They burned it down.
“Before sunset,” Pascha warned me, like a mosquito tickling my ear. “We must get through before sunset.”
“Yes, I know!” I shouted back, gripping the crown of the tree as the branches rocked and swayed as though they were caught in a howling gale. Red leaves swarmed around me in a flurry as I gritted my teeth, my fingernails scraping at bark as I tried to keep my grasp. Adamina was dragging the forest about, making the sea of trees lurch and slam together with a series of noisy crashes as the earth contorted beneath them. Something very big was going on, but I wasn’t privy to any of it considering all I could see was the back of her. My spot at the top of the great tree was likely the very safest place to be at the moment, yet I would have very much liked to get down and stop having my stomach try and push its way back up my throat.
The Treewitch’s weakness, as Pascha described it to me, was that she had a core of some sort, a center, where some of her original body remained. This was- and it had not taken me long at all to guess- the twisted tree inside the trunk, which trapped the thing I had spoken to.
“It’s buried itself deep inside, where no sunlight can reach it,” he’d explained to me. “And I expect that it’s like you once were, afraid of the light.”
“I wasn’t afraid-”
“Don’t be petty- I meant, the light hurts it. If expose the creature for long enough, it should perish.”
“So all we’ve got to do is give it sunlight, and it’ll die? Isn’t that sort of the opposite of the way trees work?”
“Astute observation. It’s an undead tree, Gabi, it obviously doesn’t follow the ordinary rules.”
A tree-strigoi, I mused, rather unnerved by the prospect. But it made sense in its own nonsensical way. There were still, however, some issues that needed to be resolved, namely:
“How are we going to get sunlight to go inside the trunk of a tree?”
“Find a way to break it open.”
“Easy for you to say! Can your all-seeing eyes spot any axes or saws around here?”
“You’re too weak to do it regardless. You’ll need help.”
I pressed my lips together and tried not to bristle. Kezia needed us to work quickly.
“Help from whom?”
“From somebody strong, of course. Didn’t you come up here with the help of a golem? Get it to do the chopping and sawing you need.” I thought I heard a note of perplexity when he next spoke, for I was making a face. “What’s the matter? It helped you before, didn’t it? I think it’s still crawling around on the trunk somewhere, but the branches are blocking my view.”
“I don’t know that we can count on that golem to do anything,” I’d said, rather lowly. “I’m not sure it’s our ally anymore.”
“Well, I hate to break it to you, but it’s about the only chance you have of getting your beloved back and escaping this forest.”
Of course it was.
A particularly loud shake reminded me of my current predicament, as new twigs stabbed into my back and arms and scraped along my thighs. I braced my legs against a sturdy branch and grimaced as the world rocked. Red leaves swirled up against the white of the cloudy sky.
“What is she doing?!” I shouted up towards the sun.
“Before sunset, Gabi,” was Pascha’s unhelpful reply. I thought I heard an edge to his ethereal voice that hadn’t been there before. “Once the sun sets, I won’t be able to help you anymore.”
The shaking died down, as Adamina eased up on whatever she was doing, and I caught my breath a moment, glad the cold air was numbing the sting of my scratches.
“What happens to you after sunset?”
“I move onwards. I won’t be able to see or speak to you again until the sun is high in the sky tomorrow.”
“Move onwards…” A thought occurred to me. “Ah, but does that mean I’ll be able to speak to Kazimir?”
Pascha took a moment to respond, and when he did, his voice was guarded. “I don’t know. I cannot speak to him any longer. Nor Zakhar.”
I pressed my lips together.
“How long until sunset?”
“A few hours. Twilight comes soon.”
I tested the strength of a thin branch with my hand, waving it at an invisible Pascha. “I don’t suppose you could go and put a flea in the ear of Muma Balaur’s dragon to fly over here and do the work for us?”
“Hm. I hadn’t thought of that…”
“But I doubt it’ll work. I think that dragon may be too fat to fly.”
I huffed from within my crackly nest, but again the thought of Kezia vanishing into the great tree kept me from whining further. If Taavi was my only option, then I had to find him quick as I could, though the thought made my insides clench… Below the canopy was nothing but fear.
