You wicked creature.
My feet were cold.
I had spent who knew how long- years, certainly- sneaking through the night without shoes, tromping through wet grass and cold mud and even snow to stalk my victims. I had felt cold, true, and pain as well when I stepped on something sharp. Yet even though I had felt the cold and the pain back then, it hadn’t really… bothered me like it did now.
I curled my toes with each step, trying to squeeze warmth back into them. Sticks and pebbles stabbed into my soles. I tried not to show how uncomfortable I was. I’d given Kezia the soft shoes that came with Sorina’s magic clothing. Her feet were surely far more tender than mine, yet I knew that any sign of discomfort on my part would make her pull them off to give them to me. But her feet wouldn’t heal like mine would.
(My feet would still heal, wouldn’t they?)
In truth, my numb feet were irritating mainly because they were so distracting. Kezia and I were still walking through a dark, treacherous wood, with the earth shifting around us to keep us lost, and a pack of starving dogs trailing after us that were only kept at bay by the fading light of the skull-lantern. There were bigger problems here than my damned sore feet.
Kezia’s hand in mine was faintly damp with sweat. We were walking so close together that our shoulders were touching, in order to stay inside the circle of light. Well- my shoulder was touching her arm, since she was a head taller than me, even when she walked with a slouch as she was doing now. Her gait still had a slight lumber to it, an echo of the golem.
“Gabi,” she said now, her features pale and blurred in the strange light, “we are not going anywhere. Look, there is that stump again.”
She pointed with the hand that wasn’t holding mine, and indeed, there was a stump half taken over by a shelf of mushrooms. We had past it what seemed like half a dozen times already. Adamina must have got tired of trying to keep us in the dark, so to speak; she wasn’t bothering to hide her machinations anymore.
“I see it, but there’s not a dratted thing we can do about it,” I said, scowling at the stump, curling my aching toes. “Whichever path we walk, she can move.”
“I wonder-” Kezia began, and then hesitated. The rustle of paws upon leaves had caught her attention. Pairs of ghostly eyes began winking into view at the edges of our light.
“Ignore them,” I advised, pulling her closer to try and avoid looking at the gaunt muzzles of the Iele-dogs, covered in trailing ribbons of drool.
Kezia made a sound that might have been a very nervous laugh, and continued. “I wonder if there are parts of the forest Adamina will not move. Maybe because she will get into trouble with Mother Forest.”
I rolled this idea around in my head, and then shook it. “Perhaps there could be places like that.” Like the giant tree where the true form of the Treewitch resided, for example. “But it’s not as though she’d let us get that far, and even if we did find such a place, it wouldn’t bring us any closer to leaving this forest. We’d just be stuck.”
“Oh, you are right,” said Kezia, drooping. “Then… what shall we do?”
“Keep walking,” I said grimly. That was the only thing I could think of, even if it was mostly to keep from staying still. I would rather brave painful feet than do nothing.
“Maybe- maybe Kazimir or the others could think of something?” Kezia asked, looking at the lantern in my hand. I raised my eyebrows and shook it so that the skull rattled on the branch. Silence.
We moved forward in the same silence for a time. The forest gleamed and oozed with frost and damp under our lamplight, and the paws of the dogs that followed us pattered ceaselessly on the leaves. They panted frequently, and I could hear the unpleasantly slick sound of one of them licking its chops from time to time. At least they weren’t singing.
“At least they’re not singing,” I offered to Kezia, in an attempt to lighten the mood a little.
“Mm,” she said, in a way that suggested I had failed. “What was the song that they were singing before? ‘She woke in the autumn and her hair was…’”
I shuddered. “Please, let’s not hear it again. It’s just some Iele nonsense.”
(I said this last bit viciously, in the hopes of getting some rise out of our stalkers, but they gave no indication that they’d heard.)
“It seems as though it was about a forest,” said Kezia. “Maybe this one.”
“Eh? How did you get that interpretation?” I asked, running through the words I could remember. “They didn’t say anything about trees or such…”
“Oh,” said Kezia. “Maybe you are right. I only thought that with the hair turning red in autumn- they meant the leaves of trees. Like the ones in the fadua grove. And maybe when they say the part about the flesh turning white, they mean the trees like the white tree that attacked you.”
“Hm… But it’s only talking about one person,” I argued. It felt good to quibble over little things with her, in this dreary moment. “And what about that bit where there are dead bodies lying all around? And pulling on a shroud to block out the sun. And all the dread business.”
“I did not think about those parts,” Kezia admitted. She looked down to the dog nearest to us, who had angled its mangy form just parallel with one of the beams of light emanating from the skull’s eyes. “Would you mind explaining what you meant by that song?”
