Nature has formed young women to survive hardship and the brutalities of men, so even the brutalities of their sisters can be endured without ill effect. Three or four weeks later, the marks of the wash house episode had faded to insignificance, though her flank still showed faint signs of the punishment it had received. She regretted nothing of what had occurred, in fact she felt a great sense of achievement, for she had endured, and won, in a test which could not be simulated. That vicious stick was not some fantasy toy that could be used with impunity, but a powerful weapon that seared the flesh and called on all a woman's resolve and strength to withstand and master it, as it burrowed in, striking, it seemed, into her very soul. She was proud of her trophies, the eight worn shillings and, though she loathed parting with them, even temporarily, had sent them to her London jeweller to have them made up into a bracelet that she intended should be her constant memento. She'd thought long and hard about the setting and had eventually specified that they should be mounted in silver, each coin linked to the next by the silhouette of a ripe peach, executed in coloured enamel on a silver base. She sent them a sketch showing the view she wanted, with the deep cleft leading to the little brown dimple where the stem had been, and the warm natural colour of the fruit enhanced on either cheek with a deep rose flush. She would have liked to have added darker transverse lines, but feared that even the least imaginative observer would have recognised it as a view of a whipped female's buttocks, as seen by her whipper.
Though she had suffered far more than she had bargained for from her adventures to date, she was in no way deterred from seeking more. Indeed, the very nature of her first bizarre encounter made her eager to find other outré‚ situations, to stimulate and extend her; so, when she heard that there were Gypsies in the next valley, she laid her plans accordingly.
Giving out that she was going to visit friends, after all she did hope they would be friends in time, she dressed simply and set off alone to try and gain entry to their band. In the event, it proved easier than she thought, for on her way she overtook a young Gypsy woman who had cut her foot on a broken bottle and was limping along the road, trying to reach the shelter of the encampment, but was faced with five miles or more of sore going. Arabella took her up before her, and rode with her to her people, using all her social skills to put her passenger, Esmeralda by name, at ease. By the time they reached the cluster of wagons and caravans that were her home, she had accepted her rescuer as a friend, and had even invited her to stay and eat with them.
"There is to be a wedding tonight," she explained, "and there will be plenty for all, and you would be most welcome."
As they entered the encampment a small crowd, wearing hostile
expressions, materialised from nowhere, and there were angry mutterings at the sight of Esmeralda's bloodstained foot, but these soon changed to welcoming smiles as the girl explained how Arabella had benefacted her, though one or two swarthy individuals cast speculative glances at her mount.
After Esmeralda had been taken off by some of the women, to have her wound attended to, one tall fellow approached Arabella and offered to take care of her horse.
"I've seen you before some place," she observed, "were you not at the fair last week?"
"Indeed, I was," the Gypsy replied, "and I remember your Ladyship well, with your finery and all."
"Then stay awhile, and tell me about your life. How you make a living, and about your travels on the road."
Her new acquaintance turned to the woman at his side.
"Carlotta, take Milady's horse to our wagon, and make sure it's well looked after. I'll be along later."
The dark beauty tossed her head and shot a venomous glance in
Arabella's direction, but did not protest and led the animal off without a word. For the next hour or so Pete, her swarthy guide, took her round the encampment, showing her the various kinds of wagon and caravan, exhibiting the motley collection of animals, from moth eaten goats to a superb black stallion Arabella wondered who had lost such a beast recently, but forbore to ask and telling tales of life on the road. As dusk fell, more and more brightly dressed travelling folk joined the group, until there was a crowd of a hundred or more gathered round a leaping fire. Esmeralda, her foot treated with the herbal remedies known to the healers of the tribe, and wrapped in a linen bandage, returned and took over the care of Arabella, whom she had adopted as her guest, to be shown the sights and ceremonies of a Romany wedding.
"First, the bride will come with her attendants, and the groom will seize her, and make her his own," Esmeralda explained, "and then the young women who have yet to marry will jump the bridal fire to bring good luck and fertility to the couple."
To one side of the fire a stout triangle of wooden beams had been erected, and a dark handsome young man, marked out by his showy clothes and bright gold earrings as the bridegroom, came to stand by it, accompanied by a group of 'Best Men'. To the accompaniment of much laughter and what appeared to be lewd suggestions, the groom thrust a long object deep into the heart of the fire where the coals glowed hotly below the leaping flames.
