Mother Forest felt it when Baba Yaga sat down on one of her exposed roots to take a rest, the trembling in her veiny old thighs palpable against woody flesh. The witch was, after all, a very old woman. She was not far from the core of the forest now, steadily growing closer and closer, but it was taking her more time than it usually would. Her servants are still too weak to assist her with much besides setting parts of the forest ablaze.
Mother Forest felt the fire, a distant, prickling pain; the cries of the trees as they sang out hopeless warnings to one another through scent and touch. The trees could not move to escape the fire, so they could only whisper to their neighbors: pain, fear, dying, flesh crumbling into ash. The way of the the tree is not to flee, it is to become bitter, harden, endure, spread deeper, stronger roots in the hope that some rich white core will survive and sprout anew.
But Mother Forest had figured out how to move.
Baba Yaga chuckled and tapped her fingers on the root she was sitting on. Mother Forest knew that the old witch could feel her attention there, but that took little insight. Why wouldn’t she be paying attention to the one trying to destroy her?
“I don’t have to do it, you know,” Baba Yaga said aloud, and Mother Forest felt her teeth click around something hard as she resettled it in her mouth- a pipe, from the scent of smoke lingering in the air. It smelled arcane; Mother Forest suspected that Baba Yaga had stuffed her three servants in there while they recovered.
“There’s no need for me to destroy you. I hate to do it,” she added, though it really did not sound like Baba Yaga was doing anything but enjoying every moment of this. “We have a history, you and I. It’s a shame to let it end this way. You hid yourself from me so well.”
Not from you, Mother Forest thought, mildly insulted. She had been subtle, yes, but not to hide, as though she were a misbehaving child frightened of getting caught. But Baba Yaga was right, they did know each other very well. The old witch was born just as humans became brave enough to penetrate the Hercynian Forest with their axes.
“Ahh…” said Baba Yaga, and sighed richly, blowing out a long stream of greenish smoke. “Weren’t those good days, though? When I was still just a wee young thing. Well: not young, I was born old, shall we say. But so wonderfully savage. Fear was such a simple thing. Eyes in the dark. Venom in the veins. A whisper in your ear when you know nothing’s behind you. They wept and came to Baba Yaga for help, and she ate so well.” She chuckled, patted her sagging old belly in a way that vibrated down through Mother Forest’s roots.
Then why destroy what’s left of that place? Mother Forest wondered. Baba Yaga laughed again, kicked out her heels like a child so that they banged against the root.
“You know why, my love, you know why. If you would just die peacefully, it wouldn’t have to come to this. You’re doing too much damage to the natural order of things.”
Natural order of things? No. Baba Yaga’s order of things. Witches lived on the edges of forests, and if Mother Forest had her way, there would be no more edges, only an endless blanket of trees.
“Don’t be a sore loser,” Baba Yaga chided, her teeth clicking again around the stem of her pipe. “Age gracefully, let go of that stubborn pride. The time of the forest is over; if you want to maintain a little power, better grow meek and come to live in the grass. They have a saying now, the humans… The meek shall inherit the earth.”
Mother Forest felt a tinge of disgust inside herself when she thought of grass. Weak, small, pliant, bending itself eagerly towards the whims of others. Grass did not struggle against fire, teeth, blight; grass rejoiced in it, grew taller in the gaps left by older, nobler beings that had fought and perished.
Much like humans, in that respect. Perhaps that was why they cut the trees and scattered grass seeds over the tumbled earth left behind.
“Eh, a bitter old apple, you are,” gurgled Baba Yaga, and though Mother Forest could not see it, she knew that the witch’s eyes were squinted into tiny black specks of mirth. “Does it pain you, to have once been worshipped and now scorned? But Baba Yaga was never worshipped, only feared. And even when the great forests are gone, and the name of Baba Yaga dies, she can still change enough to survive. Under a new name, in a new house, she will wait for men and women to seek her out like they always have.”
But you won’t be yourself anymore.
“There is no self to keep. You know this, dearie; when the firebird vanished you became as heartless and hungry as I am. You pretend, and pretend, but you are as hollow as that mud servant of yours.” She knocked on the root for emphasis, though the sound rang solid, not hollow. Still, her words stung.
The firebird. Immortality once roosted in Mother Forest’s branches; security once lived there. Then, when the axes of men rang too close for comfort, it flew away and vanished into the horizon with the setting sun. And it never came back. She still missed it so, so deeply.
“Fool. When it left, you should have known that your own doom was at hand.”
