Chapter One: Aggravations and Wanderlust
Gordon Tripp stood on his tiptoes, bent his arm over his head in the shape of a crane, and reached up to the top shelf. He pushed around the feather duster, and a cloud of particles rained down into the bright morning air.
This was not the method demanded by the store’s housekeeper, Mrs. Doolittle. She always required that Gordon use a heavy rag applied with a spritz of lemon oil and would explain why at great length if he offered but a hint of hesitation. Gordon was only twelve years old, and these explanations generally bored him. Dusting was one of Mrs. Doolittle’s favorite topics of conversation.
Gordon’s objective this spring morning, however, was not dusting the shelf full of curios. Nor adding any finish to the wood. His objective was to aggravate his uncle, the world-famous adventurer Seamus Tripp.
His uncle stood behind the front counter of Tripp’s Imports & Antiquities, the shop he owned with his business partner, Myron Fish. Mr. Fish had left early in the morning to visit a vendor on the other side of Boston Harbor, leaving the shop in the hands of Uncle Seamus, who was aggravated by both the early hour, 10 a.m., and the monotony of standing watch at the store’s counter.
Though his career of adventure was world-renowned, Uncle Seamus now shared the shop and its domestic responsibilities with Mr. Fish; his only outlets were the half-cocked excursions concocted and executed in the name of inventory or marketing or some such business mundanity. Gordon knew his uncle’s moods, and he knew that just one more aggravation would surely push him into some rash decision that would inevitably result in an international trip full of intrigue and adventure.
A cloud of airborne dust, illuminated by the morning sun that streamed in from Charter Street, could surely be one such aggravation. It was one of his uncle’s petty peeves. Gordon smiled to himself as he moved to the next shelf and began pushing the feather duster around again.
“Blast!” Seamus said from behind the counter. The shimmering motes were doing their job. Gordon smiled again. “Ten minutes past the hour and Gristmill nowhere to be seen.”
Gordon knew better than to interrupt. His uncle’s moods could gain momentum as easily as a runaway carriage down one of Boston’s steep hills. No need to intervene.
“I awaken near sunup to prepare for her meeting, and she is now no less than 45 minutes late.”
Gordon glanced back and saw Mrs. Doolittle entering the salon from the kitchen, carrying a small tea service perched on a tray.
“Now, now,” she said to Uncle Seamus in her grandmotherly, singsong voice, “a nip of tea would surely pass the time until Mrs. Gristmill arrives.”
“Tea?” said Seamus, as if hearing of it for the first time in his life. “That might do just fine.”
Gordon watched in alarm from his vantage point beside the bookcase. Should the tea service assuage his uncle’s anxiety, his plan would be foiled.
“And a biscuit or two,” continued Seamus while Mrs. Doolittle tut-tutted. “You know I missed my breakfast, having to stand watch for Mrs. Gristmill out here. Yes, I think a biscuit or three would be just the medicine Hippocrates would prescribe.”
“Of course, sir.” Mrs. Doolittle exited, in search of a biscuit (or three) to accompany the tea. Gordon wiped at the dust that had accumulated on his spectacles, smudging the dirt across the lenses.
A typical day for Uncle Seamus began with him awakening at his leisure, sauntering down midmorning for a four-course breakfast and ready to man his station at the counter of the shop around noon, when the foot traffic on Charter Street was at its maximum and he could best put to work his self-ascribed Irish wit and charm.
But Mrs. Gristmill—the noted socialite, occultist, and the shop’s best customer—had sent an epistle the day before, requesting an appointment before store hours. Myron could not cancel his previously planned meeting across town, thus disrupting Uncle Seamus’s usual schedule.
Seamus extracted the letter as he waited for Mrs. Doolittle to return with his biscuits. He unfurled it and cleared his throat, as if to read it before Congress.
“Gort,” he called, needing an audience of at least one. “Come down here.”
Gordon stepped off the stool and weaved through the merchandise to the counter, bumping into several low bookcases en route. He cleaned his glasses on his wool jacket as he awaited his uncle’s next moment of drama.
“Esteemed Monsieurs Tripp & Fish,” Seamus began, reading verbatim, “I sincerely apologize for any inconvenience, but my day is oh so busy and I must beg you open your store early to accommodate my notoriously full schedule.”
Thankfully, he was reaggravating himself. The tea and biscuits, once a threat to calm his nerves, would not ease his aggravation nor ease his wanderlust.
