Matryoshka

by Matt McHugh

 

I just don’t know what to do!  Oh, Baba, please help me!”

“Calm yourself, child. All things happen as they must,” spoke the old woman in soft, reassuring tones. “The future cannot be shaped, only embraced once your heart is calm and your thoughts clear.”

“But how can I!” squeaked the girl, perhaps all of fifteen. “I can’t choose. I need your guidance, wise mother!”

“If it is the spirits’ will that you take one path or another, they will reveal it to us.”

The old woman placed a clay bowl on the table between them. The girl took a dull coin from her pouch and dropped it into the bowl. The woman did not move. The girl fished into the pouch and produced another coin for the bowl. Again, the woman remained still, save for a slight lift of one eyebrow. The pouch was emptied of its last two coins. With a broad smile the old woman swept the bowl from the table.

“Let us see what the signs can tell.”

The young girl was subjected to a battery of augurs and omens. Pinpricks and feathers, beads and ointments, incantations and talismans—she sat and stood and turned in circles until she was dizzy, breathing the fumes of hemlock branches tossed into the fire. At last, she was told to cast a double handful of obsidian tiles onto a stretch of vellum and, by studying the pattern, the old woman would divine a message echoing from the future. The elder frowned and squinted at the scattered stones for several minutes, then took up a charcoal stick and wrote a quatrain on a strip of parchment. She read it aloud before passing it to the illiterate girl.

 

One comes in dawn, one comes at dusk.

Such that offer comfort and confusion

Honeyed words mean less than the gift

That lingers even after it is gone

 

The elder looked into the girl’s dilated, quivering eyes.

“Do you understand the meaning, child?”

“I think so. Yes. Yes, I see now!  Pitor—his father is a dairy farmer—he gets up before sunrise. Mikhail is a poet and tells stories in the tavern at evenings. It comforts me to see them both, but I’m confused as to which to choose. Pitor flatters me, tells me I am beautiful and strong, but Mikhail sang me a song once, so I lovely I could almost hear it in the darkness as I slept. Oh, Baba!  Yes!  I understand!  I must choose Mikhail!”

The girl beamed and blubbered, hugging the old woman who patted her shoulder tolerantly. From a hidden fold in her apron, the girl retrieved a final copper coin and surrendered it willingly as she departed, bowing and professing her boundless gratitude.

Alone once more, the old woman quickly tidied up, reset her charms and parchments, tended the fire and oil lamps, made sure the curtain to the adjoining room was drawn (it never seemed wise to advertise that her lifestyle was—if only by a hair’s breadth—more comfortable than the peasantry she served). She was just about to check if there were any clients outside too timid to knock, when the door swung open without warning. An armored captain stepped inside.

“Stay where you are, witch,” he commanded. His hand was on his sword hilt but he did not draw. “You are Baba Celia, the so-called wise woman of the meadows.”

It was a statement, not a question, but nonetheless Baba replied, “I am,” laboring to keep tremors of fear from her voice.

The captain walked behind her, handled objects around the room and prodded her rudely, then he beckoned and two more armed guards entered. Ignoring her, they blundered past the closed curtain and a good deal of bang and clatter was heard until they emerged and one simply said: ”Nothing, sir.”

“Do not move,” the captain again commanded. “Keep your hands on the table or I cut them off.”

He left and a moment later returned, followed by King Samo. She had never seen him before, but his dress and emblems were unmistakable. Again, she fought to keep fear and surprise from her voice:

“Welcome, my lord.”

“You tell the future, yes or no?” he asked as he sat, unbidden, at the table across from her.

“I do all that I can to read the signs,” she replied. “But I do not know what they portend. The spirits’ messages can be understood only by the one who asks the question.”

“She has the gift, my lord,” said a woman. From her position two paces behind, Queen Elena stepped to her husband’s side and spoke in an awed whisper. “I have heard from many of the cooks and washerwomen of the prophecies of Baba Celia that have come true.”

The King snorted with derision, but he edged forward on the stool and leaned toward Baba Celia.

“This is no matter of which goat to buy or when to plant potatoes. Lands bequeathed to me are being invaded from the west. These are great matters, matters of war and sovereignty. Do your spirits know of such things?”

