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Children of wild, legends round our neck, must shatter

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Humans are fools, Baba Yaga know(s) this well. Fools and cowards and monsters, and only thing they deserve is fire and iron through their stomach and knife over neck ( and those good ones who aren’t humans but have body like humans and think like them do too, for humans are cruel and like to use them, so Baba Yaga take(s)  them, innocent and wise and brave, and cooks them in her warm stove/cauldron/oven/womb- so many things, so many shapes over millions of years- and save(s) them from misery and keeps their souls nice and warm and cozy, and even if fate seems same it isn't because reason is different so it is all right and anyway don't all mortals do same things but separate them in right and wrong depending on their irrational sensible senseless reason).

They were there ( they were one then, one being not three sisters-aspects, but not now, not anymore) when first of humans came, shaped by gods and deities too young and hopeful to see what humans will do ( they-who-were-only-she back then could see it too, for they can see all, but they hoped for better future, one where all of them choose good and weren’t humans even if they knew that will never happen, and when what happened happened they were disappointed and angry and loved misery that befell humans and one became three), making them from clay and tears and evolution, whatever god who was in charge of world then preferred.

It is their ( gods they, not they they, they as group, not they as Baba Yaga, and they are part of them but not, too old, too powerful, too first) mistake in a way. Mistake they didn’t make with animals and trees and microbes and many other things.  They gave sentience to mortal things, bound by body and lacking spark of creation that Baba Yaga and their brethren gave to first gods, they couldn’t write laws of world nor understand nature as it truly was, as it was created, and so they couldn’t choose good, and turned to foolishness and cowardice and wickedness, and it would be almost sad if they all didn’t deserve to burn.

They were never sure, are time and fate too young or is/are Baba Yaga too old, but world repeats and lives wander in even if they are dead, following same path, telling ancient story ( and they see what was and wasn't and could and couldn't be, what is and isn't and maybe is and maybe isn't, what will and won't be could be and couldn't ever be, all it they see and understand, twelve paths twelve ways) with new/old characters.

They sit in background and watch and aid and hinder. Sometimes they eat, to spare and punish. Sometimes they advise, to prove and save fading lights of goodness, depending on how much their back aches.


 

It is worth it, for he doesn’t die.

Koschei is tsarevich, youngest of four sons of tsar of an ancient empire which now only dust. That is what he knows, what he is almost certain is right. He doesn’t remember much, but it is worth it, for he doesn’t die.

That isn’t his name, of course not ( he has forgot it. Human can’t live for thousands of years and remember all they saw. It remains inside their head, of course, but it clogs and clogs and they can’t use it but also have trouble learning new things. But he doesn’t die so it is worth it).  What fool would name their child Koschei? A nickname, given to him by his brothers, for he was always bony lad, who could easily pretend to be skeleton for.... he doesn’t remember what. Some tradition that included costumes that he thinks he enjoyed more than anything. He doesn’t remember, but it is worth it, for he doesn’t die.

He had three brothers, who all had their nicknames. Eldest, he think, was muscled and had something to do with bears. Second’s was something about his hair, and third had to do with eyes, either color or shape. he doesn’t remember them or their faces, but it is worth it, for he doesn’t die and they are long since ashes.

Trying to recall his life feels like reading book with rotten, torn pages and faded, scrawled blots of ink that could be letters. There are things that he is almost sure of, things he can't recall no matter how much he tries, and things that are fleeting glimpses that invoke strange emotions in him for no reason. He is almost sure that he loved all of his brothers very much ( and there is some strange, choking feeling about third), that they were best of friends and siblings. That they trusted and confided in each other.

When he is particularly nostalgic, he tries to recall them in dreams. He takes blood of his slaves and ashes of his enemies and dust that is all that remained of his crops and draws sigils he loves for some reason ( they may have been ancient language he enjoyed, dead language he learnt to write and read, language that was then what Latin was now. He doesn’t remember, but it was worth it, for he doesn’t die), sigils he uses in his spells. He infuses them with his magic, rich and thick and cold as velvet full of holes, dark like old, treasured wine, smelling of blood and iron and rot and chocolate pudding ( his magic is older than such dish, but it always smelled so, or so at least he think) and fire.

It easily comes to him, his power, his might, comes from space between ribs, from fire in his heart, iron in his blood and windy storm in his breath, and most important of all, it comes from his pricking curiosity and misty nostalgia ( not from guilt, thick and grey and wrapped around his neck like shawl and noose, of course not, where would you get such idea). It comes and flows through air and enters signs, infusing them with strength while it takes form and purpose from them.

Sigil of blood upon his forehead, for seeking. Sigil of ash upon his pillow, for memory. Sigil of dust above his large bed, for divining the past. With that written, he sleeps and hopes to dream.

Mighty wizard he is, who grew and learnt from best of best ( stole their secrets and dueled them and defeated and made his slaves though he didn’t need to. What foolish idea, that he ever needed help). Thousand  and thousands of years to learn everything he may ever need, to amass spells and knowledge and power. Power both his own and that of others, power drawn from him and fear and blood and death and sacrifice to children of darkness ( business transaction he says, only that and nothing more. They may be creatures of darkness, nights made people, shadows embodied  by magic and might of gods which he refused and threw away and doesn’t remember which is worth it because he doesn’t die, but he is Koschei. He is Koschei, only one on whom death has no claim, and he can fight anybody, even  spirits and elementals and gods, for he is immortal as they, if not even more).

But it doesn’t work, not that he wanted it so much, or that he is disappointed, mind you. He dreams but only shadows with flecks of color and no faces and dead, silent words crying and calling him with name he almost hears ( in sleep, he cries and gasps with happiness mighty enough to level cities) but completely doesn’t remember when he wakes up.

But it is worth it, for he doesn’t die.


 

Baba Yaga was already ancient beyond anybody else’s reckoning when time and space and all other forces that make up nature came to be because of imaginative gods.

Death was always one of her/their favorites.

 ( Because it gets rid of pests, youngest sister-aspect claims, claws curled and foam at mouth.)

( Because it makes mortals realize how small and insignificant they are, middle sister-aspect says, iron grin wide and burning.)

 

( Because it brings rest and because it is so soft and small, eldest sister-aspect whispers, white hair hiding crying eyes, wrinkled skin sagging.)

They remember death, when it was small and young ( smaller and younger and weaker then now, though it makes no difference to Baba Yaga). Who would think that death would be most feared of them all. Small, kind and merciful death, who invented justice and mercy and was always so terribly squeamish ( mortals get it from death. And they are even more squeamish, for mutilated corpses and tortured prisoners and annihilated cities and black holes and demon armies and dead worlds are nothing scary), and would run from Baba Yaga whenever she/they got bit angry though  it knew they would never harm it.

It doesn’t like them so much anymore. You are so cruel and dangerous, it says, quivering with pure pathetic fear. And those words make Baba Yaga consider that maybe it/she/they should have felt some form of guilt, which only few could do, before they bite off and chew another child’s limbs.

Death is compassionate and tender and charitable, though it can also sometimes be somehow  moody and dark and cruel ( so many beings born  from it, are it, of course not all have same personality, of course it’s aspects sometimes clash).  But always just and caring. That is why resurrections fail, even if you do ritual and sacrifice and spell  everything else all right. After being dead, nobody wants to be alive ever again.

But there are fools who are afraid of kind young death, stupid greedy mortals. They seek immortality and are willing to pay any price. For what? To live? Why? So they could live? And so and so on.

Some fail and die and languish how could they ever make such mistake. How could they deny death? Death who comforts and cares for them all, villain or hero, weak or powerful, servant or ruler.

Some manage it, twisted form, false copy of Primordials’s rightful immortality, and plead for death to arrive, to allow them to leave, to stop living.

And some, and here Baba Yaga bar(s) fangs/knives, feel it all, but convince themselves that it was worth it for they don’t die. Stupid and afraid and wicked, those humans.

Baba Yaga sits and wait for most recent one- little deluded Koschei whose bones are not healthy but would be very tasteful in wine and entrails of peasant and princess- to fail and realize his mistake.

They always do.


 

‘’You have wilderness in your heart, my son. You should tame it before it ends you.’’ That is what Koschei’s father told him many times a day.

 it’s ancient proverb, more than saying, less than legend. It has been part of this land for longer than Koschei’s  birth empire or language he uses in his spells existed. He had heard it told to him and many others countless times across millenniums.

Some people, they say, are strange and risky ( which means they will soon become mad and dangerous). They have fire in their hearts, are restless as winds and have stubborn wills of iron. Those children of fire and iron and wind refuse to follow normal way of living, refuse to comfort expectations of other people, don’t want to fit in with the rest of society. In case it isn’t forced out of them, they should be shunned and left to their madness, which would become their foil and example for children.

Koschei isn’t sure why his father told him that. He thinks it could have been something to do with study of magic ( it was frowned upon in those days, but not illegal, he think. He isn’t sure, but it doesn’t matter, it was worth it, for he can’t die). Sometimes he seems to remember about laughing at some  ancient custom or senseless ritual, failing to measure to his people’s standards for something. He isn’t sure. His father could have also referred to Koschei’s love of warfare, his sneers towards lesser people, towards hit servants and malnourished animals,  wild parties and gold he piled up like magpie or dragon which was wasted on trinkets, to crying girls who ended up with children nine months later. Which was never so strange, as such is right of strong men, tsareviches especially.

He doesn’t remember. It would be nice if he knew what that was, what set him apart, but well, it was worth it. He can’t die.

He wasn’t made tsar. It may have been because he was youngest. It may have been because he was bony and little sickly since birth ( who can know, but if somebody told them this, he would dismember them). Maybe it was because  he lacked some qualities that his brothers had. Maybe they had to perform some test and he didn’t manage to  (obviously cheating, then, if he failed). Maybe father feared people wouldn’t want wizard on throne. maybe it was because he loved war, or didn’t respect unwritten rules.

They argued, and he walked out, leaving crying family behind, and swore he would come back for what was rightfully his.

Or he assaulted somebody, attempted assassination, and he was banished, by father too soft and of too weak heart to kill his wild son, son who burned and blew and had will of iron.

They thought he would be lost. World has no place for fourth royal sons. Firsts is either cruel tyrant or wise king, second is either doubting accomplice or hesitating  ally and third is brave hero  or kind caregiver. That is what makes world spin. Fourth sons, when they are  born at all, fade in nothingness or find some lazy, minor position, and are only recorded in family trees, footnotes in history. They surely thought he wouldn't accomplish anything he threatened.

Were they fools, were they arrogant or were their hearts broken?

He doesn’t remember. But it was worth it, both forgetting and that which he did and forgot. Because of that, he can’t die.


 

Koschei is annoying little pest,  so far worst of all of this world’s humans ( though they have seen far, far worse), which is hard contest measured in nuances and tones. Entitled little brat that rages and demands what it doesn’t deserve, almost had to cast spell on his tongue so that he could be silent and not insult them ( he would have tasted so sweet, so nice- more you hate something, the sweeter it is when  you cook it).

He comes and makes his oily demands for immortality, so sure that they are nothing but simple witch, witch who hoarded secrets and spells overs thousands of years ( as if they are so young and new and fresh, as if they ever were so blessed to be young like that), witch who did what he seeks to- thinks himself so smart, to take away death from his body, but knows that only Baba Yaga can do it, and never says that when he gloats to his prisoners.

‘’How dare he?’’ Youngest sister-aspect snarls. ‘’ We should chop him up and drink his marrow. ’’

‘’He has good idea.’’ Eldest sister-aspect scowls. ‘’ He will do much  ill to humans.’’

‘’ Then let him.’’ Middle sister-aspect giggles. ‘’ Let him torment them.  Let them see why they are mortals, why gods weren’t that stupid to give them eternal life.’’

‘’ And he will think that we are afraid of him!’’ Youngest sister-aspect roars.

‘’ Then we will bargain, and if he succeeds we will do what he demands, and if not we will eat him, and either way he will die in the end.’’

That is how they do it.


 

Koschei is brave young man, warrior and criminal and mighty wizard. He isn’t afraid of old stories, isn’t afraid of old witches, for he will one day be mightier than any of them.

There are many tales of the witch he intends to visit, tales that are older than religions and empires, tales that have been ancient back when first brick of first house of first tsardom was made. Tales that are written in blood and bone and heart and mind of all who call these lands home, written with frost and flame and death and despair. Children talk about old hag, primal boogie that will come to take them away if they had been naughty and that is always tricked and defeated in the end of each of a senile  grandmother's tales and little boy or girl she stole are safe. Peasants whisper about terrifying abomination that flies in stone  mortar which she guides with iron pestle, hiding her tracks with broom of silver birch, and claim that her passing causes crops to wither, that her laugh calls forth storms, that her shadow brings madness and war, that she is one but also three. Rich and educated laugh and say silly old tale, stupid bumbling witch that tries to terrify people with old bedtime story, and quietly leave offerings while praying.

Arcanist know of her. Oh yes, they do. An archsorceress, grand witch of old, born in time of old magic and older terrors, that survived past her time by powerful and dark necromantic magic, by sinful bargains with powers of Underworld, by inhuman, unclean blood of nechierty flowing through her veins. She grew and learnt and amassed spells and now even grandest go to her for aid. And they know that, as all sorcerers, she can be surpassed.

So he goes to the Forest, to ancient depth and untamed darkness and primal wild. His weapons rust and his spell cannot work there, and he runs from too big beasts and venomous plants, and  from hungry vampires and smiling rusalki and from strange, stillborn spells flowing on wind and twisted, horrible pools and meadow and hills. He travels without fear, walking through the Forest ( he doesn't bargain, never, he isn't brave/honest/fair/smart/wise stupid enough for that) with head held tight and tall and proud and steady heart.

But he shivers when he passes gate, bones pearly and bloody, yellow and charred black.

He trembles when he stands before the hut, dark and small and filled with malice and ancient power, magic so thick that it suffocates him,  clawed chicken feet dancing mad dance, bloody spindle turning it’s sharp end towards him.

He bites his tongue to keep himself from screaming when witch comes, taller than tallest ruffians he has ever seen ( this he remembers, remembers exact sound of doors, three cobwebs on windows, remembers holes in floor and crumbs on her dress , remembers blood on her apron), almost giantess.

Her skin is rough and gray like stone of northern mountain, her hair white like cruelest snow and dragging down to her feet.  Her hands are gnarled and knotted and brown like ancient trunks, her clawed palms with too long fingers like wicked branches. Her nose is long like bridge and thin like silver needle and her mouth is too long and wide, cave filled with knives of iron and crumbling stone. She is dressed in rags that look like soil and forest, splattered with crimson blood, meat choppers in her hands, apron of baby’s skin tied around her waist.

She is thin, thinner than any being has right to be. There is no flesh on her, only protruding bones and sagging skin, wrinkles as deep as canyons. She is ugly and terrifying, in way dismemberment is, for it is more than just disgusting face, ugliness and terror are woven in very essence of her being, so ugly that very world around her contorts, screaming in pain, her terrifying face so disgusting that wrongness of it  invades nature itself. And her gaze, an ancient gaze that is heavy and smothering like sea, and he bends under weight of her years until he kneels and bows before her as if she was goddess.

Scream comes out of him, high and pitched and primal, coming from his very bones, as some ancient instinct screams at him, what did you do you fool, son't you know what will happen, don't you know who she(they/it) is/are?

‘’ Enough of that racket, idiot!’’ She growls like bear and he shuts up, her spit melting metal of her meat choppers, her teeth shining under candle light.

‘’ So,’’ voice is different, longer and lazier, feeling like frozen needles upon his neck as the witch of witches smirks ‘’ you come to us for immortality don’t you?’’ She speaks like tsaritsa of world, like he is child speaking against something royal and wise and divine, and he dares not do anything other but nod and confirm what she says.

‘’ It may not be worth it- years do strange things to you once you get past certain age. ‘’ Her third voice is that of grave and dust and old, forgotten secrets, and his soul venerates her even as sorrow in her voice threatens to drown him.

‘’ Yes. It is worth it. I won’t die.’’ He says- whispers, not looking towards her. Let him be ugly as horrible as her, as hated and mad. It matters not. There is no price grand enough for what he seeks, for freedom from mankind’s greatest enemy- cruel, greedy death.

‘’ Very well.’’ She says, three voices speaking at same time and causing blood to pour from his poor, young ears.

‘’ Then let us begin, young one. Let us bargain.’’


 

Three tasks they give him, three easy tasks. Such is way, such it has long been since days of old, and tales haven't been stupid enough to challenge or inconvince Baba Yaga enough so that they would break their rules out of pure spite. And it is kind and just and fair, for now, they live in tales and when you are in someone's house you play by their rules.

Until you grow bored and eat hosts and burn house to ground, but that is neither here nor there. Anyway, they give him three tasks, as if he was some true questing prince and not fourth son, wicked wizard, tyrant in making.

First is to wash one room. Here, his mortal, young magic is worthless, as are his weapons. He growls and curses inside his head ( thinking they won’t hear, won’t know what he thinks), tsarevich reduced to rabble. He cleans and despairs, unable to understand writings in books and on bottles that are so conveniently near him. It is done, not well, but enough for him to pass.

Second is to bring them blue roses, for their favorite tea. He goes out in snow and tears them with his hands, thorns tearing apart his gloves, ruining his skin ( it will never heal, never never never). They are cramped and some petals are missing, but it is enough.

Third is to write binding spell. He writes it, like a true wizard: hundreds of sigils and traps, all laid in and above and below and around. Main component is, of course, a circle of fire.

He scowls when they accept it but tell him he should have used water. Fire is active and burning and more painful, yes, but fire can be crossed if you are willing to bear the pain and be scorched and baptized in ash and smoke and heat and flame. But water, though passive and slow and seemingly weak is much better for trapping and binding  things. Water is patient and lonely and knows many strange secrets ( well,  strange to others. Baba Yaga lost ability to be surprised so long ago). Water takes and erodes and drags you to it’s depths and keeps you there forever, and in the end, this whole world will belong to it when true final flood without arks or coffins,  nothing like that, no mercy, only deluge,comes and those who can not adapt will drown, and it matters not to water, for it will keep their souls and keep them safe and treasured as Baba Yaga do(es) with those who are eaten, and all save them will belong to it.

