A witch that isn’t very smart.
I was not all right at all.
This was the first coherent thought that returned to me; the rest of my consciousness seemed caught in a swirl of Aargh! and other vague feelings of distress.
This sort of thing seemed to be happening with increasing frequency these days.
I could not quite recall the root of my upset, though; or much of anything else. Even my own name seemed blurry. But what I was beginning to understand was that my stomach hurt. And I was terribly hungry.
I had only a general idea of where I was. The location was familiar- a solitary tree at the top of the hill, surrounded by a cozy bed of leaves- but as for how I had gotten there, that was a mystery. It seemed that I had endeavored to get away from something very quickly and collapsed here.
Ah. And now there were footsteps. Good, because I was so achingly hungry.
Blood will make a strigoi drunk, and blood that is further imbibed with a hearty dose of alcohol is rather potent. The man that came upon me was dragging a large cloth bag. He smelled like beer and he was muttering in a delirious way under his breath. When he stooped to scoop a handful of dead leaves into his bag I leapt and clasped my hands about his throat and filled my mouth with that heady stuff.
I was already in a nonsensical state; the blood transported me to worlds unknown. A misty bliss crossed my consciousness, and I felt as though I was floating, though most of what I was doing was squatting next to a dead body panting heavily and drooling blood.
I lost consciousness again, but in a much happier way. When I finally reemerged from what seemed to have been an eternity of blackness, I had a headache.
I was also lying in a bed.
My good sense returned to me all in a scramble: I remembered who I was and just what had happened. I wished it had not all come back at once, for my headache got considerably worse. Firstly, the Iele, secondly, Mother Forest, thirdly, the removal of my ribbon, fourth… ly, the fact that Mother Forest was not Mother Forest and was, in fact, a golem in disguise, and finally, the seed that had got shoved down my throat that was meant to sprout and control me.
And now, to top it all off, I was lying in a bed and could not remember how I’d gotten there.
At least it was a bed, though. I had not laid in a bed for a good long while; surprisingly, it was quite a bit more comfortable than curling up in some muddy hole. I allowed myself a moment to sink back into the mattress while my eyes flicked around the room.
It was an impressive room. The bed was large and had a canopy, and there was a bureau beside me that was painted white and gold, and the carpet was gray and appeared to be plush. There was a tall window with the curtains drawn: I was grateful for that, for the sun seemed to be on its way back up.
I began to sit up, letting the quilt slide away from my shoulder, and then shrank back down. I could hear voices from beyond the closed door.
“The night’s finally over,” said one.
“Should we wake her? Try to get something out of her?”
“Give it a minute, the sun’s only just up, and I think she’s had a sorry time of it.”
“Her! Haven’t we? A man dead, and-”
“Keep your voice down.”
The discussion lowered in volume to such an extent that I had to strain my ears. Amidst the burble I caught the word ‘witch.’
“Be careful with that,” said one. “It’s not an accusation you fling about lightly.”
“Nothing light about it. A dead man with his throat tore out, and a naked girl out cold curled up in a sack. What does that mean to you?”
“Bad stuff, for sure. But it also smelled like they had both been at the drink, and we all know that there are wild animals out there.”
“Sure, wild animals and witches. My sister won’t have a witch in her bed, you know.”
“I don’t think the girl’s a witch. Why should a witch stay beside the man she killed?”
There was a long pause, as if the other was thinking this through.
“A witch that isn’t very smart, I suppose.”
He had me there. I reached up to rub my aching forehead with one hand and noticed for the first time that somebody had put me in a nightgown. That gave me the shudders.
“Look, if you go in there shouting witch this and witch that, we won’t get nothing out of her,” said the first voice. “And that’s no use. This is the second attack, isn’t it? After that old man.”
“Third,” said the other. “The smith’s little girl is still sick-”
“She’s just got a fever.”
“Yes, and a mark on her wrist! This isn’t some beast from the woods. This is the devil’s work.”
“And so we’ve got to question the girl, first. Maybe she knows something.”
“Yes- and maybe she knows everything.”
“Maybe I’d better do the talking, friend,” said the first voice, with a low laugh, and their footsteps traveled slowly away from the door.
