Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Epilogue: Zarya

Epilogue: Zarya

there is much in my mother's story that she did not tell. She never wrote of the many hours she spent, helping her people grieve and then helping to rebuild. She would never tell of the days she spent coaxing a single tree to health, or pouring her own energies into the ground so that the grass might grow. It was not her way to speak of such things, only to do them.

She told me once that she feared pride above all else, for it was for pride that she had been exiled, and it was pride that caused the most pain to those she had loved. Perhaps she was proud when she was young, but if it was so, then it had all been driven from her by the time I returned to the Realm.

Sometimes I would come upon her suddenly, and catching her looking out across the river at something much farther away than the other shore, but she would never tell me what it was that she saw at such times.

However, she did not speak of such things, and so it is not my place to write of them, save the brief mention here. I am here to tell of her final days and her passing, and so to give her story a true end.

One mild summer, many years after the restoration of the land, she told me that she felt a chill that did not come from the wind nor the morning rain. I stayed with her for a time, and we walked among the gardens, talking of my life in the world of men and of my father, whom she still missed greatly.

Slowly, we came to talk of this land, of the way things grew, and the way the wind blew, and how the people behaved. She loved them all, and I could hear another sorrow in her voice, and I knew that she was ready to leave them. She could not bring herself to talk of it openly, but her talking was a way of telling me what to do, how to make things grow, how to treat those around me that the restoration might continue.

I listened, and spoke at times, and eventually she seemed at peace. That summer we had our best crop of flowers yet, and the scent of them was forever in the air. I loved it, for I had always hated winter, and loved the spring and summer, and to live in a land of eternal spring was the joy of my life. We stood on a hill in the summer light, smelling the flowers and listening to the sound of the water running in the streams.

She sat down in a bed of long grass, and looked out over the river, as she had so often done in the past. Her eyes were distant, and again, I wondered what it was that she saw. Her hair was now pure white, and it shone like silver in the light of the sun. Her face, though lined, had taken on a great beauty, and was fairer to look at than any of the faces of the other Children of the Realm.

Finally, she turned to me, with a smile that I had never seen on her face before. It was a smile with no pain, no guilt, and no grief behind it, and it brought tears to my eyes to see it.

Zarya,” she said, taking my hand, “the time has come for me to leave. Please do not be sad, for I have been waiting for this day for so many years. My friend death is coming to take me away, and I will not see you again here. Perhaps we shall meet again on the other side, but I do not know, for the ways of death are strange. But be strong, my daughter, and love this land and its people, and do not fear grief or hurt or loss, but only fear the lack of love.”

Then she kissed me on both cheeks, and embraced me again. She lay back in the grass, facing the river, and a sunbeam broke through a cloud and shone full upon her face. She looked straight into the light of the sun without blinking or turning away, and lifted up her hands to the light.

For a moment, I thought I saw a raven fly overhead, wings outstretched, but then it was gone, and I could not be sure. And my mother, Vasilissa of the Summer Realm, closed her eyes and passed beyond our knowledge.

While it it rare that one of our own passes, there are rites to be observed; some of the older ones left alive in the Realm knew of them, and explained them to me.

We plucked armfuls of flowers from the fields, sun-drenched and warm, and piled them on a simple raft woven from the branches of the growing trees. When the raft was full of flowers and could hold no more, we put the body of my mother atop the pile, and she rested lightly on them. A bundle of sweet jasmine was tucked into her hands, and a crown of lilies was placed on her head.

By the light of the first moon, we took the raft down to the river and set it in the water; it floated as though there were no weight on it at all. Torches lined the river, and their light was reflected in the water until the air was bright with it. We sang a final song for my mother; a song of thanks, of forgiveness, a song of love, and I loosed the final tie that bound the raft to shore.

The current quickly took it and in minutes it was out of sight around a bend in the river. I ran after it for a little while, following the craft as it weaved and bobbed through the river, the moonlight bright on my mother's white hair.

But then I came to the edge of a great sea, and the river opened into it, and sped the raft across it, and soon I could not make it out from the white caps of the waves. And that was the last I saw of my mother in this world.

Was she right? Shall I see her on the paths of the dead, or do my kind have a place in the world beyond death? I do not know, any more than she did, but this I do know. If there is any force in the world that can call us onward past the gates of death and into the light on the other wise, it is that of love.

Here endeth the story of Vasilissa of the Summer Realm.

Vasilissa the Wise

Vasilissa the Wise

the land did not quickly recover. So much had been done to it that it would never be the same. The dragon's breath had scorched it all, and the Grandmother of Witches had drawn out its powers to create her tower and rule. And though the tower was fallen and the rule broken, some things were always lost and would remain so.

The winds were no longer so warm and welcoming, the rain no longer so gentle when it began to fall again, and the curtains of color in the night sky not as vibrant. And this too, was part of our grief, but that is the way of things. And even here, in the Realm, things pass, and fade, only not as quickly.

In time, the grass grew again, the rivers flowed, and the flowers bloomed. Again, the air was redolent with the scent of flowers, and the people stayed out to watch the stars. There were summer nights that lasted a thousand of the days of men, and we sang again of beauty, peace and happiness.

I think, perhaps, that I was gone too long from this world, or perhaps it was the years with my beloved Guidon. For whatever cause, though this is my home and here I shall stay, my heart is still restless, and I do not think it will find its rest here, or in the mortal world, or anywhere this side of the paths of the dead. It is a strange thing, to feel that part of one's self is forever beyond one's reach, but that is the only way I can describe it.

I shall not rush into death, for that is not the way that things must be, but when it appears it will be as a friend and not an intruder.

I wonder sometimes, of the world on the other side of the Great Gate. My people do not pass through any more, for we have no more desire to go into the world of men, but I still wonder. What season is it there? Have the little spring flowers begun to poke up through the snow? Are the horses running on the steppes with the wind in their manes and their nostrils wide to catch the scent of those who would catch them? And those of the race of men whom I loved, do their lines still continue? Do their grandchildren and great-grandchildren still speak their names with pride?

Ah, these are not the questions of one of the Realm, but they are my questions. I lived too long in that world not to care about it, and to wonder.

But enough of such things. My story is almost at an end.

When the first of the flowers began to spring up, I knew it was time. I journeyed to the Great Gate, and opened it with a word. It was difficult to open this time, and I knew that the magic would soon be gone, and the way closed forever. Perhaps a new Gate could be opened, but none of my people had any will to do so. I did not step through into the world of men, but called until a single bird flew through and perched on my finger. I whispered my instructions into the bird's ear, and it flew away again, straight as an arrow. I then went back to the city, which was being rebuilt slowly. New hedges had been planted, and were beginning to sprout up, and several of the people were at work shaping them into their careful patterns.

Time passed, until one day a cry went up from the road. I walked out, and over the hill I saw a woman with hair as bright as the sun at sunrise, red as the sun at sunset, and with a smile like the noonday. She was seated on a white horse, and before her flew a great raven. As she came over the hill, her hair was caught by a gust of wind, and flew out behind her like a banner. I could see that the eyes of all present were on her, and I could see in that moment that she would be a part of this world as I never could be again.

