For weeks the men traveled through lands that were treacherous, only stopping when it was necessary for them to rest themselves and their mounts. Luckily those days passed without incident, either good or bad, until on the seventh day when a particularly entertaining drama unfolded in a small clearing next to a stream.
Spartacus arose earlier than usual and began preparing their breakfast. While he was heating the skillet for the fried bread, he looked up to see Quigley standing over Whitecrow. The horse's nose was barely an inch from the Indian's when Whitecrow opened his eyes for the first time that morning. The Indian hollered and scrambled out of his sleeping bag to the safety of a nearby tree. After the initial shock wore off, Whitecrow grabbed his chest and laughed:
“Man, for a second there, I though my dead mother-in-law had come for a visit.”
Whitecrow chastised Quigley as he shooed the horse away and retrieved his red and white baseball cap with the word Death printed on the front and the word Life printed on the back. One of Whitecrow's biggest complaints, other than the horse's mischievous, thieving nature or its talent at disappearing, was the horse 's creepy ability to move its blue eye independently.
The situation between the Indian and horse continued to escalate throughout the day—mostly due to an incident that had occurred during breakfast. Spartacus had just passed Whitecrow a plate when the Indian decided he needed to relieve himself. He sat the plate down on the log next to him then, keeping watch of the horse, got to his feet and made his way over toward a large rock. “Don't even think about it,” he told Quigley.
The horse stalked the Indian with its blue eye while eyeballing the stack of fried bread and gravy with the brown one. When Whitecrow looked down to button his pants, Quigley snuck over and liberated a piece of fried bread from the Indian's plate. After hiding the newly acquired loot in its mouth, the horse quietly stepped back into place, undetected.
Whitecrow finished with his pants and looked at the horse, which was standing exactly where it had been the last time he had seen it. The horse and Whitecrow stared one another down as the Indian made his way back to the log. Whitecrow sat, picked up his fork and spoon, then glanced down at his plate. Something was missing. He jerked his head back up but the horse was gone. Whitecrow, with his fork in one hand and his spoon in the other, stood and turned around in a circle with wide eyes. “There's something seriously wrong with that horse, man. I think it could be a ghost. Or a DEMON!” he shouted at the surrounding wilderness.
Spartacus laughed before shoveling up another spoonful of crumbs and gravy. “No,” said the cowboy, wiping the corner of his mouth with a thumb, “he's just too lazy to rustle up his own grub.” The cowboy pointed to the log with his spoon. “Sit and eat; we're a week away from Kennard's and I'm already anxious to get back to our own colony. This is our first trip away since we dispatched four of our best warriors. I would feel more at ease if they were back at the colony instead of across the drylands, but they're not, so we must make haste and return as soon as possible; we should linger no longer than necessary in any one place.”
Whitecrow nodded and sat down. Holding his plate of fried bread and gravy close to him, he looked around them for Quigley; the horse was nowhere to be seen. Whitecrow took an absent bite from his plate before turning to Spartacus. “Do you think they're still alive?”
Spartacus half-shrugged, half-shook his head. “I don't know, John. I pray they are. They're suited for the mission, to be sure. Still, it is a long time to have received no word at all.”
“Maybe you shouldn't have put Hicks in charge—you know, with him having something that personal at stake. It could've clouded his judgment once they arrived at Caesar's stronghold.”
The cowboy leaned back and gazed up at the sky. “We all have a personal stake in this, some more than others. The fact that Hicks has a captive loved one makes him an even more suitable candidate for the job: it will force him to think things through and be creative when he needs to.”
Spartacus sent a prayer across the drylands, willing Hicks and the others to succeed in their mission. Then he prayed on behalf of the captives, including Hicks' loved one, whom the cowboy mentioned by name.
Richard Hicks, son of two brave and honorable commanding officers that fought and fell under the command of Spartacus during the Battle of Detroit, had been in love with his wife, Thema, ever since childhood. His wife, a brave and honorable warrior herself, returned his love, but was obsessed with her cause which was born out of her ancestral lineage: her mother had been an African slave girl; her father had been one of the thousands of legionnaires that terrorized the women and children that were forced to work in the brutal military brothels. Knowing that Thema would eventually be taken from her and put to work, Thema's mother escaped and gave birth in the drylands. By the time she reached Spartacus with her child, she was beyond all hope. She died within moments of handing the infant to Ayana and Sitota, who loved and raised the little girl as their own. Now Thema herself could possibly be suffering the same fate as her mother. Tomorrow would mark the one-year anniversary of the day when she was captured, along with a few of her fellow warriors, while raiding a slave caravan that was headed for Hashteher, Caesar's stronghold.
