Kazimir scouted ahead and found shelter for Gabi near the village: a cluster of little buildings with roofs made of thatch, all abandoned. They looked fragile, and their wattle-and-daub exteriors were all falling apart. I wondered who had made them and then left them here.
I carried Gabi into one little hut that was dug into a hillside, squat and low with a collapsed chimney full of birds. They twittered and flew away in a panic when we entered.
“They’ll be back,” Kazimir assured me, for I had stopped at the sight.
Inside, the ceiling was very low, so that I had to crouch and move on my knuckles. The floor was only dirt, nearly wet enough to be mud, in fact, and so I cast around and found some dirty straw to lay Gabi down onto. I wished I could do better.
Gabi herself had not spoken since she had told me to go away, though she did not seem quite asleep, either. Sometimes her eyes would open and she would stare outwards in an unfocused, hazy way that frightened me. It was as if she was not there anymore.
Kazimir stepped into the hut- I had not even noticed when he left it. In his hands was a small copper pot.
“I found this,” he said. “Let’s try to at least get the mud off of her.”
He came closer (on his knees, the hut was too low for him too) and I saw that the pot was filled with rainwater. Gabi was indeed very muddy, but I did not move from her side, blocking Kazimir’s passage. Without the mud on her, Gabi would be completely naked, completely exposed, and right now it felt wrong to do that to her.
“Kezia,” said Kazimir, and reluctantly I shuffled out of the way.
He moved close and dipped one slender hand into the pot and began to gently clean the mud off of her. It dripped down and away, down her shoulders and her sides. He did not touch her breasts or lower body, which I felt strangely glad for; the sight of his hands moving over her, even carefully, felt oddly provocative to me. Perhaps it was because if I tried to do that, I would only make her muddier. I felt then a kind of surprising rush, like I had felt when I hit the tree and shattered it; I was angry. I clamped down on the feeling at once, ashamed. There was nothing to be angry about.
Kazimir paused while he was cleaning Gabi’s left shoulder and began to probe her skin with his fingers.
“I think she was wounded here.”
“Let me see!”
I crawled close, pressing up against Kazimir’s back to peer over his shoulder. He grunted but did not object, and put more water on his fingers to clear away more mud.
“See? Look- it looks like it’s mostly healed, but something happened here.”
On Gabi’s skin, which looked for the first time pale beside his, I saw several odd circular marks peppering her upper arm and shoulder. I raised my hand but stopped myself from touching her.
“What would make those?”
“I don’t know,” said Kazimir, and he passed his fingers over Gabi’s skin again. My fist clenched inadvertently; luckily he did not notice, and kept talking. “Something about her shoulder feels strange. It’s like there are hard lumps underneath.”
“Is something stuck underneath her skin?”
“Perhaps, but I don’t want to open her up and look.” Kazimir gnawed on a thumbnail. “At least not without her permission.”
“I do not think she would give it,” I said, turning my head away, so that I was not looking at either of them. Gabi’s words still rang within me: Not you. Go away.
“Are you all right?” Kazimir asked.
“I am fine,” I said, and I moved back, so that my stomach no longer touched his cool flesh. He rubbed his back with one hand at the muddy spot I had left there.
“What are you going to do?” he asked. “Or rather, what do you think we should do?”
I turned to look at him, at his narrow, pretty, earnest face, and felt ashamed even more for being angry.
“Kazimir, I am very glad that you have stayed with me. Thank you.”
At this he visibly squirmed, and looked away, and even shaded his eyes with one hand, and mumbled, “It’snotrouble.”
I found that I was not angry with him at all any more- in fact, I wanted to put my arms around him. I did not.
“You are very powerful, are you not? Can you help her at all?”
He shook his head, his hand dropping from his face as his embarrassment faded. “I have no power that can heal a human.”
“But Gabi is not human!”
He smiled, the smile that made his eyes crinkle.
“I am not human,” he said, tapping his chest, and then pointed at me, “and you are not human, Kezia.”
“But she is a strigoi,” I argued. Kazimir shrugged.
“Is a human corpse still human? I would say so, and she is not much like a corpse anyway.”
