Hailey Ames shook her bobbed length black hair out of her eyes and sighed with exasperation. The mane of the African lion she was brushing was hopelessly tangled, and she eyed him with a suspicious expression. Hearing her mental voice chastise him for neglecting to groom in even some small way, the massive animal began to wheedle imploringly at her. “It wasn’t my fault, Hailey,” he said, his mental signature managing to sound completely wounded. “Aphrodite promised she would help me…”
“You great lazy thing!” she said out loud, startling her companion, a tall, slender young man of about sixteen who was tentatively holding several grooming items in his scarred hand and awaiting her instruction. Tito Fratelli had been found wandering in the Florida swamp, nearly delirious and dehydrated after he had attempted to run away a few years ago. Now, he followed Hailey like a silent shadow, quietly hanging on her every word and gesture.
“Not you, Tito,” she assured him. Turning back to the task at hand, she resumed chiding the lion mentally. “It is NOT the job of the lioness to groom you! She only does that when she’s pleased with you and clearly, you have some making up to do.”
Tangles finally removed, Hailey ran her hands down the smooth, coarse fur of his back and he purred like a house cat. His lioness, Aphrodite, lay nonchalantly in the shade a few feet away inside the menagerie tent emblazoned with the title of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth: Daedalus Figsby’s Labrythian Enchantments’.
Turning her attention to the handsome young man waiting silently beside her, Hailey thanked him for his help and returned the grooming items to their carrying case. The lions had been the last of the animals that required her attention today; her adopted father, Bamidele Jones, was working with some of the ring stock horses and would attend to them this afternoon after practice was over. She smiled fondly to herself, imagining the scene she had witnessed many times; her Papa’s nearly eight feet in height towering over the pureblood Andalusian horses as they cantered around the practice ring like so many carousel horses. Calliope Schreiber, the circus music director and equestrienne would likely be there as well, adding a few bits of flash to her liberty act with the horses.
In many parts of the world, it would be ill advised to let massive lions roam free, but the circus was currently wintering at the enormous compound owned by the Ringmaster’s oldest friend, Coco, and therefore safe from the misunderstandings of the “normal” world. The circus had wintered here every year that Hailey could remember, beginning with her first year on the show and now into her fifth year as a seasoned circus performer. Hailey’s mind wandered back to that horrible season when the Pale Man had come and killed her very best friend, her dog Charlie. A small, sad smile played around her lips as she recalled some of the best times they had spent together. She had been only nine years old then, but had lived the lifetime of two adults by the time the Pale Man had killed Charlie. Tito still blamed himself for the role he had played in bringing the Pale Man to the circus grounds, Hailey knew, even though her adopted Uncle Fig and Aunt Florica had told him over and over that he had been a child, used by his evil clown father, but Tito clung resolutely to his opinion. Having never known love or human kindness when his father was alive, Tito was suspicious of people and trusted the words of no one, except Hailey. He watched her now, as he always did, with disconcerting intent.
Not all of the circus family trusted Tito's innocence like Fig and Florica. Fig’s best friend Coco didn’t trust the boy and watched him watch Hailey, just in case. He remembered the gypsy's vision from Hailey's childhood, the one following the death of the Pale Man:
Take care the girl with the broken heart
Whose loyal spirit did depart:
Her tears did fall
And cast a pall
Where the pale man’s shadow dies
Remember the blood that spills
From the boy who kills
Heals the heart that tells no lies
He believed the vision was related to Tito, and knew the boy's power was a dangerous one. Coco was a grizzled sort of fellow, given to speaking in riddles and who, Hailey suspected, was just like the rest of the circus: more unusual than he appeared to be. He spoke a great deal of his army days, leading warriors to battles that no one living remembered, and of the times he and Fig had traveled around Greece, Italy, Spain and beyond, back when it was just the two of them juggling for coins. The show had certainly come a long way, over the centuries. He'd also encountered a great many dangers which seemed harmless, on appearances.