I walked up the path to meet her, and she saw me. For a moment, she looked confused, and I realized how different I must look to her. She had last seen me as a young woman, after the death of her father, when my hair was almost as bright as hers was now. Now she saw a woman with an aged face and silver hair. But before I could say a word, she had halted the horse and was running up the path. Throwing herself into my arms, she embraced me. “Mother,” she whispered, “I'm finally home.”

And so Zarya came to live in the land that she had heard so many stories of in the nursery. Within a day, she was beloved of everyone, and her quick laugh could be heard echoing across the land at all hours.

A feast was given in honor of her coming, and the people of the Realm lifted lights all along the road, and danced for hours under the shimmering curtain of colors.

I did not dance, but smiled and joined in the singing from my seat under one of the new trees that was growing. Viktor sat beside me, watching in silence.

thank you,” I said quietly to him in a lull between songs, “for bringing my daughter.”

I think she will be happy here,” he replied, not taking his eyes from the dancers. “She told me on the journey that she was tired of living among those who aged so fast and that she was ready to come to the place she had heard of so often.”

Was she happy there?” I asked him in a rush. I had not thought of it until long after I had sent for her, and now I feared that I had only taken her away from a happy life to be imprisoned in a world that she had never known.

It is good that you did not see the great cities of the land at the end of your time in the world of men,” he said, pausing to take a drink of wine. “Your kind can never be happy in such places, yet she was still waiting in the city where she had been sent, so that when your word came she would not miss it. She was happy to come, of that you have my assurance.”

Silence fell between us then for a long time. I marveled for a moment at the strange path that our friendship had taken, from that first day in the little house in the clearing. I glanced at him as he watched the dancers, and I knew that he still saw only Tatiana. I would never know his story, I thought, and never understand why such a being as he would come to love one so ordinary as Tatiana had been. But that, perhaps, told me more about him than any story he could ever tell.

This is the last time I will see you,” I said, already knowing the answer to my question. “Once more, you said, and then no one knows.”

Yes. This is the last time we shall meet on this side of death.” And no more words passed between us, for what more can be said? Some friendship have no need of words to say what must be said.

And thus ends the story of my life, both strange and terrible. I would not wish it on any enemy, nor would I have lived any other. Let it be as it may.

Vasilissa the Brave

Vasilissa the Brave

Despite the darkness that still held sway over my heart, those hours in the air were some of the best of my life. Held aloft by hundreds of strong wings, feeling the wind in my face, hair streaming behind me like a banner, below clouds tinted rose and gold by the rising sun: even the Summer Realm had nothing like this.

Some time later, the flock of birds began to descend, slowly moving towards the earth again, and the ceiling of clouds receded into the distance. My feet, now bare, touched the grassy floor of the forest, and I stood in a sunlit clearing. The fallen trees had all rotted into the earth, and I wondered for a moment if I was in the right place. But there before me were the stones of the blasted Gate. The rock was still charred black, but the ground around it was soft and green again, as if no flame had ever touched it. I gingerly placed a hand on the stones; the power in them was disrupted; it felt jagged and rough, almost as though it would break through the stone.

I cast a glance over my shoulder, and the three men stood behind me, scattered sunlight glancing off their helmets. The three bowed slightly, and Viktor stepped forward.

If you will permit it, Vasilissa of the Summer Realm, we would accompany into your land, for I think you will have need of it.”

In truth, I had no desire for accompaniment, for I fully expected to be met with a choking blast of fire and a quick death at the mouth of the dragon. But the refreshed forest gave me pause: if such destruction could recover, even in the passing mortal world, what of the Realm? Could it not be reborn as well?

There is one last thing I must bring with me,” I said, remembering the old tree. “Let me retrieve it, and then we will go into the Realm, and see what is to be seen.”

I darted off into the forest, and within an hour found where the tree had been. The blasted trunk had long since rotted away, my simple protective spells not enough to defend against the wear of time after such damage. But the stump had remained, and the hollow was safe. With a whispered charm, I opened the chamber, and drew out my treasures.

The silver bridle still shone like the moon on clear water; it had been so long since I had been given it that its shape was unfamiliar. It seemed ancient, and it almost was, an artifact from a long-forgotten century. I tucked it into my belt, and unwrapped the next. The golden apple shone so brightly in the dim forest that it almost hurt my eyes. Even now, I could faintly smell the scent of Fyodr’s garden and it brought tears to my eyes. The apple fit in the large sleeve of the robe I wore, and I tucked it there securely, making sure that it would not fall out while I walked. Finally, the tiara, covered with diamonds and shining like the great night sky full of stars. I ran a hand over the delicate metalwork, remembering the look on Guidon’s face when I had worn it for the first time. We had danced at a great ball that his father had given in our honor; I think I hardly sat in my chair until morning broke, so eager was Guidon to dance with me. I could still see the look in his eyes...but no, now was not the time for such memories. I could not even think of Zarya at such a time; she would have the long life of my people, and I would send for her when I knew what awaited in the Realm. Now it was time to do what must be done.
There was a sinking feeling in my heart; I knew that I could not hope for a quick death now. Something awaited me in the Summer Realm, and I must deal with what I found there without flinching.
If you are waiting for me beyond death, my dearest Guidon, watch with me now. I would rather face death itself than this, but my fate is as it is, and it must be so.” With those whispered words, I turned back and joined the three men at the gate.
Viktor held out an old grey cloak, and I slipped it on, covering my form completely; I did not think even the Baba Yaga would know me now.
Then the three men were gone, and in their places stood an eagle, a hawk, and the largest raven I had ever seen. With a screech, the raven leapt up and perched on my shoulder. I placed my hand on the stone of the gate, and spoke the word that would open the way. The hawk glided at my back, the eagle soared over my head, and the raven perched on my shoulder: the time was now.

There was a brief flash of green light, and I stepped through the blasted Gate.

The change was immediate. I moved in one step from the clear chilly air of a forest at the end of winter, to a world of hot and oppressive air, where yellow clouds boiled away for as far as the eye could see. The gentle winds that I had known in my youth were now harsh and hot, stinging the skin with particles of dust. There were no gardens, no green or growing things anywhere, save for black brambles and the occasional anemic thistle. Far away, where the city had once stood gleaming in the sunlight, rose a high black obsidian dome, every edge looking at though it would cut through flesh and straight down to bone.

That must be where the Baba Yaga had set up her rule, I thought, and shuddered at the sight of the monstrous building. It looked as though it had boiled up from the ground. All the lines of power in the land converged there.

Much to my surprise, a city of sorts circled the black tower; rows of little crude cottages rose from the ground, and from their doors I could see figures moving. The people I saw were hunched over, faces lined and grimy, and their steps slow, but I have never felt so great a surge of hope as I did when I saw them.

For these were not mortals, not human beings; these were my own people, the Children of the Realm. Somehow, they had survived the fire of the dragon and the wrath of the Yaga, and were living in the ruins. A voice seemed to beat in my heart, You are not the last.

Not the last,” I breathed, hardly daring to believe it. I made my way carefully down the path into the city, for the road was almost overgrown with brambles, and there were many thorns. I could not help but remember it as I had known it: a wide thouroughfare, with beautiful figures going up and down into the city at all hours of the day and night. On special festivities during the nights, it had beed lined with floating lights, so that it looked like a river, flowing through the hills and illuminating the sky. And now it was scarcely wide enough for one person, and the air was thick with the dust that my feet raised.

