Monsters do not knock.
“Wake up! A monster is coming!”
Something tickled my nose. In my near-sleep, I furrowed my brow. I had just sat down on a wobbly chair, and leaned into a sunbeam from the window for a moment- just a moment- could I not rest a bit?
“Hsst! Wake up!”
A small hand grabbed my own, and abruptly I was alert, blinking away the blurriness from my vision and staring directly down a long, ratty nose into a pair of shiny black eyes.
The Blajini jumped back, releasing my hand, and squeaked, “Where is the vampire?”
I gripped the edge of the chair to steady myself, staring at the little rat-headed child, with her withered hands and her stump of a tail. This had not at all been what I had expected to wake up to. Gabi had gone out to “find something to block the drafts in this nasty place,” after I had breakfasted on some hazelnuts and nettles she had managed to scrounge up, and I was supposed to be making sure the fire did not go out. How long had I been dozing? I glanced out the window, and saw the sun still shining over the light dusting of snow that had fallen overnight.
“Where did you come from?” I asked the Blajini, rising unsteadily from my chair. She squeaked and took a few quick steps backwards.
“From the pantry!”
“The pantry, the pantry!” The Blajini was starting to quiver all over, her nose twitching, her yellow incisors showing in a grimace. “Where is the vampire?”
“Vampire- oh, she is not here. You do not need to be frightened.” I tried to smile kindly at her, but she did not seem reassured. Rather, she stamped her little feet and tugged on her round ears.
“She’s gone! Where did she go?! There’s a monster coming through the woods!”
“What are you talking about? What monster?” I tried to reach out to her, but she ground her teeth together and scrambled up onto the table where we’d had our breakfast, sending tin dishes clattering to the floor.
“A monster, a big, wicked shadow, coming down from the high hill with the face on it! It’s going to eat us! Why is the vampire gone when you need her!”
She seemed to be working herself in quite a state, kicking away utensils and seizing on the teakettle that Gabi had tried (and failed) to brew nettle tea with. Quickly I lurched over and snatched it from her hand before she could throw it.
“No!” She struck out at me, a harmless slap that I barely felt, and scrambled off the table with a thump that shook dust from the rafters. I put the kettle down and tried to lunge at her, but she evaded my one-armed grasp easily and dove under the big quilt Gabi and I had been sleeping under in front of the hearth. Like a mole, I saw the big lump of her burrowing about.
For some reason, having her ferreting about where we slept was rather irksome to me, and I pressed my lips together and sat down on one edge of the quilt, trapping her in a fold.
“You stay there a moment and calm down!” I scolded, as she began to thrash and squeak, her sharp-nailed fingers pricking out through the weave. “Or else I will… Or else when Gabi comes back I will have her eat you up!”
This stilled her at once, and I breathed a sigh of relief, though I also felt a bit guilty about using poor Gabi as a threat.
“The vampire is coming back?” I could hear the Blajini’s harsh breathing from beneath the quilt, and the lump quivered a bit.
“Yes,” I said, now feeling even more guilty, “but I was not telling the truth, she will not hurt you-”
“How soon? How soon? She can stop the monster!”
I hesitated a moment, glancing at the window again, but nothing but undisturbed snow caught my eye.
“Tell me about this monster. Did you see it?”
A long pause, and the lump went very still. I gave it a gentle prod.
“No-o-o, somebody told me.”
“Who told you?”
She squirmed, and I gave her another poke. Words suddenly spilled out of her in a rush.
“Up on the roof this morning, I was, an’ speaking to squirrels, an’ then a crow without eyes swooped down and told me that a monster was coming down the hill to eat all the little rats and mice like me!”
Her voice quavered by the end, as though she were going to sob, and at once I felt awful. I slid off the edge of the blanket and placed my hand gently on the lump.
“Please, do not be afraid. I will not let any wicked creatures into this house. You can stay here. We will keep you safe.”
She did not answer, though I heard her sniffling, and gradually I felt movement under my hand until the tip of her twitching nose protruded from beneath the blanket.
“You… you only got one arm…”
“Yes, that is true,” I said, “but even so I can still make sure the door stays shut.”
She crept forward even more, so that the blanket fell back and revealed one of her button-black eyes, and one ear.
“Are you a human? Not a spectre?”
I did not want to say that I was not sure myself. “Well… something like that, yes.”
She emerged further, sniffing near my hand in a timid way, like a dog.
