Too fragile a promise.
She had fallen asleep on me with the suddenness of an infant, which I suppose was not terribly surprising given the circumstances. But it was inconvenient. The heavy, warm weight of her was pressed up against my side, her head slumped forward and nearly in my lap. She’d been drooling until I closed her mouth manually.
It was Kezia. I had to remind myself of that, repeatedly. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe it- she seemed to recognize me, and Pascha, she responded to her name, she had her own particular… mannerisms. But when all was said in done, my eyes refused to label this tall, pale, humanoid figure the same as my shapeless hulking golem. It wasn’t just that she had changed her look, it was what she had changed it to. Suddenly the things that had endeared me to her- her simple reasoning, eager affection, innocent goodness- all seemed dangerous. Because now she looked like a human girl.
I shifted, and pushed her head back before it slid down into my lap. My fingers brushed her hair, soft as a fawn’s, and now just barely turning blonde. It felt real, and so did her warm skin. If not for the vine protruding from her stomach, she would have seemed completely human. Even Crina hadn’t had eyes; how had Kezia ended up so perfect? They had both been born- or so I assumed- from soil mixed with human flesh and bones. What was different about Kezia?
I traced the angular edge of her cheek for a moment with my fingertips. It had a delicate rosy blush. Color like that could only come from real blood- or so I assumed. Could this even be called a fadua, really? I could not deny that I was hoping for some further evidence that she was, some undeniable flaw. The vine was too fragile a promise. If it separated from her, so would I.
Why? Well, what business did I have hanging about in the forest with a human girl, unless it was to drink her blood and leave her? I couldn’t care for her, provide for her needs. She’d need food, clothing, shelter, comfort. I needed none of that. I only needed blood.
I supposed… I supposed if we both worked hard for a bit, we could eke out a living for her near the edge of some forest, crude but sustaining, but that was only the solution to the smaller issue. The other problem had crystallized within me while I watched her test her strength against my hand. She had worn such an endearing frown on her face that I had been beside myself (and had wished to pinch her, as was my usual response to such emotion). Such simple, focused concentration! And that was the crux of it: she was new, naive, and unmolded. I had forfeited my soul long ago, even before I’d turned to blood-drinking. If Kezia had got a human body with a soul to match, she ought to at least have a sporting chance of saving it.
Look at her: already, from the start, she was nude in the wilds, barely covered by the blanket which was sliding down yet again. Each time I had to pull it up I burned with shame for her. And she had none! Like a child, she would have to be taught the things that made a person good. It was very well for an undying, soulless golem to have no morals. But now…
Ah, I would ruin her. Just my very presence was tainting hers, I could feel it. Wickedness and sinfulness seeping into her flesh from mine. I had provided a sickening example. In truth, all that I did and was was disgusting. I killed, fornicated, lapped up blood like a filthy dog. I hated people simply because I could. I bared the foul parts of myself to the world. It didn’t matter because I wasn’t human. It didn’t matter because I’d already done the worst thing- the worst thing- leaving the man who loved and cared for me behind to suffer for my sins. Who could do such a thing? Only a monster. And there was no denying it; I had loved being one. Until now.
A savage thought burned in me even so. I could take the chance away from her. I could drag her innocent little self down with me. I could tell her it was just fine to behave like me, like an animal. There was spite in me towards her body, freshly minted and untouched- and pale-skinned. But spite wouldn’t be the reason I enjoyed corrupting her- no, that would be due to my own selfishness, my desire to have someone- someone-
Viorel’s sorrowful eyes kept emerging in my imagination, like succulent fruit bobbing up through slime. I shook my head. She had looked frightened when I had stepped out of her reach. That frightened me. In my whole life I had always been somebody’s problem; no one had ever been my problem. And now, quite suddenly, I had got myself into a spot where I had the care and management of a whole other being.
These unpleasant thoughts itched at me like fleas, and Kezia’s weight making my arm fall asleep wasn’t particularly helping. I shifted her head to my breast and tried to discreetly shake out my pins and needles. But I must have done so too vigorously, because she opened her eyes.
