You look pretty helpless to me.
I hate to wake up hungry, and I especially hate to wake up early, so all things considered I was not pleased when I cracked an eyelid and saw that the sun had not yet gone down. Underneath the overturned cart it was pleasantly dark, if narrow, musty, and horse-smelling, but there was still light shining over the top of the little barrier of dirt that the golem had piled up for me.
I considered trying to go back to sleep for a few hours, but I was restless and hungry. I squirmed, trying to stretch my stiff muscles, then curled my knees to my chest and became a rabbit.
When I pushed my way through the dirt barrier, the golem greeted me in a surprised voice.
I twitched an ear in acknowledgement, squinting irritably in the sunlight. It seemed to be the late afternoon, and the air was absolutely alive with tiny insects chirping and buzzing and sawing and doing whatever insect activities they pleased. There were little moths crawling all over the golem’s arms, and a cluster of bees near her hands- oh, that was because she was holding fistfuls of flowers. I decided not to comment.
“Hi, old mosquito!” said a cheerful voice from above, and I jumped and twisted my head around. Pascha, human in appearance, was sitting down on top of the cart, thumping his heels on one side. “Did you enjoy your rest?”
I turned back to the golem and raised both my ears.
“I did not expect you to wake up this early,” she said, placing her flowers down on the ground. “It might be too light out to go take someone from the village. But I had Pascha find some clothes for you.”
This last she said almost bashfully, drawing one big hand to her face. Pascha snorted and picked up something from beside himself.
I had to jump sideways to avoid getting engulfed by a fluttering black skirt.
“Pascha, do not,” said the golem, her hollow eyes thinning. I licked my forepaws and rubbed them over my nose, then hopped into the golem’s big shadow.
“I don’t want to wait anymore,” I said, as I came out of the rabbit’s shape, pressed against the golem’s cool side. My exposed skin tingled unpleasantly.
“Should I try to go get someone for you?” asked the golem, raising one of her arms to shade me even further. “You look pale.”
“If we are going to leave this area for a while, I shall go myself,” I said. “Though if that’s the case, I’ll need something besides a skirt.”
“I have a shirt for you, too,” said Pascha, who was picking at something between his toes.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Can you really go to the village?” The golem’s arm moved lower, hovering as close as it could without touching me. “It is daytime, and they might see you, and you said that if they get suspicious they will try to hurt you, and-”
“You seem to think I’m pretty helpless,” I snapped. “I’ve been in a village before, you know.”
“You seem pretty helpless to me,” Pascha observed. “But I can carry you to Kazimir with or without a stake in your chest. Actually, a stake might make it easier.”
I was finding that the best tactic was to pretend he didn’t exist.
“I take my own precautions,” I said, looking up at the golem. “And I don’t need to feed terribly much. I just want something besides old man and little girl.”
“Do they taste different?”
They didn’t at all, but that wasn’t the point.
“I’m going to fly down there and fetch some trousers for myself,” I said. “It won’t take more than a few minutes. You two can take the long way around and meet me at the base of the foothills there.”
“I can’t take you,” I told the golem severely, ignoring her sorrowful tone. “D’you think I could pass you off as a- as anything? You’d start a mass panic.”
“I know,” said the golem, her head swinging down. “But I do not like you going there all by yourself, Gabi.”
“I’ll go with her,” offered Pascha.
I didn’t even bother looking at him. “You keep an eye on the horse, Kezia.”
“I do mean it. I want to go back down there myself. It’s quite lively.” Pascha thumped his heels on the wood, and I turned now to glare at him. My bare back was really beginning to ache.
“Weren’t you concerned about getting to the black horseman? Is this some sort of pleasure trip to you?”
“Ah, but like our friend Kezia, I am interested in your continued existence,” said Pascha, laying a finger on the side of the nose. It was definitely the same one he’d been picking his toes with, too. “You could even say I have a stake in it.”
“Pascha, that is in very poor taste,” said the golem. “But I think I would feel better if he went with you, Gabi. At least you will not be left alone.”
