Blood for blood.
The pricolici was only mistakeable for a true wolf from a distance: once it was close enough, it was impossible to miss those horribly human eyes. But there were other things unwolflike about it. The great size of it, the way its fur hung in unkempt masses, a suggestion of the length of the limbs and the way that they bent.
I thought about all these differences in the instant while the pricolici hung in midair after emerging from the undergrowth. Then it fell upon me.
I did not have anything to fear from it, really, but it was still alarming to have the thing slam down on me the way it did. Even with my great height, the vicious teeth of it struck my face and caught there. In an instant it had torn away the clay and most of my vision. I was lucky that I no longer kept my silver letters in my forehead.
The pricolici’s claws raked stripes into me as it clung to my chest and forced its slobbering, furious muzzle down my neck. I felt the puff of its hot breath against my insides. I tried to push it away, but the flesh and mangy hair of it writhed at the contact, matting into my clay and tearing at the tips of my fingers. The beast roared into the hollow space within my chest, and the loud echo of it overwhelmed my hearing.
Then suddenly it fell back, and a high scream rent the air. I was still blinded, and bewildered, and frantically I reshaped a clumsy head with eye holes, stumbling about in the darkness, bringing back blurry vision.
Noroc had leapt upon the wolf’s back, every hair on his body furiously erect, and now he clung there with his claws as the pricolici spun and howled in a fury of agony. Black cat upon black wolf; soon they were almost indistinguishable, just a single whirling dark mass shrieking out hatred.
In another moment it all stopped and the wolf had Noroc pinned to the ground, though Noroc screamed and spat and raked bloody lines across its nose. At this, I reacted. Before the slavering jaws could touch a hair on Noroc’s body, I gave the wolf a swat that sent it flying back and slammed it into a tree.
As the pricolici slid down, apparently stunned, everything suddenly got very quiet. Noroc rose to his feet, still all a-bristle and glaring, but thankfully unharmed. I put a hand out to stroke him and then thought better of it.
The moon was peering out just a bit from behind the clouds, and on the lake’s edge it was somewhat easier to see than within the forest. As I patted my head back into its customary shape I kept a wary eye on the pricolici. It lay sprawled at the base of the tree, eyes closed, jaws open, tongue startlingly red amidst all that black as blood streamed from its nose and lips.
For a moment I wondered if I had killed it, and felt a flash of anxiety; but no- the chest twitched. From the black fur something moved, something that was red, but not bloodred- hair. Human hair. I had forgotten about the pricolici’s grisly collar.
Now the head that had been dangling from the wolf’s neck all the while slowly rolled forward, out from where it had gotten jammed ingloriously between the front legs. My anxiety over killing the wolf turned to anxiety about the source of that red hair- but no, it was a different shade than Gabi’s, and not curly, and the skin and features of the face were all wrong. Someone had tied the hair of it to a black ribbon, and then fastened the ribbon to the pricolici’s neck in a knot that seemed cruelly tight, to my eyes.
The head’s eyes, which had been closed, now popped open.
I jumped. It made a loud thud when I landed, and Noroc’s single eye flashed me a look.
“So sorry to startle you,” said the head. “What are you, anyway?”
As soon as I heard the voice, I was able to place it: it was the other strigoi I had heard Gabi talking to, the one that had made a trap for Kazimir. I had never seen him in person, as I had been down inside the pit trying to free poor Kazimir at the time.
The strigoi’s head seemed to take my silence for some sort of answer, for after a moment it said, “Well, I can’t say I really care what you are. I must thank you for calming down that brute. He’s been in a wild panic ever since the witch tied me here and I haven’t been able to get a thing through to him.”
“The witch?” Slowly, clumsily, I managed to fit things together. The witch. Oh. Oh. Thank goodness Gabi had escaped her curse in time!
“I didn’t know the like of her would be hanging around these parts,” said the strigoi’s head, which was now a thousand times more uncomfortable to look at now that I had pictured Gabi in its place. “A fatal mistake. Obviously.”
He sighed. I wondered how he could do that without having lungs. But I also did not want to look too closely at the dark place where his neck ended.
