(Author’s Note: This is Part Three 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. In the meantime, constructive criticism is sincerely appreciated. – MKM)
The Prince of Snows
Part Three: Proklyatiye
“Which way did she go?” Magiya demanded as she threw on her fur cloak.
“Towards the north,” Yulia replied tremulously as she was helped to the nearest chair. “She means to go to the Goral’da.”
“That child won’t survive long even if she makes it to the foothills!” Aleksei growled, a spark seeming to kindle in his eyes. “If the wolves and foxes don’t get her, His Karzeleki will – and those little izvergi are merciless and bloodthirsty.”
“Karzeleki?” Yulia asked, her voice faltering all the more.
“The soldiers of the Gospodin Snega,” Magiya replied as she kicked open her wooden chest and rummaged through it. “Goblin warriors; makers of frosts and icicles. They are fierce, savage fighters and they eat their fallen enemies. They believe that it makes them stronger as they take on the spirit of whom they have eaten.”
Yulia’s eyes widened and her face grew bilious. But she gulped and drew a deep breath before speaking. “What are we going to do?” she asked.
“Well, we need to get your friend before – bojemoi! – He gets to her first,” Magiya said as she closed the chest with a loud snap that made Yulia jump.
As the flame-haired znakharka bustled around the front room, young Yulia wondered why her grandparents seemed to obey her every command. Magiya did not seem that much older than Yulia herself, but the way she held herself and the manner by which she dealt with people… It was most unusual; to say the very least.
It was when Magiya turned to regard the girl with those emerald green eyes of hers that Yulia came to the conclusion that their houseguest was not what she appeared to be.
No: Magiya was not a wise woman making her way to the court of the Koroleva in Vesnoy Gorod. Nor was Magiya a simple lass from a neighbouring village who just had more sense than most village girls. No…
“Great Lady!” Yulia cried, throwing herself at the flame-haired woman’s feet. “Great Lady, only you can save Olga from Him!” She began to weep in fearful earnest. “You must save her! Please, Great Lady!”
Magiya – no, Vesna Molodoya, the Koroleva herself – gently helped the sobbing girl to her feet.
“Arise, Yulia Kurnonskaya,” she bade Yulia. “We are going to save your friend. It is not my Season; my powers are not as strong as they usually are.”
Meanwhile, Aleksei had gone outside to roust the men of the Village. Yekaterina, on the other hand, rummaged through the cupboards for things that could be helpful in the search: good strong rope, climbing picks, knives.
“Do you have any of that warming ointment I taught you to make, Yekaterina?” Magiya – no, Vesna – asked the older woman.
“I keep jars of it in storage, my Queen,” Yekaterina replied, handing a small white jar of the said ointment to her.
“Babushka?!” Yulia asked, bewildered by the revelations unfolding before her.
“I was the Great Lady’s chief lady-in-waiting for a good many years,” Yekaterina replied with a smile.
“Captain of the guards when we met; Brigadir of the Great Lady’s armies at the time we chose to return to the Village.” She added that many of the older men and women of their village had served in the Koroleva’s court in different capacities. “Your own father was ‘prenticed to the court apothecary,” she went on. “And your mother was a librarian.”
Things fell into place in Yulia’s head. Her Village never seemed to suffer the same difficulties as neighbouring communities. She had heard some of the older folk say that the schooling the children of the Village got was as good as any school in Vesnoy Gorod. Whenever she helped her father take herbs or cure-alls to other villages, she would hear the whispering of those not of their people: they have been favoured by the Koroleva herself.
“Will you take the sleigh, my Queen?” Yekaterina asked the Koroleva who was presently tightening her plaits around her head.
She shook her head and shouldered what appeared to be a long staff made of intricately carved wood; she held a long object wrapped in what appeared to be pure silk in her other hand. “No,” she replied. “I would saddle up one of the bears and ride in. But Yulia and some of the young folk can take the sleigh.”
“Me?” Yulia cried out, trembling in every nerve. “But… But, Great Lady…!”
“You are granddaughter to my favourite lady-in-waiting and my most noble Brigadir,” Vesna quietly reminded her. “If you but find it in yourself to be brave, no harm will befall you.” The Koroleva smiled slightly. “Your dedushka tells me you yearn to be a shieldmaiden in my command. Well, girl: now is your chance.”
