She woke in the autumn and her hair was red!
I slapped Pascha’s cheeks, drawing flashes of light from his skin.
“Wake up! Wake up, damn you! Wake-”
A cough rattled me into silence, and I clutched at my throat. The ribbon felt prickly and warm, and it was slowly tightening. My hearts thudded with panic.
Pascha did not stir. He was lying on his back in the leaves at the bottom of a mossy bank. I had found him there with my dog’s nose not an hour ago, after a curst long time fumbling and panicking in the sudden blackness. I found no sign of his attacker, or of Kezia.
The ribbon pulsed atop my flesh like a living thing, and I shuddered and retched.
Nothing from him. I wondered why it was that he was human shaped; he’d been a horse last I’d seen him. It was likely that the creature that had attacked him had been the black horseman, which suggested that they were on far worse terms than he had described. I wondered what he could have possibly done. Though mostly I wondered if I was going to die a second time very soon.
I rose to my feet, stumbling in my wet skirt. I had managed to keep hold of my clothes, which was a slight comfort- the air was freezing. The faintest bit of green-stained light pierced the canopy, which suggested that the sun had risen, but beyond that I had no sense of time. The trees all clustered close and seemed to lean inwards, their trunks wound with shaggy moss and fungi. Their roots protruded in jagged spears from the dirt bank, and the dirt itself moved and twitched with insect life. Several ants had already fallen on Pascha’s motionless face.
Inadvertently my hand went up to touch the ribbon again. I grabbed it and forced it down with my opposite fist. There was nothing I could do.
I pulled myself up onto the bank, dragging dirt all over my stolen, ill-fitting clothes, and peered around from my higher vantage point. Nothing but trees and trees. The cold, wet air felt heavy in my lungs, and another cough rattled out of me.
“Kezia!” I called, my voice a rasp. The tight-knit trees swallowed the feeble sound up at once, and I cursed.
There came a groan from behind me.
I turned around and saw him struggling to sit up, his eyelids fluttering. The tips of his hair were dissolving into floating sparks, and his fingernails were black and hooflike.
“Pascha, what was all that?” I snapped down at him. “We’ve lost Kezia now!”
“Hah?” was his dazed response. He looked slowly around, still snapping and fizzing. “Where is Kazimir?
“Forget about him! He doesn’t seem to like you after all.”
“No… no,” said Pascha, flicking his fingers at the air. His nails returned to their ordinary shapes. “It was only a greeting.”
“In that case I shudder to think of what might happen if he felt unfriendly,” I said, squatting down on the top of the bank. “Is he going to come back and greet you again? Or may I leave you to your wallowing and go find Kezia?”
He twisted his head back to peer up at me and slowly frowned.
“Ah… the ribbon.”
“What about it?” I said, my hand rising nervously. Pascha merely squinted, and a moment later, the heat and the prickling around my neck eased.
“My apologies,” he said. “In the excitement I forgot about your spell.”
I did not quite know what to say. That he really was helping me with the ribbon, and that the apology really sounded sincere- who would have predicted it?
“Kazimir is no longer near us,” he said, flicking his eyes downwards. “He hasn’t forgiven me yet, I’m afraid.”
“But I don’t think he’s left this forest… nor has Kezia.”
I rose back to my feet. “Then you wait here and recover your wits. I’ll go search for her.”
“No!” The sudden sharpness of his tone surprised me. “I warned you before about this place. If we separate, it won’t be easy to find each other again.”
“Then don’t move from this spot.”
“It isn’t that simple. If you move, I should move with you.” He shook his head and the floating sparks flew away from his hair. “But we’ll be lucky to find Kezia again, I think.”
“Why?” I scowled up at the closed canopy; no way to search for her from the air. “She’ll be looking for us too. Unless you think there’s something in here that can scotch her?”
Pascha lapsed into silence for a moment and then said, “No, I wouldn’t think so.”
“Well, there you are.”
He got slowly to his feet, wincing, gripping exposed roots for balance. I shuffled my feet in the thick moss and watched him. He seemed quite uncharacteristically downhearted, and I had to admit to a certain warming of my feelings for him after the whole ribbon thing.
