When I reached the steppes once again, I knew that I could no longer avoid the world of men, and I no longer cared to try. If I must interact with them, it would be on my own terms.
When I came to the edge of a great forest, I paced off a plot of land, and began to sing, weaving my song with the earth, the trees, and the forces of the world. I walked for a full day, and as the sun sank, I returned to where I had begun. In my steps had sprung up a high stone wall with thick battlements and a great iron gate.
I slept within the gates that night; I had poured all of my energy into the creation of the wall, and it would be several days before my abilities would return to their full strength.
I dreamed that night, for the first time in a long time. I was back in the wood, and it was tangled and dark. I found myself pushing through dead vines, and ankle-deep in fallen and rotting leaves. And always behind me, the sound of horse's hooves, always coming toward me, but never quite arriving. I ran as fast as I could, but the vines caught my hands and feet, and the branches struck against my body, slowing me down. The hoofbeats were louder now, almost upon me. I looked behind me, and saw eyes of fire in the dark space between two trees.
Slowly, I raised my palace out of the earth. It was exhausting work, but it must be done if I were to take my rightful place in the world of men. I would be no Tsar, ordering men into war and staging contests to give away the hand of his daughter. I would be no high-bred Tsarina, dancing until my feet ached to uphold my husband's reputation, with closets of silks never worn and furs never touched. No, men needed a stronger, more noble hand to rule them, and mine would be that hand.
It is painful to me now to remember that time. My heart was full of anger and my head swelled with pride. But it necessary to understand everything that came after, so I must face my shame and tell you of the heights of my pride.
Gradually, men began to come to my palace to see this wondrous building that had suddenly arisen in the wilderness, and to see the face of the princess who ruled there. Stories about her beauty and power spread far and wide, which I encouraged. When a band of peasant men came to investigate, I invited them to stable their horses and join my table at a feast. Sometimes a lone soldier would find his way to my gate after returning from some war, and I would offer him a fine meal and a place to sleep. Certain charms were woven in the stone of the palace, and few who stayed for a meal ever wished to leave again, and after a man had slept under the roof of my palace, he would forever be loyal to me. In time, my army grew, and a small town sprung up at the foot of my palace wall. The wide plains were good for hunting, and there was farmland for any who wished to live that life. As my raiding parties went out, my land increased, until I could not see the end of my realm even when I looked out from the highest tower.
And I could not sleep. Every night in my dreams, I heard the pounding hooves of Koschei's night-black horse. I could feel his hot breath on my cheek, and his low laughter was in my ears when I jolted awake. I began to walk the walls of my palace at night, looking out to the plains. I knew he must be near, but I never caught a glimpse of him or his horse.
After several sleepless months, I finally determined to draw Koschei out. After making my preperations, I sent word to my servants that I was going to the woods for several days, and I was not to be disturbed for any reason. I rode out from the palace with nothing but my staff and a small pouch of herbs; at my side hung a length of silver chain.
I journeyed into the heart of the forest, and found a small clearing. Working quickly, I drew out a handful of salt from my pouch and quickly draw a circle around myself, whispering charms as I did so. When the circle closed, there was a brief green flash, and the circle glowed slightly. Then, knowing I was safe as long as I did not set foot outside the circle, I sat down and wrapped my cloak around myself to wait. As night fell, I listened for the familiar sound of hooves, and it was not dark long before I heard them. I could hear the hard iron shoes crushing the undergrowth of the forest, and the clanking of the bit.
I stood in the middle of the circle, my staff at ready. I had ordered many books brought to my palace from distant lands, and learned many things since I had last met Koschei. I was ready.
He appeared in the clearing suddenly, clothed all in black furs and ragged leather. He seemed to have aged since last I saw him. He appeared thinner, more withered, more wrinkled, as if the loss of his soul had made him hollow and he had begun to cave in. Perhaps that is exactly what had happened; I cannot say.
“You are a long way from home, Vasilissa,” he rasped.
“I see you have learned my name, Koschei,” I replied calmly.
“Stories reach me from time to time. Yours was more interesting than most.” His horse snorted, and stamped the ground. “You needn’t have bothered with the salt circle, you know. I have little interest in you; you are only an exiled girl, no lost Hyperborean princess.”
“Then why have you stalked my castle walls these last months? Why haunted my dreams?” I demanded.
He laughed. “Oh, you think yourself, so important, Vasilissa! I have no need to tell you my reasons.” He turned to leave the clearing.
“No, you do not. And it matters not to me, in the end.” I sang a quick sharp high note, and the chains of silver dropped from the trees where I had concealed them, and wrapped themselves around Koschei’s wrists and ankles. He made to laugh again brush away the small links, but blanched when the metal touched his skin and began to burn. I could see the skin turning red and blistered under the chains. With another note, the chains drew taut and Koschei toppled from his horse.
“You forget, Koschei. Silver may be weak, but it is pure, and no soulless thing like you can touch purity.” I stepped out of the circle, and quickly stuffed a rag into Koschei’s mouth, both to prevent him speaking any charms that I could not ward against, and to stifle the flow of curses that streamed from him.
The night-black horse ran as I raised a hand to his bridle, and I had no desire to chase after it. I loaded Koschei onto my own horse, and took him back to the castle under the cover of the waning darkness. By dawn, he was chained in the top of the tallest tower of the palace. Silver were his chains, and silver ornamented the door and walls of the room.
I stood before him one final time, as dawn broke through the window. “I have had my fill of you, Koschei. You may stay chained here until the world ends and the very earth itself breaks apart. I have rid the world of you.” His eyes blazed with fire, but he was powerless.
I left him there, hanging in his silver chains, and closed the door, locking it sharply.
For many years, my power grew. My army grew, until there were few who could stand against them. The door at the top of the stairs in the tallest tower grew dusty from disuse, and spiderwebs could often be seen at the corners. My dreams ceased, and I found sleep easily. The town grew rich and prosperous; farmers sold their crops, and hunters traded furs with merchants who passed on their way to the larger cities.
The people, having no name for me, began to call me Marya Morevna, a name from some long-forgotten tale. I did not care what they called me, so long as they were easily ruled. I rarely left the palace, except to lead the army into battle. I had had special armor made for me. Not silver or steel nor any kind of metal, it was a leather corset, into which I had sewn my own charms and sung my own protection. I covered my arms in wide rings of silver to deflect arrows, and a gold helmet crowned my head. I have heard that I was terrible to look on in the midst of battle: a whirling madwoman, striking out with staff and song, bringing death to any near her, with blond hair flying like a whirlwind. My men knew that I would always be with them in battle, and were happy to march out in any battle with their strange warrior queen.
