Is it really a sacrifice?
The fire was starting to burn low. There were only a few thin logs and twigs left beside the hearth, and Gabi had left to get more firewood. She was taking a little while, but I suspected she was having a moment with her own thoughts, as I was.
I picked up one of the thin sticks with my flesh hand, feeling the dry bark crumble beneath my fingers. The dead wood was covered in powder-blue lichens, bits of moss, scarred with termite tunnels. The coarse feel of it still sent a small shock and a thrill through my fingertips. The texture. The way I could crunch the bark between my fingers. The feeling of it catching beneath my nails.
I passed the stick over to my new clay hand, and felt nothing at all.
Was this really how it used to feel? This… nothing? I looked at the thick, clumsy fingers Gabi and I had sculpted out of it, with none of the delicate details of flesh- no nails, no wrinkles on the knuckles, no fine little hairs.
The stick snapped, and I jumped. Apparently I had been squeezing it too hard. I opened my clay hand and saw that I had smashed the center of it to splinters.
I threw the broken halves of the stick onto the fire and then, boldly, put my clay hand into the flames. Of course I felt no pain, though my cheeks were growing hot from my close proximity to the flame. The bits of splintered wood stuck in my palm caught on fire and turned to ash, as I turned my hand this way and that, admiring the way the flames split around it. So, this was what I was now.
I drew my arm back with a sigh, shedding bits of dried clay as I flexed it. It was really not such a bad thing at all, this arm. In fact, it could do things that my flesh one never could. And it had been a gift from Taavi, the little brother of my heart. But why did I feel so… odd about it? I started to mesh my flesh fingers with my clay ones, then flinched back- they were still burning hot. I felt chastened. I would have to be careful with this arm, since I could not feel anything with it. What if I had tried to touch Gabi with it still hot? I would have hurt her…
I swallowed, pressing my lips tight together. Maybe I should not have accepted Taavi’s gift after all. There was a churning in my gut… I think it was… It was the feeling that I had gone back. Was there a word for it? Regressed. A sudden vision of the clay creeping over my body came to my mind, numbing and blinding me to any sensation, and my whole body shuddered. Of course that would not happen! But looking at my new clay arm, which was just like my old clay arm- it was like a reminder that I had once been a facsimile of a person. Was I still?
I put my flesh hand to my forehead, brushing back my hair. That was not a good line of thought. My experiences with Adamina had at least taught me that much. It would take me in circles, like a dog chasing its tail. The arm was just an arm.
But then I could not help but think- would Gabi still want to kiss me with such a noxious reminder hanging off of me? That I had once been a dull-faced, featureless golem? Was that why we had not done anything but kiss? Now I put both hands, clay and flesh, up against my face, feeling it burning. And not from the fire. I had not thought about it before, but was I abhorrent to her? The other Kezia’s memories of love were all tangled up in the senses- skin, touch, taste, lips, soft, wet, breath… I dug my fingers into the still-warm clay of my arm. What did Gabi see, truly, when she looked at me?
The dying fire popped and hissed, settling into glowing embers. Slowly I released my hand, leaving a five-fingered print around my clay wrist, and threw another stick onto the fire. The flame leapt up greedily to devour the dry wood, blackening the lichen on the bark with a fizzing noise. The fire twisted, and smoke blew into my face, making me cough. There was a hissing sound, almost like whispered laughter.
I rubbed my eyes. The flames were growing higher, and turning blue-green. My head felt dizzy, and I dragged myself back, over to the quilt Gabi and I slept under on the floor. The flames rippled and came together near the top, very nearly in the shape of a human figure, I thought, feeling my heart beat quicker- there was that soft, malicious laughter again. And in the whine of burning wood, I thought I could hear snatches of song:
Down he comes from the mountain face
Things are not in their proper place…
I jolted upright, staring at the writhing flame, which now looked very much like a girl, dancing. It reached out with a lick of flame to beckon coquettishly at me.
No safe haven in the woods, little thing!
The room suddenly filled with smoke and loud laughter, and a gust of wind whipped across the fire, scattering the ashes out onto the hearth, so that they glowed hot red for a moment and then went dark. The fire was out. Cold and silence seeped into the room like rising water.
I stumbled towards the door, the cold flagstones in the foyer like a shock to my bare feet, and threw it open.
The winter air hit me like something physical, and I gasped as it chased the last bit of warmth out of the house. The blanket of white was blinding me; my eyes were so dazzled I had to shield them. The cold got into my mouth and seemed to freeze my tongue, so I could only stand there mutely, shuddering.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
The voice was close in my ear, furious and familiar, then warm arms were tight around my shoulders, dragging me back through the door.
“Do you want to die? Or do you plan on killing me? I told you that if you want to go out, you must wear a goddamned coat!”
Gabi pushed me back over the flagstones, away from the door, and tried to slam it shut. There was a splintering noise. I realized that my clay fingers were still tight around the doorframe, and let go hastily. Gabi tsked– there was a sizeable dent left behind where I had crushed the wood.
I shivered and cringed, but she did not complain about it, only shut the door and pulled off her scarf to plug the gaps with. Then she pulled off her coat and threw it on me.
“Put that on! Did the fire go out?”
I slipped the coat over my flesh arm and wrapped it around my other shoulder; my clay arm was too big. Gabi pulled off her boots and hustled me back over to the hearth, rubbing my sides and shivering herself.
“Ah! It’s gone out, all right…”
“Gabi,” I managed to say, through my numb lips. “Something was in, in the fire…”
“Damn, I left the firewood outside,” she said, at the same time, then looked at me oddly.
“What did you say-?”
Just then, the roof above us creaked loudly, and dust rained down from the rafters. We both looked up into the darkened eaves.
Gabi did not sound like she believed her own words. I found my voice again.
“In the fire- before it went out- I saw something.”
Gabi looked at me, and pressed her lips together, then went over and knocked on the window.
“A little sunlight, if you please!”
Much to my surprise, a shaft of light abruptly beamed through the glass, lighting up the room and casting a spotlight onto the floorboards.
“Useful, for once.” Gabi took my flesh hand and drew me into the light, and I exhaled slowly as the slight warmth fell over me. My breath condensed in front of my face like a cloud.
“I was just speaking with him, outside,” Gabi said. Her mouth was tight. “It seems we may have a bit of a problem on our hands… But my dear, you must wait right here a moment while I fetch the firewood. We must get this place warm again.”
“No, listen,” I insisted, grabbing her arm. “I have been trying to tell you- in the fire, before it went out, I think that I saw an Iele.”
“What?!” she exclaimed, and then, with a wince, “Ah- let go!”
“I am sorry!” I exclaimed, releasing her arm. I had grabbed it with my clay hand by accident.
“It’s all right,” she said, rubbing the spot, and I clenched my clay fingers and put them behind my back. “You say you saw an Iele- in the house? They shouldn’t be able to get indoors.”
“In the fire,” I said. “The wood- I think that she was in the wood that was burning.”
“Ah,” said Gabi, her face going quite pale. “That… is not good.”
“And she was singing,” I added.