“Friend,” said the head, in a way that made me feel unpleasantly sticky, “since you seem to have the power of speech, might you tell me where we are? I haven’t been able to keep track of all the places this devil has dragged me to.”
Something about the way he spoke made me think that I would not have liked to meet him while he had his body still attached. Not that I would wish his fate on anyone, of course.
“We are in the forest of a witch,” I said. “It is probably the same one that took your head off.”
At this the strigoi’s face screwed up, and it rolled slightly from side to side.
“Bad luck! Very bad luck! Oh, this wretched mongrel!”
“Excuse me,” I said. “How is it that you are still… moving?” (I was not sure if ‘alive’ would have been the appropriate word to use in this circumstance.) “I thought that removing the head of a strigoi would kill it.”
“Oh, yes, I should be dead,” muttered the head, “but that nasty witch thought she’d play one last prank on me and tied me to my- I hesitate to say loyal– hound, here. I can feed a bit when he does, and retain a bit of wretched existence a little longer, though even that will run out soon enough, I suppose.”
He sounded so bitter at this that I decided I was a little bit sorry for him, even though I was still fairly certain that I did not like him. It was not a good spot to be in by anyone’s reckoning.
“If you went back to your body, could you reattach yourself?” I suggested. I asked not merely out of goodwill, of course; it would be a useful thing to know for Gabi’s sake.
“No,” he said, dashing those hopes. “That hulk of mine has started rotting by now, finishing what was halted when I chose to spring back out of the earth. This wretch whose neck I hang from is all that sustains me now.”
“If that is true,” I said, “maybe it would be better for you to speak more kindly of him.”
His pale blue eyes flashed, and he chuckled.
“Ha! The pricolici? A kind word? He doesn’t deserve the heel of my boot.”
(At this his eyes flicked down to the empty space below his neck, and his manner became somewhat more melancholy.)
“I ought to have finished him off when I first found him, the mangy thing- ripping up my prey, he was- but I decided to make a servant out of him instead. I suppose that’s for the better now.” This last bit he said grudgingly. “But you know, o tall and slightly lumpy creature (who has a surprisingly feminine voice) in life I was no saint, but it didn’t matter- I was doomed to become a strigoi by the circumstances of my birth, and some poor funeral practices. The pricolici, on the other hand, is a creature that is made: a violent man, who acts a bloodthirsty beast in life, will become one in death. If you squashed him now it would be just what he deserves. Though at the present I’d rather you didn’t.”
I looked at the pricolici’s dark muzzle, still with that red tongue lolling on the dirty ground. A creature made? Then it was rather like me.
Noroc, who had been licking down the fur on his puffed tail, gave a mewl. I was pleased to see that he looked a great deal calmer now, and put my hand out to him. This time he gave it a sniff and butted his head against it.
“That’s no cat,” muttered the strigoi’s head. “Is it…?”
In a flurry of leaves, the pricolici raised its head.
Several things happened at once. I pulled up my fists. Noroc hissed. The strigoi made a miserable sound as his head banged against the wolf’s chest.
The pricolici still seemed dazed, for it turned its muzzle to and fro, wagging its unpleasant collar. The nostrils flared, still shining with blood. Noroc growled, and the thick ears perked his way.
For a moment I felt a surge of pity for the poor beast, so shaggy and injured and confused. Then it opened those human eyes and reawakened my revulsion.
“So you have come to, you mongrel,” said the strigoi’s head, nose twitching- it had gotten turned so the cheek was flush against the pricolici’s chest, and dark hairs stuck up its nostrils. “Will you listen to me yet? Are you done being mad?”
The pricolici gave a little whine, then shook itself. The strigoi’s head let out a stream of curses, only some of which I had heard from Gabi.
Noroc meowed. To my surprise, despite his initial hiss, he seemed calmer now, and met my eyes when I looked down at him. He no longer seemed to see the pricolici as a threat. Indeed, it did not even really seem to register our presence: it shook itself again, whimpered, and sat down to scratch at its neck.
“Rot you, you cur! Stop that!” shouted the strigoi’s dangling head.
The pricolici began to pant.
I said, “Maybe I should loosen that ribbon.”
The strigoi’s eyes bulged.
