Rome, Margaret - The Bartered Bride

September 17, 2017 | Author: anukie_swt16 | Category: Romani People
Share Embed Donate

Short Description

mills and boons...



As if she were involved in a miming play, Marielle watched the two groups clowning and bargaining --gold coins being offered, scorned, accepted.... Only afterward did she learn that she had participated in a Romany wedding. Now, Marielle Moore was a Romany wife obliged to obey her husband--Rom Boro, leader of the gypsy tribe in all things. "I will not tolerate being bought like an article across a shop counter," she declared angrily. But after all, what could she do? Her life depended on Rom!

CHAPTER ONE MARIELLE came to a standstill on an island, cut adrift by a surge of hooting, impatient traffic, and gazed upwards at the tall surrounding buildings. So this was Warsaw: the city she had reached by taking such a great risk that even now her nerves reacted with a leap whenever she allowed herself to dwell upon the possible consequences! It had seemed a harmless enough deception at the time. Sharon, her room-mate and closest friend, had landed a job with a troupe of girl dancers booked to appear in nightclubs all over Europe. Marielle, an accomplished dancer herself, had arrived too late for the audition and not even her explanation of how a series of mishaps had caused her to be delayed could alter the fact that all vacancies had been filled and the management were no longer interested in interviewing applicants - however eager their desire to visit Europe. Then, only twenty-four hours before she was due to leave, Sharon had slipped on a greasy patch of road and had fallen heavily, breaking numerous bones in her ankle. Her woebegone face had lightened only fractionally when Marielle had turned up at the hospital carrying a holdall containing everything her friend would be likely to need during what she had been assured was to be a prolonged stay. "Who on earth will they get to take my place at such short notice?" Sharon had wailed, her pain momentarily submerged by worry. "They'll find someone," Marielle had assured her. "Accidents happen - to dancers even oftener than to most, or so it sometimes seems. Keep calm, my dear, they're sure to have a substitute on their books." She had tried to steer Sharon's mind away from the problem by changing the subject, but her friend's brow had remained worryridden even as she had answered absentmindedly Marielle's enquiries about the accident.

"Why don't you take my place?" Sharon had burst out impulsively, interrupting Marielle's given opinion of people whose cars were allowed to spew oil on to the roadway, thereby adding yet another hazard to the pedestrian's lot. Marielle's mouth had frozen open with surprise, but the ensuing silence had teemed with questions. "How can I ...?" she had finally stammered, her eyes begging to be told how the unattainable could be reached. "Easily!" Sharon had jerked upright, then winced when made painfully aware of the need for caution. "Madame Glory, who's to be in charge of the troupe, knows us both well, but you recall how vague she can be about names and faces - often when we've worked with her in the past she's mistaken me for you and vice versa, so it would require no effort at all to deceive the old dear." Marielle had nodded thoughtful agreement, but her expression had been unsure when she had objected, "But there's Anthony James, he'll recognize me as a stranger to the troupe!" "Him!" Contemptuously, Sharon had dismissed her boss. "He's purely and simply a leg man! Although he did the auditioning and had the last say about who was to be signed up he wouldn't recognize one of his girls above thigh level." They had both collapsed into giggles at this indictment of the man noted for his predilection for long limbs, and for seconds afterwards the girls had been incapable of serious thought. Only lovely, long-legged English blondes, the impresario had often been heard to say, were acceptable as members of his troupe. Known all over Europe as the Rose Garland - a title the girls disliked - they were expected to live up to their title by appearing each night fresh, dewy-eyed and dawn-sweet however overheated the nightclub or arduous the engagement. Their laughter had faded, together with rising hope, when Marielle had remembered, "I've no passport!" They both engaged in silent,

furious thought. It seemed such a small detail - a passport - easily enough obtained if only one had the time. But there was no time. With a defiance Marielle found infectious, Sharon had snapped her fingers and ordered, "That to red tape! Use my passport, we're enough alike to be able to share that dreadful photograph and Madame Glory can be nudged into introducing you as Sharon Shane. Do it! I dare you! For years you've maintained that you'd give anything for a chance to visit your aunt in Warsaw ...!" So here she was in the city her mother, by way of description and tender insight, had taught her to love. As a child she had been an eager companion on her mother's retrospective visits back to the large house in the square where she had shared an enjoyable childhood with her parents and her baby sister Sophie, who, her mother had laughingly affirmed, had been a child of almost unmanageable spiritedness, the alternate despair and pride of her long-suffering family ... As Marielle wandered across the street, only half mindful of the traffic, her mother's beloved features were recalled to mind. Even now, six months after her mother's death, Marielle felt barely able to accept that she would never again hear that gently-accented voice sharing bitter sweet memories of the city she had loved, and of Marielle's father, the man she had adored from their first moment of meeting. It had been an instant attraction, accelerated by the onset of war. As a young man, Charles Moore had studied law at university in England. A scholarship had enabled him to continue his studies in Europe, and as he had been particularly interested in the Polish legal structure he had decided to spend the whole of his allotted time in Warsaw. Upon arrival, he had been introduced almost immediately to Eva, the girl who was to become his wife, and for six wonderful months their love had blossomed in the city that rang with the romantic melodies of Chopin, the very essence of poetry imbued in the music of its greatest son. Then, with dreadful suddenness, Poland had been invaded. Charles had swept aside Eva's doubts about her ability to cope in a

strange land and her misgivings about leaving her family. His duty was to his country, he had insisted, as hers was to him, to be near him to offer the comfort and love essential to a man at war. Somehow Marielle had never learned how - they had both escaped to England where Charles had enlisted in the Air Force. Their marriage, short but infinitely happy, had ended a year later when he was killed in action, leaving his young widow alone in a strange country with an infant daughter whose need for attention was the one factor that had helped her to remain sane... Marielle was brought suddenly to earth by the blaring horn of an irate motorist. Her footsteps quickened, obeying his furious signal to remove herself from his path, and as she stumbled on to the pavement she experienced sudden disappointment. Did nothing remain of the mysterious city her parents had loved? It seemed the only music remaining was the beat of footsteps treading hard pavements, the nearest thing to poetry the rhyming headlines upon a tattered hoarding - in fact, the greatest mystery was that there was no mystery at all! She shrugged, and glanced at the paper she was clutching. At least she had her aunt's address and according to directions she had been given the place was within ten minutes' walking distance, so she would have no need to deplete her scant resources with the expense of a taxi fare. She was surprised to find that the address she had been given was that of a factory. She swung through the gates, dodging between groups of women hurrying towards a canteen, until she caught sight of an office which suggested itself as a reception centre. She walked in, clutching the scrap of paper as if it were an official pass, and waited to be noticed. "Might I be of assistance?" a young man queried in Polish, eyeing her with a glint of interest.

"If you would," she replied, blessing her mother's foresight in insisting upon her learning to speak the language fluently. "I am anxious to contact my aunt, Sophie Barewska, and I was given this address. Perhaps, if she works here, you could find out for me what time she is due to finish and I'll wait for her outside?" The young man's mouth twitched, but his voice was controlled when he informed her, "That will not be necessary, your aunt is one of our directors and she would be most annoyed if her niece were to be left to loiter outside. If you'll follow me I'll take you up to her office." In open-mouthed silence she followed him up a flight of stairs; her mother's description had prepared her up to a point to expect a livewire, but to picture any sister of her gentle, pliable mother as a captain of industry was an impossibility! She clutched at her reeling senses and requested, even as his hand hovered over the knob of the door, "Please don't announce me, I'd like my visit to be a surprise." With typical Polish charm, he clicked his heels and bowed. "As you wish," he smiled, showing unexpected understanding. She waited until he reached the bottom of the stairs before knocking on the glasspartitioned door leading into the office. When she was bidden to enter she stepped inside, closing the door carefully behind her. A woman was seated at a large desk immersed in business papers and as she did not look up immediately Marielle waited, her hands clenched tightly, until she should be noticed. Curiously she studied her aunt, trying to trace some resemblance to her own fragile, wistful-eyed mother in the competent, smartly dressed woman who was her sister. But never in a lifetime could her mother have coped with the job her aunt was carrying out with such seeming efficiency; incredibly, she .suited the position of manager of industry better than many men could ever have hoped to do.

She started when her aunt's amused voice reached through her absorption. "Well, now that you have examined me thoroughly, perhaps you will state your business?" She stood up to walk around to the front of the desk, perching on one corner while she sought a light for her cigarette. Her dress of grey wool reached to the top of black knee-high boots of supple leather. A wide scarlet belt nipped her waist and matched perfectly the silk scarf knotted under her collar with clever effect. Sartorially perfect, she reflected a sophisticated femininity which her success as a business woman detracted from in no way. Now that the moment for introduction had arrived Marielle found speech almost impossible. She cleared her throat when her aunt frowned, then managed to stammer, "I ... I'm your niece from England... Marielle Moore. I wrote to you when my mother died, but you didn't reply..." It was her aunt's turn to become lost for words. Surprise, disbelief, incredulity were all visible as Marielle waited anxiously for her final reaction. It came suddenly, a deep sigh of emotion, together with the reaching out of arms to offer an eager, involuntary embrace. "Eva's child! My darling sister's baby ...!" Marielle ran willingly into the arms held out to her and for several laughing, crying, incoherent minutes they were bound by ties of family love. Sophie's mask of sophistication had disappeared completely when she held Marielle at arm's length to devour her features, searching for a resemblance to the elder sister she had adored. "Yes, I see her," she murmured, "you have inherited from her your silver pale hair and wondering grey eyes, also your fine cameo profile - even in build you are as delicately graceful. However," she tipped her chin with a gentle finger, "I detect in that mouth a hint of stubbornness that must come from your father. Only a man of his strength of will could have succeeded in prising my dear sister away from everything familiar and well- loved to face life in a strange land."

"They were very much in love," Marielle told her, the sudden hardness of her aunt's tone putting her on the defensive. "Of course they were," Sophie answered a shade too quickly, "everyone knew they were right for each other. Their love was a beacon that shone through the darkness of those desperate days and cast a glow over everyone around them. That is why everyone was so eager to help them escape - in some strange way it was as if they took a small part of those that were left with them into freedom, and when the news of their safe arrival in England filtered back a celebration was held that puzzled the Germans so much they were running around in circles trying to find out the cause." She laughed aloud at the memory and Marielle joined in, but the lump in her throat sabotaged her effort and the laughter came out sounding unsure, traced through with puzzlement. Her aunt's manner was pleasant, but forced, as if the memories she had resurrected were not wholly happy. "Why didn't you answer my letter, Aunt Sophie? I wrote to you immediately after my mother's death because I knew she would have wished it. Naturally, when I received no reply I began to worry - so many things could have happened to prevent its reaching you - a change of address, perhaps, or even being lost en route - I couldn't bear the idea of the only remaining member of my mother's family being left in ignorance of her death, that's why I came in person to find out if you knew." Sophie's hands were trembling as she reached for a second cigarette and she used the pretext of fumbling for her lighter as an excuse not to meet Marielle's questioning eyes. The stream of smoke she projected did not quite screen her uneasy, shame-shaded expression. "I'm sorry," she jerked out apologetically, "it was remiss of me not to answer by return of post - I meant to, really I did - but the news when first it came upset me so much that for days I could not go beyond recalling all the little things I remembered about her, the way her

eyes lit up when she smiled, her impish sense of humour and the gentle concern she showed for those in trouble ... I had barely reached adolescence when she left for England, but the bond of affection between us was so strong the news of her death shocked me dreadfully." Marielle's mouth trembled with compassion. She would have accepted her aunt's explanation without the need of further words, but Sophie, it seemed, had decided she must say more. Colour stained her cheeks as she forced herself to be candid with the girl whose misty grey eyes could have belonged to the sister who, in the past, had never been satisfied with less than the truth. She stumbled, lowvoiced, over words as with a sweep of downcast lashes she confessed, "Deep down, I resented what I then regarded was your father's high-handed kidnapping of my sister. There were times when I blamed him bitterly for the loneliness and despair she suffered, so much so that even after his death I hated his memory ..." A hurt gasp from Marielle brought the desperate admission. "I was wrong, I know that now! After the war Eva could have returned to Warsaw, but she refused, saying that in England she found solace in the home they had once shared. Only then did I begin vaguely to realize the extent of their love for each other!" Marielle backed away, her eyes wide with hurt as she accused, "You were jealous! You didn't bother to write to me because you felt I, too, had usurped your place in my mother's affections! For years I've longed to meet you, even more so since my mother died because I foolishly thought your presence might help ease the pain of her loss, but now ...!" She swallowed further accusation and swung towards the door, only to halt on the. threshold as her aunt pleaded, "I deserve to be despised, Marielle, everything you've said I admit to, but," tears chased fluidly through her words, "I'm so sorry, please believe that and try to forgive me!"

She would not have been her mother's daughter if she had not responded to such a cry from the heart. Her aunt's willingness to ignore her existence had hurt badly, but she herself was too conscious of being alone to dismiss lightly the underlying need to be loved her aunt had just betrayed. She had shown herself to be possessive beyond reason, a martyr to jealousy and to an overwhelming desire to have undisputed rights over the affections of those she loved. But now she had no one left to love ... and probably no one to love her! Slowly Marielle withdrew from the door and turned to face her aunt, then with a cry of forgiveness she rushed into her waiting arms.

CHAPTER TWO THE club where the Rose Garland troupe was due to open had an unpretentious, slightly tawdry look in the harsh light of day, but Marielle hardly noticed its depressing frontage as she hurried towards the back entrance, the fact that she was late for rehearsal uppermost in her mind. Madame Glory, although vague in some matters, was a martinet when it came to work, and excuses for late arrival were invariably met with grim displeasure and in some cases even with a fine. Luckily, they were not due to appear until the following night, so this evening the girls were to be allowed to do as they wished - within reason - and although Madame Glory had hinted at the benefits to be derived from ail early night most of them were determined to catch the farewell performance of the star whose act had been drawing capacity audiences for the previous six weeks. The dressing-room was empty when she reached it, and the sound of a piano thumping from the direction of the stage confirmed her fear that rehearsal had started without her. Swiftly she flung off her outdoor clothes, but even as she shrugged into her leotard a puzzled frown marred her forehead. She and her aunt still had much to discuss and many years of memories to breach; why then, instead of the cosy tête-à-tête she had suggested, should her aunt have been so insistent upon spending the evening here at the club? "Ah, so you have finally decided to honour us with your presence!" Marielle jumped with shock when the door crashed open, revealing Madame's angry figure quivering on the threshold. Hastily, she apologized, "I'm truly sorry, Madame, I did try to be on time, but I took a wrong turning and became completely lost. It won't happen again, I promise, and," she began to coax, "I am only a very few minutes late..."

She heaved a silent sigh of relief when she sensed a softening of the old lady's demeanour. In her youth Madame Glory had herself been a member of an international dancing troupe, so she was no stranger to the fascination strange new cities held for the novice traveller and luckily her sense of youthful adventure had not diminished with age. "Very well, Sharon, I will excuse you this once, but it must not happen again, do you understand?" Shamefaced, Marielle nodded. As always, when addressed as Sharon, she squirmed inwardly. The deceit she was having to practise upon her kindly gaoler was abhorrent to her nature, resulting in her experiencing a sense of guilt that made her determined to work herself to a standstill in order to appease her troublesome conscience. Rehearsals lasted all afternoon. Madame Glory was in a finicky, dissatisfied mood so that by the time she had dismissed the troupe the girls were exhausted, desiring only to reach their rooms in a nearby hotel to relieve their aching feet before venturing out on the night's activities. Marielle was fortunate, most of the girls were having to share, but she had a small room to herself and as she kicked off her shoes and relaxed upon the bed she felt more than usually gratified by the absence of a chattering companion. She needed to think, so many questions were revolving around her mind and they needed to be mentally tabulated so that she might present them to her aunt in order of importance ... She awoke with a start, alerted by the dusk-shad- owed room to the fact that she had overslept. A quick glance at her watch confirmed that she had left herself a mere twenty minutes in which to get ready, so with a speed that owed much to rigorous training and to the expertise of quick costume changes demanded by her job, she ran to turn on the shower, whipped underwear from a drawer, and began pinning up her hair under a shower cap while she searched her wardrobe for a hasty choice of outfit. She arrived at the club with seconds to spare, looking immaculately groomed in a slim-fitting

blue trouser suit with matching blouse, her blonde hair brushed to the sheen of satin and swinging with deliberately planned casualness across her shoulders. Her aunt's car drew up just as she reached the front entrance, so together they descended the flight of stone steps leading into a large converted cellar. As they entered, they flinched from the noise rising from packed tables crammed around a tiny dance floor. Vivid eye-catching murals spread themselves over four walls and trails of greenery garlanded the ruby and emerald wine bottles hung strategically to catch sparkles of light spinning from a revolving witch-ball in the centre of the ceiling. Dexterous waiters were scurrying between the tables where guests, their eyes glued to the deserted dance floor, were being served enough drinks to last out a siege. Music played in the background, but desultorily, the muted sound in keeping with the air of expectancy hanging over the waiting crowd. An unseen hand extinguished the lights, leaving only a spotlit circle in the centre of the floor. The crowd hushed to silence, then burst into hysterical applause when a man's figure detached itself from the shadows to enter the illuminated circle. There were no seats unoccupied, and all available standing room was thronged to capacity, so Marielle and her aunt were fortunate to be allowed to squeeze to the front of the outer circle of spectators. But even from such a distance Marielle felt the force of the man's personality. From the crown of his ebony head, from every lean brown sinew, he oozed untamed, barbaric appeal. Impervious to the battery of eyes feasting upon his every movement, he hooked forward a stool, placed one foot upon its surface, then rested his elbow on his raised knee. Casually he plucked the strings of a guitar anchored around his neck by a strap of vivid red suede. The same striking colour was taken up by the gypsy diklo encircling

his strong throat. He wore a white silk shirt with voluminous sleeves caught tightly at the wrists, with a neckline plunging in a deep vee down to the red cummerbund clasping his waist. Tight black trousers completed an outfit which on any other man would have looked theatrical - he looked magnificently untrammelled, a proud, fullblooded Romany. His lean fingers ripped a crescendo of notes from taut strings, then, after a probing, slightly cynical glance around his rapt audience, he launched into a melody so tempestuously beautiful it scarred the emotions. For thirty unforgettable minutes he pandered to their demands, moving his female listeners to nostalgic tears with his rendering of hauntingly sweet love- songs, then sending the blood coursing through the veins of their companions with stirring compositions recalling deeds of strength, passion and glory. Just when emotion was at its height, he snatched the fruits of pleasure from their lips by scything to an abrupt finish and melting silently into the shadowed background. Like hounds deprived of prey, the audience rose to its feet demanding more and went wild with delight when eventually he reappeared. He waited, one eyebrow raised, a quirk playing around his lips, until silence reigned, then he bowed once from the waist and made his adieux in Romany: "Akana mukav tut le Devlesa - I now leave you to God." It was many minutes before the thunder of applause died sufficiently to allow speech. Marielle waited, questions burning her tongue, the grip on her emotions so tight she sounded breathless when she appealed: "Aunt Sophie, who is he?" Her aunt smiled. "His name is Rom Boro - an international star of cabaret known and loved by millions all over Europe." Marielle's brow furrowed. "Then why have I never heard of him? London is surely a Mecca for talent such as his, but to the best of my knowledge he has never appeared there."

"Nor will he, unless he feels he wants to," her aunt assured her. "Rom works only where and when he feels like it. He is a Romany, and true Romanies know no barriers. Every country is their country, so they treat boundaries and frontiers with a contempt they feel is deserved. One week Rom will appear in Paris, the next in Budapest, then perhaps a little while later in Rome. He is a counterpart of your Scarlet Pimpernel - one moment here, the next gone. Managers all over Europe have tried to pin him down with promises to appear on agreed dates, but he will have none of it. The Romanies are always on the move, and Rom is one hundred per cent loyal to his tribe and they to him, as the name he has been given indicates: Rom Boro - the Big Man - an accolade, indeed, from a race which considers every man an equal and gives only to men of very special qualities such measured praise." She gave her niece time to absorb her words before offering casually, "Would you like to meet him?" Marielle, still wrapped in a daze of pleasure brought about by the unusual and very exciting programme, took a while to assimilate the question, but when she did her flush of anticipation was answer enough. "Come," Sophie smiled as she began leading the way backstage, weaving between tables packed with people reluctant to leave the atmosphere of tense excitement generated by the star performer. They had almost reached the door leading to the dressing-room when a voice hailed Sophie. It was a loud, domineering voice that complemented the appearance of its owner, a tall, erect man wearing the uniform of a high-ranking Russian officer. He rose to his feet and bowed stiffly, his piercing eyes cataloguing every detail of Marielle's appearance. "Sergei, I did not expect to see you here this evening! " Sophie faltered, her voice breathless with embarrassment. "Marielle, may I introduce a friend of mine, Comrade Ivanov, who in the past has helped enormously by disentangling me from much of the red tape

entailed in the running of a factory." Her pleasantly spoken words held a warning Marielle did not miss; she was afraid of this man with the cobra's unblinking stare and was silently imploring her not to react unfavourably towards him. Unfortunately, youthful impetuosity allied to an upbringing in which fear had played no part made Marielle resentful of his air of arrogant self-importance, so the nod with which she acknowledged the introduction was cool and extremely brief. His narrowed eyes reflected affronted dignity which was in no way appeased when Sophie hastily breached the awkward silence. "Marielle, my niece, is English ..." She bit her lip, realizing from Marielle's raised eyebrows that her remark had sounded like an apologetic excuse. "Sharon, my dear, now that the show is over I do hope you intend to be sensible by having an early night!" It was Madame Glory, rounding up her flock, too fussily anxious about the well-being of her girls to notice the effect of the bombshell she had inadvertently dropped. "Sharon?" Sergei snapped alertly, his expression more than curious. "A stage name," Marielle flipped, betraying none of the panic that was sending cold shivers down her spine. Before Madame Glory could create further havoc, she assured her, "Give me just ten minutes, no more, then I'll leave." Satisfied, the old lady nodded, then drifted away in search of other strays, and Marielle reacted by following quickly behind her, tossing over her shoulder as she went, "Don't be long, Aunt Sophie, I've no time to spare.. When her aunt caught up with her a few seconds later she was shaken and visibly angry. Marielle was sauntering along a corridor when she heard her name called. "Marielle, wait!" The door of an empty dressing- room stood open and Sophie pushed her inside. "Now, an explanation, if you please!"

she demanded angrily, her back against the closed door. Marielle shrugged. The truth was not so terrible, after all, so there was no reason why her aunt should not be informed of the whole silly prank. But when she had finished telling the tale, Sophie's face had become so ashen Marielle felt a stirring of misgiving. "You fool!" Sophie forced through tightly compressed lips. "Reckless, unimaginative little idiot!" Fear feathered across Marielle's skin even as she protested, "That's a bit strong, all I did was borrow a friend's passport, no harm's been done...!" "In Russian-occupied countries no one borrows another's passport! You must be pitifully ignorant of our way of life if you imagine this escapade will be dismissed with a reprimand and a pat on the head. At this very moment Sergei Ivanov will be questioning your employers, and if there is the least hint of suspicious circumstances you will be held for questioning, probably for an indefinite period!" Nervously, Marielle laughed; the picture her aunt had portrayed was too melodramatic to be taken seriously. But her laughter had an uncanny effect upon her aunt. An unreadable expression clamped down upon her features and the hand that grasped Marielle's arm to propel her out of the room and along the corridor dug into her flesh with the inflexibility of a jailor. She was pushed rather than led into the passageway outside the star's dressing-room where a crowd of fans were waiting for a sight of their idol. A swarthy man stood guard outside the door, arms folded across a massive chest, his eyes expressing contempt of the thronging crowd. To Marielle's surprise his impassive features split into a grin of welcome at the sight of Sophie, and when she spoke Rom Boro's

name with an enquiring inflection he ushered them both through the door, making certain none of the surging fans slipped past his detaining arm. Inside, the room was empty, but beyond a connecting door drawers could be heard slamming, and a tuneless whistle interspersed with muttered imprecations indicated Rom Boro's impatience to be finished dressing. Her aunt seemed full of suppressed excitement when she instructed, "Give me ten minutes alone with him. I shall introduce you later, but there is something of the utmost importance we must discuss." She did not wait for a reply, but rapped sharply upon the door which was flung open immediately. "Luba!" The endearment came swiftly to his lips. Marielle jerked with surprise; her aunt had not indicated that she was on terms so familiar he should address her as sweetheart! Seconds later her aunt disappeared inside the inner room, and although Marielle tried not to listen she could not avoid recognizing that the tone of the conversation which primarily had been one of surprised delight began developing swiftly along the lines of a fierce argument. She paced the floor, trying to block out the sound of her aunt's pleading voice, wondering what favour the gypsy performer was so emphatically denying her. Her aunt's voice gradually escalated as she pleaded her cause, but his tone, though coldly resolute, remained even. Marielle pricked up her ears when she heard a sob, muffled, but unmistakable. Her aunt was crying! It was so unbelievable she was rooted to the spot, but when the sound came again she moved into action: celebrity or not, Rom Boro was going to have, to account for his behaviour. In her temper she did not hesitate, but flung open the door without ceremony just in time to see him leaning over her aunt mopping up her tears with a large handkerchief, and at the same time voicing reluctant surrender.

