Ghost of the Queen

Seconds stretched into days and minutes into millennia.  The uncomfortable desk and chair combo didn’t allow enough room for my knee to bounce.  I fidgeted in place, trying to avoid distracting everyone around me.  I didn’t want to cause people to lose concentration on the tests that were sitting on the damnable desks.  A bunch of my friends took the college entrance exam that day with me.  I understood the importance of the test for everyone else, but it meant nothing to me.  I took it at the insistence of my grandparents, who raised me after my parents’ divorce.

Just a month prior I took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, my scores qualified me to do anything in the military.  The Army and Air Force offered me everything in the world except for what I wanted.  I wanted to be a lawyer, a JAG lawyer.  Their gifts came much appreciated and I accepted with gusto.  But they didn’t stand a chance from the beginning.

The proctor stood up and signaled that time was finished for the final part of the exam.  The faceless entity, whose name I couldn’t recall, gathered up the test booklets and dismissed us from the room.  I stretched my legs, relieved from the release of being cramped under the tiny desk, and made a beeline for the door.

“Yo!  Duuuuude!  Slow down!”  I heard the call come from behind me.  The voice belonged to Jackson Adkins.  Jackson, or Jackie, as he preferred to be called, aggravated the hell out of me.  Jackie and I shared a love/hate relationship.  He got on my nerves, but damned if I didn’t keep him around anyway.

Annoyed at some girls who gathered around the exit door, slowing the flood out of the room to a trickle, I spoke up, “For Christ’s sake! Make a hole!”  I’d heard my navy recruiter use that phrase.  I loved it and used it every chance I could find.

The girls looked at me, drones if I’d ever seen them.  They rolled their eyes and various sounds of displeasure issued forth.  How dare I interrupt their ever important discussion of a test that ended all of three minutes prior?  They moved, however begrudgingly, and allowed the flood to recommence.  Too late for my escape, though.  Jackie tapped me on the shoulder just as I exited.

“Dude, slow down,” he sounded like a surfer.  Or maybe he thought he was a ninja turtle.

“What’s up, Jackie?  I’m in a hurry,” I didn’t slow down while I talked to him.  I hoped he would take the hint.

“I need a ride, man,” he hung on to his vowels when he spoke.  That phrase came out sounding like “I need a riiiide, maaan.”

I chuckled, “You always need a ride, man.”  Jackie didn’t have his driver license yet, despite turning eighteen a few months prior.  A driving under the influence charge at the age of fourteen put a damper on the whole driving thing.

He smiled a contagious smile, “Yeah, I do.  Damn cops.”

“I have to work in an hour; still have to get home and change,” I said after I laughed at him.  I couldn’t turn Jackie down.  I owed him.

“Ok, it’s on the way, dude.  Can drop me at Mickey Dee’s.  I’ll walk from there.”

“Fine, but you’re staying in the car.  My grandparents don’t like you, and I have zero desire to hear about how bad an influence you are again.”

Jackie grinned and followed me out to my little white, decade-old Dodge.  He babbled and yammered and yacked, never shutting his mouth the entire way to the car.  He reminded me of my three year-old sister with the way he always talked.  Silence, it seemed, frightened him.

My a/c didn’t work, and Jackie said something that I couldn’t quite hear over the din of open windows and my radio, which worked quite well, “… ghost at the gorge.”

“What are you babbling about?”

“You know, man.  Out by the gorge?  The old mansion.  There’s a ghost.  My brother went out there a few years ago.  He totally saw…” Jackie kept talking, but I tuned him out.  I knew about the house by the gorge.  I’d always wanted to go check out the old mansion, but never had bothered to go.

Before I thought about it, I asked, “You want to go check it out?”

Jackie did a double take mid-babble, “Uh, dude, don’t you have to work?”

“Meh, I’m leaving for boot camp in June, what are they going to do?  Fire me?” I grinned as the idea drew up in my head.   “I’ll call in from a pay phone, grab my uniform from home, and go.  My grandparents will never even know.”

Jackie started nodding, “Hell yeah, man.  I want to see the ghost.”

That’s why I loved Jackie.  Never once did he turn down the opportunity to see something new.  He possessed an unquenchable optimism and an insatiable curiosity.  Two traits which I couldn’t help but enjoy and, on occasion, take advantage of.

All the tools we needed lived in my trunk: a flashlight and a tire iron. Hey, everyone knows that ghosts are vulnerable to a tire iron blow to the head, right?  Being a teenager brings with it an invulnerability fueled by ignorance. Wondrous time of life, the teenage years.

I dropped him off a few blocks from my house and ran inside to get my uniform.  The empty house caught me off-guard.  My grandparents never left together.  A note let me know that Papaw went to a friend’s house to trade chickens, and Gran left in search of groceries.  Feeling lucky, I grabbed my uniform and called in to work.  I told them I couldn’t come to work because of “the crud”.  A disinterested manager took my message, and off I went to pick Jackie back up and head out to the gorge.

My mood improved drastically when I realized I would not have to go to work that night.  The Marine Corps recruiter liked to come and try to recruit me while I worked.  That fact alone forced my choice to join the Navy.  I couldn’t reward his obnoxious persistence.  Before he came to my job and pulled me out to talk, I had been leaning toward the Marine Corps; he fixed that problem.

Jackie sat on a tiny bridge that crossed an even tinier creek waiting for me to come back.  Whenever boredom or nerves overtook him, he played with a copper-colored Zippo lighter that had belonged to his great-grandfather.  The fact that he and boredom shared constant companionship meant the lighter saw a lot of use.  He flipped it open and lit the flame all in one motion.  That trick took him weeks to master and resulted in a three-day suspension when he showed it to me in chemistry, junior year.

I pulled up, and he jumped into the car, “Dude, you know there’s little fish in that creek?”

“Yeah, Jackie.  I know,” I laughed at him.  “We trap them to use for bait when we go fishing.”

“Really, man?”  He thought for a second.  “That seems cruel.”

I shrugged as we headed off into the late morning.  We drove on toward the gorge and the alleged haunted house.  Located at the top of Greasy Ridge, the gorge housed a small creek and a lot of trees.  I don’t know why people called it a gorge.  To me, it looked more like a valley with sharp inclines to the hills on either side.  Hunting the deer that wandered into the gorge to drink from the creek made a popular past time.  The steep slopes made it so that the deer had no escape except further into the gorge, which made tracking the wounded animals easier.

Jackie, lost in thought, played with his lighter while I sang along with the radio.  AC/DC’s Bon Scott screamed his way through Highway to Hell, and I did my best to match him note-for-note.  Jackie didn’t even notice the screaming.

“Dude, what if we run into the ghost?” The lighter opened.

“Don’t be a dumbass.  There’s no such thing,” I assured him.

The lighter clicked shut with a sharp arm movement, “I know, man.  But what if?  We could be famous if we caught it.” He snapped the lighter open again.

I laughed at the thought, “You want to catch a ghost?  Dude, you have lost your mind.”

“That’s not funny, dude.  My aunt…” Off to the races again, Jackie told a story I’d heard at least a hundred times before.