There was not much Tito could have done to Hailey, even if he had wanted to, however. Hailey’s other shadow released itself from the inner sanctum of the menagerie tent and stalked behind her as she headed out toward the caravan city parked out behind the plantation house, a massive form nearly dwarfing her slender frame. Shardul, the Bengal tiger, padded silently along behind the girl, and Tito Fratelli took care to tread very lightly where Shardul was concerned. Her adopted father, Bam, called the animal “alsasa,” which meant “porcupine” in his native African tribal language, to match the tiger’s prickly personality. He and Fig had gone to India on an acquisition expedition many years before Hailey had arrived at the circus, and found him as a cub, wounded and hissing like a nest of snakes. The cub had already killed several children and wounded grown men and women, a massive and powerful creature even at a very young age. Fig had darted the tiger with a sleeping aid, and Bam had laid his enormous, healing hands on the glorious striped body of the tiger. His wounds had magically reknit themselves, and his breathing had evened out into normal sleeping patterns. As a service to the Indian village whom the tiger had terrorized, they’d promised to dispose of the animal but instead had pressed him into service in the circus. Shardul had never forgiven either man for their deceit and had no gratitude for their intervention. It was not until Hailey had arrived, with her special ability to speak to animals, a gift Fig had dubbed “anthropomorphizes,” that the tiger had ceased attempting to murder everyone and everything that came near his cage.
Now, he followed her as docilely as any dog, only occasionally rumbling very deep and low in his chest whenever he felt the boy was getting to close to her. He possessed, like all of his kind, a very keen sense of smell and to him, Tito Fratelli smelled like fire and brimstone. As Tito’s ability was pyrokinesis, the tiger was not wrong. He store bore the scars of his unsuccessful attempt to end his life; Tito had set himself on fire the same day the Pale Man had killed Charlie. Tito's scars weren't too bad, all things considered. His hands had suffered the least, but his back and chest were a network of melted flesh. Some very light scarring could be seen creeping up the sides of his neck when he was wearing street clothes, but fortunately his ring costume covered him from head to toe. The worst of his scars were on the inside, where no one could heal them but Tito. Fig told Hailey that would come in time.
She'd asked her Papa to heal him as he had healed the knife wound she'd suffered during the confrontation with the Pale Man, but Bam was unable to heal most humans. At best he could induce a sense of peace by the laying of his hands on a person. No one knew why he had been able to heal Hailey, but he and Fig suspected it had been some combination of his strong love for her and her closeness with the animals he healed on a regular basis. Still, it could be none of those things. Every person on the show had some sort of ability, and none of them was an exact science.
Hailey made her way through the caravan town what would be the circus’s back yard if they’d been set up to show. Approaching the far end, she was comforted by the sight of the behemoth motor coach owned by her Uncle Fig and Aunt Florica, the circus’s fortune teller and her sort of adopted mother. She and her Papa usually stayed in their teepee like hut that sheltered in the shade of the huge caravan, and sometimes Hailey would stay with one of Florica’s three daughters. Pani and Calliope were both married, Calliope to Jakob Schreiber the rubber eel man, and Pani to Ambrose Thessalia, the sword swallower. Thalia Vadoma was unmarried, and ran the slanging buffer act, or performing dogs to the non circus person. Thalia was twenty-eight now, and her mother despaired of marrying her to a nice Romanian boy, and her father despaired of marrying her to a nice Greek boy, and her sisters despaired of marrying her to any type of boy at all, but Thalia held firm to her convictions that the right man would come along or not at all, whichever one suited her fine either way! She and Hailey spent a lot of girl time together, especially since Hailey had turned fourteen and entered puberty, and it was from Thalia that she learned about womanhood, eye makeup, and the proper way to flirt should the occasion arise. Unbeknownst to her family, Thalia had dated a few of the young men from the seats in various towns, but none had been able to pass the inspection of her pack of performing border collies. The alpha male, Mojo, was getting along in years, and his approval of new people waned more and more as his age progressed.
