Dark, wet, simmering dreams.
I did not ride on Zakhar’s back so much as sink partially through him. He did not seem nearly so solid as Kazimir or Pascha, and I barely felt his flesh in any tangible way at all. I had no idea what was even keeping me afloat, so to speak.
He’d become the horse with scaly armor again at some point during our ride, after he’d obscured the area behind us with mist. I assume that it was to stop Pascha from following. His angry cries faded away fast. Zakhar could move surprisingly quickly.
He was running over the surface of the river now, his hooves making no sound on the water’s surface. Trees and fields whipped by us in a blur. I leaned close to his hairy ear.
“Are you sure you can do this? I thought the witch said you had to find Kazimir.”
“This is the same as that,” said Zakhar. “I am still following her instructions.”
And that meant, I pondered, that Pascha wouldn’t be able to chase after us with the intent to stop us. Why hurry, then? Perhaps he thought I’d lose my nerve.
No need to worry about that. A reckless excitement was surging through me, even with the knowledge that I would soon have to face the witch. But to think I could finally be freed of the white tree! The witch would want to make the deal, oh yes, and I was certain I could catch Kazimir for her- I would have his trust now, for freeing him from the pit, and if all else failed, I knew his weakness for mirrors.
Kezia, though… She would be displeased. The thought gave me a twinge, almost as though the tree itself was moving within my stomach, urging me to reconsider, to spare its life. I resisted the urge to punch myself there. Removing it would protect Kezia as well as me! And if I had to choose between someone else’s servitude and my own life, the choice was not so hard at all. Even she would see that.
Thinking of her reaction made me rather anxious all the same, and the churning of Zakhar beneath me only added to my queasiness. I had never been a particular fan of riding on horses even when they weren’t scale and semisolid.
I caught on to his ear again to pull myself closer- the new movement adding a series of hitches and jumps to my roiling gut, and hissed, “Are we close?”
As if in response, he came to a sudden and complete stop, and I was unseated, flying through the air in what was undoubtedly a most comical fashion before landing hard on my back.
He merely flicked an ear at the stream of cursing that emanated from my mouth; I supposed I was lucky he hadn’t still been running on the surface of the river. In fact, the river was nowhere to be seen now: instead we’d come back to a dark, tangled forest, Baba Yaga’s forest, or at least her temporary retreat.
Indeed, when I sat up and got my bearings, I saw that Zakhar had taken us right into her front yard, so to speak: the area of beaten earth within her bony fence. At some point she’d started a little garden around her house, so that the edges of the chicken legs were now completely obscured, but not, I suspected, enough to hide the fact that the house would shift and resettle itself on its base from time to time.
The garden itself had no flowers, only a dense, disordered-looking thicket of veiny green leaves, with fat red fruits I could put no name to. They smelled rather like blood. I decided it would be best to avoid them.
Zakhar put a light hand on my shoulder, making me shudder: his skin was unpleasantly lukewarm and slightly watery. He’d shed the shape of the horse and stood round and naked beside me.
“At least your brethren have the decency to conjure up trousers,” I said, swatting away his hand to rise to my feet.
“I like this form because it obscures what must be obscured for human modesty,” said Zakhar, with a little smile, and patted his low-hanging belly. “In any case, clothes are fine as protection, or as a vanity, but silly as a requirement. No one is concerned with my endowments as a horse.”
“Nudity and indecency are the marks of sinners and base animals,” I replied. “But I suppose that is what we both are, for doing this.”
Zakhar turned to me, his blue eyes sorrowful. “I do this to protect Kazimir, not to harm him.”
“You do this because you lust after him, filthy thing that you are,” I retorted. “Don’t lie to me. I don’t care anyway.”
“Is that so?” Zakhar tilted his head far back, looking at the lightening sky. “My mistress will return with the dawn.”
“You don’t suppose Pascha will catch him before I’ve got a chance to, do you?” I asked, the thought coming to me with a sudden fear. With my bargaining chip, I at least stood on level ground with the witch; without it, I’d be reduced to begging her for favors. Asking a favor from Baba Yaga- I might as well dig a grave and stab myself in the hearts. It would likely be cheaper than the price she asked.
“Pascha will never catch him, and he knows it; so does Kazimir,” replied Zakhar. “Have patience. Your freedom is near at hand.”
I shot a sidelong glance at him, mistrusting every centimeter of his being (and there were many). I did not think he was lying to me, but he might easily have been talking around the truth. He was a conniving white weasel, this one.
But I was hampered from giving more thought to his words by a creaking sound, and a delicious smell. I looked up, towards Baba Yaga’s hut. The door was opening, and out stepped a girl.
