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The Night of the Druids

Part 2

The two agents looked up as the face of Maria, with a last look of regret, dissappeared from the doorway.

Sean brushed the dust off his vest and turned to AJ. "How much time you think we have?" he said looking around their meager surroundings.

"Less than ah'd like to use." AJ said. "Y'got that line-launcher doohickey on ya, right?"

Sean nodded. He shook his arm and a derringer popped into his hand. Reaching into a pocket he pulled out a dart with a spool of line attached through a pulley. The dart went into the barrel of the derringer. He aimed up and fired. The dart embedded itself in the roof of the shack. A handle came out of a pocket and was fixed at the end of the line. AJ grabbed the handle while Sean grabbed the spool. Sean backed up and AJ rose into the air. He got to the door and went through fast, pulling his pistol as he did.

No one was around. AJ went back to the door and waved. Sean tossed him the spool of rope, which meant the handle fell back down. Sean grabbed it while AJ looped the rope around his waist. Then AJ backed up and Sean rose from the pit.

Safely on top, the men could see the hidden lever just outside the door that had triggered the trap. They considered their options.

"I'd suspect it would be in our best interest to not be here when the senoritas return with the rest of their surprise," Sean commented. "Question is, where is the best place for us to get a peek at them?"

The FSS men recovered their rifles and found what they thought would be a good location to hide. AJ could be heard to sigh at Sean's propensity to squirm, but the location was decent enough.

Time passed.

Out of the mine entrance came four men. Two were typical enough cowboys for the area. The other two were dressed in impressive if somewhat outdated uniforms, bright scarlet with lots of gold braid and trim. One of those men pointed at the horses and one of the cowboys started walking toward the animals, while the other three started toward the office.

Sean wracked his brain trying to place the uniform, one would think that all the costuming he had gone through would provide a spark. He began inventorying every theatre he had worked in, while trying to remain alert and aware of AJ's lead. The best he could come up with was faintly Napoleonic and European. He didn't think they were real uniforms, somehow they looked like costumes.

The men reached the office before the other man reached the horses. One stuck his head in, looked around and said something to the uniformed men.

"Carl!" shouted one, and the cowboy approaching the horses looked back. "They got loose. Be careful." His accent was British.

Carl drew a pistol, as did the other cowboy, and all four looked around more carefully. Carl, who had moved to one side suddenly shouted, "There!" and a bullet spanged off a rock near Sean and AJ.

Sean shouldered his rifle, and squeezed off a round targetting cowboy Carl, missing. AJ lined up on Carl as well and fired. The slug grazed him in the leg, convincing him that it were best to run for the cover of a nearby rock. The other three men fired back at the FSS agents, bullets spanging off their hiding place but failing to find a mark. Sean had been tracking Carl as he ran and fired again. The bullet took Carl squarely in the belly and he took one more step and dropped.

AJ switched targets and put a round into the chest of the man who had been shouting orders. He staggered back and dropped to the ground. Sean fired at the other uniformed man but missed. Both FSS agents worked the lever of their rifles and fired again as the two remaining men started back into the mine. Sean's bullet took the other uniformed man low, in the thigh, he staggered and limped into the mine. AJ's bullet hit the last man square in the heart. He looked down in confusion, but was dead before he hit the ground.

"Check those three, I'm goin' for de fourth." AJ said as he reloaded. He then took off after the one going into the mine.

Slinging the rifle on his shoulder, Sean withdrew his pistol and skidded down the mountain. Leveling the pistol onto the felled men he approached cautiously, kicking away their guns to make sure they weren't faking it. He began a rapid search of their pockets and finding nothing, he moved to the horses and preparaed for a getaway, if it shold prove neccessary. He knelt and readied his rifle to provide covering fire.

AJ, meanwhile, had hit the ground in front of the mine and rolled in, expecting at any moment to receive fire. He did not, so he took stock. The mine had only one passage and A.J. could see a trail of blood heading down it. The light from outside penetrated for a little distance further, so he continued.

