I, JULIUS

(Dedicated to Richard, Series 7 Team 3, who went, saw, and almost conquered.)

'Theorising that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator, and vanished.

'He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear.

'And so Dr Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.'

***

'Out of place', 'out of time' and 'out of the blue' are expressions that seem overused to many people. But for Doctor Sam Beckett, taking quantum leaps between the bodies of men and women (and even chimpanzees) who have lived during his lifetime, heralded by a burst of ethereal blue energy, the expressions each had a powerful and fresh significance.

Sam had leaped again. Immediately he felt wind streaking past him, a dryness in his throat, and saw a blur of trees around him. He was running. But with the disorientation of the leap still riddling his mind, he couldn't maintain it. He slowed down; and as he did, a force came up behind him and tripped him. Swinging through the air, he tumbled off the path and through a crackling flurry of autumn leaves, which had no doubt had a more sedate fall from their branches than Sam. Whetted fingernails pressed into his arms, as he was rolled over onto his back. Still too surprised to let terror seize him, Sam tried to focus. The tall figure of his pursuer - his captor now - loomed over him. Her wide eyes were aimed at his; her crossbow was aimed at his chest. She caught her breath as deftly as she'd caught Sam, and opened her lips.

"Just what were you doing killing deer in my Greenwood? Answer me, Scaramonger!"

"Oh boy."

***

Sam's mind swam as the woman struck him with a tirade against hunting, desecrating and infanticide, in an emotional English accent. With her soft blonde curls and smooth skin, she seemed to Sam more of a dryad than a ranger. Where was he, anyway? There were dozens of 'Greenwood's in America. Sam had leaped into criminals before, and they could doubtless justify their misdemeanours to themselves. But any ill-informed excuse that Sam tried to splutter for killing a baby deer was guaranteed to infuriate, or upset, the woman even more. He recklessly plumped for, "I'm... I'm sorry."

"And why should I believe you? You're a nasty deceitful coward, Scaramonger, and grovelling only proves it. But it doesn't make the Greenwood a better place. I don't see why I should spare your life this time."

The ranger's crossbow was primed, Sam couldn't risk trying to overpower her to flee. Terror began to unfold in his stomach. It was still too early for Ziggy to track him down and send Al's hologram in. As Sam considered shutting his eyes, to break eye contact with the woman who was about to send a crossbow bolt on a one-way trip, he heard footfalls in the leaves; and a voice, which said, with no particular concern,

"Alright, Dad."

"A-ha! If you kill me now, you'll traumatise this boy, so I think you'd better take off!" cried Sam. In his head. What he spoke aloud was, "Hi there... son."

The effect on the forest warden was almost instant. Her face quivered slightly as she reined in her rage; she dug her nails into Sam's arms, whispered a terse threat about future meetings, and stalked off between the trees, pouting. Sam raised himself slowly from the detritus, like a man waiting for the last vestiges of a nightmare to flake away in his mind, and let his son see his relief. 'Scaramonger Junior', a lad of about ten, remained nonchalant. As Sam followed him back onto the path, an undetected eavesdropper smiled, rubbed his hands to emphasise his sinister satisfaction, and crept away.

Still bewildered about where his leap had stationed him, Sam glanced nervously at the boy, who had still shown no reaction to the scene he'd entered. As they walked, Sam took a cliche and a gamble all at once, and said, "You won't... mention this to your mother, will you, son?"

A pause. The boy looked up at his father, and uncaged the precocious impatience that so many parents dread. "Mum knows. She knows we found that deer in the Greenwood that someone else had killed - you told me and Josephus to take it home for tea! It was heavy, it was. She weren't pleased when we got it back - she said that once Gwendoline the Greenwarden 'ad finished with you, she'd throw the milk churn at you. But she calmed down. She and Sylvie aren't sold many flowers today, and so she's got to forgive you for putting food on our table, right?"

Sam realised that he'd gone wide-eyed, but nodded and listened on.

"You'd better let me go on ahead, dad, and warn her that her hard-working husband's on his way. See you in a bit. And dad?" Hands went to hips. "Please don't call me 'son' - it's like as if you don't know my name." Sam stood as the young man trotted off along the twisting path. By now, he had a new companion: a hologram, dressed in a polka-dot tie, tangerine shirt and white pinstripe suit, tutting into his ear.

