Some of it was hers.
“This place has seen much death,” said Sorina.
I was still struggling to understand what she had meant by saying that Crina would die if she left the village. I could not make sense of it. Maybe it was because I was too petrified to think past the image of the little girl dying.
Gabi filled the brief silence for me.
“This place? What place? This field, this country, this patch of dirt? Be more specific when making ominous statements, please.”
She was still holding my hand in her fingers, and my arm was growing warm from the heat of them. I was glad.
“I’m afraid I cannot draw out the exact borders,” said Sorina. “It was a long time ago. But if there was a center, it was out there.” She raised her hand and pointed westward, out towards the village we had fled from. Or maybe past it, into the territory of Mother Forest.
“What does this have to do with the girl?” asked Gabi. “What are you dodging around saying?”
“I’m trying to explain what I know,” said Sorina. “I’ve seen a girl who fits your description before. She lived in a different town in a different time. Every night, she would stand by the well and sing to herself.”
I gripped Gabi’s finger a little tighter.
“The people surrounding her became ill with a mysterious affliction.”
“Did it have something to do with trees, perhaps?” said Gabi. Sorina inclined her head.
“She was restless, that girl. She couldn’t seem to keep still. It seemed that she-”
She paused, shifted her shoulders.
“I knew her, then. Not well. Nobody knew her well, nobody could have, but I knew her and called her my friend then. She and I- we shared something, an inclination…”
“Ow, Kezia,” muttered Gabi, and I loosened my too-tight grip on her finger. Was Sorina hinting at what I thought she was…?
“We both wanted to go out into the forest,” Sorina continued, “a powerful urge, and we did not know why. Of course, I was drawn there because of what I was changing into.”
For some reason, even though it did not matter, I felt terribly disappointed. Not the inclination that had first occurred to me, then.
“But not her. I did know even then that there was something different about her… Still, we were similar in some ways, and we confided in one another. She told me she felt like someone was calling her into the forest.”
“A mad girl,” Gabi remarked. Sorina frowned.
“It wasn’t a voice in her head. She said it was… a tug at her heart, more, a sense of someone who was waiting for her to come home. That was how she put it: coming home. I must confess that she was an alluring speaker, and I was swept up in her excitement. We made plans to run away into the forest together. Neither of us had much to hold us back.”
“I suppose things did not go well,” said Gabi, an edge to her voice. “How did it happen? Did she drop to the ground the moment she stepped foot outside?”
“Gabi,” I murmured, no longer shocked by her bluntness.
“No,” said Sorina. “She left without me. We had planned to go the next night… but I woke to fires and bells ringing. She’d vanished. They were looking for her, and the searchers grew angry and burned both the satra and the lower quarter because they thought that the Jews or the tigani had taken her. I ran to the place where we were supposed to meet. It was a large tree near the edge of the village- an old oak tree. The fire behind it made it look edged all in black, and what I thought were flower petals were raining down from the branches…”
She took a long pause, staring westward, where the land around the river still bore the wispy remnants of the morning mist.
“I apologize,” she said. “It was a long time ago, and I have not thought about it recently. My friend, the blind girl- she was draped in the branches of the tree. Her eyes- they were blooming. The seeds were whirling high- the hot air from the fire was helping them- and drifting back towards the village. The air was thick with them and before I knew it, I had swallowed several.”
“You swallowed them!” I exclaimed. Gabi let go of my hand, her arm snaking back beneath her blanket.
“How did you survive?” she demanded. “How did you get rid of it- the white tree?”
“I didn’t,” said Sorina.
“You didn’t? What do you mean, you didn’t? Are you saying that it’s still in your body right this minute?” Gabi demanded. “And you’re still alive?”
“Not quite alive, not quite dead,” said Sorina, “but I’m sorry, Gabi. What kept my tree from killing me won’t stop yours.”
At this Gabi shrank back into her blanket, so that her whole face was obscured by shadow, the fabric taut around her elbows. I looked between her and Sorina with some amazement.
