Chapter 11 – The Yellow Brick Road Experts
The Lord, Earl of Founder’s Valley, appeared with his usual retinue. He stood to the front of the raised area before the castle door and all fell silent. Roddy, Whittler, Hound, and Plunkett all pushed forward eagerly to hear what help he would bring them.
The Lord raised his hands above his head, and shouted. “I will now fulfill my promise to you good people. I now summon experts in the ways of the yellow brick road.” He turned to one side of the platform, toward the bridge, which held one set of stocks and had the wolf pelt up on the stone wall. He took a swig from a hip flask, then began muttering incantations and making arcane gestures with his hands. Slowly a dark cloud arose around the base of the stocks and spread to cover that end of the platform. With one final shout of, “I summon thee!” the Lord seemed to collapse in on himself, and staggered backwards into the arms of one of his guards.
As the cloud dispersed, five figures could be seen standing in front of the stocks. In the center was a teenage girl in a blue checked dress with dark brown pigtails. To her right was a man in a full suit of armor, then a shaggy brown beast that stood on its hind legs. To her immediate left was a man dressed in exaggerated farmer’s costume with painted face, raggedy patched clothes, a battered felt hat, and straw sticking out of each pocket and sleeve, as if he were festooned for a holiday festival. The crowd, expecting engineers, stood silent in shock.
It was the fifth figure, closest to the bridge, that reacted first. She was dressed in black robes and a tall pointy black hat. Her face was livid green, and she carried a broomstick. She backed around the stocks and lifted her broomstick in front of her like a weapon. “What’s going on?” she hissed. “Why have you brought me here? I see you there, my little pretty. I’ll get you yet, no matter how many friends you find along the way. Where are my winged monkeys? I’ll be back to get you later, don’t you worry.” She cackled horribly, mounted her broomstick, and flew off in the direction of the lake before anyone could react.
The costumed farmer threw himself in front of the girl, arms spread, as he watched the witch fly away. The shaggy beast leapt behind the man in armor and began to shake uncontrollably, his tail whipping side to side. The man in armor unlimbered his axe, which seemed to be of the common wood-chopping variety, and began flexing his joints, which creaked.
The girl looked around dolefully. “My goodness, I thought we had seen the last of her. Friends, I don’t think this is Kansas.”
The crowd finally broke into a low muttering, growing in volume as people milled about uncertainly.
The Lord gave out a loud moan and, head bowed, staggered through the castle gate, surrounded by his guards, who slammed the massive doors behind them.
Sapphire beckoned to her friends, and hurried up to the girl. The armored man and the straw-festooned farmer tried to block her way, but she smiled and held up an empty hand, and they let her approach. “Are you all right, child?”
The girl looked up and blinked. “Oh, I’m alright. But where’s Toto?” She looked around frantically. “Where’s my dog? Has anybody seen my dog?”
Sapphire reached out a hand and spoke softly. “I’m sure he’ll be okay. It’s Dorothy, isn’t it? I’m Sapphire.”
Dorothy gave a little courtesy. “Pleased to meet you, but I don’t remember meeting you before. How did you know my name?”
“I’ve … er … read about you. You’re quite famous. What is the last place you remember, before arriving here?”
Dorothy crinkled her brow and thought a moment. “Well, we were in the Emerald City. The Wizard was going to give me a ride home in his balloon, and Toto chased a cat, and I chased him, and I ended up being left behind. I remember! Then Glinda floated in on a bubble and told me I could use these slippers to get home.” She pointed to the glittery red shoes on her feet. “I clicked my heels three times saying, ‘There’s no place like home,’ and poof! I was here.” She looked around at her friends. The Lion was now chewing on his tail. “But this isn’t home, and you all weren’t supposed to come with me! How did we get here? And where is here? Please ma’am, can you tell me where we are?”
Sapphire patted her shoulder. “You’re in Founder’s Valley, child. What you need now is a bit of rest, and some luncheon. Some of my friends will take you into the Inn there and get you some refreshments. I have to speak to the Lord.”
Sapphire headed to the massive doors and worked the large iron knocker with a boom. A small window opened and a steel helmet with white horsehair crest appeared. “State your business.”
