It doesn’t need to be a long look.
Curse that infernal red horse, curse him, curse him! Here I was, limping through the forest- too tired to change into a more suitable shape, covered in aches and pains and sporting an arrow wound in my thigh- during the daytime, when I ought to have been sleeping- I had been sleeping when the damn hunters’ brigade had bugled through and started burning everything in sight. What a bunch of idiots!
Something large suddenly loomed across my path and I gave a start of fright. But it was only a deer, which gave me an insolent look before ambling back through the undergrowth. I muttered a curse in its direction for good measure. I had certainly not forgotten what else lurked in these particular woods, or what they had done to me the last time I’d trespassed on their circle- oh, I was going to absolutely murder that red horse.
His bright hindquarters had long since faded from my sight, however, and I was left picking my way along what I hoped was his trail. Though for all I knew it could have been more deer tracks. I was a strigoi, not a woodsman, damn it; my kind of prey was found in houses.
I was out of breath, and leaned back against a scratchy tree trunk for a moment, taking stock of the whole situation. I had to admit that there was something slightly different about the forest since the last time I had come here. For starters, a great deal more sunlight was coming though the canopy, and the trees seemed smaller and less blackened, and the air actually stirred around my face. I was not sure, but felt somehow in my second heart that a little bit of the wildness and wickedness had left the place.
This could be attributed, most likely, to the presence of Baba Yaga: being a witch, she would have settled down the forest, made it so her victims could walk through it without being frightened off at the edge. Kezia was probably correct in thinking that the Iele would not like this, but their power would never match the Baba’s. The thought gave me a small, mean sense of satisfaction.
If the Baba was straightening things out, that was all well and good for me as far as avoiding the Iele went, but I didn’t like the thought of running up against the witch, either. The correct and intelligent thing to do would have been to slam the door on the whole operation and get myself far away from these forests and that village and all the places I’d managed to make enemies before I ran out of energy and into a sharp stake.
And after I fetched back my golem, I resolved to do just that.
I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to remember the wolf shape, but it was still no use: I was weary and anxious and my limbs were stiff and aching. Who knew what form the wretched white tree took inside of me now; I might be lucky to be still moving. Compulsively I opened my eyes and looked at my left arm- aside from a faint scar, nothing showed on my skin.
I let out a slow breath, and tried to think of myself as just a bit of a wolf, just a bit, maybe a wolf’s ears or nose or something that might be useful. It was a struggle- my shape-changing was generally an all-or-nothing experience, and things that didn’t go all the way tended to immediately snap back. But for a moment- just a moment- I tapped into that lupine sense of smell. My eyes flew open.
I smelled her!
Her, her, her! The one who had started it all- my feast, my prey, the one that witch had stolen me- left me with only trouble and grief- her. The girl with the lantern. The girl with potential.
I stood up from against the tree, licked my lips, flared my nostrils. I didn’t need the wolf’s nose to track her now. My hearts were beating faster- faster.
The witch must still have her. The thought delighted me in a wicked way, because the witch had some plan, must have, or else she would have chewed her up and spit her out by now- oh, and if I could sink my teeth into that skin, drink my fill of that hot blood- oh, how satisfying an ending that would be.
I had, after all, spotted her first.
My senses became more sharply focused, into a single point; nothing else mattered. I shook out my limbs, trying to shrug off their stiffness, and opened my mouth to taste the wind. Yes, yes, she was close now. I could drink my fill and let the rest of her precious blood spill all over the forest floor.
I slunk forward, through the shadows, avoiding patches of sunlight- closer, closer. The witch wouldn’t expect something like me to be skulking about in the daytime. Maybe she’d left the girl unprotected. Even if she hadn’t, I was going to get my way.
I came to a large clearing and stopped, crouching down beneath the shade of a maple tree. I had nearly forgotten what the witch’s house looked like before now, but there it was: the bone fence, the horse paddock, the moldy old hut. I wondered whether or not it still had a habit of getting up and walking around on chicken legs.
I could smell the girl quite strongly now- I was practically bathing in her essence- and I knew just where she was inside the hut. I could spring inside and catch her in an instant, witch or no witch. But I did not, for something had penetrated my little circle of focus. The red and white horses were in the paddock, resting side by side. It made me suddenly recall my purpose in being here.
