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Authors: Leigh Bardugo

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The Witch of Duva

BOOK: The Witch of Duva
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THE WITCH OF DUVA

 

by

 

Leigh Bardugo

There was a time when the woods near Duva ate girls.

It’s been many years since any child was taken. But still, on nights like these, when the wind comes cold from Tsibeya, mothers hold their daughters tight and warn them not to stray too far from home. “Be back before dark,” they whisper. “The trees are hungry tonight.”

In those black days, on the edge of these very woods, there lived a girl named Nadya and her brother Havel, the children of Maxim Grushov, a carpenter and woodcutter. Maxim was a good man, well liked in the village. He made roofs that did not leak or bend, sturdy chairs, toys when they were called for, and his clever hands could fashion edges so smooth and fasten joints so neatly you might never find the seam. He traveled all over the countryside seeking work, to towns as far as Ryevost. He went by foot and by hay cart when the weather was kind, and in the winter, he hitched his two black horses to a sledge, kissed his children, and set out in the snow. Always he returned home to them, carrying bags of grain or a new bolt of wool, his pockets stuffed with candy for Nadya and her brother.

But when the famine came, people had no coin and nothing to trade for a prettily carved table or a wooden duck. They used their furniture for kindling and prayed they would make it through to spring. Maxim was forced to sell his horses, and then the sledge they’d once pulled over the snow-blanketed roads.

As Maxim’s luck faded, so did his wife. Soon she was more ghost than woman, drifting silently from room to room. Nadya tried to get her mother to eat what little food they had, giving up portions of turnip and potato, bundling her mother’s frail body in shawls and seating her on the porch in the hope that the fresh air might return some appetite to her. The only thing she seemed to crave were little cakes made by the widow Karina Stoyanova, scented with orange blossom and thick with icing. Where Karina got the sugar, no one knew—though the old women had their theories, most of which involved a rich and lonely tradesman from the river cities. But eventually, even Karina’s supplies dwindled, and when the little cakes were gone Nadya’s mother would touch neither food nor drink, not even the smallest sip of tea.

Nadya’s mother died on the first real day of winter, when the last bit of autumn fled from the air, and any hope of a mild year went with it. But the poor woman’s death went largely unremarked upon, because two days before she finally breathed her last ghostly sigh, another girl went missing.

Her name was Lara Deniken, a shy girl with a nervous laugh, the type to stand at the edges of village dances watching the fun. All they found of her was a single leather shoe, its heel thick with crusted blood. She was the second girl lost in as many months, after Shura Yeshevsky went out to hang the wash on the line and never came back in, leaving nothing but a pile of clothespins and sodden sheets lying in the mud.

Real fear came upon the town. In the past, girls had vanished every few years. True, there were rumors of girls being taken from other villages from time to time, but those children hardly seemed real. Now, as the famine deepened and the people of Duva went without, it was as if whatever waited in the woods had grown greedier and more desperate, too.

Lara. Shura. All those who had gone before: Betya. Ludmilla. Raiza. Nikolena. Other names now forgotten. In those days, they were whispered like an incantation. Parents sent up prayers to their Saints, girls walked in pairs, people watched their neighbors with suspicious eyes. On the edge of the woods, the townspeople built crooked altars—careful stacks of painted icons, burnt-down prayer candles, little piles of flowers and beads.

Men grumbled about bears and wolves. They organized hunting parties, talked about burning sections of the forest. Poor simple-minded Uri Pankin was nearly stoned to death when he was found in possession of one of the missing girls’ dolls, and only his mother’s weeping and her insistence that she had found the sorry thing on the Vestopol Road saved him.

Some wondered if the girls might have just walked into the wood, lured there by their hunger. There were smells that wafted off the trees when the wind blew a certain way, impossible scents of lamb dumplings or sour cherry babka. Nadya had smelled them herself, sitting on the porch beside her mother, trying to get her to take another spoonful of broth. She would smell roasting pumpkin, walnuts, brown sugar, and find her feet carrying her down the stairs toward the waiting shadows, where the trees shuffled and sighed as if ready to part for her.