That beautiful, radiant creature, with streaming feathers of one thousand colors. It had eaten of her fruit and of the insects that plagued her, made nests out of sticks in her branches, gifted her with the nourishment of its droppings. Alas! Fear drove it away, and now she had only dim memories of the shining sight of it, the sweep of the glittering wings, the wise warmth of the eyes. It was one of the last things she had ever seen before the men had come with their axes and cut the trees all around her.
Ah, Baba Yaga was right: she was bitter, so bitter, and with every bite of the axe a more potent toxin had formed inside her flesh, and the men (who sang as they worked) breathed it in, and their swings slowed, and they fell upon the earth over her roots. And she, too, had fallen into a deep slumber.
When she woke… in the autumn… the color had left her flesh, and she was blinded.
Blinded! Things with leaves have no eyes, but they can see- for they covet the light. How does a flower tilt towards the sun if not through sight? But Mother Forest could no longer see the sun. Her roots curled around mouldering bones. And all around her, still, the rotten stumps of what had been the Hercynian Forest. Beautiful woven greenery, thousands of years old: replaced by ugly broken tree-corpses marching over the hills in orderly rows for miles and miles.
“It seemed very sudden to you, did it not?” said Baba Yaga. “But you have always been very slow, on a tree’s time. It took hundreds of years for the axes to find you. Hundreds more have passed since then. You cannot fathom how quickly things change when humans are involved.”
That was not true. Perhaps at first, when she struggled to survive without the power of the forest, with only fragments of her former self remaining, she had not been able to perceive how rapidly the creatures could move. When she had been consumed by the rot seeping through her core, the rot inflicted by those failed axe-strokes that had cut deeply through her flesh.
But then Adamina had come to her.
Adamina had a power unlike any she’d ever fathomed. A power that could staunch the wounds on Mother Forest’s ravaged, broken body. And all she wanted in return was someone to serve.
Dear Adamina. She had been so frightened of late. Frightened that she was growing old and tarnished. Frightened that she might be replaced by a younger, stronger golem. So much fear, in such a powerful being: it was dangerous.
Baba Yaga’s few remaining teeth clacked against the stem of the pipe, and Mother Forest wondered if the ancient witch, too, was frightened. The world was changing so very quickly.
“I am curious to know why you haven’t picked yourself up and walked away from me, dearie,” said Baba Yaga, giving no sign that she had divined Mother Forest’s most recent thought. “Do you have some silly little plan?”
To be mocked by this creature, when Mother Forest was thousands upon thousands of years older, wiser, greater- she had truly sunk low. The thought was sorrowful for another reason, as well. Once upon a time, witches had loved the forest, and it had loved them.
“Very well, keep it from me. We women have our secrets.” Baba Yaga cackled and tapped her pipe on the root, sending the hot ash tumbling over the wood. Mother Forest felt the tiniest prick of pain. “But know you this, my old friend, I have smelt your poison on my servant before, and now it hangs in the air again. You must realize that three certain souls in this forest belong to me: if you have interfered with them…”
Sparks lit, and the woody root- which was strong and hearty with a moist thick core- smoked and crackled where the ash had fallen.
“Baba Yaga will be very angry with you, if that is true.”
Mother Forest could have looked through the nearby trees to see the witch’s expression, but there was no need: she could tell it had twisted and changed, and the thought pleased her. Let others quail under her furor. Anger was what made Baba Yaga weakest.
You should have watched over your possessions more carefully. They are in my forest now, witch-queen.
Pain flared in her as the flames leapt higher on the root, and around Baba Yaga’s legs, curling and biting and searing towards the core of the root. It was worth it. Though Mother Forest found herself glad that she had kept Adamina far away; she did not do well near fire.
“You are no true witch,” spat Baba Yaga, jabbing the end of her pipe into the root. “You have no claim to them! You have been greedily swallowing so many souls that you must be too bloated to move- and I shall gut you, piggy, and have the lot of them for myself!”
Mother Forest thought of the things she collected each time her saplings sprouted over another human village. Wondrous bright memories, some very short, some a little longer- but none so long as the life of a tree. She ran through them again and again until they became faded and colorless, like a much-loved blanket. She spread them generously through her roots to let her children feed on them, so that they, too, would feel that quickening urge to stop being so rooted to the earth- to move- to act. It was too intoxicating to resist for the slow, inexorable core of a tree. Humanity was a heady, crimson liquor. They always wanted to taste more. Greed and desire whispered through the tangled root-web, drowning out all else but that great- piercing- hunger.
