Mad or desperate.
The golem loomed impossibly large, a hulking dark silhouette with shoulders nearly as broad as I was tall. A single blow from one of those mighty fists could have pulverized me, or sent me flying into the ether like it had sent Ioan.
“Sit down,” said Vasilisa, and the golem folded its legs and sat down on the earth with a thump. The great head, clay crumbling from all the places we’d mussed it up in our struggle, bowed forward in what seemed to be submission.
“Goodness.” Vasilisa put a hand to her heart, her eyes wide. “Raise your left arm?”
The golem did so, and she gave a little gasp, still stunned by her own power over the creature. I turned my face away, my stomach turning in a sickening way- from the little display she was putting on or from my wounds, I wasn’t sure.
Blood still seeped sluggishly from my arms, stomach, and legs, in places where Sorina’s magic cloth hadn’t covered my skin. I had left half of it with Kezia, after all; may it do her more good than it had me, wherever she was. None of my injuries were deep, but they were curst painful- the kind of pain I had been unable to feel for a long, long time. In truth, the feeling was making me rather nostalgic. During my human life I had gotten myself a few beatings that resembled this aching bruised feeling, yet doing far worse to myself as a strigoi had never approached it. How human was I, now?
Vasilisa coughed, put a hand to her throat as she swayed slightly in place, her eyes going briefly vacant as the flower’s poison surged through her veins. I had to give a thin smile. I could not imagine a more wretched pair than we existed in the world.
“Don’t grin so,” she said, seeming to recover herself somewhat, one hand on a tree. “You enjoy seeing me in pain?”
I shrugged one shoulder. I might have enjoyed it significantly more if the circumstances were different.
“What will you do now, O Golem’s Master? Will you search for Kezia?”
“Oh!” Vasilisa nodded eagerly, turning to the golem. “Yes, of course- where is she? I can have this thing carry us! Stand up, you!”
The golem stood, looming once more, with the rising sun casting shadowy rays over its broad back. I swallowed, pressed my lips together in a thin line.
“If that thing touches me, it’ll get free will again. I’ll walk.”
“What do you mean, it’ll get free will if it touches you?” asked Vasilisa, her pale brow furrowing. “Is that some particular quality of being a vampire?”
“No, idiot,” I grunted, my stomach muscles clenching painfully with irritation. “It’s the blood. Blood gives them free will…”
I trailed off, my mouth hanging open for a moment, then snapped it angrily shut. Damn! That was the sort of information I ought not be blabbing about. Perhaps Vasilisa had no reason to use it for ill gain, but who knew what other ears might be listening in this forest?
Vasilisa didn’t seem to notice my frustration with myself; she was instead staring thoughtfully at her new servant. I looked, too. The clay on the golem’s forehead had gotten smeared all about, but a glint of silver was still visible. The letters? Or the needle? I hoped to everything that the needle was still stuck inside the creature, and hadn’t gotten tossed out in all the fuss. I didn’t think it could have- though perhaps that was just wishfulness on my part- but if it had, it would be almost certainly lost to us again on the forest floor. I longed to go digging in that clay carapace to satisfy myself with the certain answer, but…
I shifted my gaze to the oblivious Vasilisa. If I told her that we had the needle in our possession, that we had a bargaining chip that could command Baba Yaga and get her off the backs of the three of us, what would she do? I found that I was at a bit of a loss. She might very well happily continue throwing her lot in with me, and find Kezia, and stand up to Baba Yaga with us. But then again… I wasn’t certain of that. She knew I’d killed her father. Now she had command of an impossibly powerful creature in addition to what might lay in its head. The balance of power had dramatically shifted in her favor, and it was making me feel queasy.
“Can you walk, though?” she asked me, suddenly moving closer, so that I couldn’t help but tense. Your wounds look as though they need attention…”
“Stay away from my wounds,” I rasped, holding my arms protectively against my chest. The motion made me wince, another reminder of how weak I was at the moment. “I can walk when I need to. It isn’t as though I’ll be moving any other way.”
“But if the golem can’t carry you, I could,” said Vasilisa, pausing to give a dainty little cough. When I did not reply, she said, “Oh, don’t look at me like that! I used to be a farm girl, you know; I’ve lifted calves heavier than you over my shoulders.”
I did not appreciate the comparison, and it must have shown in my expression, for she added, “Come now! I know you’re a terrible monster, but you do love Kezia, don’t you? I want to return you to her. Don’t bite me if I try to help you.”
“If you try to pick me up,” I said, furrowing my brow, “you will get bit.”
“Eh, is that it?” asked Vasilisa, and gave three short coughs in succession. She shook her muddy wrist in my direction. “This is what you want, then? My blood? Will drinking a bit of it make you grow strong again?”
I recoiled as she advanced upon me. “You’re mad! Get away from me!”
