I died everywhere.
What a night indeed, to run between the trees, to hold a small fluttering thing within my teeth. The moon was round and bright and provided me with light and my fur was free of fleas. My cat heart could ask for nothing more.
I was not really a cat.
Perhaps that should seem obvious, for I could do things that a cat could not: I could understand human speech, I could plot and plan, I could smell enemies of the treewitch.
She took my eye and put a flower in its place, and I could nothing, for I grieved. O my home, o my people, my beautiful people- all gone, all gone, dead, to feed her insatiable hunger.
I hardly realized when it started, the treewitch’s plot. I was nothing but a humble Domovoi; a spirit of the home: I mended broken pottery, watched over the children. Though there were times when I walked to the barns and became an Ovinnik, and my rage burned hot, and I spat fire and ate death- but the best times were when I walked through the bathhouses, with their warm steam and the gentle talk of naked folk, as the the cunning and loving Bannik.
As I said, I was not a cat, but I was of cats. I died everywhere- in the gardens, in the barns, trampled in the fields, killed by eagles, foxes, wolves, struck by sickness that sealed my eyes and nostrils shut. It mattered not. The ending of a life is a powerful thing, and every time I died, I held on to new knowledge, new memories, new strength.
I was a bit like the treewitch, in that sense.
The strigoi was weakening in my jaws; I tasted her blood. Human blood, stolen blood. When one such as her crept into my village, I would chase them out. They spread death and pestilence and grudges. Sometimes I would kill them. Even though they were most often one of my poor dead villagers, sometimes I would kill them. For the sake of the living.
You see, I was of cats, and cats love people.
Is this not obvious? What cat will stay away, given the chance to be near them? Even the shyest of strays will linger atop garden walls, under the foundations of houses- just to hear them, smell them, feel them. It is a puzzling fascination. We do not seek out our own kind this way. A cat’s heart is small and can only love so much; so we guard our love fiercely, and do not offer it without reason. Perhaps we are drawn to humans because they are the opposite.
They reach for us. They feed us. They call us and beg for the opportunity to touch us. We are cats; we are suspicious. Sometimes they do throw rocks, or kick, or worse. But more often than not they are honest, and all they want is to love and be loved in return.
It is childish. But children are meant to be loved. We coddle them, groom them, bring them dead things to show our parental love, but we are confused, too, because while humans are children they are also our parents. They feed us, groom us, and we act like kittens for them. It is a strange yearning, parent and child, then child and parent, both playing strange roles; and we are not even the same species.
I am lost in the minds of cats. They do not think such thoughts; they are only cats, and their minds do not realize the source of this confusion. But I do, because I collected it all, like bits of wool, wove it into myself.
I was the Domovoi, not just of the house but of the town, not just to one family but all of them. I loved them and fought with them and disciplined them and begged them for favors. I swept away the dust from the houses of old women when they started to become frail; I harassed the horses and made them restless during the nights. When I was happy I made golden grain fill the fields and when I was angry I burned it in the barn. I teased the children by hiding their toys, left little pawprints in their clean beds. I teased them again when they became Blajini- it often happened- only then I let them pull my tail and cuddle me close.
My favorite place was the bathhouse, though, and I often walked through the curtains of steam, listening to the talk; and sometimes I was even strong enough to draw the shape of a man around myself and whisper mischievous things in the ears of girls and young women. They more than anyone knew when I was there, and they would turn their naked backs to me and ask me to tell their fortunes with my claws. And I loved to look at them. The first time you see a naked human you want to laugh, it seems so silly; so much hairless skin, so soft and curved in places that should be sharp, so helpless-looking. But I quickly learned how beautiful they could be, too. Vulnerability has an allure.
My beloved bathhouse with its pinked secrets, my girls, my crones, my children, my eager men- all withered and died and I could do nothing. The treewitch took them and consumed them. Then she came upon me while I grieved, tore out my eye, planted a seed deep inside my skull.
I am not sure why she chose to keep me as a servant. Perhaps she had become wary of relying too much on golems, though they are the most capable servants of all. Perhaps it was a whim. Perhaps it was cruelty.
I had not felt so lucid in such a long time. When my eye’s sapling got damaged, I could regain a semblance of my own sense, and run freely as it regrew. Of course it always came back. I think that despair makes it grow faster. But I had never had it damaged so much before now.
I carried the strigoi in my mouth, away from the white grove. I could feel her tiny heartbeat through my tongue and teeth, and the cats inside me rejoiced and begged to bite down, to break the back, to tear the wings asunder. But since I am not really a cat, I stopped the inclination. I did not want to destroy her.
