A MATTER OF GOATS



A MATTER OF GOATS, by Ben Fenwick:

 

An eerie call fell down the wind from the dark mountainsides. It was a high-pitched tone that fell slowly into a humanlike, ululating sob.

Anton Le Bouveret felt the hairs on his forearms and the back of his neck prickle. The dark, rugged, Balkan shadowland surrounded them and their small wagon, chilling him with its desolation. The cry struck his heart with disquiet. He slipped his flask of vile Serbian brandy back into the wide sash on his waist, a sash that held both his pistol and the insanely expensive rapier he’d bought in Rome. Feeling emboldened at the touch of them, he braved a small blasphemy.

“Their gods, I suppose. Whining in fear at our mission on behalf of His Majesty.”

“Quiet, you fool,” hissed Heathwight from underneath the hood of the heavy, dark cloak he wore. “Quiet until we reach the village.”

The cry again sounded, the high, almost tone-like whistle that decayed once more into sluggish sobbing. Le Bouveret had never heard anything like it. The sound was behind them now.

“What do you suppose it is?” Le Bouveret asked.

“How should I know? I expect you’ve flushed it out of its bed with your constant yammering.” Heathwight shook the reins, slapping them to the ponies. The spooked pair hardly needed prodding. The stout creatures immediately went into a full gallop, despite the day’s trek through the passes. Heathwight’s hood flew back, exposing his bald head.

With his right hand Le Bouveret grasped the seat in the sudden surge of the wagon, almost falling out. With his left he pulled the black felt slouch hat down tight on his black curls. After steadying himself he reached down and loosened the rapier in its gilt scabbard. He glanced back to check the load, which included their supplies and the large brass telescope with which they were to view the eclipse. He could see the cylinder, wrapped tightly in cotton batting, bouncing in its crate as they bumped over the ancient rocky road.

Then he caught a glimpse—something blue and shining far away in the darkness behind them, bobbing up and down. Was it the eyes of the thing? Was it giving them chase? He felt a thrill—something to see, to shoot—rather than skulking through the countryside in fear of the unseen. Le Bouveret drew his pistol, training it on the bobbing blue light. There were two eyes.

“I say, slow it down a moment will you? I’m trying to get a good shot here.”

“Like Hell I will!”

“Now who swears?” Le Bouveret said. He peered along the long barrel of the match pistol, gleaming faintly in the starlight, trying to train it on the lights behind. The two blue discs were now quite apparent, but the shape that bore them was lost in the inky darkness. All Le Bouveret could see was a bulky black mass—almost like a tree. Probably was a tree, come to think of it, standing in some bend back in the road in a line of sight beyond the…wolf…that pursued them now. Yes, had to be a wolf. The barrel of the pistol bobbed and weaved as the wagon jolted over the rock-strewn path, jarring his aim so greatly that any shot would have been futile. Le Bouveret placed the pistol back into his sash uncocked, then grasped the seat again as the wagon lurched over a large bump.

Le Bouveret was about to curse again as the wagon passed one of the pierced haystacks that were so prevalent in the area. The large wooden spike rose from the center of the haystack like dark witchery, its top three feet over Le Bouveret’s head and sharpened to a point. Tied to it on a long lead was a goat, which keened longingly at the wagon as it hurtled past. The goat seemed uninterested in the pile of new cut hay.

“Well, that’s a dead goat when that wolf gets it,” observed Le Bouveret.
“Wolf!” Heathwight said with disgust. “No wolf sounds like that.”

Ahead, the village sat darkly—the only light was in a tall, thin bell tower next to a domed church. A high stone wall apparently built around the town was pierced by a high wooden gate, its two doors closed on the road, shutting them off from the town.

“Damn,” Heathwight cursed again. He gripped the reins in large, white-knuckled hands. His eyes were large, set in a roundish face, his cold-reddened cheeks making him appear like a fearful cherub. “Ho! Hello in the village!”

No answer. Heathwight yelled once more, this time in Serbian. Then, in German. No sign that anyone in the village heard him.

He turned to Le Bouveret. “Where is that dammed horn? We need to signal them.”

Le Bouveret turned and began sorting through the jumble of luggage, looking for the tin horn used for just such an occasion. He looked back up the road and saw the eyes were much closer now.  He abandoned his search for the horn and redrew the pistol, waiting for the moment when Heathwight would have to stop the carriage.

The moment came immediately. The horses stopped just short of the closed gate, nervously stomping and snorting. Heathwight yelled several times at the gate with no result.

Le Bouveret once again stared down the filigreed barrel of the match pistol, drawing another bead upon the eyes.

It was as if they sensed him, their unearthly blue light seeming to regard him with…interest. They were not like those of an animal, but something that understood him, unafraid. He felt a chill when he realized they also looked at him as prey.
Then they disappeared. The strange cry sounded again, joined this time by the crying bleat of the goat. Suddenly the sound cut off with a snap, then there was a wet sound as of something being sucked. So now the wolf had brought down the goat and was feeding upon it. Very well, then, they likely had plenty of time. Still, he kept his match pistol trained in the direction where he’d last seen the eyes.

Heathwight bolted from the seat of the wagon, cloak flapping like a wing from his back. Le Bouveret glanced to see him grasping for a cord hanging from a loophole in the gate. Le Bouveret grabbed the reins of the nervous ponies with his left hand, trying to steady them even as he turned and maintained a nominal aim behind them.

Then Le Bouveret saw them again—two sets of eyes now. Red ones in front and the blue ones farther behind. He was surprised to hear the keening of the goat again.

