"Djelem djelem, lungone dromenca,
Maladilem chorore tsigane.
Gelem Gelem lungone dromenca,
Maladilem baxtale romenca."
He laughed as he finished the song. "You like that one, do you?" he asked the baby tiredly. His bare feet were caked with mud, and the watery stuff sucked at his feet every time he lifted them. Joska's toes felt frozen cold and solid and the mud was almost warm, tempting him to stop on the road and duck under a tree for breath and brief respite from the rain. He knew he couldn't stop, even though his left foot—the one that the snake had bitten on the riverbank—throbbed dully with every step, still tender. He winced and glanced down at it, shaking off some of the clumps of mud covering the nasty black-yellow bruise spreading over the top of his foot. Instead he trod the ridge between the wagon ruts, trying to avoid the murky red streams of mud that ran in the wheel trails. He could tell from the depth of the ruts and the heavy footprints alongside them that the road was well-used, a good sign that he was close to the town.
The infant bawled in his arms, cold and wet, and he did his best to sing to her over the rain, a nameless little song he made up just for her. It didn't calm her much, but she grasped tightly at the blanket wrapped around the both of them, which was now doing little to keep the rain off their shoulders. It hung heavy and soaked like a cloak around them.
Soon enough he saw lights up ahead, and could hear the chatter of the guardsmen in the tower of the palisade. He ducked off the road, knowing that with the Baron's men about and carrying an outsider child he likely would gain only an arrest by going through the gate. Joska trotted quickly into the cover of the woods, hushing the baby. When that didn't work, he pressed her tight against him and wrapped the blanket around her, in an attempt to muffle her crying.
"Come on, bendita," he coaxed her, "Come on, little one. We're almost there. You must be quiet for me as you were before, and I promise you a supper of hot milk worthy of the finest of the Gypsy kings. I know a place we can stay, if you will only be quiet for me, mm?"
He tucked her against his chest, and could feel her grasp the chain around his neck, putting one of the coins dangling from it in her mouth. He fished it out as he slipped against the palisade, careful to stay pressed flat against the wooden posts—the only place the guards striding around the top among the lanterns would not notice him. The coin in her mouth had silenced the baby for the time being, and he breathed a thanks to whatever was listening as he slipped along in the dark.
Joska's foot was throbbing with pain and he was all but limping when he finally came to the hillside of small stone and stucco buildings outside the palisade, all of them small homes or shops. He hobbled to the back door of the biggest one, a bright and merry light shining at the windows, and the roars and laughs of drinking men floating from inside. Someone unlatched the door and jerked it open, a woman of about thirty with divine curves and pretty, delicate white skin tossing out a bucketful of food scraps that he had to jerk to the side to dodge.
"What in the gods' names—?" the woman said, staring at him. "Joska?" Joska smiled at her somewhat weakly under his makeshift cloak, rain dripping off his hair. She scowled, folding her arms across her admirable bosom. "You're so hungry you're waiting for food scraps out in the—"
He covered her mouth. "I need a place to stay," he whispered, his dark eyes bright.
She tore his hand off her face. "The last time I gave you a room for a night you ended up in mine!" she hissed angrily.
"This time is different, I promise," he begged her.
The baby wriggled in his arms, and the barmaid looked at it sharply when she made a noise, narrowing her eyes. "Joska!" she said, looking scandalized, but he covered her mouth once more.
"I didn't steal her," he said, and when she opened her mouth he cut her off. "And I am not her father."
She narrowed her eyes suspiciously, and he slowly took his hand off her pretty lips, lifting his thick brows almost hopefully.
"Why should I give you a place to stay?"
"I can pay you for the food and the room this time, I promise," he said.
"Gypsy promises mean little," she quoted guardedly, "everyone knows it."
"Camilla," he pleaded.
"Don't you say my name like that," Camilla warned him sharply, shaking a finger in his face. He grinned, and took her hand and kissed it.
"Benirrosa," he said affectionately, "Please." He stuck out his lower lip a little, his eyes dancing.
She rolled her own eyes, and stepped aside, grabbing his arm tightly and pushing him almost immediately up the back stairs and up to a warm room. He hardly had time to pull the wet blanket from over his head before Camilla shut the door behind him, and swatted him hard on the side of the head. He let out a displeased noise.
"Joska! A baby?" she hissed, "You kidnapped a baby?!"
"I already told you," he retorted with a scowl, "I didn't steal her." He rubbed the side of his head, grimacing, "Ow."
"If you didn't take her from her poor mother, then pray tell how you came by her."
Joska laid the baby down on the bed, where she gurgled and reached after him when he let go. He shrugged off the blanket, wringing out his thick hair over the washbowl. "I found her on the river," he finally said, glancing over his shoulder, where the curvy tavernmaid gently unwrapped the blankets from around the lively little girl. "In a basket. I fished her out before she went over the falls. I wasn't so lucky," he grunted, glancing at his foot, noticing the deep yellow-brown bruise creeping across the top of it from the snakebite.
"You found her on the river?" Camilla echoed, somewhat skeptically. "Before you went over the falls."
