The Girl With Dead Flowers in Her Hair
By Eric Christ
Sergei Nikolsky finished with a grunt and rolled away. As he fumbled with his clothes, Nalya Akhmatova pulled down her dress and buttoned her blouse. She sat up and started to straighten her hair out of habit, then remembered it had been shaved off upon her arrival in camp six months earlier.
“You should act more lively,” Sergei said as he laced his valenki. “It’s like screwing a corpse.”
Nalya stared at his boots as she shivered in the early autumn chill.
Sergei stood and stepped closer. He put on his guard jacket and nudged her cheek with his thigh. “Maybe I’ll inform Pavel of my dissatisfaction with your performance and refuse to pay him. What do you think he’d say?”
She hunched her shoulders and pulled away. “He would not be pleased.”
Sergei grabbed her chin and swung her face around with a cruel twist. His eyes gleamed under the darkness cast by the brim of his cap. His breath smelled like stale cigarettes. “He will beat you. Do you want that?”
Nalya jerked her head back and forth. “No,” she whispered.
“Then do what I say. Next time, move like a normal person.” He squeezed her chin harder. The calluses on his hands scraped against her skin. “Say you will do this.”
“I will.” Her voice broke into a whimper.
Sergei threw her backward and she landed in the mud next to the barracks. Her head smacked against the wall. He kicked her in the stomach and disappeared around the corner.
Nalya lay against the building. The rough wood scratched her skin through the holes in her clothes. She waited until she caught her breath and her head subsided to a dull throb before clambering to her feet. She wiped the worst of the mud off her dress and followed after him.
Pavel Zyuzin waited by the barracks door. His hands were thrust into the pockets of his overcoat. His bearded face betrayed no expression as she stepped beside him.
“You promised an extra ration of bread,” she said.
“So I did.” He drew out a tiny black crust and held it out to her.
Her mouth watering, Nalya snatched the food and crammed it into her mouth.
“If you fulfilled your norm, you’d get the normal ration,” Pavel said. “You must work harder.”
“How can I work harder without sufficient food? I’m exhausted and constantly hungry.”
Pavel shrugged. “It makes no difference to me.” He looked at her for the first time. “Comrade Nikolsky did not seem pleased tonight.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing about you. But he seemed more sullen than usual.”
Nalya sighed. “I do not like him.”
“Neither do I. But he pays well.”
“What was your reward for my service this time?”
“Cigarettes. I should get them tomorrow.”
Nalya stared at Pavel. “You’ve never hired me out for a promise.”
“Remember your place. Without my protection, you’d have been dead a long time ago. If you wish to end our arrangement and manage on your own, so be it. But you know what would happen.”
“Yes,” she said automatically. Her hands curled into fists. “Damn you!” She threw herself at him, raking at his face with the nub of her nails. Stunned, he staggered backward and cried out when she drew blood along his cheek. Voices shouted, but she ignored them. Pavel grabbed her arms and threw her to the ground. She started to rise but someone kicked her leg and she fell.
“Stay down,” Sergei shouted. “What is going on here?”
“The bitch attacked me,” Pavel said. “Scratched me across the face like a damn cat.”
“Is that right?” Sergei jerked her to her feet. “A few nights in the punishment cell should settle you down.”
He pulled her through the gathering crowd. “Get back inside,” Sergei ordered the other prisoners.
Nalya was dragged through the courtyard, past the administrative offices, and toward a low brick building that shimmered pale gray in the waxy moonlight.
“Let us in,” Sergei told the guard at the iron door. The man complied by unlocking the door with a large key attached to an iron ring.
The building stank of mildew and rotting wood. The interior was nearly pitch dark. Stray beams of moonlight floated through windows set high along the walls. Sergei yanked her down the hall and thrust her into a cell. “You’ll stay for three nights. Cause any trouble and you’ll get three more. You’ll get bread and hot water in the morning.” He slammed the steel door shut, locking her in.
Nalya waited until her eyes adjusted to the dark before inspecting her cell. The parasha, a bucket that reeked of piss and shit, was in the corner. A plain wood slab was bolted to the brick wall. There were no other furnishings. The walls were wet and covered with a rough, slimy substance. Her head grazed the wood ceiling.
