The Fishmonger’s Daughter
Clamor reverberated through the grimy, grey street known as Whale Road, which the overcast sky rendered even grayer. This name originated from a pun made by a forgotten English merchant. Seeing all the fish stalls and stores selling whale from one end of the street to the other, he remarked that—since he could walk the entire road on the whale meat—it deserved the appellation “whale road” more than the ocean. This area of La Rochelle bustled with the haggling of customers and fishmongers no less now in the year 2320 Ab Urbe Condita.
A certain owner of a one story seafood market, a man of average build with the name of Aleron, listened to a game warden from the country trying to haggle down the price of squid from one franc and three sous per pound to one franc per pound. Aleron leaned on a worktable located behind the ice table (which held no ice at present, since winter dominated France at the moment and the cold sufficed) separating him from the hunter and reminded him that most places sold the same product at the cost of two francs per pound. As Aleron’s placid green eyes pondered the man before him, he stroked his leonine, blond beard, which few men could match in splendor.
The huntsman, named Arnoux, sported a smooth face not used to razors and long, curly black hair. The man had brought his twelve year old son with him into the city, who now carried both his father’s bow and his own crossbow. The boy, bored by all the deal shopping his father had engaged in ere now, perused the multifarious offerings of Aleron’s store. Indeed, one might spend a great deal of time doing this, because every edible offered by the sea seemed to present itself there. The boy noticed mackerel, whiting, cod, sole, shark, squid, pulpo, whale, and the many clams found on the beaches of the Bay of Biscay. The immaculate condition of the storefront in addition to the shining oak paneling behind the clerks working there highlighted the splendor of this display.
At last, Arnoux, who appeared neither angry nor in any way ruffled by Aleron’s insistence on the stated price but rather to be enjoying himself, tried his last bid: “Alright, okay! How about one franc and one sou per pound? You see, I intend to make a religious offering of it—”
“Pardon me,” Aleron broke in. “I reckon that you’re a member of the Labean religion—”
Arnoux raised his voice to be heard over the clamor. “Really? Then why do you so completely deny my attempts to make it more affordable? Are you an enemy of Labeanism?”
This outburst caused more than a few heads to turn. In this Renaissance city, Labeanism possessed more worshipers than all the disparate religions practiced throughout the lands which had once formed the Roman Empire. The core doctrine of this religion concerned how Dedecor, the evil god, tainted the world against the wishes of the three true gods: Bona, Verus, and Pulcher—the creators of the world. This cult testifies that these three gods will one day purify the world through a perfect sacrifice. Those alive at that time will know eternal bliss. At the moment, they pray to their gods and sacrifice squid and octopus—whose ink symbolizes the taint upon the world—for this very day to arrive.
Aleron did not bat an eye under the scrutiny of all the shoppers. “I consider Count de Rochefort my best friend, and have already promised all my stock to him at that price.” In answer to Arnoux’s astonishment at hearing the high priest named as this fishmonger’s best friend, Aleron continued: “He would not mind me selling part of his merchandise to a fellow member, but it must be at the same price.”
The crowd, satisfied with this explanation, resumed their business. Soon, the street reverberated with the shouts of haggling, the banging of crates bearing merchandise, and the rumbling tread of wagon horses. Arnoux hung his head in defeat.
“Damn! I’ll have to surrender if that is indeed the case.” He smiled. “I’ll take two pounds of it at that price.”
While the two clerks working for Aleron chuckled at his victory, the victor himself displayed no emotion as the wrapped the invertebrates in yellow paper and presented the bundle to Arnoux. Ere they could exchange pleasantries, a young man tore through the marketplace yelling that the authorities had captured a Christian priest and intended to execute him, adding that the show would be quite amusing. Aleron, bidding Arnoux good day, doffed his apron and drew his cloak over his long sleeved, green tunic. His clerks did the same, and they all flowed into the pale faced torrent of pedestrians flowing toward the square for public executions.
Christianity had not been well received since the apostles began to promulgate it in 783 A.U.C. upon the death of their founder. The Roman authorities outlawed the religion due to the disciples’ refusal to worship other gods, its ability to draw people away from traditional paganism, and various malicious rumors which its opponents spread about some religious practices. As it still does in Aleron’s France, Christian blood dyed the whole Roman Empire crimson. The citizens of the empire, faced with the choice of endangering their present lives for the hope of eternal life or continuing their present lives unmolested, chose the latter. So great was the wish of the decadent Roman Empire’s citizens to enjoy an unending procession of bread and festivals.
Some early apostates from Christianity decided to incorporate certain beliefs from their forsaken religion into paganism so that they might develop those areas of the legal religions which they felt lacking. This and the mixing of philosophical ideas from Greece produced hundreds, even perhaps thousands, of new cults. Practicing Christianity itself the law proclaimed worthy of death; yet, some men dared to keep the teachings of the apostles.
Aleron and his clerks used the alleys and byways whenever possible to avoid the press of people moving along the main roads. They noticed that a mob had already formed around the square before they arrived. The diaphanous, white vapor exhaled by this eager multitude evinced a warmth present in their bodies but absent in their hearts.
The guards had not yet produced the prisoner. Aleron threaded through the crowd, jostling people aside only when they formed a solid mass. Ignoring the complaints of the displaced, he soon found himself in the first row of the spectators. Most of the time, this commodious square lay bare save for a few pedestrians. Now, gendarmes secured only an area large enough for the torture and execution. To Aleron, the voices of the mob appeared as though the whispering of distant waves which one heard on Whale Road were magnified into a tsunamic cacophony. The presence of horses foretold that the condemned would be quartered, and switches of various widths that he would be beaten within an inch of his life.
Then the mob at the north side of the square opened to reveal cheerful guards leading a man battered to the extent that his mother would have difficulty recognizing him—and would have fainted from grief had she succeeded. A bystander reported the man’s name to Aleron and that the officials rejoiced in catching this Christian, because the loss of a priest would dishearten the other members. Aleron’s heart melted with pity at the prisoner’s condition and grieved at the thought of losing his spiritual father.
After one of the guards brought the priest to the ground with a kick in the buttocks, an official on horseback, wearing the costliest and warmest garments available in the city, called the amused crowd to silence and announced the charges of which this unfortunate man had been found guilty. He inquired of the condemned whether he indeed practiced this forbidden religion to the extent that he led its ceremonies. When no answer was forthcoming from the shivering and bloody figure on the ground, a guard raised him by his hair and demanded that he answer the magistrate.
