Originally Published in Curiosities of the Moon
Mortals lived in darkness, eased only by hungry fire that devoured everything it touched and was never satisfied no matter how much it consumed.
Then the sun came, and for half the day, mortals could blink up at the light and see things clearly for the first time. But the world wasn’t complete until she came to light the night with her presence and a scattering of stars.
The sun walked in truth, but she spoke in stories and traveled by wisdom’s path.
So why was she stalking a witch—three witches to be exact?
The moon very rarely involved herself in the affairs of mortals, not that the witches were mortal by any means. But still.
Tales of the Babas Yaga had reached even her ears, and the tales she’d heard hadn’t been pretty. Of course, the tales had been little more than a jumbled mess of chicken feet, bottomless hunger, and flying mortars, so that might have accounted for some of the confusion. Although once a story made it to the stars, it was usually more distilled from the usual oddities.
Mortals were, if nothing else, inventive.
To be honest, the moon found herself more and more curious as each wisp of a tale made its way to her ears.
Curiosity was such an odd feeling. The mortals whose stories were painted across her sky were consumed with curiosity—a personal defect she’d always shaken her head at, but had never experienced.
Fortunately, it was the time of a new moon, so no one would think it odd not to find her in the sky tonight. Containing her glory had been a little harder, but the cloak of invisibility she’d borrowed from a mage (who happened to be sleeping at the moment and knew nothing of this transaction) seemed to be working.
With a lighter heart than she’d expected, she stepped out of the sky and into the forest.
The ground groaned beneath her feet when she took her first steps, but her body quickly adjusted until she was the normal weight and span of a mortal maiden. The earth’s pull could do nothing to dim the warm, milky glow emanating from her skin, gown, or tresses, so she tugged the cloak tighter about herself and pulled the hood low over her face.
She didn’t need to see in front of herself anyway. When one was tracking a witch, one looked where witches were wont to be found—the ground. Witches always stepped lightly, but even they could not hide all the signs of their passing. A profusion of growth—or the ashes of the same—were good indicators—
A panicked squeak shattered the stillness of the night air, and the moon froze. Something thrashed about the undergrowth to her left while something else scrabbled with desperate haste.
Before she could recover herself, a tiny shadow streaked across her path and nimbly ran up the trunk of a tree to hide among the pine needles. A much larger shadow with eyes that glowed like miniature lanterns darted out in front of her, but rather than following whatever it was it had been chasing, it came to an abrupt halt.
“You are far from your native lands, Lady,” the cat, dark as the souls of three witches, said as he gazed solemnly up at her.
“You can see me?” the moon asked, dismayed. She had been certain the mage had been real, had watched him by moonlight for three long years as he’d crafted this very cloak.
The cat cocked his head to the side as if considering her. For a brief moment, it appeared as though he was smiling, but when she narrowed her eyes, his expression couldn’t have been more sincerely that of earnest regard.
“Do not be alarmed,” he said. “Your cloak will bewilder the eyes of the mortals well enough.”
“But aren’t you mortal as well?” Perhaps it was the way the cat stared at her, unblinking, or maybe it was a shift in the air, but either way the moon was coming to regret giving into her curiosity. She’d half turned to go when the cat stretched out a paw.
“Hardly,” he said. “I have at least seven and a half lives yet. That,” he nodded at the velvety folds curling around her feet, “only diverts the gaze of those who are mortal enough to matter to a, what is it?, half-rate mage with a head cold?”
“He’s nearly recovered,” the moon said, pursing her lips primly. In all her time wandering the skies, she’d come across the idea of cats, but had never had direct dealings with any. Were they all like this? And what gave them the power to see?
The cat nodded as though they were having a pleasant conversation about the weather. “At any rate, you haven’t anything to fear from me.”
For some reason, the moon didn’t quite believe him. “Thank you.”
The cat merely gave her a complacent look and flicked the tip of his tail at her. The moon shook her head, more unsettled than she would have liked to admit, and forced herself to concentrate on her errand.
If she hurried, she might be able to catch sight of the witches before they left their lair, which, if the stories were to be believed, was made of bone and noxious gasses and stood on giant chicken feet.
The cat swiped a paw at his ear as though he hadn’t quite decided whether it needed a full washing or not. “Since you are wandering about in a world far removed from your own, I would be happy to point you in whatever direction you are headed.”
The moon froze, one pearly white slipper still in the air. Stories being her domain, she was familiar enough with them to recognize the beginnings of a bargain when she heard one. “What would you want in return?”
To his credit, the cat didn’t pretend to either shock or hurt feelings. “I believe I may have need of your light three times before this night is done. If I do, I’ll need you to lift the hood of your cloak—no more than three times. If the sun rises before the third time, well, I’ll eat my losses.” The way he grinned led her to believe that he’d never eaten anything even close to a loss in his entire life.
The moon studied the cat through narrowed eyes, searching for even the smallest sign of deceit. “All I’ll have to do is lift my hood? For how long?”
The cat yawned as though the whole bargain bored him already. “For three beats of a heart.”
“No heart beats the same,” the moon said, frowning. No matter how many times she turned the cat’s bargain about in her mind, it remained the same: cunning innocence wearing four night-black paws.
“Your heart beats, then.”
Her frowned deepened. “What do you want my light for?”
“Oh, you know.” The cat bent forward in a liquid cat stretch. “It’s dark out and I might need some light to see by.”
The moon nearly pointed out that cats could see very well in the dark, but decided to hold her tongue instead. Let the cat assume her simple. Drawing back her hood three times in a single night would do no harm, and she’d likely be able to find the witches sooner with a guide.
“All right. Three times in a single night, and no more.”
“Done.” The cat stood, all signs of boredom gone. “Where is it you want to go?”
“There are three witches,” the moon began, “whose reputations have come even to my ears. I wish to look upon them myself to see if all I’ve heard is true.”
The cat flicked the tip of his tail. “Witches are dangerous creatures,” he warned. “They never trouble themselves with scruples, especially not when they’ve a fly caught in their web. Their familiars are even worse.”
“I know, but these particular witches have never had any familiars.”
As if to underscore her point, a raven cawed a ghostly cry somewhere in the trees. The moon glanced around, but without the vantage point of her place in the sky, she couldn’t make out anything more than the solid mass of pine trees surrounding her on every side.
“There are a great many witches,” the cat said. “I can take you to nearly all of them. Which ones are you wanting to meet in particular?”
For reasons she didn’t understand, the moon glanced around herself to make sure they weren’t being observed. When she spoke, it was in a whisper. “The Babas Yaga that reside in these woods.”
The cat made as if to lead the way, but stopped and looked at her over his shoulder. “Are you quite sure you understand the difference between witch and familiar?”
© 2014-present by Danyelle Leafty. All rights reserved.
Come back next Saturday for the second installment! 🙂