(Author’s Note: This is Part Four 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 as well as elements of traditional Russian folklore. In the meantime, constructive criticism is sincerely appreciated. – MKM)
They rode through the swirling snowstorm, the bears easily loping through the thick, heavy snowdrifts that were in their way. Though it was night, the light from the Koroleva’s staff lit their way back to the Village.
Spent by her ordeal at the hands of the Prince of Snows, Olga rode half-asleep for she was so weary. Not so the Koroleva: drained as she was at releasing so much power, her green eyes seemed to dart left and right, anticipating any danger that might befall them on their way.
Yulia kept her scimitar in hand and prudently placed two of the knives her grandfather had given to her in her belt. One never knew when extra blades would be…
“After them!” they heard a rough voice shout from behind them.
“Karzeleki!” the Koroleva snarled and levelled her staff towards them, sending forth a blazing fireball that quickly laid waste to the first wave of pursuers.
“On!” Yulia urged the bears. “On, before they gain on us!”
She leaned back and took aim at the pursuers, hoping to strike at least one or two. She snatched the knives at her belt and threw; one spun around and returned hilt-first to her hand. The other flew true and slashed at the face of one goblin and cutting off the nose of another before flying back.
There were angry cries behind them and the Koroleva urged the bears to move faster. Yulia’s eyes widened in horror when she saw they were approaching a gorge. A narrow one, yes; but one whose depths seemed endless in the darkness.
“My Queen!” she cried. “Surely, you do not mean the bears to…”
“Jump!” came the command, the voice sounding like the sharp crack of a whip.
Olga screeched and Yulia suddenly stopped breathing as Bystro and Yarostnii easily sailed across the gaping maw beneath them. Each bear landed with a loud, squishing thud and resumed their run.
“You just need to have a little faith!” Bystro laughed in his deep, ursine voice. “And a good strong grip when you get to the other side!”
Behind them, they could hear the goblins either cursing in dismay or screaming as they fell down the gorge, their cries tapering off the lower they fell.
Yulia heard the Koroleva sigh wearily. “The worst is behind us,” she said, her voice scarcely above a whisper.
Yes, Yulia agreed inwardly. But her heart and mind could not help but add, But, oh, my Queen! Perhaps you have left more than a curse behind us…
Angrily, the Stag forged through the storm, his heart filled with anger and hatred and a desire for vengeance.
His voice had been silenced by the transformation. He could neither sing nor call nor chant to cast spells and enchantments. But he noted that his touch remained effective; the ground his hooves touched were covered with frost and, when he shook his antlers, the snow fell harder.
“My Gospodin!” he heard someone shout.
The Stag paused and saw the leader of his Karzeleki approaching him. Behind the leader appeared a rather sorry-looking lot of goblin soldiers on weary, lathered mounts. The Stag glared at them disapprovingly.
“My Gospodin, forgive us!” the leader begged as he slid off his mount to grovel at the Stag’s feet. “Forgive us, my Lord. The Queen and her soldier-woman have escaped and…!”
In a rage, the Stag thrust his right antler into the grovelling Karzelek’s chest and lifted him off the ground.
“My…my Lord!” the frightened goblin gibbered as his blue blood spattered over the white snow and his life ebbed away. “I…am…sorry. For…forgive…”
But there was no forgiveness for this transgression and the angry Stag hurled the unfortunate goblin into the distance. Sharply, he turned to his remaining soldiers, eyes gleaming a bloody crimson as he glared at them. They cowered before him, trembling in every limb, whimpering and gibbering and sobbing as they implored his mercy.
The Stag closed his eyes and sent a message directly into the minds of the remnant of his army.
“You can hear me, can’t you?” he demanded of them.
The soldiers stared at him, awed that even in such an altered state he could speak to them.
“We… We can, my Lord!” one of them cried, falling to his knees.
The Stag regarded him coldly, but nodded his approval. “You have spoken,” he said. “So, you will lead.”
“My Lord!” the one who had spoken cried in protest, but he shut his mouth when the Stag narrowed his eyes at him. “I will do as you command, my Lord.”
“Good.” The Stag drew himself up and regarded his men scornfully. “You have failed me once…but I daresay you will not fail me again.”
“No, my Lord!” the new leader was quick to assure him. “We will do as you bid us!”
“Then ride with me,” the Stag said. “And let us wreak havoc upon the people of this valley. Let Vesna Molodoya see and hear of our deeds and know…” The Stag bridled and reared angrily at this. “And know that the Prince of Snows will prevail in the end!”