“Sorry,” I said, or actually, “Thorry,” because I’d stumbled over my own tongue. I wasn’t quite ready for her to be awake. But her eyes were darting back and forth now regardless of my feelings. She looked bewildered.
I coughed, got my mouthparts back in working order. “Have a nice sleep? This is the last time I’ll allow you to use me as a cushion, by the way. Next time you’ll have to make do in the dirt.”
Flick, flick, went her eyes, and then I saw the realization dawn in them. Already I was wanting to smile. Golems couldn’t sleep, could they? No wonder she’d been baffled.
“Have any dreams?” I asked, smoothing a bit of her hair away from her temple. “My dreams tend to center on food.”
Her mouth opened, closed; slowly she pulled herself back and sat up. The hairy vine protruding from her navel tickled as it passed over my knee. I shivered, from that, and from the loss of her warmth.
Looking at her now, directly across from me, it was still difficult to shake the perception that I was looking at a stranger. A tall, lean woman; angular, with mannish corners and thin lips and close-cropped pale hair. The golem Kezia had been all curves, a round squashy fat thing- the person before me was strikingly severe. Only her small breasts had an implication of the feminine, and oh drat it, the blanket had fallen off again. I felt myself flushing.
“Gabi,” said Kezia.
I jumped, grabbing a tuft of grass for support.
“Gabi,” she repeated, more slowly, as if testing out the feeling for the word. “I did not dr- dream. I did not dream.”
“Oh,” I said, a little too loudly, for my hearts were hammering away. “You can speak now?”
She did not answer right away; her elegant face crumpled into an expression of serious concentration.
“Yes,” she said, finally. “I have figured. It out. How to do it.”
Her voice was the same- that was what threw me. It was the exact same voice that I had heard drifting up from the empty space within the clay. Chills prickled up my arms.
“What is the matter?” she asked, perhaps noticing my expression. I shook my head.
“Nothing, nothing’s the matter. You need to cover yourself, my dear.”
Her brow wrinkled as she worked out her response. “But I am, not cold.”
“But you will be,” I argued. Drat, I was looking at her breasts again- her nipples had a faint flush of pink to them. Hastily I averted my eyes. “Anyway, a woman shouldn’t go bare-chested.”
Kezia looked down at herself, as though the fact that she had a chest at all had not yet occurred to her. One of her hands started to rise towards her breasts- I grabbed it before it could finish its journey.
“Don’t touch them!”
With a big frown, she pulled her arm out of my grasp.
“But they are mine.”
“Yes,” I said, a bit frantic, feeling redder than I’d ever been, “but they need to stay out of sight. They’re not decent.”
This got me a long stare. Her dark blue eyes were frankly unnerving.
“But Gabi,” she began, “you-”
“I am not an appropriate example,” I said hastily, knowing full well where she was going. “My body is already worthless. Yours is brand-new and needs to be taken care of.”
Her eyebrows drew up and then far down at this.
“That is no-gh!”
Abruptly she started coughing, and clapped a hand over her mouth. I saw tears springing to the corners of her eyes.
“What, what is it?” Now I was alarmed; the tears were rolling down her cheeks, as she continued to cough and shudder. I reached out and pulled her hand back from her mouth- there was a bit of blood on her palm. “Did you bite your tongue?”
She nodded slowly, still teary-eyed. I pulled her chin down and had a look at the damage.
“Oh, it isn’t so bad. You’ve nipped the edge of it, that’s all- it’ll stop hurting in a moment. Now we’ve learned we must not try to talk so fast, haven’t we?”
She pulled back from me, her expression stormy through her tears, and made an angry garble.
“Can’t understand that. Don’t scowl so- I wasn’t the one who bit you!”
She mumbled something that I couldn’t make out. I took the opportunity to slip the blanket back over her shoulders.
