How can you harm a golem?
The black horseman was following me.
Not very close- in fact, quite a few meters away at all times. Yet when I stepped forward, he did as well. When I stopped, he did too.
I was following the line of the cliff, looking for a place to climb up and start searching for Pascha and Gabi. The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon, though the view over the lake was spoiled by a thick morning mist and hazy clouds. Behind me the tall grass shivered as the black horseman skulked closer.
“I know that you are following me,” I said, which made the grass tremble even more.
He had not volunteered any more information after I met him at the lake shore, and I had not felt ready to tell him anything myself, so I had turned to search for Pascha and Gabi again. In truth I did not much know what to do without them. But the cliff was sheer, and I likely would not be able to climb up without falling and getting smashed together again.
“You smell like Pascha,” hissed a voice, very near me, and I quickly swiveled my head around. Something black dove back down into the grass.
I hesitated, then stumped towards it. The grass shook, and a black horse sprang out, a small horse with a stick-up mane and glowing stripes.
“Stay away from me!” it cried. “I’ll tear you into pieces!”
The horse shuddered all over, as though bitten by flies. “Did Pascha tell you my name?”
I pondered what was best to say in the situation, and while I thought, Kazimir took a step closer.
“What is he doing here? Why has he come? And you- why were you with him?”
He was still moving slowly closer, his long ears rotating all around. I let my arms drop to my sides and just watched him get more agitated.
“Speak! Or have you gone dumb? Oh, it is a trick, a trick, isn’t it!” Suddenly he kicked up his heels and snorted. “As if I would be caught! I will never be caught again!”
“But the witch still has you,” I said.
He was ten meters away again before I had even finished the sentence, just a dark blot hunched in the grass.
“You know I am not lying,” I added. “And I do not know why you are so frightened of me. I am not going to hurt you.”
Very slowly he rose out of the grass: human again, the long, slender, black-skinned youth. His lips were twisted into the sort of expression I was used to seeing on Gabi’s face.
“I am not frightened of you.”
“Then come closer,” I said. “It is hard to speak with someone so far away.”
He tilted his head and scowled harder, the motion still somehow elegant with his long neck, and moved a few steps closer.
“I don’t like golems,” he informed me. “Who do you serve?”
“I serve myself,” I said. “Unlike you.”
Kazimir made a garbled sound and his chin dropped to his chest.
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. There’s nothing that can be done about it, anyhow.”
Since he did not seem to be moving anymore, I closed most of the rest of the distance between us, trudging through the grass. He twisted his lips and leaned away from me, but did not scamper again.
“There is something you can do about it,” I said. “Pascha told me.”
“Pascha!” This he spat out, and he crossed his long arms. “Of course he has a plan. Pascha always does.”
I felt that he was alluding to something that I did not know about, but I pressed on.
“He told me that if the three of you are together again-”
“But we’re together all the time,” said Kazimir, cutting me off. “Always together, when the witch has us in her paddock.”
“But not when she lets you go,” I said. “Why is that?”
Kazimir frowned and then turned his back to me.
“We’re not meant to be together.”
“I do not understand.”
Kazimir’s shoulders tightened. Like Pascha, he kept his human form shirtless, so that I could see every muscle in his lean back. He had on rough trousers below that, though perhaps- with what I knew about how the horsemen took their shape, perhaps Kazimir had not paid close attention to how most trousers actually looked. They were pale and baggy and trailed onto the ground around his bare feet, so that only occasionally I saw his dark toes peeping out.
“Don’t stare at me,” said Kazimir, and I could hear the scowl this time.
He tilted his head back over his shoulder, his brow furrowed very deeply.
“What is it that you’re doing here, anyway?”
I had a feeling that saying ‘looking for you’ would have got him running again, so I answered carefully.
“I was travelling with two friends.”
He turned around, still furrowed, with his arms crossed. I thought that this was encouraging.
“Now I have lost them and I am looking for them again. It was your fault that I lost them,” I added, and he uncrossed his arms and clenched his fists.
“Yes, your fault, because you came at us in the dark, and then I fell down this cliff,” I said, very sternly. He shrank away for a moment- strange in such a tall person- and then drew back up.
“So Pascha was one of your friends!”
“Yes, and there was also-”
“Don’t you know anything about him?” Kazimir said, his hands clenching and unclenching. “He’s nobody’s friend. You’d better not trust him-”
“I do not trust him,” I said. “I think he is a-” I had to wrack my mind for the appropriate word. “A rogue. But he was still my companion.”
Kazimir’s mouth was slightly open, though he closed it as I finished talking. Suddenly he grinned with such force that it squeezed his eyes shut.
“A rogue! I like that! He is a rogue, isn’t he!”
“Yes, he is,” I said. “He tried to feed me to a dragon. And then he ran away another time when Gabi and I were in trouble. I do not think that he is someone you should depend on.”