Koschei, foolish child of fire and iron and wind, so proud of what he thinks is wilderness in his heart, doesn’t see this. But they accept spell and fulfill his wish.

On their spindle and wheel fate was born ( it did not have that shape originally of course, but metaphor is good enough so that mortal minds can comprehend it) and by it fate is bound, fate of all times and places, fate that binds even gods and deities, from which only Baba Yaga and their brethren are free ( for they were before anything and will be after everything, and because they are makers and Creators). They don’t even need it, for their power is limitless, but Koschei wants show and show he will get. So they work on spindle and turn wheel and mumble words that they just invented but Koschei thinks some arcane, ancient rhyme of  something such as a long since  fallen empire ( and empire forms, buildings and histories and letters and alphabet, all based around nonsenses Baba Yaga speak(s) and one day archaeologists will find it and never know what it truly was) and fate feels their pull.

They bind it and shape it and remove the very possibility of Koschei dying from all times and places and causes, from every alternate universe and reality and dimension. Death would scowl and scream and cry, but it is silent, for it knows that even if Baba Yaga’s back horribly aches these days,  and their walk is slow, they would not need to bother in least to crush death to oblivion, as they wouldn’t bother with bug either ( when you are endless and ancient and omnipotent, in the end it is all same to you, all same and indifferent and weak and useless and you are only hungry and irritated and cackling and grinning and bored and tired and you can either dream or wait).

Inside a needle, inside egg, inside duck, inside rabbit, inside chest ( iron or gold or crystal, which is this time, this universe?) under green oak tree guarded by dragon on Buyan, dear little Perun’s  island where weather of this small insignificant planet comes from.

That should be enough for stupid little annoying pest.


 

He forms the army. He isn’t sure how-some say that he raised dead, others that he dueled to death against greatest warriors in kingdoms and bound them with oaths, third claim that he overtook other kingdoms.

It doesn’t matter, either way. He can’t die and he had army and he brought it home and his homeland burned.

This he remembers, black spell flames turning men in ash and melting stone, reducing land to wasteland from which it never recovered.

Rest is hazy. He remembers something about arrow in throat and four bodies, one older than rest of his victims and he, impaled on iron sword as wind blew away the castle ( he doesn’t remember who they were, but knows, knows and doesn’t think about that).

He crowned himself, and those who survived either died soon, for there was no more food in land ( he hungered, hungered like never before, and was ready to start chewing on his own flesh, but he can’t die and so it was worth it, and he knew nothing about field and farmer's work and such old, dark magic always has price and what death couldn't take from him it took from his land, as metaphor claims that tsar and tsardom are one) or fled, leaving him alone in kingdom of rubble and dust.

It was worth it, for he can’t die.

Besides, there are other kingdoms. Other lands. Koschei turns his greedy eyes and licks his dry lips.


 

Mortals are bound to their bodies. Most Primordials ( even some of elementals, those creatures born and shaped from nature and world’s laws and Baba Yaga’s children) have no need for them, and even when they take corporeal form, they aren’t bound by them.

But mortals are flesh and blood and bone ( proof, youngest sister-aspect croaks, that all humans are somehow barely good  at and for is lunch) and it binds them. Their mind is not separate from material form, but bound to it. And human brain isn’t made to last for long time.  It can’t  even take something as small as thousand years, let alone seven ( and three hundred sixty nine and seven months and two weeks and six days and one hour and fourteen minutes and two seconds and six nanoseconds). Memories accumulate and clog brain and it all starts to break down, down, down.

Most fun to watch, middle sister-aspect says. Let them get what they deserve, hubristic villains.

Eldest sister-aspect is silent and watching with half-closed eyes, and though she knew what was going to happen, she can't help but feel pang of disappointment and sadly sigh.


 

‘’You have wilderness in your heart,  dear Marya. You should tame it before it ends you.’’ They have been telling her since she knew for herself.

She was of fire and iron and wind, and she would not bend even if it required her to break. She would not be nice or quiet or bargain.

And maybe it could have been better if she followed the rules.  There is power and respect there, in diplomacy and sweet lies hiding bitter poison, in hands of sweet ladies that can manipulate kings and lords. but that isn’t life for her.

She is Marya Morevna, tsarina of her people, daughter of her parents, child of Russian land, and she shall rule as her ancestors have before her. Her mother and father knew this, and allowed her education far beyond that of typical lady.

It is way of Black Salt, her tsardom, that tsar is always a warrior and general, master  of war and battle, since day her forgotten ancestor brought tribes to this land and carved out his rule by sword formed from salt black as night ( given to him by old, bitter witch none dare speak of, which they don't say but all know-how else can tsardom be born but from gifts and choices of Baba Yaga). Some may call them uncouth and uncivilized, but such is way and birthright and duty of her people and without strong tsar such as that, her land would collapse ( figuratively or literally, depending on how superstitious you were).

When she is sixteen, both of them die due to cold and illness.

When she is sixteen, she is crowned on her family’s ancestral throne, royal regalia upon her.

When she is sixteen, she goes to sword master, steel sabre in her hands. He is tall and strong and grim and old, but Marya doesn’t bow. She looks him in eye and gives order with all might of her royal blood.

‘’ Teach me all you know. Teach me to fight. Teach me to win.’’

Really, she is exchanging one role for other. Difference is that there are many ladies and only one tsarevna. That her tsardom won't fall because she isn't very good at needlework but surely will  if warrior doesn't sit on throne. But also because it is much easier to kill with sword than sew with needle ( congratulation and wonder from Marya to all who are capable of that wonder) and she is good at this. Really good.

She was born to be tsarevna of war, and tsarevna of war she shall be, and she will burn brighter than all of her honored ancestors, and they will smile on her down from the Heaven, and her people shall be safe. Her hard training and unslept nights don't matter, for safety of her people in worth it all.


 

Humans war over such simple things.  Over gold and land and dead loved ones. They seek glory and fame and goodness, but all they find is kind, kind death.

Baba Yaga remembers all wars of gods, all wars of all worlds, wars that decided fate’s course and saved or ruined all that exists. Those were true wars, with true destruction and true cause. Tactics and cunning humans can’t comprehends, weapons to wipe off galaxies, soldiers to destroy universes, all fighting down to last bits of their soul.

To Baba Yaga, it is all so small and weak. But at least it had point, murmurs eldest sister-aspect.


 

Marya is twenty three and has conquered four lands by that time, and no subject of hers is ashamed.  She is true warrior-tsar, and though other tsardoms may scoff at idea of woman leading army, they quickly go silent when they see her armies.

Koschei appears  in her throne hall in puff of black smoke, and they all part before him. He is tall and thin and looks young but appears older, some forty years perhaps,  but weighted down by centuries, and looks so tired. His robes are dark and gold, rich and costly, and even Marya has to suppress a shudder, for he emanates  aura of pure fear and loathing.

''Well,well,well. If it isn't Marya Morevna, tsarevna of nightmares. I heard many things about you. Some good, some bad. But mostly exciting. And I see that tales of your beauty weren't exaggerated. Quite the opposite, in fact, I would say.'' His grin is wide and forced, showing meat above his teeth, and his eyes, with their small pupils, stare with lust and greed at Marya, as if she was some pretty, pearly price to be won and cooed over before being discarded. Which he likely does do with people.

''You heard all of that? And yet you dare come here, in my throne room, in front of me and my guards?''

'' Well, they aren't of much use to you like this, are they? Not that I needed to do this. I can't die, but I'm in no mood to be bothered by your toys.'' She turns, feels some veil fall from her eyes, and sees that all of her guards and people are frozen, paralyzed. They stand like statues, caught in half step and half breath ( it isn't their body that is paralyzed, but time has stopped for them, and thank God for that. If their flesh was made stiff and unmoving, or they truly became statues, it would all be on Marya's hands and Marya's souls and then... she couldn't.... not with that. No, war is one thing, but to fall to magic because of her.....). How could she not...

'' How could you not notice? Don't worry, I haven't read your thoughts... Yet. Just simple misdirection spell, to make sure you don't focus on them but me. I'm very fond of it, you know. Especially when I'm not being paid due attention.'' Such is power of magic, to deny reality and impose sorcerer's own on world. Marya's blood runs cold, for what are wounds on torso and heart compared to enemy who can twist her mind, her innermost fortress like some toy?

''What do you want?''

'' I love beauty. But vapid, empty, trembling lasses are no fun. I need something more. Something strong and useful and hard.  Something with wild in her heart.''  Why break girl of porcelain and glass and silk when you can smother flame to ash, melt the iron and turn away the wind, leaving empty, broken shell of ash and dust and void behind, he means. 

'' You are strong, and fascinating creature, Marya Morevna. Almost unique. Fit for tsar like me. Even if this tsardom is nothing but village compared to mine. But you know how they say, head doesn't hurt because of more.''

Sickly he smiles and demands her hand. She stares, unbowing like iron, and speaks with might of northern wind and with rage like forest fire.

‘’ Meet me and my army in three weeks and defeat us, and I shall be your bride.’’ Koschei accepts, and why would he not? He can’t die and isn't he, after all, one of mightiest wizards to ever walk the Earth? What is one army to him?

When he leaves, she turns to her advisors and speaks, filled with calm rage.

‘’ Get me the best arcanists you can find.’’  Fool is Koschei, for there are no rules, no honor in war.


 

There is mighty difference between magic of mortals and magic of Primordials.

Primordials posses the true magic, power that comes from their innermost selves, their essences ( elementals and concepts), from their souls ( spirits and angels) or their will (gods). It is magic of Primordials that writes laws of worlds, magic of Primordials from which all things are made, and their desire and imagination guide it.

Humans have their magic, their poor, foolish magic that has rules and laws and impossibles. magic that comes from their feelings, magic bound into patterns and acts and words. Some use symbolic meanings and shape magic in simple forms to achieve bane physical results, as if it was tool to affect physical world ( mages). Some bind it in knots and threads and use their chants and rhymes to influence ideas and fate ( witches, first of whom learnt their craft from Baba Yaga, desperate for power and vengeance, filled with concern for their loved ones and despair, willing to face Old Bony Legs), or give simple commands and write symbols and work it in traps and programs that always act same and  marginally play with laws of physics, barely dancing on line that stands between unknown, misunderstood,undiscovered and impossible ( wizards).

In last few centuries, sorcerers have been organizing, joining in guilds, calling themselves arcanists, believing that magic can be studied, that it would accept to be limited. They should burn for that blasphemy.

Them Marya Morevna calls, and they come to her with most powerful binding spell, meant to bind demigods. Chains and key and three paths of sorcery joined in one, and Koschei, fool he is, is surprised and bound and sealed in room.

But spell made to hold demigods, halflings, those who are only partly of this world, those through whom runs Primordial power cannot simply exist like that. There needs to be price, to be loophole that would allow Koschei to free himself and run off to freedom.

They should have used something less grand. Less majestic. Koschei is but a human and simple mortal, no matter that his death is away from him, and so he could have been bound by spell made to hold humans. Spell that could only be broken by  unmaking of magic and designs that holds it in place. Spell cast by human, to bind and trap human, can simply be unmade by human. Spell gifted to mortal arcanists by Baba Yaga, made by and to hold halfbreeds, liminal beings, demigods, must have key and lock and law to make and break it, for so demand laws on which laws of nature were written in being.

And they should have used water. But who listens to Baba Yaga?

Only wise and kind and brave, that is who.


 

‘’You have wilderness in your heart,  my daughters. You should tame it before it ends you.’’

‘’Of course, father.’’ Marya says and laughs, bow  so low, low enough for her auburn hair to reach floor and almost mocking, before she goes to join servants in their dances, dressed as simple peasant, as fast and free as wind.

They love her, peasants and servants, princess that thinks about her people and learns their language, that campaigns for their rights and helps with work whenever she can.

‘’ Let it try.’’ Olga challenges, tall and proud and strong,  her blood burning in her veins, before she goes away and continues practicing with her bow and sword, strong and unrelenting as flames of Sun.

They love her, soldiers and warriors, princess who trains alongside them, who fights and wins and loses, who  works with blacksmith and knows how to craft swords and armors as well as jewelry and coins.

‘’ I will try.’’ Anna answers, her face stoic and grey gaze locked with father’s brown eyes, her shoulders rigid and curtsy perfectly lady -like. She goes to her room and plays instruments and weaves, and in night  lights a candle and reads her books and maps, cold and stubborn as iron, hidden behind silk and pearls.

They love her, ladies and tutors, princess who takes care of other’s feelings, who asks questions and gives answers, who learns and takes care that bad things happen to bad people.

Their father laughs and lets it go when he catches them ( it isn’t big problem, not as long as they marry, and after that scandal with donkey skin everybody is paying attention how kings treat daughters besides, and their plays aren't enough to bother him so he should avoid scandal, and Marya looks so similar to him in her age, and Anna is clearly her mother's daughter and Olga is perfect mix of her parents).

‘’ You are idiot.’’ He says to Ivan, bowing and looking at father’s nose ( he doesn’t like it, looking directly in eyes, especially in burning, piercing eyes of his father, but father hates it when Ivan isn’t acting properly, and when Ivan is too weak to do it, he finds alternatives that can fool father).

‘’ I am.’’ Ivan says, quiet and quivering, hands hidden behind back, nails digging in palms.

‘’You are hopeless.’’ He says,  when Ivan fails to stay calm during meeting and doesn’t stop fidgeting.

‘’ I am.’’

‘’You are useless.’’ He says, when Ivan fails to connect with nobles during holidays, fails to join the hunt of lords and seduce the ladies of noble houses.

‘’ I am.’’

‘’ You aren’t even trying.’’ He says, when tutors complain to him about Ivan’s lack of understanding, his failure to grasp math, to comprehend politics, to memorize battle strategies.

‘’ I am!’’ Ivan says, lips trembling, shoulders hunched. He bites his lips to keep cry ( always works, he likes it, teeth grazing flesh, grounds him in reality).

‘’ Stop acting, be normal.’’ He says, while Ivan sits in front of him, eyes red and drowning in tears ( salt, salt tears, saline like very oceans, it hurts to cry), hands grasping head and covering eyes, pulling at his hair, yellow like straw.

‘’ What is wrong with you?’’ He asks, voice rough and coarse after night of yelling and screaming, while Ivan looks at ceiling ( but he is far, far away, his mind filled with animals and trees and places where Sun doesn’t shine).

‘’ I don’t know.’’

‘’I’m worried about you and your future.’’

‘’ I know. Thank you, father.’’


 

Baba Yaga continue(s) chopping the limbs off man who traverse the Forest, breaking bone with swift hits of ancient knives ( there are universes younger than those knives. Much younger. Baba Yaga claim(s) they got  them few seconds ago- and they are, in way, saying truth. Everythign is relative, especially time units).

Baba Yaga hate(s) some parents. Well, Baba Yaga hate(s) all humans, and children are too included in that, but there are humans Baba Yaga hates even more, who earned that hatred by the way they treat their children.

Seeing those children, those poor, abused children. Something wakes inside Baba Yaga, something that was once such big part of them ( her, then only her), when Baba Yaga was known as the Mother of World(s) ( Mother Nature, She who Births Life and Death). A desire to save those children, to keep them warm and safe and cozy, even if it would make them less tasty ( less you hate something, worse the taste).

If it wasn’t such bother, and if other gods and Creators wouldn’t come and start annoying them with their useless complaints and powerless whining, Baba Yaga would take all those children and keep them safe forever and make them all in such cute pies so they would never again have any worries.


 

Man Marya finds on grounds is golden and fair, proud as eagle, dressed in simple hunting clothes. He looks quite lost, so she approaches him and asks, smile wide but eyes careful.

 ‘’ Do you need help?’’

Olga is running towards magnificent grey falcon she shot down from the sky, but what she finds is robust, heavy man dressed like king.  As she is staring, body utterly frozen, he coughs and grunts something that is between moan and laughter.

‘’ Good shot. But please, next time keep to geese.’’

Anna is sitting in garden, book tucked under sewing supplies, familiar raven on branch above her. When she starts reading out aloud ( rather interesting discussion about how superstitious people believe some snakes to be demons in disguise, and how they claim to recognize them and protect yourself), she hears something land besides her, and when she turns, there is young man with glossy black hair darker than even hers, that wasn’t there moments ago.

‘’ They are actually links between this world and afterlife, you see. All of them, even common ones. Some are actually reborn ancestors, looking after their families.’’


 

Raven screams as Baba Yaga tear(s) out her heart with claws stronger than bones of this world and sharper then truth. She is two hundredth raven today, and her chicks are next.

Animals are good.  Animals and plants and microbes, that is all mortals they need. No sentience, no malice, no mercy. They are good and nice and aren’t horrible and annoying and so they taste like pure disgust.

Some of them Baba Yaga blessed with intellect, in  ( arguably, to everybody else, as to Baba Yaga it doesn't even seem to have been yesterday) younger days of existence, but so soon to them.  They remained, hunting and fighting, but learning and paying debts.

But humanity is contagion, sickness that either destroys or consumes. And some  have been seduced, have been taken off the path of Forest, and have fallen in love with hierarchies and courts and money and all that idiocies, and became wicked and corrupt and one with them and are no more animals but humans, as happened with some angels some time ago ( demons, they are called, for humans don’t want to admit that they are now same species, that they are same as that wicked Primordials, immortal humans, and their leader the Devil was once known as Baba Yaga’s grandchild but is no more, for Baba Yaga isn’t kin of humans).

They thought they aren’t humans, because things that call themselves humans looked different then them.  And so some sought to take that form, to become  hairless apes,  and some have succeeded.

Eagles, falcons and ravens. Heroes of humans that call themselves wildkin, greatest traitors of Forest folk. Sought and searched and had so many spells laid on them,  over generations and generations, till spells sunk in and became part of them, so that they are born as hairless apes and claim their ‘’bird’’ forms are only alternative  forms, that they are shapeshifters who can turn in birds.