She sneezed, and wiped her nose on the back of her hand- the mucus was red.
“Food for you, if you’ll have it,” she said, looking down at it.
“Don’t be disgusting!”
“Oh- it’s poisoned, I nearly forgot. So you can’t drink it, then. That’s a pity for you.”
“I don’t want anything out of your body,” I snapped, leaning as far away as I could- the filthy blood on her hand still smelled good, and made my stomach clench in nauseating ways. “Get it away from me!”
She stopped coming at me, thankfully, and slowly lowered her hand. I let loose a sigh of relief.
“I don’t understand you,” she said, staring at me in a way that made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. “Which part is an act?”
“What are you talking a-”
“You act a monster sometimes. And then sometimes it seems as though you have a heart. So which part is true?” She squatted down to be at my eye level, putting one fist on the ground for balance, and peered at me in an even more discomfiting manner. “Did you really kill my father, like you said?”
My hands clenched against the dirt, every muscle tight, and growled, “I enjoyed doing it. Every second of it.”
This made her turn away and grimace, as I had hoped, but before I could relax again she turned back and reapplied her glare, full force.
“Why does a vampire drink blood?”
That one caught me off-guard.
“I mean,” she said, drawing her teeth along her lower lip as she worked out the words, “you have to do it, right, to survive? Drink blood.”
I narrowed my eyes. What was she playing at?
“I don’t drink blood.”
She raised her eyebrows, but I continued:
“I swallow it, to be sure, but it curdles in my useless stomach and makes me drunk. It isn’t the blood I feed from. It’s life. What drained away from me, I take from others. Now do you understand?”
Vasilisa said nothing, only sat back on her thighs and frowned. I looked away; I’d been more honest than intended again, but it wasn’t my fault, I was so sore and tired. As my eyes drifted, I noticed that the golem looming behind her was watching the two of us with hollow eyes. Again a sense of nausea twisted in my gut. Why couldn’t it have just collapsed and died like it was supposed to?
I was just opening my mouth to suggest we actually get a move on when Vasilisa interrupted me again, her words coming out in a shuddering cough.
“So life… drained away from you? How did you die, then? You weren’t always a vampire, were you?”
Immediately I tensed right back up, glared at her. The nerve of that! If Kezia didn’t even know the details of my death, this little chit wasn’t going to hear them!
“Did that offend you?” she asked, in a tone that highly suggested she didn’t care. “I’m only curious because I still haven’t figured out what makes you loathe me so much. Did some member of my family do something to you while you were still human? Did we know one another? I’m afraid when the spotted sickness came to our village I really couldn’t mark how many were-”
“I wasn’t killed by some measly sickness!” I was furious enough to aim a sprawling kick at her, which missed by miles and only made my leg hurt worse. Clutching at it, I gasped, “We were from different lands entirely, you and I! And I should never bother to hold a grudge in any case- not against something like you! Haven’t I told you this already?”
“But in that case, why-”
“Such a fool! Why do you think the witch wanted you? Why bargain so dearly for your soul, when she could have devoured you at once? Your fate, damn you, girl, your fate! Your blood drips with it. She wants to take it for herself, and I-”
I shut my mouth. I want to destroy it was the correct answer, seething within me, but for some reason it felt rather discomfiting to say.
“Oh, that,” said Vasilisa, wiping her nose again, a strange expression of disgust crossing her features. “Is that all it is? How does one smell fate, in any case? Besides-” She gave a small smile, now pushing up her hacked-off bangs to reveal her dirty face. “I don’t think I have that fate anymore. Look at me. No Tsar should want to marry a peasant girl in the first place, much less a dying one who looks like this.”
“Tsar?” I repeated, rather stupidly, as she withdrew her hand and let her hair fall back down.
“Yes- did that nose of yours not tell you what my fate really was? He fell in love with me on sight, or so I hear.” Now her smile was wry. “I hadn’t met him yet. He sent a messenger. But I did think that being the wife of the Tsar sounded better than being a puppet of my stepmother’s for the rest of my life… Especially after my father had died.”
I didn’t quite wince, but I did shift my gaze a few degrees to the right of her face.
“What prompted you to make some fool bargain with the witch, girl? Was being the Tsarina not enough to satisfy you?”
“Perhaps that was part of it,” said Vasilisa, very dryly. “But the main part was that my stepmother told me she’d cut off my hair and stick my face into a pot of hot oil, to see how he liked the look of me then. I’m afraid I got rather frightened and ran away into the forest. The witch promised she could free me of all of it if I could complete her tasks.”
I had started to bite my cheek without realizing it, and grimaced.
“You should have just let me eat you before she got to you!”
Vasilisa laughed in an appallingly pretty way, even with a throat somewhat choked with phlegm. “If I had known you were there, perhaps I’d have taken you up on the offer. Or perhaps I would have stabbed you in the throat, given what you’d just done to my father.”