So, he thought. Had the goat, somehow gotten away, down the road? Was the…wolf?…now bearing down again? This time I’ve got you, he thought to himself as he drew a bead on the latter set of eyes. He squeezed the trigger.

Behind him the gate bell clanged loudly at Heathwight’s insistent tugging on the cord. Le Bouveret started as the hammer fell. The report of the pistol was met with a cry from the goat, and both sets of eyes disappeared.
“Dammit, man.” Le Bouveret shouted. “Must you spoil my only shot? Now I’ve hit the goat instead.” He threw the now-spent pistol in the back of the coach and drew his rapier. It gleamed slightly in the dark.

Heathwight only glanced back at the sound of the pistol, then pulled repeatedly more on the cord, clanging the bell loudly with each pull.

Finally, there was the sound of a bolt being thrown. The gate creaked slightly open. As Le Bouveret turned, he saw an ornate musket-barrel poke out from the parted slats into Heathwight’s face.

Heathwight swore softly. He put his hands up and said something in Serbian. Unfamiliar with the language, Le Bouveret imagined it meant “friend”. It could mean anything, of course. Heathwight repeated it. Then he said it French, German, Italian, and Greek. Le Bouveret recognized it was indeed the word “friend.”

The door pushed farther open. The man with the musket, an ornate Turkish one, likely more than a hundred years old, walked out from the gate, followed by a large bearded man with a felt hood, bearing a wood-axe. Then another, smaller man bearing a scythe.

The Turkish man looked behind Heathwight, as if he thought someone was standing behind him, then glanced up at Le Bouveret, pointing the bell-shaped muzzle of the gun at him.

Le Bouveret managed a smile, bowed slightly, tipped his felt hat and said “Friend” in Greek.

The man with the musket was about five years younger than Le Bouveret, which would make him about 25 years old. He had a dark cream complexion, yet with aquiline features that made him look less like a Turk and more like a dark-skinned Greek. He frowned.

“Ignoramuses,” the man with the musket snapped to them in Greek. “You chowder-heads are out too late. Get yourselves and your carriage inside and pay the tax so I won’t shoot you.” He turned and said something Serbian to the man behind him. The doors were pushed open to reveal the cobblestone street of the village. Standing in it were at least a dozen townsmen, all carrying some kind of weapon, whether an axe, thresher or scythe. All looked like they were ready to flay Le Bouveret and Heathwight. The Turkish man took his musket from his shoulder and waved them in. Le Bouveret took up the reins and slapped them on the ponies. The ponies charged in despite the crowd, clearly eager to be in the confines of the gates.

As they stopped just inside, the townsmen on the gate slammed it shut, deftly replacing the wooden beam across the bolt-rack.

The dark-skinned man, musket at his side, held out his hand. “The tax, please sir. Ten marks,” he said in Greek.

Le Bouveret climbed from the cart and strode to the gate. He stopped when he felt the eyes upon him, standing with legs apart, sword drawn. He stood down peacefully and slid the attention-getting rapier into its gilt scabbard. He slipped his hands into his sash and fished out his red leather purse, its gilt scrolling gleaming in the yellow lamplight. He handed it absentmindedly to the Turk.

“Please take from it our fees for lodging and livery as well,” Le Bouveret said politely. “And what is your name?”

The Turk held the purse for a moment, as if weighing it, but then returned it to Le Bouveret unopened.

“I am Mahmud. And I am the constable. I am no stable boy,” he said. “But you can pay me on the morrow for your tax.” He turned and whistled to a youth, who stepped out of the dozen or so men and took the reins of their team. Le Bouveret looked at the jumbled crowd of buildings—most looked empty—and his eyes rested on one with the sign of a goat hanging from it. He pointed at it, eyeing the Turk. The man nodded in reply. So, their lodgings for the time being settled, they made their way to the inn, which overlooked a surprisingly well-ordered town square. They began walking to it, the Turk escorting them.

The domed church, which Le Bouveret guessed to be Orthodox, if his time in Greece was any guide, looked like it may have once been a mosque—but who knew, as many times as East and West traded pieces in the chessboard of the Carpathian provinces. The slender bell tower was likely once a minaret, and the ornately carved columns in front of the doorway looked as if Doric flourishes were added to them almost as an afterthought. Magyar? But the thing about the square that most intrigued Le Bouveret was the huge, ornate cannon that set in the front of the church. Verdigris lay thick upon the bronze barrel, the muzzle of which was cast like a lion’s mouth.

The inn itself—Goat of the Woods—was unremarkable and the stable boy deposited their considerable bulk of luggage in the room without fanfare. The innkeeper—the large, bearded axe-wielder who’d met them at the gate—told them in halting Greek the rules and hours of breakfast and supper then bid them goodnight. He shut the door, leaving them to the light of a candle.

Le Bouveret lay unspeaking, wanting to smoke but deciding his companion would complain about it. He thought about the cannon.

“I say, what is that doing here?” he asked Heathwight, almost rhetorically. “Suleyman’s siege cannon. Our Turkish friend said Suleyman left it behind in Bosovo to ensure that the village would be protected.”

“Hmmm,” said Heathwight, obviously wishing Le Bouveret would just go to sleep.

Le Bouveret sighed. “For the want a nail, a shoe was lost, and of that, perhaps he might have taken Vienna after all.”

“You can prattle on about anything, if after what we’ve been through tonight you can muse over a war two-hundred years gone,” he said gruffly.

