Never become a thing like you.
I managed the wolf again, which was a blessing, for I didn’t know how long I’d have been able to creep through the village in human form with moonlight shining off my naked skin. The wolf at least could pass for a large dog. From a distance.
Before I’d changed, Kezia had insisted on my lying down so she could examine every inch of my body for signs of more white flowers. It rather amused me, her persistence, so I endured it quite compliantly, and raised one leg for her just to see what she would do. Sadly it all remained very clinical.
Attempts to tease her aside, I kept Kezia close by as I made my way through the sleeping village. She was, in fact, flattened down against my back so as not to provoke suspicion with her silhouette. She had informed me that during her last visit to the village there had been guards standing around, but we had yet to see any.
“Maybe they really do think that you are dead,” she murmured in my ear.
I twitched the ear in response. Maybe, or maybe they had just run out of motivation after a couple of boring nights on duty. I saw no reason to complain either way.
Kezia remembered roughly where the little girl’s house had been, and whispered directions into my ear. I loped slowly through the village, avoiding the lantern-lit streets, weaving in-between houses. A real dog spotted me at the end of an alley, tucked his tail, and slunk away.
“Oh,” said my little passenger, sounding quite sad. “We frightened him.”
As a wolf I could still snort, and I did.
We met with no major obstacles, and soon enough we came to the house Kezia remembered belonging to the little girl: Crina, her name was. The door was shut tight, and no light emanated from beneath it, but one of the shutters was open a crack to catch the night breeze.
“Be careful, Gabi,” Kezia warned me. She seemed to get antsy around anything to do with the little girl.
I reared up to nose open the shutter and put my paws on the windowsill. Inside the darkened house my ears picked up the sound of at least two people breathing, and my nose picked up a peculiar, sickly-sweet smell. The smell of Mother Forest’s trees. I could not say I was terribly surprised.
Kezia crawled up to the top of my head, gripping handfuls of my fur, and hopped off onto the windowsill.
“I will go look around,” she whispered to me, and I nodded. Prior to my change I had informed her that I would need a set of men’s clothes; I hoped she’d take the opportunity to fetch them. But of course I could say nothing to her before she leapt from the windowsill and disappeared into the darkness.
I got down, thinking it might well take her some time, and looked about a little. It was very nearly too quiet inside the village, after passing through the field in the nighttime: it had been alive with the music of crickets and the croaks of spring frogs, and little bats had swooped low over top of us, their chirps barely audible. Here amongst the houses the air felt stagnant and stale.
I suddenly bristled, for in the circle of dim lantern-light at the end of the street I saw something moving. The fur between my shoulders slowly rose. It was a cat- a large thing, richly-furred. I recognized it. The village bannik spirit.
The bannik gave me a long look, just the tip of his plush tail twitching, and then rose to his feet and left the little pool of light, vanishing from my sight. I was left a bit shaken. What had that been about? If I remembered correctly, the bannik had been quite unfriendly towards me the last time we had met; was this supposed to be some sort of final warning? Or a sign that he no longer cared? I had no earthly idea.
The soft little cry brought me back to the task at hand, and I turned to the windowsill. Kezia was standing there again, clutching the sleeve of a shirt that was amusingly large for her. I went and put my paws up again and poked her with my nose.
“I found you some clothes,” she whispered, keeping her balance despite my prodding. She showed me the sleeve of the shirt- it was not the cleanest or prettiest thing, but it would suit my purposes- then tugged the rest of the fabric over the windowsill to let it drop on the ground outside. She jumped down and disappeared for a moment before returning to do the same with a tattered old pair of trousers.
I sniffed them, then wrinkled my sensitive wolf nose. Oh, well.
“There is something else,” whispered Kezia, hoisting herself up over my snout to climb back aboard. “It is strange… Crina was not in this house.”
I jerked my nose up, nearly jarring her loose, but my indignation was clear.
“I am sure that it is her house, because I remember her parents… I have seen them before.”
She sounded particularly perturbed when she said this, and I suspected there was more to it that I wasn’t hearing about. I shook my snout again.
