When Yolanda, Nila, and Denise from the WEP website came up with this nifty challenge, I thought: cool! So many possibilities. Unfortunately, the story wouldn’t gel for quite a while. Until the last moment, in fact. My approach could be best defined by the following quote by Bill Watterson:
“You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood.”
“What mood is that?”
The story takes place in Russia, in the 1930s, in the midst of Stalin’s terror.
Tasya knelt in front of her grandmother’s armchair. “Grandma, you have to help me save Misha. NKVD has been arresting people, innocent people. They have arrested several of Misha’s friends. The accusation is always the same – the enemy of the people – but it’s false. They’ll arrest him too, I know.” She gazed in entreaty at the cantankerous old woman.
Her grandma stared back. “My magic is gone,” she croaked. “Saving him is up to you.”
“I’m a communist. I don’t believe in magic.” Tasya gripped the scuffed armrests tighter.
“You came to me for help.” The thin, angular shoulders, clad in faded chintz, rose and fell.
“I’m desperate. I can’t bear if he is arrested. Tortured.” Her voice broke, but she collected herself. “It’ll kill me, grandma. We have only been married for two years. I’m pregnant. Please.”
“I can’t, Tasya. I can teach you, but you’ll have to work magic yourself.”
Tasya shivered. She was a communist. She had renounced her magic long ago even though she had never told anyone about the long line of witches in her family. Even Misha didn’t know. Should she abandon her convictions now?
If she didn’t, NKVD would come for her beloved husband, take him away, and beat him until he confessed any heinous crimes they wanted. And then they would shoot him. She knew it. Her premonitions had always been true. Her stomach clenched in misery. She didn’t have a choice; she had to accept her magic.
“Fine. Teach me,” she growled.
“There is a price,” the old woman warned.
“I know.” Magic always extracted a price. Whatever it was, Tasya was willing to pay it. “What do I do?”
“I gave you an escritoire for your wedding. Look in the top left drawer, in the back.”
“All the drawers were empty,” Tasya said impatiently. “I put my stuff there.”
“No. Look with your magic. There is a secret compartment with several medallions in it. Take one and make your husband wear it.”
“It will protect him?” Tasya sprang to her feet, ready to rush home.
“No. It’s a receptacle. You have to imbue it with protective magic yourself.”
“Wish it. Magic is as much a matter of intent as power. Put your heart in your wish, believe in your magic, and it will keep him safe.”
Tasya kissed the wrinkled cheek and raced the three blocks home.
Misha had already returned from work. “Hey, Tasenka,” he called from the kitchen. “Where were you?”
“Hey, yourself. Visiting grandma. I’ll be right there.” Breathless from her mad dash through the streets, she darted to the bedroom and yanked open the top left drawer of the escritoire. It was filled with her sawing supplies. She pulled it out all the way and willed that hidden corner of her mind to unlock.
Nothing! Cursing mutely, she closed her eyes and groped sightlessly, and her fingers stumbled on the unfamiliar shapes. Yes! She felt an inaudible pop, as her magic broke its self-imposed bonds. When she opened her eyes, she saw a wide and narrow compartment in the back, shimmering faintly. Several medallions rested there, each in its own slot. She picked up one – a shield on a thin chain; it seemed fitting – and hurried to the kitchen.
“I have something for you.” She offered the pendant to her husband. “I want you to put it on and wear it under your clothing.”
He lifted his shaggy eyebrows at the small heap of pewter in her palm.
“Please, Misha. It’s a gift.”
He shrugged, his lips twitching, but he put it on and tucked it under his shirt. “Thank you. What is the occasion? Should I have something for you too?”
“You already have.” She grinned in relief. “I’m pregnant.”
“Oh, Tasenka!” He lit up like an electric bulb, lifted her off her feet, and twirled her around their tiny kitchen. “Love you!”
Tasya hugged him back. Their celebratory mood lasted until nightfall, when Tasya glanced down from their third floor window and saw a dreaded black Marusia, the distinctive NKVD car, gleam evilly under streetlights. It stopped in front of their apartment building. Three men in uniform peeled out and marched into the door.
Already? Icy terror gripped her insides. She hadn’t done anything with her magic yet. She grabbed Misha’s shirt with both hands and concentrated, envisioning the pewter shield on his chest. She poured all the magic she possessed at the medallion. Protect him, she wished with all her being. Keep him safe!
“Tasya?” His blue eyes radiated concern.
Someone pounded, and her head throbbed, echoing the menace on the other side of the door.
He went to answer, and Tasya trailed after him, still wishing: Protect! Protect!
The three men across the threshold eyed them with cold disdain. The leader thrust an arrest warrant at them and recited Misha’s full name and address.
Misha’s wide shoulders tensed beneath Tasya’s hands. From behind him, she glimpsed the warrant sheet and tossed an angry handful of magic at it. A mistake, she thought grimly. There is no Misha’s name there.
Under her eyes, the crisp letters of the name and address morphed into inky smears.
“It’s a mistake,” she whispered.
“Huh?” the man in charge looked uncomprehendingly at his illegible arrest warrant.
Go away! She flung her magic at him like a grenade. You don’t want my husband.
“A mistake,” he repeated, scrunched his forehead, and turned slowly toward the stairs. His subordinates followed him down, their boots clattering on the steps.
Tasya leaned on the wall, too exhausted to move, her head ready to explode.
Misha closed the door quietly and turned to face her. Deadly pale but calm, he touched her cheek with questing fingers. “What happened? I thought… I was sure…”
Tasya nodded weakly. “My head hurts. I need to lie down.” But she knew her blinding headache wasn’t the only price of her magic. The real price was the other medallions, each one connected to a person. She needed to find them all and help them all. She needed to have a serious talk with her grandma. But first, she needed her head to stop hurting. At least Misha was safe. She smiled and fainted.