I’ll stick in your throat.
Gabi had been very unhappy about Vasilisa travelling with us, but she had not had very much of a choice. Vasilisa had made up her mind to come and could not be dissuaded, and since we were the only light in the forest it was not as though we could stop her from following us. I think that Gabi would have tried a more violent form of persuasion had I not been there. I was glad I was. I did not know why the presence of Vasilisa seemed to put Gabi’s whole being on edge, but I was worried that Gabi had forgotten she was not quite a strigoi anymore.
In truth, I did not want Vasilisa to come with us either. It was not only the anxiety and frustration that was visible in Gabi’s manner. I had not forgotten what Vasilisa had done- when she had tried to cut Gabi’s throat. She had said she did it to save me, and maybe that was true. Maybe from another point of view, it was a very brave and good action. But all I had to do was imagine the silver knifetip protruding from Gabi’s skin, and I grew angry.
I was trying not to let either of them see that I felt that way, though. If Gabi knew what Vasilisa had done she would hate her even more. But was I right to keep it from her? And was I right to hide what I thought, when I would have chastened Gabi for doing the same?
It was not comfortable. Gabi and I walked together, shoulder to shoulder, in the flickering circle of light, and Vasilisa walked a little beside us, just at the edge. She was strangely quiet. Once we had started walking she had not asked us any questions, such as where we were going or what we were looking for, or even how it was that I now had a human body instead of a clay one. But she did cast frequent looks upon us, ones that I could not interpret. I had no idea what she was thinking.
Gabi tripped over a rotten branch with a curse, very loud and startling in the quiet of the forest. I caught her by the arm before she fell down.
“Are you all right?” I asked, drawing her back towards me as she continued to swear and hop on one foot.
“Yes- damn! Let go, let go!”
I obeyed, and she steadied herself with one hand against a tree trunk. Biting her lip, she turned her foot sideways and swiftly plucked something out of the heel. I saw a flash of red.
“Gabi! Are you hurt?”
The light wobbled as Gabi put her back to the tree and put her foot quickly back down.
“I’m fine! I’m not hurt! Let’s keep going already!”
I frowned, and she turned her head away, a sure sign that she was not being honest with me. Vasilisa came up alongside us out of the dark, her pale, dirty face looming into the light.
“I was wondering,” she said. “How is it that you get on walking through the woods in bare feet? I’m surprised you haven’t stepped on anything sharp before this!”
“Shut up,” Gabi growled, through her teeth. “Kezia- come on!”
She grabbed my arm and tried to tug me away from Vasilisa, but I kept my feet rooted in place, and watched how she flinched when she put weight on her bleeding heel.
“You are hurt.”
I appended my statement there, unsure of how much I wanted to say in front of Vasilisa. But it was clear to me that this was something new- something that had happened since the exchange of hearts. After all, Gabi had been barefoot the entire time I had known her and never been bothered by sharp twigs before.
“Fine, yes, but it doesn’t matter, it’ll heal. We don’t have time to waste,” said Gabi, though she was leaning against a tree again and grimacing.
“Fine, we will keep going,” I said, holding out an arm. “Get up on my back and I will carry you.”
“What! You’re not going to carry me!”
“We do not have time to waste,” I intoned, earning myself a scowl. “I am not a golem anymore, but I am still strong. Also, this way it will be easier for both of us to stay in the light.”
“Hmph!” said Gabi, and shot Vasilisa a swift, narrow-eyed glare, though she had not said anything. “Fine… until my foot heals. You’re going to regret this, you know- you don’t realize the limits of a human’s endurance.”
“Yes, I do,” I insisted, as I squatted down. “I know what I am doing.”
This was a lie, and I felt it very much as soon as Gabi clambered up onto my back, her arms gripping tight around my neck. As a golem I had never felt her weight at all, nor any weight really. Now, the breath was knocked out of me by the solidness of her. She was not a very large person- why did it feel like she was slowly crushing me?
As I squatted there under her weight, her voice hissed warmly in my ear: “See, didn’t I tell you?”
With enormous effort, I straightened my legs, coughing when she squeezed my throat out of surprise. I hooked one arm around her right leg and took up the lantern, which she had thrust into the ground, with my other.
“I am fine,” I said, in a slightly gravelly voice.
