The earth was cold and wet and nothing more underneath my feet. I pressed my toes into it, deep, feeling it squash up between them. But there was nothing. I no longer felt even the faintest connection to that slow-singing web of roots, to the thousands of movements and whispers that I knew must always lay just beneath me.
My senses of sight, of hearing, of scent, and most especially of touch had grown so much since I had traded clay for flesh. But I had them all before, even if they were less. It felt that in exchange for their strength, I had traded away my connection to the earth completely. I felt almost… blinded. I had only known about connecting to the earth because of what the Iele had shown me, but… I think that I had still always felt just a little bit of that sense. Because now the loss of it ached so strongly. The merry meadow I had walked over- the one that had sang so sweetly for me to Trample on!– the roots of the Starving Forest had churned it to pieces, and I could feel nothing. Nothing at all.
Perhaps this was something like what the golden ghosts crossing the river felt. They certainly seemed frightened and confused, as they straggled forwards in their long line, and they kept looking back towards their darkened village. It did not seem as though they wanted to go forward. So why did they go? Something must have compelled them.
The earth trembled. Gabi’s fingers clutched mine tighter, anchoring me as I swayed. I looked down at her and saw her face taut and wary. She felt it as I did: that ominous feeling. Something was about to change- or something was going to come.
The first ghost pulled herself up the riverbank, her hands clutching the gnarled root that draped over the side. Her frightened expression became one of surprise. Suddenly she seemed to gain more strength, and climbed up into the dark trees, whirling around, her head tilted back to look up at the canopy. She smiled.
“What,” muttered Gabi, stiffening.
The spectral woman raised her arm to wave at the long line of others, beckoning to them. Her mouth was moving, but no sounds were coming out; still, the others seemed to hear something that encouraged them, for they picked up their shambling pace.
“I do not understand,” I said to Gabi. “Why… Should we not warn them?”
“Admirable thought, but I doubt they could hear us,” Gabi said tersely. “I don’t really know what they are… You usually can’t see ghosts at all, unless they’re possessing something. This is too strange.”
“Then maybe they are not dead?”
My voice lilted up with small hope, but Gabi shook her head.
“Oh, no. They’re dead. They’ve left their bodies behind completely. But whatever usually compels people to go up- or down-” (her face twisted into a rather unpleasant sneer) “-is making these ones go sideways. Some witch meddling is at work here. Or- meddling of whatever the kind of thing you’d call Mother Forest is.”
I could not help glancing behind us, as if by speaking her name she would be summoned into the dark trees, but the trees were only trees. The first, glowing woman was passing slowly between then, her expression changed to something like silent awe. I wondered what it was she was seeing; to my eyes, there were only dark, grimy, mossy tree branches and wet black trunks spattered in stinking mud.
More soundless ghosts were coming up over the bank now, in a golden trickle: like the first, they seemed greatly cheered as soon as they touched the far bank, and smiled and waved to the others to come faster. One man took the shoulders of the girl beside him and they both whirled, open-mouthed with laughter; two others clapped and sang. But there was no sound. My skin prickled like I had felt a chill as little bumps raised on my arms.
“I don’t like this,” muttered Gabi. I was glad she had not let go of my hand.
“I do not like it either.”
“It’s like they’re in on some joke we haven’t heard,” she continued, which had not quite been my line of thinking. “What could possibly got them all so pleased? And where are they headed?”
“Never mind. I know exactly where. The fools.”
I fell silent. The steady parade streamed past us, now merry where they had been so frightened. A tall, broad-shouldered man walked in front of us, holding the hand of a little girl who had long hair. With a sudden shock, I realized that I recognized them: it was the blacksmith and his daughter. The very same little girl that I had kidnapped and taken to Gabi so long ago. The first time I saw her feed.
The little girl had a spectral cane in one hand and seemed to walk very slowly, with a pained expression to her face. But as she stepped deeper and deeper into the woods, her posture seemed to straighten, and a joyous look spread over her face as she threw the cane away.
