Alain of the Woods extinguished the blazing hut and nodded to the villagers. “You’ll be safe now.” Their thanks rang in his ears as he walked away into the mist. For years now, the man with muscles like an ox and the grin of a boy had been protecting the denizens of Withercombe from fire, flood, and marauding pirates. He’d even managed to hide the whole village from the army of King Edward, newly come to power and desperate for conscripts to help him hold his throne.
Somewhere along the line, Alain had developed a reputation for superhuman powers. In a less useful person, that might have led to accusations of witchcraft and a painful death, but his villagers were sensible folk. Faster than a speeding arrow, more powerful than a plow-ox, they said of him, and when trouble threatened, everyone knew the Man of Oak would be there to save them.
Alain smiled as he strode back over the moor toward his hut. He didn’t know what had given him his extra powers, but it wasn’t a bad life, in this Year of our Lord 1462.
A smug contentment is a dangerous thing. Alain stepped briskly along the path, stumbled as a brief spell of dizziness hit him, then righted himself and carried on. What had that been about? A superhero didn’t get dizzy. Perhaps something had happened back in the village. He turned and walked back toward Withercombe.
A few minutes later, Alain felt dizzy in earnest, looking down at the village. At least, it ought to have been the village. He recognized the pub, and one wing of the church. Everything else was strange, and there was so much more of it. And his path had become broad and smooth, a veritable road, harder and smoother than any he had seen.
A rushing roar and a howl broke out behind him, and Alain jumped aside just in time to avoid being run down by some kind of carriage moving at an unimaginable pace. It left a strange odor behind it, and Alain felt dizzy again. Man of Oak? That thing would splinter an oak and keep going!
Everywhere he looked, Alain saw machines more powerful than he was, and nowhere were there any arrows to intercept. At last he turned back to the moor, to seek his hut and attempt to sleep off whatever had overcome him.
His hut was gone. A troupe of sheep grazed where it should have been, and he found only a few stones that might once have been his walls. He turned and walked back into the mist.
Hours later, as Alain sat on a stone and wondered what had happened to him, a figure appeared out of the eternal mist. A man sat down next to him. Alain gaped at the outlandish figure, dressed all in skin-imitating red and blue fabric, and wearing a tiny cape at the back of his neck. Alain couldn’t help noticing that the cape was too small to be of any use for warmth or concealment. His own cape was thick wool, more of a cloak.
When the fellow began to speak, Alain got another shock. He was speaking English, but with an accent so strong that it was nearly impossible to follow.
“I prithee slow thy speech and be more clear.”
The stranger tried again, and this time Alain understood. “It has come to our attention in Superhero Hall that you are in trouble. And you are a Superhero? Passed through some sort of time gate, didn’t you?” Alain understood the words, but the meaning took some working-out. Eventually, he nodded. He’d begun to know it was something of the sort.
“What is the year?” The blue-red fellow had trouble making this out—he must be from foreign parts, to have such poor English.
“It’s 1993,” he answered at last. “Sorry, old chap, I should introduce myself. I’m Wonderman, and I’m the local Superhero in these parts.”
Alain shook his head. “Your speech is most wondrous strange, sirrah.”
“You sure do talk funny,” Wonderman responded. “Now, who are you?”
Alain thought about this. ‘Alain of the Woods’ seemed scarcely the right answer. “Man of Oak,” he said at last.
“Oakman?” Wonderman coughed, but Alain knew he’d been about to laugh.
He answered stiffly, “An oak is as sturdy a thing as may be.”
Wonderman politely changed the subject. “Let’s take you along to HQ. Can you fly?”
The absurdity of the question distracted Alain from the first part of the sentence. “Fly? None but demons can fly.”
“Most superheroes today can fly. It’s in the job description.”
An hour later, CatKid was checking Oakman in at Superhero HQ. She asked his name and birthday—he told her he was born in the tenth year of the reign of King Henry, the sixth of that name—and tapped a board attached to a box that glowed with a demonic light.
“Ah, I can pluck arrows from the air and lift a loaded haycart. I can haul the fishing boats beyond the tideline without the aid of a horse. Are you the maid?”
His question distracted her from his odd list of powers. “Maid? Goodness, no! I’m in training as a Superhero. CatLady took me on as apprentice last year.”
“But…” There was no question but that she was a girl. The skin-tight suit she wore left no doubt of that. He looked up at the sound of footsteps, and stared. CatLady, he thought, was no lady, but a temptress from the shades. He crossed himself and averted his eyes. He was shaking when CatKid showed him to his quarters, and still shaking an hour later when Wonderman came to find him.
“Settling in okay, Oakman?”
Alain looked at him bleakly. “Once, I was a Hero. Would that I could return, for here I am scarcely a man.”
Wonderman patted his shoulder. “Come out with me on patrol. You’ll soon get used to it. Stop a runaway car or two and you’ll feel more the thing.”
Alain considered this. A bit of questioning suggested that the thing that had terrified him above the village was a car. He knew he could not stop one of those. Nor could he keep safe a village of so many people as now seemed to crowd Whithercombe.
“Can’t you send me back?”
“No telling with a time gate. You can’t go looking for one.”
He would, though. Cat Ladies and runaway cars, and people flying about in the air? Alain would go, and guard the sheep, and pray to all the saints that he might be returned to his own time.
A vision of CatLady and the dinner he had been served flashed into his mind, and for just a moment he hesitated. Then he followed Wonderman out, and accepted the tiny red cape he was offered.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015