I do not like that noise.
I was beginning to feel frightened of the memories. More and more. I am not sure why. None of them were very bad. But it seemed as though I was just starting to slide down a hill, and was picking up speed: the images came swifter and swifter, less connected to each other- many of the sweet Christian girl, many of Elan, of Hadassah and Ayla; of Father, of the cats that lived in the streets; of standing by the sluggish bend of the river, my skirt wound around my waist, digging my fingers in the silty mud for freshwater clams; candles and candles and candles, golden flickering light and black cloth, doors and windows that were shut, and Selig- Selig of the thick beard and the shaking voice, Selig who would not go near wells.
I felt that the closer I got to the bottom of the hill, the sooner I would crash.
“May we stop,” I said- begged. “May we stop? Please.”
I- was it I? Or someone else? I or they did not listen. I felt that they barely acknowledged me at all. They were going down that hill, faster and faster, and they wanted to crash at the bottom.
Here was another memory: lying on the damp grass at twilight, fingers wound through fair hair, warm soft cheek against mine.
This should have been happy, but it was not, I could feel it.
“Why did he say that?” murmured my Christian girl. “I can’t stand it. How could he say that about your people?”
Now I could feel moisture on her cheeks, and I held her closer. But there was an emptiness to it.
“I told him that no father of mine should say such things,” she continued, sniffing.
I had thought her father was one of the good ones. He was kind to me. He made my father laugh. He had never… had never…
“Kezia,” said my Christian girl, turning her head to nestle against my shoulder. I should have felt warmed. Instead I felt embittered.
Why should I comfort her over words meant to abuse me? Why had she run out and told me so quickly? I could have lived thinking her father did not look down on me.
The spiteful part of me thought, She wants to be praised.
The spiteful part of me thought, She cries, but the next day she will forget, while I have to duck away from her father’s shadow forever.
I am not sure that these thoughts were quite fair, but I was feeling a clenching cold in my heart, my arms soothing her mechanically. She must have sensed it, for I felt her recoiling, and that was not good- I could not say those things out loud- she wouldn’t understand. No.
She pulled away, raised herself, looked desperately into my eyes.
“Please don’t think too badly of him,” she said. “Please. I’ll speak to him again. He’s not a hateful person, he just- I’ll speak to him, so please don’t hate my father.”
With each word she said, I could feel a little rip, a little tear, a little tugging away from my sweet Christian girl.
“Your father is probably missing you now,” I said, as gently as I could. “You should go home.”
“Oh, Kezia!” She leaned forward, caught me in a desperate kiss- through her warm lips I could hear those pleas, echoing: Please don’t hate my father.
But he hates me, I wish I could have replied.
Instead I watched her leave.
“I do not want to see any more,” said my other self, hovering like a dim fog over my Christian girl’s retreating back.
It didn’t matter. I had a place I needed to go. A place… They sky was getting darker, darker, until it was twilight, and I no longer lay on the damp grass. I stood on the hard cobblestones in my bare feet, feeling cold, feeling frightened. I was standing in front of the church.
Why? I wondered. Why had I come here? I should not have come. I should not have come.
One of the church’s doors opened, and a man stepped out. He was carrying something in his arms- something like a bag. It looked heavy.
I felt something very strange: a mixture of fear and of something else- excitement? Hope? Relief? Some kind of utterance emerged from my throat.
The man looked up.
BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG!
I clapped my hands over the ears. It was so loud that the sound was disturbing the man’s face, breaking it up into ripples so that I could not recognize him. He said something, but it was as if I was listening through water, for still the church bells rang.
BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG!
It hurt my head, it hurt, it hurt so much; oh, it hurt, and did he know it was me? Did he know it was me? It hurt! It hurt! It hurt! Water- water- in my eyes- in my mouth- my chest was so cold- so cold- thick mud- flooding through my lungs- I am dying I am dying it hurt it hurt did he know oh why oh why oh why
BONG! BONG! BONG! B-
The sound stopped so abruptly it was as though some giant had sliced a knife through the air and cut it away.
