Why should children feel ashamed?
Perhaps the red horseman had lied to me.
Perhaps. Even though his advice about getting the white first had been true. Perhaps he had meant the thing about the ribbon changing color as one final dig at me. Something he hoped would make me sweat.
Well, it was working.
I could not stop touching the ribbon now, feeling the satiny fabric slip under my fingers over and over again, like the elusive thought of my own freedom. The golem was staring at me in what I suppose was a concerned way, though of course there was little enough to go on in that empty face.
“Should we go to find Pascha now?” it offered.
Since when had it known the horseman by name? No matter, no matter, I had to think straight.
“I suppose I have no choice,” I said. I was starting to get terribly hungry, curse it, but how much time did I have? “We’ll have to track him down as soon as we can.”
“I will try to catch him for you, Gabi,” the golem said loyally. It put its hands together- or rather, put one hand against its left wrist.
“Drat!” I snapped, at the sight. “I forgot about your hand.”
“It does not hurt.”
“I don’t care about that- you need two hands to catch the horseman with! Can you make a new one?”
“I do not know,” said the golem, in a maddeningly ponderous way. It stared down at its open wrist, and then squashed it shut with its other hand. “My arm would be shorter.”
“Can you not- I don’t know- incorporate more mud into yourself?” I asked. “I’d rather have you with two even arms.”
Again the golem took a moment to consider this.
“Oh,” it said. “I know.”
Then it took its handless wrist and thrust it into its right arm. When it withdrew it, a large blob of clay was attached to the wrist. The right arm flopped down as if all its support had been lost.
“Oh, goodness,” I said.
“They will both be shorter this way, but even,” explained the golem, its arms banging uselessly as it tried to fix itself. I went over and did some preliminary smoothing and squashing to get it back into a reasonable shape.
“Yes, it was a good idea, only warn me first,” I said, finishing up on what was probably a thumb- of a hand with five fingers, as the golem had turned those big eyes on me again. “I’m not used to creatures who can just take themselves apart and put themselves back together again, you know.”
“But Gabi,” said the golem, “you can change shape.”
“That’s different. Entirely different!”
It tilted its head.
“Do you think that I could change my shape into an animal too?”
“If you don’t stop asking silly-”
I paused. Something had just bounced off the back of my skull, and I could hear a chittering sound.
“Gabi!” cried the golem, and bent itself to pick up the thing that had hit me. It was a hard green pinecone.
“You miserable wretches,” I hissed, looking up into the trees. In some of the high branches of a pine sat three Blajini, all giggling with their long rat snouts behind their hands.
One threw another pinecone, and it landed on the golem with a thunk, sticking to its chest. One of the Blajini gave a wispy little cheer.
“Having fun, are we?” I circled the tree trunk, glaring upwards. “Perhaps I should come up there to share in it?”
That made them chitter and squeak, swinging their little legs, and one raised a skinny arm like she was going to throw another one down.
“Stop!” called the golem, who was tugging the pinecone out of its chest. “We have a question for you.”
I shot it a look. “Do we?”
“Have you seen a horse?” called the golem. “We are looking for one.”
Chitter chitter chitter, up there in the tree. One of the Blajini leapt downwards, springing from branch to branch as lightly as a squirrel.
“We see many horses!” she called, crouching on a branch just a few feet above our heads. She was wearing a large headscarf wrapped over her round ears, giving her the look of a tiny, hideous old woman.
“They are frightened here,” added another, from her safer vantage point. “The forest frightens them!”
“They smell Muma Balaur’s dragon,” added the third. “She does not feed it very often!”
“But have you seen a horse by itself?” asked the golem. “We-”
“No,” I said, elbowing it in the side. The Blajini’s words had struck a thrumming excitement in my chest. Damn that witch, anyway. “We want to know the last time you saw a horse with a rider here in this forest.”
The Blajini’s pink little nose twitched. “Strigoi,” she said.
“Yes, that’s right,” I replied. The golem had turned its head towards me, and I could sense a dim puzzlement coming off of it.
The other two Blajini were whispering to one another, and the one with the headscarf hopped down another branch.
“Show you,” she murmured. “We’ll show you. It’s here now. A man on a horse!”
