Authors: A. G. Howard
Hawk crouched with his forearm propped on the stone. At its base, the mud was still overturned from the day before, though the hole appeared wider than I’d left it. As he stared at the epitaph, his ruffled sleeve flapped in time to some otherworldly breeze, out of rhythm with the gusts tugging my torn skirt.
“Nothing.” The longer he sat there, the more his broad shoulders drooped. “No date. No good son or beloved brother, or dear friend. Simply … Hawk.” He growled. “I don’t even know how old I am. Or was. Or …” He fisted his hands and wailed—a gut wrenching sound that throttled my spine.
I couldn’t stand to witness his devastation. “Hawk, all is not lost. There is yet the path outside the back gate.” I swiped at my eyes with the back of my gloves.
His tortured expression gave way to tentative hope. He glanced at the teary streaks on my face and smiled gently. “Meet me there.”
I hiked up my skirt and thrashed along the fence’s border, through nettles and yellowed grasses as tall as my knees. The thicket of birch trees and spiny shrubs surrendered to a three-foot wall of gooseberry bushes. There, I used a fallen tree limb to slash at thorny branches. By the time I plunged to the other side where Hawk waited, sweat sprung up beneath my layers of clothes.
“Keep the tree branch,” he insisted. “I don’t want you defenseless should we cross any stray animals or degenerate strangers.”
His concern spurred a shrinking flutter in my chest, a reminder that for all intents and purposes, I was alone, regardless of my powerfully built companion.
My dragging branch stirred a fragrant carpet of pine needles and cones piled up on one side of the trail. The path forked after several yards. I glanced above at scraps of cloth draped from the tops of the firs along the trail to the right. Some a dingy white, some red, others puffy, multi-colored patches with bits of stuffing strung out from the corners, like mutilated quilts hung in effigy.
“It must be some kind of sign,” Hawk said before I could ask. “Like the trail of white pebbles left by the children in that Grimm’s fable my father used to tell me.”
I gasped in delight, despite my unease of what hung above our heads. “Your first memory. Do you remember your father’s name? His face? Where you lived?”
Hawk raised his hand as if I were a dog nipping at his ankles. “All I remember is the fable, and a man reading it to me. I can’t see his face. I still know nothing more than I did. But”—he beamed—“it is a start.”
Again I looked at the trees. “Who do you suppose left such a trail of pebbles? And is it there to lead us, or warn us?”
Hawk started forward, veering right. “Only one way to find out.” He turned on his heel, looming over me. “Stay several paces behind. And be ready to run at my signal.”
The end of the path opened to a sunlit glade. Hawk motioned for me to stay hidden and stepped out. I couldn’t see or hear him for what seemed an eternity. I feared he had wandered too far and fallen back into his purgatory. Just as I debated checking the petal within my locket, he reappeared.
“You must see this.” His smile was blissful.
I stepped into the glade. Above, the sun reflected off of more cloth scraps where they decked the fir trees circling the clearing. A canvas tent stood several feet away—shaped like an egg propped upon its wide end, with five-foot rods supporting the roof. A laundry line stretched from one rod to a pole embedded in the mud. Everywhere else, woven baskets, iron pans, pewter plates and trenchers cluttered the ground.
Hawk grinned again. “This is a gypsy camp. Although there’s just one living here.”
“Romanies?” My blood raced. Lord Thornton was an English nobleman. Their kind disdained the gypsy race. This proved without a doubt he was not friends with the grave keeper. “How do you know there’s only one here? Did you see him?”
“No. The camp is unattended. But I peered in where the flap curled on the breeze. It’s a woman’s clothes. Had it been a man’s things, I would have turned you about immediately.” His eyebrows furrowed, but his eager smile stayed intact. “This place feels familiar somehow.”
To me, nothing had ever felt more foreign. I knew very little of the gypsy life. According to the rumor mills, they were dark-skinned heretics who practiced no religion or morals and made their living by deceiving innocent victims with false fortune readings.
