There once was a witch who lived in the Dendarii Mountains, and she had a son. This son of hers had been born with legs that curled into themselves, useless, but instead of cutting his throat as she ought to have done, the witch raised him as tenderly as if he had been a healthy child. She fed him on cream and maple sugar, and berries in the summer, and when he was of an age when other children run, and climb, and begin to work, she carried him everywhere on her back. His legs remained curled and useless, but his arms grew strong, and his mind grew sharp, and his heart grew dark and wild.
The people in the valleys around would have nothing to do with the witch and her mutant son, and she would have nothing to do with them, and so she lived with her son in a hut on a hilltop, and supported herself by such witcheries as she knew.
One day, when her son was grown, he said to her, "Mother, it isn't right that you should work so hard to provide a living for the two of us with your witcheries. I am a grown man, and I should be supporting you."
"What will you, my son?" said the witch. "We have no good land for you to farm, nor can you go for a soldier."
"Well, if I cannot farm, and I cannot fight, and I don't know a trade, then I will be a bandit, and take what we need from the merchants who go down to Vorkosigan Vashnoi," he said. "But I will need a pair of good pistols, and a horse."
"A horse?" said the witch. "But how can you ride?"
"There has never been a witch on Barrayar to match you, from the day our forefathers landed until today," said the mutant. "You can call lightning from the air and devils from the earth, and you can read a man's future in the eddies of a stream. Can't you fashion a horse that I need no legs to ride?"
So the witch took clay, and chicken bones, and razor grass, and fashioned a mutant horse for her mutant son. Its legs were chicken legs, and its back was curved and hollow like a boat, and its mane was a tiller like a boat has, for the mutant couldn't guide the horse with his legs. Its teeth were fangs, and it had no eyes at all. And there were many merchants who came down from the mountains with loads of lumber or maple mead, or up to the mountains with salt and fine steel tools, who didn't wait to be threatened with pistols, but fled and left their goods behind at the sight of the wild man on his monster horse.
One day, as the mutant sat in the hollow of his horse's back, waiting for a rich merchant to happen by, he saw a young woman coming down the road. She was travelling alone, and she drove no cart piled with goods, no pack horses, nor even a bundle on her back. Beneath her woolen cloak her hair was as dark as the sky on a cloudy night, and her eyes were as dark as deep hidden springs in the forest, and her skin was as white as salt. She was the most beautiful woman the mutant had ever seen, and he guided his horse onto the road and blocked her path.
"Who are you," he said, "and where are you going?"
"My name is Maria," said the young woman. "I am going to Vorkosigan Vashnoi." Her dark eyes met the mutant's boldly when she spoke, and her voice didn't waver; and the mutant, who had seen stout men run from him without once daring to look at his face, admired her more than ever.
"But where is your cart of lumber, your barrels of maple mead?" he said. "Or do you go to Vorkosigan Vashnoi to sell yourself?"
"Certainly not," said Maria. "I wear my goods on my back." She unfastened her cloak, and beneath it she wore a dress of fine blue wool, layered with flounces and frills, fit for a Count's daughter. But more gorgeous than the dress was the figure it clothed. "My sister Vassilisa is a wonderful needlewoman," Maria went on. "When the Vor ladies in the city see her work, they will all want to hire her. And when she has put by enough money for my dowry, I shall have a fine husband."
"Vorkosigan Vashnoi is far," said the mutant, "and waiting for money to be put by for a dowry is tedious. But you may have a fine husband now, if you like. My mother's house is built of stout timber and stone, and hung with carpets and tapestries against the cold. Our cellars are full of maple mead and wine, and everything good to eat. We have chests of gold and chests of silver, and I think there are a few heaps of precious stones lying around. What need do you have for a dowry? Marry me, and you'll be the richest woman in the mountains."
Maria tossed her head. "And shall I live off the plunder of honest merchants? And shall I be the obedient daughter-in-law of a witch? And shall I go to the bed of a man who cannot sit astride a natural horse? Let me pass, man, for I will go to Vorkosigan Vashnoi."
"Nobody passes here without paying me," snarled the mutant. "Do you wear your goods on your back? I will have the hide off your back, and the hair off your head, if you will not have me."
"I'll lose my hair and I'll lose my hide," said Maria, lifting her chin proudly, "but I will never be a mutant's bride."
The mutant drew a hunting knife from his belt, and leaned low over the rim of his horse's back, and seized Maria's hair, which was as dark as the sky on a cloudy night. The knife slashed once across her scalp, and she tumbled into the road, bald as a plucked fowl.
"Run back home to your sister," the mutant said, "for the Vor ladies in Vorkosigan Vashnoi will never admire her work now." And he brought Maria's hair to his mother, who hung it on the wall alongside her tapestries and carpets.
Some days later, as the mutant sat once more in the hollow of his horse's back, waiting for a rich merchant to happen by, he saw a young woman coming down the road. She, too, travelled alone, with no cart or packhorse or bundle. Her hair was as dark as a shadow at twilight, and her eyes were as dark as the moss on the forest floor, and her skin was as white as milk. She was nearly as beautiful as Maria had been, and the mutant guided his horse onto the road and blocked her path.
