Vasilissa the Wise
the land did not quickly recover. So much had been done to it that it would never be the same. The dragon's breath had scorched it all, and the Grandmother of Witches had drawn out its powers to create her tower and rule. And though the tower was fallen and the rule broken, some things were always lost and would remain so.
The winds were no longer so warm and welcoming, the rain no longer so gentle when it began to fall again, and the curtains of color in the night sky not as vibrant. And this too, was part of our grief, but that is the way of things. And even here, in the Realm, things pass, and fade, only not as quickly.
In time, the grass grew again, the rivers flowed, and the flowers bloomed. Again, the air was redolent with the scent of flowers, and the people stayed out to watch the stars. There were summer nights that lasted a thousand of the days of men, and we sang again of beauty, peace and happiness.
I think, perhaps, that I was gone too long from this world, or perhaps it was the years with my beloved Guidon. For whatever cause, though this is my home and here I shall stay, my heart is still restless, and I do not think it will find its rest here, or in the mortal world, or anywhere this side of the paths of the dead. It is a strange thing, to feel that part of one's self is forever beyond one's reach, but that is the only way I can describe it.
I shall not rush into death, for that is not the way that things must be, but when it appears it will be as a friend and not an intruder.
I wonder sometimes, of the world on the other side of the Great Gate. My people do not pass through any more, for we have no more desire to go into the world of men, but I still wonder. What season is it there? Have the little spring flowers begun to poke up through the snow? Are the horses running on the steppes with the wind in their manes and their nostrils wide to catch the scent of those who would catch them? And those of the race of men whom I loved, do their lines still continue? Do their grandchildren and great-grandchildren still speak their names with pride?
Ah, these are not the questions of one of the Realm, but they are my questions. I lived too long in that world not to care about it, and to wonder.
But enough of such things. My story is almost at an end.
When the first of the flowers began to spring up, I knew it was time. I journeyed to the Great Gate, and opened it with a word. It was difficult to open this time, and I knew that the magic would soon be gone, and the way closed forever. Perhaps a new Gate could be opened, but none of my people had any will to do so. I did not step through into the world of men, but called until a single bird flew through and perched on my finger. I whispered my instructions into the bird's ear, and it flew away again, straight as an arrow. I then went back to the city, which was being rebuilt slowly. New hedges had been planted, and were beginning to sprout up, and several of the people were at work shaping them into their careful patterns.
Time passed, until one day a cry went up from the road. I walked out, and over the hill I saw a woman with hair as bright as the sun at sunrise, red as the sun at sunset, and with a smile like the noonday. She was seated on a white horse, and before her flew a great raven. As she came over the hill, her hair was caught by a gust of wind, and flew out behind her like a banner. I could see that the eyes of all present were on her, and I could see in that moment that she would be a part of this world as I never could be again.
I walked up the path to meet her, and she saw me. For a moment, she looked confused, and I realized how different I must look to her. She had last seen me as a young woman, after the death of her father, when my hair was almost as bright as hers was now. Now she saw a woman with an aged face and silver hair. But before I could say a word, she had halted the horse and was running up the path. Throwing herself into my arms, she embraced me. “Mother,” she whispered, “I'm finally home.”
And so Zarya came to live in the land that she had heard so many stories of in the nursery. Within a day, she was beloved of everyone, and her quick laugh could be heard echoing across the land at all hours.
A feast was given in honor of her coming, and the people of the Realm lifted lights all along the road, and danced for hours under the shimmering curtain of colors.
I did not dance, but smiled and joined in the singing from my seat under one of the new trees that was growing. Viktor sat beside me, watching in silence.
“thank you,” I said quietly to him in a lull between songs, “for bringing my daughter.”
“I think she will be happy here,” he replied, not taking his eyes from the dancers. “She told me on the journey that she was tired of living among those who aged so fast and that she was ready to come to the place she had heard of so often.”
“Was she happy there?” I asked him in a rush. I had not thought of it until long after I had sent for her, and now I feared that I had only taken her away from a happy life to be imprisoned in a world that she had never known.
“It is good that you did not see the great cities of the land at the end of your time in the world of men,” he said, pausing to take a drink of wine. “Your kind can never be happy in such places, yet she was still waiting in the city where she had been sent, so that when your word came she would not miss it. She was happy to come, of that you have my assurance.”
Silence fell between us then for a long time. I marveled for a moment at the strange path that our friendship had taken, from that first day in the little house in the clearing. I glanced at him as he watched the dancers, and I knew that he still saw only Tatiana. I would never know his story, I thought, and never understand why such a being as he would come to love one so ordinary as Tatiana had been. But that, perhaps, told me more about him than any story he could ever tell.
“This is the last time I will see you,” I said, already knowing the answer to my question. “Once more, you said, and then no one knows.”
“Yes. This is the last time we shall meet on this side of death.” And no more words passed between us, for what more can be said? Some friendship have no need of words to say what must be said.
And thus ends the story of my life, both strange and terrible. I would not wish it on any enemy, nor would I have lived any other. Let it be as it may.