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The Realm of the Knight - A story of Camalot in the 20th Century
The Realm of the Knight
Stories From The Kingdom of Camelot in the Twentieth Century
Lord Avilon, Sir Hal to his friends, sat by the blazing log fire and gazed thoughtfully into his flagon of mead wine. The flames flickered causing a multitude of coloured images to be reflected in the cut glass and the amber liquid within. Most of the images came from the emblem cut into the glass, the Shield of Avilon, five golden falcons guarding the Royal Crest of Camelot. The Crest was bestowed upon Sir Hal’s family generations ago by King Arthur himself for a reward for the loyalty Hal’s ancestor had shown the great monarch during the `Time of Making’. In addition to the right to include the Royal Crest on his coat of arms, a great honour on its own, for it placed the family of Avilon amongst the top ten members of the Royal Court of Camelot - the gift also included a vast estate of land and privileges. Greatest of all these privileges was the right to sit at the Round Table when the Knights of the Realm gathered together. The Shield of Avilon also permitted the holder to bare arms in the presence of the King. In many ways this was an even greater honour, for it proved the Lord was a true and trusted member of the Court. Being a member of the Round Table also brought other responsibilities. Such as acting as a protector of the common people. For Sir Hal this was doubly so, for he also had the honour of being dubbed `First Champion of the Court of Camelot’. It was a responsibility that Sir Hal took literally.
Sir Hal glanced across at the clock on the wall. It was nearly . In a little under eight hour’s time he would be on his way to the Castle, and the Round Table. The clock struck ten. Walter, his steward came into the study.
"Amm." he coughed, politely. "Sir Hal? There is a young lady at the door. She wishes to present a petition. I tried to explain to her that it was very late and that she should come back tomorrow, but she said it was a matter of life or death."
"A matter of life or death?" Sir Hal laughed, shortly. "Isn't that a little dramatic for today? Who is she? What's her name?"
"She gave me her card." said Walter, handing it over on a silver tray. He smiled. "She is quite pretty, in a rough sort of a way. And young. I would judge about twenty years old."
Sir Hal's eyebrows raised an inch. The card introduced the owner as, Gwenith Ulthran, a maiden of the Royal Parish of Goldwin’s Cross, South London. "Is she a celt?" he asked.
Walter shook his head. "No. Saxon, I would imagine. She has fair hair anyway." He waited for his master to decide weather to see the female visitor.
"Send her in." the Lord said at last. "She probably just wants to get a loved one out of jail. But stay yourself, Walter. She could easily also be an FNA assassin."
The FNA were a Normandy terrorist group. A membership of predominantly of young French or Norman nobles, they claimed to be fighting for a free Normandy, but mostly they robbed banks and killed the occasional provincial official. Unfortunately these acts mostly effected the citizens on whose behalf they claimed to be fighting, and so they did not enjoy a lot of support. Rumour had it that the group was backed by a faction within the government of the HolyRomanRepublic. This was quite likely as the Romans had long held a grudge against the Kingdom of Camelot for the loss, two hundred and fifty years ago of their channel ports and subsequently much of their northern trade. The loss of trade was no longer an issue of course. The HolyRomanRepublic was now one of the wealthiest in the world. But it was the Romans injured pride that was the problem. They felt humiliated by losing their possessions to a country which they considered was a heathen land, full of wizards and foolish superstitions. Two wars and years of economic conflict had not resolved the dispute. Only mediation from the Emperor of the Aztecs in the latter years of the nineteenth century had succeeded in quelling the Romans anger by appealing to the avarice side of their nature. An agreement was made that allowed the Romans to use the Normandy ports free of charge. In return Camelot was permitted trade access to the provinces ofTexas and Mexico. As it transpired this suited the Aztecs well. Their Empire needed the technical expertise of the British and the protection of its powerful navy to help them in their struggle against the northern tribes of the Mississippi.
But all this was in the past. The Aztec’s along with the peoples of HolyRomanRepublic, France and of the Mississippi Nations now all enjoyed a free and friendly bond. Together with Camelot they had forged a strong and powerful Union of Nations, within which the countries of the world could settle disputes peacefully. Even the warlike Mongolian Empire of China and Japan held a seat on the Union’s Consulting Council. In fact most country-states of the civilised world held either full of associate membership. Only the eastern African republics of Zulu and Nubia maintained a pretence of being independent of world involvement and refrained from attending the monthly meetings.
Sir Hal finished his mead wine and rose from his chair. He positioned himself with his back to the fire, next to where his sword rested in its scabbard, alongside the stone hearth. If his visitor was an FNA assassin then he intended to be ready to defend himself.
The doors opened and Walter ushered a fair hair woman into the room.
“Gwenith Ulthran, my Lord.” he announced.
Sir Hal nodded politely and bid the young woman to take a seat. “What can I do for you, Miss Ulthran? Forgive my bluntness, but the hour is late, I have long day ahead of me and I’m just about ready to retire.”
“My deepest apologies, my Lord Avilon, but time I am afraid, is one item I have in short supply.”
“So it would seem.” smiled Hal, grimly. He watched as the woman shivered and reached out her hands to warm them.
“Please forgive me.” he said. “I am not being a good host. Walter, please get our young guest something to beat out the cold. A hot toddy, perhaps?”
Gwenith Ulthran nodded. “Thank you, that would be lovely.” She clasped her hands together and gazed into the fire, as if to gather her thoughts.
“My Lord, I have come to ask you for your help.” she said, looking up. “I have a friend, a man, who is under threat of death from a Mongol Warlord.”
Hal cocked an eye. “Oh? How so?”
“He, we, were on a holiday cruise in the south seas.” explained Gwenith. “We go on a cruise every year. Anyway we had gone ashore at Yan-san to explore the old castle, when Jules, he’s my friend, got into an argument with a couple of soldiers. They turned out to be members of the Central Horde. There’s a garrison stationed just down the coast. Anyway to cut a long story short, blows were exchanged, Jules got arrested and thrown into a dungeon. I was deported and sent back to Normandy.”
“Normandy?” queried Sir Hal. “Surely they should have sent you to back to Britain?”
“I was travelling under a Norman passport.” she explained quickly.
Sir Hal was intrigued as to why she should have even had a Norman passport, but let it pass. He said, “Go on.”
She continued. “Anyway before left I contacted the consul in Ti-pan to see what he could do. He was very apologetic, but he said that considering where the incident took place, there was little he could do.”
“Ti-pan? Why not the one in Yan-san?” asked Sir Hal.
The maiden explained. “I would have gone to the local Consulate, but I was told he was unavailable. Anyway I’ve since been told by the Mongol’s Overseas Mission in Normandy that Jules has been found guilty of attempted insurrection and sentenced to death. That was nearly a month ago. I’ve tried to get back but I can’t get an entry visa.” She leaned forward and clasped her hands together.
“I know he’s still alive. I’ve been told so by the Yan-san consulate. Please help me, my Lord. I’ve no one else to turn to.”
Sir Hal frowned. Dealing with the Mongol Horde was always a difficult business, and the inner workings of the Mongol Empire’s network of `Overseas Missions’ was a puzzle at the best of times. Even to those in Camelot’s Foreign Office. The dispute over the east between the Mongol Empire and the Empire of the Shah of Iran had only made the situation worse.
In the past Camelot had traditionally sided with the Shah in such matters – the result being that inter-relations between Camelot and the Mongol Empire were usually plagued with conflict. Thankfully the last serious conflict was fifty years ago, before the advent of the Union of Nations. Since then Camelot, guided byKing Alfred’s wise counsel, now acted impartially, and the King and Kingdom was generally respected for it. Diplomatic relations were however still uneasy. As Sir Hal knew very well.
With this in mind he asked, “Do you know which domain were in at the time of the incident? Do you know who the ruling Warlord was?”
Gwenith shook her head. “Domain? No. The borders change so often and to be frank, I’ve never taken much notice of such things. But I understand the Warlord is a General named, Pon’chow.”
“Pon’chow?” Sir Hal breathed in deeply. “That is a name I’ve not heard for some time.”
Walter, the steward handed a glass of hot whisky and cream to the young woman and stood back at respectful distance.
“Do you think you can help?” inquired the young woman.
Sir Hal shrugged. “It’s possible. I am not without some experience in these matters. But even I will have to have a little more information before I can travel half way round the world on a knight errant. Also I will have to obtain permission from the Court. Relations with the Mongol Empire and Camelot have not been good of late. It’s the Indian question, you understand?”
“Yes, of course.” Gwenith replied. “Negotiations must be at a delicate stage. But surely the Shah and Jalik Khan have both agreed to allow free access in interim? We had no trouble in gaining access.”
“They have. In principle.” Sir Hal replied. “But the warlords of the region are a law unto themselves, as you have unfortunately found out. No, for any rescue to succeed I will need the authority of the Crown. Without it, your friend will likely rot in that dungeon. And I along with him!”
“You make it sound as if you might have to fight your way in and out.” said Gwenith, trembling slightly.
Sir Hal smiled grimly. “That is also possible. But the King’s name is well repeated, even in the east.”
He moved from the fire and walked over to a desk on the other side of the room. He opened a draw and pulled out an atlas, opening it the pages for China and the far east.
“A journey to Tia-pan will take four days by schedule flight. If I take my own flyer I can be there in two. I’ll need a safe place to land, of course. Far enough away from the city to be secure, but close enough to make the final journey swift and easy. I’ll need back-up plan too, just in case.” He rubbed his chin, in thought. “Very well, providing I have the Court’s sanction, I accept the quest.”
Sir Hal closed the book and walked back over to the fire and Gwenith. “How did you get here, by the way?” he asked. “By car or horse and carriage?”
“Neither.” Gwenith replied. “I walked.”
“Mmm. We can’t have that.” he smiled. “My reputation as a godly Knight of the Table will suffer!Walter, have Mark bring the car round to the front door. As soon as Miss Gwenith is refreshed have him transport Miss Gwenith here, back to her home.”
“Thank you, my Lord.” said Gwenith. “I have lodgings in the city centre. It’s quite far.”
“I live alone.” she added.
Sir Hal waited until she had finished her drink and then escorted her the door. “I will contact you in the morning and let you know if what is happening.” he said. “Just give Mark, my squire your number and leave the rest to me.”
“Yes. I will.” she said. Hal thought he noticed a slight flicker of her eyes, as if the girl was suddenly worried about something. It soon passed. “And thank you again, my Lord.” she said. “Without your help I don’t know what I should done.”
“Until the morning, then.” smiled Sir Hal, with a bow. “And don’t worry. We’ll soon have your friend back home, safe and sound.”
He watched the car drive away and walked back to his study. Walter followed him in and handed him a glass of wine.
“So you are off to the east again, Sir Hal?” he said.
“Yes, so it would seem, Walter.” replied Sir Hal. “But not for the reason Miss Gwenith would like. I suspect that she is not telling me the whole story. No one in their right minds goes to the east on a purely sightseeing trip these days. I’m intrigued to find out what they were really there for.”
Sir Hal rose at six sharp, washed and shaved, put on his Knight’s uniform and breakfasted on a plateful of eggs, bacon and mushrooms, washed down with a glass of fresh orange juice. Refreshed and rejuvenated he then made his way down to the stable where Mark, his squire waited with his Lord’s carriage and two matched black mares.
Mark, still bleary eyed from the previous night, waited until Sir Hal was safely settled and then took his seat beside the coachman. He bid the man to begin and the carriage set off down the drive on its way to the RoyalCastle.
The journey took just under an hour and by the time it had arrived, Sir Hal had prepared a plan of action regarding the rescue of the Gwenith’s young man friend. Mark had already given him the address and contact number of the young woman complete with a full report on where the girl had lived, what visitors she had during the night and who her friends were. The report made interesting reading.
The carriage arrived and Sir Hal alighted. As usual he was met by the Castle Steward, Kenneth of Arragon.
“Welcome, Lord Avilon.” he said, bowing. “You are the first to arrive, as usual. The King is in his study, if you wish to see him before donning robes. I know he’ll be please to see you.”
“Thank you, Kenneth.” Sir Hal replied. “As it happens I would like to see the King. I would also like to meet with the Master-at-Arms and the Lord High Admiral, before the Table convenes, if it can be arranged.”
“I will make the arrangements myself, my Lord.” said the steward, not questioning the request. “Will the East Library suffice?”
“It will do nicely.” replied Sir Hal. “Shall we say in an hour?”
“It will be done, my Lord.” bowed Kenneth.
Sir Hal made his way through the great hall to the private study of the King. To his right lay the doors to the Table hall, where in two hours he would take his place alongside the King and other Knights of the Round Table. It was here that the affairs of state were discussed and plans made for the welfare of the country and its people. For now however he had other plans on his mind. And he wanted to have them in place before the start of the meeting.
The guards at the library door snapped to attention and as was their duty, barred his way with their swords.
“Please state your business, my Lord.” demanded the senior guard, a corporal, politely.
“I am Lord Avilon, Knight of the Round table and First Champion of the Court of Camelot. I hereby request an audience with my Lord and Sovereign, as is my right.”
The guards withdrew their swords and bowed their heads once. The corporal then said, “Enter, Lord Avilon. And may God and Merlin go with you.”
Sir Hal bowed in return, smiled and said, “Good morning Corporal Harris, How are you today?”
Corporal Harris grinned briefly. “Well, thank you sir. You may go in. The King is expecting you.”
He then opened the door and ushered Sir Hal in.
“Lord Avilon, to see you sire.” he announced. Sir Hal entered and walked over to where the King was seated.
“Greetings, your Majesty.” he said. “I thank you for seeing me.”
The King smiled and offered Sir Hal his hand. “It’s always a pleasure to see you, Sir Hal. Come and sit down. Would you like to take a glass with me? It’s from my vineyard in Bordeaux. A 1995. A good year if I say so myself.”
“Thank you sire.” said Sir Hal, taking a seat opposite. “A glass would be most appreciated.”
“Drop the formality, Hal.” smiled the King, thinly. “I’ve had enough of it these last days to last a lifetime.”
Sir Hal chuckled. “Fair enough, Alfred. There will be formality enough as soon we assemble.” He took hold of the glass the King offered and sipped it once before taking a swallow. “Very nice, Alfred. My complements to you.”
“It is good. isn’t it?” grinned King Alfred.
Hal stretched out his legs and let the coolness of the wine sink down his throat. “I assume by your demeanour that the state visit was more tiring than usual?”
King Alfred nodded. “Emperor Hadrian is fond of pomp and ceremony, I’m not. Still he keeps a fine table. The food was excellent!”
“So I see.” said Hal, casting an eye at his sovereign’s waistline.
Alfred caught his glance and patted his stomach. “Oh well, I’ll just have to go on another diet!”
“You mean the Queen hasn’t put you on one already?” Hal grinned at his old friend and took another swallow of his wine.
“Actually the visit wasn’t all bad.” said the King. “We sorted out a few problems, including that one concerning the Baron of Aquataine. He’s agreed to allow our merchants limited access after all.”
Sir Hal raised an eyebrow. “Oh? I thought he said he’d never back down?”
“He must have changed his mind.” replied the King. “Mind you, the access is still only limited, so we’re not that much better off.”
“Still, any improvement is better than none.” said Hal. “I wonder what made him change his position?”
The King shrugged. “I wondered that at first. He’s always been so difficult in the past, especially when it concerned his lands in Normandy.”
The Baron was also a major landowner in Normandy. His family traced their ancestry back to Duke William, the would-be Conqueror. It was well known that he believed that his family should be the rulers of Normandy, and he the Sovereign Duke of that province. It was this claim that spurred on the FNA – the young lords who were its leading members no doubt believing that they would be able to weald great power should Normandy gain its `freedom’.
“I asked Hadrian about it.” the King continued. “Like me, he thinks it might be because the Baron has other more important things on his mind at the moment.”
Hal was surprised to hear this and said, “Really? That is strange. Considering that Baron Louis always claimed that trade brought power and that power was all important, what could be more important to him than a possible erosion of his trade?”
“His youngest son’s gone missing.” explained King Alfred . “Apparently the boy was on a trip to the far east and he just disappeared. The Baron’s very worried.”
“It’s not stopped him from being awkward though.” he added with a frown.
Both of Sir Hal’s eyebrows raised this time. “Is that so? What is the boy’s name?”
King Alfred thought for a moment and then said, “Jules. Jules Frances de Bonnier.”
Sir Hal leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin, “That is a coincidence. I’ve just had a request from a young maiden for my help in freeing a young man named Jules Bonnor. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to see you before the gathering.”
This time the King’s eyebrows raised. “Is that so? Where is this young man being held?”
Hal put his glass down and pulled out the report his squire had handed him earlier. “China. Yan-san to be precise. All I have on them is in this file. Mark, my squire made a few enquiries. He’s quite good at that sort of thing. I’ve made a few notes myself, as you’ll see. I’ll know more later of course, when I meet the girl again.”
The King read through the file and frowned. “I assume by this that you’re asking for permission to travel to China?”
Sir Hal nodded. “Yes. Once there I’ll negotiate his release. Or free him by other means.” He smiled. “I have done it before.”
King Alfred looked at him and frowned. “Yes, Hal. Too often! I must remind you that you’re not as you as you were. Neither of us are.” He laughed. “It’s time some of our younger Knights took the lead in these heroic quests! ”
He let out a sigh and poured himself and Hal another glass of wine. He twirled his glass round with his fingers, looking deep into the red liquid.
“Very well.” he said at last. “You have my permission, Hal. You never know it might even aid us in our dealings with the Baron. You’ll still need the sanction of the full Table though. That region is still in dispute. And any mission must be at your own undertaking. Camelot cannot be seen to be directly involved.”
“Naturally, sire.” said Sir Hal, momentarily slipping into formality. “As usual any action I take will be under my own emblem. As for the Council, as long as I have your backing, their permission will be just a formality. I’ve already taken the step of discussing the situation with John and Henry. I’m meeting them in the library at eleven.”
“Naturally.” the King smiled. “It’s one reason I choose you to be Court Champion. You never shy away from taking action when you think it necessary! No matter what the risk! My son is just the same. He could easily lead a peaceful life here at Court and at his estate in York, but no, he has to have a career! And in the navy too!”
“I seem to remember that you spent some time in the service.” said, Sir Hal, referring to his sovereigns time in Uniform.
The King smiled, as he remembered. He had spent most of his time as an Admirals Flag Lieutenant, at the Naval dockyards in London. Even had to admit that his duties had not been very arduous, as they largely consisted of an endless round of official receptions, debutante parties and, when needed overseeing the launching of new vessels.
“Mmm. Yes. Quite.” he mused. “Still, at least Edwin can rightly claim that he has earned his promotion. He’s a Lt.Commander now. Got himself a posting on Ocean-1. You might even bump into each other.”
“I’ll look forward to it.” said Sir Hal.
They talked for another half-hour until the clock on the wall struck the hour. Sir Hal rose to his feet and bid his King and friends permission to leave. It was time to meet with Sir John of Hertford, Camelot’s Master-at-Arms and the Royal Navy’s Lord High Admiral, Sir Henry Kensington.
The meeting with Camelot’s two foremost Defenders of the Realm lasted no more than fifteen minutes. With the King’s blessing under his belt, theirs was a forgone conclusion. Sir Hal therefore spent the time remaining before the Knights gathered at the Table in going through his travel plans. He also made arrangements to find out as much as he could about his maiden-in-distress and her Roman noble of a boyfriend. In particular what exactly they were doing in the far east. This task he placed in the expert care of another Knight, Sir Colin of Hastings, who was in charge of the Court’s Central Information Services - Camelot’s very own secret intelligence network. Sir Colin promised to forward any findings as soon as he could.
When it eventually came to the gathering Sir Hal had the whole trip planned. He would travel in his own Airo-flyer to Cairo. From there he would move on to the cape of Arabia, thus avoiding the need to fly over too much of the Shah’s territory, and end the first days flight at Ocean-1, Camelot’s flouting air base in the Indian ocean. The one mile square, man-made structure was a vital post in Camelot’s global empire. Sir Hal, as a Knight of the Table had the right to land there whenever he wished and often used it on his trips to Australia and the east. He never abused the privilege however, and always contacted the base commander in advance to let him know he was coming. This was of course always done via secret transmission code. Only one thing really bothered him. Communications with the far east were sketchy at best. There were naturally treaties which allowed foreign nationals communication satellite access, but the time slots were very limited. - the Mongols were not renowned for their openness. Camelots Ministry of Communications did have a programme of satellite launches planned, but they were not due to begin until the new year. Until then, Sir Hal, like other traveller knew that once in China, he would be very much on his own.
The gathering proceeded with its usual mixture of tradition, pomp and down to earth business. Subject after subject was dealt with and slowly but surely the business of ruling the kingdom went its way. When it came to `any other business’ Sir Hal placed his mission request in front of his peers and waited for the King to give his formal permission. This as expected was swiftly done and one by one the assembled Knights gave their assent. One proviso was made however, at the Master-at-Arms request, Sir Hal was to take along another Knight.
“You are not as young as you once were, Sir Hal.” said Sir John, apologetically. “Also, I feel that some of our younger Knights should have the opportunity to learn from a master. I therefore suggest that Sir Garth of Cumbria should be your second in this quest.”
“Quite so.” said the King, slapping the table. “It’s time the young started earning their wages! Well, Sir Hal? What say you?”
Sir Hal smiled, briefly. He had suspected that something like this was coming. King Alfred had hinted as much earlier. He accepted the suggestion in good heart and bowed his head in obedience to the King. “An excellent choice, sire. Sir Garth is I know, a skilled pilot and will be an asset to me in my quest.”
Sir Garth, a fresh face young man, and newly appointed to the Table, looked up in surprise. “I thank you for your trust in me, your majesty. And you too, Sir Hal. I will not disappoint you.”
And so the quest was duly sanctioned. In a days time, Sir Hal and Sir Garth, along with Hal’s squire, Mark, would set off for the far east in Sir Hal’s personal Airo-flyer. The decision as to whether or not the maiden in distress, Gwenith would also accompany them would be left up to Sir Hal. This he would decide once he and the girl had concluded their meeting.
Upon leaving the Table room, Sir Hal went to the Knights Lounge where he ordered a large gin and tonic. His new `apprentice’, Sir Garth joined him soon after. Sir Hal ordered another G&T for him.
“What do you know about this Gwenith woman?” the young Knight asked. “What exactly was she and the Barons son doing in China? The story about being there to see the sights doesn’t ring true. No one in their right mind goes to a war zone for a holiday!”
“Mmm, China’s not exactly a war zone.” said Hal. “Not yet anyway, and there are some who relish the feeling of being in a potential `hot spot’. But I take your point. There’s more to this business than she’s letting on. I suspect she’s supporter of a `free’ Normandy of course, especially if she is a close friend of the Baron’s son. But it is a bit of a trend for a young people today to link themselves to lost causes.”
Sir Garth laughed. “Yes, my father once told me that it was their way of supporting rebellion, without running the risk of actually changing anything!”
Sir Hal smiled. “My thoughts exactly. The trouble is, a free Normandy isn’t a lost cause for the FNA. Either way, I don’tthink we can rightly assume the Maiden in question is an active member. Not yet anyway.”
He drained his glass and stood up. “Come on, drink up. It’ll soon be time to find out. Our meeting is scheduled for an hour’s time.”
They walked out of the lounge and through the great hall to where Mark waited patiently for his master.
“I took the liberty of having your car brought over, Sir Hal.” he said when he saw the two Knights appear. “The weather’s taking a turn for the worse I fear.”
“Well done, Mark.” Sir Hal, said in reply. He looked up at the darkening sky and shrugged. “Oh well, it’ll be sunny enough where we’re going.”
