Kazimir’s light was never as bright as Pascha’s had been. In fact, it illuminated very little at all, and sometimes, with its greenish, foggy gleam, made things harder to see.
This witchless forest was much darker than any of the others I had been in, even after the sun had come up- somehow, the further we traveled, the more tightly the canopy closed over our heads. I had to stay very close to Kazimir or risk being completely disoriented. But also unlike Pascha, he did not seem to mind moving slowly so that I could keep up with him through the dense trees.
He had told me he knew of a place where there had been a recent Iele circle, and that once we stepped into it we could get their attention. He had said the words “get their attention” with a very unpleasant look on his pretty face.
“Can they make fire?” I had asked.
“No,” he had replied, confused, but I was satisfied. The only thing that had yet been able to stop me was dragonfire. I was not worried about these Iele. In fact I was a little bit angry at them. It seemed to be their fault that we had lost Gabi.
Kazimir climbed over a rotting tree trunk and turned to hold out his hand to me, his dark skin softly illuminated by his own glow. I did not need a hand, but the motion made me very happy and I took it.
When I had stepped over the log, he let go of my hand and said, “Listen.”
I did, standing very still. The wind was starting to pick up, and the leaves over our heads rustled and rippled. Thunder rumbled, and as it quieted down, I heard someone singing.
“What is that?” I murmured to Kazimir. “Is it the Iele?”
He shook his head and moved forward, placing his bare feet very carefully on the forest floor. I followed his example and kept my feet quiet, the way I had when Gabi wanted me to sneak into the village. The singing came in and out with the wind, keening. It was very pretty, in a kind of mournful way, and somehow the thunder seemed to punctuate it rather than interrupt it.
We came to a strange clearing at the top of a hill, where the branches of the trees were all bent and woven together like a basket, or a roof. Dim, cloudy sunlight protruded through the gaps between the branches, and I realized that what I had at first thought were the stumps of more branches were actually owls, many of them, perching perfectly still with their great eyes closed against the morning. And on the forest floor beneath them what I had thought to be a rumpled pile of leaves I now observed to be the coarse fur on the backs of many sleeping animals, curled together so tightly that it was difficult to distinguish one from another. The pointed ears of a wolf protruded in one place, and in another, I saw the striped head of a badger, but for the most part they all together resembled nothing more than a furred, breathing patch of earth.
In the center of it all was a tree stump (a real stump, not an owl), and sitting on top of it was an enormous raven. A flash of lightning suddenly illuminated its eyes, which were green and slitted like a snake’s, and it opened its beak and began to sing with the voice of a beautiful woman:
Maate paletinke! Ah, I am hungry,
The clouds I ate, the rain I drank,
My belly was not full.
A mountain I ate, the river I drank,
My belly was not full!
So I will come down from the sky
I will come down to the land of men
The dog that barks, the rooster crowing
The sheep bleating, the woman weeping
The fields of grain and wheat, I
shall devour it all, and fill my belly,
Hither will I go!
The thunder roared out furiously, and rain began pelting out all at once, and the raven opened its beak and laughed- not a shriek of a laugh, but still in the voice of a beautiful woman, a voice that rose and fell with the wind and thunder. And all of the animals lying on the ground woke up at the same instant, and raised their heads, and the owls opened their shining eyes and shook their wet wings. And all of them- the owls, the animals, and the great raven- all of them scattered as the lightning flashed. The wolves streamed around us, a badger ran through my legs, an owl over my head. But the raven flew straight up, still laughing, and I caught a glimpse of a scaly, serpentine tail before it vanished into the black clouds above.
In mere seconds the clearing was left completely empty, with no sign that the eerie gathering had ever even taken place: only the stump and the oddly-woven branches stayed behind.
“What was that?” I asked, turning to Kazimir with a squelch- the rain was coming down in sheets now, and the canopy did not offer us much protection.
“A hala,” he said, squinting back at me. “It wouldn’t be interested in us, but woe betide any farmers it spots down in the valley. It eats everything in sight. And the animals that are its minions spread a sickness that makes men go mad.”
“That does not seem like a very pleasant creature,” I said.
