Where am I?
Iím still dazed from the blow. Castor is standing over me, cradling the pigskin. His face is round and his hair is long. He is fourteen-years-old.
"Are you all right?" he asks, concerned.
I manage to get back on my feet without his help. The others are standing around, waiting for the game to continue. Iím holding them up. My hand is bleeding. I watch as a small trickle of crimson traces a line on my palm. At least Iíve got my wits back.
"Iím fine. Really."
I smile and assure him of that by thumping his arm with my good hand. Castor smiles back and calls the others to regroup.
Rush-ball, thatís what we were playing. Hugh, the stablemanís son, our quarterback, had told me to go long, and I had, except Castor was there before I was able to catch the ball. He had tackled me to the ground, harder than he should have. I didnít mind.
But why is Hugh playing quarterback? Fardo was the one with the best arm. Why isnít he here now? I look around but I donít see him.
We play until weíre all bruised up and covered in mud. By the time of the last goal, its already dusk. I tell Castor that I should go wash up for supper. He apologizes about the tackle and reminds me to ask my father if he can come camping with us to Lake Saroni. Everyone leaves to go home.
But I donít go home. I wash my hands in a small pond by one of the gardens. I watch as the ripples make the lilypads gently float away. My face is covered in dirt and scratches. I look young but I feel very old.
I take my horse, Ranger, and ride across the hills. My parents will be angry for letting my supper get cold, but the day is beautiful. I want to stay outside for a while longer.
I end up riding for what feels like hours. The sky has turned a rich purple color and sparkling stars have begun to appear. I see Old Star and Old Mother, watching over me, guiding me. I sing to myself:
All you need is love.
All you need is love.
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
I come across a meadow. I dismount and leave Ranger behind. I decide to take off my boots and feel the cool grass under my feet. The air smells sweet of lilacs and dandelions. Fireflies twinkle and dance in the twilight around me.
And then I see her.
She is seated on the ground, the skirt of her dress pooled around her legs. Sheís looking up at the sky, as if searching for something. She is young and beautiful and perfect and full of life.
And then her eyes turn upon me. Her lips curve upward into a soft smile. I stand there like a fool, eyes wide and mouth hanging open. I fall in love.
"Itís a lovely night, isnít it?"
Her delicate voice warms my heart. Iíve never seen her before this moment, but, somehow, I know her name.
"Yes," I finally manage to say, "its beautiful."
She smiles at me again.
"Is this a dream?" I ask, not wanting this night to ever end. All I want to do is be with her, right here, in this eternal meadow of love and beauty.
"Yes," she says, a flicker of sorrow in her eyes. She holds out her hand to me. "Come sit with me."
I go to her without hesitation. I sit beside her and I smell her hair, which reminds me of strawberries in spring, and watch as her cheeks turn a soft pink hue as she senses my gaze on her. I ache to hold her and make love to her. Her fingers entwine with mine.
"I wish you could stay with me, Henry, but you have to go back. You have to save our sons."
Sons? I donít have any sons. At least not when Iím this young. Steven wonít be born until six years from now, when weíre married, and our first child was
No, donít remember that. It was painful enough the first time.
She touches the side of my face. Itís like the caress of a warm breeze. "The tides of the universe are changing. Fardo has been swept awayÖ"
Fardo. He is not twenty and living with his father in the Old Quarter. He is dead and buried now. The one who killed him, Royce, was whipped and sent west. That was merciful. Many cried out for Royce to be hanged.
"Öas will many others. The world is moving on. Blood and memories, Henry, is all that will remain. You must go. Stand and be true."
I can feel myself being pulled away. I struggle to hold on, desperate to stay with the only woman I have loved or ever will love. Thereís pain in her eyes - she knows Iím leaving her - but her smile returns.
"Go, Henry. I love you, always and forever. I will see you againÖ"
My hand is torn from hers. Iím rising up from the calm waters of this dream and into the harsh light of awakening. Below, Deidre, like a drowned soul, watches me leave, her lovely face fading away into the black fathoms. In my daze, I see
Steven, only a boy, lost in the ethereal murkiness. I try to reach out for him, to call him towards me, but I see something creeping up behind him. Something with eyes that glow bright red and a grin that chills my blood. It - or he? - is wearing a denim jacket with two strange buttons on the left breast. One is yellow with a smiley face and the other is a cartoon pig with a bullet-hole through its head. Thereís a gun, the kind with a sandalwood grip, in the creatureís hand.
"Howdy, partner!" he cheerfully says to me, and then points the gun at the back of
Ďs head. The trigger is pulled. A blast of white light and a thundering crash. Blood and bone sprays in my face. The Dark Man laughs and laughs and laughs.
I scream and
Henry awoke, choking the scream back. He felt cold and damp and realized it was his own sweat. As he gazed about the dark stillness of his bedchambers, the stirring of terror inside of him gradually began to fade. Through the open window, he could see dawn was approaching. Birds chirped serenely.
