In The CardsbyLadyTabitha©
Jareth was relieved when he saw the flicker of campfires on the road ahead. It had been a long and tiring day, most of it spent on horseback, and the next day would prove to be just as strenuous. He prayed that the owner of the fires would prove to be a hospitable sort. If they wouldn't let him stay the night in their camp, at least perhaps they would provide him with a hot meal and a bath before he set out again. Nudging the sides of his mount lightly with his heels, Jareth guided the stallion towards the wisps of flame ahead.
As he neared the forest clearing, he began to notice other objects that gave him a good idea of who was camped there. Several small and brightly painted wagons formed a loose semi-circle around the three bonfires. The golden light sparkled upon the shiny accents that adorned each one, and a night wind barely moved the thick velvet curtains that covered the back entrances. It had to be a gypsy camp; he was in luck this night, for gypsies were known to at least be polite to unexpected company.
As he drew up on the outskirts of their clearing, Jareth began to hear the soft strains of festive music. Around each fire, he could see men and women of all shapes and sizes. Some danced to the mystical tunes wafting from the musicians. Others merely ate, or sat laughing and chattering in a language Jareth couldn't even comprehend. He could smell the deer and rabbit roasting on their spits, and it made his mouth water with hunger. Guiding his horse in between two of the protective wagons, he made his way towards the center of their camp.
A few heads raised curiously as he approached, but for the most part the gypsies ignored him in favor of going about their nightly routines. Jareth tugged lightly on the reins to bring his mount to a stop, then dismounted. Two women got up from their places by the fire to come and meet him. One was a weathered old woman, sprightly for all her years as she walked across the clearing. The other was a younger woman who appeared in her early twenties. When they were close enough, Jareth gave a low bow to them in greeting.
"Good evening, gentlewomen. My name is Jareth, and I am a fellow traveler in this woodland. I saw your fires from the road, and was hoping perhaps that I could find shelter or at least dinner for tonight. I can pay you well for your troubles." He turned to the side, just enough so that they could view the thin leather strap that bound the hilt of his sword to the sheath. Called a peace knot, it proved that he meant no harm, for with the strap in place he was unable to draw his sword without fair warning. "I mean your people no harm," he added, just to make sure it was clear to them.
At his words, the old woman gave a cackle and shook her head in mirth. "We know you mean us know harm, gaujo," she laughed, calling him by the Romani term for a non-gypsy. "We heard your horse from miles away. If we viewed you as a threat, your blood would be upon the earth by now."
"Is that so?" Jareth replied stiffly. The amusement in the old gypsy's eyes was annoying; it made him feel ill prepared and naïve. "And how do you know that to be true, madam?"
The woman gave no answer. Instead she gave a low, quiet whistle, like the tune of a forest bird. At her signal, several of the curtains on the wagons parted, and Jareth saw that each carriage contained at least three Romani men armed to the teeth. He felt the blood rushing to his face in embarrassment, having been properly put into place. He saw himself through the eyes of the more experienced gypsies: a young and spoiled man, dressed in the clothes of a nobleman and ignorant of the danger he was in. Had he been a threat, these men could have slit his throat before he even knew they were there. He averted his gaze from the two women, half-tempted to remount his horse and find another campsite of his own.
But the younger woman patted the elderly one on the arm. "You have made your point, Maman. Do not torture the poor man more than he already has been." Turning to Jareth, she smiled at him gently. "My name is Raina. This is my grandmother, Danala, leader of this tribe. You and your coin are welcome in this camp."
She motioned for him to follow, and Jareth was all too eager to leave the company of the old woman and her army of hidden assassins. He followed Raina to one of the nearby fires. Several people were already crowded around its warmth, but a few sharp words from Raina in her native tongue were enough to make them part enough to offer them both room. She nodded to one of the men tending the cooking pit, and moments later they were both offered a steaming platter of roasted rabbit. Jareth's stomach was more than happy to see the meal arrive.
He hadn't eaten more than a handful of traveling rations since the noontime sun was strong, and it was all he could do to keep his manners about him and not wolf down the tender meat. All the while as they ate, he noticed Raina watching him curiously, and he took up the opportunity to observe her as well. She was as different from the noblewomen of his kingdom as night was from day. Her hair was long and dark, the tresses falling wild around her shoulders and spilling down her back. She had skin the color of the richest doeskin, a light even shade of tan, and her eyes were a dark brown that complimented the hue.