The dog merely rolled its eyes up grotesquely at her. I had to laugh.
“Kezia! You aren’t one for cryptic things, are you?”
“I do not think that there is any reason not to say what you mean,” she replied, a certain primness to her tone. “And besides, if they are going to follow us, they might as well speak with us. I am sure they are getting bored.”
I laughed again, in a delighted way; she was really too much. “Well, I prefer it when they keep their mouths shut! Old fleabags- a good scrubbing might improve their stink!”
“Gabi,” said Kezia sternly, as I grinned. The hopelessness of our situation was starting to make me feel a bit reckless. Why not insult the Iele, if I was doomed anyhow?
“If they take offense, let them take action, I don’t care.”
“It is not that,” said Kezia, “only that I do not think there is any reason to be so rude to them.”
“Eh! Rude! I expect if somebody says they want to kill you, it’s a free invitation to be as rude as you please. I could be even ruder, but I’d like to protect your sensitive ears, dear.”
“My ears are not sensitive,” Kezia protested. “I have already heard many bad things.”
“Have you, now? Then lean down and let me whisper what I was going to say in them.”
Kezia hesitated, looking rather torn- between admonishing me further and getting to hear more rude words, no doubt- but lost the battle with her conscience and leaned down so that her left ear was even with my mouth.
I let go of her hand to cup mine to my mouth, as if I really was going to whisper, and then used my fingers to turn her chin so I could kiss her. It was a more satisfying kiss than the one she’d given me before, though she pulled back before I could arrange anything more interesting.
I shrugged, as she put a hand to her mouth, her cheeks flushed dark red. From behind the hand- as though to block any more attempts on my part- she said, “That was not what you said!”
“Yes it is, kissing in public is considered quite rude,” I said, gesturing around at our onlookers- the trees, the dogs. “Come back down here, I’ve a thing or two more to explain to you.”
If possible, Kezia blushed harder, but also furrowed her brow. “You were not like this before! What has gotten into you?”
Again I shrugged. Embarrassment and shame, my constant bedfellows, were certainly doing their best to worm their way back into my brain, but I was keeping them at bay with the idea of our impending doom. Why shouldn’t I kiss Kezia, if it was becoming more and more likely that we’d both soon die in horrible ways? She’d said so herself earlier, back in the clearing: we didn’t have the luxury of time. I certainly wasn’t going to heaven, and she- well, perhaps she had a chance. But God shouldn’t take offense as long as I was initiating; he’d see that I was the evil influence, not she.
Kezia seemed to be working through some thoughts of her own, and watching the intricacies of her expression change was quite fascinating- first embarassed, then irritated, then hopeful, then anxious.
“The Iele are watching,” was all she managed to say. “It is not very comfortable.”
I looked down at the silent, slavering dogs. “Hey, you mongrels, won’t you give the two of us some privacy?”
I saw the ears of one of the dogs prick up. Then, much to my surprise, the whole pack of them streamed around us and ran out into the trees, their paws patter-pattering on the leaves. In moments the tip of the last bony tail had vanished from sight.
Kezia seemed as startled as I was, squinting after them. “Did they really listen to you?”
I scoffed at the thought; I could not imagine so. Still, their departure left me both relieved and disconcerted. Without our ghastly escort, Kezia and I were left quite alone in the dark again, without even the voices of the horsemen to accompany us.
This must have occurred to her as well, for she gave me a sidelong, I thought somewhat appraising look. But I was distracted, looking all around. Something felt wrong; something itched in the air. A sharp copper scent stung my nose.
“Blood,” I hissed. Oh, it was so intimately familiar! And suddenly hunger was gnawing at the depths of my belly, and I put a hand on my stomach in surprise. For all my recent changes, still I desired it?
“Blood from what?” asked Kezia, not seeming to doubt my statement. I swallowed, flared my nostrils, felt my heart sink.
“From the direction the Iele went in,” I said, turning the skull-lantern so that its eye sockets lit up a narrow deer trail between the trees. Even as we looked down it, the curve of it seemed to shift towards a different direction.
“Adamina!” exclaimed Kezia, her brown eyes growing stormy. “She does not want us to go that way!”
“So let us try to go,” I said, grimly. I took Kezia’s hand again and inhaled deeply. Yes, I smelled it still: wet, warm, delicious blood. So. I still had some strigoi left in me after all.
“This way,” I said, plunging us both forward into the darkness. The scent was strong, steady, flooding my brain. I kept us on course, even as the ground reshuffled underneath us, trees squeezing closer together to block our path. She could change the topography all she liked, but she could not stop my monster’s nose from leading us true. And like a willful hound, once I had the scent, I would not let it go.