We pulled onto a gravel road that everyone knew about, but no one used.  The road used to lead to an area that most people called Lover’s Peak.  That lasted until some girl’s dad caught her and her boyfriend in the back seat.  The boy ended up at the bottom of the gorge, the dad ended up in prison, and the girl committed suicide later.  That’s how the story went, anyway.  I never bothered to verify the rumor.

The road seemed to fit the story.  Despite the noontime sun, shadows covered everything.  The hills that surrounded the alcove blocked the majority of the sunlight after the early morning sun moved on toward noon.  A corner appeared up ahead.  Just around the corner stood the house.

We parked on the road in front of the ancient-looking structure.   Huge, old, ragged, and beat down, the structure seemed to hang together out of habit.  Grass stood a full two feet high in the yard around the house.  The beams sagged on the porch, giving it the look of a lopsided grin.  About half of the windows contained no glass except for broken pieces that hung in the frame.  Cracked paint waved in a slight breeze, where it hadn’t already peeled off in sheets.

“Looks like it came out of a movie, man.”  Jackie stared slack-jawed at the dilapidated old home.

I reached over and punched him on the shoulder, “Pfft, just looks like an old house to me.  Come on.”

Faking bravado, I took the first couple of paces toward the house.  I knew what Jackie felt; I felt it, too.  I didn’t want him to think the house unnerved me.  It did, though; the house felt wrong to me.  In my hurry to prove my bravery the flashlight and tire iron never left the trunk of the dodge.  I couldn’t even explain to myself what it was about the place that unsettled me.  I brushed my worry to the side and pushed through the grass toward the porch.

I reached the steps to the front porch before he started after me.  My weight caused them to creak loudly enough to make me pause.  I looked back at Jackie to see if he heard the sound.  He shrugged at me and motioned for me to go on.  Three steps later, I stood at the front door peering into the dusty entrance.  Jackie, being much smaller than me, caused the old wood less distress as he climbed.

He joined me at the front door window.  “Dude, are we going in there?”  His voice trembled a bit at the thought.  I couldn’t tell if fear or excitement caused the tremble.

“Well, it wouldn’t make sense to come all the way out here just to look at the front room, would it?”

“I guess.”

I reached down, twisted the rusty knob, and pushed the door.  To my surprise, the door swung in with only a minor protest from the hinges, opening into what once had been a gorgeous foyer.  Tapestries hung in tatters around the room, and from the ceiling a broken chandelier swung.  An ornately carved table stood against one wall; I could imagine a bowl with fruit once sat there, waiting for visitors to eat of its contents.  The back of the foyer featured a double spiral stairway leading to the second floor.  The multitude of windows, both broken and still intact, let in ample light for us to see everything, if not as much as I preferred.

“See? Just a house,” I walked toward the stairs.

“Whoa!  Dude, didn’t you hear that outside?  No way will those things hold you,” Jackie grabbed my arm.

“Did you see that?”  I asked.  “A flash up there.”  I saw something just as he pulled back on my arm.

“Man, don’t mess with me.  I am nervous as hell, right now.”

“I’m not messing with anyone.  There’s something up there.”

“Nope, we are not going up there, man,” Jackie kept a firm grip on my arm.

“We can’t catch a ghost down here, come on,” I owed my stubborn resistance more to not wanting to appear afraid than the desire to discover.

I pulled Jackie along with me toward the stairs.  He followed, but not without protesting.  I wasn’t going to be dissuaded, no matter how much he protested.  He gave me an out without the appearance of fear, but I refused to take it.  Big Bad Navy Guys don’t run from flashes.

I almost changed my mind when I stepped up onto the first stair.  The wood screamed at my weight, and I felt it sag under me.  Jackie let go of my arm as I moved up toward the second stair.  The protestations of the wood continued, though they did not give way.  I hurried my pace, figuring that the less time I spent on each, the better.  I started taking the stairs two at a time, reaching the second floor in a matter of seconds.  Jackie watched me until I reached the top before creeping his way up to join me.

I looked down the hallway, where the flash had originated.  Paintings hung on the wall between the windows and at the end of the hall hung a mirror.  I could see Jackie and myself in it.  Jackie’s wild hair stood out in every direction, a stark contrast to my short and smooth military spec cut.  A branch outside the window closest to the mirror moved with the wind, allowing sunlight to hit the mirror and send a beam of light down the hallway.

Jackie started laughing, “Dude, that’s what you saw.  The light in the mirror is all…” Jackie’s words trailed off into the distance.

Behind us stood a beautiful, exotic woman.  A face with an olive complexion framed by long, black hair showed in the mirror between us.  Short, her head stopped right about where Jackie’s nose started, and he stood a full six inches shorter than me.  She didn’t move, didn’t even seem to breathe.  She stood, mere inches behind us staring down the hallway at the mirror.

I froze, unable to bring myself to turn and see if the mirror showed reality.  Through the mirror, I saw Jackie start to turn toward me.  Seeing him find the courage to move forced me into action, and I turned, as well.  What we saw behind us did not match the gorgeous and exotic woman in the mirror.

Beauty had long since fled the flesh of the monster behind us.  She still only stood maybe five feet tall, but her presence felt much larger.  Desiccated flesh stretched across the bones and tendons.  Her lips pulled back revealing green and black teeth.

Her rheumy eyes stared at us. Hatred poured from those eyes.  She stood stock still, as though some insane artist carved her from flesh, standing in that spot, then left her to rot.

Jackie and I stood, afraid to move a muscle.  An eternity passed as the thing that stood before us turned her head, first toward Jackie, then toward me.  Sickening pops and cracks emanated from her neck as it stretched and turned.  Those cold, dead orbs looked into my soul.  They ripped secrets free.

She did not look upon me for longer than a few seconds, but in that span she learned everything about me.  She knew about how I faked crying at my one grandmother’s funeral because I didn’t want people to force me to the coffin; the body scared me.  She saw every lie I ever told, every moment of cowardice, every single shameful experience.  She saw my false bravado for the posturing it was.

Jackie fell to the ground, crying and shaking.  The movement drew my eyes away from the mesmerizing gaze of the walking corpse before me.  I realized in that moment that I had to do something before I lost the ability to think and act.  A glint came from Jackie’s hand.

The lighter!  An idea popped into my head.  The woman stared at me still, her lips curled up into the semblance of a smile.  Did she know my plan even as I thought of it?  It didn’t matter; no choice presented itself other than to try.  I took a deep breath and drove my shoulder into the specter’s chest.

I half expected to meet no resistance and fall to the floor behind the thing.  My expectation, though didn’t match reality.  My shoulder met flesh and bone much stronger than it had a right to be. I assumed that my mass alone would be enough to shove her away; I was wrong.  She reached up and shoved me back, forcing me to windmill in an attempt not to land on the floor.

I dropped my head and charged blindly toward her, hoping that I could bull rush her past Jackie.  I saw Jackie on the floor and used her shadow to approximate her location.  Her shadow never moved, but I missed her.  Momentum had carried me several steps past Jackie before I realized that she had moved.

