Natalia Kralovna was alone. Igor, her husband was dead, Nika, her daughter, had married and moved to Krolik and Peyter, her son, had been conscripted and taken away to war. Even the Baron that owned the land and the small farm had lost interest in the property so Natalia rarely saw another human face. Pride kept her on the farm, she would rather work the land and starve than go to the village and beg and starve.
The tiny farm Natalia and Igor had worked during their years together had once produced food for many families and even some delicacies for the Baron's table. Now that she was alone it barely produced enough food to keep her alive. The little garden yielded some onions, radishes, and potatoes in season and the few fruit trees provided the occasional delicacy of an apple but usually Natalia was hungry. Hungry, old, cold, and alone.
Every night Natalia told her beads and prayed for her daughter and her son and for Igor's soul. Sometimes she prayed for the cottage and the farm. The cottage needed a roof and the only door no longer fit properly. When the winds blew or when it rained there was very little difference between the indoors and the outdoors. She felt sorry for the cottage and the farm but never felt sorry for herself.
It was on a cold rainy night when the cat arrived. Natalia heard it howling. When she opened the door the animal strode in as if it were the rightful owner. Fur soaked from the rain, the animal was carrying a small rabbit in its mouth. The creature surveyed the room and then jumped onto a table that Natalia used to prepare her food. It dropped the rabbit on the table, stared at Natalia approvingly and began to wash its face.
Meat! Natalia could not remember the last time she had eaten meat. She stared at the dead rabbit and then at the cat. The cat stopped it's ablutions momentarily and nudged the rabbit toward Natalia with its nose. After making it clear that she was to take the offering he went back to his bath.
There was some dry wood in a pile near the stone stove. She took her iron and flint and some shavings, struck a cooking fire, and began to prepare the rabbit.
As the banquet cooked she was able to get a better look at her benefactor. The cat was unusually large and jet black except for one white paw and now that he had completed his bath she could see that he was very sleek and looked well fed. All in all he was a very handsome creature. The cat was clearly friendly but looked like it could be quite ferocious if it chose to be. She was glad of its tameness and thought she would not like to be near such a creature if it was angry.
"Well cat, if you are to stay with me you must have a name," she said. "You came bringing a gift in the night, I will call you Darnoc if it pleases you great sir." Natalia curtseyed to the cat.
Darnoc stared at Natalia then as a sign of his approval he jumped down from the table and rubbed against her leg. He found a chair, stretched, yawned, curled up and promptly went to sleep.
Natalia and Darnoc became fast friends. Darnoc would frequently bring a freshly killed rabbit or squirrel and offer it to Natalia. Darnoc seemed to prefer rats for his own meals and realized that Natalia would not be interested in that kind of meat. Sometimes the cat would leave for a day or so but always returned carrying food for his mistress.
Natalia would talk to Darnoc for hours into the night. She told him of Igor and her daughter and son. What it was like in the days before the war when the old Baron ruled the land. She told the cat what little she knew of the war and how even though it was far away, how much it distressed the people of the town. And when Natalia discussed these things with Darnoc, the cat would stop what he was doing and listen attentively. It was as if he understood every word she said.
Natalia thought that if anyone ever saw her talking to the cat they would take it as a sure sign of madness but as no one but the cat knew of her one sided conversations she said, "Mad I may be but madder still if I could speak to no one at all."
When Natalia fell ill Darnoc would not leave her side. As her condition worsened she began to burn up with the fever and could keep nothing down. It was, she knew, the same fever that had killed Igor. "I will soon be with you Igor, all I will miss is Darnoc," she said to herself.
Darnoc, however, had other plans. He left that morning and returned in the early afternoon. He entered the house through a window and Natalia could see from her bed that he was carrying a large piece of tree bark in his mouth. He leapt to the top of the table and dropped the bark into Natalia's only bowl. He then paced back and forth between the cistern and the stone stove and the bowl howling loudly.
Finally Natalia realized that the cat was trying to tell her something. She struggled to get up and went to the stove. The cat was frantic, picking up pieces of wood and putting it into the stove. He then picked up her flint in his mouth and pushed it into her hand. It was then she realized that Darnoc wanted her to start a fire. Quickly she struck a fire and soon had a small blaze. Following the cat's further instructions, she boiled water and made tea from the bark.