“Hmph,” Gabi said, but now it seemed mildly amused. “Go forward then, pack-mule. Mind you don’t trip.”
I could have responded to this with something just as insulting, but I was trying to save my breath. Forward. Yes. Using the lantern like a walking-stick, I began to stump forward, each step a test of will. My back was already starting to ache. Was my flesh really this weak? No, I had to at least be strong enough to carry Gabi.
“Are you alright, Kezia?” asked Vasilisa, who was walking easily beside me. “Would you like me to carry the light for-”
“No!” said Gabi and I in unison. I coughed, as Gabi hissed and resettled herself against my back. Vasilisa was watching us with wide eyes.
I attempted to explain. “It is a magic lantern. We must stay in the light.”
“It’s none of her business to know that,” muttered Gabi, like a flea in my ear.
“Oh, I see,” Vasilisa said blithely. “I understand. But… isn’t it shrinking?”
I paused in my walking, breathing through my mouth, and looked at the skull. It still glowed and emitted that soft halo of golden light, big enough for me to stand in. But the light that came from the eyes, the twin beams- perhaps, perhaps those were not illuminating quite so far, and quite so brightly.
“It will last until sunrise,” I said. “That is all we need.”
Then the horsemen could rest. I hoped they were all right, for they had gone entirely mute. It must have been to save energy.
Until sunrise… I did not really believe that they would last that long anymore. I did not even know how many more hours we had left until then. The sky above the skeletal trees was still black.
My body was feeling heavy, and not just from the weight of Gabi on my back. I recognized the feeling as tiredness. But I could not stop and rest. To rest would be to give up. We had to keep moving, even though we did not know where we were going, even though we had no hope of finding what we were searching for.
A soft touch surprised me: Vasilisa had put her hand on my arm. For a moment, as I remembered the bright, sharp knife-tip, I felt a sick turn in my stomach. But Vasilisa was looking up at my face with quiet concern.
“Is there anything I can do to help, Kezia?”
I swallowed, feeling Gabi’s fingers tighten on my collarbone.
“No- I do not think-”
I was interrupted by a low, distant rumble. It came from somewhere behind us and became louder and louder until the earth trembled beneath my feet. I leaned heavily on the lantern stick to keep my balance; Vasilisa fell back against a tree.
“Is Adamina moving the forest?” I gasped, when the shaking finally ceased. That was the only time I had felt a shaking like this before! Was she really doing what she had promised she would?
“Moving the forest?” Vasilisa repeated, confusion in her voice. I could no longer see her face; she had fallen out of the light.
“I don’t know, but I don’t like-” Gabi broke off mid-sentence. “Look out, Kezia!”
With a loud sucking sound, and a creak and a snap, the roots of the hoary old oak tree beside us came free from the soil, and the entire behemoth began to tilt sideways. The naked branches stabbed down towards our circle of light.
I stayed there gaping a moment too long- it looked as though it was falling in slow motion, snapping and crashing through the branches of other trees, a great solid dark mass descending upon us- and Gabi threw herself from my back, kicking out with her feet to knock me sideways. Something much closer than the tree gave a snap. I fell hard to the cold ground, my head ringing from the impact, and with a terrible crunch the ancient oak came down alongside me.
For a moment I lay there, dizzy, confused, head aching. In the distance I could hear the whines and cracks of more old trees falling down, victims of the golem’s earthquake. Should not Adamina have been more careful? What would her mistress think of this?
Something tiny crawled over my cheek, and I blinked, trying to clear my dizzy head. It was too dark, I could not see a thing, only a vague black line where the oak now lay sideways before me. I tried to push myself up, fingers digging through brittle leaves. The crawling thing flew away with a buzz.
It was dark. I could not see. It was dark…
Frantically I forced myself back on my feet, casting around, stumbling and bumping against the fallen tree’s shattered limbs. That too-close snap– it had been the branch carrying the skull-lantern breaking in two. It had gone flying away from me when I had fallen. And now I could not find it anywhere! The light- the light was gone! I had been left in the dark!
My heart seized with terror, and my mouth became too thick and numb to even call out for Gabi. Again and again I spun around, looking for some sign that what had happened, had not really happened; that there was still light, still hope.
At first, only unyielding darkness. And then- as my eyes slowly adjusted- I saw something! A pale little shape lying on the ground, something round, something that- the longer I looked at it- seemed to give off a faint reddish light.