One day, we went out to do battle with a neighboring tsar, who had been foolish enough to have his men conduct raiding parties into my lands. Several acres had been burned, and one peasant had lost his livestock, another had had an arm severed by a blow from a sword. I could not let such brazenness go unanswered, so my forces were called to arms, and I rode out at the head of the crowd.
We made camp two days’ march from the palace. Our tents stood tall, flags rippling in the breeze. My tent was a large one, made of red and blue cloth. There were skins on the floor, and servants to fetch whatever might be required. My men rested for a day, then on the fourth day, we marched against the offending tsar, and destroyed his forces. Once word of this battle spread, I knew, others would not dare to impose on my lands or my people. The victory must be decisive.
A few hours after the battle was over, just after I had changed clothes and finished washing the blood out of my battle robes, a servant entered the tent, and informed me that there was a young man outside who wished to speak with me.
I sent my robes out with a servant to be hung to dry outside, and summoned the stranger in. When he entered, ducking through the curtains, he gaped at the sight of the tent. He was more than a little startled by me as well, I believe.
“What is it that you wish of me?” I asked him. He was perhaps thirty, with a rough shock of dark brown hair, and an open face, not unpleasant.
“My name is Ivan Petrovka. I was passing through the area, in search of some adventure. You see, my three sisters were married off recently, and I have no-one else to look after, so I thought to see what the world had to offer. When I came this way, I found fields strewn with dead men, and one man barely clinging to life. When I asked him what had happened, he only replied, ‘Marya Morevna has destroyed us!’ Then he fell back and died, for his wounds were great. I thought that I should like to see the woman who could be responsible for such a great battle.”
“Well, now you have seen her,” I replied. “And what think you of her?”
“I do not believe that an outsider can judge a general: only a soldier knows what it like to fight under his leadership.” Ivan spoke quietly, but clearly, and his answer surprised me.
“That is an interesting answer, Ivan Petrovka. I should like to see how you fight, but alas, all of my current enemies are dead. Would you be willing to battle my champion in the field tomorrow morning?”
He nodded. “I would be happy to, my lady. I greatly hope that my strength of arm may be proved to your liking.”
I summoned the servant again. “See that young Ivan here is given room and board with the men. Then tell the armsmaster to set up the battle ring, and prepare sword and shield for two men. Let one of my men volunteer to be my champion in the ring. We shall see what your strength is, young Ivan. And now, goodnight to you.”
Ivan bowed briefly, and followed the servant out of the room. I watched him go, wondering what sort of soldier he might prove to be.
The next morning dawned cool and clear. Dawn colored the sky gradually, and I stood outside my tent, watching the stars fade out one by one. Soon, the entire sky was a solid blue, and the men were waiting for the mock battle. I took my seat by the edge of the ring to judge the match. The one who had been selected as my champion was a soldier I knew well, by the name of Dmitri. He was well-muscled and strong, and his arms were marked with the scars of battle.
Both men were stripped to the waist, and bore wooden swords and shields. Ivan was wiry, and smaller than Dmitri, but he seemed calm and quick on his feet. I was eager to see how he might handle this challenge.
“Begin!” I shouted, and a great cheer went up as Dmitri swung his sword in a great arc and crashed it against Ivan’s shield, sending him back a pace. They circled each other, Dmitri snarling and baring his teeth, and Ivan simply watching calmly. Dmitri struck a few more times, and Ivan blocked each one easily. Then Dmitri made to charge him again, and almost faster than the eye could see, Ivan struck, doubling his opponent over. Quickly, he turned and gave another blow across Dmitri’s back before he could get away. Finally, Dmitri raised his shield and blocked the next strike, giving himself enough time to recover his breath. When he raised his face again, it was flushed and red, and I could see an anger in his expression that had not been there before. He watched Ivan for a moment, then lunged with the sword, attempting to impale the young warrior. Ivan dodged the blow nimbly, and swung his sword in a wide arc, striking Dmitri across the back once again.
The fight continued in this manner for some time, and I could see the bruises beginning to form on Dmitri’s back and arms. He had struck Ivan a few times, but it was clear who was winning. But both men were now tired, and I was watching to see who would make the first mistake.
Ivan was tiring, and began to let his shield arm drop. Dmitri noticed as well, and in a flash had struck the edge of the shield, ripping it from Ivan’s hand and sending it flying into the watching crowd. Ivan grimaced; the fingers that gripped the handle of the shield had been hurt by the blow.
The two men circled each other again, Dmitri grinning and poking at Ivan with the tip of his sword, Ivan dancing just out of reach. Finally, the larger man lunged forward again, hoping to catch Ivan on the tip of the wooden blade.
Rather than parrying or turning away, Ivan stepped forward past the blade and grabbed Dmitri’s fist. Giving him a hard yank, he brought his own sword down on Dmitri’s head, loud enough that the entire audience could hear the crack. Dmitri crumpled into a heap on the grass, and the battle was over.
A thunderous applause washed over the battle ring, and the armsmaster quickly entered the ring to tend to Dmitri. After assuring us that he would recover, the armsmaster proclaimed Ivan the winner of the bout. The men swept him away for a drink and a meal, and I watched them go.
Ivan was smart and quick, that much was clear, and I had need of men like that. But where had he come from? What did he want? These questions nagged at me through the day, and finally, when the day began to cool and the sun dipped toward the horizon, I summoned Ivan to my tent again.
He entered, and stood in silence before me. His face had a few bruises, but otherwise he appeared to be untouched and in good spirits.
“Sit down, Ivan,” I said, gesturing to a chair that stood on the far end of the room from mine. “You did well in the challenge I set, and I am impressed by the intelligence you showed on the field.” I poured a cup of strong beer, and handed it to him. He drank it eagerly.
“Thank you, my lady. It was an honor to fight such a man, and I am grateful that you approved of my showing.”
I watched him for a long moment. Though he was obviously tired, he kept his composure, and did everything with precision and attention.
“I may have use for a man like you, Ivan,” I remarked. “But I still know nothing of where you come from, or what you are doing here, in the midst of this battlefield. It is early in the evening, we have time for stories. I think it is time I heard yours.” I beckoned the servant to set a meal in front of Ivan that he might eat while he spoke.
“It is as I told you, my lady. I am the brother of three sisters, all of age to be married. Our other died when the youngest was born, and our father died as she came of age. He called me in to see him as he lay dying, and bid me not delay in arranging for their marriages, for it was time they set up house for themselves.” He paused to take a few bites of food.
