Ash lazily drifted to the ground, building up in piles a few feet from the smolder to watch the show. The village burned, and no one was alive to stop it. The smell of sulfur and burnt oil joined the stink of smoke, turning the air to vile fumes. In what had been a bustling town, only one structure stood, literally, on two metal chicken legs. The house began to root in the ash like a pecking fowl, until it found a nice bit of rot to settle on.
With a pop of grinding gears, the house let out a gush of smoke and sat. It breathed its satisfaction, fanning its windows like feathers. The red front door creaked open on steam hinges.
Miles away, deep in the forest, the White felt it. The damage to her domain sizzled into her flank, like a brand. She howled, sending the maggots scurrying away from the body beneath her. The White sprang from her dinner, trails of drying blood oozing from her muzzle.
The White flew like the winds of a storm towards the forest’s ache. She reached the tree line bordering the scorched earth. Her eyes feasted on the dreadful house, and she longed to take claw and tooth to it. But where the ground burned she could not tread.
A black picket fence uncurled and planted itself in a square around a sprouting garden of black, twisted roses. Heads flew from the upstairs window and planted themselves on the spikes of the fence. Their jaws fell open, and they cried in unison:
Mountains and rivers and fields do not slow her,
Any Man be accurs’d to know her.
Baba Yaga Comes.
This village had revered and respected the White, and now it lay in wreckage. She could not tread where the forest was kept back, but there were other ways. She needed to find another young girl.
“What’s it like living so close to the forest?” asked Gregory, his face pinched with envy.
“I guess it’s not any different from living in town, except mother never lets me play in the back of the house,” replied Mila.
“I bet you’ve never even gone in, have you?” said another boy from her class, Franz.
Mila didn’t like the tone the conversation was taking. It was nice to have attention sometimes, but it always seemed to turn to teasing. Would they be impressed by the time she’d run in and out? They’d probably just tease her for not going farther.
Mila hedged. “My dad trades with Taiga village, so he goes in the forest all the time.”
She made the right call. The boys crowded around her, looking impressed.
“Has he seen the White?” asked Gregory, leaning in too close.
She was losing their interest.
“But he’s seen the bodies that the White leaves to warn off poachers.”
School was long over and the sun was setting before Mila could break away from her new admirers. Her dad was due back from his latest trip, so she hurried home.
But her father wasn’t there, and he didn’t come home the next night, either. By day three, it was clear: her father was missing. The forest wasn’t kind to those who were lost.
The pale blush of dawn on day four saw Mila standing at the edge of the forest. She had only moments to make up her mind before her mother would be awake.
Mila thought about her dad’s soft smile and quiet voice and took a step forward. She remembered how her father had taught her to tell a good deal from a bad deal and took another step. Thoughts of his kindness and wisdom carried her deeper through the trees than she had ever been.
Soon, the path turned into a vague suggestion, and Mila became unsure of which way to go.
“Hello,” said a grey cat, lazing on a rock.
Mila recoiled in surprise, but decided it would be rude not to reply. “Hello to you, too.”
“You’re not supposed to be here.”
“I’m headed to Taiga. Please, just let me pass.”
“The White demands an audience of all trespassers.” The cat looked excited. “You’re not a poacher, are you?”
Mila replied quickly, “No! Please. I’m just a little girl.”
“Oh.” The cat licked his paw, then sighed. “I’m afraid it isn’t up to me. You’ll have to see the White.”
Mila choked up, despite herself. Large tears rolled down her cheeks and splashed onto the ground. Where each one hit, a small blue flower bloomed. Dread filled her. Had the entire forest grown from the tears of little girls?
“Interesting,” said the cat. “Follow me. And don’t try to run. The White loves a hunt.”
The grey cat led her to a large den. Bone shards were as plentiful as leaves, and the stench of death sweetened the stagnant air.
“We will wait here.” The cat settled on a stump.
It didn’t take long for the White to arrive. It was the size of five men, and moved with impossible litheness through the thick forest. The White bared its teeth, revealing bloody fangs.
The cat turned to Mila and spoke. “Her Majesty says she will let you go if you complete a task for her. You are special, more pure of heart than any other, and you will save your father.” He sounded almost bored.
Mila rode on the back of the White and couldn’t help but smile. She wished Gregory and the others could see her. The world was a blur of gold and green and black.
The White came to an abrupt halt, and Mila almost went flying over its head. She was about to ask why they had stopped when her eyes focused on the field in front of her. Instead of grass, the ground was black and charred. If this was supposed to be Taiga, something terrible had happened. Where were the golden buildings and bustling shops? Only one building was left, and it trembled slightly, like a slumbering animal.
She slid off the White’s back, afraid to go any farther. Had her father been here when this happened? The White nudged her forward. Her foot hovered over the beginning of the char.
When she stepped down, a small patch of grass bloomed where her foot landed. As she walked, she left small boot prints of life across the emptiness.
Everything was so desolate. All hope left her. She wasn’t going to be rescuing her father. Would she even recognize what was left of him? Tears fell freely, and she kicked at the stupid blue flowers that resulted. Maybe it was because she stopped walking, but the White growled at her back. There was no running away. There was nowhere else to go but into the wicked house.
As she got closer, Mila noticed a stream of smoke exhaling from the windows. On the roof, a weather vane tracked her instead of moving with the breeze. The worst thing by far was the fence, though. Mila let out a scream as heads mounted on spikes along it burst into song:
Mountains and rivers and fields do not slow her,
Any Man be accurs’d to know her.
Baba Yaga Comes.
She tried to ignore them, though she was filled with fear. Tears splashed down her face quicker, sending droplets flying as she scurried to the gate. One tear hit a head, causing it to explode in a bouquet of delicate blue flowers, its eye sockets now elegant vases, its mouth silenced by the blooms.
