Victuals

Disclaimer: SAPPHIRE AND STEEL is the copyright of P J Hammond, no infringement intended. References to Count Ulrich von Bek are to be considered a tribute to Michael Moorcock's work; again, no infringement intended. Likewise for the three-word description of von Bek's cousin which I borrowed from Alfred Bester. :)

Rating: Quite safe.

Feedback: Yes, please! :) You can reach me at the address given on my top page.

 


 

V I C T U A L S

 

by Eliann SleepingCat


"Is it here?"

"Here. This one."

"It's midnight. Why is it still open?"

Sapphire closed her eyes briefly, reaching out with her senses. "It's not uncommon, Steel. These little neighbourhood shops often are open at all hours." She opened her eyes again and took a step closer to the modestly windowless door. "Shall we go in?"

Steel held her back gently, his hand resting lightly on her shoulder. "Not yet. I'm not sure this is the way." He stepped back and took in the façade where the little grocer's was located. It sat in the middle of an ordinary block of flats, not even on the corner. Ground floor, but half sunk into the basement level; he would expect a short flight of steps leading down, on the other side of that door. Behind him, only the usual flagstoned area, just wide enough to house a small market in the daytime. No street. The occasional passerby, returning home without looking twice at him and Sapphire, although she was quite stunning in her intensely blue dress, a little too thin for the climate and the hour.

He stepped closer again, right up to within inches of the door. His hands spread, he started to feel the air in front of it, and to both sides. After a while, he shook his head, his blond hair immediately falling in his face, as usual. "Nothing. But here's where it broke through."

"Still warm?" Sapphire asked with a slight smile.

"Something like that. We'd better walk around to the back."

They had to come half around the block before finding the back of the shop. There was no entrance, no unloading space. Apparently, the shop did not get its deliveries this way. Steel felt around for an opening. He could vaguely sense one, but he had yet to find it. Beside him, Sapphire sank elegantly into a crouch, to point at something just above the ground line. "I think this is it."

Steel looked down. "A cat flap?"

Sapphire shrugged apologetically. "It's open. Just swung shut, not locked. Come on, Steel, it isn't as if we have to crawl through it. All we need is an open door - and this is one."

He glared at her briefly. Then he phase-shifted to the inside, taking care to miss the five wooden steps leading down to the floor. Sapphire followed, her stiletto heel catching on the last step as she materialised. Steel caught her swiftly before she could fall, steadied her, held her for a while since she was in his arms anyway.

There were shelves along both long walls, carrying everything from preserved figs and pale raisins to soy flour and helva. The shop was not big, yet culinary customs from every conceivable culture seemed represented here. The mix of spicey scents was strong enough that Steel couldn't help but wonder if it would cause a human to pass out. "Can you sense anything?" he asked.

Her eyes started to fill with blue, until the colour seemed on the verge of spilling over. He could feel her heartbeat thundering against his chest and released her quickly so as not to interfere with her reading.

"Cinnamon, curry, chili powder, ginger, tarragon..." she said, when the effects subsided.

"Not that," he said impatiently, before noticing her smile. "What about the trigger?"

"It's not here," she said. "None of this is old."

"Then it must be at the other end of the shop."

They passed a cool storage display featuring two kinds of sheep's milk cheese and five sorts of olives. Over at the main counter just to the right of the front door, stood a woman, obviously the shopkeeper. She was short and well rounded - perhaps a little too well - and her light brown hair was hanging long, getting entangled in an impressive collection of symbol-laden jewellery hanging about her neck. Her clothes ranged from brown to light purple, with some indeterminate shades in-between. On the counter was a big, black cat, sauntering back and forth in splendid violation of all local health restrictions.

There was only one customer in the shop, a man who could best be described as tall, gaunt, and sprightly. He seemed both thin and pale, yet there was a distinctly sanguine air about him, as evident in his voice and gestures. Dark blond curls flowed past his shoulders, lending him a vaguely seventeenth-century appearance.

<The woman is Sonya Waterfowl>, Sapphire informed her partner. <Odd name, but it seems to be the only one she knows herself by. She owns the shop. The man is Erich von Bek, a family of some notation though he holds no title, himself.>

Seeing the two Elementals, the woman called out, "Just a moment, sir, madam - I'll be with you in a jiffy. Please have a look around while you wait." She did not seem at all surprised. Either she had forgotten that her shop did not really have a back door, or people would enter through the cat's hatch every day. Without a second glance at them, she turned back to her customer.

"Anything else, sir?"

von Bek rested a long, bony hand on a tin, previously placed on the counter. "Yes. A couple more of these, if you'd be so kind."

The little shopkeeper wrote something on a pad of yellowed, too glossy paper. Her stubby pencil barely managed to make a mark. "Two tins - shall we say three? - of vegetarian scallops. May I compliment you on your taste, sir? One packet of potato flakes..."

"Grains, not flakes," her customer interrupted. "For making porridge. My servant asked especially for them."

"Ah." She crossed something out on the pad, changed it. Something that in all likelihood only she could read. "Potato grains, for porridge. One frozen packet of smoked halibut - surely you could get that from Norway, sir? Still, I mean? You wouldn't have to pluck that out of time?"

"I haven't seen it around for years. It's easier this way."

The shopkeeper put down her pad and pencil, drawing herself up to her full height - which wasn't impressive. "It's my duty to remind you, sir, that the more I take out of time, the less will remain there. If I start bringing things out indiscriminately, I'll only cause the inevitable shortage to occur sooner, that is at an earlier point in the past."

"But those things are still gone," von Bek said, his canines clearly showing in his smile. "So what's to say you did not take them?"

She sighed. "Oh, very well then. No use talking to you about paradoxes, Count von Bek." She was picking up her pad and pencil to resume her notes when he corrected her,

"I'm not a Count. I'm Erich von Bek; Count Ulrich is - a distant cousin."

"Can't be too distant seeing as you have the same name, if I may be so bold," said the shopkeeper.

"That depends on your definition of distance," said her customer. "We're not exactly on speaking terms."

"A pity, sir. I hear the Count can travel through time."

"Why, so can you. Shall we get on with the list? Half a pound of powder tea..."