Spartacus thought of the young girl that had crawled out of the desert, barely alive and clutching her infant. What a cruel irony it seemed that, after beating such incredible odds and giving her daughter such a lovely name, the child would now be a slave as she had been. Unlike her mother, however, Thema possessed the heart of a lovesick prince who would stop at nothing to rescue his damsel and those others he deemed worthy of his efforts.
As if reading his thoughts, Whitecrow asked, “Do you think she still lives? Their life expectancy isn't that long—four, maybe five years at most. And that's if their exceptionally strong mentally and physically . . . and if they have a lot of luck on their side, what little of its left in this world. ”
Spartacus ran the question carefully through his mind before answering. “I think there's a great possibility of it, yes. As well as being exceptionally strong mentally and physically, Thema is also exceptionally beautiful.” He rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “Perhaps she has become part of Caesar's harem; though, I don't see how that life could be any less brutal than the one in the brothels. However if Caesar is stupid enough—and let's hope that he is—to look no further than her outer shell, and if the fates have been generous enough to deliver our small band of operatives safely across the drylands and into his presence un-compromised, then maybe, just maybe, we might actually stand a chance of winning this thing.”
Whitecrow grunted and took a bite. “That's a long shot, even for you, cowboy.” He looked over both shoulders for Quigley, but the horse was well-hidden.
Spartacus returned the Indian's grunt with one of his own. “You're the most loyal pessimist I ever met, you know it?” After a moment of silence had past between them, the cowboy spoke again. “We're not in this alone, John. It may feel that way sometimes, but we're not.”
“How can you remain a believer after all the shit we've been through? And it's not even over yet! What kind of loving god allows this to happen, huh? Answer me that, Mr. Guru Man.”
The cowboy sighed. “This isn't God's doing but man's, and it is up to man to make things right. As far as my beliefs go, it's just a feeling I have. Yes, my faith has been tested before and it is sure to be tested again, but like before, in the end, it will be restored to me once more.” Spartacus stood up and stretched. “We have lingered long enough, time we finish stowing our gear. The road awaits us.”
“Road?” Whitecrow laughed as he began gathering their cookware. “And who are you telling to hurry? I'm the one that's gonna be waitin' around while you try to locate that . . . weirdo horse of yours.”
Spartacus whistled. The cowboy's horse, which was hiding behind the rock where Whitecrow had relieved himself, appeared and moseyed over to its master.
Whitecrow growled at the horse and gave it the crazy-eye before kneeling to wash their dishes in the stream. After everything was cleaned and packed away, the two men took up their course once again. From one scene into another they passed. Above them, like the blades of a pinwheel, the days and the nights chased each other's footsteps. Finally, after a little ingenuity and a lot of determination, they reached the mountain range that housed Kennard's colony. It took them a few hours, as usual, to find the gorge needed to deliver their trade goods to the industrialists. Around dusk they entered the courtyard of their allies, who greeted them warmly and without suspicion.
Whitecrow stopped and exchanged words with a warrior that was familiar to him while Spartacus and Quigley led the asses toward Kennard and another man sitting near the colony's entrance, which was cut into the face of the mountain behind them.
Kennard, the last rays of the setting sun reflecting off his aviator hat and goggles, lifted his large frame from the chair he was sitting in and shook hands with the new arrival. “Glad you could make it. We sure would have been in a sore spot should you have fallen along the way . . . or decided not to have come at all. Wouldn't we, Ike?”
“Yep.” Ike looked at the cowboy, then at Quigley, then at the cowboy again.
Spartacus released the other man's hand. “It is good to find you in one piece. Tell me, have you got that old dust cropper up into the air yet, or are you still grounded?”
His ally laughed. “Still grounded. But even if I never get my Iris airborne, it's still nice havin' her around. I figure if nothing else, I can scrap her for parts.” Kennard looked around Spartacus at Quigley; the horse's blue eye was following a group of potato-clutching children as they danced around a tree in the center of the courtyard.
“Cowboy, that animal is the ugliest damn thing I've ever seen. What didja say its name was again?”
Spartacus scratched his cheek and prepared himself. “Quigley,” he answered.
Kennard nodded. “Suites it.” He nudged Ike with his elbow. “Ike, you ever seen anything that homely-lookin'?”
“Nope,” said Ike.
Just then, a dark bearded man came running into the courtyard, shouting, “Hey, Kennard!”
“Yeah, Edwards, what is it?”
The man named Edwards slowed to a brisk walk. “Lopez says she needs you to check . . .” He stopped and gave the cowboy's horse a double-take. “What the hell is that?”
Ike turned his head and spit. “It's a quigley.”
Edwards shook his head. “Damn! A quigley, huh? Well, whatever you call it, it sure is a pitiful-lookin' sight to say the least. Hey, maybe you should shave its ass and ride it backwards; it look a-helluva lot prettier anyway.”
The three men burst into laughter.
