The Xorous Kar Books - The Surrogate Bride
Tashi was sure he was going to kill her this time, or at least maim her for life. He usually waited until the previous injuries had healed before going after her again, but this time he was angrier than usual. Out of control, in fact. After the last hospital spell, when he had come around with the usual red roses and caresses, pretending to be caring, saying sorry and how it wouldn’t happen again, she had told him no, it wouldn’t.
He thought those old promises would still work, despite the countless times he had broken them. When they were first married and she wanted to believe him, they did, but not any more. She had loved him then; now she loathed him. He tried though.
“If you loved me you’d give me another chance,” he said in that wheedling voice she had come to despise.
That was his usual line, trying to guilt trip her into taking him back and like the fool she must have been she had, because she had loved him and she wanted to prove it. Now she didn’t love him, now she didn’t care if he lived or died as long as he did it far away from her.
Her grandmother had a saying which Tashi had always found appropriate for just such a situation as this: ‘I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire’. And that was precisely how she felt about Kevin now.
“If you loved me,” she had answered, “you wouldn’t ask.”
He had no answer to that but a flash of anger crossed his face as he stood up, gave his flowers to a nurse and went out of the ward. He left the chocolates on the bedside table. She hated chocolate, but he had never bothered to know that. All women liked chocolate, didn’t they? She couldn’t possibly mean it.
Later that week, when she was discharged, she had visited his latest girlfriend, one who had swallowed the usual spiel about how his wife was no good, how they were getting divorced despite his best efforts, how he would marry this new one as soon as he was free.
Chrissie was her name; not short for anything, just Chrissie. Tashi turned up on her doorstep with her arm in a plaster cast, the bruises on her face still livid and swollen, and told her what she was getting herself into.
She hadn’t believed her of course, demanded she leave, said she was just trying to blacken his name. So Tashi had left but before she got home, he was there. The silly little tart had phoned him straight away and he was waiting for Tashi when she got out of her car.
He didn’t even wait for her to press the remote button that locked the doors before he grabbed her from behind, his arm around her neck as he pulled her backwards. Her ribs still hurt, her shoulders too, but she was stronger now despite her weakened state. She had been afraid of him before; now she was only angry and that anger gave her strength.
She lifted the weight of her plaster cast and flung it toward his head, as hard as she could. He released her with a yelp of pain and she took off, not knowing where she was going, anywhere away from him.
It was after midnight, dark and there were no street lights. It was hard to run with one arm in a heavy cast and every thump on the road surface jolting her bruises, which were not restricted to her face, and hurt like hell. But she had to get away, she had to.
She’d made up her mind when she went knocking on Chrissie’s door that this was the last time, that this time she would press charges, have him locked up for a very long time. But she had been too kind, that was the trouble. She had worried about this young girl he had fooled and what would happen when he got out of prison and found his wife far away and filing for divorce.
He would start on young Chrissie, separate her from all her friends and her family, convince her he was the only one who cared for her, the only one she could trust.
When Tashi thought about how he had manipulated her, she could have kicked herself. How could she have allowed it? She had been a modern woman with a career, a graphic artist who was building a following and selling her work. She was sought after by the best. How could she have fallen so low?
Now she was running for her life through dark, wet streets in the early hours of the morning, trying to dodge puddles from the afternoon’s heavy rainfall, where no one was about to help her, even should they feel inclined. Help wasn’t often forthcoming nowadays; people didn’t want to get involved.
Tashi wondered if it had ever been any different, if those tales of chivalry and valour were true or only in literature. And why the hell was she thinking about that anyway, when this night could well be her last?
She made her way towards the black sea, felt the chill coming off the shore with the cold night wind. She could hear the waves crashing against the rocks in front of her, while behind her she heard his running footsteps as he tried to keep up. But he was overweight and lazy and unfit and she could also hear his breathless gasps. Tashi had kept herself fit over the years, whenever she wasn’t in too much pain. Kevin would never allow her to work, so she spent more time at the gym than he ever found out about.
She’d paid cash and taken the money out of some savings she still had from before they married, savings some inner sense had told her to keep hidden from Kevin.
Now she was glad of it and, despite her injuries, she was leaving him far behind. Between the car park and the beach, on the other side of the coast road there was a fenced in meadow where picnickers gathered in the summer months, to eat their sandwiches without fear of getting a mouthful of sand. Tashi headed towards it. There were some huge and ancient trees in that field, she recalled, shady spots for picnickers in the summer. One of those trees might make a good hiding place, for she would have to rest soon. She probably wouldn’t be able to climb one of those trees, not with her broken arm and her bruises, but she would try.
Still, if she was out of breath, Kevin must be in a far worse state. That’s what a man got for exercising his fists and his feet and neglecting the rest of his muscles.
She took the chance to quickly turn her head and could see no sign of him, and there was not much for him to hide behind. The car park was empty, the barrier locked down at the end of the day, although there were still a few small buildings.
She slowed her pace, stood still for a moment and clasped her ribs with her hand, sure one was broken or at least cracked. She had a stitch from all that running as well, but she had to find a hiding place before her pursuer recovered himself. He might be unfit and suffering, but that would make him even more determined to catch her and even more vicious when he did.