I had nearly forgotten about her, in all the excitement, in all my eagerness, but of course she was still here: thinner, more sallow, more hopeless than before- but so close, oh yes, I could practically taste her blood on my tongue. I could cross the distance in an instant- it would only take an instant-
The girl was turning out some sort of bucket into the garden from the front step, and then she hesitated, looked up, and saw Zakhar and I standing there in the yard.
Zakhar caught my shoulder as I twitched, shaking his head.
“Don’t fall to temptation,” he warned. “You’ll lose your only chance at freedom, and possibly your entire existance as well.”
I shook off his hand- he didn’t need to remind me, I know that very well. Oh, but how infuriating! She was right there- so close!
The girl bit her lip, perhaps at the greedy way I was staring at her, and I couldn’t quite help it. In an instant I was beside her, shoving the door to Baba Yaga’s house shut before she could slip back inside.
“Do you know what I am, little girl?” I hissed, glaring into her shocked, pretty eyes. “I am a strigoi, and I am going to kill you someday and drink every last ounce of your blood.”
The girl was flattened against the wall, petrified, as I caged her in with my arms.
“I want so badly to do it now,” I said, lowering my voice to a near-whisper, “but I can’t just yet. But you wait- you wait- you take a few steps away from the witch-”
“Gabi,” said Zakhar, voice stern. I tore myself away with a snarl, shooting her hungry glances over my shoulder. So frustrating! But I would sink my teeth into that lovely throat someday, I would, and I’d hear the witch screeching with fury.
When I returned to his side, Zakhar leaned towards me slightly to murmur, “It would have made for a more intimidating sight were you not a head shorter than she.”
“Shut up,” I said, eyeing the girl, who was still just standing there, clutching her bucket. If I took a bit of blood here and now, perhaps the witch wouldn’t notice…
“I think you should give up on her,” said Zakhar, “if you want to stay around a little longer, that is. My mistress has plans for her in any case, and when they are complete she’ll have no blood for you to drink.”
He said this quite loudly, and there was no doubt that the girl heard; she pressed her lips together and simply stood there.
“You are a mean-spirited fellow, aren’t you?” I observed. “What might these plans be?”
“As if I am priveledged enough to know. But I am certain that they will come to fruition, because things rarely do not occur just as my mistress wishes them to.”
I snorted. “Even losing Kazimir, and you getting poisoned?”
“My difficulty with the treewitch was an opportunity in itself. And as for Kazimir-” He paused, his expression inscrutable. “Well, on the rare occasion that things do not go her way, it is better for everyone to set them to rights as soon as possible.”
“I don’t quite understand,” I said. “Do you adore her, or are you just afraid of her?”
“One could argue that the two emotions are not so different,” said Zakhar, which made me snort again, and glare at the girl, who was still watching us silently. I bared my teeth at her and was gratified when she flinched.
Unfortunately, she was not flinching at me. I realized this when a long hand settled on my shoulders.
“What creature is it that lurks beyond my doorstep?”
The girl retreated inside the house, the door shutting with a loud snap, and Zakhar fell to one knee. I stayed perfectly still, as the witch’s hot, foul-smelling breath moistened the cloth of my headscarf.
“It looks at my belongings with such hunger,” growled Baba Yaga, her fingers slowly creeping towards my throat. “Do I recall giving it a warning before? Has it still come back?”
“I’m not here to steal your belongings,” I said, fighting an urge to swallow- her fingernail caressed my Adam’s apple. “I came to offer you a deal. A trade.”
“Move, Zakhar,” growled the witch, and Zakhar shuffled back, still on his knees, his eyes averted. Her hand on my throat tightened slightly, and then she released me and came around to stand before me.
She was still quite terrible, her cloak flapping in tatters, and her long, tangled grey hair streaming out over her shoulders. I avoided her eyes; it was difficult to tell with a creature like her, but I sensed I’d caught her in a particularly bad mood.
“I doubt a two-heart will have much that I desire,” she said, picking her teeth with one of her long yellow fingernails. “Nor will I part with my precious Vasilisa for anything in the world.”
Vasilisa, eh? I filed that away for later use.
“It’s not her I want,” I said. For now. “And I know you do want what I have to give. Aren’t you missing one horseman?”
The witch’s eyes narrowed.
“Missing? No, no. Misplaced. It won’t be gone for long. I may pick it up soon myself.”
I heard Zakhar breathe out softly, but when I glanced over at him, his face was still impassive as ever.
“If you give me his halter,” I said, “I can catch him faster.”
“Faster?” said Baba Yaga, and there was something slightly sibilant in the word. “Interesting, if true. Few can catch my black horseman after he begins to run. In fact, only one ever has.”
That would be Pascha, I thought, but he wouldn’t be doing it again.
“Well,” I said, “if I do it, would you reward me in return?”
