Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Hang THIS On Your Christmas Tree, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 6

"It won't fly?" Kippy asked, staring sadly at the tall, egg-shaped form of Pacha's ship. The craft was sitting on uneven ground, and the tilt made the vessel look even more forlorn.

"All systems remain neutralized," Illia answered, from within the small pouch she was riding in at Mike's waist. "Only I seem to have been spared."

"I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't see it with my own eyes!" Mike said, staring up at the ship in disbelief. "Kifta technology is in some ways even better than Moth technology, save for weapons and that sort of stuff. To see one of their ships taken out like this is a damn bewdy trick!"

"Nothing is damaged," Illia reminded. "But nothing works, either. I am still trying to understand how the intruder defense system failed against our recent guest."

"It did, and that is what matters," Pacha returned. He turned his head to gaze at Charlie. "This Robin Hood has quite a way with electrons, it seems."

"We underestimated him," Charlie said, shaking his head. "A power user that old would be certain to have plenty of tricks up his sleeve. I should have known."

The Kift gave out a tiny grunt. "No, Charlie. I did no better. The man has a most exquisite shield of some sort, that defies all attempts to assess his abilities. Best not to cast blame, I think, but rather to determine where we are now, and how we can get back to where we belong."

Charlie looked around them. They were obviously parked on the shoulder of some mountain. Above them, the rounded peak was capped in snow, while to one side a green valley was laid out before him. The peak was obviously part of a range of similar mounts, which marched away into the distance to vanish into the late afternoon sun.

Or, at least it looked like afternoon.

"Any idea where we are?" Charlie asked. His eyes turned in the other direction, noticed the wall of gray in the sky there that looked very much like a winter storm approaching. That it was winter here seemed clear by the nip in the air, with the slightly frosty addition seeming to support the notion that snow was on the way. It was a good thing they had created cold weather gear in the past and stored it aboard Pacha's vessel, or things would be getting pretty chilly about now.

Frit and Pip moved closer, and Frit laid a hand on Charlie's arm. "This is a mind place, Charlie."

Charlie frowned at that. "A mind place?"

"You've been to one before," Pip said. "Nicholaas makes his own. They're places he goes to rest and relax. Remember when we all got that nasty plague, and we were at each other's throats? Nicholaas brought us to one of his mind places so he and Max could help us."

Kippy looked around at the distant horizon. "This is all in somebody's mind?"

Both elves shook their heads in unison. "It's real," Frit said. "It's just made up in somebody's mind."

"It was designed," Pip said, clarifying. "To be a place someone wanted it to be."

"It's not a universe," Frit said carefully. "Just a world. Or as much of one as someone wanted."

Charlie shook his head. "Can elves do this?"

"A few have," Frit agreed. "Not many. And not nearly as well as Nicholaas."

"Is he saying we're in a world made by Nicholaas?" Uncle Bob asked, looking surprised.

"I don't think he means that," Ricky countered,

Horace shook his head. "It was made by Robin Hood, wasn't it?"

"Are we stuck here?" Kiernan asked.

Charlie held up his hands for silence, and turned to Frit. "What about it?"

The two elves looked at each other. "We can't get us out of here," Frit said then. "And no one can get in to help us without the owner opening the door."

"Maybe Nicholaas?" Pip wondered.

Frit frowned at that, and nodded. "Maybe Nicholaas."

"But not Max?" Charlie asked, amazed. He had once viewed the elf as able to perform just about any miracle, but as his own acquaintance with skwish intensified Charlie was realizing the the elves had their limitations. Only Nicholaas seemed to still hold a high position as the ultimate skwish authority. And yet...was that just because Charlie didn't know any better yet?

"We're here for a reason," Kippy said. "And not just to capture us."

Ricky turned to stare at him. "What reason, do you think?"

"I don't know that." Charlie's boyfriend shrugged. "It's just a feeling I have."

"I don't sense anything dangerous here, if that matters," Adrian added.

"Could there be witches here?" Kiernan asked. "People with powers?"

"There can be anything here that Robin Hood wants to be here," Frit said. "If this is his mind place, that is."

"It has to be," Pip argued. "Who else is there?"

"We didn't know about Robin hood until just yesterday," Uncle Bob pointed out. "Maybe he has magical friends."

The idea stunned Charlie. If Robin Hood had really been around for so long, how many others like him had he discovered? Hadn't Robin Hood had at hand a band of merry men? For that matter, Charlie didn't even know if Nicholaas had already been aware of Robin even before the boys had run into him!

"Great," Charlie said, sighing. "So we don't know anything, as is usual in these situations."

"I know one thing," Kontus grated angrily. "We can now add kidnapping to this fiend's other crimes!"

Mike turned to his friend at the obvious ire in his voice, and placed a hand on the big Trichani's arm. "Easy, mate. You'll blow a fuse or something."

Kontus turned a fierce scowl on Mike, one that would have made anyone less familiar with the Trichani run. "Outlaws have always muctward my ggrowlfny!"

Bobby's eyes lit up. "Wow! What the heck does that mean?"

For a moment the big alien wavered, and then a slow smile spread down his muzzle. "Better you not know. It would curl your belly fur!"

That brought smiles to the group, a few sighs, and some reduction in the tension they were feeling.

"So what's the plan?" Horace asked. He turned and pointed down into the valley. "Did you see that town there?"