They climbed aboard the six-wheeled limousine and Mark eased the vehicle out of the courtyard and out through the castle gates. Hal heard the rumble of the wheels on the wooden surface of the drawbridge and gazed back at the majestic splendour of the castle towers that was build in the reign of King Arthur himself. It was a sight that never ceased to fill him with pride and wonder.
Sir Garth noticed his glance and smiled. “I still have to pinch myself when I pass through that portcullis.” he said. “Father was so proud when I told him I’d passed the final test. He’d be even prouder to know I was going on my first quest.”
Sir Hal thought of the time when he and Sir Garwain, Sir Garth’s father, had travelled to the Americas to rescue at pair of diplomats from the clutches of the Mississippi military. That was before the signing of the Treaty of Cuba, when the Empire of the Aztecs and the Northern Mississippi Confederation were still in conflict with each other. Garwain had been the senior Knight then and Hal had learned a great deal being his `apprentice’. Now the wheel had turn full circle and he was to be the teacher to his old masters son.
“Your father was a great Knight and a good friend.” he said, softly. “His presence at Court is sourly missed.”
“Thank you, Sir Hal.” smiled Sir Garth, thinly. “I only hope I don’t dishonour his memory.”
Sir Hal looked at the young man in the eyes and saw the same spark of life that his father had until his dying day.
“There is no chance of that happening, Garth.” he said. “If there was, I would have never agreed to take you with me.”
The car reached the outskirts of the city and slowed accordingly.
“We will be at the maidens abode soon, my Lord. “ said Mark, over his shoulder. “It is a little small for a meeting and I’m not too certain about its safety, so I have arranged to meet her at a nearby inn, the `Nags Cup’. The landlord is an old friend. I’ve secured the back room, so your conversation should be undisturbed. It has a private entrance.”
Sir Hal took that to mean that the Inn was safe and that Mark had made sure the landlord and his staff knew they were to keep out of the way.
The car drew up outside the Inn, an old building dating back some hundred years. Mark got out first and opened the door for Sir Hal, his sword-stick held at the ready. Sir Garth followed his senior out of the car and together they walked up the flight of steps leading down to the Inns back room. An intercom was set in the wall by the door. Sir Hal scanned the area for unwanted onlookers and pressed the buzzer.
“Hello? Who is it?” came a female voice, from within.
“It is Lord Avilon, to see you.” said Sir Hal. “I have a friend with me.”
There was a pause. “Oh. Alright. Please come up.”
The buzzer sounded and the door clicked open. Sir Hal and Sir Garth went in. Mark stayed with the car. A number of children gathered nearby, intrigued by the sight of a Knight of the Round Table’s pennant fluttering from the cars front wing. Mark smiled at them and waved. One of the children came nearer.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Waiting for my Lord.” replied Mark.
The boy walked round the limousine, touching its clean lines. “Is this his car?”
Mark nodded. “It is.”
The boy stopped at the front and looked at the pennant. “Is that a Knight of the Round Table’s pennant?”
Mark smiled. “Yes, that’s right.”
The boy blinked, twice. “Cor!”
Inside the building, Lord Avilon and Sir Garth walked up the stairs to the second floor. They stopped outside a dark oak door and Sir Hal knocked twice on it with his sword-stick. It opened almost immediately. Sir Hal was somewhat taken aback the maiden’s appearance. She looked almost like a vagabond, far different from her appearance the previous evening.
“Lord Avilon. I’m glad you’ve come.” she said, with a slight tremble of her voice.
“This is Sir Garth.” said Hal, indicating his companion. “He will be accompanying me on the quest.”
“Oh. Right.” She stood back and both Knights entered.
“You said your quest?”
“Yes.” Sir Hal answered. “That is what we call the mission we are about to undertake. A quest.”
“Like in `the Quest for the Holy Grail?”
Sir Hal gave short laugh. “You’ve been reading too many stories!” he said. “These day we just help people in trouble.”
“Like me.” said Gwenith. She led the way inside and waved for them to take a seat.
“Did you get permission to go?” she asked.
Sir Hal sat down in a chair by the window. “I did. Sir Hal and I will travel to Cairo tomorrow. We should be in China by the end of the week.”
“I want to go with you.” said Gwenith.
I assumed you would.” replied Sir Hal. “But before we go anywhere, I need to know a little more about your friend, Jules. Tell me, what is his full name?”
Gwenith turned away and went silent. “Jules Frances de Bonnier. His father is the Baron of Aquataine.”
Sir Hal slapped the arm of his chair. “Ah! I thought as much. The next question is, why didn’t you go to the Baron for help? He has people on his staff that could do the same as I do. I know of at least two Knights that specialises in negotiating hostage releases.”
“Maybe, but not quite in the same as you are reputed to do it.” said Gwenith, with a shrug. “From what Jules told me about his fathers Knights they are little better than paid thugs. Anyway Jules and his father don’t get along too well at the moment. They have... differing views.”
Sir Hal inwardly imagined what these differences might be. Not that it mattered. The Baron was renown for his unyielding views. The conflict over trading rights had proved that. Personal or political, Sir Hal imagined his stance would be the same.
“Does the Baron know what has happened?” he asked.
Gwenith shrugged. “If he does, I he hasn’t said. Not to me anyway.”
Hal frowned. The chances were that he did. And that meant there might be Norman operatives already on the way. A glance from Sir Garth indicated that he thought the same.
“Very well.” he said. “Tell me everything that happened. I want everything. From the day you stepped aboard the cruise liner, to when you encountered the Horde soldiers. Leave nothing out.”
Gwenith took a deep breath and begun. By the time she had finished, Sir Garth, who had taken notes had filled half a notebook.
Sir Hal stood up to leave. “My squire, Mark will call for you at eight sharp tomorrow morning. Please be ready. We leave for the airport at nine. I want to be halfway across France by .”
“Don’t worry.” Gwenith replied. “I’ll be on time.”
With that the two Knights left. As she closed the door behind them Gwenith sighed heavily.
“It’s done.” she said. “Oh Jules. Please forgive me.”
Sir Hal’s personal Airo-flyer sped over the Mediterranean sea with the grace of a dove. It was nearly , Camelot standard time, and Sir Hal and the maiden, Gwenith had spent most of that time in the rear cabin discussing the quest ahead of them. Squire Mark sat next to Sir Garth who piloted the twin engine jet craft. They hardly spoke. Mark not wanting to speak out of turn, and Sir Garth unsure of what to say to a man who was undoubtedly more experienced that he was.
Sir Garth glanced out of the cockpit window. On the ocean below, a four masted sailing ship battled against the changing wind as it tacked its way to its next port of call, which was very likely Alexandria. Sir Garth grunted and checked the panel readouts. In another hour they would be over the ancient city of Alexandria themselves. It would soon be time to alter course. He sighed. The island of Crete lay a hundred miles to the north. Fascinated by its history, Sir Garth had wanted to pay the Grecian island a visit for years and had hoped that Sir Hal would chose it for his first refuelling stop. But it was not to be and it seemed that he would have wait one year longer to fulfil his ambition. He sighed again as he steered the aircraft southwards.
One question Sir Garth did ask was why they needed to stop at all. He said, “This type of aircraft should be able make it all the way to India on a full tank. Why do we need to refuel so soon?”
“Ordinarily it could, yes.” replied Mark. “But this craft has few built in extras. Its take off weight is almost fifty per cent more than a standard craft. It’s a trade off, but it’s worth it.”
Shortly after, Sir Hal came forward. “I see you’ve changed course.” he said.
“Yes.” Sir Garth answered. “We’ll be over Alex in half-an-hour.”
He reached over and activated the flyer’s homing beacon. The signal emitted would seek out Cairo airport’s ID beam and guide the Airo-flyer automaticallyto it. A few moments passed before the telltale beep of the airport’s beacon sounded on the speaker.
“Good, the final course heading is now locked in.” said Sir Garth. “It should be plain sailing from her on.”
“Shouldn’t that be, plain flying?” said Sir Hal, grinning at his pun.
“Oh no!” groaned Mark. “That’s terrible, my Lord! Promise me you won’t give up your day job!”
“Oh there’s no chance of that, Mark, old fellow.” replied Sir Hal, patting his squire on the shoulder. “Didn’t you know? I’m a Knight person!”
After refuelling, the Airo-flyer took off on the final leg of the first day’s flight. This time Sir Hal took the controls. Sir Garth sat with Gwenith in the rear, while Mark took the opportunity to have a nap. He was due to be on watch first that night and so would need to be well rested. They had received some bad news however. The Cairo airbase authorities had not allowed Sir Hal all the fuel he required, and the Airo-flyer did not have enough to make it all the way to Ocean-1, Camelots flouting base in the Indian Ocean. As a result they would be forced to refuel and to spend the night at the port of Aden. It was not a prospect that the First Knight relished - the accommodation was basic to say the least. But he was resourceful and would make the best of what was offered.
If the change of plan bothered Gwenith, it did not show. She, like Mark also spent the time sleeping. She did so fitfully however, and continually mumbled something over and over. Mark eyed her thoughtfully as he dozed.
“I do wish you’d be quiet.” he grumbled. Evens so he tried to catch what she said, and thought he heard the word, betrayal. And something like, nay. Eventually however, tiredness overtook him and he drifted off to sleep. He did not awake until Sir Garth called to him from the cockpit.
“Better strap yourselves in back there.” said the young Knight. “We’ll be landing in a few minutes.”
Mark sat up and shook Gwenith. “Time to buckle up.” he told her.
Gwenith rose to a sitting position and stretched. “Oooh!” she yawned. “How long have I been asleep?”
“Since we took off from Cairo, almost.” Mark reached over and helped her buckle herself in. “You certainly are a restless sleeper. Do you always talk in your sleep?”
Gwenith’s mouth dropped open. “What did I say?” she asked, in a trembling voice.
“Nothing I could make out.” lied Mark. “Anyway I was asleep myself soon enough. I’m surprised my snoring didn’t wake you.”
Sir Garth stuck his head through the cockpit doorway. “So that’s what it was.” he said, with a grin. “Sir Hal and I thought it was the engines vibrating!”
Mark smiled back. “At least I didn’t snore through the night.” he joked.
Sir Garth grimmest and returned to his seat. Moments later the Airo-flyer started its decent.
The quarters assigned to them by the Airport authorities were to say the least, basic. They were alsosome distance from the main accommodation complex. Sir Hal would have preferred a more prominent position. It would have been easier to defend. But it had the advantage of being closer to the hanger where they had left the Airo-flyer and so was acceptable. There were ten rooms in the annex. Sir Hal and his party occupied two of them. Of the other eight only one had an occupant, an elderly couple of African extraction. Sir Hal considered these to be a low risk, especially as their room was at the other end of the building.
Mark, took the first night watch. He chose a position near at the end of the corridor. With Sir Hal’s help he had already set up a series of infa-red motion sensors in and around the building, including two inside Gwenith’s room. Mark monitored these by the use of a portable computer. With a fully loaded pistol at hand and a short sword at his waist, not to mention a flask of hot tea at his feet, the squire was ready for anything.
The hours ticked by. Mark although tired remained awake. He had stood watch a hundred times and knew all the tricks in keeping alert. Drinking hot tea was one of them. He needed these tricks, for not a lot happened during his tour. A sensor did detect some movement, two hours apart and by the rear door, but these alarms Mark identified as the two Africans going out - for dinner most likely - and then returning. By , when Sir Garth came to relieve him Mark had logged only one other alarm, and this turned out to be a stray dog sniffing around the rubbish bins. In all it had been a boring night and Mark was relieved to be able to got to his bed.
Sir Garth’s tour was little different. The two Africans remained in their room and the dog paid the bins another visit. It stayed quite until dawn, when Sir Hal arrived to take over.
“Have a few hour’s rest, Garth.” Sir Hal told his companion. “Mark will wake you and Gwenith once he’s cooked breakfast. He’s always got a brew-kit with him.”
“So I noticed.” yawned Sir Garth. “I’m glad he left me some tea. I think it was the only thing that kept me awake.”
Sir Hal tapped the flask he was holding. “It always pays to have a flask of something hot with you.”
“What time do we move on?” Garth asked, as he got up.
Sir Hal shrugged. Nine or ten.” he said. “It depends on how soon we get flight clearance. It also depends on what the weathers like over the Indian Ocean.”
“Until nine, then.” said Sir Garth.
Sir Hal settled himself down and went through the sensor checks. Gwenith slept peacefully in her bed, as did Mark. Sir Garth was in the process of pulling off his boots He turned and waved at the camera before laying down himself. Sir Hal saw this and smiled, thinly.
“Cheeky young blade.” he said, under his breath. “He should learn to keep his boots on when on a quest!”
The outside was also quiet. The dog that had been hunting for tit-bits had moved on. The other end of the building was quiet too. The two Africans evidently were not early risers. Sir Hal reached for his flask and filled a mug with tea. The steam of the liquid warmed his face and he sipped it carefully. Outside the sun was rising. Its rays reached into the corridor creating shadowy images that danced in the morning haze. He checked his watch. It was almost . Another couple of hours and the need for a night sentry would over. Minutes ticked by. Half an hour later he switched the infrared sensors over to normal light.
He continued watching the screen and doors for the next hour and a half, until Mark arrived with a fresh mug of tea.
“I thought you might like a fresh cuppa.” he said, handing over the steaming mug.
Sir Hal looked at him and raised an eyebrow.
“I couldn’t sleep.” the squire explained. “Anyway I think my snoring was disturbing Sir Garth.”
“It’s about time you got that sorted out.” he said. “There are cures available, you know.”
Mark pulled a face. “I hate the idea of surgery.”
Sir Hal laughed. It amazed him how Mark would willingly stand his ground against a dozen armed attackers, yet at the same time fear a simple operation.
“Shall I take a walk round?” asked Mark. “That screen doesn’t show that much. And I could do the air.”
“Why not?” replied Sir Hal. “Then perhaps an early breakfast?”
“Eggs, toast and marmalade, sound all right?”
Sir Hal nodded, eagerly. “You never cease to amaze me, Mark. I hadn’t realised you had any eggs!”
“You know me, Sir Hal. I always have a meal or two tucked away. The eggs are fresh. They’re in a thermal bag. I have a dozen more in the Airo-flyer’s chill cabinet. ”
With that off he went. Half an hour later he returned and set about preparing breakfast.
The eggs were delicious. Even Sir Garth, who said he only ever had tea and toast tucked in. Gwenith was served her breakfast in bed. Sir Hal said it was better that way, as it allowed the men more time to change out of their sweaty clothes into clean ones.
Breakfast over, Sir Hal sent Mark and Sir Garth over to the hanger to check on the Airo-flyer. He and Gwenith went over to the Airport Administrators office. Like most Persian government departments, the officials of the Airport Administrators office were a little corrupt when it came to dealing with foreigners. Sir Hal suspected a small bribe might advisable if they wanted the ability to take off without undue delay. Many a Knight would have played upon their rank and position and quoted the Treaty of Baghdad, which allowed free and unhindered passage between the peoples of Persia Empire and Kingdom of Camelot, but experience had shown Sir Hal that a purse-full of gold often talked louder than treaties.
Palms duly greased Sir Hal and Gwenith met up with Sir Garth and Mark by the Airo-flyer.
“We have the clearance to take off.” Sir Hal told his companions. “I suggest we do it as soon as we can. Before they change their minds!”
They climbed aboard and strapped themselves in. This time Mark took the controls and Sir Hal the co-pilots seat. Sir Garth remained in the rear with Gwenith.
“Start her up, Mark.” said Sir Hal. “And let’s be off.”
Mark fired up the engines and the flyer started forward. It taxied to the end of the runway and swung round.
“Just how much did you have to pay?” he asked.
“Thirty pieces.” replied Sir Hal.
Mark grunted, and said, “Sounds like the going price.”
The runway lights blinked twice, signalling that they had permission to proceed. Mark eased the throttle forward and the Airo-flyer sped off down the runway. Halfway down it left the ground and started gaining height. Moments later it was over the ocean and on its way to Ocean-1, its next refuelling stop. Sir Hal concentrated on the long-range scanners. In particular he watched for missile locks. (It was not unknown for aircraft in this area to attacked by renegade Mongol warlords - they maintained a small fleet in the Southern Ocean and were usually well armed).
Compared to the final leg however this part of the journey was relatively safe. CAC (Camelot Air Command) flights to and from Ocean-1 saw to that. Unofficial as they were. It was after Singapore that the journey would really start to get dangerous. Then Sir Hal and his party would have fighter-aircraft and the odd missile to deal with as well.
“We should be safe enough until we get past Ceylon.” said Sir Hal. “Singapore itself will be all right. The Singalise Airforce is one of the best around. Even the Horde steers clear of their air-space! Anyway, our boys on Ocean-1 have Interceptor-fighters patrolling the eastern sea.”
Mark frowned. “It’s a pity they don’t patrol the western too.”
“Not chance of that happening.” said Sir Hal. “The Persians won’t stand for it. Officially anyway!”
Two hundred miles short the Indian cape, the flyer’s on-board defence scanners warned of a possible missile lock. Mark immediately activated the flyer’s defence net by flicking a series of switches.
The housings on the wing pods swung open and two sets of missile launchers dropped down. Although this automatically armed the missiles, the safety locks would remain on until a target was selected and the Flyers on-board missile guidance system locked on to it Mark switched the sensors to infa-red. Nothing showed up.
“Any idea what it is?” asked Sir Hal. “It can’t be Ocean-1. We’re miles away yet.”
Mark shook his head. “There are no warships in the area. At least not within target range. And I can’t find an ID signal.”
Sir Hal frowned. Missile locks were not unusual. Warships in the locality, even those of the Persian Navy often tracked passing aircraft. As did nearby land bases. But they always transmitted an ID signal at the same time. It was their way of telling the target that it had been noticed, and by whom. Mark continued checking the area for ships, Navel or otherwise.
“Of course, it could always be a malfunction.” he suggested, not very convincingly. “Or it could be the Indian Airforce defence base at Cochin.”
“Unlikely.” said Sir Hal. “We’re too far away. What about a sub? Is there anything on sonar?”
Mark looked. “No. Nothing. Nothing in the air I can see either. What ever it is, it must be shielded in some way.”
“If it is, it’s new technology.” replied Sir Hal. “Our on-board sensors are able to pierce all known shield-screens. Mongol, Persian or Roman.”
Mark snapped his fingers. “It could be in the upper atmosphere. A low orbit satellite. I read somewhere the Persians have been experimenting with one.” He began making the necessary adjustments.
“There it is!” he exclaimed. “One hundred and fifty miles above us. And there’s the ID!” He breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank god for that!” he said. “For a horrible moment I thought it might a Horde warship!”
Sir Hal was not so relieved. He said, “I can’t believe the Persians would casually lock onto an unidentified aircraft. Especially not from an experimental satellite! It doesn’t make sense! Check the ID signature again.”
Mark did as he was bid. “No, it checks out...Hey! Just a moment! That’s not right.” He began to adjust his controls.
“What is it?” asked Sir Hal.
Mark frowned yet again. “If I’m not mistaken, there’s a second signal merged with the first. Wait. I’ll try and see if I can separate them.”
His hands moved swiftly over the control panel. The head-up display in front of him changed to show a 3D map of the surrounding air space. A series of signal trails snaked across the screen. Two were almost identical in size, strength and frequency.
“Yes, I was right. The first signal is from the satellite right enough, but the second originates from the ground. Whoever is sending it, is using the Persian’s ID to mask theirs.”
“Can you trace it?” asked Sir Hal.
“Now that I’ve identified it, yes.” replied Mark. “It’ll take a moment, though.”
The flyer’s proximity alarm sounded. “Too late!” Mark cursed. “There’s a missile heading our way!”
“Dam!” exclaimed Sir Hal. “Garth! Gwenith! Better strap yourselves in! We’ve got trouble! Mark! Give me a fix! Where is the dam thing?”
Mark scanned the readouts with his eyes. The 3D map showed two blips. He let out a cry of alarm.
“They’re missiles right enough! Two of them! On a bearing of, 115 by 079. Height gain, 5 miles a second! They’ll be on us in under two minutes!”
Sir Hal inspected the map himself. “I see them!” Stand by to release counter measures!”
Mark’s hand hovered over the control that would release a field of magnetically charged silver foil into the path of the oncoming missiles.
Mark pressed the button. From below the Airo-flyer a cloud of silver particles fluttered into the path of the missiles. At the same time, Sir Hal banked the aircraft sharply up and to the left. The first missile entered the silver cloud and exploded. The resulting shock wave hurled the Airo-flyer into a spin. Sir Hal struggled to regain control. After what seemed an age, he finally succeeded. The Airo-flyer levelled out and gained height.
“The second missile is closing on us!” shouted Mark, over the deafening whine of the engines.
Sir Hal swung the stick hard over, pointing the flyer’s nose towards the ground. Then just as the missile was nearly upon them, he pulled up, hard, banking to the right as he did. The missile shot passed them and headed off towards the ocean below.
“Arm the interceptors!” he ordered Mark.
Mark threw the switch, arming the flyers wing missiles.
Mark pressed the firing button. Two interceptor missiles erupted from their housings and sped towards the remaining enemy projectile. The missiles struck almost as their target started to bank around for another run. At the same time, Sir Hal veered the flyer up and away. The flyer rode the shock wave like an Australian wind-surfer on Bondi beach. Then it was gone and the air was calm again.
Mark checked the screen for any more missiles. “We’re clear.” he said.
Sir Garth stuck his head round the cabin hatchway. There was a bump on his head. “That was hairy. What happened?”
Sir Hal grunted and let out a long sigh. “It appeared that someone down there didn’t like us. Are you hurt? How’s Gwenith?”
Sir Garth touched his forehead. “It’s just a bump. Gwenith a little shaken, but other than that, she’s fine.”
Sir Hal grunted. “So I am for that matter.” he said. “Still it’s over now. Better remain strapped in, though. Just in case.”
Sir Garth returned to his seat and Sir Hal and Mark began a thorough checkout of the flyer’s control systems.
“It seems the old girl’s come through it in one piece, Sir Hal.” said Mark, to his master, after they had completed their task.
Sir Hal gave his a squire a wink. “She might be old, but she can still fly rings round the best the Horde can offer!”
With that, he eased the control stick forward and increased the power to the engine. The Airo-flyer’s speed increased.
“Let’s get out of here, Mark.” he said. “The sooner we’re in range of Ocean-1, the better!”
“I’m sorry you had such a bad flight, Lord Avilon.” said the Base Commander. “I can only apologise that our patrols weren’t in the area at the time.”
Sir Hal and his party were in the Commander’s office. They had arrived on Ocean-1 a short while earlier. Thankfully the remainder of the journey across the Indian Ocean was uneventful.
“I thought that under the treaty, Camelot weren’t supposed to have a military presence west of the Indian peninsular?” said Sir Garth.
The Base Commander smiled. “We aren’t. But we are allowed to fly the occasional training flight. And of course we do have the right to fly in replacement aircraft, as and when needed.”
“How often do you need to replace aircraft?” asked Sir Garth.
“About once a week.” he replied, with a broad grin. “The weather here plays havoc with the controls. Also we make a point flying a couple of our Eagle Interceptors over to the International Transit Base at the Cape of Africa.”
ITB-ACape, to give the base’s official title was sited just outside Durban and was under the control of the Central Council of the Union of Nations. By treaty it was open to all member countries to use as a repair and supply depot. Camelot maintained a small logistics unit there.
Ocean-1’s commanding officer rubbed his chin.“Did you manage to get a lock on the second ID signal?”
Sir Hal shook his head. “No. The second attack put paid to that.”
“We did get the general direction.” Sir Garth interjected. “East.”
“Then it’s likely it was one of the Mongol Warlords who was responsible.” The Base Commander leaned forward and pushed a folder containing maps and other information over to Sir Hal. He said,“I’m afraid since the last flare-up, the situation on the Chinese mainland has grown steadily worse. The local warlords have always been unpredictable, but it seems one or two are now almost out of control. Even the Khan can’t control them.”