"Are you Vassilisa," he said, "who is such a wonderful needlewoman?"
"No, sir; my name is Elizaveta." Her dark eyes grew wide when she saw the monster horse and its fearsome rider, and her belly trembled, but she kept her voice even. The mutant, seeing this, thought that although she was not as bold as Maria, in truth Elizaveta might be braver. "Have you heard of my sister? But I'm not surprised, for she truly is a wonderful needlewoman. She made this dress I wear," Elizaveta went on, unfastening her cloak. Beneath it she wore a dress of fine scarlet wool that fell around her slim figure in cunning tucks and folds. A princess might have worn it and not been ashamed, but it would not have become her as it became Elizaveta's simple prettiness. "And when the Vor ladies in Vorkosigan Vashnoi see her work, they will all want to hire her."
"And, I suppose," said the mutant, "when she puts by enough money for your dowry, you shall have a fine husband?"
"Oh! I don't know about that," said Elizaveta. "A husband who wants his wife to bring him chests of gold may be altogether too fine for me."
"As it happens," said the mutant, "I would not look for my wife to bring me chests of gold, having more of them than I know what to do with already. But for all my wealth, I don't think I'm too fine for a Dendarii mountain girl; I'm a mountain boy myself. Why weary yourself with the walk to Vorkosigan Vashnoi, or expose yourself to the scornful looks of the fine city folk? Marry me, and you shall live in comfort and ease, nor ever lack anything that I can give you."
"Sir, I thank you," said Elizaveta. "But my sister has sent me to Vorkosigan Vashnoi, and how can I disobey her? And what comfort could I take in stolen goods? And what gifts could I want, from a husband who could not give me clean sons and daughters? Therefore, please let me pass, for I must go to Vorkosigan Vashnoi."
"Nobody passes here without paying me," snarled the mutant. "I will have the life in your veins, and the hide on your back, if you will not have me."
"I'll lose my hide and I'll lose my life," said Elizaveta, "but I will never be a mutant's wife."
The mutant drew his hunting knife from his belt, and leaned low over the rim of his horse's back. He seized Elizaveta, and he skinned her, head to foot, as you might skin a cow. So skillful was he with his knife that not a drop of blood fell, but Elizaveta's skin came away clean in his hand, and she herself tumbled into the road, trembling, her tears stinging the raw flesh of her cheeks.
"Run home to your sister, if you can," said the mutant, "for you can be of no use to her now." And he brought Elizaveta's hide to his mother, who hung it on the wall alongside Maria's hair.
Poor Elizaveta! The gentlest breeze was a knife to her now, and if a leaf brushed against her arm, it was a flame, and the ground beneath her feet was an iron brand, red-hot. She ran so swiftly that she overtook Maria, though she had set out some days afterwards, and they both arrived at home at the same moment.
Now, Vassilisa, that wonderful needlewoman, had drawn the water and gathered the firewood, weeded the vegetable patch and fed the chickens, swept the hearth and built the fire, heated the griddle and made the oatcakes, and was just sitting down to do some mending with the last of the light as her sisters came up the path to their house. She was alone, for the sisters' father had died before Maria was born, and their mother had died soon after, telling Vassilisa that she must be both mother and father to her little sisters now, for they had no one else in the world. And so Vassilisa had been. And every year Elizaveta and Maria had grown more beautiful, but Vassilsa had grown old with work and worry, until her hair hung dry and coarse as henbloat, and her eyes were dim and squinting, and her skin was as tough and wrinkled as the last turnip left in the root cellar at the end of the winter.
When Vassilisa heard her sisters coming up the path, she smiled, and said to herself, "Back so soon! They must have met with good fortune." But when she saw Maria, smooth as an egg, and Elizaveta, dancing from foot to foot, heel to toe and back again, she knew they had met with fortune indeed, but it had not been good. Vassilisa embraced Maria, and wept for Elizaveta, who could not bear to be touched, and said, "My sisters, what has become of you?" And they told her about the mutant they had met on the road, who had asked to marry them, and taken Maria's hair and Elizaveta's hide when they would not.
"Well!" said Vassislisa. "For years this mutant has plagued the merchants who go down to Vorkosigan Vashnoi, with no fear of anyone, and now it has come to this. I see that something must be done. Be brave, my sisters, and wait here for me, and I will be back." And saying this, she put on her cloak, and started off down the road to Vorkosigan Vashnoi.
She walked for a night, and a day, and another night, and early on the second day a man seated on a horse came into the road and blocked her path.
Well! I say a horse, but it was no true horse, with chicken legs and fangs for teeth and no eyes at all. And I say a man, but he was no true man, with arms like tree trunks, and legs curled and useless and small as a baby's legs, and hairy all over.
"My word," said the mutant, when he saw Vassilisa, "you are ugly!"
"You are not so pleasant to look on yourself," answered Vassilisa.
