I wanted for nothing.
It took me no time at all to return to the gigantic tree, which I had fled from just hours earlier. In my experience fear is the best way to get certain things stuck in your mind, like the location of a giant tree housing a malevolent ghost-creature which has tried to murder you.
Still, back then I had spent very little time marvelling at just how large the tree was, being that I was fleeing for my life. Now, as I landed, panting, at the base of it, I couldn’t help but feel awed. It was, easily, the biggest tree I had ever seen- the biggest anything I had ever seen. The great trunk thrust upwards in a thousand wrinkles, for the circumference of it was not smooth: it spread out and down onto the ground into a myriad of tall buttresses, many taller than me, digging down into the earth in every possible direction. It was almost as though it were an amalgamation of many vast woody vines, rather than a single being.
In a way, it seemed horrendous. Well, not just in a way, it was horrendous. I swallowed, arching my neck back to look up at the twisted crown, clad in leaves colored brilliant scarlet. Not a speck of sunlight penetrated their cover, leaving me on the ground in that dull, red-flavored haze.
It could not be overstated that I was a fool, returning here, after such a narrow escape. What was it about Kezia that made me do such silly things, over and over again? Because she was the only reason I was here, sweating, hearts hammering out of sync, trembling in the stony silence of the behemoth of a tree before me.
“Mother Forest!” I called. “Treewitch!”
I was answered by a resounding nothing. My voice was curiously muffled by the gloom of the dense forest floor, and I swallowed and shifted on the dead leaves, remembering all too well the roots that had tried to trap me.
“I must speak with you!” I called, praying with all my might that I would not have to find a way to get back inside the accursed thing. “Kezia is dying- you know Kezia, don’t you?”
Again, no response. I coughed, feeling an itch to my throat, and swallowed. Bad air here. Better than it had been on the inside, but nothing I wanted to soak in for very long.
“Answer me, damn you!” I rapped on one of the buttresses with my knuckles. “Don’t you want Kezia to stay alive? Or- is it a bargain you want? I’ll give you one- witches like those, I know!”
My knuckles hurt; the buttress was like stone. I drew them back to my chest to nurse them, and then hissed with surprise. A little girl who looked just like Crina was sitting atop the buttress, swinging her legs and aiming her eyeless sockets in my direction.
“But we’re not a witch,” she said, in a clear, child’s voice.
I exhaled slowly, not quite trusting myself to speak. The sight of her had sent all of my nerves jangling again, all my instincts reminding me that I ought to run away from here.
“You’re frightened of me,” the child- Crina or the Treewitch or both- observed.
“Of course I am,” I snapped. “You tried to kill me!”
She tilted her head the other way.
“You think I tried to kill you, but now you want my help?”
I could feel my cheeks reddening in spite of myself. “Yes! I mean, no- for Kezia’s sake!”
“Kezia…” she said, slowly, as though tasting the name. “Oh, yes, I remember her…”
She trailed off, and I waited a moment before exploding out, “Well, she’s dying, so we’ve got to hurry!”
“Dying?” asked the Treewitch, her high child’s voice at odds with the slow, nearly sultry way she spoke. “But was she ever alive?”
Perhaps she saw the growing rage this generated on my face, for she smiled.
“I told you not to take her from my forest. You began killing her as soon as you pulled her roots from the earth.”
Now heat was rising in my chest as well as my cheeks, and I struggled to control my anger. If I lost myself again there would be no helping Kezia.
“Can you save her?” I managed to grind out. “Or have I wasted precious time coming here?”
“I don’t know the answer to either of those questions,” said the Treewitch. “If she were one of my trees, or a fadua, I might be able to heal her. Certainly plants heal better than humans. But she is not merely a fadua.”
Suddenly she swung her legs and leapt down from the buttress. I backed away instinctively, and she cocked her head- a small, harmless-seeming child, pale as a ghost.
“The fadua merely seem human,” she said. “But that is all a lie. They are plants, and if they separate from the earth, it will kill them.”
My fists clenched, and I began, “But Kezia-”
“She is different,” said the Treewitch, and she turned her empty gaze up to meet mine, so that I peered down into the darkness of her eyes. “She could have been born a true fadua, after she lost her golem’s body. But I did not wish it to be so. Do you remember the things I gave you to plant in the ground with her?”
I stared back at her for a long moment, impatience thrumming in my breast, but there did not seem to be any way out of it but to follow her line of reasoning to its conclusion. And hope that the conclusion might save Kezia.