“No,” grunted Kazimir, tucking his wet hands into his armpits. “There used to be fewer of them, but the more fields men plant, the more seem to show up.”
“It seems like a lot of spirits are very interested in men,” I said. “And also women. Humans.”
“Of course they are,” said Kazimir. “I can hardly remember anything of what the earth was like before humans were around. Most of the spirits around now even derive from them. They are interesting- very full of energy. That is what spirits feed on and what they are as well.”
“Well, the energy of life itself, I suppose.”
“Kazimir,” I said. Some of his words had just caught up to me. “You remember a time before humans existed?”
“No, not really, as I said.”
I stared at him, and his eyes darted a moment, as though he was not sure what it was I wanted to hear.
“You and Pascha and Zakhar,” I said, “what are you really? You are not like any other spirits that I have seen.”
“Well,” said Kazimir, licking his lips, “I suppose that we’re of our own kind. We are quite old. Zakhar is the oldest- he was born when the sun rose for the very first time, and Pascha was born when it was high in the sky, and I was born at the first sunset. Since then we have wandered all over the place. Now that I think of it, it does seem like it may have taken a long time for humans to appear after we were born. But most of it we’ve long forgotten.”
I supposed that did make sense. It seemed like if I had lived as long as every human had ever lived and even longer than that, I would not be able to remember it all either.
“But men- men and women- they are so quick and bright, and they change so fast. Their energy is intoxicating.” For a moment Kazimir’s eyes seemed to gleam, and his tongue glowed as he spoke next. “It makes even us feel hungry sometimes.”
“Hungry… You mean- you, Pascha, and Zakhar?”
“Yes,” said Kazimir, his glow subsiding. “But the sun is more than enough; we don’t need to steal life from others to keep existing. The hala and the Iele do.”
So does Gabi, I thought. And the Blajini. And perhaps- since Gabi had given me her stolen blood to make me free- perhaps in a way, I did as well.
As I pondered this, Kazimir shuddered, for the rain was still coming down hard, and the sky had growled softly the whole time we’d been speaking.
“Why don’t we keep moving? We’re almost there.”
“All right,” I said, flexing my damp hands a little. The wet seemed to effect me less than it used to. My clay had grown stiffer.
Kazimir turned, and the sight of his bare back made something else occur to me. He had said before that the three of them- he, Zakhar, and Pascha- were never meant to be together, and I had not understood what he meant then. But now it made sense. After all, the sunrise and noon sun and sunset never ever happened at the same time.
That made me feel strangely sad.
Kazimir led me downhill on a narrow, slick path where the flowing water ran around our feet. The canopy had opened up a little, but the sunlight was still that peculiar gray-green color it took on during a daytime thunderstorm. I thought I heard the raven’s laughter still on the wind, very distantly, and felt very sorry for whichever poor souls she visited her hunger on.
“Right there,” said Kazimir, coming to a sudden stop at the base of the steep hill. I leaned on a tree and swung myself down beside him, bypassing a patch of treacherous mud.
Right in front of us was a circle filled with reddened grass and pale little mushrooms, looking damp but, oddly, not soaked by the weather. All around it were short, stunted-looking trees covered in pale lichen.
“Why do the Iele turn the grass red?” I asked.
“I don’t think they do it intentionally- I think it just happens,” said Kazimir, who was chewing on his thumbnail. A loud clap of thunder made him flinch. “Oh, this is foolish.”
“I will not let them hurt you,” I said. “All we want to do is ask them a question-”
Kazimir cut me off with a shout, and I lost sight of him all in an instant. The sound of bells and shrill laughter suddenly filled the air.
“Won’t let them hurt you!” shrieked something in my ear, and I jerked my arm back. There were furrows in the clay, as though something had clawed at me. Something else stabbed at the back of my neck and I reached back and grabbed it, felt it crack underneath my grip: a stick?
There came another shriek, but this time it was one of rage. The stunted little trees that had surrounded the circle were moving, changing shape, in fact, their blackened branches cracking and snapping as they bent into limbs, faces emerging from the rotted trunks.
“Servants of the witch?” The voice was high and wild, with fury in it like the savage wind that was tearing at the treetops above us. “Curse you, curse you, curse you!”