“I do not know where she might be, at this time of night… She told me when we spoke before that she has trouble sleeping, but she is just a little girl. Where would she go?”
I lowered my head down and sniffed the trousers again, then sniffed around the doorway. The sweet scent lingered there, on the ground. There was a patchy little trail of it leading outwards, towards the town center.
“Gabi?” murmured Kezia, as I began to move away from the house, nose to the dirt. I moved slow but steady, following the erratic scent: it went out from the house and took to the cobblestone road, passing down underneath the lantern where I had seen the bannik, and then made a turn towards the town center.
When I made the turn, I hesitated: the sweet smell had suddenly got very strong, cloying in my nostrils, and I could see a little figure standing in the square, just beside the well. As I hesitated, she began to sing.
“Dandelions, acorns, and turtle shells; pink rain-clouds and winter bells…”
Her childish little voice was oddly soothing, and I watched as she hopped lightly from foot to bare foot. In between verses she raised a hand and blew on something that lay in her palm. It scattered into the air like dust.
“Chuckling brook… cat’s meow…”
“That is Crina,” Kezia murmured in my ear, unnecessarily.
The little girl rubbed her hands together and blew on them again, and more of the pale stuff spiraled out into the night air. The particles were too large to really be dust, and they sank rather slowly. They reminded me most of dandelion seeds.
As this thought came to me, a breeze blew a little of the fluff in our direction. I turned my head to the side, trying not to inhale. Kezia gripped my fur and pulled herself up into a standing position.
Her voice had been soft, but I still flinched at the sound. The little girl’s song died away in an instant and she turned her head towards us. Her eyes remained tightly shut.
“Do not be frightened, it is only Kezia,” said Kezia, from atop my head. “We spoke before. Do you remember me?”
Crina did not reply straightaway, but leaned down to pick up a stick that had been leaning against the stone wall of the well. With it in hand, she slowly tap-tapped her way towards us.
“I do remember you,” she said, in a cautious way. “But when I told Mum and Pap about you, Pap said you were probably just a burglar.”
“I am not a burglar,” said Kezia, with an amusing amount of ire considering the pilfered clothes we’d left outside Crina’s windowsill. “I was telling you the truth.”
She added something that caught me by surprise: “People always accuse Jews of wanting to steal money, but there is no truth to it.”
“That’s what I said to them,” said Crina, while I wondered just when and how Kezia had become Jewish. “I said that you were looking for the doctor for your friend! Is she all right now?”
“Oh, yes, she is,” said Kezia. “She is feeling much better. In fact, she wanted me to thank you for her, since you told me where the doctor was.”
I tilted my head back, just slightly, so that she had to grab one of my ears to steady herself.
Crina shuffled a little closer to us, her head thrust forward like a bird’s, cocking it with one ear pointed in our direction.
“You sound shorter than you did before, Kezia,” she said, in a dubious way. “I thought I remembered you being very tall-sounding.”
“Well…” Kezia trailed off somewhat hopelessly, but the little girl hadn’t finished her questioning.
“And is there someone with you? I smell… something. It smells like an animal.”
“Oh,” said Kezia, “that is- well, it is my friend with me. She just cannot speak because she is a w-”
I jostled her, and she corrected herself with admirable smoothness.
“A dog- my friend is a dog.”
“A dog!” Crina dropped her stick with a clatter, and grasped at the air in our direction with one hand. Kezia crawled hastily backwards, and I was forced to let myself be patted on the muzzle and scratched behind an ear.
“It’s a big dog!” said Crina, her hands pat-pat-patting in the most irritating of fashions. “But why were you looking for the doctor for a dog?”
“I did not know what else to do,” said Kezia, and I detected a note of worry in her tone. “Crina, that is enough petting. Sometimes she is not very friendly and I do not want her to bite you.”
That got her to draw back quick. I was torn between relief and indignation; did Kezia think I had so little self-control?
“Where are you going now, this late at night?” asked Crina, who had knelt down to feel for her stick. Her fingers found it and she crossed it before her chest, as though it would shield her from me. If Kezia had not impugned my integrity earlier I might have tried to snatch it from her.