“A social function has arisen quite unexpectedly, a luncheon with la marchesa scheduled for noon Tuesday. I must—repeat must…”
It was the third time Seamus had read the letter aloud, and this had traditionally been his point of peak indignation: the explanation for why the lady’s schedule had required the store to open at the ungodly hour of ten o’clock. But just then, at that moment of peak indignation, the front bell rang and the door opened with a whoosh, and Mrs. Dahlia Gristmill entered, accompanied by a gust of warm, humid spring air that threatened to blow all of Gordon’s carefully agitated dust from the room.
“Mr. Tripp,” she cried, sweeping her arms about elaborately, as if she owned the shop.
“Mrs. Gristmill,” Seamus replied, taking her hand as if he quite agreed. “My father often told me ’tis no sweeter spring wind than a shopkeeper’s favorite customer.”
Gordon moved back to the bookshelves without being told, to resume dusting. He kept an eye on Uncle Seamus as he led Mrs. Gristmill to a newly arrived crate of cold-wrought iron nails all the way from a blind smith in Druskininkai, the seventh son of a…. Wouldn’t she be interested in some of these? If not for her meeting with la marchesa, surely for use around Gristmill Manor.… And, by the way, she ought to act quickly, Seamus explained. For he believed he would soon be departing for some faraway shore, and an opportunity like this might not be available for several months.
Gordon smiled to himself. His uncle was ready for an adventure.
Seamus Tripp was a man whose reputation tended to precede him. He could enter the great Norse hall of Gladsheim and know that his name had probably just been on the lips of the denizens there. He could embark on a transoceanic voyage in search of kraken or dragon whelps and know that surely the sailors on the ship would already have heard of his exploits.
But strength of reputation could slice the bread either fore or aft, as the saying went. Whilst Seamus’s reputation for derring-do and heroics was known the world round, so, too, were his more pedestrian commitment to customer service and his devotion to his clients.
Myron, the penny-pincher, thought of the latter as the more valuable reputation, but accountants were always focused on the bottom line, never on the higher things that men ought to aspire to. Certainly, being known to give one’s all for one’s clients was a quality that attracted customers—particularly those of a certain attitude and social status and affluence—but it was not the way Seamus wished to be known.
He could follow the herd, hawk their blasted wares, and go down known for his commercial success. Or he could strike out on his own, still perhaps sell some blasted wares, and be known as an individual who had made something of himself.
“I must apologize for my tardiness,” Mrs. Gristmill was saying. “I was delayed at Le Fou Peluche. Dreadful restaurant. The eggs hollandaise were overcooked. I demanded they be returned and cooked properly, and the time thus spent set the remaining two courses back a half hour.”
Seamus shook his head without speaking, calculating that his time wasted waiting could have been spent consuming his own plate of eggs hollandaise. He hoped his silence projected empathy, rather than ire.
“So I haven’t the time for those hobnails and tacks,” she continued on. “I am certain you are correct of their authenticity and unique value. But I need something today for my luncheon.”
“I understand,” said Seamus, returning to form, eggs hollandaise behind them. He placed a sympathetic hand upon her forearm. “Let us peruse the selections within our”—and here he lowered his voice to a stage whisper—“sanctum sanctorum.”
This was where Seamus took clients seeking products beyond the mundane curiosities of the salon. Here were the magical, the occult, and the mystical, hidden by a curtain that barely concealed the wonders within. For a conspicuous practitioner such as Madame Gristmill, this private room was the ideal combination of mystery, ritual, and theater.
Gristmill nodded solemnly and followed Seamus in. The room was illuminated by a single central lantern, which cast just enough light to display the products within whilst throwing ominous shadows against the walls.
They perused one case of gently enchanted jewelry—a pendant that glowed with goblin’s blood, a ring that gave its wearer the weakest of night vision—before moving on to a shelf of holy books and grimoires.
Finally they arrived before a table of trinkets. Not the clutter of miscellany in the displays Gordon stocked in the front room; each item on this table was carefully situated to best exhibit its unique properties.
“Aha!” Gristmill cried. She held up a perfectly round, chalk-white stone. “Surely something powerful?” she said.
“Of course, madame. ’Tis a most sacred stone, removed from the stomach of a rare albino hart…”
The stone fell heavily back to the table.
“Aha!” she cried again, moving to a rabbit’s foot. “Precisely what I was looking for!”
“You’ve a fine eye,” said Seamus, impressed that Gristmill was drawn to such a deceptively mundane item. “That is a powerful charm, crafted by the nomadic Romani. It imbues its holder with enhanced manual dexterity. Ideal for pickpockets, naturally, but equally powerful in the hands of a lady such as yourself. Perhaps you juggle?”
“Eh? Doesn’t it glow or anything?”
Seamus took the item from her hand. “Not exactly, but its fur stands on end when you stroke it just so.”