Already I thought I could feel the badly damaged sprout starting to regrow, the battered stem inside my head showing fresh new green at its browned tip. Surely not, though. I was not despairing so much now.
One of my humans had survived, and I could smell it.
I was not yet sure which one was the survivor, and in what condition- for it had been many, many years since- but I knew the scent. I knew it. And it was close to the forest.
I was a Domovoi, and in that single life, I still had a home.
I had felt this dimly even in the grip of the treewitch’s spell, and for the past few days I had carried on being her slave while a strange fire began to burn in my chest.
If I ever escape, treewitch, you will know what hell is like.
If you touch my human, treewitch, you will know what is worse than hell.
I stopped to rest, worn from fighting my baser instincts, and laid the shivering little bat down on the forest floor in the center of a tiny clearing. There were leaves here again, as we had gone well out of the way of the white grove. A shaft of moonlight silvered the tips of the bat’s red fur.
It hardly moved, and I resisted the temptation to prod it. If it had been a real bat it would have been dead already; I had pulled enough of them apart to know. A strigoi-bat could not actually be killed, but if you harmed it enough, the strigoi would be forced to resume its true shape. And it would be terribly weak.
I licked my lips. I could not kill it- not now. I wanted it to live and escape, if for no other reason than to spite my mistress. It had already spirited one of her golems away; one of the ones that spoke. It was rare that they could do that, and she had gotten quite angry to have it missing.
I have to admit that I was- somewhat- put out myself when it had gone. Though its talk had often been irritating, it had been a welcome change from the sounds of the forest and the curt orders of my mistress. I had almost been pleased when I found it again in the root-tunnels. But I was quite glad to see it go again, as well. I suppose not just for the witch’s rage. It had grown rebellious quite quickly, and in no short time she probably would have had it destroyed.
She used golems, but she did not understand them, my mistress. She had consumed a Jewish rabbi a very long time ago, and used his knowledge of their creation to her advantage since then. But she did not understand them, and so in the end they were never really hers.
I was not hers either, though I had lasted longer than most golems.
Not yet. Not yet. The sprout was regrowing and I would be unable to stop it. That was another reason that the strigoi would be useful. And the golem. I knew the golem could be reached through the strigoi, and even if the strigoi cared not- they could be more catlike and bestial than I ever was, these strigoi- even if it cared not, the golem would come to my aid.
The bat was lying very still, only its tiny chest moving now and then. But my sharp ears could pick up the rapid beating of its heart. I licked my lips.
“Flee,” I hissed, curling the word out of my mouth as though it were stuck to my palate. “Flee, strigoi.”
The bat gave a little shudder of surprise. I struggled to force the next words out.
“In… return… the golem… must… free me…”
The bat raised its head, and I beheld the eyes, like two dark flecks amidst the red fur.
Perhaps she might have spoken to be, but just then I heard the sound of a crashing, crunching footstep, and leapt away, between the shadowed trees. The bat tried to push herself up onto all fours, her clumsy legs trembling.
I crouched down between two exposed roots, my eyes glittering. My nose and ears had told me that my mistress’ border had been breached, and that the trespassers were approaching this place quite rapidly; all as I had intended. In the faint light a giant, shadowed figure emerged from the other side of the clearing: the golem.
I was struck, as I had been when I found it in the tunnels, by how much it had changed. Golems were changeable by nature, of course, but they did not change very quickly. Yet this one seemed to rapidly be acquiring fine details, morphing from a rough sort of man-shape to a creature with definition. It had five fingers now, and its arms were not so overlong; furthermore, its legs were more gracile and the face- the face was still locked into that frown, but now the expression seemed intentional.
The golem stopped short at the clearing, and something came up behind it- an ordinary-looking brown horse, poking its long face around the golem’s slide. My nose itched at the uneasy scent of it, and my fur rose. It made the air taste of cinnamon and cloves and blood.
“Is that her?” asked the horse.
The golem did not reply; it was looking down at the bat. Then it quickly cast its gaze left and right, much to my surprise. It was suspicious.
“Gabi?” it said. “Gabi, are you…”
Suddenly the clay seemed to quiver, and the great thing knelt clumsily in the moss. It picked up the bat and cradled it in its massive hands.
The bat gave a little cry, perhaps at being handled so, and tried to push itself sideways off of the golem’s palm. The golem caught it gently.
“Gabi, please, it is all right! I do not have the white tree inside me anymore! I promise!”
