Three bright lines converging.
It occurred to me, after the witch left, and everything was very quiet for a little while, that perhaps Gabi was rubbing off on me. It seemed that Gabi, or at least the version of her in my head, would not have thought very much at all of speaking so boldly to Baba Yaga, and of making deals she could not wholly guarantee that she could fulfill. (Actually, in truth, she had done just that.) I had not known I could be so headstrong and impulsive. Perhaps it was my human body, which seemed to make every emotion I felt so much brighter and harder than it had been before.
My knees buckled, and someone with very cold hands caught me before I fell. Kazimir.
He held me by my elbows at arm’s length for a moment, his beautiful, delicate face filled with indescribable emotion. “Kezia,” he said, and then trailed off, at a loss.
I think that I should have still been a little bit angry with him, but seeing the real sorrow in his green eyes put me off, and I looked away. That was one area where I was still very different from Gabi. She would have been able to hold on to that righteous anger, even for much longer than really necessary.
Kazimir made an odd noise, and then swiftly drew me into a tight, freezing embrace.
“We’re fools!” he exclaimed. “We’re all fools, because we’ve all done wrong by you, Kezia, and you still wished for our freedom! I can’t believe it- I haven’t ever seen anybody rattle the witch like that! She wouldn’t normally make such a low threat- harming someone you love- it’s terrible but you really have got her worried- and you wanted us to be freed!”
With this he squeezed me a little tighter, pushing the breath right out of my chest, and Zakhar cut in smoothly.
“She may have wanted it so, but we are not free yet, Kazimir. Let the creature go- her lips are turning blue.”
Kazimir jumped back like he’d been stung, and I swayed from the loss of support. My teeth were rattling together uncontrollably, but I did not feel very cold at all. In fact, my skin seemed to have lost most of its sensation.
“I’m sorry!” cried Kazimir, his limpid eyes filling with tears. “I’ve hurt you again!”
Zakhar put a hand on his head and stroked him, a rather funny motion, since Kazimir was a great deal taller than he was.
“Hush. Crying won’t help things. Besides, it’s easy enough to get her warm again.”
In fact, as Kazimir wiped his tears away with his slender, elegant fingers, I felt a warmth rising behind my back. My skin buzzed and prickled as feeling began to return to it. I turned partway around and saw Pascha- or what was left of him, for though the others had taken on their ordinary human shapes, Pascha remained the formless, floating flame he had become when Baba Yaga had punished him.
The flame drifted slightly closer. The heat fell over me in waves, making me shudder- it felt good, but it also hurt a little bit.
“He isn’t hurt,” said Zakhar, still stroking Kazimir’s head. “He could take on a more substantial shape, but I believe he’s too ashamed.”
The flame seemed to dim slightly at this. I put both my cold palms out towards it, for the heat had receded as well.
“Why is he ashamed?”
Zakhar laughed at this. “Why indeed? Perhaps because now he thinks that you have realized his true, traitorous aim. He fed you a great lie in order to manipulate you.” He paused, his round face growing somewhat grim. “Then again, so did I.”
Kazimir moved away from his hand, and said, “I never lied to you, Kezia.”
“You don’t have it in you,” said Zakhar, but in a fond way. Kazimir frowned.
I pondered over their words. Lies? Traitorous? Everything had happened very fast, but now that I thought about it, Pascha really had said and done something strange, when he plucked me from giant Adamina’s grasp. I turned back to the silent flame.
“Were you going to tell Baba Yaga what a golem’s weakness is?”
It had come up, after all, while Adamina and I were speaking.
The flame shrank even smaller. Slowly my thoughts began to click together. If I considered how Pascha had acted for most of the time I had known him… some of the strange things he had done…
Why, he had led me into dragonfire once, what seemed like a very long time ago.
“Pascha,” I said, very slowly, “you were trying to find out what a golem’s weakness was from the very first time you saw me… were you not?”