She lay on the board. It was too short. She drew up her knees, turning on her side, but the bed was too narrow, so she let her feet dangle in space. Her back pressed against the wall and absorbed the damp chill that spread throughout her body. She’d never be able to sleep. She closed her eyes.
She woke with a start. The side on which she lay was numb. Her other side felt frozen. She struggled upright and rubbed her eyes.
A small girl stood in front of the door. She wore a plain brown dress, tied at the waist. Long black hair, tangled with twigs and grass, flowed down her shoulders. Around her head was a bouquet of wilting flowers – poppies, daisies, and orchids, brown and brittle. Her round face was streaked with dirt. Her feet were hidden in swirling mist. Her brown eyes stared at Nalya with no expression.
“How did you get in here?” Nalya asked.
“Baba Yaga has sensed your anger. I will come again to take you to her.” Her voice was soft and slightly accented. Soft shades of moonlight settled into the patches of her face uncovered by dirt and mud. “She will help you.”
“But how? Who are you?”
“You already know. Your mother told stories about me. You’ll remember.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will, in time.” The girl took one step closer. “Why are you a prisoner?”
“My husband was a colonel in the Red Army. He was arrested for being a Trotskyite conspirator. They came for me two weeks after and said I was one of his accomplices, or at the very least, I should have been aware of his crimes and reported them to the police.”
“Where is your husband now?”
“I don’t know,” Nalya whispered. “I don’t even know if he’s alive. Do you?”
The girl shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
Nalya stared at her clasped hands, feeling the girl’s gaze in the heavy silence. “You and your husband are innocent?”
“Of course. For all the good that does me now.”
Her strange visitor stared at Nalya with a disconcerting intensity, then nodded her head as if making up her mind. “You’ll see me again soon.”
Then the girl was gone.
Nalya hacked at the branches of the fallen pine tree. The hatchet blade was dull and caked with dried sap. It took at least ten blows with her tiring arm to chop one branch.
She straightened with a groan and rubbed her back. Ten more logs were piled beside her.
“Why are you resting?” Sergei shouted. “You must strip all the logs to meet your norm.”
Nalya closed her eyes as her head swam with dizziness. After three days in the punishment cell, her body was not prepared for another twelve hours of labor, especially after the mile walk to the work site from camp. Hunger gnawed at her gut. Her limbs felt heavy and weak.
Sergei approached. “You refuse to work?”
Nalya opened her eyes and shook her head. As she bent over the tree and hefted the hatchet, she noticed the girl with the dead flowers in her hair. She was at the edge of the work area, in a stand of golden birch trees, cloaked in forest shadows.
Nalya tossed the hatchet aside. “I need to shit,” she told Sergei.
He scowled. “Five minutes.”
The girl was gone. Nalya entered the forest where she had been standing, and saw her deeper in the woods. The girl waited until Nalya walked toward her, then turned and threaded her way through the trees. Like the first night in the punishment cell, her feet were shrouded in foggy mist, though her legs moved as if she were walking.
Nalya followed for what seemed like a long time. Sergei would think she tried to escape. More guards and dogs would set out after her. She would be caught and punished.
But she kept walking, though she paused several times to catch her breath.
The girl stopped outside a clearing. “Baba Yaga is there. She is waiting for you.”
A house sat on a platform twenty feet in the air, supported by four skinny trees with thick roots spreading out on the ground. They looked like chicken legs. There were no doors or windows, only a wide round chimney sticking from the roof. No ladder led to the platform. A fence surrounded the house, the crooked posts topped with human skulls.
Nalya shivered. “It’s too high,” she said. “How do I get there?”
“Just go,” the girl said.
Nalya entered the clearing. As she neared, she saw that the fence posts were actually human leg bones. One of the taller posts lacked a skull.
She stopped when the house started to shake. The supporting trees bent and twisted, as if buffeted by a mighty wind. The platform remained intact as it heaved up and down. A shape emerged from the chimney, wispy like smoke, and formed into a human-shape mass above the house.