"Very well, Luba, I shall do as you ask, but remember," he tipped up her chin and looked long and deeply into her tear-filled eyes, "I do it only because you wish it and not because I feel sympathy for this irresponsible fool on whose behalf you plead." Marielle backed away unobserved. His words made no sense, but the look on her aunt's face was explanation enough. Adoration shone in her eyes and her lips, usually so firm and uncompromising, seemed to be trembling an invitation to be kissed. Marielle had no intention of hanging around to find out if the invitation was accepted. In her haste to leave she stumbled into a chair, sending it crashing to the ground with noisy force. She sped across the room, anxious to escape, but even as she reached the door her aunt's voice rang out. "Marielle, don't go! I want you to meet a dear and very special friend." She abandoned all thought of escape and turned reluctantly to meet the man who seemed to count for so much in her aunt's life. "Rom, my dear, this is Marielle Moore, my niece from England. Already, after watching only one performance, she is a great fan of yours, is that not so, moya droga?" she urged. Marielle swallowed hard before taking up her cue. "Yes, indeed, I found your act most entertaining." He bowed. "Thank you, Miss Moore, you are very kind," he replied in perfect English, his tone dry to the point of sarcasm. Momentarily, as his eyes flicked over her, she felt rendered invisible. A gnat or a fly would have made a greater impression upon the bored-looking gypsy. Sophie dissolved into laughter. "Miss Moore ...?" she mocked. "No, no, I refuse to allow it! My only relative and my dearest friend must not stand on such formality. I insist that you call her Marielle, and you," she instructed her embarrassed niece, "must call him Rom."

Marielle wondered at her aunt's lack of perception. The reluctance Rom Boro showed must have been obvious to even the most insensitive; she herself could sense the effort he was making to appear interested, and although she had never considered herself vain it was a shock to encounter for the first time in her life a complete unawareness of her not inconsiderable looks from a member of the opposite sex. The contrasting warmth of his answer was a tribute to her aunt's influence. "Very well, if it will make you happy, Marielle it shall be. Provided," he drawled, "your niece does not object ? " Suffering the scrutiny of two pairs of eyes, Marielle had to give in gracefully. "Of course not," she replied, then wondered at the quick amusement he betrayed. "Good!" Sophie ran pleased eyes over Marielle's flushed cheeks and Rom's inscrutable smile - giving to them both a meaning completely undeserved - then suggested, "Now that you have been introduced shall we find somewhere to eat, a place where, at the same time, you can further your acquaintance ? " Marielle immediately stammered a refusal. "I'm sorry, Aunt Sophie, I would love to join you both, but I simply must be getting back to the hotel." She was not searching for an excuse, she had upset Madame Glory enough for one day and besides that, there was the growing conviction that the gypsy's efforts to be polite would very rapidly wear thin if he were to be subjected to much more of her company. But he surprised her by insisting, "I know of an eating place very different from anything to be found in the city. It is not far away, but we'll need to go by car. I'm sure you'll agree after we've eaten that the food more than compensates for the journey." He strode across to the door. "Rupa," he instructed the man standing guard outside, "fetch the car to the back entrance." He added further rapid instructions in a language Marielle did not understand, then returned to look down at

Sophie. "Well, it is done. Are you happy now?" She nodded, looking as if at any moment she might succumb to tears, then she recovered and returned his grave smile. Marielle shivered. For no particular reason she felt apprehensive. There was a smell of intrigue in the air and the glances of silent communication exchanged between her aunt and her inscrutable friend served only to deepen the mystery. Impatient with herself, she shrugged away her doubts; she was allowing the events of the past hour to colour her imagination. After all, what possible ulterior motive could be hidden in an invitation to supper?

The alleyway was dark and shadow-filled as Marielle stumbled up the steps in the wake of her aunt whose movements, so silently careful, could have been described as furtive. She rebuked Marielle when, after stubbing her toe on a stone step, she cried out with annoyance. "Hush, can't you! " she hissed. "Must you let the whole neighbourhood know we're here ?" Marielle was too surprised to answer. There seemed no logical reason why she should be expected to creep noiselessly up the back stairs of a nightclub, but the request was in keeping with her aunt's stealthy attitude. The atmosphere became so tense that by the time they reached the alleyway she found she was subconsciously imitating her aunt's shadow-hugging methods and instead of querying her whispered words she obeyed with a quickly beating heart the command that she should accompany Rom Boro in his car while her aunt travelled in her own with Rupa as passenger. Marielle saw Rom Boro's mouth tighten as he waited until Sophie's car reached the end of the alleyway to turn into the main street. He made no attempt to start the engine, but when a second car glided from out of nowhere and began following closely behind her aunt's

she began to suspect why. Sophie's tenseness, her demands for silence, her insistence that they should travel separately, were all born of an instinct that told her Sergei Ivanov had given instructions that they were to be followed. She was acting as a decoy, and Rupa, slumped in his seat and obscured by shadows, was sufficiently indistinct to excite no comment from men with minds complacently adjusted to the tailing of a certain car carrying an expected number of passengers. She jerked upright as the full implications hit her. Sophie's plan was working beautifully; she could keep the secret police occupied for hours while her niece was being spirited out of the vicinity by Rom Boro! Even as the engine of Rom Boro's powerful car roared into life the remarks he had made to her aunt began to make sense. Very well, Luba, I shall do as you ask, but remember, I do it only because you wish it and not because I feel sympathy for this irresponsible fool on whose behalf you plead! She was the reason behind her aunt's pleas for help - what a. fool she was not to have realized it earlier! The car had left the suburbs and was speeding through open country by the time she had sorted out her thoughts. "Where are you taking me?" she demanded. He gave all his attention to negotiating a sharp bend before biting out, "Does it matter?" She reacted violently to the sting in his tone. "Of course it matters! I have a show to do tomorrow and whether my aunt likes it or not I intend being at the club for the opening! Don't think I don't realize what you and she are up to," she flashed. "My lack of passport is an embarrassment to her friend, so she has decided to remove me from his orbit until the fuss has died down. At all costs the rapport existing between herself and the authorities must be maintained, even at the expense of family loyalty!" She drew in a deep breath before choking

out, "How could she? How could any woman collaborate with such a man! " He swung the wheel round with such force that her shoulder came in sharp contact with the framework, but she was so burnt up with anger she felt no pain. Almost before the car came to rest upon a grassy verge he was blasting back, "So that is what you think! You have been in the country only a matter of hours, yet you deign to overrule the opinions of those who know from bitter experience what to expect! Your attitude is that of a stubborn child, Miss Moore, and in place of my previous resentment at being made responsible for your escape, I now feel privileged to be the one chosen to get rid of you...!" Silence seethed around them as they sped through small villages, passed isolated farms identifiable only by squares of lighted windows beaming far back from the road and by outlines of barns that loomed into their headlights, then faded quickly into the darkness. Marielle's eyelids began to flicker as tiredness overtook her. She was keyed up to a peak by the stimulating events of the day, but the warmth of the car combined with the monotony of the journey to create a sensation of drowsiness that was becoming increasingly difficult to combat. She was jerked awake when the car left the road to bump across rutted ground in the direction of a wood. He made no effort to protect her by slowing down, but continued over the rough terrain with an expression of satisfaction that could have had its origin in the fact that she was being tossed around in her seat like a disjointed doll. She hung on, determined not to protest, but when he finally applied the brakes she felt all the muscles in her body had been jerked from their sockets. "We'll walk from here," he ordered, allowing her to find her own way out of the thicket of prickly bushes into which he had driven the car. If she had accused him of deliberately manoeuvring the situation he would no doubt have pointed out the need for camouflage, so she

fought her way alone out of the branches that bit into her jacket, her pants, and even her hair. She stumbled after his retreating figure, wondering bitterly why in a country noted for the gallantry of its menfolk she should have been landed with such a specimen, then quickened her steps when she heard in the distance the ferocious barking of many dogs. Minutes later the path opened on to a clearing where about fifteen covered wagons were drawn into a circle. Gypsy women wearing deep-coloured dresses and many gold pieces made up into earrings, necklaces and bracelets sat around campfires tending iron pots whose contents filled the air with a rich, gamey smell. It was a beautiful, theatrical setting into which the women fitted perfectly. All had shiny blue-black hair worn long and braided. Their very full, ankle-length dresses of many layers had bodices cut loose and low, the glowing colours contrasting sharply against tanned matt skin and dark expressive eyes. Several men lay in the shelter of an oak tree, desultorily gossiping while they waited for their womenfolk to dish up the meal, each wearing a slightly tattered, work-soiled replica of the outfit worn by Rom Boro during his performance. Marielle's imagination was so captured she would not have been in the least surprised to hear the tuning up of an orchestra in the background or a chorus of voices joining the upward rise of thin corkscrews of bluish smoke spiralling from the glowing campfires. "Droboy tume romale!" At the sound of Rom's greeting everyone's attention swung in his direction and in a matter of seconds he was surrounded by jubilant back-slapping men and their excited wives all talking at once in a language interspersed with smatterings of Polish but consisting mainly of a tongue Marielle found completely unfamiliar. For the second time that day she felt invisible as the volatile gypsies jostled to greet Rom Boro without acknowledging by even the flicker of an eyelid his slender companion who stood out amongst them like a pale daffodil in a field of glowing poppies. It was a relief to hear him explain to them in Polish, "My friends, I

bring a companion to share our journey. She will be completely in my charge, so you need have no misgivings. I hope you will welcome her and bear with her inexperience of our ways." Wary eyes assessed her, giving away no inkling of their owners' thoughts but somehow projecting an animosity she found frightening. A young girl pushed her way forward to stare insolently. She seemed savagely aware of her own beauty as she stood with swaying hips and flashing eyes taking in every detail of Marielle's appearance. Then suddenly her lips pursed and to Marielle's disgust she spat, deliberately and contemptuously, on the ground at her feet. "We want no Gaje women here!" she hissed. A murmur of agreement ran through the assembled gypsies. They had trouble enough dodging the police and other petty officials who would interfere with their lives, without drawing their attention by sheltering one of their women. Rom enunciated coldly, with narrowed eyes, "I have stated that she will be completely in my charge - is my word no longer enough? Perhaps," his tone became silky as he eyed the sullen men, "during my absence this tribe has succumbed to petticoat tyranny and my word must come second to that of the girl Lala?" This was altogether too much for the men to stomach. A swift push sent Lala staggering back into the crowd and with one accord they growled, "You are still our leader, Rom Boro. The girl can stay." By tacit agreement the women dispersed, leaving the men to form a council of discussion. But before joining them Rom drew her to one side and commanded, "From now on you must obey any instructions I may give you. Once I have explained the circumstances, I've no doubt the council will be willing to allow you to remain, but only on condition that I hold myself responsible for your every action. Your own safety - and theirs - will depend upon your implicit obedience, do you understand?"

Her head tilted. "You forget," she countered fiercely, "that I have no wish to stay. It wasn't my idea that I should run away, and I'm sure the whole melodramatic operation is totally Unnecessary. If you and my aunt had not interfered the whole ghastly misunderstanding could have been cleared up with a simple explanation. After all, I did, nothing wrong! I might have bent the law a little, but not even the Russians can make a petty prank into a criminal offence!" He exerted great control to keep his tone even, but the thread of anger running through his words was taut to snapping point. "If it were not for your aunt," he gritted softly, "I would deliver you to Sergei Ivanov personally, just so that I might experience the pleasure of making you eat those words!" He sounded so sure of what her reception would be that her assurance faltered, and some of her indecision must have shown because he sounded complacently sure of her answer when he demanded, "Well, are you willing to cooperate?" She shrugged, then grudgingly admitted defeat. "Very well, for the time being I shall do as you ask." She was relieved when he made no attempt to enlarge upon his victory, but her heart beat fast with misgiving when he beckoned to one of the gypsy women. Her approach seemed reluctant, but Marielle felt none of the animosity shown by the young girl, Lala, when Rom Boro introduced them. "Marielle, this is Kore, wife of my very good friend Rupa. We will be travelling as part of their kumpania - family unit," he enlightened "and as she speaks enough Polish to make herself understood I'm sure you will get along very well together." Kore's lustrous eyes searched Marielle's face and when her scrutiny was borne without flinching the beginnings of a slow smile appeared.

Rom relaxed, and with a satisfied nod strode off to join the council of waiting men. "Are you hungry?" Kore asked with a timidity that hinted at expected rebuff. Marielle expelled a deep, relieved breath. "Very much so. It seems ages since our last meal and whatever it is you are cooking smells wonderful." Kore looked anxious. "We must not eat before the men have been served, but I will put enough aside for you to satisfy your hunger." Then she smiled and with a hint of mischief offered, "But come, I will fish out some small titbits for you from the pot. If the discussion becomes interesting the men will forget the need to eat, and you cannot be expected to suffer hunger indefinitely." They laughed like children as they filched from the aromatic stew enough meat to drive the hunger pangs from Marielle's protesting stomach, then, ignoring the hostile looks of the rest of the women busily tending their pots, they sat down and began a halting exploration of each other's minds. "Have you children, Kore?" Marielle asked, curious to find out as much as possible about the race of strangers who lived a life of constant motion, like waving branches or flowing water. Kore's eyes reflected maternal love as she waved her hand in the direction of what looked like a gigantic eiderdown laid out on the ground between the caravans. "Two," she answered proudly, "a son, Putzi, and a daughter, Mozol, which name in your language means 'blackcurrant'." She laughed when Marielle's eyes widened and continued, "Although we travel together in a tribe, each family has its own van and each wife cooks and washes and cleans for her own family, so that although we travel together we can respect each other's need for privacy. Of course, if any family should need help we give it, but in communal conditions such as these we find it

necessary to remain in some respects apart in order to retain a degree of individuality. Except for the children,"' she qualified, "they never feel in need of solitude and so they are content to be in each other's company all day as well as all night. As you can see," she pointed towards the great eiderdown and Marielle turned in time to see it moving convulsively as if a minor eruption was taking place underneath, "the children all sleep together under one large dunha. One of them is restless tonight, and there will be much giggling and scuffling from the others until he finally settles down to sleep." "But don't you tire of always being in the same company?" Marielle wondered aloud. "Do you never wish to see a fresh face or hear different views ? " "Oh, but we do!" Kore twinkled. "We are not permanently in one tribe. Some day soon my husband, Rupa, or one of the other men will decide to leave this kumpania to join up with another. Perhaps at the next crossroad we will see signs indicating that the kumpania of a brother or a cousin is in the vicinity and we will leave this tribe and go in search of the others. That way we keep in touch with our families and learn all the news; who is dead, who has been born, and who is to be married." The conversation had so captured Marielle's attention she felt the return of the men as an intrusion, and when Rom Boro and Kore's husband, Rupa, appeared out of the darkness demanding food her impatience must have shown. "Don't you want to know what has been decided?" Rom asked dryly as he sat down beside her and began eating out of the bowl of stew Kore had pushed into his hand. "As my opinions seem to be of no consequence, I hardly think it matters," she answered tartly.

"True," he nodded infuriating agreement. "However, I think I owe it to Sophie to make it clear that only because you are her niece, and it is her special wish that you be protected, has the council's decision turned in your favour. For my sake, they had already agreed to let you stay, but you have Sophie to thank for the fact that as long as you remain here you will be accorded the courtesy of an honoured guest provided," he scooped out the last of his stew and stressed, "your presence does not become an embarrassment. To the Romany, the ways of the Gaje are strange, so they must be forgiven for being apprehensive as to whether you will cohabit successfully with their own women." Marielle was just about to protest that she had no intention of being put on probation when a figure glided into the firelit circle to whisper an urgent message in Rom's ear. He tensed with animal alertness, then silently he sprang to his feet and she was whipped upwards into his arms. "Don't move, or say a word!" he hissed fiercely when she began to struggle. As he carried her into the darkness she heard coming from the perimeter of the camp the sound of many arguing voices, but the sounds became muffled when she was lowered to the ground and thrust under the voluminous eiderdown that covered the now soundly sleeping children. It was only when Sergei Ivanov's voice echoed loudly round the camp that the true seriousness of the situation became clear. Her heart was thumping so loudly she thought it would burst, but his words reached her with spine-chilling force. "You people know the penalty for harbouring a criminal," he grated, "so if my soldiers find the English girl in your camp you don't need to be told what to expect! The woman is a spy, and she must be caught! " Sharply he rapped out an order to his men to search the vans, and Marielle trembled under her covering as the sound of splintering wood and smashing crockery verified the ruthlessness of the searching soldiers.

One of the children whimpered in his sleep and immediately the Russian was alerted. "What was that?" he demanded. "A restless child who whimpers in his sleep," she heard Kore's calm reply. "Please, try not to disturb him." Heavy boots crushed twigs underfoot as he walked towards the sleeping children. In a sweat of fear Marielle waited while far above her he brooded down at the concealing eiderdown, deliberating whether or not to remove it. She felt faint with reaction when he decided against it and moved away. Half an hour later, when every van had been stripped almost bare, Sergei Ivanov commanded his men to cease searching. They piled into cars and drove with tyres screeching back into the darkness, leaving behind amongst the debris of the camp, proof of the gypsies' deeply ingrained tradition of compassion for the hunted.

CHAPTER THREE THE sturdily built covered wagon was perched on high wheels, there were three small windows on either side curtained with faded, once brightly-coloured material, and double doors at the front opening onto a wide porch-like board. The walls were of plain wood, natural coloured oak heavily varnished, and the roof was white. A vivid eiderdown was heaped upon an upholstered bunk designated as a bed. A couple of stools and a few plump feather-filled cushions completed the furnishings of what, for the next few weeks, was to be Marielle's home. She sank down upon the bunk and subconsciously her hands gripped tightly on to the eiderdown as the tension of the last terrifying moments held sway. A lamp threw Rom's elongated shadow upon the bare walls, and as he towered over her it seemed every square inch of the van was stamped with his taunting presence. "Well, do you still believe our efforts to get you away from Sergei Ivanov were melodramatic and totally unnecessary?" he questioned dryly. She looked up, hating his superiority, his insulting lack of concern for her ravaged feelings, and the words tasted bitter when she forced out the admission. "I was wrong, I realize now that my only hope of freedom lies with you and your people. I will do everything I can to make myself amenable to them." "How wise." He sounded bored, a little disappointed at her lack of usual fire, and the suspicion formed that being so used to adulation both from his audiences and from his people that the sparring which had begun almost immediately they met was to him quite a novelty. If that were the case, she decided, he was due for further disappointment because in future she meant to keep the almighty Rom Boro at a distance. Her safety depended upon this man who

sparked off in her instinctive resentment, but as nothing must be allowed to jeopardize her chances of remaining with the tribe she intended being as pleasantly servile as possible to the arrogant gypsy. 1

She watched him pour ruby wine into slender glasses and, swallowing her self-disgust, decided this was as good a time as any to begin acting out her newly- planned tactics. She accepted the wine with a shy upward glance through a tangle of lashes, sipped a little, and murmured, "Thank you, it's delicious. Is it a product of your Spanish vineyards ?" When his eyebrows shot up she sensed she had made some foolish mistake, but he was in no hurry to enlighten her. "Why my Spanish vineyards, particularly?" His amusement caused her to blush a deep pink. "I ... I'm not sure," she stammered. "Somehow I've always associated gypsies with Andalucia, with flamenco music and dancing, with sun and Manzanilla wine..." "Ah, you are thinking of the Gitanos of Spain, a semi-nomadic, almost sedentary people like your English gypsies, the Sinti of Germany or the Rudari of Rumania. Romanies are pure nomad, they travel not within the boundaries of one land, nor even one country. Their tribes can be found in Russia, in America, from Oslo to Istanbul, from Malaya to South Africa and Brazil. Does that surprise you ?" She frowned. "You say 'their' and 'they' as if you yourself do not identify with them?" she questioned, her grey eyes wide with enquiry. Her show of interest surprised him and after a slight hesitation he hooked forward a chair and sat down facing her, the lamp playing

upon his raven head, softening his stern mouth into lines of indulgence. When he began to speak the words came slowly at first, then more rapidly as if he found it a relief to unburden himself of long-buried memories. "My life with the Romanies began on a bright moonlight night in May of 1940," he bewildered her by confiding. "I was just three years old, but I can remember vividly waking up in my bed and hearing a faint purr overhead in the night sky, followed by what I thought was the rumble of thunder. I felt no fear, my parents were sleeping in the next room and a call would have brought them immediately, so I lay there listening until gradually the soft purring grew ominously louder. I ran to the window, terrified but fascinated, and saw wave after wave of black swastika-emblemed bombers surging over the rooftops. Now and then one of them would tip its wings and fall from the sky like a wounded eagle, screaming at a high pitch, then exploding as it hit the earth, creating devastation. I wanted to run to my parents, but I was rooted to the spot, then suddenly the whole house seemed to explode and crumble slowly around me into a pile of dust, bricks and splintering timber." Marielle smothered a shocked gasp. Although unemotionally portrayed, his word-picture had captured her imagination to such an extent she could actually feel the pain of the frightened child at the window. "And your parents ? ". she whispered. His brown throat worked as he drained his glass dry. "Both killed," he replied briefly. "The next thing I remember is being jostled along amongst a crowd of hurrying people. The roads were packed with trucks and buses; hordes of bicycles, some with riders, some laden with blankets, mattresses and battered suitcases, were being wheeled along the pavements out of the path of trundling traffic. No one noticed me - or if they did they must have thought I belonged with

one or other of the fleeing families - so eventually when I was so exhausted I could walk no further, I crept into a field and lay down to sleep." A glint of well-remembered pleasure chased some of the bleakness from his eyes as he continued slowly, "I awoke to a breakfast of steaming soup ladled out of a pan bubbling over a campfire only inches away from my feet. Smiling brown faces urged me not to be afraid, to eat up my soup and forget my fear of being alone. Providence had led me to the Romanies and they, in their infinite compassion, accepted me immediately as if I were one of their own." She remained silent when his words petered into a mute stillness full of secret thought. She felt overawed and slightly inadequate at being the recipient of the innermost confidences of her aloof companion. Then reason told her she need not feel flattered. To him she was almost non-existent, an irritation - a fly on the arm - but otherwise negative. He could have as easily conversed with shadows, so superfluous was her presence to his needs. But, consciously or not, he had betrayed loneliness and a hint of yearning. He was the Romanies' leader - not their chief, because the independent race bowed to no one man's authority - yet between them, unspoken and mostly ignored, lay the fact that his blood was not theirs. Feted and respected though he was, there was not one amongst his many friends and admirers whom he could claim as his own. As if to discount her theory of isolation, he stood up to stretch luxuriously, then strolled to the door with an air of having wasted enough time in casual conversation. "I hope you don't find the bed too uncomfortable," he offered without, she felt sure, caring a damn. "If you need me for anything I shall be nearby." Curiosity impelled her towards the window to pinpoint his exact whereabouts. The camp was silent, still bodies wrapped in dunhas were spread inside the moonlit circle around the embers of dying campfires. An owl hooted, causing her a thrill of misgiving which

gave way to a sense of reassurance when she saw Rom's tall figure stretched out on the ground at the foot of the steps leading to the van. As she slowly undressed hundreds of questions crying out to be answered crowded her mind. She felt certain, even as she snuggled into the warmth of the eiderdown, that she would not manage to sleep, but her heavy lids closed before she had pondered for even a second over the events of the momentous day. She awoke to the sound of hordes of children laughing and screaming as they ran between the vans, under the feet of tethered horses and round the perimeter of the camp, rollicking gleefully like a herd of healthy young animals. There was no sign of Rom or any other of the men when she tripped sleepily out of the van in search of water, but Kore was just preparing to leave the camp with two buckets slung over her arm. When Marielle called out she turned and waited smilingly until she caught up. "I am going for water to wash clothes," she told her. "It is just as well you join me, because there are rules I must explain if you are to remain with our tribe." "First I need a wash," Marielle grinned, "after that I will gladly listen to your rules." Kore shook her head. "Listen before you wash," she insisted firmly, "otherwise you might offend against the laws of marhime, an offence so serious it would have to be taken before the Kris - our council of Elders - for punishment to be decided." The river was reached before Marielle could put further questions and her amazement knew no bounds when Kore began drawing imaginary lines to divide the river into sections. With the utmost gravity she instructed, "Water for drinking and cooking must be taken farthest upstream, next comes the water for washing dishes and bathing and farther downstream, in order, is water for the horses and for the washing of clothes. Separate buckets much be used to fetch water for each particular use, otherwise the water becomes marhime - unclean. A Romany must never touch anything marhime." Marielle's concept that gypsies were

not too particular in their habits suffered a quick reversal and she felt suddenly humbled as she began carrying out Kore's instructions. It was fun to wade barefooted into the shallows to fill the bucket supplied by Kore. The water had a champagne sparkle, it tingled icily around her toes as she attempted to balance on submerged mosscovered stones in an effort to fill her bucket from a pool just out of reach. "Be careful, Marielle!" Kore chuckled, amused by her antics, but the words had hardly left her lips when Marielle's feet flew from under her and she landed with a tremendous splash neck-deep in the pool. Peals of unkind laughter came from the direction of the bank as Kore struggled to help her out of the water. Her blonde hair was sculptured to her head, giving her the look of a startled urchin, and her sodden trouser suit felt a ton weight as it dragged around her shivering body. Kore was trying hard not to laugh, but her amusement was kind, unlike Lala's which was unashamedly gloating. She stood on the bank making no attempt to help, giving rein to peal after peal of laughter as she watched Kore exerting all her strength to heave Marielle out of the sucking water. "Rom's Gaje woman looks more like a boy than ever now!" she shouted, her eyes flashing spiteful enjoyment as she ran complacent hands over her own generous curves. "How I wish he were here to see for himself what the water has revealed - that beneath the clothes of a man lies hidden the body of an undeveloped child!" Water almost turned to steam as Marielle in her fury reacted to the insolent tirade. By Western standards her figure was faultless, but compared with Lala's voluptuousness she looked slender as a reed, and the knowledge stung.

