posted July 12,1998

The Tale of The Circle

[Author's Note: My apologies to Lily if at any point Bruno sounds like Mathias in her story Winter Flowers. Any incidents are coincidental.]

Chapter One - Riffraff Ruffian

Above, a peaceful Spring night. Below, a slightly muted Springtime, yet no less night, and many of the outcasts from above were sleeping peacefully in their hidden beds. A young man, just into the first month of his twenty-second year, lay awake, content with his life at that time. He had enough coin to support his lifestyle, he and his friends were safe from danger, and most importantly, his beloved, despite her poor health, had survived another winter. Jehan sighed happily.
Melisande wasn't asleep either, he knew. Her bed was on the other side of the curtain that divided the tent. He heard her answering content sigh. Things were changing in their lives with each passing year that kept one or the other -- or both -- of them up for a night every once in a while, thinking and wondering.
Jehan wondered if it was high time to take down the dividing curtain.

* * * * *

The rope wobbled violently, and with his precarious balance he would surely have fallen to his death if he had not been practicing such tricks for so many years. Of course, he usually had a balancing staff to help him. The one time he left it behind, he was caught unawares and was now stuck in a delicate position. Ten feet off the ground with some idiot shaking the tight-rope. And not just any idiot. He knew who it was. He could see his tormentor from the corner of one eye...while he tried to turn toward the pest without falling...
There was one last sproing-like sound as the tormentor jerked the rope downward sharply and then let go. Jehan's arms windmilled as he spasmed forward. Finally he gave up his pride in his excellent balance to cling with arms and legs wrapped around the rope. He grit his teeth. If he had had a second's more warning he could have been more graceful in saving himself with a mere flip to the ground.
His tormentor laughed scornfully, a low, grating sound. A male figure in brown garb leapt out from his hiding place just below where the beleagered end of the rope was tied. Jehan glared hatefully. "Bruno, you worthless sewer rat!" the blond gypsy snarled.
The looming figure laughed again. "Now, don't make any insults about my parentage!" Bruno shook out his short black hair, his brown eyes gleaming with malice.
Jehan growled and swung loose from the rope. His hands tightened their grip as he began to pull himself up. Then he swung his legs out, let go of the rope, and performed a perfect flip to land with fists on hips in front of Bruno. The darker gypsy was easily two heads taller than Jehan, and just as easily more than twice as wide. Jehan would not be intimidated by size, however.
Ever since the matter with Shiriluna had been finalized, Bruno, Paquette's only true son, had taken it upon himself to make his pale adopted brother miserable. Jehan thought they were much too old for such childishness, but now he had to relent because his pride as a man was at stake.
"Jehan!" cried a familiar, concerned female voice. He removed his glare from Bruno to see Melisande hurrying toward him. He went cold; she would have to go past Bruno to reach him.
Melisande seemed oblivious to the possible threat. There was a fearful look in her expression. Jehan surmised that she had not seen his near-fall. Something else had happened. Jehan started forward to meet her before she found Bruno the hard way, but now she was moving faster to the point of tripping. And a moment later she passed Bruno's alcove. Jehan knew it would happen, but he also knew he couldn't go flinging daggers at Paquette's only blood son. Still, a knife was in his hand as he started toward the brute.
Melisande really wasn't paying much attention. She had only been intent on reaching Jehan to give him the news she had. So when Bruno leapt out behind her and grabbed her about the waist, she tried to keep going, only to be jerked backward against a large, menacing form she had unfortunately gotten to know recently. "Bruno, let go of me!" she screeched, yanking away from him. His hand clamped onto her arm and all she could do was turn slightly and glare up at him.
Bruno leered at her and leaned over. "Hey, pretty one, how about a kiss?" He leaned his face close to hers. Melisande scowled, then bent her fingers and slapped him across the face, effectively scratching him in the process. Bruno laughed mockingly, ignoring the stinging red lines on his cheek. His grip on her wrist tightened. Despite herself, Melisande uttered a whimper, vainly fighting to free her arm.
"Bruno, you let her go now!" Jehan ordered as he approached. He brandished the knife -- threateningly, to emphasize his point.
Bruno sneered at him. "You are too afraid to use it." Then he grinned at Melisande. "What do you want with a cowardly gadjo like him? You should want a real man, like me!" He flexed his unoccupied arm for his own point. Jehan almost brought the knife up to aim at the arm, knowing how painful a stab to a tight muscle could be. But his attention went to Melisande as she cried out.
It was in anger, not pain, for she was able to jerk her wrist from Bruno's grasp. "And why do you want someone who looks like a gadji, as I do?" she retorted with a fury in her eyes that might have scared some men. Bruno not being one of them. Bruno's face had darkened in anger, and he told her specifically what he would do. And then Jehan was diving at him, with a fiercesome cry and the knife leading.
Bruno quickly got a hold on the knife before it could find one of his vital organs, simply by wrapping a meaty paw around Jehan's slender left hand which held the hilt. Bruno gave a sharp twist, inspiring Jehan to let go of the knife, and, incidentally, nearly scream in pain. The blond gypsy collapsed to the ground, clutching his wounded wrist. As Bruno, eyes afire with hatred, was raising the knife for a killing strike, Melisande threw herself over Jehan to shield him. She glared up at Bruno, warning him away. The bully wavered for a moment, then spat out an oath, throwing down the knife harmlessly.
Melisande sneered, then leaned to the side to speak to Jehan, although she purposely made her voice loud enough for Bruno to hear. "Paquette has fallen ill. We must go see her right away." Jehan moaned a response. She helped him to his feet, a comforting hand remaining on his shoulder even after he was steady. He held his wrenched wrist against his chest.
Melisande turned him in the necessary direction. Then she looked back at Bruno and said plainly, "I'm telling your Mama on you."

