The Deal with Ethan Moiré - 1793
Soldiers had always said shots sound like angry bees. Ethan didn’t know what angry bees sounded like, but he doubt they sounded like this. He was also in doubt that bees could chip away at the wall above him. Ethan ruffled his hair, throwing bits of plaster and mortar onto the grass he was lying on. A small, metal ball also fell onto the grass. It must have bounced off the wall. It had been meant for him.
Ethan lay at a connection between the cottage and small stone wall. It had probably been at least five feet high before being mostly destroyed by canon fire. Now it barely covered his head as the balls whizzed overhead. He could still hear crackling sound of nearby fires, shouting and musket shots from inside Neerwinden village. In the distance he could the rolling thunder of stampeding horses and dull thumping of cannon fire.
“Fuck, shit, fuck, merde, shit,” Ethan muttered to himself. The French canon twenty feet away went off. While his ears rang, he could just hear the men shouting at each other to re-load. They frantically scrambled around each other getting to ready to fire. The acrid smoke blew over to Ethan. He remembered this time to shield his eyes. As he lowered his hand, he wiped away the tears, snot and grime.
Eyes no longer welled up, Ethan could clearly see the row of bodies lying down between himself and the cannon. Pierre, Gabriel and Michel all slumped awkwardly against the brick wall. Louis was still drooping over it, his body randomly twitching as it caught stray shot. Timeo was the closest to Ethan, less than a foot away, one blank eye staring straight into Ethan’s. The other eyeball was hanging out of the socket slightly from where the shot had shattered his cheek bone.
Ethan looked back over his shoulder to see the rows of French reserves in the fields framing the village. Originally they had all been up here with him but had been slowly retreating, leaving a trail of bodies along the way. He pushed his face into the stone wall and closed his eyes, holding back his sobs. He was an idiot for not retreating with them.
Instead, he and the boys had decided to charge over the wall towards the Habsburgians. As Timeo, his best friend, had screamed, “Pour la France”, Ethan had panicked and stayed down. Louis had made it the furthest over before falling to the Hapsburg line of fire. Ethan had tried to stand up, but his legs turned to mush and he just fell down again. He had watched everyone die. There was no noise or outcry, everyone had just fallen and stopped moving.
Ethan had grown up with all of them. They had been standing on each other shoulders, cheering as the executioner had held up Louis XVI head to the crowd. The next day, they had signed up together. This country had become a Republic worth dying for. Rather than wait for the next campaign to the south, they had all rushed up northward to meet the forces already fighting in the Austrian Netherlands. This battle was the first push into the Dutch Republic. They had talked about dying together, killing hundreds of cheeseheads before they did. But now… he didn’t want to die, he didn’t want to fight. He just wanted to home and work in his father’s smithy.
He looked over his shoulder again. It might be his imagination, but the reserves looked further away. He would die if he tried to run to them. As he watched, Habsburg cavalry charged into the side of the French formation. Frenchmen were trampled under horse-foot, sabres swiping left and right. In half a minute, the French reserves had been cut down or crushed. The sound of their screams had been cut short by the cannon going off again. The black smoke obscured his view of the massacre. They were meant to have double the amount of cavalry as the Austrians. He was going to die here.
“Hé! Hé! Vous là-bas!” Ethan head snapped back to the cannon. One of the crewmen was gesturing for him to come over. The other two remaining crewmen were struggling to load the field cannon.
“Au secours!” They needed help. Everyone else was dead and they were his best chance of surviving. He began to crawl forwards over the bodies of his comrades and friends. The shots had at least stopped for the moment, the Austrians probably changing formation to get a better line of sight. As Ethan moved over Timeo’s lifeless body, he kissed the man on the side of the head.
“Au revoir mon amie.” He crawled over Pierre, under Ethan’s legs and then over Gabriel and Michel. He came to a point in the wall which was still standing at a height which allowed him to move into a crouch. The artillery men were frantically trying to reload, the man who had called him over kept looking in his direction while sponging the inside, exposing himself to the attackers.
Unfortunately, between the cannon and himself, there was an open gap in the wall where there had once been a gate or archway. To get across, he’d have to be entirely exposed. Ethan didn’t want to die here, or over there, or anywhere for that matter. The cavalry that had charged down the French infantrymen hadn’t turned their attention towards the cannon yet. If he ran, he’d have a good chance of making it across.
Ethan thought he saw movement through the gap and across the road in the church graveyard, but it near impossible to see. Maybe he should just surrender. But chances were they would just kill him on the spot. He focused on the next part of the wall which could shelter him, next to the artillery man who was calling him over. He began to take quick deep breaths, bordering on hyper ventilation.
Ethan could already feel his legs wobbling and face pumping from the adrenaline. His lip wobbled and felt the tears gathering in the corners of his eyes.