I came back with a jolt and a shudder, and I saw the dark wall of my hut, and the broken scraps of moonlight filtering through. I could hear the soft buzz of insects, and feel the faint, cool night breeze. The hut maintained its sense of dusty calm, and I stayed still, a hollow, silent statue.
The door creaked, and though I could not turn my head to look I could hear soft footsteps, so quiet they were like a cat’s pad. The door shut again, and my visitor came into view.
When I saw her I thought my clay skin might crack and I might cry, somehow, empty golem that I was. Gabi.
It was surprising that I recognized her, because she looked very different. She was wearing clothes; a black skirt and vest, a lightly embroidered shirt, and a dark red headscarf. The only bit that looked like the Gabi I remembered was the round oval of her face peeping out under the scarf.
I tried to speak- and could not. I had forgotten. Mother had commanded me to stay still. I could only look at her, like the first time we had met. Except then it had not ached so much being unable to talk.
Hurry and free me, I urged her, silently. She was hesitating, her eyes wandering over me towards something on my left. Why did she wait?
And then, all at once, I remembered what had happened the last time we were together.
It was like something crumpled up down inside of me, and I wished I could turn my face away in shame. Oh, Gabi, I tried to hurt you. No wonder she hesitated. I wondered why she had come at all.
In a slow trickle, I recalled walking away down the tunnel, and then finding the white horseman. But what had happened after I had sent him to Gabi? I could not remember anything after he had taken his light away and left me in the dark. Only waking to strange memories…
I had never lost time before. I could not even sleep. I stared at Gabi, who was shifting from foot to foot.
I felt frightened. I could not even sleep. What did this mean? Was I reaching the limits of my golem’s body? I did not even know what they were. Would I turn back into plain mud again? If that happened, what was I… where would I…
Gabi suddenly clicked her tongue, then shook her head with a little smile. It was as if she had been listening in on my thoughts, and all at once I felt a little lifted. She could still smile at me.
When she raised her thumb to her mouth and bit it, I felt even warmer. One red curl fell out from underneath the headscarf, brushing down against her cheek. I wished I could tuck it back in for her. But then, if I did that, I would get her face muddy. It was good that I had to be still now.
Suddenly someone spoke.
“Don’t mark me.”
Gabi gave a little jolt, her thumb still in her mouth, and I was no better off. Who else was in the room with us? At first I felt a little frightened- but the voice sounded familiar, and not in a bad way. Who was it? I did not know very many people.
“Don’t mark me, Gabi,” said the voice. I could not figure out where it was coming from. Behind me? My back was against the wall. How did it know Gabi’s name?
She was all I could see, in my fixed position, and she was staring back into my eyes.
“Please,” said the voice, and it kind of echoed around inside my hollow head, and then… and then, I realized.
It was my voice.
But I was not speaking.
It was me, but it was not me.
I could not move.
“Why shouldn’t I mark you?” said Gabi, to the me-who-was-not-me. I felt a kind of ache hearing her say that. That is not me, Gabi. Did she know? Could she?
It is not me!
“Because I must speak with you,” said my voice.
It is not me- Gabi- I cannot move- Gabi-
“And to whom am I speaking?” said Gabi.
Her words were like a rush of cool relief over my chest. Gabi knew. She knew she was not speaking to me. She knew.
She knew me.
“Kezia,” said my voice. “I am Kezia.”
Gabi did not say anything for a moment, her pale eyes thoughtful. I hoped and hoped that she would not be fooled. She had to know that it was not me. I was Kezia. Not whatever was speaking. That was my name.
“Kezia,” said Gabi, drawing out the name, as though she were fitting her tongue around it, tasting it. “So I see.”
“I want to ask for your help,” said my voice. “Please. I haven’t been able to speak before.”
“Haven’t you?” I noticed that Gabi’s tone had gone very cool, her face expressionless. I could not figure out what she was thinking. Did she really know that it was not me? I could see the blood gleaming on her thumb where she had bitten it, and I wished- oh, I wished she would free me.
Or what if this stranger had my voice forever and ever?
“No,” said my voice. “And I lost most of my memories. But after the witch caught the golem, she made it sleep, and I was able to wake up again.”
Gabi said nothing, just tucked her loose curl back underneath her headscarf. I wished she had not.
