I want to obey.
I do not know why, but looking at Gabi’s frightened face was making me feel calmer.
I had never seen her look so terrified. Her eyes were wide and her cheeks were bloodless, and she kept staring at me, not saying anything, her lips slightly parted. I wished that I could reach out and stroke her cheek to soothe her. Normally when she was frightened she would be hissing and spitting like a cat, lashing out. It was not good to see her looking this helpless.
The white roots had crept up into my arm, their burrowing masked by the terrible burn of Baba Yaga’s bite. Even in death she had gotten the last laugh. She would have been pleased to see the look on Gabi’s face now. Poor Gabi! She had carried a white tree inside of her and it had nearly destroyed her. Only dragonfire had purged it away. And now I had white roots in my arm, and if we could not get them out before they spread too far, well. My body would not survive the flames the way hers had.
Of course she was frightened. It was selfish, but I was a little pleased. It showed how much she had come to love me. I wished I could apologize to her for that, for still needing a sign even now.
Taavi was cradling me in his arms, while Gabi wordlessly stared. Vasilisa had crawled over top of his shoulder to unwrap the shirt from around my arm with her dirt-blackened fingers. The pain was terrible, which was also why I think I felt so calm. There was no room for any emotion with the pain taking up so much of my mind. If I was still a golem I would have felt no pain at all and been paralyzed, very probably, by my own feelings. So pain did have a purpose!
The shirt fell away, and with it crumbles of dried blood. The wounds were very ugly. The edges were blackened, the interior a red and nasty yellow. The one nearer to my shoulder was the worst, and it was this one that the roots had crawled into. They had been severed from the ground when Taavi lifted me, but they were not dead. Plants do not die when you cut their bodies apart. The other Kezia’s father had once explained to her why you must get the root of a weed all the way out of the ground, unless you wanted it to just grow back and make more work for yourself. I had never considered this ability before, but it was fascinating. How strange it would be if our bodies could do that- if you were to cut off a hand or a foot and watch a whole new person grow out of it. What if you cut someone completely in half? Who would be the original?
Vasilisa was trying to pull the rootlets out of my arm with her fingers, but like stubborn weeds they only snapped off near the surface of the mire that was my wound. She was getting frustrated, her eyes red and bruised-looking from her tiredness. Poor Vasilisa. I had learned what sleep felt like very recently, but now I knew how agonizing it was to resist it. We were asking much of her when she already must be so confused and frightened from her change. I wanted to ask if she was all right. To ask, is it better or worse that at least you are not dead and gone? At least that nobody got your soul? I would hope that it was better to still exist, even in a strange way. Even if she could not fall asleep.
“Stop staring!” shouted Vasilisa, and I blinked. Her voice was surprisingly sharp and loud and near, and I was conscious suddenly of her ragged breathing. It took me another moment to realize that she had not said that to me. She was glaring at Gabi.
“You’re being useless! Why don’t you get up and help her?”
That was rude. She had seen Gabi overtaken by the white tree herself, she had to understand why she was so frightened. Even now Gabi could do nothing but gape soundlessly at her; and it was terrible to see. Vasilisa cursed, the first time I had ever heard her utter such words. Things must be bad indeed.
Vasilisa crawled away from me over Taavi’s broad, sloped back, digging handholds in his clay. Taavi did not move at all. I knew that he must still love her intensely, with the false love that being enslaved by the silver letters imparted. But at least Vasilisa was a much kinder master than Adamina ever was. Though then again if she was cruel maybe Taavi would have an easier time accepting his own free will.
Vasilisa leapt off of Taavi’s back and slapped Gabi in the face.
The sound it made was sharp. It was not a light slap. It left behind a dark spot on Gabi’s freckled cheek. For a moment Gabi’s expression changed to dumb confusion, and then her face flushed with rage. With a cry she struck out at Vasilisa with one hand, and Vasilisa caught her by the wrist, forcing her arm back.
“You said it yourself,” she told Gabi, as Gabi’s expression changed again- back to fear. “Of the two of us, I am the monster now.”
I could not remember Gabi ever saying that to Vasilisa. I hoped that she had not. It was not very nice.
Gabi did not respond well. I was not sure what Vasilisa was trying to accomplish but surely it had not been for Gabi to respond with a ribald torrent of language and kick her in the stomach, so that she let go.
“Pathetic!” Gabi cried, kicking Vasilisa in the shins as well, so that she grimaced. “You haven’t even got your fangs wet yet! Don’t try to intimidate me!”
