The sickness needed to be burnt away.
Everyone knew this. Or, at least, they had known this in the past. Sopi’s mother’s mother, Vaha, had told her this, and everyone knew that Vaha was very wise, and knew lots of things.
Mir, who was a shaman and the oldest person alive in all of the Cucuteni lands, was the one who had told Vaha that the time had come to burn the sickness away. Mir knew that the villages must be burned to the ground, so that not a stick remained. But Bogu, the chief, did not listen to Mir. He used to listen, but not, it seemed, anymore.
Mir, of course, would not give up so easily. As was his right, he called a meeting of the people. Everyone in the village gathered beneath the giant old oak tree that had been their meeting place for as long as anyone could remember.
Sopi and Vaha arrived early so as to get a good seat close to the tree. Sopi watched as people arrived in small family groups. The atmosphere was one of festive curiosity, at least amongst the young people: it had been a long time since a meeting had been called, and the occasion was an excuse to set aside their chores for a time.
On the faces of the older people, however, Sopi saw a tension underneath their smiles, and there was a tone of anxiety that echoed beneath their light laughter. Sopi looked to her grandmother and saw that same worry in the tight set of her jaw and the alert gleam in her eyes.
Bogu sat in a place of honor just in front of the tree. At his side sat Rozvan, the young man whom Bogu had chosen as his advisor and who would be shaman after Bogu. Sopi did not like Rozvan, did not trust him. His sly smile appeared to her to be one of mocking derision, and his eyes seemed to regard the people with a hidden malice that made her uncomfortable. The chief’s face was implacable, but Sopi saw that Rozvan wore a sneer of sardonic amusement.
When the last of the people had reached the meeting place, Mir stood up to perform the rituals that would open the meeting. Sopi watched in awe as the kindly old man that she had known all of her life, the one that had allowed her to pull on his beard and eyebrows when she was still very small and even still let her leap onto his lap, took on an air of authority that silenced the chattering villagers.
As Sopi watched, Mir stood and pulled his shaman’s mantle about his shoulders with a gravid flourish. He began to recite the opening ritual chant, his sonorous voice echoing in the near silence of the forest. It seemed to Sopi that not even the birds dared interrupt the shaman once he had donned the mantle of his office.
“Friends!” his voice boomed, holding all in rapt attention. The people were awed by the sight of their shaman in full glory. Most days, as Mir walked about the village, he seemed normal, soft-spoken; an unprepossessing, modest old man. But now, dressed in his rich ceremonial robes that he donned only for the most serious of occasions, his voice strengthened and took on a tone of command that could not be denied. Even the arrogant Rozvan looked a bit intimidated by the imposing presence of the old man.
“I have called you here today to discuss a matter of utmost importance,” Mir continued. “It is time to burn the villages. We know that it must be done. We know that it has always been done.”
The people gasped at the import of Mir’s words. They had heard, of course, of the ritual burnings that took place from time to time, but no one present had ever experienced it. They had heard of it from their parents or grandparents, but most had never thought too much about it.
Most had never thought that the task of committing all they owned to the appetites of a raging fire would fall to them. Astonished by the shaman’s announcement, they began to talk and argue and speculate amongst themselves, so that no man’s voice could be heard above the others.
“Friends!” boomed Mir once more. “Listen, I beg you! Please!” He held up a supplicating hand, for even though his position granted him great respect, he did not have the authority to command the people, merely to advise.
The people ignored the voice of their shaman, and the commotion continued. Sopi saw Rozvan’s habitual look of sly smugness creep back across his face as he watched Mir’s vain attempts to silence the crowd. Mir looked to the chief for help, but Bogu refused to meet his eye.
It seemed that some people didn’t want to burn the sickness away. Either they had forgotten about the sickness, or they didn’t believe in it anymore, or they thought that there was more time left to them before it struck. Bogu was one of these people. He did not want to burn the village.
Bogu was the chief of their village and, since their village was the most important of all the Cucuteni villages, Bogu was the chief of all the chiefs. Because of this, if he decided that this village, Sopi’s village, would not burn, it followed that none of the villages would burn either.
Rozvan, the man who would, in all likelihood, be shaman after Mir’s spirit left his body, took Bogu’s side on the matter. Indeed, Sopi thought, he very well might have poisoned Bogu’s mind against the idea in the first place. He whispered into Bogu’s ears, telling him that Mir was a foolish old man, that he knew nothing, that there was no sign that it was time to burn the village.