"Half a pound?? Of powder tea?"

Her aristocratic customer looked suddenly sheepish. "A childhood fancy. I've missed it."

She scribbled something on her pad. "I can't wait to hear what your servant will think of this," she said. Then she looked up hastily. "That is, I hope it'll please you to tell me, sir."

He just smiled at her, absently stroking the cat who had sidled up to him to be petted.

"Well then," said the shopkeeper. "I'll be getting these items for you, sir. You wouldn't happen to have any early 1970's currency about you? Right, I didn't think so. Just a minute..." She went off in a corner and began to rummage in a cardboard box behind the counter.

<Anything?> came Steel's voice in Sapphire's head. She responded in kind,

<The trigger? Nothing yet. I can sense it, it's here, but I can't pinpoint it.>

<We shall just have to look around then. Do you at least have a direction?>

<I'm not sure. It seems to be moving, though that could be an illusion... Steel, they are obviously up to something. Should we stop them, or just stand about here and watch?>

<Not much use stopping them if we can't find the trigger. They'd just be back at it the moment our backs were turned. We need to neutralise the trigger.>

The shopkeeper returned, her hands full of coins. "They had a change of currency back then," she explained to her customer. "I'm not sure which of these are good - I'd better take both versions..." She walked around the counter, to join him at the front of it. "If you would please hold my cat, sir? He's not supposed to go in, but he's so curious, he'll always try for it, because he doesn't believe he's been in there before."

von Bek did as he was asked, picking up the cat who immediately tried to get inside his coat. Evidently, the cat was quite familiar with this particular visitor.

"Now will you please open the door for me, sir?" the little shopkeeper asked, and seeing that she needed both hands to hold her coins, the tall man tucked the cat firmly under one arm and used his other hand to open a door in the wall beside the counter - a door that neither Sapphire nor Steel could remember having seen there a moment ago. It opened on a rush of light and wind, and the Elementals instinctively took hold of a shelf each to brace themselves against the gale. They thought they saw a mirror image of the shop, extending towards infinity on the other side of the door. Then the door fell shut behind the woman, and all became quiet.

Yet only for a moment. Then she was back, closing the thing quickly behind her. She carried no coins now, but her arms were full of goods, presumably the things her customer had requested. "Mrs Waterway sends her love," she informed him. "I stopped to talk to her for a while, I hope you don't mind, sir?"

"Not at all," he assured her. "Mrs Waterway is an old acquaintance of mine. Besides, you were back almost when you left."

<But she didn't leave>, Sapphire thought, turning to face Steel. <She was here all along.>

<I noticed>, Steel replied, cautiously letting go of his shelf. <The past broke through instead.>

"Oh that's all right then," the little shopkeeper beamed. "I did so hope I would make a clean return. And I almost did, didn't I?" She walked past von Bek, around the counter, and stood behind it as she began unloading her goods.

"You certainly did," he told her appreciatively while setting her cat back down on the counter. The animal immediately tried to put its nose in everything, and the man blocked its every effort with an expertise that seemed born of habit. "Do I pay you in present currency as usual?"

"Of course," said the shopkeeper. "Let me worry about the exchange rates from one year to another. You pay for everything according to the present rate." She tucked the groceries into a plastic bag and handed them to him, accepting his money. "Sorry, sir, the copper fifty isn't valid yet. It's not due for another five years or so."

"Well, can't you use it?"

She grinned, taking the proferred coin. "Of course I can. I don't often go to the future, but I had thought, perhaps for my holiday..." She seemed about to turn to Sapphire and Steel, but the tall man held up a hand to stop her.

"Just one more thing, Madame Waterfowl. "I read somewhere that in the late nineteenth century they still had a very efficient means for keeping spiders out..."

But the little shopkeeper was already shaking her head vigourously. "I'm sorry, sir. I've never been past my own time. I really don't think I should stretch it, do you?"

"Perhaps not. It was just a thought."

This time she did turn to her new visitors, leaving the first one to examine the contents of his bag - presumably to see that nothing was missing. "What can I do for you, sir, madam?"

"They're elementals," the tall man said, without looking up from what he was doing. "I'd know them anywhere. My cousin has some sort of agreement with their kind."

"I already knew they couldn't be from this plane," the shopkeeper told him, rather more impatiently than she had been dealing with him earlier. "Seeing as how you came in at the back, and dressed like that," she added to Sapphire and Steel. "Not that there's anything wrong with the way you dress," she remedied hastily, "but madam, that dress is far too flimsy for this time of year, and - I'm sorry, sir, but nobody wears flared trousers anymore..." She glanced quickly over the counter at von Bek's long legs. "Nobody," she repeated with a little more confidence. von Bek  raised an eyebrow in amusement, without actually looking up.

She gave him a puzzled glance. "Elementals, you say, sir? You mean, like Earth, Fire..."

"Sapphire, actually," Sapphire said. "And this is Steel. No, not that kind of elementals. Who did you say your cousin was, sir?" she asked the gaunt man.

"His name is Count Ulrich von Bek," he said. "I'm Erich von Bek."

"He's right, Sapphire," Steel said. "We do know Count Ulrich. He's been to the End of Time - and back, which was rather a surprise. As for an agreement..." he shrugged. "Bronze and Silver made some sort of deal with him, I believe. Jet may have been in on it too."

"They can't have helped him travel in time."

"No. Oddly enough, he already knew how to do that."

Sapphire scrutinised Erich von Bek, walking around him until she was on Mme Waterfowl's side of the counter. The contrast between the tall, striking Elemental and the chubby little shopkeeper would have been quite amusing, had anyone paid attention to it. "That's odd," Sapphire said, "For a moment there, I could have sworn you were an albino."

von Bek sighed. "You have me confused with my cousin. He is one. Sometimes." He reached out a long, bony hand, almost skeletal in shape, to take hers. "I assume you'd like to analyze me. Feel free."

For the barest fraction of a moment, she was actually taken aback. Also, his hand felt warm and was oddly beautiful in its stark appearance. She got a grip on herself and began the analysis.

