That night they pitched camp on the outskirts of the Italian city of Cremona. They did not enter the town for they would have likely been run out of it. Cremona cannot abide gypsies.
The next day they were off at the crack of dawn. They forded the River Serio and then the River Po at Piacenza. They followed the southern bank of this river as it coursed its way through the Plains of Lombardy.
They were seen by many people but did not receive any trouble. They kept to their business and were thus left along. By nightfall, they reached the city of Allesandria where they veered southward until they came upon the town of Novi Ligure, which sat on the foothills of the Ligurian Apennines. On the other side of these six thousand foot peaks was Genoa.
Here at Novi Ligure they made camp. The proposition that they were a day away from Genoa did much to lift Pappy’s sagging spirits. Once they reached that port city and secure themselves a vessel, it would only be a matter of days before they find themselves in Portugal.
Today’s date was December the eighth. That left him a little more than two weeks to recover the emeralds somewhere in Castelo Branco and make for the Portuguese beach along the Atlantic Ocean. The time factor was becoming crucial but the gypsy leader assured Pappy that they were not too badly behind schedule. With a little elfin luck they could be sitting upon the Portuguese coast a day or two waiting for that magic time when two comets appear in the sky.
“But,” the gypsy leader said, “To get to Genoa we must now make a decision. We could set a westerly course until we hit the pass north of Savona. This will take us fifty miles out of the way. However, by going this route we avoid having to cross the Apennines and maybe we could even be so fortunate as to find a vessel in Savona to take us to Portugal. This may not be likely but we can always backtrack our way along the coast to Genoa and get our boat there.
“Our other choice is to cut across the mountains. This will be thirty miles as the crow flies but the terrain is treacherous and our progress could likely be impeded by any number of things.”
Pappy looked at Enrico and asked the Frenchman what he thought. Enrico said that he had never been in this part of the world before and had no way of estimating the danger that the Ligurian Apennines represented.
“But,” he continued. “If we follow the route to Savona our chances are increased that we will encounter hostile forces. If we stay to the highlands and the inaccessible regions the only forces that we will have to endure would be natural. These mountains cannot be any worse than the Bavarian Alps and we have already mastered them.”
“And what do you think?” Pappy asked the gypsy leader.
“I agree with the Frenchman that the odds of meeting those who seek to oppose us are lower if we trek across the mountains but I must admit that I am somewhat leery of going across the rugged terrain. The Apennines may not be as lofty as the Alps but their slopes are every bit as tricky. In the end what does it matter if you fall six thousand feet or ten thousand feet? You die in either case. I cannot make a recommendation one way or the other. Both roads are not easy. Since this is essentially your mission Elfling the decision has to be yours. My people and I will abide with your choice no matter which one you choose.”
Pappy looked to Enrico and then to Talla. Talla Bobbs shrugged and said, “If it were up to me I would take the low road only because it would be easier for Quest, not saying that a horse’s well-being should matter much in your decision.”
Quest was grazing upon a patch of grass. He seemed oblivious to what was happening around him. Pappy looked at the horse’s hooves and saw that they were considerably worn. He might not have the agility to deal with slippery slopes. He had been a good horse and even Pappy had begun to admire him.
“We shall take the road to Savona,” Pappy announced. The horse’s well-being was at the crux of his decision.
Talla rubbed Quest’s long mane and winked at Pappy. If nobody else understood, Talla did. Elves have a special childlike affinity for animals. And Talla Bobbs seemed to be more of a sucker for a cute face than other elves. Quest was becoming the old elf’s best friend. Pappy wondered how Talla would take it once they reached Genoa and found themselves a vessel. They would almost certainly have to leave the horse behind.
Camp was set up with the same quickness and precision that it had been on the other nights in Cremona and Lake Garda. Novi Ligure had many hills surrounding it. The crests of these hillocks were capped in snow, which served to remind the company that winter also rears its frosty head in these southern climes.
As Pappy surveyed the mountains his attention became directed toward small swift dark figures gliding across the snowcaps. He squinted his eyes to compensate for the failing light. He brought these darting figures into fine elfin focus. They were children scooting down the snow on wooden sleds. Pappy could not help but smile as he remembered his youthful days frolicking in the first snowfalls of winter in Woodhaven.
He pointed the children out to the others but none had his keen eyesight and none could be stirred into a sense of frivolity over it.
“It’s reckless!” the gypsy leader groaned. “The children are asking for broken legs gallivanting on racing sleds in the dark.”
This caused another of the gypsies to remark that the leader should know. He had fractured his own leg doing the same thing except when the leader did it he was not a child. He was a grown man.
The leader smirked and said that just because he had been a fool does not mean that the children should behave as fools as well.
