It was getting dark in the middle of the forest. Cirilla knew it because the green of the leaves was becoming grey, the grass, a hue of dark blue and the wind felt colder. But the sky above her remained cloudy, no matter what. No sun, no blue, no welcoming warmth. No stars, no deep velvet blue, no moon. Always cloudy, in different shades, but cloudy at the end.
Cloudy of smoke and violence.
Ciri was tired, hungry and sad. Mud on her boots, dirty hands and wet hair.
For that whole day, she had only stopped by a short stream when thirst became too strong to bear. The noise of horse hooves was enough to cause a shiver to run down her back. The trees became her protection, thick trunks to hug at with closed eyes while begging for the luck to smile at her and remain undetected when human noise approached.
Luck had never been very generous to Cirilla, yet, she remained clinging to it because at the end, begging for its power was the only thing left to her. No grandmother, no Eist, no home.
Only flames, dirtiness and death.
But it was not time to think about that. Hunger was strong inside her and a bush wet by mist looked very appealing, as purple berries hang from it. Ciri was taught at Skellige islands how to differentiate between poisonous and normal berries by her occasional playmates and her stomach growled at their sight.
She ate them hungrily, they tasted bittersweet, but the girl enjoyed them nevertheless. Ciri never knew when food would become available again. Then, she walked back to a nearby stream.
Her mind state had reverted to that of basic survival instinct. And so, Cirilla couldn't help to feel she was being watched. But the fog was extending itself around her and the girl knew the need for a safe place to sleep would soon arise. Eist said that for a warrior, a rested body was important and besides, there wasn't much more she could do at night.
Ciri crossed the stream a few times in search of a safe place to sleep. Small caves, an uncomfortable but safe place under dry rocks and, her favourite, thick trees with big gnarled roots that were easy to climb. She got used to looking for such places: experience told Ciri she would be safe, as not even small animals approached her. Although, her main source of information were books and few anecdotes from soldiers that Ciri was allowed to hear.
The fog was becoming stronger and something felt odd, out of place, but she kept walking in search of cover and protection.
Soon, she found herself stepping on brown, orange and red leaves. An eerie feeling opened a path to her chest, something was wrong. It was the end of July* and the woods were supposed to be green, full of life of colours. Close to the end of summer, not already extended autumn.
Ciri felt something ticklish on her back as if she was being watched, again. Turning around, the girl found no one, but the odd feeling persisted and a strange sensation grew on the base of her stomach.
Cirilla wasn't alone in that forest.
But the mystery soon unveiled itself: a redhead woman wearing an embroidered apron walked towards her, portraying a motherly smile. She was carrying a basket that covered something irregular but Ciri immediately thought of food and her stomach growled with anxiety.
''What are you doing here, child?. These are not hours to be alone''.
She didn't answer, because the woman wasn't expecting that. She kept talking.
''By your appearance, it is not hard to guess you haven't been doing well alone. Well, well, well, '' her tone acquired a playful hue ''I could use some help on the farm. And my sister would like to see you. Naturally, we will feed you''.
The lady had sparkling green eyes. For a few moments, Cirilla felt something odd inside her, but the feeling faded away when the woman moved the cover of the basket: warm bread and seasonal fruits.
Ciri was starved. Starved of food, of warmth, of love.
''Would you like to come with us?''
It was the first time she spoke aloud in days. Her voice came hoarse and broken.
Something shone on the lady's eyes. Suddenly, following her became alluring. Too alluring.
Had it been other circumstances, Ciri would have sensed something was odd about the lady.
The way she looked stunning in the middle of a forest, with embroidered clothes of vivid colours. The style of those garments was something that didn't look at all to farmers' clothes'.
She didn't ask for information about Cirilla, either. No name, no age, no questions about her parents.
The pretty red-haired lady simply started to walk and the girl silently followed her, as if moved by an invisible force. The woman never turned back to check on Cirilla, nor made more comments.
