“Is her name Kezia?”
He knew. He knew. It was over.
I had been making a fool of myself for long enough. I slowly brought the hand holding Kezia back in front of myself, so that she and the man could look at one another.
“Answer the man’s question,” I told her, when she twisted back to look at me.
Even without a change of expression on her hollow face, I could imagine her confusion at the whole situation. But she turned back to him, settling her doughy elbows on my fist.
“Yes, that is my name.”
I couldn’t help but watch the man closely when she said this, and to my surprise, his face fell.
“But you are not really my sister,” he said.
“I am not anybody’s sister, I do not think,” said Kezia, tilting her head. “What is your name, sir?”
For a moment the old man’s eyes flicked to me, a strange expression in them.
“It’s Elan,” he said.
Kezia went very still in my hand.
“Elan! Elan- Kezia’s twin?”
I was startled myself. I hadn’t realized she would have any knowledge of who the old man was herself. How much had the ghost communicated to her?
“Yes,” said Elan, and his face broke out into a smile- but it was a terrible smile, and it wrenched at something inside of me. He was no longer looking at either of us, just somewhere behind my head.
“Are you sure? You are much older than I- than she remembered,” said Kezia. “But… I suppose that I do not know how long it has been since she…”
She trailed off, apparently just registering the fixed expression on the man’s face.
“I am sorry,” she said. “Truly, I am very sorry. I wish that I could bring her back to talk to you, but…”
The old man shook his head, and clasped the head of his cane with trembling hands.
“No… the living shouldn’t speak to the dead. Is she- has her spirit passed on?”
Kezia hesitated for a painfully long moment, then said, “I think that it has. She does not seem to be with me any longer.”
“Good,” said Elan. “I think… I think I will go now.”
“Go? Go where?” exclaimed Kezia, squirming in my hand. Elan was turning around, aiming for the door behind him. “Wait! There is something I should- no, maybe not, but-”
“Forgive me,” said Elan, his hand on the doorknob. “Forgive me this. I can’t be near you now.”
That seemed to render her speechless, and we both stared at him as he slipped quietly from the room.
I was not conscious of the way my fist was tightening around Kezia until she said, “Gabi…”
“Sorry,” I said, and put her back on my shoulder.
“It is all right,” she said, in a very slow way. “But could I ask something of you?”
My hearts sank together there. But what could I do?
“It depends on what the something is, I suppose.”
Kezia sat down, with one hand lightly on my neck. The snow had all vanished, but her clay was still icy to the touch.
“Would you not feed on Elan anymore? Anyone else is fine.”
I bit my lip, fighting against a smile; I felt a touch of warmth in spite of things.
“Anyone else, then?”
“Well,” said Kezia, “well, I do not know, maybe not anyone else, but especially not him. Only because- well-”
I let loose a long sigh.
“Don’t worry about it, Kezia. He’s not palatable to me anymore. I won’t touch him.”
“Oh!” she said. “Oh, good! I was only worried you might get hungry again soon…”
“I fed just yesterday, if the night has even passed,” I said. “And in any case, I don’t think real hunger exists in this house. Any more than anything else.” I glared around the gray wooden walls for emphasis, then back towards the door behind me- the one Elan had pointed out as an exit.
“Could we go after him?” said Kezia, just as I was reaching for my escape.
I flinched, but only a little.
“Not now. He’s going to go grieve somewhere, and we’ll only make it worse.” I paused, curled my tongue against the roof of my mouth, and added, “He’ll want to speak to you again later, though. I suppose you’d better.”
“Oh, maybe you are right,” said Kezia. “But now that I think about it, I do not know what I should say. I thought badly of Kezia once and now I feel terrible.”
“Being dead is no excuse for bad behavior, so don’t,” I said.
“I thought that there might be something she would want him to know,” Kezia continued on, “but I am not sure- I wish that I could ask her!”
“You’re sure that she is truly gone, then? Not just hiding again?”