Well, fear, and Kezia.
“I’m going to climb back down,” I told the sky. “Pray I don’t fall.”
“Good luck,” said Pascha. “I will only be able to see you as far as the light reaches.”
I pushed at the lower branch with my feet again, hesitated, and then swung myself downwards with a noisy rustle.
It took only a few moments of cautious climbing for Pascha’s light to fade to twinkles between the leaves, flashing bright gold between the red, and a few more for it to disappear into the dim glow of light filtered through leaves. The canopy was a scratchy mess of twigs and bark, and more than a few times my bare feet scraped and slid down a branch that wasn’t quite as strong as I had hoped. Quite a few were hanging broken, either from Adamina’s recent adventure or from Taavi, when he had thrust me up the first time. The core of the exposed wood was bright, snowy white.
It didn’t take very long for me to spot more direct signs of the golem. I dropped to a lower branch and nearly went careening backwards into a yawning gap where something very large had slammed through the canopy. The broken ends of the branches bore gobs of dark earth. I brushed some with my fingers and rubbed them together; it was still cool, not warmed by the wet heat emanating from the great tree.
“Taavi!” I called out, leaning out precariously far over the tunnel he’d made. “Taavi, can you hear me?”
No answer. The ground rumbled as Adamina made another move, and I quickly pulled myself away, back towards the center of the tree, where the branches split from the trunk. The wood felt wetter and softer here, and smelled sickly-sweet, but at least it didn’t sway quite so much.
“Taavi!” I shouted again, reaching out to grab the next branch, and then yelped when my hand closed around something soft. An arm! A white arm, sticking out from between the gaps of the braided trunk as though it belonged amidst the branches. I snatched my hand back, clenching and unclenching my fingers, but the arm didn’t move. And now I saw it wasn’t the only one- there were several, sticking out near the base of the canopy, as though waiting to bear fruit.
No doubt they belonged to fadua. I swallowed, and clambered back, giving them a wide berth. In the corner of my eye I saw fingers twitch, and snapped my gaze over to them, but the hovering hand, palm-up, didn’t move.
A noisy creak of wood and a loud crunching sound alerted me to more pressing matters, and I scrambled to hold on as the bough beneath my feet started to bend.
“Curse you and your trees, Adamina, you muddy sow,” I hissed, scrambling for better purchase as the tree shook, sharp splinters digging into my palms. “May it rain and make your stupid head too sloppy to-”
I stopped speaking when something cold and heavy settled against the back of my neck. A great dark mass swung itself up beside me, peering at me with two hollow eyes.
“Ta- Taavi!” I choked out, as his hand tightened around my neck. The huge golem was covered in leaves and broken branches, almost perfectly camouflaged up within the canopy. His grip on me was not bruising, but also not light enough for me to squirm away. I kept still.
The golem stared at me in silence for a long moment, then raised his other mittenlike hand to point upwards.
“What? Go up…? No, I can’t, I’ve got to-”
I squeaked as his grip tightened, and tried not to squirm. “Kezia! Taavi, they took Kezia, you’ve got to help me open up the trunk so we can get to her-”
My throat closed as he squeezed harder, and I found myself shaking, unable to fight him in the slightest from my precarious perch on the branches. Was this- was he furious because Kezia had taken his free will for a moment? Or did he just hate me in particular? I had no inkling as to what was happening in that big head- and now I couldn’t breathe!
Without warning Taavi yanked me forward, towards his big, spiky chest, wrenching me out of the branches. The skin of my palms burned as I brought them up to his arm, but he let go of my neck the next moment, giving me a chance to gasp as he tucked me under his arm like so much baggage. With a noisy crunch, he shoved us downwards into open air. I hadn’t the breath to even scream.
It didn’t matter. Next I knew, we’d slammed against the trunk, Taavi catching hold of it easily like some oversized ape. He climbed down a ways one-handed while I hung limp in his grasp, my head too rattled to think very much.
After a silent minute or so of climbing, Taavi paused near a particularly large gap in the trunk, setting his big feet in firmly to brace himself. He looked down at me in a way that I thought was expectant.
I coughed to clear my sore throat.
“Taavi- I expect you understand me- if we open up the tree to let sunlight inside, Kezia can be saved and we’ll all be free. You’re strong enough to do that, aren’t you? I think- if you go up and split the crown somehow- so long as a little light from the sky gets in, we could at least-”
The golem shifted, bending forward while I was mid-word to push me out from under his arm and into the gap. I grabbed onto the damp wood, bracing myself against his shoving.
“Hey-! Stop that! What are you-”
Taavi planted his hand against my chest and shoved, and with a cry I fell backwards- into the darkness of the great tree.
I flailed and thrashed in the sudden blackness, and my fingers caught on to wet, rotten wood, digging in and slowing my descent. I kicked my legs forward and brought my toes into the rotten muck as well and managed to stop myself from falling, though it was a precarious hold, and my heart was thundering with fear. I didn’t know how far we’d gone down the trunk, but it definitely hadn’t been far enough for a fall to the bottom not to seriously injure me.
I heard a loud hissing sound, and squinted upwards, my eyes adjusting to the dim, reddish light- white shapes were crawling slowly down the insides of the trunk- fadua! Then something loomed forward and blocked my view- it was Taavi, trying to wedge his massive bulk through the gap he’d pushed me into. Only his arm and shoulder were through, his huge hand groping blindly, and the hissing fadua were converging on him like white ants.
With a noisy crunch, Taavi pushed his big head into the tree, slightly misshapen from the impact. He looked at me, clinging desperately to the rotten wood, then swiveled to face the encroaching group of fadua. There were at least seven or eight of them, and I could spot more white specks approaching from farther up.
My tongue was thick in my mouth. I wanted to say something to him, but what? What was he doing? Had he been trying to kill me? But why follow me in here- to finish the job? Or was he trying to help us?
The golem was squirming, his body squelching as he tried to narrow himself enough to squeeze in side, his hand sinking into the rotten wood as he sought purchase. The first of the fadua reached him and buried her teeth into his earthen arm. Taavi did not react.
I nearly lost my grip; the soft voice was coming from beneath me. I tried to look down underneath my elbow, but there was only formless red mist below me.
The voice sounded familiar, and it wasn’t Kezia’s… I had my suspicions as to who it came from, but I didn’t hesitate very long before gingerly trying to move downwards, now from within the great tree, sinking my toes and fingers into the black muck of rot. Above me, I heard more thumps and crunches; when I chanced a glance upwards, Taavi was shaking off the fadua, and a white body flashed past me as it flew downwards. I flinched at the thud as it hit the ground.
Taavi had managed to shrink his other shoulder enough to squash it inside, and now he shoved with both hands, squirming as his clay flesh seeped upwards and narrowed his thick waist. The fadua were still after him, leaving great crescent-shaped bites in his arms as they swallowed his earth. Aside from the groan of splitting wood, the whole altercation was eerily silent.
I had told Taavi what he needed to do; I could do nothing else to make him obey me. Now my thoughts were all with Kezia, who surely lay in the mist below. Steeling myself, I began another careful descent, and soon Taavi and the fadua were only muffled shapes and noises in the mist above me.
I listened hard for that little voice, but it did not call out to me again. The air was growing thicker here- I swallowed, remembering the poison that had assailed us before- but my head was not heavy like it had been. I could breathe.
Down, down, I went, the splitting of the dark wood beneath my grip a reminder that I would probably not be able to climb back up the same way; down until my toes brushed something soft that slithered.
I let go, my feet landing on white, writing roots, and turned around.
Before me lay the broken body of a fallen fadua- I shoved it away, light and boneless as a puppet. Beyond that, the twisted tree, shut tight- and another body, lying prone on the ground.
I ran to her and knelt, ripping away the white roots that had begun to cover her. She was lying on her stomach, facedown, and made no move when I shook her. When I rolled her over, her eyes were closed, though her chest moved, and her arm-
Her left arm, the injured one, was bound fast to the ground. Roots dug out through her split, purpling skin and into the earth. I choked at the sight, tugging vainly at her, stopping when she gave a soft moan, the skin between her eyebrows creasing.
