CHAPTER SEVEN

 

              Slowly, Ariana was returning to consciousness. From behind her closed eyelids, she took stock of her surroundings; she could sense the fading daylight faintly illuminating the window to her left. She could detect a cool breeze as well, and the delicate, almost elusive smell of roses. From somewhere past her feet she could hear a soft humming, and the sound of water being wrung from a cloth into a basin. Seconds later, she felt smooth fingertips brush a strand of hair from her cheek, and a cool, wet cloth being pressed to her forehead. Her eyelids fluttered of their own accord, but swiftly she willed them shut again, far preferring to remain in that half-waking state of peaceful rest where there was naught to disturb her.

               A soft chuckle came from her right, and a soothing, feminine voice cooed,

“All right now, it is well past time thou wast woken. Come now, Ariana, prithee dissemble no more and pry open thine eyes.”

With effort, Ariana opened one eye, and turned her head towards the voice. There stood Rosemary gently smiling at her, and in an instant that morning’s events came rushing back to her. With the last of her strength she willed herself to sit up, and threw her arms about her friend’s neck, grabbing onto the backs of Rosemary’s sleeves and clinging as though she would never let go. Rosemary rocked back and forth, murmuring to her and patting her tangled hair.

“Shush, now. ‘Tis all right, they are gone, and the landlord’s wife and daughter are keeping their eyes upon the door, lest they return. Shush now, shush.”

Rosemary gently peeled Ariana’s hands from her sleeves, and eased her back down onto the pillow. For a moment, Ariana simply concentrated on breathing, then asked,

“What be the hour?”

“Near to six of the clock, I expect. Thou hast been asleep for quite some time.”

“You do work here,” Ariana observed quietly, and Rosemary nodded.

“I had heard tales of a woman,” Ariana continued, “who played harp in a pub in Plymouth. I prayed it was you. Thy reputation is… I have been looking for thee for nearly a month.”

“Hast thou?” Rosemary beamed. “Well, I daresay you found me, and made quite an entrance at that!”

Ariana smiled weakly and made as if to sit up once more, but at last her strength deserted her, and she flopped back onto the pillow with a groan. Rosemary’s brow furrowed, and she drew a cool finger across Ariana’s pale cheek.

“Art thou all right, Ariana? Hast been ill?”

Ariana shook her head and grimaced.

“When did you last eat?”

Ariana opened her mouth to speak, but found that she had not strength enough to form the words. Weakly, she held up three fingers.

“Days?” Rosemary asked. “Three days? Goodness, Ariana, why did you not say so? Do not move.”

With a whooshing of skirts Rosemary flew out the door, and Ariana could hear her calling to the landlord’s wife Sarah as she raced down the steps.

               Ariana closed her eyes again, listening to the birds chattering outside the window as her mind drifted. Half-formed thoughts and smoky visions swam vaguely through her hunger-fogged brain, and she was unusually aware of her fingertips tingling, as though they were detached and altogether separate from the rest of her arm. She was also dimly aware of a burning in her scalp where her hair had been pulled, and a dull ache in the middle of her back that she supposed was hunger. In the stillness of the room she listened intently to the sound of her own breathing, and slowly her mind began to clear once more.

              In what felt to Ariana like only seconds, Rosemary reappeared carrying a steaming cup of something fragrant, followed by the landlord’s young daughter Amy. The child bore a tray that she set on the chest of drawers at the far end of the room, where she then remained staring anxiously at Ariana.

With gentle efficiency, Rosemary gestured to Amy to assist her in lifting Ariana’s head, whereupon she drew the pillow from underneath and propped it against the headboard. The child helped Ariana to push herself back against the pillow until she was partially sitting, then retreated once more to the chest of drawers and stared at the gypsy’s strange garb and wild hair with wide brown eyes.

Rosemary took the bowl and spoon from the tray, draped a tea towel over her shoulder, and drew the stool closer to the bed. She laid the towel over the quilt at Ariana’s waist, carefully stirred the tiny crusts of bread that floated in the steaming bowl of broth, and gently lifted a spoonful to Ariana’s mouth. Too tired and too enticed by the smell of the food to feel any shame at being fed like an infant, Ariana opened her mouth to accept the proffered spoon. Again and again Rosemary dipped into the bowl, tenderly feeding Ariana a mouthful at a time. When she was halfway through the broth, Rosemary motioned for Amy to bring her the cup she had carried.

“Mulled wine,” she said, and lifted the fragrant cup to Ariana’s lips.

Ariana coughed once as the smell of the steaming, sweetly pungent brew assaulted her nostrils, and Rosemary paused with the cup at Ariana’s lip until she nodded. As the rich, spiced wine flowed over Ariana’s tongue and warmed her throat, she felt a calm and a strength building within her that she had not felt in days. She lifted her own hands to the cup, and Rosemary released it to her. Eagerly, she drank through half the cup in one long draught, then sighed loudly and leaned her head back against the pillow.

“Better?’ Rosemary asked, and Ariana smiled.

Rosemary handed her the bowl and spoon, and Ariana finished the remainder of the soup. When she had tilted the bowl to let the last drops trickle into her mouth, Rosemary stacked the empty dishes upon the tray, and with a smile of thanks, handed the tray to Amy, who bore it down the stairs, after looking curiously over her shoulder one last time at the brightly-garbed gypsy girl. Softly Rosemary shut the door, and returned to her seat by the bed.

“I am keeping thee from thy work,” Ariana said, but Rosemary shook her head.

“John is a generous employer. We both felt that I should be here when you awoke. If later thou art feeling better, mayhaps thou shalt come downstairs with me and I shall play a late set or two this night. But only if thou art well.”

“Gramercy. In sooth, I am feeling much better,” Ariana replied.

