Each week, I will post an excerpt of the story "The Gypsy's Curse" A work in progress. If you've followed this blog you know that I started sharing this a few years ago in serialized form. Here it is again, starting from the beginning. Each Sunday will feature a chapter of the novel In progress. You can follow along on the blog, or you can go to my website for more updates. Happy reading! This will be published in Summer of 2014.
Free Rough Draft entries; The Gypsy's Curse Post # 1
About the Story: The Gypsy's Curse takes place in 1816. Zara, the half-blood gypsy girl has been made an outcast from her caravan because it is believed she bears the devil's mark. When her Gadja patron, a kindly old farm widow who has taken her in is murdered Zara is suspected of the crime. Zara takes refuge in an empty old manor house. When Stephan St. John returns to his ancestral home to face his own demons, he believes Zara is a ghost haunting him.
The sheriff marched resolutely to the center of town, hammer in hand, and the decree tucked under his arm. He stopped at the billet post, dug into his coat pocket, and produced two thick nails. He slipped them into his mouth, the blunt ends in, sharp points hanging out, and pressed the decree against the wood board. The sound of his hammering echoed about the village square as he posted the warrant given him by the local magistrate.
Wanted for questioning regarding recent murder in Lexford Woods: Young woman of gypsy blood described as short, slim, with dark hair and bright green eyes, of approximately a score in age. The gypsy is known to frequent these parts with a local caravan, but has recently been traveling alone. Distinguishing features include a scar on the left side of her face, above the eye, and a fresh wound to the hand. The woman is armed, and considered a prime suspect in the murder at the farm of Widow Kendall and her visiting nephew, one Jasper Leeds of Hampsell Place.
Once finished, he marched straight toward The Griffin's Lair for a shot of whiskey. It might be an hour shy of noon, but he sorely needed a shot of courage after the grisly scene he'd been called to this morning at Widow Kendall?s farm. The bodies of the poor souls were still swimming before his eyes, the jagged wounds, the slashed flesh and the horrified open eyes.
Worse for it, the stench of their gore stuck in his nostrils. Even with a sound washing with plenty of lye soap, he doubted he?d be able to escape that putrid smell of human innards split wide open like a gutted deer for weeks to come.
Wanted for questioning! Ha, that was a bunch of rancid tripe on the part of the magistrate. All that fancy talk of evidence, motive and guilt verses innocence was fine and good for a man like Magistrate Collins, who sat behind a desk all day and didn't have to hunt down a vicious killer himself. When face to face with evil a man didn?t argue with the devil, he took action and saved the lives of those who depended upon him.
If he caught the little whore she'd wish she never been born. Question her about what, for pity sake? Why she'd mutilated two God fearing souls in the middle of the night. He shook his head. The world had worked just fine without these intelligent blokes always throwing a cog in the works and bringing everything to a dead halt with their grand talk of rights and habitual corpses! Oh, she'd hang for sure when they found the bitch. He'd hang her on sight and send a message to all her kind to stay away, for good.
The Lake District, England, 1816
The Devil's Mark! That was their excuse. That was the reason she had been thrust out into the world of the Gadje, coldly cast out of her tribe and exiled from the family she'd known and loved.
Zara trudged on through the woods. She pulled the woolen shawl tight about her shoulders, and pushed on. Her progress was slow as she was walking into the wind. She was tired and hungry. She?d spent last night in a cave, without a fire, lest the townspeople see the flame and discover her hiding place. The cave had been damp and cold. She finished the last of the bread and cheese she?d taken from the Widow?s kitchen before setting out on her long trek to parts unknown.
It was late autumn. Snow would soon be dusting the woods. The small streams and creek beds would freeze over. The rivers would remain a source of water throughout the winter, but most rivers were surrounded by towns and farmsteads. As a child of nature, she knew she must find shelter soon or she might die from exposure to the harsh winter nights. Lothar taught her how to track animals and trap game from the time she was able to walk. Her uncle had unwittingly given her the tools to survive without being dependent on another. Thank the fates for Lothar and his practical, pragmatic nature. He gave her knowledge to the woods and the creatures that inhabited it that most girls of her tribe would envy. He took her with him on his forays into the bush to trap dinner, when other girls were kept close to the fire to learn other skills from their mother's knees. But winter's harsh pall left even the best trappers in her tribe with empty pouches when they returned to camp. That was why the caravan traveled south for the winter months.