“They always are, aren’t they…”
“She said something about the mountain,” I continued, furrowing my brow. The words had been difficult to understand through the whines and pops of the fire. “Down from the mountain face… Something about things not being in the right place.”
Gabi swallowed, looked over at the ashes scattered on the hearth. “It seems something is coming. I don’t know what, though.”
The roof chose this moment to creak again, ominously, and this time I heard a rough scraping sound from above us. Bits of melting snow and drops of water started rolling down the outside of the window.
“That dratted little Blajini!” exclaimed Gabi, glaring upwards. “I’m going to have a word with her about scuttling all over our roof!”
“Gabi, it seems too loud to be a-”
I cut myself off with an involuntary shout. Something dark and huge had just filled the window, the shape distorted by the watery glass. In another moment steam had obscured the view.
“What- what!” exclaimed Gabi, who had not seen it yet; she was still staring upwards as the scraping sounds got louder, and suddenly there was a loud bang from the door.
Gabi grabbed my arm, pulling me close, her lips drawing tight. Another thump came from the window, as the dark shape pressed closer; I saw what looked like long white teeth as a spiderweb of cracks spread across the glass. Another impact made the door groan on its hinges, and Gabi’s scarf fell to the floor from where she’d stuffed it into the gap. I felt numb from more than the cold now, and put my clay arm in front of the two of us like a shield. I could feel Gabi’s heartbeat hammering away against my side, in tandem with my own.
With a splintering noise, our front door gave in, sliding open half-tilted off of its hinges, and snaking in came the long, reptilian snout of a dragon.
“SO THERE YOU ARE!” it boomed, making the windows rattle; we both flinched as its hot, sulfuric breath washed over us. “I’VE BEEN LOOKING FOR YOU!”
The window thumped; I turned to see that the dark figure was indeed another dragon head, its eager muzzle making smears where it pressed it up against the glass. Gabi seemed to recover her composure all at once.
“What do you want with us, you damned beast?!”
The head retreated slightly, in a way I thought might have been slightly taken aback; another puff of hot breath washed over us as it huffed. (It felt, I had to admit, rather nice, given the cold.) I caught a glimpse of a third head briefly peeping in from the side of the doorway.
“I was told to seek you out,” it said, rather petulantly.
“By my mistress, Muma Balaur, of course!” The dragon raised its head and banged its neck against the doorway without seeming to notice. “She has a message for the ones who defeated Baba Yaga!”
“Heh? What sort of message?” Gabi’s eyes went thin. “A good or bad-”
“Wait!” I exclaimed, interrupting her. “If that is who you are looking for, you have found the wrong people! Vasilisa was the one who defeated her.”
Gabi gave me a look, then pursed her lips.
“Technically, that is correct.”
The dragon reared back its head, contorting its neck oddly, the insides of its nostrils glowing like embers.
“I don’t know who that is, and I don’t care! Muma Balaur said to find you, and I’ve found you, and I will give you the message so that I may be free!”
This was punctuated by a loud thump from over our heads. Quite abruptly I realized that the dragon’s head was at such an odd angle because the rest of its body was sitting on our roof.
“All right, all right, stop dribbling,” said Gabi, wincing as a few bright sparks drifted out of the dragon’s open mouth.
“Paugh!” said the dragon, and turned its head to spit something molten out onto the snow. Steam hissed up and coated the scales of its neck with fine droplets.
“And congratulations on being freed,” I put in, a bit nervously; I was not sure I had heard right.
“Oh, so the witch did free you? What an old fool,” said Gabi. “Lord knows the next thing we need is a wild dragon-”
“NOT YET!” boomed the dragon, its throat swelling. “I must GIVE YOU THE MESSAGE first!”
I flinched at the noise and the sudden heat, but Gabi seemed equal to it, slinging an elbow over one of my shoulders.
“Is it going to be a terribly long message? Because our fire’s gone out, and we’re getting cold. Why don’t you be a dear and fetch us some firewood while you’re out there?”
“Gabi,” I whispered, half afraid and half in awe. The dragon made a very unpleasant gurgling noise, nostrils flaring, but then, to my surprise, another one of its heads muscled its way through the doorway with a scratchy mouthful of logs and kindling. It spat them out onto the floor.
“It’s been servile so long, it can’t help it,” Gabi muttered smugly in my ear, and then bent to gather the wood in her arms.
“Thank you,” I told the dragon, since it did not look like she was going to say it.
The first head made a kind of snuffling noise, and then snaked closer to me. I saw its pupil widening as it cocked its head to one side.
“Who, or what, are you?”
“Ah,” I said; it was a question I was not sure how to answer myself. “I am-”
“Your voice,” it growled. “I remember it! In the cave- but it came from some sort of clay abomination!”
“Hey,” said Gabi, from where she was dumping the logs into the fireplace.
“Ah, yes, w-well,” I stammered, as the head drew even closer, nearly peering at me eye to eye, “that was me, yes, but I have changed.”
The dragon gave a smoky snort, looked me up and down, and then exchanged a conspiratorial glance with its other head.
“I don’t believe you would be so resistant to my fire now… Shall we test it?”
“I’ll hang up all your heads in a row above our mantle if you try it,” said Gabi, who was suddenly beside me again.
The dragon made another gurgling sound, but I think that this one was amused.
“An empty threat! You’re even weaker than last we met!”
“I’ll sell you back into service with the witch-”
“I’ll reduce you to ash first!”
“How about,” I said, cutting in, “instead of that, you give us the message so that you can go free?”
The dragon exchanged another look between its heads, then the first roughly butted the second back out of the doorway.
“Stand aside, you,” it rumbled, jerking its nose at us, and we shuffled to the left a bit, Gabi frowning something fierce. The dragon swelled up its throat again and spat, this time into the house, a gob of something steaming arcing past us to land neatly in the hearth. Flames burst up from the kindling immediately.
“Ooh,” said Gabi, raising her eyebrows; the dragon turned back to glare at the both of us.
“Now,” it said, “THE MESSAGE.”
I saw Gabi purse her lips again, but thankfully she did not say anything else.
“My mistress,” said the dragon, then corrected itself. “My soon-not-to-be mistress wishes me to inform you that you have impressed her, what with puncturing Baba Yaga and driving the nameless evil that haunted these forests far away. She wishes to inform you, though, that this has left an EMPTY SPACE.”
Those last two words it boomed out, making both of us wince again.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Gabi, rubbing her palm against her left ear. “Anyway, what’s it to do with the two of us if something’s empty?”
“YOU EMPTIED IT!” bellowed the dragon, then grunted and seemed to gather itself for a moment. “Muma Balaur has her hands full with her own territory, and somebody’s got to take care of this one, else spirits like those wretched Iele will run amok.”
Behind us, the fire gave a particularly loud whine, and I cast a nervous glance back at it, but it seemed to be ordinary orange fire.
“Take care of it?” Gabi repeated, disbelief in her tone. “Take care of it?”
“Ah, but- but- what do you mean?” I added.
“This forest,” said the dragon, its voice dropping an ominous octave, “needs a witch.”