“Then do something about her!” Vasilisa sounded a little winded. She pointed at me, immobile in Taavi’s strong grasp. “I don’t know what to do! The more I try to get it out, the worse it looks! It’s bad, isn’t it, the white roots? It’s what you had inside you before, isn’t it, that grew out and all over you? Do something!”
At this all of the fire that had risen to Gabi’s face seemed to drain away again. She looked at me and her eyes were lost.
“I- there’s nothing-”
“Don’t say there’s nothing!”
“Well, there- there is nothing! Nothing I know how to do.” Gabi looked across at me desperately. “Kezia- she’s-”
I could not bear it any longer, and struggled to move my dry tongue.
I cut off with a cry of pain, for Taavi had suddenly moved, bringing me closer to his chest. With one clumsy hand he gripped my injured arm. Both Gabi and Vasilisa began shouting at once.
“Let her go, you awful-”
“Taavi, don’t do that, you’re hurting-”
I lost the end of what they were saying. Taavi had pressed his hand and mine against my own navel. With a dizzying rush, I felt myself seep into the vastness of his consciousness. At once my pain eased, buffered by his insensible body. My head spun with relief, and I felt tears pricking at my eyes as I shut them.
Pain is not good, observed Taavi, gravely, his thoughts a voiceless swirl against mine.
No, Taavi, it is not. I wanted to smile, somehow, but I also had the dim sense that Gabi and Vasilisa were still distressed outside of the two of us. They did have any idea what we were doing.
They are not pleased, Taavi said, drawing his conclusion from my own. Let go?
No, do not let go, please. I knew they were distressed, but I could not bear to lose this just yet, to go back to the pain of my mortal body. Surely we could stay like this a little longer. Though… it meant Taavi was as subjected to my pain as I was to his insensitivity. I felt him considering it at arms’ length.
If you do not want to feel this anymore, Taavi, you may let me go, I thought, rather guiltily.
I am wanted to stay.
Just because he was wanted did not mean he had to… How could I explain it to him? I could feel his faint satisfaction at giving me what I had, unconsciously, asked for, in spite of his brush with my agony. Now even I was being thought of as his master. Guilt swelled within me, and as I felt the space around myself I realized that it felt… smaller. Less breathtakingly open. Taavi had changed. I perceived his better grasp of language, of listening and understanding. He was building his own scaffolding, now, dividing up the space in his mind. Was this because of me, too? Because I had connected with him and given him things the way that the other Kezia had given them to me?
I had not felt like I was going to lose myself in him, not once, since we had been connected; I realized this belatedly. He was doing that, somehow- keeping us close enough to touch but not merge with his newfound skill at division.
Amazing, Taavi, I thought, and felt his confused surprise at being praised. But I was a little sad, too, somehow; he was going to keep changing, the open spaces in his head getting tighter and tighter, in the same way that mine and Adamina had. Who would he become, then? I felt that I had started an unstoppable process.
You worry very much, thought Taavi. Let me help you.
I thought I might blush from how eager he was. Perhaps I should not have praised him; now it seemed he would do anything for more. Gently, I tried to explain- the white roots have made me sick and I do not think that we can get them out- they will spread and I will likely-
Die? He took the word as I stumbled over it, trying to understand. What an unpleasant teacher I was, showing him first pain and now death. I wanted to cringe at his thoughts; he had killed many small animals before, while he wandered the forest searching for a purpose, but he had not known.
You will not be here anymore, he hazarded, if you are dead.
I supposed that was the gist of it. Yes, Taavi- but it is only happening a little sooner than it would have, and maybe I will last a little longer, and in the meantime we must help the other two get away-
He interrupted me: Take the white roots out?
No, it was impossible. I had no idea how much they had grown by now; even if I- horror- cut off my own arm, there was still a chance that they had grown through my shoulder already- they had pierced me high up, after all-
Find them and take them out, Taavi insisted, and I found myself growing a bit frustrated with him- could he not understand? But he pushed past my impatience and showed me what he meant, with a memory: that of the last time we had connected, and I had shown him how to search through his clay flesh to find the needle.
Take them out, he repeated, as though I were the child in need of teaching.
Oh. Now I understood- but he had not grasped that we were different. My body was no longer clay, but flesh and blood. It was not under my control in the same way that clay was. I tried to explain- it was all my silver letters, and if it was damaged, I was as well…
I felt Taavi’s concern growing as I fumbled my way through this.
We must take them out, he insisted. You are fragile.
How could he be so frustrating and so dear at the same time? Taavi was a good boy, but he needed to comprehend-
He was no longer paying attention to me, pushing past his own self-made barrier deeper into my head. The intrusion alarmed me- we needed to be careful, one of us might lose themselves- but I did not try to stop him, curious in spite of myself. This was Taavi taking action on his own.