“No, no he is not!” said Kazimir, in a pleased way, but his grin was slowly fading into something more somber. “He is dreadful.”
“Well, I am more interested in finding my other companion than him,” I said, which was true. “She is a strigoi and her name is Gabi. She helped me get free will.”
“So you really do have free will,” said Kazimir, and he rubbed his chin. “I’ve never met a golem that was autonomous. As a matter of fact, I have never met one that could talk. You don’t seem much like an ordinary golem at all.”
“Oh, I am ordinary,” I said quickly, though I was unsure why I felt the urge to convince him. “I have only been able to learn a lot from other people. But you see, since Gabi helped me, I want to help her too. She needs it.”
I stopped speaking, because I noticed that Kazimir was gazing at me very solemnly.
“What is it?”
He seemed a little bit taken aback.
“I don’t know. It only seems nice. You are… rather kind, aren’t you?”
“Gabi is kind as well,” I insisted. “She does not always mean to be, but it turns out that way.”
“That name sounds familiar,” said Kazimir. “Gabi…”
“I think that you have met her once before,” I said. “At the witch’s-”
He rumbled, cutting me off, and bared his canines. They were rather sharp.
“Her! Her! It was her, the strigoi who opened the paddock!”
“Yes,” I said, taking a step backwards. He was still growling like a dog, and I could not forget how he had shoved me back before. “What is the matter?”
He glared at me.
“She will want to catch me, of course!”
“She has come here to catch me, and you are helping her! Of course! Of course! And Pascha would help too, why would he not? That BASTARD!” He gave a real snarl, trembling, and his eyes flashed green.
“Don’t use my NAME!” With a howl he backhanded me with such force that my head twisted completely around. “You are a LIAR!”
I stumbled backwards, trying to fix my head with my hands. I was now stuck staring behind myself, which was the last place I wanted to look with the thundering creature that was in front of me. I was actually beginning to feel worried for my own body.
“I never lied to you,” I said, managing to get my eyes front again, though my neck was elongated and floppy. “I have not finished talking.”
Kazimir merely glared at me, his fists clenched and glowing. A little bit of greenish mist was leaking out of his mouth. I sensed that I did not have much time left to explain things.
“Gabi is not trying to catch you,” I said, giving up on my neck for a moment and letting my head flop sideways onto one shoulder. “There is no point. Her ribbon is still white.”
“So? What does that matter?!”
“She can only catch you if it turns black. Did you not know?”
Now his look was rather blank.
“She caught Zakhar,” I said, watching the way his eyes twitched at the name, “but only because he agreed to be caught. But the witch is not paying attention to her anymore because…” I realized from his face that it was getting too complicated. “Well, the witch is ignoring her and the terms of her curse right now. So she cannot catch you or Pascha.”
He took a long moment to absorb this, his green eyes and glowing fists slowly fading.
“So then, why are you here, if not to catch me?”
“Because,” I said, again choosing my words carefully, “because you are very strong and we think that you might be able to free Gabi and yourself with your power.”
He snorted. “Pascha must have said that to you! I am not particularly strong.”
“I think that you are fairly strong,” I demurred, flopping my head to my other shoulder.
He caught the motion, for his expression changed to something sheepish, and he bit his thumbnail.
“Err… you can fix that, can’t you?”
In response I concentrated and reshaped my neck without using my hands. My head settled solidly between my shoulders once more.
“You should not hit people,” I told him sternly. “Not everyone can fix themselves.”
“I- well…” He nibbled harder on his thumbnail, eyes flicking to the left. “You’re a golem, so it’s not as if it bothers you very much, does it?”
“You went after Pascha too, and I think he can feel pain,” I said. “Why did you do that?”
Kazimir put his hand down and his expression became very clouded.
“It’s none of your business.”
His emotions shifted so quickly that it was hard to keep up with him. I tried to adjust.
“Pascha said to me that you two were very close once. I do not think you should treat him like that.”
“Yes, if you’re close to someone you shouldn’t treat them like that,” he muttered.
“I didn’t really hurt him,” he snapped. “I was just giving him a warning. I don’t want him near me.”
“For good reason! And it isn’t any of your-”
“But Pascha wants to meet you very much. I could tell.”
The briefest expression of surprise crossed his face, and he looked away with a frown.
“Be that as it may…”
“Would you not even like to try freeing yourself? Then you could go as far away as you wanted.”
He looked back at me with a very small smile.
“You just want your Gabi set free.”
“Anything that helps her will help you too,” I insisted.
“I doubt that. And I don’t think I can get rid of the spell. The Baba wouldn’t make it so easy.” He scuffed one foot on the ground. “I’ve never been as strong as Pascha thinks I am.”
“I think you should try anyway,” I urged. “It will not hurt you.”
