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Enchantment


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Chapter Four
Kiss

The creature under the leaves came to the edge of the chasm and stopped. Then, slowly, the movement of the leaves showed that it was backing away.

For a moment, Ivan was relieved. He had half-expected it to bound out of the chasm and attack him. Instead, like a good watchdog, it was backing up to wait for him to make the next move.

A sudden rustling, as if the creature were furiously engaged in some task under the leaves. After a few moments of this, stillness.

What now? thought Ivan. He turned to take a few steps along the edge of the chasm.

The leaves churned and something flew out of the pit, narrowly missing Ivan's head. By reflex he recoiled from it and fell to his buttocks as he heard a loud thwack! He looked over and saw a stone about the size of a nine-pound shot embedded in the quivering trunk of an ancient tree. What was down there, a howitzer?

Another churning in the leaves. Ivan immediately fell flat and rolled. Another stone whistled out of the chasm. Ivan scurried around and stood behind a tree, peering around to look at the place the stones were coming from.

That's why the creature backed up toward the far side of the chasm -- it wanted to get a clear shot at him. Apparently it could see through the leaves.

Ivan's first impulse was to head back for Cousin Marek's farm. Who needed this?

His second thought was that Cousin Marek would probably have some kind of gun. Not that Ivan knew how to shoot, but how hard could it be?

Only then did he realize that he must be out of his mind to think of any such thing. This place wasn't one he wanted to explain to Marek or anyone else. It was his own madness that made it so real.

No. Not madness. It was real. He had found this place as a child, had run from it. But he hadn't been able to forget it. It haunted him, and now that he was here as a man, it was time for him to do whatever needed doing. He would have to do it, and no one else. If this place was meant for Cousin Marek, he would have found it long ago. There was a woman on the pedestal surrounded by the chasm, and it was for her that he was brought here.

Brought here, yes, but to die? To have his head stove in by a stone?

He darted to another tree. The creature under the leaves moved to position itself directly between him and the woman. Ivan darted again, and this time only paused a moment and began to jog to the next tree. The creature followed. Ivan moved out from the trees and began to jog along the edge of the chasm, following the circle. He kept his eyes on the ground under his feet, as leaves scurried up and out of his way with every step. It wouldn'tdo to lose his footing and slip down into the chasm where the watcher would have him at its mercy. Either it had a very powerful stone-hurling weapon, or it had thrown that rock by hand. A creature who could put a shot with such force wasn't one he wanted to tangle with. So he jogged until he had made a full circuit. Only then did he dodge behind a tree and look to see what the creature was doing.

It had followed him, and at such a speed that the leaves churned up by its passage were being caught by the breeze and blown out of the chasm. In fact, the level of leaves in the moat had fallen by about a foot, so the edge of the chasm was clearly marked all the way around. Ivan wondered how many leaves could be blown out of the moat that way, and so, before the creature could draw even with him, Ivan took off running again -- and it was a real run, not the jogging pace he had set before. He did not have to study the ground so carefully, since the leaves were mostly gone from the path he was running, and the lip of the chasm was clearly visible.

As he completed the circuit again, he didn't even pause, just kept running, for he could see that ahead of him the level of leaves was even lower. It was working, and sometime soon the creature was bound to become visible. When he could see it as well as it could see him, then he might have some idea of what to do next. So he kept running, even faster now. Around the chasm, again, again, again. The track wasn't that long, and he was only beginning to settle into his pace when he realized that he was leaving the creature far enough in back of him that he was coming up on it from behind. If he ran just a little faster, he'd be able to see it, especially now that the leaves were down from the edge by six feet. The creature had to be tall enough to be visible now above the leaves, or it wouldn't have been able to hurl a stone with such a low trajectory.

With a burst of speed he was able to catch a glimpse, then more than a glimpse of a broad expanse of fur, long arms churning as the creature lumbered on two legs, then fell to all fours and ran, stubby tail bobbing up. A bear. A huge bear, for when its arms were outstretched it seemed it could touch either wall of the chasm, just by lurching a little to the left or a little to the right. With walls at least twenty feet apart, that meant an armspan of fifteen feet, maybe more. No chance of prevailing in a wrestling match. No Beowulfish battle was going to take place here, even if Ivan had fancied himself some kind of warrior.

Ivan stopped running as the bear continued rambling out of sight around the pedestal. Most of the leaves had now drifted from the pedestal, and he could clearly see that there was indeed a young woman lying on a low wooden bed, her hands clasped across her waist, her eyes closed.

From this distance, in this light, she seemed ethereal, at peace, an icon of beauty. How many tales had he read that recounted this moment? It was almost perfunctory, the way the tales had it. The hero sees the woman and from that moment his entire life is changed. Whatever she needs, he will obtain for her; whatever barrier stands between them, he will overcome. But never did the tales explain why.

Now Ivan knew. In fact, he had really known ever since he was ten, ever since he glimpsed that luminous face for a single moment and then never forgot it, had to come back. He had thought it was the creature under the leaves, his fear of it that haunted him. But seeing her face again, recognizing that profile, feeling how the sight of her stabbed him to the heart -- now he knew why this place had haunted his dreams, why he hadn't been able to let the memory go. Not the bear. Not the strange place. Her. It was always her.

Apparently the bear had caught on to the fact that Ivan had lapped him, for now it emerged from behind the pedestal and immediately reared up on its hind legs, roaring and showing a formidable set of teeth. It had jaws like a crocodile, or so it seemed to Ivan.