"Beauty cannot be eaten with a spoon!" she retaliated fiercely, the half-forgotten homily of her mother's coming swiftly to her tongue. Much to her surprise, Lala flushed a deep red, then, with a vicious look, turned on her heel and spun away. Beside her she heard Kore give a surprised gasp. then to Marielle's amazement she collapsed into a paroxysm of laughter. "How could you have known?" she finally gasped, hugging her aching sides. "Lala's one great handicap is her inability to cook even the simplest of meals, and your words have pricked her vanity in the only way possible. Not for nothing do the men of the tribe shy away from proposals of marriage! Yes," she twinkled, "that round must surely go to you, although I fear your shot in the dark will add impetus to Lala's well-known tendency to extract revenge for even the smallest slight." She sobered quickly to warn, "Watch her carefully, my dear, you have made of her an enemy." Kore's offer of dry clothing had to be accepted; Sophie's carefully laid plans had not included for the provision of luggage, therefore every article Marielle possessed was clinging wetly to her chilled body. Inside Kore's van she stripped and rubbed down with a coarse towel until the blood was once more surging through her veins, then doubtfully she donned the unfamiliar articles of underwear, the voluminous skirts and low-cut silk blouse which Kore unearthed from out of the tin trunk that served her as a wardrobe. She felt like the heroine of a musical comedy when finally she clasped together the buckle of a wide belt that narrowed her waist to the circumference of a hand span, then twirled on her heel, experimentally flouncing her skirts. Kore, still searching the depths of the trunk, turned to remark slyly, "The costume becomes you well. Rom will have no difficulty in distinguishing you from a boy, as even Lala will surely now admit."

She chuckled when Marielle's cheeks reddened, then gave a cry of satisfaction as her groping hands alighted upon the objects she had been seeking. "These will add the perfect finishing touch," she offered, her hand emerging from the trunk clutching a fistful of goldcoin trinkets. "Oh, but I couldn't!" Marielle protested. "They look valuable, I wouldn't dare risk losing them." Kore looked bewildered. "But I make you a gift," she faltered, hurt darkening her beautiful eyes. "It is our custom to offer the best of what we have to those we admire," she finished in a whisper. Marielle's heart jerked at the enormity of her error. Kore was deeply upset by what she imagined was a rejection of her friendship; the only way to soothe her ruffled feelings was to accept the proffered gift in the spirit in which it had been intended. Appalled by the hurt she had administered, she dropped to her knees beside the dejected girl and apologized, "I'm so sorry, Kore, please forgive me - I didn't understand." Immediately a white-toothed smile transformed Kore's face. "Then you will wear them?" she urged, pushing the baubles into Marielle's hands. "Thank you, I'll wear them with pleasure," she accepted, with the added reservation, "If you're quite sure Rupa will not object?" "He will be proud," Kore assured her. "It is well that we share the riches brought to us by the generosity of our leader. Only a few years ago our tribe was one of the poorest of all Romany tribes. We suffered much poverty and hardship and could see no way of changing our fortunes. But then," she heaved a sigh of satisfaction, "Rom decided to go in search of money. Not for himself, you understand," she hastened to explain, "but for us, his people. And

now," she puffed up proudly, "we have full bellies, healthy children and good vans and livestock. Rom is a very rich, man - a millionaire," she told a thoroughly confused Marielle. Kore had not mentioned any specific currency, but her implication of great wealth puzzled Marielle greatly. "But if Rom has spent all his money how can he be rich?" she faltered. Kore looked her astonishment. "Because only a millionaire can spend a million," she stated with such simple logic that Marielle was speechless. As she fastened bracelets and necklaces around Marielle's wrists and throat she babbled on, "Rupa receives a larger share of Rom's wealth because he accompanies him everywhere he goes .and shares with him the frustrations of the Gaje world. So, after attending to our needs, he exchanges what money is left into gold pieces which will be kept as a sumadji for our children." "Sumadji?"" "Heirloom," Kore struggled to interpret, "an investment to ensure they will never want." With such a debt of gratitude owing to Rom by his people, Marielle reflected, the devotion he received was hardly surprising. The frightened, neglected orphan plucked from the morass of fleeing refugees had amply rewarded them for their act of unselfish humanity. As the day progressed she became so adjusted to her borrowed garments she was able to forget that initially they had felt cumbersome. She spent her time helping Kore with the chores and trying to establish contact with the rest of the women. At first they were wary, reluctant to meet half-way her tentative overtures, but her genuine desire to be friendly, plus the amusement she afforded as she struggled to communicate in their own language, soon broke down their barrier of reserve.

When the men arrived back at camp after a day spent bartering at a nearby horse fair it was hardly surprising that within the melee of busy women bustling around steaming cooking pots, harassed by dozens of mischievous children, Marielle should be momentarily overlooked. When Rom strode out of the dusk she was almost under his feet before she was noticed. He straddled the edge of the campfire, eyes narrow as a fox, watching her stirring the contents of an iron pot with a large ladle. Quite unaware of his presence, she ran a finger along the edge of the ladle to scoop a sly helping of gravy into her mouth. The flickering firelight added delicacy to her cameo features and made moon silver of her hair. Shadows caressed her body, masking her curves with a coquetry a man might find tantalizing. She was adding salt with grave concentration when his sardonic voice mocked, "If you are playing charades, might I attempt to guess whom you are supposed to represent?" The ladle fell with a clatter into the pot, his words dispelling the magical contentment that had made her able to hum softly as she carried out her chores. As if pulled by a string, her muscles jerked into taut knots, his amused presence flooding her with a selfconsciousness that chased all the grace from her movements. A solitary yellow-haired mongrel pricked up its ears when he crowned her humiliation with the brutal statement, "In the race for emancipation Western women have deprived themselves of the art of femininity. You ought to stick to trousers." A spark flared, its reflection captured in the depths of cool grey eyes. "Do you speak with authority, or are you merely surmising?" she countered frostily. He breathed a laugh and sauntered nearer. "I have eyes, and a modicum of experience. To woo a gypsy woman is as exciting as

bedding down a tiger, but you, I imagine, would offer as little challenge as a wide-eyed doe." Unbearably taunted, she spat, "I know all there is to know about sex!" "Perhaps, but you have everything to learn about love," was his cool reply. "Sex is a cold, clinical word completely out of context when used to describe the melting of two hearts and minds and bodies into one. You must reject all thought of emancipation if you wish to experience the perfect unity looked upon by our women as their right. Superficial wit and a sophisticated veneer might satisfy Englishmen, but we Romanies have no use for a candle that is all wax and no flame."

Later that night, screened by darkness and rain, the caravans stole away. Moving as silently as possible, the horses' hooves padded with straw and bound with strips of coloured cloth, they avoided the roads and travelled cross-country through rugged terrain which only the high-wheeled wagons could have tackled. Marielle felt guilty as she luxuriated dry and warm inside the van while Rom sat up front in driving rain urging on the horses with low clicking sounds. At times the caravan slowed to a crawl and he would jump down, ankle-deep in mud, to push his shoulder against reluctant wheels. At other times it would suddenly pitch forward, sending her hurtling amongst the pots and pans to collect bruises which, at the time, she felt barely aware of. Young men of the tribe rushed backwards and forwards helping stragglers bogged down in the morass of deep mud mashed by horses' hooves, wagon wheels, and people on foot.

After what seemed hours of punishing travel, a repeated whistle could be heard coming from the direction of the lead wagon, lowpitched, but piercing enough to carry right down the line. In contrast to the belting rain, the suck of horses wading through mud, and the occasional wail of an infant from a nearby van, the whistle carried a strangely reassuring message. Almost immediately afterwards Marielle was startled by a low rumbling as the wheels raced again on firm ground. The padding had long since worn off the horses' hooves and once more they were pounding along a paved road. The door swung open and Rom strode in, his entry sending a sweep of cold air around the van. His teeth showed white in a grin of pure enjoyment after his battle with the elements and under black plastered strands of hair his eyes shone. "We have crossed the border into Czechoslovakia," he told her with great satisfaction. "Although still in Russian territory, we have put many miles between ourselves and Sergei Ivanov and tomorrow, with a bit of luck, we will add even more." His smile flashed whiter. "Not long now, moya droga, until we part company for good! " Moya droga! My dear! Many times Marielle had heard the soft Polish endearment from her mother's lips, so-it was hardly surprising that the unexpected words should tug at her heartstrings. The interior of the van seemed to shrink as he moved forward. She backed away, her slender outline on the wall overshadowed by his superior bulk. Her timidity shamed her, and it was with intended asperity that she turned on him, only to be betrayed by a tremor that ran through her words. "I, too, am impatient to return home; your pleasure is no greater than mine." A clock ticked loudly, emphasizing the silence that separated them. For a startled second their eyes met, his dark and aware, hers a misty, mysterious grey.

"Do you have relatives in England?" he asked suddenly, as if for the first time she had registered upon him as a person. A breath caught in her throat; she had wondered what it would be like to really capture his interest - it was not altogether pleasant to find she felt grateful and as eager to please as a fawning puppy. Selfscorn added sting to her answer. "My only relative is Sophie," she retorted, her tilted chin defying sympathy. "But I have friends." "Friends," he pondered curiously. "And do you find friendship an alliance intimate enough to satisfy your innermost needs? Perhaps amongst these friends you mention there is one special person with whom you hope to develop a deeper relationship?" The heat scorching her cheeks held his interest to an astonishing degree, and her indignation heightened when one eyebrow crooked, signifying that he had drawn his own conclusions from her obvious embarrassment. Goaded by exasperation, she retaliated, "No, there is no special person, but I do hope to embark upon a full and very satisfying career, an ambition you no doubt consider out of character for one of my sex?" To her chagrin his expression went blank. "It is of no interest to me what you do with your life," he shrugged. "Once we reach Austria it will be comparatively easy to arrange transport for you to England. After that, I doubt if our paths will ever cross again." He moved towards the door and advised, "Try to get some sleep, we will be on the move all night, but the roads are smooth and the van will travel light." As swiftly as he had spoken he withdrew, annoyingly depriving her of the chance to frame a cool, face-saving answer. She slept until the sun's heat began penetrating the van, then, impelled by curiosity and the need for fresh air, she went outside to join Rom, whose night of activity had left him heavy-eyed and blackjowled. He ran a hand over his bristled chin and cocked an eyebrow

in silent apology when she clambered over the wooden bench to sit next to him. The caravans were heading uphill in a slow-moving train, the horses' slow clip- clop echoing their weariness and the weariness of the drivers who held the reins slackly in tired hands. Rain had washed the earth clean, and the sun's appearance served as polish on every glistening leaf and blade. Streams gurgled their way downhill in a spate of sparkling life and a chorus of birds added to the song of thanksgiving for a new day. She did not stop 'to wonder why she should be feeling so vitally alive and happy as she sat perched high, swaying with the movement of the van, breathing blossom-perfumed air, and enjoying a feeling of companionship she had never before experienced. Even Rom, his teeth clenched around a meerschaum pipe, seemed content to allow her to share his company without further punishing slights or sarcasm. Marielle flung out her arms to encompass the whole of nature and expelled on a breath: "What a wonderful way to live! How can you bear to leave all this for stuffy nightclubs and crowded cities?" He bit deeply on the stem of his pipe. "By not thinking about it until the actual moment of departure," he answered tersely, her question disturbing his enjoyment of the moment. "The Rom have taught me to live in the perpetual present; memories, dreams, desires, hungers, the urge towards a tomorrow, are all rooted in the present. Without now there is no before, just as there can be no after." She pondered on his words, repeating them to herself, then felt a shock of thankfulness at being allowed to share this moment of perpetual present - even if, for them, there was to be no after. A joyful whistle set the horses' ears pricking and straightened the drooping backs of the drivers. A revitalizing spurt ran through the whole of the train when with a whoop of glee the driver of the lead van stood up in his seat to urge his horses over the brow of the hill.

With excitement running like a drug through his veins, each man followed suit and the air rang with piercing whistles, rattling wheels and the pounding of horses' shoes. Terrified but exhilarated, Marielle hung on as the van charged rapidly forward, swaying and leaning at such an angle it seemed certain to overturn. Steam rose from the sweating horses, but the sound of chains, hatchets, washtubs and a miscellany of other objects rattling together seemed to act upon them as a spur. They thundered up and over the crest of the hill, then down towards a circle of strange caravans already camped. Women and children ran forward, recognizing familiar faces, and greetings were screamed back and forth long before the advancing caravans came to rest. As the two groups converged Marielle recognized distinct family resemblances, and as cousin greeted cousin and brother greeted sister a festive air began to emerge. Hastily, cooking pots were dragged on to revived fires and while young men attended to the horses, older men swapped news and the women set to preparing breakfast for their unexpected guests. Marielle crept into the van, forgotten and superfluous to the success of the reunion. She felt shy of the strangers and loath to intrude, so she sat alone at the window" passing the time by guessing who was related to whom and which of the pairs of gay-eyed youngsters might progress even further than flirtatious friendship. But the pastime soon palled, and soon she was invaded by a niggling depression. Regret that she and her aunt should have parted on such unfriendly terms was the main source of her misery and the terrifyingly alone feeling known only to solitary orphans was, for the first time, allowed to fasten its grip. She slid down the bunk and closed her eyes, defying hot tears to surge to the surface, deliberately occupying her mind away from thoughts of family and friends. But misery had her in a stranglehold, and a sound inside the van alerted her too late to erase the dampness from her cheeks. The sound was made by Rom. Silently he looked down at her as she pretended to yawn, then stretched her limbs as if just awakening from sleep. His unemotional

mouth betrayed no secrets, but when he touched her gently on the shoulder and beckoned her to follow she knew he understood completely the reason behind her journey into the no-man's-land of lonely isolation. No words were exchanged between them as he led the way towards a group of chatting people. When she saw them approaching, Kore began raking the fire to heat a huge, red enamelled coffee-pot, then, when Marielle was seated, she placed in front of her an enormous black iron cauldron holding the remains of a mixture of fried onion, tomatoes, red peppers and meat. She thought the food would choke her, and was just about to say so when, with innate good manners, her companions averted their eyes and began conversing amongst themselves, giving her confidence first to taste then finally to enjoy the thoughtfully-kept meal. That night the resident tribe gave a patshiv in honour of their guests. Around the fires the men talked and drank in true gypsy fashion, freely, courteously and with unrestrained enjoyment. The women bustled around supplying food to satisfy appetites sharpened by pleasure and good humour, then later, when the children were asleep, they joined their menfolk around the fires to hear again ancient history, related through the medium of song, by Troka, an old and very much revered tribesman. As if by right, Marielle was placed next to Rom and as Troka's voice reached out, reedy but full of emotion, he softly translated, breathing the words through a cool mouth that hovered just a fraction from her ear. She drank in the poetry of the words until, as couplet followed couplet, she felt drugged by sheer romance and strong emotion. When the singing finally ended, old Troka sank back into the arms of his sons, his strength sapped, leaving everyone hushed, lingering as if time had stood still under the impact of the songs. Rom started to hum a gypsy dance tune. It broke the tension and the rhythmic melody gradually took a hold as other young men joined in.

Girls clapped and beat out the rhythm with their feet, then one of them, more fervent than the rest, jumped into the circle and began to dance. Marielle's eyes widened when she recognized Lala, but dislike became tinged with admiration as the vivacious girl postured and pirouetted in front of her audience. Her expression was aloof, but there was a touch of mockery in her flashing eyes as she beat the ground with small, angry-sounding steps. Encouraged by clapping hands, she stamped her feet faster and louder, spinning around the circle with skirts flying, her quick glance skimming every face in search of someone. She stopped with startling suddenness before Rom and began moving with slow undulating gestures, provoking, teasing, daring him to turn down the challenge she was so plainly offering. Close to him, Marielle felt him tense, then a flood of searing anger sprang from somewhere deep inside when, after slight hesitation, he leapt into the circle to join Lala. As he grabbed her by the waist the onlookers shouted and whistled their approval, then a second couple joined them, then a third, until very soon all she could see of Rom was a quick glimpse of his laughing face when occasionally the dancers parted. As if to them dancing was an earnest, personal challenge, the young gypsies charged freely into the fray, slapping their knees, clicking the toes and heels of their riding boots in succession on the ground and twirling their partners around with an enthusiasm that sent delighted screams to the girls' lips. Marielle was so mentally involved that it was a shock to hear a softtoned voice questioning directly, "Would the Gaje girl care to be my partner?" She looked up into the face of a solemn young rogue. His pleasantly voiced request did nothing to disguise the recklessness, crushed but visible, in his bold eyes.

"I can't ...!" The words escaped before she had time to think. His eyes followed hers towards Rom. "Can't?" he mocked dangerously. "Or daren't ...?" The anger she was trying to suppress reacted as a damped-down fire to his sly prod. For some unexplainable reason she had felt slighted before the eyes of the whole camp when Rom had deserted her in favour of Lala, and the young gypsy's innuendo proved her suspicion correct. She turned to him with more fire than he expected from one of her race and set his teeth flashing in a grin of pleasure by accepting. "Yes, I'll dance with you...?" "Kalia," he supplied quickly. "Thank you, Kalia. Shall we go?" It was no fun being held so tightly she could hardly breathe and having a strange, seeking face thrust so closely against her own that her back was bent almost double attempting evasion. The surrounding crush gave him ample excuse to pull her even closer as the dancing continued without a break, and after suffering almost half an hour of embarrassment she felt she would have given anything to escape his hot, amorous clutches. Her chance came when Kalia, his attention straying more and more to her pale face and less and less upon the other dancers, collided with another couple whose flying feet came into contact with Marielle's ankle. Her cry of pain was almost a scream as she sagged against him fighting scorching waves of pain. "May your brains flow out the way beer flows from a barrel!" Kalia viciously cursed the colliding couple. When he turned to attend to Marielle, the cursed gypsy scowled, then lunged at Kalia, causing him to loosen his hold upon her only

seconds before he was sent spinning into the crowd of dancers. Feelings ran high, as inflamed by excitement and too much wine, the men took sides in a free-for-all which sent the women screaming for protection. Men's bodies were hurled through the air to crash into the undergrowth, their opponents closely following behind. Dishes, buckets and anything else to hand were used as weapons to implement fists, feet and heads lowered as battering rams against vulnerable stomachs. It was a sickening spectacle and Marielle, full of revulsion, staggered across to a van and screwed her eyes tightly shut to avoid watching the orgy of brutality. A whistle shrilled above the noise of the skirmish, but was ignored. A second blast, more prolonged, penetrated and braked inflamed passions to the extent of slowing down the rate of blows exchanged. When she heard Rom's voice above the receding din she opened her eyes and saw his tall, angry figure dominating the gathering of sullen men. With knife-edged words he berated them, his lashing tongue deriding their irresponsible behaviour with a scorn that caused rough tides of colour to stain tanned cheeks. Their shuffling feet were turning towards the vans when Lala's clear tones raised their bowed heads. Her words were forceful and her eyes, when they searched for and found Marielle's white face, were imprinted with hate. She pointed a damning finger and shouted: "It was she, the Gaje woman, who caused the trouble! We did not want her here, but you, Rom Boro, insisted, so you must share her blame!" Passionately, she turned upon the disgruntled crowd and urged, "This woman's evil influence must be removed from our tribe. If Rom Boro and the elders who agreed to her presence will not send her away then we must appeal to the Kris for justice! Are you all agreed?" To Marielle, trembling against the side of the van, the gypsies' roar of assent sounded frighteningly like that of a guillotine crowd thirsting for vengeance.

CHAPTER FOUR THE Kris, Rom explained in tight-lipped monotone, was the Romany legal structure presided over by a panel of judges, the krisatora, whose wisdom over the years had acquired legendary stature. For countless generations their judgement had enforced restraint over the more powerful groups of gypsies who would have imposed their will over weaker parties. Without respect for the Kris, the Romanies would long ago have reverted to savagery, into a society of thugs corrupt by the power possessed by those of superior physique and ruled by only one law - the law of violence. Marielle sensed his resentment of the position in which Lala's outcry had placed him. It was galling to his proud spirit to have to stand accused of injustice; his erect shoulders, stern mouth, and the crushed anger spilling over the calm surface of his words hinted of a control so tightly held that nothing short of devastation would result if ever it were allowed to slip. She paced the floor of the van, feeling his eyes following her movements with a dislike she found unnerving. When she could bear the silence no longer she appealed, white-faced: "I did nothing wrong, nothing! How could I have known that to dance with Kalia would have such repercussions? Anyway, I hated every minute of it, and if you had not left me alone as you did none of it need ever have happened!" Rom was leaning against a door jamb, detached and, except for his smouldering eyes, composed, but her accusation stung him into action. A couple of lithe steps brought him so close she had to tilt her head. She waited for the storm, certain that she had presented him with the excuse he had been seeking - to blast her with words into a quivering pulp. But the words remained unsaid. Instead he shattered the tense atmosphere by moving to pour out a measure of wine, then, after a shrug of indifference when she refused to join him, he lowered himself upon the bunk and propped himself up on one elbow to drink

deeply. His lips were stained wine red when, after supping to the dregs, he shocked her by harshly admitting, "You are right, of course, you were placed in my charge and I neglected my duty both to you and to my comrades. For that I deserve to suffer, but only God and I know how much it will cost me to redeem myself in the eyes of my people." Physically, he demonstrated the extent of his frustration by hurling the wine glass to the floor, shattering fine splinters into the four corners of the van. Fear grabbed her by the throat when he swung to face her. For nameless seconds she was pinned by a black spear of anger, then, when he turned sharply away, she collapsed on to the bunk drained of all courage. The door banged behind his retreating figure and she shivered, his cryptic words dancing a ritual of fire through her brain. What dreadful punishment was he expecting to have meted out to him from this race of barbarians? Unmentionable horrors presented themselves, then were thrust from her mind as hysterical imagery. But nothing could erase the memory of his outburst, and instinct told her that only the prospect of disaster could be responsible for the worry betrayed by Rom Boro, the man the tough, rugged gypsies had themselves christened: The Big Man.

For days as they travelled on the episode, scrupulously ignored by Rom, remained in the forefront of Marielle's mind. Worry was her constant companion and only that prevented her from becoming completely engrossed by her growing insight into the Romanies' network of communication. Everywhere along the road numerous signs had been left by other gypsies travelling ahead. At every crossroads and bend men jumped down to examine twigs that had been left positioned in a certain way, indicating the passing of another kumpania and its destination. Even scraps of coloured cloth hung upon branches at eye level were clues left for following caravans.

Instead of veering off the trail as she had come to expect, the train made slow steady progress, being joined by other vans at various crossroads until the column began stretching out over several miles. Surprisingly, she discovered that the use of the telephone was an accepted practice. Friendly Gaje - those who displayed no undue curiosity towards the gypsies - were tolerated to the extent that they were used as "points of contact". Mail was forwarded to them and they also served as relays for long-distance telephone messages sent from many different countries. Rom, she learned, had his own personal contacts, as did every important member of the other tribes, and in exchange for their services these contacts were accorded a brand of loyalty given only to a fortunate few. To Marielle, the Kris began to assume- awesome proportions as the giant trail snaked its way towards a meeting place. Everyone was quiet, subdued in the company of herself and Rom but muttering together in undertones when out of hearing. Rom made no verbal recognition of their changed attitude, but as the miles melted under the wheels his lips thinned gradually into lines of corrosive bitterness and the few words he threw in her direction became more and more terse. In a way, she reflected tearfully, she would be glad to reach the end of their journey; the sooner the ordeal began the quicker it would be over. So when eventually she spotted on the horizon a huge gathering of caravans she felt no fear, just an overwhelming relief that soon, for better or worse, the trial would begin. The camp site was enormous. Settlements of caravans were scattered over an area so large their roofs merged with the skyline. Young men driving loaded taligas, small two-wheeled carts, shunted backwards and forwards stacking provisions for what, it seemed, was to be a protracted stay; even children were hard at work gathering large quantities of firewood with which to feed the rapacious fires. Kore entered the van just as Marielle was turning from the window, tired of searching the smoky shadows moving in the distant firelight. Shortly after their arrival, Rom had disappeared, instructing her

before he left: "Stay inside the van until I return. The tribe is angry the less it sees of you before the trial the better." The realization that she was to be treated as a prisoner should have angered her, but her mind was so confused that his taciturn command had sparked from her no greater response than a grave nod. Kore was carrying a large watermelon. "Here is a treat!" she offered, her attempt to appear lighthearted defeated by the worry shadowing her eyes. She sliced through the sweet juicy pulp with a large knife, laying bare bright red flesh glistening with black seeds. "I'm not hungry," Marielle refused listlessly when a portion was pushed forward to tempt her. Kore abandoned the fruit to plead gently, "Do not grieve so, Marielle, not all the tribe are against you. Many, like Rupa and myself, have sense enough to see that spite lies behind Lala's accusations. I did warn you," she reminded, "that Lala was your enemy." Anguish was apparent when Marielle whispered, "For myself, I don't care what the tribe believes, but I do not want Rom to suffer. If the Kris should decide to deliver me to Sergei Ivanov I would not complain - not so long as only I were punished ... What will they do to him, Kore?" she pleaded with wide frightened eyes. Compassionate arms closed around her when she began to cry. "There, there," Kore soothed. "The krisatora are wise and just men, you need not fear their judgement. Rom is well-known and respected throughout the Romany world, so much so that the accusations of Lala and her ignorant friends will lie-as easily as a feather on his head. No, whatever the krisatora decide, it will be Rom's pride that will suffer, not his reputation. Unfortunately, he declared himself your guardian, so under our law he must account for your actions. The krisatora will understand the burden he undertook when he

shouldered the responsibility of a young Gaje girl unused to our ways." Marielle's sobbing ceased as she drew comfort from the confidentlyspoken words. "I hope you are right, Kore," she gulped, "but even if you are and the krisatora do decide to be lenient, will Rom ever forgive me?" There was a smile in Kore's voice when she stood up to leave. "If he feels as you do, then certainly his forgiveness will be no problem." "As I do... ?" Marielle echoed dully. Kore walked towards the door, her swaying hips complementing the impishness of the smile she displayed when she half-turned to tease across her shoulder, "But yes, because you must greatly love him who manages to anger you or make you cry."

