Alexei tried to make conversation as they lurched and crept across the dirt and gravel road leading to the Big House hidden deep in the center of Amma Brinna’s property. Nikolai shushed him with a wave of his hand. He needed to think.
Nikolai drove the three-quarter-ton pickup and four-horse trailer down the rough-graded road like he’d been doing it his whole life. He loved it, liked a lot about the life he’d built here, even if he wasn’t always sure what he was still doing in Northern Bumfuck. Part of him knew he was running from things he didn’t want to deal with. Just like his mother, apparently.
That morning at the camp two years ago when he had woken up alone had been the worst morning of his life. Dead inside, he had somehow managed to pack up, say goodbye to Mr. Weisman and get his and Alexei’s last paychecks. He still had Alexei’s, folded up in his wallet.
After the twelfth call to Alexei’s cell phone had gone right to voicemail, he’d stopped trying. Then he made his way home, or what passed for a home. It was just where his Da was for the time being; nowhere he had ever lived.
His Da had reacted to that letter as if it were a rattlesnake. He’d jumped out of his chair, hands shaking. Under the effects of a half a bottle of whiskey, he swore on everything holy to him that the story he’d always told about where the boys came from was one hundred percent true.
“I’ll never forget it, Nika. You were holding her hand so tightly. And she was beautiful. Hair like the night itself, like yours. Flashing eyes. And a honking great sword.” He burst out laughing. “Scared me half to death. I thought she was going to cut my balls off if I didn’t take you.” He reached over and patted Nikolai’s hand. “Not that I would have left you, poor sweet thing.” He finished the last of the whiskey in his cup. “That old witch woman she was with, she was a formidable looking woman, too. If your mom, what was her name?” He dragged the letter across the table to look at it again. “Stefanida. Beautiful name. You know, there was a famous Ruska Roma singer by that name. About a hundred, hundred and fifty years ago.” He rubbed his hands over the letters as if he could glean some more information that way. “She disappeared suddenly. There were rumors that she eloped, ran away with a gadje prince or millionaire who had seduced her away from her family.” His voice slowed down, he picked up the letter and looked at it again, drawing his glasses lower down his nose. “Some rumors said she was with child and that she took her own life.” He looked over the edge of his glasses at Nikolai, tilting his head questioningly.
“You can’t be thinking that somehow this woman was that Stefanida? Is this thing not fairytale enough for you that you have to bring in a ghost mother?”
“Look at the language, chavo, and the handwriting. Whoever wrote this wrote it in a hurry, and there are tears on it. The Russian and Romani in it are,” he looked skyward, searching for the word, “archaic. I had trouble reading some of them.”
He put the letter on the table top, placing his hand on top of it. “Listen to me. I know you young people don’t believe in the spirits.”
Nikolai interrupted him with a laugh. He’d spent the summer talking to ghosts. He didn’t need belief; he had proof. “I do, Da, I do. Believe me.”
“Well then, you should take this seriously. Go to the woods. Find this,” he consulted the letter, “this baba Amma Brinna, whoever or whatever she was. I don’t have any better idea. Do you?”
Nikolai slumped down into the chair, clutching the glass of whiskey he had poured but not tasted. “No. No.” He drank, feeling the weight of his father’s stare on him. “It’s just,” he said without meeting his eyes. “I’m scared. And I miss him so much already.”
“I know, zoloto. I’m scared for him, too. For you both. I can’t even picture you two separated.”
“Is that bad?” He was afraid his Dadro knew somehow that their bond was more than brotherly. Knew that they’d crossed the line that would get them thrown out of their kumpania and the entire Roma society if anyone found out.
“I don’t know, Nika. I don’t know. It is what it is. The thing about love is you don’t know if it will save your life or be the death of you.”
Now, with Alexei next to him in the car, he felt the truth of those words more than ever. He slowed to a crawl, easing the truck over the large bump-slash-pothole combination he knew was coming up. He’d offered to regrade the road, but Amma Brinna insisted he leave it the way it was. It certainly did make it even harder to get to the big house which was already more guarded than a castle.
