Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tsar Saltan

I walked along the road for several days, keeping to myself, building my own fire at night, and carefully casting the salt circle any time I stopped. There was no sign of the Baba Yaga, nor of Koschei, though I did not let my guard down again. Eventually, I came to the coast of the sea, and far out in the waters beyond the sight of men, I could see an island. The road was desolate, and there were no other travelers for as far as I could see.

The wind from off the sea was cold, and I wrapped my cloak around myself more tightly as I stood and watched the waves crashing against the rocks. As night came on, it grew harder to tell where the rocks dropped off into the empty air, and I backed away from the cliff. Casting my salt circle again, I lit a fire in the center, and sat with my back to the blaze, eyes still out to the ocean. There was a strange quietness in my spirit, a sense of waiting. Long gone were the protestations of the exile, one cast from her land into a cold world of suffering and hardship. Gone as well were the grievings of a human heart bereft of a friend, wailing its loss into the void. In their place was a stillness, and I knew somehow that the time of exile was not much longer now.

The waves crashed throughout the cold night, and I watched as the sun slowly rose to cast its light on the sea. When the rays first touched the water, I thought I could see something on the shore of the island that lay beyond the sight of men. I could not make out what it was, but it disappeared beyond a hill on the island, and was lost even to my sight.

I looked to see what would happen next, but a sound from the road made me turn around.

Coming up the inland path was a dark rider on a dark horse, and his eyes were all aflame. His clothing was all in rags and tatters, and his hair was matted. His horse was no longer the gleaming coal-black stallion I had once seen, but a stinking nag with black hair matted with mud and its own filth. I had no doubt that it could still run like the wind, but it was not the horse it had been. Koschei himself looked thin and grey, almost as though he was fading.

And there she is,” he breathed, “the feygirl who simply refuses to die. The Yaga told me that the wind and snow would take care of you in a season or two, but I could not believe that putting an end to you would be so simple. And behold, a week ago on the road I caught the faintest hint of that magic, those spells that have something of the sun and green growing things behind it, so noticeable in this cold land. And here you are, standing proud as though you never once cowered at my feet.”

you make a poor knight, Koschei,” I replied, knowing that he could not cross my circle. “The grandmother of witches must be riding you hard to make you appear so ill-favored.”

He snarled. “I am master of my own fate, no witch controls me! But dare to step outside your circle for a moment, that we might fight fully-matched, and you will see the extent of my power.”

Laughing, I replied. “Think you that I will step outside merely to prove anything to you? Truly, your powers of thought at least have declined greatly.”

We stood in silence for a long time; I had no desire to provoke a battle with my old enemy, and he was unable to break my circle. Then, with a slow smile, he began a deep chant, so quietly that I could not hear him at first. The song rose in volume and power, until at last I thought that it seemed to come from the rocks themselves.

A sound like thunder covered the land, and a cloud seemed to lift into the air from the forest. It was a great flock of ospreys, talons glinting in the sunlight; they soared through the air, legs outstretched as if hunting their prey. They swept closer, but I knew that any creature under the control of a spell would be stopped by my circle. Only the things of nature alone, acting in innocence, could pass through the salt circle, and such things could do me no harm.

But then, I saw the line of creatures running across the grass. There were hundreds of them, thousands, more than I could count. I saw rabbits, squirrels, weasels, and other creatures, all running like possessed things in their desire to escape the sharp beaks of the ospreys. In a moment, the ground at my feet was a roiling mass of fur and claws, and the air was full of feathers; I lifted my arms to protect my face.

When I looked out again, the crowd of creatures had dispersed, for the ospreys had scattered. But the damage had been done; all of those little hurrying paws had scattered my salt circle over the ground, and there was not a trace of it that remained.

Koschei smiled terribly, and his teeth were yellow. With a word, the ground burst into fire in front of me. I jumped back, dodging the blow, and let fly a charm of my own. His horse reared and neighed as vines leapt from the ground and reached up to entangle its legs.

I knew that I could not hold out against him in this kind of battle for long. He had studied these arts far more than I, and he knew more spells and charms. I must get away quickly. I called the dust of the ground into the air, and sent it into his eyes in a blinding cloud. When he was finally able to see again, I had already taken to the air in the form of a swan.

His attacks came again, but with less accuracy as I flew farther away, out to the sea. My great white wings were strong and steady, and I climbed quickly through the air. Below me was the island, and I could see two figures on the shore. I did not have time to wonder about this, however, for my plight was far from over.

With a flutter of feathers, Koschei had transformed himself into an osprey. I strove to gain more distance, but the osprey is a swift bird, made for catching and killing, and with Koschei's anger to drive him, he came on like a whirlwind. It would be only a few moments before he caught me.

There was a shout from the island, but I paid it no heed, rushing further out to sea, trying to summon up the wind to give me speed. But it was all in vain. I felt the osprey's talons sink into my wing, and they burned like fire.

Then with a jolt, the osprey released me, and we both tumbled down into the sea. My wing was useless, but I managed to float, and turned around to see Koschei struggling in the waves, an arrow sticking from his side. I struck at him with my beak, over and over, until the bedraggled feathered form sank below the waves. This would not be enough to kill him, I knew, but it would be some time before he would wash up on a beach and longer yet to regain his powers. It was not an end, but a respite.

I struggled toward the shore of the island, and a young man with a bow slung over his shoulder came wading to me through the breakers. He brought me ashore, and spread out my wings upon the grassy beach to dry. When I had recovered my breath, I turned to look at this young man who had fired the arrow at my pursuer. He was no more than twenty-five, with hair the color of beaver pelt, and a fine beard. He was dressed simply, in clothes that seemed to have been patched from many other items, but he wore his strange clothes with no sense of shame. He sat on a sunny spot and watched me as I regained my breath, and collected myself.

I thank you for your help, young sir,” I said, and though he was startled by the sight of a talking swan, he seemed to take it in stride. “If I may be of any service to you, it would be my honor to repay my great debt, for I owe you my life.”

And how can you, a swan, do anything for me?” he asked, though he smiled as he did so. “I am in exile from my father's lands, and the walls of the palace are barred against me.”

That is a strange fate for one so young. You had better tell me how it came about.”