Mrs. Gristmill shrieked, a combination of glee and horror.
“Perfect,” she said after regaining her composure. “I’ll take it, plus a dozen of the cold iron trinkets out front.”
They emerged back into the sunlit salon. “I shall have the invoice sent out forthwith.” Seamus beckoned over Gort, who was still dusting the bookshelves. “Pack up a dozen of the Lithuanian nails and carry them to Mrs. Gristmill’s carriage.”
Gordon looked suspiciously less morose than normal, but Seamus did not have time to dwell on the observation, for just as he bid Gristmill adieu, prodded the boy to hurry along, and began filling out the paperwork for the transaction, the front door opened again and Myron stepped in, greeting Mrs. Gristmill as she departed.
The wind swirled about the salon, and yet another visitor arrived: a messenger lad, a boy no older than Gordon himself, bearing a letter. “Miss Elaine Doolittle!” he bellowed, as if Seamus and Myron were not standing ten feet in front of him.
Elie, the granddaughter of the shop’s housekeeper, appeared on the second-level landing that looked over the salon. She bounded down the grand staircase that ran along the left wall. She was fourteen years old, redheaded, impetuous beyond belief, and a seasoned traveler, having accompanied Seamus on a number of recent adventures.
Seamus tipped the boy a nickel for his exuberance whilst Elie read her letter, Myron removed his hat and coat, and Gort returned from Gristmill’s carriage.
“Great news, Mr. Tripp!” she said. “My parents are writing from Buck…Buckovee…Booch-oo-veena?”
“Bukovyna,” said Gordon, always quick with corrections where trivial matters were concerned. “That’s in Hungary.”
“And they want me and you to visit!” Elie said to Seamus.
“Whatever for?” said Myron, no doubt imagining the costs of steamship passage and hotel stays.
“They say that,” said Elie, “they want Mr. Tripp to be my chaperone. There’s a revolution brewing, and they say travel in those parts at times requires ‘diplomatic aplomb.’”
“Aplomb indeed. The ability to charm the deaf adder. I’m just the man for the job,” said Seamus.
“You certainly are not,” said Myron. “Of the four of us gathered, you’re the least diplomatic…”
“Then they say they want me to travel all the way home with them!” said Elie. Her elation could not be tempered by Myron’s dourness. The poor girl stayed at a boarding school all year, while her parents traveled around the world for the U.S. government’s State Department.
“Think of it,” Seamus said to Myron. “The four of us wandering about the high steppes and dark forests. Perhaps we can connect with some of those rising Germanic industrialists you keep reading about in the Times.”
“The four of us?” said Myron, completely missing the part about the industrialists. “In the midst of a revolution? Why on earth…”
But Seamus was not to miss this opportunity. A trip delivered by letter carrier on just the day he had been overwhelmed with the stuffiness of the store. It may as well have been delivered via angel. He should’ve tipped the messenger lad more than a nickel.
“Mrs. Doolittle!” he called to summon the housekeeper. Then, before Myron could object, Seamus motioned for Gort to begin extracting and packing the trunks and ordered Elie to summon the carriage.
“And how will we fund this excursion?” Myron said rhetorically, once Seamus had sent Mrs. Doolittle off to prepare a grand farewell lunch.
Seamus held up the invoice, heretofore concealed beneath a paperweight, from the morning’s sizable sale to Gristmill. “This should cover it,” he said, smiling as Myron’s eyes widened at the bottom line. “At the very least we ought to replace that rabbit’s foot.”
Chapter Two: Marooned in Bukovyna
Elie Doolittle stood on a rise overlooking the deep green forest of Bukovyna province. At least, that is where she thought they were. Gordon had tried to help her with the place names, so she would at least know that much as they wended their way through the dark forested hills of the country, but the pronunciation proved to be trickier than any nursery school tongue-twister.
Bukovyna. This name she knew, for this was whence her parents had summoned them. They’d traveled by steamer to Marseille, then by dirigible to Vienna, then by riverboat to Budapest, arriving in the frontier town of Szolnok on a cool, damp May afternoon. A handwritten note awaited Elie there:
Dearest Elaine, we are on the move again. Further negotiations are taking us to Łódź.
“That’s north of Kraków,” said Gordon unhelpfully.
We will rendezvous with you and Mr. Tripp in Berlin in one month’s time. With love, Mama & Papa
As she thought of her parents, Elie twisted her silver bracelet. Her father had brought it back for her after one exceedingly long trip, and she often found herself tugging at it when she traveled.
The innkeeper who’d delivered the letter was an old, wrinkly man who blew his nose periodically into an ancient handkerchief.
“Your parents,” he told Elie between two explosive sneezes, “departed yesterday by wagon. Northbound.”
