A Short Story Collection by Peter Stone - HTML preview
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“So why am I here, exactly?” queried my nineteen-year-old niece as she sat next to me. The lantern I had placed beside us cast flickering light throughout the abandoned tannery’s darkened interior. Eerie, dust-laden cobwebs clung to every wooden beam, workbench and table, causing her to shudder.
I glanced at her innocent face untouched by grief, and wished yet again that I had been born in her day rather than mine. “For emotional support.”
“Then I’m not in any danger, Aunt Margryte?” she asked unsurely.
“Of course not, Geruscha,” I said while smoothing down a ruffle in my threadbare black mourning dress.
“Do you know who owns this place?”
“I used to. Well, I guess I still do.” Memories of better days from decades past superimposed themselves over broken chairs and dilapidated benches. I bit my lip to keep deep inner pain at bay.
“So why don’t you sell it? Seems structurally intact; surely there’s a tanner who would buy it from you?”
“You ask a lot of questions, Geruscha,” I protested.
“You did ask me to come tonight,” she pouted.
“So I did. I keep this place because it suits my purposes on the odd occasion, such as tonight,” I answered after a moment.
Geruscha’s next question died on her lips when the front door swept open to admit a badly scarred man dressed in the garb of a common mercenary. I laid a hand on her forearm to reassure her.
Aged wooden floorboards groaned under unaccustomed weight as the man approached us. Cold eyes met mine, and then studied my niece as though she was a horse for sale. “Who’s this?” he grunted.
“This is Geruscha, my niece,” I replied in an icy tone that matched his expression.
“Why is she here?” he snapped.
“Well, let me see,” I said dramatically, “perhaps to add some light to these enchanting clandestine meetings we have.”
Returning his attention to me, the man slapped a cloth purse on the run-down table before us. I refused to give him the satisfaction of acknowledging the money.
Anger flashed briefly in his eyes. “Will you not even inquire as to my progress?”
“Oh, why not, since it obviously means so much to you. Tell me, what you have achieved of late?”
He held up three fingers. “It took me nigh on three years to comb every inch of Stühlingen, but thirteen more of our enemies have been brought to justice.”
I leaned forward slightly, careful not to overbalance the rickety chair. “Do you feel better now? Did you find this gratifying?”
He was not impressed. “It is not about satisfaction. It is about justice.”
“You mean revenge,” I clarified.
“Whatever,” he snarled. “You know this has to be done, Margryte. Those men must be brought to justice for the magnitude of their crimes. I will not permit those murdering vermin to do such heinous deeds and then simply melt back into society by assuming new identities.”
A cloud of dust swirled upward into twinkling lantern light as I plucked the purse from the table. “That was twenty-five years ago. When will you tire of this quest?”
“When I’ve found them all, Margryte, and not before,” he said before quitting the tannery without a backward glance. He vanished into the midnight air.
My niece found her voice. “Who was that man, Margryte?”
“My husband, Geruscha,” I admitted.
“Walther Sighard? I thought he perished in the Peasants’ War of 1525,” she exclaimed.
“That’s what he wants them to think, Geruscha.”
“Them, Aunt Margryte? You mean the leaders of the revolt?” she pressed.
“Not just the leaders, Geruscha, all of the insurgents who perpetrated the massacre of Weinsberg. In the past twenty-five years he has hunted down and slain over ninety of them,” I answered from a great distance.
“But, Lady Margryte, you sound as though you disapprove. Did not those rebels kill your parents and two of your sisters, as well as hundreds of our people?”
I nodded. “Yes, they did. But you know? I had thought us lucky when we survived. We still had each other, two darling little boys, and this tannery. I wanted to get on with our lives, but not Walther. He became obsessed with revenge--an obsession that cost him not only a loving family that needed him--but also his dreams and future. Tonight was the fifth time I have seen him in twenty-five years.”
“I don’t know what to say, Aunt Margryte.”
“Just walk me home, Geruscha.”
Metal-shod hooves clattered noisily upon the castle courtyard’s cobblestones. Sir Tristram de Villeroi and his score of men-at-arms had returned.
Undaunted by the incessant rain falling from an oppressively dark sky, the lady of the castle hastened forth from the imposing great keep, lifting the hem of her dress off the wet cobblestones. “What news, my lord?” she asked.