“Oh, no,” said Gabi, her own voice rising with sudden anger. “If you mean to say what I think you do- and I hope you don’t- absolutely not!”
“Why,” I said, my throat suddenly feeling tight and close, “why does it need someone to take care of it, though? The wild wood had no witch before Baba Yaga came-”
“This place is no wild wood!” snapped the dragon. “Too many humans have perished here. This place reeks of RESENTMENT! If nobody is here to manage it, another abomination like that giant tree will surely sprout!”
Its words seemed to push out all other sound in the room, and both Gabi and I were struck dumb. I thought of the column of ghosts we had watched walk into the forest. The Blajini. Kezia’s village. Dead, but not gone.
“It isn’t our fault,” Gabi hissed. She was gripping my shoulder very tightly. “It isn’t our problem.”
The dragon gave a loud snort.
“Consider the message delivered,” it said. “I am freed from Muma Balaur now, and I plan to fly far from this place, as far as I can get. Back to the sea!”
Slowly it began to retract its long neck back through the doorway. I heard a noisy scrabbling sound from the roof above us, and in a great shower of snow the bulk of the dragon’s heavy body landed on the ground with a thud that rattled the furniture. It looped one head around to lick a wet forepaw, like a cat.
“I shan’t tell you what to do,” said another head, nose in the threshold. “It’s none of it my business either! My pressing need is to go kidnap a noblewoman and have her feed me jewels one by one. But, if these woods stay witchless, I wouldn’t stay within several miles of them. They won’t stay quiet long.”
Its other heads weaved and bobbed up and down in a agreement, like a forest of ugly serpents. How many were there now- six? Seven? It was hard to count them through the narrow doorway when they kept moving around like that.
“Fine,” said Gabi. “I suppose that was to be expected, anyhow. You never can stay in any one place too long.”
“Have you really got to kidnap a noblewoman?” I asked. “That sounds unkind.”
The dragon ignored us. One of its outer heads had just swung around to nip at one near the middle, and the other heads were converging around them, hissing like steam. It looked as though it was having some sort of argument with itself.
“We’d better leave this place tomorrow,” Gabi muttered to me. “We’ve had a nice rest, but I’ve gotten too complacent here. We can gather some valuables and go try to catch up to that caravan Vasilisa spoke of…”
I looked at her. She had cast her eyes downwards, brow creased in thought, a level of tension back in her body that was very familiar to me.
“Do you know how to become a witch?”
At once her eyes snapped up at me, her fingers digging hard into my collarbone.
“No! And I don’t plan on finding out, and you’d better not either, Kezia!”
I made a face from the pain. “I did not say that I was… I was only curious.”
“Don’t even be that,” she said, her grip slowly loosening. “I won’t have us bound to this place any longer. We’ve got a chance to escape, Kezia, we must not squander it.”
Escape from what? Nothing was after us anymore, at least as far as I knew. But I did not voice this to Gabi, for her face was becoming very pinched and anxious. I had been at her side long enough to know that I needed to treat her delicately when she started feeling trapped.
But I did feel my own anxiety, and sorrow, at the possibility that we might be leaving behind another tragedy. And maybe it was that- maybe it was that I did feel a curious attachment to the Starving Forest, myself.
My attachment to Gabi was greater, though.
“FINE!” bellowed the dragon quite suddenly, all of its necks going stiff. It had trampled the ground in front of our house into a messy, muddy gulch during its internal struggle. “I’ll give it up! It’ll only get in my way anyway!”
“Pardon?” Gabi eyed the mess it had made with a distasteful expression. “I thought you were leaving.”
“I am,” said the dragon, lowering its central head in a sulky way. “But I have a gift for you before you go.”
“It better be a new door,” said Gabi.
“The window is also cracked,” I reminded her, and she thinned her eyes.
The dragon seemed not to hear us. One of its leftmost heads wormed its way through the doorway, and I saw that it had something brown in its mouth, caught in a cage of long, sharp teeth. In spite of myself I stepped forward, trying to get a better look at it; Gabi clutched at my shoulder but did not pull me back.
“I burned the great tree to cinders,” said the centermost head, a bit of smugness creeping into its tone, “and after I had finished that, I came upon the witch Baba Yaga’s house, and chased it down and burned that as well.”
It had such an evil look in its eye that I found myself feeling a bit sorry for the house.
“When it all had been reduced to ash, this was left amongst the coals.”
The head holding the object slowly opened its mouth. Gabi and I recoiled together. It was a very large, speckled egg, about the size of a teapot.
“No, thank you!” exclaimed Gabi. “No more of Baba Yaga’s eggs, please!”
I was inclined to agree, though I found myself asking, “What sort of egg is that?”
“It isn’t an ordinary egg,” said the dragon, which was not very helpful. “Take it. I won’t have the time to care for it myself, and it won’t be good for eating.”
“I shudder to think what might come out of it,” said Gabi. “We don’t want it!”
“Maybe it will hatch another hut?” I wondered. Baba Yaga’s house had walked on chicken feet.
“Take it,” the dragon insisted, around its mouthful, and poked its neck even further into the house, shuffling closer through the mud. Gabi and I had to spring apart to make way as its scaly nose passed between us.
“The witch was keeping it for herself,” said another head, red tongue flicking out to lick inside one of its nostrils.
The dragon’s shoulders bumped the doorframe as it dropped the egg onto the hearth, with a sound like clinking porcelain. All at once the snakelike neck withdrew, whipping past us as the dragon scrambled back, almost as though it were afraid.
I turned and looked back at the egg, which- to my alarm- was rolling slowly towards the fire. Gabi grabbed my arm when I moved to save it.
Helplessly I watched as the egg rolled the last few inches and over the divot into the inner hearth. The shell bumped into the grate holding the logs. A few flames licked close around the shell.
After a few very quiet moments, the dragon snorted.
“Never mind,” it said, sounding quite disappointed. “Perhaps it wasn’t at all what I thought!”
“What did you think it was?” I said, opening and closing my hands, unable to take my eyes off the poor egg.
“Whatever it was, it’s boiled now,” said Gabi. She seemed more relieved than sorry.
“Hmph!” The dragon shook melted slush from its back, seven necks swaying like trees in wind. “How regretful! But my business here is finished. May we never meet again.”
I had expected a response from Gabi to that, but she did not say anything. So I said, “It is good that you are freed. I hope that you live an enjoyable life now.”
The dragon looked at me with three of its heads, one of which puffed out a little bit of black smoke.
“‘Ware the beast that came down the mountain,” it said.
“What do you mean by that!” exclaimed Gabi. “You mean to say it wasn’t you?”
I looked at her in surprise; I did not know what she was talking about. Was there something she had not told me? But no- had the Iele not sung to me about something like that as well? Down he comes from the mountain’s face…
But the dragon had turned around, giving us the benefit of its stubby tail, which was still missing half of its scales. All seven heads tilted skyward, and it bellowed out a great booming note, and as Gabi ran towards the doorway she was pushed back by a great gale of wind that lifted the dragon skyward.