The teeth weren't Ivan's primary danger at the moment, however, for the bear fell to all fours, then came up with a large stone between its forepaws. Balancing the stone on its left paw, it drew back its arm like a javelin thrower. This was no regular bear, that was for sure, and Ivan decided that it was time to run.

The stone must already have been in the air by the time Ivan got himself turned around, and the bear's aim was good, for even as Ivan launched himself to run the other way, the stone caught him high in the back, toward his left shoulder, and sent him spinning and sprawling right at the edge of the chasm, one arm hanging over into the pit.

The air was knocked clean out of him, and for a split second he blacked out. It took a moment for him to understand what had happened, and what the loud rushing, rustling sound might be. Oh, yes. A bear in the leaves. Running ...

Toward me.

Ivan opened his eyes to see the bear not six feet away, one great arm already swinging toward him, claws ready to rake his arm and drag him down into the pit. He rolled away just as the bear's paw struck; he felt the wind of it, felt the ground shudder a little with the impact. He kept rolling, despite the pain in his back, then struggled to his feet. His left arm hung useless. Broken? No, but numb. As he ran among the trees, he tried to think what this meant. Nerve damage? Spinal injury? Permanent paralysis, or temporary trauma that would heal? His left arm, gone -- the thought left him sick with dread. What was he thinking, toying with an animal like this? If it could be called an animal, a bear living fifteen years at least under the leaves protecting a woman who lay uncorrupted on a pedestal. And it wasn't just fifteen years, Ivan knew that. It had to be longer. Centuries.

After all the fairy tales he had read and studied, the one possibility he had never entertained was this: That they might be true, or have some basis in truth. That the world might actually admit such possibilities as giant magical bears that could throw stones, as enchanted women who could lie forever in a coma waiting for ...

For a knight. That's what this woman needed, a knight in armor, preferably with a very long lance, suitable for killing bears from a distance. In all the tales, the hero had a magic sword, or a magic sack from which he could draw everything he needed, or a magic helper who would do the impossible task for him. All Ivan had to help him was the limited wit of a graduate student so foolish as to be pursuing studies in a field that guaranteed him a lifetime of genteel poverty, and whatever strength and agility remained in the body of a college decathlete three years out of shape. In other words, he had nothing, and she needed miracles.

"One-armed Ivan and the Magic Bear" -- it didn't sound like fairy tale material to him, especially the part about how Ivan high-tailed it out of there, holding his useless left arm and wailing about how unfair it was, him against the bear, just him alone against a magic bear.

He stopped and leaned against a tree, then looked back toward the chasm. He could see leaves drifting through the air, settling like snowflakes down into the pit in the ground. He knew that not one of the leaves had been lost. They would all float back, and soon the moat would be filled again, the leaf-covered meadow smooth and level except for that one slight rise in the middle. That woman who lay waiting.

What is she to me? I don't know her. She clearly has enemies more powerful than I am, and why am I suddenly her friend, anyway? Why me?

But even as he wished to be free of this impossible task, the thought of someone else coming to this place, reaching that pedestal, bending over her, kissing her, waking her up -- it was unbearable.

I'm here, now. I'm the one. No one but me.

And yet in the rational part of his mind: This is why so many knights have died. This is why Troy fell, for a woman like this.

He wiggled his left hand. His fingers moved.

OK. So it was temporary, the numbness. The soreness in his back, that would probably heal, too, though right now the pain wasn't sending any such message.

The woman was waiting. The leaves were coming back again. The bear thought it had won, with a single stone on the back of a would-be hero who was running away.

What if he ran the circuit again, only not so fast this time, so he wouldn't overtake the bear? Maybe he could keep the beast running around and around until it wore out.

Of course, it was quite possible that magical bears didn't get tired. But with a bear this big, how magical did it have to be? It used claws, not spells, to try to tear his flesh into bacon strips. Nor were the stones hurled in some magical way, either. Yes, the bear was smart -- for a bear -- able to figure out about stone-throwing -- he had never seen that behavior on the Discovery Channel. But it hadn't cast a spell on him or anything. What did he remember about bears in the fairy tales, anyway? Eaters, all of them. And talkers, some of them. But spells were for devils and demons, witches like Baba Yaga and great wizards or godlings like Mikola Mozhaiski -- though old Mikola was more likely just to give advice. Bears, however, even magic ones, were still bears.

He jogged back toward the chasm. The bouncing pace hurt his back, so he changed to a loping stride that took him much faster and felt smoother. Soon he stood again on the brink. The moat had already half refilled with leaves. He heard the rustling, saw leaves flying from the far side of the moat, where the bear had sensed his return. Ivan waited until it was in sight, then began to run again along the lip of the pit, this time checking to make sure the bear could always see him, that it was always chasing him from behind.

Around and around and around, circle after circle, until the moat was utterly empty of leaves, the last of them blown away. Now he could see that the base of the pedestal -- the inner wall of the chasm -- was smooth stone, sloping in and out a little, like an apple core. There would be no climbing that surface.

So why bother dealing with the bear, then, if he couldn't get up that wall to the woman anyway? Tests within tests, and he probably wasn't going to pass any of them.

The bear showed no sign of weariness, while Ivan's back and shoulder were getting sorer and sorer. No help for that. It was finish out the task right now, or he'd have to start again from the beginning another day, for he knew he could not walk away for another decade or so. He wasn't a child anymore, he was a man, and a man sees it through, if he can.