They all turned then, and Charlie shaded his eyes from the sun with a hand and gazed down the slope into the valley below. Sure enough, the roofs of a town of some sort could be seen among the trees there.

"I'd say about five miles," Ricky estimated. "Pretty fair walk."

Kippy turned to Frit. "Will our powers work here?"

The elf smiled, there was a small pop, and he disappeared and reappeared five feet away. "Yes."

Kippy grinned, and turned back to Charlie. "I could fly us all down there."

"That would be faster, anyway," Kiernan suggested. "Although maybe not a good idea to fly all the way? I would check out the town before just landing there. We might scare anyone that saw us coming." He looked around at the others. "I mean, since we don't know the rules here yet, or anything."

Kippy grinned at Charlie. "Aren't you glad I told him to speak his mind?"

Charlie nodded. "Yes. Anyone with any ideas, feel free. We can use all the help we can get here."

Horace moved closer to Charlie. "So what do you think? Go down to the town?"

Charlie nodded. "It would be a start. If this really is a world created by Robin Hood, he didn't dump us here just for the fun of it. He has something in mind. I'd say the town being right there in plain sight is too much of a coincidence to ignore." He frowned. "But we'll be careful, just like Kiernan says. Kip, are you sure you can fly all of us?"

"We can, if you can't." Pip reminded.

"No, I want the practice," Kippy returned. "And...I want to be doing something productive."

"Okay, then let's go." Charlie motioned for everyone to come closer. "Say when, Kip."

His boyfriend smiled. "When."

The group lifted slowly into the air and hovered about twenty feet above the ground.

"Okay?" Charlie asked, looking at his boyfriend with concern. This was the greatest test of Kip's new powers yet.

"Yeah, I think so. This doesn't seem any harder than when I raised everybody back at the office, and there are more of us this time."

Charlie nodded. "Go slow to start, okay?"


They moved slowly down the hill towards the valley below. But even at this speed, the land passed steadily beneath them. The moss-covered rocks quickly gave way to grasses, brown with winter sleep. And then to trees, mostly of the evergreen variety, looking familiar enough to be identical to those in Charlie's own neighborhood. There were even a few deciduous trees among the greenery, stark and barren without their leaf cover. Wherever they were, it was not that far from home in appearance.

They covered some miles that way, and dropped in altitude considerably in the process.

And then, quite suddenly, they were over a road, and a rather neat and tidy looking road at that, paved with blue stones. It wound away from them into the trees, and even as they spied it, Charlie could hear the faint clip-clop of a horse coming towards them.

"Set us down by the roadside, Kip," he said hastily.

They alit, and no sooner had they done so than a horse-drawn village cart rounded the bend and came towards them. It was a fairly basic vehicle, made of wood, just two wheels with a seat above, and a small walled-in area with a tailgate behind the driver for cargo. A man sat on the plank seat behind the single horse, and next to him a small girl and a boy. They approached steadily, surely able to see them now, and showing no sign of wariness or fear at their presence.

The wagon drew up beside them and the driver pulled back gently on the reins, and the wagon stopped with a small creak from the undercarriage. The horse chuffed once, eyed the strangers with interest, and then waited patiently for the next instruction.

The man was large, with a dense brown beard and friendly eyes. He and the kids were dressed in what could only be called homespun clothing, though all of it was neat and clean. The kids viewed Charlie and the group with owlish eyes, but he saw no trace of fear there, only amazement and interest.

The man inspected them, raised one eyebrow as his gaze met Kontus, and then dropped it again and smiled at the sight of Pacha. And then he raised an open hand to them and smiled.

"Ho, travelers! And a Merry Christmas to you!"

Kippy turned to grin momentarily at Charlie; and then his boyfriend had thrust a hand into the air in greeting. "Merry Christmas!"

Charlie also felt compelled to return the greeting, and soon all the humans had done so.

The man leaned down a bit, and his smile returned. "You folks would be from yon great egg upon the mount? I have certainly never seen clothing such as yours before!"

Charlie blinked at that, and turned his head to look back up the mountain. Pacha's ship was clearly visible, the afternoon sun lustrous as it rebounded from the soft blue tint of the steel hull. But it was merely a gleam against the flank of the mountain, the vessel's shape lost in the distance.

"I spied it through my eyeglass," the man explained. "Reeve Alastair sent me to have a look."

Charlie nodded. "Yes, we come from there."

The little boy leaned down to stare at them. "It truly flies?"

The man laughed. "I told him it had arrived so. He doesn't believe me."

Charlie saw no harm in confirming their method of arrival. "It does fly, but at the moment it seems to be broken."

The boy's eyes widened, and he turned to look at the man. "Perhaps Wizard Jackin can assist them?"

"Perhaps so." The man smiled at Charlie again. "But I am remiss. This young man is Hob, and his sister's name is Royse. And I am Judd of Kinborough, their father, at your command."

"Um...I'm called Charlie."

The little girl let out a squeak. "Are you a royal, sir?"

Charlie shook his head. "No."

"It's the name," Judd explained. "Charles is not a name given a commoner."

Charlie looked at Kippy a moment, at a loss on how to answer that. His boyfriend's eyes grew large at the hand off, but he immediately regrouped, and flashed out one of his thousand-kilowatt smiles. "Um...we're not from around here."