“How did you-”
“I recognize the smell,” said Sorina. “It’s a sweet smell, like nectar. I’ll never forget it. I thought I had begun smelling it again, on the wind coming from the west… it seems my fears were realized.”
Gabi shuddered, and her voice emerged as a growl.
“Tell me how you rid yourself of the white tree!”
“It won’t work, my dear. Not for you.”
“Because of what you are. It has saved you so far- your strigoi flesh, I mean- it has kept the growth limited to a minimum. But it will also doom you… unless you find a way to destroy the parasite without destroying yourself. I am saddened to say that I know of none.”
“But- but I don’t understand,” I said, looking hopelessly at Gabi, who had gone silent and still, just a little huddled lump. “If you did not destroy it, then how…?”
“I hadn’t quite finished my tale,” said Sorina, gazing down at me. I noticed that her eyes had deep folds at the corners. “You see, my friend… though she lay there in the tree, with the seeds pouring from her eyes, she was still alive. She could no longer move, but she bade me to climb up to her. And so I did… I was frightened, I thought she had been badly hurt, I could hardly fathom what was happening, but I went to her thinking that she would want me to carry her downwards. But instead she clasped my hand when I reached for her, and told me she was fading away.
“I tried to pull her down with me nonetheless, but she would not move, and so I stayed there with her during the night, until I fell asleep draped alongside her. When I woke in the cold morning the fires had gone out, and I had been remade.”
I was jarred by her last statement.
“I slept long,” said Sorina, “beside my dear companion; you might find traces of my former self embedded deep in the trunk of that twisted oak still. For when I woke I was myself and yet not myself. And of my friend there was no sign; she was entirely gone… at least, that was what I thought at the time. But now I suspect that she knew more of what was happening than she let on, and wanted to try and save me from herself. My body, you see… some of it was hers.”
Gabi and I were both quiet now. I had seen and heard a very great many strange things since I had emerged into the world, but this was one of the strangest of all.
“I don’t understand,” said Gabi, quite abruptly, echoing my thoughts.
“I did not either, for a long time,” said Sorina. “But it helps to recall that my companion was not human, and that she had been grafted onto a frame to start with; it was child’s play to graft herself to mine.”
She reached into the folds of her skirt and drew out something- a small fruit knife. It glinted ominously in the light.
“Look,” she said, and in a swift motion scored a line across her palm.
I gave a wordless shout, and Gabi hissed and drew back, closing the blanket over her face. Fluid swelled from the cut Sorina had made, but to my bewilderment it was not red. It was clear and viscous, dripping slowly from her palm like syrup.
“She did the same as I did once, and I reacted as you did then,” said Sorina, wiping her palm with her sleeve. “It was her secret, and she showed it to me: she had no blood in her veins. And I do not now. The white trees, you see, feast on lifeblood; just as you do, strigoi. So my friend gave me that gift, the gift of herself, and the tree inside me could not kill me. Indeed, it became a part of me, like it had once been a part of her.”
“Ah,” said Gabi, in a dull way. “Then it is the blood.”
“Yes,” said Sorina. “Even if you could find a way to change yourself as I did- I do not think that a strigoi could exist without human blood to pump his hearts.”
“I did not think a human could, either,” I pointed out.
“True,” acknowledged Sorina. “I was terribly lucky to have the love of my friend. Which is why I would help the white child you spoke of, as well. But if she attempts to leave that village, she will die all the sooner.”
“Why?” I said. “That is so terrible! Where did she and the other one come from? From Mother Forest? But how, and- and why?”
“I can only give you my speculations about that,” said Sorina. “But Mother Forest- she does not seem like other witches to me. Many witches kill and consume people, or destroy their lives; but they rarely cause such widespread death as this one. They need people to survive, just as you do, friend strigoi. It would make no sense to get rid of them all. But Mother Forest… you see the great strip of trees to the west of here? I do not believe any of it was there a century ago.”
“Are you saying that she made all of that grow?” I asked, struggling to wrap my mind around it. “But… a forest cannot grow so fast, can it?”