After she drank the tea she went to her bed and fell into a deep sleep with Darnoc anxiously watching over her.
When she awoke the fever was gone. Something in the bark was a potent healing herb, but as smart as Darnoc was how could he know of such things? She knew that Darnoc was no ordinary cat but this went beyond knowledge and brushed with magic.
Once when Darnoc had been gone for three days and Natalia began to worry that something had happened to him he finally returned carrying his customary rabbit. This time, however, something was different. The cat had a silver ribbon tied around his neck and from the ribbon hung a gold medallion. Once in the cottage, rabbit disposed of, Darnoc very deftly used a paw to remove the ribbon and medallion from his neck. He carried it to Natalia and dropped it into her lap. She picked it up and was amazed at the heaviness. Clearly, it was made of gold. Engraved on its surface was a figure that looked like an eight pointed star and on its reverse side were nine concentric circles with what looked like a diamond in the center. Somewhere on each of the circles there was a precious stone. They looked like rubies and emeralds and sapphires. The emerald in the third circle appeared to glow with a light of its own. Natalia had only seen such stones once before and that was in the necklace of a great lady many years ago. She had no idea what such a thing might be worth, but she knew it was of enormous value.
"Darnoc, Where did you find such a treasure? I hope you didn't steal it," she said to the cat. Darnoc just purred and rubbed against her leg.
It was then that the medallion spoke. "Natalia, do not be afraid for we are your friends."
Natalia felt as if her heart would leap from her breast. This was sorcery. "Carolija" she said "crn carolija" "Black magic" and let the medallion drop to the floor. She crossed herself and began to pray.
"No, not magic," said the medallion. "Just the voice of a friend."
Darnoc jumped from his chair and went to the golden disk. He picked it up in his teeth and stood in front of Natalia.
"Please take it," said the medallion. "It is very important that you take it."
She reached out and took it from the cat and held it in her hand. It was warm and pulsated with a life of its own. As she looked at it, the medallion spoke again.
"We are visitors from a great distance. We have traveled far and are in need of aid and understanding. We know that you can help us and we can also be of help to you." The disk went on, "We need to understand more of your ways, your people, and your world. We will forever be in your debt if you will help us."
Strangely, the words were reassuring rather than frightening. Natalia knew, somehow she knew, that the marvelous medallion spoke the truth. "What can I do? How can I aid a magical spirit?"
"We are not magical but living creatures such as yourself. But we are different from you in form and find it easier to speak to you using this instrument. Darnoc is also our instrument, a living instrument; he is like us although he does not share our form. Through him we have been with you for a long time and know you to be a good person and one who can be trusted. Will you help us?
"When you were near death we realized that something had to be done to make it easier to talk to you. You would have died had you not drunk the tea and we could not permit that. That is why we brought you the co????n" the medallion spoke a word that Natalia did not understand.
"We apologize, The speaking disk."
Natalia marveled at the magic that was not magic. She looked at Darnoc as she clutched the disk. "You saved my life, I will do anything you ask."
The cat looked at her but said nothing.
"Yes," said the disk "we can view your world through Darnoc's eyes and hear through his ears, but Darnoc cannot speak. Even so, through him you have been of great aid to us and your love for Darnoc has told us much about you. We need your assistance and understanding in many things, But first we must help you. You need horses to help till the field and to use for transportation. We will provide you with horses. You also need food so that you will have the strength to help us. We will provide you with food."
Natalia heard a sound. She went to the door and looked outside. There stood a magnificent horse. It was strong and appeared to be in perfect health. On its back was a pack that bulged with hidden contents. The horse stood silently in front of the house and waited for Natalia to examine its burden.
Breads and fruit and vegetables of every imaginable variety were in the pack. There were also packages of preserved meat of various kinds, several blankets and a wooden box with copper hinges and a lock. Natalia removed the pack from the horse and struggled to bring it into the cottage.
Treasure beyond belief, food, blankets, and God only knew what else lay before her. For the first time in her life Natalia knew what it was to be rich.
