Perfectly harmless and perfectly deadly.
The goose was nibbling on my hair, but I was far too exhausted to do anything but lie there on the wooden porch. Barely an hour or two to sleep, and staggering around in the sunlight to boot… every bit of my exposed skin felt raw. If I’d had the strength I would have gone over and squished Kezia myself.
She was still in the hand of the witch, holding on to two of her fingers. The cow- the stupid, stupid cow- was standing behind them both, flicking its tail. It had looked like it was about to expire when facing the pricolici, kneeling down in the grass and all, but had recovered suspiciously quickly when I’d chased the wolf away. I turned my head to glare at it now; it merely gazed back at me with melting brown eyes. Its lower jaw worked slowly from side to side.
“Thank you, Miss, you may go,” said the witch, patting the cow, which mooed and ambled slowly off towards the pigpen.
“Is that thing your familiar?” I growled, from my less-than-intimidating position on the porch. “Not exactly traditional, is it?”
The goose gave one of my curls a particularly vicious tug, and I flung an arm out at it, making it flutter and squawk.
“Easy, now,” said the witch, coming to the porch to shoo the bird away herself. “I suppose if I had anything like a familiar, it would be Miss; but as I said before, I’m not a witch.”
“Oh? You’re an ordinary woman who can make a house appear out of thin air?”
“I never said I was ordinary, either.”
“Excuse me,” said Kezia, tugging on one of her fingers. “What is your name? And thank you for giving Gabi some shade. And for pulling the grass out of me.”
“You’re much more polite than your friend is,” noted the witch, and set Kezia gently down on the porch step. “My name is Sorina.”
“My name is Kezia,” said Kezia, giving her a solemn nod. “If you are not a witch, then- what are you? If you do not mind.”
Sorina sat down on the porch, and I was pleased to see that Kezia took a few steps away from her; at the very least she had gained some caution.
“I am… I suppose I am in-between being a witch and… as your companion said, being ordinary.”
“What does that mean?” Kezia asked. “How can you be in-between?”
“You can’t,” I said, raising my head a little. “You’re a witch or you aren’t. And you are most certainly a witch.”
Sorina gazed at me for a long moment, until I felt like sweating in spite of myself, and then said, “Wait here a moment,” and went into the house. Blessedly cool air wafted over us as she opened the door, and I couldn’t help but give a long sigh.
At the sound of it Kezia scampered over to me, gingerly touching my arm. I hissed.
“I am sorry!” she cried. “It looks painful.”
“It is my fault for going after the cow,” she said, wringing her clay hands, which quite took all the hot air out of me. “But thank you for getting rid of that- what did you call it?”
“Pricolici,” I said, and felt a kind of weird swoop in my stomach. There was something strange about that creature, too; by nature they were similar to strigoi and should shun the daylight. What had it been doing out in the sunshine? And why should a pricolici, whose primary prey should have been human, attacking a cow? Something didn’t smell right with it all. I’d given it a good bite on the shoulder to stop it, but I’d expected more fight in return. It had run away at once as though I’d burned it.
“Gabi,” said Kezia, breaking me from my thoughts. “Will you change back now? Maybe you will feel better.”
Belatedly I realized that I was still in a man’s guise.
“No, it’ll hurt worse, and besides I don’t want to move.”
“Oh,” said Kezia, in a small voice. I turned my head to give her a look.
Sorina reemerged in the doorway, holding a folded blanket in her arms.
“If you don’t want to come inside-”
“I don’t,” I replied. As if I’d step over a witch’s threshold! It was probably already bad that I was resting on her porch; witches treated favors like contracts.
“If you won’t, then I thought I might give you this,” she continued, shaking out the blanket till it unfolded. “It’ll block out the light more than the shade.”
Don’t accept favors, said the smarter part of me, but the sorer part reached forward and snatched it out of her hands.
“Thank you!” Kezia said for me, as I draped the blanket over myself and huddled beneath it like a child. The contact made my skin twinge all over, but being blocked from the sun was already having a good effect on my well-being. I pulled the top of it over my head and sat beneath it with my arms around my knees.
Kezia came to stand between my feet, one cool clay hand on my ankle. Sorina was smiling at the both of us, which made me want to wrap up my face as well.
“You asked me how I am in-between,” she said, sweeping her skirts to one side so that she could sit gracefully on the step. “Your strigoi companion- whose name I still do not know-”
“It is Gabi,” Kezia supplied, without waiting for any input from me. I poked her in her soft side.