The priest squeaked out a “yes.” The high pitch of the answer forced from the priest’s desiccated throat produced guffaws from the guards and the crowd. When the smiling magistrate restored silence in the mob with a wave of his hand, he described all the tortures which the convicted would suffer and asked the condemned whether he wished to forgo his sentence—remarking how easy it would be to renounce Christianity and all future suffering. The guard holding the priest by the hair pulled him to his feet so that his answer might be heard better.
The agonies described by the magistrate produced their desired effect. The priest stood trembling with tears pouring across his bruised face.
Aleron marked how the priest hesitated. Reaching into his tunic, he drew forth a palm-sized silver cross and let it hang upon his chest. A stray light trickling through the overcast sky rendered the silver cross resplendent. That none in the crowd pointed him out fell nothing short of a wonder; however, the priest saw his spiritual son bearing the sign of glory like a standard bearer of God’s army.
A guard near the prisoner struck the priest across the mouth, splitting his lip. He demanded the man answer the magistrate. The priest swallowed the blood seeping from his lower lip so that he might be heard by all.
“Repent! For the Kingdom of God has arrived, and you shall see Jesus Christ standing at the right hand of the Father in glory!”
This stentorian declaration astonished most of the crowd and all the guards, who had been breaking this timid individual for several hours now, save for a few frivolous persons whose laughter, taken up by the rest of the mob, soon reverberated throughout the square—the stupefied having overcome their awe. The magistrate then commanded that a beating be carried out before the execution. The guards, having taken up boughs of varying widths and suppleness, shoved the condemned into the middle of the square. The thinner instruments raised welts and tore skin, while the larger ones bruised flesh and broke bone. The crowd cheered at every blow and advised where the blows be struck, laughing at the groans and the agonized expressions on the unfortunate’s face. Drops of the martyr’s blood sprinkled the ground. Soon, the guards had broken an arm and many ribs. When it became impossible to bring the prisoner to his feet, the magistrate permitted the quartering to proceed.
At this point, some within the mob began taking bets concerning how the prisoner’s body would be torn apart: some that he’d tear at the abdomen, others that his limbs would be torn from their sockets, and still more offered other grisly combinations. The priest himself tilted his head toward the one man who pitied him. He kept his eyes upon the sign of victory until the darkness of death stole the light from them.
Aleron sighed as he replaced the cross within his tunic. Drawing up his hood so that none might view the warm tears glistening there, he and his workers made their way back to his place of business.
That evening, Aleron himself received a beating. On the wooden floor of the training hall of the renown master Robillard, his foil wielding opponent thus far led 4-0—one point away from sealing the match. Unlike in modern fencing, neither wore protective gear. Master Robillard never permitted sparring between two members unless they possessed perfect control. Further, he never forgave accidents: injuring one’s partner resulted in expulsion or a duel with the master himself if he felt the injury deliberate. Before the entire class, Robillard exhibited the match between these two opponents as an example of rapier vs. cut-and-thrust sword. The master considered the wooden sword bearing Aleron and his opponent as the best in their respective classes.
Each stood with their weapons at middle guard: Aleron’s point toward his opponent’s throat and his partner’s toward his sternum. Then, Aleron rushed forward, pushing the tip of the foil aside to deliver a cut at the forearm. His opponent retreated away from the cut and lunged at Aleron’s chest. Aleron, not one to be caught off guard, shifted to the left of the thrust before rushing to trap the foil with his hilt. His opponent, wishing to avoid grappling, twisted the rod out of Aleron’s guard and attacked his thigh. Aleron knocked the foil aside—but not without overextending himself. This error allowed the rapier wielder to drive Aleron back with feints and thrusts. At last, Aleron made a sweeping cut at the legs. Missing his target left Aleron exposed enough for his sparring partner to score.
Aleron winced as the foil poked his ribs.
The class applauded the skill of the combatants. Indeed, the master permitted himself to clap.
“Today’s match provided excellent examples of how one armed with a rapier defeats one armed with a cut-and-thrust sword: keep your distance, don’t get cornered, and avoid grappling.”
A novice in the school commented: “How can some people bear to use such an ungainly weapon? I thought that people ceased using such barbarous weapons one hundred years ago.”
“That just shows how much of an ignoramus you are, monsieur,” the master replied. “The reason for the rapier’s popularity these days is people are too frightened to close with their opponents—”
Aleron interrupted: “And are several times more graceful than me!”
The class laughed, and Robillard smiled at his pupil.
“Yes…yes! The art of the longsword is all about power! Toss me that board of yours.” Aleron passed the wooden sword over to Robillard. The master then turned to the fencer who had bested Aleron. “Let’s give a demonstration, Gauthier.”
Here, Gauthier—a tall, handsome aristocrat with long, black hair—spoke for the first time. “Do you believe you can best your best pupil with such a stick?”
“There’s a reason I am the master and you are the pupil. I can beat you with my bare hands if I needed to.” An exclamation arose from the students at this taunt. Robillard continued: “Besides, I must confess that my long service in the army makes me think fondly of this ‘dinosaur,’ which has saved me many a time. And!” The master stopped for emphasis. “A single blow from a longsword is often enough to crush an opponent.”
“Go easy on him, master,” Aleron said.
Gauthier responded for his teacher: “Don’t you think that you should ask me to go easy on the teacher, Al?”
Robillard smiled. “Maybe another day, but today you are angry and Al is disturbed such that he could not score even the two points he scores on his worst days. And you shall fall presently, Gauthier.”
Robillard and Gauthier saluted in order to begin the bout. Robillard dashed forth with such vehemence that Gauthier could not utilize the thrusting abilities of the rapier. After Robillard slammed Gauthier to the ground with his shoulder, he pegged a point without difficulty.
After class, Gauthier and Aleron walked out into a night lit by a pale crescent moon. Each engaged in conversation over today’s matches before moving on to other topics. A crimson leather baldric held Gauthier’s rapier at his side, and he attired himself in a gold and black velvet tunic. On the other hand, a dagger dangled from Aleron’s belt—since the aristocracy had only granted themselves permission to carry swords within the city limits—and though he wore a blue tunic of a fine weave, it fell far short of Gauthier’s in value. The coolth of night increased winter’s chill; so Aleron wrapped himself in a leather shelled cloak, and Gauthier a sable overtunic. Their mutual affection for one another manifested itself as greatly as their difference in class.
At this point, Gauthier decided to pose another topic to Aleron: “Were you at the execution today, my friend?”
“Yes, a sorry sight.”
“I am glad to hear that you weren’t cheering with the mob. But I cannot blame them for wishing those cannibalistic loons to be killed.”
Aleron grunted. “You know that people say whatever they want about that sect. Probably only rumors.”
“Indeed, you are right. One would think that there would at least be some evidence of that fact. They are not Corpicenators after all. You know, Al, I don’t think that you have ever told me what god you worship—however many times I tried to induce you to become a Labean.”