I stopped and turned around, trying to find my tormentor.  I couldn’t see anything except Jackie still in the middle of a hysterical fit.  Had I imagined the whole thing?  No, that didn’t make sense.  I hurried to Jackie’s side and shook his shoulder.

“Jackie, get up.  We need to get the hell out of here!”  I whispered to him.

“Get away from me!  You can’t have it!” he didn’t recognize me.

I slapped his face; I don’t know why I did it. It worked in movies all the time, so I tried it.  His eyes refocused a bit at the shock of pain.

“Where did she go?” he sounded like a child.

“Doesn’t matter, get up!”

I pulled him to his feet, and we started toward the stairs.  I had to support Jackie; his legs didn’t seem to work the right way.  His entire body trembled like a Chihuahua puppy in a cold breeze.

“Can you get down the steps without me?”  I didn’t think they would support my weight and Jackie’s together.

Jackie nodded to me, “I’ll try.  You go first.”

I leaned him up against the handrail and raced down the stairs as fast as comfort allowed.  I reached the bottom and turned around to watch my friend make his descent.  She reappeared behind him just as he took the first halting step.  I watched in horror as she reached out and pushed Jackie, sending him tumbling down the spiral stairs.

I screamed his name as he hit the handrail a little over halfway down. He crashed through the rotten wood, falling the rest of the way to the floor.  He thudded to the ground a few feet to my right.  Blood trickled from his nose and mouth, and he groaned in pain.  I rushed to his side as the woman laughed.  I could see her climbing down the stairs while I attempted to pull Jackie to his feet.

“Dude, leave me.  My ribs are broken.”  His breath came in short gasps, and blood sprayed from between his lips.

She reached the break in the handrail where Jackie fell through, “Yes, coward, leave him.  Just like you did when he got arrested.”

I froze in fear.  Jackie’s DUI should have belonged to me.  I was driving that night and wrecked the car.  He told me to run, and had taken responsibility for the accident.  He told me I was too smart to ruin my chances.  According to him, he was a pothead and didn’t have a chance with his horrible family life.  I did what he said that night.  We had never mentioned it again.

She was right, I was a coward.  I considered leaving Jackie there with her.  He wouldn’t blame me.  He never judged me, though if anyone in the world possessed the right, he did.

“Take this,” he pressed his prized possession into my hands.  “Get out.  Don’t let her have it.”

The cold metal of the Zippo reminded me of the thought I had upstairs.  I clenched it in my hand and looked up.  I needed to get to the tapestries by the front door.  They would catch fire and burn quickly.  The woman reached the last step and stared with lifeless eyes at the two of us.

I stood up and sprinted toward the front door that still stood open.  I refused to leave Jackson in there with her, but I couldn’t physically fight her.  I reached the tapestries and tried to light the Zippo.  I could feel her approaching me.  Just as I got the flame lit, I heard a screech from just outside the door.  The noise drew my eyes away from the husk of a woman that was promising to torture my very soul.

A giant owl perched on the handrail on the steps.  The tapestry smoldered as I heard a voice from my left, “Onus, its lunch time.”

I watched the owl launch off the handrail and fly straight into my chest.  A giant ball of feathers, claws, and a nasty beak ripped at my face.  I swung wildly at the animal that tried to rip my eyes from their sockets, my fist clenched around the lighter.  Eerie melodic laughter filled my mind as I fought to get the beast off of me.

I blacked out and woke up in a basement of some sort.  Bodies littered the floor around me, including Jackson “Jackie” Adkins’.  I don’t remember how long I sat in the cold, dank basement.  I still carried the Zippo, though the fluid ran out soon after I woke up.  Not that it mattered, I didn’t want to see the bodies around me.

I sat against the wall, Zippo clenched in my fist, waiting for the opportunity to pay Jackie back for his sacrifices.

I still sit against that wall, waiting for my chance at vengeance.    She will pay.

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Snake Eyes

“Gimme the dice, you son of a bitch!” Bobby Comlies grinned.  He felt good.  He felt Lady Luck’s presence.  He started the night off on a streak of good rolls, and even though he hadn’t won a bet in twenty minutes he knew he was due.

Leo shrugged, “I don’t want to take everything you have.  Your wife will whoop my ass if I take your grocery money.”  The clanging of pipes and pumps forced them to speak up, otherwise the ships noises drowned them out.  “Plus, we don’t need Old Man Johnson to catch us gambling in his engine room.”

“Pffft, Old Man Johnson loves me.  Besides,” Bobby shook his head, “I have something better than money.”  He pulled a piece of paper from his back pocket and threw it onto the table.  “I can always borrow a couple dollars from you for food.”

Leo cocked his eyebrow at the folded sheet of paper.  He reached down and opened the letter.  A guffaw escaped his chest, “You really want to do this?”

Bobby’s blue eyes shined, and his grin grew even bigger, “You know I do.  I’m going to win and take your money.  That piece of paper should be worth a sawbuck anyway.  Don’t you think?”

“Ten bucks?  Really?  Seems kind of steep to me…”

“Come on buddy.  Gimme the dice.  If I lose I’m done, if you lose I’m taking the old lady out to a lobster dinner,” Bobby rubbed his hands together.

“I don’t know, Bobby.  Your wife will really be pissed if you lose that chit.”

Bobby’s eyes sunk a little, “Listen, Leo, if you don’t let me try to win some lettuce back, she’s going to kill me.  No money with a chit is worse than money and no chit.  Give me a chance to go home without getting hen-pecked.”

Leo shook his head, grinned, and handed the dice to Bobby.

*

Leo laughed and threw a pair of dice up into the air and caught them before winking at the man in line behind him. In his other hand he held a chit that granted him a three day liberty. A free three day weekend that he won with his lucky dice.  He chatted up the guy behind him, waiting for his turn to see the pretty, young woman who would take his chit and turn it into a long weekend.

“Yup, that’s right. He rolled snake-eyes and you should’ve seen the look on his face when I picked this up,”  Leo laughed and dropped his dice back in his pocket and pulled out a pack of non-filter Pall Malls with a lighter jammed into the cellophane. “I’m going to the big island and chasing some tail.”

He lit the cigarette just as the disinterested woman behind the counter called next.  Leo winked at her through the haze of acrid tobacco smoke.  He laid the chit in front of her and grinned.  “You busy next weekend, doll?  I got a three day break, and I could use some company with a gorgeous girl such as yourself.”

She smirked at him, “You’re a persistent one aren’t you, Leo?  You know I have a…”

The woman never finished her sentence.  The sound of engines roaring overhead, and a siren wailing cut off any sound he might have made in response.  The pretty girl behind the counter stared over Leo’s shoulder, eyes wide and breath still.  He turned around and ran to the door, where the other men and women in the office gathered around to watch the scene unfold.

Leo pushed his way through the crowd.  In the sky he could see planes with the big red dot that told him that they belonged to the Japanese.  The world moved in slow motion as he watched bombs drop on the docked ships.  Explosions drowned out screams of agony.  Flames washed across his vision as a bomb ripped into the USS Arizona, only a few hundred yards from where he stood.

