My dreams dripped at the edges.
Caught in the tight, warm, close space, I was blood-drunk.
I ought to have been more careful, ought to have steeled myself or something, because this always happened- always, always, always, after I got a full belly of blood. It sat in me, drawing a veil of smog over my mind, a shroud of sweet compliance over my heart. I drifted into smoky, vividly-colored dreams that dripped at the edges. Blood-dreams, or life-dreams, really; because they were always concerning things that had troubled me in life.
I almost always dreamt of eating- mounds of couscous, thick savory tajine, chunks of tender lamb- all the things my mother cooked. And the food of the land, too, the food we ate at inns and fairs and in the backs of barns; tripes and sausages, dumplings, stuffed peppers- stuffed anything- pigs’ feet and mici, sour borș soup flavored with wild mushrooms. Once a man gave us a piece of cheese in exchange for a wooden toy; it was sharp and delicious but made us all sick.
Oh and sweet things, desserts; I tasted baklava once. My sisters and I each got such a little piece- it was Easter then, and there were sweets everywhere. I got flakes all down the front of my shirt and I ate it much too fast. It vanished and I was left sucking on my sticky fingers. There was Easter pie, too, filled with cottage cheese, and gooey marzipan, and fried dough, and the sweet bread they called cozonac. I tried them all once. Sweets, sweets, sweets- oh, but to taste sugar again. Blood was never sweet.
I missed the fairs, the bright holidays. I missed them even when I was alive, for they were so brief. Christmastime was always bitter cold, and one of my sisters died when she fell through the ice in a creek (they got her out, alive and shivering, and it seemed as though she would be all right, but in an hour she was still as stone) but I still held my heart open to it anyway, enchanted by all the little candles they put out, the songs they sang. Jesus was a prophet for Muslims too, and sometimes I would pray to him secretly, even though I don’t think even Christians were supposed to. He was too important, maybe. But I liked how comforting and quiet it felt. I would pray to him while I ran my fingers over the carved designs on my father’s wooden chest, the interlocking shapes with sharp edges, repeating and repeating and repeating. It spoke to me of God, of the comfort of patterns and fate. There. And there. Again. Again.
I always hoped that Ramadan would fall around Easter or Christmas, because then we would have sweets to break our fast with after the sun dipped low. In my child’s mind it seemed that Ramadan should be side-by-side with the Christian holidays, and I did not understand why they all kept shifting so much, sliding past one another with their eyes averted. I assumed that for every Christian town there must be an equal number of wandering Muslims, bound to their wagons like us. Oh, I was dreadfully wrong. But everything is so simple and neat when you are a child.
I am certain that if I had kept moving I would not have become a strigoi. Who knows if that would have been preferable, though? Misery eventually catches up with us all in one form or another. Maybe if I had stayed with my family I should have died of it- lying shut up in the wagons too close to my sisters, our ears to the wood, straining for secrets. Secrets! They are dreadful. And they grow much heavier when you are always moving. I think that in a house, a person has a bit of space to lay them down. In a caravan there is nowhere. We all had to hold on to them.
I shifted, curling tighter in the warm, dark space. Why was it always my childhood? There were other memories, too, that were flush with life- brighter, more emotional. The divide between my childhood and my adulthood was more sharply split than most, I think, because it had all happened so abruptly. The day I told my mother that when the wagons left, I would not be with them. I would be with him. Him, him, hymn.
Regardless, I died.
I awoke slowly, clearing the tired memories from my mind as though I was whirling a stick through cobwebs. So long, sweets. So long, secrets. I must have been just a little drunk still because when I opened my eyes in the darkness there was a bubbly little giggle coming out of me.
The golem’s voice brought me back to earth, so to say. I squirmed, feeling moist wood give against my cramped limbs. I was not completely sure I knew where I was. Somewhere muddy and dirty, for sure. I always choose addlebrained places to rest when I was drunk.
“Are you waking up, Gabi?”
I mumbled something, squirming, and finally gave in and got smaller- a marten. At once the cramped space became cavernous, and I flowed out of an opening between two roots.
I was greeted by the massive, looming specter of the golem, but I was finally getting used to it and I did not startle. Instead I leapt onto its proffered hand and climbed my way up beside its neck.
“Hello, Gabi,” said the golem, its voice vibrating pleasantly through the clay under my fine paws. I was feeling sufficiently well-rested to give it a little nuzzle of greeting, arching my long back like a cat. Unfortunately my pleasant mood was at once dashed by the intrusion of a most unwelcome voice.
“So that’s where you were hiding her, eh? Clever, clever.”
I looked out, away from the golem and into the night. There was a horse standing on the bank of the creek.