“If you would only just listen to me and behave yourself,” I said, pulling the edges tightly closed around her front, “you’d have a much better time of it.”
She moved her jaw carefully from side to side, testing it, and then said, “You are treating me differ-ently. Differently.”
“Yes, because you are different.”
“Not that different!”
I snorted. “Is that so? Shall I have you unearth a tree for me, or kidnap somebody, or catch Pascha? How about stand in front of a dragon’s fire?”
She pressed her lips together, reached up to touch the wet tear-track on her cheek.
I hesitated, then took her hand.
“See here, Kezia, what matters most is that you still exist. You aren’t gone. But you aren’t the same, either.”
“I am not the same,” she agreed, and pointed down towards her navel. “But I am also still not human.”
I gazed down at the vine that trailed up and over her thigh.
“I suppose you aren’t.”
But she looked so human. I worried my lip with my teeth.
“No tree,” she said, out of the blue.
“You do not have a white tree any more,” she clarified, her fingers closing around mine. Quickly I removed my hand from hers.
“I haven’t. And I hear I have you to thank for that.”
“Yes.” Her lips curled into an open, childish smile, which faltered when she saw me glaring.
“Do you have any idea how I-”
My lecture, on self-sacrifice and curses and when it is not appropriate to bargain with witches, was cut short before I could even get warmed up. The branches of the trees suddenly started rattling, sending a cascade of red leaves drifting down our way, drowning me out for several seconds.
When it stopped, Kezia pulled a leaf from the top of my head and stared at it.
“What was that?” I exclaimed, craning my head back and looking all around for some sort of explanation. “The wind?”
“I did not feel any,” said Kezia, still thoroughly absorbed in the leaf. I had to admit I hadn’t either. The patches of daytime sky I saw through the canopy above were cloudy, but not in an ominous way, and it didn’t seem as though it were going to get stormy. The air around us was warm, and still, and silent.
Kezia dropped the leaf and watched it float downwards with the concentration of a scholar. When it landed, she frowned, and moved it aside with her fingers.
“There is a face in the earth,” she observed.
“What?” I was already a bit unnerved, and her words weren’t helping. I looked to the spot she was indicating. The dried mud was shaped in a way that indeed suggested a face, with hollowed eyes and an open mouth. With a shiver, I realized that it was the remains of one of the golems that had sacrificed themselves at her birth.
“I don’t see it,” I said, rubbing one arm and looking sideways. Kezia ran her fingers over and over the dry ridges that made up the face’s outline.
“I cannot feel anything,” she murmured.
“Eh? Has your hand gone numb?”
“No,” said Kezia. Her words had gone slow, her face oddly slack. “I cannot feel the earth anymore.”
I had no idea what she was on about, but her expression, and the sorrowful note in her voice, made me decide not to inquire further. Instead I watched as she probed at the dusty soil again and again, wearing away the shape of the face.
Above us, the trees shivered again. I looked up. The vibration seemed to travel in a line, so that one tree shuddered after its neighbor, spreading out through the forest. Kezia’s fingers stopped moving. The earth beneath us had vibrated slightly too.
Kezia grabbed onto my arm- now I could hear the thunder of hoofbeats approaching at high speed.
“It’s Pascha,” I said, with a sort of nervous relief. “Maybe he’ll have some clothes for you…”
But when Pascha emerged into the clearing, it was clear that clothes were the furthest thing from his mind. He came at us at a great gallop, leaping from the trees, and only just managed to pull himself up, rearing and kicking out his hooves with a sound like the tolling of bells. Kezia started coughing from the dust, and I covered her mouth with my sleeve while I chastised Pascha.
“Stop that! What’s the matter with you?”
Pascha got back on all fours, and I saw that flecks of white foam were dripping from his lips. His eyes were wild.
“This forest is cursed!” he cried out. “We’ve got to get out of it!”
Before I could respond, his horse’s shape melted away, and he became the tall brown youth, gasping and shaking.
