“What am I supposed to do? Take a yak up the side of the mountain?” Jared mutters to himself.
The man smiles mildly at him from across the counter, and holds his hands up in a way that tells Jared that he has only the cloudiest idea of what Jared is saying. It’s probably for the better, since Jared’s fairly sure he’s getting the verb tenses all mixed up and there’s a definite possibility that he just asked for a cat to be delivered to his bathtub.
Jared scrubs his hands across his face, feeling dirty and gritty and dealing with that particular brand of vertigo that comes after a six-hour train ride. He rips his hat off, twists it between his hands in a display of impotent frustration and crams it back on his head. Goddamn, he wants a shower. Maybe something to eat and definitely a drink. Something strong. Ice optional.
Few other people populate the building: the young man behind the ticket counter for one, now chatting with a bored-looking railway worker. A woman sits on a long, low wooden bench, a battered suitcase set beside her, a handkerchief tied around her head and arms crossed over her chest. Her weathered face is downturned and she’s napping, starting to lean every so often then righting herself.
Jensen had slept nearly the entire ride, his chin resting on his chest and hands forming loose fists in his lap. Jared had tried to read, but he’d been too busy watching Jensen, the movement of his eyes behind closed lids, his lips occasionally shaping into unformed words.
Once upon a time, Jared would have claimed to have a moderately level head. Sure, he falls prey to the occasional fanciful notion, and maybe holds tight to a few ideas that are a little left of center. Generally though, he likes to think of himself as reliable, steady, a both feet on the ground kinda guy. Not the sort of person to take a lot of risks, like allow himself to get blown several hundred miles off course by a man he just met yesterday.
Past the platform, the rails stretch on in either direction through an expanse of green fields, bracketed by the foothills of the mountain range. The air feels thinner here. There’s a clean sort of pine scent to it, and Jared breathes in deep through his nose, holding it in for a second. He scans the tiny train depot and has no idea how he got here, but then Jensen steps off of the train, sleep mussed and still groggy, smiling a crooked little smile at him, and maybe Jared has a few ideas after all.
Jared joins him. “I can’t be too sure,” he says, “but I think that a bus might pass through here every other Wednesday, and this is an off week.”
Jensen cuffs him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’ll work out. Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“It’s on the bus. I’m fairly confident that it’ll show up sometime next Wednesday.”
“At least you have your luggage,” Jensen points out.
“And my faithful squire,” Jared says, whacking Jensen’s shoulder in return.
“I’m not the one tilting at windmills, here.”
“Sure thing, Sancho.”
Jensen scrubs a hand through his sloppy hair. It doesn’t help. “Enough with the Don Quixote references.”
“You started it,” Jared says.
“I don’t think I did,” Jensen counters. He glances over Jared’s shoulder. “It looks like our concierge requires your attention, Señor.”
With a snap of his fingers, the man behind the counter waves over a somewhat short guy wearing something akin to a sailor’s cap, with callused hands and dirt lodged underneath his fingernails. A quick conversation ensues, fast and in an unfamiliar dialect. Jared struggles to keep up, manages to catch a word here and there, enough to know that a bargain is being struck.
“Yenko will take you,” the man at the counter tells him.
Yenko smiles and nods, and without another word takes Jared’s suitcase and steamer trunk in tow and heads for the exit.
“Your carriage awaits.” Jensen smirks, following the man out the door.
Their carriage is a beaten up truck, pocked with rust spots in all shapes and sizes. Yenko hefts their luggage into its bed, bracing it between farm tools and the remnants of some sort of small, broken apart engine.
The trip is slow going. There’s barely space to breathe with the three of them jammed into the cab, Jensen wedged into the middle with both feet in the well on Jared’s side. An hour into the trip, Jared starts to not mind the switchbacks. The force of the turns make Jensen lean heavily into him, his body snugged up against Jared’s from ankle to shoulder. The teeth-rattling potholes take on a new light when Jensen grips Jared’s leg right above the knee, trying to steady himself.
Eventually Jared squirms his arm loose and lays it across Jensen’s shoulders, offering an apologetic shrug. Jensen shrugs back, knocks their feet together and tucks in closer.
Twilight comes early and sticks around for a while in this part of the world, the sun ducking behind the mountains, which cast a pervasive shadow over the small cluster of buildings they approach. It’s only late afternoon by Jared’s watch, but already the sky is fading to a dark, rosy color.
The road they’re following intersects with another, and their driver slows to a stop, the engine coughing as he cuts it off. He says something to them, and Jared understands only every fifth word or so, but gets enough to know that they have to walk from here. The path leading up to the village has dwindled to little more than twin wheel ruts, ill-suited for the truck that brought them this far.
Everybody shakes hands and exchanges stilted thank you’s, and Jensen tries to press him into taking a fistful of money.
“Please,” Jensen says. “Allow us to repay you.”
Yenko backs away toward the open door of his truck, shaking his head and smiling. He says something about home, and points down the road, where Jared can barely make out the shape of a distant grain silo and the rounded roof of a barn.
“Stubborn,” Jensen hisses, and takes a few steps closer to the driver’s side door.
Jared is floored when Jensen starts to speak to him in what sounds like flawless Bulgarian, his accent pitch perfect. Yenko is shocked as well and freezes, gaping for a moment before doubling over with gruff laughter, slapping a fist on the side of his truck and then again onto Jensen’s shoulder, as if they’re sharing some sort of inside joke. They talk for a few minutes longer, Yenko motioning his way through directions that will take them to an inn near the center of the village.