“Don’t you dare! That ribbon is all that still ties me to life, fool!”
The pricolici looked at me. I wondered if it understood at all what I was saying- but it should, should it not, if it had once been a man? It was still panting, a bit of drool joining the blood that dripped from its jowls. Again it whimpered.
“Curse it,” said the strigoi’s head, “he is going to go mad again. I suppose my parasitism puts quite a strain on things.”
“He is going to go mad? Do you mean he will attack me again?”
“Not if you run away fast enough,” sneered the head. “I suppose it’s more the better for me, though. He tears apart everyone he meets and gets me quite a bit of fodder along the way.”
The pricolici was panting harder, and now it gave a deep groan.
“Is this the only way for you to survive?” I asked what was left of the strigoi.
“Survival is such a strong word,” said the head, “for this; but yes.”
The pricolici began to growl. I took two steps forward and caught it by the shoulders.
“What are you doing?” shrieked the strigoi’s head, as the wolf yelped.
“I am sorry,” I said. I felt strange and light. My clay fingers dug into dense, dark fur; Noroc’s green eye was upon me. I felt the ribbon at the neck, stiff and clotted, as though with yet more blood. There was a coarse knot positioned just between the pricolici’s shoulder blades.
“Stop!” howled the strigoi’s head. “You’ll kill me! You’ll kill me!”
“You said yourself that it was no way to survive,” I said. Then I pulled the knot free.
A dreadful howl rose forth from the strigoi’s mouth, and before my eyes his flush cheeks became hollow and parched. The head dropped free and rolled along the ground towards the lake, landing in the pile of rotted things where I had before thrust my fingers.
With a cry, the pricolici sprang back, trembling and shuddering all over, and then in a stumbling dash made for the trees and vanished.
The voice was the strigoi’s, and his head sat in the rotten, wet pile, glaring at me as his cheeks shrank further and further into his jaw.
“Murderer,” he hissed. “Murderer. Murderer.”
He repeated himself, as I stood very still; I had, for some reason, thought that he would die at once.
“Noroc,” I called, and Noroc made a small sound of assent, slinking into the trees. I followed, trying not to walk too quickly, trying not to seem as though I was running from the word that still trailed after me.
It was a relief to be back within the darkness of the trees again, away from that shining stippled moonlight. The claustrophobic closeness seemed more comforting than the vast, reflective lake. My feet knew perfectly well where to go. Indeed, it seemed I would never get lost again, at least in this forest. One touch to that net, that web below the earth, and I had changed…
“If I had not done it,” I said aloud, to Noroc, possibly, “the wolf may have attacked Gabi. He said that it was attacking anyone it met.”
Was that really the reason, though? Even if the pricolici was no longer mad, there was no guarantee that he would not hurt Gabi. If I had really wanted to prevent that, I should have crushed them both.
“You will kill them all,” whispered my false mother’s words. I put my hands to the side of my head, trying to will them away. Killing solved nothing! Did it not? Even though I had ended what was left of the strigoi. Why had I done that? I would never have done something like that. Before… before I had touched the earth.
It was like a dream. Tiny lives, and tiny deaths, winking in and out like fireflies, knotted up inside tree roots. Within the earth there was a callous sense of assurance; everything was a sum of some parts that might come together again and fall back apart, over and over and over. Life was only a minor aspect of that eternal cycle… Noroc had told me as much in Sorina’s house, had he not?
The existence of the strigoi seemed to matter very little, from that perspective. No, I knew just why I had untied that ribbon. It was the pricolici had seemed to be suffering because of it. The strigoi had just told me what a cruel person the pricolici must have been in life, but I had not cared, because just before me I saw it hurting. He had said it deserved to hurt. But I did not know what anyone deserved.
Maybe I deserved to be hurt, because I had ended the strigoi’s life myself.
Something warm brushed against my shins, and I stiffened, but it was only Noroc, mewling to catch my attention. I had stopped walking. I realized that I was still holding the filthy black ribbon, and hastily flung it away from myself into the darkness.
“I am sorry,” I told Noroc, though I was unsure quite what for; in any case he seemed not to care, only made another sound that I thought might have been a little bit impatient.