And Bogu listened to Rozvan. Indeed, there were some who said (quietly, and in a place where the chief could never hear them) that Rozvan was the only man to whom Bogu listened. As Mir struggled to regain the attention of the villagers, Sopi saw, for the first time, a hint of the fragile old man that the shaman she revered was becoming. His voice seemed to warble as it strained to be heard over the din, and his shoulders were narrow and stooped. By contrast, Rozvan was in the full bloom of youth. His languid movements and penetrating glances were born of virility and power, and he easily commanded the immediate attention of all present when he stood and raised a hand.
“Nay, old man,” said Rozvan, shouldering the older shaman aside. Sopi gasped at the insult, and saw that Vaha, seated beside her, pinched her lips together in angry disapproval. While it was true that it was widely assumed that Rozvan would be chosen to be the next shaman, Mir still lived and custom demanded that he be treated with respect. To simply push him aside was the height of impropriety, even sacrilegious. The people, however, simply watched Rozvan with rapt attention.
Rozvan turned to address the gathered people. “There is no need to burn the villages,” he said. “I’m sure our trusted shaman means well,” – here he inclined his head slightly towards Mir in a pantomime of respect that instead conveyed his utter disdain for the old man – “but such rituals are things of the past. We have no need of them now. There is no place in our lives for such things anymore.”
Mir drew himself up to stand tall and face Rozvan eye to eye. Sopi was delighted to see that while Rozvan had humbled him, still the old shaman had some fight left in him.
“What do you know?” he demanded angrily, “You are nothing but a puppy, nipping at my heels.” The people whispered to each other in shock. Even Rozvan looked a bit uncertain in the face of this onslaught. His arrogance, however, would not allow him any self-doubt, and he recovered himself quickly.
“Would you have the people destroy their homes, their belongings, everything that they hold dear? For what possible reason could you ask them to do this? It is madness!” he retorted.
“The sickness must be burned away,” replied Mir. “The upior are coming.”
“The upior?” Rozvan asked with a sardonic sneer, “Surely you do not believe that the upior still exist?” He imbued the word with so much derision that Mir flinched and some of the younger people laughed with Rozvan.
The older people, however, exchanged nervous glances. They did believe in the old stories; they had been told of the upior by their parents, whose words they trusted. But they also knew that young people liked to appear sophisticated and worldly. They would blindly agree with anything the confident Rozvan said, so as to avoid his mocking condescension, and would blithely throw aside the wisdoms of their grandfathers.
Mir, however, was undaunted. “The upior have existed for as long as we Cucuteni have existed. Surely,” he said, mockingly echoing Rozvan’s own words, “surely they would not simply cease to exist for no reason other than that you have never seen them?”
“You are right,” Rozvan replied, a sly smile creeping across his face. Sopi cringed at the sight of that smile, at the clever malice it scarcely concealed. She didn’t trust Rozvan; indeed, she felt certain that he was lying about something. But why couldn’t everyone else see it? Why did they all listen to him so carefully, with something akin to adoration on their faces?
“It is true,” continued Rozvan, “that I have never seen an upior. Nor has anyone else here. Have you thought about why that might be, old man?” Sopi sensed that the younger man was setting a trap for the older one, though she could not yet see what form it might take.
“Because the people have always burned the villages!” Mir cried, thinking he had struck the victory blow.
“And,” asked Rozvan, turning to address the people, “why did they burn the villages? What might have caused our forefathers to do this?”
“You know as well as I do!” sputtered Mir. “The villages have always been burned on the day the Chosen One died.”
“And who was the Chosen One?” Rozvan asked. He held up a supplicating hand as Mir’s anger rose. “Please humor me,” he said. “Just to be certain that everyone here understands.”
Mir breathed heavily in exasperation, but complied with Rozvan’s request. “Each time the villages burned, all of the newborn babes were marked. Whichever one survived the longest became the Chosen One, and when he died in old age the people knew that it was time to burn the sickness away again.”
“And who, then, is the Chosen One now?” asked Rozvan with a deceptively innocent expression upon his face.
And there it was, thought Sopi. The trap had been sprung. She knew it, but she saw that Mir did not. He continued to argue, hoping to sway the people to reason.
“They all died when they were still small. None of them grew to adulthood. You know this as well as I do!” said Mir.
“So why didn’t the people burn the villages then, and select a new group of Chosen Ones?”