I caught her by the shoulders before she could fall, and flinched when a few drops of mud and water landed on my face. The dragon was gone.
I looked at the mess it had made of our front yard, a great muddy stain on the clean expanse of snow.
“I did not know that dragons flew like that.”
“Let go,” Gabi grunted, and I let go of her shoulders so she could stagger back to her feet, one hand pressed to her forehead.
“Gabi,” I said, rubbing my arms- for the loss of the dragon had suddenly left the room quite cold. “The beast- what did it mean?”
Gabi did not answer me. She seemed a bit dazed, blinking rapidly, and shook her head. I let her be for the moment and went to pick up what remained of our door, shivering. It would not fit back into the hinges, for the metal was twisted, but I managed to prop it somewhat snugly against the splintered frame.
“Stupid reptile,” Gabi muttered, taking her hand away from her head. “It’s all ruined now.”
“We can fix the door,” I said, but she scowled.
“I don’t mean the door. I had half a thought that we were- that we could- oh, drat it, we’ve got to get ready to leave. And don’t you touch that thing!”
She was pointing to the egg, which was still toasting alongside the fire.
“We never accepted it as a gift, and we shan’t take it with us! We have to get away from this horrible place. Pascha told me there was a black shadow coming our way, whatever that means. The stupid Blajini mentioned it too. But I won’t have us dragged into another horrible witch’s plot, Kezia, I won’t!”
Her eyes were very bright, and though she sounded very angry, I had the nervous feeling that she might be about to cry.
“We can leave,” I said, stepping slowly towards her, stopping when she stepped back. “It will be all right, Gabi.”
“I won’t be able to keep you warm enough.” Her voice cracked. “Damn it, you’ll freeze.”
She seemed brittle like ice- one tap would shatter her. I withdrew to the hearth and sat down.
“Please,” I said, “come and sit down for a moment. Come and sit beside me.”
She tensed, her hands balling up, and I thought she was going to hiss and spit at me. But then she let loose a long breath, and strode stiffly over to me.
“Sit down,” I reminded her. She sat. Very carefully, I put my flesh arm around her shoulders.
“We will decide what to do,” I said, trying to sound very confident and soothing. “We will do it together. No one is going to make us do-”
I hesitated. She was shivering against me.
“-anything we do not want to. Gabi, what is wrong?”
She made a strange sound, a sort of groan, and suddenly her teeth were against my neck.
Her name died in my mouth. She was biting down hard enough that tears pricked at the corners of my eyes, her fingernails making red crescents against the skin of my arm, and for a moment I felt sheer terror as she tongued my pulse.
The next moment she was on her feet, stumbling back over a chair, crying out.
My clay hand slapped against my neck. She had not broken my skin. Still, a shudder passed through me, a ripple of an old fear.
“I shouldn’t- I don’t!” Gabi seemed aghast, staring at me with wide eyes, covering her mouth with her hands. “I didn’t mean to do that!”
“Are- are you hungry?” I stammered. “Do you need to-”
“No!” She shook her head, her shoulders, vehement in denying it with her whole body. “I haven’t felt hungry since- I don’t know why I did that! I shouldn’t need it anymore, I’m not a strigoi!”
Her hands went down to her own throat as she said this.
“But,” I said, “but, Gabi, you have not eaten anything at all since you gave me your heart. Perhaps- perhaps you do need to.”
“I’m not hungry! You don’t understand, I would have felt it before this, and I haven’t!”
I got to my feet, a little unsteadily.
“You do not have to be upset- I do not mind if you take some of my-”
Her expression changed from fear to fury in an instant, and she snatched her heavy coat up from the floor.
“I’ve told you, Kezia, never! Never!”
“What are you doing?” I cried, as she turned her back on me, slinging on the coat. “Where are you going?”
“Don’t follow me!” She threw open the door in a whirl of wind and snow and plunged outside. I ran after her and slipped on the half-frozen mess of ice and mud the dragon had left on our threshold, barely catching myself on the doorframe. Gabi was already a grey lump in the distance, moving fast over the deep snow.
“Gabi!” I turned, my bare feet aching, to reach for her forgotten boots, and the doorframe crunched underneath my clay fingers, the wood giving way. The battered, broken door tilted crazily on its hinges and slammed against the back of my head.
The sky was covered over in dense grey cloud, not a single beam of sunlight piercing through. The cold wind sliced against my cheeks and wrapped around me through my open coat, raising gooseflesh on my skin. My breath clouded the air in front of me, and one of my hands was pressed hard against my chest. I could feel the beat of my heart. One heart.
I hadn’t even realized I was running until I finally slowed down, my bare feet numb against the snow they punched through. It had started snowing again, in thick clumps that caught in my hair and made my head feel heavy and frozen. The white stuff weighed down against my eyelashes, and I staggered, putting one hand against the trunk of a tree.
Tree. I snatched my hand back. A thin, pale sapling, almost as white as the virgin snow itself. Ahead of me there were more trees, taller ones, standing in stark and solemn lines, their naked branches slicing up the sky. I had run so far, I had left the village proper.
The Starving Forest looked different in the snow. When it was lush and verdant it had seemed like a sweet-smelling labyrinth, full of tantalizing secrets and unknown depths. But all of it was muted by the winter: now it was nothing but thin black shapes, with nowhere for anything to hide between them. I saw not so much as a rabbit’s footprint in the unmarked snow; it was as though everything that had been so vicious and vibrant about the forest had been smothered to death by the cold.
My teeth were chattering. Me, too. I had given my strigoi’s heart to Kezia. The hardness and fierceness I had once had- I gave it up, for her. That hunger for blood, that animal’s mind: I didn’t need it anymore.
So why had I tried to bite her?!
I stared up at the silent trees as though they might give me some answer. To my hazy, tear-splintered eyes they seemed like a crowd of tall judges in dark robes of bark.
“I’m not hungry anymore,” I told them, my voice pitifully small against the wind.
They loomed above me, wordless.
But I was telling the truth. I hadn’t had a lick of blood since giving Kezia my heart, and it had all been fine. I’d had no desire for so much as a sip from her. What had changed? What was different, in that moment, when I was sitting beside her- beneath her warm arm- what had changed?
I raised a hand and felt inside my mouth. My numb fingers touched ordinary flat teeth, not sharpened by bloodlust. When I searched for the feeling that had once allowed me to change into a wolf, as easy as breathing, I felt nothing. When I lifted my bare foot from the snow, I saw the skin so reddened that it was becoming purple.
“That’s unfair!” I shouted at the trees, stamping my unfeeling foot back down like a child. “Why should the only thing left be the hunger?!”
A particularly harsh blast of wind threw my hood back, and I hunched forward as the cold drew knives against my skin. The branches of the trees rattled together like dry bones.
An admonishment. I was lying to myself. Where had the strigoi come from, in the first place? Not some inborn trait, no. Not some lucky midwife’s tale. The strigoi had appeared when I finally ran away.
I swore and kicked ineffectively at the snow.
“I’m not running away!”
