As it turned out, Beppo was the first to spot the riders approaching. They were moving rather slowly. Through the binoculars, Tom could see that there were perhaps a dozen horsemen, with a small horse-drawn cart behind them. Sam turned the car towards them.
“Alright, lads, be ready. There’s no knowing who or what they are. Weapons handy, safeties off. Shadow, make sure the gun is ready.”
“Feeling threatened by the cart?” Tom merely rolled his eyes.
As they drew closer, Tom could begin to make out detail. It didn’t make any sense. Horsemen he understood, since even the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS used cavalry. The Kuban and Don Cossacks even carried swords. But these wore armor, and bore spears! When they were about fifty meters away, he had Sam come to a stop. “But keep the engine running, and Frodo, you be prepared to get us out of here backwards!”
The lead rider began to approach the car, with the others fanning out around them. Tom, Shadow, and Beppo all swiveled their eyeballs as they beheld this odd sight. For all the riders were female, and beautiful they were!
“Sarmatian, I would think,” said Shadow. “Note the lack of the right breast, reminiscent of the alleged link to the Amazons. I’d wager that those tan things hanging from the reins are scalps. The Scythians would scrape them clean, and use them for napkins. The more napkins, the better the warrior.”
“Where do you learn all this tripe?”
“Ah, Tom, who else spends more time than you with his nose buried in books? See the gold? I’ll wager it’s all real, another connection to the Scythians. They’ve been in this region since about the 4th Century B.C., give or take a century.”
“Aye, but what century are we in now? Sam, are you getting anything from this?”
“Not a bit. What’s your Sérkatoray say?”
“Oh, damn!” Tom pulled out the little disk, and held to his eyes. Red! “Stand by for heavy rolls, boys!”
As he spoke, the leader jumped from her horse to the deck in front of the turret. Her face had an ethereal beauty that was unlike anything Tom had ever seen before. Her black hair hung down, glistening, the colors of the reflected light roiling about the tresses. Her eyes seemed to almost literally drink him in. Her arms came up as she leaned into him. As his arms lifted to meet her, almost of their own volition, his lips parted to meet hers. Her eyes clouded over, then melted away. The skin began to peel away, and he was millimeters from kissing a grinning skull!
“FIRE!” As he screamed, he grabbed the wraith by her hair, and smashed her face into the edge of his hatch. The skull shattered with a crash, dust and shards scattering about. He screamed again as the dust lit on his hands and face. It burned. “FIRE! SHOOT THEM!”
The sound was deafening. Where moments before the only sound was the soft clop of the horses’ unshod hooves, now machine pistols stuttered, the coax MG barked out. Through his squinted eyes, Tom could see that none of the horsemen, er, horsewomen were falling, despite the fusillade of fire. He could see the impacts on their torsos, but…
“Aim for their heads! Their heads are vulnerable!”
Now he saw horses begin to fall, so they were vulnerable as well. The bullets were not killing them, but it looked as though a hit would keep them from moving forward. Then one got close. Raising her arm up high, she brought her sword down, slicing through the superstructure.
Sam caught movement, and looked through the visor just as a sword came scything through. It knocked off the visors, and almost took off his arm. He pulled his pistol, and fired blindly.
Up top, Tom saw the sword-woman’s head explode, and she fell. Movement drew his attention, and he saw the cart begin to turn away. Sadly for the driver, it moved directly in front of the main gun. The Shadow hit the trigger, and the 50mm AP shell tore through the driver, then through the poor horse, splitting him almost in two laterally. Another round, and another horse and rider exploded.
Tom was almost swooning with pain as a new warrior charged into his line of vision, sword upraised. He jerked the trigger of his MP40. The rounds cut into her legs, knocking her to the ground. Another burst hit her in the sternum, throat, and nose, literally blowing her skull into dust. Quickly he jammed another magazine into the weapon as he tried to spin in the hatch. As quickly as it had started, all sound stopped, deafening in its own right. Nothing moved, except our intrepid crews’ eyeballs.
“Anyone hurt?” yelled the Shadow. He heard Tom groan, and as he turned, saw him slumping down into the turret. He dropped down and grabbed his commander before he did any more damage to himself. He looked up as Sam scrambled from the front seat. “He’s all blistered! I can’t find any blood, but it’s as if he’s on fire!”
Sam reached back behind him, and pulled out a small canvas sack. He pulled a canteen down from its hook, and ripped the cup off the top. Tipping the sack up, he poured a measure of the contents, dust, into the cup. He then dumped a bit of water in the cup, and using a pencil from Tom’s map case, mixed it into a paste. Gently, he began to spread it on Tom’s face and neck. “Get his wrap and shirt off, quick.”
Shadow stripped him to the waist, and gently laid him on the floorplate. Frodo rolled up his Panzer wrap, and put it under his head. Sam continued to spread the paste, as new blisters formed on Tom’s skin. “Jest like wimmen,” Sam muttered. “All beautiful when you meet them, but let ‘em git under yer skin, and ye get burned every time!”
The Shadow chuckled. “Sure and a romantic you ain’t, Sam. Frodo, get in one of the driver’s seats, and stand by to move as soon as we get him stable. Just watch out for the bigger bumps.”
Sam leaned over and whispered in Tom’s ear. Shadow couldn’t make out the words, but he thought that the language sounded Celtic. He realized that there was even more to Sam than he had previously realized. As he watched, Sam sat back up. He was just able to make out a whispered plea, “Stay with us, Lad. Don’t go visiting Tech Duinn just yet.” Sam saw Shadow staring at him. “Tech Duinn is the House of Donn, the Lord of the Dead. He can’t go there yet…”
Meanwhile, outside the car, Beppo had been keeping a lone watch. He could only look on in amazement as the corpses of both (wo)man and beast dissipated in the breeze. It was as if six centuries of decay were catching up in just seconds. All that was left were the cart, some tack from the horses, and twelve little piles of golden armor. Golden or gold? Taking a quick look around the horizon and seeing naught, he walked over to a set of armor laying in the grass. He reached down and picked up a breastplate. He had heard Shadow’s comment about the lack of a right breast, but only now did it have any significance.
The piece he held in his hand appeared to be real gold, finely hammered to shape. Looking at other pieces, it was obvious that each piece was made to fit the wearer. He noticed that the recesses for the left breasts were all different sizes. “They must have been something when they were originally alive,” he muttered.
Beppo jumped at the sound of the voice, and spun around, pulling his pistol as he dropped to his knee. Instinctively, he fired off one round, which hit the intruder square in the chest.
“Hold, Human! Your weapon will not harm me. Had I wanted to hurt you, already would you lie dead.”
Beppo said nothing as Sam and Frodo leaped from the car. The Shadow exposed only enough of his upper torso from the turret to properly aim his MP40. Only then did Beppo realize that there were not one, but a small crowd of intruders standing what was until seconds ago, behind him.
Beppo looked from Sam to the newcomers and back. There were definite similarities, but they were distinctly different. The newcomers’ cheekbones were higher, their eyes a little narrower. Their faces were wider, too. There was not a green stitch of clothing to be seen. There was nothing bright about their clothing at all. Almost all was earth-tone, though he spotted a flash of dark blue. He never knew there were so many varying shades of brown.
Sam approached the leader, and put out his hand. Without hesitation, he grabbed Sam’s arm by the elbow. They stared at each other, grasping arms. Though there had been no hostility, Beppo could see looks of understanding, compassion, and concern pass across each of the faces. Sam stepped back, and simply stated, “Cousins.”