“You smell like a human… Like you got real blood…”
Suddenly her nose twitched up, and she bared her yellow teeth at me.
“If you give me some o’ your blood, I can run away from here!”
I snatched my hand away, and she made a chittering sound, hunching her back.
I lurched to my feet, and my eyes fell on the fire poker lying on the hearth, but before either of us could make a move, there was a loud pounding on the door.
With a squeal, the Blajini dove back underneath the blanket. I tried to turn around too quickly and fell against the wall, with no left arm to hold me up.
“It’s the monster!” came a muffled voice behind me.
“I do not think that a monster would knock,” I said, though in truth I was not totally sure. There were all kinds of monsters. In any case, I picked up the poker.
The banging continued, insistent, as I inched my way over to the door. It was rattling on its hinges from the force of it. Somebody rattled the doorknob, and I heard a muffled, feminine voice from the other side. With the poker in my hand, I could not reach out to turn the knob- in any case, in the next second, the door burst open with a bang and a blast of cold air.
The sun was bright, and I had to squint, but what I saw before me were two figures: one quite tall and thin, one huge and thick. The thin one said, in a familiar voice, “Finally, there you are!”
I dropped the poker with a clatter, a smile stretching my cheeks.
“Yes, I-” She stopped speaking quite abruptly when I flung my arm around her in a clumsy embrace. I could not help it, I was quite glad to see her! How many days had it been since we had last parted ways- two, or three? Gabi had suggested that we might never see her again, if she had gone off to live a vampire’s life without us, which had saddened me greatly…
She was quite stiff in my grasp, at first, but gradually she softened and put a gentle arm around my shoulders.
“I’m glad we found you,” she said, in her soft, sweet voice. “We’ve been going from house to house for ages and ages- there are many other villages that have been eaten up by this forest, did you know that? We thought we’d never find you again.”
I withdrew from her, unable to quell a little shiver- her bare skin felt like ice. She had picked up a dress for herself from somewhere, but it was a white, fragile-looking garment, not suiting the winter weather at all. It hung on her thin frame like a shroud, and with the dark circles beneath her eyes and her bloodless complexion, she had never looked more like something undead.
She had a certain look in her eyes, too, a kind of grimness that I had not seen there before, and it made me feel uneasy. Behind her, of course, lurked Taavi, his broad shoulders and head frosted white with snow. A familiar knot tightened in my stomach at the sight of him.
“You two seem to have done well for yourselves here,” Vasilisa said, peering at the room behind me- the fire, the blankets, the table with the dishes scattered on the floor around it. “Where is she, by the way?”
“Gabi has gone out, but she should be back soon,” I said. “Have you really been searching for us all this time? I am sorry. We should have searched for you, too…”
Vasilisa shook her head. “That would have made it even easier for us to miss one another. Don’t worry about it. You look cold- shall we come in?”
“Oh! Of course,” I said, stepping back. Vasilisa crossed the threshold, stooping to pick up the fallen poker, which she examined with a little smile. Taavi ducked in after her, making the floorboards creak with his weight. Snow fell off his shoulders and started melting on the flagstones.
“Let’s go by the fire,” said Vasilisa, her cold fingers brushing my arm, and nodded at Taavi. He shuffled around to shut the door.
We came and arranged ourselves by the hearth. I noticed that the little lump that had been under the blankets had vanished; I supposed it had made itself scarce. I leaned into the warmth gladly, shutting my eyes a moment. Vasilisa came to sit on the bricks beside me, lifting the kettle from where I had set it to peer dubiously at its contents. Taavi simply loomed near the wall, his head thrust forward slightly so that he would not hit it on the ceiling.
Vasilisa put the lid back on the kettle and shook her head. “I thought you might have left the forest by now- the two of you. I’m surprised you’re still here.”
“It is my fault,” I said, gesturing to my left side. “I am very clumsy like this, and I feel the cold very much, and now we have found out that I get hungry, too. Gabi has been forced to take care of me.”
I sighed. It would be wrong to say that I did not enjoy it- having Gabi fuss over me and coddle me. But beneath all of it was more guilt, because she was giving me everything, and I could not give her anything back. Without me to hold her back I was sure she would have left by now and been far away.
“Taking care of you? She is?” Vasilisa made a face. “Well, I suppose you aren’t dead yet… But do the two of you plan to spend the whole winter here? It’s only going to get colder.”
