It did not snow in the summer.
I slept suspiciously well.
It could have been the fact that I was in a bed, not curled up in a filthy hole, or the fact that I was well and truly worn out after the day’s events. But if that had been all, I would probably have woken up feeling refreshed instead of uneasy. It was because I had fallen asleep with the expectation that I would dream. You get that feeling sometimes, that you are going to dream, especially when you are sleeping somewhere unfamiliar. But I did not dream at all that day, and I woke with the sickening sensation of something missing.
The room was still completely dark when I opened my eyes, and for a moment I grappled with the void around me, patting at the bedclothes to feel them and reassure myself that I was anchored to reality. I had no sense of how long I’d been asleep, or even whether or not the sun had gone down. There was no window in that room, and not even a line of light underneath the door.
“Kezia?” I called, and my voice seemed terribly loud in the silence.
Brilliant light flared up, and I cursed and shielded my smarting eyes.
“I am sorry!” I heard Kezia say, from very close by. “I thought that- I forgot that it would hurt your eyes!”
Squinting and blinking, I lowered my hand. The fuzzy image of the room wobbled into place, and I beheld Kezia standing on the night table, holding a burned match. Apparently she’d lit the lamp.
“I thought that I would be ready for whenever you woke up,” she said, lowering her head. Standing on the table like that made her look like a child’s doll, albeit an ugly one. It occurred to me that she would have spent a good long time in complete darkness with nothing to do; no wonder she’d been so eager to turn on the light.
The thought, I must admit, softened my response somewhat.
“It’s fine,” I told her, raising my arms up to arch myself into a long stretch. “I’ve never seen a room get so dark, to be honest, and the light is rather nice to have. Do you know how long I slept? Is it nighttime?”
“I do not know,” said Kezia. “I have not left this room. But it did seem like you slept for a very long time.”
I kicked off my covers and sat up, rubbing my eyes.
“I suppose I did. Let’s have a peep outside, then.”
I leaned down towards her, and she stepped up onto my shoulder.
“Will we say goodbye to Sorina before we go?”
I rolled my eyes, but said only, “If we see her on the way.”
Kezia looped her arms through the fraying hem of my shirt collar as I rose. The flickering lamplight made the grey, bare walls of the little room look especially gloomy, and the shadows in the corners especially large. It was the sort of place you’d expect to see a great deal of cobwebs in, though I had not seen a single one so far.
There was, however, something by the door that I was certain hadn’t been there when I’d gone to sleep.
“Kezia, did anybody come into the room while I was sleeping?”
“No,” said Kezia, who was still busy settling herself on my shoulder. She slipped her cold legs under my collar, making me twitch at the contact.
“Then who put that set of clothes there?”
For there was, indeed, a shirt and trousers folded immaculately on the floor in front of the door.
This made Kezia, who had just leaned back against the side of my neck, jump to her feet.
“How did those get there?!”
I stuck a leg out to poke them with my toe. They appeared to be ordinary clothes.
“I suppose that we are in a witch’s house. She probably expects me to put those on. Hmph!”
“Sorina said that she was not a witch,” Kezia reminded me.
“And I told you that there is no such thing as an in-between witch. She’s lying to us or herself.”
“At least she was very kind to us,” said Kezia, rather quietly. “Whether she is a witch or not.”
I couldn’t think of a response to this, so I scowled and pushed the clothes aside with my foot to open the door.
At once I was assaulted with the scent of something baking- something rich and sweet-smelling. More pie? What was the woman on about? Kezia and I weren’t going to share it with her, and the only other guests I knew of were the cat and the- the old man.
Oh, yes, the old man. I’d nearly forgotten about him. I hesitated in the doorway as a wave of trepidation washed over me.
“What is the matter, Gabi?” asked Kezia, who had seated herself again, her cool back curved against my neck.
“Nothing’s the matter,” I said, and shut the door behind myself. I had never told Kezia what I had learned about Noroc or my adventure with the old man. Or the old man’s identity. Now, faced with the ever-more-likely prospect of the two of them meeting, I found that I absolutely did not want her to learn what he was.
Why? I was not entirely certain myself. Perhaps it would bring back that ghost that had once plagued her. Perhaps it would make her angry at me for keeping it from her. Or perhaps through the shared history of the ghost, Kezia might forge a connection with the old man, and realize how tenuous her connection to me really was.
What a selfish fool you are! I reminded myself, a weary phrase oft-repeated. But I could not help being plagued by a sense of dread at what might occur should the two of them meet. They were both very kind. Kind people did not hover near cruel ones when better options presented themselves.
