This looked a likely place. It smelled of ale and something unidentifiable but tantalisingly appetising, and it had an open, friendly door which Vila strolled through, trying to look his most harmless. Didn't matter what Avon said: pubs, inns, taverns, or whatever you called them, were the best places to find where–and when–you happened to be.
No one seemed to be rushing at him with swords so that was a promising start. "Um, hello?"
A little black and white terrier pounced at his feet and danced around him, yapping excitedly. [Hello, new person, you smell interesting, you smell different, I think you smell like a friend, yes, you do!]
Vila liked animals (with the exception of those trained to chase down thieves who had nothing whatsoever against them). "Well, hello there, little chap!" He bent over and patted the dog. "Pleased to meet you, too!"
The dog's tail achieved such a high frequency of oscillation, it blurred. [Now that's a nice, polite human!]
"Hey, Dogmatix likes you," an enormous red-haired giant said over what looked like a roast pig of matching proportions that he was eating as if it was sweet corn.
"Dogmatix?" Vila looked down at the dog. "And are you?"
"Yap-yap-yap, bark!" [Of course not. Dogs are very open-minded.] "Whiiine." [Well, except when their humans fall for girls.] "Yappity-yap, cough." [Unless the girl kisses me on the head, enough said, that turns me into a puppy.]
"Is he your dog?" Vila asked the giant, who nodded, his mouth being full of leg.
Dogmatix barked indignantly. [They're mine! I followed them all the way from Lutetia. Mine!]
"Come and join us," the giant's little fair-haired companion said. "Have some ale."
"Don't mind if I do!" Vila slid onto the bench opposite.
"I'm Asterix and this is Obelix."
"Your local menhir delivery man," Obelix said indistinctly. "Left one outside. Not in the market for any, are you?"
Ah, the great teardrop-shaped rock by the door. "Not right now, thanks." Best to keep on the right side of someone the size of three Gans who could carry that thing around. "That's a very nice one, though." Vila took a swig of ale. "Ahhh, that's good!" He eyed Obelix and his meal. "Are you going to eat all of that?"
"I was always told you should never eat anything bigger than your own head."
"That's stupid! What've heads got to do with it? It's 'never eat anything bigger than your stomach'–now that makes sense. Want some?" Obelix held out a leg.
Vila drew back.
"Good free-range wild boar," Asterix said. "Locally caught."
"Thanks, but I'm vegetarian."
"Oh, sorry," said Obelix, "thought you were a Gaul."
And you're not the first, Vila thought with feeling. "I don't eat meat, just vegetables and lentils and cheese, things like that."
Obelix's eyes widened in horror. "Gastronomix, the innkeeper here, always wants to add that stuff to decent wild boar, poor things."
"So," said Asterix, regarding Vila with interest, "what are you doing here?"
Noticing a certain touch of suspicion, Vila patted the bench beside him and Dogmatix jumped up, panting with joy. "Trying to find out where I am, actually. I'm a bit lost."
"I don't see," said Obelix, "how anyone can be a bit lost. Either you're lost or you're not."
Dogmatix barked excitedly. [And no one's lost with a dog around, trust me!]
"Well, I know where I am, but not wh–. You don't happen to know what year is it, do you?"
Asterix and Obelix stared at him uncomprehendingly.
"You mean you don't know how old you are?" Obelix asked. "Maybe he got hit on the head," he said to Asterix.
"Amongst other places," Vila said feelingly. "And to make matters worse, I've lost my bracelet. If I can't get it back, I'm stuck here."
Asterix put his chin on his hand. "You mean you can't go home without it?"
"What happened to it?"
Two hours previously
"That's Terra all right," said Avon, "but there are no emissions of any sort."
"Maybe they've shut all their comms down."
"Unlikely to say the least."
"Or we're somewhen else, like what happened last time we went through a spatial anomaly thing."
"'Thing', Vila, is redundant. And we knew when we were then from radio and television broadcasts."
Vila tensed, waiting for it.
"You'll have to teleport down and find out."
"You always boast how well you blend in. Oh and Vila. No pubs this time."
Vila rolled his eyes. "But they're the best place to find things out."