“Do you mean the bones?” I asked. “And the… the whatever was in the bag?” I had thought the one helping me had been Crina at the time; obviously, I’d been incorrect. (Or rather only partially correct. The extent of Mother Forest’s… existence was hard to wrap my mind around.)
“Yes,” said the Treewitch. “My fadua do not have bones. Nor do they have hearts.”
“Hearts!” I exclaimed. “Then the item in that sack was a human heart?!” I remembered how it had pulsed in my hands, and felt rather ill.
“Indeed,” said the Treewitch, with a smile that did not particularly ease my mind. “Perhaps the golem’s essence could be put into an ordinary fadua’s body. But it interested me to try a small experiment. And so I bade you to plant flesh and bone within the seeking roots.”
“An experiment for what purpose?” I said, wary. I felt we were getting further and further off topic.
“For my dear Adamina,” said the Treewitch, which took me aback. She continued before I could express my confusion. “But, in any case, Kezia is no fadua now. Neither is she a golem. And neither is she human. I do not believe any creature like her has existed in all of time.”
That I could agree with.
“So then, will you be able to help her- or…?”
“I have examined Kezia, where she in the clearing with the creature made of dark light,” said the Treewitch, changing tack as smooth as silk. I was about to ask just how until I recalled her propensity for oozing in and out of tree trunks. Possibly I’d had no need to come this far at all to get her attention; the thought made me feel weak and foolish.
“A fadua would die at once, if the stem were removed from her navel,” said the Treewitch. “Or rather, the true form of the fadua, the plant, would not die; the lying body would merely cease to be animated. But the stem that bound Kezia’s body to the plant is severed, and she still moves.”
“So- good then! Isn’t it?” I said, nearly biting my tongue with my sudden hope. “If we could stop the bleeding, then perhaps-”
“The bleeding has stopped already, I have felt it,” said the Treewitch, raising my hopes even further, and then smashed them brutally apart with her next words. “Her life still fades.”
“But you said-!”
“The removal if the stem is not what has caused this,” said the Treewitch. “Or rather, if it was the cause, it was indirect. The failure came from her human parts.”
“Human pa-” I stopped midword, gnawed at my lower lip. Did that mean it was Kezia’s bones or heart that weren’t working properly? Well- the bones, even as waterlogged as they were, probably wouldn’t cause such symptoms, so it must have been the heart… But why?
“You produced a human heart for Kezia,” I said, chewing the words out as my mind raced. “Where, exactly, did you find such a thing?”
“Ah,” said the Treewitch. “Perhaps that is why… A man wandered deep into my forest, and collapsed at the roots of my tree. I took his heart before it ceased beating. But perhaps the heart was too old to use.”
An old heart… An old man… Elan? My chest seemed to pinch tight. If only I had stopped him while I could, I might have saved him from this wretched fate! But, then, Kezia would have had no heart…
“Can the old heart be fixed- or healed?” I asked, though I dreaded the answer. My maternal grandfather had had a bad heart, and it made him weak and sick, until finally one day he lay down and wheezed and wept until he couldn’t move anymore. He had died small and shriveled, bereft of the fierce vitriol that had sustained him throughout his life. The memory made my blood run cold.
“No,” said the Treewitch, little sympathy evident in her voice. “As I said, humans are not like plants. Some parts may be clumsily repaired, but if they are too broken they can not be re-grown. And that seems to be the only way to fix that heart.”
“So you are saying that Kezia is just going to die?” I asked. My head felt light; it was unreal. No- it was impossible. All the things I had done- the sacrifices I had made- the struggles I had undertaken for her- and now there was nothing I could do?
“That heart is broken,” said the Treewitch, succinctly. “My apologies. I should have looked for a fresher one.”
She was gazing at me as she said this, but I could barely hear her through the ringing in my ears. So: was that all? Was that the end of my dear golem? Dying in a clearing with an old man’s broken heart. I supposed that the least I could do was go back and be beside her to the end. Slink back like a beaten dog, and weep beside the black horseman while he blamed me. Perhaps this was my fault, as he’d said. But what else could I have done for her? Who knew. It wasn’t enough. It was never enough, coming from me… I didn’t want to go back and watch her die. By God, no- I would rather run away, pretend she had a chance at life without me. And hadn’t I thought that she would be better off without me before? Who knew, perhaps the moment I took myself away from her, all would be well again!
