Kev and Rohan were directed to one of the smaller tents, where an older boy sat by the entrance on an overturned pail. He carved buttons with a small knife.
"We're looking for Shuri," Kev said in the old language.
The boy glanced over his shoulder into the tent. "Mainl." he called. "There are two men to see you. Roma dressed like gadjos."
A singular-looking woman came to the entrance. She was not quite five feet tall, but her torso and head were broad, her complexion dark and wrinkled, her eyes lustrous and black. Kev recognized her immediately. It was indeed Shuri, who had only been about sixteen when she had married the rom baro. Kev had left the tribe not long after that.
The years had not been kind to her. Shuri had once been a striking beauty, but a life of hardship had aged her prematurely. Although she and Kev were nearly the same age, the difference between them could have been twenty years instead of two.
She stared at Kev without much interest. Then her eyes widened, and her gnarled hands moved in a gesture commonly used to protect oneself against evil spirits.
"Kev," she breathed.
"Hello, Shuri," he said with difficulty, and followed it with a greeting he hadn't said since childhood. "Droboy tume Romale."
"Are you a spirit?" she asked him.
Rohan looked at him alertly. "Kev?" he repeated. "Is that your tribal name?"
Kev ignored him. "I'm not a spirit, Shuri." He gave her a reassuring smile. "If I were, I wouldn't have grown any older, would I?"
She shook her head, her eyes slitting in a leery squint. "If it's really you, show me the mark."
"May I do it inside?"
After a long hesitation, Shuri nodded reluctantly, waving both Kev and Rohan into the tent.
Cam paused at the entrance and spoke to the boy. "Make certain the horses aren't stolen," he said, "and I'll give you a half crown." He wasn't certain whether the horses would be more in danger from the Chorodies or the Roma.
"Yes, kako," the boy said, using a respectful form of address for a much older male.
Smiling ruefully, Cam followed Merripen into the tent.
The structure was made of rods stuck into the ground and bent at the top, with other supporting rods fastened to it with string. The whole of it was covered with coarse brown cloth that had been pinned together over the ribs of the structure. There were no chairs or tables. To a Rom, the ground served perfectly well for both purposes. But there was an abundant pile of pots and trenchers in the corner, and a light pallet covered with cloth. The interior of the tent was heated by a small coke fire glowing in a three-legged pan.
At Shuri's direction, Cam sat cross-legged by the fire pan. He stifled a grin as Shuri insisted on seeing Merripen's tattoo, which provoked a long-suffering glance from him. Being a modest and private man, Merripen was probably cringing inside at having to undress in front of them. But he set his jaw and tugged off his coat, and unbuttoned his vest.
Rather than remove his shirt entirely, Merripen unfastened it and let it fall to reveal his upper back and shoulders, the muscled slopes gleaming like copper. The tattoo was still a mildly startling sight to Cam, who had never seen it on anyone but himself.
Muttering in deep Romany, using a few words that sounded like Sanskrit, Shuri moved behind Kev to look at the tattoo. Merripen's head lowered, and he breathed quietly.
Cam 's amusement faded as he saw Merripen's face, detached save for a slight frown. For Cam it would have been a joy and a relief to encounter someone from his past. For Merripen, the experience was pure misery. But he bore it with a stoic endurance that touched Cam. And Cam discovered that he didn't like to see Merripen being made so vulnerable.
After glancing at the mark of the nightmare horse, Shuri moved away from Merripen and motioned for him to dress himself. "Who is this man?" she asked, nodding in Cam 's direction.
"One of my kumpania," Merripen muttered. Kumpa-nia was a word used to describe a clan, a group united though not necessarily by family ties. Pulling his clothes back on, Merripen asked brusquely, "What happened to the tribe. Shuri? Where is the rom baro?”
"In the ground," the woman said, with a pointed lack of respect for her husband. "And the tribe is scattered. After the tribe saw what he did to you, Kev… making us leave you for dead… it all went bad after that. No one wanted to follow him. The gadjos finally hanged him, when he was caught making wafodu luvvu."
"What is that?" Cam asked, unable to follow her accent.
"Counterfeit money," Merripen said.
"Before that," Shuri continued, "the rom baro had tried to make some of the young boys into asharibe, to earn coins at fairs and in the London streets. But none of them could fight like you, and their parents would only let the rom baro go so far with them." Her shrewd dark eyes turned in Cam 's direction. "The rom baro called Kev his fighting dog," she said. "But the dogs were treated better than he was."
"Shuri-," Merripen muttered, scowling. "He doesn't need to know-"
"My husband wanted Kev to die," she continued, "but even the rom baro wouldn't dare to kill him outright. So he starved the boy and put him in too many fights, and gave him no bandages or salve for his wounds. He was never given a blanket, only a bed of straw. We used to sneak food and medicine to him when the rom baro wasn't looking. But there was no one to defend him, poor boy." Her gaze turned chiding as she spoke to Merripen directly. "And it wasn't easy to help you, when you would do nothing but snarl and snap. Never a word of thanks, not even a smile."