A dreadful curve.
My intent had certainly been to stall the strigoi in order to give Kezia enough time to free the horseman- in which case I assumed he would have us up and away from danger in thanks- but there was another reason I was desperately trying to keep him distracted. I couldn’t remember his damned name.
We had met when I was newly risen, still half out of my mind. I’d wandered about like a feral beast, sinking my fangs into anything that crossed my path- be it man or animal. My madness was amplified by the fact that I consumed flesh as well as blood, something a strigoi should only do in times of dire need. But I did not understand anything about what I had become yet. I didn’t even remember my own name.
In its own way, it was a good time.
This strigoi- what was his name, damn it- had been the one to wake me up, so to speak, after I had stumbled into his hunting grounds. At first I suspect he had merely intended to kill me, until he realized I only had the barest idea of how to defend myself. In a queer act of charity, or perhaps merely as a way to amuse himself, he had let me live and told me a few useful things to boot. And then booted me out of his territory.
It had been a rude awakening. But I suppose it was inevitable, and I had been lucky to survive it.
Ah! Radu was his name, that was right. I remembered thinking that it suited him.
Radu himself was staring at me, for I had trailed off after completing my explaination of the sickness afflicting the village below us. I had left out the parts concerning Kezia and myself, of course, or anything at all about golems. No need to pique his interest in the things.
“I wondered why so many spirits were out cavorting tonight,” he said, drawing his thumb over his chin. “The weakened villagers must be too tempting for them, and the moon is nearly full… The borders of the forests grow more insubstantial in the moonlight.”
His companion, the pricolici, added a little growl to this statement. I cast a wary eye over it; it hadn’t been with him the last time I’d met him.
“A feast I myself ought to partake in, when this business is finished,” he concluded, glancing towards the pit. “But why aren’t you gorging yourself, then? It is a rare opportunity.”
“I want my senses with me tonight,” I replied. “Besides, I do not know yet if those white trees are catching.”
Radu laughed. “Through the blood? No, no! Besides, a disease that affects earthly flesh shouldn’t affect our kind.”
I pretended to consider this for a moment, as I scrambled to come up with a new topic to distract him with. “Perhaps so… But this is so ordinary fleshly sickness, and it gives me a bad feeling. Do you know anything about Mother Forest?”
“She’s a witch! What more should you need to know? Obviously, one should keep out of her way.” He smiled, tugged ruefully at the black ribbon around his neck. “If you are so concerned, then you should just leave this place altogether. Or… does something tie you here?”
His eye was suddenly sharp, and the question caught me off-guard. I stammered in my response.
“No- no, nothing in particular.”
“Hm-m.” He folded his hands over his bare white belly, eyes narrow and catlike. “Of course I believe you. And you were poking around my trap for no particular reason as well, were you?”
“What reason do you think I should have?” I challenged. “Why should I be interested in whatever that is?”
I gestured towards the silent pit, then remembered at the last second that my hand was still imflamed and scarred, and put it down quickly. I could not tell if he had noticed the injury.
“You know, I don’t really have any idea,” said Radu, leaning towards me. His lank red hair hung out over his ears. “Though it did seem- though my owl’s ears could not quite make out the words- that you were speaking to the dark one.”
“Yes,” I said, “I asked him what he was. I fear I am not quite satisfied on that front, though: exactly what is this creature? I have not-”
“I think you know just what he is,” said Rabu, cutting me off, “and that makes me curious, because it suggests that you are talking to me for another reason.”
Drat. He was sharp; I’d forgotten that too.
“So again,” I said, keeping myself calm as I could manage, “what makes you so certain I am trying to interfere with your business? What have I to gain?”
“Hmm, I could not say,” said Radu, and he straightened up and tapped his chin. “Perhaps… you missed me?”
I could not help but scoff at this, and he smiled in a crooked way, splitting his angular face. Without warning he snatched my hand.
“Why not? I myself have been short of company- a pricoloci does not exactly count for much in that respect.”
(I glanced at the pricoloci to see what it made of this, but it was just lying perfectly still in the grass, like a large, shaggy statue.)
“And the moon is nearly full, with no shortage of blood to go ’round.” He kissed the back of my hand. “Shall we have a little dance?”