“Yes… I do not think that we could both fit in this little body,” she said, looking down at her hands. “I do not know how to explain it… I thought I knew aloneness before, but I really know it now.”
“Hm,” I said, biting my tongue before it could respond.
“But Gabi,” said Kezia suddenly, looking up from her hands, “When did you speak to him before? Did you meet again while we were separated? And how is it that he knows Noroc?”
Oh, drat, here it all was.
“Do you mind if we leave the room first? I don’t trust it,” I said, which was not a lie. Kezia gave me no affirmative- I shuddered to think of what she was working out in that little head of hers- but I opened the door anyway. If I was lucky, there would be something distracting on the other side.
But when I opened the door, I was greeted by another cold grey room with barren, windowless walls. It looked just like the room I had slept in, but for one difference: the cot on the floor beside the nightstand was doll size.
When I saw it, and really comprehended it, I slapped my forehead and let out a helpless laugh.
“That’s too much! That’s far too much!”
“What- what?” asked Kezia, leaning away from my neck. “What is so funny? Do you know where we are?”
“Kezia, my dear, we are in your room,” I explained. “The room Sorina made up for you, remember? That bed is for you!”
Something about it- the tiny bed, with the tiny turned-down covers, and the tiny pillow- next to the thoroughly ordinary-sized nightstand- was far too much for me, and I slid down against the wall and buried my head in my arms, laughing uncontrollably.
Kezia jumped from my shuddering shoulder to my knee, like a sailor abandoning a rat-infested ship.
“I do not think it is that funny,” she muttered, but her peevish tone only set me off worse.
When I had finally composed myself- and it took a moment- I raised my head to see her standing accusingly on my knee. She had molded her brow down into a deep furrow.
“All right, I’m sorry,” I said, though another laugh was threatening to burst out of me. “I’m sorry! I suppose it’s just been an eventful time recently.”
“You should not laugh at people who cannot sleep,” Kezia told me, tone severe.
“That was not why I was laughing,” I said, though that fact did sort of make it all the funnier. “I don’t really know why it seemed so funny.”
“I do not either,” said Kezia, “but it does not matter. I want to know what you have been hiding from me.”
“Hiding?” Another laugh, slightly higher, jittered out of me. “Who’s hiding something? I’m not the hiding things type.”
“Gabi,” said Kezia, crossing her arms, “you have been acting strange since- well, since I first met you, but even more so recently. You are frightened of something, but you do not want to tell me about it.”
“Frightened! As if I-”
“And I do not want to make a liar out of myself, so I will tell you now what I have been frightened of,” said Kezia, all in a rush. “Each time you sleep I look over your body for more flowers, because I am frightened of being pulled apart again. I am frightened that some day you will call me over and I will go to you and die because I trusted you too much.”
She finished her short speech, and in the ensuing silence uncrossed her arms, and twisted her clay wrists to and fro.
After a moment I picked her up from my knee and slid sideways to deposit her in the little bed. She fell onto the little coverlet and bounced slightly.
“Why did you do that?”
“I wanted to see you in it,” I said, and drew my legs in to sit on the floor beside her.
“Gabi! Did you listen to what I-”
“I listened!” The words came out more harsh than I had intended, and I tried to soften my tone. “I listened, but it’s not as if I can do anything to make you feel better about that. If Mother Forest exerts her influence on me again, I don’t know how to stop it and that’s that. I suppose it’s quite rational for you to be afraid of me!”
“Oh,” said Kezia. “Oh…”
“What did you expect me to say?” I gripped my crossed ankles tightly. “I have nothing to offer you. Perhaps you really would be better off going with that Elan…”
“Go with him? Go where with him?”
“Anywhere!” I waved a hand, movements jerky. “Away from me.”
“Away… But Elan said that he did not want to be near me.”
“He’ll change his mind! I’m certain of it. He’ll come back and ask you all sorts of questions, and probably cry in front of you. It’ll be messy.”