Nalya stepped backward and was about to flee when the girl grasped her hand. Her touch was warm and comforting.
The house ceased its gyrations. The last smoke-like tendrils formed a head crowned by stringy white hair. The figure was a woman with deeply wrinkled skin, gray bushy eyebrows, and brilliant blue eyes. Her nose was beaked and stretched until it nearly touched her upper lip. Her body was wrapped in a formless brown dress, her feet hidden in a round bowl that Nalya recognized as a mortar. She gripped a long iron pestle in one hand and a crooked-handle broom in the other. The bristles were thin but straight. The handle narrowed to a sharp point.
“This is Baba Yaga,” the girl said.
Nalya tightened her grip on the girl’s hand as Baba Yaga glided over the roof and down to the ground in front of the fence. Her dress was stained with dirt and dried mud. Ants and other insects crawled over the fabric. A putrid stench of human waste, body odor and rotting plants rolled from her in waves.
“You must be Nalya.” Baba Yaga’s voice was rough and slightly hoarse.
The girl squeezed Nalya’s hand. “I am,” Nalya said.
“What is it you seek?”
“I…” Nalya tried to form a coherent thought. “I’m not sure.”
“Do not lie to Baba Yaga!” The crone whipped her broom forward. Its bristles smacked Nalya in the forehead. “Your rage called to me. Tell me what you want.”
Nalya’s skin smarted from the blow. Her eyes began to water. She thought back to the night she attacked Pavel. Yes, rage was the right word. It was the first time since her arrival in camp that she’d felt any emotion. “I want revenge against the guards and camp commander.” But that wasn’t all. In that moment, as she clawed at Pavel’s eyes, she’d wanted him dead.
“Now we have the truth.” Baba Yaga’s lips sneered into a gross distortion of a smile. “Is that all?”
Baba Yaga’s eyes narrowed. “What of your husband?”
Nalya sucked in her breath. “How do you know of him?”
“I know what I must. Now answer my question.”
“At one time, I hoped to see him again. But no longer. If he still survives in some camp, there is no way I can reach him.”
“Perhaps there is a way,” Baba Yaga said. “Would you still wish to see him?”
“Of course. But please do not offer something that cannot be given.”
The girl squeezed Nalya’s hand again, but Baba Yaga smiled. “You may be surprised at what I can do. If you wish revenge on your tormentors, or to see your husband again, you must do as I say.”
“What is that?”
“Steal a bullet from one of the guards. Bring it to me. You have two days.”
Baba Yaga thrust herself off the ground and whirled in the air. Her body broke apart into the smoky mass and disappeared down the chimney.
“We must leave,” the girl said.
“She asks the impossible,” Nalya snapped as they entered the forest. “The guards will think I’ve escaped. I’ll be punished for nothing.”
Nalya stopped. They were back at the worksite, in the same place she’d first seen the girl. Sergei sat on a stump and checked his watch. Nalya looked behind her, and saw nothing but forest. No clearing. No stilted house.
The girl tugged on her hand. “I will help you with your task. Now go.”
The girl said nothing.
“I remembered, the second night in the punishment cell. You’re supposed to be a fairy tale. Baba Yaga killed your stepmother and her daughters. You had a magic doll. You grew up and married the czar.”
The girl offered the hint of a smile. “All true except for the last. I drowned in the river after my stepmother and stepsisters died. Baba Yaga claimed my soul as payment for her service. Now I serve Baba Yaga.”
Nalya was about to respond when the girl stopped her. “Your five minutes are up.”
Nalya stepped out of the forest, dizzy once again with exertion and hunger and confusion.
“It’s about time,” Sergei called. “I was about to get you.”
Nalya retrieved her hatchet and went back to work.
Sergei came for her that night, just before lights were turned out in the barracks. He led her around the back of the building to their customary spot, then
removed his gun belt and hung it on a nail in the wall. “Get on your knees,” he said as he loosened his belt.
Vassalissa appeared next to her. “Hold your breath. Don’t worry, he can’t hear or see me.”
