The Flowers of Time by A. L. Lester

Edie was still washing when she heard the commotion. The sheep and goats were making a dreadful racket, baaing and wailing much louder than she had ever heard them, even when they were on the move. Then the herd dogs joined in, giving tongue like Edie had never heard before. She didn’t have her stays on. Or her chemise. Or anything. She hastily pulled her dress over her head, grabbed the pistol she kept by her camp bed, and dashed out toward the noise in her bare feet, hair flying.

She ran without a thought. She didn’t know where anyone else was, but she assumed Henry and Captain Carruthers and the young men had already started the day of surveying they had planned last night. She and Jones had discussed riding out to look at the ruined caravanserai they had glimpsed from the hilltop yesterday as they were riding down into the valley, but Jones was usually up and about well before Edie emerged from her tent each morning, as were the rest of the party.

When she reached the little flock of sheep and goats, she stopped in horror. She wasn’t at first able to make out what she was seeing, but then it came into focus sharply, with scents and sounds and colours. There was a tiger in among the goats. It was eating one of them. Margery, the leader of the herd. The three herd dogs were going berserk, barking and making short forays toward the tiger, before backing off again. The goats couldn’t get away because they were tied. The tiger hunkered in the middle of them, with its kill. It was defiantly eating Margery for breakfast.

Edie screamed. The dogs barked. Distantly she heard voices shouting, but they were a long way away.

The tiger looked at her. Or perhaps through her. It had big, black, bottomless eyes and looked annoyed that she had disturbed its breakfast. It stood up, ponderously, and growled. If anything, its eyes became darker and more menacing.

“I really don’t want your breakfast,” Edie said. “I liked Margery; I’m not going to eat her.” The dogs were still barking like mad.

The tiger growled again, sniffing the air. It took a step forward.

Edie raised the pistol. She was pretty handy with it now. Henry had made her practice and practice at home before they had set out on their journey. She could shoot a musket as well, although she wasn’t all that good at loading. Her pistol was loaded. Henry had said that it was dangerous to keep a firearm loaded but that at night, fumbling in the dark to load one if the camp was attacked, would take too long and might get her killed.

Generally speaking, Henry had been exceptionally brutal in his explanations before he had agreed to bring her along. Edie spared a brief second to be grateful to her brother, although not too grateful, because a proper brother would be here at this point defending her from the tiger. The tiger took a step forward.

Edie said “I really don’t want to shoot you. Please take Margery and go away.”

The tiger growled some more. Edie swallowed. She was going to have to shoot it. She had no idea how easy it was to kill a tiger, but she had a vague idea that shooting it and missing or shooting it and only wounding it would be a bad outcome.

It had Margery’s blood all around its mouth and down its front. It looked like it was a male tiger. It had a beard and lots of muscle. It was remarkably large and its eyes were completely black. It probably came up somewhere between her waist and her shoulder.

She really hoped it wasn’t going to kill her and eat her. She didn’t have her stays on. She didn’t want to die without her stays on. Her mother would be mortified.

At that point in her terrified musings, the tiger took another pace forward.

“Oh no you don’t,” Edie said. She pulled the trigger of the pistol. It was stiffer than she remembered and the powder burned her hand, but she didn’t let go of it. The sound of the shot ricocheted around the valley. It echoed for what must have only been seconds off the surrounding hills, rolling around and around as Edie and the tiger stood and looked at each other.

A third eye had appeared in the tiger’s forehead slightly above the other two. It had stopped growling. The pistol was trembling in Edie’s grip and she felt rather peculiar. She lowered the pistol to her side, because she could no longer hold it up.

The tiger began to collapse sideways. Its legs crumpled underneath it, and all of a sudden, whatever had been suspending it gave way and it fell in a heap to the ground.

The dogs ran toward it, first sniffing and circling cautiously and then barking with more confidence. Edie realised she was shaking all over and was suddenly overcome with cold. Her knees gave way and she collapsed in much the same way as her opponent. She rested on the ground unable to let go of the pistol because her grip had become so fixed, gulping in huge lungfuls of air.

At that point, the shouting in the distance resolved to Jones and Sonam. They were both on horseback, riding flat out pressed over the necks of the small horses, Argo outstripping them to run straight at the tiger’s body.

Jones pulled Dancer into a harsh rearing halt and threw herself from his back onto her knees by Edie’s side in the dust. “Edie, Edie! Are you hurt?” She began to furiously pat Edie’s arms and torso, searching for injury. When she found none, she grasped Edie’s shoulders, and shook her a little. “Are you hurt?”

Edie blinked at her rather dumbly, looking down at the discharged pistol in her hand and the powder burn on her fingers before looking up at Jones’s face again as she loosened her grip on the inlaid handle of the pistol, stained dark with her sweat. With a gasp she came to herself, and all of a sudden she began to shake, hard. “I’m not hurt, I’m well. I’m well. But Jones, Jones! It’s eaten Margery!” And she collapsed against Jones, sobbing frantically. She was aware of Jones wrapping her arms tightly around her shoulders and pulling her close, tucking her head under Jones’ chin with a hand on the back of her head, woven into her disordered hair. She was faintly aware of Jones talking to somebody over her head as her free hand moved slightly, soothingly over her back.

After a while, her storm of emotion passed and she became aware of her surroundings once more. Henry was kneeling beside them and his arm was also round her shoulders. Jones did not relinquish her grip. The comforting familiar smell of both Henry and Jones quieted her some more. Finally she was able to regain her composure and drew back a little. “I’m so sorry,” she gasped, taking the handkerchief that Captain Carruthers offered to her from where he stood behind Henry with a hand on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry, please, excuse me!” She sniffled to into the handkerchief a little longer. “I’m so sorry!”

“Edie. Please don’t apologise. You shot a tiger a moment ago. A little emotion is only to be expected.” Henry patted her shoulders, a little awkwardly, and withdrew his comforting arm. Jones dropped one of her arms, but kept the other in place around Edie’s shoulders, a warm support that she needed both physically and emotionally. Edie leaned against her gratefully.

“Are you sure that you are quite well?” Jones repeated. “Yes, yes I am quite well, only shocked,” Edie replied. “I heard the goats, and the dogs, and I ran out without thinking!”

“And a good thing that you did!” chimed in Captain Carruthers. “For otherwise it may have taken all of them or come back again this evening whilst we were all sleeping.”

“Oh! Oh of course! I’m not worried about having killed him, you understand. Just…I am rather taken aback.” She sniffed again into the handkerchief and then looked down at herself in passing, “Oh! Oh! I don’t have my shift on!”

Either Carruthers or Henry smothered a snorted laugh, and Edie became even more flustered. Henry took off his jacket and Jones let go of her briefly and whisked it around Edie’s shoulders. That was better. At least she was decent. “Did he hurt anyone else?” she asked, starting to scramble to her feet with Jones’ and Henry’s help.

Sonam had been inspecting the remains of the tiger and the goat. “No, Mistress Edith. They are all safe. You did a good job, there.” He gestured to the bullet hole in the tiger’s forehead.

“A crack shot, Miss Merton,” Carruthers commented. “Would you like to buy in to the regiment?” “Don’t mock me, Captain Carruthers!” She glanced at him. “I have never been more frightened in my life!”

“My dear Miss Merton, I would not dream of mocking you. That was a perfect shot, under extreme pressure. I know riflemen who would have missed. I think I can speak for all of us and say that we are both admiring and grateful!”

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Date Published: February 22, 2020

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About the Author

I live in South-West England with husband, dog, cat, kids and chickens, I’m non-binary/pan, I write queer, historical, paranormal romance, I have a chronic health condition and I think too much.