It’d be like thrashing a dead dog.
Pascha told me to follow him, and so I did. We turned away from the direction of Mother’s territory, or the Starving Forest, as he had called it, and walked back into the little valley with all the stones. In the daylight there was no mist, only jutting rocks covered in pale blue and green lichen. I thought about the black toad that I had seen the night before. I hoped that she was doing all right.
Pascha ducked under a large gray outcropping and beckoned me over.
“Can you fit through here? There’s a tunnel beyond it.”
I walked closer and hunched forward, putting my fists on the ground so I could see. There was a dark opening underneath the outcropping, and I could feel warm air flowing out of it.
“I think that I can fit,” I said. “I might scrape off a little bit of my skin.”
“Well, as long as you’re comfortable with it,” said Pascha, shrugging. “Be careful inside, it might be slippery.”
With that, he ducked into the opening and vanished at once. I reached out and touched the stone sticking out around the entrance. It felt warm.
I took my hand away and squeezed through the opening. I had to duck and push my belly in, and like I had feared some of my clay skin scraped away against the rock. But I got inside.
It was very cramped. I could see right away that I would not be able to stand up straight there- I had to stay on all fours. The floor was slippery, just like Pascha had warned me. I moved carefully forward a few steps, testing it and bracing with my fists. Then, ahead of me, I saw a soft glow.
It was Pascha. His shoulders, chest, and head were emanating a very soft orange light. It looked to me a little like firelight, because it was not steady, and flickered a little bit.
“I did not know you could glow,” I said to him. “Can all horsemen glow? It is very pretty.”
Pascha blinked and then jerked his head, like he was tossing it. He tucked one brown curl behind his ear.
“Neither of the others can glow as bright as I can,” he confided in me. “This isn’t but a whit of my light. I don’t want to blind you.”
“I do not think I can go blind,” I explained to him.
“Well, best not risk it. Come along now, it’s this way. Watch your footing.”
We went further into the cave. Soon I was splashing, as the slick stone floor gave way to a shallow pool. Pascha’s glow illuminated a widening chamber with a low ceiling hung with stalactites. I had to duck around them, stumbling through the pool, which did not have an even bottom. Steam settled just above the surface of the water, which was tepid rather than cold.
Pascha moved more gracefully than I did, but sometimes he would raise one foot up and flick it, like he was trying to shake off the water. It reminded me of Noroc.
After a little while the ground began to slope upwards, bringing us out of the pool. Pascha had to half-crawl up the hill, which as covered in loose, slippery shale. My weight helped anchor me better, but I, too, had to crouch down. The ceiling was very low there.
At the top of the hill Pascha suddenly froze, and his glow dimmed down into nothingness.
I held still, wondering. I could still see just a little in the blackness, but not much more than the hill going up in front of me and the lump that was Pascha crouching at the top.
In the quiet, calm air I heard it: a breath.
It was a big breath, too, though a slow one, as though whoever was breathing was sleeping. I could also hear the gentle sound of water moving and dripping.
“Kezia,” whispered Pascha. He had started to glow again, but much dimmer than before. “Come up here as quietly as you can.”
I obeyed, though it was hard to manage on the sliding shale. Pascha grabbed my arm as soon as I was at the top.
“Look down there,” he murmured.
On the other side of the hill, the earth sloped back down again, and there was another vast pool. It perfectly reflected the ceiling, and in fact the only reason I could tell it was water at all was that there were small ripples expanding outwards. The ripples came from a large… something… that was sticking out of the water. Steam haloed its form.
“It sleeps,” murmured Pascha. “Perhaps we can get by without waking it.”
“What is it?”
Pascha flicked his eyes at me, and I noticed the sharp glint in them.
“It is a dragon. Didn’t you wonder why they called the witch of this forest Muma Balaur?”
I had not, largely because I did not know what the word Balaur meant. I looked back over at the large lump. I was not sure what a dragon was, either, but it seemed to be some kind of big animal.
Would it like being petted?
Pascha started down the hill, motioning for me to follow. I did, though now it was hard to take my eyes off of the dragon. It was just barely moving, the lump rising and falling and making more ripples with each breath. I noticed, as we moved further down the hill, that the air was getting markedly warmer and wetter.
Pascha stepped down into the pool, then winced. Ripples were spreading out from where he had put his foot, intersecting with the ones coming off of the dragon. I watched them spreading outwards, until they vanished under the mist that hovered over the water’s surface.
There was a very soft splashing noise. I caught a flash of something long and sinuous moving underneath the water, but it was hard to see because of the way the pool reflected the ceiling.
“That’s done it,” I heard Pascha mutter. I eased myself a little further down and put my left leg in the pool. I was startled to feel that this water was not just tepid, but hot. When I put my full weight down, rocks on the bottom ground together with a loud sound.
There was a hissing noise, and steam blew from the water’s surface. Something came crashing up- something large that made a wave pass over Pascha’s chest. The steam filled the air, and I heard him coughing as he was obscured from sight.
“Are you all right?” I was asking, when another tremendous hissing sound came again. Except that I did not think this one was steam.
I heard Pascha shout, and a great deal of splashing. I blundered forward into the hot water, looking all around. I could not see anything- there was just too much steam.