The Kris convened next day, late in the afternoon. A little apart from , the vast crowd of gypsies who had travelled miles to have their grievances resolved - some trivial, others serious - were gathered a small group of men: the krisatora. There was no pageantry, no outward symbols of their rank, they wore the same clothes as the rest of the men, yet in some indefinable way they exuded authority. A solemn silence heightened the importance of the occasion as the judges took up their positions in a half circle, moving with an easy dignity devoid of pride but nevertheless projecting an air of stately correctness. Marielle waited with Rom until their case should come up on the agenda. He was silent, pulling on his pipe with every indication of a calmness she envied as her own nerves gradually stretched like tightening elastic. There were a number of complaints investigated before their own; some were deferred, others completely dealt with to the seeming satisfaction of all concerned. Then, after an

hour of torment, she heard her own name mentioned. In her relief she made to rush forward, but Rom grabbed her arm, indicating with a nod Lala's presence before the judges. She began pleading her cause with great eloquence, flashing her beautiful eyes over the impassive judges as she reviled Rom's lack of judgement and contested his right to impose upon his tribe a woman of evil influence - one of the hated Gaje. Murmurs of agreement from her supporters gave her confidence, and Marielle's heart began to thud when she sensed that Lala's impassioned pleas were being heard with sympathy. She hardly dared look at Rom. Since Kore's extraordinary remark every natural word and movement had been smothered by a blanket of shyness that turned their every encounter into an oasis of awkward silence. She doubted whether he had noticed - he seemed even more unaware of her than before - but the terrible shyness persisted and grew to such an extent that her nerves tensed immediately he appeared in her vicinity. What had Kore meant? she pondered as Lala's voice intoned in the background. Rom had made her angry on many occasions, but to suggest that it was he who was responsible for her tears was ridiculous. Nerves, she decided, were responsible. The ordeals of the past few weeks were catching up with her... "Well, they're waiting!" Rom nudged her impatiently. "You do choose the most inappropriate times to daydream!" The shock of his words brought colour rushing to her cheeks, and as she stumbled after him across the rough grass the crescent formation of krisatora appeared to her over-imaginative mind to be as hostile as a razoredged scimitar. Rom faced the judges with arrogant pride, his distaste for the proceedings clearly evident, and as the silent panel examined her Marielle drew closer to his side, searching for protection against the animosity she felt from all sides. The eldest of the panel addressed Rom. "We have heard from your council their reasons for allowing the girl to join their tribe, and we are in full agreement with their

decision." She sagged with relief, only to jerk upright when he continued, "We all owe Comrade Sophie our allegiance, and it is unthinkable that any request of hers should go ignored. But, at the same time, the well-being of your tribe must be taken into consideration, and that is why, Rom Boro, before we pass judgement we must be convinced that your charge will never again be allowed to escape your vigilance." Rom cleared his throat to answer, but Marielle forestalled him. Grey eyes that were pools of earnestness swept the jury as she stammered her assurance. "I won't, I promise! Believe me, I'll obey every order I'm given if only..." "Shut up!" Rom's angry command sliced through her words so abruptly her lips froze. Aghast, she stared up into his darkly aggravated face as dimly she began to suspect that once again she had committed some error. An upsurge of muttering from the gypsies confirmed her fears even before Rom ejected through clenched teeth, "The krisatora must be addressed directly only by men. If a woman wishes to be heard it must be done through a male mediator!" "I'm sorry," she gasped, quelled by the enormity of her crime. "I thought..." "Don't think!" he interrupted fiercely. "Don't think, don't speak don't even move!" It was humiliating to have to stand silently listening while he apologized on her behalf, but by biting her tongue and keeping her eyes downcast she managed to look sufficiently abject to mollify the judges. "I must ask your indulgence for the behaviour of my ... ward," he began tersely. "Besides being ignorant of our ways she is, I fear, headstrong and she takes a misguided pride in being what she terms liberated." The krisatora looked taken aback at the idea of a woman aspiring to freedom and Marielle fumed inwardly when, after their

initial surprise, they all began sporting huge grins of amusement. It was too much for her pride to bear, and not all the quelling looks in the world would have prevented her from defending her case if, at that moment, Rom had not glanced down in time to read her mutinous face. His hand shot out to fasten upon the soft flesh of her upper arm and for a split second she endured agony. Tears of pain spurted to her eyes as he mutely demanded obedience, and only when she nodded surrender did his grasp slacken. Unaware of the contest of wills, the jury went into consultation, glancing upwards every now and then as if seeking reassurance of their decision. While they waited, Rom watched her narrowly, the shadow of a complacent smile relaxing his lips. He was more at ease now than he had been all day, she reflected, therefore he must be feeling that things were going well. She was filled with a great thankfulness that whatever supreme sacrifice he had suspected he might have to make was now to be proved unnecessary. After a great deal of nodding and whispering the eldest of the judges lifted his head. She felt Rom tense as the old man studied him. She had no idea why, but she felt he was full of sympathy for Rom when he began to address him. "There is but one act which will convince the doubting members of your tribe of your complete dominance over this woman. Are you willing to comply with it?" Rom did not move a muscle, but his sharply-indrawn breath evidenced his dismay. For one swift second his bleak eyes swept her puzzled face, then an answer fell grudgingly from his lips. "I am." Disturbance rippled through the crowd like wind through a forest, but no voice was heard.

"And the girl - is she willing?" All eyes were trained upon Marielle as she struggled to understand the cryptic question. Was she willing to do what? Obviously she was to get no help from Rom, whose granite features resisted her unspoken pleas for help. The crowd pushed forward, anxious to hear her reply, and a decision was thrust upon her. She had no idea to what she was committing herself, but if Rom were to be helped out of the spot in which she had put him she had no alternative but to follow his lead. "Yes, I agree," she stammered into thin air, mindful of the protocol that decreed that no female must address the judges, then felt the sky was ripped asunder by the lusty cheers torn from hundreds of delighted throats. From then onwards everything that happened was a complete mystery to Marielle. It was as if she were involved in a miming play much activity, but few words. Half the members of the krisatora ranged themselves at her side while the rest joined Rom. Much clowning and bartering commenced, gold coins were offered by Rom's supporters only to be rejected scornfully by hers. More coins were then offered and accepted, only to be returned when argument again broke out as to whether the sum received was sufficient. All the while, surrounded by her supporters, she tried to attract Rom's attention, but either he was too caught up in the senseless game or he was deliberately avoiding her eyes. Finally, the bartering ended and someone produced a bottle of fine old brandy wrapped around in a silken scarf and decorated with a string of gold pieces. With great ceremony the bottle was handed to Rom. He threw back his head and drank recklessly, his strong throat moving spasmodically as he downed almost half the contents. When he approached her, glinting dangerously, she felt a spasm of apprehension, but his hands were gentle enough when he passed her the bottle and indicated that she too should drink. As the satiny spirit slid down her throat she coughed, then felt her breath cut off as liquid

flame ran through every vein, filling her with a warm glow. As if at a signal, the spectators cheered and Rom bent to sweep her high into his arms. Confused by the speed of his action and by the potent spirit, she did not struggle when he strode with her, followed by chanting gypsies, to the door of her van. Even when he kicked open the door and strode inside she did not protest; it was only when the laughing crowd had departed leaving them isolated in a vacuum of meaningful silence that doubts and intransient fears began to form. He deposited her on the bunk, but when, instead of moving away, he remained staring down at her she began to tremble. He laughed unkindly, then shocked her by laying a caressing hand on a shoulder bared by the disarrangement of her wide-necked blouse. She shrank from the intimacy of his touch, the blood freezing in her veins. "Please... please go ..." "What? And disappoint all our friends?" he laughed without humour. "Disappoint? I don't understand..." He leant even closer and muttered, "No, of course not, how could you?" He withdrew from her to sketch a bow and with eyes bright as living coal he mocked, "You and I, moya droga, have just participated in a Romany wedding. Behold, my wife, your new husband…"

CHAPTER FIVE MARIELLE was staring at Rom with wild, disbelieving eyes when Kore burst into the van carrying a white satin dress. She shooed Rom towards the door, chastising him playfully, "Your impatience is understandable, but as you well know, a bride must never appear too willing, so your patience must be contained until you have fought for her capture." Only when Rom, after sketching a derisory salute, had disappeared through the door did she turn her attention upon Marielle's ashen face and wide terrified eyes. With an excited laugh, she pulled her to her feet. "It is good that you look frightened; the tribe will need no more than a look to be convinced that you are a virgin who stands in awe of her new husband! " Husband! The word jabbed her frozen senses alive. Fiercely she turned upon Kore. "He is not my husband! I .was tricked into taking part in a charade that held for me neither interest nor meaning, and certainly not commitment!" "But you agreed - with my own ears I heard you...!" Kore faltered, astonished and a little angry. "The question was not outlined! I agreed, yes, but I had no idea to what! How could I have suspected that marriage was in mind when I had received neither a proposal nor even attention from the man concerned? The situation is too ridiculous even to discuss!" She expected Kore to argue, to demand obedience to the ruling of the Kris, but all she did was gurgle softly. Brimming with an understanding Marielle found exasperating, she soothed, "We Romany women are not wooed until after the wedding, and a man may not propose directly to the girl he has chosen but must wait until his family and hers have agreed upon a settlement. That is why, in your case, the krisatora themselves intervened. As neither you nor Rom have family or close relatives the judges split into two groups -

one to decide upon the price of the bride and the other to argue the price down. All in all," she beamed, "you brought a very good price for one so wilful and headstrong. Many gold pieces are owing to you from Rom as the price of your favours." "You mean I was bought?" Marielle flashed, writhing with humiliation. "And do you seriously expect me to consider the exchanging of coins and the sharing of a bottle of wine a legally binding marriage ceremony?" Her head tilted proudly. "I am an educated Western woman, Kore, and when I marry it will be to a man who will respect my intellectual as well as my physical needs. Certainly I will not tolerate being bought like an article across a shop counter!" Kore shrugged, letting the dress she was holding fall with a silken sigh to the floor. "It is too late to protest - the main part of the marriage ceremony has taken place. You belong to your husband, his tongue now speaks for both of you, your actions will be accounted his. Do not try to jump over your own shadow, for the wrath of a Romany husband against an erring wife must be visibly demonstrated if he is to keep his respect in the eyes of his tribe, and your proud Western ideals will prove a useless cushion against the sting of an angry husband's hand." "He wouldn't dare!" Marielle scoffed, her forced laugh ending on a shaky, uncertain note as conscience whispered that he did and would dare. As she watched Kore smooth out the creases from the retrieved bridal dress her mind was assessing the incredible situation. As far as the Romany were concerned she was now the wife of one of their chiefs - one who must be seen to do no wrong. Unnoticed, a hurt sigh escaped her, when with sudden clarity she remembered the dismay Rom had registered at the judges' verdict. An enforced marriage was what he had feared most. While she had pictured unimaginable

punishment being meted out to him he had suspected rightly that the outcome would be their mutual bondage. And what of Sophie, whose name cropped up surprisingly often on the tongues of the Romany? No one, not even Kore, would discuss the reasons for the allegiance her aunt inspired. That she was well loved there was no doubt, so much so that Rom had endured the supreme sacrifice of marriage to a woman he despised rather than have to hurt one whom he loved .. She shuddered, then, icily calm, came to a decision. Her presence had brought nothing but trouble to her aunt, to Rom, and to the Romany tribe. Somehow she had to get away, make her own way to England, before her stumbling feet became further entangled in the skein of their lives.

Preparations for the marriage feast were in full swing when just after dusk she heard a furtive tapping on her door. Marielle barely moved in acknowledgement; all afternoon she had sat alone plotting and eventually discarding every plan of escape presented by her exhausted mind. She could find no way out of the situation; she had neither money nor transport and in the clothes she was wearing she would stand out even in a crowded city - should she ever manage to reach one. Her head was aching with concentrated thought when the knocking came again. Wearily, she dragged herself from the bunk and stumbled towards the door; neither Kore nor Rom ever bothered to knock, so she was half prepared for the sight of a stranger. "Kalia!" she gasped, horrified by the reckless disregard for convention that had brought him to her door. To the gypsies it was unthinkable that the wife of their leader should offer hospitality to a young mi- attached male. "Go away!" she hissed, fearfully probing the dusky half-light that might be sheltering spies. "Go away this minute, do you hear!" Treading as delicately as a deer in the forest, he slipped past her, closing the door behind him. "Are you mad?" she appealed. "Rom might return any time!"

Kalia's eyebrows lifted. He was of a poor, backward tribe, one that had never sought to better its living standards, with the consequent result that its often starving members passed on to their children an inherent formula for living which embraced both cunning and deceit lightly skimmed over with roguish charm and silvery speech. He began to practise that charm with just the right amount of concern in his voice to make her sore heart feel grateful. "I was worried about you. Lala is spreading a rumour around the camp that your marriage to Rom was an act of convenience forced upon you as a result of my actions, and I cannot bear the thought that I, in my stupidity, should have pushed you into the arms of another man. Tell me Lala has lied, little flower, that I may make her pay for her shame." His genuine anguish on her behalf soothed some of the sting from her hurt and she responded with all the pleasure of a lost child finding shelter in a wilderness. He represented salvation, the solution that had evaded her all afternoon stared bright with promise from his eager face. "Lala does not lie, Kalia," she admitted in desperation. "I must get away! Please, will you help me?" Subduing a flash of triumph, he assured her swiftly, "We will go tonight. I have a plan, but as timing must be exactly right and there is no time to explain fully I must ask you to carry out my instructions without question and to trust me implicitly." He waited until she nodded before outlining rapidly, "Take part in the celebrations and act the part of a happy bride with as much conviction as you can manage. That way, no one will suspect anything and my plan will have a better chance of success. Later this evening, when everyone is merry with food and drink, Rom will be called upon to enact the ceremony of abduction, and it is then," he licked his lips, "that I shall act! Do not be afraid - surprise will be the element of victory, and we will be miles away before the befuddled fools manage to harness their horses."

His lips curled in a half-snarl of scorn that caused Marielle misgivings. Doubt- shadowed her eyes, but when he saw her hesitation Kalia reminded unkindly, "It must be tonight or never. I need hardly remind you that tomorrow will be too late ..." He nodded, satisfied, when her rising colour indicated his implication had been fully understood, and moved to go. "Remember," he stressed when he reached the door, "play up for all you're worth, especially to Rom. A lion replete will use his energy to purr - see to it that his claws are kept well honeyed!"

The results of the women's incredible spate of activity were sending waves of aromatic air floating above the furnace-red flare of the campfires and upwards into the deep indigo blanket of night sky. Chicken and geese spit-roasted crisp brown, flavoured with sage, thyme and marjoram and stuffed with currants and apples, sizzled temptingly beside cast-iron pots full of vegetables. Mounds of onions and fried potatoes, boiled cabbage leaves stuffed with chopped meat and spiced rice waited to accompany chunks of meat sliced from whole roasted piglets piquant with just a hint of aniseed, and alongside these lay half flanks of smoky beef seasoned with rosemary and sprinkled with cayenne peppercorns. Laid down the length of long improvised tables covered with red chequered cloths were large bowls of lettuce and tomatoes, dishes of cucumber in brine, beans vibrant red from paprika seasoning, plates of potato salad and chunks of Bryndza cheese. Stacks of freshly-baked bread spread with salttanged butter stood in precarious heaps waiting to satisfy the appetites of those whose stomachs preferred to be humoured, and a choice of black wine, blond beer, and mellow brandy had been supplied to wash down the food. The bride and groom did not eat until their guests had been served, Rom told her, so obediently Marielle helped him to serve, flitting so slender in her white gown that she seemed sometimes to be lost in

enshrouding moonbeams. All evening Rom hardly left her side, and although she knew he acted from duty the mellow curve of his mouth encouraged her to ask under cover of the ensuing hilarity, "Why are there no flowers? The tables seem to lack just that one finishing touch." "Gypsies never cut flowers," he answered with an indulgence that made her heart race. "We feel they should be left alone as part of nature. Besides," his glance was lazily teasing, "cut flowers are a symbol of death, and are we not at present celebrating the perpetuation of life?" The perpetuation of life? Children. Rom's children! For one startling moment emotion almost choked her, then common sense forced her back to reality. She was just about to accuse him stiffly of compounding a he when she remembered Kalia's warning and just in time swallowed back the hasty words. The lion did, indeed, seem in a mood for purring. Never before had she seen him with mouth so relaxed, eyes so free of shadows and mood so mellow. A flare of recklessness possessed her. In a few hours she would be gone, cut off for ever from the Romanies and their leader, why should she not use the short time that was left to prove to herself that the strange emotions that bedevilled her in his presence were born of a pique that would quickly fade once she managed to gain his complete attention? It became unbelievably easy, as the night went on, to find Rom's eyes with her own over the heads of their merry guests. Each time they became separated she looked for his dark head above the crowd, then moved with the instinct of a homing pigeon back to his side. Finally, although they were both very much in demand, he placed an arm firmly around her shoulders, drawing her to his side with a possessiveness that rocked to the foundations her sincerely held views on the liberty of women. As they danced and laughed and ate together she waited for her rampant emotions to subside, but his

touch continued to play havoc with her nerves and his low, tender voice played like a cantata in her ears. She was being held closely against him as they danced, the music romantically tender to match his startling change of mood. Somewhere in the background a receptive musician was tearing the heart from the strings of a violin when Rom's lips hovered above her ear, then finally descended to curve lightly across her flushed cheek. "You have the skin of a peach," he growled on a half-laugh. "What will you do, I wonder, if I should decide to bite?" He gathered her trembling body closer and laughed tenderly when her hot face burrowed into his shoulder. He did not speak again, seemingly content to allow the silver-stringed violin to work its magic unaided as they swayed together in the moonlight, presenting to the covertlywatching gypsies a pleasing picture - a handsome, smiling bridegroom engrossed in his bewitchingly shy young bride ... Kalia and his plan were forgotten as Marielle surrendered completely to his competent manoeuvres. She pressed her head against the strong, steady beat of his heart, hypnotized into believing that here, in arms that held her with such sensitive feeling, she would be content to remain for ever. She was so bemused that the shock when it came was great. Rough, playful arms wrenched her from Rom's embrace as a throng of laughing youngsters separated them completely. Her deprivation was complete when the youths linked arms to form around her a protective wall, then understanding dawned as she remembered Kore's reminder to Rom that he must fight for his bride's capture. Obviously, the youngsters were to be her champions in the ceremony of abduction. Even though the marriage had taken place, the bridal price paid, and the union celebrated with a festive meal, the bridegroom still had to fight for his bride's surrender. In the midst of the good-humoured preliminary skirmishes Marielle waited, her slender, apprehensive outline licked by flares from

glowing campfires. A sudden hiss of flame as a burning branch collapsed into the heart of the fire speared the darkness and in that split second her eyes sought and found Rom, who sent a reassuring grin across the width dividing them. Immediately, her heart began to sing, and its song lasted all through the jostling and pushing she endured as Rom's side began to force a way through her barrier of supporters in a bid for her capture. Pandemonium reigned as the scuffle grew fiercer. In the darkness it was impossible to distinguish faces, but she knew by the way her ring of champions began closing tighter and tighter that Rom's side was winning. The excitement was so intense she could not suppress a scream when hands groped out of the darkness in search of her, but the voice that muttered in her ear was grimly earnest. "Quick, follow me, and run faster than you've ever run in your life before!" She shook out of his grasp. "No, Kalia," she gasped. "I've changed my mind, I don't want to go!" She could not see his face, but fury registered in his tightening grip. "You must!" he hissed, just before his fist descended upon her defenceless head, toppling her into a chasm of pain and darkness. The brush of cold night air against her cheeks brought her to her senses. She struggled out of an abyss of pain into a second nightmare as the tagila in which they were fleeing raced with reckless speed into the darkness, swaying and bumping over the rough roads, plunging without regard for scratched arms and faces through thickets of prickly branches, its wheels rotating ever faster as Kalia's whip spurred on to greater effort the wild-eyed, foam-flecked horse fastened between the shafts. Any attempt to speak above the sound of rattling harness and pounding hooves would have been pointless, so Marielle hung on to the side of the cart, the pain of her throbbing head submerged by an even greater pain slowly making itself felt in

the region of her heart as the glow of burning campfires faded into the distance, then finally disappeared completely. Although her eyes remained dry, her throat ached with unshed tears as Kalia drove the horse unmercifully in his effort to put as many miles as possible between themselves and recapture, and the night sky was streaked with an amber and gold promise of sunrise when finally he drove off the road into a tree-encircled clearing where he drew the horse to a standstill. "Get down," he commanded roughly when Marielle made no move to stir, "there are provisions in the cart and I'm ready to eat. We dare not risk betraying our whereabouts by lighting a fire, so we will make do with bread and cold meat washed down with wine." She stared him out before answering coldly, "If you want a meal you can get it yourself. I told you I had changed my mind ... I wanted to stay ... then you hit me!" Subconsciously her fingers lifted to her throbbing head as the shock and horror of that moment was resurrected. Never before had. she been struck in anger, not even as a child, so the brutal treatment experienced from the hands of a man was doubly traumatic. In Kalia's tribe women were regarded as serfs. They accepted blows, curses and even infidelity with a stoicism that reflected upon their lack of intelligence and pride. His reaction to her scorn was typical of all inherently weak men with egos over-inflated by worshipping women. With a snarl of animal vexation he grabbed her arm and pulled her from the cart, then poked her maliciously with his foot as she lay shaking on the ground. "So you changed your mind!" he sneered with such savage enjoyment she shuddered. "Well, pity on you, my plans were too important to be shelved for your sake! Rom Boro is rich enough to meet the price I shall demand for the return of his bride - unharmed." His glance roved, unmoved, over her frightened face, then sharpened as he added meaningfully, "Of

course, if he should turn awkward and refuse to hand over the money there could then be no guarantee of your safety." He sighed heavily, play-acting, and enjoying to the full her visible terror. "My tribe has a saying: the darker the berry the sweeter it is - you are too pale and slim for my taste, but if Rom does not pay then no doubt I shall manage to force myself..." He meant it. He was too coldly vicious to extend mercy. Something warned her against ridiculing his statement that Rom would be prepared to pay for her return; Kalia might in his fury make her pay heavily for the small satisfaction. So she remained silent, praying inwardly for a solution, and wondering how she could ever have been deceived into thinking this brutal nomad had even a trace of the consideration and sensitivity of the haughty, overbearing, but never savage Rom. She forced herself to prepare a meal while Kalia attended to- the horse, and later managed to swallow the jibes and insults he heaped upon her silent head. He was jumpy, tensing every now and again at imaginary sounds, his furtive eyes restlessly probing the undergrowth as if expecting any moment to be confronted. But as the morning advanced he grew complacent. He knew of a hideout, he told her, but it was still some distance away and as he did not intend to run the risk of travelling by daylight they would remain where they were until nightfall before continuing on their way. Marielle's eyes were heavy with fatigue, but she determined to stay awake on the offchance that Kalia's weariness, which must be as great as her own, would overcome his resistance to sleep. As they rested she watched intently as his head began to nod. When his breathing deepened into a faint snore she began edging cautiously away, her eyes fastened upon his face as she retreated an inch at a time towards the perimeter of the clearing. Her progress was so slow that it seemed hours had passed by the time she reached the first ring of trees. Blood pounded in her head, overriding the sound of Kalia's

stertorous breathing. She paused to take a deep breath, then with one last wild glance in his direction she fled amongst the sheltering trees and ran as fast as she could in the direction of the road. Her lungs felt afire, breathing an essential agony, by the time she reached the edge of the forest and glimpsed between the last clumps of trees a narrow strip of road. Her face and hands were scratched and bleeding, her dress a mass of thorn-ripped satin, but the sight gave lift to her flagging feet and a spurt of renewed energy sent her staggering on to its rutted surface. Light-headed with relief, she scanned the countryside for signs of life, but nothing moved, not even a distant spiral of chimney smoke presented itself as comfort. Then, in the distance but moving rapidly, she heard the stomp of angry feet through the undergrowth. A sob tore from her throat as, making a supreme effort, she began to run, but Kalia's advance was rapid and her fatigue so great it was almost a relief to feel his hard grip on her shoulder. She spun round like an inanimate toy at his touch, her grey eyes enormous with unspoken pleas for mercy, then fainted before his violent hand began descending to deliver a blow which, had it landed, would have left its mark for ever.

CHAPTER SIX WHEN she regained consciousness she was lying in the clearing trussed up with ropes that rasped her wrists and ankles, making movement an agony. A coarse rag was stuffed between her teeth and a diklo was wrapped tightly around her mouth keeping the gag in place. Only her eyes could be moved, and they immediately alighted upon Kalia stretched out beneath a tree directly opposite, snoring deeply, oblivious and uncaring of the discomfort of his prisoner left lying in the full glare of the midday sun. By the time he awoke the sun had dropped to the level of the tree tops and Marielle was almost delirious from combined effects of blistering ropes, harsh sun, and the suffocating gag. He showed no compunction as he bent down to loosen the diklo which by then had begun to feel like a constricting iron band. "So I take it you now intend to behave?" he questioned with casual cruelty, fingering the gag as if in two minds whether or not to replace it. "Yes ..." she croaked through swollen lips, her eyes imploring him to believe his strong-arm tactics were no longer necessary. His lip curled in a callous grin, but he loosened the ropes to allow her to massage the deep weals around her wrists and ankles to revive circulation. She offered no condemnation, not even when he taunted, "That is just a foretaste of what will follow should you try to escape again. Your presence means money in my pockets; I shall be very angry if there are any further attempts to disrupt my plans. I sympathize with your desire to rejoin your husband," he sneered. "I hope, for your sake, that his impatience matches your own!" The clearing rang with laughter as he walked away to tend to the horse, and she had to grit her teeth to prevent letting slip the angry retort burning on her lips.