“The spirits see what we cannot,” she replied. “Just as a man standing on a mountain sees more than a man at the bottom of a well. They do not shape what is to come, only foretell.”

“Then tell me, if you can, where the next attack will come, and how I should marshal my forces against it. And take care, old woman. Your words may be at the cost of many lives.”

Armed guards at her side, the King and Queen of the realm before her, Baba Celia knew there was no retreat. She lit the incense, blew the feathers, closed her eyes and chanted. She manhandled the King much less than a typical client, carefully placing the tiles into his open palm to be cast on the vellum. Once done, she read the pattern, speaking the message as she wrote out the quatrain, struggling to control the trembling of her hand.

 

There are branches, coming from the same tree.

They disturb the rivers, shadows on silver.

Empty voices call and get no answer.

The hawk takes wing but its claws are not empty.

 

The King stared in silence then said, “What the devil does that nonsense mean?”

The Queen knelt, bent over the scattered tiles. “My lord, don’t you see? The tree is the cross, the symbol of Salic Kings, with many branches as their forces cross Elbe under the silver moonlight. Their battle horns call out, but their allies do not come. It is then you, with the red eagle as your symbol, swoop down upon them!”

Samo faced Baba Celia with a skeptical gaze. “You’re telling me the Germanic tribes will not join King Dagobert against me?”

“I tell only what I see. The meaning is beyond my small mind.”

After a whispered conference with his captain, the King departed with no further words, dropping three heavy gold tokens on her table as he went. The guards departed as well, but the Queen remained behind. Outside, Baba heard the sound of horses mounted. When the hoof falls faded to the distance, the Queen closed the door.

“Do you wish me tell of your future, my lady? I can attempt to read —”

She cut Baba off with an abrupt gesture.

“Stop. You have no gift, and you don’t know the future.”  The queen smiled cryptically. “Yet,” she added. “But you are clever. And literate. Those are skills I can use. Come with me.”

Baba Celia was taken aback. She protested her unworthiness. She pleaded that the people of the village needed her. She proclaimed she had only rags to wear. Queen Elena accepted no excuse and soon they were riding side-by-side in a horse-drawn cart, flanked by four spear-bearers, along the road leaving the cluster of huts where the locals—crouching behind trees and fences—watched them go with fascinated terror.

As they rode, the Queen spoke. She pointed out features of the land, describing what they once were or what they might become. She spoke of the people, their language and customs, as if she had studied them in detail. She spoke of her husband and his noblemen allies with a roll of her eyes, as if she thought them foolish children. She spoke easily, comfortably, as if she counted Baba Celia as a peer. That, most of all, disturbed Baba.

After the better part of an hour, they stopped. The Queen helped her down from the cart and led her along a path into the wood—commanding the guards to remain behind, sternly warning them not to eavesdrop on ”women’s conversations of childbearing and motherhood.”  The Queen continued to babble as they walked.

“My family sent me to this land when I was a child, betrothed to Samo, not yet a man himself. My father was a wealthy owner of many acres of Rhineland farm country, and I left behind a life of comfort for the loneliness of this wild. These ominous trees were my only playmates, and I used to imagine they were titans, frozen in time, and only I could hear their voices. It became a place of beautiful mystery to me, culminating with the day I discovered … that.”

She pointed just off the path. At first, Baba Celia saw only another rocky outcrop, but as she drew closer, she made out a ring of metal embedded in the stone. From a sash beneath her robe, Elena drew a cross of dull metal, about the size of dagger, and fitted it upright into a triangular hole in the ring. She gave the crossbeams an aggressive twist with both hands. The metal ring lifted easily like a cellar door.

“I’ll go first,” said the Queen.

They descended a ladder of cold iron, Baba going down hand over trembling hand, all the while watching the circle of sky receding overhead until it seemed like the moon viewed through a keyhole. At the bottom, a string of sconces made an eerie green glow, lighting a corridor receding into blackness.

“Come along, grandmother,” she said in an encouraging tone.

“When I found this,” continued the Queen. “I knew it wasn’t natural, but I thought it had been recently excavated. I half-expected to find diamonds or gold. Then, I began to think it was ancient, something left behind by vanished peoples. In that, I was accidentally close to the truth.”