“I would like to talk to him more,” Kezia admitted. She sat down on the little bed, swinging her legs over the side. “But I do not have anywhere I would like to go with him without you. Why would I go away from you?”
“You said you were afraid of me!” I bit out.
“Yes… but Gabi, do you not remember how you gave me free will? If I wanted to run away from you, I would, and I do not think you could find me.”
I gnawed the inside of my cheek, and muttered, “Don’t bet on that.”
“I really do not think you could!” She swung her legs back and forth, like a child, and added, “Before I did not think that you cared for me very much, but now I think that you do.”
Ouch. I’d bit down too hard on my cheek.
“Well, what does that have to do with anything we were just discussing?”
“Nothing, it just makes me happy,” said Kezia. “I care for you very much as well. It is strange to care for someone and feel frightened of them at the same time. In fact, I think that I have felt every feeling in the world towards you by now.”
“Eh,” I said, feeling my face grow slightly warm, “is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“I think it is just a thing. But I would rather feel both good and bad things than nothing… So maybe it is a good thing after all.”
“When did you get so complicated?” I asked, and I pushed her over on the bed with one finger. “What happened to my sweet, simple golem?”
“I have had many important experiences since then,” said Kezia, the solemnity of her tone slightly spoiled by the way she was lying on her back with her arms raised up. “And the other Kezia helped me very much as well.”
“Yes, but if she’s gone, than all this comes direct from your little clay head, my dear. To think that it’s hollow!”
Kezia sat up, squeezing her little eye holes shut in an imitation blink.
“I never thought of that. Does that mean I am my own person?”
“Not only that, but I think we must consider you alive now,” I said. “Before, you thought you could not die and had no fear of death. But now you do.”
“Does being afraid of death make someone alive?” asked Kezia, tilting her head in that charming way.
“Well, if you think about it, every moment alive is a second spent avoiding death, so yes.”
“That means you must be alive as well, Gabi,” she said, placing one of her fists on her palm. “Even though you say that you are dead.”
At this my amusement slowly faded, like the flame on a candle stub, and I looked towards the door.
“Well, enough about that. We should keep working on escaping this place. I notice telling a story didn’t seem to help in any way.”
“Oh,” said Kezia, in a tone that made me suspect she knew I’d changed the subject intentionally. “Well… I think that I know why we could not escape.”
“Do you? Because I haven’t the faintest idea of up or down in this place.”
“I must be honest with you again. I do not think that you were the one who needed to give Sorina a story. I think that I was.”
“Oh, yes! Perhaps we both have to tell them, and that’ll-”
“No, no.” Kezia twisted her hands together. “I think that I am the one who is trapped here and not you. She said you were free to leave… so I think that means you could go if I was not with you.”
I digested this, slowly.
“I don’t recall her saying that…”
“And- and when you were outside, you told her you would not tell her any stories. But I was the one who asked about Crina, and she told me the story about her friend.”
“She told us that story!”
“Yes, but… I do think that it was meant for me to hear and not you. Because of the way she looked at me. Maybe it is not just that you must tell a story if you want to leave this house. Maybe Sorina’s rules are that if you are told a story you must tell one back.”
I had had opportunities to marvel at Kezia’s intellect before, from the time when I had very first met her- she managed to put two and two together faster than I could. Or was it only because she was a golem that I kept underestimating her? Foolish, foolish; she was much quicker than clay.
“Perhaps you are right,” I said (the more I thought about it, the more right she seemed). “I suppose there’s only one way to find out.”
Kezia nodded. “I am sorry that I let you tell a story without saying this earlier,” she added, tone sheepish. “I only wanted to hear what you would say.”
“I survived the ordeal, so it’s fine. Have you got something in mind? Does it mean we have to go back to that dreadful room again?”