The flame shrank down smaller and smaller, until it was fist-sized. I shivered in the advancing cold.
“But why are you ashamed? It was because Baba Yaga told you to do so, was it not? Then it is not your fault.”
To my disappointment, the flame did not grow any larger. Zakhar spoke.
“That wasn’t his only lie. I must admit to my wrongdoing as well.” He sighed, seeming to deflate slightly. “As you asked for our freedom so prettily.”
“Don’t say it like that,” Kazimir said, his teeth glowing slightly greenish. “You don’t believe she can really do it, do you? Well, she has given me more hope and kindness than either of you two have for a hundred years. And the two of you were fools to try and trick her, because you can see very well that she was already kind enough to do anything we asked. And Pascha…”
He stopped for a moment, and glared at the flame, which was dwindling close to pinprick-size. Zakhar, too, seemed even shorter than I remembered, and had his eyes cast downwards.
“Pascha,” Kazimir continued, “I have not forgiven you, and this has done nothing to make my trust in you grow again.”
The flame shrank further, until I could not see it at all anymore, and a brief look of worry crossed Zakhar’s face- but then, with a faint pop and a wave of heat, Pascha emerged from thin air, human-shaped and scowling like thunder.
“So what could I do?!” he shouted. “A hundred years it’s been, and you haven’t spoken a word to me! I’m finished with prostrating and apologizing! Perhaps you’ll never forgive me- then say so, that I may at least stop this endless anxiety!”
A greenish flush rose to Kazimir’s cheeks, and he opened his mouth to respond, but then hesitated. I had raised my hand.
“Stop this,” I said. “Please do not begin arguing now. I know that the three of you have many things to speak about with one another, but you have time to do it later. I only have until sunset to find a needle in a forest.”
The two of them stared at me, Pascha with his mouth agape, and then Zakhar laughed, a sudden, very loud sound.
“She’s correct,” he said. “The pair of you shall have to mull this disagreement over, which shouldn’t be difficult, as you’ve had a great deal of practice. Kezia- you’ve shamed the three of us, but that is a good thing. We’ll help you search for the witch’s death.”
“You will?” A sudden, fierce sense of relief passed through me, and I sagged where I stood. “Thank you! Surely…”
I was going to say that surely, with the great power that the three of them wielded, it would be no challenge at all to find the needle, but Zakhar’s expression sobered me.
“I should warn you all the same,” he said, “that I haven’t much hope for it. Baba Yaga hid her death with the cleverest of spells, for it is her most precious possession. I have been searching for it for years, until I realized what the spell meant.”
“You did…?” said Kazimir, and bit his lip.
“What is the spell?” I asked, rubbing my arms, and Pascha took a step closer to me and laid a gentle heat against my back.
“A nasty one,” said Zakhar, with a slight grin that showed his yellowed teeth. “Nobody can find the needle as long as they’re looking for it.”
“What!” I exclaimed. “That is possible? That is unfair!”
“She is a witch,” said Zakhar, with a shrug of his voluminous shoulders. “All the same, she shouldn’t have been so surprised when it turned up missing. A spell like that may stop anybody from finding the needle on purpose, but it increases the chances of somebody finding it by accident. That’s just the nature of such magic. If she was wiser and had a little less pride, she could have merely asked you to find the duck, and you might have been able to do it for her.”
“No,” interrupted Kazimir, “it wasn’t her pride, or it wasn’t just that, really.” He looked at me for a long moment. “She wants Kezia to fail. You’ve impressed her, and now she must want to eat you as much as she wants to find that needle.”
“I am not sure why being impressed with somebody would make you want to eat them,” I said, in a faint way.
“She’s a witch,” said Pascha, his voice very close behind me. “They gobble up people’s souls because they haven’t got their own anymore. Ask her where she was born, what her father’s name was, what the pattern of the quilt she once slept under looked like, and she couldn’t answer you. But ask her those questions about Lyudmila, Olga, Elena, Zlata, Klara, Tatyana, Yulia… and soon, Vasilisa… she could spout them all off, with ease.”