“They’ve but a day on us,” said Seamus, “perhaps two. Gort, bring the trunks back down.”
Gordon had just carried the last of their luggage up the inn’s rickety staircase. He looked back at his uncle for a moment with a look of resignation—when Elie thought of Gordon while away at school, this was the face she always imagined—before he wordlessly turned to begin carrying the trunks back whence they’d come.
“We must move quickly,” Seamus told Elie as they watched Gordon struggle with the first trunk. “Before Myron descends.” Myron had been the first to find his room, and Elie guessed that Seamus had some mischief in mind before Mr. Fish realized that plans were now changing.
Seamus turned to leave and motioned for her to follow. There, outside the inn, a wagon team milled about, awaiting guests.
“Whither went our teamsters?” Seamus asked the driver.
“To another province,” said the driver, a slummocky-looking fellow in a greasy hat. Elie did not like the look of him. “But my partner and I can drive you.” He motioned at his pair of wagons, pulled by a quartet of malnourished oxen.
“Eh?” said Seamus. “Yes. Time is of the essence. If my colleague gets wind of this, we’ll spend the next week in committee determining due diligence and such.”
“Committee?” said the driver.
“Due diligence,” repeated Seamus. “But no matter. We’re headed northward, to Kraków and then Łódź.” Elie handed up the letter so the driver could see the place names.
“What’s the trip cost?” Seamus inquired.
The driver quoted a price in the region’s currency, and Seamus extracted a gold dollar in response. The driver snatched it up like a vulture plucking up a particularly choice morsel.
“Gort,” called Seamus, “let’s load up the trunks.”
Gordon had just emerged from the inn with the first of the luggage pieces, Myron following close behind.
“Not a moment to lose,” Seamus said as Mr. Fish raised his hand in protest. “I’ve found our teamsters.”
“But…” Mr. Fish protested.
“And I’ve already paid,” said Seamus.
So they loaded up the last of the trunks.
“What more harm can be done?” Myron asked as they settled into the wagons and headed down the track, back into the dark woods that seemed to cover the whole of the continent north of the Dunărea.
Poor Mr. Fish. Elie had seen him in fights against an array of fearsome foes—a demonic politician in New York City, a horde of Shaolin ghosts, and a prehistoric lion, just to name a few—but he possessed hopelessly narrow tunnel vision where financial matters were concerned. And so he had believed that Seamus’s rash act of hiring the new teamsters without due diligence was at worst a financial blunder.
But it turned out to be so much worse.
A day and a half later, as they set up camp for their second night, a group of armed strangers emerged from the forest. Eight of them, all wearing threadbare traveling clothes and dark masks. They brandished old rifles and demanded the group’s cargo.
The cargo included Elie’s trunk, which was packed to bursting with the necessities of travel: a light coat in case of rain, a heavier one in case of a late snow; a light dress and a heavy one, for similar scenarios; a trio of hats with varying brim sizes to adjust for time of day; and, of course, some rudimentary art supplies, including her colored pencils, a set of paintbrushes, both of her sketchbooks, a canvas rolled tightly in a map case, a portable easel, and a mortar and pestle in case she needed to grind any of her own pigments.
Needless to say, the trunk was heavy, and the teamsters, who at once fell into league with the highway robbers, struggled mightily as they loaded all the luggage onto just one wagon. They barked at each other in their unintelligible tongue. Elie noted that Gordon looked concerned and then bemused by whatever it was they were saying about her things.
Then, just as quickly as the highwaymen had appeared, they departed, bouncing back down the track, shaking their guns at Mssrs. Tripp and Fish menacingly.
The teamsters had been kind enough to at least leave one wagon and one ox, which Gordon attempted to hitch that next morning, while Elie sat atop a stump and listened to Mr. Fish yell at Mr. Tripp.
Seamus Tripp was many things to many people: adventurer, treasure hunter, explorer, and world traveler. Above it all, however, was his defining characteristic, his modus operandi, the soul of his existence: he was a man of action.
In fact, he often mused about his autobiography during long train or steamboat rides, as he watched his nephew scribble in that blasted journal. The content would write itself, naturally, and he was little concerned for that. What vexed him was the title. But, perhaps, here it was.
Seamus Tripp: Man of Action
A simple enough title, and understated, too, to boil himself down to just one honorific that way.
The principal disadvantage to living a life such as his was, of course, being confronted by the men of inaction. Those self-satisfied bean counters, et al., who thought engaging a pair of teamsters required a three-week process of interviews, carbon copies, and committees.
