I woke up and knew that I had survived. I can say that it was very much a surprise and a relief.
My chest was very sore, especially in a hot line that ran down between my breasts. Yet it did not hurt as much as it had before, when it had pinched so tight I could not breathe and sent waves of pain rocketing through my shoulders and arms and stomach. My pulse no longer stuttered and stumbled. My breathing was easy, though sometimes it still hitched when the rise of my chest pulled at the closed wound there.
I made these observations of myself, without opening my eyes, and came to the conclusion that what I had feared happening, had happened. A new heart was beating inside my breast.
The backs of my eyelids were a red mist. It seemed that there was a great deal of light shining down upon me, wherever I was lying. My body was cushioned by something soft and pliant, that rustled when I shifted slightly. Leaves? I did not know.
I was too frightened to open my eyes. I could only imagine waking up somewhere alone. And even if- by some miracle- she still lived, how could I face her? How could I face someone who had done such a kind thing for me?
I had known all along that she was truly a very kind person. But what she had done went further than kindness. The thought of it made my hot, sore chest feel like it was burning from the inside. This was much more than kindness. Would she have done… such a thing… for anyone else besides me?
It was too much to wrap my mind around, and it made my stolen heart beat much too fast, so fast that I felt as though it might burst free from its new, tenuous connections. I felt weak and frightened and terribly unprepared to face whatever I might find if I dared open my eyes.
But though I could keep my eyes shut, there were other senses no so easily blocked. My ears picked up a low, mournful cry, dipping up and down like a cork bobbing in silver liquid: the howl of a wolf.
And then, in a hissing, exhausted voice I recognized as Pascha’s:
“Again it comes.”
“Let it try,” said another voice. That was Zakhar, and he sounded tired as well. “We shall send it away again.”
“It has been too long- we’re fading away,” moaned a third- Kazimir. They were all here.
“We will not fade,” said Zakhar. “We never fade. Be strong.”
“Besides,” added Pascha, wry and weary, “she won’t let us disappear. She’ll stop us before then, orders be damned.”
They fell silent, and the light on the outside of my eyelids rippled like water. Hesitantly, I began to ease my eyes open, just a sliver- and then squeezed them shut again immediately. Just inches away had been a face, eyes closed and lips slightly parted- Gabi’s face. It had been so still! Was she sleeping- or- or-
As I struggled with this new burst of fear, I felt a stirring and a rustling beside me, and a warm touch against my cheek.
“Do you sleep still, Kezia?”
It was Gabi’s voice, sounding rusty but strong, and I was flooded with a mixture of relief and some other feeling, a feeling that made me want to keep my eyes tight shut and pretend to be sleeping. My pulse thrummed and heat grew deep in my chest.
I felt Gabi’s hand moving, lightly stroking my hair, down under my ear and along the line of my chin. I resisted the impulse to shiver. Her fingertips seemed to linger near my lips a moment before withdrawing.
“I’ve been waiting for you to wake up,” she whispered, close to my ear. “For goodness knows how long… The sun won’t set. Tell me, why have I woken up and not you? Was my heart not strong enough?”
I felt confused, and slightly dizzy- her breath was warm on my skin as she spoke. Had she said that the sun would not set?
“I feel so strange,” said Gabi, and my attention snapped back to my left ear. “Part of me thought that if I lost a heart, I might really die… A strigoi is invulnerable to most things, but wounds do the heart have been known to do us in… But I didn’t die, and I woke up beside you here. And they tell me that the three of them bound the new heart to your insides with threads of light, and took the old one and buried it somewhere in the forest. It’s a shame… I think that old heart did suit you. I don’t know if you’ll like having one of mine. It must feel so sour and prickly inside somebody so soft and good as you.”
I still did not open my eyes, but I felt heat rising to my cheeks. I hoped that Gabi did not notice.
“And I… I feel that I have lost something, though it seems too simple to say that it was just a heart. I feel so- so much weaker, but in a way that isn’t so terrible, though it is rather terrifying. I’m not so…. hungry, which is strange, because I lost a great deal of blood. And I can’t quite seem to remember how to change my shape. I don’t think I’m quite a strigoi anymore, and that is the most frightening of all.
