Dolls. They were everywhere. Cotton dolls, linen dolls, china dolls. Everything was a doll. The cabinets had faces like childish Green Men. A steel baby with an open mouth five hands across glared at Theo. It settled onto its bottom, resumed its job as a cauldron. Theo held his sword out. A march of dolls paraded across the floor. They formed a circle of worship around bowing and chanting to the Baba Yaga.
“Ring around the Rosie,
Pocket full of Posies
"She wears a crown!”
The crone herself lounged in a bed of heads, all young girls. Their features twitched alive as Theo bowed low to her. Their eyes blinked, and the largest of them held a long wink. Theo realized silken thread laced over and through the lids.
The house settled one corner, and the other, and came to rest with a crash. Buttons opened the door with pistols drawn. He’d wrangled the stairs to the settled house. “Christ on the cross. Helmsman, do I shoot them?” He meant the dolls.
“I don’t think it’d do any good, do you?”
“I don’t know. There’s hundreds of them aren’t there?”
The little ones who’d marched and sang sat and rolled a marble back and forth, giggling.
“Is that cute?” Buttons said.
“No. I don’t suppose.”
Silvia poked her head over Buttons’s shoulder. “Holy Mary.”
Baba Yaga crooked a finger. Both Buttons and Silvia’s pupils dilated, and they walked into the house with servile grace. One of the seated dolls hopped up and shut the door behind them. The slam woke both from the spell.
“Welcome, children.” The Baba Yaga picked dandelion fluff out of her teeth. Buttons hoped it was dandelion fluff. Her eating doll minions was worse than actual children innards. “You’re fortunate. An elder house would’ve snipped you like so many weeds.”
“We are fortunate only to gaze on the Baba Yaga.” Theo bled from a dozen bites and snips.
“You are an inveterate liar, Theodore. Thank you. Your companions, do you need them? They smell nectarous.”
Theo hefted his cutlass. “Which do I kill first?”
Silvia gaped. Buttons grinned until he realized Theo was serious.
The Baba Yaga mused. “No. We need our companions. Don’t we my friend?”
The fireplace spat soot and echoed a whoosh. Seated dolls jumped to their feet and dusted, and swept, and sang, “She’s the bell of the ball, the queen of carriage city, the black haired grey eyed mystery.” The fireplace coughed again, cleared its throat, and out flew a flaming bird.
Half the size of the snake-pigeons by wingspan, a sparrow’s size when they’d expected an eagle, the phoenix did not disappoint. From Silvia’s research she’d believed the feathers burnt. The plumage was flame. No noticeable bones or corporal flame. Just flickering flares. It flew twice around their heads and rested on the Baba Yaga’s bed of heads. She fed the phoenix dandelion fluff.
It wasn’t dandelion fluff, Buttons decided.
“She’s pretty, isn’t she?”
The phoenix glared at the three. Buttons nodded. Silvia tipped her chin. “Yes,” Theo said. The phoenix sparked with pride.
“I don’t suppose you'd care to dine?” the Baba Yaga said.
“We are not worthy,” Theo said.
“Nonsense. You have met my first two challenges. Would you not prefer to rest before the third?”
“We hungered only for the prospect of pleasing you.”
Silvia wondered if Theo spoke to the women he bedded with the same eloquence. She wasn’t sure she could’ve matched his diplomacy. The rough pirate of the seven seas with the silver tongue.
“Well. Steel yourself, corsairs and slave siren. Spare the Baba Yaga no detail.”
Silvia guessed this was the final challenge. She bristled at the insult but cleared her mind.
“Are you prepared?”
“Helmsman Theodore, what is your quest?”
“To slay the sea serpent of the Mediterranean in vengeance for slain crewmates.”
The Baba Yaga grinned she slapped her leg and even the phoenix jumped at the thunderous boom. “Fail!” she shrieked. “Harpy, what do you ask of the Baba Yaga?”
“A feather, from your companion the phoenix, to heal the serpent’s heart.”
“Fail!” She slapped her leg again. “And Buttons, midshipman, what do you take from this endeavor?”
“I’m here with him.” Buttons pointed at Theo. “I suppose if you fail him, I’m in the same boat. Do we fight the dolls now?”
The Baba Yaga cackled. Locks on doors and shutters clicked and clacked. “You are not worthy. You should have shared a meal. Gathered your thoughts. Don’t worry. You’ll have plenty to eat.” She stood and stretched. Her joints snapped and cracked. “I will see you in a year.” She put a finger to her lips and shushed them. The trio of companions closed their eyes and fell asleep standing. The Baba Yaga walked in and around them. She tweaked their clothing and as she did the mud and slime fell away. She kissed each on their mouths. The Baba Yaga flicked their teeth with her bird’s tongue. The Baba Yaga climbed out the chimney, closing the chute behind her.
When they awoke, Buttons asked, “What did she say we’d eat?”
The tiny, singing and dancing dolls opened their chests to show beating hearts.
“Yeah. I thought so.”