The wind blew my words back into my face. Not running away? Then what exactly was I doing now? The tears fell burning hot down my cheeks. Leaving our snug cabin, struggling out into the winter with Kezia, facing some unknown dark enemy out in the wilds; it seemed like certain death. But we had faced worse before. When had I become so weak? A few days of peace with my beloved, and now I was craven? Or just too greedy?
Become a witch. That frightened me even more, a deep fear lodged beneath my ribs.
I scrubbed at my eyes with swollen fingers, brushing away little crystals of ice. Something was flickering between the immobile trees, like a colorless flame. The wind carried the sound of a soft voice, high and sweet, to my ears. I reeled back- Iele!
I stumbled back a few steps through the snow as more flickering shapes came into view between the trees. They had the vague appearance of maidens in white dresses, and each was carrying a little lantern which made a trembling point of light. I heard their voices- but they weren’t singing. It sounded as if, instead, they were calling out names.
Slowly the tension eased out of my shoulders. These weren’t Iele. They were zâne, protective spirits, angels.
They drifted closer, their pale, bare feet leaving no marks on the snow, their little lights bobbing as they called out names. None of them so much as spared a glance at me. It was on the tip of my tongue to call out to them, to ask them, “What do you think I am? Am I something you’d protect?” But the words wouldn’t come out.
A zână gave a quiet gasp. A colorless wraith was coming out of the trunk of a tree, a ripple in the air like smoke. The zână held out her hand and smiled, and the wraith became the image of a young woman, translucent like frosted glass, a frightened expression on her face. The zână kissed her hand.
The spirit vanished with a sigh of wind. The other zâne, who had gone quiet at the appearance of the wraith, resumed their searching, walking slowly in my direction. My throat felt tight.
The zâne heard it, and the ones further away straightened and turned back, their gentle voices faltering. Crunch. There it was again, like a heavy footstep, except this time I thought I also heard the splintering of wood.
From far away, between the trees, I beheld a black shape, moving quickly. Moving this way. It was big. Bigger than a horse. The zâne closest to it staggered back and vanished with little cries, and the air rang with sudden, malicious laughter.
“Make way!” cried a voice, familiar and sultry. “Make way for the King of the Forest!”
Now I saw the Iele, encircling the black creature as though they were an entourage, hissing at the frightened zâne and giggling when they fell. They were barely disguised now, and through their womanly shapes I saw withered leaves, sharp branches, rotten bark. The creature at the center of them could only be described as a massive beast, with heavy flesh that dragged over the snow as it lifted paws the size of anvils. Its fur seemed to be composed of black flames, twisting and whirling like real fire, though it did not seem to melt the snow. As it passed close to a tree, the flames reached out and licked the trunk, turning it charred black in an instant as the wood splintered and whined.
The zâne cried out all in a chorus of No, and don’t! But the Iele spat and kicked at them, and the beast trampled over them, and one by one they vanished as if they’d been extinguished, until none were left.
The black beast slowed down, just a few hundred meters away from me, and came to a stop. For the first time, the Iele seemed to notice I was there.
“O, o, there she is!”
“Eat her, my lord, kill her!”
Their smiles were sharp as they urged the beast on, and ponderously it lifted a foot to begin walking again. Strangely, I felt no fear at all, as I gazed into its eyes. Or rather, its eye: a single green one that burned like an ember.
“She’ll ruin this place if we don’t stop her,” hissed an Iele, her smile vanishing. “We know. We know. We see the path. Try to tame us! Try to twist us! Not anymore, no- the dogs will become wolves, the cattle aurochs, and the trees, graves!”
The beast’s tail brushed against a tree, and the flames leapt up and devoured it, until the charred husk groaned and leaned and turned to black ashes before the trunk hit the ground.
I said, “Noroc…?”
It didn’t resemble any animal. Least of all a cat. It was just black flesh all mounded up into some horrible four-legged shape, sometimes with a flash of yellow teeth and red tongue. As it drew closer the gaze of that single eye bore down upon me, the pupil a black sliver.
“You fool,” I said, but softly. “What have you turned into?”
No glint of recognition entered that pitiless eye. The beast’s mouth fell open, and from it came a terrible howl, a most desperate, hungry sound, a far fiercer version of the sound I had heard the cat make as it wandered through a ruined village.
“Kill her,” hissed the Iele.
And I was still feeling strangely calm. It was like all the fear I had been feeling just a little while ago had been numbed away by the cold. I had always been inexplicably frightened of the black cat, a terror that twisted deep in my gut. Perhaps it was because I had somehow known he was the creature that would lead to my death. There was no running that could save me now.
The beast came closer, closer, ruining trees as it passed them, coating the white snow with a fine layer of black ash. The Iele came forward with it, linking their arms as they passed me on either side.
I thought I heard someone call my name.
The black beast hesitated. From this close, I thought I could see withered branches poking out of its empty eye socket. It made a low sound.
The Iele who had been flanking me drew back at once, to cluster around the creature’s sides, hissing like snakes.
“Kill her! Bring it back to what it once was!”
I laughed. Their faces turned to me accusingly.
“You dare laugh!”
“I dare,” I said, rubbing the gooseflesh on my arms beneath my coat. “What a cadre of fools you are. You still believe you can do what the Treewitch wanted to, is that it?”
One of them broke away and moved towards me, herky-jerky, skin flickering back and forth between dark mossy bark and rosy-pink flesh.
“As long as you’re out of the way. As long as you don’t become the witch…”
“I wasn’t going to anyway,” I snapped. “But you ought to know better. Look at the mess you’ve made of him! Some king!”
I gestured to Noroc, who merely stared at me silently.
“You fear him,” sneered the Iele. “You fear death.”
“You can’t turn things back the way they used to be. That’s what you fear.”
She didn’t respond to this, her expression not changing, though more of her false maiden’s guise seemed to fade away.
“The great forest is gone,” I said. “Dead. All in pieces. You’re trying to resurrect a corpse.”
At this a smile spread across the Iele’s flickering face. She laughed a pretty laugh, like little tinkling bells.
“Isn’t it strange for you to talk as though that’s impossible, Little Sister?”
I could feel a flush creeping up from my neck. “It won’t be the same!”
“Who says that’s what we want…?” Suddenly she was very close, gripping my chin with sharp fingers. “Shall we have you in our circle again, then?”
“I’d rather be killed by him, thank you,” I spat, jerking out of her grasp, which made her laugh again.
“Do you think you can tame him back into a little housecat? Then try, try!”
With that, her form shimmered, and in another moment she was one of seven deer springing through the snow, bounding away from the beast and I. The air rang with their fading laughter.
I turned around and saw a lonesome little figure struggling towards me, stumbling through the hardened snow in ill-fitting boots. Kezia.
“Go back!” I shouted, facing her. Behind me, I heard a dreadful rumble; the beast was coming out of its stupor.
“You go back!” she shouted. “I am angry with you! Come over here right now!”
I blinked. I hadn’t been expecting that response.
There was a crunch of snow behind me, and suddenly the back of my jacket constricted around me as I was jerked powerfully up. I barely had time to do more than gasp as I found myself dangling from the beast’s fangs.
