Two little heartbeats.
The three horsemen, wound up together in the tiny, fiery sun, were able to shrink themselves down small enough to squeeze into the skull that I had found. Pascha stated that being smaller would save them some energy anyhow, though he quickly cautioned us not to leave the circle of light emanating now from the skull, which Gabi had mounted on a stout tree branch. Light streamed out of the eye sockets in twin yellow spotlights, lighting the dark forest floor before us, but also seemed to filter through the bone itself, giving us a halo of light just big enough to huddle together in.
I had to wonder, looking at the gleaming skull, what the deceased owner would have thought of our use of their remains. I had picked it and the other bones up quite carelessly, now that I thought about it, and left them lying discarded in a pile in the clearing where we’d recovered, not even covering them back up. Now I felt that I had been callous. This skull had belonged to somebody once- or still did, even, since I was not sure that the dead did not still own their bodies. I should know very well the feelings of a ghost seeking something that had been lost. In my mind, I offered a silent apology to the person who had been inside that skull once. We were only using it because we had to.
I had been the one who had wanted to leave the clearing most of all, but I found that actually moving in the darkness, with just a fragile skull-lamp to protect us, worked very quickly to drain away my confidence. In fact now it was Gabi who led the way, treading cautiously as the bobbing light revealed roots and logs and patches of slick moss for us to trip over. At times Gabi would stop altogether, something sharp and pointed coming into her expression, and ease us in a different direction. Whatever she sensed was invisible to me, but I did not ask or argue. It felt like it would be a bad idea to make much noise.
The trees of the starving forest grew balder the further out we went, and I knew we were nearing the edge, where the true seasons could be felt. Strangely, I did not feel cold. The light from our skull-lamp also provided us with a steady, comfortable warmth, even as we passed trees with frost-covered leaves still clinging to the tips of their branches. Frost glittered everywhere, in fact- on the ground, along branches, between the cracks in gray bark. It made some of the trees looming out of the darkness appear to be glittering with silver needles. But none of them were the one we wanted. The impossibility of our task hung low and heavy in the air.
“Hsst,” said Gabi, holding out an arm to stop me. The lantern in her arm swayed, the light sliding over roots and dead leaves and gleaming red mouse eyes. Something scuttled off in the darkness.
“A Blajini?” I whispered.
“Perhaps,” said Gabi, though her eyes were narrow and suspicious. “But it feels like something else is following us, too.”
“It’s that pricolici,” rattled the skull in Pascha’s voice, making me jump. “It’s been hounding you two since we exchanged your hearts. It must have been attracted by the smell of blood; we haven’t had any luck banishing it.”
I swallowed, looking at the edges of our circle of light. It was not comforting to think of there being a huge black wolf stalking us just out of sight. My golem self could have crushed him easily, but not so my human self, and Gabi- well, I did not think she could protect us, either. Not now.
“Oh, so it’s just him,” she said, to my surprise. “I thought it was something dangerous. That wolf has no teeth.”
“Gabi,” I said, thinking back to the multiple times I had observed the pricolici, most of them involving some kind of biting, “it very much does have teeth, unless they got lost recently.”
“I didn’t mean that literally,” Gabi said, lifting her eyes skyward. “I know that pricolici- at least, I know the man who became the pricolici.”
“You know him? Well- it is the one that was serving the strigoi Radu, is it not?” I shifted uneasily; I had been the one to kill this wolf’s master.
“The same, yes, but I knew him before that,” said Gabi, her lips going slightly thin as they did whenever she spoke of the time before she had been a strigoi. “He fancies himself my ally. I suppose he liked having a strigoi for an owner so much that he wants a new one.”
She began sweeping the skull-lantern from side to side, scanning for the best path to forge ahead once more, but I was considering her words carefully.
“I wonder if he heard us talking about the needle,” I ventured.
Gabi shrugged and made a noncommittal noise, testing a patch of wet leaves gingerly with her toe. I tried again.
“I mean, I wonder- I wonder if he is trying to get to us for a reason. If he heard us talking about what we need to survive the night. And if he thinks of himself as your ally.”
Gabi cocked her head, expression growing incredulous.
“Kezia- are you trying to suggest that the pricolici is the one who took the needle?”
“It was dropped somewhere here in this forest,” I reasoned. “I think that Mother Forest or Adamina would notice if one of the spirits that normally lives here picked it up. But the pricolici is an outsider. So maybe-”
“Sound logic, I suppose,” said Gabi, and then the corner of her mouth quirked. “But how would a wolf carry a needle, anyhow?”