With that anxious twitch to my thoughts, I went down the winding stair and found, much to my surprise, that it led into the kitchen.
“This doesn’t seem quite right,” I wondered aloud, looking around at the flour-dusted counters. The stone oven was lit and burning quite merrily, and there were old dishes and things strewn all over the table. And there was Sorina, with her sleeves rolled up, scrubbing her hands in the washbasin.
“Did you rest well?” she asked, without turning around.
Kezia tugged on one of my curls, so I said, reluctantly, “Well enough.”
“I know you can’t eat it, but I thought you’d at least appreciate the smell of some fresh scones. I’m sure you don’t smell them very often, being a strigoi.”
“No,” I agreed, “I suppose I don’t encounter pastries very often when I am sucking the life out of somebody. By the way, where did your front door go? I seem to remember it being here before.”
“Oh, many people struggle to remember the layout of my home,” said Sorina, drying her hands on a dishtowel. “I suppose it is a bit confusing. Are you leaving already?”
“Yes, we are. Now that it’s dark-” I hesitated. There were no windows in the kitchen, either. “The sun has gone down, hasn’t it?”
“I’m not sure myself,” said Sorina. “I’ve been busying myself here all day. You’d better go look to make sure.”
She picked up a broom that was leaning against the oven and began to sweep up fallen flour, apparently not interested in investigating with us.
“We’d better,” I muttered, reaching up to squeeze Kezia a little.
“What? What?” she said, squirming in my hand.
“No reason,” I said, and pushed my way through the kitchen door.
It had been the only door leading out of the kitchen, so I’d been hoping very much that it led back to the foyer, but instead I found myself in a neat little sitting room, with a spinner’s wheel and a well-worn daybed. There was a little brown dog snoring on one of the cushions, and no windows at all.
“Maybe he knows how to get out of here,” I muttered, jerking my head towards the dog.
“Should we ask him?” said Kezia, which prompted me to squeeze her again.
The sitting room had another door, which I went through. This time we ended up in a large dining room with an exceptionally long, polished wooden table. It was set with enough places to feed an entire horde. There were, of course, no windows in this room either.
“Shouldn’t the kitchen lead straight here?” I asked the air.
“Maybe it connects through that other door,” said Kezia, pointing with one arm and holding the other crossed over her chest in case I decided to squeeze her again.
I did not, only went through the door she had pointed too. At once my nose filled with the stench of manure, and I stepped in warm, wet straw. The brown cow put her head over a wooden partition to stare at me- we were in a barn!
“This is ridiculous!” I snarled, and whirled around- scraping my soiled foot on the ground- and went back the way I’d come.
The manure-scent was instantly replaced by that of fresh scones. Somehow we’d ended up back in the kitchen.
“What’s the matter?” asked Sorina, who was still sweeping. “You look put out. Did you see whether or not the sun had gone down?”
“Stop toying with us,” I snapped. “There are no windows in your house! And no doors leading outside, as far as I can tell!”
“There are both windows and exits from my home,” said Sorina. “Perhaps you simply keep losing your way.”
“Perhaps you’re having a bit of fun, witch.”
“Perhaps, perhaps. You didn’t happen to see my other two guests while you were wandering around, did you?”
“No,” said Kezia, as I tensed up involuntarily.
“Keep an eye out for them,” said Sorina. “If you do meet them, tell them there are fresh scones to eat.”
Her voice was so calm and bland that I instantly became suspicious. Did she- how much did she know? I was itching all over with anxiety now; we had to escape this place.
“You said we would not be trapped here,” I said, clenching my hands into fists. “Did you lie?”
“Of course I did not lie,” said Sorina, and she placed the broom back against the wall and shook out her floury apron. “Gabi, you are free to leave whenever you wish. You are not bound to this place at all.”
“You certainly are lying,” I said, “because your house won’t let me find the door. Or even a window, for that matter! And weren’t there stairs in this kitchen before?”
“The stairs are in the next room,” said Sorina, as Kezia raised herself on my shoulder to look all around- apparently she had just noticed that the stairs we’d come down were missing. In the corner where they’d been, the brown cow was lying on a pile of hay, placidly chewing her cud. Beside her was a milking stool and a bucket of milk.
“How did the cow get here when we just saw it in the barn?” Kezia asked, one hand tugging on my earlobe. “I did not even see it there until just a moment ago!”
“Sorcery,” I said, pulling her from my shoulder. “We’re being made a mock of. I told you we shouldn’t stay here!”
