I am like a poison.
A long time ago, I stood in the Starving Forest within a house that I had built with my own hands, and was so lonely that I had wished for the company of bats. It must have been a long time ago, because everything had changed so much now, and I had not stopped to think about my poor bats for a long time. But the sight of the colony streaming over our heads and into the white grove had brought it all back. I wish that Gabi, Vasilisa, and I could have flown away with them.
But so much time had passed since I had only little bats for company. Now I had more to protect, and much less to protect it with. I thought that Gabi probably felt the same way; she had given up some power, as well, just to be with me. It was so frustrating. Why could the two of us not simply be together, after all that we had done to get there already? Why did we always have to keep struggling for scraps of life?
I was so very tired. It was hard to concentrate on the white flowers that Mother Forest was holding out to us. I felt Gabi beside me, brimming with hot anger. And on the other side, Vasilisa, holding a hand to her stomach, her face drawn and white. She had already eaten a flower and now Mother Forest was going to be the one who took her soul. Poor Vasilisa… if she had not tried to save us, maybe she could have gotten away.
“You must be mad, thinking we’ll ingest your poison willingly,” snarled Gabi. Her voice slipped through the fog surrounding my head and into my ears. I blinked rapidly to try and wake up a little. Mother Forest was replying.
“Baba Yaga will come here soon,” she was saying. She sounded so calm, it made me even sleepier. “She has already fought off my Domovoi; left him gravely injured, in fact.”
It took a moment for her words to sink in, but abruptly they did, and I was so startled that I cut off Gabi just as she was trying to say something back.
“Noroc is hurt?!”
“I have had him retreat, for the moment,” said Mother Forest, turning to look at me- I think that she was looking, anyway, through Crina’s empty eyes. “He may yet recover. Domovoi are hardy spectres, so long as they believe they have something to protect.”
I thought that I knew what Noroc was trying to protect. My throat seemed to squeeze inwards.
“Kezia,” said Mother Forest, and her hand was on my forehead, the touch barely noticeable. “I know that you must miss the earth you came from. Come back to me. I can bring you back into the great web, the thing you lost.”
The great web… the voices of the trees… the touch of earth… Another kind of sorrow filled me. Was having flesh truly worth the pain of being disconnected from all that?
Gabi moved too swift for my eyes to follow, snatching Mother Forest’s wrist and dragging her away from me.
“Don’t touch her,” she said, and it was not even in a growl, only a low, deadly tone of voice.
Mother Forest swung her head back around to look at Gabi, and Gabi did not let go of her wrist, and for a moment I was worried that something very bad was going to happen. Then Vasilisa spoke.
“Excuse me- witch. May I ask how long I have left to live?”
Gabi twitched, and let go; Mother Forest angled herself to face Vasilisa.
“Not terribly long,” she said. “It will be peaceful. You will fall into a deep sleep, and then I will have my children carry your soul to me. I’ll take good care of it. I’ll protect and cherish it. You needn’t worry.”
“That’s fine, then,” said Vasilisa, though her face was still pinched and bloodless. “I suppose it’s more than I could have hoped for from the Baba.”
She sat down- or half-fell, I could not tell- all at once, on a rotten log lying on the ground.
“Pah!” said Gabi, who had moved close against me, her shoulder brushing my side. “Don’t listen to it! Those are honeyed lies she speaks; I used to tell my victims the same thing! There’s no comfort in death, and she knows it.” She turned and glared at Mother Forest. “You offer us poison and lies, and I’ve had my fill of both of those. Let me live and suffer for as long as I can.”
“Not very long,” noted Mother Forest, without a hint of sarcasm.
“At least I’m not dead,” said Gabi, which surprised me a little. I had long since ceased to think of her that way, but she had always described herself like that… She was still speaking.
“You, you’re nothing more than a ghost. A ghost of this forest. You want to make it bigger, stronger- but dead things can’t grow, can they? I saw the core of you, Treewitch, and it’s broken and rotted through.”
I was stunned. Those seemed like very dangerous words to say right now. But Mother Forest somehow did not seemed to mind them at all.
