(Author’s Note: This is the final part of my five-chapter Yuletide story. 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)
As we march into battle boldly,
And turn our gazes straight ahead,
Any foes we deal with coldly
And do not stop till all are dead
Into their hearts strike dread and fear
And bring upon a litany of woes;
Let it be known both far and near
We march for the Lord of Snows!
The ominous crunch of boots marching through deep snow awakened those living in a small farmers’ compound midway between the frozen north and Vesnoy Gorod. There were grunts and growls; dangerous-sounding barks; the jingling of chain mail and the clang of armour rattling upon its owner.
But before anyone could rise, before anyone could wake, there came an onslaught of terror.
Oh, how the screams echoed through the Valley! The anguished cries of men, women, children, and beasts – all maimed, all slaughtered mercilessly in their beds like a fold of innocent lambs taken by wolves.
For the Karzeleki made their way into the derevni of men and they butchered every living being they found within. Precious stores of food and grain were taken or made unfit to feed either man or beast. The very ground was trampled underfoot and salted down to make sure that nothing ever grew.
It was murmured amongst the villagers who lived in the Valley that a White Stag was seen prancing through the woods before the Karzeleki came rampaging through. It trotted through the forests, leaving thick frost and heavy snows in its wake. Those who saw it, even silhouetted against the rising or setting sun, knew that it was a harbinger of wickedness. It was, they hissed among themselves, a herald of doom sent by no less than the Prince of Snows himself.
People whispered in fear and dread. Many fled from their homes and sought safe haven in Vesnoy Gorod. Others mounted night watches to scare away goblins and wolves with burning torches and keen blades. Still others prayed and implored the Gospodin Snega would call off His grim army and spare them; rich offerings of meat and grain were laid at the outskirts of each derevnya to keep the marauders at bay. But even these fearfully-given gifts were not enough to stop the indiscriminate slaughter.
Only those from the Village seemed to have been spared and they opened the gates of their derevnya to those seeking asylum. But the Elders of the Village regarded each other gravely and spoke seriously amongst themselves. At once, the bard Priit Kurnonsky was dispatched to send word to the Koroleva that the people were in danger.
The bard rode hard through the night and much of the following day to reach the city. At its great gates, a troop of noble-looking soldiers – both men and women – either stood guard or rode on bears or horses as mounted patrols. Two of them barred the young bard’s path as he approached.
“Dobriy den’!” a guard greeted him, but held up his left hand with its palm outward to halt the newcomer. “What business have you in Vesnoy Gorod?”
“Dobriy den’,” Priit replied, humbly, sliding off his horse to bow and show that he was unarmed save for a staff and his balalaika. “I bring tidings from my dedushka, Aleksei Grigoriyev Kurnonsky, once Brigadir of the Great Lady’s army.”
The guards all stared at him and regarded him with great interest. One of them, a Val’kyria who appeared to have fought many a battle over the years, studied him keenly and burst into delighted laughter.
“You have the look of the Old Master,” she declared, clapping a comradely hand upon his shoulder. She eyed him kindly. “You would, then, be brother to young Yulia whom our Queen has enlisted amongst us?”
“She is my youngest sister,” Priit said, nodding.
The old Val’kyria motioned for one of the other guards to mount up while she hauled herself up onto the back of a great white bear.
“Come,” she commanded the young bard. “Ivan and I will bring you to the Tvestok ourselves.”
As they rode through the streets towards the Spring Queen’s palace, Priit was asked of news from the northern Valley. His escorts’ faces grew grave and grim when he told them of the goblins who went marauding through the Valley, their onslaught preceded by the appearance of a Stag whose coat was as white as the snow that swirled around them and whose antlers shone like silver and gold.
“They spare no mercy for those whose lives and livelihood they choose to take,” Priit advised them. “Those whom they do not eat, they stake out the bodies as a warning to anyone who dares to even try to stop them.”
The old Val’kyria was silent as their mounts entered the golden gates of the Tvestok. There, the Koroleva’s seneschal received them and, sensing the importance of what this young village bard had to say, was quick to escort them to the Queen’s personal study.
They found the Koroleva quietly reading in a comfortable chair beside a window, her feet propped upon a recumbent bear. Close by, a young Val’kyria – her armour still shiny and new – sat at a table, her weapons within reach as she studied something written on a small scroll. She looked up and uttered a low cry of joy as she rose to embrace her brother. But the look on his face stopped her in her tracks.
