The old man sat in the high-backed chair, the one that faced the fire. By tradition there should have been two chairs, with a smaller side-table between them, but the old man eschewed tradition. It would not have mattered as he never had guests in that chamber.
The fire crackled and he swirled the dregs of wine in the bottom of his glass. Not for the first time that night he wondered why he was still alive. Why had he lived so long when so many others, so many of his betters, had perished. Those were the memories of ages past, time that had become a distant misty recollection that could only return to him while under the influence of several drinks and the ennui of the day.
“Maybe that’s the curse of it,” he muttered to himself. “To live and see your peers buried. To carry on, each year adding more to the burden, until at last you can no longer bear it.”
A distant explosion sounded from beyond the chamber’s door, muffled by stone and wood until it was only the barest of rumbles. It was closer than the one that had preceded it.
“Won’t be long now,” he said. He straightened his back and balanced the glass on one of the chair’s wide armrests. He then rested a hand on the revolver that lay across his lap, fingering the trigger guard and admiring the way the bluish metal gleamed in the firelight.
“Who will taste of you tonight, I wonder?” he asked. “Would I have the courage to turn you on myself once overwhelmed? For what does honor matter when you’re dead? Is it not better to deprive the enemy of the glory of your death? It’s not like you have to live with the shame.”
Another boom resounded through his halls and battered at the chamber doors, rattling them on their hinges. He heard no sounds of gunfire, no screams of pain or shouts of battle, and nodded.
“They’ll all have fled,” he said. “I bought them for their cleverness, each of them to a man smart enough to know when the odds were against him, and not to die for some decrepit taskmaster.”
He sighed and stood on creaking limbs, the revolver slipping into his palm with ease. He heard the hammer cock back before realizing he had made the motion, so ingrained was the practice. He brushed the lapels of his smoking jacket with his free hand and turned to face the doors. He hefted the weapon, checking its weight, and then swung his arm up. The deadly metal instrument pointed straight and sure at the thin wooden barrier that separated him from the invaders.
“Would they try to take me alive?” he asked. “Am to be put on trial for my crimes?”
Then came the sound of boots pounding on stone, and he tried to imagine how many of them that there were. They would have sent no less than a division to take the keep. The great stone edifice he had erected there over the mountain pass was a far greater prize than what remained of his life.
“At least a squad,” he said. There would be enough lead in his revolver.
The rumbling rush of footfalls stopped short of the door, and the old man could hear whispered orders passing back and forth as their breaching team stacked up on either side of the entrance. His hand did not waver, his aged muscles bothered not a whit by the strain of keeping the revolver leveled. His trigger finger itched, and tiny drop of sweat rolled off of the end of his nose.
The door exploded inward with tremendous force, blowing back wisps of the old man’s dirty grey hair and sending splintered shards of wood wickering through the room.
The glass wobbled on the armrest, lolled to one side, and nearly righted itself before toppling. It bounced off the floor, the sound ringing through the shouts of men and the thunder of gunfire.
With half of a grim frown decorating his purple lips the old man fired the revolver, cocked back the hammer, and fired again.
There would be enough lead.
10 YEARS BEFORE
Baron Samhain stood astride his great horse as it ran at full gallop down the lush green hillock. The wind of the movement whipped at him, threatening to tear the hunting cap from his brow. He laughed and realized that for the first time in recent memory he felt free and at ease. He felt young.
Looking back over his shoulder he saw his retainers crest the top of the rise. Timuel led the other two as they followed their master at a respectable distance, their own lesser horses struggling to match the pace of the great beast between Samhain’s legs. He gave them a wave and a whoop before turning back to his quarry.
The frightened animal streaked madly before the baron, zigzagging its way towards the forest’s edge. Even through the blur of their dangerous speed Samhain could make out the distinct patterns and whorls of color that made up his prey’s coat: reds mixed so evenly with greens that he felt it was proof that their Creator was an artist.
