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Meridon

By Philippa Gregory

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Chapter 1

I don't belong here," I said to myself, before I even opened my eyes.

It was my morning ritual. To ward off the smell and the dirt and the fights and the noise of the day. To keep me in that bright green place in my mind, which had no proper name; I called it "Wide."

"I don't belong here," I said again. A dirty-faced fifteen-year-old girl frowsy-eyed from sleep, blinking at the hard gray light filtering through the grimy window. I looked up to the arched ceiling of the caravan, the damp sacking near my face as I lay on the top bunk; and then I glanced quickly to my left to the other bunk to see if Dandy was awake.

Dandy: my black-eyed black-haired, equally dirty-faced sister. Dandy, the lazy one, the liar, the thief.

Her eyes, dark as blackberries, twinkled at me.

"I don't belong here," I whispered once more to the dream world of Wide, which faded even as I called to it. Then I said aloud to Dandy:

"Getting up?"

"Did you dream of it -- Sarah?" she asked softly, calling me by my magic secret name. The name I knew from my dreams of Wide. The magic name I use in that magic land.

"Yes," I said, and I turned my face away from her to the stained wall and tried not to mind that Wide was just a dream and a pretense. That the real world was here. Here where they knew nothing of Wide, had never even heard of such a place. Where, except for Dandy, they would not call me Sarah as I had once asked. They had laughed at me and gone on calling me by my real name, Meridon.

"What did you dream?" Dandy probed. She was not cruel, but she was too curious to spare me.

"I dreamed I had a father, a great big fair-headed man and he lifted me up. High, high up onto his horse. And I rode before him, down a lane away from our house and past some fields. Then up a path which went higher and higher, and through a wood and out to the very top of the fields, and he pointed his horse to look back down the way we had come, and I saw our house: a lovely square yellow house, small as a toy-house on the green below us."

"Go on," said Dandy.

"Shut up, you two," a muffled voice growled in the half-light of the caravan. "It's still night."

"It ain't," I said, instantly argumentative. My father's dark, tousled head peered around the head of his bunk and scowled at me. "I'll strap you," he warned me. "Go to sleep."

I said not another word. Dandy waited, and in a few moments she said in a whisper so soft that our Da -- his head buried beneath the dirty blankets -- could not hear: "What then?"

"We rode home," I said, screwing my eyes tight to relive the vision of the little redheaded girl and the fair man and the great horse and the cool green of the arching beech trees over the drive. "And then he let me ride alone."

Dandy nodded, but she was unimpressed. We had both been on and around horses since we were weaned. And I had no words to convey the delight of the great strides of the horse in the dream.

"He was telling me how to ride," I said. My voice went quieter still, and my throat tightened. "He loved me," I said miserably. "He did. I could tell by the way he spoke to me. He was my Da -- but he loved me."

"And then?" said Dandy, impatient.

"I woke up," I said. "That was all."

"Didn't you see the house, or your clothes, or the food?" she asked, disappointed.

"No," I said. "Not this time."

"Oh," she said and was silent a moment. "I wish I could dream of it like you do," she said longingly. "T'aint fair."

A warning grunt from the bed made us lower our voices again.

"I wish I could see it," she said.

"You will," I promised. "It is a real place. It is real somewhere. I know that somewhere it is a real place. And we will both be there, someday."

"Wide," she said. "It's a funny name."

"That's not the whole name," I said cautiously. "Not quite Wide. Maybe it's something-Wide. I never hear it clear enough. I listen and I listen but I'm never quite sure of it. But it's a real place. It is real somewhere. And it's where I belong."

I lay on my back and looked at the stains on the sacking roof of the caravan and smelled the stink of four people sleeping close with no windows open, the acid smell of stale urine from last night's pot.

"It's real somewhere," I said to myself. "It has to be."

There were three good things in my life, that dirty painful life of a gypsy child with a father who cared nothing for her, and a stepmother who cared less. There was Dandy, my twin sister -- as unlike me as if I were a changeling. There were the horses we trained and sold. And there was the dream of Wide.