I listened to the sounds of their low voices fading away, then snuggled down further into the pillows as I considered everything that I had just heard. I was not particularly concerned for my own safety at their hands; at any moment I could change shape and sneak away. What I was concerned about lay in my stomach. If I had not been such a fool the night before and glutted myself, I might have had a chance at vomiting that wretched seed out, but it was probably well-rooted by now…
Suddenly I was overtaken by a violent shudder, and held back a retch. I thought I could almost feel it inside my, growing, digging into my flesh as it put down supports, creeping up and up towards my throat…
Convulsively I grabbed at my neck. My fingernails scraped bare skin- the ribbon was no longer there.
From one witch’s curse straight to another. I would have laughed if it was the slightest bit funny.
My one chance was that the seed would take some time to grow, and while it did, I could search for a way to remove it. I doubted any sort of traditional method would work- I could swallow slugs all I wanted and the thing wouldn’t suffer a nibble. No, there had to be some darker magic to it. I cast my mind back to what Noroc had said, during his brief moment of freedom- what was it? He had said to break his curse, one had to… bring him the survivor?
At the time, my mind had connected this with the abandoned village I had seen him in. He’d certainly been wailing over it. Something seemed to have gone wrong there- and only one had survived. And that one would be the one to break the curse. Fine, but where was this survivor? There were a thousand places a person could be lurking, even assuming he was a human and not a cat. I rolled over, disgruntled, and tugged down my nightgown under the sheets. The wretched creature could have offered a few more hints.
But in the meantime, it seemed, I might be able to make use of my situation. Somebody from this village had to know what had happened to the other, it being so close by. And maybe they even knew where the lone survivor had ended up.
I rolled back over onto my other side. There were a great number of uncertainties in all that, but it was the best I’d got at the moment. It was better than nothing– and the bed was nice.
The door opened with a soft click, and I shut my eyes tight at once, feigning unconsciousness. Whoever it was peeped at me for only a moment before walking away, and I opened my eyes a sliver to catch the sight of a female face with straight back brows, a long thin nose, and skin several shades darker than mine. It bore a look of repugnance.
She left the door open a crack, so I didn’t dare move much, but I ruminated. So the house owned at least one Romani slave; I don’t know why I was surprised at the fact. The room certainly looked rich enough. But perhaps it was because this part of the country was poorer than the area I’d grown up in; there were far fewer personal slaves. The Romani here tended to be owned by monasteries or be wanderers, the so-called ‘King’s slaves.’
I was lucky, in a sense, that I had been born with ruddy skin and mixed features that defied easy categorization, and could be mistaken for a Gadjo if one squinted (heavily) or at the very least a half-caste. The law had been wriggly concerning the children of Romani and Gadjo, but currently it had decided that they were freemen.
If I was assumed to be a free woman, though, it was always ironic: in my former life I was a slave twice over, from my Romani father and from my Moorish mother, who had escaped the circuit that carried dark-skinned bodies from south to north.
I heard whispered voices from behind the door again: one was female, presumably the slave, and the other was one of the male voices I had eavesdropped on earlier.
“What are you on about?” the male voice was saying. “I said to fetch some clothes and help her dress-”
“No, sir, no,” said the female voice, “no, I won’t go in there or touch anything she’s touched, she’s a red witch whore, and you better get her out of here before she brings the devil in, sir.”
The male laughed in the gentle manner of someone who is assured of his own superiority.
“She’s just a girl. Perhaps a very bad one, true, but I doubt she could have crossed this threshold if she were an evil spirit.”
The slave muttered something, and the man said, very quick: “What was that?”
“Then go help her dress. And don’t fuss anymore, or I will really show you the devil.” He was chuckling again, but not so lightly.
I had heard enough; information be scotched, this whole place reeked of the sort of memories I was trying to avoid. As I heard the door slide open, I shrank down underneath the covers and became a marten, wriggling in the cloth cave until I could slither down off the bed and beside a pair of shoes that had stopped there.
I heard the shriek quite keenly with my marten ears: “She’s gone!”