* * * * *

There was a crowd around Paquette's tent about five deep, ranging from the latest brood of lost children to full-grown adults with children of their own. The parentless children mostly lingered by a pair of teenaged girls who could have been mistaken for each other. The twins Emiline and Alysia had been helping Paquette since they were old enough to be out of her care. They were Jehan's favorite younger sisters. The crowd parted to let Melisande and Jehan through, for a faint voice called from the tent, "Aubrey? Where is Aubrey?" Paquette had used the word for "blond ruler" as Jehan's name if only for the sake of naming him herself. He may have kept the title given by his real parents, but Paquette wanted to make him her own. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that, after all the years, and all the children thrust into her care, the blond gypsy was her most favorite.
Melisande pushed aside the curtain that covered the tent's entrance and pulled Jehan inside. For some reason he kept his head down, perhaps to hide the confession that Bruno had wounded him. But he snuck a necessary glance at Paquette. The generously-proportioned, matronly woman lay pale on her bed, a patched blanket pulled up to her chin. Her long black hair was mussed from sleep, her brown eyes dull; yet she was able to notice that he was there. "My Aubrey, there you are!" She motioned him to come closer. He obeyed, although he realized he could not let his arms fall to his sides for the extreme pain in the wrist. So he had to continue holding it in front of him, and Paquette inevitably noticed. "Are you all right, Jehan?" she asked in full motherly concern, as if she was perfectly fine.
Melisande made the confession, and in a bitter tone, too. "Bruno attacked us."
Paquette pursed her lips, then frowned. Jehan clenched his teeth and set his wounded hand on his belt, then reached out his good hand to smooth down her hair. "I will be fine, Mama, don't worry. But, what happened to you?"
Paquette smiled witheringly at him. "I am growing old, Jehan. That is all." She sighed and turned her face to the ceiling. He didn't want to admit that that was true, but there was no denying the years had caught her; she had seen about two-and-fifty winters. Not that he wanted her to be ill. He thought she would always there. There were so many children who needed her. What was the Court of Miracles without Paquette and her brood?
Emiline and Alysia appeared at that moment, a gaggle of little wanderers at their heels. "She was walking to the cookfire," Emiline began.
"And we saw her fall," Alysia finished. In unison each tucked her hair behind her ear. Jehan wondered if they were too much alike.
"I am perfectly fine now!" Paquette insisted. Immediately she went into a coughing fit. Jehan's forehead creased in worry. His own pain forgotten, he sank to one knee at the bedside, taking her hand. For a new pain had sprung up within him, a fear that he would lose the first person to care for him when all others turned him away.
"Mama..." he began softly.
Paquette squeezed his hand for a mere moment before fussing, "Can an old woman not have a dizzy spell without everyone panicking? I appreciate you all coming here, but I will be fine! Now, shoo, all of you! I have things to tend to..."
She started to get up. Jehan rose and caught her arm, then gently pushed her back against the pillow. "Mama, you will rest. 'Things' can wait, or be tended by others." He spared a glance at Emiline and Alysia, who were more than ready to agree to taking over Paquette's orphanage. The kind woman sighed, nodding slowly. She decided there was no point in disobeying Aubrey. He would not see to his own wounds until he was sure she would be safe. Paquette reached up to touch his cheek, smiling.
Jehan smiled in return, satisfied. He took Melisande's hand in his and turned to leave, nodding for the crowd to disperse. Behind him, Paquette spoke up, her voice changed, now filled with a cold harshness. "Whoever sees Bruno next, let him know that I wish to speak to him." This time Jehan grimaced. He and Melisande hurried away as quickly as was within appropriate.