I had not thought about it like that, and I wondered what Gabi would say on the subject. I looked at her face and saw that her eyes were closed again. She had not reacted at all to Kazimir’s ministrations, and suddenly calling her a corpse felt like too much. What did strigoi look like when they, too, died? I would not be able to tell just by looking at her still body.
I moved closer again (Kazimir scooted away to give me space) and gently touched her cheek with one finger.
“Gabi? Gabi, will you wake up? You are safe now.”
She did not respond, though her eyelids twitched; that at least was a relief to see. I drew back my hand, looking at the little dab of mud I had left behind on her face. Maybe she did not feel safe with me anyway, maybe that was what she had meant by those words. It was not as if she did not have any good reasons.
“Kezia,” said Kazimir, from behind me, his tone suddenly rather nervous. “Do you- do you want to try to do what the Iele said? Do you want to try to get flesh for yourself?”
I turned myself around completely, knocking my head on the straw roof in my haste. Above us I heard more alarm cries and the sound of fluttering wings; I had scared the birds off again.
“Why do you ask that now?”
“Ah, well,” said Kazimir, rubbing the back of his neck, “I don’t really know. I suppose I would like to see you try it on. Maybe you would like it.”
I was quiet for a little while, and then I said, “We must help Gabi and get her blood to drink.”
“Yes, yes, of course; never mind what I said. Shall we go up into the village when it gets dark?”
“We cannot both go. One of us has to stay with Gabi. I will-” I paused. “No. You should stay. You can keep her hidden better than I can.”
Kazimir nodded; it was practical, a very practical decision. “I suppose there are advantages to, ah, a lack of flesh, should you get sighted.”
I was unamused by this, and only inclined my head slowly, making him squirm again.
“So- will you disguise yourself? I’d like to see it.”
“Why?” I asked, and he shrugged. “Well, I have gone into the village before without disguising myself. I can be very quiet.”
“Perhaps… but shouldn’t you take every precaution?”
His eyes were suspiciously bright. I found myself considering it mostly because of that.
The other Kezia had helped me change my shape before to look like a human. Well, perhaps ‘helped’ was the wrong word to use, but I knew that I could do it. I just felt nervous about trying it again, as though it would bring her back from wherever she had gone away to. But would it?
“I will try,” I said to Kazimir, who put his hand together in an eager way. “But it might not work.”
“This is very serious,” I told him, and he hastily rearranged his expression into one of solemnity. I looked down at Gabi: she had not moved at all.
It came surprisingly easily, the change- all I had to do was thicken my clay walls and shrink down, becoming nearly solid, defining all of my edges. I stopped myself from becoming so short as before, though, and did not work very hard on the fine details. I did not want to look exactly as the other Kezia had wanted me too.
As my fingers grew small wrinkles, and my ankles nubs, Kazimir cried out, “Ah, incredible! If I saw you far in the distance, I’d certainly confuse you for a naked woman.”
I glanced down at myself, and realized that he was right: the other Kezia had not shown me how to make the shapes of clothes. I did my best to grow a rough approximation, though now Kazimir frowned. My shirtsleeves were very thick-looking, and the fabric did not hang quite right. Actually, it did not hang at all because it was still part of my body.
“Perhaps some color would help,” he suggested, as I vainly tried to rearrange it into something that looked like cloth.
“I do not know how to make colors,” I said, tugging at my clay sleeve. “The Iele said that I could, but I did not understand what she meant by what she said. Kazimir, I think that it would be better if I went as I normally look. It is much easier to move like that because I am more hollow.”
“If you say so,” he said, though there was disappointment in his tone. “But it’s nice to see you with a face.”
I shifted- I was growing already, and I had to be sure that my head did not grow straight through the roof.
“I have a face all of the time.”
“Oh, you do,” he said, his words hasty, “but it’s not very… er, it’s not very expressive.”
I touched my face, feeling the details on it vanish by my own whim.
“Maybe I can try to make more expressions.”
“Please- you may look however you want,” said Kazimir. “Don’t listen to me. You are fine the way you are.” He rubbed the back of his neck and looked down.
I had resumed my normal shape once more, and suddenly my big hands felt clumsy. I looked down at them. Was he right? Was I really fine the way I was?