“Anything else I need to know about you before we go any further?” Jared asks once the truck starts trundling down the road in the direction of the farm amidst a spray of gravel. He’s going for sarcasm, but his surprise makes him shoot wide of the mark.
“I don’t snore, if that’s what you’re getting at,” Jensen says, and starts the walk toward the village. “At least, I don’t think I do.”
“Jensen. C’mon. Stop.”
Jensen spins, impatient, and drops his suitcase and backpack on the dirt trail. “I told you that I’ve studied a few languages. This just happens to be one of them. Besides, why would I be travelling alone out here if I didn’t speak the language?”
It’s leak-free logic. “It didn’t stop me,” Jared says.
“You’re not alone anymore,” Jensen points out.
“Neither are you.”
“And we’re both better off for it,” Jensen says. It’s the verbal equivalent of case closed. Jensen spins on his heel and leads them at a fast walk into town.
The place defines bucolic, nestled in a valley, a river marking the boundary of the town to the west, and to the east a giant wall of land rises up to a dizzying height, spotted with trees that appear black in the diminishing light. Beyond the village, Jared can vaguely see an expanse of fields used for planting and grazing.
Modernity hasn’t yet gotten a stranglehold here. On the surface, the people appear to live much as they had before the turn of the century, and even the century before that. It’s almost preternaturally quiet, the sound of their footsteps and the low rumble of the wheels of Jared’s trunk sounding intrusive to his ears as they travel through the narrow streets.
The houses lining the paths are low and long, mostly one level homes interspersed with the occasional two story building, their upper levels extending past the first and supported by wooden struts. A few homes still bear thatched roofs.
“You’d figure they’d all use shingles by now,” Jensen notes.
Jared remembers reading something about that. “It’s an antiquated tax law,” he explains. “If a building has a roof, it’s considered a permanent structure, so when the tax assessors come, they take the roofs off so they can pay less, then put new ones on once they leave.”
“Smart,” Jensen says.
A footpath spills them out onto a square, obviously the central marketplace of the town, and Jared feels a jolt of surprise. Most of the tiny population is gathered here in the plaza, preparing for tomorrow’s spring festival. A group of young men constructing a canvas pavilion are the first to notice them, and they pause in their work. Silence ripples outward through the crowd as conversations cease and all eyes are turned toward the two of them. Mothers begin to hold tight to their children’s hands, uttering tight-lipped, whispered warnings and pulling them back as the youngsters twist and fight to get a closer look, and a small army of men eye them suspiciously.
The town church, built in the Byzantine tradition, is the focal point of the square. Jared doesn’t need to see a schematic to know that the town was built around it. The building is enormous, placed to mirror, or perhaps mimic the shape of the mountain that serves as its backdrop. Its façade is about the length of a city block, but it extends far deeper than that, the back of the main structure butting up against the mountain. At first glance, Jared counts three domes, topped with small crosses that are almost invisible in the fading light. It looks to be the pale color of sand with rippling, dark red pottery shingles. The three doorways leading into the church are thrown open, spilling out a warm glow of yellow light onto the square.
The throng of people split down the center, making way for a slowly moving figure.
“Looks like we’ve caught the attention of the town holy man,” Jensen whispers.
“Yeah, and every other soul within a fifty mile radius as well.”
The Father is a tall man, even though some of his height has been lost to age. Most of his face is hidden behind a bright white beard that reaches down to his chest. He’s dressed entirely in black, his skullcap ringed with gold trim, and a weighty gold cross hangs low and rests against the thick black sash around his waist. He comes to a stop a few yards away and leans heavily on his cane, hands crossed over the handle of it, its wood twisted and knotty and its polish worn away from years of use.
He looks at each of them in turn, and Jared starts to take a step toward him. Jensen stills him with a light touch to the elbow, and Jared’s not sure why.
“American?” he asks, closing the distance between them, his cane clacking on cobblestones.
Jared nods, and Jensen says, “We’re here for the party,” then grunts when Jared elbows him in the ribs.
The priest spreads his arms wide. “It appears that you’ve arrived just in time,” he says, his English heavily accented but clear. “Welcome. I’m Father Ivan. It’s been a long time since we’ve had visitors.” His gaze slides from Jared and lands on Jensen. “Too long.”
The people surrounding them take this as a cue and as a group go back to work, sparing only the occasional glance in their direction.
“We might have a mutual acquaintance,” Jared ventures. “Do you know Ina Slokev?”
His face splits into a large smile. “Ina?” he says, indicating a height of three feet or so. “Little Ina?”
Jared laughs. “She’s not so little anymore. She’s a student at the university where I teach.”
“I hope she’s earning good marks,” the Father says.
“Definitely,” Jared assures him.
“Her grandmother will be so proud when she hears of this.”
“Her grandmother? Ina said her family moved away when she was still fairly young.”
“Veta moved back two years ago. She said she was coming home to die.” He shakes his head. “I think there’s still some life in her yet. Come.”