A deer had come across her path at dawn, when she was filling her cask with water at the icy stream, but Zara had no weapon with which to bring down such a fortuitous bounty presented to her from the wood spirit. She had no gun and no bow and arrow. Just a knife, a large hunting knife Lothar had given her when she was ten years old. Even if she had such weapons, she didn't think she would have been able to fell the gentle eyed doe. Like her, the animal was alone in a world full of hunters, alone and without hale companions or the protection of a great horned mate.
She stopped for a moment to recover her breath and examine her hand. Her fingers were numb from the cold. The bandage was stiff, almost frozen to the scored flesh. At least the cold weather had offered her some assistance. The outer bandage was dried from the cold; there would be no fresh flowing blood to give the hunter's hounds a trail to follow.
As if in protest to her hard won peace of mind, deep baying echoed the distance behind her. Zara smashed her lips together and hurried up the steep hill, as uncertain of her destination as she was of her present bearings. She returned to the woods two nights past, after awakening in the farm house to find the widow and her reprehensible nephew dead beside her. She had no memory of what happened. She?d awakened on the floor of the parlor just before dawn, with Lothar's knife in her dominate hand, and the painful gash splitting the palm of her other hand.
Zara knew she'd be blamed for the murders, regardless of the mysterious circumstances, simply because of her origin. A gypsy, even a half blood gypsy was always blamed for any misfortune that fell on the people nearby. If a pig or goat went missing, a horse took ill or a barn burnt to the ground, it was always the gypsies, so the Gadje claimed.
Some villages were better than others, more accepting of their visits. They were tolerated and allowed to trade with the town for a week or driven on without even being allowed to rest their horses by angry Gadje men with guns. Each time they set up camp in a new place, the men of her band made wagers amongst themselves as to how long it would be before the Gadje showed up with guns and pitchforks, demanding that they move on to the next town. It was her misfortune to be banished when her tribe was traveling through a hostile region instead of a more tolerant one.
As she crested the rise of the steep hill, Zara leaned against a stark, majestic oak to recover. There was a sharp stitch in her side. The silver steam of her rapid breath wreathed about her in the cold air. She was so tired. Her chest ached and she feared she might be courting the dreaded lung sickness after spending two nights out in the cold, damp November woods with no fire and no shelter. She?d walked hard for days, trying to put as much distance between herself and the Kendall Farm as she could. She didn?t dare stop to rest until she found a shelter, as she feared if she stopped too long, she would not have the will to get back up and keep going. An abandoned barn or cottage would see her through until spring. By then, perhaps the locals would have forgotten she had resided with the Widow Kendall for a time and she would no longer be hunted like an animal by the people of the town. In the spring, when the snow melted, she?d head south and try to find a caravan traveling northern to take her in. It seemed a good plan, to her fevered mind, and she scanned the valley below for a possible refuge.
The landscape below was very beautiful. In spring and summer, it would be a veritable paradise. It would be a wonderful place for the caravan to make camp, and perhaps stay for longer than a week or two. A picturesque lake was banked by tall willow trees. The lake skirted a fenced in pasture. A deep longing burgeoned forth unbidden. This would be a delightful place to live, in a small cottage near the lake, nestled between the two hills, a cozy place---Zara gasped. She covered her mouth and made the sign with her dominant hand to ward off the evil eye. She was alone, but still, it wasn't good to let her Gadje blood rise to the fore. And settling in one place, setting down roots was foreign to her mother's people, it was his father's influence, his taint in her blood that made her yearn for such wanton things.
She turned her mind back to the task before her, finding shelter before nightfall. There had to be a farm nearby or some estate, if there was grazing land below. She studied the beguiling landscape. Not one building. She squinted, and placed her hand over her eyes. Perhaps, just past that stand of trees on the opposite end of the valley . . .?
The sun was lowering in the sky. It would be dark within hours.
The dense woodlands gradually gave way to gentle rolling hills of prime pasture land. Zara made it to the lake shore and stopped briefly to rest and to study the landscape. She saw smoke in the distance, around the curve of the lake, and knew there must be some cottage or farm ahead that might do nicely for her purposes. A farm would have outbuildings, a stable and hay mow where she could settle for the night. A cottage might be trickier to manage as most cottagers had only a lean to for their livestock, not a separate standing barn.
