copyright 2008 by InSilverShadows
"Is it ready? Tell me it's ready!"
"It's finished," the somewhat flustered young man at the foot of the stairs told her, as the wet nurse rushed down them right past him. He glanced at her with a reassuring nod to ease her worrying, clearing off the tabletop. It was nearly dark out, the only light the flickering of the fireplace off of the low stone ceiling. "It should be strong enough to last. The wax will keep the water out, providing the river is kind to us."
"Gods will tell," she whispered, "'Urry. 'Fore anyone sees."
"The blankets? You brought the blankets?"
She nodded, "Of course. You think I'm a fool? You're the fool. What's that?" She nodded disapprovingly to a small leather skin on the table, picking it up and sloshing it. "Spirits?"
"Milk," he said, flushing sheepishly. "For her."
"We can't pack that," she said, looking at it disdainfully. "It will spoil before anyone finds her."
He frowned at her in return, taking the skin from the stout, graying woman. "Quiet her, will you? The whole house will come running to the sound of her bawling." The wet nurse scowled at him briefly, gently hushing the baby in her arms, a beautiful, tiny baby girl with thin red curls of hair and eyelashes, squirming and wailing.
Barton, hurry, please," she whispered anxiously, as he hastily unfolded the wool blankets, tucking them soundly along the inside of the basket on the table. It was well-woven of fine reeds, newly lined with wax dripped from candles to make it as waterproof as they had time.
Barton brushed the skin of milk away, and moved the basket toward her. "We can only pray he believes us." He took one long, last look at the baby as he lifted her from the wet nurse's arms, a faint smile flickering on his face. "She's beautiful, isn't she?"
"There's no time," the wet nurse hissed, cuffing the young man across the head, scowling. "We must hurry. It took you long enough to find the basket." Barton gave her a look, setting the baby gently in the basket, nestled safely amid the blankets.
"I pray for her already," he said softly, gently pulling his fingertip from her searching little grip, and sighing, before the wet nurse clapped the lid of the basket over her.
"Would that the lady would keep her privates to herself, we wouldn't have to worry for her life," she said crossly, in a mutter. "I had hoped that it wouldn't show, but with that 'air, His Lordship will spot it dead away. Ain't no one in the long line of his noble house had hair the color of a slapped whore's ass. He'll know he didn't sire that baby once he's back from away, no matter 'ow many lies we tell 'im."
"What will you tell him when he returns?" Barton whispered, picking up the basket and following the rush of her long skirts to the door.
"That the baby died at birth," the wet nurse said, unlatching the door into the crisp night, "And you had better follow like. He'll kill both of them if he finds out. Her Ladyship an' the baby. I'll tell him you took the infant to the riverbank t'bury it. Say it weren't worth seein'."
He nodded, pulling on his coat hastily, checking inside the basket one more time. The baby giggled at him, shifting around, her cheeks flushed rosy.
"You hurry, boy, an' don't you be a fool!" she hissed, pushing him out into the dark night. He nodded quickly under his hood, and swept away, the basket safely under his arm, running down the long road to the river, where he stopped at the bank, and set her gently down, lifting off the lid.
"You pretty little thing," he said absently, smiling at her. She blinked up at him with bulbous blue eyes, her mother's eyes. He gave a breathy sigh, looking from the baby to the dark water beyond the reeds, worry clear on his face as he picked the baby up from her makeshift cradle. She made a noise, blowing bubbles, squirming around in his arms. He smiled at her faintly. "Gods be with you, little one." He kissed her softly on the forehead, even as she started crying. "It's all right. Someone… someone will find you and take you home."
He jumped at the sound of the jostling wheels of a carriage pulling up to the house, and could faintly see the dim outline of a willowy man stepping out of it, and with a curse under his breath he stuffed her as gently as haste would allow back into the basket, hushing her desperately as she started to cry.
"The riverbank! They're at the riverbank!" He heard a dog barking, and panicked, going completely white.