“A few days after our father was laid to rest, we were all four walking in our gardens together, when we heard a great noise. Coming up from the sea was an army, carrying a large banner in the shape of a hawk. Fearing some violence, I bid my sisters to hurry inside, lest they be carried away. We barred the door behind us, and soon there was a knock. When I asked who knocked, a strong voice replied, ‘I am the lord of many lands far away, and I wish to marry your eldest sister, for tales have spread of her great beauty.’ I opened the door, and there stood a young man about my own age, with his army behind him. He was dressed all in shining bronze, and his helmet bore the emblem of hawk wings. I asked my eldest sister, Irina, if she would accept the man’s suit, and she was more than willing. So we joyfully celebrated her wedding, and sent her off with her new husband.”
He paused to finish the meal, and take a long draught of wine. “A year to the day since Irina’s husband came to us, the three of us who were left were walking in the garden again. And again, we saw a great army come up from the beach, and they carried a great banner in the shape of an eagle. I bid my sisters hurry inside, lest this prove to be an invasion and they be carried away. No sooner had we barred the door than I heard a great knocking. When I asked who was at the door and what their purpose was, a clear voice answered me. ‘I am the lord of many lands far away, and I wish to marry your second sister, for word of her wisdom has spread far and wide.’ I opened the door, and there stood a man of my own age, with hair the color of honey, and armour of rich brown leather. His helmet bore the emblem of an eagle’s wings. I asked Anastasia if she would have him, and she happily accepted. So again, we celebrated a wedding, and my youngest sister and I bid our farewells to Anastasia and her new husband.”
He looked up for a moment to judge my reaction to his story, and I motioned for him to continue. “The same thing happened a year later. Tatiana and I were walking in the garden, when I saw a third army come up from the beach, and they bore the banner of a large crow. Fearing invasion yet again, Tatiana and I ran inside, bolting the door. Soon there came a knock on the door, and when I asked who was at the door, a young man answered. ‘I am the lord of many lands far away, and I wish to marry your youngest sister, for word of her cheerful spirit has reached far and wide.’ I opened the door, and there stood a man with a fine black beard, armored in ebony, and bearing the wing of the crow on his helmet. I asked Tatiana if she would have such a husband, and she was more than happy to go with him. So I held the third wedding, and sent the two away happy. But then I was alone in my father’s house, and longed to win glory for my name, so I left my father’s house in charge of the servants, and went out into the world to seek my fortune. Three days out from his house, I found the battlefield, and the rest you know as well as I.”
I studied him for a while, wondering about the story. It was unusual, to be sure, but no more so than the things that had happened to me since I left my realm. And he seemed to have nothing false about him. In the end, I decided to believe him, and smiled. “Your sisters must be fortunate, Ivan, to have married so well. It is good that they are taken care of, because you may not return to your father’s house for some time. I would like you to come and lead my army. You have the mind for it, you are a good fighter, and I believe that you can make my men put their trust in you as they have in me. There are times when it would be advantageous to have two forces, and I would need a trusted commander in such times. What say you? Can you leave your house in the servants’ hands for a while longer, and come with me?”
He stood solemnly, and bowed. “My lady, it would be a very great honor.”
Our return to the palace was a joyful one: the soldiers had divided up the spoils between themselves, leaving enough to give those who had been damaged by the raid enough to cover their losses. The soldiers’ sweethearts and wives ran out to greet them at the edge of the town, and children ran loose in the streets, celebrating and having a grand time.
Ivan rode behind my horse, and we proceded straight up into the palace walls, leaving the bustle of the town behind. When we dismounted, my groom was on hand to lead the horses into the stable, and we quickly went up the stone steps and into the palace itself.
Ivan looked a bit awed by the interior of the palace, and it shouldn’t have been surprising. The first room was a large entrance hall, paved with blue stone and built in marble. The walls were covered in fine sill tapestries in blue and gold, and at the far end was my own coat of arms, set into the wall in fine stones and gems. It showed a circle of gold, filled in with green stones. Around it was a field of blue lapis lazuli, and worked in gold and silver on the device was a phrase in Hyperborean script, reading “He who challenges me shall not stand, though the world be with him.” It was an old saying, from one of our long-forgotten wars, fought long before men ever came to our realm.
I lead Ivan through the palace to the living quarters, pointing out rooms of interest along the way. Finally, I opened a heavy wooden door, and motioned for him to enter. The room was not as large as some of the others in the palace, but Ivan did not seem the type to welcome empty space. It was roomy enough for one man, but small enough to feel comfortable on cold winter nights when the wind howled at the windows and whistled in the cracks. A fire roared in a stone fireplace against the outer wall, and there were fine furs on the floor to keep the chill away. A door led to a second room, in which there was a bed with piles of woven cloths on it.
He examined the room, nodding slightly as if to indicate that it was acceptable. I made to leave, but before closing the door behind me, I thought of something. “Ivan, one thing you must remember while you are here.” He turned and looked quizzically at me. “'There are strange things in this palace, and some of them could prove...dangerous. I will show you as much as I can soon, but in the meantime, I will send my servants for you or come for you myself. Do not go exploring on your own, lest you come to regret it.”
He appeared thoughtful for a moment, and I knew that asking such a thing of a restless soul like his was asking much, but I couldn't risk him finding the room in the tallest tower. Not yet.
Finally he nodded, and I smiled as I closed the door. I made my way to my own rooms, and as I passed the door to the tower, I thought I heard a sound, a very small sound, like clanking metal. I paused on the steps, listening intently, but it had ceased, and there was nothing but silence.
Morning dawn cold and cloudy, and I had no desire to leave the palace, or indeed, the warmth of my own room. Instead of going out to the courtyard to practice my battle skills, I called for the armsmaster and my teacher to come into the palace instead. In a short while, I was practicing my staff skills; so intent was I on the work, that I did not hear Ivan come in. I brought the staff down in a sweeping arc, and was startled to find it met by the flat of a blade. I looked up, and Ivan was smiling as he resheathed his sword. “My apologies, my lady, but you were fighting with such a good spirit that I felt I simply had to join in.”
“Oh? And you thought to presume enough to draw your weapon in my hall, when uninvited and indeed, unnoticed?”
He realized then the error, and I saw the blood rush away from his face for a moment. He held his composure, and bowed. “My deepest apologies, I had not stopped to think of any such thing. It shall not happen again.”