The hawk and the eagle had departed, flying off into the ochre sky, to I know not where. But the raven stayed on my shoulder, his sharp eyes catching everything that was to be seen. “I will tell you truth, I am glad of your company,” I said to him, looking out across the village before I entered it. “I had not expected there to be anything here to greet us, but now that I have seen the town, I cannot but do what I can to lift its misery.”

The raven eyed me, but said nothing. Lifting its wings, it flapped into the air, and flew a few paces in front of me. I followed the dark bird into the town.

A few of the other Children of the Realm looked at me as I passed. It seemed so strange to me, to see them in houses like the men in the mortal world, but the air was no longer clear and the winds would have soon ripped apart any hammock or sling that could have been set up. There were no trees in which to sleep anymore, nor any hedges, and they must have set up the houses in a desperate attempt to survive.

Many of them still wore the flowing gowns that I had known in my youth, but they were tattered and stained with ash and mud. Most of the Realmsmen I saw wore loose-fitting robes of rougher materials; not so glorious to look upon, but they would last better in the harsh weather.

I looked carefully into every face I passed, hoping that I might recognize at least one. But the years had been too many, and I had taken no special care to notice appearances when I had lived there before. No glimmer of recognition met my eyes, though this did not surprise me. In fact, I looked much as did my fellow fey; swathed in rough grey cloth, hair turned grey, face aged beyond what was common for our people. I wished I could open my heart to them, tell them what I had seen and how good it was to see them, even in this state, but such a thing was impossible. I could see the fear in their eyes, the fainting spirit that was so unlike anything I had seen in them before. And of course, my arrival must not be so strange as to draw the attention of the dark queen in the obsidian tower.

I thought of the Yaga's yellow teeth and foul breath, and shuddered. Sooner or later, I would see her. There was no help for it, and no escape. But that day need not be today. First I must find shelter of my own, and decide what to do.

I did not dare ask any of the others to open their house to me; it would have been a futile effort, and besides, I needed quiet to think and plan. At the edge of the last cluster of cottages was an empty space, choked with boulders. Throwing my shoulders into the effort, I was able to roll a few of the large boulders into a half-moon shape, and stacked smaller rocks on top.

Though so much had changed, time still moved differently here than it had in the world of men. It would take me time to adjust to having no rapid succession of day and night. What had been long years of warm sunlight and rich night sky would now be decades of hot wind and dim dreariness, followed by a man's lifespan of choking darkness. I grimaced at the thought of it, and kept working.

Finally, my little stone ring had been daubed with mud and a roof made from a length of mud-clotted cloth that I had begged from one of the others. It was not the worst shelter I had stayed in, and I almost laughed at the thought that my time among men could have hardened me enough to live in my own land again. I rested then, the raven keeping watch from the rocks, and wondered what the future held.

I was nothing of any special note here in the Realm. Just another feygirl, young and foolish. Even now, I had nothing with which to defeat the Baba Yaga. She had blasted the Great Gate with blood rites, and called down the dragon; I had a bridle, an apple, a crown, and three birds. My heart sank, and for many hours I could not stir myself to rise.

Finally, the raven flew down into the shelter, and pecked at my feet. He would not go away, even when I kicked, so I steeled myself to get back up. When I left the shelter, the raven took to the air again, and flew down the path towards the black tower. My heart quailed, but I ran after him.

After we rounded the far side of the tower, I saw a huge archway, all of sharp obsidian, that lead into the tower. Guarding it, though no one tried to pass through, was Koschei.

I almost did not think it was him, for he was thin as a skeleton, and his armor was dull and rusted. His horse shifted from hoof to hood, and nipped at the bark of a dead branch that lay in the dust. Fire still shone from Koschei's eyes, but it was not the flame of a warm fire, rather, the dim glow of an ash caught on the wind that will cease to burn in another second.

I drew back, clutching my grey cloak tighter around me. But Koschei's gaze was fixed on the ground in front of him, only occasionally looking up to scan the street. There seemed to be little fear of intrusion.

I lifted my eyes up to the path beyond the archway. The way led up a flight of stone steps, and up to a great set of doors, so large that I did not think anyone could move them. I could feel the power of the land beneath my feet; all of the lines of power converged here, through those doors. That must be where the Great Witch had set up her court. No battle outside the doors could do any good, as long as the Yaga sat in power inside.

Knowing I could not go through those doors, there was no reason for me to try to pass Koschei and go through the archway. I turned to go, but the raven suddenly flew into my face, talons scratching at my eyes. I lifted up my arms to shield myself, and with that sharp gesture, the silver bridle slipped loose from my belt.

I felt a moment of sheer terror as it fell, feeling the weight of it land heavily on the road at my feet. Even in the dim cloud-veiled light, it shone brightly, like clear water under moonlight. Indeed, it was the brightest thing I could see.

I quickly bent over to pick it up as the raven flew away, but froze as I heard a voice call out. It was a high, raspy croak, and it came from behind the archway. “What is that, then?”

I stopped, hand outstretched to snatch the bridle, but unable to do so. I thought that surely she would be able to feel the power that I carried within me, but as had been in her chicken-leg house, the stench of her own magic was so great that she could not distinguish anything from the odor.

And what is it you have, then,” she repeated, hobbling down the steps. Her eyes were bright, and her hands curled up like claws as she reached out for the bridle. “I've not seen a thing of this beauty in many a year.” Her expression was hungry as she gazed at the bridle, and suddenly I knew her flaw. She could control whole worlds, summon the dragon, scorch the earth, but try as she might, she could never create beauty.

She ran a dusty finger along the lines of the bridle, marveling at the smooth purity of the metal. “I have never seen you wandering the streets of my city,” she rasped, “for I know all of the folk here by sight.”

I noticed that she seemed smaller than she had in the world of men, and her skin hung more loosely on her bones. I wondered how much the blasting of the Gate and the summoning of the dragon must have taken from her. And surely the dragon was now bound, for there was no sign of it; how much had she given for that? She ruled, yes, but she was much less than she had been.

I come from the farthest corner of the Realm,” I answered, trying to keep my voice from shaking. “I had heard of the greatness of the tower that had been built, and I desired to see such a wonder. And truly, it is a marvel; I have never seen its like before.”

The witch nodded, eyes still on the bright metal. “Indeed, the tower is great, but it is lacking in certain finer things.” turning suddenly to me, she held up the bridle. “I would have this from you, what price do you ask? I will give up anything you wish, for the land is mine to give!”

For a moment, I could not reply. Her pretense at queenliness, offering the Realm piecemeal as if it were hers to do with as she pleased. I wondered if she would simply strike me down if I asked for something she did not wish to give, but there was no help for it now. The lots were cast, and all that remained was the game. Who knew which of us would win?

Great Queen of the Realm,” I answered, choking back disgust at such a title, “this was a very great gift to me, and I had not thought to part with it. It is very dear to me, and I cannot sell it for any price.” I made as if to take the bridle back, but she snatched it away again.

No, I will give you whatever you ask, enough to make you a great lady if you wish it! Only let me have this bridle, for there is nothing like it in my tower.”

willing myself to dare so highly, I replied, “Very well, then. The price I ask is a third of the Realm. I cannot part with the bridle for less.”

