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Chapter 14 A DEAL WITH DISASTER

EVELYN STIFFENED, BESIDE me, her winsome face drained of all color. "Us," she whispered. "Johnny. They have come for us."

Across the high-ceilinged chamber the strip of secret blackness between the portal's edge and its jamb widened with a fearful slowness…

"Chin up, Eve." My arm went around the girl's slender waist and I pulled her quivering body against my side. "Head up." My voice was steady, though how I contrived to keep it so I still do not comprehend. "There's nothing to be afraid of. Nothing at all." My forehead was wet with a chill sweat.

The togaed Roman backed away from the widening door, his haughty, patrician features gray with terror. A mustached Tartar lurched against a wing-helmeted Viking from the Fjords.

"Don't let them take me," Eve moaned. "Don't let them—"

"And that we shall not, Maid Evelyn," King Arthur's deep-chested tones cut across her plea. "As long as there remains breath in our body and strength in our arms." He shoved past me to interpose himself between us and the grotesque beings who now were entering the now open doorway.

"Nor so long as I have powder and ball with which to defend you," John Orth added and ranged himself beside Arthur, his hand fumbling out from within his oddly cut jacket a long-barreled pistol whose butt was of silver intricately engraved. "Never has it been said that an Archduke of Tuscany failed to champion the cause of a maid in distress."

"Nor a Bourbon." The little Dauphin joined the three, somehow no longer a child as he whisked a stiletto from somewhere among his rags.

And toward those three from the past there advanced across the wide space that had cleared between them and the entrance three men of the dim future, two Plebos and Daster in his true shape. Arthur's purple cloak fell back from his arm and a sword flashed out, a great gleaming sword full four feet in length, its blade a shaft of silver light, its hilt jewelled gold. "Excalibur has not forgot its skill," he boomed, "nor its master his chivalry."

Written down all this seems mere rhodomontade, then it was rather splendid. The bald and bulbous skulls of the trio they defied held all knowledge—unimaginably transcending the magic of Merlin, the esoteric powers to which Cagliostro laid claim. The ogling eyes could read our every thought, our every intention, almost before we were ourselves aware of them. The boneless, writhing tentacles could paralyze a man with agony, yet knowing all this Arthur, and Orth dared to challenge them with a sword, an ancient pistol and a stiletto.

A curious exaltation pounded in my veins as I stepped forward beside them, my empty fists clenched. And the Future Men advanced toward us, slowly, inexorably.

"Stop!" Orth cried. "Stop where you are or I fire." His pistol pointed at Daster. "Stop, I say."

The Adalonians kept advancing.

Orth's shot slapped my ears and orange-red flame lanced true to the Doctil's head. Utterly unperturbed, Daster came on, neither slackening nor hastening his relentless pace. "Missed," the Austrian groaned.

"The hell you did!" I jabbed a forefinger at a silvery splash on the wall directly behind the leader of the Future Men. "Your bullet went right through him." An eerie prickle scampered my spine. Though reason told me that this was only one more manifestation of that same mastery over the vibrations of matter that had enabled me to pass through a solid wall, no such scientific rationalization could make the occurrence less uncanny. "Bullets or steel are no good against them."

Now the Adalonians were within five feet of us and as though I'd not spoken Arthur's shaft rose, gleaming. "Halt," he roared, "an ye do not wish to feel the bite of a blade that hath never known defeat."

It was magnificent; and it was as pathetically ludicrous as Don Quixote's tilt with a windmill, as Canute bidding the tide retreat. It was worse than ridiculous, it was killing what faint hope I had of saving Evelyn from—"Daster!" Abruptly I was quite calm, my mind crystal clear. "Listen to me."

The Doctil's ear membranes pulsed and the three paused. I sensed Daster's question. "What is it, John March, that you wish to say?"

I pulled in a wheezing breath. Arthur and Orth were warriors and their weapons were futile against these strange beings who were our captors. I was a lawyer. My weapons were those of the weak against the strong; temporizing, compromise, stratagem.

"These men will fight you 'til you destroy them. You don't want to do that. You want them alive or you would not have brought them here in the first place."

"Exactly," the Doctil responded. "But they are of no use to us as they are. They must be taught to submit to our will."

"Taught? How? Read them, Daster, as I know you can. Read them and ask yourself if there is anything you can do, with all your powers, that will break their indomitable spirit."

His tremendous eyes moved to Arthur and Orth, and to the frail, boyish Dauphin. For what seemed an endless time the room was breathless.

Then: "No," the Adalonian sighed. "Even if we reduce them to their ultimate atoms they still will defy us." His thought flicked to the Plebos. He was giving them an order, "Feed them to the drina—"

"Wait!" I cut in. "Wait, Daster. I can tell you how you may bend them to your purpose. Will you listen to me?"

"Hold!" he told the Plebos. Then to me, "What do you propose?"