If it had not been for Dandy I think I would have run away as soon as I was old enough to leave. I would have upped and gone, run off to one of the sleepy little villages in the New Forest in that hot summer of 1805 when I was fifteen. That was the summer I turned on Da and stood up to him for the first time ever.

We had been breaking a pony to sell as a lady's ride. I said the horse was not ready for a rider. Da swore she was. He was wrong. Anyone but an idiot could have seen that the horse was nervy and half-wild. But Da had put her on the lunge rein two or three times and she had gone well enough. He wanted to put me up on her. He didn't waste his breath asking Dandy to do it. She would have smiled one of her sweet slow smiles and disappeared off for the rest of the day with a hunk of bread and a rind of cheese in her pocket. She'd come back in the evening with a dead chicken tucked in her shawl, so there was never a beating for Dandy.

But he ordered me up on the animal. A half-wild, half-foolish foal too young to be broke, too frightened to be ridden.

"She's not ready," I said, looking at the flaring nostrils and the rolling whites of her eyes and smelling that special acrid smell of fearful sweat.

"She'll do," Da said. "Get up on her."

I looked at Da, not at the horse. His dark eyes were red-rimmed, the stubble on his chin stained his face blue. The red kerchief at his neck showed bright against his pallor. He had been drinking last night and I guessed he felt ill. He had no patience to stand in the midday sunshine with a skittish pony on a lunge rein.

"I'll lunge her," I offered. "I'll train her for you."

"You'll ride her, you cheeky dog," he said to me harshly. "No whelp tells me how to train a horse."

"What's the hurry?" I asked, backing out of arm's reach. Da had to hold the horse and could not grab me.

"I got a buyer," he said. "A farmer at Beaulieu wants her for his daughter. But he wants her next week for her birthday or summat. So she's got to be ready for then."

"I'll lunge her," I offered again. "I'll work her all day, and tomorrow or the day after I'll get up on her."

"You get up now," he said harshly. Then he raised his voice and yelled: "Zima!" and my stepmother came out into the sunshine from the gloomy caravan. "Hold 'er," he said nodding at the horse and she jumped down from the caravan step, and went past me without a word.

"I want summat inside the wagon," he said under his breath and I stood aside like a fool to let him go past me. But as soon as he was near he grabbed me with one hard grimy hand and twisted my arm behind my back so hard that I could hear the bone creak and I squeaked between clenched teeth for the pain.

"Get up on 'er," he said softly in my ear, his breath foul. "Or I'll beat you till you can't ride 'er, nor any other for a week."

I jerked away from him: sullen, ineffective. And I scowled at my stepmother, who stood picking her teeth with her free hand and watching this scene. She had never stood between me and him in my life. She had seen him beat me until I went down on my knees and cried and cried for him to stop. The most she had ever done for me was to tell him to stop because the noise of my sobbing was disturbing her own baby. I felt that I was utterly unloved, utterly uncared for; and that was no foolish girl's fear. That was the bitter truth.

"Get up," Da said again, and came to the horse's head.

I looked at him with a gaze as flinty as his own. "I'll get up and she'll throw me," I said. "You know that, so do I. And then I'll get on her again and again and again. We'll never train her like that. If you had as much brains inside you as you have beer, you'd let me train her. Then at least we'd have a sweet-natured animal to show this farmer. The way you want to do it we'll show him a whipped idiot."

I had never spoken to him like that before. My voice was steady but my belly quivered with fright at my daring.

He looked at me for a long hard moment.

"Get up," he said. Nothing had changed.

I waited for one moment, in case I had a chance, or even half a chance, to win my way in this. His face was flinty-hard, and I was only a young girl. I met his gaze for a moment. He could see the fight go out of me.

I checked he was holding the horse tight at the head and then I turned and gripped hold of the saddle and sprang up.

