A black horse to catch.
By some sliver of luck the morning was dawning dull and overcast, the sun muffled by pale clouds, and though my exposed skin still itched and tingled as the light grew, I was able to stay on Zakhar’s back in the open without too much discomfort. That was good, because he didn’t seem to have a care for protecting me: he trotted straight on out in the open, quitting the tangled wood for the glossy fields around the river’s curve. No sign of the spirit revelry that taken place last night remained; in all respects it was a perfectly ordinary, if rather quiet, morning.
But my hand kept straying back to my neck, and every movement of my throat reminded me of the constriction there. Thinking back, I had no idea what had posessed me to undertake such a mad plan. Though I would nerver deny that my life’s course had been largely determined by a series of hasty, poorly thought-out decisions. Oh, the words I should have spoken: Mama, I met a gadjo man at the fair today, named after a flower…
Never mind that, though. This most recent one was shaping up to be catastrophic. How it was that I found myself on Zakhar’s back once more, heading back into Mother Forest’s territory, bearing the ribbon that I had willingly taken from Baba Yaga to catch a vicious light spirit with the understanding that a most painful punishment would be enacted on me should I fail…
No wonder I died so young. What a fool.
But on the other hand, I was not doing all this for a pittance, I was doing it to rid myself of a deadly curse which was slowly but surely destroying me from the inside. That would certainly excuse me a risky move or two.
Though I wouldn’t have even got in that situation if I hadn’t acted like an idiot in a number of other ways. In fact, why not drag it all back to that day at the fair- wasn’t it the cause of everything going to pieces?
“You’ve gone stiff,” Zakhar observed, turning one of his white ears back. It was lined with pale blue fur on the inside, as well as a bit of earwax.
“Horses don’t talk,” I muttered.
“Having second thoughts, then?”
“I barely even had first thoughts, so no. Anyway, I don’t really have any other options now.”
“You could give up,” said Zakhar, and gave an uncharacteristically colorful laugh. I frowned and dug my heels into his sides, but my feet merely sank a few inches into his warm, insubstantial flesh.
“Be careful,” he admonished me, without managing to put too much concern into his tone. “I do not have the strength of Pascha and Kazimir. I find it difficult to maintain flesh.”
“I’ve noticed.” Sitting on his back was like trying to float on butter. “Why even bother having it, then?”
“Flesh is pleasant to have,” said Zakhar. “For the most part. Besides, there is little way to interact with the earth without it.”
“Kezia does just fine,” I pointed out.
“An unusual exception. The power within golems is a riddle I shall never understand. But I do pity her, all the same. Clay is still a poor substitute for living skin.”
“I think that a creature who can pick and choose when he wants to have it is no judge of that,” I said. “I would dearly love it if I could slough off my flesh long enough to get this dratted tree out of me.”
“I am afraid that would do you no good in any case,” said Zakhar. “When I was afflicted with the treewitch’s parasite, I gave up my flesh and found that it clung to my spirit itself.”
“That… does not sound nice.” I couldn’t help but touch my shoulder. Was it twinging more frequently? Who knew where the next bud would pop out of me…
Zakhar stopped walking, and I noticed we had come back to the riverbank. In fact, we were right back at the pit that Radu had dug. There was no sign of the mirror, though, and one of the walls of the black hole itself was already collapsing and creating a slow slide of trickling sand.
Zakhar raised his horse’s muzzle skywards and flicked out his tongue- I should not have been so surprised to see that it was forked.
“Pascha is long gone from here,” he observed.
“I don’t blame him. Why, do you think he’ll be able to warn Kazimir about us?”
Zakhar laughed. “He could try, but I doubt Kazimir would even let him within shouting distance.”
“A pity all that time spent in close quarters didn’t reconcile them,” I said.
Perhaps my words needled him a bit, for he shifted his weight quite deliberately and threw off my balance. I had to grope at his bare, slippery neck to keep myself seated.