Tito was given a bunk in the giant caravan, as he’d had no place to go once he’d been found wandering in the swamp. Several people had wanted to turn him over to Florida’s child protective services, but Fig had shamed them by pointing out that his monster of a father had been the problem from day one, and he’d only accepted them on the show for the boy’s sake in the first place. Were they monsters, too, to turn out the boy now that he had no one, not even that pitiful excuse for a father? Bam and Florica had agreed with him, and as the principles of the circus, they had the final vote; any who refused to work with the boy on the show were welcome to draw their final wages and depart for other circuses or carnivals. Florida was the wintering town of many such outfits, a few miles away in Gibsonton (known as Gibtown); anyone who wanted to jump the show could likely find employment elsewhere. Though there was grumbling, no one had left and Fig remained vigilant in his efforts to acquire new acts. His circus was made up mainly of misfits anyway, people who possessed certain talents that were either unappreciated or that they preferred remain private. The Labyrinthian was crafted in such a manner that these gifts and abilities were a help, rather than a suspicion or hindrance.
Hailey knocked blithely on the door to the caravan and opened the door without waiting for an answer. Any who wanted to be alone inside would be in their allotted bedroom, and it was starting to get warm outside. Hailey wanted to wash the lion’s stinky mane from her hands and grab a bite to eat before starting on a new trick with the tiger. Tito, of course, followed her inside the dark interior, while Shardul placed his magnificent self on the bright green grass just outside the door, waiting patiently for his mistress to return. He did not say anything to her as she went in, and she didn’t say anything to him either; their bond was very deep and required very little conversation. He felt, more than heard, that she would return soon and he was happy to remain here for that brief time. When Hailey had first arrived, the stubborn creature wouldn’t even acknowledge her existence. But when the Pale Man had attacked Hailey in the menagerie tent, and killed her beloved Charlie, the tiger had finally broken his silence and commanded her to open his cage door. Without hesitation, she had done so, and Shardul had killed the Pale Man easily, in spite of having knives thrown telekinetically into his striped flesh.
Hailey was delighted to find Fig and Florica at the enormous mahogany table in the very center of the caravan, separating the kitchen and living quarters from the front living space. The entire thing was operated by a spacious cockpit, where Hailey sometimes rode with Ephraim, their driver and the best roustabout on the show. She threw her arms around each in turn, exchanging merry greetings. Tito waited patiently behind her for his turn to greet his benefactors, before quietly excusing himself and heading off to his room. Hailey knew he would be firing up his iPod and blasting music for the next couple of hours. They didn't have homework until evening time; Fig, Florica, and Bam all agreed that the two children would have the very best education possible and the pair worked for several hours in the evenings on various correspondence course to obtain their high school diplomas. It was Fig's greatest wish that both Tito and Hailey would further their education in spite of their assured roles and continued success with the circus.
However, he had another wish that superseded even Hailey's college degree, and that was the topic of conversation that Hailey and Tito had interrupted with their arrival. Grabbing a juice box from the fridge, Hailey gracefully fell into one of the ornately carved seats at the glorious mahogany table and regarded the conspirators with an unnervingly jaundiced eye for one so young.
"What are you guys up to, Uncle Fig?"
"Now, Hailey, my dear, whatever do you mean?" was the rejoinder.
"Come on! You both look pretty pleased with yourselves. What gives?"
"We will wait for your father, Miss Ames, if you please," Fig replied, his voice stern but his blue eyes twinkling with excitement. Her own anticipation ratcheted up a notch; usually when Fig was excited about something, it had to do with the show, and Hailey's turn on the show. Whatever had he cooked up now?
She sighed and leaned back in her chair. He was never going to tell her until her Papa arrived and who knew how long that would take. With an exasperated look at two of her most beloved and cherished and obnoxious family members, she got up from her seat, tossed her juice box in the trash under the sink, and prepared to help train horses.
"Sheyorra, do not forget to wash your hands, you know Rocinante does not like the stink of lion on his precious hide, for you yourself haff told me this many times," chided Florica gently.
Grumbling a bit, Hailey did as she was told, knowing the gypsy was right. The vain herd stallion to their prized ring stock horses was every bit as prideful as the lion. And while there were no real rivalries among the circus animals, but centuries of instinct still meant that the horse disliked it when she stank of predators.
She kissed them both on their cheeks, proclaiming loudly that she would return as quickly as possible with her father in tow, and made her exit. Jogging lightly down the path to the stables and paddocks, her inner shield was opened just enough to hear the tiger's oddly metallic voice chuckle in her head. He had, of course, heard every word and relished her forced patience. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Those that wait are often rewarded. UGH!"