He looked across at Gwenith. “I suspect that the Warlord that arrested your friend is one of them. What was his name again?”
“Pon’chow.” replied Gwenith.
The Commander nodded. “Yes. He’s one. I don’t envy you in your quest, my Lord. From what I hear Horde General Pon’chow is little more than a despot. If there is anything I can do to assist, please ask.”
“Thank you for your kind offer, Commander.” said Sir Hal, as he inspected the folder’s contents. “But if I am to succeed, I must not be seen to have an official capacity. Other than my role as First Champion and a Knight of the Round Table.”
“Of course.” said the Commander. “But if you will permit me, I will increase the number of training flights in the eastern sea.”
“That would seem acceptable.” smiled Sir Hal. “Actually there is one thing. We used two IMs in that encounter we had. If you could see your way to have them replaced, I would be most grateful.”
“They will be replaced at once, my Lord.” the Commander assured him.
“Thank you.” replied Sir Hal“And thank you for the loan of these maps and intelligence reports. I’ll return them before we leave. Now if you don’t mind, I think my companions and I would rather like to freshen up before dinner.”
“Of course.” said the Base Commander. “I have arranged accommodation for you and your comrades. My Adjutant has the room numbers.”
He stood up and walked over to open the door for them.
“I’ve also taken the liberty of reserving a table for you in the upper deck restaurant, my Lord. The chef they have there’s quite good, even if I say so myself. He’s a Welshman, like myself.”
Sir Hal offered the officer his hand. “Most good chefs are.” he said, with a smile. “Thank you.”
After dinner Sir Hal and his companions relaxed in the upper lounge. They opted for seats on the balcony overlooking the western ocean. The panoramic view the balcony gave of the setting sun was one that Sir Hal always enjoyed. Sir Garth complemented his fellow Knight on his choice, as did Gwenith. Mark as usual selected a seat to one side, as a good squire was expected to do when in the presence of persons of high rank. (In many ways life in the military was still very formal - far more formal in some ways than the Royal Court itself was.) Sir Hal however paid scant homage to these traditions and as usual insisted that Mark should move closer. A group of five officers nearby saw Mark move closer and shook their heads disapprovingly.
Sir Hal saw them and in a louder than normal voice, told his squire and friend, “You are as good as any here, Mark. If the King was here, he would say as much himself! In fact he has!”
This was no idle boast, for King Alfred had indeed told Mark the same thing countless of times.
One or two of the officers seemed taken aback by this and not realising who Sir Hal was, looked quite offended. The other three simply looked embarrassed.
Sir Garth hid a grin, and in support of his fellow Knight offered Mark a cup of coffee. Mark accepted it in good heart and bowed politely. Gwenith, whose expression until then had been one of puzzled embarrassment, became quite amusement by the `playlet’. The officers looked away.
Apart from the officers and a few other dinners, Sir Hal and his party had the lounge to largely to themselves.
Mark sipped his coffee and looked out across the airstrip to the ocean beyond. “You know, I never grow tired of this view.” he commented. “I put it down to the way the evening sun’s rays fall upon the deck. The shadows they cast are simply beautiful.”
“Why Mark!” Sir Garth, jested. “I never realised that you were such a poet!”
Mark frowned. Sir Hal laughed. Gwenith just smiled.
“How long will the journey take tomorrow?” she asked, changing the subject.
“About three or four hours.” replied Sir Hal. “It depends on how far south we have to detour. If we get permission to over-fly the Malay peninsular we could cut the time to about two hours.”
Gwenith nodded. “Oh. Do you think we will? Get permission, I mean.”
“If the Treaty holds, yes.” Sir Hal, answered. “But considering the security situation, I think it will be safer to head for Singapore. Over-flying the MalayMountains at this time might not be wise.
“The MRA is active again, I assume?” said Sir Garth.
Sir Hal nodded. “The file the Commander gave me had a report from Singalise Army Intelligence. The rebels have managed to get their hands on some surface-to-air missiles. From a Mongol Warlord most likely. Some of them would sell their grandmothers for a profit, if they thought they could get away with it.”
Gwenith’s face reddened. She said, “Before today, I hadn’t realised just how weak the Horde’s authority over its warlords had become.”
Sir Hal considered her comment with interest. Surely, he thought, having already visited the Mongol Empire she already knew that.
“It’s never been strong.” he said. “In some way’s it’s why the Mongol Empire has lasted as long as it has. Whatever disaster happened to its central government, there’s always been one provincial Governor, somewhere able and willing to take over. What is unfortunate, is that their Warlords have enough surplus weapons to sell in the first place.”
“If people have the will and the money, they’ll find a way to buy weapons.” interjected Sir Garth, sadly. “Surplus’s don’t enter into it.”
“I’m afraid you may be right.” sighed Sir Hal. “Before we retire, I’ll place a radio-call to the Consul in Yan-san. He’ll be able to tell us if your friend is still there or has been moved to another location.”
He glanced across at Gwenith. She had seemed not to have heard him and was gazing down at the level below. He followed her gaze. Three well-dressed men had just taken their seats in the lower restaurant. One of them glanced up. Gwenith appeared to return the man’s glance and immediately leaned back in. Sir Hal also thought he heard her breath in sharply. He wondered what a alarmed her for a moment, but then decided to put it down the stress of the day.
He said, “According to some reports, even the FNA has tried to buy weaponry off the Horde.”
Gwenith heard the remark and looked up sharply. Her face again appeared flushed. “Oh! Really? I didn’t know.”
Sir Hal frowned at her. “You really should start reading up on local events before you venture into the unknown.” he said. “It could save you a lot of trouble.”
Next morning, as they boarded the refuelled and re-armed Airo-flyer, Sir Hal could not help but notice that Gwenith was a little more preoccupied than normal. He was used to her being quiet. With a close friend being held by a Mongol Warlord, this was to be expected. What he found different this morning was the distant look on her face and the attention she paid to the viewing gallery overlooking the airstrip.
He followed her eyes with his. On the balcony was the usual mix of people, military personnel on route to or from one of Camelot’s many bases; civil servants, homeward bound after a year’s long tour of duty; or businessmen who had travelled to Ocean 1 in the hope of plying their trade in one of the far eastern states. Amongst these people there were three others. The same three whom Gwenith had looked at the previous evening. Sir Hal concluded from their demeanour that they were neither businessmen, nor servants of the Crown. Instead they had the bearing of military men, but did not wear uniforms. That in itself was strange. It was a condition of treaty that all military personal travelling to or from Ocean 1 be in uniform at all times. It was unthinkable that the Base Commander would allow anyone to break that rule. They could of course be ex-servicemen, but Sir Hal thought it unlikely. British ex-servicemen seldom returned to the Far East once their tour of duty was over. Most remained in the country of their birth or emigrated, in uniform to one of Camelot’s new colonies in Australia or New Cornwall. Those that did return mostly did so in a semi-military capacity, such as an Embassy staff official, or travel attendant and that usually involved them in the wearing of a uniform. Sir Hal frowned. Apart from those mentioned before, there were only two other possibilities. One was that the three men were from another country, - the Holy Roman Empire, for instance did not always obey the rules of the treaty. Or they were part of a secret intelligence organisation. The question was, whose?
Gwenith took one last look and climbed inside. Sir Garth and Mark were already aboard. Sir Hal also took another look at the gallery and followed her, closing the hatch behind him, resolving to send the Base Commander a message as soon as they were airborne, asking the officer to find out what he could about the trio. Moments later the Airo-flyer taxied down to the end of the runway, where it turned and took off.
Halfway across the Andaman sea, Sir Hal handed control of the Airo-flyer over to Sir Garth and went back to join Mark and Gwenith. He sat down beside the woman and took a sip of tea from the mug that Mark handed him.
“I’ll go and join Sir Garth.” said Mark. “We’ll be over Nicobar in a moment.”
“Fine.” said Sir Hal. “Call me when you’re about to change your heading.”
Mark disappeared into the cockpit. Refreshed Sir Hal leaned back and turned his head to look out of the window. Beneath them on the ocean, a school of dolphins leapt through the waves. A little further on, as the flyer drew nearer the Indo-China coast, a bright yellow twin-hulled yacht, the pride and joy of some rich Persian play-boy, came into view as it skimmed through across surf, its equally bright red sail fluttering in the breeze. It all looked so peaceful. He turned to Gwenith.
“We will be turning south for the Strait of Malacca soon.” he said. “We’ll be in Singapore by .”
“Do you still plan to stop there and refuel?” she asked.
Sir Hal nodded. “Yes. We’ll stop, refuel, have a bite to eat and then press on. With luck we should be over the Paracel Isles by sunset. From there it’s only an hour to Yan-san.”
He looked at her through narrowed eyes. “Those three men on the balcony back on Ocean-1? Did you know them? They seemed to know you.”
Gwenith breathed in sharply. “What makes you think that?”
“The way they looked at you.” he said. “And the way you looked at them.”
Gwenith blinked. “Oh. Well yes, I did know them. That is, I’ve seen them before. They were on the cruise ship with us. But,” she added quickly. “I haven’t seen them since I was deported by the Mongols.”
“I would have been surprised if you had.” Sir Hal replied.
Mark poked his head out of the cockpit. “We’re about to alter course, Sir Hal.” he said.
Sir Hal stood up. “I’ll be right there.” he said.
“Best buckle yourself in.” he told Gwenith. “In case there are any Malay rebels in the area, I’m increasing speed to mach 3.” He saw her frown, and explained.
“Don’t worry, Gwenith. It’s just a precaution. But bearing in mind the Base Commander’s warning, we’d be unwise not to be on our guard.”
Gwenith buckled her seat belt and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “I’m beginning to wish I’d never seen the Orient.” she said. “Before I met Jules, I spent my holidays in the south of France.”
Sir Hal smiled and then turned to enter the cockpit. For the next hour he remained there, focusing all his concentration on keeping the Airo-flyer on a level course. Sir Garth also stayed in the cockpit, as did Mark. The squire sat in a third, normally unused seat, situated behind the co-pilots position. From this chair Mark monitored the Flyer’s defence grid by means of a head-up display, projected from a lightweight visor and bank of video screens. He also had the use of the secondary defence console. This console, like the one in front of Sir Garth, enabled the user to lock-onto a potential target, and if necessary, fire one of the flyer’s missile interceptors at it. The console also doubled as a systems display unit.
Gwenith remained buckled up during this time and gazed constantly out of the window. If she expected to see a missile streaking towards them, she was thankfully disappointed. She was equally thankful when the imposing sight of SingaporeIsland’s skyline of multi-storey buildings and plush green parkland finally came into view.
As she looked, two white and yellow Interceptor aircraft flew out of the wisps of cloud, which hung lazily over the city. At first she gasped, fearing that the Horde had sent aircraft to prevent them from reaching their destination, but then saw the aircraft emblems and realised they must belong to the Singalise Airforce. Sir Garth’s head poked through the cockpit opening.
“Those aircraft on our port wing are from Singapore.” he said, in conformation. “But don’t unbuckle. We’ll be landing in a little while. Refuelling will only take an hour or so. We’ll catch some lunch and then be on our way.” He smiled, as if to calm her fears.Don’t worry, we’ll be in China by early evening, right on schedule.”
Gwenith let out a deep sigh. “Oh good.” she breathed, turning to look at the two Singalise aircraft. “That will be just marvellous.”
Keeping just above the height of the waves, the Airo-flyer sped across the South China Sea towards the mainland. It had made good time. The sun was only just setting, and the ParacelIslands were half-an-hour or more behind them. In another half-hour they would be over the coast and nearing the end of their outward journey.
Sir Hal eased the flyer onto a course that would take it on a heading for a small, little used landing strip, a few miles outside the city of Yan-san. He planned to land there and travel onto the city using surface transport obtained locally. As he had Sir Garth with him this time, Sir Hal also planned to leave Mark to guard the Airo-flyer while he, Gwenith and the young Knight preceded on their quest.
The Chinese coastline came into view. Sir Hal asked Mark to activate the on-board ID scanner. Mark did so and soon after located the airfield’s ID transmission beam. Sir Hal noted the find, and after contacting the airport authorities for permission to land, adjusted the flyer’s course to match the beam’s heading. Twenty minutes later the airfield came into view. Five minutes on and the Airo-flyer touched down. Sir Hal taxied the craft to the end of the runway and brought it to a stop outside what pertained to be the main hanger complex. A man dressed in the garb of a Mongolian official emerged from one of the hangers and began walking over to meet them. Sir Hal assumed he was the Airport Administrator. Leaving Mark and Gwenith with the flyer, he and Sir Garth went to meet him.
“My most humble greetings.” said the official, bowing. “Might I introduce myself? I am Li’chow, Chief Administrator of this unworthy airport.”
Sir Hal hid a smile. He was used to the humble way Chinese officials referred to themselves and their posts, but in this case, `unworthy’ seemed a fitting description. The airport runway was little more than a strip of partially overgrown tarmac, and the hangers rusty barns, with rotting wooden doors, held on by hope and rope brackets. The Administration building, if you could call it that, was a small caravan, minus its wheels and powered by a noisy generator. Out of all the buildings, only the Control tower the end of the runway came anyway near to that which one would normally expect to find at a modern-day airport. And even that was in dire need of a fresh coat of paint.
“My humble greeting to you, Chief Administrator.” Sir Hal replied, returning the bow. “I am Lord Avilon, Knight of the Round Table and First Champion to the Court of Camelot.”
Li’Chow bowed yet again. “I am honoured to be in your presence, Lord Avilon.” he said.
Sir Hal stood to one side and with a single movement of his hand, waved Sir Garth forward. He said, “May I introduce my travelling companion, Sir Garth, a Fellow Knight of the Table.”
Sir Garth stepped forward and bowed. “My greetings to you, Administrator.”
Sir Hal pointed to Airo-flyer. “Incidentally, the two people by the aircraft are, Mark, my Squire, and Gwenith, a maiden of the our realm. It is on behalf of the maiden that we have travelled here.”
Li’Chow cocked a knowing eyebrow. “You are on a Quest?”
“We have that honour.” Sir Hal replied, with a nod.
“Ah! The Quests of the Round Table are indeed legendary!” said Li’Chow, a glint appearing in his eye. “If you will allow, this most humble servant will be honoured if he can be of service. Just ask, and if it can be done, it will be done.” He bowed low and backed away. “Please,” he said, indicating the caravan, “come to my office. There, we can discuss your requirements in private.”
Sir Hal bowed graciously in return and followed the man over to the caravan. Sir Garth trailed along behind, his hand hovering over the pistol he carried at his waist. Mark and Gwenith watched them from the hatchway of the flyer. Even though the Administrator looked quite friendly and there appeared to be no other people about, Mark took the precaution of tucking a fully loaded, automatic rifle behind the door. Gwenith went back inside, but he remained by the hatch, and the rifle until the two Knights re-emerged.
“It’s all fixed.” said Sir Hal to his squire. “We’ve been given the use of a PVR. Keep the flyer warmed up, Mark. And don’t let anyone aboard while we’re gone.”
The squire nodded and handed his master his equipment belt. Sir Hal took it and clipped it on. He then adjusted the setting on his personal radio and told Mark to maintain an hourly radio watch.
“As for any other communications,” he said, “we’ll keep to the standard procedure.”
Mark nodded his understanding and handed Sir Garth another radio. “It’s already been set to the right channel.” he told the young Knight.
Sir Hal gave Mark a knowing wink and turned to Sir Garth. “Now let’s get going before Li’Chow changes his mind. Oh, and Gwenith?” The maiden emerged from the flyer. “Yes?”
“Li’Chow told me something else. As far as he knows, Jules is still being held at the Castle.”
“Well, that’s something at least.” she said. “I was afraid that we’d have to search the whole country for him.” She ran her fingers through her hair, and let out a long sigh. “Actually I’m surprised the Port Administrator was so helpful. Most officials I’ve come across wouldn’t lend you the time of day! How on earth did you manage it?”
Sir Hal smiled, and offered her his hand. “Li’Chow’s always wanted to travel. In particular it seems to England. Apparently he’s a bit of a `Legend of King Arthur’ buff. He has an ambition to see Camelot castle and, the Lake of Avilon. Unfortunately he has never been able to obtain an entry visa.”
“Oh.” she said. “I thought that Camelot believed in free travel.”
“We do.” the Knight answered, with a wry smile. “But the Mongols don’t. Not for their own people anyway. Oh, they allow some travel, for trade and the like. But they don’t like the foreign Consulates issuing too many visas. Even to their own officials. As a result there’s a sort of `unofficial quota system’ in operation. I simply promised to help Li’Chow obtain a visa.”
He led them over to an area marked, `Official Use Only’. Amongst the modest collection of motor vehicles was a large multi-wheeled personnel carrier, the PVR. The Administrator was waiting by the driver’s door, with the keys in his hand.
“I have taken the liberty of providing you with a map of the area.” he said. “It might prove useful should you find the road out of the city blocked. If you understand my meaning.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you.” said Sir Hal. “And yes, I do.”
Sir Hal waited until his companions were aboard and then climbed about himself. The PVR fired up almost at the first attempt. Moments later, it was rolling off down the road towards the city of Yan-san. Mark waited until it was out of sight before climbing back aboard the Airo-flyer.
Li’Chow watched it go also and then disappeared inside his office, to call his superior in the city. After all, it would not harm matters if he hedged his bets...
Sir Hal and his companions reached the city and parked in a vehicle yard opposite a row of shops. Sir Hal choose the location because in was near the old castle and the main square. Being home to the market, the square itself was quite full. As well as the usual food and clothing stalls there was a number of traders selling electrical goods - computers mostly and of course radios. The trader of one of these stalls caught Sir Garth’s eye. She was a Mongolian girl of about twenty years, raven haired and very pretty. She looked up just as the young Knight was staring and smiled at him.
Sir Hal saw the smile and grunted. “If I remember rightly, our consul’s office is just off the square.” He pointed towards a narrow lane, flanked by a pair of twin towers. “Down there in fact.” he said with a wry smile.
Sir Garth followed his gaze and saw that the towers were emblazoned with the Mongol symbol for `foreign devils’. Proof indeed that the street was where most countries house their accredited officials.
“I’ll go and see him by myself.” said Sir Hal. You and Gwenith take a look round the market. Find out what you can about the local situation. Be discrete, mind. Don’t go and get yourselves arrested.”
“We won’t.” Sir Garth promised.
“I can second that.” said Gwenith, taking a deep breath. She looked slowly around the square. Her eyes fixed on a short stone fountain. “Jules and I were over by that water-pump when we fell foul of the Mongol guards. They dragged Jules off to the castle, through that gate over there.”
She indicated a set of double doors. They were flanked by two guards who were armed with swords and short automatic rifles. The guards seemed to glare at her as she pointed. One of them moved his hand and placed it on the hilt of his sword.
“I see that the Mongols are as friendly as usual.” she grunted, turning away.
“As I said,” repeated Sir Hal. “Don’t get into trouble.”
“Come on, Gwenith.” said Sir Garth. “Let’s go and have a look round the market. There’s a stall over there selling Sony’s new ViewCam 3 computer, and I could do with a new laptop.”
Sit Hal watched them go and the turned and headed off across the square and the lane of the `foreign devils’. As expected the lane was almost empty of local people. Although the Mongols did not actively discourage the local population from visiting the various Consulates inhabiting the lane, there was an underlying air of distrust of anyone who did. The result being the only locals Sir Hal saw were those traders who had come to deliver goods the foreigners had ordered from them. He did however encountered one who did not fit the description of `trader’. His features indicated that he was of Mediterraneanextraction, although his dress was that of an Inca. The man glanced at him as they passed, and Sir Hal nodded a greeting, but did the man did not respond. Instead he quickened his pace and walked out into the Market Square.
Sir Hal sighed at the man’s unfriendliness. “And a good day to you too.” he said. He put the matter behind him and continued on his way. The door to Camelot’s Consulate was a few metres on. It was set back behind a pair of heavy iron gates. The crest of the Royal Court was emblazoned above them. Sir Hal pushed them open and went through. He knocked twice using the lion head doorknocker and waited for it to be answered. A couple of moments later it did, by a young man dressed in the garb of a Foreign Office Official.
“Ah! Lord Avilon.” said a young man. “Please come in. The Consul has been expecting you.”
He ushered Sir Hal in and led him along a narrow passageway to a teak panelled door. He opened the door and went in.
“Lord Avilon is here, Sir Giles.” said the young man. Sir Hal went in.
Behind a large wooden desk sat a large balding man of advanced years. He stood up and offered Sir Hal his hand.
“Welcome to Yan-san, my Lord. I trust your journey was not too unpleasant?”
Sir Hal took the hand and smiled. “About the same as I expected.” he said. “We were fired on while we crossed from Aden to Oceon-1, but apart from that, it was quiet enough. At least the final leg from Singapore was peaceful.”
“Fired on?” exclaimed the Consul. “Oh my! Do you have any idea who it was that did it?”
“I have my suspicions.” replied Sir Hal, with a wry smile. “But at the moment I am more concerned with effecting the release of the young Norman the local War Lord has imprisoned.”
“Ah yes.” said the Consul. “Jules `Bonnor’ Or more correctly, the Count de Bonnier. Unfortunately I was out of the city at the time of the incident, otherwise I would have spoken to the young maiden myself. I have the file you transmitted here.”
He reached for a computer pad and activated it. “A very foolish young man, I must say.” he said, reading through it. “The last thing you do here start an argument with a Mongol! Negotiating with them is bad enough! I would have thought someone of noble blood would have known better.”
The Consul passed the pad over to Sir Hal.
“Having a noble lineage does not endow wisdom.” grunted Sir Hal.
“I took the liberty of making some discrete inquiries before you arrived.” the Consul added. “The young man is still being held at the castle. He is well. By that I mean he has not been tortured or beaten. And he has still not been formally convicted with any crime. Or charged with one for that matter. The maiden Gwenith’s fear that he was under threat of death would seem unjustified.”
“That is good news.” said the Knight. “Gwenith will be relieved to hear it. It’s good that he’s still at the castle too.”
“You don’t sound all that surprised?” said Sir Giles.
“I’m not.” answered Sir Hal. He told the Consul of his talk with Li’Chow.
“Mind you,” he added. “I was beginning to fear that he’d be moved to another location before we had a chance to intercede.”
“I can see why you were worried.” said the Sir Giles.“It wouldn’t be the first time the Mongols have locked someone up and then forgotten where they put them. Finding them again can be almost impossible!”
Sir Hal could not help but agreed. He asked, “Can you arrange for me to visit him? Or do you think that is that out of the question?”
“Yes.” replied the Consul, with a nod. “That is I don’t see why a visit can’t be arranged. The man you will need to see is, Po’ling, the Chief Adjudicator.” He smiled and gave a short laugh. “A difficult man to see at the best of time, devious too sometimes. But fortunately I have established quite a relationship with Chang-yin, the local Horde Administrator. I’m sure if I asked him nicely, he’d able to cut through the political red tape. I’ll contact him straight away.”
“Thank you.” said Sir Hal. “That would marvellous. And if you could see your way to arranging for that visa I spoke of, I would be most grateful.”
“Of course.” smiled Sir Giles. “I will see what I can do. Incidentally, Sir Hal. Have you made any accommodation arrangements? I can have rooms made available here at the Consul, if you wish?"
"Thank you, Sir Giles. But I would prefer to stay somewhere less confined, if you take my meaning."
"I see your point." grunted the Consul. "This street is a little short of escape routes! I'll have some rooms made ready never-the-less. "
“I should point out,” said Sir Hal. “that my quest might cause you some problems, once I’ve left. If it does, then please accept my apologies, in advance.”
