Not one damned mark on you.
I was able to recognize what my body was doing as coughing, but I wished very much that it would stop, as it did not seem to be helping me clear out the acrid taste of dirt in my mouth and in the back of my throat. But again and again, without my input, my chest seized up and I hacked and wheezed. It was very alarming to have control taken from me like that, especially in such a violent way. Even a human body had its own mind, it seemed.
Between coughs, I managed to sit up, blinking the dust out of my eyes and trying to focus on the blurry black cat that was sitting a few feet away from me. His tail was in the air, and his one green eye winked at me. I coughed out, “Noroc!”
At once the cat sped towards me, crushing his head against my stomach and rubbing his face along my arms. Despite his size I was nearly knocked over by the force of it. Hesitantly I put a hand out- still rocked by a few more stubborn coughs- and he pressed his small head into it, tilting so that my finger brushed his empty eye socket. And it was empty, no flower grew from it, and the back part was smooth and covered by skin. A kind of relief filled me, and also a kind of wonder, because I had never touched an animal with my new hands before, and the feel of his fur was something else. Soft and warm and alive, Noroc pressed against me, and after a moment’s hesitation I put my arms around him and held him close, the coughs in my chest finally settling. A strange vibration was coming from Noroc, settling down into my bones in a comforting way- I think that he was purring.
“I am glad to see you too,” I told him, my dry lips sticking uncomfortably as I spoke. “Oh, Noroc, I was afraid the witch would kill you! How did you get away?”
He drew his head back far enough to blink his eye at me, vacant- it seemed that now was not one of the times he was able to speak. I rubbed the fur along his spine, both enjoying the contact and feeling for any evidence of the white flowers that I had seen peppering his pelt- but there were none, only a few knots and bumps that felt like old scars. As I did so, he licked at the dirt encrusting my arm, making me jump- I do not know what I had expected a tongue to feel like, but it was not that.
I let him go to try and scrape some of it away with my fingernails. Adamina had left me covered in it, from her attempt to get inside me- well, she had gotten in, somehow; the thought made me shudder in remembrance, sending little cascades of dirt down from my shoulders. Noroc gave me a look when some landed on his fur, and jumped out of my arms to scratch at his ear with one foot. I reached up and felt the thick mess of my hair, and followed his example to try and shake some of it free. She had really coated me in the stuff; it was hard to move without cracking and crumbling. Like a faux-golem, for my skin could still feel beneath the dirt. I supposed her intent had been to shut that and all other feelings away from me forever. So I would be like her.
I paused in my scratching for a moment, pensive: even though we were no longer connected, I still had a lingering sympathy for her. I did not want it. She had done many terrible things and had made me do terrible things. But I could not shake the memory of reading the parchment and seeing the word monster, either. Written by the man she had loved and then killed.
How strange. I could never imagine wanting to hurt Gabi, whom I loved deeply. But now through her eyes I could not deny that it was possible for such love to spill over into something terrible.
It made me wonder what she had thought of the memories I had shown her. Perversely, I wondered what she had thought of the memory of kissing Gabi, the feeling of it. Though then again she would have already carried memories like that from the first Adamina.
Noroc yawned at me, stretching his lips back over his canines so that I was privy to the whole fearsome array of his white teeth. The sight made me pull back out of my own thoughts; there were more important concerns for me to address now that I had got free. Namely, where was I? And where was Gabi?
I had not yet taken the time to look around myself, but now I did so, curling my legs underneath myself for a small sense of protection. The dirt on the ground was rumpled and disturbed at the spot where I had burst up just moments ago, and around it coiled naked roots, some torn from my struggling. Beneath me, through the bare dirt, I felt more roots as hard trails just under the surface, and some spilling out above the dark earth in splashes of white. Behind the small figure of Noroc- who was yawning again- I could see that the nearest white trees were quite far away, arranged on an uphill slope.
I looked behind myself and realized that Adamina had brought me to where we had been trying to go. For at my back was a tree, a tree that I could only imagine was the tree, the great tree, Mother Forest’s tree. It was colossal. To merely walk around the trunk of it would have exhausted me, although that would have been a difficult task anyway with the size of the looming buttresses that extended outwards from the base. But there was something wrong with the trunk- it was not solid, but instead seemed to be woven from a thousand thousand woody vines that twisted and twined together and dripped downwards like wax- and I swallowed, for it looked horribly like the white tree that had once started to overtake Gabi’s body. This tree had strangled something to death, a long time ago.
