Chapter Twenty-Four

I made myself stop and breathe the dank air deeply, calming myself and getting my bearings. I listened carefully at a heavy oak door, even sniffing at the keyhole like my tiger would've done. Finally I decided it was safe, and carefully slid the door open. I crept inside the enormous, bare room, the flagstones cold beneath my feet, the tall, heavily-draped windows letting in the least amount of light. The room was empty, and I closed the door quietly behind me. I darted to the windows and glanced out to see where I was. Below me was the small alley that Clopin and I had run down that first day out, two years ago now. Now I knew where I was, I went and hid under a large stone table, covered with a deep mauve piece of velvet. I wanted to wait until it was dark, and I settled down, shifting around uncomfortably on the hard floor.
The prospect of several hours wait did not daunt me; I amused myself in my mind. I imagined myself backflipping onto the stage and dancing, twisting, cartwheeling, performing the various acrobatic tricks I so loved to do. I imagined making beautiful dresses from expensive fabric and wearing them to the admiration of all. The I ran barefoot in the forests of India with Chester's powerful body galloping gracefully besides me. We played in the mud and I teased the monkeys. I was vaguely aware that I was reliving actual events, but then my mind moved on. I played with my children, now older and more divine than ever, then greeted my gorgeous husband who came in the door to sweep me up in his arms. I dreamed of us old and wizened like Abigail, but still able to arouse all the old passion in each other, still laughing and sharing adventures as we teased each other and hobbled about. And there were are children, grown up strong and intelligent, and there were more - two boys, twins and a girl, younger. Under that heavy stone table, leaving against the roughly carved leg, my head thrown back, my eyes fell open a little way and I started to become aware that so deep in my trance I had fallen that I was now seeing my future.
A heavy door clanged shut somewhere in the building, intruding far enough to startle me out of my trance, and then I was back in the present once more, my heart pounding from the shock of so violently being pulled out of a life I could look forward to. I waited a few moments more till my heart slowed down again and I smiled at what I had just experienced, moving cautiously out from under the table. The room was still empty, and now pitch black. I waited a few moments until my gypsy eyes adjusted to the dark, and I could make out the vague image of the objects in the room. I crept quickly to the window and looked out. The streets were dark, it was night. I snuck again to the heavy door I had come into the room from and within a few seconds had slipped into the corridors beyond. I held my head high in the black and got my bearings. Acting on instinct more than anything else I headed toward the center of the Palace.
Sure enough, the maze eventually opened up into the large reception hall at the very front of the building. Only a few candles still burned and I realised it must be quite late. I could make out the few hangings on the walls, the rugs on the floor beneath me. A huge marble staircase in the Center of the room led upwards, and behind it, smaller, darker staircases led down to the dungeons. There were other dark oak doors set in the gray stone walls, I guessed that they led on to the magisterial courts and such. Which meant upwards....
Ducking in and out of the shadows I reached the stairs and sped silently up them. I had my years of moving in the jungles with Chester to thank for my stealthiness and control. At the top of these stairs it was another pause, and I knew I had no way of truly guessing where anything was. I was not even entirely sure what I was looking for, except I knew a white tiger was a very rare oddity in this country. I moved down the marbled hall and came to the end of it where it turned into another hall. Further down this one I could see a dim orange glow seeping out from beneath one of the doors. With a goal now I sped down, arriving outside this one lighted room. Cautiously, and oh so slowly, I pushed on the door.
Slowly, slowly, it opened revealing to me a huge room, even barer than its predecessors, the end of it a great fireplace was carved into the wall, it was from this that the glow emitted. In front of it and facing it was a huge velvet chair, one arm visible lying over the side.I crept forward, my bare feet making no sound on the floor, and I peeked cautiously over the side. It was Frollo, sleeping fitfully as well he should, his brow lightly furrowed, fingers twitching where they lay. I glared at him in wonder and some small apprehension at being so close to this man who once put a bounty on my head - and likely would again. I looked forward at the fire and then had to shove my fist into my mouth to stifle my cry, for lying outstretched on the floor was the pelt of my beloved Chester! His head stuffed and mighty mouth were propped open, black stones wide and vacant where his eyes should have been. I crawled forward, tears streaming down my cheeks and ran my hands lovingly over the fur, still soft, still smelling a little of my old friend.