“Gabi seems to think that witches are born and not made,” continued Sorina. “But that isn’t true. All witches were ordinary people once.”
I scoffed. “Even the great Baba herself?”
I was pleased to see a shadow cross her pleasant face at the name, but she merely said, “Yes, even her. Though I believe her story is long since gone.”
“Do you mean to tell me,” I said, “that you died one day and were reborn a witch? In that case, why this in-between nonsense?”
“Oh, no, I am still alive,” said Sorina. “At least, I do not remember dying. You yourself must realize that witches aren’t quite spectres, and they aren’t quite human. They straddle that gap. That is why we so frequently speak to both the living and the dead.”
“What about those that are neither living nor dead?” asked Kezia, from between my ankles.
“I suppose that is not our area of expertise,” said Sorina, giving her a curious look.
“If you don’t die, then how precisely does an ordinary girl become a witch?” I asked.
“Slowly,” said Sorina, with a wry smile. “Very slowly. It helps if you have certain predispositions. The women of my family traditionally practiced sorcery- only simple things, like herbwifery and protection from the undead.” She tilted her head meaningfully towards me, and I snorted.
“Did any of that ever work?”
“Who knows? Maybe not, because they killed my mother and my sisters.”
“Oh- I am very sorry,” said Kezia, taking a step forward. I said nothing.
“It was a long time ago,” said Sorina. “I don’t feel things as I used to then. But in any case, there was a- a not just physical, but a spiritual kind of pushing-out. I don’t know how exactly it happened. But soon I was living alone, at the edge of my village, and those who sought my services were few. And then it seemed that I ought to go further away. Everything around me was washed of color, and the only thing that made me feel better was standing in my garden, wet soil on my bare feet, the smell of a nicked leaf and a rotting ripe tomato…
“But the garden was not enough, and I wanted more than it could give; I think it was too tame. So I left my home and traveled towards the forest.”
She paused, and looked down at her hands, which she had folded in her lap.
“And?” I prompted. “You don’t seem to be in the forest.”
“No,” said Sorina, rotating her thumbs together. “When I reached the edge of the trees, I grew frightened, and I turned back. But by then I could not return to any village. So I have crept along the edges of the forests since then.”
“Why were you afraid?” asked Kezia. “Was it other witches?”
“No… There are more than enough places without others where I could settle myself. And I know I shan’t feel settled until I go. But I am frightened, because I know that once I enter the woods, I’ll never come back out again. I won’t be myself anymore.”
“Oh,” said Kezia, voice rising in sympathy, “oh, I understand.”
“Coward,” I said. “A coward is what you are.”
“Gabi!” cried Kezia, and Sorina raised her head to look at me.
“Lose yourself?” I continued, pushing Kezia away, for she was tugging angrily on the edge of my blanket. “What is ‘yourself,’ then? Is it the half-creature wandering around frightened? Or do you think it’s the human girl that lived in that village? She’s gone, you know.”
“I know,” said Sorina, in a small voice.
“You aren’t yourself here,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “Clinging to your little pretend-humanity. You’re not an in-between witch. You’re a blind liar.”
Sorina’s hands stilled.
“Perhaps,” she said, inclining her head. “Perhaps you’re right. But I wonder if it’s really me you speak to.”
“Of course it is,” I growled, huddling further into my blanket.
“Gabi, how can you say that to someone who has helped us?” Kezia scolded, as I tugged the blanket further over my face so I wouldn’t have to look at her accusing little figure. “Besides, I do not think that it is any of your business to say anything about!”
“It’s all right, Kezia,” said Sorina, patting the floor. “I don’t mind rudeness, as long as it’s honest. I think I must run inside and check my oven now, though… Would you like something to eat, yourself?”
“No, thank you,” said Kezia. “I do not eat. And Gabi has eaten recently. You have done enough letting us rest here.”
“That hardly counts for anything,” Sorina said modestly, and beneath the blanket, I made a face.
The floorboards creaked as she passed us, and I felt that waft of coolness when she opened the door again. I peeped from beneath a fold in the blanket, and saw, before she shut the door behind herself, something moving inside. Whether it was a dog or a demon I could not have said, but it put my teeth on edge.
“Gabi,” said Kezia, and I tensed up beneath my blanket.
“What? If you’re going to fuss at me more…”
“I only wanted to ask if your skin was still hurting,” she said, and I felt her cool hands touch my ankle again. “Are you sure you do not want to go inside? I am sure Sorina would let you sleep there.”
