I marched ever westward after... No more stomach for war or soldiers or whatever may have crawled out of that shallow grave. I followed a trail of displaced peasants for a league or so, picking at their elderly and infirm in the night. Helped to disguise my predations but Coña Maria - how thin and oily their blood tasted! How relieved I was upon waking one night to smell that thick odor of civilization on the breeze!
Besancon wouldn't have the peasants - at least I assume so, as so many remained outside the walls. But walls, dear Doctor, are but an inconvenience for me - I bounded over them that first night! Had to cross some water first, leading to the happy discovery that I can't drown. After thrashing around for a bit...
Ah! A French city! But still an Imperial city - un Ville Libre d'Imperial, as they were so proud of declaring, even to each other. Frequently. Though quite different from all those other imperial cities I'd known before, both day and night. Much cleaner for one, much more varied peoples - more flavorful, if you will permit me Doctor. I took a room on the Rue de Savoie, overlooking Batten Bridge to the east and the Citadel with its gleaming white walls - gleaming even in blackest night! - visible from the roof.
I am rather fond of clambering over rooftops, I must admit...
A good house with a good proprietress. She left me to a small room near the top and even supplied me with heavy curtains upon request. She never asked why I should need them, nor why I never appeared downstairs until after dark and returned just before dawn. A rarity - an old woman who does not go about sticking her nose into the business of others!
I shared the house with some other drifters and vagabonds. Madame Boulin, the proprietress, held no prejudice against race or creed so long as there was hard coin in the bargain. A delightfully mercenary old woman - she also offered hot food and mending and the services of her sickly daughter Amanda. All for a price!
She needed to be so enterprising. Counting myself, only half a dozen boarders ever called that heap of a house a home. Always felt like more though, what with Amanda's own children getting underfoot. Three of the buggers with a fourth that thankfully ran away. All from different fathers too, their mother being such a loyal and hard worker...
The two longest boarders - besides myself - were an Abbe by the name of Valenod and an old grump calling himself Herr Ganz. Now Valenod, he was a local boy - went to seminary right there in the Citadel! Ganz was, naturally, a German gentleman and all around pain in the arse. Always grumbling over this or that, always blocking the narrow stairwell, always engaging that young Valenod in some blithering argument over religion.
Oh, Ganz was a Lutheran! And proud of it, for whatever reason... I saw him only ever enjoy himself when either haranguing the young abbe or stuffing Madame's sausages in his mouth. "You priests!" he would say around fat gibbets. "You dress yourselves in gold and claim to speak for the humble Christ! And then you... You eat him!"
That really put Ganz in a fury. Not just eat - understand, Doctor, those Lutherans all had a bumpkin's understanding of theology. They took all the talk of transubstantiation and sacre sange literally. Poor Ganz believed little Abbe Valenod shat out Christ every Sunday!
The Abbe took it all in stride, though. He'd sit there at Madame Boulin's table, withering the old German's condemnations and spittle, and hit right back - "But how can you yourself claim to speak with authority on such matters? How can any common man?"
"Christ speaks to my heart," Ganz would intone with what I'm sure he intended as pious humility but always sounded like sanctimonious pajer. He had the provincial's confidence in his own senses and experiences and would have none of the educated Abbe's high-minded and scholarly arguments.
"'For since according to the definition of the Stoics, wisdom is nothing else than to be governed by reason,'" the Abbe intoned, his voice light and mocking. "And on the contrary Folly, to be given up to the will of our passions, that the life of man might not be altogether disconsolate and hard to away with, of how much more passion than reason has Jupiter composed us?"
"'Faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace!'" Ganz fired back. "'So sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times. To be a Christian, you must pluck out the eye of Reason!'"
Hang them both - that's how I felt. Thank their Christ I had no need to join them at the dinner table - or don't thank Him, come to think of it. Madame Boulin didn't mind the ruckus though and Amanda...
Well, she had too much of a fixation with me to be really bothered... Truth be told, she wasn't my type. A plucked chicken with hair like old straw, though she couldn't have been more than twenty-five. How she'd survived squatting out those little beasts of hers... well, they likely wouldn't live to adulthood. Not all of them...