<Erich von Bek, born on the eighth of August, 1962>, she sent to Steel. <Human...> she hesitated. <There is something... he seems to be more than just one person. He is human, but some of the others might not be, at least not entirely... Steel, he's very difficult to read.>

<TRY, Sapphire!>

<I know, I know! I'm trying...> And suddenly, the dam broke. <STEEL! He is the trigger!>

<Are you sure?>

<YES! That's why she asked him to open the door for her. He has to be present, to open the door of time, because he's the key to it! Without him, she can do nothing!>

Her eyes stood wide and staring now, only humanly blue, but very intensely so. von Bek began to pull his hand back, tentatively, and she let him. "Any the wiser?" he asked with a smile, canine teeth showing.

<Explain to them, Sapphire. If he's the trigger, we shall need their cooperation.>

<We shall?>

<The alternative is to kill him. I'm rather hoping it won't come to that.>

<Oh. Yes, of course.>

Obediently, she turned to the shopkeeper. "What did you say your name was?" she asked conversationally, and purely for social reasons, since she already knew.

"I didn't. Sonya Waterfowl."

"And you think you can travel through time, Sonya?"

The little shopkeeper shrugged. "It would seem so?"

"You are wrong," Sapphire said, kindly. "You can't." She moved out from behind the counter and walked slowly around it, her heels clacking softly on the wooden floor boards. "What happens is that time breaks through into the present. Time is like a corridor, and while the past - in your case - is intruding upon the present, you have access to whatever commodities exist in that piece of the past - that bubble of time if you will - and that is how you can get those things for your customers."

"Customer, actually," Sonya said. She nodded towards von Bek. "He's the only one asking for things that have gone off the market. And he has to be here or it won't work."

Sapphire paused in front of the counter, arms folded as she looked down at the shopkeeper. "That's because he is what we call a trigger," she explained, perhaps a little condescendingly. "He causes the breach in time." She turned to von Bek. "And I'm afraid you must stop, sir. Rifts in time may cause grave danger."

von Bek absently pushed the cat away from the bag containing the halibut and the other things. "To whom?" he asked, with genuine interest.

"Why, to you for one, sir. As to your little lady here."

<You never told me that about him!> Steel sent.

Sapphire smiled. <Perhaps I felt he was entitled to some privacy...>

von Bek glared at her, but took it in his stride. No need to ask how she knew, he was familiar enough with elementals to know some of the tricks they were capable of. But the sudden radiance in the little shopkeeper's green eyes somehow more than made up for his exposure. She was of common stock of course, and short to boot, but still... "I don't want any harm to come to her," he declared. "I certainly never intended any."

"Good," Steel said, approaching him. "Then you won't mind helping us stop this."

"Are you saying I shan't be able to get my smoked halibut?"

"I've told you you can probably get that from Norway," Sonya stage-whispered. "But you might not be able to get your powder tea," she added, a mischievous glint in her eyes.

He mock-glared at her. "What do you want me to do?" he asked the two Elementals. "Just refrain from shopping in this manner? I should miss it, to be sure, but if it's so important..."

"I'm afraid that's not enough," Steel said drily. "Not any more. You've been practicing this too often. Even if you stop now, we cannot be sure that time won't break through on its own, at random, only because the path has been cleared for it to do so." He turned to Sonya. "We saw no delivery porch at the back of this shop. How do you get the rest of your merchandise - those items that you don't pluck out of time?"

Sonya stared into his blue-grey eyes, feeling rather like a rabbit in front of a cat. Yet somehow, she enjoyed the feeling. "India?" she tried. "Morocco? Aldebaran Five?"

He refused to rise to that, his eyes as cold as his name.

"Sorry, sir," she sighed. "Just fooling around. But I really don't think I should need to reveal my sources..." A hasty glance at him convinced her that perhaps she should. "Oh all right. If you don't believe me, so much the better." She got hold of her cat, turned it to face Steel. "This is Murphy. He brings most of my wares for me. Not in large crates, mind you, but he handles all my negotiations with other planes, and he brings me samples. If I agree to market a certain item, he takes my message back, and then I receive the goods in whatever manner is convenient to the seller. Sometimes even by the front door," she added, as if she expected this to surprise him.

<Is she telling the truth?>, Steel asked, while maintaining his unwavering stare at the shopkeeper.

<As she knows it>, came Sapphire's reply.

"What planes are you talking about?" Steel asked aloud.

"Why, the planes of the multiverse, of course," said the little merchant.

"Not of time?"

She frowned a little, pondering. "I don't think so."

<Sapphire?>

<She's right. She can only deal with concurrent parallels. Nothing to do with us.>

<Unless space can also break through.>

<If it can, I doubt we'll be the ones assigned.>

The corners of his mouth tightened in the barest hint of a smile. <Not our department? Very well. Let's deal with time.>

"You see," ventured the little shopkeeper, perhaps disturbed by his silence, "while I could get most of this stuff from various parts of this world, I'd have to pay a fortune for freight alone. This way, there's hardly any freight at all... It isn't illegal, is it?" she asked nervously.

"I wouldn't know," Steel said drily. "You are probably free to try your luck with space. But if you meddle with time, that's dangerous. You have created a breach, and we must find a way to seal it." His glare struck von Bek. "You two are the ones who started this; I shall ask you first. Any ideas on how to repair what you've done?"

<Steel, they can't be expected to know. After all, it is our job.>

<I thought you of all people would recognise a courteous gesture when you saw it?> He did not have to look at her to perceive her smile.

"Well," said von Bek, "if I'm the trigger, it stands to reason that I could toggle. In fact, I'm fairly certain I could close the door for good just as I opened it the first time - or rather, by using the same method in reverse."

Steel nodded. "And how can we be sure you won't open it again? When your craving for - smoked halibut becomes too great?" The name of the delicacy was spoken with ill-concealed distaste.

von Bek stiffened. "You have my word, sir!"

<Don't question it, Steel!> Sapphire warned. <Wrong culture. The spoken word weighs heavily here.>

"Besides," the shopkeeper hastened to mediate, "I'm certain I could get all those things from parallel planes instead - don't know about the powder tea though - this just seemed easier, because I knew where to look."