The passage turned sharply to the left with only blackness beyond it. There was a small nook of some kind off slightly to the right; the blood trail went that way. AJ, with appropriate care, peeked around the corner of the nook and saw ... nothing. It was a space perhaps eight feet on each side and the three sides were all blank stone walls.

AJ knew better than to be spooked by this. He took great care to determine specifically where the blood trail ended in relation to the room, then began to look...CAREFULLY...for anything that would be inconsistent to the natural environs.

A little poking around suggested that there was a concealed door of some kind in one wall.

AJ smiled. He moved back just far enough to get Sean's attention, and waved him in. The look he gave could be verbalized as a nice form of "Today, yankee." Sean crept up as quietly as he could.

AJ pointed to the concealed door. "What say we make like the good Lord on day 3 and roll that stone away." AJ said, in a whisper.

Deferring to his partner, Sean gave a short nod and holstered his sidearm. He wasn't too keen on following a rattlesnake back into his hole, but gave AJ the benefit of a doubt and looked closely for the door's outline awaiting his cue.

After a few moments of poking and prodding, the pair found a loose stone that served as a latch. They were able to push aside a section of wall to reveal a roughly fifteen foot long passage; rather, a five foot long passage ending at a ten foot long and eight foot deep pit, from which issued the tell-tale sound of rattling that set both men's hair on end. At the far end of the passage was what looked like a drawbridge, now in it's raised position. A small lip, pehaps a foot wide, provided a resting place for the bridge on the far-side. Torches burned in sconces placed about halfway across the pit. The passge was maybe eight feet wide and the drawbridge about five feet wide.

Sean chuckled at his thought of a rattlesnake and looked to AJ, "Seems like they aren't kindly folks who expect visitors." He looked around the floor and walls, "Must be some kind of latch to lower the bridge around here somewhere."

At first glance, it looked like any mechanism would be located on the far side. Sean looked around disappointed. "End of the road," he said before stepping in front of AJ and whispering. "They may be watching us," he warned, "we can regroup outside." The odd costumes and construction of this fort reminded Sean of some of the castles he had seen as stage constructions, if the similarities didn't end there then they would have a hard time getting in.

AJ nods. "I have a feelin', though, that what we want's on the other side." he whispers. "Ten feet shouldn't be that hard to cross...don't we have something that can fire a rope over t'the other side?"

AJ popped his derringer out and loaded the dart. Aiming at the door itself he fired and the dart plunged solidly into the wood. Backing up, he found a support to tie the rope to and did so. He waved to Sean who tested the cord then quickly went hand-over-hand to the far side. AJ took up a postion covering the door with his rifle as Sean popped the heel off his boot and removed a wad of putty from the hollow. Sean deployed the putty in a semi-circle on the drawbridge, took a small fuse out of the boot heel and stuck it into the putty and put his heel back on. He waved to AJ who wave back, then struck a match and lit the fuse. He scuttled back to the corner of the small ledge and covered his eyes. He barely made it before the putty exploded with a flare of light and heat.

Two of the boards making up the drawbridge were shattered and Sean knocked them aside. Nothing shot at them so he peeked through the hole, then slipped through. A moment later the drawbridge dropped down, the two shattered boards collapsing into the pit, leaving four boards in place and secure for AJ to cross.

The drawbridge control room was a shallow space eight feet deep with the winch mechanism on one side. Another door led deeper into the mountain. Taking up defensive positions, they swung the door open.

Another passage faced them. This one was thirty foot long and fifteen feet wide. Down the middle ran a path five feet wide and to either side of it was a sheer drop of eight or nine feet to what looked like water of uncertain depth. At even spacings along the path, huge semi-circular blades on the ends of poles swung pendulum fashion back and forth across the path. At the far end was another door.

