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.