“I still don’t quite remember everything,” said my voice, hastening. I did not blame it; I would have hastened too if Gabi had been looking at me in that flat, appraising way. “Not everything, but I do know that I’m not supposed to be here.”
Gabi let several strained seconds pass before she answered.
“That is apparent.”
“I mean I’m not supposed to be in this body,” said my voice. “I’ve left my real body. I don’t know how. But I think I know where it is- it’s in the river. If I could go there…”
Gabi gave a slow, easy smile. It felt strangely dangerous.
“Go to the river?” she said. “Ah, I see. And you will find that body of yours- and pop straight back in.”
“I… yes, that’s what I hope. If we hurry-”
“A question for you, Kezia,” said Gabi. “Can you breathe underwater?”
For a moment I thought that Gabi was talking to me, and I tried to answer that I did not breathe at all. But of course I could not say anything. I wished she would not call it by my name.
“Of course I can’t breathe underwater,” snapped my voice, and then, very softly, “It’s my name.”
Gabi raised an eyebrow at this, and said, “Well, then I should hope your body has learned to in your absence.”
“It’s not dead!”
“It’s not dead,” Gabi repeated. “Of course. Am I to believe that you have been steering this golem the whole time?”
“No, I have not,” said my voice. “I’m trapped in here with it. I told you I hadn’t remembered anything until now. I think it’s because that big stupid mind is so overpowering.”
Big stupid mind indeed. At least I knew that a body in the river was a dead body.
“Shut up,” hissed my voice. As though I was the one doing all the talking.
“Is it still in there?”
I think we had both gotten distracted from Gabi, because it took my voice a moment to answer.
“The golem? Yes. I think you broke it a little by giving it free will. I don’t imagine it will be obedient if you awaken it again.”
“Mm,” said Gabi, tapping her chin. I was clamoring- I could too be obedient, my voice was lying. The only thing I had ever tried to do with free will was obey Gabi’s commands! Surely Gabi would remember that!
“Can you move the golem’s body at all?” was what she said next, which was not encouraging.
“No,” my voice admitted. “I don’t know how it does it. I think the voice was mine originally, and that’s why I can use it. But the body is the golem’s.”
“Is that so,” said Gabi. Her voice seemed disinterested, but her eyes had narrowed to blue slits, and she slowly brought her still-bleeding thumb to her lower lip. “If I wake the golem, it will drive you away again?”
“I think so,” said my voice. “Please don’t. I promise, I’m far better company than that thing. It didn’t even know what sheep or horses were. It didn’t know that cats meowed!”
Gabi licked her thumb.
“Are you aware of why I want the golem?” she asked.
“I do remember a little, yes,” said my voice. “It was because a witch-”
“Not for its mind,” smiled Gabi, talking over it. “Certainly not for the conversation. I wanted it for its strength. Now tell me, dear Kezia, have you got any of that?”
“I…” My voice seemed at a loss. “I… I thought you would help me.”
“What would make you think that?” Gabi wondered, turning her eyes up towards the rafters. “I don’t recall telling the golem I was an angel, I recall telling it that I was a strigoi. And now.” She looked into my eyes, and flashed another smile. I saw a hint of her sharp, white teeth.
“Please don’t,” said my voice. “I-”
“I’ll have my golem back,” said Gabi, and reached out to press her thumb square in the center of my chest.
I felt it again, that feeling: of running hot and cold and melting and drying and cracking and shaping. But this time it did not frighten me. It pleased me. I felt my free will come back this time, really felt it, because suddenly my cloudy head felt open and clear and free and right. And it was because Gabi’s blood was soaking into me.
Gabi herself was wearing a scowl now, and she flinched as she withdrew her hand.
Her skin had snagged on the thorns of one of the vines wrapped around my chest. Unthinkingly I raised my hands, which moved with a crunching noise and a shower of dust.
She jerked back and away before I could touch her, bringing her hand protectively to her chest, wide-eyed like a child.
“Oh! And who is it now, may I ask? Because I’ve had enough dratted-”
“It is me, Gabi,” I said. My voice worked again. Worked for me. It was so strange to hear it saying what I wanted after hearing it used by somebody else. Almost sickening.