Pappy continued to watch the children and felt his heart go light. He imagined that it was him up there with his three sons, Ho, Hum and Kiddo – all of them being free spirits, enjoying the singing wind at their faces as they pummeled devilishly down the snowy slopes.
Most of the gypsies were beginning to tire and instead of singing at the campfire, like they did on other nights, they were falling asleep – some even before they could lie down. Today had been an exhausting walk. Talla had nodded off, his pillow being the warm flank of Quest who was lying supine. In minutes, everybody was sleeping – everybody but Pappy.
He just could not get sluggish. The sight of those playing children had aroused something in him that nullified any desire for sleep. He tossed and turned and was feeling all the more restless because of it. He could hear the children upon the hill, their singsong laughter setting the sprite within Pappy afire.
At length, he gave up on trying to sleep. He had determined that for tonight at least he was not going to be the grim little traveler that he had been for so long. Tonight was going to be his night for laughter.
He stole out of the camp and made his way toward the hillside. As he ambled up the grassy slope, he could see the town of Novi Ligure lit up with the celebratory candles of the Advent. It reminded him so much of home and he could imagine all those cozy hearths adding warmth to already warm families. Inside those homes, mothers and fathers would be telling their children stories of that first Christmas over eighteen hundred years ago. Someone might be playing a piano with its notes rejoicing in the celestial praise of the season. A dog may be curled up on the mat by the door. ‘Ah, home life!’ Pappy sighed. He continued up the slope and soon his feet were making tracks in fine powdery snow.
Ten minutes later Pappy was at the bottom of the toboggan run. A sled whizzed by him, its riders so wrapped in their frenzied joy that they were not aware of the diminutive figure that they passed.
Pappy climbed to the top of the run. A handful of toboggans went by him. He could see the children’s bright eyes and their rosy cheeks and their mouths held wide in mirth. And Pappy laughed. It was doing his heart a world of good to be among children again.
He reached the top. There was a long toboggan being boarded by two little girls and two little boys. There was enough room at the rear of the sled for one more rider. Pappy looked about and saw that that position was not going to be filled by anybody else.
The children’s feet were gouging into the snow giving the sled propulsion. In a few seconds it would be a wildcat racing down the slope. Pappy saw this as his opportunity to get a ride. He hobbled to the toboggan and hopped on just before it had enough momentum to start its daredevil course.
The elf was charged with eldritch élan as the toboggan rattled its laminated long boards against the snow-covered ground. The children in front of him were screaming with delight. The air whistled in his ears. The pores of his face opened wide to relish the tantalizing wind. His elfin derriere was the only thing about him that was not resounding with pleasure. He had forgotten how rough and tumble a sled ride could be on the old tush.
Then the toboggan cruised onto the side of a mound and pitched over, tossing its riders into the cold powder.
Everybody got up laughing – including Pappy. He rubbed his hind-side to get the blood circulating there again. The other children were gathering up the toboggan and began their way up the hill again. One youngster looked at him and must have not noticed that his was a strange face for he said, “Aren’t you coming?”
Pappy giggled and replied, “Of course!”
He went down that hill with those children five times and each run was exhilarating and as riotous as the first. These young residents of Novi Ligure must have assumed that he was just another kid from town. It was an easy mistake to make because in this group of five Pappy was the second smallest and despite his red beard, he had a young face. Maybe the kids thought his beard was a scarlet scarf for nobody seemed to notice it.
They had just finished their fifth run and were walking back up the hillock when the girl beside him asked, “How come I have never seen you before?”
Pappy shrugged and said that he was new to these parts.
“But today was a school day. I didn’t see you in class.”
“I don’t go to school,” Pappy laughed.
“Almost every kid in town goes to school. It’s only the Macri girls that don’t go because their Mama says that a girl’s place is at home and not at school. Mrs. Macri says girls should learn only sewing and cooking and not science and arithmetic,” the little girl said through huffing breaths.
“Mrs. Macri doesn’t know that science and arithmetic are important to everything including cooking and sewing. In sewing you have to count the number of stitches that you make. You have to use a brand of mathematics called calculus to know how to thread a needle. You have to know how much heat it takes to boil water and to roast a beef. You have to know how to add your ingredients so that you can make your soufflé and your cake,” Pappy explained as he chugged along side of the girl.
“How do you know so much if you don’t go to school?” the little girl piped.
“I don’t go to school now but at one time I did. I’m what you call a graduate because I finished school.”
The girl’s eyes rolled back. She must have thought Pappy was kidding her because she rebuffed, “You can’t be finished school because you are still just a kid.”
“I wish I was!” Pappy laughed. “But I’m afraid that I’m not. I am a grown-up.”
“I’m bigger than you so how could you be a grown-up?”