Nalya did as she was told. Vassalissa floated from the ground until she was level with Sergei. He couldn’t have missed her, yet showed no sign he saw her. Vassalissa pursed her lips and blew on her hand. A fine mist twinkled in the starlight as it puffed into Sergei’s face. His eyes glazed over and his body froze. His hands were poised on the button of his pants.
“Take the gun from his holster. Hurry. The spell will wear off quickly.”
“What did you do?” Nalya stared at the guard, not daring to move.
“Do as I say. Trust me.”
Biting her lip, Nalya gently pulled the pistol from the holster. It was heavier than she expected. She turned it over in her hands. “I’ve never used a gun before. I don’t know how!”
“I’ll tell you.”
Following the girl’s instructions, and trying to ignore Sergei’s motionless body looming over her, Nalya managed to slide a bullet out of the cylinder. She started to put it in her dress, but Vassalissa stopped her. “It may fall out overnight or be discovered. Hide it here and retrieve it in the morning. Take it with you to work. I’ll come for you.”
Nalya buried it in the mud at the base of the wall.
“He’ll remember nothing when the spell breaks,” Vassalissa said.
Sergei blinked a few moments later. “I said, get on your knees.”
The next morning, as the prisoners awoke, Nalya grabbed the parasha before the dezhurnaya could get it. “I will empty it today,” Nalya told the older woman.
She dragged the bucket outside and dumped its putrid contents onto the ground. Looking around to make sure no-one was watching, she pried the bullet from the soil and slipped it into her pocket.
Nalya kept her hand wrapped around the bullet during the lineup and as they marched to the work site. Sergei was in his usual post, near her stack of trees from the day before. “Quit staring and get to work,” he ordered.
Vassalissa appeared an hour later, standing in the trees at the edge of the forest. Using the same excuse, Nalya joined her. This time, they walked only a few steps before entering the clearing with Baba Yaga’s house. Nalya looked behind her and saw nothing but dark forest.
Baba Yaga emerged from the chimney and landed in front of them. She extended her hand. Her nails were long and yellow, with dirt and mud crusted underneath, and each knuckle sported a few strands of white hair. “You have the bullet?”
Nalya dropped the bullet into her palm.
Baba Yaga put the bullet into her pocket without looking at it. “Very good. The task is complete.”
Nalya waited for the crone to say more, but the ancient woman just stared at her. A centipede scurried down the side of her neck. “What now?” Nalya asked.
“You must steal a piece of bread from a zek in your barrack. The one who calls it her klebushka. No need to return it to me. I’ll know if you’ve completed the task. You have two days.” Baba Yaga turned to go.
“Please, wait,” Nalya said, trying to keep her voice calm. “Thieves are severely punished for stealing bread.”
“Then do not get caught.” Baba Yaga poked her in the chest with the pestle, hard enough that Nalya stumbled backward. “There is no haggling. Do the task or you will not get what you wish.”
Baba Yaga disappeared into her house.
“Will you help me?”
Vassalissa shook her head. “Baba Yaga was not pleased when I helped you the first time. You must do this on your own.”
The next day was Sunday, which meant six hours of work rather than twelve. Nalya slurped the midday soup and gobbled the tiny crust of bread, then left the dining hall and hurried to the barracks. The others would be done eating soon, and she had little time. But this was her only chance.
She entered the building and knelt before Elena Voloshin’s bunk. She reached under the lice-ridden blanket and pulled out a small burlap pouch. She unfolded it. Her mouth watered when she saw the five pieces of stale brown bread that were crushed thin, like crackers. The meager lunch had barely touched her persistent hunger. She stuffed two pieces into her mouth.
The door swung open.
Nalya whirled around, clutching the bread behind her back.
“Thief!” the dezhurnaya cried. “How dare you steal Elena’s little bread?” The woman threw aside her broom and rushed outside.
Nalya couldn’t move. Behind her, the burlap pouch dropped from her hands, but she didn’t notice. The bread felt like sawdust in her mouth. She swallowed it with a grimace and rushed to the door.