"You know, Sam," Al began, "I blame the parents."

Humorous banter was one of Al's assets; being a holographic observer from the future with a supercomputer behind him was another. "OK, Al - where am I? I heard the name Greenwood."

"Yeah, that fits, Sam." Information beeped and squeaked its way out of Al's computer handlink. "This is an area of the Greenwood known as Wolfglade, by the town of Wolfenden." Al looked up. "And not Wolfenden, Kentucky."

"Yes, they're all English," Sam lamented.

"You included." Al had been musing on Sam's accent. You know who your voice reminds me of? That singer from Black Sabbath... Ozzy Osbourne." A smirk was filtering through, bringing with it, "Hey - I bet you've been on even more trips than he has!" Al narrowly won a fight not to laugh out loud.

Sam frowned. "I think I know where I am," he stated, with trepidation. "But how about you confirm it for me?"

Al obliged, spreading his arms wide. "Knightmare! With a K. It's still around, and this is 1991 - the fifth season." Al waited while Sam relived his first leap into the TV show - long corridors, high magic and carnivorous monsters, as they worked to rescue a jester's fiancee - Sam remembered. "As you can see, the Dungeon, while still as dangerous as ever, has gotten a back yard - there's villages and kingdoms galore out there." The sunlight was fading; the evergreens hissed as the wind smuggled darkness into the wood. "And before you worry about..." Al broke off as a wolf howled, then continued with less bravado. "Before you worry about being picked up by the local mage mafia as wizard interlopers again, Ziggy's readjusting your signal, and mine, so we seem less... magical on this leap."

Sam allowed himself to feel less anxious, for a moment. "And what about this leap? Are you gonna tell me where to find the red shoes, and when to click my heels three times, and..."

"Stay tuned on that one, Sam," answered Al awkwardly. He prodded at his handlink as if to pass the blame. "Ziggy's still working on finding out what you're here to do."

"The Greenwarden called me 'Scaramonger'."

"Right. I'll get back to you, Sam. Take care, and... nice shoes." Al vanished, and Sam remembered the need to reach a mirror so he could see his current self.

Trudging on, Sam reached a broad, whitewashed cottage. Not made of gingerbread Sam, thought to himself. It seemed appropriate for a trespasser-cum-thief-cum-suspected poacher to own property that was somewhat outside the main settlement. Taking a breath of cold dusk, Sam dropped his shoulders, mustered a suburbanite smile, and went indoors.

Before he could examine his home, he was seized, and dragged into a hug, where his cheek was doused with kisses. When he was released, he saw that his assailant was a beaming, buxom young woman with blonde hair, wearing an ochre dress under an apron. Finally, someone's pleased to see me! thought Sam, feeling more relaxed, and less afraid of a churn-dodging session. His wife had bright eyes, but her gaze darted around nervously, giving her a happy yet lost air - like a party-goer with no particular party to go to. She clasped one hand with the other.

"Welcome home, Daddy!" she exclaimed. Not 'Mrs. Scaramonger', in that case. The girl - Sylvie? - put her head by Sam's shoulder. "Mummy wasn't very happy, about the deer I mean. I learnt a few... new words." She blinked sheepishly. "Tread carefully, at least for this evening. Mind you, I think it's wonderful that you've done this. I expect the Greenwardens gave you a hard time - but you didn't kill the deer, did you?"

Sam told her that he'd merely found it with the boys, hoping it was true.

"And you immediately thought of us! I'm so lucky to be a Scaramonger!" Her enthusiasm boiled over into another hug. Sam returned her smile with silent bemusement. "What's more, you're just in time - the venison's ready! Do you want to call the little people, or shall I?"

"Why don't you do the honours... Sylvie?"

"Oh! Alright!" stammered Sylvie, excited. "Here goes..." She paused for a long breath, smiled at Sam, and then called out, "Japheth! Imelda! Julian! Iris and Isis! Josephus! Imogen! Jupiter! It's time for tea! ...Yes! I got them all, Daddy!"