So far, I'm still doing what I can. No more, but no less either.

The sun was at full noon, a warm day. Ivan took off his sweater as he ran, tossed it aside, under the trees. A while later he unbuttoned his shirt. He wished for better shoes than these -- he had left his best running shoes in America, not thinking he'd need them, and these were broken down old shoes, good enough for light running in Kiev but not for a serious marathon like this.

One foot after another, just like a marathon, but not covering any ground. He began to know each tree trunk far too well, recognizing every feature on them until he stopped caring and they all became one tree whirring past on his left, again and again. Why hadn't he run counter-clockwise, like any good racer? He wasn't used to turning right, right, right. He thought of stopping, hiding in the trees until the bear caught up, then running the other way, but he drove the thought from his mind. If he was going to tire out the bear, he had to use his one advantage -- an athlete's endurance, the strength of a long-distance runner. Bears weren't horses. They weren't used to running all day.


And sure enough, by mid-afternoon the bear was beginning to tire. Shambling along on all fours, it was going slower and slower, and never stopped now to growl at him. Its head hung lower, too. It was unflagging in the relentlessness of its pursuit, but it was running out of stamina. It was not an omnipotent bear. Ivan smiled. So far so good. Except for the part about knowing what to do next.

On every circuit he had passed the tree that had been struck by the bear's first stone. He long since stopped noticing the round shape of it, stuck like a diadem about nine feet up. But now he remembered it, slowed to look at it when it came around again. Not deeply embedded. Probably easy enough to dislodge.

On the next pass, Ivan put on a burst of speed, left the edge of the moat, and ran straight for the tree. Planting a foot low on the trunk, he let his momentum carry him up until the stone was in reach. It dislodged far more easily than he had expected, hitting him on the chin and chest as it fell. It was heavy and it hurt, but it was nothing like the injury to his back. His hand came away a little bloody when he touched his chin, but he could feel that it was just a scrape, not a cut, and he'd just have to live with it until he could get some disinfectant. He winced to remember the painful disinfectants of his childhood. None of that babyish American anesthetized stuff for tough Russian children!

As if he could count on even getting back to Cousin Marek's house, not with the foolish trick he planned to try.

He bent over and picked up the stone, then jogged to the lip of the chasm.

As he expected, the bear had caught up, was already getting a large rock between its paws. No sense in waiting, Ivan decided. He balanced the nine-pound stone on his right hand in best shot-putting style. This wasn't the standard competitive shot-put, unfortunately. In track meets the goal was to put the shot as far as you could, not to hit a target with it. Especially not a target that moved back and forth like the bear's head.

He'd just have to give it a try and see what happened. If he missed with this stone, the bear had thrown others, he'd just have to find those and try again.

He turned, spun, launched the stone. It sailed out over the chasm. He could see at once that he had overshot -- it was going to hit the smooth stone wall behind the bear.

But at that moment, the bear rose to its feet, clutching a stone between its paws. It rose so quickly that it placed its own head directly in the trajectory of the stone Ivan had hurled at exactly the moment for it to catch the bear on its left eye, knocking it backward so its head struck forcefully against the stone of the pedestal.

With a whimper the bear slid down to sit like a curbside drunk, canted to one side, blood pouring from the empty socket of its left eye. The eye itself was smeared down its bloody cheek.

What have I done? thought Ivan, his heart immediately filled with pity for the injured animal.

What am I thinking! he demanded of himself, remembering his own injuries, the stones launched at his own head.

But I'm the intruder here, he thought, his sense of justice insisting on being heard.

But the woman is held captive here because of that bear, he reminded himself.

The woman. How long till the bear woke up, angrier than ever? How long did he have to figure out a way to get to the pedestal?

If he couldn't climb up the smooth stone wall, there was no point in climbing down into the chasm where even a one-eyed bear could make short work of him.

Many of the trees around the moat were tall enough that, if he had any way of felling them, they would easily span the chasm -- indeed, some of them could have spanned the whole meadow. The trouble was that some limb of the tree would almost certainly strike the woman. He could easily imagine that between magical sleep and being crushed to death by a huge tree limb, the woman would undoubtedly vote for the coma.

How far was it across the moat to the pedestal? Twenty feet? He had long-jumped as much as twenty-four feet, not world's record jumping but enough to win some meets. But he hadn't done any long-jumping since his undergraduate days. And what if it wasn't twenty feet? What if it was twenty-six feet? Or why not twenty-nine feet eleven inches? Just far enough to be a new world's record if he made it. Still, it wouldn't have to be a neat landing -- there were no judges to disqualify the jump if a hand dangled or his butt swung in too low. On the other hand, if he missed and dropped into the chasm, the bear would kill him even if the fall didn't. And he wasn't going to do any world's record jumping, not with his back injured as it was.

With his toe he drew a line representing the outside edge of the moat, then another line representing the distance of the pedestal. Had he made a good estimate of the distance? He paced it off. Twenty-two feet. But what did that prove? He had no way of knowing if he had been accurate at all in the way he drew the lines. Nor was pacing a distance all that accurate, either. He never got precisely the same count twice.

The bear gurgled and stirred.

No time for practice jumps. If he was going to get to the middle and waken the princess, he had to go now.

