What was there here to frighten me?
I came back to consciousness with an unpleasant jolt, flapping my wings desperately to keep from falling. Except I didn’t have wings anymore, and I was flailing my human arms around in the darkness like an idiot. Darkness- why was it so dark? Hadn’t the sun just come up? How long had I-
I sat up all in a rush and banged my head painfully on a low, hard ceiling.
The hit jarred my senses back into place, and I cursed and felt about carefully. It was utterly dark, even for my eyes, and cramped as well. The surface above me felt like coarse, damp stone; below me seemed to be dirt. A small cave of some sort? I was utterly disoriented; how had I come to be in a cave? Last I recalled, I had been an owl, flying around the head of a giant golem with the forest on her back…
A sudden, very worrisome thought struck me. Golems: they were made of earth, but hollow inside. Was it…?
Sudden anxiety made me squirm, and one of my legs kicked out into open space. Eagerly I curled my body to it, flaring my nostrils and inhaling, trying to glean any fresh air that might signal an exit. It did seem a little less stale that way, but also…
Yes; it smelled like blood in that direction. Before I’d had half a mind to change to the marten for easier navigation, but now I cast that idea away and wavered, taking deep breaths. Blood had been spilled… human blood. It was in the same direction as the fresher air, and any good person would want to check if somebody was hurt, alone, in this darkness…
My jaw muscles seemed to loosen. I was salivating like an animal. I shook my head- there were things I ought to be doing, probably, but for goodness’ sake, I hadn’t fed in quite a while. And it was in the direction of the exit. All I needed was a sip or two…
I pulled myself, human-shaped, through the narrow tunnel, heedless of the new bumps and scrapes I was getting atop the old. Over the blood-greed I could recall the giant golem, and the horrible possibility of just where I might be, of course. And I remembered I needed to get back to Kezia. That, finally, made me pause a moment; she’d be looking for me, she was in danger, and she’d been frightened.
But it was in the direction I was going anyway. The blood smell.
I crawled onwards, and the little tunnel widened, and I could hear the slow drip, drip of water, and smell wet soil. And blood. Much blood. I followed it like some drunken hound, sniffing, weaving slightly. My senses were with me enough to be somewhat alert, though, and with my ears pricked I finally caught the sound of ragged breathing. A wonderful sound, when you are a hungry strigoi.
Faint shafts of light pierced the gloom up ahead, and now I did behold the outline of a human figure, lying prone on the ground, chest rising and falling. It was too dark for me to discern any particular features, any markers that might indicate age, or gender, or complexion, but in truth, it didn’t matter much to me anyway. They stank of blood, and they were barely moving. I could sense death hovering around them like a cloud.
Flies tickled against my face as I knelt down over the body. There came the thinnest of moans, an animal sound of fear. I pressed my face gently into the juncture between head and shoulder, and then bit down.
Sluggishly, the blood filled my mouth. It was hot, hot with fever and infection, hot with desperation. I sucked greedily at the thin threads of life that still bound it to the person’s body. As I drank, I had a slight vision- perhaps I was drinking the person’s memories, too, or perhaps my imagination was simply overactive. But I felt, for a hallucinatory moment, that I was lying down on my back, helpless, unable to move, listening to the snuffling and the shuffling of an unseen creature drawing closer and closer…
The blood took on an acrid tang, and I tasted death. I had fed all I could from this corpse.
I rose, slowly, my mouth still dripping. My head was buzzing, but in a generally pleasant way; I hadn’t managed to get myself thoroughly drunk. Good. The ceiling was high enough here that I could very nearly stand up straight, and I moved forward with my head tilted at an awkward angle, tripping over the corpse. The shafts of light were coming from around a turn in the tunnel. I squirmed beneath a particularly low bulge and the hesitated. There was enough room to stand up fully on the other side, and I did. But someone else was standing there, in the entrance to the cave. Unpleasantly bright sunlight was shining all around them in a halo, and I had to flinch away, my eyes smarting, before they could adjust.
In my temporary blindness, I heard a voice say, “Tafsut.”
A tiny trickle of blood dripped off my chin, and landed on the cave floor. I had gone rigid.
“Tafsut.” The word, again. The name.
“So it was you, Tafsut.”