But when you kill them, they all turn back to what they once were, after three days. Such is way of spells, such is their stupid law of thing mortals call magic. Limits and impossibilities, pah! That is why wildkin immediately bury their dead and  have no greater crime than grave-robbing, out of shame, though they aren't aware of why, they have forgotten.

Sometimes they burn their dead. Baba Yaga approve(s), and drops three hundred seventy nine ravens in cauldron/pot/lake/mirror/skull.


 

Door opens with loud thump, and Ivan stops whatever he was doing ( Olga long since gave up on guessing his strange habits). He flinches, stops yet almost jumps at same time and quickly turns towards the door, tight hands raised in front of his face, expression on it that of wounded fawn.

‘’Oh.’’ He says, breath little easier, face almost composed, hands lowered, worry mostly retreated. ‘’It’s you Olga. How can I help you?’’

Olga is sweating and her breathing is quick and shallow, her hair messy and clothes dirty, yet Ivan simply smiles and looks at her ( never observant, dear Ivan, and  as much as it bothers her father, it has saved Olga from boring lectures countless times. Ivan is kind and dear, but too demure and easily cowed. Father tries to get him to spy on Olga and her sisters, but Ivan hardly notices anything and believes every lie he is told).

‘’ Ivan,’’ she says, fast and sharp as her best sword, and Ivan shudders, shoulders straight and tense, ‘’tell me, how would you treat  an arrow wound?’’

‘’Arrow...Where?’’

‘’ Where what?’’ Man...Falcon...Whatever  could die out there if Ivan isn’t fast enough-well, he probably would be if he knew what was happening, but he would surely tell father and she doesn’t have enough nerves to deal with that.

‘’ Sorry. Where is wound located?’’ He says, voice soft and head bowed, his straw-like hair obscuring his blue eyes.

‘’... In shoulder, for example.’’  Ivan nods, and there is faraway look in his eyes, as he stares through Olga and talks, quiet and soft but fast. Olga almost can’t remember all that he says, all ways things can go wrong, how much care is needed.

He is tender thing, her young brother.  Fragile as flower, common as dirt, as assertive as water. Calm and peaceful and nice, but so afraid and weak-willed and with such thin skin. Bad at fighting, bad at learning, bad at talking with people. Clumsy and confusing and withdrawn, but good at calming animals, good at telling trees apart, good at mending wounds. His sisters advise him and servants and nobles alike laugh at him.

Father disdains him and his ways, his strangeness and his straw-like hair and blue eyes and his complete unfitness for tsar, lacking in qualities his sisters have and his father discourages, but tries and tries and fails and accepts screaming ( it is loud and painful, but he deserves it, he tells himself, father is right), accepts all insults thrown at him and yet tries again.

‘’ Is it all?’’

‘’ Y-yes.’’

Olga runs as soon, information etched in her mind, while Ivan looks through still open door, his bare room open for all to see.

‘’You are welcome.’’ He whispers. Beneath his bed, behind his walls, something hisses and Ivan answers to mute language.

‘’Don’t bee like that. She is very  nice, she surely just  has better, more important things to do.’’


 

Baba Yaga remembers first world, first planet with sentient life and humans ( they didn’t look like ones on Earth, but shape doesn’t matter, it is wickedness and ignorance that defines their species).

Her worship was disbanded, for she didn’t give human everything they demanded, even when they came up with bright idea of  sacrificing newborns to show how much they wanted it. But she couldn’t leave this world,this poor child of hers that should have been masterpiece, so she hid away in old forest ( not Forest, it became later, came later, humans didn’t fear them back then) and remained.

She watched, so old that she was only tired and bored, and yet she wept, and so she became eldest sister-aspect.

She watched, and joy came to her when she saw wicked punished, sense of justice reborn within her, her love for weak and poor burning stronger than fire itself. So burning was it, love and sadism and justice, that a new soul was born, as ancient and aware, but separate and filled with malice. So was middle sister-aspect born.

They watched, and as wickedness continued, rage grew in her, desire for vengeance  filling them, as loneliness raged in them, and so youngest sister-aspect came to be.

They watched and remained in forest and did nothing, but humans came. Murderers and thieves and The Stepmother ( first of them, and some could even claim that she was the first true human being ever, most human of them all, not a speck of goodness in her, so wicked that even evil itself was sometimes horrified how she made it grow, that even death would never be kind to her, that each act of kindness and shadow of any of the holy symbols burned her down to the bones) and they... they came to forest and... and they did....

It doesn’t matter what they did. What matters is that whatever was holding them broke and they accepted the truth. Woods became the Forest and all humans there died ( all save the Stepmother, who ran, wicked, stupid and slithery monster) and they came out with their hut ( they didn’t have chicken legs back then, no, something different) and they came after humanity and they...

It doesn’t matter what they did. But in that hour, humanity learned new concept. A thing they would later call the fear.


 ''Have you been here before?'' Olga asks, slight smile on  the beautiful face. '' Once or twice, I passed,'' golden man says'' but never before did I find something interesting to stop and see.''

''You are good archer. It will take me a month before I heal enough to fly normally.'' The wounded man grunts with devilish smirk. Marya huffs and mumbles.'''I didn't intend to. How could I have known?''

''Excuse me for dropping like this. But I couldn't stand hearing such nonsense. And I longed to have discussion with you about many things.'' Man says, his dark, glossy locks twirling on the wind, and Anna measures him with strained lips and wide eyes. '' As long as you don't try anything, you are welcome to participate in conversation with me, providing that it is intelligent and useful. This I say for your sake.''

It is most strange, what things can be born from such encounters.

Marya finds friend within man ( Eagle, he says, is name of his in his native language), who was simply passing through. They walk and laugh and whenever they can meet in village.

It takes time to take out arrow from Falcon’s shoulder, and he laughs and complains equally, with Olga apologizing and cursing him at same time.

Raven and Anna exchange opinions and recommendations, talking about books and faraway lands he has seen and she wishes to travel.

There isn’t much difference, they all learn, between wildkin ( a human born with power to take form of animal, whose lords are called by their other shape’s species, and who proclaim themselves tsars of that kind of beast) and normal human. They all have kingdoms and subjects and same  jobs and hierarchies.

Of course they like them. They are daughters of  fire and iron and wind, with wilderness in their hearts, and wildkin are free by nature, soar through air and bend iron by either hand or claw or wing, with kingdoms in meadows up in empty north, near fearsome Forest. Marya is funny and  Eagle cheerful, Olga is strong willed and Falcon is proud warrior, and  Anna is wise and Raven cunning.

We could go on, about picnics and fights and hidden messages, but we don’t have time, and besides, this isn’t their story ( it may seem unfair, that they don’t have spotlight, but please remember what a tale demands of it’s protagonists. A tragedy. Are you so cruel to give it to ones lucky enough to escape stories fate intends to trap them in?).


 

Forests are dark and deep and lovely, and you should not ever, ever  lose your way in there if you intend to survive.

Normal woods are bad enough. But here, where trees can grow taller than towers and are harder than stone, dulling and breaking best swords, where beasts are many and cunning, where monsters and dead stalk land, where strange magics reign ( still they don’t know what spells are woven in bark and sap, and don’t listen to superstitious peasants, of course those are just spells, not something grander, what foolish idea), humans are small and weak and endangered. And if you ever come out of the Forest, you will become legend. But there will be price, for Forest will take something from you. Luck, sleep, happiness (even  humanity, some whisper ).

Those are strange, liminal places, the Forests. They are part of our layer, and yet they resemble Middle, and yet again you will find beings from Under walking through it. Magic is woven in very essence of those places, and they are as deep and dangerous and beautiful and horrid as abysses of oceans and hidden tunnels under earth (sea witch, hag under mountains, crone of woods, however they want to call Baba Yaga they accept. No matter by what name they are called, they are always old and ugly and bitter and dangerous and so, so hungry).

And deeper you go, stranger it is, and it seems that very world is telling you to run, that you don't belong there, that you can't and won't survive. And you seem to know that this place shouldn't exist, that it is remnant of something ancient and forgotten, something that once was and will never again be, something that is more than you. And in very depths of the Forest, where there is no light, but there is big, simple clearing, strange weight of magic-there is so much that it seems to be physical but untouchable, like air, distorts the world and creatures here in strange, monstrous shapes, things made to survive at all cost for there is no other way. There is no mercy or sorrow, no joy or cruelty here, only hunger and justice. And they shall not be denied.

Every land has it’s Forest. And all have legends, that once trees grew and moved against humanity, only to one day stop and remain here where they stand now . Nobody thinks about what will happen if woods move again.

In Iron Forest of East and South and West, of Slavic regions and their empty north, Baba Yaga’s hut dances and waits.


 Ivan softly steps in stables, pale and gaunt like corpse, head bent even lower, his ugly hair obscuring his eyes. The stablehand, a tall and strong young lad of muscles of mossy brown hair called Stepan, turns from horse and drops brush on recently cleaned floor.

''God, you terrified me. You are really good at sneaking on people, you know? You should try that at somebody else. I swear everybody will think the castle is haunted.'' That is what Ivan came for to the stable, a familiar greeting that always-well, often, provokes sheepish laugh out of him. But moment Stepan sees him, he doesn't joke but instead carefully comes to Ivan's side and gently asks.

'' Hey, Vanya. What happened? You look horrible. Like absolute shit. Can I help somehow? Do I need to beat the hell out of somebody?'' Small giggle escapes Ivan's throat, the implausible image of Stepan punching and hitting royal court seared in his brain ( it is wrong, they don't deserve it, he is useless and ungrateful and incompetent, but it is so funny even if it is impossible, Stepan could get dumped in a prison or be executed for something like that, and it would be horrible even if it wasn't Stepan as execution in itself is horrible way to punish somebody).

''Nothing. Nobody. It is just that....'' Stepan, kind and funny and honest, understands immediately,puts his big, strong arm over Ivan's shoulders and draws him closer, steady and strong and oh so loving.

''It is that tsarevich thing again, isn't it?'' Ivan nods after moment of hesitation. he doesn't like complaining, not to anybody, and especially not to Stepan. He is tsarevich, and not matter how much hard it can sometimes be, he has got riches and education and lots of food and is literate and is always clean and warm. Too many of his future subjects don't have same luxuries, and their problems are so much, much worse. His own are so trivial in comparison, and he has duty he must fulfill, price he must pay for those luxuries. Even if sometimes he thinks peasant's life would be much easier than life of tsarevich, especially that of tsarevich Ivan, if he thinks that any of his sisters would have been much better ruler, for they have spine and are much smarter and better with people than he, but unfortunately they aren't men, which is very stupid because women can rule and do everything as well as men, why just look at B-...

Stepan presses his forehead on Ivan's and caresses his long, soft hair that shines in dark stable like pale gold. He is so beautiful, his Vanya, like something out of myth and legend, a fairy tale that came to life, and were it not for some of moments they shared together, which obviously denied such line of thought, Stepan would have taken him to be something else than human, a creature of light and gemstones, held together by clouds and morning dew, a walking dream. And he has his flaws, oh yes he does. Clumsy and confusing and forgetful and head soaring above in skies and so contained within his shell, subtly detached from rest of the world. But he is kind and nice and helpful and smart in his own way and so caring and Stepan can't believe that no other person in palace tried to have him, tried to give their heart to his Vanya. Perhaps they are afraid of tsar's retribution, if he finds match unfavorable ( as he surely would find this one to be, a servant and royal heir, who heard of such thing). Perhaps they are wiser than Stepan is.

But Vanya is beautiful and kind, and what are chances of tsar finding out.

'' Tell me. What happened. It will be easier.''

'' Well, it was nothing, I mean nothing specific, just that these last two days, you know....'' And he goes on, mumbling and talking in circles while Stepan listens. Sometimes it seems as if talking to Ivan requires ripping out words from his throat, when he is like this, but Stepan doesn't care. This is Ivan's time and Ivan's way and he needs to get comfortable and relaxed, and he should be free as he is, should not ever treat this like task. And so he goes on, talking about his duties and how he failed them, about incidents and social faux passes he performed, while Stepan listens without word, just as Ivan listens when Stepan complains about work and his colleagues and that insane old cook with his complaints on everything.

''I think that it isn't such problem, Vanya. Everything will smooth out in few days. Those people are just being sensitive babies.'' It is really ironic, how everybody laughs at Ivan for being fragile and sensitive when he cries or flinches. Yet he bears ridicule and back-handed compliments like true hero, while those nobles are ready to declare war over spilled wine.

''You think so, Styopa? They do have reasons and I-''

'' You are amazing.'' Stepan breathes out and leans in. Ivan answers with kiss, wet and sloppy and clumsy but amazing and passionate and fantastic.

''Styopa. Can we...''

'' Of course.'' He should be more careful, but really, who can see them and whatever happens, Stepan will never leave his beloved, will always love him.

They are quick and impatient and gentle, Ivan slowly taking off Stepan's shirt, trailing kisses over his chest and going lower and lower, down, down.  Stepan's strong, muscled arms catch Ivan's slender waist, and Ivan wraps his long, graceful legs (made for dancing in meadows from dusk till dawn, Stepan half-joked) around Stepan's hips as he wraps his thin, pale arms around wide, sun-kissed neck. It is easy to hold Ivan, light and thin as he is, and even easier when he is hungrily kissing him over and over, as if it was going to be their last time together. Stepan sits down on straw, breathes out short and harsh and burning breaths as Ivan's long, thin fingers trace his cheeks. Ivan throws his head backwards with childish giggle, and his long hair floats and shines in fading sunlight, coming in from small holes between planks. He arches his perfect, swan-like neck, allows Stepan to kiss and bite and watch flesh turn pink and purple like dawn ( this is what convinces him that tsarevich Ivan is real, that he isn't ghost of the twilight and stardust hidden among mere mortals, that he isn't relic of the ancient legends that will perish if defiled by common hands).

Stepan's palms caress and travel over Ivan's back, throwing away too complicated garments, revealing lithe and smooth torso, pretty as the light of a waning crescent moon.

 They kiss and cuddle and laugh as they trace hands over each other's body, before Ivan descends like dangerous and wild bird on prey and tears away Stepan's pants, who soon returns the favor ( well, not so much. Those clothes royals wear are complicated as hell. Dressing in them, and taking them off is an art by itself. He isn't sure why they make them as such-do they love to make the life harder than it is, then it should be). he slaps gasping, moaning Ivan on backside, whispers sweet compliments in his ear before and during and after main act.

Even when he is like this, sweated and flushed and of short breath and so obviously of bone and flesh, Stepan keeps expecting to turn out and find his Vanya collapsing in and disappearing in fog and diamond dust, keeps expecting him to turn out to be something like a rusalka, seducer clothed in sweet tricks and lies, intending to drag him away to early, watery grave at bottom of pond or river or lake, keeps expecting him to turn out be kin of vilas, creature of mounds and woods and waters that will bind him with song and make him dance until he drops down dead, that will take away his sight and leave him with eternal yearning and turn him to stone.

Tsar himself could appear just now, and Stepan would never leave Ivan.

Fate hears his unspoken challenge and accepts it. Heavy door of the stable creaks open and harsh, enraged figure runs in.

''Ivan!!''


 Ivans always go for  boys like that. Strong and honest and seemingly hard but loving. Baba Yaga know(s) that this one won't last.

He doesn't have so called wilderness in his heart, isn't child of fire and iron and wind, isn't same boy (even if it usually isn't same name and maybe not even soul, it is same boy because pattern and rule and requirement and role remains) Ivan could call his beloved.  He is a normal, mundane, simple as rest of humans and same as them ( even if he may be little kinder to what he thinks are other humans but aren't such as Ivan, so he may not deserve to burn in so hot fire) and isn't something grand and legendary and rare and outstanding it would work.

Were Stepan cursed prince, or a sworn brother of a dragon, or blessed warlord with magical sword, it would have been allowed. Protagonist of tale that chronicles adventure(s) of one who then currently bears name/title/role/form/mantle of Ivan tsarevich must have extraordinary love, that is in very nature of story, forged since the very first Ivan, the humble third chief's son, came in the Forest , reduced on all the fours, came to old and bitter Baba Yaga. Tales has it's demands, and same power that allows Ivans and Vasilisas to live demands that they perform role they have been created for.

Only way for them not to proceed with the story is to die before plot can properly start moving.


 

Scream is high and sobbing, scream of something young and small dying at hands of hunter.

The tsar stands, shoulders wide and strong as trunk of ancient oak,  thick brown beard like autumn leaves, small brown eyes like burning acorns.  He is roaring like a bear,  madly kicking and hitting wall. And below, Ivan lies.

His father’s legs hit his ribs, and it is wonder that some haven’t cracked already.  Bruises blossom across his whole body, fists and feet curled, hands and legs drawn tight to his torso. Clutters of hair lie around his head, welts forming across puffed, pink cheeks, as big tears pour from his bloodied eyes and he moans, moans like dying fawn, like shot rabbit.

‘’Stop crying! Stop crying! Just stop crying already, you fool! You worthless, useless bastard!’’  he screams higher and kicks stronger, and Ivan’s wails are louder and tears faster. He doesn’t even notice words, wrapped up in pain and screaming and thousand  I’m sorry, please stop, I deserve it running through his head.

‘’ You retarded, idiotic fool! Useless, stupid, good for nothing bastard! You are supposed to be my heir? You are supposed to be tsar! You are nothing! You are nobody! I can’t believe that you are supposed to be my son! My son!’’

He deserves this. If only he hadn’t bumped into duke Stoyakov and threw him into mud puddle.  If only  he did well in duel against ambassador Reinherz. If only he didn’t show up at royal ball covered in dust and with herbs in his hair. If only he didn’t fail in talking with tsarevna Yelena and she didn’t laugh at him whole evening.  If only he didn’t practically jump on Styopa in evening, frustrated and crying and desperate for kind words and anything that would distract him. All that in two days, while father was so stressed over visiting royals and ambassadors. He deserves this, he should have expected this.