Ivan guides them around the edges of the square, and introduces them to Ina’s cousins, in-laws and various other rabbit’s relations, then the butcher, and the baker, the owner of the town’s one pub and finally a scattering of village elders. Jared shakes a myriad of hands and tries to commit names and faces to memory. His cheeks start to ache from a smile that feels frozen on his face. He drags his steamer trunk behind him over the uneven stonework, and hitches his backpack to a more comfortable position. Jensen plays the part of his shadow, uncharacteristically quiet.
Veta sits at a long table shaded by a canopy. Before her is a pile of yarn, red and white and evenly cut into pieces. She’s weaving them into martenitsas, tassels in the shape of people, creating tiny boys and girls with an efficiency that speaks of years of practice. Tomorrow they’ll be tied into clothing, hung from trees and given away as gifts.
The first thing that Jared notices when she looks up from her work is the color of her eyes. One of them is dark, the brown clouded over with a cataract, but the other is a clear, bright blue. Jared recognizes her granddaughter in her smile.
“Are all Americans as big as you?” Veta asks. “It’s not surprising that Ina has stayed there so long.” There’s barely contained laughter in Jensen’s voice as he translates.
“No ma’am. I’m an exception to the rule.”
“I bet they’re not all as handsome either,” she says, poking a finger in Jensen’s direction.
“No, they’re not.” Jared speaks before he thinks it completely through, and shoots a quick glance in Jensen’s direction. Jensen returns the look, then rubs at the back of his neck, mouth curving in a small smile. Jared clears his throat and continues, “I’d love to sit down and talk with you for a while. Ina told me some wonderful things about you. Particularly about your wormwood tea.”
That earns him a bark of laughter from Veta. “That girl,” she says fondly. “My world is a very small place. Hers has always been so much larger. Next time you see her, tell her to come home. Tell her that her grandmother misses her. Come see me tomorrow, before everything starts.”
The town inn is a small place, more along the lines of a boarding house, tucked into a corner of the square. The family that owns it is gathered near the front door when they approach.
Jared introduces himself. “Thank you so much for having us. I hope we’re not putting you out,” he says as he shakes hands with the mother and father, and musses the middle child’s hair. The oldest daughter hangs back, plucking at the cuffs of her sleeves and stealing small, sideways glances in their direction. Jared catches her with a smile and she looks down, shoulders hunched and trying to hide her blush.
Their lodging for the duration is a pair of rooms on the second level, the ceiling vaulted with exposed rafters. It’s possible that one of their daughters usually sleeps in the room that Jared chooses, if the pale pink quilt on the bed and the sparse decorations are anything to go by. The single window offers a view of the neighbor’s roof and the forest beyond. Jared unlatches it and leans far past the sill, craning his neck and twisting to get a better view of the mountain.
The window next to him swings open and Jensen pokes his head out. “Dinner’s in ten,” he says. “Anna’s making stew. I’m starving.”
The evening has cooled down. Jared trades his travel clothes for something marginally less rumpled, shrugs on his jacket and joins Jensen on the front porch of the house, sinking onto a bench beside him. A line of men file past the house, farming tools angled on their shoulders and straw hats on their heads.
“I’ve got to say that it’s the pitchforks that alarm me the most,” Jensen says.
Anna appears a moment later, bearing two earthenware bowls on a round tray, along with a pitcher of water.
“Forgive us,” she says. “You’re big news.”
“There’s nothing to forgive,” Jared tells her. “I could say the same thing about you.”
Jensen shakes Jared awake. It’s early, the predawn sun just starting to paint the sky in broad strokes of orange and pink.
“Shit,” Jared croaks.
“Not a morning person, then,” Jensen observes.
“It’s been said.”
The bed dips as Jensen sits next to him. He’s fresh-faced and bright-eyed, his hair still damp and there’s a tiny dot of blood from a shaving knick on the underside of his jaw.
Jared pushes himself up on his elbows as Jensen hands him over a cup of coffee. The window is open, and the room smells like the bakery a few shops away. Last night, he’d fallen asleep to the ringing of hammers. Now he hears the faraway beat of percussion instruments and the sound of singing that echoes between the buildings, and groggily wonders if anyone in this place ever sleeps.
“Anna says they’re setting up a bonfire on the edge of town,” Jensen tells him. “We should go help. Maybe make some friends.”
Jared grunts into his mug, wondering if there’s a way to gently kick Jensen out of his room for another couple of hours.
“What’s it called when you go out and embed yourself with the people that you’re studying?” Jensen asks.
“That’s it,” Jensen says, snapping his fingers. “We should go participate. And observe.”
“Oh, god, you’re right. I hate that you’re right.”
A good-sized crowd has already assembled in the square by the time they make it outside.
The square has been transformed overnight. Long tables line the periphery, bowing under the weight of enough food to feed a population twice the size of the town. Swooping garlands of greenery and flowers hang on every building, and more blossoms float in the central fountain. A low stage has been built in a far corner, and a group of musicians are tuning their instruments.
The women have traded their usual clothes for the traditional dress of the region: billowing shirts with embroidered sleeves under black dresses, red aprons tied around their waists and white handkerchiefs covering their heads.
One person in particular grabs Jared’s attention. She’s young—no older than sixteen—and is seated in an enormous, throne-like chair in front of the church. The jacket she wears reaches her knees, the material glinting with metallic thread in the early light. She drips with gold jewelry: a heavy necklace, a crown, so many bangle bracelets that lifting her arms must be difficult. Her hair is intricately braided and woven with tiny flowers. As Jared looks on, a couple approaches her and ties martenitsas on the back of her chair, each one kissing her cheek in turn.