He walked back into the woods, pacing off a clear, straight path, making sure there were no obstructions. He gave himself one practice run-up -- his life depended on his getting a good launch. He could hear the bear moaning in the pit as he began the real run, faster, faster. He planted his foot and pushed off, soaring over the chasm, remembering only in that moment that there was no room on the pedestal for any kind of run-up to make the jump back. Even if he made it to the pedestal, that's where he was going to be staying, unless there was some kind of instruction manual.

There were more immediate worries, however, because in mid-jump it also became clear to him that either it was a longer jump than twenty-two feet or his injury had weakened his jump, because his feet weren't going to land on top of the pedestal. He had time enough only to tuck his legs a little so he didn't rebound; then he sprawled onto the grass of the pedestal's crown, his trunk mostly on the pedestal, his legs dangling.

He began to slip downward, just as he heard the bear growl angrily. Gripping the grass with one hand, clawing for purchase with the other, he ignored the shooting pain in his left arm as he struggled to draw himself farther up out of the pit. He tried to swing his heels up, out of reach, as a searing pain in his right leg notified him that the bear was on its feet and quite able with only one eye to aim a raking blow at him. His fingers found purchase on the leg of the low wooden bed the woman was lying on. He dragged himself up, out of the bear's reach, his legs now safely up on the cool grass.

Grass. The leaves were gone now even from the pedestal.

He looked down at his leg. His left trouser leg was in tatters. The bear's claws had made two gaping tears in the side of his calf. They were bleeding copiously, but neither injury was pumping blood. No arteries had been torn. He pulled his pants off, tore the damaged leg into strips, and wrapped them around his calf to close the wound and keep it from bleeding so profusely. Now there was no hope at all of jumping back, or climbing either, or outrunning the bear or any other foolish plan he might have thought of. He had reached the woman, but what good would that do if he woke her only for them to die here together.

The bear was still roaring down in the chasm. Ivan stood to look down at him, but the pain and loss of blood made him dizzy. He staggered; for a moment he thought he would fall down onto the waiting bear; he leaned the other way, stumbled back, fell against the bed, and found himself sprawled beside her, his hand on the cool but living flesh of her bare arm.

Now, at last, he could look at her. Dressed in the imported oriental silk of a wealthy woman of the Rus', she had the high-cheeked features of a Slav; but he was not so American that this looked alien to him. Indeed, he could see that by any standard of beauty she was a lovely woman, young and smooth-skinned, her hair a lustrous brown with many lighter hairs that caught the waning sun of afternoon and shone like fine gold wires. Love poems had been written with less provocation.

But Ivan didn't love her. Ivan didn't even know her. Or rather, he didn't know her as a person, or even as a woman; he knew her as an icon, as the princess of the fairy tales. She was asleep because of some evil charm placed upon her by a jealous rival, a powerful witch who hated her. Had her finger been pricked by the sharp point of a spindle? Who knew which details of the old stories might be true? The only thing wrong with this was that apparently all the princes and knights had missed their chance. Maybe, upon examination, there'd be an array of rusted armor and old gnawed man-bones down in the bear's lair, but the fact was that the age of chivalry hadn't brought this woman back to life, and now here it was the 1990s, and far from being a prince or knight, her rescuer was a kid who liked to run and jump and throw things but who wasn't going to be much of a champion when it came time to fight the bear, which was how this tale must surely end. He would have to fight the bear, or distract it, anyway, long enough for Rapunzel here or whatever her name was to drop down to the bottom of the pit, preferably without breaking her legs, and then climb laboriously up the other side -- for which task that lovely silk gown would be particularly slick, voluminous, and unhelpful.

I don't know you, ma'am, and apparently I'm expected to die for you.

He toyed with the idea of leaving her asleep and trying to figure out how to save himself.

Then the loss of blood and the exhaustion of running all day claimed him. He lay back on the grass beside her bed, closed his eyes, and as the sun dipped toward the horizon, he fell asleep.

He woke in the darkness to find something cold and dry on his face. A leaf. Leaves. He brushed them away. The faintest light of predawn was glowing in the east, beyond the trees. He remembered at once where he was. Had he slept the whole night here? Cousin Marek would be worried. Would be searching for him -- he hadn't thought of that. Marek might find his trail, might find him.

Ivan sat up. The meadow was again smooth and covered with leaves. If Marek showed up now, he might fall into the chasm. At this moment he might be running through the trees, searching, shining a flashlight to left and right, never seeing until it was too late how the leaves swirled away from his feet and the pit yawned before him --

"Go back! Stop!"

Ivan's own voice shocked him, coming in the silence of morning. Of course Marek wasn't coming. If he were, Ivan would see the lights, would hear the footsteps.

Almost at his left hand there came a violent rustling in the leaves, which whirled away, revealing the bear clinging to the side of the pedestal, its paws clawing at the grass, its mouth silently open. Now that it was revealed, though, the silence ended. It roared, slavered, gnashed its teeth at Ivan. He sprang backward, tripping on the woman's bed. The bear reached farther up onto the grass. Those great arms were going to make it. The bear was going to join him here. And it would be no good jumping down into the chasm, for he'd never get out of there again. He had no choice but to prevent the bear from climbing up.

Don't kick at its head, he told himself. Those jaws are quick and they won't let go.

Instead he clambered up onto the bed and jumped with all his strength down onto the bear's arm.