A choking sound came from my throat, a sound which I had not consciously made; I began to stumble towards the skull, reaching out, stretching my fingers. Yes- it was a skull, the domed back of it facing towards me, one crack visible on the otherwise pristine yellow carapace. Had it cracked when it fell? No matter, no matter; the three horsemen were still giving off a little light…
I fell to my knees and touched the top of the skull- then jerked back. A sick feeling filled me.
The skull rotated in place. The light came from its eye sockets, not golden beams but pinpricks of piercing red, a feral, otherworldly glare. The earth shook beneath me, and I jumped to my feet- but this was not Adamina’s doing. As I watched, dumbfounded, the frozen soil cracked and split, and bones began to worm their way upwards. A jawbone popped up beneath the skull, and it rattled its teeth at me as neck vertebrae came together and pushed it up- up, up, the bones flying and settling in place until I was staring at a standing skeleton, yellow and filthy.
“Time’s up,” hissed the bones, in a voice like dying wind.
I cried out, turned to run- but there were other pale shapes coming forth out of the darkness, clacking and creaking like rusty metal. Their red eyes glowed out of the darkness. In the distance, I heard a tremendous THUMP, THUMP– like a giant’s footstep- and the whine and crack of more trees falling down.
Sharp, icy fingers dug into my throat- the first skeleton had grabbed me, its eyes smoking like hot coals. I choked, grabbing at the frigid bones, but they were strong and unyielding as iron.
“Get back!” came a shout out of the darkness, and abruptly something hit the skeleton and caused it to burst into pieces. The finger bones fell lifelessly away from my throat and hit the ground. I gasped.
Gabi- for it was Gabi, who had come barrelling into my attacker- turned and grasped my cheeks.
“Are you alright? Are you hurt?”
“No,” I managed to say. Behind her, I could see the skeleton slowly reassembling itself, eyes burning malevolently in our direction. “Gabi- we are-”
“Listen,” she said, squeezing my face to cut off my words. “I don’t care. We shall not give up until the last second, Kezia. Until it’s over. Agreed?”
I could not find it in myself to speak, so I nodded. Gabi let go of my cheeks and took my hand, pressing close beside me. Around us, the skeletons assembled, linking their arms together in a familiar bone fence.
“Where is Vasilisa?” I whispered to Gabi- it seemed better to whisper, just then.
“Forget about her,” she replied, a faint sneer on her face. “She scampered as soon as she caught a whiff of what was going on. Coward.”
She had run away? I was somewhat surprised. It had not seemed like her to do such a thing. But then again, I could not imagine her being able to help us in any way now. Perhaps it was best for her sake. I decided I did not begrudge her for that.
THUMP. THUMP. Shoving heedlessly through trees, the hut with the chicken legs loomed out of the night, as the skeletons trained their glowing eyes on the grotesque shape of it. Again, I noticed how blood dripped down where wood pierced between the yellow scales. Again, the talons scratched and scored great furrows in the earth, flinging leaves and rotten wood in every direction- I raised an arm and did my best to shield Gabi from it. But this time, the hut did not squat down and settle in. This time it merely stopped and stood over us, unsettling in its implausibility.
“This forest is no place to make a home out of,” came a voice, weathered and filthy with phlegm. Baba Yaga had arrived.
She stood between the legs of her hut, grinning at us with her rotten teeth, her tattered cloak flapping over her bare, hoary old breasts. She raised a hand and from somewhere in the forest behind us three little wisps of light drifted through the air to swirl around her palm like fireflies. She examined them and tsked at us.
“My, how you’ve drained my poor servants. You’ve nearly let them go out; and for what?”
Her eyes were merry, mocking. She closed her fist and the three little lights vanished. I gave a stilted cry.
“Oh? Not to worry. I have sent them away to recover their brightness.” She showed us her teeth in another grin. “I don’t need them with me now. I’ve merely come to collect my spoils: two souls, warm and fresh.”
The word fresh hissed unpleasantly through the gaps in her blackened teeth, and wormed its way down my spine.
“You won’t collect anything,” spat Gabi, clutching my hand tight. “We owe you nothing, you hairy, crack-headed old witch! Your deals are traps and your stench is foul!”