“Don’t be a fool,” I said, trying to pull my hand back, but in a flash he had turned it over, and ran his finger down the red scar.
“Where did this come from?”
I jerked away and covered the mark with my other hand.
“That’s none of your- I mean, it’s only a minor embarassment. My last meal fought back.”
“It must have been a recent one,” said Radu, prowling closer to me, until I had to take a step back. “And you are clothed, so you have not changed your shape in some time- or have you suddenly become modest?”
“You could stand to have some modesty yourself,” I snapped. “Parading around, pale and colorless as a plucked chicken.”
He drew his brows together and put one hand on his chest.
“Perhaps where you come from, paleness is not a virtue, but proper civilized Romanians-”
“You’re not a Romanian, you’re a strigoi. A poor one at that- running errands for a witch, collared like her pretty pet! To think I once had some inkling of respect for you.”
Radu’s lip twitched.
“Watch yourself, girl.”
“Eh? Has it grown a spine?”
His fingers twitched, and I jumped back. The pricolici rose to its feet, glaring at me with those unpleasantly human eyes.
“I really don’t understand you,” said Radu. “Are you looking for a fight? Or aren’t you?”
“I’m not looking for anything,” I said. “You’re the one trying to assign me motives that don’t exist.”
He narrowed his eyes again. I resisted the urge to glance towards the pit. If only Kezia would hurry up…
“I think I’ve got it,” said Radu, and he jerked his head at the pricolici, which stalked behind him and around the pit. I shifted to try and keep both of them in my sights, and realized that the pricolici was getting itself behind me, with Radu in front. Well, this did not look good.
“What do you think you’ve got?” I asked, rather anxiously weighing my options. The pit was to one side of me, an open field on the other. I doubted I could outrun even Radu in a skirt, much less the pricolici. Perhaps he wouldn’t go down after me if I jumped into the glass-lined pit with the horseman, but it would be a bloody painful journey down.
“I think I know what you’re up to,” said Radu, prowling closer as his dog closed in behind me. “You’ve told me that cock-and-bull story about trees growing through villagers to try and lure me away from the trap I’ve set. I can’t fathom why, except perhaps that you’d like some revenge for the events that occurred last we met? For shame, girl, shame; I even let you live!”
“I have bigger and better things to hold grudges over than that,” I said, or more sneered, as it was the honest truth. At my back the pricolici rumbled, and I whirled round to swipe and glare at it so that it backed up. But then Radu’s cold hands were on my shoulders.
I kicked back and ducked, avoiding the bite I knew was coming. His teeth caught my hair through my headscarf instead, wrenching up painfully. I kicked again, this time slamming my heel into his knee, and twisted out of his grip.
There came a terrible snarl and the pricolici sank its teeth into my forearm, dragging me around and down to the ground. I gritted my teeth from the pain, but it was strange, because it was not so bad as I had feared- I did not think I was even bleeding- had it gentled its bite?
Radu himself growled and grabbed the front of my shirt, making a motion as though he were going to tear it open- he’d forsaken the bite, he was going straight for my hearts! But then, my shirt did not tear, and the force of his grip only jerked me around a bit as his expression changed from savage to puzzled. The pricolici let go of my arm and bit my shoulder through my shirt, and again I felt discomfort: the pain of my flesh being clamped down upon, but not of my flesh tearing. It was as though- as though- it was as though they could not penetrate my clothing!
As this realization flashed through my mind I was momentarily baffled- the fabric had seemed to be ordinary linen to me, with no special padding or armor- but then I recalled that it was a witch that had given me these clothes. Never refuse a witch’s gift, indeed!
A sudden burst of confidence went through me at that, and I brought up both feet to shove at Radu’s chest, making him stagger back, and rolled to snap at the pricolici. My teeth caught fur before it whined and ran.
“Ah! You coward!” snapped Radu, and then cried out, for I had leapt to my feet and clawed him a long scratch across his bare chest.
“I am not new-risen anymore, am I?” I said, and when I took a step forward he took one back, a hand pressed against the shallow wound on his chest. There was confusion in his eyes, and perhaps a little fear. Good! Let him wonder what tricks I had learned since our parting!