He knew Deidre wasnít there beside him, but he still reached for her. His hand slid across the empty space where the warm body of his wife should have been. He then sighed and slumped down, defeated, knowing full well heíd never be able to get back to any sort of restful sleep. He laid there on the bed for a while longer, staring at nothing in particular, all sorts of thoughts dancing around in his mind.
Then, he began to sing:
All you need is love.
All you need is love.
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
He smiled and wondered if he was going mad. It would be a welcome change. How easy it would be to simply cast away the chains of sanity and dwell in a world where fantasy and reality were one and the same. It might even be fitting. Henry and Deidre, the mad rulers of Gilead, who waltzed in the darkness while everything around them burned and crumbled.
Mayhap he would go mad someday, but it would not be this one. He swung his feet out from underneath the warm blankets and pressed them down on the cold hard wood of the floor. He held his head in his hands, his fingers splitting the dark strands of his hair. His head ached miserably and his muscles felt like twisted rope.
Love is all you need.
He got up and faced the day as he had for the past twenty-six years. As a gunslinger.
What started as a drizzle in the morning turned into a harsh downpour in the afternoon. Thunder boomed and rolled across the landscape. The rain was heavy and the road was bogged down with mud. It might slow travel some, but there would be no rush to reach Delain.
Steven did a final check of his supplies and made sure the saddle was secured. His horse shook its head and snorted with annoyance at the rain. He patted its flank and moved to join his companions.
Robert was with his wife, Anne. Her auburn hair hung down in damp curls around her face. They were kissing each other in a way that made some of the demure ladies present blush and lower their eyes. When they finally pried themselves apart from each other, Robert shot Steven a wink that made him smile despite the grim atmosphere of the scene.
Christopherís farewell to his loved ones was more subtle. His wife, Dorothy, a small and delicate woman, gave him a modest kiss on the cheek. She held their baby boy, Alain, in her arms. Steven saw the infantís small fingers peeking out from folds of his bundling cloth. Christopher touched them, smiled with pride, and then joined up with Robert.
Cort was not there. He would not go to Delain with them. The trip had been delayed for Fardoís funeral, which they had all attended (what a sad day that had been for the entire barony), and it was decided that Cort should remain in Gilead. He would take his fatherís place and there was much that needed to be done. Steven knew there was another reason. It was the grief that Cort was going through. There would be no chance for vengeance. Royce was gone, banished forever from Gilead, spared only due to the influence of his father. Cort had to deal with his pain in his own way, without his friends, and though all of them were saddened to not have him along, they understood and said their private goodbyes to him earlier in the day.
Steven paused a moment, letting the rainfall down upon him, looking towards the place where he assumed Gabrielle would be standing. He imagined what her lips would feel like as she kissed him, and the gentle weight of her hand as she laid it upon his shoulder.
His thoughts interrupted, he turned and saw his father coming towards him. How old he seemed!
The two shared a moment of silence. It was clear his father had much he wanted to say to him. They had barely spoken more than three words to each other since Fardo was slain. It was more than just grief. There had been a drift between them since his mother fell ill. It was small but Steven feared it would widen in time.
All because of our pride. We are gunslingers, but are we not also mortal men?
This would not be the time or the place to deal with such questions. His father stepped forward and hugged him. Steven hugged him back. It was brief, as they both knew many were watching.
"Take care of yourself, and your friends."
Steven nodded. "I will."
His father moved back to where the others had gathered. Castor put his hand on his shoulder. Steven turned to his friends and they all mounted their horses. He gave one last look to his home, the Central Place (the great manor of Gilead), for it would be more than six months until his return. He had never been away for that long before, or rode as far as he would from the borders of In-world.
He and his friends exchanged looks - they were eager, yes, but they all missed Cort - and offered final waves to all their friends and family.
Just then, Randolph raised his flat-brimmed hat, held it high and shouted proudly, "Hile, gunslingers!"
Castor did the same. And all the other gunslingers as well, their hats raised in salute.
Robert took his own hat from his head, pulled the reins of his horse to kick up its front legs, and let out a triumphant yell, "Yeeeeeeeeeehah!"
Steven and his father smiled at each other. Moments later, he was racing down the muddy road with his friends, the wind blowing cold rain in his face.
It was the start of a journey that, in the end, would cause worlds to tremble.
By dusk, the rain had stopped and their pace had slowed. They left the road and made camp in the woods. Over a fire, they cooked a rabbit and talked about Fardo and told the many stories that revolved around him. Of his incredible deeds, as when he killed twenty men with a single gun and five bullets, and of his misfortunes in drinking, such as when he violently broke down the door of every cottage on his block until he finally reached the one of his home.
Robert, who had brought his guitar with him, paid tribute to their old friend and teacher. They listened while he sang, the lazy notes drifting through the still of the warm summer night.
and everywhere you go
Times is harder than ever been befo'
And the people are driftin'
from door to door
Can't find no heaven,
I don't care where they go