Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all related properties belong to J.K. Rowling, Scholastic, Warner Bros., and others. Russian folklore belongs to...Russian people. I own nothing and am making no money off of this unauthorized work of fan fiction.
Author's Notes: Written for the October 2006 crossover challenge at the omniocular LiveJournal. Although I took bits of Baba Yaga folklore from several tales and made up some things of my own, this story is primarily an homage to "Vassilisa the Beautiful" (also known as "Vassilisa the Brave"). You can find several versions of that tale online. Also, kudos to Czarna Pantera for inspiring the ending of this fic.
The original prompt for the challenge was: "On the run from Voldemort, Karkaroff stumbles across a mysterious house deep in the forests of Russia. It has chicken legs."
Not so long ago, there lived a certain man named Igor Karkarov, a wizard who taught magic at a very fine school. But he grew restless and wanted to see the world, so one day he left this school and traveled to a distant land. While there, he did many wicked things, and was punished by the law of that realm. His punishment was harsh, and soon he desired to return home, for he felt in his soul that he could not long survive his place of confinement.
"I beg of you to release me," said Karkarov to his captors, "and I shall tell you who also did the same wicked things as I."
"If you tell us this, we shall indeed release you," said his captors. "But you must promise to never return to the life you have led, and to never serve the Master who bade you commit your crimes."
Karkarov promised this, and told them who else had served his Master. His captors were true to their word and set him free, whereupon he flew home swifter than a raven at dusk. Thereafter he was known in that land as Karkarov the Cowardly, because he gave the names of his companions to escape death.
More than ten years passed after this. During that time, Karkarov the Cowardly became head of his school, and though he was not a happy man, he was at least content with his lot. One autumn, however, he had occasion to leave his school and return to the land where he had once committed crimes, and while there, he began to be disturbed by a sign. It was by this sign that he knew his former master was returning. In anxiety he sought out a friend who who also had served this Master, and asked of him advice.
"My friend, my friend, what am I to do? If He whom we served returns to the world, surely I shall be punished for my cowardice. Where shall I go? What shall I do? For I do not want to serve our Master any longer."
Said the friend: "I care not what you do. For even if you pass the highest mountain and cross the broadest river, still those you betrayed will find you and kill you. I, for my part, am safe here. Your life is your own concern."
This made Karkarov even more afraid, but he could make no decision and so did nothing. Months passed swiftly, and stronger grew the sign. Again and again he questioned his friend: "Where shall I go? What shall I do?" And again and again the friend responded, "I care not." Finally, on a certain night, the sign strengthened considerably, so that it was known for certain that the Master had indeed returned.
And so, Karkarov the Cowardly ran away.
He ran for a week, yet still he did not feel safe. He ran for a month, yet still he did not feel safe. Karkarov ran for many months, passing high mountains and crossing broad rivers, and yet even still he knew that he was not safe. Though he slept very little and ate even less, using no magic and leaving no trail, still he felt the hounds of death snapping at his heels.
After some time, Karkarov's travels took him to a forest, large and dark and filled with many frightful beasts. Through this forest he traveled for three days and three nights, until on the third morning he came upon a field, in the center of which stood a curious house. The house was made of logs, but its foundation rested upon the scaly legs of a hen. All around the house ran a fence made from human bones, and on every post of femurs gleamed a white skull with empty sockets.
"Ach! This is Dark magic indeed," thought Karkarov to himself. "But I shall enter this house and see for myself what is inside. For its owner seems to be absent, and perhaps within I shall find some food."
Karkarov descended into the glade and walked up to the gate of bones. Its lock was made of gnashing teeth, but Alohomora opened it; the thin birch trees lashed at him as he passed, but Diffindo severed their branches; a fierce dog lunged at him as he crossed the lawn, but Stupefy halted it; a black cat hissed at him when he reached the porch, but Silencio hushed it. But try as he might, Karkarov could not enter the hut; it danced on its chicken legs and would not turn to face him. Neither strength nor spell could straighten it out.
Just as Karkarov had decided to give up, there arose from the forest a mighty roaring and grinding, as though the earth itself were splitting in two. Out of the trees rode an old witch sitting in a great iron mortar, sweeping away her tracks with a birch broom and guiding her course with a pestle. At the open gate, she halted and sniffed the morning air.
"Phoo!" cried she. "It stinks of wizards' magic and the soul of a Russian. Who has dared to trespass here, to the house of Baba Yaga?"
Then she entered the gate, passing the birches with their cut limbs, the dog in his Stunned sleep, and the silent cat with her fur on end. Karkarov could not escape, for the way was blocked by Baba Yaga's mortar, and so the witch found him rooted to the ground.