“So many names,” I said, curling my fingers into fists. “It seems like she should have been full already!”
“Ah, but none of them are hers,” said Zakhar. “That’s the trouble. Once you lose your soul, you’re going to have a hard time finding another that fits you just right.”
I supposed that made a certain amount of sense, though it was difficult for me to imagine. How was it that one lost their soul, anyhow? Perhaps it had come out when she had sewn away her death… but then, where had it gone?
“In any case, the chances of us circumventing such a spell are slim, which is why I myself hold out little hope for your success. It isn’t because I haven’t faith in your own reliability, my dear,” said Zakhar. His voice was matter-of-fact, but his words struck me like stones.
“If we cannot find the needle, I will… and Gabi…”
“Isn’t there some way to break the spell, Zakhar?” asked Kazimir, placing a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve said before that all spells have certain conditions that can be manipulated.”
“A way to break this particular spell? I’ve searched for years, and found none.”
“And didn’t bother to tell either of us,” muttered Pascha. Zakhar shrugged.
“I knew she would find out eventually. And she did. I would rather take my punishments alone.”
“Selfish as ever!” His voice sounded angry, but the glance Pascha cast in Zakhar’s direction bore a different sort of heat. Kazimir frowned again, very hard.
“In any case,” said Zakhar, very firmly, without looking at either of them, “I haven’t any idea of how to break it, and sneaking around it, as it were, is extraordinarily difficult. It left her home because she did not tell Vasilisa it existed, nor that it would be inside a duck-”
“Why a duck?” muttered Pascha. “Of all things.”
“-and you, likewise, knew nothing of it. But even if we return to the place where you left the creature, I doubt we’d find a feather of it. We all know, you see.”
“But we must find it,” I said. “Unless there is a way that I can escape Baba Yaga if I fail.”
The three of them shook their heads, in near-perfect unison, and with vehemence.
“I did not think so. So, we must find it.”
Kazimir was looking at me with something approaching pity, but I ignored it. I was trying my hardest to think, and to not get swept up by the wave of panic that was threatening to overwhelm me. This was harder to do in a flesh-and-blood body than a clay one. My throat was tight and my eyes stung and threatened to leak.
“You said that the needle cannot be found by anyone who is looking for it,” I said, trying to pretend that my voice was not teetering towards sobbing like a glass at the edge of a table. “What if we know about it, but are not actually looking for it?”
Zakhar considered this for a moment, thankfully ignoring my fragile state. “I suppose then it could be found by accident,” he allowed, “so long as I understand the spell correctly. But we aren’t going to trick it just by pretending we’re not searching for it.”
Oh. Well, I supposed that would be too easy anyway. I tried a different angle.
“If we merely told somebody, ‘Find the duck,’ would they be able to find it?”
“There’s an idea,” said Pascha, lightly touching my shoulder. Zakhar scratched the side of his head with his thick fingers.
“It may be too close to attempting to find it ourselves… but perhaps…”
“Then we must find Gabi,” I declared, “and ask her to find it for us. She will understand if we tell her it is for Baba Yaga, even if she does not know why we are searching for it!”
“Ah,” said Pascha, taking his hand from my shoulder, and cleared his throat. I turned to look at him.
“What is it? Did you see where she landed?”
Pascha coughed again, and did not meet my eyes; but he had not done so anyway since he had stopped being a flame. “I saw her get hit by that giant, and fall down out of the air… but I was not at an angle to get more than the general direction.”
“Well, we must go that way and look for her,” I declared. “I hope she is not too badly hurt.” At their silence, I added, “I am sure she is just fine. She has survived much worse things before, and she is very durable.”
“You’re right, of course,” said Kazimir, flicking his eyes between his two brethren. “She’s a strigoi after all.”
