An Atalantean Chronicles Story
I was as cold as I’d ever been in France. The driving rain had soaked through my greatcoat as I marched along towards the pub. And yes…. yes, my day’s misfortunes weren’t about to end.
The ladies of the white feather, those righteous harpies sending the souls of the young men of England off to the bloody Great War, huddled under the marquee of the theatre where they’d formed a fortress of outrage. Each had a handful of white chicken tail feathers to hand to men of fighting age showing the men were cowards and should be on the front line defending both England and themselves from the heartless Germans instead of safe here in England.
One of them, her hat dripping water onto her nose which she wiped with a lace handkerchief, stepped out in front of me. She braced her shoulders and stood as tall as she could. I smiled to myself as I noticed she was as tall as I was. Mind you, I’m a short man by current standards. They didn’t make them very tall when I was born.
I noted the Memorial Cross pinned to her lapel, her china-blue eyes glaring at me, and the disapproving scowl as I met her eyes. But I also noted how lovely she was so I was kind. And yes, before you launch off about treating women as equals, this was a different place and a different time. Young army widows deserve a bit of leeway.
“Sir, are you a coward? You should be helping defend the empire,” was her opening gambit as she extended her hand with a rather large white feather. The thought ran through my mind that this must have been from a white rooster’s tail. But I reached out and took it from her, anyway. “Thank you, ma’am, I’ll add it to my collection.”
I unbuttoned my coat, pulled back one flap to show her an inner pocket full of white feathers, stuffed the feather between two others and quickly closed and buttoned my coat. I’d made the mistake of pride, showing off the feathers, and now I’d pay for it by losing whatever heat the coat had held in. A conspicuous shiver ran up my back.
“You should shiver in your cowardice,” she said.
I didn’t reply, I was lost in the pain in her eyes. But I managed a nod, reached out to block her with one arm and spun around her – a move I’d learned on a battle field several thousand years ago – and felt the cold settle into my knee as I twisted, causing me to hobble instead of march to the pub doors. I glanced back, and the women were paralyzed, but all glared at me. So I nodded to them and walked into the pub.
The heat of the coal stove felt good as I pulled off my coat, hung it beside the stove to dry, nodded to Sam behind the bar, but walked the length of the bar to sit as far from the door and as close to the second stove as I could.
Five seconds later, the door banged open and an entire army of outraged women marched in.
“Atalan, you owe me, and when I find you again, you’ll pay you heartless bastard,” I said in a clear but soft voice. If he was listening for his name, I wanted him to find me, to come for me.
The herd stopped twenty feet from me except for one – older than the first and with a wedding ring on her finger- who marched right up to me, a feather held in front of her like a sceptre on coronation day.
“Sir, were you fighting overseas?” she asked in a tone that would brook no lies. “I noticed you hobbling a bit.”
I stopped the charade. Nodded at her, and said, “Yes. I was there.”
“Sir, can you prove it?”
I decided to end this once and for all. And before you ask, yes, I don’t consider myself an evil man, but I couldn’t resist shocking these very upright and proper ladies. I decided against showing them my service medallion, they were such tempting and easy marks compared to the women of Ur or Rome. I pushed those memories down.
Stood up, pulled my suspenders down, turned around to show the women my back, tugged on my shirt and pulled it up just high enough to show the women the three red, raised, welts produced by a machine gun as it traced its way across my back.
“Shot in the back,” sneered the woman. “Were you running away?”
I’ve never run in battle, and I’d paid a far higher price than three bullets in many of them. These women wouldn’t understand, and I can no more tell them than I could fly to the moon. I’d be a coward and crazy.
“Come, ladies. England doesn’t need cowards,” she said over her shoulder as she marched towards the door.
As the door slammed behind the last one, the barkeep leaned towards me and said, “That was Mrs. Kitling. Her husband was your captain, wasn’t he?”
The captain had been a good man. The memory of picking him up after the attack, the hellish mustard gas, and heavy machine gun fire unrolled across my mind. I’d slung the captain over my back, grabbed my wounded line mate by the scruff of his shirt and carried and dragged them both back to our forward trench. That machine gun had traced its way through the captain and into my back, killing the captain outright and knocking me facedown into that stinking, blood-soaked mud. And yes, it was painful. Not as bad as being run through with a Roman sword or trampled by Scythian horses, but it certainly stung and wasn’t something to look forward to. I looked over towards my mate and his sightless eyes separated with a bullet hole stared back at me. All of this took less than 10 seconds to play out in my mind.
What the hell. I strode to the door, stepped out into the rain and called, “Mrs. Kitling,” as loud as I could.
She stopped, looked back, sneered, turned again to continue walking.
“I was with your husband when he died,” I yelled into the rain.
That stopped her. She turned and walked back, much more hesitant than before.
“He was my Captain and was badly wounded in our attack. I was carrying him back when we were hit by machine gun fire. Ask the mortuary men if he had the same bullet holes as I do. He might or might not have survived the first wounds, but he didn’t survive that machine gun. I dragged him back so you’d know he’d died well.”
Her eyes teared up, and she nodded. She began turning, stopped, and turned back to face me. “Thank you, Sir. And I apologize.”
She turned, braced her shoulders, and then staring straight ahead she walked away.
There were no words to say. Well, perhaps a few. “Atalan, where in this sorry world are you hiding?”
I’m messing about with a brand new series. What do you think? Want more? Let me know in the comments