After a decent interval, the bride, decked in flowing silks with flowers in her hair, was escorted by a bunch of similarly flower bedecked bridesmaids who led her to the other side of the fire, singing as they went. For a few minutes they danced and sang to the music of tambourines and a fiddler, who stood near them, accompanied by a drummer.
Then the music stopped, and the drummer started a long fierce roll on his drum. The groom tore off his embroidered jacket, revealing a bare brown torso, and leapt across the fire to seize the bride as her attendants screamed in mock panic, and the girl pretended to be
reluctant to be borne off by her captor, who leapt back across the flames again, dragging her with him. With a leather thong, unwound from around his lean waist, he bound her wrists and secured them to the top of the triangle, hauling her up tight. She came up tighter still, onto her straining bare toes, when he tied her ankles wide apart to the bottom corners of the triangle.
The bridal gown had but a short moment of glory before it was spent, for the groom tore it from her back until she was bare to the waist, her naked breasts against the rough wood of the triangle, and her beautiful glossy black mane, hanging down her back, loosened from its careful dressing by the violence that had been done her. He tied it back with a piece of twine, so that her white shoulders were bare, and stepped back to admire his handiwork. She was tall and darkly beautiful, covered only by her skirt from waist to mid-calf, stretched wide legged and tiptoe, and completely helpless.
Arabella gasped as she saw her lover take a long wicked looking leather whip from one of his companions.
"Surely he's not going to beat her with that?" she asked her friend as the crowd roared.
"Oh, yes," came the reply, "he must show her he is her master before he can make her his own."
The groom stepped up to the triangle with its beautiful helpless burden, and a hush fell on the crowd as he placed his feet apart and measured his distance from the white flesh stretched tautly before him. The bride had made no protest at her treatment or tried to escape her fate but when the tip of the whip lightly caressed her bare skin, under her raised right arm, a sudden flinch betrayed her fear. The whip retreated, and then flew forward again.
It met the tender female flesh with a crack like a pistol shot, and a vivid thin red stripe appeared on the white back, across the full width, and curling round to nearly touch the side of the pouting breast. The girl gasped, and her body slammed into the wooden frame with the shock of the blow, but she did not cry out.
Again, the arm drew back, and again the whip drove forward onto the pale woman flesh. She accepted the cut with no more reaction than the first, and so with the third and the fourth, and inexorably on, until there were eight throbbing lines, forming a broad band from side to side, darkening all the while and oozing drops of blood where the tip was cutting her under her right arm. It was an intensely tender spot, and the girl was reacting now, twisting her body the little her
tensioned position would allow as if to try and escape that excruciating torment in her armpit and moaning as she felt the agony mounting after each stroke. At the ninth she showed the first sign of defeat in her battle against the whip, and a strangled cry escaped her.
"Surely, he would not whip her so hard if he truly loved her," said Arabella, wincing in sympathy with the bride's torment.
"But yes. The bride would not respect him, and would feel herself to have been insulted if he did not give her full measure," Esmeralda corrected her, "we women hold that the harder our man whips us the more he loves us, or he wouldn't try so hard."
"But how much more will she have to endure?"
"Tradition says she must have a cut for every year of her life, and Tanya's twenty now, so she has nine more to go."
While they had been speaking, two more vicious strokes had fallen, and Tanya's grip was beginning to falter. Each cut now drew a cry from her, and as the whipping progressed further to fourteen fifteen and sixteen, her cries became more shrill, until she shrieked aloud through the last agonizing five stripes, as her back burned and cruel claws tore her armpit and side, and blood ran down onto her hip.
At last her full score had been given, and she hung, her ravaged shoulders heaving, as the crowd applauded the thoroughness of the flogging. Her bridegroom released her ankles and turned her so that she faced him, bare breasted, sobbing, her lacerated back against the frame. Firmly he took her in his arms and kissed her passionately, and Arabella was aware that she, in as far as her bonds allowed her, kissed him back with equal passion. After a long embrace, he stooped and retied her ankles to the foot of the frame, leaving her spread and helpless again, though facing him now.
"Is it not over, then?" Arabella enquired.
"He has to make her his yet," came the reply, "the whipping was to assert his mastery of her, and to show his love. Now he has to mark her as his."