An unintelligible scream of defiance ripped from his chest as he ran toward the carnage.  Leo pulled men and women from under debris, fought fires, and saved more than a few lives that day.  He never made it back to his ship, though.  Through pain and injuries, he kept doing everything he could to protect his fellows as hell rained down from the skies that day.  No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t save his friends.

The attack lasted an hour and a half, but not for Leo. For Leo, the attack lasted a lifetime.

*

Kids ran around the yard, in and out of the house while Leo sat on the porch rubbing his head.  He growled at them, pretending to be mad about the air conditioner running.  He grumbled and complained, but the children ignored him.  They knew his bite didn’t even compare to his bark.

An ever present glass of whiskey sat on the small table beside his favorite rocking chair.  A bottle of the potent spirit lived in a cooler behind a fake plant.  Once a day Leo made the trek from the freezer to the cooler to ensure the ice stayed full.  The whiskey used to bring relief from his thoughts.  Now the only respite he received came to him in the form of his grandchildren.

Over the last sixty years guilt had torn Leo apart.  He knew that he should have died at Pearl Harbor; that Bobby should have been in the office exchanging a chit for a day off; that Leo should have been in the kitchen cooking breakfast for the men aboard the ship.  He should have refused to take the bet.  Then, at least, his friend would have lived.

“Papaw?” a little dark-haired boy tugged on Leo’s sleeve.

“What do you want?”  The twinkle in his eye couldn’t be mistaken for anger.

“Can I have a candy from the jar?”

Leo’s face softened at the little boy’s smile, “You know you can have a candy.  Just don’t tell your daddy.  I don’t want to have to whoop him.”

“I promise I won’t tell,” The little boy winked at Leo, confirming their sacred candy trust, before running back into the house and letting the screen door slam behind him.

“Quit slamming the door!”  Leo yelled out of habit.  He knew none of the kids would ever stop allowing the door to swing closed too fast, but they expected him to yell about it.  So he obliged.

A moment later he heard the musical notes from his candy jar, letting him know the boy had removed the lid and would soon be back outside running with the other five grandkids.  Leo went back to his thoughts, eyes fixed on the road to make sure none of the children went too close to the road.

“Your friend Bobby is here!”

Leo’s eyes snapped to the older girl that made the announcement, “Wha?”

“Yay!  Bobby!”  The little boy, candy wrapper in hand and a butterscotch in his mouth ran out the door.

Leo shook his head, seeing another child joined in the game of freeze tag in his yard.  One of the neighborhood kids, named Bobby, had joined the cacophony of play that took place in Leo’s yard every weekend.

*SLAM

“Dammit, quit slamming the door!”

*

Mountains of things surrounded the old man in his chair.  Trash to most, they represented a lifetime of treasures to Leo.  In his eight plus decades of life, he accumulated keepsakes and mementos from every part of the world.  A miniature samurai sword set reminded him of his time in Japan.  Matryoshka dolls adorned his fireplace mantle from his deployment to Russia.  A simple green glass candy jar with a musical lid sat apart from all the other clutter, on a table next to his bottle of whiskey and a bronze five-pointed star that reminded him that he shouldn’t be alive.

Leo sat in his chair, thought, and drank.  He counted his time left on Earth in days, now.  He had fought aboard the USS West Virginia in his youth.  He had married, fathered children, been widowed, remarried, and had fathered another child.  His life had been a full one as far as anyone who knew him could tell.  No one knew the weight that had fallen onto this simple Navy cook some sixty years before.  And no one knew the decision he now faced.

Arthritic hands reached over and lifted the lid off the candy jar.  Blue Danube played to the audience of one, coming from the lid.  The tinny sound brought a rare smile to Leo’s face.  He basked in the notes for a moment before putting the lid aside.  The music continued playing, muffled by the cushioned arm chair on which he placed it.

A sigh built up in his chest, and he released it as he turned the candy jar over and dumped the contents over the table.  The scents of cinnamon disks, butterscotch, and root beer rolls fought the musty odor of the room.  On top of the hard candies was a piece of crinkled old paper wrapped around a pair of small objects.

Leo picked up his bottle of whiskey and gulped down a swallow of the smoky, phenolic liquid.  His gaze fixed on the small bundle.  He seemed to mouth a few words as he reached out and unwrapped the paper, careful to not rip the thin old sheet.  A pair of dice fell out of the paper and landed on the pile of candies.  Tears built up and spilled from his eyes as he read the paper.

“This chit grants the bearer an additional day of liberty on a weekend of his choice.”  The paper bore the signature of Master Chief Johnson, a salty old sea dog by the time the attack on Pearl Harbor started that December morning.  Master Chief didn’t survive the attack.  He died beside Captain Bennion, on the West Virginia, directing the men to try and keep the boat afloat and everyone alive.

The tears flowed freely down his cheeks now, remembering the pain and the chaos of that day.  Without realizing what he did, he picked up the yellowed dice that sat atop the candies.   He gave them a shake inside his cupped hand and tossed them onto the floor.

Snake eyes!

“You have taken a long time to decide, Leo.” Bobby Comlies stood before him, a ghostly visage in the shape of a man.  Holes with burnt edges marked up the otherwise pressed and neat chambray shirt.  His name tag had burnt away all those years ago, leaving only the letters “ies” still intact.  Torn bellbottom dungaree pants revealed legs that a living man wouldn’t be able to stand on, so deformed were they from fire and the crushing weight of the bulkhead that had collapsed on him below decks.  His Dixie cup, though, still stood at a jaunty angle back on his head, as if it defied all the chaos that erupted around it back in 1941.

Leo looked up at the apparition.  His breath hitched at the sight of his old friend.  The man who bet him a three day liberty chit in a game of dice, and lost his life because of it.

Leo nodded, “I know.”

“You cheated me in that game.  I gave you eight decades to make your mistake right.  Just admit it.  It was promised to me that if you just own up to your cheating ways, the First Queen will put us back on the boat.  Maybe we’ll both live next time.”

Leo dropped his head, and pushed up on the arms of the chair.  He struggled to his feet on weak, shaking legs and walked to where the dice lay on the floor.  After several painstaking moments, he was able to bend down, scoop the dice off the floor and stand up to look the apparition in the eyes.

“Bobby, I didn’t cheat you.  I tried to talk you out of betting this chit,” Leo waved the dirty, ragged sheet of paper at the specter.  “I lived my life feeling guilty that I survived.  You screwed up, not me.”

Bobby’s eyes narrowed, “If you didn’t cheat me, then why don’t you accept the offer?  You’ve nothing to lose by going back.  You could get your entire life to live again by going back.  You’ve not much time left on this Earth, this opportunity will give you all of your time back.  Your strength restored. Your lungs, your mind, will be returned.  Join me, back on the boat, Leo.”

Leo’s left eyebrow lifted, “What about my family? My kids and their kids, what happens to them?”

“If you didn’t cheat me back then, I can only assume that events will unfold as before and time will lead you down the same path.  This is a one shot deal, a double or nothing.  We’ll be as ghosts within our bodies.  Neither of us will be able to change anything, except the outcome of the game.  If you didn’t cheat it’ll give you a free pass to live your life again; if you did, it’ll give me my chance to live mine.  Either way we can’t stop the attack on Pearl,” Bobby looked sad at the mention of the attack.