“M’adier dieu. M’adier dieu. M’adier dieu,” Ethan chanted under his breath, but prayers to God were useless now. He wasn’t ready to face God, or the Reaper for that matter. Ethan’s legs tensed as he got ready to spring forwards. He closed his eyes to push the tears out.
The world slowed down in front of him. The artillery man seemed to move like snails, smoke swirled in the air like a lazy dancer and even small sparks from nearby fires hovered like fireflies. Then the world slowed to a stop. This wasn’t the adrenaline taking over. There was no motion or sound. That one artillery man was still staring at him, waiting for him to come over. Even from here he could see a single drop of sweat frozen on its way down the man’s face. The fires emitting from the nearby church had were like a painting and none of the horses in the field moved. But it wasn’t absolute silence. He could hear himself breathing heavily through his mouth, and there was another sound. Steady, calm footsteps were approaching.
The form of a man ducked under the cannon’s barrel and pushed the smoke out of the way as he moved towards Ethan. The smoke drifted a foot and then froze mid-swirl. The figure was definitely a man. He seemed to be dressed like a privateer from a century or so ago with a long, black, leather jacket; a dirty, white shirt and breeches that were tucked into shin-high boots. His head was completely shaven short with small, fine stubble on top
Ethan stood up slowly as the man advanced to within arm’s length of him. The man’s lazy smile rested between a pencil-thin moustache and goatee. His eyes were a coffee brown and mimicked the attitude of his mouth. In flawless French he said,
“Hello Ethan, what a pleasure it is running into you.”
“God?” The man looked behind him, and then around the battlefield.
“No God here I am afraid. This does not really seem like his kind of place.”
“Are you… Death?”
“Ethan, Ethan, Ethan, I believe you are under the wrong impression,” said the man as moved even closer. Ethan couldn’t work out whether the man was short or whether he was in some kind of permanent hunch.
“I am not God and you are not dead. Well, you are not dead yet. If you wish to find death, you have certainly chosen an excellent spot.” Ethan was silent is response. He had always been good at reading people, one of the reasons why he could beat most in a card game, or swindle his way into an aristocrat’s gala, back when there was an aristocracy.
This man’s eyes betrayed nothing, and he had the relaxed smile of someone who was completely in charge. Ethan guessed that if he could freeze the world, then he would feel completely in charge as well. The man continued,
“If you wish to find death, then I am wasting my time.”
“What’s your name?”
“Artur O’Knox, at your disposal.” The man stepped forward and bowed low, flourishing his right hand in the process. An Englishman? Or possibly Bavarian?
“I also apologise for my attire. It is hard to keep up with the latest fashion when they keep changing every fifty years.”
“What do you want?”
“I am here to offer you the deal, possibly the best deal of your lifetime.”
“Yes, your ears have not deceived you. You see, I am in a very unique position to offer you exactly what you desire.”
“Are you the devil?” Artur rolled his eyes.
“Listen, I am offering you a way out of this,” said Artur waving his hand in the direction of the town of Neerwinden midway through its destruction.
“I am offering you immortality.”
“As in, I can never die?”
“Très bon Ethan. You would never grow old. You would never become sick. Any injury you take would heal right before your eyes. You would never, under any circumstances, die.”
“Can’t you just send me home?” Artur shook his hand, wagged his finger and tutted, maintaining eye contact with Ethan.
“Sorry Ethan, the deal is immortality, nothing more, nothing less.”
“I’ll take it.”
“Pull up the reins there Ethan. I have to disclose the T’s and C’s first, before I can, in my good conscience, offer you any deal.”
“Ts and C’s?”
“Termes et conditions.”
“They are quite simple really.” Artur poked his thumb up.
“You may sire no children.” He raised his index finger.
“You may amass no wealth, nor hold no land.” He raised his middle finger.
“You must never be in a position of authority over man.” He raised his ring finger.
“And you must unequivocally, without question, obey every command, order and instruction I ever give you.” While Ethan was struggling to read Artur’s face, he thought he saw a flicker of darkness in the man’s eyes; an old, ancient darkness that sent a small shiver up Ethan’s spine.
“So I can’t do any of those things?”
“You can do any of those things any time you want. But if you do, the deal is broken. Every injury, scar, cut, broken bone or, your God forbid, death sustained from the commencement of the deal will catch up with you.”
“So… as long as I don’t die, even if I break the deal, I’ll be fine?”
Ethan looked around the town. To the left he could see the Austrians in the graveyard outside the church ready to fire in his direction. To the right, the Hapsburg cavalry were already charging towards where the French camp was. The only Frenchmen and allies he could see were five meters away with the cannon.
“I’ll take it.” Artur clasped his hands together and rubbed them.
“So … do I sign a contract … in blood? Or do I give you my soul? I don’t have to kiss you do I?”