“Kezia! My dear- are you awake?”
She didn’t respond, and I found I was glad for it; the pain must have been excruciating. It made me cringe to look at it- her arm was swollen, the skin yellow, black, and red, peppered with tiny sprouts. A tiny branch protruded from the pad of her thumb, showing its first reddish bud, and I snarled and twisted it off, crushing it in my hand.
“Let her go, Treewitch!” I shouted at the twisted little tree. The roots crept up against my thighs; I tore them away. “Let her go! You’ve lost- you won’t have her!”
There was no answer, and I squeezed Kezia tight in my arms, angry tears pricking at the corners of my eyes. God! Was this my lot now, to have hope and happiness eternally snatched from my grasp? Perhaps I deserved it, but Kezia…!
I tilted my head back and screamed, “Taavi! Taavi, break open the trunk! She’s dying!”
There was no sign that the golem had heard, wherever he was above me, and I held Kezia even tighter as a dark thought occurred to me. I didn’t know if he would listen to me now- but I could make it so he had no choice, if I rearranged the letters in his forehead. I had seen Vasilisa do it once, if I could climb up there somehow and do it again, he would be my slave-
I kissed Kezia’s forehead, and held her face close to mine. Impossible.
It was my fault, anyhow. I should have gotten here faster, not wasted time dallying with Pascha because I was frightened. Light wouldn’t save her in any case. My gut churned as I looked down at the roots that bound her to the earth. They had grown thick, in the short time we’d been separated. I slipped my fingers around one and tugged, only to find its grasp on the earth unyielding, and there were several more beyond this one. And what if I got her out of the earth, what then? Her flesh was mangled and broken almost beyond recognition!
I cursed softly under my breath. What I had discussed with Vasilisa before, very long before, it seemed, was now my only chance at saving her life- her arm, she would have to lose her arm. Gooseflesh rippled up and down my arms at the thought. But I could do it… given the right tools. I glanced around with a frantic eye: of course, there was nothing sharp here, only moldering wood and the limp body of a fadua. I didn’t think the fadua even had bones.
We should have cut it off right away- we shouldn’t have listened to her feeble excuses- she was frightened then, of course. But I was more frightened now. I kissed her cheek and laid her back down on the ground, gently, hissing curses at the squirming white rootlets. Then I stood, walked the few short steps over to the twisted tree, and kicked the base of it.
“Come out! I know you’re in there!”
I waited a moment, toes smarting, before the wood creaked softly, and a narrow crack formed near the level of my eyes.
“You got her attention.”
The sound of the voice made me shudder; the way the rotten walls around us seemed to flex inwards slightly did not help. Still, I tried to keep my stance resolute.
“Good! By ‘her,’ I hope you mean you! Come out of there, you coward!”
The wood creaked, split a little further; I saw the red gleam of an eye.
“What are you going to do?”
“Just come out! Show yourself!” I insisted. What was I going to do? How was I supposed to know! I had lost my mind. I didn’t care anymore.
“I can’t come out,” said the thing inside the tree. “I can’t.”
“Then I’ll make you come out,” I snarled, and set my fingers to the crack, trying to prise it open like a clam. The wood snapped shut, pinching my fingers, and I snatched them back with a curse.
“Don’t,” hissed a voice, one that sounded like it had come from the walls.
“Go on! Do your worst!” I dug my toes scornfully into the roots on the ground. “I’ve died before! I’ll die again! Perhaps God gave me Kezia and a new chance at life to repent for my sins- but I’d rather squander it spitting in your eye, I think, Treewitch!”
A pause, and then a creak- the crack was opening up in the twisted tree again, wider now, and with a start, I realized I could see two red eyes, glaring back at me.
“You’ve done something wrong.”
I bit back a laugh. “Yes! Of course! Many things. Is this Hell?” I glanced down at Kezia’s body; it was.
“You ran away,” whispered the creature, her voice thicker, different.
Somehow it made sense that this thing knew my deepest, darkest secret.
“Yes! I ran away. I abandoned him.”
“You didn’t love him, did you!”
Now I did laugh, clutching at my chest, my head spinning.
“Could I ever love? A thing like me?”