There was a brick toilet block at the edge of the car park, just before the field began, and she ran towards it. It would have cubicles with bolts so she could lock herself in, even if it meant staying there for the rest of the night with the stench of urine. It wasn’t cleaned very often, but that was the least of her worries.
Still, as she reached it, her heart sank. The door was barred and a heavy metal padlock secured it locked. Damn! Why hadn’t she remembered that they locked it at night to keep the druggies and the cottagers out?
Glancing back once more to be sure there was no sign of Kevin, she left the little brick building behind and carried on toward the field, her eyes firmly fixed on the ground. The last thing she needed was to trip over something, a jutting rock or some debris the tourists had left behind.
When she glanced up it was to see two gypsy caravans in the field. Were they there before? She would have sworn that field was empty but then it was dark and she was panicking. She wondered how they had got in, since the field was fenced in, the barrier was down and padlocked and there was no other vehicular access to that field, but there was no denying that they had. Tashi wondered how long it would be before the rest of the tribe arrived, the ones with modern caravans.
These two were the original sort and very pretty. But they didn’t seem to be in darkness somehow. It was as though the moon was shining only on those two caravans and their horses, their beautiful piebald horses.
Tashi glanced up at the moon, surprised to see that it wasn’t shining at all; it was hidden behind a cloud. So where was the light coming from?
She walked quickly now, getting closer to see if there were any people there, people who might be willing to help her, hide her perhaps. These caravans were vintage, made of wood and brightly painted in red and yellow, with shafts for the horses. They had a special name - vardos, that was it. Romany vardos, and the originals were very rare.
Tashi had read that when a Romany died, all his or her possessions were burnt and that included the vardo. So there weren’t many of them left, but these looked original if in excellent condition.
She still didn’t know where that glow was coming from, perhaps from something inside. She hurried closer to the two vardos, bent painfully to slip beneath the metal barrier, and as she got nearer, the horses stopped their grazing to look up at her.
Then a strange thing happened, stranger even than the light that shone on the scene from nowhere. Both the horses walked toward the vardos and each stood in place to be hooked up to the shafts, ready to move off.
Tashi looked about for a human, someone she hadn’t seen who had perhaps led them into this position, but there was no one. Then a man came out of the smaller of the vardos and fastened the shafts around the horses, while a woman appeared on the steps of the larger one and beckoned to her.
She was old, very old. Her face bore deep wrinkles, almost as though they were carved into her flesh, and her once brown eyes were faded, but her smile was warm and welcoming. After what Tashi had recently been through, she really needed warm and welcoming.
She turned her head once more in search of her pursuer, but saw no one. He was likely collapsed somewhere trying to recover himself.
“Come,” the old woman’s soft voice floated through the air. “We cannot stay long.”
Tashi had no idea what she meant, but she quickened her step as much as she could and climbed the short flight of painted wooden steps to the door of the vardo. Inside was as she expected from seeing photographs. There was a bed at the far end, built into the structure and with an inviting pillow and a crochet patchwork cover, tucked in between the mattress and the wooden sides.
On the walls were pictures and a brightly coloured chest of drawers, also built into the structure. It was all as welcoming as the gypsy woman’s smile and Tashi immediately felt better.
“Come, my child,” the old woman said. “Sit down here on the bed. I am Kezia. You are safe here.”
Tashi did as she was told and sat down. The mattress felt as though it had some sort of feather stuffing, probably goose, and it was soft and soothing to her bruised hip. She shook her head.
“I doubt it,” she said. “He will soon find me. He was following me, until he ran out of breath. At least, that’s what I suppose happened. Once he recovers, he won’t give up the chase. You won’t be safe if you try to protect me.”
“Child, do not fret. You are safe; trust me on that. He cannot find you here.”
She wondered what the woman meant by that. Tashi had found them, so why couldn’t Kevin find them as well? And there seemed to be just the one man and this old woman, not much of a match for a bully like Kevin. She would stay just long enough to recover her breath.
As Kezia stood close to her, she noticed her costume was of silk, in bright red and yellow with exquisite embroidery stitched into the skirt and the blouse. She was dressed just as Tashi had always imagine gypsies would be dressed, which made her wonder if she were unconscious and dreaming.
She turned in response to a creaking of the wooden floor and looked up to see a much younger girl, possibly only about thirteen. She must have come from the man’s vardo, but she wasn’t dressed like the old woman. She wore a long dress of bright blue with a white cover over her hair, almost like a nun’s wimple, and the lower half of her face was covered with a gauzy sort of white fabric, clipped to the wimple somehow.
She released the clip and allowed the veil to drop from her face, revealing a lovely young girl with bright green eyes. Tashi wondered what shade of hair would go with those eyes; they were more vivid than any she had ever seen and she wondered if they were coloured contact lenses.
“Now, Natasha,” Kezia said quietly. “This is Iona and she is going to help you, but you must swear never to tell anyone what she does for you, or even that you ever met her.”
“All right,” Tashi answered, a little grin of amusement forming on her lips. “How did you know my name?”
