The crickets stopped. A shadow shifted, lurked, shifted again. A newborn's cry, soft and sobbing, stilled inside a little cottage. The shadow lurked a little longer, and retreated to the crossroads.
"Mother, what's wrong?" asked a child in the darkness of the cottage.
"Nothing." She fretted with her newborn, suckling quietly.
"Why are you unhappy?"
"Be still, Nikos. The Kindly Ones are out at night!"
"Mother, who are the Kindly Ones? Why does everyone hide at night?"
"Hush, child. Keep your voice down. Stay away from the windows, from mirrors, from standing pools for they can see you in them from their home in the City. They can hear you in the wind. Be very quiet."
"But Mother, I don't understand! Alex says the Kindly Ones are just a story you grown-ups tell to keep us from playing at night!" The boy rested on his left foot, right foot twisted under his tunic and behind him, staring up, challenging and diffident.
"Keep still, the owls are their spies! The very crickets come and go at their call. Keep still, and pay no heed to Alexandros or his family or you will be lost like Leon." She shifted on her stool, cradling the babe closer, almost crushing the child.
"Mother, when is Father coming back?"
"Niko, don't ask that question at night. Go back to sleep, Niko, and wait for rosy-fingered dawn to drive the Kindnesses away. Wait for light, wait for the sun. Sleep now, my child, sleep now so that your sister can sleep."
"Hush! I heard something outsidego lie down on your pallet, quietly, please!"
Nikos sulked to his pallet, curled up in his father's cloak, and tried to lie quietly. And sulkily he fell asleep, shivering in the breeze from the sea.
He woke to his mother speaking to someone, voices outside the cot, murmuring and mumbling. He pulled himself upright, checked the pot over the fire, and ladled out some barley porridge into a bowl of bread. He burned his tongue as he slipped out the window, avoiding his mother and her visitors.
He ran, spilling some porridge for the birds and the Gods, until he was far enough away to pretend he could not hear his mother. He walked, eating the bread (savoring not really appropriate for such mean fare) slowly after the porridge was gone, listening to the caws of the crows and the songs of the gentler birds. He saw no other boys playing truant from their farmsteads, and enjoyed the respite from their mocking and teasing. He walked in peace, leaving crumbs for thrushes and jays, wandering toward the woods nearer the river and the sea.
He climbed an old oak, oft cut and struck, solid in its core but with many lost and fallen limbs. He watched gulls at sea, clustering and wheeling, and looked inland to watch the crows and ravens, flocking near the farms. Every few minutes the birds would be disturbed, and fly off together, chased by something out of his sight. It was quiet and cool in the shade of the high branches, so Nikos did not care. He would go back when he felt hungry enough, not before. If his mother would not answer his questions, he would find answers elsewhere.
Nikos sat in a crook between major living limbs, swaying slightly in a breeze promising clouds later. He dreamed to himself, of himself as an archer like Brave and Cunning Odysseus, or a warrior like Akhilleus. He dreamed of fighting the Kindnesses, seeing them as shadows afraid of the light, as skinny monsters with horrible faces that he could scare away with his tree-branch spear. He lay against the main trunk, and dreamed.
He heard voices over the wind, calling, crying, through the idle rustling of the remaining leaves. He shook himself; he had fallen asleep but not out of the tree. The sun was gone, obscured by thunderclouds and a drizzle, threatening but so far only bluffing. He felt a chill, no cloak over his tunic. The voices were shrill, but too far to be clear.
He shook twigs and rain droplets out of his curls and his tunic, and dropped to the ground. He saw no more birds in flight, heard no longer the calls of the crows and the ravens. Human voices, Doric voices called, but he was not sure what he heard. He stretched, stood up straight, and began to walk back toward the farmhouses.
The drizzle was finally pushed aside by the honest and hardworking rain, so Nikos began jogging his way back, leaving his slower pace to languish in the rain as he tried to find shelter. His woolen tunic, oiled for wet weather, did nothing for his feet and shins as mud splattered. His feet and legs, cold in the wet, hurt from the impact and effort of running across a hard solid road. In the rain and the running, he no longer heard the agitated and angry voices at all.