He trailed off and looked at the ground. I felt a spark of hope.
“Come with me to find Pascha and Gabi again, and we can-”
“Come with you?”
All of a sudden his expression had grown hard again, and he stepped backwards and away from me.
“It’s a trick!”
“What do you mean? It is not a trick.” I stepped forward, reaching out, and he growled again. I stopped.
“Pascha wants me caught,” he said. “Pascha’s waiting in the wings to laugh again. I won’t be fooled. I won’t be caught!”
“I am not trying to catch you,” I said, feeling a little bit desperate. He was moving further away from me again. “I do not think I can catch you.”
“The strigoi will put her ribbon around my neck,” he spat, now several meters away. “And Pascha will laugh!”
“Why would Pascha laugh?” I was utterly bewildered. “He does not want to be caught either. If it makes you feel better you can follow me from that far away. Pascha and Gabi will not be able to touch you.”
“It’s a trick!” insisted Kazimir, though I thought he sounded slightly less certain now. “It’s always a trick. I won’t go with you. When you turn your back you shall never see me again!”
“Please do not run away! How will you ever escape the witch if-”
“I don’t care!”
Quite suddenly he dropped down into the grass, vanishing from sight. In a panic I ran over towards the spot, only to part the stalks and see him crouching in a surly heap of bony limbs.
“Nothing is going to change,” he muttered. “It doesn’t matter.”
I hesitated, staring down at him.
“If it does not matter, then why not come with me?”
He flopped down onto his side and shut his eyes.
I had thought of myself as golem with patience, so it was surprising to feel so close to losing it.
“Kazimir, you are saying things that do not make sense.”
“You sound like Zakhar now,” he muttered, without opening his eyes. “He wouldn’t trick me… Where is he?”
“He went back to the witch,” I said. “I told you. He wanted to.”
“Zakhar…” Kazimir opened his eyes, and I was surprised to see big, shining tears at the corners.
“Kazimir! Are you all right?”
He rolled over in the grass and mumbled something, his face mashed into his arm. I could not think of what to do at all.
“Do not cry,” I said, my words sounding stiff even to my own ears. “It will be… it will be all right. I think.”
Kazimir said nothing, only sniffled softly. Nervously I reached out and gingerly touched his shoulder. It felt cool and smooth, like porcelain. He did not react, so I patted him.
“If you think Pascha will be cruel to you, then I will stop him,” I said. “And if you are worried about Zakhar, then that is why we should try to break the curse together. See, it does matter what you do.”
Kazimir rolled back over and favored me with a very teary-eyed look.
“I don’t… I don’t want your pity.”
Then stop acting pitiful, were the first words that came to mind, but I chose not to use them.
“I am sorry,” I said. “I do not mean to pity you. But I must start looking for Gabi and Pascha now. Will you come with me?”
Kazimir said nothing, his eyes drifting to somewhere to the left of my head.
“Well, if you would like to stay here-”
Suddenly he sprang up and grabbed my arm.
I was too startled to protest, and stood very still. Kazimir was looking around very alertly, wiping away the last of his tears. He had not let go of my arm, and again I noticed how cool his flesh was. It was not like warm Pascha.
He cut me off swiftly by vigorously shaking his head, and then made a sweeping motion with his hand. Instantly it was as though a cloud had drawn over the sun: everything got gray and dim. I looked up, confused: the sky had not changed, and the sun was still out.
“We are hidden now,” said Kazimir, glancing at me, and then suddenly seemed to remember he was touching me, for he let go very swiftly. “Something is coming.” He began gnawing on his thumbnail, his eyes flicking all around.
“What is coming?” I kept my voice soft, though I felt more hopeful than worried. After all, Pascha said there was no witch in this forest, and we had not met any spirits: maybe it was Gabi coming to find me!
“It’s the gate,” said Kazimir, around his thumbnail. “I don’t know why it’s all the way out here, though.”
He looked so worried that I did not question the bizarre statement. Anyway, it did not take long for me to spot a figure emerging from the trees about a quarter of the way around the lake. It was a little taller than the grass, and very pale and thin. I could not quite make it out, but its jerky movements made me feel rather uncomfortable. It was definitely not Gabi.
“Go away,” hissed Kazimir, who was now quivering beside me. “Go away, go away… we’re not here!”
“Shh,” I said, touching his shoulder lightly. He jumped like a rabbit and hunched even lower. I followed suit, hoping that the dimness he had cast really was concealing us.
The pale figure moved slowly closer, and gradually I figured out what was so uncomfortable about it. One tends to feel uncomfortable when one sees a human skeleton calmly walking around. Because that was what it was, a pale yellow skeleton, walking around as though it were the most ordinary thing in the world. It carried nothing with it aside from its own bones, and these moved comfortably, the joints flexing even though it did not look like anything was holding them together. It had a jawbone that protruded slightly in an underbite, and with every step it made a faint noise: like low wind, or a creaking door.