“You,” I hissed, forcing myself out of the marten’s shape in my sudden anger. The golem quickly caught me in its arms as I tumbled from its shoulder, but I was already doing my best to crawl out of its grasp. “You!”
“Oh, calm down!” said the horse, taking a step or two back. I angrily shoved away the golem’s thick hands, glaring.
Everything that had recently happened came tumbling back, most unpleasantly: the ribbon that had not changed color, the witch’s impossible task. How I was doomed. I gave a frustrated little snarl and reached to my neck.
“Go on, give it a try,” said the horse, lifting a rubbery lip.
“Pascha,” said the golem.
“Let her try! She won’t believe me until she does. Go on, can’t you get that thing off your neck?”
I let go of the ribbon, which had stayed tight as ever, and spat, “You came here to mock me?”
“No, no. That wasn’t my main goal.” He snorted and pawed at the leaves, apparently in very high spirits. I whirled back around to glare at the golem.
“Didn’t I tell you not to speak to anybody?”
“And what have you done! What have you done, then? Are you useless?”
“Oi, strigoi!” said the horseman, and I spun furiously back around. He was no longer a horse, quite suddenly, but a young man- maybe an older boy- and he was squatting to clamber down into the creekbed with us.
I backed up against the golem’s reassuringly solid stomach, but Pascha only stopped in the mud and scratched the back of his calf with his other foot.
“Don’t be cruel to the golem. It tried to catch me soon as it saw me- didn’t you?”
This he addressed towards the golem, but the big thing was quiet, hanging its head.
“I fail to see-” I began, but the horseman clicked his tongue at me.
“Treat the poor thing better, why don’t you! All it ever does is try to protect you. If a golem took that kind of fancy to me, now, I’d be quite nice to it.”
“Say what you’re going to say,” I ground out. “You must have some reason to be here.”
“I do,” acknowledged Pascha, and then he flinched and slapped the side of his neck. “Ow! I hate these mosquitos!”
He paused to look at whatever he’d just crushed with his hand and then, perhaps noticing the murder on my face, raised his head with a grin.
“Sorry, was that a friend of yours? One bloodsucker to another, I suppose-”
The golem grabbed my shoulder as I snarled and jerked forward. “Gabi, wait, listen- I am sorry I spoke to him but he said he could help you-”
“And you believed him?” Again I forced myself out of its hands. Pascha had skipped backwards a few steps to laugh from a safe distance.
“I did not know whether I could believe him, so I waited for you,” said the golem. Just a hint of something tremulous had crept into its voice. “He is the only one who might know something besides the witch who did this to you- that is what I thought.”
That did make a certain amount of sense, but I was in no mood to see it that way.
“Then you should have woken me up straightaway!”
“You do not like being woken up,” said the golem. “I think that you are just looking for problems because you are upset.”
I ground my teeth together, unable to think of a suitable reply to that. Pascha stepped forward, raising his hand.
“I have a suggestion,” he said, in a perfectly mild way, as though none of this was his fault. “Instead of shouting and stamping like children and wasting time, I could describe the proposition I’d like to offer you.”
“Currently, having my head lopped off by the witch is starting to look like the most appealing option,” I said, which made the golem give me a sorrowful look.
“Ha ha,” said Pascha. “Now that you’ve got that out of your system, let me explain. My former mistress has forgotten about you, strigoi, and the terms of your contract.”
“Contract,” said Pascha. “Spell, if you’d like. That’s why your ribbon hasn’t changed color even though you kindly returned Zakhar to her. I already told all this to your poor servant.” He nodded towards the golem.
“I am not her servant,” it said.
“She’s not my servant,” I repeated, though it was more so that we could be on the same side again.
“Well, in any case, Zakhar was poisoned by Mother Forest before you returned him, and I don’t believe my mistress was happy about it, so now she is coming here, and in the meantime that spell will lop off your head because she forgot all about it,” said Pascha, all in a kind of rush. I got the feeling that even he had begun to get impatient. Though it did not thrill me to hear my doom hashed out as though it were a footnote from a larger story.
“So that’s it?” I said. “Well, it’s very nice to hear. I’d better go about dividing up my property for all my heirs before it’s too late. D’you think my neck would look better if it was thinner?”
“I do wonder if your body will go around clucking and flapping for a little while like a chicken’s,” said Pascha, his eyes lighting up.
“Please stop,” said the golem, which sounded truly distressed. “Please just tell her what you told me.”
“At your service, of course, my earthen friend,” said Pascha. “My point is that there is not much you can do about it on your own, but I can help you if you help me.”
“Of course,” I said. I was fighting to keep the sneer on my face, and my hand from my neck. The ribbon itched and seemed almost to throb against my skin.