"That's what I said, isn't it?" Joska said, glancing over his shoulder at her as he twisted rainwater from his hair into the porcelain bowl.
"I can't believe you," she said in incredulity. "You're lucky you haven't gotten yourself killed yet, with her."
"So far you are the only one who thought I kidnapped her," Joska mused, "but then again, you are one of the first to have seen her." He chuckled. "She's cute, mm?"
"She's a sweet, pretty little thing," Camilla said, picking the baby up tenderly, and then scowling at the tall Gypsy. "I can't believe you of all people took her. You can't care for a baby; you can hardly care for yourself, from what I remember. And—" She wrinkled her nose, "from what I smell."
Joska scowled at her. "Why do women tell me I do not know how to take care of a baby? I know plenty. Look there, in that skin. It's milk for her."
"I wouldn't trust a baby with you any sooner than I would trust a wolf."
"Then it is a very good thing I am not a wolf, no?" Joska said, with a hint of a grin, turning away from her.
"What will you do with her while you are robbing the populace blind?"
Joska looked over his shoulder, and gave her something of a 'look.' "I am past those days."
Camilla looked at him shrewdly, eying the shining bangles and beads on his wrists. "I doubt that." She looked back down at the baby. "And what of her?"
Joska balanced on one bare foot, lifting the other one to examine it with a hand on the wardrobe to brace himself. He glanced at the baby, brushing crumbles of mud off his foot. "What of her?" he asked.
"What will you do with her?"
Joska shrugged, wiping dirt off his face with a wet rag. "Find her mother."
"And then what?" she asked venomously, as he turned from the dresser. He grinned, their noses nearly touching.
"Rob her blind, likely," he teased, his eyes twinkling. Camilla scoffed indignantly, swatting him hard across the face, making the baby laugh wildly. Camilla cracked a hint of a smile at that, looking down at the little girl in her arms.
"She's beautiful," Camilla said almost absently, cradling the child to her breast. "Those big blue eyes."
"Like yours," Joska said, a look on his face that could only be described as a smirk.
The voluptuous woman glared at him, and set the baby down on her pile of soiled blankets on the bed. She jabbed a finger into Joska's bare collarbone, ripping the fluffy white towel from around his shoulders.
"What makes you think I'll let you stay here?"
"I couldn't go to another tavern," Joska said mildly.
She narrowed her eyes, "You haven't charmed any of the other tavern mistresses yet?"
"No," she said firmly. "The last time you spent three days here and didn't pay me so much as a chip of brass."
"I provided your taverngoers with three nights of new and exciting entertainment," Joska said, caressing his fiddle like it was a lover. She glared at it sourly.
"And picked most of their pockets while you ate and drank your fill."
Joska shrugged, nonchalantly. "I cannot say that I am not guilty of some sins."
"Some!" She cawed a harsh laugh. "Some!"
"Camilla, I need a room here," Joska said, taking her by the shoulders. "Don't think of me. Think of her." He jerked his head toward the baby on the bed, who was babbling contentedly. "Please."
She stared into his dancing brown eyes, her upper lip curled. He moved his thumb, ghosting it lightly along her shoulder against the light fabric of her sleeve, tracing some remembered path that made his eyes soften. She quickly jerked from his grasp, turning away with an indignant noise.
"Go to another tavern," she said hardly.
"Camilla, I need a room here!" Joska caught her wrist lightly, squeezing her tender, milk-white hand in both of his.
"Why?" she demanded apprehensively, blue eyes narrowed under her sheet of black hair.
Joska exhaled, dancing from foot to foot uncomfortably. Finally, he sat slowly on the bed, extending one brown hand to the baby, who caught his fingertip and sucked on one of his rings.
"There are men after her. To kill her."
"I don't believe you," Camilla said instantly. "You're lying. You got your dirty hands on something you weren't supposed to and they're out to arrest you, aren't they? Aren't they?"
Joska scowled at her, and said softly, with a snort, "For once, no." He looked to the baby.
"Why should I believe you?"
"Because I'm asking you to believe me," he said, "For her sake."
Camilla looked at the baby, and exhaled slowly, rubbing her knuckles into her temples and half-groaning. "By the gods, a hive of bees live in your stomach. Every word from your tongue is honey."
"Look at her, Camilla. They'll kill her. Those men."
Joska shrugged. "I don't know. But someone put her in that basket to save her life. I know it." His voice softened. "Those men came here tonight, didn't they? Two guards, in yellow-gold livery."
She stared at him for a long time, tight-lipped, and then said. "I should have known."
"Didn't they?" he pressed keenly, a faint, triumphant smile on his lips.
"They're men from the manor," Camilla said guardedly, "The barony. They come through every now and then—after all the mead here is good and the barony ends just outside of Farlane. At that low stone wall. You've seen it."
"From a barony," Joska scoffed. "Then what do they want with a baby?"
There was a noise in the hall. "Miss Camilla, Barnard is going out to the stores to fetch a keg, is there anything else we are running lo—oh," a girl of about eighteen said, stopping in the doorway. Her cheeks were a pretty flush, her hair the color of straw, and her bosom the likely ideal of the tavern patrons. "Oh," she repeated, her blue eyes wide in wonder, fixed on the dripping, dark-skinned young man. "You're busy."