He felt along my sense of my own injured arm, and we both flinched at the renewed sensation of pain this caused. He was too open to it, too raw, but he resisted when I tried to shield him. He needed to search for himself, to understand why the roots could not come out. Very well. I stood aside, metaphorically.
Taavi’s consciousness slid into mine with a shiver. I lost nearly all of his comforting shield of insensitivity, and we both reeled at the assault of sensation: bright light, loud noise, a thousand prickles of feeling and stabs of pain and- loud voices, Vasilisa and Gabi were still fighting, insults were being hurled- agh, so much pain, and Taavi’s inexperience was somehow making it all sharper and fresher- no, no, it was not Taavi’s fault, he should not feel bad for that- we looked down and saw my arm, the threads of white roots still sticking out of the terrible wound- the bleeding had stopped, at least- we ignored the pain and pushed everything he had to feel.
It was not like the clay. It was not inert earth, ground up and uniform and obedient- it was flesh, bone, and skin, and each was fixed in what it was, what it could do. I could not make my own flesh separate and morph into whatever I pleased, Taavi. And yet he persisted- we persisted- staring down at those little white threads and willing ourselves to feel there they went. There was so much pain, everywhere, like a burning miasma obscuring our vision and yet if we just focused on feeling the way the roots wound through our muscle and under the skin and around the bone-
It had not reached my shoulder yet, I realized, in a haze. Taavi was- he was- he could not get it out like he had wanted to but somehow still he was showing me, showing me by pure feeling where the roots had gone. Maybe it was possible because I had once been a golem or once been a fadua or maybe it was all Taavi’s doing- but I knew where they all were! It would not be easy but if I knew where they all were I could get them out!
Taavi’s warm happiness burst over mine like a shimmering soap bubble, and he asked me, eagerly, Have I done well? Have I helped you?
Yes, I thought, wishing to embrace him, yes, yes you have, you have saved me, Taavi! You have done very well! And you did it all on your own!
This made him a bit bashful, I felt, and unsure- he protested that you told me how to do it and I obeyed, but I brushed that aside. He had done it by going against what I was telling him, and everything had turned out better, because he had followed his own instincts.
I felt Taavi take this and consider it as he pulled away from me, turning it over in his head. Fresh anxiety itched at me, but at least he was thinking about it. And I was thinking about those roots inside of my arm. They had not reached the shoulder yet. Indeed, they had not spread too far yet into little wisps that would be agony to remove. With Taavi leaving I realized I could no longer trace the path of them so accurately. He would need to help me when the time came to take them out.
Yes, he agreed at once, of course still privy to my thoughts. I wanted to wince. It had not been an order, but he had snapped to attention anyways. How was I ever to know if he was doing something because he wanted to, rather than simply to obey? Even Taavi himself seemed unsure.
I want to obey, he told me.
I could not exactly tell him it was wrong to listen to me.
Someone pinched my cheeks, and I opened my eyes and saw Gabi leaning close. There was a dark bruise forming on her cheek where Vasilisa had slapped her, and her expression was grim.
“She’s awake,” she said.
I looked at her, still somewhat hazy- Taavi and I were connected at my navel and it felt as though half my senses were dulled. It was hard to focus everything on Kezia and speak, but I needed to, to tell her it would be all right.
Vasilisa’s face came into view, looking equally unhappy.
“Kezia, we haven’t any choice but to do it,” she said. I managed to blink in confusion. It seemed that I had missed a conversation while I had been wound up in Taavi. Speaking of Taavi- he was listening too, understanding the words much better when they were filtered through my ears.
“We don’t even know we’re going to do this,” Gabi muttered, through her teeth, glaring at Vasilisa. “Have you got anything sharp, because-”
Vasilisa pointed at Taavi- specifically, I realized, she was pointing at some flat stones embedded in his side. Gabi choked out a laugh at this.
“O, God! This isn’t going to work!”
“Certain death or possible death,” said Vasilisa, weary-sounding, as though it were not the first time she had said the words. She rubbed her eyes with the back of her palm, swaying in place.
I was beginning to get an inkling of what they were planning on doing to me, and managed to force my mouth to make a word.
Both of them looked startled to see me speak, but Vasilisa recovered faster.
“I’m afraid that the longer we wait, the worse it will be, Kezia-”
“Cu- cutting off my arm is not the only thing we can do,” I said, struggling to keep my focus; Taavi’s fascinated response to the process of speech was very distracting.
“What else can we do, then?” asked Gabi, her voice cracking slightly.