“I saw it,” he managed to say. “The thing at the center! I saw it! It isn’t a witch at all!”
“Slow down!” I exclaimed, and Kezia pushed my arm away from her mouth.
“You saw Mother Forest?”
Pascha’s eyes bulged a bit, and he stumbled a few steps back and away from us.
“You! You’re talking now?!”
I got to my feet, pushing off Kezia’s shoulder. “Will you calm down? She’s speaking, and you’re raving like a madman- is there something pursuing you? Otherwise, get ahold of yourself!”
He looked at me, still buggy-eyed, but took several deep breaths. Kezia tugged on my sleeve, then, when I did not respond, grabbed my arm and used me as an anchor to boldily pull herself to her feet.
“I heard her voice before,” she said, while I staggered to regain my balance. How dare she be so tall! “I forgot about it until now… what did she look like?”
“She?” barked out Pascha. He shook his head. “I saw nothing to mark it as a she! I am the embodiment of the brightest sun, born at the dawn of time- and I have never seen anything like it before!”
“At the noon of time,” Kezia corrected, and when we both stared at her, added, “You said that you were born at the noon of time, and you also said that you forgot a lot of things. So maybe you forgot her, too.”
“Kezia,” I said, as Pascha appeared to be flabbergasted, “when, exactly, did you hear Mother Forest? What did she say?”
“I… it was when I was in the ground,” said Kezia, a little blush of pink rising to her pale cheeks. “I do not remember just what she said, but none of it was unkind.”
“Oh, well, that’s good,” said Pascha, a slightly hysterical note to his voice. “When it crushes me into tiny little pieces, maybe it’ll have a kind word or two-”
“You tell me what you saw now,” I said, cutting him off, as Kezia blushed harder. “How d’you even know it was Mother Forest?”
“All I know is that it’s the center, it’s at the middle of the whole thing- this whole forest is just feeding it. Human and spectre alike- now I know why they call it the starving forest!”
“But what was it?” I persisted. Pascha shook his head.
“Don’t ask me to describe it! I don’t know where it ended and the rest of the forest began- but it saw me, and it would have swallowed me then and there if I hadn’t got away in time. Listen- Baba Yaga has forbidden me from leaving this forest, but if you leave, I might be able to follow you to protect you-”
“If I leave, it must be with Kezia,” I said, trying to sound firm. In truth, the more he talked, the better leaving was sounding. “Did you happen to find Crina while you were running and screaming?”
“The girl without eyes? I found her,” said Pascha. “And a hundred more like her. They’re all dead.”
“Dead? But I saw her only-” I hesitated. “What killed her?”
“Crina is dead?” exclaimed Kezia.
“I don’t know what caused it, but she is not getting back on her feet again in the state I found her,” said Pascha, kicking nervously at the dust with one foot. “You could be next, strigoi, unless you get out of here.”
Kezia’s grip on my arm was becoming painful, but I didn’t fight it. “As I said before, without Kezia-”
“So cut the damn vine, already!” exclaimed Pascha. “It’s not as if she’s better off staying here- I don’t think that thing cares much what it eats!”
“The fadua die if their vines are cut!”
“That little girl survived, didn’t she?”
“She’s dead now, according to you! I simply don’t want to risk it!”
“It is my vine!”
I jumped. That had been Kezia. She let go of my arm.
“It is my vine,” she repeated. “I want to be the one who decides whether it should be cut or not.”
Pascha licked his lips.
“Fair enough. So, then…?”
She took a moment to answer. I felt every muscle in my body tensing.
“I want to leave,” she said, finally.
“Kezia, if you-”
“I am not fin- finished,” she said, cutting me off. “I do want to leave, but I do not want to cut the vine.”
“Ah,” said Pascha, narrowing his eyes. “That’s all very well, but you’re going to have to do one or the other.”
“No,” said Kezia. “I do not have to pick one. I can leave here without cutting the vine.”
The silence in the little clearing was very tight for a few moments.
