I want you to eat.
I was having another one of those absurd dreams where you really do know it’s all a dream, and you ought to wake up from it- because you’ve already slept so long- but you don’t just yet, because you want to see how it ends.
This was happening more and more to me lately. It seemed I was spending far too much time unconscious.
In any case, this particular dream revolved around food, as they often did. I cannot begin to describe the ache of disuse that grows in one’s jaw when one has not had the opportunity to chew food for many years, or the fantasies for any sort of taste beyond the coppery flavor of blood. O, for a sweet bun or bit of warm stew! I dreamt of a table lavish with these, and more- food of every variety, every delicacy, every delicious pleasure that came from having a properly functioning digestive system.
Unusually, in this particular scenario I was my strigoi self; normally these dreams were syrupy renderings of some childhood food-memory. But no, I was grown up (as it were), and more to the point, Kezia was there with me.
There was something queer about her, though, something that made her seem not quite herself. As I held her hand and led her to the table, it seemed that a blush of warmth came back at me from her palm, and that the curl of her fingers in mine were somewhat… fragile.
Fragile! Who could imagine a golem being fragile?
I drew her up to the table and asked her to regale herself of all the food. It seemed that my dream-self was insisting that she should try some. Somehow I was attempting to convey to her the richness of pudding, the savory spice of lamb, the sweetness of marzipan, the wetness of fruit.
“Eat,” that version of myself insisted.
The dream Kezia did not reply, though her hand stayed strangely warm in mine. For some reason she was rather blurry, indistinct, but seemed happy nonetheless; pleased and quiet, standing there as though viewing some bit of theater she very much liked. I found myself both flattered and irritated by this imaginary observation, and flustered by her stolid lack of response; why wouldn’t she eat?
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” I said. It was a strangely jealous phrase. And it made no sense, of course, because Kezia was made of clay, and could not eat at all. Indeed, unlike me, she had never had the experience- so why should she long for it? It was as though someone was telling me that I was missing out on flying like a bird.
Then again, I had actually done that.
“I want you to eat,” I insisted, clutching her hand even more tightly. The pulse there jumped and fluttered against my fingers.
“What is that noise?” said the dream Kezia, her voice as oddly muffled as the rest of her.
I had not heard a noise until she said that, but now it occurred to me that it had been in the background all the while: a steady thump-thump. Intimately familiar.
“Oh,” I said, “it is only the men who are digging my grave.”
Kezia said something else, but it was too muffled for me to hear. I was distracted, anyway. I could feel the soil falling down onto my chest, pinning it tight, forcing more of my life to leak out of the holes in my back. Two arrows, almost simultaneous, despite how they might argue about it.
“I’ve never seen a gypsy with red hair,” one was saying now, between his harsh breaths: they were digging the grave rather quickly, in the middle of the night, in the forest. I could smell the stink of their fear-sweat.
“You still shot, didn’t you? Anyway, you can see by the clothes that it is a gypsy, so why worry about it?”
“I shot as you did,” said the first, “and I never got a proper look before. If this was a real woman, we’d be murderers!”
“Well, it isn’t. And the more you talk like that, the more some ears are liable to get the wrong ideas, so hush up about it.”
“If you’re so sure, then why’re we burying it? We could get the reward! You’re not sure at all, really!”
There was a clang: a shovel had been dropped.
“It was your idea to go hunting here, and you said you’d heard of a runaway, and you were the one who shot just before I did!”
“I never! I thought you had a hart!”
A snort, the slide of metal on soil. “Some hart!”
Dirt rained down over my eyes, covering them up completely, but it didn’t matter much; I couldn’t see much at all anymore. My heart had ceased to beat, and the thrumming circulation of my pulse had gone silent.
But there was a pulse, wasn’t there? Against the palm of my hand.
“In any case, it’s not a woman, it’s a runaway slave, and the reward likely wouldn’t be worth a pittance, and it’d be no good for people to get confused the way you are.”
“I’m not confused!”