“Hoping for a better reception than you got, eh?”
He let out a short laugh. “I knew it had turned sour between us. I ought to have been prepared for this.”
I tilted my head slowly to one side.
“What exactly did you do to him, then?”
He looked up at me, squinting, then laughed again.
“I tricked him. Ah, well, it was worse than that, much worse.”
I crossed my arms, and Pascha let out a slow breath.
“He loved and trusted me once, you see, even though there is little loveable or trustworthy about me. I am afraid I put little value on his affections; I was jealous of the attention he got from Zakhar.”
“I know!” This time his laugh sounded more genuine. “We’ve traveled this same circuit around and around for centuries, and yet we never learn…” He shook his head. “Zakhar was captured by the witch first, though I half suspect he went willingly, and she used him for bait to snatch me. But Kazimir would never be captured, even with all her power. That was plain after she tried again and again. So she was left with the two, but the two are less powerful than the three, of course. She retreated and stewed, and Zakhar and I really were not so bad off while she ignored us; we could roam. And Kazimir came back to us- he wanted to free us. And I…”
He hesitated, and his expression contorted for a moment, and he rubbed his hand over his mouth.
“I am a spiteful creature,” he said. “The witch wanted him most of all, and she plied my ears with promises of freedom if I could just catch him for her, and I of course knew they were lies- I knew- but I called him over and bade him to walk into her trap all the same.”
He closed his mouth, pressing his lips together tightly.
“I see,” I said, scratching under my chin. “Well, I would be cross with you too.”
“The witch has never worried about us breaking her spell,” Pascha said bitterly. “She doesn’t think we’ll ever end our quarrel. I did think she was wrong.”
“Perhaps you ought to just go and let yourself be thrashed by him,” I suggested. “It might make everyone feel better.”
He gave me a quick, sidelong look, then smiled.
“Perhaps. But we need to find our golem first, Gabi.”
“Yes, without a doubt. Well, buck up then, horse. There isn’t any point moaning about it.”
“Isn’t there?” He took an unsteady step forward, then shook his head. “I hope you’ve got some idea of where to start searching.”
“The lake, of course. I’m sure if Kezia saw it, she would go there straightaway.”
“If she saw it.”
I smiled darkly at him. “Well? Do you remember the way?”
Pascha let out a world-weary sigh and rotated himself around, a dull glow beginning to emanate from his skin.
“Up that way,” he said, pointing to a spot where the earth curved into another tall hill. “We should be able to have a better look around from up high, too.”
I doubted it, given my previous experience, but kept my mouth shut and let him lead the way. He still seemed tottery and half-asleep, in truth, and his glow kept flickering brighter and darker in an unstable way.
We breathed the hill and Pascha suddenly stopped walking, so that I nearly ran into him. I peered round him and saw a large clearing, bereft of any vegetation. In fact, instead of moss or leaf litter, the ground was covered by an eerily perfect circle of what looked like gray ash.
“I don’t like the looks of this at all,” said Pascha, backing up so that his shoulder collided with my chest. “Let’s go another way.”
I grimaced from the contact, but concurred with the sentiment. The open circle of canopy was letting in a great deal of bright golden sunlight, seeming alien in the greenish gloom of the forest. I noticed that the dead circle was not just restricted to the ground; the branches of the trees around it were sliced cleanly off in the places where they would have shaded it.
“Do you smell that?” asked Pascha, tilting his head back and flaring his nostrils.
I frowned at him and inhaled deeply. Beyond the scent of ash and oozing sap, there was a heady, musky odor lingering in the air. It was a scent I recognized intimately.
“It smells like a bear.”
“It does smell like a bear,” Pascha confirmed. “We must be near a den or something. I hope it doesn’t take issue with us.”
“As if you or I have anything to fear from a bear. Let’s get back to finding that dratted lake.”
“We should make a wide berth around this mess,” said Pascha, indicating the circle of ash. “And whatever you say, I don’t want to tangle with a bear.”