“Well, I’m not an important member like you.”
“Nevertheless, I should like to hear which diety you think is more worthy of worship than the blessed Bona, Verus, and Pulcher.”
“I worship Love.”
Gauthier presented Aleron with a wry smile at that comment. “Love, you say? Then, why do I not ever see you visiting Venus’ temple?”
“I worship a higher Love than that, Gauthier.”
“Tell me about it. I believe that I may make a Labean of you yet.”
Before Aleron could respond, someone dashed forward toward Gauthier. This individual stopped a moment for breath. The flowing perspiration on his brow surprised Aleron, because a tremendous amount of effort or stress would have been required to produce so much sweat during this inclement time of year.
Gauthier wasted no time in addressing him. “Man, what is the reason for your haste?”
“Name’s Ferrau, my lord.” Once he assured himself that the high priest had heard his name, he continued: “A strange young girl with…both grey hair and eyes has appeared in La Rochelle. It cannot be natural!” The fervor in his tone caused him to gasp several times for air. “The assembly wishes you to perform a ritual in order to ask the gods if she may be the sacrifice to end the taint placed on this world.”
“A child?” Gauthier said. He turned to address Aleron. “We must separate here for the night, Al. My duties ended the interesting conversation we were about to have. I look forward to listening to you tomorrow.”
They bid each other goodbye. Aleron turned toward his home, but after two blocks his brow began to furrow and his steps to drag. Seeing some wooden steps leading up to a tenement house in this rather dilapidated part of town, he took a seat there and stared toward the sky holding his head up with his fist. At last, he dipped his head in assent to his last cogitation. Jumping to his feet, he rushed in the direction of the nearest orphanage, which fortuned to be managed by a Christian.
Banging on the door, he received the attention of the mistress of the establishment. After inquiring about the advent of a grey-haired girl, the governess acknowledged that she had heard of this event. Once Aleron learned the address of the place from her, he dashed off again through the cramped alleyways between mud and dirt crusted buildings and meandering side streets until he found himself knocking on the stout, oaken door of this orphanage.
The governess of this place looked out of a window before answering the door in response to Aleron’s pleading. The governess recognized Aleron as the unmarried and childless owner of a flourishing business near the wharf. Smiling, the woman opened the door for him to come inside the parlor, which the lantern in her hand dimly lit. Aleron thanked her for the kindness of showing him in and said that he wished to adopt a child. Before the woman followed through with her proposal to bring out several boys who might make promising heirs, Aleron declared that he already had someone in mind. He asked whether a girl with grey hair dwelt there at the moment. Doing her best to hide her confusion, the governess said that she would bring her out for him to see—adding that most people like Aleron wanted sons. Aleron said that it would please him more if he had a daughter, since sons oft carry more grief for their parents.
Aleron waited several moments before the governess returned with this oddity of nature. The governess introduced the ten year old girl as Cinderella. Aleron noticed that her patch covered clothes hung loose from a skeletal frame—a natural slenderness rendered worse by hardship. The girl of pallid countenance hung back from Aleron, and the governess did nothing to encourage her. After greeting her, Aleron told her that he wished to adopt her as his daughter and to give her a nice home.
The girl scowled at him. “Why do you want to adopt me of all the kids in the city?”
Aleron responded: “Let me be sincere: the Labean cult is presently deciding whether you, with your unnatural grey hair—”
“There’s nothing wrong with my grey hair!”
“Indeed, it’s pretty…in the same way that wolves have an elegant grey. But because of that, the Labeans might determine that you are the sacrifice which will bring paradise on earth.”
“That’s absurd!” the governess exclaimed, avoiding Aleron’s eyes. “Who’d believe that the Labeans would sacrifice a child? That sacrifice has yet to be revealed, but will surely be something else.”
Aleron said: “My friend, Gauthier de Rochefort, will say for sure once he has read the entrails of a shark.”
Here Cinderella grasped Aleron by hand and hid behind him. “You’re a member of that cult, aren’t you? You’d hand me over to them!” While the governess could not find a response, Cinderella addressed Aleron: “Which cult do you belong to and why do you want to help me?”
“I worship Love, and Love compels me.”
“Nonsense—!” the woman shouted, only to be cut off by the demand of Aleron as to how much the orphanage asked as a donation. The woman said: “Thirty pistoles.”
Aleron’s brows clouded. “You know that three hundred livres is at least ten times the top price orphanages ask for.”
“That’s the price. I’ll scream for the gendarmes if—”
Aleron counted out thirty silver coins under the governess’s shocked eyes. He had saved for an exquisite set of slate and shell stones over the course of three years to replace the glass ones on his go board. Aleron looked forward to hearing the wondering exclamations from the other regulars at the coffee house. Though he intended to purchase them today, the death of his confessor disturbed him such that he neglected to visit the Oriental store. Handing the coins over to her, he commented that now she would have no cause to call the authorities. He took the also gaping Cinderella by the hand and left.
As soon as they walked out the door, Cinderella began crying. Aleron comforted her, saying not to worry since they might not even need to face any difficulties. The Labeans still remained ignorant of the will of their gods. He told her that he possessed a splendid house and that she would obtain the benefit of living there for the rest of her life. When the violence of her tears lessened, Aleron asked who bestowed such a pretty name on her.
“My parents named me after the girl in the fairy tale.”
“Which fairy tale?”
“You’ve never heard of Cinderella?”
“Everyone’s heard of Cinderella. You must be a blockhead.”
Aleron shrugged. “You’ll have to tell me sometime.”
When Aleron and Cinderella passed by an antique store—which marked the halfway point to Aleron’s house—on the corner of square dominated by printing and newspaper shops, Cinderella decided to ask Aleron for his name.
“You can call me ‘Father’ or ‘Sir.’”
“I’m not going to call a stranger father! Tell me your name!”
“That’s my most important name, daughter.”
As though from ambuscade, a malicious shiver ran through Aleron’s body, and nausea began to oppress his head and throat. In piling martyr upon martyr, blasphemy upon blasphemy, sin upon sin, greater evil pervaded La Rochelle’s very fiber. It seemed to Aleron that God stayed his wrath only because of the saints’ blood sanctifying the city’s streets. How ironic for a city to abhor its very saviors! However, sometimes a pagan would be struck by the patience of these same martyrs and find his way into the Church. Now, Aleron intuited that some poised themselves to commit another infamy. Gripping his silver cross, Aleron felt the atmosphere clear itself of malice and regain its ordinary squalor.
“Cinderella, I think we should hurry home.”
“I know! I’ll call you blockhead until you give me your real name.”