The Treewitch had been watching me closely as I underwent this wretched internal struggle, and presently she said, “You love her, of course.”
I gave a laugh that was perhaps too shaky, and said, “That’s the trouble.”
“Love,” she said, in a thoughtful way. “I think, a very long time ago, I had such an ability, but I lost it. I would like to feel it again.”
“You wouldn’t,” I said, in a thin voice. “I wish I never felt it. If I never felt it, I might still be- I might not be here at all. If I could throw it all away, I would; all it has brought me is a terrible pain.” I closed my eyes, thinking of the great peace I had felt when I first became a strigoi- the simple, blunt desire to exist- there had been no suffering then! If I could just wrench the complexity of myself away and be like that once more…
“We could arrange that,” said the Treewitch, as though she had heard my thoughts, but her words only made me feel weary and confused. No… it was all over, for I had begun to think of myself as alive again, and being alive was to be vulnerable. Death was the only safe place.
Fingers traced my jawline and I jolted- the Treewitch had reached out and caressed my face.
“You said, earlier, that you might make a bargain with me,” she said, looking up into my eyes with her emptiness. “Perhaps we could do such a thing. I let you see my insides before, do you remember?”
“I haven’t forgotten,” I said, my voice oddly hoarse; I felt immobilized by her empty stare.
“You saw,” said the Treewitch, “that in some ways I am like Kezia; I am the trees, and yet I have some parts to me that are human as well. And also as with Kezia, the parts that are green can be healed, but the human parts are long broken beyond repair. But perhaps what is missing can be replaced.”
Her fingers were resting lightly on my jawbone. I swallowed, wanting very much to move away and very much afraid to.
“I don’t under-”
“Give me the love that you hold for Kezia,” she said, cutting me off quite sharply. “All of it, down to the tiniest care. You will be freed, once and for all. And I will love her- and with that love, perhaps I might be able to preserve her life.”
“Give…” I searched her hollow sockets desperately for something that might help me understand. “How would I-”
“Say you agree,” said the Treewitch, her invisible gaze somehow burning and itching against my skin. “I would take it then, all at once, and you would feel no more pain. And I- perhaps I could relieve my own pain, as well: that ache for something missing.”
For a moment a flicker of- something went across her expression, some twitching down of the corners of her mouth. I thought of that twisted, bound creature that was hidden away inside the trunk of the great tree, trapped, whimpering, straining. Wasn’t she correct that we two were more alike than I cared to admit? And hadn’t I just been thinking a moment ago that I would be better off if only I could tear those newly loving parts of myself away? I had never imagined receiving such a proposition before. Could it be done? She had powers I could not fathom, but… Well, she was asking for something of mine that I had never wanted and didn’t need, what bad could ever come of losing it?
The thought was like a cold trickle of water down my back, and once I started to consider it, it would not go away, seeping into my flesh and chilling me.
“If I agree to this,” I said, carefully, “you would get something you want very much, but I would get nothing in return. Losing something doesn’t count as a trade. What would you give me, for my love?”
The cold trickle sank into my bones as I spoke.
“For your love?” said the Treewitch, and she gave a kind of wry smile; for a moment I thought I saw Crina in it. “I suppose I would give you most anything; I am quite old and powerful. What would you like?”
Well, now, that was something. I wracked my brain- if I could have anything, anything the world, what would I want? Well-
I couldn’t really think of anything I wanted, aside from Kezia’s health.
Was I really so empty? Surely I had something else-
No. I had believed myself dead. All the desire in my heart had been for my own survival. There had been nothing else. And my existence was currently in no danger of being terminated.
My strigoi self wanted for nothing.
“It sounds as though you are crying,” said the Treewitch, tilting her head.
I was crying. I hadn’t even realized I had started, but now I couldn’t stop.
“You can’t have it,” I said, voice thick through my tears. “You can’t have my love for Kezia! I need it, O, God, I need it! It hurts- but-”
She nodded slowly, as I continued to babble.
“It hurts- but without it- I cannot- I want to live again! I want to want things! I don’t- I don’t- I don’t want to lose my whole heart because of one wicked man! Damn him, anyway, and damn you! And Kezia- it may hurt me to watch her die, but to stop loving her, that would be- It’s the only good thing inside me, do you understand?” Suddenly I wanted very much for her to understand, and I grasped both her shoulders. “It’s such a good thing, to love someone! I remember- somehow I forgot, but now I remember- I loved my mother, so very much! And it was such a good thing, to love her! And I loved my sisters- oh, I loved them so much- why did I forget! I loved Ioan- he was a fool- and I loved Viorel- even though-” My teeth ground together. “It wasn’t my fault, was it? It was like Ioan said, that he was wicked to me, and it wasn’t a good kind of love- Kezia is a good kind of love!”