His eyes dropped to the floor as he considered the option laid before him.  For six decades he had carried those dice knowing that one day he would have to make this decision.  It had taken the entire six decades for Bobby to figure out a way to tempt him into saying yes, despite the guilt that kept him from saying no.

“Everyone wants a second chance to do things the right way,” Leo looked up at his old friend.  “I don’t trust you, or this ‘First Queen’, but I’m ready to make my choice.”

“Say the words and we’ll get our chance back, Leo.”

“Take me back…”

The world turned bright white and grew silent as a tomb.  The last memory Leo could recall was of the grin on Bobby’s face.  Leo wanted to return to the boat, to prove to Bobby that the dice weren’t loaded, to get a second chance at living his life.  What happened, though?

Leo shook the cobwebs loose from inside his skull and took in a deep breath.  His lungs expanded easily, drawing in air that tasted of oil.  As he caught his bearings he realized that the thin mattress on which he laid did little to cushion his body from the hard steel of the bunk.  He opened his eyes, taking in the familiar, if long forgotten, sight of the bunkroom on the USS West Virginia.

He swung his legs out of the bunk and stretched.  All of his morning pops and crackles took a vacation for the first time in fifty years or, rather, they wouldn’t move into his body for another decade or so.  The whole situation confused Leo to no end.  His body looked at the clock and started rushing off toward below decks.  The feeling of being in his own body but not in control of it would have been nauseating, were he in full control of his body.

He passed people who would die in the morning from the Japanese attack.  Try as he might he couldn’t yell at them to get off the boat before morning.  Bobby spoke the truth, he could only ride along with his body, reliving events, but not shaping them.  His fingers dipped into the hip pocket of his dungarees and out came a brand new pair of dice, which he kissed as he passed through a watertight door and into the engine room.

Bobby sat on the floor at a makeshift table, his jovial smile lost, as he waited on Leo.  Leo sauntered up to the upside down bucket with a piece of sheet metal on top, and took a seat across from Bobby.  Upon sitting down a wave of vertigo passed through Leo’s body.

“What the hell just happened?” Leo shuddered.

“You’re back in control of your body.”

“Now what?”

“Now we play,” Bobby reached out for the dice.

This time around the game played without the joking and good natured ribbing that accompanied the original.  Leo kept track of the money as it changed hands between them.  The first six rolls took money from Leo, then for the next fourteen Bobby lost every dime he brought on the boat.

Bobby reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the chit throwing it on the table, “Well, here we are, Leo.”

“Bobby, please don’t do this.  Let’s just call it a night and go to town, what do you say?”

“Leo, give me the damn dice.  I have to prove you cheated me.”

“I didn’t cheat you, Bobby.  If we walk away now, maybe we both live.”

Bobby stood up in front of Leo, breath quickening, and fists clenched tight.  “You give me those dice, or one of us won’t ever walk out of this engine room again!”

“Bobby, don’t you remember?  This is what happened last time.  I tried to save you from losing that chit the first time but you insisted.  You never left this engine room back then, if you roll these dice you’ll never leave this room again,” Leo stood up, keeping his eyes on the man across from him.

“You’re right, old friend.  But I’ve spent the last six decades mulling this moment over in my head.  Sixty years of watching you lead the life that you stole from me.  Sixty years of waiting for the chance to have my life returned to me,” He stepped closer to Leo reaching for the dice. “I will not walk away. You cheated me, and proving that gives me purpose.”

Leo pushed his friends hand away, “I will not give you these dice.  I won’t be responsible for your death, not this time.”

Bobby’s eyes widened, and caught fire at the push.  He grabbed ahold of Leo’s wrist and attempted to pry the small objects from a clenched fist.  Leo, surprised at the quickness with which Bobby pounced on his hand, almost released his grip.

“Let them go!” Bobby yelled.

Without thinking Leo swung his free fist hard into Bobby’s stomach.  The impact drove the air from his lungs and dropped him to his knees, “Shit! You need to calm down.”

Bobby got his legs under him, “I won’t… calm… down…”  He stayed in a crouch and pivoted toward his adversary.  “Give me the dice you son of a bitch!”

“Don’t you see Bobby?  You’ve said that to me before!” Leo backed away from his one-time friend.

The words bounced off uncaring ears.  Bobby stared at the hand holding the dice, and launched himself at Leo.  He ripped at the fingers while Leo shoved at him and pulled the hand away.  Bobby held on as Leo shoved, forcing his fingers open and then backward.  A wail of agony reverberated through the engine room.  Leo stared at his two middle fingers that jutted back toward his body and away from his hand, as the dice fell toward the floor.

A wide, crazy grin spread over Bobby’s face.  He dove to the floor, and scooped the dice up from the floor.  He turned toward the makeshift table and cocked his arm to roll the dice. Leo’s pain laced mind pushed his body into reacting without thought.  He reached out with his injured hand and spun Bobby around by the arm.  Pain shot from his fingers, causing him to yelp, even as his other hand met Bobby square on the jaw.

Bobby spun back around, releasing the dice as he staggered.  The dice fell onto the floor and skittered for a second before falling to rest, even as Bobby fell onto a valve wheel.  Blood dripped from Bobby’s nose.  His eyes fell onto the dice, where they had fallen with both single dots facing up.

With a final gasp, Bobby huffed out, “Snake eyes…”