Aleron advanced with quick strides, ignoring the taunts of “blockhead” delivered by the girl. Soon, Aleron grew uncomfortable even with this pace. Lifting Cinderella upon his shoulders, he jogged the last ten blocks home. He could not have chosen a more precise moment to pick up his pace. As he unlocked the door, an exclamation of “There she is!” knifed into his back. Nevertheless, Aleron possessed enough time to stick out his tongue at the pursuers before bolting the door in their faces—much to the amusement of Cinderella, who hastened to imitate him.
Aleron did not have to worry about them breaking through any windows on the lower story to invade his household, since metal grilles covered all of them (a barrier which all prudent men possessed in the city). As the men outside pounded and hollered at the stout, oaken door, he led his chuckling girl to the second and highest floor of the house, which contained the bedrooms and his study. Upon reaching the top floor, Aleron entered his bedroom in order to open a window upon the scene below.
“Are you Labeans?” When they answered in the affirmative, he continued: “What do you want with me?”
A middle-aged man with a long, salt-and-pepper beard spoke for the rest: “You have the girl, the sacrifice which will free the world of evil!”
Aleron saw Cinderella trembling and sniffling beside him. He told her not to worry. Turning to the ones below, he said: “I don’t believe you. I desire to speak with the pontifex maximus first, Count Gauthier de Rochefort, who is well known to me.”
“He’ll be here soon. The proprietor of the orphanage told us that you stole away that girl, and the high priest wishes to see you personally.”
“Good. Tell him that I have some wonderful cognac to share with him.”
With that repartee, he shut the window. Looking at Cinderella’s patched up dress, he told her that he’d purchase the finest clothes he could for her. Aleron led her into his study. Here, Aleron would finish paperwork or read a book. Many of these had been given by his generous friend, Gauthier; otherwise, he bought a new volume when financial success allowed. His collection included two pieces of contraband on which he prided himself: a volume of the Gospels and book by the Christian priest Ruy Lopez on the chess opening he made famous. At Aleron’s favorite coffeehouse, the other regulars considered him untouchable in that system. For the other books, Aleron favored leather bound editions of old French and Italian poets, but also kept some flimsy paperback works of contemporaries, the cheap, acidic paper of which turned the pages yellow in four months. His friend believed Aleron intelligent enough to learn the Classical tongues as well; but, despite the familiarity of some of the vocabulary, the convoluted syntax and interminable pages of diagrams made his head spin.
Besides the materials collected on a single, three-tiered bookcase, the study included a chess table, desk, four padded chairs, and a go board along with the two jars for the stones propped against the wall. Looking upon these things, Aleron smiled: how suddenly fortune had ended his time for leisure!
Cinderella examined the weighted, wooden pieces on the chess board. Aleron asked whether she knew how to play. Cinderella responded that she had never seen such a thing in her life.
Aleron said: “Everyone knows about chess. You must be a blockhead.”
The girl pouted. “Who’d want to play such a stupid game anyway?”
Aleron took a seat at the other side of the board. “Nevermind. Most people from the countryside don’t know about these things.”
“How did you know I was from the country?”
“Your accent mostly, though not knowing about chess confirms it. It’s a very popular game here.” When Cinderella didn’t respond and several moments had passed, Aleron said: “I’ll teach you the game while we wait.”
“I don’t want to.”
Aleron’s face turned grim. “I said that you’re going to learn.”
She turned her back on him. Aleron spun her around to face him.
“Cinderella! Unless the Labeans change their minds, they mean to kill you. Only by obeying me can you hope to stay alive.”
“I don’t want to listen to you. You’re not my father!”
“Well, confound it! I’m you’re guardian!” Aleron’s oath and dour countenance brought tears into Cinderella’s eyes. He kept his eyes locked with hers. “Earlier today, a Christian priest was executed. The man was not shown a shred of decency by either the executioners or the mob. These are the same people who want you in their hands.” He drew the now weeping Cinderella into an embrace, careful to hide the fact that his eyes were watering. “I know that I’m not much, but you’ll have to rely on me. Listen to me.”
In the midst of her sobs, someone rapped on the front door. Aleron placed Cinderella carefully on one of the chairs so that she could get the sorrow out of her system. Aleron looked out again from the bedroom window and found that an even greater crowd had formed in the street with Gauthier at the head. Aleron hurried back to the study to set up a couple of glasses by the cognac he wished to offer his friend. Before he answered the door, he took a broadsword from a plaque hanging in the study. As Aleron descended the steps, Gauthier knocked one final time and announced himself. Aleron pulled open the door and pointed his blade at the intruders.
Gauthier smiled. “You have never greeted me like this before, Al.”
Aleron gestured to the others by the entrance. “It’s for them, not you, friend.”
Gauthier addressed his fellow cult members: “I alone shall enter this gentleman’s house. The rest will stay out here.” He turned to Aleron. “I am sure that we can work something out.”
Aleron lowered his sword. Gauthier entered as Aleron bolted the door behind him. Gauthier admired the dining room on the ground floor and commented that Aleron ought to have gotten married by now in order to fill up the place. Aleron grunted, saying that at thirty years of age still more time remained for that. Aleron also observed that Gauthier, his exact contemporary, still refrained from choosing a wife, despite being most eligible. Gauthier responded with a single word, “Touché.” Then, they began to ascend the steps.
Gauthier said: “I see that you still keep your grandfather’s sword in good condition. Ready to fend off the English or the Vikings at any time?”
“Always be prepared.”
When they entered the study, Gauthier cast a pitying glance at Cinderella, who now huddled behind Aleron’s desk at the far end of the room.
“So, this is the waif. Child, the gods Bona, Verus, and Pulcher have made you the line which must be severed in order to cast off all evil from this world. I always expected the sacrifice to be something more hideous in aspect, but the will of the gods is mysterious.”
“Nonsense,” Cinderella mumbled. “Your religion is nonsense. I worship life-giving Priapus.”
“Priapus!” Gauthier exclaimed. “To think that that deity is yet worshipped!”
Cinderella grew pensive. “All the farmers from my village believed in him.”
Meanwhile, Aleron had poured out two glasses of cognac. After he brought Gauthier his glass, he found himself at a loss for words. Gauthier asked what Aleron wished to toast. Aleron swirled the amber liquid in his glass until Gauthier decided on something.
“To our friendship! May it last forever.”
Aleron brightened up a little. “Salut!”
Each took a generous sip of their glasses. Aleron appeared to enjoy cognac more than Gauthier, but the nobleman commented that connoisseurs held Le Renard Bleu in great esteem. Then, each took a seat at the chess board and began to discuss the matter at hand. Gauthier led the conversation.