"This is right out of a history books," Sean commented. He pulled out his pistol and looked for the trail of blood to verify that the wounded man came this way. "I'm hoping there is a switch that can stop these blades," he said searching the walls.

A drop or two of blood suggested they were still on the right track. By looking the gearing above and tracking back, Sean could see that the controls, if there were any, were likely on the other side of the door at the far end.

He sighed at such a conclusion and could not help but chuckle. "Looks like a pretty face got us in a world of trouble," he said to AJ holstering his pistol and spitting into his hands. "Let's hope I'm as quick as Jack be nimble, do you want to go first?"

AJ shrugged. "Sure". He was used to tight spaces during his days with the Underground Railroad.

He studied the timing of the swinging blades carefully...for at least a minute...then made his move around the first one.

AJ moved quickly and positioned himself in what he hoped was dead space between two blades. Both men held their breath for a long moment and then AJ moved again to the next spot. He moved carefully but quickly along the next three, then took a short breather before preparing to pass the the next two. He cleared the first one and sprinted for safety ... and was just nicked by the erratic swinging of the last blade, opening a cut on his left arm. [For a net of 2 BOD and a couple of STUN that you'll recover quickly.] The impact knocked him to one side and for along moment, it looked like he would fall to the water, but he managed to keep spinning and dance along the edge to where he could grab the door frame, wincing at the pain in his arm.

"You OK partner?" Sean called out.

AJ caught his balance and shushed Sean. He began to look for a mechanism to turn the blades off and shortly concluded that it must be on the other side of the door.

Gun drawn, he used his stealth and general training to edge against the door before coming out around it, looking in both directions for potential opposition...and ready to get the first strike if there is.

He found himself in another corridor, this one stretching off into the distance. To one side was a large lever with a loop of chain which could be used to lock it into position. He shifted it from its current position into the other one and secured it. The blades on the other side of the door ground to a halt as he did so. Sean joined him quickly. Guns drawn they moved quietly down the passage, which was sporadically lit by small oil lamps.

After perhaps a half a mile, more or less straight, the passage ended in a dead end. With a shrug, the pair set to searching and soon Sean found a niche with an iron lever in it. Cautiously he pressed it and a section of wall shifted slightly. They pushed it open and passed through in good order to discover what appeared to be a wine-cellar, with large casks arranged on the walls and a staircase on one wall. Some unlabelled barrels were stacked against the wall out of which the staircase was carved. At the top of the staircase was a door, solidly made of heavy wood banded with iron. The door through which they had come was disguised by a table which rested on a bit of floor which moved with the door. On the table were a pair of lanterns, a few cups, a carving knife and a small crate full of coarse salt.

Sean whispered to AJ, "I'm sure they are expecting us, let's not disappoint." He kneeled down to listen at the door and prepared to open it.

Sean listened carefully, and heard some noises which he interpreted as being probably two men, one on either side of the door. The door, he noted, opened inward toward the agents.

Sean gestured to AJ where he thought the men were and drew his pistol. He slowly worked the latch and mouthed "One, two...."

Guns out, the two agents readied themselves. Sean yanked the door open and they stepped out as one. Each turned, Sean left and AJ right, and placed their guns to the heads of the two surprised guards. Sean put a finger to his lips and made a "ssh" sound. The guards nodded slowly.

A few moments later, the two guards were in the cellar tied with some convenient rope and Sean and AJ were looking them over. The men were dressed in trousers, boots and shirt like any cowboy might wear, but over that they wore a garment like a poncho of sorts. It was roughly a rectangle of cloth, folded in half with a hole for the head and stiched up the sides. It was dark green in color with a downward pointing triangle with the upward strokes elongated embroidered in silver on the front. Each had been carrying a rifle-musket with a fixed bayonet and on a wide leather belt a holstered pistol and a long knife, like a Bowie only a little thinner and longer, in a scabbard had been hung.