The Karzeleki roared their approval of this and raised their swords and spears as a gesture of their fealty to the Gospodin Snega, changed though his appearance now was.
And the Stag led the way down into the Valley, his soldiers roaring battle cries that would freeze the blood of any who heard them as they galloped behind him.
The ones who stood guard at the outskirts of the Village scanned the horizon worriedly, seeking signs of the one who had disappeared and those who sought to find her.
Hope seemed to seep slowly away as the night began to give way to the morning, and the faintest hints of gold and rose began tinting the eastern horizon.
And then, they heard a shout from the distance: “Privetstiviye!”
It was a woman’s voice and a familiar one.
Again, it cried: “Privetstiviye!”
The guards rejoiced when two white bears came loping into view. One carried but one rider and the other was mounted by two. Their way was lit by a staff that glowed at both ends.
“Spread the word!” one guard declared to his companion. “Spread the word: they have found her! They have found Olga Alikhanova! They have returned!”
While one guard ran into the Village to deliver the good news, the other ran forward to help the women off their mounts. Yulia angrily pushed Olga towards him; the latter was clearly distraught and sobbed hysterically.
“Take her back to her parents,” Yulia said in disgust. “They ought to be happy their darling girl has returned.” She glared furiously at Olga who flinched back when she raised a hand as if to slap her. “You are more trouble than you’re worth!”
“Yulia,” the Koroleva gently chided her as she slid off Yarostnii’s back.
“But she is, my Queen!” Yulia protested as she led the bears into the Village.
“Be that as it may,” the Koroleva said, her voice gentle and forgiving. “She has seen the error of her ways, I think.” She smiled somewhat ruefully. “I do not think she will be so foolhardy a second time.”
Yulia frowned at this and the frown deepened as she watched the Koroleva leaning on her staff as they made their way to the Kurnonskys’ cottage. The Queen’s skin looked pale and ashen; dark were the circles beneath her eyes. She trudged on, tiredly dragging her feet through the snow. It was as if that fleeting kiss had taken more out of her than she would let on.
Inside, Yulia’s parents and grandparents were sitting by the fire. Her mother quickly rose to embrace her, while her grandmother gently took the Queen by the hand and led her to the most comfortable chair by the fire.
“Your hands are like ice!” Babushka Yekaterina declared as if the Koroleva were but Yulia’s age.
“That is what this is for,” the Koroleva chuckled as she pulled a small white jar from the pouch she wore at her belt.
Babushka clucked her tongue disapprovingly as she rubbed some of the jar’s contents onto the Koroleva’s hands. Almost at once, a warm and spicy aroma permeated the air in the room. Yulia breathed deeply, feeling the warmth seeping deeply into her body. It felt as if her weariness also seemed to be ebbing away.
Dedushka grinned approvingly as Yulia showed him the knives, blood-spattered though these were.
“I’ll polish them before I give them back, Dedushka,” the girl assured him earnestly. “And I did not know that they would fly back after I’d thrown them.”
Dedushka Aleksei pressed the knives back into his granddaughter’s hands. “They are yours,” he assured her with a warm smile. “You will need them where you will be going.”
Yulia blinked at this, but nodded mutely and said nothing more. She went to a corner of the room with some rags with which to wipe off the dark blue blood from the blades. As she worked, she listened surreptitiously to what her elders discussed.
“I am afraid that I had to do what needed to be done,” she heard the Koroleva tell the others. There was a tone of deep regret in her voice.
“You did warn him, though, Great Lady,” Babushka Yekaterina gently reminded the Queen. “You did say that a grim fate would befall him the next time he tried to lure away someone from the Village. You warned him, he took no heed. And so…”
“And so the Gospodin Snega pays for his transgressions,” Dedushka remarked gravely. “But I have to ask, my Queen: is he cursed forever?”
Yulia looked up sharply at this and saw the Koroleva shaking her head.
“No, my good Brigadir,” she replied. “There will be an end to his suffering; he will not be a stag for eternity. No, if…” And here, Yulia noted a hint of hesitation in the Koroleva’s voice. “If he humbles himself, if he bows before someone, if he begs meekly for someone’s aid, he will return to his true form.”
There were sighs around the room and Yulia saw her grandparents exchange regretful glances.
“You may as well say he will never become as he was,” Yekaterina murmured. “Knowing His pride, His ego…”
But the Koroleva looked sad, yet there was something in her eyes… “Perhaps,” she said quietly. “But I…” And here, a small smile appeared on her weary face. “I have hope.”
