posted February 8, 1999

Much credit for this chapter goes to its coauthor, the Starchild -- many, many thanks, sis, for all of your help and inspiration, for getting me this far, for being my best friend, and for being you, piuthar, sister. :-)

The Tale of The Circle

[Autumn's Note: For my dad, who can't see the forest for the trees...]

Chapter Five - The Return

Clopin paced across the relatively low platform that was used as a practice stage. His black-gloved hands were clasped behind his back, his eyes distant, although his gaze seemed to study the curled-toe tips of his well-worn blue boots. Shiriluna sat with Teague on the steps leading up to the platform, merely enjoying each other's company. However, it was somewhat hard to ignore the rhythmic creak of the wood as Clopin paced.
"Papa, don't you have a story to work on?" Shiriluna asked half-teasingly. Clopin did not answer. "Papa!"
Clopin whirled to look at her. "Hmm? What? Sorry."
"What is the matter? You are very distracted."
"I am only--" Clopin glanced across the stage, then sighed. He finished glumly, "--acting like a caged animal..."
"What do you mean?" Shiriluna stood, starting up the steps toward him.
"The days aboveground are fine, but every night I have to return here, an underground box. I want to go out and be in the wide open land." He blinked in surprise at himself, after finally putting to words what he was feeling. Then the distant look returned to his eyes, accompanied by a wistful smile upon his lips.
Shiriluna gave a start. "You mean you want to leave here?"
"Just for a little travel..."
"B-but why leave the safety? The security of food and shelter, and..." Her voice softened to a whisper, "And family..."
"It is only a little while! I would return! This place is home. But I need to...escape..." Clopin began to pace again.
"But if you leave," Teague interjected, "Who will be in charge of the Court?"
Clopin regarded him, then Shiriluna, with a calm look.
"Oh, no!!"
"Oh, why not?" Clopin shrugged. "You need the practice..."
"Us?!" They exchanged worried glances.
"And now that that is settled..." Clopin did a cartwheel off the platform, then headed through the milling daily business of the Court of Miracles.
Teague sighed in exasperation. "I will never understand him."
"Neither will I..." Shiriluna murmured.

* * *

"Leaving?! Are you insane?!" Jehan ranted as he stalked past Clopin in his otherwise empty tent. "No, wait, I don't need an answer for that, I know you are!"
"Now, now," Clopin soothed while his friend paced angrily before him. "I discussed it with Shiriluna and Teague, they agreed with no argument."
"I'll bet you didn't give them a chance to argue," Jehan muttered.
"Pah." Clopin waved his hand as if it were of no consequence. "It will be good for them."
"Are you so sure this is wise?" the blond gypsy asked softly.
"Of course I am wary," Clopin replied in all seriousness, smoothly picking up his meaning. "That is why I want you to be an...advisor, shall we say..."
Jehan pondered a moment. "I don't think the tribe would eagerly accept me, a gajo, leading the Court."
"Exactly. That is why you merely stand behind the princess and not seem to influence her overmuch. You play the part of guard, but secretly make sure her decisions are the right ones."
Jehan nodded. Clopin had handed him more than ensuring the safety of his daughter, as he had expected him to. Having spent almost his entire life in the Court, the blond gypsy knew he could handle it. "Very well, my liege, I accept." He bowed low at the waist.
In spontaneous inspiration, Clopin drew his dagger and tapped both of Jehan's shoulders with the flat of the blade. "I knight thee Sir Jehan, Defender of the gypsies and their Home!"
Within an instant the blond gypsy snatched the dagger from Clopin's hand and leapt back. Clopin stared in confusion at the flare of anger that suddenly streaked Jehan's face. Then, all trace of seeming attack disappeared, while Jehan calmly tossed the dagger back to him. "Your reflexes are getting slow, old fool."
Clopin narrowed his eyes at the young man as he fielded the dagger. "On the contrary.." he replied coolly. He tossed the dagger into the air where it flipped several times before falling. He caught it and, in the same motion, neatly sheathed it. "And, better too be a wise old fool than a careless young ass," he quipped.
"I still feel this is a mistake, Clopin. You are a good leader, everyone respects you...You should stay here, for the tribe might need your guidance one last time before..."
"Oh-ho!" Clopin interrupted with sudden vehemence, "Now we get to the source of your protests! You think Clopin is too old to go off travelling by himself!"
"You don't think Clopin can take care of himself alone, ah?!"
"Clopin, that isn't what I meant--"
"Clopin will be fine!" He turned on his heel and marched out of the tent. Jehan stared after him, feeling mingled regret and anxiety. He should not have hinted at the evidently sensitive issue. But the young man was concerned for his friend, and had desperately wanted to tell him so. Jehan frowned. Now he had inspired the wrong idea to Clopin. He hoped his dear friend would not find too much trouble...