‘’Do you have any idea how you shamed us, you ungrateful brat? How do you intend to command nobles? To fight for your homeland? To find suitable spouse? You should be warrior, leader, tasrevich!’’ Ivan’s skin breaks and blood mixes with dirt from soles of his father’s hard, heavy boots. He buries eyes in fists and waits. Kicks stop, for his father is old and exhausted, and even might of his rage cannot make up for his old, tired muscles, and there is sweat on his brow and his breath is short and ragged.

‘’ You are not fit to pleasure even a stable boy. I doubt even horses would accept you. You are fit only for mutts.''

 He whispers, throat tired but voice sharp and painful still. ‘’ Perhaps I should sell you to brothel, to be a whore of peasants.  Maybe you wouldn’t prove yourself complete failure then.’’ Ivan cries and moans, cries and moans, and the tsar cannot believe that he fathered such stupid creature.

‘’ Maybe I should kill you, before I kill myself.’’ He spits on Ivan’s hair and leaves ruined chamber. ‘’ Know that when I die, it was you who drove me to the early grave.’’

Ivan was left, crumpled and sobbing on the hard, cold floor, chirping of birds and hissing of snakes only things comforting him. Slowly, gradually, his sobs grew quiet, his moans lower, his eyes drying ( for even the  worst downpour must come to it’s end).

Door creaked open, and Ivan closed his eyes brought his limbs closer.

‘’ Ivan.’’ It is Anna’s voice, not father’s. Ivan is a bad son and shouldn’t be happy that his father didn’t come again, but he is.

‘’ Get up, Ivan.’’  Olga is strong and brusque, and she is  really nice even though she claims she isn’t, but he could use without her now. Even Anna is maybe too much. But if she is here, that means that Marya is here, because these things always do and must come in threes, that is how it works.

He rises, slowly, holding himself up  by his elbows, and looks at three of them,  clean and tall and proud and amazing as they are. They should be rulers, leaders, wise and brave and beloved as they are, not him. Let him heal animals and sort herbs and keep to his corner and not be laughed and that would be enough. For him, for them, for father, for everybody. They would be far better rulers than him, and he would be much happier and better as simple healer than this.

But that isn't how it goes. World isn't such place, not yet. And besides, there is role to be played.

‘’ How are you?’’ Anna is first to ask, and she is striking image of what mother used to be, and she is very smart and cunning and so good and though it pains him to admit, for it isn’t fair, he likes her bit more than other two of his sisters, for she is easiest to talk to, and not just because she is youngest after him.

‘’ I... I’m well. Really well.’’ Ivan says as he places hand over his purple cheek and pats his throbbing skull.

‘’ Don’t lie.’’ Olga says, arms crossed, and Ivan does his best to suppress yelp.

‘’ I’m not lying.’’

‘’ You are.’’ She says and frowns. ‘’ Whole castle heard.’’  And probably laughed and whatever they do when they hear he has got in trouble with father again. Because it is scary when the tsar is angry and nobody wants to be on receivening end of his rage and it is so much easier to ignore then help even in subtle ways and besides, it is just a dumb strange Ivan. It is his own fault and he is so weird and stupid and let us all laugh at him, shall we?

‘’ Ivan...’’ Marya tries to say, but he cuts her off.

‘’ What happened to Stepan?’’ Marya is well-versed with people and pretty much knows all of castle’s inhabitants.

‘’ Ivan, I think that it is...’’

‘’ What happened to him?’’ He says, soft and quiet, not looking in her yes, which go wide. To cut off somebody like that...  It is surely most forceful thing he did in his entire life.

‘’Father ...sent him away.’’

Sent him away. Sent him away. Sent him away. Oh dear grandmother, what would happen with Stepan?  Funny, smart and kind Styopa who was  ( excluding his sisters and animals, neither of which really counted due to being family or pet or he was their pet or all of those) only friend.  And only of his romantic adventures which didn’t end up so badly that it could be considered legend ( if he acted upon them, of course). Would he find job? He was stable boy in royal palace, so it had to be important, but he doubted Styopa got recommendations. And if it got out that tsar himself got rid of him... And if reason got out- that he was ‘’shameless’’ enough to flirt with those ‘’above his status’’.... Oh dear grandmother, what if he starved? If he ended up homeless? Winter was going to come soon, and it was going to be harsh, for Ded Moroz was in a rather bad mood this year, and sky would be dark and full of harsh, bitter wind, and no piece of land would escape frost and snow and rime and ice and capitol was made of such harsh, cold stones and he would get a frostbite in less than three days and how was he going to find food oh no...

‘’ Ivan.’’ Olga’s voice tore him out from his thoughts.

‘’ Anna, please make sure he gets some job? You can to make somebody take him in. Please Anna, he has nobody.’’ His voice is breaking and his head is spinning as reaches and latches on Anna's hand, like man lost in desert who suddenly found water, and painful tears slide and slide and he sees nothing but wide grey eyes and hesitant, quivering lips...

‘’Ivan, we need to talk.’’ Olga said and sounded so much like father that he rose his hands bit.

‘’Why did this happen?’’ Because I’m not good enough. Because I’m clueless, retarded idiot who always does things wrong even when I give my best. Because I’m brat who got to live as tsarevich and cannot be grateful enough to be good tsar his father and country need. Because I’m mistake.

‘’ I... I did all that stuff in last few days,  so father was stressed, and I was so nervous, and so I went to stables, to talk to Stepen, and then we started kissing and then...and then more...’’  Vanya, he told Ivan as he kissed him, Stepya’s passion and love like fire and roses. Vanya, he said as he pulled hand through Ivan’s long, ugly hair. Vanya, he said as he took him in his lap and.. He blushed and cried at same time.

‘’ He caught you and dragged you off to your room. He was shouting and you started crying and he lost his temper.’’ Ivan nods and nods. Cold, hard facts. It is all his fault, thin-skinned idiot he is ( but the  fact that he is thin-skinned because he is regularly flayed alive doesn’t  happen to occur  to many).

‘’Oh Ivan.’’ Anna says and reaches out to touch him, to lay hand on his shoulder, but stops when he flinches and lowers himself.

‘’Why did you not try to control yourself?’’ And that is golden question. He is so weak, so obvious, so easy to read. He knows that he should be strong, should bear it all, and he tries and tries but it is too much. Everybody is always screaming and laughing at him and he can’t bear it all, it is throbbing and burning inside his head and when he cries it is just gone along with world, but when he tries to keep it in it remains and is even worse and grows and burns until he explodes.

‘’ Later with that. Why didn’t you defend yourself?’’ Because he deserved it all. Because fear froze his hands. Because he is trying to be good son and there is nothing to defend against and thought didn’t even cross his mind ( because father is tsar and can do anything to anyone from tsardom and his people and Ivan belong to him and  it will be worse and he will be thrown in dungeon or dead or exiled or sold)

‘’I..’’

‘’Ivan, we don’t fault you. We care about you and your future,’’ ( do they even realize what they say, why he shivers) ‘’ and you must think about what you are doing.’’

‘’ I know.’’

‘’ No, you don’t.’’ Words stop him, and he looks up from the floor, staring at them with wide, glassy eyes.

‘’ Ivan, please.  We know it’s hard, but you must try.’’ Marya says, her eyes shining and pleading. ‘’ You cannot go on like this. You must control yourself. Keep act up when father is around. Fight against him when he tries something like this. Work to get better at royal functions then play in spare time.’’ He dully nodded. He knew that, lived his entire life knowing that and trying to be good enough. He was stupid but he wasn’t lazy, no matter what they all thought. He tried but it was as if entire world was playing by rules he didn't understand and nobody bothered to explain them, as if he was from some other world or planet or time, and whole world was so not and uncomfortable but he tried to be perfect and more he tried angrier father was for he never managed to be what he was supposed to be, what he was born to be.

‘’ Please take this seriously. Just once try hard and give all of yourself.’’

Give. All. Of. Yourself. Just. Once. Once, as if he hadn’t been doing that his entire life.  As if he hadn’t been giving everything he had and ten times more.  As if he hadn’t been wasting energy to learn and perform correctly  all that was demanded from him since he was born. As if he hadn’t worked himself to bone  until he collapsed in bed to find short freedom in dreams.

‘’You think I don’t?’’ He isn’t thinking, isn’t aware of words he hissed as something burning and cold rises from beneath layers of his many thoughts.

‘’We...’’ Olga doesn’t get to finish sentence as once again he cuts her off.

‘’ You think that I don’t know that? That I don’t try? That I love when father is angry? That I love what I am?’’ None of them speak, for Ivan’s voice is low and painful to hear, heavy as black earth and grave dirt, cold like icicles and depths of northern seas and sharp like snake fangs and rose thorns. They have never heard him speak like that, and doubt he had ever spoke like this to anybody anywhere.

‘’ I try. I give more then I have, do everything to be good tsar and make everybody happy. But it is never good enough and none of you ever try to help. You only criticize and call me dumb. And maybe I am, but I try and nobody cares. Just tells me that there is something wrong with me.’’

His teeth are bared and eyes wild,  hands closed in fists, and there is nothing gentle and tender on him anymore ( they forgot, as they all do, that deserts and mountains are made of dust, that in the end we all come to dust. They forgot that water is tide and tsunami and flood and blizzard and deep, merciless ocean. They forgot that flowers can have thorns and be poisoned, that Forests are nothing but trees).

‘’ And you lecture me to do more, but I do more than all of you combined. You always defy father and do what you want and everybody loves you and he does nothing, while I do everything that he wants, that I hate,  and all I get is this and ridicule. You have no idea how hard it all is. And now Stepan is without job and home and who knows what will happen to him and you act like I wanted that to happen.’’

He rises to his feet, head held high and proud and they wonder how they never noticed how tall he truly is, taller than ever father.

‘’ Just... leave me alone. Allow me to cry in peace. That is only thing I ever wanted.’’

And they do, too stunned to speak.


 

Tonight, the youngest sister-aspect is in control, but others are active too.

Tonight, Baba Yaga grasp(s)  threads of fate and chooses a path.

Tonight, they sing a lullaby.


 

Tonight, proud tsar falls to illnesses, and there shall be no cure, and soon he will die.

It may be misfortune. It may be wind. Or it may be black snake with grey eyes, rising from between walls of palace, trailing through all-too familiar corridors, wrapping her cold scales around his heart.

Tonight, tsar dreams of his dead wife, her strong, cold hand gripping his chest, her mouth forcing ill breath in his lungs, her body faded like ghost’s, her  pupils slit and tongue forked.

It is her first act of power, her first changing of fate. She could have gone on, moved to the  Heaven or the Irij or wherever souls go after death if they don't remain as snakes but she remained, for she needed to watch over her children. Because she always suspected that there was something wrathful and spoiled in her husband, that would have had lashed out once world didn't meet his standards in effort to force it to conform to his illusions. She was supposed to skulk in shadows and watch from corners, no matter how much it hurts to be separated from them, to be unable to speak with her daughters ( she got more than she hoped for, and she is grateful for that,  and it pains her that she wasn't there for Mary and Olga and Anna more, but Ivan never knew her as anything other,  and he is fragile and starved, and needs her most, and old magic and fate and story bind him as tight as noose and he is only one who can hear her and know her for what she is).

Tonight, Ivan sleeps with smile, peaceful as child to whom lullaby is sung.


 

They belong to them. Brave, kind  and wise boys and girls who braved Forest for sake of others and dwelled in their hut and followed rules.

Ivans and Vasilisas. Through centuries, they come to them, and it doesn’t matter if it is same soul reborn or new one forced in ancient role. They are theirs, to protect and avenge from fools and idiots and humans and punish when needed if somehow task given isn't fulfilled for so story demands and it doesn't bother them very much and guide and aid and fight against. And to harm such child is to call their wrath.


 

Dying tsar grips his son’s hand tight ( but not too tight, enough to command, enough to seem like loving gesture the poor, unloved fool will fall for, and tsar believes that it is sign of love, that such is way of loving parent,that he is doing a great good for his son) and tells him to marry his daughters to first who ask.

Three princesses run to their rooms and burn feathers. And three wildkin tsars feel call in their bones.


 

Everything is made of magic, and everything has soul ( except the fey, but they do not count). Seconds, thoughts, feathers... Everything.

Magic seeks out familiar magic, and so burning feather can summon tsar, whose kind was once bird but is now human. They aren’t sorcerers, not really, but through generations enough spells have knit themselves in their being that they know few tricks.

There is nothing that connects with Baba Yaga. They are too old, to primal and powerful and divine to be similar to anything, even other Creators.

Sometimes, it is thing to be proud of. And sometimes, it is a thing to mourn.


 

‘’Are you sure it will work?’’

‘’ Absolutely.’’ Incident from few days ago rears it’s head, unpleasant memory stalking before it is pushed away. ‘’ Ivan would do anything father told him in life. And thing spoken on death bed... Be sure to be first to propose. And be dramatic, to scare him if something goes wrong.’’

‘’ And if we fight?’’

‘’It won’t happen.’’

‘’But if it does.’’

‘’Then... You will win. But please don’t harm him too much.’’ He will be scared enough.

And two of them kiss, breathing in each other’s breath, strong as wind, tasting flame and iron.


 

In tales, things come in threes.

Nature, idea, spirit. Three things that form world. Three sister-aspects of Baba Yaga . Three chances ( in first world) given to humans and three chances ruined.

There is power in threes.


 

Ivan comes to them few  weeks after funeral. He looks so awkward and wrong in heavy robes, head and back bent even more under weight of velvet and gold crown. Sorry, he says, and asks for walk in gardens. He is saddened, by father’s death, and Stepan’s refusal ( Ivan gave him his job back, but Stepan refused to meet his eyes, refused to speak, and it was worse than being spat in face, being smashed in wall).

Gardens are small, and tame. Flowers and bushes and few trees, all perfectly arranged. Sky is blue and clear and breeze is weak and pleasant.

In second it changes. Breeze becomes angry whirlwind, black clouds drown sky as flames dance across courtyard.

‘’His sorcerers really outdid themselves.’’ All three sisters thought. Illusion was impressive-though if you looked little better, you would see that trees didn’t shake, nor was there smell of smoke, nor was air damp.

With great cry, golden eagle descended and morphed in man. Marya and Anna had identical, confused expressions, while Olga smiled.

Eagle smirked and lengthily explained why he came to Ivan ( ‘’ You too?’’ ‘’ What do you mean you too?’’ ‘’ And you?’’ ‘’ Dear God, what are chances?’’ sisters spoke amongst themselves).

Ivan smiled and said simple ‘’ No.’’ Sisters turned and stared and eagle almost made step forward, almost shouted, but stopped. He was of keen eyes, and saw dazzling smile, saw relaxed shoulders, no trace of fear or surprise on Ivan.

Saw black snake, coiled tightly around Ivan’s neck, and warning in her cold, judging eyes.

‘’If you are to be Olga’s husband, you should ask her.’’ And Olga flew towards Eagle, flew and jumped and kissed him, while Marya and Anna watched, stunned and pleased, and only Eagle and Ivan saw snake hiss with approval ( and only Ivan heard her blessings).


 

There are three layers to each dimension.  Upper, where mortals dwell. Middle, place where laws of nature are little more lax and beasts and humans (the nechierty, the unclean, humans of this land Baba Yaga inhabits call them, but they too are human for all that is wicked and stupid and evil comes from humanity and is human and goes back to mankind) with magic in their bones dwell-undead, shapeshifters, giants, dragons, magical beasts and herbs.

And Under, place where there is but smallest semblance of order as mortals know it, inhabited by gods and beings that embody nature and ideas. Pure, unshaped magic and some semblance of mundane elements.

There, you can find the Snake King, he who embodies all snakes of  the world. If you save some of his children, they will lead you to him, and tell you to ask for the mute language, tongue of animals, plants ( and even bacteria, which  humans still don’t know about at this point of time), tongue that allows you to know  speech and letter of all languages. Thrice will King spit in your mouth, and thrice will you spit back, and gift shall be yours. But he will warn you, and try to refuse to bless and curse you.

For if you reveal it to anybody, you shall die.


 

They fly, wildkin kings and human princesses. They fly, and rosy clouds gather around them, form tunnel through which they pass to Middle layer. Sun is stronger there, and something gently bites their skin, magic so thick even they can feel it.

Courts and castles of wildkin are beautiful, and they adapt to them like fish to water. Wildkin have wilderness in their hearts, children of fire and iron and wind, and they are so much more free and informal than humans. Nobles and commoners speak alike. Woman and man are equal. Religion doesn’t govern the world.

It is amazing, living in this free place, this city built on plain of healing herbs behind mountains hiding diamonds, under ever shifting sky of deep purple and golden threads and silver clouds and brilliant white stairs, this loud, living city of eternal rumble and song and laugh, place where the Middle has been tamed and conquered and where you hide from stray spells and fight against hordes of starved vampires and maddened werewolves and beguiling rusalki and drekavacs.

There are different rules, of course.  There always must be rules, no matter what, especially here, in world that is half the magic. Rules even tsars respect.

Do not go out alone.

Respect your oaths.

Respect snakes and dead.

Beware Bony Legs with Iron teeth ( this everybody respects,  even priests ,so it isn’t so strange).

Beware cats.


 

It starts. It always does. History repeats itself, because time and fate are  too much young to be too much creative and because belief is too much strong and tales go on and on  and on.

Baba Yaga wait(s).


 

War is over. Another small duchy that thought themselves great enough to conquer tsardom of Marya Morevna. It is foolish, what is said, that  she killed whole army by herself. But it is useful. Such myths and tall tales can help her so much, striking fear in hearts of her opponents ( even if there is price to pay for it, even if reputation must be maintained for it is so fragile and easily broken and if it is broken then you have nothing, even if even her people could start to believe and fear her), possibly keeping her kingdom safe even after she is gone and her bones are dust and centuries have passed.

She is resting in her tent, white as snow, swan among bloodied ground, when a man comes to her. No, not man, but boy, though he is as old as she. There is something innocent and soft around him, something gentle and kind found only in  the best behaved of children.

Fool would have though him weak. But Marya sees how he rides among corpses and blood without care, with that shining smile on his face. He reminds her of gentle ladies in waiting whose needle is deadlier than sword, women whose sweet words and negotiations saved country as many times as her saber had. There is power, and danger in such people, all more because you don’t notice it.