This, too, was due to Adamina’s assistance. It was the golem who had brought her the first seeds of vegetable lambs and fadua, creatures both plant and animal, with the more desirable traits of each. And Mother Forest had seen some potential in the bodies of the empty-headed fadua then, those dear daughters who could no longer link to the great root-web and draw upon the wisdom of the forest, but the whole truth of it had not come to her until she had seen the other golem stagger into the forest and grip a fadua seed. Had she not already seeded her dear parasites with the souls of dying children? Why not a golem’s soul, as well? Surely it would be even sturdier.
Ah, but Baba Yaga had figured this out first, it seemed: and the golem called Kezia must have a delicious fate indeed, for the witch to go to such lengths to make her edible.
Mother Forest felt a tinge of hunger herself, thinking of it, feeling the now-more-human-than-ever Kezia standing on the earth amongst her most intimate roots, with the no-longer-quite-strigoi creature in her arms; two souls clumsily constructed together. The two of them were going to change something, and Mother Forest knew not what, but it frightened and excited her, and she wanted to taste them, wind her roots around their little hearts, into every secret place until she had found what she was looking for.
She had not long to wait. They had slipped into the most dangerous part of the forest now, the place where no animals could survive, where few seedlings aside from Mother Forest’s strongest children ever managed to sprout. The air was trapped here, underneath the thick red canopy of her branches, and so it filled with the heavy, intoxicating scent of her breath. A potent, slow-acting poison, it was: streaming out of her ever since that day long ago when axes had made scars inside her trunk. A golem could survive it, but the golem was no longer a golem. A strigoi could survive it, but the strigoi was no longer a strigoi.
They had come straight into her trap, just as she had wished. Now all she needed to do was wait.
Baba Yaga must have sensed her smugness, if not the cause, and the witch snarled and stamped and set off sparks into the surrounding canopy, lighting up branches with furious fire.
“They’re mine! Mine! Mine!” she howled. “You horrid old corpse- die already, and let me move on!”
No, no, the forest would not let go. Her roots were strong yet, her will unwavering. It was the witch who had death to fear. For now Adamina had sent her a message: they had nothing more to fear from Baba Yaga, or at the very least this iteration of her. They had the three fateful souls. They had the hidden death. And soon- very soon- Mother Forest would permit Adamina to move her again, for the last time.
Hope was a most damnable thing, if you asked me. It had crept up behind me in the form of the golem wearing a silver needle on its forehead, and when I had finally found Kezia again- covered in dirt but miraculously unharmed- it had got its claws in me so bad that I’d kissed her.
(Kissed the hell out of her, in fact. I hadn’t felt like that from a kiss in years. I was in serious trouble.)
But see, here came the nasty rotten underbelly of hope: the part where it was dashed. For Adamina had got her hands on the golem with the silver needle, and right in front of our eyes, she started to consume it.
The cat dangling from the golem’s fist let out a scream as it finally dropped to the ground in a flowery puff. It darted away from where the golem was apparently being held in place. Adamina’s earthen arm, protruding from the ground, was growing larger and larger, swelling unevenly with nasty squelching noises as it mushed and melded with the golem’s left leg. The golem looked down at it, sluggishly, and I felt a bit of bile rise up to the back of my throat.
“She is trying to absorb it!” said Kezia, in a tone that matched my sense of horror, and I glanced at her face, trying to comprehend what that meant. She would understand the inner workings of golems better than I- but to absorb it? Like a sponge soaking up water? What would that result in?!
At our feet, Noroc gave an unpleasant yowl, striking out at the beflowered bannik as it pelted past us. Without thinking I grabbed him by the scruff before he could pursue it, and he twisted his head back to give me a most shocked and insulted look.
“Leave it!” I snapped. “What are we going to do about this? Surely we can’t just- let it happen!”
Vasilisa was still hanging unconscious over the golem’s shoulder as the slimy mud continued to squirm and creep upwards, catching hold of the golem’s left hand. The golem tried to slowly reach for her with the other, the sticks and bones embedded in its clay flesh grinding and snapping as it did so, but Adamina’s formless mud reached out and connected with that hand as well with a sticky, dripping string.
“Adamina!” cried Kezia, and to my surprise she went striding forwards, her hands tightening into fists, her lips forming a stubborn line. “Let it go! It is not your slave anymore!”
I was frozen for a few precious seconds, but when she was nearly close enough to touch the hideous amalgamation snapped back to attention. I dropped Noroc and darted over to grab her arm.