There were still a couple of hours to go before nightfall, so she used the time to repair as best she could the damage caused to her appearance. Frequent bathing in cold water from a nearby spring reduced the swelling from her lips and rendered the scratches on her arms and face almost invisible; dampened fingers dispersed the tangles from her hair, leaving it smooth and sculptured moistly to her head. Her dress presented the biggest problem; the bodice was not too bad, but the long skirt was in ribboned strips from the knees downwards. With as much care as she would have given to a treasured ball-gown, Marielle began ripping away the tattered remnants of the skirt, concentrating upon making as straight a hem as possible until she had achieved a passable imitation of a mini. Then, her feminine morale slightly uplifted, she made her way back to the clearing. The horse was harnessed, the cart loaded, and Kalia, with scowling countenance, was waiting. Without speaking, Marielle stepped up on to the cart, flinching from the crack of the impatient whip he flicked across the horse's withers, then with a jerk that almost rocked her from her seat the cart moved forward, then stopped suddenly as the horse reared between the shafts, quivering nostrils and flattened ears denoting fear of some object that had appeared in its path. With a curse Kalia stood up in his seat, flicking the reins to urge the horse forward. Nothing could be seen in the gathering gloom, so the shock of hearing a voice snake out from the direction of the enshrouding trees was great. "Get down, Kalia!" the voice commanded. "Get down and prepare to take your punishment!" "Rom!" The name left Marielle's lips like a soft prayer. In a moment, it seemed, the clearing was full of gypsies stepping from behind the trees - grim-faced avengers waiting, silently demanding, that justice should be done. She cried out and slid away from Kalia's frozen silhouette to run towards Rom, only to be thrust behind him to join the audience of watchers waiting with bated breath for the first sign of action from their savagely revengeful leader.

Fear relaxed its grip sufficiently on Kalia's vocal chords to enable him to stutter, "The woman pleaded for my help! She hates you, Rom Boro . .. enough to offer me a bribe to help her escape. My tribe is poor ... money is needed desperately ... do not condemn me for attempting to relieve the suffering of my people! " Marielle's cry of protest was drowned by rumbles of sympathy from the surrounding gypsies. Only Rom remained unmoved, his flint-hard eyes held no hint of softening as he ignored Kalia's pleas and repeated dangerously, "Get down, Kalia ... and bring your whip!" Like wind rustling through dry leaves his words were taken up by the men, hissed through clenched teeth from one to the other until the clearing echoed with the sibilant, terrifying whisper: whip fight! Marielle froze with dread and steeled herself to witness yet another pagan ritual. She had learnt to accept that protest would be useless, even resented; Rom had thrown down a challenge and for him to back down now would be regarded by the watching gypsies as "being forced to eat dirt". Kalia suddenly assumed the aspect of a whipped cur, his body sagged with dejection as he obeyed Rom's command and reached for the horsewhip which only minutes before he had so vigorously applied to the haunches of the now placid horse. He looked so pathetic when he climbed from the cart that even Rom was sufficiently disarmed to allow his attention to waver. He was adjusting the handle of his whip when Kalia lashed out. There was a slight, whistling whisper followed by a sharp whipcrack and before Marielle's shocked eyes Rom's hand jerked up to cover the blood-stained cheek which Kalia had just grazed. The watching men showed their disapproval of Kalia's tactics by booing and spitting their contempt, but they did not have long to wait for Rom's reaction. He uncurled his snake of leather slowly, then, pinpointing Kalia's cunning face with a look of cold venom, he circled round him, his anger so visible that Marielle experienced a thrill of dread on behalf of his opponent. The

encircling gypsies rapidly spread out to leave a space wide enough to escape the far-reaching whips, their heavy breathing the only sound impinging the tense atmosphere. Again Kalia nervously snapped out, but Rom jumped back and he missed. Once more he tried, hitting out a few tentative whip snaps which Rom warily anticipated. Then, white to the lips with anger, Rom began infuriating his opponent by teasing him into reckless moves which he then contemptuously foiled. Arrogantly he stalked Kalia in a full circle, feinting blows which were never intended to land on the sweating, back-stepping man until his humiliation was unmistakable. Finally, incensed by the men's derisive catcalls, Kalia spat at Rom in scorn, only to double up in silent agony with a thin red whip mark across his gaping mouth; with one quick flick of the wrist Rom had been avenged! Marielle almost retched when Kalia fell to the ground clutching his ragged mouth with blood-stained fingers. She staggered away with tears of shame and disgust scalding her cheeks, her senses so shocked she barely took in Rom's harshly-voiced condemnation. "Save your tears, you'll need them later to prove your penitence. If you think Kalia's punishment too harsh, then be grateful you did not marry a true gypsy. The punishment they dole out to erring wives is barbaric, but most effective..." She turned slowly to face her accuser. "What will they do to me?" she whispered, ready to believe anything of people who could enjoy the barbarity she had just witnessed. "They will merely look on while I chastise," he clipped. "I would willingly forgo the ritual, were it not expected of me as chief that I should punish my wife's infidelity in the only way the tribe can accept - physically." As she stared at him with the vacant eyes of a child striving to understand, the grim line of his mouth wavered,

touched by deep pain. He sounded exasperated beyond endurance when he pulled her forward to clamp bitterly, "Why did you do it, why? Surely there was no need for me to explain that the marriage ceremony was of no consequence to either of us? That it is neither legally nor morally binding - a mere sop to the demands of the krisatori which could have been dismissed from your mind as soon as you reached safety?" He raked her ashen face, hesitating over bruise-shadowed eyes and a mouth completely beyond control. "You surely didn't think ...?" He pushed her away as doubt became certainty. "You had nothing to fear from me," he lanced coldly. "I wish only to carry out my promise to Sophie by getting you safely out of the country. Perhaps I should have reassured you earlier on this point, but I thought my motives so plain that to have voiced them would have been merely to underline the obvious!" Marielle called upon every reserve to steady her nerves as she quavered, "I'm not sure what you are implying, but if it is what I suspect then your conceit must be enormous! I asked Kalia to help me simply because I am sick of travelling with a tribe of barbarians whose whole mode of life is repugnant to me. I am a product of a civilized society, and as such I crave the stimulus of intelligent minds. I don't wish to disparage the kindness and hospitality of your people, Rom Boro, but the truth is I was desperately bored, and escape with Kalia seemed to offer a short cut to sanity! " He had no need to pretend anger when, a few hours later, he drove the tagila with reckless speed into the centre of the encampment. The men who had accompanied him in his search had arrived back earlier, and judging from the hard eyes and tightly-pursed lips of their womenfolk the tale they had told must have thoroughly condemned her. Rom plunged into his role of furious husband by jumping down from the cart and roughly plucking her from her seat, setting her down with such scant ceremony that the impact jarred her spine. His mouth tightened when Lala shouted from the crowd: "She is wilful,

that one, Rom Boro! Shame on you for burdening us with a wild goose you cannot tame!" Marielle was too dispirited to show fight, the weight of her worries overshadowed even the growing certainty that the resentment felt by the tribe would not be appeased until they saw her humbled by a public beating. Pity stirred for Rom, faced with a situation demanding action she knew instinctively was abhorrent to him. She watched with almost detached curiosity his struggle against divided loyalties - on the one hand, the demand of his tribe that he live up to his position of leadership by following out their code of immediate retribution and on the other, his own deeply-rooted aversion to physical assault upon a woman. No one but she guessed that he finally decided upon compromise. As his hands seized her shoulders, brutally shaking her into submission, he hissed through immobile lips: "Play up, for God's sake! Shout, scream, do anything that will satisfy their thirst for vengeance! " But she could not. It was as if her senses were too numbed by mental agony to allow physical assault to register. Driven to desperation by her mute refusal to co-operate, he shook her giddy, then threw her savagely across his shoulder and began striding towards the van. There were mutterings amongst the dissatisfied onlookers : "Life amongst the Gaje has made our leader soft," and an answering: "It is as our elders have long suspected, Rom will not be for ever content to share our life, we must prepare -for the day when he decides to return permanently to his own." Similar reproaches were ringing in his ears when he stepped inside the van and ferociously booted shut the door. "You little fool!" he breathed, raking her with fire- flecked eyes as he set her on her feet. "Was it too much to expect that you play out a charade for their benefit? Didn't you sense their demand for tears, for pleas for mercy, for any visible signs of the torment expected of a repentant wife? Surely you could have mustered up something more convincing than the reproachful look of a thrashed kitten!" Her chin

was tilted by an impatient hand until his anger was reflected in eyes of limpid grey. She winced when he harshly decreed: "Outside they are waiting, hoping against hope that their suspicions are groundless that their chosen leader is not incapable of mastering an unruly woman!" He sounded dangerously silky when he went on, "With or without your co-operation, I intend making sure they are not disappointed." Marielle stared up at him, suddenly alive to a hidden meaning in his words, then backed away, afraid for the first time, not of his anger, but of the sinister curve of his lips which barely parodied a smile. "No! Please, no ..." she begged wide-eyed, her face as colourless as the shorn gown clinging incongruously to her figure, giving her the look of a child dressed up to play a favourite game of brides. "But yes," he countered, advancing towards her, his saturnine features showing a determination that terror- thrilled. Too late her frozen senses reacted to the urgency of his demands. He was through play-acting! Not only for his tribe's sake, but to appease some devil she had aroused within him he wanted to punish her, to see her writhe, hear her plead for mercy... Blows would have been infinitely preferable to the scourge of hard lips that sought revenge upon her protesting mouth, strangling within her the infinite capacity for loving which once she would have bestowed willingly. While his mouth silently forced her surrender, his hands caressed her shivering limbs, sliding over delicate satin as if contemplating inflicting the ultimate degradation of tearing the flimsy material from her body. When at last he lifted his mouth to explore the soft contours of her shoulder she fought him with words, ragged, contemptuous words that rasped through a throat tight with feeling. Nuzzling her neck, he laughed, softly mocking, and the sound aroused in her the fighting spirit subdued by the emotional storm she had endured.

She pushed hard against him and screamed, a loud, prolonged scream that must have penetrated outside the van to the ears of everyone in camp. With the fury of a cornered tabby she raked his tanned face with clawed fingernails, kicked his shins, then for good measure stamped the heel of her shoe hard upon his foot. Pandemonium reigned as he retaliated by clamping her flaying arms to her sides, unbalancing them both in the process so that they stumbled into a dresser, sending crockery smashing to the floor with a crash that shuddered through the van. Exerting tremendous effort, she broke loose and backed away, spitting fury as she put the space of the van between them. She tensed, expecting retaliation, but Rom was otherwise occupied. Disposing of the slivers of broken crockery clinging to his clothes, he observed calmly, "That ought to do the trick. All we need do now is remain quiet and leave the rest to our audience who, if I'm not mistaken, will now be imagining that the 'wild goose' has been tamed and we are now in the process of 'making up'." Her hands faltered to her sides, comprehension firing her cheeks a humiliated crimson as she read amusement in his face... There was no question of his leaving the van that night; to have retired outside to his usual sleeping place would have re-aroused suspicion in the minds of his people. So he rolled out a blanket on the floor, stretched himself on its length, and after a cursory "goodnight" fell fast asleep. For hours Marielle lay on her bunk, wary, and not entirely disarmed by his quick return to normality. But as the shadows lengthened and his breathing grew deeper and more even she allowed her tense limbs to relax, even though chaotic thoughts still rioted through her mind. Tentatively, she raised a finger to her bruised lips. They felt hot and trembled as if only just released from the kisses that had intoxicated to the point of seduction. She had fought two fights, one against him and the other against an inner voice that urged her to indulge in the temptation of the moment.

What would have been the outcome if she had listened to that voice? Would she have perhaps suffered the shame of rejection or - her body blushed in the darkness - had the increasing urgency of his questing lips indicated that he, too, had not been entirely unmoved?

The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafting through the van welcomed in a new day. Rom, freshly shaven and visibly refreshed, was bending over her when she opened her eyes. "Did I startle you?" He actually smiled. "Here, drink this, it will chase the dream dust from your eyes." Gratefully she drank, meeting his eyes with childlike solemnity over the rim of her cup until he frowned and turned away. "When you've finished," he clipped across his shoulder, "I will change the bed linen. It is expected," he explained in answer to her raised eyebrows, "another of our outlandish customs which must be tolerated." Marielle glanced up, puzzled by the hint of unease in his tone, but his profile was impassive. Obediently, she finished her coffee and dressed while his back was conveniently turned, then she bundled up the sheets and gravely handed them over. "Perhaps you would like to wash while I attend to these," he politely ordered, avoiding her questioning look as he accepted the proffered bundle. Feeling certain he wanted to be rid of her, she picked up a towel and hurried out of the van, then, impelled by a curiosity she could not control she hesitated, then turned and began slowly to retrace her steps. When she reached the van she began instinctively to creep, so her silent footfalls gave no warning of her return. He had placed the sheets on the bunk and was bending over them trying without much success to stem a flow of blood from a cut in his finger. Forgetting caution, she ran forward. "Rom, you're bleeding! Here, let me..."

He swung round angrily, at the same time slipping the penknife he was holding into his pocket. "It's nothing, a mere scratch," he told her tersely. She felt accused of prying, an unforgivable sin in the eyes of the Romany, so stiffly she turned away, curbing an impulse to remove the sheets upon which a few drops of blood had already dried. She was almost at the door when a voice from outside froze her footsteps. It was Lala, and venom laced her words. "We are here to see the display of bridal linen, Rom Boro!" she shouted loudly, adding some whispered aside that made her companions collapse into laughter. It was Marielle's turn to look accusing as she swung round silently demanding an explanation. She had never thought to see Rom discomfited; he had been master of every situation - until now. After a masculine shrug of helplessness and an apologetic look in her direction, he lifted the soiled sheets and strode outside to deposit them at the feet of the demanding women. Immediately Lala grabbed one and spread out its surface to the light. It was the sheet Rom's blood had stained, and Lala's face creased into lines of fury when she saw it. Vindictively, she spat at the bewildered Marielle, "It is not unknown for some, whose virginity is questionable, to take a pigeon along on her wedding night...!" As Lala, in her multi-coloured skirts, twirled a furious exit, Marielle's kaleidoscopic thoughts fell into place, forming a pattern so humiliating that she was robbed of speech. She could not meet Rom's eyes. Even though he had tried his utmost to spare her this final indignity she felt she hated him and blamed him bitterly for the shame that seared her body, making her feel that never again would her eyes move above the skirts of those who had witnessed her degradation.

Though heartsick, as the days went by Marielle found it impossible to ignore the tribeswomen's dramatic change of attitude. Utmost

respect, as was due to the proven bride of their chief, was lavished upon her as they went out of their way to show that she had finally been accepted. Her ravaged feelings were soothed as one by one the women approached her with little acts of kindness and with offers to share family meals. Kalia was never mentioned. His kumpania had departed when the Convention had dispersed, but not before he and his disgraced tribe had been condemned by the Kris to roam for ever in isolation. Only one thing relevant to the episode was retained in the minds of the tribe; they named her Vadni Ratsa - the wild goose of Romany legend which, it was said, could never be completely tamed but, although it might flee from its captor, would always return. The wagons rolled onwards, bringing her nearer to her point of departure as each day passed. But England was still very far away and as they were travelling by an indirect route to avoid stringent security measures the border into Austria would have to be crossed before her safety could be assured. "Why is it easier to travel through Czechoslovakia than through East Germany?" she asked Rom. "They are both Communist countries, are they not ?" He flexed his limbs, betraying the boredom of a man too long confined. It had rained all day, saturating the earth to the extent that not even the most vagrant of gypsies would be sleeping out that night. This thought had nervously occupied her during the hours he had spent poring over maps, plotting their route, and was revived each time she sensed the lazy appraisal she suffered as his pastime began to pall. He pushed aside the maps to give her his full attention. "In Czechoslovakia we have many friends. Also, there, security is not so tight - fewer Sergei Ivanovs, perhaps," he suggested, blandly glossing over the danger that was ever- present.

The mere mention of Sergei Ivanov's name was sufficient to knot the muscles of her stomach. Marielle stood up and walked across to the small window. The rain had stopped, but the sky was heavy with cloud shapes made curiously beautiful by a moon racing as fast as her heart across the sky, playing hide and seek amongst the black shadows. She jumped when he spoke close behind, his voice sounding so near she knew he was within touching distance. "I shouldn't have reminded you. I'm sorry..." His breath caught a curling tendril at her temple. Fascinated, he directed another breath, then growled a laugh when her colour began to rise. A star shot high into the sky and to divert his attention she pointed. "Look, a shooting star!" His lean fingers grasped her wrist. "Don't do that!" he ordered brusquely, his teasing mood momentarily dispersed. When the pleasure drained from her face he explained, "We believe each star in the sky is a man on earth. When a star runs away it means that a thief takes flight, and by pointing a finger the man it represents is likely to be captured. Some of the men of the tribe have gone out tonight and have not yet returned. Old habits die hard. Although we are now in a position to buy our food, some insist upon courting danger by poaching our needs." He moved until his lips were almost touching her burning cheek. "Nothing gives a man more satisfaction than mastering the impulses of the untamed. Whether it be a wild stag or a wayward woman - both add excitement to the chase." A treacherous weakness swept over her; his deliberately projected charm was so potent her only defence was sarcasm which she seized upon with the panic of a drowning man. "Then what of Sophie?" she dared to ask as she moved out of his disturbing orbit. "How does her impassive reserve affect your thirst for stimulation? Don't tell me," she tilted nervously, "that my aunt's chilling manner is a facade behind which lurks a daughter of Circe?"

Laughter came easily as she considered the comparison, but he was not amused. His answer was directed, swiftly across a shoulder stiff with resentment. "Your aunt is a woman in a million, why else do you suppose she holds the affections of every man in camp? Sorceress is too common a label, Sophie is unique - a woman men would gladly die for!" Marielle wondered why his admission hurt so when it had merely made concrete what she had always suspected. Nevertheless, she was wiping away an onrush of tears when a frantic knocking on the door sent him spinning round. Surreptitiously she wiped her cheeks dry as Rom strode across to admit an agitated gypsy. "The police!" he gasped, "they have arrested some of the others. I escaped, but they are close behind, they'll arrive in camp any minute!" Rom swore softly as he reached for his coat, but even as he was lifting it from its peg shouts and women's screams heralded the arrival of authority. Curiosity impelled Marielle towards the open door, but it was kicked shut before she had a chance to peek. Roughly, Rom bundled a coat around her shoulders, at the same time directing the gypsy, "When I leave, wait a few seconds, then take my wife into hiding. We cannot risk her being found here - we are a long way from Warsaw, but I'm willing to bet her description has been distributed throughout every Communist state. Make haste - but go carefully!" He was gone before she could protest, leaving her staring at the hard-eyed gypsy whose respect for Rom far outreached his fear of the authorities. He waited a few seconds, as ordered, then intimated that she should follow him closely as he prepared to lead the way. Barking dogs, shrieking, newly-awakened children, the verbal onslaught of irate mothers, were combining with police whistles and

angrily-shouted orders to create uproar in the camp as Marielle and her companion slipped from the van into the thick, damp underbrush. They were well hidden, yet near enough to hear Rom's controlled tone calming the disrupted camp so that individual voices might be heard. Eager constables, with torches slicing spears of light into the darkness, were also stilled as Rom addressed their chief. Politely, but with disconcerting hauteur, he demanded of the man, "If your intrusion can be explained, I am prepared to listen, officer." Marielle smiled in the darkness when, by nervously clearing his throat, the officer betrayed uncertainty. "Four men were surprised stealing chickens. My men caught three of them, but the other escaped. We believe he headed in this direction." "So!" Rom interrupted suavely. "Children have been half frightened to death, women made hysterical, and livestock disturbed to the point of bolting simply because you imagined a thief ran in our direction? Look around you, then tell me if you still think my people are in need of a few scrawny chickens!" Marielle's chuckle was quickly hushed by her grinning companion as they both pictured the police officer being treated by the swiftthinking women to a display of solid gold bracelets, earrings and necklaces such as his own wife could never aspire to. It took even less time than they had thought to convince him that he was wrong, and when his reply came, full of doubt and apology, Marielle doubled up with silent laughter. "For months we have been plagued by rogue gypsies ... we were anxious to stamp out their activities, but perhaps in this instance we were too hasty ... obviously, yours is not the tribe to which they belong."

"Thank you, my friend," there was a smile in Rom's voice. "When next I meet up with your chief of police I will not forget to pass on to him my admiration of your good judgement, a quality which he has often assured me he considers essential to a man in authority." As was meant, the officer was impressed and was flattered into accepting Rom's invitation to share a bottle of wine while his men took advantage of the hospitality of the now friendly tribe. For an age Marielle crouched in the darkness waiting until the officer and his men were replete with wine and the tasty morsels of food hastily assembled to gull the representative of the law into a permanently tolerant frame of mind. As time went by her amusement gave way to discomfort, then finally numbness as damp soaked through her shoes so thoroughly that she felt her feet were extensions of solid ice. She almost sobbed aloud when the yan door eventually opened and she heard the officer making benign goodbyes before leading his posse of happy constables on their way. "Thank heaven!" she croaked when in answer to her companion's low whistle Rom loomed up in the darkness. "I tried to get rid of him earlier, but he seemed determined to stay. Wait!" he commanded, but she stumbled towards him and was swept up into his arms and carried into the van. He placed her on the bunk, discarded her shoes, then began briskly rubbing her feet with a harsh towel to encourage circulation. She was shivering so much that he left her to make coffee, hot, sweet and laced with brandy, which he then forced between her chattering teeth. The spirit raced like molten fire through her veins, generating life-giving heat and a mood of utter contentment. "What will happen to the men who were caught?" she asked drowsily as he continued to massage her feet. He traced his thumb along a weal, the last faint reminder of Kalia's brutality, and frowned.

"They will go to prison." "And will they accept that punishment is due to them?" she queried, not liking the morose twist to his mouth. "Why should they?" he rounded sharply. "According to their beliefs they were doing no wrong - they do not consider the taking of basic necessities a crime. Wood gathered from the forest should be free to all; putting a few horses to pasture in someone's meadow ought not to be considered .wrong when the grass grows there without any effort by the owner! It is greed that changes taking into stealing," he maintained with passion. "Greed feeds on men's desire for more and more possessions, makes them slaves to unnecessary appetites. If all men were as honest and selfless as the gypsies there would be no need to ever again fear famine, pollution or war!" Marielle blinked up at him, wondering if it were wiser to speak or to remain silent, then drew in a breath of relief when his icy look melted, leaving his black eyes sparkling. "How serious we have become," he laughed easily. "Even more morose, I imagine, than our compatriots who are languishing in prison. Some day, when their sentence has been served, we will meet up with them again. They will never divulge to the police their connections with our kumpania, so you can feel safe, and at peace." She returned his encouraging smile, but deep down something cried out against the desire for safety - and as for peace, she wondered if she would ever again know the true meaning of the word.

CHAPTER SEVEN As the caravan moved south, traversing the low hills and plains of Moravia, passing fields of golden wheat, sugar beet, tobacco and in the milder regions even vine-yards, the possibility of capture began to seem more and more remote. The villages, usually one sleepy row of houses forming a main street, were enclosed by miles of cultivated fields, while far ahead across the border beckoned the fertile valley of the Danube and the great musical capital of Vienna ringing with music - from lilting gaiety to haunting melancholy - reflecting the conflicting nature, happy and sad, of the Austrian people. Occasionally, soldiers in jeeps raced past them, and at first Marielle's mouth had gone dry with fear as she pictured herself being dragged from the van and carried screaming to jail. But her fears had gradually abated as she had reassured herself that Sergei Ivanov knew of no connection between herself and the gypsies. Rom was well-known for his habitual, indeed notorious escapes from society, and the fact that her flight from Warsaw had coincided with his would take a long time to penetrate Sergei's strong but far from brilliant intellect. She bit her lip when, as was usual whenever she thought of the Russian, doubts and uncertainties about her aunt sprang to mind. Rom had refused to discuss the events leading up to her escape, but whenever Sophie's name was mentioned a frown furrowed his brow and his mouth went grim, indication that he, too, was worried about Sophie, whose efforts on her niece's behalf would have left her with some awkward explaining to do to the hawk-eyed Russian. As if reading her thoughts, Rom called out, beckoning her to join him up front where he sat driving the wagon. After momentary hesitation she did as she was bid, wondering as she left the security of the van to clamber alongside him if she was to be scolded for some misdeed or subjected to more of the unpredictable charm that reacted upon her nerves more violently than harsh words.