Yes. Gabi. We were close to where she was; close to the witch. I had to focus myself on the daunting task that lay ahead.
I led the way through the trees in the grey darkness. The absolute assurance that guided my footsteps was a relief; for once, I knew just where I was going. Noroc trailed after me, winding in and out between the trees, leaping over roots and buttresses- pausing to sharpen his trees on the bark of a maple tree, leaving cruel white lines. The action made me a bit uneasy- this did not seem the forest to mark the trees in- but I did not say anything to him. Noroc was likely more versed in these matters than I.
Baba Yaga’s house was hidden in a little fold of land, where the trees dipped down and became smaller and hoarier. It was in the same place it had been before, probably; it was the rest of the forest that seemed to have shifted around it. Had she caused that? No wonder the Iele were displeased with her.
From my elevated position I spotted the smoke from her chimney before the house itself. It was rising, black and filthy and filled with glittery sparks, into the cloudy sky. I listened, but I did not hear the witch’s rattling snores. Either she was awake and brewing mischief, or she had left her fire burning while she was not at home. I felt that the case was probably the former.
I crept down the valley and crouched on the hillside in a spot where I could observe the whole house. The bone fence was lit, the skulls on the posts grinning with merry red fire that licked through their eye sockets and broken teeth. In the yard was the paddock- empty- and the garden, which had crept up around the sides of the house and over it. White and orange pumpkins which looked far too large were squatting on their vines beside the porch: not fat and sleek but wrinkled, lumpy, smugly ugly ones. Green and violet ivy had taken over half of the house, giving it a rakish air as one window peeped through the shade. And the ground all around was carpeted with bluebells.
The garden was not the only thing that had grown up in the witch’s yard- beside the front porch sat a squat cauldron that smelled like it was a dye pot, steaming and hissing softly to itself. I wondered what the witch was dyeing.
Though I did not see Gabi in all this, I knew just where she was: behind the house. What concerned me more was that I did not know where the witch was. Or her horsemen. Indeed, I was hoping very much not to have to face the three of them again, not this soon. The witch felt less frightening than that prospect.
Noroc rubbed against my side, drawing my attention, and blinked. Or was it a wink? (Impossible to tell.) He began to walk down the hill towards the hut.
“Noroc,” I whispered, tracking the progress of his raised tail. I thought he must have some sort of plan in mind, and I decided it would be better to just let him go through with it, and only leap to his aid if it seemed dangerous. It would have been nice if he had tried to communicate it to me first, though. I had half a suspicion that it was not so much that he could not talk anymore as it was that he could not be bothered to try. Then again, he was a cat.
He seemed very small as he reached the valley and made his way to the skeletal front gate, out in the open plain as day (though it was still night). The skull mounted on the gatepost swiveled to look down at him, fixing him with twin red spotlights. Noroc’s tail curled from side to side at the tip. To my surprise, the gate opened.
It did not creak. I took this as a sign that Vasilisa might still be there.
I moved slowly down the hill, slanting my feet so that they made as little noise as possible. Noroc had reached the steps. He ascended them in a single bound and paced back and forth before the door. A pitiful yowl emerged from somewhere in the back of his throat.
I put my hand over my mouth at this, for I had almost shouted at him to come back. What was he trying to do? Did he really have a plan? It was only the memory of how he had charmed the Iele that kept me quiet.
Noroc paced and caterwauled. All of the skulls along the fence had now turned themselves to peer at him, and the shutters of the house were rattling of their own accord. Finally, the door burst open.
“Away, you noisy mogget!” shouted Baba Yaga, and aimed a kick that would have sent Noroc flying had he not leapt off the steps. “I have better pets than you will ever be!”
From the ground, Noroc let out a more mournful sound, and the witch snorted.
“Eh! I’ve no scraps to spare on you! You smell like…”
She paused, and her wide nostrils flared.
“How is it you came by that scent, my pretty kitty?”
At this Noroc’s eye went wide, and he darted sideways. The witch lunged and missed him by a hair, her clawed fingers grasping at emptiness.
“Ah!” cried the witch, sounding pleased, and straightened up, her tattered old robe flapping open. Her withered breasts looked like two distended chicken necks. “So! You are Mother Forest’s pet, then, are you? Have you come to give me a message?”