She wore a bright blue blouse with yellow trim, the fabric loose and thin on her body. Given the right light, he might have been able to see clearly through it, but the firelight only gave him a shadow of her body beneath. Her breasts were well-developed and high set, and he could see the way her ribcage curved down into her waist. She wasn't a thin girl, her stomach soft and pouting slightly, but it attracted him like a magnet. Most of the women he'd been with were like twigs, their waists sculpted by corsets and dieting into drastic shapes.
Her skirt was the same shade of azure as her blouse. He loved the way her hips looked beneath the wispy folds, and he could see her well-fleshed thighs and shapely calves that disappeared into soft leather boots. Raina wasn't shy; she knew an appraising look when she saw one, and didn't shirk from it. Instead, she looked him straight in the eyes and asked, "So what is a prince doing traveling on a forest road at night?"
"How did you know I was a prince?" Jareth asked, surprised. Raina smiled at his question. She looked pointedly at his outfit, at the richness of the tunic he wore. Only royalty was allowed to wear the bold purple shade, and the stitching on the shirt and the cream-colored breeches was top quality. Her eyes flitted up to his carefully groomed dark brown hair, and then down to the knee-high riding boots that bore very little wear and tear. "Oh," he muttered sheepishly, but she merely smiled and waited for his answer. "I'm on my way back home, actually. I've been visiting a cousin in the countryside, and my father sent for me to return to the castle. Something about some upcoming society ball, I believe."
"What about you?" He countered. "What are you doing out here in the middle of the woods?"
"We are waiting for our brother tribe to arrive," Raina said. "It is time for the young women to choose their husbands from their families, and for their young women to claim the young men from our camp." She set aside her now-empty plate and picked up a stick from the ground, poking it into the flames. "When they arrive in two days, my maman Danala will choose my future husband for me."
"But I thought you said you got to choose," Jareth pointed out.
"The rest of the Romani choose their men," Raina confided. "But I am the granddaughter of the leader of the tribe. It is Danala's duty to make sure my mate is to be strong and well chosen, so that when I am leader I will bear children to be heirs."
"That's not very fair."
"It is the way," she sighed. But the expression on her face showed that the thought of it was not pleasant in her mind.
"I know what you mean," Jareth agreed. "My father is currently making negotiations with a neighboring land. Should they prove successful, his daughter and I shall marry, and unite the two kingdoms. I don't like it, but I am heir to the throne. I don't have a choice."
"It seems we have much in common then, Jareth," Raina smiled. She took the last bite of rabbit from his plate and fed it to him, then set the plate in the dirt beside hers. Getting to her feet, Raina extended a hand. "Come. I will read your cards while we are waiting on the bathwater to warm, then you may bathe and rest." Jareth accepted her hand to help him to his feet. Patting the small leather money pouch on his side, he looked at her questioningly. "How much do I owe your tribe for the hospitality?"
"Bah," she snorted, waving her hand in dismissal. "We have plenty of food, and more room than we need. You needn't pay us for what is openly offered." Raina led him to a small wagon towards the outside of the protective circle. "This is the wagon I share with Danala," she explained. A worried look must have passed over his face, for she laughed. "Don't worry, my maman won't bother you while you're bathing. She and I will be sleeping with another family, so that you may have a decent place to sleep tonight. She is already in their wagon, fast asleep."
The interior of the wagon was a lot nicer than he had expected. It was simply furnished, bearing two cots against the front corners and large trunks resting at the foot of each. Towards the back of the wagon where they entered, there was a small table with two chairs to sit upon and a wooden tub just large enough for a person to squeeze into. Raina bade Jareth to sit, then left the wagon for a moment to have someone start warming the water for his bath. When she returned, she went to one of the trunks and fished inside, coming back to the table with a cloth-wrapped bundle in one hand.
"What is that," Jareth asked.
Raina carefully peeled back the cloth to reveal a worn deck of fortune telling cards. "These have been in my family for six generations," she proudly boasted. "Please, relax. I will read the cards for you, tell you your fortune. It is my gift."