“I do not know,” I admitted. We had never discussed it. “That would be a long time, would it not? I have never been through a winter.”
“What? How old are- no, nevermind.” She shook her head. “I can tell you that Taavi and I have traipsed through the woods all around here, and it isn’t more than a day’s walk to leave. But once you do leave, there’s quite a ways yet to the nearest town, if you want a warm place to rest and food to eat. And even then I can’t imagine what people might make of the two of you, in all honestly. Two women travelling together in the dead of winter with three arms between them- they might mistake you for witches!”
This made me smile a little, but Vasilisa was frowning.
“It isn’t funny- they might kill you.”
“I know that,” I said. Vasilisa did not realize how well I knew it. “I do not think Gabi and I should go where there are people. Especially Gabi.”
“Yes, I can’t imagine her going anywhere without stirring up trouble.” Vasilisa hesitated a moment, looking down at the ground. “Does she still- you said that you have been eating, but has she eaten anything?”
I thought for a moment, then shook my head. “No, I have not seen her eat.” I had not even seen her drink, for that matter.
“Hm…” Vasilisa was still looking down. Her eyes had gone hollow. “There are… some people, a caravan, travelling along the border of the forest. Taavi and I found them two days ago. You might tell her that… If you think it would help her.”
This confused me at first, because we had just been speaking of keeping away from people. But then I understood.
“I do not think Gabi needs to drink blood anymore.”
“Perhaps she’s hiding it from you,” said Vasilisa, without looking up. “Perhaps she simply doesn’t want you to think badly of her…”
“No, that is not how she is,” I said, and now she did meet my eyes. “She has never hidden parts of herself from me because I might not like them.”
Vasilisa drew her brows together, and said, “I see.”
She fiddled with the teapot for a moment, turning the lid between her fingertips, and I wondered if I should ask the question I was thinking, or not. I suspected that I already knew the answer, from how grim she looked.
Instead I asked, “While you were searching for us, did you see anything else?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, anything dangerous, any spectres or spirits.”
Vasilisa shook her head. “We’ve seen nothing worse than a bear or two lumbering around. In truth, it’s almost been oddly quiet. I’ve gotten so used to queer things jumping out of the dark at me that I feel like we’re just waiting for the next one to appear.” She flashed me a quick smile. “But then, I suppose I am one of those queer things now.”
“You could still be hurt. I am glad Taavi is there to help you.”
“Yes, you’re right. He has been very patient, I’m lucky to-”
She was interrupted by a loud bang as the door behind us burst open. Gabi, nearly unrecognizable bound up in her salvaged boots, cloak, and scarf, leapt over the threshold, her blue eyes wide, and then visibly relaxed.
“Oh, it’s just you lot! God’s sake, all the trampling out here looks like an army passed by!”
“Hello,” said Vasilisa, with a sniff, as Gabi slammed the door behind herself and immediately began shedding her winter clothes, dropping them carelessly on the flagstones.
“Good news, I’ve dug up a storeroom and found some old fall apples, Kezia,” she said, voice somewhat muffled as she squirmed her way out of the tight-wrapped scarf. “And some flour. You can make all kinds of things with flour-”
“Hello,” said Vasilisa, more pointedly. Gabi scoffed.
“Hello, what! You took your time getting here, didn’t you? And the golem is dripping all over the floor.”
Indeed, the snow melting off of Taavi’s head and shoulders was leaving some rather muddy puddles on the floorboards around his big feet. He lifted one to inspect it, as though he had just noticed this himself.
“It isn’t his fault! And anyway, it’s not as if you’ve kept a spotless house,” said Vasilisa, gesturing at the dishes on the floor; Gabi saw them and frowned.
“Gabi,” I broke in, “they have been searching for us this whole time, and they walked all around the forest.”
Gabi kicked off her remaining boot, which landed with a satisfying thud in front of the door, and then strode over to sit on the hearth beside me, leaning close. I leaned back against her; her skin was chilled.
“Well, they ought to have known just where we were, because we showed them,” she groused, putting a cool hand against my forehead in a too-casual way. I pushed it back, and murmured, “I am fine. No fever.”
“I’ll decide that,” she muttered back, and then, more loudly, “So? I presume you got lost after you fell asleep and became a wretched black shadow, intent on murdering anything in sight. Have you killed anyone yet?”
I winced. Vasilisa’s mouth went tight.