Baba Yaga merely gave her a patient look, a look that suggested she had waited through many such tirades before.
“Yes,” I said, my foolish tongue moving before my mind could catch up to it. “We do not owe you anything. I remember the terms of the deal, and you said that if we have the item you are looking for-”
“But you don’t have it,” said Baba Yaga, her flapping cloak billowing around her body like a manifestation of her growing smugness.
“Who says we don’t have it?” Gabi shot back. “What d’you think we’ve been doing all this time, if we don’t have it? Kezia is the one who took it from you in the first place, you stupid old goat!”
Baba Yaga’s lazy smile tightened a fraction, and her eyes got thin. I wanted to cringe for Gabi’s sake. Did she have to push things so?
“If you have it,” said the witch, “then I shall give you the opportunity to give it to me now.” She held out her slender palm to us, her knobby fingers crooked.
Gabi’s mouth worked a moment, and she glanced at me. I tried to avoid looking into the witch’s dizzying eyes and think.
“We won’t give it to you yet,” I said. “Because we know that this is something you want very much. It is important to you, so you would do most anything to get it back- would you not?”
Baba Yaga actually laughed, a delighted high shriek. “Oh! Are you trying to raise the stakes on Baba Yaga, little earth’s child?”
“Would you not?” I repeated, stubbornly.
“Certainly,” she said. “It is the only death I shall ever have, and I covet it and crave it and loathe it and hate it. What a beautiful thing, is death! Without it near me I shall go mad.”
“So that means you would do whatever we asked of you to get it back,” I said. Now Gabi was the one looking nervous about my words.
“Kezia,” she hissed, but I pretended not to hear.
The witch gave me a cruel, sideways look. “You are bluffing,” she said. “But why not? I shall swallow your soul soon anyhow, let us spice it with a few lies. What is it you would ask Baba Yaga to do, in order to receive her death?”
I had not actually thought this far- I really was bluffing by the skin of my teeth. I tried to stall as I frantically tried to think of my next conditions.
“We have already agreed that if I give you back your death, you will free your three horsemen and Vasilisa.”
“It is so,” said the witch.
“And- and now, here is what else I would have you do. I would have you- I would have you promise never to interfere with us or them again, and to go back to the land where you came from and stay there.”
“Troublesome commands,” said Baba Yaga, not appearing troubled in the slightest. “Well? The needle, then?”
“Wait,” I said, “I was not finished. I have more to request of you.”
Baba Yaga rocked back on her heels in a surprisingly spry way, a flicker of impatience in her gaze. I chanced a fearful glance at Gabi, and saw her scanning the circle of skeletons that fenced us in. I hoped that somehow she was working on a miraculous escape idea.
“I would ask, also,” I said, drawing out my words as long as I could, “that you- that you free the creatures that make up your fence and gate, and anything else that you have enslaved. And that you- er-”
“That you shed the power you have collected, like an insect’s carapace, and live out the rest of your days as a helpless old woman,” Gabi growled suddenly. “That you be mired in the pain and fear you once used to trap your victims.”
I was struck dumb; that had gone much further than anything I would have come up with. I saw a muscle jumping in Gabi’s jaw, saw her blue eyes livid with emotion, and my heart sank. She had no escape in mind at all. She was merely snarling and snapping like a cornered beast.
“Hm, hm,” said Baba Yaga, tapping her hairy lips with one finger. “You speak the truth of what I did. But it is a truth you find very familiar yourself, isn’t it, strigoi?” Then she was grinning again. “Or should I say- girl who was once a strigoi. My, it is a wonderful pleasure that it is not only the earth’s child who has gone and made herself delectable to me. Now I find a lovely scent wafting from your withered little soul, my dear. Have you not changed very much recently? Good; I should think both of you would taste better as a set.”
“But you can not have us,” I began. “We have the-”
“You have nothing but yourselves,” said Baba Yaga, smiling like a crocodile. “And soon, not even that. I would allow you more time for squirming, but I’m afraid that I’ve gotten quite hungry, and there are my after-dinner plans to consider as well. I haven’t time to play more with my food. Now, the only question remains is who I should swallow first.”
Gabi and I were both silent a moment, and then suddenly Gabi spat, “Take me first, then- I’ll stick in your throat and choke you to death!”
“Gabi!” I cried, as the witch laughed in a delighted way.