“Don’t you see the irony of it?” Le Bouveret insisted. “Here we are. You, an astronomer, and I, a poet. You are to catalogue the stars and I’m to write pretty little bits about this land, all for ‘King and Country’…and the Greenwich Observatory. Is it lost on you that our Prince Regent has armies too? Might he not cast his eye also over this very land where so many have killed and killed? Could that be the real purpose of your readings, and my descriptions?”

“It’s best not to talk such things,” Heathwight said. “They are paying me to catalogue the rising and setting of the stars, and they are paying you write about it. Why speculate?”

“At least,” Le Bouveret said, feeling chastened by the accuracy of the remark. “It must be so, I suppose. Until my debts are paid.”

“That should ensure your employment for at least until the sun of home shines on us again.”

Le Bouveret shrugged. “Perhaps.”

The next morning, the stable boy awoke them with bowls of water for washing, speaking in Serbian, which Le Bouveret didn’t understand. It turned out to be the call for breakfast, which was some kind of local ale soup, bread and cheese. Le Bouveret insisted on the keeper making water for tea. Then the constable came in, followed by a boy in dark coarse robes whom Le Bouveret deduced was an acolyte in the church they’d seen. They spoke to Heathwight.

“The Father wants to see us,” Heathwight said

“Of course. Probably wants us to pay the tax as well.”

The walk through the town square was short. Le Bouveret noticed the green cannon bore a crack down one side of the barrel. An attempt had been made to strengthen the flaw with cable, but Le Bouveret wouldn’t want to be near it when the thing sounded. So, Suleyman wasn’t eager to drag several tons of siege cannon that would likely blow up if used. Nevertheless, it was a lovely piece.

Upon taking the front steps of the church, Le Bouveret noticed the pillars were unusual. They were marked faintly with characters that looked indecipherable to him. Irregularly etched, they formed a spiral train around the columns all the way to the top, where they held up the colonnade roof. And though they were both massive, the left column looked ever so slightly larger round than the other. Both were out-of-round, crude if one were expecting the exactitude of Roman or Greek architecture.

“What do you make of it?” Le Bouveret asked his friend.

“The characters? I’d say they predate Cyrillic. Beyond that, who can say?”

“It was the Pagans who carved them,” said a heavily accented voice in Greek, startling the two men.

They both looked up from the characters that had absorbed them. A white-haired, white-bearded man bearing the black robes and round headdress of the Orthodoxy stood with the door slightly open, beckoning them in.

Le Bouveret bowed, removed his hat, and smiled. “Tell me, Holy Father, why would Pagan handiwork grace the Lord’s house?”

The old man shook his head. “Much too complicated to discuss on steps here. Please to come inside and talk me there.”

Inside, they again saw more of the pillars like those of the foyer, which led up into the open-air, square-domed interior of the typical architecture of a mosque. The inner pillars also bore the same markings.

“My,” mused Le Bouveret quietly in English. “I do love the east. Pagans beset by Mohammedans, usurped by the Christians, and so on.”

“Try to hold your tongue, Anton.”

“I’m speaking English, Jonathan.”

“It’s your attitude that worries me.”

“You and my mother.”

The priest led them to a rear door, beyond the sanctuary. Le Bouveret noticed the altar was also stone…it looked to be a flatter version of the pillars, laid on its side and converted to the same Christian use.

Through the door they paused briefly in a robe room, then into a small alcove with a desk, some chairs and a pitcher with three glasses. The Turkish constable, who had accompanied them from their room, walked first inside, then stood with his dark eyes showing hard at them as they entered.

“Please to join Mahmud and I,” said the priest.  “We can raise a glass…of course not Mahmud.”

They both bowed and took their chairs. The priest filled the three glasses, raised his to them and drank. Le Bouveret and Heathwight followed. Le Bouveret felt the familiar sting of Slivovitz trickle down his throat, dispelling the sour aftertaste of the morning’s milk.

The priest said something in Serbian to Heathwight, who translated.

“He says he wants to speak freely, but wants to in his own language. Since I can translate, he asks if you mind?”

“Tell him if he barks like a Spaniel he may use Serbian.”

“I’ll explain,” said Heathwight, the edge ever so slightly in his voice at Le Bouveret’s remark, “that you are quite happy with his comfort.”

The two men talked for a moment. Le Bouveret heard Heathwight use his name.

“He wishes to welcome us to Bosovo, and asks if we are the English on their King’s errand to watch the sun. I explained yes, and he said a messenger on the way to Sarajevo had spoken of our mission while traveling through two weeks back. He also asks about you.”
“Tell him something appropriate.” Le Bouveret said.  “Please, Anton. They can read your expression.”

“Just testing them, good man. Seeing if they toy with us.”

The priest spoke more.

“He says you are special, that God has sent you. He says yours is the same name as the saint who founded this church.”
“There is a Saint Le Bouveret? I’d not realized….”

“Anthony. It’s to Saint Anthony. Anton is a derivative of that name.”

“Oh. Well, tell him I’m flattered. And to think I don’t even believe in Him.”

The two talked more. “He asks if you’ve given your life over to Christ.”

“Yes, yes,” Le Bouveret said impatiently. “Ask him about the wolf problem here.”

The man’s white, deep eyebrows went up at the mention from Heathwight. The two talked for some time.

“He says what chased us was no wolf.”

“So you exclaimed to me when it was chasing us in the cart. What ate the goat?”

Heathwight asked, received an answer and frowned.  He asked again and, as near as Le Bouveret could tell, got the same answer.  “He claims the thing is a goat itself.”

“A goat that eats goats? How interesting.”

“He said the villagers tied the goat out there to placate the thing. It is an old creature who lived here long ago, and was defeated by the Turks and Suleyman.”

