Eighteenth in our Heroes series, by Robert Rhodes, this is part 1 of “Love & Winter: Yelena’s Story” which was a finalist in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Art is courtesy of Lialia.
The four sorcerers gathered that night in the iron tower by the river Dnal. “Brothers,” they said, “this day has proven us equal in power. Let us depart then, one to each end of the world. Let each hone his craft, take an apprentice, and return in one-and-twenty years, and on that day let the greatest be decided.”
At daybreak they departed, soaring among the clouds: one to the dry grasslands of the West; one to the East, in the woodland of mist; one to South, beyond the burning desert; and one to the North, in the shadow of the white mountains.
The Vodrina, the ninth tale
* * *
The lamb cried when Yelena lifted him from the hillside rocks. His fleece was snow-dampened and cold; one foreleg was gashed and bloodstained, but he was otherwise unharmed.
“Fortunate, little one,” she said. “Fortunate to be found after climbing so high.” She cradled the shivering body to her chest, then slipped a hand free to rub Banoch’s gray muzzle. “Come, Banoch and I are hungry now. That fox will bother us no more, and your mother is waiting.”
Yelena bent and settled the lamb across her shoulders. She balanced herself and gripped his legs; his blood was like warm sap on her palm. She clicked her tongue, and Banoch, tail high, trotted ahead to the trail.
The sky was ashen and still, the sun a white blur beyond the hills. In the forest below the hillside, a brightness caught her eye. Firelight on autumn’s grain, she thought — but it was a man’s hair. He was hurrying toward a frozen pool, and his hair shone between the thatching of branches and the blanket of snow, in the emptiness where he moved alone.
Now who can you be? she thought. And then, You cannot be!
She knelt and tumbled the lamb onto the iron-cold ground. She brushed pale strands of hair from her eyes and, with rope from her belt, looped a shepherd’s knot around his throat. The other end she tied to a jagged rock on the hillside.
O gods, is it him? The memory of her promise warmed her face as if she knelt by a roaring fire. Is it you? She had to go closer. She had to know.
“Stay,” she told Banoch. “Guard.” He cocked his ears; his thick tail bristled. She padded over snow and earth, following her earlier tracks as they wound to the bottom of the hill.
As she descended into the forest, she slowed and crept behind a birch trunk. Clad in white furs, the man now knelt beside the pool. His gloved hand gripped a knife — the blade steel, the pommel a gemstone dark as midnight — which etched lines in the ice. Yelena willed his face to turn, to show the color of his eyes. Her fingers tightened on the cold bark as she sensed, so faintly, the tree’s dream of sunlight and summer rain … then her boot shifting on fallen leaves.
The leaves whispered. The man lifted the blade, tilted his head toward her. Listened. He stood before she could find her voice, and snow sprayed the ice as he fled.
“Wait!” she yelled. “Wait — I’m Yelena!” She pushed away from the birch and followed. On the hillside, Banoch barked at being kept from the chase. But soon his voice faded, for the man darted through the trees, leaping like a hare over snow-buried roots and silenced streams. Yet Yelena almost smiled, for though he fled like the wind, she ran like lightning that burns through the wind, and she thrilled at both pleasures of the hunt — the course was swift and clever, and her victory in it was assured.
But then he cut sharply to the North, toward the white mountains, the Last Mountains as others named them, and soon broke from the forest. He bounded across a snow-shrouded meadow, toward the mouth of a vale, narrow and steeped in shadow. Dread caught her like a net, and she halted at the forest edge, resting her hand on an ancient pine. Behind the steam of her breath, he faded into the one place where, though the tracks of all her herd led within, she feared to follow. She watched until a raven cried from the branches above, then returned. But before she climbed the hillside again, she knelt beside the frozen pool.
In her hut that night, while her fingers stroked Banoch’s tawny fur, the man’s etching shone in her mind, clean and lightning-white: a woman with hair as long as her own, standing before a palace. Yelena stared into the hearth, seeing his bright hair between branches and snow, and blotted a tear before it left her eye.