“Baba used our power to make that spell,” explained Pascha. “As such, I can influence it a little bit. But it would take all three of us united to break it, you see. And I want to unite us all again out of the witch’s control. We know where Zakhar is-”
“Back in the witch’s control, you mean,” I put in, though my hearts were beginning to beat faster. If he told the truth- if they would really break this curse-
Pascha shrugged. “Without us two with him, it’s possible to get him out of it. But if all three of us are hers again, we can do nothing. You see why we wanted you to release us.”
I snorted. “You must have known she would come after you.”
He smiled. “You may not believe me, but this is not the first time we have convinced somebody to open that gate. If the witch was really worried about getting us back, it wouldn’t be so easy to let us go.”
“I do not understand,” said the golem. “If the three of you were all freed together, why did you not stay together so that you could not be captured again?”
“That would be smart, wouldn’t it?” admitted Pascha. “I’d be for it. But the other two, well… We’ve all had a bit of a falling out, you see. That’s how the witch caught us in the first place. Our petty arguments.”
“I have learned that whenever someone calls something petty that the opposite is true,” I said. “Especially when that someone is trapped in a situation they could easily get themselves out of.”
“Like I said, I would love to forgive and forget,” said Pascha, raising his fist to his mouth so he could clear his throat pointedly. “And Zakhar could be persuaded. You can persuade him to do anything, if you play it well. It’s Kazimir that’s the problem. And that is what I want you and your excellent clay friend to help me with.”
“Kazimir is the black, then?”
“Yes,” said Pascha, and then added, “He’s quite dreadful. Has been treating me with silence for ages and ages.”
I squinted, trying to call up my hazy memories of the night I had freed the three of them from their paddock. It was the red and white horses who had come up to me, imploring me to open the gate for them, even given me their foreign-sounding names- Pascha and Zakhar. The large black one had stayed far on the other side, with its head low and its shaggy mane covering its face, almost invisible in the darkness. Yet it had been the first to fly out of the gate when I had opened it, whipping past me in a blur.
“Here’s a question,” I said, eyeing Pascha now. “Why should you be so interested in breaking my curse? I don’t think you’re in it just to be good-hearted.”
“No, we will leave that to your golem,” said Pascha.
“The golem’s name is Kezia,” I said. “If you’re so eager to compliment her.”
“Pardon,” said Pascha, fluttering his eyelashes. “But you are right. I have my own interests. I want to break your curse too, you see, because it binds me as well.”
“How so? If you wait for me to die again-”
“Then we still go back to the witch.” Pascha’s upper lip curled, revealing teeth as square and white as they’d been on the horse. “It’s part of a little deal she made with Zakhar. He likes her, you know. And she likes him, so she lets him have his way from time to time. If somebody sets us free, we can cavort about by ourselves a bit, you see, while the witch has fun with the poor fool.”
“Poor fool,” I muttered. “I see.”
“When the ribbon constricts and pops off your head, the witch gets us back. If you catch us with it, she also gets us back. So we are never truly free. Which is why I want to find Kazimir and get his help. And perhaps if I present him with the spell itself- that’s you, mosquito-girl- he’ll finally listen to me.”
I thinned my eyes, but didn’t rise to his bait. The needling was intentional. There was something about the whole situation he didn’t want me to notice, it seemed, but I just couldn’t be sure of what.
Surprisingly, it was the golem who caught on first.
“What do you have to do to break the spell?” it asked. “Will it hurt Gabi?”
“Of course it won’t,” said Pascha, giving an extremely rapid smile. “It’ll help her, don’t you see?”
“Of course I see,” I said, patting the golem’s arm. “Very good, Kezia. This fellow doesn’t care at all what happens to us. I’ve heard about these types of things- breaking witches’ magic tends to have consequences, doesn’t it?”
“It depends on who is breaking it,” said Pascha, but his smile had changed. “This I pose to you, though: have you really got any other choice right now?”
“None that I can see,” I said. “But that’s just your game, isn’t it?”
“What should we do, Gabi?” asked the golem, turning its head towards me. “Should we catch him again?”
“Hey, now-” Pascha started, taking a step back, but I shook my head.
“No. Let’s go along with it for now. I do want to find the black horseman, and if he’s right about being able to delay the curse, I can’t complain.”
“All right,” said the golem, with such gravitas that I had to smile myself. “But if they try to hurt you, I will stop them.”
“I know you will,” I said, and couldn’t resist tossing a smug look Pascha’s way. He made a face, as though he were sucking on a lemon.
“So where is your black friend staying?” I asked, one hand resting on the golem’s arm. My fingers traced an outline there, and I glanced down- a shape like a crude leaf was etched into the clay.