“Defeated he says?”
“Defeated and imprisoned in a cave next to the old pagan temple.”

“If it was defeated and imprisoned in a cave, why did it chase us into town?”

“He says that’s a problem. It must have had something to do with the earthquake.”

“There was an earthquake? When?”

Heathwight talked more with the old man. Le Bouveret noticed the Turk seemed uninterested in the story, but kept his eyes steady into his own. Le Bouveret met his gaze.

“He said it was four months ago. The disappearances started after that.”

“Disappearances?”

“First sheep went missing. Then a hunter who went to look for what was eating the sheep. He says the hunter has been seen by one of the children next to the old temple and that the cave has reopened.”

“If the hunter has been seen, why is he missing?”

More discussions in Serbian.

“He has not come home. The Great Goat takes those who are chosen. Only those who are to die see those who are lost. If they live, they do only with the blessings of God Almighty.”

“Amen,” Anton said. The priest smiled in recognition at the blessing. Le Bouveret smiled back at him and cheerfully continued talking to Heathwight. “Tell him we are sorry we can’t stay and we wish him luck.”

Heathwight glared at him incredulously. “What say you? How are we to make our observations for Greenwich? The orders are to make specific observations for this location.”
“I just remembered that there are other ways to pay debts. Go on, tell him.”

“You’ll not do this to me.” Heathwight grabbed his forearm, even as Le Bourveret began to stand. He stopped and glared into the astronomer’s eyes.

The old man suddenly spoke up excitedly. Heathwight talked with him for a moment, then turned back to Le Bouveret.

“He said you are to bring him your sword so he might bless it. He said you, I, and Mahmud will then go to the pagan temple up the hill. Mahmud can show you the cave.”

“I said tell him we will be moving on by noon. Think we can leave by noon? Sjelek is the next stop. I think we can make Sjelek in a fortnight if we leave by noon.  Best to be about it.”

Mahmud, without taking his eyes off Anton, said something quietly to the attending acolyte who’d led them in. The boy was off in a flash.

“Where’s the boy going?”

“He sent him for your sword.”

“Dammit. This isn’t our fight.”

“It is now. Besides, you seemed eager enough last night after you took that shot at it.”

Le Bouveret opened his mouth to speak—but found he had no retort. He sat with the others uneasily in silence. Eventually the youth showed back up, carrying the rapier in its finely gilt scabbard. He gingerly handed it to Le Bouveret.

Glancing sidelong at Heathwight with an angry stare, Le Bouveret stood up, bowed, partially unsheathed the sword and handed it to the priest.

The priest pulled the blade from the scabbard, examining the scrollwork. He pointed excitedly at the writing on it.

“What’s he saying now?”

“He says the sword bears your name. That it’s some Anthony fellow owned it.” Heathwight strained to follow something. “He said that it belonged to the táltosok of Vienna.”

“Taltosok? What is a taltosok?”

They talked for some time. Finally Heathwight nodded in some kind of recognition.

“It means wizard,” Heathwight said finally.

Le Bouveret stared at the characters on the long, light, thin blade, tapering to a razor point. He’d long looked at the characters, told they meant “Maestro” by the broker who’d arranged the buy. The woman who sold it said her family had owned it for two centuries but that being Basques found their fortunes failing in recent years. Her eyes had stared into his and she mumbled something to him as he’d taken it from her hands. He’d never understood what she’d said. The broker refused to translate….

The priest cleared his throat, bringing Le Bouveret back from his brief reverie.

“We should find such a wizard right away,” he said to Heathwight. “This must go into his hands.”

Heathwight gave him a sardonic stare, then spoke to the priest. He turned back.

“I told him that you were doubly humbled, both by your responsibility with me to chart the eclipse here for his majesty, but now as well by your newfound status. I expressed your hope that we might get to the bottom of the disappearances before we have to leave.”

“Ask him what the constable sitting there is for. Why is he not the avenger of the lost?”

A moment’s discussion.

“He said that of course Mahmud will accompany us to the temple area or anywhere else we are needed. After all, he is the civil authority of the Pasha for this region.”

Le Bouveret sighed in resignation. “Why, pray tell, are you going along with all this, volunteering me and getting our arses in some kind of neck-or-nothing battle with imaginary giant man-eating goats?”

“Because there is no such thing as a man-eating goat. It’s probably just a wolf—“

“But you said it wasn’t!”

“—That we can kill or shoo off. Then make our observations. Then move on to Sjelik without losing our pensions or our heads. We are in this together, so be a good chap and let him bless your sword like he just asked.”

Le Bouveret looked into the eyes of the priest, who smiled warmly at him, nodding approvingly. To the priest’s left, Mahmud’s stony stare. Le Bouveret sighed, stood up and bowed deeply, then picked up the sword and, keeping his head down, offered it to the Holy Father.

The priest bowed slightly and took the sword, then rose and led them into the sanctuary.

As if on cue, the normally overcast midday sky had gathered enough sun to illuminate the domed sanctuary through the stained-glass oculus in the center of the dome, a shaft of colored light beaming to one side—no doubt by the intention of the builders—to a stone chair inset into the wall. Le Bouveret saw the figure of a bearded man in the center of the oculus, holding a cross…must be the good Saint Anthony himself.

