The Gypsies had grown restless in Orléans. Theirs was not a life meant to be rooted in permanent settlements, but one of everlasting change. Like the seasons, they never lingered in one spot forever and knew when it was time to move on. Their souls longed for adventures and new possibilities, which was why the caravan was out on the road once again, seeking the next profitable location for their fair.
The move was particularly disappointing for Mute, for the trio had heard the black ghost yet again the previous night. Even now, haunting melodies ensnared her mind, her head dancing with those distant songs. Reliving the memories was one way to deal with the heartache of being alone…
A large bump in the road jarred the horse-drawn prison cart, jolting Mute out of thought. It was typical while riding through rural areas. Behind her, Rafeál grunted. Whenever they traveled, the Forsaken group was crammed into Vesconi's cart. Though it was cramped and Henri could never sit comfortably, it didn't occur to any of them to mind the close quarters. At least they were together. A layer of sweat covered their bodies, and she brought a hand to wipe her forehead. The thick cloth covering the barred door trapped them in darkness and sweltering heat. But it shielded the occupants from prying eyes. Vesconi never wanted anyone to see his treasures until carnival time. Nights could get cold, but this was almost worse.
Letting out a pitiful moan, Henri collapsed against the far wall. Without hesitation, the girl uncoiled aching legs and scooted to him, cupping his drenched face to blow gently on it. The cooling affect took time, but then he opened his eyes.
"Thank…you," he wheezed.
Mute peeled back the cloth on the door to welcome cool air and sunlight. She breathed in deeply, a refreshing sensation compared to stifling heat. Henri and Rafeál gave heavy sighs of relief.
Knees drawn to her chin, Mute watched the outside world slowly creep by. Green, she sighed. Green was the color of the outside world, and she was captivated by its calming effect. What a change from bright swirling colors of the carnival, meant to entice the eyes and imagination. Such color clashes were loud, more than suffocating at times. But green…green was different. Instead of attracting attention, it waited patiently, wanting to be seen only by those who would appreciate it. Mute preferred green. And so many things out here were green: trees, grasses, shrubs, any assortment of plant life. But her eyes focused on those trees in the distance. Endless reaches of nature's towers lining the French countryside. She inhaled deeply, the taste of pine and wood almost dancing on her tongue. The air was full of this flavor. Long ago, she'd gained an appreciation for trees and couldn't explain why, but something about seeing them was soothing. Being so close on travels was a dramatic change from what she knew. Yes, nature in daylight was pleasing to the senses.
Nights didn't take away from its splendor, either. When the caravan stopped to rest, Mute would gaze at the stars for hours and hours, letting thoughts of another time and the black ghost's angelic singing sweep through her. A secret escape no one else was privy to. Outside the carnival, night was not full of the wickedness she'd come to expect. During nights was nature's music. Crickets chirped louder than ever, wolves howled in the distance, owls hooted, wind blew gently to rattle leaves, drops of rain fell steadily upon grass.
And then another kind of music—unrelated to nature—drifted into her ears. Not singing, but a kind she'd grown fond of over the years. Faint notes from a violin. Around bonfires, the Gypsies shared their festive music, and Mute would listen. God, she would listen to it forever if given the chance! Some of them played violin and played it quite well. Sounds the violin made…They resonated so deeply with her, making her mind and heart dance together. When played to patrons of the fair, they could be eerie, sinister, and hypnotic in ways that frightened one to the very core. But if played the right way, the way she adored, they could tell stories. Adventures, tragedies, triumphs, romances, they were all told with each stroke of their bows. From the stretching of long notes to the staccato beat of strings being plucked, they told countless tales, could be such sounds of longing, compelling her to reach out and grab notes as they floated by on the wind. Bravo to the Gypsies for finding a way to touch her heart.
