It was a beautiful day. The sky was a cerulean blue with white fluffy clouds that seemed to morph into shapes for the amusement of the people below. The sun was merrily shining down sharing its warmth in a gesture of benevolence that was wasted on Aydan. She was numb.
Inside, the church was cool and dim. She blinked several times trying to adjust to the change. A man in uniform approached her, and her breath caught as, for a moment, she thought that she saw Garrett. That fact that it was impossible didn’t stop her heart from beating faster, or a faint spark of hope from igniting in her breast. A final blink cleared her vision and showed her that it was Sgt Black approaching. The pain lanced through her fresh. She grasped desperately at the numbness.
A strong arm came around her shoulders steadying her. “We are here for you, Aydan. You are not alone.”
She would always be alone. Her time with Garrett was an anomaly in her life.
Sgt Black led her to the front of the church where Garrett’s squadron was waiting. As she approached, they all stood at attention. She stumbled from the surprise. Sgt Black whispered to her, “We take care of our own.” He guided her to a seat between two of the soldiers. They thought that they were lending her support, but in truth she felt trapped. It was hard to deny reality when it was surrounding you.
Aydan gazed around the cathedral looking at everything except the casket. The sun, which had tried so hard outside to impress her, was now shining through the stained glass windows creating patterns of colored light on floor. Much like the clouds outside, the lights made images and acted out a scene for her. She saw warriors carrying swords sliding through shadows as they approached the dragon. Fire plumed from the dragon’s mouth.
She was startled back to reality as everyone stood. The alter boys, a few from Garrett’s squad, led the processional down the aisle. Would that make them alter men? Aydan blinked in surprise. There were several priests and a bishop. She was not sure how a corporal rated a bishop for his funeral. The bishop had graying hair that stuck out in tufts from beneath his miter.
“We are gathered here today for the funeral mass of Corporal Garrett McGhee. He led a blessed life.”
Aydan blinked in surprise. Not only was a bishop presiding over Garrett’s funeral, but he sounded like the bishop fromPrincess Bride. The day was turning very surreal. She stopped hearing the words and just listened to the sing song cadence of his voice. She wrapped herself in the sound of his voice and the colors littered across the floor, and she let herself float. She stood and knelt and made the sign of the cross in the correct places. After a lifetime of masses, she could follow the movements automatically.
“Aydan!” She realized that Sgt Black was nudging her.
She looked at him a bit affronted. She really didn’t need his elbow digging in her ribs. He nodded to the lectern and patted her knee.
“They are waiting for you.”
She clutched her papers closer to her chest. Reading them would make her feel, and she didn’t want to feel anymore.
She rose slowly and stiffly feeling like an old woman. The lectern loomed large in front of her. With a deep breath, she approached.
“Garrett,” she began “was truly a man of few words. He had no need of them. He was a listener, and he was very content to listen as the rest of us fumbled our way through life. Garrett always seemed to know where he belonged. It was part of his quiet. I guess it was a good thing he was such a good listener as many people have told me I never seem to stop talking. We were a classic case of opposites attract.”
“Someone” she gave SGT Black a sardonic look “once asked me what it was that I rattled on to Garrett so much about. I was telling him stories. Garrett loved stories. It may be about the stray dog we saw at the park or about the older man placing a kiss on his wife’s cheek as he helped her out of the car.”
“Garrett was as much a part of the stories as the characters that prompted them. At junctures in the story, he would have to make a choice. He might have to choose between the songbird or the pink rose. Much like the choices we face in life, the decision may have a major impact, or it might barely be a footnote. We rarely know ahead of time.”
“When he was deployed, I would send him chapters of a story which always ended with a choice. What he never told me was that he read the stories to his squad. They would argue over the choices and apparently it sparked quite a debate, but in the end, it was Garrett that made the choice.” She look deliberately at his squad. “He made his own choices and accepted the consequences of such.”
“They told me after Garrett was –Garrett was–” Aydan paused taking deep shuddering breaths.
“They told me after Garrett was hit by the IED that his last words were tell Aydan I choose the color red.” Her voice stuttered and large tears rolled down her cheeks. She looked down at the lectern which was naught but a blur. She wiped her eyes and then clutched the side. Taking a deep breath she pressed on.
“The squad has asked that I read the final chapter of the story. However, before I do, let me give the disclaimer that all the characters are fictional and any resemblance to real life people is merely coincidental.”
She gave weak smile. She had to do something to cope. She looked down at her papers and she began to read.