Birth of a Gypsy Queen

Pesha ran as fast as he could muster in the darkness, feet flying over the ground at what would be a dangerous speed for anyone else. One missed step or unseen branch would send him head long into the dirt. The noise of his fall would be far worse than any damage to his body or his pride. He knew that not more than a few hundred yards away Vlad and his personal guard were out on a hunt, and Pesha was the prey.
His king had sent him to ensure a safe path through the forest. Pesha had not been alone when he left to scout the way. His twin brother and best friend, Gunari, had gone with him. That had been two days prior. Gunari was gone now, but Pesha had no time to mourn. His warning must get to Tanard before Vlad and his men did.
The first day had been quiet and uneventful. Pesha and his more robust twin traveled in silence. They carried little more than some dried rabbit and their weapons. Eyes ever alert and hands on swords, the twins moved as one. This land belonged to Vlad, and Vlad didn’t like visitors, those who followed the lead of Tanard Comlies, King of the Gypsies were reserved a horrible fate if caught trespassing.
The sun faded out, giving way to her brother the moon. The twins set up a small camp, but lit no fire. Gunari took first watch and Pesha second; the sleeping twin curled up close to his brother for warmth against the autumn coolness. The night was quiet; it seemed as if even the animals knew the importance of the twin’s current mission, for they did not venture near the twins.
The second day brought much the same as the first until they were within a few hundred yards of their destination, the little village of Glemch. They could smell the cooking fires, and Gunari’s stomach began to growl. As the smoke smell grew stronger, Pesha realized it was not cooking fires they smelled.
Pesha whispered to Gunari, “Wait here, brother. Something is not as it should be.”
Gunari, knowing Pesha to be the wiser of the two, stopped. Pesha’s lithe body scampered up a tree and looked to the east. Where Glemch should have been, there was now fire licking the skies and thick black smoke wafting into the air. He could just make out the figures of twelve or so men on horseback riding away from the remains of what used to be a small but thriving hamlet, and toward where the twins had left their king, queen, and families. Vlad’s flag was flying high from the lead horseman’s hands.
With feline grace, Pesha bounded down the tree. The fear in his eyes was a living thing. He didn’t know if the men had seen him, but he knew that they were going in the worst direction possible. Gunari recognized the look in his brother’s eye.
“Is it Vlad?” Gunari inquired.
“It is his flag the men carry, I can’t be sure if he is with them.”
“Tell me Pesha, do we have time to warn the band?”
“I don’t know. But we don’t have time to waste.”
Gunari gave a nod and the twins started off at a trot back the way they came. Pesha’s mind was a whirlwind of thought. They must warn the band, but two men on foot cannot out run twelve men on horseback. They could stand and fight, die honorable deaths and be welcomed into the heavens as heroes, but then their families and King would be slaughtered by Vlad’s men. The twins had, at best, an hour to come up with an idea to save both their lives and the lives of their kin.
Even as these thoughts raced through Pesha’s head, Gunari grabbed his twin’s arm pulling him to a stop. Their breath came in gasps; Pesha didn’t know how long he’d been running. It could have been a minute or an hour or even a day.
“We can’t outrun them, brother. Give me your bow, I will harass them, make them hunt me. You get to Tanard and warn the band,” Gunari looked pale, and resigned. He knew he offered his life in exchange for the chance to save his brother, children, and King.
“I won’t leave you to die,” Pesha started to argue.
“You will, and you will warn our king, otherwise we all will die,” Gunari snarled back.
Knowing it was the only real choice he had to save his band; Pesha hugged his brother, handed over his bow and arrows, and said through tears, “It’s a beautiful day to die, brother. I pray someday to meet you on the other side.”
Gunari accepted the quick embrace, “Now go.”
************