"What you cannot accomplish by force, you may by reason. Be frank with us. Tell us what you want of us and why, then offer us in exchange our release, our return to our own place and time, unharmed, and we will do our best to give you what you want. You have nothing to lose. You have to gain that for which you have gone to the trouble of gathering us here."

I sensed interest in the Doctil, then indecision. "If the rest of the Kintat agree—" He sank into the same sort of listening trance that had enveloped Kass on the brink of the plateau overhanging Adalon and I knew that he was in communication with his fellow Doctils, was transmitting my proposition to them.

"By the Holy Rood!" King Arthur growled, his countenance darkening. "We mislike this traffic with sorcerers. Merlin hath placed an enchantment upon Excalibur that rendereth it puissant against all evil witcheries, and we fainer would—"

"You damn fool," I blurted. "They could wipe you out in the twinkling of an eye, and you want to fight them. You're a blathering infant—"

"Silence, knave!" he thundered. "Thou art insolent." His eyes flashed blue lightnings and his sword rose in a swift, shining arc. "For less have we slain an hundred caitiffs." The blade swept down, straight for my skull swerved in the last instant to avoid Evelyn, who had leaped in front of me, her arms outspread.

"Arthur Pendragon!" she cried, stamping her foot. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself? Johnny's just saved your life and you try to kill him. You—you ungrateful—"

He glared at her, his great brows beetling. "This," he growled, "is not to be borne. We—" Abruptly his face was lit by a twinkling smile. "Nay. We cannot be wroth with thee, fair maid, who hath made endurable these dreary hours of our imprisonment. For thy sake we shall be merciful. Let this bold varlet crave our pardon on bended knee and it will be accorded."

"I'll be blasted if I will," I burst out, hotly. "I'm free, white and Amer—"

A soft palm across my lips cut me off. "Johnny," Eve whispered, her eyes pleading. "Do what he wants. Can't you see he's nothing but a big baby and has to be humored."

There was, indeed, something of the overgrown kid dressed up for 'let's pretend' about his purple trappings, something endearingly childish about the petulant scowl that had replaced his brief smile.

"Please," Eve begged. "Please, Johnny dear." Her hands tugged at my lapels and her mouth was moist and seductive. "For me."

"Oh well," I shrugged, and dropped to one knee. "I'm sorry I called you a fool, King Arthur," I muttered as graciously as I could manage.

"We grant thee our forgiveness." He held the back of his free hand to my lips. I might as well, I decided, make a complete ass of myself, so I kissed it and was rewarded by a grin from the hulking king and the tingling touch of Evelyn's fingertips on my cheek. "All the same," I grunted, scrambling to my feet, "you better cut out any idea of scrapping with these people if you ever want to see Camelot again."

"Camelot," Arthur sighed. "We misdoubt that we desire very greatly to return there. All our brave company that used aforetime to gather about the Table Round is scattered and the gray winds howl over our desolate land. The banners of our gentil and parfait knights are mired by fraternal strife, their shields besmirched with the breaking of their vows of fealty and fast friendship. All have abandoned us, all the noble chivalry who served God and us. Only Bedivere is left us, Sir Bedivere the Faithful."

That massively moulded countenance of his darkened and his lips twitched with pain. "But yestere'en, sore wounded in the Last Great Battle in the West, we gave Bedivere our blade Excalibur to cast back into the lake whence it came, and—" he broke off, staring at the storied sword he had named. "But we still have it! Now how-?"

"The legends say that a hand appeared out of the Lake and caught Excalibur from Bedivere, King Arthur." A thrill ran through me as I recalled the ancient tale. "And the legends say also that you did not die, which is the truth as we can see. But the story of your passing that has come down to us tells that three Queens bore you away from that misted battlefield on a black-swathed barge, and that I know to be false. Wasn't it in a whorl of dust that you vanished?"

"A whispering whorl of dust!" His deep blue eyes fastened on my face, and in them was a starry wonder, and a growing awe. "Aye. Out of the drab fog it came, out of the dun veil that shrouded the moans of the wounded, the throat-rattles of the dying. Out of the battle in which none were victorious it stole, and made us part of it. Now indeed this is such a matter of clairvoyance as is worthy of Merlin himself. How know you this, John March?"

"I know it, and I know many things that are beyond your understanding, Arthur Pendragon," I pressed my sudden advantage. "Which ought to convince you that you'd better take my advice, as you used to take Merlin's. You may be a grand fighter, but when it comes to using your brain—"

"Johnny!" Eve broke in. "Daster's coming out of his trance."

The Doctil's great orbs were focussed on me again. He was about to give me the Kintat's answer to my proposition and I seemed to empty out, inside; was a cold, shivering shell.

"You will come with me," I heard. "John March and Evelyn Rand." My heart sank. "And you also, Louis Capet, John Orth, and Arthur Pendragon."

I had won!

It was not to be long before I learned how hollow a triumph it was.