Ah. That little pulse- I’d thought it Kezia’s. But she had no heart at all. No, it was my blood softly singing. Even though my heart had ceased its flutter. The men were right: I was not really a woman. Not anymore, maybe not ever.
My second heart had begun to beat.
Oh, it was different, this heart; it was greedy– viciously, unashamedly greedy– and I swelled up with love for it. The remainder of that black sludge which had recently been my life’s blood was pushed aside, clearing my veins for the new. I hadn’t got it yet, but I would. I would soon. I could smell it nearby.
The stink of sweat. The stink of fear.
Only a few inches of dirt between me and that throbbing bit of life.
I was so terribly hungry.
“Hey… you didn’t see the dirt just twitch, did you?”
My arm was worming its way up, up, up, through the loose soil. My fingertips felt the cold night air as they emerged, irresistibly fresh. Then they curled around the warm flesh of a man’s ankle.
There came a scream.
“My God! She’s still-”
Screams, blood, and moonlight; oh yes, I was deliciously attuned to it all, like a silver pulse beating through the earth in time with my new heart. I drank the struggling man’s blood, first clumsily through his ankle, then through the much richer vein in his inner thigh. When he had ceased to twitch I rose, dirt-covered, bloody, lovely, and left him there on the forest floor and stalked the trail of his companion. I could smell his panic, which came in the form of urine; it left a trail as bright and shiny as a slug’s on the leaves. He was fast. Somehow, I was faster.
I killed both the men who had murdered me in a matter of hours after they’d done the deed, but when I feasted on their life there was no thought in my head of revenge. Indeed, there was hardly any thought at all, just a comforting sureness. Who were these men? Why had they killed me? Did it matter? They were life, and I had taken it for myself; there was no such thing as justice or evil, only hunger and satiation. What a lovely, precious feeling that was. I was not quite sure, but it seemed that I had never felt anything like that freedom before.
My first heart, my old, battered, broken one, had begun to beat again as well- softly. The newer, stronger one nearly drowned it out. That was fine with me. I willed the last vestiges of my old blood, my old life, to pour through the holes in my back. There is no past. There is only now. Forget. Forget. Forget. And thrive.
I thought that I had managed to forget. The person I had been, and the person I was now: I was absolutely certain they were two different beings.
Warmth against my palm…
Warm. Too warm. Hot. Hotter. I coughed, my lungs filled with smoke.
Now Kezia was gripping both my hands, her face close to mine, and frightened. Yes; I could see fear on her face, for it was not stiff clay, it was…
From where our fingers intertwined, black filth was spreading, hot black ooze that rippled and belched with sulphur, and I felt it on my body all over like a brand. Kezia was weeping, but her hands clutched mine tighter. For it was coming from my flesh, this infernal ooze, not hers- it was spreading and spreading from my hands up her arms, up to her elbows, now her shoulders-
“Let go!” I cried, struggling to detangle our fingers. “Let go of me!”
She shook her head. The filth- my filth, hot with the promise of hell- it crept up over her maliciously. I tried to break away, but I could not. Her grip was too strong.
My lungs filled with fire and smoke, and I coughed and coughed and coughed.
The yowl of a cat.
Fire, fire, fire! Burning! I was burning!
I opened my eyes and saw teeth like scimitars.
I screamed, and thrashed, and discovered my whole body was in the midst of a terrible ache- my back against what felt like hard stone. My skin felt as though it had been sanded. The air above me was filled with smoke, and out of it came those great white fangs again, rows of them aligned in curving swords within a scaly muzzle.
“FOOL!” roared the voice again, which, I managed to now gather, belonged to a dragon. It was standing above me, neck- necks- wreathed in smoke, humped body mostly obscured. Its saliva hissed when it hit the rock around me.
A rather angry scream came from somewhere alarmingly close to my head, and I managed to turn it just enough to realize that beside me on the rock shivered a small black cat, fur and whiskers somehow sopping wet. It only had one eye.
