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Long ago, in Russia and its neighboring countries, legends told of a witch named Baba Yaga. Some of the stories portrayed her as a frightening old crone who lived in a log hut that stalked through the forests on chicken legs. Others said she was an elemental goddess who was guardian over the natural world and the doorway into the mystical Otherworld.
As with all stories, some parts were true and others . . . a little less true. The Baba Yagas were powerful witches; that much the tales got right. But there was never just one, and they were neither good nor evil. Just very, very powerful. And very dedicated to doing their jobs, no matter who got in the way.
These days, the United States is home to three Baba Yagas: Barbara, Beka, and Bella. Each of them powerful, beautiful, and magical, and each with her own story—for of such women and their deeds are legends made . . .
Barbara Yager glided her classic BMW motorcycle to a halt in front of the silver Airstream trailer that she lived in whenever she was on the road. It was currently parked in a lot on the campus of the Northern Illinois University where she was presenting a series of guest lectures on wild-crafting herbs. Traveling botanist and college professor made for a useful cover for her other activities, which tended to be a little less conventional. To say the least.
As she swung one lean, leather-clad leg over the saddle of the bike, she caught a glimpse of something curious reflected in the shiny royal blue paint. The reflection should have been impossible, given the angle, but like everything else about Barbara Yager, the motorcycle was not quite what it seemed.
“Hmph,” she said, not very loudly, and strolled over to the front door of the Airstream without looking back.
“We have company,” she said as she closed the door behind her. “Again.”
She removed her helmet, releasing a cloud of dark hair that flowed over her shoulders like silk. The helmet and black leather jacket were hung on branchlike pegs that sprouted out of the wall as she snapped her fingers, leaving her clad in matching black leather pants and a crimson tee. Not what the university administrators had been expecting, she suspected, but she didn’t much care. Following the rules had never been her strong suit.
A blunt black-nosed snout pushed aside the velvet curtain covering the window, as Chudo-Yudo looked for himself. He gave a barking laugh, one that went well with his current guise as a huge white pit bull; not exactly subtle, but a lot easier to explain than his true form of a ten-foot dragon. They’d been companions since she’d been a child . . . which was a lot longer ago than one would suppose based on appearances.
“Not very smart,” Chudo-Yudo growled. “Stalking a Baba Yaga.” He showed a set of sharp white teeth. “Maybe he has a death wish. I could help with that. You want me to eat him?”
Barbara rolled her eyes. “I don’t think that will be necessary. It is not as though he is a threat.”
As if an ordinary mortal could harm a Baba Yaga in a face-to-face confrontation. Barbara was one of the three Babas currently living in—and responsible for—the United States. Like the others, she’d been trained in magic by the Baba Yaga who’d preceded her, and like the others, she was tasked with guarding the doorway to the Otherworld, keeping the balance of nature (as much as anyone could in these modern times), and occasionally, helping a worthy seeker.
That last one was a pain in the butt.
Barbara sighed, peering out the window over Chudo-Yudo’s massive furry shoulder at the rusting blue pickup truck parked under a nearby tree. For three days, it had followed her from the building where her class was held. Each day, it sat there, idling, for about twenty minutes, no doubt while its driver attempted to work up his nerve to confront one of the most powerful witches on the planet. Each day, it drove off again, the man inside only a vague image of ragged hair and bowed shoulders, leaving behind it a miasma of exhaust and sorrow.
Barbara was tired of waiting. In theory, those seeking her assistance were supposed to come to her. She decided that parking within twenty feet of her home was close enough to count. There was a cold beer with her name on it (literally, since a small organic brewery in Utah made a beer called “Baba” that she was quite fond of), and she wasn’t going to be able to relax until she figured out if she was truly needed, or if whoever was out there was just wasting her time and annoying her. It was never a good idea to annoy a Baba Yaga. Particularly not this Baba.
Muttering under her breath, she stomped over to stand in front of the driver’s side door, arms crossed, booted feet planted firmly on the ground. Chudo-Yudo trailed along behind her, probably out of sheer boredom. They tended to spend more time away from civilization than in it, which made it easier for him to be out and about, and a week stuck in the Airstream in the middle of a parking lot had made the dog-dragon even grumpier than usual.
The window lowered slowly, revealing a pale, rugged face under badly cut brown hair. Baba thought the man might have been reasonably attractive when he didn’t look so tired and worried. The lines of strain had carved crevices and valleys onto an otherwise pleasant landscape, and dark brown eyes were ringed by shadows that spoke of many a sleepless night. A faded purple and green bruise adorned one flat cheekbone.