They came to a door, another circle of iron but perhaps twice the distance of Baba Celia’s arm span. This time, the Queen opened it by turning a wheel set at its center. Inside, wall sconces burned so brightly Baba had to squint against the glare. They entered a large chamber with curved walls and many tables and shelves. Books and crates and strange artifacts were piled about the room.

“It is exactly what it appears to be,” said the Queen. “A library. Someone, I thought, went to great trouble to preserve a hoard of knowledge. Once more, I was correct, but only accidentally.”

They crossed the room and yet again Elena opened another titanic door.

“I was lucky to have been tutored in the languages of the Greeks and Romans, as well as the Franks and Slavs, and the makers of this place left copies of books in many languages. I have picked up bits and pieces over the years, though I am humbled to admit how little of it I understand. For a long time, I believed the ancients created this place to pass on lost arts. It took longer to comprehend an even more difficult truth:  This place is not ancient.”

The Queen touched glowing tiles on the wall by the final door and a shrill, chilling melody chimed out.

“What you are about to see may terrify you. It may seem monstrous, but I promise you it is as natural as the motion of the sun and moon across the sky.”  The door swung open with a rumble and hiss. “Except it is not an illusion.”

Warm air rushed from the opening portal and a gilded light radiated out. Baba Celia stepped backward, rigid with fear. She wanted to close her eyes, to scream and run, but she was frozen in nightmare inertia. From the light, came a shadow. A shape. A human figure. It stepped forward, walking with slow, ghostly paces.

Baba averted her eyes, but could not long resist the urge to behold whatever this was. She saw its feet, fitted with leather slippers. Her eyes rose up, along its clean gown of white linen. Upward, where a length of steely gray hair was bound in silver combs and colored ribbons. At last she beheld the face. A smiling face. A familiar face. A face it took her impossible moments to recognize as her own.

“My dear, have I stories to tell you,” the other Baba Celia said.

 

The Queen and the other Baba Celia were as gentle and soothing as possible, but nonetheless it took Baba Celia a while until she was calm and cognizant enough to listen.

“As near as we can tell,” explained the Queen as the first Baba Celia reclined on a padded couch and sipped an incredibly delicious variety of tea, “This place was built more than a millennium from now. At the time, there was the threat of a war so great that men believed all of humanity could perish. So, they made this sanctuary, this fortress of metal, buried deep underground to be safe from the raging fires they unleashed. And they filled it with all the knowledge they deemed necessary to begin the world anew. The library is arranged from the simplest of concepts, proceeding to more and more complex ideas, with copies of the same information in multiple languages.”

“You see, they weren’t sure who might survive the war,” the other Baba Celia interjected. “And they were at least wise enough to realize a world rebuilt by strangers is better than none at all.”

“I’ve spent years,” the Queen continued, “Learning in thimblefuls from the incredible reservoirs here. The accomplishments of these future-men in knowledge and creation are astounding. But, like all men, their natural greed and belligerence eventually made them turn their ingenuity to war and they brought themselves to the brink of their own destruction.”

“But how,” asked Baba Celia slowly. Her thoughts were adrift in the calming sweetness of the tea. It had, she realized, a numbing quality like the poppy but so much more refined. “How is this fortress from the future able to exist in the past?”

The other Baba Celia and the Queen looked at one another, sharing a moment of bewilderment.

“We’re not sure,” said the other Baba.

“It seems,” said the Queen, “The makers tried an experiment. There is a kind of invisible fire that powers everything here. In different forms it also powered their weapons, their ships, many things. It is an energy held captive in all objects and, once liberated, is wildly powerful and unpredictable. Again, as near as we can tell, they used a form of that energy to drive this entire metal fortress backward through time.”

“Imagine time as a river, and we ride in its stream,” the other Baba continued. “Imagine this chamber, also riding in the stream. They were able to exert such a force upon it that they pushed it against the flow, like a boat paddled upstream by invisible oarsmen of inexhaustible strength. Right now, as we stand in this place, we are being carried upstream against the current of time. When you leave this sanctuary, you will step into the past.”

“That’s impossible,” said Baba.