‘’Hello.’’ He says, sweet and soft.

‘’How are you, my lady?’’ As if he doesn't know who she is.

‘’Who is asking?’’ He blinks slowly and answers. ‘’ Me? Who else?’’

Marya can’t decide whether he is honest, joking, or really good actor who is trying to lower her defenses. ‘’And you are?’’

‘’Oh. Sorry. Should have introduced myself first.’’ He jumps off horse-only now she notices how quiet animal was, for it seems to sob when he comes off it-lands with as much grace as cat and then somehow sends dirt and blood over her dress.

‘’ Sorry! Sorry, sorry, my fault, so clumsy!’’ He babbles, and he is either really strange, or spy who  has chosen really bad combination of traits for  persona he seeks to portray ( she hopes it is former- it seems fun and nice and she would be insulted if it was later, for if they are going to send spies against her, they should at least be competent and of highest quality)- so clumsy yet so skilled at same time, changing it in seconds.

‘’ Only a dress. Now, answer me.’’

‘’ Uh, sorry.’’ Marya would have found it annoying if there wasn’t slight fear whenever he said sorry, as if he expected to be hit. ’’I’m Ivan. Tsarevich...well, now tsar I suppose, of White Peak. Though it is really council doing most of work.’’ What tsar would have admitted to that? One who wishes to fool enemy in thinking him easy prey-or one who doesn’t want to rule. Neither is agreeable option in her mind.

‘’And you are here because?’’

‘’ Well, I hope I got right person. I’m searching for tsarevna Marya Morevna of Black Salt.’’

‘’ That would be me. Why are you here? Are you riding towards freedom or slavery?’’ 

''Good men don't ride towards slavery. Well, nobody does, but good men don't ride others to slavery.''

And he tells tale, of quest for sisters ( ‘’ Why you expect me to believe such thing?’’ ‘’Because you too have seen old magic.’’ It is whispered, and there is spark of recognition, of familiarity in his eyes. She remembers Koschei, too ancient and powerful and wild, magic so old that even sorcerers aren’t sure what to do with it, magic of bone and blood, of dragons and talking beasts. ‘’ You don’t have to say what it was. I doubt it was pleasant. Smells bad.’’  She smells salty sea on him, and trusts a bit more) and single surviving soldier he encountered, and wanting to meet such amazing woman. Flattery at it's finest, even if his words are rough and uncouth. If he is spy, he must have thought she would love to her hear exploits being appreciated as if she was a man.

God bless her, but is working. She feels pride blossom in her chest and fight to keep smug smile off her face. Mustn't let him in, mustn't allow him to know how she feels, mustn't let him think he won her over.

‘’ Do you want to face me then?’’

‘’Gr-goodness no! Even if I wanted to, which I don’t, I would lose. Not that it would be hard to beat me.’’  He is honest and self-depreciating, something you don’t see in tsars and tsarevnas. Marya is intrigued and puzzled by him equally. Maybe he really isn't spy-which one would have thought to think of that?

‘’ Then what do you want?’’

‘’ Just wanted to meet somebody as amazing as you.’’ He repeats, confused, and it isn’t flattery. Not really, not in way he says it. Too earnest, too simple,  too honest and child-like. Marya would have thought him spoiled fool, were it not for kindness he emanated-and fact that he was talking to her among rivers of blood she spilled.

She thanks, he says there is no reason for gratitude, and so it goes. Until he whispers.

‘’ You are hurt.’’ Wound is bandaged and dress thick, but he knows. ‘’ You shouldn’t leave it like that, it could get infected.’’ She knows that, but she is Marya Morevna, tsarevna of nightmares, and she must seem invincible.

‘’I could fix it, you know. If you want. Freely given and all.’’  There is weight in his words, heavier than steel chains. Weight of promise, of debt, of oath. She studied old magic, how things of it work. She knew that it was all too possible that something would come after her, when news of Koschei’s defeat spread (she tried to quench down rumors, but he appeared in throne hall for God’s sake, and  even if she was only one who knew, it would be learnt for such is way of those things). And she knows that he had his own encounters with old magic, beyond his sister’s husbands, and that he won’t speak of it, as neither will she, or that he can’t.

For moment she debates refusing. It would be all too easy for assassin to kill her then. But she feels weight of promise and trusts him for some strange reason, and allows Ivan in her tent.

He does his work well, pastes and tinctures and herbs. Does it better than best physician, as if herbs themselves speak to him, revealing what they can cure and how. He heals her, and they talk.

He is pleasant, and kind, and doesn’t judge her for being warrior-woman, which makes much sense, given what she hears of his sisters. Hours turn in days and days in weeks and when month passes and Marya returns to her kingdom’s capitol he follows. It is only kind, to give friend rooms in Summer Palace (‘’Why is it Summer Palace when it is in capitol?’’ He asks, and Marya doesn’t say it just is so but explains about exodus few centuries ago, how people moved here because disaster befell old capitol and they never got around to rebuilding it).

He is kind, and nice, and as much ideal man as she is ideal woman, which makes them perfect couple. Marya knows that she needs heirs, needs allies, but also that she needs friend and good husband, and in Ivan she finds lover. Lover who is gentle and kind and accepts her for what she is and is perfectly content with managing household while she wages wars.

He is tsar of White Peak, mighty country. He doesn’t ask for anything in return. He is skilled at healing, and nobody who was in war will refuse such medic. He can manage beasts and birds and horses with ease, something Marya could never properly find in this kingdom, for all of it's many virtues ( she also notices that snakes are less frequent, but doesn’t ask. She is tsarevna and so far away from villages and plains, and yet it reaches her ears how snakes are much less frequent, and more likely to eat only  rodents). He has three tsars as brothers-in-law. Good match, in her opinion, and she is right and her advisers agree ( not to mention that they have learnt not to go against tsarevna when she is like this).

He integrates slowly.  People are wary of him, and find him strange and funny. But he proves useful and that earns respect and kindness, even if they find him... not bad for friend, but too strange, too shy. And they all love their tsarevna, and while they respect her choices and her happiness, they admit ( when they think she can’t hear) that they expected their tsar to be like her. Wilderness in heart, child of flame and wind and iron.

But Marya thinks, are not deer and rabbit and sparrow creatures of wild too? Is not gentle candlelight that keeps her solace in long night filled with work, along with hearth that is center of home and maker of food home  flame too, as much as forest fire and blazing torches of war and bonfire of funeral? Are not needles and kitchen knives made of iron as much as swords and mace? Is not gentle breeze that ruffles hair, cool evening air when she relaxes made of same matter as thunder gale? Is not Ivan, gentle and kind and soft, as much as defiant of world’s customs as she? And hasn’t he remained so, despite all attempts to contrary, as much as stubborn in being himself as very mountains?

There are ups and downs, of course. They don’t have fights, but there are things they do, habits that irritate each other. Ivan tends to fall and spill things, and that bothers her much. And she tends to give orders without reasons. They overlook that.

They shouldn’t have overlooked that when she gave him keys.


 

Ivan(s) always go for such girls. Strong and angry and proud, iron and fire and wind, so called wilderness in heart, and they are all same girl even if they are not same blood and name.

( Or maybe even soul, but Baba Yaga won’t answer that. You won’t ask. They won’t age year-in appearance, mind you, and sense if time that passes- and you won’t be eaten).

They bear many names. Yelenas and Maryas and Vasilisas, but they aren’t Vasilisa(s). They are children of iron and fire and wind, don’t have wilderness in their hearts no matter what they claim, and they can walk through Forest and maybe even survive and be changed, but they can’t  walk  ( yes, without through, don’t you listen/read/feel/know/notice, listen or Baba Yaga will snap off your heads) the Forest. Don’t have it in themselves, to brave depth and darkness with nothing more than kindness and courage and wisdom and trade away pieces of themselves, let roots nestle in, let dirt fill them and waves take them, don’t have it in themselves to experience and live and love Forest.

Baba Yaga miss(es) the first Vasilisa, one who was more than fifteen centuries ago, which was so soon to them. One who came with doll and knew Riders ( they aren’t personifications or embodiments, they truly are times and forms, they just make mortal looking-not really because gods invented that form and gave it to some mortals- avatars out of magic and primordial matter and Vasilisa knew that) and walked out with bone lantern. She traded away her heart for orb of pure white flame, filled her veins with magma and her bones with light and song of Under, so she was part mortal ( never human, no, she was good) and part Primordial- a demigod. So that fire would answer to her call in way it answers only to those that bore it or were born from it-or both.

Pity she was blessed. She made good help. And would have been great granddaughter.  And they would be delighted to save her, turn her in her favorite dish, in fine borscht, and keep her safe and warm and cozy forever. But she was blessed, and it isn’t nice to take away from those that have been blessed by other Creators ( well, girl’s mother blessed her but she invoked her God so it’s all same).


 It is, of course, in a tent that they lay together for the first time. Marya is laying on a divan full of soft pillows filled with goose eiderdown, all deep crimson, like wine and blood. Her tanned, rough skin is hidden in shadows of tent, as she lies and lets cool night air gently kiss her flesh.

''Please come, Ivan.'' She says, regal and over the top, as if she was the tsarevna of the very world itself, not just a one simple tsardom that goes by name of the Black Salt. She wasn't at first sure if they could play this game well, if it wouldn't be too real, too harsh, but now they slip in roles as if they were born to be actors for some long ago predetermined script.

And Ivan comes, as nude as she, his long hair spilling over his chest, moonlight reflecting from it. For moment her breath is taken away, for he is so tall and beautiful, prettier than anything in her court. He seems to be woven from milk and silver and stars and wind only for her sake, a beautiful legend that has been breathed life in it to turn words and superstitions in flesh and bone, to craft him in skin and blood. Pale and flushed and tall and shining he stands in front her, like innocent angel that has descended from the starry above to whisper warning and blessing and prophecy in her ear, like ghost of long bygone saintly knight that has arisen to life for her to command. In this moment two of them are more perfect than perfect, purer than pure. They are holy.

He comes, and kneels, and falls on divan. '' You called, my lady?"' He says as she gestures with her index finger and he comes nearer, as they catch and hold and trace their hands over each other's body, as Ivan's slender and white arms caress her scarred and hard back, as her own, muscled and calloused, catch his small waist. He is so fair and beautiful and pretty, so unlike anything she expected her husband to be.

 He stares at her with his deep, deep, drowning blue eyes, stares and magnificence and greatness that is his wife, his beloved, his tsarevna of nightmares. Marya Morevna, strong and broad-shouldered, skin tanned and thick and calloused and scarred, patchwork of beautiful marks depicting story of her struggles and conquests, her dark, thick hair spilling down her neck, her lips red like blood, her eyes beautiful brown of fertile fields. He is blessed and beloved by fate to be her husband.

''Masha.''

''Vanya.''


 This is his power, his might, his magic. Magic is so, so much more than charms and potions and wands and fireballs and rituals humans take it to be.  It is so much more and less than anything they could imagine.

In truth, everything is magic, for everything is created by the will of the gods, who were brought forth by the world itself and eldest of them all, the Creators, who never began but always were  and never will end but will always be( though some will claim that Baba Yaga is/are oldest of Creators, at least in memory . They are likely right). Every little thing, every small thought, every tiny act is magic. Humans just perceive and  try to understand the one that temporary breaks laws of the nature at some point. But there are others, subtler magics, even if some humans wouldn't consider them magic and others would and third would debate ( Baba Yaga don't/doesn't say. Let there be secrets that shall never be discovered, mysteries that shall never be solved. There are only so few things in the world, and ignorance is bliss and curiosity killed  the cat but satisfaction brought it back and if all things are learnt there will be no curiosity and some may think to reach for the eldritch ''secrets'' of Primordials and be driven mad and have their very soul twisted and perverted by sheer trauma of attempting to comprehend such discovery not meant for mortal minds and besides being omniscient isn't so well, trust them at least on that).

That is his miracle, his strength, his right. To trap and catch a heart, and ensnare and ensorcell a virtuous self, and bind and hold love. His kindness, his soft and considerate ways, to bid and summon and hold loving heart. That is why he is a tsarevich Ivan, friend of animals, brother of Vasilisas, protagonist of a tale.

Powerful stuff, when used properly, that thing they call love is. Friendship, family,romance,liking,devotion,selfishness. They felt it once and now and then few times, and knew it to be strong, even if not strong as agape, love of gods mortals can't hold candle to (and there is no greater evil and hatred and grief than one born from good and love and joy).

But neither is stronger than Baba Yaga's hunger and will and wisdom and age and magic.

 


 

Koschei laughs. Of course some poor stupid good soul would come, some poor stupid good soul willing to let prisoner drink. Even if boy is  more careful than most( can smell something, that one, hesitates to lift the goblet and bring water to Koschei's mouth, for he is good enough to let thirsty prisoner drink but not stupid enough not to feel magic binding wizard to his cell but not too smart to recognize it for what it is) so Koschei must promise him something.

'' By stars and moon, by white day and black night, by dark earth and light sky, by rivers and stones, wind and forests, I swear.  By God, your Father in Heaven and children of dark night I bargained with and three gods I was born into as my witnesses, I promise. By Iron Hag I bind myself, to grant you three times life.’’

He doesn’t remember three gods of his people, but it is worth it for he can’t die. He calls upon elementals he bargained with for information and power ( and it doesn’t mean they are stronger than him, that they can crush him, of course not how could you think somebody as great as he could be ever defeated even by Primordials), God this land now swears to and world itself and... her, for here they all swear to her, to that horrible witch ( so many teeth, so sharp and bloody and she is ugly and hungry and smiling at him he can’t sleep they haunt his nightmares help help HELP).

Twelve chains snap. Spell falls as broken glass, as shattered lock, as melted chain, for it knows that requirements for release have been met, so it fades away, even if it still grumbles that it didn't contain a true halfbreed, demigod that stands between states ( it had purpose, and purpose has to be fulfilled, and it isn't proper if it has been applied to something else)  . And he flies. Flies as black cloud and finds Marya and takes her and flies to north. Frozen path extends wider and dusty, and they slip to his castle in Middle.


 

Baba Yaga could see it, girl should have seen it too. Aside the fact that Ivan knew not why door was forbidden, every fool would see that it would have to be opened. So it goes with such things, as with rumors, as it goes with spells made to hold demigods. Girl was too clever by half.

Really, how else would they expect story to go on.


 Darkness and stormy clouds and whirlwind around her, though her, over and under her,carrying her without trouble, dragging her across wind and sky and currents and cold whip at her with a mad, frenzied rage. She can't see anything but smoky, black clouds that crackle with lighting. She can't hear anything but hissing of wind, echoes of thunder and something that might be wicked laugh. She can't sense or touch anything but her armor, cold and heavy and drowned in cool sweat, and bitter, harsh wind tearing at her skin. She can't smell anything but fresh,free,dangerous air and blood and iron and rot and chocolate pudding. She can't taste anything but her own spit and wind in her lungs as world spins and spins.

It may have been a second. It may have been a day. It may have been a year. She doesn't know, can't know, can't think and doesn't think until she falls on heavy, sharp fragments of broken and chipped away floor. She is kneeling and barely  breathing when she looks up around herself to find ancient, ruined castle, all grey marble and broken halls and fallen pillars and faded and torn tapestries dust, dust everywhere.

There is crack of boots and she rises and looks, snarling like savage beast, ready for army or arrow or sorcerer and finds....

A corpses. Corpses, hundreds of them, some with flesh torn and scared so much that they are barely more than skeletons, some almost new and pale and grey skin stretched over broken white bones and with faded, unfocused eyes ( Koschei can't die and death tries and tries and takes away everything, even bacteria, so there is no rot, only collapsing in dust, and it is worth it for he can't die). And they are all marching towards her.

Something spins her around, some force guiding her body against her will, and she looks upon Koschei, as young old and regal as ever, smirking, clothed in finest brocade and silk, inlaid with pearls and gold. Immediately she reaches for her saber, old instincts kicking in with full force, only for it to float away from her hands and turn in small needle, metal seemingly evaporating out of existence.

''Now, now, dear Marya, there is no need for that. It is no way to treat husband, is it? Put aside that outrage and come and kiss me, would you?'' Shock travels through her with speed of lighting, and she rises her hand and opens her mouth... only for Koschei to sigh and wave finger and she is frozen, her muscles unable to move, falling limp and useless as if she was ragdoll, her tongue unable to even flick. Two corpses step out and tightly hold her by shoulders, tight enough for her to feel pain and bruises to form as her armor turns in magnificent wedding dress.

''Now, dear, don't be like that. I don't want to do anything harsh, believe me, but if you force my hand, then well, I turned tsardoms in dust before, and I find myself to be little short on the manual help.  I think that nation of Black Salt would suffice, don't you agree?'' His horrible smile grows only ever more shining as he eyes go wide and her heart starts beating as rabbit's. With a chuckle, he pets her head and caresses her hair as if she was a dog, then grabs her chin and kisses her forehead, as she stands, frozen and unmoving like doll for him to play with.

''There, you see, it wasn't that hard. We will get along quite nicely. You will be shown your suite, and remember, the dinner is at seven.''


 Baba Yaga remember(s)all of the elements (though it isn't best name, of course not, they never make good names those stupid humans). Oh yes, they do. It was one of their main ideas when they were building the world, matter and energy. And no matter how many aspects they had, how many interpretations, they always had some core traits.

Fire (which is also lighting and heat and plasma and all such things) is always fast and brave, but also so impatient and sensitive. Air (gas and smoke and sky) is patient and considerate but slow and tricky. Earth (metal and flesh and all things solid) is steady and honest, but dull and forgetful. Water (oil and  blood and each liquid) is wise and determined, but lonely and smothering. Light (whether that of sun or colour or other elements) is optimistic and happy, but elusive and forgetful. Darkness (night and shadow and depths of cosmos) is quiet and respectful, but moody and rude. Life ( of  plant and beast and human) is confident and resourceful, but short-sighted and desperate. Death  ( of empire, world, god) is kind and considerate, but passive and emotional. Space (city, bowels of body, universes themselves) is imaginative and persuasive, but lazy and uninterested. Time ( past and present and future) is smart and  calm, but uncaring and angry. Fate (luck and course of world and every single action) is cunning and prepared, but fickle and  vengeful.