“I don’t know what makes you think he’d possibly be helpful! And if you’re alone, why-” I swallowed the words I’d been about to say. “Why, you’d probably get distracted by a mole or marmot or something and never turn up again.”
“That is not true,” said the golem, in a feeble way.
“Look now,” said Pascha. “I’ll be going myself with or without you, so why not with you? The longer we argue, the less daylight we have, anyhow.”
“What a shame,” I said, but even I was getting tired of being sarcastic. “You stand out too much. Your skin is dark, you have no shirt… I don’t want to draw unnecessary attention.”
Pascha dropped his chin to his chest and sighed, then stepped down off the overturned cart. A moment later he shimmered and rippled and became a brown horse.
“Ordinary enough for you?”
“Better.” I couldn’t help but smile. Ordinary horses couldn’t talk.
“I can make it look like I’m wearing a shirt as a human, you know,” he said, jerking up his muzzle. “But I like the skin the shade it is.”
“I don’t care,” I told him, in my gentlest voice. “I’m going to snatch some laundry. Keep yourself out of sight until I’m properly clothed; we can’t have a stray horse just trotting around.”
Pascha gave an extremely prolonged snort, but I was already a little red bird. I hopped up to the golem’s forearm, then her shoulder, then the top of her head.
“Be careful, Gabi,” she said, raising a hand- but again it just hovered, not quite touching me.
This for some reason I found quite irritating, and I pecked the hand and gave her a short scolding in bird-speak.
Pascha began clop-clopping down the hill, one ear turned back. I abandoned my chirpy tirade and fluttered up into the air, higher and higher until both horse and golem were nothing but specks in an endless sea of grass.
We entered the village without incident, and it took little time at all for me to snatch a shirt and trousers from a laundry line. I had suspected that neither Pascha nor the golem had guessed the reason why I wanted trousers instead of the skirt, so it was quite amusing to see his expression when I changed into a human to pop into them. This time, I had given myself male parts.
“Can all strigoi do that?”
“Do what?” I kept my voice coy, which is a bit of a struggle when you are hopping on one leg to pull on your trousers. Skirts are far simpler if you ask me. And my male form was a bit lankier than I was accustomed to, as well. For whatever reason I could slip into the guise of an owl or butterfly without a second thought, but changing my human form just the slightest amount made me trip all over myself.
Pascha turned his head sideways to give me a thorough examination with one eye as I finally managed the trousers. A bit of the white was showing beyond his iris.
“Could you stay like this all the time?”
“Could you shut up? You’re supposed to be ordinary.”
Pascha pawed the ground and tossed his head. I ignored him and focused on getting dressed, wriggling myself into the dirty tunic I’d stolen. I usually changed my sex when I thought I’d be seen by any humans I didn’t plan on murdering; men traveling on their own were less suspicious then women traveling on their own. Also, my red hair and blue eyes were rather more faded when I took a masculine form, just as they were in my animal forms. It gave less of a reason for somebody to accuse me of being a strigoi.
Pascha turned his head suddenly, and I followed his gaze. We were standing in the shadow of the broad side of a barn, just outside the village. I could hear the sound of somebody walking up the path.
Pascha took a step closer and a halter materialized around his muzzle. Apparently he wasn’t limited just to making clothing for himself. I took the end in one hand and tried not to shudder. It didn’t feel like rope at all- it felt like something lukewarm and semiliquid.
“You’re disgusting,” I murmured out of the corner of my mouth, leading him around the corner of the barn. We passed two men walking on the path- one nodded in my direction. I inclined my head slightly. The warm sun was already making me feel sick and dizzy, my skin aching. Pascha nosed my back when I stumbled a little.
I’d be fine. I’d managed to stand being out in the sunshine for much longer than this.
We came into the village proper and found it rather busy. It was clear that the Kalderash had been here; the local people were clustered in small groups and buzzing in the way that only isolated country-folk do. I looked around to see if they had set up any stalls, or were doing any business; but there was not a Kalderash face in sight. I did see a number of people counting their coins, and curled my lip.