“I will go now,” I told him. “Please keep her safe.”
“I promise I will,” said Kazimir, crawling to Gabi’s side again, and then the two of them vanished.
I had been expecting it, but it still unnerved me, and I could not help but give a lingering look to what now appeared to be the empty corner of the hut.
“I am going,” I told the air, and crawled back outside.
The rain had stopped, and the sky was starting to grow dim. I felt relieved at the sight, but that was probably because I had spent so much time with Gabi. Normally she would be waking up by now. I glanced back to the forlorn little hut again.
The village was not far away- only a bit uphill and upriver from the deserted collection of houses. I stumped through the tall feathergrass as around me the crickets chirped. When I got close to them, they would stop their noise, but after I moved on, they would begin again. It would be nice, I reflected, to have a little cricket that chirped and crawled inside my belly. But I had matured since the last time I had tried to keep a pet inside myself and I knew I had no time for that. And besides, a cricket might not like living there.
I came to the village from the side opposite the river, opposite the way I had come when I had found that first little girl for Gabi to feed on. It seemed like a lot of time had passed since then. I could not even count the days; I had no idea how many there had been. From this side, the houses in the village were much larger, the white spire of the church more distant. As I drew closer, a dog began to bark, and I heard the sounds of hoofbeats.
I hunkered down in the grass, and saw a man on horseback pass down a road between several houses. He was carrying a lantern. Many of the windows in the houses were still lit, in fact, even though I thought it was getting to be a little late.
I crept a little bit closer, behind a large house that sat by itself on a hill. There was a little vegetable garden with a chicken coop beside it in the back, and I peeped in at the dozing chickens. Some ruffled their feathers and made soft chicken noises.
There was a little door at the back of the house, too, but I did not try to open it. This house was one of the ones with lights still in the windows. Instead I crept out to the lane, hugging the shadows, to look for a place where all the houses were dark and quiet.
More hoofbeats, and I swiftly crouched down in the shadow of a wall. Yet another man on horseback passed, carrying a lantern like the first- or was this the same one? Going round and round in a circle? I wondered at that. The dog was barking again too, and a few others joined it. Someone flung a window open across the street and shouted, “Be quiet!” It did not help.
This place was too awake for my designs. I moved slowly down the road, stopping twice to avoid the eyes of the circling horseman. He seemed to be looking for something, though I did not know what he hoped to find by traveling the same path again and again. His expression was rather bored.
I got quite far, stealing down the quiet road, though at one point I heard a shout when my big shadow passed over a window. But nobody saw me aside from a couple of sleepy horses. I was sure of that.
Eventually I passed by the church- avoiding the sight of it, avoiding the thought of it- and came to the area I had found the little girl in. The houses were much closer together here, and nearly all of them had darkened windows. Yet when I came to the square, I ducked at once into an open stable. There was a man standing in the center of the square, holding a lantern and picking at his fingernails.
Why were there so many men awake tonight? This one did not look like he was going to move anytime soon. I watched as he finished with his fingernails and then kicked off his shoes to start on his toenails, the lantern highlighting the concentrated expression on his face.
At least he was well occupied. I cast about, then left the flimsy shelter of the open stable for a narrow alley between two houses. It was a close fit, and I had to draw my belly within myself as I passed through.
Back here, on the new dirt path I found myself upon, things seemed much better. It was dark, with hardly a flicker of light to be seen, and no men or dogs prowled the streets. At least, none I saw.
I wandered close to one house, with its shutters closed and door shut tight. Now that I was close to getting my target, I felt a little unsure. The last time, I had merely seen the little girl and decided to take her on a whim. But the last time I had not known what Gabi would do to her. This time I felt that I did not want to take a child.
However, I did not think I would be able to squeeze an adult into my belly without waking it up. I really had not thought this through very carefully. I looked wistfully towards a nearby goatpen; could Gabi not nourish herself on goat blood instead? I suspected it was not that easy.
Once I selected an adult to take with me, not only would I have to try not to wake it up, but I would have to be ready to keep it quiet if it did wake up. That was something I had never mastered. If I put my hand over its mouth, it might be very effective- but I also might suffocate it. I could try hitting it on the head, but even the thought made me want to squirm more than Kazimir; besides, what if I hit too hard? Better to do everything possible to keep the person asleep.