A mound of hay would be lovely for a bed. She could almost sleep standing up if she closed her eyes. And getting out of this harsh wind would go a long way toward stopping the chills that racked her body. Zara shook her numb hands, hoping to bring some life back into them. Her feet, without adequate boots, were starting to hurt. These silly shoes the widow gave her were useless for walking long distances. They were a lady?s shoes, meant to serve little purpose but adorn the feet of a woman who spent her days sitting by the fire, sewing or reading. She was grateful to Widow Kendall for her kindness, but trying to make her into a lady of leisure had been a foolish plan on both their parts. Zara didn?t have coin or family connects, so becoming a lady would do her little good. She had no means of support, no property, and no family to depend upon. Not anymore.
In hindsight, Zara realized that she should have taken a little time to hunt about the cottage for sturdy boots before she ran away. She?d been frightened when she awakened. It seemed more prudent to make a hasty retreat than to waste time searching for suitable clothing. It was a wonder she?d thought to grab the loaf of bread and hunk of cheese in the kitchen as she rushed past them on her way out the back door.
Fog was coming in off the lake. Curses. As if it weren?t hard enough trying to make her way through unfamiliar land on foot, nature had to conjure another hurdle for her to overcome.
Zara paused again, holding her side. That stitch wasn't getting any better. It was just above her ribs, in the vicinity of her lungs. She exhaled a frosty breath and tried to think of warm thoughts to replace the angry, bitter ones swirling in her head. She imagined coming upon a welcome fire, being offered a bowl of soup by fellow travelers and a warm bed in a wagon when she came around the bend along the lake shore. It wasn?t likely, her negative side nagged, but the idea did help her keep walking.
Twenty minutes later, she stopped in her tracks. The smoke from a fire teased her nostrils. She hugged herself and turned about, scanning the woods that embraced the lake shore for a sign or path leading to a shelter. The overgrown ferns and brambles had shed their leaves, making it neigh onto impossible to discern a path in the growing twilight. She listened. There were the usual murmurings of the night creatures, the chirping of a squirrel as it chided its mate for not finding sufficient grain to get it through the winter, the rustling of feathers of the pheasant as it settled in the brambles for the night. And the snort of a stag in the near distance.
". . . up at the manor . . ." the voices drifted on the breeze. So, there was a manor house close by. That was good, if she could just figure out which direction to go. She held her breath, trying to decide which direction the voices were coming from.
"go up there tomorrow. . . have a look about. Sir Stephan won't be back until spring, woman, what's all the fuss about?"
The voices came from her left. Zara made careful steps in the direction of the disgruntled male voice. She tested the ground lightly with her foot before setting it down, lest she snap a twig and warn the inhabitants of the cottage nearby that someone was lurking about. As she followed the muted sound of conversation, the aroma of wood smoke grew stronger and so did the smell of roasted venison and potatoes.
If Uncle Lothar were with her he?d gesture for her to search for a stray chicken in the yard while he kept watch. Taking small, insignificant items from an unwitting cottager was considered a talent by her mother's people, a source of pride by which many a young child gained the respect of his elders. Children were encouraged not to take anything larger than they could put in a pocket, such as a handful of carrots from the garden or something they might carry easily, such as a chicken. She'd been raised to believe it was right to trick the Gadje out of their possessions, a sign of the tribe's superiority over the strange people who built houses and fenced in land, forbidding others to enjoy it and calling it their own. The gypsies didn't take big items, such as a cow or a horse but they were often accused of doing so. They believed in trading with the Gadje for large items or selling their talents until enough coin could be earned to purchase a necessary item. And as they were travelers, they didn't need all the fancy possessions the Gadje filled their houses with, they only needed the essentials, what would fit in wagon.
Zara would not take anything from the people arguing in their cottage. Since living with the Widow Kendall she came to see the seemingly innocent sport her people taught their children in a different light, from the perspective of the victim. Widow Kendall had very little to live on. She'd suffer if they took potatoes from her garden or eggs from her laying hens.
"Oh, go-on wit ye!" It was a woman's voice, but that didn't mean it didn't have an undercurrent of strength. "T'ain't saying you should rush up there tonight, but we must see the house is secured for the winter. Can't have squirrels gettin' in from the attic like last year. They made a terrible mess of madam's wigs and left droppings from the nursery to the kitchens."