Steel moved over to where the door had last opened, just to the right of the counter. There was nothing there now, just space, and then the outer wall a little further back. He stopped level with the counter and started feeling the air. "It's here," he said. "Just waiting to be opened - or closed." He turned to von Bek. "If you think you can do it, please go ahead."

The taller man passed him to stand directly in front of the door - which had appeared as soon as he approached it. "I have to see it in order to take it away," von Bek said, almost apologetically. He raised his long, bony hands as if in a silent incantation. After a while, he lowered them again. The door was still visible, in a wall that also did not belong in this time period. "It's resisting me," he said. "It wants to stay." He looked at the two Elementals. "I know I'm not the one who struck a deal with your kind - but it seems to me we share an interest in this matter. Would you be so kind as to aid me?"

<I thought he'd never ask>, Sapphire commented silently, moving in to stand close beside him. With a sharp glare at her serene smile, Steel joined her - but on the other side of von Bek. The skeletal hands rose again. The little shopkeeper grabbed her cat and came to stand behind the other three. "Perhaps I can help you push it closed?" She thought for a moment, trying to remember which way the door usually opened. "Or pull, as the case may be..."

The door flew open as if it had long battled against an overwhelming force. But this time the gale did not blow outwards between the shelves of the shop, it sucked inward, pulling its antagonists with it into the time-bubble beyond.

 

*  *  *  *

The sign said, Thomasine Waterfordh - haberdasher. It was swinging gently in a somewhat raw breeze, hanging as it was at right angles to the wall. The black, wrought-iron construction from which it depended seemed made solely for this purpose, and elegantly so. The shiny letters - black on pale yellow - were fully legible, their artistic curlicues kept at a minimum.

"Oh, how adorable," Sapphire said, "you never told me you dabbled in this kind of business too."

"Me?" Sonya said, giving the sign a bewildered look.

"Well, perhaps not exactly you," Sapphire admitted. "Too long to explain," she decided, taking the little shopkeeper by the arm. "Let's go in."

"Why?" Sonya asked - quite reasonably, she thought.

"Because I want to have a look," Sapphire declared. She started walking up the few narrow steps to the little shop, and Sonya had no choice but to follow.

Inside, there were several examples of expertly fashioned embroideries hanging on display from the wall, and more were lying about on the glass-topped counter. Where the glass surface was unobscured, drawers could be seen, layer upon layer, with rows of silk and cotton thread neatly arranged according to shade. Behind the counter, a pigeon hole shelf covered the wall, from floor to high ceiling. In each pigeonhole lay a bolt of cloth, also neatly arranged, although the system was not immediately obvious. In a corner, a stepladder was leaning unobtrusively against the wall. The only means of reaching the upper shelves. No person was in sight, nor did anyone come to answer the door.

"No one at home," Sonya said. "Or they would have come out by now. I thought that old brass bell on the door could wake the dead. We certainly caused a racket, coming in."

Sapphire was leaning on the counter, staring through the glass top. "The blue thread ranges from nearly purple to almost white..." she announced dreamily.

"Easily distracted, aren't you?" Sonya remarked. Her companion snapped back to an upright position.

"He always says so," she mumbled regretfully. "I'm sorry." For a moment it looked as if she were about to cry, then it became obvious that only the colour of her eyes was spilling over... changing... turning green... or as close as it could while still remaining blue.

'Chinese blue...' Sonya thought, absently glancing at the spools of thread for a match. It seemed that all the colours in the world were in that counter. In a way, it was easy to understand how a person might become distracted...

"They are not here," Sapphire said.

Sonya blinked, tearing her gaze from the threads. "Who?"

"The boys of course," Sapphire said, looking at her oddly. "They're not in this time at all."

"When are we, anyway?" Sonya wanted to know. "This isn't where I usually shop. In fact, I don't know the first thing about the seamstress occupation and its needs." She glanced back at the drawers inside the counter. "Nice colours though..."

"October 5th, 1896," Sapphire informed her. "When do you shop?"

"Early 1970's. I have no exact date, and I have reason to believe I've been jumping around a bit. But the shop is always there, a grocer's, kept by Mrs Waterway."

"Never a haberdashery in the late 1890's, owned by a Thomasine Waterfordh?"

"Never."

Sapphire sighed. "We have to get out of here."

"I thought you were the one eager to get in."

A cold blue stare, no answer.

"Well, we seem to be on our own," Sonya resumed. "The proprietress must be out to lunch."

"It's 2.30 p m. My best guess is that she cannot coexist with you. If we manage to get out of this particular time-bubble, she'll reappear."

"That's ridiculous! I can even chat with Mrs Waterway. Often have."

"Not the same thing."

"It isn't??"

Sapphire smiled. "No. Your powers of generalisation are commendable though. If somewhat misdirected."

Sonya glared at her but realised that no mortal could really hope to stare down that cobalt gaze. She turned back to the spools of thread. "You know, I've always thought of colours as - opportunities. As uncollapsed possibilities, hitherto unused options..."

"Is that why you wear those robes? I rather thought you looked as if you never could make up your mind."

"I doubt I'd settle for blue," Sonya said, the audacity somehow coming naturally. "It seems so - common, don't you think?"

They stared at each other for a while, until both had to smile. "We'd better get out of here..."

On their way out, they both caught sight of a small table, hardly wider than a géridon, though not so so tall. What drew their attention was the cloth covering it, a piece of silk that had perhaps begun its usefulness as a light shawl. It displayed an embroidered city of domes and minarets against a black background - or perhaps two cities; one the mirror image of the other. The one in moonlight, the other in the shade. For the shawl was neatly divided diagonally into two fields, no visible borderline between them. In one field the city was light blue and turquoise, in the other it was mauve and red.

Sapphire touched the blue-green corner to have a closer look. Sonya did the same with the red-mauve one. "Imported," she said, somewhat disdainfully.

"I don't think so," Sapphire said. "I can't sense it clearly for some reason, but..."

"Trust me," Sonya said. "I know a commercial trick when I see one. No one in this place and time was that good. This was made by someone who did little else - because she had little else to do."

"If you say so..."

They stood a little while longer, gazing at the cloth. Then they both dropped it simultaneously. "Let's go."

 

*  *  *  *

"Those pieces of armour don't look half bad on you. The greaves are particularly well fashioned. Nice filigree."