He stretched on on the grass, and turned his face upwards to meet the sun. His cheeks were ruddy with exposure to the wind and sun, but he had the glow of good health.

It all began with my mother, who used to live in her father's cabin with her two older sisters. One winter day, they all sat around the fire working on their sewing, and they began to talk of marriage, as young women do. The oldest sister told the others, 'If I were the tsarina, I would bake a great feast for the tsar and all his guests. Then everyone in the land would know that he had married the greatest cook in the world.' 'Well, if I were tsarina,' the middle sister replied, 'I would weave a great tapestry for the tsar, and it would hang in the throne room that everyone would know he had married the best seamstress in the land.' My mother, the youngest of the three, kept quiet, but the other two teased her until she made a reply. 'If I were tsarina,' she said, 'I would want to bear the tsar a strong healthy son, to be a great champion for him.' Her older sisters laughed at her, but a few moments later they heard a knock at the door. When their father opened it, the tsar stepped into the cottage. He had been hunting in the woods around the house, and had overheard the conversation. Then and there, he asked for my mother's hand in marriage. She agreed and went to live in his palace; the tsar brought her two sisters along to be the palace baker and seamstress. Within three months of the marriage, my mother was pregnant with me. My father the tsar was overjoyed. But soon he got word that his armies in the east were under attack, and he was needed to command the troops. With a heavy heart, he took leave of my mother, and went out to the troops, commanding the household that a message be sent to him as soon as the child was born. I was born in great health, and a joyful message was sent to my father. But my aunts waylaid the messenger, and after plying him with wine and dates, took the message and replaced it with another one. What that one said, I do not know: my mother saw her sisters from a high window, but could not read the message. When a reply came back from my father, there was a great deal of weeping in the household, for it commanded a terrible thing. My mother protested, telling the story of the false message, but there was no help for it: what the tsar commanded must be done. So my poor mother, weeping as if her heart would break, was put into a large barrel, and I was placed in her arms. The barrel was nailed shut and painted with tar to seal it, then we were thrown in the sea. For several days the waves tosses us back and forth before we came ashore on this island. This is where I grew up, and is the only land I have ever known. But sometimes I wish greatly to see my father's lands, and to see him face to face, for my mother loves him greatly.”

I sat and watched him for a moment. He was happy in this simple life, and I knew that entering the world of his fellow men would bring with it great grief and trouble, especially when the whole court had been turned against him. But such was his place, with his people, and it was not to me to say no when it was within my power to help him.

I can help you come to your father's lands again, and I think he will welcome you with open arms when he hears your story. But you may see many strange things before you come to his lands, so be stout of heart and do not fail in courage. Now, take me to your mother that I may meet her.”

He rose to his feet and lead the way around the shore to the small bay where his mother stood. She had just washed her hair, and was brushing it in the wind to dry it. She was a small woman and almost looked younger than her son. Her hair was long and dark, though a few strands had turned to silver. She was still a very beautiful woman.

He told the morning's story to his mother, who seemed taken aback by the idea. She studied me for a long moment, and I could see that her eyes were full of pain. After a time, she spoke quietly. “It is the greatest wish of my heart that my beloved husband see the son I bore for him. If you can do this, I will thank you from the depths of my soul.”

I rose into the air, and summoned all of my knowledge and skill. I opened my beak, and a song came pouring out, a song of power and praise of all things beautiful. It was a song of the cities of men, their stature and grandeur; when I had finished, a city stood upon the hill at the center of the island. Its stones gleamed in the daylight, and the walls rose high into the sky.

The mother, Priya, and her son Guidon stood gaping at the city, and I invited them to see it. They walked into the walled city, and I glided through the air above them. The city was little more than a glamor, but it had substance, and would last a year or two as long as I stayed on the island to keep the charms anchored. I was exhausted, and drained of power, but the city stood strong.

All that year, I glided out across the sea, searching for boats to bring to the island. Many shipwrecked travelers washed ashore there and began a new life in the city, and word began to spread of the city of opportunity on the little island. Within a season, the city was a bustling place, and we traded with every boat that came to the shore, for where the sea met the far shore of the island was a rich salt bed, of the highest quality. Our goods went out across the land, and the ships came in and left again, telling stories of the marvelous city that had sprung up on the deserted island.

It was only a matter of time before such stories reached the ears of the tsar himself, and a ship soon docked in the back with his emissaries aboard. When I saw the flag of the tsar flying from the mast of the ship, I quickly flew through the window of the palace. I found Guidon looking over the books from one of the latest trades.

Quickly, Guidon, put on your best clothes and go down to the dock. A ship is there that has been sent by your father, and they will want to see everything on the island here. You must present yourself as duke of fine breeding, but do not tell them who your father is.”

What?” he asked, surprised. “But surely my father will wish to know that I am his son! Even if he turns me away, then he will at least know I am here!”

I shook my head. “These are only his emissaries, and if they take back the story that there is a young man who claims to be heir to the tsar, what do you think will happen? The tsar will have no proof, and he will begin to worry that you plot against his throne. Soon, armies will come upon the island, and all will be lost. No, wait until he comes to see you for himself; then he will see you and your mother, and know that everything you say is true.”

Guidon went to the window and looked out over the bay. I could feel his desire to go down to the ships and tell them everything. My heart ached for him; hadn't I done the same when I visited the great Gate? It was a part of exile, this longing for home, and it must be borne until the time was right. Finally, he lifted his eyes, and turned to me. “Yes, of course you're right. It's no good to spoil all of your work in building this city by moving too quickly.” Silently, he pulled on a fine coat and fur hat, then put on his best boots and went down to the docks.

The men from his father's court stood on the docks, looking at the city. He greeted them graciously, introducing himself as Duke Guidon. He took the men into the city, where they could not stop looking about. The walls were made of good stone, polished until it shone, and gold ornaments topped every house. The city was busy and sounds of commerce echoed off the walls. It was a grand city, and they whispered among themselves as to how such a city could come to be on an island that had been so empty the year before.

The men were invited to sleep in the palace for the night, and Guidon hosted a grand banquet. There were musicians, and jugglers, and dancers, and the finest food that money could buy. The banquet lasted long into the night, and in the morning when the men were ready to depart again, their eyes were still wide with the wonder of the little island.

