There are some things that I am good for.
Kazimir and I followed the skeleton that he had called a gate further into the witchless woods, leaving the lake and the open sky behind. From time to time the skeleton would stop and raise its arms as though it were feeling for something in the air. I could not really imagine what it could be, because it always lowered them again and moved on.
A part of me was worried that it was looking for Kazimir, but Kazimir himself did not seem to think so. Though at first he had fretted a great deal, trying to tug me back so that I would not get within more than twenty paces of the skeleton, as time passed the anxious wrinkles between his eyebrows started to smooth out.
“Maybe she isn’t going to settle here at all,” he muttered, as the skeleton completed yet another of its hand-waving rituals. “It usually doesn’t take her this long.”
“Maybe it is looking for something else,” I suggested. “Maybe it is looking for Mother Forest?”
“There’s only so much a skeleton can do,” was his dubious reply.
I thought that walking around was already much more than a skeleton usually did, but I kept this to myself.
It was beginning to get dark, and as we followed the skeleton- back through the huge trees and the dense undergrowth, the shimmering cobwebs and the stink of old rot- back through the slimy leaves and crunching branches- I began to grow anxious myself. For I was well and truly lost now; I could not have found my way back to the lake except by luck, and the entrance to the forest might as well have been a thousand miles away. And there had been no sign of Gabi or Pascha.
“Stop!” Kazimir suddenly hissed, and at first I thought he was speaking to the skeleton, and kept walking until he grabbed one of my shoulders.
“What is wrong?” I asked. It felt odd for him to grab me there so easily; I had never met anyone else who matched me in height.
“Watch where you step,” he said. “There’s an Iele circle on the ground.”
I looked down and saw that a few paces ahead, slightly to the left of where the skeleton was continuing on its creaking way, was a perfect circle of ash. A few of the last rays of sunlight were cutting into it, and I could see a few blades of grass poking up from the gray. But it was peculiar; they were not green but red.
“I have never seen one before,” I said. “What is it?”
“It’s what’s left behind by the Iele after they feed,” said Kazimir, releasing my shoulder. “And as for what an Iele is, I don’t know, only that you had better steer well clear of them. They are powerful, and they are not good-tempered, and they take offense to the smallest things.”
“Oh,” I said. “Are they like dragons?”
Kazimir made a strange face and shook his head, then said, “Oh- what is that?”
“What is what?” I asked, but he was changing shape. Not into a horse this time, but into the thing he had been when I first saw him: a massive dog with a horsey head.
He pushed his wide nostrils against the dirt and sniffed loudly, his ears laid back.
“What do you smell?” I asked, glancing quickly to check on the skeleton: luckily it had stopped to do one of its queer little dances. “Can you change your head into anything that is not a horse?”
He rolled one eye towards me. “Yes; didn’t you just see me as a man? And hush, I think I smell Pascha!”
I hushed, and watched him circle around and around on the forest floor, his massive paws just skirting the Iele’s circle. He was making a great deal of noise, and leaves were whirling everywhere from his progress. I was amazed that the skeleton did not seem to notice any of it. Then again, it was a skeleton.
Kazimir suddenly rumbled, the sound passing through my chest.
“He was here,” he said, his nostrils still twitching, “but now he is gone- oh, I do not like it! How did the witch catch him?”
“It could not have been Gabi,” I insisted, but Kazimir just shook his head, making his ears flop against his face.
“No! I smell her too, I remember it now- what happened to him might have happened to her-”
“You mean she was caught by the witch?” I cried, my voice suddenly ringing out very loudly between the trees.
Kazimir jerked his head up, and the skeleton clattered its teeth together very loudly.
I stood perfectly still, and saw Kazimir’s stomach suck up underneath his ribs. The skeleton slowly rotated around with a loud cre-e-eak, holding its arms outstretched. It faced us, but then it kept rotating, until it had done a complete circuit. Then it chattered its teeth again.