Barton wrapped her up in the blankets quickly, desperately trying to calm her, even as he saw the dogs at the crest of the hill. He put the lid back on the basket, picked it up, and crashed out into the shallows, almost falling as the current swept by his knees. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, set the basket into the water's flow, and after a long hesitation out of pure fear, he let go, even as his better instinct told him not to. The men dressed in the Baron's colors skidded to a stop on the bank as the basket swept downstream, training their eyes instead on the cloaked servant standing waist-deep in the shallows staring at them in terror.
"Barton! Barton, run!" the wet nurse screamed from where she was held tightly by the arm, as one of the men snarled, the other crashing into the river.
"Where is she?!" the guard demanded, shaking the young man roughly. Barton shook his head wordlessly, white with fear. "Where is the baby?! His Lordship has heard the rumors of his wife's infidelity!"
Barton stared at the wet nurse, who shook her head wildly. "We were too late!" she said in trepidation, "we were too—"
"Shut up, woman!" one of the guards growled, slapping her roughly. "Useless—" Barton yelped as the guard's knee rammed into his stomach, doubling him over as he was jerked from the water. He looked down the dark river one last time, but the basket had already been swept far past his line of vision.
Joska turned the key delicately between his two fingers, and drew the bow slowly over the string, making a noise of displeasure as it emitted a squat, awkward trill. Slowly he turned the key again, looking for the right note, his beloved fiddle tucked under his chin. One bare, brown foot dangled in the warm water, the reeds tickling the underside of it, his anklets chinking faintly as his foot swung.
"Come on," he coaxed the instrument softly, "come on. That's it."
He smiled keenly as he found the note, the string in tune. "That's it, girl. Pretty as always, no?" He played a delicate three notes, splashing his foot in the river slightly. The water was refreshing in the hot sun, and he could feel his olive shoulders tanning even as he sat beside it long enough to tune his fiddle.
"Awful as always," his friend chided gently, climbing over the bank of reeds to join him on the rock with a grin, sitting and dangling his own feet in the water.
Joska shook his head at him. "Sounds better even out of tune than you ever do, Tutela." Tutela scoffed, and Joska grinned leanly. Slowly the other Gypsy shook his head.
"Why's it matter if it's in tune anyways?"
"I'll be in Farlane by next week," Joska said simply. He was traveling lightly—with little more than a few blankets and a sack of his most important possessions, not even a horse or a wagon—but he would be coming close to towns soon, with the opportunity to make a little money if he played well. The Gypsy fiddles were a great novelty on the roads of Antern, and the common folk would titter in delight at the traveling caravans. Antern was a grand land to a Gypsy—the people there had fat purses and were easy money, especially for the lone traveler. Most Tzigane, including Tutela, who lived in one of the camps downriver, disliked Anternians for just that, as the Gypsy stereotypes were almost fashionable, especially in the cities on the coast. But for Joska, traveling on his own instead of with a caravan, just thinking of it brought a smile to his tanned face. Play a few bawdy songs and shake a tambourine in their faces, and they'd swallow it like bait.
"We'll eat well soon," he told his fiddle almost affectionately, as something brushed his foot softly in the water. Making a small noise of surprise, he leaned over the rock slightly, lowering his instrument in puzzlement. A basket floated there, a swatch of pink cloth peeking out from under the lid, drifting past him on the bank. Joska set his fiddle down and hopped off the rock onto the bank, his eyes not leaving the basket as he picked his way through the reeds on the bank, following it.
"What is it?" Tutela called, not moving, looking over his shoulder to Joska, who parted the rushes to try and get a better look.
It bounced gently off the clumps of reeds, carried by the current, and he had to pick up his pace slightly to keep up, his feet splashing in the shallows as he jogged up to it, nudging it towards the shore, where the river slipped it almost tenderly up onto the muddy bank, a small garter snake sliding away from it and the Gypsy's bare feet.