“Ouch!” I heard him say, somewhere to my right, and then suddenly the cavern lit with a flash of bright light. The steam evaporated.
I beheld poor Pascha, looking considerably more draggled and wet, with his lustrous mane sticking flat to his body. He was glowing very brightly now. In front of him was something that looked a little bit like a very large snake, hovering up near his face. Except that it had two short horns, and I could see that the length of it was attached to the vast lump that was the dragon’s body.
The dragon flicked out a forked tongue. Its head was fairly small, for the size of its body, but I could see sharp, interlocking teeth sticking out of its jaw. It was blinking rapidly, a membrane brushing over its orange eye- Pascha’s flash must have blinded it.
“Now, I’ve told you there’s no use,” Pascha said. It took me a moment to realize that he was not speaking to me, but to the dragon.
The dragon made a gurgling noise. On its humped back, which stuck out of the water like a small island, a small spiked fin began to rise.
I took a step forward, and the dragon’s head cocked, one eye focusing on me. Slowly it swung that long neck around in my direction.
“Hello,” I said, since I could not think of much else.
The dragon blinked- once, twice. Then it made a retching sound.
“Are you all-”
I had to stop speaking, for just then there was a crackling noise, and the dragon spat a ball of fire in my direction. It grazed one of my arms, making the clay hiss and crack. I looked down at it.
“I have never seen an animal that could do that,” I commented.
“Nor will you again,” said the dragon. Its voice was deep and grinding, like the rocks I had stepped on, and it startled me. “What are you, that does not flinch from my fire?”
“I am a golem,” I explained.
“Never heard of that,” said the dragon, in a kind of derisive growl. It flicked its forked tongue out again. “You don’t smell alive.”
Out of the corner of my vision I saw Pascha moving like he was trying to sneak away through the water. The dragon’s head swung back towards him. It was not very fast, and it kept its neck straight most of the time. I thought it seemed stiff.
“My mistress will not let you go, horseman,” the dragon told Pascha.
“Oh, I know, but she will not catch me either,” Pascha replied, tone matter-of-fact. “But look, I have brought you a toy. It belongs to Mother Forest.”
The dragon tilted its head. I wondered what Pascha meant by ‘toy.’ Me?
“I have no need for toys,” rasped the dragon. “Only to obey the wishes of my mistress. She pulls out one of my scales for every day I do not catch you.”
“You have my sympathy,” said Pascha, in a way that did not sound very sympathetic at all. “Unfortunately, you are not making the prospect of being her servant sound very much more appealing.”
“It is not meant to be,” hissed the dragon, and lunged at him. I scrambled forward, but something thrust its way out of the water in front of me, making me stop short. It rose up and up and up- another head, atop another sinuous neck!
“There are two of you!” I cried, quite startled.
“No, no,” said Pascha, who had skipped backwards to avoid the snapping jaws of the first head. “It’s a dragon, Kezia.”
I did not quite understand what that meant, but I was able to see- now that the second head had raised up more- that it, too, joined the trunk of the dragon’s body. In fact, it looked as though there was something between the two necks attached there. A third?
“Get out of my way,” snarled the head that had just surfaced, and thrust forward to dig its teeth into my arm. I was too surprised to move, and the dragon let go at once, hissing and making more steam come up from the water. I could see clay lodged between its hooklike teeth.
“What are you? You are not flesh!”
I was more concerned about the small holes it had made in my arm. Luckily the wet air meant that my skin oozed enough to close them right away.
“Oh, that is a useful skill,” said Pascha, and I looked up. During my distraction he had moved closer to me, with the other dragon head hissing and steaming its way towards him. As I watched, he stepped nimbly back out of the way.
“Pascha,” I said, “was there really a shortcut to the Starving Forest?”
“Do you not trust me, golem?” he replied, and then he winked. “But if you want your bloodthirsty friend to have me, you had better make sure Muma Balaur’s dragon doesn’t get me first.”
Both dragon heads tilted to look over at me. I felt even more unnerved, but I did not think that he was wrong.
“Why not run away, then?” I asked. “I think that you are faster than this dragon.”
Before Pascha could answer me, the dragon’s eyes widened. It hissed, “None shall have him but Muma Balaur!”
Pascha gave a shout, and then abruptly vanished under the water.
I splashed forward, and the dragon’s leftmost head struck out towards me, hissing. I caught it in my hands before it could bite me again, holding its big jaws firmly shut. The dragon’s eyes widened, the pupils dilating, and smoke streamed from its nostrils.
Just then, Pascha reemerged from the pond, flying up like he had been propelled. In a great wave a third head emerged after him, a head that was larger than either of the others. It caught Pascha by the foot as he spun through the air, letting him dangle from its jaws.
The right head turned to look at the center one, and the one in my hands tried to do the same. I kept a tight hold on it.
“I have him,” said the middle dragon head, in a voice that was, strangely enough, higher than either of the others’. I thought it was odd that it could speak while holding Pascha in its mouth. Then I realized that was not what was really odd. The middle dragon had two mouths, and the one that was not holding Pascha was the one that had spoken. It also had three eyes and three horns- one on each side, and one in the center. It looked as though someone had tilted a mirror next to its face.
Pascha, who had his face screwed up as though he were in pain, crossed his arms.
“Kezia, could you-”
“Silence!” growled the dragon, and it shook him a little.