Stupid girls, you think. I would never be so foolish. But you’ve never known real hunger. The crops have been good these last years and people forget what the lean times are like. They forget the way mothers smothered infants in their cribs to stop their hungry howls, or how the trapper Leonid Gemka was found gnawing on the muscle of his slain brother’s calf when their hut was iced in for two long months.

Sitting on the porch of Baba Olya’s house, the old women peered into the forest and muttered,
khitka
. The word raised the hairs on Nadya’s arms, but she was no longer a child, so she laughed with her brother at such silly talk. The
khitkii
were spiteful forest spirits, bloodthirsty and vengeful. But in stories, they were known to hunger after newborns, not full-grown girls near old enough to marry.

‘Who can say what shapes an appetite?’ Baba Olya said with a dismissive wave of her gnarled hand. “Maybe this one is jealous. Or angry.”

“Maybe it just likes the taste of our girls,” said Anton Kozar, limping by on his one good leg and waggling his tongue obscenely. The old women squawked like geese and Baba Olya hurled a rock at him. War veteran or no, the man was disgusting.

When Nadya’s father heard the old women muttering that Duva was cursed and demanding that the priest say blessings in the town square, he simply shook his head.

“An animal,” he insisted. “A wolf mad with hunger.”

He knew every path and corner of the forest, so he and his friends took up their rifles and headed back into the woods, full of grim determination. But again they found nothing, and the old women grumbled louder. What animal left no tracks, no trail, no trace of a body?

Suspicion crept through the town. That lecherous Anton Kozar had returned from the northern front much changed, had he not? Peli Yerokin had always been a violent boy. And Bela Pankin was a most peculiar woman, living out on that farm with her strange son, Uri. A
khitka
could take any form. Perhaps she had not “found” that missing girl’s doll at all.

Standing at the lip of her mother’s grave, Nadya noted Anton’s seeping stump and lewd grin, Bela Pankin’s worried frown, wiry Peli Yerokin with his tangled hair and balled fists, and the sympathetic smile of the widow Karina Stoyanova, the way her lovely black eyes stayed on Nadya’s father as the coffin he’d carved with such care was lowered into the hard ground.

The
khitka
might take any form, but the shape it favored most was that of a beautiful woman.

 

Soon Karina seemed to be everywhere, bringing Nadya’s father food and gifts of
kvas
, whispering in his ear that someone was needed to take care of him and his children. Havel would be gone for the draft soon, off to train in Poliznaya and begin his military service, but Nadya would still need minding.

“After all,” said Karina in her warm honey voice. “You do not want her to disgrace you.”

Later that night, Nadya went to her father as he sat drinking
kvas
by the fire. Maxim was whittling. When he had nothing to do, he sometimes made dolls for Nadya, though she’d long since outgrown them. His sharp knife moved in restless sweeps, leaving curls of soft wood on the floor. He’d been too long at home. The summer and fall that he might have spent seeking out work had been lost to his wife’s illness, and the winter snows would soon close the roads. As his family went hungry, his wooden dolls gathered on the mantel, like a silent, useless choir. He cursed when he cut into his thumb, and only then did he notice Nadya standing nervously by his chair.

“Papa,” Nadya said. “Please do not marry Karina.”

She hoped that he would deny that he had been contemplating such a thing. Instead, he sucked his wounded thumb and said, “Why not? Don’t you like Karina?”

“No,” said Nadya honestly. “And she doesn’t like me.”

Maxim laughed and ran his rough knuckles over her cheek. “Sweet Nadya, who could not love you?”

“Papa—”

“Karina is a good woman,” Maxim said. His knuckles brushed her cheek again. “It would be better if …” Abruptly, he dropped his hand and turned his face back to the fire. His eyes were distant, and when he spoke, his voice was cold and strange, as if rising from the bottom of a well. “Karina is a good woman,” he repeated. His fingers gripped the arms of his chair. “Now leave me be.”

She has him already, thought Nadya. He is under her spell.

