Fables and the Emergent Dusk

Chapter Seven

In my mind I am a boy of seven, seated nervously on a broken chair beside the makeshift bed of a maternal grandmother for whom I had no particular fondness. Born old and aging scornfully, she was best recalled as a foe to pleasure. The only time I'd ever heard her laughter was at someone's misfortune. Words of comfort in those final days were unwelcome but she never dismissed me from her company. The air, I remember, draped as a mantle upon me with a heavy staleness that no amount of open windows could cure. Her violent coughs jarred me as much as herself and I expected each one to finish her. No one else visited the barely breathing corpse of a woman filled of days and misery. Speech had eluded her but words were unnecessary; the eyes were a thousand curses. At first I thought it was fear of dying that lit the fury but when that last moment arrived, it was greeted like an errant lover. Apparently, it was death's delay that had vexed her and knowing this allowed me to run from that stinking dark room in unshamed relief.

In a nearly sacred vow I had sworn off deathbed vigils. Thus I find the resumption of this aching posture most inconvenient. My backside even misses the unsteady chair of my youth. Surely we do not know the luxury of proper furnishings in our cramped tent. Yesterday I ventured into the tents of recently deceased soldiers to collect abandoned bed coverings. Most everything else had already been stripped and was being bartered for better rations or trinkets among the remaining men. Atop one half of the pilfered blankets lay my master, the rest piled upon him in accordance to the most baffling medical order ever uttered by a physician. Keep the sweating man warm, he tells me while a desert-full of hot air swirls beneath his ridiculous cape. And I think perhaps I chose the wrong profession, for surely I could kill patients as effortlessly as this cretin. The king's best, indeed. The sandy ground was the safest place for Robin as he alternates between frightening stillness and uncontrollable thrashing. I know not which I prefer. With a chorus of protest from my knees, I squat beside him, having no other mission than to silently encourage the continuance of his breathing. As with any good servant, I am steadfast beside him and equally beside myself.

Shall I admit to being furious with Robin? His whole life has been a preparation for war, thus the notion of defeat comes slow and stumbling to my brain. I would not be fighting to watch him die through a persistent veil of insufferable flies had he studied numbers as his father demanded. No one had ever succumbed to an infection of mathematics. What weapon is unpracticed by his hand? What tactic can he not outwit before breakfast? As I sit on foreign soil with the unorganized sounds of battle clean up behind me, I fail to fathom what manner of man could have inflicted the wound that has spun my master into a web of pain and fever. The men speculate that Robin was felled by some ghostly creature brandishing the devil's sword, birthed of the spit of heathens below the shifting sands. When not engaged in bloodshed, soldiers become dreadfully bored and this causes a regression into childishness. While I cannot abide by such foolish stories, neither can I dismiss the spirit of the rumor. This land is wrought with perils not often seen this side of Hell's gate. Robin's attacker was one of them; a filthy pagan assassin in the service of darkness. Make no mistake, I have endeavored not to condemn these people for a war I suppose they did not seek. But every incident renews my innermost revulsion. It has become a stretch to even call the land Holy, for the very soil seems a demon unworthy of God's hand.

It is not a practice of mine to speak to one so thoroughly incapacitated. Too little satisfaction is derived from detailing the happenings of a camp thriving on disarray when the hearer cannot express interest. Talking to the dying is like explaining sewing to a chicken. Which only reminds me of eggs. And ham. And milk. And depression has returned. A counter attack, over which Robin would despair, is being planned for the market square. Civilians, the master likes to remind me, are innocents and make unforgivable targets. Still, all too aware am I that Robin's attention to the place has narrowed from culture admiration in general to one lady in specific. Not that I believe him to have lapsed into improper dalliances with her but from the renewed stares of the protective sellers, there is at least suspicion of impropriety. Asking him to be careful is like requesting that he detach an arm.

The sun makes its excuses and leaves me to conduct my vigil in shadows. And I recall that I was wrong. An aunt used to visit my grandmother of an evening, opening rusty spinster lungs to sing the old woman into a fit. Such a voice should be granted only to a deaf audience. But against all evidence, she insisted the tunes soothed the dying process. I often thought it one of Grandmother's strongest reasons for forsaking life. It is far more peaceful in the ground where the worms never bother to sing. I have therefore refrained from subjecting the ailing man before me to renditions of war songs or romantics. Which is a shame because I've been told my voice is one of interesting qualities. One of the new lads, fresh of face and clean of clothing, peeked in earlier to offer his talents. On the chance that it would summon images of a eulogies and processions, I politely declined. But this continued silence has rendered this tent a tomb. I must speak and so I do. I tell him not to join his father, as the old man would not enjoy his company. I tell him there is an untapped host of ladies yet to be favored by his charms. I tell him that I have not the strength to deliver news of his death to Marian.

And he speaks her name.

At first the whisper is a partial repetition of a syllable. But when he says it again, the parched speech is clear and purposeful; he is calling for her. And it is my regret that she is not here to answer, for I am no sort of substitute. A rag is used against the moisture of his brow and with every swipe of dirty cloth, I apologize that I was not there to stop the attacker, no matter how improbable my success. After all, what good is tossing objects at Satan? The memory of my solitary kill has kept a sword from my grasp since the day I watched blood rip from a mortal wound of my making. Still, the urge is present in the center of my gut to find the monster and deal with him as war dictates. But no, I shall leave revenge to the armies of Heaven, concentrating instead on keeping Robin from being ushered to the angels. God cannot have him yet because to die is to be full of days and misery and far from both is he. Although I myself have half of the criteria met already. For I know how the world will dim with his passing. But I also know what happens should he live; a return to his post to die another day in the name of king and country and glory and fables. The cycle of war begins anew with each traitorous dawn, which has made me a greater ally to dusk.

A night that lasts three passes us, the hush that gives the morning insects their say. They are not the only ones to speak. A messenger left the king's presence to join us where the smell of death floats a little lighter than before. He tells us that his majesty's decree is as scripture itself and must be obeyed. We are to break camp immediately and for once I cannot complain about the upheaval. A newly coherent Robin merely blinks as I speak the word; Home.

Many thanks to all who have given up precious time to consistently venture into this little world of mine. I hope you have not found it wasted. Special thanks to Dina C for her recent reviews!