The Present Page 6

cheerful village. Pleasant aromas would drift off into the surrounding woods, as well as the g*y sound of music and laughter.

The largest of the four wagons belonged to the baros-san, the leader, Ivan Lautaru. Surrounding his wagon were the tents of his family, his wife's sisters, her mother, his sisters, and his unmarried daughters.

The second largest wagon belonged to Ivan's son, Nicolai, built in preparation for him to take a wife. It had been built six years ago. He had yet to take that wife. The omens were not right for it, according to Maria Stephanoff, the old woman who lived in the third wagon. First she claimed the wedding must take place on a certain day of the year to be fruitful, then she claimed each year that the omens weren't right for it on the appointed day, much to Nicolai's fury.

There were a total of six families in the small caravan, with forty-six people among them, including the children. They intermarried as they were able, yet sometimes there were not enough brides or grooms to choose from, from so few families, and in such times they would search for other caravans like theirs in hopes there would be marriageable young ones in the same need. They met and dealt with countless people in their travels, yet these were outsiders, Gaps, and those of pure blood would never consider these outsiders for marriage.

Ivan was losing patience with the delay of his son's wedding as well. He had already paid the bride price for this wife for Nicolai. His word was law, yet he would not gainsay Maria. She was their luck, their good fortune. To ignore Maria's predictions would be the death of them. They firmly believed this. Yet he could not choose another bride for his son either. Only Maria's granddaughter would do, her only living descendant, the only one who could continue to bring them their good fortune when Maria passed on.

Tonight, as usual, they made camp near the town they had passed through during the day. They never camped too close to a town, just close enough to give the townsfolk easy access to them, and vice versa. In the morning the women would walk to the town and knock on every door, offering their services, be it the selling of trinkets or finely made baskets, or the telling of fortunes, which their caravan was known for.

They would also advertise the skills of their men, for the Lautaru caravan possessed some of the finest wagonmakers in the world. Everything earned was shared by all, for ownership of property was alien to them. Which was why a few of those women might come home with a stolen chicken or two.

If a wagon was ordered, they might stay in the vicinity for a week; if not, they would be gone within a day or two. Occasionally, if it was taking too long, they would leave the wagonmakers behind to catch up with them once their job was finished. Signs would be left along the roads to guide them back to the caravan.

This was necessary when people such as they were the scapegoats for any crime, whether they committed it or not. If caravans like theirs were in the area, fingers would begin to point at them if they were there too long. They could make camp within minutes; they could pack up and leave even quicker. From long experience and the persecution of their kind for centuries, they had learned to be able to be back on the road again on a moment's notice.

They were wanderers; it was in their blood, the need to travel, to see what was over the next horizon. The young adults had seen most of Europe. The older ones had seen Russia, and the countries surrounding it. They tended to stay in a country long enough to learn its language fairly well, if circumstances didn't chase them out beforehand. A wealth of languages was a benefit to any traveler. Ivan prided himself on knowing sixteen different languages.

This was not their first visit to England, nor would it likely be their last, since the English laws dealing with them were not as harsh as they had been in centuries past. They found the English a strange people actually. Many young Englishmen of good family were so fascinated by their beliefs and love of freedom that they wanted to join them, to dress like them, to act like them.

Ivan would tolerate one or two of these Gaps for short periods of time, only because their presence had a calming effect on the English peasants, who would reason that if their own English lords found these people to be trustworthy, then they couldn't be the thieves they were reputed to be, now could they?

There was one such Gap with them now, Sir William Thompson. He was not the usual sort to want to join them, far from it. He was an old man, older even than Maria, and she was the oldest among them. She had deigned to speak to him several months ago, not to tell his fortune, which she no longer did for Gaps, but because she had seen the pain in his eyes and had wanted to remove it.

This she did, relieving William of a guilt he had been bit burdened with for over forty years, so that he could go to his Maker in peace. He was so grateful, he swore to devote his remaining years to Maria. In truth, he had realized that she was dying, and wanted to make her last days as pleasant as he could, in repayment for what she had done for him. No one else knew. Those who had known Maria all their lives didn't know. Her own granddaughter didn't know. Yet William had guessed, and it was an unspoken knowledge between them.

Ivan, though, would not have permitted him to stay. His age was a detriment, it was decided. He was too old to contribute to the community coffers. But he demanded to prove himself and did, always returning to the camp with his pockets full of coins, so he was allowed to stay. It was a moot point, really, that he was a wealthy man and the coins were his own. He was merely paying for the privilege to remain near Maria. Besides, he ended up making a further contribution, in bettering their English, which was a good thing, since they had no plans to leave England this year.

Anastasia Stephanoff sat on the stoop of the wagon she shared with Maria, her grandmother next to her. They watched the camp as it settled down for the night. The campfires were banked. A few groups still sat around them talking quietly. Children were rolled up in their blankets wherever they had gotten drowsy. Sir William, whom they had more or less adopted, was snoring loudly under their own wagon.

Anastasia had become very fond of Sir William in the short time they had known him. She found him silly most of the time, in his courtly ways, his stiff hauteur that was so English, in his efforts to make Maria laugh. But there was nothing silly in his devotion to her grandmother, a devotion that was not in doubt.

She would often tease Maria that it was too bad she was too old for romance, to which she would usually get a chuckle, a wink, and the remark "There is never an age too old for romance. Lovemaking, now, that is a different matter. Some bones get too brittle for such nice exercise as that."

Romance, lovemaking, these were not subjects that might only be spoken of in embarrassed whispers. Their people would discuss anything openly and with passion that they found to be natural, and what could be more natural than romance and lovemaking?