He pointed ahead and as her eyes followed his direction she saw in the distance the outline of a castle. "Bratislava Castle looks down upon the city from which it takes its name," he informed her briefly. "This evening we will go there." He did not miss the sparkle that lit her eyes and dryly he observed, "Even though you cannot risk meeting or speaking with the townspeople, you will at least feel nearer to the civilized intellectuals whose company you crave." She had almost forgotten her pathetic attempt to hide her feelings behind her scorn of his people, but obviously he had not. "Rom, I never meant..." "We will go alone," he decided, ruthlessly snubbing her attempted apology. "Bratislava is the last Communist-controlled city we pass before crossing over the border into Austria, so we must make the most of the opportunity to find out all we can. There might even be news of Sophie." So! They were to sneak into the city, running the gauntlet of sharpeyed police, because he could no longer bear the suspense of not knowing what had happened to Sophie! All the half-forgotten grievances Marielle had built up against her aunt surged to the surface : her possessiveness, her jealousy, her indifference to family ties, and most of all, her treacherous befriending of the brutal Sergei Ivanov. Heat of feeling sent blood scorching to her cheeks, her hands shook and she had to bite back the bitter words of condemnation with which she wanted to tear away the veil that blinded Rom to Sophie's faults. He was too good for her, so very much deserving of someone better, but she dared not say so - agitated and angry though she was, instinct told her that he, as the recipient of such information, might just conceivably accuse her of being jealous! Her heart was thumping when, later that night, their swift twowheeled tagila approached the city. The rest of the tribe were continuing towards the border, leaving behind them a vurma, a trail

which Rom would pick up after his business in the city had been concluded, then follow through until they again caught up with the tribe at their next resting place. There was a check point on the city's perimeter, and as he drove with a flourish straight up to the barrier a stone-faced guard with a rifle slung across his shoulder demanded to see their papers. Rom obliged and sat whistling cheerfully while the Russian leafed through the tattered booklet he had been handed. Their vagrant appearance must have been convincing. Marielle, now deeply tanned, looked in her voluminous, brightly patterned skirts and low- cut blouse a typical gypsy. Her blonde hair was completely hidden by a black kerchief tied turban-wise and she carefully shielded behind downcast lashes grey, apprehensive eyes that could never flash gypsy-bold. Rom, however, seemed deliberately to have donned a swagger. His teeth flashed white in a grin of impudent assurance as he prodded the hesitant guard. "Come along, comrade, surely you've seen an international passport before?" Without waiting for an answer he flowed on, deliberately confusing the man with a storm of eloquence. "We are Romany, my wife and I. With this passport we are allowed transit passage through every country in Europe. Of course, different arrangements are made by different authorities - in France, for instance, they require us to register every twenty-four hours at a police station. However," he beamed at the startled man, "you will find those papers quite in order, but if you are in doubt we do not mind waiting while you check with your superiors." For a moment the guard looked as taken aback as Marielle felt - then he scowled. "Gypsies!" he spat his contempt. "Why rabble such as you are allowed to roam Europe I'll never understand! Move on!" he signalled for the barrier to be lifted, "and mind your insolent tongue!" "May your clothes rip and wear out, but may you live in good health and in fulfilment!" Rom shouted through a cloud of dust as the horse reared, then projected the cart hurriedly on its way.

The streets of the city were fairly quiet as they went rattling through. Even the river-front, lined with bowed-head shadows of abandoned cranes, did not hint that the port was an important one shipping many tons a day of wheat, maize and sugar beet grown in the fertile soil of Slovakia's breadbasket: the Danube Valley. The Danube itself Marielle found disappointing - not blue, but muddy grey, but the streets through which they drove were captivating and when Rom saw her pleasure he slowed down to allow her to enjoy the sight of an eighteenth-century baroque church tower that overlooked a garden containing a small fountain of intricately entwined metal. The house where they were to spend the night was in a poorer denser-populated quarter of the city. Shops formed three sides of a square which looked as if, during the daytime, it might be employed as a marketplace, and above the shops were dwelling places occupied by owners and their families. Rom drove up a narrow lane and into a courtyard at the back of the shops. Flights of stone steps ascended from the courtyard to give access to the dwellings, and down one of the flights rushed a tall, swarthy man who greeted them in Romany: "Droboy tume Romale!" "Nais tuke!" Rom thanked him as vigorously they exchanged handshakes. The man whom Rom introduced as Jan Bielsky directed his beam of pleasure in Marielle's direction. "So the grapevine did not lie! It is true that my old comrade has at last taken to himself a wife!" His smile broadened when her confused lashes swept downwards. "We waited long for such tidings, Rom, but your choice has fully justified the wait. Come, we must share a wedding drink to give a push to the new wagon! " He led the way into a flat that seemed at first sight to be crammed with children, but at his command their noisy game was abandoned and after being allowed to greet the new guests they dispersed quietly to their beds. When Anna, Jan's beautiful, sad-eyed wife, poured out amber cognac into stemmed glasses Jan pressed a gold coin into Rom's hand and proposed a toast: "From me a little

money, but may God give to you both plenty!" To which his wife added, stumblingly, as if in a tongue unfamiliar, "Bater, may it be so." Potent cognac, comfortable surroundings, and the genuine warmth generated by their host and hostess so quickly melted Marielle's shy reserve that by the time Anna began dishing up supper conversation, sweet and piquant, gave added sauce to the bokoli, thick pancakes filled with a variety of minced meat, and the delicious concoction of raspberries, liqueur and cream that rounded off the meal. The familiar and once mundane sight of taps, piped water and the noise of dishes clattering against a sink, drew Marielle like a magnet and Anna seemed instinctively to understand the yearning echoing behind her wistful request that she might be allowed to help with the washing up. "Of course you may, if you wish it. The men can be left to enjoy their pipes and to reminisce while you and I wallow in suds and gossip till our hearts' content." Firmly she closed the door of the tiny kitchen so that the noise of dishwashing should not intrude upon the men's conversation, but also so that she herself should not be overheard. Her tone had an almost desperate quality when halfway through the chore she asked, "Forgive my impatience, but your obvious delight in your surroundings gives me courage to ask: are you happy at the prospect of becoming a vagabond, of having to spend the rest of your life travelling ceaselessly around Europe in the company of people who, kind though they might be, are nevertheless insular and mostly unsympathetic to outsiders? I would not have asked," she hastened when Marielle's raised eyebrows questioned her intrusion of privacy, "only I, too, am Gaje. I tried terribly hard when first we married to adjust to the ways of Jan's people, but it was hopeless, I hated everything about their way of life ... hated it so much that, even though Jan was my whole world, when I discovered I was expecting our first child I left him to come back here to my parents, to where I

had been brought up and had lived happily until Jan's Romany tongue convinced me that it did not matter where we lived so long as we were together." She put down the plate which, in her agitation she had polished until it shone, and blinked away tears. "I hate myself sometimes for what I have done to him. He followed me, but has remained here only physically while in spirit he roams the continent with his tribe. Did you notice the happiness in his face when he greeted Rom? He is not always as gay as he has been this evening. I have caged a wild lark whose song rings out all the more loudly and carefree when his heart is nearest to breaking. How will you cope, Marielle? Is it that your love for Rom is greater than mine for Jan? Will you give up willingly your accustomed way of life, your beliefs, your pleasures, if doing so is the only hope you have of remaining by his side ?" Hurriedly Marielle dried her hands and reached out to comfort the trembling girl. The demented questions had startled her, but she made no attempt to reply because Anna, she suspected, was already aware of the answers. But as she crooned comfort above her bent head Marielle's grey eyes darkened almost to black as with shocked insight she faced the truth she had so long evaded. With every fibre of her being she knew - was irrevocably convinced - that given the same set of circumstances she would forsake everything and follow Rom to the ends of the earth! Shock still lingered on her pale face when later they both rejoined the men. When Marielle first entered the room Rom's sharp eyes detected signs of strain. Immediately he stood up, checking Jan's flow of conversation with the polite request, "My wife is tired. If you will be good enough to show us to our room perhaps by morning I will have remembered more news of your relatives and friends." Jan smote his forehead. "Inconsiderate fool that I am! You know of my obsessive interest in family and tribal matters, Rom, you ought to

have reminded me earlier of my duties! " He turned a contrite look upon Marielle. "Forgive me, my dear, you do look tired. The bedroom we have to offer is very small, but I think you will find it comfortable." It was so small she had to choke back a disconcerted gasp when he manoeuvred open the door which was prevented from opening wide by a bed that completely filled the room, leaving a gap just wide enough to squeeze through. A grin of mischief creased Rom's cheeks when her startled glance flew to his face, then quickly away, but as both Anna and Jan were waiting to see them inside before retiring to their own room, she had no choice but to wish them goodnight, squeeze through the door, then clamber with as much dignity as possible across the billowing, feather-filled mattress. "Be quiet, you'll waken the children!" she hissed furiously as Rom, once the door had closed, folded with laughter. "If you could see the expression on your face!" he grinned, trying hard to control his amusement. "You have the look of an outraged spinster faced, for the first time in her life, with the prospect of allowing a man to share her bed. The van occupied an even smaller space than this, so why have you suddenly become so coy and maidenly?" he mocked, knowing very well that her bunk in the van and the space he had utilized on the floor had held a very much diminished aura of intimacy than the large bouncing bed which, however carefully a couple might strive to keep their distance, would by its very make-up precipitate them inevitably into a huddle in its centre. She viewed his amusement with disdain, but her answer was robbed of dignity by her struggle to remain upright when he threw himself full length on the bed. Furiously she struggled to her knees and glared down at him. "You must find somewhere else to sleep, you are certainly not remaining here! " she flashed.

"What? And have our friends worry about a seeming rift between us?" A smile teased his mouth as he reproved. "No, luba, however distasteful we might find it, we must endure our enforced proximity with good grace. To seem displeased in any way with our friends' hospitality would be unthinkable." He was watching her through half-closed lids, his mouth no longer laughing, but even so she sensed the amusement he was straggling to suppress. Her throat contracted with fear when with one movement he switched off the light and pulled her down beside him. His hands began to caress, endeavouring to reassure, but succeeding only in contracting still tighter the muscles that held her body rigid. "Relax," he murmured, playing carelessly on her overstrung emotions. "Who is to know if for one night we enjoy the privileges of the situation that has been thrust upon us?" Her startled answer was silenced by lips that found hers in a kiss that explored to the very depths her confused, rioting feelings. She went limp as the kiss, so expertly administered, drained from her all thought of resistance, and she did not murmur when his hard body swung across hers, capturing her in a feather-filled prison, soft as her heartbeats and silent as the protests no longer clamouring to be heard. He lifted his head, puzzled by her stillness, and sought the darkness for her reaction. For a second she fought deep shyness, the ingrained reserve inherited from her English father was not lightly discarded, then with a sigh she reached out and drew his head downward until his mouth hovered only fractionally above. An indrawn breath betrayed his surprise, but she smiled secretly and waited for his kiss. It did not come. After a long, fractured silence he drew away, then with a swift movement swung off the bed and towered over her in the darkness. "I'm sorry, Marielle, my teasing got out of hand. It will not happen again." The rough apology was a knife-thrust lethal enough to kill the embryo of newly-conceived love, but it did nothing to deaden the quick flame of self-contempt that seared for an agonizing second,

then died, leaving her body and senses numb. Mercifully, he did not turn on the light, so she did not have to suffer the agony of seeing awareness added to the amusement she had sensed earlier. Strange how ridicule hurt even more than rejection. It must be pride, she decided painfully; her mother had often accused her of having too much pride. "Marielle ...?" She flinched from a voice ragged with embarrassment, then forced from her lips a light, cool laugh. "It is I who should apologize, Rom. The temptation to call your bluff was too great. After all, you once compared me unfavourably with the girls of your tribe, so you can hardly blame me for attempting to redeem myself when the opportunity arose." During the stony silence that followed she felt once more the force of an anger so ferocious that only by the savage cut of a whip across a man's mouth had it been assuaged. For the first time in her life she gladly sheltered behind her only protection - her sex. Physically, he would not harm her, but neither would he forget. He would brood - as he had so often brooded over the scars of Kalia's brutality, so that even now when the marks had faded his fingers could trace unerringly where once they had been. There was a grain of comfort in the knowledge that she had at least saved face, even if the price she had to pay was a contempt so tangible it was projecting across the width separating them. There would be no more intervals of tormenting tenderness, no more quick shared glances to jerk the heart out of her body. A lion's claws would rip even when honeyed - but wounds inflicted in anger would be easier to parry than thrusts that penetrated all the deeper because they came disguised by sweetness.

His shadow moved towards the door. Marielle held her breath, expecting a parting lash, but he disappeared without a word granting her the solitude necessary for bitter tears.

CHAPTER EIGHT BENEATH the flat was the cafe from which Jan and his wife made a comparatively comfortable living, Anna doing the cooking while Jan served at the tables. Four of their five children were of school age, so they presented no problem, but next morning when Jan suggested accompanying Rom on his search for information Anna immediately intervened with the question of what was to be done with their youngest, a lively two- year-old who needed constant attention. Jan's eager expression faded as he surveyed the chuckling jamcovered face beaming across from a high chair. "Ah, yes, little Pesha, I had forgotten about her.. "Marielle will look after the child," Rom offered calmly, buttering a second piece of toast. "It would be courting danger to allow her to accompany me through the streets during daytime, so as she will have time on her hands, you will be doing her a kindness if you allow her to play with the infant while I conduct my affairs." When all eyes turned her way Marielle's colour rose, but she nodded eagerly; any plan that kept her and Rom apart was acceptable. His cynical glance evidenced that he had read her thoughts, so she quickly averted her eyes. Her bout of crying the previous evening had left her with swollen lids sweeping down over eyes grey as a stormswept sea. If he had looked more closely her emotional mouth would have given her away, but he spared her no more than a curt goodbye across the width of the room before Jan and he went on their way. It was a relief to be left alone with little Pesha while Anna, with the help of a neighbour, coped with the demands of a gradual swell of customers. It was a popular cafe, renowned for cleanliness and good food, and as the morning progressed casual customers demanding coffee and cake gave way to regular lunchtime diners from nearby offices and shops who packed the seats to capacity, filling the room

with an animated buzz of conversation. She longed to join them, to eavesdrop, perhaps, upon the group of students arguing amongst themselves in a corner, or to listen in on the discussion taking place around a table filled with grave-faced businessmen who looked as if they knew of some momentous, world-shaking event that had just taken place. But she hovered outside in the passageway, not daring to show her face, tantalized by a desire to know what had been going on during the weeks she had been cut off from the outside world with not even a glimpse of a newspaper headline to lighten her ignorance. Prolonged absence from her mother began to make the baby fractious, so Marielle carried her out into the courtyard to tempt her to play. A large red ball was conveniently to hand, and for the next half hour they were both fully absorbed, Marielle gently rolling the ball to the feet of the willing infant who, after several abortive efforts, finally managed to correct her aim well enough to kick it back in Marielle's direction. Anna popped her head out of the window now and again to join in the chuckles of laughter and to call out encouragement, and it was on one of these occasions that she distracted Marielle's attention long enough for Pesha to grab the ball and begin toddling with it towards the still crowded cafe. All doors were open to encourage a through-draught, so by the time Marielle realized her charge was missing and began hastening after her she was just in time to see her teetering on the threshold of the door leading into the cafe. "Pesha! Please, darling, come back ..." Pesha hesitated then, with an impish grin, projected the ball as hard as she could into the middle of the absorbed diners. "Little devil!" Marielle laughed as she hurried towards her. Without thinking, she picked up the child and hurried to retrieve the ball. She realized her mistake too late, when every pair of eyes turned to focus upon her flushed face and the wriggling, delighted baby. Immediately

she began backing away, hoisting the child higher in her arms as she discarded her plan to retrieve the ball. A man stepped from the seat beside which it had come to rest. He picked it up, then began advancing towards her. As sunlight glinted on the buttons of his uniform and reflected upon highly polished leather knee-boots, her stomach turned over, recognizing the uniform she had begun to hate when first she saw it worn by Sergei Ivanov. "Your ball, comrade," he offered, smartly clicking his heels but hardly bothering to glance at her face. "Th ... thank you," she stammered, poised to flee as soon as she had it in her possession. He had half- turned to return to his seat when Pesha, with a shriek of glee, grabbed Marielle's turban in her tubby fists and tugged, releasing golden hair that tumbled down around her shoulders. The officer's head jerked up, his eyes narrowing, but before he had a chance to question her Marielle picked up her skirts and fled up to the flat where for several long minutes she shuddered behind the door, anticipating the sound of approaching jackboots which mercifully did not come. When Rom and Jan returned she shared their meal and listened to their conversation, all the time pondering whether or not she dared reveal the incident. She had disobeyed Rom's strict instructions to remain out of sight; his stern mouth and indifferent manner did not augur well for the admittance of further indiscretions, so, after an inward struggle, she decided to remain silent. "We have good news, Marielle," Jan interrupted her deep introspection, his frown encompassing both her and Rom, obviously puzzled by their lack of communication. "First of all, we went to the main post office to collect what we call 'gypsy mail' sent care of General Delivery. You may not be familiar with this method of ours, but all that is entailed is the writing of the word 'gypsy' boldly by hand across the envelope - just as one might write 'airmail' or

'registered letter'. There was quite a pile for Rom and judging from the postmarks most of them have been awaiting collection for months." He paused, expecting Rom to take up the tale, but when he continued eating Jan shrugged and carried on, "Then we called at several points of contact - places known to the gypsies as 'drops' and at once we were told that someone in Vienna has been trying for weeks to contact Rom by telephone. It has been arranged that he should make contact this afternoon, and we are almost certain it will be news of Sophie ..." "Ah ..." Marielle expelled a soft sigh, "that certainly is good news. No doubt, Rom, you can hardly wait to take the call?" She dropped her lashes before his sardonic look could demoralize her completely and waited for his answer. His long silences were unnerving; even Jan had noticed that since last night he had barely addressed two sentences in her direction, and now the atmosphere was so tense she felt willing to endure even sarcasm if only he would speak. She winced when his chair scraped back from the table. Ignoring her question, he nodded towards the clock, informing Jan, "The call is scheduled for one-thirty and it is now almost one. I must go. Thank you, my friend, for your generous hospitality. Unfortunately, once I have taken this call we must go, but I hope it will not be too long before we meet again. Perhaps you might persuade Anna to join our kumpania, if only for a short visit, so that you may renew old acquaintances and warm the hearts of your many relatives ?" Jan's flash of eagerness was quickly camouflaged. "You forget, old friend, that I have become completely housetrained," he laughed dryly. "No longer do I relish the idea of breaking an icy crust from the water before I wash, and my comfort-cushioned bones would react badly to a mattress of rutted earth after being coddled for so long amongst feathers! " "Then you are at peace?" Rom persisted, as if the reply he sought was of great importance.

Marielle held her breath, convinced she was about to hear the answer Anna craved, but he prevaricated, "Neither money nor the devil can remain in peace, but here under this roof lies all the happiness I am destined to know." It was compromise, but Rom did not offend Jan's dignity by showing signs of pity. They clasped hands, exchanging a look deep in meaning, then parted without further comment. Jan remained helping out in the cafe while Rom returned to the "drop" where he was to take the call. The lunchtime rush was over, so Anna decided to relax with Marielle in the flat while business was slack. They were chatting contentedly over cups of coffee when the sound of raised voices penetrated from the cafe. Anna jerked erect, her apprehensive glance colliding with Marielle's as Jan's voice penetrated a warning up the stairs. "Yes, comrade, a couple of gypsies were here. They came late last night, begging for food. My wife took pity on them and gave them a meal and a bed for the night and in return the woman minded our child while the husband worked for a couple of hours in the kitchen. They left about an hour ago - to return to their tribe, they said - but I have no idea in which direction they went." His unseen inquisitor rapped out a question to which Jan replied in a voice even louder than before: "An Englishwoman, you say . . .? Surely, comrade, you must be mistaken! You saw the woman yourself, here in the cafe - was she not as dark-skinned as a berry?" Marielle gasped, her hand lifting involuntarily to the turban covering her giveaway blondeness. What a fool she was not to have mentioned her encounter with the Russian officer! If she had, Jan would have been prepared, with answers ready, for his return. And what of Rom? What if he should walk straight into the cafe, thereby proving Jan a liar? The same thought had obviously occurred to Anna. She clutched Marielle's sleeve, her face ashen, and pleaded with darkly enormous eyes for a solution.

Just then, as if in answer to a prayer, they heard Rom drive the tagila into the courtyard. Its wheels had barely stopped revolving by the time Marielle reached it and her quickly gasped: "Soldiers ... in the cafe ...!" was explanation enough. Ungently, she was heaved up beside him, then a crack of a whip between the horse's ears sent them heading swiftly in the direction of the city boundaries. She had no time to wave to Anna who was watching anxiously behind closed curtains, and she was glad of this when, looking back, she saw a couple of soldiers appear in the courtyard. There was a shout, then the shrill blast of a whistle as they spotted the tagila speeding into the distance, but she felt no fear, only an overwhelming thankfulness that, captured or not, they were far enough away to avoid suspicion falling upon their friends. Speech was out of the question as the tagila's wheels showered sparks behind the clattering hooves of the striving horse. One glance at Rom's granite features told of rapt concentration and of a determination that boded well for their chances of escape, so Marielle clung on, weathering jolts and bumps so ferocious that her teeth bit unexpectedly into her tongue, sending the salty tang of blood trickling down her throat. A distant belt of trees was rapidly being approached when the first shot rang out. Fear such as she had never before experienced kept her rigid in her seat until Rom's arm shot out, projecting her half double to deprive the marksman of his target. "Hold on! Don't be afraid, we're almost safe ...!" he shouted, encouraging both her and the terrified horse. When a second shot whistled dangerously close to his ear she flinched, but he seemed barely to notice as he drove the horse almost beyond endurance in his effort to reach the sheltering trees. Her taut nerves leapt with relief when at last the green haven closed around them. He drove as far as he could into the forest, but gradually the thickness of the undergrowth became impassable, so he jumped down, signalling her to follow, then tapped the horse on its withers, sending it careering back the way they came.

He grabbed her arm and as they began to run harsh voices echoing beneath the trees, together with the sound of feet crashing into the undergrowth, told how closely they were being followed. For what seemed hours they fought to penetrate the thick vegetation, tripping over tough, sinewy vines, suffering thorns and prickles that gouged into Marielle's soft flesh with the enthusiasm of vampires. Then eventually their straining ears told them that at last their pursuers had been left behind; Rom's knowledge of the forest, his quick eye and unfaltering judgement were assets far superior to weapons when fighting such terrain. When he slackened pace and ordered her to rest she did so immediately, trusting implicitly his assurance that for a short time they were safe. She threw herself prone upon a patch of grass, bathing her hot cheeks in its coolness, feeling the thumping of her heart against the hard earth until the sound seemed to vibrate all around. When the noise had abated and her tense muscles had relaxed she stirred and confessed to an impersonal expanse of shoulder. "It was my fault, Rom. This morning in the cafe I sensed that a Russian officer had become suspicious, but he left without saying anything, so I didn't think it important enough to mention." He rolled over until his burning glance rested on her face. "You didn't think it important ...!" he enunciated with a slowness that emphasized his amazed anger. She flushed and hung her head, begging mutely for leniency. For long minutes she thought his anger would explode, then, with a weariness that cut her to the heart, he sighed and allowed his tired body to unwind. "Just a few more miles and we will be safe," he told a ragged patch of blue sky, pointedly underlining his anxiety to be rid of her. "This forest straddles the border; we entered it in Czechoslovakia and we'll leave it in Austria. Once we reach Vienna," he twisted round to face her, "I shall hand you back to your aunt who has been waiting there for weeks for news of you."