“Fine,” I said, but I took two more steps forward, skirting the ash, to peer over the ridge of the hill. It dropped down into a sheer cliff, and the ground below was shrouded in fine white mist. I leaned forward a little more and noticed that the slimy leaves coating the ground scraped away in one place, and there was a pale brown streak on the dark trunk of a nearby tree. I touched it, and then rubbed my fingers together: it was crumbling dried clay.
“Pascha!” I turned quickly back around, nearly slipping on the leaves. “Pascha, I think I found where-”
My words died in my throat: Pascha was no longer standing behind me. The trees stood silent, immovable, and there was not even a mark on the ground to indicate where he’d been.
I stepped away from the ridge, licking my lips, and then slipped and caught myself on a tree. Gray ash swirled in the air in front of my face, and I coughed, waving it away, and then looked down.
The edge of my bare heel had touched the dead circle.
“Damn,” I said, very softly. I did not know what it was, but I was no fool, either; it had not been made by man or beast.
Something crunched in the leaves nearby, and I squatted down instinctively, drawing my knees up underneath my too-long skirt, wondering if I should change my shape. It sounded like a footstep, but much to big to be a man’s, or even a horse’s.
A dark shape parted the nearby brambles, and I let out a slow sigh of relief. It was only a bear.
The bear turned its head to look at me with its small black eyes for a moment, its moist nose twitching. Then it continued making its ponderous, shaggy way forward, ignoring me completely. I watched it pass. It was a big fellow, dense and brown, with a protruding lower lip that wobbled with each step.
The bear made his slow way off through the trees, and I rose to my feet again and turned back towards the cliff. As long as I had no idea where Pascha had gone, or what touching the dead circle had done, I might as well fly down from the cliff and follow the streaks of clay- perhaps they would lead me back to Kezia. But when I clambered back up to the ridge and looked over I realized that I was in a great deal more trouble than I had imagined.
There was no cliff. The hill sloped gently downwards on the other side and the trees continued on, interspersed with lacy ferns. Somewhere in the distance, a songbird warbled.
There came a sound that made me flinch, but it was only the noise of the bear climbing over a fallen log. In desperation I slid back down the hill, getting my skirt wet and covered in slimy leaves, and scrambled after him. At least an animal would know this forest better than I, and be less prone to getting caught in its traps.
The bear glanced back at me with incurious eyes, but it did not seem to care to waste its attention on me for very long; it was speeding up, moving in a lope. I had to sprint to keep pace with it a few meters behind, no easy feet in the crowded forest. The bear kept looking back over its shoulder, but not at me. I looked back too, and saw nothing- but I did hear something. A kind of high-pitched keening sound.
Abruptly the bear skidded to a stop. I followed suit and fell forward onto my hands and knees, panting. When I looked up, the bear had reared up onto its hind legs and was looking all around itself. It made a bearish sound that I thought was worried.
The keening noise grew louder, and from between the trees- seemingly straight out of the air- stepped a maiden. She was nude, her long dark hair streaming around her breasts, and around her ankles there were bells that rang softly with each step. In her hands she held an unlit candle.
My breath stuck in my throat, for there were more maidens appearing now, one by one, all nude and carrying candles, until there were seven of them standing in a circle around the bear.
The bear rumbled, showing them its formidable canines, but the maidens seemed not disturbed in the slightest. There were smiles on their faces, their hair sliding down their plump, pale shoulders as their bells rang softly. As one they set their candles down onto the forest floor, their bare backs arching in graceful symmetry, and the wicks lit with sudden bright light. It flared up and cast flickering shadows onto the gray tree trunks all around. Then the maidens linked their arms together and began to dance.
I could not look away; my breath was caught in my throat. They moved slowly at first, circling and circling, the shadows from their candles leaping higher and higher around them. Their bells rang, and they began to sing as well, a low, sweet song with no words I could make out. The bear groaned and began to sway. The motion made me clutch at my temples.
The maidens began to dance faster, circling in a Hora, their sweet voices becoming breathless, their hair streaming. Some of them were laughing, as the bear moaned and swayed, and the flames of their candles burned red.
Quite suddenly one of the trees caught inside their circle trembled and crumbled into ash, and the maidens cried out, their voices joyous. I heard the groan and creak of splintering wood as another tree went, falling into nothingness, and then another, and another.
