Disclaimer: Johnny Lancer belongs to Fox, Count Petofi belongs to Dan Curtis, everything else belongs to me.
The air was crisp, not quite cold, as he walked through the deep foliage into the forest. Deep, deep, and deeper still. The further in he walked, the less the moonlight shown, yet he moved ahead confident of his destination. He knew he was closer when he heard the tinny, tinkling sound of the music; when the smell of the lamb roasting over the campfire drifted to his nose. He knew he was almost home.
Home was not a place of bricks and mortars. Not for him. Home was the camp where they circled their wagon with the other members of their caravan. Colorful wagons of red, green, yellow. The gajo did not understand his kind and their nomadic existence. The gajo called them gypsies, believing they had come from Egypt. But they were the Romani people, his people.
He saw his father, standing tall and proud in the center of a ring of people. His father was leader of their tribe and he had the crowd enraptured in his stories.
He turned at the name, smiling at the older woman who approached him. Despite her age, she was still a beautiful woman, her dark hair, slightly streaked with gray, cascading over her shoulder. Her almond-shaped eyes filled with a warm chocolate center looked at him with absolute love and devotion.
"Daj," he greeted his mother.
"You are late, chava."
He leaned over and kissed her cheek. "I'm not a boy anymore. I have seen twenty springs, Daj. Esmeralda and I will be married at midsummer."
Indulgently, she patted his cheek. "You will always be my chava, Radu. You are my only child." She wrapped her arm about his waist, and together they walked toward the circle around the fire to join the others. It was comfortable, familiar. He loved this life and these people. Smiling, he fell into the story his father told of the Mamioro. He knew the tale, had heard it before, the story of a spirit or ghost who was said to bring serious illness. It was his great-great grandmother on his mother's side who had been the wise-woman whose magic had defeated the evil of the mamioro. He believed in magic, knew it existed, that was never a question. Most gajo did not believe in magic, or feared it if they did, but magic was as much a part of his world as the light from the sun and the wind in the trees.
So enraptured in the story were they that they did not hear the crunch of boots on fallen leaves approaching the encampment until their nightly ritual was interrupted by the yells of the soldiers which broke through the night throwing the camp into a frenzied panic. They were under attack!
He grabbed his mother's arm and ran, pulling her with him, through the maddening crowd, toward their wagon. He jumped in, rummaged around quickly and jumped back out wielding a sword in his hands. The sword of the Romani . . . an inch wide scimitar blade of sharpened steel with a gold gilt pommel wrapped in tight leather. "Hide!" He ordered his mother as he ran to meet the attackers. A few of the other men, his father included, had also found weapons . . . swords, knives, sticks, or clubs; whatever they could lay hands on . . . and were engaged in battle while women and children and old men scattered, although not all fast enough. He winced when he saw a cousin of his, a child of eleven summers, bayoneted in the stomach. The carnage made him sick. The coppery smell of blood attacked his nostrils like the cruel men attacked his tribe.
His sword clanged against the sword of one of the soldiers, stopping it in mid-strike and saving a woman of eighty. She crawled away in the bloodstained mud as he began his fight in earnest. He was the best they had with a sword and he quickly dispatched the soldier with a slash to the man's abdomen. Pivoting on one foot, he charged into the fray like a dancer in a deadly ballet.
Fighting was, however, useless. The defenders were far outnumbered by the professional soldiers who were also better armed. In short order, the battle was lost and slaughter reigned supreme. The soldiers rounded up the remaining Romani into a surrounded circle of hopelessness.
He stood in front of his people facing the invaders, his eyes glaring at the soldier who now held the Romani sword. Defiant despite his defeat, Radu looked around for his mother. He'd seen his father fall to the floor of the forest of Ogdien speared through the abdomen. He did not see his mother in the faces of the people around him. His people. With his father's death, it fell to him to lead his people . . . to save his people.
"Well, well, well," a voice spoke from the darkness. "This has been a good nights work."