“I am looking for a place to rest with my friend- but that is just what I wanted to ask you, Crina. What are you doing out here so late at night?”
Crina gripped her cane with both hands and pressed her lips together, twisting her grip back and forth over the wood.
“I just can’t sleep,” she said. “Mama said the men chased out the vampire, so there’s nothing bad out anymore. I just wanted to sing somewhere where I wouldn’t wake anybody up, that’s all.”
“Vampires are not the only dangerous things that come out at night,” Kezia told her sternly, which amused me to no end. “Do you come out and sing here very often?”
“Only a few times,” mumbled Crina, scuffing the dirt with one foot. “My head itches and I just can’t stand to stay lying down. I wish everybody didn’t have to sleep at night. If they were all blind like me they wouldn’t mind if the sun wasn’t out.”
“Everybody has to sleep sometime,” said Kezia. “You will get sick if you do not.”
“Oh, but during the day I might as well be asleep! It’s sitting down and sewing and more sitting and then taking a nap! I can’t go out because the streets are too crowded or there’s no one to take me or I’m just too blind!” She stamped her foot, and then thumped her cane down for good measure.
“That does sound difficult,” acknowledged Kezia, and a pleased look crossed Crina’s face. “You do not seem to have very much trouble moving around.”
“I don’t, do I? But they don’t care. Mama always wants to carry me like a baby. Sometimes I think about running away.”
“I do not think that is a good idea,” said Kezia, gripping my ear. “Better to keep walking at night than that.”
I shifted my weight from side to side. She added, “What were you blowing off of your hands before? Was it cotton?”
“No, it was dust,” said Crina. “Underneath my eyelids it gets very dusty, and Mama says I must keep it clean.”
I was no doctor, but that was definitely far-fetched; Kezia’s tightening grip on my ear told me she felt the same.
“May I look underneath your eyelids?” she asked. “I am curious.”
“Mum and Pap say I shouldn’t show anyone,” said Crina. “It’s supposed to be bad.”
“I will not say that it is bad,” said Kezia. “I also have strange eyes.”
“But you’re not blind, are you?”
Crina hesitated, her cane wavering in the air before her, then said, “Promise you won’t tell anyone?”
“And, and- tell me what they look like, please.”
“I will,” said Kezia, sounding slightly taken aback. I grunted softly. My neck was starting to get tired from supporting her weight.
Crina shifted her grip on her cane and then raised both hands to her face to prise open one of her eyelids. Her eyelashes were as pale as her hair, and at first I thought that they were the little filaments that were falling from her face like snow. But no. With her eyelid raised, Kezia and I realized that the little girl had no eyes at all. Instead within her eye socket she had a soft-looking catkin, like the sort you’d find blooming on a willow tree, blooming into thousands of tiny white fibers that drifted outwards even as her eyelid lifted.
And, I would guess, each with a tiny white seed attached to the end.
At our silence, Crina shivered, and lowered her eyelid, and covered her face with both hands.
“Is it really terrible?”
Kezia found her voice again, and said, “No, no, it is not terrible at all! Your eyes- they are very pretty, Crina.”
“I am not lying! They are different from other eyes that I have seen, but they are lovely to look at.”
I shifted impatiently. I did not care to reassure the little girl about her looks- being that I was quite certain that she was not a little girl at all. But I had no idea what she was. Certainly connected to Mother Forest- the white plant matter was enough of a giveaway- and certainly on a mission to do ill to the village, but…
“They always itch, but Mum says I mustn’t rub them,” Crina was confiding in Kezia. “So I only do it out here, at night. It drives me mad during the day, though!”
“Be careful that you do not hurt yourself when you rub on them.”
That made the little girl laugh. “But I’m already blind! How could I make my eyes worse?”
Kezia paused, which I supposed was her way of conceding the point.
“Crina,” she began, “I want to ask you something that might sound a little strange…”
“What is it?”
“Well… do you remember there being a time when- when you were not with your mother and father?”