Sitting in the chair opposite him, she reached out suddenly and grabbed his hand, running her fingers over his palm. The scrape of her soft touch over his sword-calloused hand caused his skin to tingle with a low heat. "I needed your energy," she explained, and then placed the hand atop her deck of cards, closing her eyes and concentrating for a moment. Raina shuffled the deck carefully, then dealt five cards face down onto the table's surface.
"The first card represents you," she said as she flipped the worn card over. The picture on its face was of a young man dressed in finery. In his hand, he bore a disk with a five-pointed star on its surface.
"The Prince of Pentacles," she acknowledged with a rueful smile. "It goes without saying your family is rich. But you, Jareth, you have dreams of something more exciting than just ruling a kingdom. You are adventurous, bold..." Her words trailed off as her gaze dropped from his eyes to the saucy curve of his lips. "Fiery," Raina finished, smiling. Jareth was amazed.
Her words were true, straight to the very core of his nature. He was still musing over her insight when she read the second card to him, then the third. With each turned card, Raina delved into his soul, pulling out the secrets and desires he'd told no one. Her gift fascinated him. When she saw the last card, her smile grew somber. The picture was of a naked man and woman, with a higher being smiling down on them from above. The woman on the card was gazing lovingly at the man, but the man was turned away slightly, as if running from her affections.
"The Lovers card," she announced. "Jareth, you will have a choice coming soon, a decision that will affect your life forever." She traced her finger over the face of the smiling god. "This represents your duty, your loyalty to your country." Raina moved her finger to cover the woman. "This is your heart's desire, the thing you want most in this life." Then she pointed at the naked young man. "This is you, torn between the two. For country or for love, you must choose. Neither will be easy, but you will know the path that is right."
His eyes came up, eyebrows raised, searching her face for answers. But her emotions were guarded as she collected the cards back together. She rewrapped and replaced the deck in the trunk. Jareth opened his mouth to speak, but she hastily cut him off by making her way to the exit.
"I must go fetch your bathwater," she pleaded, and left the wagon in a swirl of dark hair and a whirl of clothes. When she returned a few moments later, her smile was back in place and she bore two large kettles of water. Whatever the reaction the reading had caused was gone now, and Jareth decided not to bring it up, instead helping her to pour the water into the wooden tub.
After the tub was half full, she set down the empty kettles and nodded to him. "Be careful, the water is hot." She fetched a soft cloth for him to wash with, then left him alone to tend to his needs.
The hot water was heaven on Jareth's worn body. The steaming water pooled about his aching thighs, easing the tension of horse riding. Using the cloth, he swept some of the hot water over his chest and shoulders, feeling the tight muscles ease in appreciation of the pampering. He bathed thoroughly, washing every nook and cranny, even running the cloth over his dark hair to wash out the day's sweat and dirt. When his bathing was done, Jareth was reluctant to vacate the heated water, and instead leaned back in the tub to relax.
He closed his eyes and cleared his mind, letting the warm liquid cleanse his thoughts as it had his body. He forgot his aching body, forgot the card reading and the earlier embarrassment as he lounged. Instead, he let his mind conjure up thoughts of Raina. Beautiful Raina, about to be married to a man she didn't know. The thought of that sparked a slight bit of jealousy in him. He imagined it was he that she was to be married to, that he was the leader of some great Romani tribe and she was his intended bride. He imagined what she would look like on their wedding day.
Jareth could see vividly an image of Raina, dressed in a wedding gown that was little more than layers of white fluffy netting, her dark hair woven into a braid and crowned with white flowers. He saw himself taking the vows, imagined sampling her soft dusky lips for the first time as their future was sealed as one. Jareth's fingers itched as he imagined taking her to some private wagon, and pulling the crown of flowers from her hair to loosen the braid.
Her hair would be like midnight silk, dark and thick under his fingers. Raina would be perfect when she fell into his arms for the first time, of that he was certain. He could see her pressing against his body as she kissed him sweetly; her soft plump skin nestled against him as he took her in his arms. The images in his head had a powerful effect on his libido.