“Put her down!” shouted Kezia, a little figure scrambling far below. “Put her down, Noroc!”
At that moment, I had the strangest sense that something like this had happened before. When had it…? But now was not the time to be waxing nostalgic. I gritted my teeth, and worked my arms out of the sleeves of my coat.
Kezia got beneath me as I started to fall, and I landed directly on top of her, throwing us both back into the snow.
“Oh! Are you all-” I tried to get up, but her clay arm was wrapped tightly around my back, her expression dizzy. I heard the crunch as Noroc moved again.
“Don’t worry,” said Kezia, as I tensed in her embrace. “He will not harm us.”
“How do you know that?” I asked, trying to twist around to see what he was doing. Something soft hit my back- my coat?
“Noroc would not hurt us,” Kezia replied, as if it was perfectly obvious.
“Oh no?” She was easing her grasp on my back, and I pushed myself up, straddling her in the snow. “He’s bitten me plenty of times… and also, the Iele did something to him.”
Kezia looked peculiarly tranquil, lying beneath me, her expression somewhat hazy.
“You did not try to bite me this time.”
I turned my head away, mortified, and saw Noroc still hovering over the two of us. Well, maybe she was right. After I had gotten all ready to be killed, too.
“I won’t bite you,” I told her. “It was… I lost my head a moment. I’m sorry.”
“If you are hungry,” she said, her teeth chattering slightly, “you should eat.”
It was a ludicrous moment, me sitting on her while she lay there in the snow, the big beast lurking just behind us, the trees and the little beam of sunlight peeking out from the clouds all watching.
I got off of her, held an arm out to help her back onto her feet. She still looked more than a little dazed, her cheeks scarlet from the cold. She’d had the sense of mind to wrap my scarf around her neck, and I tugged it up over her chin.
“Back to the house- we’re both going to freeze to death out here!”
I was not quite sure how we made it back to the house. Snow was still falling, fresh powdery stuff over the crust that had formed overnight, and my bare feet could barely hold me. Eventually Kezia, shivering madly herself, wrapped me in her clay arm and half-carried, half-dragged me back through the doorway. We slumped together in the foyer, gasping. I noticed the door had completely gone off of its hinges in my absence.
The sound of heavy footsteps reminded me that Noroc had followed us, glowering silently with that one huge eye. He left an ash-covered trail behind him, like some colossal, fiery slug. I wished he was covered in proper fire, so that we might at least get some extra warmth.
Kezia was trying to detangle herself from me, somewhat vainly, as I had slumped myself over her chest, too frozen and weary to move anymore. She was warm.
“Gabi- I want to try and put the door back.”
“Why? Aren’t you going to wait for Noroc to come in?” I mumbled into her neck.
“He cannot fit through the doorway,” she said, squirming oddly, and I realized the bruise where I had bitten her before was directly beneath my lips. I jolted upright.
“Eh- right! Then, the door.”
I slid off of her, and she got up, touching her neck, and not quite looking at me.
We got our poor, battered door back into the frame somehow, shutting away Noroc’s green-eyed glare, and dragged ourselves back over to the quilt by the hearth. Thankfully the fire was still burning bright and hot; thank goodness for the potency of dragonflame. The egg, which I had all but forgotten about, was also still there, nestled in the flames.
The cold stung as it left me, biting at my feet as I tried to warm the poor things by the fire. It hurt like hell. But at least I hadn’t lost any toes to frostbite. Was it the lingering protection of the strigoi? Or had I just been lucky? It was difficult to tell.
Kezia, too, was warming herself, having slung off her coat, which lay on the floor close by, covered in droplets of melted snow. She had her clay arm resting on the hearth, and her forehead resting on that, limp as a rag doll. Tentatively I put one palm against her clay elbow and found it quite pleasantly warm to the touch.
“I am still angry at you,” she mumbled.
I hesitated, but did not pull my hand away.
“I know. I deserve it.”
“You frightened me,” she said, without looking up. “You frightened me very much.”
I chewed my lower lip, trying to come up with words to reassure her… that I would have been fine, that I would have come back? It felt like lying.
“I did not care that you bit me.” Her voice was muffled.
“But I cared.” I cared more than I could describe.
“Do you think that you will do it again?”
Everything in my head felt all scrambled up. I rubbed my cheeks.
“I- I don’t know. I don’t know what’ll happen to me.”
Finally she turned her head, to look at me with just one eye through her hair.
“If it happens again,” she said, “please do not run away from me.”
Her gaze caught me so firmly; I squirmed, like a pinned insect.
“But what if… What if it’s to protect you?”
She raised her head.
“Do you think I am so weak?!”
She slammed her clay fist down upon the hearth for emphasis, making loose bricks rattle. I flinched.
“I can protect myself from you, Gabi! If you do something I do not want you to do, I will stop you!”
“But will you?” I replied, my voice cracking. “You care about me too much…”
The words trailed off, and the silence got strange. With a jolt I realized she was crying.
“I care about you too much,” she repeated, her breath stuttering. “Do you care about me enough…?”
My throat constricted; I couldn’t say a word. She covered her eyes with her flesh hand, gritting her teeth.
“When you- when you run away from me- do you think that it feels good?”
“I,” I began, then pressed my lips together. I wanted to run back out into the snow. And I hated myself for it.
“Would it be better,” she said, and her voice did a horrible thing where it broke, and fell to pieces, “would it be better for you if we were apart?”
My heart sank, everything sank, because it was a horrible thing for her to say, and worse because it wasn’t out of spite; she would leave if I asked her too, my poor golem, staunchly march out into the snow-
“Kezia!” I exclaimed, and grabbed her shoulders, so that I could look straight into her teary face. “Of course it wouldn’t be! I would rather be with you a thousand times over!”
She merely stared, and I knew I had to say more than that. I swallowed.
“It’s not- it’s not because of you, because you’re perfect to me- too perfect. I- I don’t like myself very much, Kezia! I’m not running away from you!”
I saw my words sink in, and started to regret them as her expression changed. I didn’t deserve to have her look at me like that.
“Why do you not like yourself?”
I let go of her shoulders and rubbed my hot cheeks, suddenly even wearier.
“As for that… The better question is, why on earth do you like me?”
She opened her mouth to respond immediately, but I ploughed ahead before she could.
“Because even if you’ve known very few people in the time that you’ve been alive- and it’s a short time, Kezia, a very short time- you should realize that I’m not among the best of them, and there are others better for you to follow- Vasilisa, she’s a good and darling creature in spite the bloodthirstiness issue, why didn’t you fall in love with her instead?”
“Vasilisa…?” Kezia repeated slowly, as though she couldn’t comprehend the concept. “Why would I…”
“Maybe it’s because I’ve been too wicked and selfish with you, and I haven’t let you go and see the rest of the world; maybe if I did, you would see the real worth of me,” I continued, all in a desperate rush. “But I’ve trapped you here with me, and I won’t let you go, and you think that this is the best you can do-”
“Stop,” said Kezia, and I did stop, because she looked angry, really angry, her lips white and trembling. Her human fist rested white-knuckled on her knee.