Later, she opened the box and found even more treasures. Many of the things were unknown to her for they were devices whose purpose she had yet to learn. There was one item, however, whose value and meaning for her was instantly obvious. It was a flat rectangular slab of crystal and within its depths was the image of Igor, Nika, Peyter and herself. It looked like a painting but the details and colors were perfect. It was a bit like having her family again. She clutched the wonderful picture to her breast and wept as Darnoc watched.
Later, she sat in her chair and spoke to the cat and the medallion. "This is a miracle be it magical or not. How can I ever repay what you have done?"
The disk said "Be our friend, teach us of your ways, your thoughts, your world. Teach us what it is to be human. If you will do these things, we will teach you what it is to be free."
"But," said Natalia "There are people in the village that are much wiser than I, you could learn much more from them than you can from me. I am just a peasant woman with no knowledge of the world, I can teach you little."
"That, Natalia is where you are wrong. We know the people of the village would fear us and try to destroy us. Knowledge of the world will come; it is an understanding of being human that we seek. We can learn that from you."
That night Natalia slept more soundly than she had in years. She was warm, had a full belly and a peace that she had never known before. She had strange dreams. Dreams about large spidery creatures that moved silently in the darkness.
When she awoke Darnoc was there watching over her. She heard a sound outside and looked out the window. The horse was there munching grass. It looked up and gazed at her briefly and went back to its forage.
The disk spoke "Good morning Natalia. We hope you rested well."
"Wonderfully well, I don't remember ever having such a sound sleep. It's as if I had been drunk on wine." She smiled. Then she looked around her cottage. The hole in the roof had been mended and the door now fit perfectly. She looked out the other window, a new stable had appeared where the ruins of an old shed had been and the small barn had been painted.
"You did these things as I slept? I must have been asleep for days for you to do so much."
Before long the farm had been transformed. There were three cows, two goats, a dozen chickens, five pigs, and a second horse. Each of these creatures wandered in during the night and made itself at home. There was no need for fences or gates as none of the animals ever thought of running away. Unlike most farm animals Natalia's menagerie actually seemed to enjoy taking part in the running of the farm. The chickens would pick the garden free of weeds while the horses, goats, and cows dropped their dung neatly in the plowed ground where it would feed the new crops most effectively. The chickens separated the eggs that were to be for human eating and for new chicks into two groups and there was never any doubt on Natalia's part as to which was which. The pigs were a marvel. They would locate edible mushrooms and truffles all of which they brought to Natalia never eating so much as one. Not since the days of the Baron had Natalia lived so well.
There was a large dog that Natalia named Cuvar because he watched over everything so carefully and protected the farm from predators and prowlers. And always there was Darnoc, the wonderful cat that had started it all.
Sometimes at night Natalia would talk for hours to Darnoc and the golden speaking disk. The creatures that she never saw would tell her things that seemed impossible. For one thing, they said they came from another world. Natalia had heard stories of the Americas, the new world far across the great sea but the disk said that they came from a place much farther away than that. They said that they came from beyond the moon, they came from the stars. That was so unbelievable that it had no meaning at all.
One starry night she was in the pasture looking at the thousands of fiery points of light in the sky when the disk said. "Do you see that group of stars that looks like a drinking ladle?" She looked and could see it. "There is a star below the bowl of the drinking ladle. You can't see our star with your eyes but it's there and someday your people will build instruments that can see it and even ships that can travel to it." These things were incomprehensible to Natalia, but she accepted them as truth.
The disk told of a terrible king who tortured people by doing foul things to their minds. It was this king whom the people of the disk had fled and after a long and perilous journey had finally arrived at the earth. They said that the earth was only one of many worlds, but of all the worlds the disk people had seen the earth was one of the most beautiful. Natalia accepted this as well, but the reality of evil kings was easier to accept than the idea of other worlds.
Natalia was learning to read. In the wooden box were books and a lamp that never needed oil and yet glowed with a brilliance that was as bright as sunlight. They had cautioned her to never let anyone see the lamp and to keep it a secret. It was, they said, an example of the machines they took for granted but most of the humans that they knew of would fear the lamp and there was no reason to frighten anyone. Natalia could not imagine why anyone would fear a lamp, but she respected their wishes.
