I lived the life of a wolf for many years, though I never joined with a pack, as is the way of nature with such creatures. Alone, I hunted; alone, I devoured my prey; alone, I slept through harsh winter's nights. My coat grew thick and ragged, and for a time I forgot the tongues of men, and learned to howl at the moon that shone so brightly at night. Was it madness or grief? I cannot say; perhaps grief is a form of madness, or madness only a wild grief at man's lot in life. But as it stood, there was more of wolf than woman about me.
I wandered, rarely hunting the same grounds twice. I saw many strange things during those years. I saw men kill one another for food and the love of woman, and I saw men die protecting their crops and their wives. It was a wild time, and the spirit of darkness was over the whole world.
And then, in the midst of my wanderings, I came upon a strange thing. I was deep in the heart of one of the largest forests in the land, and expected to find no sign of settlement, but in a blinding snowstorm, I found myself huddled up against a stone wall. This was no ruin, either, but a wall in good condition, solid and well-joined, of fine stone. I walked the boundaries of the wall, and finally found a finely wrought gate of gold, and inside a garden, untouched by the snow. It was as if summer itself lived there, and kept the snows at bay. The grass was green and thick, the castle within tall and stately, and the gardens smelled like paradise itself. For a moment, I was awash with memories of my home, and the exile weighed so heavily upon me that I thought my heart would crack with the remembrance. In the middle of the garden stood a tree, with leaves green as jade and a trunk as straight and true as an arrow. And all over the tree grew apples of gold, shining with the light of the sun itself. It was a strange sight, even to one who has seen as much as I, and I was transfixed by the sight.
I slept by the gate that night, eyes fixed on the tree, and breathing in the smell of summer. When morning came, I was nearly buried under a drift of snow, but the storm had passed, and the sun was shining brightly. The sight of the garden by sunlight would have made me weep, had I still eyes that could cry.
I came back to the garden again and again, almost always by night, for fear of being discovered. It knew no seasons, and summer reigned forever there. Perhaps another of my race had once been lord of the place, or had granted a favor to the family who ruled in the place; even now, I do not know the answer to the mystery. But I was nearly sick of my desire for the Summer Realm, and I could not draw myself to leave the mysterious garden behind.
In time, I began to grow familiar with the inhabitants of the castle, for they often wandered in their garden on clear nights, when the air within the walls was warm and fragrant, and the sky overhead was filled with stars. There was an old man in fine robes, whom I took to be the lord of the house. He moved slowly, and I often thought he did not see the garden at all, but he took much care for the tree with the apples of gold, and frequently took his own knife to an errant sprout or damaged twig. He never ate of the apples, but contemplated them, their light reflected in his rheumy eyes.
Less often seen in the garden was a blond haired young man, the tsar's eldest son. When he did venture out into the grounds, it was only in the company of the old man, and he never paused under any of the trees, nor did he stoop to smell a flower. Indeed, he gave no notice that he was even aware of the scents wafting in the air, nor the bright colors of the flowers. Snatches of his conversations reached my ears through the gate; he was much concerned over his inheritance, how the castle should be managed, and how his brothers spent their time. When he talked, the old man seemed much wearied, but he always gave answer.
The second son visited the garden more frequently than his elder brother, but with a different purpose. He loved to lounge in the long grass, and frequently took fruit from the trees to devour as he gazed up at the sky. His hands were soft and fair, and his brow unfurrowed by any care. Though I did not care for the elder's blindness to the garden, I liked his indolence even less. He would have been equally pleased in any common summer garden, I thought, so long as he did not have to take a thought to maintain it. Here, an army of servants kept the garden in perfect order, and the harvest of it was available for the plucking at any moment that he might desire it.
But there was another, a third son. He was younger by far than the other two, and his coloring was so different that I wondered if perhaps he did not share the same mother as the first two men. His hair was a fiery red, and his skin pale as milk, and his eyes were almost violet. He was most often to be found in the garden at night, lying back to watch the stars pass overhead, or examining some newly bloomed flower. He seemed hardly out of boyhood, and I did not think he could yet grow a beard. But he showed more attention to the garden than any other save his father, and there was little that escaped his notice. I had to be particularly careful when he was in the garden, for he was the most likely to become aware of my presence.
In the quiet hours of the morning, the garden was empty, and all in the castle were asleep. I thought more than once of trying to slip through the gate and enter the garden for myself. But the bars were placed closely together, and finely intertwined, and my wolf form could not pass through. In any case, I did not think that the garden was meant for such as I. I knew deep inside my heart that I should leave it behind, for my doom was out in the world, but I could not bear to tear myself away from a place that reminded me so much of what I had lost.
One night, when the woods were cold and dark, and I was almost asleep in front of the great garden gate, I saw a bright flash, and opened my eyes to see what had happened.
There, on the top of the tree that bore the golden apples, sat a bird unlike any I had ever seen. It was almost as large as I was, and its feathers shone like bright flames. It perched with a lightness and grace that seemed strange for its size, and quickly devoured a single golden apple. It shone all the brighter afterwards, and shone like the sun in summer. I wondered that the light did not awake those in the castle, but all was quiet. After preening for a moment, the bird flew away again, and all was dark and silent.
Dawn came swiftly that morning, and I had not yet left my watch in front of the gate when the tsar came down the steps. He seemed hurried, and went straight to the foot of the tree. His shouts woke the castle, and soon all of the inhabitants were gathered around the tree.
“Do you see?” he shouted, gesturing at the golden apples. “There is one missing! Someone has stolen into the garden and taken one of my precious apples!” The others looked at the tree, uncertain; the tree was full of apples, and it would have been difficult for anyone to be sure that one was missing unless he counted them every day.
The gate was directly across from the castle, with the tree between, so I could see the look on the faces of those who gathered. The eldest son did not even look at the tree, but watched his father, concerned. The middle son showed little emotion of any kind, but seemed ready to return to his bed in the castle. The youngest looked up at the tree, and he showed no doubt about the missing fruit: I wondered if he, too, counted the apples every day. He had nothing of his father's miserly concern about him, however.
“I must know who has done this,” the tsar continued, turning to the two oldest sons. “you allowed this to happen! You will find out who has done it! Whichever of you can catch the thief, he shall receive half of my kingdom when he brings me the thief, and shall inherit the whole of it when I die.” At these words, the middle son seemed to come awake, and listened more carefully.
His brother stepped forward, face flushed. “Father! As the eldest son, I have the right of inheritance. I honor your decision, but at least let me have the first watch.” He was trembling, and I could see that the thought of losing his inheritance had shaken him.
The tsar looked between him and the middle son, who simply shrugged, and said languidly, “Let it be so, I will catch the thief for you whether he takes the first watch or no. Be it as you wish, father.”
“Very well,” the tsar assented, turning back to the older child. “Aleksandr, you will keep watch in the garden tonight. Take care that you do not fall asleep, for if you do, the loss will be great, and your brother will inherit the lands I have set aside.” He looked around at the people of the household who still stood watching uneasily. “You will all be my witnesses: I hereby vow that whichever of my sons finds and catches he who has stolen the apple will be my heir. So it is done.”
“So it is done,” the crowd repeated.
“Now, let us go about our day,” he ordered, waving a robed arm. “There is nothing to be done here until nightfall.” slowly the crowd moved away, each to his appointed task, but the old man stood where he was, gazing upward longingly at the tree. I thought for a moment that he might stay rooted to the spot all day and keep the night watch himself, but with a deep sigh, he lowered his eyes and walked slowly back into the castle.
I quickly sneaked away from the gate, lest the groundskeepers found me, and found a pheasant's nest. I devoured the bird greedily, for my hunting had been scarce lately. With a full belly, I found a large log that would hide me from sight, and settled in to sleep until night came.
As the sun set, the chill began to settle into the air, and I awoke. The sun was setting over the horizon, and I made my way back to the gate of the garden. As I took up my watch, I could see Aleksandr exit the castle, and begin pacing the garden. He did not stay by the tree, but walked over the entire garden, eyes on the path at his feet. He seemed lost in his thoughts, and he muttered to himself as he walked. When he passed near the gate, I heard him talking quickly to himself. “He cannot disinherit me, surely he cannot be so fickle. Piotr hasn't the head for the tsardom, and the lands would quickly go to ruin, surely he can see that. And Fyodr is far too young, and too quick to emotion, he would rule with his heart and bring ruin to the people. Surely my father can see this; he would not agree to let me keep first watch if he did not intend for me to retain my inheritance.” He continued in this vein until he passed out of my hearing, though I could still hear the faint murmur of his words, like troubled waters flowing constantly over a stream clogged with rocks and twigs. From time to time he seemed to come to himself and look up worriedly at the tree, and scan the walls of the garden, but all was quiet, and he would soon return to his pacing and talking.
The night wore on, and I could tell that he was tiring. So much walking and worrying was bound to drain his energy eventually; the night was warm and the air heavy with the scent of summer, and he sat down to rest his legs. His eyes were fixed on the tree, but they were beginning to close, though his lips kept moving in the constant stream of fretfulness.
Sometime before dawn, I noticed that his murmuring had ceased; as I watched, he drifted off into a moment of sleep. At that instant, the bird of flame appeared over the wall of the garden, and silently alit in the top of the tree again. I thought to howl for a moment, to sound the alarm, but I held my peace. This was not my affair, I knew, and I did not care to change the course of events. All I wanted was the peace to visit the garden and be close to the air of my home. In truth, I had almost forgotten that the garden was not, itself, my homeland.
In a moment, the bird had swallowed another shining apple, and, plumage shining like sunrise, quickly departed. The flash of its leave-taking woke poor Aleksandr with a start, and he looked about him wildly. The bird had left no trace of its passing, and I knew that the young man did not know the number of apples upon the tree. Perhaps he did not even remember falling asleep, for it had only been a moment.
When dawn stretched across the garden, the tsar came out to inspect the tree. His eyes darted over the shining apples anxiously, and when the number revealed the night's theft, his face grew red with rage. “You are no son of mine! You could not even stay awake long enough to chase the thief away, and another one of my precious apples is gone!”
Aleksandr tried to protest, growing pale as he realized his error. “Father, I did not see a thief, and I was here in the garden all night. I never laid myself down to sleep, only sat for a while to rest my legs!”
“Rest your eyes and your brain, more's the truth,” the tsar spat. “The tree does not lie: there is now one less apple than there was at this time yesterday. Enough! If you cannot keep your eyes open long enough to watch a simple tree, how can I trust you to watch over the realm I have built! No! Piotr, move your lazy bones, come stand before me!”