Every time the girl sensed something was off, her mind immediately wandered to other terrains. Ciri felt as if the insides of her head were underwater, but it was calming and alluring, and she was tired and hungry.
Cirilla had been wandering the woods for days. Hiding every time at the mere strange sound, walking away on purpose from horses and people. The sight of knights was enough to make her skin crawl, the thought of the black one, the one with the winged helmet...
Again, Ciri felt her head drenched in pleasurable thoughts.
And so, the red-headed woman guided her to a hut. It was simple and rustic, yet the burning hearth looked inviting. The lady had two daughters, both older than Cirilla. She also had a husband who was away on business. The three women lived alone in the hut.
Cirilla felt something odd about their welcoming words, but it was soon replaced by an awry disgust. Both maids made ugly comments about her appearance then said it was time to find someone new to occupy Vasilissa's place. The mother immediately shushed both of them and ordered her daughters to serve supper.
After supper, a bath was prepared for Ciri. She smelled bad, according to the red-haired lady, and it would be wrong for a young girl to sleep in such bad conditions. The woman's tone of voice changed to something strange when she said that and Cirilla felt a warning inside her. But it was late and the girl's mind soon sailed to better thoughts again.
The elder daughter brought her a new pair of clothes. Normal peasant clothes, but long and warm. The embroidery wasn't as pretty as the ones the women from the family used yet the garments still managed to look like the illustrations Ciri had seen in books from Cintra.
It was almost as if she had crossed to another world, with different clothing and customs.
The elder daughter's manners were rough to Cirilla. The younger gave her dirty looks while the girls prepared the beds for sleeping.
During the night, Cirilla could hear them murmur and deep down she knew they were talking about her. Intuition told her nothing of that conversation involved nice things.
By the next day, it was as if the mother had changed. The red-haired lady ordered Ciri to prepare breakfast for them and looked exasperated when the girl had trouble lighting up the fireplace. Both girls laughed at her and Ciri's cheeks heated.
The woman then ordered her to carry and bucket and go for some water by the stream. Ciri did as told, secretly feeling glad for a chance to get away from the other girls. So, Ciri left the hut, saw a pretty day appearing in the sky and followed the sound of the stream, descending to the back of the hut. On her path there, the girl saw a small doll.
It had braided long hair, a curious cover over the head and was dressed up in the same pretty embroidered clothes as the family. It wore a long tunic and small collars too, and Ciri found it cute so she put it inside a pocket of her own garments and then carried the bucket back to the hut.
The breakfast was simple but she liked it nonetheless. That morning, the lady would teach Ciri how to do some farm work, assisted by her two daughters. None asked Ciri questions about herself and a sudden sensation of anxiety felt upon her.
They never made comments about the war. About the soldiers. About the Fall of Cintra. While she wandered the woods, Cirilla had heard words and news about violence. It was all people talked about: most were refugees who rejected her when Ciri approached them, but she could hear some of their conversations, too. Soldiers and people on horses also talked about it. About Nilfgaard, wizards, soldiers, fires, the missing princess and a dead queen.
Yet, in that place, it was as if the war didn't reach them.
It felt u natural.
And Cirilla immediately realised there was something very wrong about the place she was staying at and her current company, but something inside her told her it was better to not make comments.
It was while they worked that Cirilla heard both girls chatting. It appeared none of them could get married as Vasilissa kept all suitors for herself. She wasn't even that pretty and had dim wit, they said. It was during that chat that the younger daughter gave Ciri a very ugly look, demanding to know what she was keeping inside the pocket.
''It is the doll! Vasilissa's doll!'' said the elder.
''That thing is not supposed to be here, we got rid of it'' said the younger.
''Child, where did you find that doll?'' suddenly asked the mother.
Ciri didn't have reason to lie. The woman demanded Ciri give her the doll and later burned it at the fireplace when they had lunch.
''It even looks like her'' said the youngest daughter.