They gathered before the altar. Le Bouveret, Heathwight and Mahmud on one side of the altar, the old priest on the other. The priest drew the sword and laid it on the altar stone, which was draped with a purple velvet cloth. He bent down beneath the stone, and remained down for some time, moving as if rummaging through something. He hefted up a large, ornate, bronze cylinder, about a foot high and less than a foot across. It had figures worked on it in a Byzantine…no…Persian fashion. Warring men, with curved swords fighting demons of the air and ground. Their swords were devised as if they had flames rising up from them…

Mahmud looked surprised. He then launched into an animated discussion in Serbian with the priest, and the priest moved his hands in a way that seemed placating.

“It’s some kind of relic from Suleyman,” Heathwight told him off-handedly. “Mahmud questions whether it should be used now, by us.”

“And the father thinks yes?”

“It appears. He says if it is the goat, then the only thing that may work would be either your sword or the relic, or maybe both.”

“What is the thing?”

“Holy fire, or some such.”

Le Bouveret looked intently at the object, trying to find something to understand…something that made sense. The fine-filigreed writing on it remained indecipherable. It had fanciful figures on it…a fish that spit flame. A lion belching fire on enemies. Birds that appeared to be on fire, flying at hapless swordsmen that appeared not unlike old Crusading knights. Le Bouveret plainly could see a shield with a cross, the man bearing it bathed in flames from the lion. Something about the lion stirred in Le Bouveret’s mind. Le Bouveret reached for it, hesitated until the priest motioned his acceptance, then picked up and examined the object. It was middling heavy, several pounds, and appeared to be sealed with lead. It was cylindrical, tapered on one end like a missile, but flat on the bottom. He sat it back down on the stone altar.

The constable erupted in protests again, but they diminished and died with stony silence from the priest. The priest then incanted in a sort of church Greek that Le Bouveret could follow. The priest gestured, pleaded, engendering the help of the Almighty, his Son, Mother Mary, the Archangel Michael, and St. Anthony to use their fire against the scourge, as well as aid the wizard (Le Bouveret gathered it must be him) in defeating the dark minion.

Afterward, they left the church and stood on the front steps, Le Bouveret gazing out onto the town square with its verdigris, cracked siege engine, the small shops crowding the streets on all sides. They left the artifact with the priest until they could determine some kind of use for it. Le Bouveret buckled the sword about his waist.

“I wish us to have understanding,” said the constable. He had an edge in his voice.

“Oh,” Le Bouveret said, not knowing quite what to say next. He cast a gaze in the direction of Heathwight, who seemed to be studying the inscriptions on the pillars, obviously trying to ignore the conversation.
“Let us be direct with one another. I am a follower of God, and Muhammad is his Prophet. I do not follow the beliefs of Father Kolack, but I swear by my faith I will stand by him and I will die for him and this village. He is my friend. Don’t insult him or these people.”

“Well…my apologies,” Le Bouveret stammered. “My own feelings are…that I am hardly a wizard. I am a poet. A broke one.”

“We all have debts. Some not as obvious,” the constable answered. “As the book says, you must render unto Caesar, but also unto God.”
“Ah. Well, then you heard my thoughts on God.”
“Your blasphemy does not release you THAT debt, either. You carry the sword of Anthony, whatever that may be. Shall we go?” He walked down the steps.

Le Bouveret turned to Heathwight. The astronomer looked up from the inscriptions. “I think this is some kind of Sanskrit. What a pity I can’t read it. But this…” he indicated a curled symbol…”is an Arabic notation for Aldebaran.”

Le Bouveret nodded. At least that much he’d learned working for nearly a year cataloging stars. “What does it say about Aldebaran?”
“That’s the part I can’t read.”

“Wonderful. Well, perhaps we can take some charcoal rubbings when this whole thing is over.”

“I can’t help but imagine that this might have something to do with our plight,” Heathwight ventured.

“Why?”

“Didn’t they say these pillars were taken from the old pagan temple?”

They agreed the speculation might prove itself when they viewed the ruins. They left the steps and repaired to the inn. In a short time Mahmud had a wagon waiting for them. As they drove out the town gates, Le Bouveret noticed a goat being tied to the stake outside the town’s walls. The two men were tying the goat at the same stake where the last one had been killed, which Le Bouveret had seen.

“Why do they do that?” he said as the rumbled by on the cart.

“It’s an old custom, a legend,” Mahmud answered. “Having a goat tied outside the walls would keep the thing from taking a person instead.”
“Don’t they go through a lot of goats that way?”

“Did you hear me? I said it was a legend. At least it used to be until now. They’ll try it until they have no goats.”

“What else do the ‘legends’ say?” Le Bouveret asked, emphasizing the word as had Mahmud.
Mahmud glowered. “Just that it attacks at night. And, if you see someone whom the creature has taken, then you will be taken too. Or one hopes.”

“What if the person was just gone a while to the next village?”

“You are to look behind them,” Mahmud said, his voice flat, as if to signal he was tired of Le Bouveret’s manner. “If they have no backside, then they are souls captured by the darkness.”

“Hmm. Again, showing one’s backside is the prudent measure,” Le Bouveret quipped.

Mahmud rolled his eyes, turned from him, and began talking with Heathwight about stars. Le Bouveret watched the horses plodding the old Roman road, weighing his thoughts, daydreaming about lions spewing forth fire. Hadn’t Suleyman been a “lion” in battle? But so had Richard. And on.

The cobbled road branched off from the main one to a smaller, older one that went up the side of the foothill in a series of switchbacks. The forest grew taller and darker, the undergrowth thicker. Soon a line of crags became visible, jutting out of the thick forest. When the road ended at a flattened area of the hillside, Mahmud stopped the cart and they climbed out, the Turk tying the skittish team to a tree. Interestingly, Le Bouveret noticed he took up a lantern in his left hand, lit. He laid his musket across his shoulders and they walked a short trek through the forest until it opened into a sunny vale. Covering the clearing were large, flat stones, greenery growing between cracks, forming a circle that appeared as large as the town square. Beyond, a gray bluff showed through the gnarled trees bordering the clearing to the east.