Tanard paced around the temporary shelter. The acrid smell of burning wood clung to his person as his wife alternated between screams and whimpers inside the makeshift tent. Gabriella, the love of Tanard’s life, and his queen, gave birth to his heir while he paced. Sweat beaded on his neck, cheeks, and forehead. He hoped for a son to continue his rule. He prayed his wife would survive this ordeal.
The pregnancy had been a hard one. Gabriella, often too tired to even mount her horse, rode in a wagon for most of the summer. There had been many scares; many times the mid-wife thought the baby may be lost. It seemed through pure force of will Gabriella was able to keep both her and her child alive. Tanard waited.
The men of the band stood guard around the camp. Everyone knew they were in dangerous territory. This land belonged to Vlad, Tanard’s sworn enemy. Tanard had chosen this path in hope of reaching the town of Glemch, before the birthing began. This new child, however, held no interest in waiting for anyone. The woods seemed to hold a palpable threat. Not one man could put a finger on what bothered him, but every man knew the danger lurked. The screams of their queen did nothing to quell the feeling of encroaching doom.
*********
In the darkness, a group of men watched the gypsy king pace. They saw the guards on edge, and heard the screams of an expectant mother. Their leader, Vlad, knew Tanard. He knew the young woman giving birth, too. She was supposed to be his, as was the child she was now laboring to push from her womb.
Vlad’s anger boiled just beneath the surface. He would have his revenge. His group was outnumbered three or four to one, but they were all fighting men, soldiers by trade. His confidence never wavered, despite the loss of a man to the damnable gypsy with the bow. Several of his men bore the wounds of arrows, though none as severe as the gypsy sniper took before running off into the woods like a coward. Vlad waited, counting the seconds between screams, looking for a pattern in the way the guards moved. His attack would be swift, and leave nothing but death and fire in its wake.
*********
Sweat poured from Gabriella’s face. The contractions ripped her insides, it felt as though some mad man twisted her guts while horses pulled them apart.. She knew the band needed this child. Her gift, the Touch, told her that her child would lead them for many years through many tribulations and dangers. The mid-wife looked afraid, but Gabriella knew what was coming, and she accepted the sacrifice for the good of the clan. It was time to push.
*********
The screaming in the tent intensified, and Tanard looked toward the tent with genuine fear. He cursed himself in silence for choosing this path through Vlad’s territory. Knowing it was the only chance to have a town in which his child could be born did little to assuage his trepidation. He knew that if Vlad found them they would have a battle to fight. Vlad still held a grudge toward Tanard since he had won Gabriella’s heart and taken her away. They were well prepared, though: His men were armed with the best armor and weapons he could provide. Their training was extensive, although each man was also expected to provide other services for the band. Their wits sharp and swords were bloodied from past battles; the bands loyalty was unwavering, and their trust absolute, for Tanard had never led them wrong. He prayed to any god who would listen that this wouldn’t be the time his instinct failed his people.
************
The pain was intense. Gunari’s body moved on instinct alone. His wounds were beyond what a normal man should be able to withstand. An arrow protruded from his shoulder, and multiple slashes crisscrossed his torso, arms, and legs. He had lost his brother’s bow at some point during the fight, not that it mattered. He’d long before emptied the quiver. He still had his sword, and dagger, though he wasn’t sure he had the strength to swing either of them. One foot down, push off, and next foot down, he hurried as much as his body allowed.
************
Pesha stared down at Vlad’s men. Unless he missed a few from his vantage point in the giant elm above them, it appeared Gunari managed to kill at least one of them, and injured several more. Pesha prayed that was enough. He shimmied down the tree making no more noise than a field mouse, and crept behind the group of killers.
************
Vlad had his plan. He would send a group of three men around to each flank. With a three pronged attack the gypsies would panic, and they would run, allowing the ten men he had remaining to wholesale slaughter the band. He whispered to his men, giving the order to separate. He himself would fire the first flaming arrow that would be the signal to attack. None of the men noticed the single olive skinned man sneaking around behind them.
************
Gabriella pushed hard, the mid wife positioned to help bring the baby into the world. The child’s dark hair peeked through to the world. Sweat poured from every pore of Gabriella’s body, and tears streamed down her face. She screamed as she pushed again; her insides tearing apart as her child emerged into the cold autumn air. She felt slight relief as her baby’s head came free. One more big push and shoulders arrived. She wondered why she didn’t hear the cries of a new born baby. The mid wife, Nadya, used a knife to cut the umbilical cord free, and then stuck her pinky finger down into the little girl’s mouth clearing out the mucus that was blocking the airway. Nadya then wrapped the child in blankets.
“Here’s your daughter,” Nadya handed the tiny child over to the new mother.
“Daughter?” Gabriella asked exhausted. She took the child into her arms and looked into the wide open eyes of her little girl. “You shall be called Talaitha.”
Gabriella shuddered with exhaustion. The mid wife stood to the side, her eyes wide and her complexion pale as a ghost. She watched stunned as the life blood poured from her queen. She grabbed some cloths, trying to slow the bleeding, even as she heard the scream of her husband, Gunari, who had left two days prior.
***********
Gunari heard the scream of his queen, and redoubled his efforts to get to the camp. Another scream and he found the strength to jog. He was making enough noise to wake the dead as his sword clanked against his buckles and his feet crashed into the ground. Ahead of him he saw three men staring at him – three men he recognized – one of whom was the man who had left an arrow in him. He let loose a blood curdling cry and drew his blade, rage replacing pain and exhaustion as he charged into the midst of his enemies.
**********
Pesha heard the cry from across the camp. He recognized his brother’s war cry, but had no time to wonder how that could be. He had sabotaged a few of the saddles of his enemy’s horses, cutting through the straps so that anyone who attempted to mount would be greeted by a mass of leather in his lap. After slashing Vlad’s saddle he hurried after the group of men who had gone around the north side. He snuck up behind the men, daggers drawn. The soft leather of his shoes as quiet as the night; the men had no idea the whirlwind was about to engulf them.
Pesha crept to within half an arm’s length of his targets. He held his breath as he struck out with both hands, burying a dagger hilt deep into the two outside men’s ribs. Both men fell to their knees; surprise painted the men’s features as they collapsed, their lungs filling with blood from the strikes. Lightning fast, he pulled his daggers free as the third man spun around trying to locate the threat that had just neutralized his comrades. His hands awash with blood and a glint in his eye, Pesha stood up to his full height, which almost reached his enemy’s shoulder, and smiled a greeting. The man snarled and swung his heavy mace in a wide arc, hoping to end this ant of a man with one swing. Pesha ducked the swing and rolled past his attacker. When he stood after the roll he turned and slashed the man’s hamstring with both daggers. Unable to support his weight with that leg after the powerful swing, the man screamed as he fell. The last sight his eyes ever saw was a maple leaf soaked in his friend’s blood.
**********
Vlad heard Gabriella’s scream and then the scream of a man. The clang of metal on metal rang on the south side of the camp, and Vlad cursed. He grabbed his bow and fired a flaming arrow toward a wagon signaling the attack, even as he heard a scream of pain from the north side. His men ran toward the camp, swords drawn. Vlad moved to mount his prized stallion.
***********
Tanard tried to process all that was happening around him at once. His wife screamed, a man screamed, accompanied by the sound of battle to his left; a cry of pain rang out through the night to the north even as a flaming arrow thumped into a wagon near him.
“Dammit! To arms men!” Tanard yelled as he snatched the arrow out of the wagon and stomped it out. He started barking orders to his men as he pulled his sword and dagger from their scabbards. He started toward the general direction from whence the arrow came. Out of the darkness he saw three men dressed in Vlad’s colors emerge. They stood no chance against the five well-armed men who stood between them and Tanard. Evaluating the battle before him, he shouted encouragement to his guard who made rapid work of Vlad’s men. He heard the sound of intense battle to the south, so he turned and called some men to him and started at a jog toward the fight.
“This is more like it,” Tanard relished the chance to command and take action. At least this enemy he could stand face to face with and fight on his own terms.
****************
Gunari’s blood rage had carried him through the initial wave of combat. His parries were quick and his strikes powerful as he danced a bladed death through his opponents. He knew he didn’t have long before his body betrayed him. Too tired, and he had lost too much blood to win this battle. Fight on he did, though, absorbing more small slashes as he lashed out with his blade. A feint by one of his enemies drew his sword out of position and he saw too late the blade coming straight for his heart from a second man.
*************
Tanard recognized his man, Gunari, fighting alone against three of Vlad’s best trained men. A large arrow protruded from Gunari’s shoulder, and he appeared close to being overrun. Tanard drew back his dagger and launched it at one of the attackers even as the man was lunging forward in what would have been a killing strike. The dagger flew true and buried into the man’s back, throwing his aim off and stealing his power. The blow slashed across Gunari’s arm, but did no serious damage. The sight of Tanard and his guard rushing toward them was enough to frighten the other two off into the night.
*************
Vlad reached his steed, Shadow, and vaulted up onto the saddle and spurred his horse into action. The sudden jerk of his weight accompanied by the horse’s powerful leap into movement was too much for the sabotaged strap to bear. Pesha’s handy work caused Vlad and his saddle to fall off the back of Shadow as the horse raced toward the sound of battle. A peculiar odor found its way to Vlad’s nose as he lay on his back groaning from the shock of the fall and trying to catch his breath. Anger brought his focus back and he pushed himself to sitting when he realized what the stench was that had assaulted his nostrils. A thick layer of horse dung had cushioned his head and neck from the ground, and was now matted in his hair. He stood up and looked around, his men from the front had been slaughtered and he saw no signs of assaults from either the north or south sides. He looked again for Shadow, but knew the horse would be nowhere near and would be halfway back to his castle by then. Feeling the time ticking away he ran to another horse, this time inspecting the bottom strap before mounting and riding away from his accursed enemies. The best thing to happen all that night for him was the horse outrunning the smell of his own hair.
