Radu had the afternoon off. His father was caring for the goats now and he only needed to pick up a few things from the market and deliver some cheese from his mother to Maria.
Radu liked Maria. She seemed more grounded and stable than his parents, despite her habit of talking to her dead and buried husband.
She had great stories to tell. She and her husband had helped many refugees, including his parents, come into Walachia safely when Austrian rule made it difficult for serfs to continue living in Transylvania. He was just a baby then and did not remember any of it. But it seemed clear that the experience left painful scars on his parents’ minds. Maybe that was why they were so daft.
At first he thought to deliver the cheese on the way to market, but then — because he wanted to be free to dawdle at Maria’s — he decided to go to market first. He was glad he did for when he arrived at Maria’s he found she had a lovely guest — the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
He found them working in Maria’s garden. Maria, as usual, was humming and singing away. In fact, she was in unusually good spirits today. Her guest was quietly helping her.
“Oh, bunã Radu!” Maria called to him when she saw him coming. “How are you today?”
“Bunã, Maria. I am fine. My mother sends you some cheese.” Radu fumbled in his bag of market goods and fished out the cheese. He saw the stranger staring at him and felt his ears begin to burn. His fingers felt large and thick, he almost dropped the cheese before Maria could take it from him.
“Come meet my new friend, Arian.” Maria held the cheese in one hand and led Radu by the other. The young woman stood up and brushed the dirt from her dress. Radu noticed it was one of Maria’s and was too big for her slight frame. She had a bit of leather rope tied about her waist to help keep it out of her way. She pushed a stray piece of her long, black hair out of her face as she extended the other in greeting.
Radu felt the burning spread out and back to his neck. Suddenly he was very thirsty. He was barely able to croak out “bunã” as he shook her hand.
Arian’s grip was strong but her hand seemed frail at the same time. Her skin was soft and pail, the purple of her veins giving it an almost lavender glow.
And then he noticed her eyes. They were clear and green, like peridots found in the shallow water’s edge of the Danube. She smiled and he felt his stomach tighten, his heart skipped a beat and his ears and neck burned hotter.
The thought came unbidden, like an omen from an ancestor: This was the woman he would marry.
“Come inside, Radu. We were just about to stop for a drink anyway,” Maria said, breaking the spell. He let go of her hand. “Maybe we can try some of this cheese, da?”
Once they were seated around the table, Radu felt more himself. The reassuring familiarity of the wooden cup in his hand and the smell of goat cheese and freshly sliced bread combined to create a calming salve for his love-rattled nerves.
“So, how did you come to be here?” he asked Arian.
Arian understood enough of the question to be frightened by it. She froze. But Maria stepped in so quickly; there was no time for anyone to notice.
“She stumbled out of the forest a couple of days ago,” Maria said. “She had been in some kind of accident and seems to have lost some of her memory.”
“Really? Do you remember anything about how you got here?” he asked Arian, but again Maria stepped in too soon for her to even formulate a reply.
“She has an accent. Maybe she’s a refugee? From Bulgaria or Hungary, perhaps? What do you think?”
“Maria, why don’t you let her answer a question or two? How can I answer your question if I’ve barely heard two words from her mouth?” Radu smiled at Maria. Having her there to move along the conversation helped him get his jitters under control. “Arian, what do you remember?”
Arian had been running possible answers through her mind while Maria and Radu had their exchange. The only one she felt she could be consistent about was the truth, albeit edited and abbreviated.
Radu and Maria looked at her intently as she formulated her response.
“I remember death,” she began slowly. Forming her tale believably in a foreign language was tricky. “My family — my mother, my father, my brother….” Her voice tripped as the memory of blood poured over her mind. “… my sister — all of them are dead. I remember running, not so much for my life but for my freedom. I’m not sure how I got to this place, but then I was moving through the forest and came upon Maria’s clearing.”
“Da,” Maria said. “That sounds like the tale of a refugee to me. I’m not aware of any revolt or war nearby, but news travels slowly in the Carpathians, especially to Liniste Sat.”
“I agree. Your tale has similarities to my parents’ own.”
“Yes? What happened to them?” asked Arian.
“It’s somewhat a long tale. I’ll give you a short version of it. Do you mind hearing it again, Maria?”
Maria shook her head in approval and leaned over to get another slice of cheese.
“When I was a baby, there was war and revolution in many lands. Paris, Vienna and in my homeland, Transylvania. Without the people’s consent the rulers joined Transylvania to Hungary to create a new country. We did not want this union so we joined forces with the Austrians to drive out the Hungarians. The Austrians eventually won but the results weren’t quite what we wanted. Yes, many serfs like my parents were freed, but only to become sharecroppers on barely fertile land. Many of us fled Transylvania in hopes of a better life. Some went to Moldavia in the east and others, like my family, went south to Walachia. It was hard, but my father, mother and I were lucky to find Maria and Grigor. They were helping many refugees find land to rebuild their life on. In fact, most of Liniste Sat came to be here because of their efforts.”
Radu paused a moment to get some more bread and cheese.
“I don’t remember much either. As far as I can remember, I’ve been in Liniste Sat all my 17 years.”
They sat in silence a moment, chewing on their repast.
Soon enough, though, Maria lightened the subject and they finished the loaf of bread and wheel of cheese chattering about humorous things that had happened to them, tales of goats and tenacious vegetation.
Around twilight, as Radu was preparing to return home, an intricately decorated carriage came up the road to Maria’s cottage. The finely dressed manservant who drove the carriage got off and approached them.
“Nicolae Vayne, Lord of Castle Scapare and keeper of the land of Liniste Sat respectfully requests that the visiting young lady join him for supper tonight.”
Radu looked at Maria. “How did he know she was here?” he asked with his eyes. She shrugged in response.
“What business does his lordship have with the lady, may I humbly ask?” Maria said.
“Lord Vayne makes it his business to know everyone who passes through his land.”
“I will …” Arian began, but Radu jumped in, “The lady has plans this evening, she will be unable to make it.”
“It would be in everyone’s best interest if she cancels those plans,” the driver calmly said. “His Lordship does not like to be disappointed.”
Maria had moved to Arian’s side and now whispered in her ear, “If you go, you may never come back.” She made the sign of the cross and continuedd. “Terrible things are said to happen to guests of Castle Scapare. If you value your life, please don’t go.”
Arian looked at Maria and saw honest fear in her eyes. The same was reflected in Radu’s. But the driver looked just as implacable as the orderlies at Hartha. She didn’t know the customs of this strange land, and so thought it better not to anger those in power.
“I will come.” She squeezed Maria’s hand to reassure her and then walked to the carriage and stepped in.
The drive closed the door behind her and soon the carriage was on its way. She drew the curtain to one side and watch Maria and Radu both make the sign of the cross as they watched her leave.