one for sorrow
the convent in the mountains
He wakes up in the morning screaming, but that's not new anymore. The nasty burn on his thigh should have healed by now -- it's been months -- but instead, it merely grows, licking at his skin like the flame that caused it, a constant reminder of what's at stake.
The burn on her side is doing the same thing, but she reins in her cries of pain, because he needs a rock to stand on now, and he needs to believe that this pain, this curse, can be overcome. All they need is a little luck, a lot of faith, and a healthy dose of willpower. They will find a solution today, unlike all these other days. They will get through this.
"It hurts," Artem whimpers, eyes brimming with tears. She bites her tongue until she tastes blood and keeps rubbing lotion on his burn, before wrapping it in a bandage. She has no words of comfort, no salve to calm his pain. All she can do is watch him cry, and it kills her.
"We'll get through this, Artem, we will."
He doesn't respond. It's been a while since he has. She tries not to focus on the bitter look on his face, the hopeless despair that flickers behind his eyes. She must believe that they will survive this, that he will smile again, that one day -- one day -- he'll move on, and grow up, and maybe marry a pretty girl from another village and have lots of fat, happy babies that no curses or monsters or demons will ever steal away. She must believe this, for him, and for herself.
"Where are we going today?" he asks, in that dull tone of bored resignation.
"There's a convent a little further up in the mountains," she tells him, trying to make it sound like a happy bed-time story, "and legend says that a powerful witch lives there. I'm sure she'll be able to get rid of the burns. And if not, well," she forces a smile, "we'll at least get to meet a lot of interesting nuns. Doesn't that sound like fun?"
Her fake smile drops off her face. "I'm sure this one will work out for us."
"You said that about the last three."
"Well," she replies, faltering, "maybe we'll get lucky this time." He doesn't even look at her, just laces up his shoes and stands with a sigh, the same way he has been for the past few weeks. He's given up all hope -- and, really, so has she -- but they can't stop looking for a cure, not yet. "We have to keep fighting, Artem. We can do this, we just can't give up!"
There's a long silence, and then he shrugs. "You lead the way," he mutters. In a way, it's comforting to know that he'll follow her, even though he doesn't believe in her anymore. On the other hand, it eats away at her heart and erodes her strength, to know that he doesn't believe in her anymore.
"All right," she says, with false cheer, and takes his hand. "Let's get moving!"
The convent is a bust, she can see that from a glance -- it's overgrown with moss and ivy and all manner of late-autumn foliage, there's a hole the size of a bear in the roof, and parts of the walls are crumbling. A deep, unshakable despair threatens to overtake her, but she refuses to allow that, simply clutching Artem's hand tighter and plowing forward.
"I don't like this place," he says, and his voice is strange.
"Well, it's not exactly homey," she replies uncertainly, "but you never know. If I was an ancient, powerful witch, I would probably hide out in a run-down place like this. Keeps people away."
"Liliya," Artem cries, clutching her hand with both of his, "I don't wanna go in there."
"It's just an old convent," she insists, but her assurance falls flat even to her own ears. There's something horribly eerie about this place, like there's some kind of seething evil locked up tight within it somewhere, and if the situation weren't so desperate, she would turn right back around and go back down the mountain. But they need a cure. She can't keep waking up to the sound of her brother's screams, and she can't keep repeating the same nightmares (memories) over and over and over until she goes mad with lack of sleep, and she can't keep enduring this pain all over her side and back from a burn that simply refuses to heal. If there is any chance, any at all, of help in this convent, she will find it. Even if she has to tear the place apart, brick by brick.
The door sticks when she tries to open it, and, embarrassing as it is, Artem has to help her pry it open. It comes off entirely with a sickening squelch, the rotting wood oozing some kind of black fluid. Artem stares at the substance in horror, but Liliya chooses to pretend that it doesn't exist. Still, she clutches convulsively at her necklace, a vain attempt to ward off whatever is lurking in the shadows here.
Inside, it's not much nicer. Shafts of weak sunlight filter through the hole in the ceiling, and the floor has gone wild, sprigs of grass and fern and even a few saplings rise from the stone flooring, overshadowing what was once a rather pretty mosaic, although it's too faded, broken, and ancient to tell what the artist intended. It doesn't look like the home of a powerful witch, though. It just looks abandoned, and very, very old. Her heart breaks, just a little.