Noroc yowled out a response, his tail whipping from side to side; I felt horribly nervous for him. The witch was now grinning in a most unpleasant way, her nostrils working like a rat’s.
“Is she displeased with the fire my servants have set at her borders? I should have thought it would have made her quite angry,” said Baba Yaga. “Well?”
At this she made another grab for Noroc, but he gave her arm a sharp swat and fled, streaking across the gard to leap over the bony gate, his tail high. At this all of the skulls shuddered and clattered their teeth, and the bones that made the fenceposts rattled, and the shutters on Baba Yaga’s house clacked loudly.
“Silence!” screamed the witch, and everything froze. She was scowling now, one hand on the spot where Noroc had struck her, and snapped her fingers. The door to the house opened very slightly. Three hands skittered out onto the porch, dragging a small mortar and pestle between them. Noroc watched all this from beyond the fence, illuminated clearly by the red lights from the skulls. He flashed a quick look at me; I felt it like a shock. Was this really his plan?
“You had better start running,” said the witch. She had taken the mortar and pestle from the disembodied hands and began to grind it. The wind, which had been little more than a slight breeze before, now began to pick up. Dead leaves battered against my face, catching in my eye sockets. I did not dare move to pull them off, so it was through a rattling brown screen that I saw Noroc turn and dash off into the trees once more. The witch gave a high shriek of laughter, and the grinding of her mortar grew suddenly louder. The wind roared. The skulls turned their red lights skyward, and I felt a dreadful warmth pass directly over my head.
Just as quickly as the wind had started, it died down, and I was left staring at the witch’s yard. No sign of her, or Noroc. My first instinct was to go after him. Surely even he could not outwit her for long! If he had not given me that look just before he ran away, I think that I might have, too. But he had, and for some reason it was enough to give me confidence that he knew- or at least thought he knew- what he was doing.
Though not entirely comforted, I still felt a certain eagerness now. Gabi had been left unguarded! Noroc had given me the chance I needed. All I had to do now was take her, and run very far away.
I stood from my crouch, looking about carefully, just in case Baba Yaga was still lurking behind a tree somewhere. The forest was quiet, all in shadow, a few crickets and early birds chirping here and there. The stars had disappeared, and the sky was a curious grey. Dawn would soon arrive. I ought to get Gabi somewhere out of the sunlight as soon as I could manage it.
I strode down towards the gate. The skulls turned their red eyes on me, and the one on the gatepost rattled its jaw. If it recognized me, it did not say, but the gate did swing open noiselessly. I had to hope it would do the same when I was ready to leave.
In Baba Yaga’s yard, I headed for the back garden, edging around the smoking dye pot, which was giving off a foul odor. The lumpy pumpkins seemed to leer at me, and the roof of the house creaked ominously. Thorns caught at my clay. It was as though Baba Yaga’s presence was still here, and it was not happy with the intrusion.
But no matter. I was a golem, and I tromped right through the thorns and vines, smashing a particularly vicious-looking pumpkin under my foot. I had neither the time nor the temperament for subtlety now.
And then, finally, I rounded the corner of the house and saw her.
At least, I thought it was her.
The white tree had taken her over almost entirely. I could see that because it was on the outside of her now. It had not just grown up, into branches sprouting from her shoulders and breast, but down- down, down, down over her chest and stomach and legs, binding her tightly in a latticework of white wood. From her outstretched arms hung long, stiff roots that stabbed into the ground like long-tasseled sleeves. Her face, save for the tip of her nose, was cris-crossed by white roots that covered her eyes and mouth.
The branches of the white tree trembled occasionally, quivering against the dawn sky. The tips of them bore no leaves, but blushed faintly red, and emitted a sweet scent. Here and there, tiny red fruits had sprouted, signs of life. But from within gaps in the trunk I saw no movement, no rise and fall of a chest. The tree looked like a burning candle that had dripped wax all over her. There was very nearly nothing left.
No response. I had not really expected one. There was nothing for it: I had to dismantle the tree and hope that something, some spark of vitality, remained beneath.