And when daylight returned, green dominated once more. Never mind the barrage of activities going on around them: Gypsy sons and daughters running about behind the wagons in play, joined at times by children from passing villages; dogs barking and trotting obediently at their masters' heels; various villagers approaching curiously to see what wonders were being transported; travelers on horseback riding behind the line. None of it was uncommon to see on the road, especially those on horseback. The carnival had its fair share of devotees following them from city to city, and it wouldn't surprise her if some had spent years following. It was the same thing she saw time after time, and her initial fascination had long since faded. But fascination would never pass for all things good and green.
Sighing again, she laid her head against rusty bars. In the distance, a flicker in the green caught her attention. A rider on a black horse navigated through the trees as he followed along. Another carnival fan, no doubt. Half-heartedly, she thought she'd seen this horse following them before, always keeping pace with them, always concealed in the green. Maybe; maybe not. There were instances when sunlight gleamed off its coat, showing her how silky and soft it might feel. Her eyebrows rose. Beautiful horse. Distance couldn't disguise that fact.
A wave of tiredness washed through her. Shutting her eyes, she allowed herself to be content with the sights and smells of nature that surrounded her as the cart continued down the road. The last image in her mind was light shining on the sleek muscles of the black horse.
Tears of humiliation refused to be held back. Rafeál cradled Mute far inside the cart, doing his best to comfort the terrified child. Her hair had been crudely cut off. A punishment; a lesson to be learned. Little hands covered her dirty face in shame.
During a stop, Vesconi had sent Mute to fetch a pail of water from the nearby river. Unfortunately, the outcome had not been in her favor. You shouldn't have let it happen, she scolded herself, recalling the moment the pail flew from her hands. You should have seen that root; you should have seen you were about to trip! Idiot! Why didn't you see? Why? The accident had sent Vesconi into another drunken rage. She remembered the look in his eyes when he seized her, that look of pure red fury burning straight through her. Oh, the terror that had consumed her! She was going to die, was certain of it…The knife came close to severing more than her hair, blood trailing from her scalp as a reminder of what almost was.
Useless as his efforts might have been, Rafeál didn't relent. His arm was wrapped around her as he spoke reassuringly in his language. Henri, whose sad eyes watched her over the Spaniard's shoulder, tried to embrace their embrace with his uneven limbs. They quickly learned not to touch her head, lest she flinch severely at the potential threat.
Silent sorrow couldn't be consoled in Rafeál's strong arm. Vesconi's reaction was predictable, but frightening nonetheless. Ugly. That's what she was. Not in the way that others perceived Henri and Rafeál, but uglier than she had been before. He'd made her so ugly in mere seconds. As if it wasn't enough for patrons to sneer at her filthiness, now they'd sneer at her boyish appearance.
She gave a choked cough as more tears fell down her face, Rafeál tightening his hold reflexively.
She held her breath. Touch. Such a foreign concept and something she typically recoiled from. Touch made her fearful. She did not know touch that was friendly. Touch was pain. Touch was dark. Those who tormented her at the carnival touched her in ways that made her heart scream and fire burn in her chest. None of it was acceptable, and something deep inside her knew it. Never did she want to be touched. She couldn't stand it.
The only exceptions were the men soothing her, and even they struggled to gain her trust. Trust was not an option. Sadly, the same went for them…until she realized who they were when they held her. Had it been anyone else…
No, she shut the thought out. Stop. She refused to think of it.
"Es niña importante," Rafeál said softly in her ear. "Es verdad."
Henri took a deep breath and uttered, "Yes."
Whatever they said, she didn't listen, for Mute wasn't there anymore. Behind her hands, beneath the wounded, bleeding skin, she had retreated to the deepest, darkest depths of her mind, fled to a place where none could follow. Not Vesconi, not the Gypsies, not the riders trailing them to the next town, not the men cradling her like a pitiful animal. Only her. Delving further and further into the vast quiet, her pulse slowed, her breathing calmed, and wicked thoughts faded into nothingness. Here, there existed only Mute. Those who didn't belong were locked out, never to bring her harm if she didn't allow it. Her sanctuary. Mute would be safe as long as she pushed everyone else away and held her fragile heart within her own hands.