"Let's look around," she says, as firmly as possible, but Artem steadfastly refuses to release her hand. She glances at him, and he just shakes his head, face pale.
"Don't you see it?" he asks, voice barely above a whisper.
"See what?" She looks, but nothing is different, or even especially strange. All the plants are common enough, and, besides that black fluid on the doorframe, nothing stands out. Nothing, at least, that should make a seven-year-old panic like this. "I don't see anything, bratishka." She tries to step forward, but he clings to her, shaking his head and pulling at her arm, trying to hold her back. The rational part of her wants to roll her eyes and drag him along, but something in his face stops her. "What do you see?"
"She's angry," he breathes, and the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.
"Who, Artem?" She kneels in front of him, still holding his hand tightly. "Who is angry?"
"The witch," he replies, pale as death, and then finally looks into her eyes. "Please, can we go?"
"Now, why would you do such a thing?" a voice croaks, from behind Liliya. She shrieks and whirls around, arms already out, protecting Artem with her body. An old woman -- older than anyone she's ever seen before -- is standing there, leaning on a gnarled walking stick. Her hair is long and wild and gray, with bits and pieces of... things sticking out of it in strange places, her clothes are patched up and stitched together with what looks like a thousand different kinds of fabric, and her eyes are the darkest shade of black, piercing and intelligent and all-knowing.
"Who are you?" Liliya cries, holding out a crystal on a bright red ribbon. The woman peers at it curiously, which is, admittedly, not the reaction Liliya had hoped for. The crystal was supposed to make the witch recoil as though burned, but apparently, her amulets need updating.
"And what is this?" the woman asks, and grins wide, showing off a mouth almost devoid of teeth. "Trying to repel evil, are we, dushka?" The woman laughs. "You'll have to try much harder than that to get rid of me. But come, come, step inside. You came here for a reason, didn't you?"
"It's none of your business," Liliya replies, with more bravado than she feels. "We were just on our way out."
"No, you weren't," the woman answers, plucking a late-blooming flower off a stray vine. "You came here to find the witch that lives here, didn't you?"
Behind her, Artem whimpers. She glances to the opening, but the door is sitting right on the hinges, like they never broke it. "Yes," she says quietly. "Is that you?"
"Of course not," the woman cackles. "You think I'd live in a dump like this? No, no, no. No one lives in this place."
"Oh," she replies blankly, "sorry for... um, barging in. We'll just... be going now."
"Don't be such a baby," the woman insists, hobbling over and grabbing Liliya by the arm in a vice-like grip. Her hands are ice-cold and leathery, like something that's been left out in the snow for a few thousand years. "You wanted to see the witch to get rid of your little..." she looks at Artem, almost hungrily, "problem."
"No!" she screams, against her will. "I mean... Not... I... My brother and I have a problem that we both need removed, not... I don't want anything bad to happen to him."
"I know," the woman says sourly. "You've been cursed, by the same monster that killed the rest of your family. You jump to conclusions, dushka."
"Well, I... How did you know about the curse?"
"You reek of it," the woman replies simply, and continues to drag her through the abandoned convent, past empty rooms and crumbling walls and a bevy of broken furniture. In her other hand, she clutches Artem's hand so tightly that she can feel his nails digging into her palm. What did the woman mean by that? They reek of a curse?
"What did you -- "
"You ask too many questions," the woman creaks, and snaps her fingers. Liliya's throat snaps closed and will not open again, no matter how she tries. She gives a muffled scream and begins to fight against the woman, who just keeps dragging her.
"Stop it!" Artem yells. "Take the spell off!" His voice wavers, but doesn't break. Liliya glances to him; he's still holding tight to her hand and his face is ghost white, but there's a determined glint in his eye. The woman tilts her head.
"As you wish." She snaps her fingers again, and Liliya can breathe again. She gasps several times, and tries desperately to pull away from the mad old woman, but she merely tightens her grip and continues to pull. "None of that, none of that. You need my help and I..." She grins. "Well. You need my help. I'm the only one around for miles and miles and miles who can do anything for that curse of yours, but," she says, and abruptly releases Liliya's arm, "if you're so sure you can find help elsewhere, then go! But don't come back to me."