“Kezia,” I said, eventually. “Talk sense. That vine is binding you to this spot, and the only way to free you is to cut it.”
“You are wrong,” said Kezia, with a touch of infuriating calmness. Seeing my glare, and Pascha’s skeptical squint, she started gathering up the vine in her arms working her way back to the open flower. I covered my face with one hand- the blanket had fallen off her back again, and now Pascha was goggling at her bare backside.
“She’s a bit mannish from the rear,” he murmured to me, and I slapped his shoulder.
“I thought you were busy being scared out of your wits!”
“I still have eyes, woman.”
“Look,” said Kezia, jolting the both of us back to attention. She was standing over the flower, vine piled up in coils around one arm. I marveled at how quickly she’d gained dexterity in her hands- if only she’d apply some of that to keeping herself modest.
“The vine is coming out of the flower,” said Kezia. “The flower is coming out of the bush. The bush is stuck into the ground by the roots.”
I couldn’t figure out where she was going with it. Pascha leaned his elbow on one of my shoulders.
“That is precisely why you aren’t going anywhere, former golem.”
Kezia furrowed her brow. I thought it was in response to the former golem comment, but then, after she looked between the two of us several times, I realized she was confused by something else.
“Why could we not just dig it up?”
A pause. A beat. The sound of me slapping myself on my forehead.
“Dig it up?!” Pascha was spluttering, and nearly fell over when I ducked out from underneath his arm. “You can’t just dig it up! That’d be-”
“Why not?” Kezia asked. Her feet were planted firmly, her arms folded stubbornly around her vine. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing.
“Pascha, she’s right! We can just dig up the bush and bring it with us! What a ridiculously clever solution!”
Kezia’s face brightened with a slow smile that warmed my hearts. But Pascha didn’t seem quite convinced.
“But if you dig it up, it’ll die!”
“Not right away,” I pointed out. “If we keep the roots moist, and wrap them up with a bit of soil, it should fare just fine for a few hours. Days, perhaps!”
“And then when we are somewhere safe, we can plant it again,” said Kezia.
“Or put it in a pot!” I snickered at the mental image. “If we put the pot in a little cart, you could even tug it around with you!”
“It is not that funny,” said Kezia, but she was still smiling. Pascha was shaking his head.
“That all seems very risky-”
“Not as risky as cutting the vine, you clod,” I said. “Come off it, she’s right. We only need to be careful about collecting all the roots.”
He squirmed under my glare.
“But- oh, but it’ll just take a long time to dig it all up!”
“So let’s get started! Stop dawdling!” I exclaimed, prodding him in the chest. “You need me to leave, and I’m a set with her, see?”
“Don’t do that,” he scowled, swiping my hand away. “Fine! But let’s be quick about it! Every minute we spend in this forest, the worse I feel.” He gave a dramatic shudder for emphasis.
“Ha,” I sneered, making my way towards the bush, “how d’you think I feel? One brush with mortality, and you turn into a great big coward.”
Pascha made a low noise in his throat, and came up quickly behind me.
“One chance at a real lay with your golem, and you-”
I whirled around and slapped his cheek. Sparks of light drifted up between my fingers.
“You keep your disgusting mouth shut,” I hissed, standing on my toes to look at him eye-to-eye.
“Isn’t it true?” he replied, matching my gaze. I could feel my cheeks heating up with fury.
“I’m not a foul creature like you,” I replied, voice tight.
“Gabi!” called Kezia, trotting over to us, and I quickly got down off my toes. “What did he say to you? Why did he hit you?”
“He’s just a nasty little creature that needs reminding of that,” I replied, trying to disguise the relief I felt that she hadn’t heard his words. They crawled over my skin like a sickness.
“Oh, is that it,” said Pascha, rubbing his cheek, his eyes thin upon me. “Well, I suppose I will keep my mouth shut, then. Wouldn’t want to spoil any surprises.”
I felt something that strongly resembled hate just then. He could be so affable and easy to get along with that I had to keep reminding myself that he was neither my friend nor my ally.