“Me who?” said Gabi, and I felt even worse, watching her suck her thumb and glare at me.
“Me,” I said. “Kezia.”
She rolled her eyes.
“I know,” she said. “But I didn’t know you had passengers coming along with you. This was meant to be a strictly two-person journey.”
“You know?” I said. “You know that it is me?”
“Yes, yes, I know! But you’re not going to switch out on me again, are you?”
“I do not think so,” I said, searching my mind. I could not feel any of those other memories. Or- I remembered what I had been shown before, but no new ones. I supposed that the ones I had seen were now part of my memories. This was an unsettling thought.
“I will not let it come back,” I added, feeling that little burn of anger again. “It is my name and my voice.”
Gabi looked as though she were going to roll her eyes again, then seemed to think better of it. “Is it watching now?”
“I do not know,” I said. “I did not know that it was watching before.” Oh, I wished that it would get out of my head. I looked at Gabi. I would prefer it if she was in there instead. I missed my bats.
“Hmph,” said Gabi, sucking her thumb again. “I don’t like it. But I suppose that’s that. Now, will you hurry along already? I want to get out of this forest before the sun rises.”
“Yes,” I said, but I did not yet move. Gabi must have felt my hesitation, for she flicked her eyes at me.
“Not planning on scampering away again, are you?”
“No!” I exclaimed, much too loud, for she shrank away from me against the wall. “I mean, no- no.” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “I will not go away.”
“Good, because I won’t be fetching you a third time. And if you grab me again, I’ll make you sorry for it- but I suppose you knew that already.”
“Yes,” I said, very fervently. I could feel nothing but relief. She did not hate me. She still wanted me. Wanted me over the stranger that had taken over my voice. Me.
Not nothing after all.
Gabi twitched her chin impatiently, and I lurched forward a step. Dust flew into the air and drained off of my arms like sand. My skin crunched as I bent my elbows. I wondered how I had gotten so dried out. But at least there was still damp clay underneath the dried parts. My skin would just be slightly thinner.
Gabi sneezed three times in a row, flapping a hand to clear the dust from the air. I reached up and touched the vines that were wrapped around my chest. The thorns caught and dragged little lines through my fingers.
“I do not know where these came from,” I commented.
Gabi sneezed again and somehow made it sound derisive. “Witch’s work,” she said, and reached out and tore them away. This time she avoided getting pricked, though I did not know how. The vines fell on the ground, and I noticed for the first time that there were tiny white flowers growing between the leaves.
It made me think of Noroc. I had not seen him, and that might not be a good thing.
“Gabi,” I said, “do you think Noroc will be waiting outside again? Maybe you should climb back through my eye and hide.”
“No, thank-you,” said Gabi. “I’ve seen to the cat; he should stay preoccupied. I’m rather more worried by your countryman over there.” She jerked her chin to my left.
I did not understand what she meant, and so I turned my head to the left, making my neck grind as flakes of dried clay fell down onto my shoulders. There was a clay statue standing in the corner.
It was very startling. There had never been such a thing in my hut before. I wondered who had taken it here. Mother? It had such an odd, surprised expression on its face, its mouth round and gaping.
“What is that?” I asked Gabi.
“Don’t you recognize your own kind?” she said, flicking a flake of my skin from her arm.
“I do not have a kind,” I said, but doubtfully. I could not take my eyes off of the figure. It was barely human-shaped, with big, curving arms, small legs, and a long neck. It was slenderer than I was. Its hands had three fingers.
I looked down at my lumpy, five-fingered hands.
“I suppose you’re right. Let’s go,” said Gabi. Her voice had grown a little sharp, but I was stuck. I looked back at the statue. It stared back at me with black, empty eyes.
I had never seen my reflection before.
“Is this a golem?”
“Who knows? It may be that Mother Forest just likes making things out of clay.” Gabi was shifting from foot to foot, glancing at the door. “That cat won’t stay distracted forever.”
“Do I look like that?”
“Ye- well, no, not just the same,” Gabi said.
I was reaching out to try and touch the clay statue, but hesitated. It gaped silently at me. How… how could I look like that? It looked like a giant child’s plaything. It did not look alive.