Charlie laughed at that, but immediately nodded his head in agreement. "It may be different where we come from," he agreed. "But I assure you, I am not a royal of any sort."

The man's eyes twinkled with good humor. "As you say." His eyes appraised the group again, and he smiled. "But neither are you common travelers, either."

Charlie smiled at the man's obviously good nature, and introduced the other members of his group. The little girl and boy both stared wide-eyed as he did so, and turned to look up at their father after Charlie was finished.

Even that man's eyes looked slightly troubled now. "A Charles, a Robert, a Richard...and you say you are not of noble blood?"

"Not a drop," Charlie confirmed.

The man watched him a moment longer, and then his good nature returned. "Well, as no royal would deny his lineage, I believe you."

"You've met a royal before?" Horace spoke up then.

Judd looked slightly appalled. "Oh, my, no. Here? Certainly not. We are far from such things, here in the hinterlands. But we hear news, carried by travelers such as yourselves."

"We don't have much news, but we are hungry and tired," Charlie said. "Is there lodging in your town?"

Judd drew his head back and surveyed the group again. "Oh, my. Such a large band" He smiled at Kontus and Pacha. "Well...the inn may be stressed to hold all of you, but I will put up any overflow at my own home, if that be the case."

Kippy beamed. "That's very kind of you. But I'm sure the inn will do just fine."

"It's not a large town," Judd explained. "But it is the only one for quite some distance, I'm afraid."

"Where's the next town?" Ricky asked. "How far?"

For a moment Judd looked uncertain. "It is said to be Narthbay, over the next mountain, perhaps three day's travel."

Uncle Bob cocked his head to one side. "You're not certain?"

"Well, I have never traveled there, no. I have no reason to go so far, when all I need and want is here. But travelers have come through town from there, and so we know of it, at least."

Charlie considered that, and understood what the man meant. If Judd's clothing and cart were any indication of the state of affairs here, times were fairly primitive. Middle Ages? If so, then the average man did very little in the way of traveling in those times. Unless one were a merchant, of the warrior class or nobility, or a mercenary of one sort or another, one stayed upon his land or in his small town his entire life, and died there. The average person's world was much smaller in those days.

"I'm sure your inn will be fine," Charlie assured. "I guess we can just follow this road back to town?"

Judd smiled at them. "I can show you the way, certainly."

"We don't want to change your plans," Adrian said. "Please."

Judd waved a hand at them. "It is not the trouble you suggest. As I said, the Reeve Alastair sent me to inspect yon great egg. But as your journey started there, the need for inspection has expired. Reeve Alistair may ask you of it himself, if he desires. So I would be heading home again, anyway."

The little girl leaned up against her father and whispered. "The Wizard Jackin?"

The man laughed. "And, there is the Wizard Jackin, who lives and works in our town, and who may be able to offer advice on how to make your great egg fly again."

"That'd be cool," Ricky said, grinning.

Judd plainly did not get the slang, and it showed in his expression.

"He means any assistance would be appreciated," Kippy translated, tossing a frown at his friend. Ricky simply grinned even wider, his eyes returning a sort of nyah-nyah that Kip plainly recognized. But instead of becoming annoyed, Charlie's boyfriend simply rolled his eyes and sighed. What's the use?

"He means well," Adrian said, smiling.

Judd laughed at that. "Your ways should be expected to be different, since you have obviously come from afar. I beg your pardon if I seem surprised at times."

"And we beg your pardon if we seem so different," Horace said. "All we really want is to be able to get home."

"In time for Christmas," Kippy appended, looking worried now.

Judd seemed to understand that. "Christmas is everywhere upon the world, but never so close as it is at one's own hearth, among one's own family. This I understand quite well."

Charlie nodded. "We'll follow you to town."

The children put their heads together and whispered excitedly at that, and Judd smiled as he clicked his tongue at the horse and carefully turned the wagon about in the road. "I'll keep to a walking pace," he told them, and started off.

The blue stone road was amazingly easy to walk on. The stones provided a firm base for their tread, yet seemed to give a bit with each step, making for a relaxed gait that Charlie found easy to bear. True to his word, Judd kept his wagon at a walk, and looked back at them every so often to ensure that he was not leaving them behind.

Uncle Bob had moved up to walk along with Charlie, and leaned close now to converse in a low voice. "Something strange about these folks, Charlie."

"How do you mean?"

The older man frowned. "Well, in my studies of the history of magic, I've read quite a bit on the Middle Ages, and got a very good feel for the way things were then. Just meeting these people has kind of thrown me off."

Charlie nodded. "I had the same feeling, that this place exists at some point in the past. The Middle Ages feels right, too, going by that cart and the way Judd and his kids are dressed. It does seem odd to me that all three of them seemed to accept both Kontus and Pacha as just two more travelers. I would have thought that someone in that time period would have been afraid of Kontus, at the least. You know, think him a demon or something?"

"That's part of what I mean," Uncle Bob agreed. "But there's more. Did you notice how clean these people were?"

Charlie turned his head to look at the man. "Clean?"

"Yes. Both they and their clothing. Very clean, very neat. And that wagon. It looks brand new, not like something used hard and dirty in a primitive period of time. Even the horse looked amazingly well cared for."

Kippy moved closer to Charlie's other side, and Rick and Adrian moved up behind them. Presently, the entire group had drawn within earshot of the conversation.