I felt very terribly confused, and, if I wasn’t mistaken, in some danger. Possibly about to cease to exist. The dragon’s imposing, scaly snout loomed closer, snorting me with boiling breath that stank of fish.
“I TOLD YOU NOT TO COME CLOSER!” it suddenly roared, leaving my head light and my ears ringing. Beside me, the cat gave a hiss which I couldn’t hear over the ringing.
I was a bit surprised when the dragon’s head retreated somewhat, bumping noses with another- oh, it was the second head of the same dragon, it seemed- anyway, I was surprised that it had not only not murdered me, but told me not to come closer. I did not remember having a previous discussion of the sort with a dragon. Or, for that matter, ever intentionally approaching one in the first place.
The two heads were now joined by a third, which I could see was branching off of the same trunk of a body- oh, goodness, there was a fourth. I was very sore and very confused and it had four heads! Who had ever heard of a dragon with an even number of heads?!
The cat- which, yes, I had figured out was Noroc- made some sort of mewling sound, possibly a death wish if you asked me. The dragon gave a great snort that sent smoky eddies spiralling against the ceiling above us.
“I could have burned you like a fritter,” it growled, slightly softer, which still was very far from soft. “If you come so close while I am doing my work again, I shall bite your tail off.”
The two heads on either side the speaker bobbed and nodded at this, while the asymmetrical outlier snaked and lurked to one side. I was left even more bewildered- had the dragon forgotten what humans looked like, or had I inexplicably grown a tail?- when Noroc meowed again. Then it finally occurred to me that perhaps the dragon wasn’t actually talking to me.
“Yes, I see that it’s awake,” said the dragon, as though Noroc’s noise had meant something. “It was twitching and moaning about, and I wished to quiet it.” At this, a black, forked tongue snaked out from one mouth and twitched for a moment in the air. Two of the heads turned and looked directly at me.
Noroc made an imperious little cat noise, and the dragon snorted, shuffling its paws down somewhere out of sight with a sloshing sound. The two central heads, I noticed, seemed to be growing out of a single neck that forked, and one now seemed to deliberately bang the other with its skull. At this the two outermost heads curled inwards, watching the central two hiss and spit at one another.
While this ludicrous display was happening, I felt a soft little touch upon my cheek, and rolled my eyes over to see that Noroc had put one little black paw there, and was peering at my eyes from a disconcertingly close angle.
“Ouch,” I muttered, because even that skin felt raw, and then added, in a very quiet whisper, “Could you tell me what is going on?”
At this his lonely eye widened, and he made an unpleasantly loud noise that echoed in the space. The dragon’s heads all whipped back around, clearing some of the smoke, and I realized that we were in some sort of stone cavern, lit by little fires placed in sconces along the walls.
“It is certainly not,” the second-from-the-right growled, “as I checked it myself, several minutes ago. It has still got weeds in it.”
“Mrow-ow,” said Noroc, which seemed to cause the dragon some more agitation.
“You didn’t check very well,” said the second from the left, causing its neighbor to give an angry-sounding gargle. “I said I didn’t see any white bits left myself.”
“There are bits left all over!”
“Those are the bones, fool!”
The center heads commenced to awkward scuffling- hampered by their own proximity and the closeness of the fork that joined their necks- squirming and biting mostly air as they fought to maneuver at each other. The leftmost head cocked its head and watched this, while the rightmost one lowered itself to get near the rock that I lay on.
“Ignore those fools,” it hissed, voice low under the rowdy noises from above.”If this feud is not settled soon, I shall have the witch cut me off for a little peace.”
Noroc made no noise at this, just let his tail whip to the left and right. I didn’t speak either, owing to how extremely close that dragon head was.
“It’s woken up and spoken before,” said the head now, turning and flicking out that slimy black tongue just inches away from me. I was rigid. “I think it’s the same as then.”
Noroc turned to me, as I mulled this statement over, and suddenly gave me a great whap across the cheek.
“Ow!” I sputtered, forgetting myself. “What- what on earth was that for!”
The dragon’s head drew back a little, and Noroc looked over at it as if to say, See?