Uncle Owen disparaged such rumors. The Romanies he had known pursued legitimate trades. Some bottomed chairs, some sold handmade earthenware and baskets. Others served the community and worked as rat-catchers or handy men, even manning bellows—a sweaty, uncomfortable task most genteel men balked at.
To look at this campsite, they appeared every bit as backward as society conceived. But I’d never put much stock in society’s conceptions.
I couldn’t deny a desire to slip into the tent and walk in the shoes of this complex, superstitious woman, to uncover what secrets she might have on Lord Thornton, perhaps on death itself.
Still, I paused. I had already violated a man’s grave and lied to Enya and Uncle countless times. What did it speak of me should I disturb a woman’s private sanctuary?
Hawk bent slightly forward to meet my gaze. “She’ll never know. We will not compromise anything. Are you with me …
I nudged the locket beneath my layers of clothes. “All right, Hansel. But if there’s a witch waiting to fatten me up and eat me, I will spend the rest of eternity haunting you.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” His roguish wit made me brave.
I used my branch to prop the tent flap open, and sunlight torched the surroundings with brilliant illumination.
Unless you enter the tiger's den you cannot take the cubs.
I stepped inside, inundated by the scent of cinnamon, cedar, and scorched pine needles.
No chairs or tables were in sight. It appeared the woman arranged meals upon one of her two trunks then sat on the ground, cushioned by the hand-woven carpet beneath my boots.
Though she had an abundance of pots and dishes outside, her sole utensils were a knife and three spoons made of bone. At the tent’s farthest end, the remains of the quilt I’d seen hanging upon the trees covered a thin mattress. A few threadbare skirts had been rolled together to make a pillow.
A three-legged iron pot sat in the midst, complete with holes in the sides. Tapping the lid to ensure it wasn’t hot, I opened it to find a pile of cool, porous rocks. “Coal?”
Hawk looked over my shoulder, thoughtful. “Coke. The solid remains of coal after it’s been distilled. Emits no flame and little smoke. Yet still casts considerable heat. Perfect for life in a tent.”
I stared at him in awe. “How do you know that?”
He tugged on the chain at his waist so the watch swung next to his thigh, a troubled turn to his brow. “A hazy memory. But nothing substantial.”
Another jagged piece of puzzle, yet still no frame in which to fit it.
I dropped to my knees beside the first trunk. Upon opening it, I looked back where Hawk kept guard at the flap and smiled.
“Find something?” He came to stand over me.
I peeled off my gloves and plunged up to my elbows within the trunk. “A hat maker’s heaven.” My fingers swam in a gluttonous sea of sashes, shawls, strands of bells; pouches with trinkets pinned or stitched upon them; amulets, beads, exotic earrings, rings and anklets with gemstones too grandiose and craggy to be genuine.
I could hardly tear myself away from the opulent stash to open the next trunk.
When I did, a rainbow of bloomers, bodices, skirts, and head scarves greeted my hungry eyes. The under-things were lacy like my own, yet hedonistic in their vivid hues—blues, greens, burgundies, golds, and oranges as bright as pumpkins.
“Her kind are nomads.” Hawk stood at the door flap once more, fiddling with the cracks in his watch’s face. “They travel to distant lands where dyes are plentiful and cheap.”
I didn’t question his knowledge again, for not having the answer would only frustrate him. Instead, I stood to drape a beautiful dress across my body. It was one I would love to wear for its vivid color and daring fashion: a velvety red brocade bodice, full skirt, and long sleeves, with lace trim as black as ink.
Hawk watched me from his post. “Those are items of personal value. Nothing which will further our cause. We need to look through the books before the Romani returns.”
Shame scalded my cheeks—for treating this like a game of dress-up and pretend when for him the urgency was all too real. “Forgive me.”