Steel pressed his lips together briefly. "Thank you. They seem a bit redundant, however. But, I suppose we can't be choosers here."

Erich von Bek shook out his wine-coloured cloak. It bore a crest of arms that he did not quite recognise, although he had a feeling he ought to. Whatever, it went well with the rest of his clothing which was all-black as usual, if a different cut. "Could be worse," he said. "We could have found ourselves on horseback - couldn't we?"

"We could have, yes," Steel agreed.

"Good thing we didn't. I'm no rider. My cousin, however..."

"We shan't be needing horses anyway," Steel interrupted. "I don't know why we did not end up inside the shop, but perhaps it was not yet built in this time period. We may still be at the site. In any event, we can't be far from it - so I don't think we should stray." He stretched out his arms, palms outward, to try and feel what he usually thought of as the 'membrane' of the time bubble, but apparently it was larger than he had expected.

"When are we?" von Bek asked. "Somewhen in the Middle Ages?"

Steel pursed his lips in annoyance. Amateurs... "Somewhat later. Early 16th century. Without Sapphire, I can't be any more precise than that."

"Where are the ladies anyway?" von Bek's voice held a distinct note of worry.

"How should I know?" Steel erupted, tense with his own anxiety. "I don't even know why we landed here!" With some effort, he forced himself to calm down. He needed to keep a clear head, if he was to see them out of this mess. "I have a theory however."

"I should very much like to hear it."

"Somehow you managed to cause a temporal cascade failure in that shop."

"A what?"

"A temporal cascade failure. Normally - insofar as time breaches can be called normal - a section of time, past or future, breaks through into the present, and that is all. In this case, it would seem that further breaches had already been made. While trying to close the rift between our present and the past - the past where you went shopping - we fell through another rift, where a more distant past had broken into what was then the present, the early 1970's."

"A chain reaction, and we whizzed through one link and fell out the other end?"

"Something like that, yes. Except there's no way to tell how many 'links' we 'whizzed' through, as you put it. It could have been just one, and it could have been several."

"Is it likely to get any worse?"

"Good question. Considering that we don't know how bad it is. But we have no reason to expect this to be a stable condition."

von Bek sat down on the ground, carefully gathering up the lower part of his cloak and folding it neatly under him as a protection against the possibly damp grass. Fastidiously, he turned the bottom fold inside out so as to avoid visible stains. He sat with his knees drawn up and his hands loosely linked between them, looking for all the world like a giant grasshopper. "We had better make the best of it while it lasts then. I'd say we try to find the girls first, and perhaps then we shall have a chance of exploring this time period before the bubble collapses."

"Exploring it? Do you think this is some kind of game?"

von Bek grinned. "No, but this sort of thing happens to my cousin all the time, if you pardon the expression. Not rift cascades or whatever it was you called them - time travel. He would never forgive me if I passed up the opportunity."

"I thought you two were not on speaking terms."

"We're not often contemporary - these days."

Steel glared at him but refrained from comment. Really, the sense of humour of mortals... "I wonder who got the cat," he said.

von Bek looked up at him from his vaguely insectlike posture. "I thought of that too. I assume he went with the girls, since he's not with us."

Steel frowned. "Let's hope he did. Because if he got loose at the last moment, we may have a wild parameter in here."

von Bek sighed. "Sounds nice. An unstable cascade failure with a wild parameter running loose. What else do we need?" He stood abruptly, letting the cloak billow out behind him. The setting sun was in his eyes, and he brought up a long hand to shade them. "Forget I asked. I see now what we were missing. A local complication."

On what looked like the horizon, a crowd of people had materialised. Some were on horseback, though most were walking, and several seemed to be carrying something. Shouting could be heard, faintly.

Steel glanced towards the crowd, not bothering to shield his eyes. "They've been approaching for some time. Who are they?"

"Unless I'm very much mistaken," von Bek said, "they are villagers on a witch hunt." His tone changed to one of almost malicious anticipation. "I think we had better investigate this."

"We can't get caught up in local grievances," Steel said impatiently. "Regardless of what your uncle would have done."

"I expressed myself badly," von Bek said grimly. "Chances are that this particular local grievance concerns us. These people would be looking for sorcerers - and most especially for sorceresses. I can think of at least two women who - to the minds of this lot - would fit that description to a T."

"Don't you mean an S? Two S'es in fact... Yes, I get your drift. This is a nuisance, but at least they should be able to lead us to the girls."

"A nuisance? That's all it is to you?"

"Sapphire can take care of herself," Steel said confidently. "Probably of your little shopkeeper as well." But his eyes were dark with the worry he could not give voice to. von Bek noted it and knew better than to comment.

"Just give me a moment," he said. "I don't think we should join that lot unarmed."

"I'm never unarmed."

"I believe you. But humour me, sir. It won't take long. I need to summon my sword."

"Your sword?"

"Seahacker. I left it between planes, but I know how to withdraw it. A few minutes, is all I ask."

"Oh, very well. Just be careful you don't set the cascade going again. It's vital that we stay in this bubble for now."

von Bek met the anxious gleam in the Elemental's eyes. "I know."

 

*  *  *  *

"You know," Sonya said, "I rather felt that was a trap back there. The haberdashery, I mean."

"It was," Sapphire confirmed.

"As if we were meant to get caught up in the colours, or something."

"We were."

Sonya shot her an odd look. "I mean, I've never been interested in embroidered things... colours now, that's another matter... You mean it was intended?"

"Yes."

"Then how come we managed to get away? How could we just walk out?"

Sapphire turned, to smile at her. "Sometimes, being easily distracted is an advantage."

The Elemental looked around her. They were standing in a large cave, the back of which could not be clearly seen, but she sensed passages there. "Any idea what we are doing here?"

"No," Sonya admitted truthfully. "Wouldn't that be your department?"

Again, that inscrutable smile. "Essentially, I'm just following you. Chances are that you know more than you think."

Sonya began to walk slowly around the cave, following the walls, which bore incongruous shelves wherever they were smooth enough. On the shelves were small jars, stoppered with wooden corks wrapped in oilcloth. Nearly all of them sported a makeshift label with a skull on it and a few markings rather than actual writing.