***

A few minutes later, Sam was sitting at the head of a low oak table, amidst the squawking, cooing and flapping of a gaggle of 'little Scaramongers'. In spite of this, Sam was relieved for a couple of reasons. One reason was that none of the children could see Sam as Sam, which sometimes happened with leaps involving kids (under-fives have a pure, perceptive nature in this regard). Instead they saw him as their regular father. This meant that Al would be invisible to them too. Another reason was that there was somehow enough venison to go round. "Welcome to Wolf-it-down! Let's eat!" Sam announced, overplaying the genial paterfamilias.

Sam tried, without launching any patronising or suspicious interrogations, to glean as much information as he could about Mr. Scaramonger, his family, his life. His cause was helped by the fact that talking with mouths full was almost an art form among the diners. The children included brunettes; blondes; one redhead (Julian, whom Sam had met earlier); and identical twins (Iris and Isis, presumably). They ranged from six to thirteen in appearance; except for Sylvie, who looked several years older and somehow incongruous.

It emerged that Sam gad leaped into some kind of trader; he offered some convincing enough comments about market forces and small-scale resource management in support of this. He listened with fatherly interest as Japheth complained about how rude the Dungeoneers were that passed through Wolfenden ("Yabbering, in their big 'elmets - I can't get me breath with it!"); Imelda mentioned her upcoming birthday; Imogen recounted rumours of a new family in town; one of the twins tried to trump this with fanciful gossip about a man called 'the Lord of Fear'; both twins speculated on a recent assassin suicide; Imelda mentioned her birthday again; Julian sought permission to travel to Greenshades for a skittles tournament; and another of the boys interrupted with a wild tale ("A dragon dropping, huge it was, almost hit me. It was unreal!") Aware that he was in a place where fantasy and reality complemented each other most uniquely, Sam tried not to be cynical as he took in all the chatter.

His real impediment, though, was in trying to uncover information about Scaramonger's wife, a florist. Set at the opposite end of the table from him, she looked demure - that is to say, sulky - and tired. Upset about the deer, poor flower sales, taxation and no doubt other issues too, she wasn't speaking to her husband, but did pass him things down the table - pursed lips and withering gazes. The children were either too engrossed in their food and chat to notice; or, more plausibly, had learnt to ignore their mother's discontentment. She is no Melly, thought Sam, recalling his first Knightmare leap.

His eyes wandered; they were in a room that was low-beamed and spartan, brightened only by the candles and flowers clustered on the window sill. Sam glanced back at Mrs. Scaramonger; if the room ever had been full of trinkets and ornaments, he had a fair idea about what had happened to them. If she's ambidextrous, I don't stand a chance... Sam concluded. Although Al would arrive at some point with welcome guidance, Sam was already convincing himself about the purpose of his leap... then Imelda interrupted his mental note-making to stake a claim on a forthcoming deerskin coat - for her birthday.

***

"Sam! Sam!" came the hoarse whisper.

The voice was one which Sam knew better than his own; but he still felt flustered when it broke into the method-acting that he tried to adopt during many leaps. He turned over carefully in the bed, so as not to distract Mrs. Scaramonger from her porcine snoring, and looked out. Al was standing at the side of the moon-kissed bedroom, seemingly dressed for a customary night out(side the bounds of respectable fashion). But...

"...How long have you been standing there, Al?"

"Oh...only about three minutes."

A scowl from Sam. "So you saw it all."

Al, who even for a professional 'observer' was devoutly scopophilic, nodded gently. Sam had been obliged to 'apologise' to Mrs. Scaramonger to stop her screeching out an all-night diatribe at him, and Al had arrived in time. Levering himself out of the bed and adjusting his nightclothes, Sam hesitated to wonder whether, or how much, Al had enjoyed the scene.

"Right... I guess you're here with information about the sleep... the leap."

This was affirmed as Al's handlink beeped into life - Al's autocue for the newscast which, at least temporarily, would change Sam's life. "Your name," he announced, "is Julius Scaramonger. Over there is your wife, Ingrid. They moved to Wolfenden nine years ago, and Julius set himself up as a market trader and occasional travelling salesman. He's done pretty well for himself, in many ways; he's well-known, though not always well-liked."

Sam, pacing the room, had reached a chipped, dusty mirror, where he stared at the man Al was describing. Poacher, merchant, father; he looked less debonair without his red and gold daywear on; but something about the neat beard and the smooth dandyish hair made Sam suspicious. "Don't buy a used car from this man, Al," he warned, turning.