I glanced at Gabi. I did not remember seeing the girl use a cane the night I had stolen her away. But Gabi, it seemed, had not noticed the girl; she was scanning the line and suddenly pointed.
“Look! There’s the man who tried to burn us out of the satra!”
I saw who she was referring to at once- he was very noticeable, with his great height and shock of pale hair. He walked slowly, with a kind of confused smile on his face.
“No dogs and fire now, has he,” Gabi muttered, without real venom. “And, look- there’s that girl…”
She trailed off, her expression becoming strange. I had to guess who she was referring to, scanning the line: was it the girl with the long hooked nose and drooping shoulder? Or the girl who kept bumping into trees because she was so intent on looking around? Or the laughing girl, with golden, shining freckles across her face, and a glittering necklace at her throat?
I had not realized that so very many people had lived in that village.
A very young boy drifted away from the rest, his hand sliding out of his mother’s without a sound, and he wandered closer to Gabi and I. I could not help waving very slowly, just in case, but his eyes passed over us, his head slightly cocked. He clambered down through the roots towards the white tree that the Blajini-boy had left behind.
That tree. It shone very slightly, not nearly as brightly as a ghosts- perhaps it was only a reflection of their light. But the boy seemed fascinated by it, and drew closer, as his mother walked on with the rest of the line, apparently oblivious. He reached out to touch the nearest leafless branch.
And then- before my astonished eyes- his glowing form seemed to collapse into liquid that slowly seeped downwards into the black soil beneath the tree. A second later it had entirely vanished.
Gabi drew in a breath; she had watched as well. None of the ghosts seemed to have noticed the boy’s disappearance, not even the woman I assumed was his mother: she just walked on, a blithe smile on her face. My stomach seemed to lurch on its own and I put a hand to my mouth as a sick feeling spread through me.
“Somehow I feel,” murmured Gabi, leaning close so that her warm breath fell against my shoulder, “that they aren’t going where they think they are.”
“And where is that?” I asked, drawing comfort from the small warmth.
“Look at them,” said Gabi, instead of answering. She was pointing to a small group of people straggling near the end of the line, in a small knot separate from the rest. Even through their golden sheen I could see that they had darker skin than the others, and their faces were not nearly so happy- indeed, they looked anxious and apprehensive, peering fearfully at the forest around them.
“Who are they?”
There was an odd, amused edge to Gabi’s voice. “The slaves.”
It took me a moment to gather what that meant… slaves. People who were owned by other people, yes, and the people that Gabi had come from. I looked at her, wondering at her thoughts, but she did not seem at all upset by the sight of them. A sardonic smile hovered on her face.
“Why,” I asked, tentatively, “are they frightened, when the rest are not?”
“That’s easy,” said Gabi. “They must realize by now that they are dead. All of them, they must know it. The masters surely believe that they are going to heaven, and their slaves with them. But the slaves- they think they are going to hell, because their masters are with them.”
At this I drew back a little, and she glanced at me, her smile fading.
“Don’t give me such a look. It was only a joke…”
I had not let go of her hand, and I squeezed it gently. “Was it really?”
She looked down at our joined hands, then said, with a slight sigh, “No. It’s a captive’s worst fear, to not have freedom, even in death- isn’t it?”
I turned this over in my head a moment, and decided that yes, I understood it. But it made me very sad to do so, because my thoughts turned at once back to Gabi.
“I said stop looking at me like that,” she muttered, turning her face away.
“I am sorry,” I said. “I do not know how to change the way I look in this body yet.”
“Let’s not try too much, my dear,” said Gabi, a quick hint of a grin appearing back at the corner of her mouth. “Human bodies aren’t quite so malleable as clay.”
I was pleased at her small smile. I had deceived her just a little bit, because I thought I could now guess what my own expression looked like, and I knew very well the limitations of my new body. But being able to tease me about such things made her happy.