I lunged closer, and he back. In the corner of my eye I could see the silouhette of the pricolici on a hill some distance away, its tail tucked between its legs. Radu followed my gaze, then seemed to reach some conclusion.
“It was you- you bit him- when I sent him to kill the witch’s familiar- you are, you are trying to revenge yourself against me!”
I snorted, eyeing the blood running down his chest, over his sharp hipbones. Did it matter what he thought? He had been prepared to kill me, drink the stolen life from me- perhaps he deserved the same fate- perhaps I would give it to him! After all, I would have no need to stall him if he was dead!
He must have seen the sudden shift of intent in my expression, for he clenched his fists and showed me his teeth, like a frightened animal. The smell of his blood was flooding my mind. I lunged at him, and in desperation, he lunged back at me.
For a few furious seconds we grappled silently, an amalgem of limbs and snapping teeth. I pricked his naked flesh again and again with my fingernails, but shallowly, and he kept my teeth at bay with his greater strength; but he himself did not seem to realize that it was my clothes that protected me, for he did not target my exposed skin in particular.
We sprang back apart moments later, him sporting a dozen small wounds, me sporting many bruises beneath my clothing- but no split skin.
He was panting though, his pupils very wide and dark, and he put an arm to his mouth to lap at the blood leaking out. I curled my fingers and he flinched.
We might have fought more then, and who knows what the outcome would have been, but just then I saw his eyes flick to something behind me and his mouth drop open, and I felt compelled to look.
The dark shape of the pricolici was clearly silouhetted against the hilltop by a sudden red light, running for its life- shrieks and howls suddenly poured out of the darkness as fire crested the hill and raced downwards through the grass.
Then there came the hoofbeats, a deep staccato shaking my bones, and over the hill came a red horse with a firey mane.
I, too, was now openmouthed, for I recognized him. But there was no time to consider the meaning, for the fire was racing down towards us, faster and hungrier than ordinary flame. Radu turned, our quarrel forgotten, and made a dash for the river, but came up short.
A large white horse was standing on the water’s surface, back wreathed in mist in lieu of a mane. It had made no sound at all.
Pascha’s thundering hoofbeats grew louder, and with a snort he was suddenly standing right before the pit. Behind him I could see black things flying up out of the burning grass, and hear the shrieks of the others that were earthbound. He pawed at the earth, his eyes burning violet.
Behind us, the white horse, which was certainly Zakhar, said, “He is here.”
I looked back at him and realized that though he was standing before the mirror, he had no reflection at all. Only the mist showed.
Radu, standing on the sandy bank, clenched his fists, then crouched down low, ducking his head.
“I caught him,” he said, “you see that I caught him- tell your mistress to relieve my curse!”
Zakhar arched his gleaming, muscular neck, looking down at the man with eyes hooded in blue lashes.
“No,” he said, “you have not caught him; if you had caught him, you would not wear that ribbon, and he would have already returned to us. Our mistress sent us because you have failed.”
I saw a tremor pass through Radu’s body at this, and actually felt a touch sorry for him.
“No! I caught him, that is my trap, can’t you see? I sent a Blajini to tell-”
“Move aside, fool,” snorted Pascha, shaking his flaming head. “And you, Gabi! Why am I not surprised to see you here?”
“But where is Kezia, then?” asked Zakhar, stroking the water’s surface with one hoof.
Radu gave me a swift look at this, caught between alarm and fury. Oh, well, so what; he didn’t frighten me anymore.
“Why send you two, and not herself?” I asked, rather than answer the question. Goodness sakes, wasn’t Kezia finished down there yet? “Is your mistress simply too busy?”
“Certainly she is,” said Zakhar. “But she is coming, nontheless; she has only sent us ahead. That is for you to hear, Kazimir,” he added, more loudly.
Pascha stamped again, this time with both hooves grinding in the embers of his dying fire. “Kazimir! Come out of there! I know you aren’t really stuck in such a stupid trap.”
“We are waiting for you to rejoin us,” said Zakhar. “I know you must have been lonely-”
“No! Run away, Kazimir,” snapped Pascha, soot swirling around him. “Zakhar would have you be a prisoner again, but do not listen to him! If the Baba comes you will have no hope at all, not unless you run away!”