He tripped once, was back up and running before he could think about stains on his tunic. He ran, until breathless he walked, and even his treated tunic grew damp with the rain. He made his way through the crossroads and found his mother glaring from just inside the shelter of the door.
"Alex was looking for you, Nikos. His father needed help watching their sheep. I was looking for you. Where have you been? The ravens have been out, looking." Her eyes searched his face, intense and dark, surrounded by the frown and anger of a frightened parent.
"I was in the woods. No boats on the river today. No one yelling at me or calling me wildling or making faces at me there."
"No one to make sure you didn't get hurt! No one to make sure you kept the geese or the sheep from getting lost or caught in the storm! You can't run away every time you feel upset, Niko. I was afraid you had been taken!" She shifted on her feet, moving the babe from one arm to the other. Niko's sister did not cry, making a soft cooing sound of contentment despite the chill wind.
"Niko, the Kindnesses may have sent this storm! You do not go away alone, even in daylight!!"
"Mother! You never let me do anything or go anywhere anymore. Not since Father--"
"Don't say anything more, Niko, or they might come for you too!"
Nikos hung his head, glaring at the dirt outside their threshold, and slumped into the cot, hoping some supper other than porridge might be cooking in the pot. He sniffed the pot, stuck his finger in, and pulled it quickly away, stung by the stew. He licked it, sighed, and took the ladle off the hook in the wall, grabbed a bread-patty from the jar underneath, and poured himself some supper. He sank into his pallet and ate, staring at the daub of the wall.
His mother was quiet behind him, or maybe she had gone to see a neighbor. He brushed the crumbs off his pallet, got up, and looked out the door. The winds had cleared the sky and the stars were out, staring down, uncaring in their sphere, waiting and watching. The evening star was bright on the horizon, piercing the thin wisps of remaining clouds that passed. The wind had the teeth of the wolf, and Nikos closed the door, and paced inside. He opened the shutter on the window and looked again for his mother and sister, closed it again against the Children of Kindness, and paced again.
When he opened the shutter again, the evening star was gone and clouds were gathering, blotting out the Farmer and the Hunter in the stars. The wind was colder, and he heard whistling, and no crickets nor geese. His eyes ran over with tears, no mother nor annoying baby sister to warm the cot with him. The hearth fire was but embers. Wiping tears, he stoked it to keep it lit through the night, and heard voices in the winds. Soft, coaxing, calling, not in the Doric of his hamlet but in some older tongue half-remembered from stories and epics told by the minstrels as they rode or walked through the countryside. Words he almost understood, almost recognized, bidding him to sleep, to sleep and ignore any sounds of the night. Words coaxing him to ignore the silence, to hear the stilled crickets, and sleep as though nothing were happening. He lay back down on his pallet, window unshuttered, and sobbing to himself fell asleep.
He awoke as the sun stroked his tear-stained face, through that open window. The fire was once again but embers, but he smelled fresh porridge in the pot. He blinked, stretched, and heard his sister cooing for his mother. He blinked, shivered, and stared at them.
He did not say anything, not a thing, not a word. He just sat there, and concentrated on her face, on her dark eyes and long curls, her nose and mouth, and thought about hypocrisy (though he used the phrase "Do as I say not as I do" in his mind), and stared. He did not know what he felt, he was feeling so much. He did not remember ever spending a night alone before.
His mother shifted Kassandra to her other arm and breast, and stared back at Nikos. Her face was fluid, clay soft and unfired, shifting and shifting again, angry, sad, sorrowful, feelings Nikos did not yet know or understand playing across her features. Kassandra just suckled, and sounded happy enough for that. His mother turned to the fire, and stirred the porridge in their pot.
"Nikos, you did not empty or clean the pot last night." She faced the fire, shoulders bunched up beneath her peplos, her pleated dress. "I've asked you before, clean the pot after you eat. If there is enough to save pour the stew into an empty jar. Not an amphora, you are too small. You need to learn to clean up after yourself, to take care of yourself." Her shoulders trembled.