It accomplished nothing except to send pain shooting up from his left leg as the wound reopened and blood seeped out onto his crusted ankle. He groaned in pain. The bear roared again, and got the other paw farther up onto the grass.

Ivan rolled down and knelt beside the bear's claw -- was it this one that had torn open his leg? -- and pulled to try to get the bear to fall backward into the pit. Instead, the bear lunged upward, snapping at his hand with its great teeth. He recoiled, bounded away, over the body of the woman.

What will the bear do to her? he wondered, filled with a new dread. But then he realized that if the bear were going to harm her, it would have made this climb long ago. She was safe enough. Only he was in danger.

Well, if he was going to die, she was going to watch him do it. There would have to be one witness, at least, to how much he gave for this woman who meant absolutely nothing to him except that she had haunted his dreams since he was a boy.

As the bear heaved its chest up onto the pedestal, Ivan knelt beside the bed, leaned down and kissed the woman's lips.

They were soft and alive. She kissed him back.

Her eyes opened. Her lips parted. She gave a soft cry, drew her head away from him.

He knelt up to look at the bear. Its hind legs were now scrabbling for purchase on the pedestal.

She stammered something in some language. A Slavic language, but very oddly pronounced. He knew he should understand it.

After a moment, it registered on his brain. Though the accent was unfamiliar, she had to be speaking a dialect of proto-Slavonic, closely related to the Old Church Slavonic that he and his father had spoken together so often.

"What did you say?" he demanded in that language.

"What?" she asked back.

Speaking slowly, trying to emphasize the nasals and bend his pronunciation toward the accent he had heard from her, he repeated his question. "What did you say?"

"Prosi mene posagnõti za tebe," she said slowly, each word separated. He understood now -- easily, in fact: Ask me to marry you.

This was hardly the time for romance, he thought.

But her gaze was fixed on the bear. It towered over them, its arms spread wide, its mouth open as it brayed out its triumphal cry. Ivan realized that she wasn't proposing a romantic relationship, she was telling him how to vanquish the bear.

"Proshõ tebe posagnõti za mene!" he shouted in Old Church Slavonic. Will you marry me!

For a moment she hesitated, her face a mask of anguish.

"Ei, posagnõ!" she answered.

The bear was gone, even as the last echo of its roar rang in the air.

Ivan rose to his feet, walked to the edge of the chasm. No sign of the animal. No sound of it, either, snuffling along the bottom. Nor were the leaves returning. They were gone, all the leaves that had filled the moat only moments before.

But there was something new in place. A bridge, a span of smooth white stone reaching across the chasm to the other side.

"Thank God," he whispered. He walked to the bridge, stepped on it, tested it. Firm and true. He took two more steps.

The woman cried out. He looked back at her. She gazed at him in awe, perhaps even in horror.

"You walk in air!" she cried.

"No, on a ..." He wanted to say bridge but he didn't remember the Old Church Slavonic word. He tried it in Russian, Ukrainian. She only shook her head. Then she pointed to the opposite side of the chasm.

"This way," she said. "Here is the bridge."

He recognized the word at once when she said it, because it wasn't that far from the Russian word after all. So she must have understood him.

He watched in shock as she stepped off the edge of the chasm and walked three steps out into the middle of the air.

"Wait!" he cried. It was clear she was being held up by something -- he just couldn't see it. Yet seeing her there, standing in mid-air, made him tremble to the groin in fear. She was falling, she had to be falling.

"Come," she said. "You are my betrothed, and I must take you home."

"I can't," he said. "You see a bridge, but I see nothing here. The only bridge I see is on the other side."

She took the few steps back to the pedestal, reached out her hand to him. "Though you are only a peasant," she said, "you are the one who broke the curse on me, and you are the one whose offer of marriage I accepted."

A peasant? He looked down at his clothes. Knights didn't dress like this, but peasants didn't, either.

"Or did the bear take your sword from you?" she asked. "Did you take off your mail to climb?"

"I never wore mail," he said. "Nor used a sword. I am a peasant." Smridu, that was the word he used. Worker. Commoner. But a free man, at least. She hadn't taken him for a slave. That was something.

"The bear had lost an eye," she said.

"I threw a stone at its head," he answered.

"Then you vanquished the bear. The only reason he didn't kill you as you bent over me was because he kept trying to see you through the missing eye."

"No, the only reason he didn't kill me was because you agreed to marry me."

"You talk so strangely," she said. "Are you a Roman?"

She must think he came from the Byzantine Empire, the lands still ruled by the last vestige of the empire of Rome.

"No," he said. "From Kiev."

She recoiled from him, covered her mouth with her hands. "Volodimir," she whispered.

"No," he said. "Not I. I mean that I was in Kiev for a little while, but my parents live in a faraway country. Far over the sea."

She relaxed. "And you came to find me?"

"I flew here to study ancient manuscripts, actually, but --"

She had stopped cold on the word flew and was covering her mouth in fear again.

"I don't mean that I can actually fly myself," he said.

"What are you? What kind of wizard?"

"No wizard," he said.

"You carry no weapon, you speak a strange language, yet you flew here, you threw a stone that blinded the Great Bear. What star will wink out now, because of your stone?"

"Oh, do you call that ..." He meant to say, Oh, do you call that constellation the Great Bear, too? But he didn't know the word for constellation in Old Church Slavonic.

She was not going to wait for him to finish. "Whatever you are, you will be my husband," she said. "Even if you cannot see this bridge, hold my hand and I will take you across."