Amanda dotted on me, as much as she could... Laundering my shirts or polishing my boots or greeting me every evening as I descended to the parlor with a cup of chocolate... How difficult it was to throw surreptitiously, always under the eager eyes of that eager and unwanted admirer! Thank God for her screaming brats, distracting her long enough for me to to fling it out an open window or - a last resort! - swig it all down, to be wretched up later.
Though I really couldn't blame the girl... All those children out of wedlock... A pimp for a mother... And no eligible bachelors in sight save for Ganz - who'd much rather prattle on about religion!
How that old German would fill everyone's ears with the Protestant line! With the tyranny of Catholicism! Never mind Bohemia and Breitenfeld - nothing was settled! I once broached that particular subject to Ganz, who got a glistening look in his eyes and declared, "I rode with Gustavus himself when I was young! There was a true champion of God!"
When he was young! Doctor, understand the shock this was to me! Though time had passed since that first night in the church - so much time - I'd taken no notice of it. I looked then as I did on that first night - as I do now! - but had never before taken notice of the fact.
How it thrilled me! Again, I had no more understanding of my condition than my own experience. So I did not expect to be somehow beyond the vagaries of age! That night, I danced across rooftops and when swooping down on a pair who left a tavern too late I had a smile on my face and a twinkle in my eye!
It's not the last time transports of joy have compounded my misfortunes though... Had I kept a more level head, I might have paid closer attention to what bits of real news managed to worm its way through the Besancon streets to Madame Boulin's table. Imagine my surprise one night, while scampering across the Besancon rooftops, to see far out beyond the city walls and encamped army!
I'd seen enough such encampments - been encamped enough myself! - to recognize a siege in preparation. I resolved there and then to flee Besancon as fast as possible! Though a task easier said than done, I soon learned, as that army had already put a lockdown on all travel to and from the city - therefore my old trick of smuggling myself in a peasants caravan was right out. Horses wouldn't come near me and I'd seen enough of the open countryside on the way in to fear being smote to ashes by the dawn should I just leg it.
A bothersome development... And then the artillery started...
I was roused by the plucked chicken - in the middle of the day! The terrible light of the noonday sun beating against my heavy curtains! The girl shook me awake with pitiful pleas of "Oh, Monsieur Vasco! You must get out! Now!"
I muttered some oath in my native tongue to convince her to piss off. Little idiot didn't understand a word of Spanish though...
"The cannons!" she persisted. "They are battering down the city! We must all take shelter in the cellar!"
And for emphasis, one of our neighbors on the narrow Rue de Savoie was smashed to pieces just outside my window.
That got me going! Just enough - I dragged and scraped my way downstairs after the silly girl, recoiling at the blinding, searing sunlight that poured in from the open windows. I must have smelled like burnt bacon when I reached the cellar but either it didn't show or no one could see my fresh scourging in the gloom...
"Damned Catholics..." Ganz muttered, sitting heavily on a sack of grain that looked ready to burst either from its contents of his great self-importance. "Damned damned damned..."
"Leave off the Catholics for once," Abbe Valenod called to him from one of the few chairs, next to a lopsided table with a lone candle. "This is all political! The king wants the city for his dowry or some such..."
"Then why's he going about smashing it?" demanded Ganz. And he answered himself, "A plot is why! A Catholic plot to seize a free city!"
And on and on and on... I retreated to the darkest corner I could find and huddled next to a molding cask of wine. I shut my eyes, seeking some peace or at the very least distraction in my dreams...
And awoke to a night buzzing far away with activity but utterly silent in this little cellar. Ganz and Valenod had mercifully tired themselves out, arguing over which of them was to blame for the siege, and slept peacefully. With great snoring from Ganz... Madam Boulin had a mat for herself and her daughter, the children clustered about them like piglets in a hutch.
Stretching the stiffness from my limbs, I climbed the stairs to the house proper, hoping to find someplace new to spend my days, someplace more private... Until I reached the door and found it would not budge.
The cannons! They'd smashed the entire Rue de Savoie! A collapsed wall or some such no doubt held the door from the other side and the only windows in the cellar were too small even for Amanda's little brats to scurry through. We were trapped!
Oh no! See the exciting and bloody conclusion in paperback or the ereader of your choice!