“She looks awful,” observed the horse, stepping closer. Its big hooves cut semicircles into the moss as it moved. “She’s run into something bad, I think. We were lucky to stumble on her.”
“I think we were too lucky,” said the golem, cupping the bat. “It does not feel right to me. Mother Forest has laid two traps already. I’m frightened- what if she has done something awful to Gabi? Oh, Pascha!”
The golem turned its face towards the horse, which nickered and raised its upper lip.
“It’s all right! We’ve got her, and we’ll be wary now. Our best chance is to get away from this place as soon as possible. I say we make for the river.”
“I do not-” began the golem, but suddenly its arms bowed forward; the bat had become a small woman with dense red curls. She lay limp and naked- aside from her white ribbon- in the golem’s arms.
“Gabi! Oh, Gabi, there you are. You’re hurt!”
The young woman took a breath; her face seemed to flush slightly as I watched, and the bruises and scrapes covering her body were highlighted in red. She raised her head.
“Are you still her servant?” she rasped.
I did not grasp the meaning of the words right away, but the golem seemed to, for it cried, “No, Gabi, no, I am not! I did not know she planted that tree inside of me! I am sorry! But I have got rid of it.”
“I can vouch for that,” added the horse, snuffling closer to the nude woman until the golem elbowed it away. “My, you have taken a beating. Did you meet Mother Forest?”
“I did not expect to see you here,” said the strigoi.
“I was moved by my concern for you,” said the horse. “I am now satisfied and wish to depart.”
“I can carry you, Gabi,” said the golem, and it started to rise. “We must get away from here-”
“No!” The strigoi planted her hands on the golem’s chest and shoved, pushing herself out of its grasp. She landed badly on the mossy ground and curled up with a grimace.
“Don’t ‘Gabi’ me,” the strigoi said, or more groaned. “You must be her servant. You are toying with me… you and that cat…”
“She’s delusional,” remarked the horse.
“The cat?” said the golem. “Gabi, do you mean Noroc? Is he near?”
It cast around, its blank eyes searching, but I felt quite secure huddled down where I was. If it were the golem alone, I might have revealed myself; the horse made me unsure. I did not know what to do with a being like him.
“He’s watching,” growled the strigoi, from her position on the ground. “Damn him! Damn him! I don’t understand the witch’s ways…”
The golem reached for her, but she curled away with a hiss.
“Oh, stop!” said the horse, stamping its hoof and tearing through more of the moss. “Look at you, half-dead, and you want to pick a quarrel with your saviors? Kezia, I say this is no time to be gentle. Take that thing and let’s leave this awful forest before the witch smells us.”
“If Noroc is watching us, she already has,” said the golem. “And Gabi is not a thing. I do not blame her if she does not trust me anymore.”
The horse’s neck twitched all the way down and it gave a half-swallowed whinny. “What is this Noroc?”
“He is a cat,” explained the golem. I had to turn and lick my shoulder.
“You mean he’s the witch’s familiar?”
“I think so.”
I licked my other shoulder, tail lashing. A worse description I could not imagine!
The golem reached a hand out to the strigoi once more, but she only glared at it.
“I won’t have you carry me like a sack.”
“Oh, honestly,” said the horse, “if it will hurry things up, let Kezia place you on my back. And then I will carry you like a sack- a useless sack that I wish didn’t hold the key to my freedom!”
“Pascha,” said the golem, but the strigoi’s lip curled.
“Ride you? Ah, so to be ‘twixt my legs is what you want, is that right?”
“Hardly,” said the horse. “Goodness, if a woman’s nethers had ever interested me, I wouldn’t be starting with the likes of you.” It turned its head to address the golem. “Kezia, I believe that was her giving permission, so pop her on and let’s be off.”
“Not yet,” said the strigoi, raising a hand when the golem reached for her. “No. I’m going to find that damned cat before I leave this place and kill it once and for all.”
My tail tapped on the leaves in disgust; the wretch really did have no gratitude. And she was being a fool- though my mistress could be slow to notice intruders, she would notice them all eventually.
The horse still set me on edge, and my gaping eye socket was aching, but I felt I had little choice. I rose from my spot in the shadows and stepped forward into the clearing.
Their reaction was immediate. The horse threw its head back, the strigoi hissed like a snake, and the golem put one hand against its chest.
“There!” snarled the strigoi, stabbing a finger in my direction. “There he is! I told you he was near!”
Despite her words, I could see her beginning to tremble. The golem moved closer, putting one hand on her shoulder, and this time she did not shove it away.