* * * * *

"What does that brute have against you, anyway?" Melisande grumbled as she tied off the bandage she had wrapped around Jehan's wounded wrist.
Jehan slowly flexed the wrist as he drew it from her tender grasp. "Because I am different," he said, keeping his gaze on the odd bump that showed through the faded bandage. Melisande thought it best to not ponder the way his voice cracked.
She sank down on the bed beside him, suddenly murmuring, "He would have killed you..."
Jehan struggled to think of a reasonable reply that would not set her off in a ranting fit. "He...he is...jealous," he chirped, realizing it was possibly the perfect word for the enmity between him and his 'older brother'. He sat back slightly, stretching his arm with a dull pop from the elbow. "I had the attentions of the princess, after all. No one wants him." The last was said with a faint mocking.
"I can see why," Melisande muttered, a smirk playing at the corners of her lips.
"Aye, grabbing maidens and forcing them to kiss him are rarely successful ways of finding love," Jehan agreed with a twisted grin. They shared a quiet laugh. Melisande cast a nervous glance toward the tent's entrance. "What is it?" Jehan asked, sitting up straight.
Melisande lowered her gaze to the ground, then admitted, "I...have a bad feeling...I'm not sure why. I'm afraid.." She shook her head then, as if to scold herself for outrageous fears.
"What?" Jehan clasped her hand in his. "Afraid of..?"
"Bruno...coming," she blurted. "But it...I mean...well, he could sneak in here, couldn't he?" Her bottom lip trembled. She promptly bit down on it to still it, lest she appear as afraid as she felt. "Without using the door," she finally added, waving a hand toward the entrance.
Jehan's eyes gleamed. "We can solve that easily." He stood and went over to the curtain that divided the tent. Without a word he began to pull it down.
"What are you doing?" Melisande nearly shrieked, leaping up to lurch to his side. She grabbed his arm, jarring his hand from the curtain.
"I-- could see if Bruno was sneaking in by another manner if this wasn't in the way." His eyes burned questioningly into hers.
"No, leave it up," Melisande said blankly. She hastily set the fallen end of the curtain back over the rope.
Jehan reached a hand toward her, then decided against it. He looked to the floor and said softly, "I won't be able to sleep anyway. Not for a few days, at least...He will lose interest by then and chase after another poor girl..." He suddenly chuckled. "The only girl completely safe from that monster is Shiriluna, only because of who her father is! Even Bruno isn't that stupid!"
"Too bad he isn't," Melisande murmured, finishing with the curtain, "or else we would be rid of him quickly." They traded knowing grins.
Then Melisande slipped behind the dividing curtain. "Would that Clopin should force him out of the Court for attacking us," she sighed. Jehan ducked under the curtain and nodded at her words. "But I suppose he hasn't yet because he does not want to hurt Paquette." The last she said absently, as absently as she began to unlace her pink bodice. Abruptly she realized that he was on her side of the tent. She shot him a narrow-eyed glare.
"Sorry." Jehan grinned sheepishly and disappeared, leaving an impish giggle in his wake.

