CHAPTER TWELVE

 

The next morning

             

The morning sun was but scarcely peeking over the hills, and already Ariana and Rosemary were many miles outside of Dorset. Still half asleep, they talked little, preferring the pensive silence of their thoughts and the dawning glow of the scenes they passed. The still-rising sun faintly illuminated a field of wheat, and the orange glow filtering through the wheat stalks’ fluffy heads put Rosemary in mind of the bright colors that tipped Ariana’s curls.

              For nearly two hours they rode in companionable yet sleepy silence, watching as the sun staked its claim in the sky. The sawing of cricket-song gave way to a symphony of tit-willow chatter and the piping of meadowlarks. Rosemary yawned loudly, then looked over at Ariana, her brows knitting in surprise as her eyes fell on Ariana’s lap.

“Wherefore hast thou still got my hairbrush?” she asked, and Ariana looked at her in confusion before dropping her own eyes to her lap.

“I know not!” she chuckled, opening her palms and looking at the ivory handled brush she held in them. “You must have handed it to me as we left the room, and I did forget I was holding it!”

“Well,” said Rosemary, glancing at the position of the sun, “It is nearly time to break our fast. In sooth, I think I shall pull the wagon into that clearing there. Whilst I tie up Morley’s reins, mayhaps thou canst tuck the brush into the trunk, and also retrieve those figs Sarah packed for us?”

“Agreed.” Ariana stretched her arms above her head and moaned sleepily. “I shall be back in a moment,” she said as the wagon drew to a stop.

Both she and Rosemary dismounted, and Rosemary busied herself tying the reins to a tree as Ariana walked around to the back of the wagon and opened the doors.

 

 

 

 

    The first sensation of which Pete became aware was the unmistakable feel of a dagger’s sharp point pressing against his throat. Struggling to clear the fog from his brain, he opened his eyes to see a very beautiful, very angry gypsy hovered over him.

Startlingly enough, her eyes were as blue as his, but they were icy with her wrath, and her pale cheeks held a flush of indignant fury. When she spoke, her voice was barely a whisper, but within its sibilant hiss was the intensity of a shout.

“Who art thou, and why art thou in our wagon? And before thou speak’st falsely, be advised that though I am a woman, I can wield this dagger with the strength of any man.”

               Pete stared mutely at the woman, his addled brain still attempting to make sense of his surroundings. He felt the woman press the dagger in by a fraction, and knew that should she advance any farther, she would surely draw blood.

“Pete!” he gasped, his brain clearing suddenly. “Pete!” And in the hopes that humor might lighten things a bit, he added, “Er…. sometimes known as Wicked Pete.”

He offered a tentative smile to the angry gypsy woman, but the low growl in her throat made it clear she was in no mood for jests. He tried to scoot sideways and away from the dagger, but before he could rise, the gypsy placed her knee on his chest, and said,

“And what, pray tell, be thy business in my wagon?”

Thinking that he should like to know the answer to that question himself, Pete cast his eyes about him for some clue. He took in the harp, the trunk, and then looked to the field visible through the open door behind the woman’s rump.

Where in G-d’s name am I? A wagon, tha’ much is certain, but why? The last thing he could remember was arguing with the ostler over a room and then… stables. Aye! I went to th’ stables, but there was no room. So I stumbled back outside and…

He sat up so quickly that the gypsy was knocked off balance, and toppled over onto her backside.

“Where are we?” he asked frantically. The gypsy quickly regained her footing and stood crouched before him, her dagger out-thrust and her eyes wild.

“Answer thou my question first!” she spat, “Then we shall see if I wish to answer thine!”

“I… I was looking for a place t’ sleep,” Pete stammered. “Th’ stable was full, and it was getting cold. I – I meant no ‘arm. ‘Od’s my life, I swear it!”

The gypsy opened her mouth to reply, when another voice was heard at the door.

“Ariana, what is taking thee so long? Art thou – Heavens preserve us! Who is that?”

Ariana answered, but never took her eyes off of the stranger. “He claims to be known by Wicked Pete, and that he snuck into our wagon last night to sleep.”

Pete’s gaze shifted from the dark-haired woman’s face to the gypsy’s. “By my troth, I meant no ‘arm,” he protested.

He made as if to rise, but the gypsy hissed, “Come no closer, or thou shalt bleed this day,” and he sank back onto his elbows, defeated. Seeing less wildness in the dark-haired woman’s face and hoping for an ally, he addressed her over the gypsy’s shoulder.