“Run, run, and run, what will that bring him?” snapped Zakhar, his mist swirling with more fervor. “He has suffered enough already! We have heard his cries-”
“Being a prisoner again will not make his heart lighter! Only you enjoy our imprisonment, Zakhar!”
Zakhar’s eyelids finally raised at this, giving me view of his eyes, solidly milky-blue.
“Do I, Pascha?”
“Aye! It was all your plot, wasn’t it?” Pascha’s whithers trembled, and he jerked his head. “You were caught to lure me, and I lured Kazimir! I don’t know what whim prompted you-”
“Be silent!” Suddenly Zakhar’s sonorous voice was sharp, and his hooves splashed on the water. “You do know, or you should know, what I thought- what I felt! Did it not tire you, red one, to chase each other round and round the world- so close, barely touching, then apart again? Did you never weep for our nearness and our farness, our eternal curse? And then- finally- you say it is a trap, but we three were finally united!”
“Oh, and did it work?” Pascha was trembling all over now. “Did it work, Zakhar? We were united?”
Radu and I had both been watching this fierce exchange all the while, completely swept aside by the emotion of it all that we had no part in; he was even openmouthed. But I could not help but keep glancing at the silent pit. When would the witch come?
Zakhar’s glow, which had been dim to start with, now completely went out. He was lit only by moonlight and the flames of Pascha’s mane.
“What else would you have me do?” he said, and there was a hoarseness to it that made me swallow.
Pascha danced in place, stirring the ashes that had been the grass. The supernatural fire in the field had died down, and in the distance, I heard the village’s church bells start ringing.
“Run away, Kazimir,” he said. “She draws close now. Run away.”
Now we all were staring at the entrance to the pit, horsemen and strigoi alike. But there was no sound, no stir of movement from within. But I did notice that the silvered gleam of the mirror shards was no longer visible from this angle.
“Kazimir,” said Zakhar. “Kazimir!”
When I looked up, he was no longer a horse, but the white-skinned man, round at every angle, his deep-set eyes glistening. He turned his gaze skyward and watched as the wind blew clouds to cover the moon. Suddenly the only light was the reddish glow emanating from Pascha.
The wind rose and whipped against my cheeks, leaving them cold and stinging. Pascha snorted and reared, his eyes wide, and Zakhar covered his face with his hands. The air carried with it a long, fearful shriek, and Radu gave a cry.
The new chill in my flesh doubled, for he was right- the shriek was Baba Yaga’s, the cold wind her claws. The sky was covered in clouds, pitch-black, not a star in sight.
“Gabi!” snapped Pascha, who had become a man when I hadn’t been watching. “Get out of here!”
I jerked in place, but did not lift my feet- Kezia, Kezia was still in the pit! Beside me Radu cursed and changed into an owl, flapping and tumbling away through the vicious gale. I wondered how long he had left before his ribbon sliced through his neck.
Pascha shielded his face with one arm and strode towards me, but before he could do or say whatever he was planning, Zakhar gave a shout: green light suddenly glowed at the mouth of the pit and then Kazimir’s black form exploded up into the air.
The wind screamed with the voice of Baba Yaga as he came down to the earth, a horse with bones that shone green through translucent skin. He opened his mouth- his teeth were sharp- and howled out an answer I could not understand. Nor did I care to try, for I had spotted something between his ethereal shoulder blades- something very small and brown amidst his glory- Kezia!
She made a ridiculously tiny rider, for all that the horse he’d become was not so large, but I saw her clinging to the shimmering strands of his mane. I shouted her name, but my voice was lost in the gale, and then Pascha caught my outstretched arms and shoved me down to the ground.
A huge, dark figure was gliding towards us in the sky. It had red eyes, and huge black wings- no, the wings were fabric, sleeves, the long sleeves of Baba Yaga as she materialized out of the stormy clouds. She moved downwards towards us all in a slow, dreadful curve, and I saw her mouth split open to reveal her yellow teeth.
Pascha blocked my view of the sky to crouch over top of me, one hand on his throat, his other pressing down on my back. I did not fight him- I had my head turned to watch Kazimir. Zakhar watched him too, though he had not moved from the river’s surface. But the large mirror, balanced beside him, suddenly fell over with a great splash.