"Nikos, please. You know where the well is, you can clean a pot."
"Nikos, just listen. Don't ignore me and play games in your head when I talk to you. Just listen. You need to be ready to take care of yourself. You can cook the stew for dinner today"
"Mother! Where were you last night?"
"I was at Alex's family's cot. They had some yogurt and cheese they offered to share, and you would have known had you been here and not play-acting in the woods. It was dark before I could leave and come back, so I stayed there with their family and goats, and we shuttered the windows against the words in the winds."
She turned away from the pot, eyes bright with moisture. "Nikos, always close the shutters and bar them at night! The Children of Kindness can not walk through walls or closed doors or shutters, anymore than you or I. Listen not to their voices in the wind! You must keep the cot sealed at night!"
"Mother?" Nikos stood up, shifting from left to right, shivering in the warmth. "I don't understand."
"She stared at him, shifted tiny Kassandra again (a name much too large for a tiny, slightly deformed and early babe), and looked at him, her eyes fixed on his. He did not understand her intensity, and felt upset, uncomfortable, and afraid. He did not understand, and that made him that much more afraid.
"Mother, what is wrong?"
"Nikos, never listen to whistling or songs in the night. They will lead you to the river, or the woods, and night-time is not safe for us outside. Do not listen to the wind! The wind will lie, and make promises it will not keep! The wind lies, and these lies will take your family away from you!" Her eyes glistened, very bright. Nikos was afraid the smoke was hurting her eyes; why else would she be about to cry? He did not understand.
"Eat something. You have to do a lot to make up for not helping yesterday. The goats need tending, there are weeds to be pulled. Alex's father has fences to mend and wants your help. He likes the way you can lift stones and hold them tightly in place until he and Alex can have the mortar set. Eat."
She turned back to the fire, quivering slightly, shaking or shivering in the firelight. She opened a jar and pulled some stale bread out, ladled porridge into it, and gave it to Nikos. She juggled Kassandra and the bread-patty and the ladle, feeding herself, blowing on the porridge and coaxing the long-eared babe into tasting some. Nikos watched, and again wished she would still feed him as she used to. He still resented having to sleep on a separate pallet.
He ate, and thought, and felt, and thought about feelings, and tried to understand how he felt and why his mother was acting so different. He never did understand why she felt what she felt and when, and she always got upset and angry at him when he asked her. He was afraid to ask too much, lest she yell or throw a pot or chase him out. He watched her, and mused in his private inmost thoughts, on feeling and thinking, and felt uncomfortable, afraid to feel.
"Nikos! Eat! Stop looking at me like that! Eat! And don't spill on your pad, you have to sleep in that. You're too old to need me to feed you and wipe your face."
Nikos jumped slightly, startled, confused.
"Look, you spilled crumbs all over. DO I still have to clean up after you? Never you mind. Go find Alex. I will clean up after your mess, again. Go!"
Nikos stood up, stood still a moment until his mother pointed vigorously at the door, upsetting Kassandra enough that she squawled for a moment before falling into her unnatural quiet again. Nikos blinked, and blinked again, and went out to find Alex.
He walked to the path, dodging goat- and sheep-dung, and turned to his right to walk to Alex and family's larger cottage. He saw ravens and crows, and heard their caws, as he looked for the fence that needed mending. He heard some birdsong, as the sun was still low in the Eastern sky, and blinked in the light. He heard Alex's father bellowing, and made for that roar in the light.
"Listen well, little minstrel, and know we honor and obey the Children of Kindness here! We will have no heretics, no liars spreading falsehoods and false hopes to our children! Be gone lest I hurl you across the river! Be gone from my sight!" Alex's father was a smith as well as a goat-herd and shepherd, and years of yelling over hammers and horses had his voice as strong as the river and as endless in its roar.
