Look at us.
I did not understand why Adamina’s vast shell did not disappear after she was destroyed. When Gabi had been made to take out one of my silver letters, most of my body had collapsed. But Adamina’s shell stayed upright. Perhaps it was too huge to simply fall apart like the others. For whatever reason, it lingered, a near-mountain that stayed visible no matter how far we walked away. The empty eyes followed us.
My missing arm twinged. It would do that- seize up- and I would struggle to unclench invisible fingers before remembering that I had none there anymore. My left shoulder slumped from the imbalance, and I kept a hand on Gabi’s arm so that I could stay steady as we walked.
Gabi was worried about me. I could see it in the way she kept looking at me and biting her lip. She had asked if I wanted Taavi to carry me. I had refused. I did not want to touch Taavi any more than I had to. If his fingers brushed my navel and he saw what I had done to our creator… what I could do to him…
Hollow eyes, haunting us. I wished that I had Gabi’s fortitude. She was the one pushing us on now, me with my unsteady gait, Vasilisa with her yawns, Taavi with his stony silence. She was the one who had insisted we look for shelter, and she seemed to have an idea of where to go. I was glad for it, because I had no idea about anything anymore.
When Vasilisa asked, a little bit crossly, where she was leading us, Gabi said only, “Nobody’s going to like it. But it’s all I’ve got.”
I thought that I might be glad for anything, except going back into the great tree. The smoke of it was still visible, rising up behind the mountain with a face. The late morning had turned cold and damp, with clouds covering up the sun, but it did not seem as though it was going to rain. We had not heard from Zakhar at all since Taavi had taken us down the mountain.
“Suppose the fire spreads?” asked Vasilisa, breaking the silence of our walking. She gestured around at the barren-looking trees surrounding us, at the dense leaf litter below our feet. “This will all burn quite easily, won’t it?”
“It could,” Gabi agreed, her jaw jutting out slightly.
“So, is this place you’re leading us to safe from that, or…?”
“Not at all. But don’t bother worrying about it.”
Gabi jerked her thumb at Taavi. “Yes, don’t bother. I assume he isn’t going to be caught unawares by a fire, right?”
The movement of her arm put me slightly off-balance, and I stumbled over a root. She turned and grabbed me by the shoulder before I could fall.
“Watch your step!”
“Thank you,” I said, taking a moment to relish her warm grip. It was growing colder the further we walked. “Gabi, you will have to explain to him that we can get hurt by fire. I am not sure that he would know to look out for it.”
“Oh.” Gabi looked across at Taavi. “Well, if he heard that, he knows now. Don’t you?”
Taavi did not nod or give any indication that he understood. I could have reached back, grabbed his hand, and spoken to him myself in a way he was sure to understand. But I did not.
Gabi’s arm went warm around my shoulders.
“We’re almost there, Kezia.”
I leaned into her, hunching to accommodate her shorter height, and shivered when a cold wind came up from behind us. The stump on my shoulder pressed into her side, but she did not seem to mind.
The hoarse caw of a raven startled us, and a big black shadow passed overhead. Gabi let go of me to tilt her face up, frowning.
“Let’s walk a bit faster, then?”
Nobody argued. I managed to keep myself steady without her help, ignoring the twinges in my nonexistent flesh. We walked in a half-circle around the base of the golem mountain, and the trees began to show more leaves, and the scent of ash filled the air. Gabi was taking us closer to the center of the forest again. I was not sure Vasilisa noticed, and who knew what Taavi thought of it. I did not say anything to them about it. Then, I heard something else: the trickle of water.
Vasilisa must have heard it too, for she frowned.
“Are we getting close to a river?”
“Yes, it’s just near here, unless that stupid- unless the golem moved things around too much,” said Gabi, grunting as she scrambled over a fallen log. The rotten wood sank under her feet with a sigh of floating particles. I hesitated to follow suit, staring down at a neat staircase of white mushrooms that had grown on one side. There was something else there, near the ground, something curved too cleanly to be natural. I leaned down and tugged it out of the leaf litter, feeling the weight in my hand. It was a rusted horseshoe.
“There, it’s still there. Good.”