"Most passing Dungeoneers end up dealing with him whether they like it or not. But he wouldn't sell a used car to me - I never ride used models if I can help it," quipped the hologram. Deciding that the briefing was too interesting at this point for a smutty anecdote, he hastily continued. "So, you wanna know why you're here, Sam? It isn't to save Knightmare - we did that last time." Al was referring to the previous Knightmare leap, and indeed deserved much of the credit for its success.

Sam bedfellow had not been disturbed; he judged it safe to speak less softly. "It's to do with her, isn't it?"

"It is." Al drummed on the handlink with his forefinger to raise more findings. "The Scaramongers have a pretty rocky relationship - jagged rocky. If she'd been my first wife, maybe I wouldn't have had four more. Anyway, there's been problems, anxieties - Ziggy's not sure what. I expect Julius has done a heck of a lot of 'apologising' - after all, you got eight kids."

"Nine, Al." Sam interrupted. "I counted them. Several times."

"Well, one isn't yours." Al's handlink was reluctant to explore a tangent, and sustained a few whacks before it dredged up data. "Shortly after you moved here, you found a girl wandering in the forest - almost no memory. You got a name out of her - Sylvia - and she had some note on her that no-one could translate. You ended up taking her to live with you, but she knows she's... adopted. Sorry, that's all Ziggy has on her."

Sam paused to take this in. "Alright. Carry on."

"In three days, Ingrid leaves Julius - for good. Again, Ziggy can't say why. She takes the kids too. This leaves Julius a broken man; and when his business fails, that's it. A ferryman finds him, floating upside down in the Dunswater."

Sam sat on the bed, and waited for the image to fade. He looked back at Al, tacitly allowing him to undertake the summing-up. Last time, his task had been to break up an engagement, but this time...

"Ziggy says there's a 62% chance you're here to save the Scaramongers' marriage." The conversation ended shortly afterwards; and after listening to a restive owl serenade, Sam fell asleep.

***

Sam woke early - or rather, was woken; for in a pseudo-medieval household with eight youngsters, there is no such convenience as a snooze button. Like a brook, the little Scaramongers bore Sam across creaky floorboard and down narrow stair, babbling enthusiastically in splashes of slang. He was washed up at the table, where Sylvie gave him a breakfast that was both warm and warm-hearted.

With no specific guidance on how to mend the Scaramongers' marriage, and what the last straw of Damocles for the couple was going to be, Sam reasoned that it was best for him to 'go about his business' until more information arrived, rather than playing a sycophantic spouse and shortening Ingrid's temper still further. And so he found himself on the path to Wolfenden.

Wolfenden lay snugly in the green and pleasant land of England which Sam had heard plenty about, but always considered too bucolic to truly exist in a country that was historically notorious for being stressed-out and pugnacious. But as he realised that he was entering a place that was as much thatched roofs as it was Thatcherite rule, Sam felt gladdened. The air was chilly but by no means chilling, and although the sky was solid with cloud, to Sam it looked like Wolfenden was packed in cotton wool, its quaintness preserved indefinitely. The settlement was townlike in its clean, sturdy architecture, but villagelike in its verdant tranquillity and sparse population - was 'hamlet' the right term?

Having found what appeared to be the market square, Sam set up his stall. His stock included a jumble of coloured phials (some labelled as potions), an assortment of keys and talismans, scrolls with one word on each (which Sam took to be spells), candles, large gemstones, a scabbard or two, a magnifying glass, and other objects of questionable purposes and values. One customer's indispensable quest item could be another's ideal birthday present for his jaded godmother. As people ambled into the marketplace and drifted towards the stall, Sam adopted a genteel patter. As the morning went by, he became less tentative; and was soon selling and exchanging 'goods' to an eclectic stream of reticent people, with scant competition from the other stallholders. Selected Little Scaramongers dropped by, but tended to tell tales and show off rather than anything more constructive. Al paid a brief visit, but gave far more information on his most recent conquest - a failed supermodel called Allegra, to whom Al had promised 'big things' - than he did on the Scaramongers and the leap. There were frenetic moments where Sam felt that he could do with an assistant on the stall.