“O Banoch,” she whispered to the sleeping dog. “O mother,” she whispered to the fire, “he’s still alive — taken but not murdered. He calls now, and my promise to help him has come due. O gods, please guard me in the sorcerer’s home.”
* * *
Long before her piebald rooster hailed the sun, Yelena walked to the stream behind her hut. She cracked its shell of ice with her heel and washed her face, her heart pounding from the water’s chill. Inside, she worked tangles from her hair with a comb of horn and drew on her palest furs, her doeskin boots, and from its nest beneath her pallet, the silver ring her mother had loved. Lastly, into her belt she slid her long bronze knife.
In the first hours of morning, Yelena crossed the white hills and meadows. She passed huts and cottages darkened and crumbling in the wind, thatched roofs rotting from years of snow and human silence. In her childhood, the hearth-smoke of her village had curled skyward, and its herds had covered the hills. The long evenings of summer had brought sweetcakes and dances, pipes and drums, a ring of firelit faces beneath the stars. Songs, she recalled, of warriors and bejeweled maidens from the world’s dawn, tales of riddling foxes, stories wherein the Firebird soared so brightly that the light of its wings, red-golden, warmed Yelena’s dreams like a second sun.
But ten years past, whispers arose of a dark cloud scudding from the South, against the wind, and into the mountains. Within a turning of the moon, a snowstorm more brutal than even the widow Vlana could recall engulfed doorways, stiffened beasts in their dens. The howling of wolves grew louder, drew nearer. One night a child vanished from his home — a clever boy with hair bright and soft as eiderdown, who delighted in racing before her, wild-laughing, into the forest. The men of the village gathered, her father among them, and searched …
But she banished her thoughts. She had far to walk, and the northern clouds had darkened like clumps of sodden wool.
“That is the past,” she said into the wind. “All that remains is my promise.”
By mid-morning she reached the farmstead of her closest neighbors. Gregor was too fond of his vodka, and Marya had a scornful eye, but they were honest folk with able, kindhearted sons. At midday Yelena returned with the younger, Dmitri, and gave him charge over Banoch and her herd of reindeer and longhaired sheep. Dmitri did not ask where she was going; she was two winters older, and his downcast eyes betrayed his fear. Where else could she walk in the wild North once the snows had come?
She knelt and nuzzled Banoch’s black ears. “Guard,” she told him before striding away.
Snowflakes tumbled as she walked through the forest. When she neared the vale, the wind rose and howled. Between the mountainsides, it whipped the snow into a stinging torrent. Her eyes watered, and she blinked and knuckled them so they would not crust shut. Once she stumbled on ice-glazed rocks and fell, biting her tongue and tasting the salt of her blood, the air’s bitterness. She struggled up and trudged deeper into the vale, blind to all but the steepness of the mountains around her — how their burdens of snow, ice, and stone shuddered in the wind.
Her hands and feet grew numb. Her blood seemed to thicken, and she thought of running back to the forest, if run she could in the deepening snow. But in a twist of the wind, a vast shadow loomed up in the blowing white world.
Yelena shielded her eyes. Before her stood the palace whose image had been etched on the pool — gray and black stone now, smooth beyond any chisel’s work. On its rounded towers glimmered minarets of ice, too slick and sharp for any crow or raven to find a perch. Yelena had never seen a crafted thing so great. Or so cold.
No wall or courtyard encircled the palace, only the barren floor of the vale. She leaned into the driving snow, stumbling till the windshadow of the walls protected her. When she uncovered her eyes, the palace doors towered over her—an arch of bone-colored wood, banded with iron.
The doors parted at her touch. As they shut behind her, a last flurry of snow swirled past her shoulders, and a torch flared in its sconce. Yet its flame glowed purple, dim as crushed lavender and the sun’s dying light, filling the chamber with shadows. The air, though windless, was cold as in the vale. She ran her fingers through her hair, scattering ice and snow on the flagstones—then stopped.
A fresh shiver raked her spine as the largest wolf she had ever seen stepped from the shadows. His fur was black, flowing over muscle and haunch, and his eyes mirrored the torch’s chilling glow. Memories howled, of wailing across the hills and her mother’s tears. O child, your father is dead, and the others who went with him. The sorcerer unleashed his wolves in the vale ….