But I could only allow myself to grieve a few moments longer. I was too close to the danger with not many means of escape. Carefully, I gathered up my old friends skin, and wrapped it around me, wresting his head on mine, his long claws, still intact scraping my chest where they dangled. Then with my eyes hot and stinging I turned to face Frollo. He slept still, the sleep of a guilty man, troubled and unpleasant. I thought of my little dagger under my skirts and thought...how easy would it be...to put an end to so much misery and heartache right now....to free my people from his terrible grasp.....but while I debated still whether or not to act on this urge, a log moved in the fire place, dropping heavily, and his eyes flickered then opened wide. He gazed at me, startled and alarmed, and I froze, not sure what to do.
I took up the arm of Chester that was wrapped around my neck, and raising it high brought the claws down across Frollo's chest. He gave a scream, as they scrapped lightly across his flesh, and then I bounded past his chair and out the door. I could hear him screaming behind me, and knew the guards would be alerted. I had no time to lose myself in the maze of corridors once more, so instead once I rushed down the staircase I headed straight for the main door, forgetting it was solidly bolted. I pounded on it for a few moments in panic, then gave a gasp as I heard the voices of the guards approaching me, running, their weapons drawn. I thought wildly for a moment, and then ran behind the staircase and down one of the miserable little things that led into the dungeons. Trying to ignore the cries of those suffering, dodging their outstretched arms, and shoving one of Chester's paws across my nose to block out the stench I leapt through this filthy terror, finally arriving at the steel door I was sure must be the one. 
Tearing it open I flung myself inside and, hearing the soldiers move angrily through the dungeons behind me, pressed frantically at the wall until finally I found the right brick and the exit was open to me.I paused only long enough to make sure the door slid shut again, and then I was tearing through the streets, not hesitating once, just following my heart. I must've looked a terrible sight,a red-haired gypsy with a tiger pelt thrown around her, eyes shining with tears.
At the city gates I stopped, wondering if I should return to the Court and tell Clopin what I was doing, what had happened. But I seemed to have come too far. I continued out along the cobblestone road which eventually gave way to dirt. I walked along this way until morning. My feet were cut and bruised all over and my skirts were dusty. I hitched them up to make my progress easier, and tore the sleeves of my dress to cool myself down. I tried admiring the countryside to distract me, but it was extremely difficult, especially with the weight of Chester's heavy pelt on my back combined with the weight of the sun which beat down mercilessly. 
Finally a man in a cart passed and I asked him if he could give me a ride, offering to pay and showing him a purse of money to prove it (for I was far too proud to beg). He agreed, and was quite friendly all the way, chatting to me cheerfully, although he looked at my strange package curiously. We reached the field with the stream, and I told him he could let me off here. I asked him for some flint, and he gave it to me, then refused my money after all. I spent the next couple of hours building a small raft of mud and reeds, then piled the old skin of my darling friend onto it. Poking bits of straw over it, I kissed the head tenderly, then struck the flint. I watched it burn for a moment, making sure the flames caught hold properly, then pushed it off.

[stained

I watched it for a while, crying a little,but I felt better, much better. Things had been put right now and I was ready, once again, to go home. I picked my weary way through the field and started back along the road.I moved much slower now, my body tired out. Several carts passed and though I asked for a ride, no-one would stop.
So I walked many miles, in this manner, to the small town I'd passed on my way out, and made my way into the inn, a small cheerily-lit and dirty place with a grumpy thin husband and a stern fat wife. I settled down near the bar and ignored the stares of the men who wondered what a strange dirty gypsy woman was doing on her own, paid for wine and some bread and cheese, a few pieces of fruit with it. I was in danger of falling asleep, though I knew that I couldn't - that I had to keep going. I tried to urge myself to climb from my chair, but I couldn't do it.
The innkeepers's wife took pity on me, and told me to stop for the night. "I can't." I moaned "I have to go home, my husband will be worried for me."
I heard a few of the men chuckle, amused by the thought that gypsies married and were loyal. The fat, dirty wife crossed her arms and shook her head at me.
