Plamen’s companions swing into action. Chonkorchuk attempts to control Plamenka’s mind, but is unsuccessful. Raskel, on the other hand, unexpectedly manages to send her back to sleep, but it’s not clear for how long. Lionia scowls at the clumsy changeling, and withdraws a dagger from his sleeve. She has seen us, he says, and now, unless we put her down, we will never have a moment’s peace. Raskel scowls at Plamen, too, but the changeling shakes his head, replaces the lantern on the floor, and urges everyone to flee back toward the entrance.
Once outside, Lionia lectures the group about their predicament. They have been seen, even if it was in a different form, so they must go and finish the job. Even if Plamenka does not find them, someone else will learn of the warren’s secret, as always happens when treasure is involved. In any case, Plamenka does not deserve it, and killed many people to make it her own. In response, Plamen categorically objects to killing his mother, though he is possibly open to taking the treasure by stealth, and wonders if Baba Yaga will accept only part of it, so the treasure-hunters can keep the rest. Chonkorchuk thinks Plamen has talked enough about Baba Yaga already, and objects to talk of cheating her, though he thinks the treasure can still be accessed with the proper use of the items Plamenka was holding onto. Raskel points out that the crone never articulated a precise set of demands. It’s not clear how much of the poleviks’ treasure is really Baba Yaga’s. The group wonders if it might be best to move onto one of the other tasks, such as getting the bride, or looking for the Galumphing Oaf. Lionia counters that any choice will involve moral quandaries. He must be on his way, and says if the companions ever make up their minds, they know where to find him. After a brief private chat with Raskel, he heads back to Lazarevo, while the three companions head back to Chonkorchuk’s hermitage.
Chonkorchuk is fortunate to bring down a small deer, and the three roast over fire at his hideaway. The vedun practices forming illusions with Raskel-Rodion, who has changed back to human form, and casts bones to see where to find the Galumphing Oaf. Though he casts twice, the bones give him the same vision – he sees a fox delivering honey to a bear. Not understanding the possible symbolism, and not receiving a clear answer, he goes to sleep with the others. It becomes very cold overnight, and the three companions must huddle together under Plamen’s bearskin and Chonkorchuk’s blanket to keep from freezing, but the last week has toughened them up, and they make it through the night. Before daybreak, Plamen notices a pack of wolves that have surrounded the hermitage. They do not attempt to enter – perhaps because of the wards on its walls – but the companions are clearly under siege. A keen observer and animal whisperer who received instruction from his family, he tries to ask the wolves what they want in exchange for being left alone. The pack’s leader indicates that they are hungry, and will leave if they are given the roasted deer. The group saves a few cuts of meat for itself, and gives the wolves the rest. The pack leader upholds his end of the bargain, and leads the wolves away.
Out of danger, the companions set off in search of the Oaf. Rodion’s swelling has gone down entirely, making their progress easier. They walk north, to the line where the broadleaf trees disappear. This is Baba Yaga’s domain, Chonkorchuk thinks, so the group turns back. Plamen talks to a bullfinch, and asks it if it has seen any bears or bees in the vicinity. The bullfinch isn’t aware of bears, but says there are many bees to the west, around a place where a lot of humans live. Plamen leads the companions in the direction the bird indicated. But the Rys’ River is in the way, with no obvious ways of crossing it. So the group decides to go the way it knows. Fording the Vydra near the Trofimov fort, it returns to Crows’ Meadow. Chonkorchuk and Rodion decide to send Plamen down the chute to scout out the warren, to see if anything has changed. As he slides down the chute, his feet bump into something soft. Rodion shines a light down, and Plamen sees his mother’s dough guardian. Though the guardian makes no move against him, he informs his companions that his mother has probably become aware that people are getting in through the chute, so using this entry point is no longer safe. He returns to the surface, and, since the sun is already low on the horizon, and no one wants to spend another night in the village, they search for a place to stay. Before long, they locate an animal den at the bottom of a large tree. As it’s empty, they start a fire outside the tree to keep away predators, crawl in hole, and go to sleep under their blankets. To ensure he stays warm, Rodion transforms into a fox (after summoning forth Kutkh the crow to keep a lookout)..
|The warren guardian. Not what you think. Not a verklempt Pillsbury Doughboy, either.|
After surviving another frigid night, the trio wakes up cold but refreshed, and, having eaten the last of their venison, heads to Lazarevo. There, Chonkorchuk in disguise, and Plamen with his pet fox under wraps try to find passage to the other side of the Vydra. A boatman is hired for several of Plamen’s goodberries, and after repeatedly asking them whether they want to go to the abbey, and about their fox, he gets them to the other side. They follow the river west, hoping to find some clue about where a bear might be. By noon, they see a village about a verst up from the river. After discussing whether to look for some honey there, they decide to press on. They pass another fort just up from the riverbank, and then, they see a huge flock of crows settled on trees a little way to the north. They approach the flock, and find themselves in some sort of bewitched place, where dead birds hang suspended by strings from tree branches. Plamen attempts to converse with the crows, and they inform him that they are in the domain of a ‘forest master’ – obviously nechist’. Their master is asleep underground for the winter, and while they will not say where precisely, they will grant the group free passage through the domain as long as they promise not to disturb the master or the burial mound which lies ahead. There is apparently a bear that prowls around not too far off to the west.
Plamen agrees to the crows’ terms on behalf of the group, and the westward journey continues. The woods grow thick and brambly, but in a clearing a little ways ahead, they discover a burial mound piled with stones and animal bones. Keeping to their promise, they continue after briefly looking it over. Another verst ahead, they discover a freshly dug grave, with animal bones poking out of the ground. A wooden headstone above the grave reads: “if you go ferthar in the wodes, akursd you shall be, and fated to ly here until the ende of days”. There are also a couple of volkhv runes on the sign that Plamen does not recognize. He has become quite adept at animal speech, so Fox-Raskel is able to inform his illiterate companions about the content of the inscription. Deciding that someone is trying to frighten them off, they continue.
Fox-Raskel telepathically instructs his crow to scout ahead in hopes of finding a bear. Kutkh the Crow flies off, and returns in under a half hour, with news. Less than a verst ahead, there is a cottage surrounded by a hedge. Outside the cottage is a person chopping wood, and he appears to have only one hand. That must be their man! Now, they must decide what to do. How do they lure him to come along? Chonkorchuk says they need honey, so perhaps they should return to the village first. Plamen suggests that they tell him his family back in Lazarevo are looking for him. They settle down under a tree to discuss this, not wanting to confront the likely Oaf without a plan. Suddenly, a dart whizzes toward them from behind a tree…
|Burial mound? Scare tactic? Or vision of impending doom?|