I smiled then, and pulled a stray strand of hair back into my braid. “come with me, Ivan, I have another test for you.” We went into a room filled with maps, maps from all over the known world. Spread out on the table were maps of my own lands, along with those of the lands that lay near mine. “I would like to see what you make of this, Ivan. My neighbor to the east is a foolish tsar who does whatever his favored adviser of the moment tells him to do. He has never threatened full war on my land, but has been known to send small raiding parties when his advisers tell him I am not looking. He is easily frightened, however, and the mere sight of a marching army sends him scurrying for messengers of parley and truce. On the north is a powerful lord who is content with his own lands, and will never touch mine. However, he cannot be persuaded to enter into an alliance for mutual defense. To the west, as you know, is the tsar who likes to send raiding parties into my lands, and disturb my people and take their livestock. But I do not think I will have to worry about him again, at least, not very soon.” I continued, showing him the lands around my realm,and marking all of the resources likely to be the target of an attack, along with the numbers of my men, where they were stationed, and how quickly they could march. Once I had explained it all to him, I began to pose tactical questions and situations. To each one, he responded as I would, and sometimes invented his own creative solution. I began to feel glad; here was a man with whom I could leave my realm when I went to battle. I could even entrust the battle to him at times, and stay in the city when necessary. Finally, I rolled up the maps and stored them away.
“Thank you for your time, Ivan. You have given many good answers.” I closed the doors of my cabinet, and turned back to him. “I have made a decision. You are to become the head of my army, in my stead. I shall still lead them into battle when I choose, but there will be many times when I will be needed elsehwere. And in those times I shall rely on your judgement.”
He nodded slightly, back straight in formal attention. There seemed to be a light in his eyes that I had not noticed there before.
“In three days' time, I have need to go to a far country to discuss the terms of an alliance. I shall take a small company with me, but the rest of the army shall stay here. I will need you to be here to deal with any arguments that may arise, and to see that the men and horses are all properly fed and cared for. You will oversee the distribution of rations, the setting of a guard, and all things that ensure the safety of this city.”
The next three days were busy: I took Ivan all over the city, showing him the limits of the town, explaining the specifics of the marketplace, and introducing him to the heads of the various guilds. There was much to learn, but he absorbed it quickly, and those who met him were much drawn to him, more than they ever had to me. He was quick to smile, and quick to draw laughter from others.
The day before I left, I spent at the palace itself, showing Ivan the household, and ensuring that things would be running smoothly, no matter how long I was gone. I showed him the gardens, the livestock pens, the butcher, the cook, the kitchens, and the armory. Finally, as the sun was setting, we arrived at the foot of the steps up to the tallest tower.
“There is one final thing I must ask of you, Ivan,” I said, standing in front of the stairs.
“Yes, my lady?” he asked politely, but with a hint of curiousity.
“No matter what, do not go into this tower. There are things here that must never be seen, and if they are let loose, the entire city will perish for it. Do you understand me?”
he nodded, but I could see that his eyes were drawn to the wooden door at the top of the steps. Again I thought I heard the sound of chains scraping over the floor, but Ivan seemed to have heard nothing, and so I said nothing of it.
“Do not misunderstand me, Ivan Petrovka,” I said. “i have seen things that you cannot imagine, and you must trust me, even beyond your curiosity. Serve me well, and someday you may know all of my secrets. But not today. Now go, sleep well, and prepare for tomorrow's duties.”
His eyes were drawn back to me, and again I saw the light in them. All at once, I understood, and felt a small wave of revulsion. Keeping my face unmoved, I bid him goodnight, and retired to my quarters. Once inside my own rooms, I locked the door, and began to pace the room.
This simply would not do, but there was no way I could find someone else to manage my affairs during my absence. Ivan was intelligence and judicious, and completely smitten with me. I did not think I had done anything to encourage such feelings, but even now I understand so little of the hearts of men.
I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror as I paced the floor. I tried to see myself as the young and curious Ivan would see me. My face was young; even now I scare appear more than four decades, by human reckoning, and I appeared no more than three at that time. My hair was long and wheat colored, drawn back into a thick braid that shone in the light. I stood tall and slender, and moved with the grace of my people. My robe was a simple rich sienna color, bound at the waist by my customary leather corset. A simple attire, I thought, but perhaps it was considered becoming.
After a moment in front of the mirror, I turned away. It did not matter. Let him think what he liked, I would give no return of feeling. I could not imagine feeling anything towards a human, save perhaps a well-earned respect for certain skills.
Shortly after dawn, I walked down the steps of the palace to my horse, which had been groomed in preparation for the trip. Ivan stood beside the groom, waiting my departure. I greeted both of them, and quickly swung myself atop the horse. I checked to make sure that my staff was secure and that my pack had been properly attached to the saddle, then turned back to Ivan.
“I can give you no further words, and you know your duties. I will return in several weeks, and I expect to find everything running smoothly when I do.”
He bowed. “Farewell, my lady, and may you have success on your journey.”
It was a fine morning for riding: the air was crisp and clean, and I could smell the faintest hint of apples from the cider press that had been set up near the orchard. I was tempted to stop and ask for a cup of the fresh-pressed drink, but decided to keep on my way.
I slept beside the road that night, in the middle of a salt circle.
The next two days passed in much the same manner, until the sun set on the third day. I was preparing to sleep, and had begun to pour salt on the ground when I heard a sound that struck a chill into my bones.
Clank. Clank. Clank-clank. Scrape.
I knew the sound at once: the iron of a horse's bit.
I rushed to fill in the salt circle, but it was too late. The handful of salt was struck from my hand by a fist gloved in iron, and I was thrown to the ground roughly.
When I scrambled to my feet, I saw Koschei astride his horse, hair like fire in the dusk. The intervening years of captivity had not withered him as I had hoped; in fact, he seemed more terrible than ever.
“Foolish feygirl,” he spat. “did you think that you could hold me forever? Not when you fill your home with such weaklings. It was but a moment's work once the door was opened.” His eyes burned like candles in the growing dark.
“And you think it a mark of your great power, or your exceptional intelligence, to have deceived a simple man into freeing you?” I laughed without mirth. “Oh, to be as great a sorceror as you, Koschei!”
He struck me across the face with a gloved hand, and I tasted blood. “enough of this! I am free again, and you shall not escape me.” He reached down and grabbed a fistful of my hair, drawing me up to my feet. “With the magic I can work on you, the Summer Realm will be mine at last.”
When I came to myself again, I was curled on a cold stone floor. It was dark, and I could see only a thin line of light that came from under a door that seemed to be set many feet up in a wall.
I sat up, and nearly cried out with the pain in my ribs. I ran my hands along my sides, and discovered that my corset, with all its charms and defenses, had been taken, and my bones seemed bruised, perhaps even broken. I continued taking stock of my injuries. My arms seemed bruised, but not injured, as were my legs. I ran a hand over my hand, and discovered many scrapes and tender places, and when I touched a painful place on my head, my fingers came away wet.
I knew nothing of the ride from the clearing in the woods to this place, and could not puzzle out where I was, save that it was likely to be a dwelling of Koschei's, and therefore, nowhere that I wanted to be.