She reached for her knife. The black wolf growled and walked toward a dark corridor, looked back at her once. She shook her hair and followed. I am no fool, she thought, letting go of the hilt, and my promise is not of vengeance.
The first torch dimmed as she passed it, but another flared in the corridor ahead. The darkened mouths of other passages appeared between doors, narrow and closed, their lintels slashed with runes. The wall glinted as she passed the second torch — its sconce was carved of ice.
Torch after torch, she followed the wolf. Each one flickered with the sun’s last light; each sconce was unmelting ice. As the glow of one torch gave way to another, her nape prickled and she turned. From within two shadowed corridors, two wolves like nightfall and smoke took up her trail. Their eyes gleamed in the torchlight; nails clicked on the stones. The black wolf turned to bare his teeth before vanishing around a corner, and Yelena hurried to follow him. At once, the click of nails quickened behind her.
The sound grew louder as she passed new corridors, and other gazes pressed upon her back. At last the passage opened into a pillared hall, and more than twenty wolves flowed into a crescent behind her, shepherding her toward a shadowed throne. The black wolf lay proudly by its side, two torches flared above it, and for the first time beyond her nightmares, Yelena faced the Tsar of Winter.
“You,” he whispered. “I know you.” He lifted his hands from the frosted silver of the throne, laced long fingers before his throat. His skin was smooth and pallid as snow hardening at dusk. His robe, cloud-gray and sleek, parted above his breastbone, and a circlet of ice glistened on his shaven head. “The shepherd girl, daughter of the forest, our closest neighbor.” On the last word, his mouth tightened to a slim scar in his tapered cheekbones. His eyes narrowed and gleamed. “You should not have come here, girl. You smell of dogs and fire.”
She slid her thumb across her ring before unclenching her fist. “I have come only at your son’s request.” But he is not truly your son, is he, sorcerer-thief?
“My … son. In truth, he is my apprentice — yet why come at all?”
“To ask for his life.” The tang of blood burned on her tongue. “To ask for his freedom … and if he would have me as his wife, or if you require it, I will not refuse.”
The tsar’s lips curled. Darkness hid his teeth, but Yelena guessed their sharpness. He laughed — a knife of ice twisting to scrape bone. “No, this will not be, for I have seen your fate.” He raised his hand, and a glittering fog billowed up from the stones before her. “Behold.”
Fog swirled and hardened into silver, into ice — a rounded mirror bright as the midwinter moon. In it, as if from the hillside, she saw the forest dreaming in the snow. Yet the snow was deeper than she remembered, the pines and birches strange — some taller, others fallen or dead. Into the vision she glided like a raven lighting on a branch. Below her a man, old by his stooped shoulders and ragged breath, hefted the last stone atop a cairn. Slowly, bundled in furs, he turned. The flesh of his face sagged; his whiskers were thin and white — yet she knew him.
“Dmitri!” she gasped.
The old man clutched a gnarled staff and limped away from the cairn. Blackness enclosed the forest and, at last, the heap of lichen-scabbed stones. The mirror, a ring of silver and ice stained with torchlight, remained before her.
“There,” said the tsar, “lies your future and your fate. A neighbor to find your withered body in its hut. A grave in the cold forest. An ending unloved and soon forgotten.” His lips curved. “Alone …”
Yelena bowed her head. Her eyes watered from the cold, and she pinched them shut before looking to him, a shadow in the wavering light.
“So be it,” she said. “For the world and the sky are beautiful, and I do not fear my life of dogs and fire. I ask only to hear, from his lips, his desire to stay.”
“A useless wish, but so be it.” The tsar tilted his head as if hearing distant thunder and barked a name — Ivanir — that splintered the gloom like a crack through a frozen lake. Yelena glanced behind her. The wolves had settled onto their haunches, watching her. Then came footsteps in the dark.
The young man strode out of the darkness between two pillars, slowing as he approached the throne. A sable cloak covered his shoulders and all but a forelock of bright hair. His gloved hands drew back its cowl, and his eyes flickered toward her, then away as he bowed before the tsar.