I inched closer to the silent house and ever so gently pushed on one of the shutters. Within, all seemed quiet: there was nothing but the sounds of muted breathing, and the general creaks and pops of old wooden walls.
Emboldened, I stuck my head inside the window and peered around. There was at least one person lying on a pallet nearby; I might even be able to reach through the window and just pull him out like a chicken egg.
“Who is it?”
The small voice from behind made me go rigid, and if I had had a heart, it would have surely stopped. I did not move, head still thrust within the windowsill, backside feeling very exposed and obvious.
“Who is it?” asked the voice again, and there came a tap-tapping sound. “I can’t make it out. Say your name! Are you a stranger?”
For all that it was a very little voice, it was a very imperious one at that. Slowly I withdrew my head and closed the shutters again. Then I turned to face the one who had seen me.
The door to the next house over was half-open, and a little golden light spilled out, just enough to illuminate the person standing there. She was as small as her voice, a little girl with pale skin and thin hair so blonde it almost looked transparent. She wore a rough little nightgown, frayed at the hem, yet her little shoulders stood so firm and proud that it could have been the robe of a queen.
She also held a cane, which she tap-tapped from side to side in the doorway, maybe a nervous habit like Kazimir’s. Her eyes were closed.
“Speak, already,” she growled. “I know you’re here.”
I did not say anything. What would be the best thing to say? There could have been no way for her to miss what I was, even in that light- she could not have had her eyes closed the whole time. I did not understand why she kept them closed now. Perhaps because the sight of me had frightened her so much.
The little girl gave an impatient huff at my silence and said, “If you won’t speak, you must be a burglar, and if you’re a burglar, I will scream now for Mum and Pap.”
She opened her mouth and drew in a huge breath.
“Wait!” I said, very softly. “I am not a burglar. I am sorry, you startled me.”
The little girl frowned, tilting her head, her eyes still closed. Her eyelashes and eyebrows were as faint as her hair.
“I don’t recognize your voice. You’re not from around here.”
“No,” I said, rather confused. Was it possible that she had not noticed that I was a golem?
“Where are you from, then, and what are you doing here?” She waved her cane from within the doorway, and then took a step closer, tap-tapping along the ground. I took a step back.
“You sound very heavy,” she sniffed, and then frowned. “I cannot tell if your voice is a man’s or a lady’s.”
“Oh- a lady’s,” I said, without really thinking. “I mean, no-”
“Are you or aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am a lady, very much a lady.” I rubbed my chin with one fist. “Where I came from… I came from the little houses down the hill from here.”
As soon as I said that, I cursed myself; why not tell her the exact hut that Gabi was hidden in? But the damage was done. For a little girl she had disarmed me very well.
Her small brow furrowed- the minute gesture was somehow very endearing with her eyes closed the way they were- and then she said, “Oh! Do you mean the satra? Are you a tigani? I thought they all left.”
I recognized the word tigani– Pascha had used it to refer to Gabi’s people. There seemed to be a lot of different words for them.
“No, I am not…”
She tap-tapped rather aggressively on the ground by her feet.
“Then what are you? You sound very suspicious.”
I could not help it, astounded by the way she was speaking, and blurted out, “Can you not see?”
She went silent, clutching her stick, and drew herself up to her full height- about midway up my thigh.
“Are you stupid? Of course I cannot see. What, have you never met a blind person before?”
“N-no… I am sorry,” I stammered. It had not occurred to me that someone could be entirely missing a sense, though now that she had said it, I realized I did know the word for it. “I was wondering why you kept your eyes closed.”
“It’s because my eyes look strange to people,” said the girl, “and they don’t like them, or so Mum said, and besides I don’t need them.”
“My eyes look strange as well,” I offered.
“But you’re not blind, are you? You can’t be.” Her stick quivered; it was like an extension of her body, betraying her emotions.
“No, I can see. But I think that my eyes are still strange.” They were empty holes, after all. “I am sorry if I scared you. You should go back inside and go to sleep.”
The girl tilted her head up and back a little, and twirled her cane between her fingers.
