Copyright © 2009 by Barbara Davies.
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19th Century Gypsy Words & Phrases
There's a glossary of relevant words and phrases at the end of each section.
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Rain drummed against the windowpane as Dorcas peered through the streaked glass. Darkness obscured the trees dotting the spacious recreation ground and the high hedge that lined its boundary wall.
Perhaps I should postpone my plan. She would far rather stay in the relative safety and comfort of the asylum than be abroad after midnight in such awful weather. But if I don't go tonight I may not get another chance.
Her uncle was coming to visit her tomorrow morning at eleven o'clock sharp, as he did every Tuesday. He was bound to notice that she was no longer sedated and insist, for her own good, on the drugs' resumption.
At first she had welcomed the distance they put between her and the world, the dulling of grief, which had at times been in danger of overwhelming her. Lately, though, she had grown tired of her wits being permanently fogged. Then Fate, in the shape of the new nurse had intervened.
Dawson was a replacement for Burrows, whose mistreatment of patients had at last been witnessed by an attendant with scruples. She had frowned when she saw the draught placed ready for Dorcas to drink, as she did every night.
"You don't still need that, do you?" She had hurried away to check Dorcas's medical notes, and returned, shaking her head in dismay. The sedative draught prescribed upon admission had been meant as a temporary measure and Dorcas wasn't to take it any more.
Dorcas had been too befuddled to feel more than slight apprehension at this change to her routine. It had taken a few days before the clarity of thought she had been accustomed to returned, then, to her relief, she realised that Nurse Dawson had been right. The grief was still there, of course, but it had become bearable.
That had been six days ago. Since then, Dorcas had been reassessing her presence in the asylum.
She turned away from the window, banging her shin against her narrow bed's frame. She rubbed it and hoped the thud hadn't woken the women sleeping in the cubicles to either side.
Dawson would stand her ground against Uncle Franklin, but her opinion would count for little if he appealed to the Assistant Medical Office or Superintendent Biven. Most of the inmates were paupers, their treatment, board, and lodging funded by the state. Dorcas was a private patient, her bills paid for by her uncle, and Biven would bend over backwards not to alienate him.
But I can't go back on the sedatives. Dorcas found she had clenched her fists. And I won't stay here a single day more. Everyone must lose their parents at some point, and Mother and Father would expect me to get on with my life.
The attendant had made her rounds ten minutes ago, inspecting each doorless cubicle in the female sleeping quarters in turn—Dorcas had pretended to be asleep. And the night nurse was busy at the end of the corridor, where from the sounds of it Nellie Tickhill was having another of her 'turns'. The coast was as clear as it would ever be. It was now or never.
She stripped off her nightgown and pulled on her chemise, petticoats, and corset, then the drab day dress issued to all female patients. As she eased her feet into the flimsy slippers and draped the thin shawl around her shoulders, she thought enviously of the sturdy buttoned boots and thick hooded cloak she had been wearing when she was admitted. But her own clothes had been locked away, to be returned to her upon her release and not before.
She put on her bonnet, tied its ribbons under her chin, and gave the cubicle one last glance to see if she had overlooked anything. On tiptoe she crept along the corridor, breath held until she was safely past the cubicle containing poor Nellie and the night nurse.
At the end, wide stone steps led down to the ground floor and she descended carefully, hoping the weather hadn't already put paid to her plans. It had been pure luck that she had learned the night porter often deserted his post, slipping out just after midnight and leaving the back door unlocked so he could return without disturbing anyone. Apparently, the young man's paramour lived not far from the asylum and he liked to spend an hour alone with her most nights. What if tonight the weather had decided him against it?
But she needn't have worried. Amor vincit omnia, thought Dorcas, with a surge of relief. For the porter's post was deserted, and when she tried the door latch, it opened under her hand.
The driving rain had eased to a drizzle, she was relieved to find, as she slipped outside. It was a cold night and she pulled the shawl more tightly around her shoulders.
The asylum's main entrance lay at the end of a long curving drive, but its walls were too high for her to even think of scaling them, as were its locked gates, their bars too narrow to slip through. More promising was the section of boundary wall that adjoined the recreation grounds. She had overheard a gardener mention that it was in a poor state of repair. A thick hedge of holly and hawthorn reinforced it—one reason, probably, why its repair wasn't high on the asylum's list of priorities—but Dorcas was willing to risk a scratching.
Thick clouds covered the moon, so there was little light to see by. Grass squelched underfoot, as she hurried across the bowling lawn. A puddle soaked her slippers, the inrush of cold water making her gasp, then a small rock under her heel almost turned her ankle. She limped on until the stinging eased, relieved the mishap hadn't ended her journey before it began.
The night seemed to magnify her senses. Her breathing sounded unnaturally loud, and in the distance she heard the cry of a fox. No sound came from the building she had left, however. How long before someone discovered her absence?
The hedge loomed at last, and she shielded her face with one arm and pushed her way between prickly leaves and thorns, until by feel she found the wall. It towered above her, rough bricks intact. Dismayed, she wondered if her definition of disrepair differed from the gardener's.
Further along, perhaps?
The gap between wall and hedge was narrow, sometimes almost non-existent, as she squeezed along it. Thorns tried to pluck off her bonnet and pulled the threads in her shawl, and she had to pause frequently to unhook herself. Precious time was passing, and her anxiety mounted. Then she stubbed her toe on a fallen brick.
Squinting up at the wall, Dorcas saw that the mortar in the upper section had crumbled. Several bricks were missing or had become dislodged. With luck I should be able to....
She scrambled up, placing her feet with care and stretching for handholds that threatened to crumble under her weight. Scraping knuckles and arms, she struggled on, until with a last gargantuan heave she was up.
It was while she was sitting astride the wall, catching her breath, that she heard the first faint blast of a keeper's whistle, followed by shouting. Hastily, she jumped down the other side and found herself in a tree-lined avenue. For a moment she paused, irresolute, then she tossed a mental coin and hurried north.
The avenue had led Dorcas to a residential district. Large houses were set in extensive grounds. Evidently their owners were wealthy enough to afford street lighting, and gas hissed inside the lampposts as she hurried along the pavement. She was tempted to knock on one of the front doors, to ask for assistance. But the residents would not take kindly to being disturbed at such an ungodly hour.
The whistle blasts coming from the asylum had been growing in frequency and volume, and as she watched, an upstairs light came on. How long before her pursuers realised she had left the grounds? How long before they found her?
Loud barking made her jump. A mastiff was glaring at her from only a foot away, straining to break his chain. At his barking yet more lights come on. Dorcas began to run.
At the end of the street she turned left. This road was narrower, the houses smaller and more densely packed. It took her a moment to register the clip clop of hooves and crunch of wheels. She turned and saw a hansom cab barrelling along the road towards her.
Her first impulse was to hail the driver, but she had no money. Perhaps if she pretended to have the fare, then, when she had reached her destination, made a run for it.... She stepped into the road and held up a hand.
"I ain't for hire, miss," called the cabby, perched on the sprung seat behind the cab. He gestured at his horse. "She's done in. The only place we're going is home."
"Please." She stepped into a pool of lamplight.
The cabby's eyes widened. "Lawk's sake, miss!" He reined the horse to a halt. "What happened to you?"
The ear-splitting sound of a policeman's rattle joined the distant whistle-blasts and shouts. The cabby listened, his expression changing from startled to thoughtful, before turning a shrewd gaze on her.
"On the run from the asylum, are you?" Evidently he knew this part of London well.
"Please." She took comfort from the fact he hadn't simply driven away. "Will you help me?"
He cocked his head. "Got the fare?"
For a moment she was tempted to lie, then she shook her head.
His bewhiskered face split into a smile, revealing tobacco-stained teeth. "An honest runaway. You must be mad, miss!"
Barking joined the whistle blasts, which were getting louder.
"Get in then." He gestured towards his cab.
As she pulled back the folding apron, and climbed in, two men wearing attendants' uniforms appeared at the junction. One pointed at Dorcas and yelled. She had barely got settled when the cab lurched forward, pressing her back into the seat.
Startled red faces gazed in at her as she hurtled past, then came an obscenity and a shout, followed by a loud blast of a whistle. Then all she could hear was shod hooves on cobblestones and the rattle of wheels.
Through the little hatch in the rear of the roof the cabby's face was a mask of concentration.
"Why?" she called up to him.
He looked down at her, grinned, and shrugged. "Hate to see anyone bullying a young lady," he shouted. "Or maybe you remind me of my daughter."
He touched his cap and settled back into his driving.
Kat filled the cook pot with water, potatoes, carrots, and onions, then added a handful of herbs and a pinch of her precious salt. She replaced the lid and suspended the pot from the crowbar, then set the knife to one side and wiped her palms on her skirt. The dry wood had caught alight quickly, and the fire was burning fiercely—it wouldn't take long for her dinner, such as it was, to cook.
She glanced at the lurcher, whose head was resting on her paws, tail wagging sporadically. "We could both do with fresh meat, couldn't we, Bracken?" They had finished off the last of the hare yesterday, and since then Kat had little time to replenish her supplies. "We'll go hunting later," she promised.
The sounds of tearing grass and munching coming from where she had tethered Pharaoh showed that the donkey, at least, was happy.
A rustling noise from the far side of the cart caught Kat's attention. She peered at the bushes, frowning. Was that the gleam of eyes, peering out at her? It was hard to tell in the failing light. Then a branch shivered.
Bracken got to her feet, head lowering, hackles rising.
"Who's there?" called Kat, reaching for the knife. The branch shivered again. "Show yourself."
For a moment there was silence, then came whispers and giggles. The gleam disappeared; the thud of running feet replaced the rustling, fading into the distance. Bracken's hackles smoothed, and she sank back onto her haunches.
Children. Probably from the village whose chimney smoke Kat had spied from the cart track. At least they hadn't thrown stones.
You could never tell how gorgio children were going to react. Their natural response to seeing a Romany was one of curiosity, fascination even. But it could turn to hostility in an eyeblink, especially if they took their cue from their parents. She hoped these villagers were friendly.
The temperature was dropping, and Kat draped her cloak around her shoulders for warmth. A half moon was rising, and the stars were coming out. It should be a dry night—a pleasant change after last night's downpour, which had forced her to sleep in the cart.
The food was ready, and Kat was removing the pot from the fire, when Bracken stood up, ears flattening, eyes narrowing. Kat put down the pot and scanned her surroundings. Was that flicker of light through the trees a torch? Sounds she had been vaguely aware of became voices, coming closer.
She was on her feet by the time the villagers entered the glade. There were seven in all, four men and three women.
"They were right," said the leading man, a stout fellow with a large moustache. He held his torch higher. "It's a damned gyppo!"
"We don't want you here," called the woman behind him. "We know about your kind. Thieves and child-snatchers, the lot of you."
A knife would be no use against this number. Kat slipped it into the pocket of her skirt and folded her arms. "I'm neither." She kept her tone even. "May God strike me down if I've done you any harm."
"So you say." A young woman gave Kat a glare. "But my best layer went missing today, and no fox stole her from the coop. I'll wager she's in your cook pot." She took a step towards the campfire, but stopped when Kat interposed herself.
"I haven't been near your hens."
A loud bray made the villagers jump. They hadn't noticed Pharaoh until then. The donkey's head was up, his tail clamped to his rump—a sign he felt uneasy.
Something pressed against the back of her thighs. Bracken. Kat could feel the bitch trembling. She reached back and patted the lurcher's neck. "Easy," she murmured.
"And what about my laundry," piped up another woman. "Put it out to dry this morning, I did, but when I went to fetch it in, half of it had disappeared."
"Nothing to do with me," said Kat.