Alexei grunted as the tire under him dropped into the pothole, his hand grabbing for the support. The trailer behind them creaked and clanged its way over the impediment. The silence that followed on the smoother bit of the road rang in their ears. Alexei couldn’t take it anymore. “So, do you want to talk?”
Nikolai looked way from the road quickly, looked at Alexei, and then ran a hand across his mouth. Alexei’s hair was tangled. They’d have to do something about that hair, he thought inanely.
“Okay, well I do,” Alexei said. “I have a question. Who is Amma Brinna?”
Nikolai laughed in surprise. He’s been so focused on the things he didn’t know that he’d forgotten there were things Alexei didn’t know. “Didn’t Stefanida tell you?”
“No.” Alexei peered through the trees as if he could see the answers there. Nikolai could tell him not to bother. Though the rapidly falling leaves bared the trees and exposed parts of the woods normally hidden from spring to fall, they still had a couple of miles to go.
“Well, she looks like a little old lady – don’t call her that, by the way, she’ll kick your ass. She claims to be just a woman who runs a diner. But I think she’s a chovexani.
“Really? Is that marime, to, to consort with witches?”
Nikolai gave an incredulous glance, then deliberately reached out and ran his fingers along the inside of Alexei’s thigh. Alexei shuddered, then blushed from the neck up. He nodded, licking his dry lips.
Nikolai left his hand on Alexei’s leg.
“So.” Alexei swallowed. “A chovexani.”
“A völva, a Norse witch, specifically. Her whole family was straight up Vikings. Wait until you see their place. I did some research. And she’s said things, done things. Reminds me of the bibis when they get all mysterious. Always seeing signs and portents.”
“A witch could be very helpful. I don’t know how, but this could be good.”
“Cookie knows something of what’s going on. I think he’s even older than Amma Brinna.” Alexei had one important question he had to get out. “So, obviously, Stefanida, she’s our…our mom?” He paused for confirmation.
Nikolai started to pull his hand back.
Alexei clamped his hand over Nikola’s. “Your mother,” he clarified. “Not mine. Not really.”
“Jesus. This was why I don’t want to talk. Everything you say just brings up more questions. You ask me things again; maybe I know something.”
“Okay. What did Amma Brinna tell you when you showed up? How did you find her, by the way? Stefanida wasn’t even sure where she was or if she was even still alive.”
“It wasn’t easy, trust me.”
It had taken every natural and otherworldly contact his kumpania had to find her. First they’d argued about the translation of the letter, working one of the main words out to woods instead of forest or land. Then, piecing together some other bits from the letter, and from what Da remembered of where he had been when she had appeared to him, they’d narrowed it down further. But surprisingly, it had been Maria who had gotten him the closest.
“I know you think I’m ridiculous,” she said, holding the precious note. “But I can do this.”
“I don’t think you’re ridiculous. I think you are brilliant and talented and beautiful.” Because she was all of those things.
“Just not good enough to marry.” She wouldn’t meet his eye.
“Maria, sladkaya,” He took her chin in his hand and pulled her face around. “I have to find my brother first. You understand that, right?”
She yanked his hand away from her face. “Don’t talk to me like I’m a child. I understand it. I understand more than you know.”
Nikolai pulled back, hands up as if soothing a wild animal. “Okay. I’m sorry. Please, help me. What do you know?”
“I’ve read the cards,” she said, sitting down at the table. She pulled a deck of silk-wrapped cards out of her purse. “You know that.” She spread the silk with a flourish, pulled out a beautiful hand-painted deck that had been passed down from mother to daughter. With a practiced sweep of her hand, she fanned them out on top of the silk. Nikolai reached for one, and she slapped his hand. “Don’t touch.”
Her hand hovered over the cards as she talked. “I did another reading, last night. This time, though, instead of trying to find out information on Alexei, because you know how that always ends up.”
He did. None of the aunts, the bibis, could get any information. As one, they claimed their spirits had deserted them or turned away. All they got was blankness. It wasn’t as if he were dead; death was no barrier. Mulo visited all the time; it was keeping them away that was difficult. No, it was as if Alexei had never existed. Nikolai clung to the hope that if Alexei was dead, he would somehow know it.