"Herbal medicine," she said after smelling a few. "That must be what they are." From across the cave Sapphire nodded, her eyes filled with colour. "Not very effective," Sonya resumed, smelling yet another jar. "They can't have cured anyone, but I daresay they made the patients feel good - for as long as the intoxication lasted, anyway..."

"A common enough ruse," Sapphire said. She straightened as if listening, or reading something at a distance. "There's a sign outside. It says, 'Old Wife Waterlily - pharmacy'. Were you always a shopkeeper?"

Sonya shrugged. "Search me."

"I am."

One eyebrow raised, Sonya turned to look at her. "And what did you find?"

"You - she, if you prefer - did not write that sign. It was commissioned - by a wealthy patron."

"I figured as much. She couldn't - can't? - write. There are only some kind of private glyphs on the jars to denote their contents. Who was this patron? Why did he see fit to get the sign for her? Given the quality of her concoctions, it can't very well have been gratitude."

Sapphire's red lips quirked. "It was. He was - is - a local Count. His elderly aunt died of one of these medications, leaving him land and money, thereby saving him from ruin."

"Can you tell all that from the sign - without touching it?

"Some of it's conjecture, based on what I did see," Sapphire admitted.

"Idle speculation, you mean," Sonya retorted. "These particular poisons can't have killed anyone. Basically, they're just mixtures of spice. I must say I don't see the reason for all these skulls on the labels."

Sapphire smiled. "Didn't you say you recognised a sales trick when you saw one? Though the skulls were not so much to advertise as to protect the merchandise from being stolen. But there's one substance in here that can kill." She closed her eyes. Then, opening them again, she shook her head. "It's no use. I can't tell which one. The others keep interfering."

Sonya picked another jar from a shelf. "It ought to be this one then."

"How do you know?"

"It's the only one that doesn't have a skull on the label." She eased the lid open and wafted the fumes carefully towards her. "Hemlock as the main ingredient, I'd say."

"You have studied herbal lore."

"I took a brief interest, yes. But I've never been a healer. Apparently, neither was this woman. But she must have known which jar contained the poison. She can't have used it by mistake."

Sapphire's silence alerted Sonya to what she had just said. "It wasn't an accident?"

"The Count was here in the cave quite often. He may have commissioned more than the sign."

"And from another source? I suppose it's plausible. He must have paid quite well, and she was probably living on roots or something."

"Is. She's still here - when you are not."

"Another one of those? When are we?"

"April 20th, 1532. Proleptic Gregorian calendar, of course."

Sonya shot her a quick glare. "Of course. And where's the trap? I suppose there is one?"

Sapphire closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them, they were pools of blue, on the verge of brimming over. "Yes. There is one. And it's a difficult one."

"So what is it?"

The blue went out, became humanly normal. "I don't know. Something is blocking me. It could be time itself."

"The trap or the block?"

"Both. Either. There's no way to tell."

"You're a great help."

Sapphire smiled a little. "That's what Steel always says when I fail."

Sonya turned the poisonous jar over in her hands, set it aside, picked up a phial to examine. "And yet you put up with him?"

Intent on the medicine containers, she did not see Sapphire's surprised, then thoughful expression. "I suppose I do..." said the Elemental slowly.

"Why?" Sonya asked, clinically.

"Because... well, he's... I can't... I don't think I could work as well without him. I'm - too easily distracted, as you know."

Sonya put everything back on the shelves and turned to give her companion her full attention. "And that's the only reason? He keeps you going?"

"You could put it like that," Sapphire said with a somewhat defensive smile.

"Perhaps you had better think that through," Sonya said. "He may not always be around, you know."

"If so, I should have ample warning," the Elemental surmised, but her voice was not quite steady.

Sonya leant back against the rough wall under the shelves, her arms crossed. "Oh? And how much warning do you have right now?"

"Because I cannot pinpoint the trap set for us? Don't worry, it'll come to me in time."

"In time. Whereof you have all in the world? You and Steel?"

"Something like that, yes. We have been around for much longer than you probably imagine."

"Time is an ocean, but it ends at the shore. You may not see me tomorrow."

"Robert Zimmerman, 1975."

"You've done your homework, Elemental. But let me tell you one thing. Time isn't a corridor. It isn't that linear. You're describing an ideal case, mistaking it for reality - anybody's reality."

"Neither is it in any way like the sea," Sapphire objected. "The corridor may be just an image, but it is the closest approximation. The best way to describe it - to humans."

"It doesn't run straight. There are pockets in it. Rooms off the corridor, if you will - or an entire maze..."

Sapphire laughed. "Who told you that?"

"Erich von Bek actually," Sonya admitted. "He had it from his cousin, he said."

"And you believe everything he says?"

"I have never known him to lie."

"Known him long?"

Sonya did not answer. Sapphire looked at her for a long while, blue eyes curiously half-lit. "So what have you done about it? Before you hand out advice to others?"

Sonya looked down at her shoes, absently noticing them for the first time. Straw-filled clogs. She was certain she had not been wearing them before.

"There isn't much I can do," she said. "He's the cousin of a Count. I'm a poor shopkeeper."

"But he cares about you."

Sonya looked up, reading the truth in those blue eyes. It made her happy to have her most pleasant suspicions confirmed, but she chose not to comment directly. "And Steel about you," she said.

The Elemental nodded. "I know." Her eyes filled with blue, but she did not seem to be searching this time, just thinking, perhaps reminiscing. Her face became still, expressionless. Serene and cool as the stone that bore her name. "Perhaps I can't do anything either."

"Because gems are not known to melt? Sometimes, however, they do break."

Sapphire smiled - almost ruefully. "Perhaps I'll just wait for him to wear me down..." She raised her head, listening. "Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?" Sonya asked, frowning over a piece of paper with some writing on it. She wondered what it was doing here, in the abode of an illiterate old woman. Perhaps one of Old Wife Waterlily's clients had dropped it. It was hard to make out the letters - harder, she thought, than it should have been...

"I thought I heard shouting - or singing, but I think shouting."