The middle son, brown hair still mussed from his sleep, walked clumsily over to where his father stood, trying his best not to let his lingering sleepiness show. “I am here, Father. I shall not disappoint you.” He smirked, bringing a redness to his brother's face. Meanwhile, the young red-haired Fyodr watched silently, taking in everything without concern or judgement.
The tsar looked Piotr over with a harsh eye. “Until now, I have considered you the lesser of my two eldest sons, and the less fit to rule. But perhaps I have been wrong. After all, Aleksandr cannot even keep himself awake for one night's watch. If you can do better, then the land is yours.” With a rustle of silks, he turned on his heels and walked angrily back into the castle, leaving the household to slowly scatter to their daily work.
Again, I returned to the woods, and found a patch of sunlight to sleep in. The forest was quiet, and I knew of no other predators in the area to cause me harm in my sleep. The leaves that covered the floor of the forest had caught the light of the sun, and kept its heat; I slept in comfort until the rim of the sun sunk below the horizon and night fell. I shook myself awake, and returned to my watch by the garden gate.
Piotr took his time leaving the castle, and he carried an armful of blankets with him. He spread one at the bottom of the steps that lead from the castle into the garden, to keep out the chill that was beginning to rise from the rock. The others he wrapped about himself, and settled in for the night.
Like his brother, he rarely watched the tree itself, but seemed drawn into his own thoughts. His gaze was far away, focused on dreams of the easy life he would lead as tsar, no doubt.
He did not speak, as his brother had done, nor pace around the garden, so I had no way to know his thoughts that way. But the thoughts of men are often written on their faces for those who know how to see, and when they are alone they take no care to hide them. His face was flushed with more than the ruddiness that the chilly night air brought out, and his soft face took on the look of one who dreams of what he will enjoy, rather than what deeds he can perform or what monuments he can build. Aleksandr could not see the glory of the garden for the thoughts of others; Piotr could not see it for the thought of himself.
The night grew cool, and Piotr drew the blankets around himself more closely, though it was not uncomfortably cold. He was accustomed to his warm bed in the castle, I realized, and had probably never spent the night outdoors. He was not much of one for self-denial even in pursuit of the power he so obviously desired.
As the night entered its darkest phase, I saw his head nodding, and soon he slept. As soon as his chin touched his chest, I saw the flame of the firebird cross the wall, and alight in the tree. Again, it quickly swallowed an apple and after straightening its feathers to its satisfaction, took flight again, leaving no trace of its passing.
Piotr slept much longer than Aleksandr had, but still woke before dawn. He did not look at the tree, but stretched his stiff limbs, trying to restore the flow of blood. In a few moments, the sun peeked over the wall of the castle, and the tsar came down the steps. He scowled at the pile of blankets on the stone floor, but passed it by and examined the tree. Almost at once, he saw that yet another apple was missing and I thought his heart would burst from sheer fury.
“You worthless layabout!” he screamed, kicking viciously at Piotr, who leaped aside to dodge the blow; it was the fastest I had seen him move yet. “You bring a pile of blankets to a night watch, a watch on which rests the fate of an entire realm, and you sleep while a thief sneaks over the wall of our very home!”
“But father, I heard nothing! I saw no-one! I was here the whole night, and I swear to you that no man came over that wall!” His protests fell on deaf ears as the tsar raged on.
“My line has failed, for my sons are worthless to inherit a simple potato patch, much less an entire realm! My name will go down into darkness, down to the earth, and never remembered in the halls of men.” He roared his ire across the garden, and it echoed loudly off the walls. For a moment, I thought he might fall to the ground in a fit, but after a time his words slowed, and finally stopped.
In the space of silence, Fyodr stepped forward, head held high to meet his father's eyes. “Father, I beg your leave to keep the watch tonight.”
taken aback, the tsar stared at him for a long moment. “You are scarce more than a child, boy. The watch is long, and your two brothers have failed it. What makes you think that you will succeed where they have fallen short?”
His gaze was steady, and his voice strong as he made his reply. “I have spent many nights awake in this garden, sir, and I know it well. I am no stranger to keeping long hours, and I wish to rid you of the thief that has been plaguing you. My will shall keep me awake in the cold hours before dawn, and no more apples shall go missing from your tree.”
The watching household seemed to hold its breath, waiting on the answer of the tsar. He looked between all three of his sons for a long time; distraught Aleksandr who tortured himself with his loss in standing, petulant Pyotr who resented loss of the power that had been offered him, and valiant Fyodr who was determined to do what his father had never thought to ask of him. Finally, he let his head sink upon his breast, and assented. “Very well, Fyodr, you may keep the watch tonight. But you will be subject to the same rules as your brothers. If you catch the thief, you will be my heir, and half of the kingdom will be yours in the morning. If you do not catch the thief, you will receive nothing from my hand.”
Fyodr nodded; being the third son, he had had little inheritance to hope for from the beginning, so perhaps the wager was easier for him to agree to than it had been for the other two.
The day passed much as had the two before it, and when sunset came, I took my accustomed watch again.
Fyodor was already waiting in the garden when I found my way to the gate, and I had to keep very still to stay out of the sight of his sharp eyes. I saw a glimpse of red robes from a window high up in one of the towers, and knew that the tsar was watching his youngest son as well. Then he moved away from the window, and Fyodor was alone in the garden as night fell.
He moved through the garden with purpose, scanning the walls and checking every entrance. He made the rounds of the gardens many times during the night, always moving, always watching. During each round, he also checked the flowers and trees that grew in the garden; here, lifting a young bud, there testing the ripeness of a growing fruit. His care and skill was evident, even from a distance, and in the space of the night I came to admire him despite his youth. He never slowed his pace nor stopped to sleep.
Just before the light of dawn broke over the sky, the firebird soared over the garden wall. Perhaps it had been watching for a chance, for it did not light on the tree, but simply snapped at an apple in flight. Fyodor, however, proved quicker still. As soon as the flash of bright plumage appeared, he had turned on his heel and made a mad dash for the tree. With a great leap, he threw himself at the bird.
It cried out, veering away from the tree, and climbing back into the sky. But it did not escape cleanly, for when Fyodr fell to the ground, he clutched a single shining feather in his hand.
He scrambled to his feet, looking around wildly, but the bird was gone. He swore under his breath, but carefully tucked the feather into his robes for safekeeping. Soon the sky grew light, and the household gathered at the foot of the steps. Slowly, the tsar made his way down to the tree, as if fearful of what he would find. His eyes roamed over the foliage, counting each golden apple. He counted once, twice, three times. Whirling around, he cried out, “They are all here! Not a single one is missing! Where then is the thief, Fyodr?”
The young tsarevitch stepped forward, the flame-bright feather in hand. “I am sorry, father, I could not catch the thief, but I did bring you a token of him. As I watched in the darkest hours of the night, just before dawn, I saw a bird like flame soar over the garden wall and try to snatch an apple from the tree. I leaped to catch it, but it was too swift for me, and my fingers closed around nothing but this single feather.”
The tsar reached out a trembling hand and took the feather. Its color was bright than anything in the garden, more intense than the golden color of the treasured apples. He looked at it with wondering eyes, turning it over and over in his hand.
With a sinking heart, I saw that he was beginning to be as covetous of the bird's plumage as he had been of his golden apples. When the heart will not be satisfied with what it has, it will never be satisfied with anything, no matter how grand.
“My heart greatly desires to see this bird,” he murmured quietly. “The thief has not yet been caught, and so the tsardom goes unclaimed.” Looking up, he cleared his throat and addressed his three sons. “None of you has caught the bird, and I will not name an heir until it is mine. Whoever brings me back the firebird will inherit everything I own. Go your separate ways and seek me out the firebird.”
Aleksandr nodded curtly, and quickly turned and walked toward the stables. Piotr looked reluctant, but went back inside the castle. Fyodr flushed with anger for a moment, but held his composure and bowed to the tsar.
I left the gate then, and retreated into the woods. Circling the walls of the garden, I soon found the path that the three brothers must take out into the world. I was beginning to feel hunger again, but I did not want to risk losing track of any of the three when they set out.
A few minutes later, Aleksandr thundered by on a large white horse, goading it on to a desperate pace. I followed quickly, hoping that it would be a while yet before either of the other brothers followed. The eldest had not taken time to pack for the journey, in the hopes that his swift departure would win his father's favor and give him extra time to find the bird. But less than an hour's journey into the woods, he came to a place where three roads met, and a single large stone stood in the crossroads. On the other side of the clearing stood an alehouse, and the sound of drunken singing came from it. Upon hearing the sound, Aleksandr wrinkled his nose with distaste, and turned his full attention to the crossroads. Dismounting, he neared the stone, and read the legend that was carved upon it.
“Whoever would find his way,
Must decide the path on which he stays:
To the left, he will cold and hunger know,
To the right, death will lay him low;
He who keeps the road straight
Will live, though his horse meet a worse fate.”
In a panic, he scanned the lines over and over again, hoping for some clue as to the action he should take. I could see him thinking of what his father might think of each route, and trying to make a decision. Sweat began to pour from his forehead; finally, he swung back upon the back of his horse, and thundered down the path that led to the left.
I waited at the crossroads, out of sight behind a large tree; soon, Piotr came down the path at a leisurely gait, mounted upon a glossy black horse. He, too, dismounted to read the writing on the stone. He glanced down the path to the left, and the one that led straight ahead. He only considered each for a moment, then grasped his horse's reins, and lead the animal over to the trough in front of the alehouse. Tying the horse to the rail, he went inside, and I did not see him return.
Finally, not long before sunset, Fyodr appeared, riding a common brown workhorse. It was shaggy and unkempt, but kept a steady pace. A pack was tied securely behind the saddle, and Fyodr wore a warm cloak to keep him warm in the cooler world beyond the grounds of the castle.
Dismounting, he kept a firm grasp on his horse's reins, and read the writing on the stone. He looked down each path for a long time, then at his horse for a long time. The animal blinked once, its large brown eyes staring into his for a moment, before nuzzling the stone path in search of food. With a sigh, he read the legend on the stone again, then swung back onto the horse's back, and rode straight ahead. I followed from a distance, darting from shadow to shadow between the trees.
He rode another verst before night fell, and made camp. Within moments, a fire was roaring in a stone circle, and he sat before it, holding his hands up to warm them. From time to time he glanced at the horse with a look of resigned regret. The fire burned itself down to ashes, and he carefully banked it before sliding under a rough blanket to sleep.
As he slept, I made my way closer to the small camp, and circled it. I had no desire to be seen by the young tsarevitch, but neither would he be approached by other creatures so long as I kept watch. The night was long and cold, and my stomach began to cramp with hunger, but I kept circling. When dawn came, and Fyodr stirred with the first hint of wakefulness, I slipped away into the woods.