"And ye will it for thyself, I shall be gone. But to deny thy children, thy neighbors, the word of Blessed Orpheous, the promise of freedom from thralldom, that is not thy decision. I may go, or die, or be hurled headlong into thy streams of folly, but ever more shall follow until we are all free! Forget Orpheous not!"
"Those words would be more impressive," mumbled the father, "If you had not been back-stepping so quickly as to fall over your own cloak.--Nikos! Good lad! Get your skinny little arse over here and help catch some goats! That storm (or the bewitching wind) stole some last night, and Alex needs help. You're a runnergo fetch him up the hillside!" Alex's father waved vaguely toward the West, away from the sun, and away from the slender little stranger walking quickly Eastward. "Remember, Nikosnever speak to foreigners, never talk to the outsiders! They spread lies and disease, and will make us all suffer! Find Alex! Find our wayward goats! Go!"
Nikos went. He was afraid to pause, to pursue the stranger, with grown-ups so close and so quick to yell. He ran as he was bid, looking back often, trying to keep the little man with the big straw hat in view while trying to stay out of the smith's line-of-sight. He wished he could be invisible, like an epic hero, or had a winged horse. He wished he knew why outsiders were supposed to be dangerous. All the grown-ups said so, but it did not feel true.
He heard goats, and smelled them, before he saw them or Alex. He followed the sound, as the wind kept changing and mixing smells (oak bark, fish and rot from the river, wet goat, scared bird), but the wind may have been changing the sounds as well. He could not find Alex or the goats, and felt angry that they were leading him one way and then sounding from another way. The woods and the hills were playing with him, as the old men said they would, but during the day not the night. Not fair!
Nikos started, turned around, grabbed a branch and stood, panting.
The slender little man in the broad straw hat stood before him, hands apart and at shoulder height, backing slowly away.
"I mean no offense, young sir. I seem to have become lostdost thou know the way back to the highway? I dislike walking along rivers. Too many roots try me to trip, and the trees want to see me fall in the river." He talked quickly, trying to get words out before he got hit.
Nikos stepped back, watching, waiting.
"Canst thou speak? I mean no offense, young one, but I know not the signs. Dost thou speak the koine? Thy local dialect does me confuse sometimes."
Nikos stood still, watching, his head to his right. He squinted at the man, a pale man with odd eyes like a cat's, blue like Kassandra's. His face was sharpnarrow chin, skinny nose, high cheeks, framed by black, wavy hair under that broad-brimmed straw hat, shading it but not hiding it. He wore a cloak, a faded blue, old woad perhaps, that smelled of wet wool and sweat. He had some odd garb on his legs, barbarian pants perhaps though he did speak an odd and old Doric. He had a strange tunic, undyed linen maybe, with no pin, but laced closed from half-way down the front. He wore short boots, not sandals, upon his feet, and strange shoes upon his hands.
Nikos stared, and waited.
"I apologize unto thee, and thou art mute, O Youth. I shall trouble thee no more." The little man touched his leathered hand to his hat brim, and turned to go north, along the river's hilly bank.
Nikos watched a moment. He stood still, staring, waiting. Watching.
He followed, stopping to grab a handful of shale and slate stones, and walked along behind, quietly.
He walked a while, watching the hat-man stumbling on roots and fallen branches.
He threw a stone past the hat, and waited. Hat-man stopped, nearly falling backward, and turned.
"Mock me not, young one. And thou canst help, do so. And thou will not, let me be."
Nikos pointed east, out of the wooded banks, toward the main path.
"Is that the way to the highway? I bid thee thanks, then." Hat-man touched his brim, bowed, and began walking carefully to avoid the falling shagbark and branches, toward the east, back toward everyone's homes.
"Why doesn't anyone like you?" Nikos called.
Hat-man walked on, tripping but catching himself on a maple.
"Why are strangers dangerous?"
Hat-man called back, over his shoulder, "Because we are different." He caught his balance, and walked on, stumbling in a gopher-hole before righting himself awkwardly.
"Why is different dangerous?"