“Perhaps he’s got it stuck in his paw, like the lion of old,” suggested Pascha, from the skull.
Gabi snickered, while I tried to remember if I knew what a lion was. It sounded familiar.
“I wonder if Kezia might be right, though,” said Kazimir, and the light flickered briefly pale and greenish. It made the glittering tree trunks look sickly and lurid, and a finger of cold crept over my spine.
“Don’t do that,” hissed Gabi, shuddering. “Well, do you think we ought to face the wolf, then?” She spoke a little louder. “Let him come out and speak to us!”
Her voice rang out into the chilly, naked trees, and drifted outwards through the shadows. Nothing but silence answered her. I swallowed to try and moisten my dry throat.
“Perhaps let’s not shout anymore,” said Pascha, after a moment.
We kept walking, pressing close together. Gabi quietly slipped her hand into mine, the warmth of her palm somewhat reassuring. I tried not to think about the great black wolf that followed us in the darkness, his paws silent on the leaves, his white teeth a shock. Gabi had said he wanted to be an ally. She said that.
The night seemed agonizingly endless, and so did the forest. Skeletal branches marched through our lamplight in a macabre parade, winking with frost. We came to a little creek, half-frozen, with a crust of fragile ice filled with bubbles. Gabi found the narrowest point and guided me across it, gripping my hand tight after I made the jump to the opposite bank.
“Do you know where we are?” I whispered. Nothing looked familiar to me. I had only seen the forest in spring and summer.
“I think so,” replied Gabi, voice equally soft. “The ruined village- where Noroc came from- I think that’s very near here. Perhaps we can trace this creek back to the river and find our way to the other side.”
I nodded, trying to look more sure than I felt about this. She was right that the river was at the forest’s border, but it had recently moved. It would be further than we remembered. Also, even if we managed to reach it, I was not sure how we would cross it in this cold.
We walked along the bank of the creek a little ways, following the curve. Tree roots bucked and broke through the soil where the bank curved up over the water, and as our light passed over them I thought I saw more rodent eyes winking red at us from within the tangle.
Gabi stopped walking, and I nearly kept going out of the light before I caught myself.
“Something’s off,” she muttered. “We’ve gone in a circle.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, bewildered. “We have been following the bank- it is impossible to have gone in a circle!”
“Yet we have,” said Gabi grimly, and pointed. There in the half-frozen mud of the bank was the deep imprint of a bare human foot. Gabi’s foot, where she had jumped across the creek and pulled me after her.
Right as I realized this, right before my eyes, the footprint filled in and disappeared. Laughter as sharp and glittering as the ice on the trees filled the air.
“She’s made a mistake!”
“Ooh, and they’ve realized!”
“Tricky, tricky; round and round they’ve gone, and now a little foot undoes them!”
“Oh no,” said Gabi, clenching my hand tight. I found I shared the sentiment.
Beneath the glassy surface of the frozen creek, little lights winked into existence, ethereal and pale compared to our lantern. Like wisps of smoke they rose up, illuminating the pale bodies of half a dozen naked women, arms linked, standing on the thin ice on their bare feet. The nearest, with pale hair and a hooked nose, winked at us as.
“Iele,” Gabi said, with a tone of stiff resignation. “Is this your spell, then, that’s keeping us lost?”
The leader snickered, tracing a crack in the ice with her bare toe.
“If it was our spell, you would not have seen such a silly mistake!” Her laugh was as bright and sharp as moonlight. “O no, we have no power over these trees; this is not our forest.”
“But we love it!” hissed another. “We so love this forest! May it join with ours, may all the forests in the world become one great rolling sea!”
“May witches perish, and humans be reduced to meek and frightened little creatures, terrified of shadows under trees…”
They all laughed together, in a most unpleasant way.
“Stay on topic,” said Gabi, with a scowl. “If you’re not bespelling us, who is?”
The leader laughed. “There is no spell on you! Haven’t you already learned the secret of this forest? The trees themselves move!”
“It is Adamina,” I said, realizing it all at once. Of course it was her- I should have known the moment I saw Gabi’s footprint disappear into the earth.
“Is that her name?” said one of the Iele in a sibilant voice. They all exchanged looks I could not interpret. “Well, we all stand atop of her ample bosom now. She may shift things as she pleases, and it pleases her to walk you ‘round in circles.”