Fyodr quickly gulped down a heel of bread and a few slices of cheese, then made sure the fire was dead and safely extinguished. Tossing his pack on the back of his horse, he swung up into the saddle again, and continued riding. The forest was quiet and overgrown; at times the path itself was hard to make out, but he made his way forward steadily, and I followed behind. At times, I was sure he heard me, but by the time he turned to see what creature might be following him, I was always out of sight behind a tree or stone. And so we continued in this fashion until the sun sank on the second day. Again, he built a fire and ate a simple supper before lying down to sleep, and again I kept watch.
By the third day, I was weak from hunger, and perhaps not quite right in my head. After so many years away from the company of men, the wolf form had a great hold over my mind, and the wolf was starving. On the third night, I found myself creeping closer and closer to the camp. I tried to keep control over myself, but the moon was full, and the wolf was hungry.
By dawn, all that was left of the horse was a bloody carcass.
Fyodr woke with the dawn, and cried out, upon seeing the dead animal. I sat on the other side of the fire, and there was still blood on my muzzle, but I spoke to him in quiet tones.
“Do not fear me, Tsarevitch Fyodr. Your horse is dead, but you knew that would happen when you took this path. Believe me when I say I desire nothing but your welfare.”
“why should I believe such a thing,” he asked, voice trembling slightly despite his best efforts to still it. “You have killed my only horse, and there is still blood on your mouth.”
“Believe me, because I have watched you since you chose the straight path, knowing its price. I watched you during the long cold night in the garden, and I saw you reach out and snatch a feather from the firebird as it flew over your father's tree.”
Fyodr turned slightly pale at my words, but set his lips in a firm line. “And what will happen if I refuse your offer?”
“nothing, except that I do not think you will find the firebird. Or you will find it, and not know how to take it back to your father.”
He was silent for a while, considering. His eyes flickered between the exposed ribs of his mount, and the blood still on my muzzle. Finally, he made his decision. “I will go with you, wolf, but do not think that I will hesitate to kill you with my own sword if you betray me.”
I bowed my head slightly. “You will have no need of such measures, young tsarevitch. Now get up and eat your breakfast. There is still a long journey ahead of us.”
While he made his preparations, I wandered around the edges of the campground, sniffing the air and testing the magics that floated through the air in the area. I had seen the direction the bird had taken out of the garden, and caught a faint whiff of its scent on the wind. I felt sure I could find its home; I was not sure what might be required when we arrived, but the bird was obviously a creature of strong magic, and the boy had a far better chance with me by his side.
Soon, Fyodr was ready, and we set out along the road. At first he was able to keep up with the page I set, but as morning turned into afternoon, I found myself walking slower and slower to accommodate him. He never said a word, but from the pained look on his face, I could tell that his feet and legs were aching.
“Tsarevitch, I have deprived you of your horse; the least I can do is take his place.”
He looked at me in tired confusion.
“Get up on my back, Fyodr. I am well able to bear your weight, and we will move more quickly.”
He looked as though he was about to refuse, and took another step forward. Wincing with the pain of it, he relented and fastened his pack on my back, then sat in front of the pack.
Though he was a heavy burden, I could bear him easily, and we moved quickly through the forest, following the scent of the bird and the tiny pricklings of magic it left in its path. All day we traveled in this manner; when night fell, I found a small clearing, and Fyodr set up camp. There were a few scrawny rabbits in the rocks nearby, and I caught two of them for our dinner. Fyodr fastened a simple spit and roasted his rabbit over the fire, nearly burning his fingers in the process.
Tired though I was, I watched the camp through the night, listening intently to all of the small sounds that passed near. When the dawn broke, Fyodr began to wake, and I slept while he ate and packed up the camp.
The second day of travel was mostly silent as we picked our way through the forest. As the sun rose overhead, Fyodr finally spoke.
“Wolf, you said you were watching when I chose the straight path, knowing the risks.”
I nodded. “Yes, I have been watching you for many days.”
“Then you saw my brothers pass by the crossroad.”
I was silent for a moment, considering my answer, then replied, “Yes, I saw them.”
“Which way did they choose?”
I considered not telling him of his brothers' choices; after all, it would not help him along his way to know, and it would not change his own path. But I was not his ruler, and it was a fair question.
“Aleksandr came first,” I answered, picking my way over a patch of stones. “he was in a great hurry, and had not even stopped to pack for the trip. He took a long time in choosing, as he could not decide which way your father would prefer. Finally, he chose the path to the left. I do not know what became of him, but with no supplies, he could not stay long in the forest, and I imagine he is back at the castle by now.”
Fyodr nodded solemnly, with little surprise. “And my second brother?”
“Piotr came at a very leisurely pace, and did not take long to make up his mind. Did you see the alehouse on the other side of the crossroads? Had you gone in, you would have found Piotr. By now, he has surely lost any money he took with him, and is either washing dishes to pay for his vodka, or he has returned to your father's castle, penniless.”
We continued for some time, Fyodr silently pondering the information he had just received. I did not think he was close enough to any of his brothers for the answers to worry him, but I began to think that I was mistaken.
“What is it to you, Fyodr, what happens to your brothers? They do not seem to think much of you, and they made their poor choices of their own free will.”
“Yes, they have always seemed foolish to me, though Aleksandr is so eager to be well thought of, and Piotr cuts a fine figure in his tailored clothes. But my father loves them very dearly, though he may rant and rail at them. They are his true heirs, and he has thought of them as such for many years before I was born. He loves me too, for he loved my mother beyond life itself, but he has never considered me an heir. If he were to lose either one, it would crush his spirit.”
Again we journeyed in silence, and I wondered at the strangeness of a man who would threaten his sons with dishonour and disinheritance, yet love them beyond all others. I did not doubt Fyodr's words, but neither did I understand.
The second night was much the same as the first, and again I watched during the dark hours when the stars move slowly across the sky. The small noises of the forest passed by without harm, but at the darkest hour, just before dawn began to lighten the sky, I thought I heard another sound, far in the distance.
Sound can be a tricksome thing, especially at night over great distance, but I was sure I heard a sound that struck terror into my heart and set all my hair on end.
Scrape. Scrape. Brush. Scrape.
The sound of the great mortar being driven along the hard ground by an iron pestle, and a broom sweeping away the path behind. The Baba Yaga was roaming the woods that night, and I prayed to any spirit who might listen that she would not find us.
Slowly the sound faded into the distance, but I did not relax my guard for the rest of the morning, even after Fyodr had awakened and bidden me to sleep while he ate breakfast.
During the morning's journey, I was still shaken from the night watch. Every small noise caught my attention, and I moved quickly through the woods to get away from the place where I had heard the sound of the Baba Yaga's passing.
Shortly after noon, we came to a great hedge, a hundred feet high. The scent of the firebird was very strong now, and I was sure that its home was nearby. Fyodr was recovered enough to walk now, and we both moved as silently as we could. After several hours of walking around the hedge, we found a great golden gate; looking through it, we could see an immaculately kept garden. A low hedge wound itself into a labyrinth, with other vines and flowers twining their way through it all. In the center was a fountain, and the firebird resting contentedly on a perch beside the fountain. Nearby was a stone table, holding three cages: one was wrought in gold and set with precious stones, another was silver and set with mother-of-pearl, and the final was simple wood, bound with leather. The sense of magic was strong, and I felt a sense of foreboding. Laying a paw on the gate, I tried to understand the place, what charms were active here, and what might be done against them.
“the gates are unlocked, and you may pass through them,” I told Fyodr. “Take the firebird, and put it in the wooden cage. Do not even touch the others. When you have the bird, come back out of the garden, and I will carry you back to your father and brothers.”
He slipped through the golden gates and entered the garden. All was silent except the burbling of water in the fountain. Anxiously, I paced by the gates. Something still did not feel right about the place, but I was sure of my advice to the youth. There was a logic to all places of great magic, though it sometimes took some time to discover.
Suddenly, a loud blaring of trumpets split the silence, and guards began to pour into the garden from all sides. Knowing that I would do the tsarevitch no good if I were run through by a saber, I retreated back to the edges of the wood. There was a commotion for a short time, then all was silent. I waited, pacing back and forth, until the sun began to set. Then I saw the despondent form of the tsarevitch wandering amongst the trees, and ran to greet him.
“What happened, young Fyodr? I heard the sound of trumpets, and many soldiers filled the garden so that I had to hide myself or risk capture.”
He sat down upon a fallen tree, and let his head rest in his hands. “I should have listened to you, wolf. I had the bird in hand, and all was well, but I could not take my eyes off the golden cage. It seemed a shame to hide such a magnificent creature in a cage of wood. But the instant I touched the gold cage, the trumpets blared and I was surrounded by the guard of the castle. They took me to see the tsar who rules this land. He told me that I might have had the bird if I had asked, but since I had come as a thief, I must do a task for him in return for my freedom.”
My heart sank; this was indeed a setback. But there was nothing for it but to try to complete whatever task this ruler had set for the errant tsarevitch. “What must you do for him, Fyodr?”
“He told me that every night a horse with a magnificent golden mane comes and tramples his favorite flowers. He much desires this horse, and I must fetch it for him.”
I sighed. “Very well, then. We will keep watch tonight, and see where this horse goes, and we will find him. But you must do as I say from now on, or worse may befall you.”
he readily agreed, and we settled in to watch for the horse. Night fell with no sign of the creature, but when the moon rose, we heard the sound of hooves, and suddenly it rushed past. It was a huge stallion, purest white, with a mane of flowing gold, bright as the apples in the garden of Fyodr's father.
With a whinny that echoed off the paving stones, it galloped through the garden, crushing many of the flowers underfoot, and just as quickly leaped over the hedge on the other side, and was gone.
Quickly we set out to follow it. Though it was a large and heavy animal, its hoofprints were delicate and sometimes hard to make out among the leaves of the forest. More than once I found myself thankful for the excellent sense of smell that I had while in my wolf form. As morning dawned, we found ourselves at the edge of a great field, closed in by a wall that went on for miles. Horses of all kinds were grazing, running, and sleeping, and in the middle of all of them stood the horse with the mane of gold. Beside him was a tall and stately tree, and three bridles hung upon it. One was gold, and shone as brightly as the mane of the horse, and was set with blood red rubies. On another branch hung a silver bridle, set all along with emeralds that were greener than the grass in the field. On yet another branch hung a simple leather bridle, well used and not often polished.