In my hands, Kezia shrank back a little, then turned to Sorina. “Can we really not escape your house? Did you lie to us to trick us?”
“She’s not going to tell you-”
“I did not lie to you,” said Sorina, cutting over my words. “And if there was a trick, it was a slight one. I have already explained to you the way that my house works. It is easy enough to escape from.”
“You never-” I hesitated. “The way it works? As in, there’s something we’ve got to do to get out?”
Sorina inclined her head, and Kezia, standing on my palms, grabbed my forefinger.
“I know! She said that she took stories, Gabi! We have to give her a story!”
“Nonsense,” I said, curling my lip, but looked at Sorina. “Isn’t it?”
“Kezia is correct,” said Sorina.
I laughed, and moved one hand to my face. “So I could give you any tale of Făt-Frumos or-”
“The stories must be true,” said Sorina, and she leaned forward to push Kezia, who’d been teetering on my remaining palm, back upright with a finger. “They must be yours.”
“Memories,” said Kezia, brushing a hand over her stomach, where Sorina’s finger had left a small dimple. “You mean memories, do you not?”
“All right,” I said, experimentally, “in that case, from just a moment ago, I recall waking up, grabbing this little squeaker, and wandering around lost through a kitchen, a sitting room, a dining room, and a barn. Then I had a conversation with an infuriating witch. There, I’ve told you a story about a memory. Now may we go?”
“What do you think?” asked Sorina, smiling in an infuriating way. Behind us, the brown cow mooed, making me jump.
“I am not sure it will be as easy as that,” said Kezia. I blew out my cheeks.
“Then? The witch should tell us precisely what she wants to hear, so we can give it to her.”
“I am still not a witch,” said Sorina, “and I’m afraid I can’t give you any answers with precision.”
“No, you certainly can’t,” I muttered.
“You see,” she continued, as though she hadn’t heard me, “I don’t fully control this house. Oh, I built it, and shaped it to my desires, but once it was complete it became its own entity. That is the trouble with creation, I suppose. So if you want to leave, you do not have to satisfy me- you will have to satisfy my house.”
“The house?” I said.
“The house?” Kezia repeated.
“But, if I were to give you some practical advice,” said Sorina, spreading her hands, “I’d tell a story that is a little deeper, and a little more meaningful than the one you just told.”
“Fine,” I growled, pushing Kezia back against my shoulder until she caught hold of it and climbed on. “Deeper? Meaningful? Perhaps…” Mentally I skimmed through my most recent exploits; there were certainly a few that stood out to me a bit. The problem was that most of them concerned Kezia, and if they didn’t, they concerned the old man; I squirmed at the thought of Kezia hearing my honest thoughts on any of that. Perhaps I could tell the story of the night I’d gotten cursed by Baba Yaga, but that meant I’d have to talk about hunting the beautiful girl in front of Kezia. I didn’t particularly enjoy the thought of exposing her to that, either. Not that she shouldn’t be accustomed to it by now…
Before that night then, memories from before I ever met the wretched Baba. What had I done, then? Hungered- fed, hungered- fed, hungered- fed… slept, crawled through dirt, eaten the flesh of animals to take on their forms, slept some more… blood, blood, breath, blood. How long ago had I even died, burst forth from that shallow grave? I hadn’t realized how much of a blur it had all become.
“Gabi,” said Kezia, as I mulled and grew more worried, “maybe I should tell a story.”
“Hush, I’m thinking,” I replied, covering my ear so as not to hear her soft little voice. It was fine! I could go further back, if none of my memories as a strigoi would do; perhaps a strigoi’s memories were not what the witch wanted anyhow. There was no danger in plucking up a simple one, a harmless recollection of the person I’d been before I had died.
Besides, it wasn’t as if I’d already given up and remembered Viorel…
The name was like a subtle draught of venom to my insides, and I shuddered involuntarily.
“Are you really all right?” asked Kezia, touching the back of my hand. I withdrew it from my ear.
“I’ve thought of something,” I said, glaring at Sorina. Damn her for this.
“In that case,” said Sorina, looking at me in an appraising way, “I suggest you take the door behind you. It may speed up the process.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to say that there was no door behind me- that was where the cow was laying- but instead I turned around. Naturally, the cow- the whole smelly bulk of it- was gone. There was the door.
“Maybe I should tell the story, Gabi,” Kezia repeated. “I do not think-”
“Look, my dear golem,” I said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but you’ve only been cognizant for a few weeks. That isn’t a great deal of time to pick up a good story.”