"Foolish wizard!" cried Baba Yaga, climbing down from her mortar. "Why have you come here? I deal not with your kind."
So astonished was Karkarov that he bowed and said: "I am but a traveler here in these woods, old grandmother. I knew not this house was yours."
Baba Yaga clucked her tongue and ground her teeth. "You have spoken falsely to me, and I hate nothing so much as a liar. I know that you are Karkarov the Cowardly, for I have seen your pursuers this night in my forest, and they will slay you as surely as the falcon slays the hare. Or perhaps I shall eat you first, for you have harmed my servants the gate, the birches, the dog and the cat, and no one intrudes upon my home without punishment. Your kind do not taste so well as Muggles, but for you I will make an exception."
At this Karkarov began to shake. "I meant no harm, old grandmother, and beg of your kindness to allow me to leave this place. For I must flee if I am to live."
"Flee? I should think not!" Baba Yaga cried. "You must pay for what you have done here. Tonight I will roast you and eat you for my supper."
In fear Karkarov drew out his wand, but the old Baba Yaga only laughed her hoarse laugh.
"Foolish wizard, your magic is young and feeble against mine. Do not think your childish tricks will harm me!" Then she turned to her wooden hut and commanded: "Izbushka, izbushka, stan' k lesu zadom, ko mne peredom!"
At once the house turned on its chicken legs to reveal a door, which sprang open and swallowed Karkarov whole. Inside the hut were many more skulls, as well as an ancient stove and table. The eyes of these skulls glowed like coals all around the walls.
Said Baba Yaga in a loud voice: "My servants! Take this miserable creature and cook him for my evening meal. He has trespassed upon my home, and now his bones will never leave it."
Immediately three pairs of hands appeared and bound Karkarov with strong thread, so that no matter how he struggled he could not move a step. Baba Yaga laid down on the stove and yawned, stretching out her bony legs.
"My servants, light a fire in this stove, make it nice and hot. This wizard will have to roast all day to get the taste of magic out of his flesh."
Upon hearing this, Karkarov began to beg. "Please, old grandmother, do not eat me. I meant no harm to you, and wish only to keep running."
"You talk too much, wizard," said Baba Yaga, "and fools with loose tongues make unsavory meals. Even worse that you are too thin to make a full supper; I will have to cook some suckling pigs as well to fill my empty stomach."
Karkarov took heart from this and said, "I would indeed make a poor supper, old grandmother. If you were to release me, I should be very grateful and do anything you ask."
Baba Yaga squinted and scowled from her resting place on top of the stove.
"Indeed you should," said she, "for you are Karkarov the Cowardly. However, you must work, and then we may see whether or not I eat you, however vile you taste. Servants, release him!" Again appeared the hands of Baba Yaga's servants. They freed Karkarov from his bonds, and Baba Yaga said to him: "I have traveled all this past night and will now rest a little. When I awake, I want the house tidied, the roof patched, the floor swept, the stove cleaned, the garden weeded, the fence mended, and my afternoon meal prepared. Then I will decide what to do with you." Baba Yaga gave a great yawn like a bear and fell asleep right atop her stove, snoring so loudly that it rattled the dirty glass in the windows.
Karkarov thought of escaping from Baba Yaga as she slept, but then remembered her words about his pursuers, who were even now in this very forest. "Better to stay here than to fly into greater danger," thought he, "for Baba Yaga's tasks are simple, and one enemy is better than many at once. Perhaps also they will not pass this way, and when they have left the forest I can safely flee this place."
So Karkarov the Cowardly did as Baba Yaga demanded. With simple magic he tidied the house, patched the roof, swept the floor, cleaned the stove, weeded the garden, mended the fence, and prepared an afternoon meal for Baba Yaga. After some time she awoke, and though the old crone pried into every nook and cranny of her cottage, she could find nothing that had not been done exactly as she had asked. She had grown accustomed to Muggles, who could not do many things in so short a time, and Karkarov's thoroughness made her angry; she still had some desire to roast and eat him, for she had not tasted human flesh in months.
"I may grind your bones yet," she told Karkarov, "for there is more work for you to do today. I am going into the forest to fetch something, and while I am gone you must take this sack of grain and separate everything within it: rye, millet, wheat, and peas. You must also divide the good seed from the bad, and remove any earth that has clung to the husks of the grain. Do this before I return, or I will have you for my supper tonight."
Then Baba Yaga went to the door and gave a loud whistle, whereupon her mortar and pestle showed themselves on the porch. Into the mortar she leaped and soon disappeared, sweeping her tracks away with the broom from the kitchen. When she was thus out of sight, Karkarov the Cowardly thought again to himself concerning what he should do.