“I suppose it is the best chance we will ever get,” said Zakhar, his voice dry. He tilted his head back, and looked meaningfully up at the sun. “But if we are going to do it, we ought to get started.”
I looked up too. The sky was still hinting at lingering dawn, the sun shining through the naked trees in the Starving Forest. I hoped Gabi had fallen somewhere relatively safe. I hoped that Adamina did not get up while we were searching for her, in one shape or another. The ground did not feel so solid underneath my feet anymore.
“Who will you ride, Kezia?” asked Kazimir, with an endearing little smile. “I offer myself, of course.”
“No,” said Pascha. “She won’t be riding you- you’ll freeze her, and she’s already in a bad way from this cold. She’ll have to ride with me if we don’t want her to expire early.”
The smile dropped from Kazimir’s face, and he glared greenly at Pascha. Zakhar made a clucking sound.
“He’s right; we must keep her warm- she hasn’t hardly got any clothes to cover that bare skin. And look here.” He leaned down and picked up something small and withered- the bush that was tethered to my navel. “This, as well, we must keep from freezing.”
A sick, dizzy sensation traveled up from my navel to my head as I looked at the dry, tired-seeming plant. My silver letters… was my life still bound to them after all? I could not see them, but the bush’s branches were thickly tangled.
Kazimir leaned around Zakhar’s shoulder to peer at the bush, his lips slightly parted.
“That’s it? That’s the fadua plant?”
“They dug it up,” said Zakhar, gesturing at the bush’s roots, still wrapped in the muddy blanket. “A clever solution, but a temporary one, I am afraid…”
Kazimir lightly touched one of the balding branches, then looked over to me.
“I should have said so before,” he said, his gaze softening, “but your new body is lovely, Kezia. It suits you very well.”
“Indeed,” said Zakhar. “I wasn’t aware you were female, but-”
Kazimir elbowed him into silence. “Take good care of it,” he told me, his voice firm. “It won’t be easy for you to get another one.”
I had to smile a little at that. “You were not surprised to see me…?”
“Our mistress was somewhat transparent in her intentions, and Pascha relayed certain facts to us,” said Zakhar. “And you have the familiar voice, as well.”
He nodded to something behind me, and I turned to see that Pascha had become the familiar brown horse, dipping his head low so that his long mane fell over his eyes. He wore a saddle with a high pommel, but no bridle.
Before I was quite ready, Kazimir’s cold hands were at my waist, and he lifted me easily on to Pascha’s back. Zakhar came around to the other side and handed me the bush, looping the vine around the pommel.
“Tuck in that skirt,” said Pascha, turning his long face back towards me. “If you don’t want a very uncomfortable ride. And hold on- we are going to move quite quickly.”
Zakhar snorted- a horse’s snort, not a man’s. He had become the large white charger, with no mane but mist floating instead around his arched neck, and hovering around his blue hooves. On Pascha’s other side, Kazimir was horse-formed as well, the small black horse with the raised mane and gashes of electric green on his sides, skipping anxiously in place. Between the two of them, Pascha tangibly warmed between my thighs, until I was rather uncomfortable, and shifted on the saddle. It did not feel like leather, but that particular hot, supple material that made up Pascha’s flesh. With all of them so close, they reeked of their own queer magic, the scent of Pascha’s bright, coppery citrus, and Zakhar’s damp mustiness with a hint of fresh-cut stems; Kazimir’s cold crispness seemed to make it all the more overwhelming. The three horses moved closer, nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, snorting, their necks curving, their hooves scraping. Kazimir drew his lips back from his sharp teeth and let out a kind of stilted yowk-yowk whinny.
It occurred to me that this was the first time I had ever seen the three of them together, working together- and it felt somehow dangerous. Pascha was practically trembling beneath me. I tightened my grip on the pommel of his saddle, which was, really, just a part of his own body.
The three horsemen began to run.