The groom went to the fire and, as the wedding guests quietened again, wrapped a scarf around his hand, and withdrew the object he had put there at the beginning. Now Arabella could see that it was an iron rod, thickened at one end which glowed red from the fire.
"Dear God!" she exclaimed, "What is that? Surely he cannot mean to brand her?"
"That is our way," her guide and friend answered calmly, "Horses, cattle, women all bear their master's mark. Tanya will carry a diamond in her flesh all her life from now on."
Arabella watched with pounding heart, scarcely daring to breathe, as the bridegroom prepared to brand his new property. Her mouth was dry, but her belly was on fire, and above her excitement she was conscious of a warm wetness between her thighs.
With his left hand, the groom gripped Tanya's left nipple and pulled upwards, drawing up the full breast and fully exposing the soft
underside, into which he pressed the red-hot iron. He held it there for a slow count of five while the crowd sighed and Tanya screamed, then he threw away the branding tool and pressed his body to hers until she calmed and responded to his embrace.
When she had mastered the rush of ungovernable lust that swept through her, as the iron sizzled in Tanya's flesh, Arabella turned to Esmeralda again.
"She will carry his mark forever now, so what happens if she leaves him for another man?"
"He will probably cut her throat, so the mark will not matter then, but should he agree to let her go, and sells her to another man, he will cancel out the mark by burning a diagonal line across it, and her new master will brand her with his own mark, under her other breast. I would not like to think of how she might be marked if she wished to change partners again, after that," she added with a shudder.
While they had been talking, the groom had lifted his new woman's skirt to tuck it into her sash in front, rolling it up until her thick curly bush and the pale belly above were exposed for all to see.
"What happens now? I suppose he bears her off to his wagon, and bursts her maidenhead."
"Oh, no, she must stay where she is for now, while the unmarried women leap the flames."
The fire, which had sunk somewhat to glowing coals and little dancing flames, was revived with brushwood and straw, until the flames leapt brightly several feet into the air. The groom's attendants brought two drum like sections of tree trunk, about two feet across and eighteen inches high which they pushed into the fire from either side until they stood a yard apart, their mass of green wood impervious to the flames, and standing black against the orange flames, swirling between.
"They say a virgin will never scorch," said Esmeralda, at Arabella's side, "but I'll wager we'll smell burnt hair never the less." The bridesmaids had been pushing and shoving each other, amid gales of laughter, each apparently loathe to be the first to go. Now one, bolder than the rest, bunched up her skirt around her waist, revealing bare thighs topped by a thick black triangle of curls. She ran at the fire and leapt, one footed, onto one of the blocks, swinging the other foot onto the matching block so that she straddled the fire. As the flames licked up to kiss her between her wide stretched thighs, she sprang off her fiery perch and ran to press her belly against that of the bride, still stretched on her frame, and kiss her on the mouth.
Now that the ice was broken, the remaining bridesmaids lost no time in claiming their turn to straddle the flames, amid squeals and yelps, partly of excitement, sometimes at a particularly fiery kiss. As Esmeralda had predicted, a scent of burnt hair came to their nostrils. As the last bridesmaid made her run, a young woman from the crowd took her place, and others ran forward to form a line.
"Come on," cried Esmeralda, seizing Arabella by the hand and dragging her towards the line, "everyone must jump to bring the bride good luck, and babies."
Wondering just what she was letting herself in for this time, but game for anything, Arabella ran with her, kicking off her shoes as she went, for all the other women were barefoot. When her turn came, she sprang forward, holding up her skirts, feeling the cool evening air on her bare buttocks and thighs. Leaping, as she'd seen the others do, she landed with her left foot on a block, and swung her right leg to stand
momentarily straddled across the fire. At that instant, it dawned on her why some many of her predecessors had worn a comically dismayed
expression at this point. The only way to get off the blocks was to lean forward, crouching, to gather herself to spring, and thereby present her hairy crotch to the fiery kiss of the flames, a moth to the candle or, rather, tinder to the spark. Even as she did so, a little impish breeze fanned the orange tongues, so that they surged upwards and licked hungrily at her bared and opened woman's parts, stinging and smarting. With an undignified squeal, she leapt to safety, the scent of burnt thatch in her nostrils, and stood before the pinioned bride. She pressed her bare belly against the bride's own, and kissed her full on a mouth moistened by tears, and the contributions of the score of women who had kissed it before her. She was surprised at the warmth with which the woman responded to her lips, and the happy smile and murmur of thanks as she broke the embrace.