She turned her head to the window, and stared out at the treetops for a moment. Rosemary waited, feeling the shift in her friend’s mood.

After a moment, Ariana spoke. “They began closing in upon me when I reached Plymouth. I was only a few steps ahead of them for most of last week. I could not come out of hiding to get food. I traveled at night, praying that the horse’s tracks would be smoothed away by dawn. This morn I thought for certain I had finally escaped them.”

She turned back to Rosemary. “You saved me. I cannot speak my gratitude enough -”

               A single tear slid from the corner of her eye down her cheek as her voice broke, and Rosemary reached for her hand atop the quilt. Something else nagged at the back of Ariana’s mind, some detail amidst the confusion that she had earmarked to ask her friend about after the chaos.

“The coins,” Ariana asked, hitting upon it. “However didst thou come by so much gold?”

Rosemary shrugged, and looked down at her thumb rubbing the back of Ariana’s hand. “My dowry,” she replied simply, and Ariana gasped.

Rosemary, you should not – oh heavens! I cannot repay thy dowry! Rosemary, how could you?”

Ariana was choked with dismay. Her dowry, undoubtedly left to her by her father! Rosemary’s dower, that ought to have been saved to insure her success in marriage, had been Ariana’s ransom!

 But Rosemary was squeezing her hand and vehemently shaking her head.

“I would pay it again, in a heartbeat. They are coins, hard earned but earnable yet again. Thou art -” Rosemary searched for the words to explain what was inexplicably but steadfastly in her heart. “You are – we… we are connected. I know not how nor wherefore we are bound, but thou art irreversibly a part of me! I do not begrudge thee thy search for freedom….”

Here she paused, uncertain as to how she should proceed, but at last she found her words and continued. “Yet I nevertheless feel that there is a path we are meant to take - together. Since you left, when I have played, I have sometimes heard a phantom flute accompanying the harp! And I know not how yet I know it is certainly thy flute, Ariana! I heard it, though thou wert miles away! Perchance you think me mad…. but it is something I know in my soul. We are destined for something, thou and I. And my dowry….”

Rosemary shrugged. “It cannot compare with thy return, even if it be brief.”

              Rosemary reached out to touch Ariana’s face, gently stroking the younger girl’s cheek like she might have done for a beloved sister. Ariana closed her eyes at Rosemary’s touch, and nodded.

“I, too, have felt… I know it as well,” she answered, licking her dry lips and searching for the words. “Thou art not mad… I have also felt that we are somehow bound. For almost a month, it has been my only desire to find thee, to ask if thine offer still stands. I have had enough of ‘freedom’. I have been through what I cannot even find the words to tell you these three months. After the first two, I knew that my destiny was not where I was, but where I had been. I went back to Somerset, but they told me thou hadst departed the day after me. Since then, I have asked for thee in every town… until I came to an inn in Weymouth. Whilst I was inside, I overheard a seaman talking about a harpist in Plymouth with midnight hair and -”

Ariana’s cheeks colored and she added, “A… very feminine figure.”

               Rosemary laughed and touched a hand to her bosom.

Ariana continued, “He had heard thee play, he was saying to his mates, and he mentioned the Green Lanterns Pub. That very night set I off for Plymouth. In the morn, I was hoping to rest at a particular inn at the outskirts of Dorset. I was just tying Morley – that is what I have named the horse – to the fence outside when our three friends,” Here she gestured out the window as she spoke, “…came out of the alehouse and saw me. I had just enough time to untie Morley and leap onto his back ere they began to chase after me, and I escaped them with barely a moment to spare. Since then they have followed but a handful of hours or a few days behind me. Sometimes I managed to lose them long enough to put some distance between us, but they were never far behind. I spent the last few days running and hiding, not stopping to eat nor sleep, until this morn.” Ariana again looked out the window, and a small shudder shook her shoulders.

“Where didst thou reside those two months prior to setting out in search of me?” Rosemary asked.

Ariana bent her head to touch her fingertips to the hematite crescent moon that hung upon its cord between her eyes.

“Near Cornwall,” she said quietly, and though Rosemary waited, she said no more.

Rosemary sensed sadness, loss, and age in her friend’s posture. Again, she took Ariana’s hand, and waited until Ariana lifted her head to look at her.

“The offer stands, my friend,” she said, and squeezed Ariana’s hand tightly.

“Even shouldst thou you decide that thou must take to the road again someday, it shall be my privilege and honor to make music with thee for as long as thou doth intend to stay.”

Ariana nodded and squeezed back. “The privilege would be mine.”

“Then if thou art well…?”

Ariana nodded again, and Rosemary stood.

“I shall go and tell the good landlord John that unless he is prepared to extend a wage to two musicians, he shall have none!”

Ariana looked mildly shocked, but Rosemary simply laughed and continued, “Worry not. He shall welcome thee… when I first was in his employ, I told him I once had a partner who might someday return. Consider it wishful thinking, rather than falsehood, if thou wilt. He gallantly replied that if she were as pretty as I and sang half as well, then he would pay her way as he paid mine and count himself fortunate. By my troth, thou art far prettier than I, and – Do you sing?”

“Aye, but –“

“Then he shall thank his stars this night, and thou shalt be paid alongside me. Truly,” she said, seeing Ariana’s still-skeptical face.

“The amount of custom in his alehouse has increasedvastlysince I began playing for him. I have no doubt that together we can assure him of an even greater response, and a businessman as sound as John knows that any wage he pays thee will be minute in comparison to the coin he shall make by thy labor. I wager that thou shalt have a job here for life, if thou so desirest it!”

And with that, Rosemary swept from the room, leaving Ariana slightly shaken from the day’s turn of events, but immeasurably relieved and content.