''Who was she?'' asked Ciri ''The girl you talk about''.
She couldn't remember the name at first.
''That's nothing important'' interrupted the mother ''girls, make silence. And you, child, don't mind it. Vasilissa just was a girl who used to live here''.
''She almost looks like her'' said the elder daughter.
Her voice was almost a murmur as if she was talking to herself.
''She only lacks the braid'' said the younger.
''Girls, what did I say?''
Suddenly, the mother's voice acquired a cold shade.
Her eyes looked cold, too.
Cirilla felt a strong urge leaving the hut, but the mother ordered her to wash her own travelling clothes, as they stank and were covered in mud. So, Ciri carried them to the stream and washed them to the best of her abilities: the result was the garments finally lacked the mud and blood that covered them but the colours didn't look better.
A strange feeling assaulted Ciri. The three women probably had already seen bloodstains yet said nothing. It was as if they were willingly ignoring the world outside the clothes. Or if they just didn't know of it.
Ciri gasped when she saw the doll again by the shore. It was burned to ashes in the fireplace, yet there it was.
''You have to run away'' it said ''They are up to no good, those three bitches''
Its voice was shrilly and unnatural. Despite the feminine appearance, it was hard to pin if it sounded was male or female.
''You are in danger. If you give me a little to eat and a little to drink, I can assist you, Cirilla''
''How do you know my name?''
''This is not your place'' It answered ''Your destiny is with Geralt of Rivia, not here''
''How do you know that?!''
But Ciri didn't wait for an answer: the girl pushed the doll to the stream.
She had to get away from there. But she didn't know where to go. So, she returned to the hut and put the garments to dry under the sun.
Ciri spent the rest of the afternoon learning about seeds and cultivation. By the time twilight came, her clothes still were wet and the woman advised her to put them to dry by the fireplace. Both daughters looked at the garments in awe, as the items of clothing were made of fine fabric. They worked on their own clothes under the light of candles and the mother asked Cirilla to fix the holes in an old dress. The girl had seen women sewing in Cintra and some noblewomen had embroidering as a hobby, she also had a tutor as a child, but her abilities were very basic. Yet, she managed to sew the holes in the dress: her work wasn't as good as the daughters, but the mother coldly said it wasn't so bad.
Another day came and the girls kept pestering Cirilla. They were very hard to please and found flaws in everything she did. The mother's treatment of her wasn't as good as before, neither, the red-haired lady coddled and cuddled her own daughters while coldly ordering Cirilla to do more work.
The woman also never called her for her name. It always was 'child'. The daughters called Cirilla 'she, 'her' or 'the girl'.
But it was better than nothing. There, she had food, warmth and a soft bed.
When Cirilla went for water that afternoon, the blonde doll appeared again, by the shore.
''Cirilla, you have to get away from this place''
''Why do you know my name?''
''Because you are a Child of Surprise''
''And what does it have to do with you?''
She was getting impatient. The doll was eerie yet it didn't give her a bad feeling.
''You don't have to end like Vasilissa. This is not your place''
''And why do I have to trust you?''
''Because they will send you to Baba-Yaga's place''
''Baba-Yaga, the witch. The one who travels inside a mortar and pushes herself with a pestle. The one who uses the broom to hide her tracks''
''That is ridiculous''
''But it's true''
''Even if that were true, how could you help me?''
''If you give me a little to eat and a little do drink, I can assist you''
''How? I don't carry food with me, and for drinking, you have the stream''
''But you have to give it to me. That's how it works''
Ciri took the doll and moved its head close to the stream. It drank a bit of water and signalled to her when it was enough.
''If I carry you with me, they'll see you''
''You can hide me under your clothes''
''Who are you?''
''I was Vasilissa's doll''
''Who was Vasilissa?''
''I don't have enough energy to talk without food''
What could Ciri give to it? She always was under the sights of the mother and her daughter.
''Child, what is taking you so long?''