"Reckon we'll see for ourselves," said the leader. He beckoned to the other men. "Let's see what she's got."
"You've no right!" cried Kat. But the villagers were moving purposefully towards her.
Fists clenched, she forced herself to stand by while they emptied her cook pot on the ground, sneering at the thin stew, then turned their attention to her cart. They rifled through her possessions with a contempt and carelessness that left the straw coming out of the pallet she usually slept on and dents in her tin kettle. She hoped they wouldn't find the secret compartment where she kept the jewellery her mother had given her.
Movement made her turn. The village constable had arrived in the glade, she saw with surprised hope. He smacked his truncheon into his palm as he surveyed the activity.
"They're scaring my animals, Constable," said Kat. "And damaging my property."
He ignored her and addressed the men rummaging through her cart. "Find anything?"
The leader gave his head a grudging shake. "Must have hidden the stuff elsewhere."
"I keep telling you," said Kat, "I don't have anything that belongs to you." Pottery shattered. Her favourite teacup. "Please stop."
But the constable continued merely to watch, until at last, with a grudging, dissatisfied grunt, the villagers finished ransacking her cart. Only then did he turn to regard her, wrinkling his nose at her as though she were a nasty smell.
"You can't stay here. You're causing a disturbance. Your kind always does."
"I'm causing the disturbance!"
The villagers exchanged grins. The women turned to leave.
"You heard me. Hook it, gyppo, or spend the night in the cells."
She took a breath to calm herself. "Can't you at least give me until morning?"
"No. And I could have you up before the magistrate like that." He snapped his fingers. "So none of the lip."
The last of the women vanished into the darkness, leaving Kat alone with their menfolk. She sensed the mood could turn ugly. Gorgios like these were the worst kind. They would think nothing of attacking a woman, especially if they considered her to be less than human. Best do what the constable said.
No one offered to help her as she gathered up her things and put them back in the cart, then stretched the tarpaulin over them and tied it down. She hitched Pharaoh to the traces.
"May your unkindness and injustice be visited upon you threefold," she muttered, kicking dirt onto the campfire.
"She's not putting a curse on us, is she?" asked one of the villagers.
Should have thought of that earlier, shouldn't you, thought Kat, with a stab of vindictive pleasure.
The constable raised his eyebrows. "Don’t tell me you believe in all that mumbo jumbo, Bert?"
From his discomfited look, Bert did. He scuffed a clod of grass with his heel.
Kat climbed into the cart's driver's seat, waited for Bracken to leap up, and flicked the reins. She was thankful that Pharaoh didn't pick this occasion to be obstinate. He leaned forward in his traces and the wheels began to turn.
"Good riddance to bad rubbish," called out one of her persecutors, as she drove out of the glade.
His feeble sally provoked raucous, relieved laughter. The curl of Kat's lip was her only reply.
Kat drove along deserted, winding lanes with no object in mind other than to put distance between herself and the gorgios. Bracken put her head in Kat's lap and Kat stroked her, gaining comfort from the motion.
Somewhere, a tawny owl screeched. It was too dark to see much, and she was in unfamiliar territory, so she proceeded with care. It was nearly midnight, by Kat's reckoning, when she gave up the attempt to find a campsite and pulled the cart over to the side of the track.
Pharaoh tore up a few mouthfuls of the verge and dozed in his traces. Kat climbed into the body of the cart, shoved her jumbled belongings off her pallet, lay down, and pulled the tarpaulin over herself. Moments later, Bracken eased in beside her. Some Romanies considered dogs unclean, but Kat welcomed the extra warmth....
The dawn chorus woke her. She watched the sun creep above the horizon then threw back the cover and stretched the stiffness from her shoulders. Bracken leaped down, relieved herself, and went hunting. A yawning Kat found a gap in the hedge and relieved herself too.
When she returned, Pharaoh was browsing, his posture indicating approachability. Kat patted his neck and spoke soothing words to him for a few moments, then clambered back onto the cart and surveyed her surroundings. She was lost. Not that it mattered. She would soon find her way. And it wasn't as if she was in a hurry. The gathering wasn't for another two days.
She was chewing a handful of hazel nuts from her emergency cache, waiting for the lurcher to return, when her gaze fell on an arrangement of twigs, tufts of grass, and pebbles lying next to Pharaoh's front right hoof. Other Romanies must have passed this way, and not long ago either.
Kat jumped down, shooed an indignant Pharaoh aside, squatted, and studied the patrin. That twig, broken just so, those tufts of grass, knotted in that way....
A campsite. 100 yards further up the hill. The track by the crooked silver birch.
Bracken appeared through the gap in the hedge, trotted towards Kat, and dropped a dead hare on her bare foot. She wagged her tail. There were traces of blood on her lips.
"Had your breakfast already, I see." Kat picked up Bracken's gift. "Thank you. Let's find this camp site and I'll have mine."
Dorcas placed one sore foot in front of the other and tried to ignore the stitch in her side. Apart from the few hours spent huddled under a hedge last night, trying to sleep, she had been walking non-stop. Her slippers were muddy and torn, the soles on the verge of disintegration, and the hem of her dress wasn't in much better shape. She was tired and hungry, and if it hadn't been for the stream further down the hill she'd have been thirsty too.
Yesterday's rations had seemed meagre enough—a heel of hard bread and a morsel of cheese the size of a half-crown, given to her by the cabby—but they had been better than nothing. Around now the inmates at the asylum would be breakfasting on six ounces of bread and butter washed down with a cup of sweet, milky tea. For the first time, Dorcas envied them. In spite of the water, her stomach felt hollow, her head muzzy, and her legs increasingly shaky.
Maybe heading for the countryside had been a poor decision, though with men pursuing her, it had seemed logical at the time. She hadn't given much thought then to provisions. But vague notions she would be able to find nuts and berries in the hedgerows and root crops in the fields had turned out to be incorrect. Spring was the wrong season, or perhaps she had been looking in the wrong places.
If only I could find a farm. I could ask the farmer's wife if she can spare me some food.
Cursing her own stupidity, Dorcas toiled on, stopping at increasingly frequent intervals to catch her breath and press one fist into her side. It was during one such break, while was gazing back down the hill wondering whether it was too late to retrace her steps, that she caught the scent of wood smoke and cooking meat. Her stomach rumbled, and for a moment she wondered if she were imagining it. Then the scent wafted towards her again and without conscious thought, she set off in search of its source.
The delicious aroma came and went on the morning breeze, drawing her off the main track onto a stony path that narrowed as it went. Trees crowded in on both sides, leafy branches arching overhead to form a dense canopy. She trod with care, anxious to avoid turning an ankle on the freshly made wheel ruts. A little further along the leafy tunnel, the path became less stony. Then the canopy thinned and she emerged into a sunlight-dappled clearing.
It was occupied.
On the left stood a four-wheeled light cart, beside it, a tethered donkey, grazing. In the centre burned a campfire, meat glistening on its spit, fat sizzling as it dripped. Dorcas licked her lips.
In a single swift motion, the gypsy woman tending the fire got to her feet. She was unusually tall for her sex, and gold hoop earrings peeped from under the jet-black hair that fell half way down her back.
"What do you want?" Her frown was fierce, her tone hostile.
"Please," said Dorcas, her attention divided between the gypsy and the food. "Can you spare me something to eat?"
A dog was peering from behind the woman's ankle-length skirt, she noticed suddenly. It looked as timid as she felt. Hunger drew her further into the clearing.
Dorcas followed the gypsy's astonished gaze and became aware her feet were bleeding.
"How far have you walked?" Pale blue eyes inspected her from head to toe. "When did you last eat?"
She was unable to do more than shrug.
"Come here." The gypsy held out a hand. Her tone brooked no argument, so Dorcas didn't offer one. She stepped forward, but as she did so the last of her strength deserted her.
Before she could fall, strong arms caught her. She was conscious of being helped the remaining distance to the fire, of being sat down, and of a red cloak being draped around her shoulders, warming her as her thin shawl had failed to do. A chunk of meat appeared, and a sun-browned hand closed her fingers around it.
"Careful. It's hot."
Later Dorcas would find that she had singed her lips and tongue, but right then she was aware of nothing except that she had never tasted anything so delicious in all her life.
Kat watched the stranger wipe her greasy fingers on the grass and give a satisfied sigh. "That was wonderful. What was it?"
"Hare." She exchanged a glance with Bracken. There would have been sufficient meat for another meal; now they would have to go hunting again.
"They never give us anything so delicious in the...." The fair-haired gorgie trailed off.
Kat didn't press her to complete the sentence. From her condition, she was a fugitive. If she wanted to tell Kat who she was running from, she would. If she didn't.... Well, it wasn't any of Kat's concern.
Looking at those small, battered feet, however, made her wince. She grabbed a pot and filled it with cold water from the brook, then found a washcloth. The gorgie's eyes widened as Kat set down the brimming pot next to her, squatted, and reached for her foot.
"What are you doing?" She withdrew her foot out of reach.
"Your feet need attention if you aren't to suffer for it later," said Kat. "You should have worn stouter shoes. Your feet are nothing like mine." She indicated the leathery soles resulting from years of going barefoot.
The gorgie blinked at Kat's feet, then extended her leg once more. "You are kind," she said.
Kat noticed that the leg was trembling. Hunger and exhaustion, she thought. Over the years she had become all too familiar with the symptoms. It will pass.
She undid the battered slippers and eased them off, then the holed stockings, sucking in her breath when she saw the extent of the cuts and blisters. To her credit, the gorgie suppressed any signs of discomfort as Kat washed away the dirt and grit, though a gasp did escape her once and by the finish her lower lip was trembling.
"Almost done." Kat wrung out the cloth a final time and set it to one side to dry. She fetched the salve—her own concoction containing calendula and comfrey, among other ingredients. "This will ease the soreness."
"Thank you." The gorgie took the salve from Kat with hands that shook slightly, but not as much as they had.
Once she had satisfied herself that the young woman could manage, she smoothed her skirt and resumed her seat by the fire. Bracken came to her at once, thrusting her nose into Kat's hand for attention. Kat smiled and petted her.
"We haven't introduced ourselves." The woman looked up from tending her cuts. "My name is Dorcas Garland."
Kat wondered whether to give a false name, then, with a mental shrug, said, "Katarina. But people call me Kat. That," she pointed towards the still munching donkey, "is Pharaoh. And this timid creature," she indicated the lurcher, "is Bracken."
Dorcas smiled, the first full smile Kat had seen. "I'm pleased to meet you all."
"Where are you bound?" There were some old newspapers in the cart. Folded and packed inside Dorcas's slippers to reinforce the soles they might get her a few miles further.
"Ah, that is the question. I have been trying to decide since I left the—" She hesitated and threw Kat an appraising glance before finishing, "—asylum."
It was Kat's turn to assess her companion.
Dorcas reddened under her scrutiny. "You need have no fear. I'm not mad." Kat made no comment. "The death of my parents overwhelmed me for a short while, that is all."
Ah. "But you are well again now?"
"Will no one take you in?"
"I had thought... my uncle and aunt." Her gaze turned inwards. "But it was he who had me confined to begin with. And he gave me only two choices—marry his son, who I cannot warm to, or remain in the asylum."
It was not wise to divulge so much information to a complete stranger, thought Kat, but she kept that thought to herself. "Is there no one else you can turn to?"
Dorcas's cheeks flushed and she shook her head. "In Limmerton, we made good friends of our neighbours. But things are very different in Hampstead." She became thoughtful. "I wonder if the Wentworths still live at Limmerton House? Father used to be Squire Wentworth's agent." Her eyes lit up and she turned to Kat. "William is probably squire now. He was like an older brother; I am sure he would help. Would you take me to Limmerton?"