I hopped up onto some of the wooden slats supporting the mattress beneath the bed, and just in time, too, for somebody else came dashing into the room and began to positively ransack the place. I heard him banging about the wardrobe before his monstrously huge face lowered to peer beneath the bed. Luckily I had wedged my skinny body up between the slats, and anyway he was looking for a girl, not a marten. He withdrew disappointed, and perhaps a little frightened by the look of it.
“What happened to her?! Did you see her leave this room?”
“No, sir,” came the slave’s voice, and I heard the sound of a slap.
“Wipe that look off your face!”
“Yes, sir,” said the girl, though in her voice I still heard an ooze of satisfaction. Her feet left the room in a considerably more measured away.
“Damn!” the man muttered, once she was gone, and paced around the room several times before following.
Well, I had certainly cemented my reputation in the minds of these people with that stunt. No matter; at the present time I ought to be focused on slipping away undetected.
A mouse would have been the ideal shape to take at this moment, but sadly I had none in my arsenal. I had simply never gotten the nerve to drink mouse blood; I hated the things. A cat was risky, associated with witches, but at least I was not a black cat. I assumed my ginger-furred form and slunk from the room, sticking to the corners, heading towards the scent of the kitchen.
Luck was on my side; the household seemed to be in a tizzy, and people were clustering together in ways that made them easy to avoid. I slipped into the kitchen as another house-slave darted through the door, flapping her apron, and then positioned myself beside the waste heap.
The news of what had happened apparently hadn’t traveled as far as the kitchen yet, though the slaves and servants there seemed to know that something was happening, and were shouting across the room at one another as they prepared breakfast. One of them spotted me crouched beside the waste heap, licking my chops, and swung a broom at me.
“Shoo! Shoo, you dirty thing!”
I got a tap on the rump, but she opened the outer door, and I was free. As soon as the door shut behind me I became a chicken, clucking and pecking innocently at the ground and moving until I could join a flock of several others that were stationed nearby.
Thus incognito, I took a moment to consider my next action, ignoring the somewhat beady looks I was getting from the actual chickens. Assuming a human form to ask after the ruined village might be too risky after all; the people here seemed rather perturbed by my recent feeding. Well, at least they had not noticed that the man who’d been kicked by a horse was actually one of my victims. But I had got careless. I really should have killed that man Kezia asked me to let go…
Ah, Kezia. I fluffed my feathers, glad that the flock was in the shadow of the house. What with all that had happened to me afterwards, what the witch- no, the other golem- had asked me to do had almost completely slipped my mind. I had to wonder where poor Kezia was now; tromping around in the woods still? -but it was better that I was away from her. I did not know how the spell of the seed would take effect, or when, for that matter. Perhaps it was best that I did not know of her whereabouts at the moment. I would rather not destroy her, both out of spite to the pretend Mother Forest and, admittedly, a bit of fondness for the big clay lump.
Anyhow, I had a sneaking suspicion that once I had completed my “task,” I’d be disposed of like any used rag.
The other chickens were busy pecking at some grain somebody had scattered for them, and I cluck-strutted my way through their midst along the house’s wall. There was a small vegetable garden nearby, and as it was late spring there were several tomato plants sagging with plump fruit. A busy little weevil was trundling along between two of the neatly weeded rows of cabbages; one of my avian brethren put her head up to fix it with a greedy look.
The kitchen door banged open behind me, and I flapped and followed the other chickens for the relative safety of the garden. A male house-slave stepped out and cast around, suspicion on his hard face. A flurry of feminine voices floated out with him, all pitched high with worry. The man turned around and thundered out, “There’s no vampire out here! It would have killed the chickens.”
The female voices inside the house did not sound entirely convinced. For my part I was impressed that I had been upgraded from witch to vampire. If they landed on strigoi, and remembered that they had a tendency to shapeshift, I might really be in trouble.
(Though I had no idea why they thought I would kill the chickens.)
The man shut the door again, and in the shade of the garden I changed shape again: this time to the small red dog. My large head bumped against several ripe tomatoes. I sniffed one experimentally, gave it a lick, and then gave a doggy grimace. I could eat ordinary food, mind you; it just gave me no nourishment and passed out of me in a rather similar form to how it had passed in. That tended to make one lose their taste for the stuff.