“It is as you say,” she agreed. “Once I thrived on sunlight, but no longer; now I draw strength, such as it were, from death and decay, like a fungus. I am like a poison to these trees around me; I draw the color and life from them, make them like myself. My children and I cannot survive anymore without a supply of fresh death. But you forget, little one, that the forests have always loved dying as much as living. The earth seethes with it. Kezia knows.”
She pointed at me, and I jolted, feeling her words as an accusation. Gabi looked at me, her expression one of surprise, and instantly I felt a bit guilty, though I did not think that I had done anything wrong.
“I- I do not know anything,” I stammered. “Not like that…”
But as I said it, I realized it was a little bit of a lie, because there had been a time when I had reached even further down into the earth than the web that lay beneath the forest, and felt the strange… bliss of the eternal cycles, life fading into death and back into life again. It had been a wonderful, almost godlike detachment, to see things from such a perspective; it was a peace unlike anything I had ever known.
“You could have it again,” said Mother Forest, as if she could read my thoughts. I looked at the white flowers in her hand. No, she was lying… but then again, when I had been in the earth, after I had lost myself, I had felt her calling to me… it had seemed warm and safe where she was… and had I not been wishing for a little time to rest just a moment ago? Peace to be with Gabi… If she took the other white flower, she could be with me forever… It was so hard to think when my head was so muddled from exhaustion. And that was the trouble with flesh! Did I really need to fight so hard to keep it…?
Gabi was pushing against my chest, my arms; I had hardly even realized it.
“We’re leaving,” she said, pushing hard enough so that I stumbled a step backwards. “The human, too; this place itself is poison.”
“No,” said Vasilisa, to my surprise, her voice rising in a frail way from where she sat on the log. “I don’t think I’m going to move anywhere, anymore.”
Gabi’s fingers tensed around my forearms, and we both looked at Vasilisa, hunched over with her arms wrapped around her belly. With her filthy attire and the unhealthy pallor to her skin, she looked corpselike already, the pain on her face the only animation I saw.
“I told you she was lying, she said it wouldn’t hurt,” said Gabi, stabbing a finger towards Vasilisa as though this were the incontrovertible evidence she had been waiting for.
“It would not hurt if she did not struggle against it,” said Mother Forest. It was strange- her voice held a gentle sympathy, but not in a way that suggested that she felt sorry for causing Vasilisa pain, or that she had anything to do with it at all. I found that this made me a little bit angry, and the angry feeling made my heart speed up and some of the fog in my head burn away.
“You did this to her,” I said, standing up a little bit straighter. “You said that she made a choice, but she did not know what she was agreeing to when she ate that flower!”
“Yes, yes!” Gabi let go of my arms, seeming pleased at my reaction. “And you manipulated her! You knew that she was a kind enough fool to want to save us, and so you-”
“Not you,” interrupted Vasilisa, in a voice near a croak. “Kezia. I wanted to save Kezia, who helped me so many times. I didn’t want to save you.”
Gabi stopped, her vindictive stance faltering, but tried to begin again: “Well, obviously, but it doesn’t matter who you were trying to save since she-”
“Father-killer,” gasped Vasilisa. She doubled over for a moment, breathing hard. “I’m dying. You killed him. I can’t- die- and have you think I’ve forgiven you…”
She went silent, shutting her eyes tightly, and her words settled over the clearing like a horrible blanket. Mother Forest, of course, was entirely dispassionate, though she watched Gabi and I with apparent interest; I turned my back so I would not have to see her, any of them, trying to understand what… Gabi’s face! I’d seen it, for just a moment, that quick, horrible run of expressions- anger, fear, frustration. Shame.
Well, I knew that she had killed people. That should have been no shock to me. And now I knew why Vasilisa hated her. All of the pieces were falling into place.
Father-killer… And the knife, the silver knife protruding from Gabi’s throat… And the memory, the memory, of Gabi drinking blood from the wrist of a little girl, her eyes wide and dark and animal.