She reached out to him. He took her hand.

The moment they touched, he could see the bridge she was standing on. It was very different from the bridge he saw. Where his was like a natural formation of stone, hers was of wood, ornately carved and decorated, with gilding on the upper surfaces. He recognized the workmanship. Ninth century. Like her clothing.

Where did her bridge lead? What would he find there?

"I'm betrothed to someone else," he murmured.

"Not now," she said, looking horrified that he could even think that such a thing might matter. "If you don't marry me now, then all is lost, and the Widow will devour all my people, all this land."

"The Widow?" he said.

"Even in your land you must know of her," she said. "The evil widow of old king Brat of Kiev, who was driven from his throne by the Rus' and ended up ruling a little kingdom called Pryava. Since he died, she brutally took over other lands until her kingdom borders ours. She claims to be the bride now of an even greater king. She consumes nations and spits out nothing but bones."

"And she's the one who put you here?"

"'Until Katerina finds a husband,' she told my father, 'then I, Ya -- I mean, she said her name -- I am heir to all these lands.' Then she had the Great Bear pursue me. He drove me here, where I could run no further. I fell asleep, and he guarded me, until you came and gave me your oath, setting me free of him. Now I must get home to my family."

"'Ya'," said Ivan, echoing her. "Ya-ga?" Was it possible that this evil queen was the witch of the fairy tales? "Baba Yaga?"

She gasped and put her hand over his mouth. Her hand was callused from work, and she was stronger than he expected. But he liked the feeling of her touching him, though there was only fear and annoyance in the gesture.

"Are you a fool, to say her name right out? Even here. Even in this place." So it was Baba Yaga. If unconsciously he was looking for fairy tales, he had stumbled on the mother lode.

She took her hand away from his mouth.

"Sorry," he said. "For saying her name, and I'm sorry about your kingdom, too. But ..."

"But what? We have no choice but to marry. Forget this other woman. Take her as a concubine after we are wed."

"But it's been a thousand years," he said. "More than a thousand years that you've been lying here."

She looked at him as if he were crazy. "No thousand years," she said. "It is today. This morning is today."

She pulled at his hand, drew him onto the bridge, and led him to the other side.

*

Piotr and Esther lay in bed at the end of the day, watching Johnny Carson because Piotr enjoyed the program; Esther barely understood it. Even when she caught the meaning of the English, she rarely knew why everyone was laughing. But she watched because Piotr wanted to watch. Carson was wearing a turban and holding envelopes to his head, then saying things that made people whoop and laugh.

Piotr also laughed.  She could feel the bed shaking.

Then, suddenly, it was as if she were falling; her stomach lurched within her. No, it was as if a baby kicked in her womb. No, no, it was as if her baby did not kick. It was as if she were carrying a baby and suddenly knew that it was dead and would never kick again.

"He's gone," she whispered.

"What?" asked Piotr.

Esther began to cry.

Piotr turned off the television, concerned. "What is it, my love? Are you sick? What's wrong?"

"He's gone," she said. "My little boy. He's gone. He's left this world."

Piotr put his arms around her. "Hush, hush, my love, that can't be so, that can't be true. How would you know it, anyway, so far from him? You're just afraid for him, a mother's worry, but don't be afraid, he's with Cousin Marek, he's safe, he's safe."

His words, his tone, they were meant to be comforting, but she took no comfort from them, only from the arms he wrapped around her, only from the warmth of his body next to hers. We made only one baby out of our love, Piotr, only one baby, one little boy, and he is gone.

Baba Yaga

Yaga was busy when Bear came back. She was in the midst of a tricky extraction of the living eyes of a merchant who had failed to bring anything interesting to sell, but who had the most fascinating silver-tinted irises that might have some unpredictable effects in spells of vision and illusion. The fellow was trying to persuade her, in his halting foreign speech, that perhaps she could make do with only one of his eyes, while she concentrated on popping out the left eye without bursting it, when Bear gave a great roar just outside the room.

The merchant jumped in surprise, which of course caused him even more pain than he was already in, as the cords that bound him cut more deeply into his throat. Choking, he managed to croak out, "What was that?"

"My husband," sighed Yaga. She was grimly determined not to show how bitterly his return disappointed her. Not that she had really expected to keep him tied up guarding the princess forever -- for one thing, there were some very useful spells that she could only cast when he was close at hand. Still, she had thought that by putting both Bear and the princess in a place cut loose from time she would gain more than the few months that had passed for her during the princess's enchantment.

The real disappointment, however, was the knowledge that the princess had somehow managed not only to wake up but also to get the person who woke her to propose marriage to her. The whole point of putting her there had been to make sure that whoever kissed her would be some stranger from another time and place who wouldn't speak a word that she could understand, so that Bear would have plenty of time to eat him from the head down before there was any betrothal possible. And here was Bear, showing that her plan hadn't been foolproof after all.

"Do hold still," she said irritably.

"Sorry," croaked the merchant.

Out popped the eye.

"Here we come," said Yaga.

The merchant sighed and whimpered.

Yaga reached back with her long, thin blade to sever the optic nerve and blood vessels as close to the back as possible -- must get the maximum strength from this eye, considering how much the fellow who grew it for her was going to miss it. "There," she said. "Want to see it?"

The man groaned. Taking this for a yes, she held up the eye with its dangling cord. "Now your eye will see for me," said Yaga. "Which will give it a much more interesting career than it would ever have had with you."