One hour previously
At last, some signs of civilisation, even if it was a forbidding great wooden fence. Vila didn't much like the looks of the two guards by the gate with their armour and swords, but he'd been walking about the countryside for almost an hour.
"Hello, I wonder if you could help me..."
"A Gaul!" The two guards shot inside and slammed the gate.
"That's not very friendly!"
"You know, Infirmofpurpus," one of the guards said behind the gate, "he's got short hair. And no moustache. Maybe he isn't a Gaul."
"Could be a Roman in disguise." The other one sounded uncertain. "Don't want to get into trouble, do we? Have another look, Pompus."
The gate opened a crack. "Are you a Roman? What's your name, then?"
"Vila. Look, I'm not actually from around here. In fact I just want to get back to where I belong."
"He's called House and he doesn't know where his is," Pompus told Infirmofpurpus.
"Vilanus! Vila's short for Vilanus!" Vila said rapidly. "And I just want to find out where I am." The Roman Empire covered a fair bit of ancient history; he'd have to narrow it down.
The gate opened to show both guards. "Sounds like a Roman name, all right. So why are you dressed like a Gaul?" Infirmofpurpus asked.
"Um, scouting out the land?"
"You’re not a very good Roman scout if you don't know this is Compendium." Pompus gave Infirmofpurpus a thoughtful look. "Centurion Armisurplus's been wanting us to capture an indomitable Gaul. This one might do."
"He doesn't look very indomitable."
"Oh, I'm not, I'm quite harmless, actually." Vila started backing away but Infirmofpurpus grabbed his arm.
"We could say he's one. He could be our ticket to Rome, Pompus!"
"We'd march in the triumph!"
"Caesar would be very impressed."
Vila had learned about Romans at school–an intriguing period of history and much more interesting than getting the names of boring Federation presidents in the right order. "It'd be a silly-looking triumph with only one prisoner," he pointed out. "I should think you'd be embarrassed. Not to mention Caesar, whichever one he is, what with two legionaries and one prisoner traipsing along behind his chariot."
Pompus scowled. "You insulting Caesar?"
"Who, me?" Vila tried to tug his arm free. "Nah, just wondered which one it was."
Outraged, Infirmofpurpus yelled, "The gall! Put the Gaul in irons!"
Heads popped out of tents.
"That's downright unfriendly, treating an innocent stranger like that. If anything you're the ones with a lot of gall!"
"Oh, we are," Pompus said smugly. "Almost all of it."
"Well, there's this one village that holds out." Pompus jabbed his thumb towards the forest behind Vila.
"I think I'll just be on my way, then," Vila said politely. "So nice to have met you." He kneed Infirmofpurpus in his leather dangly bits and broke free, only to be grabbed by Pompus, then buried underneath a pile of Romans. Just like a rugby scrum, he thought, wriggling out as legionaries thumped each other in the confusion. He scrambled out of range, pausing only to say, "All roads lead to Rome. Just pick one and take it!" before lighting out for the woods.
It was only when he stopped to catch his breath that he realised his bracelet was gone.
"I'm not surprised they were confused. You're dressed a bit like a Gaul but you have short hair like a Roman."
"And no moustache," Obelix said with faint outrage.
"For a start, what's your name, really?"
"You can't be called that!" Obelix objected. "It's a woman's name."
Vila thought fast. People seemed to be called for what they were here–isn't that how surnames started?–so what would be a good local name for his profession? "It's short for... Vilanixwithlockpix!"
"I'm not surprised. That's a mouthful." Obelix stuffed his own with boar.
"And why do you need the bracelet to go home?" Asterix asked.
They weren't going to understand the truth; he'd better keep it simple. "Because they'll be very annoyed I lost it."
"You mean they won't let you back without it?" Obelix said indignantly, tossing the stripped boar skeleton aside.
"Something like that."
"Then we'll have to find it." Asterix stood up. "Come back to our village with us. Our druid Getafix's about to brew up some fresh potion."
"Sounds good," said Vila, always up for anything brewed.
Dogmatix barked eagerly that he could track Vila's bracelet down, just from its scent, but as usual no one understood.