Struggling to get to my feet, I winced when I tried to step forward. My left ankle, while showing no signs of being broken, did seem to be badly sprained, and walking was more difficult than I had hoped. I limped toward the light, hoping to find a way to at least see outside, even if I could not escape in my current condition.
I stumbled across the bottom step of a staircase, and nearly fell. I looked up, and realized that the steps must run along the wall until they reached the door. I paused for a moment, listening to see if I could hear any sign of a guard, or voices outside the door, but all was silent.
I inched my way up the steps on my hands and knees, trying not to put any weight on the injured ankle.
As I neared the door, I pulled myself onto my feet; even injured, I could move more quietly on my toes than on my knees. The light from the door was just above my head; a few more feet, and I would be at the door.
Then, not three inches from my face, two fires flamed like coals suddenly brought back to life, and Koschei stared at me from where he sat on the stairs in the darkness.
I cried out, and stumbled backwards down the stairs, trying to regain my footing. I heard his rasping laugh echo off the walls. “That always was a fault with our people, wasn't it? They never could see much in the darkness, always liked to have light around. Even the nights were too bright, with those garish colors in the sky.” he got to his feet, and towered over me, as I clung to the stone steps. “But you learn things in exile, if you wish. Like how to sit in darkness for days, months, years if need be. To call on powers that want nothing more than to rip you apart where you stand, and bid them to do your will. This power was what I offered you, and you cast it away. Do as you will there, it is nothing to me.”
“Then what is it you want with me,” I asked through gritted teeth, my ankle feelign as though it would ignite with the pain.
That rasping laugh again. “I thought perhaps you had pieced it together by now.” He stood, and the red light from his eyes made a dim circle on the stairs. “There are certain spells I know that, with the help of others, will open the doors of Hyperborea to me. Your blood will open the gate.”
My heart seemed to stop at his words. I knew of no such spells, but I had not learned nearly so much sorcery as he, and mine was of a decidedly different sort.
“Do not fret, feygirl. You will not be alone in death long, for the rest of your people will soon follow you.” He turned and began to climb the stair.
“They were once your people too, Koschei,” I said, perhaps more desperately than I meant to.
He laughed loudly at that; no mirthless rasping chuckle, but a ringing laugh that bounced off the stones. It was so awful that I covered my ears to block it out.
“My people? My people? They were never MY people, or at least, I was never truly one of them. That is one of the many lessons that banishment has taught me, feygirl. They could shape the world with their very words, but will they do it? No! They prance about in their gardens, and lounge under the light of the night sky. Every step could echo like thunder, but they squander them in dancing. Every gesture could bestow life or summon death, but they blithely pluck fruit as if it were not so. No! I was never one of them!”
I do not know how long I lay on the stairs, heart pounding, sunk in despair. Even the moment before the Lawkeepers, when my exile had been pronounced, had brought me so low. I felt as though I would seep through the stone and into the ground.
The silence was pervasive; after a while, I began to imagine that I heard sounds, but nothing was ever real.
My race does not die easily, but die we can. I had been told tales about the olden times, before man came, when we warred against the creatures of earth and stone that had been raised against us. Many of the great warriors, it was said, had been injured. Their life slowly drained away, and none of the healers could close the wounds made by the weapons of the golem. Instead of waiting for oblivion, they had set their affairs in order, and walked out of the great gate into the empty land, where men now built their villages. Our magic was weaker there, and cutting the bonds between body and essence came more easily there. They sat in a circle under a large tree, and began to will their essence back into the shining world from which it came. It took a very long time, but when it was over their bodies were consumed with a bright yellow flame, and nothing was left but piles of fine ash that blew away on the wind. It was said that any of us could choose such an end, but there was very rarely need of it, and the willpower required was immense.
As the darkness closed in around me, I resolved that I would rather become a pile of ashes on the floor of a prison than let Koschei work his sorcery and use me to enter the Summer Realm.
For days, perhaps even weeks, I lay on the floor, refusing all food and water, willing my essence to depart. I began to slip into a strange state. I do not know whether the things I saw were mere phantoms, delusions brought on by a body slowly dying, or whether I had began to hallucinate after so long in the darkness. Perhaps they were even real. There were ghostly shapes that moved to and fro, passing through the walls as if they were not there. Some of them were terrible to look at: misshapen and grotesque, they seemed too malformed to function, but they walked and lurched about me just the same.
Some of the ghostly figures I saw were sad, and seemed to be mourning; a few even seemed to be searching for a lost item that could never be found. Their forms were like smoke, and they seemed to be forever dissolving away into the air. The further I slipped from the world of Koschei's castle, the clearer they became to me.
One day, I found that I could no longer open my eyes, and I knew that the end could not be far away. Even through my closed eyes, I could see them; shadowy figures wandering here and there. Sometimes I even thought I could hear the sounds they made: this one wailing, that one crying, and another gibbering in anger. I prepared myself to pass from life far from my home, with no-one to see or mourn my passing.
Then, a jumble of noise that did not come from the phantoms. I felt myself being lifted from the cold stone floor.
“Is she dead? If she is, he will have our heads.”
“no, not dead, at least, not yet. But she is fading, and I do not think there is anything that medicine can do to help her. Someone must tell him.”
I heard no more, for blackness came over me then. When it passed, I could tell that Koschei had entered the room, and was careful to give no sign that I was aware of him.
“we found her like this, master,” one of the voices said in a servile tone. “She has not been wounded nor poisoned, and I do not think any of my skills can help her.”
“No, they cannot,” he growled. “She has never undergone the Ordeal of Darkness, perhaps the dungeon is too much for her. Her people are great lovers of light. I cannot have her in this state when the time comes for the ritual; her essence must be intact.” There was silence for a while, and I felt myself beginning to slip back into the blackness. Then Koschei spoke again. “The wards on the walls are strong, and I will circle them myself to add a charm against her. Take her out into the garden, and lay her to rest in the shade of one of the trees. She should begin to revive.”
I felt myself being picked up and carried up the steps. After a time, I could feel the wind on my skin, and fresh air in my lungs.
My body began to respond to the air and light, and my will was not strong enough to hold it back. Over the next two days, I felt the life in me twining closer to my body again, and the shadowy visions faded back into oblivion.
On the third day outside, I opened my eyes. I was under the shade of a large pine, a few steps away from a large patch of sunlight. There was still snow on the ground in places, and much of the rest was bare muddy earth, but where the sunlight struck I could see the tiny points of grass blades beginning to poke out of the ground. A bird sang outside the castle walls, and the sun shone as brightly even here in the home of Koschei as it did in my city.
I sat up, feeling weakened but grudgingly grateful to be alive. A plate of simple food was beside me: a hard heel of bread, peasant's cheese, and a flask of water. I devoured it all eagerly. Only after I had finished did I notice something odd about the place I was in.