Sean scratched his head, "I can't figure you fellas out," he remarked. As he paced around he examined the weapons and attire, "looks like something you'd see in the theatre, not in modern times." He leaned down to look one of the guards in the eye and asked, "Who are you and what is all this?"

AJ had never seen Sean put forth all his powers of charm and persuasion before as he wheedled the information from the prisoners. Soon, the story emerged. The place was a hidden valley they called Caer Coomb, they were, themselves, junior members of "The Order of Cernunnos." They were, so they claimed, Druids.

Sean looked to AJ at the mention of Druids, "And who is your president, priest, king, or whatever you call your leader? We're going to have to have a word with him."

"The Merlin, he is called, and *he* will have words for you!" said the second guard, who had not spoken overmuch to this point.

"And what word would that be?" AJ says, smiling. "I'm partial to 'marigold', myself."

"You will never leave this place alive," the guard replied.

"I hope the Merlin has better manners," Sean commented to AJ. Turning to the more cooperative guard, Sean asked "Where will we find The Merlin? He'll find us charming, I assure you."

"Or persistant at least," came a voice from the top of the stairs. The men turned to see a man dressed in robes bearing the same symbol standing at the door. On either side were men bearing rifles aimed at the agents. "The Merlin, you see, has found you."

The two agents, relieved of their guns, were seated in a comfortable hall, medieval in tone. Constructed of stone, it was long and high, wooden roofed, with a fireplace at one end. The Merlin sat on a throne like chair, while the agents were on a low bench. Near them, but out of arm's reach were two guards with the bayoneted rifle muskets that were so common in the War Between the States. The Merlin himself was unarmed, save for the long dagger which seemed almost a badge of office here. A servant arrived, unarmed and in ragged dress. With downcast eyes he brought a tray first to the Merlin who took a goblet and then indicated that the remaining two cups should be taken to Sean and AJ. He sipped then smiled. "Persistant I said and persistant I meant. Why so persistant I wonder? I'm told you had family in Sann Dimas. I'm not sure. Who are you and why have you come?"

"Name's Lincoln. Wouldn't you move mountains to find your family?" Sean answered with a nod of his head to indicate the Merlin's subjects.

"If I had family, I might. You have family? Would you care to join them?" He rose. "Come. He walked to a tapestry which was pulled aside to reveal a door onto a balcony. When the agents had joined him, he indicated the vista beyond. Before them stretched a small valley surrounded on all sides by steep cliffs. In the valley a stream ran from one side to the other, a small village was on the banks and peasants could be seen toiling in the fields surrounding it. The farther part of the valley was given over to forest. They stood on a stone balcony jutting out from a medieval inspired fortification. "There is your family, if they are your family, serving their masters as is only just."

Sean gasped at the sight. "You do realize that slavery isn't the law of the land anymore, don't you?" he asked.

"Slavery? Bah! They are not slaves, they are serfs. The weak serve the strong, the base serve the noble, the foolish serve the wise. Such is the natural order of things," said the Merlin.

"Unfortunately, suh, the 'natural order of things' was declared illegal under the laws of the land you currently reside in." AJ spoke.

"That is unfortunate," said the Merlin. "Mostly, though, it is unfortunate for you, since it means, of course, that you cannot be allowed to tell anyone of our little haven. Quite a predicament were it not for two things.

"First, we are Druids. Tracing our lineage to the Celts of Brittania, we have maintained a purity of will and strength that led us to this valley from which there is no escape. Thus, those below will serve for they have no choice. They fear our power and have no place to go.

"Second, since we are Druids, we have powers beyond those of lesser men but we must be true to our religion and our gods. Happily, those obligations often are a pleasure to fulfill." Turning to the agents, he smiled an unpleasant smile. "Have you ever heard of the Wild Hunt?"

"Isn't that a saloon down near New Orleans?" Sean quipped to break the tension.