* * *

Clopin spent the next day discreetly spreading the news of his impending leavetaking. Those who would see him overthrown were to be put under constant watch for however long was necessary. His closest friends were encouraged to offer advice to the princess and keep a little bit of watch over her.

Late one night a lone figure stood in his tent, packing a few belongings into a satchel. He stole to the stone back wall of the tent and counted down the bricks, selected one, and carefully pulled it free without a scrape. He reached far into the hidden space to draw out a small, dusty black box. Lovingly he wiped it clean, then eased it open. It was empty, he very well knew, save for a swath of soft, golden material. It had another meaning to him beyond a simple box. He closed the lid and tucked the treasure into a hidden pocket.
He replaced the brick, then made a beeline for the tent's entrance, snatching the satchel on the way. He silently crept through the Court of Miracles, unnoticed by any guards there and those in the tunnels. Before dawn began to color the sky he slipped out of the city of Paris on horseback, without a word to his passing.

* * *

Shiriluna ran right into Jehan as he came to answer her frightened cry. "He's gone! He's gone!" she shrieked, her hands upon his chest as she caught her balance.
"Clopin?" he half-asked, grabbing her shoulders.
"He-he left! He never said when he was leaving! Or returning!" Her eyes darted around wildly. She uttered a sob and buried her face in his shoulder.
"Typical Clopin," Jehan muttered. He wished his friend hadn't been so typical this time. Watching Shiriluna weep near-hysterical, he decided this was a perfectly terrible beginning.

* * * * * *

The sun shown strong and warm, a testament to the newly arrived Spring. Clopin savored the flower-scented breeze that danced by as the chestnut mare trotted briskly down the road. The expanse of dirt path curved along the edge of the forest, which yielded comforting shade and the rhythmic song of brave birds. There wasn't another soul to be seen, behind or ahead, or in the fields to his left. He felt utterly at peace.
He hummed quietly as the mare slowed her pace. She whinnied and he laughed, humming louder and with more gusto before breaking into a song about Winter's end to oblige her. The breeze suddenly changed, while dark clouds scudded across the sky to cover the sun, and Clopin let the song trail off into the wind. He pulled the reins to the right, coaxing the horse into the shelter of the trees just as the first raindrops began to fall.
The leafy canopy was enough to shelter them when the storm came in earnest. A few drops slipped through, receiving indignant whuffles and flicks of an ear when they struck the mare, and a slight twitch when one fell on Clopin's nose. It was over as quickly as it began, and soon the two slightly wet travelers were once again heading down the road.
Clopin hummed a smattering tune, as if he weren't truly interested in humming but the notes came anyway. His attention was on a suspicious feeling that he was no longer the only traveler on the road. His glance danced back and forth while he waited patiently for the presence to make itself known. The horse rounded a bend in the road, and his suspicions were allayed. There, ahead by the side of the path was a female figure, limping slightly as she walked -- more danced, rather -- toward him.
"Why, bless my soul," he murmured with a small smile. He brought the horse to a stop, then stood up in the saddle, reins in hand. He leapt into the overhead tree, tossing the reins around a branch, effectively tethering the mare. He somersaulted to the ground, lowering himself to one knee before the figure, sweeping off his hat in a grand bow. "Greetings to the raven of dreams! Such a pleasant treat to meet such a traveller this day!" He rose and replaced his hat, grinning.
The DreamWalker smiled and made a brief curtsy. "Monsieur Trouillefou. I did not think your kingdom came so far..."
He replied mock-arrogantly, "Why, I rule all of France, where have you been?" His grin broadened.
Rayven frowned momentarily in thought. "Wandering..." Then she smiled again. "And where are your courtiers?"
Clopin waved a hand toward the forest. "Lost them somewhere in the woods."
She raised an eyebrow at his response, then shivered slightly. She murmured softly, "How irresponsible."
"They will find their way back," he shrugged non-chalantly. He turned toward the abandoned horse, his mood becoming more serious. "You have managed some influence over me...I decided it was time for me to start wandering again."
She raised both eyebrows. "My influence?"
"Well, you are the one wandering off all the time!"
Rayven shrugged and walked over to stroke the mare's muzzle. "What else would I do?" She paid great attention to scratching the horse as her voice softened. "I don't belong any one place."
Clopin climbed up into the saddle, shaking the reins loose from the branch. "Well, then you belong in more than one place," he chirped. Rayven watched the horse and nodded absently. Clopin glanced at the path ahead, then looked down at her thoughtfully for a moment. "Care to wander with me, Rayven?" he asked softly.
Rayven looked up at him, her mind returning to the present. "While our paths lie in the same direction..." She nodded and smiled gently.
He offered her a hand up. "It seems you were heading for where I left, but if you don't mind switching directions..."
She shrugged and accepted his help, climbing up behind him on the horse with a little difficulty. Once balanced, she rearranged her skirts and bad leg till settled in place.
The horse neighed and started off down the path. Clopin called back in a blank tone, "Where am I going, by the way?"
The DreamWalker leaned forward and whispered, "Where your soul tells you. Try closing your eyes."
"If I do that, I might ride into a tree!"
Rayven chuckled softly. "I do not think your soul will lead you into a tree." She continued after a moment, "Animals are good at listening to souls...not so many thoughts in the way. She will not walk into a tree, and you only need to tell her when to go, when to stop, and when she is going the wrong way." The DreamWalker settled back and put her arms around his waist, having made her speech for the day.
Clopin looked off toward the forest. "I think my soul wouldn't mind being spiteful..."
"It's your soul, Clopin, not an enemy."
He shrugged. "One can always wonder, my dear."