“Good,” I said. “Good girl. You show it to me, and I’ll do what strigoi do.”
“Gabi?” said the golem.
“You follow behind,” I said. “Be quiet and don’t get too close. We’ll finish our other business later.”
“Be quiet,” I hissed. “I’m hungry.”
“Strigoi doesn’t get fed enough either,” observed the Blajini, and giggled when I turned to glare at it.
“You’ll get your blood,” I told it, flicking my eyes upwards to the others. “But you’d better lead me there before I change my mind.”
“Yes, yes,” said the Blajini, in an unpleasantly fawning way, and leapt across to the next tree. “This way!”
I glanced back at the golem, which was just standing there hopelessly, and then changed into a tawny owl and flew silently up beside the Blajini.
“Follow!” she said, reaching out as though she were going to touch me. I snapped at her and she giggled, leapt to the next branch.
I hopped and fluttered after her, and as soon as I landed, she leapt to the next, her whiskers quivering.
We made our jerky process forward, and I turned my round eyes this way and that, scanning the forest floor. It was almost devoid of life, very unlike Mother Forest’s busy nighttime. I turned my head completely around and caught sight of the golem following slowly.
Of course it was.
After a time, my sharp ears caught wind of a horse’s tread, and I abandoned the Blajini to soar upwards, above the canopy, fixing my eyes towards the source of the sound. I soon spotted a glimpse of it between the leaves. A lone man on horseback.
I dove down again, leaving Blajini and golem quite far behind. There he was, my target; an older-looking man with a weary, grizzled face. His horse looked as exhausted as he did, the poor beast’s head drooping low. He must have had to fight with it to get it this deep into the forest. Domestic beasts were wary of witches. Wiser than their masters in that respect.
I ghosted silently over his head and landed on a branch just in front of him. The man took no notice of me. He was staring straight ahead. I wondered just what reason he had to be travelling alone in this forest. He certainly had a haunted look about his eyes.
As he passed underneath me, I fell out of the owl-shape and onto his back.
He did not have so much as a chance to cry out, for my hand was over his mouth and my teeth in his neck in mere seconds. The horse jerked its head up and shifted nervously in place underneath us, sensing something amiss. I slid my hand up the man’s arm, almost tenderly, and loosed his tight grasp on the reins. We fell sideways together and landed on the ground.
He landed hard. I landed on top of him. I took my teeth out of his neck before we hit, as I did not want to accidentally slice him open and waste the blood. He gave a strangled grunt, his eyes fluttering, winded and bewildered. His horse turned its head and stared at us.
I smiled at him- his eyes were flicking all over me- a naked woman had dropped from the sky, bitten and tackled him to the ground; the poor thing was stunned. Then I leaned forward and fixed my mouth back over his neck.
A little girl or an old man; all the blood tasted the same, and it was good: rich and thick, salty and coppery, filling my mouth and throat and chest. Ah, I had fed none too soon, for I could feel my faded, slackening veins filling up thick, my hearts beating faster, one-two, one-two, pumping stolen blood, stolen life. The man was struggling- I felt his blows faintly, beating on my back and shoulders- but I paid them no mind. He would not shake me. Indeed, his struggles were only making his own heart beat faster, pouring more and more blood into my waiting mouth.
I was dimly aware of other things happening around us, though from my position my gaze was fixed on the hairs at the nape of the man’s neck. A moist snuffling along my bared back; that had to be the man’s horse, the poor beast no doubt bewildered about what was happening to his master. And I heard leaves rustling and a squeaking- likely one of the Blajini had arrived.
It was only when I heard pounding, heavy footsteps approaching that I raised my dripping mouth, pressing one hand over the man’s wound to stay the blood. There was no reason to be concerned about him fighting back by then.
The golem had arrived, and stopped short between two trees just a few feet away. On its back sat a Blajini, and there was another lying cradled in its arms. I could see the third one crouching on a branch overhead, rubbing her long nose with one hand.
“You seem to have acquired an infestation,” I said, baring my blood-slicked teeth. The Blajini chattered, and the one sitting on the golem’s back tried to duck down behind its shoulders.
“They came by themselves,” said the golem, and I caught what may have been a slightly peeved note in its tone. “I was in a hurry.”