She had been nearly the last to jump the fire, and now food and drink was produced. Arabella had expected Tanya to be taken off by her new husband to commence her duties between his sheets, but instead when she was released, she came to join the party, still bare to the waist, and proudly displaying her stripes and the black diamond burnt deep into the underside of her breast.
The fiddler was joined by a piper, and together they played for the young people to dance, their movements voluptuous, if not downright erotic. Arabella pointed out several couples slipping away to the bushes, and remarked to Esmeralda that there would be even more burnt hair at the next wedding, as several maidenheads seemed about to be burst.
"A few," she replied, "but most will be very careful. Those who are already promised to bear a man's whip and brand in the next few months may risk it, but not the others. Our people are very hard with girls who get swollen bellies without being owned by a man. Of course," she went on, "she may get the father of the child to marry her, but most men won't touch damaged goods, even if they did the damage themselves and, if she hasn't some big brothers, or other kin, who can reinforce their argument with a horsewhip, or even a horse pistol, she hasn't a chance. The tribe will keep the baby, and bring it up in some family, but the poor girl will be driven out and probably end up on the streets of some town, and eventually in some ditch."
Arabella shuddered at the cruelty implied, but soon the music and the drink, and general good fellowship, livened her mood again. It was very late when the revels slowed to a stop, too late to return home or find accommodation at an inn, so she was relieved when Esmeralda invited her to stay the night in her caravan. She exclaimed, delightedly, at the tiny decorated interior, with so much packed into such a tiny space, a place for everything, and at the bed, tucked into a cupboard across one end of the cart. The two girls stripped, and crept into the soft warm interior which had just space for them if they lay close wrapped in each other's arms.
She woke to daylight, the bustle of the camp, and a warm naked body pressed to her own. Sleepily, the two girls rose and dressed, Arabella conscious of a certain sore redness between her thighs where the flames had licked, and the charred ends of her thatch, reduced to mere stubble in places. Breakfasted, they went to join the throng that was
regathering about the embers of last night's bonfire. It seemed that the whole tribe was going across the hills to escort the bride back to her new husband's people. There was some doubt about the propriety of taking Arabella with them. She had been accepted readily by them, principally because of the service she had rendered to the footsore Esmeralda but it was another matter to introduce her to another tribe, without
invitation. When she learnt that Carlotta would be staying behind to look after the animals, Arabella solved their dilemma by volunteering to stay behind too, and keep her company. She had her own doubts about going with a company of Gypsies through the market town they must traverse, with the possibility of being recognised by some of her own kind and besides, she welcomed the opportunity to get to know the fiery Carlotta, and learn something of the life of the Gypsy women, to go with what Pete had told her about the men.
But, when the others had left, and she tried to enquire about the woman's life and history, she found herself in difficulties. The woman was wary and hostile, and seemed intent on questioning her about her relationship with her husband, where she had met him, what she thought of him, and so forth. It seemed to her that, whatever reply she might make, it would be interpreted in the wrong way and eventually she gave up and went to sit under the shade of a tree where, over supplied with excitement the previous evening, and under supplied with rest, in Esmeralda's narrow bed she dozed off.
She was wakened by hands pulling on her arms. Before she could collect herself, they had been dragged behind her and tightly bound. Carlotta came round to her front and quickly fastened her ankles with a hobble rope which prevented her from making a run for it, which the expression in the dark eyes suggested might be her wisest course, but left her able to take tiny balanced steps.
"You can shout all you like," her captor said, "there's no one to hear you and, even if some stranger were to come within earshot, no one in these parts would interfere with a Gypsy woman getting her desserts, for that's what he'd think it be."
Arabella shrank away as Carlotta produced a wicked looking little knife, but it was not for her face or her throat. With deft movements the Gypsy cut through the top of her gown and the chemise beneath, slitting the sleeves until she was bare to her waist.
"Well now, fine ladies are just the same on top as us common women," mocked the dark eyed beauty, "I already knew you were the same below from when you were toasting it over the fire last night."
A strong brown finger and thumb closed on a pink nipple, squeezing it painfully.