"Where do you live?"
"Paris."
"Ha! Thats' miles away yet. You'll never make it home in one piece the condition you're in. You can sleep by the fire tonight, and I'll ask not a sou for it. But you should stay."
I thanked her wearily and accepted the dingy blanket she gave me. Her husband argued with her, none too quietly, that I would rob them blind, but she shushed him, and too tired to care what they said, I curled up on the hearth and fell into a sound sleep.
It was only a few hours later when I awoke, my heart racing,my mind a panic of fear. I glanced wildly around me, at the now dead fire, the bare-benched room, everyone long since asleep in their beds. I could see nothing to attribute my fear too, but it continued nonetheless. I got up and paced anxiously, my mind a whirl, cries coming to my throat that I had to choke back. Finally I paused and collected my thoughts. What could I attribute to this panic? The word came unbidden - Clopin! Something was wrong with Clopin, I was sure of it, and tossing the little rag of a blanket to the floor, I unbolted the inn door and raced out of the town, running as fast as I could towards Paris.
When the sun rose on yet another day I was forced to slow my pace, and a terrible stitch had formed in my side, causing me almost to double over. But I kept on doggedly, the feeling of panic having not subsided. When a cart finally passed driven by a farmer with a great black beard taking his produce to town I begged shamelessly for a ride, offering them money, my jewellery if only he would take pity on me. He did, and slowed the cart enough for me to hop on, then told me to be careful to keep my hands in my lap; he had a scythe in the back and was not afraid to cut the hands off a gypsy thief. I glared at him a little, but said nothing, not wanting to lose my ride. He mumbled something about gypsy beggars and I drew myself up proudly and said pointedly to him "Sir I assure you I am not in the habit of begging, but my husband needs me. Would you not want your wife to be prepared to sacrifice a very small part of her pride to rush to your aid?"
He said nothing just scowled, and he ambled towards Paris.
Sitting back and trying to calm myself, I put my hand on my chest and felt with ever increasing alarm that my pendant, the precious pendant Clopin had given me, was not around my neck. I cried softly when I realised I must of dropped it somewhere along the way and now it was probably lost forever.
Finally, finally, we got there just as the sun as about to set on the second day I had been away. I could barely wait for him to stop, so slow had his driving been, so impatient I was, and so afraid, terribly afraid for my beautiful husband. I jumped down from the cart and threw my purse of money at the sullen farmer, not bothering to say thank you, and then raced through the streets, my hair wild and streaming like fire, my skirts torn and ragged, my feet bleeding. I ducked hastily through Paquette's tavern,waving briefly to her and Cosette, and then I was in the Court running for all I was worth to our tent.
As I got closer I could hear my babies crying, and I burst in, breathing hard and looking about me frantically. Both Colombine and Abigail was there, the former leaping to her feet as I entered, the latter gasping in shock, as she nursed my babes close to here. Colombine rushed over to me, I pushed past her to run my hands over my children's heads tenderly.
"Herli, where on earth have you been??" she cried.
"Where is Clopin??" I asked her, not seeing him anywhere. Abigail and she looked at each other worriedly and then back at me.
"Where is he?" I said again and Abigail sighed sadly.
"Sit down child.I'll tell you as quickly as I can."
I will now recount the tale as she told it to me.

"Clopin arrived home two evenings ago to find you and your babes nowhere abouts. He came down to my tent to enquire after you and grew worried when he saw that you had placed the children under my care.
"Did Herli tell you where she went?" he asked me.
"No" I replied. "I was under the impression she would not be gone long. When she did not return I assumed she was with you. It is not normally like her to leave them with me so long unless she is caught up elsewhere."
"Clopin's brow furrowed with worry and he took the children back to your tent. I went with him, knowing he would not know how to change them or attend to them. We passed several hours, the both of us growing more and more anxious. We could not understand how you would not have sent word to us, why you would not have told us where you went, and so we came to think something terrible had befallen you. It was long past the hour of midnight when the spy Jenessa brought us news.
"We learned that Frollo had been attacked during the night, what he believed to be the direct result of gypsy magik. He has apparently claimed that a tiger fur he keeps as a rug rose up from the ground and clawed him. He has the cuts across his chest to prove it."