“Yes, but I-” Kezia seemed to check herself, and went quiet for a moment. It was hard to see what she was up to on my shoulder, but out of the corner of my eye I saw her head moving- was she looking back at Sorina?
“You are right,” she said, after a pause, “I am very young and I do not have as much to offer as you do.”
“Yes,” I said, but now I felt slightly less certain: what had that been about? But I was ready to leave the room either way. If Sorina didn’t follow us through the door, that meant my audience would be limited to Kezia, and I was perfectly fine with that.
“So long,” I grimaced out to the witch, and pushed open the door.
Beyond the door, Gabi and I found a long hallway. It was familiar to me at once, though Gabi would not recognize it. It was the same hallway I had been in while I had been chasing after Noroc.
I wondered where Noroc and the old man he was staying with were now. We had not seen any sign of them at all after Gabi had come inside. But if Sorina was telling the truth about the house, maybe it did not want us to meet them.
Gabi was looking around at the hallway and frowning. It stretched very far in front of us, and on the cream-colored walls were doors, doors, and more doors. The red and gold carpet under her feet was plush and unmarked.
“Why did she want us to come here?”
“I do not know,” I said, though I do not think that Gabi had really expected an answer anyway. She walked over to the nearest door and tried the handle. It was locked.
“Typical,” she muttered, and tried the next one- it was also locked. She went across the hallway and tried one of the ones on the opposite wall: locked.
“Gabi,” I said, for now she had gone some distance down the hall, trying doors, “maybe you had better start telling your story.”
I leaned out slightly from her shoulder to see her face crease into a frown. It did not seem as though she was very eager to begin.
“This is ridiculous,” she said, glaring all around as though at the house itself. “I would have preferred to give the witch some blood or a finger or two, in all honesty: it’s simpler and it makes sense.”
“Really? I would rather hear a story than get some blood or a finger.”
“Well, I wasn’t asking you.” She drummed her fingers against her thigh for a moment, then sighed. “If I must do this, then I’m going to look for the exit at the same time.”
“I think that is a good idea,” I said, more to try and soothe her than anything. She had been awfully jittery ever since we had entered this place. Perhaps she was still afraid of Noroc.
Gabi began to walk, trailing her fingers along one wall so that they brushed up against the golden door handles as we passed them by. I settled myself back down onto her shoulder, leaning my head against her neck.
“I did think of a story,” she said, finally, her voice vibrating through my clay. “Or a memory- well, not technically my memory, because I wasn’t there- though I sort of was. It’s the story of how my mother and father met each other.”
A hundred questions piled up in my throat just at this, but I pushed them back down. I felt I had better not interrupt her now.
“I don’t know how much you know about ordinary people, Kezia,” she said, “or how things are customarily done, but you must know that in most cases one sort of person likes to marry their same type. That makes sense, yes?”
But- what was a type, what did that mean? What about a person made them a type, and how many were there? How could you tell when they were the same or different?
“Yes,” I said.
“And by now you must know of the tigani,” said Gabi, “who also call themselves the Romani, some of whom are the Kalderashi metalworkers- and who are also called by the cursed word gypsy.” She spat dismissively onto the plush carpet. “They are slaves by birth here, because they are a lesser people. My father was one of them.”
“Perhaps you know less of the Moors. They come from a land the far south of here, and they are dark-skinned like the Romani. They are not slaves by birth, and many are nobles in their own right, but many others are sold into chains and ferried to the high north. The people here do not keep Moorish slaves- why should they, when they have so many Romani without cost- but they do take money to ship them northward.”
The walls on either side of us, I noticed, had progressively fewer and fewer doors: instead they were completely bare and white. I stared at that blankness while I tried to imagine what shipping humans meant… surely not merely a ferry service the way she said it. But I would not interrupt her to clarify.
“Anyway,” said Gabi, “now you know all that. It is also important to understand that my father and his family were Muslims, which is not usual among the Romani here. They converted for the Tatars who swept through here a long time ago, or so my grandmother said, but that is neither here nor there. But if my father had not been a Muslim, I would never have been born.
“Though all Romani are born slaves, some may travel freely so long as they pay a tax to the state every winter- the Kalderashi metalworkers and the ursari bear-dancers are among these. My father was a metalworker who traveled round from town to town with his family to ply his trade. He was young and unmarried then, though I believe my grandmother had a girl in mind for him already. Obviously, that did not work out.
“In autumn, when the caravan took the long road back to the city to overwinter, my father stopped to look for a stream, and wandered into a forest. He was listening for the sound of water, carrying his bucket, but he heard instead a stranger sound.”