Unbidden, Jareth's hands came up to rest on his chest. He traced his fingers lightly over the tight muscles there, imagining it was her soft hands touching him, caressing him lovingly. From years of training by the best sword tutors, his body was hard and honed. Raina would look upon him proudly, for he was considered by many to be quite a handsome man. Jareth's hands dipped lower, exploring the ridged planes of his stomach. In his mind, Raina was touching him as he carefully undid the ties of her wedding gown, watching the fabric come loose from her body.
He could see how her breasts would look, freed from the confines of the dress, round and plump and succulent. He imagined her nipples were large and dark red, the same dark shade as her full mouth, their tips large and arrogantly erect. He watched the fabric fall lower, exposing the roundness of her belly, tan and soft and womanly. Years after their marriage, that soft belly might grow round and full, taut with his child inside. The thought was both arousing and paternal.
Soaking in the bath, Jareth brought his hand even lower, tracing the path of light brown hair to his abdomen. He was already fully aroused, hard and jutting from the nest of curls at the juncture of his thighs. When in his mind he saw Raina naked for the first time, beheld the dark triangle hiding the folds of her womanhood and her lovely bare legs, Jareth's fingers closed about himself and he managed a small groan. The water was lubricant enough as he stroked the rigid shaft, but behind his eyelids it was Raina's mouth that caressed him, her lips and tongue closing over him as she worked at giving him pleasure. He was lost in the sensations, so lost that he forgot his surroundings, and so far gone that he didn't hear the soft padding of feet across the wagon floor until a shadow fell across him.
Startled from his daydream, Jareth's eyes jerked open and he bolted upright in the tub. Raina stood over him, her lips curved up into a knowing smile, hands firmly planted on her hips as she looked down at him unabashedly. Blushing, Jareth covered his erection with both hands, even though he knew she had seen him totally moments before. "I-I..." He stammered, unsure what to say. What could he tell a woman that he'd been dreaming about moments before, a woman who had walked in on him with his cock in his hand like some randy squire?
"I came to ask you if you needed more water, but it looks like you have more than enough," Raina teased. She walked over and sat on one of the cots, watching him. The amusement in her eyes was enough to cause his rampant arousal to wilt slightly. When it became obvious that she wasn't leaving anytime soon, his embarrassment quickly turned to slight anger.
"Do you mind, Raina?" Jareth growled, shooting her a dirty look. She didn't take the hint, and instead caught his eyes with an intense gaze.
"What were you thinking about?" She demanded.
Jareth stared at her, scarcely able to believe she was brave enough to ask him something so personal. He feigned ignorance, glaring up at her. "What do you mean?"
"What were you thinking about, while you were touching yourself?" She wasn't going to let up, though out of curiosity or another reason he couldn't tell. He decided to tell her the truth, praying it might shock her enough to make her leave the wagon so he could redress. If he was lucky, she would run off to the wagon where Danala was resting, and he could sneak out of camp with some dignity intact. He took a deep breath and met her eyes, his mouth set in a firm line.
"You," he said softly. "I was thinking about you. Are you happy now?" He raised up out of the wooden tub, still clutching his genitals to hide them from her view, the water streaming down his bare buttocks and legs in tiny rivers. He turned towards the table, where his clothing rested neatly folded on one of the chairs. Jareth was in the process of extending one hand to reach for his breeches when he heard Raina moving behind him.
When he glanced back, she was smiling as she got to her feet. "You don't have to be afraid, Jareth," she murmured. She brought her hands up to the ties of her blouse, her nimble fingers undoing the knots in smooth motions.
Jareth's mouth fell open in astonishment as she undid the first bow, then the second, not stopping to pause. "W-What are you doing?" He asked in shock.
"I am not like the women you have known," Raina informed him as she continued unlacing her blouse. "Romani women are taught from childhood about the ways of men and women. When our blood flow begins, we are considered as women among my people."
The last bow came free, and the fabric of her shirt was hanging open slightly, exposing a strip of skin from her neck to her bellybutton. She reached up and gripped a flap in each hand, and pulled the blouse completely open. Jareth felt the heat rising in his cheeks, for he felt he shouldn't be watching her remove her shirt from her body. But her body was everything he had imagined it to be. His gaze traveled over the lush, round melons of her breast and the rounded contours of her belly. Raina looked at him squarely, bringing her hands up to cup the mounds for his view, their hardened rosy tips peeking out from between her overflowing fingers in challenge.