I broke in here. "Of course! I was standing directly in front of the fire, he must not have been able to see me beneath the pelt! That was Chester's skin!"
She nodded and continued. "We gathered as much, for Frollo had learned from Isabelle the Gypsy King's wife came from India, doubtless he presumed the tiger slaughtered in the streets that day was yours.
"Clopin asked where you were and Jenessa grew confused. She had thought her information to be another bounty on your head, but when Clopin told her you were missing she recounted to us how you had asked questions about the security on the Palace. Here we guessed you had entered the Palace, but did not understand the part of the magik, for we knew you did not know that type. Clopin hammered Jenessa for news but all she could say is that Frollo's wrath was being brought down on the Gypsy Queen for possessing the dead tiger. We assumed the worst. That very night Clopin gathered some men and went to the dungeons through our secret way. They searched as long as they could safely, but found no trace of you. Clopin was in a panic, and the men had to drag him back down. We passed a stressful day, in which Clopin's fear grew to rage.He guessed Frollo was hiding you somewhere else, trying to bring the Gypsy King out of hiding so he could butcher you both. 
"I'll come out of hiding alright!" Clopin raged. "And when I do that damn Judge will wish I had stayed hidden!"
And leaving the babes in my care he went to the Court Center."

Here Colombine took over the story.

"Clopin got up on the stage and called all the men of the Court to him. "My friends, Claude Frollo has once again declared war on our people, but this time he has tried to tip the scales in his favor by taking prisoner our own dear Queen!! He wants us to come out of hiding and fight back, what do you say to that my friends?"
Christophe, our own dear butcher, spoke up. "I say we come out of hiding and fight back for our Queen!" and the others took him up on this chant.
"Herli, if ever I have felt attracted to your husband it was right then, as he stood looking out over the Court! Not even the King of France himself decked out in all his finest finery could have looked as powerful and imposing as Clopin Trouillefou did right then, and Clopin had only his dirty tunic and old feathered hat! He smiled with those beautiful teeth of his, that tall body throwing a longer silhouette over the back of the stage, and clasped his hands together.
"Then let's go, I say!" he cried "Let's gather arms and go!"
"We spent the day gathering what weapons we could, and organising our battle strategy. Things would've been well had Clopin not got drunk! I could see he was drinking too much and tried to stop him, but he was so afraid for you Herli! It wasn't enough that we were fighting, he was afraid we were already too late! He couldn't walk steadily when we went to fight, though he made a brave show of it, the first to enter the Palace as the sun fell, holding his sword up high! I hope I have a man to fight for me like that one day, Frederick is sweet, but so timid! The guards rushed upon us, but they were ill-prepared and we outnumbered them, thankfully! It was a terrific mess, and all took place in that big cold hall inside the Palace! I'd never seen it before and never want to again, I assure you! At any rate by the time we'd finished there were men on both sides down, and several of ours unaccounted for. Oh Herli - Clopin was one of them!!"
I jumped to my feet, my heart pounding wildly. I should have known!! Colombine began to cry and Abigail's eyes were misty.
"Oh Herli, we don't know if he's even alive or dead!" she sobbed to me. I remembered the terror I had felt during the night. It had not wholly left me. "He is not dead. He lives still." I said calmly. "I know this."
They looked at me and slowly, one after the other, they nodded. I sighed miserably.
"I can't believe all this trouble I have caused, and I was doing so well! I went to dispose Chester's skin in a manner he deserved. I had no idea this would happen!" Although I knew my beloved lived still, I was well aware there had been much pain and heartache that could easily have been avoided. "But I don't understand - Clopin has never needed to expend effort to know where I am!! Why did he not know now?" I turned to Abigail beseechingly. She thought for a few moments.
"You say you were disposing of the skin of your friend? In that case you must've been reliving some grief?" I nodded. That was certainly true. "Then it's possible that's why Clopin couldn't reach you. You were trapped on another plane for the time. That's also probably why he panicked so - he couldn't sense your presence, he might've thought you were dead or in great agony!!"