“Blood? Soul? Kissing? Ethan I am not the Devil, or a princess, or a lawyer. And blood? Putain…” Artur’s smug expression temporarily faltered. His eyes turned dark and his voice became almost guttural, “… I am not a Faerie.” Artur’s face quickly reverted back to its normal smug form.
“Anyhow, the deal is done. You are immortal.” Ethan looked at his hands and down at his feet. He didn’t feel any different.
“I’m immortal, right now?”
“Correct, although I would not try to immediately test it out. You do still feel pain.”
“So I have to obey that?”
“That is more of a recommendation than an order. It is time for me to be on my way. Things to do, places to see, you know how it is and all.”
Artur spun around on his heels and walked through the destroyed archway which Ethan had planned to run in front of five minutes earlier. Artur paused as he reached the gap in the wall where the cannon was protruding from. Ethan watched as Artur reached through the hole and pushed away the bullet heading straight towards the head of the Frenchman that was staring at him.
As Artur continued to walk away, without turning around he waved his hand in Ethan’s general direction.
“See you soon Mr. Moiré.” Artur took a turned behind a stone fence and was gone. Ethan stood still, staring at the spot where Artur has disappeared. He didn’t notice the point when time resumed, but he did notice the crewman carrying a cannonball take a direct hit to the head. He couldn’t be sure, but the ball that hit the crewman might have been destined for the man still gesturing to him.
“Vous là-bas!” the man cried again. Remembering where he was, Ethan suddenly crouched down. If he got killed, there was no backing out of the deal. Ethan took some short, quick breaths. He was immortal; he couldn’t be killed. His injuries would heal; he couldn’t be killed. From a crouch, Ethan sprinted forwards. In half a second he was at the cannon, in the arms of the Frenchman who was laughing and ruffling his hair. He quickly felt his body, but there was no pain.
“You made it friend, let’s kill some inbreds,” said the man with a crazy smile. Ethan couldn’t help but laugh. Looks like he would live to see another day, and every day after.
A whistling sound approached. The men, cannon and wall exploded in front of him and Ethan was lifted off his feet, sent flying backwards. Stone, metal and blood followed him as he flew into the house wall where he had started, hitting it with sharp crack. He slumped against the wall, unable to breathe. He tried to inhale but his diaphragm wouldn’t let him. His vision was blurry; all he could see was fire. But he managed to see a booted foot fall into his lap, originally belonging to one of his fellow Frenchmen. They were all given the same boots for battle.
Ethan’s eyes managed to focus beyond the foot and he realised that it probably didn’t belong to the other men. His left leg was missing from the hip down. A single artery was spurting blood in quick rhythm all over a rogue intestine. His other leg was missing from just above the knee. He tried to reach towards his leg, but his right hand was mangled mess of bones and sinew. Ethan still couldn’t take a breath. But it didn’t matter, because he was dead.
Ethan’s heard a crow’s caw. Opening his eyes he saw the shining sun and immediately shaded himself with his right hand. He lay there and breathed deeply in for a second. He then turned his hand over several times. There was dried blood, but it seemed perfectly fine.
A crow cawed again and he felt sharp pricks in his left leg. He quick sat up to see a big, shiny crow perched on his bare leg. His clothing had been utterly destroyed from his belly down. The crow looked straight into his eyes.
“How are you feeling kid?” Ethan cocked his head and looked back at the crow.
“What did you say?” The crow took flight and flew low over the remnants of the cannon.
“I said, how are you feeling kid?” Ethan looked up to his left and saw a grinning man peering over the wall down at him.
“Well I’m certainly not Belgian.” Ethan couldn’t help but smile.
“No need to smile, I can see you’re happy to see me.” The man indicated towards Ethan’s legs. Ethan was happy to see that he had both of his legs, which were looking better than ever. But he also couldn’t help but notice something else looking better than ever.
“Oh, shit. Ah, sorry.”
“No apologies necessary friend. It’s the best time for it. We’re leaving.” Ethan started to get up.
“What’s going on?”
“Old Dumouriez negotiated with that Austrian prince for a free withdrawal. We’re getting the fuck out of here.” Ethan was now standing up. He could see French, Austrian and Dutch troops wandering the battlefield looking for survivors. The French were carefully avoiding the other two groups. The man looked around conspiratorially and leaned closer.
“My name is Horatio. Listen, me and a few of the boys are going to hightail it back to Paris. Fuck this shit. I signed up for France, not for some pompous general who happily marched us to our cheesy doom.”
“How many of you are going?”
“Based off what I’ve heard, the entire army.” Ethan looked down at his naked legs and curled his right hand into a fist. He felt amazing.
“All right, let’s go.” The man looked down again before saying,
“Let’s get you some pants first.”