“Kezia… Won’t you wake up? I miss the sound of your voice. I was afraid that giving you my heart would be like poison to you, but you’re still breathing, and there’s some color in your cheeks. The horsemen said that darker blood began flowing through your veins once they sewed in the new heart. Have you finally become human? If we two were humans, we’d be so weak and vulnerable out here- but I feel as though we aren’t quite there. I don’t know. If you woke up, I would take both your hands and kiss them, and we could figure out what we both are together.”
She fell silent, and then I heard the rustle of her moving closer, of her fingers touching the bare skin between my breasts- with a jolt I realized I was entirely naked, a fact that never seemed much cause for concern until now. But now, with her hand tracing the hot line that ran down my chest, I did wish for some layer of cloth to serve as a buffer and stop my mind from going haywire. I searched for something else to occupy my thoughts with, rather desperately- some remnants of a few of the other Kezia’s memories were resurfacing. Where were the three horsemen? I had heard them just earlier. Why was it so bright? Where, exactly, were Gabi and I lying down together? (Lying down together was not a good track to set my thoughts on.) And why- why hadn’t I just opened my eyes from the start? Now that I had begun the charade, I was too embarrassed to stop!
The warm brush of Gabi’s fingers went away, and my capricious brain wished for it to return. Now there was silence for such a very long time that I ached to peek. Maybe I could pretend to wake up without having heard any of what she’d said. Except I did not think I could look her in the eye after all that.
Finally, just as it seemed that my heartbeat had begun to slow back down, Gabi said in a voice less husky and more pragmatic, “Really, my dear, this pretending-to-sleep business is very fun, but I think we run short on time.”
I had a panicked moment where I hoped I could perhaps maintain plausible deniability, but then she pinched my cheek. My eyes flew open.
Gabi’s face, hovering so close her frizzy curls brushed my forehead, broke into a smile. I felt my cheeks growing hot again.
“I did not mean-” I began, but she smacked the spot she had pinched very lightly with the back of her hand.
“Yes, yes, don’t bother with the excuses,” she said, still smiling, and I wanted to squirm and avert my eyes out of sheer embarrassment, because when had Gabi ever seemed so gentle? Was it merely my perception that had changed? The outline of her seemed so soft, the curve of her cheek and breast, the way her hair framed her face, every little freckle on her nose. She was lit from behind by a bright halo of golden light, and in fact it hurt my eyes, and I had to squint.
Gabi shifted and sat up, and I realized several things all at once. First, she was nude as I was, and she had a dark line running down her chest, like an old scar- my fingers could not help but brush the identical line on mine. Second, we were lying in a bed of soft moss and ferns that someone had gathered together, which looked rather dried and browned, as though no longer very fresh. Third, behind Gabi- the source of the golden light I had seen- hovered a miniature sun.
“Oh, look,” came Pascha’s voice, weary but still dripping with sarcasm, “both of our little lovers are awake now.”
I jerked upright, wincing when it made my chest sore, and squinted towards the little sun. It was a circle of light just small enough for me to put both my arms around, and it flickered constantly in little spurts and tremors of different-colored light. Then my vision went dark- Gabi had put her hand over my eyes.
“Don’t look directly at it,” she warned.
“What is it?” I gasped, blinking my smarting eyes as she took her hand away. “Where are we? What’s happened?”
“What is it, she asks,” muttered Pascha’s voice, and I realized that it was coming from the ball of light. “Some thanks! We run ourselves ragged keeping her alive, and she greets us with what is it?”
“Shut up, Pascha,” came Kazimir’s voice, also from the ball of light. My eyes were aching again- hastily I averted them.
“It is the three of us,” said Zakhar’s voice. “We have managed to put our differences aside in order to keep you from falling into darkness, Kezia.”
“And the vampire as well,” Pascha chimed in.
“I do not understand,” I said, looking worriedly at Gabi. “Did our hearts not…?”
“Our hearts are fine,” said Gabi. She seemed to have sobered now, and gone was the softness with which she had greeted me. “Everything went even better than expected, in fact. Your body seemed quite ready to have a replacement, and I…” She grimaced strangely. “Well, I am healthy as could be, under the circumstances.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, thinking nervously back to her earlier words, but she waved the question away with an impatient hand.
“Never mind it! I hear that you have gone and made a deal with Baba Yaga, Kezia, without my knowledge.”
“A deal…?” I repeated, rather stupidly, and then it all came flooding back, like some invisible finger jabbing a forgotten bruise. How could it have slipped my mind?! I had made a deal with the witch- a deal to find her missing death- a deal for the freedom of the horsemen!