Spartacus waited patiently for Kennard to gain control of himself. Finally, after shedding a few tears, the colony's leader was able to pull himself together. “You can put your horse over in the stable. Ox will look after your beasts of burden, along with their cargo, since trust is not an issue amongst us. But mind you, point that animal's face toward the wall! I don't want it scarin' the chickens; they're skittish enough already.”
Spartacus tipped his hat to Kennard. “Much obliged to ya. Come on, Quigley.” The sound of the horse's name set the three men to laughing again. When Spartacus and Quigley were out of hearing range, the cowboy muttered, “What kind of hospitality is that, . . . makin' fun of a man's horse?”
Once Quigley was settled in for the evening, the cowboy went to his accommodations and rested for a bit. He then made himself ready for the late night feast which was to be held in he and Whitecrow's honor. By the time Spartacus entered the banquet hall, the night's festivities were well under way.
Whitecrow, who was already present and lit with shine, met Spartacus at the serving table. “Hey,” he whispered in the cowboy's ear. The Indian placed a hand on Spartacus' shoulder and tried to hold in a belch, but it escaped at the last minute. “Hey, did you speak to the old man yet?”
The cowboy waved a hand under his nose before pointing the server behind the table in the direction of the roast boar. “Nah, I thought I'd wait until after we'd eatin'. Why, you anxious to spend some time in the Great Hall of Gnomes?”
Whitecrow belched in a deep rumbling voice that caused the children around them to laugh. “Look, man, if you feel the need to consult with that senile, old dinosaur, then by all means, go ahead! But you ain't gettin' me in there; that place gives me the creeps.” The Indian reached out a hand to steady himself against the table; instead, he stuck it right in the middle of a plate of green mush that reminded Spartacus of guacamole.
“Shit,” said Whitecrow, lifting his hand and looking at it. He turned his attention to a group of small children that were laughing at him. The children watched with wide eyes as he rubbed his hands together and held them over his head before putting on his crazy-face. An eruption of excited screams and laughter soon followed as the Indian began to chase them around the banquet hall while doing his famous raccoon impersonation.
Spartacus and the other adults laughed, secure in knowing that the children were joyous and safe. In Kennard's colony, like most of the underground colonies that were founded during and after the Holy Wars, pedophiles, rapists, and killers of women and children were immediately put to death upon discovery; such beasts were not turned loose to reek havoc on the rest of the meek that existed in the world beyond colony walls. However unlike most colonies that treated men and women as equals in the bedchamber as well as on the battlefield, Kennard's colony was just a step or two away from goddess worship, its women every bit the stereotypical amazons that one would find in tales told long ago, but even that was better than what one would find in Caesar's part of the world, where more men were willing to give up their biological immortality for the pleasure of others than alphas like Spartacus could count; then again, there had been a lot of men that had died unspeakable deaths to save the women and children of others. Spartacus had witnessed the first of many such events the night his own country had tried to force his neighbor's twelve-year-old niece into a brothel with other young girls from the surrounding neighborhoods in order to help keep up soldiers' morale. It was then that Spartacus realized that there was no longer a war between nations, but an out-and-out war against the innocent by those who meant to rule them. That night the cowboy—the only shit-kicker in the city—took back more than just his neighborhood, he took command of the human side of the battle, organizing its members into a force of fearless warriors that were able to sustain their numbers while outwitting and diminishing the enemy's through cleverly thought out plans that relied on their combined individual ingenuity.
Spartacus took a moment to relish the sounds of the natural order, of family and the laughter of free humans. Such a rare gift was the sound of it, that a solitary tear ran down his cheek to hide beneath his beard. After accepting a goblet of mead, Spartacus sat next to Kennard, his ally against the scourge Draconian and now Caesar “ The Dread,” to arrange a meeting in the Great Hall of Gnomes with the colony's elder, Aldred. Once that was settled and the cowboy had filled himself with food and drink, and at the others' request had played a pretty tune or two, there was the customary exchanging of gifts between leaders and words that gave credit where credit was due.
The cowboy laid before the industrialist: five golden apples and a basket of fresh strawberries which had been grown in underground gardens and orchards over the winter; two bottles of honey; several jars of preserves; half-a-dozen packages of dried meats, tomatoes and cucumbers; three very nice hides; and a pair of fur-lined winter boots with small spikes fitted to the soles. The last item was a homemade quilt depicting the military history of the host's family.
Kennard, very much pleased with the choice of gifts, and honored by the acknowledgment of his ancestors through such beautifully worked craftsmanship, called forth his sons, who placed on the table before Spartacus: three cigars taken from the body of a dead legionnaire; four bars of soap made from animal fat; one small packet containing a handful of painkillers; seven skins of shine; a dozen boxes of ammo; a new casting pot; several bullet casting ingots and pouches of gun powder; although homemade, a more suitable gun cleaning kit for the cowboy's revolvers, Montague and Capulet; a gently used deck of playing cards; two paperback westerns; and a set of guitar strings.
