Am I freed?
“I don’t know!”
I clutched Kezia’s body against my bare chest, pressing hard on the severed stump of her arm, feeling each slow thump of her heartbeat like the ticking of a clock. The tree-creature leaned towards us, red eyes furious. I had just seen it engulf the vârcolac in vines.
“Where is Adamaina!”
“I said I don’t know, damn you!”
The vehemence of my shout seemed to take it by surprise, for it hesitated. I took the time to try and drag myself and Kezia a few steps further back, kicking aside the decapitated head of a fadua.
The core of the Treewitch twisted its torso to look upwards, at the gap that Taavi had opened near the canopy of the great tree. The golem was still working away, tearing great chunks of rotten wood out to widen the opening. He didn’t seem to realize that it was pointless- the sun had set. We weren’t going to last the night.
The tree-creature moved again, and I saw for a moment in the white skin of its neck a strange anomaly, like a shifting in the fibers of a woven basket when it was pressed down. I saw the same little gaps open in its chest as it turned, giving me phantom glimpses of vivid red veins, a dark fluttering mass that might have been a heart. A moment later the skin looked seamless again, aside from the knotted scar on the lower belly.
This thing did not have a human body, of course. I narrowed my eyes. It was all a clever illusion like the golem’s, only made of plant matter instead of earth… red sap that smelled like blood. For whatever reason, the thought came as a relief.
“She’s gone,” whispered the thing that looked like a girl. “She’s never left me before.”
It was looking at me, almost as though- bafflingly- it was seeking comfort. But comfort had never been one of my strengths, particularly in the face of my imminent demise.
“So go and look for her, then! I’ve told you, I don’t know anything about it!”
The tree-creature clenched her fists, then gripped the broken sides of the twisted tree as though she were trying to lift herself out. She twisted, struggling, and I caught glimpses of her pale thighs, the patch of colorless hair between them. But she could not seem to free herself. Her legs stayed stuck fast.
“Can’t,” she said. “Can’t, can’t, can’t! We can’t move without her help… Oh, Gabi, where has she gone?”
Taavi tore another chunk of wood away, sending it spinning down to land perilously close to use. I thought of calling out to him to come and help us- but I could envision very clearly how the tree-creature might overwhelm him with vines the way she had done with the vârcolac. Would it be better to try and placate her for now? Drat it, I wasn’t meant for these sorts of things. I swallowed to clear my scratchy throat.
“Perhaps she’s- erm…”
It was looking at me with very round eyes. I felt a shiver of unease.
“Perhaps she’s gone to, ah, get you more souls?”
The tree-creature hovered there silently for a long moment, staring at me. I kept a tight grip on Kezia. Her blood was seeping out from beneath the shirt I’d hastily tied over her stump. How much more could she afford to lose?
“Do you think so?” whispered the tree-creature, finally. “Will she come back?”
“Ye-e-es,” I said, rather slowly, not liking the way she was looking at me one bit. I had never dreamed I would wish for Adamina to be around, but it would have been nice for her to show some sign just then. The white roots on the ground had started squirming and growing again, sliding tendrils towards my ankles.
“Should I trust you, Gabi?” she whispered, and for a moment the voice was in the air all around us, the breath of the great tree itself. “When you ran away, did you ever come back?”
My throat seemed to seize up. “What do you know about when I ran? Why do you know anything about me?”
She still wasn’t blinking. I realized that she didn’t blink at all.
“I remember everything about you,” she whispered. “I remember how you ran and abandoned him. Will you run away from Kezia?”
“No!” I snapped, jerking my foot out of the entangling roots. “He and- that and this are two different things! I’m not running anymore!”
“Oh,” she said, and there came a slight dreamlike quality to her voice. “Then… will you let me have your soul?”
I cried out, my grip slackening on Kezia. Roots were crawling up the back of my thigh, pricking my skin. I couldn’t yank them away without dropping her body.
“You want to run!” The tree-creature voice had gone back to a low hiss. “You want to run again! I cannot trust you, Gabi!”
“Get off!” I staggered to the left, using my elbow to scrape at the needle-sharp roots. “I don’t owe you my soul, damnit!”
“Why not?” Her eyes were wide again, as though I’d insulted her. “We- I- We’ve always loved you. And you don’t deserve it.” The air seemed to quiver in the great tree. “You should be grateful.”
“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about,” I spat. “Whose memories have you picked through? Ioan’s? Why don’t you let his soul go, you leafy cretin?”
“Let me have yours!” Suddenly white roots crept out of the rotten wood to curl around my arm. “If I see yours, won’t I understand? I don’t understand why you ran, Gabi.”
