Kezia pushed me down and the earth tilted sideways, the breath whooshing out of my chest as I stared up at black branches cracking up the grey sky. There was a muffled thump and the hiss of sliding earth, and then hot breath in my ear, a flash of yellow teeth, a snarl-
“I FOUND YOU A GOLEM, TAFSUT!”
I uttered a yell, struggled- the black wolf was dragging me back up the slope by my shoulder, teeth digging savagely into my skin. My hands groped the bare earth until they caught the trunk of a white sapling, the touch of it noxious, but at least it was an anchor with which to wrench myself out of the wolf’s jaws. The pricolici lunged at me again and I kicked it in the chest and scrambled and scrabbled against the loose earth until I had got myself upright.
The pricolici paced back and forth on the slope above me, panting, his tongue a shock of red dangling below his jaws. Behind him I saw a screen of rising smog, filled with fluttering frantic birds which darted past us like arrows. The sky was blushing red with heat.
“Ioan!” I snarled, clutching my sore shoulder- bruised, not bloodied, thank goodness- trying to reorient myself. Kezia was nowhere in sight… She must have fallen further downslope, that was fine, I could find her, it couldn’t have been far. But this damned wolf! Why had it sprung at us!
The wolf paced faster and faster, skidding on the dirt each time it whirled around, and suddenly it leapt up onto its hind legs, paws separating into fingers, and howled, “THE GOLEM! THE GOLEM!”
“Shut up!” I howled back, kicking dirt at him. “What golem? I told you to stay away from me!”
Ioan whined, the fur on his shoulders bristling up. “You said- you said! Find a golem, you said, that’s what you needed! So I got you one, I did!”
“You perfect idiot,” I began, but then there came the thump of a heavy footstep that made the ground shake. Ioan’s ears pricked up.
“It’s coming! It follows! It-”
Thump thump thumpthumpthump WHOOM.
Out of the trees at a run exploded a massive spiky body, covered in tree branches and leaves like a demented forest sprite, which struck the wolf with a swing of one barrel-sized fist. Ioan didn’t even cry out as his body went flying, and then wrapped horribly around a tree, and then slid down motionlessly.
The giant creature straightened up, twisting the top half of its body around without any apparent effort, shedding twigs and leaves and crumbling earth as it did so. To my horror, I recognized it. It was the feral golem, the one that I had accidentally given free will, the one without a voice, the one that had not laid down and ended itself when Kezia had reemerged from the flower! It seemed even more massive than I remember, and even more ornamented, clay skin barely visible under a veritable coat of branches and dead leaves and even large rocks. Snarled twigs stuck up around its bald head like a crown of antlers.
For a moment I gaped up at it, as it swiveled around, took a step towards the wolf- casually uprooting a white tree thick as my waist and flinging it aside like a matchstick that stood in its path. I heard birds screaming as the thing crashed back down a few meters away. The golem stumped over to Ioan’s limp body and stooped to lift him by one back foot. It turned his dangling body this way and that for a moment, then, apparently satisfied, slung him over one shoulder like a furry pauldron.
I managed to shut my mouth, my mind whirring with terror. Was this also to be my foe- this mindless, unstoppable behemoth? No- it hadn’t noticed me- even if it did, there was no reason to think it would attack me-
My thoughts stuttered and reeled as the golem turned back to face me, and I noticed that the branches embedded in one thick arm were not branches at all, but broken bones covered in black, decaying strips of flesh. A whiff of the fetid smell came to my nose like mocking laughter.
It was too late. The golem looked at me, the little black pits of its eye holes locking with my own. The forehead, I found myself thinking. This golem’s silver letters would still be in its forehead. It wasn’t intelligent enough to hide them elsewhere. All I had to do was to reach them before it crushed me- and look, there was already a fine, thin sliver of silver shining between its eyes-
My god, it was a silver needle, pressed into the clay.
I possessed this realization, struggled to comprehend it for a too-long moment, for the next thing I knew the golem had reached out and caught me around the waist.