“Why were you walking around during the night?”
“I am looking for someone,” I said.
“I do not know yet,” I said, and then, realizing how suspicious that sounded, added, “Well, it must be someone who can help my friend, who is not well.”
“Why don’t you go to the doctor’s?” suggested the girl. “I don’t like Doctor, but Mum says he knows what he’s doing. Pap goes to him whenever his cough gets bad, and it does get better. For a little while.”
“Maybe I will go there, then. Thank you. Where is it?”
“I would have to walk there to show you,” said the girl. Something rather hopeful entered her tone. “Would you like me to take you?”
“No, thank-you,” I said, very quickly. “I would rather you go back to sleep. I think your family would worry if you went somewhere with a stranger.”
She jutted out her chin. “They’re asleep, though. I can’t ever sleep. Let me walk with you!”
I wanted to laugh. I liked her.
“No, I am sorry. I should hurry now. But I am glad that I met you.”
“We haven’t really met,” said the girl. “We don’t know each others’ names. Mine is Crina.”
“My name is Kezia,” I said.
“Kezia… I’ve never heard such a name. Is it tigani?”
“I told you, I am not a tigani. It is a Jewish name.”
She drew in a breath at this. “I’ve never met a Jew!”
I was not sure if I counted for that, but did not say so.
“Crina, I must go now. My friend is very sick.”
“What is she sick with? Where is she? And how do you know her?” asked Crina, in a voice of one who knows that she is being maddening.
“She is very sick. I am going to go now. Maybe we will meet again.”
She took a few rapid steps towards me, cane waving wildly. I stepped back to avoid getting struck by the end of it.
“Your step is so heavy! Let me touch your hand, please?”
She was reaching out with her own little hand. I moved back further; I could not imagine what she would do if her fingers felt clay.
“I am sorry,” I said. “My hands are dirty. I do not want to make yours dirty too.”
“But mine are dirty already,” she said, turning her open palm this way and that. Indeed, it was smudged with something black. “I was playing with the soot and Mum scolded me. Have you ever crushed a cinder in your fingers? The feeling is strange, isn’t it?”
“I have never tried that,” I said.
“You should. I bet there are lots of things you’ve never thought of trying. I could show them to you.”
“You could, but-”
“You should come inside and stay with us! Don’t go out there in the cold,” urged Crina, stamping one foot. “Mum says it’s dangerous because there might be a vampire around. She says that the blacksmith’s son is out patrolling in case one comes tonight. Have you ever seen a vampire?”
“Ah…” I was a little bit overwhelmed; she could talk very fast. “I do not know what a vampire is. But I think that I will be safe if someone is watching out for them.”
“You don’t know what a vampire is? Why, it’s a bad spirit that kills people and sucks the life out of them. But maybe they don’t attack Jews. I don’t know if Jewish life is the same as our kind.”
“I do not know either.” Though I was beginning to feel that I did, in fact, know what a vampire was. So that was what the men standing guard were looking for! The thought made me feel very ill at ease.
“Pap says that some men might get together and try to dig out the lair. They have lairs, you know, vampires. He says if his cough is better by then he’ll go with them. But Mum doesn’t want him do go. I wish I could go. I hear they don’t smell very good.”
I had to ease myself into the flow of her chatter. “Crina, do the men know where the- the vampire’s lair is? Or where to start searching for it?”
“I don’t know! But I bet it’s in an old coffin that’s all rotten, or a cave with no sunlight. Pap says-”
From within Crina’s house, where the little candle still flickered, I heard a woman’s sleepy-sounding voice.
“Who are you talking to so late, Crina?”
“A Jew, Mama,” Crina called back. I had already begun moving away, and she must have heard it, for her stick waved wildly to the left and the right.
“Don’t go! Please don’t go! The vampire might get you!”
I ducked between two houses and down into the next street over. I did not think I would be so lucky to find out that Crina’s mother was blind as well. And now there were things I had to tell Kazimir.
Her feeble voice trailed after me, making me feel guilty. But I moved away as quickly as I could without running. There was no reason for me to feel guilty about anyone besides Gabi. Even if I had liked talking to the little girl… the first ordinary human I had ever spoken to… And she was not afraid of me. Well, it was because she could not see me. I wondered if I really could try to speak to her again.