“It looks as though you have,” said Gabi.
“How would you know!” burst out Vasilisa. “This isn’t some joke-”
“You’ve had blood, my dear, because if you hadn’t, you wouldn’t have come here after three days looking so pert and lively,” said Gabi, her eyes going thin. She was going all tight and cold, after spending all the time with me so warm and kindly. I wished she did not get like this around Vasilisa, but she always did.
“So- well-” Vasilisa twisted her hands together. “What about you? What have you been eating?”
“Not a damned thing,” said Gabi. “I haven’t got hungry yet.” Her mouth twisted a little. “When, or if I do, I’ll be as interested as the rest of you to see what it is I crave.”
Vasilisa clicked her tongue and made a kind of hissing sound. “Why is it that you have gotten away with everything scot-free?”
At this Gabi laughed, a surprised and loud guffaw.
“In comparison to you, you mean?” she asked, baring her teeth. “Poor thing, you only ever tried to be a good girl and you still got punished with bloodlust!”
Vasilisa opened her mouth, but I cut in before she could speak, tugging away from Gabi to stand up.
“That is enough! Both of you, be quiet now. I am tired of listening to you fight.”
Vasilisa shut her mouth, and turned her face away, the tips of her ears glowing red. Gabi scowled and hunched her back.
“She would rather I still be murdering people to survive, just so that she won’t feel inferior!”
“I said to be quiet,” I warned, and she hunched up further, retreating into her shell like an old snapping turtle. “There are more important things for us all to speak about right now. If the two of you still want to be cruel to each other after that, you can do it without me being there.”
Vasilisa, who had been glaring at Gabi ever since her last comment, took in a rather shaky breath and looked back at me.
“I- I suppose you’re right. No need to be childish. Anyway, Taavi and I will leave soon.”
“Leave?” I sat back down, though this time without touching Gabi. “Why?”
“To be well away from here before sundown, of course,” said Vasilisa. “I can tell you the quickest way to get out of these woods- isn’t that what you wanted?”
This she directed towards Gabi, her tone still rather sharp.
“That depends,” said Gabi, in a monotone. “Will we be able to find a snug little cabin out there, with a fire in the hearth and pantries to plunder?”
“Don’t tell me you’re really thinking of staying here!”
“Don’t tell me you’ve got any better ideas! D’you want me to take Kezia out there in the dead of winter? Of course I hate this blasted forest, but the devils seem to have left it, and I don’t want Kezia’s other arm to fall off from frostbite. And,” her voice dropped a little lower here, “at least there’s nobody to stop us from leaving if we did try. All that traps us now are the elements.”
“You’ve gotten comfortable here very quickly,” said Vasilisa, and Gabi spread her hands and shrugged.
“Huddling beside the fire each night with my dear Kezia- what’s uncomfortable about it?”
For some reason this made Vasilisa blush, and she passed a sort of look across to Gabi, and a moment later Gabi’s face grew darker as well.
“Whatever you’re thinking, you’d better stop it,” she warned, and gave me a little sidelong glance.
“I don’t know what you mean,” muttered Vasilisa, but I thought that she probably did, which meant that I was the only one who had no idea what they were going on about. “But- you should know- if you really would like to leave. There’s a caravan travelling on the eastern edge of the wood.”
“Oh?” Gabi drawled, still seeming a bit distracted. She gave me another swift glance. “I’ll bet they intended to stop at this village; they must be terribly confused right now.”
“I suppose. But since they’re, well, your sort of people, perhaps they might let the two of you stay with them…?”
I think it was here that Vasilisa realized she had said something wrong, from the positively withering look that Gabi was giving her. I tensed up, preparing to stop another nasty fight, but all that Gabi said was, “They wouldn’t.”
“Oh,” said Vasilisa, rather meekly. “I, I see. It was only a thought.”
Gabi bore down on her with her eyes a moment longer, then turned to poke at the fire. “I suppose that it was one of these travellers that you made a meal out of, then?”
Vasilisa pressed her lips together, but answered quietly, “I didn’t know… until I woke up.”
Gabi nodded, jabbing at a log with the poker so that sparks flew up. “If it’s a small group, best not to feed from the same place twice.”
“I don’t intend to,” said Vasilisa, and she wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “If I stay in the moonlight… Kazimir will help me get my mind back. It was cloudy, the first night, but I tested it last night, and he spoke to me, and I was able to- to mostly control myself.”