“It could be a trick,” said the dragon. “I don’t trust it. Better bathe it once more.”
Its eyes gleamed an unpleasant reddish color, and a few wisps of smoke emerged from the corners of its mouth. I suspected I was not going to be bathed in water.
“How do you know it isn’t smart enough?” said the head, but just then both of the central necks shoved their way over, hissing and snapping at the rightmost one.
“Don’t speak out of turn!”
“Yes, don’t speak without permission!”
The rightmost retreated meekly, and the two others filled the space it had left, glaring at Noroc and I. But I found that I was getting less and less intimidated at every moment. If I was going to be burned to a crisp, I should like to at least know the circumstances first!
“Excuse me,” I snapped, trying to sound bold from my position (flat on my back with limbs like butter, remember), “do you think that all of you could include me in your conversation?”
“It does sound a bit different now,” left-from-the-center observed.
“Different from when?” I exclaimed, but was ignored.
“I still saw white bits- it wasn’t the bones, I know what bones look like-”
“Then it’s probably sinew, isn’t it? You just want to lick the hearts again!”
“Still, if there’s some doubt-”
“Well, let’s open it up and see!”
Quite suddenly all the heads turned in tandem, and I felt a very concerned flutter in my chest, for they were all pointing their snouts down at me.
“No,” came a voice, and I felt that light paw on my cheek again, and flinched. “She has returned to herself.”
Having said this, Noroc sat down on his haunches and began licking his shoulder. Each of the dragon’s heads looked at another, but they all slowly withdrew from me.
“Thank you,” I said, in a voice that was slightly creaky. “I think.”
Noroc made no reply, not even to glance at me from his bathing. Instead, I heard a faint splashing sound, the sound of footsteps approaching through water. The dragon cringed back even further, and someone wearing heavy black boots stumped up beside my head. I dragged my eyes upwards and saw the mossy-grey skin of a witch.
“Yes,” said Muma Balaur, poking the side of my face with the toe of her boot. “I do believe you’ve finally burnt it all out.”
She said the word finally in such a manner that the dragon slouched even lower.
“Pardon,” I said, wishing that everybody would just stop touching my sore skin, “but what do you mean by it? And how did I get here? And where is here? And-”
“Shut up,” advised Muma Balaur, and I bit my lip. She squatted down beside me so that one gray kneecap filled most of my field of vision and reached into her apron pocket. With a croak, a black toad poked its head out.
“Not you,” she said, and the toad retreated. After another moment of rummaging, she drew out a little fruit knife, pricked her finger with it, and then grasped my lower jaw.
Startled, I tried to jerk away, but her grip was bruisingly strong, and she pulled my mouth open to flick a few drops of black blood into my throat.
The reaction was immediate- I curled up, gagged, choked. The taste of those few drops was overwhelming, as though I had swallowed a whole packet of curry powder, and it burned and washed throughout the inside of my mouth, down my throat, running down to my limbs in a series of little sparks and jolts. I shot into a sitting position and gasped.
“Eh, there’s a bit of witch’s blood for you, strigoi!” said Muma Balaur, who had now pulled a long pipe from her pocket and was polishing it on her sleeve. “But don’t get too accustomed to the taste.”
“I don’t think I could,” I gasped, grasping at my throat with one hand. “I don’t think anyone could.”
“But you’re up now, aren’t you?” She put the pipe between her lips and look a long draw, and breathed out a long stream of smoke. This was surprising to me, given the fact that she had never lit it.
“So I am,” I allowed, and took a moment to have a look around. It seemed that I was in the dragon’s cavern, perched on a rock that stood above the shallow water covering the floor. Pascha had led Kezia here on their ‘shortcut’ what seemed eons ago. Now that I wasn’t fighting for my life, I could appreciate the flickering rainbows cast on the cave wall by the firelight reflecting off the water. The walls had a sort of pearlescent sheen to them, and there was a slow drip, drip of water coming off the glittering stalactites growing down from the ceiling.
