“Yes. The familiars serve the witches.” She gathered the cloak close about herself, careful to keep the hem from dragging or catching on any of the needles. She wanted to make sure she returned the cloak in exactly the state she’d borrowed it in.
“If you’re sure.” He grinned at her before resuming the course he had chosen.
The cat walked for a time, leading her along a path that only he could see, for he certainly didn’t follow any of the trails crisscrossing the forest for very long. Every so often he’d stop and clean his paws, watching her through glowing eyes as he did.
On the third such stop, rather than sitting down, he remained upright, his ears straining at the night. “I think I have need of the first favor,” he said without turning around.
Wordlessly, the moon lifted the hood from her face, washing the forest about them with her silver light. Without warning, the cat darted off to the right and ran up the side of a tree as though the earth’s pull had no permission to impede his movements.
There was a brief struggle among the branches, and a raven cried out in indignation before the cat dropped like a stony shadow and landed lightly on its feet. The moon pulled the hood back over her head, but not before she’d caught the look of satisfaction on the cat’s face.
“I would have thought you would have wanted my light for something more important than catching your supper,” she said as they began to walk again.
“Oh, I wasn’t catching my supper,” the cat purred over his shoulder. And, indeed, with a disgruntled cry, the raven abandoned the tree and made for the night, calling curses down upon all cats everywhere as it did so.
Some things were better left unasked, so the moon pressed her lips together and followed the cat as he led her deeper into the forest.
When he claimed his second favor, the same thing happened. Only this time, the raven didn’t wait for them to start walking before it erupted out of the tree with an angry squawk.
The moon just shook her head. The idea she’d had of cats before had never prepared her for how impossible they were to understand.
“We’re getting close now,” the cat said, licking his lips. “But before we go on, are you certain you can tell the witch from the familiar? Sometimes witches use their familiars to misdirect attention for their own nefarious purposes.”
“In most of the stories, witches don’t cast shadows.”
“Neither do their familiars,” the cat pointed out.
“Oh.” She hadn’t considered the witches’ familiars, precisely because they hadn’t any. At least, not according to the myriad of stories floating around like top knots and quicksand. But if that were true, why did the cat keep bringing them up?
He gave her another inscrutable grin. “The mortals have gotten it figured out for the most part. They burn the familiars and drown the witches.”
The moon wasn’t sure what she was supposed to say to that.
The cat’s grin deepened at her discomfort. “Mortals my be a brutish bunch, but they can be very effective in large numbers.”
“But I don’t want to burn or drown anyone,” the moon managed at last. “I just want to see if the tales I’ve heard about them are true.”
The cat didn’t say anything. He just flicked his tail and continued on.
A little while later, he asked for his third and final favor. The moon stood stoically beneath the pine while the cat fought with the raven hidden in its branches. She gasped when the first few feathers rained down on her, but before she could do more than step out of the way and brush them off her shoulders and cloak, the cat landed in front of her, a single feather hanging crookedly out the corner of his mouth.
“That,” he said with devilish delight, “was supper.”
“That was the third time,” the moon reminded him as she slipped the hood back over her face.
“That it was,” said the cat. “And this is where we part company.”
Unease breathed down the back of the moon’s neck with a cold and clammy breath. “The bargain was that you’d lead me to the witches if I drew back my hood three times.”
“And so I have,” the cat said, licking a paw.
The moon balled her fists into the cloak. A bargain was a bargain, so the cat had better be true to his end of it. “I don’t see any witches.” Indeed, they were in a stretch of forest that resembled all the previous stretches of forest they’d passed during the night. There was no sign of a cottage, nor were there any witches to be seen.
“This is as far as I can go,” the cat spoke slowly as if to be certain she’d be able to follow the conversation. “But if you follow the path ten paces, and turn to the left, you’ll see a clearing filled to the brim with what you’re looking for.”
“And if I don’t?” the moon snapped, irritated that he actually did think her simple.
“If I’ve lied, you have claim to one of my lives” the cat said. “That’s the usual cost for breaking a bargain—whether or not you’re a cat.” It gave her a look that unsettled her far more than anything else he’d done before he bounded off into the night, losing himself among the shadows.
Her heart thumped with the anticipation of what lay only a few paces away, if the cat could be trusted—not that he could, although she was sure he was telling the truth about the witches and the clearing.
The moon glanced up at the sky, noting the pearly gray bleeding up from the horizon. She’d have to be quick, but then she could be on her way. That thought excited her nearly as much of the prospect of seeing the notorious Babas Yaga with her own eyes. She longed for the clarity of the sky, and couldn’t wait to return home..
With one hand, the moon snugged the cloak against herself, making sure not even a peep of light escaped from its folds. Then, before she could do the sensible thing and turn around, she walked ten paces and turned left.
Her mouth gaped open at the sight of a ramshackle cottage made of wood, but repaired with bone, that had no door and only a single window. The chimney belched out a citrine-colored smoke, and the giant chicken feet rested silently beneath the frame of the house.
She had found the witches’ lair.
With her breath quivering in her lungs, the moon stepped out into the clearing.
Something snapped up behind her the moment her foot cleared the threshold. She whirled around, but nothing looked out of place. Power hummed through the thicket that boxed the cottage in the clearing, but that was likely some sort of witch spell.
“You are the moon,” she reminded herself. It had been a long time since she’d had to reassure herself of that. “Stronger than three mere witches put together.”
Her heart beat a steady command, urging her to take to the sky and return to her place. But the moon pressed her lips together and fisted her hands. She had not come all this way only to turn back now.
Determined, she followed the faint trail marking the way up to the cottage window. Her brow furrowed as she walked. There was something very familiar about the markings that made up the path—
As though following her thoughts, golden light flared up about her. The moon threw up her hands to protect her eyes, but the light had already seared itself across her vision, so she didn’t see the golden threads tangled about her hands and feet at first.
She blinked the tears from her eyes just as the sky colored into the muted gray that always heralded in a new day. The connection she had with the sky plucked at her center, trying to carry her back home. But the threads, so fragile and thin, held her firmly in place.
“What have I done?” she moaned. The need to return home burned all else away, and for the first time, she questioned the curiosity that had driven her from the sky in the first place.
“Oh, you’ve done nothing wrong,” a voice like a rusted hinge observed.
“Indeed,” a voice like the slither of a snake in the grass agreed. “You only heeded our call.”
“And came when we told you to.” The third voice sent a shiver of dread running through the moon. This was the voice of the deepest night, an ancient night before she or the stars ever thought of shining.
“I heard no call,” the moon said, forcing herself to sound firm and dignified when all she wanted to do was fall to her knees in a soundless sleep. Already the sun was fragmenting the sky into a fanfare of color, and with each streak of light that tore across the gray, she felt herself weakening.
© 2014-present by Danyelle Leafty. All rights reserved. Originally published in Curiosities of the Moon.
Come back next Saturday for the third installment!