“Kazimir!” I called. One of the tree-creatures- it was really more of a maiden than a tree now, to be honest- a maiden with pale skin and dark hair and green grasping fingers- “Kazimir, where are you?”
A thunderous growl answered me, and suddenly the great black animal was standing in the circle of red grass, his green eyes glowing like witchfire. All of the tree-women turned towards him, and they shrilled out words that I barely understood in the rain and the howling wind.
“Circle-breakers! Witch-slaves! Dread! Dread! Dread!”
The beast- Kazimir, in his dog-horse form- laid his ears back gave a deep, hoarse bark that I felt vibrate through my chest cavity.
“We are not the witch’s servants! We did not break your circle!” he bellowed.
They seemed senseless to his words as they lunged towards them, their fingers stabbing twigs and leaves still bound up in their tangled hair. They clawed at him and he vanished once more.
“O! Come back!” screamed one of the Iele. “Come out, plaything!”
I grabbed her- it was one with pale hair, and she was nearest me, and tried to pull her back.
“Stop! He is telling the truth, and you-”
The Iele turned to look at me with a look of such repugnance that I let her wrist go in surprise.
“What is it?” she cried. “What is this creature?”
It was strange, but the wind seemed to calm a little then, as all of them suddenly looked at me.
“It moves,” said another. “How?”
“It does not breathe!”
“It holds no blood!”
“What is it?”
They were crowding at me, their heads cocked like birds, though their was nothing charming in the curiosity of their combined gaze. I backed up a step and suddenly I felt arms come around me, and flesh that crackled like bark pressed against my clay.
“Earth,” hissed a voice beside my head. “Earth, it is only earth.”
A dreadful feeling came over me, and I wrenched myself free of the embrace- she was laughing with surprise behind me, and the others joined her, suddenly joyful where they had been furious mere moments before.
“Earth that walks and speaks! Does it think it is alive? What gave it this foolish notion?”
“I am not only earth!” I cried, backing away further. “I am a golem!”
Another one suddenly pressed close to me, grinning, sniffing like a dog.
“I smell nothing- only dirt!”
That dreadful feeling inside of me got bigger- like heat, like fire- and I swung around and grasped the one that had sniffed me. Something snapped in my hand. She shrieked and I had to bring one arm up as a burst of wind and rain drove flying leaves at my face. When I put my arm up, she had scampered up a tree, like a squirrel, and was laughing at me.
“Look at it get angry!”
Then they were all up in the branches, laughing wickedly. I filled with heat, and I swung one fist at the trunk of the tree. It shuddered and splintered, and they cried out with what sounded like delight.
“O, o, look at it! Look at it rage!”
Not enough! Not enough! I had never felt so hot, shuddering, my clay cracking from my own fury, and I swung my fist a second time and made the thick tree trunk explode into splinters. They shrieked and leapt away as the crown crashed downwards. Sticks and leaves rained down upon me, sticking to my shoulders, but I hardly noticed them. I was thundering towards the next tree- the next one that they had all leapt to- where they clung, waving in the wind, watching me with round eyes.
I had pulled back my fist for another blow when somebody grabbed it.
I whirled around, and the force of my movement sent Kazimir flying backwards into the splintered mass of the tree trunk. Green flickers traveled over his skin from the impact.
As soon as I saw this, the heat inside of me, died like it had never lived.
“Kazimir! I- I am sorry!”
“Aw!” called one of the Iele above us, shaking the branches. “Get angry again!”
Kazimir stood back up and put one hand on my shoulder for a moment, then turned and looked up at them.
“You’ve had your sport, Iele. Come down, we would speak with you!”
“O?” called the Iele, the one with the dark hair. “Is it true, then? You are not the servant of Baba Yaga?”
“We are not her friends,” said Kazimir, grimacing at the name.
“O! And neither are we!” said another Iele, this one with fair hair. They swung themselves down from the branches as lightly as monkeys. I noticed that now they looked not at all like trees anymore, only like ordinary naked maidens. Except that the rain did not seem to make their hair wet.
Kazimir must have seen me shifting from foot to foot at their approach, for he put one hand on my arm. I marveled at how calm he suddenly seemed.
“She crushed our circle!” said one of them, making a face. “That wretched witch!”