After toasting one another and indulging in their usual riddling contest, there was the traditional passing of a corncob pipe among the cowboy and the industrialist. Not a word they spoke as they watched the other merrymakers wind down the festivities. Soon the floor was littered with sleeping children, too tired from a hard day's play to make it any further from where they had fallen and now lay. Close by the parents sat sharing gentle kisses in the night, whispering to each other words of “love” and “forever” in the dreamy, poetic glow of candlelight.
Spartacus and Kennard turned their heads toward the sound of a young girl's shy giggling. Both men, with nods and winks, encouraged the young boy who was approaching her with a rare delicate flower, very much like the girl herself. The boy blushed and awkwardly presented his token. The girl accepted graciously, looking up at him with doe-eyes as she held the flower beneath her nose to inhale its sweet perfume. After stealing their first kiss, the young couple sat next to one another on a sofa, holding hands and talking in shy, love-struck voices that did not belong in the depths of the earth, but under the everlasting innocence of the planets, the stars and the moon.
The industrialist leaned over and patted the cowboy on the back. “We are honored to count you and Whitecrow among our people this night,” he said. The man known as Herald, sitting to Kennard's left, assisted the colony's leader to his feet. “And now if it pleases you, we will go meet with the old man. It is true that my father keeps his own hours, mine, however, are set by the rhythm of my people and therefore I must be off to bed soon, but first I would accompany you and hear all that there is to hear.”
“And I would have you in my company,”smiled the cowboy.
Spartacus stood from his seat with a few pops of the knees and a grown. The arthritis in his right hip let him know that rain was on its way.
Or maybe it's just the pressure in these caves.
The cowboy downed the rest of his mead with a couple of the painkillers. He was then led by the industrialist through the colony's complex tunnel system. When they reached the Great Hall of Gnomes, Kennard pulled open the iron door, which squeaked out a song that was played upon rusty hinges.
Asleep in his chair beyond the confines of sanity's fringes, and completely unaware, sat the elder Aldred with his shotgun and his teddy bear. He snorted and twitched, causing a large children's book to slip from his grip. Its hard cover, so worn with age and usage, barely made a sound as it fell through the air and struck the ground. Filling the large cavern all around were the objects that had found their way to the top of the old man's list of affinities. Little lawn ornaments, now symbols of children who had once lived and called these caves home, were the only substitutes that could bring the old man close to serenity. He watched over his wards vigilantly, when not too tired from archiving, with his shotgun and, although somewhat diminished, his quick-witted abilities.
Spartacus and Kennard approached quietly, not wanting to startle the old man who, even though asleep, still had his finger on the shotgun's trigger. They advanced cautiously past shelves lined with books and tables piled high with magazines. Surrounding them on all sides were hundreds of little bearded men in pointy hats. The cowboy ignored their eyes as he glanced up at the new posters and comic book covers that had been added to the walls since his last visit. Suddenly, there came a shout from Aldred. Both men stopped dead in their tracks. Kennard watched his sleeping father warily for a moment before holding up his hand. Spartacus nodded and stayed put, letting the industrialist proceed alone.
Kennard stepped carefully over the gnomes that were gathered around the old man and eased his way up to the chair. Just when it looked as if the industrialist would make it, he knocked over a member of his father's riveted audience, breaking off its little red hat.
Aldred, clutching the teddy bear under one arm, jumped to his feet and pointed his shotgun at Kennard. “REACH FOR THE SKY, YA SONSABITCHES!”
The cowboy and industrialist quickly raised their hands. “Easy, Pops,” said Kennard, “it's just me.”
“I said no pancakes without mustard, damn you! Now get the women and children to the secret passages.” The old man cocked the shotgun. “I'll hold off the sausages.”
“It's me, Pops. Now why don't you just put down the—”
“Who?! Speak up, dammit!”
The industrialist sighed and then spoke again, this time in a voice that was loud enough for the old man to hear. “It's your son, Kennard. I've brought you a visitor.”
Aldred kept his shotgun aimed at Kennard's head while he reached for his spectacles. Once he had them on and could see his son's face, he relaxed his posture and lowered the gun. The elder then stood before them in all his glory as he blew his nose on his fingers and wiped them on his tattered robe that was synched at the waist with a piece of rope; the rest of the old man's ensemble consisted of longjohns and a pair of combat boots. Scratching absently at the gray patch of hair on his chest, he asked, “Dammit it, boy, why didn't ya just say it was you?”
“I did,” mumbled Kennard.
“What? Speak up!”
“I said, I'm sorry, it won't happen again.”