I looked up. Gabi was pointing ahead of us at something I had not noticed, for it was covered in vines: the spire of a church, white paint peeling between dead leaves. At the top I saw the space for the bell, but there was no bell there.
“A church?” Vasilisa sounded dubious, and put a hand on her chest to clutch at a nonexistent rosary. “Will I- Can I even go in there, as I am now?”
“We’re not going to rest in the church, of course! But look around. Pick any house you like.” Gabi swept her arm out, face grim. “They’re all empty.”
“Oh,” I said, as I followed her hand, and realized where she had led us. Suddenly I saw houses everywhere, their sharp corners betraying their camouflage of vines, leaves, trees. At our feet, the leaves were only just covering up the cobblestones of what had once been the main thoroughfare. There was the lane that led to the blacksmith’s house, though one of the houses along it had collapsed, white branches poking up from the ruins of the roof. There was the way that had led to where Crina lived. And there, just nearby, I could make out what had once been a bathhouse, with its stone foundation.
“Are you sure this is all abandoned?” asked Vasilisa, as we moved closer, looking around at the decrepit village with a worried expression. “I can’t tell if it’s- how long has it been like this?”
“I’m very sure,” said Gabi, reaching out to touch the branch of a small white sapling that was growing up out of the cobblestones. She drew her hand back and rubbed her fingers together with a grimace. “Very sure. Go on, find us a house with a roof to sleep in.”
Vasilisa drew her brows together and gave Gabi a kind of look, but she nodded to Taavi, and the two of them walked ahead of us down the silent street. They passed the village’s well, and I shivered again.
“If we’re lucky,” said Gabi, leaning close against my side to offer her warmth, “we shall actually come across a house with a fireplace still standing. We can lie together on the hearth like two hot loaves of bread.”
She was smiling up at me, but I could not manage to match it.
“Is this place… really where we are going to stay?”
Her smile dropped, and she let out a breath through her teeth. For a moment I was afraid I had made her angry, but she did not scowl at me.
“It’s cold outside, and we’ve little clothing… We’re barely less than human now, you and I. You don’t know what that’s like, Kezia my dear, but I remember it. It will take less than witches and wicked spirits to kill us now. We must have shelter.”
I thought over her words, clenching and unclenching my missing fingers. I did remember what being human was like, though they were not my memories. It had not seemed so perilous, not until the very end… but maybe the other Kezia had led an easier life than Gabi.
“There may well be ghosts and Blajini lurking about here,” she muttered. “But they can’t do us any real harm. I want to let you rest somewhere safe and warm, and have a look at that shoulder of yours.”
“My shoulder is all right. You do not have to-”
“Hush! It may not hurt, but I won’t have it getting infected! We shall clean it out- which will hurt, I’m sorry to say- and get it dressed proper, and then I will be feeling better.”
“I thought that it would be for me to feel better?”
She gave me a light swat on my uninjured shoulder. “No! This is all for my own sake, Kezia. I am a selfish person and I’ll get my way.”
Now I smiled a little. “I hope we do not meet any ghosts.”
“If they take up residence in your head again, I’ll chase them out.”
“Do not worry. I do not think they could fit. It is not hollow anymore.”
“Oh? Too full of smart thoughts, I suppose.”
“Mostly about you, yes.”
She spluttered, her cheeks flushing. I had not intended to catch her off guard, but I was pleased nonetheless. My arm twinged and I wanted to kiss her. But it was not the right time. If we got to someplace warm and safe, though…
I looked up, the warm moment lost at the sight of Vasilisa hurrying back towards us, her face white and drained of blood. Taavi stumped behind her. I felt Gabi go tense.
“What is it? What have you-”
Vasilisa put a finger to her lips, shaking her head, and behind her Taavi mirrored the motions.
“Don’t be too loud! There’s something- strange- moving about further down there, that way… I can’t tell if it’s human or not!”
“Does it have a rat head?” I asked. “Or is it a woman with gray skin? Or a woman with long hair who carries a candle?”
“Ugh,” added Gabi, at this. Vasilisa shook her head.
“I didn’t get a good look at it. I think it’s a girl- pale- it was just wandering around between the houses, muttering to itself.”
“A ghost?” I wondered, looking at Gabi. Her eyes had gone wide.