Baba Yaga, despite claims to contrary, isn't/aren't bound to either element. They have affinity for none. Instead, elements have affinity for them. They, along with basic concepts and most powerful of angels and spirits are closest in power to Baba Yaga. Which means they are awfully weak and small, but not so weak and small as everybody else.


 In the long and the empty and the dark chamber-cell- upon giant bed of rotten feathers and torn threads, rests Marya Morevna, displayed on bed as dead are on the coffin nowdays. She is beautiful, and stunning, and magnificent, and she is cruel,horrible parody of what some wanted her to be and she never was. Her hair is long, and braided, and woven with ivy and flowers, wreath one would find in river on a Kupala Night. There is crown upon her head, and headdress, and veil, all of them things of gild and silver and pearls and crystals. She has clothes any other tsarevna would envy, silken dresses and fur cloaks woven and embroidered with diamond leaves and sapphire flowers and brass thorns. A perfect princess from a perfect fairy tale, the guise of gentleness and sophistication thrust on rough and uncouth warrior such as Marya .

This is Koschei's favorite fun, most pleasurable play, take them strong and defiant and listen to what people tell about them and reach in depths of their mind to see what they really are like then twist them and break them like the mirrors. Take a diplomat, the peace maker, and craft her into the murderer and gladiator. Take a wise scholar, careful researcher, and drive her mad, twist truth and lie in one and force her to mumble and speak nonsenses. Take the singer and musician, render her deaf and silent and take away her instruments and fingers, leave her in bare, cold silence. But never take too much, never truly craft them in their opposite, never truly reshape their identity, so that they could remain and watch from inside and try to defy him. That is fate of all of his wives.

He comes to her, in dead of night, as she is bound by his spells and twelve dead bodies stand watch over them. He is dressed like tsar of night and shadow, all black velvet and grey steel and adamant feathers and thick furs, and strong, and looks less than twenty years older than her, but reeks of dust and dry blood  and tar and rotted flesh, and he seems at places too thin and too pale, for all he is muscled and sun burned. And she can do nothing, nothing as he grins and lies upon bed and plays with her braids and warps vines around her arms.

'' Let's give them a show, dear wife.'' He says and gestures to blank corpses ( and they may not be anything more than dolls, but he delights in seeing how her pride will break, and she wonders if there are souls trapped inside and if they are screaming silently as she is, for they are all prisoners of Koschei's sick games).

'' There are many girls in your tsardom. I'm sure I could find a passing replacement for tonight if you are not up for play. Of course, none of those girls would be as amazing and fun as you, but they would have to make do. I find myself in need of maids, actually. Once I am finished with them, well all it takes is one spell or sword and I will have new addition to the staff. Do you have some recommendations for me? Particular lady in waiting or childhood friend?'' He says as he tightly holds her hand, his hold strong enough to bruise and break bone if he clenched it with only ounce of strength more. She glares and focuses all of her might and will in stopping herself from biting off his flesh.

'' What would your advisers say? Or your enemies? Or your subjects? Maybe I could make skies show our nights to whole world to see.'' He tells her as he licks his dry, cracked lips.

''To think that your husband consigned you to this- would he join in, I wonder, my lady?'' It isn't really a cheating if it is all his fault, right? Not that you were ever truly his- I had you first, since day you were born. That is your fate..'' He smiles as he drags his fingers over her cheeks, caress cold and scruff and mocking. If she could, if it would work and if he wouldn't just rise from dead and destroy the Black Salt, she would rip out his throat with her bare teeth. She is used to killing, but she doubts anybody would hesitate to murder this disgusting, inhuman creature that treats people as his possessions and toys, who thinks he can take away somebody's freedom and steal their lives and play with their choices, who thinks life and death are his to decide

''I could bring him here, you know. Small weak thing he is, more girl then man. To think you would accept to be his instead of mine...I wonder how he would fare with me. How long would it take for my guards to rip him apart? Or would he better serve to pleasure them? They must long to experience passions you and I will soon have, and they could play with him instead of standing like this.'' He gloats as he kisses her. He is sure she won't bite him, not after last time.

Were Koschei wise, he would have looked in her dark, burning eyes, would have seen flame growing stronger and hotter, and he would have known that his tale was near it's end. This what he was born for, this was hero who would see that he finally died. But he was a fool, fool who thought he could control Marya Morevna, tsarevna of nightmares.


 

They couldn't leave them like that, Of course not, what did they think? Humans were stupid and lazy and incompetent and they couldn't craft civilization without help. Here their reach wasn't as subtle for magic wasn't so uncommon as it was on some other places, other times, other Earths, other dimensions, other possibilities, but they had to do right as much as possible. They were Baba Yaga after all.

That was how empires and kingdoms and tsars were established. Somebody who thought themselves to have wilderness in heart, child of fire and iron and wind would come and bargain and take all credit while Baba Yaga made sure they won and made land. Like Voyislav, to whom they gave sword of black salt mined by the mermaids ( dangerous and strange things, those fey folk, soulless and ancient and otherworldly and  incomprehensible, with their Monarchs, as powerful and wise as Creators, and maybe some were stranger and older then even Baba Yaga even if it sounds foolish, and even if those mermaids didn't have even fraction of Baba Yaga's age and might and knowledge as neither did any things of this world they still were bound to Monarchs and it was such headache when you had to argue about domains and interactions instead of everybody either getting along or moving out of each other's way ) with which he slew zmey terrorizing lake near his home, or Marina to whom they gave silver sleds crafted by the Moon's mother so she could find whitest peak of highest mountain on Earth and craft jewel of glass and blood to stop plague, or Minya and Alexei to whom they gave honey-golden candle and steel broom of knives made by blind seers of Zyugorat's mountains channeling embodiments of stones and dew in order to stop war and create kingdom once known as the Candle and Broom before it was conquered by the White Peak four centuries ago or Stepan and Zorya to whom they gave golden apple planted by the dying half dryad-half leshy and they made kingdom of the Golden Apple which the Black Salt overtook recently even by the mortal standards, barely three years and seven months and four days and eleven hours and seventeen minutes and four seconds and thirty nanoseconds ago.

They could have remained here, of course, in the Iron Forest, in thrice-nine times kingdom or in thrice-ten times kingdom in Under, ruled by gods forgotten and unworshipped in Stone Age, but that didn't mean anything. They didn't care for humans anymore, not even one bit. If they made sure that they had proper countries and proper kings well it was just boredom, it had no connection with love and so what if other gods cared for their nations in same way it was just a very strange coincidence.


 

Castle is empty and horrible. Falling stone and dying land and rotting food that tastes worse than ashes in Koschei’s mouth-but all else does, so he almost doesn’t notice. But it is worth it, for he can’t die.

Undead walk through castle, army kept alive and mobile by Koschei. She knows that undead are simply corpses animated by telekinetic spells, but she knows that Koschei bargains with Primordials, to whom laws of normal, real ( Koschei says it too, and so does Marya and everybody else. It takes something more to be able to recognize there is no real world, just different dimensions and perspectives. Something that would also make you bargain away your heart for fire for example) world matter as much as etiquette of polite society matters to earthquake and that he may have very well bound souls in bodies with their otherworldly help.

All who come to Koschei’s land wither and die, for such is price of spell he used to make himself deathless, but it doesn’t matter for he can’t die and it was worth it he tells her ( she spits upon his face for that, how dare he do that and call himself a tsar, claim he has right on these lands). She is his wife, so it would take more for death to take her, but in decade she will be gone.

He dresses her in flowers and vines each day and takes them off each night and soon leaf is more terrible to her than saber. He tells her how magnificent she is ( Ivan used to say same, but she can see Koschei’s lies and sense that he thinks that she is magnificent because he thinks she should belong to him), wilderness in her heart, child of fire and iron and wind to match him. He takes away her weapons and has her chained with hundreds of undead soldiers she can’t bribe or manipulate and has her bound with spells and doesn’t allow her to hold  even thorn and has eyes everywhere.

There are rules, do not struggle in bed, eat what I feed you, speak when I want you to, speak what I say you can, praise me. She expected that. But there are others.

Do not go out alone. This is different layer, magics are ordinary here. Stray spell may find you, or something will snatch you up, something that has magic in bones and blood.

Respect your oaths. He says that, and she fears that he will make her swear loyalty to him.

Respect snakes and dead. He spits upon this, but hides from snakes and  so Marya does too, for she begins to notice watchful (angry,lonely,afraid,grief-stricken) gaze in their cold eyes.

Beware Bony Legs with Iron teeth.  This everybody respects,  even priests ,so it isn’t so strange. Children will scream and adults call it silly story, but then turn around and pray and set offerings. Marya is daughter of her people, and knows what all Slavs do- soul isn’t deepest, most basic thing of all creatures.

Fear of Baba Yaga goes much, much deeper than soul. She dwells in these lands. These forests and mountains are hers, food they eat and air they breathe belong to her. Marya may rule her people, but Baba Yaga rules soil and sky and sea and stars and storms and shadows and snow and seconds and space of these parts, and to offend her is to war against Balkan and realms of Europe’s center and east, for between it’s people and her, land will always choose Baba Yaga, not Slavs ( once, they offended her and they traveled and run to other lands only to find her already waiting and so contract was struck, that she shall take only wicked and misbehaving children unless they come to her, that she will protect their lands from invading magic, contract struck by the third son of chief whose tribes run to the East).

A hour spent in these lands is enough to send foreigner in madness after hearing the witch’s name spoken in their presence for first time.

Beware cats. This sounds laughable, but Koschei tells her this with almost same fear as when he spoke.

‘’ There are... things inside cats. Strange beings, or other forms. Things that come out when somebody who has been even slightly  touched by magic-ever ordinary arcanist magic- meets cat. Just as snakes are ambassadors between dead and living, foxes between concepts and people, wolves between spirit and flesh, wild  dragons between elementals and beings, so are cats ambassadors between us and... something else. Old, powerful things that call themselves Creators.’’

She doesn’t believe him... until cat walks through castle’s halls like king, and undead run and Koschei himself stiffens.

She thought she could run away now...but cat looked at her, it’s eyes wrong, not eyes of cat, but of something ancient and powerful. Something that didn’t hate her, but they were impassive and judging and she knew that cat could shatter her now and then.

She still has nightmares about cats. She will forever have nightmares about cats. She will never, never be able to cross one, for Koschei took that away from her when he bound her with his ill magic, and maybe for that, most of all, she will find way to kill him.


 

Of course they don’t like them. They claim that their magic is only magic when it is only pale shadow. And they treat it at best as science and at worst as ordinary skill. And they think they can order world around.

Baba Yaga know(s), that there are no wildkin amongst cats, and stroke(s) their pet's fur. It is all furs and none at same times, for it is The Cat, all and none and same time, archetype and prototype and mould and basis and each variation, from a street stray over smart cunning one in the boots to the elementals and gods and deities and all such Primordials, avatar like The Riders.


 

His sisters have no idea how Ivan crossed layers. How he came here, to the Middle. But they are siblings and have much more important things to focus on.

Soon, tsar Koschei the Deathless will fall and die, and it shall be glorious.

Tsars and Tsarevnas of  highest wildkin birds gather with Ivan, and plan. Soon, tsar Koschei the Deathless will fall and die, and it shall be the most glorious fight of them all.

They give him advice and he gives them silver spoon, and silver fork, and silver snuff-box ( there are things, Primordials, domovoi and leshy and spirits and small deities who revel in tobacco as offering, and silver is metal for things in-between such as Ivans and Vasilisas)


 

Baba Yaga wait(s) and smile(s).


 

Marya doesn’t know how Ivan crossed layers. How he found this place, so heavily warded. How he knew Koschei was away. How he sneaked in. She almost isn’t surprised when undead step away from him, mouths open and knees wobbling, parting before Ivan like Red Sea before Moses- it seems that all things not human simply fall in love at first sight when he turns up.

She runs. She screams his name. Takes him up in her arms as she did on their wedding-no small feat, as for all her strength and his thin frame he is still taller than her enough for it to be hard. She kisses him. Then she drops him and punches him right in face.

''You-you-you fucking fool.'' She says as she almost suffocates him and clings to his neck. ''You idiotic, brave,stupid,perfect kind fool.''  He couldn't control his curiosity and wanted to help poor thirsty prisoner and freed perhaps most feared wizard of all time ( somewhere far, far away yet so, so near, three voices laugh and cackle and mumble and complain and sigh and stay silent as one).  He left their tsardom and crossed worlds and tracked her down in return.

One bloodied nose and some deserved shouting later, they try to escape. Koschei laughs and asks his horse whether they will catch them and his horse sees what will happen and neither move for long time. They could sow wheat and barley and wait for it to grow and reap it all and make pies and beers and yet they would be faster. He catches them and takes away Marya and yet she and Ivan try to escape.

And try.

And try.

Koschei laugh and asks his  horse whether they will catch them and his horse sees what will happen and neither move for long time. They could sow wheat and barley and wait for it to grow and reap it all and make pies and beers and yet they would be faster.

When Ivan is gone for third time, when Koschei tears him to pieces with flick of finger, when he seals those pieces in barrel with pitch and iron loops and throws it in the sea ( it would not do, if Ivan's spirit and pain and will made him return as the nechierty, as unclean, the undead) Marya cries for the first time in years. She doesn't know about the silver spoon, and silver spork, and silver snuffbox,  turned black by sympathetic magic sorcerers of Ivan's sisters's husband's wove to warn them about his fate, about armies of wildkin eagles and falcons and ravens flying above sea and searching for the barrel.

When he comes back from dead, she lets tears spill agin. And she doesn’t notice way he softly speaks but is heard everywhere, the disbalance in his steps that doesn’t carry any consequence.

They plan. Marya seduces old fool and he reveals  his secrets, thinking that abuse and spells broke her.

Soon, Koschei will be just another tsar that fell to her might.


 

‘’I finished, grandmothers.’’

‘’ You have, haven’t you. Come, come, Ivanushka.’’ He comes and lays his head on their lap. They stroke his hair and sing ancient songs from his dreams in his ears. He has done his tasks and they have raged and now is time for reprieve from the script.

It feels like home.


 

They ride, ride on horse Ivan got from the witch herself. Koschei is coming, and horses are equally fast. He is mortal now, but his magic is still as strong.

Marya shoots with her bow. She was never as proficient with it as with sword or lance, but she is good enough. Birds fill sky and warriors land, and Ivan’s sisters stand beside their husbands in armors. Koschei’s rage tears them them all away, spells mighty enough to shatter cities, even this rough and unplanned.

Ivan speaks in horse’s ears. Horse looks, nods (she should stop being so surprised. One day Ivan is going to come home with gargantuan dragon following him like lost puppy, which actually wouldn't be half so bad-dragons make for good political arguments, bigger they are, more convincing they are and pesky nobles and would be enemies and annoying neighbors are much more pliant and agreeable) and neighs at it’s sibling.

Koschei falls. He is dead, but they shoot arrows and stab him anyway, just in case. And Ivan flies like wind, like forest fire and beats Koschei’s skull with iron morning star.

Is this how people look on her when she fights?

There is joy, and tears and laugh, and you dance among blood. Morbid, but nobody cares about Koschei ( and isn’t it sad, Ivan whispers, looking through blood and land).


 

‘’Stay here.’’ They say, three voices melding in one.

‘’We will keep you safe.’’

‘’We will keep you warm.’’

‘’We will keep you cozy.’’

‘’I will make sure that you are happy.’’ How long has it been since they were one? Billions upon billions of too long divine lifetimes, at very least. But in moments like these, three sister-aspects speaking  at same time, it almost seems so. They would like to believe that small lie.

Ivan looked upon Baba Yaga’s crying eyes. Upon their/her loose, knotted hair, white as frozen milk in marble bow. Upon kind, warm face she was making, face he imagined father would make if he was ever good enough, face his mother would make if she didn’t have scales and slit pupils and fangs and he could tell his sisters about her, that she watching over them all.

And he looked upon their long, gnarled fingers and iron claws, gently grasping his face, bigger than his head, strong enough to crush his skull to dust, close enough to tear away his flesh and pluck his eyes.

He looked upon their long, sharp teeth. Rough stone and iron covered by clotted and fresh blood of many colours, jaws filled with ancient knives, teeth more numerous than in creatures of darkest depths, maws long and deep as endless cave, enough space to fit in entire galaxies.

He looked upon saliva running down from those fangs in deep dark depths, upon blood, fresh and clotted and innocent and wicked, human and not, all over their body, upon desperate hunger behind their too old eyes, waiting to snap and feast.

‘’Thank you much for that, babushka,’’ Ivan said, putting his small, mostly smooth hand on their bony, knotted paws ‘’ but you don’t need to bother. You have better things to do. I will have to take care of myself sometimes, you know?’’


 

Koschei caught glimpse of Ivan’s eyes moment before his life was shattered.

Blue, clear and muted, light and dark, millions of shades of blue that grabbed and dragged him to their depths, their irises dark abysses of ocean.

Water, water  everywhere. Water that eroded, that took and made you part of it and reclaimed you. Water coming from sky ( not raining, no, sky was bleeding)  and bursting from ground. Rivers and lakes going mad and free as waves bigger than mountains dragged kingdoms to sea. Water that took and took, made them all join and come back to it in it’s lonely depths, and all who couldn’t adapt would drown.

Foam and salt and wood and darkness and laughing crone with three voices that almost became one as water fell everywhere but on her.

Water, water everywhere, and his skull broke, and he bled for final time, and Ivan’s blue, drowning eyes saying sorry and he was dead.

No darkness but no light. Nothing that he could explain at least. not how world looked. Strange things that might be colours weren’t sanest things around. but he knew what he felt.

Happiness.  Happiness only Heaven can give you, happiness more important than life itself. Acceptance, of all he did and all he was. And satisfaction, for finally he understood, finally he fulfilled most important goal of every human-to die.

‘’ I’m...I’m....’’ Sorry, so sorry.