Kazimir had tilted his head back to look up at the witch, grinning and bearing down on him, and then he looked at Zakhar, and then at Pascha. Then he leapt straight up into the air, his motion exquisitely highlighted by his glowing bones, and came down into the river in a much sleeker dive than any horse should have been able to achieve. He vanished into the dark water where the mirror had once stood without a ripple. And Kezia was with him.
“Kezia!” I shouted, before Pascha covered my mouth. I do not think it mattered; the witch’s grin had changed to an open-mouthed scream of rage, and she dove forward and skimmed across the river’s surface, her darkness falling behind her like a great shroud. Somehow it seemed she could not penetrate the water, and she rose up again, with a dreadful grinding sound- her teeth, or her mortar and pestle?- and turned to glare at us.
“Follow him!” she screamed, and then the wind hurtled past us and blew her away into the night.
Pascha coughed, then gave a long, slow sigh. He took his hand off my mouth.
“He took Kezia!” I cried, squirming under his weight- he was nearly sitting on me.
“He won’t harm her,” said Pascha, leaning on me a moment longer before stepping away. “He probably saved her, just now.”
I sprang to my feet, shedding soot, and ran to the riverbank. I could see nothing in the water, not even a fish.
“Aren’t you going to follow him?!”
“We will, but not through the water,” said Pascha, far too calmly for my liking. I kicked angrily at the water’s surface and then jumped as something vast and white passed beneath it. It was Zakhar, sinking downwards from the spot where he’d once been suspended. Only the top of his bald head protruded.
Pascha came forward and crouched on the bank to thrust his hand beneath the surface, grimacing, then came back up with Zakhar’s thick hand clutched in his own.
“Don’t you dare,” he growled, tugging hard, and slowly Zakhar emerged again, his bare flesh dripping and pearly.
Pascha drew him to the riverbank, for Zakhar seemed reluctant to move on his own, his small eyes downcast.
“Is it for naught?” he asked.
Pascha drew him close to his chest with surprising tenderness, kissing the top of his bare head.
“I don’t know,” he said. Zakhar shivered, and then he tilted his head back and kissed Pascha on the lips.
I had assumed that Pascha’s allusions to the nature of the relationship between the horsemen mostly exaggerated, but as the kiss went on I was forced to conclude that it was anything but brotherly. I shifted from foot to foot, trying to look elsewhere, and trying mostly not to think too hard about it, before finally snapping out, “Oi!”
They separated, or rather Zakhar pushed Pascha gently away, for he seemed quite reluctant, and stepped out of the water, naked and glowing slightly again. Pascha gazed at his back with an alarming amount of longing. But Zakhar looked at me.
“I must confess,” he said, his voice back to its ordinary dry timbre, “that every time I see you, I am surprised you still exist.”
At this audacity I could do nothing but scoff, especially as it was the first thing he’d said to me tonight.
“Says the witch’s slave! Though you don’t seem to be following her latest order very well!”
“We’ll catch up to Kazimir when he reemerges from the water,” said Pascha, shrugging one shoulder. He still had a mildly vacant look to his eyes, and kept parting his lips; I grimaced.
“Where he goes, Kezia will be,” said Zakhar. “If you want to find her again, you’d better come with us.”
“Yes, come with us,” said Pascha, laying one elbow on Zakhar’s shoulder. “I worry about what you might get up to without someone watching you. Were you fighting with that other strigoi before we came up? What are you, a child?”
“He attacked me first!” I snapped. “And come with you? Wouldn’t the witch like that very much? Or are you planning to go and snatch Kezia again?”
“Calm yourself,” advised Zakhar, blinking slowly. “Our mistress has punished Pascha well for that last incident.”
That dropped the disgusting smirk right off of Pascha’s face, and he scowled at the ground.
“I am fond of Kezia as well,” Zakhar continued, “and Pascha is fond of you both, it seems. If nothing else, it would please us to see you reunited.”
I caught a bit of a quaver in that last word; it seemed he hadn’t yet composed himself as much as I’d thought.