“Not in any forest,” said Pascha, regaining my attention. “He’ll want to stay away from witches. I should think we’d find him near a large water source, or an open field-”
“That makes it sound as if you don’t actually know where he is.”
“I have a good guess,” Pascha stressed. “On the northern edge of Muma Balaur’s forest, there is a steep meadow that encircles a great crater lake. It’s actually quite a lovely place, especially in the moonlight-”
“Is this a hunt, or a romantic encounter?” I asked, and for the first time Pascha bridled a little, his dark cheeks flushing.
“When he sees me, it will be anything but,” he said. “Come now, strigoi.”
I rolled my eyes exaggeratedly towards the golem, but it didn’t seem to notice. It was staring at Pascha.
“Her name is Gabi, not strigoi,” it said.
Pascha snorted, and rubbed one bare foot through the mud at the bottom of the creek. “I know her name. May we leave this hellish place now? It looks as though it might start raining soon, and I’d rather be under the trees.”
He was right; the stars had been obscured at some point by clouds, and the sky was growing blacker by the minute- but my mood was quite the reverse. I swung myself into the crook of the golem’s big arm, legs dangling like a child. It was hard not to be in good spirits again, even if in the end it was all a farce, and I died a second, horribly painful death. At least I had figured out a way to get under Pascha’s skin.
The golem crossed its arm in front of its chest, making me a comfortable seat, and then tried to clamber its way back up the bank, sliding in the mud and grabbing at tussocks and dead leaves with its free hand. Pascha was still making irritated noises beside us, squinting at the bank as though it were a threat to him. Suddenly he paused.
“Oh what?” I asked, leaning out from the golem’s shoulder- it was really having trouble getting its heavy self up onto the slick bank.
By way of response, Pascha scrambled up next to us like a mouse, and darted towards the trees.
“You’d better get out of there!” he called, over his shoulder. He had taken on a soft glow, like a firefly.
“Why!” I shouted, clutching fingers digging into the golem’s skin, but as soon as I spoke I had my answer. There was a strange rushing sound coming from the east- and it was growing louder. And then I saw the water.
The golem turned its head too, and then suddenly caught me and thrust me up onto the bank. I went rolling through the leaves with the force of it. By the time I righted myself and sprang to my feet, the water had whipped through the dry creek, flooding over the steep banks, filling the rotten cavity I had slept in – and the golem was gone.
I could hardly believe it. I stared at the empty space where it had been for a moment, as the water continued to rise.
“You’d better get yourself out of hear!” I heard Pascha call from somewhere distant, his voice surprisingly strained. I ignored him. The water- I had to follow it. I ran along the bank, stumbling and sloshing in the now ankle-deep water- more waves of it were coming, none quite so dramatic as the first but still rising higher and higher- I ran and stumbled and then with a garbled curse became a roe deer.
Now my slender legs carried me faster and faster, speeding and splashing through the muck, jumping over floating branches and choked piles of dead leaves. There was a rumbling sound of thunder and from the corner of my eye I could just make out a glimpse of a light that might have been Pascha, or might have been lightning. I kept running.
Finally I came to a place where the creek made a sharp curve, and there I found the golem, clinging to the partially-submerged trunk of a tree.
An extraordinary amount of relief flooded over me at the sight, and I ran to it, hooves striking sharply through the water. The golem looked up at me; it was damp and runny again.
“Go away, deer,” it said. “You will get hurt-”
I changed back and kicked a great splash of water at it. “It’s me, you fool! Now hurry up and get yourself out of there!”
“Gabi?” the golem repeated, blinking its empty eyes in that uncanny way. “I did not recognize you.”
“Ugh, you’re hopeless,” I said, and picked my way closer to inspect the situation. The water was actually still shallow enough for the golem to stand up in, though only just, and the current must have been strong from the way it was clinging to the tree.
“Can you pull yourself up?”
“I think so,” said the golem, and flexed its elbows. The tree creaked- it was really a skinny little thing- and then it tipped forwards, its wet roots flying out of the mud with snapping sounds. The golem’s head disappeared under the water again.
It popped back out a moment later. “I am all right, Gabi,” it said, though there was something a little odd about its voice now. “I must find a stronger tree.”
It let go of the tree then- I couldn’t help but utter a little curse- and allowed itself to be carried a short way down the river. I changed back into a deer to follow it, and shied away when the great arm thrust back out to catch the trunk of a larger tree.
This time, the golem managed to pull itself up, and then squatted on the flooded bank for a moment as though it were tired, resting one fist on the ground. I supposed it must be rather emotionally drained.
As I stepped closer, still in my deer’s form, the golem glanced at me.