As a dog, I trotted around to the front of the house, squinting in the sunlight and pressing my lean body in the shadows as much as I could. The stately house looked like more of a manor from this angle; there was a large grassy yard separating it from the distant road, and that was actually paved from cobblestones. I had to cast about quite a bit to realize where I was: the sight of the distant church spire tipped me off. I was still in that same village after all, just on the other end, in the wealthier district. No place for stray dogs.
I went to the road, then stood there on the stones for a moment at a loss. The wisest thing for me to do would be to leave the village entirely, avoiding the off chance of being discovered and stabbed, but what then? I would still have the wretched witch’s seed inside of me, and no real way of removing it. I couldn’t even return to the ruined village to search for clues; it was well within Mother Forest’s territory, and I didn’t ever want to return there.
For a very fleeting moment I thought of Kezia again. But of course it was a fool’s dream: what could she do for me? She’d been seeded by the witch herself.
A man on horseback came clop-clopping down the road towards me, and I shied out of the way, my tail up underneath my belly. The man tugged on his reins and frowned at me, his horse champing and snorting, and I darted quickly in the direction he’d come from. Most definitely, it was not a place for stray dogs.
I fixed my eyes on the white church spire, and soon I found myself heading back into the poorer district, where throngs of people were starting to mill about for their day’s business. I slowed and cast about.
If I was not going to leave the village straightaway- and perhaps it was best, because Kezia would never come here- I had better find a place to hide the rest of the day. I wormed my way through legs and underneath a lady’s shopping basket down to an alley between two shops, but left just as quickly. There were half a dozen vagrants dozing down there. I waded back into the crowd and was at once accosted by a child, who yanked viciously on my tail. His mother jerked him away before I could retaliate, boxing him over the ears.
“You want to get bitten, you fool?”
The child, seeming quite unperturbed by the blow, grabbed his mother’s skirt and began begging in a high-pitched voice: “Mama, mama, I want a fur hood!”
I got out of there before anybody decided to skin me.
Luckily for me, it did not take very much longer for the throng to clear the streets and get to their business, and I managed to stagger my way to the wooden steps of a bathhouse and flop down. Few people were interested in bathing so early in the morning, though there was a bit of steam wafting through the cracks in the door, so somebody had to be in there.
Public bathing was a rather filthy Gadjo custom, if you asked me- even when I had left my family I had never changed my mind about it. Swilling about naked in the muck of others had never appealed to me, not to mention that many baths were mixed. I shifted uneasily on the steps.
But of course, these were the reservations of a living person; I was dead now, and I had done far worse things than bathing with men. I had to remind myself of this frequently. Particularly now. Memories of the person I had been in life were flowing back more and more… It was not good. It was ever since I had met Kezia.
I squirmed on the steps, then put my head up as I caught motion in the corner of my eye. A large and generously proportioned cat was climbing the steps, long fur a rich brown color. It looked rather well-groomed for a stray.
The cat sat down across from me and glared at me with baleful orange eyes. Were cats usually this unafraid of dogs? It was growling now. I swallowed, then chided myself. Intimidated by a cat! Wasn’t I a creature of the night myself?
I still got off the steps, though- no need to get into a fight if I didn’t have to. The cat’s head followed me, still growling and glaring. The fur between my shoulders prickled.
Sudden shouts caught my attention: it sounded as if a fight or something had started in the town square. A man was hitting another man about the head and shoulders, while a crowd gathered. I glanced back at the cat, only to see it walking through the wall of the bathhouse. The tip of its fluffy tail flicked and disappeared behind the solid wood.
Well! There was the source of my prickle; it had been a bannik spirit, defending its bathhouse from a strigoi interloper. I wondered if telling it what had happened to Noroc, its domovoi brethren, would put a twist in that magnificent tail. But likely not. They were cats, after all.
I turned back towards the fight, though now a larger crowd had gathered, obscuring most of it. From what I could make out, though, in the center of it all were three figures: an old man, a young man, and a woman clutching something to her chest.
Thoughtfully I became a cat myself and wormed my way in to have a better look.
