PROLOGUE

Autumn, 1517,
Gloucester, England

 

   “And therefore, thou needs must go.”

Though the words were simply spoken, they were incomprehensible. Dunicha’s eyes searched her paramour’s handsome face, seeking some visual cue that would make sense of his speech. She was certain she could not have heard him right.

Go? Wherefore would he ask her to leave him? Many times had he remarked that she was the only thing that brought joy into his life, that with her he tasted freedom of a kind nothing else in his life had shown him.

Certainly that means more than any distant marital arrangement he had agreed upon years before their meeting five months ago, surely?

But e’en as she thought it, she acknowledged their differences lying so close to the surface, manifested in the pale whiteness of his elegant hand covering her sun-browned, work-worn one. Dunicha looked down at the second-hand gown she wore which – though in quality it exceeded any raiment she had heretofore worn – ne’ertheless showed its age. Her rough fingers had mended torn seams and added precious lace to bosom, but the crisp edge of his gleaming white sleeve shamed her worn garment, and made it somehow look wrong against her dusky, gypsy’s skin. In the close air, she could sense that even their bodily scents were different: his a barely present, indistinguishable, colorless smell; hers a darker, more intense odor that put one in the mind of wild heather and a path worn thin by the hooves of deer. Their very essences seemed to decry the unbridgeable differences between them.

Yet what mean such differences to the passion we share?

He had once taken up a fistful of her dark curls and pressed them to his lips, his eyes dancing as he reveled in her flamboyant gypsy garb, her black-as-onyx eyes and the midnight hair she wore loose and unpinned. Nightly they had carried their passion to ever greater conflagrations, and by day a mere whisper from her might provoke a sunburst of desire on the Englishman’s smooth, aristocratic face.

Yet she could see no trace of joy there now. Her panic mounting, Dunicha searched the blue eyes she knew as well as her own, yet no traction could she find in his gaze. The nobleman looked at her for a moment before awkwardly lowering his eyes to the floor - and in that moment Dunicha knew this was no jest, no dream. His bloodless, pale bride, to whom he had been promised since he was a youth, was e’en now en route to his estate to claim her place beside him. And thus, Dunicha the gypsy was being asked to leave.

   The rich meal of roasted capon, quail with stewed apricots, and crystallized citrus they had eaten earlier was congealing in her stomach; the icy breath of fear she had drawn upon hearing his words causing them to solidify in her belly. She tried to collect her thoughts, staring distractedly at the portrait that lay in its gilded frame above the mantle. She had thought the portrait to be of a sister or distant cousin, but the guilty glance her lover had spared it upon asking Dunicha to sit now told her that the portrait had been a far more intimate gift.

Despairingly, Dunicha noted the patrician similarities between the faces of her lover and his betrothed. She was a slightly built woman of one and twenty, with hair so pale as to be almost white, and a pliant, docile expression in eyes of an indistinct shade of gray. None of Dunicha’s fire, passion, or joie de vivre appeared in the flattering but lifeless portrait of the woman Dunicha’s lover was to marry.

“My lord,” she began, addressing him more formally than she had in months. Sooth, how I do wish I had an education to match his! Mayhaps I could then find the right words to somehow convince him…

 “In faith, my lord, thou wert promised to her according to thy father’s wishes, but surely he would not want thee wed to a woman with no passion, no… love! What we have… if in earnest thou didst mean still to marry her, thou wouldst ne’er have courted me, wouldst ne’er have-”

Wouldst ne’er have bedded me, she had been going to say. But one look at his tightly closed face told her he had made of her maidenhood an unprized gift. Mayhaps he felt “free” beside her, and had indeed enjoyed her passion time and again at night. But with a sick, hot flush of shame, Dunicha realized that at day’s end, she was only a gypsy, a thing of no real account. Whate’er passion they had shared together had been in his mind only temporary – a memory to cling to when he lay in his warm feather bed beside his cold English wife.

With that knowledge came yet another fear: Whither shall I go? Five months ago she had been smitten at first glance by this Englishman, and upon being invited to his vast estate, she had sneaked home to her gypsy camp, wrapped her finest scarf about her hips, and stolen away through the forest to where he stood waiting with his horse and his arm outstretched to her. She had left her father’s camp for a man who was not Romnichel, and she suffered no illusion that she would be welcomed back without paying a dear price for her desertion.

The realization that her nobleman did not honor her enough to keep her, coupled with her foreboding of what awaited her in the camp, caused her stomach to pitch in fear. Dunicha fought back a swelling wave of nausea as she groped desperately for the words that would change his mind, that would erase the chilling certainty in his face and replace it with one of the warm smiles she had come to know so well.

Frantically she grabbed for his shirt and opened her mouth to speak. But with a swiftness and a brutality she had not known he possessed, he ripped her hand from his sleeve, shouting, “You knew I was betrothed! I have never given thee cause to believe that would change! My land and mine estates were promised to me on the condition that I marry the daughter of the Earl of Pembroke. Dost thou expect me to relinquish that? I am sorry for thy hurt, but I shall not be swayed! Now go!” And roughly he thrust her away from him.

When in shock she hesitated, his face, which until this day had been wreathed only in kindness, turned purple with fury. “GO!” he screamed, pointing wildly towards the door. “Go, damn thee, before she sees thee! GO!”

Dunicha stumbled towards the door, the tears she was too proud to shed in his presence blurring her vision as she sped down the stone steps and flew across the exquisitely landscaped courtyard. As the chilling night wind whipped at her skirt, she realized she had left her fringed shawl upon his fireside chair, and beside that, an exquisite fan he had given her earlier that evening – a parting gift, she realized now with a cringe. With no destination in mind, driven only by the shame of his betrayal, Dunicha ran into the night. As she swept the tears angrily from her face, hating herself for loving a man who saw her only as a gypsy toy, she knew she would never see the fan or her English nobleman again.

I have nothing left of him but my memory, she thought to herself, as still she ran stumbling towards the forest. Nothing.

 

She could not yet feel the babe that had begun to grow inside her.