They boarded their ship, promising to pass Guidon's greetings along to the tsar. As the boat pulled away from the dock and caught the wind, Guidon turned and walked away from the city, out onto the grassy beach. When no-one on the ship could see him, he threw himself into the warm grass and wept. I landed nearby, but said nothing. His grief was palpable, and sobs shook his body. Finally, his breathing grew less ragged, and he sat up, wiping the last of his tears from his eyes. “My apologies, my dearest swan. The city you created is perfect, and I am sure that they will bring wonderful reports to my father.” With great effort, he kept his voice even, but I could hear the thickness in his throat that came after tears. He did not look at me, but kept his eyes on the disappearing sails of the ship.

You wish to see your father's land more than ever now,” I said quietly. After a moment, he nodded, still looking out to the horizon.

I think it is just as well that we find out what your father's emissaries have to report.” I spoke a few words quietly, and in a flash, the young man shrank down and became a bee, darting here and there above the grass.

Hurry, for you can still reach the ship,” I told him. “Hide near the top of the mast to remain dry and stay there until the ship docks at your father's court. Follow the men and see what they have to say.”

My words had scarcely ceased when he buzzed off over the waves, barely above the spray. I feared that he would wet his wings and be lost to the water, but he kept on steadily. I took to the air again, and made my way back to the palace where Guidon's mother, Priya, sat in a chair knitting. She looked up as I landed.

My son did not come back from the docks.”

He is on the ship, disguised as a bee. He has gone to see his father's court, and to hear what the emissaries have to report about the island. I expect him back in a few weeks.”

She worked in silence for a time, the only sound the crackling of the fire in the corner that kept the stone room warm. Then she spoke, so quietly that I almost did not hear her, “You should not have let him go. It is dangerous, and he may never return.”

We need to know what happens in the tsar's court when the men make their report. And he wished to see his father; I could not bear to hear him grieve so.”

And my grief if my son is lost to me forever? You have great power, swan, but I do not think that you can return life once it is gone.”

I pondered that for a moment. Of course, it would be a moment's work to summon the lord of the ravens, but I had done so twice in the past. If Guidon really were to perish, would I ask to bring him back, or let his soul go on to whatever waited for men after death? I did not know.

A fortnight later, a ship crossed the horizon on the open sea, and in a few hours, I heard the buzzing of a bee. I spoke the word to undo my charm, and an exhausted Guidon lay on the grass. He was too tired to stand, but he smiled broadly, and it lightened my heart to see it.

Ah, my dearest swan,” he said, “my father has a very fine court. His palace is all of stone, with many fine hangings. When my father's men got off the ship, I hid in the hat of the leader, and waited until we were in the throne room itself.”

He paused, and I prodded, “And did you see your father, my dear Guidon?”

He was grander by far than any palace, and greater to my eye than any city in the world. His hair is the same color as my own, and his beard hangs full upon his breast. I think he still misses my mother, for he has not taken another wife. When the men came to the throne room, the whole court was there. Even my aunts were there: I knew them, for they looked like my own dear mother, only not so sweet and kind.” At this, he lifted himself onto his elbows. “Oh, I must greet my mother, she will be worried!”

Finish your story first, my dear Guidon, then see her. I am anxious to hear it all!”

He continued. “The emissaries made their report, and our beautiful city was quite wondrous to them. My father leaned forward, listening with great interest, but my aunts sulked in the corner of the room. Truth be told, I think that they had expected him to marry one of them! Then an old woman came forward, I heard it whispered that she was the matchmaker, and that she stood to gain a grand fee if she could find a new wife for the tsar. She said, 'Oh, this city is nothing. I have heard tell of a far country where a squirrel sits under a tree and gnaws on nuts all day long. But these nuts are no ordinary ones, for their shells are gold and the kernels are gems. Now that is a true wonder!' My father's attention turned to her while she spoke, then he addressed the emissaries. 'Indeed, this would be quite the wonder!' I do not think he will come here when there are such wonders in the world, but in truth, I almost do not care, for now I have seen my father.”

With that, he sprang to his feet and walked into the city to greet his mother. As he told his story, I could see many emotions cross her face. When he told of seeing her two unfaithful sisters, her face darkened, but the moment Guidon spoke of the tsar, her face was filled with a great light, though I could see that her heart was near to breaking at the thought Guidon's father.

When he finished, she stood up and embraced him, and lead him to sit in the chair by the fire. I caught a glance she cast my way, and I knew that both of us worried the same thing. For now, Guidon was happy with simply having seen his father, but how long would that satisfy him?

Within the week, I was soaring over the beach when I saw Guidon below, sitting and looking out to the horizon where his father's lands lay. I landed in the grass beside him, and waited for him to speak.

I know I said that I was content to simply see my father, but my heart is aching with desire for him to come here, to see me as I am, and to know me as his son. I do not think that there is anything here that will draw him.” His voice was quiet and steady, but I heard a note of deep pain in it. We sat together a long time, looking out over the ocean, then I spoke.

Do not fear, my dear Guidon. I will bring you a great wonder which will catch the attention of the tsar. You shall not be fatherless forever; take heart, and be of good hope.” I took to the air again, and soared far out over the ocean, back toward the coast. When I returned the next day, I held a chattering squirrel in a rough wooden cage. Returning to the palace, I bid the ironmonger make a large cage of steel and overlay it with gold. When it was finished, the squirrel was placed inside, and the cage placed at the foot of a large tree that grew in the middle of the palace grounds. With a few whispered words, the spell was cast. From the tree, a few golden nuts fell into the cage. The squirrel picked one up, and, cracking it, pulled out a shining emerald.

The spell would not hold long, I knew, but it was linked to the magic I had used to create the city, and as long as the city stood, the gold and gems would hold their glamor.

When the next morning came, I brought Guidon and Priya down to the tree to see the squirrel in its cage. Guidon was delighted, and exclaimed, “Now my father must visit, for this is a true wonder! He has said so himself!”