I yelled, pounding against the clay, but the golem, unconcerned, lifted me up like a doll. My head snapped back from the force of it, and then thudded forward as the golem slung me over its shoulder, opposite Ioan’s stinking black pelt. A thousand sharp branches stabbed at me, and I felt hot blood start trickling from somewhere on my abdomen, where Sorina’s magic shirt had ridden up.
The pain was immense. I gritted my teeth, willing myself to ride through it- I was still unaccustomed to my new vulnerability. The golem began to walk forwards with lurching steps, the movement jabbing me further on its prickles. I managed to push myself up against the back of the massive sloping shoulder, groping backwards to try and touch the head. My fingers caught around one of the branches that made up the golem’s crown, and I tried to use it like a handle to pull myself further up- but the branch came entirely loose from the golem’s clay flesh, and I swung painfully back down like a sack of potatoes.
The golem paused in its walking and gave me a tap on the back- or what must have been a tap from its own perspective, for to me it felt like a thump that sent air whooshing back out of my lungs. A warning to stay still? I had little other choice, despite being so tantalizingly close to the silver needle- the solution to all of our problems! It was right there!
But my position over the golem’s shoulder was too awkward, too painful, and I was afraid that the next tap it gave me would be a swat that shattered all my bones. I froze up. At least I knew where it was now- the damned needle. The golem had been in Kezia’s clearing when she’d been born from the flower, the clearing where my fool self had thrown away the needle. Of course it had picked it up! It was picking up everything it found!
I had the horrid thought that perhaps I, too, was meant to be another macabre decoration on the golem, which seemed to make no strong distinction between bones and branches, fur and leaves. Or was it taking me somewhere? Did it even remember me as the person who’d given it free will? I had no earthly idea how intelligent it really was- mute, expressionless, shapeless- there was no indication of any of the thoughts of the spirit that moved the clay.
If only I could have still changed my shape, I might have gotten that needle and flown away. Even golems couldn’t fly. I squeezed my eyes shut and thought, songbird, bat, owl, dragonfly– anything, anything at all with wings. I used to be able to change with just a thought. Now I was stuck in one helpless, bleeding meat-sack.
I chanced raising my head again, and saw that the golem was taking me back up the slope. Further away from Kezia- but that would be for the best. Let her escape it. Let her not come after me. I closed my eyes a moment, willing it to be so, and then opened them. From my high position on the golem’s back, I could see that the sky was turning pink- not with fire, but with approaching dawn.
The golem’s footsteps slowed, then stopped. I tried to twist around enough to see what it was looking at. The smell of fresh blood abruptly filled my nose.
In another instant, the golem pulled me roughly from its shoulder and dropped me on the ground with a thud that rattled my bones. Ioan’s hairy body landed beside me a moment later.
I held very still for a moment, my face in the dirt, and heard cracking sounds, and the shuffling of giant feet. Eventually my curiosity won out. I raised my head very slowly, just enough to spot the golem holding a tree in one hand and picking through the branches with the other. It selected a twig, held it against the gap I had made in its crown, and then tossed it away. Apparently not good enough.
Since it seemed otherwise occupied, I pushed myself up a few careful inches on my forearms. The ground was level here, so it had carried me out of the valley, and though I smelled smoke, it seemed fainter, further away. Had we come out on the opposite side? I wasn’t familiar with this part of the Starving Forest…
Ioan’s open mouth, tongue lolling in the dirt, loomed directly to the left of me. One red eye was open, and there was no movement from his chest. It seemed that now he’d gone and died for real. It occurred to me that perhaps I should shut his eyes and mouth out of respect- not that I held any for him, but he had ended up bringing me what I really needed. Even he had mistaken it for something else.
“Is it dead?”
The little whisper tickled in my ear, and I jumped an uttered an impolite exclamation.
To my horror, the golem paused in its search for a better twig, and looked at me. I did my best impression of a statue, as it stared for a long horrible moment- but then it turned back away. I sagged back down into the dirt.
“You must keep quiet!” scolded Vasilisa, who was, for some reason, crouching down on my left side. “It doesn’t seem to like loud noises.”