I felt, listening to some quality in Gabi’s voice, that she was telling the story as it had been told to her by someone else, many times.
“It was the sound of a woman’s voice, very soft. My father could not make out the words, but he worried that this woman might need help, so he hurried towards it.
“As soon as he saw the woman- who was beside the very stream he’d been searching for- he recognized her as a Moor, and not just a Moor but an escaped slave: she had the scars on her wrists and ankles, and her hair was cropped to her skull. Only a fool of a Romani would not report this at once to some gadjo, for they like to blame us when their stock goes missing. But my father could not, for he also saw right away that my mother was a Muslim. She was praying there in the forest beside the stream, the morning prayer, and she had pressed her forehead down to the ground just as he approached…”
Gabi trailed off, and I sat up slightly. I had been caught up in a kind of trance, listening to her words, but now I realized that the room around us had changed again. At some point the hallway had widened, and the ceiling had gotten very high, and slender black columns supported it all around us. The quality of light, too, had gotten strangely dim (though now that I thought about it, given that the house had no windows I did not know how the rooms had been lit at all!) and had taken on a kind of filtered, misty quality.
“It feels like we are in a forest,” I could not help but say aloud. Below us something rustled, and both Gabi and I looked down. Rather than a carpet of fiber, at Gabi’s feet was a carpet of dead leaves.
“I don’t like this,” hissed Gabi, kicking the leaves. Her eyes were very wide and bright. “I don’t like this place at all.”
“Look,” I said, pointing- a little ways ahead, one of the black columns had branches sticking out of it. It was a tree. It was as if the room was turning into an actual forest around us as we walked.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Gabi, turning around, and I noticed a faint mist swirling around her legs. Behind us the trees looked more like columns, and I could still see the walls, dimly, on either side. But as soon as we looked back, I got a sense of foreboding.
“We had better keep going, I think,” I said, pulling Gabi’s earlobe. “Maybe the house is saying that it wants you to finish the story, and maybe when you do it will show us the way out.”
Gabi made an unhappy sound low in her throat, but she turned back around. I think she felt the foreboding feeling as much as I did.
“I don’t like this!” she repeated, as we started moving forward again. “But fine, here is the rest. As I said, my father saw my mother praying in the forest…
“If she had been doing anything else, my father would have certainly turned and run to fetch someone. But she was praying, and not just praying- praying as a Muslim. My father’s family had just finished this same prayer moments before he went to fetch water- in fact, the reason they had run out of water was because it had all gotten used up in ablutions. And so my father did not see a Moor kneeling there, nor a slave- he saw a Muslim, a beautiful Muslim woman. And so, when she looked up and saw him- and her eyes filled with fear- he motioned and bade her to finish her prayer. When she had finished, he took her and the water back to his family, and hid her there.”
Gabi paused a moment, then added, “Her father was with her as well- that’s my grandfather- so he came along too, since they’d escaped together. Though I do think my father would have been happier with just her.”
She chuckled, and the sound fell flat in the quiet, misty air all around us. I no longer saw columns, only tall thin trees, naked of their leaves. They were still arranged in a way that was too strangely uniform to be natural, but in all other respects it was as though we were standing in a forest. An autumn forest, in fact, though outside the house I knew that it should have been summer. It was so quiet that I was afraid to speak. Gabi’s feet on the leaves were terribly loud.
“Well,” she said- even she was speaking in a near whisper- “that was the end of that story. Where’s the exit, exactly?”
She stopped walking, turned all around: nothing but trees and pale mist in every direction. I could not even see a trace of walls or ceiling in any direction.
“Are you sure that is the end of the story?” I asked. “Maybe you forgot something.”
“Well, even if I did, how exactly would the dratted house know about it? And in any case there’s nothing much more to tell. Perhaps it wasn’t entirely truthful, but that wouldn’t be my fault- I gave it exactly how my father would tell it to me.”
“But what happened after your father took your mother back to his family?” I asked.
“It’s standing right here, isn’t it?” said Gabi, indicating herself with a sweeping arm movement. “There was no question about whether my mother would marry him after all that- wasn’t as if she had anywhere else to go. They burned her clothes and made her up to be Kalderashi, and my grandfather too, though he couldn’t stand it, and somehow they passed well enough. My mother wore a veil, and gadjo are stupid about those kinds of things anyhow. To them dark is dark.”
I supposed that the other Kezia had thought in a similar way, while she had been alive. She had had light skin, lighter than Gabi’s, though I did not think that Gabi’s was very dark either. Pascha and Kazimir were both much darker. Had they fashioned themselves to look like a Romani and a Moor? But why would they want to look like what Gabi had referred to as lesser people?