“We always have problems here, my Lord.” the Consul replied with a sigh, as he picked up the telephone. “It’s the nature of things, I’m afraid.”
Sir Hal thanked him again and waited until the Consul had arranged the visit. He then bid the official farewell and made his way back to the market, pausing briefly at a stall selling snacks to quell his hunger. He choose a chicken and rice spice roll and a bottle of chilled rice-wine to wash it down. The hot spicy sauce burnt his throat and he took a long swallow of wine in an effort to cool it.
“A touch too much pepper I think.” he said with a cough and thought twice about taking another bite.
He looked about him to see if he could see Sir Garth or the maiden, Gwenith, but there was no sign. He moved on through the market, nibbling at the spice roll and he did. He had nearly reach the outer edge before he saw his companions. They were on a seat near a stall selling songbirds. Sir Garth appeared to be inspecting the contents of a bag he had on his lap. Gwenith was reading a paper. At least she made pretence at reading, for she spent more time looking in the direction of at the castle’s main gate, and the two warriors guarding them. Sir Hal frowned and walked over.
“I see that you have been doing some shopping?” he smiled as he reached them.
The young Knight looked up and grinned back. “Yes. I purchased a laptop. I needed a new one. My old one must be a least a year out of date. This one should be very useful. It has all the latest features.” He zipped up the bag and placed it on the seat next to him. “Any luck with the consul?”
Gwenith put the paper down and looked up at him. “Yes. Did you learn anything new?”
“Some.” Sir Hal replied. “Jules is still at the castle.” Gwenith visibly let out a sigh of relief. “And by all accounts is fit and well. I’ll know more later. Sir Giles, the Consul has arranged an appointment for me with the local Adjudicator. I’m due there in an hour.”
He looked at the half eaten spice roll in his hand and grimaced. “Time enough to get some proper food. Come on. I’ll treat us all to a meal while we talk. There’s a restaurant two streets over. Not far from where we left the PVR, as a matter of fact. It should be good. Sir Giles recommended it himself.” He took another look at his snack and tossed it into a nearby bin. “It can’t be any worse than the food here!”
As they moved off, two plainly dressed men who had been sitting a bench on the far side of the square, stuffed the newspapers they had been pretending to read into their coat pockets and rose to their feet. Keeping at a discrete distance they followed Sir Hal and his two companions to the street where the recommended restaurant was located. The two men waited until the little group was safely inside the restaurant before selecting a shaded spot under a nearby wall. They then extracted the newspapers from their pockets and began to read them all over again.
Appetite satisfied, Sir Hal, left the restaurant to keep the appointment the Consul had made. As the appointment had been made for him alone, it had been decided that Sir Garth and Gwenith would wait at the restaurant until the meeting was over, and the First Knight returned, or until they were summoned to join him. This suited Sir Garth well, as it gave him a chance to try-out some of the features on his new computer. One feature especially enthralled him, and was the main reason he had bought the machine. Gwenith on the other hand was compelled to sit and wait, and drink more tea while she did.
Outside, the two plainly dressed men were faced with a decision. Should they wait for the Knight of the Round Table to return, or should one of them follow him? Separating forces in a hostile land was always a risky business – it reduced the effectiveness of attack and meant that one man could not aid the other in time of danger. But they decided to risk it anyway – even if it did pose the added risk of them losing sight of their main target.
As Sir Hal turned the corner, one of the men put away his paper and nodded briefly to his companion. He then walked slowly down the street andafter pausing a moment to see if it was safe, disappeared round the corner also. The other man glanced briefly at the restaurant and its occupants and then returned to his reading.
Sir Hal walked quickly along. The place where the meeting was to take place was in an area of the castle not normally open to `outsiders’. To gain entry, Sir Hal would have to present himself and his credentials to the guards at the main gates. He steeled himself for action. Given their previous attitude he was not sure how the two Horde warriors would react.
Sir Hal turned the last corner. Before him, the market square was bustling with activity. The previously half-empty market was now full of local people, out shopping for a late bargain. The two guards outside the castle gates were on full alert. Both had un-slung their rifles and were eyeing the populous with an untrusting gaze.
“I had better let Mark know I’m about to go into the dragon’s lair.” he frowned to himself. With a casual movement he extracted his radio and activated it.
“Avilon here. I’m going into the castle, now.” he said. “I’ll call again when I’m back out.”
Mark’s replied with one word. “Understood.”
Returning the radio to his pocket, Sir Hal started across the square. As he crossed he altered his course so that he passed by a stall selling glassware and mirrors. He paused at this stall and looked into one the mirrors on display. He frowned. The reflection within showed the plainly dressed man who was following him. Although the man was doing his best to keep out of sight, Sir Hal was trained and practised in the art of identifying danger. He had been aware of someone following him for some time. He also suspected who they might be.
He continued on his way. Leaving the bustle of the market behind, he crossed the road to the castle gates. The two Horde warriors immediately levelled their weapons at him and issued a challenge.
“Stand your ground!” one ordered.
The man’s dialect was unfamiliar and Sir Hal was glad he had taken a refresher course in the language before leaving Camelot. He stopped and bowed once.
“I am Lord Avilon, of Camelot.” he said. “I have an appointment with your Chief Adjudicator.”
“Step forward, slowly and present your credentials.” replied the warrior.
Sir Hal did as he was bid. He offered his wallet, inside of which was his Knight’s Crest. “You will see, he said. “that I have the right under the terms of the United Nations Charter to represent any and all citizens of Camelot, Normandy and the Isles of Britain who are being held pending charge or awaiting trial.”
The guard eyed the Knight with a piercing gaze. He looked first at Sir Hal's face and then at his identification card. Then he glanced back at his companion. At last he said,
"Very well, Lord Avilon. Your credentials appear to be in order. And we have been notified of your appointment. You may enter. You will of course leave all weapons at with Gate Custodian."
"Naturally." replied Sir Hal.
The guard took out a small radio transmitter and spoke two words. The gates opened."In you go." said the guard. "And keep to the path."
He stood aside and waved Sir Hal on. Sir Hal bowed once out of politeness and passed through the opening into the castle's outer keep.
Once through he was met by a severe looking man of advance years.
"I am the Gate Custodian." he said. "You, I assume are Lord Avilon?"
"I am." replied Sir Hal. "Here are my credentials."
He offered the old man his ID card. The Custodian took it and swiped it through and hand-held reader.
"Ugh!" he grunted. "A Knight of the Round Table, no less! You may pass, my Lord. After you have handed in your sword and pistol."
He nodded to the guards outside and the gates closed with a thud.
"Do I require a guide?" asked Sir Hal, as he unbuckled his belt.
"No. Just keep to the path marked red." the Custodian advised. "Be careful. Any deviation could prove hazardous to your health."
Sir Hal bowed and walked on. The path, which was indeed marked with red paint; at least Sir Hal assumed it was paint, led him along a narrow passageway between two towering wall of stone blocks. The passage lasted for about one hundred yards and was devoid of any doors or openings, so making any deviation at this stage impossible. It opened out onto a courtyard. Dotted around the courtyard were a number of doors, each painted a different colour. There were also a number of other openings dotted around the courtyard, each of which was marked with by a different colour. The red path that Sir Hal followed led to a door in the far right corner. After glancing around, he walked over to it.
The door had a card reader set in the wall beside it. Sir Hal inserted his ID and a moment later the door clicked open. Sir Hal walked through.
Beyond the door Sir Hal found a small room. There were three doors opening into this room, one of which was painted red. Sir Hal took a deep breath and walked over to it. The door clicked open as he drew close. A voice came from inside.
“Enter, Lord Avilon.”
Sir Hal entered. An elderly man dressed in the garb of a mandarin sat behind an equally ornate desk. Both looked out of place compared with the ultra-modern computer screen and intercom which occupied half of the desk area. He rose to his feet as Sir Hal entered.
“I am Po’ling. Civil Adjudicator for the district of Yan-san.” said the `mandarin’, with a bow. “Please, sit. May I offer you some refreshment? Tea perhaps, or some wine?”
Sir Hal settled himself into an golden chair indicated.“Some tea would be appreciated.” he replied.
“Tea it shall be then.” With the grace of a swan, Po’ling pressed a button on the desk intercom and ordered the refreshments. He then settled into his own chair and activated the computer console.
“Forgive me for any haste, Lord Avilon.” he said. “I know how anxious you must be to get back to your castle. You have come in regard to the welfare of man young man, named…” He looked at the screen in front of him. “…Jules Bonnor, have you not?”
Sir Hal hid a smile and answered, “You are quite correct, sir. Master Bonnor’s travelling companion has asked me to inquire after his well-being. And to inquire as to the possibility of obtaining his release.”
The Adjudicator pursed his lips and tapped the edge of the desk with his long nails. “His well-being is good. He is still here, under detainment, pending formal charges. As for obtaining his release…, well that will be up to the District Court to decide.”
Sir Hal nodded as if in agreement. “You said that he is awaiting formal charges to be laid? Does that mean that none have yet been advanced? Or is it because there are none to advance?”
The Adjudicator’s answer was cut short by a knock on the door. It opened and a young woman entered, carrying a tray.
“Ah the tea!” beamed Po’ling. “Thank you Mia. You may leave the tray. I will pour.”
The woman bowed low and departed. Po’ling poured out two cups and handed his guest one of them. Sir Hal took it and placed it on the desk in front of him. Along with the tea, there were a number of sweets, parcels of spiced fruit pastries. Their flavour filled Sir Hal's nostrils, bringing back memories of an earlier visit..
Po’ling smiled. “It means Lord Avilon, that General Pon’chow - he’s the Horde Commander for this provence, in his noble wisdom, has not yet decided what charges should be advanced.”
“May I inquire as to the General’s possible choices?” Sir Hal asked.
The Adjudicator looked again at his view-screen. “As far as I am aware, they range from, `Causing a Public Disturbance’, to `Conspiring to Commit Insurrection.’ My guess is that, given the correct meditation, the former would be more likely. However, the General has been know to be… difficult in his dealings with foreign nationals, so it is far from certain which course he will decide upon.”
Sir Hal took this statement as an indication that it would be in order for him to instigate an offer to act on the young man’s behalf. He also took it to mean that the Warlord General’s attitude towards western foreigners had not mellowed. As if to confirm the observation, Po’ling added,
“I feel obliged to warn you, Lord Avilon. The General is know to be… How say I say? Aggressive in the way he performs his duties. He is at this very moment up-country, dealing with a disciplinary matter. I pity the poor officer in question. He will know doubt come to regret his… transgression. You also should beware of incurring the Generals displeasure, should you and he come to meet.”
“Thank you.” said Sir Hal. “I will bare it in mind.” The Adjudicator smiled, thinly and clasped his hands together.
“I am pleased to hear it. Unfortunately many men have not. They paid dearly I fear.”
A thought suddenly struck Sir Hal him that Pon’chow might not be very popular with the men under his command. Or with the Adjudicator.
“Might I offer my services as Jules Bonnors mediator?” he said. “I am not without some experience in such matters.”
Po’ling made a slight bow. “You are most generous, Lord Avilon. I will put your offer to the Court, and to Master Bonnor. I will let you know the outcome in the morning.”
“I was hoping that I could put the offer to Master Bonnor myself.”
Po’ling went silent for a moment. Then he said, “Of course, my Lord. You are after all, Camelot’s First Champion. To deny you such a request would most ungracious. I will arrange for a guard to escort you to the detention block. After you have finished your tea, of course.”
Sir Hal bowed his head and took a sip of his tea. It was hot and spicy. Just as he liked it. “Excellent tea, Po’ling.” he said. “I thank you for kindness.”
"A trifle." smiled Po'ling. In a seemingly effortless motion he reached for his own cup and took a sip.
"Please help yourself to some delicacies." said Po'ling. "They are a particular favourite of mine. Spiced banana and redberry."
Sir Hal accepted the offer. "Very good." he said, after tasting one. "I must add them to my shopping list."
"I will have some sent over to your Consulate." beamed Po'ling. "I assume that is where you are staying?"
"To be honest," replied Sir Hal. "I haven't made up my mind yet. I was thinking of staying at one of the Hotels in the city. Can you recommend one?"
"I fear not." said the Adjudicator. "I seldom have the opportunity to leave the Castle, less still to enjoy the delights of the local hostelries. I am however informed that the 'Hotel of the Eastern Sun.' is well frequented by the more gracious of our overseas visitors. Would you like me to arrange some rooms for you? Would three be enough, or would you prefer four?"
Sir Hal smiled inwardly at Po'ling's attempt at obtaining information as to how many people he had with him. He was obviously well informed. No doubt by the Airport Administrator. He decided to accept the offer.
"Your kindness is without bounds." he said. "Three will be sufficient, thank you."
“Oh, and one last thing.” said the Adjudicator.“Remember that the curfew in the city begins at ten of the clock. Be sure to be at your lodging by then. The night patrol can be quite strict.”
“I will bare that in mind.” replied Sir Hal. “Thank you again, for your kindness.”
Sir Hal followed the guard along a series of dark passageways and down two flights of stairs. Eventually they stopped outside a heavy wooden gate. The guard motioned him to wait. He pressed the intercom and the gate opened. The Jailer, a man old as the grey walls he guarded peered out.
“Yes?” he said, with an air of annoyance. He eyed Sir Hal up and down and snorted. “Oh. You must be the British Knight who’s come to see the Norman! Well come in, come in! I’ve importantthings to do even if you haven’t!”
Sir Hal followed the man inside.
“You can wait in here.” the Jailer told him as he opened a door off the passage inside. “I’ll have the Norman brought out.”
Sir Hal entered. It was lightly furnished, with just a table and two chairs. There was a video camera set in the corner. He suspected there would be microphones too, only hidden.
“I’m informed that you can be trusted not to attempt pass the prisoner any weapons. “ the Jailer grunted. “I do hope so. It would be unfortunate if you did try. And quite pointless. Escape from this castle is impossible. With or with out weapons!”
Sir Hal held open his coat to show that he was unarmed. “My sword and pistol were handed in at the gate.”
“But I will heed your warning, never the less.” he smiled.
He walked across to the table and sat down. Unsurprisingly he found the chairs were secured to the floor. The Jailer grunted again and closed the door.
After a few about ten minutes the door opened again and a young, unshaven man was ushered inside. The Jailer stood in the doorway and clicked his set of keys back an forth. “I have been told to let you have no more than thirty minutes. I’ll be back in twenty-five. Until then you’ll be locked in. There is not signal buzzer, so don’t bother looking for one.”
With a final grunt he closed the door and locked it. Sir Hal and the young man looked at each other for a few moments before Sir Hal broke the silence.
“I am Lord Avilon,” he said. “First Champion of the Court of Camelot. I have agreed to act as your mediator. Please. Come and sit down. We have things to discuss.”
the young man took his seat and placed his hands on the table. “I am Jules Bonnor, of Normandy. Why are you doing this? I am not one of your citizens. I am a Norman!”
“I was engaged by a friend of yours.” Sir Hal replied. “A Lady by the name of Gwenith Ulthran.”
Jules Bonnor’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “Gwenith? Then she is still free? The Mongols haven’t jailed her then?”
Sir Hal shook his head. “No. She’s quite safe. She’s with some friends of mine.”
“Thank God for that!.” Jules said with relief. “I had feared she had been jailed too. But why did she go to you? Why not my…”
“Your farther?” Sir Hal suggested. He leaned forward and keeping his voice to a whisper, said, “Can I assume that the Mongols don’t know who you really are?”
The young man took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He looked at Sir Hal with narrowed eyes, sizing him up as he did. Finally he said, “You can. When I travel, I try to travel simply. I find it…cheaper. Titles can be so cumbersome. Plus my father and I don’t always see eye to eye over my travels. He believes I should stay within the realm. Our realm that is. Aquataine, or Normandy.”
“I understand that he is quite worried about you.” said Sir Hal. “He no doubt has agents of his own looking for you.”
“That I doubt.” countered Jules. “I would be surprised if didn’t even know I was a missing!”
“Believe me,” said Sir Hal. “he does.”
Jules shrugged. If he was surprised to learn that his father knew of his predicament, he hid it well. “Perhaps, perhaps. I am still surprised however that Gwenith went to you for help and not him. Especially considering her views.”
Sir Hal’s brow furrowed and he wondered just how opposed, if at all the Lady Gwenith was to Camelot’s rule of northern France.
“Gwenith is a Saxon by birth, isn’t she?” he asked. “Born and bred in the fens of Anglia, if I understand correctly.”
“Yes. But she’s a modern woman.” Jules replied. “She cares for the underdog.” He shrugged. “She thinks Normans are underdogs. I think sometimes that’s why she likes me. She considers me a Norman.”
“And you don’t?”
The young man shrugged again. “No, not really. I’m a Roman, if anything. Mind you, my royal birthright means I can claim citizenship of several countries, including Camelot.” He laughed. “Not that I ever have! Father would never permit it! He doesn’t like dealing with your country!”
“So I have heard.” Sir Hal placed his hands on the table and changed the subject.
“This fight you had? What was it about? I get the feeling that it wasn’t just because you and a couple of warriors had a disagreement over a place to sit?”
“Hardly.” Jules sat back in his seat. “I don’t suppose you have a cigar on you? I haven’t had one for weeks. The guard won’t even let me have a tobacco stick.”
“Sorry. I don’t smoke.” said Sir Hal. “It’s bad for your lungs.”
“Pity.” Jules scratched his forehead and ran his fingers through his hair. “Actually the fight was about Gwenith. Or more precisely because her. She had been shopping in the market, for fruit I think, yes that’s right, she said she was going to buy some apples. Strange that. She doesn’t normally like apples. Anyway was just coming back when two soldiers stopped her and started searching through her bags; I was on a seat near the water-fountain. The soldiers were quite rough. One of them emptied her bag and spilled the apples she’d just bought out onto the ground. Gwenith seemed to get angry and started shouting at them. I saw what was happening and ran over to help. They told me to leave and we argued about it. Then two more warriors turned up. One was an officer. He said I was interfering with a official in the course of his duty and arrested me! Can you believe that? Me arrested!” He let out sharp snort. “You know, I’ve been coming here for years, and never had trouble with the locals before! Lord knows what father would have said about that!”
“Why wasn’t Gwenith arrested as well?” asked Sir Hal.
Jules frowned. “I’m not sure. I think it might have been because of the Inca’s intervention.”
“Inca?” queried Sir Hal. “What Inca?”
“The one I saw as I was being dragged off.” explained Jules. “At least I think he was an Inca. He was dressed as one anyway. I couldn’t see his face very well. Gwenith must have told you about him. He said something to the officer, handed him something, money probably, and they let her go. I was inside the gate by then so couldn’t see any more. Why? Didn’t Gwenith tell you about him?”
Sir Hal shook his head. “No. She didn’t.”
They talked for a another ten minutes, during which time Sir Hal outlined what he planned to do. Then the Jailer returned and told them the visit was over. Sir Hal bid Jules good-by and promised to try and see him the again the next day.
As he was led back to the main gate, Sir Hal reflected on the omissions in Gwenith’s story. And of the mysterious Inca. He also reflected on some of the other things that Jules had told him, for if they were true, then the real danger Sir Hal and his friends faced did not come from the Mongols or their Empire, but from nearer home.
Gwenith Ulthran tapped her fingers nervously on the surface of the dark oak table. Opposite her sat Sir Garth. He was deep in concentration, entering data on the laptop computer he had just purchased. She was not very interested in computers and so apart from a few words, they had hardly spoken since Sir Hal had left. Outside in the street a man and a woman walked by, dragging a child behind them. The child was screaming at them, pointing to some object or person out of Gweniths line of sight. With a final slap on the childs behind, the woman picked the child up and carried him off. Gwenith could still hear his cries after the family disappeared form sight. Bored, she turned her attention to interior gloom of the restaurant. Apart from Sir Garth and herself, the restaurant was empty of customers, the last of having departed over an hour ago. After clearing away the plates and relaying the tables, the restaurant’s one and only waiter had settled himself down to read a paper while he idled away the time until the next rush of customers arrived. An incense candle flickered on the counter as he flipped over a page. The edge of the paper almost touched the flame and Gwenith wondered it might catch fire. The waiter must have too, for he casually reach out and moved the candle further away. He then shifted his position and once again the paper’s edge hovered near the flame.
Gwenith watch all this with a detached sense of amusement. It amazed her stupid some people could be. At the same time she wondered if the man actually cared. Like her, the man was obviously bored also, for he glanced at the candle and shrugged, as if to say that even if the paper did catch fire, putting it out would at least give him something to do. As she watched this tableau, the restaurant owner came out of his office, saw the waiter, the candle and the waiter’s paper and let out a mournful sigh. He extinguished the flame and reproached the waiter for his carelessness. Then he directed the man to go to the kitchen and help the cook start preparing for the next meal rush. Noticing that Gwenith and Sir Garth were still occupying their window table, he proceeded to come over.
“Your companion has not returned, I see.” he said.
“No, not yet.” replied Sir Garth, looking up for a moment.
The owner sighed. “Mm. Delayed by some petty bureaucracy no doubt. The Horde can be quite pretentious sometimes. May I offer you more some tea, while you wait?”
Sir Garth accepted the offer, but Gwenith declined.
“Thank you, but no.” she said. “I find that drinking too much tea in the afternoon makes me sleepy.”
“Some coffee then, perhaps?” the owner offered.
Gwenith shrugged. “Thanks. That would be appreciated.”
Shutting down his computer screen, Sir Garth peered out of the window and into the street.
“Sir Hal certainly is late in getting back.” he said. “I do hope there is nothing amiss.”
Outside, the figure a man came into view.
Gwenith saw the man and gave Sir Garth a thin smile. She said, “Oh I’m sure the noble, First Champion of Camelot can deal with a few Mongol warriors. That’s why I choose him to help me.”
Sir Garth began to wonder if Sir Hal’s assessment of the Maiden was accurate. He eyed her suspiciously, but refrained from commenting on her statement. Instead he turned his attention back to his computer.
The castle gates closed behind him and Sir Hal breathed in the cool fresh air of the late afternoon. It was good to be outside, in the relative freedom of the city. The sun was at its lowest point now; soon it would disappear for the night beneath the horizon. The once busy market square was empty now, bar the odd trader who had waited until the last customer had gone home.
“First things first.” he said, under his breath and took out his radio. “Mark, I’m out.”
Mark’s reply was almost instantaneous. “Check. A1, clear.”
The castle clock struck eight. In another two hours in would be curfew. He put the radio away and adjusted his equipment belt.
“Time enough to collect Sir Garth and the maiden.” he said, to himself. “I might even find time for a cup of tea.”
Before crossing the square he took a careful look around, both to see the Night Guard had taken their posts and to check if his `shadow’ was still with him. Of the Night Guard, there was no sign; it was obviously still too early. As to the man that had been following him, Sir Hal thought he caught sight of a figure lurking in the shadows on the far side of the square. Sir Hal grunted with resignation, noted the position and moved on. He was not yet certain if the man posed a threat, and even if he did there was little he could do about it whilst still in the square. Any confrontation, if indeed the man’s presence demanded such an act would have to wait until later. Sir Hal quickened his pace. At the same time he unclipped the stay on his sword hilt and gripped the scabbard with his left hand. Ready for instant action he headed across the square and for the street where Sir Garth and Gwenith were waiting for his return. He turned the corner and ducked into a doorway, keeping well into its shadow. The sound of footsteps echoed in the cold night air. Someone was following him. Sir Hal gripped the hilt of his sword and steeled himself. The footsteps drew nearer. A figure rounded the corner and glided by. Even the footsteps seemed quieter. Sir Hal waited until the figure had passed and then re-emerged from the shadows. He let the man reach the end of the street before moving on himself.