"It's in Gloucestershire. I don't have precise directions, but I am sure if we asked—"
"My path lies elsewhere," said Kat. "Uffington."
"The White Horse? Well I'm in no hurry. We could go there first." Beseeching green eyes pinned her. "Please say you will take me, Kat. I would cause you no trouble, I swear it."
Kat hesitated. Dorcas's plight tugged at her, for she was clearly all alone in the world, and ill-equipped to deal with it. But it was well out of Kat's way and Pharaoh would not be happy about the extra load. A thought struck her. "Aren't you scared I might put a gypsy curse on you?"
Dorcas grinned and shook her head. "That's just an old wives' tale, isn’t it? And you've already shown me such kindness." She paused. "I have money. Not with me, of course. But I'll be able to reward you for your time and trouble."
Kat sighed. There was only one way she could decline Dorcas's request without feeling guilty. Time for some dukkerin. From her skirt pocket, she withdrew the pack of cards. "We'll see what the cards say."
Dorcas blinked. "The cards?"
Kat shuffled and reshuffled the pack, from which she had long ago discarded all the 2s through 5s. "I'll ask them what I should do about you."
"And they'll answer?"
Kat ignored the incredulity in Dorcas's voice and dealt nine cards, placing them in a 3 by 3 pattern on the turf. Dorcas eased closer and peered down at them.
"The top row represents the past," said Kat, eying the Six of Hearts, Seven of Clubs, and Ten of Diamonds. A trip; a meeting; hopes and plans. That must be the gathering and my hopes for what it may lead to.
"And the middle row?" prompted Dorcas, pointing.
"The present." Kat grimaced and Dorcas's expression became apprehensive.
"Is it bad?"
"Unexpected," said Kat. "The Queen of Diamonds represents a young woman."
"And the Queen of Spades?"
"Means you have an enemy." Kat's finger moved to the final card in the row, the Jack of Clubs. "Who'll cause problems and troubles."
"For us," Kat found herself saying. She sighed inwardly.
It was a moment before Dorcas turned to look at her, eyes wide. "Are you saying you will take me to Limmerton?"
Kat nodded. Gallant fool that I am.
Dorcas gave her a delighted smile and sat back. After a moment she continued, "And what of the final row?" She indicated the Nine and Ten of Clubs, followed by the Ace of Hearts.
"The future." Perplexed, she swept up the cards and replaced them in her pocket.
Dorcas frowned. "Aren't you going to tell me what it holds?"
"Best not," said Kat. For I don't understand it myself.
It was late afternoon when three figures—two men and a gangly, red-headed boy—entered the clearing.
A bloodhound on the end of a leash was almost pulling the boy's arm from its socket. "She came this way, Uncle," said his young master. The dog tugged him towards a tree, sniffed the base of it, and cocked its leg.
"Well she ain't here now," grumbled the sharp-featured little man in the bowler hat. He crossed to the remains of a campfire, squatted, and felt the ashes.
"How long has she been gone?" called the boy.
"How would I know?" The man shook the ashes from his fingers and wiped them on his trousers.
The bloodhound turned its attention to a pile of droppings. "A pony?" wondered the boy aloud.
"Or a donkey," said the other man, a wrestler by the broadness of his shoulders, though he had a pugilist's broken nose. He kicked a wheel rut with his boot heel and resettled his cloth cap more comfortably. "A cart stood here recently, Obadiah."
The man by the campfire straightened. "Gypsies?" He frowned and rubbed his jaw. "Girl must be desperate."
"Out of the frying pan. Still, she might be better off with the gypsies at that."
"Mister A's plans for her are none of our concern."
The wrestler shrugged.
By now, the bloodhound had begun to quarter the clearing, ears drooping, nose pressed to the ground. Every now and then it paused, cocking its large head as though considering the scent message, then resumed its sniffing.
"Picked up anything yet, Alf?" called the man in the bowler hat.
The boy shook his head. "Trail ends here, Uncle."
"I knew it, Nathaniel! She's gone with the gyppos in their cart."
"Told you we should have hired a horse and trap," muttered the wrestler.
"How could we know a slip of a girl would get this far? Besides, Mister A would never spring for a horse and trap."
"True enough, Obadiah," said the wrestler. "No one could ever accuse him of being generous." The two men exchanged a grin.
"Well," said the man in the bowler hat, after a thoughtful pause. He raised his voice so his nephew could hear. "We'll just have to track the donkey."
The boy directed the bloodhound's attention back to the droppings. After a moment the dog barked and turned an expectant face towards him.
"Follow," said the boy.
Dorcas shifted, searching for a more comfortable position on the wooden seat. Travelling by cart might be easier on the feet than walking but it was also hard on the rear.
She pulled the borrowed cloak tighter around her shoulders and sneaked a look at the woman sitting next to her, occasionally flicking the reins. What sort of life did the gypsy lead? A solitary one, by the look of things, and a hard one too. Those calloused feet! It must be nice to be so strong and independent, though.
"Penny for your thoughts," said Kat.
"Do you never tire of staring at your donkey's hindquarters?"
Kat laughed. "There are prettier sights," she agreed. As if aware they were talking about him, Pharaoh flicked his long ears.
"How long have you had him?"
"Since he was a colt."
"I had thought they were stubborn creatures, yet you seem to have little difficulty managing him."
Kat gave her a wry look and showed her the goad she kept behind the driver's seat. "He has his moments. The mistake most people make is to treat a donkey like a horse. They react differently."
"Really?" Dorcas tested the pin on the end of the goad with her fingertip and winced. "Isn't it cruel?"
"Kinder than beating him half to death with a cane or cudgel." Kat glanced at her. "Donkeys are thick-skinned, Dorcas. It's only a pinprick."
"In any case," Kat continued, "I only have to use it sparingly. Pharaoh is far from stupid."
The cart covered a few more yards in silence, while Dorcas searched around for another topic. "How long have you had Bracken?" The dog—a lurcher, Kat had told her—was trotting alongside them, making occasional forays into the fields on either side.
"Since she was tickni. Her owner owed me a favour, so I had the pick of the litter. She pays for her keep by catching hares." Kat glanced at Dorcas. "Are you still hungry?"
Dorcas considered for a moment then nodded.
Kat reached for a cloth bag she kept just behind the seat. From it she withdrew a handful of wizened brown nuts. With a knife from her pocket, she shelled one. Fascinated, Dorcas watched the deft movements of Kat's sun browned hands.
"Here." Kat handed the kernel to Dorcas.
Dorcas popped it in her mouth and chewed. Slightly stale, but welcome. When Kat offered her another, she accepted at once. Kat grinned and began to shell some for herself.
For a while there was only the sound of chewing, then Dorcas asked, "How long before we reach Uffington?"
"Noon tomorrow." Kat paused, as if considering how much to say. "Every year, there's a gathering beneath the White Horse. The clans renew acquaintance and share news.... It will be my first gathering for six years."
"You must be looking forward to it."
Kat didn't reply.
"What has prevented you from attending until now?" went on Dorcas.
The pause that followed was so long she thought the other woman wasn't going to respond. Then Kat flicked the reins and said, "I am marhime—forbidden the company of other Romanies."
Dorcas gaped at her. What on earth had she done to provoke such punishment? She opened her mouth to ask then thought better of it. "Then why are you going this time?"
"I have been summoned," said Kat. Her eyes found Dorcas's. "There is to be a court of elders, to determine whether I should be allowed back."
Dorcas digested what she had been told. "You must have missed them."
"It was hard at first." Kat's face was impassive. "I grew accustomed to it."
As the incline grew steeper, Pharaoh slowed. After a few yards Kat hopped down and walked alongside. Dorcas offered to do the same, but Kat shook her head. "Rest your feet," she said. "There is little enough meat on your bones to make any difference to Pharaoh."
Dorcas wasn't sure whether that was a compliment or not, but she was glad not to have to walk.
At the top of the hill, Kat pulled over to the side of the road and allowed Pharaoh to graze. Dorcas stretched her legs and massaged her aching backside. Bracken, meanwhile, rolled over on her back, and presented her stomach, a hopeful gleam in her eyes. Kat chuckled when Dorcas gave the lurcher's stomach a rub, and disappeared to relieve herself behind a bush.
It was a sunny day, and the countryside had never seemed so beautiful or vibrant. Grass and foliage were an intense, lush green, blossoms highly perfumed, and birdsong loud and tuneful. For the first time in ages Dorcas felt happy and alive. Part of it was due to being free from the asylum and from the sedatives that had dulled her senses. But some she suspected was due to having a weight lifted from her shoulder. She had a destination, and someone to provide her with food and shelter.
It was strange, this trust she had in a woman who was not only a complete stranger but also a gypsy. One whose own community had banished her too. She glanced to where Kat was now grooming Pharaoh with strong, efficient brush strokes and wondered again what she had done to deserve that sentence.
When Kat pronounced Pharaoh ready to work once more, they boarded the cart and set off downhill. Apart from one stop at a small hamlet, where Kat bought a loaf of black bread, wherever possible she seemed to choose roads leading around rather than through villages and towns. Encounters with ordinary folk must not always be friendly, surmised Dorcas. But the gypsy woman also seemed to be keeping a sharp eye on the verges.
"What are you looking for?"
"A patrin," said Kat. Then, by way of explanation, "A sign left by other Romanies. That for example." She reined in and pointed to an untidy pile of twigs and grasses that Dorcas wouldn't have given a second glance.
"Is it a code?"
Kat nodded. "It says there's a campsite up ahead where we may spend the night."
"What have you got there?" Kat eased Bracken to one side, crouched, and examined the pile of leaf litter the lurcher had been investigating. "Ah, a hotchi-witchi. Good girl."
Careful of the creature's spines, she picked it up, brushed off the worst of the leaf litter and earth, and carried it back to the clearing. Bracken trotted behind her, tongue lolling.
Dorcas looked up from putting branches on the campfire. "A hedgehog?" She looked dubious.
"They make good eating."
Kat put down the creature, which remained curled in a defensive ball, then rummaged in her cart for the old shoe kept for this purpose and a cudgel. Dorcas regarded the cudgel with apprehension.
"If seeing me kill it will distress you," said Kat, "look away."
Dorcas covered her eyes.
Kat used her shod foot to apply pressure to the hedgehog's back. After a moment, it uncurled and she lifted it by a hind leg and struck it sharply with the cudgel. The blow killed it instantly and took off the tip of its nose.
After she had strung it from a low branch at the edge of the clearing, she called out, "You can look now."
Dorcas took her hands from her eyes, saw the still swinging hedgehog, and winced. "If I had to kill my own food," she muttered, "I would go hungry."
While the blood drained from their dinner, Kat added yet more wood to the fire until she had to a good blaze going. She cut down the hedgehog and tossed it into the flames to scorch away its spines. Then she sliced it open along its back, and in a single swift move that brought a squeak of surprise from Dorcas, skinned it as she would a rabbit.
Trimmed branches jammed into the earth made forked supports. Kat threaded the meat onto the soaked, sharpened stake that was the spit.
"There," she said and sat back down. "Now we wait."
Bracken flopped down next to her, head on her paws, tail wagging. Dorcas made herself comfortable with a sigh.
"Did you say it was your uncle who put you in the asylum?" asked Kat. She had been pondering what the cards told her and comparing it with Dorcas's story.
Dorcas nodded. "I was taken ill at his house." She pulled a face. "It was just after the funeral. My Aunt and Uncle invited me to stay."
Kat tapped a twig against her front teeth. "Taken ill?"
"I swooned after dinner." Dorcas blushed. "I thought I had been coping with my parents' deaths. I was wrong."
