Sunday, August 30, 2009

Chapter Forty-Two

A little town, a quiet village. Dawn rises, and the world is punctured with the blasts of gunfire.

The Town Champion wakes with a start, his hand automatically reaching for the musket on the floor. Still half in dream, he looks out the window and almost sees the mob-like phantoms from his nightmare before realizing they’re just shadows on the morning mist.

This isn’t the first morning to begin with gunshots - just yesterday there was another round of cleansing - but usually they’re fired on his command.

Which means something else must be going wrong in his poor, provincial town.

Crawling over the two sleeping wenches, the Champion prays his men are firing upon the dead - the real enemy - instead of on each other.

He pulls on his boots, grabs his musket, and marches toward the town wall. After a moment outdoors, the brisk morning air clears his sleepy head, and he remembers to fix his hair.

It had taken many hard choices, many difficult decisions, just to keep the women and children safe. And the men, those who were expected to fight and sacrifice and, yes, perhaps die for this safety, were proving to be cowards and traitors, all.

With a sniff, he walks upwind of the town blacksmith, still hanging from his rope. Let the ravens have him, the traitor. After all, he’d killed Pierre. Murdering a dog, could there be anything more cowardly? A foolish act of revenge, when all the dog had done was sniff out the sickness in the blacksmith’s son.

He’d made it clear there were only two choices - turn the sick out of the town to fend for themselves and eventually die, or be lined up against the wall and save everyone the trouble and ammunition.

The townsfolk hadn’t liked that, turning against their friends and family, but what would they know about sacrifice and duty, and what it might take to survive?

It’s a sickness, and when a dog is rabid, you don’t wait for him to bite you. You put him down and ease his suffering.

The people also didn’t like being compared to dogs.

And now gunfire. There better be a good reason for it. Bullets are hard to come by these days.

“What’s going on?” he asks the cobbler standing guard atop the wall. “More of the dead?”

The cobbler looks down at the Champion and salutes. He’s one of the few who still do.

“No, Monsieur,” he says. “It was... a lion.”

“A lion?! That’s impossible.” The Champion nimbly leaps up to the top of the wall. He scans the surrounding fields, but nothing is visible in the mist.

“I swear, Monsieur,” stammers the cobbler. He knows the Champion is very short-tempered these days. “It, uh, it ran away as soon as I fired.”

“It’s all right, Henri. I believe you.” The cobbler being one of the few men not plotting behind his back, he’s sure. “Which way did it go?”

“It ran off toward the western woods.”

The Champion checks his musket, then reaches for the powder horn hanging from Henri’s shoulder.

“But that’s not all, Monsieur,” continues the cobbler. “It was with someone. With a child.”

“A child?” If any other person had made such claims, the Champion would’ve laughed in his face and sent him to the asylum.

But Henri has the best eyesight in town - second only to the Champion himself - and is not one to tell tales. That’s why he is put on the vital nighttime shift - well, that, and it leaves his wife alone at night.

“Yes, Monsieur,” says Henri. “Though the child was definitely alive, not lurching like the dead.”

“And,” adds the Champion quickly, to show that he is more clever than the cobbler, “the dead wouldn’t be frightened off by gunfire. They’d be attracted to the noise.”

It hardly makes sense. Lions live in the deepest wilds of Africa - what would one be doing in France? And with a child, at that? It sounds of witchcraft or madness, but also of adventure and glory.

“I’m going after them,” the Champion impulsively decides. It’d be nice to have a lion pelt, after all. And the people could use some fresh meat - it might cheer them up after the latest round of cleansing. And perhaps they’d stop their mutinous mutterings if he rescued a child.

“But Monsieur,” says the cobbler, “the western woods lead to...”

“I know where they lead,” says the Champion curtly. And with a jump, he is over the safety of the wall and after his newfound glory.

Chapter Forty-Three will be published on Wednesday, September 9, 2009.