It made sense. "And then, when I had finished the rite over Chester's body I was immediately aware when Clopin encountered trouble - that's why I got up in the middle of the night to run home!"
They stared at me, amazed. "You ran back to Paris?" Colombine asked me.
"Only a few miles. Then I got a lift."
Their gaze travelled down to my purple, swollen feet, blood and dirt-encrusted. Their eyes widened simultaneously, before rising to meet me again.
"Herli you're absolutely insane," Colombine said at last.
"Not insane. In love. Look this really isn't important. What's important now is that we find Clopin and bring him home before I suffer a heart attack from the stress!!!!"
Abigail nodded "The men are planning another attack later on tonight. You should stay here, you could be - "
"Later tonight isn't fast enough!!!!" I cried. "It's not fast enough! We have to go NOW!! God, not only have many men died at my expense, I have to wait around for my husband to be tortured to death I - " I broke off and bit down hard on my finger to shush my cries. "If only I had said something! People have died because of me!! All for nothing, nothing!"
I flopped down hopelessly and Abigail tapped me hard on the head. "Don't be ridiculous. They won't see it that way. The war against Frollo and his kind of gaje is eternal.Whether you were in the dungeons or not is irrelevant - the battle was still building up anyway. If they did it only in your name and the name of others like you, that is enough. They won't hold you responsible if you don't bring responsibility on yourself for it. Wouldn't you have done the same if it had been another in your position?"
"Yes, but another would've been smart enough to tell people where she was going!!"
Colombine cut in. "Don't be silly Herli. If I were planning to ransack the Palace of Justice, I wouldn't tell anyone! No-one would! All evidence pointed to you being there, that's what the others will think. They didn't have any certainty at all, they chose to attack for your honor, not just your life, as they would for any gypsy! Now stop being silly! I thought we'd gotten over all this melodrama and arguments."
I took a deep breath and calmed myself. I didn't entirely agree with them, but so long as the rest of my people did not regret the attack I could deal with it. I just hoped they truly believed it worth it. But there were more pressing matters to attend to right then, and rushing to Clopin's chest I rummaged through it until I found his other sword. It was heavy and I buckled it clumsily around my waist while Colombine and Abigail looked at me with astonishment.
"What in God's name do you think you're doing, child?" Abigail's voice was harsh.
"Saving my husband!" was my terse reply. "It's my fault he's there, now I have to save him!"
They shook their heads vigorously, pressing on my arms."No Herli, wait for the men!"
"I'm sick of waiting for men!" I snapped. I kissed my children rapturously on their foreheads as they lay wrapped in Abigail's embrace. "How I love you my darlings! Be strong in your maman and papa's name! I'll see you soon" I embraced Abigail and Colombine. "I love you both. Tell the others not to bother attacking! We don't need to lose more of our people! I'll be back soon!"
I leapt out of the tent before either could say another word.

[stained

Wending my way through the catacombs, I came to the trapdoor that led into the dungeons under the Palace. I pushed it open cautiously, oh so cautiously, not knowing if it had been discovered, and breathed a huge sigh of relief when I found the room empty. My blood pounded in my ears, and I could feel my husband nearby, very nearby.I let my heart guide me, taking me through the dark and miserable dungeons, stopping suddenly at the voices of soldiers.
"Tell us,damn you, tell us now!" The sound of a whiplash, and I flinched as it struck flesh. The voice that replied was unmistakeable and caused me to cry as it was hoarse and thick with pain.
"I'm sorry, I've forgotten. What was it you wanted to know again?"
The whip was brought down harder this time, and Clopin couldn't suppress a cry of pain.
"Tell us how to find the Court of Miracles?"
"The Court of Miracles?"
"Yes, Gypsy scum, you know it well!"
"I do?"
Again the whip. "Yes, tell us!!"
Clopin coughed, and my heart gave way. "I'm sorry I've never heard of it, my friends."
"We've had enough of your lip, "Your Majesty". If you don't value your own life, perhaps you value that of your wife's!"
Silence. "If you don't tell us now, we will kill her."
"My wife is not a prisoner here."
"You know yourself she is. You said yourself that's why you attacked. Frollo is keeping her prisoner in his own quarters. If you do not tell us how to find the Court of Miracles we are to send word to him to kill her himself."