“Prithee, good maid, I speak true! I was…in me cups, and cold. Truly I did mean to be gone b’fore dawn, but I must ‘ave…” His voice trailed off, and he shrugged helplessly.

Rosemary regarded him for a moment, then chuckled softly. “Ariana, look thou to his startled face! I do believe he means us no harm. It was quite rude of thee, sir, to misappropriate our wagon. But as I can see that our belongings behind thee have remained undisturbed, I see no reason for either of us to be further detained. Come, Ariana. Let him rise and depart, and let us to our figs. Come, let him stand. But I warn thee, sir, I have seen the mark of her dagger upon the cheek of one more suited to combat than thee. Be advised that if you play falsely, thou wilt surely smart for it.”

“Upon me life, thou ‘ast no reason to fear of me,” he begged, and after a last warning glare, Ariana stepped down from the wagon and moved back from the door, though she did not sheathe her dagger.

Cautiously, Pete got to his feet and made his way to the door of the wagon, wincing as the light of day flooded his eyes. He lowered himself to the ground, and then turned in a full circle in search of some landmark whereby he might get his bearings.

“Wh – uh – where are we?” he asked, and Rosemary looked over her shoulder to the direction from whence they had come.

“Nigh to ten or fifteen leagues outside of Dorset, I believe.”

Pete goggled at her for a moment. How could I ‘ave come so far and not awoken?

“Er… ‘ow far to the nearest town, then?”

“Another fifteen leagues, twenty, mayhaps,” said Ariana coldly, and Pete gasped.

Twenty? I – I cannot walk twenty leagues! Is there nothing else near?”

“Naught of which I know,” Ariana shrugged, and she turned her back on him to enter the wagon.

“Wait!” Pete cried, reaching for her arm, but he pulled his hand back sharply when, with a flash as swift as lightning, Ariana scored his arm with the dagger she still held in her hand. Her face grew pale with fury, her eyes like ice, but Rosemary spoke before Ariana could even draw breath.

Do not you touch my friend again,” she warned in a low voice, brackets of tension framing her mouth.

Pete rubbed his hand over the scratch upon his arm, his mind whirling with confusion. Can I possibly make me situation any worse?

He was ten leagues from a town in which he no longer particularly wished to be, but twenty more leagues stood between him and any other civilized place! He was standing in a clearing in the forest, with two women to whom he had not ingratiated himself from the start, and now in his haste, he had laid hands upon the younger one and frightened her further! Though he could see that her eyes were still cold and pale as winterfrost, he also noted the way her hand trembled slightly as she held her dagger before her. His eyes moved to the darker one. Though her body was rigid and taut, he could see the fear in her green-eyed gaze as well, and he cursed his hasty arm. Though he knew he meant them no harm, how could he expect them not to be wary? Two women, traveling alone as they were, surely they knew what easy prey they made for any brigand or highwayman whom they might encounter!

               Suddenly, a thought struck him, and before he could think, he had dropped to one knee before the gypsy and swept his saggy muffin hat from atop his head. He could be most articulate when he needed to be, and he prayed that the right words would form themselves upon his tongue.

“Good mistress, I pray that thou wilt graciously excuse me unwise gesture! I cannot beg thy forgiveness with voice eloquent enough, but yet I ask of thee, pardon me?”

He looked up into the gypsy’s face, and was heartened to see that though her dagger was still outstretched, some of the frostiness had left her gaze. Emboldened, he plowed on.

“Gentle ladies, prithee, ‘ear me speak. I – I know thou ‘ast no reason t’ trust me. I am heartily sorry for th’ fright I ‘ave given thee, but if thou canst take pity on me...”

Rosemary arched an eyebrow.

“Thou art traveling alone. Though I mean thee no ‘arm, there are others who could not say th’ same. In friendly recompense, then, let me be thy protector upon these roads, and accompany thee to th’ next town. With a man at thy side, thou wilt ‘ave naught t’ fear from such brigands and thieves as do stalk the forest. And,” Pete scrambled to think of a closing argument. “If – if thou art weary, I shall even drive the wagon!”

“The Devil thou shalt!” Ariana exclaimed, but Rosemary cocked her head at Pete and eyed him thoughtfully.

“Good sir,” she said softly. “Walk away a pace and allow me to consult with my friend.”