This time I did flinch, and conceded:
She didn’t look happy, exactly, but her eyebrows did smooth out, and a little line of tension in her throat seemed to relax at the word. She held out a hand to me.
“Come. I’ll help you up. We must find Kezia.”
I eyed the hand- a small thing, with fingers still pale and lovely even under all the dirt, and reluctantly took it. I was too tired to keep being difficult for the moment. Vasilisa pulled me up with surprising strength, setting us both back on our feet. Blood was dripping out of her nose again, but it didn’t offset the very determined expression she was wearing.
I couldn’t help but say, as she let go of my hand, “I hope you haven’t forgiven me for what I did that easily.”
“No need to worry, I haven’t,” she said. “Perhaps I’ll have revenge on you still. I’m considering my options. I like the thought of stealing Kezia’s heart from you.”
The expression on my face must have been quite something, for she burst out laughing.
“Look at you! I never knew vampires could fall in love!”
“You’d better not start confusing her,” I growled. “She doesn’t understand- she’s too trusting. If you try anything-”
“Don’t you trust her? Perhaps your love is more one-sided than you think.” There was a glint to Vasilisa’s eyes in spite of her bloody nose and trembling hands, and I narrowed mine in response and didn’t reply. If I protested that it wasn’t a matter of trust, only a concern about Kezia finding someone much better and more human to love than I- well, I’d be playing right into her pretty little hands. It occurred to me, based on her expression, that I was being utterly toyed with. How frustrating.
“Golem,” called Vasilisa, and the creature, which had slumped forward slightly, straightened up. “Er- follow us. Protect us if anything tries to harm us, please.”
“Be specific,” I muttered. “It could interpret that any way it pleases.”
“Ah- well- then, if Baba Yaga or her servants come out, prevent them from capturing us, would you please? And let us know if anything else is coming… Drat, it probably doesn’t know who Baba Yaga even is. How should I say it…”
“Don’t bother with such vague commands,” I said. “When the time comes to do something, tell it exactly what to do. You’re just confusing it.”
Indeed, the golem was staring at us with an expression that seemed even blanker than usual. Vasilisa sighed.
The golem lowered its clay head in assent. I swallowed at the glint of silver between its eyes.
Vasilisa started marching forward, a sense of determination in her tattered, tired form. At once the golem began to follow, with noisy, lumbering steps. I decided that I did not enjoy having it directly behind me and moved sideways, giving it and Vasilisa a good few feet of space to themselves.
“Do you even know which way to go?” I asked, from my safer distance.
“No!” She didn’t stop walking forward, strange devotee in tow.
I took a deep breath through my nose. The scent of her blood was nearly overpowering everything else, but I thought I could sense a hint of the putrid forest’s center in one direction. And there were also those deep, golem-sized footprints leading into the clearing to consider.
“Follow me,” I said, gingerly putting my bare foot inside one. It was dwarfed about four times over. “It’s this way. I hope Kezia hasn’t moved much.”
Or been moved, by something else. I kept that nervous thought to myself.
Vasilisa adjusted her pace to follow me as I limped along, beckoning needlessly at the golem to keep in step with her. It lumbered along noisily, snapping and crunching through the undergrowth. A branch hit its face full on, and it kept walking, the inexorable force of it snapping the branch and leaving it hanging by a shred of bark. It reminded me of how Kezia had used to lumber around, except for the branch part. She would have ducked.
I didn’t like it. I didn’t like that this creature who’s free will we’d bound reminded me so much of Kezia. I didn’t like that I kept wondering what it was thinking inside that clay head. I didn’t like the feeling that I got of something watching, waiting to break free. It should have been comforting to have such a strong protector again- perhaps even able to hold off the Baba herself- but instead it made me itch and prickle all over, and move in a faster shamble over the forest floor, biting my lip against the pain of my sore feet, longing to see Kezia again.
Vasilisa caught up to me, panting and blinking hard.
“Don’t be alarmed if I vomit,” she warned me. I moved several inches sideways.
“The witch would probably remove that poison for you, you know.”
Vasilisa shook her head. “For the price of my soul! No thank you. Maybe I’ll survive. It hasn’t been so bad, yet. I got so sick off of mushrooms once that I couldn’t even walk.”
She nearly collided with a tree as she said this, but I pretended not to notice, and snuck a glance back at the golem again.
“You keep looking at that thing- are you thinking of Kezia?”
“You are, though. I wonder why Kezia and this thing are so different?”
Were they so different? “Kezia has a voice,” I said. “And we got her a proper body.”
“Well, obviously,” said Vasilisa, and stopped walking. “Wait a moment! I need to catch my breath.”