“Stop! What if she-”
She yanked her arm out of my grasp with startling strength, so startling that I staggered and nearly fell, and plunged her hand into the muddy mass.
At once the mud began to creep up her arm- to my horror- but then suddenly reversed and withdrew from her. The half-covered golem turned its head to look at her, and twitched its left arm, which had come uncovered from the mud in its retreat.
“You are afraid of me now,” noted Kezia, and I heard something shaky in her voice, as well as something… smug. Oh no. I wanted to kiss her again.
The earth under my feet quivered- not because I had suddenly been starstruck- and I heard Adamina’s furious voice.
“Afraid of YOU?”
“Kezia!” I screamed, for a wall of earth had risen up to engulf her. The golem, freed completely, toppled backwards, and I scrambled over its knee to tear at the mud covering Kezia like a shell. It was cold and it seeped disgustingly over my skin and beneath the magic clothes Sorina had given me, over my shoulder and up my neck- but I dug and I dug with my fingers until something warm grasped me back. Kezia’s hand squeezed mine.
The mud retracted as quickly as it had come, leaving Kezia blinking and even filthier, but blessedly whole. I squeezed her hand back with vehemence, and pulled her against me so we stood shoulder to shoulder, and together we watched the mud speed back and come together to form a loose shape.
It was Adamina, crouching and looking the worse for wear again- though she’d gotten her features arranged in a realistic enough manner, there was no color to her skin or clothes. Her eyes were wide, and without the false whiteness to her sclera it was easier to realize that her pupils were merely holes.
“You cannot touch me,” Kezia told her. “If you do, I will take you over.”
On the whole this was an alarming thing to say, but I supposed that it made sense to a golem, for Adamina held perfectly still for a fraction of a second before her eyes narrowed.
“It’s only because you have this body,” she said, in a voice that implied a great deal more emotion than her face was showing. “It does not matter. In that body, I can crush you and kill you before you have the chance.”
I gripped Kezia’s hand a little too tightly at this, and she winced, but kept the confidence in her voice as she spoke.
“Not when your mistress has forbidden you to do so.”
The earth vibrated beneath our feet once more, though Adamina’s clay body stayed utterly frozen.
I looked over at the golem, somehow the source of all this tension. It was on its back still, big lumpy legs splayed out on either side of us, holding Vasilisa’s body in its arms- had it protected her when it fell? What a fool.
Adamina put one hand out, where she was crouching, and splayed her earth-colored fingers on a protruding root.
“Strictly speaking,” she said, her voice suddenly terribly cold, “I do not… have to obey her.”
Now Kezia was the one holding my hand too tightly.
“Do not lie. You cannot disobey an order from your mistress. You have said this many times.”
Adamina let out a low laugh, and curved her clay lips into a smile.
“Have I? Then perhaps I should do as your light-spirit friends did, and… reinterpret the meaning of the order. I’ve been forbidden from killing you. But, perhaps-”
She looked at me, and in another moment something rose and gripped tight around my chest, constricting me, knocking the air out of me so I couldn’t even gasp. My hand was torn from Kezia’s as Adamina held me high with another clay arm.
Kezia called for me as I tried to squirm, desperately seeking out the thinnest thread of air. The clay fingers squeezed slowly tighter- and tighter- and my mind could not help but flash to the time that I had first made the golem Kezia truly angry, and she had lifted me and nearly crushed me as well…
Her face looked angry now, I saw, as my head flopped forward- positively furious, and she came running up to stick her hand into the column of clay holding me aloft. At once it collapsed, taking me down with it in a puddle of thick clay, and I gasped as I fell, and for some reason the rush of air into my lungs seemed to make me even more dizzy for a moment. A thick, sickly-sweet taste settled on my tongue, and I coughed convulsively. Kezia was struggling through the loose clay, trying to reach me, when suddenly I was swept backwards again and into the cold arms of Adamina.
She held me from behind, cold and threateningly solid, one hand laid over my neck. Kezia stilled, fear coming into her eyes through all the rage.
“You cannot kill her,” she said, her hands clenching and unclenching. “And if you do, I will come and destroy you myself. And then maybe I will go after your mistress myself!”
