Chapter 12
The Waif

Near Gypsy Woods, Byrn; Anno Regis 1275

"The reckless restlessness of youth was never the reason for my actions, but I have seen it in others. Young people are eager to pull up their roots. When those roots are shallow, it becomes all the easier to do."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

With the relentless pace Catherine had set for them, the group reached the forest in a mere three days. Ignatiy complained every step of the way, but Catherine never let up. Mark kept his own complaints to himself, even though he knew it was a wasted effort to keep anything from piercing gaze of Catherine's mind's eye. He imagined the same was true for Olofer and hoped things would improve now that they had reached the first milestone of their journey.
At first glance, the forest seemed rather foreboding, perfect for the unpopular Roma who inhabited it. The true numbers of the Roma in Byrn were unknown since only small groups would ever venture into the towns at any given time. Mark could never understand the resentment people held for the Roma. As he saw it, the behavior that earned so much contempt was perpetuated if not caused by their ostracism from regular society. He wondered if the exclusivity of their culture was the root of the tensions or simply a way to make it more palatable. Whatever the case may be, his ponderings were cut short as they reached a clearing.
Standing in the center of the clearing was a boy clad in the colorful garb of a Rom: a striped bandanna around his forehead, a high-collared shirt worn under a tight vest, a scarlet sash binding loose trousers and short boots that barely extended above the ankles. And though he was dressed as a Rom, he did not look like any Rom Mark had ever seen before. Both his skin and hair were far too light for a pureblood, though intermarriage was rumored to occur in spite of cultural taboos on both sides.
Putting a flute to his lips, the boy played a few notes as a gentle breeze swept through the trees. When he stopped, he nimbly twirled the flute between his fingers and thrust it into the sash around his waist. A quarterstaff appeared from behind him as if by magic, landing in his open palm. He spun the staff with a flourish, keeping the rest of his body as still as a statue.
"Who do you gadje think you are, trespassing in our woods?" he asked. The whole time he had not made eye contact with them.
Before they could answer, he assumed a fighting stance, snapping his head toward the group. His eyes locked on Mark and he charged forward with a shout. Mark barely parried the first strike with the draw of his blade. The boy followed with two quick hits to Mark's wrist, causing him to drop his sword. The boy struck Mark's ribs on both sides and gave a powerful thrust to the abdomen that brought the young swordsman to his knees. Before the boy could hit Mark again, he was forced to block a swipe from Olofer's crook and countered with a kick to the chin that knocked the shepherd off his feet.
Just as he was about to turn his attention to Ignatiy, he froze. His arms were pinned to his sides as if a giant hand was crushing him. He opened his mouth to cry out, but no sound escaped. Recovering from the boy's attacks, Mark turned to see Catherine with her hand outstretched toward the young Rom. Even though it seemed as if the very breath had been forced from his lungs, the boy somehow managed to utter a single word.
"Cho... chovexani..."
Catherine smiled slyly.
"Yes, you may think of me as a witch for now," she said. "It will help you understand that I am no one to trifle with."
She lowered her hand and the boy fell to the ground, his body as limp as a rag. Looking over to Mark and Olofer, her face betrayed no small measure of disappointment.
"I apologize for not intervening sooner," she said. "I thought you would fare better than you did, but I guess he would not be useful to us if he could be beaten so easily. Give him a few more moments to recover and then we can talk business."
As the boy's breathing became less labored, he made a move for his staff. Before he could grab it, the staff flew to Catherine's waiting hand.
"You will not need this right now," she said calmly. "Of course, you are dangerous enough unarmed, are you not? I know who you are, but for the sake of the others, please introduce yourself."
The boy was hesitant, but did not dare to challenge Catherine after her display of power. He sat upright but did not stand.
"You can call me Stefan," he said.
"I am Catherine, daughter of Lord Fyodor of Fiora," the psychic said with a slight curtsy. She gestured to the others. "The swordsman is Mark, the shepherd is Olofer, and the wild one is Ignatiy." Her expression became grave. "Surely you have heard of the recent abuses of the Dragon Guard. The problem is getting worse. A great shadow threatens to overrun this kingdom. I believe you can help us fight it. Come with us."