Framed within the tent’s opening, he turned his translucent profile—masculine and harsh, yet softened to delicacy by long, sweeping lashes slanted downward. “No. Forgive me. Watching you … enthralled with wonder, like a child dancing beneath a snow of dandelion bonnets. For a moment, I felt alive.” The edges of his eyes crinkled. “But then I tried to picture the colors, how the dress lit your features and complimented your skin and hair. And damned if I don’t even know the hue of the fabric, the depth your eyes, or the glow of your hair in the sunlight. Everything is gray. For I am dead. And no matter what we find here, there is no recovering from such a fate.”
Next to this despairing finality, I felt inadequate. What could I offer him? Comfort was meaningless without the touch of a friend, condolences empty without a warm breath whispered upon the ear. So I gave him the only thing I could—a description tempered with the sensory he was now deprived of on a daily basis. “My eyes are brown … dusty and soft, like a fawn’s pelt. And my hair is the warm glimmer of golden coins beneath the sun.”
He turned back to the tent flap. “Thank you. Least now, I can pretend to imagine it.”
Saddened beyond words, I folded the lush dress and put it away, then reached for the pile of books, skimming a palm along their spines. I paused at a smaller ledger-sized book.
Clumps of dirt snowed from the pages as if it had recently been dug up. I could not decipher the language of the handwritten script, but it appeared to be a journal. One of the pages pulled free from the spine with ease—not a part of the book, but folded within it. I opened the parchment to reveal a disturbing drawing.
A circle of rats laid with their bellies in the air, legs flailing as their tails tangled between them in a macabre jungle of cartilage and flexible bones. Blood-red ink formed the image with such mastery the rodents looked ready to scuttle off the page.
I studied the lower left corner where two English words slanted in a fevered scrawl:
Catching a breath, I held it up. “Hawk …”
Turning my direction, he took three steps my way, then stalled, his head cocked. “I hear someone coming. You must leave,
The hairs along my nape stood on end. I tucked the drawing between the journal’s pages and shoved the book within my coat. As I ducked through the tent’s flap, two white-hot eyes faced me—attached to a snarling black wolf.
Her hot breath, rank with blood, cloaked my face. A shriek scalded my throat.
“Slowly …” Hawk’s voice remained calm. “Back away slowly.” As he spoke, he inched toward me, and I knew he thought upon Aria’s volatile reaction to his presence.
I managed a few backward steps. It must’ve started misting outside again, judging by the scent of wet fur. As if reinforcing that observation, sunlight tipped the she-wolf’s dark scruff and lit each individual droplet to pinhead stars. She resembled a mythological beast, carrying the midnight sky upon her back.
Streaks of white fringed her eyes, paws, and neck—a token of age. Her tail thrashed, dislodging the branch where it propped the flap and casting the background in muted yellow light.
The limb slanted on its fall and rolled next to the beast’s feet. Her corded muscles tensed. The thunder-roll of her growl reverberated in the soles of my boots.
Terror shivered along my spine all the way into my arms and legs, leaving them numb and unresponsive.
“Juliet, beside the mattress. There is a heavy pot you can use for a shield.”
I couldn’t budge another inch … frozen in the predator’s icy gaze.
“Juliet!” Hawk yelled.
The wolf leapt toward me, fangs snapping in a violent fury. I felt a shove atop my coat between my shoulder blades and crumpled to the ground as the beast soared over me. Rolling to my side, I watched her clamber to her feet with Hawk in her sights.
He had been her target all along. I was the one solid barrier between them, and had he not pushed me out of the way …
Had he not
Hawk narrowed his eyes, intuiting what I had just realized: he was getting stronger.
“Aye there, lovely pup.” He clucked his tongue at the wolf, and she bared her teeth again. “Juliet.” Hawk held her attention as he backed up. “Leave, now. I’ll keep her occupied.”
Concern for his safety slowed my response until I remembered what he was. I barely managed to duck under the tent flap again when the cold prick of a knife met the side of my neck and forced me back inside.
The woman couldn’t have been more than four and half feet tall, with features as rough as a horse’s. She wore no coat. A green chemise with sleeves the yellow of winter squash peered out from under a fur-trimmed vest. A trio of skirts piled one atop another at her waist, each knotted so the side seams revealed an evolution of color, from pink to orange to green.