We weren’t far from the center of the forest when Vasilisa collapsed.
There had been a few less-than-subtle warning signs that she was deteriorating rapidly. Trailing after me, stumbling drunkenly and catching herself on her golem’s arms, she had begun to talk to herself, at first intermittently, then ceaselessly. It started as a list of names, presumably for the golem: “Sasha, Svetlana, Abram, Vladimir, Liliya, Taavi…”
Each name felt like a stab at me, a reminder of how I had let her keep the golem’s will; was now letting her decide what to call it, even what gender it was. Physical disgust welled up inside me at the thought. Did she not realize how horrible she was being? It reminded me of how Nicu the ursari would tell his audience that his bear Snout was a male, to make her seem more fearsome- the poor drooling creature that she was, barely able to shamble to and from their carts. At least I knew Snout never understood the words he said about her.
“Svetlana and Sasha,” she murmured. “Svetlana… and Sasha. And Machekha.”
These names were said in faintly ominous tones, as though they had some special importance. I set my shoulders. Vasilisa muttered something in Russian before lapsing back into a language I understood.
“Machekha asked me many times… What makes a rich man see a peasant girl and find her desirable?”
I knew the answer to that one as easy as breathing, but I kept my mouth shut, focused on picking my way downwards along the sloping, tree-lined hill, towards the bottom of the pit where Mother Forest’s true self lay as snug and deadly as an antlion. The wicked paleness of the trees, their red-tipped branches, seemed almost obscene to me now.
“And when did the great man see me? When did he pass by the mucky field where we used to keep cows? No cows there now. She sold them all… She could have sold me, too, like a cow to the Tsar, but it made her so angry instead.”
A long pause from behind me. I kept my eyes trained forward, hearing the steady thump of the golem’s footsteps behind me. If I pretended that there were green leaves around me instead of these white monsters, it was almost painfully nostalgic. Surely we were near the spot where I had been separated from Kezia by now? The huge footprints I was following went down and down. I felt the hungry pull of the giant tree like a physical tug behind my navel.
“She was not a cruel woman at first,” said Vasilisa, so soft the words were nearly inaudible. “But being around me, it changed her.”
I couldn’t help but mutter, “Oh, yes, they would like you to think that.”
“Shut up. Keep your thoughts inside your head where they belong. You’re going to draw things with fangs out of this forest with your squealing.”
“Oh, but then Taavi will save us,” she said, and out of the corner of my eye I saw her stroke the golem’s arm again, fondly, as though it were a dog. She picked off a piece of bark that was embedded in the clay and let it fall to the ground.
“Don’t,” I muttered, clenching, trying not to look.
“Don’t what?” Her voice held no hint of malice, only drowsy confusion. She plucked off another twig, let it fall to the ground. The golem kept its gaze on her, impassive.
I twisted my lips together.
“He is so prickly and covered up,” Vasilisa continued, her eyes hazy. She was far gone; I’d seen drunken men like this, out of their minds and pissing themselves. “How did you get like this, Taavi? Won’t you clean yourself up?”
Without hesitation, the golem reached for the crown of branches on its head and pulled them away, leaving deep scars behind in the clay. Its head looked strangely small without them. It reached for one of the stinking bones embedded in its torso, and I couldn’t stand it anymore, not at all, and whirled around and grabbed Vasilisa’s arm so hard she gasped.
“Tell it to stop! You beast!”
Vasilisa seemed too stunned to do anything but cry out, and the golem’s head snapped up at once and it struck me with a sideways blow that sent me sprawling on the ground. Vasilisa staggered too, from the release, and the golem caught her in its newly-bald arm.
“That hurt,” said Vasilisa, blinking her swimming eyes and peering somewhere to the left of my face. She coughed, a dreadful rasp. “You… you called me a beast.”
I curled and pulled myself into a sitting position, knees up, breathing hard. The blow had opened a few of my clotted wounds, and the fresh pain sang into me with unfamiliar clarity.
“Beast,” I spat, in confirmation, and then for good measure, “Gadjo beast!”