“That can’t be comfortable. I’ll be back,” Jensen says, and jogs over to her. He pauses to pluck a flower from one of the bouquets scattered around the area before crouching down at her feet.
It’s sappy and ridiculous, but Jared feels his heart skip a beat when Jensen tucks the flower behind her ear. Searching for a distraction, Jared spots Father Ivan, who has taken up residence at one of the tables and is picking at a plate of fruit. “Who’s that?” Jared asks him.
“She’s the dragon’s bride,” he says around a mouthful.
The answer is so matter-of-fact that it takes Jared a full five seconds to catch up. “Wait. She’s not a sacrifice, is she?”
Ivan scoffs. “No. She’s a symbol. It’s been years since anyone sacrificed a virgin around here.”
“What does the church have to say about this, anyhow?” Jared says.
“These people are good people, Professor. Devout. You’re not from here, so it’s hard to understand.” Ivan pushes his plate away and rests against the back of his chair. “Tell me. How would you define faith?”
Jared takes his time. He could probably rattle off a passable textbook definition, but he doesn’t think that’s what the priest wants.
After a stretched out silence, Ivan finally lets him off the hook. “It’s fine if you can’t. I’m eighty years old. For most of those years I’ve been trying to do it, and I still don’t think I have it right. The closest I’ve come is this: faith is a belief in something, even in the face of no tangible proof. These people have faith, and then they have the dragon.”
“What are you saying?” Jared asks.
“I’m saying that there are some things that are older than the church. I’m saying that there are things the church doesn’t need to know about. Now go. Build us a big bonfire, young man. And when you see Veta, tell her I want to see her dance. She’ll know what I mean.”
Veta welcomes Jared into her home, her fingers wrapped around his elbow in a grip that’s gnarled but strong. Gesturing toward a small table in the kitchen, she sets about working at the wooden counter that takes up one wall of the room, and places a loaf of dark, crusty bread in front of him along with some sort of crumbled, blue-veined cheese. She pours him a cup of tea, and lobs a generous dollop of honey into it.
Jared’s sweaty from chopping wood for the fire, thirsty, and his stomach gurgles at the sight of food. He curls his fingers around the mug with a grateful smile and sputters on the first sip. The stuff is stronger than jet fuel.
“Thank you for taking the time to talk with me,” he begins, speaking slowly. The language barrier is growing thinner. Jared has always been a quick study, and a several hours spent this morning with the young men of the village, their patience and their curiosity has helped to get Jared up to speed on the twists and turns of their dialect.
The woman waves it away. Thin wisps of white hair have fallen out of the loose knot at the nape of her neck to frame her face, making the leathery color of her skin appear even darker.
“I hear you’re chasing fairy tales,” she mutters and Jared’s shoulders drop. She must see it, because she shrugs and straightens her vest on her shoulders, leans across the table and pats his hand in encouragement. “Just because they’re fairy tales, doesn’t mean they’re not true.”
Jared feels a renewed sort of hope. The woman takes a bite of bread and chews it slowly. Damn, but she knows how to work a crowd, even if it’s just an audience of one.
Wiping at the corners of her mouth in a way that was almost dainty, she continues. “Why do you think we tell these stories to our children?”
Jared’s answer is one given by rote. “They’re cautionary tales. Listen to your parents. Don’t go out in the woods by yourself. Don’t talk to strangers.”
She gives a throaty bark of laughter at that. “No such thing as strangers here, my dear.” Turning serious a moment later, she says, “We tell our children these things because there’s enough truth in those stories to make it real. We tell the children these things because they believe it.”
“Until they’re given reason not to,” Jared finishes for her, “or grow up.”
“Some of us just choose to never grow up. Like you.”
“Like me,” Jared agrees and does one better. “And like you.”
“There you have it. You’re smart. I like you.”
“The feeling’s mutual,” Jared says.
“You’re not here to flirt with an old woman. You want to know about the dragon.” She rubs a thumb on the handle of her spoon and Jared is reminded so strongly of her granddaughter that it’s disorienting.
“My family is an old one,” she begins, and her words have a measured cadence to them, like she’s about to launch into a well-known song or maybe an epic poem. “My great-great-grandfather saved a lord’s daughter from drowning in a river, and this is how he was repaid.” She sweeps her hand in an all-encompassing gesture, indicating not only the village but the surrounding countryside as well. “This land here was horrible,” Veta goes on, “nothing would grow, the wells gave up poisoned water, and wild animals attacked the livestock. Everyone said it was cursed.”
Jared’s momentarily transported backward to his junior year in undergrad, when he’d spent a month with a group of Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula. The nights spent in the elder tribesman’s home and how he would gather the younger generations together to tell them the Maya creation myth of mud and blood. Like him, Veta is a storyteller, a keeper of her family lore. For her to pass it on to him is a great honor.
“The villagers were hungry. Sick. Half of them died the first winter they were here. One day, my great-great-grandfather was hunting in the woods and came across a man buried in the snow. He was nearly dead, frozen blue, his clothes were torn and he looked like he’d been mauled by some terrible beast. My family took him in and tended his wounds, fed him and gave him warm clothes to wear. He stayed with them for the rest of the winter. One day, near the beginning of spring, he simply disappeared. Poof. Gone. The only trace of him was a beautiful golden necklace he left on the pillow where he’d slept.”