The witch gazed at me for a long, painfully silent moment, and I made sure to look anywhere but her eyes. Her gaze was nearly painful regardless- I felt as though I were being boiled and made translucent like sugar candy.
Then her large nostrils flared, and she chuckled.
“I know what it is you want,” she said, her raspy voice now jeering. “You have the tree-sickness inside of you, and you want me to take it away.”
“Yes,” I said, my fists slowly clenching. “For the black horseman. If I bring him back, you free me from this curse.” I paused, then added- “With my hearts still beating.”
Her laugh was so low that it vibrated my breastbone.
“You do not trust Baba Yaga to fulfill her promise? But I do not trust you. You say you will get it done quickly, but I need my horseman soon, very soon, and I am growing impatient with his rebellion. Perhaps he is valuable enough for me to reward you. But, say…” A toothy grin split her face. “Only until the next sunset.”
I glanced at the sky, saw that the sun was rising, and bit the inside of my cheek.
“I cannot move well during the day! Surely until the next sunrise would be-”
“Sunset,” growled the witch, in a way that made me snap my mouth shut, and then she laughed again. “My white horseman will take you to him, and we shall see what you can do. If you catch him for me, I will reward you the way you have asked.”
I looked at the sky again with a grimace- the sun’s rays were already starting to make my exposed skin prickle- but if Zakhar took me, I might have a chance- no, I could do it! And if we made a deal, the witch couldn’t go back on her word.
“Fine, I’ll accept those terms,” I said.
“Ah, but wait,” said Baba Yaga. “I have one more little requirement. You see, I do not like to waste time, for I am a busy woman, with many tasks to attend to. So if it becomes apparent that you are useless, after the next sunset I shall give you a little punishment.”
Oh, drat; this was the problem with making deals with witches.
“And what would that be?” I asked, keeping my tone carefully neutral.
“Hmm,” said the witch, “I am still thinking about it; it is something that deserves much consideration. I shan’t destroy you, of course; that’s too wasteful. Perhaps I will make you serve me for a hundred years.”
Let the tree kill me first! I thought, but only said, “I fear that as a servant I would pale in comparison to your horsemen.”
“True,” said Baba Yaga. “Very true. You are weak, spiteful, and selfish; and you have no especial talents I could put to use, and a strigoi’s need for blood is always irritating. In that case, perhaps I shall use you as a dowsing-rod for the one who created the seed within you. She and I must speak very soon.” She drew her cloak tighter around herself, and bared her teeth. “If she can even speak at all.”
“Oh, she can speak,” I muttered.
She reached out and wrapped one of my loose curls around her finger, not quite painfully, and tutted.
“You have met the clay figure she uses as an avatar, have you? But you have not met Mother Forest herself.”
“I- no,” I stammered, wishing very much that she would let go of my hair, but she continued twisting it over her long finger.
“No one has. No one ever has. I hear that she is called a witch, but she is no witch- not a witch like I am.” She tucked the curl back under my scarf, almost tenderly; I had to shiver.
“I have divined her dreams,” said Baba Yaga. Her black eyes widened. “And what dreams they are, dark, wet, simmering dreams! Dreams of green leaf and blood spilt on earth, of dung and rot and mushrooms and birds’ eggs, maggots and ferns and spiderwebs, stumps and lichen and little moths drinking from the eye of a deer! She dreams of forests, forests like oceans, that roll over hill and dale and mountain in great rippling waves- forever.”
I had made the mistake of looking into her eyes, and now I was entrapped, frozen. In the liquid blackness of her pupils I saw shivering leaves, and branches, and branches upon branches, higher and higher, stretching out, closing all gaps, choking away the light. And the roots- grinding through the soil, growing, splitting, multiplying: they crushed stone, cleaved iron during their slow, inexorable probing- further and further outwards.
“It would be a forest that yielded oak mountains, cedar cliffs; it would harbor aurochs and ancient nameless beasts. It would divide nations of mortal men. Do you know the name of it, little strigoi?”
She blinked slowly, and I was released from the reverie; instantly I turned my eyes downwards and did not reply. It was Zakhar who spoke up next.
“The Hercynian Forest.”
“O, yes,” said Baba Yaga, and for a moment a kind of light came to her face. “I was born there, within the great forest- a forest that consumed mountains. It was so vast that generations of men could walk their whole lives and never see the edge of it; though if there was a man who lived very long walking in the Hercynian Forest, I never met him.”
She took a long pause, stroking her hairy chin.
“But that forest is gone now, broken up into little fragments; tied down and tamed by the axes of men. The earth itself has changed. It is only a fool who dwells on dreams of the past.”
