Victor watched Artemis go off to distract the lookouts and guards, and shook his head. He wondered what he’d done to find such a loyal and foolish friend. Starting on his own way, he soon saw the light of the camp’s bonfires through the trees, and took his time creeping towards them. The scout returned, breathless, with tales of the Ranger ambushing one of their number, and grinned at his friend’s ingenuity. A fair portion of the guards ran off after him, going to hunt the Ranger down. Left at the camp was a skeleton force that would be child’s play to sneak through.
He crept up to a now unguarded portion of the camp and slipped between two tents, making his way around until he found the center, where the largest tent was kept. This was surely Queen Ophelia’s quarters, and he made his slow, silent way to the back of the tent. With his dagger, he cut a small slit in the fabric at eye level and peeked inside. This was her tent, and he so happened to be at a point where he could slip inside unseen. There was a large brazier in the center of the room, but a small throne blocked the light to this part of the tent. He widened the slit to a size able to accommodate a man, and stepped inside.
He spied a basin filled with water, and knew this was her tool for farseeing. Victor kicked himself mentally. He should’ve remembered this! She’d probably been watching them the entire journey!
“Turn around, Ranger.” A voice as mellow as honeyed wine called out. “Slowly. I want to savor this moment.”
Victor obeyed, and revealed in the corner of the tent where she’d been waiting for him was Ophelia, Queen of the Gypsies. She was still a vision of beauty, and he felt his heart leap for things that it seemed could never be again. Her long brown hair flowed down from a crown wrought of silver, a single jewel sitting in the cradle. Her dress was like flowing water, hugging her curves delicately, the silk gently brushing the ground as she stood. In her fine boned hands she held a flintlock pistol, pointed at his heart. Her aim did not waver.
“Ophelia,” Victor started grimly, putting up his hands. This was not how he’d pictured this going. He didn’t know how he thought it would go, but her pointing a gun at him wasn’t something he’d been expecting.
“You may call me ‘Queen,’ you traitorous letch.” She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Her eyes were full of malice and hatred.
“Queen, then,” he relented. She was the one with the gun, after all. “I’ve come to…”
“I know why you’ve come, Ranger. I’ve been watching you in my scrying basin.”
“Then you know I want to make amends.” He dropped his arms to his sides, shoulders sagging. “Ophelia, I still lo—“
“Keep my name out of your mouth!” she snapped at him. The vitriol in her voice was like a knife in his heart. “You know full well what you did! And you know I can never forgive you!”
“And if I want to make it up to you?”
“I would say you could do that by taking this gun and ending your miserable life, but I don’t trust you enough.” Her aim was still unwavering. Victor looked into her eyes and saw tears. “And because I cannot trust you with even this simple task, I shall have to do it myself,” she said as she cocked back the hammer of the flintlock.
The guards of her tent, having heard their Queen yelling, burst through the door. Ophelia waved them off, but in the split second that she took her eyes off of Victor, he had his bow up and an arrow knocked. The guards faltered, not knowing what to do. They couldn’t leave their Queen alone with this madman, but if they rushed him he would fire, and very likely kill her.
A moment later their course was decided for them as their throats were opened and they fell to the floor, sputtering and choking on their lifeblood. The Queen and the Ranger gaped in astonishment as a pair of black-booted feet stepped over the bodies, and a gloved hand came up to tip a wide-brimmed hat over the smile of an old friend. “By all means, don’t let me get in the way of you two killing each other,” Artemis said. “Do continue.”
Ophelia’s face contorted in a mask of hate as she realized who’d just slain her personal guard. “Cromwell,” she spat.
The Hunter nodded in her direction. “Ophelia,” he said nonchalantly, as though he had seen her at the market in town, rather than having invaded her personal quarters after killing her guardsmen. “So are you planning on pulling that trigger, or…?”
“You don’t understand!” she shouted. “You’re a filthy womanizer! You always have been!” Tears were openly running from her eyes at this point. “I loved him!” She thrust the flintlock towards Victor, finger still worryingly on the trigger. “And he betrayed me! You could never understand what that’s like!”
Artemis looked at his friend and started a bit. Victor had tears running down his face as well. This was quickly getting outside of the Hunter’s wheelhouse. “Perhaps I can’t, I’ll give you that, my lady. But I do know that he sneaked in here to see you, not to kill you but to talk. Seems to me he’d rather make amends than have bloodshed.”
“And my guards?” she cried, eyes flitting to the bodies.
“Oh, that you can completely blame on me. I’m already cursed, so another one won’t be much trouble. I’ll have you note that he didn’t do that, though.”
“I’ll have both your heads!” Ophelia screamed.
“I’m here merely as an observer,” Artemis countered. “I came to help my friend talk to you. Now that he’s here, and we don’t have them to worry about, I’ll see myself out.” He turned his back, grabbed each of the corpses on the floor by a wrist, and dragged them out the front flaps of the tent. “I’ll be just outside, though, so do try to have a peaceful resolution,” he called.
Ophelia was fuming, hot tears running down her face, hands shaking with rage. She turned to face Victor, who still had his bow drawn and pointed at her, and refocused her aim on him. “Even if that half-demon does kill me, I’ll still take your life, you filthy dog!”