“Not without help,” muttered Gabi.
“Indeed,” said Sorina. “That valley, around the river- I think that once there was a thriving city there. And now, the tiny village in the meadow valley…”
Gabi sucked her teeth. “All that’s left of it. So I see.”
“I do not understand,” I said, feeling lost and feeble.
“Nor do I,” said Sorina. “I have wandered at her edges, collecting what knowledge I can from my guests; none have seen the Mother herself, only her avatar, the golem.”
“You know that she is a golem?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest. The thought of my mother- my false mother – made me feel as though I was going to crumble up into pieces.
“Yes, and that is another curious thing: I have never heard of a witch using golems as servants. Part of me wonders if she is, indeed, a witch at all…”
“Wouldn’t one witch know another?” said Gabi, one blue eye visible and glowering beneath her blanket.
Sorina gave a little laugh, as though she was not going to bother arguing about it. “I don’t know her, only of her. She is a mystery that might be as old as the title of Baba Yaga. Or she might only be a hundred years old; or she might never have been just one person at all. Nobody knows!”
She paused, then said, “But I will tell you something that might lift your spirits- the both of yours. If Gabi stays within my house, her seed will no longer grow.”
“Really?” I asked, swinging around to see Gabi’s reaction to this- her shadowed face stayed impassive. “Gabi, should we not go in?”
“Only as long as I stay, then?” said Gabi.
“I’m afraid so,” said Sorina. “Though I don’t mind putting you up for a long time, as long as you like.”
Gabi laughed. “So, then- to survive, should I hide on your doorstep, cowering in fear of a vine, until I wither away from hunger? I don’t think so.”
“Gabi, you could leave to eat-” I began, but she stuck her hand out from the blanket and made a cutting motion.
“Hush with that! I won’t do it. It’ll be a slow, painful death either way, and you wouldn’t catch me choosing this place to enjoy it in. I should lose all hope of finding another solution if I bury my head, anyway.”
“Wise enough,” said Sorina, and I thought she might have sounded a little surprised. “Well, you should know that my home is open to you always, for I would love to hear more of what you have to say.”
I thought she was speaking to Gabi when she said this, but suddenly she looked down at me. It was a look that felt very heavy, somehow, but not in a bad way; I felt, suddenly, a little ashamed, and averted my own gaze. I felt that she was trustworthy, and I knew that she would have liked to hear all that I could tell her about myself- and it was flattering!- but I did not want to say anything in front of Gabi, for she would certainly disapprove.
Was Gabi’s mistrust more correct? Or my sense of kind fairness? I did not know. I was always getting wrong who I ought to trust, and in truth I might have been a fool for still choosing to trust Gabi herself.
As I was mulling this over, and Gabi was muttering something negative under her breath, there came a loud BANG! from within the house. I turned and was caught quite off guard when Gabi snatched me and whipped me back underneath her blanket.
“What was that?” she hissed. It was very dark under the blanket, but I could feel warm fabric; she had pulled me against her chest.
“Don’t worry,” said Sorina, “it must have been one of my other guests. As I said, no harm can come to you while you are here.”
“Here? Does this porch count as part of the house?”
Sorina smiled. “Did I not mention that? Yes, for as long as we’ve been sitting here, you’ve been inside my house; and as you can see, no horrible harm has come to you.”
Gabi muttered some very unpleasant-sounding words and moved jerkily. I still could not see but I was willing to bet that we had just left the porch.
“Yes, and you can leave anytime as well,” said Sorina. “Really, you must have more faith in me. Good people do exist in this world, you know.”
“I know that, I know that there are good people,” snapped Gabi, with surprising vehemence- pressed against her chest, I suddenly heard her heart beat faster. She had an odd heartbeat: instead of the expected lub-dub, I heard lubdub-lubdub.
“Gabi,” I said, feeling for her shirt collar, “I think that we should just stay here for the day, at least until the sun has gone down. You need to rest and I do not think we will find a better place to do it.”