"On your feet, bitch, and follow me."
With her teat gripped in a vice tight hold, the thumb nail digging in deep, she had no option but to obey, if she did not wish her tender bud to be wrenched off her chest. Carlotta led her towards the site of the previous night's rites. The frame still stood, black and solid, beside the revived fire and to her horror, Arabella saw that the long metal handle of a branding iron stood out of the coals.
"So you think you can follow my man from the market, and throw yourself at him here, do you?" the Gypsy almost screamed at her, in her rage, "I paid dearly to get him, with my back and my breast to the whip and the iron. Let's see how you like the price, though I doubt he'll want you when I put the iron to your cheek."
Arabella gasped in horror at this threat, and tried to convince the woman that she had never had designs on her man, but all in vain. Her mind was made up that Arabella had set her cap at Pete, and she was going to see she suffered for it. Helpless to resist, she was put to the triangle and stretched out so taut as to be a torture in itself, the ropes digging into her wrists as her widely parted feet barely touched toe to ground, and her naked breasts scraped painfully on the rough wood.
She looked over her shoulder to see Carlotta raising a brutal looking whip, thick oily black leather, much heavier than the one that had cut Tanya at this same triangle, a weapon more suited to oxen than a woman's flesh. She closed her eyes and waited, her body tensed with fear. "How old are you, bitch? You'd better tell me true, or I'll add some to be sure."
Arabella heeded the warning, and admitted to twenty-five.
"Twenty-five? Yes, I think I can believe that. I can give you a bloody back, right enough, with twenty-five."
Sick with fear, she waited and then it came, a swoosh in the air, and then fire across her back as a hammer blow drove her into the woodwork. She groaned as the full agony piled in and the spot under her arm, where the tip had cut in, came to excruciating life. This was going to be bad.
"One to your account and two dozen to pay. How do you like the coin, bitch?"
Arabella made no reply, but set her teeth to await the next blow. It came, and once again knocked the breath out of her in a bursting gasp before drawing a deep groan from her protesting body. By five her back was a mass of fire, and her gasps were now strangled cries, for she was being deeply hurt, and the whip's tip was like an iron claw tearing at her side. Half way through she could hold out no longer, and screamed as the leather snake crossed her back for the thirteenth time, and tore into her under arm. She could feel the blood trickling down her side. From then on she screamed at every stroke and, between her screams, moaned in her agony. Twice, despite the tautness of her bonds, she bucked enough to lift her body a few inches off the frame, and Carlotta sent the tip snaking in, to search out and sear the side of the full firm breast. For the last three strokes she could only think of the need to keep her dugs pressed against the rough timbers. Better their harsh caress and the sharp splinters that pierced her than that terrible black fang that bit so cruelly into the side of the soft white mound.
Sobbing and bleeding she hung in her bonds, too exhausted by pain, shock and her own screaming, to try and ease the weight on her shrieking wrists. Carlotta stood behind her and ran her hand over the thick purple ropes that crossed her back.
"Do you still want him now?" she mocked. "Would you really pay that price for a thick cock between your thighs?"
"I never wanted him in the first place," Arabella protested through her tears.
"Oh, not good enough for your high and mightiness, I suppose," came the retort, "then why did you follow him here?"
It was no good, the woman had made her mind up, and there was no reasoning with her. Arabella held her peace, and tried to meet her fate with what dignity she could. It was not long coming. Carlotta untied her ankles and retied her, facing outwards now, her bruised and bleeding back against the rough wood that had left red furrows and painful splinters in her breasts. She tried to control her mounting horror as her captor wrapped a cloth round the iron and drew it from the heart of the fire, its further end formed into a crude X, about two inches across, glowing bright red, almost white, for a stiff breeze had been fanning the bed of coals in which it had lain.
Carlotta raised the glowing iron to the bound woman's left breast, not touching, but so close that its heat seared the flesh, and Arabella moaned at the pain in her scorched nipple.
"Where shall we mark you? Here on your udder? No, you could always hide it, although I do hear that you fine ladies dance with your tits hanging out," and she laughed, mirthlessly.
"No, here I think, where all the world can see your shame, that you tried to steal another woman's man." and she touched a finger to Arabella's face, tracing the shape of the X on her cringing cheek. "You'll mark her nowhere. Put down that iron." ordered a loud male voice.