“Listen,” Gabi said suddenly. “Do you hear that?”
I listened very hard. Amidst the silence, I could hear the faint sound of trickling water.
“It sounds like a stream,” I said.
I saw Gabi’s expression change as the same thought occurred to both of us at the same time.
“You do not think that… that the room is changing because of the story you told, do you?”
Gabi merely shook her head, her face pale. She looked back over her shoulder again as though she was hoping that an exit would suddenly appear there.
“Gabi, it is all right,” I said, patting the side of her neck. “It is not a bad memory, is…” I trailed off: something new had just come to me, something startling. “What if it- what if it shows us your mother and father?”
“It had better not,” Gabi burst out, all her muscles going tense underneath me. I looked down and saw that she had clenched her fists. Yet she began to walk- towards the sound of the trickling water.
I did not know what to say, so I kept quiet for the time being. I would have liked to see Gabi’s mother and father myself, just to see what they looked like, but how could that be possible? Even if the room really was changing based on what Gabi said? I looked all around: the trees and the mist and the dead leaves crunching below were all completely convincing. Maybe we really were in a forest- maybe Sorina had tricked us even more than we could have imagined.
Just as this unnerving idea came to me, something cold touched my forehead. I looked up and saw a little white flake drifting slowly, silently downwards. It landed in Gabi’s hair.
Another flake landed on my arm. I looked at it closely, then had to grab Gabi’s shirt as she suddenly jostled me.
As soon as she said the word, I recalled what it meant: yes, the other Kezia had left me with some memories of snow. The flake that had landed on Gabi’s head had melted into a droplet of water, though the one on my arm had not.
“How is it snowing?” Gabi continued, her head tilted back to stare at the sky. “We can’t be indoors anymore, can we?”
“I do not know,” I said. There was no way to tell, with magic. “It was not snowing in your story, was it?”
“No, it was only autumn when they met,” said Gabi, kicking at the leaves on the ground. “Something else is at work here. Last I recall, it was summertime outside!”
Yes, I recalled belatedly, it usually did not snow in the summertime. Besides, the trees around us were bare of their leaves like they would be in the winter.
“I hate witches!” Gabi said loudly, to the air. “Oh, better another ribbon ’round my neck than all this confusion! Where exactly are we going?”
“I do not know, but maybe-”
“Ai, there’s the stream!”
Gabi ran forwards, and I held on while trying to see what she had. It was difficult- the snow was falling harder and harder, and now white flurries filled the air. There was already a thin layer covering the leaves, melting underneath Gabi’s bare feet. She trampled over them, shivering.
Abruptly Gabi stopped, nearly sending me flying with whiplash. I clung to her shirt and got my feet back underneath me. We had reached the stream.
It was bigger than I had thought I would be- broad and deep, with gently sloping banks covered in snow. The surface of the water was covered over in ice, but beneath it in places where it was cracked I saw bubbles and fast-flowing water.
Gabi was shivering very hard beneath me, and I leaned back against her neck.
“We should try to find somewhere warmer to-”
“No!” she burst out. “No, no, this is wrong! Oh, god!”
“What- what is the matter?”
Gabi did not seem to hear me. She was staring at the stream and the broken ice with wide eyes.
“How can it be… how…” She stumbled forwards, partway down the bank, and her foot slipped on the snowy leaves.
For a terrifying moment we pitched forwards towards the icy water, but then we jerked to a halt: Gabi had grabbed a rock and arrested our momentum. She pulled herself back up and past it, shuddering.
“Be careful!” I urged, clinging tightly to her ear. “What were you trying to do?”
She said nothing, and I tugged on a strand of her hair.
“You’re hurting me,” she muttered. She reached the top of the bank and leaned against the trunk of one of the naked trees. I noticed that there were icicles hanging from some of the branches. I was no expert on weather, but I thought that this freeze was happening a little too fast to be normal.
“I know this place,” Gabi said, very suddenly. “This is- but it isn’t quite right. There are some things missing. We can’t really be here!”
“What do you mean?” I asked, only half-expecting an answer this time.
“My sister drowned here,” said Gabi. “Around Christmastime. She fell in, and we got her out, but they couldn’t warm her up… those Christian tigani sows, they wouldn’t let my family stay in their satra, and then they had the gall to pity us… Oh, God…”
She was looking out across the stream now, and even before I followed her gaze I suddenly smelled smoke. The mist that had wrapped around the trees like gauze was clearing, and on the other side of the water was a smoldering ruin of a satra. I could recognize some of the houses, charred and blackened as they were… the thatched roofs were burnt to ashes, and the smoke was still drifting off of them, brutally dark against the white sky and snow.