“I am not a committee!” Myron said when Seamus leveled the accusation. They were discussing the hiring of the teamsters, and the bad luck that the cowards had allied themselves with the highway robbers rather than doing what most agreed teamsters ought to do in such situations: namely, defend their clients and their clients’ overstuffed cargo. Myron seemed to believe that a rigorous hiring process could separate the valiant teamsters from the cowardly ones.
So, stranded as they now were, they had begun to play the blame game, a term Gordon had concocted during their adventure in the Rift Valley. Seamus smiled at the subtle humor of the rhyme. This appeared to compound Myron’s aggravation.
“You haven’t listened to a word I’ve been saying, have you?” Myron asked, at nearly the exact moment Seamus realized he had missed at least two minutes of lecturing.
“Not at all,” he agreed, honesty being the best policy, “but I might have something to add nonetheless.”
“Perhaps they were in league with the robbers from the beginning,” Seamus said.
“What’s that to do with anything?” said Myron.
“Simply that perhaps they’re not cowards. Therefore we wouldn’t have figured them out with a battery of tests anyway.”
“But instead they’d be thieves. Surely asking around would’ve revealed that!”
“Don’t be so sure,” said Seamus. “The wily ones are able to conceal their true identities.”
Though as he remembered the teamsters—shabbily dressed, poorly groomed—wily did not seem the best description.
“I think they were scared,” said Gordon, who had finally accomplished the simple task of hitching the ox.
“Right,” said Elie from her stump at the edge of camp. “They were scared of the robbers.”
“More than that,” said Gordon. “They joined up with the robbers because they’re scared of something else.”
“What do you have in mind?” said Myron.
“The unexpected fog yesterday after lunch. And the animal noises the night before.”
“What kind of animal noises?” said Elie “That seems normal.”
“Bears,” said Myron. “Aren’t they native to this region?”
“No. At least not bears in such numbers,” said Gordon. “They don’t belong this far south.”
“I hardly think those teamsters know anything about the hunting range of the Ursa…uh, Brownus,” said Seamus, though the boy did raise some interesting questions.
“Not if you put it that way,” said Gordon. “But I’ve found in our travels that the locals have a much better understanding of native flora and fauna than any outsider ever could.”
“True, true,” said Seamus. “So what do we propose for next steps?”
Elie jumped in quickly. “Continue to Kraków!” She extracted a map from the front pocket of her jacket.
“What about supplies?” asked Myron as he, Elie, and Gordon leaned over the map. In no time they were into the mundanity of travel times, optimal routes, meal consumption tables, and yet another discussion of native flora and fauna. Just the sort of overplanning and deliberation that had gotten them into this mess.
A man of action, on the other hand, such as Seamus Tripp, would take the time to scout about, ensuring no other would-be highwaymen were lurking about. So he slipped out of the camp and into the woods, and headed up a game trail that wound up a low hill.
It was an easy hike, the ancient, mossy trees shading the morning sun. Some far-off birds wrapped up their morning serenade, but other than that it was eerily quiet. The soft turf whispered slightly as he made his way up the hill. The high point might give him a sense of the topography of the surrounding region, though his guess was “more trees.”
Another five minutes and the game trail came to an end where the hill sloped down and away. He faced a tangle of branches and leaves that created a natural barrier to anything larger than a jackalope.
Seamus was about to turn and return to camp when he heard a whistle. Not the light trill of a birdcall, but the shrill burst of a man-made whistle.
He instinctively hunched over and turned toward the sound: around the tangle of bushes and somewhere down the hill. He picked his way through the vines and branches, pulling leaves and twigs from his Australian cattle hat as he moved. The ground was steep, but the press of plant growth kept him propped up as he descended.
Just a few minutes of that, and he arrived at the other edge of the brush barrier, and below him, between trees in a copse, evidence of a camp: smoke from a fire and the murmur of men’s voices.
Seamus quietly emerged from the brush and moved closer, staying hidden behind the trees. He peeked around one into the camp and in a snap concluded whom he had espied: Roma.
Seamus Tripp had often encountered the Travelers in his explorations of the hills and spinneys and backways of his home emerald island. He had seen them in the far corners of the globe, from Brazil to Siberia. And despite obvious local variations, he was always struck by the dichotomy endemic to a Gypsy camp: that it was at once mobile and ever moving and yet grounded in family life fixed for generations.
This camp was no different: chaos and order; guinea fowl chased small insects, dogs chased fowl, and children from knee-high to strapping chased dogs. Yet, in the midst of the chaos, the choreography of chores being done: midday-meal dishes being washed, firewood being split and stacked near the elders huddled around the fire pit, the exteriors of the caravans being painted.
