She had no one else to turn to. The neighbours had stopped her going into the house, prevented her seeing the remains of her family one last time. They knew who was responsible for their murder, but none would say. She might have been only sixteen years old but she condemned them as cowards and ran into the forest, with little idea of where to go, and one thought in her head, revenge.
The house on chicken’s legs appeared in a clearing. Attached to the surrounding tree trunks by rotting cords were the skeletons of unfortunates, discontents, criminals, the despondent, who had all come searching the help of the ambiguous one. The girl knew she risked the same fate. The ambiguous one did not heed every petitioner, nor spare the weak-spirited, the miserable or the frail. Neither did she listen to every braggart, every angry noble brandishing his wealth and his sword. The girl looked into the empty eye sockets and saw as many powerful as humble dead. She clenched her fists and held her head high. Death did not frighten her. All her dear ones had already passed through the door, pushed violently it was true, but they would be there, waiting for her. She had nothing to fear from death, and only one thing left to live for. She would offer her death to the ambiguous one, and hope her boon was granted.
The chicken claws scratched in the dirt and the little house shuddered. The girl’s mouth was dry but she found her voice and shouted.
“Baba Yaga! Give me the lives of my parents’ murderers and I will give you mine. Refuse and I will kill myself, and you will never have me.”
She took a knife from her belt and pressed the blade to her chest while the leaves of the trees shivered in a sudden breeze and the house on chicken’s legs trembled. The breeze carried a tinkling sound like distant laughter and the girl held her breath, waiting for Baba Yaga’s answer. No sound came from the house, but by her ear, a hissing voice said, “Take me with you and I will show you what you are looking for.”
Startled, the girl turned and stared into the dead eyes of a skull. Without hesitating, she plucked the skull from the skeleton and brandished it high on a stick.
“Thank you, Baba Yaga,” she shouted. “When I have done what I must, I will return.”
Again, the silvery laughter floated in the wind, and the chicken legs stomped around and crashed through the trees that closed behind them and the house of Baba Yaga. Before her was a dark green wall; she was alone with the skull.
“Follow where I lead,” it said in the low, hissing voice, and light, pale and green, poured from the empty eye sockets onto a path the girl had not noticed before. The path wound between tree trunks, over streams and through glades, and the girl followed it through the night, and through the cloudy darkness of the following day. Her resolve and her grief were so strong she never tired. She heard not another word from her guide until she reached the forest edge. Beyond the last trees she could see that night had fallen again and a new moon shone. The skull spoke.
“In the shade of the fir trees, you will see an iron railing that encloses a small plot of land. Look beyond the railing and you will see four mounds of newly turned earth.”
The girl peered over the iron railing, and it was as the skull had said.
“Who lies here?” she asked, dreading the reply.
“Your uncles Ivan, Pyotr and Dmitri, and your cousin Fyodor.”
The girl’s face went white as chalk. “What new horror is this?”
The tinkling laughter drifted on a breeze from nowhere and the skull replied, “The ambiguous one granted your request. These were the murderers of your parents, your sister and your brother.”
The girl sank to the ground as images of her laughing, bearded uncles, and her smiling, bright-eyed cousin ran before her eyes.
“For the land, of course,” the skull replied.
Vengeance should have felt sweet, but the girl felt only emptiness and misery.
“Take me back to Baba Yaga and let her take my life. There is nothing at all left for me now.”
“The house and the land are yours now, and a young man is waiting for you, the young man who followed the murderers and showed the soldiers where to find them. A young man with broad shoulders, hair the colour of ripe corn and eyes blue as the sky.”
“Anton,” she murmured. “But, what about my promise to Baba Yaga?”
The skull was silent, and the green light in its eyes was dead. The faint laughter grew louder as a wind sprung from the ground, wild and joyous as a young horse, plucked her into the air and whisked her through the night, into the dawn, and set her down in front of her home. The skull had spoken the truth. In the doorway of her house, was a young man, a pail of feed for the pigs in each hand. Anton was smiling.
“Welcome home,” he said, and putting down the pails, ran to her and swept her into his arms. Somewhere, far away, silvery laughter turned to birdsong before drifting into a contented silence.