Ariana glared at Rosemary, and as soon as Pete was out of earshot, hissed, “Rosemary! What game is this?”

“I know not why, but I do believe him,” Rosemary sighed. “He hardly speaks like a highway rogue. In faith, he speaks quite prettily!” Her eyes lit and she gazed almost fondly into the distance, but her look sobered instantly as Ariana’s brows slammed together in a frown. Rosemary shrugged. “And he makes a good argument about the brigands.”

“Aye, his argument is good enough, but mayhaps he only thought of brigands because he is one! I know -” Ariana preempted her friend’s interruption. “He looks gentle enough to you. And in sooth, he does speak more like a courtier than a rogue. But thou art sheltered and far too trusting, Rosemary! Thou didst tell me thyself that thou didst spent the last eleven years as the ward of a priest! ‘Tis not exactly a place where thou mightst have developed a cautious view of the world. It is possible that thou art merely more easily charmed than I, do you not think?”

Rosemary looked off to where the man stood, leaning uncomfortably against a tree and trying to appear unruffled. She sighed, and nodded slightly.

“Mayhaps. Certainly thou hast more reason than I to mistrust men.”

She looked again to where he stood with his back to them, rubbing his sweating palms against his breeches and nervously jiggling his foot. “Yet I cannot help but feel he is telling us the truth. His voice, his eyes are so earnest! But…let thy hands be the final judge.”

“What mean you?”

“Put thy hand upon him, and read him as thou didst read me. The night we met, you knew me in an instant, better than I knew myself, after touching my hand.”

When Ariana shook her head, Rosemary pressed her point. “Thou art possessed of a gift, Ariana. You seem to know truth from lies in a way that others do not! Touch thou his hand as thou didst mine. If there be any malice in him, let us leave him to the wolves and good riddance! But if there be none…” Rosemary shrugged.

“Thinkest thou that I truly have a gift? Mayhaps I am good at guessing.”

Rosemary shook her head. “Nay, you do not guess. You know. I know not how you know, but you do, I am certain of it. Read the man and I shall defer to thy judgment.”

Ariana looked from her friend to the man rubbing his arm and kicking at the dirt whilst he muttered to himself. Would a thief who was plotting to murder them in their beds wear his emotions on his face like a child? Unless mayhaps he knew he was being watched, and wished them to feel sorry for him. Thinking back, though, Rosemary had a point – his surprise had appeared genuine. Almost comical, actually…

She looked back to Rosemary, then inhaled a deep breath and let it out in a whoosh.

“So be it. Come hither, sir!” she called, and Pete approached.

“Give me thy hand,” Ariana commanded, and Pete hesitated for a moment, then held out his hand, palm up.

Brusquely Ariana turned his hand over, and touched her fingertips to the back of his hand. Pete looked up at her in confusion, and then suddenly found his gaze locked to hers, unable to pull his eyes away. Two pairs of eyes in a nearly identical shade of blue held their partners locked, as Ariana read his past.

               He was alone too, like them looking for a home. She saw a tavern, and a young boy with a rag wiping beer from a tabletop as a woman with a face very like the child’s hustled to serve ale to seedy looking customers. She saw the same boy looking a year or two older, forlorn and frightened, pinioned in the stocks, and heard a man’s voice saying, “Ah, Pete, thou art a wicked, wicked child indeed!” She saw what looked to be the notes of a scholar strewn upon a chart of the stars, and heard a man’s voice singing in Italian, accompanied by the guitar, whilst Pete – a youth, then – listened attentively. She sensed confusion, laughter, loneliness, hope, and recklessness. But no malice.

               At long last, she withdrew her hand, and Pete blinked, as if awakening from a dream.

“Sir,” she said quietly, “I do believe thee. I be called Ariana, and this is Rosemary.” Rosemary inclined her head as Pete’s gaze shifted to her. “It seems we need each other then: we are in need of a man’s protection, and thou,” she continued, her eyes twinkling, “Thou needst a way to the next town. Prithee clasp my hand upon the bargain, then.”

Ariana held out her hand, but rather than clasping it, Pete laughed nervously and raised it eagerly to his lips for a clumsy kiss, then grabbed Rosemary’s hand and likewise did the same as Rosemary chuckled at his obvious relief.

“Come, then,” she laughed. “Ariana, it is nearly an hour since I last asked thee for those figs! Make haste and fetch them, and we three shall make a feast of them ‘ere we continue on.”