“Want me to get rid of them for you?” I suggested, tilting my head. I was feeling terribly pleasant at the moment, rich and warm, with all witch-related issues far out of mind.
“No, thank you,” said the golem, and tried to set the Blajini in its arms down. She squirmed and squeaked and held on, and I laughed.
“Gabi,” said the golem, as I started to duck back down towards the man. “Will he be all right?”
I paused, mouth hovering just over the man’s neck, and flicked my eyes toward his face. It was slack, his jaw hanging open, his eyes rolled vacantly to one side, and his breathing was shallow.
“I very much doubt he will be, Kezia. But that works in our favor.”
The golem did not say anything, and I fixed my mouth back against the man’s neck. A bit more- a bit more- a bit more-
“Gabi,” called the golem, and I scowled against the man’s skin, and slid my hand under my lips to stop the stream.
“What is it now?”
The golem rustled, and I glanced over to see it settling the Blajini over one shoulder. The rat-headed thing stuck one of its thumbs in its mouth, like an infant.
“Why is it in our favor if that man is not well?”
“Not well? He’s going to die,” I said, or more slurred, tonguing pockets of thickening blood out from my cheeks. “And it works in our favor because he will not live to tell a crowd with pitchforks about the bloodsucker living in the forest. It would be a poor thing to dodge two witches and then be pulled to my knees by an overzealous villager, don’t you think?”
“I understand,” said the golem, and its head fell forwards, empty eyes turned to the ground.
I licked my lips, keeping my hand tight against the man’s neck. I had taken enough blood to make him pale and sickly, but not yet enough to kill him unless he was a great deal weaker than he looked. It still made for a nicer meal than any that I’d had in a long time.
“Kezia,” I said, “would you like for me to let him live?”
The golem raised its head a little.
“I would,” it said, sounding hesitant, “but not if it will put you in danger.”
I could not help it; I pressed my free hand to my mouth to smother a delighted giggle. This golem, what a golem! The fresh blood in my system seemed to swirl, and pleased heat rose to my cheeks.
“I must keep you happy,” I said, or nearly purred. “So I will make another compromise with you, my dear. I will not kill this man- I will set him free, to stagger away on his horse to find aid.”
“But what if he tells someone to hurt you?” asked the golem, the worry in its tone eliciting another pleased twist in my stomach. Perhaps if I had been sober, this would have made me wary, but just having drunk I was feeling open to all of it. Thirsty for it, even.
“Then you must stay by my side from now on,” I said, locking eyes with it. “You must protect me if they come back for me. Will you do that, Kezia?”
“Of course,” said the golem, at once. I felt a grin stretching my lips. It would, oh it would, it would do anything now!
“Come here and bind his wound,” I told it. “I am satisfied.”
I started to rise, but an angry chitter stopped me. The Blajini up in the tree was standing, shaking the branches, and the ones still clinging to the golem were adding their shrill voices to hers.
“All right,” I said, my grin fading. “Come, you little parasites, and take your share. But not too much, else I shall wring your filthy rat necks.”
The Blajini sprang down from branch to branch until she had reached the ground, and then smoothed her little skirt back down over her legs. The other two extricated themselves from the golem.
I let go of the man’s neck, and the three Blajini came to lap his blood in turn, flinching away when I let them know they’d had enough. It didn’t take more than a few drops to satisfy them, anyway; they weren’t like me. The one with the headscarf was the last to feed, and when she turned to scamper away with her sisters I snatched the scarf off her head.
The Blajini squeaked, putting her withered hands up to cover her mousy ears.
“Why hide them?” I said, pulling the scarf away when she made a grab for it. “You’re far too young to be married, little one. Now run away before I take my blood back.”
The Blajini squeaked again, a kind of quivery squeak, and then turned and ran.
The golem watched it go, and then turned to look at me, but to my surprise its next action was to kneel down next to the man.
“Are you sure that he will be all right?” it asked. “His eyes do not look good.”
“He’ll have a headache and a case of the shakes, but he’ll be glad for his life all the same,” I said, moving aside to let it gently grasp the side of the man’s neck. His lips were pale, and his eyes were bulging a bit, but he was breathing. I decided that was good enough.