Sam was persuaded, by a self-proclaimed 'mate' of Julius', to take a lunchbreak at the Dirty Duck, a withdrawn, makeshift tavern where the ale was infinitely warmer than the service. Sam's companion was called Sylvester Hands. His appearance, diction and aroma were unnecessarily terrible. So generic was his all-round vagrancy that Hands would have looked at home - or rather, homeless - in any time period. (Indeed, his face was somehow familiar to Sam.) He tried to talk Sam into joining him in a pickpocketing racket, but failed; he tried to pickpocket Sam as they ate, but failed. Sam's one careful concession was to give him a rope and some silver, in exchange for a list of Daywords and Causeway instructions that could be sold on, making Hands less of a leering nuisance.

Between four and five o'clock, Sam had a sublime experience. Hearing a loud sound above, he tipped his head back and saw a creature in flight. It evoked a bat, but was much too long, and had a huge wingspan. It could be a pterosaur, but what form? Pteranodon? Quetzalcoatlus? And wh... then Sam realised. It was a dragon. Alive, genuine; as finely designed as any jet; flapping its wings a touch clumsily, but gliding, swift and smooth, without fuss or fear. Sam let a cache of so-called childlike wonder spring open inside him, as he watched the dragon navigate over the constructs of Wolfenden and out of sight. He could quantum leap forever before he leaped home, brushing half the minds on earth; but in a transcendent way, seeing the creature brought him closer to the sense that, while he was a unique piece in a cosmic jigsaw, somewhere there was a box brimming with countless more pieces, unseen yet essential, with Someone introducing them one by one as the jigsaw took shape.

Minutes later, Sam spied another remarkable creature; this one, quite bereft of majesty and shape, was shuffling straight toward his stall. And he recognised her...

"'Ello, dearie! Are you Judas Iscariomonger?"

"Julius Scaramonger, Madam: merchant and gentleman at your service. The... the right place for the right price. Now, can I interest you in..."

"Alright, dearie, no need to harp on. I ain't one of them gulpable dungeoneers. Mrs. Grimwold's the name."

Sam renewed his greeting. Mrs. Grimwold explained that she had just moved out to Wolfenden from the Dungeon. Affably, Sam asked why.

"My 'usband and me, we 'ad a pet, Festus. Lovely thing, wouldn't 'urt a fly. Stuck to animals what could squirm, see - 'e left flies alone." Sam hadn't forgotten Festus.

"But one day, dearie, Festus was... gone!" Mrs. Grimwold turned away and appeared to sob. She shuddered, emitting a kind of plaintive yet raucous crowing that turned heads and stomachs in the marketplace. Sam felt a smirk coming, but forced it down, instead furrowing his brow in time for Mrs. Grimwold to turn back to him, her nose ruddy and moist.

"We couldn't carry on in the Dungeon without our beloved Festus; so we left. And we're 'ere. It's what Festus would've wanted. 'Ouse is a bit bare, though."

"Oh, well, in that case," Sam faltered, "your Festus would've wanted you to examine Julius Scaramonger's wide range of... home furnishings. If you're needful, I'm heedful!"

With no more persuading than that, Mrs. Grimwold asked to buy half of Sam's stock. Astonished, Sam helped her fill a sack, though when she handed over a purse, it was heavier with moth carcasses than with gold coins. She gave a husky apology.

"I expect you wanna get 'ome now, dearie; so 'ows about I send me son over with the rest of the payment?"

"You have a son?!" screamed a voice in Sam's mind. Twice. Still, he warmly agreed to the suggestion, and began giving the crone directions - but thought better of it sold her a map. He was then treated to some information about the Grimwold progeny.

"Young Grimwold's 'is name. Been away for ages, 'e 'as. 'Ad to get away when that sweet girl Mellisandre broke 'is heart - just after 'e broke 'er arm. As I say, 'e's been away, travelling and that. Never wrote. But now 'e's back. Thinks far too much, 'e does; but you might just like 'im, dearie. So, I'll send Young Grimwold straight over. You can't miss 'im - 'e's an ogre, despite what 'e says." The cosmic jigsaw had another piece.

After finishing off with Mrs. Grimwold, who seemed impressed with the level of service, Sam took the path homeward. Perhaps he could charm Mrs. Scaramonger with an account of his day. Or perhaps the hologram who so often put the 'Al' in 'cavalry' would show up with some useful advice.

As he approached the house, Sam heard screaming. Quickening his pace, he arrived to find the family gathered at the front porch, with Al, who looked pale and flustered.