“And after we sent her back her red light, too!” added another.
“They mean Pascha,” Kazimir told me, though I had figured that out on my own.
“She has real power, and we meant to treat kindly with her,” said the fair-haired one. She had a hooked nose and rather hooded eyes. “But she has scorned our gift. We shall not forgive her for that.”
Kazimir thinned his eyes for a moment, then glanced at me and smoothed his expression.
“She should be shamed, surely- but we had another question to pose to you.”
“Then ask it,” said the Iele, with a suspiciously kind smile. It made me sort of want to punch another tree.
Kazimir took a shallow breath. “With the red light, there was another- a strigoi. Did you interfere with her?”
The Iele glanced back towards her sisters, and several of them put their hands up to their mouths to stifle titters.
“That must mean that you did!” I cried, ignoring the way Kazimir was gripping my arm. “What have you done to her?!”
“Hm, the strigoi?” said one of them, twirling strands of her hair around and around her fingers. “We sent her to a place where she was needed.”
“So interesting!” exclaimed the dark-haired one, suddenly leaning towards me. “O, sisters, let us have it! Please?”
“Nonsense, we have not the time to look after it,” said the fair-haired one. “Besides, it’s so dirty.”
“Stop being cruel to Kezia,” said Kazimir, rather sharply, which surprised me so much that I did not even get angry. “Where did you send the strigoi to?”
The Iele smiled, and reached out to cup his cheek. Her near-white skin was in stark contrast to his for a moment before he jerked away with a snort.
“You would not play with us either, twilight creature. Why did you hide by the lake? Hm?”
Kazimir said nothing, only stared at her, and for the merest instant her expression faltered and she stepped back.
“The strigoi- we sent her to the treewitch’s forest. The one to the south of here.”
It took me a moment to realize what that meant, but once I did, I clenched my fists.
“You sent her to Mother Forest!”
The Iele waved an airy hand. “I know not what she calls herself these days. But she let it be known that she was searching for that particular strigoi, and we were happy to oblige her.”
“Why? Do you owe her some favor?” demanded Kazimir. “Iele are not known for their generous natures.”
She smiled at him again, but it had more teeth in it this time. “So we are not. But we also are not known to be forgiving of the ones who tread carelessly into our circles.”
Kazimir snorted again, and kicked some of the leaves on the ground.
“Then that’s it, Kezia. We know where she is. Do you know this Mother Forest-?”
“Gabi is in terrible danger,” I said. A kind of helpless fury was still flowing through me- how dare they send her there! But it was Kazimir’s fault, he had separated us! But it was my fault, I had not protected her…
“Ah,” said Kazimir, eyeing me, and rubbed the back of his head. When he looked back over towards the Iele, though, his face was stern and dispassionate again. “We’ve learned what we needed to know. We’ll take our-”
“Leave?” supplied one of the Iele, and then I got a feeling of fresh dread, for they were crowding close again with smiles on their faces.
“You can’t keep us,” growled Kazimir, taking a step closer to me. “Kezia never trod in your circle, and I-”
The fair-haired Iele tutted and flicked her fingers dismissively in his direction. “You! We have no interest in the likes of you anymore. But this…”
She was pointing at me. I clenched and unclenched my fists.
“You have no power over her!” snapped Kazimir.
“Regrettably,” said the Iele, “you are right. She did not touch our circle. But.” She smiled at me, the kind of smile that made me feel uneasy, because it did not feel entirely insincere. “Perhaps she will listen to a request of ours?”
“Why-” Kazimir began, but I interrupted him.
“Why should I listen to you?”
The Iele spread her hands. “We Iele have great power in trickery and spirit, but no… brute force.” On either side of her, her sisters nodded; one dabbed at the corners of her eyes with an imaginary handkerchief.
“I do not see how that-”
“In spirit and trickery,” said the Iele, “we have no hope of revenging ourselves on Baba Yaga. No, none, not after she has shown us such disrespect…”
“I am not going to help you. I have no reason to take revenge on the Baba,” I said.
“Perhaps not, but…” The Iele moved her pointing finger from me to Kazimir. “He does.”
Kazimir said nothing, though I looked at him for confirmation. His eyes were narrowed again.