Through the trees, she could make out a dim light, a window in the darkness. The window was opened, and two loaves of fresh bread were sitting in the sill, cooling in the night air. Zara's mouth watered at the rich aroma. She willed herself to stand firm in her attempt to leave the cottagers be and just listen to find out which direction the manor house might be. Oh, that smell was heaven, promising sheer delight to her empty stomach. She stepped from the woods into the small clearing that surrounded the neat house. A horse neighed a few feet from the back door. A dog gave a low growl from inside the window.
"Hush, Laddie." The man's voice responded. "Lie down now. It;s just Old Joe out in the stall, reminding us he's needing his oats, too."
Zara waited, near breathless, not making the slightest movement until the dog relaxed.
"I don't know what yer all upset about woman." The man continued, "The master won't be coming back to Huntingdon Abbey and his lady won't give a damn 'bout her wigs or her fancy clothes where she's lying. I'll go up the hill tomorrow and have a look, now leave me be."
Up the hill. Zara rolled her lips together. She was in a flat hollow next to the lake shore. She'd been walking along the shore for miles and the surrounding land was mostly flat pasture land. She had to find the hill, and there would be a mansion, one with a shed or a stable, at least. Perhaps more outbuildings where she might take up residence for a few days, until she was rested and strong enough to travel further south.
Hunger clawed at her. Zara?s stomach felt open and raw. It hurt just thinking about how lovely that freshly baked bread would taste on her tongue. The smell of it was damn near killing her. She staggered forward, her hands within reach of the open window. The warm light of interior was inviting, the soft candle glow, the smoke from the fire, the welcoming images of home. In her desperate state, the bread captured most of her attentions, singing to her, whispering an ancient song of seduction. Ah the soft texture of it on her tongue, and the promise of warmth and fullness the small brown loaf promised--it was too much--too much.
The jaunt up the hill was not as steep as she anticipated. Fortified by the half devoured loaf she held in her hand, Zara trudged on up the embankment, hoping to find the promised shelter at the crown of the hill. Huntingdon Abbey. She'd never heard of the place. That was a good thing, she noted, as she tore another jewel of soft, comforting warmth from the stolen treasure in her hand and lifted it to her mouth. It meant she was far from the Kendall farm, very far, for the kindly old woman knew and talked about everyone in her small village and the surrounding countryside, even the manor born. Yet the widow never mentioned Huntingdon Abbey in her many conversations with Zara, if they could be called that, as the woman nattered on in the evenings about the lives of everyone within her local 'tribe', the village, as Zara and the widow sat by the fire sewing or spinning wool into yarn.
As she crested the hill, Zara stopped at the sight ahead. She clutched the quarter loaf to her chest, and sighed her delight. It was a huge old stone building, with arched windows and tall spires piercing the moonlit sky. An ancient place, full of ghosts and spirits, she hoped. Huntingdon Abbey . . . she heard about the old monasteries and abbeys belonging to the Gadje religion, many of them destroyed by their own kind in fits of anger as rival beliefs had torn the Gadje of this land apart.
Her tribe had talked about the old Gadje wars over spiritual beliefs and the widow also had been fascinated by the tragic stories of the sacred places. They were ruins, many of them. Stone fortresses built for the seers and scribes of the Gadje clans, the revered ones who lived within and maintained the writings and traditions of the ruling faith. Until another one replaced it by the rulers of the Gadje clan. Some of the old monasteries were razed, and others like this one, were given to the wealthy men of the rival faith as rewards for loyalty to the King.
Pro--test--ants--was that the odd name the old woman had used?
Yes, that was the word. Those loyal to the King of England during the bloody belief feuds a few centuries past were given these grand fortresses of the old religion and so many of them were made into ancestral homes. Zara was intrigued by the dark mountain built by men as she moved across the damp lawn. It was an empty, soulless monstrosity glaring down at her with a gaping maw as the pointed crests of the rooftop rose up into the sky like the razor edged spines of a sleeping dragon.
It would do until she was able to recover her strength and press further south, toward the gypsy tribe's winter camps. It would shelter her from the elements, but as she reached the outer walkway leading to the arched stone doors, a premonition washed over her. This place was mired in tragedy and sorrow. If she entered this lonely, forsaken place, would the dragon release her again or would she be swallowed up in its malingering darkness forever?
End of Chapter One, The Gypsy's Curse, Copyright Lily Silver
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