Bobby slammed the door behind him and slumped down into his favourite chair in the middle of the kitchen, rubbing his eyes hard and long until he could feel a wetness on the heel of his hand. This morning, the familiar smell of his kitchen; a faint cocktail of dust, coffee, burnt toast, and dirty, wet boots, did nothing to comfort him. The grey haze of dawn had just begun to creep across his yard and burning fatigue warred with crushing concern as he sat, staring through the grimy window at the murky world slowly revealing itself outside.
He knew that, as tired as he was, he wasn't going to get any sleep unless he'd at least made a start on trying to find an answer to whatever had happened back there in the museum.
He knew all about unexplained vanishings; they were fairly run-of-the-mill occurrences in the supernatural world. David Lang, the Tennessee farmer; Benjamin Bathurst, the British diplomat; they were among many unfortunates through the ages who came under the heading of mysterious vanishings. People who simply stepped into oblivion; sometimes in front of several astounded witnesses and sometimes unseen, but whatever the circumstances, their mysterious stories had endured through the centuries.
Everyone in the hunting community knew the reasons given for these disappearances by the authorities and the supposedly educated people of the world; wormholes through time and space, portals into parallel universes, mini-Bermuda triangles, alien abduction; were, of course, all complete crap; but hey, let them go on believing what they wanted; it made life easier for those who really knew the truth.
These disappearing guys were generally some kind of spirit, or shifter, or elemental. Or sometimes the poor sonsofbitches were victims of a curse or even some kind of spiritual or even faerie abduction.
Of course, all that was always assuming that any witnesses to the incident were sound; that is to say not stoned, drunk or traumatised.
Bobby pinched the bridge of his nose as he stifled a yawn; well, he wasn't going to discover squat sitting here moping around like a wet lettuce. He knew what he had seen, and he also knew he was neither stoned or drunk, although he would have admitted to feeling a little bit traumatised. He also knew that those boys, wherever they were, would be desperately needing his help, and the first thing he was going to have to do was find out every obscure little fact he could find about this Emperor Posthumus joker.
He rose out of his chair and, trudging across the kitchen toward the kettle sitting on the stove, he reached for the coffee jar.
Hello caffeine, my old friend.
"This place is freakin' me out," growled Dean, angrily swatting away a bee which had been buzzing around his ear for way too long, as the brothers headed on down the track.
Sam shrugged. "Me too if it's any consolation," he replied absently, still busily scanning the surroundings.
As they rounded a sweeping bend in the track, Sam suddenly stopped, flinging out an arm across Dean's chest, barring his way.
"Ooof!" Dean grunted; "hey warn a guy when you're gonna do …"
"SHHH!" Sam hissed sharply.
They stood in silence for several moments, listening intently to whatever it was that Sam thought he'd heard. Dean could hear the warm, fragrant air moving through the tree canopies. He heard birdsong, and the last remnants of that stinking pondwater dripping off his rapidly drying shirt (at least that stupid breeze and the sun were good for something); he cast a sideways glance at Sam, who stood, still as granite, eyes narrowed in rapt concentration.
Then he heard it too; something distant and painfully faint.
Barely more than a murmur carried on the breeze, a soft sound melting amidst the whisper of the rippling grass, and the rustling trees around them.
Sam glanced toward Dean; "d'y hear that?"
Dean nodded; "sure do," he turned to Sam with a nervous smile; "civilisation."
They stood and listened for a while, tuning into the sound. Whilst they couldn't hear clearly enough to make out what was being said, they could at least tell that all the voices were male and that there were several of them. The fact that they didn't seem to be getting any louder or quieter seemed to suggest that the group was stationery.
"Should we go and check them out?" Sam half asked, half suggested. Dean seemed to ponder for a moment before responding.
"Don't see that we've got much of a choice," he grunted; "let's just be … careful."
Sam nodded in understanding. Although he knew this discovery could mean help, shelter, food, even an answer to their predicament; he was well aware that it could also spell trouble with a capital T.
Bobby slumped back, wincing as his back creaked louder than his chair, and yawned.
The most exalted, noble Gaius Posthumus, Emperor of Rome, earthly warrior of the Great War God Mars, Entertainer of the Masses, and yup, a gold-plated dick.
Rubbing the back of his neck, he scanned the notes he had written, grimacing at how untidy they had become as his fatigue had taken hold.
The erstwhile Emperor, with his cruel and bloodthirsty love of the arena games, had devoted his life to staging 'the fight to end all fights'; the bout which would thrill him beyond any that had gone before. A fight that would be long and arduous; compelling and hypnotic, at once both beautiful and brutal.
Two desperate and highly trained men fighting for their lives in front of a mesmerised crowd with strength and honour beyond human endurance; this fight would be his inheritance, his gift to posterity.
Poets and storytellers would still be enraptured by it thousands of years after the event; just like the battle of Actium only a lot more cosy, and without all those boats getting in the way of some damn good bloodletting.