My exhaustion came crashing back down on me. We had to struggle so much just to stay alive, and if we did so, now I had even more knowledge that I could not unknow, like the golden coin dangling over the well. If we were ever free from fear for a long enough moment, I would still have to pick and pull at the threads of Gabi and I, to understand and to reconcile that awful blank-faced creature with the woman I loved… I was so tired.
“Let me have one of the flowers,” I said, extending my hand towards Mother Forest.
“Kezia!” cried Gabi. She had been standing silent and still before, averting her eyes, but now she latched onto my arm, her face tilted upwards, pleading. “Don’t! I’ll- I’ll-”
Before she had a chance to say what she would do, if she would do anything, there came a tremendous rumble and the earth beneath our feet bucked, like a frantic stallion. I fell, and Gabi fell, too, out of my line of sight. My back hit the ground hard, the breath whooshing out of my chest. My shoulders went numb. Vasilisa was crying out in pain somewhere nearby.
Mother Forest did not fall. Instead she said, in a calm, measured way, “Are you my servant still, Adamina?”
There was another rumble, and I froze in the act of pushing myself up, wondering if it would be better to just stay flat on my back for the time being. But the earth did not bulge or buckle again. I saw Gabi push herself up as well, rubbing her temple; Vasilisa stayed lying where she had collapsed beside the log.
“She’s mine,” said a voice, almost in a whine- I was shocked to recognize it as Adamina’s, sweet and womanly and filled with gravel. “She’s mine. I made her and I wanted her back. You said you’d give her back to me, but you lied.”
“I changed my mind,” said Mother Forest. “As your mistress, I may do that when it pleases me.”
More little tremors beneath my legs suggested the golem had not liked this statement. I did not like it much either, though it felt alien now to have any sympathy for Adamina. Mother Forest had a strange expression on her face, as hard as it was to read without eyes. One corner of her mouth quirked, and she seemed to know that I was watching, for she added, “Well, come and take your flower, Kezia- or did the shaking rattle loose your convictions?”
I frowned. Gabi scrambled to her feet and got in between me and Mother Forest, crying out, “If you poison yourself, Kezia, I’ll kill you!”
Seeing her made me tired again. I had only planned to hold the flower, really, anyway, not necessarily eat it- though in truth I did not know why I even wanted it in my hands in the first place. Maybe the shaking had jarred me back into some sense. And I had to wonder, looking at Mother Forest, why she did not seem more displeased at my silence. Had she really thought that Gabi and I would accept her offering?
Before this thought could really crystallize, and before I could make any attempt to reassure Gabi, one of the white trees before us rocked, tilting sideways so that the roots bulged up and tore free from the soil. A messy, sloppy golem came together out of the resulting hole, a near-shapeless from with barely recognizable limbs. It dripped, a mouth and two eyes emerging as holes in the muck.
“Kezia,” it hissed, in Adamina’s voice. “A stolen name, a stolen soul. What are you now? I don’t understand! The silver letters should have been your truth! And yet- and yet-”
“I told you, Adamina,” said Mother Forest. “Even inorganic things, once animated, cannot help but grow their own souls. Even you.”
I do not think that Adamina even heard this, much less understood it- she was staring at me so hard that I wanted to cover myself to escape it.
“Let me move the forest, mistress,” she said, her tone switching to something more familiar, more monotonous. “I shall find the needle the witch seeks, and use it to force her into submission. I shall expand our reach and connect to the wild wood across the river. I shall crush Muma Balaur and her dragon, our only barrier to the north-”
“No,” said Mother Forest. “I will not permit that.”
Adamina’s features, indistinct as they were, ran like candle wax and vanished completely. She was nothing more than a bulge of mud for a few moments before they reemerged. When she next spoke the whine had crept back into her voice.
“A servant does not ask a mistress why,” said Mother Forest, and Adamina emitted a dull hissing sound, mud bubbles forming and popping on her shapeless head.
“Then I obey,” she gurgled. “I obey, I obey.”
She looked as though she wanted to do anything but that, though, the way she was melting and bubbling. It was horrible, and it was also strange. When Adamina had had control over my will, she had been able to make me do whatever she liked with just a touch to my forehead. I thought that she could have made even my thoughts change if she had ordered it, though she never had. It did not seem like the same kind of magic existed between Adamina and Mother Forest, though.