"Did you eat the same food as your uncle and aunt? The same drink?"
Dorcas blinked. "What has that to do with anything?"
Kat changed tack. "You family used to live in Limmerton, but you moved?"
"That's right. When Father inherited Garland House, we moved there."
"And now you have inherited it in your turn?"
"Amongst other things. I'm his only heir you see. My brothers both died of the scarlet fever."
Belatedly Dorcas's gaze became wary. Perhaps it had dawned on her at last that revealing the state of her finances might be rash. After all, Kat could turn on her and demand money with menaces. Kat threw her a smile, and gave the spit a quarter turn.
"Why are you asking me these questions?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"They said you have an enemy. I'm trying to work out who it is."
Dorcas relaxed and threw her an apologetic smile. "I thought that was just...."
"Make-believe?" Kat shook her head. "The Queen of Spades should never be ignored."
"Very well." She sighed. "Ask your questions."
"Thank you. How did your parents die, Dorcas?"
"A carriage accident. They were crossing the Thames when something startled the horses. The carriage went off the bridge." She blinked and swallowed.
Kat wondered if it had truly been an accident. "I'm sorry." She allowed the gorgie a moment to regain her equilibrium before continuing. "If you were to marry, would your inheritance become your husband's?"
The apparent tangent raised Dorcas's eyebrows. "That's what the law says, I suppose."
"And your uncle wants you to marry his son."
"I will never marry Gilbert." Her tone was decided. "Besides, he's already in love with someone else—himself."
Kat gave the spit another quarter turn. "If you remained in the asylum, would a legal guardian have to be appointed to administer your affairs?"
Dorcas shrugged. "Again, I suppose so."
"Would the courts consider your uncle the best candidate for that position?"
"My uncle?" Dorcas paled. Kat could almost see the mental cogs turning. "What are you implying?"
She regarded her companion with genuine puzzlement. "Hasn’t it crossed your mind that your uncle might be the author of your misfortunes?"
"Your parents are tragically killed and you inherit all they possess. Soon afterwards, while eating at your uncle's house, you are taken ill."
Dorcas opened her mouth then closed it again.
"He loses no time," continued Kat, "in confining you to an asylum 'for your own good' — an act that renders you ineligible to control your own affairs." She paused. "Did they drug you there?"
"Nurse Burrows gave me sedatives long after she should have," said Dorcas slowly. "It was only when she was dismissed that they stopped."
Kat pursed her lips. "Your uncle must have paid her handsomely."
It was a long time before Dorcas spoke again. "You will think me very slow," she said at last, "but truly the thought that my uncle was after my inheritance hadn't occurred to me. But then," her eyes filled with tears and she brushed them impatiently away, "my wits have been very dulled of late."
"The sedatives," murmured Kat.
"I still can't believe it. Why would Uncle Franklin do such a thing? He has never shown my family anything but kindness and consideration. And he has no need of money, Kat. He is treasurer of a bank."
"Who knows what drives such people? Greed? Envy? Perhaps he has debts you know nothing of."
Dorcas's lower lip trembled. "Do you think he killed my parents?"
"Perhaps. But it's also possible that it was an accident and he merely saw a way to take advantage of it." She prodded the hotchi-witchi with her knifepoint. "One thing I do know, Dorcas—our food is ready. Let's eat."
The enigmatic gaze of Uffington's White Horse followed the cart along the winding road, through tilled fields and lush pasture. It was hard to make out the details of the ancient hill figure from this distance, but Dorcas had seen drawings of it. She wondered who had carved the outline deep into the chalk and why. Perhaps one day, historians would know for certain.
"Almost there." Kat turned the donkey onto a track that headed north.
After half a mile, a large, makeshift settlement of tents and wagons came into view on the riverbank. Men were washing their horses in the flowing water. Her immediate impression was of colour, bustle, and noise. As she drew closer, sounds separated into the clang of a blacksmith's hammer, the grate of knives being sharpened, men talking and women laughing, a tune played on penny whistle and fiddle, all set against a backdrop of donkeys braying, dogs barking, and horses neighing. After the tranquillity of the last few miles, the noise was something of a shock.
The thought of being the only outsider in a camp full of gypsies was daunting. Bracken seemed to share her apprehension—because she curtailed her wandering, staying close to the cart, tail tucked between her legs, and casting frequent glances at her mistress.
"It's only for a day or two," said Kat. "Three at the most."
Dorcas didn't reply.
As the cart drew closer, faces turned in their direction. Feelings towards Kat were clearly mixed. Surprise, anger, disdain, disgust, hatred... all were on display. Thankfully, so was friendship. A handsome young gypsy with tightly curled black hair and red lips came towards them, face creased in a smile, hand raised in greeting.
Kat slowed Pharaoh to a walk.
"Sarishan, cousin?" he called, his dark eyes resting on Dorcas for a moment before returning to Kat. "Here for the elders' deliberations?"
"The family have pitched their tents over there." He pointed to a spot a little further up the riverbank.
"Thanks, Jan." Kat waved an acknowledgment and urged Pharaoh on. The young gypsy watched them go before rejoining his friends.
As they made their way, Dorcas caught snatches of conversation, peppered with terms with which she was unfamiliar. Gorgie, which she knew meant a woman who isn't a gypsy, followed the cart. One weather-beaten old gypsy in a shapeless, brimless hat even shouted it at her and spat.
Dorcas shrank into the cloak Kat had lent her.
"Ignore him," said Kat, giving her an apologetic look. "Our rules of hospitality won't allow any harm to come to you while you are at the gathering."
"Do you hate gorgios?" asked Dorcas quietly. She was surprised how much Kat's answer mattered.
Kat smiled. "Might as well hate myself." She gestured towards her striking blue eyes. "My grandfather was a gorgio. It's a wonder my grandmother wasn't pronounced marhime because of it."
A feeling that someone was watching them made Dorcas turn. A man with a bushy black moustache was glaring at Kat, his eyes so full of hatred it made the hairs on the back of Dorcas's neck stand up.
"Who on earth is that?"
Kat followed the direction of her gaze. Her face became expressionless. "Punka. He's one of Mihali's cousins."
"The man I killed."
Murder? Dorcas was too shocked to say anything. The man turned on his heel and vanished back into the crowd.
They drew level with a huddle of carts and low brown tents with campfires burning near their open mouths. Kat reined Pharaoh to a halt, leaped down, and reached up to help Dorcas.
While Kat unharnessed the donkey and tethered him with the other animals, a woman emerged from one of the tents. She was shorter even than Dorcas, but then she was old and slightly stooped, and her skin was the texture of parchment. Bracken went to greet the woman, who gave her head an absent pat.
"Sarishan, Katarina?" she called.
Kat's face broke into a smile and she turned. "I am well, grandmother." She reached out to embrace her then stopped herself with obvious effort. "Sarishan?"
"All the better for seeing you, my chavi." The woman's brown eyes rested on Dorcas then returned to Kat. "Come in and tell me what you have been up to. It seems we have much to talk about."
Kat hoped she hadn't let her concern at Aniki's appearance show. The last time she had seen her grandmother, Aniki had been straight-backed and gimlet-eyed. The intervening six years had made her frail. It saddened Kat that Time was catching up with the family's matriarch.
Ordering Bracken to stay outside with the other dogs, she followed Aniki into the tent. Her heart sank as she registered the presence of Aniki's foul-mouthed sister sitting by the kettle. Choomia could not be more different, in looks or in temperament, from Aniki.
After waiting a respectful moment for her grandmother to settle herself, Kat sat cross-legged on a rug facing her. Dorcas had paused in the tent's entrance while her eyes adjusted to the gloom, and Kat beckoned to her and patted the rug.
"A gorgie!" hissed Choomia, spotting the fair hair and green eyes at once. "And in our tent."
"Please be courteous to our guest, Auntie," said Kat, as Dorcas sat awkwardly next to her. But from her stormy expression, Choomia was about to continue her diatribe.
"Sister." Aniki's tone was quelling. Choomia shut her mouth with a snap and shot a look full of daggers at Kat instead.
Kat ignored her. "May I introduce Dorcas Garland, grandmother? After the gathering, I am taking her to Limmerton." She smiled at Dorcas. "This is my grandmother, Aniki." She paused before adding softly, and with a pointed glance in Choomia's direction, "The one who married a gorgio."
"Pleased to meet you." Dorcas smiled shyly.
Aniki returned the smile. "Likewise."
Choomia poured tea for herself and her sister, but made a point of not offering Kat or Dorcas any. She was within her rights, so Kat made no comment, but followed Aniki's silent glance to where the china was kept, fetched two more teacups, and filled them. They drank their tea in silence.
"It is well you arrived today, Katarina." Aniki placed her empty teacup on the floor. "The court will convene tomorrow morning at ten."
Kat made a mental note. "At your request?"
Aniki glanced at her sister. "Choomia's."
"Not out of concern for you, Katarina," said her great aunt. "I am thinking of the family. Your behaviour damaged our standing in the clan." She frowned at Aniki. "While my sister may think that doesn’t matter, I don't share her view. Rupa and Lali," she referred to two of Kat's cousins, "are of an age to seek husbands. Reputation matters. It is time we erased the stain you left on ours."
Kat sighed. "But will Mihali's family agree?" She thought it unlikely. Especially given that black look from Punka.
"For the right price," said Aniki.
"Which is?" prompted Kat.
"An apology at the very least," said Choomia.
Kat considered that. If eating humble pie would reconcile the two families and restore their honour, she was more than willing to eat it. If she had learned little else in the intervening years, she had learned a measure of humility. But what if they desired more material compensation? She would give them her cart, and Bracken and Pharaoh, though she would miss the animals. But any admission that Mihali hadn't tried to rape her was out of the question. If the truth of what had really happened came out, all the good that Mihali's death and Kat's banishment had bought would be undone.
She became aware of Dorcas's gaze—just how much of the conversation had she managed to follow?
"But that is for tomorrow," said Aniki. "Set up your tent close by, my chavi. And don’t forget to pay your respects to the kral."
They emerged into bright sunshine. Kat was still blinking and petting Bracken, who was acting as if she'd been parted from her mistress for years, when she saw Jan striding towards her.
"Katarina." He halted in front of her. "Is it wise to bring a gorgie with you, cousin?"
"Don't you start. Dorcas is my guest, and under my protection."
"Protection?" He arched an eyebrow.
Sunlight glinted off the blade that appeared in her hand. Jan blinked at it for a startled moment, then his lips curved into the engaging grin she remembered.
"Janosh," came Choomia's bellow from inside the tent. "Is that you?"
"I need you."
With a shrug of apology he headed for the tent's mouth. Kat's hand on his shoulder stayed him and he looked a query at her.
"Have you seen Mala, Jan? Is she well?"
"Of course. Things should go easier for her this time. They say the first baby is the hardest."
Kat gaped at him. She hadn't foreseen this.
He cocked his head. "Didn't you know?"
"When did she.... Who...."
"Yayal. They wed five years ago. They have a daughter, three. This time they are hoping for a son."
Yayal, thought Kat. What a fool I was to think nothing would have changed.
"Was there anything else?"
He was studying her openly, and so was Dorcas. Kat pulled herself together. "No. Thank you, Jan." She dropped her hand and stood back.
He nodded and disappeared inside the tent.
"Are you all right?" asked Dorcas softly.
"Of course." Kat waved aside the gorgie's concern and pointed to the cart. "Come on. If we're to have somewhere to sleep tonight, we'd better get started."
The red-headed boy gaped at the tents and carts lining the riverbank then scanned his surroundings. A small stand of trees lay not far from the track. He dragged the protesting bloodhound into its heart and knelt there, stroking its thick coat while he waited for the others.