“Obstinance has always been a mystery to me,” he said blandly, scuffing one hoof in the sand. “Particularly towards a pointless grudge.”
“Ah, but grudges are so satisfying,” I said, gritting my teeth as I resettled myself. At least the scaly parts of him were relatively solid. “You should try holding one sometime. I don’t feel myself without having a few on hand.”
“That does not surprise me.”
“Eh, are we going to cross this river, or just stare at it?”
In answer he stepped forward and began walking right across the surface of the water. I swallowed and tried to grip tighter with my legs; seeing the water passing unbroken beneath my dangling feet was a tad disconcerting.
“One wonders how Kezia became so attached to you,” said Zakhar, ambling along at a pace much too sedate for my liking. “She is the most innocent, amiable creature I could think of, while you may well be a tangle of hissing cats wrapped in sackcloth.”
“I’d like to think it was at least silk they were wrapped in! And Kezia is neither as sweet nor as innocent as you think. When she spoke to you the first time it was right after she had tried to squeeze the life out of me.”
“Really?” He turned an ear back towards me. “What for?”
“I hate how pleased you sound. I don’t remember what for, the point is that she also has a temper.”
“One might think it wise to remember what prompts a golem’s rage, but I am sure you are getting along with the best of your ability. Has she been violent towards you at any other time?”
“Why are you so interested? It’s really none of your affair how we resolve our arguments.”
He paused, standing still right in the middle of the river, and tilted his head back so he could look at me with one eye.
“I’ve seem other golems before, during my travels. Not many, for they seem difficult to conjure, and even more difficult to control. An enraged golem is a fearsome sight.”
“You don’t have to tell me that. But Kezia isn’t some dumb brute about to go on a rampage.”
“No,” agreed Zakhar, “she seems rather too gentle for that. And intelligent as well, I suppose.” He paused a long moment, and then continued walking. “I still wonder what binds her to you.”
“Has it occurred to you that there might possibly be something to like about me?”
“I’m afraid not.”
I kicked his sides again, though it was just as fruitless as before. “Then how should I know? What binds you to Kazimir?”
“Love, pure and simple.”
“Than I suppose it-” I coughed, my cheeks coloring slightly. “I suppose just the same.”
“Oh? You think she loves you?”
I coughed again; the ribbon was making my throat terribly itchy. “She likes me, to a great extent. Probably due to the fact that I gave her free will. She must feel indebted to me for that.”
“Perhaps,” said Zakhar. “It is all very interesting. I’ve never seen a golem act with free will the way she does. In fact, I’ve never met a golem with free will before at all. How did you give it to her?”
“I’m not telling you. Can’t you go any faster, mule?”
Zakhar let out a prolonged sigh through his wide nostrils. We’d come to the other side of the river, and he stepped up onto the bank with nary a ripple left behind. Just a few yards away, the treeline into Mother Forest’s territory began.
“Kazimir has… gone in there, has he?” My voice dropped an octave or two; I couldn’t help it.
“You needn’t fear the treewitch. You already bear her curse; there’s little more she can do to harm you.”
“In my experience, there’s always a little more people can do,” I replied, but there was little energy left in me to continue the conversation. We both fell silent as Zakhar approached the trees.
It was ominous enough returning to the source of my current woes, but I did have just enough confidence in Zakhar to assume he’d protect me if things did get dicey. At least until I collared Kazimir. But by then, hopefully, I would be reunited with Kezia; little could hurt me with her around.
I had to wonder on Zakhar’s words about golems and rampages. I had lied when I’d told him I didn’t remember what I’d said that had got Kezia angry, that time. I did remember- in a fit of distress I’d said something rather cruel to her, calling her dirt. It was enough to invoke anyone to rage, and I didn’t begrudge her that, and at the time- at the time she had seemed a lot younger than she did now, more like a child. I doubted the current Kezia would grab me in anger; she’d just scold me.
