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
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
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
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
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
But the woman is held captive here because of that bear, he reminded
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
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
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
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
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
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
"No, the only reason he didn't kill me was because you agreed to marry
"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,"
"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
"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
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.
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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