“What is it?” Yulia stammered. “Is it our family? Our Village?”
Priit took her hands and shook his head. Then, he went and bowed deeply to the Koroleva who quietly bade him to rise and waved him to a seat.
“What news of the north, young Kurnonsky?” she asked.
“Nothing good, my Queen,” the bard said. “His goblins and beasts have been attacking smaller villages: ransacking barns, murdering everyone in sight, and rendering the ground unfit for growth.
“He gallops through the forests as though He himself were the very harbinger of chaos and death. He rides through the villages, daring those hunters brave and foolish enough to give chase to come after Him in the hope of ripping that pristine hide off and mounting the antlers over a mantelpiece.
“But they hunt in vain, my Queen. Our men have found hunters gored to death in the woods, their faces frozen in consternation and disbelief that such a majestic animal could bring about their doom. We have ridden out to the northern outskirts and found corpses half-eaten or flayed and staked out as a warning to all and sundry.”
Priit looked especially disturbed and disgusted by what he described next: “And we have had to perform the grim rite of Evtanaziya upon some of the women whom we found: the Karzeleki used many of them – girls, women of mothering age – to satisfy hungers not of the belly.”
Yulia choked back an oath and the Koroleva looked sad and angry. The old Val’kyria who brought Priit to the Palace looked incensed and wrapped a hand around the hilt of the scimitar at her belt, ready to strike; ready to take revenge upon in the name of the fallen innocents. The male guard’s brow furrowed deeply and he muttered some dark oath underbreath.
“They will not strike your Village,” the Koroleva declared once Priit had finished relating his horrible report. “Meroz Zminiyev, even in his altered form, knows that it will mean his death if he dares lay a finger on – let alone point it in the direction – of that Village.” But she considered the matter in silence for what seemed to be a long moment. And then, “Val’kyria Sonia Turgeneva, I charge you to muster up the troops and ride to the north.”
The old Val’kyria went down on one knee to acknowledge the command. “As the Koroleva commands!” she barked.
“Serzhant Goga Bogucharski?”
The male guard saluted sharply, anticipating the Queen’s command. “Yes, my Queen?”
“Advise the Bystryye Gonshchiki to ride across the demesne; warn the people of the goblins who may strike in the night. Tell them to send word at once in the event that they see a White Stag galloping into their communities.” The Koroleva rose to her feet, her face pale and grave and sorrowful. It seemed as if she found herself cornered into a duty that was most unpleasant but seriously necessary. She raised a hand to quell the Serzhant from replying. “However, no one is to lay a finger on that Stag.” She threw a sharp look at all of them. “Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Great Lady,” the guards responded, saluting her before leaving the room.
When they had gone, the Koroleva turned to Yulia. “We’re going to have to ride, you and I,” she remarked ruefully.
Yulia respectfully inclined her head; her brother noted that she was settling well into her new role as personal bodyguard and lady-in-waiting. But she knelt and gently smoothed the fur down the bear’s back. “But, my Queen,” she said. “You’ll be one bear short: Yarostnii will have cubs by spring. Surely you do not intend to ride her into battle?”
The Koroleva nodded at this. “Bystro will serve as my mount for now,” she said. Fondly, she embraced her bear. “I assure you that I shall return him to you safe, my good Yarostnii.”
“Don’t you always?” the bear replied, nuzzling her mistress’s face fondly. “I only wish I could ride with you.” To Priit’s amusement, the bear sat upon its haunches and hugged his sister. “And you will ride my Krasivaya into war; may she serve you faithfully as I and her father continue to serve our Great Lady.”
“And I will bring her home to you safe, as well,” Yulia promised the bear.
“What would you have me do, my Queen?” Priit asked.
The Koroleva nodded and called for a quill, some ink, and parchment. Yulia rummaged through a nearby drawer and handed it to her. The Koroleva quickly scribbled something, rolled up the scrolled, and affixed her seal to it before handing it to Priit.
“Rest for the night and dine with us,” she advised him. “Then, at first light tomorrow, ride as hard as you can back to your Village – and tell the Brigadir: we will need every able-bodied fighter we can get.”
The leader of the Karzeleki roared to his men that it was time to move on; they had done enough damage upon yet another village.