“Please do not hurt him,” I said, though I have to admit that I did not feel much urgency. I was not wholly happy with Pascha at the moment.
“I have the prize,” growled the right dragon head, which had turned to look at me. “Release your grip on me.”
“I am sorry,” I said, keeping a tight hold of the head in my hands. The long neck squirmed behind it. “I cannot let you take the horseman to your mistress. Gabi will need it eventually.”
“Is this Gabi your mistress?” hissed the dragon. “My mistress, Muma Balaur, is surely more powerful. She would be pleased to have a creature such as you as her servant.”
“I do not have a mistress,” I said. “I have free will.”
From his upside-down position, I saw Pascha raise his eyebrows.
“Free will!” All three of the dragon’s heads seemed to jerk on its necks. “From whence did that come? You are not the servant of a witch?”
“No, I am not,” I said. “Not at the moment. Gabi gave me free will, so that is why I want to help her.”
The dragon’s seven eyes all slitted, and then it opened its mouth and let go of Pascha, who fell with a shout and a splash back into the pool. I let go of the head in my hands and sloshed over to help him up.
“Are you all right?”
Pascha came out of the water spluttering and flickering more than ever at my question. He just shook his head at me.
The middle head lowered itself, twin tongues flicking. For the first time, the body behind the head moved, dragging itself forward. I caught a glimpse of a webbed foot under the water, and a short, balding tail.
“Who is the one who gave you free will?”
“Look, golem,” said Pascha, wiping his mouth. “Your shortcut.”
He was pointing, and I followed his finger. Behind where the dragon had been sitting before was a small tunnel.
“You shall not get past me,” growled the dragon. “Answer my question!”
I was not sure if I should tell the dragon that Gabi was the one that had given me free will. Then again, Gabi was generous, so perhaps she would give the dragon some of her blood if it asked. Because it was blood, I suspected, that the dragon was interested in- much like the Blajini.
“I must speak to Gabi first,” I told the dragon.
It did not seem to like this answer. The middle head rose up higher, and the two on either side swung towards me. I heard a crackling noise.
Pascha vanished underwater with a splash, and at first I thought he had been caught by yet another head. But then I realized that he was trying to avoid the fire the dragon was spitting out. One burning gob sailed over the spot where he had been standing, and two more struck my arm and chest. I felt my skin hardening from the heat, and smoke rose off my belly.
“What are you?” cried the dragon, and it reared up out of the water, showing me a huge, pale belly. “Burn! Answer my questions, or you will burn!”
It spat more fire at me. I tried to raise my arm, but with my skin now so stiff it only made a crunching sound and did not move. The fire hit me higher on my chest, almost at my throat.
The dragon growled, and seemed as though it was going to spit fire again, but then hesitated. Two black scraps flew out of my mouth- my bats!
I tried to move, to somehow protect them, but it was achingly slow, my hard skin cracking and grinding. The dragon’s three heads were now all looking at the bats, following them round and round the cave ceiling. They hissed and snapped, and I heard the bats shrieking as they dove to avoid them.
In my fear, I felt something else moving in my shoulder: Gabi!
“Do not come out, Gabi,” I urged. If she came out now-
She must not have heard me, because just then, a red bat flew out of my mouth and turned into Gabi as it landed in the water.
“What is going on?”
I heard Pascha whistle from somewhere on my right, but that was not my main concern. The dragon’s main head was looking back over towards us, though the other two continued snapping at the terrified bats. Gabi was staring down at the reflection of it in the water, eyes wide.
The dragon crackled, its twin jaws opening.
“That’s a dragon!” cried Gabi.
I grabbed her in my arms and turned around as the dragon let loose its flames.
It was a lot of fire. My back heated up tremendously, and I was glad the bats had left, because the inside of my hollow body would have cooked them. Gabi was squirming in my arms, giving out startled utterances, but I held her tightly until the dragon ran out of fire.
“Kezia!” she kept saying, and when the whoosh of flames finally stopped, her voice rang out overly-loud inside the cave. “Kezia, what is all this!”
I tried to relax my arms so she could free herself, though my back was horribly stiff. From behind me I heard a loud thump and felt the water splash over my lower back in a wave. The dragon must have got back onto all fours again.
“Another?” it hissed. “You are trying to trick me, aren’t you! You think I am a fool?”
Gabi finally squirmed enough out of my embrace to grab my head and peek over it. My field of vision was filled with her bare chest.
“This is your doing, isn’t it!” she snapped. I could not see who she was speaking to, but the response confirmed it.
“I was just looking for a shortcut,” came Pascha’s voice, uncharacteristically meek. “Just trying to help.”
Gabi said a few words I was not familiar with, slapping her hand down on top of my head.
“Kezia! Don’t go following any fool around while I’m sleeping!”
“I am sorry,” I said.
“I am going to burn you all up when I get enough flame back,” injected the dragon, though it sounded more petulant than anything.
“Oh, go to sleep, you poor old thing,” said Pascha. “You’ve gone and used up all your fire with all the excitement. You know you shan’t catch me anyhow.”
The dragon responded with a series of gurgles and screeches, similar in tone to the words Gabi had used earlier. She was still tapping on the top of my head.
“I told you to go straight back to the border of Mother Forest’s territory. Can’t you listen?”