“I am not-”
Kezia was cut off by a loud creak from the ceiling. I looked up and jolted back- the wood was cracking and splintering, and then dark roots burst through, showering us with splinters, growing and creaking and filling the small space with their hungry tendrils-
“Gabi! Gabi, what happened? What is wrong?!”
Kezia’s voice was like a slap to the face, and I snapped my open mouth shut. The ceiling was solid again. There were no roots.
Kezia got off the bed and ran to put her hands on my calf. “What happened? Your face was very strange just then…”
“You didn’t see… anything?” I couldn’t help but keep staring up at the ceiling. My hearts were jumping in my chest.
“What? What did you see?”
My first impulse was to tell her never mind, but we had just had that little chat about honesty.
“Roots… coming down from the ceiling.”
“Roots? Tree roots?” Kezia looked up as well. The ceiling remained a solid ceiling without a root in sight.
“Yes. I’m being toyed with by this place again,” I muttered, rubbing the side of my head.
“No, Gabi, you are being warned.”
Again I jolted- that hadn’t been Kezia speaking- and this time the room jolted with me, losing its definition with a nauseating oozing feeling, the wood running down the walls like wax, the little bed sinking straight down into the floor. I snatched Kezia and held her close, hoping it was all a vision again.
“Kezia, do you-”
“What is going on?” she cried out. “Oh- what is this?”
Apparently she could see it too.
Everything was pooling down into the floor around us, though I couldn’t really feel it moving as it passed underneath me. Still, I jumped to my feet. What was left behind as the gray “wood” sank away was red- on the walls, on the ceiling, dark red- and it had a quality to it, a sheen, that made it look spongy and moist. As I stared, sickened, too panicked to move, the whole place shuddered and I was knocked off my feet.
I fell to the ground, still clutching Kezia, and abruptly everything swirled back into place around us.
“I’m sorry about that,” came a voice, as I curled up and retched. “I don’t like to do it.”
It was Sorina. By all appearances, we had just joined her in the kitchen.
She knelt down beside me, ignoring my efforts to squirm away, and lifted a lock of my hair to see my face.
“There you are… And do you have little Kezia? Ah, yes…”
“What was that?!” shouted Kezia, with a great deal more ire in her voice than I would have expected. “What is going on with this house?”
“It’s my fault, really,” said Sorina, sitting back on her ankles. The walls and the ceiling around her looked perfectly normal, with no sign of melting or turning into gooey red flesh. “I had to move you rather quickly, rather than letting things take their natural course. I normally don’t let others see that part of my home.”
“But the freezing forest bit is fine,” I muttered, still curled up. It felt safer that way.
Kezia crawled out of my palm and stood on my hip.
“Did you say that it was trying to warn us?”
“Perhaps only Gabi, since she was the only one who saw the vision,” said Sorina. “But I’m afraid that it isn’t safe for either of you here anymore.”
I unclenched just enough to sneer. “Ha! Really? After all that talk of not being harmed!”
“I don’t think it’s anything you should laugh about,” Sorina said, flicking her eyes at me. Her face was tight. “Normally I can shield my guests from anyone and anything so long as they are in my house. But something has just gone strange in this area… There has been a shift in power.”
“Must you be so vague? What does that even mean?”
She gave a grim little smile. “Very well, I will give you exactly what I know: Baba Yaga has suddenly begun moving about, where she was placid before, and if this keeps up, we will all be caught in the midst of a clash between witches.”
“You mean that she is about to go after Mother Forest?” Kezia exclaimed.
“I expect something like that. But in the meantime, there has been something else outside probing for one of you, and I can no longer keep it out with how unsettled things are. When it comes back, it will catch you.”
“What is it, then? A spectre of some kind?” I asked. “The great witch herself?”
Sorina shook her head. “Not her, not a witch. I have never seen anything like it before; I know not how to describe it to you. But it has pounded on my doors relentlessly since the two of you came in- I believe it followed you here. It’s gone now, but it may soon come back. Best make your escape.”