“The red light is what you want, no?” Some of the Iele were tittering again, but she kept her face smooth. “This creature has the power to retrieve it for you.”
“Kazimir,” I said.
“It’s all right, Kezia,” he said, though he did not look at me. “They’re lying. Our Baba cannot be outwitted by any inhuman spirit. That includes golems.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Yes, yes,” said the Iele. “So we must get this golem some flesh to wear.”
I heard the words, but I did not understand them, and while I was trying to make sense of them Kazimir grabbed my shoulder and tried to lever me around.
“Kezia, let’s get away from here.”
“Where are you going?” asked one of the Iele- she was suddenly right in front of us, making Kazimir jerk back. She ran a finger lightly down my face, between my hollow eyes, over my frowning mouth.
“Have you never been curious about what flesh is like?”
“Stop it!” said Kazimir, and tried to push her away. She stepped lightly back.
“Have you, earth creature?”
I said, “Yes.”
Kazimir turned to look at me in surprise, and drew back from me at the same time.
“But flesh is weaker than clay,” I said. “If I had flesh, I would not be strong. So it would not help me to defeat the Baba.”
“Not true,” purred the Iele, looking at me from underneath her lashes. She had vivid green eyes with smoky depths. “Baba Yaga would destroy a golem right away, but a human she would play with.”
“So find a human,” I said, but my voice was faint. The inside of my head felt strangely thick, and I looked down. Was I looking at dead leaves or cobblestones?
“But you want flesh,” said the Iele, her voice dropping an octave lower. “And there is someone who can give you flesh. Wouldn’t you like to know who?”
I could not think of how to reply. Her voice was muffled, and echoed like a great bell, reverberating through my hollow insides. A church bell.
“Kezia,” said Kazimir. “They can’t hold us here. We can leave-”
“But Kazimir,” I said, raising my head back up slowly, “if it would help me to rescue Pascha, should I not do it? Do you not want to help him?”
An expression I could not name tugged at Kazimir’s face. “Kezia,” he said. “Kezia, stop. We must help your Gabi now. You said she is in danger, and Pascha is not.”
This seemed to cut through the liquid feeling inside of me, and I reached up to rub the side of my head.
“Gabi… yes.” Suddenly I felt ashamed. Kazimir looked so saddened. “Yes, we must go to help Gabi.”
“Flesh,” hissed the Iele. For a moment her hands gnarled and splintered, but then she was the perfect-looking maiden again. “Will you not accept our gift?”
“It is impossible,” I said, avoiding her eyes. Kazimir was nodding beside me. “Also, I do not trust you at all. You have not been kind, and you are not really as lovely as you pretend to be.”
The Iele seemed taken aback by this, and for a moment she made a very unpretty face. But one of her sisters behind her suddenly let loose a loud laugh, and came to drape an arm about her shoulders, grinning at me.
“O, I like you, clay beast! I wish we could keep it.” She sent a pleading look towards her fair-haired sister, who mutely shook her head. “Well! In this case, our motives are sound; you must feel assured that we hate Baba Yaga.”
“That we are,” muttered Kazimir.
“So clay one, listen to me. In the village that is below these hills, you will find someone who can give you a body of flesh.”
I knew it would do no good to answer- but I could not help myself.
The Iele chuckled; it was not very reassuring.
“Her skin is fair. Her eyes see naught. Her hair was red, but it fell with the seasons. She is a liar.”
“That is not very helpful!”
“You will know.”
“And-” A thought occurred to me. “I cannot go into the village as I am.”
She laughed. “Then change your shape!”
“I cannot do that as easily as-” I gestured towards Kazimir, who looked slightly offended. “I mean, I will always look like I am made of clay!”
The fair-haired Iele, who had crossed her arms, now scoffed.
“Does the earth not come in many shades? Use your senses, o clay toy, and you might disguise yourself however you wish. And now, I do tire of your presence, whatever my sisters might say. You had better leave our forest at once.”
“We cannot just walk out right away, we are deep within-” I began, but Kazimir nudged me and pointed. I turned and was stunned to see that the trees were thinning out behind us, the hills sloping wet and green. The village with the tall white church spire was just visible in the cloudy gray sunlight.