“How long have I been asleep?” I managed to gasp, squinting upwards, but I only saw a closed canopy of leaves, eerily illuminated by the miniature sun.
“I haven’t been able to count the days,” said Gabi, with a shrug, “but it has surely been days. Those three say that your deal concludes at sundown- which honestly seems to be her favorite time of day- so I expect we both should have been long dead.”
“But you are not,” said Zakhar’s voice, heavy from exhaustion. “We three are powerful light spirits, even when some of us is bound tight to the witch; furthermore, she instructed us to protect you from harm until sundown, Kezia. An unfortunate choice of words on her part, for all that she’s a wily old creature.”
“She didn’t think we’d be able to work together like this,” said Kazimir.
“More the fool her,” said Pascha. “All we needed was the proper motivation, wasn’t it?”
“I… I still do not understand,” I stammered, feeling light-headed. Gabi caught my shoulder as I swayed.
“We haven’t had a sundown,” she said. “That’s it. They’ve kept the light on us. The witch can’t touch a hair on your addled head until the light goes away.”
It took a moment, but then everything slid into place, and a little hope flared in my breast.
“There are caveats,” said Zakhar, his voice heavy with bad news. “Firstly, we cannot keep this light up forever. It places a burden on us, and we begin to fade. Secondly, our mistress will soon learn that you’ve woken up.”
“She hasn’t made a peep of protest, even though we’ve bent the rules a bit,” said Pascha. “I suspect it’s because she didn’t predict you’d get a burst heart out of the blue. She prefers her meals fresh and lively, so it stands to reason she’d go quiet while you healed. But I don’t expect the waiting will have made her any kinder.”
“She’s terribly hungry,” agreed Kazimir, with all the gloom of a sunken swamp. “I’ve smelled it. She stalks the edges of this forest like a wolf.”
“We are also being stalked by an actual wolf,” said Pascha, in a much more cheerful tone. “Well, if you consider a pricolici a wolf. But it goes off whimpering at the lightest brush of fire.” He chuckled, and for a moment the little sun rippled with red and violet streaks.
“A pricolici?” I asked, looking at Gabi questioningly, and she turned away with a frown.
“Him we can deal with later,” she muttered, and then said more loudly, “For now, since you’re awake, we had better put our heads together about that needle. I truly don’t wish to find myself stuffed and mounted over Baba Yaga’s fireplace, and I’m sure you don’t want to take a trip through her nasty old innards.”
“No,” I agreed, wishing she had not put it that way. Now all I could think of was the witch’s rotten teeth, gnashing closer and closer. I shuddered.
“I would have searched for it myself,” said Gabi, “but I was- er- recovering. And those three are a bit stuck, being a sun and all.”
“And swapping your hearts around, too, don’t forget that part,” added Pascha. Gabi wrinkled her nose as though she had smelled something rotten.
“So they weren’t any help at all- but we did get a surprising visit. From your mother, Kezia.”
She must have seen the expression on my face, for she added hastily, “She calls herself that, anyhow. The golem that belongs to the Treewitch.”
“Adamina,” I corrected. “That is her name.”
“Is it really?” Gabi raised her eyebrows. “Interesting. Well, be that as it may, she popped up out of the ground soon after I woke up. I thought we were about to be crushed into dust, with our protective horsemen busy being a night-light and all. But she merely offered us this lovely bed,” here she gestured in a sardonic way to the wilted ferns and moss, “and seemed inclined to be helpful.”
“But you could not have trusted her!” I exclaimed. “She has been trying to kill me! She was the one who pulled the vine out of my stomach!”
Gabi’s face went pale. “Nobody told me that!” She shot a furious look towards the ball of light, which rippled apologetically.
“I don’t believe her intent was ever to destroy Kezia,” said Zakhar, as a wash of soothing blue passed over the surface of the orb. “Her behavior is erratic, to be sure.”
“She has told me herself that she wants to kill me,” I said, my eyes thin. “I would say that is straightforward enough.”
“You shouldn’t believe everything people tell you,” was Zakhar’s reply, which felt a bit too much like an admonishment for my liking.
Tight-lipped, I asked, “What did she do to help?”
“She offered to search the forest for the needle,” said Gabi, face still drawn tight. “At the time it seemed an excellent proposal. With her power, surely she could find it…”
With her power. They did not really understand what her power was, not like I did. Suddenly I felt uneasy just being in contact with the ground, and sat up fully.