Hailey continued down the path to the barn and corrals, lost in her own thoughts, shields firmly in place. She mused idly about the many new structures that had been built on the plantation compound over the last few years. Coco and Fig had decided that this swampland out past Gibsonton and Egypt Lake, FL was private enough and had purchased the house, the land, and several surrounding miles of acreage to ensure they would not be bothered. Once the purchase was final, they immediately began planning and building, and now the sprawling grounds contained several smaller houses tucked into the trees as well as a large, permanent barn and practice arena for the animals and circus performers to practice during the short winter months.
Hailey approached the entrance to the barn, still musing on the changes around the place, when Shardul surged ahead of her and leaped in front of the barn entrance, snarling at her in warning. She dropped her shield instantly, seeking his mind with her own.
"What is it?!"
" Go back, and seek the bearded one!" His tone was urgent and unyielding.
"What?! NO let me pass! I want to see!"
Hailey turned and ran back the way she had come, legs pumping hard and her lungs burning. She felt in his mental signature that he would not yield and that time was of the essence. She knew the "bearded one" was Fig, so she sprinted to the travel trailer and wrenched open the door.
"Shardul is blocking the barn and won't let me in, I think something has happened, please hurry up Uncle Fig, come NOW!" she shouted at the astonished faces of Fig and Florica. At her urgent pleas, Tito flung open his door and rushed down the hallway, pushing her out the door in front of him. He grabbed her hand and they ran back to the barn as fast as their legs could carry them, Fig following as quickly as he could but lagging badly. Florica raced to the main house to seek reinforcements, meeting her daughter Calliope at the door. Calliope had finished her training with the horses and returned to the big house to shower but at the sight of her mother's frantic face she dropped her towel and ran for her husband Jakob. Florica found Coco and they both headed toward the barn, meeting up with Calliope, Jakob, and Florica's other daughter Pani, her husband Ambrose, and several roustabouts. They converged on the barn entrance, where Fig had finally caught up with the two teenagers and a very agitated tiger.
"He says no one can go in there except for the bearded one, the rubber man, and the red devil," Hailey cried in exasperation. Jakob, Ambrose, and Fig exchanged a glance, and eased past the tiger, who began to pace back and forth in front of Hailey. She opened her shields farther, to see if she could hear or feel any animals in the barn who could tell her what was going on, but there was nothing. Shardul was shielding her tightly, and she was unable to crack his defenses. She knew her Papa had been in the barn with Calliope, and she turned to the elegant woman in despair.
"Calliope, where is Papa?" she cried.
"I don't know Hailey! He said he was going to work with the convicts, the zebras, for some new turn on the show!"
Hailey used mind speak to reach out to the convicts in the stables but there was nothing; she was too far from them to hear much but she'd had to try.
By now, the rest of the troupe had gathered near the barn door, anxiously asking one another for details they didn't have. The sight of Fig at the entrance raised the tension level, as his face was grim and bore no good news.
"Thalia, Calliope, and Pani please fetch some hot water, plaster, and bandages." He turned and addressed Coco. "Old friend, we will need some pain alleviant. Go, quick!"
"Uncle Fig, what's going on?! Let me in!" Hailey begged.
"Not yet, Hailey, please be patient." He disappeared back into the barn. There was no sign of Ambrose or Jakob.
Tito was still clasping Hailey's hand tightly in his own; he gave it a little squeeze and dropped it. She smiled distractedly at him and went back to pestering the tiger with her mind. Suddenly she cried out, falling to her knees in the dirt, gasping with sobs, her body wracked with pain and grief. Tito bent down, put his arm around her, and tried to gather her close, to hold her and share her pain no matter what it was but the tiger disapproved of his nearness to her and hissed menacingly, sounding like an enormous and deadly tea kettle. Tito let go of Hailey and backed away slowly, but did not leave for once; he stood his ground in case Hailey needed him.
"Sheyorrah, what is it my sweet? Tell me!" Florica implored, taking Tito's place at Hailey's side and sliding a comforting arm around the girl's slender shoulders. Shardul had stopped his pacing and crouched down in front of Hailey, waiting for her to need him.