“Where will we take him?” asked the golem, and it actually reached out and stroked the man’s hair. “We cannot leave him lying here. Something will eat him.”
I could not stop myself from rolling my eyes at this, but kept my voice light. “We will put him on his horse; the creature will want to leave this forest as quick as it can, and it will go to the last stable it remembers.”
The golem looked at the man’s horse, which had stood there all the while, probably in a state of horse-shock over everything it was witnessing. The golem reached out and patted the horse’s muzzle.
“Will you take him back safe for us?”
If this didn’t let up soon, I might be sick, and that was going to be a waste of good blood. I pulled the Blajini’s headscarf around my center and knotted it; there was enough fabric to cover my extremities.
“Hurry up,” I told the golem, prodding it with my foot. “I am refreshed now, and if we can find that damned red horseman-”
“But Gabi,” said the golem, which was now lifting the man in its arms, “I think the sun will rise soon. Do you want to rest?”
I bit the inside of my cheek. I’d completely forgotten about the time. Oh, drat it all. I was a bit tired.
“We’ll at least get pointed in the right direction,” I said- more snapped. “And tell me you won’t go following any strangers this time!”
“No, Gabi,” the golem said obediently, and gently arranged the man on the back of his horse, which bridled and snorted but on the whole took it surprisingly well.
The golem stepped back once the man was slumped forwards over the horse’s mane, his feet tucked securely into the stirrups.
“How do we get it to go?”
In answer I reached forward and delivered a sharp slap to the horse’s rump. The horse put its ears back and set off at a trot, the man bouncing on its back like the proverbial sack of potatoes. Sack of blood, more like. He’d be lucky if he didn’t fall off along the way, but I didn’t mention that to the golem.
“Pick me up now,” I ordered, and yawned. “Let’s move back towards that meadow we first saw the horseman in.”
The golem obediently bent forward and took me in its arms. I crawled up onto one shoulder to drape myself over its back; the Blajini had made it look far too comfortable before. The clay was cool, and contoured slightly to my skin. I tugged up the thin fabric of the headscarf so it covered more of my back.
The golem waited until I had got myself settled, and then began stumping forward. I crossed my arms loosely around its neck. I was not feeling so blood-wild this time; rather, drowsiness had hit me like a rock. At least it was a pleasant, slow drowsiness; and the coolness of the golem felt very good, and the rocking motions of its steps felt soothing instead of jerky. My eyelids fluttered.
“Gabi,” the golem said, its voice soft, “what is a Blajini?”
“I thought about it,” said the golem, “and about what you said to it. They are not like animals, are they?”
“Hmm,” I said again, resting my chin on the golem’s shoulder. “No, no… They only took the heads of rats after they died.”
“They are dead?”
“Many things are dead.”
I sighed, breathier than I had intended. “In some places, the earth causes buried bodies to walk again. Particularly near forests like these.”
“How should I know? It just is. There is something about forests- some quality of all those things growing and dying all tangled up together… I don’t know. The people here say that the earth has two sides, and in the forest you can see both.”
“I do not understand.”
“Well, neither do I. I’m not some sort of death-scholar; I’m only dead.”
“Why do some dead bodies become Blajini and some become strigoi?”
“It all depends,” I said, stifling a yawn. I was feeling so hazy. “They say people become strigoi if they are seventh siblings, if they have blue eyes and red hair, if they are born with a caul… But I do not know if I believe it.”
“Do you fit all of those things?”
“Well, yes. Maybe I should change my opinion. But anyway, the Blajini are all dead children.”
The golem was quiet for a long moment, and my head lolled against its shoulder as it walked.
“Why do they look the way they do?”
“I don’t rightly know. I hear it’s because they were never baptized, or something like that- that’s why they can’t go to Heaven, but it doesn’t explain the rat heads. Perhaps they were ashamed.”
“Why should children feel ashamed?”
I smiled drowsily. “Why should a golem feel sorrow?”
There was a slight hitch in the golem’s tread.
“They all look so thin,” it said.
“It’s because they cannot eat. Don’t ask me why. But a bit of human blood alleviates their hunger, and gives them the strength to leave the forest. I think they like to sneak into people’s homes and cause mischief.”