The dezhurnaya stood in the dining hall’s doorway, announcing Nalya’s crime to the other prisoners. Within moments, her fellow zeks streamed outside.
Pavel was one of them.
Running was pointless, but she did it anyway. Maybe the guards would protect her. Maybe the zeks would show mercy to her.
They were on her before she took a dozen steps. They pulled her hair, spit in her face and shoved her to the ground. Boots thudded against her emaciated body. She closed her eyes and tried to curl herself into a ball, but they grabbed her hands and feet and stretched her out.
“How could you take my klebushka?” a shrill voice shouted into her ear. “Now I have nothing!”
They hoisted her off the ground. Fists pounded her unprotected stomach and chest. Spittle landed on her face. They lowered her, then jerked her up and let go. Nalya screamed and flailed as she reached the apex and plunged to the earth. Her breath exploded out of her chest when she hit the ground. Her left arm flared with a sharp pain. The back of her head bounced off a rock.
Someone fired a gun and shouted. Her assailants scrambled away. As her eyesight dimmed, a face loomed above her, with red cheeks and gentle blue eyes. His lips moved but she heard no sound. Then everything went dark.
Nalya opened her eyes. Dusty exposed beams crisscrossed over her head.
A guard was sitting next to her.
“You’re the one who saved me.”
“I quieted the disturbance.” His blue eyes twinkled in the sunlight that filtered through the high windows.
She was in a cot, on a real mattress with an actual pillow. Her aching head was wrapped in a bandage. Her left arm throbbed and was encased in plaster and strapped against her chest.
“The doctor says you’ll be back on your feet soon.”
“Back to work, you mean.” Her voice contained more bitterness than she intended.
He looked away.
“Why did you stop them?” Nalya asked. “Thieves have been punished before and the guards did nothing.”
“I’d heard of what the zeks did to thieves, but never saw it until now. I don’t approve of it. Disorder should not be allowed.” He hunched his shoulders and clasped his hands. “I was transferred here from another camp a few days before you were attacked.”
Nalya stared at his face. He was older than she. Grey at the temples and a creased forehead. But his eyes were kind. “You’re not like the others.”
“I was a solider in the Patriotic War. The Germans captured me and sent me to prison camp. I was freed in a prisoner exchange and sent to a Soviet camp. I was a model prisoner and eventually promoted to guard.”
“They freed you?”
“I am free to work in the camp. I am free to live in barracks, and free to come and go with an escort and written permission from the camp commander.”
For the first time she could remember, Nalya wanted to laugh, but the impulse quickly died. Savior or not, she didn’t know if this man could be trusted. “I am Nalya Akhmatova.”
He extended his hand and she took it. His skin was warm and rough. “Dimitri Lavrenov. A pleasure to meet you. But I must confess, I already knew who you were.”
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Nalya said.
“We haven’t. Your husband is Aleksei, yes?”
“You knew my Alex?”
“I served with him in the war.” Dimitri took a deep breath. “I saw him three months ago, in a labor camp near Perm. We were able to talk. He showed me your picture.”
Nalya’s heart leapt. “You saw my Alex? How is he?”
“He was in the camp hospital, like you, recovering from a fever. He was due to be released in a few days.”
Nalya closed her eyes and tried to gain control over emotions newly reborn. She so wanted to believe this man, if it weren’t for that damn uniform. “Did he say anything?”
“Yes. He said, if I should see his “sweet little potato,” tell her to never give up, and he’ll be with you someday.”
A sob threatened to break free of her chest. Sweet little potato. His pet name for her from before they were married, a bit of silliness between blissful young lovers.
A name no one else knew.
Nalya gathered loose branches with her good hand and moved them to the pile. Her left arm was still in her cast, though it no longer hurt. She had been released from hospital the night before and was back at the work site. The cast prevented her from chopping wood, so she was assigned lighter work, though for the first time since before her arrest, she felt strong enough for manual labor. Three weeks of resting in a hospital bed and eating better food reminded her what it felt like to be healthy.
Vassalissa waited at the edge of the clearing.
Nalya dropped the sticks. “I need to shit,” she told the guard.