“That’s no cat!” snorted the horse, which had turned both its ears back. “What is it?”
“No, Noroc is a cat,” said the golem, gently pulling the strigoi a little further backwards, into the protective circle of its arms. “But his eye…”
I opened my mouth and let out a raspy mewl. The strigoi’s lip twitched.
“Mute, now? He spoke before!”
I heard the faint indecision in the golem’s voice, and the strigoi must have, too, for she turned her head up to look at its chin. But I was pleased. I opened my mouth, throat working, and tried to find the words again.
“You… must… flee…”
The horse made a sound that could be described as a whimper, and put its head down behind the golem’s back. I saw the strigoi’s fingers digging into the clay of the golem’s arms.
“Noroc, you spoke!” exclaimed the golem.
I took a few long breaths. I was beginning to feel dizzy, my head burning. The skin around my eye socket was afire with pain.
“Come back for me,” I said, and my throat burned as well. “Free… me.”
“Noroc! You are not free?” The golem clutched the strigoi to itself like a doll, though she squirmed and kicked. “You are Mother Forest’s captive as well? How can I free you? Is it the flower that was in your eye? But it’s not there anymore!”
I fought with my heavy tongue to get the next words out.
“Bring what?” asked the golem, leaning forwards. The strigoi, caught up against its chest behind its arms, pounded her fists on the clay.
“Kezia! It’s a trick!”
The fur on my back rose, and the forest brightened as my pupils dilated. I struggled with speech as though it were a physical opponent.
“Bring the survivor to me. The witch…”
I stopped speaking, chest heaving from the exertion. No, I would not say what I had wanted to just then; they had all the information I needed to give them.
“The survivor?” the golem repeated. “Survivor…”
“Survivor of what?” asked the strigoi, though she had a scowl on her muddy face. “Someone your witch wants, cat?”
I saw this give the golem pause, for it closed its eyes in a slow blink. It did not seem to like the idea of bringing someone to my mistress- well, that was good.
“Survivor of something that is going to happen?” asked the horse, poking its head out again. “A plague, perhaps?”
“Oh, no, I don’t think that’s it,” said the strigoi, and stuck her tongue out between her teeth, brow furrowing. She had very suddenly become pensive. “A survivor of something that happened in the past… is it?”
I looked at her.
“Something that happened here, in this forest,” she continued. “Ah… I understand. I saw it.”
A little thrill passed through me at her words, and I raised my tail. She saw it. She saw it! When had she seen it?
“Saw what, Gabi?” asked the golem, but the strigoi only scowled again.
“It doesn’t matter! Kezia, the cat is toothless just now; let’s go.”
“Hear, hear,” said the horse.
The golem looked down at the top of the strigoi’s head. “But Gabi…”
“You want to help this thing? You might well do it without us.”
“But he must not have free will,” argued the golem. “Like I did not. If I can free him, Gabi, then-”
“Who do you think gave me these wounds?” sneered the strigoi. “He is the witch’s toy!”
“No,” said the golem, sagging forwards. “Gabi, I am sorry.”
The strigoi patted its arm and shot me a very cold look.
“I am already recovering. But we will all be better off away from here. Unless, of course, you want to go back to your mother and her cat…?”
“I do not!” cried the golem, quite loudly. I flattened my ears back and hissed.
“Ha! You’ve upset him now. He doesn’t like any disloyalty to his mistress.”
I tried to speak, but all that came out was an angry mrrowl. My head burned all over. Oh, I should have torn that bat to pieces. The golem was looking at me now with what I thought was mistrust, and it picked up the strigoi and placed her on the horse’s back.
“Do not follow us, Noroc,” it warned, and I could not help but give another rasping cry. What had happened to this golem? What had the strigoi done to it? When I had known it before it would have longed to help me, and it would never have been suspicious of a trap. How could it now be so… I cried out again as the horse shook its head and turned to walk out of the clearing.
Neither the horse or the strigoi turned to look back, but the golem did.
“Noroc,” it said, very softly. “I will look. But I can promise nothing.”
I stared at it, then raised my tail once more and made a soft sound.
“I have a name now,” it said, even softer still. “It is Kezia.”
Ah, that was so strange, why did the name make my head boiling hot? I pawed feebly at my eye socket, my claws catching on the open edge.
“If you can,” said the golem, “tell Mother I will not return. I am angry. I will not forgive her for what she put inside me. Tell her that.”
The same, young golem, we are the same.