As soon as she felt the weight of me on her back she leaped like a mountain goat, stiff-legged sideways, and stood there trembling like a leaf with the shock. Then, as if she had only waited to see that it was not some terrible nightmare, she reared bolt upright to her full height, dragging the reins from Da's hands. Da, like a fool, let go -- as I had known all along he would -- and there was nothing then to control the animal except the halter around her neck. I clung on like a limpet, gripping the pommel of the saddle while she went like a sprinting bullock -- alternately head down and hooves up bucking, and then standing high on her hind legs and clawing the air with her front hooves in an effort to be rid of me. There was nothing in the world to do but to cling on like grim death and hope that Da would be quick enough to catch the trailing reins and get the animal under control before I came off. I saw him coming toward the animal and he was quite close. But the brute wheeled with an awkward sideways shy which nearly unseated me. I was off-balance and grabbing for the pommel of the saddle to get myself into the middle of her back again when she did one of her mighty rears and I went rolling backward to the hard ground below.

I bunched up as I fell, in an instinctive crouch, fearing the flailing hooves. I felt the air whistle as she kicked out over my head, but she missed by an inch and galloped away to the other side of the field. Da, cursing aloud, went after her, running past me without even a glance in my direction to see how I fared.

I sat up. My stepmother, Zima, looked at me without interest.

I got wearily to my feet. I was shaken but not hurt except for the bruises on my back where I had hit the ground. Da had hold of the reins and was whipping the poor animal around the head while she reared and screamed in protest. I watched stony-faced. You'd never catch me wasting sympathy on a horse which had thrown me. Or on anything else.

"Get up," he said without looking around for me.

I walked up behind him and looked at the horse. She was a pretty enough animal, half New Forest, half some bigger breed. Dainty, with a bright bay-colored coat which glowed in the sunlight. Her mane and tail were black, coarse and knotted now, but I would wash her before the buyer came. I saw that Dad had whipped her near the eye and a piece of the delicate eyelid was bleeding slightly.

"You fool," I said in cold disgust. "Now you've hurt her, and it'll show when the buyer comes."

"Don't you call me a fool, my girl," he said rounding on me, the whip still in his hands. "Another word out of you and you get a beating you won't forget. I've had enough from you for one day. Now get up on that horse and stay on this time."

I looked at him with the blank insolence which I knew drove him into mindless temper with me. I pushed the tangled mass of my copper-colored hair away from my face and I stared at him with my green eyes as inscrutable as a cat. I saw his hand tighten on the whip and I smiled at him, delighting in my power, even if it lasted for no more than this one morning.

"And who'd ride her then?" I taunted. "I don't see you getting up on an unbroke horse. And Zima couldn't get on a donkey with a ladder against its side. There's no one who can ride her but me. And I don't choose to this morning. I'll do it this afternoon."

With that, I turned on my heel and walked away from him, swaying my hips in as close an imitation of my stepmother's languorous slink as I could manage. Done by a skinny fifteen-year-old in a skirt which barely covered her calves, it was far from sensual. But it spoke volumes of defiance to my Da, who let out a great bellow of rage and dropped the horse's reins to come after me.

He spun me around and shook me until my hair fell over my eyes and I could hardly see his red angry face.

"You'll do as I order or I'll throw you out!" he said in utter rage. "You'll do as I order or I'll beat you as soon as the horse is sold. You'd better remember that I am as ready to beat you tomorrow night as I am today. I have a long memory for you."

I shook my head to get the hair out of my eyes, and to clear my mind. I was only fifteen and I could not hold onto courage against Da when he started bullying me. My shoulders slumped and my face lost its arrogance. I knew he would remember this defiance if I did not surrender now. I knew that he would beat me -- not only when the horse was sold, but again every time he remembered it.

"All right," I said sullenly. "All right. I'll ride her."

Together we cornered her in the edge of the field and this time he held tighter on to the reins when I was on her back. I stayed on a little longer but again and again she threw me. By the time Dandy was home with a vague secretive smile and a rabbit stolen from someone else's snare dangling from her hand, I was in my bunk covered with bruises, my head thudding with the pain of falling over and over again.