Lovemaking was brought clearly to mind as Anastasia watched her future husband push his current lover toward his wagon. He was not gentle about it. The woman even stumbled and fell. He yanked her back to her feet by her hair and pushed her again. Anastasia shuddered. Nicolai was a vicious brute. She had felt the sting of his palm many times herself, when he did not like the way she talked back to him. And this was the man she was to marry.

Maria noticed the shudder, and the direction of her gaze. "It bothers you, that he makes love to others?"

"I wish it did, Gran, then I would not feel so hopeless about my future. Any woman is welcome to him as far as I am concerned, though I cannot understand how they can abide him, as mean as he is."

Maria shrugged. "The prestige, of being favored by Ivan's only son."

Anastasia snorted indelicately. "There is nothing but pain in such favor. I hear he is not even a good lover, that he takes his pleasure and gives none in return."

"There are many selfish men like that. His father was the same."

Anastasia grinned. "You know that from personal experience, Gran?"

"Pshaw, Ivan should have been so lucky. No, the baros-san and I always had a perfect understanding of each other. He would not look at me with lust in his eyes, and I would not curse him to the end of his days."

Anastasia laughed. "Yes, that might tend to make a man a bit leery of you."

Maria smiled, but then her expression became serious, and she reached over to fold her gnarled fingers with Anastasia's. The young woman felt alarm rising. Maria did not hold her hand unless there was bad news to impart. She could not imagine what that bad news could be, but she held her breath with dread, for Maria's bad news tended to be really, really bad news of the devastating sort.

Anastasia had turned eighteen a few months ago. That was considered far, far beyond the marriageable age, when twelve was considered just right among their people.

Some of the women teased her mercilessly, for not knowing the touch of a man yet. Foolish, to waste her best years. Foolish to not gain extra coins from the Gajos for a quick tumble. It was just another way to fleece them. It meant nothing. No husband, or future husband, would be jealous of it; they in fact expected it. Only if a husband caught his wife making eyes at another member of the band would there be serious consequences; divorce, severe beatings, sometimes death, or worse in their eyes, banishment.

Whenever Anastasia would talk to Maria about her feelings on this matter, that she felt such an aversion to the very thought of being touched by man after man after man, Maria would blame it on her father's blood. Many things over the years had been attributed to her father, some bad, some good. Maria had found him to be a wonderful scapegoat, when she could think of no other way to answer Anastasia's questions.

Many things flitted through Anastasia's mind as she waited for Maria's bad news, things other than speculation of what that news would be. She could guess if she put her mind to it, but she didn't want to know, not yet. The continued silence was a balm at first; it did not contain disaster. But it lasted too long. Suspense intruded, and became unbearable.

Finally Anastasia could stand it no longer and prompted, "What is it, Gran, that you do not want to tell me?"

A sigh, a brief, heartfelt one. "Something that I have delayed far too long, child. Two things, actually, both of which will cause you considerable distress. The distress, you are strong enough to deal with. The abrupt change that will occur to your life is what worries me, and why I want to see it done soonest, while I am here to aid you."

"You have foreseen something?"

Maria shook her head sadly. "I only wish I did know the future in this instance. But you must make that future yourself, and the decision you make will be for your good or ill, but it must be made. The alternative, you have said yourself, is unthinkable."

Anastasia knew then, what Maria was being so cryptic about. Her marriage, or rather, the husband she was to marry. "This is about Nicolai?"

"It is about marriage, yes. I must see you settled into it this week. It can wait no longer."

Anastasia panicked. "But the day you set, it is not for another two months!"

"This cannot wait until then."

"But you know I hate him, Gran!"

"Yes, and if only you had known it before I accepted the bride-price for you, then you could have married another long ago. But Ivan, that wily son of a goat, he came to me when you were only seven, five years before you would be old enough to marry, long before you realized that Nicolai would not suit you. Ivan, he was taking no chances, that someone else would beat him to you."

"I was so young," Anastasia said bitterly. "I cannot understand such haste. He could have waited until I was old enough to decide the matter for myself."

"Ah, but we were visiting with another band, you see. And the other baros-san showed too much interest in our family, and asked too many questions about you. Ivan was no fool. He asked for you that night. The other baros-san asked for you the next morning, a few hours too late. Ivan gloated over that for many years."

"Yes, I've heard him do so."

"Well, it is time for his gloating to end. He has always used underhanded means to keep me and mine bound to this band because of our gift of insight. I never told you, but when your mother announced that she was going to live with her Gajo, Ivan came to me and promised he would kill her before he let her waste her talent on those not of the blood—unless I agreed to bear another child to replace her. I was past childbearing years at the time, but did that fool take that into account?" Maria snorted.

"I take it you must have agreed?"

"Of course." Maria grinned. "I have never had any difficulty lying to Ivan Lautaru."

"Did he badger you about it?"

"No, there was no need. We learned soon enough that your mother was pregnant with you, and Ivan convinced himself that she would return to us with her child, which is why we did not leave that area. It is the longest ever that we have remained in one place."

"But why do you want me to marry Nicolai now? You have helped me to avoid it all these years. What has changed your mind?"

"My mind is not changed, Anna. I said nothing about marrying Nicolai, just that you must marry."

Anastasia's eyes widened, for this had never occurred to her. "Marry someone else? But how can I, when I have been bought and paid for?"

"Marry someone else among us? No, you cannot. It would be the gravest insult to Ivan. Nicolai would never accept such an insult either. He would kill whoever you would choose. But a Gajo would be another matter."

"A Gajo?" Anastasia said incredulously. "An outsider not of the blood? How can you even suggest it?"

"How can I not, child, when it is your only alternative—unless you wish to live under Nicolai's fist the rest of your life?"

As earlier, Anastasia shuddered. She had long known that she would leave the band first, before she would submit to Nicolai. And what difference, leaving or marrying an outsider? Either way, she would be leaving.

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