“Good, see that it doesn't.” said the old man. “Now, let's see this visitor.”
Kennard stood aside and presented the cowboy, who was still holding his hands in the air, to the colony's elder.
Aldred grunted. “Oh, it's you. Come to trade, aye?”
Spartacus let his hands drop to his sides. “Aye, and to seek your counsel.”
The old man grunted again as he swept his broken child up into his arms. “Look what ya did to Bobo,” he scolded Kennard. The elder carried his ward to a nearby table where he sealed its wound shut with glue and a bandage. Then he kissed the lawn ornament gently on the nose and laid it to the side before returning to his duty as keeper of the archives.
Kennard bid Spartacus to approach with the gesturing of a hand. The cowboy did so but stopped a few feet away. “Your ears hear much,” Spartacus said to the old man. “Even that which lies beneath and in between. Tell me, what news of Caesar? I would hear what your ears have heard and know what your mind knows.”
The old man spoke not a word, except to grumble about his lack of assistance in archiving and guarding the gnomes.
His son raised his eyebrows at the cowboy and shrugged. “Father,” he said, “I would also hear what you would say. Speak to us now, we beg, for Caesar still runs loose in this world, and whether we would have it on our heads to destroy him or no, the obligation and responsibility to future humans—if there is to be any—has fallen upon us; therefore, we must do whatever we can to bring about his downfall and end the suffering of man.”
Aldred whirled on the industrialist. “Are you callin' your father a coward?!”
“No, of course not,” answered Kennard. “You know that your descendents revere and admire you above all other men.”
The elder smiled and, with a lift of his chin, told his son to prepare some tea.
“And put another log on the fire.”
After returning to his chair, Aldred turned to Spartacus and grinned. “Well, cowboy, get yer ass on over here and have a seat. I ain't got all night, ya know. I just got a new crate of comic books that needs sortin'.”
Spartacus took his place at the small card table near the fire. “I and my second-in-command, the one called Whitecrow, appreciate the hospitality that has been shown to us.”
“If that's true, where's your second-in-command?” Before the cowboy could answer, the elder spoke again. “Never mind. No time for excuses. I know that your man Whitecrow does not enjoy my company or the company of my children.” He waved a hand at the gnomes before shifting his attention to Kennard, who was busy stoking the flames beyond the hearth.
“Dammit, boy, where's that tea?”
“Just another minute or two, Pops,” said the industrialist. “Why don't you get the mugs.”
“Don't tell me what to do,” snapped Aldred as he reached for three dirty mugs. By the time he finished spit-cleaning them the kettle let out its first whistle. The elder, in a fit of confusion, grabbed his shotgun and got to his feat. “WE'RE SURROUNDED!!!” he shouted.
Kennard dropped the container of tea, which, as fate would have it, saved his life that night. Just as he stooped to pick it up the shelf above his head exploded.
Spartacus put his hands over his ears as the gun shot, along with the reminisce of the old man's declaration, echoed throughout the massive hall.
“Dammit, Dad!” Kennard yelled at the old man. “We're not surrounded. It's the kettle, see?” The industrialist removed the kettle from the fire and placed on the table next to the tea.
“But I thought I heard . . . ” The old man paused, sat down, then gave the younger man a look that was stern. “Did you just yell at me?”
Kennard stuck a finger in his ear and shook it. “What? Speak up!”
The old man raised his eyebrows threateningly at his son.“Did you just tell me to shut up?”
Kennard, barely able to understand what was being said, replied, “Bloody hell, you nearly blew my head off! Now I can hardly hear you due to the ringing of bells.”
Aldred slapped his son upside the head. “No swearing! Now sit yer ass down and pour out.”
Kennard did as he was bidden, complaining the whole time under mumbled breath, which thankfully the old man could not hear.
The cowboy, tired yet amused, spoke: “It would be cause for a joyous celebration, indeed, if ever we were to meet as truly free humans. Perhaps we 'old ones' will live to see that day. Perhaps not. Until then, let us embrace and look after one another as brothers do. Next time I make the journey to your colony,” he told the elder, “I will bring plenty of corn for your stills. I also have a fine goat just ripe for the milking that I shall bring—and chickens that lay eggs a-plentiful.” Spartacus hid a grimace beneath his mustache and beard as he lifted the mug, still glistening with the old man's spit, and drank to his host's “good health”.
“That's easy for a young 'un like you to say: Wait till you get the hemorrhoids.” The old man gathered the mucus from the back of his throat and spit, but instead of hitting the ground, as was intended, he hit his son's boot.
“Oh, come on!” Kennard shook the wad from his boot with a look of disgust.
“What?” Aldred asked, smiling slyly. “SPEAK UP!”
“Never mind,” said the industrialist, handing the elder the remaining mug. “Will you speak of Caesar?”