Saying so, I tugged on her collar, and felt her grip on my reluctantly relax, so that I could climb to her shoulder and peep out from the blanket with her.
Sorina was still sitting on the steps of the porch, flexing her hand- there was only a white line now where she had cut herself. How curious, to have no blood! Though I certainly had none either. I wondered if anything else had changed about her body that night… But that only made me worry again about what might happen to Crina…
Abruptly Gabi said, “Very well, I’ll sleep here. But don’t expect me to tell you any stories.”
Sorina shrugged, and I thought her eye was on me again, and I nervously looked away, anywhere else- and saw the door opening.
It did not open much, and when I looked at human height I saw nothing emerge, but when I looked down near the floor I saw something velvety black peeping out.
The head of a black cat with a single green eye.
The word came from my mouth, almost before my mind understood it, understood him. At the sound of his name, Noroc’s eye widened, and he looked across at Gabi and I as though we were ghosts.
“It is you, Noroc!” I cried, in a mixed muddle of joy and fear and confusion: how was he here? What was he doing? What did it mean for Mother Forest?
Noroc seemed to come to his senses then, and he gave a yowl and vanished back behind the door.
“He’s your guest?!” said Gabi. Her shoulders suddenly got tight beneath my feet.
“Noroc, wait!” I cried, and I slid down the length of the blanket and caught the wooden edge of the porch. “Noroc!”
“Stop, Kezia!” Gabi grabbed me, but missed, for I had scrambled up onto the boards. I ran to the door- it was still open- and into Sorina’s house.
Once inside I stumbled, for I had not expected the plush carpet that my feet encountered, nor the strong scent of warm pastry hanging in the air. Before me lay a large curving stair, and on either side of the landing there were shelves lined with books. The delicious smell was coming from a door to my left.
“He’s one of two guests staying together,” I head Sorina saying, from outside.
“Kezia!” Gabi called, and there was a new note of anxiety in her voice. Of course, she had had a very bad experience the last time she was with Mother and her servants, and I myself had warned Noroc not to come near her again. How could he possibly have left Mother Forest’s territory, though? And his eye- he no longer had his flower!
I thought I saw the end of a black tail disappearing at the top of the stairs, and began to ascend, with some difficulty, as each was nearly as tall as I was. But I was not a golem for nothing, and I would not tire, so I made good time. There were embedded little pawprints in the carpet lining the hall above, and I followed them where they zigzagged back and forth erratically.
The hall, I noticed, was quite long- quite long indeed, and there were several turns, and on either side of me many doors. By the third time that I made a turn I had a feeling that something might be amiss. The house had looked modestly large from the outside, but these hallways had to span more than it could have possibly accommodated.
Perhaps I had just gotten confused by all the twists and turns.
I had a bigger problem now anyway. Noroc’s faint pawprints had stopped quite abruptly in the center of the hall carpet, as though he had just vanished or floated away. I turned around in a complete circle: looming on all sides were doors, doors, doors, monstrously tall with shiny knobs far out of my reach. All around me was complete silence, the stifling kind, and both ahead and behind me the corridor forked, and I was having a hard time recalling which direction I had come from.
“Noroc!” I called, fruitlessly. My voice seemed to die in the still air.
I was growing rather worried, and tried to calm myself by looking down at the carpet, which had a lovely red and gold repeating pattern. I could see the small depressions of my own footprints: all I had to do was follow them back the way I had come. And I had better go- I had left Gabi alone again, and that always seemed to end badly…
Something creaked, and I went rigid.
It creaked again. A floorboard. Something was moving down the hall behind me, coming closer.
Slowly I turned, prepared to- what? Run? Fight? Who knew? But I quickly saw that there had been no need for concern, for the one walking towards me was nothing more than an elderly man. He had some sort of cane, much like Crina’s, and he was leaning on it, peering at the air far above my head.
“Who’s there?” he asked.
I probably could have stayed invisible to him- he was clearly looking for someone much nearer to his own height- but something about his gentle voice made me want to speak up.