It took some navigation, as even shallow cliffs began to loom and emerge in our path to stop us, but I managed to lead us true. My feet burned with cold by the time we reached it, and the trees pressed together tight, branches tangling to make a fence, but through it all I saw- grass! Fresh grass, and a glimpse of open, cloudy night sky! Kezia squeezed my hand tight, and I felt in me a yearning that easily matched my bloodlust. It was freedom out there.
But when I raised a hand to begin forcing my way through the branches, the ground suddenly squirmed and roiled beneath my feet, and I fell back. Luckily Kezia caught me before I could drop the lantern and doom the both of us; the light shook unnervingly nevertheless. There came a rumbling sound, and the ground rose up- not subtly this time, but visibly and obviously- the roots of the trees creaking and popping loose from the fine soil as it came together in a high wall, higher than Kezia’s head.
“Oh, she is very displeased,” said Kezia.
“Good!” I replied, leaning back into her solid grip. “If she thinks a paltry wall like that will stop us, she’s a fool.”
“But I do not think she is,” said Kezia, and she gently set me upright again, brushing dust off my shoulders. “So we must be careful.”
“I’m always…” I hesitated. A fresh whiff of blood had hit my nostrils like a stabbing knife, sharp and sudden. And it was not coming from the other side of the wall, but within the forest along with us.
“What is wrong?” Kezia asked, her hand lingering on my shoulder. I shrugged it off and oriented myself towards the stench. It wasn’t just that it was blood. There was something else about this scent, something that pulled heat into the pit of my stomach and constriction into my chest. I could not possibly have explained it. All I said was, “This way,” and began to forge forward. It was close. It was so close.
With us now walking parallel to the edge of the forest, the ground quit fighting us; instead the trail was smooth and invitingly manicured. In no time at all my eager strides had taken us to a clearing of trampled bracken and brush, where thin young trees stuck out with their untested branches. On this prickly substrate circled the seven slavering Iele-beasts, breathing in harsh, hungry gasps, their glowing yellow eyes turned inwards. In the center of the circle was a young man.
The sight of him surprised me, because for some reason the scent of the blood had made me expect something else. Yet it was surely his blood, for he clutched to his breast one arm with a ripped, dark-soaked sleeve. In the other hand he held a knife, and slashed it before himself with inexpert motions, trying to warn away the grinning hounds.
Kezia stopped short when I did. Our lantern-light did not quite reach the scene, which was illuminated mainly by the glow of the Iele, and so the young man did not appear to have spotted us yet. He was biting his lip, jerking his head to keep the unkempt blonde hair out of his eyes as he kept slashing at the air with the knife. His clothing was nearly rags. To me he looked like a man with precious little time left in his life.
When I stared a second too long, though, Kezia grabbed my elbow, and said somewhat sternly, “Help him!”
I twitched, biting back the immediate protest that came springing to my lips. It wouldn’t have worked in any case; anyway, it should please me to stop the wretches from having their snack.
Swiftly, I raised the lantern and directed the eye-beams at the nearest drooling dog. The beast yelped and twisted in a most satisfying way, mangy fur briefly resembling bark. The others ceased circling the man at once and uttered mournful cries as I swung the light to and fro. They were forced to back up, their teeth bared.
“There’ll be food enough for you when this is all over, curs,” I said, as the dogs slunk one by one back into the darkness of the undergrowth. “Go on, get gone!”
One dog paused, turned to look back at us, and licked its nose. I thought it was going to glare at me, for it had narrowed its gleaming eyes, but instead it pulled its shrunken lips back even further into a fearsome, jagged grin. Then in another instant, it had vanished.
I swallowed, a prickle travelling down my spine. Kezia hadn’t seemed to have noticed- she was calling over to the young man, saying, “Are you badly hurt? Let us help you!”
Mutely, I shook my head; no sense in trying to tell her we had no time for kindness and charity. The man, for his part, was standing still, his bleeding arm pressed against his chest and his knife dangling down from the other. I cast the lantern-light and a critical eye over him, noting the filthy state of his skin, the way his hair looked hacked off and uneven. Here was a lad who looked barely civilized. And what was he doing in the Starving Forest at the darkest time of night?
Kezia began to step forward, frowning over the lack of any response from the boy, but I caught her arm.
“Don’t,” I warned. “Let’s be sure he’s human before you get any closer.”
Finally the young man raised his head, his pale blue eyes vivid beneath his messy fringe.
“I am a human! And what about you?”
His voice was much lighter and clearer than I’d expected, and it brought another hungry stab at my stomach. I narrowed my eyes, as Kezia said, “We do not want to hurt you! Do not be frightened.”