The maidens slowed their dance, and the bear shook his head and looked around, seeming bewildered- I was too, wondering if the dance was over. But no. The maidens had slowed only to reverse the direction of their circle, and now they sped up their dance, faster than before, their bells ringing in synchrony, their feet a blur. The bear roared- and- my stomach turned- and then its fur flew away from its scalp, and then its skin, so that I saw its skull- and down and down and down its flesh whirled away until there was nothing left but a standing skeleton, still roaring.
The maidens stopped their dance, and in the sudden, deafening silence, the bones fell down and clattered into a heap.
I gasped and shuddered, blinking tears out of my eyes. I did not remember crying. The maidens were fading away like moonlight, though I could hear their soft laughter lingering in the air. They had left behind another perfect circle of ash, with the bear bones piled in the center.
I knew what they were- Iele, forest nymphs. I had never met any before, but everything I did know was that they were not creatures to be meddled with by any means… But no, I should not be concerned with the Iele; they were beyond me, beyond my sphere of influence, and I was surely beyond their sphere of caring. Just as with the bear.
Ah, but the bear, that was what had shuddered through me. It had not been the first time I had seen a bear dance. No, I had… many times, I had watched a bear dance for a circle of onlookers- a clumsy, foolish looking dance, jerking up and down as its master played a fiddle. They always laughed, those gadjo; clapped their hands and cheered for the silly bear, for the talent of its master.
I had seen that bear as a mewling cub, struggling and pushing away at human hands with its pink little paws. The man who was to become its master grasped its small snout and tilted it back…
(I would put my hands over my ears whenever I watched this procedure. Animals sound too human when they scream.)
…to thread a strip of red-hot iron through its nostril and out again through a spot at the top of its muzzle. That iron was to be bent in a ring, a ring that would stay there for eternity, or at least the length of one bear’s life.
The master would tie a rope to that ring, and then pull the rope sharply up– that was how the bears learned to dance; to jerk and bounce with their heads tilted back, trying to escape the pain from the ring threaded through their snout. Oh, but it made the gadjo laugh, and they would give the master their coins, because nothing was funnier or more delightful than seeing that great, big, powerful beast clumsily acting human.
The ursari, the bear-dancers; some had always traveled with the Kalderash, because we were all Romani. I knew many of them at one time, and their bears; they named their bears, and fed them by hand, you see; treated the holes in their scabbed and leaking snouts, lovingly wiped their slobbering jowls. Their bears were their livelihood.
Is it true, Gabi? I yank your ring, and you dance for me?
I shuddered and shook my head, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand; I could not stand there dwelling on someone else’s past.
“Who watches our dance?”
Suddenly I felt the heat of a living presence behind me, and hard fingers yanked my wrist upwards. I cried out and twisted, but the stranger let go at once, and when I spun around, I saw it was one of the Iele.
“Oh, it is our younger sister, the strigoi,” she said, her face breaking out into a merry smile. “I thought you were a mortal!”
“Of course I am not a mortal,” I said, peeved in spite of myself. To have a being like this mistake me for a human- it was like a king mistaking a boyar for a peasant.
The Iele laughed and stroked my hair. Her sisters emerged slowly from the trees all around me; I supposed that they had been aware of my presence for some time. Up close the lot of them were rather intimidating. They were all plump and curvaceous, certainly enough to moisten the lips of any lecherous man, but there was also something about their looks, some quality of their skin, perhaps, that suggested an illusion that was too good to be true.
The seven of them were not at all identical, though; their looks and manners seemed distinct, their voices pitched differently. I wondered how it was that they came into being, if they had been brought back from death like me. I was not stupid enough to ask.
“If you had been mortal, we would have blinded you,” said one of them, a maiden with brown hair and limpid blue eyes. She curled a ringlet of her luxuriant hair around one finger. “They have been coming into this forest more and more, and they scare away all of our game.”
“I did not know that humans came to this forest,” I said, rather surprised. Pascha had seemed quite certain that they didn’t.
“It has only been happening recently,” said another Iele, who also had brown hair. “I would think that’s why you are here, small sister. Or do you have business beyond bloodsucking?”