“What are you going to do when you catch up to Kazimir?” I asked. “The witch doesn’t expect you to catch him, does she?”
“We cannot catch him,” said Zakhar. “But she will force us to reveal where he is to her. It seems she’s losing patience. I do not know what will happen if he makes her take him by force.”
He flicked his eyes sideways at Pascha as he said this, but Pascha was still looking down at the ground.
“If we get close, we’ll let you go ahead and get Kezia from him first,” he said.
“Really? What will stop me from warning Kazimir about the two of you as well?”
“Nothing,” said Pascha, raising his head to wink at me.
“Pascha,” said Zakhar, moving out from under his elbow. “You’ll get yourself punished again.”
“Good; I enjoy the chance to see your concern,” retorted Pascha, thumbing his nose. “It isn’t likely we’d sneak up on him either way. He may do as he pleases when he senses our presence, but it would be good to get Kezia back to her dear strigoi, as you said.”
Zakhar closed his eyes a moment, his skin blushing reddish from Pascha’s nearby glow. When he opened them again, he looked at me.
“Which one of us will you ride?”
“Ride?” I spluttered. “I’ll carry myself!”
“That won’t do,” said Zakhar. “You won’t be able to keep up. You are too ill now to change your shape, aren’t you?”
“How do you- I’m not ill!”
“What do you mean?” demanded Pascha, looking between the two of us. “How is she ill? Is that why she’s wearing clothes?”
“I smell it on you,” said Zakhar, as I curled my fingers again and again- I couldn’t help it, his words made the scarred spot twinge so. “I smell the Treewitch’s child growing in you. I recognize it, for she infected me too.”
“Eh? You’ve been poisoned?” demanded Pascha, staring at me. “This is what I meant by getting into trouble!”
“I’m not poisoned! I-”
“We should carry on this discussion as we move,” said Zakhar, raising a hand to cut me off. “Kazimir is leaving the water, I sense it. He has moved far downriver.”
Pascha changed back into a horse and pawed at the earth.
“Come, invalid, hop onto my back.”
“Not in a skirt!” I said, which was really the last thing that concerned me, but the first protest that came to my head. “What do you mean, infected? I thought you were-”
I shut up, because Zakhar caught me up in his thick arms with surprising swiftness and placed me on Pascha’s back like a toy.
“We cannot delay obeying the witch’s order now that we know where to search,” he said, becoming a horse himself as I squirmed and hiked up my skirt. Pascha snorted and danced beneath me, which didn’t help matters. I grabbed his mane in my fist to steady myself.
“Ow,” he said, but it sounded sarcastic. Zakhar put his head up against his shoulder and looked at me with one milky eye.
“I had the same affliction that you have,” he said, “though less progressed. But I was able to shed it.”
Pascha jerked forward, knocking the breath out of me, and began to gallop alongside the river. I was forced to let go of his mane as the strands heated up between my fingers. I dug my nails into his withers intsead, for it was very difficult to grip his back with just my knees in a skirt.
“Ow, again!” Pascha called, as the thudding sound of Zakhar’s hoofbeats caught up to us. “You never apologized for biting me that one time, by the way!”
“I don’t apologize for things I’m not sorry for! How did you get rid of the white tree, Zakhar?”
He had come up alongside us, nostrils flaring, a magnificent white charger with a blue mane and scales on his neck.
“My mistress took it from me,” he said, without turning his head- his horse’s eyes could see me just as well from the side. “It takes power of her kind to do such a thing.”
I had been afraid of that, but Zakhar spoke again before my heart could sink too far.
“Perhaps, if you do her a great favor, she might do the same for you.”
He looked across at me, with those hooded blue eyes of his. I recalled his earlier question: Whom will you ride?
I knew exactly what the witch wanted.
“I’ve changed my mind,” I said, kicking Pascha’s sides with my heels. “Put me on Zakhar’s back.”
“Eh? Really?” Pascha snorted and danced in place. “Does it matter so much? We’re all-”
Zakhar changed, not the horse but the serpent with talons, rising up to snatch me from Pascha’s back. I gave a cry and so did he, but mine was mere surprise, while his was the realization that I had betrayed him.
Then Zakhar and I vanished into mist.