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Hidden Moon (Chapter 33)

"You can come down now." Malachi looked up. "No one will hurt you."

The people and animals wandered off to their respective wagons, except for Sabina, who stared at us, too. Snakes trailed over her bare feet, and one twined up her ankle.

"Sabina!" Mal barked.

She lifted the snakes into her hands, tossing several around her neck and over her shoulders before heading toward their enclosure.

Mal started toward us. I guess running wasn't an option.

Grace and I climbed to our feet. She kept her gun in her hand, though she did point it at the ground.

He stopped in front of us, casting a quick, almost guilty glance in my direction.

"When were you going to tell me?" I asked.

"I just did."

"You told me nothing. We snuck in and watched."

"He knew we were here," Grace said.

"How?"

"He can change men and women into beasts and back again. You think he isn't aware of everything that goes on around him?"

"Is that true?" I asked.

"I can't change them into beasts; I can only change them back again."

"They're shape-shifters?" Grace asked.

"Of a kind."

"Maybe you should start at the beginning," I said.

"Maybe I should." He swept out his hand in a "be my guest" gesture. "Let's take this inside."

Moments later Grace and I sat in Mal's wagon. His bed was made, probably because he'd spent the majority of the night in mine, then the rest of it doing whatever he'd been doing in the woods with the others.

His clothes spilled out of drawers built beneath his bed. A single table was covered with books and papers; the titles reminded me of the ones I'd found in Grace's attic. A lot on the paranormal – spells, magic, curses.

"What are you?" I asked.

"A… Well, there really isn't a word for it in English. I… can do things."

Grace leaned forward. "Magic?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because I'm Rom."

"All Gypsies, I mean Rom, can do magic?" I guess that was a stupid question, since we'd just seen half of them change from an animal into a person.

"No. Only the pure."

My eyes narrowed. Terms like "pure" and "master race" really set my teeth on edge lately.

"Pure in what way?" I asked.

"Pure Rom blood. Not intermingled with the gadje."

"I'd think that would be pretty hard to do in this day and age."

"We aren't exactly from this day and age."

My head was starting to hurt. I rubbed my eyes and let Grace take over.

"You time-traveled?" she asked.

He actually had the guts to laugh. "No. I was born in 1754."

"Sure you were, pal."

His eyebrows lifted. "You saw a grizzly become a man, but I couldn't be born two hundred and fifty years ago?"

Grace bit her lip. "Fine. Whatever. Go on."

"There was a chovhani, a witch, and she – " He glanced at me, frowned, then looked away. "She loved me, but I could not love her back."

Had that been a hint? Did it matter? Any future I might have dreamed of was lost. He was a magician? A warlock? A sorcerer? I wasn't up on the terminology. Regardless, he was something "other" and his people were shape-shifters. How's that for a good excuse not to commit?

"You pissed off a witch," Grace said. "Nice job. Let me guess, she cursed your ass."

"And the rest of me, as well."

Grace's lips twitched; I didn't find any of this funny.

"How is that possible?" I asked.

"Easy enough," Grace murmured. "With the right spell and a little bit of power."

"A lot of power," Mal corrected. "She had so much more than me."

"Should have told her what she wanted to hear," Grace said. "Saved yourself centuries of trouble."

"I couldn't tell her that I loved her if it wasn't the truth."

Grace snorted. "He's definitely from a different century."

"Where is this witch?" I asked.

"Dead."

"Yet you're still alive."

He dipped his head, though his eyes had gone dark and haunted.

Grace stared at him with a speculative expression. "She cursed you to immortal wandering?"

"Yes."

"And what about your people?"

"We were a kumpa'nia. A caravan and a family. I would not leave them behind to be with her." He glanced at me again. "Just to touch her was forbidden. But she was beautiful, and I was weak."

"Sounds like you were human," Grace said.

Mal's lips twisted, both a grimace and a smile. "She made them jel'sutho'edrin, companion animals, bound to me. They cannot leave me, ever, and neither can I leave them." His words and manner became more formal, more old-world, the longer he spoke of the past. "If it wouldn't have been for my own magic, I would have been completely alone, without human companionship, for eternity."

"But you were able to change them back?"

"My magic can only hold them in human form for a few days at a time."

"They take turns," I said.

"Yes."

"How did they become different animals?" Grace asked. "I'd think it would be easier to curse them all to be one thing."

"The spell gave them a choice of which animal they wanted to become. Most chose a beast they resembled in life – like Hogarth and Moses, brothers and twins. Many husbands and wives, like Molly and Jared, chose the same animal."

"Molly is the cougar you called Mary?"

" 'Molly' is an Irish nickname for 'Mary.' She prefers to be called the English form of her name when in her animal shape." He shrugged. "Some do, to remind both themselves and the others that they are two natured."

As if anyone would forget.

"Where's your horse?"

"Far away in the forest. He doesn't care to be around so many animals at once."

"He's not cursed?"