"They are very tidy looking, at that," Charlie agreed. In his own readings of history, he remembered clearly that bathing was far from an everyday occurrence in medieval times.

"I noticed that, too," Kippy said. "And what about this road? It's better than anything they could have made back then, I would think."

Charlie once again noted the soft and pleasant crunch beneath his feet with each step, and nodded.

"This is a made world," Frit reminded. "It can be anything its creator wishes."

"That's right," Adrian said. "I forgot that."

"So it might be a mix of things, you're saying?" Ricky asked.

"Yes," Pip answered. "We shouldn't be surprised by anything!"

"This could prove extremely interesting," Pacha put in, from his position cradled in Mike's arms.

Mike laughed at that. "It's already pretty amazing, if you ask me!"

"There must be a reason we're here," Horace figured. "Robin Hood wants something from us, I'm sure."

"Or wants to learn something about us," Charlie decided. He sighed. "Look...everybody just relax. Be yourselves. It's worked so far. Let's not jump to any conclusions about anything just yet."

"I'm worried," Kippy said then.

"What about?"

Charlie's boyfriend moved even closer to him. "Pacha already said that Robin doesn't have control of time. That seems to me to mean all of this is happening in real time. We don't know how long we were out before we woke up here, or anything. We don't know how long it will take to figure this out and get home."

"If we do get home," Ricky said, under his breath.

Kippy ignored him, and instead looked helplessly at Charlie. "What if we miss Christmas?"

"Never!" Frit said, sounding aghast at the idea.

"No!" Pip agreed, sounding equally upset

"We won't," Charlie reassured. He reached out and patted his boyfriend's arm. "What does your skwish tell you?"

Kippy sighed, and closed his eyes. Charlie closed a hand on Kip's arm this time to guide his boyfriend as they continued onward. Kippy walked along, his eyes closed, for a full minute, and then opened them and smiled.

Charlie smiled, too. "Good news?"

"Well, I feel like we won't miss Christmas. What I don't know is if we'll be home for it."

"Isn't that the same thing?" Adrian asked.

"No." Kippy smiled. "I did think it was the same thing, up until a moment ago. But now I understand that Christmas will come wherever we are, and that all of us will be together, no matter what." He released his breath in a sigh. "Even if we don't get home in time, Christmas will still come to us."

"That's so sweet," Kiernan said, smiling. "My mom'll be pissed if I'm not home, but she can kill me later."

They all laughed at that. Judd turned and smiled at them, and seemed pleased that the walk was not troubling them. "Not far now," he called.

He was true to his word. They had covered about a mile when they rounded a bend in the road, and found a town spread out before them. It was larger than they had assumed from the roofs visible from their original perch, and the blue stone road widened and seemed to service the entire town, its square, and all the visible side streets.

People were everywhere, alone or in groups, walking, toting things, leading animals, herding chickens. Children ran and laughed, or happily helped with chores, while some groups stood about wrapped in apparently pleasant conversations and laughter. Charlie simply stared, at the people, the houses, and the other buildings.

Primitive, it wasn't. was. The houses were mostly long houses, a medieval design which combined a barn for animals with living accommodations for people, all in one structure, with the two separated by a wall and inner passage. From what Charlie had read of the times, having animals was a mark of status and success, and people simply lived with the smell in their homes and spent as much time outdoors as possible.

But those ancient houses were usually very primitive, constructed with wooden frames, or of stone, and with the walls filled in as best as could be done, mostly with wattle and daub, as the sticky mixture of wet soil, clay, sand, and animal dung applied over a thin wooden lattice was called. Homes in medieval times degraded quickly, and were lucky to last a single lifetime of forty years. When a house fell apart, a new one was made.

Roofs were often thatched, and fireplaces almost never seen, a simple hole in the roof surrounded with tiles to keep the thatch from catching fire the approved way to let the smoke out. Windows were extravagances, doors usually kept to one or two, and locks or latches very simple. What windows existed in these homes were usually just square holes, without glass, but with an exterior shutter instead that could be closed to keep the weather at bay.

But this!

The homes here followed the ancient design, but all were large, and many an unheard of two stories, and the walls were of carefully mortared brick or stone. These same walls were simply merry with windows to allow the sun inside, and the window frames filled with sashes of multi-paned glass to keep the summer rain and the winter winds out. The roofs were not thatched, but of slate, and the brick form of a chimney rose above each building, many emitting thin streams of smoke. Each home had a small yard out front, with narrow gardens of flowers lining the walls of the homes, and cobbled paths leading to the doors from the street.

The center of the town was a sizable square, at the center of which was a large rectangular horse trough made of mortared stone, but with stone benches nearby, upon which a number of people relaxed in the sun. Many of the buildings that surrounded the square were clearly the places of merchants, with signs before them advertising a saddler and a silversmith, a tanner and a tailor, a surgeon, a weaver, a furrier and a chandler, and a small armory at the end, next to which was a smithy, with its own horse trough out front.

And sellers of food, at least a half dozen of them, including a baker and a butcher.

"Wow," Ricky said, eyeballing the place as they walked along. "This place is jumpin'!"