“Because it was too soon! Never had it happened that none of the Chosen Ones lived to old age. The people didn’t know what to do, so they did nothing. Much as you would counsel doing right now.”
“Yes, doing nothing is exactly what I would counsel,” answered Rozvan. “Because when the Chosen Ones died as children, it was a sign from the gods that the danger from the upior was finished. It is not necessary to burn away a sickness that doesn’t exist.”
“Again, I say,” retorted Mir. “You know nothing!”
“And what would you teach me, old man?” he asked softly.
Mir glowered at Rozvan, but he saw now that he had lost. He looked out over the gathered villagers and saw in their faces that most sided with Rozvan. He supposed he couldn’t blame them. They didn’t want to burn their possessions; they didn’t want to leave their homes; they didn’t want to believe that the upior sickness could rise.
He looked again to Bogu, hoping that the chief would intervene on his behalf, but still the chief refused to look at him. This, he thought, was a man who had called him shaman for his entire life; a man who had always treated his counsel with respect. But now Mir watched as Bogu rose and moved to stand next to Rozvan. The message was clear. The chief had sided with Mir’s adversary, and Mir was no longer needed.
Sopi saw the way the crowd turned against Mir; saw as the shaman she so admired accepted defeat and slumped sadly within his grand robes. She watched as he turned his back upon them and walked away, while Rozvan gloried in his victory and the people cheered for their chief and the sneaky new advisor who would turn them all away from the wisdom of Mir and their forefathers.
Vaha, seeing Mir leave, grabbed Sopi’s hand and led her away from the meeting place. Her jaw was clenched with anger, and she walked quickly so that Sopi had to jog just to keep up.
“What has happened, Great Mother?” asked Sopi, alarmed. She had never seen Vaha so upset before.
“Fools!” hissed Vaha. “They will kill us all!” She saw the terrified expression that her harsh words brought to Sopi’s face, and she softened her face. “I’m sorry, little one,” she said more gently. “Rozvan is an ambitious, greedy man, and it seems that he has whispered his way into Bogu’s heart. But I never expected for them to disrespect Mir so blatantly.”
“Rozvan seems very sneaky to me,” Sopi observed. “Like a spider that hides beneath the leaves and then bites your fingers.”
Vaha laughed grimly. “Ah, but you are a wise little girl,” she said, hugging Sopi close. “That is exactly what Rozvan is like.” She thought for a moment. “Or, perhaps he’s just a fool. Either way, we will go now to see what Mir has to say about all of this.”
They soon arrived at the shaman’s hut, and Sopi’s heart lifted when she saw that they were not the only people there. A dozen or so of the villagers approached Mir’s abode even as Sopi and Vaha did, and more still were behind them. True, most of the people there were old, with very few young people present. They could hear the cheers of the rest of the villagers as they celebrated the decision to leave the village unburned. But at least, thought Sopi, Mir was not entirely friendless.
As Sopi and Vaha approached, Mir stepped out of his hut. His expression was one of resigned sadness, but he smiled gratefully at the people who had come to stand with him.
“What do we do now?” asked one old woman.
“Yes, tell us what we should do!” echoed a number of the others present.
“We must leave here,” replied Mir, causing the people to whisper amongst themselves. Most of them were elderly, and Mir was telling them that they must leave all of their possessions and travel some unknown distance, away from all that they had known. They trusted their shaman, and would do as he said, but such a thing would not be easy for them.
“I know that it will be hard,” Mir continued. “It will not be easy for me, either. My bones are the oldest of anyone here!” He laughed grimly. “But the upior have been seen. A messenger came, not two turns of the moon ago, from Radu of Sorenia.” The people gasped: Sorenia was only a few days walk from their own village. “The messenger said there had been several upior there. He claimed that he himself had escaped before taking the sickness, but…” Mir trailed off, allowing the people to conjecture what they would.
“But, where will we go?” asked a man.
“Somewhere to the west. Away from Sorenia. Away from here.”
“Did Bogu and Rozvan hear what this messenger had to say?” asked Sopi, surprising herself with her own boldness. A question had begun to form in her mind, and it demanded an answer.
“Yes, Sopi, they did,” answered Mir. “I was in Bogu’s hut, along with Rozvan, when the message came.” He swept his gaze over everyone. “Go, gather your things and make ready. We must leave at dawn.”