It became a rather uneventful trip for several days. The weather was cooperative, and the few people they met gave them no trouble. It was pleasant enough to be out on the open road with no destination to hurry to, or responsibilities to tend to. But then the storms came. Rain poured down without care for the travellers, who for once regretted being in the open where there were no trees to take shelter under.
With his cloak wrapped tight around him, Clopin called back, "Rayven, my dear...If your soul has led us into this storm, I would like to have the reins back. I'd prefer a tree right about now..."
Rayven chuckled quietly. "The storm will pass on, but a tree is not so accommodating."
Any reply he might have grumbled was stolen by a crash of thunder.
By the end of the fifth day since their meeting, the storms were still raging, yet, at last they found shelter. A decimated old barn lay off the side of the road, through a field reclaimed by nature, but it was something. And they could be assured that they wouldn't be bothered by anyone forcing them off the land.
Clopin dismounted and pried the crumbling doors open, frowning at the state of the building. He then led the horse inside, frowning more at the darkness within the barn.
Rayven limped alongside the horse, humming softly to herself. Once inside she wandered away from Clopin into the darkness, still humming. She easily navigated fallen remnants of the barn itself and mouldy bales of hay.
Clopin closed the barn doors, then glanced around uneasily, muttering, "I don't like the feel of this place...But it's slightly better than being in that storm..." He retrieved a candle and its holder from the saddlebags and quickly lit it. He frowned noticing it didn't do much good to cut through the gloom.
Rayven shrugged and looked up into the darkness above her, pausing in her wordless tune. She turned slowly in a circle, peering upward. Her footsteps on the barn floor were so muffled by dust and old hay as to be almost silent.
Clopin looked around nervously, calling, "Rayven? Where are you?...I can't see a blasted thing with this light..." He attempted to not sound nervous.
"Mmm?" Rayven answered absently.
Clopin sighed in exasperation. He set the candle down on a relatively sturdy block of wood, then led the mare into the most secure stall. "You stay right here," he admonished her (loud enough for both 'her's to hear), then fished an apple out of his satchel and cut it in eighths, dusting off the wooden trough before placing the pieces in. The horse nickered her thanks and playfully nipped at his shoulder as he walked out.
Rayven smiled slightly and stood right where she was, lowering her eyes from the ceiling to watch Clopin. She put both hands behind her back, waiting patiently.
Clopin collected the candle and sighed again as his gaze searched for the DreamWalker through the gloom...
Rayven smiled mischievously, still not moving from the spot although she realized she was hidden in the shadows. The barn creaked omniously, hinting at the howling wind outside. Clopin shivered.
"Bah! I'm going up to the loft, DreamWalker. Follow when you wish!"
"Aren't you gentleman enough to say ladies first?" She appeared from behind the rickety ladder leading to the hayloft, smiling somewhat impishly.
He waved the candle at her. "Only if you want your bottom burnt, ami."
She put her hands on her hips and managed a scowl while he nimbly scaled the ladder. She did follow, slowly though, mindful of her bad hip.
Clopin scrambled over the top of the ladder and onto the platform, taking care not to drop the candle in the process. He gazed around at the dark loft, feeling even more uneasy as he meandered toward the closed 'window' of the hay lift. Something...something he couldn't pinpoint was nagging at him, something he should remember...
The floor creaked behind him, and he whirled around, this time nearly dropping the candleholder. Rayven watched him with somehow sad, luminous eyes. "Don't sneak up on me like that!" Clopin cried, scowling in anger.
"Sorry," she murmured absently. She drifted past him, humming an aimless tune.
"What are you up to?" he muttered as he looked for a safe place to set the candle. Finally he sat and cleared a space on the floor, pushing a scattering of hay into a small mound to one side. The DreamWalker weaved in and out of the vertical support beams, pausing next to one by the window, where she hummed louder than before. Then she continued on, disappearing into the shadows again while submitting the hum to silence.
Clopin huffed, drawing his knees up and folding his arms over them. Let her wander about being mysterious. Right then all he cared about was getting some sleep. Suddenly, he no longer felt cold or wet, but extremely exhausted. With the sound of Rayven's humming voice in his ears, Clopin dozed off, unmindful of the storm still raging.