“The doors of the wall are open to you, tsarevitch Fyodr,” I told him quietly. “But do not touch any of the other horses, and if you value your freedom, do not touch the gold bridle, nor the silver one. Only use the old leather bridle to lead the horse from the field. Then we can take it back to the first tsar's castle and be done with the matter.”
he nodded, and silently slipped into the field. The horses appeared to take no notice of him, except for the horse he sought, who stood and watched him with large brown eyes. He quickly slipped the leather bridle from the branch and got it onto the horse with ease. He had just taken the reins in hand to leave the horse, when his eyes strayed back to the gold bridle. He raised a single finger to touch the shining gold; I opened my mouth to call to him and warn him of his folly, but it was too late. The moment his finger touched the precious metal, a great sound of drumming arose all along the wall, and in moments he was surrounded by fierce men on horseback, armed with spears and shields. Soon, they lead him from the field, and he was lost to my sight.
I slipped back into the forest to wait. The night was long, but when dawn broke over the horizon, I saw Fyodr walking despondently toward me. I hurried to greet him.
“What happened? Did you see the tsar?”
“Yes,” he answered slowly. “and I wish I had listened to you, wolf. For he would not let me go until I swore to complete whatever task he set. Three tsardoms away lives a beautiful tsarina, Elenya. He has sought her hand in marriage many times, but neither she nor her father will grant his suit. He is known across the land as a cruel man, and no father wishes to see his daughter married to such a man for any price. He has ordered me to fetch the tsarina for him, or he will cut off my head and send it to my father on a pike.”
My stomach turned in disgust. “Come, Fyodr. Let us make our way to the tsarina. On the way, we will think of something. The end is not here yet, there is still hope.”
He climbed onto my back, and we began our journey again. The castle where the tsarina Elenya was said to live was a journey of several days, and I was very tired by the end of the first day. As soon as the sun began to set, we stopped to make camp, and I lay down by the fire that Fyodr built. Soon it was a roaring flame, and the warmth felt wonderful. Sleepily I watched the sparks fly upward, fading into nothingness as they climbed for the stars.
“Wolf?” Fyodr tossed twigs into the fire and watched them burn, never meeting my eyes. “Why is it that you want to help me? I've done nothing for you, and I am not so good at following your instructions. You are obviously more than an ordinary wolf. What is it that you want with me?”
I thought for a moment before replying. “My young tsarevitch, there are some things that you must be content not to know. My name and my story are among those things. But as for my reasons for helping you...” I stood, shaking my coat to rid it of as many leaves and sticks as possible. “Your home reminds me somewhat of my own childhood dwelling, and I came to love it almost as much. In watching it, I came to know you and your brothers, as well as your father. One can only watch so long before feeling as though she knows something of those she watches. Your brothers held no interest for me: thoughtless, self-absorbed, and utterly lacking in any true nobility. You over-reach, Fyodr, but at least you dare to reach at all, which is something that they will never know. It can quickly become a danger to you, but it is a thing of greatness, and something which I respect. And because I respect that quality, I respect you, and I wish to see you succeed and gain your father's realm.”
Silence fell over the camp, save for the faint crackling of the wood as it burned down to ash. We took turns watching in the night; I took the first watch, and paced back and forth around the remains of the fire. There were the ordinary creatures of the forest prowling around, but none that would dare attack. In the distance, larger creatures moved, but did not come near. The stars turned slowly overhead in their usual dance, and I watched them. I wondered for the first time how many years I had spent in the world of men. The stars did not look quite as they had when I had lain under the skies in the Summer Realm, though the change was not great.
When the night was at its coldest, Fyodr stirred, and sleepily took his place at watch. I lay down next to the embers of the fire. It was almost dead, but the ground nearby was not cold, and it was free of the dew that had begun to form elsewhere. I stretched out, and began to dream.
I found myself in my true form, wandering in a forest. but it was not the same forest. That had been open and full of light between the trees, and this was a very old forest, dark and tangled. I could not seem to find the path that I was seeking, and I moved slowly, held back by the dead and twisted vines that caught at my feet. In the distance, I thought I saw a patch of light, where the trees were thinner and less crowded together. Stumbling, I made my way to it, finally pulling apart a curtain of grey vines with my hands.
There in the clearing was a small cottage, made of weathered and ancient wood. It stood on a pair of chicken legs, and it whirled and turned constantly, dizzying in its speed. Around it was placed a fence of spikes, and on each spike was placed a man's skull; the eyes of the skulls were filled with light, casting strange shadows around the clearing. I stood transfixed by the chicken-leg house, until a sound startled me and I turned around. There, not three feet from where I stood, sat the Baba Yaga in her great mortar, staring at me with baleful yellow eyes. Her grey hair was long and lank, and her breasts sagged like old burlap sacks. There was not a tooth left in her rotten mouth, and her breath was foul and hot. We stared at each other for a long moment, then a terrible smile spread across her lips.
The sight of that smile woke me from my sleep, and if I had not been in the form of the wolf, I would have woken with a scream in my throat. As it was, I snarled, looking around for the witch. I could still feel her breath on my face, and smell her stench, but there was no one there, and the forest was quiet. Dawn was breaking through the trees, and the birds had begun to sing.
Fyodr gave me a strange look, but said nothing. As he rekindled the fire, I hunted for anything that might serve for our morning meal, but only caught a single skinny rabbit. It was not much for either of us, but it was enough to go on.
The day was long, and my paws began to ache from carrying the weight of Fyodr over rocks, fallen branches, and hard ground. We still made good time, however, and when we finally made camp on the second night, I could see the tsar's castle far in the distance. We would reach it within a few hours the next morning, but I did not want to try to travel the remaining distance at night. Soon the fire was built, and I had found a plump pheasant that was soon roasting on a spit. Fed and rested, Fyodr offered to take the first watch of the night. I agreed, and was soon asleep. The memory of the previous night's dream still lingered, but I was very tired, and sleep came easily.
Again, I found myself wandering through an overgrown wood, and again I came upon the clearing with the chicken leg house. I looked behind me, but this time the forest was empty, and there was no sign of the witch. But soon I heard the sound of her mortar and pestle scraping the ground, and the sound of her broom as she swept her trail clear. She seemed to be singing some gibberish song under her breath, but sometimes the singing fell away to a murmur that I could not make out.
Everything in me yearned to run away from the clearing as fast as I could, but as is often true in dreams, my feet were rooted to the spot. Soon I saw her, flying across the ground, from the other side of the clearing. She had tucked the broom under one arm, and was fingering a handful of small bones, counting them over and over again. When she came closer, I could see that the bones were the delicate finger bones of a man's hand, with bits of rotten flesh still clinging to the surface. The smell of the grave washed over me in a sickening wave, and I retched.
Hearing this sound, the witch looked up, fixing me with her yellow eyes. Her voice raised into a shriek, and the skulls along her spiked fence all turned their glowing eyes to look. The clearing shone bright in their light, and the witch drove her mortar straight at me, howling like the wind of a storm at sea. I cowered and covered my head with my arms, trying to ward off the blow of her iron pestle, but the movement woke me, and I scrambled to my feet in the forest on the edge of the tsar's lands. The night was cold, dark, and empty.
The next morning passed quickly, as we broke camp and hurried to the castle where Tsarevna Elenya lived. When we neared the castle walls, I stopped.
“Why have you stopped,” Fyodr asked, craning his neck to look up at the castle. “A little further, and we will be there!”
“Yes,” I said, shrugging him off my back, “and that is why you are staying here. You are a good man, Tsarevitch Fyodr, but this is our last chance to get the firebird for your father and win you your inheritance. I will not allow your eyes to be drawn by gold or gems. I will get the Tsarevna.”
“I shudder at the thought of turning her over to a man with the reputation for cruelty that Tsar Smerdya has.” Fyodr looked disgusted.
“We will not let him near her, but he must have word that the Tsarevna has disappeared from her home, or our ruse will be discovered,” I explained, eyeing the fields that lay outside the ground of the palace.
“Ruse? What ruse is that, wolf?”
“The one that I have not yet told you. It came to me yesterday as we made our way through the wood. Trust and have patience, Tsarevitch, I have not lead you wrong yet.” With those words, I darted off to the palace. I had seen silk curtains fluttering from a balcony, and suspected that the Tsarevna might be found there. When I found myself directly below the balcony, I listened carefully, and found my suspicions confirmed: this was her room.
Staying well hidden behind a tree, I resumed my true form for a few moments. Closing my eyes, and remembering the skills I had once known in the Summer Realm, I began to sing. At first the song blended with the bird song, enhancing it and adding a note of poignancy. The chatter from the room above the balcony lessened, then faded into silence altogether. Slowly, my song pulled free of the bird song, and became its own melody. It called out and pulled at the hearts of any who heard it. I sang of open skies and fresh winds, of cool clear air and the smell of grass wet with dew. After a few minutes, I let it drift into silence again, and it was charmed that those who heard it would not remember the song itself, but it would bury itself in their hearts, working even when the memory was gone. In an instant, I resumed the wolf form, and lay down to wait.
Within an hour, I heard the gates of the palace creak open, and the voices of women spilled out into the air. Many of them seemed unable to speak without giggling, but the Tsarevna seemed to be listening. She was a beautiful young woman, with hair as black as the night, pulled into a long braid that hung nearly to her knees. She was robed in red silks and velvet, and her skin was as pale as milk. Her large grey eyes were soft and sensitive, and glowed with intelligence. No wonder the Tsar Smerdya desired her, I thought, and no wonder her father was so loathe to let her go.
The gaggle of girls walked here and there, plucking flowers from the edge of the forest, and braiding them into their hair. One of them practiced her dancing, and several merely walked quietly with the Tsarevna. Too many of them, I thought, too many to see and report. Softly, I began my song again, so low that it could barely be heard, but I saw the Tsarevna's eyes blink and begin to close.
“Friends, I am so tired,” she said, laughing even as she yawned. “I think it must be the warmth of the sun.” She lay down in a patch of flowers, and began to breathe deeply, sleep stealing over her. The others smiled and laughed, sushing each other and tiptoeing a distance away so as not to wake their friends.
I kept the song going as long as I could, knowing that its effects would be short. In a moment, I dashed out from the woods, scooped the sleeping Tsarevna onto my back, and turned to flee through the woods. I was through the first row of trees before any of the other girls could exclaim, and by the time the alarm was raised at the castle, we were long gone.
Dashing by the spot where I had left Fyodr, I called to him to swing up onto my back, and I ran on, despite the weight I carried. When we were far beyond the hearing of the castle, I slowed to a halt, and Fyodr slipped to the ground. Taking the hand of the Tsarevna, he looked at her as if checking to see if she were hurt. As his eyes ran over her, I could see that he admired her clear skin, dark hair, and the beauty of her face. A tremor of dread crept down my spine, but the deed was done, and everything was in play: things would now happen as they must. We continued walking as fast as we could, increasing the distance between us and the castle with every step.