“You and I are different people … ah … what’s your name?”
“Katrina. What’s yours?”
“That’s a nice name. It does not sound Italian though. Is it French?”
“No, Katrina, it is not French,” Pappy said. He felt stung at the mention of the French for he knew that this evening would only be a momentary lapse from his long ordeal that he was sure would involve the French again.
“It sounds French,” Katrina said. “It sounds like the name of the French officer quartered at our house. His name is Marc.”
“Why do you have a French soldier living at your house Katrina?” Pappy asked.
“You are new around here, aren’t you?” Katrina laughed. “Don’t you have a Frenchman staying at your house? I thought that every family in Novi Ligure was helping in housing the Emperor’s army.”
“The Emperor’s army is here? In Novi Ligure?”
Katrina gave Pappy a look if he had just said the stupidest thing that anybody could say. “Where have you been Merek? The army’s been stationed here for almost a week now!”
Pappy felt his skin flush. “Why are they here?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m just a little girl but my Mama says that there are going to be more soldiers coming. I think that she said that they are coming from Savona and that from here they are going to go north to Bavaria. That’s a long way away. I’d hate to have to be a soldier and have to walk that far. I’m half-tired already from just climbing this hill. They have hundreds of hills to climb to go to Bavaria!”
“Yes, I am tired too!” Pappy admitted. Suddenly the exhaustion that he should have been feeling earlier this evening hit him like a ton of bricks.
“I think I am going to go home now Katrina. I am too tired.”
“No, come on Merek! Just one more ride! Please!” The little girl took his arm and gave a pleading expression to him.
“No, I’m sorry, Katrina. I have to get going now.”
“Will you be here tomorrow night? My Mama says that there is going to be a lot more snow tomorrow. There’s a blizzard coming down out of France.”
“Yeah, I know,” Pappy muttered. In his mind he envisioned snowflakes as large as men and wearing the imperial colors of France. “I don’t think that I will be here tomorrow night, Katrina.”
“But you will be here again, won’t you?”
If Pappy didn’t know better he would have thought that this little girl may have been smitten by him.
“No, I’m afraid not. I’m sorry Katrina but I am just passing through.”
All of a sudden Katrina’s face turned bitter. “You’re with them, aren’t you?”
“Those gypsies who came into town tonight.”
Merek felt tense. He had to leave this girl as soon as possible. “You saw gypsies come into town tonight?” he answered as innocently as he could.
“Everybody did. We don’t like gypsies around here. Mama said that gypsies are evil people. They steal little children away from their parents!”
“If your Mammy feels that way then why did she allow you to go out and play tonight when the thieving gypsies are around?”
“She wasn’t going to until Marc, our French billet, told her everything was going to be all right. He said that around midnight he and some of the other soldiers are going to drive those gypsies away.”
Midnight? Pappy looked up into the sky and was hoping to be able to judge the time by the position of the constellations. It was an overcast night, however – not even the moon was able to shine through.
“I’ve got to get going now Katrina,” he said with urgency. “It was nice meeting you. I wish you and your family a very merry Christmas.”
Pappy did not wait for Katrina to bestow the same wishes upon him. He began running down the hill. Midnight could not be too far away. He had to warn his company. They had to get moving at once. If Enrico’s childhood encounter with gypsies was typical for these kinds of soirees then a very ugly meeting might be brewing.
He heard something whizzing behind him. He turned and just in time saw a toboggan filled with children coming at him. He leaped out of the way as the toboggan flashed past. He began running once more but now he grew aware that his name was being called.
Katrina was following him. He stopped and allowed the little girl to catch up to him. “Katrina, I told you that I was going!” He tried to make his voice as cross as possible.
“I’m going with you!” the girl cried desperately.
“Why?” Pappy pondered out loud.
“I want to see where you live.”
It was obvious that the girl was indeed infatuated with him. It was a danger that an elf comes across now and then if he encounters human children. Little boys and little girls develop paternal and maternal instincts towards elves the same way that they do for puppy dogs, kitty cats, and bunny rabbits.
Pappy tried to be empathetic toward the girl. He did not want to destroy her feelings but he had hardly the time to be tactful. It was either her feelings being hurt or his company being attacked. She would be able to survive it but his friends may not.
“Katrina,” he said, “You are a very nice girl and I wish that I could go sleigh-riding with you every night but it just can’t be so. Now please, let me go because I am in a big hurry.”
The little girl’s eyes glistened with tears. “But all I want to do is see where you live! What is wrong with that?”
Pappy grimaced. He could not tarry about with this child. “I don’t live anywhere around here. I come from a land far, far away where all the people are little like me. I wish that I can take you there but I can’t even go there myself.”
“Why not Merek?”