I stepped up to her, ducking underneath some of the higher branches, and set my fingers lightly on the wood that covered her cheek. Then I withdrew them, feeling the coldness in the tips. A less vulnerable place would be better to start with.
I could not tremble, so my clay hands were steady as I took a hold of a branch. I was glad for it, for I think my hands would have been shaking badly otherwise. I almost did not even want to touch it at all. I might hurt her worse, or- or-
But as the wood began to bow and splinter beneath my grip I felt a sudden satisfying catharsis.
Destroy this cursed thing!
That pleasant feeling stopped almost immediately, however, for when the branch snapped something hot and red spurted from the jagged edges of the wound. Blood. Blood! It oozed sluggishly from the break, horribly bright against the colorless wood.
I could not stop to wonder. I broke more branches, clearing away a section of the crown; red drops rained down and hit my clay flesh and made the bluebells at Gabi’s feet nod. The ends of the broken branches gaped like red maws in my face, disgorging themselves of dark syrup that oozed downwards. When I had touched the earth, I had heard the word vampire used by the consciousness of the forest- it had not meant Gabi by that. Blood for blood: here was a bloodsucker, preying on a bloodsucker.
Savagely I tore away at the branches sprouting from Gabi’s shoulders, leaving their broken stumps oozing stolen life. I tugged at the first winding root around her chest, but my clay fingers were too soft, and would not catch. I hardened them, sharpened my fingertips, and began to saw away. Blood dribbled forth from the cuts.
When the last strands had separated, I gave the strangling root a swift tug, and with a creaking and snapping pulled it and several others back. Amidst all this noise, I heard a soft, wonderful sound: air. Air flowing in through Gabi’s nose, as her chest expanded very slightly. She was not gone!
This led me to rip and saw with more fervor. My hands and arms and chest were soon streaked with blood, but I cared not at all. With every centimeter I freed, Gabi’s chest rose a little more, and I heard the tinny whistle of more air flowing into her nose. Soon I saw her chest exposed. To my amazement, the shirt she had gotten from Sorina was still whole and clean. It seemed that the branches had grown from under it and around it, but had been unable to penetrate the fabric. Never refuse a witch’s gift!
I yanked a handful of the descending roots from the ground, and one of Gabi’s arms flopped down to her side. Then the other. And now, finally, I gently scraped at the roots covering her face. Blood dripped down onto her shirt and slid away without staining it like drops of oil.
Here her chin emerged, and had I lips I would have kissed it. There, one side of her mouth, then the other. The skin was raw-looking, bloody from my work, but not broken anywhere that I could see. Her jaw slid down as I watched, and she took a breath through her mouth.
I put my arms around her best I could. More cunning roots still bound her to the ground, and some sort of wooden lattice was propped up behind her. I had opened up only one small part of the strangling tree, and the rest of it clung to her like a stubborn shroud.
“I will get you out,” I said. “I will get you away. I am… I am sorry, Gabi, for taking so long.”
My own words hung heavy on my chest. I had wasted time- looking for a dead man, stepping into a witch’s house, playing with the Iele and wrestling with the pricolici- I had wasted so much time, and now look! What sort of cruel creature was I?
The word was dry and fragile, trembling in the air like a fallen leaf, but I caught it.
“Gabi! Gabi, can you hear me?”
No response for a moment. I thought I might crack and fall into pieces. Then:
“I can’t see…”
The roots still covered her eyes, leaking blood down her cheeks like tears. Quickly I cut them away, pulling them back, freeing her eyes. Slowly she opened them, squinting in the light from the sunrise.
“I am sorry,” I had to say again. “I am sorry, Gabi, I let you get hurt, I did not protect you, I did not come here fast enough… I am so sorry! I-”
“Kezia.” She silenced me with my name, staring up at me with hazy eyes.
“My arm,” she murmured, barely above a whisper. “Could you free my arm?”
Both her drooping arms were still entangled in broken woody roots and branches. Tenderly I took her left and navigated it free.
“There you are, Ga-”
She swung her arm up, out of my grip, and dug her fingers into my forehead.
I did not move for surprise, and beheld a confused look come over Gabi’s face as she penetrated through my clay skull and dragged her hand downwards.