“It was the dragon,” Jared says.
“You decide. The water in the wells cleared. This valley has not seen a snowstorm since. Our herds are safe from predators. Mostly, anyway. My great-great-grandfather was a good man. I think he struck a bargain.”
“Ina also said something about the oldest families having dragon’s blood. Can you tell me anything about that?”
“Nothing certain,” Veta says. “But I can tell you that my great-grandfather looked nothing like his father. Did you see the dragon’s bride this morning?”
“Did you see the shackle around her ankle? The one that ties her to the chair?”
“No I didn’t,” Jared admits. The slice of bread he’d been chewing has turned to sawdust in his mouth. He’s badly shaken.
“It’s gold-plated. It has rubies embedded in it.”
“But it’s still a chain,” Jared says.
“You understand. Tonight they’ll take her out to the field and leave her there. If she’s lucky, she’ll still be chained to the chair in the morning.”
“If she’s not lucky?”
“The zmey will take her. Some traditions are old. Some we hold on to and some we forget. Some we should forget.”
“The bride. She’s part of the bargain, then?”
“Call it a rite of passage, call it whatever you want. We send a young man or a young woman out to the fields every year and mostly they come back. Sometimes they don’t. People say that they run away, but where would they run?”
“To the Roma?” Jared suggests. “There are still tribes of travelers in the mountains, right?”
“They keep to themselves, mainly. Why would they want one of us?”
“You could ask the same thing about the dragon,” Jared points out.
“I think it gets lonely.” She makes an impatient noise. “Let me ask you, is it magic? Is it magic that some years the crops grow higher than the sky and others the seeds won’t sprout from the ground? Some people call it science. Science,” she spits the word out like it’s a curse, rolling her eyes and wrinkling her nose. “Forgive me. I’m old. Set in my ways. I’ll tell you the truth of it, and you believe it or you don’t. There’s something that protects this village, and has protected this place for longer than any of us still alive can remember, and our memory is very, very long. Something that is more powerful than anything we’ve ever seen.”
She stares off into the middle distance for a moment, and Jared catches himself scooting toward the edge of his seat, holding his breath. This is what he came for. This exactly. He’d been taking notes, but now realizes that his pen has stilled, gripped tightly and making his hand ache, his fingertips white and bloodless.
“My great-grandmother was a beautiful woman. Kind and gentle. Everyone loved her. She was young then, younger than you. There was a horrible drought, nothing would grow, and the whole village was worried that they’d not make it through the cold season. So she went into the woods, searching for the place where the stranger had been found years before, trying to draw the dragon out of his cave where he holds back the rain. She didn’t come back.”
“Did they search for her?” Jared says.
“Not very hard, if you ask me. The village got what it needed. The rains came. That’s what mattered to them. It changed my grandfather, to lose his mother at such an early age. He was never the same. I’ll never forget him on his deathbed. He kept calling out to her, and talking to her as if she was sitting right next to him. Maybe she was. We’ll never know. There was talk, though, from people who remembered her face. Old men who used to say that they saw her, when they were hunting in the woods or walking through the village at night. They all said that she’d not aged a day. We all thought they were crazy. This is crazy talk, no? Too much to drink.” She chuckles before continuing. “She had eyes like mine. Like Ina’s,” she says quietly, as if sharing a treasured secret. “I don’t think that they were all that crazy.”
The woman blinks toward the distant mountain range, visible through the open door, her expression thoughtful and serene. “I was seventeen when I went up into the mountains. I wanted to see it for myself. I spent the night in a cave up there. You should go see it. I’d take you, but—“ she cuts off, waving a hand in the direction of a cane that rests propped against the door. “I saw the strangest things that night.”
“What happened?” Jared asked, completely enrapt.
“I met my great-grandmother. More than a hundred years had passed since she disappeared, but she hadn’t aged a day. Later, my mother told me I dreamed it. I don’t think it was a dream.” With a small shake of her head, she scrapes her chair backward along the uneven plank floor and rises, clutching at her back as she straightens. Her smile is small, and the look on her face is a bit wistful. “Here, help an old lady to the party.” Veta straightens her shirts and tucks her hair beneath a handkerchief.
Jared takes her hand and feels a dry, bone on bone crunch beneath her thin skin. “It would be an honor.”
The large brass door opens on silent hinges and Jared slips quietly into the church, his backpack clutched in one hand. A trapezoid of light hits the gleaming wooden floor, Jared’s shadow tall and skinny in the middle of it. The interior is murky and cavernous, smells of candle wax, wood polish and the ghost of incense lingering from Sunday Mass. A young man stands in front of a bank of votives, scattered candles bathing his face in a ruddy, shifting glow. Another man sits alone in one of the many pews, near the center aisle with his head bowed and shoulders drawn forward.
Jared squints, blinks away the effects of the bright sunlight outside and glances up at the ceiling, adorned with fading, crumbling frescoes. A one-dimensional Mother Mary stares down at him, lacking expression, and a similarly blank-faced Jesus sits in her lap, body the size of a child but bearing the proportions of a fully-grown man.
A flicker of movement draws Jared’s attention and he catches sight of someone in the far corner of the cathedral exiting through a plain wooden door, stained a color so dark that it appears nearly black.
“Dr. Padalecki.” The whispered voice shocks Jared almost clear out of his skin and he gasps and spins to find the Father looking up at him.