"You must be Vassilisa, the wonderful needlewoman," said the mutant, for he had seen the work dress she wore beneath her cloak, and neither the plainness of its cut nor the undyed homespun from which it was made could hide the fact that it was the work of a master.
"I am," said Vassilisa. "And you must be the mutant who is the plague of all the merchants in the mountains, and who mutilates blameless girls going about their own business."
"Well!" said the mutant. "Now we know each other. And I tell you, Vassilisa, I'm glad your sisters refused me, for I believe you would suit me better than either of them. We are neither of us much to look at, but what of that? We have skill in our hands and flinty tongues in our mouths, which may draw sparks warm enough to get us through many cold nights. Will you marry me? For, to speak plainly, I don't believe any other man would have you."
"By all means let us speak plainly," said Vassilisa. "I find your way of courting as repellent as I find your person. Belike no other man will have me, but I will have none of you."
"Will you not?" snarled the mutant. "Your hide will not make as fine an ornament for my mother's wall as your sister Elizaveta's, or your sister Maria's hair, but it will hang alongside them nonetheless."
Vassilisa laughed. "Thank you for the information!" she said. "I was afraid I'd have a tedious search for my sisters' property once we were finished here. For I tell you, mutant, you will not skin me as easily as you skinned them."
The mutant drew his hunting knife from his belt, and leaned low over the rim of his horse's back. He seized Vassilisa, but so tough was her skin that the knife couldn't mark it. His blow was fierce, and fiercely it bounced back, and Vassilisa seized his wrist and drove the knife into his own throat. Blood gouted, and the mutant fell forward, and his monster horse lunged at Vassilisa with talons and fangs. But it had no eyes, and no hand to guide it. Vassilisa stepped aside, and the horse thundered off the road, feet-over-head into the gorge below.
"Well! That's that," said Vassilisa. And she began to climb the narrow track through the forest that led to the witch's house.
Now, when the witch had first removed herself from the society of men, and begun to dwell alone with her mutant son on a hilltop, her house had been nothing but a rough hut, which let the snow in in the winter and the rains in in the spring. But—as the mutant had told Maria truly—over the years the pair had become rich with plunder, and had improved their house accordingly, until it was built of stout timber and stone, and hung with carpets and tapestries against the cold. No natural creatures lived in that house, but as Vassilisa approached the gate, a pair of cats stepped into her path. These were cats the witch had fashioned; their coats were hedges of thorns and their claws were tongues of flame, and they had no eyes at all.
"Why do you come to the house, stranger, when the master is away?" they said. "If you are an enemy, we will tear you to shreds."
"I come not as an enemy, but as a friend," said Vassilisa. "For I have done a service for your mistress, one which she ought to have done herself, years past." And the cats knew she spoke the truth, and let her by.
Vassilisa passed through the gate, and walked up the path to the house, but before she could knock on the door, a pair of dogs blocked her way. These were dogs that the witch had fashioned; their legs were spider's legs, and their fangs dripped with spider's venom, and they had no eyes at all.
"Why do you come to the house, stranger, when the master is away?" they said. "If you are an enemy, we will bite you to pieces."
"I come not as an enemy, but as a friend," said Vassilisa. "For I have done a service for your mistress, one which she ought to have done herself, years past." And the dogs knew she spoke the truth, and let her by.
Vassilisa rapped on the stout timber door, and the witch answered it. "Why do you come to my house, stranger, when my son is away?" she said. "You should know that I am a witch. I can call lightning from the air and devils from the earth, and so I will, if you come as an enemy."
"I come not as an enemy, but as a friend," said Vassilisa. "I have done you a service, though you don't know it."
"If that's so, then you have my thanks," said the witch. "But what is it?"
"I am afraid to speak," said Vassilisa. "You've threatened me with lightning and devils, and you may do me harm, though I've done you none."
"You have my word," said the witch, "and the earth and the air have heard it, that I will do you no harm if it is as you've said. Now speak."
"I've cut your son's throat for you," said Vassilisa, "and if ever a throat needed cutting, it was his."
"My curse on you!" said the witch. "Better you had cut out my heart, for he was better to me than ten clean sons." And she would have struck Vassilisa down with her evil eye at once, but the earth and the air, who had heard her word, would not allow it. The lightning burned her where she stood, and the devils rose up from the earth and carried away what was left, and nothing more has been seen of the witch from that day to this.
Then Vassilisa got Maria's hair and Elizaveta's hide down from the wall where they hung, and she went to the strongroom and took four chests of gold as well—which was all she could carry away—and she went back home to her sisters. And Vassilisa was such a wonderful needlewoman that when she sewed the hair and the hide back onto her sisters, you could never find the seam. Not only that, but they were twice as beautiful as before.
Afterwards, the three sisters went down to Vorkosigan Vashnoi together. And when the Vor ladies saw Vassilisa's work, they were all mad to hire her; but she took only such commissions as she chose, for Elizaveta and Maria already had two chests of gold each, for their dowries. Maria got a fine husband, and Elizaveta one who was not altogether too fine, and they each had many sons and daughters. And each time a child was born, they stood ready to cut its throat, if it should not be clean; but there was never any need.