“Down here, sir!”
He jumped quite visibly, and looked down, and seemed to jump again when he saw me.
“Why- is that a tiny golem? Did you speak?”
“Yes, I did,” I said, somewhat pleased that he had recognized what I was. “I know that most golems cannot speak, but I can. You did not happen to see a black cat, did you?”
The man leaned his stick against the wall, and slowly got down so that he was kneeling, hands on the carpet, so that he could look at my face more closely.
“Curious,” he said, blinking slowly. He had dark hair salted with grey, and dark eyes that looked quite soft, and a raised scar on his neck. “Why are you looking for him?”
“Well,” I said, and hesitated. I was not sure of that myself. “Well, I wanted to speak to him, that is all.”
“To the cat?” said the man. “Then you know he is not an ordinary cat. How, though?”
“I have met him before,” I felt compelled to explain.
“Oh, I see,” said the man, nodding. “I thought I heard you call his name.”
“Where did you meet him, sir?” I asked. It had just caught up with me that it was odd for this man to know just what a golem was, and that Noroc was not an ordinary cat. He could not have been an ordinary man.
The old man sat up, placing his hands on his thighs, and said, “Well, that is something of a long story, and to be honest I would rather return to my room where there are more comfortable places to sit. Would you like to come with me?”
For a moment I was tempted, but then I remembered Gabi’s worried voice.
“No, someone is waiting for me outside, so I had better go back. But it was nice to meet you.”
“The same to you,” said the man, and he held out his hand so that I could shake his finger. “If you have time later, and you are still here, would you speak a little with me?”
“Of course,” I said, perhaps too easily, but it was hard to be suspicious of an old man. “And tell Noroc that I want to speak with him, too.”
“I will,” said the old man, with a smile- maybe it was at the thought of saying something like that to a cat.
He rose, and we parted ways- him back around the corner, me retracing my steps in the carpet.
It seemed to me that it took a lot less time to get back to the top of the stairs than it had to get to where I had been- actually, much to my surprise, I only had to turn one corner to find myself standing before them. The layout of Sorina’s house, I felt, was rather suspicious.
But I did not waste much time thinking about that, for much to my surprise, when I peeped through the railing on the landing, I saw Gabi standing at the bottom of the stairs, chewing her thumb and looking every which way.
“Gabi!” I called, and her head snapped up. When I saw how worried she looked I felt more than a little bad. She seemed to have discarded her blanket on her way in, for it lay crumpled by the door. From my high position at the top of the stairs, and with her in her ill-fitting man’s clothes, she looked quite small. But then, she really was quite small compared to the size that I had used to be. I had forgotten all about it.
“There you are,” she said, but her voice did not have much of its usual bite. “Come back down here, won’t you? I don’t think I want to stay here after all.”
“Oh, but Gabi,” I protested, “nothing bad has happened to us, and I really do not think that it is a good idea for you to go walking around in-”
“Did you find the cat?” she snapped, cutting me off.
“Noroc? No, I did not catch up to him.”
At my words she seemed to visibly relax.
“I do not think that he belongs to Mother Forest anymore either,” I added, hoping to calm her further. “His flower is not there. And I do not think he could go so far from the forest. And Sorina said that nobody can be harmed in here. So I do not think we have to worry about him anymore.”
Gabi flicked her eyes at me, no sign of reassurance in her expression.
“We should leave.”
“But…” I hesitated. “Gabi, I met someone else here that I want to talk to! He knew Noroc too- it was an older man. He saw me and knew that I-”
“Kezia!” cried Gabi, and I saw a little tremor go through her. “Come down here at once! What did he say to you?”
I was so surprised that I only gaped at her for a moment, then pushed myself out between the bars of the railing to land with a splat on the floor far below.
Gabi’s footsteps thump-thumped over to me, but I was already picking myself up, peeling my flattened face from the floorboards.
“You could have walked down!” she said, squatting as I reshaped myself.
