The Dark and the Light
April 19, 2021
Chernevog was a dick, no question there. If you crossed him, he'd be on your tail as long as it took to cut you down; no mercy, no quarter. Quarter wouldn't have applied anyway; Chernevog didn't appear to have quarters in which to lodge himself or prisoners.
That was part of the problem. People coming and going out of nowhere are automatically suspect; they've either been outcast or they're dead. Most likely the latter. If he came in the night, they'd chalk it up to evil spirits. Chernevog came when it suited him. He came in the day, he came in the night, and he'd stay just as long as he'd like. You could offer up your daughters in exchange for safety, but as far as anyone could tell, he didn't so much as acknowledge the gesture. Despite his reputation, a fair number of daughters were a bit ticked by the outright rejection. One or two of them invariably followed him about the village, which also went unacknowledged. They called him the devil, and the source of all darkness. They imagined grim features, scaly wings, talons, and a tail. They weren't far off, but that wasn't the whole of him. It never is.
Töregene lasted another three years in the village. The absence of Yelena was a shadow that crouched in dark corners and ate up the light. When Töregene returned with the horses, she found Yelena's three remaining husbands installed in her home. That made a total of five. She'd not killed the first two, but she hadn't let them near her bed. Five men under her roof presented a problem. She wanted them even less than Yelena, who hadn't gotten around to turning them into dogs. Töregene probably could have done the same, but didn't care to be banished. As an alternative, she bound them at nightfall. The first time one of them didn't come home, he found himself bound in place until dawn. This put an end to disobedience.
If a woman hasn't produced at least one child by her fifteenth birthday, the village takes notice. If she has not given birth by sixteen, something is wrong. If she's kept five husbands under her roof, she is either barren or a witch. Witches can be tolerated, but barren women cannot. Töregene wasn't barren; she just wasn't willing. At seventeen she had to comply or leave. To leave by choice does not imply banishment, but the village isn't full of warm fuzzies and won't want you back. Töregene retained her name and her status as a person; but she left the protection of the village behind. She pointed her horse west, and then just a bit north. She wasn't surprised at the shadow, but it didn't answer when she spoke. The shadow followed, but consumed less light as they travelled west. By the time they reached the forest, it consumed nothing at all.
With the exception of binding her husbands, Töregene's practice of magic ended with Yelena's departure. She would have forgotten it entirely if not for the shadow. She wasn't responsible for the shadow, but apparently it belonged to her. When it stopped consuming light, she decided it was probably benign.
Töregene skirted the forest, but gave the small villages a wide berth. Eventually she reached a city that was larger than her own. It sprawled into the grasslands, anchored by small farms and felt fine when she sniffed the air. She rode her horse down the middle of the central road. She meant to trade skins for food and shelter and maybe find a place in the community. In nearly year, Töregene had only the shadow for company. She could talk all day long, but only imagine answers. She was far lonelier than she was aware until she entered the city. Desperation causes blindness, even in a witch.
She traded well, almost too well, and wondered if it had anything to do with the shadow. She found a family with four sons but no daughters. They gave her a place to live. Töregene tended the fire, milked the cows, fed the pigs, and swept up at the end of each day. There was room in the loft, but she preferred the dark corner in the kitchen where the shadow had settled. Six people, mostly boys and men in a crowed loft had a guaranteed outcome. The oldest son followed her in the morning. He'd clearly never milked a cow or come anywhere near a pig, but followed her anyway. What began as friendly overtures turned bitter and mean as his frustration grew. The morning the shadow left its corner and stayed at her heels was the end of it. She collected her horse and headed into the forest in search of mushrooms. She told the family she'd return before dark, but they knew she was leaving. The absence of the shadow left an unexpected pool of light. It wasn't coming back either.
Töregene did go into the forest and she did know she was followed. He wasn't close behind, but she caught his scent when the wind shifted. He was too close and decided to run. Her horse understood the grasslands and mountains, but not the forest. He smelled the man also, and leaned hard into his gate. Töregene rode low on his neck to avoid the trees. When she was launched over the top of his head, she wasn't sure what had happened. He was standing a little less than a tree's length behind her, but he wasn't moving. They'd moved into the swamp a bit, to avoid the underbrush. Neither understood the dangers of the swamp; the hummocks, tree roots, and rocks just beneath the water. A shard of bone stuck out at the forecannon, just above the pastern. He dropped to his knees and there wasn't anything she could do about it. The shadow was insistent, and spoke. Run! it whispered, Run! She ran from danger for the first time in her life.
He took her down with little effort. His face was shrouded in a haze of red, and she hit the tree hard enough to crack her skull. He was at her throat before she realized she couldn't move. He left her bloody, skin shredded, and dead. Dead is not enough to hold back rage. He was shattered before he reached his horse. She left him that way, a broken mess on the forest floor, but it didn't change the outcome.
Töregene was dead and the shadow was gone.
Chernevog found her standing over the horse, hair wet and matted, mud up to her shins. She'd lost her boots and most of her clothing, but didn't seem to notice. Chernevog did notice that she was dead. She'd clearly put the horse out of his misery after the fact, which was all he need to know.
I cannot change this for you and I'm sorry. This shouldn't have happened in my forest.
Well. What can you do then?
I can put you to sleep beside your horse. Your spirit will not pass, but you will sleep.
Will I dream?
Yes. I'm afraid so.
Can't you just kill me more?!
Oh, you're already good and dead.
So why am I still here?
It's the way you were killed and I think you know that.
Was it the rape? Rape does not cause a waking death!
True. But despite your age, you remain intact. I might be sorry for that except that choice was yours, was it not?
Yes. That was my choice.
May I ask why?
Don't you know? Isn't that a thing here? Or is that limited to the witches on the steppes?
You didn't want to lose your power, and yet, you've nearly forgotten how to use it, it's been put away so long. Why would you do that?
I didn't want to be alone. When my sister left, I was alone, but I still had my village.
Your sister left her shadow; you weren't really alone.
My sister did not speak and now she's gone. Will she come back?
Her shadow has returned to her body. It can't return to the dead. However, there is something I can give you, if you'll take it. It will bind you to the forest. It doesn't matter which forest, but you will be bound. You may leave during the day, but you will always return at night. You will have your body back, I can even give you the horse.
But you will draw men. They will come to you as myth dictates. Your job is to be still and wait. When they come to you, you will know what to do.
Chernevog reached into a bag and pulled out a small stone. He held out his hand and waited.