On every side of me rose thin twining bars of iron. I had taken them for saplings and tree branches when first I saw them, but now I saw that they met over my head, twisting together to make something not unlike a bird cage. I had enough room to move between shade and sun, but little more.
A few moments after I finished my meal, I heard Koschei's booted feet on crunching through the remaining patches of snow. He eyed me for a long minute, watching in silence as I watched him. I had risen to my feet: no matter how weak I was, I would not kneel before him if I could help it. Finally, he spoke.
“You gave us a moment of worry there, feygirl. I almost thought my key to the Realm had slipped away. It's a good thing your kind responds so powerfully to the sun. I shall remember that. It may come in useful when I come to do battle in Hyperborea.”
I could not help but shudder at that, and he smiled coldly. “There is little left for me to learn, you know. A few more weeks, and I shall master it, and then there will be nowhere in this world that is closed to me.” He drew a long thin knife from his belt: it was made of iron, and twisted cruelly, swarming with graven symbols. I could read only a few of them, but it was more than enough. He toyed with it for a moment, then slid it back into the sheath.
“I do not fear death,” I said quietly.
“I know you do not: you have shown that already in your foolish attempt to die. I do not recommend trying such a thing again. I have established certain safeguards should you attempt it.”
He turned and walked away into his castle. I ran a hand along one of the bars of the cage, but the cold iron had been ensorcelled, and it burned my hand.
Several days passed in this fashion, and I tried to think of some way to escape the cage that Koschei had built. But the bars burned my hands, and I knew no charms powerful enough to overcome his, save those that required herbs and preparations that I did not have.
But one day I heard a sound that was neither bird song nor beast passing, nor any of Koschei's guard. I listened carefully to the scrape of boot against rock, the brush of branch against sleeve, and the quiet crack of twig underfoot. Soon, a familiar form dropped from the tree to the ground.
“Ivan Petrovka!” I whispered hurriedly., scarcely believing my own eyes. “What do you mean by coming here? And how did you get in? This is the castle of Koschei, and he has charmed the land for miles around.”
Ivan smiled, and pulled a small gold talisman from his neck. “My sisters' husbands have many powers of their own. And it appears that Koschei is more interested in keeping his prisoners in than he is in keeping anyone else out.” He reached down, and touching the talisman to the cage, quickly opened the door.
“come with me, there isn't much time to lose. He is out hunting, and we may have a chance to get away.” He took my hand and began to walk toward the base of the pine tree, but I stopped, my heart heavy. '
“You should not have come, Ivan. Koschei's horse is the fastest creature in the world, no-one can even catch it, and nothing has ever been known to outrun it. We would not get far, and then it would be death for you and worse for me.”
He shook his head. “I will explain everything on our way, but I have his promise to spare my life, even twice. I think he will be bound by the oath he swore, and this is the only chance.”
Without hope, I climbed the tree, trying to be thankful even for a few moments of freedom. We crossed the wall without incident, perhaps due to the talisman Ivan wore, and climbed onto his sturdy horse. With a quick kick of his heels, the horse was off and running across the countryside.
“Hurry, for Koschei will come soon,” I called above the rush of the wind in our ears. “How did you gain such an oath from him? How did you know he had taken me?”
He was silent for a long moment, and the only sound was the pounding of the horse's hooves.
“I am sorry, my lady, I did not heed your words. I went to the tower. When I opened the door, I saw an old withered man, bound by silver chains, and looking near death. My heart was moved at his appearance, and I fetched a cup of water with which to revive him. He raised his head and drank the water at one gulp, then pleaded with me for another. Fearing your words, I hesitated, but he assured me that if he could ever save my life, he would do so, in exchange for a pail of water. I brought it to him then, for he truly did appear on the edge of death. He drank the pail in a single gulp, and his withered skin began to fill out again, but he was still grey and pale as death. Again, he offered me my life if it was ever in his power to do so, and I brought him another pail. This he also drained in a single gulp, and then fear struck into my heart, for color returned to him, and his eyes were like coals. With a single word he burst the chains and grew to fill the room. With a voice like thunder, he swore that I would never see you again, for he intended to take his vengeance upon you for imprisoning him. He leapt from the window and rode a whirlwind until I saw him no more.”
As he told the story, I began to strain to hear him over the pounding rhythm of the horse's hooves. Slowly, I began to shake, for I heard the hooves of two horses, not one.
He had hardly finished his story when a rider on a night-black horse dashed in front of us, causing Ivan's horse to rear and halt, nearly throwing us from his back.
It was not long before I found myself in the iron cage again. The wards around it were made stronger still, and I could no longer even go near the bars before the curses on the metal began to burn. A week passed in near silence; I hoped that Ivan had gone far away. For a mortal man to survive an encounter with Koschei even once was a near miracle, and I did not think he could do so again, promise or no.
But at the end of the week I heard the scrape of his boots again, and saw him drop from the tree. Another talisman hung from his neck, and again he opened the doors of the iron cage with no difficulty.
We rode even more swiftly this time, hoping against hope to outrun the night-black horse of the sorcerer. As soon as we were away from the castle wall, I asked, “You carry many talismans, Ivan, and they seem to work magics even I could not do without much preparation. Where did you come by them?”
“You may remember the story of my sisters' weddings. On my way here, I happened by a large and beautiful house, all of rich wood with fine bronze ornaments. When I came within the yard, my sister Irina came running out to greet me, followed by her husband. They were overjoyed to see me, and bid me stay with them. I stayed with them for a time, but they could see that my heart was heavy. When Irina asked the source of my sadness, I told her. Her husband told me the way to Koschei's castle, but reminded me that he was a powerful sorcerer, and bid me take his talisman to help ease the way. I did, leaving my own silver spoon in return, that they might see it and think of me.
“I set out along my way, and at the end of two days' walk, I found myself outside a house built of fine wood with gold ornaments. My second sister, Anastasia, came running out to greet me. Her husband followed, welcoming me warmly to their home. I stayed with them for three nights, but they could see that my brow was furrow, and asked the source of my sorrow. When I explained, my sister's husband told me how to find Koschei's castle, but bid me be wary of his traps. He gave me his talisman to help me on my way, and I left my silver snuffbox with them that they might remember me.
“Again, I set out, and a week later found myself in a clearing. In front of me stood a house of dark stone, decorated with ebony. My sister Tatiana ran out to greet me, and threw her arms about me. Her husband welcomed me, and gave a fine feast in my honor. But the next day, they could see that my feet were restless, and asked me the source of my desire to be so quickly gone. I told the story, and my sister's husband took me to his roof, and showed me the roof of Koschei's castle far in the distance. He gave me a talisman to keep me safe, and I left my silver knife with them to remember me by. When I left them, I walked for three more days, and finally found myself at the walls of Koschei's palace. What has happened since then, you know as well as I.”