"No, Benjamin's truly a horse." Malachi shrugged. "I like them."

One thing was bugging me. Well, more than one thing, but – "Why would Sabina choose to become a snake?"

"Her arm. Snakes have no need of them."

"Wouldn't an infirmity like that be healed by shape-shifting?" Grace asked.

"This is a curse, Sheriff, not a blessing."

"Why would anyone else choose to be a snake?" I wondered.

"They didn't."

"But – " I glanced through his single window in the direction of the snake wagon.

"Those are also truly snakes. As one herself, most of the time, Sabina has an affinity with them. She always did, even before the curse."

"Why can't she talk?"

He looked out the window, too. "She hasn't spoken since she became two natured."

The guilt in his voice was reflected on his face.

Sympathy flooded me, but I bit back any words of comfort. He wasn't the man I'd thought he was, and I wasn't exactly sure what to do with that.

"I tested every one of you with silver," Grace said. "But no one reacted."

"Silver has no effect on this curse."

"What does?"

Malachi spread his hands. "I have no idea."

"Where's the wolf?" I asked.

Confusion flickered across his features. "There isn't one."

"Don't start lying now, Cartwright," Grace said. "It'll put a quick end to my happy mood."

"You have a happy mood?" he muttered, and her eyes narrowed. "I meant, we have no wolf in the menagerie."

"Then what bit my tourist?" Grace asked.

"A wolf."

"Cartwright, I swear – "

"There is a wolf, but the animal isn't one of us. Some have sensed it, smelled it, even seen it from afar, but no one's been able to get close."

"I followed the tracks of the wolf that attacked Claire back to your camp." Grace showed him the rune. "I found this under the same tree as the last one, right where the trail ended. I think someone's using this rune to either create werewolves or become one."

"I've never heard of such a thing."

"Which doesn't make it impossible."

"Why would my people bother? They're already shape-shifters."

"Don't ask me," Grace said. "I'm figuring this out as I go."

"The wolf seems attracted to our caravan," Malachi murmured. "Perhaps because we're made up of others who shape-shift. We'll leave immediately." I started, but he didn't even glance my way. "We can lead it away from here, into the mountains where there aren't any people."

"And then?" Grace asked.

Malachi stood and went to the window, staring at the distant peaks. "Then we will do what must be done."

"I'll go with you," Grace said.

"No." He didn't even turn around.

"I'm a tracker, a hunter, and I've got plenty of silver bullets."

"You're needed here. What if the beast eludes us and returns? What if it's made more of its kind and sprinkled them throughout your town?"

"Hell," Grace muttered.

"Yes, it will be."

"You seem to know an awful lot about werewolves."

"I know a lot about everything. I'm two hundred and fifty-three years old. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get my people moving."

Grace and I headed for the exit. Once there, she paused. "You'll let me know what happens?"

"Of course."

She stepped outside. I stayed inside and closed the door. Grace was smart enough not to pound on it and ask what I was doing. She knew I had to say good-bye.

I turned and he was right there; his breath stirred my hair. I stared at his throat, watched the muscles flex and release as he swallowed, resisted the urge to lean forward and press my mouth to the shallow well above his collarbone.

"Will I ever see you again?" I asked.

"That wouldn't be a good idea."

"And last night was?"

"I couldn't help myself."

"Because I'm so irresistible? Please – "

He grasped my forearms, drawing me onto my toes as he kissed me. He tasted of cinnamon and sunshine; he smelled like the ocean at dawn. I'd never been kissed with such passion, such desperation and just a hint of sadness. I couldn't help but kiss him back.

I wanted to touch him, but he clutched me so tightly, both holding me near yet keeping me away, I couldn't lift my arms past my own hips. Two weeks ago, being held like this would have frightened me. Now I only wanted it to go on and on.

Outside, the call of one of the Gypsies rose above the shuffle of the wind, and Malachi tore his mouth from mine. His eyes darker than midnight, I could see myself reflected in their depths. A tiny version of me trapped there for eternity.

I raised my hand, and he released my arm so I could cup his face. He hadn't shaved, and his beard scraped my palm. "Isn't there any way to break the curse?"

He flinched, as if I'd struck him instead of caressed him, and backed up, shaking his head mutely.

"I could go with you."

His eyes widened, and he found his voice. "No!"

He turned sharply, leaving me to stand near the door all alone. "Because I'm gadje?"

"My people will never accept you, and I can't be parted from them any more than they can be parted from me." His head bent between slumped shoulders. "I'll never die, Claire, and you will."

"Dying is a long time from now."

"Dying is often closer than you think."

I remembered Edana's prediction – I might die, or not, soon – and shivered.

"This isn't love," he murmured. "It's only been a week."

He was right. The new and exciting emotions I'd experienced had merely been leftover satisfaction from a terrific night of sex. Malachi knew better.

His good-bye seemed rehearsed. How many times in the past two-plus centuries had a woman fallen in love with him because he'd made her come?

More than I wanted to know about.

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