“She doesn’t want to let you go, no,” purred another, from behind us, and Gabi jerked me closer to herself, clasping my arm tight.
“That does not make sense,” I said, feeling how quickly Gabi’s pulse fluttered against mine. “She must know that if we run out of time, I will not exist anymore!”
“True, true,” agreed the Iele, quite readily, and I suddenly got a bad feeling. It seemed almost as though they already knew the details of our situation. Had they been spying on us the whole time? If so, I could not imagine that it was for a kindly reason.
“She thinks she can defy the Baba,” said the leader, her eyes going thin with malicious mirth. “A fool, she is! A witch has her way; one cannot break their bargains so lightly. ‘Twould take more than simply hiding you.”
I opened my mouth to ask what they meant by ‘more’- was there really a way to escape Baba Yaga without finding the needle? But before I spoke Gabi caught my eye and gave a minute shake of her head.
“Surely the Treewitch realizes the folly of keeping us here,” she said, rather than picking up the dangling possibility. “Why let her servant run us in circles?”
“Servant?” repeated one of the Iele, cocking her head. Gabi pressed her lips together.
“Never mind! If you have appeared here for some reason, state that; otherwise we must be on our way. Time is short.”
“Ah, yes, on your way, round and round the rim of the moon,” said the leader, showing us her sharp white teeth in a smile. “Running so quickly to nowhere. The earth behemoth is insensible. She will not let you escape, even if it destroys you, like a child who squeezes candy in his fist until it melts.”
“We find that very fine to watch,” said another, running a hand along a frozen branch, tracing the whorls of the bark, “but for the Baba, you see? We mustn’t let her have her way.”
“If she has her way and eats you up, she will be able to break the power of the Treewitch!”
“Then this forest will fall apart!”
“We won’t ever be joined!”
“No sea of trees, only men, axes, and more men!”
“But there will be lots of grass,” said one Iele, the one with the most wistful, youthful face. “It feels good on your feet when you dance on it.”
The others scowled at her.
“Never mind the grass! We must not let the Baba eat this earth child.”
“No, no, for if she cannot, she also cannot keep hold of her light-spirits!”
“Without the light-spirits, she cannot unravel the Treewitch!”
“If she cannot unravel the Treewitch, then she has no power over this forest!”
“So we cannot let her eat the earth child!”
I had followed this exchange with mild confusion. In a brief lull I hazarded, “When you say earth child, do you mean… me?”
“O, yes,” said the Iele who was standing behind us. “A little bit of earth still lives in your flesh, in your soul, though you have dropped most of it.” She leaned close to me and took a long sniff. “Yes! I smell it. You have finally got yourself some flesh, as we suggested!”
For some reason this made heat rise to my cheeks.
“I did not get it because you told me to!”
The Iele gave an airy shrug. “No matter! The Baba can eat you now, and she is consumed with that desire. She even forsakes her death for it.” They exchanged catlike grins.
“So you do know everything,” I said. Gabi was shaking her head again, her eyes urgent, but I felt that there was no reason not to be blunt. “If you want to keep me from being eaten by the witch, will you help us find her death? That is all that we must do. Then she will have to free the three horsemen, and as you said she will not be able to stop the treewitch.”
“Kezia-” Gabi began, a warning note in her voice, but she fell silent when the lead Iele’s smile disappeared.
“Sisters! Do you hear? The earth child asks for our assistance.”
“She has flesh now, but it is troublesome to keep ahold of, isn’t it?”
“Ah, but she asks us for help, and we can help, can’t we?”
“You canl?” I asked, a bit of tenuous hope rising in my breast. The Iele turned as one to look at me with uncharacteristically serious faces.
“The child is correct: if we were to find the witch’s mortality, all our troubles would disappear. The Baba would have to retreat. The forest would continue to expand. Delicious death would walk beneath the trees.”
“Ah, but a question!” exclaimed another Iele, raising her hand as though she were a schoolchild. “To find a death is work, is it not? Terribly, terribly difficult work.’
“True, true; it does seem that there are simpler ways to go about with this helping business. There is more than one way to crack an egg.”
“Bite it!” suggested the youngest Iele. I got the sense that she was not terribly bright; some of the others were rolling their eyes.
“It may be work, but finding the needle is the only way to get what you want,” I argued, then faltered before the row of glittering eyes. “It is, is it not?”
The lead Iele turned to the others, and said, “Sisters! In what other way might we stop the witch from devouring this child?”