Clopin gave a little laugh. "I thought before she was here. I know now she is not."
"Fine, have it your own way, Gypsy King! Emile - go!"
"With pleasure." I heard one of the soldiers leaving, clomping heavily, and I imagine Clopin guessed as I did that that was the moment he was meant to break - meant to cry out "no wait I will tell you!" 
But he didn't of course. Then Clopin began to sing with his hoarse, beautiful voice. He sang, ignoring the soldier who made repeated demands for his attention, bringing the whip down again and again, and incensed at the pain they were cursing him I crept forward, pulling the heavy sword from its scabbard. I peeked around the corner and saw them both. The soldier, fat and red-faced, Clopin tied between two wooden beams, a fire raging behind them, the soldier's whip splattered with blood on the ends. But my husband would not give in. His face was quiet and calm as he sang to himself. It was the blood on the whip that got to me then, and making sure I had my sword pointed forward I ran out, straight towards the soldier. 
He gave a cry of alarm as I ran forward and went to pull out his own sword, but too late! I hacked it clumsily into his side and he gasped, then knocked me back. I wielded the sword again, just as clumsily, and managed to bring it down on his helmeted head. But it was evidently hard enough to do some damage, for he gave a groan and then collapsed. I dropped the sword over his prostate body and flung my arms around Clopin, who gave a strangled gasp as my thoughtless hands hit his injured back.
"Oh Clopin, I'm so sorry!" I sobbed onto his bloody shoulder.
"Herli - " he gasped "Get out! The other one will be back soon!"
"NO!" I cried, and began to fumble with the leather bonds that bound him to the pillars.
"Herli!" he gasped "Now! Go!"
"Oh, stop trying to be brave!" I snapped at him and then gasped as my hair was yanked from behind and I was spun dizzyingly onto the floor. The other soldier had returned, and found me there. Now he pulled me to my feet again, as I pounded my fists against his heavy armour.
"Hahaha!" He laughed "What have we here? A Gypsy Rat or a Gypsy Queen? I'll wager it's the second, eh your Majesty?"
Clopin didn't answer just glared at him angrily, straining at his bonds.
"Well now, let's see if we can't use the lovely Queen to get the information we want from you!!" He began to push me up against the wall, as I kicked and punched and tried to bite him. He covered my mouth with one large hand and knocked the back of my head against the stone pillars until I was too dizzy to struggle as hard.
"Let her go," Clopin said quietly through gritted teeth.
"Not yet, sir. I've got a job to do, you understand. Now,how about I take my pleasure from her and then behead her in front of you. Will that get you talking? It would be a shame to ruin all this lovely hair, so if you talk I might let her go after the first."
He tried to shove my skirts up but I kept fighting, struggling for all I was worth. He struck me across the face and I fell, Clopin crying out despite himself. He pinned me to the floor, and I tried to kick him between the legs, but he wisely pushed my own apart and kept pushing my skirts up.
"No! Leave her alone! I'll tell you!" Clopin shouted.
"Don't you dare, Clopin!" I gasped out, getting my mouth from beneath the soldiers hand.
"I'll tell you how to get to the Court!" - sounding defeated: one of the only times I ever heard him so.
"Don't be a fool, fool!" I shouted "Don't you dare tell him!"
"Tell me and I'll spare her all of it!" The soldier leered "Though I've no doubt she's used to this kind of thing, being nothing but a gypsy whore."
I gasped in fury and tried again to free myself. Clopin strained angrily at his bonds once more, but then stopped. "Just let her up and I'll tell you," he sighed wearily.
The soldier laughed triumphantly. "First tell me!"
"NO, CLOPIN!" I shouted again "Don - "
But my voice was cut off by the sound of a vicious snarling. I stopped my struggles as well when I heard it, and Clopin too looked up, astonished and alarmed. The three of us paused in mid-action, looking about us in wonderment to discover where this beast's cry came from. The soldier looked up and beyond me then, and I saw a look of terror come over his face. He sat up, releasing his grip on me and thrusting his hands in front of his face.

© Harley Quinn 1999
(harley_quinn@cheerful.com)
 

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