"Dad, it's Sylvie!" said yelled the boys.

"He's taken her!" cried some of the girls. They let go of their mother to point into the woods.

Sam tried not to buckle under the terrified tumult. "Who Who's taken her?"

Mrs. Scaramonger stepped forward, and glared at Sam. She answered him with piercing emotion: "YOUR BROTHER!!"

Sam was jarred - and roused. "All of you - stay here!" He hurtled into the shadowy forest, half a dozen excruciated faces cut into his mind.

With Al inciting him and directing him like a running coach, Sam bolted between and around tree trunks, past and over rocks and roots, on and off the forest path. In their confusion, one thought was surfacing - whatever was coming, was the pivot of the Scaramongers' marriage, of Sam's leap.

Sam burst into a wide clearing. Al's hologram teleported in seconds later. Sylvia was there, gagged, shackled to a burly oak. She broke into a muffled clamour, which presumably amounted to gladness that Sam had arrived but fear over him getting involved. There was someone else there; the menacing figure who'd eavesdropped on Sam before. Unfazed, he addressed Sam.

"Well, well. What have we here? A reunion! Come on now, surely you recognise me? It's only been nine years." The last words were spat out in italics.

Data was coursing into Al's handlink. His eyes rolled and flickered as he interpreted it, frantic. "This is Julius' brother, Michael."

Sam was buffeted by turmoil. There were traces in Michael's face and voice that reminded him of Julius. If Michael was the other side of the coin, then it was apparently the more scuffed and tarnished side. A fight - or worse - seemed inevitable; but not without some explanation. "Alright," he snapped. "I'm here to help Sylvie - you know that. If you got something to say, say it... Michael."

The other Scaramonger snorted. "You ain't never called me Michael. And I never called you Julius. We were the Scars - pals in crime, scourge o' the land! You were Scarlius, and I was Scarchael." Al pummelled the handlink, racing to raise revelations.

"You obviously need your memory refreshing, and there ain't no harm in a bedtime story for little Sylvie, is there? Picture the scene. Scarlius and Scarchael out in Dunkley Wood under cover of night. Another great plan hatched an' spreadin' its wings..."

"They were on a poaching trip," added Al.

"But we was a bit careless. We got caught, for once..."

"By Gretel the Greenwarden - trainee Greenwarden." Al's comment.

"She let fly an arrow, and poor old Scarchael caught it." He stroked his studded eye patch with one finger. "In case you wasn't sure, it hurt. Anyway, I look up, through all the blood an' that, and see you, brother, running off. For good like."

"Julius abandoned him, and moved away," reported Al. He was going to add, "and now you're about to pay for it, Sam," but knew that Sam was thinking this anyway.

Scarchael made eye contact with Sam again, and held up his palm. "No need to apologise though, Scarlius. I didn't die, despite what you told our mother. In fact, I got meself a job - I'm a Goblin Master." He was distracted by pride for a moment, then resumed. I'd love for you to meet the goblins, but they're off distrac... I mean, playing with the Greenwarden patrol." A gruff chortle. An unnerving pause. "So anyway, I've been livin' in the Greenwood, workin' 'ard, mindin' me own business - and some of 'is Fearship... Lordship's business. Calls me 'Skar-kill', 'e does - when one day, someone - steals - my - venison." He bared more teeth, and took a step toward Sam. "And when I found out who it was that took the food out my stomach, I couldn't quite believe it."

Skarkill left another sickening gap; and by the end of it, his strained sardonic grin had gone. "And so 'ere we are. You took my meat, Scarlius - so I've took yours. He paced over to Sylvie, whose vivid eyes were overcast with panic. "An eye... for an eye. Tit..." he prodded Sylvie's chest, "...for tat. Lovely."

"Your score's not with her, it's-"

"-With you, yes, yes," interrupted Skarkill. "I guessed you'd say that. So, 'ow's about we settle this? No talk. No weapons." He pulled a knife and a shortsword from his belt, and flung them out of the glade. "Just man to man. Scarlius... and Skarkill." He stalked over to Sam, and punched him.

Sam stumbled backward, but didn't fall. His jaw throbbed and his vision whirled. He steadied himself; if he could keep Sylvie from - he thrust a fist into Skarkill's stomach - harm, then, maybe he would survive long enough - he ducked as Skarkill's hand swept towards his head - to leap.