At the abrupt release, Liliya falls over backwards. Artem kneels down, cowering behind her form, all of his bravado and determination fading under the woman's withering glare. She's about to tell the crazy woman just where she can stick her help, when she hears him grunt in pain and whimper, so quiet that he probably thinks she can't hear -- and she knows she really doesn't have a choice. She can't leave her brother to suffer this pain. If it were her alone, she could endure, but Artem is just a child! No child should be forced to suffer like this. And maybe the woman is wrong, maybe there is someone else out there who can help them -- but so what? The odds of finding some benevolent witch or warlock wandering around the forests, who is actually willing to help them out of nothing more than the kindness of their hearts, are so slim as to be nonexistent.
She has no choice, and she never did.
"All right," she whispers. "We'll come along."
The woman's grin is eerie. She reaches out and snatches Liliya's arm again in that vice grip, dragging her to her feet and jerking her along. She chokes back a cry of pain and fear, unwilling to let the woman see how frightened she is. It's partly a matter of pride, but it's also to bolster Artem. Almost everything she does, says, and even feels lately has been for Artem.
Once, she had dreams of her own. Once, she had plans, ideas, hopes. Now... Now, it's Artem. He needs her, more than even he can understand. He needs her here and he needs her strong, and maybe -- maybe she needs him. She needs a reason to keep fighting, to hold on, to keep from following Mother and Father and Svletlana and little Pasha -- she blinks back tears. Can't think of them. Can't think of their bodies left behind to burn, the acrid smoke chasing her away, Artem's unconscious body clutched in her arms. Can't remember. Won't remember.
Artem squeezes her hand, as though feeling her not-memories as well. She takes a deep breath and tilts her chin up, following the old woman with as much strength as she can muster. It's not much, but it will have to do.
They burst out a back door, the wood still oozing that thick, black fluid. As she passes, she catches the powerful, but brief, smell of rotten meat, and recoils violently. "What?" the woman snaps. "Can't take a little blood?"
That, she thinks, is not any kind of blood she's ever seen. But instead, she says, "No, it just... surprised me."
The woman laughs, and Liliya wishes, powerfully, that she had listened to Artem when he'd said he didn't want to go into the old convent. But then, if the woman is to be believed -- which Liliya still isn't sure of -- she can help them. That means this is worth it, or will be eventually. The woman drags them through the darkening forest, down a winding and nearly invisible path, until they come to a strange, moving hut.
Liliya almost screams and bolts in the opposite direction. The house has legs. Spindly little bird-like legs, upon which it is dancing. Dancing. The woman cries out a word in a foreign language and the dancing abruptly stops and the house bows down as though to welcome them.
A hut upon dancing legs... she's heard of this.
"Oh," she chokes. "Oh."
The woman grins large and feral and refuses to release her arm, ushering them inside the house. Artem stays close, and for a brief moment, she wishes that he wouldn't, that he would let go and run, far and fast, away from here. But winter is coming, and no little boy would survive long alone in the open, especially in winter. A knot of cold bitterness settles hard in her stomach; if the situation weren't so desperate, she might not be dragging her little brother into the den of a witch known to eat children.
Inside, the hut is a menagerie of creepy. Headless chickens hang from the ceiling, swaying in the breeze from the window, all manner of herbs and plants are strung up or cast about carelessly, while a cauldron sits on the dark fireplace, but boils over like the wood is lit. The witch shuffles over and stirs the soup in the cauldron, taking a deep whiff, and peering curiously into the pot, before shrugging and turning back to them, hands on her hips. Artem is half-hidden behind Liliya's leg, and she places a hand on his head to further protect him.
"So, you need a cure for a curse, don't you?"
Every instinct she has ever listened to screams at her to say no, no they don't need anything and they'll be leaving right now -- but Artem... "Yes," she whispers, and she feels her brother recoil a little more. Abruptly, the witch reaches out and snatches Liliya's arm, jerking her forward and grabbing her skirt, hitching it up without a second's thought. "Hey!" she cries, but the woman just grunts and leans down to inspect the burn.
"Well," she croaks, throwing her skirt back down with more force than necessary. "That's a nasty little curse, to be sure. I can take care of it for you."
"You will?" Liliya cries, hope bursting into her chest like a fire blazing to life. "You'll get rid of the curse?"