“Make our- haven’t you been the one keeping us here, all along?”
Sorina gave a slight cough, covering her mouth with one hand. “I don’t… entirely control what my house keeps in and lets out. I couldn’t have let you out before now even if I’d wanted to.”
“So does that mean that Gabi’s story paid the exit fare after all?” asked Kezia, her arms crossed. I wondered where she’d heard the term ‘exit fare.’
“No, you were right,” said Sorina. “It was your story that was the price, not Gabi’s. But if you are willing to trade, I’ll take hers in place of yours in exchange for the one I told you.”
“A trade? Exchanges? Is this a witch’s house or a bartering post?” I said.
“Are you sure that you did not make these rules up just now?” Kezia added, still the picture of consternation up on my hip.
Sorina looked as though she were caught between annoyance and amusement at our verbal barrage, and settled with mildly offended.
“Not at all. I merely need both of you to consent for the exchange to occur. One can give a story in place of the other, if need be. All that matters is that the price is paid.”
“In that case, I consent, and I’d like very much to leave now,” I said, from the floor.
“I consent too,” said Kezia. “And I am also ready to leave.”
Sorina rose to her feet, patting at her sleeves. I noticed now that they were covered in flour: baking again? Where did she get off on it?
“You can leave my house now,” she said. “And I am truly sorry to have you leave thinking poorly of me. I would accept you again as guests quite gladly- you know the rules now.”
“Unless more start popping up again, unexpectedly,” I said, finally sitting up. I caught Kezia with one hand before she fell on the floor. “No, thank you.”
“Well, I thought I should offer,” said Sorina, in an extremely melancholy way. She rose to her feet.
“Wait a moment!” called Kezia. “What about Elan? Will you let him go as well?”
Sorina looked down at her, and I thought I saw a somewhat sly expression briefly cross her face.
“He has long since paid his price,” she said, “and he can leave any time he wants- but his guardian won’t let him.”
“Do you mean Noroc? Why would he not?”
“Because of the safety here,” I said, putting her on my shoulder. “The old man is all he has. He doesn’t want him to get hurt, even if it means tucking him away in this pit.”
Sorina gave a small nod of acknowledgement, making me feel rather pleased over my own deduction, until Kezia’s pointed silence reminded me that I had yet to deliver her all the details of my prior encounter with them.
“But will they really be safe here?” she said, finally, after I had squirmed a little. “You will not make them too cold, or- or have them slip and fall into the stream? Or-”
Sorina raised a hand, stopping her.
“As Gabi said, the visions you saw in that room were not at all real. They are based on your memories, and they cannot harm you.”
“They felt real,” said Kezia.
“I beg to differ about the harm thing, too,” I muttered, pulling myself to my feet with the aid of a nearby chair. Had that always been there? Didn’t matter, we were soon going to leave this dreadful, confusing place.
“If what you saw was really so terrible,” said Sorina, “perhaps Gabi had better unburden herself of stories more often. Most everything you saw came from her head, you know.”
“All right! We are leaving,” I announced loudly, shoving the chair for emphasis. “Where’s the door?”
“Right in front of you,” said Sorina, stepping aside. There was indeed a door, a small wooden one, set beside the oven. A bit of hay was scattered on the floor before it, and I couldn’t help but give a nervous glance around the area for any sign of that dratted brown cow.
There was none, so I squared my shoulders and opened the door.
No fresh breeze greeted me, tickled my face with the scent of freedom. The door opened onto a little gray room with a bed (normal-sized) and a nightstand. It was the room I’d slept in.
“Damn you, witch!”
Sorina laughed at my shout, and put a very much unwanted hand on my shoulder.
“Calm down, calm down, my friend! Look more carefully.”
I jerked away, but I looked: at the other end of the room was a door, cracked open, and from beyond it… good lord, from beyond it I could hear the chirp of crickets and the sound of wind. The outside world!
I would have run straight to it, had not Sorina stopped me by stepping in front of me again.