"I've never seen a ruby that size." Centurion Armisurplus stroked the teleport crystal acquisitively. "I might even be able to buy a commission away from here and those crazy Gauls."
"Thirdsies?" Infirmofpurpus looked hopeful.
Armisurplus ignored the two legionaries and turned the bracelet curiously. "Odd that such a beautiful stone is set in such a dull metal. Looks like bronze but it's too light."
"Vila!" the bracelet suddenly shouted.
Armisurplus yelped and threw the thing across his tent. "There's someone in it!"
"Vila, where the hell are you?"
Pompus picked the bracelet up and rattled it. "I don't see how anyone fits."
"Give it here." Armisurplus recovered his dignity and held his hand out. "What do you want?" he bellowed at the ruby.
"What? You want a house?"
"I'm not surprised," Infirmofpurpus said to Pompus. "Must be a bit cramped in there."
"You'd know if you'd seen him. Harmless and useless."
"Aren't they this year's consuls?" Pompus asked. "They sound like just the sort Caesar likes back in Rome so he can do what he wants."
Armisurplus's eyes bulged in outrage. "Legionary Pompus! You can't make jokes like that!"
"You there. Have you seen a man wearing a brown tunic and trousers?" the bracelet asked. "Or is that question too difficult to parse?"
"Oh, you mean Vilanus," Infirmofpurpus said helpfully. "He ran off to the Gaulish village."
"He told us Romans to go home," Pompus said, still offended.
"Oh, I hope he used the accusative of domus."
"And who are you?" Armisurplus demanded.
Armisurplus drew himself up. "Armisurplus, Centurion of Compendium."
"And we're Pompus and Infirmofpurpus," Pompus put in.
"Well now. Then I'd say I'm Ingenius," the bracelet drawled. "And may I ask which Caesar you were referring to?"
"There's only one!" Armisurplus said, glaring at the bracelet.
"Why do people keep asking that?" said Infirmofpurpus, scratching his head.
"Ah. Then it's Julius, I take it."
"No one calls him Julius!" Armisurplus said indignantly.
"Those Gauls do," Infirmofpurpus pointed out.
"YOU TWO, BACK TO GUARD DUTY AT THAT GATE!" Armisurplus sat back on his camp stool and wondered what to do about a talking bracelet. He decided to make a command decision and ignore the problem in the hopes that it might go away. He shoved it into his army chest and slammed the lid, and when he could still hear the voice, piled his spare boots and cloak on top of it.
As a guest, Vila was first in the queue for potion. He regarded the boiling cauldron contents with misgiving. "If it's magic, it doesn't have bats' wings and frogs' legs and things like that in it, does it?"
"Of course not." Getafix looked up under his bushy white eyebrows. "The main ingredient's mistletoe."
"Frogs' legs?" Obelix said thoughtfully. "Are they tasty?"
"I wouldn't know. More to the point, what's a missel?" Despite his revulsion, Vila leaned in for a closer look. "They must be huge if you just use the one toe."
Getafix laughed. "It's a plant. The potion is completely herbal, friend."
"I'm going to have to try frogs' legs," Obelix said to Asterix. "And Gastronomix'd like having a starter on his menu that isn't boar." He sidled in behind Vila, trying to make himself look small.
"Obelix, you know you're not allowed any potion." Getafix waved a stern finger.
"He fell in the cauldron as a baby," Asterix explained. "He doesn't need it."
"I don't get it," Vila said.
"Oh, you're getting it. I'm the one that's not allowed to." Obelix pushed his lower lip out and kicked the ground disconsolately.
Dogmatix barked and dropped a stick in front of Obelix, wagging his tail. [I don't get any either. Come on, throw this stick for me. That always cheers you up.]
"I mean, why don't you just dunk all the babies and make everyone permanently strong?"
"There are some unwanted side-effects," Getafix said.
Asterix checked to make sure Obelix, now joyfully throwing a stick for Dogmatix, was out of hearing range. "Strength isn't all a warrior needs. There's intelligence and cunning as well."
"It's ready." Getafix held out the ladle.