I pricked up my ears. What was she getting at? Crina seemed quite affected by the question, for she had begin twirling a strand of her pale hair around one finger with a frown.
“It’s supposed to be a secret. But I’ll tell you.”
(I made a mental note never to trust this child with anything confidential.)
“You see, Mum and Pap told me never to tell anybody this. They said to say I’m the daughter of an auntie that lives in another village, right, and that auntie couldn’t take care of me so I came to them. But the truth is that I don’t remember ever having an auntie for a mum. I only remember waking up in the woods with Mum and Pap, and then them taking me home.”
Unbidden, a soft growl rose up through my teeth, and Kezia whispered, “Gabi, stop,” into my ear.
“What’s the matter?” asked Crina, her voice taking on a little quaver.
“Nothing! Nothing is the matter. I was only curious. You do not remember anything before that at all?”
“No,” said Crina, tugging hard on her strand of hair. “Mum and Pap say I’m their little girl, though. But I’m too old to have just been borned, aren’t I?”
“I would not know,” said Kezia. “But I do think that your mother and father love you very much and were happy to have you. I met them once.”
I jerked my head, and she clamped down on my left ear.
“You met them? Really?”
Crina had her face turned slightly to the right of us, openmouthed.
“Yes, but not for very long,” said Kezia, while I smarted underneath her. “And I do not think that they would recognize me now.”
“Oh, but why don’t we go back to them? You could meet them again!”
“No, I had better not,” said Kezia. “We did not mean to stay here long, we have to hurry onwards. I only wanted to come see you and thank you for your help.”
“Oh,” said Crina, her small shoulders slumping. “I see… But will you come back?”
“Oh, say you will! Where are you going, anyway, in the dead of night?”
“And why are you in such a hurry? Why can’t you stay? Are you running away from someone?” So saying, the girl took a step forward and swung out her stick, bopping me on the nose. I gave a furious yelp and pawed at it, sending Kezia off my head and tumbling to the ground.
“Oh! Was that your dog? I’m sorry,” said Crina, in a way that was not terribly convincing.
“It is all right, you did not really hurt her-” Kezia began, twisting her head up towards me- and who was she to decide that?
“Oh, Kezia, you sound even shorter than before!” exclaimed Crina, and swung out her stick again. I managed to dodge it this time, letting loose a little growl.
“Where are you?” said Crina, withdrawing her stick, and reaching out tentatively with one hand again. She stepped forward, her fingers brushing at the air at around my chest height. Kezia, from the ground, could only stutter out, “Wait, Crina…”
Crina paused, and cocked her head. Her outstretched hand hovered directly over where Kezia was lying at my feet. Slowly she lowered her hand until it brushed the tips of my ears. She retracted it with a gasp.
“Wait, you see-” Kezia was waving her stumpy little arms from the ground, vainly trying to salvage the situation.
“Kezia, are you a talking dog?”
All three of us were quiet for a moment.
“No, I am not,” said Kezia, slowly.
“But! But why is there no person?” insisted Crina. “Only a dog! Why does your voice sound so near to the ground? It didn’t before, so maybe- maybe you are a shape-changer! Kezia! Are you the vampire that the men were searching for?”
“I am not!” cried Kezia, grabbing at one of my paws, as I was seized with a sneezing fit borne out of sheer amusement.
“Oh, prove it, then! Take my hand!”
She reached out one quivering little hand. Kezia looked up at me, her frowning face never seeming so helpless.
I wagged my brushy tail and reared up slightly to lick Crina’s hand.
“Oh, so you are!” cried Crina, whipping her hand back again. “You are a dog that speaks! A shape-changer! The vampire?”
“I am not a vampire,” Kezia said feebly.
“I won’t tell anyone if you are! I thought it was strange that you said you were a Jew. A vampire makes more sense,” she said eagerly. “Oh, but did you really kill those people? And make the smith’s little girl so sick? I played with her before that, you know!”
“I- no, I did not!”