“So,” Maria said, tapping the deck and drawing his attention back. “I decided to do a reading on this Amma Brinna. Oh, by the way, you know what I found out?”
“Amma isn’t a name. It’s a title, a term of respect in Norse culture. For a powerful woman. A seer.”
Maria shrugged. “Maybe. So bring me that letter. And a map of the United States. Let’s see if we can find this Amma Brinna.”
“What if she’s not in North America? What if she’s moved and lives in some other country?”
“Then we’ll find someone in another country to help us. You’re not alone, Nikolai.”
He didn’t understand how she could still be so kind and generous after the way he had treated her. He’d run as soon as he could when they’d gotten engaged. The attention and affection he’d shown her had been so slight as to border on insulting. She was, he realized, amazing. And he didn’t deserve her. In a different way, she didn’t deserve him. He finally understood why Alexei had been so opposed to their superficial engagements. Maria deserved someone who looked at her first, who thought she hung the moon. Not someone who was using her as a cover to stay closer to his brother. He was disgusted with himself. He felt unclean.
“I’m sorry, Maria.”
“I know.” She pulled some cards from the deck.
“No,” he said, grabbing her wrists, careful not to touch the cards. He waited until she looked up and met his eyes. “I’m really, truly sorry. For everything.”
She stared at him, reading him the way he realized she’d always been able to. He’d dismissed her as a frivolous girl because she was light and happy and enjoyed beautiful things, but he’d been wrong to do so. Those things, he realized now, were important. She had the sight, too. The dook ran deep in her. She had a depth that he had missed. So many things to mourn, it seemed.
Finally, she nodded. “Okay,” she said. She pulled cards out.
“Me mangav tuke baxt,” Nikolai said.
“I don’t need luck.”
And she hadn’t. She’d narrowed the range down to an area in Northern Minnesota. A wild land bordered on the south by the endless waters of Lake Superior and on the north by the labyrinthine boundary waters. Though summer tourists thronged the main highway hugging the Lake, up North, there were miles and miles of forest and small towns filled with taciturn people who weren’t that forthcoming to a charming dark-eyed man with a gypsy van. Nikolai could practically hear the daughters being locked up when he pulled up to the local diner. He’d found mom and pop diners or convenience stores to be the best source of what little information there was.
One day, somewhere East of Gilbert, he’d headed up a small side road on a whim, a flash of something running across the road catching his eye, and he yanked the wheel to the left. Stupid, he knew. The road was narrow and tree-lined, and there was a good chance he would have to back the van down the road when he hit the dead end.
But the road had widened and at a crossroads stood a small pink diner. The neon open sign was lit, so he parked and walked in. An imposing woman with gray braids and Hot Northern Mommas spelled out in fake rhinestones across her pink sweatshirt looked at him and asked, “What took you so long?”
That had been the first time he’d had a suspicion that he was a pawn in a game someone else was playing.
“She was waiting for you?” Alexei braced himself against the dashboard as they bumped over the rough road.
“Yeah. Apparently.” And she’d taken him home to a place that become as much home as he had ever known.
“What did she say to you? What did she tell you?”
“Not much. Big surprise. She did say she was the one who had helped mom, and that I would be as safe here as anywhere. Safe from what she never got around to telling me.”
“Maybe she didn’t know.”
Nikolai side-eyed Alexei. “Maybe. Though there isn’t much that goes on around here that she doesn’t know.” The light was growing dimmer, the heavy tree cover working with the diminishing daylight to bring an early twilight. “I always got the feeling that she was waiting for something. Someone. Every time that door opened -” He shook his head. “So, how about you give me some answers now. We’re alone. No bullshit. Even if you think I wouldn’t believe it. Even if it sounds like total crap.”
“There’s so much I don’t know.”
“Oh, I think you’re ahead of me in that area, bratiska. Let’s start with an easy one. Where have you been for the last two years?”
“Two years? That’s how long it’s been here?”
“Yes. How long was it for you?”