“Al, I must confess that I have no idea how to change your mind, as much as I desire it. I can pay you back the thirty pistoles and however much you wish in addition.”
Aleron glared at him. “I never knew—”
“I know that you can’t be bought.” Gauthier sighed. “Not even if I offered one hundred thousand louis. But, think how senseless it is to oppose the largest religious congregation in La Rochelle. Even if I used my authority, I could only restrain my members for so long. You too would die.”
Aleron took a moment to nose the cognac in his hands. “If I did as you wished, my cognac would lose all its flavor.”
Gauthier smiled. “It makes me joyful and miserable to hear you say that.” Gauthier paused, looking at the black pieces before him on the chessboard. He said, “I do not know the next time we might have the opportunity…Shall we play a game?”
Aleron nodded, pushing the king’s pawn up two spaces. Gauthier did the same. Aleron attacked the lonely infantryman with a cavalryman, Gauthier defended with his queen’s chevalier. Then, the king’s cleric rushed out to threaten the weakest square in the enemy camp as Gauthier brought forth the other unit of his cavalry—initiating the Two Knights Defense to the Italian Game. Aleron advanced his knight, rushing his two available units into attacking the king. Indeed, Gauthier counted on Aleron’s usual haste and advanced a pawn to threaten both the cleric and the advanced infantryman with death. After a series of captures, Aleron sacrificed his knight to discomfort the enemy monarch and begin the dangerous game known as the Fried Liver Attack. Aleron desired a swift and brilliant victory. Gauthier wished to reveal the folly of his opponent’s sacrifice and to grind his foe into surrender. Aleron, realizing that time allied itself with Gauthier, deployed his forces such as to retain the initiative and annul black’s advantage in numbers. Gauthier, however, marshaled out his forces with exactitude and fended off white’s attack with key exchanges.
Once Gauthier forced the queens off the board, Aleron’s game collapsed. The extra piece made its presence felt in the end game as one foot soldier after another of Aleron’s perished. At last, black began to march his two last infantry units forth toward white’s empty queenside for advancement. After the last of white’s officers landed in enemy hands, Aleron’s king flailed helplessly before the encroachment of monarch, knight, and two pawns until these two pawns queened and slew the white monarch.
As Aleron tipped the king over in defeat, he noticed that Cinderella had approached the board in order to watch the game. When Gauthier rose to leave, Cinderella hid herself behind Aleron’s back.
Aleron said: “Glad to see that you developed an interest in our game.”
“You are far too reckless, Al, as always,” Gauthier said, finishing off his cognac. “The era of playing for an early checkmate is coming to an end. The way to win is by forcing material loss.”
“Actually,” Aleron countered. “Chess is all about finding the truth. It was on your side this match—”
“And every match you play that ridiculous attack.” Gauthier glanced at the go set against the wall. “However, I could never figure out that game, despite coming close to winning here and there.”
Aleron now stood up to see off his guest. “That’s because one can’t avoid sacrifice in go.”
“Indeed,” Gauthier said, as he put on his coat. “Al, I do not know how long I can restrain my Labeans. Nor can I guarantee your safety outside your home. I hope that you will rethink your obstinacy.”
“You know me, Gauthier.”
“Yes, I do. I will tell the rest how things stand.” At this point, Gauthier’s dark brow furrowed. He continued: “But damn it all! Why do you insist on throwing your life away!”
Aleron cheeks seemed to grow red on hearing this rebuke, and he could not meet Gauthier’s eyes until he had an answer. “I always strive to do the right thing, as you do. If Death meets me because I oppose the immolation of an innocent girl—”
“She is not innocent! I cannot prove it to your satisfaction; but if my gods demand her death, if over three-quarters of La Rochelle are demanding her death…” The clamors of the impatient crowd outside the house accentuated this remark. “She deserves to die for the good of the world and for the good of the people.”
Cinderella had backed away to the farthest corner of the room from Gauthier. Her heart threatened to beat itself out of her chest and deafen her ears, and mortal dread suffused her clothing with sweat despite the cool temperature of the room.
Aleron responded: “I have no confidence in your gods nor in the frenzied mob begging for her head.”
“Yet, you have faith in love, Al? If love is so worthy of trust—the love you adhere to, why are so many more people embracing the whores in Aphrodite’s temple? Where are your fellow lovers to come to the rescue of this young girl—surely, none of them hazarded themselves for the priest this morning, that pitiable creature—”
“—and though the entire city knows your plight, none will help you except me.”
“Gauthier, I know you wish to help me, but the life of my body will be the death of my soul in this matter.”
“No, not at all…” Weariness covered Gauthier after this energetic outburst. “Indeed, Aleron, you must act according to your conscience. But if only you knew the tremendous good which will come of this sacrifice: all evil will be driven from the world.”
Aleron pointed to his heart. “This is the one place I am most responsible for preserving from evil.”
Gauthier sighed. Placing on his overtunic, he walked with Aleron to the front door in silence.
As Aleron opened the door, Gauthier said: “Please, think about what I said. Until we meet again, my friend.”
“Until then, dear friend.”
Gauthier pat him on the shoulder and left. Aleron bolted the heavy door behind him and went up to see Cinderella. He saw the girl distracting herself with the chess pieces after having reset them to their original squares.
Aleron smiled. “So, do you want to learn how to play after all?”
“Sure, but I worry that learning from a bad player like you might make me a bad player.”
Amused by this remark, Aleron ascertained that Cinderella knew all the rules. Satisfied, he removed the queen and rooks from his side of the board. In answer to Cinderella’s protest, he told her that he would add a rook to his side of the board after she had beaten him. After confusing her by playing a flank opening, he delivered an embarrassing checkmate using only a knight and bishop.
“Ohh!” Cinderella exclaimed, pouting. The game had done its work in separating her thoughts from the vehement cries for her death.
“You’ll get better, my dear. Now, we really need to pack up.”
“Well, you can have a bite to eat first, but you heard Gauthier. He said that he would restrain his men for as long as he could. How long do you think they can restrain themselves from realizing paradise on earth? The one event they have been living for?”
“Noon tomorrow at latest.” As if to validate Aleron’s statement, a brick shattered a window on the second floor of Aleron’s house. Aleron sighed as he poured one last serving of cognac. “So, we must leave tonight and go inland, where the cult has no influence.”
“Can we take the chess pieces?”
Cinderella smiled. “Thanks, Al.”
“You’re supposed to call me father.”
“That’s only my nickname, you know. You still haven’t learned my given name.”
