"They left me for dead," Kev said. "And you want me to help you find them? If I see any of them, especially the rom baro, I'll kill him with my bare hands."
"Fine," Rohan returned equably. "After they tell us about the tattoo."
"All they'll say is what I've already told you-it's the mark of a curse. And if you ever find out what it means-"
"Yes, yes, I know. We're doomed. But if I'm wearing a curse on my arm, Merripen, I want to know about it."
Kev gave him a glance that should have felled him on the spot. He stopped at a corner of the stables, where hoof picks, clippers, and files were neatly organized on shelves. "I'm not going. You'll have to look for my tribe without me."
"I need you," Rohan countered. "For one thing, the place we're headed to is kekkeno mushespuv."
Kev stared at him in disbelief. Kekkeno mushes puv, translated as "no-man's-land," was a squalid plain located on the Surrey side of the Thames. The open muddy ground was crowded with ragged Gypsy tents, a few dilapidated vardos, feral dogs, and nearly feral Roma. But that wasn't the real danger. There was another, non-Gypsy group called the Chorodies, descendants of rogues and outcasts, mainly Saxon in origin. The Chorodies were truly vile, dirty, and ferocious, without customs or manners. Going anywhere near them was virtually asking to be attacked or robbed. It was hard to imagine a more dangerous place in London except for a few Eastside rookeries.
"Why do you think anyone from my tribe could be in such a place?" Kev asked, more than a little shocked by the idea. Surely, even under the rom baro's leadership, they wouldn't have sunk so low.
"Not long ago I met a chal from the Bosvil tribe. He said his youngest sister, Shuri, was married long ago to your mm baro.'" Rohan stared at Merripen intently. " It seems the story of what happened to you has been told all through Romanija."
"I don't see why," Kev muttered, feeling suffocated. "It's not important."
Rohan shrugged casually, his gaze trained on Kev's face. "The Rom take care of their own. No tribe would ever leave an injured or dying boy behind, no matter what the circumstances. And apparently it brought a curse on the rom baro's tribe… Their luck turned very bad, and most of them came to ruin. There's justice for you."
"I never cared about justice." Kev was vaguely surprised by the rustiness of his own voice.
Rohan spoke with quiet understanding. "It's a strange life, isn't it?… A Rom with no tribe. No matter how hard you look, you can never find a home. Because to us, home is not a building or a tent or vardo… home is a family."
Kev had a difficult time meeting Rohan's gaze. The words cut too close to his heart. In all the time he had known Rohan, Kev had never felt a kinship with him until now. But Kev could no longer ignore the fact that they had too damn much in common. They were two outsiders with pasts full of unanswered questions. And each of them had been drawn to the Hathaways, and had found a home with them.
"I'll go with you, damn it," Kev said gruffly. "But only because I know what Amelia would do to me if I let something happen to you."
Somewhere in England, spring had covered the ground with green velvet and coaxed flowers from the hedgerows. Somewhere the sky was blue and the air was sweet. But not in no-man's-land, where smoke from millions of chimney pipes had soured the complexion of the city with a yellow fog that daylight could barely penetrate. There was little but mud and misery in this barren place. It was located approximately a quarter mile from the river and bordered by a hill and a railway.
Kev was grim and silent as he and Rohan led their horses through the Romany camp. Tents were loosely scattered, with men sitting at the entrances and whittling pegs or making baskets. Kev heard a few boys shouting at one another. As he rounded a tent, he saw a small group gathered around a fight. Men angrily shouted instructions and threats to the boys as if they were animals in a pit.
Stopping at the sight, Kev stared at the boys while images from his own childhood flashed through his mind. Pain, violence, fear… the wrath of the rom baro, who would beat Kev further if he lost. And if he won, sending another boy bloodied and broken to the ground, there would be no reward. Only the crushing guilt of harming someone who had done no wrong to him.
What is this? the rom baro had roared, discovering Kev huddled in a corner, crying, after he had beaten a boy who had begged him to stop. You pathetic, sniveling dog. I'll give you one of these- His booted foot had landed in Kev's side, bruising a rib-for every tear you shed. What kind of idiot would cry for winning? Crying after doing the only thing you're good for? I'll drive the softness out of you, big bawling infant- He hadn't stopped kicking Kev until he was unconscious.
The next time Kev had beaten someone, he had felt no guilt. He had felt nothing.
Kev wasn't aware that he'd frozen in his tracks, or that he was breathing heavily, until Rohan spoke to him softly.
Tearing his gaze away from the boys, Kev saw the compassion and sanity in the other man's eyes. The dark memories receded. Kev gave a short nod and followed.
Rohan stopped at two or three tents, asking the whereabouts of a woman named Shuri. The responses were grudging. As expected, the Roma regarded Rohan and Kev with obvious suspicion and curiosity. The Roma's dialect was difficult to interpret, a medley of deep Romany and what was called "tinker patois," a slang used by urban Gypsies.