“You think I am a child.”
“Or you think I am very foolish, and you think I cannot make any choices on my own. You think that you have so much power over me!”
I was cringing now, unable to respond.
“Maybe I have only existed for a short time,” said Kezia, “compared to you, and maybe I have not seen very much of the world with my own senses, but that does not mean I have not learned anything. When we first met, maybe those things you said would have been true, but they are not now; and I have seen a lot more than you know of.” She touched the side of her head. “The other Kezia, the ghost, left me with seventeen years’ worth of memories to look through, and you do not think that if there was some kind of knowledge that would tell me to hate you, I would not find it in there?”
“I didn’t know about all that,” I admitted, in a very small voice, frightful of her scowl. “But Kezia, I- all I know is that you can have near as much experience, and still fall in love with a terrible person.”
(Terrible. Had I come to the point where I could call him that?)
After a moment, the sharp anger on her face softened into something more akin to frustration, and she looked away from me and into the fire.
“You are not terrible. How do I make it so that you can see you are not terrible?”
“I don’t know,” I said, my voice a touch raw. “You can’t teach an old bitch new tricks.”
The fire popped and crackled, and after a moment a warm hand crept into mine.
“I do love you, though,” Kezia said, sounding aggrieved and world-weary.
I raised her hand and kissed the back of it softly, in what I hoped was an affirmation of the same.
“Gabi,” she said, her fingers closing around mine just slightly, “if you need to run away sometimes, then you should do so.”
“No, I shouldn’t,” I said immediately. “I’m a coward.”
“No,” said Kezia, looking at me again. “It is not right for me to say you cannot leave, if you need to leave. It frightens me when you do, but I do not want to make myself a prison for you.”
I twisted my lips, a rather complex tangle of emotions rising up in me.
“I don’t want to leave you, though. Do you know that?”
The look she gave me, with her eyes moist as though she were about to cry again, gave me all the answer I needed. I tugged her close and wrapped my arms around her, holding her tightly.
“I’m sorry. I’m such an ass.”
She buried her face in my neck and mumbled something I suspected was affirmative.
“Kezia,” I said, kissing the top of her head, “I haven’t admitted it before, but I will do so here and now: you are the most alluring and wonderful creature I have ever known, and I am madly in love with you.”
This made her give the most pleasing little shiver in my arms, and I couldn’t help but squeeze her even tighter, until I felt a most sharp pain on the side of my neck.
“Ouch! You- you bit me!”
She drew back with an expression I’d never seen before on her face, one that sent little ripples through my lower belly, and said, “Now we are even.”
“You little weasel,” I said, and kissed her, and the evening, shall we say, improved considerably from there onwards.
I had thought that nothing short of a calamity would have taken me from Gabi’s arms the next day, snug and close with her under our quilt, and it was sort of true, because something like that jolted me out of my hazy half-sleep in the late morning.
Gabi woke up too, peering up out of the edge of the quilt with her eyes sleepy and her hair mussed, and asked, “What was that sound?”
“I think it was Noroc,” I replied. The last of the light happiness we had captured the night before was fading away.
Gabi gave a sort of nod and pushed back the quilt, so that we both shivered the rest of the way into wakefulness. We dressed quickly in silence, tended the fire, and then Gabi went up and pulled the battered door back out of its frame.
Outside in front of our house lay slumped a great black form, a stark contrast against the white snow, almost featureless except for its flickering edges. Guilt swelled up into my throat, and I cried out, “Noroc!”
Gabi grabbed my arm before I could run to him.
“Don’t touch him,” she warned. “He’s- I don’t know what they’ve made him into, but he isn’t a domovoi anymore.”
“What have they done to him?” I asked, staring hopelessly at the swollen figure; in my head I had thought he might recover overnight.
“I don’t exactly know,” said Gabi, her grip easing a little on my arm. “I think they tried to pull all the wildness they could back out of him, but their idea of wildness is nothing but death and nastiness. Rotten old things!”
She was glaring out into the snow, as if daring the Iele to show their faces. I was glad that they did not. I think that I would have rushed at them for what they had done to poor Noroc.
“What can we do to help you?” I called out to his pitiful figure. “Noroc! What can we do?”
There was no response- in desperation I turned to Gabi. “He followed us for a reason! Is there a way to push back what they pulled out of him?”
“I don’t think so- I don’t know,” said Gabi, who was looking at me rather than Noroc, great concern in her gaze. “He was a domovoi, so he should have people to belong to- but the last of them was that old man, and he’s- even his heart is gone now.”
I pushed my lips together. I was still here; was I no longer who Noroc belonged with? Had we severed our ties?
“Hey!” called out Gabi, and I saw that she had tilted her head back to the clear morning sky. “Pascha! Answer me, what are we supposed to do about this?”
There was a moment of silence, where all we could hear was the tortured breath coming out of the beast collapsed before us. Then a few watery rays of pale sunlight brushed my skin.
It’s Zakhar, actually.
“Oh, hell, it is,” muttered Gabi, and I found myself silently echoing her sentiment. Zakhar was without a doubt the hardest of the three horsemen to deal with.
Don’t sound so pleased, said Zakhar, his immaterial voice still conveying drollness. As for the domovoi, he’s long been disintegrating; his borrowed time is up.
“Zakhar! Do not say that!” I exclaimed, joining Gabi in glaring up at the blue. “He was fading away before but we saved him- now what must we do?”
And I repeat: it was borrowed time. He should have faded away centuries ago- the only thing that kept him alive was his usefulness to the Treewitch.
See here, you haven’t even considered that maybe he wants to give it up; he could have let the Iele shape him into something fiercer, but he resisted it. I was observing him.
I looked again at the lump, and thought I saw a glint of green buried in there.
“But he followed us- if he wanted to die, why did he follow us?”
Zakhar did not respond to this; instead, Gabi tugged my sleeve.
“Kezia- he is the dark thing that we were supposed to flee from, isn’t he?”
“But he has not hurt us at all,” I exclaimed, shaking my head. “Why should we be frightened of him? He only needs our help…”
“The Iele wanted us to fear him,” said Gabi, and a sort of half-thoughtful, half-disgusted look came over her face. “That little rat-head, she said he was eating up all her friends as well; I don’t think she was lying. Maybe they made him do it, though.”
She paused for a long moment, and I could see that something was bothering her a great deal, for her face suddenly twisted up.
You already know the answer, said Zakhar, sounding bored. What is their greatest fear? And what might save this poor creature’s existence? The Iele are trying to thwart what they have already foreseen.
“That,” started Gabi, her face darkening, “is the most wretched thing I have ever heard.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, greatly baffled. “What have the Iele got to be afraid of?”
Before anyone could answer me- if they were going to, Gabi looked as though she did not want to say anything at all- Noroc made a sound, like the one that had woken us both up: a low rattling gasp that shook the windows of the house.
“Damn it,” said Gabi. “Damn it all. I don’t want that.”
Why not? It isn’t so bad to become a witch.
