Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Walking House

 This story is a sequel to

            In the Whistling Woods of the cold lands, Jektov, a former knight, and Nadezya, a woman who remained a witch, had searched long and hard for someone who knew a certain spell. Both agreed the spell was important for their survival—it would give them a house with legs, like Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged cottage. They didn’t agree on what to do once they discovered that no more witches remained in these woods.
“We can find a village and build a normal house,” Jektov said. “I built my own house.”
“Did it have legs before your incident?” Nadezya asked. “And even then, did it obey? No, considering my craft and your condition, we need a house that runs. Since we know no one but our common enemy who knows the spell, we’ll experiment and make our own.”
“Magic shouldn’t be played with.”
“Knights who used to hunt people who use magic shouldn’t speak of it.”
Jektov kept his mouth shut for the moment, but went on disagreeing in his head as Nadezya disappeared from sight and returned carrying someone’s rooster.
“Chop down two thin trees and pile their wood,” Nadezya said. When Jektov begrudgingly finished this task, the witch cut the rooster open, splashing the bird’s blood over the wood pile. She then plucked brown feathers from the body and arranged them around the chunks of chopped-up tree. “And now, the gifts of form and life.” The witch pricked her finger on the tip of Jektov’s axe blade and bled a couple drops into the wood pile. After that, she lit the pile on fire and black smoke poured from all sides. “Alive!” she shouted.
 Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
The fire extinguished immediately and a small house leapt from the smoke cloud. Bare rooster legs stretched from its sides and feathers filled the spaces between the wood planks. The house had no doorway or windows, but the wood at its front opened into carvings of panicked eyes and a twisted half-beak, half-mouth that twitched and screeched as the monstrosity darted away into the brush.
Jektov shuddered, remembering why he once hunted people like Nadezya. The witch only shrugged. “I may have used too much blood,” she said calmly, as if she’d simply used too much yeast in baking bread. The way Jektov recalled, bread didn’t come bounding and screaming from the oven if it turned out wrong.
“I could call it back with your bird whistle,” he said.
Nadezya shook her head. “It’s a failure. Let’s try again. Cut another two trees.”
Jektov grew quiet again, obeying the witch’s instructions, and when he finished he found that Nadezya had acquired someone’s hen. She killed the bird, spilling a little less of the blood on this wood pile, and then she plucked and arranged feathers as before. Another finger was pricked, and she dripped a few less drops of blood before setting the wood alight and shouting, “Alive!”
Smoke billowed and then blew apart as another chicken-legged house hopped up from where the bloody wood pile had been. This one bore wings on its sides, above its legs, but its face formed the same shrieking horror as the last little house, and it darted away before Jektov could shake himself into reacting. “I can still call it back with the bird whistle.”
“It’s a failure,” Nadezya said again.
“How can we make it a success?”
“It isn’t the blood.”
“It isn’t the right spell. Either you have no idea what you’re doing or you’ve forgotten some key component. This wouldn’t be the first time.”
Jektov expected her to make some grand defense for her years of witchcraft, comparing its dangers to swordplay, or comparing its unpredictability to cooking, but Nadezya only shrugged. “You do better,” she said. “How would you make the house?”
Jektov hadn’t given it any thought previously, but the words poured out of him just the same. “For a start, I’d chop enough wood to build a house we could live in. Then, spare the animal so the house’s first feelings aren’t those of being killed. Then, don’t burn the whole thing.”
“We use a small size to perfect the spell before putting our efforts to a proper size, and the house will grow as needed,” Nadezya said. “Fire and smoke mold its shape from that of a pile to that of a house. You might be right about the killing, but who knows? Let’s try your way, former knight. You have many trees to cut.”
Jektov knew he’d given himself a great task, but he went right to it, and within three days he’d felled enough trees that he could build a full-size cottage from the wood. He had another idea then. He shortened four other trees to his height, leaving the roots in the ground, and then piled the fallen trees atop the stumps, as if the stumps were four legs to a square-shaped creature.