He surveyed the carnage around them; the snow-covered ground was no longer white, but a muddy red and brown. There were still screams, voices weakening as his men progressed through their grisly feast.
The leader of the goblins cast his gaze towards the Stag that was prancing impatiently not too far away. By birth, Karzeleki were called upon to work in the service of the Gospodin Snega. Many served by painting the frosts that heralded the coming of winter and there were those who delicately crafted the icicles that dripped down the eaves of the humans’ houses. But most of them fought in the name of the Prince of Snows, the hands and feet that wrought havoc and brought war to His enemies.
And the goblin general’s heart hardened against his sworn master. After all, he thought, it is we who do all his work for him! Yet, we have never shared in the glories of his victories!
And a worm seemed to turn in the dark heart and even darker mind of the goblin soldier. Yes, why, indeed, would he continue to serve when it would be a far better thing to kill the Gospodin Snega and rule the forces of winter himself?
And the Stag turned to see a fire kindled in the eyes of his general and his heart seemed to stop as the latter roared a fierce cry and kicked his mount to a dead run straight towards him. Horrified, the Stag broke into a run and tried to flee the pursuit of the now-maddened goblin.
The Queen’s armies came riding, riding forth
Coming to the aid of a beleaguered North
Upon bears and horses, the brave soldiers rode
Caring not of the frost, of the ice, of the cold
And with blades bright they went slashing, slashing through
The snow besmirched by imps’ blood of darkest hue;
No mercy was shown, no quarter given;
By anger and vengeance the Queen’s men were driven
The Queen herself rode, her flaming hair like a banner:
Sword at the ready, stave in hand; fierce was her manner
Swordsmen and shield-maidens rode by her side
And by her every command each and all would abide
The Karzeleki did not know what hit them. In the dead of night, as they skulked towards yet another unsuspecting town, the fearsome growl of angered bears and a clopping of horses’ hooves bearing down upon them were suddenly heard.
And the goblins flinched and cried and fled as burning torches were brandished towards them. Those who were touched by flame howled in agony as they melted into puddles, their essence merging with the snow on the ground. Others bravely charged towards the enemy, only to be cut down by blades sharp and swift swings. There were those who tried to ride away but were shot off their saddles by arrow after arrow loosed in rapid succession. And those who cowered from the field of battle were mercilessly hounded down by the Queen’s bears and were consumed with the same viciousness they had shown all of their victims.
“This madness has gone on long enough!” the Koroleva declared in a mighty voice as she herself torched several goblins that came too close to her. “It all ends now!”
Suddenly, Yulia caught sight of something that looked horribly wrong. Just ahead, she saw the White Stag galloping away from what appeared to be a Karzelek brandishing a scimitar at it in hot pursuit.
“My Queen!” she shouted, pointing towards the strange sight.
The Koroleva turned her bear to face where Yulia pointed and her eyes widened in horror.
“Meroz!” she cried, urging good Bystro onward. “Meroz!”
“What could that possibly mean?” Yulia asked her mount as they made to follow the Koroleva.
“Karzeleki are loyal to the Gospodin Snega to the death,” Krasivaya told her mistress. “Goblins do not attack Him; they are mortally afraid of Him. But this one…” The bear’s voice trailed off and Yulia noticed that she looked frightened. “This one seems to have gone mad. Who knows what this one wants to do?”
For the first time in his immortal life, the Stag knew fear. Not even a command directed straight into the mind of the slavering goblin would stay it from its grim chase. It frothed at the mouth and its scimitar was raised high and slashed left and right.
The goblin roared savagely and jumped off its weakening horse to ride upon the Stag’s back. But before it could so much as grab hold of the Stag’s neck, it was quickly knocked down to the ground.
And the Stag seemed to screech to a halt and it turned to see Vesna Molodoya gracefully leaping off the back of a great white bear to engage the maddened Karzelek in a fight.
“Go!” Vesna shouted at the Stag. “I can hold him off! Run! Run!”
But the Stag moved not away from that glade, so transfixed was he that his sworn enemy had come to his aid and was now fending off his once-loyal servant’s murderous rage from him.
And the Koroleva threw down her staff and grabbed the sword from her belt, parrying every thrust and stabbing at the mad goblin. And so the combatants continued their lethal dance until – oh, great misfortune! – the Koroleva made a misstep and slipped upon a patch of ice on the ground!