The days passed, and soon another trading ship docked in our port. As it was being loaded with salt, and goods for our market were being carried into the city, Guidon greeted the merchants. He had dressed in his finest robes again, and looked every inch the young duke. With open arms, he welcomed the merchants to the palace where he had planned another banquet. On the way to the banquet hall, he took them by the tree where the squirrel sat, gnawing on the golden shells of the nuts that fell from the tree. A guard had been appointed to stand by the cage, collecting the gems as the squirrel cracked the nuts open.

The merchants were amazed, and all through the banquet their eyes were distant, and I knew that they were calculating the wealth that must come from the gold and gems every day.

The next day, Guidon bid them farewell, and to commend him to the tsar, with an invitation for the tsar to visit whenever he desired. The ship's sails caught the wind, and in moments it glided out of the harbor into the open sea.

Guidon once again stood on the grassy beach watching the ship disappear, but this time he did not weep. He stood, arms crossed and eyes fixed on the horizon, but I could see that he would have thrown himself into the sea after the ship if he thought it might do any good.

You wish to see your father again, to hear what the merchants will say of your city,” I said quietly, and he nodded. With another word, he shrank into the form of a gnat. “Do as you did before, my dear Guidon, and see what the merchants have to say. But hurry back, for your mother worries.” In another instant, he was gone across the waves, chasing the disappearing sails into the distance.

I flew back to the palace, where Priya was waiting. With a single look, she knew that her son was gone again, and she turned her eyes back to her sewing. She did not know that I saw her tears fall on her needlework.

Again, Guidon returned, full of praise for his father's magnificence. “Oh, swan, I saw him again, sitting proudly upon his throne, and again the whole court was gathered, including my aunts. The merchants could hardly get their words out, they were so eager to speak of the wonders of this island! They told of the wonderful stone walls, the busy market, and the beauty of the land, but most of their talk was of the gold and gems that come from the cage of the squirrel. The tsar himself leaned forward and said, 'Now by my beard, that is a true wonder! I should like to see this great land.' He himself wishes to see our island!”

Then Guidon's face darkened for a moment. “Of course, my treacherous aunts would not hear of such a thing. They fear the tsar leaving for even a moment, for he might find a new wife abroad and their marriage chances would be gone. One of them spoke up and said, 'That is nothing! A simple squirrel, with gold and gems? We have gold and gems in plenty here! But I have heard of a place on the coast, where every night the water boils and bubbles, and out of the sea come thirty-three knights in armor that shines like fish scales. Then, when morning comes, back they go into the sea, and no-one can find their dwelling. There! That is a greater wonder than any squirrel!' the tsar agreed that this was a great wonder, and made no plans to come visit us.”

The next day, Guidon took his morning walk down by the ocean, as was his custom. His hair was tossed by the wind, and I found myself drawn to him. I soared in the air beside him, neither of us speaking, the sound of the ocean waves the only thing to be heard.

Finally, Guidon stood to look out across the ocean to the place where his father's lands were. “I know you have great powers, swan,” he said. “But can you make these soldiers appear from the sea? For nothing less will bring my father here to see my lands.”

Which grieves you more, my dear Guidon, that you must wait longer to see your father arrive in the harbor, or the realization that he is so easily swayed by wonders and marvelous stories?” Guidon's face flushed, and I regretted asking such a question. But in a moment, he answered.

In truth, I do not know. It is such a sight to see him sitting on his golden throne, robed in silk, and looking just as a ruler should. And my mother tells me that he was kind and gentle, and a good man. But would a good man and a strong king be so easily distracted?” he gave a quiet laugh, and ran a hand through his hair. “I only know one thing, swan. I know that even if he were the devil himself, I should still want my father to set foot on my land and be glad that his son was the ruler of such a place. Does any son want anything more or less than that?”

Then have patience, and keep your courage strong,” I told him, taking to the skies, “your father will come.”

I flew for three days, to a desolate spot on the coast. I had been here before, when I lived in the Summer Realm. It looked different from there, a quiet place of rocks and vines and shining fish that leapt from the waters. Perhaps it was still so, when one came upon it in the Realm, but in the world of men the rocks were sharp, the waters fast, and no fish were to be seen. I landed on the rocky beac, and took on my true form again. I opened my mouth and sang a single note, clear and strong, then waited. When the sun began to sink, the water boiled, and up from the depths came thirty-three strong young knights, in mail that shone like fish scales. Behind them came an old man with a beard of pure white, and his eyes were like diamonds. I hailed him.

Greetings, Chernomor. It has been many years.”

Indeed, Vasilissa. I was told that you were exiled from the Summer Realm, and it is a strange thing indeed to meet you here in the world of men.” he leaned upon a strong oak staff that was carved with many strange signs and symbols.

I have a great favor to ask of you,” I said, bowing in reverence as was proper when asking a favor from such a person. “There is a young tsarevitch in a distant land, who has been cast out from his land of birth by great treachery. His father, the tsar, does not know that he still lives, and indeed it is not yet safe for him to return to his father's lands. But the tsar is a great lover of wonders, and he has heard of your knights. If you were to come and guard the tsarevitch's land for a single year, it would do much to convince the tsar to visit.”

The old wizard of the sea stared at me for a long time, thinking over the proposal. “And why should I grant such a thing to an exile, Vasilissa? A year as men reckon it is little enough time to us, but we do have our own business to be about. What can you offer in return?”

On the island where the tsarevitch lives, there is a great bed of salt. It is pure and of the highest quality. It is good for casting circles and will hold any spell more strongly than any other salt I have found. I offer it to you; you and your men may come and take as much of it as you require for your charms and spells.”

The old man considered this, then finally nodded. “It is done then. Fly back to your island then, Vasilissa the swan, and my men will follow you.”

I leapt into the air, taking on the form of the swan as I did, and soared high above the beach. In moments, I had caught the wind and began making my way back to the island. Three days later, tired and wearying of traveling, I landed back in the palace on Guidon's land. He and Priya greeted me, and gave me a place by the fire that my wings might dry more quickly, for they were soaked with the salt spray.

Go down to the beach when the sun sinks below the waves,” I told Guidon, “you will see the wonder you wished for.”

He left the room, and from the window, Priya and I watched. When the sun set, the water of the harbor boiled, and Chernomor led his knights forth out of the water. Silently, they took the guard positions all along the walls. Their armor shone in the moonlight, and the starlight caught the tips of their spears.