Click, click, click- the forest suddenly filled with strange noises, chittering and clattering, as though some giant arthropod was coming towards us, the brittle armor on its many-jointed legs knocking together. And then:
The ground shook. Kazimir gave a garbled sound and changed back into a man and ducked behind me.
I reached back and took his hand, because I could not think of anything else to do. More skeletons were emerging from between the trees, clattering and chattering. They walked up to the one that had been called the gate, en masse, and then fanned out. They extended their bony arms and held hands with each other, spreading into a large square that fenced in many trees. Then they were not looking very much like skeletons anymore, for their bones were shifting around, leg bones horizontal and arm bones vertical- they were a fence. A fence made of bones. And their skulls settled onto the posts like little lanterns, the light from their crimson eyes flickering brighter as the daylight withered away.
The one that Kazimir had called a gate became just that: a gate, with a hinge made of vertebrae. The two halves of its ribcage separated with a snap to form the bars.
The sounds were getting closer. The skeletons had all made a neat square fence, their glowing eyes upon the posts turned out and watchful. Something much larger was coming now.
“Is it your Baba?” I whispered to Kazimir.
He looked up- he had been staring at our joined hands with wide eyes- and shook his head vigorously.
“It’s her house.”
Kazimir opened his mouth, but whatever he said next was drowned out by the sound of a colossal footstep. The trees shook, and then their crowns parted with a crunching sound to admit…
Well, it looked mostly like a house- a decently-sized hut with a smoking chimney. Except it was all the way up in the air, and moving. My gaze traveled down to the part that I could hardly believe: the house was moving because poking out of two splintered holes in the floor were a pair of vast legs.
They looked a little bit like chicken legs, if the chicken were scaled up to a ridiculous size, with curving sharp claws on each talon that dug furrows into the ground. The scales were yellowish, but in most places they were blackened with filth and what smelled like dried blood. A few red drops went flying into the air with every step, in fact, as fresh stuff oozed from around the top of the legs: the splintered wood in the floor was stabbing at places in between the scales. My gaze traveled up and down the think and a sick feeling came over me. The legs or the structure were both all right, but the place where they joined was very hard to look at because it felt so dreadfully wrong- a brutal meshing of the organic and inorganic.
The house with legs stepped over the edge of the skeleton fence. It kicked at the trees, tearing at them with those brutal talons so that they splintered and whined and fell to the ground with shuddering thumps. It began to scratch, scratch, scratch at the dirt, dragging up leaves and roots and the stumps of trees, sending small creatures that had been buried underground flying and squealing through the air. I raised one arm to shield myself and Kazimir, who was cringing as the dirt rained down on us. The Iele circle, which had ended up inside the skeleton fence, was utterly ruined: the great foot slammed down on it and tore it apart in an instant. A few flecks of ash floated in the aftermath.
The house stopped scratching, and wriggled itself from side to side, the wooden slats on its walls raising and clattering together like feathers. Then it squatted down, the legs folding and vanishing under the floor.
And there was the house, within the neat white fence, sitting quietly as if it had been there a hundred years. Smoke wafted gently up from the chimney; if it had not been for the glowing eyes of the skulls it might have even looked inviting.
“She is not at home,” Kazimir murmured to me.
“How do you know?” I replied, flicking clods of earth and leaves off my shoulders. I was feeling a healthy respect for this witch starting to grow in me; Mother Forest had never made anything like that happen.
Kazimir shook his head and scratched at his scalp, dislodging more particles.
“You can always hear her snoring,” he said. “And if she isn’t snoring, she isn’t sleeping; and if she isn’t sleeping, she’s off causing mischief.”
“Oh,” I replied, tucking this fact away for later. “Then where does she keep Pascha and Zakhar? Maybe we can let them go!”
“Didn’t your friend the strigoi warn you about what happens if you try to free them?” Kazimir shook his whole body now; it was a rather doglike motion. “Though you she might not even bother to curse. She considers anything besides humans quite trivial.”
“Well, that is good for me, is it not?”