She was confined to a bed for the better part of the day that came and she willingly allowed her old lady-in-waiting to be strict and stern with her.
She meant to ride back to her palace in Vesnoy Gorod as soon as it was light, but Yekaterina took one look at her and promptly ordered the other women of the village to prepare a bath infused with soothing herbs and blossoms dried for such a purpose over the summer months. Someone sent up a steaming bowl of sukhoi gribnoi filled with good mushrooms gathered from the woods and fields; it was an excellent restorative and would bring back some of the Queen’s strength. Another sought to tempt her palate with sweet vareniki filled with fresh cheese and slathered with sweet blackberry jam. The best quilts were sent to the Kurnonskys’ cottage to warm her bed and every villager was eager to be at her beck and call, so grateful were they that she had found young Olga.
But the Queen ate not; the Queen could not sleep. Instead, she stared out the window by her bed for most of the day. It was as if she was waiting for someone to come.
Yulia sat by the door, her scimitar at her feet and knives at her belt; ready to pounce on anyone foolhardy enough to disturb the Koroleva as she rested. Olga’s parents had sought and audience, but the grim expression on the young Val’kiriya’s face warned them away.
“Why don’t you go get something to eat, Yulia?” the Koroleva suggested without turning her gaze away from the window. “I am sure you are famished and I know that you have not yet slept after our adventure.”
“I would not leave you, my Queen,” the Val’kiriya replied stoutly. “Babushka told me to look after you and I will.”
“Yes, but I do not wish to see you sleeping on your feet,” the Koroleva said. She removed her gaze from the window long enough to command Yulia to go downstairs for a meal. “I will be all right,” she assured her. “You may leave me for a short while.”
Meekly, Yulia bobbed a curtsey and scurried downstairs. When she had gone, the Koroleva sighed and returned to her contemplation of the view outside her window. Then, she wearily lay back against the goose-down pillows that had been propped behind her and closed her eyes. Memories of bygone days when the world was young came flooding into her head, warming her heart. But the pangs of loss, of regret weighed heavily upon her. Quietly, she tried to sing an old, old song in the hope that it would put her to sleep.
The Prince of Frosts flew in one day
And took the Spring Queen’s hand:
“Come fly with me, come fly away;
Come but a moment and see our land.”
The Queen of Spring looked at him,
Then raised her maidenly gaze:
“Take me away and take me afar
And I will be thine till the end of days.”
And they flew together over the earth
And saw all there was to see:
Every tree and brook and rill and plain,
Every hill and mount and sky and sea.
“I take it things were much different then.”
The Koroleva stopped mid-verse with a start and saw Yekaterina coming in to perch on the foot of the bed.
“Yes, they were,” the Queen replied sadly. “And so was he. Only: when he could see that he could force men to do his bidding with cruelty, he just changed.”
Yekaterina seemed to consider this, and then gently patted her hands. “And yet: you hope that he will return to how he used to be,” she said.
Mutely, the Koroleva nodded and finally allowed herself to weep, enfolded in a comforting embrace.
But while the Village rejoiced at the safe return of a prodigal daughter, a son of a neighbouring town was not so lucky.
The young huntsman had been warned by his elders: stray not into the woods in the heart of winter. No game will you find, but possibly your doom. Only wolves and foxes skulk amongst the trees and they would find human flesh a tasty morsel to curb their dread hunger.
But the huntsman swore that there was at least one buck foolish enough to wander in the forests at this time of year. The huntsman vowed to bag it and its proud head would grace his family’s fireplace: a visible testament to his prowess at hunting.
And, oh, foolish, foolish man! He went out that day, crossbow over his shoulder and a quiver of bolts at his back. He trudged through the snow, snooping through the barren trees of the wood; seeking his prey.
And then: he saw it! Over the crest of a hill stood a mighty white Stag, its silky coat gleaming in the winter sunlight. The huntsman blinked, for he could not believe his eyes: but the Stag’s antlers seemed to be made of silver entwined with gold! It was a prize – such a prize! – worthy of being bagged and taken to the Koroleva in Vesnoy Gorod!
But why should the Queen have such a fine specimen in her keeping? the huntsman thought avariciously, greed flickering in his eyes. No, this beauty is mine and mine alone!
The Stag seemed to sense that it was being watched and leapt away. The huntsman swore and immediately gave chase. Over hill and dale, the Stag ran with the hunter in keen pursuit. It did not seem to weaken, nor did it seem to tire. On and on, it ran as if seeking to tire the hunter to dissuade him from taking its fine head.