“I am sorry,” I said again, feeling very, truly sorry. I should have followed my first instinct and not gone with Pascha. I could not say to Gabi that it was because I had been lonely. How could I be lonely if she was traveling with me? I had gotten greedy.
“Don’t be so hard on the poor thing; there really is a shortcut,” said Pascha. “Look just there, behind the dragon.”
“As if I’d believe-” started Gabi, but he talked over her.
“And, it also happens to be the tunnel the white horseman took! If you used your nose you could smell it yourself. Didn’t I say I was helping?”
“Helping!” snarled Gabi. She squirmed the rest of the way out of my stiff arms and splashed down into the pool. The water nearly came to her chest- I had not realized how short she was Pascha was actually quite tall in comparison.
“Why are you just standing there?” she inquired, aiming a kick at one of my legs. “Let’s hurry up and get out of here before the dragon recovers.”
“I am trying,” I explained. “My back is very hard right now.”
“What do you mean, hard?” Gabi walked around me, which made me nervous. I could not get her to protect her if the dragon tried to attack her again. I tried to flex my shoulders, but they only made that horrible grinding, crunching noise again.
“I suppose dragonfire would be this potent,” I heard her muttering, and then felt something cool. She was rubbing water over my back.
“Let me help,” said Pascha, skipping back into my field of view.
“You’ve helped just enough,” said Gabi. “Go throw yourself into the dragon’s mouth, why don’t you?”
“If that’s what you want,” said Pascha, shrugging, but he did not move.
My back was starting to soften up from Gabi’s ministrations, and soon I found myself able to rotate my shoulders again.
“Thank you, Gabi,” I said, turning around very jerkily. “I am all right. Let us get away from here. It is not safe.”
“Are you really all right?” said Gabi, eyeing me up and down. She cupped her hands under the water and reached up to smooth them over the cracked spot on my arm. “How did you manage to get into this much trouble so quickly?” She shot a glare behind me, probably at Pascha.
“I will let you go,” said the dragon, which had been all but forgotten. I looked up from Gabi and saw that it had lowered its three heads so that they hovered just above the waterline. It sounded tired. “Only because you are not useful to me or my mistress.”
“Very gracious,” said Pascha. I heard the grin in his voice. Gabi’s expression got several shades darker as I watched.
“Come on, Kezia,” she said. “I suppose I won’t have the chance to get any more sleep today.”
If the golem had been rebellious, I would have cowed and subjugated it; and if it had been shrill and petulant, I would have shook it in my jaws like a rat. But it was neither of those, only meek, walking slowly with its big head down like an oversized, miserable child.
It was difficult to unleash the storm brewing inside of me onto something like that.
We had left the stupid horseman and the doddering dragon behind for the shortcut tunnel, because despite the horseman’s attitude, he was correct in that it smelled like one of his brethren. I suppose they felt little enough loyalty to one another. But I did not believe his insistence that it was all to help us. He had most certainly taken the golem to that dragon to have it tested, and he would remember how well it had performed.
He would not be caught so easily next time.
This was foreboding, but what pressed upon me more was how narrowly I had escaped oblivion back there. Very few things could entirely eliminate a strigoi, but sustained dragonfire was certainly one of them. If the golem had not snatched me… but who had told it to do that? Had it known somehow that fire would kill me? I cast a sidelong glance towards its big, gloomy figure. Its skin was still rippled and cracked in places from the heat.
“What did that horseman say to you to get you to follow it?” I asked, doing my best to keep my voice carefully neutral.
The golem slowly turned its head towards me, its eyes like pits in the dimness. There was just a little light, for the tunnel was not so much a tunnel but a valley carved out by some ancient river. A very, very thin line of sky was visible along the arching ceiling above us, where two cliffs curved to meet. Roots cris-crossed like spiderwebs in the soil above our heads.
“He only said that he wanted to walk beside me,” the golem told me. “And that he knew a shorter way to get to the Starving Forest than the one I was taking. I should not have listened to him.”
“Of course not,” I said, a bit of bite coming back into my voice before I restrained myself. “I mean- what has been done, has been done. You know better next time.”
“Yes,” said the golem, raising its head slightly.
“You should do as I say, as much for your own good as mine.”
I drummed my fingers on my hip. I was still not wholly satisfied.
“Consult me if you must make those sort of decisions.”
“You will,” I muttered. There was the root of the problem- that golem’s will. I had never imagined that it would have so much of it. A shambling infant-creature was what I had expected from my gift of free will; compliant at best and brutish at worst, but not… whatever this was. I couldn’t help but eye the cracked plates on the golem’s chest again; the stupid horseman had nearly broken it and lost all my hard work.
“I hope that you did not get hurt,” said the golem.
“No, I did not,” I replied, puffing a short breath out through my nose. “Though it was dreadfully hot in there for a moment.”
“I am sorry.”
“Well, you withstood the dragon’s fire better than I would have expected, I will grant you that.”
“I did not do very well,” said the golem. “I lost my bats.”
I glanced up at its face, but of course that empty frown was as fixed as ever.
“I’m sorry for that, Kezia.”
I had not said it wholly seriously, but the golem turned its head away from me and said, “It was not your fault. It was my fault.”