The fight ran on. Sylvie and Al spectated helplessly as Sam/Julius became a trader in blows. He was able to use Skarkill's blind side to his advantage more than once. Sam was also able to use Julius' surprising natural reflexes to avoid the brunt of many of his opponent's cuffs. But the vengeful sibling was alarmingly strong on his feet; and as the abundant leafy crispness of the arena became sullied with blood and bloodlust, Sam felt deep aches in Julius' muscles.

The pair hit the forest floor, and grappled on. Sam parried a few strikes, but couldn't deliver them back. Skarkill's stamina was outlasting his. With an increasingly malicious grin, Skarkill loomed over Sam and took sole control of the assault. Al and Sylvie yelled protests in vain. Sam was rammed closer and closer to defeat.

Then Skarkill stopped. Then came half an expletive, a roar, and a crunch. Someone else had entered the fight.

Skarkill choked as he was thumped, gasped as he was punched, amidst an onslaught of feral bellowing. He was grabbed, and thrown across the clearing. When he got up, he'd lost his mettle, and gained a limp. He chanced a look round, but another roar cautioned him against it. Wincing, Skarkill left the clearing.

With an aching struggle, Sam raised his head. He glimpsed Al, wide-eyed. He followed his gaze across to the form of a stocky young man, with a plain jerkin and a shaven head. A club lay at his feet. He dropped his shoulders and looked sheepishly at Sam, whose expression held many layers of shock. The man opened his mouth and spoke in a high, nervous voice.

"Was that fellow bothering you? I was just cutting through the woodland. My name's Young Grimwold, and I'm on my way to meet a chap called Julius Scaramonger. Do you know him? Oh... I'm babbling again."

***

By the time they'd freed Sylvie, and calmed her down, and dressed all wounds, Sam had offered Young Grimwold part-time work on the market stall. They shook hands - which unfortunately added more aches for Sam. He insisted that Young Grimwold take Sylvie ahead to the house in order to reassure the family. Sam kept out of earshot as he walked, so he could chat to Al. Al had congratulated his friend on surviving a violent and bizarre scene, and Ziggy was piping through data on the changed timeline.

"...stays around, but he never bothers the Scaramongers again. With the Grimwolds' help, Julius and Ingrid stay together."

Sam gave a deep sigh, despite the chest pains he knew it would cause. Success!

Al revealed more. "Julius' business does fail eventually, in just over a year's time. But the family get jobs in the court of a local rich guy named Count Brinkatore." Sam prepared to speak, but Al continued. "And as for Young Grimwold: he doesn't get to meet many Dungeoneers, as he gets a quest of his own - to find Festus. He has some big adventures."

Without wishing to seem impatient, Sam felt he'd earned the right to ask, "Al, why haven't I leaped?" He accepted the answer, "Ziggy doesn't know yet," and smiling, the adventurer and his advisor proceeded along the path.

***

The Scaramongers were unanimous in their desire for a celebratory meal, though Young Grimwold took some persuading. He had his own polished knife and fork, which he was forcing himself to use instead of his fingers; until the Little Scaramongers conspired to confiscate them, laughing. In addition, Mrs. Scaramonger appeared to be smiling - at Sam, who wondered whether it was merely indigestion. Al, watching the meal through his cigar smoke, thought aloud about who would be 'apologising' to whom that night, and how profusely.

Young Grimwold had been flicking shy glances at Sylvie throughout the meal, checking (among other things) her responses to his witticisms. After drinking an ogre's measure of Etruscan brandy, he asked her about herself, and she explained her foundling status without embarrassment. Ingrid mentioned the untranslatable note found with Sylvia; Young Grimwold became quite animated.

"I st-studied manuscripts in a monastery for a number of... quite a while. Perhaps I could take a look, that is, if you, if..."

The note was fetched; everyone - excluding the children who'd gone to bed, but including Al - huddled round as the scholarly ogre scrutinised the parchment.

"This is quite amazing: it's composed of a mixture of Latin vocabulary, Attic Greek syntax, and Elvish calligraphy - utterly remarkable." Then he paused, blushed, and looked at Sylvie. "Your name isn't Sylvia - it's Sidriss. And according to this verse here, your father is..."

Sam leaped.