“Then don’t hiss in my ear,” I growled, but softly. “What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know, I woke up with it standing over me,” replied Vasilisa. I turned and got my first real look at her, which was a shock: she was even dirtier than before, if such a thing were possible, and there was blood smeared between her upper lip and nose.
“Eh, did it hit you in the face?”
“What?” She put a hand to her cheek, frowning, and touched the blood. “Oh… no, my nose was bleeding. I am poisoned, you know.”
She paused, perhaps noticing how I was eyeballing her bloody fingers, and said, “You won’t be getting any.”
“I’m not interested anymore,” I said, recoiling, and flinched when I bumped into Ioan’s stinking pelt. “You’re covered in filth.”
“So if I took a bath, it would be preferable?” She gave a slightly giddy laugh, and I stared at her; what was that poison doing to her?
Vasilisa rubbed at her bloodied face, which only served to make it nastier, and asked, “Where is Kezia? Is she alright?”
“She’s not here,” I said, or more grunted. Vasilisa seemed to catch my tone, for she frowned, but then leaned closer and whispered, “But what is that creature? It looks like what Kezia used to- a bit- but I’ve tried to speak to it and it just ignores me!”
I leaned away from her tickling voice, and said, “It can’t speak, so don’t bother. I’ve no earthly idea what it wants, but I expect it won’t matter once Baba Yaga sniffs us both out. Especially with you stinking the place up with your blood.”
“With my…” Vasilisa wrinkled her nose. “You seem awfully morose.”
I gave her an incredulous look. “Do I?”
“At least you aren’t poisoned,” she said, wiping determinedly at her nose, which had started to drip anew. “Since I’m going to die anyway, why don’t I distract that thing, while you run away?”
Again, I could only stare at her, disbelieving. She coughed into the back of one hand.
“What? Don’t you think it’ll work? Oh- you think I shouldn’t want to help you, is that it?”
“You made quite a point about it, before,” I said.
“Well, I don’t expect to ever forgive you for killing my father,” Vasilisa said, as though she were commenting on the price of peas. “However, you really do seem to care about Kezia, and without you, I think she’d be all alone…”
“Perhaps,” I muttered, a touch of heat rising to my cheeks. She had seen right through me- also, I was reminded of why I hated her! What a disgustingly virtuous creature!
“How fast can you run?” Vasilisa inquired, turning to eye the oblivious golem. “If I can lure it away from the clearing-”
“I’m not running,” I said. A sudden, nearly-too-good-to-work idea had come to me. “I’ve a better plan. You keep its attention, and let me get around to climb up the back of it.”
Vasilisa gave a slightly-too-theatrical gasp. “You’re going to destroy it!”
“Obviously.” It seemed clear to me that she hadn’t noticed the needle in the golem’s forehead, and for a moment I toyed with the idea of explaining it to her, but then dismissed it. Better to have it in my grasp than hers, who knew what that sickly-sweet brain was capable of. “That should solve the problem for both of us quite nicely.”
Vasilisa frowned. “But- is it really right to just kill it like that? It hasn’t really hurt us…”
“Not yet,” I said, matching her frown for frown. “But look what it did to the wolf. I expect it wants more meat to hang from its skewers, and you and I will provide it if we don’t strike first.”
Vasilisa furrowed her brow to think this one over- see, damnable virtue- but then said, reluctantly, “I suppose you’re right.”
Ah. So not such infinite goodness after all. In spite of myself I was pleased; I don’t think I could have convinced Kezia to toss away the golem’s existence so easily, which meant that Kezia did have a leg up in the goodness area here. Though of course Kezia had a personal stake when it came to golems.
That thought was unnerving; what if this golem had been Kezia, her gentle self trapped and unable to speak? I shook my head to stop that line of thinking at once, making Vasilisa cock her head in confusion.
“If you’re going to help, do so,” I growled. “Or we can wait and see which of several different ways we end up dying.”