“I am speaking with Taavi,” I said, feeling him perk up at the sound of his own name. “He can help me get the roots out.”
Gabi’s eyes went round, and Vasilisa frowned.
“He can? How? You’re speaking to him?”
My mouth worked soundlessly as I tried to gather myself enough to give a proper explanation, but I had to give up.
“It is a matter of being a golem,” I said instead. Gabi inclined her head as though she understood, and Vasilisa frowned harder but did not argue.
Taavi thought, Will we get them out now?
I pictured the pain of it- it would still involve digging about in the flesh of my arm- and shied away from the thought. Not now! I had a little time, as long as Taavi was there to help me keep an eye on the growth. Besides, to ask Vasilisa and Gabi to pick me apart in this place…
“I think we should get out of here first,” I said aloud. “I will be all right.”
“Kezia, if we can get it out, then we ought to get it out now,” Gabi said, her lips thin. “Don’t put it off.” Her eyes caught mine, still filled with anxiety.
“It will take time,” I said, feeling oddly guilty even though it was my arm we were discussing. “Mother Forest and Adamina will try to- they will do bad things.”
Gabi furrowed her brow and smoothed a hand over my forehead.
“You’re feverish,” she muttered. “Don’t force yourself to speak.”
I wished that I could explain that it was Taavi who was making me simplify my words, his confusion clouding over anything he did not understand. It was not his fault. But it was difficult. But if I let him go I would lose my buffer from the pain and I was not strong enough to do that yet. I clung to the feeling of quiet, dull clay.
“Maybe she is feverish, but I believe she’s also correct,” said Vasilisa. “If there’s time- it would be better not to do this here.” Some quick emotion flickered across her face. “Ask Taavi if he will carry the two of you to the crown of the tree so you can find a way out of here.”
I caught the distinction, but Gabi was quicker to speak.
“What do you mean, the ‘two’ of us? What are you planning, girl?”
Vasilisa turned her eyes towards her. “It occurred to me that I… may be the safest one of all of us. I don’t think that this forest witch would care about me at all now that my soul is lost.”
“Hm!” said Gabi, but she did not seem taken aback. Maybe she had thought about this too. “I expect you’d feel safer away from us then, wouldn’t you? Well, that figures.”
Vasilisa merely gave her a hollow-eyed look.
“I would also like to have a nap.”
At this Gabi laughed, flashing a grin. “Couldn’t you, then? But listen here, girlie, we had better be well out of these woods before you fall asleep.” Her smile faded as rapidly as it had come over her face. “Else that wicked spirit of yours will come straight for us. And I don’t believe a golem can protect against something that has no form.”
“Perhaps I can control it some,” said Vasilisa, and when Gabi scoffed, she added, “at least enough to make it attack only you.”
Gabi raised her eyebrows, but I thought she seemed pleased rather than angry. “Stay awake as long as you can!” was all she said.
Taavi was clamoring in my head, and I had to speak up.
“Taavi does not want to part from you. He wants all of us to stay together.”
Indeed, the thought of leaving Vasilisa’s side had gripped him with a great fear. It was a small comfort that he did not want to leave me with nearly the same intensity. Gabi he could have done without, but I was not going to voice that part.
“Oh…” said Vasilisa, a vague look of guilt crossing her features. “Tell him… tell him it’s for the best…”
“He can hear you, you know,” snapped Gabi, to my surprise. “He’s not deaf, only dumb. Stop treating him like an animal!”
I do not like the way she talks to my mistress, thought Taavi, prickling with faint anger, and I tried to soothe him by explaining that Gabi was actually trying to be kind, in her own way. I do not think it registered.
“He wants to know if you will come back,” I said aloud, instead. “If he knows he will see you again he will feel better.”
Vasilisa hesitated, while Gabi made a sound that seemed positively annoyed, scuffing one foot against the dirt.
“Just say you will!” she burst out. “Once we’re long gone, have your nap, have your dinner- hopefully of some other poor soul- and then drag your corpse out of this forest! A golem’s trail won’t be terribly difficult to follow, especially not one this large. Then he can see you again and we’ll all be bloody happy.”
She pressed her lips together very hard and glared at Vasilisa, who blinked slowly.
“I suppose… I’d better do that, then. Except for the part where I eat somebody, I won’t do that.” She ignored Gabi’s derisive snort and looked directly at Taavi. “Taavi, it’s better that we separate now for Kezia’s sake. I’ll do my best to find you again later. Do- do you understand?”
After a moment I replied, “He does understand. He wants you to know that he will come and look for you if you do not find us.”
