‘A delicate weaving of myth and history, The Witch and the Tsar breathes new life into stories you think you know’ Hannah Whitten, New York Times bestselling author of For the Wolf
Yaga lives deep in the Russian forest, tending to any that call upon her for her healing potions and vast wisdom.
She has been alone for centuries, with only her beloved animals for company. But, when Tsaritsa Anastasia, wife of Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich, shows up at Yaga’s cottage on the brink of death, Yaga is compelled to travel with her to Moscow to keep her safe.
However, the Russia Yaga sees as she makes her journey to the heart of the country is one on the brink of chaos. Tsar Ivan – soon to become Ivan the Terrible – grows more volatile and tyrannical by the day, and Yaga believes the tsaritsa is being poisoned by an unknown enemy. But what Yaga cannot know is that Ivan is being manipulated by powers far older and more fearsome than anyone can imagine.
Set in sixteenth-century Russia, The Witch and the Tsar upends the stories we know of Baba Yaga as the bony-legged witch of Slavic fairy tales and the stuff of nightmares. For beyond the rumours of her iron nose, fangs for teeth, and house on chicken legs, is the story of a woman so wise and strong that she has to be cloaked in lies to hide her true power.
Release date: September 20, 2022
Print pages: 432
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The Witch and the Tsar
Olesya Salnikova Gilmore
Late May 1560
When my owl landed on my shoulder, I knew heartbreak was not far behind.
It was not that twilight tasted different, though on my tongue, the humid spring air had the bitterness of snowfall. It was that, even this deep in the Russian forest, dusk bled into the light with infuriating leisure. The clouds had smothered the last of the sun's rays in scarlet. Yet day clung on, delaying what mortals intended to find their way to my izbushka.
The log hut stood on chicken legs, not swaying or spinning or even pacing, as unnaturally still as me. I usually fidgeted with impatience, eager for my first client to appear, for my work to begin. Now, unease wrapped around my throat, silent as a viper.
My owl could only be here to deliver bad tidings. Like her namesake, night, Noch came in the company of darkness and shadows. It was then the mortals arrived with their fevers, skin infections, and stomach poisons; with the burns from the fires that spread too quickly in their cramped wooden villages. They did not approach me in the light of day, even if it was waning. Not unless they brought disaster.
Noch's bright yellow gaze fixed on me pointedly. She let out a screech loud enough to reanimate the skulls on the fence encircling my izbushka.
They are here, Ya. Her voice, in the language she spoke, reverberated through my mind, becoming words I could understand.
"Already?" I asked in Russian. Someone was coming. Someone desperate enough to risk being seen. "Who is it?"
What am I, your servant? You will see. A downy wing brushed against my cheek teasingly as Noch ascended into the air. But instead of hurling herself back into the sky, she flew into my hut through the open door, shedding several dove-gray feathers in her wake.
I picked up a feather, considering it. My owl never went inside of her own volition, valuing open sky and freedom above all. I strained my ears and waited for the first footfall. All I heard was the song of the crickets and the leaves, rippling in the breeze that had rushed toward me, insistent and oddly cold. Fluff drifted from the ancient cottonwood trees, settling onto the wooden steps of my hut like tufts of snow. And I had just cleaned them.
"Come down, Little Hen," I said to my izbushka, and she obeyed, folding the chicken legs beneath her so she looked almost like a regular house.
I tightened my hold on the broom and swept at the steps with renewed vigor. The hut jerked away, being unbelievably ticklish. The two shuttered windows, one on either side of the door, glowered at me. Their red and blue carvings brightened in indignation.
"Hold still, Little Hen," I said, and swept on. But I kept a close eye on the wood beyond the skulls.
My hut sat in a lush glade surrounded by towering, age-old trees. Overgrown pines and spruces jostled against starved yet stubbornly resilient birches. The oaks stood gravely, expansively, ready to pass on their energy to anyone who asked politely. The wispy grass had grown knee-high and tangled, the forest floor ripe with mushrooms, wild strawberries, and violet petals fallen from geraniums in bloom. Out of this chaos of living things a large man stepped out, all in black, face obscured by a wide-brimmed hat.
I stilled. "Who goes there?"
The man halted at the fence, no doubt trying to decide if the skulls there were human. "Is this the izbushka of Baba Yaga the Bony Leg?"
With my unease temporarily forgotten, my cheeks flushed with familiar indignation. Not many dared to say that name to my face. "It is the izbushka of Yaga."