“Let’s… let’s have a look at it,” she said, drawing the words out slowly. “Taavi, you must get Kezia away if I tell you to, all right?”
Taavi did not nod, but he looked over at me, and I tried not to be obvious about avoiding his gaze.
“What about the two of us?” asked Vasilisa. “Are we to exchange blows with it?”
“Don’t be silly. We can run away. But we’d better have a look at it before we decide, because there’s no other shelter around for quite a ways.”
“She is right,” I chimed in, because Vasilisa still looked doubtful. “I know where we are now. There are only more trees.”
Vasilisa pressed her lips together, then addressed Gabi.
“You look like you’ve got some idea what it is. Why don’t you say so?”
“I don’t have any idea what it is,” replied Gabi, but in a very terse way. Her eyes flickered. “Take me back to where you saw it, and I can try to find out.”
“Very well…” Vasilisa touched Taavi’s shoulder, and the golem swiveled around to face her, as devoted as ever.
“It’s all right. Do as she says and protect Kezia if we need you to.”
“I can run on my own,” I had to butt in and say. “You do not need to treat me like I am weak. I do not need to be carried more than either of-”
Vasilisa put a finger to her lips, and Gabi raised an eyebrow. I fell silent.
“Let’s just see the thing, first,” said Gabi, in a very soft voice. Vasilisa nodded, and motioned for us to follow her.
We crept forward down the thoroughfare, not silently- I had not mastered stealthy walking on human legs, and Taavi’s big feet made enough noise for the four of us. We were not going to be able to sneak up on whatever Vasilisa had seen. This thought curdled nervously in my stomach, and I looked at Gabi. It did seem that she had some idea of what we were about to run into, but she was keeping quiet about it, her expression both pensive and anxious.
As we rounded the corner, I heard the first snatches of a song.
In a little grove of white trees that clustered together in front of a ruined building, I saw a tall figure with skin so pale it seemed to shine.
“Autumn… She woke… The dead…”
The soft, confused singing broke off. The tall girl muttered something inaudible, and lurched forward, as though she were tied down by her feet.
“The words… what were the words… she woke…”
Taavi stepped on a fallen branch with a loud crack. The girl twisted around, and I saw her eyes were vividly red, and I saw the scar on her bare lower belly.
“It’s you,” said Gabi, in a miserable way. She looked quite resigned, her jaw tight. “The dragon didn’t get you?”
The girl smiled, still twisted around in an awkward way to look at us.
“I lifted my feet… and I walked away…”
She tugged on her legs, as though trying to demonstrate, and with a tearing sound one of her feet came up, shedding dead leaves and roots. When she put it down again I saw white little fibers slide out of her heel to burrow down into the leaves.
“I’m looking for somebody,” she said, twisting further to clutch a white branch. More rootlets furrowed out of her fingers and wrapped around the wood. “But when I pulled my feet up, I forgot who, exactly… Do you remember?”
I opened my mouth, looked down at Gabi. This left me at a loss. I recognized her- I recognized that she was the thing inside the twisted tree inside the great tree, but… What was she? Specifically, what was she now, on her own?
“I don’t know who you’re looking for,” said Gabi, and immediately from the way she shifted I was certain she was lying. I felt that I had a very vague memory- very, very blurry- of these two talking near me before. I frowned.
“Oh,” said the girl, and her smile fell away as she struggled to dislodge her hand, now tightly tied to the branch by roots. “I… think if I put my roots down deep enough I might remember. But I won’t be able to move to search for her if I do that. Don’t you think?”
I looked at Gabi, and she looked back at me; our expressions must have mirrored each other.
With a splintering sound, the girl pulled her hand away from the branch, tearing the remaining twigs still bound to her with the other. She struggled to lift up her foot, and again the leaves scattered as she tore away from the fresh roots.
“Can’t you stop yourself from doing that? From rooting?”
That was Vasilisa, and it occurred to me that she must be the most confused out of all of us, for I did not think they had ever met… Or maybe they had, while I was unconscious? But Vasilisa would have been a vârcolac then.
“Rooting?” asked the strange girl, and she looked at her raised foot. “No… it wants to grow. I should be connected to the ground. But I don’t want to be, because I’m looking for someone.” She tugged more stubbornly, and the remaining roots snapped, sending leaves and dirt flying.