* * * * *

Melisande lay awake two nights later, thinking and wondering. Her thoughts were on the trouble Bruno was causing. She had attempted not talking to him and walking around him whenever he suddenly appeared in her path, but he would not take the hint. He seemed to follow her around the Court, as when she went to visit a friend she would always see him somewhere. Leaning against a wagon, lurking just visible enough in the shadows of a stone column, standing on the broken balustrade high on the Court wall...And she would know that he was there by the eerie feeling of his gaze being on her constantly. She would turn or look up, see him, glare at him, and he would merely smile smugly in return.
She wondered where he might appear next -- if she went aboveground, would he follow her there, too? Hide among the statues on Notre Dame cathedral while she visited Clopin's puppet theatre? She hoped he would not lurk in her dreams...Melisande sighed in disgust at that thought. So he was a persistant, deluded, egotistical maniac. Soon enough he would get what he deserved; she hoped that meant a nice tight noose around his neck...
Her eyelids drooped shut and she yawned. Things to worry about tomorrow...Everything seemed to fade into darkness for a while. Then she was staring blearily at the side of the tent. A shadow seemed to be moving against it...A rather large shadow...
She narrowed her eyes at it. Was it just a trick of the wavering light thrown by the torches on the wall outside, or was that cast by an actual person? She tried to sit up, her movements sluggish. The shadow's hand seemed to be reaching for the bottom edge of the side curtain...She gave a cry and bolted upright. The shadow flitted away at the noise. Thought not too loud, it had also managed to wake Jehan, who popped his ruffled-haired head around the side of the dividing curtain. Evidently he had not truly been asleep, either. "What is it?" he groused. Half-asleep, then.
"A -- dream," she sputtered. "I -- sorry..." A dream. It had to be a mere dream, she tried to convince herself.