“You will see it is not,” said the other.

Whether she was becoming accustomed to her surroundings or the narcotic tea was wearing off (or taking full effect), Baba Celia, in the midst of all the reeling revelations, found herself growing more and more fascinated by the phenomenon at hand.

“But why,” she asked. “Why do this? Why would men who believed their world doomed send knowledge back into the past? Why are you here in this place? Why did you bring me?”  The last question was addressed, with a pleading gesture, to her other self, who seemed gently amused.

“The reason men built this place and sent it on its backward journey, and the reason we brought you here is the same:  to warn those in the past against future dangers. Isn’t that what you’ve spent years pretending to do, Wise Woman of the Meadows? Now, you can do it truly.”

“How?”

“Because you know the future. You know that today King Samo will come to see you, seeking foreknowledge of a battle. Now, instead of your usual gibberish, you can tell him something meaningful about the outcome of that battle.

“I don’t know anything about it.”

The other Baba Celia answer, “But I do. As a trusted servant of Queen Elena I am privy to the news of the palace and I know the battle that happened three months from now was lost because the King failed to anticipate an attack from a secondary force from the South. I have written all that and more on this letter. Here, take it with you. You can couch the details in one of your clever quatrains, can’t you?”

“This is what we do here,” said the Queen. “We ride in this metal ship backward against the flow of time, then step off into the stream, and tell our past selves of the future. In this way, the world is ours to shape.”

Baba Celia was speechless. It was incredible. Unimaginable. And yet, it made perfect sense.

“Men have and always will rule and ruin,” continued Queen Elena. “This place is testament to both their ingenuity and madness. We, you and I, Wise Woman of the Meadows, can steer the direction of those self-proclaimed lords of the world without them feeling so much as a fingerprint of our influence.”

The other Baba Celia looked at a wall hanging filled with glowing dials and symbols.

“It is nearly time,” she said. “The morning of today.”

“Come,” said Elena. “We must return.”

The other Baba Celia embraced the first. “I know you are confused and afraid. I also know you are coming to understand. Courage, sister. All things happen as they must.”

With that, they parted and Queen Elena led the first Celia back down the glowing corridor, up the iron ladder, and out of the circular portal. Dawn was purpling the sky over the tree line. Not far off, hidden by cut branches threaded with vines, there was a small stable with two horses and a cart, perhaps the very one they had ridden (would ride?) to this spot. They mounted and Elena wound through a mossy path back to the main road.

They drove in silence, the cold sun rising behind them, as Baba Celia’s mind swirled with questions too numerous to ask.

“These roads are known for gangs of robbers,” said Elena, “And our escorts are elsewhere at the moment.”  She reached into a box beneath the wooden bench of the cart and handed Celia a sphere of clay the size of an unripe berry. “Throw this against a tree.”

Baba did so. There was a crack like a smith’s hammer blow and burst of powdery wind. The trunk of the tree had a flower of black scorch upon it and a smell like sulfur lingered.

Elena patted the box. “I have many more, and much larger, as needed. One of the useful skills I have learned during my time in the circular library. You will learn, too.”

Soon enough, they came to the edges of Baba’s village.

“We walk now,” said the Queen. She parked the cart and horses behind a humble cottage. She took out tattered cloaks for them to wear and looked at a glowing silver locket she had hidden under a sleeve.

“Almost time,” she said.

She knocked on the cottage door and two guards emerged—the very two that Baba Celia had rummaging in her rooms. The Queen gave them careful instructions.

“In one hour, you will go to the hut of this woman in the place I showed you. You will give her this pouch of silver and have her accompany you back here, where she must remain in hiding for the day. She will act as if she has never seen you before, in case anyone is watching. Our enemy spies must never know of this arrangement. Your compensation will be within when you return.”

“Yes, my Queen!”  Both replied as one, and they genuflected without hesitation.

Elena and Celia walked a circuitous path along the wooded edge of the meadow. They began to speak more freely. Elena told of the wars her husband would fight, the laws he would make, the peoples he would unify. The decisions he thought were his own molded by the mysterious poems of the revered royal soothsayer, Madam Celia. This revelation caused a mutual bout of laughter.