 

The night before Havel left for the south, a dance was held in the barn by the Pankin farm. In better years, it might have been a raucous night, the tables piled high with plates of nuts and apples, pots of honey, and jars of bitter
kvas.
The men still drank and the fiddle played, but even pine boughs and the high shine of Baba Olya’s treasured samovar could not hide the fact that now the tables were empty. And though people stomped and clapped their hands, they could not chase away the gloom that seemed to hang over the room.

Genetchka Lukin was chosen
Dros Koroleva,
Queen of the Thaw, and made to dance with all who asked her, in the hope that it would bring about a short winter, but only Havel looked truly happy. He was off to the army, to carry a gun and eat hot meals from the King’s pocket. He might die or come back wounded as so many had before him, but on this night, his face glowed with the relief of leaving Duva behind.

Nadya danced once with her brother, once with Victor Yeronoff, then took a seat with the widows and wives and children. Her eyes fell on Karina, standing close to her father. Her limbs were white birch branches; her eyes were ice over black water. Maxim looked unsteady on his feet.

Khitka.
The word drifted down to Nadya from the barn’s shadowed eaves as she watched Karina weave her arm through Maxim’s like the pale stalk of a climbing vine. Nadya pushed her foolish thoughts away and turned to watch Genetchka Lukin dance, her long golden hair braided with bright red ribbons. Nadya was ashamed to feel a pang of envy. Silly, she told herself, watching Genetchka struggle through a dance with Anton Kozar. He simply stood and swayed, one arm keeping balance on his crutch, the other clutching tightly to poor Gentchka’s waist. Silly, but she felt it just the same.

“Go with Havel,” said a voice at her shoulder.

Nadya nearly jumped. She hadn’t noticed Karina standing beside her. She looked up at the slender woman, her dark hair lying in coils around her white neck.

She turned her gaze back to the dance. “I can’t and you know it. I’m not old enough.” It would be two more years before Nadya was called to the draft.

“So lie.”

“This is my home,” Nadya whispered furiously, embarrassed by the tears that rose behind her eyes. “You can’t just send me away.”
My father won’t let you
, she added silently. But somehow, she did not have the courage to speak the words aloud.

Karina leaned in close to Nadya. When she smiled, her lips split wet and red around what seemed like far too many teeth.

“Havel could at least work and hunt,” she whispered. “You’re just another mouth.” She reached out and tugged one of Nadya’s curls, hard. Nadya knew that if her father happened to look over he would just see a beautiful woman, grinning and talking to his daughter, perhaps encouraging her to dance.

“I will warn you just this once,” hissed Karina Stoyanova. “Go.”

 

The next day Genetchka Lukin’s mother discovered that her daughter’s bed had not been slept in. The Queen of the Thaw had never made it home from the dance. At the edge of the wood, a red ribbon fluttered from the branches of a narrow birch, a few golden hairs trailing from the knot, as if it had been torn from her head.

Nadya stood silent as Genetchka’s mother fell to her knees and began to wail, calling out to her Saints and pressing the red ribbon to her lips as she wept. Across the road, Nadya saw Karina watching, her eyes black, her lips turned down like peeling bark, her long, slender fingers like raw spokes of branches, stripped bare by a hard wind.

When Havel said his goodbyes, he drew Nadya close. “Be safe,” he whispered in her ear.

“How?” Nadya replied, but Havel had no answer.

 

A week later, Maxim Grushov and Karina Stoyanova were wed in the little whitewashed chapel at the center of town. There was no food for a wedding feast, and there were no flowers for the bride’s hair, but she wore her grandmother’s pearl
kokochnik
. andand all agreed that, though the pearls were most likely fake, she was lovely just the same.

That night, Nadya slept in Baba Olya’s front room so the bride and groom could be alone. In the morning, when she returned home, she found the house silent, the couple still abed. On the kitchen table lay an overturned bottle of wine and the remnants of what must have been a cake, the crumbs still scented with orange blossom. It seemed Karina had still had some sugar to spare after all.

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