“If you like being blasted into pieces, I suppose.”
Admittedly that did not sound pleasant. “What if we just go and try to speak with them? If we cannot find out what happened to Gabi, then…”
Kazimir squirmed and tugged on one of his earlobes. “Well… if you’re careful, I suppose you could have a look around. But I’m not going with you! If I pass that gate, I’m her dog again.”
“I understand,” I said, patting him on his skinny shoulder in a way that made his knees buckle. “Wait here and keep yourself hidden from her. I will tell Pascha that you are safe.”
“He won’t care!” said Kazimir, but in a feeble way. He stepped back and crouched down amongst some ferns. “Be careful not to pick up any of her possessions! She’ll know at once if anything gets moved.”
“All right,” I said, stumping slowly towards the eerie gate.
“And be courteous to any of her servants if you meet them!”
“And pretend you don’t see the hands!”
I had reached the gate and put one hand on it by the time this last statement struck me as a little bit odd. But then, just by my touch, the bony gate swung open with a loud cre-e-eak.
I looked back for Kazimir, but he had vanished from sight again. It was probably wise of him. I noticed that all of the skulls on the fenceposts had turned very slightly to fix their glowing eyes on me.
I prodded myself in the arm to remind myself of the fact that I was made of durable clay, and then passed through the gate. It swung shut behind me at once.
I looked around the little compound that the house had scratched out for itself. There was loose dirt and leaves scattered everywhere, bunched up a little around the sides of the house. I thought it looked almost like a nest.
The hut itself had a little door, and two thin windows that were like slits. A peculiar reddish light emanated out from them, rather like what came from the skulls. I wished it did not feel so much like something was watching me.
I hesitated, one hand hovering over the simple thong that passed for a door handle, and then knocked three times very softly. Just in case.
No one answered, and so I pulled open the door and ducked into the hut.
I was surprised to find that it was very brightly lit inside. There was a fire burning merrily in the big stone hearth, and the interior of the small space felt rather warm- almost hot. It was a cluttered place, with all sorts of herbs strung up from the ceiling, as well as several pairs of long, dirty black stockings. A narrow cot jostled for space besides a table piled over with bits of parchment and cloth and a long black fire poker. On the other side of the house was a little stove and a nightstand with a comb and a chamber pot and a tarnished old mirror, and beside it was a heap of dry straw.
I was surprised to see nothing that looked remotely magical, except for maybe the dried herbs. I had to keep my head ducked very low to avoid running into them. Did they count as something that would alert the witch if I brushed them? I had not anticipated the hut being this cramped; it made things very difficult.
“Pascha?” I whispered. “Zakhar?”
There were few places for them to hide here, aside from under the bed. I felt a little foolish, thinking that I could find them. It was growing increasingly obvious that things could not be so easy.
I did squat down to look underneath the bed, though. There was nothing there but a lot of dust and several old skeins of wool.
As I straightened back up, resigned to having to leave the hut empty-handed, I heard a soft tapping sound. It was so quiet that I might have imagined it. I glanced around again and saw something- something that had escaped my notice before, for it was partially obscured by the dried herbs hanging from the rafters.
It was a kind of wooden frame, like the sort a hunter might use to mount his trophies on. But there was no boar’s head or buck’s antlers affixed to this frame. Instead there were three human hands.
At least, I thought that they were human hands. They had the right number of fingers, but they were also rather purplish in color, and had messy black stitching around their edges. If it had not been for the fingernails I might have hoped that they were gloves. But no, it looked like skin, as purplish as it was…
“Don’t look at them, Kezia.”
The voice came from behind me, and struck me as familiar. I turned around quickly.
“Is that… Zakhar?”
There was a brief pause, and then: “Yes, it is I. So you remembered me.”
I looked all around yet again. The last time I had seen him, he had been a sort of horse-serpent, a creature much too large to fit into this hut. He could probably change his appearance just as much as Pascha and Kazimir, of course, but there was no sign of even a human-shaped horseman here amidst the clutter.