The next week, everything at Koschei's castle seemed quiet, almost as if we all waited to see what would happen. I felt sick to my heart when I saw Ivan drop over the wall again. I protested when he opened the cage for the third time. “Run away from here, Ivan Petrovka. Your talismans will not protect you from Koschei's anger, and you have run out of promises. He will surely cut you down.”
But he refused to listen, saying, “I swore loyalty to you, lady, and it is through my curiousity that you are here. If I die, I die trying to set things right, as a man should. My father would be proud.”
This time we did not talk while riding, but held our tongues. The horse ran fast, but I knew it could never be fast enough to outrun Koschei's steed. I listened to the whistle of the wind in my ears, and far too soon heard the sound of hoofbeats coming toward us.
Koschei did not bother to stop before unleashing his wrath at Ivan, but struck him with the curse and sent him tumbling from the horse. I grabbed the reins and pulled the beast to a halt before slipping to the ground, and running back.
I was too late. As I reached the ground where the two stood, I saw Koschei draw his sword, now flickering with tongues of flame, and cut Ivan's head from his body.
Days blended into each other, back in the cage at the castle. There was nothing to listen for, nothing to do but prepare myself for the end that Koschei had prepared. I tried to tell myself that I could run, once we were near the great Gate between realms, but I knew all too well that it was useless. There were no charms I knew that might allow me to overpower him, and no chance to gather the items I would need to prepare any charms that might help.
How had it come to this, I wondered. Only a few short weeks before, I had been ruler of an entire land, built out of the earth by my very own hands. An undefeatable army had been mine to command, and trading had made my lands rich. And here I sat in a simple iron cage, waiting to die, and mourning the loss of one servant.
At any moment, I expected to see those eyes of flame and hear the word that his preparations were complete, but they did not come.
Spring passed into summer, and still I waited, caught in a place between life and death. And then one day, a bird sang. This was not so unusual; after all, the woods surrounding the castle were filled with birds who sang all day long. But I had never heard this song before. It was quick, a joyous upward trilling, and it struck fire into the heart. “Wait, it is coming,” the song seemed to say, “have hope.” I listened to the bird all day, and the song eased me into sleep that night.
When I woke, I heard a sound I had never thought to hear again: the scrape of boots on the wall, and the faint rustling of the tree above me. In a moment, Ivan dropped into the courtyard, and had opened the cage. Silently, he beckoned me out.
“But, I saw you lying dead, how..?” he silenced me with a quick gesture, and in another moment we were over the wall again. Instead of his ordinary brown horse, I saw a large coal-black creature, with a shining white star on its forehead. It stamped its hoof on seeing Ivan, and when we were seated, it began to run. I thought it must be faster than the wind itself, so fast did it carry us over the land.
We rode in silence, and I noticed that Ivan had been changed. Though whole again, he seemed to be almost fragile. His body seemed to give off a faint light, though he was solid and no ghost.
In the midst of my musings, I heard the sound of hoofbeats, and looked behind us to see Koschei, snarling terribly, riding his horse, and slowly catching up to us. He had almost met us, and was raising his sword to strike, when Ivan's horse screamed. I could have sworn I heard words in the sound, but it was terrible and struck to the heart. At the sound of it, Koschei's horse reared up, tossing its head about, and knocking its master to the ground.
So fast did Ivan's horse move that we were quickly leaving them behind, but I saw the night-black horse raise its hooves and strike its master once, twice, and more times than I could see.
We rode until the end of the day, when Ivan quietly guided the horse into a stable, by a house in a clearing. Though I had never seen the house, I recognized it instantly. It stood tall and proud, a building of fine stone, ornamented with polished ebony.
A young woman ran out to greet us. Her hair was brown, with years of sun in it, and her eyes were the color of cornflowers. Her face was as delicate as a doll's, and I could read her love for her brother in every facet of it.
“Tatiana,” he said quietly, embracing her. “It is good to see you, but I am afraid I must speak with your husband alone for a moment. I will see you at dinner.” She frowned, but was placated by his smile, and went back into the house. A few moments later a man appeared, with hair the color of a raven's wing. He spoke to Ivan for a few moments, the two of them murmuring so quietly that I could not overhear what was said. Ivan looked up at the setting sun for a long moment, then gave a great sigh, and turned back to me.
“My great lady Marya, I have little to offer you myself, but my sister and her husband have offered us the hospitality of their home for as long as we have need of it. I think we will have much to speak of tomorrow, but for tonight, let us enjoy their table and sleep well.”
There was something strange in his voice and the look in his eyes gave me pause, but I quickly agreed, and the three of us went into the house. There was a large meal laid out on the table, and we ate all we wanted. Then, at Ivan's request, Tatiana danced for us, by the light of the fireplace, while her husband played upon the balalaika. She was a joy to watch, for her feet moved with surety and grace, and she laughed while she danced, the laugh of one who knows she is loved and has nothing to fear.
It was quiet when I awoke the next morning, and warm sunlight streamed through the window onto the blankets of my bed. I got up and quickly got dressed. When I entered the main rooms of the house, I saw Tatiana in the kitchen, and went to thank her for her hospitality.
“It is good to have you and my brother stay with us,” she said, slicing a freshly-baked loaf of bread. “His journey has been very long and hard, and it is good to see him happy. I only wish that he could be so happy forever.” She looked up at me then, concern in her blue eyes. “I do not think you are an evil person, but there is something evil that is following you, and it has touched Ivan. He is different, and something tells me that he will never be truly happy again, at least not in this world.” I wanted to ask her more, to find out what she meant, but the men joined us then, and the morning meal began.
After the meal, Ivan pulled me aside, and we walked on a cleared path through the woods surrounding the house.
“My lady, forgive me for acting so familiar with you at the moment, but there is not much time left.” His voice was quiet, and it still had that odd note I had heard in it the day before. I looked at him carefully; he seemed to shine even brighter than he had the day before. He saw the question forming on my lips.
“I cannot stay like this, my lady. I did die, and there is nothing that can change that.” He saw a small carved bench, and gestured to it; as we took our seats, he continued.
“I do not remember anything after the first blow that Koschei struck with his sword, but I have since learned that he cut my body into pieces, and ordered his servants to gather the pieces in a barrel, which was then thrown into the ocean.” I shuddered, but he took no notice, and continued.