“Here is the place,” Mahmud said simply.

“You say the pagans worshipped here?”

“One might call it that,” Mahmud said. “Look close. See the stains?” He indicated the stones.

Le Bouveret and Heathwight strode slowly onto the slabs, noting the elaborate carvings that covered them. Visible in the center were irregular swaths of brownish discoloration. He might not have noticed it, or thought it just something in the rock, had he not seen the bloodstained steps of Damascus dating to the Crusades, or even the overgrown steps of the ruined Pergamom in the war-torn regions to the south.

“Sacrifices?”

“Or something worse,” said Mahmud. “We have heard stories of children born as their mothers died bloody deaths. Of course, these might be just tales.”

“Except for that thing.”

“Silence,” Mahmud cautioned. “Speak not of it here.”

Le Bouveret shrugged. He walked across the expanse. Shards of broken columns jutted up from the slab in an intricate pattern, one that looked familiar, but he couldn’t place it.

“That,” Heathwight pointed at a character engraved in the floor, “is the same character as one on the columns at the village church.”

“Oh yes,” Mahmud said. “Those columns once stood here.”

“Ah, thus I have seen them before. They stand in the same pattern at the church, do they not?”

Mahmud nodded. “Oddly, they stand in the same manner as Moses’ tabernacle to God.”

“Yet that character is Arabic,” Heathwight continued. “It’s very similar, in any case, to the notation for the star Alioth.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed that the characters appear to be Arabic. But it’s different. Something else about it. I can’t read it, just recognize it.”
“It would be archaic, then?”

“Perhaps.”

Le Bouveret left them in their discussion, and walked over to the edge of the clearing. Something dark beyond. It was a cave opening in the bluff. Le Bouveret thought something flashed within it. He walked quiet through the underbrush, into the trees, toward the opening. It flashed again. A sparkle, like gold. Then he saw her.

The glimpse was quick. Le Bouveret saw her tanned, smiling face, framed with dark hair that blended into the darkness of the cave itself. Something sparked on her forehead and a diamond stud glittered from her nostril. Her strange, brown eyes, flecked with gold, met his and her sanguine lips parted with words that seemed to sound in Le Bouveret’s head. She spoke softly, soothingly, and a slender, braceleted hand beckoned to him gracefully. Her voice lilted with a soft, soothing tremor, whispering like water through rushes.

Never,” she said. “Never have I seen one like you.”

Where had he seen this woman?     He slowly parted the bushes and walked on toward the cave, never taking his eyes from the elegant, rippling figure.

My kiss is your dream,” she said. “Maker of words can have far more than words can make.”

He stood just before her now. She looked dolefully at his hand resting on the sword, and he instinctively removed his hand from it. Her smile brightened once again. She opened her mouth and leaned forward to say something more. Le Bouveret felt himself tremble in anticipation

Thunder sounded loudly behind him and the passing musket ball cracked the air next to Le Bouveret’s ear, causing him to involuntarily cover it with his left hand. He doubled over at the pain and ringing sensation. A shot! His hand went to his sword.

When he rose back up, the woman’s face had changed.

A new hole appeared next to the caste mark on her forehead, a brownish liquid spurting from it. Her forehead bulged outward, eyes bugging in opposite directions. A greenish tendril shot from her open mouth.

The sword sang from its scabbard, Le Bouveret whipping it into a parry, as if the tendril were a blade. The upward slice of the light, stiff, filigreed point met resistance Le Bouveret could feel in the pommel. He stepped back into a proper defensive stand.

The woman melted like a wax statue, her face a twisted mass. More tendrils shot out from her shoulders, her waist, and her arms. Her long, ochre sarong parted indelicately as another shot out from her knees.

Le Bouveret parried each whip like tip. He heard the voices of Mahmud and Heathwight far away, shouting as if from a high hilltop behind him. He dared not turn. Instead, he parried, stepped back, parried again, stepped back. But he knew he couldn’t keep it up for long.

None like you,” came the voice again. But the face was a ruin of strange flesh. Suddenly another voice sounded behind him.

“I said aside, you fool!”

Someone shoved hard on his shoulder, knocking him sideways. Something flew past, shining, and smashed against the writhing thing that had been the strange woman. Le Bouveret saw it had been their lantern. A burst of fire caused Le Bouveret to hold his left hand up, shielding his face as he fell back from the conflagration.

“Up now, and run for your soul!” said Mahmud’s voice next to him.

Le Bouveret got up, turned and ran up the trail, aware that Mahmud followed close behind. Through the trees he saw Heathwight standing, pale, mouth open.

“On the cart. For our lives!” yelled Mahmud again. They dashed up the stony path to the road. As they piled onto the cart, Heathwight grabbed the reins and slapped them against the ponies. But they were still tied. Le Bouveret jumped down, slashed the tieouts with his rapier, then heaved back into the cart.

The ponies leapt into a dangerous gallop down the unkempt road. From the back of the cart Le Bouveret saw other figures coming out of the forest, dark, murky, unable to quite make them out. And one that shined with flame. A host of screams followed them from the glen as reached the main road.

“God in Heaven!” Le Bouveret exclaimed as they sped along the main road.

“Finally, he swears with something that might help,” Mahmud said angrily. He loaded the musket in the back of the lurching wagon, holding the powder keg to the bell barrel, tamping the powder in desperately with the musket’s long wooden rod. “Not that even God will help us now.”