Aldred gave a half-shrug and was quiet for a moment, leaving the younger men to wait in respectful silence. He did not speak again until his son began to fidget with anticipation.
“What do ya want from me, ay? To tell you how to defeat the Abomination. Or shall I just sit idly by and let you two idiots pick my brain?” He snorted and took a gulp of scolding hot tea without blowing on it first. “Even if I was to let ya, I don't see what good it would bring; pokin' around that pound of flesh, as diluted and useless it has become.”
“Not so,” said Spartacus. “Your mind is a brilliant thing. And I do not wish to 'pick it,' but to listen to what you have to say about the Abomination, as you so rightly named him.”
Kennard patted his father on the back. “Do not underestimate yourself, Father; humankind cannot afford it. If ever we are to defeat Caesar, we will need your guidance.”
The old man nodded. “Do you remember two years ago around Winter's Eve when Caesar held an unusually large gathering? The games and festivities lasted for weeks.” Aldred spit another wad, this time filled with disdain, and to Kennard's relief missing his boot. “It happened again last year at the same time.”
“Yes,” said the cowboy. “It was in celebration of his coronation.”
“Is that all?” asked Aldred. “I thought it had something to do with his birthday. And if my mind has not totally given up its worth, I believe he slew Draconian in early fall, just after the reaping season?”
The cowboy smiled. “So you think it is his birthday coupled with his accidence to the thrown that brings about such celebration..”
“Yes, me thinks,” growled the old man. “Me also thinks that a being as arrogant as he will probably hold another spectacle of that level during the same time this year.”
“Which means that most of the waste that he calls his will be in attendance.” Kennard squeezed his father's shoulder lovingly. “You see? There is still a lot of worth that has been left unto thee. And all those who deserve to be free, hopefully will benefit from it someday.”
Aldred caressed the top of Kennard's hand tenderly, then thrust it away and slapped his son's cheek. “Don't coddle me: I'm not a feeble old maid. Now back to Caesar and his band of merry men. If you are going to end this, you must take out as many as you can with him. It will not do to kill him if one of his captains or a secret rival in the Senate is just going to take his place. The fact that most of what is left of those beloved creatures we call women and children are concentrated there is tempting enough for any monster that dwell beyond the drylands, let alone the temptation to rule the hordes and to obtain the luxuries that come along with the ruler's portion of the take.” The old man struck the top of the table with his fist. “What a waste of precious space those twisted fiends take up and hold within their grasp! Not fair I say.” He struck the table again.“Not natural!”
The cowboy and the industrialist agreed. After the three had shared a moment of silence for those who had suffered and passed on, and those who suffered still, the elder stood up and walked over to the fireplace.“Your colony and ours this far from the drylands have not been attacked or fallen like the ones before—yours in particular,” he told the cowboy. “Perhaps it would be best to wait and hide it out. Raise the next generation of warriors in secrecy.”
“Father,” said Kennard, “there might not be a next generation. If we do not strike soon, Caesar will. It's only a matter of time before he and his legions discover the colonies anyway. And if this pattern you speak of is reliable and true—which I believe it is—than that means the legionnaires will be scouring the earth soon looking for contestants to compete in the games . . . and women and children for the slave trade.”
Aldred reached over and pinched his sons cheeks together. “So brave you are. And so proud of you am I. But I think it possible to keep ourselves as phantoms would until the next generation has grown into adulthood.”
“Beg your pardon,” said the cowboy, as he leaned back in his chair and looked up at the old man. “But if we are to truly succeed in our mission to bring the Second Age of Man to fruition, we must free the slaves beyond the drylands. And we must do it quickly, for their numbers are dwindling.”
The elder let go of his son's face.“How do you expect to slay the dragon in his lair? Neither one of us have enough warriors,”—he cut his eyes at the cowboy— "or farmers to spare.”
Spartacus raised his eyebrows and smiled. “It's true that most of my warriors have fallen in battle against Caesar and Draconian; however, you underestimate the warriors left to me—and the farmers as well. And it will not be open combat that will bring about the victory we seek, but the arrogance of Caesar and his men. I say we plan, prepare, and then strike from within.”
“I agree,” added Kennard, “there's no time like the present to begin. We can start making plans now and prepare our warriors—and farmers—to go undercover. Surely the Powers That Be have left an opening for us. If there is a way to destroy the dragon inside its lair, while at the same time rescuing the innocent from despair, then find we must.”
The elder laughed and, with pride, looked at the two younger men satisfied. “Both of you speak true, so you do. But if we are to proceed, we should do it most carefully. And it goes without saying that we will have to prepare the women and children to leave, just in case. We must also calculate the number of warriors that will go with them.”
“Do you mean to send them to New Hope?” asked Kennard.