“You’ve fallen for her completely, haven’t you? No, I am not going into a strange witch’s house. If I had a little more energy I’d insist we leave now.”
“Where would we go, though?” asked Kezia. “Back to the burrow?”
I said nothing to this. The thought of that pricolici still irked me, and I didn’t fancy the idea of it snuffling its way down into the hole while I slept. The hole that the strigoi had once used… No, I would stake my second heart on the fact that the pricolici was very well-acquainted with it.
“Gabi?” asked Kezia. “Are you really all right?”
“Oh, hush,” I said. “I am not some sickly child. I am a tired and cross strigoi.”
“That is true.”
I flicked her head with my forefinger. “If the witch permits me, I might crawl underneath her porch and nap there with the chickens. I’ve slept in worse places.”
“I think if you are going to do that, then you might as well go into the house.”
“You simply don’t understand,” I groused, pulling my arms tighter about my knees. My skin felt quite healed now, and I eased myself gently out of my male form. “If you’d met some of the witches I have-”
“Gabi- hush- look!”
Kezia was pointing skyward, and rather irately I peeled back my blanket to scan the sky. It had, just previously, been quite blue, but now steel-grey clouds were gathering with alarming swiftness, roiling and sliding together like ice floes, and there came the sound of distant thunder.
I snatched Kezia and pulled her beneath the blanket with me, glad for the protection of the porch, and flinched when the first raindrops hit the roof in a sharp staccato. Something like laughter drifted through the air.
“A hala,” I hissed, for I had just glimpsed a black shape sliding between two clouds.
“Yes, I think she is returning to the forest,” came Sorina’s voice behind me, and I jumped. I hadn’t heard her opening the door.
“Is she the hala that lives in the forest to the north of here?” asked Kezia, pulling back part of my blanket to expose her little face. “I saw her leave a few days ago, with all of her animals…”
“You never told me about that,” I interrupted.
“I am sorry. I forgot until now.”
“Forgot a hala?”
“Yes, she lives to the north,” said Sorina, cutting over our muttering. “She flies far and wide to glut herself on the fields and animals of men, and to let her pets spread their sickness.”
The dark shape of the hala dropped below the clouds; I beheld a raven with a serpentine tail. It circled around the house thrice, slowly, before laughing loudly and speeding northward.
“She is not a bad guest, so long as she isn’t very hungry,” Sorina commented, as the rain began to fall a little lighter.
“You’ve had that thing as a guest?”
“Oh, yes, I have had many guests of all kinds here. You are far from the strangest pair of them.”
“Which were the stra-” began Kezia, but I pushed her head down with one finger.
“What exactly is it that you gain from entertaining all these guests?”
Sorina raised an eyebrow, an elegant motion.
“Companionship, and good talk, if I’m lucky. Do you not enjoy company, Gabi?”
“That isn’t what I meant, and you do know it.”
She spread her hands. “What else did you mean, then? I do not need money, or meat- or blood. I only like to hear stories, and all who can talk have at least one good story, don’t you think? If someone nearby needs a place to rest, I may send out my little cow to show them this place. The reward I get is simple enough.”
“Your little cow,” I muttered, peeping out from my blanket at the sky. The clouds had lightened up and drifted apart in the hala’s absence, and the weather now seemed positively pleasant. I could hear the pigs snuffling and snorting in their pen around the corner, and the grass before us waved and sparkled with raindrops in the sunlight. The breeze caught strands of my hair and tugged them from beneath the blanket. I pulled it further down and tucked them back away.
“Was your cow trying to bring that pricolici back here as a guest, then? Because I think he would’ve liked this home of yours as much as I do.”
Which was to say, not at all. I think Sorina gathered this from my expression.
“Was it a pricolici that attacked her? I don’t tell her where to go, she wanders on her own. Be that as it may, I had heard that a strigoi lived to the east of this place; would that be you?”
“I don’t live anywhere,” I growled, tugging my blanket further down.
“We were looking for a safe place to rest, though,” said Kezia. “So that it is good that your Miss found us.”
“She is quite good at finding those in need. Though some find us instead.”
“I can’t imagine a hala being in need of a place to rest,” I said, recalling the laughter in the sky.
“You might be surprised. She spoke with me at some length; it seems that a powerful witch has recently moved into her forest and is upsetting things tremendously.”