Gabi had crawled closer to me as the two of them spoke, and now she lightly touched the inside of my wrist, startling me. She moved her mouth close to my ear to whisper.
WIth a squelch, the earth bulged up between us, and Gabi fell over backwards. A muddy arm rose up from the ground and caught her around the chest and pressed her downwards, so that she gasped for breath.
“It’s your fault, thief,” said Adamina, her voice deep and terrible. I sprang to my feet.
“Let her go!”
“You gave her free will. You started this. I shall crush you!”
Gabi gasped and struggled vainly against the earthen arm as it constricted her further. I ran forwards and tore at the loose clay with my fingernails, to no avail.
“Let her go! Let her-”
All of a sudden, the arm loosened; Gabi took a great wheezing breath. I looked over at Adamina in astonishment, hardly daring to believe that my words had worked- but they had not. What had startled Adamina was Vasilisa, who had jumped on the back of her muddy body to dig her fingers into the golem’s clay forehead.
“Oh, no,” she said, very clearly in the sudden silence. “There’s nothing he-”
Adamina slammed her down on the ground with a terrible thud.
“Vasilisa!” I cried, as the barely-formed golem turned to push down on her face with a dripping, oozing hand.
“That is enough, Adamina,” said Mother Forest. “Let them go.”
For a terrible, long moment Adamina kept drowning Vasilisa in her mud, and constricting Gabi down against the earth. Then the earthen arm holding Gabi crumbled back into soil, and the sloppy golem body pulled its arm out of Vasilisa’s face and mouth. She choked and rolled over sideways to cough.
“They were trying to escape,” said Adamina, calm and quiet again. “I heard them whispering.”
“They are not my prisoners,” said Mother Forest. “Baba Yaga is coming. You must twist the paths in this wood to delay her as much as you can.”
“I could crush her easily,” said Adamina. “Give me the order.”
“My order is to delay her, and nothing more. To crush her is to destroy yourself.”
“She comes to destroy you,” said Adamina. “My mistress.”
“Go, Adamina,” said Mother Forest, as calmly and quietly as ever, and with a final hiss the malformed golem sank back into the ground and vanished. Mother Forest put one hand upon the trunk of the tree that had gotten knocked sideways by her appearance, and sighed.
I offered Gabi my arm, and she gripped it to pull herself back into a sitting position, breathing heavily.
“I’m just fine,” she muttered, before I could even ask the question, and brushed dirt off the front of her shirt with quick, aggressive motions. “Is the girl dead?”
“Girl-?” I looked over at Vasilisa, still curled on her side on the ground. Her eyes were shut, but her chest was rising and falling. I bit the inside of my cheek. Why had she…? No, the better question was, how long did she have left?
“What a terrible shame,” sighed Mother Forest, and I looked up to see her stroking the smooth white bark of the uprooted tree. “I thought that she might finally defy me.”
“Defy you?” I repeated, and she turned her face towards me in a surprised way, as though she had forgotten anyone else was still there.
“She’s not really your servant, is she,” said Gabi, in an accusatory manner. “You have no power over her!”
Mother Forest tilted her head and lowered it, her silken hair falling forward past her shoulders, and did not speak for a moment. Finally she said, “She is a very old golem. Not as old as I am. But very old. I don’t think any golem has managed to stay in once piece as long as she has- but now, her silver tarnishes.”
“You’re giving me an answer I didn’t ask for again,” said Gabi, quite crossly, and rose to her feet, pulling me with her. “Who cares how old she is? She doesn’t much act her age anyhow.”
“Do you know why golems never live very long?” asked Mother Forest. “If you can call what they have life. A wise man- well, a wise man would not choose to make one; a slightly less wise man would make one, but destroy it as soon as it fulfilled its intended purpose. A fool makes a golem and sets it free. They are too powerful, and power and naivety is a dangerous combination. The freed golems destroy everything around them, and then themselves.”
“Adamina told me something like that once,” I said. “But I do not believe it. When I got free will I did not want to hurt or destroy anyone.”
Mother Forest smiled.