It stopped itself short, and I noticed that one of its hands was clenching and unclenching at the air.
I took another step closer, turning my big ears forward and back, and the golem looked at me and seemed to draw a little courage.
“I felt her again,” it said, soft and low. “The other one. In the mud and the water.”
I was glad I was a deer, unable to speak. Much like the flood itself, the golem’s words rushed to fill me with a sense of foreboding.
“She is gone now,” the golem said, and passed a large, dripping hand in front of its face. “At least she did not take my voice again.”
I elected to stay mute for the moment. I had not spared much thought for the ghost- for that was what it had to be, some sort of spirit- that was inhabiting the golem. I had hoped, rather, that the interloper had been driven away for good once I had given it free will once more. But if it stayed…
Well, there was not terribly much the ghost could do. Yet. It bothered me, though. A hidden watcher. The golem itself was terribly powerful, and I was only keeping control of it through its own sheer naivety- if something a bit more canny took hold of it, I might be in trouble.
“Gabi?” the golem asked, extending a hand. Absently I touched my deer’s nose to it and turned around.
Pascha’s glow was still emanating from the trees behind me: in fact, it had grown a great deal brighter. Fiery red light now spilled between the trees, casting vivid reflections in the still-flowing floodwaters and turning the rising, swirling mist bloodred. It made the dark sky look hellish as it muttered and rumbled. If it weren’t for the lack of smoke, I might have thought the forest was afire. In truth, there was a certain warmth in the water around my hooves.
“Is that Pascha?” asked the golem. I stamped one hoof into the water and began trotting back the way I’d come; the golem lumbered behind.
It was not long before we heard a low, furious whinny from ahead, and the sound of splashing, and then a great rumble that vibrated the shallow water at our feet.
I was not terribly surprised, when we came into the large clearing, to see Pascha facing a three-headed dragon.
The three-headed dragon, I should say; it was obviously the same one we had encountered in the cave, only somehow on the surface it did not look nearly so tattered and threadbare. It seemed larger, its necks thick as tree trunks, its squat body a small mountain. Smoke was coming out of one of its mouths- the head on the left- and I saw that Pascha was horse-shaped and afire, his mane burning bright. His skin also seemed cracked in places, and from the cracks streamed vivid violet-colored light that flickered and rippled.
It was all in all quite an impressive sight, but I was not in the mood to be impressed, and released the deer’s shape as the golem splashed loudly up behind me.
“Oh, no,” it said.
“Exactly that,” I replied. I held up my arm to stop it from moving any closer; at the edge of the clearing we were a good twenty or so feet away from the action, which was fine with me. I could have stood being further away, in fact, and eyed a large outcropping of mossy rock that was jutting up nearby.
As we watched, the dragon’s right head thrust forward and struck one of Pascha’s forelegs. He gave another whinny and tried to rear, kicking out, but then stumbled in the water. The dragon retracted its neck, hissing and flicking its tongues out; I thought it seemed quite pleased.
“Finally I have caught you,” it said. “Earth, sky, and water, all come together for me! Fire and lightning! You will not escape!”
A flash of lightning lit it up just then, highlighting every curved scale, and it looked truly terrible, huge and savage, teeth like ivory swords, the balding patches in its scales now battle scars. Its split center face had the look of some sort of monstrous deity, leering in two directions at once.
Pascha tossed his head and gave a thin whinny, shifting on his feet. He was beginning to be hard to look at, flickering with light all over, orange-purple-violet. His hooves splashed as he stumbled.
“I think he is injured,” said the golem. “What should we do, Gabi?”
“I can’t do anything about a dragon,” I said, fairly gobsmacked. “I’m a strigoi, not Făt-Frumos. The dragon isn’t going to let him go if we ask nicely.”
“I could stand up to it,” said the golem, in a thoughtful-sounding tone. “Or I could pick up Pascha and run away. Are dragons fast?”
“You stay right where you are,” I said, rather alarmed. “You nearly became a statue the last time, remember?”
“But I know about what to do now,” the golem protested, taking a step towards Pascha. At that, the dragon finally noticed us, and hissed, throwing up steam, its left neck twining briefly with the middle one.
“The earth man!” it growled, and I was faintly insulted that its yellow eyes passed straight over me. “You will regret it if you try to take away my prize again!”
“Will you let him go?” said the golem, in a way that made me want to smack myself. What had I just said?
In answer the dragon struck out at Pascha again, and caught him with its middle head’s left mouth. Pascha screamed and kicked as the dragon lifted him up, flashing and sparking with colored lights. As if in answer, more lightning flashed in the clouds above, and the dragon made a low thrumming sound. It was more terrible out here, I realized; lightning was supposed to empower dragons, and some were said to be able to control it. I hoped very much that this one was too weak to do any such thing. It did only have three heads, and the really horrible dragons had at least nine.