Silence fell between us for a long moment, and the witch's lip curled. I feared for a moment that she would cast the silver back into the dust, and call down fire to burn me, but at last her eyes strayed back to the bright metal.

As you please, then!” she shouted, clutching the bridle in her gnarled hands. “Take the third of the Realm that lies where the sun sets. It is yours.”

Do you swear it,” I pressed, “do you swear by the Realm itself?”

She hesitated again, then nodded. “I swear, by the very Realm itself, that the third of it under the setting sun is now yours.”

I felt a shiver pass through the earth, her words reverberating in power through the land. And I knew that the land was mine, as surely as the stars still shone above the clouds. She would still control the Realm as long as she sat in the center of power, but her power would be less, now.

Very well then, great Queen,” I said, letting my fingers slip loose from the bridle. “It is yours, and may its beauty bring you much joy.”

She nodded in approval, and slipped the bridle into her own belt, marveling at the reflections that the metal cast upon her clothing.

I made my way back to my shelter, and ducked under the cloth that covered it. The game was set, now. The Yaga desired beauty, desired to posess it, more than anything else in the world. I knew what must be done, but my heart was grieved at the thought of surrounding the tiara to her. I did not want to see that horrible face peering forth from under the crown that I had worn for Guidon.

Take heart,” came a rough voice from outside the shelter, and I looked out to see the raven standing in the dusty space. “Take heart, for you cannot lose either beauty or love if they are truly kept in your heart. The crown itself means nothing without the love that was behind it, and that you have forever. It is from the love that the beauty truly comes, and she can never take that away from you.”

I did not wish to give away my plan too quickly, so I did not venture out to the dark tower again for a long time. I talked with the other dwellers of the Realm, and slowly pieced together the story of the doom that had fallen.

One of the young ones had gone out to the mortal world and not been seen again, and it was assumed that it was this one that the Yaga had caught and bled on the stones of the Gate. Fewer and fewer of my kind had been slipping into the world of men, so the Gate was rarely used, and the atrocity not discovered. Then one day, in the middle of fall, when the breeze grew slightly cool, Koschei had ridden his black horse down into the city, like a whirlwind of fire and storm. With a single word, he had filled the paths with billowing smoke, so that no one could see anything. The witch had come behind him, scraping across the ground in her mortar and driving it with the great iron pestle. In the middle of the city, she had stopped and raising the pestle to the sky, begun chanting horrible words in a language that no one understood. The sky grew dark and clouds swirled in, covering the sun and blocking all light. Fire had begun to rain down from the clouds, burning all the grass and cracking the branches of the trees. Then, as the Yaga finished her song, the Dragon came, and all hope was lost. His breath had burned all that could burn, and his tentacles pulled down every tree. The first blast of his breath had swept through the Realm, destroying everything in its path, and it was this that had flattened and burned the trees for so many miles around the Gate.

I grieved with them when they told me the story, and more so when I heard that so many of our fellow fey had simply lain down to die in the wake of the dragon's passing. Seeing no hope, and unable to live without the green grass and soft summer breezes, they had passed from the Realm into nothingness, and the whole earth was now their grave.

Such stories tore at my heart, but served to strengthen my resolve. The others asked who I was, and where I had come from, but I refused to give them answers, only saying that it would be revealed in time.

Finally, I went again to the dark tower, the raven perched on my arm. I walked slowly along the path that would lead me in front of the archway, and drew the golden apple out from my sleeve. Even in the ochre light, the apple shone brighter than the sun through the clouds, and the smell of it was caught by the winds and wafted up into the tower. Even so, Koschei simply sat astride his horse, looking on with dull eyes.

I had scarcely tossed the apple up and caught it in my hand before the Yaga came scurriyng down the steps again.

What? You, back again, and with something even more beautiful than the first,” she screeched, eyes fixed on the apple as I tossed it and caught it again. The scent that came from it was almost driving me mad, for it smelled of the home I had known, all fresh and green and warm, a haunting memories among the dust-choked winds where I now stood.

I beg your pardon, great queen,” I said, catching the apple a final time, and making as if to stow it in my sleeves again. “I did not mean to disturb you. I was simply out walking to see this grand tower again, and I thought to pass the time by playing with the apple.”

Let me see it again,” she begged, clutching at my arm. I almost jerked my arm away, but stopped myself in time. Handing her the apple, I watched as she examined every inch of it, inhaling deeply of the scent. She even began to salivate at it, and I knew that she would not leave the steps without it.

It is just a plaything,” I said, reaching for the apple, but she pushed my hand away.

I will give you a third of my Realm again, if you but give me this apple,” she said, and she was almost panting with desire for it.

I do not know if I wish to part with it, great queen, for though it is a simple thing, it gives me great joy.” I had to gaze at the ground then, not to persuade her of my subservience, but to avert my eyes from her face, for the sight of her blind desire was disgusting to see.

Oh, take the land and be done with it,” she shrieked, clutching the apple to her breast. “I swear by the Realm itself that the third portion of it that lies under the rising sun is now yours!”

again, the surge of power beneath my feet. She did not seem to notice, so fixed was she on the golden apple, but I almost thought she withered again before my very eyes.

May it be according to your wish, then, Queen,” I replied, and made my way back to the shelter. As I walked, I let my fingers brush along the wooden beads at my wrist. The groundwork was laid and the work strengthened, but it would all be for nought if the last failed. I knew the crown would slake both her hunger for beauty and her thirst for power, but it felt as though it would kill me to give it.

When I returned to the humble dwelling, I sat in silence for a long time. The raven watched from outside, but did not speak. The beads made a faint clicking sound as they brushed together, and I found the rhythm of counting them helped keep me calm and focused.

It must be done.

Again, I waited before setting out again. If I approached the tower too short, the Yaga would not yet have grown accustomed to the beauty of the apple and would be less willing to give me my request.

I walked outside again, and looked up at the sky. I wished with all my might that I could see even a hint of sunlight, but the yellow clouds were thick, and boiled away without disclosing the faintest hint of what might lie beyond them. There were no calls of songbirds to lighten the silence, and no sound of running water to make pleasant music to rest to.

As I looked up, I saw two small silhouettes against the clouds: the hawk and the eagle. Though they were quickly gone, my heart was somewhat eased by the knowledge that they had not left me. There was still hope, a cold hard hope though it might be.

The game must play out, and I must do my part. Everything else was up to fate, and I could do nothing to change it.

The day finally came to make the final effort. The light was less now, and I knew that soon the Realm would be plunged into the darkness of night, with no moon or stars to pierce the dark. I wondered, briefly, if daylight would ever come again to the land if I failed.

I washed my clothes as best I could in the muddied water from a stream a few hours' walk away, and hung them to dry in the wind. When I was dressed in them again, I put on the grey cloak, and wove my hair into a braid around my head. Finally, I put on the tiara, knowing that it was the last time I would wear such a thing. Though it was light as a feather, I felt my head drooping under the weight of what was to come.

Finally, I stepped out into the waning daylight, and the raven took his place on my shoulder. Again, the hawk glided behind me, and the eagle above, and we set out down the path, towards the dark tower that stood like a rock in the sea.

As we neared the archway, I held my head high, letting the yellowish light from the clouds catch the diamonds, which tossed the light back in a rainbow of colors. As we neared the archway, I saw Koschei's horse, but it was riderless, and tied to the wall. Feeling a sense of misgiving in my heart, I turned to look for his shadowy rider.