“Your circumstances, I believe, were quite strange,” she said, and angled her head pointedly towards Gabi. “Few golems are born with voices. Fewer still learn true autonomy- or are taught as such. Adamina has a voice. I want to help her with the second part- but I cannot save her when she does not acknowledge that there is anything to save.”
“I don’t believe that,” growled Gabi. “What pity does a spectre like you have for a golem?”
“You ask me many questions that I could turn back towards you,” said Mother Forest, and Gabi was struck dumb for a moment, her mouth opening and closing. “But Adamina and I are wound tight together now, my roots through her earth, and there is no separating the two of us. She rescued me once when I was near death; I would like to do the same for her.”
I looked Gabi and she looked back at me, her expression mirroring my own: neither of us had expected to hear anything like that.
“But there is little time left for us to speak,” said Mother Forest, and she opened her fist: there again on her palm were two white flowers. “Will you stay here with me?”
“Oh, put those away, we aren’t taking them!” cried Gabi, and she even stamped her foot. Mother Forest smiled again, a secretive smile, and I reminded myself that though her earlier words had put me more at ease, she was still just as dangerous as Baba Yaga.
“The girl,” said Gabi, crooking her thumb back towards Vasilisa. “You poisoned her, yes? Give us the antidote, she wasn’t given a fair chance and you know it.”
“You would have to make a deal with me to receive such a thing,” said Mother Forest, still sounding amused. “Haven’t you made enough of those yet? Or would you rather trade your life for hers?”
“I’ll do none of that,” said Gabi, and shot me a quick glare, as though warning me not to offer myself. The thought had not even occurred to me yet! Though… no, she was right. No more deals with witches.
“Ah, well,” said Mother Forest, not seeming terribly upset about it. “Then I must bid you farewell here. I am not just ready to greet Baba Yaga yet.”
“You could face her if you weren’t a coward!” shouted Gabi, but Mother Forest’s pale shape had already melted back into one of the white trees. We were alone again- well, not truly. I knew she was still watching us, even without eyes.
Gabi leaned back against a tree to rub the sole of one of her feet, scowling. I sighed. How was it that I still felt so tired, when we were still on the knife’s edge of danger? But my body felt ready to collapse on the ground then and there; the baser parts of me would have made a deal with Mother Forest for a good night’s rest, much less Vasilisa’s life.
Speaking of Vasilisa… I looked towards where she lay, and then forced my aching body to move, step after step, to kneel beside her. I put a hand on her shoulder and found that her skin was boiling hot to the touch.
“Unconscious, is she?” said Gabi, from over my shoulder; she had followed me. I had thought she might be irritated or scornful to see me worrying over Vasilisa, but maybe she had warmed to her slightly.
Instead of answering Gabi’s question, I put my hand over Vasilisa’s parted lips, and after a moment felt the soft warmth of her breath. At least she was breathing.
“It is strange that Mother Forest did not take Vasilisa with her,” I murmured, somehow compelled to speak softly, as though Vasilisa were only sleeping.
“I don’t think she has to, to- er- consume the soul.”
“I do not mean because of that. It is strange because it seems like it will make Baba Yaga very angry to find her here, dying.”
Gabi raised her eyebrows, and the corner of her mouth twitched. “You are always shrewder about these things than I am, Kezia. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but you’re correct. She will be absolutely furious.” The amusement disappeared from her expression, and she shuddered. “We may want to distance ourselves while we can.”
“You want to leave her here?” I could not help but put a hand on Vasilisa’s dirty hair. Gabi flicked her eyes away and shrugged. At least she seemed a little bit uncomfortable, and not entirely smug… I hated it, but she was right. We could not help Vasilisa now. Even though she had tried so hard to help me… us… I hated it! First Noroc, and now her!
Gabi leaned over me and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Listen,” she said. “Witches are affixed to their rules. Baba Yaga likely can’t eat Vasilisa if she’s already dying to Mother Forest’s poison. I would bet if anyone is going to heal her, it’s the Baba.”
“Only to kill her again!” I protested, and Gabi gave me an even broader shrug, and held out her hand. I let her help me up, though I was grimacing.