“Oh,” said the golem. “Like strigoi.”
I could have sworn that was a joke. I thumped my foot lazily against the golem’s side.
“Don’t compare me to…” I broke off to yawn.
“How did you die?”
“I am sorry. You do not have to tell me if you do not want to. If it makes you upset.”
I could not help but smile again, the side of my face pressed against cool clay.
“No, no, not upset. Not about dying, no… I hardly remember it.”
“Was it a long time ago?”
“I haven’t kept track… I didn’t even see who killed me. I had my back turned… Two arrows. The heads were still in me when I crawled out of the dirt.”
The golem was quiet again after I said this, so I tilted my head to squint upwards at the sky. It was taking on a grey-blue tinge, a sign of the impending dawn.
“Let’s stop and rest,” I murmured. “Find a dark place to bed down.”
“If you crawl inside me, I can keep moving,” said the golem.
“No,” I said, feeling oddly obstinate. “I want to sleep proper. You find a dark place, and then stand guard over me while I rest.”
“But the horseman…”
“Stuff him,” I muttered. “And rot his witch. I’m tired.”
“All right,” said the golem. “I will find a place for you to rest.”
“And you’ll watch over me?”
“Yes, Gabi, I will.”
The sky got lighter and lighter, but for once it did not worry me, for I was sinking into a state of such contentment, such as I never felt; my belly full, my safety secured, my mind happily fuzzy. And I fell asleep on the golem’s back.
I found Gabi a place to sleep under the bank of a narrow creek that was dried out and clogged with dead leaves. There a heavy oak grew, its gnarled roots exposed and plunging through the mud, its bole rotted and open. Small gnats swirled around it in the early morning light, and it bore a rich, foul scent, but Gabi seemed pleased. She placed her hand on the rotten wood and pushed, and I saw the white heads of several small maggots peep out and duck in again.
“It’s warm,” she said, rubbing her damp fingers together. She seemed terribly tired, her eyes fluttering, and her skin was flushed and dark. I was a little concerned about her, but she did not seem unhappy.
Gabi scraped out a little more mud with her hand, then squeezed through some of the tree’s protruding roots and curled up in the dark, moist space underneath.
“Will you be able to sleep there?” I asked, ducking low to peer at her. “Is the sunlight blocked well enough?”
Gabi, curled up, with her thick hair tangled all around her in the roots and mud, gave me a dreamy smile. I am not sure she even understood what I was saying. I had to be content with the fact that she was out of harm’s way for now.
But this also meant that I had all day to sit around with nothing to do. And I wanted something to do. I did not want to think. So much had happened, and I did not want to think about it, I did not.
I looked around Muma Balaur’s pallid forest. There was a morning mist covering the ground, turning the thin tree trunks damp and black, and now and then I could catch the swift movement of a bird flying overhead. Their song was muted, maybe by the mist, or maybe because I was used to hearing more birds. There were many scratching, scuffling sounds coming from beneath the leaves, though, and in the small, stagnant puddles at the bottom of the creekbed I could see the blinking eyes of submerged frogs.
It made me think of the Blajini from the night before, and I wondered whether or not they had made their way home safely. It did not make much sense to me why they would want to cause mischief at all. Why would anyone? But maybe they were curious about the village. I know that I was. Maybe they did not mean to cause mischief. I felt that sometimes people had different ideas of what mischief was.
I almost wished that Gabi had not told me that the Blajini were dead children. It made me pity them more, it was true, but in a very uncomfortable way. I had never liked them before, and I thought that they could sometimes be cruel or nasty. But they were dead children. But I still did not like them very much.
I squatted down in front of oak tree and checked on Gabi. Her eyes were closed, and I could see her long, dark eyelashes against her cheeks. She seemed to be sleeping. It was too bad I could not sleep as well. Except I was afraid to sleep. I was afraid that the other person would come back if I ever lost myself again. If I ever lost my free will. Was sleep like losing free will? Oh, but I did not want to lose my voice again, no, no.
I did not want to have someone else’s memories again.