The boy made an inarticulate sound, and raised his knife a bit higher. Blood dripped from the edge of his sleeve down onto the dirt; my eyes tracked it.
“Vampire,” he said, and my gaze snapped back onto his face. “You’re that vampire!”
Kezia was more startled by this statement than I was, looking down at me as though I’d gotten it written on my forehead. But I was now certain I’d seen this fellow somewhere before, if not where.
“You, boy, are you a survivor from that village?” I asked. “The one that disappeared?”
“Boy?” The young man frowned at me. “Do you not realize who I am? You told me you’d kill me!”
“Gabi!” said Kezia, in a hushed gasp. “Did you really say that?”
Heat rose to my cheeks. “How should I know! I don’t even know who he is!”
“I’m not sure why, but I think that’s very rude,” said the young man, and used his wrist to push his shaggy bangs out of his face. “It seems like you ought to remember someone you threatened to murder!”
His face, like his voice, was more fine-featured and pretty than I’d expected, even smeared with dirt and soot. The blue eyes, the sharp chin, the full lips- Kezia’s thin sound of surprise came at the same time I realized that I had made a critical error. I knew who this was, and I knew why their blood had drawn me in like a siren’s song. And the name rose up through my memories.
The witch’s last task had been impossible. It took me quite a few days to realize it, a few long, aching days of searching, searching, searching. I could find no needles anywhere in her house, not even so much as a knitting needle. Each evening, when the witch came home, she would ask, “Have you found your freedom yet?”
And I would have to answer, “No.”
And she would grin like a shark and ask, “Do you give up?”
And I would say, “No,” with a little more force each time, because I was terrified that one day the wrong response would drop out of my mouth. The witch would lose her grin, but not her smugness, and send me off harshly to fulfill some noxious chore. And that was my lot for what seemed ages.
I must have turned that house inside out, searching for a needle. I looked in every nook and cranny, in every little box and drawer and pocket, sifting through jars of dried dead insects and foul-smelling liquid, through the ashes in the stove, even through the pile of hay where I slept. And then I realized that I would never find it.
Putting water in a sieve, sifting sand and poppy seeds; those had been solvable by clever tricks. To find a needle required no tricks. I suspected that there was no needle in the house at all. The witch was biding her time until I gave up. Indeed, she seemed to be growing more and more impatient by the day, storming into the house in a foul mood. Her three servants were almost always out, and when Pascha came back to tell her something I heard her abusing him terribly over it. She kicked the gate when it would not open fast enough, spat on the threshold of the house when it trembled under her step. I was glad that she only came home to sleep, and left me alone during the day.
Once I deemed my task a farce, it did not take me long to decide to finally run away. If she would not keep her side of the bargain, I was not bound to do the same. I took a lantern, and a little phial of poppyseed oil, and one of the long knives. Then I crept out the front door.
The house was facing the garden, covered over in wilting bluebells with a great bald spot where the vampire had once been staked. I shuddered and tried to walk around to the front gate, but the house turned to follow me, the shutters flicking open from the windows. It creaked ominously, a puff of smoke rising from the chimney.
I hesitated, frightened, and put a hand out to touch the wooden wall.
“You would not call your mistress back, would you? If she finds me running away, she shall kill me.”
A loose shutter flapped nervously on the roof, then, with a groan, the house settled back down into the dirt. I pressed a swift kiss upon the doorframe. When I went to the gate, it swung open silently; I did not even need to use my oil to grease it.
Yet when I crossed out of Baba Yaga’s yard into the forest, something went terribly wrong. The bone fence rattled and shook. The gate held still, silent, but all around it- skeletons were springing back together, reaching for me with bony fingers, jaws open in silent screams, crimson light burning in their eye sockets. I tried to flee. One caught me by the hair. No time to think- to regret- I cut it off with the knife. And so I escaped the witch’s house.
I knew not where I was in this strange country, where the forests grew thick and menacing, and the ground rose and fell like swelling waves. My father had been a woodcutter, so I knew some of the craft of surviving in the wild, but soon enough I was lost, and nearly out of light, and desperately hungry. And when I was down to my last few drops of oil, a pack of savage dogs appeared and tore it out of my hand, and plunged me into darkness; I thought that I was truly gone then.
Yet a golden light cut through the dark night and frightened away the gaunt beasts, sent them yelping and cowering back into the wood. And who should my saviors be but…
I recognized the vampire straight off, though it seemed she had not done the courtesy of remembering me. Her wild red hair, short frame, befreckled face, foreign features, bad temper; she was unmistakeable. Though for some reason now she was only half-dressed, in a shirt and bloomers and no shoes at all. Paradoxically, behind her, the other woman- quite tall, with short hair the color of a sandy riverbank and what seemed a permanent slouch- seemed to be wearing a vest and skirt with nothing at all underneath, from what I could gather based on the way things fell on her body. I wondered what sort of creature she might be, to be travelling with a vampire. Or was she an unknowing victim?