As if the woman had read her mind, Ciri could hear the voice from the gloomy hut.
There was a dark hue to it.
Ciri hid the doll under her clothes and carried back the bucket.
There was good news for her: her thick travelling clothes finally were dry.
She walked back while the purple sky extended itself around the woods. It almost seemed like a fairy-tale story.
Inside the hut, the light was dark. The red-haired lady had a grim expression and something trembled inside Ciri. Both girls also looked at her with sinister smiles.
''Child, we need your help tonight. We can't light up the fire, therefore, we need you to go to my sister's house and ask her for some light''
Ciri knew things were bad.
''But, I don't know where that is''
She looked at the girls, but both showed indifferent expressions.
''I won't go'' said the eldest daughter ''I am working on lace, and my needle is bright enough for me to see by. Unlike someone here, I have skill on my work"
"I'm not going, either," said the younger. "I am knitting stockings, and my two needles are bright enough for me to see by. Also, I need to work faster, as someone here can't do basic things well"
''So, it's up to you, child'' said the mother. ''It's getting late and dark, so, it would be better if you hurried. Come, I'll show you the way''.
Her green eyes sparkled in a sinister shade and Cirilla felt as if the inside of her head was being pulled underwater. The woman returned the travelling clothes to Ciri and the daughters complained about it, for they were pretty garments.
Ciri obediently followed the mother and she signalled her a thin road. The woman didn't turn back when she walked back to the hut.
As she left, Ciri felt her mind winning clearance. As the consciousness of the situation she was in came to her, fear started to overwhelm the girl.
She took out the doll from under her clothes but it didn't answer. Ciri didn't carry food nor drinks, and so, the girl pricked her dirty finger with a bushy thorn and let the doll drink a little of her blood.
It came back to life and Ciri asked for its advice.
''I will help you there, Cirilla. You have to do as I say and never tell the witch about me. You can carry me inside your pocket. She will only think of me as some toy''.
Ciri agreed and both started to walk. The road was sinister: it got deeper and deeper into the woods, branches and leaves twisted themselves in creepy shapes, the barks of the trees were rough and the girl thought even a lion could have sharpened its claws there.
The sound of subtle movements on bushes scared her, but Ciri kept walking. The idea of being watched by animals didn't make her happy so she rushed her steps. Ciri was trembling, for the trees covered the night sky above her and it was hard to follow the road.
Soon, she heard the gallops of a horse and moved to the side of the road. Ciri struggled to fit between two thick and old trees and muffled a cry when a man clad in dark clothes appeared. Black was his horse and so was the harness, but he lacked armour and helmet. Yet, Cirilla couldn't stop trembling.
It took her a while to feel brave enough to walk the muddy path again.
''I don't want to do this, little doll''
But it didn't answer, so, Ciri gave it a little more blood.
She repeated her words.
''If you go there, then I'll help you go back''
''I don't want to return to that hut. The mother was scary''
''Not to the hut, but your place''
Cintra had fallen. Ciri had no place to go back to.
''I want to get away from this. I want to... I want to...''
Tears started to form in her eyes.
''If you face the witch, I'll help you return. You already have given me your blood, so, I won't leave you alone''
''How do I know this is not a trap?''
''Why would I have helped you, then?''
Ciri felt anger.
''Why are you helping me now?''
''Because Vasilissa deserves justice. The stepmother took me away from her, so she was left alone. She had her mother's blessing, but couldn't manage the tasks ''
''I used to have my grandmother. And Eist. And parents too, years ago'' tears started to appear on her face, ''Yet, I am alone''.
''You are not alone anymore. You have to return to your side. I'll help you return to the stream once we are done''
''You crossed it when you shouldn't and now, you are here. I'll teach you how to return once we are done for''
The doll stayed silent. Ciri put it back into her pocket and started to walk.
It was the longest part of her trip. She walked and walked, felt thirst and hunger but still kept on her path. Mud on her shoes, dew on her hair. Fear and cold on her heart, but she kept walking.