Very pretty. The hideous dragon and his four scaly necks stuck out like a sore thumb. He had the fat trunk of his body half submerged, so that each of his heads bobbed up like a serpent from the pool, shrouded in steam. My hair and eyelashes already felt thick with the humidity of the place.
“Not lightly do I lease my servant to save a strigoi’s life,” mused Muma Balaur, whose eyes had been on me all the while. She took a suck from her pipe and blew the smoke from her nostrils. “Consider yourself lucky. I don’t intend to host you for very much longer, so savor that blood of mine.”
“Yes,” I said, clearing my sore throat- though not very sore at that. All over I could already feel the potent witch’s blood taking effect- I felt more spry than I had in ages. I even felt like I might be able to change my shape again, if it weren’t for the blasted-
My thoughts collided messily with one another, and I looked down at my arms. Someone had rolled my sleeves up to the shoulder- oh, I was still wearing the clothes that Sorina had given me- and what I saw of my skin looked smooth and whole, unmarked by any protruding branches.
I frowned. The last I remembered, I had been in Baba Yaga’s garden, trussed up like a tomato plant. My arm was broken, branches were poking out of me all over, and I kept seeing the eyes of that blasted Vasilisa peeping out of the shutters at me. And then… and now…
“Yes,” said Muma Balaur, “what you are wondering is correct. My dragon has scorched the white tree within you until it shrivelled and died.”
I continued to stare down at my arms. The water drip, drip, dripped.
“No mean feat,” she continued, “especially for a dragon as clumsy as this one.”
There came a low rumble, like distant thunder, and she shot a look over to the dragon’s end of the cavern.
I could not believe it. How could it be gone? I woke up after the most frightening experience of my life, and it was… gone? Like a bad dream? Gone?
“Fire,” said Muma Balaur, “destroys nearly everything, and dragonfire does destroy everything. Even the wicked magic of the treewitch.”
“And you did this,” I said, slowly flexing my palms, “out of the goodness of your heart?”
She gave an abrupt cackle, and waggled her pipe mockingly with her tongue.
“What do you think? If I had my way, I wouldn’t have bothered separating you from the tree when I burned it away. But one does not refuse a request from a Baba.”
She saw my expression, and raised a mossy eyebrow.
“Oh yes, the Baba asked this of me. She sent one of her servants here with you and that cat.” She pointed to Noroc with the stem of her pipe; I had nearly forgotten he was there. He was hunched low on the wet rock and shivering, as miserable a creature as I’d ever seen.
“I got the last bits of the tree within him out as well,” Muma Balaur grunted, returning her pipe to her mouth. “Free of charge. They only would have caused you trouble later.”
I caught Noroc’s eye at this, and he turned his face away.
“I’m grateful regardless of why you did it,” I said, choosing my words with delicacy, “but do you know why-”
“Do I know why the Baba asked me to save your hide? No, I wasn’t privy to that information. But if I had to guess, I would say that somebody has made a deal with her, and saving you was part of it.”
At once my hearts sank.
Her name echoed around the lonely cavern. Noroc added a mournful mrrowl to it.
“Where is she?” I said. “Did she come here with me?”
I looked all around again with new fervor, but there was only the dragon, the cat, the water, and the witch.
“No one else came with you,” said Muma Balaur. “I suspect he knows, though.”
She inclined her head towards Noroc, who had shut his eye tight. It was not a promising expression. Worry and fear reared back up inside of me. What on earth could Kezia have given to Baba Yaga? What would the witch even want from her?
“Noroc, what happened?” I said, drawing my knees up against my chest. More of my strength was returning with every moment, I ached to fly. “Say something, you blasted cat! How did you even come to be here?!”
Noroc did not even open his eye. I hissed angrily, curling my fingers, but Muma Balaur shook her head.
“No use getting angry at him, I say. He’s barely more than an ordinary cat now. You won’t get much sense out of him.”
