The Witch of Duva (The Grisha #0.5)

Chapter 6

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Her father had pulled the gingergirl into his lap and was stroking her white hair.

“Nadya,” he said again and again. “Nadya.” He nuzzled the brown flesh of her shoulder, pressed his lips to her skin.

Outside, Nadya’s small heart beat against her hollow bones.

“Forgive me,” Maxim murmured, the tears on his cheeks dissolving the soft curve of icing at her neck.

Nadya shivered. Her wings stuttered a futile, desperate tattoo on the glass. But her father’s hand slipped beneath the hem of her skirts, and the gingergirl did not move.

It isn’t me, Nadya told herself. Not really. It isn’t me.

She thought of her father’s restlessness, of his lost horses, his treasured sledge. Before that … before that, girls had gone missing from other towns, one here, one there. Stories, rumors, faraway crimes. But then the famine had come, the long winter, and Maxim had been trapped.

“I’ve tried to stop,” he said as he pulled his daughter close. “Believe me,” he begged. “Say you believe me.”

The gingergirl stayed silent.

Maxim opened his wet mouth to kiss her again and the sound he made was something between a groan and a sigh as his teeth sank into the sweetness of her shoulder.

The sigh turned to a sob as he bit down.

Nadya watched her father consume the gingergirl, bite by bite, limb by limb. He wept as he ate, but he did not stop, and by the time he was finished, the fire was cold in the grate. When he was done, he lay stretched out on the floor, his belly distended, his fingers sticky, his beard crusted with crumbs. Only then did the crow turn away.

They found Nadya’s father there the next morning, his insides ruptured and stinking of rot. He had spent the night on his knees, vomiting blood and sugar. Karina had not been home to help him. When they took up the bloodstained floorboards, they found a stash of objects, among them, a child’s prayer book, a bracelet of glass beads, the rest of the vivid red ribbons Genetchka had worn in her hair the night of the dance, and Lara Deniken’s white apron, embroidered with her clumsy stitches, the strings stained with blood. From the mantel, the little wooden dolls looked on.

Nadya flew back to the witch’s hut, returned to her body by Magda’s soft words and Vladchek licking her limp hand. She spent long days in silence, working beside Magda, only picking at her food.

It was not her father she thought of, but Karina. Karina who had found ways to visit when Nadya’s mother took ill, who had filled the rooms when Havel left, keeping Nadya close. Karina who had driven Nadya into the woods, so that there would be nothing left for her father to use but a ghost. Karina who had given herself to a monster, in the hope of saving just one girl.

Nadya scrubbed and cooked and cleared the garden, and thought of Karina alone with Maxim over the long winter, fearing his absence, longing for it, searching the house for some way to prove her suspicions, her fingers scrabbling over floors and cabinets, feeling for the secret seams hidden by the carpenter’s clever hands.

In Duva, there was talk of burning Maxim Grushov’s body, but in the end they buried him without Saints’ prayers, in rocky soil where to this day nothing grows. The lost girls’ bodies were never found, though occasionally a hunter will come across a stash of bones in the wood, a shell comb, or a shoe.

Karina moved away to another little town. Who knows what became of her? Few good things happen to a woman alone. Nadya’s brother Havel served in the northern campaign and came home quite the hero. As for Nadya, she lived with Magda and learned all the old woman’s tricks, magic best not spoken of on a night like this. There are some who say that when the moon is waxing, she dares things not even Magda would try.

Now you know what monsters once lurked in the woods near Duva, and if you ever meet a bear with a golden collar, you will be able to greet him by name. So shut the window tight and make sure the latch is fastened. Dark things have a way of slipping in through narrow spaces. Shall we have something good to eat?

Well then, come help me stir the pot.

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