They all looked at me quite expectantly, and I did my best not to clasp my hands together like a schoolgirl.
“I came here with some companions, and I wonder if you’ve seen them,” I began, but that set off a flurry of murmurs and whispers.
“A strigoi with companions, then? Pray tell, of what sort?”
“A golem and a horseman, both of which I have now misplaced.”
They exchanged a few looks amongst themselves, though I noticed that none of them seemed terribly surprised by my words.
“A horseman?” said one. “But you don’t mean a mortal man on a horse.”
“No, I mean a manner- a manner of spectre, of the noon sunlight, that takes different shapes.”
“Ah, ah,” said one, her eyes lighting up, “we know a light-spirit, but not one that looked like the noon: this one looked like the fading evening. He hides himself within the starlight when we try to catch him.”
“But the noon light was easy to snatch,” said another, with a hooked nose and a nasty grin. “He squirmed like a minnow, but in the end…”
“So you have seen Pascha,” I interrupted. “If you’ve caught him, then what are you going to do with him?”
“We don’t like him,” said the Iele, wrinkling her impressive nose. “We like the other one better, even though he won’t ever come out to play with us.”
“You said your companions were the horseman and a golem,” said another, with fair hair and hooded eyes and reddish freckles across her nose. “But what is a golem?”
“So you’ve not caught Kezia,” I said, and felt a little tension go out of my shoulders. “Well, she won’t be of interest to you, elder sisters- she is only mud.”
“But we are interested in mud,” said the brown-haired one. She tapped her toes lightly on the leaf litter. “Under here, and under there, the roots go everywhere and tell us all sorts of secrets. And it brings back creatures like you, sister strigoi.”
“So it does,” I said, and for some reason the ribbon around my neck felt warm. I reached up to touch it and noticed something in the seven gazes sharpen, something that made me feel suddenly pinched too tight.
The one by my shoulder flicked her heavy black hair away from her eyes and fondled one of my curls.
“Sisters, her hair is so coarse,” she called out, to their giggles. “Are all strigoi like this? It has been so long I can’t remember!”
“The earth in these parts has gone sour,” said the fair-haired one. “All sorts of misshapen creatures can spring up nowadays.”
“Strigoi are such messy eaters,” added the one with the hooked nose, grimacing. “I’ve never enjoyed them.”
“Why did the sight of the bear make you weep, little sister?” asked the one still toying with my hair. “Do you pity beasts like that one?”
“Things born of mortals retain mortal hearts,” said the fair-haired one. “Mortal troubles.” She looked at me in a thoughtful way, like a scholar pinning a specimen. “Whatever she says, where a strigoi goes, human blood is not far away.”
“Then upon human eyes shall we feast!” They suddenly all clamored together, twining their fingers and chuckling, though not in a friendly way.
“But what of the strangers in our wood?” asked the one with the limpid eyes.
“They are marked already.” Her hands were still in my hair, toying with my curls. I was petrified. Not merely frightened- I was entirely unable to move. The Iele had me tightly within their grasp, and I could not so much as blink.
“So unfortunate,” said the dark-haired one, and she kissed my cheek. Her lips were dry and icy, sliding against my flesh like snakeskin. “Cursed by two witches, friend to none. Yet you wept for the bear. I am moved.”
I did not weep for the bear, I tried to say, but no sound would escape my frozen lips.
“We don’t care for that old grandmother witch,” said the brown-haired one, brushing her fingers along my neck. Had I been able to move I would have shuddered. “But the treewitch we are fond of.”
“She rids us of men, and her trees grow so well!” piped up another.
“The horseman we sent back to his mistress,” said the one with her hands in my hair, “and it is only fair to give the treewitch something she desires as well.”
I do not think that anything could have sunk further than my hearts did at that moment.
“It’s only a reminder that we don’t like strangers in our forest,” said the Iele, and she tweaked my nose. “No witch has settled here, and we mean to keep it that way. Now, off with you!”
