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Bleak Midwinter

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At least the ground was dry, thought Clopin as he swung down from his wagon and his feet hit iron hard earth. The snow piled up over the tops of the rags stitched flimsily to worn leather he called shoes and dusted his hose almost to his knees, but it was powdery, so he wouldn't be wet through and worn out by the time their caravan was moving. Not that they weren't likely to be held up again; this was the third time today that the men had to dig his vardo out of a snowdrift that trapped its painted wooden wheels as securely as the iron shackles they'd been threatened with if they hadn't left the last town.

"Come on, old boy," he murmured to the tired old carthorse to which the wagon was hitched. Taking the bridle firmly in one gloved hand, with the other he offered the animal the withered apple that was to have been his own supper. As the horse chomped the fruit, two clouds puffed from its nostrils, forming a swirling fog with Clopin's breath has he spoke soothing words. "Clopin knows you do not like the snow any better than he does, but if you don't work a little harder, we will never get there, hm?"

"Get where?"

Clopin looked down in the direction the piping voice had come from and found a girl who had sneaked up on him with all the stealth of a skilled pickpocket--which she very likely was--and tugged at the tattered hem of his tunic. Nadya, her name was, and she was scrawny thing, like all the Romani children were--hell, like he was, and they called him their king. The only thing that separated him from this one of his subjects was that he wore shoes, while the little urchin's bare feet were tinged faintly blue below the dirt and grime that caked them. She didn't seem to mind, giggling as Clopin scooped her up in his wiry arms and plopped her unceremoniously onto the horse's back, but he had to put on a smile as if it were one of the vibrant masks he wore when he performed on the city streets.

"How bright you look in your red kerchief, Nadya!" He reached into his tunic with a practiced motion and drew out the puppet that was a miniature of himself, dressed in festival motley, slipped it onto his hand, and adopted his miniature's falsetto."Nadya? I thought she was a pretty little cardinal bird, hopping through the snow looking for worms."

Out the corner of his eye, Clopin noticed some of the other children hopping down from the other wagons that had stopped while their fathers helped dig his out of the snow and trudging to see his impromptu puppet show. A few of the adults, including the men digging his vardo out of the snow, watched, too.

Making a sound of disgust in his throat, Clopin rubbed his forehead between thumb and forefinger. "Why must I put up with such a silly boy as you? Have you ever seen a cardinal so big as this girl?"

"A rose, then!" cried the puppet. "Nadya is a rose who has decided to spring out of the ice and bloom for Christmas?"

Clopin sighed. "What color are the stems of roses, my foolish little one?"

"Er--"

"Green!" shouted Nadya and several of the children crowded around them.

"Clever children!" Clopin praised them. He lifted one of Nadya's dangling feet right up into the face of the puppet, which made the children shriek with laughter; the low chuckles of their parents provided a melodic counterpoint to the sound. "Do these toes look green to you?"

"Er--"

"Of course not," Clopin said. "They are blue."

The puppet gasped and covered his painted smile with his hands. "Blue? Oh no!"

"I know," said Clopin, clucking his tongue in mock disapproval, though he wanted to curse those men who had driven his people out of the last town without giving them the chance to earn the few coins to see their children shod. Men of God, indeed. More like men who fashioned God in their own monstrous images. "Everyone knows what a terrible faux pas these Frenchmen consider it when you arrive in one of their cities with blue toes."

The children squealed as he produced two strips of red cloth, seemingly from nowhere, but Nadya, who was to have them bundled round her feet to provided some bit of protection from the cold, stared at him with grave dark eyes.

"Which city?" she asked, whistling a little through the gap where one of her front teeth was missing. "Are we going to Egypt?"

"Egypt?" Clopin could not stop a bitter chuckle which formed a puff of steam in the air. "They think we come from Egypt, you know."

"They do?" said the puppet.

"That's why they call us Gypsies."

Clopin slipped the puppet off his hand, peeled off his gloves, and stuffed them through his belt. As the other children scampered through the snow, some pausing to fling it at each other on their way back to the relative warmth of their wagons, he did his best to chafe some warmth back into Nadya's feet. They were so icy to the touch, however, that he thought it more likely that his skin was simply absorbing her cold.

"Why do you think we go to Egypt, little one?" he asked Nadya, suddenly curious as he began to wrap the red cloth around her left foot.

"Because of the window."

"The window?" Rarely was Clopin stupid, but at the moment he felt as if he had no more brains than his puppet.

"When the king wanted to kill the baby, an angel told his mama and papa to go to Egypt so the baby would not be killed."

"Oooh," said Clopin as understanding dawned. "You saw the window in the church."

He'd seen it, too, the one depicting the Holy Virgin and St. Joseph's flight into Egypt from King Herod. His brows knitted together as he knotted the ends of the rag around Nadya's bony ankle.

"But who told you this story?" Clopin asked. "It is a gruesome one for a child."

No more gruesome than the reality of her life--his life-- in which soldiers armed with spears and villagers brandishing pitchforks and axes chased them from town and cursed them as thieves and charlatans and witches, under the aegis of those who claimed to serve the very Lord who had been driven from his home as a newborn babe in that bleak midwinter so long ago.

But his frown turned into a slight smile as he watched the poor child wiggle her feet, clearly delighted with her new red shoes. "No, Nadya, my little cardinal bird, little Christmas rose. We are not going to Egypt."

Though maybe they should. Clopin shivered as he watched Nadya scamper off through the snow, showing off her makeshift shoes to every child she encountered, declaring that the king himself had made them for her. He didn't know much about Egypt, but he was certain that it would be much warmer than where they were going.

At that moment, with the groan of toiling men and straining wooden wagon wheels and axels, the vardo broke free of its snowy shackles and lurched forward behind the whickering horse. Clopin scrambled up onto the driver's seat and flicked the reins to lead his people on in the opposite direction from Egypt. Hunched beneath his patched cloak, he calculated the distance they had already traveled and how much further there was for little Nadya to walk in her red rag shoes. Barring any more delays, they should be there by the sixth of January.

The Feast of Fools, he realized, sitting up a little straighter and whistling a little tune as the thought lightened his mood. Epiphany, the churchmen called the day.

The tune died on Clopin's lips as he was struck by an epiphany of his own. He placed little stock in religion himself, but like all Romani, he looked for signs wherever they were to be found. As the story went, before the Holy Family had fled murderous King Herod, three Magi from the Far East had visited them in their humble home and presented the child Jesus with costly gifts.

Gifts fit for a king.

Before adversity had come prosperity. Surely it signified nothing but luck that they should arrive in Paris just in time to mark that most blessed occasion.

Clopin flicked the reins and urged his horse a little faster through the field of snow, which glittered with every color that painted his wagon as the sun broke from behind a cloud. They had not been driven to Egypt--not yet. They would arrive in Paris in time for the day when outcasts were crowned kings.

For one day, at least, the winter would not be so bleak.