“I don’t really know. Time doesn’t move the same way there.” He reached for Nikolai’s hand, squeezing it. “I’m so sorry. I never meant to be away for that long. You have to believe me. I didn’t want to be apart at all.”
“Whatever. So where were you?”
Alexei’s face went through a series of expressions Nikolai knew very well. It was the look he always got whenever he was trying to figure out the least amount of truth he could tell without resorting to lying. “Don’t do that,” Nikolai said. “Don’t try to figure out the best way to say it. Just say it.”
“I’ve been in the fairy realms.”
“Oh. The fairy realms. Of course you have. Where else would you have been?”
“You wanted to know! I said you wouldn’t believe me.”
Both of those things were true. A monster headache built behind Nikolai’s eyes as denial and belief warred in his brain. Every word Alexei said slotted together with everything Amma Brianna had alluded to over the past two years and the pieces in the game moving around him were starting to fall into place with an unsettling sense of inevitability. Even the fuzzy edges of the picture that was beginning to form filled him with a sense of unease bordering on fear. “Okay. Okay. So you, what, fell out of fairy?”
“I opened up a gate between the worlds and I came through it to find you. I thought I had shaken them. I would never have led them directly to you.”
Nikolai thought about the bloody heads rattling around in the bed of the truck. He held onto them as if the physical proof of these otherworldly shenanigans would keep him grounded. They only looked like elk from a distance. Up close, their metallic antlers had razor sharp edges and their soft muzzles covered up rows of teeth that said these things were more carnivorous than their earthy cousins. “By the way, what the fuck were those hell-elk things?”
“Believe it or not, they’re called – deer!”
“No wa-” was all Nikolai had time to say before he caught a flash of white and a giant stag leaped across the road directly in front of them.
Alexei grabbed the wheel, yanking the truck hard to the right. The trailer lurched behind them, wheels coming off the ground then falling back with cab-rocking thud. Mulevi scratched for purchase in the back seat, slamming into the door with a yelp. The horses neighed shrilly, their hooves striking the aluminum sides. Jolting over the ruts in the road, Nikolai wrestled the truck to a shuddering stop.
They ended up sideways across the road; the truck wedged between two trees, and the trailer jackknifed behind them. In the side mirror, Nikolai could see the back door flapping open. As he watched, Patsy bolted from the back of the trailer into the woods.
“Chyort poberi! Great. Just great.” He yanked open the car door, holding it open for the dog, then slammed it shut behind him. A tree pressed against Alexei’s door, so he crawled across the front seat and out the driver’s side.
“Mule, go make sure Patsy gets home,” Nikolai said, pointing in the direction the horse had gone. A blind person could have followed the trail of broken branches and hoof prints.
“Will she be okay?” Alexei asked.
“She’ll be fine. That horse could find her way back to her stall in a snowstorm. Mule will let someone know she’s there.” Nikolai looked in the trailer. “Goddamn it.”
Wortako stood hipshot, left hind leg held up off the ground. Nikolai climbed up into the trailer. Alexei followed, and Wortako shifted away from him, soft brown eyes edged with white. He tossed his head back, hopping on three legs as Alexei walked towards them.
“Stop!” Nikolai yelled, holding up a hand behind him.
“Can I help?”
“I think you’ve done enough.” Nikolai kept one hand on the horse’s back, the other sliding gently down the injured leg.
“What did I do?”
“I don’t know? Grabbed the wheel like an ass? Slammed us into a tree?”
“How was any of this my fault? That deer jumped out of nowhere.” He could see the tension in the set of Nikolai’s shoulders.
Nikolai straightened up, patting the horse on the back. “You’re good, buddy. It’s just a little sprain.” He walked past Alexei and jumped the two feet out the back of the trailer.
Alexei swiveled to face him. “What was I supposed to do?”
“Trust me. You’re supposed to trust me. You think I don’t see deer every day on this road? Do you think I don’t know how to drive?”
“Of course not! I didn’t think you saw the deer; that’s all.”
“However, did I survive these two years without you?” He strode to the front of the truck.
Alexei jogged to catch up. “What was that about?”