“And you ran when you shouldn’t have.”
“Yes! I ran away, I didn’t trust that he would-”
“You saw something you shouldn’t have.”
I hesitated. That last part didn’t seem quite right.
“You did!” The voice was snarling. “You saw what he did, and you should never have been there! And you disobeyed him, didn’t you! And you loved to hurt him, didn’t you! And you deserved what you got, didn’t you!”
“I…” My mouth was hanging open, agog, as the red eyes glared into mine from inside the tree.
“They burned it down,” it hissed. “They tore her out of your arms and threw her on the fire. They cut out your tongue, but not before they made you recant everything your mother taught you! They nailed your skin to the tree, so that when you walked around it your entrails spilled out!”
I was stumbling back, back, the roots twining around my toes.
“What- who are you?”
“Don’t ask who I we are!”
“But you’re-” -the Treewitch, aren’t you? It was on my tongue, but I couldn’t speak; the twisted little tree was shuddering, bending, the crack splitting wider, and for the first time I saw the whole face of the thing trapped inside it.
A girl- just a girl, with colorless skin and colorless hair and red eyes, a long bruised neck, bright red lips, a long white scar visible across her bare belly.
“They chopped me up,” she hissed. “He chopped me up, I mean.”
“Shhh,” said another voice, or maybe it was the wind- but there was no wind in here.
“Didn’t they tell you, too, Gabi, that the world is just?” she said, catching my eyes. “If we died, doesn’t that mean we did something wrong?”
The wood shuddered, and began to close around the red-eyed girl; with a cry, she stuck her arm out, her hand reaching towards me.
“Please! Please! Don’t-”
The wood closed tight around her arm, and I winced and shut my eyes at the awful sound. When I opened them again, she was withdrawing her bloody arm back inside. The wood closed, sealed tight, locking her out of sight.
“Don’t disturb us so, Gabi.”
I jumped. The voice had come from beside me, and when I looked, the fadua that had fallen down was sitting upright, staring at me with its hollow eyes.
That voice, at least, I recognized. I shifted closer to where Kezia lay, gripping my own forearms, rattled.
“It is I,” agreed the fadua, which looked exactly like Crina- but then, they all did. “I had my attention on the battle with Muma Balaur, but you have been causing a commotion.”
She shifted her empty gaze towards Kezia, tilting her head, and I hastened to block her view with my legs, as though that might help.
“Then-” I licked my dry lips. “Who was I just speaking to, if not you?”
“It was I,” said the Treewitch. “I am here-and-there.”
I narrowed my eyes at her, licked my lips again.
“Why don’t you let Kezia go?”
“I cannot stop what’s been started.”
“Oh, but you don’t mind starting it, do you?”
A faint smile graced her lips. “It is the nature of a forest to grow.”
“Ah, in that case, it is the nature of me to want to chop it into kindling.”
That wiped off her grin. I pressed onwards, the tail-end of an idea emerging in my brain.
“What was all that nonsense ‘you’ were babbling about a moment ago? That death and dying-”
“Trees don’t feel vengeful,” she replied, cutting me off, and catching me quite off-guard.
“Well, I could grant you that…”
“Nor do they sorrow. Nor rage. Nor do they hold, at their core, a single will to impose upon their bodies- each twig and root grows where it will. Trees are not like humans.”
I bit the sharp response forming on my tongue. She seemed to be working her way towards a point- she was looking at the twisted tree now, her face unreadable.
“And humans are not like the other animals,” she continued. “So many thousands of small creatures died where my roots meet the soil, yet they cling to it. Only your kind believe that death happens for a reason.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” I asked, feeling an odd prickle on the back of my neck when she turned her face back towards me.
“I’ve gathered all that up,” she said, softly. “I didn’t know I was doing it, at first, but it all soaked into my roots and into my wood and leaves and core. And one day, many people were killed around me. Heretics.” She smiled at me, as I swallowed. “And I woke up.”