“My mistress comes!” hissed the dragon’s middle mouth that wasn’t biting into Pascha. “Fools! You’ve trespassed here too long!”
“It is time for us to go,” I said, tugging on the golem’s arm. “The witch-”
But the golem was distracted, its blank eyes following something small splashing through the water: a misshapen and extraordinarily ugly black toad.
“It is the same toad!”
“What are you saying!” I hollered, for just then the sky had growled particularly loudly. “You can’t keep every animal you find!”
“No, it is the same toad!” the golem replied, as if that made anything clearer. “I have seen it three times now. And Pascha has seen it too!”
The toad hopped up onto a mossy rock that was jutting out of the water and croaked loudly. Just like that, the thunder got quiet, and even the rushing water fell still.
I noticed for the first time that the toad had very sharp golden eyes.
The dragon bowed all three of its heads, briefly dipping Pascha into the water.
“Muma,” it hissed.
“The toad is the witch?” I hissed.
The toad gave me a kind of toady look just then, and hopped off the rock with a splash, vanishing entirely. And then the mossy rock shifted and got up onto two legs, and it was no longer quite so rocky- rather, it was a stout woman in a mossy green dress.
“The toad is my familiar,” she said. “Strigoi, you are a fool. But so is my servant.” She shot a glare at the dragon; her eyes were golden, like her toad’s, and her skin still seemed rather grayish. The dragon’s heads dipped lower.
“Muma,” it said, in a very meek way- meek as it had got when it had run out of fire in the cave- “Muma, I have caught you the red horseman. I have done it.”
“Quiet!” snapped the witch, and there was a crack to her voice like splitting rock. The dragon flinched, its heads recoiling against its body, raising one webbed foot as though to shield itself.
“You shall have your punishment for setting free the water,” snapped the witch. “After such effort spent damming the creek! You are worse than a fool!”
“Muma, look,” sniveled the dragon, its center head moving closer, Pascha still dangling and flashing in its mouth. “Look, I caught-”
“I do not want that anymore!” snapped the witch, her golden eyes flashing. The toad croaked loudly. “I have just learned who it belongs to- I am no fool! Let it go!”
The dragon’s heads swayed a moment, as though it were stunned. Its slitted pupils were wide and blank.
“I do not think she is being very fair to it,” the golem said to me.
“I don’t think the dragon thinks so, either,” I replied. “But how lucky for us.”
I should probably have considered the fact that the witch was only a few feet away, and easily within earshot, for she turned and looked at us. Instantly I got a very bad feeling.
“Strigoi,” she said, pointing at me- her finger was thick and gray, with almost no nail. It looked like an overcooked sausage. “You, I will not trouble. You are part of the Baba’s game; I can see by her mark. But that golem belongs to Mother Forest, and I hate her, and I do not want it to interfere with the return of the Baba’s horseman; not after I had a hand in injuring it.” She paused to give the dragon a furious look. It was quite still, with Pascha firmly between its jaws.
“The golem doesn’t belong to Mother Forest anymore,” I cut in, because I was beginning to get a bad feeling.
“And Gabi does not belong to the other witch,” the golem chimed in, which was well-meant if not well-timed.
Muma Balaur snorted, thumbing her slab of a nose. It was surprising to me how, even with her gray skin and mossy dress and thick hands, she was still quite a lovely-looking woman. Her figure was full and pleasing to the eye, and her golden eyes were striking, and there was a hard edge to her smile that would certainly cause a man’s heart to tremble. I wondered if it was an enchantment, but she did not strike me as the sort to enchant herself for better looks. Most witches wouldn’t; they had a higher order of concerns.
“Put that down, and don’t make me say it again,” she told the dragon. “I want you to destroy that golem.”
The dragon finally dropped Pascha. He landed with a loud splash and a whine, his horse’s body twisting unpleasantly in the shallow water. The golem took a step forward, then looked at the witch, then at me. I slowly shook my head. It was beginning to look very much like the time to go.
The sky, which had lightened a little, now suddenly seemed to hang lower and darker, the blackened clouds suddenly humming with humid energy. It made me shudder. The dragon’s leftmost head was looking at us. It stepped over Pascha’s prone body- he whimpered again as its low-slung belly scraped over him- and began slowly sloshing its way towards us.
The golem tried to step forward again, but I grabbed its arm, digging my fingers into the clay.
“Get out of here,” I hissed. “That’s not the same dragon you wrestled before.”