"What difference does it make?" the boy retorted. "It would serve you gadje right to creep about on the fringes like my people."
""Do not think the Gypsies will escape the fate that has been laid out for all of Byrn," Catherine replied bluntly. "At any rate, they are not your people, Stefan, and you know it. Think on it well... How many places have you called home? How many people have you called family?"
She crouched in front of him and reached out to touch his cheek. He recoiled slightly, but she did not withdraw her hand. Instead, her expression softened in sympathy for him.
"You have wandered too long. I am offering you a direction, a place to belong. I am offering you the focus you seek. Join us."
Stefan stared at her with a mix of emotions. She smiled at him.
"I see. You want us to prove our sincerity." She rose and turned to Mark. "Mark, I want you to spar with Stefan again. Try not to get carried away, though."
She tossed the quarterstaff back to Stefan and stepped out of the way. Mark would have protested if he did not already know it was a wasted effort. The places Stefan had struck earlier were beginning to throb. It would not make the fight any easier. Standing only a few paces apart, they both went into their fighting stances.
"Your reflexes are good," Stefan said, "but you're no match for me, gadjo! If you don't come at me, I'll come to you!"
Stefan clearly had no intention of waiting. He charged forward right off, but Mark was far more prepared this time and was narrowly meeting each of Stefan's blows. Not wanting to hurt his opponent, Mark's abilities were being taxed to the limit just to parry the attacks. The lack of offense on his part clearly annoyed the young Romany fighter.
"You can't win by just defending!" Stefan shouted angrily. "Attack me!"
It was not that Mark did not want to retaliate and bring the match to a swift conclusion, but Stefan's speed left little opening for any offensive tactics. As Mark caught the staff with his crossguard, Stefan shot his foot at Mark's head. Before the kick could connect, Mark felt his head pulled back to dodge the strike and his foot thrust at the leg Stefan was balancing on. The blow caused Stefan fall on his back. As he was about to spring back to his feet, Mark's sword was thrust at his throat. Thanks to his quick reflexes, Stefan's body froze as the point stopped a hairsbreadth from his Adam's apple. His gaze was as fixed on Mark and the blade at his throat, his eyes straying only briefly to glance at Catherine.
"You win, chovexani," he growled. "Whether you lead me to heaven or hell, I'll follow."
Mark sheathed his sword, trying hard to mask his confusion. He looked at Catherine, who only smiled.
I know you have your warrior's pride, but I could not afford to let him beat you. I will try not to interfere in the future.
Mark did not say anything, lest Stefan change his mind, and as Catherine walked away, they all followed her lead. As they were walking, Mark noticed that Stefan seemed particularly ill at ease. It was true that he had been a total stranger only moments before, but it seemed like something else was troubling him. Still walking forward, not even bothering to turn around, Catherine spoke to him.
"I realize it is uncomfortable for you, Stefan," she said, "but you will have to get used to me walking in front of the group. I know where we are going, so I will be leading. You are going be in the company of gadje far too long to escape condemnation from your fellows, so any marimé I impart is inconsequential. I will try to be as accommodating as I can, but our time is short and we can afford few luxuries."
Stefan cursed under his breath. It was then that Mark realized what Stefan had done when he agreed to join them. The Roma consider interaction with the gadje, the non-Roma, to be unclean and it tainted the ritual purity they valued so highly. For traveling in their company for the length of the journey, Stefan would be considered so polluted by the other Roma that he would likely be banished from the tribe. He had given up everything he knew. Mark could not help marveling at the sacrifice his new comrade had made to rid the kingdom of the evil that plagued it.
When they set up camp for the night, Catherine explained the situation fully to Stefan. She told him about Kyrios and his ambitions. She told him about her father's murder, her capture and detention in Dragova. She told him about Mark, the attack on his uncle, and his capture of Ignatiy. Lastly, she told him about the daring rescue staged by Mark and Ignatiy, meeting Olofer, and what lay in store for them.