She looked bewildered, and not just from being poisoned- she likely wouldn’t know the word. Of course she wouldn’t, she was Russian, and they didn’t keep Romani slaves in the far north. But I knew they did keep slaves, dark-skinned Africans like my mother, like the ones that passed through Romania every year on a hopeless trek northward.
I could not put to words why the disrobing of the golem had made me so enraged. In any case she’d never understand, I could see that now. I could see her attention already slipping away, lost in some thought that was sputtering its way out of the dregs of her toxin-laden brain. Her eyes rolled skyward, and she blinked furiously, as though the shaded sunlight was somehow hurting her.
She was dying, but loathing, not pity, was consuming me. Kezia had asked me, wasn’t hatred supposed to be a bad thing? Yes, my dear, yes; this was the very worst of it now, the sort that sprang out at the person before you then doubled back, like a traitor, to bite at your own heart.
“I know why,” I snarled, rising shakily to advance back up the hill towards her. The air was filled with the sickly-sweet smell of the white grove, and the obscene trees seemed to quiver as I passed. “I know why the Tsar wanted you; shall I tell you?”
Vasilisa still had enough wits left to shrink back against the golem, which crossed its arms before her and loomed protectively, hollow eyes fixed now on me. I halted mere inches away from the pair of them, nausea kicking again at the back of my craw. At least I had nothing inside me to vomit back up.
“Your beauty matters little,” I sneered. “He might even still take you like this, a half-dead, filthy maniac. A Tsar sees a girl in a field, a peasant girl, and his mind constructs a pretty fantasy. A girl below his station, a girl that relies on him for every need, a girl who won’t even know where to piss in the palace without instruction. How is that for titillating! A girl in a mucky field, a clay girl, to mold as he sees fit.” My fists were trembling at my sides. “He might even pretend to marry you, to love you, just to keep you utterly devoted. A man sees a pretty girl below his station, a girl whom he knows he can just open up for himself- takes her away from her family, her life, everything she has ever known- makes her into a pretty-”
I cut off from my tirade, cursing instead. Vasilisa’s eyes rolled up into the back of her skull, and she collapsed.
Luckily for her, the golem caught her on one of its big arms, so that she lay draped there like a dishtowel on the arm of some incongruous houseboy. I waited a moment for her to recover from her vapors, and when she did not, cursed again in a ribald stream that made the golem look up from her and stare at me.
“Oh, hush!” I told it, feeling as though there were something accusatory in the look, and strode forward with the intent to smack Vasilisa back awake. But as soon as I drew close the golem raised one hand in what was clearly a warning. I skipped backwards at once.
The golem lowered its hand, shifting its arm so Vasilisa was pressed against its lumpy chest like a little doll. I pressed my lips together. None of these actions had been based on an explicit order I’d heard her give; did the magic that bound a golem to its master also automatically confer protective behavior? Or- a horrible thought- did it make the golem feel some form of false love towards Vasilisa with the loss of its free will? I shuddered with revulsion. Kezia had expressed affection for her so-called mother when I had first freed her, but she may not have known better at the time. Unless it was a feeling that had been artificially implanted.
The thought made me burn with a sort of hate for Adamina, and I clenched my fists. Nobody would ever take away Kezia’s will again- I would kill them first!
But there would be time to stew and rage at such things later- well, possibly, if we made it out of this increasingly unpleasant scenario- and the matter at hand was more pressing. It was in some ways fortuitous that Vasilisa had passed out, as it had shut her damn mouth, and now she couldn’t give the golem any more stupid orders. But it also meant she couldn’t rescind the ones she’d already given- for example, the one about me not getting to touch the golem. As an experiment, I reached for its arm. It backed away, dragging her limp body with it.
I stopped, and the golem stopped, and I took the moment to swear again. Now how was I supposed to get that damn needle out?! To make things worse, the golem was beginning to pick at the things embedded in its skin again, shedding sticks and leaves and bits of bone, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to stop it. An order- even one as vague as ‘clean yourself up’- seemed to be absolute.