Ciri didn't know how many hours she spent in those woods, but the sound of gallops returned her to reality.
She again hid between two thick trunks.
A man clad in white galloped. White also were the horse and its harness.
Ciri returned to the road and felt how the trees slowly gained bright colours. The woods remained dark, yet she slowly started to feel warm.
The girl reached a small stream but the doll signalled it wasn't her place. Ciri drank water and let the doll have some. She also found ashes and small branches, what was left of a small hearth. Someone had burned a rabbit and some parts still had meat. It was cold, but to Ciri, it tasted of glory. With the help of a rock, she broke the bones and let the doll taste some marrow.
The doll reminded Ciri to only feed it when she needed its help, but the girl found its words strange.
It was alive and the only one that showed her some kindness. Besides, Ciri also didn't know when they would find food again but kept her thoughts to herself.
She was still hungry but crossed the stream and followed her path.
But, she soon had to hide again behind two trees, as another man appeared riding a horse. His clothes were red, so were his hair and the horse.
Ciri returned to the road and spent a long day walking. She found more berries and selfishly ate them. Same with an old tree full of apples.
Nature could be generous, too.
She wanted to share some pieces with the doll, but it refused.
Ciri hid two small apples on her clothes and went on with the path.
Many hours were spent there, in silence under the sun.
Finally, Ciri reached a glade and the creepiest house she had ever seen appeared before her. The fence was made of bones: some were human, others were from animals and others had strange shapes. Skulls crowned the fence; some had strange shapes. Some were human, others, creatures that didn't look like normal animals. Everything about it was dark, gloomy and looked sinister.
It wasn't hard to see that place could only belong to a witch.
It was starting to get dark when the sound of gallops appeared again and Ciri saw the same black horseman. Dread and fear made her tremble for he brought her bad memories. Blood, dead bodies, a stream and a foreign language.
Cirilla didn't want to think about it.
The daughters used to complain about her screaming during nightmares, but the mother remained silent about it.
Ciri was glad she got away from them.
But also felt dread at the sight in front of her.
She moved to the side of the glade but the horseman ignored her. The horse galloped straight into the gate and both vanished.
Ciri was horrified.
The night suddenly appeared there, so fast it was antinatural.
Ciri's fear became dread when the earth started to tremble and rock beneath her. The most bizarre woman she had ever seen appeared before her: an old hag dressed up in dirty clothes and folk garments one could only expect to see in fairy-tales. Everything about her looked ancient and creepy, but the doll caressed her from inside the pocket and Ciri felt a little bit less of fear.
The witch was inside a big wooden mortar and used the pestle to knock it and move. A broom that looked like an old brush floated two meters behind, sweeping the tracks left by the mortar. She flew up to the gate and sniffled the air:
''I smell young flesh!'' she cried ''Who are you?''
Ciri approached her with apprehension. Witches were supposed to always look pretty. Back in Cintra, her grandmother didn't like wizards, yet it doesn't mean Ciri never saw or heard about them in Skellige.
The creepy old woman who stared at her with malevolent black eyes wasn't a witch. It was a monster.
''Who are you?!'' Repeated Baba-Yaga
''My name is Anna'' she lied ''I work at the farm of the red-haired lady, she sent me to ask for a light''
''Oh, I see. It was about time she sent me someone new**. Very well, you can stay here for a while. It is late now, so we'll rest here. Then, you'll work for me in exchange for the lights''
Her voice carried something sinister. Before Ciri would reply, ignoring the warnings of the doll, Baba-Yaga shouted for the bolts to unlock and the gate to open, and so they obeyed. Then, she rode inside in her mortar, while Ciri walked past her.
On their path, a birch tree extended its branches to catch Cirilla but Baba-Yaga ordered it to stop. The same happened with an ugly dog and a giant mean cat, but the old woman stopped them.