She brought me a plate of rabbit stew where I lay.

"Come on out," she invited. "He's all right, he's drinking. And he's got some beer for Zima too, so she's all right. Come on out and we can go down to the river and swim later. That'll help your bruising."

"No," I said sullenly. "I'm going to sleep. I don't want to come out and I don't care whether he's fair or foul. I hate him. I wish he was dead. And stupid Zima too. I'm staying here, and I'm going to sleep."

Dandy stretched up so that she could reach me in the top bunk and nuzzled her face against my cheek. "Hurt bad?" she asked softly.

"Bad on the outside and bad inside," I said, my voice low. "I wish he was dead. I'll kill him myself when I'm bigger."

Dandy stroked my forehead with her cool dirty hand. "And I'll help you," she said with a ripple of laughter in her voice. "The Ferenz family are nearby; they're going down to the river to swim. Come too, Meridon!"

I sighed. "Not me," I said. "I'm too sore, and angry. Stay with me, Dandy."

She brushed the bruise on my forehead with her lips. "Nay," she said sweetly. "I'm away with the Ferenz boys. I'll be back at nightfall."

I nodded. There was no keeping Dandy if she wanted to be out.

"Will you have to ride tomorrow?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. "And the next day. The farmer's coming for the horse on Sunday. She's got to be ridable by then. But I pity his daughter!"

In the half-light of the caravan I saw Dandy's white teeth gleam.

"Is it a bad horse?" she asked, a careless ripple of amusement in her voice.

"It's a pig," I said plainly. "I'll be able to stay on it, but the little Miss Birthday Girl will likely break her neck the first time she tries to ride."

We chuckled spitefully.

"Don't quarrel with him tomorrow," Dandy urged me. "It only makes him worse. And you'll never win."

"I know," I said dully. "I know I'll never win. But I can't keep quiet like you. But as soon as I can I'm going. As soon as I can see somewhere to go, I'm going."

"And I'll come too," Dandy said, repeating a long-ago promise. "But don't make him angry tomorrow. He said he'd beat you if you do."

"I'll try not," I said with little hope, and handed my empty plate to her. Then I turned my face away from her, from the shady caravan and the twilit doorway. I turned my face to the curved wall at the side of my bunk and gathered the smelly pillow under my face. I shut my eyes tight and wished myself far away. Far away from the aches in my body and from the dread and fear in my mind. From my disgust at my father and my hatred of Zima. From my helpless impotent love for Dandy and my misery at my own hopeless, dirty, poverty-stricken existence.

I shut my eyes tight and thought of myself as the copper-headed daughter of the squire who owned Wide. I thought of the trees reflected in the waters of the trout river. I thought of the house and the roses growing so creamy and sweet in the gardens outside the house. As I drifted into sleep I willed myself to see the dining room with the fire flickering in the hearth and the pointy flames of the candles reflected in the great mahogany table, and the servants in livery bringing in dish after dish of food. My eternally hungry body ached at the thought of all those rich, creamy dishes. But as I fell asleep, I was smiling.

The next day he was not bad from the drink so he was quicker to the horse's head, and held her tighter. I stayed on for longer, and for at least two falls I landed on my feet, sliding off her to first one side and then the other and avoiding that horrid nerve-jolting slump onto hard ground.

He nodded at me when we stopped for our dinner -- the remains of the rabbit stew watered down as soup, and a hunk of old bread.

"Will you be able to stay on her for long enough tomorrow?"

"Yes," I said confidently. "Will we be moving off the next day?"

"That same night!" Da said carelessly. "I know that horse will never make a lady's ride. She's vicious."

I held my peace. I knew well enough that she had been a good horse when we first had her. If she had been carefully and lovingly trained, Da would have made a good sale to a Quality home. But he was only ever chasing a quick profit. He had seen a man who wanted a quiet ride for his little girl's birthday, and next thing he was breaking from scratch a two-year-old wild pony. It was coarse stupidity; and it was that doltish chasing after tiny profits which angered me the most.