“I thought you’d come here eventually,” he says.
“I was hoping to borrow a map of the mountain.”
The father offers a knowing nod. “Bored with our little town already, I see.”
“Not at all,” Jared says.
He draws Jared to a side door, the steady clack of his cane creating a dull thump that reverberates throughout the room. Jared decides that the thing is mostly for show as he follows the priest along an open breezeway at a quick pace.
He leads them to another building, and into what is obviously a classroom. “The church complex is a catch-all,” the Father explains. “Medical clinic, school, library. It houses the town records, such as they are.” An adjoining door opens into a tiny room, hardly larger than a broom closet. Ivan rummages along a shelf. “Here it is,” he says, unfolding a map shaded in greens and browns.
Jared holds it up. He’s never been the backwoods camping type, and right now he might as well be trying to read cuneiform. In fact, he’d probably be better off if it was actually written in cuneiform.
From a pocket hidden in his dark robes, Father Ivan produces a silver coin, a square hole punched through the center and a red string tied in a loop through it. “I must ask a favor of you. When you get to where you’re going, would you leave this for him? You’ll know the right place.”
Turning the coin over in his palm, Jared says, “Is this another one of those things that the church doesn’t need to know about?”
Jared sits on the edge of the fountain, his notebook resting on his knee. A shadow falls across the page and he looks up to see Jensen passing half a sandwich over to him, sharp, pale-colored cheese on dark bread, slathered with some sort of olive spread. Jared takes a bite and moans. It might just be the best thing he’s ever put in his mouth.
“How’d it go?” Jensen asks.
“I think I’m in love,” Jared replies around another mouthful.
“With the sandwich or with Veta?”
Jensen snatches the notebook from Jared’s lap. When Jared makes a grab for it, he shoves it into his backpack. “No studying today. Just pay attention.”
“But I don’t want to forget anything,” Jared protests.
“You’ll remember,” Jensen says. “And if you don’t, I’ll remember for you.”
The festival is in full swing. Music is playing, bagpipes and drums, and a snaking line of dancers work their way through the crowd with their arms linked together. Wreathes of herbs hang around their necks.
“They’re dancing the horo,” Jared bends in close to Jensen in order to be heard over the song. “In Bulgarian folklore, the dragon will get too confused by the dance and won’t be able to take any of the villagers.”
“I suppose that’s why they’re staying away from the bride,” Jensen says. “Did Veta tell you that?”
Jared shakes his head. “I read it somewhere. She did tell me about a cave. Up there.” Jared points to the mountain range hulking over the town. “Where the dragon keeps the rain and the wind trapped. I’ve gotta go see it.”
“Obviously you do,” Jensen says slowly. “Do you know where it is?”
“That’s a start.”
Jared takes the map from his pocket and points to a spot carefully lettered in Cyrillic. “How long do you think it’ll take?”
Jensen considers it for a moment, rolling his bottom lip between his thumb and his first finger. “A day there and a day back, probably. Depends on your stamina. You’ve got long legs.”
“Stamina.” Jared snorts. “Wonder how much I’ll have to pay to bribe a guide to take us up there.”
“I know a man.” Jensen shrugs. “Rumor says he works fairly cheap.”
“Rumor also says he’s bossy as hell.” Jared rolls his eyes. “So you think you could find your way around?”
“Vaguely. Hopefully,” Jensen says. “I do know how to read a map, you know.”
Before he can respond, the line of dancers draws close to them and pulls Jared into their ranks. There’s no choice but to stumble along, trying to learn the steps and not trip over his own feet or those of his neighbors. He gets in one backward glance and sees Jensen laughing behind his hand and then he’s swept up, the sound of singing voices loud in his ears.
They light the bonfire at sunset. Jared follows a procession of men through the winding walkways that lead to the outskirts of town as they carry the bride into the field. The girl shifts in her seat, jostled left and right, gripping the arms of the chair so tightly that it has to hurt.
Offerings have been left on doorsteps throughout the village, food and wine, idols and small trinkets. More have been left in the fields: baskets of bread and sweet rolls, dripping with syrup and honey.
A vanguard of children surrounds Jared as he walks, chattering happily. They stick flowers into the buttonholes of his shirt and in his pockets. One bold teenage girl approaches him and places a garland of flowers on his head, reaching up on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. Not sure of the custom, Jared returns the kiss and she dashes away, her smile hidden behind her hand.
Jared had thought that the whole population had turned out in the square earlier in the day, but he’d been wrong. The crowd milling around the bonfire is half again as large and more than twice as loud, full of raucous laughter, shouts and snatches of songs. He hangs back, his feet sinking into the soft, damp dirt and scans the familiar and unfamiliar faces.
A procession of men dressed in white shirts, trailing red sashes and loose black pants gathers around the fire, a motley collection of percussion instruments in hand. They begin to circle it with measured steps, playing a rhythm no faster than a funeral dirge to start. The air grows denser, a strange sort of charge taking hold as the men quicken the tempo and start to move faster. Someone throws a strip of firecrackers into the flames and sparks fly up and out, voices rising above the music in loud whoops.
Jared feels a tickle on the back of his neck and turns to see Jensen emerging from the murky darkness, the light from the bonfire painting his face a vital red color. His fingers are looped through the small handle of a ceramic jug, his feet are curiously bare and the cuffs of his jeans are splattered with dark mud.