Now, Celia asked many questions. How was the bursting power made? What was in the books of the underground library? What was the circular locket Elena kept glancing at? The Queen’s answers were sometimes short and cryptic, sometimes long and complex—but always spellbinding, revealing glimpses of a world with forces invisible, possibilities endless, stretching in all directions. It was all so much greater, so much more believable, than the shadowy tales of gods and spirits that were her trade up until… when? What was it? Days? Hours? An eternity looped around like the image the ouroboros, the serpent swallowing its own tail.

But this one was not swallowing itself. It was giving birth to itself.

They stopped in sight of Baba Celia’s house, tucked just inside the beginning of the thickening forest.

“Am I in there now?” she whispered in awe.

“Yes. Watch,” replied the Queen, glancing at her locket.

Soon, the two guards came to the cottage door. Baba Celia felt her heart flutter when she saw herself greet them. Words too distant to hear were exchanged and shortly the other Celia was walking away, flanked by the guards, counting silver pieces in her hand.

“Go now,” said the Queen. “You will see me again shortly.”

Inside, Baba Celia was almost startled to find it exactly as she expected, now that everything else in the universe had turned askew. A knock on her door made her jump. She opened it to find a fifteen-year-old girl in a state of emotional frenzy.

“I just don’t know what to do!  Oh, Baba, please help me!”

They sat and she listened to the tale of Pitor and Mikhail, punctuated with flusters and tears that seemed (if possible) more ridiculous than the first time. She cut the girl off.

“Marry Pitor,” she said.

The girl stopped, bewildered.

“Marry Pitor,” Celia repeated. “A sensible farmer who dotes upon you over a drunken poet with no desire other than to lift your skirts. Marry Pitor.”

“Shouldn’t we consult the spirits?” the girl asked haltingly.

“The spirits would agree with me, if they had a lick of sense. Keep your pennies, child, and get back to your father’s house. Next time Pitor calls, make him the best meal you can and rub his back as he eats. If Mikhail comes, pour brandy over hog slop and send him on his way.”

The girl, who had just received arguably the best piece of advice she would ever get, seemed crushed with disappointment.

“But,” added Baba Celia, taking pity on her. “Let us consult the signs, shall we?”

After shaking feathers and powders, chants repeated and lots cast, Celia wrote out then read her prophecy:

 

When beast and bird are at your door

The bright plumage and piping song will vanish by dawn

But sturdy legs, a strong back, and a loyal heart

Will carry you over the land for many prosperous seasons

 

The girl departed, carrying the scrap of paper and, perhaps, a shred of wisdom.

 

Baba Celia read the letter she had given herself, full of useful detail great and small. When King Samo’s captain and guards arrived, Baba Celia greeted them by name and wished good fortune upon their wives and children (also by name). The disturbance on their stern faces was delightful to behold. When Samo himself arrived—the subtlest of knowing nods exchanged with Queen Elena over his shoulder—Celia gave her finest performance, delivering her most poetic parchment:

 

In three moons for three days blood will be spilled near Kadan

When all eyes are on the Bear and Lion from the West

The Merovingian serpents slither from the grassy river

Blunt their fangs before they strike and all thieves will scatter.

 

The fragments from all King Samo’s informers and counselors, the whispers and intimations of his dreams, were confirmed and he left sure of the date, time, and tactics of the victory that would let him claim dominion from the Alps to the Carpathians.

Once again, as she had, as she always would, the Queen remained behind.

“Did it work?” asked Celia.

“Oh yes. It always does.”

“You have seen the battle and its outcome?”

“Many times.”

“It is always the same?”

“Almost. I have a few more adjustments before the end will be exactly as I need it to be.”

A thought came to Baba Celia. “My other self, the one who was here in my hut before we arrived. Where is she?”

“My guards took her to the cottage we visited earlier, just as I said.”

“What will happen to her?”

“When you stepped into the innermost chamber of the sanctuary, you traveled against the stream of time. When you left, you re-entered the stream and now there are two of you riding in the same flow. When we reach the moment you first entered the fortress, the flow will continue and there will only be one. You. The other you… vanishes. Branches off to a different flow, enters a realm of infinite alternatives… I don’t fully understand it. But, in the end, only you will continue.”