Inside, a black-browed maid brought two basins of warm water and both Baba-Yaga and Cirilla washed themselves. Then, dinner was served: abundant plates and hard liquors she didn't like. As it turned out, most were for the witch, yet Cirilla still thanked for the food.
''I must say'' said the witch ''Your manners at the table are rather good for someone who works on a farm''.
''How do you know the red-haired lady?'' asked Ciri.
The doll inside her pocket gave her a small hit. It was a bad question.
''It is impolite to change subjects, child. But I'll tell you: she's a kinswoman of mine'' she smiled ''Do you know what it means?''
Ciri felt danger, but they were interrupted by the maid who served them: she had dropped a plate and it broke, as Baba-Yaga admonished her. The maid wasn't a beauty: a thick black single brow and an ugly scar across the lips. When Ciri made eye contact with the woman, she saw cold fear in them.
But Baba-Yaga appeared to have forgotten the subject and started a new one.
''Well, well. I'll give you some work to do in exchange for the lights''
''But the red-haired lady never said I'd have to work''
''Could it be you have a coin, child?''
The old woman was amused.
''No, I don't''
''Then, you'll have to work. But remember: I eat bad-behaved kids''
The old hag opened her mouth and what previously was a dark cavern that lacked some teeth and others were of odd colours, now sprouted long fangs as if she were a beast. Her black eyes changed, too: slit pupils appeared, one red and the other yellow.
''Do you understand, Anna?''
Her voice was shrilly and Cirilla felt terror. But the answered, with a shaky voice:
''Yes, I do''
''Good girl. Now, time to work''
The black-browed maid silently lifted vases and plates from the table.
Baba-Yaga brought Cirilla outside where it was oddly illuminated, but the woman didn't let her see, as she quickly forced Ciri to enter a ramshackle barn. There, she spoke:
''See that sack of millet? I want you to pick it over seed by seed, Anna, and you better take out the black ones. If you fail, you'll be my lunch''
And so, she left. When Cirilla was sure Baba-Yaga couldn't hear them she took out an apple and fed it to the doll, who nibbled a small portion. Then she hid it back, as Ciri learned food wouldn't always be on her reach. Since she lacked water, Ciri prickled the same finger from the woods and let the doll drink a bit of her blood.
''How can I do this? It's too dark and I am too tired. She will eat me''
''Don't fear, Ciri'' answered the doll ''You've been walking for hours. Lay on that corner, where it's dry and sleep. I'll wake you up once the task is over''
''How can I know it is true?''
''Trust me, I won't fail''
Ciri did as told and lay on the hard ground. It was surprisingly warm and welcoming and despite her anxieties, she fell asleep.
Ciri woke up when the doll touched her face. Then, it cuddled itself up inside the pocket. Carefully, Ciri stood up and gasped when she saw the seeds were stored inside a bag as Baba-Yaga asked.
The woman announced herself outside and entered the barn. She looked angry then noted the task was properly done and ordered Ciri to do another task: to separate poppy seeds from grains of soil. The black-browed maid silently brought a simple breakfast and Ciri thanked her wholeheartedly. She quickly ate the food but kept some for the doll: Ciri gave it a little to eat and a little to drink.
The doll told her to rest and so did Cirilla: she laid again on the ground and fell asleep.
Her dreams were uncomfortable: a dark knight with a horned helmet. The Yaruga river, dead bodies floating… she woke up screaming and the doll shushed her. Luckily, the task was completed and she dearly hugged the doll, now a soft figure on her hands. Ciri put it in her pocket and was startled when Baba-Yaga entered the barn, grumpier than ever.
To the witch's displeasure, the poppy seeds already were inside a bag.
''I see you completed my tasks '' she said ''Then, I'll give you a new one: carry the bags outside for me, Anna''.
Baba-Yaga pronounced the name with irony.
It was the afternoon and Ciri saw two horses resting by the side: one was white, the other was black. The black-browed maid fed them hay. She didn't look at their side.