But I was not alive, I reminded myself. All of what I called ‘myself’ was only clay. I touched my own arm, feeling it give under the light pressure, then reached towards the clay figure’s chest.
Gabi fell silent. My fingers touched the cool clay. I could feel it in a dull way. It did not feel like Gabi’s skin or Noroc’s fur, of course. There was no warmth or pulse in it. I pushed until the clay dimpled slightly underneath my fingertip. It was softer than I was. Newer. It looked at me wordlessly, its mouth still open and surprised. I withdrew my hand.
“I am sorry, Gabi,” I said, rubbing my big fingers together. “I will go with you now.”
“Hmph,” grunted Gabi, but to my surprise, she did not add anything else. She turned and stuck out her leg to gingerly push open the door with her toes. Cool night air wafted inside my hut, and the chirping of insects and frogs grew marginally louder.
“You go ahead first,” said Gabi, flicking her eyes back towards the other golem.
I was not sure what she was thinking about. I was not sure what I was thinking about, really. Seeing the other golem had made feel so vague and strange. It was not as though I had not known what I was. It was just that… Maybe it was also because that other person had just taken over my body, too. Maybe that was why I felt a little bit like I was floating.
I stepped outside into my beaten-down courtyard amongst the swaying trees. It seemed so long ago that I had sawed boards here for Mother, had constructed the wooden fence. Of course it was only a few days.
But why was that not long? I wondered, as a thought struck me. I had only been conscious for a few days in total. Why should such a large portion of my existence not seem long?
I was beginning to suspect that it was because of that other person. To them, a few days did not seem long. They were still there inside of me, bleeding through my thoughts.
In that case, how many of my thoughts belonged to them originally?
This was all so disturbing that I was glad when Gabi shouted and distracted me. I turned around, and was suddenly less glad.
The other golem was not sleeping anymore.
It was holding on to Gabi’s arm and dragging her backwards. Gabi opened her mouth to shout again and the golem put its other hand over her mouth.
I lurched forward and slammed my way back through the hut’s doorway. Wood splintered. The other golem had dragged Gabi back against its chest despite her kicking and struggling, smearing mud over her cheeks. It thrust is head low and forward to stare at me, eyes round, mouth still surprised.
I reached out to grab the golem’s arm and drag it away, but as soon as my fingers touched its flesh, I realized I had made a mistake. It was clay, of course, just like me. My fingers sank into it- and- oh, oh no. Suddenly I felt like my arm was extending- it was, it was fusing with the other golem’s arm, clay blending with clay.
I felt my fingers sink into the hollow space inside the golem’s arm, and then something- what was inside touched me. Not a real touch. I could not describe it, only that it felt unimaginably bad. I yanked my arm back. But my hand separated from my wrist and stayed wrapped around the other golem’s arm.
Gabi’s eyes were bulging at the sight, and she was kicking and saying muffled words that were probably not pleasant, but the golem kept holding on to her silently.
“Will you not let her go?” I begged, holding my wounded arm against myself. The end of my wrist was a gaping hole. “Why are you doing this?”
The other golem said nothing. It just held Gabi. My hand was melting slowly into its arm. I did not know what to do.
Gabi herself did not stop moving, and there was a sudden kind of change in her- she arched, and gave a most inhuman squeal, and with a wrench shoved one hand through the golem’s arm. Her grasping fingers were covered in clay, her nails sharp. The golem slowly turned its head to look at the damage, and Gabi managed to squirm her chin up and out from under its hand. Her headscarf got tugged down, and her red curls sprang free, and she glared at me.
“Take my hand!”
I took it at once, and she gripped me tight, her small fingers digging into mine. Her hand was warm.
“Pull me out of this thing!”
“Hurry up!” spat Gabi, and I realized I would have no time to tell her I was afraid I would pull her arm right out of its socket. I would have to try. If I could not touch the other golem, at least I could still touch her.
I yanked, and Gabi gave a grunt, her outstretched arm trembling. I saw the other golem’s arms tightening. It would never let her go. I knew that because I was a golem. I knew because when my hand had started to fuse with it, I had felt it, the real it, and there was only one thing on its mind.
Mother says to stop the stranger from leaving.