"Please," whispered the man. "Let me keep the other."

"Don't be stingy," said Yaga. "Didn't your mother teach you to share?"

The door flew open.

"My darling husband," said Yaga. "Didn't I tell you to knock first?"

The answer was a roar. Bear shambled into the room on all fours, then stood to his full height and roared again.

"Hungry?" asked Yaga. "I'm almost done with this head, if you want it."

"Who is that eye for?" demanded Bear.

"Why, do you want it?" Whereupon Yaga looked up and realized that yes, indeed, Bear could use an eye, for the very good reason that he had only the one, while his other socket was bleeding. "Did you save the eye?" she asked. "Did you think to bring it back to me?"

"It was crushed," said Bear savagely. "The bastard threw a boulder at me."

"Aren't gods like you supposed to be able to, I don't know, regrow anything that falls off or out?"

"It didn't fall," said Bear. He sounded downright hostile. "And it wouldn't have happened if you hadn't trapped me there without any powers beyond the natural strength of a bear."

"I was using your powers here, my love," said Yaga. "I couldn't very well let everything fall apart at home just because you're out playing with some princess."

"I want to kill you," said Bear.

"No you don't," said Yaga. He couldn't possibly. The spells that bound him assured that his love for Yaga would be unflagging.

"Well then I want to want to kill you."

"Bear, meet ... what's your name?"

The merchant murmured something.

"Do you have to play with your victims like that?" said Bear. "Why can't you kill them first and then take their parts?"

"Things start to corrupt when the body is dead. So I have to take the best parts when they're at their freshest." By now she had finished packing the first eye in clean white ashes. She closed and sealed the box, and set to prodding at the other eye. "You will be a dear and break open the head for me, won't you? I want to get the brain whole, if I can."

In answer, Bear lurched over, grabbed the man's head between his paws, and tore upward with such force that the cords cut right through his throat. With a twist, Bear pulled the head off the spine and dashed it to the stone floor. It split open with such force that the brain was splashed all over Yaga's feet and the rugs as well.

"You clumsy, insolent --"

"Don't start with me!" roared Bear.

For a moment she was afraid of him, for he still carried himself with the power of a god, and she wasn't completely sure that her binding spells would be utterly irresistible, if he got angry enough. Gods were dangerous creatures to enslave. Who knew how deviously they might manipulate the reality around them?

But in a moment, she could see that he really wasn't angry -- anger being forbidden to him. The roaring and acting up were the result of pain, and after all, the poor dear had lost an eye. "I should scold you for killing him before I got the second eye out," said Yaga, "but I think your wound is making you cranky and I forgive you."

"Give me the eye you took from that man."

"It wouldn't fit," she said. "And you'd start seeing like a man, which would do you no good at all." She popped the second eye out of the head. Since it was already dead, it wasn't so important to pack it in ash. In fact, she might as well dry it to be powdered later -- there were plenty of uses for it yet. "You did waste the brains, you know. I can't even tell which part is which."

Bear stepped in the midst of the pile of brains and twisted his paw.

"Don't be spiteful," said Yaga.

"Kill the girl and take the kingdom if you want it," said Bear. "Forget all this song and dance. You have the power. Or rather, I have the power."

Yaga sighed. "I don't want just to take it. I want to keep it. The high king at Kiev --"

"Is your sworn enemy. The Rus' drove your late husband from the throne of Kiev, didn't they? Stuck the two of you out here in this backwater kingdom of Pryava, didn't they? What do you care what the king of the Rus' thinks of your claim to the throne of Taina?"

"I don't want a war with the Rus'," said Yaga. "And you know why."

Bear roared in frustration.

"Ah, yes, my love. You thought you could trick me, didn't you? But I know that as god of this land and all its people, you're god of the Rus' as well, and if the high king went to war against me, it would weaken my hold on you. Everything must be done legitimately, my pet. Including my conquest of Taina. You're their god, too, aren't you?"

That was a sore point between them, since the king of Taina had converted to a religion that refused to recognize the power of Bear.

"We're really on the same side in this, my love, remember that," said Yaga. But as she looked at his matted fur, his blood-soaked muzzle and chest, she couldn't help but think: If this winter god, this walking rug, this one-eyed whining bear is the magical guardian of Russia, then Russia is going to have a very troubled future. "Tell me all about the knight who threw the rock at you."

"He wasn't a knight," said Bear. "He was practically naked."

"Come here and let your Baba Yaga put something on that wound."

He shambled over and put his head in her lap. She began to clean around the wound and apply a salve to it.

"He carried no weapon. He didn't really fight. He just ran and ran."

"How did he get to the princess?" asked Yaga. She had to know, because there was always the fear that somehow Bear had got himself free of her bindings enough throw the contest against her.

"Jumped the chasm," said Bear. "Which you said no man could ever do. You said any man who tried would end up in the pit where I could take his head off." He scooped up a pawful of brain and ate it sloppily while she worked on his eyesocket.

Bear winced at the salve, as well he should, since she had deliberately left the pain-deadening herbs out of the mix.

"I can't be right about everything, can I?" said Yaga. "After all, I'm not a deity."

"Yaga, Yaga, Yaga," he said, as if she had made a foolish joke.

How she hated that nickname! And yet the name had stuck, until now it was the name she used for herself.