To Ciri's horror, Baba-Yaga took for pairs of disembodied hands from her apron and bade them seize the corn and squeeze the oil from it. One pair of hands looked younger and paler to the others and Baba-Yaga asked:
''Is there anything you would like to ask, child?''
The sight of rested horses was too tempting. So, Ciri inquired about the riders' identities.
''The white one is my day, the red one is my sun and the black one is my night'' she smiled creepily: ''Is there anything else you would like to know, my child?''
The doll inside Cirilla's pocket quivered and she knew what it meant.
The witch looked disappointed.
''Then, now it is my turn. I have to know: How did you manage to complete the tasks alone?''
Cirilla felt fear inside her.
''Now, now'' the witch sounded pleased, ''I'd like to know how did you complete them''
''They are done and I came here for the light, ma'am'' Ciri answered ''I think it is more than enough payment for them''.
''You will stop working when I say so'' rashly answered Baba-Yaga, ''Now, answer my question. Did you receive a blessing?''
The doll quivered inside Ciri's pocket. Yet, an odd premonition appeared inside Cirilla's mind like a breath of fresh wind.
''I don't know if I am blessed'' she answered honestly ''But I am destined for Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher. For I am his Child of Surprise ''
Baba-Yaga's eyes widened. Then her ugly and rugged face became pale and she seemed to be deep in thought. Finally, the witch summoned the four pairs of disembodied hands back inside her apron.
''I could eat you, you know, child?''
Ciri felt fear but didn't answer. The doll was trembling inside her pocket.
''But if I were to eat you, then I'd have to pay a price. Even I, older than these woods, am not immune to prices for interrupting destinies. And I'm too old for those messes. The last time I saw someone like you, it was before the Conjunction. I don't know who that Geralt is, but I'd rather not have you here. It's too problematic. You don't belong here'' Her eyes transmitted disapprovement ''Follow me, Anna. I'll give you your light ''.
Ciri silently followed her outside. The girl knew she lacked the means to get away from the old woman on her own. It was simply beyond her.
Baba-Yaga trespassed the gate and waited for her. When Ciri tried to follow her, the birch tree moved, trying to trap Ciri in its branches and the witch stopped it with a cry. Ciri hastened her steps outside and felt as if awakening from a dream. Baba-Yaga went back and tore off a branch from the tree, which complained by emitting grave noises.
To Ciri's surprise, the skulls above the fence started to glow. It was getting late again and she felt weak. The witch went outside, took a human skull from the fence and put it over one extreme of the branch. Then gave it to her.
''Walk away from here and don't come back. I don't want those of the Elder Blood close to me''
Ciri was going to reply out of surprise, but the doll quivered inside the pocket. Baba-Yaga didn't wait for an answer and disappeared inside the gates.
Her travelling clothes appeared by her feet. Cirilla put them on and ran away, as fast as her weak feet would allow her. With one hand, she held the branch and the fire inside the skull's eye sockets shone a light upon her path. She didn't stop until the doll reassured her they were safe and the girl dropped to her knees, exhausted and trembling out of fear.
She was hungry, too.
The leaves rustled around them as it was getting darker and darker inside the woods. It wasn't hard to tell the trees were ancient, as some roots sprouted from the earth and twisted the road.
Ciri didn't stop walking until she reached the stream and then carefully put the branch with the skull-lantern by a tree. She desperately drank water and gave a little to the doll. Then washed the apples and ate part of the one that was bitten by the doll. She kept a small portion for it.
Cirilla felt less lonely now.
She kept on walking, restless and anxious. The doll gave her supportive caresses and she wanted to cry but remained on her path.
When the white horse appeared carrying its white rider, Ciri moved to the side but didn't hide.
The path felt long and tiresome. She ate some berries and only stopped to rest when the doll told her so. Ciri moved to the side, between the trees, and fell into a slight slumber, only interrupted when the red rider passed by.