The secret name my mother called me, the word in her language that meant springtime, the name that only she and my sisters knew, and- the one other person I had told…
“He told it to me,” growled out the voice, as though it had read my thoughts. “He told me that name, and I thought, ‘What an ugly-sounding word it is, for such a lovely girl.’ But it suits you now, doesn’t it, monster?”
Standing in the cave entrance was a black wolf- a pricolici. Blue eyes. It stood half-hunched over on its hind legs, its forepaws crooked, and looking a little more like hands than anything else. The skin on that wolfy snout was oddly slack, and the fur on the cheeks thin, and I beheld the face of a man I had once known staring at me out of it.
He opened his mouth and let a red tongue loll out. My face prickled, and I touched my cheek- coated with rapidly-drying blood. I turned my hand over and tried to scrub it away.
“I’ve been searching for you,” growled the pricolici, who I could not yet bring myself to believe was really Iaon. “My mother buried me with a cross on my chest, but I still came back a beast; how’s that for determination? At first I didn’t know what to do with myself except get away from my family, but soon I got to thinking: why not seek out the life of the whore that broke my dearest friend’s heart…”
He laughed, a hoarse sound. My fingernails were digging into my own cheek.
“But then, Viorel was no saint, was he? I’ve had a great deal of time to think about these things. Aren’t you curious to find out what happened to him after you left him to his punishment?”
“Be quiet,” I said, my voice level. “I am leaving. Don’t follow me.”
“No, you aren’t,” said the pricolici, and something guttural came back into his voice. “Searched for you a long time, I did. They sent men out to hunt you down, but nobody could find you- one little girl slave who ran away with nothing but the clothes on her back! But after I died, I followed your track, and it led straight to something that looked like a grave- and around it were the bones of two long-dead men. That was when I really believed you’d become a blood-drinker. Just like we spoke about, a long time ago.”
“I know what happened,” I said. “I was there.”
“And I followed your trail after a string of corpses- did you like the meal I brought you, by the way?- until I came upon the accursed strigoi Radu.”
“Ah.” In spite of myself I felt a bit curious, and strangely numb about the temples. “How did he make you his servant?”
“Force of will,” said Iaon, and there was a real throaty snarl to his voice now. “He drank my blood and made me more beastly than I had ever been. I was on the verge of losing myself entirely when the golem destroyed him.”
“The golem… destroyed him?”
“Aye, tore him off of me even as he begged for his life. Truly something to behold. I’d like to thank the creature now that I have something of a voice again.”
I shook my head, slowly. No. It had to have been a golem other than Kezia; if he thought it was Kezia, he was mistaken. I knew her too well to think that she would ever destroy anyone at all. Well- there were those times when she’d gone a bit haywire, but she’d never done any lasting damage…
I was fading away, in the mist of my blood-drunkeness and shock and confusion. Iaon was talking, and I hardly heard him, until he said a name that made me flinch.
“Viorel wouldn’t believe you’d run away. Not his dear, loyal Gabi. A good slave doesn’t run, you see, even when the punishment isn’t fair. Didn’t they teach you that in the Bible? I suppose with your heathen background the religion never stuck. Well, I told him anyone with half an eye could see that you were cracking more by the second, and that I’d even warned him to leave you or wake up with half a pecker one day. But he just wouldn’t believe it. Wouldn’t shut up about you for weeks afterwards. ‘I’m waiting for her, she’ll come back, she loves me, she belongs to me and she knows it well.’ And did you come back, then?”
He was speaking rapidly, so eager that he stumbled over his words at times; I wondered how often he had rehearsed this little speech in the depths of his shaggy head. I wondered if I should kill him, just to make him be quiet. He had not yet comprehended how much of a monster I really was.
“Look at you now,” he was saying. “Look at you now. Tafsut. I didn’t think you’d do it. I didn’t think you’d really kill that man until I saw it. Tell me truly, now. Would you kill Viorel, too, if you saw him again?”
Something went cold and tight in my chest, and I ground out, “Of course not. He was my-”
“Husband?” Iaon laughed, a sickly sound. “That little ceremony of yours, yes. You know slaves aren’t allowed to get married- which means you weren’t a wife, you were a whore. But then again, from what he told me of your life before-”
I had said nothing, made no expression of reaction that I was aware of, but he still trailed off as though I had. Suddenly his black ears pinned back, and he snarled.
