CHAPTER TWO

 

Amongst the sparse clouds, Ariana could see the waning moon casting dim light through the treetops, not even enough to create a moon-shadow. Only the palest wisps of white illuminated the floor of the winter-chilled forest. Silently she sighed a grateful prayer that it was not a full moon; that her movements would be more difficult to detect in the feeble light. All around her, Ariana could hear the distinctly nocturnal sounds of the forest: the soft hoot of an owl; the breeze which disturbed the leaves now audible in the absence of human sound; the insects which scuttled across the ground whizzing and chirping as they foraged for shelter or food. As she brushed a hanging vine out of her way, her bracelet jingled and she froze, the sound seeming magnified by the relative stillness of the woods and her own fear. Ariana held her breath for twenty seconds… thirty… then slowly exhaled and resumed her silent crossing through the camp and towards the hut of the leader of the elders.

All the rest of that night, she and her mother had sat by the window, holding each other and watching the moon marking time in the sky. As it neared midnight, her mother had stood and stripped every piece of jewelry from her body: earrings, bracelets, amulets, and a small silver ring that Ariana had never seen her remove. Blinking back tears, Dunicha pressed the adornments into Ariana’s hands.

“I have no coin to give you, my daughter. But these jewels and metals are surely worth some small amount. Take them, and when you need, sell them to help you on your journey.”

Upon noticing Ariana’s pale gaze, she had ventured, “They are nothing so precious that I cannot part with them. They are beautiful things, but they are not as dear to my heart as you. Sell them without a second thought, if you are in need of money. But, Ariana,” she paused before continuing, “I pray you, sell the silver ring last.”

Ariana searched for the ring amidst the palmful of jewelry, and held it between her finger and thumb. She felt its intricately turned knotwork design, and lifted questioning eyes to her mother.

Dunicha gathered a lock of her daughter’s honey-blond hair, and let the wavy strands fall through her fingers before answering her daughter’s unspoken query.

“I gave two months of labor in exchange for that ring, before I returned to the camp, even before I knew you were within me. I did not have the ring in mind as I labored; I merely wished to be working to fill my days, and prolong the moment when I must return and face my father’s wrath. I worked for the work’s sake, wanting to distract myself from… from thy father. From being sent away. From -”

She broke off and sighed deeply. “At the end of the two months, my employer had no further need of me. He asked in what form I should like my payment… and upon his smallest finger I spied that ring. I asked for it, and it was given to me. From that day on I have worn it, to remind myself of my independence. It is no coincidence I have never married, Ariana. And it is not out of sentimentality for the nobleman who gave you life. Though I am a woman of this camp, I am, by choice, no man’s wife. I wore that ring as a reminder that I have always been who I choose to be. Even after returning to the camp… and though they took me back after I had run away to your father’s castle, they have never let me forget that I am but a barely-tolerated deserter, permitted to stay only by the merit of my grandfather’s position within the camp. When times grew rough, especially after Grandfather passed on and my father would no longer speak for me, at those times when I had no friends left amongst the elders, I would look at that ring and remember that, though I am a Romnichel, I am also a person – my own person.”

 Firmly she grasped her daughter’s chin in her hand, and with fierce pride, said, “As are you, Ariana. The others here look at you and see a half-breed: half Romnichel and half English. I look at you and I see a beautiful woman of tremendous strength…and every time you look at that ring, I want you to know that I believe that with all my heart. Sell it if you absolutely must,” Dunicha had said, taking the ring from Ariana and slipping it onto her daughter’s small finger, “but pray, sell it last.”

Ariana had stared at the ring, her eyes feeling hot and the band feeling too tight around her finger. For the fifth time that night, Ariana asked,

“Wherefore cannot you come with me?”

Dunicha gently shook her daughter’s shoulders, reprimanding without force or anger. “I have told thee: I am bound to this camp. For thirteen generations we have been Romnichels. I tried to leave it once…. I got a beautiful daughter, but the rest has been heartache. I was wrong to think I could leave. For better or worse, this is my place. I am bound – by my blood. Aye -”

Dunicha preempted her daughter’s angry question.