Great was the glee of the mad goblin and it quickly pounced, its gristly hand enclosing the Queen’s slender throat as it poised for the kill.
But it would go no further.
For something seemed to melt in the heart of the Prince of Snows as the memories flooded into his head, memories of those days when the world was young and he gallantly took the hand of the Queen of Spring to lead her into his mountain home as his sworn bride.
And great was the Prince’s anger as he charged towards the goblin, catching him up in his antlers and tossing him away from the fallen Koroleva.
“Meroz?” she gasped as she managed to move herself into a sitting position.
He turned to her, the crimson light of hate softening into a gentler, more tender emotion. Gently, he nuzzled the side of her neck and rested his chin upon her shoulder.
But before she could so much as touch him, the goblin came charging back, screaming and its blade poised to kill. And the Stag threw himself between the Koroleva and the raging goblin, feeling the cold, sharp metal sinking deep into him, tearing through hide and bone and sinew.
“NO!” he heard the Queen of Spring cry in great anguish as he fell at her feet. And in her anger, she drew her own blade. With one swift stroke, she slashed off the goblin’s head and ended its madness.
“You saved my life,” she wept, throwing her arms around the Stag’s neck. “I put you under a curse, but you still saved my life!”
Tenderly, the Stag licked her cheek. But its movements were feeble as the blood flowed onto the snowy ground.
And the Queen of Spring drew up every single iota of her power, knowing too well that it was not her Season. But she would save a life even if it meant losing her own.
And so she laid her hands upon the dreadful wound the blade had cut deep into the Stag’s side and she murmured old, old incantations despite her sobs, despite her tears; willing blood to stop flowing, for skin and bone and sinew to fuse together and heal.
And the Stag felt life returning to his body and he managed to haul himself to his feet. He closed his eyes and brought his own powers to bear, willing himself to heal and to mend in order to keep the Koroleva from spending far, far too much of her own will.
He saw her slump wearily to the frozen ground and the great bear Bystro whined and tried to nuzzle her. But all she could do was smile weakly and smooth his fur with a languid hand.
The Stag closed his eyes and spoke to her with his mind. “Thank you,” he said sincerely. “You should not have done that.” Meekly, he added, “After everything I’ve done, I do not deserve your kindness.”
But Vesna Molodoya smiled fondly and cupped the Stag’s chin in her hand.
“I would find it easy to harness you and bind you to do my bidding,” she said softly. “But I would rather you ran free.”
And the Stag’s heart melted completely at these words. Without being told, he went down to his knees and offered himself as a mount for the weakened Queen. Good Bystro regarded him curiously, then smiled.
“I believe the Master would like to carry you back, my Queen,” he rumbled good-naturedly. “I do not mind and we must get you home; you do not look well.”
Vesna nodded at this and mounted up the Stag’s back. With Bystro lumbering alongside them, they made their way back to where they had left the others.
And with each step, Vesna could feel the Stag changing. She wrapped her arms around his neck to keep from falling and rode half-asleep, spent by everything that had happened. But she could feel the Stag rising, as if walking on two legs instead of four; and she felt herself being half-carried, then truly being carried. When she opened her eyes, she found herself being carried by a dark-haired man with very pale skin who hummed softly to himself as they made their way through the woods. And the Queen smiled to herself, resting her cheek against her husband’s shoulder and softly singing the words to the song that he hummed.
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.
“I would come home and stay for always,” she heard Meroz say as they came to the clearing where they found her soldiers cleaning up after the battle. There was a note of shyness, of hesitation in his voice. “And I would do what I can to make up for all the evil I have done.” He set her down onto her own feet and went down on one knee before her. And the look he gave her was one full of love and humility. “That is, if you will take me back, my Queen.”
And the Koroleva bade him rise and eagerly entered his embrace, sealing their union with a kiss filled with love.
And she took him by the hand and good Bystro crouched down and allowed them to climb onto his back.
“Let’s go home,” she said and the Prince of Snows quietly agreed.
Together, they rode triumphantly back to Vesnoy Gorod with their troops cheering behind them. And they ruled for many an eon, sharing their powers through the changing Seasons.
And this humble teller of tales believes that they rule their demesne still.