“What was it?”
“You have seen the woman of Rama. They say those who built the temple sacrificed her centuries ago to the thing. She only shows herself to those about to die. We have all seen her, so we will all die.”

“Devil you say. That was no woman!”

“It was the Devil, as you say,” Mahmud shot back, angry at Le Bouveret’s renewed cursing.

“What was it? What happened?”

“It is the goat of the woods. When one sees those now dead, and they beckon, the goat has chosen they who are called. It will come for you, for us.”

“What stops it?”

“Stopped? Nothing has ever stopped it.”

“But my sword stopped it.”
“Child’s play.”

“But the fire!”

“The fire slowed it. And angered it.”

“Something stops it. Surely something.”

“Only Suleyman ever stopped it.”

The cart rattled over a particularly rocky section of the road, drowning out their conversation. Eventually the road smoothed again. Le Bouveret continued.

“With what did Suleyman stop it?”

“With fire from God, fool. I doubt he will favor you with it.”

Fire from God. Le Bouveret smiled. He told Mahmud his plan.

 

#

     The wagon clattered to a stop inside the gates. Le Bouveret bounded out of the back, standing as Mahmud and Heathwight stepped down from the wagon.

“We have no choice, you see?” Le Bouveret said.

Mahmud glared at him, at the peasants gathered around the in the square, at the sky darkened with approaching evening. Then they walked briskly across the square, Mahmud glancing only slightly at the moldering, verdigris-covered siege cannon on the village green. He shook his head.

“The Holy Father must agree to this.”

“This is what Suleyman meant!” insisted Le Bouveret.

“So you say.”
In the sanctuary, the bearded priest stood with the fading light behind him facing the two men with a wizened look. Mahmud spoke to him in quiet, earnest conversation, broken only by occasional questions from the priest. Once, the priest frowned and asked Heathwight something, Heathwight responded. Mahmud seemed to contradict him. All the speaking was Serbian, completely unintelligible to Le Bouveret.

Finally, the priest, with tears in his eyes, picked up the holy relic held it close, put his forehead on it, letting his tears fall onto the raised bronze battle scenes on it, then kissed it. He handed it to Le Bouveret, the weight of it heavier than he’d remembered.

He looked down at the artifact, at the lion breathing fire onto the Crusader. Le Bouveret hoped the canister was what he thought it was. He turned to Mahmud.

“Would you fetch that powder keg? And do you have something we can use for a tamping rod?”

 

#

 

It was as Le Bouveret expected; the conical canister, wrapped in a cotton cloth, fit closely down the barrel. But getting the huge siege engine to where it pointed toward the gate was an excruciating exercise. It took two oxen and ten of the village men to drag the heavy sledge bearing the cannon. They were unable to get the cannon very close to the point of aim. A ledge from which the village square was raised proved to be unworkable to drag the huge gun across. Instead they pushed and hauled until it had clear aim at the portals—but farther than anyone would have liked.

“Now we tie the goat out to the stake just within the doors,” Le Bouveret said. “And we wait.”

Mahmud shrugged. “The goat will tempt it but little.”

“Why do you say that?” Heathwight asked.

Mahmud looked Le Bouveret in the eyes. “It will come again with the darkness,” he said. “It will appear as the woman again—because it has chosen you.”

“Very well. We’ll touch off the bombard before it gets far through the gates.”

“And risk losing our one shot?”

“What you would have us do?” shouted Le Bouveret in exasperation.

“I wish we had better bait than a goat,” Mahmud said. “Our one chance may be not enough.”

Darkness fell with disquiet by the time the priest finished blessing them. Neither Le Bouveret nor Mahmud took the offered communion.

“It’s not proper, refusing the wine and wafer,” Heathwight told him. “A man of noble birth such as yourself.”

“My conscience is clear,” Le Bouveret said.

“Because you don’t have one?” Heathwight asked.

“We’re saving this village, are we not?”

Before the other could answer, the call came down again on the wind.

Again, it was a high-pitched cry that fell into a sob like that of a woman crying for her child.

It’s her, Le Bouveret thought. He felt it deep inside. She cries for me. He loosed his sword in its scabbard and cocked the pistol where it hung in his belt.

Le Bouveret saw the hapless goat suddenly disappear. Something dark enfolded it in the growing twilight. In the flicker of a moment, the bleating goat silenced, even as something dark slid around its midsection and pulled it out of torchlight. So quick was its disappearance that the leash upon which the poor creature was tied shot back out toward the square.

Le Bouveret took one stepped toward the gate.

“Hold ground,” barked Mahmud. “This is not yet the time.”

“Do you hear her?” Le Bouveret asked. “She’s out there.”

“It is the creature,” Mahmud barked back. “Hold, I say.”

They stood. The strange cry, rising and falling, its warble echoing through the village.

Suddenly, two goats hobbled into the circle of light just inside the gate. A man, wearing the rough felt jacket of the peasant goatherd, staggered strangely behind them, shooing them on, his staff in hand.

His eyes were red-rimmed as if from drinking or crying. They searched the town like those of a man looking for a lost love. He croaked something, like a name, shuffling with the two goats in front of him. But something dark and large shadowed him behind. The creature?

“Josef!” screamed a voice from behind them. An outcry of unintelligible grief followed it. Le Bouveret turned to see an old peasant woman run hobbling past them, her arms outstretched to the man.

The man looked up and smiled. He seemed to recognize her. He spoke something in Serbian Le Bouveret could not understand. It sounded soothing and loving. And yet, Le Bouveret saw the dark, treelike shape seethe and boil behind him.