It surprised me because it was very quiet- their hooves struck the earth soundlessly, except for Pascha’s, which rang softly like little bells. This jingling, and the faint creak of the faux-saddle I sat upon, and the swift, harsh breaths of the horses all filled my ears; and I became conscious of the air whooshing past us and the thudding of my own heart. We were moving quickly, very quickly, yet it seemed almost as though I was not moving: the ride was so smooth. When I had ridden Pascha before it had not felt like this- then he had moved like a real animal. But I felt that the Pascha now was straining away from anything animal or earthly; he was pulling against invisible tethers towards something that was ahead of us, and the other two were as well- their necks surged and strained, and their manes flapped, and their ears pinned back.
Skeletal trees passed us in a blur, and the sun gleamed and flickered between them and made me squint and blink. The heads of the three horses came forward together, and for a moment it seemed that their three muzzles almost intersected, like three bright lines converging, and my heart did a strange jump- but then they were apart again, running parallel, straining but not reaching, never reaching. And for some reason- maybe it was the air flying past my face- my eyes were stinging again.
Then Kazimir surged ahead, his nostrils flaring greenish, and growled, “I smell her this way!”
Zakhar turned smoothly to follow his lead, and Pascha followed up behind the two of them, the jingle-jingle-jingle of his hooves increasing in tempo as we climbed to higher ground. Kazimir stopped running and circled, doglike, snuffling at the earth. Zakhar and Pascha came up to meet him at the top of the small balding hill.
“She lay here for a little while,” said Kazimir, stamping on the ground with one hoof. Pascha and Zakhar both dipped their heads to look, and I leaned over Pascha’s side as well, the branches of my bush prickling against my chest. The bare dirt did seem to be scraped and disturbed in places, as though perhaps something had been pushed or dragged, and in one place there were very large pawprints leading away into the forest.
“Did she transform?” asked Pascha, rolling his head to indicate the pawprints. “And walk away, perhaps?”
Kazimir flicked his ears towards Pascha, and for a moment I thought he was going to refuse to even respond, but then he said, “No. Those came from something else.”
“What something?” I asked. I could not imagine any earthly animal able to hurt Gabi, but one did not usually call an animal a ‘something.’
Kazimir snuffled in the dirt, and then shook his head slightly.
“We should follow it,” he said. “I think it went with her- or took her with it.”
My hands tightened on the pommel, and Pascha said, “Oh, don’t worry, Kezia,” in a tone of voice that did not reassure me.
“Careful,” said Zakhar, and a snakelike tongue flickered out from his horse’s muzzle. “We’re not alone here…”
He had tilted his head back, and I followed his gaze, and saw something small and black sitting on a branch above us, flicking its tail back and forth.
Yes- it was surely him, for how many black cats with one eye wandered around this forest? But even as delight rose in my chest at the sight of him, something else moved to gnaw at me- a sense of unease. Something was not quite right about him. Aside from his slowly-swinging tail, he was not moving at all, his single eye staring wide and fixed somewhere at the air above our heads. I called him again- “Noroc, it is me, Kezia,”- but he did not move. In his empty eye socket I thought I saw a tiny pinprick of white.
“‘Ware!” With a shrill whinny, Pascha suddenly reared up, and I had to grab tight to his saddle to hold on. The other two horsemen made similarly harsh sounds of distress, and moved back; the earth where Pascha’s front hooves had been was bubbling and rising up.
The dry dirt bulged upwards in a column, shedding dust every which way, and Kazimir squealed as the hilltop beneath his hooves was sucked away to accommodate it. Zakhar pushed him aside with his shoulder before he could fall forwards.
Pascha snorted and leapt to firmer footing as the trees around us shook, and this time I felt the shock of impact when we landed, and the breath came out of me all at once. The column of earth twisted slightly as though it were following our movements, and as more dust shook free I began to see a head in it, with dirt raining away from the holes it had for eyes and a mouth. Ghostly arms emerged from the cloud of particles, and then first one leg, than another, and then a dusty, shaky golem had emerged from the ground.