As he approached the restaurant, Sir Hal noticed the man had been joined by another. They were sitting on a bench by the restaurant doorway and seemed to be having a heated conversation. One in particular sounded quite annoyed. Sir Hal smiled thinly and walked on. Both men looked up as he passed. They appeared to be very surprised, as if they had not expected to see him. Sir Hal gave them a casual glance, but at the same time took in their height, build and state of alertness. He judged them to be of Turkish or possibly Judaean extraction; eastern Mediterranean certainly. Either way they were probably citizens of the Holy Roman Empire.
“So you’re still with us, are you.” he said, under his breath. “How tedious.”
He entered the restaurant and paused by the door. The interior was dark, lit only by candles. The smoke filled the air with a scented smell. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, Sir Hal looked around for his companions. It wasn’t easy. Every table in the room occupied. The waiter had been joined by another two and all three were hurrying back and forth between the restaurant and kitchen with trays laden with hot dishes. The owner too was busy as was the bartender. Eventually he found them by the window. Sir Garth must have see him also as he waved his hand at him.
“Sir Hal!” the young Knight called. “Over here!”
Sir Hal walked over and took a seat. “I see our friends are still with us.” he said.
Sir Garth nodded. “Yes. It’s nice to see they’ve been reunited. How did the meeting go? Any trouble?”
Gwenith glanced at the window and then at Sir Hal. “Yes, How is Jules? I assume you did see him?”
Sir Hal looked at her and smiled. “Yes I saw him. And yes, he is well. He sends his regards and hopes you are well.” He told her about the visit and of his plan to free the young Lord.
“I understand that no charges have been laid as yet.” he said. “Considering what you told me, I was a little surprised at that. Pleased however, for it should make it easier to gain his freedom. But I have to warn you, it still won’t be easy. Mongol Warlords are notoriously unpredictable. He might discover who Jules Bonnor really is and demand a ransom. And if I know General Pon’chow, it won’t be a small one.” He sighed and unclipped his belt. “Let us hope it won’t come to that. I should know more tomorrow.”
Gwenith’s forehead furrowed. “You’ve met the General, then?” she said.
“Oh yes.” Sir Hal hailed the waiter and ordered a pot of tea and some cakes. “Actually we’ve met twice. Neither time was what you could call peaceful. The first time was in Mississippi; I was with your father at the time, Sir Garth.”
The young Knight glanced up from his computer screen. He said, “Yes. I remember father telling me about it. You were his aid back then. Much like I am yours now.”
Sir Hal looked at his fellow Knight. Sir Garth was very much like his father. Memories of times past and missions undertaken flooded through his mind, including the mission in which he and Pon’chow found themselves engaged in a vicious sword fight over the ownership of a Polynesian slave girl. The outcome had been Pon’chow’s defeat, and a scar on the Mongol’s face.
“What was he doing in the Mississippi?” Gwenith asked.
The waiter arrived with the pot of tea and a tray of cakes. Sir Hal thanked him and poured himself a cup. “Cake anyone?”
Gwenith shook her head. Sir Garth selected a iced bun.
“Pon’chow was a Captain back then, attached to the Mongolian Embassy as a `military observer’. The trouble was he like to observe things a little too privately.”
Sir Garth’s computer bleeped. He shot Sir Hal a glance and tapped the screen. “Talking about observing, our friends are on the move.”
“Then I suppose so should we.” Sir Hal sighed and emptied his cup. “It seems I will have to wait for my tea after all. “Settle the bill will you, Sir Garth. I’m going to pay a visit of my own.”
He rose from his seat and started towards the rear of the building. “Oh, and bring the rest of the cakes.”
“Where are we going?” asked Gwenith. “And who are these friends you spoke of?”
Sir Garth pressed some keys on his computer and closed down the lid. Gathering up his belt and coat, he stood up and beckoned the waiter.
“To our lodgings, of course. It is nearly curfew. And our friends, may not be friends.”
They met up with Sir Hal outside about ten minutes later. In his absence the First Knight had acquired a rucksack and his cloak, which he wore reversed. In addition he carried two other cloaks; one of which was Garth’s, the other was he handed to Gwenith.
“Better put them on.” he said. “It gets quite cold at night and we still have a bit of walking to do before we reach the hotel.”
“Can’t we use the PRV?” said Gwenith.
“Not possible.” replied Sir Hal. “I’ve just come from it. It’s been disabled. Anyway we can travel faster on foot. There’s a speed limit of five miles an hour at night.” He flashed the maiden a grin. “We don’t want to get ourselves arrested, do we?”
Fifteen minutes and several streets turnings later they were standing outside the `Hotel of the Eastern Sun’. It was very impressive. Four white marble pillars lined the front of the building, and an equallywhite stone path led the traveller up to a set of stone steps. These in turn led up to a pair of ornate teak panelled doors. Along the path, red and yellow lanterns hung from black posts, lighting the way. Sir Hal led the way up the path and into the main lobby. The interior was as ornate as the exterior. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, casting a thousand sparkling reflections onto the lobbies white marble floor. At the rear of the lobby golden dragons flanked a ten foot wide stone staircase. Red silk curtains were draped around the walls and the area was dominated by a forty foot wide teak reception desk. As they approached, a girl, dressed in a gold silken kimono came round the desk and bowed low in greeting. Sir Hal returned the bow and introduced himself and his party.
He found, true to his word, that Po’ling had indeed arranged for three rooms to be made available.
“Ah yes.” said the girl. “Lord Po’ling informed me of your arrival. Three rooms have been prepared for you. They are all adjoining.”
She clapped her hands and a bellboy appeared. “Chan, be as good as to show Lord Avilon and his party to their rooms.”
The boy asked if he could help carry their packs, but Sir Hal declined the offer.
“Thank you.” he said. “You are most gracious, but we can manage ourselves.”
After signing in and collecting their room keys, Sir Hal, Sir Garth and Gwenith followed the bellboy to the base of the staircase. Here Sir Hal paused and handed the younger Knight his pack.
“Garth, you and Gwenith go straight up. I’m going to have a look around. Our `friends’ might have got lost.”
Sir Garth frowned. “Do you need any help?”
The older Knight smiled and shook his head. “No. I’ll be quite safe providing I remain within the Hotel grounds. And anyway, the Night Guard should be on duty by now. They’ll be on hand to quell any trouble, if there is any.”
He left them and walked back across the lobby and through the teak doors. He paused by the top step and took a slow look around. The night air was cold, a sharp contrast to the warmth of the Hotel interior. The Hotel gardens, which were unlit except by the glow of the lanterns lining the path, were as still as the street beyond. Not a sole was about. The castle clock stuck the quarter hour. He looked at his watch. Curfew time was only a few minutes away. By now even the most daring of the local populous had locked themselves up behind the safety of their own front doors. But in spite of this fact and that Sir Hal had not seen or heard of the two `friends’ he suspected the two men were out there somewhere. Hiding in the shadows, waiting. He turned to the left and began to walk. A path led from the front steps and wound its way around the Hotel. Sir Hal moved silently along it, noting every bush, window and shadow as he passed them by. An owl hooted and in the distance a cat screeched at some unknown assailant. Sir Hal pulled his cloak tight around him and felt the reassuring touch of his sword against his thigh.
As he rounded the second corner, he heard a rustling sound coming from a bush ahead. He immediately gripped the hilt of his sword and steeled himself for trouble. A black shape leaped form the shadows and a flash of metal glinted in the dim light. A cry of hate erupted from the black shape and Sir Hal saw that the figure held a blade in his hand. He drew his sword in an instant and parried the attacking blade with one practised movement.
“You’ll have to do better than that.” grunted the First Knight.
The assailant did. With the speed and agility of a leopard he kicked out viciously and caught Sir Hal a glancing blow on the Knight’s right shoulder. Sir Hal staggered back and almost dropped his sword. The assailant attempted to repeat the move and jumped two feet into the air, but this time Sir Hal was ready for him and caught the man’s foot with his left hand and set the attacker spinning away. With an evil snarl, the assailant leapt up and spun round. He stood there looking at the Knight, sizing him up. Then, with his long blade held like a sword, he lunged forward a third time. Sir Hal waited until the last moment and then stepped aside. As the man passed Sir Hal turned and struck the man on the back of his head with his sword hilt. The assailant let out a cry of pain and staggered forward a few paces. Sir Hal hit him again, this time rendering the man unconscious. The attacker fell face forward onto the path. Fearing that the attacker might not be working along, Sir Hal crouched down and scanned the area for more assailants. To his relief none came. He put away his sword and turned the man over. He expected to see one of the two men who had been following them. But instead the face of a Turk or Jew, the man had the features of a Chinese, and to make matters worse was unknown to him. He searched the mans pockets and found a leather purse containing ten gold pieces. Apart from another two knives, sheathed in the inside of the mans coat the man carried nothing else of value.
“Umm.” he mused. “You’re certainly not a pauper. And doubt if you’re a thief. That only leaves one other possibility….”
He checked the man’s wrists. He took a deep breath. There was a familiar looking tattoo on the back of the mans hand. It was the crest of the Horde.
“I’m getting too old for this.” he said, with a deep sigh. “Perhaps it’s time I let a younger Knight take over.”
He decided to deprive the Chinaman of his weapons and tie him up. He considered leaving him for the Night Guard to find, but suspected that an establishment the size of`The Hotel of the Eastern Sun’ would have spy cameras hidden in the grounds and so probably already knew of the attack. Their security staff were most likely already on their way. He decided to wait for their arrival. He did not have to wait long. Three armed guards came running up the path.
“Please to stand where you are!” shouted the lead guard. Sir Hal did as he was bid.
Two guards flanked Sir Hal, while the third attended to the attacker.
“You have ID?” one asked. Sir Hal offered his credentials.
“Ah! You are Lord Avilon?” nodded the guard.
“I am.” Sir Hal replied. “But I am afraid I have know idea who he is.”
The guard attending the attacker looked up. “I know him. He’s name is Moa-sun-yan. He is a petty thief. I will call the Night Guard. They will deal with him.”
Moa-sun-yan was dragged roughly to his feet. The lead guard handed back Sir Hal his credentials and eyed him carefully.
“I regret, Lord Avilon that it is not always safe for foreigners to venture out at night in this city. It would therefore be advisable for you to remain within the confines of the Hotel during your stay. Please allow me to escort you back.”
Sir Hal bowed his head. “I thank you for your kindness. I will heed your advise.”
Together they walked back along the path. As they walked Sir Hal thought he saw a figure lurking in the trees. But then it was gone.
Upon reaching the main entrance, the guard bid Sir Hal goodnight and left him to make his own way up to his room. As he crossed the lobby the girl on duty called to him.
“Are you all right, My Lord? I heard the guards… Was there any trouble?”
“Thank you.” he replied, with a smile. “There was a little difficulty, but it was nothing of any real consequence. Goodnight.”
As he mounted the stairs to his room, Sir Hal thought took time to reflect on the days events, and on the people he had encountered. First there was the strangely dressed Inca. Was this the same man who had helped Gwenith avoid arrest?Then there was the Chief Adjudicator, Po’ling. Sir Hal’s meeting with him had been far easier than expected, surprisingly so considering that the Mandarin was probably acting under the direct orders of General Pon’chow, a man who held a grievance and who, given half a chance would kill Sir Hal without hesitation. So why was he being so helpful?
Then there was Jules Bonnor. The young Norman lord was not at all what he had expected. Far from being an enemy of Camelot, the young man seemed quite uninterested in politics. Or was his attitude just an act, and his arrest nothing more than a device, designed to lured him out of the Kingdom and into the lair of his enemies? And if so what was the maiden Gwenith part in it?
Lastly, and by now means least, there was the armed assailant, and the two men who had been followinghim all day. Were they linked? And who were they working for? The more he thought about it, the more he believed Gwenith knew more than she was saying. Perhaps the morning would hold some, if not all of the answers. To paraphrase an age old saying, only time would tell.
Safe within his plush hotel suite, Sir Garth, having heard what Sir Hal had told him took a deep breath and but held back what first came into his mind. Instead he inquired as to what plan of action the senior Knight had decided to follow. The First Knight poured himself a glass of sherry and selected a chair nearby the rooms picture window. Outside, the dark of the night encompassed the hotel like a thick blanket. Even the lamps in the street beyond seemed to fail in their attempt at illuminating the grounds. It was as if the city itself wanted to hide from the night.
He said, “I hate to admit it, but I am not sure what to do. I suspected that Pon’chow held a grudge against me, of course, but I never imagined that he would go as far as to abduct a Norman lord in order to lure me into his domain. I’m just not that important.”
“Maybe he thinks you are.” offered Sir Garth. “Maybe he thinks that only your death will avenge the injury you inflicted upon him.”
“If that was true, then why hasn’t he already killed me?”
Sir Garth, not knowing the answer, shrugged. “Perhaps he’s like a cat, and wants to play with you before he enjoys the kill.”
Sir Hal sipped his drink and held the glass up to the light. Above him the chandelier caste a thousand images, illuminating the suite with a brilliance that he had not seen since his last visit to the east. That visit had been to Singapore. He had travelled there to defend a pair of businessmen who had fallen foul of the local chamber of commerce’s rules of trade. A minor discretion; he had only gone the because he wanted a holiday. Never-the-less, the negotiations had been difficult, but not impossible, and had resulted in the chamber’s ruling council demanding that Camelot support their trade conflict with the Horde. At the time this seemed reasonable, and the King, once contacted had readily agreed to back Singapore’s position. It was only later that it was learned that there was only one Horde province involved in the dispute, and that this province was governed by none other than, General Pon’chow. It must have cost the Warlord thousands of international credit markers. Not to mention a loss of face.
Sir Hal looked at his glass. The amber liquid reflected the light, and the memory, and both sparkled with a magical glow. Sir Hal did not know if it was the moment, the sherry or divine intervention, but he suddenly knew what to do.
He pointed to the young Knight’s new toy, which lay on a table nearby. “Is that new computer of yours as good as it supposed to be?”
Garth nodded. “And more. The image it showed of our friends was very clear. The motion sensors are good too.” He bit his lip and frowned. “I took the liberty of setting one up in the maiden’s room, before she retired for the night. I trust I was not out of order in doing so.”
Sir Hal smiled, thinly. “Not on this occasion. Write this down, will you. It’s list of equipment we need to obtain.”
Sir Garth unfolded his laptop and activated the word processor. “Ready when you are.”
Sir Hal took a sip of his sherry and rubbed his chin, thoughtfully. “First on the list is a reel of optic wire. About five hundred yards should be enough. The second is a very small 3D projector…”
After breakfasting on scrambled eggs, buttered pork and fried mushrooms, washed down with no less than three cups of tea, Sir Garth left to collect the items on his shopping list. Sir Hal remained with Gwenith, enjoying the opportunity linger over his meal and catch-up on the news from home, via the weekly satellite broadcasts. Such broadcasts were rare in the Mongol empire, partly because of the lack of available airtime the empire allowed on their three communication satellites. But mostly it was due to the Mongols dislike of foreign intervention in their daily lives.
While the First Knight was watching the news – they had retired to the lounge by then, Gwenith spent her time reading. The hotel provided numerous magazines for their guests. These were mostly written in Cantonese, but she was multi-lingual so it matter not. She had finished flipping through her third magazine when Sir Hal, having grown tired of watching the `World News’ report on the opening of the `Round Table of Camelot’, switched off the monitor. He disliked watching himself on video at the best of times, and the sight of himself dressed in the ornate robes of the First Champion bored him even further. He picked up his tea cup, found it empty and reach for the teapot to pour himself another.
“Would you like another cup?” he asked the maiden.
Gwenith tossed down the magazine she was holding and let out a deep sigh. “It never ceases to amaze me how you Britons can drink some much tea. The Japanese are the same. They have more ways of serving tea than the Mongols have of taking offence.”
Sir Hal shrugged and replaced the teapot on its stand. “We like it.” he said. “Would you prefer coffee? I can order some, if you wish?”
She smiled.“No. Tea will be fine. I don’t much like the coffee they serve here. Jules used to say it was like drinking watery mud.”
“True. But it does depend on where you go.” said Sir Hal, pouring her a cup. “Some of the smaller café’s are surprisingly good when it comes to beverages. Considering the extent of your travels, I’m surprised that you haven’t found one. Anyway the coffee they serve in this hotel should be good. They’re used to western tastes.”
Gwenith frowned uncomfortably, but ignored the comment. She took the offered cup, saying, “I’ll stick to tea, all the same. Changing the subject, what’s the plan for today? Are you going to try and see Jules again?”
Sir Hal noted the maiden’s discomfort. And like her ignored it, openly at least. He nodded. “Later perhaps. Once I’ve heard my request to act as mediator has been formally accepted. But first I will need to secure the services of a Court Scribe. In spite of what’s officially said, `foreign devils’ like us need one to make sense of the legal paperwork. There’ll be one in or around the market square.”
He took a couple of sips and replaced the cup on its saucer. “Gwenith? The day of the arrest. Jules told me that as he was being dragged off, he saw an Inca. He appeared to intercede with on your behalf. What can you tell me about him?”
Gwenith froze in mid sip and almost dropped her cup. “Inca? Oh yes! The Inca. Yes, he was kind enough to talk to the guards. Without him I would have probably been arrested too.”
“What did he say to them?”
“Nothing really. He just opened his purse and gave the guards some gold.”
“Ah! A bribe! Not exactly the act of a gentleman, but kindly one never-the-less.” Sir Hal rubbed his chin, thoughtfully. “What happened afterwards? Did you see him again? The Inca?”
Gwenith shook her gold locks. “No. I thank him of course and offered to repay him, but he refused. He escorted me away from the square and back to my lodgings. After that I never saw him again. Sorry I should have told you.”
“Yes, you should have.” Sir Hal fixed her with a steady glare. It was time to confront her.
“Is there anything else you’ve omitted to tell me?” he asked.
The maiden swallowed hard. “No. Nothing. I saw him just the once. I’ve never seen him again.”
Sir Hal breathed in deeply. “Gwenith, I have agreed to assist you in securing Jules release, and that I will do, not for your sake, but for his. But I must know what I am up against. Just what is your involvement? Are you involved in someway with the FNA?”
“I..I’m not involved with the FNA.” she stammered.
“Oh? Not even as a supporter?” He kept his voice low, not wanting a waiter clearing a nearby table to overhear. “I know that many Saxons do sympathise with their cause.”
Gwenith’s brow furrowed. She placed her cup on the table and sat back in her chair. Brushing aside a lock of hair that had fallen across her eyes, she said, “I admit I do have sympathy for the FNA’s cause. Many people do. But that’s a long way from being an FNA member.”
“True. But without an army of sympathisers to back them, the FNA wouldn’t be more than a bunch of troublesome agitators.”
Feeling agitated himself, he stood up and began to pace. “Frankly I don’t understand why you believe there’s a need to rebel. Camelot is a benevolent society. We don’t mistreat our people. Germans, Celts, Scots, Romans, Saxons. All are welcome to live within the safety of our realm. It has been so for generations.”
“Perhaps.” said the maiden, her temper raising. “But if the truth was known, many Normans would prefer to be part of the Holy Roman Empire, along with the rest of Gaul. I know some Saxons who think the same!”
“Heavens above!” exclaimed Sir Hal. “Until the Treaty of Sardina outlawed slavery, Camelot offered sanctuary to the slaves of the so-called Holy Roman Empire! Even then the Romans didn’t completely renounce it until the late forties! Why on earth would you want to be a part an empire who treats its people like that! Or are you one of those people who believe in slavery?”
“No of course I’m not!” she retorted. “But at least the Roman Empire is strong! They don’t negotiate themselves out of trouble! Their nobility haven’t buried themselves in pomp and ceremony!”
“Being hard on your citizens isn’t proof of strength.” said Sir Hal, ignoring the inferred insult.. “Neither can the preference of peace to war be regarded as a weakness. Camelot is strong. Its strength stems from the wellbeing of the people it protects. Not from me, not the Knights of the Round Table, not even the King. It’s the people who provide the realm’s strength. Not the nobility. The people!”
The waiter, laden with a tray of dirty cups glanced across at them. Sir Hal saw him and lowered his voice. “Gwenith. I am the First Champion of Camelot. As First Champion my sole function is to provide aid and protection to the people of the realm. Whoever they are. You are a citizen of the realm, and you have asked for my help. I in turn have pledge myself to aid you in your quest. As such it matters not to me if you are a member of the FNA. It might however alter the manner of how I obtain Jules release. If you care about him, you must be truthful.”
Gwenith obviously realised that she had said too much and bit her lip in an effort to prevent herself from saying any more. After a moment in a more conciliatory tone she said, “I’m sorry. You’re quite correct. The people don’t always know how well off they are. We should be thanking you. Please forgive me. I’m just worried about Jules.”
Sir Hal stopped pacing and sat down beside her. “That much is true at least.” he said. “As for the rest. I don’t really care if you are or not an FNA supporter. It certainly won’t deter me from carrying out my duty.”
Gwenith not knowing what to say, fell silent. The waiter moved passed with his tray. He paused by their table and inquired if they were finished. Sir Hal thanked him and said yes. He waited until the man had gone and then took the maiden’s hand in his.
“Gwenith.” he said, gently. “We have a long way to go yet. And General Pon’chow is not a man to let an opportunity pass. And my presence here is certainly an opportunity. I find it difficult to believe that Jules was arrested simply for disagreeing with some guards. He was detained for another reason.”
“Oh?” said Gwenith, her voice trembling. “What reason could that be?”
Sir Hal fixed her with a steady stare. “I think you know the reason as well as I do, Gwenith.” he said with a hint of irritation. He was growing tired of the act he believed the maiden was putting on. “To get me here.”
Gwenith bit her lip and returned the Knights stare. “Oh. I’m sorry.”
Sir Hal answered with a grunt. If, as he believed the maiden was more involved than she admitted, then the task ahead might prove more difficult than he planned.
Despite the uneasy start to the day and even more uneasy relationship with Gwenith, Lord Avilon put aside his concerns and returned to his room to prepare for the day ahead. Sir Garth, having returned from his shopping spree joined him just before lunch and spent the interval aiding the Knight in his preparations. Gwenith too had returned to her room, supposedly to read. Sir Hal realised that leaving her alone was risky, for if his suspicions were correct and the maiden was indeed connected with the FNA, she would undoubtedly attempt to contact them. But he considered this threat a small one, compared to the one posed by General Pon’chow. And anyway Sir Hal thought to best to have the question answered once and for all. At Sir Hal’s suggestion, they forgo the pleasures of the Hotel’s lavish dinning room and plumbed for lunch in the relatively intermit surroundings of the terrace. Sir Garth had his computer with him all through lunch and going as far as having permanently switched on. Sir Hal, far from chastising the young Knight for being rude, almost ignored him and instead spent the whole lunch period discussing with Gwenith what sort of case he was planing to put forward at the court hearing.
“Do you think that it will be enough?” Gwenith asked. “I mean, if General Pon’chow hates you as much as you say he does, he could simply reject your plea out of spite.”
Sir Hal shook his head. Inwardly he sighed. Gwenith was obviously intent in acting out her part to the last.
He said, “Mongol law might seem unjust at times, but it is applied evenly. Not even a Warlord can over-rule a District Magistrate in a civil case. Not legally anyway. No, my main worry is that the General hasn’t yet declared what the charges will be, or indeed if there will be any at all. He might decide the case is martial in nature and have it, and Jules transferred to the district capital, in Shanghi.”
“Oh. I hadn’t realised he could do that.”
Sir Hal leaned back in his chair and stretched out his legs. The mornings inactivity had made him tired. And the afternoon was proving to do the same, especially as he had not yet heard from the Adjudicator. He was anxious for the days games to begin.
“Actually,” he said, with a wry smile. “I don’t believe Pon’chow will lay any charges. I think he already has what he wants.”