"Good dog," he crooned. "Very good dog."
The sharp-featured little man in the bowler hat flopped down next to him, panting. Moments later, the wrestler with the broken nose joined them. The three peered through the branches at the bustling scene one hundred yards from them.
"I've never seen so many gyppos, Uncle," said the boy.
"Me neither," said the wrestler. " Just our luck, Obadiah. We'll never find the girl amongst that lot."
"Oh, I don't know." The man in the bowler hat scratched his whiskers. "When did you last see a gyppo with fair hair?"
The wrestler took off his cloth cap then put it on again. "Even if we find her, we can't do anything about it, Obadiah."
"Snatching a girl in broad daylight, and her unwilling and liable to make a fuss—you're right, Nathaniel. They’re going to take exception."
"That's if she's there in the first place," piped up the boy.
His uncle's brows drew together. "What in blazes do you mean? Are you saying that dog's been following a false trail? Because if so—"
"Of course not." The boy was indignant. "But he was tracking the donkey's scent not the girl's."
"Got a point there, Obadiah," said the wrestler. "What if she parted company with the gyppos a while back?"
The man in the bowler hat tapped his teeth with a fingernail. "Nothing for it, then. One of us will have to see if she's there. Alf must stay with the dog. Which means...." He pulled a dirty penny from his waistcoat pocket. "Toss you for it, Nathaniel."
The wrestler sighed. "Tails."
Sunlight reflected off the spinning coin. The man in the bowler hat caught it, slapped it down on the back of one hand, and inspected it. His sharp features split into a grin. "Bad luck, Nathaniel." He pocketed the coin.
The wrestler's face fell. "Gyppos don't take kindly to strangers."
"Then you'd better make sure they don't peg you for one."
The smell of wood smoke and sound of water sloshing woke Dorcas. She opened her eyes to see Kat entering the tent. A brimming pail in one hand revealed she had been to the river.
"I hope you like trout," said the gypsy. "I caught us a couple for breakfast."
Dorcas levered herself up on one elbow. "You can fish?"
Kat didn’t answer. She set the pail down.
Of course you can. "That sounds wonderful," said Dorcas belatedly. She knuckled the sleep from her eyes. Kat had insisted Dorcas take the straw pallet; as a result Dorcas had slept well.
"Wash in here," instructed Kat. "There's no privacy out there.... No, Bracken." She pushed the lurcher's muzzle away from the pail. "Your bowl's outside."
As Kat guided Bracken out of the tent with her foot, Dorcas caught the glimmer of their campfire's flames. Kat pulled the flap closed once more.
"I've sorted out some of my clothes for you." She pointed. "They're clean, and you'll attract less attention." She studied Dorcas. "You'll probably have to hitch up the skirt. Your legs are shorter than mine. It's a pity your ears aren't pierced."
Dorcas gave her an uncertain smile.
Kat glanced round the tent's interior. "Ah. That's what I'm after." She picked up the battered tea caddy and headed for the exit. "I'll get breakfast started. Don't take too long."
With that Dorcas was alone once more.
As she washed and dried herself on the rough towel, she pondered what the day would bring. The court of elders was to consider Kat's case that morning. Though close members of her family were expected to attend, Dorcas could not. A pity. She would have liked to lend Kat moral support, and—if she were honest—to satisfy her curiosity. What reason could Kat possibly have had to kill a man?
She pulled on the blouse that Kat must have chosen to match Dorcas's eyes, and stepped into the blue skirt. Kat had not been joking when she said it would be too long. Dorcas had to fold over the waistband twice. She combed her hair and wished there was a mirror in which to inspect the result, then shrugged and pushed back the tent flap.
The smell of fresh-baked trout made her mouth water. Kat had found a little stool for Dorcas's use—she found the cross-legged pose most gypsies adopted uncomfortable—and she sank onto it and accepted a plate of buttered bread and trout.
While she ate, mindful of fish bones, Kat poured cups of tea—stronger and sweeter than Dorcas liked, but she was getting used to the taste.
Strange voices and smells wafted over on the breeze as the occupants of the neighbouring tents cooked their breakfasts and went about their business. It was strange to not be camping alone.
Dorcas had spent last night being introduced to Kat's extended family. After the first dozen names or so she had lost track—fortunately women were commonly addressed as 'sister'. She had also met the gypsy chief, Stevo.
The peacock feather in Stevo's hat, the waistcoat buttons that had been spaded half-guineas, the ring on every finger would have provoked mockery in some circles. But he dressed no more flamboyantly than many gypsies. What impressed Dorcas most was his manner. The deference and respect that greeted him wherever he went might have gone to another gypsy's head, but far from being arrogant, Stevo seemed to treat it with good-humoured toleration. And to Dorcas he had been politeness itself, though she was a gorgie.
After breakfast, Dorcas cleared the dishes, while Kat smartened herself up. Usually she wore her long hair loose, but now she tied a blood-red silk kerchief around it, making sure it didn't hide the heavy gold hoops in her ears. From somewhere, she produced a necklace of coral and gold coins and draped it around her neck. Then she slid three heavy rings onto her fingers.
Kat saw the direction of Dorcas's glance. "They belonged to my mother."
"They're lovely.... What shall I do while you are gone?"
"The proceedings should be over by midday," said Kat. "Amuse yourself until then. What happens after will depend. If the judges decide I am to be allowed back, there will be a celebration. If they don't...." She grimaced.
"Whatever happens, at least you've been able to see your family," said Dorcas.
Kat grunted. "Don't wander far. We may have to leave in a hurry." Soon after, she departed, head high, walking between Aniki and Choomia, with Bracken trotting at her heels.
Dorcas watched her until the other tents blocked her from view then occupied herself inspecting Kat's possessions, such as they were. Gypsies didn't set much store by reading, it seemed, for there was not a single book. What Dorcas wouldn't give for a good novel. Though some might say I am living one. Some items surprised her: the small anvil and pair of hammers, for example. Did Kat use them to mend Pharaoh's shoes?
She tidied and folded, shook out and plumped, and made the place as neat as she could, then hid her fair hair under the green silk kerchief that Kat had given her, and ventured out.
Wondering how Pharaoh was faring, she walked over to the makeshift pen. Three ponies, two horses, and several goats shared it, but the donkey didn't seem to mind. He registered Dorcas's presence with an ear flick and swish of his tail, then turned his back on her and resumed eating the fresh thistles someone had provided. Satisfied, Dorcas set off to explore the gathering.
Something touched her elbow. "Can you spare a halfpenny?" came a child's voice.
Dorcas turned. A group of grimy children, three boys and two girls, were staring up at her. The tallest of them, their leader she assumed, held out his grimy hand.
"No, I'm sorry."
"Just a halfpenny," he repeated, taking a step closer.
Was it her imagination, or had his manner acquired a touch of menace? His companions exchanged grins.
"I have no money," she said, and made to move away. The boy intercepted her, almost tripping her up.
"Give me a halfpenny," he repeated, and this time there was no doubting the threat.
"After all, you won’t miss it." The oldest of the girls joined in, her gaze bold. "Gorgios have so much, and we have so little."
"Leave me alone." Dorcas brushed past them. But they set off after her.
"A halfpenny, a halfpenny," they chanted. "Give us a halfpenny."
She hurried between the tents, heart pounding, striving to leave the children behind. They reminded her of a pack of wild dogs intent on bringing down their prey, but no one seemed disposed to intervene on her behalf. She felt the beginnings of fear.
"Would you shame us all?" came a sudden bellow, followed by a slap. "This gorgie is our guest. Stop pestering her or I'll give you a tatto yeck you won't forget."
Dorcas halted and turned. Looming over the boy, her chapped hand raised, was a gypsy woman in a purple skirt and apron. Dorcas had a vague memory of meeting her last night. Whatever a tatto yeck was, its threat seemed to have had the desired effect. The children had halted, and the boy was hanging his head and rubbing his reddening ear, his expression sheepish.
Her rescuer glanced at Dorcas and gave her a kind smile. "My apologies, sister," she called. "Sometimes our children are little better than wild animals. But they promise not to do it again. Don't you?" Her voice rose on the last two words and she raised her hand once more. The children shrank from her before nodding. "Kushti." Her tone softened and she lowered her arm. "Now shoo." The children bolted.
"Thank you," said Dorcas. "If I had had any money, I would have given it to them. But I don't."
"Bless you, sister!" The woman laughed and came over to join her. "Giving them anything at all would only have made them beg all the harder."
"I don't understand."
The gypsy shrugged and dismissed the matter. "You came here with Katarina, didn't you?"
"Exploring the gathering while she's attending the court of elders?"
Again she nodded.
The woman smiled and tucked her arm comfortably through Dorcas's. "In case you have forgotten my name, it is Isopel. Let me show you around."
A party atmosphere had descended on the gathering. While some gypsies sat outside their tents, drinking tea and exchanging news and gossip, those with more energy showed off their physical prowess. Even women were allowed to box, Dorcas saw in surprise, though they were well padded about the chest when they did so. Such a brutal sport didn’t appeal to her, though, so Isopel led away from the makeshift boxing ring down to the river where a larger ring had been erected and a horse show was in progress.
It wasn't all for show, Isopel told her, as they watched the jockeys—slightly built young men with glossy black hair and flashing eyes, who seemed somehow to perch above their saddles rather than sit in them. They wound the spirited horses in and out of one another, as though dancing a reel, trying to display them to advantage, for many were for sale, and a prospective buyer could be among the spectators. Dorcas was watching a rider show off by standing up in his saddle and balancing on one foot when she first sensed that she herself was also under observation.
As Isopel led her to the next attraction—two gypsies were staging an exhibition of knife throwing, to whoops of encouragement—the back of her neck kept prickling. Yet whenever she glanced round, no one seemed to be taking more than a cursory interest in her. It was when she adjusted her expectations, looked for someone who was averting his gaze that she spotted him.
He was big, with a wrestler's shoulders and a flattened nose. But though the clothes he wore were right for a gypsy, something about him didn't ring true. It took her a moment to pinpoint what it was. His eyes were a pale grey, and no earrings pierced his earlobes.
Why was he taking an interest in her? She was about to ask Isopel her opinion when the man turned and spoke to someone behind him, evidently annoyed. Dorcas stood on tiptoe to see what had caught his attention, and saw a familiar grubby face.
Isopel followed the direction of Dorcas's gaze and snorted with amusement. "Scallywags."
The children who had pestered Dorcas earlier must have decided that the big man was an outsider and thus fair game. This time, Isopel showed no inclination to intervene and several of the spectators seemed to find the altercation between him and the children more entertaining than the knife throwing, much to the knife-throwers' annoyance. His cheeks flushed as he realised he was the centre of attention. He saw Dorcas looking at him, turned on his heel, and elbowed his way through the crowd away from her.
Dorcas thought no more about it.
When the knife throwing was over, Isopel said, "What would you like to do now, sister?"
Dorcas's legs and lower back were aching. "I would welcome a sit down and a cup of tea," she said. "I'll return to my tent, if that's all right with you."
"Katarina won't be back for a while."
"Even so. You need not come with me, Isopel. I can manage on my own now. But thank you for your kindness."
"It's true that I have other business to attend to." The gypsy cocked her head. "But can you truly find your way back?"
Dorcas looked around and realised she was lost. "Um. No."
Isopel laughed and pointed. "It's that way. If you should get lost again, just tell someone you are seeking Aniki Lovel, and they will set you straight."
As Kat made her way between tents, wagons, and stalls, from which came the sounds of laughter, fists thudding on flesh, and the scrape of fiddles, she wished she could enjoy herself like any other member of the clan. But she was marhime, as the frowns and pointed comments kept reminding her. Never mind that she was here at the kral's request. Her presence made everyone uncomfortable.