No, if I was afraid of anything, it wasn’t Kezia’s anger.
The sun was just starting to peep out from the clouds when we entered the trees, and I turned my face away as the rays lanced at me through the leaves. The woods were quiet, aside from a scattered bit of birdsong and the crunch of Zakhar’s hooves on the leaves.
“How close are we?” I muttered into his ear. “To Kazimir?”
“Not terribly close, but not very far,” he replied, not bothering to keep his voice down. “You are not Jewish, are you?”
“What? No, I am not- where on earth did that come from?”
“I was still considering the odd attachment Kezia has for you,” he said, “and it occurred to me that you may have known how to give her free will due to your faith. Whence came your ancestors?”
“From opposite ends of the earth,” I replied, “from the southmost desert and- and wherever it is Kalderashi came from originally.”
“Oh, so you are a Romani,” said Zakhar, with a touch of surprise in his voice.
“No, I am not; only a diddikai, a half, with a Moorish mother. Well, I was a diddikai, though currently I am a strigoi.”
“Ah,” said Zakhar. “I see it in your features, though not your color. A Moor and a Romani- it must be an interesting story.”
He didn’t sound exceptionally interested, despite his words, and his comment on my color rubbed me the wrong way. I pressed my lips together and resolved to let the subject drop. Anyway, as for a story of how my parents met… I couldn’t quite remember how they’d met, come to think of it. It mustn’t have been such an interesting tale after all.
A shadow passed over our heads, just a dark avian shape through the screen of leaves above us. Zakhar threw his head back and gave a kind of whinnying grumble.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, shielding my eyes and squinting. It looked like a large bird, an eagle, perhaps, circling slowly above.
“It’s Pascha,” said Zakhar.
“Pascha? That bird?”
“Not quite a bird,” said Zakhar. “He must have already seen us. Perhaps he thinks to herd Kazimir away from us with his presence alone.”
“Will the witch let him get away with that?”
“If she notices, no. He plays a risky game. He must be desperate to keep Kazimir free.” There was a touch of sadness to his tone.
“If you ask me,” I said, flicking a fingernail against one of the scales on his neck, “for all the complaints, you really don’t seem to have such a terrible time, being the witch’s servants.”
“Is that what you think?”
“Well, she has let you roam about for long periods of time, and her tasks don’t seem particularly taxing upon you when she does ask for them. Her punishments don’t seem terribly harsh, given your value to her.” I shrugged, glancing up at the circling shape of Pascha, high above us. “To me it seems that you all are making a great deal of uneccesary fuss about it.”
“I may view it as less harsh a sentence than Pascha or Kazimir,” said Zakhar, his tail swishing slowly, “but I would advise you not to speak on matters you know nothing about.”
I had to laugh. “Know nothing about? I know nothing about servitude?”
“You are Romani, but-”
“Indeed, I am- was! I think it’s you who knows nothing, Zakhar. You are a spirit that wants for neither food nor water, rest nor relief, and as I said, you are much to valuable to damage. You have no understanding of what being a slave really is.”
“Your assesment of our invulnerability is flattering, but not wholly correct,” said Zakhar. “And there is not just the question of physical harm, but spiritual harm as well- the harm that comes with a lack of freedom.”
“Spiritual harm, eh? I see, of course.” I was fostering the edge of a delicious sense of anger; perhaps it was just the weary welling-up from all my recent struggles, and hearing his smug voice speak of servitude. “I should tell a girl I once knew your words, so that she can commiserate with you about your spiritual harm. Of course, she will have difficulty talking back- her masters cut off her lips, and scoured the wounds with lye.”
He let out a heavy sigh, his sides shuddering. “Must you needle me with such gruesome tales? There are more important things to be done than bicker.”
“I agree with that,” I said, linking my fingers behind my head. “I only thought it was silly to be told of flesh’s pleasure and a slave’s suffering by a creature who can slough off flesh whenever he chooses.”
