Arthur Blakeney hated September.
He didn’t despise fall’s arrival, or his students’ return to his one-room schoolhouse, or even the picking of apples and pumpkins. He once welcomed all these changes and more, but now they evoked dread instead of pleasure. The annual Honor Ceremony fell smack in the middle of that awful month, and as the schoolmaster of Gribleyton, he was compelled to give a lesson on the reason for the occasion. And that was enough to make him avoid flipping his calendar long after August had passed.
But every year September arrived despite Arthur and his students’ wishes, and today the short, graying schoolmaster faced a room of familiar young people, most fidgeting with excitement and the rest chattering loudly about the evening’s festivities. Arthur was a patient man and fond of his students, but today the chaos grated on his already frayed nerves.
Arthur plucked his flyswatter off the wall—the only rod used regularly in his classroom—and squashed an unsuspecting insect on his desk. The slap drew most of his students’ attention.
“Settle down, everyone. I know you’re all wound up about Honor Ceremony tonight and undoubtedly looking forward to the gun salute and fireworks display.” Arthur attempted his usual smile, which failed dismally. “But I am equally confident that you are aware of the solemn reason for this holiday, and that your respect will be shown by listening diligently to today’s lesson on our country’s bloody civil war.”
An uncomfortable silence descended on the classroom, followed by shuffling as students straightened their chairs and stuck wads of spruce gum underneath desks.
Arthur masked his disgust at the latter unhygienic practice and nodded at the subdued class. “Thank you.”
But instead of commencing the lesson, he rifled through the notes on his desk, trying to delay the inevitable. He had already given the children several reading assignments on the Havanian War. But parents would expect him to address the topic in class, and rightfully so. Those who did not learn from history’s mistakes were doomed to repeat them, Arthur reminded himself.
As soon as he completed this task, they could go back to studying plants and Medellin genetics. With a deep breath, he began the lecture in a monotone.
“Havania’s government was founded on belief in the blessings of liberty and the establishment of justice. For centuries, these principles served the people well. Havania was a just nation, and its people enjoyed a freedom never before seen under a king or tyrant. But just as children’s minds become laggard after a summer spent idling away”—Arthur shot his audience a pointed look—“many forgot how privileged they were to live in a country unmarred by war and hunger. They became confused, misconstruing justice for control, and freedom for laxity.”
On he droned, denouncing the evils of over-taxation and the suppression of free speech. Most of his students’ eyes glazed over, especially at the mention of taxes, but some followed the narration to its end.
Upon reaching the worst bit, Arthur paused as his throat tightened, and when he resumed speaking, his voice was even drier and more detached than before.
“Fortunately, many men and women refused to meekly forfeit the freedom their predecessors fought for. This led to hostilities between the Protectors, as they called themselves, and those who supported the dictatorial government, and the country suffered three years of horrifying bloodshed. I’m sure your parents have plenty of stories about those times.”
Rows of heads nodded, particularly those whose relatives had fought in the war. Arthur repressed his ever-lurking guilt. “Havania had almost completely destroyed itself from the inside when an exceptionally brave group of Protectors, some from this very village, decided to attempt what none had before: infiltrate the capital and restore a truly democratic—chosen by all the people—government. These people sacrificed their freedom and lives for us, and that’s why we have the Honor Ceremony every year.”
There. He had done it again. Maybe after another decade or two it would get easier, but Arthur doubted it.
“Mr. Blakeney?” A boy with wild dark hair waved his hand in the air.
“Yes, Thomas?” said Arthur, though he hadn’t invited questions today.
“Were you a Protector?”
In all the years he had evaded awkward questions such as where babies came from and what shape is the sky, he had never felt as unprepared as he did now.
Thomas went on, “My mum said she used to see them coming to your house at night when she was a girl. And I told her that couldn’t be true, because that would make you awfully old, and ’sides, you couldn’t hit the side of a barn if you were shooting at it.”
The rest of the class giggled, and Thomas flushed red. “But maybe you were a secret Protector who did spy stuff or something.”
Arthur finally shut his slack jaw. “A secret Protector,” he repeated, almost to himself. A dam of memories burst and flooded his mind without warning.
“You can’t be serious. A secret plan to infiltrate the capital?” spluttered Arthur, in an uncanny imitation of the boiling tea kettle on the stove behind him. “You know how quickly news leaks to the government. You’ll be dead before you reach the outer wall.”
“No, we won’t,” said Richard as he disassembled a gun on Arthur’s kitchen table and began cleaning each component. “We’ll be traveling underneath the outer wall, so there’s no chance of being shot before then.”
“You know what I mean!” Arthur snatched the kettle off the stove and plunked it down on the counter. Then he remembered the tile would crack, and he shoved a doily under it.