The skeleton moved closer and closer to where we had crouched together and I began to grow more concerned. Strangely enough, Kazimir seemed to be relaxing.
“It doesn’t see us,” he said. “Stupid old bones.”
“You are being rather loud,” I said, nudging him with my elbow.
He nudged me back. “It can’t hear us. It’s only a skeleton. Without Baba it can’t even walk.”
“So it belongs to your mistress?”
He scowled in response, keeping his eyes fixed on the skeleton. “It shouldn’t be here. This is bad.”
“Why? What does she use it for?”
He looked sidelong at me; I tried to split my focus between him and the still-approaching skeleton.
“She sends it out when she’s moving house. It’s looking for a spot for her to settle in.”
“Oh! Does that mean she will be the witch that controls this forest?”
“No, no.” Kazimir scratched his scalp through his short, dense hair. “She doesn’t have any permanent home. She is always moving. She’s not like other witches- she lords over them all.”
“Oh…” I had not thought very hard about this witch at all yet, but now that I considered things, all the ones I had met- well, all two of them- had been very different. If this witch lorded over other witches, then…?
“What did you say her name was?”
“I didn’t. It’s not good to speak it carelessly. If you must refer to her, call her the Grandmother or Baba.”
“Well,” I said, having been made no less anxious by his words, “I think I know why she is coming here… I did not finish telling you what happened to Zakhar.”
His head whipped around. “What happened to Zakhar?!”
The loudness still made me flinch, for now the slow-moving skeleton was but a few meters away. Despite his assurances I could not shake the feeling that those gaping eye sockets could see us, for they were trained in our direction. I spoke quietly.
“Zakhar went to my Mo- to the territory of a witch called Mother Forest, and ate roots there that poisoned him.”
“Impossible,” Kazimir said at once. “We can’t be poisoned.”
He did not say it in an arrogant way, merely as a point of fact, but I still felt a little irritated.
“Be that as it may, he told me himself that he was poisoned. Then he went right back to your Baba, or at least Gabi told me he did. I think that she is angry at Mother Forest over it. And that is why she is coming here.”
Kazimir opened his mouth to say something, then drew his eyebrows together, then squatted even further down in the grass, looking like a spider with his skinny knees and elbows sticking out.
“She’s breaking the rules,” he muttered.
“She’s not supposed to come after us. Not until the time is up…”
He trailed off, and we both looked at the skeleton. It had stopped only about a meter away, and was still staring in our direction- or at least ‘staring’ as much as anything with empty eye sockets could. I was unnerved, and tried to reassure myself that even if it did know we were there, it was only a skeleton. I could not imagine that it would be terribly dangerous.
The skeleton, which had been standing perfectly still, suddenly raised its arms with a loud cr-ee-ak. The faintest speck of red appeared in one eye socket.
Beside me, Kazimir jolted.
He leapt up, and without thinking I grabbed his arm. His cold flesh seemed to squirm unnaturally around my fingers, and he whirled back around and glared at me with eyes that glowed bright green.
“Do not let it see you!” I urged, keeping my grip on him despite everything. I was certain he was going to dash off my head in another moment.
“She must have Pascha!” he hissed in reply, misting green around the mouth again. “They can’t see without his power! You said that Pascha was still free!”
“He is!” I whispered back. “I do not understand- what do you mean?”
To my surprise, his glow faded, and though he yanked his arm roughly from my grasp, he did not lunge forward again.
“She must have caught him just now,” he murmured. “But how? And-”
“You know for sure that she has him?” I demanded. My chest was filling with anxiety. I felt sorry for Pascha, but- if he was trapped, what had happened to Gabi?
“Look at its eyes,” said Kazimir, pointing. I looked back at the silent skeleton, still standing there with its arms raised up. Both of its eyes shone with a very faint red light, barely visible in the noontime sunlight.
“He’s the one that makes them glow,” said Kazimir. “Zakhar makes them move.”
As if it had heard this, the skeleton took a jerky step forward. I raised my own arms, ready to fend it off, but the next step it took was away from Kazimir and I. It had turned towards the forest and was making its way into the trees.
Slowly I put my hands down, staring at its swaying spine.
“She wouldn’t want to settle in such an open place,” muttered Kazimir. “Of course.”
“Is that what it is doing?” I asked. “Looking for a place for her to settle down?”
“Yes,” said Kazimir. “It’s her gate.”
I still was not sure what that meant, but it did not matter. “Can you keep us invisible while we are moving?”
“We’re not invisible,” said Kazimir. “We’re just not noticeable. We’re in a kind of shadow- well, more of a twilight-”
“But can you?”
He rubbed the back of his neck.