As the sun began to sink, the Tsarevna began to wake. At first, she was frightened to find herself in the forest with a strange youth and a large grey wolf, but soon she came to understand that we meant her no harm. Indeed, it was Fyodr, with his calm strong voice and pleasant demeanor, that did most of the work. I could see her taking in his fine red hair, strong arms, and air of determination. The two were soon talking like old friends while he built the fire, and I caught a trio of wild hens for the evening meal.
I did not care to dream of the grandmother of witches again, and offered to keep the watch all through the night. Fyodr agreed, and soon he was asleep at the Tsarevna's side, their hands entwined.
The night was long, but I preferred it to waking up with a scream in my throat. The forest was quiet except for the comings and goings of small creatures, and the stars moved slowly overhead. When the first light of dawn began to show, I made my way down to a creek that I heard burbling, and soon three large fish were gasping on the shore. I carried them back to Fyodr, who cooked them on a large flat rock beside the fire, and the three of us ate eagerly before setting out on our way.
The journey back to the castle was in many ways very pleasant. The forest was quiet except for the sound of Fyodr and Elenya chattering away, and the days passed quickly. But as we neared the lands of Tsar Smerdya, I began to be troubled, and I could tell that Fyodr's heart was heavy. On the morning of the third day, as Elenya was bathing down in a stream, Fyodr opened his heart in a rush.
“We cannot take her to Smerdya, wolf,” he cried, striking his fist against his palm. “He is a cruel man, and she is young and innocent. It would be a crime.”
“I think there is more to your protest,” I replied calmly, watching him fret. He cast about for a moment, then threw his hands into the air.
“Yes! I love her, wolf, I have fallen in love with the Tsarevna Elenya, and I would rather die than see her married to another man, particularly one so vile as Smerdya.”
“It is as I feared, then.” I sighed. “I told you that I would find a plan, Fyodr, and I have done so. It is daring, and risky, and will require much, but not of you.” Moving closer to him, I began to speak of what we would do that day.
The people of Smerdya's lands did not know that Fyodr had travelled with a large grey wolf; I had kept myself carefully out of sight when he was in the tsar's castle. So it did not surprise them to see Fyodr walk out of the woods, with only the beautiful Tsarevna by his side.
What no-one would have guessed is that Elenya stood alone in the woods, bravely waiting for her tsarevitch to return to her. I stood at his side in front of the tsar, clothed in her rich silks and velvets, clothed in her form.
Fyodr presented me to the tsar, who had already heard the wild tale of how the Tsarevna had been snatched from where she lay sleeping at her father's castle. His eyes glinted with greed, and I hated the way his eyes roved over my body, heavily robed as it was.
“You have done well, Fyodr,” he said, voice booming around the room. “And she is every bit as beautiful as I have heard! Well, Tsarevna, will you consent to stay and be my bride? I have ten times the wealth of your father, and you may do as you like with it. In fact, I should take special delight in seeing you spend the wealth of half my kingdom on...robes.”
I hoped that I kept the flash of fury out of my eyes as I spoke, keeping my voice soft and passive. “As you wish, sir, I have only the desire to be a good wife, and to do as I ought for my honored husband.”
He laughed, which I found a rather sickening sound. “She has changed her tune somewhat since I heard her last! Of course, then she would not even see me, but sent a messenger with her response. Now that I come to think of it, I wonder if her father did not send that message himself. The girl herself probably never even knew the offer was made.”
How easily greed and vanity are drawn into a trap, I thought, but said nothing, keeping my eyes fixed on the floor. Only a few hours more, and it would be over. Only a few more hours.
“Summon a priest,” the tsar shouted to a servant, who rushed out of the room to do his bidding. “Let him know that I wish to be married first thing tomorrow, and he had best be ready to perform the ceremony with utmost haste. And you!” he pointed to another servant, who stepped forward. “Tell the kitchens to prepare a great feast. After all, it would be a poor wedding without food!” he laughed at his own wit, and finally stood, crossing the room to take my hand. His fingers were hot and sweaty, and I cringed inwardly as he clutched my hand, planting a dry kiss on the palm. “You had best rest today, Tsarevna,” he said quietly, with a slight hoarseness in the back of his throat. “Tomorrow will be a very busy day.”
Finally, his servants showed me to the room I was to occupy until the marriage; as soon as they were gone, I turned the key in the lock and breathed a sigh of relief. The worst was over, now it only remained to wait until nightfall. The day drew on slowly, and the room was overly warm, trapping in the heat of the sun. I paced back and forth, to and from the window. A servant came in to call me down to dinner, but I refused, pleading the need to prepare my wardrobe for the marriage the next day. Soon, another servant appeared with a steaming plate of food, sent up from the kitchens. I took the plate and closed the door.
My mind was consumed by the nearness of the time for my departure, and in my hurry, I forgot to lock the door. I ate a few bites hungrily, having not eaten since we broke camp that morning. Suddenly, I heard the creak of the door, and turned around. There stood Tsar Smerdya, closing the door behind him. I saw that the key was still in the lock, and reached for it, but he turned the lock and pocketed the key. His forehead was shiny with a thin layer of sweat, and his eyes were hungry.
“What are you--” I began to protest, but he pressed his mouth to mine, hard, and his clumsy hands fumbled with my robes. Horrified, I pushed him away, and he laughed.
“How dare you! We are not yet married, and even so, I am not some village tramp to be taken without asking!” I hoped to stall him longer, to give Fyodr and Elenya more time to get away from the castle, and to give myself the cover of night to make my escape. The fewer eyes that saw a large grey wolf leaping from the tsarevna's balcony, the better.
“Oh, do you think yourself so fine, then,” scoffed the lecher, grabbing my arm with a hand hot and grasping. “I care about no words of a miserly priest, nor about any ceremony in a golden-domed church. You are mine now whether you will it or no, and I will have what I want from you.” With these words, he made as if to twist my arm behind my back. He ought not to have done so to any woman, but he particularly came to regret doing so to me.
With a strength he did not expect from a quiet, well-bred tsarevna, I turned away from him, bringing my hand up strongly. The heel of my hand crashed into his chin, and I heard a sharp crack as his teeth met. Before he could even cry out, I had wrenched my arm free of his grasp, and whirled away. He turned to face me again, blood dripping from his lip where he had bitten it, and cursed vilely. I sang three quick notes, sharp as daggers and swift as lightning, and he howled in pain as the bones in his arm twisted below the skin. Another triplet, and his knee gave way, dropping him to the floor with a heavy thud. One final note swept out from my mouth, and Smerdya groaned and vomited as his stomach rebelled.
“let that be a lesson to you,” I hissed, “to take no more from any woman than what she will give freely. You have escaped lightly, now go back to your hole, you fox!” He crawled out of the room on his hands and knees, blood and bile leaving a shiny trail behind him, like some overgrown slug.
“Surely this will not go unnoticed,” Fyodr protested, after I had finished telling my story. The three of us sat around a crackling fire, warding ourselves against the cold of the night air, while the horse with the golden mane, which the Tsar had given to Ivan as he promised, grazed on a tether. “now there will be no wedding, and the tsar will certainly wish to have his vengeance.”
“I do not think so,” said Elenya quietly. She had said little throughout the evening, keeping her own counsel save for a word here and there. “Smerdya prides himself on his reputation with the local women, and if it is known that a single young woman left him crawling in his own filth, his name will be a laughingstock for miles around. I think he will likely spread the story that he found some flaw in the young tsarevna, and sent her away.”
I agreed, and Fyodr protested no further, though I could tell that he still worried. Every few moments, he would raise his head and scan the dark forest, though not even a rabbit was near us. He offered to take the first watch, and Elenya and I curled up together under our single blanket, to keep each other warm during the cold night. She dropped off to sleep almost instantly, but my body was still tense from the narrow escape, and sleep came much slower to me.
But come it did.
I was no longer wandering through the dark and tangled forest of my former dreams, but instead I stood on the tall rocks, overlooking the sea where the fisherman's wife had thrown herself into the waves. The ocean was rough, whipped by wind into a frenzy, the waves crashing at my feet and drenching everything around with the spray. I watched the waters, and soon I could see a black dot out in the mouth of the bay, coming closer and closer through the storm.
As it neared the rocks, I could see that it was the Baba Yaga, sitting in her mortar which carried her like a boat across the waters. She held the iron pestle high, and lightning ran down it in electric rivulets, turning the ocean around her into steam. She swung the pestle in a great arc, and the lightning leaped from it to a rock that stood in the middle of the harbor. With a great crack, it split in two and sank below the surface.
As her mortar drew closer to the shore, she looked up at me. With a vehemence that I could not understand, she pointed the pestle at the rocks I stood upon. The lightning raced along the iron rod and lanced out to the stones. They crackled with a great rumbling, and I felt them split under my feet. Then I was falling, falling into deep water, and hands reached up to drag me down into the depths...
I awoke with a jolt, and scrambled to my feet, still feeling the cold clammy clutch of those dead hands under the water. Elenya stirred slightly, but did not wake. I looked around the campsite, but all was quiet and still. Fyodr sat with his back propped up against a tree, scanning the forest all around. I went and sat beside him, watching as our breath made puffs of vapor in the cold air.
“It's still early for your watch,” he finally said. “You should go back to sleep, I'll let you know when it's your turn.”
“I've had enough of sleep for a while, I think,” I said. “Go. Keep Elenya warm. Check on the horse. You will need your energy for the journey back, for we are a long way from the castle of your father, and there is much to be done between now and then.”
But neither of us left to sleep, and Fyodr kept his eyes on the forest. “Wolf, I think I love Elenya, but I have not the right to ask her for her hand. My father's tsardom is small, and her father is the ruler of many lands.”
“She seems to care for you, at least as much as a young girl may care in the space of a few short days.” This answer did not seem to satisfy him, and he pressed on.
“Wolf, you seem to know much of the world, both of the kingdoms of men, and the hidden ways of magic. Tell me how to win Elenya's hand.”
I sighed, and lay down beside him, my wolf fur shielding me from the chill of the earth. “you will not win a heart with magic, Fyodr. Only love wins a heart. Show her that you care for her. Protect her against all dangers. When you have the firebird and have claimed your father's inheritance, take all of your wealth and go to her father, and ask for her hand. Show him that his daughter will be treated as she deserves. But in all things, make sure it is really you she wants, for if you are not her heart's desire, it will all come to ruin in the end.”