“Where will we even go?”
“Towards the center of the forest,” said Gabi, jerking her head in what I assumed was that direction. “I’ve seen the Treewitch’s heart. Let’s not let her get rid of us so easily.”
Admittedly, this did seem healthier than waiting for Baba Yaga. I gave Vasilisa’s curled form one last, lingering look. To leave her here in the dirt, suffering, while we-
Gabi pushed the both of us back against a tree, as something crashed through the bushes near where we had been standing. A massive stag burst out into the clearing, stumbled, turned in a circle, and with a grunt began running in the direction she had just indicated to me.
“What on earth…” Gabi had her arms encircling me, to keep me pinned back against the tree, but they were slowly loosening as she turned to listen to the stag’s noisy progress onwards. My heart was beating furiously in my chest.
“Was that a- a spectre?” I asked, when I had my breath back.
“I think it was an ordinary stag,” said Gabi, though she, too, seemed somewhat confused. “It didn’t seem to be- ah, look!”
A shadow fell across my face as an owl silently glided between the trees, turning and winging swiftly in the direction that the stag had gone. Not a few moments later, a whole cadre of songbirds twittered overhead as they, too, moved towards the center of the forest.
“What do you think they are all doing?” I wondered aloud, but Gabi did not seem to be in the mood for speculating. She grabbed my arm and yanked me forward.
“Come on, Kezia! If the animals are fleeing, there’s very bad business behind them, and it’s probably called Baba Yaga!”
“She did not scare any animals before, th-”
I was forced to stop talking, because Gabi was dragging me forward and I needed to concentrate on my feet to avoid tripping. Around us, I saw more and more animals, where the white grove had once been completely barren: red squirrels, shuffling boars, a thick-bodied badger, dozens more birds, even a score of tiny mice that hopped over our toes like crickets. An acrid scent began to prick my nose.
“Do you smell that?” I managed to gasp, and Gabi made a growling sound deep in her throat.
We went around a particularly large white tree, and then I did trip, over one of the exposed roots. Gabi spun around to catch me but I had already caught myself against the trunk, panting. She eyed me as I caught my breath; I could see that every bit of her was clamoring to keep moving. A pine marten jumped down onto her shoulder and used it as a place to launch up to the next tree.
“Are they running from a fire?” I said, once my lungs stopped feeling like they were going to burst.
“It seems that way,” said Gabi, her tone clipped. “Let’s not hang around-”
“I can run on my own,” I said quickly, as she made to grab my hand again. “Did Baba Yaga make the fire?” A horrible realization came to me: “Oh, Vasilisa!”
Gabi grimaced, and I knew what she would say before she said it.
“We can’t help her!”
Oh, I knew that, I did; but the thing was that if I had still been a golem, I could have! It was agonizing. I could barely limp along beside Gabi, in a parody of running, as the animals all outpaced us. Gabi did not complain about my slowness, though she kept looking back, as though expecting to see flames come bursting out at us through the trees.
But when something did come, it was not from behind us. We had just come to a sloping inner valley, where I had to slow down even more to avoid tumbling down the tree-lined hill, and Gabi turned to help me pick my way downwards. More deer were springing past us, light and nimble on their hooves, making barely a sound when they touched the bare ground. But as I used Gabi’s shoulder for support to make my next step, I saw a dark, sleek shape that was moving in the opposite direction of the deer. It was directly in front of me, and it was pushing off- rising- rising- falling towards Gabi’s back as she faced me, gripping my arm.
I saw the teeth. I reacted- I used all of my weight to push both of us forward, and with a cry Gabi lost her balance on the slope and we both tumbled down. I landed atop her- felt her breath fly out of her chest- and tried to roll away before I had completely stopped falling. My head slammed against a tree and knocked me dizzy.
Gabi was saying something that sounded garbled, as I saw spots and tried to blink; then there came a growl and a thud, and the loose earth I was lying on crumbled and gave way, and I slid helplessly downwards through the trees.
The last thing I heard for some time was a terrible, snarling voice:
“I FOUND YOU A GOLEM, TAFSUT!”