I swallowed, for there it was again. The golem was feeling sorrowful! Over bats! There was something simply not right with it. It did not match up with anything I had learned about the things- though, admittedly, I had not learned a great deal. I had never mingled much with Jews and their magics.
But perhaps I had not grasped the real reason that the witch had made the golem. I turned back towards it as the thought struck me.
“You call the witch who made you ‘Mother,’ don’t you?”
“Yes,” said the golem.
“And why is that? Did she tell you to?”
“No, she did not,” said the golem. “I knew she was my mother right away.”
Ah. Then perhaps I was on to something.
“What else did you know right away?”
The golem slouched forward as it walked; thinking, it seemed.
“I knew many things. I do not think I could list them all. And I knew many more things later.”
“When I saw a bat, I knew it was a bat,” said the golem, “but not before.”
“Hmm,” I said, because I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that.
The golem put one large hand against its belly.
“Sometimes I feel as though someone is telling me these things,” it said in a low voice, as though confiding in me. “Someone I cannot see.”
I swallowed again. It had to be the witch’s magic.
“You don’t- err- get any more specific messages from this voice, do you?”
“I do not think so. I could not get it to tell me what a church was for.”
“A church is the least of your worries,” I advised it, reaching out to pat the big arm. I was certain I had figured it out, now. It was a classic enough tale. The witch made a golem that would call her ‘mother.’ And witches were barren; everyone knew that. This golem was a substitute child. That was why it behaved the way it did. I breathed out a low breath, feeling relieved. That was all. Just a substitute. It wasn’t real.
The golem was watching me as I sighed, and I turned and blinked up at it.
“What is it?”
The golem did not say anything back, only very slowly blinked its empty eyes back at me.
I hadn’t known strigoi could get chills, but apparently they could.
“Well! We’ve wasted a large amount of time, but I think we are getting close to the border now,” I said, trying to brush aside my unease. “Hopefully we will not meet that nasty cat of yours down here.”
“I hope not too,” said the golem. “I was not kind to him the last time we met.”
“He’s not a particularly nice cat,” I pointed out, touching my side.
“He is not a bad cat,” said the golem. “He only does not like getting his feet wet.”
It was such a nonsensical connection that I laughed, making the golem tilt its head.
“I do not think any cat does; but then again, I never thought horses liked to go underground.” I looked pensively out at the tunnel stretching ahead of us, thumbing my chin. “I wonder what he’s been doing down here…”
“Does the white horseman look very much like the red horseman?” asked the golem.
“Only in that he is white,” I said. “I did not get a terribly good look at him; he was a white horse and also briefly a white man the last I caught sight of him. Well- I suppose he might not look like either of those things.”
“Why not?” asked the golem, tilting its head the other way.
“They are not, strictly speaking, ordinary horses and men. I suppose even you noticed that.”
“I did notice it.”
“My great mistake was that I did not know their owner when I saw her.” (Well, I had been drunk at the time, but I’d leave that bit out.) “She was a powerful witch- the witch, you could say. Her servants are a cut above the usual spirits you find in the forests here.”
“Is that why they can change shape?” asked the golem. “And glow?”
I pondered trying to explain to it how the three horsemen were really just manifestations of different sorts of light, how they warped and changed depending on their outside influences, the time of day, and other such things, how the witch had harnessed their power and shaped it to her own desires; but I settled with a simple, “Yes.”
“Oh,” said the golem. “Gabi, why do witches make servants that do not want to be servants?”
I snorted, partly from surprise. “They do not make them, usually. You are an unusual case.”
“Then how did the horsemen become servants of a witch? And that dragon said that it was Muma Balaur’s servant, but it did not want to be.”
“You had a conversation with it, did you?”
The golem blinked again. I swallowed.
“It’s not as if I know much about how witches handle things. I don’t rightly know what witches really are, to be honest. But if there’s a forest, there’s a witch, and if that witch thinks she can use you, she will.”
“Has a witch ever used you?”
I looped one finger under the ribbon around my neck. “One is using me right now, isn’t she? And that mother of yours, didn’t she use you?”
“Yes,” said the golem, “but I did not mind.”
“Of course you did not mind. You had no will of your own, back then.”
“No,” said the golem, slowly shaking its big head. “That is not true. Sometimes I wished that I did not have to listen to her. But she was my mother.”
“Your mother, eh?” I pondered what would happen if I told the golem that it was nothing but a big clay substitute.
“I think that mothers are supposed to be kind to their children,” said the golem, looking towards me as though it wanted acknowledgement. I pulled my mouth to one side and shrugged.
“Mother was not cruel to me,” said the golem.
“Why should she have been?” I chuckled. “No point in being cruel to someone you utterly control. It’d be like thrashing a dead dog.”
“No,” said the golem. “She was kind. She…”
It trailed off, and belatedly I wondered if it would be better not to upset the thing, not when we were about to go horseman-hunting.
“I am sure your mother-”
“Do you have a mother, Gabi?”
The question sent prickles up my spine, and I stopped mid-step.
The golem stopped beside me. I shook my head a little.
“Everyone has a mother. Of course I do. Did.”
“Is she gone now?”
“These are very personal questions,” I snapped. “And anyway, I do not know anything concerning her anymore. It has been a very long time since we last met. If she has died, it was probably not even in this country.”
“What is a country?” asked the golem.