“You are the most thoroughly unpleasant creature I’ve ever met,” she said, and shook her head like some weary matron. Blood dripped down over her lip from her nose, but she didn’t seem to notice it- her eyes were hazy and feverish, her pupils dilated. Unsteadily she rose from her crouch and moved towards the golem, as I curled my fists against the bare earth and tried to draw my knees up under my chest without making any noise.
“Excuse me,” said Vasilisa to the golem, in a light, pretty voice- the voice of someone who is selling something. “Excuse me, may I speak to you again? Why have you brought me a vampire? I never wanted one. The wolf is all right. But why a vampire?”
She rambled on, and the golem turned slowly, a twig in one shapeless hand. Vasilisa had at least had the sense to stand so that the golem turned its back to me to face her, and I rose, pushing off the ground with my fingertips, staring at the spiky mountain I had to climb. I might be able to sneak up behind it, but it would most certainly notice when I leapt aboard. I would have to act quickly then.
So thinking, I took a step forward- and put a hand over my mouth to muffle an utterance of pain. My foot- I’d forgotten about the wound from earlier! The sound had been a soft one, but the golem still reacted- the head turning slowly, horribly slowly- I froze in place, unable to choose between dropping flat again and making a run for it.
“Your crown!” exclaimed Vasilisa, very loudly. “Oh, it has been broken by that dreadful vampire! Are you looking for a twig to fill in the space with? Let me help you!”
The golem paused, and then slowly rotated its head back around, back to her. I sagged slightly with relief, not missing the look she gave me over the golem’s sloping shoulder. I had gotten more soft than I realized- I was tired and weak and aching, but I had been a hunter once. I could do it again. Sleek- slink- swift. Quiet and sharp, fangs in the neck. I rolled my shoulders, focused on the back of the golem’s clay head, which was studded with small stones.
The golem took a step towards Vasilisa, who skipped a nervous three backwards, her voice rattling as she prattled on.
“And- and surely we can find the perfect one for you somewhere amongst these trees, surely! We’ve simply got to put our heads together and look carefully…”
I wondered if the golem even understood human speech, or if this was all just meaningless noise to it. No matter. I had crept close enough now that I could reach out and grasp the branches sticking out of the clay on its back. Vasilisa was out of sight, her voice droning nervously on. I saw the golem’s elbow begin to move- it was going to hit her, grab her, something. I could have leapt just then and gotten its attention. But I waited just one more moment-
With that alarming swiftness, the golem reached out and caught Vasilisa’s shoulder. She cried out in fear, betrayal. And then I leapt, while one of the golem’s hands was occupied.
At once it bucked backwards, bringing the struggling Vasilisa against itself as it did- it seemed like such a great big thing should howl, bellow, but the mouthless golem was utterly, unnervingly silent. It shook itself from side to side, as I struggled to hang on- the branches weren’t solid purchase, they slid downwards under my weight in the golem’s soft clay. I swung my feet forward and dug my toes in between, ignoring the sticks that scratched my legs and belly, and managed to scramble up far enough to wrap my arms around what passed for the golem’s neck.
“Hurry!” gasped Vasilisa, who sounded breathless, crushed up against the golem’s chest like a doll. It was trying to use its other hand to reach back and grab me, but its own size and ornaments were hampering it- thank goodness it hadn’t figured out Kezia’s trick of changing shape! I dug my fingers into the spot where the golem’s ear would have been, dislodging pebbles and bits of bark, and scrabbled for purchase with my feet to lift myself high enough to reach around to the forehead. The needle was right there-
The golem suddenly dropped its arm, stiffened, and tilted itself back. I was aware of a horrid disorientation as we all fell back, and then the golem hit the ground. With me beneath it.
The only thing that saved me was the golem’s penchant for decoration. The myriad of sticks held the clay off of me just enough so that I wasn’t crushed to death in an instant.
Dimly I heard Vasilisa scream. The golem pulled itself up, with some difficulty. Some of the sticks on its back tore away, for they were embedded in me. I lay on the ground and did not attempt to get up.
“Oh- oh!” Vasilisa was sobbing with shock, her face a messy, bloody blur. “Oh- oh god! You’ve killed her!”