The ghosts, masters and slaves alike, slowly passed us by. I became aware of a certain lightness to my head. My limbs felt watery and weak. But I did not feel quite so cold anymore. I just wished it was a little easier to focus my eyes. Little lights were dancing like fireflies on the far bank of the river- more ghosts? Or…
“Ah, would you look at that!” said Gabi, following my gaze. “The Zână have come out.”
I blinked and rubbed my tired eyes. The pale, blurry shapes across the river seemed to resolve into pale, slender maidens, clad in chaste ivy-spun dresses. There were perhaps half a dozen of them, all eerily identical, and they were clutching hands and weeping. Now the soft sounds of their grief drifted to my ears: unlike the ghosts, their voices were not muted.
“Come back, come back, O come back!”
“Don’t go where we cannot follow!”
They clutched vainly at the last few people who were crossing the river, but their fingers slipped right through the ghosts, who all seemed oblivious to their attempts. One of the Zână, crying loudly, threw herself down before a little girl, but the child walked through her unseeing, and skipped down and across the wide water.
“Fools,” muttered Gabi, even as my throat tightened with pity.
The Zână parted, and into their midst came another of their kind, just slightly taller than the rest. In her arms was a large cat, gloriously furred in all shades of brown and mahogany, and limp as a little doll.
The bannik raised its head and gave a thin little mewl. I saw the glow of the golden ghosts reflecting on its grimy eyes even from such a distance. The Zână laid it tenderly down on the sandy soil of the riverbank, and the beast seemed to fall utterly still for a moment- as though dead- no, no, it was rising to its four feet! It was struggling down to the water- the Zână moved as though she were going to try to stop it, but then drew back. The bannik slipped into the water, the glorious fur matting against its body, and paddled after the last of its long line of people. They did not see it, as they skipped merrily onwards- its head slipped down under the water, then resurfaced, kicking furiously, then it slipped down again- and again-
I had to turn to Gabi, my eyes filled with dampness.
“Can we not-”
“We can’t!” Her tone was blunt; she was no longer sneering, but she did not seem to feel the anguish I did, either. She had her eyes trained on the Zână on the far bank, now huddling together in their grief; she seemed distracted by something.
“The dead can’t be made alive again, Kezia…”
The last ghost had finally reached the far bank, and crawled up the riverbank into the trees. The bannik’s head did not reemerge from the dark, slow-flowing water.
A low moan rose up from beyond the river, a moan that slowly changed into a howl, and Gabi went rigid.
“Many spirits have come out tonight!” she hissed, letting go of my hand. “They must know what is going to happen!”
Her pupils had dilated, her expression becoming harsh and wary. I felt a kind of tingle on my skin, and looked all around so fast it made me dizzy. The Zână were fading away, and something dark was approaching the riverbank.
“What is going to happen?” I asked, wishing she still held my hand. But I felt that to take it while she was in this state would not be good. Her eyes were darting every which way.
The dark shape paused on the riverbank. I had to squint to make it out, in the dimming glow of the other spirits.
“Is that…” No, it could not be! “Is that Noroc?”
Gabi thrust her chin forward and did not reply; she did not seem nearly as surprised as I was. For it did indeed look very much like Noroc standing on the other side of the river, with his single green eye and his sleek black fur- except that it was a version of Noroc as large as a dog.
He yowled. I thought I saw something flash beneath the water for an instant. Suddenly wind whipped around my ears, sliding through my hair, cutting into my skin and numbing it further. Amidst the trees, the air seemed to whine and keen, and I blinked rapidly: it almost seemed like singing.
“Go away!” shouted Gabi, her hands over her ears. “Kezia! We must leave here at-”
With a great scream, Noroc rose on his hind legs, his high, furious voice making my ears ache.
“SHE IS GOING TO MOVE THE RIVER!”
My head seemed to split with a sudden pain, and the wind teased at my hair with laughter that sounded like the Iele, and from the trees came the frantic chittering of rats, and from somewhere high above I heard a voice like a crow’s cry out:
“The river! The river!”