“Perhaps you should make your arguments to Pascha, not I,” muttered Zakhar. “He is the one that so badly wants to keep Kazimir free.”
I made no reply to this. My mind had turned unwillingly back to the memory of the girl who’d had her lips cut off. A house slave. I didn’t know what she’d done to warrant such treatment, but I watched it happen: in the garden, watering the tomatoes. She was there with me, pumping water from the well. Three young men- the son of our master and his friends- had burst from the back door and pinned her to the ground; responding to her shrieks with nervous giggles, the one atop her had taken out his knife.
I later learned that our master himself had not ordered this treatment, and was rather angry with his son. Why, then, had such punishment been doled out? I never knew, it was not my place to know, it was merely a reminder of my own helplessness every time I saw the lipless girl thereafter, with her silent, permanent grimace. A house slave walks on a carpet of live bears– my father had told me that himself, continuing- we wanderers are nearly not slaves at all, so never sell what freedom you have- but I had done it despite his warnings, for Viorel.
As the name surfaced in my mind I could not stop a shudder from overtaking me, but I quelled the rising feelings of anxiety- somehow I after I’d died I had made an unconscious promise to myself never to think of him again, but the levee had broken, so to speak, and I was forced to be reminded of him every so often. So: Viorel. There, it was only a name…
The lipless girl’s name had been Mirela, and often I’d wish that she had died, partly for pity, mostly so I would not have to look at her. If, one day, the men had decided to punish me in such a manner, to cut off my lips or fingers or feet, I feared he would leave me for my ugliness, and o, he was my only light in that sickening place…
But in the end you stopped believing in him, didn’t you? You couldn’t wait just a little longer- trusting him- no, you abandoned him- and you DIED-
A searing feeling of distress washed over me, and in a sudden fit I tried to leap from Zakhar’s back. He whinnied and half-turned, and I only slid halfway off, grasping his neck, all my limbs trembling as though with an ague.
“What are you doing?” he said, turning his head so that I was struck with every warm, horsey breath that punctuated his words.
I gathered the disparate bits of myself; if I was going to fall to pieces, let it not be in front of Zakhar.
“I thought I heard something,” was my feeble response, which I hoped he was disinterested enough not to probe, but much to my surprise he raised his head and pricked his pale ears.
“Yes… I hear it too.”
I slid the rest of the way off of his back, since it seemed we weren’t going anywhere for the moment. The springy forest floor was like a little shock to the soles of my feet. The leaves rustled, the sunlight dappled, and I took a few deep breaths.
Zakhar was snuffling at the air, his forked tongue protruding slightly from between his lips. After a moment, he shook his head and snorted.
“Get back on,” he said. “It’s only a human man, and I think Kazimir is moving.”
“A human man, here?” I wondered, a sudden suspicion dawning on me, and then scowled- Zakhar had given my shoulder an impatient nudge with his muzzle.
“Your head rests on Kazimir’s capture, remember,” he said.
He wasn’t wrong, but I still stood there for a moment, listening. There was indeed somebody coming our way, very slowly, it sounded like. And whom did I know that moved so sluggishly? I started forward, to Zakhar’s disapproving grunt behind me.
“You’ll have time to feed later!”
I ignored him, pushing my way through the undergrowth towards the sound of the faltering footsteps.
They stopped, and between the trees I saw him: that fool of an old man. He seemed even wearier and more ancient than I had remembered him, clutching a cane with rheumy hands, his hair a tangled puff atop his head.
“What are you doing back in here?” I snapped, as he stared at me. “Where is Noroc? Shouldn’t he be watching you?”
Slowly his brow furrowed, and he blinked several times.
“Who is Noroc?”
“Who is- the cat, the black cat! Did he never tell you his name?”
A smile creased his face, though his eyes still looked bewildered.
“How could a cat tell me his name?”
I hesitated, took a longer look at him. There was something not quite right… But it was without a doubt Elan standing before me.