I drummed my fingers on my hip, watching the grim display of the thing stripping itself, Vasilisa slumped against its shoulder. I could leave the two of them here and search for Kezia on my own, of course, and it was honestly what I yearned to do anyhow. But I had a nasty feeling that if I let the golem out of my sight for too long I’d lose the damn needle again, too. Also, though I hated to admit it, I was too badly weakened to protect Kezia from anything bigger than a goose, and having even unsavory allies like Vasilisa around felt better than having none, and if she came with a big, protective golem, well…
I gnawed my lip and stared at her motionless form, trying to glare her back to awakeness. Nothing doing: even the jostling of the golem as it stripped itself wasn’t rousing her. Her chest still rose and fell, but shallowly. What happened to a golem if it was bound to a dead master? I was not entirely sure I wanted to find out, but it looked as though it would happen if I didn’t think of something soon.
Of course there was only one thing I could possibly do, though it made me squirm with anxiety: give the golem some of my blood. Forcibly. I doubted it would be moving from this spot any other way. I also doubted that when it got free will back it would do anything other than immediately crush Vasilisa’s skull and spring for mine. (I wouldn’t blame it for that, either.)
“You couldn’t… follow me on your own, could you?” I asked, taking a few more steps back. The golem merely stared. Of course it wouldn’t; ‘on your own’ was a foreign concept to a being without free will. But it had been able to threaten me away from Vasilisa without being asked- then it had some will when it applied to her, didn’t it? Or had I been mistaken then- had it just been trying to keep me from touching it? I felt exhausted trying to puzzle it all out, and more than a little frustrated, as well.
“To hell with it!” I exclaimed out loud, stamping one foot. The golem pulled Vasilisa tighter against its chest. “I shall give you your free will, because you aren’t just some brute, are you? Isn’t that the point?”
It favored me with that impassive gaze, which was probably fair, given that my statements were likely incomprehensible to anybody not living inside my head. But at least things had become wonderfully simple to me, so simple I was almost ashamed of myself. Of course there was no other option but to free the golem, even if it was risky. It did, after all, appear to understand speech, even if it couldn’t respond. It was not a mindless automaton- it could be reasoned with. At least I hoped so.
“Listen,” I said, stabbing a finger in the golem’s direction. “I am going to return your free will to you in just a moment. If you please, don’t kill me.” I pressed my lips together here, but then grudgingly added, “Or the girl there, don’t harm her either. I shan’t pester you any longer, except for that needle in your forehead. That’s all we’ve wanted this entire time. So give me the needle, and then you can be on your way…”
I trailed off, cleared my throat. Said out loud, my demands seemed rather ridiculous, especially to that blank stare. Hadn’t it been the one to kidnap us both in the first place? And then it had killed Ioan. Oh, but it could have killed us right away but didn’t, so what did that mean? Had it been holding us captive for some reason? That didn’t seem good… As rapidly as I had gained confidence, I was losing it again. This was no good. I didn’t have enough time to agonize over things here- Kezia needed me.
“At the very least,” I told the golem, “you can go off and be free as you like. There are few who could stop you.”
The golem had not moved a centimeter for the entire time I’d been speaking. It might well have been an unfinished clay statue, with the exquisitely carved Vasilisa swooning in its hands. I took a deep breath, then sucked on one of the wounds on my arm, my mouth filling with my own dull-tasting blood. Then I took one step towards the golem and spat.
At one point in time, I’d been able to spit and hit a dog three yards away. The distance to the golem was much shorter, though it still made me feel rather smug when the red stuff hit its mark, oozing down the golem’s left arm. Now, finally, the golem did move its head, to look down at the blood and spittle soaking into its clay.
“So?” I said, mustering as much bravado into my voice as I could, crossing my sore arms over my chest as a feeble form of protection. “What will you do with that free will?”
No answer, of course. Instead the golem slowly rose up, to its full, imposing height, and laid Vasilisa back over one shoulder. It looked down at its arm where she had been lying, where it had picked the clay bald of ornaments, and covered the spot with one big hand.
“Yes,” I said, feeling myself coloring, “I’m sorry about that. I couldn’t stop her.”