I heard a giggle, and glanced left- there were two girls with their heads together watching me with bright eyes. Neither of them had headscarves, so they couldn’t have been married. I sidled my way through the foot traffic, dragging Pascha close behind me, and approached the pair of them.
“Would either of your fathers be interested in a horse?” I kept my smile bright as their eyes widened. “I’ve been trying to sell this old nag for my master all morning.”
One of them dissolved again into nervous giggles, but the other smoothed her skirt and looked shyly up to me. Or perhaps not so shyly. I noticed she was wearing a silver necklace with a pendant that glinted between her breasts- likely brand new.
“Where do you and your master come from?” she asked, toying with it. “I’ve never seen you before.”
“Oh, here and there,” I said, leaning slightly closer. Pascha huffed warm air against my back, but I ignored him. “Which is why we need to sell this horse. He’s no good for long journeys anymore, but you could probably put a plough on him.”
“A plough? But he’s so skinny!” snickered the girl, and I joined in.
“Yes, well, you could at the very least get a pair of leather gloves from him, I think. Do you know anybody here in town who wants an old horse? I’m almost ready to give him away for free.”
“Oh, don’t do that,” said the girl, and she laid a hand on my arm. Her fingers felt cold in comparison to the burning sunlight. “Come with me- maybe I could find a good price for him?”
Her voice lilted up at the end of her sentence, and her companion gave her a sharp look. I kept my face innocent, even though I knew exactly what had passed between them; it was a game I’d played with my sisters as well.
“Follow me,” said the bolder girl, and she took her hand off my arm to wave me across the road. I obeyed, keeping a tight hold on Pascha, who was beginning to jerk his head around a bit.
The girl led me into a shadowed space between two houses. At once I began to feel better, the cool dimness soothing my fevered skin. I took a closer look at the girl’s face for the first time- she was not as young as she acted, perhaps, and she had a smattering of freckles and a mischievous glint in her eyes. I had to hide my smile.
“But Miss, where is the buyer?” I asked instead, putting on an exaggerated show of looking around. “You aren’t deceiving me, are you?”
“Oh, no,” said the girl, and she hooked a finger into the laces of my tunic, tugging me closer. “I only wanted to get a closer look at what I’d be buying.”
“Is that all?” I asked, cupping her cheek in one hand. In the corner of my eye I spotted slight movement from the entrance to the alley. Likely her friend, being sure nobody was going to interrupt us- or ready to intervene if things went sour. I knew this plot so well. There was so little to entertain a village girl, doomed to stay chaste when everybody knew everybody’s business; foreign men were picked over like chicken bones.
She took one of my curls between her fingers and tugged lightly, her face brightening as she smiled. She had a gap in her teeth, but it only made her look more charming.
“I’ll have to check the mouth,” she said, touching my chin. “The chest, too, I suppose…”
Pascha gave a barely-concealed grunt. I let go of his halter and held her other cheek.
She smiled again and flushed prettily, so I leaned forward and gently kissed her lips.
She sighed and put her arms over my shoulders, and I commenced to perform a mild ravaging- nothing she couldn’t fix in a moment, just a bit of kissing and tonguing and fondling through the cloth. She giggled and squeaked and sighed, so I hadn’t lost my touch after all. It had been some time since I’d touched lips with man or woman.
After a time I drew back and pressed my lips to her neck, and she let out a soft, happy sound. Apparently that was all right. I noted that her friend had long been absent from the entrance to the alleyway. Pascha was still behind me, switching his tail impatiently.
I opened my mouth and applied the slightest bit of pressure with my teeth, tonguing her pulse. She murmured something appreciative, hugging me closer. I bit down very lightly, teasingly, and then pulled back.
She looked across at me with an exaggerated pout.
“What’s the matter?”
“I really shouldn’t keep my master waiting,” I said, pushing my curls up, trying to look utterly flustered. “He’s expecting me to sell the stupid horse before sundown, you see.”
