Leht was the youngest of his brothers, six sons of his parents, who all worked on his family’s farm in the cold lands. His brothers were all intelligent and strong, so they did much of the planting, plowing, preserving, and harvesting. Only Leht and the eldest took different roles. His eldest brother’s role was to do trading with merchants, often taking him to exotic places as he invested family money. He met his wife abroad, and their father said his grandchildren would not be farmers, but rich men. Leht’s part was smaller—to check eggs in the chicken huts, keep the dogs at work with the sheep, and run his parents’ errands to the town or to the storehouse in the woods, where the cold lingered year-round, keeping food fresh for them at all times.
One morning, Leht opened the chicken huts to a wretched stench. Every egg the chickens laid had come out a dark green and bled black yolk when cracked. The entire night’s worth had to be discarded. Worse omens awaited later in the day. A calf came stillborn from a healthy mother cow, and a mother goat’s kids all choked up the milk they’d drunk from her.
“Some sickness may have taken hold,” said Leht’s eldest brother. He was married and was keeping his pregnant wife at the farmhouse while he counted money on some days and built his own house on others. Yet he wouldn’t risk his unborn child if some illness had come creeping onto the farm, so he rode off with her into town, hoping to wait out the disease.
Soon most of the farm’s animals were dead or sick, and while Leht’s family remained healthy since they’d burned the carcasses rather than let wild animals spread the disease, they were running low on meat. Many families were so poor they had to do without, but Leht’s father had set salted meats in the storehouse in the woods, along with sacks of seeds that they might need if the crops died next.
“Head to the storehouse,” his father told Leht one morning. “Fetch two sides of cow.”
Leht did as he was told, heading into the woods that he knew as well as his family’s farmland. Yet the woods felt colder today than usual, its chill piercing his layers of clothing, nipping his skin, and the trees carried a dark foreboding, as if the branches had curved into words, warning that he should stay away. Nonetheless, he needed the supplies his father wanted.
He soon crossed a line of trees marking the storehouse’s location, and through the foliage he thought he saw it standing in the clearing ahead. It had been built atop four tree stumps to keep the supplies away from bears and sometimes looked like a house standing on chicken legs from the way the stumps’ roots clung to the ground.
When Leht stepped into the clearing, he realized this was not his storehouse, but a little cottage seated atop two enormous chicken legs, as scaly as those of the hens on the farm. A small fire burned on the ground, partly surrounded by a white fence built of animal bones, and sitting beside the fire was a squat, round woman. Thin limbs stretched from her egg shape, and a big face flashed a wide grin beneath a bulbous nose and two mismatched eyes, one white, one yellow. In one hand, she held a stick that hung inside the fire, cooking something. Her other hand hung limply across her lap.
“Hello,” the woman hissed. “You’ve intruded on my breakfast.” She retrieved the stick from the fire and nibbled at what looked like a man’s hand, punctured by a dozen or so charred briar thorns.
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
Leht trembled. “Forgive me. I was only looking for my family’s storehouse and must’ve been turned around. I’ll be on my way.”
But the woman wouldn’t let him go so easily. “I do not like when others stumble into my place. That said, this may very well be your storehouse. I’ve made some changes as I needed, for when the time comes that I must move on from these woods. Come closer, boy.” Leht obeyed. “What is your name? How old are you?”
Leht frightfully whispered the answers the woman sought, and it slowly dawned on him where he’d heard of the chicken-legged house, why he’d thought of the storehouse that way in the past. The woman seated before him was the old witch Baba Yaga, whose presence boiled babes in the womb and curdled milk in the breast. She was said to eat men and delighted in the flavor of children.
“How will you make up for intruding?” Baba Yaga asked. “I see you have slender hands and thin fingers. Are you delicate, boy?”
“I am gentle with chicken eggs and in carrying even heavy loads,” Leht admitted.