“If you have Ioan’s-” I yanked my arm away, ripping the thin roots. “You should understand! He told me he understood! You’re lying- you’re as bad as Baba Yaga was!”
“Not her,” said the creature, somewhat feebly. “She’s wicked.”
“And you suppose you aren’t! Trying to trick me out of my soul!”
“I want it very badly… Where has Adamina gone? I want to see what you have seen, Gabi…”
“Pathetic creature. Maybe she tired of you!” I kicked at the writhing roots, and the tree-creature drew back.
“Tired of me…” She looked down at her hands, as though considering them. “Perhaps she tired of me… I think I was very strong and lovely once… Now I am weak, and sick, and greedy.”
“I care not for your self-pity-”
“But Adamina CANNOT leave me,” she said, and all the air seemed to get sucked back out of my lungs. “I am her mistress and she is my servant! She gave me her silver letters- I hold them in my roots!” She pointed downwards, almost triumphantly, at the withered roots at the base of the twisted tree. I followed her finger and saw again the strange little black thing that had burst up out of the earth earlier. A familiar shape… And the silver letters were hidden beneath the twisted tree?
A nervous, prickling thought, like one of the roots, began to come to the fore of my mind…
“She should come when I call,” said the tree-creature, turning her eyes this way and that, as though the golem were merely hiding somewhere in the darkness of the trunk. “Adamina! ADAMINA!”
I realized what the blackened object was- not blackened, tarnished. A tarnished silver letter.
The tree-creature gave a kind of desolate cry, pushing feebly against the sides of her wooden prison a moment, before looking over at me.
“Something feels strange,” she whispered. “I feel… cut off. Alone. I cannot hear all their voices anymore… Are they gone? I cannot… see…”
Her struggling became more feverish, and she bit her lip in a queerly humanlike way, her pale brow furrowing.
I squeezed Kezia tighter against my chest.
“Why don’t you let us go,” I said, carefully, “and we will look for her?”
At once the creature whipped her head up to glare at me.
“You are lying! You want to run away!”
“If you eat me, you’ll be worse off than you are now,” I replied. “You’ll absolutely hate what you see in there. No- better yet, why have you collected all of those suffering souls? Haven’t you found one that died a peaceful death…?”
“Death? They haven’t died.” She touched her bare chest, lightly. “We haven’t died. I kept us alive, for… for… Adamina. For… the firebird.”
“He used to roost here. In my branches. Eternity. Safety. But he was driven away. Adamina was going to make it so he came back.” She looked all around again, restlessly.
“And where has he gone…? No, never mind.” I clamped down on the words my fool mouth had been about to voice, as the creature looked at me. “Why don’t you just let us go? I don’t see why you should want my soul. You said that I’m a liar- undeserving- and I have spent far too much time being miserable-”
“I want that,” said the creature. “I want it! I seek- suffering- because if I do not, I will not be able to remember…”
“Remember what? What should you want it?!” I slapped my own chest in irritation. “I don’t even want it myself!”
“I will not be able to remember… how I have been wronged. All memories fade. They become cloudy… unreal. If I lose them, I lose-” She paused, gestured to all of herself. “Ah… and if Adamina does not come back, what will become of me?”
She sounded melancholy, but I was very aware of the roots tickling their way up my legs. Again I kicked them away, my arms aching from the strain of holding Kezia upright. A crunching sound made me look back up to where the small figure of Taavi was still working away at breaking open the top of the great tree. He was leaning out of the hole he’d made, and I could hear the sound of branches being shredded. A thin, pale shaft of light fell over his left shoulder, casting a lumpy shadow on the far wall. Moonlight? The angle of it was much too high to reach down to us. The moon must still be rising.
A thought occurred to me: moonlight. A small chance… If I stalled for enough time to let the moon rise.
“I’ve a proposition for you,” I said to the tree-creature, shrugging away yet more roots. “If you promise to leave Kezia alone…”
“You will give your soul to me?”
“No,” I said, very firmly. “But I will come over to you and see if I can free your legs. Isn’t that what you’d like? You could search for Adamina then.”
She seemed dubious. I pressed a little harder.
“If I can’t do it, you’ll just have my soul eventually. I won’t stay awake forever.”
Indeed, I was fairly certain I could credit my current awakeness only to the fact that I had lived a nocturnal lifestyle for so long. And the extra nap I’d gotten with Kezia at the base of the tree. Otherwise, I might have already collapsed.
“My legs…” She looked down at herself, as though she’d never realized she had them. “I have never moved without Adamina’s help.”
“Let me help you, then,” I wheedled. “If you can move yourself, why bother with her at all?”
Sharp-spined roots curled around my ankle, and I bit my lip to keep from crying out. The tree-creature glared at me.