“Are you ill?” I asked. It didn’t make any sense. Noroc would never have left his side willingly.
“Oh, no, I’m only old,” he said, in a gentle way, as though I were a child. “I’m sorry, I feel that we have met before, but I don’t remember your name.”
“You don’t remember when we met?” There was a sick feeling coming to my gut. “What about that scar on your neck?”
It was still there, vivid, red, raised.
“What scar?” asked Elan. “Maybe you have me confused for someone else… maybe I have you confused for someone else. But it seems to me that a young woman like yourself shouldn’t be walking alone in these woods…”
Now it was I that stared at him.
“What happened to you…?”
“He is nearly empty.”
The ghostly voice at my shoulder spooked me, and I jumped. I’d forgotten about Zakhar, but he’d silently caught up to me, and now stood just behind me, his warm breath fluttering my headscarf.
Elan looked over at him in a misty way, the face of a man who has just heard a horse speak and is not quite sure what to do about it.
“What do you mean?” I asked, shifting to one side, and he put his long face over my shoulder. At some point he had aquired a long blue mane, and it tickled irritatingly against my cheek.
“Flesh ages,” he said. “The soul loosens from the body, like ripe fruit from a rind. This man is nearly gone.”
I shook my head, pushing him away.
“That doesn’t make any sense, how can he just- I spoke to him only recently, he had his whole self intact then!”
“He does not now,” said Zakhar. “Come, Gabi, we are wasting time here.”
“Gabi?” said Elan, quite suddenly. “Is that your name?”
I opened and closed my mouth, soundless, and then turned angrily to Zakhar.
“I can’t just leave him here! He’s Kezia’s-” Kezia’s what, exactly? “He’s important to Kezia! Elan, Kezia still has to speak to you!”
With this last I turned back to Elan, searching his eyes: but to my horror, they gained no spark of recognition.
“Kezia?” he murmured, sounding it out. “Elan?”
“I will not carry him,” said Zakhar. “You risk yourself the longer you stand here. Come back for him once you’ve completed your task.”
“But-!” I cast my eyes at the forest surrounding us: it was as peaceful and benign-seeming as one could imagine, but I knew that was a trap. Every unfurling shoot here dripped with venom.
“Few spectres hold interest in those already so near death,” said Zakhar. “He is in less danger here than you are.”
He had me there, and the ribbon was beginning to feel awfully tight around my neck, but still I wavered. What about wolves, or bears? They wouldn’t mind making a meal of a man, and if he was old and frail, more the better. And what about Mother Forest’s golems? What if the doddering idiot went straight up to them like he had before?
How could I tell Kezia that I’d just left him behind?
“Stay right here,” I told Elan. “Don’t move from this spot, do you hear me? I’ll be back before sundown.”
“I’m sorry,” said Elan. “I won’t be here at sundown.”
He must have seen my alarmed look, for he laughed softly and said, “No, I mean that there is somewhere I must go.”
“Where?” I snapped. “Where could you possibly have to go?” Not his ruined village again, surely!
“I’m afraid I don’t quite remember that either,” Elan admitted, “but I know the way.”
It had to be his village, then- “Don’t go there. You won’t find what you’re looking for. Elan, this is no jest, stay here. Climb a tree, perhaps, if you can manage it, but don’t move from this spot until I come back for you.”
Elan hesitated, one gently trembling hand on his cane.
“I suppose I could rest a while,” he said. “But I would like to get to my destination before it gets dark.”
“I’ll be back before them,” I insisted, as Zakhar snorted softly beside me. “Wait for me here! I’ll bring Kezia with me- if you speak to her, you will remember again, Elan, I’m certain of it.”
He smiled at me, blankly, confused. I pressed my lips together and climbed astride Zakhar’s back.
“Don’t go anywhere!” I warned him, one final time, and then Zakhar began to move.
“Come, Gabi,” he said. “You have a black horse to catch.”