“Then I will have you go deeper in the forest, to a briar patch where the wolfsbane grows. I cannot be so delicate to fetch it with my injured hand.” Baba Yaga held up one hand and Leht noticed a small, silvery blade stuck through her palm. “The werewolf blade, the name of which I’ll not utter or else I’ll lose my hand, cannot be pulled free without injury. Yet when threatened by wolfsbane, rubbed into the skin, the blade will recede on its own. Your delicate hands will fetch the wolfsbane without tearing its leaves or stem on the briar thorns.”
Leht nodded, ready to dash away, but Baba Yaga commanded him to stop. She beckoned him close, pressed her thumb to Leht’s forehead, and muttered a few words he didn’t know. “What did you do to me?” he asked.
“You don’t need to know, so long as you don’t run off home without my permission.” Baba Yaga grinned evilly and waved him on his way.
Leht wandered west to where the briar grew in these woods and found the wolfsbane quickly, although its petals hadn’t flowered in the cold woods. The briar thorns scraped his hands and arms, but his fingers worked delicately and he pulled the flower free intact. Hurrying back to Baba Yaga’s house, he rubbed his forehead, wary if there was some mark present that might single him out as a witch’s servant. Then he realized he might never see anyone to accuse him unless Baba Yaga let him free.
The old witch scoffed when he brought the wolfsbane to her. “I do not expect this is enough,” she said, rubbing the withered stem into her injured hand. The werewolf sword, tiny as a finger, slid out by half an inch. “You’ve failed me and now the sun will soon set. I can do nothing against the blade until the next dawn. Why shouldn’t I eat you for making me suffer another day?”
Leht knew little reason, but he remembered from stories that Baba Yaga was not adverse to a deal. “I can tell you a tale that my brother told me from afar,” he said. “In exchange, let me go today and I’ll return tomorrow to fetch more wolfsbane.” Baba Yaga agreed—if she cared for the story.
“The tale my brother told was of a harsh winter, when a farmer’s dog worked and was well-fed, and a wolf starved for lack of prey. One day, the wolf came upon the dog, who said the wolf was hungry for not doing an honest day’s work. The wolf asked for help and the dog offered him a job, which the wolf agreed to. But then the wolf noticed the way the hair matted on the dog’s neck, where his collar had been. The wolf asked what it was and the dog explained it was where his master bound him, but that it didn’t hurt, and in time he’d become used to it. The wolf thanked the dog for his hospitality, and then set off into the wild again, saying he’d rather starve and be free than become a well-fed slave.”
Baba Yaga looked displeased, but she nodded and waved Leht away. “I would think better of your tale had the wolf eaten the dog, but it says a good point. Return tomorrow, boy.”
Leht returned home with only briar thorns in his hands, not the supplies he’d been sent for. He told his father there were no sides of beef when he looked, but he would go back for the seeds tomorrow. When he was free from his family’s eyes for a moment, he checked a looking glass in his mother’s room and saw no mark on his forehead. Perhaps the witch was bluffing him, or perhaps the curse—whatever it was—could not be seen without witch’s eyes.
Unwilling to tempt fate, Leht returned to woods the next day. He found Baba Yaga at her fire again, this time roasting one side of beef, exactly as he’d been sent to the woods to fetch yesterday. Anger blasted through him and he balled his wounded fists, hating that the witch could steal from his family and command his will. His anger broke when her frozen white eye glared at him, as if she knew his feelings and disliked them. Then she pointed him west, into the deeper woods where the wolfsbane grew.
He went and fetched two stems on this venture. The briars jabbed his hands and arms like the first time, but he returned to Baba Yaga before nightfall just the same. She rubbed the stems into her hand and the blade slid out a little farther, but its point remained stiffly in her flesh.
“You’ve failed me again, boy,” the witch said. “Will you trade for my forgiveness again, or will I dine on child tonight? They are so difficult to catch alive with only one good hand, except when they step up to me and let me touch them.”