He didn’t look away from the other zeks. “Five minutes.”
Nalya crossed the clearing and followed the girl.
They reached the stilted house. Baba Yaga was waiting in its shadow. The crone pushed off the ground and landed softly next to Nalya. The sharp end of the broom poked Nalya’s cast. “Your fellow zeks treated you harshly.”
Nalya kept her eyes on the ground. “That’s what I told you.”
“You humans are stupid. Suffering can be eased when you help and support each other, yet you fight among yourselves, and for no good reason. Do you hate them?”
“I…I don’t know.”
Baba Yaga’s shadow settled over her. The witch lifted Nalya’s head with the blunt end of the pestle. “Yes you do. Answer me truthfully.”
“Yes,” Nalya whispered. “I hate them.”
“Do you wish vengeance on them?”
“They hurt me. Yes.”
“Good.” Baba Yaga lowered the pestle and hovered higher, so Nalya had to crane her neck to see her. “Kill the guard named Lavrenov, and I’ll exact your revenge on the entire camp.”
Nalya shook her head. “Anything but that.”
“You refuse me?”
“Lavrenov does not deserve to die. He saved my life. He also did something you didn’t. He told me where my husband is.”
The crone snorted laughter. “And you believe him?”
“He knew something he couldn’t possibly know – unless my husband told him.” Nalya trained her eyes back on the ground. “I won’t kill him.”
Baba Yaga floated above her in silence. Nalya’s palms grew moist and sweat trickled down her forehead.
The witch finally spoke. “I’ll be coming to your camp very soon. If Lavrenov is not dead, I’ll kill him myself. And you for disobeying me. Now go away.”
Nalya backed away and fled.
Three days later, Nalya lined up with the other zeks before work. She wrung her hands and shifted her weight from foot to foot. Sergei and Dimitri counted the prisoners.
“See me after work today,” Pavel said. “Two new zeks have paid for your services.”
“Again? That will make three nights in a row.”
He shrugged. “What can I say? Your hospital holiday fattened you up and renewed interest.”
“You must hide.”
Nalya jumped and whirled around. Vassalissa stared up at her with her usual impassionate gaze. “What are you doing here?”
“Baba Yaga is coming.”
“Have you lost your mind?” Pavel hissed. “Who are you talking to?”
“No one else can see me,” Vassalissa said. “Leave now.”
“I can’t. They’ll shoot me.”
“Who’s going to shoot you?” Pavel asked. “Have you lost your mind?”
Shouts and gunfire broke out at the gate. Guards opened fire from the watchtowers. Men screamed in pain and terror, and the prisoners broke out in excited chatter. Above the din rose a woman’s frenzied laughter.
“She’s here,” Vassalissa said.
“Don’t move!” Sergei shouted at the zeks. “Remain where you are or be shot!”
Baba Yaga swept into the courtyard, skimming above the ground in her mortar. Her stringy hair whipped around her shoulders. The broom was cocked at her shoulder, like a spear. Its sharp tip was slicked red.
The camp commander burst from his office, waving his arms and yelling orders. Despite Sergei’s warning, the prisoners scattered. Nalya stayed where she was. Fear kept her feet rooted to the ground.
Baba Yaga swung the pestle into the base of the nearest watchtower. Wood cracked and splintered. The tower tilted and plunged to the ground in an explosion of dirt. Baba Yaga finished off the guards crawling from the wreckage with two jabs of her broom.
Sergei and Dimitri were joined by the commander and two others. “Shoot her!” the commander screamed.
Baba Yaga sped toward them as they opened fire. Bullets ricocheted off the mortar and bounced off Baba Yaga.
Nalya broke her paralysis and ran toward the guards. Remembering Baba Yaga’s promise, she grabbed Dimitri’s shoulder and pulled him back. “There is no stopping her. We need to hide.”
“You go,” he replied. “I cannot leave my post.”
“What are you?” Sergei screamed as he tossed aside his empty rifle and pulled out his revolver.
“But you’ll die,” Nalya said. She continued to drag him. He did not resist.
“No use running!” Baba Yaga shouted. “No place to hide. I’ll find you.”