"She's not trained to sidesaddle," was all I said.

"No," said Da. "But if you wash your face and get Zima to plait your hair you can go astride and still look like a novice girl. If he sees you on her -- and you mind not to come off! -- he'll buy her."

I nodded, and pulled a handful of grass to wipe out my bowl. I had sucked and spat out a scrap of gristle, and I tossed it to the scrawny lurcher tied under the wagon. He snapped at it and took it with him back into the shadow. The hot midday sun made red rings when I closed my eyelids and lay back on the mown grass to feel the heat.

"Where d'we go next?" I asked idly.

"Salisbury," Da said without hesitation. "Lot of money to be made there. I'll buy a couple of ponies on the way. There's a fair in early September as well -- that idle Zima and Dandy can do some work for once in their lives."

"No one poaches as well as Dandy," I said instantly.

"She'll get herself hanged," he said without gratitude and without concern. "She thinks all she has to do is to roll her black eyes at the keeper and he'll take her home and give her sweetmeats. She won't always get away with that as she gets older. He'll have her, and if she refuses he'll take her to the justices."

I sat up, instantly alert. "They'd send her to prison?" I demanded.

Da laughed harshly. "They'd send us all to prison; aye, and to Australey if they could catch us. The gentry is against you, my girl. Every one of them, however fair-spoken, however kind-seeming. I've been the wrong side of the park walls all my life. I've seen them come and seen them go -- and never a fair chance for travelers."

I nodded. It was an old theme for Da. He was most pitiful when he was in his cups on this topic. He was a tinker: a no-good pedlar-cum-thief when he had met my Ma. She had been pure Romany, traveling with her family. But her man was dead, and she had us twin babies to provide for. She believed him when he boasted of a grand future and married him, against the advice of her own family and without their blessing. He could have joined the family and traveled with them. But Da had big ideas. He was going to be a great horse dealer. He was going to buy an inn. He was going to run a livery stable, to train as a master brewer. One feckless scheme after another until they were travelers in the poorest wagon she had ever called home. And then she was pregnant with another child.

I remember her dimly, pale and fat, and too weary to play with us. She sickened; she had a long and lonely labor. Then she died, crying to Da to bury her in the way of her people, the Rom way with her goods burned the night of her death. He did not know how; he did not care. He burned a few token scraps of clothing and sold the rest. He gave Dandy a comb of hers, and he gave me an old dirty piece of string with a gold clasp at each end. He told me it had once held rose-colored pearls.

Where she got them Da had never known. She had brought them to him as her dowry and he had sold each one until there was nothing left but the string. One gold latch was engraved with the word I had been told was John. I could not read myself. The other was inscribed Celia. He would have sold the gold clasps if he had dared. Instead he gave them to me with an odd little grimace.

"You have the right," he said. "She always said it was for you, and not for Dandy. I'll sell the gold clasps for you, and you can keep the string."

I remember my dirty hand had closed tight over it.

"I want it," I had said.

"I'll split the money with you," he had said winningly. "Sixty:forty?"

"No," I said.

"That's enough to buy a sugar bun," he said as if to clinch the deal. My stomach rumbled but I held firm.

"No," I said. "Who are John and Celia?"

He had shrugged, shifty. "I don't know," he had said. "Maybe folks your Ma knew. You have a right to the necklace. She always told me to be sure to give it to you. Now I've done that. A promise made to the dead has to be kept. She told me to give it to you and to bid you keep it safe, and to show it when anyone came seeking you. When anyone asked who you were."

"Who am I?" I had demanded instantly.

"A damned nuisance," he said, his good temper gone with his chance to trick the gold clasp from me. "One of a pair of brats that I'm saddled with till I can be rid of you both."