"Pay them no mind," said Aniki.
Except for grandmother. Kat gave the old woman a grateful smile. "Is there really a chance the elders might lift my sentence?"
"Of course." It was Choomia who answered. "For our family's sake, though, not for yours." That afterthought earned her a frown from Aniki. Kat held her tongue.
"Jal is to be our judge," continued Choomia, as they circled a tent, evaded a greyhound whose attentions made Bracken snap at him, and headed towards the outskirts of the campsite. "He has always been a good friend to the Lovels."
"Who is the other judge?" asked Kat. Each side was allowed to choose someone sympathetic to their cause.
"It could have been worse," consoled Aniki. "I know you've never liked him, Katarina, or he you, come to that. But give Ambrose his due—he's always fair."
"And this time," said Choomia, "Stevo is kral."
If the two judges could not agree on a verdict, and no amount of help and advice from the council of elders could sway them, the kral himself cast the deciding vote. Six years ago, there had been a different kral. Jasper. The old man loved Mihali like a son and had never liked Kat—he disliked women on principle.
Maybe this time. She tried not to get her hopes up.
"What does she want?" muttered Choomia.
Kat followed the direction of her great aunt's glare and saw a pregnant woman coming towards them, dragging a toddler. For a moment Kat didn't recognise her, then her breath caught in her throat.
"Sarishan, Katarina?" The woman stopped in front of her. The child hung off her arm, staring up at Kat, but Kat had eyes only for the mother.
Marriage, childbirth, the intervening years had coarsened the once lovely face and broadened the willowy figure. No affection warmed the dark eyes surveying Kat. No fond regret for what they had meant to one another. Rather, Kat thought she detected anger, fear... resentment even.
Bracken's ears went back and she growled low in her throat. The child's eyes went wide and she hid behind her mother's legs.
"Stop that," snapped Kat. Bracken threw her a reproachful look but did as she was told.
A hand cupped Kat's elbow and she turned to see who it was. "Speak to your friend," said Aniki. "But make it quick. Now isn't the time to show the elders disrespect." Hooking Choomia's arm through her own, she dragged her sister away.
Kat watched them head towards the huge campfire, around which the court would convene. Stevo's enforcers were already patrolling, making sure no intruders lingered.
She turned back to Mala. "I tried to speak to you last night but was made unwelcome." Mala's husband had spat at her and brandished a knife in her face.
Mala looked at Kat as if she were mad. "What did you expect? You are marhime. And Yayal is Mihali's cousin." The toddler sucked her thumb, her gaze tracking between her mother and Kat. "But that is neither here or there. I am here to ask you... do you intend to keep your oath?"
Her implication wounded Kat to the quick. "Do you doubt my word?"
"You are marhime," repeated Mala.
So that you need not be.
If only Mihali hadn't been so smitten. Rejection had only inflamed his lust, until he became obsessed with forcing himself on Mala. For what else could have been his purpose, when he broke into her tent that evening?
Two women making love, two men come to that—everyone knew it was taboo. From Mihali's enraged expression, though, he wasn't going to wait for any court of elders to condemn the lovers. He shoved Kat aside and advanced on Mala, drawing the knife from his belt.
Kat still wasn't sure what he had intended—to cut Mala's throat or carve his outrage into her flesh. Mala tried to fend him off, but she was no match for Mihali. Kat, however, though unarmed and naked, had always been strong. She flung herself between the pair, grabbed Mihali's hand and tried to wrest the knife from it.
From one side of the tent to the other they struggled, trampling Mala's possessions underfoot, until, by design or accident—Kat would never know for certain—she turned the knife back on its owner. As it slid home, Mala let out a shocked gasp. Kat blinked as she felt the gush of hot blood over her hands.
"You've killed me, sister!" Mihali's voice was full of disbelief. Then his eyes rolled up in his head, and he collapsed onto her. Repulsed, Kat shoved him away and let him crumple to the floor.
Her mind was racing as she wiped the blood off her skin with a cloth and set about getting dressed. She told Mala to do the same.
"We were having tea," she said, as she set out the cups and saucers to back up her tale, "when he interrupted us. He must have been drunk or mad, or both. He went for me with the knife. I had to kill him. That's what you must tell them."
An ashen-faced Mala stepped into her skirt and belted it. "It was me he wanted to kill, Kat. You were protecting me."
"Simpler this way." Kat indicated Mihali's corpse and the bloody cloth next to him. "We can't risk drawing attention to ourselves, pirini. If they suspect what is between us, it'll be marhime for both of us."
Mala's eyes widened. "Marhime?"
"It was self-defence, not murder. You must make sure to tell them that. I'll get a year, two at the most. Then we can be together."
Mala gave a slow nod. "You'll keep me out of it?"
Kat held her gaze. "I swear."
"Nothing has changed," said Kat stiffly.
The tension in Mala's shoulders relaxed. "Thank you." There was a note of finality in her voice, and Kat was unsurprised when she turned to go. What did surprise her was when Mala hesitated and turned back. "I hear you've brought a gorgie with you."
Kat nodded. "As you keep reminding me," she said, trying not to sound bitter, "I am forbidden to mix with anyone but gorgios."
Mala flushed. "Are you and she...?" She paused, her meaning plain.
"No," said Kat. "Not that it's any of your concern."
Dark eyes blinked up at her. "I had to get on with my life." Mala sounded defensive. "You can't blame me for that."
Kat let silence speak for her. She knew she was being unreasonable—in Mala's place, what would she have done?—but she couldn't help it. She had given up everything and received nothing in return. She had dreamt of how this reunion might go, what it might lead to. Now those dreams lay in shards.
"I'm sorry it turned out like this," continued Mala. "But we always knew there was no future in it, didn't we?"
The toddler took her thumb our of her mouth, tugged on her mother's hand, and said, "Daya."
Mala looked down at her with a smile. "In a minute, my chavi."
The tender exchange made Kat blink. A feeling of inevitability, of resignation settled over her. This wasn't the Mala she remembered. That woman was lost to her, as was the passion they had shared. Perhaps it had never really existed except in Kat's imagination.
I must let the past go. She took a deep breath, exhaled, and pictured herself throwing it to the four winds. Mala looked at her, puzzled. After a moment, Kat pointed to Mala's swelling belly. "You are hoping for a chal this time, they tell me."
Mala gave her a relieved smile and nodded. "Yayal wants a boy."
"May Fortune grant you your wish."
An awkward silence fell, and Kat remembered she had an appointment elsewhere. "I must go." She glanced towards the figures seated around the campfire's flickering flames. "Can't keep the elders waiting."
"It if helps," said Mala, "I hope they rule in your favour."
Kat looked at the woman she had once loved and managed a sad smile. "It helps."
Kat didn't look at the Hernes as she took her seat at the fire. She could hear the hate-filled whispers coming from Boboko, his brother Nanosh, and Nanosh's two sons Yayal and Punka, and imagine all too well the accompanying glares. Loneliness enveloped her, and when Bracken nosed her arm, reminding her that she at least was on Kat's side, she was grateful.
Stevo waited for her to look at him, then nodded an acknowledgment and turned to address the others. "Kushti." His voice was deep and full of authority. "I declare this court in session." He called out to the patrolling men, "See no one disturbs us." They adopted suitably menacing poses.
"These proceedings require absolute honesty." He paused. "Must I make each of you swear an oath to tell the truth?"
Headshakes went quickly around the circle. Everyone knew it would take too much time to erect an altar made from the tribe's icons.
"Very well. Jal? Ambrose? Proceed, brothers." The kral relinquished the floor and sat down.
Kat eyed the two judges. The old blood ran strong in Jal's veins. He had a full head of hair, though the years had turned it an iron-grey, and his wiry frame was still supple. In contrast, Ambrose's pate was as bald as an egg, and love of good food had left its mark—his stomach strained a linen shirt already as limp as a dishrag.
Jal stood up. "Choomia Lovel," he said. "Why have you requested this court of elders?"
Kat's great aunt got to her feet. "To erase the stain from our family's name, brother."
"That caused by a Lovel being deemed marhime, of course."
Jal scratched his jaw. "Is the Lovel you speak of present?"
Choomia pointed a talonlike fingernail at Kat. "There. My grandniece, Katarina."
He nodded. "Didn't a court already pronounce sentence on this case?"
"It did, brother. Six years ago. The judges could not agree, so Jasper cast the deciding vote." Stevo shifted at this mention of his belligerent, unmissed predecessor.
"Why then should we reconsider?" asked Jal.
Choomia folded her arms. "The sentence was too harsh. Permanent marhime is reserved for those who commit murder." She paused and glanced in Kat's direction. "This was self-defence."
Angry shouts met Choomia's remark. Jal frowned at the Hernes, who had risen to their feet. "Be quiet," he ordered. "Your side's turn will come."
For a moment they seemed ready to object further, but Ambrose gave them a sharp look and they subsided, muttering.
Jal addressed Choomia once more. "Why raise this matter now, sister? Was it at Katarina Lovel's request?"
"It was my idea not hers."
He gave Kat an assessing glance then nodded. "Very well." He gestured to Ambrose to take over and sat down.
Ambrose stood up and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. "Boboko Herne. As father of the dead rom, what say you? Should the sentence against Katarina Lovel be commuted or lifted? Should she be readmitted to our clan?"
An angry flush suffused Boboko's face. "Over my dead body! She murdered my son and as good as killed my wife."
He blames me for Leonora's death too? Kat sighed and examined her hands. Perhaps he has a point. Mihali was her only son and she surely died of her grief.
"Now, brother." Ambrose sounded annoyed. "We are here to consider only the fairness of the sentence of marhime against Katarina Lovel."
Boboko shook his fist. "That devil—" he pointed at Kat "— took Mihali's life. Was that fair?"
"Yes. Whose side are you on, Ambrose?" called Punka, his face twisted with hatred.
The judge gave Mihali's cousin a quelling look. "The law's side. And if you don't quieten down, Punka Herne, I'll have you removed." Still muttering behind his bushy moustache, the angry young man resumed his seat. Ambrose waited until silence had returned.
"Custom decrees that the heaviest sanction be reserved for the severest crime." He glanced towards the seated elders. "Isn't that so, brothers?"
The five old men nodded.
"Why was an exception made in this case?"
"Because it was murder," chorused Nanosh and Yayal.
Stevo surged to his feet. "Enough of these outbursts," he said angrily. "And must I remind everyone that you agreed to tell the truth?"
A sullen silence fell and he sat down again.
"I asked: why was an exception made in this case?" repeated Ambrose.
Seeing no one was about to answer, Jal stood up. "Jasper," he said. "Our old kral had a grudge against Katarina and saw the opportunity to indulge it."
His bluntness took many around the fire aback, but the elders exchanged knowing glances and nodded.
"Tatcho," said one old man.
"He could certainly hold a grudge," added a second.
"If you crossed him...." A third elder raised shaggy eyebrows and shook his head.
Jasper's wife had rarely been without a black eye or bruise of some kind, remembered Kat. According to Aniki, she had smiled at her husband's funeral, and two months later married a younger, kinder rom.
Boboko glared at Ambrose, who shrugged and opened his mouth then shut it again. Kat was beginning to feel a glimmer of hope when Ambrose's frown cleared.
"Jasper was indeed our kral," he said. "But custom decrees that the kral's word is law." He raised his hands and let them drop. "So just or unjust, I have no choice but to abide by Jasper's ruling. I deny Choomia's petition."
Punka threw Kat a gloating look. Her heart sank. She had expected nothing, and it looked like she was going to get exactly that.