The words stumbled out of me, unbidden. “In the autumn…”
“And my leaves were red. And all around me…” She swept her hands out, indicating the span of the rotten trunk. “They were crying out, where their blood had been spilled onto the wet earth, about how they had been killed, and how it could have come to pass, and I thought, ah…” She placed one hand upon her heart, or where her heart would have been. “That is the meaning I sought, for these blank places in the earth, where once the trees grew thick, where men have chopped them down, dragged out the stumps. And for the first time, I grieved.”
I glanced over at the twisted tree, locked tight and silent. “I see your grief did not last very long.”
“On the contrary, Gabi.” She was smiling again, and I found that I hated that. “I hope that you will let me have yours, too. I can feel it. Let me hold it, keep it safe for you…”
She was reaching towards me, and I skipped back, nearly tripping over Kezia. Hastily I crouched down over her still form, putting my arms over her to glare at the Treewitch.
“Then what about her? Why do you want her- she’s had nothing to grieve over yet, in her short life!”
“Do you think so?” asked the Treewitch, raising her eyebrows over her nonexistent eyes. “I am surprised, to hear that from someone who claims to love her.”
Every muscle in my body tensed up with anger. “What- what do you know about either of us, you rotting stump! All you’ve done is lie and mislead us- you can’t be trusted! And I’ll be damned if I die and help you! You may as well raise Baba Yaga back from the dead for that!”
She tilted her head, and was quiet for a very, very long time, and my throat contracted.
“You can’t, err, do that, can you?”
“Hmm?” She tilted her head the other way. “I’m afraid I may have to take my attention elsewhere for a-”
The ground shuddered, and there was a particularly loud crack, and the Treewitch said, “Hm,” and collapsed on the ground.
“Wha- oi!” I pulled Kezia up against my chest, looking around for some sort of trick, but all was still. The fadua’s body lay unmoving. I pulled some roots up and threw them on her, to no effect- it seemed that she had really gone and left.
“Damn!” I muttered, squeezing Kezia like a doll, and then something hit me on the head.
A piece of something landed on the ground beside me, and I leaned over to look at it: it seemed to be a small chip of wood. As this dawned on me, more bounced off my head and shoulders, making me flinch. I looked up, raising one arm to shield myself from the onslaught, which only seemed to be getting heavier. The reddish mist was swirling in an agitated way, moving upwards as though it was being drawn by some invisible force, and a trickle of colder air filled my nostrils.
The body of the fadua beside me abruptly got up, and I yelped, but it was not moving towards me- rather, it began crawling up the side of the trunk, as more twigs and bits of wood battered down on me. I followed its progress, squinting against the dust clouding the air. The red mist was growing more and more transparent as it swirled upwards, and I could see much farther than before- up and up, to where the sides of the great trunk closed in like a cathedral, and a dark shape was lodged at the very top.
The shape moved, and I realized it was a golem, so high up I could just barely make out his limbs pressed against the walls. White fadua were swarming all around him, scrambling over each other to bite at him, and he flicked in and out of sight beneath their mass. Then he must have done something to shake them off, for I saw many of them suddenly go flying and catch themselves against the trunk.
A little bit of clay landed on the earth beside me with a splat.
Tavi’s huge limbs moved, bracing harder against the inside of the trunk high above, where it narrowed into the canopy, and I heard the wood creaking and splintering in protest- and then, and then, a thin shaft of yellow light sprang down, and hit me on the nose.
“Pascha!” I cried, crossing my eyes to try and look at the light, which was making the dust glitter as it expanded.
“You actually did it, you mad fool! I can’t believe it!”
“I did! What on earth does that mean!” I snapped. “Hurry and kill the thing- look at the state of Kezia!”
“I can’t see her yet,” replied Pascha, and indeed there was only a thin rectangle of light upon the ground. “I need more room… a little wider…”
“Hurry!” I shouted, even though there was no way he could- again I tilted my head back to squint up at Taavi. So the clay bastard had understood me after all! He could have been more obvious about it- but how could I complain? He had come up with a rather clever way of going about it, splitting the tree from within…
Taavi strained his big arms and legs, pushing the crack wider with a whine of protest from the wood, and the line of light trickled closer to the twisted tree.
But then the fadua caught up with him again, scrambling all over his big body, and Pascha cried, “Gabi-” just as the crack snapped shut.