“Become a-!” I craned my neck back up to the sky. “Is that how I could save Noroc?”
“Kezia!” cried Gabi.
Of course. Make him your servant, your familiar. As the Treewitch did. His shape will bend under your thrall.
“Shut up, you old nag,” Gabi snapped. “Stop trying to sway her! Kezia-”
I was thinking hard, staring at the glint of Noroc’s remaining eye. He had followed us for a reason; this I was somehow sure of. In spite of the best efforts of the Iele, he was trying to tell me something.
“How do you become a witch?” I asked.
“Kezia!” Gabi grabbed my hands. “Just for him- don’t sacrifice yourself! I won’t let you!”
“But is it a sacrifice? What am I giving up?”
“Your ability to leave!” she snapped. “Your ability to walk away from any of this! You’ll be bound to this wretched forest forevermore! Is that really what you want?”
I thought for another moment.
“The dragon said that this forest needed to have a witch, otherwise something terrible might emerge again.”
“And I say again- so what if it does? This was never our mess to begin with! There’s no reason for us to take responsibility for it.”
“No, there is not,” I said, “but if I become the witch, you would not have to-”
“As if I’d let you throw everything away like that,” Gabi bit out. “You have so much yet to experience- if anyone is to become a witch, I think it ought to be me!”
I was caught very off-guard by this statement, my hands slack in her tight grasp.
“You would hate that, Gabi.”
“Of course,” she said. “Better me than you, though.”
I frowned at her. “I do not think so. If you were trapped here, I would not want to leave your side anyway.”
“Didn’t I say last night that the same applies to me?!”
I have never seen a more foolish pair of lovers.
“Shut up, Zakhar!” snapped Gabi, her cheeks growing dark.
But I have yet to answer Kezia’s question, on how to become a witch.
“She doesn’t need to know!”
“Gabi,” I put in, tightening my hands around hers. “Calm down. I am not a fool. I want to save Noroc, but I would not do something that I thought would be so terrible.”
She twisted her lips and squirmed; evidently our conversation last night had had some effect, though I could see it was driving her mad.
In any case, came the voice of the dawn light, in order to become a witch, neither of you has to do anything.
“What?” I asked, and Gabi burst out, “What the hell do you mean by that?!”
I mean, he went on, ponderously, that there is a space, or a position, I should say, that needs to be filled; and the two of you meet all of the requirements already. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I would have said that the two of you are the witches of this forest.
Gabi went pale and quiet, so I was the one who said, “But we are not witches- we do not have any power. Not like the Baba, or Muma Balaur, or even Sorina.”
No power? But the both of you have dealt with the spirits, and frightened the great Iele; one of you has the body of a plant and an arm made of earth, while the other is by all accounts now immortal; and not to mention, you are speaking to me right now, which I assure you somebody powerless could not do.
“I’ve never been powerful in my life,” said Gabi. “I think I would know if that changed.”
Perhaps, said Zakhar, sounding as though he were humoring her. In any case, if you so desperately want to get away, then do so; you’d become something else, though I do not know what. (Maybe you’d become dead.) I will say, though, that there are benefits to taking on a bit of so-called responsibility- for example, you could make something better out of that wretched thing lying before you.
His words seemed to hang in the air a moment, and then a cloud passed over the sun, covering us over in shadow. I suspected he was not going to say anything else about it, having drawn his curtains. I looked at Gabi, whose face was still all twisted up in utter disbelief.
“What do you think of all this?” I asked.
“What do I think?” She shook her head. “I think this is all very mad! I refuse to believe you can become a witch without realizing it. Since when? I haven’t had the desire to devour anybody’s soul, I’ll have you know!”
“Me either,” I admitted, squeezing her hands. “But we have not really met any souls, so it is hard to say. I thought witches were able to feel… I do not know. Everything that happened in their forest.”
“Well,” admitted Gabi, “so did I, but maybe not. I wouldn’t have gotten away with half the things I tried otherwise.”
“If being a witch is just being the way we have been, these past few days, I do not think it would be so bad, at all,” I said. “Do you?”
She hesitated for a long, perilous moment.
“I can’t say that I do. But. I don’t like it happening without my permission!”
“Yes, I know.” I smiled at her. “But Zakhar- he made it sound as though we could leave, if we really wanted to. Is that enough?”
She squirmed a bit, under my gaze, and then to my surprise, she turned to Noroc.
“What do you think, then, cat? Would you like to come into our service?”
I looked at him as well, and was surprised again to find that he had changed: he was fading away, like sugar dissolving into milk.
“Noroc!” I let go of Gabi’s hands and ran to him before she could stop me. “Do not go!”
My hands went right through his translucent skin and touched cold snow, and I gasped. He had vanished entirely.
“Kezia,” said Gabi, crunching through the snow after me to put one hand on my shoulder. “Kezia, look.”
Slowly I turned to look where she was pointing, at our house. A transparent black veil seemed to have fallen over it, and all the shingles on the roof rattled, and the shutters on the windows flapped open and closed. For a moment, transposed over the whole building, I thought I saw the image of a great, gigantic cat, curled up tight, winking one green eye at us through the open doorway. The house shivered, and the cracked glass in the windows became whole and clear again, and the door sprang back onto its hinges and swung open invitingly. From within I heard the roar of the fire.
The image of the cat faded, and the house just seemed to be a house again, though in far better repair, and perhaps with slightly darker paint on the walls.
Gabi and I took a moment to recover, and then she hugged me close to her side.
“Well,” she said, “who ever heard of a witch without a magic house to live in?”
She let me go and strode towards the house, her hands thrust into the pockets of her fur coat, saying in a musing tone, “I suppose we now have a house-cat? Is that what they mean by that, Noroc?”
One of the shutters flapped slightly, and she clucked her tongue at it, kicking at some of the snow that had fallen off the roof with the toe of her boot. I took the moment when her back was turned to wipe my damp eyes. My hand- my flesh hand, not the clay- was still resting on the snow. I drew it back and replaced it with the other, pushed it down through to the hard, frozen earth beneath, and listened.
It was faint, perhaps because the trees were all asleep for winter, but it was there: the soft, whispering web of the life within the forest.
They say there is a forest that moves, gliding over the soil like a ship at sea.
They say that it is the most uncommonly beautiful forest, full of strange creatures long extinct, or that should never have existed in the first place, or from the dreams and nightmares of children.
They say that in that forest, there are marvels like nobody’s ever seen: trees drowned in a lake that reflects the stars, roots that wriggle and slither like glowing white serpents, fire that looks like charging horses.
They say that in the center of that forest is a mountain with a face, and that every night thousands and thousands of bats stream out of the empty eyes and mouth like black smoke.
They say that if you follow the right path, you might find a giant black cat that turns into a house when it sleeps.
They say that there are two witches living in that house who will grant any wish- for the right price.
(They say the price might be lower if the one doing the wishing is what you might call a ‘disadvantaged’ member of society.)
They say that those witches are so powerful, they hatched a firebird in their hearth.
They say that if you go into that forest, you won’t leave unchanged- but maybe that isn’t such a terrible thing after all.