“How terrible is his anger?” asked the girl, and I had to grin at her. She was a minx!
“Very terrible. I am glad to have kissed a lady before my death. Now I can face it with pride.”
“Oh, very well,” she said, and took a moment to adjust her shirt, letting that silver necklace glint between her breasts again. “I do hope you stay in town for a little while. What did you say your name was…?”
I gave her another swift kiss. “Perhaps we’ll see each other again tomorrow, if I’m not murdered in cold blood.”
“I really hope you aren’t,” she said, and winked at me before sauntering her way back out of the alley.
I watched her go, noting the new spring in her step. I had just made a maiden’s day much better.
“What on earth was that?” asked Pascha, behind me.
“What do you mean?” I turned around slowly, still feeling quite pleasant and languid. “O talking horse?”
“I thought you were going to feed on her! Why’d you let her go?”
I frowned at him.
“I don’t mix food with sex. That was just a bit of fun.”
“A bit of fun,” he repeated, turning one ear back. “Weren’t we in a hurry?”
“We are making the most of our time in town,” I replied. “Now hush. It’s time to attend to other business.”
Pascha let out a small stream of incomprehensible horse noises, but allowed me to grab his halter and tow him back out of the alleyway.
Once again we mixed with the crowd, and I found that I could angle Pascha so that his large shadow fell over me and shielded me from the afternoon sun. That made me a great deal more chipper, and I nodded and exchanged pleasantries with a number of people, flicking my eyes through the selection. Here and there I saw people carrying new bits of metalwork, tools and trinkets and jewelry, but there was still no sign of any Kalderash. Perhaps they had already sold all they could to the people of this little town.
It was not long before Pascha and I drew up close to the church, an imposing building, tall and painted white. I eyed it rather nervously. Strigoi were not supposed to do well inside of churches, though I had never tested this fact for myself. It was perhaps unfortunate that I had converted to Christianity soon before my death.
I was distracted from the church by the sight of an older man, walking by himself and smoking a thin pipe, his eyes cast down to his feet. Pascha grunted, perhaps sensing the shift in my attention as I worked out my angle.
I had shouted quite loud, and many people in the crowd turned to stare at me, but I had eyes only for him. My lower lip was all a-quiver.
“Father! Father, is that really you?”
The man looked up as everybody’s eyes turned upon him. He cast about for a moment, bewildered, then noticed me approaching rapidly.
“Wait!” the man cried, putting up both hands- we had a little circle of onlookers now, and more were coming, like typical village folk. “Wait, you must be mistaken, I don’t have a son-”
My face crumpled, my shoulders slumped, and I believe even Pascha groaned with sympathy.
“I- I understand, sir,” I said, slowly turning. “I’m an eyesore…”
“No, wait!” The man was sounding quite desperate, as there were hisses and murmurs of disapproval coming from all around. “Wait, boy, come back here. There is some misunderstanding. Come this way…”
He took my arm and led me out of the crowd, Pascha clopping behind and whisking his tail in the faces of the onlookers. We were halfway up the stairs of the church when I shied back.
“No, Father, please, not in there…”
The man turned and frowned.
“We can talk quietly inside.”
I pulled my arm out of his grasp and wiped my eyes.
“I can’t go inside a church, Father, not with you… I haven’t confessed in so long, I’m ashamed!”
The man stepped down to stand beside me and put a hand on my shoulder, his face softening.
“God turns no one away,” he said. “But if you don’t wish to go in, sit here on the steps with me for a moment.”
I did so, letting go of Pascha’s halter and hugging myself with both arms. Pascha arranged himself to stand in front of the two of us, his nose low as though he were browsing for something in the bare dirt.
“I’m sorry,” I said, after a moment. “I was wrong. I thought… You look very much like my father. I haven’t seen him for years, you see.”
“Where do you come from, child?” asked the man. He tapped his pipe on the wooden stairs to empty the ash and stowed it in his pocket. “Are you a traveler?”
