She hadn’t taken the wolf’s advice and now she was cursing herself for it. “I should have eaten something— anything,” she muttered, but even as she said it she felt her very empty stomach clench. No, she couldn’t have made a meal from the talking beast who had so recently become her friend.
She stumbled and caught herself, then closed her eyes, dizzy for a second.
“I need water, at least.” The canteen bounced lightly against her hip. And then, she heard it: the trickle of moving water. She opened her eyes and looked excitedly around. The wolf’s tracks had led her out of the forest. The trees had thinned into a smattering of sentinels over small hills, and now she saw what she thought she had been feeling: it wasn’t just the effort of the walk, the air was warmer. The snow was dense and beginning to melt. She scooped up a handful and sucked on it. It was too cold on her throat, but it woke her up. She closed her eyes and listened again.
The water was ahead of her. She hurried over the low rise: and there was a thin stream visible through the ice and snow. She hurried forward in a crouch, ready to drink.
“Stop,” gasped a voice.
Lizzie stopped and looked up. Trees and nothing more: there was no one there. She stepped forward again.
Her scalp prickled. It wasn’t her sisters, it came from someplace nearby, not from inside her head. She hadn’t heard anything from them in— she pushed the thought out of her mind. She needed water, and food, and to find out who was speaking. The voice was weak but it could still mean danger. She looked around again— and saw a silver flash downstream.
She stood up tall and peered over the hump of snow at the bank: it was a fish.
The salmon flopped and splashed. It gasped. She walked over to it. It was caught up in the shallows. She looked all around: here was a fish when she was so hungry— was it meant for her? Her mouth watered and again she felt dizzy, but the fish’s reedy voice interrupted her thoughts.
“Don’t— drink— there. The bank is—“ Before it could finish speaking the overhang of snow on which Lizzie had been standing only a moment before gave way and shuddered down into the current. She could see her too-large boot print on the floe that swirled and bumped, nearly touched the fish and then broke free once more and was carried downstream. The water was deeper and faster than its snow-veiled appearance had led her to believe.
The fish struggled, but even with the rush of snow and ice downstream, it could not free itself from the rocks. Lizzie stared at it. Her heart sank. She was so hungry and it was so large— more than a meal. She shook her head and before she could stop herself she bent down and shoved the fish back into the water. Its tail flicked up and then it was gone.
She squatted down and stared at the stream. She didn’t know how much farther she had to go. She shook her head again and scooped up a handful of water and drank. She drank until she could almost believe she was full, until her stomach ached with the cold. Then she stood up to retrace her steps and find the wolf’s tracks.
She looked down. It was the fish. This was too much.
“What do you want?” she asked. Her voice was worn and weary.
“To help you. To repay you. You are hungry and yet you saved my life. Of all the creatures you have met I was the most vulnerable. I am called Silverscales the salmon.” It turned and struggled against the current, and Lizzie was suddenly reminded of her dream of swimming upstream. It flicked its tail and something bright and silver and shining flew up. She put out her hand and caught it: it was a scale.
“Call for me by name and I will help you. You are not alone on this journey.”
Lizzie opened her mouth but the fish was gone. She looked at the scale. It was irridescent, beautiful. She brought it to her nose and sniffed. That only roused her hunger, so she put it in the inner breast pocket of the doublet next to the tuft of fur and the black feather. She looked back the way she had come— and started in surprise.
Everything shimmered. The snow was melting before her eyes. The stream gurgled: it was overflowing its banks. The trees were stretching, budding and bursting into brilliant green leaves! It was beautiful!
But then the river gurgled— it was a river now, no, a lake! The hills and rocks were vanishing. She leaped across to a patch of ground, looked around her and began to run.
Water sloshed around her oversized boots, Bluebeard’s boots. She cursed him under her breath but then had to stop: the lake stretched on and on and the water rose higher and higher— she had no breath for anything but running. She slipped on a rock and dunked in nearly to her chest. The water was a shock of cold to her body. But then something pushed up under her foot and she found her balance. She ran, and with each step her foot found purchase, though she could only guess what it might be.
Then, she heard hoofbeats. She turned, startled— it was a black horse! The horse of power? No, this one was blacker than black, and the rider astride it was also clothed entirely in black. But more terrifying was the inky darkness that billowed like a cloak behind them and swallowed up the world into immediate night.
Lizzie raced harder, her heart pounded as if to break free of the cage of her ribs and take flight. Help, she thought, help!
Follow the rider! It was Taisia, she was sure of it! And a flood of words came back to her: A white horse, a red horse, a black horse— what if—?
Then she stumbled and flew forward, and the Horse of Midnight and its rider flew over her, and everything was dark.
She lay with her eyes closed and tried to catch her breath. Slowly, thoughts came to her.
I’m not drowned.
I tripped— She opened her eyes, saw nothing in the darkness, felt around: the water was only inches deep. She had reached the edge of the lake. She pushed herself to her feet. All around was the sound of dripping water.
But also wind in the trees. She took a tentative step: and saw a light.
She stepped gingerly, hands out and legs bent, keeping the light in her sight until it became two flames.
Two flames, each burning in a skull on a post on a gate made of human bones.
She had reached Baba Yaga’s house at last.
READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress! -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux