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Of Friendship, Frost, and Feathers
To me, there are a few things more beautiful than a winter’s night. They weren’t uncommon. They came once a year. But they were the most memorable. It was a time when elaborate figurines made of garlic graced doorways and carved candles lit every windowsill. It was a time when children took to the hills with bearskin rugs or cooking pots and had races sledding down in the light of the moon. It was a time of family, of dancing and singing around a warm hearth when the air got too cold to bear. So it was on one of those nights, when the air was so frigid that sticking your head out the window instantly led to a nose the color of strawberry jam, that my friend decided to employ me in one of his various escapades.
I always liked winter’s calming silence, but this time it only added to my uneasiness as the two of us walked down the road, the snow already packed by sleds earlier that day. I buried my chin into the high collar of my thick wool coat. Lick by lick, the cold had already done quick work at numbing my ears and was working at my nose and cheeks. I silently wished I had brought my hat, but somebody dragged me out of the house too quickly for me to remember.
That somebody, my friend, patiently matched my pace as we hurried towards the center of the village. His voice broke the silence. “Thank you for agreeing to help me with this, Brano.”
“If by “agreeing to help” ever meant “taking me against my will”, then you’re welcome. ” I muttered, sending puffs of cloud skyward.
“I meant it sincerely.” he arched an eyebrow in my direction. His smile was sweetly innocent, as if he had done nothing wrong whatsoever. Truthfully, he had done nothing wrong; it was just that he often forgot that the laws of nature applied to him differently then they did to me. For example, like most other humans, I needed time to wake up.
“I know, Marian.” I yawned, “Sorry"
“So are you cold, then? That coat looks incredibly uncomfortable for this sort of work.” He pulled his fur cloak tighter around himself.
“Not cold, ‘m just tired….” I jumped as I felt icy needles on the back of my neck. I snapped a look at Marian. I didn’t have to see his wrist flick out to know it was him. “HEY!”
“Are you awake now?” Marian snickered under his breath.
“Yes!” My hands set to work rubbing my collar in protest, and my foot promptly stood out in Marian’s path. Needless to say, he got a face full of snow seconds later.
I started laughing. Marian, surprisingly, joined me.The road rang with infectious laughter, mine low and throaty and his like sleigh bells. I reached down to pull him up.
Still chuckling, but back on his feet, Marian shook out the snow from his hair. “Very well, we’re even.”
We continued on the way to town. Our laughter soon died, and winter’s silence embraced us and our high spirits once more. Marian hadn’t brought any lanterns with him, and there had been no reason to. The moon was bright and full, the snow glowing in its gentle light. Ever so often, a gust of wind set the snow in the fields off into whorls of sparkling powder, and our hair into tangled messes so dark that they seemed to absorb the moonlight itself. Marian was able to fix that with a twirl of his hand.I smiled and looked over at him. He nodded as if confirming my thoughts, that the scene was indeed breathtaking, but he kept his gaze straight ahead, looking for something in the town before us. We weren’t just here to look around at a snowy, sleepy village, we were here to finish a job.
“What kind will it be tonight?” I asked slowly. We had passed the first few houses. It was my turn to break that sacred silence.
“Cmok. Ladislav Chernov has one in his home. He and his family have been suffering for the past month.” Marian answered. His voice had become like knife blades, pointed and serious, and his eyes sparked with spats of blue flame.
I felt like I had been slapped with a wall of ice. “What?! You lept through my window, stuffed snow into my nightshirt, and pulled me out of bed for the sake of daemon chickens?”
“Do not underestimate them.” was all that Marian said.
“But it is a chicken. You can do that by yourself!”
“I could have gone alone, but it is usually better to bring someone with you, just in case if things go wrong.”
“Can things go wrong with a chicken?” I cried.
“I believe now is the time to tell you that I have no idea how to do this on my own.” sighed Marian with an air of impatience.
“And that still isn’t going to stop you? How do you even know that the Chernovs have such a thing in their house?” I stood there, exasperated at the sheer ridiculousness of the situation. “Did you sense it, or did you simply jump the fence and raid their coop?”
“Neither. I didn’t have to.” He turned to me, earnestly. “You may think cmok are weak, but they are incredibly deceptive in their ways.”