Aldred walked over to a large table with magazines and crates stacked on one side of it; the other side of the table was currently under the occupation of a fossilized triceratops's skull. “Those at New Hope are our allies. More importantly, they follow the same code of honor as the members of our two colonies. And, like us, they have spies beyond the drylands. ”
Spartacus and Kennard both nodded.
The old man began sifting through a crate of comic books. After choosing the ones he would begin cataloging first, he looked over his shoulder at Spartacus, who was the decedent of a man that he once served under; the same man who crafted the revolvers that now hung from the cowboy's hips. “Of course you and my son are aware that we not only have Caesar to worry about, but other colonies as well,” he said. “Colonies that do not share the same values as us when it comes to family and the basic rights of our fellow humans.”
“We are very aware of such groups,” answered Spartacus. “And I agree that New Hope is the best place to send our women and children. They will be well looked after and protected there.”
The old man, holding the comic books in his hand, looked around confused. “What was I doing again?”
“You were about to write down the titles and numbers,” Kennard said, pointing to the comic books.
Aldred looked down at his hand. “Yes. Yes, I believe I was.” He shuffled over to the leather-bound book lying open on the table and began jotting down the information required. Then he sealed the comic books in plastic and placed them in a pile.
The cowboy and the industrialist waited patiently for awhile, but when no word came from the old man about what steps should be taken next, Kennard spoke: “Father? FATHER!”
“Blast it all to hell! Can't you see how much work I've left to do? Not to mention the troll feet need sowed down by the beach. We'll have a nice crop of troll heads by fall if we start platin' the feet within the next week.”
A look of sadness swept over Kennard's face, appearing and disappearing as quickly as an illusion performed by a clever magician. “There's no use,” Kennard told Spartacus, “he's beyond lucid. All he can focus on now is archiving and guarding the gnomes.” The industrialist watched as the elder lifted the gnome with the bandage around its head. Cradling the lawn ornament in his arm, Aldred continued with his archiving, oblivious to everything outside the realm of his reality.
“Shall we meet again tomorrow?” asked Spartacus.
“Yes,” Kennard spoke over the elder, who was cooing to the gnome cradled in his arm. “But let's hold our meeting a little earlier on. No matter what time I lay my head down to rest, I still must be up with the dawn.” He yawned. Lifting his aviator hat and goggles to rub his forehead, he said, “Tomorrow, by noon, I will send messengers to New Haven, and then we can begin making plans.”
The cowboy stood and shook hands with the industrialist, then quietly left the room. Having visited the colony in the mountains many times in the past, he was able to find his accommodations with relative ease. Snoring and farting in the bunk above his was Whitecrow, already sound asleep. Spartacus waved his hat under his nose and stretched out on his mattress filled with down. After an hour of restlessness, sleep finally found him. Bad dreams weaved their way in and out, blending into one another at the beginning and the end, before going their separate ways. The cowboy would then find himself in a totally different situation more ominous and less logical than the ones before it. Adding to the escalating chaos of the phantasmagoria were sensations—sounds, smells and so forth—that broke through the barriers of the subconscious to seek out the host in the middle of the maze.
A burning sensation in his hip and the sound of movement in the tunnels brought Spartacus out of his dreaming and introduced him to the morning. He reached toward the pocket of his duster for the painkillers but ended up reaching for his guns instead. A young man, raised most of his life underground, stood quietly over the cowboy with eyes that sparkled brilliantly in the half-light. He held up some morphine patches and a jar of cream. “Courtesy of Kennard,” he whispered.
The cowboy returned Montague and Capulet to their holsters. Once the young man had vanished through a dimly lit passageway, Spartacus popped three of the painkillers into his mouth and applied some of the cream to his hip. He then stored the patches and cream in his saddlebag next to the other gifts that had been given to him—except for the skins of shine, which lay stacked beneath his bed. With the saddlebag slung over one shoulder, he headed for the banquet hall. There he enjoyed a hardy breakfast of beans, potatoes and eggs wrapped in fried bread. After finishing his third cup of Oswego tea and thanking the cooks personally, he made his way out into the courtyard where he was greeted by the dreary light of a rainy morning.
Rumbling thunder accompanied the cowboy's footsteps as he walked toward the stable to check on his horse. Inside, standing in a corer with a chicken on his head, was Quigley. The colony's mare whinnied as Spartacus shooed away the chicken and saddled his horse. “Come on, loverboy, time for a workout; you're startin' to get fat. Pretty soon we're gonna have ta put you on a d—” The cowboy was suddenly interrupted by the sound of gunshots followed by the trumpeting of a horn. Spartacus looked out of the stable's open doors just in time to see Herald fall to the ground with his horn to his lips. A large gaping wound in the colonist's back gave up his blood to the mountain.