After a light repast of bread and cheese, they placed everything vital for traveling into two small packs. Aleron feared the worst, and wished to have good mobility. Not caring a wit for the city’s laws during this crisis, he wore his grandfather’s sword upon his waist and mail gauntlets upon his hands. He himself donned his best winter gear, and—having performed a swift tailoring job on some of his own garments—dressed Cinderella up as a boy, concealing her grey hair in a broad brimmed hat. With these preparations complete, he left a brief will on his dining table, which gave all his possessions to his aunt. Then, he bid goodbye to his home and went down to his cellar. Here, he awed the girl by opening a hidden passageway into the city’s catacombs.
“Why do you have this thing?”
“Having an entrance into the city catacombs is useful for all sorts of reasons.”
Aleron opened up a lantern in his hand, and began to walk down the corridor before them. Cinderella and Aleron remained silent for some time as they passed rows of the deceased. The silence caused Cinderella to contemplate a topic to which her mind could not help turning.
“Why do you want to help me?”
“Because it is right. Too many people have been murdered by the followers of the absurd cults making up Europe.”
Here, he stopped at a recess containing the corpse of a certain woman. Fresh flowers rested beside the body, and a crucifix hung from a nail above the recess. The authorities could no longer punish her for that. Aleron lingered until Cinderella recommended that they continue, since the odor and grimness of the place oppressed her.
As they continued on their way, Aleron said: “That was one such victim. I was going to marry her.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Cinderella would have said much more had she seen the crucifix above her, but the penumbra of the lantern and brim of her hat obscured it. They trod through the dank halls of the catacombs, which the lantern light illumined just enough for the escapees. Again, the girl could not bear the stillness of the dead.
“Aleron, who killed your bride to be?”
The girl’s face grew pallid. “Was she a Christian, then?” When Aleron replied in the affirmative, she said: “Did you know that?”
“But, you must know that that cult is illegal. How could you love one unless you’re a Christian, too?”
“Law around here is often unlawful. In any case, I must confess that I belong to that body.”
Cinderella’s countenance displayed surprise mixed with horror. “But you said that you worshiped love! Was that a lie?” She drew back from him. “You’re not going to eat me are you?”
Aleron could not suppress a laugh. “Christians don’t eat people. It’s easy to accuse those who can’t defend themselves of the vilest things. Besides, would a cannibal choose a scrawny thing like you for dinner?”
“But you lied when you said—”
“The one God who rules the world is Love.” He paused for a moment before continuing: “You wish to know what Christians believe? I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…”
Cinderella stood with rapt attention as he recited the creed. After he finished, he told Cinderella that if she did not wish to dwell with a Christian, she could enter a different household once they escaped. Then, Aleron continued making his way toward the exit. Cinderella hesitated a moment before she followed after him.
She looked at the lifeless shells lining the walls and said: “Will there really be a resurrection of the dead?”
“So I believe.”
“Everyone? My mother and my father as well?”
“Naturally, we all possess an immortal soul.”
This conversation about the immortality of the soul and resurrection of the dead lasted until they arrived at the exit of the catacombs. Cinderella required him to explicate all points of eschatology with her. Cinderella became less querulous. Not so much because she accepted what Aleron said: Aleron could not convince her of anything he said. A chasm of doubt separated her from the fantasy Aleron professed.
Before they exited the catacombs, Cinderella noticed that a graveyard occupied the land in front of them. Aleron placed a finger on his lips for silence. This entrance into the catacombs had been constructed into a hillside near where the cemetery opened onto a street. At first, this cemetery had marked the city’s limit, but La Rochelle continued to grow until a substantial area of the metropolis extended past. A line of tall, dour wooden tenements towered overhead on the other side of the road, somewhat obscured by the mist and rain which began while they traveled through the catacombs.
Aleron ascertained that the slat on his lantern covered its glow and allowed himself fifteen minutes for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. Having accustomed his vision to the darkness, he examined the rounded tombstones and peered into the alleys and windows of the houses. At this late hour, no light save one in a far off tenement glowed, and Aleron discerned neither watchmen nor pedestrians on the street. Satisfied, he gestured for Cinderella to follow him. Enduring the pelting rain, they scurried through the few monuments between them and the street. Once they had planted their feet on the road, a man behind them began to shout.
“The fishmonger’s fleeing with the sacrifice! The sacrifice is here!”
Then, the watcher sounded a horn for those that had not heard his bellowing. Aleron turned around to see a man standing at the very top of the hillock they exited. Growling at his bad luck, he drew Cinderella with him into the nearest alley. Making a hard left down a narrow street, he entered another alley two blocks down in order to resume the course toward safety.
Indeed, every circumstance seemed against the preservation of his life: halfway into the garbage-strewn passage, three rapier-bearing Labeans dashed toward Aleron with fatal intent. Aleron, seeing no way to evade these aggressors, told Cinderella to stop and drew the blade at his hip. The combatants met in a clash of steel. With a mail ensconced hand, Aleron diverted the whistling tip of one foe’s blade. The simultaneous maneuver of his cut-and-thrust sword pushed up a second opponent’s blade with a counter cut. His stroke severed the man’s sword arm, causing him to fall in agony. Due to the narrowness of the alley, the other man could not reach Aleron past his fellows.
Aleron leapt back to counter a fresh onslaught. The nearest man aimed another thrust at Aleron, but Aleron sidestepped it such that the blade just grazed his side and one foe obstructed the swordplay of the other. At the same time, Aleron cut the attacker from the collarbone to the bottom of his ribcage. This maneuver placed Aleron’s back against the wall. The last foe attempted to pin him with a lunge, but Aleron brought his blade up to trap the rapier. The opponent hastened to dislodge himself from Aleron’s blade, but Aleron used this opportunity to slug the foe’s head into the wall and the world of dreams.
Seeing that the last conscious opponent could do not harm, Aleron hurried back to the petrified Cinderella dragged her past the crimson lake surrounding the dead and wounded. Aleron sent up a silent prayer that no one else would come between them and freedom.
Aleron gained not his wish. Despite the convoluted route he described, despite his every effort to avoid the sound of voices, two assailants once again trapped the fugitives within an alley. Much to Aleron’s dismay, these same individuals had come to his shop earlier to bargain down the price of squid. Now, father and son aimed a bow and a crossbow at him with no place to hide. Aleron told the now flagging Cinderella to run behind him. He commanded her not a moment too soon, for two bolts sped toward him. The son missed. The father hit Aleron square in the chest.
