days away on foot. They were to entice those clans to visit the trading post and to tell more distant villages that the Beakermen sought to exchange goods for furs.
Fortunately, Ulffa bought the story, or at least seemed to. It was a week later and a few Axmen had agreed to help finish building the outpost in exchange for Beakermen mead, which had become popular with some of the men.
It was now ten days after Borr’s and Hunn’s disappearance. If they didn’t return soon, it would be thought that raiders encountered them on the trail, robbed, and killed the two men. Rossa figured some variant of that had actually happened to the soldiers.
Assa and Rossa were accompanying Ulffa and a hunting party. They were tracking a small group of deer due north, but then the animals turned to the northwest.
“Steady, hunters,” Ulffa encouraged. “We are not yet too close to the border of the forbidden land.”
This was a fortunate occurrence. Assa had radioed the Thetis and advised them that he believed they had no other choice but to go into the taboo zone after the missing agents. This would leave Ai alone at the outpost and if Assa and Rossa didn’t return with the hunting party, she would seek the protection of Uffla’s village until she could be extracted. At that point, the option of the temporal agents stopping the Soviets would be abandoned, and a more radical military solution would be employed.
It was just past noon but clouds were moving in making it seem almost like twilight. The temperature dropped and it took the hunters several minutes to realize that this was no ordinary fog bank that had formed in front of them.
“The track has turned north again,” Ulffa declared. “This way.”
They were walking parallel to the fog but it seemed to be coming closer. Several of the men began to talk nervously among themselves. Ulffa called back, “We are not close enough to the ghost land to see their mist or to fear their fire, men.”
“But what if the ghosts come hunting us, Ulffa?” Ston was strong and brave like all Axmen, but his heart had melted at the thought of being incinerated by unnatural spirits.
Before the chief could respond, the party saw strange shapes in the fog, man-like shapes. “Retreat, men.” Ulffa led the hunters away at a run hoping to outdistance the ghosts.
Assa and Rossa both experienced a moment of indecision. They needed to find out more about these “ghosts” but the time travelers were outnumbered. Then flames shot to the right and left of them. “Time to leave, Rossa.” Assa turned and followed the still retreating Axmen. Rossa turned as well and started to run, but then heard the sound of racing footfalls behind him, along with rapid breathing. Do ghosts breathe? No, but Rossa had no doubt that Soviet soldiers did.
It was his last thought as he heard the sound of a single gunshot.
The previous stories in this series are:
This series was inspired by an original piece of flash fiction that led me to consider refactoring Andre Norton’s (Alice Mary Norton’s) 1958 science fiction novel The Time Traders.
The next chapter in this story is Gateway.