“Yes, I suppose, but-”
“I want to follow that gate,” I said. “I want to see where she is going to stay.”
Kazimir’s eyes got very buggy and he shook his head.
“No! We should stay far away from any of her things. I am ready to fly ten leagues away.”
“Very well,” I said. “Then I will follow it myself. I can be very quiet.”
“No, don’t follow it!” urged Kazimir, his hand jerking near his mouth. “If our Baba notices you, she’ll twist your fate in terrible ways- you’ll regret it!”
I stepped forward, out from his shadow. Instantly I was engulfed by very bright sunlight. I had not realized how dark it had been beside him. I turned and looked behind myself and saw only waving grass, with not even a mark or a dimple to suggest where he was.
While I marveled, he reappeared, and now he was biting his nails again.
“Don’t follow it!”
“I have to,” I said, noticing how still the grass around his legs was. “If Pascha was captured, something must have happened to Gabi, too. I must speak to him.”
“You’re not going to get to speak to him while he’s under her control,” said Kazimir. “And if you do, she’ll find you. And if she finds you, she’ll find me.”
“I will not say anything to anyone about you,” I said. “If you are worried about being seen, you should come with me and help me hide.”
“I can’t hide myself from her!” Kazimir said, his voice rising to a near-squeak, but when I turned and began walking I heard him come shuffling behind. “You ought to go away and live a nice life! Or whatever a golem has!”
“I have no life,” I replied, looking over my shoulder. “Not beyond this.”
“Not beyond her, you mean,” said Kazimir, and he gave me a very sudden, sharp look. “Well, my advice to you is to try to find one.”
I turned my back to him, rankled by his words, though I did not quite understand why, and began walking again. After a moment or two the light around me perceptibly dimmed.
“Wait! At least keep a little further back!”
I slowed and waited for him to trot beside me, nervous and lanky. Then we followed the creaking skeleton into the woods.
I woke from thick, cluttered sleep to the sound of digging. I did not open my eyes straightaway, because with awakeness came a new awareness of the solid, miserable ache in my captive limbs, and the burning sensation in each place where the tree’s bark touched my skin. I was beginning to suspect it was due to more than chafing.
Mother Forest had left me shortly after delivering her ominous words- destroying the golem, what a laugh- and as the day dragged on I had seen fit to do little else but to try and rest. But I had only gotten the kind of sleep that makes one wearier upon awakening.
The digging noises increased in volume, and I slowly opened my eyes to see a veritable army of small golems scratching away at the bare soil between the trees. They were using the most peculiar tools, as well: some of them had iron shovels, but even more of them were using such things as chipped plates, rusted knives, and sharpened rocks. They did not seem perturbed by their inappropriate tools; just kept on busily doing their work, whatever that was.
The large golem with the round mouth, however, still stood at the base of my tree, its vacant eyes fixed in my direction. I supposed it had been told to guard me. Experimentally I tried to move one wrist and gave up with a hiss. It was wedged tight and swollen from pain.
To distract myself, I looked up at the sky, and found it still blocked by that peculiar reddish filter. But it definitely seemed to have gotten darker, so night was either falling or had fallen. I wished passionately for the ability to fly away and pierce that veil. Damn those Iele, though! Just how had I offended them? For a moment I ground my teeth and seethed, the ache in my joints feeding my anger.
The black cat mewled softly, as he did periodically, and I glanced in his direction. He was still bound up by vines, utterly useless as far as I was concerned, for his whimpers kept waking me up from my slumber. He must have badly angered the witch for this sort of punishment, which I suppose was for letting me go the other time. I did not bother trying to feel grateful to him.
Feebly I thought of becoming a snake again, a marten, a wolf, a deer, anything; but by now I had surmised that the change in my flesh would prompt that horrible, burning reaction from the tree bark. My strigoi skin must have conferred me some protection, in the same way that the flesh of other shapes provided me protection from the sun. But the itching burn at the areas where my skin touched the tree- as though I had been stung by nettles- suggested to me that even that protection would not stand the test of time.
What were these trees, anyway? Who had ever heard of white, leafless trees that burned the skin? And why did nothing else seem to grow or live in this part of the forest? I ran my tongue over and over my teeth, restless from confinement. I had long since ceased to be aware of their sickly-sweet scent, which was good, because it really could have driven me mad. Marzipan, Easter pie, baklava… it was as though all the sweet things in my childhood had been ground together in a sickening mess.
A loud splashing sound made me look up, and I saw that several of the small golems had opened up their bellies to pour out water into the holes they had dug. Whatever rotting things I had seen them carrying earlier must have gone into those holes as well, for they were no longer on the ground. I wrinkled my nose. That was what this place was really missing; not just the sight of green plants and living animals, but deathly things, too- dead leaves, rotten trunks, mushrooms and carrion beetles. Perhaps that was why the golems were supplementing the soil. The thought made me shift painfully within my restrictions. What had this forest been called again?