He thought for a moment. “Your words are not very poetic, wolf. I had thought to hear more of fine words and pretty songs, and not warnings of unrequited love.”
“All human love is unrequited in the end,” I said. “No man loves his wife as she wishes to be loved, and no wife loves her husband as he wishes. Such is the way of your race. But you try very hard, and sometimes it is almost enough.”
We sat in silence for a while longer, then without a word, he got up, went back to the fire, stirring up the embers and adding a few dry sticks, then lay down beside Elenya.
We made very good time back to the first tsar's castle: the horse with the golden mane carried Elenya and Fyodr easily, and I ran much faster through the woods without their weight on my back.
When we arrived, the tsar welcomed us with trumpets and a guard to escort us into his presence. The horse was taken by the head groom and lead away to the stables. I had offered to take on the form of the horse and make the same switch that I had in Smerdya's castle, but he refused. “I may be a thief and a scoundrel, and very bad at following directions, but I am at least not a horse thief. I am content with the horses in my father's stables.” Secretly, I was glad: I had had enough of exchanges.
The tsar stood as we entered his throne room, and extended his arms. “Ah, and here Fyodr returns, and not alone! Who are your companions, boy?”
Fyodr paused before answering cautiously. “The woman you see is my betrothed, whom I found in the woods, far from her home. I am taking her back to my father's castle to await our marriage. The wolf is my guard, and has kept me safe around my fire in the woods these past nights.”
The tsar nodded, accepting the answer with calm. “And now you wish to have my beautiful firebird, to take back to your father that you may not lose your inheritance.”
He nodded, and I saw him swallow hard with nervousness. All hinged on this: if he did not return with the firebird, the weeks of hardship—the days of forging through the forest, the escape from Smerdya, the cold nights in the wood—would have been for nothing.
“All I ask of you is a simple promise,” the tsar said, leaning forward. “You know that my bird is not caged, but flies free as he pleases at night. I ask that you give him the same freedom as I have, that he may come and visit me at times to bring joy to my heart.”
With a sigh of relief, Fyodr quickly agreed. The tsar beckoned, and we followed him through the halls of the palace and into the garden where the firebird was perched. Dusk was coming on, and the bird gleamed so brightly that I thought its feathers cast light on the ground at the foot of its perch.
The tsar took the golden cage off its hook, and coaxed the beautiful bird into it. Handing it carefully to Fyodr, he said quietly, “Such things cannot be taken, only given. You would do well to remember it, for many things in life are so.” Fyodr nodded solemnly, and took the cage.
We spent that night as guests of the tsar: there was a feast in the great hall, with beer and wine that flowed all night, and an array of foods that never seemed to come to an inn. Though I kept my wolf form, I was welcome in the hall, and it was pleasing for once, to eat a meal that I myself had not worked to catch. Fyodr and Elenya were seated on either side of the tsar as his guests of honor. Though both laughed and talked with those around them, applauded the musicians, and ate their dinner, I could not help but notice the way that Elenya's eyes would drift over to Fyodr, and his to hers. They would not stay unmarried long once their reached his father's castle, I thought.
The tsar, who had not seemed to take any special notice of their attentions, must have been aware of their ardor, for he sent them to separate wings of the castle for their sleep, and posted a guard at Elenya's door, pleading concern for her safety. His shrewdness was oddly charming to me, and I found myself respecting the man more and more.
When morning dawned, I found the way to Elenya's room, and the guard admitted me right away. She had just awoken, and was seated in the window, brushing out her long black hair. It fell in rave curtains, and was one of the loveliest things I think I have ever seen. Her eyes were fixed out on the green fields of the tsar's lands, but I do not think she saw them. Pulling her hair back into its braid, she turned to me.
“Friend wolf, you have protected Fyodr for these many days, and myself as well. How can I thank you? Your labors have found me the love of my life, when I had thought that all hope of finding such a one was dead. My father loves me, but cannot leave his realm unsecured, and was prepared to marry me off within a year to anyone with land, so long as he was of good stock. There were none of them whom I cared to converse with, much less marry, and I dreaded the coming of Christmastide when the date of my marriage had been set. But now Christmas will be a joy for me, for Fyodr will inherit his father's realm, and become the heir of my father as well. I had not thought to hope for such happiness, and I thank you greatly for it.” She knelt and embraced me, and I felt a single hot tear fall upon my fur from her eyes.
“You need not thank me, tsarevna,” I replied, somewhat ill at ease. “If such a thing has happened, it was fated to be, and not due to any action of mine. I seek only what is fated for me, as do all who walk in the world.”
She only smiled, as if she disbelieved me, but said nothing. She quickly got dressed, in a rich blue gown the tsar had given her, and walked together to meet Fyodr and the tsar.
When the time came to return to Fyodr's father, the tsar accompanied us to the steps of his palace. He turned to Elenya first.
“My dear, I have grown quite fond of you during these short hours, and I shall always consider you as a daughter. I know your father, and shall send to him of your happiness, that he may know it from a source he trusts.” He embraced her, and kissed her forehead with a smile.
“Fyodr, you must visit Elenya's father very soon to plead for her hand properly. I will smooth the way for you, but the final task is yours, as it right and good. Hurry home to your own father, who will be delighted to see both of you, I am sure.”
He turned his eyes to me, and spoke quietly. “And you, wolf, see them home safely, and be very careful. There are strange things afoot in these woods, and my guards return home with stories of an old woman who roams to and fro in a giant mortar, with a skull for a lantern. I do not place much stock in such things, but keep you watch.”
With the tsar's warning ringing in my ears, we set off for Fyodr's home, and the garden of eternal summer where the tree with golden apples grew.
There were many ways through the wood to the crossroad where I had found Fyodr so many days before, but only one path from the crossroad to his father's palace. I disliked such narrow choices, but there was nothing for it. We walked through the woods silently, and the two young ones were in high spirits, rejoicing in their love.
Finally, as we drew near to the place where the roads met, I stopped, and spoke to Fyodr and Elenya. “We are almost back to the crossroads where we will find the path that leads to Fyodr's home. But we are not out of danger yet, for a simple brigand can end your life as surely as a tsar. Fyodr, cover the firebird's cage, and do not let anyone think that it is of more value than any woodsman's pack. Elenya, wrap your braid up around your head and cover it with your kerchief. Try not to let anyone see much of your faces until you are safely within the castle walls. I cannot go through the crossroads with you, for those who dwell in the alehouse would soon question anyone who walked with a wolf. I will circle around and meet you on the path to your father's house. Take some time to eat, you will need the strength for the final leg of the journey, but do not linger for any reason, and come meet me as soon as you can.”
They assured me that they would be careful, and went on the road with great confidence, but my heart was uneasy. There was something unaccounted for, something forgotten.
I quickly traced my way around the crossroads, and settled myself beside a large log near the road to wait. The afternoon sun was warm, and I found myself growing drowsy. I must have drifted off, for when I awoke, it was sunset, and the woods were growing dark. There was no sign of Fyodr and Elenya, and my heart grew cold with fear. I slunk along the road to the crossroads, and saw nothing out of place. The road was empty, and I could hear drunken singing spilling from the alehouse, as the lgiht from its windows flowed out onto the pavement.
Just then, I heard the sounds of conversation behind me, and drew myself behind the large stone in the middle of the crossroad, hoping that I could keep the rock between myself and the passersby.
The two men walked slowly; in fact, one of them seemed to be supporting the other, who was raving as if drunk, but I smelled no alcohol on either one.
“I tell you, I saw it!” the staggering man shrieked, waving his arms wildly. “I saw them standing in the woods, not even a mile away! A man, horrible to look at, and him with coals for eyes! And her, not a tooth in her mouth, and both of them talking calmly, just like you and me right now!”
“This isn't what I would call talking calmly, Grigori,” the other man muttered, trying to keep his lurching friend on the path.
“And he said to her that she had nothing to offer him, for he already knew the...the ritual, I think, that would open the gate, and she laughed then, and it was a horrible laugh! Like that old goat I've got, Yakov, but if that goat were posessed by a demon of hell! She laughed like that goat!”
I listened more carefully. It was still most likely that this Grigori's ravings were the product of strong vodka than of any conversation, but too much of his story was familiar for my comfort. And where were Fyodr and Elenya?
“She laughs like that goat, and says to him that he'll never get in without her, for she's the only one who can deliver the blood. You hear that? Blood, she says! This is when I started running, you know. You don't stick around when strange witches start babbling about blood.” His words were slurred and came out in a rush, but it was becoming increasingly clear that Grigori had certainly seen something in the woods. I followed carefully, wanting to hear everything that might be said.
“The witch told him that he'd never be able to capture the girl, I don't know what girl she meant, and that she'd get her so that the gate could be opened again. She would get the girl, but she needed an assurance from him that he would not pass through the gate and leave her out in the cold. They argued, and it was horrible...I ran as fast as I could, but I heard them coming after me, and his eyes were like fire...” The rest of Grigori's speak was mere gibbering, and his mind was unraveling.
I hurried to the crossroads; something was wrong. Fyodr and Elenya should have been done with their dinners for hours, but they had not come up the path to his father's house.
I looked in the window of the alehouse. It was crowded, and noisy with the shouting of many drunken men. A table and a few chairs had been overturned and lay broken in the middle of the room, but no one seemed in a hurry to remove the mess.
I looked at the back part of the alehouse, where I knew there were a few rooms for rent. Most were usually used for hiring the services of the women of easy virtue who lurked near the bar, but travelers who had nowhere else to go sometimes used one for a night before moving on to more desirable accommodations. Though a thick curtain had been drawn across the window, I could see a faint light in the last room.
With a whispered word, the curtain moved back just enough to allow me a small glimpse into the room without being seen. What I saw chilled me to the bone. Fyodr lay on the floor, his head covered in blood, and his shirt dark with it. He was dead, and by the looks of it, had been so for hours. Aleksandr and Piotr sat on opposite sides of the room, apparently having had some disagreement, and Elenya was curled up on the bed, sobbing into her stained pillow.
As I watched, Piotr swallowed the last drops of beer from a bent tankard, and threw it to the floor, narrowly missing Fyodr's body. “Well, brother, we still must come to some agreement here. There are only two prizes; the girl, and the bird. Of course, with the bird comes the inheritance, so it is obviously the more valuable of the two.”
Aleksandr's face had grown harder and more lined since I had watched him pace the garden by night. Whatever he had been doing during Fyodr's absence had not been to his liking.
“you know as well as I do that father could change his mind about that tomorrow, and likely will do so. I've been disinherited half a dozen times now, as have you. Do you really think that bird will make a difference?”