As the needle-like tip seared into Aleron, he let forth a sharp cry and began stumbling in the watery lane. Yet, he kept his feet and continued toward the foe. The son needed much time to wind his crossbow, but the father’s next arrow came in quick succession. Aleron hoped he could dodge this one, but the suddenness of the shot gave him no time. This bolt penetrated his guts, taking his wind and filling his senses with fiery agony. Aleron thought that he watched himself rather than moved himself the last several paces between him and Arnoux. Due to the poor conditions,the archer misjudged that he possessed time for one more shot, and Aleron pounced on him like a wounded lion. Knocking the bow aside, Aleron split the man from shoulder to hip. The man’s son, Marlon, could only watch in horror—his crossbow only half drawn. Aleron spared the son and destroyed the crossbow with a swift chop. Cinderella, once again shocked by the bloodshed, trembled where she stood. Waiting for Cinderella to come toward him, Aleron leaned on his sword, panting for breath.
At first, Marlon kept looking from his disfigured father to Aleron. Then, the sound of Aleron’s voice begging Cinderella to hurry jolted him out of stupefaction. As Cinderella joined Aleron, Marlon found his tongue.
Aleron glanced at him before turning with Cinderella to continue the escape. In Aleron’s pain, he forgot that there remained one weapon which the boy could use. Marlon took up his father’s bow and planted an arrow high on Aleron’s back just before he turned a corner. A fresh wave of stinging pain coursed through Aleron, but he forced himself to struggle toward the limits of the cityscape, which was just in sight.
The boy had not the heart to leave his father’s corpse in pursuit. He knelt by the body and wept—as the rain wept with him.
Aleron could see the forest beyond the road and fields encircling the town. In hope of attaining the promise of safety, Aleron trotted out into the sodden street only to have an unconquerable mob materialize through the mist and darkness. The brightness of opened lanterns stopped Aleron in his tracks. The mob shouted for his blood and began to advance. Cinderella buried her pale face into Aleron’s side. Aleron stood there leaning on his sword—deciding to bring down one more foe rather than surrender.
But a personage separated from the crowd and held up his hand for silence. Aleron recognized his best friend, Gauthier, who announced that he wished to have a word with the meddler in order to give him once last chance. This time, Gauthier greeted Aleron with a naked blade in hand.
“Good evening, Al. How I wish that we could have met again under different circumstances. Yet, I suppose that now you can see the necessity of handing over the girl.”
Aleron grimaced through his pain. “No, my friend. I can’t.”
Gauthier stiffened. “Do not be unreasonable. Even if you were whole, you could not prevent us. If you are brought to a doctor soon, you might even survive those terrible wounds.”
“My God did not suffer me to live until now to see me betray a young girl.”
A new wave of pain pulsed from Aleron’s wounds, causing him to wince. Gauthier almost went to place a hand on his shoulder, but he limited himself to the look of pity which imbued his face. A new thought came into the nobleman’s mind.
Gauthier’s brow furrowed. “Does your god force you to do the impossible?” Here, Gauthier lowered his voice. “Your Jesus of Nazareth?”
Aleron jumped. “Where…How do you know?”
“I saw you at the gallows’ square holding your silver cross in plain sight. I marvel that you did not perish then and there.”
Aleron smiled. “Then, you know why I cannot hand her over.”
“Do you want to die that much?”
Gauthier turned away from Aleron in order to contemplate another line of reasoning. He shook his head. Turning to the Labeans surrounding them, he made an announcement.
“This man is a Christian, and his beliefs compel him to futilely decline my offers of clemency.” After the gasps and exclamations ceased, Gauthier continued: “But this is not an evil man, only deluded. I shall convert him by revealing how impotent his god, a dead man, is.” Now, he turned to Aleron: “I challenge you to a combat before our gods, mine and yours. If you win, it will show that this girl is not the sacrifice we need—the result of a misinterpreted omen—and you both shall be exiled. If I win, the girl is to be handed over, and you shall convert to our religion. Are these terms acceptable?”
Aleron stood up straight, snapping off the ends of the arrows which protruded from him. He lifted his sword in salute and said: “Against the figments you worship, I need only call upon my patron, St. Peter.”
Gauthier commanded that none interfere in the combat and that guards be placed over Cinderella, but not to be harmed in any way until the outcome of the duel ascertained the will of the gods. Upon hearing this, Cinderella clung to Aleron. Aleron comforted her and bade her to do as Gauthier said.
“No, I don’t want to leave you! You’re far too hurt to win. If I’m going to die…at least save yourself!”
“Don’t fear. My God is the God of gods. Even should I perish after this duel, I shall win. Then, you’ll be free.” When she still would not budge, Aleron said: “Trust me.”
After Aleron entrusted her with the small pack he carried, Cinderella hung her head and went to the guards assigned to her, who rejoiced to have the sacrifice in their hands. Aleron pulled off his cloak, groaning as the weight lay on the arrow sticking from his shoulder blade. Then, a coughing fit convulsed him. At the end of it, he found a splatter of pink blood on his hands and smiled.
Walking on the muddy field toward Gauthier, his friend and foe, he said: “I suppose that I’m beyond help now.”
“It is due to the gods showing you disfavor. Shall we begin?”
“Yes, through the aid of St. Peter, I shall conquer.”
“Bona, Pulcher, and Verus forbid it. En garde!”
Both sides closed the distance over the soaking field outside of town as the rain reduce to a drizzle. Aleron’s charge brought up great splashes of muddy water, while Gauthier almost seemed to glide across the earth. Aleron brought down his blade toward Gauthier’s sword arm. Gauthier dodged and thrust toward Aleron’s ribs. With a gauntlet covered hand, Aleron pushed the thrust wide. Both sides recovering, Aleron rushed to grapple with his foe. Gauthier warded him off by a feint aimed at Aleron’s face. In order to counter this, Aleron slide his sword against the rapier to control it. Blades shrieking against each other, Aleron closed the distance only to have Gauthier sidestep and slam his curved guard into Aleron’s forehead.
Aleron reeled back, but Gauthier made no attempt to press his advantage. A red gash marred Aleron’s head and blood trickled into his eye as if sweat from an exhaustive practice. Aleron, seeing Gauthier make no advance, pulled out a handkerchief to staunch the blood; however, the vision in his right eye seemed hazy.
Gauthier said: “Will you not yield now? That new wound only makes your future defeat more evident.” When Aleron failed to respond, Gauthier continued: “Besides, think of how many people are wishing for the taint of evil to be removed from our world.”
“An unwilling sacrifice could never accomplish that.”
“Nonsense! A sacrifice never wills its own demise. All those unwilling sacrifices combined with our prayers have delivered us this girl, who will end all the suffering people are going through.”
The precipitation combined with the blood flowing from Aleron’s wound no longer proved adequate to the task of staunching that wound. Aleron threw it away.