Radu glared at the rotund man who moved into the light of the campfire. He seemed to be in his fifties. Short and fat, with tight curly grey hair. That same gray hair framed his face and mouth with a full beard, neatly trimmed. His squinty eyes were gray as well, devoid of life and light. His voice carried the weight of command and an air that demanded complete obedience. His clothes were regal, black trimmed in silver thread, shiny black boots, and an ermine trimmed cape.
"I am Count Petofi. These are my lands you have trespassed upon. That cannot go unpunished." He slapped a riding crop in his hand as he walked around looking at the gypsies. "But I am not a cruel man. Everyone need not," he looked around as a wicked smile tugged up at his lips, "die."
Radu felt the soft, small hand slip into his. He spared Esmeralda a glance and a squeeze to her hand before glaring back at the evil Count.
Petofi glared back. "Are you leaderless? Does no one speak for you?"
Stepping forward, head erect, he asked sharply, "What do you want?"
"You lead these people?"
"Choose seven to die, and I will let the rest live. But they must leave the forest of Ogdien."
Blood pounded in his head, his heart thundered in his chest. Choose. Unthinkable. Not to choose. Unfathomable. How could he live with this decision? Turning, he faced his people, looking for his answers in their eyes. He did not have to choose, only to point to those who caught his eye, nodded a head, gave some indication they would sacrifice themselves for the others. He pointed out six then turned around.
Petofi smiled mirthlessly. "There needs be one more. Seven is a magical number. You gypsies understand magic. There needs be one more."
Radu turned to stare into Esmeralda's green eyes. He watched her breath hitch when she realized what he intended to do. Squeezing her hand one last time, he moved silently to stand with the chosen six men to await execution.
Petofi threw his head back and laughed. The sound echoed through the forest. "Splendid! Splendid. Well done, well done indeed." He walked up to Radu, leaned in closely and whispered. "You've the courage of a king." Turning to his soldiers, he barked the order, "Hang them! Him last!"
Time seemed to stand still, almost stop, before speeding up again at a head dizzying pace. The seven men were roughly handled by the soldiers. Radu's hands were bound behind him before he and the others were pushed, pulled and shoved towards an ancient oak. Hastily made nooses whistled through the air and over the strong branches. Radu stared at the ground, trying to control his rapid breathing, trying to ignore the sounds of death coming for him. Coming close, closer, and closer still with each man until finally Radu remained.
The noose was slipped over his head, He felt the rough hemp tighten around his throat. He tried to gulp down a final measure of air before Petofi's hand fell and his soldiers pulled the opposite end of the rope. Radu was jerked into the air, twisting and kicking in a futile effort for air as the rope pulled tighter and tighter around his throat. Stars danced before eyes. He couldn't breathe.
He could not breathe.
Gasping, Johnny Lancer woke drenched in sweat and gulping down air, his hands clenching the soft sheets of his bed. His chest hurt as if from lack of oxygen. It was a dream. No, a nightmare. But it had felt so real. His hand moved to his neck and his eyes grew wide as he felt a slight trickle of blood.
He jumped from the bed and moved to the mirror. His pulse raced as he stared at the thin red line circling his neck. His finger traced the line from behind his ear, around his throat and up at the other ear. He well knew the trace line of a noose. This was crazy. It made no sense. Johnny's eyes swept the room, nothing was there, nothing seemed out of place. Nothing but the very air in the room. There was an electric cold throughout the place.
Johnny ran a shaky hand through his bed tousled black hair, then palmed his face with the same hand. The nightmare had shaken him. He grabbed the pitcher with a shaky hand, poured cold water in the porcelain basin, and splashed the water on his face with his hands. Bracing himself by his arms leaning against the wash-stand, Johnny looked up into his weary blue eyes and was shocked to see a man reflected in the mirror standing behind him holding a sword with a gold-gilt pommel wrapped in leather.
Spinning quickly, Johnny found no one behind him. When he turned back to the mirror, his reflection hovered alone. He started to sigh in relief, but stopped. He stepped back as his gaze went down to the gold hilt sword sitting as a silent sentry across his wash basin.
THE END ....