As everyone turned to go, Sopi slipped free of Vaha’s grasp. “I’ll be back,” she cried over her shoulder as she raced away, headed to Bogu’s hut. She didn’t know why, exactly, she wanted to go there. All she knew was that she wanted to hear what the chief and Rozvan might say to each other, and some instinct told her that it was important that she do so. When she reached the chief’s hut, Sopi slipped around to the back. She didn’t want Bogu or Rozvan to see her. She couldn’t give a name to her suspicions just yet, but she was sure that there was something wrong, something amiss, and that it had everything to do with Rozvan.
She poked around the back of the hut, and to her delight, soon found a small gap in the wall through which she could not only hear what was said inside, but also see, if she kept her eye pressed against it.
So it was that she saw and heard all that happened within. She saw Bogu and Rozvan enter the hut, laughing over their victory over Mir. She saw a young man, clearly a servant from his modest clothing and deferential manner, enter the hut behind them, carrying a tray of food. She saw Bogu and Rozvan share a sardonic look. And she saw Rozvan stride forward, grab the youth by his hair, tilt his head back, and tear out his throat with only his teeth.
She gasped in shock, involuntarily. She clapped her hand over her mouth, but it was too late. Bogu and Rozvan both looked up, and, with a preternatural speed, Rozvan darted out of the hut.
Sopi turned to run, but Rozvan was far too fast. He came upon her and snatched her up in his strong arms. She kicked at him ineffectually as he carried her into his hut and dumped her on the floor in front of Bogu.
“What did you see, child?” he demanded. Sopi, too terrified to answer, could only whimper as she looked back and forth between Bogu, Rozvan, and the dead servant on the floor.
Upior, she thought. Just as Mir had warned. Only upior could kill a person like that, with bare teeth. Only upior had a blood thirst like that, that made them want to tear people apart and drink from their blood.
Bogu hissed angrily, and made as if to strike her. “Speak!” he shouted. “What did you see?”
“N-nothing,” stammered Sopi. “I saw nothing. I only just came to the back of the tent a minute ago, and saw the dead man on the floor, and so I screamed.”
Her lie was feeble, and she knew it. Bogu exhaled sharply, and put his hand to the hilt of the dagger that hung from his belt. Sopi cried out in terror, but, even as she did so, Rozvan held up a hand to stay the chief. He knelt down beside Sopi and spoke quietly, his words a sibilant hiss that prickled at her neck.
“Nay, Bogu,” he said. “We cannot strike her down. She will be missed, and it is too soon.” He looked appraisingly at Sopi. “And she is just a child, after all,” he mused. “How much can she understand of what she saw? Do you know what you just saw, child?” he demanded, his voice probing and insistent.
“No,” Sopi said between sobs. “I don’t know, I don’t understand. Please let me go to my Great Mother.”
“She knows, Rozvan,” said the chief. “She will tell Vaha, who will tell the rest of the village. Suddenly the people will be siding with Mir, begging to burn the village down. We cannot risk it.”
“Nay!” said Rozvan. “If she does not return to her Great Mother, it will be noticed. People may not heed the fancies of a little girl, but they will certainly notice a missing child.”
“But she knows what we are!” yelled Bogu in exasperation. “She will tell.”
“I think,” said Rozvan, nuzzling his face into her neck as he spoke, his fingernails digging painfully into her arm where he held her. “I think,” he repeated, “that she will not. Will you, little one?”
Sopi shook her head in quick agreement. She would agree to anything he asked, if only to escape the feeling of his foul breath on her skin. “And you know why she won’t tell anyone?” continued Rozvan cruelly. “Because, if she did, then Vaha will be the next person from whom I drink. And I will make sure that she is there, so that she may see the life’s blood of her Great Mother draining away into my mouth, and know that it is her fault that Vaha dies.”
“I won’t tell!” yelped Sopi. “I promise, I swear, no one will hear of it!” She hoped fervently that he wouldn’t see the lie in her eyes.
“Then go!” hissed Rozvan. But before he let her go, he nipped at her ear, ripping off a small chunk of flesh. She squealed with the pain, but then he let her go and she ran. She looked back only for a second, to see him licking the blood off of his lips (her blood!), and then she was gone, flying as fast as she could through the village to find Vaha.
Vaha was in their hut, packing up their belongings. Surprisingly, Mir was there with her. Both looked up, astonished, at the sight of Sopi’s tear-stained face and bloody ear as she burst in.
“Bogu!” she cried. “Rozvan! They are… they are upior!”