"It might be, it might be. It is also an old custom, one that we have revived. The old gods require blood, you see." He turned back to look at them. "The Wild Hunt ... the gods get blood, we get some exercise and sport, and you ... well, you get to die."

"Well I'm all for trying new things, but you'll understand if we decide to postpone that experience for a while, won't you?" Sean retorted.

"Oh, by all means. Try your best to postpone it. That's the sport part," said the Merlin.

"As long as it is sporting, what are the rules?"

"Very simple. In a few moments, you'll be taken off for a night's rest and a final dinner. In the morning, you'll be taken to the wood and set loose. Traditionally, you are given fifteen minutes head start. Then we come for you."

Sean glanced over to AJ and nodded, "We accept."

The Merlin laughed deeply. "Boldly spoken!" He gestured to the guards who came forth and took the agents by the arms.

A few moments later, the men were in a cell deep in the fortress. Stone walls made up three sides and a iron grate the other. The agents had only a few moments before Margarita and Maria arrived with their dinner. Margarita was carrying a pitcher while Maria had a tray with plates.

Sean stood when the ladies arrived. "Evening senoritas," he offered brushing his jacket to smooth some of the wrinkles that had settled there. "This is a far cry from our earlier meeting over drinks, forgive us our surroundings."

Margarita tossed her head, "You should have listened when I told you the town went poof. Now, you pay the price." Her eyes glistened, "I watch the hunt."

Maria, eyes downcast, made a sound that sounded like it might be a stifled sob.

"Maria, you do not share Margarita's enjoyment of the hunt?"

"She is weak," said Margarita scornfully.

Sean stood and nodded slightly to AJ shooting his eyes to Maria before approaching Margarita. "Why do you hate us so? what is so special about the Merlin and this place?"

"What is special? I was poor and hungry, now I live like a lady!" Naked lust for power shone in her eyes. "I don't hate you, but you must pay for your transgressions. The gods must be appeased."

Sean continued in this vein for a few more minutes, then the girls left and the two men could confer. "Maria will try to come back later tonight if she can. She doesn't have the keys, so she can't get us out, though."

"Any help she can provide will be welcomed. Margarita surely isn't going to do anything to make tomorrow enjoyable." Sean flopped on the crude bed and leaned back. "In the mean time, we wait...and rest up for the run of our lives tomorrow."

Sean sat up and bade AJ to remain silent as he strained to listen. There didn't appear to be any activity down the stone hallway, he approached his partner and whispered. "I think is best that we begin the hunt a bit early, can you take care of our accomodations?" he asked gesturing to the cell door.

"I can surely try," AJ plucked a lockpick from his lapel and set to work. Shortly there was a satisfying click and the door to the cell opened.

"Bravo," Sean whispered. Secure in the knowledge that they could leave when they needed to, the settled into to wait for an opportune time. At eleven-thirty or so, the door to the room cracked open, and the two quickly feigned sleep. Maria slipped into the room and approached the cell. "Senors," she called gently.

Sean cracked an eye and saw that Maria was alone, popping to his feet he approached. "Maria, you came, thank you." AJ finished up making the beds look as if there were being slept in and joined them at the cell door.

"Maria, you know what will happen to us if we stay. Will you help us escape?" Sean asked directly.

"But how?" she asked. "I have no key. I brought you these, to help in the hunt." She showed them two derringers and two knives. "They strip you to the waist, you can hide nothing larger."

"Bless you," Sean said taking the derringers and knives. He nodded to AJ, "Leave the door to us" gently Sean called Maria away from the door so AJ could work on it. "Can you help us get back? You must know these halls and buildings. What is the quickest way back?"

"Outside? There is only the way you came. The door to the cellar is guarded, though."

"Not to worry," Sean assured her with a smile. "AJ and I can handle them. Which way to the cellar?"

AJ pushed open the door to the cell with a smile.

Maria nodded, "This way." She led them out of the jail, down a passage, through a door and up and ...