“Lord Avilon,” said the maiden, earnestly. “I assure you, I am not involved in any secret plot. I’m just an innocent in all this. If the General has engineered this…situation just to get you here, it was not of my making.”
Sir Hal rubbed his chin and took a deep breath. “Well, whatever the case it’s a little academic. I’m here now. The important thing is to secure Jules’ release and return him, and you safely home. That is what I was asked to do, and that is what I will do.”
The maiden fell silent. She wrung her hands and then moved them across her lap as if she was smoothing out wrinkles in the cloth. She said, “Thank you for that. I might not always agree with the way Camelot rules its lands and people, and I might like to see some changes, especially in Normandy. But I do appreciate your sense of honour.”
“It is what stands us apart from other nations.” smiled Sir Hal.
The clock struck the third hour. A hotel messenger approached.
“Lord Avilon?” he asked.
Sir Hal nodded. “Yes?”
“I have a Info-note for you, Lord.” replied the boy.
Sir Hal took the envelope and opened it. After reading the contents he smiled and told the young boy that there would be no reply.
“The game is about to resume.” he said to Gwenith, with a renewed sense of purpose. “Let us join it.”
As expected the court was filled with a mixture of officials, plaintiffs and defendants. A small number of towns people were also present, occupying the upper gallery. These Sir Hal assumed were friends or relatives of the people on trial. Gwenith and Sir Garth sat amongst them. Sir Hal himself stood behind one of the courts five presentation lecterns which formed the inner ring of the Court chamber. It would be from here that he would present his case on behalf of Jules Bonner. Placed before him were copies of the papers he had obtained from the Scribe he had seen in the market earlier. The originals were with the Court Usher.
On a raised platform an ornate chair with a golden canopy looked down upon the chamber. From this position the Judge, aided by the Usher, would preside over the days cases.
As the clock stock the hour of six, the Court usher, arms full of paper bundles hurried past. He unloaded the bundles onto the central table and began sorting through them. He carefully placed each one in order along the edge of the table and sat down. Once he was satisfied that everything was in its proper place he picked up a hammer and rapped it on the table, calling for the Court and its occupants to come to order.
“All people who do not have business in this Court should now leave.” he shouted in a clear and commanding voice. “Likewise, all plaintiffs, accusers, mediators and officials should now take their places.” He waited a few moments, during which time a few people made for the doors.
“The Court will now be sealed.” he said, and at this command the guards on duty immediately closed and locked the courts two public entrances. The doors banged shut. The Courtroom and all those within were now shut off from the outside world.
“All rise and bow in homage to his Lord-Magistrate, Ki’Chow Ping.”
All those within the court not already standing did so. A door behind the dais opened and out walked the Lord-Magistrate. Sir Hal along with every else bowed once. Ki’Chow Ping gazed once around the courtroom and then took his seat. He then waved to the Usher who in turn bowed and indicated to the throng that they could sit.
“The hearings will now begin.” said Ki’Chow Ping.
The Usher bowed and turned to face a guard who had taken up a position near the far wall.
“I call Jules Bonnor to the stand.” he commanded.
The guard opened the door behind him and out walked Jules Bonnor.
Trying hard to maintaining an air of detached nobility, the young Norman walked across to the defendant’s holding stall and took his appointed position.
The man standing at the Accusers dais passed the Usher a file and bowed. “The Empire requires that this man be tried for unruly conduct in a public place.”
The Usher cleared his voice, opened the file and began reading. He said loudly, “Are you Jules Bonnor, citizen of Normandy and Aquatain?”
Jules Bonnor nodded and replied, “I am.”
“You are,” continued the Usher, “charged with unruly conduct in a public place, in that you refused to comply with a command given to you by a duly appointed officer of the Mongol Empire. How do you plead?”
At this point Sir Hal raised his arm. “If it pleases the court, I, Sir Hal, Lord Avilon, First Champion of the Round Table of Camelot, do hereby declare that I have been retained as the defendants mediator in this matter.”
The Usher looked at the Knight and then at the Lord-Magistrate, who nodded as he accepted the validity of Sir Hal’s statement. The Usher then said, “The Court recognises Lord Avilon and accepts his position as mediator. How do you plead?”
“Guilty, but with provocation.” answered the First Knight. Jules Bonnorglanced at him, frowned and then shrugged.
Ki’Chow Ping Judge cleared his throat and let out an audible sigh. “Please explain, Lord Avilon.”
Sir Hal gave the Jules a reassuring look and continued.
“If it pleases the Court,” he said. “I believe that the defendants actions, although undoubtedly chargeable, were not serious enough to warrant his arrest and incarceration. The matter could have been dealt more swiftly and efficiently by the imposition of an on-the-spot fine. I therefore request that the defendant be offered that option now and that he be released forthwith.”
Ki’Chow Ping sighed a second time and beckoned the Usher to move closer to him. After a few moments, and a few glances in the direction of Sir Hal and Jules Bonnor, the Usher rapped his cane on the floor and called for the Accuser to put his case.
To nearly everyone’s surprise, (the exceptions being the Ki’Chow Ping, the Usher and Sir Hal) the Accuser, instead of offering evidence, bowed to the Court and said that he accepted Sir Hal’s proposal.
“I suggest that a fine of one thousand credits be paid by the defendant in recompense for his actions.”
“I assume that you accept this offer and are able to pay the fine?” asked the Lord-Magistrate, to Sir Hal.
“We are.” the Knight replied, with a bow of compliance.
“Then let the matter be settled.” said Ki’Chow Ping, with a bored tone. “Jules Bonnor, you have been found guilty of acting in an unruly fashion in a public place. You will pay a fine of one thousand credits. Monies to be credited to the Court Usher’s Fund by tonight. An order for your release will then be made. This release order will however not take effect until seven of the clock tomorrow morning. Until then you will remain in the custody of the Castle Custodian. Next case!”
With that, Jules was led back to the cells. Sir Hal gathered his papers, bowed to the Lord-Magistrate and the Usher and left the inner ring.
As he passed near to where Sir Garth and Gwenith were seated, he frowned and beckoned for them to follow. They met up outside. As expected the two darkly dressed men were hovering nearby. Sir Hal ignored them.
“Well, that part was easy!” he said to his companions, with a whisper. “Let us hope the next is too!”
As they walked back across the square, Sir Hal asked his fellow Knight if he had made contact with Mark at the airfield.
“I have.” Sir Garth replied. “He said that everything is as it should be and to assure you that Flyer will be ready for take-off as soon as you give the word. My end is set too.”
Sir Hal nodded. “Good.” he said. “Because I think we’ll need every edge we can get tomorrow.”
“Why? What happens tomorrow?” asked Gwenith.
“Jules release, I hope.” said Sir Hal. He saw her frown and touched her reassuringly on the arm. “Don’t worry. God and Merlin willing we’ll all be on the way home by .”
“I do hope so.” said the maiden. She turned to look back at the castle. “I must admit though. I never thought it would be so easy to get him released. I do hope they keep their word.”
“They will.” said Sir Hal. “Provided of course the fine has been paid on time. Come on. There’s a credit broker just off the square. We can make the payment there.”
With the fine paid, the trio returned to the Hotel. Shadowing them at a discrete distance were the two darkly dressed men who had followed them the day before. As they turned a corner, Sir Hal touched Sir Garth briefly on the arm and at this signal, the younger Knight dropped back and made a pretence at adjusting his sword belt. Sir Hal took Gwenith’s elbow and told her to quicken her pace.
“Quickly now.” he said. “I want to put some distance between us and our two friends.”
“But what about Sir Garth?” she asked.
Sir Hal glanced back before turning another corner. Sir Garth was moving slowly towards them, adjusting his belt and cloak as he walked. But the two men dressed in black were not in sight.
“I’m guessing that while he’s adjusting his attire, they’ll hang back. He’ll catch us up later.” he said. “Quickly. It’s working.”
“Where are we going?” asked the maiden. “I thought we were going back to the Hotel?”
“We are.” said Sir Hal.
Gwenith was puzzled. “But won’t they know that?”
The First Knight gave her a sly grin. “Probably. But there’s no harm in keeping them guessing.”
Gwenith was even more puzzled. “I don’t understand. If they know we’re going to the Hotel, this little charade will only cause them to stay closer to us tomorrow.”
They turned the final corner. The Hotel entrance was just ahead. Sir Hal scanned the area for danger and hurried his charge on down the street.
“That’s just what I’m banking on.” he said.
Basking in the morning sunshine a stallholder rested his ample bulk on a three-legged stool and waited patiently for his first customer to arrive. He did not have to wait long. An old woman, out early to catch the best bargains, came shuffling along and paused to look through the stall holders selection of fruit and dates. The fat man did not rise to greet her, but smiled from the comfort of his seat. Only when she had completed her selection did he move, and then only to take her money. Transaction completed, the old woman tucked her purchases into the canvas bag she was carrying and moved on the next stall. The stallholder returned to his stool and resumed his waiting. Around the market similar transactions were made as other early risers made their own tours of the market.
Sir Hal watched the scene from a bench near the fountain. He was somewhat bemused, for in spite of its spate of early customers, and the fact that it was well after sunrise, it was an unusually quite morning for the Castle square market. For some reason, unlike most weekdays many of the towns people had chosen to remain at home rather than take advantage of the best selections that were usually on offer to the early riser. He could not help but wonder why today was so different.
With a practised eye, honed by years of experience gained in countless numbers of quests, the Knight studied the images in and around the square in order to find some answer to the puzzle. The market, apart from its lack of customers was as it normally was. There were the usual number of stalls. The normal number of shops were open. The Horde soldiers, looking as bored as normal did, were at their usualposts outside the Castle gates. Even the window shutters of the buildings overlooking the square were open. Only its customers, the people of the city were missing. It was very strange. But for Sir Hal, not unexpected. The only thing heworried about was weather Jules’ release would affected by what was likely to happen.
The Castle clock struck the quarter hour. In another fifteen minuets the Castle gates would open and walking through them to freedom would be the object of his quest, the young Norman Lord, Jules Frances de Bonnier.
As he waited for the clock to strike seven, Sir Hal studied the various stalls around set out before him. The traders, not being overburdened by customers kept themselves active by adjusting the layout of their produce or by talking to one another. The shopkeepers around the square too were idling away the time. Many of them had chosen to come to front of their shops, either to tend to the neatness of their window displays, or to sweep the pavement in front. Others simply sat and enjoyed the warmth of the morning sun. If it was not for the lack of customers the scene set out before him would be like that of any normal market day.
Sir Hal felt an uneasiness begin to creep over him. He had not felt its like for years. The last time he had felt this way was in Russia, over ten years ago, when like now he was waiting for a prisoner transfer to take place. A Counsel and his staff had been kidnapped by a band of terrorists and Sir Hal had gone there to obtain their release. However the transfer had turned out to be a trap and the ensuing battle had resulted in the death of the Counsel -one of Sir Hal’s closest friends, as well as five of his assailants. The local populous had stayed away on that day also, warned to do so by the gang’s leader.Today’s situation had all the hallmarks of that fateful day, and it was likely that like that day, there was an outside element causing these townsfolk to stay away. He took a deep breath and frowned at the thought, and was suddenly very glad that he and Sir Garth had decided to make their preparations early.
The clock stuck the hour. Sir Hal’s eyes instinctively fell upon the castle gates. Even though he did not expect them to swing open immediately he was a little disappointed that they remained closed. Patiently he let a few more moments pass. As he waited his hand instinctively reached to where his personal communicator hung from his belt. It was pre-set to the Airo-flyer’s and Sir Garth’s radio wavelengths.
A further two minutes passed before the gates finally opened. At first no one emerged, but then out stepped a figure clothed in a black cloak. Sir Hal could not tell if it was Jules Bonner or not, as the wearer’s face was shrouded by a hood. Even so Sir Hal rose from his seat and began to make his way across the square to meet he hoped to be the object of his quest.
He was half way across when another figure emerged from out of the castle. This one he recognised at once. It was his old adversary – older and a with few more scars to match the ones that Sir Hal had given him years before, but Pon’chow never the less. The Warlord saw the First Knight approach and fixed his old enemy with an evil glare. “So we meet again, Lord Avilon.” he sneered. Sir Hal thought the greeting a little theatrical, and half smiled at the comment.
“So it would seem, General.” he replied, matching his reply to the some-what comical situation that was forming. “How have been keeping all these years?”
Pon’chow gave a slight bow.“I am well. And you? Have you been? Still active I trust? ”
“I am still the First Champion of Camelot, if that is what you mean.” answered the First Knight. He moved closer, but not so close that he did not have enough sword room, should the need arise. The hooded figure moved closer too. Unfortunately the wearer kept his head down and Sir Hal still not could not see who it was.
“Jules Bonnor?” enquired Sir Hal. The hooded figure bowed and moved on a few more steps.
“Yes.” a voice mumbled from beneath the hood.
Sir Hal’s brow creased. The voice did not sound right. He was just about to challenge the hooded figure to show himself when General Pon’chow interjected by saying,
“Where are your companions? Hiding?”
Sir Hal turned towards his adversary. “They are otherwise engaged. Why? Do I need them?”
Pon’chow grinned an evil grin. “You might at that!”
With a sudden movement, he drew his sword and pointed it at the Knight. “I have been waiting a long time to repay you for this.” he said, stroking his scared right cheek.
“I would have thought you had learnt your lesson the last time.” said Sir Hal, also drawing his sword.
A Horde guard who had been hovering by the gate, saw the exchange and darted back inside. Pon’chow appeared to ignore him, grabbed the hooded man by the shoulder and thrust him towards Sir Hal.
“Here!” he spat. “Take your friend!”
Sir Hal dodged the figure who fell upon the ground in a heap. The hood, having slid back in the act, revealed that it was it fact the young Norman Lord. He had an almost vacant look, as if he had beendrugged.
“Have no fear.” said the Warlord. “He will recover. In an hour or so. But not in time to aid you!”
With this Pon’chow lunged at Sir Hal with his sword. The First Knight parried the attack and backed away.
“I have no quarrel with you, General!” he said. “And I would have thought that a man in your position would not want to risk incurring the anger of the Emperor! Common brawling is against the Mongol code of honour, is it not?”
“Killing the First Champion of Camelot in single combat, cannot be called brawling!” countered Pon’chow, as he advanced once more. “Or do you consider yourself a commoner these days?”
“We are all equal in death.” Sir Hal replied, grimly. “No matter how high born we are.”
“Then prepare to meet your equals, Lord of Camelot!” With a snarl, the Mongol Warlord leaped forward, hacking downward with his blade. Sir Hal fended off the blow and countered with one of his own, following it with two more in quick succession. The Warlord, surprised by the suddenness of attack, backed away.
“You are out practice, General!” said Sir Hal. “Age has not only made you foolish, but slow as well! End this now, while you still can!”
“Never!” cried the Warlord. “Not while I still breath and carry your insult on my face!”
Again the Warlord advanced. And again Sir Hal parried the blow. The fight continued across the square, scattering the few people within. The walls of the square echoed to the sound of the clashing blades. Sir Hal half expected to see the castle gates swing open and exude warriors, but was surprised and relieved to see none emerge. Pon’chow obviously wanted to exact his revenge personally.
In spite of Sir Hal’s earlier statement, the Mongol General’s attack was pushing him further and further away from the gates and from where Jules lay drugged on the ground. A thought ran through his mind that it might be he, Lord Avilon that was out of practice.
“Time to end this.” he said to himself. With a swift flick of his wrist, he activated his communicator. To Pon’chow, he said, “I gave you a chance to withdraw with honour once before, Pon’chow. I give it again. End this and live. Continue and you will die. Either by my hand or by the order of your Emperor. The choice is your!”
Pon’chow’s eyes lit up as if he had gone mad, something Sir Hal had suspected already. He drew a deep breath and let out a loud roar.
“Then I choose death! Yours, and if the need be, mine as well! Die, Lord of Avilon! Die!”
Sir Hal shook his head and answered the Mongol’s attack with one of his own. Pon’chow retreated before the sudden onslaught, and even begun to look worried by it. Once Sir Hal was satisfied that he had driven the General far enough back, he pressed a button on his communicator and activated the preparations that he and Sir Garth had made the previous night. All of a sudden the square was filled with a dozen Sir Hals, each of whom carried a sword, just like the one the First Knight held. The twelve apparitions advanced across the square and through the emptied stalls to where the two battling warriors stood. Sir Hal, smiled and quickly moved to join his doppelgangers, leaving Pon’chows to stand open mouthed alone in the middle of the market. The General let out a gasp, and tried in vain to track the real Sir Hals progress.
“What sorcery is this!” he cried. “Guards! Guards! To arms!”
Sir Hal and his doppelgangers switch places, making it impossible for Pon’chow to tell who was the real First Knight.
“As I have said,” called one of the Sir Hals, “I have no wish to kill you, Pon’chow. I only wish to complete my quest and see Jules Bonnor safely home.”
Pon’chow swore and attacked one of the apparitions. His blade cut through the image and buried itself in the wood of a clothes stall. Pon’chow lost his balance and fell in heap before it. The First Knight hid a smile. The 3D projectors Sir Garth had installed around the square were operating perfectly. You could hardly tell the holographic Sir Hals from Camelot’s real First Knight.
“May the gods dam you for your trickery!” Pon’chow shouted as he struggled to his feet. “Stand and fight like a man!”
“We have laws in Camelot.” replied Sir Hal, through narrowed eyes. “One of them forbids me from causing the death of an official of a foreign government. Like it as not, that means you! Forgive the deception, but I am weary of pointless conflict.”
“We have laws too.” Pon’chow retorted. “Only here, I am the law! And you are the criminal! And as far as conflict is concerned, it is seldom pointless! It will be a pleasure to stop you from carrying out your plans!”
With teeth bared, and renewed vigour, the General lunged at another of the Knights images. This time he chose one next to where Sir Hal really stood. A porcelain vase shattered into a dozen pieces as the Mongols sword cut through the holographic image and struck the china traders stall. Sir Hal instinctively moved to one side as the blade came down. Pon’chow saw the movement and redirected his attack.
“Now I have you!” he snarled.
“I think not!” said Sir Hal, as he side stepped the attack. Pon’chow spun round. His eyes blazed like star sapphires. He drew back his sword and held it high above his head. Sir Hal remained perfectly still.
“You cannot fool a third time, Knight!” said Pon’chow, fixing his enemy with his fiery eyes.
Beyond the square came the sound of a jet engine. Sir breathed in and smiled.
“The time for trickery is over.” he said, and drew back his sword also.
Almost together the two warriors brought down their swords. They clashed with the sound of breaking glass. Both combatants vied for position. Again they struck. This time Sir Hal managed to force his opponents blade down. It vibrated on the stone covered ground and the Mongol almost lost his grip on the weapon. Sir hal saw his chance and brought his elbow up, striking Pon’chow hard in the chin. The General grunted as he fell back, crashing into the china stall and sending its remaining vases onto the market’s stony surface.
In one swift movement, Sir Hal brought his up and sword round and held its tip against Pon’chow’s throat. At the same time he placed his foot on the Mongol’s fallen sword, thus preventing the warrior from raising it.
“It’s over.” he said to the Mongol. “You tried, and you lost. Again. End it.”
“Never!” With a sudden movement, Pon’chow grasped the end of Sir Hal’s sword in his hand. Blood seeped out from between the Mongol’s fingers. Ignoring the pain he rolled over and reached for a knife in his belt. Almost at once he threw it at the First Knight. Sir Hal tried in vain to dodge the blade, but it buried itself in his right shoulder. He staggered back and gripped the wound with his free hand, grimacing with pain. Somehow he managed to retain his grip on the sword and raised it to defend himself. But already he could feel his strength seeping away.
Pon’chow leaped to his feet and retrieved his sword. “Now it is finished!” he cried. With a superhuman effort he lunged at his enemy and battered the sword out of the Knights hand. Sir Hal lay defenceless on the ground, blood pouring from his shoulder wound. Pon’chow raised his sword above his head and grinned and evil grin of a man about to commit murder.
“Now you die!” he growled.
The Airo-flyer’s engines drew closer. Soon it would be over the square. But
The Mongol’s sword started its journey down and it crossed Sir Hal’s mind that it would be the last thing he ever saw. He was about to attempt to roll out of the way when he heard a shot ring out. Pon’chow froze in his act of murder and his expression changed from that of victory to one of puzzlement as he looked downwards. Then a dark red mark started to spread across his chest and blood dripped onto the ground. A gurgling sound came from his throat and he started to buckle at the knees. A moment later he in a heap at Sir Hal’s feet, dead from a gunshot wound in the chest.
The Airo-flyer came into view. Sir Hal waved to it and struggled to his feet.
“Talk about in the nick of time!” he said, between gritted teeth. Taking the communicator from his belt he called the Airo-flyer.
“Better land as quickly as possible, Mark. All hell’s about to break loose down here!”
The flyer landed in a cloud a dust some twenty yards away. Sir Hal glanced around the square. Already people had started to re-emerge. And so had the Castle Guards. Five of them armed with automatic weapons had already started to advance towards him. Sir Hal looked for where he had left Jules Bonnor, and feared for a moment that Sir Garth had not managed to get the young Lord to safety. A voice from over near the fountain shouted at him. It was Sir Garth. Sir Hal looked and saw that his companion was accompanied by the maiden, Gwenith and to his relief, Jules Bonnor.
“Are you all right, my Lord?” Sir Garth asked, as he and his party drew closer. He had a pistol in his hand.
“I’ll live.” Sir Hal replied. He placed a medi-pad over his shoulder wound and replaced his sword in its scabbard. The Airo-flyer’s hatch opened and Mark appeared armed with a automatic rifle. The Horde guards saw him and hung back, wary of the expert way the squire aimed his weapon.
“Come on sir,” the squire shouted, “Get yourselves aboard! Before those guards decide to act with some initiative!”
Sir Hal took one last look at his dead adversary and clambered to his feet. “They’ll be hell to pay when the King hears of this.” he signed. “Oh well, it’s done now.”
He started to run for the aircraft and was a little more than halfway across the square when one of the castle guards raised his rifle.
“Blast!” he cursed.
A shot rang out from a window overlooking the square and the guard staggered back, wounded. His weapon clattered on the ground and the other guards shank back into cover.
Sir Hal glanced up at where the shot had come from. The muzzle of a rifle stuck out from a window.Smoke was still drifting from out of the end of its barrel. A face peered out for a fleeting moment. Sir Hal recognised it was belonging to one of the two men who had been following him the last two days.
“Well I’ll be!” he said in surprise. “And I thought you were an enemy!”
He waved his thanks to the disappearing face and ran for the safety of the Airo-Flyer. Sir Garth, Gwenith and the drugged Jules were already aboard. Mark was still at the hatchway, covering the cowering Mongol guards.
“Sir Garth is at the controls.” the squire shouted, above the roar of the Flyers engines. “The maiden is strapping the young Lord in. Oh, and I’ve decoded a signal from Sir Colin. It’s in the cockpit.”
Sir Hal grunted. “Uh, I wondered when that would arrive. Still, better late than never.”
Once Sir Hal was safely inside, Mark closed the hatch and went to join Sir Garth in the cockpit. Sir Hal joined Gwenith and the Norman Lord. The maiden looked up and gave him a brief smile.
The Airo-Flyer took off vertically and swooped over the cities rooftops, its twin engines leaving a white vapour trail behind it. Below in the square the guards who had been cowering in the gateway of the castle, slowly emerged and edged their way across to where Pon’chow lay dead on the ground.
“I wonder what the Mongol lords will do?” said the First Knight, as he watched the city disappear from view. “I doubt if they will mourn Pon’chows passing – he wasn’t all that well liked, by all accounts. But he was the duly appointed Governor of this region. They will have to respond in some fashion. Honour will demand it.”