She was incorrect, though I could understand the assumption. Several sticks were piercing places in my arms and abdomen that the magic clothes hadn’t covered, and more had gone with the golem and left wounds behind on my neck and collarbone; I was bleeding profusely. But the wounds were more shallow than they ought to have been, as for all the golem’s weight it was still soft, and the sticks had pushed back into it as much as they’d pushed through bits of me. So I was bruised all over and leaking blood like a piece of cracked china, but not nearly so dead as one might have expected.
The pain was truly agonizing, though. It was such awful pain that it had become the sort that makes you leave your frozen body and hover somewhere above, observing, unable to participate in living for the moment.
That was my situation, and I lay there and bled quite calmly and watched the golem turn around, still trying to feel at its back, as though checking to be sure that all parasites had been extracted. Vasilisa was still in its grasp, the silly thing still struggling, wasting precious energy in these last few hours (or minutes) of her life. She kicked and thrashed beneath the clay arm and dislodged a great number of sticks and rocks, so much so that the golem paused in trying to check its back and moved to readjust her, shifting her up under its chin to fix a particularly large, forked stick on its belly.
Vasilisa looked up, stopped sobbing, and worked an arm out from the golem’s grasp. As it fiddled with the stick, she reached up and dug her fingers into its bald forehead.
The world seemed to hold still a moment. I drew a weak, sputtering breath, feeling the pain sinking in, drawing me back. Vasilisa withdrew a muddy fist, closed tight around something.
The golem slumped slightly forward. The arm crossing Vasilisa’s chest fell to its side, and Vasilisa tumbled free.
She landed on her feet in a crouch, gasping, muddy, bloody, yet with a spark of triumph in her eyes. When I next drew breath- it made a liquid sound- she looked at me, held out her fist and opened her fingers to show me the silver letter in her palm.
“Well done,” I rasped, my skewers quivering.
“I don’t think you should even be alive,” she said to me, her eyes shifting to somewhere beside me; I must have been uncomfortable to look at for too long.
“I concur.” In more ways than she knew, honestly. I rolled my eyes back to look at the golem- moving my head was not going to work at the moment- and examined the forehead. It was just a mass of churned mud now, the eyes buried in it. No way to tell what had happened to the needle, but it didn’t seem to be in Vasilisa’s palm. Since I likely wasn’t going to get up anytime soon, I ought to tell her to…
No, something was strange. The golem. When I’d seen others destroyed- when I, myself, had attempted to destroy Kezia– they had fallen apart, lost their magic-made shape. But this golem was still upright and whole, sans the messy face. Nothing was sinking downwards except a few of the twigs. It stood with its shoulders slumped, its head forward, and its arms stuck to its sides, like a bowing man waiting for permission to rise.
I looked again at the letter in Vasilisa’s palm. It looked like ת. The letter Adamina had once told me to remove from the golem’s ‘truth’ looked like א.
“Put it back,” I rasped, a sudden sense of urgency driving me to try and struggle to sit up. Blood oozed freely from my wounds, and I couldn’t stop myself from crying out.
“Don’t get up!” Vasilisa stood, alarmed. “You’re bleeding too much! I can bind the wounds-”
“Idiot,” I groaned. “You haven’t destroyed it- put the letter back- it’s the wrong one!”
“I certainly won’t put the letter back!” Vasilisa looked back at the golem, then at me. “Are you sure your brains haven’t got squished?”
With great effort, I managed to reach over and yank one of the sticks out of my arm, making her flinch and look away.
“The spell that animates that clay has rules,” I growled, focusing my anger on her so that I could pull another stick out from the soft place just above my hip. “If I were a Jew I might be able to read and understand them all, but I do know that the only way to destroy the golem is to turn one word into another. So put that letter back and pull out the third one!”
Vasilisa frowned, now looking at the silver in her hand. “This is… a letter?”
“Truth becomes death,” I said, and pulled out another stick. “Fix it!”
Reluctantly Vasilisa edged back towards the golem, letter in hand, then stopped.
“But if I put this back, won’t it start moving again?”