Her late husband King Brat had given her the name when he brought her to Kiev as his twelve-year-old bride. That was the pet name he murmured to her tenderly as he raped her immature body, and again as she pretended to weep over the grave of the first baby he sired on her. His dear Yaga, his sweet pet Yaga, Yaga the loving mother who pressed the face of his greedy slurping spawn into her breast long after it stopped struggling for breath and then, wailing, laid his firstborn son in the very lap that had forced it on her. It was a message, though Brat never understood it, dense heavy-armed warrior that he was, a message that people understood now, with him deposed from his throne and then dead of a withering disease, and his widow married to a husband who at last looked like what every human husband secretly was, a hairy stinking drooling beast. A simple message: If you make Yaga do what she doesn't want to do, you won't like the result.

And maybe the message had changed over the years, and now it was more along the lines of: If you try to stop Yaga from doing what she wants to do, you and everyone you ever liked will be destroyed. But in spirit, in origin, it was really the same message. If she had to leave the gloriously beautiful coastland of her childhood and then the bustling traders' town of Kiev to live in this crude woodland, at least she would control all the kingdoms around her and run things her way.

The only drawback was that she always had to have some husband with the title of "king," or no one would take her seriously. Well, she showed all those suitors who pursued her after Brat died. They thought they could get her and her late husband's kingdom, too. But she wouldn't settle for any of these petty princes. Her consort would be a god.

So Brat's precious "Yaga" was Bear's wife now, and no one even remembered that she had once been Olga, a hopeful young princess in a lovely kingdom on the south shore of the Baltic Sea. And now that she happened to be getting on in years, they were starting to call her Baba Yaga -- grandmother, of all things! Of course it was ironic. A term of endearment, used for someone they hated and feared so much? The accusation that she ate babies was so widespread that she was tempted to cook one up and taste it someday, just to see what all the fuss was about. Grandmother, indeed.

She got up from her place beside Bear and carried the dead eye to her dressing table, where she could see herself in the mirror. Of course she had marked the mirror with several wards, so no passing spirit could leap out of the mirror and harm her. There was so much envy of her power and beauty.

"I don't look like a grandmother," she said.

"Yes you do," said Bear. "You know those spells don't work on me."

"I don't care what you see," she said.

"I've never seen the point of using magic to fool yourself."

"I have to live surrounded by beauty," she said. "Even in the mirrors."

"So you're going to make me seem to have both eyes?" he murmured.

Yaga ignored his self-pity. "About the Princess Katerina."

"You know the story. He kissed her, she woke up, and they walked over the bridge."

"Which bridge?"

"Her bridge. I thought you were so sensitive you'd feel it when she came back into the world."

"I did feel it," said Yaga. "I thought it was gas." Had she felt it? No. What went on at that place was undetectable to her. But as soon as Katerina left the place and returned to Taina, then Yaga would know her every movement.

"Well, now you've got Katerina awake and headed for Taina with a husband who runs very, very fast and hurls a mean stone."

"He's not a husband yet," said Yaga.

"You mean to cast a spell to make a eunuch of him? He fell in love like any dog when he saw her, lying there giving off her love smell like a bitch in permanent heat."

"Sometimes I regret having given you the power of speech."

"So take it away again," he said. "I'd never miss it. Not like an eye."

"I don't need a spell to make a man into a eunuch," said Yaga.

Bear murmured something.

"I heard that."

"No you didn't," he said.

"Well, I know what you meant to say, anyway, and it wasn't funny."

"We'll see what the servants say when I repeat it to them."

"Go ahead," she said. "I'll just have to kill every one of them you tell."

"You should only kill what you intend to eat," he said. "It catches up to you, in the end, all this murdering."

"It's not murdering, it's my life's work," she said. "Besides, you killed this fellow."

"Yaga, Yaga, Yaga," he said.

"Shut up," she murmured sweetly, and sat on his lap. "I'm glad to have you back, darling."

"Are you?" he said. "It occurred to me, as I was running around and around in the moat, trying to stay between the peasant and the princess, it occurred to me that your plan could only be for no one to ever kiss the girl, in which case your loving husband would be trapped in the chasm forever."

"Don't be silly. As soon as her father died I would have brought you home."

His huge claws caught at the cloth of her dress and delicately shredded it right off her body without so much as scratching her skin. Then his paws rested firmly, tightly, crushingly against her belly and chest, pulling her so closely against him that she could hardly breathe.

"I don't think you should send your loving husband on any more permanent errands," he whispered in her ear.

"Well, why would I, anyway?" she wheezed, struggling for breath. "Do remember how much you love me, my pet."

His arms relaxed. She sucked great gouts of air into her lungs.

"Not killing you," he said, "is just an old bear's way of saying I love you."

"I love you too," she said.

If only she knew some way to break down the last barrier and take his magic whole, so she didn't need him at all. Take his immortality, his godly powers, and then be rid of him the way she was rid of Brat. But if there were spells for emptying and discarding a god, she hadn't found them yet. Maybe the Christians should be encouraged. Maybe if everyone stopped believing in these forest totems, they'd lose their power.

In the meantime, Bear was hungry and needed feeding. Then he'd void himself wherever he felt like it, all over the house. It had taken her all these months to get the stink out of the house while he guarded the sleeping princess. Now the odor would be back in force. If only she could....

If only, if only. No matter how much power she had, there was always something else to wish for.

Copyright © 1999 Orson Scott Card

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