I pulled as hard as I dared, and Gabi’s face twisted up, but I could not get her out. The golem tried to pull back, but I did not budge either. We were at a standstill.
Suddenly Gabi cried out. She was beginning to sink backwards into the other golem, her shoulders disappearing as the smooth brown clay began to cover them. He was going to put her in his belly, and if she went- oh, I could not reach her there!
“Gabi!” I cried. I pulled her hand, hard. “Gabi!”
She snarled and managed to twist a shoulder free, and called out, “Closer!”
“Come closer! Hurry!”
I was frightened. If I touched the golem, I would feel that horrible it again, and I was afraid I might lose myself to it. The feeling of please Mother was just so terribly strong. If I got closer…
I worked my hand up Gabi’s arm, using my ruined arm to reach out close to her- closer- closer. She grabbed my elbow. Her neck was beginning to be eaten up by brown clay, only one leg left kicking free, and her face was contorted and made unrecognizable by sweat and rage.
I was nearly touching the other golem now, where Gabi had her hand through its arm. It was staring straight at me again, and I felt sick, because even though we were not touching I could almost feel its mind again, that dreadful monotony of Please Mother, Please Mother, Please, Mother–
Gabi thrust her head out and sank her teeth into the edge of my wrist stump. I was surprised by this- I did not feel it, of course, but surprised- and then she changed. Her teeth in my clay flesh twined and twitched and grew sharper, and her grip on my elbow vanished.
I panicked, dragging back, frightened that I had lost her. But no- I had not- she was coming with me, a red snake with its fangs buried in my broken wrist. The rest of her long body sprang free as the other golem was left clutching an empty set of clothes.
I paused, arm raised, and the snake coiled itself around and slithered down across my shoulders. I felt its weight change, gently dimpling my clay, and there was Gabi, clutching my head, her naked legs draped beside my neck.
Her fingernails dug into me. She was trembling. I raised my good hand towards her and she gave a kind of snarl.
“Away from here!” she spat.
I was glad to obey, and put my arm over her legs and lurched towards the door. But the other golem moved, all of a sudden. I had forgotten that golems could be fast. It got there first and loomed, blocking the doorway. I stopped short.
Gabi hissed, high and sibilant, her sweaty palms making my clay slick.
I took a step back, and the other golem took a step forward- then stopped. I realized that it must not want to touch me as much as I did not want to touch it. Maybe it had felt my mind, too.
I pulled Gabi down from my shoulder and into my arms. She hissed and scratched, like a cat, struggling.
“You must hold still!” I urged. “Just for a moment!”
I am not sure if she really listened, but it did not matter, because I knew we had to escape at once. The other golem was stepping forward again. However much it did not want to touch me, it would want to obey Mother more. I turned towards the wall, pressed Gabi against myself, and shoved my shoulder through it.
There was a terrific crunch and a splintering. Jagged spikes of wood stuck through my skin, but I was all right, I did not feel them. And neither did Gabi. I kept her tucked safely inside my arms, and then we were outside.
I could not help but look behind me, and just in time. My actions had left a gaping hole in my little hut, and now it was swaying dangerously. The other golem’s surprised face was fitting now, as it looked up and gaped as the hut fell down on top of it with a great crunch.
“Bastard,” hissed Gabi, her fingers tight around my encircling arms. I turned away again and began to run. That would not stop the golem. We both knew that.
I thump-thump-thumped my way through the forest. I had longer legs now, I thought. Better knees, and toes. I could outrun it. I had firmer skin. I was older. Stronger. It would not get the better of me again.
Gabi was very quiet for the first few minutes that I ran, though it must have been uncomfortable for her, juddering along as I thudded and swerved around trees and forced my way through undergrowth without slowing. The only move she made, after a long while, was to reach up and drag her head up to peer back over my shoulder.
“Is it following us?” I asked.
“I don’t see it,” she said. “You’re making a curst big trail for it to follow, though.”
“I am sorry,” I said, but in truth I felt much better just then. Gabi seemed to be all right.
“I suppose I should count myself lucky that I got you instead of that thing,” she added, and I stumbled and nearly fell over a tree root.