It was not comforting to think of it being at my back, the whole time while I struggled with Adamina. If Mother Foret had been observing- well, of course she had, it had all been in the earth, and I was surrounded by her roots. Even now, I was touching some of them where I sat… The thought made me get up onto my feet in a hurry. Noroc looked over at me with an inquiring little mrrt.
“We should go,” I began, and then stopped. Go where? As unpleasant as it was, this was the spot I had wanted to get to in the first place with Gabi. This was the spot we had decided might be the safest- but where was she? Hazily I recalled the springing pricolici- had that really happened? Oh, if it had, what had happened to Gabi, weakened by the loss of her second heart? I did not realize I had begun to bite my lip involuntarily until my skin started to ache.
“Do you know what happened to Gabi- where she is?” I asked Noroc, hoping he might be able to offer me something, even a sign of the direction I should go in. But he merely gazed steadily back at me, devoid of any expression.
What if she was badly hurt? What if she was very badly hurt, or-? I had to reunite with her as quickly as I could! But I did not even know which direction to start in! Noroc could not or would not answer me- there was no one here who I could-
But there was someone here who might be able to help me, was there not? I had just been thinking about her.
Slowly I turned back to the great tree, where it loomed behind me. It loomed in a way that other trees did not loom, I think, partially because it was so very large, but also because- well, for all that it was not solid but a woven woody spiderweb, it felt so very heavy. The branches hanging high above me tangled out the rays of the sun, and the distant leaves looked like a halo of red mist. I felt the strange pressure of it building somewhere deep down inside my lungs.
Still, I coughed one final time to try and clear my throat, and said, “Mother Forest?”
My voice fell thin and feeble and died in the thick air. Noroc brushed up against my ankles, and I saw that the fur on his back was rising, his eye wide and staring out into empty space. Not a single leaf stirred on the tree’s branches.
I knew she had to be listening. I took a deeper breath and tried again.
“Mother Forest! Will you help me?”
I felt her voice before I heard it, coming up out of the ground through the soles of my feet.
“I would rather you call me Crina again, Kezia.”
I shifted from foot to foot, trying not to let my face grimace; it was not a comfortable feeling.
“Crina, then… Is that your real name?”
“I do not have a real name,” she said, in a way that made my teeth rattle; I wished she would just come out and speak with a faux-body as she had before. “But Crina is the name that was given to my last little sprout, and it is the name you called her when you met her, and that pleases me.”
Pleased her? I wondered why that was. It was hard for me to fathom what a being like her might think and feel, when I did not even really understand what she was- if she was one being or many, if the tree was her body or only a vessel, if she was a spectre that flitted here and there amongst the trees or if she was, in fact, the consciousness of the entire forest.
I did know, however, that she was somewhat friendlier than Baba Yaga was, and that was good enough for me to go on for the moment.
“Crina,” I agreed. “Could you- will you tell me where Gabi is?”
A long pause. I wished that even the tiniest bit of wind would penetrate the moist air. It felt thick and difficult to breathe. It had been so cold on the edges of the forest, but now my body was warmer than I had ever felt it, and places around my neck and under my breasts were growing damp with- sweat, yes, I had Kezia’s memories of it. Another new, not-entirely-pleasant sensation.
“You do not look well,” came Crina’s voice, up from the earth. “Come to the base of my trunk and sit amongst my roots. Rest in my shade.”
She was right that I did not feel well. My head was- was pulsing, and each throb brought a fresh ache to my temples. My throat was sore, my chest heavy. I put one hand against the back of my wet neck.
“But what about Gabi? You did not answer my question.”
“She is not far away,” came the answer, thankfully prompt this time. “She is coming closer.”
“She is coming here?” I said, my voice rising up a bit with hope. “From which direction? I have to-”
“She comes to us,” said Mother Forest. “There is no need to go to her. She will find you. Rest.”
I stopped speaking, mouth still open, and swayed slightly on my feet. To sit amongst the high buttresses and lay my head down while I waited for Gabi- it was so very tempting. I still had a lingering bone-deep sense of weariness left in me; unconsciousness was not soothing like sleep. If she was coming to me, could I not close my eyes for a few moments and…?
Noroc was peering up at me, the very tip of his tail flick-flicking against my ankles, a feather’s touch of a sensation. It kept me from drifting off into the haze completely. I did not sit down. I made myself keep talking.
“Do you know what has become of Baba Yaga?”