The woman shrugs, and grabs a chicken from the rafters, then cuts off its legs with worrying gusto. The chicken's neck squawks like it's still got a head, and Liliya tries her damnedest not to scream. "I can, no problems there. Tell me, though, why should I?"
The fire within dies as suddenly as it came. "I... Because we need you to."
The woman makes a dismissive motion with the carving knife, "Which means that I can ask anything I want as payment for it, yes?"
"Tell me," she shouts, over the dead chicken's screeching, "how much are you willing to give me in return for a cure?"
"How...?" Liliya asks, and then answers without thinking, urged on by her own pain and the memory of Artem's screaming, "Anything! Whatever it takes."
The woman smiles. "Then we have an agreement."
"An agreement? But you haven't told me what I owe you."
She laughs, "That's because you're going to tell me," she says. "I'll need the components for the spell anyhow, which you're going to find for me," she adds, startling Liliya ("Wait, I didn't -- ") but goes on like she wasn't interrupted, "and then, when you get back, you and I will decide just how much that cure is worth to you -- and to your little brother there."
Liliya glances to Artem, who shakes his head, eyes wide with terror. But she doesn't have the luxury of refusing this offer -- it's the best she's going to get, and at the rate that the burns are spreading, Artem won't be able to walk much longer. He's already having trouble, and she thinks she'll go utterly mad if this pain doesn't stop soon. She takes a deep breath, sends a half-thought prayer to her mother, and nods. "All right. What do you need for the spell?"
Artem sleeps fitfully in the corner while Liliya watches the old witch like a hawk. Baba Yaga -- for that's the only possible answer for who the woman is, the legendary witch herself -- offered her a place to sleep, but she doesn't dare let down her guard. The witch, for her part, seems to find this unutterably funny.
"So," Baba Yaga says, stirring her cauldron -- Liliya wonders vaguely what's inside, "tell me, dushka, how does a girl like you survive six months in the wilds?"
She takes a deep breath. "I'm well-learned in poisons," she answers tightly, and Baba Yaga laughs out loud. Artem stirs, and she lays a hand on his shoulder to calm him. "Is something funny?" she asks, and Baba Yaga merely grins, showing a mouthful of yellow teeth.
"Just you. You think you're something far above an old hermit witch in the mountains, but look at yourself -- well on your way to becoming just like me."
"I'll never be just like you," she replies shortly, and the woman gives her an entirely too understanding look.
"I thought the same of myself, once," she says slowly. "But there's nothing you wouldn't do for your little brother -- you're even willing to dabble in magic to save him! Desperation, my little poisoner," she says, her tone bitter, and draws out a ladle from the cauldron to pour it into a bottle. The liquid is oily and milky, she notices, like the inside of an eye. "Desperation will turn a saint into a demon," Baba Yaga continues darkly, "you mark my words."
"I'm no demon," she insists, although she has a few memories -- all from the past six months -- that could make a fairly compelling case otherwise. "I do what I have to."
"So do all demons," Baba Yaga says, and then shrugs. "I'm not here to judge, just to administer the cure. Take this," she adds, handing over the bottle of liquid from the cauldron. "And put it on your burns. It will slow the growth, give us time to get you the real cure."
Liliya takes the bottle and peers at it -- when she peers through the milky liquid, she can see different things on the other side: the chickens have ghostly heads, the unlit fire is brilliant blue underneath the cauldron. "What is this?" she asks quietly, and Baba Yaga peers at her.
"Do you care?" she challenges. "It will ease your suffering. What more do you want?"
She stares hard at the liquid, and then looks to the witch. "You say that all demons do what they must... what of the one that attacked us? What did -- why?" she asks fervently, the haunting question that she's refused to ask since it happened, since the frustration from the lack of an answer was enough to drive her mad. The witch looks at her with a strange sort of sympathy in her eyes.
"I cannot answer for it," she replies slowly. "I am sure it had some reason, even if that reason was simply the need to cause pain. It does not do to dwell on such questions, dushka," she says, and it's almost affectionate. Liliya tries not to recoil at Baba Yaga's motherly tone. "That way lies madness, and despair, and I think you have had more than enough of those for one lifetime, no?"
Liliya looks away from the witch's piercing eyes. "Yes," she whispers, rubbing circles on her brother's back, "I think I have."