Almost negligently, the Koroleva unwrapped the thing she held and tossed it at Yulia who caught it deftly. Her eyes widened when she saw it was a scimitar, its blade highly polished and deathly sharp; its handle wrapped in fine leather and studded with bright green stones. She looked up towards the Koroleva in a questioning manner.
“Wear the collar I gave you,” she declared, again shouldering her staff as she made for the door. “And be prepared to ride.”
Meanwhile, in the northern outskirts of the village, young Olga Alikhanova began her trek into the Gospodin Snega’s territory.
She was not one given to flights of fancy; not one given to believing every skazka sung and recited by the bards or the babushkas. No, Olga Alikhanova was the sort of person who would only believe in things she could see with her own two eyes and feel with her own two hands. Anything else was but a figment of a fevered imagination, nothing more but an illusion meant to scare children who knew no better.
But I know better, she thought as she paced her way over the snow in her stout boots and her walking stick. Her face was well-protected from the buffeting of the winter winds by thick woollen scarves and a hood of beaver-skin. Only fools believe that someone controls the snows!
“Privetstiviye!” she heard someone shout. She turned as well as she could against the howling wind and saw someone drawing near. “Oy, privetstiviye!”
“Privetstiviye!” she shouted back, her voice sounding thin and strained against the howling and moaning of the winds.
“Where are you going?” the newcomer demanded.
“I am off to climb the Goral’da,” Olga replied.
“What?” The newcomer’s voice sounded amused as he drew closer. “What? In this blizzard? In these winds?!”
“Yes!” Olga shouted, turning to resume her trek. “I want to show my friends that there is no Gospodin Snega. The weather comes and goes on its own.”
The newcomer came in close enough for Olga to see that he was a young man, perhaps a year or two older than she. A rather comely one to look at, too, with skin as pale as the snow around them, features that would not be out of place on a statue in a fine gallery in Vesnoy Gorod, eyes dark as the night sky, and lips that were quirked into a small smile filled with mischief. His voice was smooth, though not as deep as those of the youths in the Village, and had a rather musical quality to it.
Something in the back of Olga’s head seemed to scream warnings at her; that this charming man was no good, no good at all! But her heart seemed to skip a beat as he smiled at her and a chill ran up and down her spine as he rested a hand on her shoulder.
“You know,” he said, lowering his lips to her ear; Olga shivered as those lips lightly grazed the curve of her ear, as she felt his breath on her skin. “You are a brave, brave girl to even try to disprove the Prince’s existence.”
“Real…really?” Olga gasped, eyes widening.
“Oh, yes…” The young man lightly traced the length of her jaw-line with a finger, his touch feather-light and lingering…but strangely cold. “Brave; very brave, indeed.”
Olga’s eyes widened, absolutely un-used to such attention from the lads in her home Village. They usually snubbed the obstinate, quarrelsome girl for others like Yulia Kurnonskaya who was the brightest lass in the Village or Ninotchka Nureyevna who was the prettiest, or even plain little Valeria Morevna who made up for her lack of looks with great wit and sensibility. That such a handsome stranger would find her and her journey interesting…! Ah, Olga thought with great delight, what a pleasure in such an unlikely place!
“You will need help in reaching the Goral’da,” the young man now said, breaking into delightful reverie. “Let me walk with you; ‘tis not so far from where I live.”
“Oh…oh!” Olga exclaimed, more than flattered. “Yes; yes, please!” Then, she remembered her manners even as they began to make their way up what appeared to be a gentle slope. “I am…”
“Olga Alikhanova,” the young man replied smoothly. The voice at the back of Olga’s mind screamed at her to run, to turn back. But – oh, foolish, foolish lass! – she ignored that strange, niggling feeling; so delighted was she at being the centre of attention for once.
“By what name do I call you?” she asked her new-found companion.
The young man smiled slowly as he replied. “You may call me Meroz,” he said.
“We came as soon as the Brigadir summoned us!” declared one whom Yulia had always known was the Village schoolteacher. He fell to one knee before the Koroleva. “Again: we are yours to command, my Queen!”
“Grigori,” the Korolevna said, inclining her head in his direction. “Get up; we’ve no time for that. Have the armouries been opened?”