My steps slowed. I had left the little girl and her house far behind by now, and the houses now were dark and sleeping, though the air around them was filled with the chirps of crickets. Somewhere nearby, a horse gave a sleepy snort.
Her skin is fair. Her eyes see naught…
That was what the Iele said, about the one who could help me get flesh. Eyes see naught?
Her skin is fair. Her eyes see naught. Her hair was red, but it fell with the passing of the seasons. She is a liar…
No, it was foolish to even think that those words referred to Crina. She was blind, it was true, and her skin was indeed very fair, but she was a little girl. I did not think that a little girl would know about giving a golem flesh.
Hair that fell with the passing of the seasons… as far as I knew, human hair did not drop all at once, like the autumn leaves. Maybe the Iele had said all that just to torment me. I would not doubt them capable. Anyway, Crina was certainly not a liar. Someone like Pascha could be called a liar very easily, but the little girl seemed too straightforward for that.
I gave Pascha a mental apology for thinking cruel things about him, though I think he would have agreed that I was right. In any case, there was no time to dwell on it. If the people in the village were searching for a bad spirit, one that sucked the life out of things, then maybe it would be better if I did not try to take anyone to Gabi tonight. It was much too risky for her. I would have to try to find a person for her somewhere else.
With this in mind, I turned back the way that I had come, and then stopped. I could see a light, bobbing wildly, flashing up and down along the blackened walls of the houses. It turned out to be the small figure of the watchman who I had seen picking his toes, his lantern swinging from side to side as he ran. He only had one shoe on, and hopped every third step; it made for a somewhat funny sight.
I flattened myself into an alley as he passed, but I might as well not have bothered; I do not think he was seeing anything. His face looked frightened. He stopped at one house that was a little larger than the rest, flung his lantern on the hitching post, and began hammering on the door with his fist.
“Doc! Doctor, doctor!”
When nobody answered right away he collapsed against the door with a strained sob. I saw that his bare foot was bleeding, and felt sorry for thinking that he looked funny.
He turned so that his back was against the door and lifted his foot up to peer at the sole of it. I wished I was closer so that I could see what he was looking at. All that I could tell was that there was something white stuck to his heel. He was bleeding around it.
The sight seemed to frighten him even more, and he hopped back around on one leg to bang on the door again.
Somebody threw open the shutters of the next house over.
“For God’s sake, man! The doctor’s not in, he’s gone to Nicolæ’s house! His wife’s got a pain in her chest or summing!”
The watchman seemed to lose all the power in his muscles, and slid down the door.
“I’ve got to see him! I’ve got a- a parasite in my foot!”
The other person made an odd sound and closed his shutters slightly.
“Well, wait till he gets back, then, and stop making so much noise! Anybody who makes that much of a racket can’t be that sick.”
The watchman gave a weak laugh from his seated position and put one hand over his bare foot. I turned around, squeezed the rest of the way down the alleyway, and snuck back out into the night.
I did not take someone back for Gabi after all, and I wondered whether or not it was the right decision. Was she in more danger from hunger, or from those frightened people? In truth I did not even know if she was hungry, though; only that she would not wake.
By the time I made it back to the deserted little huts, the moon had set. I had taken a long way back, giving most of the houses of the village a wide berth, and it had given me plenty of time to fall into a sour, anxious mood. I had got nothing but bad news on that journey, and I did not know what to do next, or how to help Gabi, or even what to say to Kazimir. I felt more hollow than I had ever been.
To my surprise, when I drew close to Gabi’s hiding place, Kazimir was standing outside, clearly waiting for me. When he saw me he ran towards me and put his hands on my arms.
I was surprised, to say the least. “Kazimir! Are you all right?”
“Oh- yes,” he said, and drew back away, rubbing his slender hands together. “I’m only glad to see you back. Your friend-”
“What happened to Gabi?” I cried, now reaching to grip one of his arms. “Is she-”
“She woke up,” said Kazimir, wincing at my grip, which I belatedly loosened. “You should be glad to hear that.”