The Starving Forest.
I squirmed even more, biting my lip. The burning of my flesh suddenly seemed much more unpleasant. The sound of the white branches creaking in the dim reddish light did not ease my mind.
The golem that had been standing at the base of my tree now moved, just a little. I looked down at it. It had stepped to one side to let a smaller golem pass, a golem wielding, of all things, a tarnished old broadsword. It was hacking away at the soil as though it were holding a trowel, leaving a shallow trench in its wake.
My guard resumed its position as the other passed. Though this time, it folded one arm over its chest. I could not help but focus on that arm. Amidst the dark mud, there was a single patch that was a bit redder in color. It was shaped something like a handprint.
I could not help a little grunt escape my lips as I stared at that handprint, nearly longingly, as though it were a beacon of light in the dreadful place. How had such a pleasant creature as her come from the wretched Mother Forest, anyhow? I scowled- destroy Kezia, indeed!
A sudden thought occurred to me.
The golem did not so much as twitch, and the others kept on steadily working. I hissed through my teeth.
“Golem! Can you speak? Can’t any of you speak?”
No reaction. I swallowed, feeling the ribbon pass over the lump in my throat.
“Would you like to have free will?”
Not a one of them batted an eye. Well, they had none. Perhaps they were listening, just bound to their orders. I curled my fingers and toes, wincing.
“I can give you free will. Any of you. Only step closer. Take one step closer.”
Desperately I cast my eyes around: golems digging, golems pouring water, golems slouching away to who knows where. But no sign of any interest, of any of them stepping closer to me. I looked down at the one below my tree again, at the one with Kezia’s handprint on its arm. Where she had tried to pull it off of me.
“You remember me,” I said. “Don’t you? You held me before. Well, you must remember Kezia. She left that mark on you. ”
Was there a flicker of- something? I thought I saw the golem’s arm twitch. My hearts beat faster.
“I gave her free will,” I said. “I could give it to you, too. Do you remember, golem? Would you like to live a free life?”
I closed my mouth and waited for one, two, three beats of silence.
The golem put its arm down against its side.
I sighed in frustration, but then my breath caught in my throat: the golem’s leg moved. Just the slightest bit. Just enough to shift its weight and take one tiny step forwards.
“Yes,” I whispered. “Yes! Closer! I can bite my tongue- I can free you! Just get me out of this tree when I have- just a bit closer!”
The golem shifted. I thought it might have been ready to take another step forwards. But just then, everything seemed to freeze. All the other golems stopped digging. The golem with Kezia’s handprint stopped with one foot hovering just above the dirt.
Mother Forest was walking towards us between the trees, her hands in the pockets of her sensible linen skirt. I was struck again by what an un-intimidating figure she struck, for all the dread she had caused: certainly nothing like the stony and overwhelming countenance of Muma Balaur, nor the something-very-large-and-horrible-wrapped-in-a-small-wrinkly-package sense one got from Pascha’s Baba.
Mother Forest simply gave off a feeling of… ordinary. Faintly calm, if anything. I could not understand it.
She stopped beside my silent guard and looked up at me.
“I have completed my errands,” she told me. “I’d like to speak with you now.”
“Oh, please,” I said. Seeing that golem move had given me the strength to draw on sarcasm again. It was still standing there with one foot slightly raised; she did not seem to have noticed.
She smiled, again in that slightly confused way, as though my words never made any sense to her.
“I have a task I would like for you to carry out,” she said. “I believe I mentioned it earlier. I would like for you to get rid of the golem.”
“What golem?” I asked. “You’ll have to be more specific, they all look rather alike.”
“Golems that can speak are rather rare,” said the witch, as though she had not heard me. “I find them quite troublesome. I was unsure how long I should keep that one animated, but I think that now it has long outlived its usefulness to me.”
“That, we might agree on,” I said. “But I am curious: how do you expect me to get rid of it while I am strung up here? You’d better let me down.”
“You will come down,” said Mother Forest, her voice infinitely calm. “First I must show you how to destroy it.”
She turned to the golem beside her, the one with Kezia’s handprint.
“Bend down,” she said.
The golem, which was quite a bit taller than her, obediently bent down. It still had that one foot up. I was unsure how it managed to keep its balance.
“There is a secret word,” said Mother Forest, “a Hebrew word, which few know. It is written on all of the golems’ foreheads. I will show it to you.”
She placed two fingers on the golem’s forehead and stroked it, side to side. Something glinted, and a thin layer of clay peeled away.
Underneath it was something cast in silver: symbols I could not read.
“This is the golem’s truth,” said Mother Forest, withdrawing her hand. The golem stayed absolutely still. “Removing it will not destroy the golem: it will only make it mindless. The trick is subtler than that.”
