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We children were supposed to be asleep....
But we woke, as if in response to some silent summons. We crept to the entrances of our tents and wagons, drawn like moths to the snapping flames of the central fire and the dark, leaping shadows the strange woman cast as she danced.
There was no music. I knew there was none, but it seemed to me that music filled my head all the same as I peered around the painted flap and watched her. She whirled, scarves trailing like colorful ghosts in her wake, her hair, black as the night, yet gleaming blue in the fire's glow. She arched and twisted and spun round again. And then she stopped still, and her eyes, like shining bits of coal, fixed right on mine. Scarlet lips curved in a terrifying smile, and she crooked a finger at me.
I tried to swallow, but the lump of cold dread in my throat wouldn't let me. Licking my lips, I glanced sideways at the tents and painted wagons of my kin, and saw the other children of our band, peering out at her, just as I was. Some of my cousins were older than I, some younger. Most looked very much like me. Their olive skin smooth, their eyes very round and wide, too thickly fringed for the eyes of a boy, but lovely beyond words on little girls. Their hair was uncut, like mine, but clean and raven black.
We were Gypsies all, and proud. The dancing woman...she was a Gypsy, too. I knew that at a glance. She was one of our own.
And crooking her finger at me still. Dimitri, older than me by three years, gave me a superior look and whispered, "Go to her. I dare you!"
Only to prove myself braver than he, I stiffened my spine and stepped out of mymother's tent, my bare feet covering the cool ground by mere inches with each hesitant step. As I crept closer, the others, taking courage in mine, began to come out, too. Slowly we gathered round the beautiful stranger like sinners come to worship at the feet of a goddess. And as we did, her smile grew wider. She beckoned us closer, a finger to her lips, and then she sat down on a log near the fire.
"Who is she?" I whispered to Dimitri, for he had joined us now, too, ashamed of himself, I thought, not to have been leading us all from the start.
"Stupid, do you know nothing? She is our aunt." He shook his head disgustedly at me, then returned his enraptured gaze to the woman. "Her name is Sarafina," he said. "She comes sometimes...though I suppose you are too young to recall her last visit. She's not supposed to be here, though. When the grown-ups find out, there will be trouble."
"Why?" I too was entranced by the mysterious stranger as she lowered herself to the log, spreading the layers of her colorful skirts around her, opening her arms to welcome the young ones who crowded closer to sit on the ground all around her. I sat closest of all, right at her feet. Never had I seen a woman so beautiful. But there was something else about her, as well. Something...unearthly. Something frightening.
And there was the way her eyes kept meeting mine. There was a secret in that black gaze a secret I could not quite see. Something shadowed, hidden.
"Why will there be trouble?" I whispered again.
"Because! She is outcast!"
My brows drew together. I was about to ask why, but then the woman my Aunt Sarafina, whom I had never seen before in my life began to speak. And her voice was like a song. Mesmerizing, deep, beguiling.
"Come, little ones. Oh, how I've missed you." Her gaze swept the faces of the children, the look in her eyes almost painful to see, so intense was the emotion there. "But most of you do not remember me at all, do you?" Her smile faltered. "And you, little Dante. You are...how old now?"
"Seven," I told her, my voice a mere whisper.
"Seven years," she replied with a heavy sigh. "I was here the day you were born, you know."
"No. I...didn't know."
"No matter. Oh, children, I've so much to tell you. But first..." She tugged open a drawstring sack that dangled from the sash round her waist, and from it she began to draw glorious things, which she handed around to one and all. Sweets and confections such as we had never tasted, wrapped in brightly colored paper. Shiny baubles on chains, and glittering stones of all kinds, carved into the shapes of animals and birds.
The one she gave to me was a stone of black onyx in the shape of a bat. I shivered when she placed the cold piece into my palm.
When the sack was empty and the children all quiet again, she began to speak. "I have seen so many things, little ones. Things you would not believe. I journeyed to the desert lands, and there I saw buildings as big as mountains every stone larger than an entire Gypsy wagon! Perfect and smooth they are, and pointed at the top." She used her hands to make the shape of these wonders in the air before us. "No one knows who built them, nor when. They have been there forever, some say. Others say they were built as monuments to ancient kings...and that the bodies of those rulers still rest inside, along with treasures untold!" When our eyes widened, she nodded hard, making her raven curls dance and her earrings jangle. "I've been across the sea...to the land below, where creatures with necks as tall as...as that yew tree there, walk on stilt legs and nibble the young leaves from the tops of the trees. Yellow gold they are, and spotty! With sprouts atop their heads!"
I shook my head in disbelief. Surely she was spinning tales.
"Oh, Dante, it is true," she said. And her eyes held mine, her words for me alone, I was certain. "One day you will see these things, too. One day I will show them to you myself." Reaching down, she stroked a path through my hair and leaned close to me, whispering into my ear. "You are my very special boy, Dante. You and I share a bond more powerful even than the one you share with your own mother. Remember my words. I'll come back for you someday. When you need me, I will come."
I shivered and didn't know why. Then I went stiff at the sound of the Grandmother's squawk. "Outcast!" she yelled, rushing from her tent and jabbing her fingers at Sarafina in the way that was said to ward off evil, the two middle fingers folded, forefinger and little one pointing straight out. She made a hissing sound when she did it, so I thought of a snake with a forked tongue snapping.
The children scattered. Sarafina rose slowly, the picture of grace, and I alone remained before her. Almost without thought, I got to my feet and turned to face the Grandmother. As if I wished to protect the lovely Sarafina. As if I could. My back was toward the woman now, and as her hands closed on my shoulders, I felt myself grow a full inch taller.
Then the Grandmother glared at me, and I thought I would shrink to the size of a sand flea.
"Can you not tolerate my presence even once every few years or so, Crone?" Sarafina asked. Her voice was no longer loving or soft or kind. It was deep and clear...and menacing.
"You've no business here!" the Grandmother said.
"But I have," she replied. "You are my family. And like it or not, I am yours."
"You are nothing. You are cursed. Be gone!" Chaos erupted around us as mothers, awakened by the noise, dashed out of their tents and wagons, gathered their children and hurried them back inside. They acted as if a killer wolf had appeared at our campfire, rather than an outcast aunt of rare beauty, bearing exotic gifts and amazing tales.
My mother came, too. As she rushed toward me I tucked the stone bat up into my sleeve. She stopped before she reached me and met Sarafina's eyes. "Please," was all she said.
Excerpted from Twilight Hunger by Maggie Shayne. Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.