"If I leave now, she certainly cannot eat me," thought he. "But this cottage is a safer place than the forest, and if I were to meet my pursuers in the open I should surely perish. Better to remain here for now, and to venture forth when it seems prudent to do so."
So Karkarov set about the task that Baba Yaga had given him. The sack of grain was very large, and he had no special spell to sort its contents, but magic was an aid to him nonetheless. Quickly he worked to separate rye from wheat, wheat from millet, millet from peas, good seed from bad, and dirt and earth from seed. At last, just when he had finished his work, a great grinding and roaring proclaimed the return of Baba Yaga, carrying an armful of spotted mushrooms. Suspiciously she sniffed and snooped at the door of her cottage.
"Well, well, wizard!" she cried. "Have you sorted the sack of grain as I asked you to, and separated one seed from another, and the good from the bad?"
"I have indeed, old grandmother," said Karkarov, and showed her the piles into which he had sorted the grain. Baba Yaga sifted carefully through each with her weather-worn hands, but found no fault with the sorting and again grew angry.
"Well! You have done better than I expected, wizard," said Baba Yaga crossly. "But I have one more task for you. In an hour my black rider Night will bring darkness to the sky; before that time I demand that you bring me seven of the blue roses that grow in the thicket in the heart of my forest. For you see, it is my custom to boil them and make a tea which will smooth the wrinkles from my face. If you do this I shall ask no more of you, but if you fail this night will be your last in the world of mortals. Go now, and return before my black rider gallops his horse across the fields."
Karkarov knew not what to do, but not wishing to increase Baba Yaga's anger, he left the house on chicken legs, passed the dog and cat and birches, and stopped at the gate of human skulls.
"Well, this is a fine mess I am in!" thought he. "I should never find her blue roses in time, and then surely she will eat me. But death waits also for me in the forest." After considering his situation for some moments, Karkarov the Cowardly thought to himself: "Now the risks of this place have become greater than the good it offers. I shall leave here and cross the forest as swiftly as I may, for my pursuers may yet be close by."
And so, Karkarov set off into the looming trees, hurrying yet being cautious of any odd noise. Soon darkness began to fall, and the forest grew gray and unfamiliar around him, but Karkarov did not want to use a light for fear of being seen.
Just as the final shadow was falling over the forest, Karkarov spied a glow between the trunks of the trees. For a moment he thought perhaps it was the old Baba Yaga, come to snatch him and eat him for supper, but then a great green light roared from afar, striking the nearest tree and lightning. Karkarov the Cowardly had been found!
Instantly he sprang away, and fear gave wings to his feet. Karkarov fled from the shouts and spells behind him, stumbling and fumbling and panting for breath. Again he saw a light ahead, and this time ran towards it, for he was in such a panic that it seemed sensible to do so. The light came from the glowing eyes of the skulls of Baba Yaga's fence, which blazed fierce and bright now that night had come. Baba Yaga herself was standing in the yard, boiling her mushrooms in a pot.
"You are late, wizard!" cried Baba Yaga angrily. "Where are my precious blue roses? I see you have not brought them, unless you are hiding them out of sight."
Karkarov fell to the ground before the old crone, exhausted and trembling.
"Please, old grandmother, I beg of you: I am being hunted and seek shelter. I shall do whatever you ask of me, if only you will spare me the death that will soon claim me on your very doorstep."
"Hmph!" said Baba Yaga, stirring her mushrooms. "Your words are empty, wizard, for I have heard the likes of them before. You have cut me not one of the roses I requested, and leave your debt to me unpaid. Now you bring your own doom to my gate. Well, so be it! I will not suck your marrow this night, for I know others shall do so in my stead."
"But, old grandmother, I am very afraid of death," pleaded Karkarov. "I will be tortured, not eaten, for wizards do not feed upon their own kind."
"Then I shall do you the favor of making you more suitable to your fellows' tongues!" cried Baba Yaga. With a heave and a grunt she tipped her cauldron of boiling mushrooms onto Karkarov, and when the water had washed away, Karkarov had been transformed into a billy goat! Its coat was graying silver, just as Karkarov's hair had been, and its beard was curled in the exact same manner as his.
"Begone with you, Karkarov the Cowardly, and make of yourself a fine feast for your friends! Your foolishness has caused me mischief enough today!"
Then Baba Yaga plucked a shining skull from her fence and hurled it at the goat, which scampered away in a fright. Some tell that the pursuers of Karkarov dined on roasted goat that night, while others that Karkarov the man was simply found dead. But there are some also who say that deep in the forest, there lives a lone old goat with white wool and curly beard, who bleats and flees whenever dark-clad strangers approach.