The word 'warrior' was still worrying Vila, but he took a sip. It tasted like a rather bitter vegetable broth, but suddenly he felt infused with energy and strength. "That's got one hell of a kick!"
Asterix grinned, wiping his moustache after his own sip. "Go on, try it out. Pick up that menhir over there."
"Are you kidding? Look, even if I'm really strong now, I can't pick up anything that much heavier than me."
"Why not? Ants do." Asterix ran to it and tossed the menhir up in the air and caught it, setting it spinning on one finger.
"I don't believe it!"
"Here, catch!" Asterix threw the great stone at Vila, who leaped back in horror, putting his hands up in an attempt to protect himself–and caught it. "Huh!"
"Told you! Throw it back."
"Oooh, menhir-toss!" Obelix rushed over, his face alight. "I'll be boar in the middle!" Dogmatix barked ecstatically. "No, it won't fit in your mouth," Obelix told him patiently. "I've told you that before."
[You don't think I know that? I can still chase it though!] Dogmatic ran back and forth, barking madly at the menhir's shadow.
"Right," Asterix caught it one last time and set it down. "Everyone's had their potion. Let's be off."
Vila suddenly thought about what his newfound strength could do to another person, and quailed. "We're not going to massacre them, are we? Because if so, I'm not really up for that."
"Course not!" said Obelix, wrinkling his nose. "We don't eat them, you know."
"Besides, we'd run out of them and they're so entertaining," Asterix pointed out.
"How will we get my bracelet back?"
"Hit them till they tell us where it is," Obelix suggested.
Asterix shook his head. "They won't be able to after that."
Dogmatix leaped up and down, barking urgently. [I can find it! I can find it! I can find it!]
"I know!" Obelix patted the little dog on his head. "Dogmatix can find it. He's a very clever dog."
"Woof!" [At last!]
"Let's go!" Asterix yelled, and the entire village–and Vila–rushed joyfully out the gates.
Avon sat thinking. Julius Caesar had conquered Gaul and had not yet marched on Rome and declared himself emperor. That was accurate enough to calculate the energy needed in a slingshot past the sun to get back; he no longer needed any information from Vila.
He could leave right now.
Unfortunately he found to his annoyance that he was reluctant to. And besides, Blake would want to know what had happened to his pet thief. On the other hand, if he lingered here, Blake would eventually appear on the flight deck and the thought of him trying to lead a revolution against the Roman oppressors and changing history beyond recognition gave Avon the chills, though he smiled faintly at the thought of Blake having a Latin name. Rebellius Singlemindednus would suit him rather well.
He jumped up and paced to and fro. "Damn it, Vila!"
"G-g-g-g-gauls!" shouted Infirmofpurpus. Pompus took one horrified look and they immediately retreated and shut the gates.
"Hey, I only want my bracelet back!" shouted Vila. He pounded on the gate and blinked in surprise as it fell in. "Oh, hello, you two. Look, you haven't got it, have you?"
The two legionaries silently shook their heads as they slowly backed away.
"Well, do you know who does?" Asterix grabbed Pompus and held him up, shaking him like a cocktail.
"I don't think he does." Asterix threw Pompus aside.
"-a-a-a-r-misurplus," Pompus's voice diminished as he flew towards the far side of the camp.
"Hey, wait. I think I remember that name." Vila lifted Infirmofpurpus and held him over his head. "Who was that guy who wanted to capture some Gauls?"
"Centurion Armisurplus," Infirmofpurpus said rapidly. "Can you put me down now, please?"
"Where would you like?" Vila swung him in a circle by an arm and a leg, and let him go.
"I can see my tent from heeeeere!" Infirmofpurpus shouted as he disappeared over the camp.
"Right." Asterix put his hands on his hips. "The four of us to the centurion's tent–"
Dogmatix barked with delight that he was included.
"–and the rest of you, make a diversion."
The villagers whooped and scattered like children at a lolly scramble. "One who bags the most helmets wins!" one of them yelled.
Obelix looked wistful as he reluctantly followed the other three.