"Aunt Sophie is in Vienna?" she repeated, startled. "But how? Why...?" "How? By plane. And why? Because once Sergei Ivanov had wind of her activities it was no longer safe for her to remain in Warsaw - or in any other occupied country." "You mean because she arranged my escape she's had to leave her home, her business, and her friends?" she questioned in a whisper. "Like myself, Sophie lost her real home long ago." He scooped up a handful of grass, then watched it trickle through his fingers while he came to a decision. "Your aunt was badly misjudged by you and by many others, but she pretended not to mind because the job she had chosen to do meant more to her than the good opinion of people who ought to have know her better." Her surprise-widened eyes seemed to aggravate his displeasure, goading him on to enlighten her further. "She is slightly older than I, but she was still no more than a child when she became involved in an organization that opened up an escape route that has given freedom to thousands of refugees. She could have escaped herself many times, but she chose to remain where she thought she was most needed - in Warsaw. She is opposed to violence, and by cultivating the friendship of Sergei Ivanov and others like him she gradually was able to bring about changes that lightened the burdens of those she felt for deeply - the proletariat the ordinary working class people whose lives had become so drab that they lived an existence no better than that of the animals in the fields..." "My aunt did that?" she choked, humbled beyond words. "And more," he clipped, his contempt fully aroused. "She helped bring about a bloodless revolution so successful that some who could have escaped decided to remain and help her in her fight to retain old

customs, the old way of life, so that some day when real freedom comes too many souls will not have been lost on the way." Light broke through. "And you helped! You and your tribe were the escape route you mentioned. Now I understand your people's devotion to my aunt - and now," she faltered, "I understand the dreadful consequences of my stubbornness! I ruined everything, all she had worked so hard to attain!" She wanted to drown in waves of shame, and his hard stare did nothing to alleviate either her panic or her pain. Dispassionately, he turned the screw, seemingly utterly unmoved by her small, pointed face and agonized eyes. "Is it not a strange coincidence," he pretended to smile, "that the escape route created originally for the escape of your parents should have been destroyed so many years later by their child?" She almost envied Kalia. his physical punishment as the lash of his words bit deep. He did not spare her, but even so, penance was not enough. Nothing, she felt, would wipe out the wrong she had done her aunt and even an apology, however remorseful, would be salt rubbed into the wound. She barely noticed when, with a curse, he jumped to his feet. His head went up, all senses alert to the whiff of smoke, the sound of crackling undergrowth, and the ominous blue pall drifting thinly around them. "Fire! " he ejected through clenched teeth. "The devils are bent upon roasting us alive!" Rough hands jerked her to her feet and began propelling her away from encroaching danger. Trees blurred in her vision as she was rushed past them, away from angry licks of flame that held for her surprisingly little threat compared with the fire of the man whose words had already seared. Hordes of frightened animals rushed from the undergrowth, loudly shrieking pheasants and partridges shot past in noisy, heavy flight when rumbling like thunder preceding a storm shook the troubled

earth. The fire was spreading rapidly, flashing far ahead of them, appearing in places they least expected. "We must follow the animals," Rom shouted, half-dragging her through the forest which with horrifying swiftness had been turned into a trap. "They'll be heading for water - a river flows somewhere nearby - pray God we reach it in time!" Marielle was too weary to reply; all her efforts were being chanelled into keeping up with his racing feet. She could hear the fire advancing, devouring everything in front of it, but as yet there were only occasional flashes of flame. The heat was intense, the air stifling hot and reeking of burning. A root trapped her foot, sending her crashing to the ground where for a blissful second she was able to rest, then her body was jerked upright and Rom's-furious, smokerimmed eyes swore down at her as he plucked her to her feet and forced her onwards. "Rom, I can't..." she whimpered, surrendering to the demands of agonized muscles. "You must go on without me!" But when he swept her off her feet into his arms she began to protest. "No!" she begged, tears chasing white rivulets down her smoke grimed cheeks. She tried to urge him to let her go, to explain how he might possibly manage to save himself without the burden of her added weight, but smoke rasped her lungs and the words would not project through a parched throat and cracked lips. So she had no choice but to lie limply in his arms as he crashed his way through the undergrowth, his muttered curses fading gradually in her ears until they became completely inaudible when blackness closed around her. She was revived by water splashing over her face, and by Rom's anxious voice penetrating the bliss of her unconsciousness. She did not want to be deprived of her dream-filled interlude and struggled against it, but his voice was insistent and sounded so concerned that without volition her eyes opened to seek confirmation of his

uncharacteristic loss of control. The face that bent over her was scored deep with worry and not until she spoke his name did his pain-darkened eyes lighten. "Rom ..." she murmured, looking vaguely around. "Are we safe? Has the fire died?" She flinched when a geyser of sparks shot up nearby, sparing him an answer. "Don't fret, luba," he rasped, "we have found the river. I'm hoping that when the fire reaches the bank it will burn itself out, but we dare not risk crossing to the other side in case the wind should carry sparks far enough to allow the fire to spread. We do not want to be caught yet again in a similar situation to that from which we have just escaped. No, we will find a pool deep enough to cover us and wait until we are sure before chancing the final stretch of our journey." She wondered if he had encountered Satan on his way through Hell: something even more shocking than the ordeal they had been through must have been responsible for the emotion tugging at the corners of his mouth and for the absence of anger in his light, considerate touch. Bewilderment traced its shaky way through her words as, her glance held by his, she forced out any question but the one she really wanted answered. "What of the soldiers? Will our delay give them time to gain ground ? " Grimness once more clamped down on his features as he shook his head. "We had a miraculous escape. They will not believe it possible that we have survived. No doubt they are already celebrating the success of their operation." A branch fell dangerously close, bringing emphasis to bear on their perilous situation. "Come," he pulled her to her feet, "we have indulged long enough in self-congratulation, now is the time to swim." Holding her by the hand, he led the way over large slabs of stone and flat rocks until they reached a pool in the deepest part of the river. Sparks hissed angry defiance on to the water as they lowered themselves neck-deep into the pool and the water

flowed suddenly red as a sentinel row of trees along the river's edge ignited; then was swallowed up in a burst of flame that roared hot yellow and vivid orange against the contrasting peaceful blue of the sky. It was an uncanny experience silently shared. With his hands supporting her waist and water running like spilt blood around their bodies they watched years of nature's work devoured in seconds by hungry tongues of flame. With the speed of a struck match forest giants were reduced to fingers of black crumbling ash, and the heat roared ever nearer, seemingly striving to engulf the two who had dared escape its wrath. Anxiously they watched far-flung sparks seeking life amongst green vegetation on the opposite bank. Acrid smoke stung their eyes and throats, and only by sinking deeper with their mouths just above the level of the water were they able to draw upon the small amount of oxygen remaining along its surface. By the time the fire's rage had abated Marielle was emotionally and physically spent. She had to draw on the very dregs of willpower to obey Rom when he ordered, "Good, the fire has not caught on the other side, let's go ...!" Although he helped, it took superhuman effort to drag her legs, encumbered by sodden skirts, to the other side of the river. When they reached the bank she flung herself down, prepared to rest, but this he would not allow. He knelt beside her and urged, with a finger tipping her chin, "You have been very brave, luba, but I must ask you for a final last effort. A few short miles away lies the Austrian border. Russian patrols are active all along the frontier, but I am confident we will evade them in the forest. However, it is dangerous to linger here, so please, will you try? I promise it will be for only a little while longer." His tone was such she could have denied him nothing. Even though a small voice whispered a reminder of his desire to reach Sophie, and of his eagerness to be rid of an encumbrance that had brought him nothing but trouble, his concerned smile hypnotised her to her feet.

Awareness tingled through her nerves when, slipping her hand in his, she tripped beside him through the forest, forgetting completely as she basked in the warmth of his unaccustomed smile the discomfort of wet clothes and chilled bones. By some miracle his animosity and contempt seemed to have dispersed, she felt cleansed in his eyes, at least, of the guilt of deliberate wrongdoing, and she was grateful for the baptism of fire which seemingly had wiped out, as swiftly as the forest giants, the growth of scornful disdain within him. The ground began to rise as they pushed their way through vegetation thick enough to hide a regiment of soldiers. They came across paths, well trodden, cutting a way cleanly in the direction they sought, but they dared not use them for fear of encountering a grey- clad patrol around one of the many twists and bends. She followed him through tangled undergrowth, placing her feet squarely in the impressions left by his, stumbling over hidden roots, fearful of the noises and sudden movements of small unseen animals, and freezing instinctively to a halt amongst the almost shoulder- high ferns at the sound of a snapping twig or the flight of a bird whose sudden take-off might have been indication of approaching danger. They must have travelled several miles by the time Rom called a halt, satisfied, so far, with their progress. Dusk was closing in, giving to the silent mass of trees the same eeriness associated with ancient cathedrals housing statues whose stony stare dared the interloper to disturb their peace. Marielle shivered, sensing unseen eyes, then edged nearer to Rom who was listening intently for sounds of movement. Satisfied that there were none, he lowered himself to the ground and patted the space beside him. "Sit here and rest. The boundary fence is just a few yards away, but as it is exposed on either side by cleared ground we must wait until nightfall before chancing a break." He answered her shocked expression by explaining gently, "The Russians patrol this area day and night - we must take the risk, it is the only way."

Suddenly her teeth began to chatter. He pulled her down beside him, enclosing her shoulders in a warm grip, and began talking reassuringly in a whisper. At first his words did not register, but his voice was so soothing and his arm around her shoulders so comforting that soon she began to feel warmth and a modicum of contentment. "Rom," encouraged by his obvious concern she tentatively queried, "do you think Anna and Jan will ever be completely happy?" She sensed his frown, but did not look up. He was worried about his friend, she knew, and his answer would supply a clue to his own opinion of marriage between Romany and Gaje - information which to her had assumed gigantic importance. Somehow she could not imagine her svelte, town-reared aunt readjusting to suit a husband: not even a husband such as Rom. The extent of his willingness to change his ways would indicate the wealth of love in store for his future wife. "I have always believed a wife should obey her husband's wishes," he mused, taking time to assemble his thoughts, "but now I am not so sure ..." When she jerked, betraying surprise, he tightened his arm thinking her cold. "Jan's compensations, balanced against his own personal desires, weigh heavily in favour of Anna and the children. I dare say he might forsake willingly the comfort of a settled home and money in his pockets, but not even a life of nomadic freedom and the company of his own kind would compensate for the absence of his family or for the lack of his wife's warm embrace and loving smile. It matters much to a man - that communion of souls, that bond binding man to woman making them indivisible even in the face of unbelievable odds. Some men never achieve such a union, some, in fact, are prepared to spend all their lives alone rather than be content with second best. But if, like Jan, a man should be lucky enough to find his ideal mate then nothing in heaven or earth will keep him from the one he has chosen to be the mother of his sons."

She had expected an honest answer because Rom was always honest, but the gravity with which he spoke brought a lump to her throat and also a desolation that blighted the small bud of hope she had nurtured. All at once she felt a surge of resentment against her aunt, an envy - a hate almost - of the woman who could arouse such depth of feeling in the man she loved so deeply that she would prefer to die with him in the forest rather than escape merely to wave him goodbye. Tears blocked her throat as she faced the fact of her love for Rom, striving for the same honesty he himself had shown. How long had she loved him? Always, it seemed. Certainly, when he had bartered for his bride he had gained a bargain, but he would never know that the few gold pieces he had exchanged had bought him a love beyond price and a devotion usually reserved for kings. She was glad of the blanket of night darkness that clothed them; it hid the hurt trembling of a mouth that refused to be still and prevented him from recognizing a look he must have seen many times in the eyes of bewildered, trapped creatures of the forest, a look that beseeched: "I give in, please don't hurt me any more!" Disturbed by her long silence, he breathed, "Are you asleep?" She shook her head, afraid to chance a tremor betraying itself in speech, then felt unbearably punished when he asked almost indifferently, "And what of Anna's point of view? Are you inclined to sympathize with her need for security or would you, in her position, consider your man's complete happiness to be of prime importance? But then," as momentarily he forgot the need for caution his voice harshened, "that is a foolish question to ask of a young, liberated Englishwoman to whom freedom is life itself, is it not?" He laughed softly, then mocked, "Little English sparrow, who celebrated her new-found liberty by flying immediately into a nest of hawks, what am I to do with you? How am I to watch you struggle in this complex world of ours without feeling an urge to shelter you under my wing?"

Not a bird twittered, not a leaf stirred. Even the large mellow moon preparing to sail behind dark cloud seemed to hesitate as if anxious to hear her answer. Then swiftly its light was extinguished, leaving the forest a well of brooding warning through which reverberated the thud of heavy boots. Marielle had no need of the warning finger he placed across her lips; no words could have escaped the taut muscles of her throat. Sweat beaded her forehead while they waited for the footsteps to draw nearer. "We are wasting time," an impatient voice decreed. "No one could come out of that furnace alive. See how the sky is reflecting red even now from still-burning trees!" "Nevertheless, we will carry out our orders," his companion snapped. "According to our report the couple we seek are gypsies, expert in the art of survival and as cunning as foxes. Here," footsteps scraped to a halt where the path forked, "you carry on to the left while I take this path. Keep your eyes skinned and at even a hint of movement shoot!" They heard a reluctant grunt of assent, then the sound of departing footsteps as one of the soldiers moved away. They dared not stir from their crouched position amongst the ferns; the least movement, animal or human, would bring a hail of death from the itching finger of the remaining guard, who seemed in no hurry to move away. A match scraped. Cautiously Rom parted the ferns, disclosing a greyclad back with head bent forward over cupped palms. Marielle was hardly aware that Rom had moved until his shape loomed up behind the unsuspecting man with hands outstretched ready to close around his throat. She watched petrified the silent tableau enacted with a sureness that hinted at much previous practice. Like a jungle predator Rom swooped, fastening his hands around the soldier's neck, his steel fingers exerting pressure on the windpipe until the grey shape slid unconscious to the ground.

"Quickly!" He plucked Marielle from the ferns and headed towards the enclosing fence. With terror- dry mouth she forced from her mind the spectacle of Rom's utter ruthlessness and, shaking in every limb, hurried to obey his command. The fence was eight feet high and along its top glinted outthrusts of barbed wire with here and there a rag of clothing hanging proudly as if left as proof of effort by some less fortunate soul. Rom bent towards one of the lower strands and the stillness rang with the snap of sliced metal as the wirecutters he wielded bit through. The sound rang startlingly loud on the still air, but he did not hesitate. The jaws of the wire- cutter were fastened upon a second strand when from behind them came a shouted command: "Halt!" Marielle spun round to the sight of moonlight playing upon the barrel of a steadily-pointing rifle. The second soldier had returned and the absence of his friend had brought cold resolve to his grim face. Leisurely, Rom straightened, as if resigned to the misfortune of capture on the very brink of escape. He faced the soldier, slowly turning his back on the yawning gap that was to have been their gateway to freedom, and began cautiously to raise his hands above his head. Visibly, the soldier's rigid frame relaxed and in that split second Rom projected the wirecutters, aiming with the force of a missile at the soldier's head. The guard's finger tautened on the trigger," at the same instant he fell and the following flash jerked through Marielle's body, causing hot, agonizing pain. Surprise was her overriding emotion as she watched blood seep from a wound in her shoulder. "Rom," she whispered, her bewildered eyes searching his ravaged face, "I've been shot..."

Several times during the next hour she was aroused by sensations that reached her subconscious, leaving comfort in their wake. Through the fog that enshrouded her mind penetrated the feel of urgent arms

clasping her in a strong embrace as she was carried at great speed across uneven ground. A voice gave her strength, rallying her with wonderful promises which she could never afterwards remember. Then later there were many excited voices and she felt a touch of magic en- flame her lips before the arms that had carried her delivered their burden into the ministering hands of a stranger. A siren rang insistently in her ears, accompanied by the feel of revolving wheels transporting her to places unknown. White uniforms, the smell of anaesthetic, then, before complete darkness descended, a kindly voice whose owner patted her arm reassuringly as he told her: "You can relax, my dear, you have nothing more to fear. You have reached Austria."

CHAPTER NINE SOPHIE was there to greet Marielle when she opened her eyes in a bare white cubicle containing only a bed, a chair, and a locker holding an enormous vase spilling over with velvet-petalled roses and spice-perfumed carnations. The riot of colour held her gaze and for long seconds she was content not to think but merely to enjoy the transient emotions of relief, comfort and freedom from stress floating through her mind. "Marielle ... how do you feel?" Her aunt's voice dispelled the feeling of contentment and sent a frown chasing across her -wan features. She ought to have been delighted to see her - why then had her heart lurched suddenly as if at a reminder of something unpleasant? The instinct to disguise her feeling was absent, as was evident in the weak fretfulness of her answer. "I'm fine. Where's Rom... is he all right?" "He's gone to rest and freshen up," her aunt smiled. She bent across the bed to smooth the uncreased pillows, giving to the small detail great attention as if glad of something to occupy her trembling hands. "He's been at your side all through the night. He's been very worried about you - we both have." Marielle's lids drooped, but she fought her drowsiness long enough to ask, "He'll come back... ?" "Of course, moya droga" Sophie assured her in a whisper, patting the fractious hand pulling at the coverlet. "We had to bully him into taking a rest and it was only the doctor's insistence that the sight of a red-eyed, bearded vagabond would hardly hasten his patient's recovery that made him decide to leave. Go back to sleep, and I guarantee that when you awake you'll find him here by your side."

Her aunt was being generous, Marielle decided sleepily, but then she had always been kind. When the fog that was confusing her had lifted, she would lighten Sophie's obvious misery by explaining that she understood perfectly the situation that existed between herself and Rom and convince her that she had no intention of becoming an embarrassment. But she had to see him just once more to assure herself that he really was unharmed, after that she would ... Sleep claimed her before plans could be formulated and Sophie, as she bent over the bed, was left to wonder the cause of the sad little smile tugging the mouth of her slumbering niece. Marielle awoke later to a room filled with dusky shadows. Fingers of light cast from a small lamp were spreading across the bedcover and when she made a slight movement a long, elongated shape detached itself from the wall, then materialized into a figure leaning anxiously towards her. "Rom!" She smiled her satisfaction. There was a difference about him that nagged, but she dismissed from her mind all but the fact that he was here, rather pale and stern perhaps, but still projecting the potent appeal synonymous with all virile creatures of the wild. His mouth relaxed into a smile reflecting relief and the shedding of a gigantic burden. Lightly, he took hold of her hand as his look skimmed over her dazed eyes and uncertain mouth. "How are you, little one, after your marathon sleep ?" Deliciously cosseted by his concern, she murmured, "Better ... much better, thank you. But what happened? How did I get here?" Memory cast dark shadows across the planes of his face. "You were shot when I charged the guard, don't you remember? I'll never forgive myself," he clamped bitterly, "for allowing my lack of judgement to cause you pain." He silenced her protest with a gesture. "Don't try to excuse my actions, luba. Later, I will attempt to atone

for my mistake, but just now I am content to concentrate upon assisting you towards full recovery. We are now in Austria. This small hospital is near the border where, less than an hour from the time we reached an Austrian frontier post, you were admitted for treatment to the bullet wound in your shoulder. It is not serious," he checked swiftly when she made a startled movement, "just a flesh wound which will soon heal, leaving no scar at all. Our greatest worry was the amount of blood you lost on the journey - the flow would not be stemmed even though I strove to save you as little movement as possible. But I dared not stop - the Russians chased us almost to the frontier post and capture would have meant even worse consequences than those you have already suffered." With a quick thrust of fingers through his hair he betrayed the anxiety borne on that dangerous last stretch of journey. Marielle sighed, devouring with her eyes the unruly dark tendrils his worried hand had freed from the neatness of a strictly wielded hairbrush. She realized now the difference in his appearance: tailored jacket and slacks, neat tie, and impeccable linen - this was not the Rom she had come to know - the wind-tousled, casually-dressed nomad had been usurped by a civilized stranger! Shyness strangled her, making conversation stilted. It was almost a relief when, after several puzzled glances, he stood up to leave. "I have tired you. We will talk again tomorrow when perhaps you'll be feeling stronger. Sleep is a great healer, so close your eyes and think only of getting well in time to reach Vienna before the opera season ends. If you are good," he promised gravely as if to a child being offered a treat, "I will take you to the Opera Ball. It is the highlight of the season: an event to remember, and one I should not like you to miss." He left without further hesitation, and as she lay back on her pillows, pondering on his words, Marielle felt again a rush of desolation as she imagined herself playing gooseberry, an unwanted third tagged

on to a couple whose main desire must be for the necessary solitude to dream, to plan, or merely to revel in the togetherness so long deferred. A solitary tear slid down her cheek before her wavering lashes closed. She would do all she could to get well quickly, she decided sadly, but not for the reason he had put forward. A heart could break anywhere, but at least back home in England she would not be expected to display the sort of happiness that would be demanded of her if she were to attend the Opera Ball. The decision was an incentive to the will to recover and resulted, a few days later, in her doctor pronouncing himself more than satisfied with her physical condition. Sophie, however, was doubtful and remained so even after repeated assurances from her niece that she felt well and was growing stronger every day. "You've changed, Marielle," she opined thoughtfully, frowning her dissatisfaction. "In Warsaw you were full of youthful vitality and hope, but I no longer see evidence of these qualities. What has happened, my dear? Have your recent experiences robbed you of your gay, impulsive outlook?" Marielle's eyelashes swept down, giving her more than ever the look of a chastened, subdued child. Rom had said much the same thing the previous evening, but with less concern. His manner had held a hint of impatience, controlled, but nevertheless present. He had popped in to see her on his way to meet friends - a situation becoming more and more frequent as her health improved - and in the unfamiliar garb of a man about town he had projected a cool elegance that had emphasized clearly the barrier her shyness had erected. When she had answered his cheerful greeting with an incoherent mumble, he had frowned, his features contrasting darkly against the stark purity of his tailored shirt. "Is something troubling you?" he had demanded as he had drawn up a chair to the side of her bed. She had sensed his eyes upon her mouth, tracing the curves that trembled treacherously in his presence. Then his look had swept her face, raking its pale, heart-shaped

contours until a tide of pink colour had swept it alight. "Could it be," he had then begun to tease, "that the little sparrow is suffering an attack of pique because her wings have been temporarily clipped? You must not feel envious because Sophie and I are being feted by old friends. Wait until we reach Vienna - a wonderful city born out of love, love of music, love of art, love of lovers - then I will make up to you for all you feel you are missing." He had waited, obviously expecting to be rounded on with a touch of her old defiance, but her heavy heart had decried the use of verbal dalliance and had allowed only the coolest of responses. "I am not at all envious," she had replied, keeping her eyes averted when she heard his aggravated intake of breath. A crisp movement had brought him to his feet. "Then what other reason causes you to act like a sulky child?" he had demanded, catching her chin between forceful fingers until she was forced to meet his eyes. Their impact was enormous. "Perhaps I'm homesick," she had gasped wildly, afraid of the pulse of steel hammering against her cheek. "I want to go home to England to sanity and peace of mind..." Contact between them was lost when he released her, leaving a chasm no words would bridge. "You dislike us all so much?" For long seconds silence had stretched between them, then without further comment he had strode from the room, leaving her to turn her face into the pillow and weep as she battled alone with the pangs of new-born maturity. The silence had lasted too long for Sophie's peace of mind. Her remedy was to put on a bright face and adopt a cheerful manner as she imparted what she hoped was good news. "The doctor is willing to allow you to travel to Vienna tomorrow," she confided, watching

anxiously for Marielle's reaction. When there was none, she bit her lip and tried again. "Rom has offered us the use of his flat. As you know, we were to have stayed with friends of mine, but as they are a bit short of room Rom insists that we use his flat so that we might both be comfortable. You'll love it, I'm sure, it's so cosy and so compact as well as being handy for the shops." "Rom has a flat in Vienna!" Sophie was delighted when Marielle's eyes became alive with a curiosity near to disbelief. "But yes," she nodded, eager to hold her attention, "he adopted the city as his own, or rather, Vienna adopted him. It is, he says, the only place he would find bearable if ever he had to put down roots. If the Viennese had their way he would remain in their city for ever, but as it is, they welcome his rare appearances with a fervour that falls barely short of hero-worship. He is their idol, and what man could resist feeling gratified by the knowledge that he holds his finger on the pulse of an audience as critical as the blasé Viennese whose tastes over the years have developed from a surfeit of talent?" Dazedly, Marielle shook her head, unable to reconcile her own image of Rom with the one her aunt portrayed. Once, within the tribe, she had questioned why he never entertained and had been told sharply that Rom was their chief and as such he was under no obligation to pander to their whims. Circumstances might have forced him to play such a role in front of the hated Gaje, but here he reigned supreme. "By the way," Sophie interrupted her train of thought with the casual bombshell, "Rom was called away suddenly to Vienna. He asked me to apologise on his behalf for not calling in to say goodbye and assured me that he will have the flat ready for us both when we follow on tomorrow." "I want to go home!" The words were jerked impulsively from between clenched teeth. In Vienna, Marielle was convinced, there

would be nothing for her but heartbreak, the heartbreak of being with the new Rom, the stranger with the chameleon quality that made him able to integrate into whatever society he found himself. The old Rom, the one she knew and loved, had been submerged by a sophisticated alien with a polished charm that would have to be endured while she suffered the attentions of his promised atonement. I will make up to you for all you feel you have missed! he had said, unknowingly twisting the knife in the wound of his professed love for Sophie. Nothing on earth could ever make up for the loss of himself, the man who, in her more delirious moments, she had begun possessively to regard as a husband! Sophie's answer dropped slowly into the pool of silence. "But you are not yet fit enough to cope, my dear. You need careful nursing and a leisurely convalescence before you even contemplate the- journey to England, much less the consequent loneliness that awaits you there. I would gladly accompany you, were it not that I have business in Vienna that cannot be shelved a moment longer. Please, Marielle, don't make any rash decisions, I beg of you!" She did not miss the quiver in her aunt's voice, nor the dreamy softness of her eyes as she spoke of the business awaiting her in Vienna. Doubtless Rom was responsible. He was the business she spoke of. She forced herself to face facts and in doing so found the strength to decide she must play out the farce to the bitter end: for pride's sake she could not go running home, thereby betraying lacerated feelings. Galled by the suspicion that Sophie was almost halfway to guessing her secret, she swallowed hard and tilted her chin. "You're right, as usual, Aunt Sophie. I must remain here, for a little while at least." Her laugh sounded shaky as she attempted to tease. "I hope your bank balance is healthy? I need clothes from the skin outward, and as I'm completely destitute you will have to come to my

rescue if you don't wish to be disgraced by turning up in Vienna with a vagrant-looking niece!" "No problem!" she reacted with a breathless, pleased laugh. "Everything I have is yours, moya droga, I can hardly wait to join you in the shopping spree of the century!" But it was another two weeks before Sophie judged her niece fit enough to indulge in the spate of necessary shopping. By that time they were well installed in the flat Rom had left prepared, and within its close confines bonds of real friendship had been forged. During the day they had formed the habit of taking short strolls in the park, then each evening they had settled down to talk, and laugh, or simply to listen to music in companionable silence until, as the days went by, they reached deeper understanding. Marielle had tried to apologize for wrecking the organization so painstakingly built up, but Sophie would not hear of her taking the blame. "Perhaps it was meant to be," she had countered obliquely, brushing aside Marielle's regrets. "One cannot live for ever in a limbo of indecision, and this way I have been left no. choice." Marielle had pressed for a more definite explanation, but Sophie had refused to be drawn. With a Mona Lisa smile hovering around her perfect mouth she had decreed, "You have perhaps done me a great service, but only time will telly so I can say no more." Of Rom, they had seen very little, whether purposely on his part or because his excuse of pressing business really was genuine Marielle did not know. His absence was a great relief to Marielle, who could hardly bear to be in the same room when he and Sophie were together, smiling into each other's eyes as if at shared secrets, their conversation sprinkled with endearments betraying deep feeling held in check for convention's sake. Their meetings were to her both embarrassing and painful, especially as Rom seemed to take great

delight in teasing-bright colour to her cheeks when? with scrupulous fairness, he bestowed upon her her share of attention. Her nerves were taut to breaking point the day he addressed her in such an avuncular manner that she felt reduced to the status of a peevish child. Sophie had excused herself to go into the kitchen to prepare coffee, and the resulting void of silence was broken by his drawled enquiry, "Well, luba, now that your health is so much improved do you feel ready to come out and play?" His tone rankled, or perhaps subconsciously she felt herself being compared unfavourably with her svelte, youthful-looking aunt whose curvaceous figure and graceful manner excited comment from all quarters. Beside her, she felt gauche and very immature, an object fit only for pity. Her bright head jerked up, revealing a sparkle of resentment. "I'm not a child!" she flashed across the space dividing them. His eyebrows elevated, but he took time to select a cigar before answering coolly, "I've never supposed you were - until now." Her rage escalated beyond all control. She jumped to her feet ready to flee, but a primitive urge to hurt checked her flight. He was watching with narrowed eyes when she spun on her heel to storm, "I hate you! You are the most superior man I've ever met, and it's my opinion that my aunt is far too good for you...!" Really first-class stores were at a premium in Vienna, but Sophie knew of a retired couturier who liked to keep her hand in by designing and making up clothes for a small, favoured clientele. As every door in Vienna seemed to open for Sophie, they had no difficulty in arranging an appointment with "Christa" whose small salon was located in a street not far from the flat. Of necessity, Marielle's more urgent shopping had had to be done in the available stores, but she could hardly help feeling excited when, accompanied

by her aunt, she was ushered into the presence of a regal old lady who, even as she extended her hand, was raking every inch of the figures she had been asked to dress. "Ah!" Christa pursed her lips, looking in severe black a positive matriarch. "I could wish for no greater contrast - the ingénue and the sophisticate - together you represent a challenge I cannot resist!" Sophie smiled. "Good, because we bring to you the supreme challenge. As you know, some of the. world's best-dressed women attend the Opera Ball and my niece and I have special reason for wanting to look our best. Do you think you can oblige?" Christa chuckled - a sound like dried peas rattling in a can. "It will be my pleasure." She inclined a be- ringed hand towards a bellpush and kept a finger pressed down until a flustered young girl appeared. "Show these ladies to the room where the materials are kept," she instructed. "I will be along later to approve their choice." They were led into a room where carefully-covered bales were piled against the walls. Swathes of materials were draped across stands with full, flowing effect, to allow texture to be felt and style to be decided. Marielle, rather put out at being pitchforked into agreeing to buy a dress for a function she had already decided to miss, demurred when her aunt pointed out a diaphanous fall of wild silk. "How gorgeous, Marielle, don't you agree? We are restricted somewhat by the ruling that all dresses worn at the Ball must be white, but you have no need to worry, white becomes your colouring well, whereas I, with my pale hair and even paler complexion, will emerge as colourless as a ghost." Marielle made a desperate attempt at evasion. "Will you mind... will you be very disappointed... ?"