“A powerful witch? Ha! As if you don’t know exactly who it is.”
“I might,” admitted Sorina. “But if it really is her, I worry for what has drawn her here. You wouldn’t happen to know, would you?”
“Witch’s business is witch’s business,” I said. “You’re the witch, not I.”
“Only if I enter the woods,” said Sorina, rather softly. “I haven’t yet.”
“Do you know most of the witches and spirits that live around here, Sorina?” asked Kezia. “Do you know Muma Balaur and Mother Forest?”
Sorina gave her a swift glance, then her eyes flicked away. “I have met Muma Balaur, but not Mother Forest. Many spirits speak about her, though- they call her the Treewitch. I have spoken with many of the humans who live hereabouts as well during their travels.”
“Oh? Even them?” asked Kezia, sounding suddenly eager. “Are they not frightened of you?”
“No. They see only an ordinary woman in an ordinary house here. The most they do is ask me if I’ve married yet.” A rather inelegant grin spread across her face at this. “You should see the way they dance around it, at first.”
“It doesn’t occur to them,” I said, “that a house in the middle of an empty field, that appears and disappears at will, is a mite odd?”
“It doesn’t seem to,” said Sorina. “They come here weary, and they leave refreshed, and I expect by the time they begin to really think about it they are well down the road.”
“Are you certain you don’t take anything from them, then? I can’t imagine any witch doing all that for nothing! You don’t have a sip or two of their life?”
Sorina merely sighed in response, and shook her head. Kezia toddled forward from beneath my blanket to peer curiously up at her face.
“Would you really let anyone at all rest here? Even someone who might be dangerous?”
“In my home, no one can endanger me, nor themselves,” said Sorina. “Nor my other guests.”
I eyed the brown back of Kezia’s head; of course she showed no outward sign but her growing excitement still felt palpable to me.
“Would you let anybody stay here forever?”
“Kezia! What are you on about?” I said, rather sharply. If she thought that I would want to live in a place like this- or that I would let her-
“I think you may have a request for me,” said Sorina, sounding bemused, as I got all tense beneath my blanket. “Better let me hear it, then.”
Kezia turned to face me and thumped a fist into her other palm, in the familiar gesture.
“Gabi, I think that Crina could stay here! That way no one else in the village would get hurt, and neither would she!”
“Oh, it’s that,” I said, considerably relieved. “Why are you bothering about her? The bannik has probably already destroyed her by now.”
Kezia seemed to freeze, and I winced. Perhaps that had been over-callous.
“I mean, it was for the good of-”
“Pardon me,” said Sorina. She had her hands back in her lap, and her thumbs were rotating faster and faster. “Would you mind explaining to me who you’re speaking of? And the circumstances of it all?”
“Yes, we would mind,” I snipped, irritated by the interruption, but of course Kezia whirled straight back around.
“Crina is a little girl! Well, she looks like one, but I am not sure what… She has some unusual features. And it is hurting the people around her. But she doesn’t mean to! She doesn’t realize it at all! I would just like for her to be somewhere safe.”
“In what manner does she hurt people?” asked Sorina. Her eyes had gotten rather sharp, and her thumbs whirled round and round like a pinwheel. “Please be precise.”
Kezia hesitated, and I slipped myself back into the conversation.
“She causes great big trees to grow through peoples’ guts. Does that count as precise?”
Sorina’s thumbs stopped moving, and she raised one hand to slowly rub her chin.
“You say she is a child?”
“A little white child, with no color,” I said. “A little blind child. Perfectly harmless and perfectly deadly. Seeds grow from her eyes.”
“Oh, yes,” said Sorina, very softly. “Oh, yes… I understand.”
“Do you know what she is?” Kezia asked. “Could you take her in? She is a very good child and very lonely, I am sure she would be good company for-”
“I cannot take her in,” said Sorina, and I believe I saw Kezia visibly deflate.
“But why not?”
“Yes, why not?” I snapped, reaching forward to take Kezia’s little hand between two of my fingers. “Weren’t you the one going on and on about love and companionship and all that folderol earlier? What happened to that- have you gotten frightened now?”
“You misunderstand me,” said Sorina, her voice painfully gentle. “I say I cannot take her in because it is impossible, not because I don’t want to. If the leaves that village, she will die.”
Note: After today’s chapter, Earthcast will take a short break. Your favorite golem and vampire duo will return on July 1st. Thanks for your patience, everyone, and hope your summers are going well!