“Give it whatever blood it needs,” he told Nadezya. “Then set a fire beneath the structure.”
The witch didn’t bother to fetch any rooster or chicken this time, only giving each stump a couple drops of her own blood before lighting a fire between them. Smoke spread across the wood pile’s underside, seeping up between the cut wooden chunks and around its frame until a black cloud covered the pile at the tops of the stumps.
“Alive!” Nadezya shouted.
The groan of creaking wood echoed through the forest and Jektov worried for a moment that he’d offended the whistlers, powerful fairy creatures that for which the Whistling Woods were named. Then he realized the groan had come from what was supposed to be his future home. Roots curled in the soil like enormous wooden toes and a house lurched from the smoke on four thick legs. Another groan tore from a doorway-shaped mouth, and then that mouth snapped after Nadezya.
Jektov grabbed her arm and yanked her back just before the house could catch her in a splintery bite. Then the running began. The former knight and the witch abandoned their supplies and dashed deeper into the woods as the four-legged house charged after them, moaning like a falling tree.
“You shouldn’t have used living stumps!” Nadezya shouted. “It’s screaming a forest’s pain! You’ll have every fairy or creature of their kind hunting us down if we’re still here by nightfall!”
Jektov glanced over his shoulder. “If it makes you feel any better, we may not live that long.” He didn’t bother asking Nadezya’s advice about the bird whistle this time and pulled it from his pocket to his lips. “Stop!” he shouted after one blow on the whistle. “Go back!” he shouted after another. When he looked back in the middle of a third blow, the tips of the house’s roots slung at his face, batting the whistle into the brush.
“It hasn’t any bird’s blood in it, meaning the whistle can’t command it,” Nadezya said. “This house is formed of the forest and the trees, through and through. We should’ve burned away its willpower. I knew what I was doing.”
“Only as much as I did,” Jektov said.
“Then between the two of us, we’ll make a decent witch.”
Jektov doubted it. He slid behind Nadezya and pushed her to move faster. “I’ll stall—you escape.”
“You can stall it as much as a beetle stalls a boulder,” the witch said, pulling him next to her again. “You go—I have magic to keep it at bay.”
“You mean the ingredients you left behind?”
Before the two could bicker anymore, two man-sized figures shot out of the brush like dogs obeying their master’s call and shoved Jektov and Nadezya out of the third house’s warpath. Jektov recognized the horrid faces of Nadezya’s failures instantly, but had no time to mention it. The two wooden houses stretched their chicken legs over the two mortals’ heads and then sat down, forcing Jektov and Nadezya to the ground. The houses had no bottoms, leaving a hollow cavity in which to hide the witch and the former knight.
The two waited quietly, watching through cracks in the wood as their confused third house thundered back the way it had come, then forward again, and then back a second time. Its black, gaping doorway turned toward the two smaller houses for a moment, but took no interest in them. After a few minutes, it groaned again and left the knight and witch’s sight, disappearing into the trees. After a few more, the smaller houses stood up from Jektov and Nadezya, and then waddled off into the woods without a screech or shriek between them.
“I’d rather not unleash any more horrors into the world,” Jektov said, standing. “Perhaps we should forget about creating a walking house and instead try to be cautious in avoiding knights and witch hunters when we settle into a village.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Nadezya muttered, still seated on the forest floor. In her lap rested an egg the size of her head, its shell as red as blood and made of firm wood. “I expect, with a little patience, we’ll have a walking house soon enough. But you have a point—the Whistling Woods won’t stand for us much longer after that big one’s groaning. We can bide our time in a village and be sure to keep secret your condition and our prize.”
Jektov helped the witch to her feet and the two quietly retrieved their supplies before leaving the forest. By the time they found an end to the Whistling Woods where a village nestled close to the trees, the little egg had grown warm, as if a small fire grew with life inside.

 Continued in...


The Write Girl said...

Fascinating story. I love the "Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged cottage." That's a great name. I wonder what the little egg will grow to be. Nicely written.

Darryl Fabia said...

@The Write Girl

Thank you. Still more adventures of Jektov and Nadezya to come, in time. Glad you liked it.