Fool, I almost added. Do I look like a baba? I was not a babushka, lying on my stove in the throes of advanced age and infirmity. Nor was I a hag, a demon, or an illness. Nothing about me was ill or demonic or old, except the occasional thread of silver in my wild black hair. My father may have been mortal, but Mother had been a goddess since before the Christian god had come to Russia. Because of her immortality, my body had not aged past thirty after centuries on Earth. I sent a little prayer of thanks up to her.
The man stood motionless. His features were weathered and very plain, most covered in coarse black hair, as was the fashion. No outward ailment spelled disaster. His illness, though, could be of the internal or spiritual variety, even of a romantic one.
Either way, it was best to put him at ease, as was my practice with new clients. Those who came for succor found it in my hut. Healing filled the empty hours of my days, kept my hands occupied and my mind busy, gave me a sense of purpose. If I could live among mortals, healing and advising them, I would.
But the legend that clung to me-the legend of Baba Yaga, built on lies and ill will-prevented it.
Afraid now that he would flee, I reverted back to politeness. "The skulls are not human," I said softly. This part of me labored tirelessly to convince the mortals that I was not the Baba Yaga they had heard of, that I was no human-eater. "Animal bones ward off evil," I added. Near the skulls, thistle and juniper grew thickly to protect against demons.
His dark eyes narrowed as he drew closer. "Where is she, this Yaga?"
"I am Yaga." Who else could I be?
"Pah! A fine trick this is, woman!" he blustered. "I have traveled all the way from Moscow to see the vedma, and I will not be trifled with."
I had not flinched at the word witch. I had made my peace with it long ago. But I shuddered at the man's mention of the capital. Though I had never been there, I knew Moscow was at least a day's ride on horseback. Whoever came from there did so when their prayers had gone unanswered, when the mortal healers had thrown up their hands. They came in the depths of their despair. But this man was not despairing. Quite the opposite.
"By all accounts," he went on, "Baba Yaga is practically at death's door, she is so old. Deformed, too, with an iron nose and a bony leg, fangs for teeth, barely any hair. Yet here you stand, young enough to be my daughter, claiming to be the crone herself!"
My cheeks burned. It had not occurred to this thick-headed muzhik, this idiot of a man, that what he had heard was nothing more than a rumor. One that was viciously invented and flung out into the world to reduce any unmarried, reclusive woman to a hag or a witch.
"You go too far, sir," I said in a hard voice, forgetting the fear and any attempt at politeness. "You who are in such need that you seek me out in broad daylight only to ridicule me. Well, good riddance." I gripped the broom and spun on my heel toward my hut, about to tell her to stand and take me with her.
"Wait," said the man. Desperation had crept into his tone. "If I am indeed speaking to the one whom I seek, then I meant no offense-"
"Even so, you had best be on your way-" I couldn't help turning to look at him. Now he was despairing; his face had paled beneath his beard.
"Please-" He raised a hand as if to physically pull me back. "Do not punish my illustrious mistress for my ignorance."
My brow furrowed. "Your mistress?"
The man gave a solemn nod. He glanced toward the wood and let out a whistle that shook the very cottonwoods above us. Fluff fell in clumps onto the hut's steps.
I hardly noticed. On the well-bred white mare emerging from the trees sat a hooded figure, elegant as only a highborn woman knew how to be. My eyes caught on the rich velvet of her cream cloak; the fur trim, odd given the warm weather; the little bejeweled fingers gripping the reins. A pull on the hood revealed a headdress encrusted in bloodred rubies, then the face beneath, thin and drawn, cold as marble.
Though it had been years since we had last seen each other, I would have recognized her anywhere. It was Anastasia Romanovna Zakharyina-Yurieva-the tsaritsa and wife of Tsar Ivan IV of Russia. But what was Anastasia doing here? Nothing short of disaster could have compelled the tsaritsa to risk her reputation by seeking out a reclusive witch.
Indeed, she was a shadow of the rosy-cheeked maiden who had come to my izbushka more than a decade ago, on the cusp of greatness, days away from the bridal show that would catapult her into royalty. The viper of unease tightened around my throat. That girl was gone. Here was a wraith at death's door. This day had brought heartbreak. I could see the tsaritsa's situation was not just disastrous; it threatened her very life.
Leaving the guard to keep watch outside, I ushered the tsaritsa into the darkened innards of my hut. Little Hen was used to clients coming and going and usually behaved herself enough by staying low to the ground so as not to frighten anyone. I hastily lit a few stubby beeswax candles. The scent of burning honey filled the air as I turned back to my royal visitor, swallowing hard.