Choomia surged to her feet, skirts rustling, eyes flashing. "Shame on you, Ambrose. You'd do a Herod and wash your hand of this, would you?" His cheeks burned, but he said nothing. She turned to the seated Jal and put her hands on her hips. "Cat got your tongue?"
Jal gestured her impatiently to sit. After a moment, and with bad grace, she did. He stood up.
"There is always a choice, brother." Jal addressed himself to Ambrose, who had resumed his crosslegged pose. "Though what you say is true, I cannot let an unjust sentence stand." He didn't raise his voice, but it carried to all present. "I grant Choomia's petition."
At that, a sigh went around the campfire. Silence fell, freighted with mixed emotions, then as one all faces turned to regard the current kral.
Stevo smiled and stood up. He stretched his arms out with a cracking of joints, and scanned the assembled faces gravely. Then he gave a single nod. "So be it. The judges have given their verdicts and they cannot agree. As your kral, it’s up to me to decide."
Storm lanterns strung from tent poles illuminated the celebrations, which had been in full swing for several hours—fortunately, it was a fine night.
At first, Dorcas had enjoyed the gypsies' exuberance, but now it was beginning to pall. Some of her tiredness was no doubt due to two mugs of wine—she wasn't used to drinking that much. But if she never heard another dance tune played on an accordion it would be too soon; not that she'd dream of mentioning such a thing—the accordion player was Isopel's husband.
The children had long since been packed off to their beds, complaining bitterly, and Bracken too had retreated to the tranquillity of her mistress's tent. Dorcas felt a strong inclination to do the same. But Kat's family were determined to demonstrate their pleasure at Stevo's ruling and had spared no expense.
It had been a long time—her parents' wedding anniversary, in fact—since Dorcas had seen food in such lavish quantities. As if from thin air, barrels of beer and wine had appeared and were washing down bacon pudding, sausage pudding, rabbit stew, broiled fowl, roasted hedgehog, even something called sparrow pie, which Dorcas avoided. The food was served on trenchers placed on brightly coloured tablecloths spread out on the grass. Dorcas had been sceptical that the revellers could do such a feast justice, but the few crumbs and scraps remaining proved her wrong.
Kat finished her conversation with the kral, waved to her grandmother, who was talking with one of the Lovel women, refilled her wine cup, and flopped down on the grass beside Dorcas.
"I've eaten too much," confided Dorcas.
Kat patted her stomach and belched. "Me too."
"What's that your cousins are doing?" Dorcas gestured towards the campfire, where a fiddler had struck up a merry tune, and two young women were dancing, gold earrings and white teeth flashing in the firelight.
"It's called a shawl dance." Kat drank from her cup.
It was nothing like the formal dances Dorcas had learned as a girl. The movements brimmed with sensuality and were strangely hypnotic; they centred around a pair of silk shawls. The men couldn't take their eyes off the women, and from their sly smiles they were well aware of it. Dorcas blushed and looked away.
Considering the celebration was in her honour, Kat seemed rather subdued. Perhaps she was regretting having to leave the clan that had welcomed her back into its ranks so soon.
"Do you wish you didn't have to take me to Limmerton tomorrow?" she asked.
"We may both have thick heads in the morning," agreed Kat.
"I didn't mean that."
The gypsy looked at her in surprise then comprehension filled her gaze. "Six years is a long time, Dorcas. I've grown accustomed to travelling the open road alone."
"You don't plan to stay?" In Kat's position, Dorcas would have seized the chance. She felt the familiar pain as memories of her parents resurfaced, but the anguish was easier to handle than it had been.
Kat shook her head. "In any case, I doubt if Choomia would welcome my presence." Her lips curved in a rueful smile.
"She's fierce, isn't she," said Dorcas. "But I'd swap her for my uncle and aunt any day. At least she fought for your right to return."
Kat shot her a sympathetic look.
"But what about your grandmother? Don't you want to be with her? I fear time isn't on her side."
"I'll visit regularly, of course. And return for the gatherings. But apart from Aniki...." Kat's expression became melancholy. "There's nothing for me here." She blinked, gave her wine cup a wry glance, and set it aside. "Take no notice. Too much wine makes me maudlin."
The shawl dance ended, and the dancers and fiddler went to get themselves more to drink. Isopel's husband took advantage of the silence, brandished his accordion, and struck up another tune.
Kat caught Dorcas's grimace with an amused look, and got to her feet. "Come on. No one will mind if the guest of honour leaves early." She stretched out a hand. "We need to get an early start. Why don't we turn in for the night?"
A grateful Dorcas let herself be helped up.
A lantern cast flickering shadows on the tent's interior as Dorcas and Kat prepared for bed. Snores came from the corner where Bracken lay sound asleep.
"This time tomorrow, all being well," said Kat, her voice muffled by her nightdress, "you'll be safe and sound at the Wentworths'."
Dorcas lay down on the pallet and pulled the sheet over herself. "If they still live at Limmerton House," she murmured, feeling suddenly gloomy.
"What?" Kat's head came free. " I thought you said—"
"It's a presumption. I don't know for certain." Dorcas chewed her lower lip. "What if he doesn't remember me, Kat? We were only children."
"He’ll remember you." Kat yawned.
"Then what if he's unwilling to help? He could be married now. His wife might take exception."
"Cross that bridge when you come to it. But I doubt if it will. I'd have seen it in your future."
Dorcas remembered the matrix of nine cards lying face up on the grass. "Will you read the cards for me again, Kat? See if anything's changed?"
"There's no need. They promised everything would turn out for the best. You must trust them." Kat glanced round and took in Dorcas's gloomy expression. "You’re just tired," she said. "Everything will look better in the morning."
Tiredness was a part of it, Dorcas realised. But once she had found shelter under William Wentworth's wing, Kat would feel able to travel on without her. She found that thought depressing.
"Ready for me to turn out the lantern?" asked Kat.
Dorcas grunted assent.
Darkness fell like a curtain, and she heard the sound of Kat flopping onto her pile of blankets. Then came another yawn.
"Sleep well, Dorcas."
"You too." She closed her eyes.
After a moment, Kat continued in a drowsy voice, "And don't worry about tomorrow. If Wentworth won't help, we’ll find someone who will."
The smell of wood smoke from breakfast campfires grew fainter as the encampment receded behind them. It was a gloomy morning, with the promise of rain.
Good travelling weather, thought Kat.
Pharaoh had made his opinion of being put back in harness clear, braying loudly, refusing to budge, and trying to step on Kat's feet. She'd persevered, though, and in the end managed to back him into the traces. It would be a few more miles before his rebellious mood eased, though, and in the meantime he had adopted a pace so slow Bracken was having no difficulty circling the cart.
We'll never get to Limmerton at this rate.
Kat found the goad and pricked Pharaoh's hindquarters. His tail swished and he speeded up. It didn’t last. She sighed and let him have his own way.
Dorcas shifted on the hard seat beside her. "How will we know the way to Limmerton?"
"There's a tavern just over the Gloucestershire border," said Kat. "I know the proprietor. He'll give me directions, I hope."
Dorcas grunted. She seemed subdued this morning. Too much wine last night, probably. She was wearing the clothes Kat had lent her—they suited her, but she could never be mistaken for a real Romany.
The track climbed and fell, and a fold in the landscape hid the last of the gathering's tents from view. It would continue for several days, but Kat had had her fill of noise and bustle and was glad to be back on the open road.
Aniki had been sad to see her go. Kat too had been sad, but her chief emotion was guilt. Aniki was ageing and she might not see her again. But as the two women embraced, her grandmother had whispered in her ear that she need not worry. They would meet again, several more times in fact. She had seen it in the cards. Kat was glad of that.
Bracken's bark returned Kat's attention to the track ahead. It had been empty a moment ago, but now four men—two wearing the dark blue coats and tall hats of policemen—stood squarely in the middle of it.
They must have been hiding in that clump of trees.
A red-haired boy with a bloodhound ran to join the men. Bracken let out another bark and raced to greet the other dog, tail wagging. But the bloodhound greeted her overtures with a silence that puzzled her. After a moment, she bounded back to the cart.
Dorcas's brow creased. "What do they want?"
"I don't know."
A sharp-featured little man in a bowler hat pointed towards them and said something to the others. Kat cursed under her breath. For a moment she considered turning the cart round, but even on a good day Pharaoh could not outrun pursuers. Whatever it was, she would have to talk her way out of it. But she was damned if she would make things easy for them. She reined Pharaoh to a halt and waited for the men to come to her.
"I'm telling you that's her, constable," the man in the bowler hat was saying as he drew nearer. His glance settled on Dorcas.
"They both look like gyppos to me," said the younger constable.
The broad-shouldered civilian with the broken nose pointed a grimy finger. "Under that kerchief her hair is fair."
Dorcas shrank back. "That's the man from the gathering!"
Kat stared at her. "What man?"
Dorcas didn't reply. Her eyes were wide and anxious. "It'll be all right," Kat wanted to say. But she had a nasty feeling in the pit of her stomach.
"As I live and breathe." Bowler Hat was speaking again. "That's Miss Garland, the girl who escaped from the asylum. We’ve been tracking her all week. Do your duty, constables, and apprehend her."
The two policemen exchanged a glance. "Do your own apprehending," said the older one with the muttonchop whiskers. "We're merely along to make sure no one breaks the law."
Bowler Hat shrugged and started towards the cart. He stopped beside Dorcas and looked up at her. "Please come with us, Miss Garland."
"Leave her alone," said Kat.
"Stay out of it, gyppo," called Broken Nose. "This is none of your business."
"I'm making it my business." The constables had folded their arms and were observing events. Kat called to them, "What proof do you have that this is the girl these men are looking for?"
"Got a likeness here. See?" said Bowler Hat.
He pulled a stained and much folded piece of paper from his pocket. Dorcas let out a gasp when she saw it was her portrait, done in pen and ink.
"That's as may be. But what evidence do you have that this woman is a runaway?" asked Kat. "It's this man's word against hers."
The older constable unfolded his arms. It was his turn to produce a document—a crisply folded letter with an official-looking seal affixed to one corner. "This is an affidavit, from a Mr. Franklin Ablewhite. Signed and notarised."
He waved it at her then shoved it back in his breast pocket. "Proceed, Mr Jenkyns."
Bowler Hat stuffed the portrait back in his pocket and reached for Dorcas. She scrambled into the back of the cart, and stood amongst Kat's possessions like a stag at bay.
Kat balled her hands and tried to think of a way out. Bracken glanced at her, her stance anxious.
"Nathaniel?" called Bowler Hat.
Broken Nose hurried behind the cart. "Come on, Miss." He peered up at Dorcas from under his cloth cap. "Don't make things harder for yourself. Your uncle only has your best interests at heart."
When Dorcas remained frozen, he shrugged and began to pull himself up onto the cart. It creaked and canted under his weight.
Kat pricked Pharaoh's haunches with the goad. The donkey started forward, and with a soft exclamation, Dorcas fell to her knees. Broken Nose lost his balance too and disappeared. His cry was masked by a howl closer to home.
She glanced round and saw Bowler Hat clutching his left foot. One of the cart's wheels must have rolled over it. His hopping excited Bracken, who circled him, barking and snapping. The red-haired boy's mouth made a silent O.
"Get away from me!" Bowler Hat aimed a kick with his good foot, and fell over.
The two constables unfolded their arms and ran to intercept the cart. One took hold of Pharaoh's bridle, the other approached Dorcas.
Kat slid her hand into her skirt pocket, and felt the smooth handle of knife against her palm.
"Do as these gentlemen have asked you to, please, Miss," said the older constable. "Step down from the cart."
"They'll take me back to the asylum!" Dorcas bust into tears.