Rain cascaded down his nose as Sir Tristram de Villeroi looked down at his petite wife, “We were too late, my lady.”
“Baron Gillet and his family, my lord?” she asked, crestfallen.
“Alas, the rebels’ dastardly work was all but done when we arrived, dear wife. They came at us like madmen and only fled after we hewed many with axe and sword.”
“So the baron’s whole family, murdered?”
Tristram opened his riding cloak to reveal a young slip of a girl wearing a linen nightshirt huddled against his armored chest. “All but this one - do you know her? She appears bereft of her senses.”
Lady Isabelle reached up and took the girl into her arms. “I do - her name is Jehennette. She is…she was, Baron Gillet’s youngest. She is ten, I believe.”
“Best get her fireside before she catches a death of a chill, my lady. I will join you shortly.”
* * *
“What happened out there, Husband?” Isabelle asked from her wooden stool before the hearth. Having bathed and dressed in warm nightclothes, ten-year-old Jehennette slept fitfully before the roaring fire.
Sir Tristram did not answer immediately, and when it came, he spoke as though from a great distance. “Incomprehensible barbarity - these peasant rebels are worse than wild dogs. What they did to that girl’s parents and brothers…” Distraught, his words trailed off. “My every waking thought is haunted by that scene. And knowing that little Jehennette here had been forced to watch, knowing her turn was coming…it is more than I can bear.”
A female grey cat detached itself from the shadows and butted her head against Tristram’s arm. He scratched her chin, and she purred loudly in response.
“And yet you saved her, Tristram - that has to count for something. I just hope we can accommodate Jehennette better than the last stray you brought home.”
“What? I thought the cat was making good progress,” he said, stroking the feline’s back.
“Progress? When you are absent, she hides in every nook and cranny and attacks me, our sons - even the servants - in a frenzy of slashing claws and biting teeth whenever we walk past. Behold my shins!” Isabelle lifted the hem of her dress, revealing painful injuries. “You said Edine could be a family pet, not yours alone!”
Sir Tristram ran his fingers over the cat’s collar. “She wears a jeweled collar, my wife.”
“What of it, my lord?”
“It means she was a noble’s pet and therefore tame. She can be tame again.” Tristram scratched the cat’s chin and indicated Jehennette with a nod. “The cat needs time to find her way back to normal life, and so does Jehennette. With time comes healing.”
Lady Isabelle looked at the girl sleeping before the fire. “I hope so, my lord. Poor child, she gave no indication that she was even aware of our presence while we bathed and dressed her. My heart broke a thousand times over.”
Tristram rose to his feet. “I will help as I can, my lady, but now must take my leave. King Charles of Navarre assembles an army at Beauvais to crush the rebels and has requested that I join him with half my men.”
“Take care, Husband.”
“And you, my wife. Keep the gates barred at all times until I return.”
* * *
Three weeks later, Sir Tristram and his retinue returned.
“Good news, Husband?” asked Lady Isabelle as the husband dismounted in the courtyard.
“The rebellion has been crushed and the dissidents dispersed, my lady. But what news do you bear -what of our two strays?”
Lady Isabelle pointed towards the stables. Tristram was surprised to see Jehennette sitting with her back against a stable door, stroking the cat as it lay contentedly on her lap. “After you left, the cat slept with Jehennette. From that moment, they have been inseparable. Although Jehennette is yet to speak, she does acknowledge our words. And the cat? It seems we have a pet after all - she no longer attacks us.”
Tristram made his way quietly over to the girl and feline and knelt beside them. Jehennette continued petting the cat, but did not look up.
“I rescued the cat from a storm too, you know, much like I did you,” said Tristram.
“Then we are both strays,” the girl said softly. Edine purred blissfully.
Tristram scratched the cat’s chin as waves of relief fled through him - she spoke to him! “She was a stray, and driven almost feral by her ordeal. And though she could have left at any time she chose to stay and became part of our family.”
Jehennette sought out his eyes hesitantly.
“You, too, are welcome to stay. Our family has room for one more,” he said kindly.
Jehennette examined the cat’s yellow-green eyes. “She has found peace here. Perhaps I will too. I will stay.”
In 1358 AD, northern France was terrorized by a popular peasant revolt. Over one hundred castles and homes of the nobility were attacked, the inhabitants brutally slaughtered. A pretender for the throne, Charles the Bad of Navarre, crushed the revolt on June 10.