“Please do not follow us. Please do not ever go near Gabi again.”
The survivor, the survivor… bring me the survivor and we will both see this wretched forest turn to ashes and cinders and hell itself.
The golem walked away, following after the horse, and I stared at its large retreating back.
Yes… Kezia. Kezia. The child with the dark hair and the secretive face. I saw her smile at a girl as I jumped off a roof.
And I saw her die.
I think that all three of us wanted to get away from the forests, whether they belonged to Mother Forest or Muma Balaur or any other witch, so we made good time getting out of there. I led the way to the riverside meadow at a rapid walk, and Pascha kept up with me easily, high-stepping with his neck arched. Despite what he had said earlier, I thought he was pleased to have Gabi on his back. Gabi herself did not look very pleased. She was clinging very tightly to his mane and had one leg drawn up halfway over her back so that she was not quite astride him. Perhaps this was the other Kezia’s influence, but I was beginning to suspect that riding a horse naked was not very comfortable.
It definitely can’t be comfortable.
She was back again. I had felt her resurfacing while we were talking to Noroc, but she had been quiet until now. I found that I did not mind terribly much about her being there.
Speaking of Noroc, that whole conversation had been very strange. Gabi had remained fairly tight-lipped on what had happened to her in the forest, turning her head away from my questions. I thought that she was still upset about what had happened in my chest. I felt guilty about it still, but also somewhat… sour. Should she not know that I would not do something like that on purpose?
Then again, she might have thought that my free will was not my own again. But it was not as if I could do anything about that either.
That is logical enough, but I don’t think she allows logic to influence many of her decisions. She’s like a child.
“Hush,” I said aloud. Pascha flicked an ear back in my direction, but Gabi showed no reaction.
You know I’m not wrong. She makes you suffer unnecessarily for it.
I did not want to say it out loud, but I tried to convey in my thoughts how Gabi had been through a difficult experience and that she had every right to be upset and frightened.
Oh, you sound like my brother, said the other Kezia. Always making room for others. It will leave you just as hollow as… well, you are actually already hollow.
I attempted to put forth the fact that I did not find that very amusing.
Ha! You’ll have to endure it.
I tried to turn the topic by thinking about what sort of person her brother was, but I only got as far as remembering the name- Elan- when I felt her suddenly closing herself down again.
“Where are you going?” I whispered.
She did not respond, but I caught a flurry of confused images: the boy with the warm skin and brown, curly hair, his shy grin and nearly girlish giggle.
I thought that he looked like a nice brother. I had not spent much time ruminating on what siblings were, but they seemed quite good to have around according to her memories. Though there were sometimes disagreements.
An unpleasant thought occurred to me: was that other golem that Mother Forest made supposed to be my sibling?
I told you that you have no mother, so you can’t have any siblings, the other Kezia reminded me, but it made me feel no better than when she had first said it. Perhaps she sensed that, for she added, I don’t remember my own mother. She died giving birth to Elan and I. But we were both fine growing up with just my father and older sisters.
But I did not have anyone else besides that one mother. The mother that I had now lost. Could you lose something you never had?
Don’t be so moody! You’ve barely been around for a fortnight. That’s too little time to lose or gain anything.
She was not wrong, though again that made me feel no better. Anyway, I felt much older than that; I felt like I was growing a day older with every step I took. But that was probably due to her influence again.
Like a fox in the henhouse, you’ve plundered my experiences.
Well, even foxes have to eat.
We came out of the forest and into the grassy meadow when it was close to dawn. The sky was turning a cold cloudy grey, though the edge of the sun was not yet peeping over the horizon. Gabi scrambled off of Pascha’s back and fell into the long grass.
“Are you all right?” I asked, staring down. She had fallen near my feet and was lying there with her eyes closed.
“Go away,” she said, without opening her eyes. Pascha swung his head around and nibbled on the end of her nose. She scowled and rolled over.
“Blood,” she said. “Blood and sleep. That’s all I want now. Both of you go away.”
Pascha and I exchanged a very meaningful look.
“You can not sleep here, Gabi,” I said. “You must move somewhere safer first.”
“Yes, yes,” exclaimed Pascha, stamping. “We’re still right outside the forest here; who knows how far the witch can reach? I won’t feel better until we cross that river.”
“I’m not moving once the sun is up,” Gabi groused, squeezing her eyes even tighter shut.
“The sun is not up yet, Gabi,” I said. “And the river is not far away. And look, we will be closer to the village! There are people there with blood inside of them in the village, you know.”