“Yes,” I sniffed. “My master and I, we were going up north to the city when the horse picked up a stone… He walks all right now, but he probably wouldn’t make the journey. I’m to sell him here before we move on.”
“And where does your father live?”
“I don’t know. He gave me away when I was very small.”
The man nodded. It was a common enough tale.
“I have no children myself,” he said. “My wife died years ago and I have never seen fit to remarry. I’m afraid I am a poor man, but…” He reached into his pocket and drew out a silver coin. I burst noisily into tears.
“Please, sir, you don’t have to-!”
“Nonsense. What’s more, I’ll have you come to my home and sup with me. I live alone, with only a dog for company; you would do me an honor.”
At this Pascha tilted his head and gave me a meaningful look. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand in a prolonged snivel.
“Sir, you are much too good to me.”
The man rose and clapped me on the back, smiling.
“Come, son! There’s no need for tears, a man shouldn’t cry except when his children are born.”
I rose too, and sorrowfully shook my head.
“I would, but- sir, I cannot. My master is expecting me back before sunset; if I haven’t sold this horse by then, he’ll give me a terrible beating.”
The man frowned, but nodded, and pressed the coin into my hand.
“Take this, then, and hide it from your master! It’s yours. If you are still in town tomorrow, I would welcome the company then as well as now.”
I took the coin and put it into my pocket, then grasped his hand with both of mine.
“Sir, you- I wish you really were my father!”
The man smiled and actually blushed, then reached out and ruffled my hair.
“Confess your sins, lad. You’ll feel much lighter. Remember, the only one who can judge you is in that house.” He nodded towards the church.
“Thank you, sir!”
I waved him off, wiping my eyes. As soon as he was out of sight Pascha jerked his head around and glared at me.
“What are you doing?”
“Hush! We’re in the open.” I grabbed his halter again and towed him around the side of the church, between two tall bushes. He was stamping and nearly frothing at the mouth.
“You could have been with him, alone, in his home! Was that not the perfect time to feed?!”
I waved his words away with a lazy hand. “I caught a sniff of him; his blood was not appealing.”
“Are you really a strigoi? You let him go because he was kind!”
“Think that if you want,” I said, fingering the silver coin in my pocket. “But in the meantime, I have a horse to sell and a master to get back to. Shall we move on?”
“Only if you are planning to feed on the next person you speak to,” said Pascha, growling in a very unhorselike way. “We have wasted too much time- think of poor Kezia!”
“Kezia is a grown-up golem, she’ll be just fine. But very well. In that case I’ll ask for your assistance…”
We muttered in the bushes for a short time longer, and Pascha calmed down when he heard what I had planned, though he was still prone to champing his teeth now and then. We walked out of the long shadow of the church and back into the crowd.
Pascha’s agitation seemed to increase once we were in the throng again- he jerked his head up and down and side to side, snorting and tugging at his halter. He shied when people passed too close, yanking my arm this way and that.
“Settle, you stupid nag!” I snapped, jerking on the rope.
Pascha made a grumbling horse noise and let me tow him forward for a few more meters. We passed quite close to a young man in a feathered cap, and I turned my eyes on him for a long moment. Pascha shifted his weight and stepped sideways so that the man brushed against his haunch.
My warning came to late; with a cry Pascha kicked out and caught the young man in the head. He dropped to the ground like a stone.
I cursed and dropped to my knees as people crowded around, leaning over the fallen man. The feathered cap had fallen some distance away, and a woman was standing on it, staring at us with her mouth open.
“Stand back!” I called, turning the man’s head to one side. His eyes were rolled back, and his mouth was lolling open. I slapped him lightly on both cheeks, but he did not rouse.
“Better take him to a doctor!” somebody said. “That’s an ill-tempered beast you have, boy!”
“I’ll skin this creature and eat his tripes, I will,” I growled back, and picked up the young man in my arms, trying not to stagger. He was a good bit taller than I was. “Help me get him on the back of the horse! Which way to the doctor’s?”