“Never mind.” I set my shoulders and started walking again. The golem lumbered hastily to catch up.
“I recalled what a country is just now,” it said.
“What, the little voice in your head?”
“Yes, it told me,” explained the golem. “Why do you think your mother died outside this country?”
“Why must you ask?!”
“I want to know more about you, Gabi,” the golem said, quite unapologetically. “I have never known about another person before. I like knowing about you.”
I carded my fingers in my hair, scowling. “That is very unsettling to hear.”
“Oh,” said the golem, sounding surprised. “I am sorry. I thought that it would make you happy. It would make me happy if you wanted to know more about me.”
“About you? Just what would there be to know?”
I rather regretted my sharp words just then, because the golem drew away a little, and stopped walking again.
“There is not very much,” it said. “You are right.”
My fingers twitched, and a sour feeling settled in on me like miasma.
“Come along, keep up. We have things to take care of.”
“Yes,” said the golem, in a dull way. It came beside me again and we walked in silence for a little while through the dim tunnel. The golem’s head brushed underneath dangling tree roots, making earth crumble away and bounce lightly on its shoulders. I flinched when some hit my cheek.
“My mother was not from this country, you know,” I said, scrubbing away at the spot where the dirt had touched me.
The golem turned its head. I kept my shoulders set.
“Nor the rest of them. My relations. We did not mean to stay here, either. And they left on schedule.”
“They left you behind?”
“No! It was I that left them.” I laughed. A warm little memory was flickering in the back of my mind like spitfire. “I stayed. I did not want to leave. Because I fell in…”
When I stopped talking, stopped walking, the golem overshot me, then circled back around to face me.
“Gabi? Are you all right?”
It reached one large hand out towards me, and I started backwards.
“Curse you! Oh, curse you!”
That little spitfire had flared up, and my head burned. I grabbed my forehead with a shudder, eyes wide. No- no, no, no! I forgot, I forgot, I forget-
“Gabi!” The golem grasped me by the shoulder, squeezing. I yanked myself away.
“That wasn’t me! It wasn’t my mother. I don’t have a mother.”
“But you said everyone has-”
“Not the dead!” I snarled. “I am dead. I am a strigoi! That other person is gone. I am not her. They are not my memories, not my cares. And you- don’t you dare ever bring them up again!”
“I do not understand,” said the golem, quite pitifully. “Why-”
“You do not need to be told why!” I cried. “You are nothing, nothing, nothing! You were made to serve, and nothing else! You are clay! You are dirt!”
The golem stood perfectly still as I finished speaking, my chest rising and falling rapidly. My head still burned hot, and it was almost hard to see, so suffused had my mind become with images I had carefully filed away. The golem had disturbed them, and now they tumbled end over end, like grains sliding from the top of a pile. If I was not careful, I would be buried under the avalanche.
But it was not mine, not mine, only a fragment of the weak, mewling creature I had left behind when I had burst out of my shallow grave. I had not lied to the golem when I said that I had no mother. The earth itself had birthed me. The earth had changed me.
With these thoughts, I could feel myself beginning to calm down, the fire receding. I was myself, I was Gabi-the-strigoi, and no other.
“Come now,” I said to the golem, which still had not moved. “We’ve wasted enough time here. If we want to catch that horseman-”
All at once, much too quickly to seem real, the golem moved forwards and put its hands around my sides.
I was too shocked to do anything at first- and then when I recovered, the first thing I did was cry out in pain. The golem was squeezing me with a terrible force, so that I could feel my sides already bruising. Its big hands had pinned my arms to my sides, so that I was caught like a worm, my legs kicking uselessly as it lifted me up. I stared into those empty eyes, utterly in shock, because I was left completely helpless against its strength.
I changed into a marten, lithe and squirming, but the golem’s hands closed down with me, keeping hold of me. My tiny head barely poked out from them. In a spurt of terror I changed back, and choked as the pressure increased- crushing me- crushing me- I twisted, squirrel fox sparrow hedgehog bat toad struggling, flexing snake, and then, with a great shudder and a burst of fear, a kicking, bucking roe deer.
The golem did not let go.
I fell still, sinking back into my own form. I could do nothing to stop that terrible pressure. Strigoi should not die from a mere crushing, but this golem could go beyond that and grind me to dust. Less than dust.
All these thoughts passed through my mind as I stared into the golem’s black eyes. I do not know how long it held me up there. I felt my ribs straining and straining, my arms aching, but though the pressure stayed steady, it did not increase.
The golem gazed at me without expression. I could see the back of its head through its eyes.
I took very thin breath and managed to ask, “Well- what are you going to do with me?”
The golem started, the first I had ever seen it use such a lifelike motion. The next moment it dropped me on the ground, where I curled up, coughing, on my side.
I had expected it to mumble some sort of explanation, in its slow way, or at least an ultimatum. None came. The golem simply turned and stumped away down the tunnel, while I, laying helpless in the dirt, simply watched it go. Soon it vanished around a bend.
I stayed where I was. My bruises were already healing, but that did not matter. I had been warned. There was no reason such a powerful creature should be given free will. And as quickly as I could recover, I would have to get very, very far away from that golem.
My hands felt very warm.