People noted them as they walked by, many smiling but otherwise not reacting, going on with their conversations as if seeing a dozen strangers, including a very large bear in clothing, was something they did every day. It was both puzzling and a little disarming, and Charlie wasn't sure what to make of it. But rather than relax him as his instincts suggested, it put him on his guard, the utter strangeness of their reception here making him edgy.

"Weird," Kip said under his breath. "You'd think Kontus lived here or something, by the way they don't react to him."

Actually, there was some reaction. Slowly, as they walked along, they picked up a retinue of small children behind them, following with eyes large and smiles wide, but mostly silent as they appraised this wonderful new addition to their town. They were hard to ignore, and seemed encouraged by the smiles they received in turn, and by the time that Judd drew his small cart to a stop before the inn, there were a dozen or more of the curious behind them.

The inn was a two-story structure, as neat and well-kept as the other buildings, but only slightly larger than the largest home, and Charlie could see why Judd felt the establishment might be hard-pressed to accommodate them all. Certainly the place would not have enough rooms for each of them to have one of his own. But they could bunk together in one room, if need be.

"And that house next door is that of Reeve Alistair," Judd continued, his eyes twinkling as if with some secret. "He generally enjoys meeting travelers, so he may drop in to see you."

Charlie smiled at the house. A medieval reeve was someone either appointed by a lord or elected by the commoners to oversee something, be it the fields where people toiled, the town in which they lived, or even an entire district filled with towns. A shire-reeve, the latter position, was what time had mellowed into the single word, sheriff, still in use today.

The house was no larger nor finer than any other. The garden in front looked as loved and well-tended as any. But what most impressed about the place was the Christmas tree out front, all of fifteen feet in height, hung with red lines of cord from which dangled pine cones, and draped in small baubles of glass, and festooned with other items, no two the same, which looked handmade and cheerful, even if not readily identifiable.

Kippy clasped his hands in front of himself and smiled at Judd. "What a beautiful Christmas tree!"

The man smiled and climbed down from his cart, and paused long enough to help the children alight. Judd came closer then, the pride in the tree apparent in his eyes. "Everyone in town has made something to hang upon it. At night when there is no rain, a fire is lit in the stone basins you see to either side of the tree, and the Reeve himself, and his boy Noll, keep them going late into the eve. People come to enjoy it, and I and my wife, Meg, bring the children here to see it. It is the happiest place in the town this time of the year."

"You love Christmas?" Kippy asked.

The man laughed. "Does not everyone?"

"We do!" Adrian said, grinning. "It's one of our favorite times of the year."

Judd's shoulders relaxed some, and he nodded. "Just three days away now."

Kippy brightened at that, and looked at Charlie. "I hope that's real time!"

The door of the Reeve's house opened and a man came forth, with a boy of about twelve hot on his heels. Their clothing was very much like that of Judd and his children, simple, handmade, yet clean and very neat. The man was perhaps thirty-five, with a receding hairline and a thin mustache, and slightly pudgy but very pleasant features. His eyes fixed upon them and he marched forward, his hands extended, and the boy looked delighted and fell in behind him.

"Greetings! Greetings! And a Merry Christmas to you all!"

In an instant the man was among them, shaking hands, smiling, his eyes alight, his manner as open and accepting as any Charlie had ever encountered. Reeve Alistair didn't miss a beat as he shook hands with Kontus and welcomed him, nor as he carefully shook Pacha's tiny hand when his turn came. The reception was amazing, and utterly convincing, and Charlie had no doubt that the man meant every bit of it.

"So many guests at one time!" The reeve exclaimed, once he had shaken every hand. "A delight! A wonder! Will you be staying with us through Christmas, perchance?"

Without waiting for an answer, he reached out and gently pulled the boy closer to him, dropped a hand on his shoulder, and squeezed it with unmistakable affection. "This is my son, Noll."

The boy bowed at them, all smiles, and then looked up briefly at his father before leaning closer to Charlie. "What tales of the world have you to share?"

The reeve laughed, and looked down at his son. "Now, boy, just wait! They haven't even taken beds yet." He looked up at them. "You are taking beds?"

"If there are enough of them," Charlie agreed, smiling. A welcome such as this he would never have expected. But now he understood the secret he had seen in Judd's eyes.

The reeve took a quick count of them. "There are. There are no other guests at the inn at the moment." He smiled. "I would know, of course."

Charlie turned back to Judd, who was watching them now with a smile. "Thank you for bringing us here."

"It was certainly my pleasure. It's always wonderful to meet travelers from afar."

Charlie smiled. "Will you wait a moment? I'd like to speak with you some more."

"Certainly." Judd put out his arms and his kids moved inside them, and he pulled them close. "We'll wait for you to get your beds."

The reeve showed them inside the inn, rapped his knuckles upon the counter that served as the front desk, and waited while someone called to them from a back room that she would be right there. The reeve laughed, and cupped his hands to his mouth. "You have a full house, Ibb! Come see!"

They heard a woman talking to herself about men and their impatience, and then a woman appeared from the back of the inn and stopped short when she saw them.

"What did I say?" The reeve said happily. "Have you ever seen so many guests at one time?"

The woman was older, her tied back hair graying, but her carriage was erect and she seemed strong and healthy. Her face was mildly worn into a perpetual smile, one that now blossomed into something dazzling as she beheld them. "Certainly not! All of you? What a coincidence it is, too! I have just finished changing all the beds!"