The gladiator that provided him with this gift would earn his freedom; alive or dead he would guarantee his place in eternity.
Bobby shook his head in weary disbelief.
The emperor's gladiatorial training ground, largely populated with Rome's great unwashed, boasted a turnover that was, by any other word, staggering. The life expectancy of the average unfortunate setting foot within its forbidding stone gates would be measured in weeks rather than years.
He had become aware that the arena body count was drawing attention; and the wrong kind of attention at that, and more out of a resigned irritation at the interference of vocal do-gooders than any kind of concern, he felt compelled to look elsewhere for his combatants. Suddenly the camp was filling up with a supply of unfamiliar and distinctly un-roman waifs and strays. Known only as 'ex longe' - 'those from afar', everyone assumed they were drawn from the far flung corners of the empire, and suddenly everyone was happy again. It seemed that enslaved foreigners slaughtering each other wasn't half as controversial as mass carnage among the dregs of Roman society.
Despite all his best efforts, It seemed that the bloodthirsty Emperor Posthumus was destined to remain disappointed in his quest to experience the fight to end all fights; up until his death, there was no evidence to suggest that he ever realised his dream; indeed, history told that judging by his final words, the last thing to go through his mind - apart from his tiger's jaws that is - was the thought; 'I will not be denied'.
Bobby scratched his head under his cap, drained his coffee and then let his head drop softly onto the paper coated table as sleep finally washed over him.
It was as they rounded the bend in the trail, the Winchesters saw it; a little way ahead of them.
It was a cart. Heavily constructed out of roughly hewn wood, it was covered with a thick green canopy.
As they silently approached it from behind, they could see two horses; one chestnut, the other dark, almost black; standing patiently in front of it, and a group of six men milling around it, in a casual, unhurried manner which suggested they had interrupted a long journey to rest.
"What the hell?" Sam exclaimed quietly to no-one in particular.
"What, is the freakin' renaissance fair in town or something?" Dean replied, not taking his eyes off of the distant figures.
Bare legged, they wore short shapeless tunics of grey and beige, pulled in at the waist by leather belts. Wool or cotton, the brothers weren't sure, but the fabric was clearly not made with fashion or comfort in mind. These were garments of practicality and nothing else.
Narrow leather thongs threading tightly around their ankles attached their open, flat sandals to feet stained grey by the dusty road.
Without even realising it, Dean had sidled cautiously to the side of the track, dragging Sam with him, hiding themselves in the mottled shadows of one of the trees. They stood and watched the men curiously.
There was a general air of relaxation about the gathering ahead of them; some of the men were sitting on the grass verge at the edge of the track, some stood leaning against the cart as they chatted aimiably, sometimes a burst of spontaneous laughter would split the air. All the signs suggested that these six men, whoever they were, knew each other well and were perfectly comfortable in each others' company.
Fruit was passed around between them and the men ate gratefully, wiping sticky fingers on their drab tunics. One of them rose and stretched. Wandering casually across the track, he stood and urinated against the wheel of the cart.
All the while the Winchesters watched silently, bathed in the dappled shadows which were gradually lengthening in the late afternoon sun.
"You ever do that against my baby, I'll kill you;" whispered Dean in a threatening tone, without taking his eyes off the mysterious gathering.
"Yeah, I'll bear that in mind," Sam snorted quietly in response; "um, kinda bigger fish to fry right now bro".
Dean's brow furrowed as he listened hard, concentrating on filtering through the soft white noise around them to try to hear what was being said.
"Don't know what language that is they're speaking, but it ain't English," he muttered across a sigh of frustration, "can't understand a freakin' word."
Sam's brow furrowed in complete incomprehension. "Dude," he whispered turning to Dean; "if I didn't know better, I'd say it was latin," he explained; "I picked out a couple of words that I thought I recognised, like peach, and horses, and ... fight; but it doesn't make sense," he sighed; "no-one speaks latin in everyday life now."
Dean looked up at Sam; "nothing makes sense," he hissed, scratching at the stiff, now-dried mud across his face; "this whole deal; me wakin' up in that river, you in that field, Bobby missin', no phones, and now we've got the redneck freakshow and their family transport up ahead. Not one single friggin' thing about this whole stupid mess-up makes sense."
He turned back to look up the track and froze.
"Sam," he muttered nervously; "where are they?"
Looking up from his brother's face, Sam could see the cart standing unattended with it's two horses peacefully grazing in the long grass around it.
The six men were nowhere to be seen.
"Sam …" Dean snorted; "this is so not …"
A snap of a twig behind them in the long grass.
One heavy blow each to the back of the Winchesters heads.
And all was darkness.
My lovely readers: can I take this opportuniity to apologise for the tardiness of this update. Real life is (a good kind of) madness at the moment, and will remain so until the end of August. Please bear with me - normal service will be resumed after the first weekend in September, I promise. In the meantime, I will do everything in my power to update at least once before then!