Her tears had dried, her dull brown eyes taking on a chillingly distant look. Where were the flecks of gold, the quick wit, the uncharacteristic warmth of someone of her social standing? Her vibrancy was gone. Her skirts rustled like dried-up leaves as she sank onto the stool I offered her with the tired, defeated air of one who wishes never to rise again.
A few wandering chickens clucked at my feet. Noch hooted from a shadowy corner. The tsaritsa probably found this-me-uncivilized, disgustingly rustic, even.
But she only said, "It has been months. The doctors do not know what it is. I do." She struggled out of her cloak. "I am dying."
The bell-sleeved, flower-patterned letnik gown dragged her down as if bloated with seawater. A little shiver darted up my spine, almost prompting me to ask the tsaritsa how many dresses she wore. For wealthy women, it was customarily a minimum of three. But it was clear it was not the dresses plaguing her.
There was sweat on her brow, a redness at her mouth and eyes, though her skin was missing the telltale blotches and swellings of pestilence. An internal imbalance was possible, but those were the hardest to heal. An illness of the mind or spirit? Stooping under the dry herbs and flowers hanging from the slanted ceiling, I crossed the room to an iron cauldron bubbling over a fire that never went out. Iron possessed mystical and protective powers.
"It has been some time since you visited me," I said slowly, brushing aside a purple lavender blossom. "Thirteen years?"
"With the wedding, I . . ."
"I have heard weddings eat into time like moths. What about after? I tended to your family for years. To be forgotten so quickly by you and your mother was quite the revelation." I bent over the cauldron and ladled out hot water into a bowl fashioned from bone. Steam billowed into my face as I flushed with resentment. Or maybe disappointment.
How would the great Earth Goddess Mokosh feel about such neglect? I thought about my beloved mother, the protector of women-of their work and destiny, the birth of their children. I glanced up at her symbol, the wooden horse's head hanging above the cauldron.
We provide succor regardless of wounded pride, she had once told me. Pride is an illusion and the path to conceit. Gods may be guilty of it, Yaga, but not you.
But our gods, the ancient ones born of the Universe, had been worshipped then. While Mokosh had not spoken of it, tales say she helped to create the Earth with Perun, the Supreme God and Lord of the Heavens, and many other gods besides. Perun forged the sky with his thunderbolts; Mokosh gave birth to the land. Her spindle spun the cloth of humanity, thread by thread, woman by woman, life to death, generation after generation. She was Moist Earth, mother of all living things and my actual mother.
Eventually, mortals began to worship the Christian god. While some believed in the old gods as well as him, I doubted the tsaritsa was of their number, living as she did in the center of the Orthodox Christian faith in Russia. Yet before her ascent to the court, she had gladly partaken of what infuriatingly limited talents I had inherited from Mokosh.
"I made you a tsaritsa," I said. "I provided your mother with the herbs and charms that got the court to take notice of a dead aristocrat's daughter. Or have you forgotten?"
The tsaritsa stared into my too-light blue eyes, at my unbraided hair and exposed browned arms. They were covered in pictures inked into my skin-of suns and moons and stars, of living things. Perhaps she assumed the nails and teeth studding the belt on my tunic were human.
To my surprise, she said, "Of course I remember." Then she swept off her stool and knelt at my feet. "Yagusynka, I do not fear death. I fear what would happen to the tsar and to my sons, especially to our heir, Tsarevich Ivanushka, if I were to die. I am desperate for your counsel." Her voice was soft, charged with emotion.
The heat left my face. It was so like her to fear not for herself but for others. Rumor had it that marriage had tamed the tsar's naturally violent ways, that his tsaritsa restrained his worst impulses. Her intelligence and faith guided him. If something were to happen to her, it would not just be her sons who suffered. It would be Russia and her people.
"I am providing you counsel, am I not?" This was said tartly but with a twinkle of good humor. I did not hold on to anger for very long. And I was remembering not Anastasia's neglect but her. Mother had been right. This was not about my pride, wounded though it may have been. This was about Russia's tsaritsa, about Anastasia herself, the girl I had known.
In the hut's only room, an oak table was wedged against the window adjacent to the brick, flat-topped pech oven where I prepared my potions and salves, performed my rituals, cooked my meals, even slept.
I beckoned the tsaritsa over to the table and bade her to hold a wire dowsing rod over a bowl of water. But when she did, it did not stir. This meant there was no illness of mind or spirit.
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