I took my hands away and put them over my face, sobbing. It was as though I had ripped away some disgusting scab- to say that Viorel had treated me wrong- that perhaps I had suffered back then for no good reason! Through my tears I saw the Treewitch begin to smile- it was a sort of sad smile.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m sorry. I won’t take it away from you.”
“Thank you,” I gasped. “Oh, thank you…”
She gazed across at me for a long moment, and suddenly I sucked in a breath.
“Kezia! She’s- am I too late?”
“She fades, but she is not gone,” said the Treewitch. “Shall I send you back to her side?”
I hesitated, recalling all at once through my sobs that here was someone powerful who had nearly killed me quite recently.
“Don’t be frightened,” said the Treewitch, smiling again. “I am really quite gentle, on the outside.”
Then she took one hand and pushed me squarely backwards through the trunk of a tree.
It is a terribly disorienting feeling to expect a substance- in this case, wood- to be completely solid, only to find out that it is as malleable as water, or rather sticky syrup, for as I went through the tree all light was blotted out and dense material that tasted of pine clogged my nose and mouth and I couldn’t breathe. Then in another instant the light returned, blindingly bright, and I stumbled backwards with a great sucking inhalation and onto something icy cold.
The cold thing shoved me away immediately, and said in the voice of Kazimir, “Get off! Did you just come out of a tree?!”
I lay on the ground a moment, dizzy, teary, and disoriented. Kazimir himself sounded as though he had been weeping. From the look of the sensible pine trees all around us, the scuffed dirt below me, and the presence of the black horseman, it seemed that the Treewitch had made good on her claim and returned me to Kezia’s side.
Kezia! I managed to shove myself to my feet and orient myself towards Kazimir, who still held her in his arms. Her eyes were closed, her mouth twisted; beads of sweat rose from her brow. I could not help but think of my grandfather again, and my stomach clenched.
“Well?” said Kazimir, placing one dark hand upon Kezia’s brow, wiping away the sweat. “Do you have a cure?”
I bit my lip and made no answer, instead looking at the ugly hole in Kezia’s navel, the width of three fingers. As the Treewitch had said, it was no longer leaking the pale pink fluid, and instead sat dark and ragged like a rotten blight upon her stomach.
“Is she asleep?” I asked. Part of me hoped she was. If she could just slip away quietly, with a little less pain…
But Kezia opened her eyes at the sound of my voice, and said, “Gabi.”
I went to kneel beside her, feeling Kazimir tense but grudgingly allow it, and took her hand. The pulse in her palm throbbed erratically, in time with her stuttering breaths. It frightened me to realize that the remaining beats of her heart could be summed up into a finite number.
“You scared me,” said Kezia, her fingers moving to weakly squeeze my own, and I felt my heart breaking over again: it was like a cruel mirror of when she had first learned to use them. “Did Mother Forest hurt you?”
I shook my head, said, “Oh- Kezia- I’m no good at this!”
“It is all right,” said Kezia, and I could hear the pain in her voice. “You can not help me, can you?”
I gave kind of a gasping sob and shook my head, and Kezia closed her eyes for a moment.
“It hurts- but- you died before once, so you can tell me-”
My throat was clogged, I could not bring myself to explain that I had never really died, I had only pretended, pretended that I was somebody different than who I was before so that I would not have to face myself. And o, God, it was so easy to think of myself as an irredeemable wicked wretch, for to imagine that I had some worth meant that I also had something to live up to-
“Do not cry,” said Kezia, trying to squeeze my fingers again, and I saw that tears were rolling down her cheeks as well, her skin still so pale and new. Of course it only made me want to weep harder. At the last moment I had still betrayed her, for the Treewitch had said: With that love, perhaps I might be able to preserve her life. If I had given up my love, wasn’t there a chance that Kezia could still be saved? I was still so selfish!
Selfish… My love…
Abruptly Kazimir thrust Kezia’s shoulders into my arms and sprang to his feet. He cried out thickly, “I must find the others! Zakhar and Pascha- they can help, surely!”