"Stay away from her." Kat scrambled to join her. "Can't you see she's terrified?"
He ignored Kat. "No need to be alarmed, Miss," he said, as though soothing a skittish animal. "Come on now. Nice and easy."
Dorcas threw Kat a pleading glance.
She pulled out the knife.
The constable's face went still and he reached for his truncheon. "Put that away."
Kat shook her head. "I promised to protect her."
"That's a laugh." Broken Nose's face was a pained grimace. He had lost his cloth cap and was clutching his right elbow. "Everyone knows gyppos steal all you own then come back for seconds." He glanced at Dorcas. "You'll be safer with us, Miss. Believe me."
Dorcas's warning shout came too late. The truncheon swished down and pain shot through Kat's wrist. Her knife slipped from nerveless fingers. She grabbed for it with her other hand.
Bracken snarled and lunged and the constable's look of satisfaction changed to one of alarm. "It bit me!" He clutched the back of his calf.
Still snarling, Bracken retreated under the cart.
Kat's smile vanished as the younger policeman pulled himself up onto the cart and grabbed hold of Dorcas's arm. She tore herself free, leaped over the side, and set off running.
Wrong-footed, he gaped after her. His partner was still examining his leg. Bowler Hat and Broken Nose exchanged a rueful glance and took off after her. Kat didn't think twice. She hitched up her skirt and leaped down from the cart.
Dorcas was screaming, her hands lashing out, as she struggled to avoid being taken captive, when Kat caught up with her.
Kat had seized Bowler Hat's hand and was trying to prise it loose when something solid struck her on the temple. Pain lanced through her and lightning flashed across her vision. Then she tumbled into darkness.
As the four men manhandled Dorcas back towards the road, she twisted in their grip, trying to see where Kat had fallen. At last she managed a glimpse. Kat lay unmoving on the grass, Bracken nosing at her cheek.
"You can't just leave her like that," she cried. "She needs medical attention."
"That's the gyppo's lookout, Miss," said the younger of the two policemen. "She brought it on herself, meddling where she shouldn't have. Our hands are full enough, thank you, looking after you!"
"Does it really take four grown men to 'look after' one woman?"
"Seems like it," said the other constable under his breath. "I reckon we deserve danger money. Not to mention a new pair of trousers!" He examined the back of his bloody calf again before resuming his limping.
Dorcas struggled to free herself.
"Stop your wriggling. I said stop it." The big man from the gathering shook her so violently it clapped her jaws together and made her feel dizzy.
"Hey!" The young constable frowned. "No need for that. Put these on her." He pulled out a pair of handcuffs.
"It did the trick, didn't it?" But he slipped the handcuffs onto Dorcas's wrists and locked them.
As they drew closer to where Kat had left the cart, Pharaoh let out a heehaw.
The older policeman scratched his whiskers. "Can't leave that like that," he muttered. "It's obstructing the Queen's highway." But when he tried to lead the donkey over to the side of the road, it dug in its hooves and looked mutinous.
The little man in the bowler hat went to help him, calling out as he did so, "Fetch the waggonette, Alf."
The red-headed boy hared off towards the copse of trees from which he had emerged ten minutes earlier.
"You push and I'll pull," she heard the constable say to the man in the bowler hat.
Her two captors kept on walking, forcing her along with them, but she heard grunts of effort and increasingly blasphemous curses interspersed with annoyed brays. Then came a crash. She twisted round and saw that the cart now lay on its side, a distressed donkey kicking in its traces.
"That'll have to do," she heard the constable tell the man in the bowler hat. "People can get past if they try." The two dusted the grit from their hands and hurried to catch up.
Dorcas faced front again, just in time to see a two-horse waggonette emerging from the copse, the boy at the reins.
"I'm not going with you." She began to struggle again.
"Oh yes you are," said the big man.
"Maybe you should give her a sedative," suggested the young constable. "We don't want her causing a scene on the stage."
"I'm sure she knows which side her bread's buttered." The big man gave her another shake. "Don't you, Miss?"
Dorcas subsided, head reeling.
The waggonette pulled to a halt next to her and the men manhandled her into the back and forced her onto one of the two seats that ran lengthwise. The big man sat next to her; his bowler-hatted friend took the seat on her other side. The policemen sat facing them.
"Back to town, Alf," ordered the man in the bowler hat.
The boy cracked the rein and set about turning the waggonette round. Dorcas took the opportunity to peer back to where the half hidden figure still lay unmoving in the grass, a despondent Bracken by her side.
Suppose Kat's been badly hurt. She felt sick at the thought. I'm responsible.
Something wet spattered her cheek and she looked up and saw that it had begun to rain.
"Perfect." The older policeman rolled his eyes. "Whose bright idea was it to hire an uncovered wagon?"
"It was the only thing I could find that was big enough and cheap enough," said the man in the bowler hat. "Mister A wouldn't have sprung for more. Anyway, we'll soon be on the stage back to London."
Kat would be without protection, thought Dorcas, as the rain intensified. A lock of wet hair fell into her eyes, but with her arms pinned she was helpless to do anything about it. "Hasn't anyone got an umbrella?"
"With respect, Miss, if we had, we wouldn't let you anywhere near it," said the younger policeman, looking up from his notebook. "You'd likely use it to beat out our brains." He licked his pencil stub and resumed his jotting.
"Can you blame me? My uncle intends me harm, and you're taking me back into his clutches."
"Don't know about that, Miss." He looked uncomfortable. "I'm just following the Sergeant's orders."
Dorcas glared at the others. "What's your excuse?"
"The pay's good," said the man in the bowler hat
"I'll give you double what my uncle is paying you. You can say you didn't find me."
The young constable looked up again. "Sorry, Miss. Too late for that." He tapped his notebook. "My notes say we found and apprehended you."
She gave him a frustrated frown. "Couldn't we come to some arrangement?"
"Trying to bribe an officer of the law, Miss?" The constable with the mutton chop whiskers shook his head. "Besides, we only have your word for it that your uncle means you any harm."
His young colleague slid his notebook into his coat pocket and threw her an apologetic glance. "Begging your pardon, Miss, but if you were in our position, would you take the word of an escaped lunatic?"
Kat surfaced to a throbbing head, dog breath, and a tongue rasping across her face. Eyes closed, she pushed Bracken away. Seconds later, a warm weight slumped against her side and she heard panting, followed by a whine.
A large lump on the back of her head met her exploring fingers. She cursed as the pain flared then thankfully dulled again. Cracking open an eyelid, she found that dusk was falling. Bracken regarded her from close range with anxious eyes.
"Good dog" she murmured.
Sitting up only aggravated the throbbing. Standing triggered a bout of queasiness that made her reel towards a bush and void the contents of her stomach. At least she felt a little better afterwards.
A nose butted her leg, and she reached down and patted the Bracken's head. "I'll live." The lurcher licked her hand.
Wiping her mouth on a handful of grass, Kat took in her surroundings. Memory returned with sickening rush. There was no sign of Dorcas.
Some protector I am! Jan was right to mock me. But she couldn't afford to indulge in useless recriminations. She took a calming breath. First things first.
The cart lay on its side, its contents jumbled half in and half out. An indignant bray drew her attention to Pharaoh, who was also on his side, trapped between the traces. With a curse she hurried to help him.
The donkey's thrashing and kicking impeded Kat's efforts, but she managed to release him in the end. It had aggravated her throbbing head, though, and while the shaky donkey found himself a consolatory clump of nettles, Kat dry-heaved at the side of the road.
By the time she had righted the cart, piled its contents back where they belonged, and coaxed an understandably reluctant Pharaoh into the traces, night had fallen in earnest. It was beginning to rain, and from the dampness of her clothes, it wasn't the first shower they'd had. That it hadn't woken her earlier showed how deeply unconscious she had been. She was lucky no bystander had happened upon her and taken the opportunity to rob or molest her.
It puzzled her that the policemen hadn't arrested her and taken her with them. Perhaps they had mistaken her for dead.
The thought of what Dorcas must be going through made Kat's heart pound. Others in her tribe would say she owed a gorgie nothing. But when Kat gave her word, she kept it.
Wheel tracks allied with Bracken's sense of smell led Kat to a livery stable. It was locked for the night, no sign of its owner. The wagon that had transported Dorcas must be inside. Lord knows where Dorcas herself was.
She looked round for somewhere to leave the cart. She was hungry and thirsty and she needed information. A sign hung at a jaunty angle above the entrance to a public house: 'Good beer sold here'.
She tethered Pharaoh to a post and told Bracken, "Wait here."
No prohibitions against gypsies adorned the pub's unassuming exterior, so she pushed open the door and went in. The noise and laughter died and heads turned to follow her as she made her way across the room. As she reached the well-sanded counter, the noise levels returned to normal, and she heard several comments about her bedraggled appearance, but no one said anything to her face.
The apron-clad landlord stopped wiping down the counter. "What's your pleasure?"
"Ale," she told him. "And a bite to eat, if you have it."
"Bread and cheese?"
She hesitated, aware funds were running low.
He studied her. "Sixpence the lot?"
"Thank you." She felt in her pocket for the coin, and placed it on the counter.
He disappeared through a door, returning moments later with a platter on which lay a thick slice of black bread and a slab of Double Gloucester. Kat pulled it towards her while he filled a cup with frothing ale from an earthenware pitcher.
"I'm looking for someone. A young woman with fair hair, dressed like me." She gestured at her clothes. "She's with couple of policemen. Have you seen her?"
His eyes widened but he shook his head. "Sorry."
She took a thirsty gulp and set the cup down. "Thanks anyway."
It had been a long shot. The stage was bound to come through a town this size. By now, Dorcas would be on it, bound for London.
The table in the corner had an empty bench. She carried her food and drink over to it and sat down. Ignoring curious glances from an old man smoking his pipe, she pulled the pack of cards from her pocket, shuffled, and dealt.
The top row of the nine cards was of no interest—the past was dead and gone. As for the bottom row—it remained unchanged from last time. Interesting. The centre row though.... She mulled over the possible meanings of the Six and Seven of Diamonds and the King of Clubs.
A journey, a conversation, a male colleague.
"More ale?" The bartender's voice startled her. She hadn't heard him coming up beside her, carrying the pitcher.
Kat pulled out a penny. "As much as this will buy me."
He took it, topped up her cup, and went to tend another customer.
She returned her attention to the cards. Dorcas had told her neither the name nor the location of the asylum in which she had been held, and to which she was most likely being returned. But for convenience's sake, if nothing else, it must lie close to where her uncle resided.
Tapping a card with her fingernail, Kat considered her options. That childhood friend of Dorcas's who lived at Limmerton House—Squire William Wentworth. If she could find him, he might know where Dorcas's uncle lived.
She gathered up the cards and slipped them back in her pocket, then finished off her ale in a single draught. Not much to go on, but it's a start.
Glossary of 19th Century Gypsy Words & Phrases
NB. Contemporary English gypsies use slightly different words (gadje for gorgio, and marhime for marhime, for example) from those used in Victorian England. The spelling of the words also seems to vary greatly. I have taken the works of George Borrow and Charles G. Leland as my primary sources, but even they aren't consistent. Some errors are bound to have crept in, but, hey, I tried. J
Chal = boy
Chavi = child/daughter
Dukkerin = fortune telling
Gorgie = non Gypsy woman
Gorgio = non Gypsy man
Daya = mother/nurse
Hotchi-witchi = hedgehog
Kral = chief
Kushti = good
Marhime = rejected/outcast
Pirini = sweetheart
Patrin = marker/sign/leaf
Rom = Gypsy man/husband
Sarishan? = How are you?
Tatcho = true
Tatto yeck = 'a hot one' (a severe blow)
Tickni = small/little/child
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