The hawk cried a warning just before I felt the iron grip on my arm. Whirling around, I saw Koschei behind me, and his eyes burned into mine.

Feygirl...” he rasped, and his voice trailed off into a rough breathing. “I knew it must be you. It's always you, in the end, of course you'd be here.”

I tossed a hurried glance over my shoulder. I was not yet quite within sight of the doors beyond the archway, but if the Baba Yaga heard a struggle, she would surely come out to deal with it, and all would be lost. But I could do nothing, and the wraithlike sorceror pulled me closer. Whispering into my ear with fetid breath, he said, “Put an end to it, then! Kill the witch and burn us all.”

I stopped struggling out of sheer surprise. He let go of my arm with a shove, and took a step away. “Yes, you heard. Kill the witch; I am only a shadow of the man I was, and it is because of her! She tricked me, and made me a puppet.” He sneered. “A puppet! Koschei the Deathless, sorceror king of the earth, and he serves a wrinkled old woman with food caught in her teeth.” He turned and shuffled back to his horse, and pulled himself into the saddle again.

end it,” he whispered again, and resumed his silent watch as the hawk and eagle returned to circle around us.

I was shaken, but I did not want to delay any longer. This could not last, and I did not know what Koschei might do now. It was time. With a deep breath, I took a step back onto the path, and in a moment, I was in front of the archway again.

I could hear Koschei breathing heavily, as though his lungs were bellows made of old leather, creaky and leaking air. Then with a scrabbling sound of callused feet on stone, the Grandmother of Witches came flying out of the tower and down the path.

Before I could even speak, she had snatched the tiara from my head, taking more than a few of my hairs with it. I inhaled sharply at the pain, but held back a cry. The old witch was already running her fingers over the gems inset in the crown, and in a moment had set it atop her own head.

It was the moment I had been dreading, when I would see her face peering out from under the tiara that had crowned my own head at the height of my happiness. The moment was everything I had feared, and I realized that it did not matter.

In that moemnt, I saw her for what she truly was. Not a witch of terrifying power, not an unnatural creature who held the power to summon the dragon, but simply an endless desire to possess, to have, to snatch what she could never had gotten for herself out of love or skill. In that split second, with the beautiful crown perched atop her wrinkled stinking head, I pitied her. Even if I died here, struck down by a spell or burned with the dragon's flame, I was more posessor of everything that the tiara meant than she could ever be.

Raising my eyes again, I smiled. “Why, great Queen, it suits you so well! I am glad that it is of a good fit. However, I cannot part with it without a suitable price, for you can see that it is a thing of great beauty and worth.”

She clutched the crown, the precious metal digging into her dry scalp. “I don't care what it costs, I must have the crown! I am the queen, and I must have a crown!”

Of course, but I must have payment for it as well.” I pressed farther, knowing that this was the moment that would determine whether my plan had failed or suceeded.

I will not give you the rest of the Realm,” she snapped, “I will not be Queen of nothing!”

Then let me have my own heart's desire,” I said, wheedling the old woman, “for I have come from so far to see this grand tower of yours. It is the desire of my heart to see such a thing from the inside. Let me but pass through the doors for a single minute, and that will be enough for me.”

This gave the witch pause. She knew as well as I did what was beyond those doors, and she squinted at me for a moment, trying to determine if I posed any threat to the center of her power. I smiled pleadingly and hoped against all hope that she would not recognize the feygirl she had turned into a wooden doll so long ago.

Finally, she gave a slight nod, and turned to go up the path. I followed her, and heard a slight jangling sound as Koschei turned to watch us go. Then I was up the steps and standing in front of the doors.

The witch murmured something and clapped her hands. From the air itself came two pairs of hands; each grabbed one of the iron rings on the doors, and began to pull. With a great groan of metal hinges, the doors slowly swung open. Though the daylight was not bright, the interior of the tower was so dark that I could not see anything past the doors. For a moment, I fancied I was walking into the mouth of the dragon itself.

Then another step and we were through. “One minute only,” snapped the witch. But it was enough.

With a cry, the raven lifted into the air, and I slipped the wooden beads off my wrist. Crying out to the raven, I tossed to beads into the air: “take them, for the prayers of a holy man go with them!” The raven caught the beads around his neck, and flew through the doors into the daylight.

The room into which we stepped was huge, like the great cathedrals I had seen in the cities of men. It was filled with blackness, broken only by the occasional candle. But I could feel the lines of power through the floor, and knew what I had to do.

I turned on the spot, and quickly found the center of the power, the spot from which the Baba Yaga commanded all that happened within the Realm. As she shrieked and ran at me, I lifted up my hands and began to sing a song, a song that pulled the power of the lands that she had given me down to this spot.

The Realm was sick, and dying, and what power it now had was not the great green magic that had once been a part of everyday life. But power there was, and I shaped it with my voice, singing at the Yaga with everything I had. She reeled back, clutching her throat as if choking, and the tiara fell to the floor, rolling under the ghastly obsidian throne that say at the far end of the hall.

Then the floor shook, and I heard the sound of breaking stone and rending metal. The sound of roaring flame, and I knew that the dragon had been freed from his chains. I heard the scream of the eagle, the loud hunting cry of the hawk, and the harsh croak of the raven, and knew that the battle outside must be left in their hands.

I took a breath, and as the song ceased for that brief instant, I saw the witch come flying at me, and her hands closed about my throat.

Time seemed to stop, and I choked, unable to release either song or breath, and I clawed at the Yaga's hands, trying to pry them away. She clung to me like death itself, shrieking and biting at my face.

I could hear the roar of the dragon outside, and the roar of flames again and again. We had failed, then, and the Realm would fall into total darkness, with the Queen of witches and the dragon left to fight each other for the pieces.

With a gasp, the Baba Yaga's eyes opened wide, and her grip slackened. I pried her hands away from my throat and coughed, falling to the floor. I looked up, trying to catch my breath, and saw a sprinkle of red drops falling to the floor. The Yaga staggered to the door, staring in horror at Koschei, who stood with a shard of obsidian in his hand. “May you die by your own magics, witch,” he hissed into her face, and stabbed out with the shard again.

The Baba Yaga ducked away, and scrambling onto her throne, reached into her robes and pulled out an egg. Holding it aloft, she screeched, “You can never defeat me, faithless slave! I hold your soul here in my hands, and I can crush it at my whim!”

She made a fist around the egg, but I had recovered my voice and my breath, and the song began again, stronger than before, weaving my charms around her. She writhed in the throne, and fell to the floor, egg falling from her hand and rolling away into the darkness. I kept the song strong, and it grew in volume and strength as the power continued to flow into me.

I sang of the Realm by night, with the stars overhead and the shimmering curtains of color flowing through them. I sang of the moon and the sun, and of warm summer days spent in the shade of trees with rivers running nearby. I sang the Realm back into itself, and the witch withered with every note.

Finally, when I could sing no more of the land, the song changed, and I sung of love. Of the pang of loving without return, the joy of love shared, and the dreadful loss of a lifelong love. My tears flowed as freely as the song, and something new had entered into the magics, neither charm nor spell nor power of the land. And the witch gave a final strangled cry, and fell to the ground. Flame leapt up from the spot, and before the final notes of the song had died away, she was nothing but a twisted blackened skeleton, warped jaw frozen in a skeletal scream.