“Where are you?”
Zakhar did not answer. I took a step forward, peering at first at the pile of hay in the corner, but then a flicker of movement in the mirror suspended above the nightstand caught my attention.
I walked over to it. It was tilted downwards, affording me only a view of my vast brown chest and the chamber pot that was sitting on the table. I could see something pale flickering inside, and when I stood above it, I realized that I had found Zakhar.
At least, I assumed that it was Zakhar. The inside of the chamber pot glowed with a very faint, pretty blue light, rippling with mist, and in the center was a kind of coalesced, fuzzy human being. A tiny one, very round of stomach and limbs. He was sitting with his legs crossed and his puffy hands resting on his minute thighs.
He looked up at me; his eyes were glowing blue and misty the same as the light surrounding him.
“Yes, it is I.”
“Oh,” I said. “Why are you in a chamber pot?”
“Please don’t embarrass me further,” he muttered. “It’s simply easier to keep a physical form when I am in a container right now. I am not well.”
I recalled how Pascha had seemed split with light after he was attacked by the dragon. “Is it from the poisonous roots?”
“Indeed,” he said, nodding his bald head. “It is so potent that even my mistress is having trouble curing me. I thought for a while that I might even die, which was rather exciting, truth be told.”
“I do not think that is exciting. I would be frightened.”
“Well,” said Zakhar, scratching under his chin, “I have lived a very long time, but never died. I should like the experience at least once. Of course, I’m told it normally only happens the one time anyhow.”
“Normally,” I agreed. “But not always.”
“No, of course.” He dropped his hand and smiled up at me. “Well, Kezia, regardless of my own circumstances, I am quite pleased to see that you have made it out of the Starving Forest fully intact. I was rather worried for you there.”
“Thank you,” I said. “But I am all right. I am not sure that I can die, either.”
“Hmm.” Zakhar kept his smile on. “But what are you doing in my mistress’ hut? It is very dangerous for you here, Kezia, perhaps even more so than the Starving Forest.”
“I was looking for you and Pascha,” I said. “Did you not hear me call out earlier?”
“Pardon me, I did, but my current situation is rather… uncomfortable.”
“I understand,” I reassured him. “Did you know that Pascha got captured again?”
“I did, but I have not yet spoken to him. The Iele dragged him here just before dawn and my mistress took him with her when she left. He was quite unhappy, but that is his own fault.”
“The Iele took him here? Why would they do that?”
“Likely they thought that it would be the most effective way to get him out of their hair. I’ll bet they regret it now, though.” He laughed in a way that was not wholly pleasant. I thought back to the way that the hut had smashed the ashen circle.
“Did you see Gabi as well?” I asked. “She was with Pascha, I think. I do not know what happened to her.”
Zakhar pursed his lips. “I neither saw nor heard anything of her. I do not think my mistress has her captive. If she was last with Pascha, perhaps the only creatures who now know her whereabouts would be the Iele. Though if I were you, I would not seek them out.”
“Could I not ask Pascha himself?”
Zakhar laughed. “My mistress will bring him home soon, and while she is with him you haven’t a chance. For your own sake you should be well away from this hut before then. She has a long nose and a sharp sense of smell.”
I was not sure what having a long nose had to do with that. “Zakhar, is there really no way to free you? Everything bad that has happened is because the witch is forcing you to serve her.”
“Mm? No to both of those,” said Zakhar. “Service is our lot now. And my mistress should have the least blame, out of anyone.”
I was about to disagree with this when I heard that odd tapping sound again, and then a rustle. The pile of straw in the corner had just shivered.
“What is that?” I asked, taking a step back. “In the corner?”
“Oh.” Zakhar’s tone dropped into something dismissive. “Something my mistress picked up recently. I think she will tire of it soon.”
“Is it… dangerous?”
He merely laughed at this. Hesitantly, I approached the straw, curious in spite of myself. I was not quite prepared when something suddenly burst out of it, and I jumped back, making the whole hut shudder. Zakhar’s chamber pot clattered precariously on the nightstand.