“Do not speak of her so! I need her- I cannot exist without her! My Adamina…”
She trailed off, and I managed to tug my leg free.
“Very well… I won’t feed on Kezia yet… I want your soul more, anyway.”
I breathed a slow, steady sigh of relief. Kezia’s bleeding had slowed- I thought so, anyway- and her eyes, which had been half-lidded for a time, had sunk back closed. Still, it was maddening just to have her in my arms without being able to do anything. If what I thought was right- well, I would just have to wait and see. I glanced back up; the shaft of moonlight didn’t seem to have shifted at all.
“If I see a so much as a root wriggling over her, I won’t help you anymore,” I warned, staggering slightly as I pulled her heavy body closer to the twisted tree. “So you be sure to leave her be!”
The tree-creature looked back at me with a steady red-eyed gaze, and made no answer. It was not reassuring.
I pulled Kezia around the woody lump that had been the vârcolac- not without a shudder, how unfortunate for Vasilisa- and set her carefully down with her back to the base of the twisted tree. My arms trembled from the lack of weight when I released my grip. Her head lolled hopelessly to one side. I tried to straighten it, then became aware of a prickling sensation on my back. The tree-creature had put her hand there.
I whirled around, and she drew back swiftly, clutching her own palm as though I’d burned it.
“You love her so much,” she whispered.
I blushed at the boldness of it, but I was far beyond denying the fact.
“Of- of course I do! Everyone knows it! So what?”
The tree-creature said nothing, a curious expression on her face. She looked down at Kezia, and I quickly moved to block her view.
“Lean away- let me see your legs. And don’t dare snap the tree shut on me.”
Wordlessly the tree-creature leaned away, coming into something close to a reclining position on part of the broken tree. Of course, her legs below her knees stayed fixed in place. Gingerly I picked my way through the tangled roots to peer into the yawning opening over the hollow stump.
The tree-creature’s legs continued on like an ordinary human’s, even down to near-transparent hairs, and I saw that they ended in something like feet where they reached the ground. At least, I thought I saw things that could have been toes. But her feet were pressed so tight together that I had to wonder if they were actually fused, the illusion of a human being fading at the farthest point from her head. I couldn’t see how they were actually connected to the dirt, but I suspected the answer would involve more roots.
I couldn’t help but cast another surreptitious glance upwards before I gingerly set my hands around the tree-creature’s left ankle. Her flesh was as lukewarm as ever, but at least no roots or vines started crawling out at me. I gave it a delicate tug, and then shuddered. Her skin didn’t yield the way it would have if it’d been stretched over muscle and bone.
I had to lean further into the twisted tree if I wanted to gain any purchase. The hairs were rising at the back of my neck at the very thought; perhaps this had been another bad idea on my part? I glanced at Kezia, slumped close beside me, and drew a shaky bit of courage from the sight. All I needed to do was keep the three of us near the center of the great tree- ergo, the place where the moonlight was most likely to fall when the moon had risen to its full height.
I braced my feet on the gnarled roots and leaned further into the twisted tree, my shoulder pressed uncomfortably against the tree-creature’s thighs. In the dark, close space, my own breathing seemed uncomfortably loud, the warmth of my own breath fogging against my nose. My breaths were coming rather too quickly. I set my fingers around back of the tree-creature’s heel, and tugged it upwards.
I had been expecting a great deal of resistance. But there was barely any, and I pulled rather too hard: the foot came up, dragging only a few thin rootlets with it. The greater damage came where it had been stuck to the opposite heel- white flesh peeled away like bark, revealing a tangle of white vines and thin red veins. I gave a little shout and jerked back, stumbling out of the twisted tree, grasping at a bent branch before I tumbled over backwards.
In contrast to me, the tree-creature seemed quite calm, looking curiously down at her foot, which she held raised a few inches off the ground where I’d left it, peeling skin attached and all. She swung it forward, and a strip came free up to her inner thigh. I flinched at the sound it made.
“Am I free?” wondered the tree-creature, her eyes wide. She made as though she were going to put her foot down outside the stump, peeling away further at her leg; I raised my hands.
“Wait a moment!”
She looked over at me, eyes wide and foot hovering; of all things I was reminded of a young Kezia. If only her skin wasn’t falling off before my eyes… And there was another small matter- I hadn’t actually expected to be able to free her! If she began walking around, wouldn’t that be infinitely worse?
“Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked, swallowing down my fresh fear. “You’re pulling your skin off!”
She tilted her head slightly at me, no comprehension in her eyes. I supposed that tree-flesh wouldn’t feel anything.