There was silence. I could no longer hear the dragon roaring, nor flames burning, nor anything outside the tower. Koschei leaned against a wall, bleeding and breathing with great difficulty.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something in the darkness at the edge of the room. Walking over, I picked it up, and found myself holding the egg. Inside it, I knew, was the soul Koschei had traded for his power.

It was such a tiny thing, I thought, rolling the egg in my palm, and yet it contained everything that made Koschei who he was. So delicate, so easily broken, and yet eternal if nothing came to crush it.

Looking past the egg, my eyes met the sorcerer's. His eyes were almost dim now, with only hints of the fiery blaze that had once sprung from that gaze. His breathing was labored, and he gasped, “Crush it. Have done with me, for I am done with everything. Put an end to this miserable existence.”

I tightened my fingers around the egg, feeling the shell in my palm, ready to pop. But then I opened my hand and knelt, carefully setting the fragile thing on the floor before stepping back.

No,” I said quietly, more tired than I had ever been in my life. “I cannot do this thing. You saved my life, and the entire Realm, whether you wished it or no. I cannot do such a thing after that deed.”

I heard a sound at the door, and looked up. There stood three men, with helmets bearing the wings of the eagle, the hawk, and the raven. They were covered in blood, and their armor was dented and torn, but the dragon could no longer be heard. It was over.

With a snarl, Koschei stood up. Reeling, he ran to where the egg lay on the stone floor, and raised his foot. “End it, I said! There is nothing left here!” And with those words, he brought the heel of his boot down upon the egg.

The shell shattered into a hundred tiny fragments. There was a sickly yellow light that filled the room for a moment, and the smell of sulfur burned my lungs, then all was dark again, and the withered body of Koschei lay cold and dead upon the floor.

I collapsed, my spirit too exhausted to hold my body up any longer. I had given all the power I had to end the Baba Yaga's reign, and I had nothing left. But it was over and the Realm was free. I had come home at last.

When I came to my senses again, my face and hands were being washed by Viktor, with water that was clearer than any I had seen in the streams since my return. He saw me looking into the bowl, and smiled. “We sunk a new well, not far from the stream. It is full of good water, and I think the stream will soon run clear again, too.”

I sat up, and saw that I was on the ground in front fo the small shelter I had built. I looked toward the city, expecting to see the obsidian tower rising against the sky, but it was gone.

yes,” Viktor said, “it crumbled within an hour of the Baba Yaga's death. It was only her will and her spells that had created it, and it could not long outlast her. We got you out before it happened, but only by a little.”

The sky was still cloudy and dim, and the ground as dry and dusty as it had been. Some part of me had hoped that the renewal would be quicker, more noticeable, like a great green carpet spreading out from the place of victory. But of course, it was not like that. The damage that had been done was real, no illusion, and the renewal must be equally real. It would be a very long time before the Realm was healed, and I wondered now if it could ever really be the same again.

My eyes were drawn to a crowd that had gathered around. The people of the Realm were slowly coming, surrounding us, looking on in confusion and fear.

go to them,” Viktor whispered. “Speak to them. They have lived for too long like children in this land, knowing nothing of pain or loss. The great wars of your race are far in the past, and this is their first great grief. You are the only one among them who has trod that path, and only you can lead them out of it.”

I stood, and took a step toward the crowd, then turned to look over my shoulder. All three men stood there, silent and strange. “will I ever know your story? Will I ever see you again?”

Viktor looked at me, and I thought I saw a faint smile through his black beard. “Once more will we meet, Vasilissa of the Summer Realm, and after that who can say? Perhaps we shall see each other in the paths of the dead, and perhaps beyond death itself. But that is not for you or I to decide.”

and then the air was full of the sound of birds, and a great flock descended from the sky. When they birds flew away, I was alone with my people.

For a few moments, we all looked at each other. We were alone, and the land was nothing but dust and brambles under a choking yellow sky. What did they expect of me? I had done what I could, I had done away with the one who had destroyed so much, but even I could not bring back what was destroyed in a moment.

When my grief and anger were too much for words, I opened my mouth and sang it into the sky. My people had often sung under the stars and in the summer days. We had sung of joy, of peace, of happiness and contentment, and the beauties of our world. And now I lead them in a new song, a song that my heart had been learning since I was exiled from the Realm, and one I now knew by heart. For the first time, we lifted out voices and sang of grief and loss and pain.

When the song was ended, we began to work.

Vasilissa the Fool

Vasilissa the Fool

I stumbled through the snow and the blasted trees for days, unaware of my direction. I could not keep my mouth from babbling, over and over, “The dragon...the dragon in the Summer Realm...the blasted trees...” Everywhere I turned, I seemed to see the shadow of the dragon looming on the horizon, spreading its wings to cover the land, and I kept running.

It was many miles before I came out of the destruction around the Gate, but I could never escape the sight that had been burned into my mind.

Time moves strangely enough for a child of the Summer Realm in the world of men, but when such an exile goes mad, it loses all meaning entirely. How long did I wander? I do not think I can ever know.

The snows gave way to a cold spring, and then to summer, and still I wandered. When I happened to pass near a village, the people would sometimes take pity on me and give me bread or cheese, and I ate without thinking.

The seasons passed, summer into fall, fall into winter, winter into spring, and around and around again and again. The shadow of the dragon lay long across the land, and I marveled that all around me were blind to it. Great machines of war moved across the land. They had bodies of cold iron and harsh steel, and the fire of the dragon spewed from them. The machines tore into the forces of men, wreaking destruction and death. Blood ran thick through the mud churned up by the chains of the machines. I thought such machines could have come from the mind of Koschei himself, so full of fire and iron were they.

There were deep trenches in the mud, and wire like thorns stretched for miles. The rains poured down and filled the trenches with water and blood, and the bodies of men lay facedown in the mire. Strange clouds rose and moved across the land, leaving men choking and gasping in their wake. I saw men burned all over, burned by the cloud, and screaming to die, and yet they did not die.

One summer, I found myself in a small town in the west of the land. I shuddered to see the shadow of the dragon again in my fractured mind, and wandered the town until nightfall.

When the stars began wheeling overhead, I was still wandering the town, mind whirling with images of fire and ash, blood and cloud and mire, and the screams of those who could not die.

In the stillness of the night, when the darkest was at its greatest, I heard a shout coming from the basement of a house, and then the sound of gunshots. Clapping my hands over my ears, I fell to my knees in the snow, and wailed, “The dragon! The dragon spreads his wings over the land, and there is no-one left to stand against him! The shadow of the dragon falls!”

I saw them carry the bodies out of the basement, so many, so many bodies, and there was blood on the path.

In the west, an iron eagle rose, and its soldiers marched with blood red banners and a broken cross. Soon it reached out to take the lands already claimed by the dragon, and the air was filled with smoke that smelled like burning flesh.

Winter came, and the snow fell hard. My wanderings took me to a great city by the sea, and the soldiers of the iron eagle hemmed it in on every side. Inside the city, men shuffled slowly to jobs that could not buy bread, for there was no bread to be had. Women cried when they could give their children no food, and the children cried for the pain in their stomachs. I saw the bodies build up, and yet the city did not fall. Even as they lay dying, the people refused to surrender, and in the midst of so much ugliness was a kind of harsh beauty, and I wept because of it.