Several people gave me helpful instructions, and I had a laughing, noisy escort for part of the way. It seemed the young man was well-known, for his feather and for other antics; the mood of the crowd suggested that he’d got what he deserved.
They peeled off when I reached the doctor’s home, and I tied Pascha onto a paddock fence before shouldering the man’s limp body and heading inside.
The doctor seemed not to be in. That was a stroke of luck; the little house was empty aside from one sleeping patient, covered entirely by a thick blanket. I laid my burden down on one of the many cots and pulled back an eyelid. He was still knocked stupid by Pascha’s kick; in fact he looked as if he was going to develop both a bruise and a burn on his forehead.
That was fine with me; he was still breathing. For a moment I dithered over what to do- if I fed from his inner thigh it would rouse no suspicion, since even the doctor was unlikely to check there, but that would take time and get me rather drunk. And I did not know when the doctor would return. I sighed and glanced over at the door before fixing my lips over his.
As a strigoi I did not feed just on blood, but rather on life, and there is more than one way to get at it. With my mouth sealed over his I pinched the man’s nose shut and drew a deep breath, sucking the air from his lungs. I let him breathe, then took it again, and again, drawing in his air. His breaths came shorter and thinner, and when I drew back, he was quivering and his lips were blue.
I wiped my mouth. I was never fond of feeding that way, because it was much less satisfying than having a full belly. But it did not get me drunk.
I looked thoughtfully at the man a moment, then leaned down and took one last breath. The man stilled.
Again I wiped my mouth, but this time I licked my lips. It was getting close to evening now, and the sun had not long for the world. My aching skin was feeling better, and the pounding headache that had steadily been building up behind my eyes seemed to back down. But I was still hungry. My belly felt positively deflated. I glanced over to the other sleeping patient.
I licked my lips again and walked to the other cot. It was a man, his face contorted in his sleep. I pinched his cheek, then turned his face, and jumped. I recognized him- it was the man I had fed on two days ago. So he had made it back to the village after all! Though he seemed to be in pretty poor shape now. I pulled down the coarse woolen blanket a little so that I could finger the wound on his neck. It was swollen and healing badly. The doctor must have stitched it, though with all the swelling it was difficult to tell.
I heard the door open behind me and turned around quickly. A man carrying a bag was coming into the house, and frowned at the sight of me.
“Sorry, sir,” I said, tugging my forelock. “I didn’t mean to intrude, but a boy got kicked by a horse, you see…”
“Yes, I was told,” said the doctor, his eyes staying on me for longer than I thought was strictly necessary. “Is that him lying there?”
“Yes, sir. He’s in a bad way, I think.”
The doctor laid his bag down and went to crouch beside the young man, putting a hand to his forehead. After a moment he withdrew.
“A bad way? This man is dead.”
My mouth dropped open. “Dead? But- he was breathing just a minute ago! Are you sure? It was just a kick!”
“I can tell when a man is dead, boy,” said the doctor, shooting me a withering look. “He’s dead as dust. Someone will have to fetch his mother.”
“I will, sir… dead… I can’t believe it.” I shook my head sorrowfully, and walked around the doctor to the door. He didn’t bother to move out of my way, just kept staring.
“Is that your horse tied up outside?”
“Yes, sir, I’m afraid he’s the kicker. I tried to warn the boy about him not liking his left side touched- it happened too fast.”
“You’re not from here, are you?” asked the doctor.
“No, sir- my master and I are just passing through.”
“How do you know where to find the boy’s mother, then?”
I feigned a look of surprise. “I don’t, sir, but I expect I’ll ask someone.”
“I see,” said the doctor. He did not sound mollified in the least, and nodded towards his living patient.
“Do you know that man?”
“No, sir, I don’t. He looks like he’s been bit by a bear or something.”
“He’s a stranger here, just like you,” said the doctor. “Came in a day ago collapsed on his horse and has been feverish since. Nobody’s sure what to do with him.”