I stared at the ground, shaking my head in annoyance. Of course I knew what he meant! I knew the legends. My Babka used to tell me them when I was little. They came to a family in the form of a tiny, wet, black chick, and as they grew, they enchanted the entire household, displaying wealth or plenty while in reality, everything withered away. The thing was, where I lived, they were a rarity.
Marian urgently tried again. “When was the last time you saw the family?”
I reeled in my memories of the past season- and felt numb, nerves churning in my gut. “They weren’t at church…” I realized, counting on my fingers, “They refused the invitation to Lesnar’s house, and I didn’t see them at any of the holiday markets. In fact, I never even saw them outside!”
We turned a winding corner, and the Chernov house appeared ominously before us. As we came up to the doorway the snow started to fail us, letting our feet sink deeper with every crunch. And yet, from a distance, it looked neatly shoveled just like the other houses around it. My skin prickled, not from the cold, but from fear.
“You were right.” I said, barely a whisper. Silence swallowed my words, just like how the snow had eaten at my legs. It was already up to my knees. “Is it too late? Are we too late?”
“I don’t know.” Marian was stoic.“But we’ll soon find out.”
All that stood between us and total catastrophe now was a door. I took a deep breath. “I can’t believe we are actually doing this.”
“I can’t believe that the person that decapitated a grown fire serpent is having second thoughts.” Marian answered back.
I went red at the mention of this. Before I could say anything, he pressed a small bag of salt into my hand and lifted a finger to his lips. The sparks in his eyes had turned into an unearthly glow.
“Brano, whatever you do, don’t be a chicken” he said quietly.
Down went the door in one swift, simple kick. The nerves that had plagued me so far deadened into a familiar calm. I knew what to do.
As we gently passed through our way through the kitchen, I did the necessary precautions, sprinkling salt on the floor, then lining the windows and the doorway with it to prevent any matter of escape for the creature. Marian did the same, before heading back outside to check the dreaded chicken coop, a favorite and quite obvious spot that cmok liked to hide about in. The sounds that came back to me were made of frivolous footsteps and muffled screaming.
I raced out the door and behind the house to where the noise came from. There was Marian, the person I have seen hold off a werewolf with nothing more than a needle, on the ground with a plump, grey, completely ordinary chicken on top of him. It took all my will not to laugh in his face when he was finally able to kick it off. The bird went flying.
“Chicken much?” I mouthed over to him. Marian gave a wry smile and shook his head before pointing to a small straw hutch.
I went over to the coop and looked inside. All that was in there were small piles of bones and old, dusty feed. Marian returned with the chicken settled in his arms, finally calm, in tow. “Only one.” he mouthed back. He pointed back to the house.
Back inside, we quietly moved around the kitchen and pantry, searching for any sign that marked a daemon chicken living there. There was nothing save for rotting wood and spoiled food if we looked closely enough. Some time later, I was busy looting a cabinet searching for scratch marks, or a black feather, when I felt a cold tap on my shoulder.
Marian stood behind me, eyes blazing, and I nearly jumped in surprise. He pointed to a doorway that led to the place where Chernov, his wife, and their two little girls slept. I read the words on his lips: It’s in there. Be ready.
When we got to that room, let’s just say I wasn’t that ready.
Following Marian, whose steps had a catlike silence to them, I followed him, back pressed against the wall as lightly as possible, into the bedchamber. Inside, it was small, cramped and dark with what looked like piles of rags on living skeletons in the beds. Two large ones, two tiny ones. They were barely breathing. My blood suddenly ran colder than the wind outside, and I felt the burn of bile up my throat.
I have seen Death before, but she was nothing like this.
Yet there was warmth- in the hand on my shoulder, steading me from falling to the ground in shock, in the shared sorrow in Marian’s face, in the flicker of vengeance in my chest. The sooner we got that chicken, the greater the chance that somebody could save the family. And there it was.
In an instant, our looks were pasted on a small, demented, fully-grown cmok perched on his head of Mr. Chernov. It loomed over his broken body like a feasting revenant, clearly self-satisfied with the destruction it had done. The way its seething golden eyes swiveled around the room made my skin crawl. Black feathers littered the pillow.
The room was deathly quiet save for the wind that was picking up outside. My hand snaked down for the salt bag. Marian noiselessly pulled out a silver knife. We were ready to take thing down.
And then, as if that thing was expecting us all along, the cmok’s unearthly gaze focused on the two of us.