Pascha snorted, and Gabi opened her eyes long enough to roll them upwards.
“Fine, if it will make you shut up! Put me back on the horse.”
I did so, arranging her limp arms and legs as though she were a doll. Despite her silly complaints, I actually was a little worried about her. She was covered in scratches and bruises, and her left arm was bent funny. Some of her wounds had healed in the time since we had first found her, but she was getting paler by the hour.
Pascha must have been considering it to, for after I settled Gabi on his back he remarked, “Do you constantly get into this much trouble, strigoi? What on earth did you do before you had this golem to nurse you?”
“These last few days have been unusual,” replied Gabi, but in a very sulky-sounding way.
We tromped our way through the meadow and through the fine morning mist. All around us there were tiny little birds chirruping and clinging to the tall stalks, and they would explode upwards if we got too near. I could not pay too much attention to them, though, because my focus was already divided between Gabi and the sky, which was steadily getting lighter. Despite my earlier words I was glad when Pascha turned and headed for a shallow place in the river some distance away from the village.
“You’re going to get your feet wet,” Pascha warned, as we drew even with the bank. Gabi scowled and tried to draw her feet higher up, but the motion looked like it pained her. I thought about offering to let her ride on my shoulders, but did not. I did not think she would accept such an offer now.
Pascha trotted down the sandy bank and splashed right into the water, making Gabi flinch and shiver as the droplets hit her. I followed, and gripped one of her knees to keep her steady as the water rose to Pascha’s chest. She did not protest it.
I noticed small, silvery fish darting around in the silt disturbed by our footsteps.
“Gabi, could you change into a fish?”
“That’s a good idea. You could stop being such a deadweight,” said Pascha with a grunt. He was starting to swim, though I was still able to walk.
“I have no plans to change into a fish,” said Gabi.
“What about an otter?” I asked. “Or-”
“No water animals! I hate the water.”
“Oh really? Can you swim?” asked Pascha, in such a politely interested tone that I tightened my grip on Gabi’s knee.
“I should think that someone depending on me for their salvation would be a little more respectful.”
“I should think that the one riding my back in the middle of the river has absolutely no room to talk.”
“I think that we are almost to the other side of the river,” I said. “And look, there is some smoke!”
“Hey? You’re right,” said Pascha, turning his ears forward. There was a thin ribbon of smoke rising from the grass on the other bank. “Looks like a campfire. Perhaps we’ve run across some travelers.”
Gabi raised her head and looked up at the word ‘travelers.’ Her lips parted slightly.
“Don’t drool on me,” said Pascha, and her vacant expression changed to a scowl.
“I will go look to see if anyone is there,” I said, though from my vantage point I could not see any movement around the smoke. Near the smoke I could see something large that looked like it was made out of wood.
“There won’t be anyone there,” said Gabi, but just then Pascha stepped up out of the river and started shaking himself vigorously. I caught Gabi by the shoulders before she slipped off.
“What do you mean?” I asked, resettling her. The scowl was back.
“It’s a wagon,” she said. “It’s definitely been abandoned. The wheels are broken.”
As we drew closer, I saw that Gabi was right. The wagon- so small it might have been more of a cart- was sitting flat on the ground, its cracked wheels leaning free against its sides. Flowers poked through the spokes. The campfire was nothing more than charcoal and embers, and the grass around it was flattened and trampled. Pascha dipped his nose down to sniff a large hoofprint in the dirt. I crouched to touch the warm embers.
Gabi slid off of Pascha’s back, and I looked up. Her expression was strange.
“They left well before dawn,” she said, nudging some of the charcoal I’d disturbed with her toe. “Eager to hawk in the village, maybe.”
I looked over at the village, which was just visible down the slight slope.
Pascha kicked something with his hoof that made a metallic ting.
“Kalderash? I see.”
Gabi leaned down and picked up the thing Pascha had kicked. It was a small tin pail.
“Ugh,” she said, wrinkling her nose, and flung it away from herself. “Smells like piss.”
Pascha raised his head and snorted, and I watched as the pail sailed away and landed silently somewhere in the grass. It brought out an explosion of twittering, scolding birds.
“You were one in your previous life, then?” said Pascha. “That explains much.”
“One what?” I asked, thoroughly puzzled. Gabi looked more sour than ever.
“A Kalderash, of course. A tigani,” explained Pascha.
The word Kalderash was not familiar to me. The other Kezia did not seem to know it, but the word ‘tigani’ did conjure up a few vague memories: dark-skinned people that she and her family had few associations with; people who did not stay in one place for long. Watch the horses and your pockets.