Joska frowned slightly, cocking his head as he gently pulled the lid off, to a damp pile of blankets and a slight coo from within. Setting the lid to the side out of the way, he squatted before it, his feet squelching in the mud and sand. Gently, he fingered the blanket and pulled it aside.
"Who are you?" he said, a faint little smile coming to his face. The baby blinked at him a few times, stretching and making little noises at seeing him, reaching up towards his thick dark hair and the scarf tied around his head, the end of it dangling. Her tiny hand wrapped around a handful of linen, tugging gently, as she giggled.
Slowly, he reached into the basket, lifting the baby up as she squealed in delight, her feet kicking and her blankets dangling. He smiled faintly at her, as Tutela picked his way delicately through the undergrowth on the bank, steadying himself to keep from sliding down a steep, muddy little hill.
"What is it?" Tutela asked again.
"A baby," Joska answered him without taking his eyes off her. Tutela started, running over to get a look for himself, as if he couldn't believe it.
"A baby?" he said, in disbelief, "floating on the river?" Joska grinned, shifting her slightly, as her little fingers wrapped around one of the coins hanging off a chain around his neck.
Tutela leaned over his shoulder, and wrinkling his nose. "A gadze baby."
"She's not Tzigane. Where do you think she came from?" Joska asked him absently, bouncing the baby in his arms slightly.
"Not one of our camps," Tutela said almost dismissively. "Put her back and push her off. Let an outsider deal with her."
"We can't put her back," Joska said, nearly in shock, his eyes still on her pale face and delicate little red clothes. Tutela checked through the blankets for anything else.
"There's no milk, no note, nothing," he argued, "probably better just to drown her before anyone sees us with her. Look at her. The Watch will think you stole her."
"She's only a baby," Joska said, scandalized, staring at his friend, "we can't drown her."
"Surely you don't mean to keep her," Tutela said, lifting his eyebrows. The baby squirmed, blowing bubbles, looking at Joska and giggling again, reaching up for his face with both small, chubby pink hands. Joska smiled at her as she toyed with the ends of his hair. "She likes you," Tutela added absently, then grinned, "Maybe she can smell the gadze women's perfume on you, mm?"
Joska gave his friend a sharp look at that, bouncing the baby slightly in his arms. She giggled wildly in delight, and he smiled distantly again, giving her one of his fingertips to play with. She grasped it with her tiny fingers, even suckling on the end of it slightly.
"Joska—" Tutela said exasperatedly, picking the basket up and holding it out to his friend imperatively.
"We can't put her back, Tutela," Joska said, swinging her gently back and forth against his chest. He looked up at Tutela, finally taking his eyes off her.
"What are you going to do with a baby, Joska?" Tutela demanded, picking the blankets out of the basket and shaking them out, before he started to reposition them. "Who'll nurse her? Who'll change her? You haven't got a wife." The last part was almost spiteful, as it was customary for Tzigane to marry young, and Joska had shunned the very idea of it.
"We can't leave her," was Joska's only answer, as he started to walk back upstream, the water sloshing at his ankles. "I'll take her into town."
"What good will that do?" Tutela asked, following him with the basket and blankets, wrinkling his nose as he stepped over a snakeskin. "No outsider will take a baby from a Gypsy."
Joska paid him no mind, "What do you think her name is?"
"No way to know," Tutela sighed. "She can't be more than a few months old, if that. She'll need milk, Joska."
"I'll find it."
"It isn't as if you'll be keeping her, Tutela," Joska said mildly, turning to face him, a teasing grin in his eyes. "Your caravan moves south in a few days. And I move north."
"You have no sense in you," Tutela told him flatly. "Toss her back in the river, and pretend you never saw her."
Joska spread out one of the blankets on the dry part of the bank, setting her down gently, gathering his fiddle and slinging it over his shoulder along with his rucksack. Tutela berated him as he tightened the straps.
"You're crazy!" he said indignantly. Joska glanced over his shoulder at the baby, and grinned.