Then it began screeching.
It launched itself at my head before Marian could even take a stab at it. Obviously, it wished to do away with the ordinary mortal first. I tried flinging out the salt, but the whole sachet flew across the room instead. However, I was able to give it a few slaps in the face. I landed clumsily on the floor as a result. My head racked with protest as I lifted my chest off the ground, eager to get my salt back as fast as possible.
Marian had commenced a one-on-one with the chicken, and I had to dodge both of them as I crawled across the room on my hands with the tiny pouch in my sights. Finally grabbing it from under a bed at long last, I rolled just out of the way from another round of the the demon chicken duel, before dumping out the contents in my palm. All it took was one quick glance at Marian and he understood. He ducked as the cmok sailed over him, sheathed his knife, and thrust out his free hand, filling the tiny room with a sharp gust of wind in my direction. I threw the salt into the air.
Waiting for out trick to do its work, we bolted into the kitchen. “You did good!” breathed Marian, above the screeching din of the bedroom.
“What do we do now?” I yelled back, covering my ears. The cmok had suddenly shot out of the room like a wet, fluffy cannonball covered in smokey feathers, screeching even louder than before.
“Get the chicken!!!” Both of us cried out at the same time.
Since the floor of this room was also covered with salt, the cmok hopped above it, along the table, on the chairs, and through the cabinets. We chased it all around, crashing into all of those things in the next few minutes. I had my hands around it once or twice, but it vanished just as easily out of my grasp like ink on water. Marian’s luck was no better.
“Did your father ever do this?!” I yelled, hoping he would hear me.
“Yes, but he rarely killed them though!” He answered through a mouthful of coal-colored fluff, then suddenly stopped. Something struck him in the face literally and figuratively.
“I reckon you have an idea?” I called.
“One!” Marian shouted back. “Raid the cabinets for rags! The cleaner the better!”
I raced towards the cabinet nearest to me- no.There was laundry basket on the opposite side of the room. I tore into it ravenously, throwing clothes left and right, looking closely for stains until I found what I needed. My Babka’s voice floated back to me. If one finds a cmok in their home, one must catch it with a white handcloth and cast it into the street, so it can manifest in another house.
Marian grabbed his knife again and switched from defense to attack, gently pressing the cmok around chairs in a cleverly masked diversion, sending it backwards towards the table. That’s where I held the cloth out wide. It jumped- screeching- right into my waiting arms. I bundled it furiously, making a crude knot.
“Yes!” Marian cried with triumph. “Put it on the floor and hold it down with your feet…” But I wasn’t listening. I was back in my bed, a little boy, with Babka, the smell of sugared walnut cake and the glow of candlelight around us. She was telling me stories. There are ways to kill a cmok, she had said with a smile, but they are very, very dangerous. The easiest way is to throw it in the snow….
“Ehm... Brano? ...Brano?” Marian’s voice came again, edged with soft concern, “Are you alright?”
Far, far away from town….
“And then it will never come back.” I finished the tale with barely a whisper.
Marian was worried. “You’re shaking. Put the sachet down, let me finish it…”
“Throw it… In the snow...far away…” My mind was glazed. I knew a place.
“Brano, listen. That’s too dangerous! If you hold it for too long, the cmok will start using its po-”
I didn’t let him finish. I burst through the doorway into the cold midnight.
I heard Marian call my name. But I still ran.
Quicker than a hare, I watched my feet as they sailed through swirling snowdrifts, seeming to know where to go. Gone went the Chernov house, gone went the village road, gone went the rest of the town. My hammering heart was the only thing I heard, far louder than the careening wind behind me, warning me, letting me know that what I was about to do was absolutely crazy. But it was the only way. I knew no place colder, more desolate, and more fitting to kill a cmok than the woods beyond the wheatfields east of town. I ran faster. And I am not a runner.
Halfway through a sea of white against the black of the impending forest, I nearly dropped my parcel in shock. Against all the cold, my arm felt like it had been dipped into molten lead. I pressed onward, and the pain seemed to grow, racking my nerves, grinding my bones to dust. Strangely, the cmok was now eerily quiet. Another shot of pure pain went down to my legs, and inside I screamed, scrunching my brow in agony. And yet, I still felt my burning, freezing, broken legs put on one step after another, joints cracking, feet gone totally frozen, yet covered in burning blisters. I wouldn’t be surprised if I looked down at my legs and saw a withering skeleton. But my eyes, filled with tears, held my final destination.