I shook my head, trying to dislodge the more strigoi-ish thoughts. Very well; Kezia first, and then the blood I’d been seeking. Pascha was here, and so she must be too- if he had no other tricks planned for me.
I had begun sneaking around the side of the bone fence when the door to the hut exploded open. I flattened to the ground, and just in time, too; the witch herself burst out of the door.
The door shut behind her all by itself, and she tucked her hands into her long sleeves and grinned, showing her mosaic of missing teeth.
“My bright dawn, and my morning sun!” she called, and with her words a sudden wind picked up and shook the crowns of the trees. Leaves rained down on top of my where I lay frozen in the dirt. If she turned towards the paddock, she’d probably be able to see me.
But she did not, and instead, the paddock door opened, and Pascha and Zakhar trotted through it. As they came towards her, their human selves materialized on their horse backs.
“Fly ahead of me,” she crooned, reaching out to stroke Zakhar’s mane. I noticed that this version of his human self bore more muscle than fat; likely what the witch preferred to see. “We shall trawl the border today, and see what we can see: perhaps catch some fat rats for supper.”
Zakhar nodded, and motioned with one hand to Pascha. Pascha’s face was perfectly blank, completely devoid of anything, and he didn’t even nod back, just began to follow Zakhar as he moved away at a brisk trot. I didn’t see any sign of Kezia on him, but she could have been anywhere in those fancy leathers of his. Or- worse- the witch might have her already. That could very well have been Pascha’s aim all along.
I licked my lips and looked back towards the hut- the girl was so close. I could practically hear the fragile beat of her heart. Yet Pascha had trotted off, and the witch was bound to leave a moment later- and if I lost them, I might well lose Kezia.
Then again- and I looked towards the hut as the thought came to me- when would I find a better opportunity than this to catch the girl completely unguarded?
The witch was fumbling with something that made a scraping sound- a mortar and pestle. Pascha and Zakhar had already completely gone out of my sight. I parted my lips for a silent curse, took one last futile look towards the hut, then began creeping back through the trees in the other direction.
I was giving the witch a very, very wide berth, with the dense undergrowth helping matters, but even so as I passed her she raised her head from whatever it was she was working on and flared her nostrils. I froze. She took several deep sniffs.
After a moment she put her head down and kept working away at her mortar and pestle, with the air of the oblivious. Yet as I began my creep again I thought I heard her give a very low chuckle.
I admit that I sped up after that.
I had been worried about my ability to catch up with Pascha and Zakhar, but as it turned out I had no trouble at all: Pascha had stopped in the midst of a clearing not far away, and I nearly stepped right into it before I noticed him. He was standing very still, his horse self frozen but his man self animated and scanning the area. His face still bore that utter blankness of feeling.
There was no sign of Zakhar.
I moved a little closer, skirting the sunlight, eyeing him for any sign of having Kezia tucked away. Aside from a little clay around his fingertips, I saw nothing. I began to get angry. I was still hot from my missed chance at the girl, and I itched to vent my feelings somehow. This was, after all, completely his fault.
The sun drifted behind a cloud. Pascha turned his head back towards the sky. My hearts suddenly sped up and I vaulted onto the back of the horse and dug my teeth hard into the man’s shoulder.
Pascha cried out, the horse part of him squealing and dissolving into particles of light beneath us. His flesh clamped in my jaws was hot, but not blood-hot- the heat of an iron on the fire. It even tasted like iron, and gave like butter. I ripped backwards and felt his torn essence vanish within my mouth.
Pascha twisted and shoved me away and I landed in a crouch. He whipped around- hovering a few feet above the ground still- and gaped at the sight of me.
“Me,” I growled back, licking my teeth- they still tasted like iron, but I wished it was blood. “Give me Kezia.”
“I don’t have her!” snapped Pascha, one hand clamped over the side of his neck, but not quite covering the bright purplish cracks in his facade. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you’d better get away from me or-”
“Or what?” I asked, lunging closer, and to my great pleasure he jumped back, and finally touched the ground with his feet.
“Or- or you’ll-” He stopped midsentence and began to cough, and wrapped both his hands around his throat, miming a collar. I lashed out and struck him across the face with my open palm.