The golem reached up- I couldn’t stop myself from cringing- but it was only to pluck a branch from one of the white trees with a decisive snap. It pushed it into the clay, where it had been naked, and then looked over at me.
“Well…” It hadn’t attacked either of us, that was good, right? “May I have that needle in your forehead now?”
The golem didn’t move. Cautiously I took one step forward, then another, reaching out my hand, but when my fingertips were mere inches from touching the golem, it swept out an arm as though to push me back. I scrambled back without being pushed.
“Well. All right then. We won’t do it that way.” I swallowed, my eyes darting at the little silver line, so close, yet so very, very far. “How about this, then. If you’ve got nothing else to do…” Oh, I was going to regret this, wasn’t I. “Will you follow me while I search for Kezia?”
Not the tiniest twitch from the golem. I supposed clay couldn’t exactly twitch, though. Experimentally, I added, “If the answer is yes, you can nod your head up and down. If the answer is no-”
The golem was nodding furiously before I had even finished speaking, so fast that Vasilisa’s body was getting jostled up and down on its shoulder.
“Oh! All right! You can stop nodding now, please!”
It stopped. I tapped my teeth with a fingernail, eyeing the sorry figure of the girl. I had no idea of what the golem wanted to do with her. Perhaps it didn’t matter just now.
“You can keep Vasilisa there, I suppose, if that’s what you want; I expect she’ll die soon on her own.”
The golem reached over with its free hand to touch the back of Vasilisa’s head. There was something suspiciously tender about that light caress. Was it possible that the golem was not holding her in order to take revenge, as had been my obvious assumption? Was it still acting under the influence of her orders, even though they’d technically been lifted? The thought made me uneasy, but then again, it could have been much worse. I could let it go.
“Follow me, then,” I said, turning my back on it to study the big footprints in the ground, going further and further down the hill. It occurred to me just a moment later that turning my back might have been a very stupid thing to do- the golem might have just been waiting for me to be off my guard- but somehow, once it had nodded for me, I had assumed that it was telling the truth. As much as it could tell me anything.
The footprints led us downwards, the golem and I. Aside from the shuddering steps it took, both of us were entirely silent. If it had been Kezia behind me, young, fresh-formed Kezia, she would have been chattering away, pestering me with endless questions. This quiet was lonely, and near-absolute: in the white grove there was little sunlight, no wind, and no sign of any animal life. It was still, with thick wet air filled with the cloying, sickening scent of the white trees. It hung heavy in my lungs, like I was breathing fog, and an ache was starting to form behind my temples. Dizzy on the steep slope, I lost my footing and skidded downwards for a few feet before catching myself on a tree trunk. The colorless bark made my palm prickle and burn at the touch.
The golem thumped faster to catch up with me, bulldozing through the more slender trees without a care. It stopped as I straightened myself up, turning its head to the left and to the right, and then completely around in a way that made me queasy.
“What are you looking for?” I asked, trying to follow its gaze. Nothing but white trees and bare dirt, as far as I could tell; the great tree was not yet within sight, though we had travelled pretty far. There had been no sign of Kezia, no mark on the ground of any sort beside the golem’s footprints. And those, to my dismay, ended a short distance away from where I was standing- turning abruptly where the thing had picked me up and carried me off.
I half-walked, half-skidded down the slope to the spot, touching the bare dirt as though it might give me some sign, some indication of where she had gone. But there wasn’t so much as a scuff mark in the spot where she had pushed me out of the way of the wolf, not even a pawprint where he had landed. It was all perfectly smooth, as though someone had swept it with a broom.
Frantically I looked around, for any sort of sign or landmark, any at all- trees, trees, more trees, nothing! It was as though she’d vanished into thin air. My heart was throbbing painfully in my breast, and I cupped my hands around my mouth and called into the trees.
The sound died swiftly in the still, humid air. Of course it was silent, of course no one answered, o, God, what had I expected? That she would just be sitting here waiting for me? Time was so strange in this part of the forest that I had no inkling of how much had passed, but it had to have been hours or more. For all I knew, Baba Yaga could have…!