“There you are,” Jared says as he comes to a stop beside him, close enough that their elbows brush when Jensen takes a sip from the bottle.
Jensen licks his lips, leaving them shiny and wet. “I’ve been busy begging, borrowing and stealing. I think I’ve got everything we need. And before you ask, no, I’m not lugging your trunk up the side of the mountain.”
“What if I need one of my books?”
Jensen gives him a look so sharp it could cut glass, but doesn’t answer. Instead he passes the jug over. The stuff burns on the way down, then settles into a warm slosh in Jared’s stomach, fruity and sweet.
Jared still wears the garland of flowers in his hair, ribbons trailing over his shoulder. Jensen curls one around his first finger, and the smile he gives Jared is downright flirty. “Fetching,” he says, then produces a red and white martenitsa, which he slips into Jared’s hand, curling Jared’s fingers around it. “For good luck.”
The music stops, drawing Jared’s attention toward the group of people once more. Three older women take a prominent place before the fire, sisters by the look of them, dressed entirely in white. They start to sing in a minor harmony, ghostly and nearly discordant to Jared’s western ears.
Jared’s flesh breaks out in goosebumps, and the scene before him begins to take on a surreal bend, like he’s stepped into a dream. In unison, the three women raise their arms above their heads and the rest of the crowd follows suit a beat later, swaying back and forth. Silhouetted against the shifting light of the fire, they seem like marionettes, their movements stilted and wooden. A sensation starts deep in Jared’s core, heavy, like someone has placed an anchor in his chest and is starting a steady, inexorable pull.
He’s dizzy, more lightheaded than the couple of swallows from Jensen’s bottle can account for, and his vision has gone hazy around the edges, as if he’s looking through a grimy window. Something builds, some sort of force crackling in the air. It clings to Jared, hugging his body, and Jared thinks that he might be able to see it, if he could tilt his head at just the right angle and squint just so. He stares into the fire and form begins to appear, twisting and indistinct. The bottle falls from his hand and he takes one step toward the flames. His pulse hammers in his ears. He needs a better look.
“This isn’t for you,” Jensen says, and it doesn’t make sense. He sounds very far away, somewhere on the other side of the universe.
Jared ignores him and takes another dragging step.
“Jared,” Jensen tries again, a little closer this time, his voice steely and insistent. “Look at me.” He grabs Jared’s upper arm but Jared pulls away. Jensen blocks him then, reaches up to palm Jared’s jaw and steer Jared’s face toward him, his palm a shock of warmth on Jared’s skin. His hand is shaking, tiny tremors and Jared’s not too sure what to think of that. There’s barely any space between them; they’re so close that they might as well be sharing the same small stamp of land.
The effect is grounding. Jared does look at him then, releasing a breath that sounds like a sigh. Jensen’s lips are parted and his eyes are wide with concern, firelight catching in them and turning them a brilliant green. Beautiful. Jared’s never seen anything quite like it. He mirrors Jensen and touches his face, swiping his thumb against Jensen’s cheekbone, catching a thrill when Jensen leans into it a little.
Jensen still smells like sandalwood, now with smoke from the fire mixed in and Jared can taste his breath, sweet with liquor. Jared wants to kiss him. He’s right there, his face turned up and mouth so soft. All Jared has to do is push forward, just a fraction. This isn’t the first time he’s thought about it. This isn’t even the tenth.
“It’s not for you,” Jensen says a final time.
It’s spell breaking. Jared takes an unsteady backward step, blinking and shaking his head. “Damn,” he says, shoving his hair away from his face. Only then do the words of the song begin to register. “They were trying to call down the dragon.”
“I know,” Jensen says, still watching Jared closely.
Jared stammers. “I—uh. I saw something? Someone? It was in the fire.”
“It’s part of your nature. You can hardly be blamed. People are inclined to see faces in everything. Clouds, woodgrain, fire. The man in the moon.”
Jared sinks to the ground, cross-legged. “Fuck,” he says, slouching. “For a minute there…” he trails off, at a loss, and tries again. “For a minute there, I kinda. Lost myself.”
Jensen finds his own spot right next to Jared, his knuckles bumping Jared’s knee. It’s as if he needs to keep touching him. Jared doesn’t mind it, not at all. He laughs, but there’s not a lick of humor in it. “It was a bit longer than a minute.”
Startled, Jared looks toward the fire. It’s burned down quite a bit, a thick layer of glowing embers have replaced the flames, growing bright then dimming, like a pulse. “Holy,” Jared croaks.
“I’m sorry,” Jensen says. “You froze. It wasn’t weird at first, and then it was, you know? I’m sorry,” he says again. “I should have paid closer attention to you.”
“It’s not your fault,” Jared argues. Disagreeing with Jensen is a lot easier than wrapping his head around what has happened. He’ll save that particular puzzle for later.
“I promised to look after you,” Jensen tells him.
“No you didn’t,” Jared scoffs.
“I didn’t promise you.”
The jug had fallen on its side, most of its contents soaked into the dirt. Jared rights the bottle and wipes its mouth on his sleeve before starting to take a sip.
“That might not help,” Jensen warns.
“Don’t think it’ll hurt.” Jared takes a large gulp, hisses on the swallow and passes the bottle over to Jensen.
“Eh. You’re probably right.”