“It actually is,” said the golem, sounding mildly puzzled. “I recognize it-”
“Go, you fool, move!” I gave it a great shove, which did not budge it in the slightest. The dragon was still making its ponderous way towards us, Pascha’s light giving it a bloody red backdrop. The witch pulled a pipe out from between her breasts and clenched it in her teeth with a smile.
The golem stepped in front of me, which was stupid, given how the witch had just said she wasn’t going to harm me- and that gave me an idea. I clambered up the golem’s slick back like a squirrel and wrapped my arms around its neck.
“What are you doing?” the golem asked, trying to twist its head around. “Gabi-”
“He can’t fire if it will hit me- Stop that squirming!”
The golem was shaking its shoulders, trying to dislodge me, but I hung on grimly. The witch was watching the spectacle with what appeared to be fascination. So, too, was the dragon. It had stopped moving entirely, and then I noticed that two of its heads were not looking at us, but at the witch.
Several things happened at once just then: Pascha’s light, which had been wavering and red behind the dragon, abruptly went out entirely, but in the split second before it did the dragon changed direction and lunged for the witch with a shriek.
Then everything went dark, and water splashed over my face, and while I blinked and spluttered and nearly fell down in a panic something grabbed me.
“Kezia?” I said, twisting around- it was dragging me by my waist, my feet sliding through the water. Then I realized it could not be Kezia. The arms around my waist were warm.
“Let me go!” My voice was drowned out by a tumult of noise- roars, screams, splashes- my captor stumbled as the earth itself shuddered. I was seized by a great fear. “Let me-”
I flinched as a sudden light flared next to my face, though it was little more than a faint glow. Pascha was holding me, Pascha-the-human.
I was not encouraged. “Let go!” I snarled, kicking and squirming, and then changed into a fox. Pascha cursed as I squirmed out of his grasp and landed with a splash.
“I’m helping you!” he hissed. “That golem is going to go where you go, and now’s the only chance we’ve got to get away from the dragon!”
I was regretting my choice of fox- the water was up to my chin, leaving my thick tail draggled and soiled, and so I changed back with a shudder.
“Where is the golem?” I demanded. Pasha’s glow had gone away again, but my eyes had adjusted to the darkness; I could see the black lines of tree trunks all around us, but no clearing, no dragon, and no golem.
I could hear the dragon, though. It was roaring away, though the sound was muffled by the thick mist now rising off the warm water.
“I’m sure it’s on its way,” said Pascha, but I thought he sounded a little nervous. He was rubbing his arms and shivering.
I had to admit, I was not especially eager to go back towards the dragon to look for it, yet…
“I can’t use a golem that’s in pieces,” I snapped.
“Well, you can rest easy, because the dragon is attacking the witch,” said Pascha. “Quite a long time coming, if you ask me. The golem is only in danger if it gets in the way.”
“If she gets in the way,” I reminded him. “And she would.” I could imagine a dozen scenarios of the golem bumbling around, looking for me, or maybe trying to save the witch, like a fool.
Pascha frowned and rubbed his arms more vigorously. “You seem to have no control over it whatsoever.”
“And you seem to be in no position to make snide comments- feeling a bit sore?”
“I’ve already recovered,” he said, raising his nose, as though he weren’t shivering as though his bones were going to rattle apart. “It only took me by surprise with the flooding and the hitting me with lightning bit. I know what to expect now.”
I wanted to roll my eyes back into my skull. “I am going to look for Kezia now, and drag her out of whatever trouble she’s gotten in.”
“Wait-” said Pascha, and then we both stopped short, because a flash of lighting suddenly dazzled both of us. A few seconds late there came a loud rumble of thunder, and it began to rain.
“I hate this!” I burst out, backing up against a tree. The curst thing was too skinny and leafless to provide the merest bit of cover. “I hate witches!”
Pascha’s miserable face and draggled, limp mane seemed to echo my sentiment, and he tried to step over to join me under the tree. I moved away.
“Like I said, I have got to find that-”
I jumped about three feet in the air then, because peering out at me from beneath a waterlogged bush were the two golden eyes of the witch’s toad.
“Kill it!” shouted Pascha, hopping backwards, but I was already halfway up the tree I’d been under. The toad croaked, I thought derisively. Then, wonder of wonders, I heard a set of familiar thumping footsteps.
“Kezia!” I called, clinging to the wet, skinny branches of my tree. I could see her big shadow now emerging through the mist. “That toad is in the bush- kill it! It’ll tell the witch where we are!”
“No, she will not,” said the golem, almost sternly. It came into full view and tenderly reached down to pick the hideous thing up in one hand. “She was the one who led me here. She is a good toad.”
The toad croaked, squatting in the golem’s runny hand as though it were its own personal mud-puddle. Its golden eyes slitted in my direction and I got the distinctly uneasy feeling that it could understand human speech.