She was thumping my shoulder irately, and I quickly righted myself and kept running. I felt glad she did not notice how happy I got. It was embarrassing.
“Laid a trap for us, she did,” Gabi was muttering, gnawing on her thumbnail, already preoccupied with a new topic. She brought her arms over my shoulder so she could drape her elbows down while she kept a lookout. I tried to bring my left hand up to support her and remembered that I did not have a left hand anymore.
“She told the other golem to stop the stranger from leaving,” I said. “I think she thought that you would come for me.”
“How exactly d’you know that?” Gabi exclaimed, right beside my head. “You communicated with it somehow?”
“No,” I said, “but I saw it when I touched it.”
“It,” I said.
Perhaps Gabi sensed I was not feeling up to trying to explain it. She sighed.
“Well! You won’t catch me on this side of the border again, that’s for sure. I’m glad I got the whole horseman business out of the way before all this.”
“You got the white horseman?” I exclaimed.
“Don’t you slow down! Yes, I did, though he was a condescending- he had to make it difficult. So now we look for the red again, and we won’t let him go this time.”
“All right,” I said. The trees were getting thin ahead. We were almost at the border to Muma Balaur’s territory- I had gone very fast.
Gabi must had sensed this, for she ordered, “I changed my mind. Put me down.”
I stopped running and did so, with some reluctance.
“It’s not following us,” snapped Gabi, as I turned back to check. “Perhaps that mother of yours has called off the chase. Or perhaps she is sending something worse, like that dratted cat. I have had enough of witches.”
For a moment I wondered whether or not to bring up the fact that the only reason Gabi was in trouble with witches was because she stole from them. But I decided it would be best not to voice this.
“She did not tell it to hurt you,” I said instead. “Just to stop you from leaving. Maybe she only wanted to meet you.”
Even I was not quite fooling myself with this. Gabi gave me a long look, and then started walking rapidly towards the border. I hastened to catch up.
“Meet me,” she muttered, as I drew even with her. “Yes, meet me. And then, if she did not like what she saw, that great lurking beast of hers would lop my head off.”
If she told it to, it would. That was true, and perhaps it was why I suddenly felt such a great sense of unease. If I did not have free will and Mother told me to hurt Gabi, would I…?
Free will had, perhaps, more merit than I had thought it did.
But it was still hard for me to imagine Mother ordering me to hurt someone. She had never told me to do anything like that.
Gabi could have been hurt, though. And she was frightened, which I was beginning to think was nearly as bad.
And yet, suddenly, I thought of something. In the blunt mass of the other golem’s thoughts, which were like a great mass of Please Mothers, there had been something out of place. No, out of place in the actions, too. She had not told it to put its hand over Gabi’s mouth.
But when she had shouted, the other golem had thought, I do not like that noise.
I did not know what it meant. I thought about sharing this with Gabi, and she might have been interested, but the idea of trying to put it all into words- and then getting her to listen to all of them- was daunting. I did not do it.
Instead I said, “There is the border.”
It was easy to tell. The trees in front of us were slender and dark, and smelled and felt different. Gabi darted across first, breathing out in a long hiss, and I followed a little bit slower.
“We’re safe now,” she said, raising her arms in a long stretch. “Unless Mother Forest wants to anger Muma Balaur. Let us hope she daren’t risk it.”
I said nothing and just watched her. I could not help but notice that she was growing faded again, especially her blue eyes. Not so much as after Noroc had wounded her, but more like when I had first met her. And something else about the way she looked was beginning to bother me.
“Gabi,” I said, slowly, as she kicked away some of the rotten leaves. “Gabi, you caught the white horseman?”
“I told you I did, didn’t I?”
“And you put the ribbon around his neck?”
Now she turned towards me, her eyes thinning.
“Why do you ask?”
Her hand was creeping towards her own neck.
“Oh,” I said, “oh, then it is nothing. I only thought that the ribbon was supposed to change color when you caught the white horseman.”
Gabi went pale then. I saw every bit of blood draining from her face.
“Kezia,” she said, and I could see her fingertips trembling a little. “What color is the ribbon around my neck?”
Her fingers touched the cloth, wound tight like a collar, and it was white; snowy, perfect white.
“I am sorry,” I said.