“Oh, and that does explain why you’re in such a hurry! Oh-” Suddenly she drew away, clutching her stick against her chest again. “You’re not trying to drink my blood, are you?”
“I could not!” exclaimed Kezia. “I think that I had better leave now. We are in a hurry in any case.”
“Oh- but I really won’t tell anyone,” said Crina, which caused me to give a soft little sort. She seemed torn between fear and excitement, her pale arms trembling where she clutched at her stick. “Can’t you change shape back again? May I touch your fangs?”
“I do not have fangs,” said Kezia, and she actually stamped one of her clay feet soundlessly on the ground. “I am not a vampire! I am a-”
I nudged her with my nose, so that she lost her balance and tottered slightly.
“A what?” said Crina, but of course her busy little mind was already filling in all the gaps for us. “Perhaps you’re a different kind of shape-changer? But all the men said you were a vampire! Are you really a witch? Mum sweeps the house with rowan branches every day to keep out-”
She prattled on, but something else caught my attention: something moving in the shadows. Green, reflective eyes. The bannik.
He seemed to know that I had seen him, for he raised his fluffy tail and turned, with a brief glance over his shoulder, to spring forwards into the night.
I bent to take Kezia in my mouth again, ignoring her surprised struggles. As I bounded forwards to try and follow the cat, I heard Crina’s stream of chatter falter, and she called, “Kezia?”
Kezia squirmed, about to say something, and I shook my head and her with it. By then we were down across the next street, and I saw the cat’s tail whip around the corner of a house. I swerved to follow.
Behind us, fading, was the lonely little voice.
“Gabi!” Kezia pounded on my muzzle with her little fists. “Gabi, stop! Where are you going?”
I did stop, in the middle of an unlit patch of road, but it was because I had lost sight of the bannik. Being what he was, he had no scent for me to follow.
With a frustrated huff I spat her out onto the dirt and shuddered my way back into my natural shape.
“Hush! It was high time for us to leave. She was getting too canny on us.”
“You could have fixed that,” said Kezia, sounding surly. She ran a hand across her belly, smoothing out the toothmarks I’d left in her clay. “I know you thought that it was funny and that was why you did not.”
“As a matter of fact, it was funny,” I replied, rotating my head on my sore neck. “But you yourself said that we were in a hurry.”
She looked away, down the road and into the darkness, and muttered, “It was very rude, and we did not say goodbye.”
“Oh! Then, my clay princess, would you like me to take you back to her? Why don’t I leave you there and let her keep you as a little doll? Better with her than me, since I am so very unfriendly, after all!”
My voice had gotten rather loud at the end, and I flinched at the sound of my own voice echoing in the darkness. We were not very close to any houses, but also not very far, either.
This seemed to be on Kezia’s mind as well, for she said, “You should not have changed back here.”
“No one is about,” I said, “or at least, no one with any eyes. I am going back to fetch my clothes and then get out of this blasted village. Are you coming with me?”
She looked up at me, and it might have been my imagination, but her perpetual clay frown seemed to deepen slightly.
“Of course I am going with you.”
The tone of her voice made me bite my lip, and I shook my head at the feeling of discomfort rising up in my breast- surely this little creature had not just made me feel childish– and leaned down to pick her up.
As I tried to retrace my steps and find the way back to Crina’s house, where I had left the clothes on the ground, neither one of us said a word. I would have liked to discuss all the peculiar things we had just observed with someone, but she had unexpectedly got the upper hand on me, and changing the subject would definitely concede that.
Petty, petty thoughts. Ah, why did I have to care at all?
In silence we reached the heap of clothes, and in silence I dropped her down to put them on- it being easier than carrying them. Kezia folded her legs and sat down on the road, watching me dress. And for some reason this made me feel rather odd, even though she had certainly seen every last inch of my naked skin by now, and it wasn’t like she could possibly be affected by the sight one way or another, but.
Well, asking her to turn around would be like losing in a different area.
It was she who finally did break the silence, putting her little chin in one hand.
“Gabi, do you think Crina will tell her parents, and the men will come after you again?”