“I think it’s awful kind of you to look after him, sir.”
“Hmph.” The doctor tapped his toe on the floor. “You’d better hurry up and fetch the boy’s mother.”
I nodded and quickly backed out of the door, shutting it with a snap. From the fence Pascha raised his head and looked at me expectantly.
I made a face at him, then untethered him so we could set off once more. This time we kept well clear of the crowds, slipping through the lengthening shadows. The sun was close to setting, and people were returning to their homes. Behind us, the church bells rang out.
I flinched a little at the sound, as though it were aimed at me. Pascha caught a bit of my hair in his mouth and tugged.
“Confess, confess your sins, you wicked spirit!”
“Wicked spirit? I’m an ordinary boy; you’re a talking horse who has just murdered someone.”
“Ah, so you succeeded,” he murmured. “I thought you looked a little healthier. Did you finally find a victim to your tastes?”
“I suppose so, though I still think I could have done better. You rushed me.”
Pascha gave a little nicker. “At your pace, we would have been there all week. I’ve never seen anybody be so picky about their food before. Really, how did you survive this long?”
“Easily,” I replied. “I had nothing to do with witches.”
Pascha snorted and danced a little at this. We were just getting clear of the village. The grass was growing tall again, and I could see quite a number of wheel tracks and hoofprints in the road.
“It looks as though the Kalderash passed through here,” I said, fingering the coin in my pocket again.
“I wonder if the people thought you were one of them? You have the look of a vagabond about you.”
“They didn’t,” I said. “I would never have been treated so kindly, and a girl wouldn’t have kissed me. A man certainly would not have given me any money. And if my horse kicked a man in the head, I probably would have been beaten to death there in the street.”
“Goodness,” said Pascha. “I don’t think it would have been as bad as all that.”
“You’ve lived a long time, but you’re not half as wise as you think you are, my dear horseman,” I said.
He said nothing to that, and presently I let go of his halter, since we were a good distance away from the village. Instantly it disappeared.
“Are you going to fly up and look for the golem?” he asked.
“If you carry these clothes,” I said. “I don’t want to lose them; they’re handy to have around.”
“Oh, certainly,” said Pascha. “I’ve acted as a beast of burden this long, I might as well.”
“What a kind, considerate creature,” I said, pulling my shirt over my head. I didn’t fail to notice how greedily he eyed my chest. “So selfless.”
“It’s a trait I pride myself on,” Pascha said gravely.
The church bells were tolling again as I flew up, an owl now, my silent wings catching the warm evening air to bring me higher. Pascha shrank swiftly, and I saw the village again from above, just a minute cluster of houses in a sea of green. I turned towards the distant hills, scanning with my wide eyes, searching for a brown blot in all that green. Pascha had his head tilted up to track me, and as I picked up speed he began to gallop to keep up.
This amused me, and I considered racing him, but owls are not really meant for speed. Anyway, as I scanned the foothills, I spotted the golem: just where I had told her to be, squatting down in a little copse, partially obscured by the branches. I hooted and circled lower.
It was as I did so that I noticed something was strange. The golem did not look right, and for a moment I wondered if I had got the wrong one. No; how many golems could there be just in this very spot?
Unless… I checked my slow downward glide as a dreadful thought occurred to me. Unless Mother Forest had sent one of her minions after us.
I stayed in the air, staring, trying to fathom what I was seeing. The golem’s figure was broken up by the branches of the trees, but it definitely seemed thinner, and from what I could see- more defined. It did not look like a clay figure, it looked- it looked like a clay human.
This rattled me, and I flapped my wings to get back away from it, stuttering in midair. Just then Pascha came trotting up, his tail high, my clothes draped over his back.
“Ho there Kezia, you will not believe what this strigoi has put me through- Kezia? Is that you?”
I hooted and flew down to land in the grass beside him. The golem, which had not moved yet, slowly turned its head to look at us.