Mahmud shouted for her to stop. She ran on, unheeding, calling for her Josef.

Le Bouveret shook himself from the trance that seemed to grip him. He drew his pistol and ran after her.

“No, Hansa!” Shouted Mahmud.

Le Bouveret grabbed for the old woman’s back, but came back with her homespun shawl in his hand. He stopped a dozen feet from her as she fell into the man’s waiting arms. Tenderly, lovingly, the old man embraced her, his arms circling her back and pulling her to him. She wept as she repeated his name again and again, “Josef, Josef…”

Then from behind the man, boiling darkness uncoiled. Dark tendrils licked out and swiftly surrounded the couple, then lashed down. The woman shrieked as the man before her turned into a spongy dark mass, and her cry was cut off.

Le Bouveret fired his pistol into the mass, only vaguely aware of the shouts of Mahmud and Heathwight behind him. The shot seemed to have no effect—like shooting into a muddy river. He threw the spent match-pistol aside and drew the shining blade he’d purchased in Spain. He stretched it before him and stood en guard, waiting for what he knew would be next.
And he saw her. She of the gold-flecked eyes and dark, flowing hair. Her saffron dress flowed and shimmered as if her body glowed with a light of its own. Her eyes locked on his and her sanguine lips parted with the all-encompassing, all-promising whisper.

None like you. Come to me maker of words.

Le Bouveret saw the tip of his sword quiver, the point dancing with little starts. He wanted to go to her. Wanted to have her as his. Her voice soothed him.

She stepped closer, swaying so sweetly, as if some beat from her native lands moved her, drawing slightly closer. Le Bouveret shook the desire from his resolve, like rain from a branch.

She slipped closer.

Le Bouveret stamped his foot forward and fell into a lunge. He drove the blade deep into her throat, at least a foot, and drew it quickly out.

No sooner had he when a dark, whip like tendril shot out from the wound and grazed his cheek. He started back, touching his face and drawing back blood. Then it seemed like hundreds were slashing for him, humming in the air with the intensity of their movement.

Le Bouveret fell back, dodging and parrying, even as they lashed him with burning kisses. The woman seemed oblivious of his attack, appearing unaware of the brownish fluid spurting from her neck.

He fell back farther. Bits of fabric ripped from his right sleeve as the dark whips bit and tore at his sword hand.

Suddenly he heard a cry from behind.

“FIRE!”

They were touching off the cannon! He threw himself to his right, rolling across the hard cobblestones as the dark whips thrashed at him like brambles, tearing away streaks of his clothing and leaving red furrows in his skin.

With a roar the world erupted into smoke and flame. The flash of light dazzled Le Bouveret’s sight and heat washed over his upturned face. He put his left hand up to shield himself and something hot touched his left cheek. He rolled away farther, trying desperately to wipe the burning substance from his face.

A terrifying, warbling cry suddenly split the air. The death shriek of the thing burst forth so loudly that Le Bouveret’s hearing fell numb with shock.

Then it was gone, replaced by a great rushing sound. Le Bouveret drew himself up from the pavement, sword still in hand. A great, burning, writhing tree of flame, as tall as ten men, assaulted his vision. It weaved and danced, as had the woman, liquid flame dripping from it like molten gold. A stench of burning offal wrenched his sense of smell. Le Bouveret staggered back from the scene like a holy man before the face of God. His mind swam. He fell back, even as the arms of his comrades caught him before he hit the pavement again. A dark comfort enfolded him.

 

#

 

Le Bouveret awoke with the smell of tea. Something warm gripped his hand. He saw the smiling, white-bearded face of the priest staring into his. His eyes were wrinkled with kindness and warmth. He said something then stood up, made a sign and stepped away from the bed. Le Bouveret saw Heathwight and Mahmud standing behind him, smiling. Heathwight
held a steaming cup of tea. He stepped forward.

“They said you were coming to, so I had them make this.”

Le Bouveret sat up shakily in bed, and took the cup of tea. He saw his sword hanging from the foot piece of the bed, his oversize black boots on the floor next to it.

He stared hard at Mahmud as he sipped the tea. He felt a burning sensation on his cheek, reached up and touched it. He started with a sudden lance of pain from it. His fingertip came away oily.

“Don’t,” said Mahmud. “You were touched by the fire.”

Le Bouveret nodded, glancing past Mahmud at the open window from which streamed sunlight.
“The creature?” he asked.

“Ashes.” Mahmud answered. “You were right. The holy vessel was filled with fire. It consumed the monster.” His gaze cast down for a moment. “How did you know?” he asked.

“Obvious, once you consider the context,” Le Bouveret said. “Your Turkish ancestors learned a bitter lesson at the hands of the Byzantines in the battles for Constantinople. Then, it appears Suleyman himself must have gotten the formula, at least for a bit. Did you see the devices on the object? The Crusaders bathed in flames?”

“Greek Fire,” Heathwight said in realization.

“Yes,” Le Bouveret answered. “Great fellows those Greeks.” He tipped his teacup to Mahmud. “To them. And to Suleyman, peace be upon his name,” he said, adding the proper honorific for Mahmud’s sake.

Mahmud said nothing but managed a smile.

 

________________________________________________________________________

Ben Fenwick is a Norman, Oklahoma-based writer of both fiction and nonfiction.   He has written for The New York Times, Reuters, Playboy and Reason Magazine. He  works as the news director for a National Public Radio affiliate based at the University of Oklahoma and is also a Professor of journalism.  This is his first publication with Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.


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