“KEZIA!” shrieked Noroc, and I stumbled, and grabbed the tree beside me: the earth was shuddering again. Except it was not a mere tremor this time, that passed in a moment. It shook and shook and then in front of me the soil split with a terrible grinding noise.
Gabi cried out and fell back against another tree. I snatched for her flailing arm but the rumbling threw me back; I could do nothing but cling there desperately. The earth felt like it was undulating like waves. Trees creaked and shook, their roots springing free and stabbing upwards. Something in my solid stomach seemed to lurch and drop, and a sudden force pressed me down to my knees. Before my eyes, the earth below the forest rose up and away from the riverbank- up and up and up! Impossibly high! I threw my head back and saw the stars between the shaking branches of the trees, and the fat moon. An owl launched itself frantically out of a tree and a moment later hit the dirt as the earth ascended impossibly upwards.
Gabi coughed. She had a hand over her mouth and looked as though she were about to be sick. I did not feel much better, clinging to the damp, crumbling bark of my tree. In front of us, the roots of the trees that had formerly been on the riverbank now stuck out crookedly into empty air. The river itself looked tiny. I could see the figure of Noroc as a little black blot, and hear a distant howling. Somehow, we were now standing on the side of a mountain!
The ground beneath us slowly stopped moving upwards, and I breathed a shaky sigh of relief. But it was too soon for that. With a rumble, the ground between Gabi and I cracked and split, and the tree I was holding onto began to creak forwards.
Gabi had scrambled up, and was stumbling and staggering over the violently rocking earth towards me- I tried to push myself off the tree back to her- and then the earth and the tree both simply gave way and I fell back towards the river.
For a moment I hung in terrifying space, feeling every organ inside of me press up against the top of my chest cavity- and then, with a most horrible wrenching pain, I stopped falling.
I did not mean to scream, but it happened. Agony! Oh, it hurt, it hurt, it hurt! From the center of my belly, where the vine protruded from my navel- I had nearly forgotten about the bush that was still attached to me! It had caught in the crux between two trees, and now I swung helplessly from it in midair. But it would not last. The trees creaked and leaned forwards, their roots rising from the loosened dirt. My stomach was full of hot, thrashing pain. Which would give way first?
Something cool touched my back, and then took my entire weight, so that the pain eased. Without the tension from the vine, the bush slipped from between the trees and landed beside me. My belly still ached, but in a duller, slower way; I blinked many times and then managed to sit up…
The air wooshed around me, and my head felt light and sickly. I was on the ground- part of the ground- and it was moving. It was bringing me lower, closer to the dark river- fearfully I clung to the columns of earth. Columns of earth? Yes, they were sticking up near the flat place where I was sitting, almost like giant fingers… almost like…
I looked up and saw that the mountain had a face.
It was a face intimately familiar to me, a face with two black holes for eyes and a frowning line for a mouth. They could have been caves upon a cliffside for their size, but I recognized them at once. And what I was sitting on really did have fingers, for it was the palm of the vast hand that extended down into a wrist and arm that connected with the torso beneath the giant face. It was not a mountain. It was a vast humanoid figure made of earth- a vast golem.
She had none of her usual features, but I knew it was her, I knew; who else could it be? She was bracing herself up on one colossal elbow while she held me, her torso extending laterally, as though she were lying on her belly. Bare trees peppered her back and sides like a most peculiar turtle’s shell. She was wearing the forest. The trees- she was the one who moved the trees!
My mouth hung open as I gathered all of this in the space of a few seconds, and then suddenly I realized another fact- that Adamina was holding me in front of her face, and looking right at me.
That was Gabi, and I saw her tiny figure appear at the edge of Adamina’s sloping, mountainous shoulder. My chest seized as she slipped and grabbed a tree to stop herself from tumbling over the edge in her hurry.
I wanted to call out to her, but when I tried I only made a strange thin noise. My throat was dry and it ached and my muscles were fighting me again. But Gabi looked down and saw me anyways, sitting upon the palm, and the fear in her expression changed to confusion and then disbelief.