“It is a long story that I just don’t have the time to tell you. Now please let me go and you go home to your Mama and Papa. I’m sure that they are worried about you. Goodbye sweet Katrina!” He patted her on the head and then he dashed off. He could hear her crying his name behind him but he could not wait any longer.
A few minutes later he descended into the gypsy camp. There were two fires going but nobody was awake. He spotted the leader lying as close to the fire as you could get without your clothes beginning to smoke. Pappy shook the burly gypsy awake and tried as coherently as his excited state would allow to explain what he had discovered.
“We’re sleeping in the lion’s mouth!” the leader cried and was on his feet at once, kicking the others awake. In a few seconds the quiet slumbering camp had become a hurly burly of confusion and commotion. Word spread around fast about their predicament. Everybody gathered up their things as swiftly as they could.
Pappy aroused Talla and tried to tell the tired old elf that he would have to get his sleep another time. Talla’s eyes were rather blank and as he got up he began spitting profusely, complaining that his head was as sore as raw skin in leather.
“You’ll get your chance to sleep later, Talla, I promise you,” Pappy sighed.
The horse, Quest, was being loaded with supplies by some of the men. The gypsy leader saw this and knocked the load off. “We can’t take the horse!” he rasped.
“Why?” Talla burst out.
Pappy explained about what he had learned about the French army coming up from Savona. The gypsy company would not be able to take that road. They were being forced to opt for the high road, the treacherous trail over the Ligure Apennines to Genoa. They would have to make haste for it was possible that the lynch mob from Novi Ligure would follow them. Quest would only be an encumbrance to them. “The horse has done enough for us. He deserves to retire in peace.” Pappy hoped that Talla would understand although that was hoping against a sunrise.
To Pappy’s surprise, Talla did not seem so reticent about the idea. He did not put up any vehement protests and rather dully accepted the bitter and lamentable news.
Something seemed slightly different about Talla. He was somehow not the same Talla Bobbs that had fallen asleep on his horse’s flank a couple of hours ago. Perhaps, it was that Talla was still groggy and not fully returned to his senses. The old elf walked off to stand on his own.
Five minutes later, everything was packed and everybody was set to make flight. They were going to leave Quest tied to a tree so that he would not follow them. They hoped that villager and not a soldier would take him as a possession.
The company was all set to move when they saw a figure descend down the valley towards them. Several of the gypsies and Enrico drew weapons but Pappy told them to put them away. The figure coming down towards them was little Katrina.
The girl pointed a finger at Pappy and cried, “You are one of them! You are a gypsy!” A light snow was beginning to fall. Her long dark tresses were frosted.
“Katrina, I told you not to follow me!” Pappy said aloud over the grumbling of the men in his company.
“Well I did!” Katrina said defiantly, her eyes flicking back and forth watching for any sudden move by any of the men.
The gypsy leader said to Pappy, “Merek, let’s get going.”
“Katrina, you should not have followed me. It is a very dangerous night.”
“Not for me, it isn’t!” she said. “I just saw a whole horde of torches coming out of the town. The French soldiers will be here soon!”
There was a near panic in the men. The gypsy leader tried to calm them. “Merek, we have got to get going at once! We’re all too fatigued to put up a fight!”
“I just wanted to tell you that they were coming,” Katrina said with tears in her eyes. “I don’t want them to kill you Merek!”
Pappy was moved and thanked the girl and said that they couldn’t delay any longer. And then just as the company began to move, an idea came to Pappy’s head. He said to the girl, “Do you see that horse? It is yours. His name is Quest.”
Katrina started to cry. “I can’t take your horse. You need him Merek to get away!”
“No, no Katrina. He is yours. Where we are going will be far too rough for poor Quest. He deserves a nice peaceful field where he can graze to his heart’s content. There are plenty of those fields around here. Take him Katrina as a token of our thanks for saving our lives.”
“She will not have saved our lives if you persist in talking, Elfling! We’ve got to get going now!” the gypsy leader said forcefully.
“He’s right,” Katrina said. “The Frenchmen will be here soon. You’ve got to go!”
“Will you take Quest?” Pappy asked.
Katrina nodded. “I will Merek the Elf!” There was a twinkle shining through her tears. Pappy thought that she was a remarkable girl. It was fortunate on his part to have met her but as she named him for what he was he knew that if the French questioned her they would learn that at least one of the elves involved in the brutal slaying and escape in Vienna had passed through Novi Ligure. He hoped that she would answer their questions willingly and not become a victim or a martyr for them.
The company of gypsies, elves and a Frenchman began jogging up the hill toward the Ligure Apennine mountain range. Behind them they left a little girl who was at once sad and elated – sad because she was losing an elfish friend, elated because she had gained an equine friend.