Gabi glanced up at the sky, which was beginning to turn pink.
“You’re mistaken. I wasn’t one of them.”
“No? There’s a hint of it in your skin. Were you a stolen child?”
There was something unpleasant in Pascha’s tone, and he was twitching his lip and flaring his nostrils. I moved slightly closer to Gabi, who had leaned against the broken cart. Her blue eyes were flat.
“Contrary to what you may have heard,” she said, “they do not steal children. I don’t know why one would assume they should; does having an extra squalling infant travelling the road sound appealing to you? I was not stolen.”
“Then you were adopted by them.”
“I was not adopted by them. My father was a Kalderash.”
Pascha tossed his head; he was pleased about being right. “Then don’t deny what you are! Are you ashamed?”
“I was never one of them,” Gabi said flatly. “I was not Romanipan. My mother was a Moor.”
Maybe Pascha did not expect this, because he turned one ear back. The other Kezia shared what she thought a moor was: a dark-skinned person who was neither Christian nor Jewish. She had never actually met one, only heard about them in passing.
I felt that Gabi did not match either image that she had supplied. Especially because each of them carried such a strong undercurrent of unease and suspicion.
“Unusual,” said Pascha, finally. “You don’t look like a Moor at all.”
“My, that’s something I have never heard before,” said Gabi, in a voice so dry it could have cracked mud. “Are you quite finished? The sun is coming up, and I’m in no mood for giving a history lesson.”
“Yes, that’s right,” I said, rising from my crouch. “Gabi, let us find a place for you to rest.”
“What if the Kalderash return to their campsite?” asked Pascha.
“They won’t,” said Gabi. “They’ll do their buying and selling, then move on. I don’t think they expect much profit here; the larger towns are further on.”
“Just what I’d expect to hear from a sharp-nosed tigani-” Pascha began, but stopped mid-sentence when Gabi gave him a very chilling look.
“Gabi,” I said, hastening to distract her, for she seemed to be in an extra-foul mood now, “Gabi, I have an idea for where you can hide.”
“Yes, before I lose mine,” said Pascha, dancing nervously from hoof to hoof. Gabi had not taken her eyes off of him.
If I could have shut up Pascha I would have a long time ago, and I gave him a brief, cold look of my own. He turned his head and tugged at a mouthful of grass, playing the ordinary horse.
“What’s your idea?” said Gabi, toneless.
In answer, I picked up the cart, sending the broken wheels clattering to the ground, and flipped it over so that its bottom faced the sky. Gabi stood up straight and raised both eyebrows.
“See,” I said, pointing to the little wooden cave I had made, “there is plenty of shade, and we will not have to walk anymore.”
“It’s a bit crude, but I’ll accept it,” said Gabi, and she sent another furtive glance towards the sky. “Don’t go anywhere while I’m trying to sleep. I mean you, not the horse. The horse will please get struck by another bolt of lightning.”
Pascha ripped up another mouthful of grass and said nothing. I was glad he had finally seen the sense of silence.
Gabi crouched down and wormed her way into the narrow space underneath the cart. It was probably none too soon. I could see the sun rising on the other side of the river, staining the water brilliant gold and orange and red. The rays seared out from between the few remaining clouds. I pushed some dirt and grass into the cart’s opening to make a barrier to keep out even the tiniest bit of sunlight.
“Don’t suffocate her,” said Pascha. “Though do strigoi need to breathe?”
“Hush. She is trying to sleep.”
“I think she’s passed out already. She has quite a bit of healing to do.” Pascha snatched another mouthful of grass and chewed meditatively, flicking his tail at a couple of slowly-buzzing flies. “Sensitive about her past, isn’t she?”
I privately agreed, but then again I did not think it was anything either of us had a say in. Dying did not sound like a pleasant experience, and maybe Gabi missed the things she had felt when she was alive. Like her family.
Stop that, said the other Kezia, even though I had not done anything.
“Where do you come from, Pascha?” I asked. “Did you also have another life?”
“No, I have always been myself, more or less as you see me.” Pascha’s horse body glowed a little bit, and then faded, and he was the boy again, sitting down with a long piece of grass between his teeth. When he spoke it waggled. “I don’t remember how I was born. It was terribly long ago, and after a time it’s more trouble than it’s worth trying to keep everything in your head. I do remember when the Kalderash first walked out of the east with the rest of their ilk. I spent a bit of time in the east, you know.”
He moved his hand, indicating something on himself, though I could not guess what.