But more roots, I saw, were coming out of her elbow where she had brushed the branch of one of the trees, and they curled around and snaked outwards. She twisted like a minnow, trying to pull away, and her other arm brushed a branch, and more roots emerged out from her wrist.
“You see,” she said, her voice hitching a little as she struggled, “I was walking all right before, but these trees are so close together, I’ve got stuck.”
Another branch snapped as she pulled her arm away. She staggered, or would have staggered, if her feet had not been tightly fixed in place.
“Oh, damn it,” said Gabi, quite suddenly and sharply, and much to my alarm she began taking off her shirt.
“Here! Put this on, girl!” Gabi tossed the shirt across towards the girl, who caught it with her free hand, her expression one of surprise.
“It’s a magic shirt, put it on, it’ll stop you from getting stuck so easily.”
The girl tilted her head to one side, but slowly put her arm in the sleeve.
For a moment all was quiet, as we watched her struggle to pull the shirt over her head, and yank her other arm off the tree it had grown attached to.
Vines were growing out of her hip as she squirmed into the shirt. I was struck with inspiration, and pulled off my skirt.
“Kezia, damn it-!”
Gabi had noticed what I was doing, but she was not quick enough. I tossed the skirt over to the tree-girl before she could snatch it back from me.
“Put this on too!” I said.
“You two are mad.” The tips of Vasilisa’s pale ears had gone pink, and she was averting her eyes from us. “What are you doing? Isn’t she dangerous?”
“Not,” said Gabi, who was grimly pulling off her bloomers, “if she is covered up. Hey, you, give back the skirt and use these-! Oh, Kezia, stop that!”
She managed to stay my hands before I threw over the vest as well.
“She doesn’t need that, she’s got a shirt on already!”
“But she should have all the parts-”
“Honestly, Kezia!” She snatched the vest from me, and tucked it under her arm. I realized that now we were both quite naked. But the tree-girl had gotten the skirt on herself, and now she tugged on the bloomers beneath. She looked up at us.
“Oh, this-! This is much better! The roots aren’t coming out at all! Thank you!”
She smiled, her red eyes shining in a way that made my chest feel somewhat too tight. She looked pretty in the clothes, I realized. She would have looked prettier with the vest as well, but she was still pretty.
In contrast, Gabi and I were both shivering. The tree-girl stepped slowly out of the little grove of trees, now hindered only by the roots that grew from the soles of her bare feet.
“You are both so kind,” she said, and then cocked her head. “Have we met before…?”
“No,” Gabi and I both said, at once.
“We have not met.”
“Yes, you’re a stranger to us.”
“Though if I had to give you a name, it would be Crina.”
Gabi elbowed me quite hard at this, frowning. The tree-girl’s eyes widened.
“Crina? Why, that does sound familiar… Crina! Yes, that’s my name, isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t know, because we do not know each other the slightest bit,” said Gabi, glaring at me. “But if you like it, keep it.”
“I do like it,” the girl- now Crina- agreed. “May I ask your names?”
She picked up her feet, one at a time, as she said so, pulling away at the fresh roots.
“Don’t worry about our names,” Gabi said hastily. “You’re looking for someone, aren’t you? Then you’d better go on and keep searching.”
Crina looked at her for a moment, and then a sort of odd half-smile came over her face, and she said, “But what if the person I’m looking for is one of you?”
I got a chill that did not have anything to do with being naked. I got the feeling that Crina had not forgotten as much as she said she had. I hoped it was wrong.
“If it was,” said Gabi, staying remarkably calm, “surely you would have recognized us.”
Crina tilted her head the other way, then nodded slowly.
“Hmm… you’re right. Then maybe I had better keep searching? Which way do you think I should go?”
“I think you should go that way,” I said immediately, pointing in the direction away from the golem-mountain. “There is a river, and an open field, and you will be able to see farther than you can here.”
Gabi made a soft noise that I thought was approving. Crina- whatever she was- was nodding.
“That seems wise… I’ll go that way. Thank you both very much.”
She smoothed her hands down her new skirt with a smile, running her fingers over folds in the fabric, feeling the stitches. No roots came from her fingers.