They polish the what’s left of the bottle off in silence. People with metal rakes tend to the bonfire, spreading the coals out into a large circle. The bagpipes start up again and Veta comes forth with Ivan by her side. Her back is straight, chin tipped up and her walk is steady. Years have melted away from her posture since this morning’s interview. She hugs a gilded frame against her chest, the metal shining in the glow of the coals. With sweeping movements, she swings the picture frame low toward the embers and Jared gets a glimpse of the image of a figure dressed in long robes before she spins gracefully away.
At first, Jared thinks she’s going to stay to the periphery of the fire, and lunges to his feet as she calmly takes a step onto the embers, sparks swirling around her ankles. She bends at the waist and spins, holding the painting at an angle to the circle of fire.
“Who is it in the painting?” Jared asks.
“I saw it as they were carrying it here,” Jensen says. “It’s St. George.”
“The dragon slayer,” Jared notes. “It’s a warning.”
Veta drops the painting into the fire and begins to dance around it as it’s consumed, her feet moving in intricate steps that would be difficult for a person half her age.
“No,” Jensen disagrees, “More like a sacrifice. Let’s go.”
Jared’s still somewhat shaky, weaving a little on the walk through the field. Jensen notices and wraps an arm around his waist to steady him. “I have one more errand,” he says, and steers them further into the field, beyond earshot of the celebration.
The bride is alone, still bound to her chair, it’s blocky frame nearly invisible behind a pile of offerings of food and wine. Jared hangs back while Jensen checks on her, but his words carry in the clear night air.
“Don’t worry. You’re safe,” Jensen says to her. “The dragon won’t come for you.” He takes a cloth-covered bundle and unwraps it as he makes his way back to Jared, and offers Jared a sweet roll covered in honey. “Apparently they think that the dragon has a sweet tooth.”
Jared stumbles out of bed, head pounding and one foot completely asleep. In the blinding darkness, he gropes past furniture toward the door, the floorboard groaning beneath his feet. Reaching for the doorknob, he trips over something warm and soft, tipping forward until his shoulder comes in contact with the rough wood of the door with a hollow thunk.
“The fuck,” he mumbles as the form on the floor groans. “Jensen? Jesus.”
Jensen unravels himself from Jared’s legs, bumps into him three times before he makes it to his feet and rests his forehead on Jared’s bare shoulder, his short hair scuffing along Jared’s skin. “Yes,” Jensen says. “And ouch.”
“What are you doing?”
“Getting woken up in a very unfortunate manner.”
“What are you doing on the floor?” Jared clarifies.
“I was trying to sleep,” Jensen explains. “It didn’t work out the way I planned.” Jensen brushes past him, there’s the scrape of a match as he lights a candle. Jensen looks like he’s gone a few rounds with a semi, hair messy, face blotchy, and he’s still wearing the clothes he had on last night, now rumpled and stained. “Meet me at the crossroad on the way to the pasture,” he says as he slips through the door. “I want to check on the girl. Bring breakfast. Something sweet.”
The morning has dawned warm, just a pale line of purple casting the hills in dark relief against the sky. A fog has skidded down from the mountains and the air is humid, smells like water and pine trees and mutes the sound of Jared’s footsteps on the cobbled pathways. The town is still asleep, and the storefronts are all dark except for the bakery. Jared ducks in through the door.
If the man behind the counter is surprised to have a customer so early, he doesn’t let on. He’s a short fellow, balding, a white apron tied around his waist and flour ground into the cracks in his knuckles. Jared takes a moment to pour over the rows and rows of pastries and baked goods. The room is warm, doubtless heated by the oven that takes up one wall of the place, arched and blackened bricks at its rounded opening. A sample tray of pastries sits on the counter and Jared plucks one up, a rounded thing that looks a little like a doughnut hole doused in sugar glaze, sticky. It’s perfection, carries a hint of almonds and sweetness explodes on his tongue. He buys two dozen, as well as a dark loaf of bread spotted with black olives, and makes for the edge of town, breakfast in a white paper bag tucked the crook of his elbow and his backpack slung loosely over one shoulder.
He’s about to their meeting spot by the time the sugar rush hits, a zinging tickle at the back of his skull. Jensen’s already there, an indistinct figure in the distance and Jared feels a shock of nervous energy. His memories are a little hazy, but one thing is clear: he almost kissed Jensen last night, and Jensen almost let him.
Jensen sits on a rickety post gate that marks the border of a farmer’s land, livestock scattered across the field and largely ignoring them. His gear is stowed against the fence post, wooden and weather-washed smooth and pale. A canteen, a self-contained mess kit made out of dinged up aluminum, and a large, unfamiliar backpack, it looks like Jensen is planning to spend a week in the wilderness and not a couple of days.
“A regulation boy scout,” Jared notes, shuffling through the supplies.
“Never hurts.” Jensen jumps down from his seat. A floppy olive green hat hides most of his face in shadow, and his legs poke out from a pair of cut off cargo shorts. His boots are old, the leather uppers worn in and looking soft as butter, but the soles of them seems to have been replaced recently.
Jared shuffles through their gear, loops a canteen through the strap on his backpack and knows immediately that the thump of the thing against his waist is going to get very old, very quickly.
Jensen straightens his hat and squares his shoulders. “You ready?” He starts down the path at a loping walk, leaving Jared to jog a few steps to catch up.