Suddenly, the words on the paper became clear. "Sapphire! I've found part of an announcement. It says Old Wife Waterlily is wanted for interrogation, to determine if she's involved in witchcraft!" Someone must have brought it to her as a warning - I suppose they read it to her. Sonya looked wildly about her. "What year is this, did you say?"

"1532."

"Damn! The movement for Enlightenment must be well underway then. We're sitting ducks!"

Sapphire opened her eyes, after concentrating on events outside the cave. "Humans have been killing each other on some convenient pretext throughout time. Excuse me for saying so, but you are rather an uncouth species. What makes this time period any different?"

Sonya walked over to what looked like the entrance to the cave, trying to peer out. All she could see was a dark passage. If the entrance was there, it was a long way off. She could hear voices in the distance, but she saw no one. "Most people in my time believe that the witch hunts took place in the Middle Ages. The Dark Ages they call them, though initially that name was applied to a slightly earlier time, for lack of written documentation. But I tell you, I'd much rather we had been dumped in an 11th century bubble than this one. Back then, nobody felt the need to chase down wise men and women and kill them. But when the Enlightenment started..."

"To light a candle is to cast a shadow?"

"Exactly. What do we do about that crowd out there? It's a mob, isn't it?"

Sapphire closed her eyes again. "Yes. Well done - but I suppose in some circumstances, your sensitivities work just as well as mine. But - they are looking for Old Wife Waterlily. She must be over fifty, which means she'd look like eighty in our time. Neither of us fits her description."

"They won't bother. They're not out for justice, they're out for a thrill. In fact, they'll prefer younger prey."

"You know your own kind best. Are you saying that we cannot pretend to be customers of the old woman, awaiting her return?"

"I probably look sufficiently like her to be taken for a relative. That means I'm doomed. You should be able to pass yourself off as nobility, which might hold them off, because they'd be afraid of the consequences if they touched you. On the other hand, you might still get it for making use of a witch's services..."

Sapphire's eyes flew open, wide and blue. "They're at the entrance. They're coming in."

Sonya cast about, looking wildly at the walls. "She can't have set up shop in a cave with only one entrance - she can't have!"

"Because you wouldn't?"

Sonya slumped visibly. "I suppose so..." She stood for a minute, thinking. Then, "What about your powers?" she asked. "As an Elemental, what can you do?"

"Not much when it comes to direct defence," Sapphire admitted. "But I can charm them, and I can stall them."

"How many of them are there?"

"Hmm... twenty-six."

"Could be worse, I suppose. Can you charm that many at once?"

"I don't think so. Well, if they came prepared to see me as a goddess of theirs, I could, but since they come with hostile intent... no, I should have to confront them one by one - or at least no more than two at a time."

Sonya nodded. "And in the meantime, the others would see what you were trying to do, and decide they were right all along. Great. What about stalling them?"

Sapphire smiled - a wide, radiant smile this time. "Oh, I'm sure I could do that. That's not dependent on numbers..." She sobered. "It won't really solve anything though. Just postpone disaster."

"Sometimes," Sonya said, "that may be all we need."

 

*  *  *  *

"She's taking time back!"

"I thought we had been going over this ground before. Or isn't that how it works?"

"Yes, exactly like that. She can keep them off indefinitely that way - or at least till she's exhausted - but she can't get rid of them."

"Call out to her, for goodness' sake. Let her know we're here. I thought you two could communicate telepathically."

"Don't you think I've tried? There's magnetite in that cave. I can't reach her."

"Great. What use are elementals when you really need them."

"If we could only get past the entrance, it should work again. Magnetite or no. But she keeps pushing us back with the others - with time."

"You mean, you can't break her spell?"

"I resent your way of phrasing that, sir. But essentially, that's one way of describing it, yes."

"Some of that rabble are carrying ropes. They're not out to arrest anyone - they're out to hang them."

"I know! Putting pressure on me won't help - I still can't do anything as long as she keeps pushing time! Aren't they supposed to burn witches, by the way?"

"That's on the continent. Here they hang them. Is there any way your precious stone could cut her way out of a noose?"

"No more than your little pedlar could buy her way out. We must get in there!"

"Then break her spell, sir!"

And time moved again...

 

*  *  *  *

Sapphire's eyes flew open, wide and blue. "They're at the entrance. They're coming in."

Sonya groaned. "I've had just about enough of this!"

"I'm sorry. You shouldn't be able to sense it. Usually, humans just get a confused feeling of déjà vu, that's all."

"I'm developing multiple feelings of déjà vu - and a singularly bad temper. Give it up. Knock it off. Let them in!"

"Are you sure?"

"I'd rather fight it out with them than spend the rest of existence looping in limbo. Bring them in." She went over to a fairly outsized mortar sitting on a bench below the shelves of medicine, hefted the pestle, brought it back with her.

Sapphire shrugged, blue silk stirring over indifferent shoulders. "As you wish..." Her eyes went wide. "Steel! Sonya, they're here! The boys are here, both of them!"

Sonya examined her pestle grimly. "Good. We can use two more - are they 26 with or without our blokes?"

"Does it really matter?"

Sonya sighed. "I suppose not."

"Without. Actually."

And then the mob was upon them. Sapphire stood to confront the first, to charm and confuse him, but she needed space and above all time for concentration - his as well as her own - and his prancing horse did not exactly help interaction. Someone else took in her inhumanly blue-green eyes and lashed out with a torch. Sonya caught the torch and threw it towards the shelf with the most inflammable medications. The fire wouldn't spread enough to harm anyone, but a little diversion might come in handy.

Another rider caught Sapphire about the waist and tried to pull her up to him, but suddenly Steel was there, pulling him off the horse instead. The man lost his grip - at the same moment as Sapphire phase-shifted out of it. "Thank you," she said, and though her eyes were full of appreciation, Steel drily added the rest in his mind: <For nothing...>.

von Bek was laying about him with a sword that looked like pure gold but couldn't very well be, unless there was a hardening spell on it. For a moment, he and Sonya were fighting side by side, he with the sword, she with the pestle. She noticed that although his sword kept the mob back effectively, it never seemed to draw blood. She commented on it.

"I rather had the feeling that if I slew anyone here, it would wreak even further havoc with time," he said. "Seahacker is a sword of many talents. Killing is but one of them."