“Give her to me,” it said.
With a sick little shock, I realized that the voice was Adamina’s, which meant that this unpleasantly dry, unfinished golem was her body as well. With every movement it made, little cracks ran through the loose-packed facade and smoothed themselves out again. It tried to step forwards and one of its legs collapsed downwards into a pile of dry dirt.
Pascha huffed, and backed up a few steps, eyeing the ground below himself with a wary eye.
“What! So it’s you, then, witch-golem?”
The dusty figure trembled, and repeated, “Give her to me.”
“I don’t think I will,” said Pascha, as Zakhar stepped around to flank him again. Kazimir was still fretting and shifting his weight from hoof to hoof on the other side of the hill. “You seem a bit out of sorts today. Have a rough night? Over extend yourself, perhaps?”
Adamina did not answer. Her hollow eyes and mouth gaped in my direction. I tried to swallow but found my throat was filled with dust.
“Fly away with her, Pascha,” said Zakhar, his voice just barely still calm. “That’s the only way to escape this one. Do it now.”
“Wait a moment!” snorted Pascha. “The only way to escape her? I think not; she must know that I know what her weakness is now. So what can she do against me?”
“Pascha,” I said, tugging urgently on his mane, but now Adamina did speak- or rather, she laughed.
“Give me the fadua,” she said. “She was reshaped, but I made her originally, with a piece of my own self. Therefore she is mine.”
I found my voice again, even though it was hoarse. “I am not yours!”
“That’s right, she isn’t,” said Pascha, stamping. “She isn’t a part of you anymore, and she won’t ever be again- that’s how these things work, isn’t it!”
Adamina did not seem to hear either one of us, or perhaps she ignored us both.
“If you do not let me have her,” she said, “she’ll cease to exist. Soon. Time is running out. These spirits are not your friends, daughter.”
“Pascha,” said Zakhar. Urgency had crept into his tone, and I saw why. The trees around us were creaking and shifting slowly back and forth on their roots.
“You can’t run away,” said Adamina, shedding more dust in streams as the ground trembled. “You’re standing on my back.”
Pascha turned one ear back, and I could feel his confidence fading along with his heat.
“Silver letters,” he burst out. “The golem’s weakness- silver letters- in the forehead-”
Adamina laughed over his words.
“Correct,” she said, “that is the golem’s weakness- but where is my forehead?”
Pascha gave a sort of whine in the back of his throat, and then suddenly I was sitting on feathers as he bunched his muscles and prepared to spring- and I cried out, for fingers like hard, dirty claws rammed into my waist and pulled me off his back.
I landed with my back to the horrible, dry, shifting mass that was Adamina. Her sharp fingers scraped their way to my navel and fastened around the base of the root that protruded there and began to pull. Pain burst out of me and I screamed.
With my scream there came a furious howl, and Kazimir, largely forgotten, reared up behind Adamina and snapped his teeth together over her skull. It smashed into crumbling fragments and flying dirt. But it did not stop her hands from pulling- pulling- the pain was incredible- Kazimir smashed into her body again and again as it tried to reform, and fire flickered before my eyes as Pascha whinnied and danced a frantic dance in front of us- but it was Zakhar who took on his long, scaly tail again and swept it at the base of Adamina’s dusty legs, severing her connection with the earth. At once her body lost its definition and collapsed entirely, and Zakhar caught me in his clawed hands and drew me tight against his scaly chest.
“Now will you listen to me and fly?!” he shouted at Pascha.
“I will,” said Pascha, meeker-sounding than I had ever heard him, and Zakhar made as though he was going to put me back on his saddle- and then snatched me back against himself, rising higher on his snakelike tail. Adamina had reformed herself in the center of the hill. In one hand she held a loop of the vine that connected me to the bush.
“I see,” she said. “That body- it’s only getting in your way.”
Then she tugged, and I saw white stars, and the end of the vine finally tore free from my navel.