The cowboy's voice was like the cracking of a whip as he swung into the saddle and used his hat to spur his horse forward. He and Quigley burst out of the stable with the mare and Whitecrow's mustang right behind them. At the same moment, one of the few women warriors guarding the gorge came running into the courtyard, shouting: “LEGIONAIRS ARE UPON US!” She then broke the strap on Herald's horn and played the warning for all to hear.
The cowboy looked up to see some of Kennard's men on the cliffs; their bullets, like the rain, did very little to hold back Caesar's hordes, which crowded into the gorge like a swarm of locusts. Even the liquid fire from the vats that lined cliffs, evoking visions of Hell as it it flowed over the side of rock onto living flesh below, had little effect on the legionnaires who trampled their fallen comrades both living and dead underfoot as they made their way through the gauntlet.
Spartacus turned at the sound of Whitecrow's voice. To the Indian's surprise and disgust, his horse took off with the mare down a small side trail that led out of the mountains. Spartacus rode over and retrieved his second-in-command. As soon as Whitecrow was situated on the back of Quigley, Kennard glided Iris over the courtyard and drove her into the gorge.
“That is one crazy white man,” said the Indian.
Spartacus pulled Quigley's reins in the direction of the colony. Seasoned warriors spilled out into the courtyard while the less experienced ran weapons back and forth. A rage-filled battle cry from the warriors succeeded a massive explosion from the gorge. “Kennard's gone,” Whitecrow told Spartacus. When they were at the entrance, the cowboy and the Indian dismounted. Both were immediately handed assault rifles by a passing youth.
Spartacus slapped Quigley on the rump. “Hide and seek, Quigley!
The horse responded by running through the entrance and down one of the tunnels.
Spartacus and Whitecrow hunkered down next to Ike and Edwards who were taking cover behind one of the beat-up cars that had been hauled in the evening before along with an RV.
“The bastards are on the cliffs!” said Edwards.
The four men watched as legionnaires attacked the colony's sentinels and threw them into the gorge. Spartacus quickly traded weapons with Edwards. The cowboy and Ike used their sniper rifles to pick off the legionnaires on the cliffs while Whitecrow and Edwards took aim at the ones climbing over the top of Iris. Some of the warriors on the cliffs were able to escape down the side of the mountain thanks to Spartacus and Ike's superior marksmanship.
“There's too many of them!” shouted Whitecrow. Just at that moment one of Caesar's captains, a foul creature with extremely pale skin and a face covered in tattoos, entered the courtyard wearing a black barrette. Between him and the battlefield that had been meticulously planned for his arrival long ago, was a crane with a bulletproof cab and a wrecking ball that had jagged pieces of metal welded to it. The golem, made of steel this time instead of clay, swung its mace back and forth, a warning for all those who dared to pass through the gauntlet and seek admission to the crucible.
The legionnaires standing behind the captain and on the cliffs cheered as he bared his sharp teeth and held up his Uzis. “AVE CAESAR!” he roared.
“HAIL CAESAR!!! HAIL CAESAR!!! HAIL CAESAR!!!” chanted the legionnaires. With each hail they slapped their weapons across their chests and directed their salutes toward the dark king beyond the drylands.
The captain shot into the air and waved the legions forward. “IMPETUS!” he ordered.
The legionnaires advanced, laying siege to the colony. Those who made it passed the golem set off the booby-traps that had been hidden throughout the courtyard, traps that the children of the colony had been taught to avoid since infancy. Arrows flew from the surrounding walls. Bouncing betties sent body parts flying to and fro while razor-wire nets ensnared several victims at once, turning flesh and bone into chum. Then, to the delight of Caesar's legionnaires and to the dismay of Kennard's warriors, the women hidden inside the crane were forced to blow themselves up.
Spartacus turned his attention toward the heavens. From above could be heard the massive war drums of Michael, Kennard's chief of aeronautics. Michael used the drums and the enclave's acoustics to guide three glider-men, part of a special unit called God's Wrath, from his place in the eyrie located further up the mountain; the glider-men, bearing in likeness to the long foretold apparitions that await the final judgment, responded to him and each other on horns of different pitch.
Ike pumped a fist in the air and screamed at the top of his lungs as two glider-men began dropping canisters of homemade napalm into the gorge; the third glider-man ran sweeps over the cliffs. “The bastards are in for it now,” Ike laughed the with bravado and the insanity that comes from one who has much to lose.
Whitecrow nudged the cowboy with his elbow and pointed to the youth that had handed them the assault rifles. The boy, all of fifteen years old, was pinned down behind a refrigerator with a group of machete-wielding thugs coming at him from the other side.
“You got some cover to offer?” Spartacus asked.
Whitecrow smiled and held up his gun. “You bet their asses I do.”