In time, the iron eagle faded, and the air no longer stank of smoke. But the blood did not stop, and everywhere I turned I found the roar of the dragon in my ears. Raving, I wandered through the land, and I could not escape it.

The little churches, of the kind that I had come to love during my life in the village, were torn down or used for other purposes, and I saw the painted face of many a saint go up in smoke. I grieved for their loss, for though I did not believe in the world they portrayed, I knew I would miss their beauty.

The seasons kept up their dance, passing by too quickly for me to even notice them. Finally, in the snows of the frozen north, I knew it was over. My mind was gone, whirled into madness at the sight of the dragon breathing flame over the burnt cinders of the Summer Realm, but my heart had never given up, and had impelled me in my wanderings. But even that was now giving out. The Summer Realm, gone. Guidon, gone. Even the things I had loved about the world of men, gone. I did not know what might await me on the other side of death, but I knew that even oblivion would be preferable to madness.

My feet slowed their restless wandering, slowed again, and finally stopped. The snow was falling thick, and the world around me was hidden behind its curtain of grey. Off in the distance, I could see a small hut, with a single candle burning in the window. Behind me were the woods, but I had no will left to walk into them, but dropped to my knees in the snow where I stood.

Let this be an end to it, then,” I whispered, the madness parting for a moment as I fell. Then I lay in silence, and spoke no more. In minutes, the snow had covered me and I knew no more.

Even now, I am not sure how long I lay covered in the snow. My mind drifted where it would, into the abyss and beyond. Perhaps I was there for years, or only hours. There is no way to know, and in the end, it does not matter. I do know that after a period of time in which my madness took control and I knew not who or where I was, I came to myself somewhat, and found myself in a small room where a saint with gold-painted face looked over me. In the corner of the room knelt a man in a rough brown robe, and I could faintly hear the clicking of wooden beads as he whispered his prayers.

I did not move, but looked around the room. It was simple, with bare walls save for the single painted saint, and a small box of earth that held several crude candles of varying lengths. Soot from the candles had stained the wall, and the room smelt of wax, incense, and sweat.

As I lay quietly, feeling warmth slowly come back to my limbs, I noticed that for the first time in many years, the shadow of the dragon no longer lay long across my mind, and I could reason again. The memories of all that I had seen were still strong, and full of horror, but I was myself once more.

When the robed man rose from his knees with a grunt, I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep, and he did not investigate further. For two more days, I kept up the pretense, waiting and watching. He did nothing save a few chores to keep his cottage in order, partake in meals of the ultimate simplicity, and say his prayers for hours every day.

I caught glimpses of his face, risking a quick glance when his attention was elsewhere. He was a middle-aged man, with streaks of grey in his dark hair and beard. Both were tidy, but not often brushed or trimmed. He never spoke, save in prayer, though I heard him hum a chant melody from time to time.

After several days had passed in this manner, I decided that he was no servant of the dragon, nor a practitioner of any of the cruelties I had seen in my wanderings. So when he returned to the house carrying a bucket of water, he found me sitting on the edge of the little cot, watching him in silence.

He made a sign to ward against evil, and I saw his lips move in a quick and silent prayer, but he did not shout. After a minute of staring at each other, he slowly set the bucket of water down it its usual place near the fire, and set about the work of stoking the flames with wood that sat nearby. When the fire was roaring again, he sat in front of it and watched me in silence.

After some time had passed and he showed no signs of breaking the silence, I finally decided to speak. “Where am I?”

In Russia. Approximately one hundred and twenty miles north of Novosibirsk, though I've never been certain of the exact distance.” His voice was rough, almost rusty, and I wondered how often he found occasion to speak, surrounded by wilderness as he was.

you'll have to excuse me,” he continued, tossing another log onto the fire. “I see so few souls out here, I am afraid I have lost the knack for conversation. Was never good at it anyway. Truth be told, human conversation is frowned upon, though not completely forbidden.” He eyed me carefully, green eyes intent and focused. “However, I am of the thought that you are not human, or not entirely. The question is, what are you?”

At one time, such a question would have had me on my feet in an instant, summoning the forces of the earth to convince the questioner, or at least standing tall and proclaiming my heritage. But I could barely even sit up. I still felt weak, and my heart was sick with all that I had witnessed since my disastrous attempt to return home.

I am Vasilissa of the Summer Realm. I do not know what your people call my kind, or if any of them even know of us. They are all dead now, and I am the last.”

Simply speaking the words, giving voice to my deepest fears, felt like a red hot poker in my belly, a lance of iron through the heart. I dropped my eyes, and did not gaze further than my hands, folded cautiously in my lap.

Silence fell again, and the man did not speak again for some time. After it had grown dark outside, he got up from his prayers and cut a rough loaf of bread into large slices and gave me one, along with some soft cheese. It was not fine food, but very filling. I did not remember the last time I had eaten, and the bread was soon gone.

I am sorry I do not have more to offer,” he said, staring into the fire. “The life of a hermit does not permit for excess, and I never bake more bread than I can eat in a few days. I will bake more tomorrow, and make more cheese. The goat does not produce much milk, but it is enough.”

forgive me, I had not meant to intrude,” I started, but was surprised when he began to laugh, a funny barking sound.

Intrude? I plucked you from the snow, on my way back from the forest to chop wood. I knew then you were no human being, for you lay in the snow breathing, though you were covered in ice. Any human would have been long dead, but not you.” He took a bite of bread and chewed it thoughtfully. “Perhaps it was not the best idea to bring you here. I am sworn to solitude, and women are certainly forbidden. But I am afraid I am unaware of any rules concerning the fey. Perhaps I ought to sprinkle you with holy water, just to be sure.”

I blinked, for he seemed to be laughing at me with his eyes, but I was unsure. “I was mad, out of my mind after seeing the destruction of my land. I shall leave you to your solitude; my mind is my own now, and I thank you for your kindness.”

He shook his head, and waved me back to the cot. “No, forgive me, I am unused to talking to anyone but myself or the Lord, and I was not clear. It is my joy to help, and my duty to show hospitality to any that the Lord sends my way. He sent you, and in His name, I welcome you. You surely would not deprive me of doing my duty, would you?” And again, I thought he laughed.

The next few days passed in similar manner; I made many offers to leave, but he protested that it was his joy to share what he had, and that I was a guest sent by his God. I spent many hours in rest, letting my thoughts wander back over the strange course of my life. Every moment, I saw in my memory the fire and ash of the few moments I had glimpsed into the Summer Realm, and I still saw the dragon, that seven-headed beast with sea creature's tentacles, roaring out his fiery bile over the land. Surely none of my race could survive such an inferno.

How had the dragon come? In all the stories I had heard in my youth, it was simply that: a story. The dragon, evil from beyond time itself, imprisoned in the void between the stars, condemned to darkness forever, and forever desiring to burn the world of earth and water. But there were always rumors that if one had the will, the desire, the knowledge, and the power, and knew the moments when the stars would be aligned properly, the dragon could be called down.