I turned back, and the Iele were gone completely.
“I do not think that we were standing here before,” I said, looking all around- there really was no sign of them, or their red circle. I almost doubted my eyes.
“We were not,” said Kazimir, “but I shall not fight about it. I think it would be best if we did what they said for the moment.”
I could not argue with that, though I took one last look back behind myself before leaving the forest.
We skirted the village together, squelching over the wet grass. The rain was still coming down gently, making a little halo of mist over Kazimir’s smooth skin. We were both very quiet as we walked towards the river.
“Do you think you could do what they said?” asked Kazimir, after a short while. “Disguise yourself, I mean?”
“I am not sure,” I said. I had been thinking about it while we walked, though. Very much. “But we must rescue Gabi.”
“Yes,” said Kazimir, though there was a wistful note to his voice that lingered in the rain.
I laid a hand on his shoulder. “But I will not abandon you after that.”
He tensed up a little bit beneath my fingers, looked up at my face, then down at the ground, then at his hands.
“I know,” he said. “You are very kind. You are not what they said you were, Kezia, not… I don’t think you should take their advice.”
“You are probably right,” I acknowledged, but in my mind there were still fuzzy sketches of church bells and cobblestones.
“Hm,” said Kazimir, and for a moment his thumb hovered near his mouth, as though he wanted to bite his nail, but then he put his hand down again. “So who is this Mother Forest? I had never heard her name before I met you.”
“She is the one that poisoned Zakhar,” I said. “Well, maybe she did not do it on purpose. He ate some of the roots underneath her trees and got poisoned. Pascha told me that the Baba would blame her for it, though.”
Kazimir made a face. “It takes a lot of power to poison Zakhar, true; but he might have wanted to cause trouble between the two witches in the first place.”
“Why would that be? It does not seem to do very much good for anybody.”
“Who knows what Zakhar thinks?” Kazimir shook his head, an odd look on his face. When he next spoke, I realized it was jealousy. “I wish Pascha did not adore him so. He thinks everything Zakhar does is very clever.”
“He did not sound like he did when he spoke of him to me,” I said, trying to cheer him up, for he looked as though he was about to get sulky. “He did not say anything nice about him.”
“Yes, well, Pascha shows his love by being cruel,” muttered Kazimir, looking resolutely to the left of me. “Do you know where your Gabi would be in this forest? Have you been there before?”
“Yes, I have,” I said. “I was made here.”
Kazimir stopped walking.
“By Mother Forest,” I explained. “Did I not say this before?”
“No, you did not! What will happen when you step back into her territory?”
“Nothing,” I said, and then, a little bit softer, “I do not think.”
Kazimir gave me a somewhat bug-eyed look. “Maybe I should go by myself!”
“No, no, I have to go,” I insisted. “I know how to get around in the forest.”
Kazimir crossed his arms and shivered, seeming unconvinced.
“I’ve never heard of a witch that uses golems as servants,” he said. “I thought that was a Jewish thing.”
“Are there not Jewish witches?”
This made him furrow his brow. “I do not… think…. so? I’m not sure witches bow to any gods. But there are many different sorts of witches. Well… I did know of a place, far to the south of here, where men called Jews witches and said that they turned into hyenas. But I don’t believe any of them really were- it was more an excuse to murder them.”
“Many people seem to like to murder Jews,” I said, softly.
“Many people like to murder many other people,” Kazimir said, shrugging one shoulder. “I have seen it happen for a great number of reasons, and to almost every sort of group imaginable. But that is the lot of the living. Why do you think there are so many spirits in the world?”
I said nothing, and he squirmed a moment, and changed the subject.
“Do you know where the witch would be keeping your strigoi? I suspect we’re going to need to be quick about this.”
“No,” I admitted. “I know of a few places we could look, though.”
Kazimir rubbed his chin. “Hm… do you have anything that smells of her? Perhaps I could track her.”
“Ah!” I said, and reached into my belly (Kazimir’s expression was a pleasure to witness) to draw out the silver coin that Gabi had given me. The dull way it glinted still made me uneasy, but I kept myself firmly focused on the happy memory of her gift to me. No wells. No church bells.