The young man and the woman were clearly married, from the way the man stood in front of her- though he wasn’t really all that young, now that I had a better look at him, just younger than the old man. He was skinny, with a red nose and a moustache; his wife was considerably larger, and stuck out on either side of him.
The old man, I was quite surprised to realize, was the same one that I had attacked in the woods. He had a clear scar on his neck, and was bruised and trembling like a leaf. I thought it would be quite low to strike a blow against a man like that.
But the crowd seemed allied against him; their stares were hateful towards him. The skinny man put his fists up again.
“I told you the last time,” he began, “if you come near my wife and child again-”
“That isn’t a child!” cried the old man, to the hisses of the crowd. “If you value your lives, you’ll put it to the flame!”
“Come off it!” roared one of the spectators, as the woman gave a little cry and pressed her bundle tighter against her bosom. It squirmed, and a pale little hand poked out of the folds of the blanket.
“I want you away!” cried the thin man, stabbing a finger at the old man. “Away from here! We’ve no need for Jews and beggars in this town!”
The old man’s face registered no reaction to this. He put his hands forward in a placating gesture.
“Please,” he said, “heed my words… if you don’t destroy that creature-”
He did not finish, for the enraged father struck him again, knocking him to the ground. The crowd clamored, though none of them seemed quite sure if they ought to step in.
The thin man coughed, putting one hand to his mouth, and his wife laid a hand on his shoulder. The bundle in her arms squirmed again, and now a little head peeped forth: a child with fair skin and even fairer hair- almost translucent- with closed eyes. Even her lips were pale. She looked much too old to be carried about in a bundle.
“Mama,” she said, reaching up to pat her mother’s cheek. The mother promptly burst into tears.
“Oh, Crina! Our poor blind child-! You wicked, wicked man, you servant of the devil!”
The old man, who had been slowly getting up from the cobbles, flinched as something struck his shoulder. Someone in the crowd had thrown a rock.
“I’ll leave this place,” he said, in a more forlorn voice than I’d ever heard. “I wish that you would listen… I have seen it before…”
The crowd drowned him out, and amidst the angry shuffling of feet I lost sight of him. Well, I’d seen enough either way. I snaked my way back out towards the bathhouse and stopped to lick a paw.
“I thought I told you to go away.”
I must have jumped about a foot, ginger tail bristling. The bannik had reappeared right behind me, standing on the bathhouse steps. His own fluffy tail was lashing from side to side, in the manner of a cat about to commit murder.
It took me a moment to recover my composure, and a moment longer to consider whether or not the spirit could really back up the threat. I was not sure if he had a range beyond the bathhouse.
“Thrice have you killed one of my people,” said the cat, as I ruminated. “I will not stand for any more!”
Excuse me, I replied, in the language of beasts, but as far as I’ve heard, that little girl I bit hasn’t died yet. So I’ve only killed two of your people, in fact.
There was a great deal more tail-lashing as the cat seemed to work this out through his head.
“She may yet die.”
Well, if that happens, you won’t stand for any more. I get it.
The cat hissed, and steam suddenly poured out of the windows of the bathhouse. “Do not mock me! These are my people you harm!”
Several people nearby stopped and stared at the bathhouse, which was still steaming at all the cracks. The cobblestones under my feet seemed to shiver as well, and the wood of a nearby oxcart creaked in an ominous way. Belatedly I revised my idea of the bannik’s power.
My apologies, I said, turning my gaze away respectfully. There is more blood in the world. I will leave your people alone for a time.
The cat’s tail still lashed, but his fur, which had puffed out to impressive proportions, started to settle.
“I will hold you to your word,” he said. “And if you lie, I shall plant the knowledge of what you are in my people, and they will seek you out and kill you.”
I eyed the bathhouse, which was now just exuding a trickle of steam from one window.
If you don’t mind me asking–
He cut me off. “It is time for you to leave this place, strigoi!”
I winced; not terribly friendly, this one.
Very well, but if you would but permit me to…
I hesitated. I had been about to ask if I could hide somewhere in the village until nightfall, but something had caught my eye: the old man. He was making his way slowly down the road, limping slightly, his face bruised and his eyes unreadable.
That man- is he one of your people, too?