“Very well!” I surged to my feet, perhaps prematurely, for I wobbled for a moment on the slick rock. “Then show me the way to get out of here! There are things that desperately require my attention!”
Muma Balaur grimaced, puckering her lips as though her smoke had gone sour.
“After all that effort putting you back together,” she said. “You’re going to go out and die.”
“I am dead,” I pointed out.
“You haven’t ever died,” replied the witch. “But let us not quibble over details. I’ve done my part, and I will happily see you escorted from my forest.”
“I will lead her,” growled the dragon suddenly, all four necks surging up from the water. Hot steam slid over my flesh. “Mistress, allow me!”
Muma Balaur flicked some of the ash from the end of her pipe at it, and the great reptile flinched.
“You will stay here in this cave,” she said, “until you sort out your heads.” She glanced at me. “It is a dreadful pain, sometimes, having a dragon for a servant. A new head splits from the center every twenty years, and if this makes the number even, the two new ones must squabble it out to decide who becomes the leader of them all.”
“It is decided,” hissed left-from-the-center, while to the right of it its neighbor merely narrowed its eyes.
“What a problem for you,” I said. “Why not just let it go?”
“Yes, why not?” exclaimed both central heads in tandem.
“Let us go,” added the rightmost, more quietly.
“I’ll surely consider it,” said the witch, in the driest voice imaginable. “For the moment, however, I’ll have my familiar lead you out of the caverns.”
She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out the black toad, which blinked its eyes one after the other.
“Oh,” I said, without much confidence. “Very well.”
The toad hopped from her palm to land with a very audible plop on the rock at my feet. I thought I heard a jealous-sounding gurgle from the direction of the dragon, but when I looked, all of its heads had vanished beneath the water.
“Go on,” Muma Balaur told the black toad, and it gave one clumsy hop forward, then another. I let out a breath, thin with anxiety, and then suddenly, inexplicably, felt a great surge of joy. Why- the white tree was gone! I was no longer that bumble-footed toad, bound to the earth. It was all gone! Trees, collars, chains!
This glee buoyed me up, or rather down, for I was shrinking into the body of the little red bird. I could not help a flinch as I shrank, for it had so recently been associated with so much pain- but look! Here I was, perching tiny upon the rock, and I felt no pain at all!
With a chirrup I alighted, flapping my little wings hard in the damp air, and spiralled over the rock towards the cave ceiling. The toad croaked, and the witch raised her eyes, and one of the dragon’s heads peeped up from the water, just the eyes and nostrils showing.
A cave was no place for a perching bird, so when I neared the great stalactites I became a bat- smoothly, seamlessly, feathers to fur, long ears, delicate-skinned wings. And now the cave, which had been rather claustrophobic to the bird, was a beautiful playground: I tumbled and whirled between the stalactites, delighting in my own agility and speed- my god, I was free, free, free!
A great shape loomed beside me, and I swerved to get out of the way as the dragon’s jaws snapped together with a great clunk and a blast of steam hot enough to singe my fur. Chittering and scolding, I flapped higher amongst the safety of the jagged ceiling. The bases of the stalactites were packed tightly together, too tiny a space for anything to reach- so I thought. But then, as another waft of warm air propelled me higher, I saw two bats, huddled together in a tiny crevice and peering down at me with their black pinprick eyes.
I only had a glimpse, then I went spinning back downwards, fluttering between stone columns back toward reality, but my heart was further lifted. How happy Kezia would be to hear that her bats had survived!
The dragon gave another rude snap at me as I descended, but I avoided his slow strike easily and hovered low over the black toad. It lowered its nose to rub at it with both tubby hands, then leapt into the shallow water with a loud splash.
I followed, tracking the progress of the little shadow as it kicked its way forward. I caught a glimpse of Muma Balaur storing away her pipe with a bored expression on her face, and another of Noroc, slowly opening his single eye. Then the toad swam into a little tunnel, much too small for my human-shaped self to fit into, but with just enough room to skim over the water as a bat. The light vanished. But I did not need light.