Kezia was looking between the two of us, a crease appearing between her eyebrows. I found I could not meet her eye just yet. Lay with her. Of course I would never do anything of the sort. The thought had not even occurred to me as a possibility. But now that he’d planted something in my mind I kept thinking of- ugh! How I loathed myself.
“What is the matter?” Kezia insisted, coming in close, and I tried to maintain my distance in a subtle way. From her frown, it hadn’t worked.
“Don’t mind her,” called Pascha. “Come along, let’s get to work unearthing this thing if we’re going to do it.”
He squatted down beside the bush, ducking under one of the fleshy flower petals, and made a show of scuffling and grunting at the soil.
Kezia glanced at him, then said to me, “He is not wearing a shirt, Gabi.”
My hackles went right up- I thought we’d finished with this discussion.
“He’s a man, and also not a human, and also an all-around-”
“But I am also not human,” she interrupted. “That is why we are digging up this flower.”
“We’re digging it up? I thought just I was,” Pascha said snidely from the ground.
“We’ll finish this discussion later,” I told Kezia, willing myself to ignore him. “When we have the time.”
She frowned, but to my relief, didn’t argue with me further. Instead she tried to take my hand. But I was already changing my shape into something better suited for digging: a wolf.
It was slow going, digging up the bush. Kezia, much as she clearly would have liked to be, could offer little help, and I growled at her when she tried to tear at the earth with her newly-minted fingernails. Pascha, after his initial halfhearted scuffle, also offered little assistance and stood around with his fingers interlinked behind his head, watching me do all the work. He and Kezia were standing beside each other, though not a word or a look passed between them.
I dug a trench all around the base of the bush, beneath the now-slightly-limp petals of the great flower. In truth I had made myself sound more confident than I really was about this mad plan: true, an ordinary shrub wouldn’t expire just from being dug up and carried around for a while, but this was a magic one- different rules likely applied! And even if they didn’t, where in the hell would we eventually plant it? Would we have to keep digging it up and moving it? Even a non-magical plant would protest such rough treatment.
But I wanted to get it out of the earth regardless of the risk. Pascha was right: something was starting to feel bad about the forest around us. The trees kept shivering without wind, and more than once I felt a weird tremor beneath my paws, a distant rumble. The stillness and isolation of the place where Kezia had grown, with only the trees and grass and vegetable lambs around, had initially seemed quite fortuitous and peaceful; now I thought it was ominous. For goodness’ sake, there weren’t even any insects here, and no worms came writhing up out of the soil I broke apart with my paws. Yet the dirt itself smelled rich and loamy. Something was fertilizing it still.
Again the trees shivered. Pascha’s eyes darted around the clearing, zipping back and forth within their sockets. Kezia mainly watched me. I could not stop myself from tearing many of the smaller roots as I made a rough circle around the inner mass. She couldn’t feel it- could she?
Eventually the wolf’s paws grew too large and clumsy for the delicate work of loosening the taproot. I changed to a rabbit, ignoring my weariness. The deeper I went, the darker and wetter the earth got, thick and stinking of rot. Fibrous fungi laced it like spiderwebs. Under my damp rabbit’s paws, sometimes it seemed to bulge back out towards me, as though something were writing beneath it. But there were still no worms, no animals below when I broke through.
With my nose against the root ball and my feet channeling dirt backwards, I didn’t observe the next tremor that shook the trees. But I heard them creaking. And then I felt it, like a gentle rocking motion underneath me. The bush with the great open flower, now anchored to the earth only by one thick root, swayed as though it was seasick.
Kezia made a soft sound, a thin noise, and I shot up out of the hole in a flash. She had knelt down with her arms over her stomach. Pascha was leaning over, but when he saw me he snatched his arms back.
“It is all right,” she said- to him or me, I didn’t know. “It does not hurt.”
“But you feel it?” asked Pascha, shooting me a look. I was still rabbit-shaped, erect on my hind legs, nose twitching.