I forced myself to stop that line of thought in its tracks. Surely if the witch had penetrated this far, there would be some serious signs. She was not the quiet or subtle sort. No, Mother Forest still held sway… The tree. We had been walking to the tree when we’d gotten separated, as a way to stave off Baba Yaga and Adamina both. If she didn’t know where I was- maybe she would have gone to the tree and waited for me there? It made some amount of sense. I bit my lip, trying not to picture her, alone, in this hostile place. Kezia was no fool, of course, and she was tough in her own ways even without the golem’s strength, but-
I turned to the golem, meaning to declare my intent to travel to the great tree, and found it with its back to me. Vasilisa’s sightless head lolled over its shoulder. And I perceived the sound of something large moving towards us in the direction it was facing.
With my heart in my throat, I scrambled back up the hill to stand beside the golem, as close as I dared, nervously hoping it might provide me with some sort of protection, even peripheral. I could see the large thing approaching- the size of a bear, it was, and dark, like a blot amidst the glowing white trees. It seemed almost drunken in manner, swaying and staggering up against the trunks on either side. As it drew closer I perceived the little white flowers that grew like stars in its black pelt.
The name came to my lips unbidden, but it was certainly him, wasn’t it? It was a giant cat, covered over in flowers, missing an eye- certainly Mother Forest’s unwilling servant once more- but I had been certain that he’d meet his end at Baba Yaga’s hands, for attacking her as he had. To think that he’d escaped- but not unscathed, it seemed; blood was oozing out of his dark fur in several places and dripping down onto the bare earth, which swallowed it up.
I relaxed a little anyway; it wasn’t terrible to see that he’d survived, all things considered, and moreover even under the thrall of Mother Forest I didn’t think he meant us any harm. She wanted us to die for her willingly, after all.
Noroc made a sound- a kind of yowl that tapered off into a rumbling moan, crashing up against a tree, which seemed, as I watched, to curl slightly away from him. I wondered if he would be able to speak like this- maybe he knew something useful- but just then, the golem at my side stepped forward.
In fact, it did not just step forward- with Vasilisa pressed tight against itself with one arm, it strode forward towards Noroc with definite purpose, as I watched agape. Noroc’s single eye widened, and it occurred to me just then that there was something odd about that eye, something that didn’t fit right.
The golem swung its fist and hit him in the chest.
The cat crashed backwards into the trees, his paws dangling like a marionette’s, head dropping backwards. The golem surged forwards, arm reeling back for another blow, and I gathered my lost wits and shouted, “Stop! Don’t do that!”
The golem paid no attention and its second blow hit the cat across the head, and now Noroc gave a terrible scream and writhed, righting himself, fluffy tail lashing, eye squinting with rage- and now I was sure of it, something was odd, hadn’t Noroc had a green eye? This one was hard to see, but I didn’t think it was green…
When the golem tried to strike again the cat moved away, suddenly liquid, and clawed at the golem’s side. Sticks and leaves went flying, and the clay was deeply gouged. The golem touched the spot, and I thought it was enraged, I thought, because of course it made no sound at all, not even the rumble of a feral growl. It grabbed the cat by the ear and Noroc screamed, his eye bulging-
His left eye. The cat had a flower growing out of his right eye socket, and his left eye was orange in color. Noroc’s single green eye had been his right.
This domovoi was not Noroc.
The great cat wrapped himself around the golem with a howl, clawing, biting, as the golem struggled and gave it great thumps over the back that would have shattered my bones. Vasilisa’s body fell to the ground, the stamping feet of the golem coming perilously close to her prone figure. I watched it all rather helplessly; maybe I could have snatched her out of harm’s way but I could also have gotten my head bashed in, maybe I could have just turned and let them fight it out and gone to look for Kezia- but I would be leaving behind my only source of power, that needle. And I didn’t even know where Kezia was.
Not-Noroc bit into the side of the golem’s neck, gouging the clay, as the golem took one of his paws and twisted it at an unnatural angle. I hovered like a fool, too frightened to move, as yet another thought occurred to me:
If this cat was here- and it certainly seemed that it was the one we had seen before- how close behind it was Baba Yaga?