(Author’s Note: This is Part One of a five-part story I’m currently writing for the Holiday Season. It takes much of its inspiration from the Coloured Fairy Books compiled by the Scots author Andrew Lang. Depending on the workload, I hope to post updates every couple of days. In the meantime, constructive criticism is sincerely appreciated. – MKM)
The Prince of Snows
Part One: Znakharka
The wind whistled through the village at first; gentle breeze playing with branches heavy with the dried-up foliage of the fall, a riot of red and gold and orange swaying and shaking and fluttering along.
But every man, woman, and child seemed to stand still as the chill began to make itself felt. Brrr… The cold began to seep through clothing and into skin, sharply striking at bones.
The babushkas regarded the falling leaves with a sense of dread. The coming of winter was never thought of as something to look forward to with glee. No: the winter was the demesne of the Gospodin Snega – the Prince of Snows. And he was not one who could be counted on to be merciful, let alone kind, to anyone caught in the blizzards that heralded his coming.
“Bring the children indoors,” the old women commanded the mothers of the community. Some of them raised their eyes to the sky, worried about how it was rapidly turning from pale blue to a threatening grey. “They’ll catch their death if they linger out of doors.”
“Are the crops all in?” the men of the village asked each other. Some few regarded the communal silos and sighed in relief. No matter how cold the winter got this year, they knew that they would not go hungry. Sheaves of wheat and buckwheat had been ground into flour late in the harvest and many sacks had been stored by each family. Pork from the annual slaughter and fish caught in the autumn were salted down and packed into barrels; sausages and hams hung from the kitchen eaves of each home. Still, there were some who had tarried and were now rushing to and fro ferrying fruit and grain from the fields and orchards surrounding the village.
“The Koroleva has been most generous with her favours this year,” the village elders murmured among themselves, praising the One who ruled over field and valley. “The harvest is good and we are healthy and strong. She has been most kind.”
But, even as they praised Her who summoned in the spring and blessed the harvests, they dreaded Him who would soon come sweeping over them, his cloak of snow and ice a pure white blanket of a cold so intense that woe upon any mortal who was caught by it unawares!
Young women were most likely to fall victim, seduced by the charms of an immortal prince more comely than any man of flesh and blood. So, too, were foolhardy young men who dared challenge the Prince with their boasts of stamina and endurance. Fathers made sure to put iron bars on their daughters’ windows and mothers cautioned their sons against going out when the wind blew strongest and the snow fell hard upon the earth and flew about in swirling flurries.
Old Yekaterina sat in front of her cottage with her eyes closed; she breathed deeply and sensed a wicked sharpness in the air. She shivered hard even if it was not that cold and it was still the tail end of autumn.
“What’s wrong, Babushka?” her granddaughter Yuliya asked her, her heart-shaped face deeply concerned.
“I do not like this weather,” Old Yekaterina declared as she opened her eyes. “The air feels like knives when I breathe; I can feel it in my blood. I sense it in my bones.”
“Maybe you are not well,” Yuliya said as she helped the old woman to her feet. “Perhaps a swig of kvass or medovukha will help.”
“No,” Old Yekaterina grunted, waving off something she considered foolishness on the part of her granddaughter. “The air feels strange; I do not like it.” Her eyes shifted left and right and she made the sign against the Evil One. “He is up to something,” she muttered gravely, daring not to say the name lest He made his presence known. “He is up to something.”
“You worry too much, Babushka,” Yuliya chided her, laughing merrily. “We have a roof over our heads. We have much to eat over the winter. Papa has put in a goodly stock of firewood to keep us warm no matter how hard the blizzards blow. We have nothing to worry about.”
But Old Yekaterina pursed her thin lips into a tight line and shook her head. “He is up to something,” she repeated. “We must not be caught off guard.” Under her breath she mumbled worriedly. “O Lady! Let no harm befall us! Keep us in your embrace!”
He whistled a sprightly tune that summoned the snows down into the Valley beneath the Mountain from whence he ruled.
As the North Wind began to blow and swirl around him, he smiled upon the Valley and those who dwelled within.
It was not a pleasant smile.
“My Gaspodin,” a sharp, rasping voice spoke from behind him. “My Lord Meroz: the troops are awake and await thy commands.”
“Good,” he replied, his voice a melodious tenor. He turned and saw the head of his Karzeleki down on one knee. “Arise and bring down a snowstorm upon those below. Freeze everything in your path – man or beast. Let the world know that now is my time, now is my season!”
“By thine command, my Gaspodin!” the Karzelek declared, thumping his fist upon his silvery breastplate.
The Gaspodin Meroz Zmniyev pushed back the antlered hood of his white deerskin cloak. Anyone could see that he was handsome: tall and lean, slender but strong. His skin pale as the snow that capped his Mountain home; hair and eyes dark as a night in deepest winter when not even the brightest stars appear in the sky. But there was a cruel, discontent twist to his lips; a perennial sneer that spoke of how he hated that his mastery was limited to but one Season out of four.
He strode into his palace, face grimly set. He took his discontent out on those mortals, those unworthy kulaks who lived in the Valley below, burying them under heavy, dense snowdrifts or ravaging avalanches down the slopes. Rivers and lakes froze at his touch, but he made certain that some patches of ice were thinner than others – and woe unto any mortal foolhardy enough to skate over those patches!
Ah, these mortals! Meroz smirked wickedly, noting the foolishness and ignorance of humanity. The girls were particularly gullible: fancying that a young man’s smile thrown casually at one or another spoke volumes. And what of those young men who insisted on showing off their strength and bravery by climbing mountains in the dead of winter or skating over long distances? Idiots, all of them.