Both women turned their heads in amazement to see Pete standing ten feet off, his face stern and a long thin whip that could reach across two span of oxen in his hands.
Carlotta recovered from her initial shock, and screamed at him. "I was right! You came back for her! Well, see if you want her still, when I've burnt her face." And she made to lift the glowing iron to Arabella's cheek.
Like a striking cobra, the whip flew out and wrapped round her wrist. The shock and pain were sufficient to cause her to drop the brand, and Pete pulled back hard on the lash, drawing her off balance, and dropping her to her knees.
"That's how you should be, you bitch, on all fours. Stay on your knees while I get the lady down."
Released from her bonds, Arabella too fell to her knees, too weakened by pain and shock to support herself. Pete picked her up, with strong arms around her waist and under her knees, no question of touching that bruised and bleeding back, and set off briskly, calling to his now fearful woman to follow.
"Get me warm water, cloths and salve," he ordered, as he laid Arabella in the conjugal bed of the imposing caravan they occupied, "then help me get what clothes you've left her, off, and make her comfortable." It was the next day before she was sufficiently recovered to listen to explanations and apologies sensibly. Although still in considerable pain, the herbal remedies that the tribe possessed had gone some way to soothing her, so that she could sit up and talk sensibly about the events of the previous traumatic day.
It seems that Pete's horse had gone lame not long after leaving and rather than risk harming a valuable animal by pressing on he had led it back to the encampment, with the result she knew of.
"And only just in time too, or the bitch would have maimed you," he observed, "but she'll pay for it, never fear. You need her now to look after you, but once you're out and about, I'll flog her till the blood runs over her feet, and there'll be no salve or care for her after. A slit nose won't get in the way of her service now, though, and I've promised I'll do it for her this very afternoon."
Arabella was horrified.
"You can't do that," she protested, "it would be a sin to ruin such beauty and, besides, she really thought we were deceiving her. She knows better now and is truly sorry, so spare her lovely face. Flogging's another matter. I would not dream of telling a man how he should deal with his woman and, besides, I think she would welcome such a
punishment, which would serve to relieve the guilt she feels." Pete gave way to her plea on Carlotta's behalf and, anyway, as he was the first to admit, he would be the first to lose by ruining her looks. But about the beating he was adamant.
"Moreover," he said, "I'll whip her arse as well. She'll be raw meat from shoulders to thighs."
Carlotta showed herself truly contrite, and overwhelmingly grateful to Arabella for saving her from a sharp knife slitting her nostrils to create a hideous monstrosity in place of her fine straight nose, and promised anything to make amends.
As the days went by, Arabella slowly mended. Her back was a mass of bruises which pained her badly as they stiffened, for the whip had been a heavy one that bruised down to the bone, but at least her back had not been cut, though blood escaped through some of the contusions, forming thin scabs. Indeed, the very weight of the leather had, in a way, been to her advantage, for if Carlotta had used one of the longer thinner whips with the unrestrained viciousness she had displayed, she would save cut her to the bone and scarred her for life. As it was, the only permanent damage was likely to be under her right arm, where the tip of the whip had curled in and actually cut her, and there were like to be a series of fine white scars that would take years to fade.
She stayed with Carlotta for a week before she was fit to move on, sleeping in her bed, while her contrite hostess slept on the floor of the van, ready to be of service, day or night. Pete had taken himself off on some horse trade or other, but had promised his woman he would return to give her prescribed whipping before the week was up. Arabella arranged to leave before this salutary correction, and reconciliation of man and wife. As she departed, Carlotta, once again, begged her
forgiveness and asked if there was anything she could do to show her remorse for what she has done.
Arabella thought a minute.
"Well, there is one little thing," she said, "you could give me your earrings."
"But, Milady, they're worthless, just silver wire. I only got them because they were triangles, and I thought they'd make a change from the rings we women usually wear round here."
"Exactly so," Arabella explained, "I want then for a souvenir. The triangle is the whipping frame where the bride was whipped and branded, and I too was whipped and nearly suffered worse. Also," she added with a laugh, "I can think of the triangles representing all those pubic deltas that singed over the fire, not least my own."
When she returned to her own home, she despatched the silver
triangles, post haste, to the jeweller who was working on the silver shillings, with instructions to add to the base of each a representation of leaping flames.