Armisurplus had decided on a plan of action. His first thought was to extract the ruby from the bracelet, then bury it, but it had occurred to him that the voice in it might belong to a genie–after all, he'd called himself Ingenius. Armisurplus had heard they granted three wishes, but he'd have to think up some armour-clad ones first. He didn't want to take Caesar's place (far too much responsibility) or retirement (farming the land old soldiers were given had never appealed). Wealth went without saying, but how much and where? Perhaps a nice soft governorship somewhere nice and civilised?
He rubbed the bracelet in hope, and it spoke. "Vila? Is that you?"
"It's me," Armisurplus said, "but not your Vilanus. Does he own you?"
"Certainly not!" The genie sounded outraged.
Look, if I can get you out of there, will you give me three wishes?"
"If you do not produce Vila within the next few minutes, I shall come down there and fulfil three wishes, all right. My own."
"But genies have to–" Armisurplus stopped, going white at the cry of "G-g-g-g-gauls!" from the gate and the ensuing chaos. "I... I think he might be on his way." Hurriedly he opened his chest, shoved the bracelet to the bottom, slammed the lid down, then sat on it.
"Hello," said Vila. "Are you Armisurplus by any chance?"
"Centurion Armisurplus to you."
"Not in your army, am I? Where's my bracelet?"
"Oh, come on! It's not worth anything to you."
Armisurplus folded his arms and looked obstinate.
"Hit him," Obelix suggested.
"Um." Vila made a fist. "Look, I don't want to do this and I'm sure you don't want me to. Going to tell me?"
Armisurplus pursed his lips and shook his head.
"Just a tap," Asterix advised, and Vila delivered a tentative punch to the jaw.
Armisurplus flew back, deforming the canvas of his tent into a large bulge which snapped back with a sproingggg, catapulting him out the open flap and down the main street of the camp. Vila stared after him, wide-eyed. "That was... a bit unexpected," he said in awe. He shook his head as if to clear it. "OK, now what do we do?"
Dogmatix barked wildly and ran to the army chest, scrabbling at the lid.
"Good boy!" said Asterix. "Find!"
The little dog disappeared into the chest, sending sandals, spare tunics, letters from Rome, and knee-length red underwear flying, and emerged triumphant, Vila's teleport bracelet in his teeth.
"Oh, thank you!" Vila accepted it and patted Dogmatix on the head. "You're a very clever dog."
"Bark-bark-pant-tailwag!" [I know, but I do appreciate the acknowledgment!]
Vila slid the bracelet on and raised it to his mouth. "Avon? Are you there?"
"You took your time."
"Hang on, just have to say goodbye." Vila picked Dogmatix up and submitted to an enthusiastic face licking. "Thanks Dogmatix, and Asterix and Obelix. I'll be off back to where I live now, but don't be surprised when I disappear as soon as I say the magic word."
"Why would we be?" Obelix said, shrugging. "We've never seen one of those things work before."
"Goodbye, and thanks again." Vila handed Dogmatix to Obelix and said, "Teleport."
"I liked him," Obelix said regretfully.
"Me too. Never mind," said Asterix, "now he's gone, let's see how many Roman helmets we can collect."
Obelix brightened immediately.
"I know when we are," Vila said as soon as he materialised.
"So do I."
"Oh. So it was a waste of time me running about all over Gaul hitting Romans?"
"Not entirely. Losing your bracelet was actually rather helpful. One of those Romans was informative enough for me to calculate how to get back." Avon paused and raised an eyebrow. "You hit Romans?"
"Well, just one, but he shot off like a rocket; the other one I threw right over the camp."
Avon narrowed his eyes. "How much did you drink down there, Vila?"
"Just one ale and a sip of magic potion to make me strong. Look!" Vila lifted the flight-deck couch and tossed it from hand to hand.
After the recent disturbing and illogical encounter with that disc-shaped world, Avon was now capable of believing one impossible thing every, well, so often. He sighed. "Put that down before you break it. And before whatever it is wears off, perhaps you can make yourself useful cleaning under all the furniture."
Vila looked hopeful. "Want to make me, Supercilius Presumptuus?"
"I could have left without you, you know, Ludicrus Ridiculus."
Vila grinned. Annoying as old Avon was, he quite liked being back home.