“The fight’s not over yet. The reading you took beforehand has not yet been validated. Also, the greatest suffering afflicting humanity has been destroyed for those cleaving to my Lord. And that required a willing sacrifice!”
“Is there really no way to end this combat besides your death?”
“I cannot desert the one who never deserted me.”
Gauthier lifted his blade.
“Then, this is the end for you…for us.”
Aleron winked—whether from the blood seeping from his eye or bravado none could tell. “God knows. But I intend to swindle.”
Aleron cast forth a great battle cry and charged, holding his sword aloft with both hands. Gauthier stood there with his sword pointed toward Aleron’s chest, analyzing this unexpected maneuver.
With its emphasis on the thrust, the rapier could almost be considered a shortened spear. For this reason, longsword wielders incorporated many of the tactics used against spearmen into their methods for defeating opponents bearing a rapier. The chiefest of the rules established for this kind of combat required that the swordsman remain in middle guard, because of the swift and often unexpected nature of the thrust. Gauthier never expected Aleron to violate this rule by switching to high guard and intending a diagonal or that most fundamental and basic of attacks—the vertical cut. Gauthier felt as if in the presence of a charging wild boar, who attacked in just as simple and baneful a manner.
He realized that Aleron had placed all his hope in assistance from his God. Gauthier felt that he could not do otherwise. During this entire episode, he understood that if sacrificing Cinderella was not a divine command, if this imperative was nothing more than a delusion, if his gods really were the figments Aleron named them, then he verged on committing one of the blackest crimes of murder-tainted human history. He responded to Aleron’s iron faith with his own oaken conviction. He would meet Aleron’s most basic of basic strikes with the rapier’s own most basic of attacks: the lunge.
Well before Aleron could cut, Gauthier thrust his rapier into Aleron’s heart. However, this cold steel doused not the divine fire within that heart. Though Gauthier tried to draw his steel out, the speed of Aleron’s rush prevented him from coming free. Gauthier saw the lightning blow of Aleron’s blade as if stuck in eternity. Slow though it appeared, Gauthier knew he could not avoid it. Examining the terrible wounds dying his drenched friend’s clothing incarnadine, Gauthier smiled. Truly, that man was the Son of God.
Aleron’s coruscating blade severed Gauthier’s soul from its body in an instant. After Gauthier’s corpse collapsed upon the muddy earth, Aleron—expecting to die in moments—hastened to announce his victory. Cinderella rushed out from the astonished guards to join Aleron, who now leaned upon his sword lest his trembling frame fall too soon. The Labeans dispersed—some grieving that their hopes for paradise had been dashed; others cursing the memory of their fallen high priest, who could not read an omen. None came to claim Gauthier’s body.
The rain ceased at last as false dawn began to break. Cinderella ran up to find Aleron crying as he knelt on the muddy ground beside the body of his friend. She stood for a moment hesitating: she did not know whether to thank Aleron or give him condolences.
“Ah, my dear friend,” Aleron groaned. “That things have turned out like this… Miserable, hateful day!”
Cinderella did not know what to say. Her heart fell as she stared at his grave wounds. While the two remained thus, three men exited a nearby house bearing a stretcher and a medical case. When they arrived, Aleron coughed up more bloody phlegm and verged on fainting.
“Hold on, Brother Pete,” one said. “We still might be able to help you.”
“Thanks, Theodore. Please, once I’m gone, look after this child and bury my friend.”
“Don’t say that!” Cinderella shouted. “I lost one father already and don’t want to lose another one! Don’t die! Father! Father!”
But Aleron already slid into unconsciousness. The three men worked to remove the sword and arrows from Aleron’s body so that they could lie him on the stretcher. One marveled to find a gouge in Aleron’s cross: the slight deflection of Gauthier’s blade caused by this symbol had prevented an instantly mortal wound. Meanwhile, Cinderella begged one of the Christians to save his life and asked if Aleron could be healed. The gentleman sighed. Honesty prompted him to reveal that Aleron would not last half an hour more. He had lost too much blood. Even if somehow enough remained in his system, his pierced lungs and bowls would end Aleron’s life. Tears poured from Cinderella’s frantic eyes.
“Al…Father is hurt because he felt that his god wanted him to help me. It’s all a lie! All religions are! In my town, we prayed to Priapus when the crops were failing. If they got better, the god helped us. If they died, then it was some fault of ours. There’s no Priapus! No Jesus of Nazareth! There are no gods! They’re all lies and stories. Or if they exist, they don’t care. Jesus is leaving Aleron to die…mud covered…heartbroken—”
One of the others interrupted. “It’s simply not true that Jesus doesn’t care. He is the only True God.”
“Then where is he? Does he do anything? He’s as dead as my father is going to be.”
All three men stood silent as Cinderella lost herself to grief. As they laid Theodore on the stretcher, Theodore broke the silence.
The two others gasped. “Theodore! What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that she’s going to be right at this rate! The reason we cleave to our faith despite having the entire world against us is because we believe that God cares, that he can aid us, and that he has freed us from death. He’s not only an idea or block of stone. The miracles of the apostles and saints prove it!” He stopped a moment to address Cinderella: “Girl, do you want something to believe?”
Cinderella choked out: “Help…my unbelief.”
Theodore said: “Aleron himself would be against it, but let’s ask our Lord to help him lest this girl lose faith.”
The two others agreed. Crossing themselves, they began to pray for Aleron’s recovery. Cinderella’s tears abated a little. Her hopeful eyes watched for some fairytale ending—that the tears of the sorrowful might be turned into laughter. Aleron stirred not.
When the Christians had finished, they picked up the stretcher and began to bear Aleron to their house. The sun appeared from atop the housetops and began to shed its warmth on La Rochelle, which was much appreciated after that awful night’s freezing rain. Smiling, one of the Christians told Cinderella that Aleron would be alright. Before the girl could yell at him for mocking her, Aleron coughed.
“What happened? I felt sure that I was leaving this world. Now, I fell rather fine.”
“Theodore said: “We prayed—”
Cinderella’s enthusiastic embrace of Aleron interrupted Theodore as he struggled to keep the stretcher from falling to the ground.
Aleron, quite overwhelmed by her exuberance, said: “I’ve been waiting to hear you call me that.”
“Father, if I become a Christian, will you promise me never to do anything dangerous again?”
Aleron frowned and looked at his torso. He found no trace of wounds, though his forehead still bled. “I’d say that you’ve hardly a choice in the matter now, and I should make promises I’m likely to break.” He sighed. “Another chance to be with Marie lost.”
“What are you talking about, Father? You have to take care of me and buy me some beautiful dresses, as you promised!”
Aleron chuckled. “I guess that I can’t leave you then. Troublesome girl.”