In the back of my mind, a voice had whispered not to be angry. Don’t hurt Gabi, it had said, don’t hurt her, we need her. But I had not listened. Suddenly I had felt a- a- a kind of burning. I had wanted to make her stop talking. No, I had wanted to make her regret ever saying anything at all.
You are nothing.
I walked faster down the dark tunnel, trying to get away from that word, but it kept bouncing around inside my hollow body like a rock. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
I could have broken Gabi into pieces.
It was not as if I had not known that before- that I could crush her very easily. It was that I had never, ever thought about it as something worth doing. I would never want to crush anyone. That would be cruel. It would hurt them. I did not hurt, but I knew hurting was bad.
I crushed my mother’s hand once, but she smiled and told me it was all right. An accident, because I did not yet know my strength. But I had crushed Gabi on purpose. And she would not smile and forgive me. This I felt for sure. Oh, why? All over a word! Just a word!
But even so, the minute I thought it- nothing– I burned again.
But I am not nothing, I reminded myself. No. I have a head. Arms and legs. A voice. I have much more than nothing. I am Kezia.
I slowed down. I was afraid to look back. Would Gabi come after me? Would she be angry? I could remember how she had attacked Noroc- would she attack me too? It would not matter if it did not hurt me, it would still be awful. I wished I could apologize to her, but it would be partly a lie. I was sorry I had hurt her. I was still angry that she had called me nothing.
I stumbled over something, and put a hand on the dirt wall of the tunnel to steady myself. When I looked down, I saw a big, shining-white root, smeared with soil.
I stared at the root for a few moments, confused. I had never seen a tree root like it. There were other, ordinary brown roots stretching all around the walls and ceiling of the tunnel, but this one stood out very much. It curved gently out of sight into the tunnel ahead of me.
It occurred to me that I might have stepped out of Muma Balaur’s territory and into my mother’s by now. The number of roots had certainly increased inside the tunnel, meaning that there were more plants aboveground. But where in her forest was I? I looked at the white root again. It seemed to give off a very faint glow.
What kind of plant would have such a root? For a mere moment I wondered- but no, I could not be so far into Mother’s forest. I could not be underneath the white grove yet.
I turned and looked behind myself. There was no sign of Gabi coming up the tunnel, and I could not hear anything. For a moment I felt very empty. But maybe it was better if I stayed by myself.
I followed the white root, glad to have something to distract myself with. It got slowly thicker, and curved from side to side on the bottom of the tunnel, sometimes looping all the way up and around the ceiling. The tunnel had gotten deeper, and so that faint line of surface light was long gone, but I could still see thanks to the delicate white glow.
I could also see some evidence that something else had been in the tunnel. There were many roots dangling down that had been broken, or cut, and the soil was looser around my feet. Most of the roots looked like they had been cut a long time ago, but a few here and there had fresh white cores exposed. I lived one up from where it hung from the ceiling and examined it. It was sliced away in a rough semicircle, like someone had taken a bite out of it. The center was still moist.
When this thought occurred to me, I took a step backwards and stumbled right over the white root, which had gotten to the thickness of my arm. I fell back, hitting my head so hard on the ground that I felt it depress slightly out of shape.
I reshaped my head, then groped around and found another part of the white root to push myself up on. It felt surprisingly smooth and supple, without the woody quality I had been expecting. I patted my head one last time and looked more closely at it, brushing away the dirt.
It was not solid white after all. It was covered in a series of small, faintly iridescent scales.
Almost as soon as I realized this, the root moved- just a ripple of muscle undulating underneath its surface. I drew back quickly. It was not a root. It was the tail of a very, very large serpent.
I held myself still, but the serpent did not move any more. I hoped that it had just thought my touch was dirt falling down, or some lost animal. I was not sure what to do with a serpent of this size. Some snakes were supposed to be venomous, though that would never bother me, and I had never seen a snake become aggressive before. Aside from when Gabi had attacked Noroc. Perhaps that was why I felt a sense of unease.
I felt that I should not pursue it any further, but I was hesitant to move back the way I had come. Gabi was in that direction. Since I could not move forward or back, I stepped sideways, getting further away from the nearest coil. My head bumped into a fat, dangling root- a real one.
It slid off of my forehead, and suddenly I remembered something I had heard Mother say once. Something about a serpent that gnawed on roots.
I looked at the cut root again, laid a hand against it, and then began walking forward. It was better than walking back.
I was not sure how long I walked quietly through that cavern, following the serpent’s body. I was lucky it was there as a guide, because I soon came to several places where the tunnel branched, opening up dark highways I surely would have gotten lost in. But the glowing scales kept me true, a comfortable beacon.
The tunnel was also sloping steadily downwards, and the roots around me were growing thinner and thinner. Conversely, the serpent’s body thickened even more. Soon it was larger around than a tree trunk, then my own chest. It began to be hard to squeeze through some narrower places in the tunnel without clambering over it. But it never moved. Well- I did notice a sort of movement, as I went further down: the gentle rise and fall of breath under the skin.
Finally I came to a vast junction of tunnels, spoking off in every direction from a large open chamber with a high ceiling. The air was very cold, and I wondered how deep underground I had gotten. Surely no sunlight had ever reached this place.
My path was as clear as before, of course. The vast trunk of the snake continued into one of the leftmost tunnels. I perceived, strangely enough, the beginning of a line of fur on the back of it, almost like a mane.