“And the version of myself still in the fortress?”

“She remains, traveling upstream, in a different direction than us. You may meet her again only within the center of that underground sanctuary. That is the only place where you can both exist in the same flow.”

A wave of sadness, of terrible loneliness, came over Baba Celia at the thought of never again seeing her other self.

“What now?” she asked the Queen.

“Now, you continue as Wise Woman of the Meadow. We will meet again, Celia. You and I, the ones we are now. We are not yet finished, I promise you.”

With that, she departed and left Baba Celia alone. She wondered if any more village clients would come for the day or had they been scared off by the appearance of the royals? Had that happened in their stream? Or was it yet to happen? He head swam with the convolutions of it all.

She took out the letter from her other self and re-read it. Her fingers felt patches of rough and smooth areas on the back of the parchment. She looked and saw odd strokes that seem to shine in the low light. It resembled a trick she was well familiar with, of using juice from a cut plant stalk for the illusion of ghostly messages. She held the page over a candle flame, high enough to not burn the paper.

The hidden writing browned in the rising heat.

 

My Celia,

I know the shock of meeting yourself can be overwhelming, but so can the joy. To see you as I was is like a beloved memory, a long-lost sister, and it breaks my heart to part from you. I am a servant of Queen Elena and have followed her commands loyally, but I must now follow my conscience. You have no doubt begun to wonder what happens when two versions of yourself exist within the same flow of time. Elena will tell you the streams diverge and one vanishes. That is a lie.

The version of you that is no longer useful to Elena will be killed.

Her guards understand this and carry out the order without fail. At some point, she will again feel the need to travel back— with her foolish, faithful servant—and fiddle with a piece of history that isn’t perfectly to her liking. She speaks of the belligerence of men, of saving the future from their destructive greed, but she has become corrupted wielding a power no man alive can rival. This needs to end.

I know you find this is difficult to believe, but go to the cottage at the outskirts of the village and you will see the truth of it. There, you will meet two guards loyal to me, not Elena (she is not the only one with access to riches). They will bring you to Samo’s palace, and escort you to the Queen’s bedroom. On the way, you will find what you need to end her life.

I am sorry to place this burden on you, but I also know that in your heart you understand it is necessary. I may never see you again but, if you do what you must, the world will be set free and flow forward as it was meant to.

Courage, sister. All things happen as they must.

– Marie Celia Duverny

 

Signed with her name. Her true name. The name given her by her Frankish father before he was murdered and she and her mother sold into bondage by a Slavic warlord. The name no one alive but herself knew.

 

The evening was slipping toward night as she hurried to the Queen’s cottage. Carefully, she edged closer to it and saw two men by the door with the twilight glinting on their armored helmets. She gathered all her courage and stepped out openly to meet them.

“We were told to await you, Baba Celia,” said one with a bow.

“I want to see inside,” she said.

“It is not fit for your eyes, mistress,” the guard replied.

“I will see. Show me now.”

With a sigh, he opened the door. Within, Baba Celia saw the scattered remnants of struggle and dark rivers beneath the crumpled bodies of the Queen’s guards. On a palette in a corner, lay another body in undisturbed repose. In the shadows, all she could see was the grey hair and tattered robe she well knew, and a throat cut neatly with a single stroke like a slaughtered lamb.

Three horses were tied behind the cottage and she rode along the darkening road with the guards galloping at her side. It was full night when they arrived at the palace stables. They left their rides and she was escorted through a basement passage, up into a disused kitchen, to a narrow servants stairway. In an alcove near the upper landing, was a linen sack fixed with a ribbon and a note in her own hand:

 

Courage, sister.

 

Inside was a strange tool. Made of wood and metal, with a grip at one edge and a tube at the other. A parchment sheet inside—again, all in her own hand—had annotated sketches showing how to hold it, how to point it, and what would happen when the lever in the middle was pulled with a finger. It was heavy and awkward, but she took it in her trembling hand as shown and opened the door at the top of the stair.

She entered a washroom with pitchers and a basin. Beyond, a heavy curtain hung over an archway. Slowly, she put her hand to it and drew aside the curtain.