“You want to mock me? You think this is the best time?”
“I’m not- mocking- you!” Pascha choked out, shaking his head, and then the sun came back out, peeping from behind the cloud. With a cry I tried to shield myself with both hands.
Pascha seized the opportunity and changed his form with barely a flicker- now he was the horse again, but not quite the same horse: he was covered in feathers, and had talons instead of hooves, and two wings that began to beat powerfully, ready to send him up into the sky.
With a snarl I stopped shielding myself and leapt after him, catching his rising rear leg in my arms. The talons flexed and dug into my waist, and Pascha gave an avian screech.
He could not seem to take off with my weight, his great manufactured wings beating fruitlessly, and I took the opportunity to sink my teeth into his leg. Again he shrilled, and with another great whoosh of those wings around my head turned all of his feathers into fire.
I let go. It was too much for me even to scream- my arms were afire, my face, my hair. I hit the ground and rolled, the flames hissing against wet leaves. Pascha landed nearby with a thump.
“I didn’t want to do that!” he snapped.
I still could not quite speak, for all my burns- but my rolling had put fire was out and they were healing, easing some of the anguish. I raised one arm- my left arm- and saw that the skin had been scorched clean off. Between white glimpses of bone and tendons I saw a thin, charred branch. It cracked when my healing skin grew against it and fell to the forest floor as ash.
Finally I found my voice, and a laugh burst out of me.
“Again!” I cried, struggling to push myself off my stomach to look up at Pascha. “Burn me some more!”
Pascha backed up several steps with a garbled horse noise. “You’re mad! You’ve gone mad!”
“Shut up,” I said, and struggled to my feet with a gasp, kicking at the ash. “Give me Kezia back.”
“I told you I don’t have her,” said Pascha, his flanks quivering. “I let her go free in the Baba’s compound- didn’t you see her?”
“She wasn’t there! And why would you do that? You’ve given her to the witch!”
“I have not! I saw her go into the hut- she must still be there!”
“The witch came out of that hut!” I cried, and lunged at him again, stumbling on my burned and aching feet.
“That doesn’t mean she saw her!” said Pascha, but feebly, and then flinched. I did too, staggering back underneath the trees: in a glow of misty white light, Zakhar entered the clearing.
“I wondered what the noise was,” said his man self, while his white stallion self snorted and pawed the ground. “So it’s you, Gabi. Haven’t you learned to stay away from our mistress yet?”
“I don’t care,” I replied, glaring daggers at him from within the shade. Pascha was gazing up at him with his face gone blank again. “I’ve come to collect what’s mine, and once I’ve got it the lot of you can all march merrily into Hell for all I care.”
“What’s yours? You don’t mean the golem, do you?” asked Zakhar, with the air of an interested academic. “If it’s your possession, why haven’t you taken better care of it? Our mistress has got hold of it now.”
“Pascha, you rat!” I snarled, kicking dead leaves in his direction.
“I didn’t-! Zakhar!”
“If you were only a little wiser,” said Zakhar, ignoring Pascha, and looking down at me from on high, “I think you would have gotten yourself and the golem well away from here by now. In fact, I told the golem this myself: to get away. But neither of you have. So you cannot blame Pascha for the current state of events, my dear blood-drinker.”
“I have and I will continue to do so,” I replied. “What’s your mistress going to do with Kezia?”
“Who could say? It’s at her discretion. She may think of some use for it, or she may just discard it.”
I growled, shaking out my arms- the flesh of the left had grown back rather quickly, and felt looser than it had in a while: Pascha’s flame had pruned back my curse. It was almost worth the pain.
“What do you mean, ‘discard’?” I skulked along through the shade nearer to where Pascha stood. He shifted closer to the center of the clearing, tail switching nervously against his feathered flanks.
“Ask her yourself,” said Zakhar.
“Ask her my-”
I stopped speaking, as a feeling of dread suddenly crawled down my spine like a centipede. From directly behind me came the sound of a low chuckle.
I whirled around, cringing when a finger of sunlight brushed the bare skin of my back. Something grabbed my chin and forced my head back.
“Ah, a vampiress,” said Baba Yaga’s croak of a voice. Her sharp nails stabbed against my flesh; I didn’t dare so much as swallow. “Have I seen you before?”