Amazed, Guidon came back into the palace. “Surely, the word of this wonder will bring my father to our shores. I have never seen anything like it!”

A week passed before sails were seen on the horizon again, and another trading ship glided into the dock. Again, Guidon dressed in his best and greeted the merchants. Again, he led them back to the palace for a banquet, showing them the squirrel in his cage. Since he had ordered that the meal not be served until the sun set, he and his guests stood on the wall of the palace, looking out over the sea. The water boiled, and the thirty-three knights came up from the sea to take their places. The merchants shook with fear at the sight of the fierce warriors, and Guidon beckoned them into the palace with a laugh.

Again, the merchants made ready to depart in the morning, their conversation buzzing with talk of the strange things they had seen in Duke Guidon's land. As the ship slipped out of the dock, I found Guidon standing almost in the water, looking after the ship.

I wish to go with them, swan,” he said.

And if I refuse? You know what will happen, for it can only be one of two things. Either your father will agree to come visit you, in which case you will have your heart's desire soon. Or else he will be distracted by the tale of some other wonder, and not come yet again. No wonder will make him come to your land until he truly desires to do so.” But my words fell flat, for I could see that he had no desire to listen. And my heart ached, for I did not want him to leave. The island seemed less pleasant when he was away, and I did not know why.

Please, dear swan, I must know. I must find out what it is that my father most desires to see, for I cannot live unless he comes to my lands to see me.” his voice was strained, and his eyes never left the shrinking sails in the distance.

Without a further plea, I spoke the word that would change him, and a humming wasp hung in the air for a moment, then Guidon flew in a rush out to the ship.

I returned to the palace, to the room where Priya sat darning a sock. We sat in silence until sunset, then she sighed and set her work aside. Kneeling beside me on the stone floor, she raised my head to look into my eyes.

You are no swan,” she said, “and I do not know what you are, but I can see in your eyes that you suffer as I do while he is gone. Whatever you are in truth, you care for my son, for you have the power to keep him here and you do not, though you miss him as deeply as I do.”

A single tear slipped from my eye, surprising even myself as it splashed on the floor. A moment later, Priya wrapped her arms around my neck and wept.

That week, the island felt empty, although it was as busy as ever. I felt as though a part of myself was gone. It was a strange feeling, one I had never encountered before. Grief I knew, but this was not grief, or at least not entirely so. Nor was it anger, hunger, loss, or any other thing I knew of the world of men.

But when I heard the buzzing of a wasp's wings in the air, my heart leaped and I quickly spoke the word that would restore Guidon to his true shape. He looked tired, I noted, and the hope that had lived so long in his eyes was beginning to dim. I begged him to tell me the story of his time in the tsar's land, but he shook his head. “No, dear swan. Let me go up to my mother's room, and I will tell the story there.”

Priya saw the look in her son's eyes as soon as he entered the room, and quickly set her darning aside. She poured him a cup of mulled wine, and bid him drink it to warm up and loosen his tongue. After he had sipped the drink, he began to talk.

I easily hid myself on board the ship, and found my way into my father's court, as I have done before. Again, he sat grandly on his throne, with the court gathered around. And the merchants told him of the wonders of this land, and particularly of the fine guard of thirty-three shining knights from the depths of the sea. He started forward with such eagerness that I thought for sure he would set sail for our island with all speed. But again, my aunt spoke up. With her lying tongue, she laughed at the knights of the sea, and told my father a story of a fair maiden that is said to live in these lands. She said that she is tall and beautiful, with hair like gold and a voice that could charm the very birds of the air into silence. In truth, she half made me fall in love with this woman, but my heart broke to see my father once again lost to such a story. For he agreed that such a beautiful woman would be a wonder worth seeing, and sank back onto his throne.”

Guidon, what was the story that your aunt told? Who is this woman?” I questioned him, though I felt I already knew the answer, and dreaded it.

I do not know. She said that she was a woman of another world, that she wandered through the forests fighting off evil sorcerers, and yet was as beautiful as the sun rising in the morning. Her eyes are said to be the color of the sea, and her hair as gold as wheat in summer.”

The room was silent for a moment, though only I seemed to sense the tension. Priya squeezed her son's hand and smiled at him. “What, my son? You are not going to ask for this wonder, too?”

He looked into the fire, and the flames were reflected in his eyes. “I do not think one asks for a woman the way one asks for a squirrel or even an army. For all I know, these are mere illusions that our friend the swan has conjured up to help bring my father to this land. But to ask for a woman is to ask another being to give their heart to you, to ask for the power to hurt more deeply than a knife. No, I will not ask for such a thing. If he comes, he comes. If he will not come, then we will live and die here. And mother, you have been both mother and father to me for these twenty years, I could not ask for more from the tsar himself.”

Priya embraced her son, and I could see in her eyes that she would have given him anything he wanted, if she could. When I looked at myself in the still waters of a puddle later that night, I saw the same look in my own eyes.

Several weeks passed, and while I was very glad to have Guidon back on the island for good, he was not himself. His morning walks lasted for hours, and he spent great amounts of time looking out into the ocean's waves. Nothing I said could draw him into anything more than polite conversation, and eventually there was only silence between us.

Finally, I met him on a grassy hill one morning, overlooking the great salt bed on the far side of the island from the city. He sat there, watching the workers harvest the salt and prepare it for sale.

Guidon,” I began, hesitating over my words for a moment. “you have been so quiet these last few weeks. Please tell me what it is. Are you still waiting for the sails of your father's ship to appear over the waves?”

He shook his head, and quietly braided a few strands of long grass together, weaving a small ring. “No. Ah, swan, I have left your many kindnesses unrequited, and have not even been able to give you a pleasant word. Please forgive me, my thoughts have been elsewhere.” He smiled, but it was not his usual smile, with the sun and sky in it. “In truth, I have not been able to stop thinking of the story my aunt told, of the beautiful maiden of the woods. I...I would like to see such a woman.”

Only to see?” I asked carefully, “Only to see and not to own? Not to display as yet another wonder of your land?”