Seamus’s eyes were drawn to these homes, the vardos of the Gypsy. Flamboyant on the one hand and the ultimate in utility on the other. The Roma wagons were ornately carved and painted in garish hues. And yet they were compact and efficient, pulled by one horse each while providing shelter, storage, cooking space, transportation…and all the essentials of a home.
And a Gypsy camp was always a marriage between the mundane and the esoteric. Look beyond the dish tubs and the drying laundry, and everywhere were charms and hexes, painted on the wagons or hung about as horse brass and shoes.
Though it was not surprising to see Gypsies in these parts, the proximity to the highway robbers and Gordon’s observations of strange animal noises was alarming. Best to alert Myron and the children. But just as he turned, to scurry back whither he had come, Seamus felt a hand upon the scruff of his neck, and the next thing he knew, a large Romani was dragging him into the center of camp and dumping him unceremoniously next to the fire. The gathered folk fell silent.
Seamus gathered himself up, brushed off his waistcoat, and straightened out his hat.
“What ho?” he said finally to the small crowd. “You may have heard of me. I am Seamus…”
But before he could finish, one of the older women stood and began shaking her cane at him menacingly. Seamus didn’t understand a word she said. Then one of the younger men responded to her, equally incomprehensible to his ear, and as quick as a brushfire, the whole camp burst into commotion.
Seamus let them carry on for a bit and then pantomimed for them to quiet. He spoke loudly and slowly, and waved his arms about dramatically, the better to communicate with them. He explained that he was from a faraway green island, still a British colony, but now he lived in the former British colony of Massachusetts and was here seeking out diplomats and that they had lost their wagon. It occurred to him that the slow pace and elaborate hand gestures were making it difficult to succinctly explain himself.
One of the Roma men stepped forward. He was dressed as the others but carried himself with the universal air of authority. Their leader, Seamus decided. He—mercifully—began to speak in English.
“I am Roland,” the leader said. “And you have come from far away.”
“Indeed. I am here with my friends. We are strangers in your forest.”
“Strange things are afoot.”
“Aye. We’ve been robbed.”
“Things yet stranger.”
“The province is in tumult.” The Roma man, Roland, took another step forward. He seemed intent on making Seamus guess at the strange things he had in mind.
“All of these things,” said Roland, “and more. My people speak of highwaymen and revolution, sinister fog, and mullo.” The old lady with the cane raised her hand in a warding gesture.
“I don’t know that last word.”
“You would say in your tongue one who walks in dark.”
Seamus shuddered. He thought of the others at their little camp atop the hill. “This is why we need your help.”
“As you can see,” Roland motioned to the Gypsy camp behind him, “I’ve my own family to worry about.”
“Perhaps we can help each other? My friends and I are powerful.”
“But not so powerful you can help yourselves?”
“Aye. It’s a conundrum.”
This word seemed to set off the old woman again. Perhaps an unfortunate false cognate of some Romani word.
“We know of conundrums, too,” said Roland. “The Roma life is one of freedom and travel. Yet we are chained to fates of the lands we cross.” He shook his head wearily. “I will accompany you to your friends.”
Roland motioned to the others to stay back, and he and Seamus made the short hike back up and over the hill. Seamus became aware, as they approached, of how pathetic their little camp would look compared to the Gypsies’: an abandoned wagon, no supplies, and three people huddled around a tree stump.
“Even if they found us,” said Seamus, “I’m not sure the sinister fog, supernatural bears, or revolutionaries would even know what to do with us.”
Elie was just putting away her map when they arrived. Myron looked up, ready to debrief Seamus on whatever plan they had concocted, and he looked at the Roma, recognition lighting up his face.
The Gypsy spoke first. “Myron Fish!” he said, to everyone’s surprise, and the two men hugged each other affectionately.
Chapter Three: The Gypsy Camp
Gordon Tripp looked about the Gypsy camp and took a deep breath, hoping to capture in his memory every last detail before he put his pencil to paper. He aspired to be a novelist, and he always carried his journal on these trips, recording as much as he could along the way. Certainly, these notes would someday be the basis for his stories.
But there was almost too much detail in the camp! From the colored wagons and jangling bells to the old crones and the heavily armed men, there were a million little pieces Gordon hoped to record, and he hesitated for a moment, not sure where to start.
Perhaps with Roland Pike.
The Romani leader, he wrote, is a prince among the Gypsies. He stands tall and taut, his dark hair falling to his shoulder, his beard thick but neatly trimmed. His eyes pierce their targets like darts, his words warm hearts like syrup.
Gordon loved analogies, his favorites being those that encouraged the reader to look at normal things from a different viewpoint. In that way, he thought, “hearts like syrup” was especially powerful.