“Not if you get it done fast enough!”
“Oh! But what if I don’t! It isn’t moving now, shouldn’t that be fine?”
I bit my lip and tried to curb my temper; it was difficult to be patient with such pain and exhaustion raging through me.
“Maybe you changed the word to something else,” I made myself say, through my teeth. Out came another stick, to add to the bloody pile. “We don’t know what it is.”
“Maybe it says ‘sleep’!”
“Maybe it says ‘hold very still and wait for the right moment to murder the ones who pulled out your letter’,” I intoned. One more stick to get out of me. I hesitated with my hand on the end of it; I needed to mentally prepare myself. This one was stuck in good and deep in my chest where the gap in my shirt’s front lacing was.
Vasilisa made a face. “I don’t think it could say all that, but fine. I hope it doesn’t kill us both.”
I didn’t dignify this with a response. Everything hurt too much. Why shouldn’t I just go to sleep, here on the ground? That seemed almost reasonable at the moment. My head was starting to pound.
“Here it goes back in,” said Vasilisa, nervously leaning forward, and she pressed the letter gingerly back against the clay forehead. It stuck there for a moment, then, abruptly, vanished inside the clay.
Vasilisa yelped as the golem shuddered. I used my sense of surprise to yank out the final stick.
“Finish it now!” I shouted, as the fresh pain welled up inside me. “The last letter! The third one!”
Vasilisa reached for it, but the golem stopped shuddering and straightened up, raising its head, clearly animated once more. With a frightened cry, Vasilisa fell backwards, landing on her hands and rear on the ground just beside where Ioan’s matted pelt lay.
“Damn it- get it out!” I cried, shaking in spite of myself. “It’s going to kill us now!”
“Don’t!” cried Vasilisa, as though the thing would listen, and tried to crawl backwards towards me. But she ran into Ioan’s body. “Oh, God! Why is this thing even here? It’s in my way”
The golem, which had stayed in one spot while she backed up, now suddenly lurched forward. Vasilisa screamed and covered her face with her arms, and I, too, flinched. But the golem didn’t grab her again. Instead it grabbed Ioan’s body by the back foot, tugging his furry belly out from beneath Vasilisa’s rump, turned, and flung the corpse into the sky.
I gaped. Ioan’s poor body went spinning over the treetops to land somewhere far, far away; the crunch of it landing was barely audible. Slowly the golem turned back around and faced the two of us.
“What- why-” Vasilisa was stammering. She stared at the spot where the body had been lying just a moment ago, as though she couldn’t even believe her eyes. “Is that-”
“Do you want to be next? Get that letter!” I cried, putting an arm over my stomach.
“But there’s nothing to distract it now!” Vasilisa said, actually wringing her hands as the silent golem loomed over her. “I can’t reach it- aargh!”
Again with that dreadful, inappropriate swiftness, the golem grabbed her around the waist and lifted her up so that her face was level with its own. Out of the clay, eyes were taking shape again in the face, and these locked with Vasilisa’s. She kicked and struggled, real panic taking over.
“Put- put me down!”
I expected that the golem would either sling her over its shoulder or possibly just squeeze her into pulp. I did not expect that it would lower its arms and deposit her back on the ground.
The golem put its arms back down against its sides as Vasilisa stood there, shaking. I waited for it to move, to show some action that might explain why it behaved as it did- but nothing happened.
“Wh- what’s happening?” whimpered Vasilisa, who seemed too petrified to move from the spot it had placed her.
I stared at the immobile golem, a strange idea taking hold of me. She took the letter out, then back in. If it wasn’t the right letter, what might taking out one of the others do to the golem?
“Tell it to do something,” I said.
“Give it an order! Anything!”
Vasilisa turned and gave me a look that clearly indicated she thought I’d become a madwoman, but said, “Will you please back up?”
And to my astonishment, the golem took three steps back from her.
Vasilisa gasped and turned back to me.
“Wha- why? Why is it listening to me now?”
“I think,” I said, clutching my bloody stomach tighter, “I think- you have just acquired your very own golem.”