“What happened to the witch?” called Pascha, from his vantage point a safe distance away behind a rocky outcropping. “And the dragon?”
“I think that they are still fighting,” said the golem. It stroked the toad’s back with one finger, and the fat thing blinked slowly like a cat. “But I think that the dragon is hurt. It was crying when I left. I feel very sorry for it. I hope she is not going to kill it…”
“I doubt it,” I said, backing up a little as my branch creaked. The wood was wet and slick, and none too strong. “It’s too useful a servant to kill. She’ll cow it back down into submission.”
“She should let it go,” said the golem.
“She should,” called Pascha. “If it grows strong enough, it really could be a threat to her. But that would take time.”
“Perhaps we should save this subject for later,” I groused, shoving at a damp stick that was poking my side. “I’d like to go somewhere dry.”
“Oh!” said the golem, and it carefully put the toad down. “Gabi, if you want to come out of the rain, you can change into a bat and rest in my eye.”
I fixed my own eyes on the black toad, which was slowly hopping away, its warty back just disappearing under the water with each hop.
“Why a toad when you’ve got a dragon, anyway? And come stand under this tree, Kezia.”
The golem obligingly shuffled forward, and Pasha peeped his head out over the rock.
“A dragon’s not exactly subtle,” he said, and put his elbows over it to leer at us. “Even you ought to be able to figure that out.”
“Says the creature that was just in the jaws of that none-too-subtle dragon,” I replied, and then kicked away some of the tree’s brittle branches so I could drop down onto the golem’s shoulders. It raised up its arms to steady me but I pushed them away and mimicked Pascha’s posture with my elbows atop the golem’s head.
“These trees are not very healthy,” the golem observed, putting a hand on the trunk. “They are small and they break easily.”
“They are water-starved,” said Pascha. “Didn’t you hear the witch? She must have had all the water here dammed up for some reason or another, and the dragon let it all go so that it could catch me.”
“That dragon doesn’t seem terribly intelligent,” I said. “Though then again, it did work.”
“Why would the witch stop up the water?” asked the golem.
Pascha merely shrugged, flicking his wet hair out of his eyes. I scowled and shivered again; the rain was starting to come down harder.
“I think I will go in your eye,” I told the golem, “but I’ll be awake and listening, so don’t try to get away with doing anything foolish, you hear?”
“Yes, Gabi,” said the golem. I passed Pascha an odious look, but he was ignoring me, scratching a mosquito bite underneath his chin.
The golem’s head magnified tremendously in size as I changed into a bat, and for a moment my small claws couldn’t get a grip in the slick clay. I half-slid, half fell down the side of her face, flapping my draggled wings. The golem put the back of its- well, her hand by her cheek to steady me, and I managed to crawl over to her eye, chittering with disapproval. I never was good with water.
I shut up as soon as I went inside, because I could immediately tell that something had changed.
I had grown accustomed to the queer sense that came over me inside the golem, the feeling of something benevolent and invisible pressing the clay outwards; but now I felt a bit different. There was an odd smell coming from down inside the golem’s belly. I waggled my ears and raised my bat nose to sniff. It smelled… sweet.
I hesitated, feeling the golem shift on the outside, and then crawled further down, through its neck and to the top of her chest. There was something almost flowery about that scent, but it also had a coppery edge to it that moistened my tongue. When I called out into the dark, I realized that there was something in front of me, something slender. I focused my ears earlier and called out again: the sound traced out a shape in front of me, almost like a small tree. Perhaps the golem had picked up a branch somewhere? I crawled a little further down, bewildered, my nostrils filled with that same scent.
The strange thing moved, and my breast exploded with pain.
I shrieked. It was like a row of hot needles had suddenly ripped across my fur, piercing through my skin. I half-lost my bat shape for a moment, and was suddenly squashed up inside the golem- and pain, pain pain, it was touching me in more places now and it was tearing me apart! I screamed, half-bat, half-woman, and forced myself to get small again. Much of the dreadful touch fell away, but something had caught hold of the end of my clawed foot- I struggled, thrashing, and felt it finally tear away- my foot, or the thing that held it, I was not sure; I was mad with agony by then. I battered against the golem’s insides a few times before I managed to flap my tattered wings and drag myself up through the air and out through the golem’s eye.
I hardly heard the voice, and I ignored it anyway, it hurt so much and I had to get away- I could barely fly but I had to, dripping precious blood everywhere, soaked by the rain, air whistling through the holes in my wings; I flew and I flew and I flew away as fast and far as I could. I was a strigoi, and I had died once, and I knew it very well; inside of that golem was the sweetest-smelling death that there had ever been.