He was distraught, flickering green; for a moment through my grief I felt some small sense of scorn towards those who would never have to experience mortality.
It was a small moment of clarity for me, to see him so frantic, to feel Kezia’s warm shoulders against my chest, the limp mass of her supported in my lap. For a moment all seemed suspended as I recalled more of the Treewitch’s words. Was it… the difference between plants and humans, that human parts could not be re-grown? But perhaps what is missing can be replaced.
What was broken, could be replaced.
I could not give away my love for Kezia, even to save her life. But perhaps I could give her my heart.
“Kazimir,” I said, in a slow way. “Don’t leave. I need you to do something for me.”
In my arms, I felt Kezia’s body contract; she was tensing, even through her pain, hearing something in the tone of my voice. I raised her hand and kissed the back of it, as Kazimir turned to stare at me, his green eyes wild.
“The Treewitch did tell me something useful,” I said- Kezia’s hand now shivering in mine, merely from shock, or disgust, I could not fathom. “She told me that what is failing is Kezia’s heart. It came from somebody who was too old, you see. She might yet be saved if we could get her a new one.”
Kazimir stared at me, his mouth hanging slightly open. “A new heart?”
“Yes, and it just so happens,” I said, tapping my chest, “that I have two.”
“Gabi!” exclaimed Kezia, and she actually tried to sit up, struggling in my grasp. “Do not- do not say that!”
Kazimir edged closer to me, his eyes narrowing as he looked at my chest.
“Strigoi do have two hearts,” he said. “But you’re sure it is Kezia’s heart that is causing this?”
I had only the Treewitch’s word to go on, but I nodded. I had no reason to think that she was lying- she was the same one, after all, that had helped me make a body for Kezia in the first place, regardless of what her true motives had been.
“Gabi,” gasped Kezia. “I do not- want- your heart!”
She was actually scowling up at me now, even through the sweat and the pain, her brow furrowed fiercely. Compulsively I ruffled her hair.
“But you have it already, my dear.”
Her face flushed, and her lower lip trembled with surprise.
“It- will- kill you! I do not-”
“It won’t kill me,” I said, with more confidence than I really felt. “I have a spare. The Treewitch stopped one of my hearts before, do you remember? I survived.”
Kazimir spoke over her, placing one hand on her forehead.
“Perhaps it could be done- replacing a heart. But how could I manage to do it without killing you both?” He looked at his own long, thin fingers in an almost appalled way. “I don’t think I could just reach in and- and- take it.”
“You could do it to me,” I said, pretending my chest hadn’t seized compulsively with fear at the very thought. “I can recover from most any wound, provided it isn’t fatal. But you’re right- with Kezia, one should be more careful.”
He gazed at me a long moment, then cried, “I shall call the others! The three of us together have great power- even with such a delicate task, we could achieve it!”
A new light was in his eyes as he stepped back, and bayed out a great cry that rattled my bones. Kezia flinched, her fingers digging into me.
“Gabi, you can not- do this!”
“Why not?” I asked, wincing myself as Kazimir cried out again, startling birds out of the trees around us. “Are you going to try and stop me?”
She didn’t seem to approve of my smile, for she said rather fiercely, “It is- not- funny! What if you do not- not-”
“What if you do not survive, Kezia?” I said, more gently. “Can’t you let me take this chance?”
Her face contorted, and I could see her struggling, more tears leaking from her eyes.
“It hurts!” she gasped, and buried her face into my side. I wrapped my arms around her and hugged her close.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured into her hair. “I can’t seem to help but be selfish… I want you to live, my dear. I want to walk the world with you. If I lose one of my hearts… maybe I shan’t be as strong, maybe I would be much more vulnerable, but- you’d be there with me, wouldn’t you?”
Kezia made a wordless sound, clutching at me, shaking all over. I felt her pulse juddering and rattling in her throat. I found I could hardly see- my tears splintered the air before me in shades of red, white, and black; violet, blue, and green flames all around. Kezia’s chest stopped heaving as her pulse faltered. The darkness in my vision bent close to me.
“Do it,” I gasped. “Hurry! Take it out! She’s fading-”
Then there was a terrible wrench, and the black became absolute.
Note: My apologies (again) for this very late chapter. I’ve just moved into my new home and have settled into my new job, so hopefully things will begin getting less hectic for me. The next chapter of Earthcast will be up on Monday, April 4th. We’re close to the end now!