“Why bother worrying about that?” I replied, my voice hard, but my cheeks flushed in the darkness. “They won’t go far, and we’ll be very far. I’m sure that girl makes up stories like that all the time, anyway, from the way she talked.”
“Maybe…” Kezia’s gaze did not waver as I pulled the shirt over my head. The fabric was coarse, and hung oddly over my breasts, and stank like man-sweat. I wrinkled my nose.
“Gabi,” said Kezia, as I wrung the fabric between my hands and tried to acclimate myself to the feel of it. “Gabi, what- what was wrong with her eyes?”
Slowly I put my hands down, and laughed.
“What eyes? She had none. Something was there, true, but it was not an eye.”
“It looked like a bud from a willow tree,” murmured Kezia, “but rounder… I do not understand. Is she human? Or…”
“I am fairly certain that she is not, or at least not entirely. Perhaps she has the same affliction that I do.” I gestured to my left arm. “Or perhaps… some sort of changeling creature. Considering what she said of her origins. By the way, how is it that you managed to meet her parents?”
“When I still belonged to Mother Forest, she asked me to guide them to the white grove. They said they were going to get a child- oh!”
She put one fist down hard into her other palm, an action which, despite everything, I found rather charming.
“Yes: oh!” I said. “Whatever she is, she is of Mother Forest. I am certain she was sent here as part of some wicked plot of hers.”
“No, but…” Kezia shook her head. “Crina cannot be plotting anything like-”
I put my finger to my lips, and she trailed off. From within Crina’s house, I heard the rustle of a mattress, and the sleepy murmur of a man’s voice.
I scooped up Kezia and trotted with her in hand a little ways down the road, keeping clear of the lights.
“She has all the signs of belonging to the Mother Forest,” I said, slowing to a walk, and setting Kezia down on my shoulder.
“She cannot know about it, then,” said Kezia, tugging on a strand of my hair.
“Ouch! Stop that! I didn’t say she did.”
“I am sorry,” she said. “There was something caught in your hair.”
Compulsively I reached up to pat the side of my head, then scowled.
“The point is that what the old man said-”
“What old man?” asked Kezia.
That was right- I had never told her about him. There had been a reason for that, just not one I had thoroughly articulated to myself yet.
“Never mind. I think something very bad is going to happen to this place soon and it’s better that we get out of it.”
“What sort of bad thing? Should we warn the people here?”
“As if they’d- hey!”
I saw the fluffy cat again at the end of the street; it miawed and vanished. I tried to shift back into a run and tripped spectacularly over the legs of my too-long pants. I landed on my elbows and Kezia went flying from my shoulders.
I muttered some choice words as I pushed myself back up, slapping the road’s dirt from my sleeves. One had ripped at the elbow.
“Are you all right?” came Kezia’s little voice, from somewhere in front of me, and I spotted her lying between the spokes of the wheel of a cart that was parked beside a wall. She picked herself up, and I saw that something white was stuck to her chest. I went over to pick her up and dust her off as well- not that she needed it- and unstuck the bit of fluff from her.
“It was in your hair,” Kezia explained, but I’d trailed off because I had already realized just what it was. It was one of the fluffy seeds that had come from Crina’s eyes.
I pressed Kezia against my heart with a little cry, for a white hand had just emerged from underneath the cart, grasping at the air.
“Please! Whoever you are, help me,” came the hoarse voice, and the hand went limp, and flopped down against the dirt of the road.
I started backing away, and Kezia tugged at my shirt.
“I think she needs you to move the cart, Gabi! She must be trapped!”
“Oh yes? Well, she can stay there,” I muttered from between my teeth. A loud yowl from behind me made me jump again, and the bannik wound his way between my legs.
“Help her,” it growled.
“Oh, it is a cat!” exclaimed Kezia, and I stuck my arm out and dropped her back on the ground, for she was not being very helpful at the moment.
“Am I to be your lackey?” I snapped at the bannik. “I am on my way out of here, and if you-”
“You must see!” cried the bannik, opening his mouth to show me his sharp, pearly-white teeth. “Look at what has happened to her!”