Again she was silent, and I stood there stupidly, feeling as though a very large storm-cloud of knowledge had just passed straight over my head. I had never even heard of the Hercynian Forest. But it seemed Zakhar had, and felt that it had some significance, for after a moment he spoke again.
“You think that Mother Forest wishes to remake the Hercynian Forest?”
“Perhaps so, or perhaps merely a forest like it, or perhaps it is only a fading dream she has,” said the witch. “But it seems that she has been slowly closing the gaps in this place for some time, covering the earth where it is bald, and consuming the men that once lived here. And she is moving slowly northwards. If she is left unchecked, it shall spell trouble for me, for that is my stronghold.”
“What will you do to her, Mistress?” asked Zakhar.
“It is none of your business to know yet,” said Baba Yaga, clucking her tongue. She glanced at me, and grinned unpleasantly. “Besides, I must have my black horseman back first. You will not fail me, will you, strigoi?”
I merely pursed my lips and frowned, because answering felt like I would be stepping into a trap. The witch chuckled, and then stretched a leathery, wrinkled hand towards me.
“Seal the deal, my pretty one. A horse for a tree!”
It went rather against everything in my gut, mind, and recent experience to take her hand, but take it I did. Her skin was coarse as sackcloth, and unpleasantly cold, but the worse part was that through her palm I could feel a throbbing pulse. It drummed at my own flesh and made me feel dizzy. The witch’s fingers clenched closed around mine like a trap, and she suddenly dragged me closer. I cried out as I fell off-balance against her chest.
Beneath her ragged cloak I could hear the thump-thumping of her heart even louder, and a rank smell enveloped me. Something with spiny legs crawled over my cheek. I struggled to push away, but the witch’s skinny arm clamped across my shoulders like an iron bar, keeping me caught fast in a parody of an embrace. She raised one hand and pricked my cheek with her nail, drawing red blood, and brought it to her lips.
She considered the taste, and then her face became shrewd.
“Hmm, hmm, have I met you before? Have me met before, strigoi? What a familiar taste. But perhaps it is your prey I am tasting, and not you.”
Suddenly she spun me back outwards, flicking her wrist- and I choked. Somehow, she had wrapped something around my neck, and now held the end of it like a leash. With a sharp tug, she pulled me to my knees.
“I give you my horseman’s halter,” she crooned, tugging it so that I coughed. “And if you should get him back to me before the sun sets today, I will destroy the white tree inside of you. But if you should fail, I have divined a punishment most suitable. So don’t fail, dearie.”
I was still coughing, raising my hands to try and tug at the constricting fabric- damn, damn, and damn again! I had not realized she would collar me once more like this, not if I offered to do it freely. But she was Baba Yaga, what had I expected?
“I’ll get your horseman,” I spat. “You hold up your end of the bargain, too, or I’ll make you sorry.”
“Ha!” she crowed, “if only you were not a strigoi! I would feast on all your petty little fears, and your pride, and your liver. But you are useless to me as you are. So begone! My white horseman will take you to your task.”
She released the end of the black ribbon, and it whirled itself around and around my throat, so that it was no simple circle I was wearing: it was a lattice. I swallowed against the constriction and moved to arrange my headscarf to hide it from view.
Baba Yaga yawned, her black eyes becoming milky, and turned her back on me towards her house: apparently, we were done. I touched my neck, still fuming silently, but I was not fool enough to run up and kick her shins like I so wanted to.
“Come, Gabi,” said Zakhar, and ceased to be a man- he was the large white horse again. His head nodded as he walked towards me.
The witch turned her head slightly, and said, “Zakhar. This shall be the last game between us. Once returned, the three shall never leave me again.”
Zakhar hesitated, one hoof raised.
Without warning her long arm shot out and she struck him a sharp blow. It was nearly soundless, but it made Zakhar, even so large as he was, stagger sideways and flash blue.
“Don’t take me for a fool,” she said. “Of the three, you are the most false to me. I have let you run loose long enough, now you must bear your yoke like a good donkey.”
The expression on Zakhar’s horse face at this was impossible to read. Though she did not particularly seem to care what it looked like either way, for she turned back and continued her shuffling walk towards her house.
I waited until she went inside and shut the door before asking, “What did she mean by all that?”
Zakhar gave no answer- I don’t know why I had hoped he would- but it was all right, there had been just enough for me to piece something together. So after this, once Kazimir was returned, nobody would be opening the gate to let out the horses anymore.
Fine. It had no bearing on me; and if Baba Yaga would commence her entanglement with Mother Forest in the meantime, my only stake was in the amount of blood that got spilt during the fracas. These were large players, forces of nature, and only an idiot would try to stand in the middle of them.
So I told myself, trying to quell my great sense of unease- because of course, there was one dangerous connection, one thing that drew me back to Mother Forest, and it was called Kezia.