“If you don’t mind, before you leave, please take this gift. As an apology for causing you such distress.”
She had something in her arms that I had certainly not seen her pick up: on closer inspection, it was a bundle of clothes. In fact, it might have been the same bundle I’d seen by the door when I woke up.
I let loose a frustrated growl and tugged on my shirt.
“I don’t need clothes! I’ve got clothes! Step aside!”
Sorina gave me a very pitying look, which made me bristle further, standing there in my bloodstained, too-large, tattered shirt and trousers.
“Maybe you should take them,” said Kezia.
“Oh, hush,” I muttered. “What if they’re cursed, or something?”
“You ought to no better than to refuse a witch’s gift, Gabi,” said Sorina.
“Ah! You just admitted you were a witch!” I crowed, pointing at her, and she took the opportunity to drape the clothes over my outstretched arm.
“If a bull keeps charging at you, you ought to stand aside and let it pass,” she said, and then winked very obviously at Kezia. Kezia put one hand over her mouth. I had a sneaking suspicion she was trying not to laugh, though I didn’t find any of this very funny. (Come to think of it, did Kezia ever laugh out loud?) In any case I scowled and pulled the bundle of clothes to my chest. Sorina gave us a little curtsy and stood aside.
“Farewell,” she said, and I scowled harder and pushed past her so I could shut the door hard behind us.
“Don’t say I didn’t give you time to say goodbye,” I told Kezia, leaning with my back against it, breathing rather hard. The next door, the one with that beautiful sliver of moonlight shining through, was still open and in front of us, but I felt that at any moment it was liable to disappear.
“I would not say that. I think she still wants very much for us to stay with her,” said Kezia. “So I think that whatever the dark spirit is that is trying to enter her house, it must be very powerful indeed.”
That was a fair point; I’d barely spared the thing any thought with my mind so fixed on getting out.
“That’s awfully nice of her, then, isn’t it, to boot us out so it’ll leave her alone!”
“Gabi, we both wanted to leave already.”
“It’s the principle, the principle of the matter! Though I must admit I’m ready to face most anything out there now compared to this place.”
“I do not think this place was really so horrible as all that,” said Kezia, though there was a touch of hesitation in her tone. “I only did not like not knowing what was real and what was not.”
“Only a fool would,” I muttered, thinking of the old man- Elan- entering that cursed corridor of his own accord. Curious.
“But we should be very careful when we go outside,” Kezia said, tapping my neck. “I think that you should put on the clothes she gave you. If they fit better, it will be much easier for you to move.”
“Supposing they do fit at all,” I said, but I knew they would; perfectly, no doubt, like they had been tailor-made.
Keeping one eye on the cracked-open door- I wasn’t going to risk shutting it, even to undress- I stuck Kezia back down on the night table and hurriedly began sloughing off my stolen clothes. To be quite honest it was a relief to rid myself of them after all. They were scratchy and stiff and stank like unwashed man. I dropped them contemptuously in a pile on the floor. Let the witch launder them, or burn them, whatever she liked.
I noticed that Kezia, as before, did not avert her eyes as I changed. She would never have learned that it was more polite, and of course my nudity was no new thing, why did I keep noticing it so? I was beginning to think of her too much like a little person; even a friend’s eyes could be uncomfortable when one was so vulnerable.
Ooh, a friend, Gabi, and you’re vulnerable for it. It was hard not to mock my own silly thoughts; I frowned as I pulled the new shirt over my head. It fit like a second skin, and the skirt, and the vest, the undergarments, the smock, the headscarf. I was the picture of a modest young woman.
“You look very nice!” said Kezia, sounding appreciative from the nightstand. My face grew warm, and I fingered the fine gold embroidery on the vest.
“Hush, you, we’ve dithered enough over clothes.”
Kezia stuck her squashy fingers into the corners of her mouth to turn her perpetual frown into a smile. I scoffed and snatched her from the table.
