The Witch and the Tsar – Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

The Witch and the Tsar

Late May 1560

When my owl landed on my shoulder, I knew that heartbreak was not far behind.

It was not that twilight tasted differently, though on my tongue, the humid spring air had the bitterness of snowfall. It was that, even this deep in the Russian forest, dusk bled into the light with infuriating leisure. The clouds had smothered the last of the sun’s rays in scarlet. Yet day clung on, delaying what mortals intended to find their way to my izbushka.

The log hut stood on chicken legs, not swaying or spinning or even pacing, as unnaturally still as me. I usually fidgeted with impatience, eager for my first client to appear, for my work to begin. Now, unease wrapped around my throat, silent as a viper.

My owl could only be here to deliver bad tidings. Like her namesake, night, Noch came in the company of darkness and shadows. It was then the mortals arrived with their fevers, skin infections, and stomach poisons; with the burns from the fires that spread too quickly in their cramped, wooden villages. They did not approach me in the light of day, even if it was waning. Not unless they brought disaster.

Noch’s bright yellow gaze fixed on me pointedly. She let out a screech loud enough to reanimate the skulls on the fence encircling my izbushka.

They are here, Ya. Her voice, in the language she spoke, reverberated through my mind, becoming words I could understand.

“Already?” I asked in Russian. Someone was coming. Someone desperate enough to risk being seen. “Who is it?”

What am I, your servant? You will see. A downy wing brushed against my cheek teasingly as Noch ascended into the air. But instead of hurling herself back into the sky, she flew into my hut through the open door, shedding several dove-gray feathers in her wake.

I picked up a feather, considering it. My owl never went inside of her own volition, valuing open sky and freedom above all. I strained my ears and waited for the first footfall. All I heard was the song of the crickets and the leaves, rippling in the breeze that had rushed toward me, insistent and oddly cold. Fluff drifted from the ancient cottonwood trees, settling onto the wooden steps of my hut like tufts of snow. And I had just cleaned them.

“Come down, Little Hen,” I said to my izbushka, and she obeyed, folding the chicken legs beneath her so she looked almost like a regular house.

I tightened my hold on the broom and swept at the steps with renewed vigor. The hut jerked away, being unbelievably ticklish. The two windows on either side of the door glowered at me, their red and blue carving brightening in indignation.

“Hold still, Little Hen,” I said and swept on. But I kept a close eye on the wood beyond the skulls.

My hut sat in a lush glade surrounded by towering, age-old trees. Overgrown pines and spruces jostled against starved yet stubbornly resilient birches. The oaks stood gravely, expansively, ready to pass on their energy to anyone who asked politely. The wispy grass had grown knee-high and tangled, the forest floor ripe with mushrooms, wild strawberries, and violet petals fallen from geraniums in bloom. Out of this chaos of living things a large man stepped out, all in black, face obscured by a wide-brimmed hat.

I stilled. “Who goes there?”

The man halted at the fence, no doubt trying to decide if the skulls there were human. “Is this the izbushka of Baba Yaga the Bony Leg?”

With my unease temporarily forgotten, my cheeks flushed with familiar indignation. Not many dared to say that name to my face. “It is the izbushka of Yaga.”

Fool, I almost added. Do I look like a baba? I was not a babushka, lying on my stove in the throes of advanced age and infirmity. Nor was I a hag, a demon, or an illness. Nothing about me was ill or demonic or old, except the occasional thread of silver in my wild black hair. My father may have been mortal, but Mother had been a goddess since before the Christian God had come to Russia. Because of her immortality, my body had not aged past thirty after centuries on Earth. I sent a little prayer of thanks up to her.

The man stood motionless. His features were weathered and very plain, most covered in coarse black hair, as was the fashion. No outward ailment spelled disaster. His illness, though, could be of the internal or spiritual variety, even of a romantic one.

Either way, it was best to put him at ease, as was my practice with new clients. Those who came for succor found it in my hut. Healing filled the empty hours of my days, kept my hands occupied and my mind busy, gave me a sense of purpose. If I could have lived among mortals, healing and advising them, I would.

But the legend that clung to me—the legend of Baba Yaga, built on lies and ill will, prevented it.

Excerpted from THE WITCH AND THE TSAR by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022


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