Adamina gave a short laugh at the last, though her fingers also curled more into the flesh of my neck. “Perhaps I don’t intend to kill her! Perhaps I shall merely break her arms and legs- or perhaps, to make things simpler, the base of her spine. Is it true that she is not really a strigoi anymore, since she gave you that heart? How touching. Perhaps I could rummage around in her chest and find you the other one-”
She broke off, because I had moved to grip the wrist of the clay hand holding my neck, and spat, “Shut up, you old dirt-hag. As though I haven’t felt pain before. You are frightened of Kezia- these are the threats of a desperate coward! Go ahead and rummage around in my flesh if you want, but in the meantime my dear Kezia will come running over to do the same to you- isn’t that right? Look at that face of hers, isn’t it lovely?”
Indeed, Kezia’s expression was a thing to behold. I had never seen a look of such palpable fury; it seemed to be rising off of her in waves. I could not imagine being the target of such a gaze. As it was, I greatly enjoyed seeing it applied to someone else.
I felt the grip on me slacken somewhat, and tried not to sigh with relief too audibly, but then abruptly I was squeezed even tighter.
“You made her like this,” Adamina seethed. “You stole her and made her hate her mother!”
“You’re not- her damned- mother-” I managed to wheeze, seeing Kezia approaching rapidly out of the corner of my eye. But she was outpaced- with a THUMP THUMP THUD, something jarred us from behind, and Adamina let me go. I fell back into another set of cold clay arms, these ones much larger and pokier. The needle-bearing golem had gotten up and snatched me away. Now it set me carefully down on my feet and stepped back.
I was quite out of breath now and jumped when Kezia reached me a moment later, bringing me carefully up against herself, blessedly warm and soft. Her face held only concern now as she stroked my sides, feeling for injuries.
“I’m just fine,” I croaked, pushing away from her a bit to catch my breath.
“Good,” said Kezia, putting her hands on my shoulders. She leaned close to my ear and whispered into it. “You must stop saying things to irritate people who are about to kill you, Gabi!”
I shrugged under her grip, unrepentant, and looked past her at the golem. Somehow it had found the time to get Vasilisa back up on its shoulder again, and it was staring silently back at me. What on earth was going on inside that big head?
From farther away, Adamina was slowly rising to her feet where she had oozed in her retreat. Her features seemed more blurred this time, less distinct- perhaps she was too emotional now to properly fix them.
“Very well,” she said, toneless. “You have got the better of me, all of you.”
It was a surprising thing to hear her admit. In the brief silence that followed, Noroc meowed.
“Silence,” said Adamina, as though he had just passed her some cutting insult. “Our quarrel matters little in any case. Baba Yaga is nearly here, and if no one has her weakness in hand before she reaches us…” She glanced back at the twisted tree, which had loomed silently behind us, an unpleasant reminder that the Treewitch was always watching us.
“This golem has the needle,” I snapped. “I’m beginning to suspect that not even the witch can remove it from him. So if you were going to try and bargain with us, don’t bother.”
Adamina’s face didn’t change, but I was fairly sure my words had surprised her. She looked at the silent golem.
“Things would be simpler if-”
“That golem has free will now,” said Kezia, leaning slightly forward against me. “None of us can command it. That is fine with me.”
Her voice dropped to a mumble on the last few words, and she put her head in one hand. I turned to frown at her.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” she said, through her brows had pulled together with discomfort. “I am getting a slight pain in my head, that is all.”
Come to think of it, so was I. A vague, pounding sort of headache, not terrible yet but certainly threatening. And my chest ached, too, though there were plenty of good reasons for why that should be. I shot a glare at Adamina and found her gazing back at us with a pensive expression on her blurry features.
“I see,” she said, rather quietly. “It is as she wishes.”
“What are you on about?” I asked, feeling Kezia’s forehead with one hand- it was warm, but not feverish. She’d be fine once she got some rest, as would I, no doubt, if- no, once we made it out of this blasted place (there was that feeling of hope again, damn it). Now that I had her, and the needle- in a way- I wondered if we ought to try and move away from the great tree, to see if we could escape the Baba’s line of fire. But it had taken so much effort to get here and I was feeling weary enough that I couldn’t imagine moving anywhere soon. Kezia, too, looked drained now that the tension of the moment had passed. I ruffled her short, dirty hair with one hand.
“Come sit at the base of the tree with me, while we wait for the witch,” I told her, and smiled at the look she gave me when she raised her head. “Why not? It’s only a tree, isn’t it? And you look as tired as I am.”
Kezia considered this for a moment, her eyebrows still pinched together, and then her face relaxed and she nodded. Still smiling- this was absurd, it was still likely we were about to die in a horrible way- I took her hand and led her towards the base of the knotted, gnarled tree, wincing as I did so with each breath I took through my bruised throat.