Kippy suddenly jabbed Charlie with an elbow. "Money!" he whispered.

Charlie looked at him. "What?"

"We don't have any!"

Charlie was stunned at that, and turned to look at the reeve. "Oh. I must ask you...what coin do you use here? I am not sure we are able to pay."

The man looked shocked. "Pay? Why would you pay? You are our guests!"

Charlie simply stared at the man. "Surely we must pay this woman for the beds?"

Ibb and Reeve Alistair exchanged looks.

"But you don't know!" the man said, looking floored by the idea. He shook his head, and held up his hands. "I'm sorry! But we can't accept payment for lodging here. Or for food, or supplies, or anything else you might need. As guests of the town, it is our pleasure and our duty to look out for your needs. I didn't know you were unaware of this." He wrung his hands then, looking upset. "I hope this won't cause you to leave. Not at Christmas!"

Charlie looked around at the others, could see the uncertainty in their eyes...and the wonder. But everyone smiled as his eyes touched theirs, and he knew right away that no one would complain.

"No," he said, smiling. "We would be happy to be your guests."

Both the reeve and the innkeeper looked relieved. Reeve Alistair sighed, his smile returning. "You have no idea what a gift it is to the town to have guests at Christmas."

Charlie spread his hands. "I don't know how much we can give in return. We only have with us what you see here."

The man nodded. "And that is all that is required." He smiled at the old woman. "Can I leave them in your care, Ibb?"

"I will take good care of them, Reeve Alistair."

The man turned, spied his son standing just inside the door, waiting patiently, and collected him on his way out. The boy waved at Charlie, who smiled and waved back.

"Nice people," Uncle Bob said then. He smiled. "I wish I had my magic act with me."

"If the ship was working, we could make anything you wanted," Mike said. "Couldn't we, Illia?"

"Yes. But I am unable to access synthesis procedures."

Ibb placed her hands together in delight and smiled. "Are you a wizard, now? Or is it just a game you're playing, throwing your voice like that?"

"It's just a game," Charlie said quickly. Without knowing how magic was viewed here just yet, he didn't want to start any rumors that might come back to haunt them.

Mike caught on immediately. "I have to keep in practice." He smiled. "Amazing how fast I get rusty!:

Ibb smiled at him. "You're very good. You're entertainers?"

"Not really," Charlie replied. "Just among ourselves. You know, on long journeys and such?"

"Aye, I do. What travelers we do get here all say that walking or driving the roads, once the scenery has been taken in, is pure monotony." Ibb smiled. "Let me show you to your beds."

Ibb took them through a large arched doorway into a sizable common room, one outfitted with four large and heavy tables that would each seat six, and which were warmed by a crackling fire in a large hearth, itself corralled behind a surprisingly delicate looking wire screen to control the embers. The walls held several paintings of the mountains, all exquisitely done, and lit by candelabras on the walls between them.

They were surprised to be shown to a large room behind the common room, one lined with wooden-framed beds, eight in a line along each wall, with a wide aisle running between the two. The room was lit with lanterns placed upon the walls - oil-burning lanterns, it looked like, another artifact out of step with the overall surroundings. Interestingly, each lantern was placed beneath a small hood, and when Charlie stepped closer to one and examined it, he could see what looked like an iron pipe that retreated into the wall. The lamps were vented, and the air of the room surprisingly fresh for the fact.

"Nice," he said, stepping back beside one of the beds and sitting down carefully on it. To his surprise it was firm while being invitingly soft, a characteristic hard enough to get right in a modern mattress!

The bed frames were rough-hewn, and hand rubbed to an acceptable smoothness not to leave splinters. Each bed sported a heavy linen bag mattress that covered a woven web attached to the bed frame beneath, and which was filled with something soft, perhaps feathers. The mattresses were each clothed in a linen sheet and a warm blanket, and topped with a pillow that also felt to be full of feathers. The beds were all immaculate, clean and fresh-smelling, hardly what one would expect to find in an inn in the Middle Ages.

A smaller hearth in the back wall of the room, at the end of the aisle between the bunks, held another fire, this one screened by a mesh of dark, close-knit metal links that would allow the heat through but subdue some of the light. Windows above the beds let in the afternoon sun, now noticeably heading for evening. The room itself was as clean as the beds, the interior walls of plaster artfully applied and exquisitely patterned with what Charlie figured had been a serrated trowel. The mix of period with more modern considerations was startling, and Charlie clearly saw now that if Robin Hood had indeed created this world for these people, he had done so intending that it be as pleasant as humanly for them.

In fact, the hand of Robin Hood was evident in everything they saw here. While the basic time frame of this place was around the thirteenth century in English history, the more modern accessories were abundantly clear. And electricity? No motorized transport? He wondered then what the establishment he'd seen with the surgeon's shingle above it was like. Modern medicine? Dentistry? With a start he realized that he hadn't seen a single bad tooth among any of the townsfolk he'd met!

But...what was it all for?

"I hope these beds will do," Ibb said then, perhaps interpreting their silence as discomfort.

Charlie patted the blanket beside him. "Are you serious? I can only imagine what a wonderful sleep I will have on such a fine bed!"

"They're perfect," Kippy said, briefly touching the woman's worried hands as they clenched before her. "Thank you so much!"