She raised her hand again and put her fingers lightly on the silvery symbols. I stared down at them, unnerved. They looked like real silver that had been embedded and buried in the golem’s skull. There were three symbols, like no letters I had ever known, though it wasn’t as if I had learned to read in any language. But these were definitely foreign.
Mother Forest pushed her fingers into the clay and pulled the third symbol out.
Nothing happened. The golem stayed still, with the remaining two symbols still gleaming on its dark forehead. Mother Forest tossed the shining letter in her hand up and down.
“Now I have given it death,” she said.
“It looks just fine to me,” I said. But my stomach felt clenched up under my ribs. I did not want to see or hear what she was showing me.
Mother Forest gave me another vague smile, then lightly put her hand against the golem’s skull and pushed.
It collapsed inwards, its hollow face pressing against the back of its skull, still gaping in surprise. The torso twisted slightly, as if only just now bearing its own weight, and then the whole thing began to sink downwards, slumping and collapsing in slow agony, losing its defined features as clay touched clay and slowly merged, sinking and flattening and falling to the ground.
After a few moments, all that remained was a heap of mud, with two silver letters glinting in the center.
Mother Forest threw away the one that was in her hand.
“That is how you destroy a golem,” she said.
I said nothing. I felt nothing, staring at that heap.
“Few have this knowledge,” she said, lightly brushing the mud with her bare toes. “It is not known to witches. It is kept secret by a select few.”
My throat unstuck.
“Then why have you given it to me?”
“I need someone who can travel beyond my borders,” said Mother Forest. “And someone who will be able to get close to that golem. I do not like having messy loose ends around, you see. It needs to disappear.”
“Yes, of course,” I said. I was getting a very bad feeling, and not just for poor Kezia. To have her hear her ‘mother’ speak about her like this! The next time I saw her, I resolved to give her a better gift than a coin.
But for now I needed to keep my wits about me. The witch had to have some means of coercion in mind to make me do her bidding; she couldn’t expect me to happily do it out of goodwill. I guessed at the most likely leverage.
“Will you free me and spare my life if I agree to this?”
“You will be freed and spared nonetheless,” said Mother Forest.
“I have taken notice of the ribbon you wear around your neck,” she interrupted. “It is magical in nature, isn’t it? You do not look as though you wear it willingly.”
“As a matter of fact, I do not,” I said, trying not to swallow very obviously. “So- will it be the golem for the ribbon, then? A decent enough trade.”
Mother Forest turned to one of the smaller golems nearby.
“Fetch Noroc for me, child,” she said, and the little golem jerked as though she had just brought it back to life. It was the one carrying the broadsword, and the tip of it dragged a furrow through the earth as it walked over to where the black cat was trussed up and hanging.
Without fanfare, the golem raised the sword and sliced cleanly through the mass of vines. The bundled cat fell to the ground in a way that sounded painful.
“Noroc, wake up,” said the witch.
The mass of vines rustled, and then the cat’s head emerged- battered, with one ear nicked, and a tangle still growing forth from one socket. The other eye was dull.
Slowly he got to his feet, the rustling mass still clinging to his form, and walked towards the base of my tree. His balance seemed off, I noticed, much like the night I had seen him mewling and wailing in the deserted village. I had got clear enough what he’d meant by ‘survivor’ when he had spoken the one time; those actions had made it plain, though if he thought I was going to do anything about it…
I swallowed again. Noroc was climbing the tree. He seemed to be regaining strength as he did so, though his fur was full of bare patches that exposed pale skin underneath. I got wafts of that sweet scent from him as he moved closer- the cut ends of the vines were dripping a viscous sap. I very much hoped that none of that was going to touch me- but no, he had got himself all the way up to a branch just above my head. I tried to lean out of the way.
“What is he going to do?” I asked the witch, who was watching this quite serenely.
“I am going to get rid of that ribbon,” she said. “Isn’t that something you want?”
This I had not expected at all.
“But- don’t you want me to destroy the golem first?”
She favored me with her peculiar smile, and then the weight of the cat dropped down onto my shoulders.
I cried out and twisted, the pain in my joints reigniting. Noroc’s warm breath hit my skin as he shoved his small face through my hair and towards my neck. Frantic memories of being a squirrel, a thrashing marten reignited, and I struggled, trying to buck him off. His claws dug into my shoulders and I felt the bush of leaves all down my back. Then I felt his teeth against my neck.
That one desperate word was all that escaped me, for his teeth did not pierce me- they only hooked into the ribbon, and with a surprising burst of pain I felt it fall apart.
I sucked in a breath, my mind awhirl, and looked downwards. The ribbon, cut in two, had slipped down over my breasts to land draped over a branch below. Even as I watched, it had started to dissolve away into nothingness.