“That’s good for you,” said Gabi, setting aside the poker- she had done more damage to the arrangement of the firewood than help, and the fire looked as though it was going to collapse into embers very soon. “But it might be better that you stay away from moonlight on the nights you have to feed.”
“No, I- I think it would be better!” said Vasilisa, and when Gabi and I both looked at her, she swallowed. “I mean… I know now that- that I don’t think I can avoid it. But if I have some control, I might…”
“What? Choose the better one to kill?” Gabi’s tone was dry. “Don’t bother with that, it’s a trap. We are none of us God’s arbiters. If you can’t stomach it, better to revel in your mindlessness.”
“No,” said Vasilisa, quietly, but firmly. “I think it would be better if I was aware. At least I could stop myself from- from doing any more harm than I have to.”
Gabi leaned back, raising her eyes to the ceiling, her expression inscrutable. “Suit yourself. Of course I’d rather you didn’t eat Kezia.”
“I won’t! I’ll do everything I can to keep her safe!”
“I appreciate it,” I said, with a nod in her direction, and she managed a little smile. Gabi, still staring up at the ceiling, was frowning a little.
“That reminds me,” said Vasilisa, looking eager to change the subject. “Kezia, I think that Taavi wanted to see you. Or give you something, possibly. I’m not quite sure.”
“Taavi…?” I looked at the golem, still looming against the wall, a little flutter of trepidation in my gut. “How do you know?”
“Ah… I sort of pieced it together. He’s been very intent on searching each house. And so I asked him if he wanted to see you, and he nodded. He must want to talk to you, the way he did before.”
I put one hand on my navel, self-consciously. “I am not sure that I can do that again.”
Vasilisa tilted her head. “Why not?”
The floorboards creaked as Taavi shifted his weight, and began to step closer to us. His peglike feet, wet from the melted snow, squelched with each step. I could not help but lean away as he stopped before the three of us where we sat on the hearth.
“Kezia doesn’t have to do the thing with him if she doesn’t want to,” said Gabi, eyeing him, and shifting a little closer to me. I was glad that she seemed to have forgiven me for scolding her earlier.
“But why?” Vasilisa rubbed her chin. “It’s the only way any of us can really speak to him, isn’t it? And you have something you want to say, don’t you, Taavi?”
Slowly, the golem inclined his big head.
My hand was still covering my navel. If I let him touch it, he would see everything that I had done to our creator. And I did not know what he would do.
Taavi loomed, his head half in shadow, his hollow eyes fixed on mine. The dying fire popped and spat behind us, as the cold began creeping into the room. I saw Vasilisa bite her lip.
Slowly, the golem reached out towards me, his fingerless hand opening palm-up. I flinched away. He hesitated, and then touched his own left shoulder.
It was a little gesture, but it made something in my stomach uncoil. I was so afraid, but, I was being selfish, was I not? Taavi was not a child. He should know.
I took my hand from my navel and touched my stump, mirroring his action.
Taavi nodded, a slow, ponderous motion. Then he gripped his left arm and ripped it from his shoulder in one smooth motion.
“Taavi!” shrieked Vasilisa, bursting to her feet. Gabi jumped up too, gripping my right shoulder, shifting to be in front of me. I was too stunned to even move.
Taavi looked down at his arm, which was slowly slumping and deforming in his grasp, then back at me. He held it out towards me like an offering.
“Taavi, your arm! Why did you do that?” cried Vasilisa, running to his side, agog at the big hole at his shoulder. It was wide enough for her to put her head inside.
“It hasn’t hurt him, he’s a golem,” said Gabi, her tight grip on my shoulder beginning to ease. I managed to stand, and she glanced at me. “But why’s he done that?”
I gently pushed her hand away, and addressed Taavi.
“Do you… want to give your arm to me?”
He nodded, brandishing his own arm.
“I… thank you, but you must know it does not work like that. I am not a golem anymore.”
A moment of contemplation, and then he nodded again.
“Taavi… I do not understand.”
The big golem squatted down to gently set his arm on the floor, where it lay between us, nearly the size of Gabi if she were lying down. Then he reached out, his motion almost tentative, and pushed his fingers against the hem of my shirt.
Gabi went tense again beside me. I said, “It is all right,” to her, and to him, and possibly to myself as well. Taavi lifted my shirt with delicacy that did not suit his hulking visage, and gently pressed his hand against my navel.