“I feel something,” said Kezia. The ground shifted slightly again, the trees swayed, her eyelids fluttered. “I do not know what.”
“You’ll have to be more specific,” said Pascha, his hand hovering at some distance from her shoulders. “Good feeling? Bad feeling? Feeling that we ought to stop messing about with your bush?”
As if in answer, there came a distant rumble. The trees around us shuddered.
“Dig it up,” said Kezia, and I dove back down again.
The root went deep, and the earth became wetter and sloppier, harder and harder for my rabbit’s paws to shift. Pascha had finally started helping again, by gingerly tugging at the bush from the top, to see if it couldn’t be pulled out yet. Kezia had gone dreadfully silent, still crouching beside the hole.
Finally, after what seemed a dreadful, exhausting eternity, I felt the root tapering off. I was close. Pascha’s tugs were taking it up a little at a time, freeing the last few spidery rootlets from the muck. My red fur was stained and spiked with mud, my claws packed with it. Still I kicked and scratched, fighting the earth itself like it was an enemy.
Suddenly I found myself rising up into the air: the mud had abruptly bulged upwards. One of my hind legs sank through it like quicksand, and I squealed with alarm. The muddy bulge popped open with a loud gloop, and I dropped back down unhurt, if frazzled.
“What was that about?” asked Pascha, peeping down into the hole, and then gave a little cry of his own. The earth below his feet was starting to bubble up as well. I scrambled up the side and out; the dirt was writhing.
“Pull it out!”
That had been Kezia, who was now struggling to her feet. With one hand she held the base of the vine, like an anchor, as the ground beneath her feet bucked and squirmed like a living thing. “Pull it out, it does not matter if it rips. I do not think that it is safe here anymore!”
We were in agreement there. I cast a frantic look Pascha’s way, and he nodded once and applied all his strength to the base of the bush. With a rending, tearing sound, it finally came free from the earth.
Kezia staggered, and I could not help but give a squeak- but it was only from the movement of the ground. She shook her head to show me she was fine.
“This has to be wrapped up,” said Pascha, who had gathered up most of the roots and was winding them around into a neat coil. “With a bit of soil, for the journey.”
“You can use this,” said Kezia, and she pulled off the blanket. She glanced at me, as though she expected a protest- goodness, I was worried more about the ground beneath us than modesty at the moment, she ought to realize that!
Pascha took it and managed to tie up the bush into something passably transportable, then ripped off the remaining long, limp petals from the flower. Now I did make a noise of outrage.
“They’ll just get in the way, they’re falling off already!” he snapped at me, then stumbled as the earth roiled and shook the trees. No time to argue about it. I changed back into myself, and grabbed Kezia before she could fall over.
“Which way should we go?!” I shouted. I don’t know why I felt the need to shout. Except for the creaking of the trees, the whole place was still eerily silent.
Pascha inhaled deeply, and thrust the bush into Kezia’s arms. Startled, she barely kept ahold of it.
I picked up the coil of the vine Kezia had dropped and slung it over her shoulder, then took her elbow. The earth seemed stiller out of the clearing, between the trees. I hoped it was completely still outside the forest. I hoped Kezia could get that far.
Before we had even managed to even put the clearing out of sight, though, Pascha came to an abrupt halt, his bare back turning ramrod stiff before my eyes. I peered around him and saw the reason.
It was her, unmistakably- the pale girl without eyes. She even had her cane in one hand.
The cane she hadn’t had when we’d entered the forest.
“What are you?” asked Pascha.
“Who is that?” Kezia whispered in my ear, and I realized she’d last seen Crina as a child. “Is it a fadua?”
I debated whether or not to say the name. Because now I was beginning to feel that who ever this was, it wasn’t the Crina we’d known. It was smiling gently, an expression that seemed oddly familiar…
“You came back,” it said, and I realized with a jolt it had turned its empty sockets towards Kezia. “My child.”