Cam had never seen a similar mark on anyone else. Until Merripen.
Through a quirk of fate, Merripen had recently been injured in a house fire. And as his wound was being treated, the Hathaways had discovered the tattoo on Merripen's shoulder.
That had raised more than a few questions in Cam 's mind.
He saw Merripen glance at the tattoo on his arm. "What do you make of a Rom wearing an Irish design?" Cam asked.
"There are Roma in Ireland. Nothing unusual."
"There's something unusual about this tattoo," Cam said evenly. "I've never seen another like it, until you. And since it came as a surprise to the Hathaways, you've evidently taken great care to keep it hidden. Why is that, my phral? "
"Don't call me that."
"You've been part of the Hathaway family since childhood," Cam said. "And I've married into it. That makes us brothers, doesn't it?"
A disdainful glance was his only reply.
Cam found perverse amusement in being friendly to a Rom who so clearly despised him. He understood exactly what had engendered Merripen's hostility. The addition of a new male to a family tribe, or vitsa, was never an easy situation, and usually his place would be low in the hierarchy. For Cam, a stranger, to come in and act as the head of the family was nearly unendurable. It didn't help that Cam was poshram, a half-breed born of a Romany mother and an Irish gadjo father. And if there was anything that could make matters even worse, Cam was wealthy, which was shameful in the eyes of the Rom.
"Why have you always kept it hidden?" Cam persisted.
Merripen paused in his brushing and gave Cam a cold, dark glance. "I was told it was the mark of a curse. That on the day I discovered what it meant, and what it was for, I or someone close to me, was fated to die."
Cam showed no outward reaction, but he felt a few prickles of unease at the back of his neck.
"Who are you, Merripen?" he asked softly.
The big Rom went back to work. "No one."
"You were part of a tribe once. You must have had family."
"I don't remember any father. My mother died when I was born."
"So did mine. I was raised by my grandmother."
The brush halted in midstroke. Neither of them moved. The stable became deadly quiet, except for the snuffling and shifting of horses. "I was raised by my uncle. To be one of the asharibe."
"Ah." Cam kept any hint of pity from his expression, but privately he thought, You poor bastard.
No wonder Merripen fought so well. Some Gypsy tribes took their strongest boys and turned them into bare-knuckle fighters, pitting them against each other at fairs and pubs and gatherings, for onlookers to make bets on. Some of the boys were disfigured or even killed. And the ones who survived were hardened fighters down to the bootstraps, and designated as warriors of the tribe.
"Well, that explains your sweet temperament," Cam said. "Was that why you chose to stay with the Hathaways after they took you in? Because you no longer wanted to live as an asharibe? "
"You're lying, phral," Cam said, watching him closely. "You stayed for another reason." And Cam knew from the Rom's visible flush that he'd hit upon the truth.
Quietly, Cam added, "You stayed for her."
Twelve years earlier
There was no goodness in him. No softness. He had been raised to sleep on hard ground, to eat plain food and drink cold water, and to tight other boys on command. If he ever refused to fight, he was beaten by his uncle, the rom baro, the big male of the tribe. There was no mother to plead for him, no father to intervene in the rom baro's harsh punishments. No one ever touched him except in violence. He existed only to fight, to steal, to do things against the gadje.
Most Gypsies did not hate the pale, doughy Englishmen who lived in tidy houses and carried pocket watches and read books by the hearth. They only distrusted them. But Kev's tribe despised gadje, mostly because the rom baro did. And whatever the leader's whims, beliefs, and inclinations were, you followed them.
Eventually, because the rom baro's tribe had inflicted such mischief and misery whenever they set up camp, the gadjos had decided to scourge them from the land. The Englishmen had come on horses, carrying weapons. There had been gunshots, clubbings, sleeping Romas attacked in their beds, women and children screaming and crying. The camp had been scattered and everyone had been driven off, the vardo wagons set on fire, many of the horses stolen by the gadjos.
Kev had tried to fight them, to defend the vitsa, but he had been struck on the head with the heavy butt of a gun. Another had stabbed him in the back with a bayonet. The tribe had left him for dead. Alone in the night, he had lain half-conscious by the river, listening to the rush of dark water, feeling the chill of hard, wet earth beneath him, dimly aware of his own blood seeping in warm runlets from his body. He had waited without fear for the great wheel to roll into darkness. He had no reason or desire to live.
But just as Night yielded to the approach of her sister Morning, Kev found himself gathered up and carried away in a small rustic cart. A gadjo had found him, and had bid a local boy to help carry the dying Rom into his house.
It was the first time Kev had ever been beneath the ceiling of anything other than a vardo. He found himself torn between curiosity at his foreign surroundings and rage at the indignity at having to die indoors under the care of a gadjo. But Kev was too weak, too much in pain, to lift a finger in his own defense.