The girl resumed her path and by dusk, she could see the old gloomy hut. The gallop of a horse behind, in the woods, scared her, as it could only be the black rider.
Ciri hid behind some trees until the black rider passed away.
It was late night and the doll talked from the pocket inside Cirilla's clothes.
''Now it is our time''
''Our time for what?''
''Cirilla, I need one last thing for you to do: give the mother the torch''
''Of course not! I won't get inside that hut ever again''
''It's the last favour. I promise you, they won't hurt you''
Ciri trusted the doll. She had many questions but silently went inside the hut. The red-haired woman looked at Ciri with horror, as did her daughters.
Cirilla walked inside the simple room and then, everything started to burn: the three women shouted screams of terror, black smoke arose and an ugly smell invaded the surroundings. Ciri ran away in panic, away from the hut, away from the screams and the violence.
She ran towards the stream.
''This is not what you told me! I didn't want to murder them! I didn't want to, really!''
''I know you didn't. It was for Vasilissa's sake''
Horrified, Cirilla threw it from her pocket. The hut burned in the background: orange and yellow, black smoke against the dark blue sky.
''Tell me how to get back! Tell me how to get away from here!''
''You have to walk towards the right, follow the stream and cross it five times. Cirilla, you…''
But she didn't listen anymore.
Ciri ran away from the doll, towards the stream.
She was alone again but didn't want something so sinister close to her.
It was obvious. So obvious. Nothing good could come from that.
Ciri moved under the night sky, following the stream. In truth, she didn't know how many times she crossed it: the girl only wanted to get away from the burning hut. From fire and dead.
She only stopped when it was obvious it was a late night. Ciri fell on the mud and when she stood again, the sky was cloudy above her. No more stars shone for the girl.
Voices reached her and shushed words: a group of people.
Old and young, men and women, children and maids. They were accompanied by animals, caravans and music.
Words like 'girl', 'war' and 'Cintra' welcomed her and Ciri felt weight abandoning her. She let herself fall, exhausted.
A man carried her. The words ''refugees'' and ''encampment'' were the last ones she heard before everything turned black.
*For what I've read on wiki, the battle of Marnadal was in July, so Cintra's fall must have been during that month or early August.
**In some versions of the Baba-Yaga myth, she has an attractive sister who aids her in finding people to eat.
-Yes, the smaller pair of disembodied hands are from the original Vasilissa.
-In some myths, it is said people can cross to other worlds by following streams. I know Ciri doesn't discover that power until later (and it has few to do with rivers), but then, her powers involve travelling by space and time. Here, the stream drives those who follow and cross it to a single place. There can be a connection too, between specific dimensions.
-Finally: at first, I wanted some epic ending with chibi Ciri escaping on a horse and doing something wondrous like burning the house and Baba-Yaga inside it, but it sounded too unrealistic. In classic fairy tales, the main characters are successful due to their wits or some external factor aiding them. After the fall of Cintra, Ciri is 10-12 and lacks war training. Baba-Yaga is this ageless creature from Slavic mythology, a child couldn't win against her. Some Hansel & Gretel ending doesn't work for me either, as Baba-Yaga is too powerful and in some myths she has a fire affinity. It reminds me of Geralt & the Hansa realizing Raegis was a higher vampire in Baptism of Fire and knowing the goddamn thing was just too strong for him.
So, I went for the easy path: in the version of the myth I liked the most, Vasilissa is saved by being honest with the witch. That's some poetic shit there. Things were simple (and creepier) there.
-My sources for this were TV Tropes, Wikipedia, Ancient Origins and Arvingupandtoys's PDF.
An update: this story was originally published on my fanfiction.net account last year. I am uploading it here since I'm in the slow process of moving my works here as I find it preferable to wattpad AND I want a place where I can have both my fanfiction and original stories together.
I hope you like this and leave some comments :)
Depending on my humor, I guess I'd like to upload a second part in the future. It has potential and we all know what happens to Ciri after the books and during the games.
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