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The soldiers were lined up in rows, sunlight glinting off of polished brass buttons and badges. A similar group in different uniforms stared back from the opposite side of the field, weapons fixed and ready. The whole world seemed to hold its breath, even the colorful banners flying overhead falling limp as the breeze stilled.
“Attaque! Pour Napoleon! Pour La France!” The leader of the first group raised his sword as he shouted and spurred his horse forward. Both sides exploded into movement, shattering the silence with their own shouts and screams. Dull thunder of a thousand feet was punctuated by the lightning crack of musket fire, and many along both front lines screamed and dropped to the damp ground.
“I think the guys flying the eagle die the best.” Tucker took another gulp of beer as he watched the battle raging a few hundred yards away. “Lookit the way they hit the ground. Gotta hurt to fall like that. ‘Course, I guess it don’t matter if you’re dead.”
“Nah, they know how to roll. I saw some of the guys practicing yesterday.” Skip Tuttle, his best friend, stuck his and into the bag next to his folding chair and pulled out a handful of potato chips. “Gets them fancy uniforms all dirty, though.”
Tucker snorted. “Screw that! I’d just keep going. It’s all a stupid game, anyway. I’d just say I got missed – not like they’re really shooting each other out there.”
They both fell silent as the two groups met in the middle of the field. Although the screams and shouts drifting across the field were mostly French, some choice English phrases could be heard as the battle degenerated into hand-to-hand combat. Apparently, some of the soldiers shared Tucker’s view and were arguing over their own mortality.
“This is such horseshit!” Skip leaned forward suddenly and flipped on the boom-box stereo hidden behind the cooler. ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ blasted out over the pasture, Elvis’ voice providing an incongruous background for the fighting. Heads popped up all over the field as the King of Rock and Roll literally raised the ‘dead.’
“Dammit! Turn that thing off!” An older man in full uniform stormed over, glaring at the two young men. “No radios, no stereos allowed. This is a historical recreation, not a beach party!”
“Get stuffed!” Tucker sneered and kicked back in his chair. “This is a free country, asshole. If we wanna listen to Elvis, you can’t do nothin’ about it.”
The man’s face reddened, and he started to say something else when the stereo suddenly exploded, cutting off the King in mid-verse. The two intruders jumped up as they were sprayed by plastic debris, which oddly, did not seem to touch any of the reenactors in front of them.
Enraged, Tucker glared around at the soldiers, only to find them looking as startled as he was. Then his eyes locked on a wizened old crone who was hobbling towards them, brandishing a twisted old branch that she apparently used as a cane.
“Grandmama!” The gray-haired man looked at the shattered stereo, and then at the approaching old woman. “Do not interfere! We will handle this properly.”
Tucker blinked. Either the man was younger than he looked, or granny there was older than dirt. How the Hell had the old woman done broken the radio, anyway?
“I tol’ you theeze two were trouble!” The woman’s speech was so heavily accented that she sounded like a cartoon character, except there was nothing funny about her expression. “No respect. Bringing zat noise here. Well, you don’t make no noise anymore!”
“I’m calling the cops, you freak! That’s destruction of private property!” Skip looked for a gun or other weapon that she might have used to destroy the boom-box. Must have thrown a rock.
“I didn’t see anything like that.” A black man in his mid-thirties gave Tucker and Skip a disgusted look. “You dropped it on the ground. Pretty clumsy, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, that’s what I saw.” The growing crowd looked at the old woman and nodded their heads, muttering in agreement.
Granny pointed her cane towards the distant main road. “Get out. Or more zan just your radio will get broken.”
“I am Phillipe Bessieres. I own this property.” The old woman’s grandson returned their angry glares with a cold stare of his own. “We allow spectators here as a courtesy, however, that privilege is only for those who return that courtesy. Leave now, or I’ll have the police escort you out.”
Tucker’s fists balled up, but he knew they had no choice. Instead, he curled his lip and spit on the ground. “Screw all of you weirdoes. Like I want to waste any more time watching a bunch of faggots playing soldier anyway.” He got some satisfaction from the old woman’s facial reaction, at least. “Come on, Skip. Let’s blow this place.”