“I must see the Lord.”
“The Lord is resting after his heroic effort. He’s not receiving visitors.”
“But I have information about the yellow brick road experts, that he must hear.”
The castle courtyard seemed a typical layout. The great hall was directly across from the gate. To the right were kitchens and a vegetable garden, then a well, barracks and stables. To the left were several low wooden buildings with windows.
Sapphire looked over the guard’s uniform. It was a red tunic over the chest piece, with purple embroidery on the edges. There was a leather skirt and steel grieves. A short sword hung at his belt. “Roman?”
The guard stopped and stared at Sapphire. “You know of Rome?”
Sapphire shrugged, “I have heard of it. I’m Sapphire. You are…?”
“Augustus Caesar, at your service. Have you been to Rome? Do you know the way back?”
Sapphire shook her head. “Sorry, I’ve only read about it. What are you doing here on guard duty, Emperor?”
Caesar straightened his shoulders. “Well, the local warlock seems to be summoning the greatest warriors from all the lands, to serve his unholy purpose. If we serve him well, I should hope to be shown the way back home.”
Sapphire’s eyes widened. “Really? Who all has he summoned?”
“Well, there is a fellow who claims to be the Pharaoh of Egypt, as if, I mean, I don’t keep up with politics, but that guy is a dandy. There is a fellow that styles himself Achilles out of the Greek classics, and then there are a couple of religious fanatics calling themselves Sir Richard and Cortez.”
“So what is this unholy mission, if I may be so bold?”
Caesar looked at her appraisingly. “Security, mostly. This poor town is beset by evils uncounted. We are to give the physicians time to defeat the various plagues that are rampant, before we can campaign against any more mundane hostile forces arrayed against us.” He gestured at the low wooden buildings, from which, Sapphire now noticed, were issuing various odd-smelling fumes and vapors.
“And how goes the mission?”
Caesar shook his hands in frustration. “Every one of these so-called warriors thinks they are the best fighter and therefore should be the leader, yet not one of them has the least notion of discipline, military procedure, tactics, or strategy. I have no authority over them, and I can’t get any cooperation at all. Worse, there is now a mercenary force put under the command of the civil authorities, to patrol the streets. It is chaos.”
“Sounds like the Lord should put you in charge.”
Caesar nodded vigorously. “That would be wise. I keep suggesting that would be the best course, but he insists on reserving leadership to himself, and on making all the decisions himself. And yet, he is clearly not a military man, and does not understand what must be done.”
“Maybe I can put a word in for you.”
“Would you? I think all our safety depends upon it.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Lord, my name is Sapphire. If I could beg your indulgence for a moment….”
The Earl looked over from his couch. “Yes? What is it now?”
“Sorry to disturb you at your rest, sir, but I have important information for you, about the summoning.”
The Earl looked away. “Humiliating, isn’t it.”
“Sir? You invoked some very strong magic today; of course you need your rest.”
The Earl straightened up, muttering, “I am going to kill Archie Tomes.” He looked Sapphire in the eye. “I’m quite a good sorcerer, you know. And have the means now to supplement my efforts substantially. It’s just that, in school, you know… they called me humorless and unimaginative. And now I’m Lord, Earl of Founder’s Valley, and they are still playing schoolboy pranks on me….”
Sapphire gritted her teeth. “So you know that you’re summoning characters out of ancient literature.”
The Earl glared at her. “Well, I do now. Is that all you’ve come to tell me? This doesn’t change the fact that I have a lot of work to do.”
Sapphire stepped back. “Yes, that was the gist of it. They think you can send them back, you know. Perhaps the historic characters at least, you could….”
The Earl shook his head. “I can’t imagine how, can you?” Sapphire shook her head too. “Well then, a dozen more problems to solve. Unless you are bringing me solutions, I suggest you let me get on with it.”
“Are they real? I mean, are they going to go ‘poof’ any minute now?”
The Earl looked miserable. “All I know for sure is they no longer have a magical aura about them. They are now as solidly mundane as you or I. I’ll let the church try to figure out if they have souls. Now, please. I must bid you good day.”