He shook his head. “No, I hope I should be a better man that all that. But it is often very lonely here. I love my mother, and she cares for me so deeply, but when a boy becomes a man, he begins to desire a woman. Even more than a land to rule, he wishes for a home to return to, a smile to greet him and a kiss at the end of the day. There are many beautiful girls in the town, it's true, but none of them are for me. They all see me as the rich duke Guidon, the one who can give them lovely gowns and rich jewels. I'll not find a wife among them, I think.”

A wife!” I said with some surprise. “this is the first you have spoken of any such thing.”

I can no longer be a boy wishing idly for his father's approval,” he replied, finishing the grass ring, and holding it up to examine it in the sunlight. “The time has come for me to be my own man, to take a wife, and to rule this land as best I can, whether my father comes or no.”

At that moment, as he spoke those words, I thought he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. The sun turned his hair a dark bronze, and the ring he had woven was delicate and well-made.

And if this maiden of the forest was found, and she stood before you, what would you do?” I tried to keep my voice steady, for fear of giving away my thoughts.

I should fall to one knee, praise her beauty as highly as I knew how, and ask her to be my wife, if she could ever love such a poor kind of man as I.” He spoke these words without looking at me. But as he finished, he turned, and stared in astonishment.

For I no longer sat on the grass behind him as a great white swan, but had regained my true form. I stood as a woman of the Summer Realm, with hair like wheat with the sun on it, and eyes like the sea. I waited with bated breath, wondering if his words had been the idle romances of a boy, or the vow of a man of worth.

A moment later, he sank onto one knee and offering up the grass ring in his hand, said, “I had thought to praise your beauty as best as I knew how. Now that I see you, I do not know how to praise you. I offer myself with this ring.”

The bells of the chapel in the town rang out the marriage peals that very night.

Love was a very great surprise to me. I had not noticed the moment when it first found a home in my heart. But whenever it had happened, I knew that I loved Guidon. It was, perhaps, the making of a life together that was so strange to me. Even when I lived as a human being, in the village so many years ago, I had been a different kind of woman, and kept to my own schedule and desires. Now I found myself living with a man whose desires and interests did not always match my own, and though all of my habits were bent toward working my own will, my heart wanted to please him very much. It was not a simple process, and we broke each other's hearts many times even during the first month of marriage. But in time we began to learn more of each other, and though the pain and quarrels were perhaps inevitable, we learned to how rebuild afterwards.

A month after our marriage, a trading ship again appeared in the harbor, sails full with the wind. The merchants were here for salt again, and Guidon and I went down to the docks to greet them. As we approached the docks, I saw the merchants stop their work and stare. I was not accustomed to such attention, but I held my head high and acted like the noble lady that they assumed I must be. Guidon had said nothing, but I knew that he still hoped that word of the woman he had married would reach his father and inspire him to visit. In truth, it was my hope, too; after all, who does not wish that the one will love will find the thing they have desired for a lifetime?

The merchants were shown the market, the great walls of the city, and the pile of gold and gems that came from the cage of the squirrel. When the sun set, Chernomor's men came up from the sea, and I almost laughed at the fear that came over the merchants when the waters began to boil. When Guidon invited them into the banquet hall for the meal, they hurried in, looking over their shoulders as if to see if the strange soldiers were following them.

The meal was wonderful, and the merchants soon forgot their fears. The musicians played their instruments with great skill, and the sound of good cheer filled the hall. Then, as a song was in its final verse, Guidon caught my eye, and I nodded. He stood and raised his hand for attention.

My friends!” he shouted, voice warmed by several cups of good wine. “My friends, we have seen much that this wonderful land has to offer tonight, but in truth, you have not yet heard its greatest wonder! I beg you now, listen to the most beautiful creature you have ever wife!” There was a round of raucous cheers as I stood and cleared my throat.

With the first note, all other sounds ceased, and by the time the first verse of my song had ended, everyone in the hall had given me their full attention. I wove no spells into this song, for true beauty is a greater force than any simple glamor. It may be counted to me as vanity, but the children of the Summer Realm can sing songs that no human voice could master.

When the last notes of the song faded back into silence, I gave a small smile and took my seat again. I saw tears running down the cheeks of many of the merchants, and one had a faraway look in his eyes as if his thoughts were on a long-lost love.

Shortly after that, I excused myself and retired to the room I shared with Guidon. I undressed and got into the bed; I rarely slept, but it often felt nice to pass the night in silence in the arms of my husband. Within the hour, I heard Guidon come in and join me in the bed. It still sent a thrill down my spine to feel the strength of his arms as they wrapped around my waist.

He whispered in my ear, “Your song was so beautiful I thought my heart would break for the joy of it.”

I sung of you, you know,” I replied quietly.

Even if you had not, it would have been the most beautiful thing I ever heard.”

When morning came, Guidon and I went out to the docks to bid farewell to the merchants. The wind was strong and steady, and it was a fine morning for sailing.

He gave the head merchant several parting gifts, and said, “Please, convey my warmest regards to Tsar Saltan, and tell him that it would bring me great joy to have him visit me and my beautiful wife here in our city.”

The merchant accepted the gifts graciously and boarded the ship. In a moment, the gangplank was drawn up and the ship began to sail away into the open sea.

We walked up the hill to watch the ship sail away, and the wind blew my hair about wildly. Guidon buried his nose in the wild tresses, and I asked, “Do you not wish to go aboard the ship, to see what your father will say of the latest wonder in your court? It would be the work of a moment.”

He laughed then, an open laugh that soared away on the wind. “Leave now? When I could stay here with you? Never. After all, whether he comes or not, I have found my joy and my peace here. Let him do as he pleases.”

In truth, even if I had been told at that moment that my way back into the Summer Realms had been unbarred, I do not think I could have been happier.

Though it pleased me greatly that he was so willing to stay with me, it was only a week before the red and gold sails of the tsar's ship appeared over the horizon. When the shout went up from the watchtower, Guidon ran downstairs and out of the door before I could catch up with him. He stood on the hill overlooking the bay, wind ruffling his robes and tossing his hair. I joined him there, and we stood looking out to the horizon where the boat sailed nearer and nearer. As it pulled into the harbor, Guidon took my hand, and we stepped forward to meet the tsar.