Gwenith peered out of the window next to her. “Do you think they will send aircraft after us?” she asked.
“I would.” answered the Knight. “Let us hope they think about first. It’ll give us time to get clear of the mainland. If we can reach international waters, they might just let us go. It’s fortunate that the Mongols don’t have much of a navy. Locally anyway.”
“Don’t worry.” he said, patting her hand. “This Flyer can out-fly anything the Mongols have got. We’ll make it.”
The intercom buzzed. “We have company, sir.” said Mark. “Two Dragon class interceptors. Ten miles out, but closing fast!”
“I’m coming forward!” replied the Knight.
Sir Hal scrambled into the cockpit. He patted Sir Garths shoulder who relinquished his seat and took the one at the rear.
The First Knight slid into the co-pilots seat and activated the Airo-flyers defences. He said, “Only two craft? I’d thought they’d send more.”
“Perhaps two is all they have available.” grunted Mark.
“Hello,” said Sir Garth, in surprise. “Those aircraft. They’ve changed course. They’re heading back for the mainland!”
Sir Hal checked his viewer. “You’re right. They must have been recalled!”
“What luck!” said Sir Garth.
“Somehow I don’t think luck anything to do with it.” grinned Sir Hal. “I would say it had more to do with a noble old Adjudicator!”
Mark shot him a quizzical glance and shrugged. “We’re alright for fuel, by the way. The tanks are full to the brim. I managed to squeeze some out of that Port Administrator. He was quite amenable We’ll get to Singapore easily. We might even reach Ocean-1 in one hop, if we don’t hit trouble and take a more direct route. What do you want to do?”
“Head for Singapore Mark.” replied Sir Hal. “We still have to negotiate the Strait of Malacca. Don’t forget those AA missiles that rebels are supposed to have.”
“Singapore it is then.” confirmed Mark. He looked at the way is master was rubbing his arm and frowned. “Anyway, it looks as if that wound of yours could do with some proper treatment. Medi-packs are only so good. You need a doctor.”
“You might right at that, old friend.” Sir Hal rose from the co-pilots seat and tapped Sir Garth on the shoulder. “You can have your seat back. I’m going aft to see to our passengers.”
“What’s happening?” asked a bleary eyed Jules, awake after his enforced bout of sleep, but still somewhat dazed. He lay half up-right with his head resting on Gweniths shoulder. The maiden was stroking the young mans brow with her hand. Sir Hal took a seat opposite.
“Nothing. Now.” said the Knight. “We had a couple of aircraft on our tail, but they’ve gone now.”
He peered out of the cabin window at the clear blue sky beyond. It was going to be a fine day. He hoped the journey would be too.
“We still have a way to go before we’re completely safe,” he said, turning back. “but the worse is behind us. I hope. How are you feeling? Recovered enough to answer a few questions?”
Gwenith looked pensive. Jules said, “Well enough, thank you. What do want to know?”
“How is your wound?” asked Gwenith. “Does it need treating?”
“I’ll survive." he grimaced . “I’ve put a medi-pack on it for now. I’ll get Mark to look at it later.” He brushed away some invisible dust from his trousers and wished he had not. In spite of his statement his arm and shoulder were beginning to ache like mad. The dressing would need changing soon and he could do with having a shot of something to kill that pain. He’d get Sir Garth or Mark to do it. Like all of his fellow Knights, Sir Garth had undergone basic training as an emergency medic in order to fulfil his obligations as a member of the Round Table. The multi-talented Mark of course was fully trained.
“Well,” he said, pushing away the pain. “for a start, I’d like to know who those men were who shot Pon’chow. I had assumed they were agents of your father, but now I’m not so sure. Frankly I’m not sure why did they did it.”
“I would have thought that was obvious.” interjected Gwenith. “They did it to save you. They must have been agents of the Baron.”
Sir Hal shook his head. “I find it difficult to believe that the Duke would sanction an act that might drag him into conflict with a foreign power.”
“Perhaps they acted on their own initiative?” suggested the maiden.
“That’s unlikely.” said Jules, giving Gwenith a puzzled look. “Knowing my father, if he had employed agents to follow you, he’d have given implicit instructions as to what they could and could not do. No. If they were my fathers agents, then they would have had his prior blessing in what they did.”
“Of course they might not have been his agents.” said the First Knight. “They might have been acting for someone else.”
“But who?” said Jules.
“Perhaps they were from Camelot?” suggested Gwenith. “Sent by the King to look after you?”
Sir Hal dismissed this out of hand. “The King would never risk a war to save one Knight, even if he was on a Quest. He’s worked too hard and too long in cementing a peace treaty with the Mongols to throw it away over, and I’m sorry to say this, the antics of one silly young man. Even if he is the son of the Baron of Aquatain.”
Jules blushed. “I’m sorry if I’ve caused you inconvenience.” he said. “It was not my intention.”
“I never thought it was.” said Sir Hal, gently.
Gwenith pursed her lips and frowned. She said, “But if it wasn’t the Baron or King Alfred who sent those men, then who?”
Sir Hal looked at her and hiding his true thoughts said, “I have my suspicions.” he shrugged. “But it’s all a bit irrelevant now. You’re both safe and that is all that really matters.”
Giving them a smile he rose from his seat and walked towards the cockpit door. “Get some rest the both of you. We’ve still a long journey ahead of us. I’ll wake you when we reach Singapore airspace.”
“Thank you again.” said, Gwenith, forcing a smile. “And I do mean that. We owe you a lot.”
Sir Hal smiled again and went through the hatch.
Two hours later the Airo-flyer entered Singalise airspace and locked on to the main airports guide beam. An hour later, it touched down and came to rest in the area reserved for foreign aircraft. Sir Hal breathed a sigh of relief as Mark shut of the engines, for here at least he could rely on the local security authorities to keep them safe. The airport and its adjoining hotel were two of the most secure locations in the far east, second of course to Ocean-I.
Shortly after coming to a stop Sir Hal and his fellow travellers alighted from the flyer and made their way through customs and to the airport hotel beyond, stopping briefly at the medical centre to have Sir Hals arm properly treated. Any questions as to how the Knight came to be wounded were left tactfully unanswered and the medical staff, seeing that they were not likely to find out, decided not pursue the matter.
After a short meal in the hotel restaurant and one or two drinks in the lounge, they made their way to their separaterooms to settle down for a well earned nights rest. At least Sir Hal and his two comrades did. Jules Bonnor and the maiden however had other ideas…
Sir Hal too had a trouble getting to sleep. But it was not his wound that kept him awake. It was the intervention of the two men in the square. He could just not bring himself to believe that they acted just to keep him from harm. There had to be another reason. And more than that, the manner of their intervention and death of the General contradicted Sir Hals previous theory on what was really behind the reason of his Quest. He sighed heavily. The more he thought about it, the more he began to realise what that reason might really be. And that was what troubled him.
At just after he gave up trying to get to sleep, got out of bed, slipped on his dressing gown, extracted the flask of whisky Mark had thoughtfully packed in his case and poured himself a stiff drink. Pacing back and forth, whilst sipping the blended malt whisky he ran over in his mind the events of the previous day. It was not the first time he had done so. All through the flight from China he had thought about what had happened. For Pon’chow to have born a grudge he could understand – it was the sort of man he was. But to go to such lengths to do it, and to wait for so long was strange. And why go to the trouble of enticing him all the way to China? He could have easily have carried out the deed in Europe, or even in Camelot. And not have run the risk of involving his county in a conflict that even he must seen was unwise. No, the more Sir Hal thought about it, the more he came to the conclusion that he previous theory was wrong and that Pon’chow had simply reacted to an unexpected opportunity. As to whether or not he had hand in actually planning the abduction of the young Norman, or if, as Sir Hal suspected that it was engineered by `other agencies’, that was yet another question. General Pon’chow might have been bitter and twisted and eager for revenge, but he was far from being stupid. As the Governor of one of the Hordes most powerful provinces, he must have welded great influence with the Mongol Emperor and his court. Not to mention the wealth the position undoubtedly brought. It was unbelievable to think that a man, even one like Pon’chow might risk it all by planing the murder of a foreign noble lord in his own territory. For in spite of the King Alfreds assertion that when Sir Hal undertook commissions involving overseas `quests’ he acted without the official backing of the Royal Court or the government of Camelot, any act against the First Champion would not go unchallenged or indeed avenged. A fact that a well travelled man like Pon’chow would know all too well.
As Sir Hal pondered this, there was a knock on the door and Marks voice sounded from without. “Are you alright My Lord?” Sir Hal walked over and opened it.
“Sorry to disturb you sir, but I heard you pacing.” said the squire. “and thought you might like something to drink.” His eyes fell upon the glass that the First Knight was holding in his hand. “But I see that you’ve already found one.”
“Yes. Thank you anyway, Mark.” the Knight replied, with a grin. “Actually, now that you’re here, come in. I’d like to run some thoughts passed you.”
Mark inwardly groaned. He had hoped he would only be a moment. “Of course.” he said, and entered. He crossed the room and stood by the open window, glancing briefly at the city lights spread-out like a million stars beyond and below the hotel complex.
“Sit and pour yourself a drink, Mark.” Sir Hal told him. Mark did just that.
“Run away sir.” he said, with a smile and a full glass in his hand.
Sir Hal gave a short laugh and began. “I’ve been thinking, Mark. About Pon’chow and why we lured here.”
“You definitely think we were lured here on purpose then?” said Mark.
“Oh yes.” replied the Knight. He shrugged at the thought. “At first I thought Pon’chow had been behind it from the start. Trumped up the charge against Jules, knowing full well who he was. Then forcing, or paying the maiden Gwenith to employ me as mediator so I would come and rescue him for certain death.. But now I think I was wrong. Pon’chow might have taken advantage of the opportunity, yes. Any man who thought he had been insulted might have done that. But to go as far as plan it from the outset? No. Not now. Not after all this time. Too many years have passed to make that likely.”
“Men have been know to harbour a grudge longer.” Mark commented, as he topped up his whisky with a little water. “Especially Mongols.”
“True enough, I suppose.” agreed Sir Hal. “But not someone who’s reach a position like the one Pon’chow has, did. He be a fool to risk his career avenging a fight he’d lost years ago. And whatever else he was, Pon’chow was no fool.”
He drained his drink and poured another. “No, Mark. There has to be some other reason why I was lured here. Something that somehow involved him, but was not of his making.”
Sir Hal stood and looked out across the city. “Pon’chow said something to me just before he attacked. What was it? Oh yes, I remember. He said he’d stop me from carrying out my plans? Now, what on earth did he mean by that? And he called me a criminal! Why? He’s never called me a criminal before! Why call me one now?”
Sir Hal turned and sat down in a seat by the window. “And another thing.” he said. “What was he doing up-country? As Provincial Governor, his place is in the Castle - in the city anyway, where he can oversee the administration. Not in the field where he can’t easily be reached. What was it that the Chief Administrator said to me? `Pon’chow is dealing with a disciplinary matter.’ I hadn’t thought about it before. Why should a General, the provincial Governor deal personally with a disciplinary matter? It doesn’t make sense. Unless of course it wasn’t a normal matter.”
“There’s an Horde airbase twenty or so miles inland.” suggested Mark, with a yawn. He was feeling very tired – the day had been a long one, and he secretly wanted to get to bed. “He might have been there.”
“Maybe.” Sir Hal said. He stood up and again looked out of the window. In the far distance an aircraft illuminated by its blinking navigational lights flew across the darkened sky and headed in a bank of cloud.He wondered where it was headed. Ocean-1 perhaps, or India. And who and what was it carrying. Maybe the mystery man who had saved his life was on board. Heading home. Mission accomplished. “But why? What would act of type of transgression would require the presence of the Providential Governor? ”
Mark swallowed his drink and poured another. “I donno. Perhaps someone’s been selling off the aircraft without permission. Or missiles. You said the Malayan rebels had bought some.”
Sir Hal spun round and punched the air. “Yes! Of course! Well done, Mark!”
“Glad to be of help.” said Mark, not really knowing what he had said.
Sir Hal put down his glass and walked over to the wardrobe. “Now I just need a few more bits of information to complete the puzzle and I’m there!”
He pulled out his pack and opened a pocket in side. Reaching inside, he pulled out his portable radio-receiver and placed it on the table in front of Mark..
“We’re close enough to Ocean-1 to get a clear signal.” he said, activating the unit. “And it’s not too late.”
Mark blinked and took another drink. “If you say so, My Lord.” he shrugged.
“I’ll ask Commander Davis to find out what I want.” continued Sir Hal. “Anyway he should have come up with something else of interest by now. He said he might.”
“I’m sure he’ll be only too pleased to be of assistance.” grinned the squire, knowing full well that the poor officer would most probably be asleep by now. “Especially as it’s probably only where he is.”
Sir Hals face went blank for a moment. Then he took a look at the clock on the sideboard and saw what time it was. “Ah! I see your point.”he grinned, sheepishly. “Perhaps I’ll wait a few hours.”
He looked again out across the city spread-out before him. It a matter of hours the sun would flood the rooftops with its golden light and warmth and the city and its inhabitants would arise to resume their busy lives. The ones that lived a life under the gaze of the sun, that it. Many of course worked and lived at night. Either way according to the weather forecasters the morning ahead promised to be the start of a fine day and for that Sir Hal was grateful .
Early next morning, Sir Hal having contacted the commander of Ocean-1, prepared himself for the day ahead – and the troubles and tribulations that it would undoubtedly bring. First he showered, with the water set on hot and finishing off with a short burst of cold. Then he dressed. Lastly he packed the few items he had brought with him from the Flyer, including his computer. Satisfied the room was tidy (he hated leaving a hotel room untidy) he then went down to join his companions at breakfast. Inside his breast pocket he carried a data-printout of the report Commander Davis had relied to him and which Sir Hal had extracted via the decoder on his personal computer. It had made interesting, if not unexpected reading. What he did not yet was how he could use the information it contained.
The maiden Gwenith and the young Norman lord were already seated and eating. Sir Garth had not yet come down. Mark on the other hand was seated on his own at a table nearby. Sir Hal frowned and wondered why.
The squire saw him and beckoned to a waiter passing by. “Good morning, my Lord.” he said, standing up. “I’ve taken the liberty of ordering your usual breakfast. I trust that was in order?”
“Of course, Mark old friend.” Lord Avilon replied, frowning. “But why are you not seated with…?”
Mark smiled a thin smile. “The young Lord thought it…unfitting, for a mere squire to be seated at the same table as a Lord of the Realm. He was very apologetic, but asked if I would mind sitting elsewhere.”
“Oh?” said Sir Hal with rise of his eyebrows. “That doesn’t sound like the man I spoke to in the prison cell. Still, you never can tell with some people.”
“Actually I think it’s more the maidens idea.” said Mark. “Her attitude to such things appears to have changed quite a lot since last night. Maybe its because she wants to be alone with Lord Jules.”
Sir Hal rubbed his chin and glanced across at the pair, who had as yet had seemed to have noticed them. “Mmm. Perhaps. But I rather think it might something else. If it is, we’d best watch out.”
“I assume you’ve had a reply from Ocean-1?” said Mark.
“I have indeed.” Sir Hal looked over at Gwenith and Lord Jules, took a deep breath and pulled up a chair. “I’ll join you, if you don’t mind, Mark. Provided of course that you don’t mind slumming it with a Lord of the Realm.”
“I never have so far, sir.” Mark grinned.
Sir Hal sat down and poured himself a glass of orange juice. “Oh good. Then let us eat. Sir Garth can decide where he wants to sit when he gets here.”
Moments later, the waiter arrived. Mark said to him, “Lord Avilon will be breakfasting at this table. I suspect that Sir Garth will be also.”
By the time Sir Garth arrived, Sir Hal was on his second cup of tea, and his third helping of scrambled egg.”
“That looks a hearty breakfast.” The commented young Knight, as he sat down. “I trust there’s some left for me.”
He glanced around the dinning room. Many of the other guests had already finished and the table that Gwenith and Jules Bonnor were seated at looked quite isolated.
“What’s up with our charges?” asked Sir Garth. “Are not good enough? Or do they prefer to be alone?”
“A little of both, I suspect.” replied Sir Hal. He past over the report he had in his pocket. Sir Garth read it and frowned.
“Not good.” he said, passing it back. “I note that it say that those three businessmen are still around. Are they an issue?”
“Perhaps.” Sir Hal took back the report and passed it to his Squire. “You had best read it too, Mark.” he said. “It depends on how well they know each other.”
Mark took the report and read it. He did not feel slighted at not being given it earlier as he knew that it was Sir Garth’s right, as a Knight of the Round Table, and Sir Hals official Aid-de-Camp to view all transmissions before any others. To deny him that right would be an insult. And anyway, the young Lord had earned the privilege.
“I see.” he said, after reading it.
“Yes. Quite.” Sir Hal replied. “The trouble is, I’m not sure if it presents us with any real answers. The `Lady’ in question might just be as she seems. Or she may be something quite else.”
“What do you propose to do about it?” Sir Garth, asked.
Sir Hal took back the report and put it away. She said, “Nothing as yet. We still have a long way to go. Perhaps when we reach Ocean-1, I’ll confront them, with this.” He patted his pocket and the report within.
“Them?” said Sir Garth. “Do you believe that the young Lord is, involved more than he claims?”
“Perhaps.” said the First Knight, with a shrug. He looked across at their two charges. They seemed to be in deep conversation - about what Sir Hal could only guess, and did not appear to be aware of the attention they were getting.
“Time will tell.” Sir Hal said, thoughtfully. “Time will tell.”
As the Airo-flyer sped across the darkening sky, Sir Hal looked thoughtfully out of the cockpit window. There was a storm, perhaps even a cyclone approaching from the east, and the air was growing angry. Not that its approach should worry the Flyer or its occupants – the small Jet powered craft was more than capable of keeping ahead of it. But it still brought danger to others. He cast his attention to the choppy sea below. A number of small objects caught his eye. He quickly identified them as fishing boats - a small fleet in fact, belonging no doubt to one of the many villages that inhabited the western coast of Indo-China. He wondered if they were attempting to reach their fishing grounds before the weather closed in and forced their return. As he watched them he could not help but admire the courage of their crews as they plied their way through the choppy waves. He sighed. Life was certainly hard for some people. It was certainly going to be rough for him when he returned to Camelot. Pon’chows death and manner in which it came about was likely to be the cause of much debate in the next few weeks.
“You are thoughtful today, my Lord.” said Mark, at the controls. “Are you still thinking about what you should do about that report?”
“In part.” replied the First Knight. “Actually I’m beginning to wonder if it’s even relevant.” He eased himself back into his seat.
“The trouble is Mark old friend, what real proof do we have that they, Gwenith and Jules that is, did set all this up? It could just be that the situation was just a coincidence and that the FNA, if indeed the FNA is involved, merely used the young Lord and Lady’s plight to their advantage. It is also quite possible that the FNA is not involved at all, and that someone else entirely is behind it all.”
“But who?” the squire asked.
“It would have to be someone who had a lot to gain from Pon’chows demise.” replied Sir Hal, grimly. “And I think I know who that might be.”
“Are you going let us into the secret?” said Mark.
The First Knight shook his head. “Not for the moment. Not until I’m sure.”
“It still leaves the question,” said the squire. “of what you are going to do about it?”
Sir Hal shrugged and adjusted his seat belt. “Nothing. Not until we reach Ocean-1 anyway. I’ll decide then.”
“You could just hand them over to the Military Wing to deal with.” said Mark “It would be a simple answer to the problem.”
Sir Hal sighed. He said, “The problem with that, is I swore an oath as a Knight of the Round Table, to return both Gwenith and Jules safely back to their respective homes. And as you know, that is one oath I cannot break. And nor would I want to. No, I’ll just have to wait and see what transpires. I’ve asked for Ocean-1’s security people to be alerted, just to be on the safe side.”
A warning light blinked on the control panel accompanied by a audible buzzing. Mark reached over to switch it off. “Uh.” he grunted. “It looks like we’ve reached the end of our second leg. Time to alter course.”
Sir Hal let a sigh and activated the co-pilots controls. “I’ll take over for a bit, Mark. You get some rest. Ask Sir Garth to come forward. He can man the defences. We might be targeted by that rebel group again.”
Mark frowned. “Don’t worry.” the First Knight added. “I’ll call you if that happens.”
“Fine by me.” said the Squire, lying. “I could do with a bit of shut-eye.”
He rose from his seat and had disappeared into the Flyers passenger compartment. Moments later, Sir Garth emerged.
“I do hope they’ve run out of missiles.” the young Knight said grimly, taking his position at the crafts defence panel. “I was rather looking forward to an uneventful journey this time.” He activated the panel and begun to check that all the systems were working correctly. They were.
“Well, there’s no sign of a launch.” he said with relief. “Not yet anyway. Shall I activated the defences now, or would you rather I wait for the devils to attack first?”
“Oh, activate them now!” Sir Hal told him, with a laugh. “We might not get the chance if we wait!”
Garth flicked a series of switches. The Interceptor-missile pods dropped down out of their housings. “All systems armed and ready.” he reported. “All we need now is a target.”
Sir Hal trimmed the Airo-flyers flight pattern and settled back to wait something to happen. He said, “Actually, I’d prefer to forgo that little item. If that’s agreeable?”
“Oh, it’s quite agreeable.” replied his young friend. “I’ve had too much action on this trip already. Are all your quests like this?”
Sir Hal smiled. “Some are. Others are much more interesting .”
“Launch counter-measures!” cried Sir Hal.
“Counter-measures away!” Sir Garths voice was shrill.
“Too late!” shouted Sir Hal. “It’s got through!”
Both he and Sir Hal braced themselves as another missile exploded and its shock-wave hit the underneath of the Airo-flyer. There was the uncomfortable feeling of being in a lift that was being propelled upwards out of control and Sir Garth franticly attempted to get a target lock on the missile launch site. At the flyers controls, Sir Hal struggled to maintain the crafts attitude and height. With some effort he managed to regain control.
“I’m making for the deck!” he cried, above the roar of the engines. “If we can get below their radar we might be able to counter-attack! Stand-by to launch, on my command!”
He pushed the nose of the Flyer forward and the craft dived steeply towards the choppy sea below. Weaving through the waves was the source of their problems. The sleek shape of a `Ming class’ MongolianFrigate. The war-vessel had attack them, using a salvo of Surface-to-Air missiles, just minutes before. Fortunately the two Knights of the Round Table had been ready, and had evaded the first pair of missiles easily. However the frigate had launched four more in a wide spread pattern, one of which had exploded uncomfortablyclose to the Flyer.
“That was near one!” grunted Sir Hal. He could not help but notice that the aircraft had lost some of its customary agility.
“Blast!” he said. “It must have damaged the tail-plane! Dam it! Where are those fighters?”
Sir Garth looked at the noble Lord and the sensor readouts with concern, as he knew that even Sir Hals expert flying would not be enough to keep it away from further harm for much longer. Especially as the remaining three missiles of the salvo were still on their tail. They were only a hundred miles from Ocean-1 and had sent a distress message as soon as they had detected the first missile launch. Indeed Sir Garth had sent the message himself. Unfortunately the nearest CAF patrol was too far away to be of immediate assistance. For the moment they were on their own. With this in mind, Sir Garth launched another batch of counter-measures in an effort to deal with the remaining missiles.
“I wish Mark was up here. He’s better at this than I am!” he said. He then grinned with pleasure when he saw the second and third SAMs explode as they struck the freshly seeded, magnetically charged foil-cloud.
Mark was still in the rear compartment, along with the maiden, Gwenith and the Norman Lord. Both Knights were naturally worried about them as they were uncertain as to how they were faring, but frankly the attack had kept them far too busy to take the time to find out. However a shouted oath from behind quelled their fears.
“Bloody hell! What are they using?” The Squires familiar voice brought a smile to the Knights and Sir Hal shouted for him to come forward.