"I'm not," Camilla grunted.
"A Gypsy?" the other girl whispered, her eyes alight at the novelty of it. "Oh, I haven't seen one in town for so long! Are you going to play for us?" She glanced at the fiddle on the bed in its case, and then to Camilla.
Joska gave the girl a flicker of a smile, raising his thick eyebrows pointedly at the dark-haired, older barmistress on his other side. Camilla looked faintly disgusted.
Joska stood immediately. "Rosalinde, is it?" he said, with a twinkle in his eyes, and he made a flourish with one hand and dipped into a low, dramatic bow, kissing her hand. The girl tittered, giggling. "I'd like the chance to play for you, if Camilla would be so kind as to give me one."
"Get off her," Camilla said crossly, grabbing the Gypsy's wrist. He grinned at her, all of it teasing.
"Are you any good?" Rosalinde asked. Camilla made a noise in her throat.
"Oh, Camilla, let him stay!" Rosalinde simpered, pouting, tugging on the dark-haired woman's sleeve. "Please?"
"It's busy downstairs," Camilla said, almost sharply, pointing to the door. Rosalinde nodded, but smiled as widely as if her father had just given her a fat white pony to ride, trotting to the door with a last look at Joska, shutting it behind herself.
"Pretty girl," Joska said absently, sitting back down, grinning at the baby.
"Sweet girl," Camilla corrected sharply. "But not an ounce of brains in the poor thing."
"I thought she had a fine idea." Joska teased, with a lean smile, tearing his eyes from hers. He picked up the baby playfully, cooing to her. "Didn't you, bendita?"
"Ideas like that are why she serves the food and clears the tables," Camilla said, "and I run the place."
"Then you're turning me and the baby out?" Joska asked, looking extremely put-out.
Camilla let out an agonized sort of sigh, pulling at her eyelids and rubbing her temples. "You can stay. But—" she cut him off as he opened his mouth, and he shut it again, looking quite baffled, "not in a room. You can take a bath in my room and then sleep on the cot in the garret. And you will pay for your accommodations."
"The garret?" he said, with a snort.
"It's there, or outside," Camilla said simply.
"If it wasn't raining," Joska muttered, receiving a conk on the head for it. He grunted his displeasure, rubbing his pate. "What about her?" He jerked his head toward the baby wriggling under the blankets, gurgling expectantly, reaching up and grasping at the air.
"There are clean blankets in the cupboard in my rooms," Camilla said, then added venemously. "You remember where they are, don't you?"
"I remember," Joska said mildly.
"Take a bath," she told him, wrinkling her nose, as Joska picked up the baby and his rucksack, and the towel he had used to dry himself off. "I'll have some of the girls look after her in turns until you're done."
"With soap," she added, as he slung it over his shoulder.
"With soap," he said, smiling to himself as he turned his back.
"And so help me, if I find anything missing—"
"I won't touch any of your things," he said, with a laugh, going upstairs two flights to the private floor, and finding the door at the end of the hall. He glanced over his shoulder, and saw her standing at the foot of the stairs.
"What?" he said, his face softening slightly, though the teasing smile remained upon his lips.
"I mean it," she said, brandishing a finger, "If you touch anything—"
He shook his head, and opened the door, wrapping the baby in a new set of fresh mint-green blankets from the cupboard. He took her back downstairs, and handed her to the black-haired barmaid, who took the baby tenderly.
"Mind her head," she snapped quietly, her eyes on the baby's face the whole time.
"Camilla," he said.
She glanced up at him, lifting her eyebrows with a huff of exasperation. "What now?"
He smiled. "Thank you." He leaned forward, put a hand lightly against her silky hair and kissed her forehead so lightly it was chaste.
"You stink," she told him, shooing him to the bath, though she would not meet his eyes. She turned and whisked the baby away, and he went upstairs, smiling to himself as he stripped his soaked clothes. He filled the porcelain basin and slowly sank into the steaming water.
He submerged his ears and let his heart pound in his head, basking in the warmth, and setting himself to thinking of all the reasons in the world a baron would want a baby dead. Instead, he found himself thinking only of Camilla.
Author's Note: "Djelem Djelem" is a traditional Romany gypsy song popularized through the music of many Romany artists in Europe. The verse Joska sings at the beginning of the chapter is the first verse of the song, and here is the rough translation, if you would like to know.
"I have travelled over long roads I have met fortunate Tzigane. I have travelled far and wide I have met lucky Roma." Of course, this is a translation to the best of my knowlege and with my own research. Hopefully it is correct, if anyone knows otherwise please let me know. It is a very beautiful song, and if you ever get the chance to hear it, it's great. :D
"I have travelled over long roads
I have met fortunate Tzigane.
I have travelled far and wide
I have met lucky Roma."
Of course, this is a translation to the best of my knowlege and with my own research. Hopefully it is correct, if anyone knows otherwise please let me know. It is a very beautiful song, and if you ever get the chance to hear it, it's great. :D