“Good, good! That settles that, then.”
She drew a long, thin knife from her cloak, slightly curved, with a savagely hooked tip. I dropped Gabi’s hand to grab her arm.
“No, I want to go first,” I said, words dropping from my mouth like frightened flies. “I do not want to see Gabi die. Please eat me before her.”
“The order of eating is already settled; no more stalling,” said Baba Yaga, idly turning the knife this way and that to look at the way the red glow of the skeletons’ eyes reflected off it. “Will you come to me, my dears? Or shall I have my servants hoist you like pigs? I don’t care either way.”
In the knife I caught the reflection of her horrible black eye, the endless cold darkness of it. Like a crashing wave, the horror really dawned on me. We were not going to escape.
“Come get me, witch!” cried Gabi, wrenching free of my grip. “I shan’t make it easy for you! I’ll fight you to the last instant! You stink of decay, you foolish, greedy creature- too many souls have rotted your teeth like spun sugar! Do you think that they can fill up the abyss inside-”
Quite abruptly she stopped talking. Somehow Baba Yaga had moved so that she stood inches away from us, and the tip of her long knife was under Gabi’s chin.
“You should never have given up your heart, weak one,” she said, as Gabi gritted her teeth. “Now you and your lover both will die as mere mortals. And Baba Yaga will suck on your marrow and laugh.”
Gabi took in a thin breath, and only glared at the witch- glared with hatred and defiance that somehow I knew only made the witch more pleased. And Baba Yaga turned her knife so that the hooked tip caught at the pale skin of Gabi’s throat.
“No!” I cried. “I WILL NOT LET YOU!”
I was hardly even aware of my own actions until I heard a great crack. I had swung my fist at the witch. And my action must have surprised her, for the blow connected to her bare stomach within the cloak, and the withered, spindly mass of her bent around my fist and flew backwards.
Baba Yaga crumpled to the ground, ashen-faced and ancient. Gabi was gaping at me. I was filled to the brim with hot rage.
“You are not so strong!” I snapped. “You think you have us frightened, and that you can kill us? Well-”
Baba Yaga slowly unfolded herself from her prone position. Her black eyes met mine, and my voice died in my throat.
“So,” she said, “it is you who wants to die first.”
She used the long knife to lever herself up from the ground. My throat was constricting. I could not speak. I could barely breathe. Gabi grabbed my arm, pushed against my chest, her eyes no longer fierce, only fearful.
“Stand away,” said the witch, and the words fell like stones. I saw Gabi grow stiff, and then, like a jerky marionette, she stepped back from me.
“You are bound by our contract,” said Baba Yaga. She was not smiling anymore. “And the terms must be fulfilled. I shall hold you to them now.”
I could not move. Gabi, too, seemed frozen. The bargain- the contract- never make deals with a witch, someone had warned me. She had put a spell on us, and it could not be broken- nobody could break Baba Yaga’s spells- nobody-
“Baba Yaga! Baba Yaga!”
The witch whirled around, the eyes of her skeleton slaves turning with her to illuminate a small bald hill through the trees. Upon the hill stood Vasilisa, filthy, matted, and proud. She held a little white flower in one fist.
“Ah!” cried the witch, familiar greed lighting in her eyes. “So! I have not had to hunt you down myself. I shall be fat after I swallow three souls tonight!”
“No, you won’t, you old liar,” said Vasilisa, tossing her hair as though it were not ragged and short. “You have played tricks and cheated every time you could, and now you must be taken to task for it. And I’ve found just the one to do it!”
“Come down here to your Baba, my sweet, Vasilisa,” said Baba Yaga, in a voice like grating stones. “Don’t make me have to chase you. I won’t make it hurt if you don’t run.”
Vasilisa shook her head, and I was astonished. How could she possibly be so confident? She raised a hand and twirled the white flower in her fingers.
“You shouldn’t have come here, my Baba. There are powers greater than yours in this forest.”
“What do you know of power?” asked the witch. “I’m curious, my Vasilisa. But not curious enough to stay my hand. I am weary of chatter and games. Come to me now, or I shall-”
Vasilisa raised the flower to her mouth and swallowed it. I heard Gabi gasp beside me. And then there came a feral scream from the darkness, and something huge and black and covered in white flowers crashed through the trees and landed on Baba Yaga.