One of the riders bent low for Sonya, and she bopped him on the head. As his horse reared and turned, she frightened it off with a blow across the heel joints.

"You swing a mean pestle, mylady," von Bek said, and the little shopkeeper beamed at him.

Suddenly, she was fighting alongside Steel. He was using his bare hands, but still had no problem tossing away anyone who came too close. One of the riders lashed out with a sword, and the Elemental ducked, only to be caught by the lash of a peasant's rope. Sonya was surprised to see blood on his cheek - somehow she had not expected that. When next he turned that side to her, the wound was gone. Well, she had guessed as much.

Someone's dog had joined the melee. Yapping about the horses' legs, he helpfully added to the chaos - until black fury descended, shrieking, on his neck.

"Murphy!" Sonya shouted. "So he was here after all! I did so wonder what had become of him. He must have been asleep somewhere - he'd be hard to see in this place."

"Quickly!" Steel shouted. "Get him off that cur and see if he can find his way home! He should be able to sense the rift - cats are natural border-crossers."

Sonya stared at him. "You get him off the hound. I wouldn't dream of interfering without a garden hose."

Steel sighed, waiting impatiently for the cat to drive the dog frantic and chase him out of the cave. Considerate of his territory, Murphy then returned as soon as the intruder was out. Oblivious to human controversy he sat down to wash his paw. Steel glared at him. Murphy paused in midwash, to return the Elemental's blue-grey stare with his own topaz one. The battle of wills lasted for nearly a minute, then the cat got up as if with a shrug, and started walking towards the inner parts of the cave.

<Sapphire!> Steel called in his mind, <follow us - and see that von Bek does too.> His hand firmly on Sonya's elbow - firmly enough that she thought it better not to object - he hurried after the cat.

Sapphire put her hand on von Bek's arm, firing her bluest, most compelling gaze into his eyes. "We have done enough here, sir. Please see me home, would you?"

He gave her a bewildered look, then followed her quick glance towards the inner cave, and understood as he saw the others. Swinging his sword in a circle, he ignited the very air in its path, leaving their attackers to wonder, and to dare each other to pass through the fiery ring. "A mere sideshow trick," he said apologetically, "but to those who grew up with sideshows, moderately impressive." He took her arm gallantly, and started running towards the back of the cave. Sapphire was almost as tall as he, and to his surprise, she kept pace with him. He glanced down at her sharp, high heels. "Can you really run on those?"

She smiled. "I can run on anything. On air, if you wish."

And if he were to be quite honest with himself, he could not really swear that those heels were actually touching rock as she ran.

Further in, the cave was black. Completely black, with no light penetrating, from torches or herbal fire. Murphy was first lost to sight, then the walls and floor. They had to slow down, then to stop entirely. After a while they moved on again, feeling their way along the damp, unseen walls.

Suddenly, Steel called out. "It's here! The time bubble ends here, I can feel it!" There was a flash of light as Murphy burst through the rift, and they could see a woman looking very much like Sonya coming out from behind a shop's counter, saying, "Mr Murphy! What an unexpected pleasure! Let's see if we can find you some sardines... or do you prefer cooked cod, these days?"

The scene went out as quickly as it had appeared, but they had all seen where the rift appeared, and they all walked through it, one by one. As the last one through, von Bek turned and swung his sword once. There was a flash of gold, but nothing seemed to change. With a contented smile, he turned again, to follow the others.

It was a while before Mrs Waterway would let them go. She had not had many visitors that day, she said. She seemed especially taken with Steel, whom she had not seen before, and the fact that he was impatient and barely civil, only served to amuse her. She offered him exotic teas and rich shortbread, all of which he turned down, insisting that he needed neither food nor drink. But as they had all excused themselves and were about to leave, she reached inside the counter and brought out a small jade dragon. "This one you can safely take," she said, pressing it into Steel's hand, "because you have no idea at all what to do with it, and so you need not think of any more excuses." She stepped back with a smile before he had a chance to react, let alone to return the object. "Farewell now," she said, waving to them all. "See you when I see you - and not before."

"In other words, never," said von Bek, as they emerged into Sonya's original shop, Murphy placidly following. "I wonder if she knew that?"

"She knows," Sonya said. "Or she wouldn't have offered Murphy cooked cod. Have you any idea of the price of cod in her time?"

von Bek smiled, privately treasuring the fact that she had not called him 'sir'. He turned as he had at the other rift, swinging his sword in a golden arc in front of the still visible door. The door vanished, leaving only space, and further back, the outer wall. "The breach is closed," he said.

Sapphire and Steel both reached out with all senses at once. Sapphire was the first to speak. "He's right," she said, admiringly.

"If you could seal it as easily as that, why didn't you do so in the first place?" Steel challenged. "It would have saved us considerable effort."

"Seahacker seals anything," von Bek said. "But it is not my wont to go armed in this time and place. A gentleman must have some principles."

Steel rolled his eyes in exasperation.

 

*  *  *  *

"We did not pass by the haberdashery on our way back," Sonya said to Sapphire, as they were taking their leave.

"Murphy did not take us there," Sapphire said. "Because he had not been through that time."

"Does that mean there's still a bubble that was part of this breakthrough - one that is not sealed off?"

"I would expect so, yes."

"Are you going to tell him about it?"

Sapphire smiled. "Not all bubbles cause a disturbance. Not all require intervention."

Sonya smiled back. "Perhaps I'll see you there - sometime."

Sapphire nodded. "Perhaps - some time."

 

*  *  *  *

After the Elementals were gone, von Bek lingered on in the shop, leaning on the counter though its modest height was awkward for him. He was scratching Murphy behind the right ear. The cat accepted the gesture as an owed tribute, one that he was not above relishing.

Sonya reached inside her odd-coloured robes, brought out a jar with some symbols and a skull on it, and placed it on the counter with a thud. "Keeps the spiders away," she said. "The pictograms are fairly explicit."

von Bek picked up the jar, examined the label. "You shouldn't have," he said then, with a warm glance at the little shopkeeper.

"No," Sonya admitted. "I shouldn't. But it appears that I have, all the same..."

Her smile was decidedly impish.

 

* * * The End * * *