Finally, the huntsman chased the Stag into a cave. Thinking that he had cornered it, he set a bolt into his crossbow and prepared to fire it into the animal.
But before he could aim, before he could fire, the hunter became the hunted: for the Stag charged angrily at him and speared him through the belly with its sharp, gleaming antlers. It pinned the unfortunate hunter to a wall of the cave and glared at it with eyes red, red as the coals of a banked fire.
The hunter screamed and tried to make the sign against the Evil One, but to no avail. For the Stag hurled him out of the cave and, before the hunter could totter to his feet, charged and trampled him into the snow at full speed.
The dying huntsman tried in vain to prop himself up. One shot! One shot… Weak as he was, he tried to crawl to reclaim his crossbow. But a booted foot came down heavily upon his outstretched hand.
“Well, what do we have here?” a cruel, rasping voice demanded.
His sight failing him, the dying hunter saw dark shapes encroaching the space around him, drawing closer. Their breath was foul, their laughter cruel.
And the huntsman screamed with his final gasps. But, before long, all anyone could hear was the sound of beasts eating their kill.
When night came, the people of the huntsman’s village worried that he had not returned.
The men lit torches and prepared to search the woods for their missing compatriot. The women gathered in the council house, muttering prayers for their safe return.
But the foolishness of one was the foolishness of all. For the Stag swore vengeance upon the imbecile who sought to bag him and kill him. And though that one was dead, feasted upon by the dread Karzeleki, the Stag’s rage was such that he sought the annihilation of that one person’s people.
Packs of wolves and leashes of foxes surrounded that unfortunate village, spurred on by a command only they could hear. Soon, there was a great snarling of animals and a mighty snapping of jaws. The villagers screamed and tried to fight, tried to flee.
But it was all in vain.
And when none remained alive in that forsaken village, the Stag breathed upon it. It would remain frozen; a visible sign that the village and its people had displeased the Prince of Snows and He had exacted a terrible price from them.
“Must you go, my Queen?” Yekaterina asked the following morning when the Koroleva’s sleigh was brought out and her bears harnessed to it. “Why don’t you take a rest for this Season and stay with us a little longer.”
But the Koroleva shook her bright head as she pulled her furred hood on. She warmly clasped her old friends’ hands as she bade them farewell. Beside her, young Yulia Kurnonskaya was loading her own trunk into the back of the sleigh.
“I would if I could,” the Koroleva said with a faint smile. “But I have duties in Vesnoy Gorod. I only came because you called for me and for my aid.”
“We understand,” Aleksei assured her. He rested a hand upon Yulia’s shoulder. “I can but hope that a new generation will serve you as well as ours have, my Queen.”
“I have no doubts as to that, my good Brigadir.”
“Do svidanya, my Queen.”
“Do svidanya, Alexei and Yekaterina.”
Yulia embraced her family most fondly and promised to come and visit soon enough. Then, she scrambled into the sleigh beside her liege-lady and waved goodbye.
There was the cheerful jingling of bells as the bears pulled the sleigh out of the Village. They had not gone far when Yulia excitedly pointed something out to the Queen.
“Great Lady!” she cried, pointing at something atop a nearby hill.
And the Koroleva looked up to see the White Stag standing on top of the hill, watching the sleigh pass by. Hesitantly, she raised her hand to it but doubted if it would respond.
And the Stag reared up and ran away.
The Koroleva sat back with a sigh, but said very little during the journey save a few words to urge on her bears.
“I would break you to harness,” the Great Lady said, laying a caressing hand upon his neck. “And I could put a muzzle on your lips: silence you; drown out that silvery, that wheedling, that mocking voice that broke one heart too many.
“I could chain you, flog you, maim you, and blind you to a world you once claimed for yourself in your greed, in your pride…”
And the Stag awoke with a start in the cold darkness of the cave where he’d sought refuge for the night. He felt a cold grip around his heart and it pounded like the beating of a war-drum as he woke. It felt real, all too real: the Great Lady, the smell of roses that surrounded her; her soft voice whispering into his ear.
The Stag shivered though he was, indeed, impervious to the cold. He curled up on the floor of the cave and tried as best as he could to go back to sleep. But even as his eyes fell shut, it was as if the words of an old song began to haunt him.
The Queen of Spring kissed his cheek
And whispered honeyed words of love
“I will forever be your leman, your promised bride
As sure as the stars shine in the skies above.”
And the Prince of Snows smiled down with love
Upon the firebird-girl who took his hand
And great was his pride and greater still his joy
At loving the fairest in the land.