Suddenly, I was vibrating. The columns of fingers surrounding me were moving inwards, as though to clench around me. I was able to make a noise then- a shout- and of their own accord, my arms rose to shield my head. Cold earth pressed against me from all sides, and my breath flew from me in a whoosh. But it did not crush me, just held me securely in place.
My stomach seemed to hit my throat as the hand swung downwards, dizzyingly fast. Suddenly I was almost touching the ground again- the real, solid ground, that was not part of any giant golem. Vainly I reached for it. But it seemed Adamina was not putting me down, only moving where her hand was. With me clenched tightly, she braced herself and reached with her other hand towards the river.
I tilted my head back. Like a vast bridge of land, her arm stretched above me, raining down clods of earth and stones and leaves and branches that smacked into the bare dirt below. I looked past it and saw that the rest of the forest draped over her sides like a blanket, extending away on either side. But the top of her head was adorned with some of the tallest trees of all, some so tall I could hardly fathom it, and her forehead was cut through by braided roots.
She reached down towards the river, faster and slower than I would have thought possible at the same time- perhaps I could hardly perceive the movement of a being so large- and dug her fingers into the riverbank. They penetrated the sandy soil as easily as a knife through hot butter, or a finger going into a bowl of milk. Then she- she- she scooped up the river.
My mouth was open again, as I stared and clutched at the fingers around me. She had taken ahold of the bottom of a section of the riverbed, somehow, and was lifting it free of the earth so that all the water still lay cupped inside- this was impossible- and the rest of the river on both sides rose up with it, as though it were merely some watery ribbon lying on the ground. Water- it was splashing and tumbling down either side in great waterfalls as Adamina raised it. I saw fish go flying through the air like silver rain. Adamina’s grip on me tightened very slightly as she crawled forward, one elbow on the ground, moving the river and the creaking, trembling, rumbling shawl of a forest with her.
We were moving towards the village. I heard distant screams- not the villagers, but the bright specks of spirits hovering on the ground below. The Zână had reappeared, and seemed to be trying to shield the village, vainly, with their spectral bodies- but they were also interwoven with Iele, who danced madly and shrieked with something more like glee as they reached up towards the behemoth who carried the forest. A Blajini darted on the ground below me and was crushed instantly by the vast elbow. I flinched; it had not made a good noise.
Adamina’s arm, carrying the section of the river, passed over the village in a vast dark shadow- the spectres all cried out together- and then she let go.
For a moment all I heard was a high-pitched ringing sound, as the insides of my ears ached. There had been a tremendous sound as the river landed- on the opposite side of the village that it had been on. Water which had been pooling in place by gravity now rushed to fill the empty channel, spilling and frothing in its eagerness to reconnect. There was a loop of it curving in the opposite way it had been a minute ago. She had changed the course of the river. It was completely impossible- unfathomable- but she had changed the course of the river!
My stomach hit my throat again- she was raising me back up.
I put my hand over my mouth and held myself steady against the great encircling fingers. The dirt, I noticed, was crumbling and powdery, sloppy in the patches where it was wet- nothing like the smooth, pliant clay that should have made up a golem. How could she control it so well? Perhaps it was why she had not given herself a more fine-featured face… As she brought me to her eye level again, I shivered: seeing the simple features almost felt like I was seeing her nude, stripped bare, for the first time.
Adamina looked at me again and, inexplicably, I felt my frantic heart beginning to slow down. I was growing calmer. I suppose it was because I was exactly so helpless right now- the size of her, the strength of her, the things I had just seen her do- I was just so helpless that absolutely nothing I could try to do would matter. So I sat still and looked back into the hollows of her eyes. They were very deep and black, and I could have crawled inside them, like Gabi had once crawled through mine as a bat. I wondered: what was it like inside a golem? My hand strayed to my too-solid belly, full of wet working parts, and remembered the quiet hollowness it had once been. I wondered: did she realize, at all, who she held?
She did not say anything, nor give me any sign that she recognized me. Perhaps she could not talk at all, like this. My eyes rose to her root-stitched forehead. Were her silver letters embedded somewhere in there?