There was only one being I knew with the the desire for such horrors, and the power to summon the creature. Only the Baba Yaga could have done it; Koschei desired to rule himself, and he was but a pale shadow of what he had once been. No, the grandmother of witches was the only one.

I forced my mind to go back to the last moments outside the Gate. I had been so focused on what lay beyond the Gate that I had taken no notice of its stones. I journeyed back, trying my best to recall everything of my surroundings. So much of the area had been burnt and charred black. But the stones had a face that was protected from the Gate...had I seen it? Yes...Yes, I had placed my hand there for a moment before speaking the words that opened the Gate. My fingers had touched something that stained the stone, but could never be entirely washed away, nor burned clean. Blood.

It would not have been that hard to do, perhaps. To wait near the Gate until some child of the Summer Realm came through with guard down. Perhaps she, or her puppet Koschei, had lain in wait, capturing their prey and holding him until the stars aligned. And then...A few words of power, perhaps a few etched symbols on the skin of the victim, and finally the sharp flash of a knife.

Blood opens many things that were better shut.

I will never know exactly what happened to open the gate, and any who do know cannot tell me. Perhaps it is better so; it is best not to learn the details of some evils.

However it had happened, she must have gotten inside and from there, found a place from which to wait until the time was right to open the way for the dragon. It would not have been difficult. There were no guards nor warriors in the Summer Realm to keep watch. Once upon a time, when my people warred with the goblins and other creatures of darkness that inhabited the land before the age of man, the warriors of Hyperborea were the greatest ever seen. But that was long before I was born, and most of those who had known that time of war had grown tired, and passed into death. And while they took with them the memories of fear and death and bloodshed, they also took the last of our knowledge of defense. Even if we had been able to raise an army, we should not have known what to do with it.

And so the Grandmother of Witches and her puppet Koschei would have slipped through the Gate with little note, and made their preparations in peace. And then, when the stars were right, the dragon came down in a blast of fire.

I felt numb inside. For so many years, I had wandered with an aching heart, trying to find a way back to my land. Then the years with Guidon, wanting nothing more than one more day with him. Now I had neither, and no place on earth to call home.

One day as I walked through the woods near the hermit’s hut, I saw the first hints of new green growth pushing up through the last of the snow. Spring would be here soon, though there would be weeks of cold yet to come. A gust of wind blew a few strands of hair over my shoulder, and I was astonished to see that they were grey. Reaching behind me, I pulled the mass of my hair forward; it was pale and shone like silver. Hurrying to a pool of water, I looked in. My face was similar to the face that I had known so long, but aged beyond what could be called youth, though I did not look old by the standards of mortals. This was no glamor, no appearance of age that I had cast on for disguise, but something else, something I had only seen on the very oldest of my people. And behind this new face was a cascade of silver, hair turned pale from the century of madness.

I heard a shout and looked up to see the hermit pointing to the horizon. A large black cloud was rising, faster than any storm cloud I had ever seen. It moved toward us with a sound of rushing water. I stood rooted to the spot; something about the cloud seemed familiar. As it grew closer, I finally saw that it was not a cloud, after all, but a flock of birds so large that it blocked out the sun. As the sky darkened, the birds swept here and there around me, and suddenly three men stood in the woods. The first was dressed all in bronze, and he bore a helmet with the wings of a hawk emblazoned on it. The second was a young man all in rich brown leather, with hair the color of honey, and on his helmet were the wings of the eagle. The third man was familiar to me: Viktor, armored in ebony, with his black beard brushing his chest, and bearing the sign of the raven.

The other two looked at him, and Viktor nodded and stepped forward. “Vasilissa, you have wandered long enough. It is time you returned to the Summer Realm. It is your world, and where you belong, and the world will be incomplete until you return.”
I looked down at my feet, wrapped in rags and sinking into the soft earth. “I cannot go home now. The dragon has been summoned, and the Summer Realm is nothing but fire and ash now.”
so it might have been, when you first set foot there a hundred years ago as men reckon it,” he replied, his voice as deep and steady as a waterfall. “But all things change, even in that world, and you must return. You cannot stay here, and this is known to you as well.”
I have lived here for hundreds of years, why not stay? Why not find a little cottage in a clearing, and live there forever? What of your own houses? You are not of the world of men any more than I, yet here you stay.”
The birds that whirled overhead let out an ominous shriek. “And perhaps one day you will know our stories, as we know yours, and then you may judge.” The man with the eagle wings on his helmet spoke with a voice that sounded like a great bell. “But until that day, do not presume to speak of what you do not know.”
There was a tense silence, broken only by the sounds of the birds winging through the sky. The monk had long since retreated to his hut. Finally, I spoke.
So be it. I will return.” If the Realm still burns, I thought to myself, at least I can throw myself into the flames, and be done with it.
The three men bowed slightly to acknowledge my words, and Viktor spoke again. “you have a day to prepare. At sunrise tomorrow, we will come for you. Be ready and wait for us at the edge of the forest.” And with that, the birds descended again, whirling like a great storm, and when they arose into the air a moment later, the three men were gone.

When I opened the door of the hut, I found the monk kneeling, whispering his prayers feverishly. I closed the door to keep out the chill of the early spring air, and waited. When he was gone, he got to his feet.
I thank you greatly for your hospitality,” I said, voice low and steady, “and for all you have done to bring me to health again. But now I must return to my home. I leave tomorrow with the dawn.”
He nodded, saying nothing. The hut was still for a long time as he went about his daily tasks, and I sat, thinking about the journey ahead. As night fell, he stoked the fire again until the whole room was warm, then sat in front of it with his back to the flames, prodding the fire with an old charred stick.

It was still dark when I arose the next morning, and dawn was only a thin grey line on the horizon. The hermit had been sleeping in the stable while I was on the cot, and I walked by the small shed quietly so as not to disturb his sleep. I had only taken a few steps out the door, when I heard his rough voice calling from the shed. “A moment, before you leave.” He hurried through the door, his rough brown robe a poor protection from the cold.

His voice was still husky from sleep, and he spoke quickly, stumbling over his words. “I still do not know what you are, nor do I have any idea why the Lord brought you to my doorstep. But I know in my heart that all things are coming together, that this is the path for you. And I will keep you in my prayers as you journey. And so, dasvedanya. Go with God, Vasilissa.” He slipped the string of wooden beads from his wrist, and pressed them into my hands.

Take these with you, as a reminder of my prayers. I believe God is at work even among your kind, and He will show you what you must do.” I stood, fingering the beads, and wondering if I should give them back. But the gesture had been kindly meant, and it was clear that he placed a great amount of faith in the beads. I slipped them onto my own wrist, doubling the loop of string so that it would not fall off, for the circlet was made for much larger hands than mine.

Thank you...” I began, and realized with a start that I had never learned his name.

In the dim grey light, I could just make out a smile on his bearded face. “Athos. My name is Brother Athos.”

Thank you, Athos,” I finished. “I only wish I had something to give you in return. But I have faith that no deed of kindness goes unrewarded, and may your reward be great indeed.”

With that, I turned, and left the world of men behind for the last time. Whatever might come, this was the end of something that could never come again.

The three men stood waiting at the edge of the wood. Wordlessly, I approached them and stood quietly. As the glowing edge of the sun broke over the rim of the world, the air was suddenly full of birds, and I was among them, borne up into the dawn.