I put my hands over the sides of my head, and rocked a little there in the mud. Thinking about how I did not want the memories had made me remember them. I did not want to. Not even the good ones. Even the good ones made me feel as though I should not see them. They were so tender. The girl lying in the grass… the feeling of skin, good words, warm hands, bursting into laughter, holding each other. Not my flesh to feel it with. I had none. I had no girl in the grass. No brother, no father, no sisters either. I was not Kezia.
(But I was Kezia.)
If you are there, I thought silently, go away. I do not want you. You are not allowed here. This is my body. You lost yours. Go back to it.
Nobody answered me. I was relieved but also disappointed.
I sat down with my back to Gabi’s tree trunk and spent a little time fixing my fingers. They were still lumpy from when she and I had hastily reshaped them together, and I had a number of wood splinters sticking out of me from when I had crashed through the side of my hut. I supposed that was the end of my little home. No longer would I stand under the roof and hope for bats to come in through the gaps in the walls to entertain me.
Then again, with that other golem there, I was not sure that I would ever want to return anyway.
My hands were smooth and neat, and I was concentrating very hard on scratching a simple pattern into my arm with a stick, when suddenly I felt warmth beside me. I turned my head.
Pascha was squatting there, and when my eyes met his he flicked his fingers up in a small wave.
I dropped my stick.
“Where is-” Pascha began, and then jumped backwards as I lunged at him. “Oi!”
He scrambled out of reach of my arms, and I slipped in the muddy creekbed and caught myself on my hands. Pascha clambered back onto the bank while I righted myself.
“How’s that for a greet- Oi, oi, stop that!”
I forced my way up the bank after him, quick as I could, and grabbed and gabbed for him, so that he had to zigzag backwards to keep away. When we had moved a few meters away from the creek and the oak tree I had to hesitate.
Pascha took my hesitation for defeat, maybe, because he paused himself, pushing his hair up from his forehead.
“Wanting for exercise, are you?”
In answer I hurled myself at him. This time I caught him- or at least, I touched him. Then he shouted and emitted a piercing, blinding light and kicked my chest.
I did not fall back, but he darted away again, panting, now in a fighter’s crouch. I glanced down at my chest. There were two deep hoofprints there in the clay.
“Listen,” he said, and there was a kind of crackle to his voice that made me think of the horse with the flaming mane. “If you persist in this- in trying to catch me- I shall give up and run away, and you’ll never, ever find me again. Do you think that is what your mistress wants?”
“She is not my mistress,” I replied. “And please do not make that light again. You will wake her up.”
“Oh ho,” said Pascha, in a flabbergasted way. He straightened up again, but kept a wary watch on me. “She’s hiding in your eye again, is she?”
I did not bother to correct him. “Why did you come back if you did not want to be caught?”
“Why,” said Pascha, spreading his hands and widening his eyes, “I thought we could have a civil conversation! Was that so wrong?”
I stayed silent and let him mull over that himself. His tongue came out in a quick dart to lick his lips.
“You’ve changed a bit even since I last saw you. Quite interesting.”
“Why did you come back?” I repeated.
“Like I said, to speak with you.” Pascha put his hands down, and put down his falsely-innocent demeanor as well, I was glad to see. “I am a bit out of sorts. Something bad is going to happen, you see.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, glancing back over my shoulder at the gnarled oak tree. Suddenly I wanted to be nearer to Gabi again.
Pascha followed my gaze, standing on his toes to try and peep over my shoulder, but quickly stopped when I turned my head back to stare at him.
“I assume that the strigoi collared Zakhar,” he said. “That would be the white horseman, if you weren’t aware.”
“She did,” I said, bemused. “How did you know?”
“Because I saw him on his way back,” said Pascha, kicking at the leaves. “He did not look well. I smelled a poison in him.”
“He was eating roots,” I said. “He told me they were good, but they poisoned him.”
Pascha shook his head.
“Typical! Typical Zakhar. And so he ran back to our Baba on his own, no doubt.”
“He let Gabi put the ribbon on him first,” I said. “But something strange happened-”
I stopped, for Pascha’s face had suddenly taken on a foreboding look.
“Gabi’s ribbon did not change color,” I continued. “You said it would turn red, but-”
Pascha’s mouth twisted. “Oh, thrush,” he muttered. “That is not good.”
“Why not?” I said, and I had to glance back towards the oak once more.