My Darling Garrett,
Here we come to the final chapter of the story. Like our own story, it is over much too quickly. Our story had too many tears, but it was also full of laughter. We did laugh a lot, and really, who could ask for more? It was a good story. We had a good story. I don’t know what choice that you made that brought it to a close, and whether you knew what effect it would have, or if it surprised you as much as it surprised me. What I do know is that you ended your story a hero. You have always been and always will be my hero.
Now, though, we must turn to our intrepid adventurers because they also deserve an ending. When we left them, they were on the last leg of their quest. They were a bit bruised and battered. Shae was battle weary and eager to return home. Even the mage, Sytrum was looking a bit worse for the wear. He was down to his last presentable outfit. He wore a black boots with upturned toes that weren’t polished to the sheen which he was accustomed. His valet had not seen fit to accompany him on the journey. Tucked into the boots were cobalt blue billowing pants. His shirt was a tame gray, and his coat was fitted tightly across the chest and flared out at his hips. It was a blinding chartreuse with rust colored embroidery in the shape of magical symbols. He completed the ensemble with a floppy blue hat that matched his pants and sported a large cherry plume. Upon seeing the outfit, Galen declared it Sytrum’s secret weapon. He could always blind the enemy without even casting a spell.
The party had gathered at a fork in the caverns, debating. The air was heavy and pressed down upon them until their packs made them feel they had the weight of the world upon their shoulders. In many ways, I suppose they did.
“We should take the right fork. It appears less traveled. Less chance of running into someone we wish to avoid,” Galen said, stroking his beard. He believed stroking his beard made him appear wise. It was a dwarven thing.
Sytrum shook his head. “No, the left. The path will have likely been cleared.” They would disagree on the color of the sky.
With a sigh, Beck prepared to step in before the argument could devolve – again. Before Beck could settle the matter, Shae caught a flash of red out of the corner of his eye. It was the tunnel less traveled. Without a word to his comrades, he started into it. His group looked at each other in bewilderment, and shrugging they began to follow. The flash of red stayed just far enough ahead that Shae could not see what it was. It reminded him of his recent nightmares, when he woke up breathing hard and shaking, with only the vague notion that there was something important he could not quite grasp.
The red flashes led him through the twist and turns in tunnels ever lower and lower into the bowels of the cavern. He stumbled around the last corner and almost ran straight into the rather large snout of a great wyrm.
Now, Garret, don’t roll your eyes at me. I know what you are thinking. A red dragon? Really? You couldn’t be more original than that? Well, first of all, it is not a red dragon. Your choice is yet to be revealed. And second of all, doesn’t every knight in shining armor deserve to battle a dragon? You, my dear, no matter how dented and rusted, are my knight in shining armor.
Now before you quibble about the next part, yes, there is a damsel in distress. What else would there be in such a tale? It is not so far from your story. As the valiant knights that you are, your squad has sworn to defend Lady Liberty. I am sad to say that in, our current era, she is a damsel in distress. Now, if you are done grumbling, we will continue with our tale.
The only light in the cavern was given off by the old wyrm himself. It was as if he was lit from within by the fires of hell, and he was not beast enough to contain it all. He was missing a few scales – evidence of previous battles. He had once been a beautiful creature until hatred twisted him until he was old, ragged, and just plain mean. Steam tufted from his scarred nostril, and he lifted his large head in indignation at the entrance of the ragged band of warriors. His eyes were alight with righteous fury. Is it not those who believe they are in the right, no matter how atrocious their act, the most terrifying creatures of all?
Another flash of red caught Shae’s eye. He glanced at the far side of the cavern where a young woman was standing on the other side of the dragon. No, she was not wearing red. Her blue dress hung in tatters about her bruised body. She was just past the blush of youth and her face showed both laugh lines around her mouth and furrows that worry had put between her brows. She was battered and tired, but she still managed to exude an aura of defiance. She was not going to go quietly like some virginal sacrifice.
“Hmmm” the great wyrm growled. “I had thought to have a dessert, but it seems that I am to be treated to a feast!”
Sytrum strode into the cavern, smirking. “Well, the ladies have called me a feast, but I don’t think that you will be tasting me today.”
He eyed the beast scornfully before pressing a handkerchief to his nose as if he was blocking a foul odor. “You are not my style.”
The wyrm blinked in surprise, though it was unclear if he was dazzled by the brilliant outfit or the mage’s audacious remarks.
The rest of the party moved to strategic positions trying to use the distraction that Sytrum provided.
“You have a style?” the wyrm eyed Sytrum dubiously. “Are you sure?”
Galen snorted before tripping over his own beard. “He has you pegged.”
Shae groaned. The dwarf could not keep his mouth shut.