They grabbed the cooler and folding chairs and tossed them into the back of Skip’s truck. As his friend started the engine, the two young men looked at each other and grinned maliciously. Then they each stuck an arm out the window, gave the assembled crowd one-finger salutes, and sprayed them all with dirt and grass as Skip punched the throttle.
“Crap! That was a good stereo!” Skip pounded on the steering wheel angrily. “I’m gonna get that old bitch!”
Tucker narrowed his eyes. “Yeah – those rich shits think they own the world. I bet their stupid costumes cost more than the two of us make in a month. And that don’t even count the guns and horses and tents and stuff!”
“My name is Gene-Baptist Bessy-aye – I own this property.” Skip mimicked the man’s clipped voice as he scowled through the windshield. “Asshole! Bet he sets that whole fake battle thing up to make himself feel important. He came outta that fancy tent off to the side. They had the banner with the eagle on it flying outside, and I saw some horses behind it.”
One of the local Sheriff’s deputies who had been directing traffic when they arrived waved them to a stop as they reached the exit gate. The officer was talking into a radio, and gave them a hard look as he approached the truck. “You boys been causing trouble?”
“No, sir!” Skip pasted on a surprised expression. “Matter of fact, one of them soldier boys got rowdy and busted up my stereo! I want to file a complaint.”
“Oh, really?” The deputy glanced into the truck. “You know, we got laws against drinking and driving in this state, and that looks like an open container of alcohol to me.”
Tucker’s hand jerked towards the empty beer can he’d stuck in the truck’s cup holder, and then dropped back to his side. “Uh, I think you dropped that radio, didn’t you, Skip?”
His friend gave him a startled look, but then slumped in defeat. “Oh, yeah. Sorry, officer. I got confused there.”
The deputy snorted. “Right. Well, tell you what. Get your sorry asses outa here now, and don’t come back. I got your license number, and we’ll be on the lookout. The Bessieres drop a lot of money into the country coffers every year, and we aren’t gonna let some stupid rednecks screw things up for them. Next time I see you, you’ll be lookin’ at the inside of the county jail for DWI. Even if you’re dry. Got it?”
Skip’s knuckles turned white on the steering wheel, but both of them managed to nod and mumble “Yes, sir.” However, as soon as they turned onto the main road and got far enough away, his buddy hit the steering wheel his fist. “Dammit! That asshole is gonna pay! All of them are gonna pay!”
“How?” Tucker was just as angry, but a bit more realistic. “Hell, we don’t know any of those guys. Besides, they aren’t gonna let us near the place now.”
“You saw all those tents on the far side of the field, right?” Skip didn’t wait for an answer. “They are camping out there – I read about it in the paper. Cooking on open campfires, mostly using the same type of equipment the real soldiers used. Maybe we can pay them a little visit.” A cold smile formed on his face. “We’ll fix things so they won’t ever come back here.”
“Damn, this backpack is heavy!” Tucker shifted the weight on his shoulders, trying to relieve the dull ache that was spreading down his back. “Why’d you have to park so far away? We must have hiked four miles already!”
“Shhh!” Skip spoke in a harsh whisper. “Look through the trees over there. See the lights? That's the camp.”
They crept through the forest, crouching low. It was unlikely that the reenactors had any guards posted, but there was no point in taking chances. Considering the deputy’s reaction to their episode today, the two of them would likely end up under the jail if they were caught tonight.
As sketchy as their plans were, fate was working in their favor. They had stumbled on a small group set up just outside the main camp. A half-dozen or so of the make-believe soldiers were huddled around the fire, listening to a guy reading gibberish from a book while they passed around a wine bottle. From the fumbling and slurred speech, it was pretty obvious more than one bottle had made the rounds already.
Depositing backpacks on the ground, they crawled cautiously to the back of the tents and grabbed what they could find. Although some of the men were still in uniform, all had taken off their jackets, and four had changed into old-fashioned nightshirts. Hidden by the darkness, Skip and Tucker managed to gather enough clothing to put together two mostly complete uniforms. They didn’t have the boots, and some of the items didn’t fit too well, but nobody would be looking all that closely. And if anyone did ask, Skip had gotten the information they needed from the newspaper article. They were ‘grenadiers’ from the 3e Regiment, the French unit sponsored by the Bessieres. Not that either of them knew what a grenadier was, other than some sort of soldier.