I pressed my lips together and glared. The witch had assumed her guise of an old crone again, ugly yet harmless, but I was still feeling all but crushed by the terrible pressure of her presence.
And yet I hadn’t even noticed that she’d snuck up behind me until she’d wanted me to.
“You do look familiar,” the witch mused, idly turning my head this way and that, “but then again, many of your kind do. Red hair, blue eyes; it’s so tiresome! I’ve never liked the way red hair looks on a girl. If a red-haired girl comes a-knocking on my door, I don’t bother playing games. I eat her straightaway and grind her bones to pieces.”
A cold rage was burning inside me now, but I kept my mouth shut; she wanted anger, she wanted a spark to feed off of. Beyond her rusty voice I could sense a carnal kind of probing of myself, like the snuffling of some massive beast, seeking a weak spot.
Evidently my silence disappointed her, for after a short time she withdrew her hand, and I scrambled away through the leaves, wincing as the dappled sunlight lanced my flesh.
Baba Yaga let me get a meter or so away and then she shifted her weight, just a very subtle movement, but enough to make me freeze in place.
“Perhaps you make your den around here,” she said, fixing me with her horrid starry eyes. “Perhaps you have not seen the like of me before. But I know you have sniffed and scratched around the corners of my abode, and you have attacked one of my servants. Why should a vampiress do that? Do you think my Bright Sun is flesh and blood?”
This would have been a good time to speak up for myself, and bow and scrape my way out of trouble, but I couldn’t say anything. I was shocked that Baba Yaga really didn’t seem to remember who I was. She hadn’t been just pretending.
“Pascha,” said the witch, and Pascha squealed and lurched forward, his head jerking as though tugged by an invisible halter. He bent his forelegs and slumped down into a bow.
“I left you with too much freedom,” she said, without even looking at him. “What a little cat you are! I shall have to think carefully on how to punish you.”
“Mistress,” said Zakhar, and in a flash the horse vanished, and it was just the man standing there in the clearing. He, too, knelt forward into a bow.
“Zakhar,” said Baba Yaga. “You will plead for him?”
“Yes, Mistress,” said Zakhar, in a voice so deeply humble that I wanted to retch. “Pascha has just returned from freedom. He must have some time to… to adjust to being your servant again.”
“Hmph!” said Baba Yaga, and gave a thick sniff. “And adjust him, I will.”
I glanced at Pascha’s face, but his expression had gone full horse, with big, vacant eyes.
“Ai, and the vampiress,” said Baba Yaga, and I averted my eyes before her gaze fixed back on me. “Searching for something, are you? That my wicked, wicked servant has stolen. Well, I believe I hold what you seek.”
No, I wanted to say, but my throat seemed stuck tight. The witch reached beneath her apron and pulled out Kezia.
Her face broke out into a huge, gap-toothed smile, for the expression on my face must have been quite something just then, and she shook Kezia mockingly in her hand. Kezia’s little clay limbs trembled slightly, and her mouth and empty eyes gaped over at me, as if begging for help.
“What do you want?” I asked. I had not meant to, but the words tumbled out of me, my eyes fixed on that tiny clay figure.
The witch gave a shriek of laughter, and tossed Kezia high up into the air, and caught her hard between her palms. I flinched.
“A vampiress that loves her dolly!” she crooned, squeezing Kezia in one fist, so that clay spurted between her fingers.
“Stop!” I cried. I thought I saw Pascha trembling slightly, and Zakhar’s eyes were dancing from one of us to the other. But neither of them moved, and I didn’t care; I couldn’t stop looking at Kezia’s helpless little figure. It didn’t matter if the witch didn’t know how to kill her. Damage that little body enough, and her silver letters would get misplaced, and I would lose her for good.
Kezia must have felt this too, for she didn’t say a word.
“Never have I seen such devotion from a leech!” chuckled the witch, and then, in the snap of my fingers, her face suddenly became hard. She closed both hands around Kezia’s body, obscuring her from view.
“You went poke-poking around my house, leech,” she said. “I smelled you. And you know of the golden treasure I have inside, yes? You want it for yourself, do you not?”
