The slab of dead meat hung from the rope, swinging like a pendulum to the strumming of the jester’s lute. It was a happy melody, the feast to follow to be even more joyous for the royal party in attendance and their guests. “Good fresh meat,” King Augustus smiled through his overgrown white beard still reeking of sweat from the battle the day before, and from the conquest of women acquired from such that night. The malshaped monarch proudly stuck out his overgrown belly over his short, stocky, knob-kneed legs. “It has been a long time since my army and people had good fresh meat to feast upon,” he proclaimed.
Augustus’ men agreed, some of them anyway. They had been walking behind the King’s horse for two hard weeks, the last three days of it a forced march through the worst kind of terrain the Northern Woods could provide. Their numbers had been decimated by half during the campaign to rid their land of barbarians, and all of them had been well-versed on the benefits of becoming Christian. It was a strange new religion for Augustus too, but one which suited his New Order, and the serfs who he considered his responsibility. Besides, the King owed Jesus for his defeat of the marauders from the North, and protection from the slanted eyed Asian hordes reported to be on the way from the East. Still, Augustus was as much of a Pagan as his father was, and practical about how to make the day after a bloody battle a bloody great time for those who he could pull out of it.
“Sing, jester, sing!” Augustus smiled at the lute player whose voice was still fresh. “Dance, brave comrades, dance!” he beckroned his soldiers whose feet were still blistered. “Repent!” he grunted at the slab of meat.
All obeyed, except for the slab of dead meat, which was of course dead, all except for the eyes. They were still open, staring back at Augustus with more vitality than any whore he had ever purchased, and more defiance than any rebel prisoner he had ever captured. Then again, there was Jesus up in the sky, or more dangerously, in the minds and imaginations of the army Augustus had converted so that he could more easily command them. Augustus pulled out his knife, staring into the eyes of the corpse, hearing things from his mouth that he knew were only reaching his ears. “Stop that, Johan!” he grunted under a hushed breath. “You’re dead, and will never be resurrected. And to be sure, my men will eat your body and drink your rancid traitor blood!”
“The body of Christ,” former Pagan Alchemist, now Abbott Bartholomew, asked his former chieftan. “That is what some would say we are eating,” he continued, looking behind him at the mob of starving peasants who were rounded up to see what happened to Messiahs who tried to save them.
“That would make us Roman, then,” King Augustus said, recalling that his new name was not the one he was born with. “Would the old gods be good with that?”
Bartholomew pondered the matter, stroking the deep wrinkles in his long, ancient face. One which had been that way for as long as the forty-five year old Augustus or any of his contemporaries still alive could remember.
“Well!” Augustus barked at the old man, noticing that there were more angry growls from the peasants than mournful cries. “What do the old gods say about what we’ve done? Will they still protect us?”
“As long as we protect ourselves,” Bartholomew offered with a slight bow.
Meanwhile, Johan the Rebel still stared at Augustus from the other side of that line which no man, or god, had been able to come back from. No matter where King Augustus went, the eyes on the lifeless corpse followed him.
“You know we had to do this,” the new Abbott informed his soverign in the manner of a mentor, and physician. “Just like you had to have me shave the crown of my head,” he continued, rubbing the top of what was three months ago a completely-hair-bearing scalp. “I will miss having a long horse’s mane on my head almost as much as our people will miss making bargains with the old gods, but this is a new time, for new measures, and Johan—”
“—Would have pulled us back into the savages we were,” Augustus admitted. “Which is why we must tear apart his flesh, and make every man, woman and child in our jurisdiction eat it. And if they refuse, we cut out their tongues.” He turned around to the master cooks below who were collecting whatever vegetables, grains and animal meats that could be pillaged from the villages that had given Johan shelter. “A piece of the Rebel in everyone’s plate!” Augustus declared to the soldiers, who cheered him. And to the peasants who became abruptly silent. Particularly when Augustus carved a portion of flesh from his enemy’s sword arm, and placed it in his mouth, chewing it with a wide, victorious grin. But Augustus’ taste for human flesh was not what it used to be.
“You want some salt with that?” Bartholomew mused as he saw nausea in Augustus’ face.
“Your portion will be spiced with hemlock!” Augustus warned his subordinate.
“For every poison, I do have a remedy, you know,” the old man who knew he had lived too long already noted, sadly . “But to die the way Socrates did, would not be so bad.”
“But, dear Abbott, this is a GOOD day!” Augustus said as he swallowed his portion of ‘Johan’ flesh, making mince meat of the rest of the arm and throwing pieces of it into each of the eating pots, a line of ‘hungry’ peasants now herded in front of each of them. “Today I, King Augustus, invite you to my feast!” he proclaimed to his congregation. “Tomorrow, you will eat well too. Whatever you want! I make a bargain with you! All of you! I allow you to put whatever you wish into your mouths so you and your children don’t starve, and I say what comes out of them! I declare this to be fair, as did the old gods, and now as the New God says as well!”
But the creation of the gods, and the One True God, had something else to say about it. The clear blue sky gave way to black clouds, then thunder, then lightening with a bolt that went straight to King Augustus’ royal dagger. It fell out of his hand, onto the ground, brightly shining. All eyes stared at it with terror, and awe, save one.