Again one put up her hand, and now her solemn expression cracked and split into a wicked grin. “The witch can’t eat what does not exist!”
“Damn it,” growled Gabi, her fingers clenching my arm like a vise. The Iele were twittering with pretty laughter now, unable to contain it any longer.
“Ah, I see!” crowed the leader. “That seems like much less work! Let’s eat her up ourselves, right now!”
Laughing, sharp-toothed, they rose up from the creek with graceful steps that seemed to barely touch the ground, and started to encircle us. The one who had snuck up behind us snaked her hand towards my shoulder, her fingernails sharp. I shrank back against Gabi, who whirled around and aimed the twin beams of the skull lantern at my attacker.
The light hit the Iele full on, and her long-limbed, naked beauty melted away in an instant: instead there was the woody tree-creature, mossy and crawling with termites. She squealed like splintering wood and fled the light, vanishing back into the darkness between the trees.
Her sisters hesitated, their smiles faltering.
“Did you think this was ordinary light?” Gabi growled, her expression savage. She swung the lantern around and I saw how the Iele cringed back from it. “Go away! You’ll not have Kezia. This isn’t your forest, and you have no power here!”
She said this last while glaring directly to the leader, who stared back at her in a way that to me seemed almost thoughtful.
“Hm, hm,” she said, looking to the others at her sides. “How peculiar. It seemed to me that this creature beside the earth child was a strigoi.”
Another Iele leaned forward and cocked her head from side to side, birdlike. “Ah, it can’t be! I only hear one heartbeat coming from her breast!”
Another stepped forward and sniffed loudly. “I smell new blood flowing from her veins!”
“O, yes,” said a third, with dark hair and red, red lips. “And I see- why, I see not a vampire and an animated pile of dirt, no. I see two human maidens, walking side-by-side in the dark night!”
Gabi stiffened. “We’re not humans!”
“Close enough!” crooned the Iele. “Close enough for us! Smell that flesh! Think of that blood! Mortality, mortality!”
“Flesh, flesh, mortality, mortality!” sang her sisters. They danced out of the way as Gabi swung the lamp around and began to change. Fur sprouted from their chests and arms and their teeth curled into fangs. Suddenly we were surrounded not by seven nude maidens but seven lean, mangy dogs, their fur matted, their ribs showing, their lips peeled back into permanent snarls.
A dog threw its head back and howled, and the others joined in.
Two little lovers ran through the woods!
Two little heartbeats! Two little heartbeats!
They ran from the witch and they ran from the trees!
Two little heartbeats! Two little heartbeats!
They ran from the Iele, they ran from a beast!
Two little heartbeats! Two little heartbeats!
But very soon, their light will fade-
Two little heartbeats! One little heartbeat!
One little heartbeat!
No little heartbeats…
The starving dogs broke into high, eerie laughter, circling us with glowing eyes. Gabi swung the lantern warningly at them and they backed away with their ropy tails quivering.
“Don’t listen to them,” she told me, voice firm. “They can’t hurt us, so they can only try to frighten us.”
“It is working,” I murmured, voice low. I should have known that no good would come from asking them for help.
Gabi peered closely at my face, then stuck the end of the branch holding the skull in the dirt so she could rise up on her toes and kiss my cheek.
“You mustn’t be afraid,” she said. “I’m with you, and I won’t let them harm you.”
She said it with some ferocity, and my heart did flutter in spite of the fact that the effect was somewhat mitigated by the dark blush rising to her cheeks.
“I may be weakened, but I still have teeth,” she added, baring them. None of them were sharp except for her chipped front tooth. Still, I wanted to kiss her then.
I did not, for the starving dogs still watched us, their eyes glowing the same ghostly color as their candles. They no longer laughed, only watched us in silence, their ribs and spines jutting through their skin. Gabi tugged me forward, taking up the lamp again. The dogs gave way, leaving us a path, and we walked through them as though they were some unpleasant escort.
“Don’t look back,” Gabi murmured, as we passed the last of them, and I, who had been about to do just that, stiffened and locked my gaze forward. For a moment we walked through the trees with only the sound of leaves crunching beneath our own feet. Then, gradually, the soft patter of canine footsteps began to follow us, and thin, high voices floated over on the wind.
She woke in the autumn and her hair was red…
And all around her there lay the dead…
Though she once quiver’d for the sun-
She drew upon a shroud and could not run…
The dark; the dead; the earth, too, is red…
Her flesh turned white but she was black dread…
Dread… dread… dread… dread…