Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Nadezya and the Devil Hunter, Part 1 of 2

This story is a sequel to
 

Part 1
A hunter came to the village of Kurm that rested by the Whistling Woods of the cold lands.  Sometimes lordly hunters visited, and lesser ones lived there, but most men hunted deer or bear, while this man hunted witches, werewolves, and devils.
Only one man of his like lived in Kurm—Jektov.  He had once spent his days a knight riding down the creatures of the woods, and the witches as well.  That was before he became one witch’s companion in fleeing the worst witch of all, Baba Yaga.
“Do you know him?” Nadezya asked as she, Jektov, and the other villagers watched the bearded stranger in red.
“His name is Rulrik,” Jektov said.  “We hunted together, before I lost my legs and regained them.”
“Why is he here?”
“Probably because of what my legs become when the moon is full.”
Rulrik walked the village, greeting no one and keeping his gaze on the mud, where many footprints linger.  “Word has spread of strange occurrences and strange tracks,” he declared.
“Or perhaps he’s here for you,” Jektov said to the witch.
“I’m sure you hunted many of mine together,” Nadezya said.
“I have seen the evidence!” Rulrik went on.  “Man’s tracks that begin and end from nowhere.  Hoof prints that walk beside them or from them.”
“No,” Nadezya said.  “He’s here for you.”  Jektov’s secrets were many, but chief among them was his transformation from former knight to horse during the full moon.
 Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
“I am prepared to pronounce judgment!” Rulrik roared.  “In this very village lurks a werewolf and he has befriended a hooved devil.  I will find this man who changes skins when the moon is full, and one hated foe will lead me to the other.”  The devil hunter then returned to examining the soil and the villagers dispersed, less calmly than when they’d gathered.
Nadezya was the least calm of all, while to her dismay Jektov appeared calmer than anyone.  “He isn’t much of a hunter, is he?” the witch asked as the two walked home.
“It’s said he’s slain a dozen werewolves,” Jektov said.
“Likely dogs.”
“Skewered two dozen rusalki.”
“Mostly cod, I’m sure.”
“And hanged seventy witches.”
Nadezya scoffed.  “I’d bet it was three witches, while harlots and innocents swung with the other sixty-seven ropes.”
Jektov was quiet.
“No devils tally?”
“Not that I know of.  And I’m beating him one to nothing on dragons, I suppose.”
“Thinking of adding marks to your tally?”
“Dangerous as you are and terrifying as Baba Yaga has been, I couldn’t hunt witches in cold blood again.”  Jektov laid a hand on Nadezya’s shoulder.  “You don’t have to fear me.”
“But we have much to fear from Rulrik,” Nadezya said.  “We must flee.”
“Flight would show us as guilty,” Jektov said.
Nadezya wished another of their secrets was ready.  The two possessed a wooden egg that promised to hatch a chicken-legged house someday.  If such a creation was hatched and whole, the two could have fled in that and Rulrik would’ve assumed he had seen Baba Yaga’s house.  To Nadezya, this hunter seemed an even more dangerous foe than that old monster of a witch.  “Then we must kill him,” she said.
“That would be suspicious,” Jektov said, still calm.  “Perhaps I should speak with him.  I could convince him he’s on the wrong trail.  He does know me, after all.”
“Then he knows you should not have any legs.”
“He was out of the country when the dragon visited.  I could tell him our suspicious incidents were all exaggerated rumors.”
“The moon will be full in only a week!”
“Then give me that week before you cobble up any spells to kill him.”
The next morning, Jektov went off to the lodge to see Rulrik.  Nadezya was instructed to stay home, out of sight, lest her magic give Rulrik new prey, but she couldn’t trust Jektov’s skills of persuasion.  After all, she couldn’t recall a time he had persuaded her to do anything she didn’t want.  He couldn’t even persuade her to stay home like he instructed.
The witch went for a walk by the Whistling Woods.  The devil hunter wanted blood, she was certain, and he would stay in Kurm until he had it.  Nadezya paced, she agonized, she bemoaned aloud all these sudden problems, and wished she didn’t care what became of the ex-knight turned werehorse.  She should not have been surprised that all this stressful lamenting was heard.