“Prepare yourselves!” he shouted to his minions as he passed by a mirror, grinning at himself in anticipation of the mischief he meant to cause.
There was the sound of sleigh bells in the air the following morning and the people of the Village came rushing out to see who had come.
What had come was a wonder: a beautiful sleigh the colour of strawberries in summer came gliding into the village, pulled in by two massive but tame-looking white bears. The one driving it bore no whip with which to spur the bears on, but they seemed to obey her every move and command. For it was a young woman who drove the sleigh – and a very pretty one, too.
“Dobraye utro!” she called, her voice bright and merry. “I am on my way to Vesnoy Gorod, but need to rest a spell. I have travelled far and my journey has been long. Good people, is there any place where I can stay in your village?”
“Dobraye utro,” Old Yekaterina’s husband, the village elder Aleksei, greeted the newcomer in return. “We have a spare room in our cottage, lass. Our lodgings are simple and so is the fare on our tables, but you are welcome to share them.”
“Bal’shoye spaseeba,” the young woman thanked him sincerely. She lightly got off the sleigh and tenderly patted the heads of her bears. “Bystro and Yarostnii are good little fellows and shan’t harm your cattle or horses, nor will they cause any hurt to any of your people.” As if to illustrate their mistress’s point, the bears affectionately nuzzled at her and playfully licked her rosy cheeks. She laughed and the sound of her laughter seemed to warm the hearts of any and all who heard her.
Old Yekaterina came forward and took the newcomer’s mittened hands into her own to lead her to the cottage. “You are most welcome,” she said. “By what name do we call you, if you would be so kind as to oblige us?”
“Call me Magiya,” the newcomer replied, smiling warmly. She lowered her voice as they approached the cottage. “We have met long before, Yekaterina Ivanova Kurnonskaya. It is good to see you once more.”
Old Yekaterina looked at her sharply, her eyes and mouth opening wide in shock and recognition as she gazed at Magiya’s glittering green eyes, a vivid scarlet curl escaping from her hood and adorning her clear forehead.
“You!” the old woman gasped, but Magiya pressed a finger to her lips.
“Hush,” Magiya cautioned her, her face suddenly grave and betraying a wisdom far, far beyond her apparent youth. “Speak not of that time, my old friend. But you have called and I have come; be at your ease.”
“The snows have come and gone many times since I saw you last,” Old Yekaterina said, clasping Magiya’s hands warmly. “But your kindness to us in this Village and beyond have been much appreciated; we are grateful for everything.”
Magiya smiled at this. “We are neighbours,” she said with a shrug. “We must look out for each other.” She eyed the iron-grey sky grimly. “Especially now that it is His season.”
They entered the cottage where they found young Yulia patiently doing her embroidery by one of the windows. She rose and curtsied respectfully to the newcomer as they were introduced.
“You are on your way to the Koroleva’s city!” Yulia exclaimed when told of Magiya’s ultimate destination.
“Yes,” Magiya replied as she sat beside her on the bench by the window. “I have been summoned to the Tvestok, the Koroleva’s palace, to be one of her zhnakharka.”
“A wise woman!” Yulia stared at her in disbelief. “No! But you cannot be that much older than I am and I shan’t see my sixteenth year until the coming of spring!”
“Ah, but wisdom can come at any age,” Magiya assured her with a somewhat enigmatic smile. She doffed the brown fur cloak she wore to reveal a coronet of braids the same vivid red as a firebird’s glorious plumage. Her dress was a simple one of good, thick wool dyed a deep green that brought out the colour of her eyes and her feet were shod in sturdy deerskin boots.
As she hung up her cloak and put away her boots, the men of the village came in with her belongings: a large bag and a small wooden chest. She thanked them warmly and pressed several coins into their hands, even if they protested that there was no charge.
“Hang up your cloak and put away those boots,” Old Yekaterina exclaimed, quickly snatching up the brown cloak and hanging it upon one of the pegs by the door. “It is warm in here, after all.”
Magiya gamely removed her boots and put them in amongst those in the rack by the door. She went over to her chest, kneeling upon the wooden floor to open it. She pulled out several items and offered them to the family.
“It would not be fair if I did not offer kindness to the family that so kindly took me in,” she said.
There was a joint of smoked venison, beautifully marbled. A ceramic pipe fancifully painted over with tiny spring birds frolicking amongst new shoots was given to Aleksei and a beautiful shawl embroidered with spring roses for Old Yekaterina.
“And for the beauty of the house,” Magiya declared, pressing what first appeared like a folded wad of white cloth into Yulia’s hands, “something to adorn her pretty neck this season of snows.”
Her curiosity piqued, Yulia carefully unfolded the cloth and her eyes widened in wonder. For in her hands was a beautiful lace collar delicately threaded through with green and gold ribbons. At its centre was what appeared to be a crest in fine painted enamel and gold filigree: it bore the shape of a firebird in flight, its head crowned, and a branch in bloom and a stalk of ripened grain in each talon. The girl gasped at the beauty of such a treasure.
“This is the Koroleva’s crest!” she cried, awed by the gift. Nearly dropping it, she clasped Magiya’s hands. “This is fit for a princess, not a village maid such as I!”
“Wear it for the coming Winter Feast,” Magiya suggested, firmly pressing the collar back into the girl’s hands. She bowed to her deeply. “And with it, bear the blessing of the Koroleva herself.” Old Yekaterina stared when she saw a slightly worried look on Magiya’s face. “It will be protection enough when the time comes.”