Abruptly I felt movement return to my frozen limbs, and just as abruptly two of them caught my shoulders and thrust me backwards. I stumbled back into the ashen circle, coughing as my steps stirred up gray ash. They giggled and swarmed towards me, and through the dark haze of the ash cloud their shapes seemed to change, their flesh becoming greenish and translucent. Inside their limbs where bones should have been I could see knotted veins that looked like branches, twisting and twining with their movements.
“Send her back!” cried one of the Iele, her shrill voice raking at my ears. In my blurry vision her appearance flickered between maiden and a woody apparition that danced like a hell-creature. Another one of them reached out and spun me around, so that I staggered through the ash to a dizzying whirl of their naked shining flesh and their bright red tongues and the leaves spinning in a green vortex.
“Wait!” I cried out, or tried to, reaching out in a vain attempt to grab something- anything- to regain my balance with. But all that was within reach were the pale hands of the Iele, and they would only clasp my feeble fingers with flesh that felt like hairy vines to spin me around yet again.
Then quite suddenly a spectral skull loomed out of the dizzying blur, moving straight towards my face. I cried out. A moment later I realized that it was only one of the Iele, holding the skull of the bear before her face like a grotesque mask.
“Sisters, are we satisfied?”
“Yes, yes,” they chorused, and one added, “A strigoi makes poor eating anyhow!”
The one holding up the bear skull lowered it just enough to reveal her stern eyes. The others all tittered.
“Away, away, send the strigoi away!”
My tongue felt as though it were coated in ash, but I still struggled to speak.
“My elder sisters! Why are you punishing me this way? What have I done to disturb you?”
The Iele looked at me, then linked their hands together and began to sing in one voice.
She woke in the autumn and her hair was red!
And all around her there lay the dead!
Though she once quiver’d for the sun
She drew upon a shroud and could not run!
The dark! The dead! The earth, too, is red!
Her flesh turned white but she was black dread!
Dread! Dread! Dread! Dread!
I was struck dumb, listening to their eerie song, as their dance became ever more feverish. Leaves and flakes of ash were rising slowly from the ground, as though tugged up by their spirit. Something brushed past my foot and I jumped. A little white bone passed over my toes and went behind me.
I turned around. I had mostly forgotten about the bear’s bones, aside from the skull that one of the Iele still carried. But they had been lying quietly in the soot all the while- all the while except now. For now they were rising up and assembling themselves together in the air. Not into the shape of a bear- no, into a shape that I could only describe as a tree. A tall, thin, bone-colored tree. As I looked on, aghast, it moved, jerking like a marionette, and reached out to snatch me with claw-tipped branches.
They hooked my flesh and dragged me backwards, though I fought with frantic purpose, biting my lip from the pain. My borrowed, too-large clothes tore, exposing my stomach and one breast, and the Iele laughed and cheered as though it were all good fun.
My fear abruptly become rage. I opened my mouth and hissed at them, like a feral cat- I was a cat, a thrashing ginger cat, squirming out of my torn clothes and out of the snatching bone branches, spitting as I launched myself towards the circle of dancing maidens. They laughed and flung me backwards with barely a touch. The grotesque tree caught me once more, hooking me by the scruff. I dangled there, just as abruptly overcome with weariness. The Iele raised their arms and called out towards the sky.
“Send her away! Send her away! Send her away!”
Then it all went quiet.
It was incredibly quiet.
I opened my eyes slowly and saw… dirt.
Just bare earth, anyhow. No leaves or grass or moss. I did not remember resuming my human shape. I also did not remember the sun going down, but it was dark, the dim remaining light tinted red. And it smelled sweet, sickeningly sweet. I slowly raised my head.
The Iele were gone. So was their forest. For ahead of me was a stand of slender, beautiful white trees.
They had said “treewitch,” a moniker I was not familiar with, but I understood now.
A slight wind made the skeletal branches shiver, and I looked up. Over my head I could see countless white branches snaking across the sky like the tributaries of a thousand rivers. Above them, something blocked the sky- something that let in just the slightest amount of light. I could not fathom what it was, only that it was massive and seamless.