* * * * *

Dripdripdripdripdrip. Melisande looked up in annoyance. A trickle of rain water persisted in breaking her concentration. She sighed and sat back against the already-damp tunnel wall. A piece of torn parchment lay across her knees, a ragged quill sagging from her hand. She was trying to practice letters, since Phineas had offered to teach her to read. The squiggly lines blurred before her eyes, and the dripping water only offered a distraction. She was merely attempting to find something to do. Jehan had gone aboveground, where, she had forgotten or else she would have tried to find him and tag along. She wished she knew how to play a musical instrument, or that she could still dance. Then maybe she could earn some money.
Melisande sighed again then rolled the parchment around the quill. She stood, reaching up to a small square hole in the wall to place the roll and precious bottle of ink into it. After fitting the square stone over the hole, her hiding place was secret once more. This small tunnel, just outside the Court, was Melisande's favorite place to come to be alone and think, or sulk, or just sit. No one else ever came upon it, and she supposed no one else knew about it.
She brushed the mud off her skirt, grumbling about the rain always finding its way into her quiet haven. This could have been yesterday's drizzle for all she knew. Gods, how she wished she could go aboveground! But, no, she always had to have someone with her in case her legs gave out and she couldn't walk...She leaned over and pounded her fists on the offending knees in frustration. It didn't help any, only put her off balance a little so that she had to lean on the wall for support. Stupid, stupid body. Even from that angle she could see how her legs somewhat bent inward at the knees. She frowned and pushed off from the wall, heading out of her little tunnel. I can walk just fine, she convinced herself. Maybe if I find a walking stick of sorts I can be sure of being safe, and I can come and go as I please because I don't look like a gypsy, I only need gadji clothes...
Melisande stopped rambling to herself and paused in mid-step as she heard a noise up ahead...Someone sneaking around...She brought the raised foot backward, then proceeded to retreat the way she had come, not turning but keeping her eyes on a shadow that seemed to move as if breathing. After ten backward steps -- and a stumble or two -- she wheeled around to flee. Even as she did, something grabbed her about the waist. Melisande screamed and kicked then flung out a punch as the breathing shadow whirled her around to face it.
Bruno. Of course. She wasn't too surprised to see him. Rather, she was furious that he had followed her. He probably knew where her hiding spot was, too. She screeched in anger, lashing out at him. He easily caught her arm. That would not stop her tongue, though. "Let me go, you worthless rat! You should be thrown out of the Court!"
Bruno's eyes burned with his own anger. "Now is that any way to talk to me?" He pulled her to him and tried to kiss her.
Melisande hissed and employed her slap-across-the-face defense. "Stop now, you dog! I love only Jehan, I don't care that he is a gorgio! I would rather have a gadjo than you!"
The last insulting barb put Bruno over the edge he had been tottering on. With one hand he shoved her to the ground. His eyes narrowed as he sneered. "Witch!" he spat out. She glowered right back while she freed her hands from the mud carpetting the ground, although her legs slipped even as she tried to sit up. Bruno continued menacingly, "Yes, I know about the witchhunt, how they were looking for someone like you!" His words froze her blood, then quickened her heart. Now her foot slipped in her frantic haste to get up. "I'll leave you some where for the soldiers to find," he continued to threaten, "And then you'll have your gadjo!"
Melisande trembled for a moment before something inside her snapped. Her hand grabbed at the mud until she had a good-sized lump of grime, which she pitched at Bruno's face forcefully with a growl. He flung his hand up to stop it, but, not fast enough. He at least got his eyes closed. While he cursed, wiping the mud off his face, Melisande scrambled to her feet and stumbled down the tunnel away from him as quickly as she could.
Keep strong, keep strong, keep strong! she encouraged her legs as she veered through a low tunnel to the right. All she needed now was for her knees to give out...then she would really be doomed. She ignored the sharp pain in her chest, continuing her blind run. I hope I don't get lost! She heard an oath from somewhere behind her. She gave a thin smile, glad for small tunnel openings. She ducked around a corner and stopped for a moment to catch her breath, pressing on the spot in the middle of her chest in hopes of relieving the pain. Her legs trembled. She knew that she had to run now or else she would drop where she was and probably get caught.
She took three steps before something clamped onto her arm. A growl of rage built in her throat as she whirled around. She met a look on Bruno's face that she never again wanted to see in a man's expression. She tried to free her arm, to no avail. Finally she gave up struggling, although her free hand had moved toward the hidden pocket in her skirt. She glared Bruno straight in the eyes to keep his attention on her face, despite how she longed to look away. But if he did not see the knife coming...She loathed to use the blade, but she knew no words would stop Bruno.
"What do you want?" she hissed through clenched teeth.
His voice came low and cold. "You are a gadji, just pretending to be Rom!"
Melisande fairly bristled in anger, despite the promise in his tone. "What do you know about me?!" she hissed. "You are always hiding like the rat you are, you know nothing of a gypsy's hunted life! You know nothing of the sorrow, or terror, or how it is to lose your family, because you are always hiding behind your mama's skirt!" His hands clamped onto her shoulders and he shook her violently. She thought enough to bring her knife out. The blade glinted for a mere moment before it was stabbed into his arm. Bruno made a strange gasping sound, then shoved her to the ground. He stared at the deep line along his left forearm. His eyes glittered as he glared down at her next.
Melisande fumbled for the knife, lost from her grasp when she fell. Her hands shook uncontrollably. It was beyond her belief that she had actually used it. The fury being directed at her was the only thing keeping her from sobbing, or helping Bruno tend the wound. She attempted to get up, then realized that she was completely covered in mud -- and realized, too, that Bruno would not hesitate to soil her more. Horrified, she made a grab for the knife, two inches too far for her to reach. Bruno pounced. Her arms were pinned down where they were. Now she would never get to the knife. She struggled briefly, feeling herself sink deeper into the mud. No! she screamed out in her mind. I will not let him do this to me! She swiftly brought her knee up, kicking him where it counts. While he howled an octive higher than normal, she somehow managed to pull herself out of the mud and run again.
Any moment now I will fall, raced the terrifying thought through her head. Each step around a corner was more jerky that the last. She was going to fall, the next turn perhaps, and then Bruno would catch her once more, and that would be the end of her. She could hear him behind her even now...Melisande whipped around a corner only to stop short. The tunnel continued ahead, but...there, about four and a half feet up on the wall, a small opening...perhaps if she could get inside, Bruno would not think to stop and look because it was so small. She had to chance it, and quickly.
She cautiously stuck her hands in to push away anything that might block the way. A few bones, of course, and something slick with slime...Ick. But it had to be better than facing Bruno again. Melisande crawled inside, carefully placing the bones ahead of her in case they clattered. Then she hugged her knees to her chest, holding her breath and waiting.
The furious mass that was Bruno raced past a few minutes later. Melisande pressed herself as far back as she dared without touching the mouldering bones. He did not stop, kept on going without looking back. Melisande heaved a sigh of relief, then turned to see if there was another exit out of the small tunnel. To her shock, the bones, in front of her very eyes, began to move of their own accord. The scream, thankfully, caught in her throat, but it was too much for her, so she fainted dead away.