“If you- ah, if you keep moving, you’ll tear your legs apart. Put your foot back down- let me help you a little more…”
The tree-creature looked down at herself, appearing to notice her predicament for the first time, and drew her outstretched leg back to smooth down the peeling skin with one hand. It stuck back seamlessly where it had come off, until she was standing again with her legs tight together. I let my shoulders sag with quiet relief. If the moon would just rise a little faster!
“That thing,” whispered the tree-creature. She was looking down at the roots near her feet. “What is it?”
“What is wha-” I snapped my mouth shut. She was looking at the tarnished silver letter.
Time seemed to slow as the tree-creature bent down to reach for the little blackened thing. In my head I realized- with grim certainty- that things would not be good if she discovered that Adamina was dead and gone. I lunged forward and snatched the letter before she reached it, my fingers closing tightly around the cold little thing.
In another instant, her hand was around my throat.
“What are you doing, Gabi?”
Her other hand went to my wrist, trying to force my fingers open, but I twisted away with a gasp and threw the little letter towards the wall. The tree-creature grabbed me by the shoulder and whirled me back around.
“What have you done, Gabi?!”
I ignored her, throwing my head back to shout, “Taavi! The moonlight! Please!”
I saw, far above, the golem’s head turning my way, and then roots stabbed their way up my neck.
“DID YOU LIE TO ME?”
“No-” I spat, tearing at the piercing roots, her fingers. “No- I never lied!”
“YOU KNOW WHERE SHE IS!”
“Not here- she’s not here anymore-”
Just then, there was a great splitting crunch. Wood splinters flew through the air, and the tree-creature’s grip slackened on my shoulders as she looked up. I looked, too. Taavi had apparently climbed down a few meters and managed to punch a hole through some of the rotten wood. As he tore at it further, widening it, the narrowest shaft of moonlight slipped through like a blade, and fell directly over the tree-creature’s face.
She dropped me. I fell, landing hard on my back on hard roots, curling on my side as I cringed from the pain. Kezia’s motionless legs filled my vision as I blinked the stars out of my eyes.
A soft sound made me raise my dizzy head. The tree-creature’s red eyes were directly in the band of moonlight, and she was staring at it with her mouth hanging wide open.
For a moment, I thought her eyes had begun to bleed, but no- reddish sap was leaking from the corners like tears. She was weeping. She covered her face with both hands.
I managed to drag my sorry carcass back up, and raised one hand so that my fingers brushed the moonlight.
“Kazimir! Kazimir, are you there?”
I held my breath, as the ray of light whirled with specks of dust. There came another crunch as Taavi broke through more of the trunk. More light poured into the tree, falling over the wooden lump that covered over the vârcolac, over Kezia’s still face. I leaned into it, squinting, for even though it was pale it was still very bright in the dimness of the great tree.
That had been my hope, my fool’s hope, that even if the sun had gone down I might get the horseman of the evening to respond through the moonlight, and perhaps even harm or immobilize the tree-creature. But no voice responded to my call, and the tree-creature lowered her hands from her face, seeming shaken but unharmed.
“I have not seen light in centuries,” she whispered. “I remember… I once worshipped the light…”
She looked down at me, her eyes redder and brighter than they had been before.
“You went back into the light, Gabi… Tell me, how did you do it?”
“I didn’t do a damned thing,” I snapped, flicking my eyes back over to Taavi, who was slowly climbing down to us. The moonlight on my shoulders felt strangely cold, or perhaps that was merely all the warm, rotten air escaping from the great tree.
“I will find out how you did it,” said the tree creature, “once I swallow you up.”
And she made a lunge for me, from her fixed position, her red eyes rather more determined than they had been before. I leaned back and stumbled, nearly falling into the nest of writing white roots, some sliding their way over Kezia’s chest-
“Leave her be!” I ducked under the tree-creature’s grasping, growing fingers and caught the shoulders of Kezia’s vest, tugging her back towards me. The roots crawled from her chest to wrap around my own, binding the two of us together. I had to gasp as my chest constricted, and Kezia’s head fell limply over my shoulder.
I heard a sound like a sucking-in of breath, a mirror to my gasp, and the roots around us seemed to slow their frantic growth. I wriggled and tore at them with my teeth, leaning back with Kezia still bound to me, and saw the tree-creature distracted from us. She was looking over to the wooden lump, bathed in moonlight. It was cracking like an egg.
An instant later, the wood fell to the ground in smooth-cut pieces, and the vârcolac burst upwards, wings spread triumphantly to catch the moonlight. Taavi’s head tracked its progress as it passed him, whirling up towards the canopy as though elated. I did not share the feeling.
I thought I heard a soft, deep voice say her name, and then the vârcolac came whirling back down at us, gleaming silver with moonlight, and covered the two of us with its shadowed wings.