“And has she found it?”
“No,” said Pascha. “She vanished and has not returned since.”
“Yes,” I said, curling my fingers around some of the dried moss that formed our bed. “She would be able to find it if it was anywhere in this forest. In fact, she has probably found it already, and is keeping it to herself.”
Now Gabi was looking positively green.
“O, god,” she said, “Have I doomed us all?”
I flinched- I had not meant to make her feel guilty. It was certainly something I would have tried if I had not known Adamina well- and if I had been desperate. I put one hand to my chest, nervously feeling out my own pulse. It was steady. What would Adamina want Baba Yaga’s death for?
Aloud, I reasoned, “Perhaps she took the needle because she thinks that Baba Yaga will be afraid to go after Mother Forest anymore if she has it.”
“That seems fair,” agreed Pascha, the little sun flickering with gloomy violet sparks. “Well, Zakhar? You were the one who seemed to think her pure of intention.”
There was a pause, and the light seemed to dim slightly. Gabi gave a nervous twitch. Then Kazimir said, “If she has got it, our only chance is to either bargain with her, or try to take it by force.”
I could not help but give a short laugh. Bargain! Steal! Why were these always our options?
“The true sun won’t rise for a few hours yet,” said Kazimir, illuminating spots of pale green on the surface of the orb. “If we can hold ourselves together until then, perhaps we might-”
Abruptly the green spots turned violet and jagged. “Ha! We might nothing. The moment we three break apart, we’ll be weak as newborn kittens, mewling and helpless. We won’t be able to help those two do anything, unless it’s crying and flailing.”
“I don’t expect we’ll have the strength to take on corporeal forms, so not that either,” pointed out Zakhar, in such a dry way that I suspected he thought he was being funny.
“That may be true for the two you you,” said Kazimir, his voice rather low. “But I am the youngest and strongest. I have some power left in reserve.”
“You overestimate yourself,” said Zakhar, at once.
“Yes, yes, you’re going to snuff yourself out if you do that,” chimed in Pascha. “You’ve bragged like this before, you know, and then had to be rescued by your elders and betters.”
The miniature sun flickered an ominous, brighter green. I hastily cut in before the argument could proceed any further.
“Enough of that! I do not want you to risk harming yourselves. Gabi and I can go searching on our own.”
I looked to Gabi as I said this, expecting some form of agreement, but she did not seem like she had been paying attention. She seemed rather pale and vacant. I lightly touched her shoulder.
For a moment she did not react, but then she said, without looking at me, “If the golem has the needle, then we aren’t getting it back.”
“Do not say that!” Her sudden shift in attitude was making me uneasy. “We must at least try. We have a little more time to try.” I looked up again, wishing I could see the sky, and also glad that I could not. The darkness between the trees that ringed our little circle of light seemed to loom larger and more threatening before my eyes.
“We have no time,” said Gabi, in a dull way. “Look.”
She pointed towards that same darkness. A shaft of light emerged from the small sun and illuminated a space between two imposing grey trunks. Between them- and here I felt sick- stood Adamina.
She seemed calm, her face expressionless, but I knew that her face would only appear exactly the way she wished it to. She wanted us to see her as calm. She wanted us to see her as a tall, thin woman, with an unremarkable shape, straight black hair, and kindly eyes. She likely also wanted us to consider how long she had been listening.
Of course, it was probably the entire time. She had only shown herself to Gabi just now on purpose. I pressed my lips together, uncomfortably aware of how soft and weak they were, of how my own flesh was permanently fixed into human shape. I dug my fingers through the moss and ferns until they touched cold earth. But I could not talk to the earth anymore, not like she could.
Adamina spoke, illuminated by the spotlight the horsemen had formed on her.
“You have been making some terrible accusations against me.”
She shook her head, and I was surprised to see a fine layer of dust rise from the surface of her neck with the movement. The false flesh blurred, and then her disguise was flawless again.
“It seems unfair to have no one there to counter them,” she continued, as if nothing unusual had happened. “You presume that I have found the witch’s death. I have not. Had I found it, I would have brought it to you; I bore no false intentions.”
She turned her gaze to me, and I met it, seeking out the tiny black eyeholes she disguised as pupils..