“See how you like sitting in here,” I told her, and put her in the pocket of my smock.
With that bit of business tucked away- and squirming- I rose and nearly lunged for the door, taking greedy breaths of the night air. So close! So close! Would it be snatched away again?
I flung it open and gave a little gasp. No- before me was the real night! In the field of grass before us a thousand fireflies were winking on and off in tandem, their greenish little lights a joyous performance. A delicious wind tugged at the loose strands of my hair and my new skirt, and turned the grass this way and that. The moonlight dimmed as a cloud passed over it, blown by the wind, and the stars winked in and out just like the fireflies.
Behind me, the door slammed, and I jumped. Kezia froze in my pocket. I was nearly too frightened to turn around, but when I did, I let loose a little laugh.
All that was behind me was a run-down little hovel, surely not big enough to contain more than one room. The wind made it creak ominously, as though it would fall over any moment.
“I hope that Elan really will be all right in there,” said Kezia, who had popped her head out of my pocket. She was back to frowning. “I would have liked to speak to him at least once more.”
“Perhaps you will get the chance,” I said, a bit recklessly. “But if you go back in there, it’ll be by yourself, I tell you!”
“Well, even if I did, I would not want it to be for a long while,” she said.
“Hmph! Sensible,” I said, scanning the field before us. A tiny part of me worried that somehow we had not left the house at all, that this was another trick… but no, if I began to think that, the witch would really have me caught in her clutches. The wind, the little lights of the fireflies and the stars, the sounds of the crickets- the scent of grass and wet earth, as though it had recently rained- this was real, real as anything I had ever wanted.
“So much for that mysterious dark spectre,” I said. “I don’t see anything out here.”
“I see the little lights!” piped up Kezia. “Those are fireflies, are they not? I have never seen them before!”
“Surely they’ve been out before this-” I stopped with a grimace, clutching my left hand. A stab of pain had just shot through my palm.
“What is the matter, Gabi?” asked Kezia, craning her head back to peer up at my face.
I gritted my teeth as the pain came again, and turned my trembling hand over. There was a hard bulge protruding from the meat of my thumb.
I knew what it was. With a hiss, I drove my fingernails into my own flesh.
“Gabi!” cried Kezia, as my skin split and blood welled- but I had unearthed it, oh yes, that treacherous flower bud nestled in my flesh. With a grunt I clenched it in my fingers and drew it out- howled, howled with the dreadful pain. My blood flew and hit the grass, the crickets now suddenly silent.
Kezia uttered some sort of exclamation, as I opened my fingers to show her the thing I’d pulled out of myself. Droplets of blood stood out in relief against the white, waxy surface of the long-stemmed bud. It had no leaves, but it had fine, fine roots.
I dropped it to the dirt and ground it under my heel.
“Gabi, your hand!” urged Kezia. Blood was oozing down my fingers and falling onto the earth. I reached with the other to pull her from my pocket.
“Hold it for me, Kezia. The bleeding will stop soon enough.”
I put her on my ruined palm, and she obeyed, pressing her cool clay body to it, embracing my hand with her arms. I took a few slow breaths.
If I had still been uncertain as to whether or not we really were outside Sorina’s house, this confirmed it. Mother Forest’s tree had begun growing inside me again, with a vengeance: perhaps it wanted to make up for lost time. But I would tear the cursed thing out of myself as many times as it took, as many places as it pierced.
“That looked as though it hurt very much,” said Kezia, her face pressed between my fingers. I could feel my warm blood soaking her stomach.
“Yes, indeed, it did, but a little pain now and again keeps one awake.”
Kezia squeezed my hand a little tighter against herself.
“I wish that I could take some of it for you.”
I parted my lips, then closed them to swallow.
“I don’t plan on sharing any with you. You just keep checking over me for more sprouts- that’s what you can do.”