"To be different is not to be dangerous. It is a threat, however, to those who do not like having to think, having to live, having to understand. To be different is simply to be different, and some cannot understand difference, and not understanding, become afraid and try to away chase it rather than to change. Go off to thy mother, young one, before someone sends the Watch after us."
"Child, art thou a sophist or a philosopher? Thy question is so small as to be too large for any one soul to answer in one lifetime. To thy mother, or father, go. Away! I will not be hanged for seducing children! Away with thee! I thank thee for thy aid, but now begone! Shoo!"
"Why are you afraid?"
"Though Orpheous will save me from Hell, I am not yet ready to sing my last song. To thy kinfolk, return!" Hat-man waved vaguely toward the river, not knowing or remembering the direction of the farmsteads. "Shoo! Scat!"
"That's a bad word!"
"Dirty mayhap, bad no. Go to, thou dost bother me now, away! To thy home, go! Did not thy father bid you work to do? Go!"
"But I want to know more. I want to understand. No one tells us anything. They just say 'Don't go out at night! Don't listen to the wind! Don't do this, don't do that, don't have fun, don't play in the woods, don't go near the river, don't talk to strangers!'" Nikos stood, shaking, afraid, angry.
"Child, listen to thy family and kin. Do not talk to strangers, for they may be witches come to steal a babe, or a wolf pretending to be a man, or some fool who knows what he doth say. To the kin, go, lest they fear thou hast been bewitched and offer to kill us both. Begone." And the hat walked again, striving for finality even as he found a lurking branch jumping out of a gopher hole to ensnare his witless left foot, tripping and trapping him, and dislodging his broad hat.
His hat fell off, his hair flew free, and behind the black waves Nikos saw long and pointed ears, pierced, with a chain dangling from the mid-point to the lobe, a small lyre-charm hanging on the left and a bust or head hanging on the right. Nikos took pride, O Reader, in his ability to see details despite the distractions, and in knowing what others could not or would not see.
"Blast, skatos, darkness, Skotia! It has been torn! No! I cannot mend the cord here, it is too windy. Blast and skatos." Hat-man put the hat back on, wrestling with it, trying to stand up even as he tried to hold the hat in place. "I would offer thee my hat, but I fear thy kin would kill thee and hunt for me should I do so. Not as though I have a pack large enow for't, yet neither would I part with it."
"Enough! No more whys nor wherefores from thee! To thy hamlet, go! Begone! My day has been bad enow, no more for thee to make it worse! Away! I'll have no more on't! Thou'st made me mad! I like it not! Away! Why dost'a stand still before me, when tha shouldst to thy kin be wending? Go!"
"What did you just say? I do not understand you. I do not understand why. I don't understand!" Nikos felt something damp on his cheeks, and turned away, and ran, unthinking, away from Hat-man.
He stopped running when he heard Alex calling his name, and the bleating of goats. He stood still a moment, listening, wiping his eyes and nose, waiting. He stood, and listened, and heard leaves skittering in the wind, bleats and bahhs, and someone calling his name. He stood still, watching leaves fall and smelling the bark and sheep and goats, and turned full-circle. He stood still again, listening, trees dancing around him, leaves skipping or falling, branches reaching out and pulling back. Oak, hickory, maple all stretching and waving their twigs and branches at him, dropping acorns or leaves or pieces of bark. He stood still.
"Nikosthenes Nikodemides! Wake up! Where have you been? Nikos! Stop staring at help get these sheep back home! Hello? Nikos? Anybody home in there?" Alex was standing before him, broad-shouldered and thick, dark-haired and dark-eyed, the eta brand on his forehead clear despite sweat and mud, stained and faded tunic all scented with dirt and mold and goat.
"Nikos, come on. We have lost the morning and another storm is coming. Come!" Alex grabbed Nikos' arm with his thick and damp fingers, pulled, and pulled again. "If Dad hears you have been day-dreaming he will thump you! Let's get these beasties back home!"
Nikos followed, stumbling, off-balance. Jagged oak and maple leaves danced around their feet, skipping over or into the mud. Nikos slipped but caught himself, and followed along, sandals slapping and splashing in shallow mud.