‘’No matter.’’ Spoke death without voice or words. ‘’ I’m sorry too.’’ It didn’t say, for what was coming, but it didn’t need to. he understood, understood and knew.

And it didn’t matter. He was dead, so it was worth it.


 

There is sign those blessed by Baba Yaga wear. Nine dots of blood, clotted but red, solid but fresh, worn anywhere but seen everywhere. Ivan(s) and Vasilisa(s) who accept it must have finished tale, been thrice touched by old magic, traded something away, that come to them in the end. They wear it, and all know who protects them.

Centuries ago, horse of tsar of Black Salt killed Vasilisa (that one went in there to save her sick brother and sister, and came out without dreams or sleep). Tsar didn’t listen, refused to plead for mercy, to help girl’s human family.  Baba Yaga could have unmade them all so they have never been, for will of god is faster than light countless times, but Baba Yaga decided to be kind. Baba Yaga gave them show.

Centuries are long for humans, and they still haven’t reclaimed capitol, nor ever will they reclaim it.


 

There are five things that changed with Ivan, five things that won’t give them happily ever  after.

First, he is lost. He walks through halls and corridors, looking beyond this world, completely detached. He speaks in strange languages human mouth shouldn’t make, mixes times and places by centuries and miles, and too often  lies still as statue in bed. He apologizes for that, and Marya accepts, for he had his own traumas, and they must work them out.

Second things is that Marya too has fears. Fears of snakes and cats and flowers. And that would have easily been worked out, if snakes didn’t cling like worried mothers around Ivan’s neck and arms, if cats didn’t follow him everywhere ( they look at her, sometimes, and she sees and Ivan sees too, but he doesn’t fear them as she does and cats love him and she don’t know if something is wrong with her, if she has been tainted by Koschei's magic and wickedness and sin or if his hold, his power, his might over animals is too strong even for those things that employ cats), if flowers didn’t weave themselves in his hair, if leaves didn’t  appear on his pillow, if trees didn’t grow where he walks. He pleads, cries when he think Marya doesn’t listen, for he knows how horrible those things are for her, but they won’t let him, and so he remains in highest towers, his rooms looking like Forest.

Third thing is that  he has magic now, and it isn’t good kind. People of Black Salt are wary even of most benign and helpful of aracnists, shun all who show signs of it when they feel particularly generous and brave on a good day and now after Koschei they fear it all with fear that leads to mobs and hunts and bonfires. Marya always thought that Ivan must have had magic, some minor talent that would at best make him in hedge witch or trick mage or amateur wizard. She thought that it may have been reason his father despised him ( he loved idea of what Ivan had to be to please him, but hated what Ivan was and saw no difference between the two, thought that Ivan' very essence of identity was ploy to annoy him out of insolence), tried to beat it out. But it was too stubborn and now it is even stronger. He never gets dirty or wet. Trees grow where he walks. Animals gather round him as if he was saint. Doors and windows open for him on their own. Rocks rise when he gets emotional. Those who laugh at him find themselves drowning in dry,dry rooms (they forget that water always finds way, that even dust they walk on and air they breathe and body they wear contains moisture). He can’t control it, and arcanists have no idea what to do with him except continuing further study from a safe distance, far, far away.

Fourth thing is what he causes in people. He has died but lived, has went to Forest and came back, has spent time in hut on chicken legs and survived. There is wrongness, more palpable than stone around him. And even when he smiles his most earnest smile ( so rare these days) even Marya recoils these days, for his mere look and touch tingle and prick his soul like Koschei's does.

Fifth thing is last to be noticed. Nine dots of blood, clotted but red, solid but fresh, on his forehead, seen even when he covers it with hair or hat. And everything makes sense. He is beloved by Baba Yaga, judged worthy of life by her. World knows that and recognizes that Ivan is to be protected and cherished at all cost, for when faced between humanity's vengeance, it's own suicide and Baba Yaga's displeasure, world knows what it must avoid, no matter the price.

 Fools want to burn him till he is ash, want to invite destruction upon them ( twice crime done in same kingdom, and in so blatant and such terrible way, there will be no survivors this time, they will all be eaten). Wise scream and recoil from him.

‘’What was she like?’’ Once on dinner somebody is brave and stupid  and arrogant enough to ask, while Ivan stares in wine. He blinks and turns his head like owl, and slowly speaks with fond smile on his face.

‘’Baba Yaga was... Were... So ugly that I wanted to tear out my eyes. But she... they was, were nice. Nicest person or people I ever met.’’ And so he seals his fate. Court demands him gone, and commoners scream at her to get rid of him. Other kingdoms prepare armies, so many armies that even Marya couldn’t defeat them, for news spread fast and nobody would want hag's spawn, as they call him now, on the throne, even if it is Marya who rules both Black Salt and White Peak.

She could have fought, maybe. Could have persisted and convinced them to accept him. They could have lived happily if everything worked out.

But Marya is tsarevna, and she chooses her tsardom and her people first and foremost, and she has no luxury to take risks. They divorce through closed doors.

‘’Here.’’ He says, at the end, and pushes paper below door. Will, written in shaky letters, giving her complete control over White Peak and telling her to speak into water if she needs him. ‘’You will be better than I could ever be. Sorry for all mess.’’

‘’Ivan!’’ She screams, and hears trees bending and bowing, and breaks door. But inside is nothing, nothing but dusty walls and autumn leaves and feeling of something old and wild glaring at her.


 

Story must be followed. Price must be paid. Ivan gave himself to Forest, and Forest would follow him everywhere. That was his price, his bargain, his gamble.

Baba Yaga would have loved it if it didn’t make him sad.

Tsarevna is smart, at least. For now, Black Salt won’t burn.


 

She can’t find him. But she hears rumors, of wild, terrifying man saving villages from flood and rock slide and walking through Forest and healing sick all over continent and maybe beyond.

She would cry, but she cried twice in a year, and that is too much. She is Marya Morevna, tsarevna of nightmares, and she must seem invincible, even if she keeps team of physicians ready at every moment ( none are half as good as Ivan).

News arrive one day,carried by feather and claw. Tsar Raven dies in hunting accident, mauled by boar, and Anna is crowned tsarevna although she has no other form. Things are better there, in tsardom of people who can change in birds.

She comes to funeral and coronation, which are one and same, for such is way of ravens.  Anna is beautiful, with cloak of darkest feathers, crown of pale gold and dress of silver silk. Her face is calm and smiling, but Marya sees tears beyond her eyes.

‘’Here.’’ She says, offering rakia in gold goblet to tsarevna. ‘’ Helps me. Sometimes. Of course, I can’t take too much.’’ It doesn’t do for tsarevna to be drunk, no matter how easier it is to live like that.

Bitterly Anna laughs, and asks, plead hidden in her voice.

‘’Will it help me?’’

‘’Only one way to know.’’ Marya says and curses her liver with too much alcohol even for senior drunkard. If anywhere rules can be broken, it is here, in Middle, in a land of people who can change in birds, on funeral of the wildkin tsar and coronation of tsarevna of ravens.


 

Baba Yaga is/are addicted to death, kindness and revenge.  Maybe they want to clean the world of evil. Maybe they want everybody to get what’s coming to them. Maybe they just want it all to end already and let them sleep forever in peace. Who can know?


 "I still sometimes think I haven't escaped." Marya murmurs and Anna drops her book and maps and looks at her with concern in gray,steely eyes. She would run to the bed but instead keeps composure and slowly walks to the bed and sits next to Marya.

''I'm sorry.'' Marya whispers, light of setting sun reflecting in water that is starting to collect on the edge of her eyelids. They almost fall down her cheeks, but she stops them and draws them far behind her eyes with strength of her iron will and burning pride.

''It is stupid. I know it doesn't make sense but still.... No, never mind. Sorry for bothering you with something like this.'' Fast as northern wind and gentle as eiderdown, Anna's palm takes hold of Marya's strong, hard bicep, powerful and gentle, perfectly reassuring.

''No. It isn't stupid at all. If you need to talk about it, then talk. Don't bottle it up.'' Marya glances at her, fragile fear in eyes, and shivering slightly, holding her arms together, fingers entwined like weave of wicker basket, spoke.

''I like to believe that I'm brave, you know. I became tsarevna when I was only sixteen. I fought in several wars, and won in them all. They call me the undefeated general, the tsarevna of nightmares. I'm very good in both strategy and actual combat itself, if I can say so.'' Anna stared, listening to Marya's speech, seeds of doubt that were planted in her each word. And she couldn't know, if Marya's pride was gone-or if it was never there in first place.

''Am I boring you?''

''This isn't about me. It is about you. If it makes you uncomfortable, or you aren't yet ready, you don't have to tell me anything, but know that you can say whatever you have to say. I won't judge you, I can't judge you because there is nothing to judge. I can only listen and be grateful that you decided to open yourself to me.'' Dull silence.

''Thank you... Thank you... I really couldn't explain it, couldn't say it to anybody, because I can't be scared, but Anna, he was terrifying. I thought I faced some horrible, tough things before but oh God, I had no idea. I... I couldn't do anything. I had no freedom left, no way to fight back. He could control my body and my mind, I wasn't safe even in my head and he played with me. Any semblance of control I had was there because he thought it was fun to watch me struggle. He could move my body like it was a puppet, could stop time or turn me to stone or freeze my body and I could do nothing, nothing as he reached inside my head and heard all my thoughts and read all my memories and saw everything I was and he used it.... He threatened to come for the Black Salt, and my subjects, and my councilors, and Ivan and my people and my... for everybody who knew me and loved me and trusted me and he could do everything to them and I couldn't do anything to stop him, and he dressed me up like doll and wove flowers in my hair and now I can't even hold a fucking leaf or petal and he showed me what he did, to his people, his servants, his wives, oh God and he dared call himself tsar, that shit called itself a tsar! And I could smell it, his magic, and I could feel The Forest on him and his spells, he used them on me, marked and tainted me, and the cats.... cats.''  Her voice broke down in a whisper and incoherent mumblings as her fingers twitched.

Anna hugged her, letting Marya's head rest on her neck. She couldn't understand it, not at all, but she could imagine ( and the cats, the cats, she remembered looking in eyes and finding something else inside, and she remembered it staring back, and she had nightmares, she will always have nightmares about cats).

''And I knew it, knew where he was, where he had been, he even told me once, no he whispered, he was also scared and then I felt bad for him, for he spoke about...about... about Her.'' And Anna clung to he tighter, for she felt fear, cold and scorching, creeping up her spine, flowing through her bones and filling up her blood, breathed in fear and it nestled within her heart, fear both burning and cold and neither at same time, for she knew (of course she did, how could she not, how could anybody not know) who She was.

''Marya... Listen to me, Marya, you are amazing. You are brave and strong and fantastic, you survived all that, you fought for your people and you killed him. You have every right to fell like that, and it isn't any kind of weakness, but remember that for all that fear you fought and you won, you killed the deathless and you won, and that is what being brave is truly about. And thank you for sharing this with me, and know that you can do it again and again, whenever you want, whenever you have to, know that nobody will judge you and if they do they are fools and I will deal with them.'' This was least she could do for Marya, who listened and helped and guided Anna while she was mourning her husband, who held her while Anna cried and buried her eyes in Marya's shoulders, letting salt and water and spit and tears dirty Marya's precious robes.

''Thank you Anna. Thank you.'' They remained like that until midnight.


 

Humans tried to get rid of them few times, because they are stupid and arrogant and annoying troublesome foos and because they forget and because they must always try to make themselves masters of all and because they must always try to conquer what they have no chance of defeating.

But then again, if people didn't try to get rid of Baba Yaga, they wouldn't fear them like they do.

Grand crusades, soldiers and lords and sorcerers and masters and nechierty and wildkin ( no saints or demigods or priests or vessels or agents, no, gods knew better, much better). Baba Yaga only needed to wish them all away, but that wouldn't work, people needed show and show they would get, oh yes, they were owed at least that much from Baba Yaga. Wars ended as armies burned and nations were torn apart by very kingdoms they inhabited, by nature itself, which they came from and depended on and were nothing without but despised and misunderstood and would one day pollute again and again and so on and so on and so on, on.

One of their main reasons ( which humans often used on other humans) was that Baba Yaga was foreigner, other, not one of them, that she didn't belong to the country ( Russia once, and Sleneya before, and Pangaea even before, but mortals meddled and they had to teach them and bit of show and all that was left were pieces) even if  they lived here before nations were formed, before Slavs arrived, before old people of these lands arrived, before any arrived to Europe, before there was Earth ( they always loved this spot of space, this part of world, even when it was nothing but darkness and dust, not yet planet, no no no, not yet, too soon, too soon, too soon). And they were right, for Baba Yaga was/were truly foreign to everything and nothing, before there was anything and while there is anything and after there will be nothing, for they have no home no origin no birthplace and are bound and tethered and steaded to none save perhaps their hut/cottage/castle/cave/world. Everybody knew that Baba Yaga arrived from south in her/their stone mortar with her/their iron pestle and  her/theirsilver birch and  her/their hut on the chicken legs.

Where from the south, nobody talked about, not even gods. Only some brave, ancient,formidable, foolish deity who was recently shown favor would dare to whisper a reminder that gods could lie, especially one(s) as almighty as the Creator Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga always said that she/they had absolutely nothing to do with Atlantis, and all who thought even implication of otherwise in her/their presence met unusually grim and grisly fate, even by standards of ruthlessness itself and Baba Yaga and the fey, which was very good counterargument to slandering claims as she/they called them.


 Nights in the Middle are stunning, with streaks of silky, colorful cold lights painting the sky (they have something like that in the North of the world, cold even by the Black Salt and it's sibling-tsardoms's standards, but never like this, this vibrant yet weak and beautiful and enticing and unknown and eerie and magical), but Marya, lying on the giant, comfortable bed of fine gold and strong adamant and  soft feather and deep, burgundy silks, has eyes only for the tsarevna of this realm, for  Anna of white ravens.

Anna finely walks towards Marya and Marya's ( Anna's truly if we went by the facts and legal documents, guest room's maybe, now Marya's but always surely just theirs) bed, graceful and elegant as some gifted dancer from those fine lands, lands extremely sophisticated and concerning art, most tasteful lands, lands of the Old Rome.

She wears nothing but simple silver nightgown, sleeping dress of greatest quality, such that it could even be worn as scandalous gown if one wished to get moniker of prostitute which many were so fond of throwing at women whether they worked in that particular branch of services or not. Her thin smile is slow to spread but evidently growing across her face as she approaches Marya, confidence radiating off her in waves strong and great enough to drown whole royal bloodlines and bend armies to their knees.

For first time in her life, Marya doesn't stand a chance. For first and hopefully not last time in her life ( at least concerning this particular circumstance) she is entirely agreeable and content with that.

With skilled work of her quick and nimble fingers, Anna gets rid of her dress (Marya envies her on that, she couldn't last a day without her ladies in waiting when it comes to clothes and jewelry and all that fine, complicated things), which slides down her perfect body like argent waterfall. Each part of her is fine and graceful, strong bones covered by healthy flesh and perfect, unbroken, unmarred skin ( birthmarks covering her entire body aren't, couldn't ever be imperfections, for they paint constellations on precious canvas that is Anna's skin).

Slowly,gently, carefully, she lies down on the bed, crawling to the Marya, touching and caressing her scarred, broken rough skin, her big and heavy muscles, her wide shoulders and long neck, grasping her short, thick black hair. Marya's hand catch her, hold her, feeling shivers and small hairs, feeling soft and warm body,  travel all way around Anna's waist, down to Anna's wide tights, over Anna's graceful legs, up to Anna's rather considerable breasts, till her sharp, as if sculpted high cheekbones.

''Masha,'' Anna breathes out, uneven and drowning in a pure lust, '' you are magnificent.''

''Wise bird,'' Marya answers, grinning, unable to contain her joy,'' you are more stunning and perfect than anything I can begin to imagine.''

And they kiss, burning and needy and hungry, kiss like bonfires melding in one, blood boiling and bones melting with strength of their passion.


 

Truth is, once gods listened to Baba Yaga, after particularly dangerous stunt humans pulled back in the first of first worlds, one that almost destroyed whole existence, which humans were rather fond of. Many deities had been lost, but what else was to be expected when they trusted and treated humans like friends and family, gave them their true names, means to bind them and control them and force them and curse them and enslave them to petty mortal desires.

Deities were angry and hungered for vengeance over race that killed themselves in desperate bid for power to control the world, and it was so easy for the old Baba Yaga (though they bore different nickname(s) back then), respected Creator, wise Mother Nature, beloved Mother of World(s), enigmatic She Who Births Life and Death to sway their hearts and wills.

Judgement would be passed, that would see to fates of souls of whole humanity, and if mortals would ever be recreated. They called them all, from past and present and future, real and imagined, past and future, all worlds and all times and all possibilities, from tiniest microbe to greatest, most evolved ''enlightened life-form.'' And they offered them, bargain, test, one of Baba Yaga's own devise.

Curse, thrice three times curse, greatest that has ever been and ever will be. Curse for one to bear and suffer, so others would exist. Curse that would bind even nature itself, and force Creators to swear oath on their honor and name and soul.

The very concept of happiness would be taken away from that person. They would feel all pain of all things, at same time. They would never again see their most beloved, not as long as time existed and world was. Those beloved would forget them forever. Their greatest treasure would be taken away and destroyed, and they would seek and search for fragments which would temporarily ease pain, and when they found them, enough piece to reassemble something, it would all be lost again and again and so on and so on,on,on. Their greatest wish, grandest goal, deepest desire, mightiest accomplishment, best achievement would be unmade and undone and they would never again know it, goal of their life denied to them. Their memories would meddle and change and break and their very identity would become a blurred forgotten poor thing. They would spend rest of their existence working to help everybody while pain of each kind act drove them mad, for their very soul would break and reassemble. And they would be fused to concepts of kindness, and charity, and compassion, turning them in horrible abomination, twisted and inverted parody of halfbreed, anti demigod, instead of being half and half and both at same time, they would neither and separate, two different beings, creatures, types of existence fused together. And they gave them all a moment to experience the pain, so they would know exactly what they were signing up for.