Mila pushed open the gate, trying to ignore the empty post beside it, room enough for one more head. The lawn was filled with thistles and brambles that cut at her ankles. Drops of her blood grew pink roses that choked away the black thistles.
The front door had its own set of carved teeth. It snapped its jaws as Mila approached. The handle of the door was a waggling tongue inside of the wooden mouth.
Disgusted, Mila walked to the nearest window and tried to peer inside. Dark ichor covered the glass. Mila tried to pry it open, but it was locked. A shutter whacked at her hand like a tail swatting a fly. She backed away.
“Hello?” She wasn’t really interested in meeting whoever lived in this house, but the White had promised her father would be here.
She stood still so long, the mouth in the door calmed, hanging slack. Had it forgotten her? Maybe if she was fast enough, she could grab the handle.
Her hand shot out, grabbing the surprisingly soft knob, which twisted freely. The door swung open, but not before the teeth took a bite out of her. Her blood gushed out, and the door screamed, shattering into a thousand dry leaves.
She whimpered, putting pressure on her wound. The room before her was covered over in junk. The ceiling was a nest of jars hung from strings. Shards of broken glass and twisted metal winked at her from along the walls.
“Oh, let me guess, you’re the plucky young girl of note and legend. Blah blah blah.”
Dressed in red from head to toe stood a woman who appeared not much older than Mila. Her hair fell past her shoulders in a black sheet. Her smile was too wide.
“I’m looking for my father.”
“Of course you are. How was your trip through the big bad woods?” The strange woman whispered something to a small wooden doll in her arms before setting it down. “I worked hard to get things ready.”
“You’re the witch! Why did you do this?”
The dark-haired, ageless woman laughed, a tinkling and mocking sound. “I’m getting things ready and harvesting hearts. I appreciate you bringing one straight to the door. I could have done without the property damage, though.”
So, the witch wanted Mila’s heart. Huge tears rolled down her cheeks and bloomed into ivy at her feet.
“Stop that this instant! What a mess. And who cries that much? I watched you walk up here. Waa Waa Waa. Why even come if you are so scared? I’ve almost certainly killed your father by now.”
Mila let out another sob. “I had to try.”
“Don’t be dense. You’re here because the White made you come. I see that damned beast lurking on the edge of my clearing.” The witch took a step forward after giving a commiserating smile to her doll. “So, how are you special? Is it the flower thing? Are you pure of heart or some other such dreck?”
Mila fell back, trying to keep distance between them.
“They told me I was beautiful once.” Madness had overtaken any beauty in the witch’s face. “They told me I was special.”
Mila spun around to run, but the witch grabbed her. Her strong arms pulled Mila inside and threw her on the ground. The woman pinned her, and Mila struggled to get free. Something caught Mila’s eye, stilling her. In the kitchen, her father was tied to a chair, his head lolling to one side.
“Father!” Mila cried.
“Really? Huh. Don’t get your hopes up, though. It doesn’t mean anything. You aren’t the heroine in this story.”
Mila felt the air go out of her and looked up in confusion. The dark-haired woman had an elated look on her face. It wasn’t until Mila saw the knife that she realized what had happened.
Blood began to pool out of the wound in Mila’s chest, the knife still in place. It poured forth onto the floor and painted rivulets across the room. With the last of her strength, Mila smeared her blood across the witch’s face.
With satisfaction, the White watched ivy explode from the house. She called to the ivy, and it grew towards her like a charging river. As the first vines touched her paws, she burst forward, using them as a bridge through the rotten field.
The front of the house was open, like an exposed neck. The White pounced. There was hardly room to move inside, and the White could only fit halfway in. The witch clawed at vines wrapped around her throat. Her whole body was engulfed in the new growth. Her hands sprouted flowers whose roots cut through her skin like a stitch through cloth.
The White bit the witch and shook her back and forth, until she laid still, then dragged her from the cabin. Her corpse tasted rotten, so the White spit it out.
And so Baba Yaga was defeated by the sacrifice of a girl as pure of heart as she was empty-headed. The White chewed on a bit of ivy, trying to get the dead-witch taste out of her mouth.
“I found another human in the house. You won’t believe this, Majesty. I think it is actually the girl’s father. I thought I was lying when I told her she’d save him. I’ve untied him, but all he can do is weep over the pile of flowers that she’s become.”
The cat spoke like a human and laughed at death. It made the White feel polluted. She growled, causing her servant to back up.
“I’ll smooth things over, Majesty,” the grey cat said with contrition.
After a while of hushed conversation, the father emerged from the house and sat down, holding his head in his hands. The cat gave the White a sly wink.
“And from this day forward, every time a blue flower blooms, the little girl is looking down at you. The little girl’s-”
“Mila’s last wish was to protect the forest. The End.”
A laugh rose from the corpse of the witch. It was echoed by the heads on the fence. The White hunched, ready to fight.
“What will you do without a storybook maiden to throw at your problems?” said the corpse on the ground, its head twisted completely around. “Baba Yaga is here!”
Movement caught the White’s eye. A huge hand gripped a tree at the clearing’s edge. The tree withered and died. Another hand shot forward, grabbing the ground. The creature pulled itself into view.
It walked on two legs, like a human, but one leg was metal and hissed as it hit the earth. The grey hair on the creature’s head was long enough to be woven into robes that hung loosely around its form. It closed the distance quickly, seeming to grow larger all the time. Its face was that of an old woman, but its nose was so bulbous, it looked snout-like.
“Majesty,” said the grey cat. “I believe that is the real Baba Yaga.”
“Then who was defeated?” cried the father.
“Just another lost maiden,” gasped the corpse, a manic smile on its purpling face.