“Aye, it is even so, regardless of how I am treated by the elders. It is the Romnichel to whom I am bound, have been bound for generations upon generations… and will yet be bound long after these elders are dead and gone.”

“But -”

“It is not the same for you!” Dunicha cried, cupping Ariana’s face in her palms. “You are only half Romnichel! In faith, daughter, you look more like your father than like me! You are only half bound by your blood! The other half is free to roam the world, see things through their eyes! Mayhaps… mayhaps this be all for the best. Mayhaps thou wilt get a chance that few gypsies ever do.”

Dunicha had kissed her daughter’s forehead, and pulled her into a tight embrace. “Go, daughter. Thank the Lord we be horse-traders… it should be of little difficulty for you to find a horse in our camp to speed you on your way. And if G-d be willing, we will surely meet again.”

 

Ariana had clung to her mother and wept, until Dunicha pushed her daughter gently away, and helped her place the bangles about her wrists and the other jewels about her ears and neck. Tied about her waist was a small pewter drinking cup and her pouch in which she carried a few days worth of raveled bread, cured venison, two small apples, a single portion of Cheshire cheese, and an onion. Also tucked into her belt was a goatskin flask filled with watered sack and a small ivory-handled dagger. Though they would be cumbersome, Ariana had also added to her burdens her guitar and her flute. The latter lay nestled in a burlap sheath slung with cord over her shoulder. She could hardly bear to part with her mother. To leave behind her music as well would have meant her death.

And so, the position of the moon now telling her that it was nearly one, she shook off her reflections and pressed deeper into the woods. She had known the instant she left the hut which horse she would steal. Mohli, the leader of the elders, had a beautiful chestnut gelding of two years old, with a strong leg and a sweet disposition. Shivering in the cold night air, Ariana felt for the tiny crab-apple in her pouch, hoping it would be enticement enough for the horse to go with her without noise. She fervently hoped that G-d would forgive her for stealing the horse… and then decided that if He was so cruel as to be blind to her desperation, then she didn’t much care what He thought anyway.

At long last, she reached the clearing in front of Mohli’s hut, thinking that it served the man quite justly to lose his horse to the girl he had sold. Quietly, her heart pounding, she tiptoed to the back of the hut, where the chestnut horse was tied. The horse’s ears pricked up at her approach.

“Shhh,” Ariana whispered, praying that the horse would understand. “Quiet, now. Here… I have something for thee.”

She fished in her pouch for the crab-apple, and gingerly held it out. The horse took two steps towards her, and stretched his huge head towards her hand. He snuffled in her palm, blowing and chuffing his delight at the gift, and Ariana felt his warm lips moving over her fingertips as he mouthed the apple treat. While he was busy chewing, Ariana carefully untied the cord that bound him to his post. The horse turned his head and whickered softly, but gave no indication that she disturbed him. Patting his neck and whispering a small prayer, she tugged on the tether and began to lead him away. The horse paused only for a moment, then like a docile puppy dog, followed behind her.

               Ariana led him through the woods as quietly as she could until she came to the outskirts of the camp. Beyond the dark, tree-less field she faced, she could see the dirt road that led into the next town. Silently she led the gelding over to the stump of a tree standing just at the line between forest and field.

She climbed upon the stump, grabbed a handful of the horse’s thick mane, and swung herself onto his back, reaching frantically for her guitar as her momentum caused it to slip off her shoulder. Some of the strings sounded and she held her breath, looking back over her shoulder for signs of a candle being lit from the camp, or a shutter being opened. But a small, questioning hoot from a lone owl was all she heard, and she sighed with relief.

Sparing one last look at the camp that had been her only home, she resolutely dug her heels into the horse’s flanks, and with a whispered, “Hyah!”, they were galloping. As she neared the path leading to the town, she took in a deep breath. The air was crisp and fresh, and slightly damp. She thought to herself that it was the first breath of a woman totally and inescapably free. And she thought that it felt unexpectedly good.