But I recognized some of the houses. That one, with the ladder and the chicken coop underneath- I had been in that house, with Gabi!
“Gabi, is that- that is the satra where we stayed, the one the hunters burned!”
I was bewildered. It made no sense: there had not been a stream beside that place, much less a forest.
Gabi was still trembling hard, but she reached up to put one hand against me where I stood on her shoulder.
“This isn’t real,” she said. “It can’t be. It’s a witch’s illusion. We haven’t left Sorina’s house.”
I stared hard at the smoldering satra: it looked very real to me. Perhaps Gabi was right, but then how would we ever know then of what was truth and what was illusion from now onwards? I had not quite been afraid yet, but now I was beginning to get a sense of it… We were helpless, were we not?
Gabi’s hand obscured my view as she brushed off the snow that had accumulated on my head and shoulders. I had not even really noticed it before, but now as I flexed my clay limbs I realized that they were growing slightly stiff.
“Even if it is not real, we are both really getting cold,” I said, bending my arms, trying to keep my clay joints from cracking. “Maybe there is shelter somewhere in this illusion.”
“Perhaps if we imagine it, it will appear,” muttered Gabi, rubbing her own arms.
In the stream beside us, something made a splashing sound.
It was a very soft sound, but in the snowy stillness it rang out very clearly, and both Gabi and I looked at the water. As far as I could see, there was nothing living in it, only fast-flowing clear water. But not all of the stream was visible to us. The snow was turning the layer of ice over some areas quite cloudy.
That splashing sound came again.
“I don’t want to see what’s making that noise,” said Gabi, and she backed away from the stream, clipping her shoulder against one of the skinny black trees. “Curse it all! I don’t want to see any of this…”
A horrid image came to me- Gabi’s long-dead sister, crawling out of the ice and up the bank, her fleshless fingers grasping- I did not want to see that either.
The wind suddenly picked up, with fervor, driving snow that had accumulated on the tops of the tree branches straight into our faces like stinging needles. Gabi squeezed her eyes shut and wrapped her arms around a skinny tree trunk for stability. I pressed close against her neck.
I pushed myself outwards from Gabi’s neck and looked all around: the two sounds had happened at the same time, but sounded quite distant from one another. The splash, of course, had come from the stream, but the crunching sound- it sounded like someone stepping on dense snow, and it came from in front of us.
As the wind whipped and howled, a gap appeared in the whirling white, and I saw a distant black silhouette of a man.
I tried to call out to Gabi about it, but the wind was now so loud that it obscured my voice, and managed to knock me backwards from my perch. I only just barely managed to grab hold of the back of Gabi’s shirt before I got blown away entirely. Gabi reached around with one trembling hand and pulled me close to her chest, between her breasts: a blessedly warm spot for my cold little body. I looked up and saw she still had both eyes tightly shut against the wind. She could not have seen the figure.
It was moving closer. I head the crunching sound of its footsteps.
I tilted my head back and saw her eyes opening, her red eyelashes and eyebrows snow-laden. She saw the man. At least, I think she must have, for in the next instant she gave a dreadful cry and turned her back to him.
“No! Let it not be him!”
The wind moaned and pulled at her tight-curled hair as I tried to press closer against her. Her lips were parted and she was shaking.
“Who is it?” I asked. “Do you know-”
“I thought of him!” she cried, her voice too loud, for the wind had suddenly faded away. I thought I heart the faintest splashing sound, but the slowly approaching footsteps were louder.
“I thought of Viorel!” Gabi cried, and it sent a jolt right through me. Him! Had Sorina’s house sent us a conjuring of Gabi’s husband?
I wanted to ask, But why are you so frightened, for she seemed so terrified, her eyes wide and both hands clenching me tight against herself. She bent forward and fell to her knees in the snow.
“Don’t!” she called out, to the air- maybe to the house itself. “Don’t show him to me!”
She suddenly held me out from herself, her eyes frantic.
“Kezia, tell him to go away, tell him I’m sorry I left him behind, please! I know I shouldn’t have abandoned him!”
I found myself suddenly quite frightened, for the Gabi in front of me was not one I had seen before- she was raw and desperate and looked as though she were near tears. I pushed her hands apart so that I could drop from her grasp into the snow.
“I will send him away!” I told her, as she drew her arms back to wrap them around herself. “Do not worry!”