“As I told you, I left various items with my sisters for remembrance. One day, these began to blacken, and they knew that something was wrong. Their husbands gathered to take counsel. Tatiana's husband reported that he had heard stories of a strange object floating in the sea, and they journeyed to the coast. Upon recovering the barrel and seeing what had happened to me, they laid the pieces out together. As you may have noticed, they are not ordinary men. I do not know how it was done, but when each had performed his rites, I stood upon the shore, breathing the breath of life once again.
“they begged me to return with them, to live with any of them, and told me how glad my sisters would be to see me again, but I knew that I had a duty to fulfill as long as I drew breath. Upon seeing my determination, they told me how to find a horse as fast as Koschei's.”
He paused then, his eyes far away and distant, remembering. “Across a bridge of fire lives the Baba Yaga,and I entered her service for three days. I will not tell that story here, but they were strange days, filled with strange tasks and stranger creatures. At the end of it, I had a horse to rival the sorcerer's, and it is that creature that we rode today.”
He stood then, looking out into the clearing. His sister had gone out to feed her chickens, and was gleefully tossing grain to them, singing as she did so. He looked at her as if he would have been content to do so forever, and suddenly I knew.
“you are not here for long, are you,” I asked quietly. “the life they could give was not the life you had lost.”
The day passed quickly, and Ivan seemed determined to wring as much from it as he could. He spent every moment possible with Tatiana: cutting firewood for her kitchen in the morning while she hung laundry to dry, pulling weeds from her garden while she selected vegetables for the day's meals, even helping her wind the skeins of wool she had spun. No matter how lowly the task, he did it with a laugh, as long as they could be together. Myself and Tatiana's husband, Viktor, were included in the glow of their happiness, but knew that we remained somehow outside it.
Tatiana did not seem to know that this would be Ivan's last day among the living, and if her husband and brother did not wish to darken her happiness by telling her of his fate, I would not speak out. But it broke my heart to see her so happy and smiling, knowing that the source of her happiness would be gone by the next sunrise. For a moment, I understood how the lives of men must be, living presently with what small happinesses they may find, not knowing when these will be gone. It was something my people could never truly understand, I think. But what is most wonderous about it is not that their lives are made of such fading stuff, nor that their joys are so fleeting, but that, even knowing that all such things must be taken from them in the end, they manage to be joyful at all.
The day moved inexorably on toward night, the sun dipping toward the western horizon, and I watched it with an anxious eye. I could tell that Ivan was aware of it, too, and the sound of his laughter was now tinged with a longing, a wish that the moments might be longer, the day might last a single hour more. But things are as they are, and nothing we do can change the motion of the sun in the sky.
As the light turned from gold into red, Ivan called us all together in the clearing in front of the house. Taking Tatiana's hands, he smiled and kissed her forehead. The light that shone from him was very bright now, and even Tatiana seemed to know that this was no common farewell.
“My dearest sister,” he began, before his voice caught in his throat. He closed his eyes, and swallowed with difficulty, then began again. “Dear Tatiana, youngest of my father's daughters and closest to my heart, I wish that this day had never come to pass. But the time has come, and I must leave you.”
Tears sprang to her eyes instantly, but she did not sob, as I had expected, but simply buried her face in his robes while he embraced her.
“do not cry, Tatiana. I have seen a glimpse of what lies beyond this life, and I am not sad. I do not want you to be sad either, save that we must spend a little while apart before you join me. Be good while I am gone, and say your prayers, and love Viktor very much, and before you know it, the years will have gone and you will be coming to join me.” He put his hands on her shoulders, and gently pulled away from her.
He stood in the middle of the clearing alone, shining brighter than the remaining daylight. The light that shone from him was not harsh or blinding like the light of the sun, but rather rich and fluid, like the light at the heart of a fine opal. He turned to Viktor, and bowed slightly. “Brother, I thank you for giving my sister so much happiness, and for allowing me one final day with her. I will remember you for as long as my soul endures, and will commend you to My Lord.” Viktor returned the bow silently.
Finally, Ivan turned to me, and the look in his eyes was hard to bear; it seemed to scorch my very heart. “My dear lady, I know that you could never return the feelings I bore for you. Such was my burden to bear, and you must not try to take it on yourself. Such things are common among the race of men, and we are accustomed to bearing a broken heart for a time. Know this: everything I have done, I have done freely and from love, and I would not have it any other way. You have a great destiny in front of you. Welcome it, even the pain.”
Tatiana and Viktor invited me to stay with them for as long as I liked, but I had not the heart to stay with them after all that had happened. Despite what Ivan had said, I knew that he was dead because he had been with me, and I could not bear the weight of the knowledge. I had not known the life of a single man could weigh so heavily on the world, nor that the influence could continue after his death. I wished to be very far away from all men; not in order to escape them, but in order that my doom not draw them in.
I bid farewell to them as soon as I could and set out on my way. With a leaden heart, I slowly made my way back to the city that I had founded. My absence had scarcely been noted; the guilds and tradesmen ruled the marketplace as always, and the palace ran smoothly under the watchful eye of the armsmaster. I could hear whispers as I climbed the steps to the palace, no longer the cold proud lady of the realm that I had been. I sought out the armsmaster, who appeared somewhat shocked to see my return.
I gave him no reason for my long absence, and he did not ask for one.
“I am leaving these lands,” I told him calmly. “I cannot be the lady of the realm any longer, but I wish to make sure that everything is provided for the people before I go. This castle will soon fall; I cannot help that. It is inextricably linked to me through the magic that created it, and when I relinquish these lands, it will begin to crumble. I will do what I can to see that the walls last as long as possible; do your best to encourage the people to rebuild them, for they will keep you safe in time of attack. I do not wish to leave you unprotected.”
We talked for many hours, making provisions for the coming years. Finally, it was done, and I felt empty inside. I got to my feet, and looked out of the nearby window. I could see over the wall of the palace and into the town. Men and women went about their lives as they had done in this place for many years, and as their kind had done since they had come into the world. I could see a woman nursing her infant, a man returning from a hunt with his kill slung over his back, and heard the fragment of a simple peasant song. For a brief moment, I wished I could stay with them, and learn to share their simple joys, but I knew such a thing to be impossible.
The armsmaster walked with me to the gates of the castle. As I passed through, he hesitated, then called out. “My lady!”
I turned, and he raised a hand in benediction. “God be with you, my lady, and keep you.”
I bowed my head in acknowledgment of his words, and made my way through the town. The men and women ceased their activity as I walked past, watching me go, but they soon resumed their work. I was gone, as if I had never been. The only thing that marked my existence in the land was the castle, and I knew that already tiny cracks would be rippling through its stones. In a year's time, it would be merely a pile of rubble, from which the peasants' sons would draw stones to build their houses and fences. In another twenty years, nothing would be left at all.
I was glad of it.