“It’s practically a suicide mission. Why are you throwing your life away like this?” Arthur sat across the table from the fierce-looking Protector, casting an anxious glance at the drawn curtains behind them. Hopefully any nosy neighbors would assume he was doing some extra tutoring or marking exam papers. If the wrong person discovered he was harboring an armed soldier…
“My life is my own to give. I wouldn’t expect you, a pacifist schoolteacher, to understand—”
“I’m hardly a pacifist, hiding you and your guns here like this—”
“But Havania is near the breaking point. Too much blood has been spilled, too many cities have been destroyed. This war needs to end, and this is the only way to do it.” Richard slammed a bolt on the table for emphasis.
Arthur studied him, taking in the unshaven face and dark hair shading eyes that were becoming increasingly haunted. Then he stood and rummaged through the cupboards for dried mint leaves and sugar.
He had just put two mugs on the table when Richard resumed speaking, this time in a far lower voice.
“Besides, after three years, I’ve had enough. Enough gore, enough death. Enough of fighting so these villagers can live out their insignificant little lives. I might as well end it all by doing something useful, regardless that no one here gives a—”
“No.” Richard looked up in surprise at the steel in Arthur’s voice. “No. You don’t get to end it like this. Have you lost sight of the cause you’re fighting for? Yes, the village’s problems such as lack of imports and patchy radio may seem trivial to you. They’re not dodging bombs or bullets. But they live with the same fear you had of losing home and loved ones.”
Richard winced. Arthur hated alluding to the loss that had driven his friend to join the Protectors years before and fueled his detestation of the government. But he continued.
“Yes, this war needs to end, and I have no doubt it will. But someday I’ll be standing in front of my class, teaching them about the last terrible war and one of its greatest heroes, Richard Davret. And I fully intend for you to walk through the classroom door and see all their amazed little faces. And you’ll know that you helped save them.”
Arthur finally ran out of breath. Richard said nothing. After a long pause, he picked up his cup, almost smiling. “That is indeed a cheery thought. We shall see if your prophecy comes true.”
Arthur smiled back, though he had the uneasy feeling that he had only made his friend more committed to his course. He sipped his tea.
“You could come with me,” said Richard. Arthur nearly choked. “The Protectors could use a learned man of your talents. Decoding enemy documents or translating during prisoner interrogations, for example.”
“Oh no. I don’t think… I really wouldn’t be much help to you. You said the war’s nearly at its end, right? Besides, my students need me. We’re studying plant biology.” Arthur’s excuses sounded lame even to his own ears.
Richard stared silently and fixedly at the closed blinds. Arthur hated himself already.
Arthur was abruptly startled out of his reverie. Twenty-three pairs of eyes stared at him curiously. He blinked rapidly and tried to recollect his thoughts.
“No, I was never a Protector, though I did hide them in my house occasionally. One was named Richard Davret, a fiercely brave man…” His gaze flickered to the doorway.
No footstep creaked, no shadow lingered. It remained empty.
Arthur drew in a deep, deep breath and faced his class with his head held as high as his diminutive stature would allow. “Richard was killed in the retaking of the capital that brought the long conflict to an end. Shortly before he left on his final mission, I promised him that his war, the cause he was fighting for, would not be forgotten.
“And I am still fulfilling that promise today by teaching you. As one of our great leaders from the past said, ‘Freedom isn’t passed on in the blood. We must fight for it and teach our children to do the same.’”
His gaze settled again on the boy who had first interrupted him. “Does that answer your question, Thomas?”
Thomas nodded. With his dark hair and serious but bright countenance, he could have been Richard’s son.
“Now, I know you’re all eager to be out and about, so I shan’t detain you any longer. Mind you all attend the commemoration part of the ceremony tonight. It looks like we’ll have fine weather for the fireworks later, but”—he smiled sadly—“I’m no prophet.”
Arthur gestured to dismiss the students, unleashing a flurry of activity and the screech of sliding chairs. He sat back in his chair and pondered his own plans for the evening. He would probably keep to himself and drown his misery in mint tea, as he had done in years past.
Someone brushed against the edge of his desk, and he looked up to see Thomas, now the only child left.
“I just wanted to say thank you for today and my mum had a big brother named Richard and I think hiding Protectors in your house did make you a secret one and I hope when I grow up I’m as brave as both of you. And I will remember,” said the boy in a rush. Then he scampered out the doorway.
Arthur stared after him in a daze.
For thirty-some years he had taught in this schoolroom, as dedicated to combatting ignorance as Richard had been to his own cause. And he had always done so with the guilt over what he could have done eating the joy out of his job like cancer.
But it now struck him that perhaps his contribution to his country was not as insignificant as he had assumed. Perhaps Thomas was not the only child who had been moved by his words. It was even possible that he too had helped win the war.
Someday in another place, another time, he would ask Richard if he agreed. Tonight he had an Honor Ceremony to attend, and for the very first time, he found that he did not dread it.