“Do be careful!” he called.
I was already calming down. What had jumped out of the straw was nothing more than a young woman. She was rather dirty, it was true, and her cheeks were hollow and her eyes red, but she was not in any way dangerous as far as I could see.
“I am sorry if I frightened you when I came in,” I said. “Is that why you were hiding in the straw?”
She stared at me for a long moment, then gave a single, jerky nod.
“I promise that I will not hurt you,” I told her, laying one hand on my chest. “I only came here to find my companions.”
She licked her lips, staring up at me. She had blue eyes, like Gabi, but her hair and skin were fair.
“I know,” she said, at length. “I was listening to you speak to Zakhar.”
“Apt, isn’t she,” said Zakhar, from his pot. I was unsure which one of us he was referring to.
“Are you being held captive as well?” I asked. “By the witch?”
She nodded again, this time more slowly.
“She was supposed to help me, give me a spell in exchange for work. But the tasks she tells me to do are impossible!”
“That does not seem fair,” I said. “What has she asked you to do?”
The woman bit her lip, then moved aside some of the straw. Beneath it lay a small wooden tub and a metal sieve.
“She told me to have this filled with water before sunrise,” she said, indicating the tub. “But the catch is that I must use the sieve to do it! And of course, when I try to fill the sieve from the well, all the water runs out through the holes.”
“Why did she ask you to use the sieve?” I asked.
“How should I know! But if I do not do it, she will keep me here another day, until I give up.” The woman was blinking rapidly. “If I give up, she will eat me!”
“What she has asked is not impossible,” said Zakhar. “The task is meant to test your wit, of which you have yet shown little.”
“If you know how to solve it, then help me!” begged the woman.
“How would it test your wit if I helped you?” He chuckled in a way that was not pleasant. “Just give up. She has been looking to make her fence larger.”
“Stop frightening her, Zakhar,” I said, putting one hand on the woman’s shoulder. “If you will not help her, I will.”
The woman- whose petite shoulder was vanishing under my huge hand- blinked up at me.
“You will help me?”
“Yes,” I said. “I know that I am only a golem, but there are some things that golems are good for.”
“Oh?” said the woman. I got the feeling that she was saying it just to be polite. But I already knew what to do; it had come to me quite naturally.
“Put the sieve in my hands,” I said.
The woman looked confused, and maybe even a little bit suspicious, but she did as I said and placed the small sieve in my hands. I gripped it very tightly for a moment, until I felt the metal just starting to give, and then said, “Now take it back.”
She frowned, and did as I asked, and then looked down into the sieve and gasped.
When I had clutched the sieve, the clay from my hands had squeezed through the holes. They were now all blocked up.
“Will that work?” asked the woman, staring agog at the sieve. “I mean- I don’t think it breaks any of the rules! Oh, thank you, you strange creature! What would I have done without you?” She threw her arms around me, almost dropping the sieve in her enthusiasm. I stood somewhat frozen, unsure of how to reciprocate. Finally I gently patted her back.
“Cheater,” muttered Zakhar.
“Oh, hush! You’re only bitter because I’ve gotten it right. You want me to fail and get turned into bones!” The woman withdrew from our embrace, waving the sieve for emphasis. “I think you’re a spiteful old thing!”
“Undoubtedly true,” said Zakhar. “But Kezia, dear, you’d better make a run for it now. If the witch finds out that you helped her, she will rend the clay from your- er- whatever you have inside.”
“I am hollow,” I said. “And I do not see why she would be angry at all. If she wanted to make this woman into bones, she could have done so without testing her like this. I think that she is planning something else.”
“Canny, for a golem,” replied Zakhar. “But be careful how canny you get.”
“What do you think she could be planning?” asked the woman, wide-eyed. I felt a little bit embarrassed.
“I do not know! But like Zakhar says, be careful. If you like you may come away with me.”