Her voice choked, Hailey responded. "Shardul dropped his shield so I could see. I saw Papa lying on the ground, and there was blood, and his eyes were closed. Both Olo and Tiko are dead! I could see them lying in the dirt, their stripes gleaming under the floodlight, their heads bent too far backward and their legs broken. Oh my god, what happened!?" she directed this last at Shardul, placing her hands on either side of his massive head and placing her forehead against his wider one, her tears wetting the orange velvet of his hide.
There was murmuring among the troupe at her words, and several roustabouts took the opportunity to slip past the tiger to enter the barn. He growled at them absently but remained where he was, focused on Hailey.
Inside the barn, the scene was as Hailey had described: the giant African lay sprawled on the ground, blood covering his torso. One leg was bent in an unnatural angle, and his normally dark chocolate skin had an appalling grey cast to it. Off to the right, the indoor arena was set up with the boom line, an apparatus which allowed the trainer to hook up horses, or in this case zebras, and train with them for various acts. The two zebras still lay in the traces of the boom line, but they would no longer run and caper under the lights of the Big Top. Their beautiful and elegant necks were bent backward nearly touching their tails, and all four legs on each zebra was broken in numerous places. Blood congealed slowly in the sultry Florida afternoon, pooling in their nostrils and drying stiffly in their stand-up manes. Ephraim, the head roustabout, removed his cap and made the sign of the cross at the sight of their shattered bodies.
Fig, Ambrose, and Jakob all huddled around the massive form of Bamidele Jones, the circus Equestrian Director and Hailey's adopted father. Ephraim approached, asking his boss if there was anything they could do.
"Yes, my good man, go and have your men build a very long and very large litter so we can carry Bam into the big house. Do it quickly!"
Ephraim bobbed his head in acknowledgement and beckoned to his men. They raced out of the barn through the back, searching for lumber to make a makeshift litter that would be strong enough to hold Bam.
The three sisters and Coco arrived then, everyone's arms laden with the items Fig had specified. Calliope placed a cool hand on Bam's chest and was relieved to feel his heart beating, much slower than it should have, but beating nonetheless. With a sorrowful glance at the mutilated zebras,she ran back out to the entrance where Hailey sat huddled with the tiger and her mother, motioning to Florica to come near. "Here, Tito, come sit with Hailey and don't you give him trouble you great brute," she scolded to Shardul. He did not respond with even a whisker twitch.
Calliope and her mother whispered together for a brief time, then Calliope went back inside to see what she could do for Bam. She often served as a nurse for injured circus troupers, but when she arrived back at Bam's side she saw that Thalia had beaten her to it and was applying field dressing to Bam's cleansed wounds according to Coco's direction. She began to clean more of the blood away, seeking injuries which might need stitching or other attention.
At the entrance, Florica gently pulled Hailey up from the ground, the tiger rising with her. Two sets of eyes regarded her, one pair yellow and calm, the other pair blue and hurt, swimming with tears. "Sheyorra, your Papa, he lives. Do you hear me? He lives."
Hailey dissolved into relief, as well as grief over his injuries. Florica hugged her tightly, closing her own eyes against the tears that threatened. The last thing this young girl needed was another loss, she thought. When Hailey had come to them all those years ago, she was an odd paradox of strength and fragility. She endured so much, and lived through both an evil stepfather and an even more vile biological father. Bam was the only positive father figure she'd ever known, and with Fig and other male members of the circus, had proven to Hailey that not all men were created equally badly. She was at a tender age in a young woman's life, Florica knew; the loss of the only father she had ever loved would be devastating. Florica sent a prayer out into the universe, vowing to read the cards that evening and see what she could about Bam's recovery, if any.
"Tito, take Hailey and Shardul to the big house. They need quiet now. Hailey, don't worry my sweet, they are bringing your Papa to you soon."
Hailey nodded and allowed Tito to take her hand once again. She plodded listlessly along next to him, Shardul's massive body a forlorn shadow on her other side. For once, he did not grumble at Tito's presence but merely lent his own.