It would not be long now, I thought, sucking on a grass stem for the sweet green taste of it. It would not be long now until he would be able to be rid of us. That conversation had happened a long time ago, but Da had never changed his mind about us. He never acknowledged how much meat Dandy provided for the pot. He never realized that his horses would have been half-wild if I had not had the knack of riding them. Not he. The selfishness which made it easy for him to take on a woman with two small babies at the breast and no way to keep her save a cartload of foolish dreams now made it easy for him to plan to sell us to the highest bidder. Whatever the terms.

I knew Dandy would end up whoring. Her black brazen eyes twinkled too readily. If we had been with a gypsy family, traveling with kin, there would have been an early betrothal and early childbirth for Dandy, and a man to keep her steady. But here there was no one. There was only Da, who cared nothing for what she might do. And Zima, who laughed lazily and said that Dandy would be streetwalking by the time she was sixteen. Only I heard that feckless prophecy with a shudder. And only I swore that it should not happen. I would keep Dandy safe from it.

Not that she feared it. Dandy was vain and affectionate. She thought it would mean fine clothes and dancing and attention from men. She could not wait to be fully grown, and she used to insist I inspect the conical shapes of her breasts every time we swam or changed our clothes and tell her if they were not growing exceedingly lovely. Dandy looked at life with lazy laughing eyes and could not believe that things would not go well for her. But I had seen the whores at Southampton, and at Portsmouth. And I had seen the sores on their mouths and the blank looks in their eyes. I would rather Dandy had been a pickpocket all her days -- as she was now -- than a whore. I would rather Dandy be anything than a whore.

"It's just because you hate being touched," she said idly to me when the wagon was on the road toward Salisbury for the fair. She was lying on her side in the bunk combing her hair, which tumbled like a black shiny waterfall over the side of the bunk. "You're as nervy as one of your wild ponies. I'm the only one you ever let near you, and you won't even let me plait your hair."

"I don't like it," I said inadequately. "I can't stand Da pulling me on to his knee when he's drunk. Or the way Zima's baby sucks at my neck or at my face. It gives me the shivers. I just like having space around me. I hate being crowded."

She nodded. "I'm like a cat," she said idly. "I love being stroked. I don't even mind Da when he's gentle. He gave me a halfpenny last night."

I gave a little muffled grunt of irritation. "He never gave me a thing," I complained. "And he'd never have sold that horse on his own. The farmer only bought it because he saw me ride it. And if it hadn't been for me Da would never have trained it."

"Better hope the farmer's daughter is a good rider," Dandy said with a chuckle in her voice. "Will she throw her?"

"Bound to," I said indifferently. "If the man hadn't been an idiot he'd have seen that I was only keeping her steady by luck, and the fact that she was bone-weary."

"Well, it's put him in good humor," Dandy said. We could hear Da muttering the names of cards to himself over and over, practicing palming cards and dealing cards as the caravan jolted on the muddy road. Zima was sitting up front beside him. She had left her baby asleep on Dandy's bunk, anchored by Dandy's foot pressing lightly on his fat belly.

"Maybe he'll give us a penny for fairings," I said without much hope.

Dandy gleamed. "I'll get you a penny," she promised. "I'll get us sixpence and we'll run off all night and buy sweetmeats and see the booths."

I smiled at the prospect and then rolled over to face the rocking caravan wall. I was still bruised from my falls and as weary as a drunken trooper from the day and night training of the pony. And I had that strange, detached feeling which I often felt when I was going to dream of Wide. We would be a day and a half on the road, and unless Da made me drive the horse there was nothing I had to do. There were hours of journeying, and nothing to do. Dandy might as well comb her hair over and over. And I might as well sleep and doze and daydream of Wide. The caravan would go rocking, rocking, rocking down the muddy lanes and byways and then on the harder high road to Salisbury. And there was nothing to do except look out of the back window at the road narrowing away behind us. Or lie on the bunk and chat to Dandy. Between dinner and nightfall Da would not stop, the jolting creaking caravan would roll onward. There was nothing for me to do except to wish I was at Wide; and to wonder how I would ever get myself, and Dandy, safely away from Da.

Copyright © 1990 by Philippa Gregory Ltd.

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