“Kill him! Say you would kill him.”
“I wouldn’t,” I replied, keeping my tone cold, as his became more shrill. “What confession do you hope to get from me? Why did you chase me all the way here?”
Again he growled, and paced from side to side with an impatient energy in the cave entrance, his black tail swishing at his heels.
“You’re still as much a fool as you were then. He told you he wouldn’t be able to keep you, and that you ought to sell yourself to the boyar instead. Lies! Flimsy ones, too, yet you believed them! You think that he was saving up to buy your freedom? He got you sold to the boyar so that you’d never be free! He was afraid, he was, always afraid, didn’t trust women, so why not have one that couldn’t get away? Didn’t trust men, either, I s’pose, certainly didn’t trust me-”
“You’re the liar!” I snapped. “Shut up!”
“Even now, you believe it, do you?” He made a harsh, clotted noise at the back of his throat. “I thought you had him figured out, when you left. Didn’t think you would do that. He didn’t, either. He didn’t know what to do. Tore him right up, even after the boyar beat him around the head a bit and took away his job. You really ruined him, did you know-”
I cut him off, my fists and throat clenching. “It doesn’t matter! I am not who I was then. That Gabi is dead! He doesn’t mean anything now!”
“Ha,” said Iaon, “look at that. I thought you really had shucked him off. I thought you’d be a real cold-blooded old thing when I finally spoke to you. But you’re the same old Tafsut, after all.”
“Stop using that name!”
“But it’s what you are, isn’t it, slave-girl Tafsut? What was it you used to say? The man controls the dancing bear with a magic tune, or some such shite? Viorel told me, you know, the real truth. Just a yank on the nose, and it goes up. Brutal and simple, just like the rest of the damned world. I s’pose it makes you feel better if you think it was a magic tune all along-”
He stopped speaking then, for I had grabbed him by the throat.
“You’re the fool,” I said, “if you really think I’m the same as I was then.”
He wasn’t fighting my grip- in fact, he had gone completely limp, his blue eyes shining bright from within the black fur.
“Prove it, then,” he said. “Really prove it. Why don’t you kill me?”
I said nothing. The trick with the bear. He’d promised me he’d never tell anyone about it. But I suppose a promise to someone like me meant very little.
“You know what I am?” he said, rather more quietly. “A pricolici. A beast of a man. Bit of a shock, really. Never thought of myself as a beast. But I suppose it suits me just fine. I didn’t do a damned thing to stop it. Sort of thought to myself, even if she is a slave, it isn’t right to hold a woman when it’s clear she ain’t interested anymore. But I s’pose Viorel would’ve said that you were his wife and it was all right. But you weren’t his wife. You were a slave, yeah? But no man ought to turn against his dearest friend like that. It was queer how I missed you when you were gone. Nobody played cards so badly as you did, even though you are a gypsy. I said some strange things then. Like I told Viorel he got what he deserved. Don’t know what came over me to say such foolishness. Perhaps I even thought then that you were a dearer friend than him.”
I still said nothing. I had nothing to say.
“You want to know how I died?” asked Iaon. “It’s right stupid.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t want to know.”
“I s’pose it doesn’t matter now anyway.”
Something hung there in the air between us for a few long moments before he spoke again.
“D’you think you’re going to kill me after all? I’d like a confirmation one way or another, as my neck is getting sore.”
I let him go, and flexed my hand.
“Don’t ever call me Tafsut again.”
“Fine. Very well.”
He dropped down onto all fours again, and stared at me.
“Funny,” he said, “I expected, at the very least, that when we met up you’d make me your slave the way Radu did. If you didn’t kill me. It would have been fitting.”
“No,” I said, “it wouldn’t have. And I don’t need slaves.”
He gave a growly little laugh.
“What do you need, then, my dear?”
“I need to find my golem,” I said. “And you’re in my way.”
He cocked his head at me, and then stepped aside. The sunlight lanced towards me, and I flinched. It was bright outside, well past daybreak, and it would be hell to walk out there in my own skin. With a sidelong glance at Iaon, I became a deer. He didn’t seem terribly surprised.