She looked anything but relieved, crouching and rocking there in the snow in her ill-fitting clothes and her bare feet. The snow came up to my chest, and I had to drag myself from the hole I had punched through up onto the harder crust atop it. It was firm enough for me to walk over, though I sank slightly with each small step. I stumbled around behind Gabi to stand at her back.
The snow was letting up as fast as it had started falling down, and the wind came only in brief gasps. I could see the figure of the strange man more clearly now, for he had gotten closer. He was wearing a cloak over his shoulders that flapped with each gust, and something long and thin was in his hands, and his head was down. But he had a large, vivid red scar on the side of his neck.
“Stop!” I called out, spreading my arms, as though the tiny span of them could somehow protect Gabi. “Do not come any closer to us!”
The man stopped, and let one end of the long object drop into the snow. It was a cane. He raised his head.
I found myself astonished, for I knew him. It was the old man, the old man I had met before, the old man who knew Noroc. What I had thought was a cape was only a blanket wrapped around his shoulders.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, one weathered hand quivering atop his cane.
At the sound of his voice Gabi started behind me. I continued to stare at him, flummoxed. Was this old man really her husband? But- he was so old compared to her! No, no, she was a strigoi, so maybe she had not aged for a while. I was still confused, though. Why did she seem so…
It did not matter if I was confused. I did not want him coming near Gabi if he made her act like this.
“Do not come any closer,” I warned him again. “You should go away.”
The old man frowned, and I thought he might have looked a little hurt, even, but I was unrepentant. Viorel! I had not liked him from the moment Gabi had first told me his name, and now I had a reason why…
But as I was thinking this, Gabi turned around, still crouching, and laid a finger on my shoulder.
“It’s all right. That isn’t him.”
I looked up at her face, and saw that her expression had changed. She did not look happy, but she also did not look so rabbit-eyed and vulnerable. Her face bore a more ordinary, guarded anxiety instead.
“Strigoi!” exclaimed the old man. “It is you, isn’t it? We met before!”
I looked back at him, relieved, if still unsure of what was going on, and started myself. The snow, the trees, the white sky: they were all gone. We stood instead in a short hallway with grey, unpainted walls. There were three doors: one behind Gabi, one behind the man, and one to my left.
Gabi scooped me up and rose to her feet.
“I told you it was all a trick,” she muttered, as though she had stayed perfectly calm all the while. “I’ll bet that this is what the house really looks like.”
“And as for you,” she added, more loudly, “shouldn’t you be with that protector of yours? I might have a drink of your blood again, you know!”
Inexplicably, the man smiled.
“I must admit,” he said, “it took me a moment to recognize you with clothes on.”
(This statement made me bristle quite a bit, until I remembered that Gabi did tend to be naked most of the time.)
“Hmph,” said Gabi, and she eased the hand holding me down and behind her back, obscuring the old man from my view. and me from his.
“The cat does not want me entering these rooms,” said the old man. “He’s frightened of them. I had to sneak away from him while he slept.”
“Why would you come here at all?” asked Gabi, shifting her weight. I tugged on the leg of her pants, wishing to see what was happening, but she ignored me. “Are you trying to escape?”
“I’m here willingly,” said the old man, “or, well, willingly at the behest of that dear guardian of mine. This house is full of many curiosities.”
“That’s one way to put it!”
“Yes, well,” he said, and I heard the smile in his voice, “I do think I’ll want to leave soon. It wears on you, being here. By the way, how did you come here? Last I saw, you were-”
“This and that happened,” said Gabi, cutting him off rather sharply. “I’d like to get out of here as well. You don’t happen to know which one of these doors is the exit, do you?”
“I think it’s the one behind you,” he said. “Speaking of behind you- what are you doing with that little golem there?”
An unpleasant sound came from Gabi’s throat at this.
“It’s mine,” she said.
“I’ve got no plans to steal it from you. But may I speak to it?”
“Gabi,” I said, from within her fist- she was clutching me very tightly.
It suddenly occurred to me that Sorina’s house was not the first place that I had seen this old man. In the forest, what seemed a very long time ago, I had watched Gabi pull an old man from his horse…
Gabi had hesitated for a achingly long time, and I noticed that her heels were moving- slowly, slowly- backing up.
“Why?” she finally said.
The old man said nothing at this, and I wished I could have seen what his face looked like, for Gabi was gripping me even tighter, my clay forming ridges between her fingers. I flinched when they squeezed around the edges of my silver coin.
The man asked, “Is her name Kezia?”