Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Vasilissa the Fool

Vasilissa the Fool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blood opens many things that were better shut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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