“I will,” said Kezia. “But we must-”
What we must had to wait, for just then I caught sight of a dark little shape streaking towards us through the grass.
I jumped out of the way, inadvertently slapping Kezia against my chest. The little figure overshot us and slowed down. It had been running on four legs, but now it turned around and stood on two. It was a little Blajini.
“Blood, I smell fresh blood!” she crooned. “O, strigoi, will you share?”
“Little pest!” I snapped, trying to calm down my suddenly racing hearts. “Get away from me! What are you doing so far from the forest?”
“The forest got bigger!” said the Blajini. “Bigger and bigger, it keeps growing bigger! I don’t need you to share today anyway, stupid- there’s blood everywhere now!”
She seemed to be about to dart off, but I reached out with my good hand and snagged her by one of her oversized ears.
“Hey! What do you mean by all that, then? Where’s this blood?”
“Ouch! I won’t tell you,” sniveled the thing, twisting in my grip. “You’ll drink it all up and leave none for us.”
“Don’t make me angry, now,” I warned, giving it a vicious tug. “Tell me…”
I paused. Within the glittering flashes from the fireflies, I beheld something else: the red shine from many pairs of eyes in the grass.
The Blajini took advantage of my distraction to tug free from my grip and skip out of my reach.
“We are getting many new playmates soon!” she trilled, whirling her tail about, and chittering voices answered her from the grass. “The forest got bigger, and we found blood to drink, and now we are going to see the terrible darkness! Will you come with us, strigoi!”
Laughter came from the grass all around me.
“I bet the strigoi won’t be so mean then!”
“I bet she gets scared! I bet she cries!”
“Come and see the dark thing, the terrible dark thing!”
“Shut up, you vermin!” I snapped, showing my teeth, and the grass rustled as the shadows fled. I lunged forward and caught the first Blajini, squealing, by the end of her tail.
“Not yet, you. What exactly is this dark thing?”
She whimpered and squirmed, for I was holding her tail quite tightly. It flexed in my grip like a living cord.
“It- we dunno what it is! It’s caught in a trap, an’ it gets stabbed and skewered and sliced to pieces, then whole again! It’s like- it’s like- a pony, a black pony!”
“Does it glow green?” Kezia, who I’d half-forgotten, piped up from where she was still sandwiched between my palm and my chest. “Does it speak?”
“Oh, I see who you’re thinking of,” I said, tugging harder on the Blajini’s tail. “Answer her questions!”
Again the thing squealed, and she suddenly twisted herself around and bit her tail near the base, severing it in two. She fled on all fours, squeaking and dribbling blood.
I flung the still-twitching tail away from myself with a grimace. It flopped in the grass once and fell still.
“Gabi,” said Kezia, “you know, maybe if you were not so mean when you asked them questions, this kind of thing would not happen.”
“Oh, hush! I am not going to simper at a filthy Blajini,” I replied, wiping my hand on my skirt. “Have I stopped bleeding yet?”
Kezia peeled herself from my sticky palm. Her whole front half was slick and dark.
“I think that you have.”
I took her with my good hand to flex the other experimentally. It felt stiff and sore, particularly the pad of my thumb, and was covered in clay and blood, but it was usable.
“So, I am guessing from those questions that you think this mysterious dark creature is…”
“I think that it must be Kazimir,” she confirmed, looking up at me with a newly red face. “If he is caught in a trap- it must be a very good trap.”
“Sorina said that there’s been a shift in power for the Baba,” I said. “It must be her trap he’s caught in. She’s coming to fetch him back, and have all three again!”
“Gabi, I know you do not like having to help, but-”
“But what? I am going to spring that trap if I can. I don’t want that hag getting anything else she wants.” I spat in the grass. “You’ll come with me, of course?”
Kezia seemed taken aback, and scrubbed at her face for a moment so that it took on more of its usual brown color.
“Of course! We must get Kazimir out of there.”
“If we can,” I reminded her. “Let’s go find him, then.”