Piotr chuckled, and looked over at the firebird, which was sitting on a low table, still in its golden cage. “No, of course not. But you do, whether you admit it or not. Look at you now, all flushed and excited: you still believe that if you show up at our father's house, bearing that cage in hand, that he will embrace you and proclaim you his heir before another moment passes.”
The older brother did not respond, scowling at the table, but I could see that Piotr's words were true. Aleksandr's eyes were bright and greedy, and the thought of his inheritance brought a flush to his neck and face.
“what of it?” He finally shouted at his younger brother. “What of it, I ask you? You never cared about the realm, you only cared about yourself! What is it to you if the inheritance is mine?”
“You are welcome to the bird, then,” Piotr said calmly. His eyes strayed toward the grieving girl on the bed, and a flush began to rise to his cheek as well. “I wish a prize of an entirely different nature, as I'm sure you know.”
Aleksandr made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat. “I know all too well that the only thing you value in life is your own pleasure. Then we are agreed: the bird is mine, the girl is yours. When we return and tell father the story, you will then leave the realm with her and never return to plague me again.”
Piotr nodded, and opened his mouth to respond, but Elenya rose and spoke. Her voice was quiet, but rough with tears. “And you will do this? You kill my love Fyodr, the man I was to marry, then calmly agree about my fate while his body cools on the floor? No! I will not go with either of you, not for money, nor love, nor any other thing in this world!” She drew a knife from her belt, and made to plunge it into her belly, but Piotr caught her hand quickly and prevented her.
“Here, now, none of that! You have no choice in this, I'm afraid. If you will not come with me, I can make other arrangements. I hear some young doxie made a fool of Tsar Smerdya the other day; I'm sure he could find a few uses for you, should I take you to him.” He drew the knife from her hand, and tossed it onto the table, and she collapsed onto the floor in tears again.
“you'll come with me and stick to my story, and that's final,” he said, with no trace of feeling in his voice. I wanted to leap through the window and rip his throat out. It was only with the greatest effort of will that I held myself back.
After making sure that there was nothing else the tsarevna could use to take her life, the two brothers fell asleep. Elenya paced the room tirelessly, back and forth, back and forth. When I was sure the brothers would not awaken from their drunken sleep, I tapped lightly on the window. Startled, Elenya looked up; recognizing my grey fur, she dashed over. The window was small, and not big enough for either of us to climb through, so she put her face close and whispered.
“Grey wolf, they have killed Fyodr! We stopped here for a meal before meeting you beyond the crossroad, and he found his brothers here. He was still full of joy in our love, and he held no ill will for either. In fact, he rejoiced at meeting them, though I distrusted their dark looks. He told them too much, and was not careful. They brought him back to their room here, and Aleksandr struck him over the head with a chair, and Piotr plunged his dagger into his heart. I tried to scream, but I found Piotr's hand over my mouth, and no-one heard anything. It was too late, and he died without ever rising from the floor. And now they say that Aleksandr will claim the inheritance, and Piotr will take me with him, and I have not even been left any way of joining my love in death.” the story spilled out of her quickly, and it seemed that she was half-mad with grief.
“Quiet now, Elenya,” I whispered, trying to calm her. “This is not the end for you, nor even for Fyodr. I will do what I can for both of you, but you must listen and do exactly as I tell you, no matter what happens. Can you do it? You must be very strong.”
She paused for a moment, swallowing her tears, then nodded.
“Good. The two brothers will want to get to their father's house as soon as possible that they might go their seperate ways, but it will take time. Before the brothers leave the alehouse, they will need to hide Fyodr's body. Persuade themto bury it in the woods near the crossroads. Once this is done, they will set off for their father's house. Go with them, but refuse to lie with Piotr until you are man and wife. I do not think he will refuse you this, and it will buy you some time. He would rather have you with little fight than rouse himself to take you with force, for he is lazy by nature. And he needs your help to persuade his father that his lies are true. Make sure the marriage happens no sooner than three days hence.”
The brothers buried Fyodr in a shallow grave before dawn, and covered the place with leaves from the forest floor. They hurried back to the alehouse, taking no moment to consider their brother's shameful grave. As soon as they had gone, I made my way to the spot where they had buried him. There was nothing to mark the spot, and he would have been utterly forgotten, lying forever in the cold ground without so much as a coffin.
In a few moments, I had dug up the body. His fine red hair was matted with blood and dirt, and his face was smeared with mud. I noted with a pang of sadness that he had begun to grow a fine red beard: so young, it was still ragged and patchy. I covered the empty grave with the leaves, and carried the body far out into the woods where I cleaned it with water from a stream and laid it out upon a bed of ferns.
Even when the body was cleaned, there was something horrible about the cold dead thing that lay before me. Everything that had animated it, had brought humor to the lips and kindness to the eyes, was gone. Though it was Fyodr, it did not look like him, and I found it horrible.
I left the body, and went deeper into the woods. I drew a quick circle and stepped inside it, casting the necessary charms. After a moment of silence, I began to sing again, a call to creatures that I knew must be in the forest, a summons. When the song ceased, I opened my eyes, and there in the circle stood a hawk, an eagle, and a raven, each looking at me with bright unreadable eyes.
“I once knew a raven,” I said, “a creature of the ravens who sometimes took the form of a handsome young man. He and two others, one of the hawk and one of the eagle, knew the secret to restoring a life that had been wrongfully taken. Not far from here lies the body of a young man who was murdered by his brothers. His young bride was stolen, and his inheritance will be lost if he is not restored. If you know the secrets of restoring life, I beg of you, bring him back out of death to claim his life, his love, and his land.”
The birds looked at me for a moment, then in a flurry of feathers, flew off, each in a different direction. I waited all day, never moving from the circle. I grew hungry, and my throat burned with thirst, but I held my place. The night fell, and I was surrounded by the cold and dark. But still I did not move. The circle must not be broken, or Fyodr's last hope would be gone. As dawn broke, I heard a great sound of wings, and looked up to see the sky full of birds. The three that I had summoned in the morning dropped to the ground, each accompanied by another of his own kind.
The next moment, three comely men stood in the circle. One was tall and dressed in bronze, with hawk wings emblazoned on his helmet. The next was all in rich brown leather, with eagle's wings on his helmet. The final one had a fine black beard, and his helmet bore the sign of the raven. He turned to his companions, and spoke a few words in a tongue I did not know. We looked at each other for a moment, and I knew that they understood who I was. Without a word, I stepped out of the circle and they followed me.
We came to Fyodr's body, where it lay cold and pale on the bed of ferns. The three men stooped and examined the body, their hands more delicate than I had expected. After a few minutes, the one in bronze stood and spoke. “His life can be restored.”
I bowed my head in acknowledgment of the words. “I thank you for this, but I have a request. Once, long ago, I saw another man who had been raised by you. He lived long enough to rescue me from a terrible fate, but died soon after. This young man's bride waits for him, and I wish to be able to tell her that they will have a long life together.”
The one with the eagle wings on his helmet smiled. “My dear wolf, no-one can guarantee a long life in this world of shadows and pain. However, I know of whom you speak. His life had been taken by a powerful wizard, and his body was cut in many pieces. There was little we could do for such a one. But this man was killed wrongfully, by his own brothers, and this is only the first day he has been in death. He will come back from it eagerly, I think. We will do what we can.”
With that, he knelt at Fyodr's side, placing his hand over the boy's heart. The man in bronze knelt at Fyodr's head, with his hand on the young man's brow. The dark-haired man with the sign of the raven knelt and clasped fyodr's bare feet with both hands. The three spoke in their strange tongue again, and the first pulled out a small flask from his belt, and poured a few drops of a bright golden liquid between the young man's lips. He whispered into his unhearing ear, and a few moments of silence passed. Then, slowly, like a river thawing in the spring, Fyodr's fingers began to move.
Slowly, oh so slowly, he awoke, blinking eyes that had been closed in death, and moving limbs that had been cold moments before. The three men helped him sit up and take some food. After an hour or so, he was able to stand, and then to walk.
The three men stood to bade us farewell, and Fyodr thanked them with a stammer, having no words suitable for such an occasion. I sent him a short distance away to wait.
“We have done as you asked, wolf,” said the man with the eagle wing helmet. “but such things are not done lightly, and you would do well not to ask again. Men are not meant to live in this world forever, and you cannot right every wrongful death.”
I bowed my head, and when I looked up again, they had vanished, save for the one who bore the sign of the raven.
“I had not thought to see you again,” he said with a smile, “and certainly not in this form. But I am glad to see that you are well.”
“As well as may be,” I replied. “And Tatiana?”
A faint cloud passed over his face. “No man lives forever, nor any woman, not in this world. She passed into death many years ago, and I miss her every day.”
“Could you not call her back then? It is only one life.”
He gave me a hard look. “Only one life? Yes. But each life may be such that the earth groans to see it, for good or ill. It is ordered that man should die, and it is good that it is so. At the end, Tatiana was glad to go, for she was tired, and longed for the world that is on the other side of death. You and I will never see it, but it is the true home for men, and they are forever restless until they find it.”
I looked over at Fyodr who stood waiting.
“Yes,” Viktor said quietly, “he has now seen that land, and part of him will always mourn the loss of it. This is why we hesitate to bring back any who has once seen that land. But his heart still mourned for his love, and it is better that they should travel this world together a little while. When he comes again to death, he will be at peace. Until then, he will only have a little sadness when he remembers. It is well done, wolf.”
With the sound of wings, he was gone, and a flock of ravens flew overhead into the east, disappearing into the light of the rising sun. I called again, and one bird turned back. I gave it quick instructions, and it flew back into the woods, bearing my message.
I joined Fyodr, and as we walked the path that would lead him home to his father's house, I told him all that Elenya had told me, and all that I had seen in the alehouse. He grew hot with anger over his brothers' words.
“Do not give in to anger yet, Fyodr,” I cautioned. “You have been given back your life, and you will win your love and your land as well, but you must listen to me, and do as I say.”
“I will strike down both of my brothers where they stand,” he proclaimed, striking his palm with his fist.
“Taking back your inheritance and your bride will be better than striking in vengeance. Take what is yours, let vengeance fall where it will.”
He was still angry, but as we walked and I explained my plan, he began to calm, and finally agreed to do as I asked. Though we could easily have come to his father's house that day, we spent that night in the woods, making preperations. The next day, Fyodr would reclaim everything that was his, or die trying.
The next morning dawn clear and bright. The nights had gotten colder with the approach of winter, and my coat had grown thicker and shaggier. I wearied of being a wolf, but there was no point in changing forms before Fyodr's work was done. The time for change would come soon enough.