With all the strength that still remained in me, I hurled that chicken as soon as the first line of twisted trees came into view. I didn’t see that bundle land. All that pain snapped out of me the instant I let go. Then there was nothing. The wind started to blow, and from the ground, I welcomed it. I don’t remember falling into the snow. The whole feeling was strange-there was no cold, no warmth, no internal suffering. Just sweet, sleepy relief. I watched my breath come out in short puffs, joining the gales that called my name in a whisper, until I saw nothing but darkness.
I thought I heard things as I slipped away. Wind. Shouting. Crunching. Everything seemed so distant, far from where I was.Though trickle by trickle, the feeling of sunlight danced across my fingers. Warmth gently knocked into my chest. So I opened my eyes.
I saw the snow. I saw my hair, long, black, curly and messy thrown against it. I saw the moon, the silvery stars twinkling around in the sky.
Slowly, I turned to press my cheek into the cold powder. A hand pushed it back.
“Please hold still…” Said a familiar voice, soft and gentle like snowfall.
My heart gave a leap. “You don’t have to” I replied hoarsely.
“Of course I do.” Marian was kneeling right beside me, one hand on my arm and the other against my chest, the blue fire that often burned in his eyes laced in between his fingers. “Because what you did was both parts incredible and very stupid.”
“So incredibly stupid.” I chuckled, though it hurt to do so.
“Also stupidly incredible,” he added,“Managing to survive a cmok that long. Few people are able to do that.”
“But the Chernovs? Did they make it?” I gasped out.
Marian nodded pensively, looking towards the town. “They will be alright, though I don’t have the skill to heal them yet. I’ll send for a shaman in the morning. However,” he shifted back to me, “That doesn’t change anything about the situation.”
The words hung frozen in midair, expecting a reply. After a moment, he started again. “When I asked you to come with me, I meant so as a partner. Not as a pawn.”
I cringed. “Honestly, before I heard your heart beating,I thought you were dead.”
The words, the apologies, started bubbling up in my throat. Marian continued before I could speak.
“You should not be ashamed. I know you did it for Chernov and his family, but being inexperienced, weak, or ordinary does not make you dispensable.” Almost knowingly, he pushed back the snow-colored streak in his hair- the mark of difference between him and I. “Because you’re none of those things.”
The words sunk in. “You did a job well done, Brano. I couldn’t have a better person to do my craft with. Just don’t throw yourself out like that.”
“Marian….” I whispered, touched, straining to put on a smile without tears flowing down my face, “My back is frozen solid.”
“You’re lying down in snow.” said Marian.
“Thank you for stating the obvious. Can I get some help here?”
A second later I was in his arms. “I didn’t mean it that way!”
“You’re still a bit weaker than I would like, and I do not want to face your mother again after what happened last time. She’s terrifying.” he said matter-of-factly, walking with me like I weighed virtually nothing to him.
“She’d kill you on your feet.” I nodded in agreement, and then a funny thread of thought picked up from there. “Actually,” I looked up at him, smirking, “I can see your tombstone now. Death By Rolling Pin.”
“Maybe next week, we should try actual daemons. It is dragonwolf season.”
I stopped. The crafty grin I had was now on Marian’s face.
“That wasn’t funny.” I crossed my arms sourly.
“It was just an idea.”
“Well then, I have a better idea!” I sprang out, breaking free of Marian’s hold.
“Brano, you goat! Come back here!” called Marian. “You just nearly died!”
“If you wish to carry me home like a princess, you’ll have to catch me!” I thanked him with a snowball,and hightailed it to the hills, grinning ear-to-ear. It couldn’t be helped. My friend shook his head with a half-smile and took off after me.
Nearly dying made me feel truly alive. And I wanted to run. I didn’t care if Marian was faster, or that my feet would be once again be numb afterwards. Excitement was trilling through my blood, bounding over stones and fence posts covered in ice.
So there we were, giving chase to each other as we made our way to a small wooden lodge far in the distance, throwing snow and laughing like the smallest of children, or the most drunk of adults.
Didn’t I tell you? Winter nights are full of memories, and this was definitely one of them.