“You moved them,” she said, in that same fragile whisper. “Where?”
I did not respond, only pushed her arm away. It had barely any strength behind it.
“Gabi, do not-”
I could not finish what I was saying. Gabi’s chest, which had been steadily rising and falling, suddenly shuddered and fell still. In the hollow of her throat, I saw something silver appear- silver, then red… the tip of a knife.
From behind the white tree stepped Vasilisa, her face drained of blood, her hands covered with it.
“Kezia,” she said, “she was going to kill-”
She stopped, for I had raised my arm, as though I was going to strike her- I was going to strike her, strike her away, strike her down, the blood was pooling from Gabi’s opened throat like water- but I arrested the motion, forced myself, somehow, to halt. Vasilisa was paler than ever, now clutching her knife hesitantly before herself.
“Go away!” was all I could manage to say, and Vasilisa, ashen-faced, did. She stumbled back and dropped the bloody knife on the ground, and then ran towards the witch’s house.
Gabi was bleeding horribly now, and she had sagged against the support of the strangling tree. I felt time ticking away with each drop of blood, and caught her beneath her armpits to wrench her the rest of the way free. The tree let go of her reluctantly, the branches springing back. It was still bleeding, hollowed out, branches curling towards us like grasping fingers. If I had the time, I would have stamped it down into the dirt, but Gabi’s life was fading away in my arms. She was not breathing- her blood was draining away- the wound was not closing! I covered it up with my clay hand, willing the edges to bind, as they had before- come, Gabi, you have survived so much else, Gabi, Gabi…
The voice came from behind me, as I stood there with her body in my arms, head bowed down. I did not look up, did not take my hand away from her throat.
Baba Yaga stepped around and in front of me, her open robe still showing her unabashed nakedness. She raised one arm- Noroc dangled from it by the scruff of his neck.
“I wondered,” she said, swinging him from side to side- he was limp, but his green eye was open- “I wondered when I might get to meet the creature I have heard so much about, this golem. But it seems we have already met- and that you have already invited yourself into my home as a guest.”
At this she gave a great throaty chuckle, and dropped Noroc, who landed on all fours and hissed.
“Hush,” she said. “You led me on a merry chase, old mog, and were I not so interested in returning here, you would be in pieces now-! But that is of no importance now.”
She thumbed a wart on her hairy chin, looking me up and down. I avoided her eyes.
“Hm, hm,” she said, “so curious. A creature like you, to be so hunted by Mother Forest.”
Here her expression, which had been nearly gleeful, now lapsed briefly into irritation.
“I have set fires to her trees, and rained black poison down upon her forests, but still she has not sent so much as a letter my way- and yet, for you, she designs this elaborate welcome!”
Here she gestured to the hollowed-out remains of the white tree.
“So?” I challenged. Gabi’s pulse was beating against my hand, and I could feel trickles of warm blood still escaping. Heal, Gabi! “Those are two different things. There was no reason for you to take Gabi and hurt her like this.”
The witch laid a hand to her tattered chest, grinning like a goat.
“Hurt her? I have not laid a finger on the stryzga! ‘Twas Mother Forest who did this- aided by my over-eager servant, I admit.” She made a flicking motion with one hand. “Of course, it does not matter- a two-heart should recover from such a wound easily.”
At my silence, she raised her hairy brows and added, “Of course, it is possible that the remains of the parasite within her still saps away too much of her strength. If it is not cut out, I suppose she will cease to exist.”
These words burned through me like a heated blade- I did not think she was lying, for the bleeding was still not stopping. Gabi was still not breathing. And I could still do nothing…
As I felt myself teetering on the edge of this terrible precipice, the witch clucked her tongue.
“Well. I do not think this will do. I bear some responsibility, for it was my servant who struck the final blow. Perhaps…”
She was interrupted: Noroc pushed hard against my leg, and hissed again, his single eye wide. The witch aimed a kick at him, that sent him tumbling back. I would have interfered- but Gabi’s life was draining away in my arms. The witch’s hollow eyes glittered.
“It seems,” she said, “you’ll be wanting to make a deal with me, won’t you, dearie?”