"I know," he answered calmly, mildly. He smiled faintly, looking back at her. "Your wife will want you home, Tutela," he added teasingly, wrapping the pink woolen blanket gently around her small body and picking her up, leaving the basket nestled amid the rushes.
"At least I have a wife, and sense," Tutela said, with a scowl. "That baby—"
Joska hushed him, putting a hand out towards him, his brows furrowing. "What was that?"
The lanky Gypsy put a hand over his friend's mouth. "Shh," he said, listening keenly. A few seconds later, as Tutela pushed Joska's hand off his face, they could faintly hear voices talking harshly.
"Gadze," Tutela whispered sharply, glaring at Joska. "Her family, no doubt." Joska grabbed Tutela's wrist, scrambling away from the riverbank to the cover of the woods, hushing him.
Tutela slapped him indignantly. "You can give her back," he hissed, Joska shushing him sharply and putting his hand back over the other Tzigane's mouth, the baby laughing in his other arm. He shifted into the bushes slightly, careful not to put his weight down.
"Sometimes I wonder why I am friends with you," Tutela muttered into Joska's bangled hand. Joska grinned at him, looking back towards the river, where a black hound with long fur trotted up to the basket, sniffing it in interest, a second dog running up and whining at the scent.
"Dogs," Tutela muttered, getting lower to the grass, "I hate dogs."
"Because one bit you in the ass when you were fourteen," Joska whispered with a grin, Tutela glaring at him.
"Gadze and their dogs," he said, spitting the words like they were a curse. "Mm." He let out a disapproving grunt, as one of the dogs barked. "If they come after us, Joska—"
"Shh," Joska said again, as he heard the sound of feet crashing through growth, a few men in the livery of some nobleman's house running after the dogs.
"She's not here," one said, to the other, who cursed, kicking the basket into the river, where it was swept quickly away.
"Neither are the blankets. Someone took her." The baby at Joska's chest gave a soft gurgle, winding her hands into his hair.
"Shh," he said gently, bouncing her slightly, putting a hand on the back of her head. Tutela glanced at the baby, and then back at the men on the bank. The dogs sniffed at the rushes.
"They've caught a scent," one of the men remarked, gesturing to the dogs, "they were here not long ago."
His companion spat onto the ground. "The area's full of gods-damned Gypsies," he said, "there's a camp not too far, from the smell of the smoke back up the road. Should we look there?"
"They found the camp," Tutela said in alarm. Joska glared at him, putting a finger over his lips.
"I can hardly understand them as it is, without your mouth running," he hissed.
"Go give them back their baby," Tutela urged him. "If they've found the camp—"
Joska put his hand back over his friend's mouth, the baby wriggling in his arm. He hushed her gently, bouncing her soothingly, watching the two men at the bank. "If Gypsies have taken her, then we can go. We can tell him she drowned on the river," one guard hissed, grabbing his fellow's arm tightly.
"He wants proof," spat the other, shaking him off. "Imagine if in years she returns."
"Tutela, look at them!" Joska whispered, jerking his head to them. "I don't think they're looking for her to bring her home!"
Tutela bit his lip. "Then she's their problem, not ours!"
"What's it the dogs smell?" one of the men asked after their terse silence, jerking his head toward the sniffing dog. In his arms, the baby writhed, letting out the first low hiccups of a wail.
"Shh," Joska said, his eyes fixed on the dog sniffing keenly, and he pushed Tutela further into the woods.
"You're crazy!" Tutela hissed, turning, still nearly on his stomach in the tall grass.
"You go!" Joska insisted, pressing the baby gently to his chest, biting his lip as he watched the dog. Tutela shook his head and fled, even as the baby started to cry, her delicate little face reddening. Joska pulled the blanket over her face, trying to muffle it slightly, bouncing her and hushing her, trying to soothe her.
"The woods!" one cried, slipping his bow from his shoulders. "Go!"