Although the two warring armies were split into two different camps, they shared a large, central complex that had stables for all of the horses, a first-aid station, a large water truck, and dozens of yellow porta-potties. The last two items were necessary concessions – the site didn’t have running water, and the Bessieres wouldn’t want four or five hundred guys taking a dump in their woods.
This complex was the target for their revenge. They walked casually through the camp, hoping that the backpacks were not too obvious. Hardly anyone was still up, and the few they saw on the way simply nodded or grunted as they passed. Only a couple of porta-potties were in use, and they were able to slip behind the stables unnoticed.
Working quickly, they dumped the contents of both backpacks on the ground. The water truck was their first target. Tucker climbed up on the side of the tank and managed to open the fill hatch without being seen. There were muffled splashes as he dropped in more than two-dozen packages of black fabric dye. At the same time, Skip was dumping a bag of sugar into the vehicle’s gas tank. With luck, they would try to drive the truck out to get fresh water tomorrow – and the dissolved sugar would ruin the engine.
The next part was a bit more dangerous. They had each brought a 2-gallon container of gasoline, which was poured along the backs of the central row of porta-potties. Tucker finished his side and pulled out a flare, looking Skip on the far end. His gut clenched when his friend didn’t show. Had he been caught? Just as he was about to break and run, Skip showed up, stuffing a small yellow box into his belt.
They had to crouch down and wait a few minutes until the porta-potties were empty. Finally, however, the area was deserted except for them. They struck the flares off in unison, tossed them onto the trail of gasoline, and then bolted for the French camp.
A distant shout of ‘FIRE’ carried clearly through the still night air, spreading rapidly through both camps. The two men were smart enough to stop and turn towards the yellow glow as reenactors stumbled blearily out of their tents. When enough people were milling around, they continued towards the forest casually, unnoticed in the confusion.
As they got close to the woods, Tucker looked back and saw that the flickering light was already gone. “Damn! They got it out fast! Bet they had fire extinguishers in the stable.” Disgusted, he kicked at the ground. “Man, I was hoping for a good blaze!”
Skip looked back as well, but he had a smile on his face. “Oh, don’t worry about it. I arranged for some surprises. Expensive surprises.” Then he started pulling off the uniform as he moved into the trees.
“What else did you do?” Tucker followed, frowning a little. The tank truck was new and expensive-looking, but it was hard to prove much with sugar and dye. “I thought we were just gonna hit the water and the toilets.”
His friend pulled out the yellow box and showed it to him with a malicious grin. Rat poison. “All those pretty horses get fed from a big grain bin. I don’t think they’re gonna feel too good in the morning.”
“Shit!” Tucker looked at the empty box in horror. “That could kill them!”
“So what?” Skip crumpled the cardboard container and tossed it on the ground. “Don’t be a pussy. You think messing up one truck and burning the crappers would really make that much difference to a rich guy like Bessieres? But if he loses a bunch of them fancy animals of his, I bet he’ll think twice about ever doing this again.”
“You shouldn’t have done that!” Tucker looked back, his gut tight again. “That’s good for some serious jail time! What happens if they catch us?”
Skip scowled. “They aren’t gonna catch us. There’s what? Five hundred guys out there? OK, they stopped the porta-potties from burning up. It’s gonna take a while to find out about the water, and the horses won’t get fed until tomorrow. Hell, it will be tomorrow afternoon before they know enough to call the cops.”
“We do not bother zee police with matters like theese.” A small, dark figure moved out of the trees ahead of them. Both men gaped. It was the old woman!
“Shit!” Tucker turned to run, but saw the other man advancing on her with obvious intent to do harm. “No, man! Don’t even think about it!” Skip already had his fist moving as he leaped to stop the attack - only to slam into his friend’s rigid body.
Bewildered, he staggered back and saw that Skip had frozen in mid-stride, his face distorted by a vicious snarl and his arm raised. Before he could react, his own muscles suddenly locked in place. A scream formed in his mind, but even his voice was frozen.
“Lâches! Tueurs!” The old woman spit on the ground. “Cowards! Killers! You weel not find protection in your foolish legal system.” She hobbled closer to Tucker and glared at him. “You deed not know, but you followed this fool blindly.” Her eyes narrowed. “That uniform eez not yours.”