Florica returned to the barn to oversee the loading and transportation of Bam to the main house. Calliope and Pani followed after the teenagers, to prepare a room on the ground floor near the entrance. At nearly eight feet tall, Bam weighed about 320 pounds and it would normally take several men to carry him. However, this was no ordinary circus and no ordinary circus performers. Heinrich and Klaus, the two strongmen, possessed a unique ability that only worked when they were together. And together, they had joined the throng outside the barn entrance, waiting to see if they could assist in some way. Fig trotted over to the entrance and gestured them inside. Neither twin had ever spoken that anyone could recall within living memory, but they bore eager and determined expressions as they followed Fig into the barn.
Fig explained what he wanted them to do, and with Ephraim and the other troupers supporting various parts of Bam's body, the pair lifted him as though he were made of feathers and placed him gently on the litter. Florica and her daughters rushed to cover him with blankets, as they'd had to cut away his bloodsoaked leather workpants to apply bandages to various lacerations. At Fig's count of three, the two strongmen each lifted one end of the litter and made their way carefully to the main house.
Hailey watched from the front parlor as they carried in the oh-so-still form of her father. She could see them lower the litter to the floor, and then Heinrich and Klaus lifting his body onto the bed, really two beds shoved together and tied in order to be long enough for him. She watched from the couch, paralyzed with fear, as Florica, Calliope, Pani, and Thalia set about making him comfortable and finishing the cleansing of his wounds. The men all went back outside, leaving the women to see to Bam, while Fig made his way back to the caravan to find his cell phone. He knew someone who might be able to help them recover their Equestrian Director's good health and he wished to reach that individual straight away.
Hailey closed her eyes against the sight of him, lying on his pillow. He didn't look like he was asleep. He looked like he was dead. Shardul rumbled slightly from his place on the floor, and then laid down on his side, seemingly unconcerned. She could feel him though, watching her through slitted eyes.
Tito remained by her side, silently waiting for her to speak to him or need him. Coco had joined them and was seated to her left, watching the goings on in Bam's sickroom. Finally, Florica and the girls emerged and Florica beckoned to Hailey to come join her. Hailey got to her feet woodenly and brushed off Tito's hand. As she approached Bam's bedside, she could feel herself losing control and she heard Shardul's voice telling her, "Courage is for the brave. You are brave. Show courage." She stiffened her spine and summoned a tremulous smile as she gazed at her father's sleeping face.
She slipped her small hand into Bam's massive one, where it lay limply on the brightly striped blankets covering him. "Hey Papa," she whispered. He did not respond. "I'm here, right here, waiting for you to wake up."
"Sheyorra, Fig has gone to fetch the doctor. Then we will know what has happened to your Papa. You should come with me, now, and we will get some of Bam's soothing tea. Thalia has said she will take the first watch."
"NO! I will take the first watch!"
"As you wish. I will have Thalia bring the tea. Will you want Tito or Shardul to come in with you?"
Hailey shook her head. She just wanted to be alone with her father and her thoughts. She sank into the wooden chair near the head of the bed, holding on to Bam's hand and gazing blankly at him. Florica left, speaking in low tones to Coco, Tito, and Shardul.
"She is in shock, I think. Coco, she will want to stay in the big house while her father is her. Where can we put her nearby that will accommodate both her and the tiger? You know he will not leave if she is here."
"That beast? In the house? Pah!" he spat. He glared at the tiger, who remained lying on the floor and patently ignoring the grizzled old soldier. They had a mutual loathing of one another. Coco regarded the tiger as an overgrown, and very pampered, housecat while never losing respect for what that housecat could do with his claws and teeth. He'd seen first hand what the tiger's weapons had done to the Pale Man. The tiger felt mutually contemptuous of the decrepit human but he could smell the history of ages seeping from the old man's pores and understood that this human was something beyond his appearance.
"I will stay with her," Tito said quietly.
"Great! A whole slumber party, why not!" Coco grumbled and stomped off, muttering about giant mouse catchers and firebugs.
Florica turned to Tito and smiled. "Don't mind him, Tito. Come with me to the caravan and gather some things for Hailey. And you, if you insist."
He nodded and glanced into Bam's room where Hailey was sitting motionless. He sighed, wondering how Bam had been injured and wishing there was some magic trick he could perform to make it all better. Bam never evinced any great affection for him, but he knew Hailey was devastated by what had happened. And Tito had vowed to live for whatever made Hailey happy. No matter what.
Shardul the Tiger