“She is coming, too,” the earth murmured. “She burns my trees, my little children, whom I have worked so hard to cultivate. Spirits fly into the air like smoke and sparks.”
I found that I did remember there being something like a fire. The animals had all fled, run away… Where too, though?
“Does the fire… hurt you?”
“Terribly. It gnaws and tears at my edges, seeking my core. Baba Yaga wishes to snuff me out, to rip away my roots.”
In my mind’s eye, I saw trees twisting, burning, wood creaking as they finally fell. It was horrid. The places where I had taken my first steps- the muddy meadow, the little clearing with the pine trees, the deer paths where I had walked behind Noroc- all going up in ember and ash and smoke. Oh, very much of this forest was terrible as well, I could not forget the deaths of Kezia’s people or the little boy with the white tree growing out of him if I tried; it might be better for it to be wiped off the earth. But it would kill those delicate early moments with it. Indeed- the spot where I had first kissed Gabi, heard her say that she loved me. That would be gone.
“Why will you not try to stop her?” I asked. Not that it mattered to me which one succeeded, really, but…
Under my toes, the roots seemed to quiver; she might have been laughing.
“I do not wish to perish. I have not given up.”
There was a certain finality to the statement, so I did not press for answers. In any case Noroc was leaning hard against my ankles, his eye still wide and his fur prickling with static. Suddenly I recalled that we stood before his captor, the one that had enslaved him and taken away his free will, and felt rather horrible. How could I be worrying for this creature, who had done such terrible things to him?
But it seemed it was not Crina who was getting Noroc’s attention. The trees at the edge of the clearing rustled and creaked as a figure passed through them, staggering slightly, and my heart leapt.
She looked up and saw me, and at once her lips pursed and her eyes narrowed, and in the span of the few strides she had crossed the root-laden dirt and come nearly-face-to-face with me. I did not move for surprise.
“So,” she said, in a low voice, her eyes scanning me up and down. “Here you are, whole and unharmed. Not one damned mark on you.”
“Yes,” I agreed, a touch uncertainly; she seemed to be brimming with something that was possibly anger. I looked her over in turn and found that she had not done so well- there were wounds up and down her arms and on her shoulders where they peeked out of her undershirt. I started to reach out, but she grabbed my chin and forced me to look her in the eyes.
“I have been traipsing around this dratted place, mad with worry,” she ground out. She was absolutely angry. “And yet here you are.”
“I was worried about you too!” I protested, feeling the need to defend myself. “I would not have left, but Adamina caught me- see the soil on me- and it took me some time to get away!”
She scowled, wiped at my dirty cheek with her thumb, as though just noticing it.
“And you- how did you get wounded?” I asked. I realized that it had come out sounding more accusatory than worried, in the heat of the moment, and I tried to soften it. “I mean-”
“Shut up about that,” snapped Gabi, her fingers hardening on my chin, so that her grasp was nearly painful. She was glaring into my eyes, as though she was looking for something. “You- you pushed me out of the way of that wolf.”
It took me a moment to realize she did not mean her wounds had been caused by that, that she had jumped somewhere else in the conversation, and it took me another moment to remember what she was talking about. The pricolici that had leaped at her and separated the two of us. It felt long ago.
“Yes, I did do that. But why-”
“How dare you,” she said, and before I could comprehend her baffling behavior she dragged my head down and kissed me.
It was not a wonderful kiss. Our noses bumped, and my lips were dry and dusty, and Gabi pressed up against me with a passion that was more frustrated than loving. Still, when she drew back, I was gasping for breath, at a loss for words, only able to stare at her.
She licked her lips, an action that did not help calm my stuttering heartbeat.
“You taste like dirt.”
“I do not,” I said weakly, the best retort I could come up with at the moment.
“Yes, you do; you need a bath. I’ll help you.”
There was something about the look in her eye that made me swallow, and then she kissed me again and I was entirely overwhelmed. Was this helping me? Had I just been imagining a faintly lewd undertone to her words just then? How could I possibly keep kissing her when I was so dizzy? I had to clutch at her for support- her shoulders, the front of her shirt- and her sharp fingers dug into me, my cheek, the side of my neck, keeping me bent towards her. It was uncomfortable, but I- but I liked it, it was so strange, I wanted less and more, I wanted everything and nothing, I felt-
She pulled back from me, and it was something of a relief to see her breathing slightly harder, her pupils wide and dark.
“If you’re not careful, Kezia,” she said, through her teeth, “you are going to let me ruin you.”
It took me a moment to gather enough of my scattered thoughts to be able to form a reply.