She reached the group of guards and knocked them down with a savage swipe of her pestle. Bones crunched as bodies crumpled. Dying screams were cut off as the broom plunged up and down.
“Come on,” Dimitri said, shrugging her off and grabbing her arm. “This way.”
Nalya glanced behind her as they ran. Baba Yaga veered toward the barracks and pounded the pestle at the windows and roof. She tore the door off the hinges with the broom and disappeared inside. New screams joined the crone’s laughter.
“Do you know what that is?” Dimitri asked as they hurried into the administration building.
“It’s Baba Yaga.” Nalya slammed the door. “She’s supposed to be a fairy tale.”
There were two rooms in the building: the commander’s office, and a smaller office for his secretary. Dimitri ran through both and rejoined Nalya. “There’s no one else here. Does this camp have dynamite? Maybe that will kill it.”
Nalya watched through the window as Baba Yaga burst out of the barracks and chased down three fleeing zeks. Then she zoomed into the dining hall.
“Nalya? Did you hear me?”
“They may have used some to clear work spaces in the forest.”
“Good. Hopefully it’s in here.”
He ran into the commander’s office. Nalya stayed at the window and crossed her good arm over her chest. The camp rang out with anguished screams. Her face twisted into a smile. They deserved what they were getting, every one of them.
Baba Yaga left the dining hall. Her gray dress was smeared red and the broom and pestle dripped blood. Still cackling, she entered the hospital building.
Vassalissa appeared next to her. “She used the stolen bullet to protect herself from their guns. But she did not account for their blades.”
Dimitri rejoined her. “No dynamite, but I found some sausages. That might do it.”
“Grenades. That’s what we called them during the war.”
“Do you have a knife?”
“Of course. All the guards do.”
“Do you have an extra one for me?”
“No, but I saw one in the office. I’ll get it.” He disappeared again.
Baba Yaga sailed into the middle of the courtyard and faced the administration building. Nalya didn’t try to hide. She would find them anyway. Their only hope was to fight. “Please hurry,” she called to Dimitri. “I think we’re the only ones left.”
Slashed and broken bodies littered the ground. Blood soaked the dirt and mud.
Baba Yaga raised her broom. The bristles burst into flames. She whipped the broom at the hospital. Fire hurled through the air and hit the building, setting it aflame. Rotating in her mortar, Baba Yaga set the other buildings on fire. Thick black smoke billowed into the sky.
Dimitri returned and handed her a six-inch dagger encased in a silver scabbard. She pulled the blade free. It looked sharp enough. The bottom of the blade was inscribed with Workers of the world-united.
“We need to leave,” Nalya said. “Now.”
Baba Yaga was cocking back her broom when Nalya and Dimitri fled from the office. The ball of flame whisked over their heads and crashed into the building. Windows shattered, and the beams cracked into kindling. The heat buffeted their backs.
They stopped opposite Baba Yaga. Dimitri stepped in front of Nalya and gripped the pin in the grenade.
“You should have done as I asked,” Baba Yaga said. Her voice easily carried over the roar of the crackling flames. “But despite your refusal, I’ve still granted your request. Aren’t I kind?”
“I appreciate your aid,” Nalya shouted. “We’ll go our way and you can go yours.”
“Not so fast.” Baba Yaga pointed her broom at Dimitri. “You remember what I said about this one.”
“What is she talking about?” Dimitri asked.
Nalya shook her head. The intense heat and smoke made it difficult to breathe. “We need to get out of here.”
Dimitri pulled the pin and tossed the grenade at Baba Yaga. It landed two feet from her. Baba Yaga pushed off the ground with the pestle and propelled herself forward. The grenade exploded harmlessly behind her.
Baba Yaga stopped a short distance away. “Kill him or I will. Finish your duty.” She hefted the broom as another ball of flame appeared over the bristles. “Run and I’ll torch you both.”
“Kill me?” Dimitri looked at her. “What is she talking about? What duty?”
“She didn’t tell you?” Baba Yaga crowed. She spread her arms wide. “I did all this because she asked me to.”