The cat widened his eyes. “No! He is a stranger- a stranger!”
The words held an odd mixture of contempt and curiosity in them. The bannik was watching the man, too. If he had glanced to the left and spotted the two of us, he would have thought he’d become the idol of some sort of cat cult.
“I do not like him,” the bannik offered, though I thought it sounded a little less sure. “One of my children- he threatens her.”
Then perhaps I should see that he does not come back, I offered. The bannik turned to lick his tail and did not reply.
I stared for a long moment at the man’s retreating back, as he limped slowly down the road. Old as he was, not to mention injured, I did not think he had a decent chance in the wilds anyhow. Yet something was itching at the back of my mind about him. A stranger- a wanderer- an old man…
Do you know where this man comes from? I asked.
“Why should I know something like that?”
Fair enough. The bannik was still staring intently at the man, so I thought it safe to ease in another question.
Do you know what happened to the little village that lay across the river?
The cat turned to me, his eyes wide, his fur puffing up again.
“What do you know about that place?!”
Nothing, I said hastily, for the windows of the bathhouse were getting very foggy. I walked through the ruins once.
The bannik looked away from me and towards the little green smudge between the row of houses that was the forest.
“That village disappeared,” he said. I squinted at him.
A village doesn’t just disappear!
The bannik glared at me. “This one did. They all vanished. None of my people knew what happened.”
So they know that it existed? I asked.
“Of course! Those trees beyond the meadow- they were not there threescore years ago. One village was visible to the other, for the land was flat and open. Then one day the trees began to grow around that village and swallowed it from sight.”
I swallowed myself.
Didn’t the people that lived there try to chop them down?
“There were no people anymore,” said the bannik.
It was a warm day, and the sunlight should have been burning at me, yet I suddenly felt a little cold.
Did the witch do it?
“I know no witch. Only that there is something wicked within those trees.” He looked at me a moment, then his tail began whipping from side to side again. “It is time for you to leave.”
I will go, I said, backing away, and thank you for sparing me- but you are sure everyone from that village disappeared?
The bannik pulled his whiskers back, and looked again at the small figure of the old man.
“I have told you all I know. Now go from here.”
I caught the note in his voice, and bowed my cat head to him before darting quickly out of there.
I caught up with the old man at the very edge of the village, and crouched under a mossy drainpipe to observe him as he shuffled down the dirt road. He was heading towards the river ford. Beyond that was the meadow, and then, of course, the Starving Forest.
He had been riding his horse into the heart of the forest the first time that I had caught him. Only a fool would do that, or so I had thought. Was it possible… was it possible that he was Noroc’s survivor?
It seemed almost too easy, to find him here. Though I shuddered to think of how I had almost killed him once. Now he could be the key to my freedom, if I could just get him to Noroc.
Of course, that meant that I would have to go with him back into the forest.
My little cat heart thundered. But what else could I do? I could not squander this one chance, slim as it was. And if I just let him alone… well, the old thing looked half-dead already. Curses! I was much better and killing creatures than keeping them breathing.
Follow him for now, I decided. It would do no good to greet him as a human; he’d seen my face when I had attacked him, and anyhow I had no clothes. Nothing shrieked demonic! louder than a naked red-haired woman jaunting in a forest.
I began to change into one of my least conspicuous shapes- the little red bird- but suddenly a terrible pain filled my chest. I stopped with a loud cry, writhing in the damp dirt under the drainpipe, and was suddenly squashed against the stone- inadvertently, I’d become a woman.
Hastily I changed- into anything- a fox, before anyone noticed. The pain had vanished as quickly as it had come upon me. Hesitantly I changed again- a marten. No pain. I tried the little bird.
Pain, pain, pain! Stabbing at my tiny heart!
I became a woman again for a moment, muffling a curse against my dirty palm, and then went back to fox. One more change. One more- the bush cricket.
I was not halfway shifted when I felt the pain flare again, and hastily reverted to fox. That was it: the size. A little bird and a cricket were too small.
I could only think of one thing that could be causing this, and it was such a dreadful thought: the witch’s seed.
It was starting to grow.
A trembling fox, I darted out of the village and after the old man.