The cave opened up out of a little hillock covered with saplings. I knew from the sweet, rotten scent of them that we were somewhere within the Starving Forest. I tested the ground with my small hooves- it felt solid enough. Nothing seemed to be moving. My large ears swung back and forth. No rumbling, creaking, cracking. No sign of a giant, of a golem, of anything out of the ordinary on this calm autumn morning.
But it hadn’t been a dream. The night before, a giant golem had come out of the earth and moved a river and a forest.
A black shadow pooled out of the cave entrance. Iaon, following me from a distance. My deer heart hammered. I wished he would leave. I couldn’t think on what he’d just said to me. I couldn’t, I couldn’t, I couldn’t. Let the sunlight burn it all away. I had left it all behind, and he was bringing it back to me. I didn’t want it back. I wanted to find Kezia. Kezia!
In a twist of air, I had changed into the little red bird, and flew upwards with a noisy chirrup. I heard the beating of his paws coming after me, but I quickly fluttered above the treetops and soared close to the aching sun. A mournful howl drifted after me, but my heart was unmoved.
Kezia. I didn’t know what had happened to her. She’d been frightened. I couldn’t let her be frightened.
Higher and higher I went, till it seemed the sun might make the feathers on my back shrivel and smoke, and melt the beak right off my face. I saw the distant line where trees met river, in its new location. There was no village in sight, only a little meadow now closely hemmed in from all sides. A sea of trees. If I’d been in my own skin, I would have trembled, remembering the words Baba Yaga had said about the Hercynian Forest.
I circled and searched, feeling the hopelessness of it more and more with every passing minute; she could have been anywhere in the Starving Forest and beyond, how could I hope to spot her? The canopy closed mockingly below me, with only spiderwebs of light passing through the leaves, little trails like rivers marking the places between the crowns of the trees.
When I finally did see something, it wasn’t Kezia, but a little black cat, sitting in the middle of the meadow.
At once I flew down, and changed back to my human form once I’d landed. The sun struck me like a curse, blistering against my skin, and I had to breathe in shuddering gasps to bear it.
“Where is Kezia?” I managed to wheeze, before I gave in to the pain and turned into a shivering squirrel.
Noroc’s single pupil dilated as I made the change, and he got to his feet. Before I could react, he’d picked me up by my fluffy tail and started carrying me towards the trees. My frazzled brain took several seconds to make a decision, but in the end I decided to go limp. Noroc was trustworthy in the sense that he’d do most anything to help Kezia. And besides, there was shade beneath the trees.
Hanging from my tail in the cat’s mouth made for a slightly painful, bumpy ride, but at least it gave me a moment or two to try and recover my wits. Much had happened since I’d woken up, and my thoughts were scattered and disorganized. At least I’d gotten something to eat! When I found Kezia, things ought to feel better again. So long as she was still alive. But that was foolish, there was no possibility that anything bad could have happened to her. If anything had, then there was no justice left in the world at all.
I blinked my beady little eyes. Noroc had gotten to the trees, and now slunk swiftly through the undergrowth with barely a rustle of leaves beneath his soft little feet. I, on the other hand, dangled and jostled against thorny brambles. I squirmed, my little feet swimming in the air, trying to give Noroc some indication that I could walk on my own now, but he kept pressing on.
My squirrel’s nose picked up a queer tang to the air around me- not just the ordinary sickly-sweetness of the Starving Forest, but a warm spiciness as well, like cinnamon and cloves. Bark curled on the trees around us, exposing raw white wood, and leaves drifted slowly down amidst shafts of sunlight. Despite the bright sunlight, the air was crisp and cool, and the damp ground smelled like frost.
Kezia would be out in this cold, with nothing but the thin garments she’d borrowed from me, and an inept sense of how to care for her own body. I couldn’t help but fret at the thought. As soon as I found her, I’d have to find some sort of warm shelter for her…
My thoughts were jarred. Noroc had come to a halt, for no apparent reason, in the midst of a dense thicket. Brush and brambles hemmed us in on every side, and the ground sloped downwards, bare dirt jagged with tree roots. The scents of sweetness and spice were overwhelming here to my little squirrel nose.
Noroc bent forward, and finally released my tail. I tumbled lightly to the ground, and came up chittering rodent curses. The earth was cold and damp here, and not at all pleasant against my paws. When I looked up, brambles cris-crossed the sky above. Was this supposed to be where we would find Kezia?