I walked down the tunnel, and did not have to go much further. I had found the end of the tunnel, as well as the end of the serpent.
The first thing that I realized- and I did not rightly know why it had not occurred to me before- was that this was surely the white horseman. Gabi herself had said that the shapes of the horsemen could change very much, and it did not really have to look like anything. But I felt, upon seeing the head of this great beast, that it could only be a horseman. It was the head of a horse, after all.
The horse’s eyes were closed, and its skin was the same lustrous white as the rest of its scales. It had, oddly enough, a neck and withers, from which there came two short, claw-footed legs. The rest of it connected seamlessly to that vast snake body that trailed back out of the tunnel behind it.
I had never seen anything like it before. And I could not think of any way to describe it other than lovely. It had an otherworldly elegance to it, from its pale eyelashes sweeping over its cheeks, to its nose, faintly dusted with blue, to its soft, long mane, which fell so far down over its shoulders that the ends of it nearly trailed in the dirt. It had its odd forelegs tucked underneath its chest, like a cat, and it was quite clearly asleep.
I had been struck by the urge to pet animals before, many times, but never had that urge come so strong as now. But I was able to resist, for though I suspected that its skin would be smooth as velvet, its mane like down, I also felt that there was a very untouchable sense of nobility surrounding it. I was enchanted, but also anxious.
It was very different from Pascha- that was all I could think.
“Horseman,” I said, softly. “Horseman, would you wake up?”
For a moment it did not respond, then its nostrils slowly flared. The delicate eyelashes rose, and I beheld eyes of a clear, pale blue.
“I am sorry to rouse you,” I said. “I am very sorry.”
The horseman unfolded one leg from underneath itself, and turned one of its small ears towards me.
“I hope you do not think I am being very rude,” I said, touching my hands together. “But I have a friend- I know someone who needs your help. Her name is Gabi.”
The horseman blinked, slowly. I blinked back a few times.
“You probably do not want to go back to your mistress very much,” I said. “But if you let Gabi tie the white ribbon around your neck, it will save your life. And I- in return, I promise that I will come set you free again afterwards.”
That last part tumbled out of me very unexpectedly. I had not planned it. But now that I thought about it, it seemed like a good thing to do.
The horseman slowly opened its mouth. I caught a glimpse of its square teeth.
“Child of earth,” it said. “You do not owe me any favors. I think that the time for me to go back and serve the great Baba has come. I have fed and rested well in this forest, but I still find it lacking. I would rather return to her care.”
“You would?” I asked. “But Pascha did not want to at all.”
The horseman’s nostrils flared very large when I said this, and then slowly got smaller again.
“He is less loyal than I. And our third companion, even less than him. Your friend will struggle the most with the black ribbon.”
“Oh,” I said. I wondered what the black horseman would look like.
“I might have returned to my mistress on my own,” said the horseman, unfolding its other leg, “but since you beheld me sleeping, and did not harm me, and asked me kindly- I think I shall let the strigoi put the white ribbon around my neck.”
“Thank you, horseman!” I burst out. “Oh, thank you! She will be very pleased.”
“Relieved, I should think,” said the horseman, its tone for the first time slightly wry. “And so shall Mother Forest. I have fed well on her roots. They have a most extraordinary poison.”
I was confused. “Have you been poisoned?”
“Yes,” said the horseman, and the skin on its neck shivered a little, like a fly had landed on it. “Which is, perhaps, another reason why I would like to return to my former mistress.”
“Then you must hurry,” I said, standing back a little. “Gabi should be just down this tunnel. I do not think- I do not think she would have left.”
“I can follow her scent,” said the horseman, which did not sound at all concerned. It began to move slowly backwards, pushing with its little clawed feet. I realized that there was not enough room in the tunnel for it to turn around.
“You should come along with me,” it said, as it made its slow progress. “My mistress would welcome you.”
“No, thank you,” I said, keeping my voice polite. “I want to finish helping Gabi. And then I would like to go back to my mother.”
“Is that so?” The horseman had reached the chamber that split into junctions, and now it drew itself back and upwards with surprising dexterity. “I would caution against it.”
“Why?” I said, tilting my head back. Up there, hovering as though it were going to strike, it was less elegant and more imposing.
The horseman laid its front parts back down against the dirt, perhaps realizing the image it struck, and reached to scratch under its mane with one claw.
“Because Mother Forest has had many golems,” it said, “and few have pleased her for very long.”
Then it turned, arching itself, and slid down one of the spoked tunnels. Its long, sinuous body flowed after it in a loop. I was still standing there, quite stunned, when its head reemerged from a tunnel on the opposite side.
“If you should change your mind,” it said, “or if you should have your own mind still, seek out my mistress. Otherwise, we shall not meet again.”
It looped itself back around and went down the main tunnel, sliding against its own body. I was left staring at two great, overlapping loops of serpent, and after a short time even those drained away, and the last bit of the tail made its glowing way back towards Gabi.
“Horseman?” I whispered, to the terrible silence. The air was even colder, now that it had gone. That last little bit of light was fading away.
The earth, all around me, was silent. I took a fumbling step forward, in the darkness.
I heard a soft, plaintive sound from behind me, like a little mewl. I whirled around.
In the darkness, I could see a white flower bobbing up and down.