They have won. They should have won. No human would accept such curse, such pain at their own expense while others continued with their happy existence. They were too selfish, too wicked, too cowardly for that. And indeed they were right. No human even dared move, and time kept slipping, and just as they all were preparing to bring judgement, at last moment somebody run towards gods and screamed that they agree bargain. It wasn't a human who accepted the curse, oh no no no, of course not, never human  but one of those good mortals who looked like humans but were kind and wise and brave and so weren't human. One of those souls who were already promised the Heaven for their virtue, one who had nothing to gain and everything to lose. The first fairy tale, the first victim and survivor. The first little ash girl. They were horrified, for thought they saw possibility (they saw each possibility, saw possibility that everybody will accept), but they didn't count on her, on little ash girl screaming and begging and demanding to be cursed and at that moment there was no alternative-each version of little ash girl made the same choice.

They tried to say that it didn't count, that little ash girl couldn't choose, couldn't accept, but she snarled and pleaded and looked Baba Yaga in eyes and they almost felt a shame and fear ( this girl was most beloved by death and she forgave The Stepmother for all years they had spent together and she taught a fey what was compassion and Baba Yaga could see possibility, if they got to know her, that hatred would be gone and they would love humans again and they couldn't allow that, couldn't allow them to go on and corrupt everything, they couldn't know and love and care for the little ash girl) and convinced gods curse her. And she took fear of all mortals, and made scabbard, and took her worst memories and made handle and took evil of her stepmother to make a blade ( such evil could only be contained by fear and pain of every single mortal, could only be manipulated by pain of her worst enemy, the little ash girl who was The Stepmother's most hated thing and her own stepdaughter) and she run against fate and hunted down her very happiness and destroyed it, rendering it dead and unmade by her own hands so that she would never again have possibility to be rejoined and feel it. And so were humans saved.

And some say that there were others, who came after little ash girl out of shame and pride and need for glory, and received smaller number of curses than her, and in their pain and madness and anger at being forgotten broke bargain and sought to throw away the curses, which would unmake humans from existence, but little ash girl was too fast and smart and brave and kind and determined and caring and she grabbed them and held curses as they struggled and forced them to join her, and so compact was upheld. And all fairy tales (which are different than myths, for myths clearly and directly have gods and are remembered as history and worshipped and grand and once a thing while magic of fairy tales is subtle and timeless and usually placeless and small things of people and children and archetypes  and lessons) contain trace of her, contain such kind and brave and wise people who look like humans but aren't, who serve to teach mortals lessons in morality and remind Primordials that there is still worth in humans and keep Baba Yaga company so she/they wouldn't go mad and unmake them all. And some have more, such as for example Vasilisa(s), especially  her darling first one, with her doll and skull and The Riders and vengeance and orb of pure flame for heart ,walking such similar path to the first little ash girl.

They swore on honor, and they wouldn't break a compact. But see, if new happiness is made possible and created and given and received and rejoined, well then they did the little ash girl good turn and upheld terms and humans are no more. Win for them all.

 


 

It blossoms slowly and harshly, rose determined to get out of Marya’s  frozen chest,  determined to escape broken glass that is her heart, even if it has to waste all thorns.

It starts with letters. How are you and thank for that written on beautiful parchment, covered by wax and oil and blood and what not, carried by trusted ravens. Later, there are jokes and perfumes. later, there are fears and tears. Trauma is still fresh, pain still deep, but with time and will and lot of encouragement, her fears go away and she can even look at cat ( as long as it isn’t staring her in eyes).

It grows with visits. Marya travels between the  layers, so beautiful and magnificent and all of her own will. She dances at Anna’s parties, wild, free, flaming parties, drinks her wine, sings her songs. Anna comes, and provides counsel, giver her some of best spies, helps her to manage politics of White Peak. It is actually easier than it sounds, managing it too. She conquered enough lands. But with Anna, beloved princess at her side, people trust her and love her much easier.

At night, they laugh and cry in each other’s arms, glorious paint on Anna’s lips mixing with blood from Marya’s wound. They are tsarevnas, with wilderness in their hearts, children of fire and wind and iron, and they burn together.

Marya manages to be surprised when Anna asks for her hand ( she should fix that- expect anything and be taken aback by nothing). There is laugh and her throat and light in heart and victory in her bo

tire voicenes and joyful tears in her eyes.

‘’Give me some time to think.’’ She says.

Anna is wise, and sensitive, and cunning and wild as she is.

Marya burns with love she feels for Anna.

Anna is beloved princess of  former White Peak.

Marya finds in her all she hoped for in suitor.

Anna is tsarevna of mighty kingdom.

Marya is tsarevna of Black Salt. Anna is tsarevna of ravens. People terrified of magic and people who live in Middle. That is civil war waiting to happen.

She could try something... People love Anna after all. She is so smart and caring. Even oldest of hags in her castle like her. but would they stand for her to share throne with Marya? What would they say about Marya herself? That she is obviously enchanted, ebviously seduced by old magic?

Then there would be rumors about family, and White Peak wouldn’t stand for it and would rebel and too much war for God’s sake, even for her. Choices, choices, gambles and gambles, what to do, which heart to cut out? Her’s or Anna’s?

It is winter and smell of springs assaults her nostrils. There are vines over roof and grass growing from floor, thorns covering walls and branches emerging from windows and petals flowing through air ( thank God she got over fear of herbs, or she would have had died of heart attack by now).

‘’Marya Morevna, daughter of Dimitri Goldborn and Tatiana Mikhailevna, tsarevna of nightmares, the undefeated general, ruler of Black Salt and allied nations, in the name of all things holy and good upon this world how dare you?’’ She turned, shocked ( why did that emotion even exist) eyes wide and mouth open, her full title still ringing in her ears.

Giant wolf stood in her bedroom, grey and proud. On it’s sides were fox and cat. And upon it, clothed in flowers and scales, miniature dragon on golden hair, snakes all over him, was Ivan. He was tall, and sun burnt, and there were freckles all over him, and he wasn’t so thin ( he looked like he had been taken under care of one of those grandmothers everybody knew about, kind that gave you no choice in how much food you had to eat) but it was surely Ivan.

He jumped off the wolf, graceful like dancer, and Marya almost blushed ( flowers and scales aren’t really concealing, and she got quite bit of sight, and her mind immediately thought of things it could do to him). He marched to her, with expression she usually wore when she confronted stupid, arrogant soldiers.

‘’ I can’t believe it! Marya, how could you? My sister! My own sister and you...You... How? Just how, tell me?’’ He was loud but not really shouting, and there was mask of pure rage on his features. Marya stood, silent and stunned.  Never mind how Ivan knew, how he appeared here with...all of that. It was his rage, his waving of arms and shouting that shook her to core.

People change with time. But she never thought that Ivan of all people would be jealous, would behave as if he was entitled to her... Something twisted in her gut and flared in her nostrils, and she opened her mouth to tell him what she thought of that when he finished.

‘’ I’m her brother, Marya, to who else should you go for advice?’’

Marya blinked. ‘’What?’’

‘’ Advice, Marya, advice for meetings and romantic stuff and all that. You should have gone to me or Olga or Marya-not you, our Marya though you are ours too, Marya who is sister- not to some dusty advisors and stuffy  nursemaids!’’ Cat grinned at her, and Marya knew that it was spy who-somehow-got all of this information to Ivan, wherever he even was. She also knew enough not to glare at it.

‘’And how, pray tell, was I supposed to contact you?’’ It was Ivan’s turn to blink, and he answered, as if it was most obvious thing in the world.

‘’ Well, I wrote to you to speak to water.’’

‘’ Speak to water? How was I supposed to do it? Stand over glass and say things to you?’’

‘’...Yes?’’

‘’How does that even work?’’

‘’It does.’’

‘’It makes no sense!’’

‘’It is magic, Marya, it doesn’t ever make sense. It simply works.’’  And that she couldn’t argue.

She looked at Ivan. Remnants of old love rose, aching in her heart, piling up in her throat. It has only been few years, but it seemed as centuries to Marya. She wanted to say so many things-sorry, how are you doing, why didn’t you visit me?

She loved Anna, love brilliant and magnificent as Kupala bonfire. That couldn’t be changed. But, though wounds have healed and time has passed, and she did in sense fall out of love with him, pieces remained, drifts of love that has been slow and subtle as delicious smoke.

They couldn’t ever again be together, they both knew that. They grew and moved on. Marya found new love (which she may curse now soon but it didn’t matter at the moment) and had duty to her kingdom. Ivan left and... it wouldn’t work, with what he was now. Marya saw it, in smell of salty sea and precious flowers and weak hints of musk that surrounded him, in wilderness that followed him, in flowers and scales that (mostly) dressed him. Magic had claimed and changed Ivan in something more and less than human, magic that made air and earth sing around him, because of him, for him, magic that made Marya all too aware that stones of her castle, skies of her tsardom, bones of her own body would move and tear themselves for his sake.

That didn’t mean they couldn’t be friends.

‘’Why did you never visit?’’

‘’I...’’ he looked down on earth ‘’didn’t want to intrude. Though you...wouldn’t want me around, that it might start rumors. Thought you wouldn’t like... all this.’’ He gestured with his arm ( long, brown snake and swan feathers and silver fish scales and vine and poppies), tracing it over his body ) lean but muscled and tanned and without scars), his hair ( long, golden  horse tail sweeping like waterfall, with wreaths of straw and ivy and wildflowers, with chains of stones and sand and dewdrops), all wild and young-old, making him look like something out of storybook, like woodland nymph, one of those daughters of Greece’s gods, that  deigned to grace simple mortals with her presence.

‘’I...like it. You look very pretty.’’ And he was. Marya could think of things she would have done to him if he wore it during their marriage, saw what Koschei wanted to make of her ( she wondered sometimes, if Ivan would have survived being in her place, if Koschei would have taken him as toy to torment her as he sometimes threatened, if Marya could survive and accept change wrought on by magic of the Forest), but in truth, he wasn’t seductive or attractive in that way , was intended for different type of beauty. Kind only rare flowers and gentle rains and valuable  rocks had.

‘’Thanks. But your people wouldn’t like it at all. And well... I had things to do. Jobs and errands, very time consuming.’’ His gaze falls to nine blue roses , on his limbs, his head and neck, his hair and heart,  his hip, and Marya understands. Old magic requires strange quests.

‘’ But I knew about you. I wasn’t spying but I got information. Whether I wanted or not.’’ He pointedly looks at cat, which smiles even wider grin. It is right of cat to walk unseen places and hear what is to be heard, and cats bow only to Primordials, and even then not to all.

‘’You can come sometimes. To talk.’’ She doesn’t mention cat’s spying. Anna’s library provided many gruesome accounts of people who were involved with magic and dared bother cats.

To think that all you needed to get rid of wicked sorcerers was one slightly ruffed cat....

‘’Thanks. I will not be seen. But now we have more important things to talk about. Such as your engagement!’’

Her lip trembled. ‘’Ivan..’’

‘’ Don’t say anything. Don’t worry, people will love her. In fact they already do. She was here, she was nice to them all, her tsardom helped you all, and they got to know way of ravens. They aren’t scared of her magic.’’ Because it isn’t old as time and wild and unbowing, he didn’t say. ‘’ In fact, some people are betting whether you will marry or not.’’ He stopped when he saw Marya’s face. ‘’ Oops. Shouldn’t have said that. Creepy, right?’’

‘’But point is, you shouldn’t refuse such chance. There may be some who won’t love it, but it is about two of you and your life. Your tsardoms will adapt. They already have, pretty much. Don’t deny yourself happiness you deserve.’’ Then he smiled too wide and white grin.

‘’ And if you don’t, I will knock you out and kidnap you and carry to Anna in chains and have you  married, so you haven’t really got choice.’’ It may have been joke. It may have been truth.

Marya thought, of Anna’s hand in hers, of countries they visited together, beds they stumbled in as one. Of her painted lips, wet with alcohol ( not too much, they could never be drunk, they had tsardoms to run) upon Marya’s mouth sharing breath and sweat.  Of her laugh and intelligent, grey eyes. Of riding horses together, sharing jokes on scented paper ( Anna read it somewhere in book).

Marya thought, of reaction of White Peak, hearing that their beloved tsaritsa was now tsarevna. Of her kingdom, now joined with another as great and terrible in war. Of resources that could be gained. Of fortresses in middle. Of army of wildkin ravens,  magnificent in both war and peace and spies they could employ. Of defenses against  magical intruders. Of subjects with wilderness in heart.

Marya smiled. ‘’ I think I will be married.’’

‘’ Great! ‘’ Ivan yelled and beamed, and out of nowhere produced something that may either be hide or giant leaf. ‘’ Here are tips how things would go perfectly.’’ Marya looked over it. It was full of little details-hates green colour, loves scented candles, adores braids, can’t stand fish-all little details that still haven’t come up.

‘’Thank you.’’

‘’ No reason to thank me. Now I got to talk with her. She has no excuse, you could have talked with other two but I could have told her so much about you...’’

‘’ Wait Ivan.’’ he turned.

‘’Where did you get that dragon?’’ And where can I find ten like that.

‘’From Choda Yoda!’’ Choda Yoda. Most feared dragon in history. Bigger than mountains, fire literally hot as sun, capable of causing world wide draughts by opening mouth and rearranging weather at global scale. Keeper of Waters of Life and Death, older than humanity, at least three heads,skin stronger than adamant, works as pet and guardian dog of the  witch everybody fears. And Ivan spoke about him without fear and apparently cared for something that may have very well been feared dragon’s child.

‘’Of course.’’ Ivan smiled, and there was crack in stone, water all over him, and leaves surrounding him and animals like hurricane, and in second they were gone, leaving Marya alone to floor without hole and winter chill.


 

They weren’t always Baba Yaga. That’s habit they made. Whenever one world ends they change name and shape of hut and some details ( teeth and nose and horns and wings similar things). But they are always hungry and old and ugly, and bear guise they choose no matter time or place, no matter century or planet or universe, all till world ends.

And there are always creatures born amongst humans but kind and wise and brave, creatures that live in tales and come to them to be judged and protected and kept warm and safe and cozy forever or punished or guided and beloved as grandchildren.

When world ends and they all die, they are only ones left to remember. Same will happen with Ivan(s) and Vasilisa(s). New name, new tradition, new culture. Same humanity, same bargain, same character.

Worlds die. Stories endure bit longer. They remain.


 

Marya walks to altar dressed in rubies and gold, in iron and steel, in crystals and pearls, wilderness in heart, fire and wind and iron around her, sword on hip. Anna comes, in onyx and alabaster, silver and platinum, feathers and diamonds, wilderness at heart, fire and wind and iron around her, ravens on shoulders.

Their people and families are there, and Marya thinks she may even sense presence of those who are dead but waiting and changed, hear whispers of snakes filled with pride. When they kiss, she knows the truth. This isn’t end. Just beginning.

Come tomorrow, and new adventure will wait for them.


 

Lands Baba Yaga dwells in have particular approach to revolutions.

If they don’t appear, revolution goes on.

If they do, it stops.

Unless they join in.

Those revolutions tend to be bloody but fair. In end, good tsar and tsaritsa always sits on throne. Baba Yaga wait(s) for democracy to arrive and disappear and for it all to go on and on and on for forever.

‘’I thought that maybe Koschei’s name was Ivan.’’ Ivan asks them. It isn’t latest Ivan, one who killed Koschei, nor first one, son of tribe’s chief who walked in the forest nude and reduced to all fours but with kindness all over him, even to ugly, bitter crone. But it is. Soul or role, it matters not, it is and isn’t that Ivan. Smart enough not to ask questions, which is common sense, brave enough to bring up hated brat, which could be foolish, kind enough to wonder about fool, which is proof.

‘’Close enough. It was name of his older brother. The third one.’’ Ivan killed by Koschei before he had chance to play out his tale. Some may call it kind, for there is price of being hero. Some may wonder, how long can Baba Yaga wait for revenge, and how cruel can it be?


 

This is truth Ivan never told to anybody, even to Marya or mother.

There are people who are known as children of fire and wind and iron. People who are brave and bold and bit arrogant, who seek more than they are given, who aren’t content with their roles.  It is said that they have wilderness in their hearts, and that it must be tamed before it ends them.

Those are lies. It cannot kill them. But society can, for it hates different and what it deems  strange. For it demands order among chaos of what is human life, and tries to assign roles to you moment you are born. It is bravery, and  common sense, and amazing to rebel against that.

But it isn’t wilderness in heart. Wilderness in heart is water ( that extinguishes flame and smothers), earth( that blocks wind and bears weight of people), tree (that dulls  blade and tears apart cities). It is what looks as chaotic but follows perfect order, as biosystem does. What is woven with Primordial magic and stands between mortal and Great Beings as do halflings and special beats and times and things.

Ivan dreams of the Flood. Of Earth taking back everything humanity took from it’s poor planet. Of Forests stretching and becoming one and consuming civilization. He dreams of elementals and concepts, of spirits and angelic hosts, of gods and fair folk. Dreams of world as it is and knows his role, role all Ivans and Vasilisas share.

He knows that he must become legend. Must be famous but not known, only his actions remembered. Must suffer. Must walk the Forest. Must trade away something precious to him.  Must give away his freedom, his humanity as price for Waters of Life and Death ( they do more than heal and revive, they almost completely suppress memories or death, so he wouldn’t kill himself to join it). Must join Baba Yaga, care and serve them like grandson ( and he loves them truly, for even if they hate humanity they try to be human in front of him), be eaten one day and try to dissuade them from their hatred which could unmake humanity in eyeblink. Must leave all others he loves behind. It hurts, but it matters not for Marya lives and is happy and free, and it is worth it.

The Forest. Night. Danger. Hut on chicken legs. Ivan prostates himself across his Goddess(es).

‘’Hello Ivanushka. Welcome back.’’

‘’Hello babushka. Thank you. It is nice to be home.’’


 

What...What are they doing? Why are they turning towards me? Towards us? Towards you?

Oh no... No, no, no! Run! Jaws and teeth and hunger and ugliness...

‘’Not nice, spying on people like that. Please come in.’’