“A coin?” Kazimir asked, his brow furrowing again. “For ten bani?”
“Gabi had it in her pocket,” I explained, holding it out to him. The coin was engulfed by my huge palm. “It should smell like her.”
Kazimir fell forward, changing into the horse-headed dog again in the span of a wink, and sniffed the coin, his huge nostrils flaring.
“Yes,” he growled. “I recognize it.”
“But will you be able to track her in this rain?” I said, closing my fingers around the tiny coin.
“I already smell her,” he replied, and turned towards the treeline. His eyes widened. “She is close. Very close!”
I felt a little leap, like a gladness, even though I was still very worried. “Oh! Then we must go to her right away!”
Kazimir gave an odd hoarse whuff, and then bounded forward, raindrops flying from the grass with every step. I caught up with him and we ran side by side towards the trees. The sky flickered with distant lightning as we drew close; the storm was still raging somewhere else.
Kazimir came to an abrupt halt, his huge paws crushing purple heather. I stopped too. Something was coming from between the trees. Something very large, and brown-grey in color.
It was a golem.
“What should we do?” asked Kazimir, looking across at me. “Is it friendly? Do you know it?”
I stared at the other golem and did not reply. It was taller and thinner than me, and as it came out from the shadows under the canopy I saw that it had a person draped in its arms. No, not a person: Gabi.
I lurched forward, clenching my fists, but the other golem stopped walking right where the trees ended and laid Gabi down onto the muddy ground.
I hesitated, confused, and Kazimir ran up beside me with another hoarse bark: the other golem had turned around and was walking away.
“What’s going on?” asked Kazimir, looking between the three of us. “This is her, isn’t it? Who’s the other golem? Why won’t you say anything?!”
I was looking down at Gabi. Her eyes were closed, her expression creased with pain. Slowly I knelt down.
She made no response, though her eyelids fluttered. I touched her forehead very gently, leaving a smear of mud. She was naked, and covered with other such smears: marks from the other golem. For a moment I felt a strange kind of anger, and gathered her up into my own arms, pulling her close to my chest to shield her from the rain.
I turned, carrying her, and realized Kazimir was now a few feet away, looking wary.
“It is all right,” I called. I looked down at her bare throat: no ribbon. “You are free, remember?”
Slowly he stepped closer.
“What’s the matter with her, then?”
“I do not know,” I said, gazing down at her. I saw no signs of any wounds, aside from a few faded bruises- those could not have rendered her unconscious, could they? “Maybe she needs to eat.”
“Eat?” said Kazimir, and then laid his ears back. “You mean, drink blood?”
I did not see any reason for him to get squeamish about that when he had so callously talked about people killing each other just earlier.
“That is what strigoi do, yes. But first we must get her out of this rain. She will get cold.”
“Of course,” said Kazimir, with a tone of voice that I decided to ignore for the moment. “Perhaps somewhere near the village. I suppose she will need to go there.”
“I will bring something back for her,” I corrected. “But yes, near there, if we can stay out of sight… Gabi?”
Her eyelids were fluttering again; suddenly they opened, and I was looking down into her deep blue eyes.
“Oh,” I said, suddenly feeling very heavy with relief. “Oh, good, you are…”
“Not you,” she muttered.
“Put me down,” she said, her voice slurred, her eyes hazy. “Not you. Go away from me…”
“Hey,” said Kazimir, stepping closer. Gabi twitched, then went limp in my arms again.
I panicked, and shook her a little, but Kazimir nudged me with his nose.
“I can hear her hearts beating still,” he growled. “Is she normally this rude?”
“No… yes… I do not know.” I felt a little bit numb. “It does not matter. We must get her to shelter.”
“Yes,” said Kazimir, though he glanced at Gabi with an expression of horsey distaste. “Well, follow me, then; I will try to find something…”
The rain started to come down harder again, and drowned out the rest of his words. I stumbled after him through the mud anyway, still staring down at Gabi’s still face. Her mouth was slightly open, and I moved to close her lips so that they would not fill with water. For a moment I thought I glimpsed something whitish at the back of her throat. But then it was gone, and I shut her mouth.
With my back to the treacherous forest, I walked towards the village.