“Sergei and Mikhail are distributing weapons as we speak, my Queen,” Grigori Oserov said as he strode alongside them. He eyed Yulia and saw the scimitar in her hand; he nodded approvingly at this. “I see that the Brigadir’s granddaughter means to earn her stripes in your service, my Queen.”
“She had the sense to consider her friend’s disbelief in Him a threat,” the Koroleva replied as Yulia led the way to the barn where the sleigh-bears were being housed. “She knew that it was no child’s peevishness.”
Inside, Bystro and Yarostnii were curled up around each other and sleeping. Yulia hesitated, wondering if the old wives’ tales about waking sleeping bears were all true.
But the Koroleva bore no such hesitation. Gently, she shook her pets awake. “Come,” she said, her voice soft but commanding. “Some poor child has run off in search of Meroz Zminiyev; we must get to her before he does!”
Yulia’s jaw dropped open when one of the bears sleepily spoke in a human voice: “Silly child; does she even know what she seeks?”
“Probably not, my good Yarostnii,” the Koroleva replied with a small smile. “But, get up: she needs to be found.”
The bear yawned ponderously and stretched. Meanwhile, the Koroleva and Grigori Oserov were pulling out what appeared to be saddles from the back to the strawberry-coloured sleigh.
“You can ride, yes?” the Koroleva asked Yulia as she put a saddle on the now-awake Yarostnii.
Still in shock, Yulia nodded. But she finally found her voice. “Horses, yes,” she said. “But not bears!”
The bear Yarostnii laughed delightedly at this. “You will find riding us more comfortable than any old horse,” she said. She nuzzled her mate into wakefulness. “Bystro my love, you will take this young Val’kiriya onto your back and into battle, yes?”
The other bear cocked his head from side to side, studying Yulia who gulped nervously at the unusual scrutiny. But the bear smiled and allowed himself to be saddled.
“I once carried your babushka away from this Village,” he rumbled good-naturedly as he allowed Yulia to pat his head. “She was no older than you and we went to rescue another foolhardy lass from that terrible Prince of Snows.”
“Did you really?” Yulia asked breathlessly, eyes wide with wonder. Bystro crouched to allow her to scramble into the saddle on his back. “You will not let me fall, yes?”
The bear laughed at this and assured her that he would not allow her to fall. “But make your aim sharp and true,” he admonished her. “The Prince will seek to keep us from pursuit by throwing his minions in our trail.”
“Which reminds me, my Queen,” Grigori chimed in, his forehead furrowed with concern. “Even with a Val’kiriya at your side, I would worry about your safety. And young Yulia…”
“Is unproven in battle,” the Koroleva finished his sentence for him. But she smiled and nodded at Yulia. “I can, however, see what you cannot. Yulia will be able to help me, Grigori. However, I would advise you to send signals to Vesnoy Gorod in case…”
Grigori did not let her finish, but saluted smartly. “You will not fall, my Queen!” he declared. “And we will fight to the last man and woman.”
“That will not be needful, I hope,” the Koroleva said with a faint smile. “But thank you. Keep watch…all of you.”
“By your command, my Queen!”
The Koroleva nodded and turned to Yulia. “You are all right, young Yulia?” she asked.
“As fine as I probably can be, my Queen,” Yulia said, laughing nervously and she took the reins.
“That’s good enough. Come!” The Koroleva kicked her heels into Yarostnii’s flanks. “We ride!”
Grigori pushed the barn doors wide open and allowed the bears and their riders to get off to a loping start. Outside, concerned villagers shouted encouragement and pleas for Olga’s safe return. To Yulia’s consternation, her grandfather ran alongside Bystro and tossed something at her.
“You’ll need those,” he shouted as the bears began to gain speed.
The girl wanted to shout a farewell, but the words would not come to her lips. But there is no need for farewells, she thought bravely. We will return; the Koroleva, and Olga, and I.
And she unwrapped the bundle her grandfather had flung into her arms. She stared at it, realising how much her family trusted her. It was a bundle of beautifully crafted knives – perfect for throwing.
Young Yulia Kurnonskaya drew a deep breath and leaned forward in the saddle as the great white bears gained speed, carrying them into the heart of the swirling blizzard.