“Then I followed the trade routes west and came here. That was a long time ago and then our Baba caught us one by one. I’ve been stuck with her for so many years that I’ve forgotten most everything else.”
“The Kalderash came from the east?” I felt that he meant more than just the general direction, but I was not sure. “Why did they come here?”
Pascha shrugged his skinny brown shoulders. “Some came on their own, but most were taken as slaves, I think. They say the tigani men and women have a connection with the Tatars that also rode up out of the east to fight Christians, but I don’t think it’s true. The east is a large place.” He sucked his teeth thoughtfully. “The Moors come from the south. Kazimir saw many of them on his travels.”
“The Jews came from somewhere else too,” I said, surprising myself. But it was due to the other Kezia, of course. “They move and do not have anywhere to stay.”
Pascha looked surprised. “Them as well, yes,” he said. “But I don’t know what direction they came from.”
“I did not know that there were so many different kinds of people,” I said.
“Oh, those are only fractions of the sea of faces. That village down the hill there, I’ll bet it’s full of Serbians and Saxons and Greeks, and there is never any shortage of Hungarians. I suppose there are a few people native to this country, too, but they get mixed in with the rest so easily. Zakhar is better at keeping track of who’s whom than I am.”
I looked back over at the little village. It was starting to send up its own thin streams of smoke, and I could faintly hear the bleating of sheep.
“Where do the native people come from?” I wondered. “Because people are not just born from the ground, are they?”
Pascha laughed in a delighted way. “That depends on who you ask! I don’t know. If they travelled to settle here, I wasn’t around to see it. But I expect you’re right. I suppose that whoever gets somewhere first can claim they’ve always been here.”
“Gabi told me once she hoped her mother left this country,” I said. “If she was still alive.”
Pascha pulled the grass stalk out of his mouth. “I’ve never heard of a Kalderash man taking a Moorish wife. Fascinating. There must be an interesting story behind it.”
“I do not think you will get to hear it,” I told him. “You must not upset Gabi like that. I know that you were doing it on purpose.”
Pascha shrugged, twirling the stalk between his fingers. “It passes the time. Zakhar isn’t around to pester, so I must vent my energy somehow.”
“Oh, yes,” I said. I had almost forgotten our whole purpose for traveling together. “Are you able to keep Gabi’s ribbon from hurting her?”
“Thus far, yes. I really think our Baba doesn’t care a whit about it anymore.”
I was really not sure if that was a good or bad thing, but I pretended it was good for the time being.
“If she is traveling to fight Mother Forest, how soon will she get here? We must find Kazimir before then, right?”
“If we can,” said Pascha, and gnawed on the end of his stalk. Maybe my words had made him nervous. “I don’t know how soon she’ll be here. She was in the middle of something important when we escaped. She might try to finish it up first.”
I wondered what was important to a witch. Despite having been in the service of one, I still knew very little about witches and what they actually did.
“The lake I am thinking of is that way,” said Pascha, flinging an arm out. I followed his finger beyond the little village to a place where the earth gently rumpled into mountains.
“It looks far.”
“It isn’t very far. I am nearly certain that it’s where Kazimir would go. There is a deep forest there, so deep I don’t think it even has a witch.”
“Really?” I was puzzled. “I thought that witches liked to stay in the deep woods.”
Pascha favored me with a kind of sly grin. “You’ve never been in the real deep woods, my young friend. All this here, it’s surrounded on every edge by towns and villages. But in the middle of the mountains are places that men have never penetrated. Witches have no interest in that. They like to live on the fringes, taking from both man and beast; but you wouldn’t find one in either a city or a lonely forest.”
I turned my head to stare across the river, where the sun was rising and illuminating the field of wildflowers. Beyond them the trees of Mother Forest’s territory looked dark and impenetrable.
“It seems strange,” I said, “that there are so many different people, and yet they are all human, and that all of them together have still not been to every part of the world.”
“Well, as a point of fact, humans are not the only creatures out there,” said Pascha, and he crossed his arms behind his head and leaned back into the grass. “And now, if you please, no more philosophy. I’ve been struck by lightning today and I would like to have a nap.”
“Then good morning,” I said, watching him close his eyes. I would have liked to sleep as well, but I could not. It looked like I would be waiting out the sunlight in silence yet again.
Not true, came a murmur. I’m still here. You’re not alone.
It sent a little thrill to my heart, that tiny voice. She was right. I was not alone anymore.
So much reading to catch up on…
“Perhaps she might have spoken to be” me