“Is that not better?” said Mother Forest.
I could not speak. My neck suddenly felt tender and airy, missing that small weight. I tried to touch it, forgetting that my hand was still caught tight. Was- could- could it really be gone?
Noroc jumped off of my shoulders and down onto a branch. He licked one paw and started cleaning his face, vines swinging in the breeze.
“It’s a trick,” I managed to stammer. “You can’t remove it that easily.”
“If I command it, Noroc can,” said the witch. “Now, as for the task I requested of you.”
“Oh- yes,” I stuttered. I felt as though I were going out of my mind. Not as though I meant to obey her still, but- was it really gone?
Mother Forest reached into one of her pockets and drew out something small. I squinted, trying to see what it was. It looked something like a small white pebble.
“I am not very familiar with strigoi,” she said, “but I expect that this will work as per the norm.”
“What is that?” I asked. She ignored me, beckoning over the golem that carried the broadsword.
“Child, take this to our friend.”
The golem dropped the broadsword with a clatter and took the little object from her.
“What is that?”
“I am going to let you go momentarily,” said Mother Forest, gazing back up at me. There was a certain new serenity in her gaze. “Please be patient.”
I was feeling anything but that as I watched the golem start to climb up towards me, the item clutched in its muddy fist. Some sort of gift? A magical item, or a spell? I could not fathom…
Noroc, still sitting amidst his nest of vines, suddenly looked directly up at me. I saw his countenance, with one eye overgrown, and suddenly a horrible thought occurred to me.
“Don’t get upset,” said the witch, her voice bland and unconcerned. “You’re hurting yourself.”
I struggled, heedless of any of that, for the most dreadful fear was growing inside of me, as I watched the golem get closer and closer- no- it was raising its hand- and I saw it, I saw the thing up close, it was not a pebble- it was a large white seed.
I snarled and thrashed, but the golem shimmied up a creaking branch and grabbed my hair, forcing my head back, and that seed came closer- closer- closer to my eye-
Burning, burning, burning- but not my eyes, my flesh: I had changed. I did not even know what I had changed into, only that it was screaming and furious, twisting, thrashing, burning like fire, like hell, flesh cracking and bleeding. The golem was swaying on its branch, still holding the seed as I tore one misshapen limb free.
“Catch her,” I heard Mother Forest say, somewhere distant, and the golem tried to regain its grip on my scalp, holding tight even as my flesh squirmed and changed around its fingers, and I did the only thing I could do:
I burrowed straight into the golem’s clay chest-
-and the added weight, and maybe the surprise of it all; something made it lean back, and the swaying branch snapped, and we fell with a great splat of mud onto the ground.
I was dazed by the impact, and I rose up human again and stumbled backwards, jerking myself free of the clinging strands of clay. The golem looked as through it was trying to reshape itself, for it had gotten flattened against the ground. For a fleeting moment I thought of the secret that Mother Forest showed me, the silver letters in the forehead- but no. I noticed how sharply she watched me. It would catch me and hold me before I even got the chance!
No time to think. I lunged in the opposite direction, away from the rising golem. My hands touched something cold- the hilt of the broadsword- and I grabbed it with both hands and raised it.
Mother Forest laughed.
“What are you going to do with that against a golem?”
She was right, but it didn’t matter- I wasn’t aiming for the golem. I was too much of a fool.
I lunged and put all my strength into swinging the sword directly at her midsection.
The cat yowled. Mother Forest jerked. The sword sliced cleanly through- too cleanly- it passed all of the way through her and swung free on the other side.
My hands felt numb, my skin raw against the cold metal. The golem was still reforming itself; it had all happened in a single second.
Mother Forest had an odd expression on her face. I could see where I had sliced- it went diagonally upwards through her stomach. I expected blood to start seeping forth at any moment.
Instead the top half of Mother Forest began to slide downwards.
I stared, not comprehending the motion, until her hand shot out to steady herself against a branch. She grimaced.
“What did I tell you?”
I looked at her midsection. Where her top half had started to slide away, her cut flesh was visible. It was not red. It was smooth. It was the color of clay. And beyond that, it looked as though she was hollow.
Clay and hollow.
“What are you going to do with that against a golem?”
The sword dropped from my nerveless fingers.
“You’re a- but you’re a witch! Mother Forest!”
She patted all around her midsection, sealing the places I had cut back up again, and flicked her eyes towards me in a puzzled way.
“When did I say I was either of those things?”
Her flesh fused together, her clothes unmarred and unwrinkled once more. I stood still, limp, stunned. Behind me, Noroc meowed.
“You seem to have been under some mistaken impressions,” she said. “My mistress would not be flattered. But she won’t know- about you, nor about that golem.”
The golem- the small golem I had forgotten about, the one that had been reshaping itself- grabbed me by the neck and shoved something into my mouth.