“Sorry I didn’t ask before, but I was a little busy!” he said.
Mark pulled himself through the cockpit hatch and clawed his way to the co-pilots seat. “That’s alright, sir.” he shouted over the roar of the engines. “I was a little busy myself!”
Sir Hal hid a smile. “How are our passengers?” he asked.
“Shaken, but unharmed.” Mark replied. “Gweniths more shaken. She keeps saying to herself that it shouldn’t have been like this! I can’t imagine what she means!”
With some difficulty he strapped himself in and using the scanners in front of him began to scan the area above and below for additional enemy activity. “Actually,” he said, “I think the young Lord is beginning to wish he’d stayed in prison! At least no one shot at him there!”
Sir Hal pulled the nose of the Flyer up and banked hard to the left. “Frankly,” he grimaced. “so am I!”
A missile snaked passed the cockpit window and Mark let out another curse. “Bleeding hell! Remind me to increase my life insurance when we get back!”
“If we get back!” shouted Sir Garth. His hands moved like a blur over the defence panel, activating in turn, an ASM launcher and another batch of counter-measures. “Target locked on!”
“And so is that last SAM on our tail!” warned Mark. “If you’re going to do something, you’d better be quick!”
“Then we better deal with both of them at the same time!” cried Sir Hal, as he levelled the Airo-flyers flight path and pointed it straight at the enemy frigate ploughing through the waves before them.
“Fire missiles!” he ordered. Sir Garth launched all activated ASMs and said a silent prey.
“Missiles away!” he reported. “Now let’s get out of here!”
Sir Hal waited a fraction of a second to see if the IM was truly on target. He then pulled the nose of the flyer up and hit the after-burners. With a jolt, the Airo-flyer shot upwards into the darkening sky. The IM struck the Mongolian warship amidships, tearing into its interior like a knife into butter. As if as to add to the carnage on the waves, the attacking SAM, having failed to adjust to the sudden change of direction of its prey, sped onwards towards the same frigate which had launched it minutes earlier. It too struck with deadly force, destroying the vessels forward sensor array, rendering any further tracking of the Airo-flyer impossible.
“That’ll teach them to mess with us!” grinned Mark, as he viewed the stricken ship.
“Yes.” agreed Sir Hal. “I don’t think we’ll have anymore trouble from them!” He levelled the flyer out and started to unbuckle his safety harness. “Take over Mark, will you? I’m going to have a lie down!”
In the rear cabin he found Jules Bonnor and Gwenith huddled together in a corner.
“Are you two alright?” he asked.
The Norman nodded. Gwenith just looked at him, an expression of terror still fixed on her ashen face. It seemed to Sir Hal that this attack had been more of a surprise for the maiden than they had encountered one on their outward journey.
Jules said, “A little shaken, but unharmed. Thank you for asking. What was it that attacked us?”
Sir Hal told him. “I must admit, I am surprised that they should dare attack us so near Ocean-1. They must have known we’d have air support on hand.”
“Did we?” inquired Gwenith, her colour returning.
“Well, as it happens, no.” smiled the First Knight. “We managed to disable the frigate on our own.”
Sir Garth stuck his head through the cabin hatchway. “The CAC patrol is here.”
Sir Hal peered out of the cabin window. Two sleek fighters emblazoned with the Royal Crest of the Camelot Air Command, hovered just off their port wing. He shrugged. “A little late. But at least we’ll have an escort until we reach Ocean-1.”
One hour later the safe haven that was Ocean-1 loomed out of the clouds and all aboard the battered aircraft breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the worst of the journey was now over. Fifteen minutes after sighting the floating base they landed. Whilst Sir Hal made his report to the Station Commander, Sir Garth saw to the comfort of Jules Bonnor and the maiden. This left Mark free to oversee the repairs and re-arming of the Flyer. It was not until the late evening, at dinner that they all met up again. By chance they were assigned the same table that they had used on their previous visit. Sir Hal took his seat, a serious look upon his face. Jules Bonnor asked the Knight what was bothering him.
“It’s the question of who sanctioned that last attack on us.” he said. “I was wondering how it was.”
“I would have thought it would rather depend on who would gain the most.” suggested the young Lord.
“Who do you think that might be, My Lord?” asked the maiden.
“I think you already know the answer to that question. The FNA!” The First Knights answer had the tone of a man who had grown tired of being played with.
“Lord Avilon!” said Gwenith, fiercely. “I do not know what you mean!”
“Oh, I think you do!” retorted the First Knight.
Gwenith stood up and glared at the Knight. “I can assure you that nether I or Jules are, or have ever beeninvolved with the FNA! I really don’t know why you continue to insinuate that we have!”
“So you have said, many times.” growled, Sir Hal. “However, I have received intelligence to the contrary.” He reached inside his coat pocket and drew out a folded sheet a paper. She looked at him with a expression of trepidation mixed with an air of defiance.
“Oh?” she said
“Sit down, my Lady.” said Sir Hal. “You’re drawing attention to yourself.”
She glanced about her. A number of navel officers occupying a nearby table were looking in their direction. After a moments hesitation she sat back down.
Sir Hal continued.“This is a report from Camelot’s Head of Intelligence. I appears that you have not been completely honest with me. Lady Gwenith of, Laon, is it? A title gained by marriage wasn’t it? And still held, even if your husband, the Count didn’t live long after your wedding.”
Gwenith drew a deep breath, and her upper lip curled as in a snarl. “So I am a Norman noblewoman. What of it? It doesn’t make me a freedom fighter! The opposite would be more likely. Anyway, I’ve had enough of being a commoner! I like being a noble! And it’s not Laon. It’s La’Fere. My… late, husband was the Count de’Grunier of La’Fere. He died of a heart attack. I am the still Countess, because that is what the law of Normandy dictates I should be.”
Jules sat up and looked at her. “Why on earth didn’t you tell me? I thought you were a…”
“…commoner?” said Gwenith, finishing the young lords sentence. “I knew how you felt about being a noble, Jules. Your face proves that I was right. Although, heavens knows why! Being a noble isn’t as half as bad as being a poor peasant!”
“It explains why you objected to having me seated at the same table as you.” said Mark, wryly. “If I remember correctly Norman customs don’t approve ofthe social mixing of high and low classes.”
“Unlike in Camelot.” said Sir Garth, raising his glass to the squire..
“I don’t care what class you belong to, Gwenith.” said the young Norman lord. “I just care about you!”
“As I care about you, Jules.” said the maiden.
“All very nice.” said Sir Hal. “And I wish you every happiness in your new station. But, unfortunately the report I have reads a little more damming, my Lady.”
Gweniths eyes narrowed. She also looked a little worried. “Oh?”
“I’ll leave out the formal pleasantries.” Sir Hal unfolded the sheet of paper he was holding and started to read. “There is firm indication that the maiden know as, Gwenith Ulthran, Countess of Laon…”
“La’Fere,” Gwenith corrected. Sir Hal nodded in acceptance of the maidens correction to her title.
“La’Fere.. is an active supporter of FNA. It is also possible that she has, on a number of occasions acted as an intermediary for the said organisation, notably in the procurement of weaponry.”
Jules mouth dropped open. “What?” he gasped.
Gwenith frowned. “Ignore him, Jules. I promise you, I have no connection with the FNA! I’ve certainly never bought missiles for them!”
“Nor have I!” echoed Jules, patting her hand. “Really Lord Avilon, I am most grateful for your help in rescuing me from that dreadful place, but I must protest at your accusations! We are not terrorists!”
“Not you directly, perhaps. But the people that you are connected with almost certainly are.” Sir Hal.
“Who did you have in mind?” asked Jules. “We know so many people.”
Sir Hal folded the report and put it back in his pocket. “I’m referringto the men who have been shadowing us since we landed this station. The same ones who were her before.” He pointed to the other side of the restaurant. “You can’t see them from here, but they’re nearby never-the-less.”
This item of news was a surprise to Sir Garth and Mark as he had not yet had a chance to tell them. The effect on Gwenith was dramatic as she started to shake, visibly.
“How many of them are there?” Mark asked, his hand instinctively reaching for his pistol. “Are they dangerous?”
“Three, if I am correctly informed.” said Sir Hal. “Don’t worry. Station security has the situation in hand. Finish your drink.”
Gwenith shot her friend a worried glance, who looked back at her puzzled, and another towards the far end of the restaurant in time to see three well dressed men emerge from a cubical. One of the men glanced briefly in their direction, drew a finger across his neck and then joined his companions at the bar. She stifled a gasp and reached with a trembling hand for her glass. “Oh god!” she spluttered under her breath. “They’re still here!”
“Is that them?” she inquired, trying to keep her voice calm. Sir Hal who had followed her gaze nodded.
“Yes. Recognise them?”
“No.” she replied, averting her eyes. It was obvious that she was lying. “How do you know they’re terrorists? They look like innocent travellers to me.”
Sir Hal smiled. “Camelot intelligence has known about them for some time. Travellers they are. Innocent they are not.”
Gweniths trembling hand placed her glass back on the table. “Oh.”
“What happens now?” inquired Jules, looking back and forth at her and the trio of men. “Are they going to be arrested?”
“It depends.” replied Sir Hal.
“On what?” asked Sir Garth.
“On what they are going to do.” said Sir Hal. “We have a good idea why they are here, but we’re not certain. They might be just passing through, or they might be waiting for some to join them.” He looked at Gwenith who was still peering into her glass.
“Which is it, my Lady?”
“How should I know.” she stammered.
“Have it your own way.” shrugged the Knight. It won’t alter anything. They won’t be allowed to leave the base. Not under they’re steam anyway.”
“Why are you telling us this?” said Jules. “Is it because you think we are ones they are waiting for?”
Sir Hal fixed him with a steady stare. “Are you?”
Jules looked at Gwenith. The maiden was ashen faced. He then moved his attention towards the three men at the bar. One of them was staring in their direction. He too drew his finger across his neck. It was a movement that had ancient origins. He had seen used only once in his life, at a reception he had attended with his father in Normandy. Shortly after the event a servant had been found murdered, his throat cut. It was the sign of death.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her, concerned that there was indeed something really amiss. “Do you know them?”
She nodded. “I fear that they are here for me.” she said. With a sudden burst of tears she explained her involvement.
“They’re here to make sure I don’t talk.” she said, sobbing. “And to punish me for failing to carryout my mission."
“What mission? The Norman lords forehead creased as the full meaning of the maidens statement sunk in. “Oh, Gwenith! How on earth did you get yourself mixed-up with that lot!”
“I think I can tell you.” said Sir Hal, edging his seat round in order to get a clearer view of the three men. “It is well known that Count de’Grunier, your dead husband was a pretender to the throne of Normandy. It was through him, was it not, that you first became interested in the FNA?”
She nodded her agreement. “Actually it was the FNA who introduced me to the Count, at a party in Paris. At least the person who introduced me to him was a member. I was enthralled by the thought of a free Normandy back then and I and a couple of fellow students joined a Free Normandy group at the University. Some time after I joined, the leader of the group, he was called Leon, took me to party at a local art gallery. Gerard was there with some friends. Leon must have known him because he introduced me to him. Anyway Gerard and I talked. Found ourselves attracted to each other and started seeing each. After a while we actually fell in love. The age difference didn’t seem to matter at the time.”
Sir Garth frowned, as if he though she was making it up.
“You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want too,” she said, seeing his look. “but it’s true .The FNA could not have planned it better if they’d tried.”
“OK, so you fell in love.” said Jules. “It happens. But why did they want you marry him?”
“To control him.” she explained. “And to steer him away from financing a rival organisation that was about at the time. The FRNC.”
Sir Hal rubbed his chin and laughed. “Ah yes. The Foundation for the Restoration of the Norman Crown. We at Court always thought of them as little more than a drinking club for destitute nobles. They had some money, but not a lot. I don’t think very active these days.”
“No. They’re not. Most of them are too old now anyway.” She was beginning to be a little calmer, as if letting it all out was releasing the pressure she had been under.
“You see, in addition to laying claim to the Norman crown, Gerard was a very rich man. Both the FRNC and the FNA wanted him to be their main financier. He leaned more to the FNA because they seemed better organised. But he in truth preferred the policies of the FRNC. Anyway they needed someone to keep him from straying of the right path and choose me. He agreed to back them, and asked me to act as his courier. I was in love him, so I agreed. I would ferry data-disks from their base in Normandy to their outposts in southern England. As a citizen of Camelot I could travel in and out of the country without trouble. Later on I helped them gather intelligence. It was all a great adventure. Then Gerard suffered a heart attack, and it all changed.”
“In what way?” inquired Jules.
“The FNA leadership never really wanted Normandy to have a King. They just wanted Gerards money to help them in their fight for freedom. In truth they’re republicans. Some even believe in that all nobles should be lined up against a wall and shot. Funny. All my life I’ve dreamed of being a noble and as soon as I gained my wish, the very people who put me there turn out to be the ones who wanted to shoot me.”
Jules squeezed her hand in his. “Why did you stay with them? Why not just leave?”
“Once you join the FNA, you’re in it for life.” she said, bitterly. “You can’t ever leave. One would think they were Sicilians they way they act.”
“So why are they after you now?” he asked.
She started to tremble once more. “Because I was supposed to draw Lord Avilon to China and ensure his demise.”
“So my imprisonment was just a ruse to get him to come to China?” Jules let go of her hand and shook his head in disbelief. “I thought you said you loved me.”
Gwenith took hold of his hand. “I do!” she said, earnestly. “Really I do. They forced me to go through with it! They said they’d kill you if I didn’t! You don’t realise what they’re really like!”
“What I don’t understand, is why they want you in particular killed, my Lord?” said Sir Garth, to Sir Hal. “Forgive me for saying, but I should have thought there were other members of the Table who were far more of a threat to them, than yourself?”
Sir Hal gave a short laugh. “True. But you are forgetting my history with Pon’chow. They must have known that he would try to exact his revenge while I was there. I was probably just a convenient target. What puzzles me is how they found out about the feud. Pon’chow wouldn’t have told them. He’d had lost face if he let it be known that I had defeated him.”
“Someone must have told them.” said Mark.
Sir Garth nodded. “And that someone would have had to have been in a position to have known all about the Generals past.”
“Yes.” said Sir Hal. “Someone connected with the Horde. In their administration department.”
The younger Knight understood what Sir Hal meant. Only a high ranking official would have the power to access a Horde Generals personal file. He said, “Po’ling?”
“Po’ling.” Sir Hal agreed. “I suspect that with Pon’chow out of the way, Po’ling would be in a position to take over the office of Provincial Governor.”
“But that doesn’t explain why he should have the FNA involved in his plans?” said Jules. “Why didn’t he have a locally hired assassin do the job?”
Gwenith poured herself another glass of wine. “I think I know. Before I left Normandy I was tasked to carry a dispatch from the FNA Headquarters to the Mongolian Embassy in Paris. The official I gave it to, laughed when I gave it to him and me told he hoped it would be enough to cause Camelot a lot of embarrassment. I didn’t know what he meant at the time, but I do now.”
Sir Hal let out a sigh. “He was correct. If Pon’chow had killed me, the First Champion of the Round Table of Camelot, the King and the whole Court would have been humiliated. As it is the Mongols will no doubt claim that I murdered Pon’chow, a Mongolian Governor and senior General in their army. Either way Camelots standing in the world is compromised.”
“And the FNA? What do they get out of it?” asked Jules.
“A continued supply of weapons.” said Sir Hal. “Pon’chow for all his failings, was no thief. I think he must have found out that someone high ranking, Po’ling most likely, was involved in the illegal sale of armaments. We’ve always know that the FNA were supplied from somewhere in the east. We’ve just not been certain who it was.”
Mark said, “I wonder if it was the FNA who fired those missiles at us?”
“Either them or a group linked to them.” replied Sir Hal. “Or it could have been one of Po’lings contacts in the Mongolian navy. We may never know. Like most reports, the reader will have to fill in the gaps himself.”
“It’s all academic now.” sighed Gwenith, glancing over to where the three FNA suspects were standing. “If they have anything to do with it.” She shuddered at the thought. “In some ways, I’ll be glad when it’s all over. I’m tired of all the lies.”
Jules gripped her hand in his. “Don’t worry, Gwenith. Everything will be alright.” He glared at Sir Hal and said, “When are your guards going to act? Or are they waiting for us to be killed us first?”
“Keep your voice down. They will act when the time is right.” said Sir Hal, firmly. “Until then, stay calm. And stay seated.” To Mark and Sir Garth he said, “Stay alert, you two.”
A group of Royal Camelot Navy officers walked past on their way from the balcony. One of them, a Lt.Commander, smiled briefly at Sir Hal, who nodded politely in return. Mark smiled, wryly. Sir Garth just shot him a quizzical glance.
“He’s an old acquaintance.” he explained to Jule and Gwenith. “Nice chap. Very efficient officer too.”
The officers headed for a table near the far end of the bar and called for the waiter. A bottles of wine and five glasses were brought out and the officers settled down to what had all the hallmarks of a heavy drinking session. The three men at the bar studied the officers for a moment, but after a while ignored them. Shortly after, two of the officers excused themselves from the table and headed for the rest-room, passing the bar and the three men as they did.
“Get ready.” said Sir Hal, to his two companions. Mark eased his hand towards his pistol, while Sir Garth tensed himself to do whatever he might be called upon to do. Sir Hal gripped the arms of his seat and keeping one eye on the action at the bar, he eased himself up and slowly placed himself between the maiden and the three FNA agents. “It’s time to leave, Gwenith.” he said loudly.
The FNA agents watched the officers walk by and saw and heard what Sir Hal was doing. They put down their drinks and started to move themselves. Unfortunately they had also failed to notice that the remaining three officers had also moved position. In addition they failed to realise that the two officers on the way to the rest-room had changed their minds and had started back towards them. This time with pistols drawn and levelled at them. As to what happened next, an onlooker could be forgiven in thinking that movements of the five Naval officers were part of a well rehearsed play, which in a way they were; for they fell upon the FNA agents in such a way that the three men were swiftly and expertly subdued. No sooner had the officers pounced, then the FNA agents had been disarmed and handcuffed. From nearby rooms, other Naval personal emerged and soon the restaurant was filled with uniformed officers. Sir Hal smiled with satisfaction and slid his pistol back into its holster.
“There, that was easily done.” he said.
Jules Bonnor gave out a short laugh, the quiver in his voice betraying the true extent of his relief. “Well I never!” he exclaimed.
Gwenith, who had been holding her breath whilst the action had been taking place, let out a deep sigh, her voice equal to that of her friend. “Oh my! Is it really over?”
“All over.” said Sir Hal. “Mark, get Gwenith and Jules a stiff drink each, will you? Brandy I think. And one for me, while you’re at it.”
“And me.” said Sir Garth, exhaling sharply. “After that, I need it.”
As Mark went for the drinks, he in watched in awe as more security officers entered the restaurant and began a search of the bar area. The three FNA agents were still lying trussed-up on the floor, and were shouting obscenities at their captors. The Naval officer whom Sir Hal had smiled at earlier, waved to them. Sir Hal waved back.
“What will happen to them?” inquired Jules.
“They will be transported back to Normandy to stand trial for treason and murder.” Sir Hal told him. “There are a dozen or more warrants with there names on them back there. The Romans want to get their hands on them too, for the suspected murder of a Senator.”
“What will happen to me?” asked Gwenith.
Sir Hal shrugged. “Nothing. Until we get back to Camelot anyway. I pledged an oath as Camelots First Champion, to get you and Jules safely back to your homes. And that is what I shall do. Then it’s up to you. If you co-operate with our security people, and help them identify who the FNA leaders are, I’m sure something can be sorted out. Other than that, provided you stay out of the Kingdom, you will be free. From Camelots judicial at least. I can’t answer for the FNA of course.”
Gwenith cast her head down. “I’ll return to Camelot. I’ve no other choice now anyway. I can’t go back to Normandy.”
“You still have me.” said Jules. “And my estates in Aquataine.”
She looked at him, tears welling in her eyes. “Thank you.”
The Naval officer who had waved at them, supervised the removal of the prisoners to the stations brig, but left his companions to carryout the actual details. Once they were gone he came over to the First Knights table.
“I trust you and your party are unharmed, my Lord?” he said, as he approached.
“We are, Edwin.” Sir Hal replied. “All thanks to you and your gallant men. May I introduce the Lady Gwenith, Countess of Le’Fere?”
The Lt.Commander bowed to the young Knight. “Your servant, my Lady.”
Gwenith nodded. Sir Hal pointed to Jules.
“May I also introduce, Lord de’Bonnier, the subject of my Quest.”
“I am pleased to see you are well sir.” said the officer. “I know your father has been concerned for your welfare. He’s looking forward to seeing you upon your return.”
“Thank you.” said Jules. “I will no doubt see him soon.”
Sir Hal then pointed to Sir Garth. “Sir Garth, I think you know already.”
“I do indeed.” the Lt.Commander grinned. “How are you Garth? Well I trust?” Sir Garth shook officers hand.
“All the better for seeing you, sir. Congratulation on the promotion, by the way.”
“Thank you. Father’s quite proud too He only managed to make Flag Lieutenant!” The officer then turned to face Mark, who approached them with a tray of drinks.
“Ah, Mark!” he said, grinning broadly. “Have you got one of them for me?”
“Of course, my Lord.” said Mark, offering the officer a glass from the tray he was holding.
The squire passed a glass in turn to each of the others and then took one himself. Sir Hal smiled and raised his glass to the light.
He said, “My Lords, Lady. Trusted Squire. May I have the pleasure of toasting the leader of our saviours, Lt.Commander, the Prince Edwin, Duke of Wessex and Pendragon, and Commander of Security on Ocean-1. Edwin, my young friend, you never fail to amaze me! Or your father, the King. Here’s to you and your brave men!”
Gwenith eyes opened wide. “I do apologise, my Lord.” she said, curtsying. “I should have recognised you.”
The Royal Prince grinned at her and winked. “Rather glad you didn’t. You might have given the game away.” He raised his glass in reply to his friends toast. “And here’s to you, Sir Hal, Lord of Avilon. Knight of the Round Table and First Champion of Camelot. May God and Merlin walk with you always!”
They emptied their glasses and called for refills. Sir Garth shook his head and laughed. “I wonder if all our Quests will be like this?”
“Oh no!” said the Prince. “If I know Sir Hal. Most will be far more interesting!”
Sir Hal sipped his brandy and looked out across the darkening sea. The Quest was all but complete. There would of course be some awkward questions to answer regarding Pon’chows death – the Foreign Office in particular would not be pleased, but there were always conflicts to solve when it came to dealing with the Mongol Empire and they were well used to it by now. He was confident he would soon be able to return to his estate in Avilon and enjoy a well-earned rest. Until that is, someone else knocked on his door asking for help…
For England and St.George!
Thought for the Day
Tomorrow is the day you were hoping for yesterday.
England's Claim of Right
Fly the English Flag
Wear a Rose on
A little bit about myself.
First and foremost I am English.
I am proud to be a member of the
Royal Society of St. George.
I am also a member of the
Royal British Legion and the
United Kingdom National Defence Association (UKNDA).
I was an officer in the Army Cadet Force
for over 25years.
I am a member of the English Democrats Party.
Links to all these organizations can be found in the
I also enjoy writing short stories (nothing published as yet!)
and samples of these are included on this site.
I also have another site devoted to my writings at: http://domasionragor.webs.com/
If I had a motto, it would be:
Honesty, Loyalty, Integrity.
Remember Your Towel!
International Towel Day is
It can be said that anyone who can hitch the length and breadth of the [world], rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through,
and still knows where his towel is,
is clearly a man to be reckoned with.'
(Copyright: Douglas Adams)
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The Answer is 42 .... and Remember Where Your Towel is!
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