Test of the Heart

He found himself in a noisy room full to bursting with laughing, jumping, screaming children.  A blond two year old boy was sitting on a large green cushion with a kitten in his lap, chanting, “birtfday, birfday, birfday, birfday.”  So this was a birthday party? 

The Rambling Man looked around curiously.  Everything seemed so real and normal—the chocolate smeared across one child’s face, the pinching and poking that two little girls in cute dresses were occupying themselves with, the little hand that caught on to his pant leg and shouted above the noise:  “Daddy—UP!”  Daddy?  He looked down at the little dark haired boy.  The child certainly looked a lot like the Rambling man had looked as a child.  “UP, UP!” screamed the child, wrinkling up his face to cry.  The Rambling Man stooped and picked the boy up.

“Jimmy!  Jimmy?” a beautiful woman’s voice called across the noise of the children. The Rambling Man looked up to see the princess wading through the little ones, a small child on her hip and her belly bulging with another expected.  “Ah-there you are!” she exclaimed when she saw the boy in The Rambling Man’s arms.  She came right over, and tousled Jimmy’s dark hair.  Her eyes were bright and smiling and showed no signs of ever bearing grief.  There was not the depth that thousands of tears should have left in them.  She was so young and beautiful and full of life.  She reached out and kissed the Rambling Man, just briefly, on the lips.  He was not as surprised as he expected to be.  This must be what could have been, if he had not turned her down, that dark night in the stable.

He reached out with his free hand and took her head gently and pressed his lips against hers in a longer kiss.  She returned it with as much passion.  The moment over, she smiled and returned to the children, pushing back through them to find sweets for them or a new game. 

Why had he kissed her? Because in this reality, or, non-reality, she was his wife and he had every right to kiss her.  That is what he told himself.  But deep inside, he knew that that was a lie.  He was irresistibly drawn to her—to her beauty and her youth. 

The chill air that came from nowhere tickled his check and the image of his real wife flashed through his mind.  She was not able to have children.  Guilt clenched his stomach. 

He found a place to put the boy down and wove his way out of the room into a quiet room in another part of the palace.  He sat down on a stone bench beneath a window to think.  But he did not have long alone.  The princess entered a moment later.  She had left the child behind and was now alone.  She came over to him, sat down beside him and leaned her small warm body against him.  She sighed a long and happy sigh.  Then she took his hand and placed it on her round stomach.

“We really must decide what to name our next child,” she said, in her lovely high voice that was like bells ringing.  She looked up at him with bright loving eyes and rubbed his hand on her belly, “I’ve been thinking we might call him Alexander, if it is a boy, and Alexandria, if a girl.  What do you think?”

He pulled away from her, quickly, jerkily, and stood up.  His movements caused her to catch her breath and balance her self quickly on the bench so that she didn’t fall.

“What’d wrong, Dear?” she asked, coming quickly, worriedly towards him.  She stood before him, and reaching up, took his face between her hands and looked deeply into his eyes.  “What’s troubling you?  No secrets, remember?”

Those eyes, that face.  She was so beautiful, so wonderful.  He was going to kiss her again.  He couldn’t help it—but he mustn’t! 

“Don’t you love me?” she asked.

He tried to pull away again, but did not try very hard.  She pulled him towards her and he felt her warm lips against his—

A loud screech interrupted them and the Rambling Man pulled away to see Cory there, jumping up and down and jabbering on so quickly and angrily, that even if the monkey was speaking English, he couldn’t be understood.

Reality came thundering back to him, and he looked at the princess with horror.  “You aren’t real.  You’re imagined.  Just another test.”

The room disintegrated around them and returned to the huge golden camber with the still lake.  Laughter and a dark, deep voice accompanied the change: “Another test… that you just failed.”

The princess turned into a pile of sand that sifted into a small mound on the ground.  Only the Rambling Man and the monkey remained, standing alone on the shore of the lake.  The monkey finally caught his breath and slowed down his speech.  “You are crazy.  Crazy!  You are going to get us all killed!  There is a monster down here, you know.  He’s going to eat us now.  Now that you failed the last test.”

“Well, we’ll just have to fight him off.  Where is Old Man Durward?”

“Coming, coming.”

The Rambling man turned to see the old pirate walking towards them.

“And you aught to know now—no one fights Barlow. It’s not worth it.  He always wins.”

Old Man Durward had barely finished speaking when there was a loud, roaring, sucking noise and a huge blue and gold sea monster surfaced in the lake, sending waves the size of trees crashing to the sandy shore.

The three stragglers ran as fast as they could to wall of the cavern to get out of the path of the water.

The End

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