“Because it should have,” said Pascha. “I suppose the good news is that my mistress may have entirely forgotten about punishing that strigoi.”
“Really? You mean-”
“That doesn’t mean her spell won’t take effect,” said Pascha, crushing my sudden hopes. “But I think the return of Zakhar probably drove it all out of her mind. I think that now all her energy will be focused on Mother Forest.”
“Mother… Mother Forest?” I stumbled over the words. “Why her?”
Pascha did not appear to hear my question. He was pacing back and forth over the leaves.
“The good thing is that there’s no point for you to try to catch me now,” he said. “It won’t work if the ribbon isn’t red.”
“I do not think that is good news!”
“I can try to stave off the effects of the strigoi’s curse,” said Pascha, flicking his fingers at me, like I was so much water he wanted to shake off. “At least if I stay near her. We will all have far greater troubles very soon. If a witch takes issue with a witch- well.”
“Well.” Pascha sounded extraordinarily grim. “By which I mean, not well at all. Can you wake up your bloodsucking friend? I would like to speak with her.”
“Gabi is resting,” I said. “You will have to wait until darkness. But you should stay near if it is true that you can help her with the curse.”
“I might be able to delay it,” said Pascha. “I’m not making any promises. Also, you’re quite demanding, aren’t you? Just wake her up, it won’t kill her.”
“We will wait until it gets dark,” I repeated. I had a feeling that Gabi would want her full strength with her to speak to him. Also, she would be very cross if I woke her up early.
Pascha hung his head and gave a drawn-out, exaggerated sigh.
“Fine, fine! Delay it a little longer, I suppose it doesn’t matter. When our Baba gets here, it’ll all go up in smoke either way…”
“Gets here? You mean she is coming here?”
“Didn’t I say that? I think that she is quite angry with Mother Forest now over Zakhar. I mean, to be able to poison him- that’s a real threat.”
I said nothing. Mother… it was difficult to think of her as a threat. But it was she who had left that other golem in my hut. I looked again towards the oak tree.
Twice now I had gone away from her. What must she think?
“If we must wait until sundown, I’ll go off and have a bit of a graze,” said Pascha. I turned back to face him and was very surprised to see that he was a horse now, standing there with his black tail swishing.
“No,” I told the horse. “You said that you had to stay close to help Gabi with her curse. So you can not go anywhere.”
Pascha nickered. “I’m hungry, you mad golem!”
“You may eat later,” I said. “I do not trust you, and I do not want to lose track of you.” Also, if he left, I would have no one to talk to (but I was not going to say that one out loud).
“Ah, so stubborn!” said Pascha, pawing at the leaves, and then he suddenly reared up with a little cry. An enormous black toad had just hopped out of the leaf litter by his front legs.
I would have chuckled if I could, seeing such a big creature startled by such a little one, but my amusement died away very quickly. Pascha gave a great snort and brought his hooves back down hard. The toad barely managed to flop out of the way.
“You stop that, Pascha!” I cried, as he continued to stamp. The toad hopped left, right, all over the place. I ran forward and caught Pascha’s chest, right between his front legs, and raised him up. He whinnied, his hooves cycling.
“Let go! I shall bite you! Ah, this feels wrong!”
I let him drop back down, since the toad had gotten a good distance away, and he quickly sidled away from me, lowering his head.
“What was that for? I nearly had it-”
“Why were you trying to hurt that toad?” I said. The toad itself was still visible, hopping away between the trees- a big, squat, black thing. It looked familiar, for some reason.
“It’s a toad!” snorted Pascha, shaking out his mane. “And I don’t like it. I’ve seen that same one watching me several times now in this forest.”
“That is no reason to hurt it,” I said severely. “You could have killed it!”
“I saw it before too,” I said. I had just remembered. “In the glen before we met you the first time. It must live around here.”
“Hey? It surely does. But did you see the size of it?” Pascha gave an exaggerated shudder, his flanks twitching.
“You are still very much bigger,” I said. “You should be ashamed.”
“I am never ashamed,” said Pascha, but in a peevish way. “I think you are just a great dirty bully.”
I hesitated, thinking this over. A bully? Was I bullying him? Well, maybe I had not needed to grab him, but…
While I thought, Pascha trotted around me and stuck his neck down to peer at the creekbed.