“Nalya, is this true?”
“I shouldn’t be here!” Nalya screamed. “I did nothing wrong. The punishment, the isolation, the back-breaking work, I didn’t deserve any of it. She offered me revenge and a chance to find my husband, and I took it.”
Dimitri took a step backward, his eyes filled with a confused betrayal – and a glimmer of fear.
“Don’t stare at me like I’m a monster,” Nalya hissed, spitting out the words in a harsh staccato. “Like you wouldn’t do the same. You were a prisoner once. But…” her voice trailed away. Her sudden fury melted away. Her eyes blurred with fresh tears. “She wanted me to kill you, and I couldn’t. I can’t.”
“Cut his throat or I will,” Baba Yaga growled.
“That’s my choice, then?” Dimitri asked. “Die by her hand or yours?”
Nalya swung toward Baba Yaga. She held up the knife, then placed it in her pocket, and displayed her empty hands to the witch. “I won’t kill him. He saved my life.” Tears streaming down her smoke-stained face, she looked at Dimitri. “I’m so sorry.”
Moving faster than Nalya had ever seen, Baba Yaga jumped forward with an angry cry and impaled Dimitri through the chest. The broom stuck out three feet from his back.
“Damn you!” Nalya screamed and lunged at Baba Yaga with the knife. The crone swung around and hit Nalya with Dimitri’s body. Nalya crashed to the ground but kept her grip on the knife.
Baba Yaga used the pestle to shove Dimitri’s corpse from her broom and advanced on Nalya.
Nalya stumbled to her feet. Her broken arm throbbed in its cast. Her lungs burned and her eyes watered from the smoke. But she stood her ground and held up the knife as Baba Yaga drew closer.
Behind Baba Yaga, Vassalissa pulled a grenade from Dimitri’s pants pocket. She pulled the pin, rushed forward, and stuffed the sausage into Baba Yaga’s mortar.
The grenade detonated with a muffled blast. White smoke and tongues of flame billowed from the mortar’s opening and engulfed Baba Yaga’s body. She screamed and plunged to the ground. The mortar cracked in several places but held together.
“She will recover quickly,” Vassalissa said. “Finish her with the knife.”
Baba Yaga lay on her back and stared at Vassalissa with hate-filled eyes. “You finally betrayed me.”
Vassalissa nodded. “Unlike me and Nalya, you deserve your fate.”
Baba Yaga clutched the broom and pestle and shook them at Nalya as she approached, but Nalya dodged the weak attempt and thrust the dagger through Baba Yaga’s chest.
The crone gasped. Her rheumy eyes bulged. She dropped the broom, grabbed Nalya’s shirt, and pulled her closer. Her breath reeked of rot and decay. “I may die, but Baba Yaga lives.” Her cracked lips broke into a grin and froze as her eyes went blank and her hand fell away.
Nalya stumbled backward but her feet tangled and she fell. Vassalissa loomed over her. Her eyes gleamed. “What did she mean?” Nalya asked.
“It’s already happened. Look down.”
Her feet were encased in Baba Yaga’s mortar, nearly up to her knees. “You mean…”
“Baba Yaga lives,” Vassalissa repeated.
Nalya pushed herself upright. Foreign sensations swept over her. Her hand moved to her neck. She wore a necklace of dead flowers. The same ones that adorned Vassalissa’ head. For the first time in her life, she had a servant. She flexed her broken arm. The plaster exploded into tiny fragments. The arm was healed.
“You know everything she knows. You possess all her power.” Vassalissa grabbed the pestle and broom and handed them to Nalya. “But you can be better. The former Baba Yaga allowed power to corrupt her. You can make a different choice. You can find your husband.”
“Yes.” Nalya hefted the broom and gazed at the blood-streaked tip. She shook the broom and muttered words in a tongue she didn’t know seconds before. The bristles lit with flame. She sent the ball of fire into the administrative building. “My husband.”
“You can free prisoners and destroy the camps.” In a smaller voice, she added, “You can free me.”
Nalya didn’t respond. She lifted the pestle and swung. It whistled through the air. She smiled and swung again.