“False,” I said. “Everything you are is false. You pretend to be a human woman when you are a golem. You pretend to be Mother Forest when you are her servant. You pretend to be my mother when you really want to destroy me! Why should I believe you now?”
Her expression, still calm, seemed to freeze in place a moment, and even her facsimile of breathing ceased. Had I surprised her? Had I hurt her with my words? The thought of that made me feel unexpectedly savage satisfaction; yet something felt sour. I ran my tongue over the roof of my mouth. It did not seem like her to try to pretend she had done nothing wrong like this. Her lies were usually based on the assumptions of others.
Eventually her features did shift into an actual expression of sadness, her chest rising and falling with presumed breath once more. I knew that her real surprise or hurt had now passed.
“More accusations,” she said. “None are correct. I sought out the witch’s death, child, because I did not wish to see you killed. And eaten.”
Her expression changed to one of distaste, and a little dust trickled down from the corner of her lips.
“If that is true, give us the needle,” I said, refusing to acknowledge her lies.
“I tell you, I do not have it.”
“That is impossible. I know the kind of power you have,” I said. “You could find anything that was in this forest if you searched!”
“You are not wrong,” said Adamina.
“And I know the needle was in this forest! Baba Yaga said that it was in a duck’s egg, which was inside the white duck, which I put inside a hollow tree, which was in this forest!”
“Perhaps the duck flew away,” said Adamina, her calm tone infuriating. “And laid the egg elsewhere.”
“It didn’t,” said Gabi, chiming in quite suddenly. Her face was still very pale. “I saw the egg. It laid it inside a box.”
I was startled- this was news to me! I turned to her.
“You saw it? When?”
She was not quite meeting my eyes. “When I found you as a- as a fadua. And I picked it up. I held it. I crushed it! I had the needle! And then…”
She went silent, pressing her lips together so hard they went white.
“What did you do with it?” I prompted.
“I threw it away!” she burst out, heat rising to her cheeks. “I- I didn’t know it was important then! I threw it back into the grass and didn’t see where it landed!”
“Gabi!” I exclaimed, and put a hand on her shoulder, for she was shaking and beginning to look quite upset. “Of course you did not know! It is all right- it is all right!”
She shook her head wordlessly and pulled away from my grasp.
“I’ve doomed us both,” she said.
“No,” I said, catching her cheek as she tried to turn away. “Do not say things like that. If anyone has doomed us, it is me. Or…”
I turned back to Adamina, who was watching us with a manufactured expression of mild interest.
“Or rather, it is you who has doomed us. Gabi threw the needle somewhere in the fadua grove- how is it that you could not find it?”
“Simple,” said Adamina. “It isn’t there.”
“I tell you, that’s where I threw it!” exclaimed Gabi. “I’m not lying!”
“And I tell you, it is not there. Perhaps it was before. It is not there now.”
“How could it not be there now?” I snapped. “It was a needle- it could not get up and walk away on its own!”
“Certainly not,” said Adamina. “Such a thing would be preposterous. I think rather that somebody picked it up and moved it.”
I stared at her, and Gabi asked the question that was on the tip of my tongue.
Adamina spread her hands, fine particles trickling down from her fingers.
“I am as interested in finding out the answer to that question as the two of you are.”
The spotlight that had been on her snapped off at that precise moment, as though she had planned it, and she vanished from view. I jumped, and looked up at the little sun- it was flashing in all different colors, its outlines growing fuzzy.
“Steady,” came Zakhar’s voice, and gradually the riot of color and movement calmed back into a small golden sun. Was it smaller than it had been before?
“Are you all right?” I asked. “Did she do anything to you?”
“I did nothing,” said Adamina’s voice, floating eerily out of the darkness.
“She’s telling the truth,” came Pascha’s voice, so exhausted-sounding that I wanted to wince. “We lost control for a moment there.”
“But we’re fine now,” said Kazimir. “We can last until sunrise.”
I waited for the affirmation to come from the other two horsemen, but was left with only a nervous, dangling silence.
“Golem,” said Gabi, her voice catching. “I mean- Adamina. If what you say is true- if you really do care for Kezia as a mother- would it be possible for you to seek out the one who walked off with the death?”
There came the sound of soft footsteps, and then a pause.
“I cannot enter the light,” said Adamina, “so I will speak to you from here. I am bound to this forest, and unable to leave it.”
“Well-” I began, but she had not finished speaking.
“However. If my mistress wishes it, I can move the forest itself.”