“Ho, what is this?” Tufts of smoke crept from its nostrils as it narrowed its eyes in annoyance.
Beck loosened an arrow from his bow only to watch in dismay as it harmlessly bounced off the armored scales. At the end of a long journey, and he had no weapon to penetrate that thick hide.
The beast looked smug. “This is your great plan? Briiiilliant,” he drawled.
Shae glanced towards the woman in the corner on the other side of the beast. She was bloody and bruised, but she shone with determination. She met Shae’s gaze for a moment before she said in a bored voice,“You keep speaking of this greatness, but I have yet to see any evidence of it.” She glanced down at her dress, and with a sneer she started picking off bits of debris, “And your hovel is disgusting.”
The humidity in the cavern was rising with the beast’s ire. Steam began to roil across the debris strewn floor.
Galen swung his axe at the only part that he could reach – the wyrm’s toe. The beast titled its head down to peer at the annoyance. It flicked its claws and sent the dwarf flying. Galen smacked against the far wall and slid down. “Do something!” he screamed at Sytrum.
“I am a fire mage! Who brings a fire mage to battle a dragon? He likes fire!”
The wyrm eyed the mage again licking his lips. Sytrum was starting to look a bit green. It clashed horribly with his outfit.
Things were not looking good for our ragged band. Bravery will only get you so far. They had been away from home for a long time now, and they were weary. At what point was it enough and they could go home? Beck was notching another arrow trying to aim for the eye, but it was a near impossible shot in the dark cavern, and the fog only added to the difficulty. Even if he could make the shot, there was no guarantee that it would be fatal. It was going to be a slaughter, and the beast did not seem to be on the menu.
Shae gripped his sword tighter and briefly closed his eyes. There was a chance. Shae did not want to be the one, but if not him, then who? “Hey Ugly!” he yelled. “Why don’t you try a piece of me?”
The beast opened his mouth, preparing to roast these annoying intruders, and Shae seized the opportunity to launch himself into the creature’s mouth, jamming his sword in its pink vulnerable interior. The jagged teeth came together, tearing into him. He struggled to push the long sword into the brain. He gave a final heave, and felt the teeth tear through his side. The beast’s head fell to the floor of the cave with a thundering boom snapping its jaw shut and grounding the teeth further. Pain ripped through him.
His comrades struggled to pry the massive jaws apart. They carefully lifted him out and laid him on the floor.
As Shae struggled to breath, a figure in a hooded red cloak glided towards him.
Ahhh, yes. The choice was made for the red. It may not have been something that we want, but it comes to all of us sooner or later. Our choice really is in how we greet it.
Thin hands lowered the hood to reveal a young girl with gamine eyes. She gave him a cheery smile which seemed at odds with the situation.
“Hello,” she said perkily.
Shae gaped at her. He tried to ask, “Who are you?” but the breath would not come. His eyes flicked to his friends, but they did not seem to notice the young girl.
“You know who I am.”
He closed his eyes. He did not want this. He was not ready. He still had so much life to live, and he was leaving someone behind. He did not want her to be alone, but life had never been fair. Why should it start now?
Death, he thought.
She looked at him, serious for the moment. “Yes,” then she gave him a radiant grin. “Not what you were expecting? I get that a lot. Part of my charm.”
He glared at her. It was not his time.
Now she looked sad. “Ah, love, I am afraid that it is. Don’t worry, you saved the girl!”
He caught sight of the woman in blue leaning over him, trying to press a cloth into his wounds. He felt a flash of guilt. He had forgotten about her.
“Ahhh,” she said, “you are worried about the one you left at home. She will grieve. She will cry. She will scream. But she will take the next breath, and the next, and one day it won’t feel like her world is ending. However, she will never regret loving you.”
I can’t leave her, he thought.
“Your chapter is over. Hers is not yet complete. She will not be alone. Besides, you can check in on her from time to time.”
Death reached down and, grasping Shae’s hand, she pulled him to his feet. He looked around at his friends. Sytrum was consoling the damsel as she cried over Shae. Beck was guarding them, and Galen was making sure that the great beast was truly dead. They had this.
He turned and, still clutching Death’s hand, he walked on.
Aydan finished the story. She stood at the podium at a loss. What did she do now? How did she write the next chapter?
The members of Garrett’s team stood at attention and as one shouted “Hooah!” SGT Black came up to Aydan and guided her back to her seat.
She took a breath, and it felt like blades slicing her to pieces. She took the next breath and the next one. She closed her eyes, and for a moment, it felt as if Garrett was still with her. She opened her eyes and stood as the service ended. She walked slowly back out into the sun lifting her face to its warmth, and she just breathed.