“So the red-garbed murderer has brought hell to another woman’s life,” a weak voice said from within the trees.
Nadezya peered into the forest’s shadows and found a young woman curled around a knot in one trunk.  Burns and scars blemished her skin and the nearly-visible bones revealed she was starving.  Black eyes stared back at Nadezya.
“Who are you?” she asked.  “Do you need help?”
“None can help this broken woman, who once was whole.  I had a man, and sons and daughters.  I had a home, a village, and a name.  Then that hunter appeared.  Now I have nothing.  All I have left is my body—everything else is lost.  If you ask me, he’s a truer devil than those he hunts.”
“Bloodthirsty, as I expected.  Jektov cannot simply convince him to go.”
“Were I stronger, I’d fetch the waters of the moonlit grove which hold the moon’s light at night.  Then I’d pour the moonlight down his throat, where it would sit inside him always and draw out the beast within.  Turn him into what he hates.”
Nadezya nodded.  That seemed like a decent solution, one that wouldn’t seem suspicious.  If anything, the villagers of Kurm would see it as explanation for Rulrik’s fervent hatred of the creatures he hunted.  Nadezya thanked the poor woman and offered her assistance again.
“No, thank you,” the woman said.  “Once I’m rested, I’ll be on my way, and I pray the hunter and I won’t visit the same village next after he’s burned this one to the ground.”
The witch left the ruined woman, gathered a few supplies at home, and then set off for the moonlit grove north of the village.  She traveled over hills and through a shallow valley, taking three days to reach her goal, and she’d never been so far from the deep forests of the cold lands.  All the trouble would be worth it to teach Rulrik a lesson.  “Let’s see him be so righteous when he’s bristling with fur and fangs.”
Through shrubs and trees, she found the grove, and the pool at its center.  The moon shown in the evening sky, but not yet brightly enough to light the night or have its light caught on the pool’s surface.  Nadezya sat beneath the trees and waited.
As dusk gave way to night, she noticed the sounds around her were fading—birds abandoned the trees, as did the squirrels, and the buzz of insects dead away as well.  By sunset, Nadezya seemed to be the only living thing in the grove.  Soon the sky turned black and blue, shimmering with stars and a pale moon.  Its reflection glittered on the water’s surface.
“Now I have the moon’s glow,” she said, leaving the trees and dipping a clay saucer into the water.
A hand burst from under the surface and grasped the saucer’s rim.  Green and blue scales clothed the flesh and webbing bound the fingers.  A wrist emerged, and an arm, and then up came the piscine face of a rusalki, the water people of the cold lands.
“Who dares steal from the grove of moonlight?” the rusalki snarled.
“I didn’t know anyone owned the moonlight,” Nadezya said, clutching the saucer tight.
“After my kin were driven from our forest rivers, we were tasked with guarding the grove, for the moon’s radiance in the wrong hands can be as dangerous and blinding as that of the sun.”
Any witch worth her salt could cast a convincing spell of words without using a bit of magic, which was fortunate since Nadezya had no magic on her.  “I promise that I have the right hands.  This water will teach a lesson to the kind of hunter who drives rusalki from their homes and puts witches like me to the torch.”
The rusalki’s grip loosened.  “Witches can be most blind of all.  Your task may be true, but you had best understand what you toy with.  I fear you won’t.”  She then released the saucer and dove beneath the moonlit surface, leaving Nadezya alone.
The witch wrapped a cloth around the saucer’s mouth and gingerly took it back to Kurm, preserving the moonlight by never letting it see the sun.  The rusalki’s warning nagged at her all the way.  “I toy with the devil hunter, if anything,” she said to herself.  “I understand him.  He will turn into a wolf and be mortified by what he has become.  What else could his transformation be?”

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