One of the dogs barked loudly and Joska leapt from the undergrowth, taking off running down the bank, both dogs and both men taking up chase immediately with alarmed cries. He slipped in the mud, nearly falling, holding the baby tightly to his chest and scrambling to his feet as a white-feathered arrow thunked into the patch of clover next to his bare foot.
"Gods-damned Gypsy!" one shouted, "He's got the baby!" Joska picked up a little speed, skidding to a stop as a snake hissed in the reeds, lifting its brown head menacingly, and he threw himself to the side and over it, wincing as he felt it snap at his ankle, teeth sinking in. He swore, and all but tore it off, having only a moment to examine the twin bloody holes before he took off again.
He slid down the bank, splashing in the shallows of the river, hoping the reeds would give him some small amount of cover, pressing his back to the ridge of the gully the river flowed through. The basket was up ahead, caught in a rocky patch, bumping against the stones peeking over the surface. He craned his neck to look downriver even as the first of the dogs snarled and leapt down the bank.
Joska hunched over slightly to shield the wailing infant, taking off running once more, to his knees in the water. The current was strong, tugging at his shins, but the dog remained on the bank, barking harshly. Joska stumbled to the basket, careful to keep his footing and keep the baby's head above the surface, stuffing her quickly back into the basket even as a rock slipped under his throbbing, bitten foot, sending him splashing under the surface.
He coughed, quickly finding his footing, and with one hand tightly on the basket and a hasty look back, where the guards scrambled cursing along the bank, bows in hand and arrows nocked, he pushed off rapidly, kicking slightly. The current picked him up almost instantly, carrying him downstream, the river splashing at his face.
Two arrows wasped into the water, and he hunched as low as he could without letting go of the basket, making less of a target of himself.
"Beszet! Let them be lost on the falls! We can pick through their skeletons at the bottom!" one shouted, as his companion splashed into the water, starting to go in after the Gypsy, pausing at his friend's call.
Remembering with a jolt the falls downriver, Joska started to struggle toward the opposite bank, the current pulling almost harder as he did, his hand reaching wildly for the roots, rocks, and branches hanging low over the water. The wet leaves tore off under his fingers, despite his wild curses against them, and the bark only dug into his hand painfully before slipping out of his grip. Desperately, he kicked for the bottom, even as the roar of the falls could be faintly heard.
The baby bawled in her basket, as terrified as he was. The froth of the river had turned white, splashing by his face and neck even when he surfaced to gasp for breath. "Hold on!" he called to her desperately, half to himself, fighting the current with nearly all his strength. He ducked sharply as an arrow shot by his head, narrowly missing his ear, tinking off a rock behind him and quickly rushed away by the river. He grasped the branch he had managed to catch so tightly his knuckles were white, and he pulled, trying to get closer to shore.
He pulled the basket towards himself and pushed it towards shore, pressing it securely into the bank, looking for anything he could use to secure it, still looking upstream for the two guards. He ducked low to the water, wary of their arrows, and with his free hand, he started to build up a small bank of mud, grimacing. His arm was pulled taut by the tug of the river, and his bare feet still scrambled to get up onto the bank himself, but for the time being, he could only barely reach the shore to wedge the basket securely between two rocks and the bank of mud. The baby's small hands reached up and out of the basket, grasping for something, but he quickly hushed her, and pulled the blankets over her, his fingers leaving streaks of mud on the pink wool.
Joska shifted slightly, the water nearly sweeping his feet out from under him, pressing him hard against the rock behind him, but the current pulled him back out towards the river. His hand tightened on the branch, but he could feel it scraping against his skin painfully, and even as a trickle of blood dripped down his bangled wrist from between his fingers, he heard it snap.
"There he goes!" one of the guards laughed, pointing to the brink of the falls.
Joska only had time to kick his head above the surface and cling for a split second to the slimy rock at the very face of the falls before it swept him clean over.
People are probably going to be like, "AUGH, NO, WHY DO YOU NEVER FINISH STORIES AND START A BUNCHA NEW ONES?!" but it's OKAY! This is a long short story that will be presented in several installments. Tell me what you think. :)