Pascha jumped as if he had taken a physical blow, and I was not much better. The golem’s eyes were still empty pits, but they were smaller, and all around it, as though it had been carved out- no, as if it were a real human just plastered in mud- all around it were the features of an ordinary face. Its mouth was open and frowning, but now it had lips, and I could see teeth, and it had hair all plastered around its head- but it was all mud, of course, not real hair, it just looked real- and it had shoulders and thin fingers and arms and breasts and knees and heels and a stomach with a small dimple for a belly button.
“Kezia?” I said, my tongue feeling stuck to my dry mouth. “Is that you… Kezia?”
She looked at me, opened her mouth, so that I saw her clay tongue.
“Please,” she said, “please, make the bells stop ringing.”
“There aren’t any bells,” said Pascha, his flanks quivering. “What bells?”
“The church bells have stopped,” I said. “They aren’t ringing any more.”
“I still hear them,” whispered the golem- Kezia- whatever it was. “Please, I don’t want to be dead. I don’t want to.” Suddenly she reached up and clapped her hands over her ears. “Please make them stop! Please, please, I don’t want to remember who killed me!”
Pascha gave a shrill whinny, looking as though he were ready to bolt, but I stepped forward and grabbed her wrists. They felt like cold clay.
“Stop this,” I snapped. “The bells aren’t ringing, and you can’t change the fact that you’re dead. Give Kezia back her body.”
The ghost stared at me.
“But I am Kezia.”
“You’re a trespasser,” I said. “You should go back to your bones. Go away!”
The ghost jerked out of my grip.
I hissed, then bit my thumb. The ghost took another stumbling step back.
“No! Please- I’ll let her back. I’ll let her back, so please!”
“Then get out!” I cried, and sprang forward, flicking drops of my blood from my thumb. They landed on the clay and vanished as though swallowed up. The ghost seemed to tremble.
“Gabi…” it said. “Gabi, you died too… You must know…”
“Dying was the best thing that ever happened to my miserable life,” I spat. “Give me back my golem. Tell her I’ve long since forgiven her, if that is why she’s hiding.”
“I am the golem,” said the ghost. “It’s made of me, don’t you understand? Everything it has belongs to me!”
“I don’t want you,” I said. “I want Kezia.”
The ghost stared at me for a long moment, then said, “Ah…”
I thought it would cry, but of course no tears could come from empty holes. Instead it sagged and crumpled, losing its definition. I grabbed it by the head as it fell forward.
Somewhere from the depths of the sinking mud came a slurred, “Gabi.”
I could have cried, I was so relieved, and I pressed it to my chest, heedless of the mud that smeared on my bare breasts.
“You little fool! Can’t I leave you alone for a minute? You have got to get rid of that dratted ghost!”
“I am sorry,” said the golem- said Kezia. She put one hand around my shoulder, sagging into me. “Oh… it does not feel good. Everything went wrong.”
“I’ll say,” said Pascha, who I’d quite forgotten about. “That was extraordinarily eerie. I didn’t know you could look so human.”
“Did I look human?” asked Kezia. She was steadily growing in size, and her head was on my shoulder, her big arms encircling me.
“Like a clay human,” confirmed Pascha. “That is some ghost.”
“Be quiet,” I snapped, stroking the big bald head, though now Kezia was positively engulfing me. “We’re going to have to get rid of it somehow; I don’t like it.”
“No, Gabi,” said Kezia, raising her head. “She is not wrong. I took… many things from her.”
“I don’t care; and anyway, as I see it you took nothing. She still has everything except her life, and it’s not as if you stole that.”
The golem was silent for a few moments, and then she touched my cheek.
“Thank you, Gabi.”
Quite suddenly I was flustered, and I backed up out of her encircling arms, scrubbing dried mud from my chest.
“Well, that’s done,” I said, looking rigidly at one of the trees. “Now may we start moving? I would like to get rid of this dratted ribbon soon.”
“Yes, Gabi,” said Kezia, and behind me I heard Pascha nicker and snort.