“Vasilisa,” hissed the vampire now, spitting my name as though it were a curse, curling her fingers like claws. I braced myself, raising my knife- I would not let her have me so easily as she’d had my poor father!
Yet the vampire never sprang. For some reason instead, her eyes flicked to the woman at her shoulder, and a wrinkle appeared on her brow. Her face smoothed and her fingers loosened.
“Let’s go,” she growled, half-turning so that she no longer faced me, as though she couldn’t bear to even look at me. “It’s safe now. We’ve more important things to do.”
“But-” The tall woman looked from the vampire to me, her expression one of confusion. “I do not- you must explain things to me, Gabi!”
Her voice, I must admit, sounded oddly familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
“Later!” snapped the vampire. “Let’s move on, now, before I change my mind.”
That last part seemed to be directed at me, for she shot me the tiniest little glare, almost as though she was warning me not to say anything. I was astonished. First, that the vampire was trying so hard to behave herself in front of this companion, second, that she thought she and I were on good enough terms that I might listen to her silent requests.
“I won’t let you go anywhere!” I cried, brandishing my knife a bit more confidently. “You wicked creature- you’ve killed many innocents and you’re going to kill again, aren’t you? How can I let you simply walk away?”
The vampire turned back to face me in order to give me the full benefit of an absolutely disgusted look.
“Don’t you wave your little pigsticker at me, chit,” she said. “I could tear your limbs off one by one- but I won’t!”
This hasty last statement seemed to be caused by the look her tall companion was casting down on her. Now I was certain of the situation, and I decided to lay the whole thing bare:
“But you would,” I cried, “if you weren’t trying to trick this poor maiden into thinking you are human! She’s a true vampire, and she’ll have your blood- she’s been wanting mine- you’d better run away!”
There: I had laid the whole thing bare. That ought to ruin the vampire’s plans. I looked to her befreckled face, expecting to see shock, rage, or possibly even fear there. But I was disappointed.
The vampire was laughing.
“Oh!” she cried, in great mirth. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in ages! Poor maiden! My dear, poor maiden, look out! I’m thirsting for your blood!”
She grinned up at the other woman in a lascivious way that made my cheeks go pink.
“I do not think that it is funny,” said the tall one, shaking her head. “You must have scared her very badly, Gabi. I know that you were not in your right mind when you were caught by Baba Yaga, but it does not excuse saying unkind things to Vasilisa. You should apologize.”
The vampire’s smile drooped.
“There’s no time for apologies,” she muttered. “Can we not get on with our search?”
The tall woman sighed.
“I am sorry for her,” she said, addressing me. “It seems as though you two will not ever get along, so I think that it would be better if we parted ways. You should leave this forest quickly.”
With this solemn statement, she turned, steering the vampire along with her via a firm grip on the shoulder.
“Wait!” I cried. I was terribly confused, and the thought of losing their lantern light- even if it came from a skull- left me feeling cold and frightened. “Wait, who are you? Have we met before?”
The vampire turned back to give me something like a sneer. The tall woman did not seem to notice; she looked over at me with some surprise.
“Oh! I forgot that you would not recognize me when I look like this.”
“She called you a maiden, Kezia,” said the vampire.
“But I am a maiden, I think,” said the woman- Kezia?
“Not- not- not Kezia?” I stammered. “Not the Kezia who was a doll made of clay, and sometimes quite large and sometimes quite small? Not the Kezia who helped me with the witch’s tasks, and was so kind to me?”
“I am the same Kezia,” said the woman, and she smiled- such a pure, honest smile; it made me weak in the knees. I could see it now- the great hulking clay figure, the simple words and gentle manner- it was the same Kezia!
“You never said anything about helping her!” exclaimed the vampire. “When have you been poking around Baba Yaga’s house without me?”
“I do some things on my own,” said Kezia. “You told Vasilisa you would kill her when I was not there, so I think we are even.”
The vampire shut up. I stared at her, and she turned her face away from me. This time I did not see disgust, though I think that she tried to disguise it as such. I saw shame.
“Kezia,” I said, lowering my knife to flex my injured arm. The wound ached, but it was shallow; the bleeding had already stopped.
“What is it?”
“I still owe you a debt, for the help you gave me,” I said. “You said that you’re searching for something? Let me travel with you and help you find it.”