Come with me, my little love
Into my Palace, into my heart;
And we shall share a cup of wine,
A little kiss, a little song,
A little magic as the night is long
Come with me, o maiden fair
Into my heart, into my lair;
And I will sing thee an ancient lay
Of ancient loves, of distant shores,
Of future dreams and far-off days
Olga struggled to keep her eyes open against the winds that seemed to have grown even stronger with every step she and her companion took. She could hardly breathe; the swirling blizzard seemed to take her breath away.
She slid a glance at Meroz. For some reason, the cold did not seem to trouble him. Indeed, his step had quickened despite the deepening snowdrifts and his voice did not seem to give out and was even growing stronger against the howling of the wind. He was even singing as they walked on.
Come with me, o pretty lass
And turn your back upon thy past
And wear a crown and satin gown,
A jewelled brooch and feathered cowl
And be my queen, and be my love
“Are we any closer?” Olga shouted.
“Getting there,” Meroz replied confidently.
Olga sighed and doggedly forged on.
Onward did they ride, the Koroleva and her unproven shield-maiden.
Yulia did not dare complain and, truly: she hoped that they would find Olga alive and well. Perhaps a little chilled, possibly a touch frostbitten, but alive. She knew all the stories; her grandparents and the older old folk in the Village never seemed to run out of stories of grim winters spent being watchful against the cruel spectre that ruled the Season. Only: she never imagined that she would be part of a story herself.
And then, dark shapes in what appeared to be silvery armour began to jump out of the snowdrifts and run towards them, weapons drawn.
“Karzeleki!” the Koroleva shouted through the whistling of the wind, the staff in her hand suddenly taking fire on both ends. “Give them no quarter!”
As she spoke, she spun the staff in her hands, knocking down assailants left and right. And the Karzeleki, those fearsome ice-demons, screamed if even the faintest lick of flame touched them.
“To your left!” Bystro growled, shaking Yulia out of bemusement.
The girl screamed and hacked at the first one that rushed at her with her scimitar, quite nearly cutting it in half. She turned her blade sideways and urged Bystro into a fast gallop to cut through the onslaught. The bear likewise roared and tore hungrily into any Karzelek that came right at him, tearing at dark flesh with claws and teeth, bright blood staining the pure white snow.
On and on did those dark ice-devils come rushing towards them and Yulia worried that they would be overrun. But the Koroleva finally had enough and banged the end of her staff on the ground. The ground seemed to glow the same shade of red as her hair and waves of heat spread across that meadow.
And the snow around them melted in the heat of the Koroleva’s anger and the fierce ice-devils groaned one by one as they melted into steaming puddles of slush that froze again in the winter air into harmless drifts.
To Yulia’s horror, the Koroleva seemed to slump in her saddle and the girl rode forward to steady her.
“My Queen!” she cried.
“I’m all right,” the Koroleva assured her, but her smile seemed strained and her face ashen. Suddenly, she tilted up her face and her expression grew angry. She pointed at something at the horizon. “Ride!” she barked at Yulia and the bears. “That’s the Gospodin Snega…and he has your friend in his arms!”
“I… I can’t walk any…farther…” Olga gasped, slowly slumping into a snowdrift. She felt a heaviness in her limbs, a weakness that she attributed to the snowstorm that was now swirling around her.
“Are you sure?” Meroz asked. She wondered how he could move so lightly through the storm; she had not seen him struggle as she did as they made their way up the slope. Even now, he did not have any trouble breathing despite the screaming, raging, whirling winds. And the tone of his words seemed to grow callous, mocking; and Olga imagined that she could hear the crackling of frost with every word. “Surely, you’re not tired yet?”
“I…” she gasped. “I… I just n-need to…” She tried to take a deep breath. “I c-c-can’t b-b-breathe…”
Meroz smiled at her. And Olga Alikhanova’s dread began to grow as the smile seemed as cold and as hard as the snow flying and lying around them. To her surprise, he began to sing and his song seemed to bring the darkness closer and closer.
Choose well your words, o maiden fair
For thou knowest not who might hear:
Tempt not the Fates nor the Gods above,
Tease not the things that you see not
For I have my ways of seeking out
Those who dare to seek me out.
A little care for what you say:
One wrong word may seal thy fate!