With a grinding and a rumbling that juddered through my bones, Adamina pulled herself forward, over where the river once lay, towards the village. I turned in my cage of fingers and looked down at it. The spirits, it seemed, had fled: the houses were dark and silent. The only light came from the pale glow of the hundreds of white trees that peppered the streets.
Adamina grasped a section of the forest that lay across her like a cloak, drawing the earth forwards over the village. The edge of it clipped the tall church spire, and the bell shuddered and hummed. Automatically I clapped my hands over my ears, squeezing my eyes tight shut. It took me a moment to realize that no dark terrors were emerging from my mind. The ghost had gone.
When I opened my eyes again, and looked back down, it was to the sound of trees crashing down through roofs. Smash went the straw-and-wattle roof over the blacksmith’s house, crash went the shingled roof of the house where Crina had once stayed. Adamina pushed them down forcefully, with a violence that somehow shocked me. The trees submerged themselves into the earth below the cobblestone streets, grinding up the bricks with such force that they went flying through the air. Glass windows shattered as branches thrust through them. The earth rippled and roiled like an ocean tide, carrying trees forwards in waves, inexorable waves, crushing through everything in their path.
And then, very abruptly, there was silence.
I felt dizzy and dazed, as though I were the one smashed and battered. I blinked and rubbed my eyes, then rubbed them again. It was so terribly quiet now. The river flowed along a new course beside the river- but how could it? There was hardly any sign it had been moved at all, save the waterstained banks. And the village below me was inundated with hundreds and hundreds of trees. But it was so crumpled and ruined, the houses mudstained and battered, with trees growing through the roofs- it looked as though it had been abandoned for a thousand years, and gone to seed. And the forest- the forest- it extended out through the village, with the trees spaced perhaps a little further apart than they had been- but it looked as though it had been there forever.
Only the presence of Adamina, the silent mountain that held me, reassured me that any of the eerie, impossible events I had seen had really happened. The river had moved, and the forest had grown. No- it had eaten.
I looked back at Adamina’s giant face, and felt sick and humbled. The great power of the golem, that Mother Forest so coveted: this was it.
As if she had heard my thoughts, she finally spoke.
“Is that really you… my daughter?”
My tongue curled against the roof of my mouth, my eyes stung: daughter?
Adamina’s great fingers tightened around my waist very slightly, then relaxed again.
“So,” she said, and it was so strange: coming from that enormous mouth, her voice still sounded as small and ordinary as it ever had, as though she and I were still standing on equal ground, “so, it has worked- you are- you have become a fadua.”
I stared back at her, unwilling to allow myself to speak. Perhaps it was some quirk of my new flesh, but I almost thought that I might cry, or that I might want to call to her as she had called me- to call her mother again. Which was foolish. Why was I so affected? I put my arms around myself and shivered.
“Are you cold?” she asked, and with a loud rumbling suddenly her other arm came up, and before I could move back in alarm, one great finger gently brushed underneath my chin.
I froze, feeling the power behind that touch, as soft as it was. When she next spoke, her voice was very soft.
“I have never felt the cold before, myself.”
She paused, and I felt my tongue loosening. I wanted to say something, finally, something about what I had become, and what she was- I was not entirely sure what- but then we were both distracted. A band of white light had appeared on the horizon, changing the dark sky to grey. Her great face turned, grinding and shedding clods of dirt and small stones, to look.
Something small also fell like an arrow from her neck- but in another moment it fluttered back up, and towards me, in a bright red streak. In a powdery flapping flash a little red bird had landed on my shoulder.
“Gabi,” I whispered, and she pecked the side of my neck- not hard, but enough to make me flinch. I carefully reached back, and took her small, warm self in both my cupped hands, just as Adamina slowly turned her face back towards me.
She studied me for a moment, as the pale dawn grew brighter, and said, “What shall I do with you?”
On her palm, feeling Gabi’s tiny bird heart beating fast against my fingers, I looked back up at her and found I had no answer at all to give.