“I do not think you can do that,” I told her, pressing my lips together, trying to act as angry and arrogant as she would have. “But you can try.”
Her eyes thinned, her hands tightening on me, and I saw a bit of color rise to her face and the tips of her ears. She kissed me a third time, except finally I was ready for it, and met her halfway, and this time there was no ambiguity about how very good I was feeling.
This kiss lasted longer than the others, and a great deal more interesting- Gabi’s fingers even slid down from my chin to lightly touch the top of one of my breasts- but as distracted as I was, I could not miss the sudden sound of something very large crashing through the trees towards us. A moment later a golem burst into the clearing, and I jumped back from Gabi in surprise.
“Pula mea!” muttered Gabi, wiping her mouth as she turned around. “You choose now to catch up, you bastard?”
The golem- which, once I managed to get my racing heart to beat a little slower, I noticed was covered in twigs and leaves- thumped a little bit closer to us, and then stopped. Over one shoulder was draped the limp body of a girl, which I recognized as Vasilisa, and in one hand it held a black cat by the tail.
At my feet- the poor thing had waited there patiently while Gabi and I had been distracted with one another- Noroc arched his back and hissed. The unpleasantness of our current situation came rushing back at once, even my headache and my heavy lungs, and I staggered and grabbed Gabi’s shoulder.
“It isn’t hostile at the moment, the girl isn’t dead- yet- and the cat’s some other Domovoi, not Noroc,” Gabi rattled off, glancing down at the other black cat at my feet. “It seems to be a new servant of the Treewitch’s, though as to where it came from-”
The cat, dangling from its tail, squirmed- and I caught a glimpse of one orange eye and the flower protruding from the other.
“It must be from the village that was destroyed, Gabi! The bannik!”
From below us, Noroc growled, a whine rising in intensity. I would have liked to hold him, to comfort him, but I did not think that he was in the mood to be cuddled anymore. The golem turned its empty head to look at him. I had to shiver.
“Oh, I’ll bet you’re right,” said Gabi, her eyes widening. “She takes them for herself after she swallows up their people- typical witch behavior!” She threw an angry glance at the gigantic tree; I felt another jolt, thinking that Crina had been silently observing us for all that. Well, she must have, we were standing on her very roots.
The golem took a step forward, fixed onto Noroc, and Gabi whirled back and snapped, “You stay put! You’ve caused me enough trouble already!”
The golem stopped, the cat swinging from its fluffy tail in its fist. I could not help but stare- I had never seen a golem so covered in things, leaves and twigs and stones and bones. Could it not clean itself off? No- it must have chosen to look like this, though I could not imagine why.
“Where did you come from?” I asked it, taking a step forward. The golem took a step back. “And what happened to Vasilisa?”
“It can’t speak, don’t waste your breath,” said Gabi. “But it’s got free will and seems to want to follow me around- and listen.” She lowered her voice. “It’s got the silver needle in its forehead.”
“It- that- how?”
“It likes picking things up, so it must have picked it up!” said Gabi, motioning in a way that was either a demonstration of the aforementioned action or an illustration of her sense of frustration. “It won’t give it to me, but at least we know where it is now, so long as we know where the golem is. Oh, and the girl is just unconscious.”
“Oh,” I said, somewhat dizzied by all the new prospects whirling around us. I latched on to the most hopeful one. “If we know where the needle is-”
“Then we can bargain with Baba Yaga! Yes, yes!” exclaimed Gabi, reaching out to grip one of my hands. “Kezia, my dear, my lovely girl, we might make it out of this alive after all!”
Her eyes were suddenly shining, and I felt ridiculously giddy, and wanted to kiss her again. Could it be possible that things were going to finally be all right?
The cat that the golem was holding mewled; Noroc rumbled in response. The golem took another step back, now staring directly at me, and I found my gaze inevitably attracted to its forehead. There, the silver letters that were its truth, there also, the needle that could be our freedom. All we had to do was convince it to let us have it. Could I communicate with this voiceless golem, my sister or brother? A strange feeling stirred inside me, recalling Adamina’s sorrowful memories. Even she had at least been born with the ability to speak.
As the golem and I locked eyes, the white trees behind it seemed to shiver in some nonexistent breeze. Their roots rocked in the earth, and the acrid taste of dirt was suddenly on my tongue.
A clay hand reached out from the ground and grasped the golem by the ankle, and I heard Adamina’s voice.
“I have found the witch’s weakness for you, my mistress!”