“I won’t touch her,” I declared, without taking my eyes off her hands, but this did not placate the witch. In fact, it seemed to make her angrier.
“A lie!” she shrieked. “You want her blood, I feel it! Well, we shall fix that, won’t we!”
I cowered, feeling the full force of her rage- her jealousy- but she did not strike me. Instead she flung Kezia down onto the ground and stamped upon her hard. Clay flew in every direction.
I forgot myself and ran forward, and Baba Yaga let out a high shriek of a laugh, and Zakhar leapt from his kneeling position. A flash of brilliant white light knocked me sideways, blinding me, and I howled with pain.
It took a minute or two before I was able to push myself up on my smarting palms, and squeeze my eyes open- white spots still danced in front of my vision. The witch and her horsemen were gone.
In the center of the clearing there was but a little smear of clay spread over the dried, dead leaves. I stumbled forward, crying out as the sunlight boiled on my flesh, but forward anyways, so that I could scoop up the leaves with shaking arms and retreat back into the shade.
It was hopeless. It was clay on leaves. I sifted and searched, looking for some tiny glint of silver, but there was nothing, nothing, nothing… nothing left.
I laid the leaves down on the ground, and then knelt down and stared at them. My mind was blank. I did not know what to do.
Silence. Of course.
Why keep calling for her?
The voice was like a jolt of electricity through me, I sat up ramrod straight for a moment, then hunched eagerly forward, sifting through the leaves with my fingers.
“Kezia! Are you in there? Don’t move, let me find you!”
“Gabi!” The voice was tiny, and oddly far away. “Gabi, are you all right?”
Trust Kezia to ask if I was all right at a time like this! “Shut up and let me find you!”
“But Gabi, I am right here!”
“I know, that’s why I-”
I stopped short, for something cold had just touched my bare thigh. I turned my head- arms elbow-deep into the leaves- and saw the little figure I had been searching for standing beside me.
“What are you doing?” she asked, in a voice that sounded utterly baffled.
“I- looking for you,” I replied, feeling similarly confused. “You got crushed to pieces by the witch!”
“No, I did not,” said Kezia. “At least, I do not remember that happening. Are you really all right? I heard you shouting for me and I came as fast as I could…”
I withdrew my arms from the leaves and placed my hands on my thighs.
“It is true, Gabi,” Kezia said, sounding even more worried. “I was in the witch’s hut and left after she did-”
I gave a growl, and brought my fists down on my thighs very hard.
“That dirty old crone tricked me! How- she tricked me!”
“Gabi?” said Kezia, and took a nervous step backwards. I turned and snatched her from the ground.
“Oh, no, you don’t! I am not letting you get an inch away from me anymore! We shall not let that happen again. Curse that witch! I swear I will make her long nose curl up for this!”
“Ah… Gabi… please do not squeeze me so hard.”
I realized what I was doing and loosed my grip so hastily that I nearly dropped her. She had developed ridges all over from being clenched inside my fist.
“Maybe you could put me on your shoulder so that you can have both hands free,” she suggested, rather timidly.
It was a good idea, so with a mutter of acknowledgement I did so. She latched onto my earlobe with one cold little hand to keep herself steady.
“Gabi,” she asked, her soft voice filling up my ear, “why were you digging in the leaves?”
I could feel my face growing hot. “Never you mind. The important thing is that I’ve found you, so we can get out of this blasted place.”
Tug, tug, on my ear.
“You mean you were really looking for me?”
“Of-” I was flabbergasted. “Of course I was! D’you think I’d enter this horrible forest just for a walk? Really, Kezia, you have got to tighten that clay head of yours.”
“Oh,” she said. There was a quiet space after the word that made me feel that she possibly, definitely had something else to say, so I waited, cocking my head expectantly over her, but she did not speak up. And it was on the tip of my tongue to say, “Yes, yes, what is it, speak up!” but for some reason it all weighed heavily down in my throat. I don’t know why. There was nothing for me to feel nervous about.
“Gabi,” said Kezia, after a time, “I think that maybe we should start moving. I found where the river is, so if we follow it out of here we shouldn’t get lost.”