I was. I let go of him, feeling both rocked and relieved.
“But she’s acting strange,” Kazimir added. “Though I don’t know how it is that she normally acts, so perhaps not. She asked to see you.”
He made an odd expression at this, but I barely noticed it.
“Then I will go in at once!” I exclaimed, and pushed past him to squeeze into the entrance of the hut. He said something behind me, kind of a mumble, that sounded like “I’ll stay out here,” but again, I did not really register it.
Inside the hut it was very dark, and I could only really see dim shapes. Luckily, there was only one thing in the hut, and that was Gabi. She was sitting up. I would have wept at the sight if I could shed tears.
“Gabi! Are you all right? What happened to you?”
She moved slightly in the dimness, her voice warm-sounding. “Kezia, that’s you, isn’t it? I can’t really see in this light.”
“Oh, it is,” I said eagerly, and reached out to clumsily grasp her hand. “I am very glad that you are awake now. I was very worried for you. I went to get you a person to drink from, but-”
“It’s all right, Kezia,” said Gabi, squeezing my hand back. “All I needed was to see you again. Do you think we could get some more light in here?”
“Of- of course,” I said. To see me? She had needed to? “Kazimir- Kazimir, we need more light.”
I heard him shifting about outside, but he did not come in.
“I think that he is shy around people he does not know well,” I explained to Gabi. “Once you speak to him-”
“I need light to see by,” she insisted, interrupting me.
“Yes- I am sorry,” I stammered. Perhaps she was acting a little strange… “Kazimir, will you please come in?”
More shuffling from outside, but finally his dim, greenish glow penetrated the hut. I glanced sideways without letting go of Gabi’s hand. He was not human-shaped anymore, but rather a smallish version of the horse with glowing stripes.
“This is Kazimir- the black horseman,” I told Gabi. “He is sorry for what he-”
I fell silent, for I had turned my head back and seen her in the light for the first time. Beyond her warm hand, still grasping mine, there were little white specks peppering her left arm- tiny white flowers, going all the way up to her dirty shoulder, where three large blooms protruded.
“Gabi! What is- what is all that!”
“What is what?” asked Gabi, who was smiling. “Kezia, could you move a little closer to me?”
I did as she asked, shuffling and ducking my head under the low ceiling. Kazimir gave a soft snort behind me and murmured in my ear.
“The flowers… they started growing soon after you left. That isn’t ordinary for a strigoi, is it?”
“No- it must be a spell from Mother Forest,” I said, lifting Gabi’s arm to examine it more closely. They were growing right out from her skin; it was an unnerving sight. “Gabi, does it hurt at all?”
“No, it doesn’t hurt,” said Gabi. Her voice was very calm.
“It is like the flower that grew out of Noroc’s eye,” I said, looking at the three large ones on her shoulder: the biggest of all had a slightly pink center. “Should I- should I try to pull them out?”
“I don’t think so,” said Gabi, and she reached up and lightly stroked my forehead.
“Gabi… are you sure that you are all right? What did Mother Forest do to you?”
“I don’t remember,” said Gabi. “Couldn’t you come a little closer to me?”
I obeyed, leaning down so that our faces were inches apart. Behind me, Kazimir made a huffing sound and scraped at the ground with one hoof.
Gabi’s face was very close to mine now, and I looked carefully at her eyes. They were both still there, with no signs of flowers growing through them. And she did seem all right, if unusually calm… But those flowers on her arm were not good, and they needed to come out as soon as-
My train of thought halted, for she had put her hand up to my forehead and was pressing her fingers lightly against my clay.
“Hold still, my dear,” she said.
“Kezia,” hissed Kazimir, from behind me. But I held still. Gabi would not hurt me; in fact, she could not.
It did feel strange, though, when suddenly her fingers thrust down into my clay.
“Stay still,” she said, and her face, so close, was still calm, still smiling. “It’s almost done…”
I wanted to say something else, but something felt odd; her fingers, I could no longer really feel them, in fact I felt very numb all over. Kazimir’s voice sounded distant when he shouted.
Gabi’s face, so close, so calm, told me that everything would be all right. Something clinked within my forehead. She was pulling out something in her fingers. I did not see what-