I hesitated, for his tone made the words sound less like an order and more like a plea. The pale hand protruding from beneath the wagon had not moved at all.
Kezia, meanwhile, had got up from the ground where I’d dropped her, and walked towards the cat.
“Are you a spirit like Noroc?” she asked, reaching out to him.
The cat glanced at her, then glanced again, his pupils dilating, and raised his paw to give her a solid whap that sent her sprawling.
“All right, enough,” I snapped, whisking her back up. “I’ll move the damned cart, and then I am leaving for good.”
The cat’s tail whip-whipped from side to side, and it didn’t take its eyes off me. I put Kezia back on the ground- scowling at her to impress the notion that she should stay put– and gave the cart a solid kick. It rolled forward, over the wrist of the unfortunate person trapped underneath; luckily it was empty and not very heavy.
The woman who was revealed by inches did not seem to feel any pain in any case, or rather, she must have been in too much already: my rough treatment was nothing. She was lying on the ground, curled up on her side in a fetal position, one arm extended vainly in our direction.
She was a middling woman, old enough to be somebody’s mother but not their grandmother, and she bore the look of somebody who has been healthy until fairly recently- baggy dress, bloodless skin, and rank, oily hair. It was quite clear to me what her ailment was: it was the branch that protruded out from her stomach, just under her ribcage. It was a short, stubby branch that bent upwards and had two closed flower buds on it- buds that blushed from white to pale red.
From the ground, Kezia gave a little cry, and I stopped her from running forward with my foot.
“This is what you wanted me to see?” I said. The woman’s eyes were shut, yet somehow, her chest rose and fell with shallow breaths. There was a horrible dark stain on her dress around the place where the branch stuck out, and with every movement of her stomach there came the uncomfortable sound of wet flesh sliding against something solid.
“Yes,” hissed the bannik, and I turned to see that he had leapt up onto one corner of the cart. “She crawled here yesterday and could not come out! I have never seen this sickness before!”
“You’ll be seeing it a lot more, I bet,” I said, and squatted down and gave the woman’s cheek a slap. “Hey! Wake up, you!”
“Gabi, stop that!” cried Kezia, worriedly tugging on the hem of my shirt, but I ignored her. The woman stirred, opened her eyes very slightly.
“Help me,” she moaned.
“Did you eat something that looked like this?” I said, and I held out the little white seed that I’d taken from Kezia in front of her eyes. “Find it caught in your well water, perhaps?”
The woman’s eyes flickered, and her wrist twitched vainly. From her stiffness I could guess that she was afflicted as I was with more branches running inside of her.
“I… laughed… and something… caught in my throat… It was white…”
I dropped the seed and kicked dirt over it in disgust.
“It’s the little girl,” I told the bannik. “It’s Crina. She’s brought it in with her; if you want this to stop, then get rid of her.”
I glanced at Kezia as I spoke, expecting some protest. But she said nothing. She was watching the woman’s eyelids flutter.
The bannik rose and paced from side to side on the wooden edge of the cart, tail lashing.
“The stranger said that too,” he hissed.
“He saw it before. He belonged to that village on the other side of the river- that’s the fate of your village, you addled mog, unless you do something about it.”
The cat puffed itself even more, eyes widening.
“Now I’ve told you all I know,” I said, or more sneered, grinding my heel into the dirt where I’d buried the seed. “What’s my reward, then?”
“Gabi,” said Kezia, not in a questioning way or as an admonishment; just in a quiet, unhappy way. I did not look at her.
“Reward…” hissed the cat.
“You said before that thrice have I killed your people, which wasn’t true. But let’s make it true now, for I hate to leave on an empty stomach.”
(I felt Kezia’s eyes on me now.)
“How dare you,” growled the cat, hunching forward like a vulture. In the darkness he seemed to grow slightly, his fur flaring like a mane.
“So greedy! She’s dying. I’ll put her out of her misery and have my breakfast all at once. Or do you think it would be kinder to let her die slowly? I shall defer to your judgment, of course.”