“I know another story from my brother,” Leht said. “A mouse was out wandering and found a lion mewling in the woods. Normally he would eat a mouse in one bite, but he couldn’t bear to run after one because he had a thick thorn stuck in his front paw. When the mouse should have run, he instead went up to the lion’s paw and pulled the thorn free. The lion was so grateful that he didn’t eat the mouse and let him go.”
Baba Yaga’s face appeared blank and she waved the boy away. “Return tomorrow.”
When he came home a second time empty-handed, Leht’s father whipped his backside with a belt, accused him of running off into the woods to play, and sent him to bed without supper. Leht didn’t dare tell his parents or brothers that he’d been touched by Baba Yaga. He went to sleep sore, hungry, and angry again at the witch for putting him through this, knowing he’d have to leave in the morning against his father’s wishes.
The next day, he ran off to where the storehouse had been. The chicken-legged house squatted in the clearing like the last two mornings, and Baba Yaga sat outside. Leht didn’t look at what she was eating—he simply let her know he was present so she wouldn’t enact her curse on him and then ran off west to where the wolfsbane grew.
This time, he picked every bit of wolfsbane he could, even losing a stem or two to the briars. Leht’s hands were raw and bleeding by the time he was done, but he held seven intact stems and brought them back to where Baba Yaga waited, certain that he had enough this time.
Baba Yaga beckoned him close, examining what he’d found without a word of praise or admonition. She took them all at once, rubbing the stems into her hand. It took longer than the last two days, with the stems flaking thickly against her skin, and the day was nearly gone entirely by the time she’d ground the stems away. The tiny sword slid out tiny bit by tiny bit, and then at last dropped to the ground by the fire.
Leht sighed with relief and the old witch grinned. “Wurbestwarg,” she muttered, and the sword suddenly grew huge, nearly stabbing Leht’s ankles. “At last, free of the werewolf blade. Perhaps I’ll set vengeance upon the one who put it in me.” Then she turned her big, grinning face to Leht and leaned close. “Or perhaps I’ll feed on you, now that you’re of no more use to me.”
The boy choked back a cry. He’d somewhat expected this and wished he could’ve found the name of the magic sword while it had still rested in Baba Yaga’s hand. She might have killed him anyway, but she would have lost all the hand, or at least half of it. “Do you remember my story yesterday?” he asked.
“Indeed, about the mouse who removes the thorn from a lion’s paw and has his life in gratitude.” Baba Yaga cackled wheezily and her hot breath broke the chill from around Leht’s face. “I have a tale for you today, boy. A frog is about to cross a river, but a scorpion comes to him and asks to ride across on the frog’s back. The frog is nervous of the scorpion’s poisonous tail, but the scorpion promises he won’t sting the frog, reasoning that if he did, both would drown. The frog agrees, so the scorpion climbs on his back and they start off across the river. Yet when they reach the center, the scorpion stings the frog, poisoning him, and both tumble into the current. In his last breath, the frog asks why the scorpion did it, since now they both will die, and the scorpion answers that it is only his nature.” Baba Yaga leaned back from the boy and cackled again. “Do you understand?” she asked.
Leht nodded silently.
Baba Yaga stared at him, perplexed in the way she’d appeared the night before, as if she expected him to run. Then she kicked out her fire, climbed awkwardly into the black doorway of her house, and it rose up high on its chicken legs. Something crashed inside and Leht watched as most of his family’s supplies, sacks of salted meats, and dried fruits, spilled into the clearing. The pile was far too big for Leht to carry in one trip, but the supplies were back and he could bring them to his father as needed. He hoped he wouldn’t get another whipping for running off.
The chicken-legged house creaked, turning away from him, and then waddled off into the forest, parting trees as it vanished into the north. Leht muttered the name of the magic sword and it shrank small enough to fit in his pocket without notice. Then he hefted a seed sack on one shoulder, a side of beef onto another, and started for home, where he’d tell his brothers to help him bring all the supplies back to the farm. The sword and the events of the last three days were his secret, from everyone.