Tucker realized he had not taken off the stolen clothing. Compared to Skip’s crimes, it seemed like pretty small potatoes.
“If you wear the uniform of the Régiment d'Infanterie, you will wear it properly!” She looked him over in obvious disgust, and then shouted, “Fixe!”
His body suddenly snapped to attention, arms at his sides and eyes locked forward. Oh, God! What had they gotten involved in? Who was this woman? Tucker struggled to plead his case, to beg for mercy, to do anything. Nothing responded.
Muttering reached his ears, a chant of sorts. Unable to move his eyes, Tucker caught only an occasional wave of a hand as the woman moved around him. The too-small uniform jacket shifted slightly, falling for naturally as it loosened, and his dark jeans tightened oddly around his thighs and just below the knees. Even his comfortable old sneakers pressed in around his feet, rising up stiffly around his ankles and calves. A weight pressed down on his skalp as a dark shape edged into the uppermost part of his vision. Finally, his right arm shifted slightly as something long and cool slipped inside his hand. The barrel of a rifle. Probably one of the old-style muskets used by the soldiers.
“Cela suffira.” The chanting stopped and the old woman reached up to adjust the chinstrap that had formed with the hat now firmly seated on his head. “That will do nicely.” She stepped back far enough for him to make out her face. “My grandson, he collects soldats de jouet. You will make a fine addition.”
Soldats de jouet? What the Hell was that? Tucker felt cold now, and numbness began to spread from his fingers and toes inward.
“And now for this créature mauvaise.” She looked up into Skip’s hate-twisted face and smiled in a way that made Tucker even more frightened. “You have created your own fate.”
This time, he was forced to watch her perform what was obviously some sort of dark magic, no matter how desperately he wanted to look away. Skip’s body began to swell, and his face pushed out suddenly into a snout as he fell forward. Clothing vanished, revealing black hide that sprouted matching fur. His friend’s hand and feet fused into solid lumps, arms and legs pushing against the earth as they stretched out and thickened. In moments, an enormous black horse stood where Skip had been, tossing it’s head and scuffing at the ground with one hoof.
Tucker realized that the size difference was not all due to his friend’s transformation. He was shrinking, still locked in military attention as the world expanded around him. His arms and legs were completely numb now, only a heavy coldness remaining. Soldats de jouet. Soldats – could that be soldier? What kind of soldiers would a man collect? Then the heaviness of his limbs, the rigid pose, the perfect uniform suddenly made perfect, terrifying sense. Lead soldiers, painted miniature figures.
No! It wasn’t fair! Tucker felt the transformation flow slowly up his belly. Skip had been the one who brought poison! He should be the one becoming a lifeless toy, not some champion horse!
The old woman might have also been a mind-reader, for she looked down at him with a cold smile. “You think I am unjust, yes? Your friend gets to live with the form of a beau cheval, while your life fades away?” She squatted down in front of him, keeping her face in his field of vision as he continued to dwindle. “He may think that, too. But he will find that he must act as the beautiful horse, as well. A beautiful, hungry horse. So sad that someone poisoned the grain. So sad that this beau cheval will be the one who eats that grain. Eet is not pleasant, that kind of death.”
Already less than a foot tall, Tucker could only stare mutely ahead. A dull roaring began to build, drowning out the sounds of the world that he was about to depart. The numbness had reached his neck now, and began to caress his lower jaw with fingers of ice. A monstrous hand engulfed him, and he felt a momentary disorientation. When he could see again, he was looking into the old woman’s face. Balanced on her hand, he guessed.
She leered at him. “Did you know that Napoleon, ze great man himself, employed me? I was heez astrologer, also one who made some of heez enemies disparaissez - vanish. This young fool Bessieres is an ancestor of the real Jean-Baptiste Bessieres, a great general who stayed loyal to heez friend. He truly believes I am heez ‘grandmama,’ and life is – confortable - with heem. Still, I miss the magie of zee old world. Thank you for geeving me the chance to reenact my own part in histoire.”
Tucker’s mind raced as his face began to lose sensation. There had to be something he could do, some way he could get her to change him back! He didn’t want to end like this! It wasn’t fa-