“Do you hate me so much?” Victor asked, his voice a whisper. “I hold no such hatred for you.”
“Yes!” she screamed at him. “I did not betray you! You betrayed me! I have a right to my hate! If only you’d been faithful…” she faltered, becoming choked up by her tears.
“Can’t we start over?”
“That is not how this works, and you know that, Ranger.”
“Please, call me by name. If only for one last time.”
“I’m going to kill you, Victor.”
“And I cannot bear to bring myself to kill you, Ophelia.” His arms were beginning to strain from holding the bow.
“We each will do what we must. I did love you, at one time.”
“I love you now.”
Her finger tightened on the trigger. There was a horrendous explosion, noise and flame detonating from the barrel of the gun. The bullet traveled in between Victor’s arms, striking him in the chest. The shock of the impact loosened his grip on the bowstring, and he released. The arrow flew across the short space between them, embedding itself in Ophelia’s heart. The two looked surprised, shocked at what had happened, then collapsed to the floor.
Victor tasted blood, and as he strained to look at Ophelia he saw that she was leaking red fluid from her mouth as well. His lung was punctured, breath came hard, but he managed to start crawling over to her. He wanted to tell her with his last breath how sorry he was, how he didn’t mean to hurt her, how he wanted to be with her. She was gasping, lying on her back, eyes boggling at the ceiling of the tent uncomprehending of the fate delivered upon her. In a moment Victor had made it to her, and through a herculean effort he cradled her in his arms. Her breathing was ragged, hitching, gasping, coughing. With his bloody hand he brushed her hair out of her face, holding her like he had all those years ago.
Ophelia swallowed blood, breathing was painful, and she found she couldn’t form words. Victor was crying over her, hot tears falling on her face. She reached up her hand and stroked his cheek. She managed to whisper, “Victor?” Her hand fell away, her breathing stopped, her eyes went glassy, and the Gypsy Queen was dead.
Victor closed his eyes, knowing in his final moments that he had killed his love, and gave up the struggle to live. He collapsed atop her, dying with her in his arms.
Artemis saw this, having run inside the tent after the shot rang out, and sighed. He removed his hat, placing it over his heart in a gesture of respect. Knowing that he couldn’t leave them like this, he took their bodies out of the tent, dragging them into the woods. He carried them for a fair distance, outside the range of the lookouts, then went back to the camp to steal a shovel. Being one man, Artemis couldn’t give them a proper burial, but he made certain to bury them deep so that wild animals wouldn’t desecrate their corpses. Whatever they had been in their last moments, they had been his friends in life, and this was the least respect he could give them. He knew the Gypsies wouldn’t give Victor a proper grave, and he didn’t have the resources to bury Ophelia properly. But looking at their final moments together, he thought it best that they be buried together. Maybe it wasn’t the right thing, but Artemis thought it would be the closest he could manage.
The sun was well up by the time he finished, and he gathered up his shirt, gloves, cloak, and hat. He dressed as he made his way towards the road, evading patrols of Gypsies, with curses and threats on their tongues. They knew something had happened, but they couldn’t find the Queen. And if Artemis had his way, they never would. He made his way back to the road, and found Ana there, anxiously leading her horse up and down the same mile over and over again.
“Sir Artemis!” she cried out upon spying him breaking the tree line. She left the horse and ran across the small meadow between the road and the forest, tackling him in a hug. He almost went over from exhaustion, but managed to keep his feet as he returned her greeting. She broke their embrace and looked around in confusion. Ana turned her gaze back to Artemis, asking, “But…where is Sir Victor? Didn’t he come back with you?”
Artemis thought hard at that moment, and swallowed. “No,” he said at last, “he didn’t. He decided to stay with Ophelia.” He looked away, hoping that she wouldn’t see the beginning of tears in his eyes. He drew his hat down firmly, letting the wide brim cover his eyes.
Ana seemed confused, but didn’t press the matter. “Oh, well that’s probably for the best, then. He really seemed to like her. I hope they’ll be very happy together.”
Artemis again tried to swallow the lump in his throat, with limited success. “I hope so too, Ana.” He gestured towards the horses. “Come on. Let’s get back on the road. There’s no use hanging around here anymore.”
They went back, mounted their horses and rode off. Ana told Artemis of the time she’d spent in the bar, how nice Terry had been, and that she’d heard of a job for him in the city of Kalishti, in the kingdom of Ashkian. Apparently there had been a rash of monster sightings in the town, and from all accounts it was faeries that were the cause of the trouble. Artemis indulged her, letting her prattle on as long as she liked. They’d have to hire an airship to get over the mountains to Ashkian, but there were plenty of airships for hire in the city of Lakshmi. They rode on, Artemis wanting to put as many miles between himself and the bad memories as possible. Though memories, especially bad ones, have a way of following a man.
In the years after, it was said by the people who walked in that wood that it was haunted. The ghost of a tall, handsome man and a beautiful woman were seen walking under the boughs. None ever disturbed their walk, and much was made about where the ghosts had come from, but nobody could place them. The stories varied wildly, of course, but one thread linked them all. The two ghosts were always seen holding hands.