The wind howled, violently tearing at the rotted wooden boards of the creaking and groaning barn. Inside, the mare whinnied in fearful agitation. She bucked and broke one side of the stall, then turned and shattered the other. Then she shrieked at the sight of what awaited her beyond the confines of the stall...
The DreamWalker looked up in alarm, scuttling to the edge of the hayloft to see what the disturbance was about. Nothing but darkness could be seen below. Without hesitating, she went to the ladder, making her way down it as quickly as her bad hip would allow. She heard the horse whinnying somewhere to her right. A crash of lightning illuminated the scene...Five shadows lurked in wait, two of which immediately closed in on her...
Clopin heard the cry of his name in the DreamWalker's tongue, yet something he could not immediately recall was holding him in a daze. He attempted to pull away, but the something was rooting him to the spot where he knelt. Then another cry brought him from his state of shock. He drew his dagger and stumbled to the end of the loft. He took a steadying breath, then heedlessly leapt from the edge of the platform.
He landed right on top of one of the shadows, bearing the attacker to the ground, his foot placed so that a crack came from its neck. A long burst of lightning revealed the scene: two darkness-clad figures were attempting to tame the mare, while two more held the DreamWalker captive. Clopin hastily slipped out of sight, relieved to see no one had noticed him. He crept around to the far wall and quickly dispatched the two shadows harrassing the mare. As he slipped toward the remaining attackers, another bright light revealed him. The shadow holding Rayven's left arm charged toward him. Clopin ducked the wild swing of a sword, then swung his foot out to take the figure's legs out from under it. He gave it a second smile below the chin before racing toward the remaining shadow.
He had
never seen the DreamWalker look frightened before. He wasn't sure if she feared for herself or for him, but he was willing to bet it was the latter. A silvery hook flashed, the point positioned at the DreamWalker's throat. "Who are you? What do you want?" Clopin barked, clenching his fist painfully around the hilt of the useless dagger.
"I want
you." The hook shifted to point at him.
Instead of being surprised at the voice, Clopin merely swallowed hard. Then he narrowed his eyes, and beckoned with his free hand. "Then come, face me! Leave the old woman be. Such as you were not meant to undo her."
The man clad in darkness smiled coldly. He shoved Rayven aside, and drew a black-bladed knife. "I still have her, Clopin," he taunted. "You will never find her, though." His wicked grin sent fearful chills down Clopin's spine. He knew he should not heed his enemy's words, for they were meant to weaken him by the sorrow that would surely take him...
And then Clopin remembered what had held him when the DreamWalker first called to him. And once more it gripped him, till the dagger fell from his hand. He stood, unmoving, as Robuert bore down on him, the evil knife reaching for his already shattered heart...

"They are gone, ami. Look around. They are not here."
Clopin felt he could not tear his gaze from the scene before him. Then he realized that all he was staring at was the dark ceiling of the barn. A soft voice had coaxed him out of the nightmare. The terror still lingered, and he gasped for breath. He rolled onto his side then began to cough violently, nearly retching.
Rayven looked away to the corner. She waited until he had calmed, after he drew himself to a sitting position, to speak. "Are you...all right, now?"
He was silent for several moments. She retreated back a few steps, giving him time to settle his thoughts. He picked up a random bit of straw and absently twisted it between his hands, his mind returning to the faded dream. "No," he whispered hoarsely. "I will never be..." He mangled the straw further before it broke. He gazed at the pieces clenched in his hands. Then he let them fall. "Will I ever escape them, Rayven?" It was a rhetorical question. He never expected to forget his past.
Clopin staggered to his feet, moving toward the moonlight streaming through the window. His strength failed him just short of the pool of gentle light, however, and he leaned on a crossbeam for support. His fingers brushed an indentation in the wood, that felt like a definite shape. He turned, hesitant, remembering the something from his dream that was suddenly very clear. He gazed at the carefully carved marks, tracing first a crescent moon with two stars outside the curve, then three stars linked together, his hand trembling. "It...cannot be...Of all...the places..." His voice was quiet in awe, while a tear made its way down his cheek.
Rayven approached him slowly. "Clopin..?"
He uttered a sound that was half-laugh, half-sob. "After all these years, it still stands! I bet the house is still there, too!" He began to turn to glance out the window, but then looked at her. "See, Rayven! This is me, and-and," he pointed to the three stars, "this is Samira!" He gave an empty laugh. Then he dropped to a sitting position on the floor, leaning his head back against the beam.
"After all these years...Of all the places...Samira's farm."

Coming Next: The Tale of The Circle, Chapter Six: The Return II

To The Archives

(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