I pressed my lips together in annoyance, but she was breathing quite hard, leaning forward with her hands on her knees and a greenish tint to her complexion. The golem, stumping along, nearly collided with her before it stopped. I stared up at it, my jaw clenching. That silver glint… I ought to just say something, shouldn’t I, before we lost it entirely?
“Ooh.” Vasilisa held one hand to her forehead and shuddered. “Why must poison make you feel so wretched? I’d rather pop off all at once, given the choice… Must you keep staring at my golem like that?”
I twitched; the words were like pinpricks. “Your golem?”
“Well, for the moment it is mine, isn’t it? It listens to what I say, which makes me sort of its master… Oh, d’you think I should give it a name?”
“Don’t give it a name!” I snapped, my vehemence surprising even me. Vasilisa was certainly taken aback.
“Whyever not? I think that might make it happy!”
“It’s your slave! Don’t coddle it!”
Vasilisa frowned at me, and laid a hand on one of the golem’s bulky arms, between two branches.
“It isn’t my slave! If it could have been reasoned with, I would have done so, but you seemed to agree that this is the best-”
“I didn’t agree to anything,” I snapped. “If we must use it, fine. But we won’t be pretending we care about it.”
“What a horrible thing to say! What if it were Kezia?”
“If it were Kezia-” I stopped, clenching my fists tight. Ah, ah, that was it, that was why I felt so sick about it. If it were Kezia, how could I allow this fool to take away her free will? Unconscionable. It was not Kezia, this big dumb brute, but that guilt still hovered over me like a foul stench. Kezia had gotten her voice from a ghost, but that hadn’t been where her… Kezia-ness had come from. It made me so sick to think- unable to speak, forced to follow orders- what hell had this creature been condemned to?
“You see,” said Vasilisa, misinterpreting my expression. “I don’t want to be cruel to it. It can’t help what it is, after all. I think I will give it a name.”
I shook my head, wordlessly. She didn’t understand; it was beyond her. Perhaps I could keep quiet and stomach the horrible sin we’d committed- so long as I kept my eyes averted and pretended I didn’t know- but how could I possibly walk up to Kezia with this thing in tow, and explain it to her?
No. Now that I’d really thought about it, I couldn’t stomach it. Better to get the needle out and just destroy the thing than go on like this. I looked over at Vasilisa and tried to soften my glare into something more neutral.
“Give it a name if you want; I don’t care anymore. But look, there’s something on its head. Have it bend down.”
She pulled her brows together. “Eh? On its head? The branches?”
“Not the branches,” I said, testiness creeping back into my tone as I gripped one of the still-bleeding wounds on my arm. “I’ll show you, just get it down to where I can reach.”
My about-face must have been too abrupt, for she stared at me with narrowed eyes.
“What exactly do you want to get at in my golem’s head? You aren’t-” Swiftly her expression shifted into one of shock. “You aren’t trying to make yourself the master, are you?!”
“Of course not!” I snapped, recoiling at the very idea. “Why would I- There’s a needle in the forehead, a silver needle! Look for yourself!”
“Needle…” Vasilisa looked up at the golem’s head, and then just as swiftly back at me. “I don’t see any needle! You are trying to tamper with it, aren’t you? Why? Just so you can be cruel to it? I don’t understand you at all! You were nearly decent a moment ago!”
“I’m not lying!” I exclaimed, thoroughly frustrated with her accusations. The one time I tried to do the honest thing! “It’s got the needle, the needle we need to stop Baba Yaga! It must have picked it up with all the other-”
“You’re mad or desperate,” said Vasilisa, shaking her head. I saw her pupils were quite dilated again, her cheeks flushed. “But I won’t let you have it! I’m going to take care of it now- keep it from people like you- so-” She swayed in place, clutched the silent golem’s arm for balance. “I’ll let you lead us back to Kezia, but don’t touch my golem! Do you hear?” She threw her head back and called up to the golem. “Don’t let her touch you!”
The golem swiveled its head and looked at me. I cursed.
“Damn fool! You don’t realize what you’re doing!”
“You don’t like being weak, do you…” Vasilisa put a hand to her head again, blinking. “But I’m weaker, except now I’ve got this one… Needle in the head, pah!”
She was rambling. The exertion of our argument seemed to have quite undone her. I turned away, tight with rage: what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t let the golem out of my sight- not when I was this close to the needle- how could she not have believed me! I was telling the truth! Certainly I was a worthless wretch in many ways, but not about this. This stupid girl- this stupid lily-white creature, fated to marry the Tsar- the familiar hatred was curling and welling up inside my breast like smoke again. A golden palace for a girl like this- well, I had also tried to marry above my station. How happily my life had gone.
“Come,” I spat. There was no other option. “Follow me.”
I had done my best. Now I just wanted to find Kezia again, and forget everything else.