When Mr. Pike had appeared with his uncle Seamus, he astonished all gathered by calling Mr. Fish by name! And Mr. Fish had further astonished them by embracing the Gypsy prince like a brother. Gordon smiled to himself, thinking of the look of consternation on his uncle’s face; for Seamus imagined himself to be the leader, the one with the connections, the one who hugged strange Gypsies unexpectedly in the dark forests of Bukovyna.
Gypsies. Just the name evoked in Gordon the muse of inspiration; for of all the peoples he had never before met, the Romani were the most inspirational. Their music, their lifestyle, even their food.
Once they had arrived, Roland had declared that there would be a great feast, and it seemed to Gordon that the music and food started almost as soon as the proclamation had been made. Indeed, the Roma feast was no disappointment. It had the same quality of ordered chaos that permeated everything about the camp. Only the honored guests and Roland remained seated, while all the others shifted about in small groups, taking turns at cooking, serving, and joining with the musicians to sing or tell a tale.
All through the afternoon, song followed song and dish followed dish. The flavors of many were odd, but Gordon was so entranced by the newness and variety of the supper that he didn’t even need to be reminded of his uncle’s rules on hospitality, though he did notice once or twice that Elie was picking warily at some of the more exotic and unidentifiable dishes. He considered sharing when he was able to pick out the words “nettle” and “hedgehog” as two of the dishes were passed, but decided that perhaps Elie would find it more difficult to follow the rules of hospitality with the knowledge.
Now, after dinner, Gordon continued writing in his journal, describing the people, transcribing little stories, and trying to capture snippets of conversation. Roland, Uncle Seamus, and Mr. Fish sat around the fire, sipping from small cups and chatting.
“My nephew,” Roland said, “his name is Mircea. He has left the camp and has joined the uprising against the barony.”
“Who’s a Romani boy to care about local politics?” asked Seamus.
“Aye. Has caused my brother some heartache.”
“The boy’s father?” said Myron.
Roland grunted in agreement. “The boy is the heir to the clan. For my brother is our chief.”
The three men fell into deeper conversation about local rumors of revolution, and the Gypsy clans, and what they intended to do about the wayward Romani prince.
But Gordon was soon pulled away: Elie jabbed him in the ribs and motioned to a group of children who had gathered by one of the caravans. Had this been a cattle drive, Gordon would have called it the chuckwagon.
“They say we need to help with the dishes,” she said, closing up his journal. He snatched it back and tucked it into the front pocket of his jacket. He followed her to the caravan, where the other children had begun organizing into teams of three, scraping, rinsing, and drying the tin dishware.
Gordon and Elie joined with a girl, who appeared to be the leader of the children. She instructed them in halting English to take their positions, and she began piling dirty dishes in front of them. Her name was Tsura, and where Elie was fair-complected and redheaded, Tsura was dusky and dark-haired. Gordon was given the station between the two, and no matter which direction he turned he was confronted with an awkward reminder of his own stature: the two girls were taller, and more confident, and more mature, than him.
“Strange that they’d have us doing dishes,” said Elie as Gordon scraped off bits of a seasoned mushroom dish that had tasted like baked chicken. “Being that we’re guests.”
Before Gordon could answer, however, Tsura spoke up.
“Just so,” she said. “But it is often said that the guest is like the butterfly of the fields, and the hosts are the bees of the hive. In the old tale, the queen of the bees invites the king of…”
Where the old tale was going to go, or how it was going to explain its unlikely simile, would have to wait. The start of the fable had stopped all the other groups of children in their work as they listened. Tsura turned to them and lapsed back into Romani. With one sharp phrase the work resumed.
“Just so,” Gordon said to Tsura and returned to the dishes. The sooner they were done, the sooner he could return to his writing.
Tsura, for her part, not only dried dishes at her station but kept the other dishwashing children on task as well. She chattered at them as they washed and they cowered. Gordon had been listening to the Roma language all day, and he picked up a few of the words.
“What did she say?” said Elie. “The children seem so… um…motivated.”
“I’m not sure exactly,” said Gordon, “but I believe she told them to hurry. For the mullo is coming.”
“Mullo?” said Elie. “What’s that?”
“I dunno,” said Gordon. “But it comes out at night.”
Myron Fish tossed and turned in his blanket later that night. It had been a full day, and whether it was the unexpected reunion with his old friend Roland Pike, or the alarming news of revolution in the region, or the spiced food, Myron could not sleep.
Roland had explained that the rebellion against the baron was gaining steam, recruiting dozens of young men and women from around the country. The leader of the uprising was the mysterious Loiza Amriya, who preached militancy and solidarity in the face of the baron’s depredations.