“No,” said the woman, shaking her head, “thank you, but no, I must get from the witch what I came here for. But I won’t forget how you helped me.”
“All right,” I said. I was a little bit relieved that she had said no- I had no idea what I would have done with her. “Then I had better leave. I must find Gabi soon.”
“Farewell,” said the woman, and she gave a little bow.
“Yes, fare well, Kezia,” said Zakhar, and I turned to see that he had raised himself so that his plump little elbows dangled over the lip of the chamber pot. “Were I you, I would give up on that strigoi. She will draw you back into the path of Mother Forest.”
“That is fine with me,” I said. “Anyway, no one is drawing me. I am a free golem and I may go where I please.”
That made him raise his eyebrows and laugh, and I caught sight of one of his bare white feet, kicking out behind him. “If I get a chance to speak to Pascha, I will relay what has happened,” he said, “but I won’t tell my mistress, because I am a little bit fond of you, Kezia…”
He paused, his lips pursing.
“What is the matter?” I asked.
But he did not answer. Instead I heard a sound from outside: a fearsome howl that made the hut judder and shake. The woman clapped her hands over her ears with a cry, and Zakhar’s small eyes got huge.
There was an ache in his voice that I had never heard before, but I was already halfway out the door. I could imagine a dozen nightmare scenarios for that cry. Had the witch returned? Had the Iele caught him? Had he attacked Pascha again?
When I got out of the house and leapt over the skeleton fence, though, I saw him standing there in his ordinary human form, not even hiding himself amongst the trees. His jaw was slack, his eyes wide.
“Kazimir, what happened?” I cried.
“Kezia,” he said, rather numbly. He reached out towards me, feeling the air as though he were blind. I caught his hand and he gripped mine tightly with cold fingers.
“I’m free, Kezia.”
“I’m free,” he said. “I felt it. I’m not the witch’s servant anymore! I’m free, Kezia!”
He cried out, and let go of my hand, and quite suddenly lost his form and became something huge and black and glittering, like stars, like dark rainbows on oil, like bioluminescence; for the first time I caught a scent off of him, just a faint one: it smelled the cold, blank way it did before it snowed.
“I do not understand!” I called, looking all around- I was no longer sure where he ended and the darkness and sky began. “What happened? Did the witch free you?”
Slowly the vast, gleaming thing receded, withdrawing in all its tendrils, and he appeared to me as a human once more. He blinked his green eyes, which as I recalled, were extraordinarily pretty.
“No,” he said, “no- I do not think she meant to, I do not think this is a part of her plan. But she broke the rules, Kezia! The strigoi was supposed to capture us back, or die trying, and she was not supposed to interfere! But something happened, and she broke her own rules! And now I am free!”
His outline started to vibrate again, so I grabbed his arm before he could become abstract once more.
“Wait, Kazimir! Does this mean that Pascha and Zakhar are free as well?”
At once he stopped trembling and grew very still.
“No,” he said. “No, they are still in her grasp. In truth, I don’t- I don’t quite understand why I was suddenly freed. It happened just now, but I don’t know why.”
An awful thought suddenly occurred to me.
“Do you think something might have happened to Gabi?”
He stared at me, then began gnawing compulsively on a fingernail.
“Then we must hurry!” A fresh wave of anxiety rolled over me. “What if she is hurt, or-”
“I do not think she died,” Kazimir said quickly. “No, no, that can’t be; it wouldn’t have broken it just like that. I don’t think.” Perhaps he picked up on the way I was staring at him, for he added quickly, “I will help you find her! I feel I owe the both of you my gratitude.”
“Thank you,” I said, feeling touched even through my tremendous sense of worry. “Zakhar says Pascha was captured by the Iele, so they might know what happened to Gabi too.”
“Oh,” said Kazimir.
“You will still help me, right?”
“Of course, of course,” he said, though he was gnawing on his thumbnail again. “Well- let us step into an Iele circle, then, Kezia!”
“Yes,” I said. “I hope that Gabi is all right.”