The big man perked up, and started fumbling at buttons.
Adrasos pried off his boots as he started the change. Feet aching as the foot bones lengthened. He shucked pants, tail bones aching as they lengthened, as his hair grew. His face was aching. He ignored it, dropped his sword belt and stripped off his tunic. On four feet, with Yainni following, he headed down hill first. They could get the wagon and carriage down if they were careful. A stream had cut through the ridge and joined the small river. He tasted the water. Cold and clean. Ice melt. Good.
:: Lets take a careful look at these campfires. ::
Yainni tossed his horned head in wordless assent. Even in human form he was inarticulate, although far from the deaf mute he’d been before the Grand Overlap. They’d both picked up shape changer genes—so much easier than the magical transformations Adrasos had been slowly and painfully learning at the Akademi. Yainni was most comfortable in his bull form. Adrasos rather liked the desert wolf form, and used it unless something else was needed. Very odd, those wolves had been. Could this be their world?
He followed the side stream. The sun was above the distant mountains now, and the half walls of an old building were visible, in the next little valley between the ridges. Just the one small building, but a few suspicious angles of low growing grass made him suspect the presence of the foundations of at least one more beneath the surface. He trotted across the flat and wound up the far ridge, climbing around the tree filled ravine of the creek. On the other side, more ruins, the sinuous lines of a road, and the smell of campfires. Voices. He circled back and sought the crest of this ridge, keeping to the east side so as to not silhouette himself. Yainni stood lower, but with his head higher could see as much.
There were four campfires inside a ring of wagons. Yainni snorted in disapproval. :: Circled up. ::
:: Like they expected to be attacked. Let's not get ourselves mistaken for bandits. :: Adrasos eyed the figures of the men down below. Men, not something else, thank the Gods. Adrasos eased back off the ridge. :: Let's scout to the south, see if we can find an easy way to get the wagon and carriage over to that road. Once we're rolling along, perhaps they’ll assume we're honest men. ::
The bull eyed him. :: Are we honest men? ::
:: So far. ::
At the camp, they changed back. He checked Chol’s arm, and wafted healing spells around, trying to not be as obvious about the ones he sent toward the women. Adelphie looked the worse off, of the women. No doubt she and their mother had drawn most, if not all of the Guards’ attention. His mother, of course, was made of sterner material than her gentle daughter, and had over forty years of hard lived experience to temper her reaction to what had probably been a gang rape.
It was past noon before they carefully eased the top heavy carriage out to the road. The wagoners' camping spot was well chosen. A wall of concrete against their backs, a loop of sun warmed water in front of them with enough marshy ground to ensure that attackers would come from either north or south but not east and west.
With all their injuries and their nerves on edge, Adrasos ordered them to camp. In their small numbers they wouldn't be able to hold the campground if they were attacked in force, but it would give them a better edge than any other spot he'd seen.
"We need to take inventory, see what I managed to throw in, what I forgot. Get some food in us, a good night's sleep, then we can try to talk to some of the local people." He looked around at the group. "Seven years ago, at the merge, did any of you merge with people, pick up any languages?" Heads shook all around. Damn. His second stepfather had died that day, and Gennadios had appeared as if by magic by the time Adrasos had come home from school for a brief equinox break. "Well, it may be a bit awkward if we can't talk to the people around here, but we'll deal with it."
His mother was moderately able, magically, but poorly trained. A few women's tricks to attract men. Which work too damn well! Adelphie had never shown any signs of magical skill, and Peep was too young. Magic tended to blossom with the peak of puberty. Adrasos was the first of his family to attend the Akademi of Magic. He'd been kept away from, and in fact had not known of his father, for fear of the wrath of the man's goddess wife. Not until Adrasos had met Heliodoros at college, and felt the pull of blood had he realized he was the son of a God. His magical ability had gotten him into the Imperial Guard, and the strength of his arm had earned him a place at his half brother's side. But he'd never been presented at Court. The God-King's older son might marry and discard as many mortal woman as he wished, and tup others when he got bored, but the second son had married a goddess and never strayed – officially.
"Water under the bridge," he muttered, and started unhitching the horses. Peep came and helped, taking harness away and hanging it carefully over the sides of the wagon. Gennadios whined about his nose hurting, and sat with Gotu. Mother put Hecuba and Desponia to work, organizing some sort of temporary kitchen. Aldephie pulled herself together and put the three drabs to work hauling water for a big pot. They all moved as if stunned by the speed with which everything had changed. Less than a day since the raid.
Adrasos hesitated, then moved sacks of grain and pulled out six swords. Some were a bit rusty and nicked, but sound enough to take on bandits. Knives, too, for the women. “Until we find out how many bandits are about, I think everyone should be armed.” He’d brought everything from the armory. Spears, bows. Wish we had more arrows. He pulled out his hunting bow and a dozen arrows, put them up on the top of the carriage where he could reach them from either the driver’s bench or horseback.
Father Odeil spotted the campgrounds and frowned at bit to see them already occupied. His bodyguard, old Carl eyed the strangers, who were eyeing them in turn. Then a young man stepped out and waved them a welcome. Father Odeil kicked his gelding back into motion. Basically lazy, only the appearance of a familiar campground got the beast back into motion so easily. "I thought we'd be early, and the first." He raised his voice cheerfully.
The leader of the other group ducked him head politely. "Well Come."
Father Odeil cocked his head at the accent. "Good Heavens. You didn't just come across the mountains, did you? I wouldn't have thought the road was still clear." He frowned as he took in the group. Three of the seven men were obviously injured. There were seven women, and a girl of perhaps five or six years of age.
"Yes. Just arrived are we. I am Adrasos."
"Father Odeil of the Church of the New Days. I suppose you are Catholic?" He raised his voice a bit and smiled, trying to include all of them. The oldest woman looked to be the mother of one of the other women and the little girl, all of them with thick long hair, curly and a warm brown, and they sported the sort of nose he'd only seen in picture of ancient statuary. Adrasos for that matter—despite the man's shining straight black hair—had a resemblance.
"This is my mother Adrasteia, my sisters, Adelphie and Parthenope." He scowled across at the man with the broken nose. "My stepfather Gennadios."
The stepfather stomped over with a string of unintelligible words.
Adrasos nodded. "He is wondering where we are. We . . . find ourselves without as many preparations as we probably ought to have. Including a map."
"Well, Son, we're about halfway between the Gold Fields and Chico, with Redding another hundred and fifty miles on. I expect with your family, you'll be more interested in farming than mining, eh? Still too much radioactivity down south to risk the young ones, eh?"
The young man looked baffled, and Father Odeil decided he'd better start teaching them all to speak English. It would help them ease into society here. Those hideously intolerant Spanish on the other side of the Sierra Nevada had driven out more people . . . damn fools, with their witch and demon hunting.
Not a lot better here.