Myron was new to the region, but he knew what the peasants were probably facing: a wealthy landowning noble who used antiquated laws to keep the country folk bound in feudal servitude to his manor. His family would reap the bounty of the workers’ harvest, and the workers would be left to glean a meager livelihood from the scraps.
It was no wonder, then, that young Mircea, Roland’s nephew, had taken up with the cause: as the Romani believed in freedom and self-ownership, no doubt the message preached by the leader of the revolution, a charismatic man named Loiza Amriya, appealed to him.
What was surprising, however, was that he would desert the Gypsy camp on such a whim.
Seamus, rolled up in a blanket beneath their wagon on the other side of the fire, was already sleeping soundly, if the volume of his earth-rending snores was any indication. Myron sat up and leaned over the coals in the fire pit, warming his hands. Though much of the camp had turned in for the night, a number of men still patrolled the edges.
In fact, now that he looked, the camp had turned inward as night had fallen: caravans had been rolled closer to the center, and doors and windows battened down. And the patrols that even now wandered the perimeter seemed heavy for such a night. The clearing had transformed from a sprawling Gypsy fair into a military camp.
Then the fog began rolling in.
A thick cloud rolled into the camp like smoke, moving under the caravans, covering the fire pit, obscuring everything beyond arm’s length. Myron rose and pulled his derringer from its holster inside his waistcoat. This fog was not natural. It had been sent by someone—or something—to hide an ambush. That explained the alertness of the camp.
Myron groped through the fog, around the fire, to find Seamus. He kicked one of the stones that marked the edge of the fire pit and continued around the edge.
Then, before he located Seamus, something that sounded like a battle began on the outskirts of the camp. The patrols, no doubt on alert from the ominous, unholy fog, called to one another, and Myron heard in response snarls and growls, and the rending of wood and cloth, and the discharge of the Gypsies’ clumsy black-powder weapons. Then the clanging of metal, and more snarls, and the cries of Romani—wounded, or seeking aid, or calling back in response to their comrades.
Despite the confused clamor from the edge of camp, Seamus was still sound asleep when Myron found him. The man’s sleep habits were as legendary as his reputation as an adventurer: he had once slept through a Yowie’s raiding of their camp in the Australian Outback; in another instance, through a raging storm called up by a Lakota shaman on the warpath; even through the unearthly howls of banshees upon the Scottish Highlands.
So it was as the sounds of conflict echoed outside the Gypsy camp in Bukovyna. Myron had to kick Seamus thrice in the midsection before the Irishman roused, and even then, in such a state of utter surprise that he bolted immediately upright and struck his head upon the underside of the wagon.
“To arms!” cried Myron. “Something on the edge of the camp!”
He shoved Seamus his pack and stood idly for a moment, considering whether to continue on without him. Seamus pulled his two-barreled pistola, which he called Arquebus, from its leather holster and clambered out from beneath the wagon.
“Where to?” he said.
Myron did not know, so he simply headed out, away from the fire, toward the sounds of men and beasts and gunfire.
They reached the circle of caravans when, just as quickly as it had risen, the fog dissipated and the sounds of the melee faded away.
There, in the clearing that surrounded the wagons, stood a dozen Gypsy guards, some nursing scratches and others minor wounds, but most uninjured, looking at one another warily in the dim moonlight. And, a shock to them all, at no one else.
“Where are the ambushers?” said Seamus, his tone reflecting some degree of skepticism that there had been any ambushers at all.
The Roma began lighting lanterns.
“They must have fled the instant the fog disappeared,” said Roland, looking as confused as the others. He held a janbiya, the broad curved dagger favored in the south of India, and a smoking flintlock pistol, the likes of which Myron had only ever seen in a museum.
“Aye,” said Seamus, stepping forward with Arquebus rested in a quick-draw position on his left forearm. “I’ll check for tracks.”
Myron knew his friend’s tracking would be of no benefit to the Gypsies, a folk who made their way traveling and tracking, but before anyone could respond, a single figure appeared at the edge of the lantern light.
It was a man, tall and silver-haired, with a neatly trimmed beard and an officer’s coat, though it lacked any national insignia Myron could recognize.
“I beg pardon for disturbing your slumber,” he said in accented English. “On behalf of the free people of Bukovyna, welcome to our republic. I am Loiza Amriya.”
To be continued….
For more of Seamus Tripp and the Shadow Walker, look for Issue No 2 of CinderQ.
Jon Garett and Richard Walsh are the authors of The Adventures of Seamus Tripp, a series of adventure-comedies set in a Victorian world of monsters, treasure, magic & mystery. Find more adventures at www.seamustripp.com.