He sat back, noting with confidence that the gap between them was narrowing faster than the distance to the woods. Clutching his horse’s flanks between his legs with vice-like strength he untied the long rifle strapped behind the cantle of his saddle. He unfolded it with practiced precision and chambered the single bullet he had been allowed for this hunt.
By law, all sanctioned royal hunters were permitted only one shot at their prey. Baron Samhain had not missed in over seven years. He put his right forearm out parallel to his chest and steadied the rifle over it. Closing one eye he peered down the top of the barrel, no scope or iron sights guided his aim.
The terrified animal zigged left. It zagged right. It moved to zig again, and the baron gently squeezed the trigger. A plume of smoke erupted from the end of the rifle, and he thought for just a moment that he could hear a tiny, sad squeal over the thunder of hooves, and then the bright red and green creature that he had hounded over the hills of Sen Salos disappeared beneath him.
He tossed the rifle to the side and retrieved his horse’s reins, pulling hard to slow the beast and bring it around. Behind them Timuel and his men were already upon the scene of the kill.
“Five for five!” the baron shouted, waving at the approaching retainers.
“Indeed, milord!” Timuel called back and leapt down from his saddle before his horse had even come to a stop. The other men remained in their saddles, awaiting instruction.
“She very nearly got away from us, did you see?” Samhain said, pointing out the tree line. The tall dark of the King’s Forest stood a bowshot’s distance from where they were.
Timuel grunted and reached down into the mass of bloodied fur at his feet. “Good Christ,” he shouted, throwing an arm across his face and stumbling back from the corpse. His men had their guns out in a flash, and the baron winced at the sound of their hammers cocking.
“What is it, man?” Samhain asked. He could not see anything out of the ordinary from where he sat.
“Stay in your saddle, milord. Jeremey, come down here and help me with this. Stevens, cover us.” Timuel approached the body with his arm still held across his face, his black eyes intent on something that Samhain could only imagine. As Jeremey stepped closer the baron watched his expression change from stoic impassiveness to one of raw horror.
Samhain kicked his horse into a canter and began wheeling around the scene as the two men on the ground reached forward and started pulling something forth from the pile of bloodied fur. As the baron reached the point where his retainer’s horses were gathered, he could see at last what the cause of the confusion was.
Timuel and Jeremey made one last grunting effort that was followed by a wet sucking sound and the two men stepped back. There, in the flattened grass where the animal had skidded to a halt and thrashed out the last of its life, was a naked young girl. Her hair was plastered to her face and back by blood, and the pale white of her skin shone as though lit from within.
“T’is a bad omen, this,” Stevens spat and crossed himself.
“Is she...?” Samhain asked.
“She is, milord,” Timuel said, wiping his bloodied hands on a clump of grass. “She lives.”
The baron could see the girl’s back rising and falling with shallow breaths. He shook his head in disbelief. “We must bring her at once to the sages. They will know what to do.”
“We should kill this abomination and bury it in the woods,” Stevens said. Timuel shot him a pointed look.
“We will do as the baron commands, Stevens, and I’ll hear not another word from your mouth lest you wish never to speak again.”
Stevens pulled on his horse’s reins, backing away from the scene. “I’ll have naught to do with this.”
“You’ll forsake your pay, then,” Timuel said.
“Gladly,” Stevens said, turning his horse and kicking into a trot.
“Milord?” Timuel asked.
Samhain had to fight to tear his eyes from the girl. He focused on Timuel and noticed that Stevens was leaving.
“It’s fine. Let him go. I don’t blame him. Wrap the girl in a blanket and put her on my horse. I’ll bear the responsibility. Bring what’s left of the animal’s carcass as well, I’ll not lose proof of my kill.” The shallow absurdity of the words was not lost on any of the men there, but it was protocol and the reason they were there to begin with.
For a moment Samhain wished he had the luxury of fleeing like the man Stevens had. While he was not a superstitious man, the baron had been raised on the same tales as all the other children of the kingdom and lived with the same childish fears.
2014.10.27 – 2023.06.18