“Yes, that’s good,” I mumbled, still feeling absurdly self-conscious. It made me almost want for a shirt. I put one hand up to steady Kezia as I started moving, ducking beneath a low-hanging branch. Kezia released my earlobe and shifted around until she was sitting with her back to the side of my neck, one cold leg dangling over the back of my shoulder.
“I feel a little bit sorry for Pascha, even though he kidnapped me,” she confided in me.
“Hmph,” was my response. I might have said more on the matter if I hadn’t seen what I’d had just earlier.
“Do you think that we could help him?”
“Help him?” I scoffed. “Have you seen his mistress?”
“Well, there you are. Lucky enough that one out of the three escaped, if you ask me.”
“I wonder what the rules are for them now, though,” said Kezia, her clay heel tap-tapping against my skin. “Because when you got the ribbon off, it was because the witch broke her own rules, wasn’t it?”
“And Mother Forest’s golem helped,” I muttered.
“Yes- and that let Kazimir escape, but not Pascha and Zakhar.”
“Well, the witch had got them back before that.”
“But- but it makes me curious,” said Kezia. “Do you think maybe she doesn’t have as strong a hold on them now as before?”
I rolled the thought around in my head for a moment, then said, “Is there any reason you’re pondering all this? I’m never going to help that stupid horse escape.”
“Hmm,” replied Kezia.
“And if I’m not going somewhere, that means you’re not, you know!”
“Hmm,” said Kezia again, though she didn’t sound entirely displeased. “I was only thinking about it. I do think that the best thing to do now would be to find a safe hiding place, Gabi. I am worried about those hunters.”
“Ha! Them.” I waved a hand idly in the air, nearly passing it through a spiderweb. “I’ll bet they think they got us when we went into the river. Thanks for that, by the way.”
“You are welcome,” said Kezia, not seeming to pick up on the sarcastic edge to my voice. But that was fine.
“All the same, I do feel a bit wary about showing myself to that village again. Best find things to feed on elsewhere.”
“I think so, too. Is there another village near here?”
“Yes- but it’s two or three days walk southwards.” I scowled, not relishing the thought of the journey. “But if we plan to scoot from the area, we might as well take care of that one last bit of business first.”
“What business, Gabi?”
“Why- seeking out that little friend of yours, Kezia. The blind girl. I still want to have a proper look at her.”
“Oh,” said Kezia, her voice taking on a nervous lilt. “Is it really that important? Do you not think we should get somewhere safe as soon as possible?”
“If you’re talking about soon, that village is right in our way, and it’d take longer to cross around it.” I flexed my arm, the one that had gotten burned; it felt newly limber. “I think I’ve got at least one more change of shape left in me. If we are going to trudge through the dirt for two days, there are some things I’ll be wanting anyhow.”
“Clothes, for one thing. If I’m to walk, I’d rather walk on the road than through any more damned woods or fields, and it’ll look better if I’m not stark naked to anybody else who happens to be traveling along.”
“If you say so…”
“Kezia, my dear, you really don’t understand the human lifestyle. Anyhow, I only want to have a look at that girl on the way. It doesn’t need to be a long look.”
“If you think that it will be safe,” said Kezia, though she still seemed moderately unhappy. “I still do not understand why you want to see her so badly.”
“Curiosity.” Among other things. “Anyhow, don’t you want to see her again? Didn’t you think she was the one who could make you a real body?”
“Oh,” said Kezia. “But I do not think I really believe that. And besides…”
“I do not think I want a real body anymore,” she muttered, almost too low for me to hear.
“What! Why not?”
She squirmed on top of my shoulder and made no reply. I gave an exaggerated shrug to jar her and said, “Well, I would like to see you in a flesh-and-blood body. I’d finally be able to pinch you for all the trouble you’ve caused me.”
“You may pinch me now, Gabi, if you want.”
“That won’t do any good and you know it. Look, we shall only dart in and out of the village to get some clothes and have a peep at your girl. The worst they can do is chase us and shoot me again.”
“That is not funny, Gabi!”
With a grin, I plucked her from my shoulder and held her in front of my face, fingers curled around her waist.
“Is it not? But won’t you protect me again, Kezia?”
She kicked her legs futily for a moment, then crossed her arms.
I laughed, and slung her back onto my shoulder. For whatever reason- maybe it was because the sun was finally going down- I was getting into a much better mood.