* * * * *

Taptap-clank. Jehan carefully listened and followed the sound as it echoed off walls and bounced off corners, waving a torch before him. The pre-arranged signal meant someone needed help but was unable to call out. Taptap-clank. Perhaps someone had found Melisande -- that thought quickened his step. Perhaps it was Melisande herself -- that quickened his heart. He had returned from the city to find that she was gone, not in the tent, not with any of her friends, no where he knew to look. No one had been able to tell him where she was, either. In worry he scoured the entire cavern, looking. He had been searching the tunnels nearest the Court when he caught the faintest echo of the signal. He had managed to track it, and at every turn it grew louder and closer.
Taptap-clank. There. The small opening in the wall. Jehan gave a short whistle. The returned whistle confirmed it. Jehan stepped up to the round tunnel and glanced in. Beyond a bundle of cloth gleamed a floating skull disillusioned by the green eyes gazing out of the too-large sockets.
"Melisande," the living skeleton said in a deep male voice. He tapped the bundle with the leg bone he had been using to relay the signal.
The torch clattered from Jehan's hand as he gave a cry and reached for the bundle. Pale limbs tumbled loose as the cloak fell free when he pulled her out of the tunnel. He gently set her on the ground, then checked her over for wounds, his breath coming in short gasps. There was too much grime for him to tell if she had been hurt, although bruises were obvious on both arms. He hugged her to him, pressing her head against his heart. There was no response. He eased her down against his arm, taking from his vest pocket a handkerchief. He folded one corner, wet it on his tongue, and gently rubbed at the mud caked on her face.
By now the living skeleton had found its way out of the tunnel. He leaned against the wall, holding his mask in one hand, a frown on his face. "She was running from someone. I did not see who. She hid in there, and..." He smiled sheepishly, "I believe I scared her."
"Mm-hmm," Jehan murmured inattentively. He was hugging Melisande again, rocking back and forth, his gaze elsewhere.
"I would have brought her home, but I feared that if I pushed her out, she would be hurt, or even fall right into the hands of her pursuer." The living skeleton cleared his throat, looking awkward and hesitant to say more. Then: "I think her pursuer might have been Bruno."
He regretted giving such a clue when he saw the blond gypsy's reaction. Jehan's jaw clenched tightly, accompanied by a flare of fury in his eyes. If he had less of his wits about him, he might have shoved Melisande aside, carelessly, and gone after his enemy. But he contented with shaking in rage and hugging his beloved fiercer.
"Come," Jehan whispered, the power of anger making him be heard. "Clopin must know, and then this will be dealt with as it should have long ago." The skeleton nodded as he followed the blond gypsy. He knew his guess had sealed Bruno's fate, whether it be Jehan's dagger in the back in the dark, or a hanging before the entire Court of Miracles.

Coming Next: The Tale of The Circle, Chapter Two: Decisions, Decisions

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(c) 1999-2004 Autumn Loweck. This work may not be copied, distributed, or reprinted without the author's permission. All characters are property of Autumn Loweck (aka Shiri), unless specified otherwise, and may not be "borrowed" or mentioned in other works without notifying the author first.