For I will come and hound and take
The fools who come and dare and chase
Things much, much grander than they…
And not live to regret the day!
For I, foolish child, am thy greatest foe:
The one who calls in the wind and snow…
I rule the vastness of this wintry waste
The piercing ice, the killing chill;
The Lord of Grief and Death and Woe
I, dear child, am the Prince of Snows!
And Olga screamed as he took her by the wrists and his touch was cold and seemed to seep deep, deep into her flesh to freeze her blood in her very veins.
“Not so brave now, are you?” Meroz said, leering evilly at her. He leaned in. “You dared to seek me out; now, you have found me.” And he drew in closer, his lips dangerously close to the frightened girl’s. “You have dared to find me and now you are…”
“NO!” a great shout rang throughout the frozen wasteland. Angrily, the Prince of Snows dropped Olga who now gibbered in fright to the ground and rose to his full height.
“Who dares come into my domain?” he snarled.
And two great white bears came roaring into his sight. On one rode a young shield-maiden, her scimitar stained and her heart-shaped face spattered with the bright blue blood of fallen Karzeleki. On the other rode a flame-haired lass who carried a staff that burned bright at both ends; she looked weary and worn, but her eyes flashed with a righteous anger. The very air around her seemed to shimmer with the heat of summer and the snow around her ursine steed melted to reveal the green grass.
“You!” the Prince of Snows hissed.
“Yes, Meroz,” Vesna Molodoya, the Koroleva of the warmer climes, replied calmly. “It is I.”
“You have no power over me,” he roared, swirling angrily around her. “It is my Season; not yours! You are weak!”
“Perhaps,” Vesna Molodoya replied, nodding. “But, my dear Prince…” She leaned close, close enough for her lips to meet his and slowly drew away. “Have you forgotten?”
Startled, Meroz Zminiyev drew back as if she had slapped him rather than kissed him. He stared at her, not understanding, not remembering. And then the pain – oh, the horrible pain! – began!
He screamed, feeling something wrenching, boring into his skull. He felt his skin burning and his hands and feet being crushed as if they were being squeezed into gloves and shoes far, far too small. He fell to the ground, writhing and thrashing, screaming and moaning. Until the screaming suddenly fell silent and the moaning sounded like the groan or the bleat of an animal.
Yulia seemed to freeze where she sat as she watched the Prince of Snows curl into a ball, wracked with pain as he was.
Wait, a ball? No! Yulia stared, both horrified and fascinated, as He who had been a man but moments before twisted and turned and contorted into a magnificent white stag with horns of silver and gold right before her very eyes.
The young shield-maiden turned sharply and managed to grab the Koroleva before she fell out of her saddle, so weakened was she by this unleashing of power.
“A stag you will be,” Vesna Molodoya said weakly, but not taking her eyes off the transformed Prince. “A stag you will remain until you are humbled, until you willingly bow before someone else.”
At this, the Stag struggled to its feet and spat contemptuously into the ground before the Koroleva and her steed. Though obviously in pain, it reared up proudly and galloped away, deep into the farthest reaches of the northern wastes.
Yulia stared in silence, then scampered off Bystro to grab the screaming Olga who was half-maddened by fright. Angrily, she gave Olga’s face a pair of ringing slaps to bring her back to her senses.
“Shut up, you fool!” Yulia shouted furiously, pushing Olga onto Bystro’s back. “You brought this upon yourself.” In a gentler tone, she ordered Bystro to carry Olga back to the Village while she sat with the exhausted Koroleva upon Yarostnii.
“You have proven yourself of great service to me, Yulia Kurnonskaya,” the Koroleva commended her. “I would be proud to have you among my Home Guards.”
Gratified, Yulia inclined her head respectfully. “It would be a true honour, my Queen,” she replied. But she saw that the Koroleva’s face was sad and tears seemed to glisten in her glorious green eyes. Yulia looked to where the Koroleva was looking and saw that her gaze followed the Stag as it made its way towards the horizon.
And Yulia saw a great grief in the Koroleva’s face, her lips parted as if to say something. But the Queen of Spring brusquely dashed away her tears with the back of her hand and urged her bear onward back to the Village.
And Yulia realised that there was more to the curse upon the Prince of Snows than the flame-haired queen was willing to let on.