“I’m just tired of people treating me like a child! Like a chavo who doesn’t know anything. Keep him in the dark; it’s for his own good. Protect him.” He paced away from the truck, up the road, then back, hands pushing through his hair. “Like I’m just…just something to be pushed around. Go here, go there, do that. We can’t tell you why.”
“It’s not like that.”
“No?” The trailer was jackknifed so badly Nikolai was going to have to unhook it and try to get the truck out through the woods. He checked the hitch for damage and caught sight of the bloody canvas bags tossed in the back of the truck. Those damn things. God.
Alexei came up on the other side of the truck. “We are trying to protect you. Keep you safe. That’s my job.”
“From what?” He yelled. “Safe from what? Hell deer? Crazy space fairies with bows? What the fuck, Alexei?” When Alexei didn’t answer, he stormed away down the road. He needed some time alone. Just five fucking minutes to think. He walked faster, Alexei following. Great.
Alexei put on a burst of speed and caught up to him, grabbing his shirt.
Nikolai wrenched free.
“Look. Do you want me to tell you or not?”
“All of it, all cards on the table. What I know anyway.”
Nikolai weighed running away briefly. He could just keep running. But he knew he wouldn’t. “Fine. Tell me.” He could hear a car coming down the road a ways, probably Amma Brinna.
Alexei took a deep breath. “The Leader of the Wild Hunt has to step down, for want of a better term. There was to be a competition for his spot, and you are supposed to be the warrior on the, well, good side. The Champion of Order.”
Of course I am. Nikolai pushed his fingertips hard into his temples as his headache threatened to explode into a full-blown migraine.
A car pulled up next to them, and Shyama rolled down the window and leaned out. “Hey, boys. What’s going on? You don’t look so good. Something wrong?”
“Alexei crashed the truck and just told me I’m some mystical Champion of Order, destined to fight in an epic battle of Good and Evil.”
Her face turned pale, her mouth actually hanging open. “What?”
Not quite the reaction Nikolai had been expecting. He’d thought she would laugh. “That’s what I said.”
She closed her eyes for a long minute. With a sigh, she opened them. “That’s crazy.” She stepped out of the car.
Alexei put himself between her and Nikolai in a completely unsubtle way. “Yeah, it was. It was just a joke. C’mon, Nikolai. I had to make up some story about where I was. Something better than the truth.”
Shyama stared at him, one eyebrow raised. “Oh? What was the truth?”
Excellent question, Nikolai thought.
“I had amnesia. Woke up in a hospital. Didn’t know who I was or how I got there.”
“I don’t believe you.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“I don’t care what you believe.”
The wind picked up around them, pine needles scratching along the side of the truck. Nikolai didn’t know if it was Alexei’s doing or not, but better safe than sorry. If he was being completely honest with himself, which he tried never to do, he found Alexei’s potential for violent jealousy kind of hot. Speaking of hot, it felt like the temperature was rising as they stood there. Time to move on. “Guys. I’d love to stand here and watch you fight, but -” he pointed at the jackknifed truck, “I’ve got real stuff to deal with.”
“I think he woke up in a mental institution. Watch this one, Nik. I know he’s your ‘brother’ or whatever. But I would not take everything he says as truth.”
“Shyama, go home.” She was one complication he did not need. It was his fault for not cutting her off sooner, for getting involved in the first place. Gadge girls. He should just stay away.
The look she threw him could have burned through steel. She took a step closer to Alexei.
This time, Nikolai could tell the wind definitely came from Alexei. He hoped Shyama hadn’t noticed.
“What are you?” Shyama asked under her breath.
“Shyama.” There was a warning in Nikolai’s voice.
She threw up her hands, backing up. “Fine. See you later. Champion.”
She got back in the car, gunning the engine. The car lurched forward, barely missing the trees lining the road. Shyama jerked it through a transmission-jarring three point turn and tore off down the dirt road. The boys winced in unison as she crashed through a pothole, the car jolting and bouncing on its inadequate suspension.
“She seems nice,” Alexei’s smiled toothily.
Nikolai shook his head and unhooked the trailer.