I followed the toad through many dark, winding channels, where the only sound was the whisper of my wings and the dripping of water. Now and then I called out with my high voice to listen to the shape of the walls, as bats do: they were always narrow, and cool, and smooth: carved by water that had mostly drained away. Affected by Muma Balaur’s dam, no doubt. She must have gotten it rebuilt at some point.
The toad put its head up periodically like a little guide post, as my echos could not pierce the smooth surface of the water. Soon we came to a place so narrow not even my bat’s form could fly through it. As I fluttered in place and considered this, the toad puffed itself up like a toy bladder, exposing its warty back above the water.
Well- I thought I got the idea of it. I carefully landed- or dropped, really, as bats were never meant for ground landings- on that pebbly back and clung on with all twelve claws. Like a wobbly barge the toad swam forward, thankfully mostly managing to keep me dry, and we passed through the narrow place together.
We emerged into what felt like bright light, but was really twilight, orange rays scudding out over the glassy pool the toad had floated us into. The place we had emerged from was nothing more than a little hole amidst a group of imposing mossy boulders, trickling water down into a depression in the forest floor. The toad swam to the side and pulled itself onto the land, and I likewise crawled from its back, and resumed my normal shape. The pool shrank to the side of a puddle before my eyes, and the imposing warts on the back of the toad shrank from boulders to pebbles.
I got somewhat unsteadily to my feet- it seemed it had been such a long time since I’d last changed my shape, and brushed the mud and twigs off of my apron. Then I realized that I was still wearing an apron, and the rest of my clothing, too. It had not fallen off of me when I had become a bird- something I probably would have noticed, were it not for my soaring delight- and seemed to have just vanished and reappeared again. Another magical aspect of Sorina’s clothes? I had to marvel, though I also hoped I wouldn’t be stuck wearing them for eternity. There were some things simply easier done nude.
The toad was peering up at me, the horizontal pupils in its golden eyes giving it a permanent look of cross disinterest. I looked down at it, and then, on a whim, gave it a little bow of thanks. Kezia would have liked that.
The toad seemed satisfied enough, for it swelled its throat and began to hop slowly along the forest floor. I wondered if I was still supposed to follow it- I could surely find my way out of the forest now that we were in the open and I could fly. But perhaps Muma Balaur had a specific route planned for me to take, and would be angry if I strayed from it. Witches were like that.
It was slow going, following a toad, so I amused myself by looking around at the forest. In its own way, Muma Balaur’s territory was somewhat lovely. True, the trees were thin and black, with canopies that yawned with great gaps, but in place of trees there was a multitude of little dry creekbeds filled with orange leaves, and noble crags of rock covered in green moss or pale blue lichen. The thick rotting mat that covered the soil smelled good, in a nasty, life-churning way: a very productive layer.
The sun continued to sink, and a chilly breeze rocked the trees around me and brought gooseflesh up on my arms. I crossed them over my chest, then looked around, wondering a little at the cold: was it not still summer?
No… I realized, suddenly, that the reds and oranges I saw all around were not from the twilight: the leaves were changing. The trees were shedding them. Autumn had crept up, somehow, while I was indisposed. But it had seemed that it was just past spring from the last I could remember- barely sinking into summer- how long had I been left insensible in the dragon’s care? Or in Baba Yaga’s? I shivered harder, as the wind wormed its way through the gaps in my clothes. And Kezia…!
The steady plop, plop sound of the toad’s progress ceased, and I looked down. Sitting against the backdrop of dead leaves, it was nearly perfectly camouflaged, only the bright gold of its eyes giving it away. It was peering alertly at something in the distance.
The wind came whispering by again, and this time it brought a strange, sweet smell to my nose.
A voice, too: a pale little voice.
“She woke in the autumn…”
I clasped myself tighter as I heard footsteps approaching slowly through the leaves.
“And her hair… was…”
The footsteps stopped. From some distance away, a figure had come into view, and because of the thin trees I could make her out clearly. It was a girl, a young girl, who seemed human except for the two hollow black holes she had for eyes.