Ibb gave a little, pleased sigh, and her smile once again filled the lines on her face designed to hold it. "That's perfect then." She bobbed her head happily. "Supper is at sunset, in the common room. Will you be eating here? I'll need enough for all of you." She laughed. "And some extra help in the kitchen!"

Ricky rubbed his belly happily at that. "Now that's what I'm talkin' about! Food!"

Adrian laughed at the expression on his boyfriend's face, and smiled at Charlie. "I guess we're all a little hungry."

Charlie looked around at the others, who all pretty much indicated they could use something to eat, and then smiled at Ibb. "We'll be there!"

The woman made a happy sound, bowed her head to them, and left the room.

No one said anything. Ricky ambled casually over to the doorway through which Ibb had gone and looked through it, and then crossed his arms and leaned back against the frame and nodded at Charlie.

"This place is amazing!" Uncle Bob whispered immediately. "Talk about combining eras in technology!"

"It's almost dumbfoundingly comfortable," Horace agreed, his voice equally guarded. "And the cleanliness is extraordinary! The people all seem healthy and fit...this is not a primitive land, Charlie!"

"It's a made world," Frit reminded. "Anything goes."

"It is well made, though," Pip added, smiling. "And by someone that cares about people!"

"I agree with that," Adrian said. "The welfare of these people has clearly been looked out for by someone!"

"Perhaps themselves?" Kiernan said then.

Adrian turned to look at him. "Themselves?"

The witch boy nodded. "Sure. I mean, if this place was created and the rules set in place so that the people could be happy and comfortable, that means they have the ability to maintain it themselves. Places run on the rules already established. So if this town began this way, the people know all the rules, and they seem normal to them, and they simply do what they need to do to keep it all going. I saw a lot of people working as we walked into town. Things were getting done. This place doesn't strike me as lazy at all." He looked uncertainly around at the faces now aimed his way. "You know?"

Kippy gave a little sigh, and walked over to Kiernan and put an arm around his shoulders. "You know, you don't say a lot, but when you do open your mouth, something good always come out of it."

Kiernan blushed, but couldn't help the smile that bloomed on his face. "I was just saying."

Mike grinned at Charlie. "This one's a keeper, mate."

Bobby nudged his boyfriend, but cast a quick look at the door guarded by Ricky before leaning closer to kiss him. And then he looked over at Charlie. "I was just thinking, maybe we should all be careful about seeming, um, gay to these people. If I remember history, our sort of love wasn't tolerated in a lot of places."

Kippy smiled. "Or, it was. The Greeks, the Romans, the Aztecs, the Mayans, China, Japan, Native American cultures--"

Charlie held up a hand, smiling at his boyfriend. "We get it. But in the Middle Ages in England - which I presume this is sort of supposed to be - it was not acceptable. So I think Bobby is right, and everyone should be smart in what they do while others are around."

"I am unsure of what to do next," Pacha said. Mike set the Kift down on one of the beds, and Pacha immediately found the pillow and flopped into it happily.

Charlie looked around at the others. "Well, before we decide anything, I need to get back to Judd. He's standing outside, waiting on me."

"I'm going with you," Kip insisted. "Despite how nice this place looks, I don't think anyone should go off alone."

"Good idea," Ricky said, nodding at Charlie.

Charlie smiled at his boyfriend, and waved him over. "Well, come on, then."

Kippy marched over, tossed a quick look at Rick and the doorway, and then leaned up against Charlie and kissed him. "You call?"

Charlie sighed, returned the kiss, and then took Kippy by the arm and turned him towards the doorway.

"Oh," Kippy sighed, theatrically. "I love a man with a strong hand!"

Several of the others laughed, and Charlie shook his head and pulled his boyfriend along with him. "I'll deal with you later!"

Kippy pushed his face close to Charlie's ear as they passed through the doorway, and whispered, "I can't wait!"

They separated to a companionable distance as they passed through the arch, but neither boy could stop smiling, and they were still doing so when they exited the front of the inn.

Judd was still there, his two kids standing nearby, talking to the group of smaller kids that had followed the newcomers through town. The man looked up as they came out, noted their smiles, and offered one of his own as they arrived beside him. "I take it the accommodations were to your liking?"

"Awesome!" Kippy said, and then immediately cleared his throat. "I mean, they're excellent."

"Wonderful!" Charlie echoed.

Judd turned to Charlie. "What can I help you with?"

Charlie nodded. "Your boy mentioned a wizard? Jackin?"

"Yes, of course." Judd turned and pointed across the square. "There. That shop is his."

Kippy stared. "He has a shop?"

Judd turned back to them. "Why, of course. Magic is a commodity, is it not? An ability to be sold, just as any talent a man or woman may possess. Is it not that way where you are from?"

Kippy frowned. "Um...maybe it is. I just never thought about it like that."

"Would he be there now?" Charlie asked.

"Of course." Judd smiled up at the sky. "Most of the shops here close at the dinner hour at this time of the year, at sunset. There are a few open later. But I'm sure that Jackin will be in his shop for another hour or more yet."

Charlie nodded. "Would you mind introducing us to him?"

"Not at all." Judd turned to his children, said where they were off to, and asked them to remain where they were for the moment. Charlie could see their disappointment at not being included, but both nodded and went right back to talking to the other children.

"Just a minute," Kip said then. "I'll tell the others where we're going." He dashed back inside the inn, and returned a moment later, smiling. "All set."

