Lizzie’s own heart thudded in her chest. Her arms felt weakly and trembly. She reached up and touched the needle neatly threaded through her shift. For just a moment, it struck her how bizarre this whole thing was: she was filthy, barefoot, dressed in only underclothes, and walking deeper into a stinking mountain behind a wolf she had only met once, attempting to steal the heart of her murderous husband. Whether it was nerves or fumes, she felt the urge to giggle. Then she nearly shrieked: the wolf had stopped walking and its tail had brushed her legs. She clapped a hand over her mouth and willed herself to take slow breaths.
When she had calmed herself, Gray Legs whispered, “It is very near.”
“Is it guarded? Can you tell?” Her voice was only heat escaping between her lips, but the wolf heard.
“Yes. Be ready. I smell a beast— and deception.” They crept forward.
Suddenly a jet of fire flared to life only paces before them. Both jumped back and there was the smell of singed fur. As quickly as the fire had appeared it had vanished, leaving a metallic smell behind. Lizzie shone the mirror, veiled between her splayed fingers, and found the crack-like vent in the tunnel floor. She leaned closer and then jumped back again as the flame shot up. She looked at the wolf. Gray Legs only looked back, and then leaped silently over the crevice and padded on.
Lizzie grimaced and jumped as well, but no fire came. Up ahead, though, were spurts of light that flickered and died. She was absurdly brought to mind of trails of fireflies in the hay field. Hescher and Jacobi resisted, but she would plead with them and make all kinds of promises, even going as far as to give up her Christmas orange months in advance, and they would relent and run out with her, chasing and catching the glowing creatures in their carefully cupped hands. Remember that gave her a surge of hope. We’re not so different anymore. I’m like a soldier, too, now. I might see them again. I might get to tell them about all this. They won’t believe it! Her heart swelled at the idea. That’s the first thing I’ll do once we’re all free. After I go home to Mother I’ll find them. I have the Seven League Boots! I’m not afraid of the road—
The wolf growled softly, deep in its throat, and Lizzie stopped her hop-skip navigation of the gas vents. Her skin prickled.
Up ahead, in the infrequent light of the fires, she could see that the tunnel broadened, as if a room was set on the right side of the path. There was something there— but what?
Dancing shadows on the wall showed horns protruding from a large lump, but she couldn’t make out anything else. Then there was a belch of fire right in front of the shape, and Lizzie choked. The beast had the body of a lion and a tangled, matted mane. It yawned and showed glinting, pointed teeth. But out of its back grew the head of a goat topped with long horns. There was a rattling hiss and the tail— no, a serpent— raised up and flickered its tongue in the air. It swiveled its diamond-shaped head at Lizzie just as the flame went out. There was a hiss in the darkness.
“It knows,” said the wolf. She heard the creature rise, and whimpered.
“What is it?”
“Chimera. Three in one.” The hissing grew louder.
“What do we do?”
“I will attack. You must go to the nest.”
Under her hand Gray Legs’s fur bristled and stood up. A growl built, but Lizzie couldn’t tell if it began with the wolf or with the horrible creature that was stalking ever closer in the dark. The noise set her teeth on edge.
“Now!” cried the wolf, and it leaped and was gone from her hand. There was a thud of bodies colliding, a scraping and a tumbling. She smelled blood immediately and that shocked her into motion.
She turned the mirror this way and that— and saw the nest. The chimera had been sitting on it. She edged and then dashed past the tangle of fur and claws, and tried to block the sounds of ripping and snarling from her ears.
There were three eggs in the nest. “But where is the heart?” she cried.
The chimera roared behind her and she felt its focus shift. Stupid! Stupid! What had she been thinking? Gray Legs was surely paying for her carelessness. She fumbled with the eggs, then snatched her hands back.
Two of them were hot, as if they had just come from boiling water. But the third… She leaned closer. It was so hard to think, to ask the right questions with the noise of the fight so near and the flashing red of the flames alternating with near-darkness.
The mirror, idiot girl!
She smiled in spite of herself. Memory, or magical sending, it was Baba Yaga’s voice in her head. She turned the mirror to the third egg and gasped.
There it was. Over-large and straining against its casing, was a human heart veined with black. And it was beating. She reached for it.
The wolf howled in pain, and Lizzie jumped. Hurry, hurry! “I know!”
The chimera roared. Lizzie shook and pressed herself against the wall. In the spasmodic light she could see the beast ripping with its claws, raking the wolf’s belly. The serpent’s head hissed and struck again and again. Gray Legs howled again and Lizzie snatched up the egg and clutched it to her chest. She darted out from the nook, then turned back. She tore out the bedding, flinging it wildly, waiting— and then flame spouted and caught it, and it blazed. The chimera looked up from its foe. In that moment, Gray Legs was able to twist free and leap onto the chimera’s back. It bit at the goat head and shook and shook. The chimera roared and the snake struck. Lizzie dashed forward and jabbed the serpent with the needle. It flailed wildly and she tumbled to the ground to avoid its fangs.
“Go!” cried the wolf.
“Go— I will follow!”
She looked around. The way back was blocked by the writhing snake. She whimpered, turned, and ran deeper into the mountain and the darkness.
Her feet hurt and she stumbled often. She was not always able to leap out of the way in time and her right leg had a throbbing burn. Her run slowed to a walk, and then to a limp. She stopped and leaned often against the wall. The fires were few, now, and it was tiring to hold both the egg— heavier than it appeared— and the mirror, so she went forward in the dark. The only thing that comforted her was the continued sound of water.
Water. She was thirsty. She pushed aside feeble thoughts of what might happen if she drank from an Underworld river, and felt her way toward the sound. Her hot, tired feet stepped into blissful wetness and she sank to her knees.
She knelt and made to scoop water in her hands, but no sooner had she set down the egg than the ground rumbled. She snatched it up again, but the damage was done: the mirror showed rock crumbling away on the opposite side of the stream. She gagged on the stink of rotting meat and sweat, and then choked and scrambled backwards.
Out of the hole in the wall came an ogre.
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