It was a lot to take in and Stefan took his time. He played on his flute as he mulled over the story. It was a peculiar tune and the campfire seemed to dance to each note. A fair amount of time passed before Stefan stopped playing and lowered his flute to speak.
"Let me get this straight, this sorcerer is trying to take over the kingdom and he's bewitched the whole Dragon Guard, right?"
"Not all of it," Catherine replied. "Kyrios controls the main regiments and probably the Palace Guard, but the local garrisons and the border posts are not yet fully under his control. However, he is quickly consolidating his power base and soon his agents will be everywhere."
"I've heard about strange happenings on the outside," Stefan said. "The Roma who go out among the gadje have been staying in the village lately. They say it's too dangerous. If what you're telling me is true, things will only get worse. It's only a matter of time."
Mark looked to Catherine. "How long do we have?" he asked.
"A few weeks," she said tentatively, "maybe a month. I cannot say for certain."
"You're a big help," Ignatiy scoffed.
"That attitude does not help anyone," Catherine scolded. "I have already apologized for how I treated you earlier. What more can I do?"
Leering at her, Ignatiy replied, "You're a mind reader. You tell me."
Frankly, it did not take a mind reader to tell what the firebug was thinking, but no girlish blush colored Catherine's cheeks. She only stared at him blankly.
"Stefan," she said, "would you be so kind as to hit him for me?"
Without question, the Romany fighter gave Ignatiy a quick cuff to the head.
"Owww!" Ignatiy whined. "What'd you do that for?"
"I haven't even known you for half a day," Stefan said, "and already I want to tear off your arm and beat you with it. I figure the chovexani's within her rights."
"This isn't the time to be fighting amongst ourselves," Mark said.
"You are right, Mark," Catherine said with a mildly conciliatory tone. "The odds are stacked against us quite a bit and though we have not known each other long, we must learn to work as a team. It is another reason I am taking us the long way to Sagia."
"I get why we're going the long way around," Stefan said, "but you still haven't told me exactly why we're going to Sagia. What good are a bunch of bookworms against a guy with the whole Dragon Guard at his beck and call?"
Catherine replied, "As it stands, we do not have the power to defeat Kyrios. There is something we need to find first, something essential. I do not know exactly what it is, but in Sagia we will find the one who will lead us on the right path. I have seen that much."
Stefan cocked his head. "So you're like a fortune teller?"
"Hardly," the psychic replied disdainfully. "Fortune tellers are all charlatans, especially the Gypsy ones. Their only ability is to con foolish gadje out of their money. Unlike them, my powers are genuine. However, when it comes to far-seeing, I cannot see very far into the future and the visions are often fragmentary."
"Not good for much, are you?" Ignatiy jeered.
Without being asked, Stefan gave him another blow upside the head. Mark knew he had to intervene before things got any worse.
"This has to stop," the young swordsman said. "Stefan, stop hitting Ignatiy. It won't fix anything. And, Ignatiy, do you really have to antagonize Catherine like this? Yes, she's pushing us to our limits and she hasn't been especially tactful, but she's trying to do what's right for everyone, you, me, the whole kingdom."
"What do I care about this kingdom?" Ignatiy scoffed. He pointed an accusing finger at Mark. "You, you got me into this mess. I'm only trying to save my hide and she's gonna throw us at this sorcerer, if he even exists. If you ask me, she's just out to avenge her old man and she's using us to do it."
"That is not fair," Catherine protested. "Kyrios may be responsible for my father's murder, but that is not the reason I am fighting him. If Kyrios' ambitions are realized, no corner of this kingdom will be safe. Who knows how far his power will spread? You will have nowhere to hide, even if you flee to another kingdom. There is still some hope for victory if we act now, united as one."
Ignatiy did not back down. "What do you think we can do!? Look at us! A blueblood fortune teller, a skinny kid who thinks he's a knight, a deaf and dumb shepherd, a scrappy flute-playing Gypsy, and me. Just one soldier could whip the lot of us and that'd be that."
"Not true," Catherine argued. "Mark alone can best at least three at a time, Stefan is at least as good himself and Olofer is not far behind. I am not exactly helpless in combat either and though you are not much of a fighter, your true worth will be revealed in due course."
"It stinks," Ignatiy grumbled. "It stinks to high heaven."
Exasperated with his incessant whining, Mark told him, "No one's keeping you here. If you want to go, go. There's no point in you going another step if you don't want to. So what's it going to be?"
Ignatiy fell silent. Catherine saw through him long ago. He could not bring himself to leave, no matter how dire the situation appeared.
"So Catherine was right about you all along," Mark said. "Look, you're not the only one having a hard time of it. Catherine and Olofer have lost everything and Stefan gave it all up the moment he agreed to come with us. I know it seems impossible, what we're up against, but at least there's some hope if we stick together."
Ignatiy sighed. "I guess I don't have any choice."
"You do have a choice," Catherine said, "and you have already made it. All that is left for you is to accept that decision."
Ignatiy said nothing. Unwilling to deal with the situation anymore, he flopped on the ground and rolled away from the others.
"I'm going to sleep," he said. "Don't wake me up too early."
"We should all be getting some sleep," Mark said, once again trying to defuse any tension in the group by putting off any further argument.
"Are you daft?" Stefan asked, looking rather critical. "If we've got people coming after us, we need a watch."
"I am alert to any presence," Catherine asserted. "A watch is not necessary."
"No offense, chovexani," Stefan said, "but I'm not about to rely on nothing but your witchery. We'll switch watchmen every two hours." He kicked Ignatiy. "And I better not find anyone falling asleep on their shift. I may be caught up in this little adventure, but I'm not going to die because one of you gets sloppy. That understood?"
A silent assent was all Stefan got. The fighter was every bit as skeptical as Ignatiy of both Catherine and the venture itself, and while he did not complain as much, this episode was showing signs of a fairly short temper and an imperious streak to boot. Whether it was Fate, Providence or nothing more than Catherine's design, the group was not exactly an assembly of complementary personalities. The prospect of them fighting 'united as one', as Catherine put it, appeared rather remote.
Abashed that the thought had not occurred to him in spite of all his training, Mark volunteered himself for the first watch. He kept the fire low to avoid attracting attention and wrote in his journal to pass the time, keeping his ears pricked for any suspicious noises. While he was writing, Catherine spoke to his mind.
You do not need to be quite so anxious, Mark. I am fully capable of sensing any danger.
"I need to do my part," Mark said. "We shouldn't put all the burden on you."
You do not yet trust me fully.
"It's not that..."
It is, but only partly. I know you want to believe me, more so than Stefan and Ignatiy.
"If I can't trust my companions, I need to find new friends."
Quite so. I want you to know that I appreciate how hard you are working to keep the group together.
"We don't stand a chance against Kyrios otherwise, right?"
Precisely. It may seem impossible now, but soon we will all learn to work together. I will continue my meditations and perhaps I can learn more of what the future holds for us.
Mark put down his pen and closed his journal. "What do you see when you look into the future?" he asked.
Images mostly, jumbled scenes, scraps of dialog. There is only one future, but until it comes to pass, there are infinite possibilities that flood the visions of diviners and prescients like myself. It is all too easy to get lost in that flood. It is why I must be careful.
"Is it really that dangerous? How do you manage?"
With training, and prudence. I will show you sometime, but not now. You are not yet ready. Your thoughts are in disarray. Once you have adjusted to our circumstances, your mind will be strong enough for the journey.
"Speaking of a journey, you should probably rest while you can. Really rest, I mean. Ignatiy may complain the most about the pace you set for us, but something tells me it's hardest on you. You weren't exactly well-treated in Dragova and I don't think you've recovered all your strength yet."
I appreciate your concern, but you worry too much. It is true that I have not truly slept for a long time, but with you watching over me, I think I can allow myself that luxury. Good night, Mark.
Mark could feel himself blush. "Good night," he mumbled.