A girl of twelve years of age, by the best estimates, emerged from the crowd of peasants. Lidya by name, the village idiot by reputation, her mother’s accident by birth. Her twig-like legs bent with each step, but stood proudly when she picked up the dagger, felt the ornate carving on the handle, then gazed at its sharp blade with fascination.
The crowd of peasants looked at her with fascination as well, and awe. One by one, they kneeled in homage, followed by the lower ranks of the soldiers, most of them being conscripted peasants themselves. Then the middle ranks, who had been paid with gold rather than bread or the sparing of the life of a close relative.
“Well, do something about this!” King Augustus growled at his new Abbott through gritted teeth and a still confident grin. “You’re a magician, aren’t you?”
“Not powerful enough for what I want to do, but perhaps what I have to do,” Bartholomew smirked. With that he walked through the crowd worshipping the mutant girl who didn’t know she was to soon be elected Queen. He placed his hand on the child, on the lower portion of the child’s neck, at just the right spot, causing her to faint. As she fell to the ground, he grabbed hold of the dagger before it hit the ground. He threw it back up to Augustus, who caught it by the blade, not letting his subjects see his bleeding palms.
“Rise up, on your feet!” the ancient Alchemist and present-day Abbott commanded the commoners, well aware of who was watching him. “Beware of false gods and goddesses!” he continued, as he allowed himself to once again be seen as a god himself. “And how they turn innocent, kind girls into demons!” He took Lydia into his arms and carried her away. “I will do my best to cure her of this affliction. You must all cure yourself of your own.”
Bartholomew took Lydia into the woods, walking deeper and deeper into them until he disappeared from the view of Augustus, the crowd, and even the still-Alive eyes of Johan the Rebel.
All eyes turned to Augustus now, and the manner of feasting. He looked at Johan again, and took everything into consideration. “Alright, you win, for today!” he growled at the corpse. “We feed you to the crows instead of your people!” The restored Monarch turned to his people, some of them bowing to him because they feared him, others because they needed him, and others because they admired him. All three motivations worked.
“Be it known that all who oppose the Goodness of this new kingdom, and the God Above who ordains it, shall suffer in this manner!” he said regarding Johan. With one nod of his shaking and terrified head, the proceedings continued, close enough according to plan.
The jester played his lute. The soldiers sang. The peasant girls danced. The king ordered mutton to be put into the cooking pots. And the crows got to dine on Rebel Stew in the woods. But not without some protests from a fair-skinned young woman whose face was drenched with tears of grief and anger. With all the strength in her thin, mud-caked arms, she throw rocks at the hungry birds while the guards in charge of the corpse pickled what was left of their minds with wine.
“You bastard, how could you do this to me!” Bridgetta screamed at what was left of Johan, the man who she had loved more than life itself, exhausting herself with each stone she threw at him. “You knew it was suicide to fight Augustus. And you did it anyway! Why?”
“Because he had to,” an old woman of Bartholomew’s age but not his current religious ideology pleaded to Bridgetta. She held back Bridgetta’s arm from grabbing hold of another rock with her arms, while giving what she hoped would be considered the ‘evil eye’ to the guards so they would not even think about raping the young widow. “Johan did what he did for us, Bridgetta!” she said. “And our people!”
“What about his family?” Bridgetta growled. “He cares about his people and his reputation in stories around the campfire more than his family?”
“He left you enough gold for you and the children, Bridgetta. More than what most of the villagers have, or ever had.”
“And I’m supposed to share that gold with everyone else now, Ronita?”
“Some of it, perhaps,” the old woman said, choosing her words carefully, gagging the tone of her voice. And hoping that none of the new Christian King’s guards understood, nor recognized, the ancient, and now Royally forbidden, tongue she and her younger ‘Earth Sister’ spoke. “But please, don’t be angry at Johan for sacrificing his life.”
“Throwing it away, charging on his horse and saying ‘victory or death’, against an Army that he knew would kill him!”
“And would see that he was braver than anyone else,” Ronita admonished.
“More cowardly!” Bridgetta blasted back. “He didn’t have the courage to live as a common man, in a common village, with me. He had to be a hero!”
“Some men are not satisfied with the world as it is, and who rules it, my dear, fair and still beautiful young Earth Daughter.”
“Not so beautiful anymore,” Bridgietta blasted back. She pulled out a knife, grabbing hold of her long red hair, and held it to her scalp. The soldiers took notice, motioning for her to do it.
“She will not give you the satisfaction, Sirs,” Ronita informed the guards, respectfully, in the official language which was now to be spoken in Augustus’ new kingdom. “And neither will I,” she continued, pocketing the knife inside her dress, taking a now emotionally-drained Bridgetta out of the woods, leaving her beloved to the mercy and delight of the hungry crows.
The two woman argued amongst themselves, loudly, in their own language. The soldiers paid no mention to it. But a set of eyes peeking out of the bushes did. “You know, both of these two women do have a point. To kill yourself can be an act of courage or cowardess. And no one really knows which is so, except, perhaps the one who has done it. And the One, or ones, who he goes to perhaps doesn’t care which is which. Or so we hope anyway.”
The little girl who Bartholomew was addressing didn’t understand his words, but she trusted his motivations. Such was all he needed for the job at hand.