A NEW LIFE
High above the snowcapped evergreens, the wild hunt howled like a wind from hell. Alicia stood amidst the forest, gazing up at the ghostly sight. The dead barreled through the skies, their chargers thundering through the heavens shaking the earth below. Whatever they hunted, Alicia didn’t know.
She closed her eyes and tightened her grip on the length of yew she held. Fear trembled through her body, her ears picking up the hungry yips and bays of the hunting dogs that rode the clouds with their hunters. Despite the chill in the nighttime air, sweat beaded along her forehead. What she planned to do was foolish. The ghosts that traversed the heavens weren’t called the wild hunt for nothing. Whatever humanity had been in the men and women before death, none of it remained after they joined the hunt. It was rumored that the hunt would kill any they caught out at night.
And here she was, hoping to gain their aid. Had anything of the sort ever happened before? She had read legends of people who’d been able to control the hunt, but were they only myths? Was such a thing possible?
But death from the hunt had to be better than at the hands of her husband. The bruises on her arms throbbed at the thought of him, as if she could still feel his fingers boring into her arms; she could still feel his angry words like hot brands along her cheek. Her heart saddened thinking of her boys put under his belt for the smallest of grievances.
She shook her head. This was the only choice she had. If only she could gain the attention of the hunt with the length of yew. If only she could use it to garner their help.
“You’re a stupid woman,” a voice whispered through the trees.
Alicia jumped. The length of yew slipped from her hand to thump lightly into the new cover of snow. Her eyes sprang open. Across from her, nearly hidden in the shadows of a towering pine, stooped an old woman. White hair trailed from the shadowed depths of her black hood. Her gnarled hands clutched tight to what Alicia first thought was a walking staff, but upon closer inspection she saw it was a large, wooden spoon.
Alicia stared into the depths of the woman’s hood, but she could see little besides a crooked nose. Above, the wild hunt raged on with teams of hunting dogs and cries of fallen warriors. In the forest below, all was silent.
“Who are you?” Alicia asked. She took an apprehensive step away from the woman. Her hands shivered as she tightened her dark cloak around herself. “How do you know what I intend to do?”
“Yew is used to call and control the dead,” the old woman said. “Standing out in the forest at night, the wild hunt running above you. It doesn’t take a crone to know what you intend. Only a strong person can call the hunt, much less bend them to her will. Are you a strong person, Alicia Thomas?”
Alicia swallowed past the cold lump in her throat. She opened her mouth to say something, but whatever she might have said was lost in the cold dread that gripped her chest. She shook her head.
“I didn’t think so. My name is Baba Yaga, and I know what you came here looking for.” Baba Yaga stepped closer to Alicia. Within the depths of her hood, Alicia saw the flash of Baba Yaga’s dark eyes.
Alicia couldn’t move. No matter how she wanted to, her feet remained frozen to the forest floor. She tucked her quaking hands into the folds of her cloak.
“You’re wondering how I know why you’re here. Maybe you don’t believe the Baba Yaga?” the crone cocked her head as if waiting for a reply. When none was forthcoming she went on. “A new life, that’s what you seek. One away from the battering hands of your husband?”
A thrill ran through Alicia’s stomach. Was she really going to get help? Through her fear she felt something she hadn’t known in a long time: hope. Hope that soon she would be free of Michael. Hope that her sons would live long enough to grow into men. She felt as though the control she’d lost long ago was right within her grasp, if only she could reach out and take it. Finally, no longer the weaker one. Finally, to hold power over her husband.
“You’re not strong enough to call the wild hunt, much less control them. But I will help you tonight. Baba Yaga loves to help.” At the edge of her words, Alicia could almost hear a wicked smile that must be spreading over the crone’s face.
“I’ve heard of you,” Alicia said. “But I never thought you were real. A villager came to you not long ago, seeking fire to warm her home.”
“And she got it,” Baba Yaga said.
“At the expense of her home,” Alicia said. Had she really said that? “I’m sorry.” She cast her eyes to the ground.
“Whatever happened with the fire once it was out of my home wasn’t any of my doing,” Baba Yaga said.
“You’re a witch,” Alicia said. It came out much more like an accusation than she’d intended it to.
“Who are you to point fingers when you come to the woods by moonlight with a length of yew to ensnare the wild hunt?”
Alicia didn’t move.
“Like I said, I can help you.” Baba Yaga shuffled closer and held out her hand. “If you truly desire a new life.”
Alicia stared at the wrinkled hand. A new life. It was what she’d wanted for many years now . . . a tragic accident. Would she be a widow? Would she take over the farm with her two boys and be able to live a life out from under the heavy hand of Michael?
What am I thinking? She wondered. She took a step away from the hand. The hand that offered her what she longed for. But how did this make her better than Michael? Did she have the strength to do this? What did this really mean? Could she take the witch’s hand and condemn her husband to pain and suffering? Maybe the grave?
“A new life . . . away from him.” Baba Yaga took another step forward.
Alicia swallowed hard and grasped the crone’s hand before she could second guess herself. As her hand clasped the waxy, gnarled hand of the witch, a wind stirred through the branches of the towering pines. Snow kicked up around them, swirling around their ankles and shimmering over their faces.
In a blink, Baba Yaga was gone.
Alicia looked around her, but there was no sign of the crone. She peered around trees and spun in circles, looking for the hunched old woman, but there was no sign she’d ever been there, not even a single footprint in the snow.
Above, the baying cries of the wild hunt drifted away. There was only silence as the last yip of a hunting dog echoed through the forest.
“Okay, she’s gone.” Maybe she’d never been there at all and Alicia had only been imagining her? She slumped back against a tree and took a deep breath. Several moments later she was heading back the way she came, back home.
As she neared the edge of the forest, about to step out onto her land, a sinking feeling took hold of her. Towering flames consumed her house and the barn. Alicia let out a strangled cry and stumbled away from the scene as if she’d been struck by some giant, invisible hand. She placed a numb hand to her mouth in an effort to keep the scream behind her lips, but it didn’t work. The scream tore from her mouth, heedless of her hand.
She ran. Her feet carried her across the snowy yard and to the house. Moments before her feet found the steps, the top of the house collapsed. Sparks flared up to the sky, flames roared and wood popped. The fire burned at her skin. There were no cries from within, no screams.
Her life, everything she’d ever known was going up in flames. Her boys, trapped in their beds. It wasn’t her husband who killed them after all, it was her, their mother who wanted nothing more than to keep them safe from ever feeling their father’s rage again. It was more than Alicia could bear to think about. Tears streamed down her face. She couldn’t believe this. She couldn’t accept it. She ran around the edge of the house. She ran circles around her home, looking for her boys until a stitch took her in the side and her legs collapsed beneath her. There was no sign of her boys or Michael.
They were gone. They were all gone.
Alicia slumped to the snow, her tears freezing on the ground. In the distance came the faint cry of a hunting dog and the whispers of a battle cry.