Ivanir, she thought. Then you have kept your given name ….
“How may I serve, my lord?” he asked, his voice soft and sheltering as his cloak.
The tsar’s fingers curled on the throne. His eyes held Yelena, piercing layers of fur and cloth until her limbs ached with cold. “This … girl, a peasant who dwells with beasts, has come into our home. And she has come — upon your calling, she claims — to take you as her mate.” He shook his head, and his gaze shifted to Ivanir. “Your tutelage in power is far from complete; you have yet to solve the thirtieth riddle. And if in time you desire a wife, Baba Yaza has seven granddaughters with hair like the sweet, black night. Thus have I denied this girl, and yet” — his eyes narrowed — “she would have a denial from your own lips. How do you answer her?”
Ivanir’s gloved hands twisted and pulled at one another before falling, slowly, to his sides. “I — ” His shoulders straightened. He drew a deep breath and raised his eyes to the tsar.
“I say she runs like a living fire, my lord, and her voice is the first breath of spring.”
“And thus,” the tsar whispered, “she has no place here. Is that not your answer?” Beside the throne, the black wolf flattened his ears. The torches flickered, and the last warmth fled Yelena’s breast.
Ivanir swallowed and shook his head. “My lord, in your palace I have discovered the speech of wolves and ravens, the hushed music of snowfalls … the endless dreaming of ice. And … I have looked into your mirror, my lord, while you were away, taking flight across the frozen seas, and the wolves hunted in the night—”
“Despite my forbidding it …”
Ivanir bowed. “Aye.”
“And what did you see in my mirror?”
Ivanir nodded to Yelena. “I saw her, my lord. And myself. I watched us when we were children, running to the forest beyond our village. She chased me in the twilight, and we ran, laughing, while the stars glittered in the summer sky, and around us the fireflies drifted like stars …”
Yelena clasped her hands. O gods, you remember!
“And I thank you, my lord,” Ivanir said. He fell to one knee before the throne. “I thank you for teaching me all that you have. Yet I was not born a sorcerer but a peasant myself, a shepherd’s son, and what I desire—”
Yelena blinked at the emptiness where he knelt no longer. The echo of his voice faded into the vaulted darkness.
She whirled toward the tsar. “Ah! What have you done?”
The sorcerer stared into the emptiness, along the length of his outstretched hand. Slowly, his long fingers descended to the throne. He met her glare and smiled.
“Tonight, shepherd girl, the moon begins its gentle dying. Touch him, merely touch him before it dies, and his freedom is yours. Now take your stench from my home.”
“What — where shall I go? Where is he?”
Beside the throne, the black wolf stood and growled. The tsar stroked his hackles. “Tell me, girl … do you know how to count?”
Anger flashed through her despair like lightning in a rain-soaked night. She tasted blood and scoffed. “I’ve two and twenty longhairs and twelve reindeer in my care. Yet the day you stole him from our village, hundreds more grazed across the hills and meadows.”
His smile vanished, could never have been. “I remember well. And in honor of your witless beasts and my apprentice, I will count to five and thirty before I send my own herd” — his hand traced the arc of wolves behind her — “to bring you down if you linger in my home.” He pointed a long-nailed finger at her heart, then to the corridor through which she had come. The wolves shifted behind her, capturing her scent.
“Go,” the tsar said. “You will find him in the vale. One. Two. Thr—”
She spun and broke through the barrier of gleaming eyes. Jaws snapped at her thighs. No torches flared as she entered the corridor. The air shivered with baying from the hall, echoes of hunger …
In the darkness, she closed her eyes and lifted her face for the scent of wind and snow. Like living fire chased by a storm, she ran.
To be concluded next Monday…
Love & Winter © Robert Rhodes, 2010. All rights reserved.
art used with permission: “If I Had a Heart” by Lialia.
Author’s note: “Love & Winter” is a story that placed in the finals of the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. I’d like to offer its publication here as a Christmas gift to Kat Hooper and all the dedicated, insightful reviewers at Fantasy Literature. Cheers, RR