So far away were her thoughts that she didn't realize when Rafeál began to rock her gently. Though there was only Mute in her mind, thoughts betrayed her as one dim desire emerged from the engulfing darkness: how she longed—even in this moment of despair—to hear the voice of the black ghost...
Nothing could have prepared her for what she would encounter in the coming days.
Blessedly, the crowds thinned as the hour grew late, allowing the three to rest and scavenge for what food they could reach. Her companions ate without speaking, chains occasionally tinkering with their movements.
After nibbling on a few pieces of popcorn, Mute sat back and traced the scars on her arms. There were many of them, crisscrossing over each other. Old ones were pale white, smooth to the touch, raised above the rest of her skin; fresh red ones sent shooting pains through her when she touched them. Blood oozed from a few, prompting her to seal them with dirt. Eventually, they would fade and join her ever-growing collection, reminders of what she faced night after night, year after long year. Closing her eyes, her mind resurrected the last few hours with great clarity…
Fire. Light. Noise. The loudness of it all filling her senses until she thought she would burst.
Hawking. Yells. Screams. Vicious cycles began anew, no matter where the roads led them.
Excitement. Intrigue. Mystery. Gripping her skull, Mute longed for the pounding in her head to stop.
When she hit the floor of home, the ensuing laughter was equally painful. Feeling the world spin, she looked around at the delighted smiles, hating every single one of them without a second thought. In the shadows beyond, eyes glittered with similar scorn, and some simply stared without emotion.
How she wished to hurt them all…
Opening her eyes, she was met once again by scars. Sighing, she continued to run her hands lightly over the marks in the quieting night.
But not everyone had left the trio to their solitude. The girl was unaware that a shape had grown somewhere in the shadows behind her. A dark shape…coming closer…creeping so silently…approaching home without warning…
Four sharp words cut the silence: "Tell me your name."
Mute snapped her head around, her entire face ablaze with fury. Somehow, she immediately locked eyes with the hiding figure. You! Came the accusatory thought as she stared contemptuously. He'd visited before, in their previous location, saying those same firm words to her, and she despised him for it!
Henri and Rafeál had also heard and searched the shadows wildly, unable to find his outline in the dark. They were yelling at him, no doubt an attempt to deter him from the child. Mute just continued to stare at him, her increasing anger drowning out their anxious voices as her ears grew hot. Tell you my name? Mockery from the crowds was nothing compared to this insult. Tell you my name? Tell you my name? As she repeated this to herself, her eyes became hooded while her lips twisted into an animalistic sneer. How dare he make such a demand of her? What cruel game was he playing at?
In a quick movement, she sought the corner of home, turning her back on him defiantly as she grasped the bars tightly and made herself as small as possible. There she remained, curling her head down into her chest, ignoring the eyes that bore hard into her backside. Time to shut out the horrible world again.
Leave me, she willed to him. Go away.
It was as though he'd heard her thoughts. "Very well."
She didn't care about his irritated tone. The fading sound of his footsteps as he stalked away was a great relief. When she knew he was gone, she pressed her head against the bars and let tears fall. Despite how angry she'd been a few minutes ago, and how satisfying it would have been to claw his eyes out, she couldn't deny how terrified she'd been by his presence. What would stop him from returning the next time the fair moved? What would happen if he came when she was left alone? What was this man capable of doing to her?
On top of that, something about his voice frightened her. It wasn't the irate tone, but the strength evident in only the few words he spoke. The unbelievable strength! When he'd spoken, part of her wanted to obey, felt as though she was being drawn to him. It scared her. What did it mean? She shuddered uncontrollably.
Somewhere in the background, her companions asked questions and raised concerns over what had happened.
"No…gone," Henri had answered.
"Muda, estás bien?"
She didn't move. The girl wouldn't respond anymore tonight, and they both knew it. They would keep vigil the rest of the night to assure themselves that the intruder was, indeed, gone.