He awoke and after eating a simple meal of apples and cheese, clothed himself in peasant's garb that I had taken from the alehouse. The disguise, combined with his newly grown beard, was certain to fool his father, who still expected to see him as the boy he had been.
The men and women of neighboring villages were milling about the front entrance to the castle, for everyone in the realm had been invited to Piotr's wedding, which had been set for that day. Fyodr bid me farewell, and joined the crowd, soon becoming lost in the mass.
I slipped into the castle grounds unnoticed when a guard moved to break up a fight between two men who had jostled each other. I kept to the shadows, and finally found my way to the room where Elenya was staying. When I whispered to her, she opened the door and let me in. I looked around; the room was spare and spartan. Surely Piotr had been in here first to remove anything that she might use to take her life. There was only one small window very high up in the wall, and a single beam of sunlight fell upon the stone floor.
Elenya had been prepared for her wedding by a handmaid that the tsar had given her. Her black hair had been brushed until it gleamed, and it hung down her back, falling to her ankles in ebony waves. Her skin was pale, but flushed with emotion, and her eyes sparkled. Though I could tell that her heart still ached, she was strong, and determined.
“tell me, wolf. You asked me to delay the wedding until today, and I have done so. But Fyodr is not with you, and I marry Piotr within the hour. If this is to be my life, then I beg you, rip my throat out and release me!”
I motioned for her to sit down on her bed. “Peace, tsarevna. Your love Fyodr is alive and well, and he waits for you. But all must happen in its own time.” I explained the plan to her, and she seemed to grow years younger as the weight of grief dropped from her heart.
Soon, the maid came to call upon Elenya, for the marriage procession was ready. I bade her farewell, and watched as she left the room. I listened until I was sure that the halls were clear, then made my way back downstairs and out into the garden where the wedding was being held. There was an old priest there in gold robes to perform the ceremony, and Piotr looked around impatiently. At the foot of the steps was spread a huge banquet for the wedding guests, and Aleksandr waited nearby with his finest clothing; he looked ready to take the rule of the land that very day, and I wondered for a moment if, having killed his brother, he would soon find himself willing to kill his own father to secure that inheritance. Little matter: he would have no chance for that now.
The crowd of villagers stood in the garden, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Soon, Elenya was lead out, with a wreath of flowers in her hair, and her hand was joined with Piotr's. The priest, taking little note of Elenya's anxiousness, asked Piotr to repeat the vows that would have bound them as man and wife. He stumbled over the lines, not having learned them in advance, and the gathered company grew restless. From my place under the steps of the castle, I could see that everything was in place.
I sang one clear note, and Fyodr stepped forward from the crowd of villagers. Several gasped at the presumption of this peasant to step into the procession, and the tsar's face darkened with anger.
“Who is this who dares to interrupt my son's wedding,” he demanded, as several guards converged. With a swift movement, Fyodr tore off the ragged cloak he wore to show the fine tsarevitch's silks that he wore underneath. With another motion, he removed the shapeless cap from his head to show the fine red hair that he had always been known for.
The crowd stared, and the tsar was dumbfounded. I wondered what story the two elder brothers had told to explain Fyodr's absence when they returned home. Elenya's eyes were shining, and I could see that she was ready to fly to her love's arms, but as ordered, she remained in place to let the events take their course.
“I do not know what my brothers have told you, o my father,” Fyodr proclaimed in a clear voice that carried over the garden. “But I was the one to procure the firebird for you, and in my quest to find it, I also found the beautiful tsarevna Elenya. She is my love, and my bride; the bird was to be my gift to you. My brothers left me for dead, and stole both from me, and claimed them for their own. I have come to take what is mine.”
“What is this,” the tsar asked, with a catch in his voice. “You, my youngest son, returned to me in such a strange manner, and accusing your brothers of such vile deeds! What is this?”
“he is jealous of our success, father!” Aleksandr had stormed to the front of the crowd and stood towering over Fyodr. His face was as dark as a thundercloud, and I thought he might strike the younger brother, but both held their ground. “He has no skill nor any idea of the ways of the world, so he waited at the alehouse at the crossroads while we labored to bring back the firebird and the tsarevna.”
Piotr had kept hold of Elenya's hand and now gripped it tightly, the point of his dagger touching her back just out of sight of the wedding guests. She did not cry out, but neither could she step forward to defend Fyodr.
“It is the word of brother against brother,” said the tsar heavily. “It grieves my old heart to see my sons turn on each other so.”
“Then you might have thought of that before you encouraged us to fight one another for the inheritance you should have given freely,” barked Piotr, keeping his grip on Elenya. “You breed discord with every breath, you old fool, then chide us with tears when it arrives. Make your choice and have done with it!”
“But how am I to know whose story is true,” lamented the tsar.
“I know the truth of the matter.” A quiet voice commanded the attention of all present, and all eyes were drawn to the figure who now stood at the top of the steps, a grey wolf at his side and a raven perched on his shoulder.
“And who might this be, who claims such an audacious thing,” demanded Aleksandr.
“I am the tsar of the castle where the firebird made his home,” came the reply quietly, “and I received word that the young tsarevitch's story might be doubted. I have come to tell you of the taking of the firebird.”
The father of the three quarelling young men brightened at this, and stood to welcome his unexpected royal guest. I quietly thanked the raven for delivering my message, and it flew away to join its fellows again.
“My name is Tsar Nestor, and I live several days' journey from here, in a castle with a garden even more splendid than this. For many years, the firebird has been the joy of my heart. It comes and goes as it pleases, and its beauty delighted me. But I am an old man with no children, and I began to worry about who would take care of the bird when I passed from this world. One day, as I was pondering this, I heard the trumpets blaring. Rushing down into the garden, I saw the guards holding this young man, with hair almost as bright as my beloved bird's. He had taken the bird, but not content with that, had reached out for the golden cage that hung nearby, and it was this that had alerted the castle to his presence. I admired his spirit, and would have been happy to send the bird with him, had he asked. But I do not take kindly to thieves, and asked him to redeem himself in my eyes by fetching me something that I had long wanted. He was gone for many days, and when he returned he was accompanied by the beautiful tsarevna Elenya, whose beauty is known across many lands. She was much taken with him, and they left to return to you. Fyodr was very eager to receive your blessing on his upcoming marriage, and he took the firebird to fulfill your own desire. What happened between my land and yours, I do not know, but your elder sons have lied to you, good tsar, for neither of them won the bird nor the lady.” With that, he sat down and was silent, though he watched the two older brothers with an eager eye.
During the story, aleksandr had gone very pale, and Piotr had let his knife drop to the grass. Both glanced toward the gates, as if they hoped to escape, but each one was guarded, and they were trapped. No longer feeling the touch of the blade in her back, Elenya ran across the grass to Fyodr and threw herself into his arms.
The tsar stood, and he seemed older than ever, weighted down with the knowledge of the nature that he had instilled in his elder sons.
“My sons, I beg your forgiveness. I am a fool, and there is no time to set things right now, for I am an old fool. I have been greedy and fickle, and am not fit to raise sons to be tsars. But now I will hold to my word, at the end. Fyodr, you have done everything I asked, and more. The inheritance is yours, as I promised. I wish you happiness in your marriage, and God grant you many years.”
He turned to the faithless older brothers. “Aleksandr, I have perhaps wronged you the most, for the inheritance should go to the eldest by rights. But that does not excuse your actions. You have attacked your brother, stolen what he won, and lied about it. You will never inherit any of my lands, but I leave you a place in this house, as long as you want it. Fyodr may never turn you out of this place.” Fyodr nodded in agreement, though he did not seem pleased to do so.
“Piotr, you never had Aleksandr's desire to rule, nor any desire that I could see, save the desire to do as you wished. But even so, I did nothing to rid you of your indolence, as a father should have done. I have nothing to leave you, save what was given to Aleksandr: a place in this household for as long as you have need of it.” Again, Fyodr nodded, though his expression was grim.
Then with a groan that seemed to come from his very soul, the tsar clutched his heart and fell over. With a cry, Fyodr ran to his father, but the old man was dead before he reached him. A wail went up from the young man, and a few tears fell from Elenya's eyes. In the commotion, Piotr and Aleksandr disappeared, and I never heard tell of them in that land again.
After a few minutes, Fyodr wearily pulled himself off his father's body, and looked out at the crowd. “We were all gathered here for a wedding, and a wedding there shall be, but let me first bury my father. Then all grief shall be put to rest, and we will begin anew.” the people murmured in assent.
The items for burial were quickly gathered, and Elenya herself laid out the old man in his finest robes. His body was borne out to the graveyard by five young men from the village and Fyodr. A hole was dug amongst the graves of the tsars ancestors, and he was lowered into the ground with honor and respect. The priest conducted the ceremony with solemnity, fitting for the occasion; when all was done, Fyodr sent the women back to the castle to prepare for the wedding, and the men quickly filled in the grave and strew the bare earth with seeds that the grave might grow green with grass when spring came.
As dusk fell, the men returned to the castle garden. The women had lit lamps and candles and hung them from every tree, gate, and even from the walls of the garden itself. As always, the garden held the warm air of summer, and all of the flowers were in bloom, scenting the air with their fragrance. All of the women wore flowers in their hair, and even more blossoms had been added to Elenya's long tresses, until she looked like a garden herself.
Fyodr joined her there, and with the people gathered around, were married in the sight of their people and their God. There was much feasting then, and dancing, but I slipped away. This was their celebration, not mine.
Early the next morning, Fyodr walked through the garden as he had so many times in the past. He knew each tree, flower, and plant, and the firebird perched in the top of the tree with the golden apples, shining like a star. I sat by the gate, watching as I had so many times. He saw me there, and we stood looking at each other for a long moment. Then Elenya came down the steps into the garden, and Fyodr's eyes turned to her, soft with love. She kissed him, then walked to the gate.
As I left Fyodr's land, I shed the wolf form, and went forward into the land in my true form. The sun was rising, and in the distance, I heard the people singing as they went about their work.
It was several weeks' journey to the Gate to the Summer Realm, and it was difficult going when the first snow of the winter fell. But I reached the tree near the gate, and checking to see that the silver bridle was still there, hid the golden apple with it, and concealed the place again.
I walked through the snows to the Gate. It looked as it always had: cold stone with strange designs, older than the land around it, perhaps older than time itself. I remembered the scent of summer that had come from Fyodr's garden, the unmistakeable scent that still clung to the apple they had given me.
But there was no scent from this Gate, no warmth of summer sun, no shimmering curtains of light hanging over gardens of honeysuckle.