A Hard Bargain

Nicholas studied the hut. It was largely as the legends described: it stood on chicken’s feet in the centre of a clearing and was surrounded by a fence upon which were hung glowing skulls. He shuddered in revulsion and almost turned to leave again. This was surely a quest of madness but he was desperate and desperation drove men to acts that were beyond sanity and reason.

Cackling drew his attention back to the hut. Its occupant had appeared, killing any chance he might have had to withdraw without notice.

“I am honoured,” she said. “So powerful a man has come to visit my humble dwelling.”

Nicholas drew himself up. “I need your help and as a loyal subject of–“

“Spare me your pretty words. I come and go as I please and where I please. Baba Yaga is no loyal subject or citizen of any country, least of all so failed a state as yours.”

“The Russian Empire is no failed state.”

“Really? Your people are happy? The workers productive?” Baba Yaga smiled sardonically. “And do not lie for I know the truth of it. I see the truth of it when those pushed to desperation visit my humble abode and, hah, here you are.”

Nicholas scowled. “I am not desperate–“

“Ah-ah. I said do not lie. No man, woman nor child shows at my gate without being desperate. So out with it. What do you desire I aid you with?”

Nicholas felt himself slump in defeat. “A son.”

Baba Yaga cackled. “A son?”

“I need an heir.”

“Are your daughters not good enough? Four of them, now, aren’t there? Surely one amongst them has the wit and wisdom to lead when you are gone?”

“The law does not allow it.”

“Laws can be changed.” Baba Yaga gave him a long look. “But, of course, you cannot conceive of such a thing. The idea that the laws of your ancestors might not be right and fitting is a thing you cannot countenance because, if you do, how much else might need to be considered?”

NIcholas scowled again. “I did not come to be lectured in matters of constitution by one who so proudly proclaims herself to be neither citizen nor subject.”

“And yet, that is what you have received.” Baba Yaga smirked. “You say you want a son. That is a gift within my power to grant, but all my gifts carry a price. Are you willing to pay?”

“Yes.” Nicholas swallowed. “Name your price.”

“Your daughter. Your youngest. Anastasia, isn’t it? Such a lovely young thing.”

“I–my–what?” Nicholas was appalled. “You cannot be serious!”

“Oh, but I can.” Baba Yaga’s smirk grew wider. “Though she isn’t going to be a beauty, like Maria or Tatiana and she isn’t to have the intellect of Olga, she has charms and talents of her own and she is my price.”

“I am not giving you my daughter to feed your appetites.”

At that, Baba Yaga laughed. “And nor do I wish to eat her. No. I do not want her now. When she turns fifteen. That is when she will be ready and that is when I will expect to see her where you stand now.”

“I cannot give you my daughter.”

“Then I cannot give you a son.” Baba Yaga shrugged. “The equation is simple. One daughter for one son.”

Nicholas was silent for a few moments. It was a monstrous bargain, but had he not expected as much? He felt a sense of revulsion with himself for even considering it but the certainty of having a son made his will weak and, if the witch was correct about Anastasia’s future attributes, perhaps this was as good a use of her as securing a marriage alliance. 

“You will not kill her?”

“Her death is not in my plans,” Baba Yaga confirmed. “Do we have an accord?”

Nicholas swallowed and said softly, “We do.”

Baba Yaga clapped her hands together and cackled with delight. “Splendid. Wait there and I will provide you with what you require.”

Nicholas waited as the witch hobbled up the steps into her hut. She was not inside for long and returned carrying a jar filled with a golden coloured substance.

“There are two parts to this,” she said as she approached the gate. “The first is that your wife must consume the contents of this jar: a spoonful each morning and night for one month.”

“What is it?”

“A preparation of royal jelly, Egyptian honey and a blend of herbs to promote her fertility. On the thirtieth day, you must make a sacrifice: beneath the moon, place one gold coin in a bed of flowering red poppies. Burn one stick of frankincense and drink a preparation of myrrh, then go to your wife. Nine months hence, you will be blessed with a son. This I swear.”

She held the jar out and Nicholas took it.

“And remember,” Baba Yaga added, “when Anastasia turns fifteen, I will expect her at my gate.”

“I will remember.”

Nicholas backed away from the gate, then turned, feeling the witch’s eyes on him as he walked away. Little Nastya was only just three. There was time and time enough to find a loophole in the witch’s demands. He would secure a son and heir and then he would find that loophole and everything would be fine.

It had to be fine.