Judd smiled, waved to his children, and they were off.

"Nice kids," Kippy said, as they crossed the square. "It reflects well on their parents."

Judd smiled. "They are the lights of our lives, for my wife, Meg, and me."

The shop that Judd took them to was as cheerful as that of the baker or the tailor. The front held a bay window composed of many small panes of glass, certainly a feature well in advance of the time frame supposedly in place here. The top half of the heavy wooden door was also made of small panes of glass, and had another of the red cords hung about its perimeter inside, strung with pine cones painted in a variety of colors. An artfully hand-lettered sign hung on the door proclaimed that The wizard is in, and brought a smile to Charlie's face. He could see himself liking the fellow already.

Within, the shop was well-lit by more of the hooded lanterns, the light from which reflected from a number of multi-paned glass cases, inside which a variety of charms were on display, all claiming to do everything from boost the luck of the owner to cure baldness and rid one of warts. Other cases held items that promised to locate potable water, create heat on a cold night, or cure chickens and cows of a variety of maladies. Everything was neat and clean. There were no skulls, or shrunken heads, nor anything which might have cast the profession of wizard in anything but a positive light.

At the rear of the front room, a long counter ran across the width of the shop, save for a space wide enough to enter through, and a doorway beyond, leading into the back of the shop. Even as they closed the front door behind them a man came from the back room to lean upon the counter and smile at them. "And what can I help you with today?"

From what could be seen of him, he was fairly young, and quite tall. He had dark curly hair, a mustache and a pointed beard, and his blue eyes sparkled cheerily at them from a very nice looking face. Charlie noted the intelligence in those eyes as they appraised them, and then the almost imperceptible narrowing of them as they seemed to sense something unusual about them.

"Ho, Jackin!" Judd said then. "I have brought to you some potential customers!"

"So I see." The wizard's demeanor remained cheerful, but Charlie was certain now that he sensed a certain reserve in the man's eyes. And that was not all Charlie sensed. The man had skwish!

Kippy turned to look at Charlie, his eyes widening in silent warning. Kippy detected it, too!

"These fellows come from yon great egg that landed upon the mountain," Judd said then. "They say the egg is broken, and that they are looking for a method to repair it, so that they may return home."

He turned to them, and indicated first one boy, and then the other. "This one is Charlie, and that one is Kip." He smiled at them, and then turned back to the wizard. "And this is Jackin of Kinsborough, our one and only wizard."

"The pleasure is all mine," Jackin said, smiling. He turned, walked the length of the counter, and passed through the open slot at the end of it, and came towards them. They shook hands, and Charlie could feel the strength in the man.

"I promise you, I am not familiar with great eggs that fly through the sky, but I will do what I can to aid you."

Judd turned to Charlie. "Is there more I can do for you this evening?"

"I think we're good for now," Charlie returned, smiling. "Thank you for everything, Judd."

"My pleasure. And I hope to see you all again at the Christmas tree this very evening." The man nodded, and then left the shop, pulling the door closed behind them.

They were alone with the wizard of Kinsborough.

He smiled at them. "I scarcely know where to begin. As I have said, great eggs that travel the sky are not my specialty."

Charlie nodded. "Ours, either, which is why we don't know about fixing the one we have."

"It simply stopped in its flight, and settled to the earth?"

"Pretty much," Kippy agreed.

"Have you any notion of the magic which made it fly to begin with?"

"Not really," Charlie said vaguely. Certainly, the science of space travel would not be known here?

The wizard watched them, and then started to slowly walk around them in a circle, as if thinking. Charlie and Kip turned with him, and Charlie was struck by an eerie familiarity in the movement.

It was almost as if they had met Jackin before!

The man returned to where he had started and looked at them questioningly. "Obviously, you must be acquainted with magic, to travel in such a craft?"

"A little," Charlie admitted.

One of Jackin's eyebrows lifted. "I can help you better if you are forthright with me, young Charlie."

Young Charlie.

And then Charlie knew what was so familiar about the man. The voice was different, but the mannerisms were very much the same. They had never seen the face of course, but...

"Robin Hood," Charlie said, quietly.

The wizard drew back then, his manner instantly wary. "You know my brother?"

"Brother!" Kippy breathed in amazement.

"Certainly." Jackin gave his head a small shake. "Isn't that what you were telling me? Did he send you?"

"No." Charlie frowned. "I was just...your mannerisms are like his. He also calls me 'young Charlie'."

Jackin raised a hand and stroked his beard. "So you do know him?"

"Yes." Charlie stared at the man, until the wizard finally smiled.

"Trapped you here, didn't he?"

Kippy gasped. "You know?"

"I know my brother." Jackin chuckled. "I guess I cannot help you then."

"We can't stay here," Charlie said. "And if we are forced to, someone will come looking for us."

Jackin squinted at them. "Someone more powerful than my brother?"

"Yes." Charlie was thinking of Nicholas, of course.

The wizard shook his head. "You'll pardon me if I don't quite believe you."

Charlie leaned closer to the man. "Can we at least talk to him?"

"Yes." Jackin shook his head again, and he then turned and went back behind the counter and leaned upon it. He smiled at them, and Charlie was sure he could detect some sympathy there. "You can. He'll be here in the town tonight, as a matter of fact."

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