CHAPTER ONE

 

Early winter, 1533, a gypsy camp in Wiltshire, England

 

Ariana tried to drown out the familiar singsong chant that had followed her since she was a child. She snapped her spine even straighter, and got a tighter grip on the woven mat she was carrying back to her mother’s hut. But the tightest grip in the world could not drown out the seemingly ever present taunt of, “Half-breed! Half-breed! Ariana is a half-breed!”

Having blond hair and pale skin in a community full of dark gypsies made one an easy target, and gave her very little hope of running even the smallest errand unnoticed. Like most in her camp, Ariana was small of stature, but that was where the resemblance to the rest of the Romnichels ended. Ariana’s hair hung down her back in wheat-colored waves, and when the sun shone just right, a few strands of white-blonde could be detected atop the darker brown underneath. Her figure also stood out among the slender, dark women of the camp, for her rare blue eyes complemented the flamboyant curves that had earned her the unwanted attention of many of the boys in the gypsy camp.

 None would dare to properly court her, but frequent pinches and other surreptitious assaults that Ariana had faced since her woman’s courses had begun soon taught her to be both aware of her surroundings and quick with the dagger sheathed at her waist. She had only been required to draw upon a boy once, one night when the son of one of the elders had wanted to see if half-breed girls looked the same beneath their skirts as full-blooded gypsies, and had been determined to find out. Confident that with his handsome looks there would be but token resistance, he had followed her into the woods where she had gone to collect branches for her fire and had taken her by surprise, pressing her back against a tree with his body and thrusting his hand beneath her skirt. In desperation, Ariana had drawn on him, and in the ensuing struggle she had left a scar upon his cheek. Since then, the young men of the camp had given her a wide, resentful berth, but not so the smaller children.

               Ordinarily, gypsy children had great respect for their elders, even those older by only a few years. But as if they sensed the derision with which the others in the camp viewed the half-gypsy, half-English bastard girl in their midst, children had taken special delight in taunting her with the accident of her birth since she was old enough to walk, and it did not seem to have abated despite the sixteen years that had passed. Ariana glared at one of the chortling, dusky-skinned children as he ran past her, nearly knocking her off her feet, and struggled to maintain her grip on the unwieldy reed-woven mat.

The children followed noisily behind her, chanting and snickering, until she reached her mother’s small hut and disappeared gratefully inside. As if to camouflage the secrets kept within, the wood-and-rushes hut had but one window in the side facing the trees, through which the sun was the only illumination during the day.

The inside was tidy but sparse, with the pottery dishes stacked neatly in a corner by the door, two straw sleeping pallets covered with quilts of her mother’s own handiwork in the center, and a small pile of painted wooden beads and leather cord by the window, with which her mother made carcanets and bracelets to trade in the market. Ariana was not so deft with her hands as was her mother, but her elegantly arched eyebrows and luminous blue eyes sold the jewelry in the market far better than any gypsy’s merchant-song. Indeed, her basket was generally empty long before her tribe mates had finished selling their own wares. It was in this way, and in running errands for her mother so as to leave her time to create the adornments, that Ariana contributed to their meager income.

She laid the mat by the pile of beads, and was just sitting down to collect a pile of finished bracelets when her mother walked in. Ariana was shocked by the ashen whiteness of her mother’s face, and what looked like grief and fear in her mother’s eyes. She rose and moved toward her mother, instinctively putting out a hand to the woman as she stumbled and nearly fell. Dunicha stared for a moment at her only daughter, then pulled her into a rough, desperate embrace.

“What is it, Mama? What has thee so frightened?”

“Oh, my sweet girl,” Dunicha whispered, and rocked her daughter in her arms. Ariana put her cheek to her mother’s, and was dismayed to find they were wet with tears. In all the years Ariana had known her, she had never cried!

Now truly frightened, Ariana pulled out of the embrace, and cried, “Prithee, Mama! Tell me what be the matter!”

“It is the elders,” Dunicha replied, her voice husky with the tears that still surprised Ariana even as she listened eagerly for their explanation. “They… they have been in conference. They believe you are a threat to the unity of the camp. They see how you stand out, and how the children laugh at you and… they think you should leave.”

“Leave? But…but that is none of my doing,” exclaimed Ariana. “It can be no fault of mine if the very children who call after me are the sons and daughters of those elders…of those men who have never hidden their own scorn for either of us! Wherefore should I be the one to leave?” Her throat closed as a new thought occurred to her, and she whispered, “And furthermore, whither would I go?”

Dunicha put a restraining hand out to her daughter. “Ariana! I pray you… you must listen to me. There is not much time.”

She glanced back over her shoulder, and quietly shut the door behind her. Taking the bracelets from Ariana’s hands, she led her daughter over to the straw pallet, and drew her down upon it. Dunicha knelt on the floor, and looked intensely into her daughter’s face.

“They have been in conference all afternoon, all the elders. Old Tunia came for me, for she alone in this camp has always liked you. Aye, ever since you came to her hut as but a child of four, bearing a fistful of daisies for her when she took ill, she has been thy single, quiet friend. She came panting up to the door, and hastened to tell me that the discussion of the elders concerned you, and I ran to the council fire as swiftly as I could! But alas! Even as I approached, their decision was made!”

Dunicha gripped her daughter’s hands until the knuckles were white.

“To say that they want you to leave is not quite…” Dunicha’s voice broke. “Ariana, thou hast been sold!”

Sold?” Ariana whispered. It was true that gypsies had often sold a white captive to another gypsy tribe as a slave, many years ago before things had become more civilized, but no one had heard of such a thing in more than a hundred years, and never had one of their own been sold! It was unthinkable, defying every code of honor among gypsies!

Dunicha saw the disbelief in her daughter’s eyes, mirroring her own horror at the pronouncement. She had argued her daughter’s case, paying no heed to the danger into which she thrust her own life by interrupting a meeting of the council of elders. She had been shouted at, sneered at, and finally restrained by one of the men with a dagger to her throat. In the end she had run home, hoping to catch Ariana and speak to her before one of the elders could.

“One of the elders owes a great favor to an elder in another camp. To repay his debt, he has sold you as a slave to that camp. They will come and take you tomorrow, at dawn. I was forbidden to tell you anything, on pain of death! But how could -”

Her eyes filled again with tears that ran unchecked down her cheeks, cascading from her chin to create a wet stain upon her brightly colored skirt.

“How could I let them just come and take you?” she whispered, her voice stolen by emotion. “Ariana, you must run away. It is the only way!”

“No, Mama!” Ariana cried, sliding from the pallet to kneel beside Dunicha on the floor. “I cannot! I… I shall not! I will not leave you!”

“Pray, Ariana!” Dunicha whispered. “There is no choice! They will be here at dawn. Ariana, when they come, you must not be here!”