Something suddenly pressed hard against my arm, and I cried out in pain, trying to move my wrist. But I- I could not move again. O, God. I had been too disoriented to take stock of where I was standing before- I was not standing. No, it was better to say that I was hanging- hanging with my wrists and ankles and throat and waist wedged tightly between the branches of one of the white trees. As I struggled, the wood merely creaked and pressed tighter against me.
I was beginning to feel the first vestiges of panic- must I constantly be constricted?- and began to change to a serpent. I stopped with a howl. The white bark had suddenly made my flesh burn, like it had when I had come against the white tree inside Kezia.
“Damn,” I said, “damn, damn-”
There came a hoarse, pitiful mew from my side, and I jerked as much as my taut state would let me, and looked to my left. On the tree beside the one that kept me captive there dangled a sad little bundle- a black cat, body crooked and covered in thick white vines- vines that grew from his eye socket and tied him to the tree.
“So,” I hissed, though I could not think of anything else I could say. The cat made no other sound; his one good eye was covered tightly.
I heard thudding, heavy footsteps suddenly approaching, and I struggled, working my wrists against the unyielding wood. The shape of a wolf came to mind, but even as my weary flesh began the change, I burned and wailed.
The footsteps stopped, and I looked down, tears stinging the corners of my eyes. A golem stood below me, its mouth round in a facsimile of surprise. My wretched hearts jumped for a split second, but it was not Kezia. Of course it was not. It stared up at me with hollow eyes and that ridiculous expression.
I tried to spit on it, as one spits on an uncaring mountain; it made no indication that it noticed. It was holding something in one hand that reeked, something with no distinguishing features aside from fur and blood. The golem dropped it on the dirt.
Thump, thump, thump- more heavy steps, and my eyes beheld something terrifying: another golem. And another. And another. And-
A row of them, like marching soldiers, all carrying things that reeked of rot and blood: they all stopped and dropped them on the ground near my tree, and the cat’s tree, until it was surrounded by those stinking, fetid mounds. I coughed, my throat burning, and struggled fruitlessly yet again. The golems all turned with slow, ponderous motions to walk back the way they came- all except the one, the one with the round mouth that stood beneath my tree. I recognized it by the wooden splinters still stuck in its shoulders: it had been the one waiting to trap me in Kezia’s house. So the witch did indeed have more than one. Many more.
I would have rather faced Iele than these monsters. I will not lie, I was trembling like a leaf.
“Ah, so this is the gift they sent me.”
From between the trees stepped a woman, looking quite small and fragile next to the lumbering behemoth that was her servant. Mother Forest.
“I was surprised that they would send anything like this,” she continued, placing one hand on the arm of the motionless golem, “because they prefer to snatch meat and eat it themselves, but this, I suppose, is not palatable to them.”
I worked my throat a few times, and then said, “It is a pleasure to finally meet Kezia’s dear mother.”
She looked up at me and gave me a queer little smile, as though she had only just realized I could talk.
“Who is Kezia?”
For some reason that really incensed me, and I hissed and squirmed within my bonds.
“Your golem! The one I took. But I don’t know why you’ve been after me all this time; it seems you have plenty more to spare!”
The witch had tilted her head as I spoke, her expression still maddeningly calm, her eyes only faintly curious.
“You’ve given it a name?”
“She named herself, after-” I closed my mouth. No call to talk about Kezia’s ghost.
“Strange,” said Mother Forest, and she put her thumb to her chin and stared at someplace to the left of my head. Her brow furrowed slightly.
“Will you tell me why you have me trussed up like a rabbit?” I snapped, for she seemed to be getting lost in thought all by herself. “I assure you, I am no witch’s servant.”
She flicked her eyes towards me.
“No? But you bear that ribbon.”
“I would happily remove it!”
Her smile was vague. “I see. Well, I shall leave you there for just a little while. I have business to attend to before I attend to you.”
“I am sorry to be so low on your list,” I said. “In fact, why not take me off altogether? You shan’t miss me.”
“No, no,” said the witch. “You misunderstand. You are quite important, so I am saving you for when I may prescribe my full attention. We will have much to discuss, you and I.”
“Oh, yes? Like what, then?”
She glanced up at me in a way that made my hearts stutter, and said, “We will speak about how you controlled that golem, and about how you will destroy it.”