Guidon's hand was trembling with excitement and I gripped it tightly, praying that he would say the right things, and that the tsar would know him for his son.

The tsar stepped out of the boat, and stood blinking in the bright sunlight. He was dressed in a coat of crimson with gold buttons and trimmed with dark fur. His hair was the same shade as Guidon's, and the sun caught the red hints in it. His face was lined with care, but there was an eager look in his eye, and a healthy ruddiness to his cheeks after the seabound journey.

Guidon stepped forward and bowed low. “My good tsar, I am glad beyond words that you have chosen to visit my lands. We have heard so much of your greatness that I have greatly desired to welcome you to my home.”

The tsar replied, “I have heard many stories of this strange island, Duke Guidon. It often came into my mind to visit you here, but other things always arose to prevent me. But I am here at last. Let me see the things I have been told of so often!”

Guidon smiled and agreed. “first, of course, is my beautiful bride. She will sing for you later, but I promise you that no-one who listens to her voice is unmoved.”

The tsar looked at me in surprise. “I do indeed believe that this is the maid of the forest that I was told of. Her beauty is like nothing I have seen.” He bent and kissed my hand.

As we made our way up to the palace, Guidon showed his father every facet of his city; the tsar pronounced his satisfaction with the market, the guild halls, and the great walls of the city. With every word, I could feel Guidon's spirits lift, until I wondered that he kept his feet on the ground at all.

The tsar watched the squirrel in the golden cage for a long time, a look of sheer delight on his face. He laughed with joy for every gem that fell from a golden shell, and thanked Guidon profusely when my husband gave him a handful of the shells and gems to keep.

As sunset fell, the three of us watched from the parapet as the water of the harbor boiled and the shining knights rose from the depths to take their places along the watchtowers.

What wonders could surpass these,” the tsar said as Guidon led the way into the banquet hall.

Apart from the voice of my beautiful wife, only one,” replied Guidon, his voice catching slightly. He paused at the door to whisper a word of instruction to a servant who quickly departed for Priya's rooms.

Again the banquet hall was filled with the music of the best musicians, and the tables were loaded with the finest food of the island. The tsar's eyes glowed with delight, and his entourage were soon at home and making merry with the people of the village.

Again, Guidon bid me stand and sing, and I sung a song for the tsar. This was not the song I had sung for Guidon when the merchants came, but a new song. I brought forth words of love and loss, and years of great loneliness relieved at last. When I finished, there were tears on the tsar's face, and I think that if fewer people had been present, he would have wept openly.

Taking control of himself, he turned to Guidon. “My good duke, you did not lie when you told me of the incredible skill of your wife. I believe that she could sing the whole world into a trance if she so desired it. But you have promised me one final wonder.”

Guidon nodded, and nodded to a servant who stood by the door. “My dear tsar, you have heard my wife sing of love and loss, and I can see that it has touched your heart as it has mine. It makes me think of my own dear mother, who has known much of both. She has loved greatly, and because of treachery, has lost that love for many years.”

The tsar nodded politely, but I could see the confusion on his face. At that moment, the door from the upper floor opened, and Priya stood on the steps. She had let her hair down long, and it hung in a dark curtain to her ankles. She wore a simple silver circlet on her hair, and her face was pale. She wore a gown of deepest blue velvet, and I thought for a moment that she might collapse with the strain of the moment.

Silence descended upon the room as the tsar saw her. For an instant, no one moved. Then, slowly, the tsar stood, and there was a great light in his eyes.

It...cannot be,” he stammered. “Priya? My Priya? But you were lost...they told me...”

He never completed that sentence, for in a moment she had run to meet him and he wrapped her in an embrace so tight I wondered that either could breathe at all.

When they finally pulled apart, the tsar was gripping Priya's hand, and tears were streaming down both of their faces. Lifting a glass of wine, the tsar shouted, “Let it be known to all here present, and soon to all in my land, that this lady is the Tsarina Priya, my own dear wife and mother of my son. Betrayed by her treacherous sisters, she has lived here faithfully and raised my son to be a good man.” He paused for a moment, then turned to Guidon as if seeing him for the first time. “they...they sent a message after your birth. They said the child was neither boy nor girl, but instead a monster. I...I told them to wait until I could return to see for myself and decide what was to be done. When I came back, I was told that your mother had run away and taken you with her into the mountains. I cursed her name, and, oh God forgive me, I was glad that I had never laid eyes upon you. I am almost glad for their lies; I do not know if I could have lived these twenty years knowing that I had lost such a woman and such a son.”

There were tears in my husband's eyes, and I could feel him trembling next to me, but he kept control and spoke calmly. “I have desired, all of my life, to hear you say those words. Now, I can die a happy man, for I have the love of a good woman and the approval of my father.”

For a moment the two men stood looking at each other, and I marvelled at how similar they were. Then Guidon was in his father's arms, and the two men wept openly.

The celebration that followed will be spoken of for many years. We laughed, talked, danced, and sang into the early hours of the morning. The tsar stayed in the palace for a full week, and he was never seen without Priya, whose face glowed like the sun itself.

At the end of the week, the tsar expressed his desire to return to his lands with his wife and declare her virtue to all those who had wronged her. He begged Guidon to return with him, but he refused. “I am happy in my own land, with my wife and our city. We will stay here, but I promise to come and visit you and my mother within the year. I have greatly desired to see the lands that my father rules.”

We stood on the dock until the ship's sails were out of sight. I whispered to Guidon, “I am grateful for your decision to stay here. But in truth, these walls will not last us another year, and Chernomor's guard will soon complete the year I have asked them to guard our walls. It might be wise to go with your father.”

He shook his head, turning back to look at the walls of the city gleaming in the sunlight. “We can build the walls ourselves, and our own guard is enough. I am my father's son fully now, but I am also my own man, and I must have my own land. It is only three days' sail to my father's lands, and we can go there often.”

And it was all as he said. We did rebuild the walls as the fading magic left them to crumble. The people of the town joined in with a good heart, and soon the walls were as grand as ever. Chernomor's guard disappeared back into the sea, though there remained tales of shining knights that appeared to gather salt from the beds on the far side of the island.