Barbara hardened her heart. Just because someone wasn’t sleeping well didn’t mean he merited her assistance. Maybe the guy had a guilty conscience. Or stayed up all night gambling and chasing women.
She hoped he hadn’t come to her in search of some kind of magical treasure to get him out of debt. That might have worked on occasion in the old days, back in the dark green, mysterious forests of Mother Russia, when Baba Yagas were more inclined to play along with the fairy tales people told about them. Not anymore though, and definitely not her. He was going to have to really need her help, or she’d turn him into a toad and go drink that beer.
“Hey,” she said, possibly a touch more forcefully than she’d intended to, based on the way the guy flinched. “I’m guessing you wanted to talk to me, since you’ve followed me back here three days in a row. Were you ever planning to get out of that truck?”
The man eyed her dubiously, and looked even less encouraged by the sight of the large canine sitting at her feet, long pink tongue lolling, and just a hint of steam curling out of his nostrils. But after a minute he shut off the engine and opened the door. For all his hesitation, once he was in front of her, he straightened up and pulled his shoulders back, as if gathering his courage. A couple of inches over her five foot ten, he wore a clean blue shirt over jeans that actually looked like they’d been ironed. One hand gripped a small box.
Barbara raised a dark eyebrow, but didn’t say anything. She’d gone as far as she was going to—the next step was up to him.
Ivan Dmetriev tried not to stare, but it was difficult. The woman in front of him was nothing like he’d been expecting. His babushka, his father’s mother, had often told him tales from the land where she’d been born. DeKalb, Illinois had a large Russian community, and after church on Sundays their tiny parlor had always been filled with diminutive elderly women with musical voices. They drank strong, dark tea from his babushka’s battered silver samovar, filling the air with their chatter about grandchildren, and the inferiority of the local produce compared to the fruits from home, and sometimes, if he was lucky, frightening stories about the witch, Baba Yaga.
How he’d loved those stories as a child. Such a magical, frightening figure, the sometimes wicked, sometimes wise Baba Yaga, with her iron teeth and up-curving pointy chin, and her long nose that always sniffed out the truth. When the babushkas told the tales, their creaky voices lowered to spooky whispers as the night came creeping inward past the lace curtains, he could almost see the witch flying through the air in her enchanted mortar and pestle, and see the wooden hut in which she lived racing around the forest on its giant chicken legs.
So at first he laughed when his grandmother had pulled him aside last week and told him that the stories were real. That the Baba Yagas were real, too. Powerful witches living among (although often apart from) regular human beings, their ancient magical homes and transportation transformed into modern versions, but their roles mostly unchanged throughout the years.
Ivan’s initial thought was that perhaps his beloved babushka was finally feeling her years and losing her grip on reality. Especially when she’d informed him, seated in stately upright grace on the carved wooden chair that made her look like a shrunken but regal queen, that in her younger days back in Russia, she had met one of these legendary witches.
“You should have seen me,” his grandmother said, pride clear in her strongly accented words. “I wasn’t scared at all. Well, not much, at any rate, for all that the Baba Yaga was a fierce and ugly creature. Sparks flew from her eyes and set the leaves around us to smoldering. When she gnashed her teeth, it made a sound like boulders falling down a hill. Oh, she was a fearsome sight. But I was on a quest, and I was young and beautiful, and full of the courage that comes from being in love.”
“Grandmother,” Ivan had said, trying to be soothing, “I’m sure that you met an old woman in the woods. But it can’t have been the Baba Yaga. She’s just a tale, told to scare small children.”
His babushka snorted. “And how do you know she is just a tale, my darling Ivanenka? Do you know everything there is to know? I do not think so.” She patted his face with a feathery touch. “Have I ever lied to you? No, I have not. So when I tell you that I met a Baba Yaga, then this too you must believe.”
Against his will, Ivan had believed. His grandmother told him a story as remarkable as any of the ones he’d listened to as a small, wide-eyed child. A story of how her love (his grandfather!) had gotten lost in the woods, and how the not-quite-wicked witch had made his babushka do three impossible tasks before leading her to the bear pit he’d fallen into.
But thankfully, the ending was a happy one. His grandmother had been reunited with her beloved, and the Baba Yaga had been so impressed by the young girl’s bravery that she’d promised her a favor, whenever she needed it.