“Ugh! There are a thousand mosquitos here…”
I quickly turned around and lumbered back over to him. His nostrils were flaring and his ears were turning to and fro. I suspected he was looking for more than mosquitos.
“You should pull your head up if you do not want to get bitten,” I said, and hopped back down into the mud. He jerked away as some splashed up towards him.
“Just what are you doing? Having a golem bath?”
“I am going to sit down here,” I said, and sat down with a thump squarely in front of the exposed oak roots. Now I completely blocked Gabi’s burrow. “It is very comfortable.”
Pascha gave me a horsey look that suggested I was far from fooling him, but it was not as if he could get me to move. He seemed to know that, too. He snuffled around up on the bank for a few moments before carefully lying down, folding his long legs underneath him.
“This is going to be dreadfully boring,” he complained, glancing up towards the sky. “Do you do this waiting every day?”
“No,” I said. Though maybe I did. With Mother I had waited out the nights and with Gabi I waited out the mornings.
“Has it occurred to you that having free will means that you don’t have to do these kinds of petty chores?”
“How do you mean?” I asked. “I must protect Gabi. If I had no free will I could not do that.”
“Hmph,” said Pascha, turning his ears back. “I would not call that free will, then. With free will there is nothing that you must do.”
I thought this over for a moment. “Do you have free will?”
“I do now! But that dreadful hag will take it away if I am sent back to her.”
“I am sorry about that.”
“Sorry, but you’ll still sacrifice me for your strigoi, eh?” He laughed in a way that made me uncomfortable. “I see. How loyal of you.”
“Gabi will die if I do not help her,” I said. “But you will still be alive if I send you back to the witch.”
“That depends on our respective definitions of life, my earthy friend. But I suppose you have a point. Still, it’s all moot unless you catch the black, too. Don’t forget that I am only one of a set of three.”
His deep brown eyes had taken on a glint.
“I have not forgotten,” I said. “But I do not really understand. Why does the witch want all three of you like that? I think she should be satisfied with just one. It is very hard on Gabi.”
“She couldn’t care a whit about the strigoi,” said Pascha. “In her mind, it’s the three of us or none. Likes having the full collection, you see.”
“But how are you a collection? I do not understand. Are you brothers?”
“No, thank goodness, because we’ve all been lovers at some point or another,” said Pascha. “It’s more that we’re of the same kind. Species, as it were. Zakhar is the eldest, I am the middle, and Kazimir is the youngest; but we are all very old.”
“How old?” I asked. I was not sure I had a good grasp on what young and old were, respectively.
Pascha snorted and tossed his head a little. “We’ve been down every road; let’s put it that way. In any case we are all a great deal more powerful together than apart. That is what interests the witch, you see. She was very lucky to catch us in the first place.”
“I do not think you were that hard to catch,” I said. I thought this would irritate him, but he only clicked his square teeth together.
“I am probably the easiest, because, as Zakhar put it, I have a fly’s attention span and a cat’s mindset about work. And Zakhar himself has little interest in fighting the current very much. But it’s Kazimir who needs to be persuaded, because you’d never catch him without his permission.”
“Zakhar told me that too,” I said.
“Yes, he would,” muttered Pascha. “And that’s partly why I’m here, you see. I am going to help you catch Kazimir before he and the witch do.”
I took a pause. I had not expected to hear that.
“You want to help us catch the third horseman?”
“Yes,” said Pascha, “because I don’t think I can do it by myself.”
“Why not? Didn’t you say you were-”
“Kazimir no longer quite trusts me,” said Pascha. There was a kind of twitch to his neck as he spoke. “Unfortunate history. So if I tell him not to listen to the witch and Zakhar, well… But you two, now, you might be able to get through to him.”
“I-” I stared hard at him. “I do not understand. Why do you want to help us catch him?”
“Because otherwise things will be very bad,” said Pascha. “Your poor strigoi will have the worst of it, trust me.”
I stayed silent, because I was certain I could not trust him. But then again, I was also certain that Gabi would want to hear what he had to say.
“It is getting late,” I told him. “She will wake soon.”
“And won’t she be excited to see me,” added Pascha.