And that year brought us another great joy: the birth of a daughter, Zarya. We named her for the sunrise, for she was like the light of morning breaking across the land.

The years that followed I will not speak of, for they belonged to my Guidon and me, and I am jealous of them. We took great joy in each other and our land, and in our daughter, who grew into the greatest beauty that the land had ever seen. She took after my people in beauty and long life, but she had Guidon's auburn hair and his laugh, for which I gave thanks.

When the time came for Guidon to die, we all went away to the palace that had been his father's. Guidon lay in his bed, warmed by the fire, and we talked for many days of all that had happened to us over the years. I had made my appearance age with his, so that no strange stories would spread to tell my enemies of my fate, but when we were alone, I became again the young Vasilissa, the maiden with wheat-gold hair and eyes like the sea.

Finally, Guidon breathed his life while I held his right hand and Zarya his left, and he went into death with a smile on his face and a laugh on his lips. May the God of men grant all mortals such a life and such a passage.

When my husband was buried with all good rites, I took Zarya and put her in the care of a wise old woman of the tsardom. She knew my story, as had Guidon by the end, and knew that I must go reclaim my place in the Summer Realm before I could come back and take her with me.

I set out on the road to the great Gate, and it was the depth of winter. I scarcely noticed, for my heart was still grieving for my husband. Once my heart had found its home in the Summer Realm, but now it called out only for the home it had found in Guidon, and I felt lost.

As I walked, I found a path I recognized, and with great hope, hurried along it. Soon enough, I came out into the little clearing with the house of the raven in the center.

As I walked up the path, Viktor opened the door. Without a word, he beckoned me inside. I had not been here since the day with Ivan and Tatiana, and was surprised to find so many of her things still in the cottage. She must have died several centuries earlier, by men's time, yet I almost expected her to walk in at any moment.

Do you ever stop missing her,” I asked as Viktor handed me a cup of hot mulled wine.

He sat in his large wooden chair on the other side of the fireplace, and stared thoughtfully into the flames. “No. No, I have never stopped missing her, and I do not think I ever will.”

And yet,” I mused, sipping the wine, “you must have seen many thousands of women over the passing years. Not one of them has caught your eye?”

He gave a faint smile. “None of them is her. If you stay in this world for another thousand years, will you ever find a man like the one you have loved?”

No,” I responded instantly, then looked up with astonishment, for I had not yet told him of Guidon.

You did not need to say a word, for the history of that love is written on your face for anyone to see, if he knows how to look.” Viktor leaned back into the chair. “You will never find another like him, and I will never find another like Tatiana. That is the way of things, and it is not to be helped. Would you change it if you could, make a hundred men like your love?”

I shook my head. “Never.”

And you made no effort to pull him back from death.”

I shook my head, for the thought of it was horrible to me.

And now at last you have your answer, why I did not call Tatiana back after she died. I loved her far too much to do so.”

I took another sip of wine and felt it warm my throat. “You know many things of life and death, and the passage between them. It is said that when men die, they go to eternal reward or eternal punishment. Is it true?”

He thought for a moment, then answered, “Yes, in a fashion. I can only see so far into death, and further than that is a mystery to me as much as to you.”

Then perhaps you can answer the question that has weighed heavily on my heart these past months. My Guidon was a good man, and he died a good death. If there is a reward for such things, then he surely earned it and is in paradise now. But I do not know what happens to my kind beyond death. Do we even die as men do, or do we simply return to the earth and disappear?”

You mean,” he said, “will you ever see your beloved again, or is he lost to you forever?”

I drained my cup of wine to the dregs and nodded. I had not voiced the question so bluntly for fear of the stab of pain that lanced through my heart at the thought that Guidon and I could be separated forever.

In truth, I do not know. So few of your kind ever choose to die that I have never come across any on the paths of the dead. Some say that everything beyond death is a dream, and that no meetings are possible. Some, in their turn, say that time itself will end one day, and death will give up all that it has taken, and the world will never know parting or sorrow again. For myself, I do not know. But this one thing I am sure of.” He leaned forward, the firelight gleaming on his black hair. “All that exists, you and me and this whole world, belongs to that which created it. Whether it is one god or many, or nature itself, I do not know, but to fling that life back in the face of creation is a terrible thing. My Tatiana would not want me to do such a thing for her sake, and so I go on, and hope that someday I may see her again in the paths beyond death's door.”

We were both silent for a long time, and I stared into the heart of the flame. The embers glowed and flickered, creating strange shapes of heat and light.

Viktor and I talked long into the night, and when morning dawned, I went on my way. For many years I wandered the forests again, thinking of my lost love and waiting for the summons to go to my home. Zarya was in good hands, and I knew that she could not join in my wanderings, as much as it pained me to leave her. Finally, after a great deal of time had passed, I knew that my time had come, and I found myself on the path to the great Gate.

I still did not know whether I would ever see my love again, but something in me called me home, and it was to the great Gate that I made my way. I carried in my pack one single treasure: a tiara that Tsar Saltan had given me, when Guidon and I first made our appearance in his lands. It was crafted of pure silver, and had so many diamonds on it that it glittered like the stars. He said that it had once belonged to his mother, and had been handed down in his family for centuries. I do not know where it came from, but the work was so fine it could not have been made by human hands.

Being unsure of my welcome into my homeland, I planned to stop by the old tree that held my treasures. As I came closer to the land around the great Gate, I could see that something was wrong. There were trees lying flat on the ground, more and more of them as I got closer, until not a single tree stood for miles around. All were laid out in a row, as if a giant hand had brushed by and uprooted them. Many were marked with burns and scorches, and the air smelled strange. A sense of foreboding overtook me as I got closer.

The old tree itself had been knocked over, and it was like a blow to the heart to see the fine trunk turned to charcoal and broken on the ground. My spells had preserved the hollow beneath it, however, and I checked to make sure that time and whatever strange thing that happened here had not ravaged the golden apple or silver bridle that I had stored so many years ago, but they were both as bright and new as the day I first held them. I wrapped the tiara in rags and placed it with the other gifts, and set everything back as it had been. And now forward to the Gate, though my heart dreaded what I might find in the center of such destruction.

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