The lamp was wonderful but the books were transcending. As she learned to read she learned of the history of her own country and the history of the world. She learned of ancient Greece, Rome, and of Europe of which her country was a part. And for the first time in her life she was able to read the Bible. The history of the Jews and the emergence of the Christians and the origins of the Christian faith gave her a completely new perspective of her most cherished beliefs.
The people of the disk were fascinated by her reaction to the things she learned. They asked endless questions about her belief in God and Jesus and the prophets and the saints. They found the story of Moses and his leading the Children of Israel from the bondage of Egypt into the wilderness and ultimately to the Promised Land especially compelling. They had read these stories before but had never really understood them. They said that seeing her reaction to them gave them a real understanding and appreciation of the true impact of the events. When she said that Moses never saw the promised land except from a distance, the reaction of the disk people was profound, even the animals of the farm seemed to weep at the thought.
The animals became her companions and were nearly as close as Darnoc. They were truly magical creatures each with a highly developed personality. She loved them as much as she had ever loved another human.
She named the first horse Petak or Friday because that was the day he had arrived. The second horse Nedelja or Sunday was given her name for the same reason. Petak was sleek and fast and could run like the wind. Nedelja was large and powerful and could pull any plow or cart or wagon by herself that would usually require two or more ordinary horses to manage. Both creatures were extraordinarily intelligent and would respond to spoken commands and even subtle gestures.
On those rare occasions when Natalia went into Krolik she would ride Petak. She took advantage of the trips to see her daughter and son in law who marveled at Natalia's good fortune with the farm. They would question her about how she was getting along and wanted to know where she could have gotten such a marvelous horse as Petak. She simply said "He wandered in one day and stayed." When Nika and Ivan offered to come and visit Natalia at the farm she made up excuses that kept them away. "Problems with the water" she would say, or "The roads are bad" When Nika became pregnant with Natalia's first grandchild all efforts to visit the farm stopped. Nika was content to see her mother on her occasional visits and lost all desire to travel to an old farm half a day's ride away.
Suspicions that Natalia might be a witch began on one of her trips to Krolik. The town had become infested with rats and nothing the towns people could do would make them go away. On this trip Darnoc had accompanied her and she wore the speaking disk on a chain beneath her blouse.
"The rat problem is getting worse every day," the town's people said, and there was a fear of plague or other sickness that the rodents might bring.
Natalia was engaged in a discussion about the rats with Darnoc and the speaking disk when several towns' people saw her talking to her cat.
"She speaks to her cat." said one man
"She lives all alone on a farm in the black woods."
"How can a lone woman manage a farm?"
"There are spirits in those woods."
"Where did she get that horse?"
"That is no ordinary horse."
On that trip a man tried to steal Petak. He was standing with other horses near the marketplace but Petak was the only one that was not tied. The man placed a rope around Petak's neck and tried to lead him away. The horse simply wouldn't budge. The man pulled and tugged and started to hit Petak with a small whip when the horse leaned toward the man and appeared to whisper something in his ear. No one was ever sure what happened next but the last anyone saw of the terrified man was his backside as he ran out of the village as if the father of evil himself was in pursuit.
Several towns' people saw the attempted theft and the resulting exchange between horse and would be horse thief. They knew that Petak was Natalia's horse and some concluded that Natalia was a witch and that Petak was her familiar.
"Thou shall not suffer a Witch to live" was the rallying cry and Natalia was its target. There had not been a witch on trial in Serbia for over one hundred years but some of the town's folk seemed ready to gather wood for the stake.
That evening soldiers came to Nika and Ivan's home and arrested Natalia. She was taken to the office of the Police and charged with witchcraft. She was searched and the golden speaking disk was found. The soldiers were certain that a peasant woman would never own such an item of jewelry so they added theft to the charges. Darnoc had vanished and Natalia was thrown alone into a dismal cramped cell to await her trial.
She was alone, truly alone for the first time in over a year. She had been isolated from her family and her unusual friends, at least so she thought.
That night a raven flew to the window of her cell and perched on the ledge between the bars. "Natalia" said the raven "We are with you. You will not be harmed." Natalia and the raven talked to one another long into the night.