“I wanted to be fast,” I said, pushing out the front of my face. “Gabi, why are you so frightened? If you are really so scared then maybe we should leave, but…”
“I’m not frightened, I only- I only don’t trust anyone you might meet in this house, that’s all,” she stammered. “What did the old man say to you?”
“He did not say much at all, since I decided to go back to find you. He knew that I was a golem and he knew who Noroc was and he said that he would like to talk to me later. That is everything.”
Gabi’s tongue darted out to lick her lips.
“Did you tell him your name?”
“No, I did not.”
She breathed out slowly. “Good. Don’t tell it to him if you happen to see him again.”
“Because I said so, that’s why.” She turned slightly away from me, clearly agitated, and I got the strong sense that she was hiding something. But what, I could not imagine.
“Would you like me to show you to your rooms?”
Quite suddenly Sorina was standing below the stairs with us, her hands tucked behind her back. Had she been listening the whole time?
“No, because we are leaving,” groused Gabi, snatching me up from the floor. “Thanks ever much for your hospitality-”
“They’re right up this way,” said Sorina, and she began to climb the stairs. “I’m sure a short rest would do you good. I can make sure that none of the other guests bother you.”
She looked straight at Gabi when she said this, and I felt a kind of jolt course through her; but then, after their eyes had been locked for a lingering moment, I felt her hand around me begin to relax.
“Very well,” she said.
I twisted around to look up at her face, for even though I had wanted her to stay, I had never expected her to give in just like that. Her eyes were half-lidded, and she put me on her shoulder so that she could climb the stairs behind Sorina.
“Are you all right?” I whispered in her ear.
“I am stunning,” she replied, which made me feel a little better. Sarcasm was always a good sign.
When we reached the top of the stairs I was very surprised. I could remember very clearly the red-patterned carpet and the long hallways I had tracked Noroc down, but none of those seemed to be here now. Instead we stood on a bare wood floor on a very small landing with three doors arranged all in a row.
“I’ve prepared the rooms here and here for you,” said Sorina, pointing to the left and center doors. I decided not to ask how she had had the time to do that since we had arrived; I was beginning to get a measure of this place.
“Two rooms? We only need one.”
“Well, consider it there just in case,” said Sorina, with a small smile. “Please make yourselves comfortable. I’ve some baking to finish up downstairs, so I’ll be out of your way for a time.”
As she left, Gabi muttered something very ungrateful, and pushed one of the doors open.
I must admit that I had imagined all kinds of fantastical things being behind the door with what I had seen of the house so far, so I was a little disappointed to find a perfectly ordinary little room. There was a cot and a small table with an oil lamp burning on it, and that was all. The only thing that seemed odd was that there was no window set into the bare wall, but that made sense given Gabi’s condition.
Something in her seemed to uncoil at the sight of it all, and she shut the door behind us and then collapsed facefirst onto the bed. I fell off her shoulder and bounced on the mattress.
“Real sleeping quarters aren’t so bad,” she said, her voice muffled by the blankets. I crawled over to her face and patted her cheek.
“Go to sleep! I will keep watch over you.”
She turned her face to fix me with a stern look.
“You’ll stay here this time, then? Even if you happen to see a cow in mortal peril?”
“Oh- yes, I will, I promise,” I said, hanging my head. She flicked it lightly with one finger.
“Fine. Then I will go to sleep. Make sure nobody comes in that door.”
“And blow out that- ah, you haven’t got any breath.” She sat up and blew out the lamp on the nightstand, leaving us in near-complete darkness.
“Good morning, Gabi,” I said, and felt her warm presence shifting beside me.
“What morning was ever good,” was her reply, muffled again: I suspected she was nesting in the blankets.
I waited for her to stop rustling all around, and for her breathing to get slower, then got up and climbed over her in the darkness. I got a sleepy mumble or two in response, but I could tell she was very nearly asleep. That was good. In the dimness I found the table, with its scent of lamp-oil and smoke, and hoisted myself up onto it from the bed.
And now I had no choice but to wait in the dark.