The cat opened his mouth wide in a terrible hiss, but when he closed it he seemed to deflate, like a cobra retracting its hood.
“Her soul is mine,” he said.
“Take it! I don’t need it.”
The cat stalked down the side of the cart, then paused, looking back over his shoulder. His eyes were yellow, slitted, unnaturally vivid.
“I shall keep it safe and make sure that she never becomes a thing like you.”
I barked out a sound at that; maybe it was a laugh. The bannik vanished like smoke. The woman on the ground gave a groan.
“Gabi, do not kill her,” said Kezia. “Please.”
I still did not look at her, and squatted down, pulling a few stands of hair away from the woman’s feverishly warm face. She had one eye still slightly open, and I wondered how much she had comprehended.
“Help… me…” she breathed. “Fast… please.”
I leaned forward to whisper in her ear.
“It’ll be all right. No more pain. You can rest.”
“Really?” whimpered the woman.
“Yes,” I lied.
She shut her eyes, and swallowed; I marveled at the fact that somehow, up till this moment, this woman had still wanted to be alive.
“Gabi, please do not,” begged Kezia, and I felt her cold hand brush mine. I jerked away.
“Be quiet. Quiet! Don’t you know what I am by now?”
She seemed struck dumb, her arms frozen in the air. I snarled at her, like an animal.
“I’m giving her mercy!”
“But, but…” Her voice quavered; it had never before. “But what if there is a chance…”
I picked up the woman’s head and dug my teeth into her throat: a sloppy, uneven bite that my lips wouldn’t cover. Blood spattered onto my stolen shirt. I felt the woman’s life between my teeth, a fluttering, tiny little thing, like a humming insect, a mayfly. It was already fading away.
The blood of the dead was worthless to me, so I drank while it lasted, feeling Kezia’s gaze again, of course, of course, damn her. She should have known! She should have known the kind of creature I was, a strigoi, a blood-drinker, a life-taker! Did she think that I’d never killed before? Did she think I suffered and regretted each and every drop of blood I stole? No; I was a dead spirit, a monster! I killed men, I roamed the forests naked as an animal! Existence was a struggle to maintain that futile breath, to consume enough so that I could keep my head above the water for another second- in life as well as death! And if my living self would have been sickened at the sight of me now, would have wept at my bloody mouth and the way I exposed my filthy naked skin- well, she was the one that had let herself die. She had!
Ah, and there- there went her life. I felt it dissolve in my mouth like spun sugar, and I spat out blood- useless to me now- and let her head drop down onto the ground. I felt Kezia still staring at me, and I growled again and lapped at my hands to clean them, my stomach unsatisfied with that meager portion of the dying woman’s life. I hated feeding on the dying. They tasted like what they were.
“Stop staring!” I said finally, whipping my head around to glare at Kezia- only to find that she was no longer there.
I pressed one hand to the woman’s limp shoulder as I rose from my crouch, turning my bloody face this way and that, looking up and down the lonely street.
The silent houses, the dark, cloudy sky, the empty cart. I was alone. I was alone again.
In my mind rose up a name that I had told myself again and again to never think, to never dream about, to never search for.
A tremble passed through my body like a cold wind, and I clenched my fists and let it shake through me- not him. Not about him.
He won’t be there anymore.
The cart’s wheels creaked, startling me, and I took a step back. The wooden chassis shuddered, than moved all by itself, rolling back over the woman’s body. I gaped at it, not comprehending.
“I thought that it would be better to hide her,” came a small voice, down by the back wheel. I looked down and saw her- Kezia- rolling it forward, so tiny beside it, like a solemn little ant tugging a leaf from her trail.
“Did you?” I managed to say, and I pushed the woman’s wrist out of the way with my toes before the cart could roll over it again.
“I do not think she would mind now, because she is gone,” Kezia continued, and something about her sad tone made me nearly break and bolt from the place then and there.
Instead I said, “No.”
“Let us go now, Gabi,” said Kezia, her expressionless face not quite turned towards me.
“Yes,” I said, and felt a queer numbness, all over me, covering my skin. “Let’s.”