Nikos' mother was stirring a pot of beans and barley when he was done with Alex and family, Kassandra asleep in a sling over Mother's shoulder. She stood slouched over the pot, stirring, smelling, unaware of Nikos as he slipped through the door. He thought he heard a sob, too big for wee Kassandra. Her shoulders were trembling or shivering, her hair moving and glinting in the firelight. Their one lamp burned low at the table, the wick almost gone. She reached into the bread jar, pulled out a bread-patty, and ladled some bean stew into it. She turned, and nearly fell backward into the fire.
"Nikos! Don't do that!"
He thought he saw something glittering in and below her eyes, and her cheeks had odd tracings of black from her eyes to her jaw-line. She sat down heavily, falling onto their one stool. Kassandra stayed quiet in her undyed linen sling.
"Nikos, you can feed yourself. I am tired." She did not look at him, staring down at her bread-patty full of stew, nibbling at the food, blowing on it to cool it. She coaxed Kassandra awake, and offered the babe some of the stew.
Nikos stood, stared, watched the eta brand on his mother's left hand as it held Kassandra's head up for the feeding. He stood, unblinking, until his eyes watered and his vision had spots circling the table. He blinked, and walked to the fire. He fed himself as quietly as he could, standing behind his mother, blowing on the food, hovering.
He threw his crumbs and crusts into the fire, dug through a jar of stuff and extras, and pulled out a new wick for the lamp. He trimmed it with a knife from the wall-hooks, and added some oil from a small jar to the lamp, and it the new wick from the old. He wiped a fresh wine-stain off the chipped and beaten table with a scrap of wool from one of his father's torn tunics, and dropped it in his pallet with his father's cloak. No longer did any sunlight show through the window, so he closed and barred the shutters. He barred the door, and his mother watched, unblinking, eyes glittering, moving Kassandra from one arm and breast to the other.
She sat there, watching, feeding her babe. She sat, and stared at the door, sitting still. Nikos watched her, and opened his mouth, and closed it again. He tried again to speak, but could not, and sat opening and closing his mouth. He sat and stared, and tried to think, and shifted on his pallet, staring up at his mother still. There was a wind, and crickets chirping, and Kassandra cooing. And then there was only the wind and the voices.
Sunlight through the window woke Nikos, warming his face and eyelids. He could hear his mother's voice, and the smith's, and maybe other adults. Kassandra was beside Nikos, wrapped carefully, sleeping quietly. He picked her up gingerly, cradling her, tried to stand and could not. He put her down, stood up, and then picked her up. He smelled the bean stew from last night, sighed, and went to the door, cradling the still-sleeping babe against his shoulder. He listened to the adults outside, intense in their conversation but hushing each other before he could hear anything clearly.
He carried Kassandra out the door, looking let and right for the adults. He heard a sudden silence, the pregnant pause he had heard of, and saw them watching him. The smith, his mother, and someone he could not recognize, someone else with an eta "H" brand on his forehead. They stood in a circle, looking at him, looking at each other, eyes all wide.
Nikos' mother walked over to him, took Kassandra, and smiled at the sleeping babe. She shook her head "yes" to Nikos, and cradled the babe to her breast. Alex's father and the other man stood, looking back and forth between each other and Nikos' mother, not looking at Nikos. He stood, waiting, wondering.
"Nikosthenes! Very good with the goats yesterday! Just be sure no to get lost between the smithy and the woods next time!" The smith laughed, sounding strange in his long laugh. Nikos and his mother stared, and that other man laughed oddly too, until both men stopped with too many eyes upon them.
"So, the archon and I will be going back to the smithy, now," Alex's father said, shaking his head at Nikos' mother, and those two backed away for a few steps before turning and walking down toward Alex's home. Nikos watched as they started walking more quickly, not running but not walking a normal pace neither. His mother smiled an odd, less than happy smile that Nikos saw out of the corner of his eye, and frowned when he turned back to her.