“That’s fine,” said Vasilisa, a slight smile coming to her lips. “He’s in no danger if he catches me sleeping. I don’t think.” She looked at Gabi, who turned her eyes heavenward.
“The white tree is still growing as we speak,” she bit out. “If we must go first, let us go now.”
I let myself go limp and pushed back into Taavi, picturing what I wanted him to do. Climb the great tree, and quickly, whilst keeping the two of us safe. Look for a path from high ground. He could swing from tree to tree like an ape if he needed to; in fact it might be better considering Adamina’s power lay in contact with the earth. And Taavi would not get tired, or feel the ache of sore muscles. I felt a flash of wistfulness, and tried to cover it up, unsuccessfully.
Taavi wondered, Why not change yourself back? I can try to help.
It seemed that in his mind, it was as simple as that: if I had gone one way, surely I could retrace my steps. It was too much to try to explain it all to him now. I urged him instead to let Gabi climb on top of him so that we could move.
The distaste he felt at this was very palpable, and very odd to me (I would have let Gabi climb anywhere on my body she liked), but he obediently crouched down. Again I felt that little prick of guilt at making him obey, but what else could I do? At least I could not force him.
I pulled away enough to say to Gabi- who was staring at us with a contorted expression- “You may climb on his back.”
Surprisingly she had no snide comments about this, only licked her lips and nodded, glancing once at Vasilisa.
“He’s quite sturdy, don’t worry,” Vasilisa said, her tone dry, and Gabi scowled, and muttered something about death changing a person.
She scrambled up Taavi’s back, and I could not help but feel, through him, her sharp fingers and toes digging into his clay. When she settled onto his shoulders with her arms around his neck it felt so achingly familiar. Once I had been strong for her like this.
“Well?” she said, after a moment in which nobody did anything. “Are you going to climb? We haven’t got all day. In fact we’ve only really got the rest of the day, before the sun goes down and all sorts of wicked creatures crawl out of the trees.”
Taavi felt inclined to shuck her off like, (he thought), a piece of his second skin that was not lovely enough. I reminded him that Gabi was important to me.
Why? he wondered. Is she your mistress?
This I did not quite know how to answer. Well, I did- the answer was emphatically no, but how could I explain our relationship to him otherwise? Master and servant was the only one he was familiar with.
I love her, I hazarded, but of course that meant little enough to him. You will understand eventually.
He was not sure about that, but he turned the three of us towards the tree. Almost simultaneously, he and I became aware of another problem: he was going to need both arms to climb, and so he could not exactly keep cradling me with his hand on my navel.
The wholly sickening thought that we would have to separate, and I would be left in the grip of that pain again filled me, but there was nothing for it- he would have to let go and get me on his back alongside Gabi.
At least this is what I relayed to him. He did not like the idea.
You will feel very bad and I want you where I can look at you.
Taavi… there is nothing else we can…
I stopped, aware of the thought that had come to him, and marveled. Of course there was a way. Truly, he was quick-witted.
Gabi gave a shout of alarm as two more arms emerged from the clay of Taavi’s sides, his torso shrinking slightly to accommodate them. His original two held me close.
You showed me how to do this, was his thought, as I praised him.
But it was his idea still! He would not need me at all soon!
This he did not like the thought of- and perhaps I had known that, and was teasing him- and he pulled me closer against his stomach, keeping one finger pressed firmly into my navel, and stumped towards the great tree.
“Fare well,” said Vasilisa, from behind us. Inside Taavi there was a dreadful tug of longing to go back to her, but he kept himself facing forward.
“You, too,” said Gabi, unexpectedly. I could not see her face from where I was being cradled, so I had no idea what her expression looked like. “Try not to hate yourself, too much, when you next wake up.”
Vasilisa did not reply. Taavi curled his big hands into the lattice of wood that made up the trunk of the great tree, and began to climb.
It’s good to see Taavi starting to exhibit some of that vaunted free will he’s theoretically imparted with. At least it’s given some hope back to the situation, that maybe they’ll all get through this with their lives (or what passes as it) intact.
As for that ‘I would have let Gabi climb anywhere on my body she liked’ comment, this is not the best time Kezia.
Listen, Kezia has free will and she’s going to use it.
…I may, actually, be shipping Gabi and Vasilisa for real now. Okay, no, canon OTP is still a go, but I’m super interested in their interactions. Too bad Kezia missed a lot of it. Taavi is super interesting too though! It’s great to see how many characters find Gabi distasteful.
You have divine permission from the author to ship whomever you want in Earthcast. (Especially if you write fanfiction/draw fanart.)