A guard heard bits of the conversation but it made no sense to him. He had been informed that the woman was a witch, a thief, and probably a lunatic. The voices simply confirmed what he had been told so he said nothing.
In the sixteenth century justice against witches was swift in Serbia. Natalia was scheduled to be tried in the morning and to be burned at the stake that afternoon.
The "trial" was held in the village's central
square. It was felt that a public viewing of the proceedings would discourage
future witches from practicing their evil deeds or at least keep them
from showing themselves.
The Grand High Inquisitor stood and addressed the crowd and the Natalia. "You are accused of consorting with demons of the lower regions and of the practice of sorcery and witchcraft." The Grand High Inquisitor read off a litany of charges and finally cried at the top of his voice "What say you Witch?"
As the inquisitor spoke, a number of large black birds seemed to appear from nowhere, fly to the rooftops, perch themselves and observe the proceedings. Soon there were several hundred of the creatures silently watching the inquisitor with more flying in every minute. By the time Natalia began to speak there were several thousand of the ebon specters all silent and staring directly at the Grand High Inquisitor. The townspeople realized that something very sinister was afoot.
Natalia spoke "I am not a witch, I do not practice witchcraft or any other black rite. Give me the opportunity to show that I side with good not evil. Let me cleanse this village of its plague of rats."
At that moment a sound began that most had never heard before, it was the sound of church bells and chimes as if a thousand clocks were striking at once. The sound came from everywhere and nowhere, the bells pealed and rang and tolled with ever increasing loudness. Then at an unheard signal all of the ravens took to the sky and flew into the formation of a large circle. Then, from the center of the circle, a fiery light shown down on Natalia. The light was a conical rainbow of every conceivable color. It was then that the sound of many trumpets and the voice of a choir of thousands joined the bells in a combined, triumphant chord.
The astonished crowd fell to its knees as one. Most covered their ears and eyes in terror. A few of the braver souls looked at the platform. Natalia stood alone in the blazing apocalyptic light, her inquisitors had fled.
Natalia spoke in a voice that reached the farthest
street in the town "Let me cleanse this village."
Natalia raised her hands above her head and cried "Cleanse this village of its pestilence." Then she lowered her hands and quietly stepped down from the platform.
The bells had stopped as had the trumpets, the choir and the rainbow lights faded. Now a new sound began. It was the soft padding of vast numbers of cat's feet. Cats swarmed into the village thousands of them. Big cats, little cats, black cats, white cats and cats of every other color. The cats began to seek out the rats. In basements and attics cats found rats and devoured them. In church steeples and in sepulchers the rats became the cats' meals. Within four hours there was not a single rat in the village of Krolik. Then the cats vanished as quickly as they had appeared.
Everyone wanted to praise Natalia, but she was gone.
Riding home on Petak's back with Darnoc seated comfortably on the horses rump and a new speaking disk hanging around her neck on its golden chain Natalia said "What did you do? How could that have not been magic? A magical miracle."
The disk spoke "It's what we call technology. It is a science that your people will learn soon enough but until they do it will be hard for them to tell the difference between science and magic. I will admit that in this case it may have been a bit over done but it did have the desired effect, I doubt that anyone from Krolik will trouble you again.
Natalia lived on for many years. Occasionally her daughter and grand daughter would visit, but Ivan always remained behind. The star people found many ways to make her days happy and fulfilling and they were repaid by coming to understand human happiness and fulfillment.
As she came to know the visitors better she realized that the animals of the farm, including Darnoc, were like cloaks that the star people wore when they walked the earth. Somehow they could possess the animal bodies and make them do their bidding. This was not an evil but a wonderful good. Sadly, she realized that this was the only way the beings that had helped her so much could enjoy the beauties of the world.
In the village of Krolik, Natalia was considered a magical saint but with the exception of Nika and Natalia's granddaughter, no one ever ventured near the farm. Strange stories of terrifying creatures living in the woods kept people away. No one knew what these creatures might be, but it was known that they guarded Natalia and watched over her.
Finally in her ninetieth year Natalia died. She passed
peacefully into a blissful rest as she slept. It was then that the friends
that she had seen only in her dreams came to her and carried her away.
With reverence and solemnity the forest green spider like creatures carried
her in a golden casket to the final resting place in the distant sea.