Queen Elena sat on a bench in a white dressing gown, combing her hair out to its full length. She sat facing a mirror, the largest and most magnificent one Celia had ever seen, and as she approached, Celia could she herself reflected, gray and aged next to the lily beauty of the Queen. Elena caught her image in the mirror and turned, startled.

“What are you doing here, Baba?”

Baba Celia kept advancing and said nothing. No words would be of any use. The turmoil in her heart—the doubt, the certainty… the love, the hatred—none of it could be given voice.

“What have you got there?” asked the Queen, but a moment later a look of recognition came to her eyes. She opened her mouth, took a breath, preparing to scream. Celia drew back the switch on the weapon and it jumped in her hand like a serpent. There was a crack like the bursting clay ball she had tossed against a tree. A blossom of red spread across Elena’s gown and she staggered and collapsed without making a sound.

Baba Celia stood, heaving breaths coming in gulps as she dropped the deadly tool. All motion in the universe stopped and she found herself at the heart of a maelstrom of silence. Then, it seemed the world tilted. Everything distorted and slid away from her vision. It took her a moment to realize it was the mirror moving, angling to one side, opening like a door. From behind stepped herself, the neatly dressed and combed version she had met in the underground sanctuary.

“You did what you had to, dear woman. Don’t distress yourself over it.”

Baba Celia could not help it. She began to tremble and weep. She tried to speak, to give some apology, some account—even though she knew it was unneeded. Instinctively, she held out her arms, like a child seeking comfort. The other Baba Celia would certainly come, embrace her, console her. It was, after all, what she would have done.

Then, Queen Elena stepped from behind the mirror door.

“I am sorry for your pain, gentle Baba. Truly I am.”

Celia faltered. She stuttered. She staggered. She sank to her knees in exhaustion and supplication. Elena began to walk toward her, her hand resting on a bump in the center of her gown. Even in her chaos, Baba Celia recognized the Queen was with child.

“You see, when you enter the inner sanctuary,” she explained, “You do not age. My body could not grow a child if I kept returning to the chamber. Also, the energy inside… over the years, it had burned away the strength of my womb. But you saved me, Grandmother Celia. You stayed inside long enough to come back, to warn me, even as young girl, of the danger. Now, I can give birth to an heir when Samo unites the Slavic kingdoms and move the world away from the terrible future wrought by men.”

“It is a service for untold generations,” said the other Baba Celia. “You have helped set all things on the proper course. Be proud, dear sister, of the mark you have put on history.”

“No,” muttered the first Baba. “No… no…”

“This is as it must be,” said Elena. Then, she lifted her head and let out a horrific scream, a blood-stilling wail that echoed in the night-silent palace.

“The guards will be here momentarily,” she said. “Don’t worry. They know how to be swift and painless. They have a great deal of experience.”

The Queen and the other Baba stepped backward, behind the mirror and closed the door. The warped world righted itself and Baba Celia saw her image, aged and frail, on her knees, slip into place in a magnificent silver inversion of everything.

 

In the chamber hidden behind the mirror, Elena and Celia watched through the dark glass as the kneeling Baba was overcome and dispatched with lightning speed. A rush of servants and attendants flooded the Queen’s bedroom, each bellowing at the horrific scene. At last, Samo himself came in and cradled his dead wife, weeping freely.

“It’s too much,” Celia said, tears in her voice.

“It will be over soon,” Elena replied. “Tomorrow, the murdered Queen will arise and it will be discovered she is not only alive but, at last, with child, and news of the miracle will spread fear and wonder wherever it goes. The future opens wide, Grandmother, with limitless potential.”

“It’s too much,” Baba repeated. “To know what is to come, to live with what I have done. I don’t know if I can continue.”

“You need not. We have arrived at the point in the stream where we can simply ride the flow. All things have been arranged as they need to be. Let us go together and discover the days to come.”

“And what if there is more you decide you wish to change? What if I am no longer useful to you?”

“If that is to be,” said the Queen, “I promise you will never see it coming.”

— END —

 

 

Author Bio: Matt McHugh was born in suburban Pennsylvania, attended LaSalle University in Philadelphia, and after a few years as a Manhattanite, now calls New Jersey home.

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