Vaha gasped, and Mir’s eyes widened. “Why do you say this, child?” he demanded. “What have you seen?”
Quickly, Sopi recounted what had happened in the tent. She faltered when she came to the part where Rozvan had threatened to kill Vaha, but both Vaha and Mir were quick to reassure her.
“You did right,” said Mir gently. “Rozvan is a liar, and if he is infected with the sickness, as you say, he would kill us all, including your Great Mother, in the end. By telling us now, you may have saved us. Had you not, we would all most certainly be dead before the moon grew full again.”
Sopi nodded, relieved that she had done what she should, and that now Vaha and Mir were in control of things. They would decide what to do, and all would be well. Still, the wound on her ear itched, and she felt dizzy. She could hear the blood pounding in her ears.
Mir shook his head in frustration. “But what is their plan?” he thought aloud. “Why do they not strike immediately?”
“Perhaps,” said Vaha, “they wished to infect more people first, so as to be harder to defeat.”
Mir sighed. “It seems the upior are more than just blood-hungry animals,” he said sadly. “It would seem they are clever, indeed. I have underestimated our enemy, and misjudged the time of their coming.”
“As have we all,” said Vaha gently. “The question is, what do we do now? We must save ourselves, somehow.”
“We must leave immediately, then,” said Mir. “We dare not wait until dawn.” Vaha nodded, accepting his judgment. “Tell only those whom you trust implicitly. Tell them to sneak quietly away from the village in the darkest hour of the night. We will meet at the great oak tree, three hours’ walk north, by the crook in the river.”
Vaha nodded again. She knew the place well: it was sacred to the Cucuteni and used for various rituals.
“I will see you there, then,” he said. “Stay safe, Vaha.”
Mir made to leave, then, but paused as he passed Sopi. He tilted her chin upwards, and looked at the wound on her ear. “How do you feel, child” he asked. “Did he do this with his teeth?”
“No,” said Sopi quickly, not knowing why she lied. She ducked her head to avoid Mir’s gaze. “He did it with his dagger, to threaten me.”
Mir looked thoughtfully at her for a long moment, then shrugged his shoulders. “Remember,” he reminded Vaha, “they must not see you leave. Secrecy is our only hope.” And with that, he was gone.
Several nights later, Sopi lay awake beside her grandmother on the hard forest floor, beneath the great oak near the crook in the river. The snores of her grandmother mingled with those of the other refugees as they slept peacefully in the quiet night.
Vaha had done exactly as Mir had told her to do. She went quietly in the night to her closest friends, and told them about Bogu and Rozvan, and of how they had become upior. Mir had done the same.
Both had been extremely selective in whom they had told, fearful that word would get back to the chief and his new shaman, and thus condemn them all. Therefore, only about thirty souls had escaped from the village that night, to meet at the sacred old oak tree.
It had been some days now since their departure. They had moved quickly, and had come a long way. No one had followed them from the village; no ravening bands of upior had plagued them in the nights they slept outside. They believed that they were far enough away, now. They believed themselves to be safe, and so they slept easily.
But Sopi did not feel peaceful, nor did she feel quiet. She felt agitated, even angry, though she could not say why. She tossed and turned as the tension built within her, making it impossible for her to rest.
She tried to push it to the back of her mind, but the growing aggression inside of her would not be banished. The angry thing within railed to be free, and it would not be silenced.
She must have been infected with the upior sickness when she was in Bogu’s hut. But as the part of her that was still human, still Sopi, felt horror at the thought, still there was another part, the part that had been overtaken by the sickness, that quivered in excitement.
Even as Sopi strove to fight it, she knew that it was in vain. The angry thing would win, was winning already, and it wanted nothing more than to taste the blood of the people who slept around her.
Sopi sat up. She looked around her at the sleeping people. She could hear the pulse of their blood as it flowed through their veins, she could smell the earthy richness of it. She bit her own lip, and her tongue darted out to capture the drop of blood that formed there. She savored the sharp iron tang on her tongue. At last, she crawled stealthily, like a hunting cat, eyes feral in the moonlight, out of her sleeping furs and towards the sleeping form of Vaha.
The people thought they had escaped. They thought they were safe now, here in this forest, far from the village.
Sopi rose to her knees so that she loomed over her sleeping Great Mother. Moonlight glittered in her too-wide eyes. The people were wrong. They had not escaped, and they were not safe.