Vasilisa was struggling to pull off the rags she wore for a dress. Gabi’s eyes were huge.
“Take this too!” Vasilisa’s voice was muffled by the fabric as she pulled it over her head, her hair sticking straight up as she did. “To cover your feet with, since you don’t have any shoes. You can tear it and wrap it around them.”
“Oh,” said Crina, seeming taken aback. Vasilisa leaned forward and managed to hand her the dress, and for a nerve-wracking moment I was afraid that their fingers might brush. But then it passed, and Vasilisa moved away. Crina tore the fabric in half with disconcerting ease, and set about trying to wrap her feet, one at a time. Little rootlets squirmed over the top of the dirty fabric, as though in protest, as she covered her heels. It did not look really very comfortable. But soon enough, the bottoms of her feet were covered up.
“It isn’t magic fabric or anything,” said Vasilisa, glancing at Gabi. “But I expect it will help until you find something better…”
“You’re so kind,” Crina said, and there was something wistful in her tone. “The three of you, you are all so kind… I wish I could keep you with me.”
“Ah,” said Gabi, nervously.
“But I must find whoever it is I’m searching for, so I can’t. I’m so sorry.” She sighed. “I mustn’t get rooted down again. You understand, don’t you?”
Gabi did not answer, so I said, “I think so.”
“Good… I’m glad. Goodbye then.”
She walked towards me. For a moment I thought she was going to touch my cheek, with her pale fingers, her fingernails glistening with sap. Gabi was taut beside me, coiled like a spring. But Crina only stroked the air beside my cheek, and smiled down at her.
“Thank you, for freeing me.”
If possible, Gabi went stiffer. “From the, from the trees?”
Crina held her gaze for a few seconds.
“Yes… That’s right. From the trees.”
She stepped away from us. I found that I had not quite been breathing, and took a long breath. Gabi leaned wordlessly into me.
Crina acknowledged Vasilisa with a nod, which was hesitantly returned, and then looked at Taavi.
“Goodbye,” she said.
She moved swiftly, even in her awkward wrappings. It seemed to take her no time at all to cross through the streets of the town and then out of sight, between the trees.
Gabi sagged all of her weight into my side at once, and I staggered a little. Vasilisa whistled softly.
“Goodness,” she said. “That was… something out of that awful tree, wasn’t it?”
“Maybe,” muttered Gabi, into my arm. “Pray we’ll never see it again. Pray, please.”
“She seemed very different,” I hazarded. “Do you think she’s really not dangerous?”
“I wasn’t going to try to wrestle her either way,” said Gabi. “I’ve had enough of trees and roots… God’s sake! It’s cold now!”
I put my arm around her, for the wind had picked up again. Vasilisa rubbed her forearms.
“Look at us,” she said, her mouth twitching into half a smile. “Three naked women, in the middle of the forest, in wintertime.”
“So let’s go and find a house! With blankets and a hearth!” Gabi’s teeth had started to chatter. “Hurry, hurry!”
“You two go,” said Vasilisa, glancing up at the gray sky. “I had better find someplace to stay, separate. I don’t want to wait until sundown.”
“Pardon? Didn’t we discuss this already?” Gabi turned so that her back was against my chest, still wrapped in my arm. “You can’t simply go off alone-”
“I won’t be alone! Taavi will come with me.” She looked at the big golem, and he nodded. “I’ll find an open spot, with lots of moonlight, and come back tomorrow morning.”
“Well…” Gabi shivered against me, which was not a terrible thing to feel despite the cold. “I suppose if that’s the way you want to do it… But be careful! Don’t go in the same direction she did!”
Vasilisa gave her a sort of peculiar look.
“I won’t. Go on and find somewhere warm, the both of you.”
And so we parted ways.
I wonder what would have happened if they’d told her the person she is looking for is dead.
Finally released from finals and got the time to catch up on this. That was a very gripping 4 hours of reading – your writing is awesome as always! Too bad tree x dirt is dead (or IS IT).
Good to see things lightening up (I love their sarcasm!), and I hope it’s a wrap soon and no more unexpected stuff sprouts up. I’ll wait to congratulate you till the end, but damn, this whole story was a journey.