She raised a hand. "The cellar door is about twenty feet down on the left around this corner. Two guards," she whispered.

Maria, Sean whispered, pulling out his pocketwatch. "I want you to approach the guards, tell them you found this watch. Encourage them to take a look at it, when they are looking at the face push this fob." Sean demonstrated the distance she would have to operate the watch in and mimicked pushing the button. "Just like that. When you push the fob, hold your breath. Got that? AJ and I will be close by."

Sean quickly waved the remaining gas away thus dispersing it. He grabbed Maria in a bearhug and swung her around joyfully, "You did it! You can breathe now." Glancing over and seeing AJ secure the guards as well as remove whatever weapons they could salvage, "Maria you must come with us."

"Si, I must," she cast a teary glance back over her shoulder but nodded determinedly. AJ handed Sean a rifle-musket keeping one for himself.

Sean checked the cap and load and approached the door. After nodding to AJ to examine the door, Sean took up a position to open the door upon clearance from his partner.

The agents went through the door, and finding nothing, dragged the guards in behind them and tied them quickly with their own belts. Then the three moved down to the passage and through. Maria confirmed the methods of disabling the traps as they went and they made good time. Shortly they broke out into the moonlight night by the mine.

Sean sniffed the clean air and took just a moment to relish the outside world. Yet he knew they were not free, they still had to get word back to Washington and as previously learned the Druids had allies all over. Taking care to stay within the shadows of the mine, Sean scanned the area looking for any movement around the building. He looked over to AJ and saw that the eagle-eyed scout was doing the same thing, looking at the most advantageous positions for any sign of occupation.

They moved quickly and headed for the way back to Wills Ford. It would be a long walk; it had taken them two days to ride it, probably three or four to walk it. The easiest and quickest way would be along the Niegepoudre river.

Sean looked to AJ set off toward the river, surmising that it would provide opportunity for food, a way to disguise their scent, and hopefully allow them to meet up with someone who could help them get back faster. As long as Maria remained with them, they'd have an outside chance of identifying any of the San Dimas Druids should they encounter anyone. "We don't have much time," Sean said looking up at the sky knowing that when the empty cell is discovered the Merlin would dispatch someone to find them. "AJ, we'll need to make haste and also cover our tracks the best we can."

The pair moved off, and AJ's skills rapidly came in handy. He found a game trail that took them off the regular path, concealed their tracks and also led them to an overlook where AJ shot a small deer. It bounded a few feet and collapsed. They made camp and a small smokeless fire and passed the rest of the night in relative comfort.

Shortly after dawn, they heard horses. They moved cautiously to look and saw a small mounted party, including the Merlin ride down from the trail leading to San Dimas. They looked around, dismounted and checked for tracks then remounted and began to set off - in the wrong direction.

"Whew," exhaled Sean lying back on the ground. Propping himself on an elbow he said with a grin, "Looks like we dodged one there. Thanks partner." With a glance back toward the hunting party, Sean scrambled to his feet and reached for the musket. "We need to get back and report what is going on, Washington will be real interested in what happened to San Dimas."

Sean looked over at Maria, "That's right ma'am. You've done a great service to the United States government, AJ and I have a lot to tell you. And it looks like we have plenty of time." Sean nodded to AJ to begin their trek back, and he began to tell Maria what he could.

Maria, dressed nicely in a new dress, sat between Sean and AJ on the couch in their private rail car. Each held a glass of champagne. Pringle was at the telegraph, writing rapidly.

"I have the reports, sirs," he said. "And senorita. The cavalry was able to infiltrate with the information you gave, when they attacked, the peasants fled into the woods, they all survived. The Druids fought hard but were defeated. They are being transported to jail even now."

"Any word of the Merlin?" Sean asked holding his glass in reserve.

"Caught in the net, as well," said Pringle.

"Now that is reason to celebrate," he said clinking his glass in unison with AJ and Maria.

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