"If you should decide not to attend?" Sophie finished coolly. "Yes, most certainly I will be disappointed and I will mind very much. So much, in fact, that I refuse to listen to any excuses you may already have formed. For years I have longed for this chance; my evening will most definitely be spoiled if you refuse to go. Besides, as Rom is supplying the tickets it would be discourteous to leave than on his hands - especially when they are in such great demand." With a shrug of helplessness Marielle conceded defeat. Her aunt was a very determined woman, but even so, on this particular occasion she seemed even more intent than usual upon having her way.

CHAPTER TEN MARIELLE wandered aimlessly around the flat, wondering at the lack of evidence of Rom's occupation. He had left no imprint upon the compact, uncluttered rooms; she felt they mourned in silence, as she did, the absence of his forceful personality. She picked up an ornament - one of the very few - and studied it while she waited for her aunt to emerge from her bedroom where she was dressing for the Ball. She herself had finished dressing long ago and her mirrored reflection told her she was looking lovelier than she had ever looked before. Her dress was a masterpiece of costly silk that whispered a sad song around her slender ankles when she moved. The bodice left her arms bare, the material lying in a silken, caressing swathe across smooth white shoulders, hiding all that remained of the physical scar inflicted by the impact of a gunman's bullet. But-other scars, deeper and more painful, were concealed within a heart weary of practising deceit, a heart that longed for the solitude in which it might drop the mask of excited anticipation it had been called upon to wear. Her hair - coiffured high and pinned with pearl- studded clips - contrasted pale silver against the creamy silk. Only her troubled eyes lacked sparkle inevitably if, as was said, they were mirrors of the soul... She set down the ornament and frowned; Sophie was taking her time. Rom was calling for them at seven and there was something she had to discuss with her aunt before he arrived. She had been troubled all day by the receipt she guessed must have arrived with the dresses. She had found it by accident, a curled-up ball her foot had touched as she passed the waste paper basket for which it had obviously been intended. Curiously she had smoothed out its creases, and gasped when she saw the amount. But what was most worrying was the spidery scrawl covering the face of the receipt, a scrawl that proclaimed: Account settled by Rom Boro! Her aunt had been at the hairdressers when she had found it and had disappeared into her bedroom immediately she returned, so now would be the first opportunity she had had of confronting her.

Sophie's door clicked and Marielle swung round, her questions ready, but the words on her lips gave way to a gasp of admiration. Christa, with unusual perception, had put her finger unerringly upon the qualities she had seen were lacking. Whereas she had incorporated into Marielle's dress an elegance to encourage proud confidence, with Sophie's she had reversed the procedure so that the resulting creation was one that produced an ambience of youthful gaiety. It was made up of delicate white lace with long, tight-fitting sleeves, a tiny fitted waistband topping an extravagantly full skirt and a collar of nunlike severity that lightened her somewhat sad features with a touch of innocence. Her hair, freed from restricting pins, brushed silken silver against blushed pink cheeks. Happiness glowed in her eyes: she was at once a child dressed for her first party; a tremulous girl on her first date; a woman deeply in love. "Will I do?" she asked, her expression apprehensive. "You'll do beautifully," Marielle eased through a constricted throat, her aunt's radiance compensating in a small way for her own misery. The doorbell shrilled and with a gay laugh Sophie moved, intent upon admitting Rom. "Wait!" Marielle checked her; there was no time for lengthy discussion, but she had to know. She held out the crumpled receipt. "I found this ... it has j Rom's name on it... I don't understand." Sophie barely glanced at the paper, obviously loath to postpone by even a second the pleasures in store. Her hand was already resting on the latch when she rattled in a breath. "Oh, that - I meant to tell you about it, but it slipped my mind. Rom insisted upon paying. I didn't quite understand myself his reference to a dowry - some gold pieces of yours he had in his keeping - you must tell me about it some time!" With a flourish she opened the door to allow Rom to enter and in her eagerness missed completely the wave of antagonism that greeted him when he met the eyes of the girl who had just become

shockingly aware that every stitch she owned had been paid for with the money he had exchanged as the price of his bride... He handed them into a waiting taxi and directed the driver to the restaurant where they were to dine, then as they drove off he began scrutinizing them closely. He took his time, deliberating first upon Marielle's rebellious face, then upon Sophie's, which was alive with a delight so consuming that her fingers trembled as she tried to pin on the corsage of dark red rosebuds Rom had presented. "Here, let me," he commanded, expertly adjusting the spray and snapping shut the pin. His eyebrows crooked an enquiry in Marielle's direction, but she had already fastened on her own green-foliaged sprigs of orange blossom with their scent reminiscent of weddings, choirboys and brides, so she shook her head vigorously in refusal of his unspoken offer of help. Their glances clashed above Sophie's head, but bitterly resentful grey eyes dropped before the stirrings of puzzlement they saw in his. His mouth tightened, and there were overtones of irritation in his voice when he ignored her and began conversing with Sophie. "Well, it is here at last, luba, the night for which you have waited so long. No need to ask if you are happy." Sophie laughed, a shaky tremulous sound. "Oh, I am, I am! So very happy! There is magic in the air tonight, Rom, don't you feel it? Tonight the stars will shine brighter, music will take wings and Vienna will rejoice as it's never done before!" To Marielle's acute embarrassment she reached out to cover Rom's hand with her own. "And for you also, I hope, my dearest Rom." Marielle stared blindly out of the window, pretending to be engrossed in the scene outside but actually seeing nothing of the lines of fairy lights strung like magic rainbows from tree to tree, the flower-sellers plying their wares, or the people queueing patiently outside every

theatre. She was wondering how she was to get through the evening which obviously held great portent for her two companions. It was as if a tryst had been made years ago, to meet here in Vienna on the night of the Ball. Their long separation had ended weeks ago, but for sentiment's sake they had opted to play out their fantasy in the way they had dreamed so that for ever afterwards the evening would remain fresh in their memories. To curb her churning emotions she bit her lip until she tasted blood, then struggled with such success to control her features that she alighted from the taxi looking almost bored. She remembered nothing of the conversation in the restaurant. Certainly she joined in, saying all the right things, but with mechanical responses which, as they waited for their meal, drew a flash of anger from Rom. "Does our conversation bore you, Marielle, or is it simply that you are about to embark upon yet another of the moods to which, for weeks now, we have become subjected?" She was so startled she dropped her spoon, but had barely time to frame a reply before a figure appeared at her elbow, a distinguished, mature man dressed like Rom in black evening suit and white tie. "Allow me, my dear," he bent to retrieve the spoon, then straightened slowly to smile directly at Sophie. "Stefan!" she whispered, very white and still. "My dear, is it really you ? " To Marielle's bewilderment Rom jumped to his feet and grinning broadly urged the stranger to join them. He sat down but did not speak, seemingly content to drink in the vision of confused loveliness by his side. Rom's prosaic: "Have you eaten?" dragged him back to reality. "No, not yet," he replied, his glance still locked with Sophie's. "I have a table reserved and a meal ordered - for two."

Tears glinted on Sophie's lashes as his hand crept out to capture hers. "You've come here all these years?" she asked softly. He nodded and confirmed simply, "Each year for almost twenty years I've returned to Vienna to wait in this same restaurant, at the same table, for a girl who never arrived. The waiters look for me now, my dear, they think me a crank whose imagination has fooled him into believing that some day he would meet again the woman he loves. Will you join me at our table so I might prove them wrong ?" She nodded, too choked with emotion to trust her voice, and too deeply engrossed to remember even to say goodbye before she was jealously spirited out of sight. Marielle's bewilderment increased when Rom, shrugging off his earlier annoyance, smiled and moved next to her into the chair Sophie had just vacated. "I don't understand," she appealed. "Don't you mind her going off with a stranger ? " "Stefan a stranger?" The idea seemed to afford him much amusement. "Those two were sweethearts long ago when Sophie was barely out of her teens. Before Stefan escaped to England to enlist as a flyer he begged her to marry him, but she refused to leave her parents alone in Warsaw and so they parted. However, before he left they made each other a promise. As soon as possible after the war, they were to meet here in this restaurant on the night of the Opera Ball. If one could not make it, then the other would return each year until they both finally managed to rendezvous. But unfortunately things did not work out. When the war ended Sophie was so committed to helping her people that she felt she could not leave even though the escape route was still open. So Stefan continued every year on his pilgrimage to Vienna, hoping each year would be the last and being so often disappointed. How delighted he must be feeling at this moment!"

With sudden hindsight Marielle recalled and understood her aunt's reply to her distressed apology for disrupting the organization. This way I have been left no choice, she had said. How easy it was now to understand the years of heart-searching behind that cryptic remark. Her choice had been between her own happiness and the happiness of her people. When she recalled how she had misjudged her aunt she felt drowned by a wave of shame. Then slowly she began emerging from her numbing cocoon with all senses vibrantly alert. Across the room a quartet of musicians were playing a Strauss waltz with gay abandon. The discreetly intimate restaurant was full of elegant people in evening dress, all prepared to enjoy their evening to the full. The lighting, a subdued rosy glow, played upon Rom's features, highlighting a glint of devilry in the dark eyes she had hardly dared meet before. A thin blue wraith of cigar smoke drifted towards her, a curling signal of intimacy holding a message of such great import that she began to tremble. She sensed he was enjoying himself when with twinkling gravity he suggested, "We had better continue our conversation over dinner. I have a feeling there is much you still desire to know, but I have no wish to spend the entire evening talking." Just what else he expected he did not say, but as a waiter served them with their first course the urge to question was so strong she could not wait until he had moved away. He continued serving, his face expressionless, when she blurted across the table: "You said you loved Sophie and yet you put up no resistance against Stefan's claim. It's just possible," the words almost choked her, "that over the years she could have transferred her affections - people do, you know." His lips twitched, but he dismissed the waiter before answering blandly, "You sound upset on my behalf, and yet only a few days ago you voiced an opinion that your aunt was too good for me. At the time, I must admit, I was puzzled by the reference, but after a while I

began to realize ..." He broke off, studying her rapt face as if he would delve the secrets of her soul, then continued with a seriousness that made her pulses hammer, "I love Sophie very much, but I'm not and never have been in love. Not, at least," he corrected, "with Sophie." When her lashes swept down to fan across cheeks suddenly hot his hand shot out to trap hers in a grip of steel. "Don't hide from me, Marielle! This evening I want us to be free of all misunderstanding, and to achieve this we must be completely honest with each other, don't you agree?" One part of her wanted to flee from his smouldering look, but the rest of her, the greater part, was fascinated to .the point of absorption. "Yes," she stammered, her cheeks fiery. "We owe each other that." "Good!" he replied with a relaxation into suavity. "Then perhaps you will now tell me why, when I called for you this evening, I was met with a look of such utter dislike?" A breath fluttered in her throat as his eyes dared her to prevaricate. "Sophie had just that minute told me where the money had come from to pay for the dresses," she was forced to admit. "You must have known when you handed over the so-called dowry how humiliated I would feel..." He cocked an amused eyebrow. "But the money is yours. I was merely holding on to it for safe keeping. Besides," he challenged deliberately, "why should you feel humiliated? Is it not a woman's right to have her clothes paid for by her husband ?" "Not if the husband has never claimed his rights!" she flashed, smarting still at the memory of his rejection. He did not pretend to misunderstand. "You would not have thanked me if I had," he countered, his mouth grim. "That night at Jan's was

an experience I would not care to repeat - leaving you then was the hardest thing I have ever done." She stared up at him, almost afraid to believe what his insistence upon truth had revealed. He was determined to be honest, so determined, in fact, that she dared not let slip the question burning on her tongue in case his answer should shatter her completely. But she yearned to know: had his desire that night been motivated by love or had it been merely hunger born of man's natural instincts ? They were interrupted before she found courage to ask, and the moment of truth was lost perhaps never to occur again. She could have cried out aloud to them to go away when Sophie and Stefan reappeared, aglow with a happiness that evidenced all was right with their particular world. Rom, too, could hardly have welcomed their appearance, but he rose politely to his feet, his features showing no hint of displeasure. Sophie bubbled over with joy as she suggested, "I think perhaps we ought to make our way to the Opera House if we are to be in time for the opening, don't you?" With a wave of her hand she indicated the surrounding sea of vacant tables; the rest of the diners had left unnoticed during their deep absorption. Rom slicked back his cuff to examine his watch, then nodded agreement, and in no time at all they were speeding through the streets towards the Opera House, the question, unasked and therefore unanswered, hovering like a cloud between them. Lights, music and the sound of laughter were spilling from the Opera House when they arrived. Vienna was en fete, alive with colour and vibrant feeling, the drab old buildings filled with a youth and gaiety that spelled welcome to all its visitors. Marielle and Sophie left the men in the foyer and made towards a cloakroom to deposit their wraps. The air was full of an excitement so intense that words were superfluous; they felt poised on the brink of some momentous event,

a once-in-a-lifetime occasion that commanded complete mental and physical involvement. Marielle would have rejoined the men immediately in her eagerness to participate, but Sophie dallied before a mirror supposedly repairing an already flawless complexion. Her eyes met Marielle's in the glass as, with lipstick poised, she murmured, "Have all your doubts been laid, moya droga?" Marielle flinched. She had suspected all along that Sophie had guessed of her love for Rom. "Not quite all," she answered stiffly, wondering at the insistence of all lovers to have others join their happy state. "Perhaps I can help?" Sophie urged. "I shouldn't think so," Marielle replied, evading her eyes on the pretext of removing an imaginary thread from her skirt. "Try me," Sophie persisted. "Don't be afraid to admit your love for Rom. He is a wonderful person, but I can understand your having doubts about the sort of life you might be expected to lead if ever you should become his wife." "His wife!" Marielle gave a startled laugh. "I can't imagine Rom ever admitting to such a need! He is a nomad - a cat who walks alone - a wife could add nothing to that which he already has." "Then you think wrongly." Sophie replaced her lipstick, closing her bag with a decisive click. "I thought you knew Rom, but I see now that you don't." She hesitated, then plunged recklessly, "Once, many years ago, Rom divulged to me a secret known to very few - some of his close associates within the tribe might have guessed, but they could never have been sure. He told me," she struggled on, obviously forcing herself to disclose the confidence, "he thought himself born with the curse of Cain: 'A fugitive and a vagabond I shall be,' he quoted, 'condemned to live the rest of my life with the sky for a

ceiling and wheels beneath my feet'. Don't you see, Marielle, he yearns for a settled home and a family - something he can never hope to find within the tribe! He may have gypsy looks and gypsy charm, but not even he can dictate to wayward instincts. I'm convinced that with someone like you he could put down roots - here in Vienna, perhaps - and live as he was meant to live, amongst his own kind." Marielle rounded on her with a tormented, haunted look. "That's just wishful thinking on your part, Aunt Sophie!" she challenged fiercely, holding back tears. "It's kind of you to want the same happiness for me as you have found for yourself, but unfortunately destiny will not be manipulated however hard you might try. To Rom, I represent a nuisance he wants to be rid of. Oh yes," she laughed hardly when Sophie tried to interrupt, "I'm fully aware of the fact that of late his attentions have become marked - but I have never allowed myself to forget that his change of attitude is part of the atonement he feels he owes me!" She retreated from her aunt, a slight, courageous figure hanging on grimly to control. As she reached the door she turned to throw out a last bitter comment. "As this evening could be termed a last instalment of that atonement, you must excuse me for not wanting to miss a minute of it!"

CHAPTER ELEVEN THE interior of the Opera House was like a fairy palace. The stalls were covered, so that the stage seemed to spread across the huge oval of the entire theatre; boxes and galleries were festooned with thousands of red and white carnations and lovely young girls dressed all in white, accompanied by black-garbed partners, pirouetted like marionettes beneath magnificent crystal chandeliers. The orchestra was tuning up, ready to start playing, when Marielle reached Rom's side. His dark head swivelled in her direction, seemingly by instinct, and the smile he gave her held such warmth her doubts almost began to waver. He stared without speaking, ignoring the beauty around him, then, as if satisfied with what he read in her face, he slipped his arm around her waist and swung her amongst the dancers. She revelled in the bitter-sweet torment of his embrace, refusing to allow her mind to dwell upon a lonely tomorrow but determined to gather unto herself as many happy memories as the night might hold. If her eyes held a hint of desperation even as she smiled, he did not seem to notice - a tremulous mouth and gently flushed cheeks can evidence happiness as well as pain. Her heart beat in time with the music, swiftly, soaringly, then finally surrendered with complete abandon when his arms tightened so that his lean strength and her fragile slenderness became as one when they moved together. Under his guidance she never once faltered, and by the time half a dozen dances had been played she was moving like moonlight across the floor. Rom's hands slackened reluctantly when the music faded, but remained lightly caressing as he led her towards a table where an ice bucket held a bottle of champagne enshrined up to its slender neck in cracked ice. There was no sign of Sophie or Stefan as the muted gold liquid sparkled into glasses, so only Marielle heard his tenderly-

voiced toast: "To love, luba, and to honesty and understanding! " He could have been pleading for all three as he waited, his glass upraised, for her response, but he betrayed no disappointment when she mumbled something inaudible, then gulped down her drink with a confused impetuosity that caused her to cough. He showed concern by moving his chair nearer and offering her his handkerchief, large, white, and redolent of cigar smoke and masculine cologne. Crowds milled around them, but their table could have been a raft in the middle of a heaving sea when, with his lips hovering against her ear, he breathed, "Let's go where we can be alone?" Her initial instinct was to refuse, but his expression proclaimed he would brook no opposition, so with nerve-ends tingling a warning Marielle allowed him to escort her outside. Nearby was a park where, out of the radius of lights strung between trees, solitary seats were shrouded in dark shadow. Gradually, as they walked along the paths, the sound of music faded until, when finally they gained solitude, only the rustle of her dress impinged the night silence. As if remembering suddenly that she was not of the breed that could withstand all temperatures, he exclaimed with concern, "You have no wrap! Here, let me give you my coat." "No, thank you, I'm quite warm," she refused, shying nervously away. His handkerchief, slipped into her bag to brood over later, held a strong enough personal appeal - wearing his jacket might prove a dangerously foolish intimacy. The disdain in her voice must have penetrated, because with a snap of the teeth he charged, "Does your dislike of me extend even to my clothing? My coat will not bite, Marielle, its empty arms are powerless, its warmth non-physical! Why do you act this way? For weeks now I have tried to break down your reserve, but you shy away from every tentative overture. I'm beginning to wonder whether your veins run with blood or with ice!"

It was a relief to fall back on anger, to use it as an antidote against his virile charm. Although she was willing at first to extort all she could from this last evening, her emotions were rebelling against such tightly held control. A verbal lashing was needed to prove mastery of herself - and of him. "Friendship between us has already been proved impossible," she stated coldly and with truth. "These past few weeks you have spared yourself nothing in your efforts to atone, but quite unnecessarily. Blame for my unfortunate mishap cannot possibly be attached to you, so please forget all about me, leave me alone - in a few days I shall be gone and in my absence I shall soon be forgotten ..." "Forgotten!" With whiplash speed his arms enclosed her in a grip of punishing anger. The lion's claws were no longer honeyed, nor were the words he spat with true gypsy ferocity. "Will you have me forget that you are my bride? Forget the nights I've spent listening to your sleepy murmurings, your soft breathing, holding a rein on my feelings, not daring to trust myself to encourage even friendship in case your utter desirability should be my undoing! " He shook her until she gasped for breath. "I love you! Adorable, mutinous little fool, your image is engraved upon my heart, and yet you dare to suggest that I should forget! " He released her shoulders to gather her slender, stricken figure - a silken rustle of sweet-smelling, wide-eyed wonder - against his heart. "Forget!" he derided harshly. "Forgive me, I prefer to have something to remember! " His kiss was gypsy-bold, seeking response from the depths of her soul. Desire ran molten between them and sent a clamour through her veins that demanded surrender to his powerful attraction. In the beginning, he was too angry, too consumed with the desire to punish, to sense her awakening response, then, when her lack of fury puzzled him, he lifted his mouth from hers. When he found no hint of resistance and her lips remained raised, waiting for his kiss, he murmured astonished delight and swooped with renewed fervour to

ensure his victory. It was a victory already won, but the laying down of arms was deliberately delayed so that he might savour to the dregs the sweetness so long denied. His lips razed her throat, her cheeks, her downcast lids, communicating his desire, forest-wild and only partly tamed. Beneath his hand Marielle's heart stirred like the trembling heart of a captive bird and as she responded to his touch she felt stirring within her a fervour that assured her panicking senses he would never find her lacking. She revelled in his gentle strength, thrilled to arms that could have snapped her slender body in half yet were tender even though passion is seldom kind. "You're mine! Until the end of time you're mine! "he growled deep within his throat, a lion tamed by sweetness. His fingers slicked through her hair, scattering pins until it flowed like quicksilver through his hands, then, the small act of domination pleasing him, he laughed softly and burrowed his face in its silken caress. The earth moved. She was swept beyond coherent thought, her senses alert only to the feel of his arms, to the touch of his lips, to the deep timbre of a voice unsteady with feeling assuring her with every breath that the out-of-reach dream, the impossible desire, really had come true. She was pliant in his arms, tired but exhilarated, when they at last found time for words. "I don't believe it," she spoke in a daze, yearning to be contradicted. He was standing close behind, his arms encircling her waist, his infinitely distracting mouth nuzzling the tender nape of her neck. "The fates must not be questioned," he chided fondly, betraying the superstition of his adopted race. "For me, it is enough that I have you here in my arms, little wild goose." Vadni Ratsa! It was true what Romany legend had said: however many times she had fled from her captor she had always returned! Rom, her captor. Without doubt he had captured her heart. She twisted around in his arms to smooth tender hands down his brown

cheeks. He was moved when, with simple honesty, she admitted, "I love you so, my darling. From our first meeting I had to fight against it, but on the night of our wedding I was sure.. ." "Was there ever such a wedding night?" he asked whimsically, touching each of her fingers to his lips. "An entrancing bride - one who admits too late to being in love - and a bridegroom so determined not to become a husband that he set out deliberately to antagonize his bride. I can promise you something, luba ..." he whispered mysteriously. "Yes?" "I promise our second bridal night will be very different." She was still too shy of him to meet his look, so to tease her he insisted, "We will have many children, brown-skinned sons who will spend their holidays romping in the forest with their gypsy friends and beautiful little daughters who will capture the hearts of Vienna with their polite English airs and graces." It did not matter in the least, but she felt he wanted her to ask. "Where will they live, Rom, this family of ours?" She rested confidently against him as she waited for his answer. East or West, caravan or castle, all she desired was a place next to his heart. "In Vienna," he mused, his lips against her hair. "In a house that does not move, with doors that can be closed and windows looking out over a view that will remain unchanged except for the vagaries of the seasons. It will be a home," he sighed, showing a yearning she had never before glimpsed, "holding everything in the world I cherish you, my love." He bent his head to kiss lips trembling with compassion. Marielle melted against him, knowing his needs, more than willing to meet the passion rising within him. He would not be content to wait long, this man of nature, but whenever he wanted her

she would be there, ready to ensure he never had cause to regret the price he had paid for his bride.

View more...


Copyright ©2017 KUPDF Inc.