************
Gunari fell to his knees, exhaustion, wounds, and relief at seeing his king alive washed over him all at once. Tears filled his eyes as he spoke, “My king, I have failed you and my family.”
Tanard placed his hand gently on the wounded twins shoulder, “You have failed no one, Gunari. Your foolish bravery warned us that enemies were upon us.” The king turned toward his guard, “You men, help our brother up and to the camp.” Tanard watched as his guards helped lift the brave young man to his feet. The gypsy king sighed as he pulled his dagger from the attackers back before heading back to the camp.
**********
Pesha stood over the bodies of his fallen enemies, the slight grin still on his face. He shook his head, amused that much bigger men had once again underestimated him. The sounds of battle rung behind him, and he heard a horse galloping toward him. Pesha spun around, daggers at the ready and saw a black horse with no rider coming straight at him. His mind raced as he dropped his daggers, stepped to the side and grabbed the reigns of the charging horse. As the horse thundered past, he used the momentum to pull himself up onto its saddleless back.
“Whoa!” he yelled, pulling back hard. The horse neighed in protest before slowing and stopping. Now that he had time to look, Pesha realized he had Vlad’s famed warhorse Shadow under him. His chuckle was interrupted by a man’s scream of anguish. Fear shot through his body as he pulled the horse around and set off toward the camp.
*****************
Gabriella could feel her life ebbing from her. Her two toned eyes, which had marked her as one blessed with the touch, were locked on the new life she had just brought into the world. Talaitha, as she had been named, was a small baby. The child’s hair was raven dark, and she had yet to make a peep. Talaitha had inherited her mother’s eyes; one was a dark shade of brown, and the other a golden hazel. Her nose was regal like her father’s.
“You will need the strength of a mountain, and the wisdom of the owl to make your journey little one,” Gabriella whispered to her child. “It will be long, and your trials many, but I will be with you for as long as you have the touch.”
Her breath grew shallow and more labored. “Nadya, come to me, please,” the queen requested.
“But you’re bleeding, mistress,” the nurse argued, still trying to staunch to flow of blood.
Gabriella smiled, “I know, and it’s the gods’ will that I bleed. Please, take Talaitha before I can no longer hold her.”
Nadya, wife of Gunari and nurse of the band, hurried to take the tiny princess from her weakening mother. Gabriella kissed her child once on each cheek, and once on the forehead, before allowing her to be taken. With a final sigh, a single tear welled up and fell from the queen’s eye as the spark of life passed from her body. Talaitha’s eyes grew wide as the final breath passed her mother’s lips, and she began to wail as though she knew what she’d just lost.
Tanard heard the cry of a new born child leap from the camp. He broke into a sprint, running as hard as his legs could carry him toward his wife and child. He ripped aside the tent flap to see Nadya holding his child, who was crying as loud as her lungs would allow. He saw the pain in Nadya’s eyes, and looked to his wife on the bed. He took a deep breath and it hitched in his lungs. Five halting steps carried the king to his wife. Taking Gabriella’s still warm hand in his, he stroked her long black hair with the other. The pain of loss gripped his stomach, wrenching his insides. He collapsed to his knees and cried out, the agony of loss bled from his heart and poured through his throat; a wail of mourning.
***************
Gunari, upon hearing the mournful cry of his king, shook off the help from the king’s guard and started rushing toward the camp. Stubborn will power dragged him forward despite grievous injury. He reached the clearing just ahead of the king’s guard and mere seconds after Pesha. It seemed that every member of the band had come to investigate the cry. Not a single person spoke, not even the children. Gunari started pushing his way through the mass of bodies between him and the source of the mournful cry that had drawn him to the tent. Pesha, confused and concerned but relieved to see the brother he thought dead, followed on his twin’s heels.
Upon breaking through the last line of people the sight that greeted the twins was one of utter devastation. King Tanard kneeled beside Queen Gabriella; sobs wracked his body as he grasped her lifeless hand to his face. His dark complexion had washed out leaving him pale and weak-looking. Giant tears streaked the king’s face and his nose was leaking. He was oblivious to the crowd gathered around witnessing his grief. Nadya stood frozen behind the mourning king, holding the new born child of the former queen. The tiny child was also shrieking, sharing in her father’s grief.
Gunari looked around at the men, women and children around, all gawking at the mournful scene before them. Anger again took hold of the young man. He took a deep breath preparing to unleash a barrage of words to drive the people away from his hurting king.
“No, brother,” Pesha grabbed Gunari’s arm when he saw what was about to transpire. “I’ll handle the band. You go to your wife, get yourself taken care of, and take care of the child. She and the band will need you for a long time.”
“But, dammit, it’s not right. This is a private thing.”
“I know brother, I know. I will handle it. You need to get those wounds tended, though, or you won’t be here to help the king through the funeral. And you are the only one who can get your wife moving right now. Now go.”
Gunari started limping toward his wife reluctance clear on his face. Pesha started whispering words to the crowd and they began to disperse, leaving their king to his mourning. Nadya, upon seeing the condition of her beloved, almost dropped the princess.
“Give me the baby,” Gunari demanded. “What is the child’s name?”
“Talaitha, as was Queen Gabriella’s wish.”
With a tenderness few knew the bear of a man possessed he took the baby from his wife. He looked at the crying newborn. The dual colored eyes of the princess were wide open as she cried.
“It’s a good name,” he grunted.
Pain etched Gunari’s face as he walked toward his king. He reached a hand down and took a hold of Tanard’s shoulder.
“King Tanard, I know you are being torn apart inside. But you are a father, and a King. Your daughter needs you now. Gabriella is already on her journey to the next life.”
Furious at being interrupted in his grief, Tanard slapped the huge hand from his shoulder. He looked up, fire raging behind his dark brown eyes. Gunari looked down at him; no fear crossed his face as he kneeled down beside his king.
“Be angry at me if you must, but look upon the face of Talaitha Comlies, Princess of the People, first.”
————–
Three days had passed since Vlad’s attack, a child’s birth, and a Queen’s death. The band as a whole had packed and moved on with the efficiency of a nomadic people. They couldn’t afford to wait for Vlad to gather his forces for a full attack. They had travelled south east, toward Gabriella’s homeland. King Tanard insisted that she be buried there, with her family. Now they approached the former home of a former queen, and the cold reality had begun to sink in to Tanard. He was a king, and a father, and no matter the pain, he must lead his people on.
Tanard rode ahead of the band on the horse Pesha acquired from Vlad, Shadow. Attached to his chest by a pouch and straps was his wife’s last gift to his people. Talaitha yawned inside the warmth of her blankets and curled up against her father. He looked down at the slight, squirming creature inside the pouch and smiled, weariness painting his features.
He’d been angry when Gunari had so audaciously thrust the child into his face. Tanard had considered running the man through where he stood. How dare he tell Tanard, the king, his responsibilities? How dare this big lunk of a man interrupt Tanard’s mourning? Then Tanard had seen the eyes of his daughter. They were perfect replicas of Gabriella’s. He had taken the child then. Talaitha hadn’t left his sight since, not even when the surrogate nurse was feeding the infant did she leave his presence. There were whispers in the band that said it wasn’t kingly to change dirty clothes, but Tanard didn’t care. She was his daughter and Gabriella’s legacy. He wouldn’t allow anyone the opportunity to forget that fact.
They crested a hill, overlooking a grove of trees beside which was a tiny village. Not more than five buildings in all. This overlook was where Gabriella would find her final resting place. Tanard called a halt, and ordered Pesha to arrange the camp set up. Gunari tried to help, but Nadya wouldn’t allow him to so much as mount a horse. He was forced to ride in wagons with those too old or too young to ride horses. Gunari pouted and argued, but Nadya would die a hundred deaths before she allowed him to strain himself moving and lifting things as would be needed that day.
Tanard, seeing that everything was well in hand, rode down to the village below. He knew he must break the worst news possible to Gabriella’s only living relative. Anya, a shrewish older sister to Gabriella would not be pleased to see him. She was much older than her baby sister, and never took a husband. The people of the village were afraid of her, due to rumors that she was a witch. Anya used this to her advantage to scare off people and to sell trinkets that had no power but contained what she claimed were archaic ingredients. In reality they were just random bird feathers and strips of leather she scavenged from the area. Anya hated Tanard, and there was no love lost from him either.
Tanard knocked on her door, waited a moment, and then pushed it open. The woman was sitting at the table, sewing together one of her charms. She looked up at his entrance, and then looked away.
“Why are you here gypsy king, sister stealer?” Anya demanded.
“I came so that you can pay your last respects to your sister. And so that you can meet her daughter.”
“Pay my respects to a whore that ran off with a gypsy? It’s no longer my concern what happened to her. She’s your problem, and so is the half breed she pushed out. Or did you cut the child out?”
Tanard sighed, too tired to be goaded into a pointless fight with a sad old woman. “That is your choice, Anya. I only do what is right and honorable for your sister’s sake.”
He turned and walked back to Shadow, mounted up and rode away as fast as he could without disturbing the sleeping Talaitha. Anya walked to the lone window and watched them ride away, tears streaking her dirty face. She spat on the floor and went back to sewing her charms.
That night the band feasted in honor of their new princess, and fallen queen. They danced, and ate, sang songs of celebration, and mourning. Tanard sang loudest of all, both in joy, and in pain.