The undergrowth rustled, and I tensed, but it was only due to the way Noroc was batting at it. He hunched down low and squeezed through a tiny little gap, barely big enough for me, let alone a cat; perhaps that was why he’d let me go. I started to follow him, but at once my thick tail was snagged by thorns. I needed something more suited to cramped, treacherous tunnels- so I became a marten.
I caught up with Noroc as my new, sinuous self. The tunnel wound deep through the tangled wicker, and the sunlight splintered through in places and made my eyes smart. The tip of Noroc’s black tail tickled my little nose, and I resisted the urge to bite it. A distinct feeling of unease was creeping up on me- just where were we going? I couldn’t imagine how Kezia could have gone this way- but then again, many things were possible if you were being carried around in the palm of a giant…
Abruptly the sunlight piercing the tangle above vanished, and we were left in sudden, complete darkness. The fur between my shoulder blades rose. Something creaked overhead.
I heard the faint rustle of Noroc moving ahead of me, and crept after him, thoroughly spooked. I hadn’t been wrong to follow him, had I? But I couldn’t imagine him being anything but loyal to Kezia…
The branches beneath my paws vibrated, and then I saw a pale little light ahead, at the end of the twisting tunnel. Noroc had slipped out. I peeped my head out after him, warily; the light was coming from the trunks of white trees.
He had led me to a large clearing, and he now sat on a rotten stump, just a cat-shaped black blot in the gloom. I put my paw down on the ground, then jerked it back. The ground was oddly soft. It was covered in a sort of pale, filamentous substance, like spiderwebbing, cris-crossing the bare dirt over the entire clearing. Here and there, little black mushrooms protruded from it, and in some places, the bend of a thick root showed through.
I put my paw down again. It wasn’t a spiderweb. It was roots- tiny, fine roots, permeating the soil so thickly that it depressed beneath my paws like a sponge. I was walking on ground that was more root than dirt.
I changed back to my own self, squatting low and squinting around. What light there was was pale and stilted, and reddish-colored, staining the trunks of the white trees pinkish. I tilted my head back and squinted: high above, something was blocking out the sunlight. A leaf drifted down before my eyes and I caught it, twirled it by the stem: it was red, and nearly translucent, with a dense webbing of veins. It was shaped like no leaf I’d seen before, no oak or maple or birch. I brought it close to my eye to peer more closely, and the veins pulsed.
I dropped the leaf and scrambled back in startlement. My toes got wound up in the dense roots as I moved back, and I cursed, ripping them free.
“Noroc, what is all this!” I exclaimed. “I thought you were leading me to Kezia!”
The cat looked at me, then raised a paw and rubbed at his empty eye socket. He gave a mournful little mewl that sent gooseflesh up and down my arms. Something wasn’t right here. Something was terribly wrong. Where were we?
Slowly I rose from my crouch, and stood up fully. The ground still sloped here, if gradually, and the darkness gathered like a cloud near the bottom of the hill where no trees grew.
Noroc stopped rubbing at his face long enough to give me a meaningful look.
“No,” I replied, “I am absolutely not going down there.”
He licked his paw, and rub-rub-rubbed at his socket.
“Is Kezia down there?” I asked.
He paused in his rubbing, his tail twitching at the tip, then continued. I muttered a few impolite words beneath my breath.
“If she’s down there, what else is she with?”
This time I didn’t even get a response. He ignored me completely, in the manner of a cat, his lone eye shut tight as he pawed at his face.
I stared down into the void for a long moment. It was utterly silent, aside from the soft sounds Noroc was making, the rasp of his tongue as he licked his paw again.
I recalled the way the veins of the leaf had twitched, like the arteries of something with a pulse, and shuddered. But it was only darkness. Darkness was the ally of a strigoi- and after all, that was what I was, not a human, not a creature of the daytime. Leaves and roots and little mushrooms- what was there here to threaten me? Anytime I pleased, I could change into a bird and fly away. If Kezia really was down there, she would be cold. Frightened. She needed me; I hadn’t been needed by anybody before.
I took a long, deep breath, and began walking downwards into the darkness…
And a few soft, steady steps later, I saw a tree.