Kezia made no reply, only smiled and stepped back to allow the girl to draw closer. Tashi wondered what on earth could be so secret, what powers this child could possibly have that needed to be kept quiet. She had often heard that gypsies had strange rituals and perhaps this was one such. They had been kind and there was no reason to deny them their satisfaction, just so long as it didn’t take too long.
She was still anxious that Kevin would find her. The wagon hadn’t moved from the spot where she found it, so he was bound to catch up with her soon. She wanted to get this over and get moving before he arrived, as he was just the type to inform the council that a gypsy camp had set up in the field.
Iona ran her hand gently over Tashi’s aching shoulders and down to rest on what Tashi was sure was a cracked rib. She felt the heat coming from the girl’s hands, like some sort of balm, soothing her injuries. Then Iona rested both hands on the plaster cast, closed her eyes and pushed down on her arm.
Tashi felt the heat, even through that thick barrier, and then it didn’t hurt any more. Nothing hurt any more. Kezia opened one of the drawers and brought out a pair of short shears, similar to the sort used to prune roses, Tashi thought, although she was no gardener.
“Just keep still,” Kezia said. “This will only take a minute.”
She positioned the shears at the edge of the cast and began to cut.
“You can’t do that,” Tashi objected. “They only set it yesterday.”
“No need to worry; it is all better now.”
She continued to clip through the thickness of the cast until it fell away, while Tashi held her breath, expecting that excruciating pain to have returned. But it had gone, completely gone. Her arm felt better than it had before Kevin broke it, her whole body felt pain free, better than it had in years in fact.
“Thank you, Iona,” Kezia said as the girl re-attached the veil to her wimple and prepared to leave the wagon. She turned to Tashi.
“You will remember your promise, won’t you?” She said in a nervous voice.
Tashi could only nod, dumbstruck. She had heard of faith healers, of course she had, but she never believed in them. She thought it was a case of mind over matter, that the patient believed it would work so it did. But no one could heal such severe injuries with a touch, could they? She stretched out her arm, flexed her fingers, and knew she was healed.
“Thank you,” she called after the girl as she disappeared out of the doorway. Then she turned to the old woman. “Why is it such a secret? Are you afraid people will wear her out if they find out about her?”
“Something like that,” Kezia replied.
Tashi began to get to her feet. She would be able to outrun Kevin easily now and she was anxious to get going.
“Now I must leave. You have been so kind, and I can never thank you enough, but I fear for your safety.” Where did that come from? That sounded very old fashioned. “I mean, if I stay here, you could be in danger.”
The old woman made no reply, just opened the curtains which were drawn across the small windows and allowed the bright sunlight to pour inside. Bright sunlight. It had been dark and wet when she came here, no more than an hour ago. She got up and moved to look out of the window, and what she saw made her heart leap uncomfortably.
She went to the door and opened it, went down the short flight of steps and onto the ground outside. She looked about, her mouth open in astonishment, then turned when she heard Kezia behind her.
They were still in the same field, but the fence and barrier had vanished. The car park was gone, to be replaced with more fields. The brick built toilet blocks were gone, the little café beside the beach path was gone, everything was gone.
In the distance, where the bustling seaside town had stood solidly just a few hours ago, there was a medieval looking town with black and white buildings and low, narrow doorways. They had leaded glass windows as well, just like the ones she’d seen in history class at school. She recalled they went on a class outing to see some of these buildings that were still standing, still lived in even.
But these buildings didn’t look old like those did. They were clean and the thatch on the roofs was new, still pale straw, hardly touched by the weather. Outside one of the houses was a couple, standing and talking and both wore medieval clothing.
This was not the town in which Tashi lived. This was not a town she knew at all and she wondered if perhaps she had lost consciousness, if the gypsy wagons had moved after all, taken her to some other place where Kevin wouldn’t be able to find her. It was the only explanation, yet there was a nagging feeling in the back of her mind that told her that was not what had happened. Apart from the Tudor looking buildings of the little town, there was nothing, no modern houses, no traffic on the road before it. In fact, the road wasn’t really wide enough for traffic; it was like those single track lanes scattered all over England where they had passing places for cars because there wasn’t space for two lanes. And the road wasn’t tarmac, like the roads she was used to seeing. It wasn’t even concrete like in some other, warmer countries. It looked like hardened mud.
There was something else missing as well, something that could be seen in every town and village in the country: a church.
A young woman was approaching her, a woman of about her own age and dressed in a medieval type gown of scarlet satin. She had wavy blonde hair hanging loose about her shoulders and another welcoming smile. Why was she dressed like that? Did Tashi arrive in time for a town carnival? And if she did, why had the scenery changed so dramatically?
“Welcome,” the girl said as she came level with Tashi. “I am Kendall. You will stay with my family until we can contact the Lord and discover his wishes.”
Tashi wondered if she was talking about praying, if the girl was one of those people who constantly talked about Jesus and doing the Lord’s work. She hoped not; she always found those people too zealous and quite embarrassing.
“Yes. You are very special, you know. The gypsies haven’t brought anyone here for five hundred years or more, since King Wolfstan forbade it. We hope you will be willing to help us.”
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