The old man kneeled amidst heavy snow drifts, digging the last of a sprawling pattern into the white down. A series of concentric circles and jagged lines radiated through the clearing. Bleached pines watched over his work with reverent silence while the winter waited quietly for a sign.
At the very center of the confused lattice, the old man had created an exquisite sculpture of ice and snow. It was a facsimile of a small girl, perhaps in her fourteenth summer, lying in the fetal position. The construction mirrored life to the slightest detail. Muscles flowed beneath the surface and fingernails dipped into well-defined cuticles. Even the eyelashes were exact. The old man had spent years achieving such sculpting skill. His heart boiled feverishly, knowing his diligence would finally be rewarded tonight.
The old man stepped next to the ice girl, careful to wipe away his tracks, and lovingly made a few final changes to the girl’s face. Satisfied with her perfection, he began to speak. A languid non-language poured from his mouth in a disconcerting and powerful cadence. At the first syllable, a panicked cloud of birds erupted from the surrounding forest. Each word then gained in force, shaking green the branches of the nearest trees. The chant reached a crescendo—a last, booming plea—and the old man looked to the sky, arms spread in supplication, before quickly looking back to the sculpture. It was unchanged, except where a carefully wrought finger had crumbled under the volume of his voice.
The old man stared at his sculpture, his face growing concerned and worried. “Surely it could not have been for nothing?” he mumbled, “Why does it fail? I have waited so long. My wife has waited…”
The thought of his wife caused his features to twist in pain. Fat tears welled in his eyes. He covered his face in his hands as deep sobs wracked his body. The grief trickled through his fingers and pattered upon the ground.
He clenched his fists together in a violent prayer. “Please,” he cried, bludgeoning the void with his will, calling anyone, anything that would listen, “Please! My wife. She only wishes for a daughter. Whatever the cost, I will pay it!” The man doubled over in a heaving sob, his tears falling upon his lifeless creation.
“Why do you cry?”
His eyes flew open at the voice, and he became as still as a deer. He was nose to nose with a young girl, her porcelain white face flawless in its symmetry. Her cheeks were tinted red from the cold, and her eyes were as blue as the clearest day.
“Why do you cry?” She repeated, soft as struck crystal. She stood and looked down at the old man through long, flaxen hair. He scrambled backwards, falling as his strength betrayed him. He had become so very tired out in the frigid twilight. He shook off the unexpected dizziness and looked back at the girl. He realized she wore no clothes, yet seemed unfazed by the sharp Rus wind. As the reality of the situation struck him, a peal of laughter broke from his throat. “Snegurochka,” he marvelled. He crawled to the girl and hugged her closely. She watched all of this with a distant confusion but made no protest as he wrapped her in his extra fur cloak.
Using all of his might, he managed to get to his feet and lift the girl up, carrying her back to the tiny home in the small village where he and his wife lived. He spent the trip breathlessly explaining to the snow maiden that she was his daughter, that he and his wife would take good care of her. She would be loved and adored and doted over. Somehow this seemed to calm the little girl, and she rested her head upon the old man’s shoulder as he carried her into the house.
“My love!” he told his wife, “Our prayers have been answered! We have a daughter! A beautiful girl!”
He kept the truth of the snow maiden’s origin a secret, saying only that he had found the girl alone and confused in the forest. His wife was a generous, kind woman and took to her immediately.
“She is so beautiful,” the old woman said, “Surely someone is searching for her. Where are your mother and father? What is your name, little one?”
“My name…” The girl looked to the old man, unsure how to reply. Her face was placid, resting somewhere between curious and quizzical. He set her down, realizing his arms felt like jelly, and wiped his brow. The old man was sweating now, and his vision was hazy.
“We will call her ‘Snegurochka’,” he rasped through a tired smile. The world spun, and he lost his balance, tumbling to the floor and blackness.
When the Rattenfanger was without contract, as he was now, he travelled as the North Wind took him. The seasons of Europe had grown bitter sharp, and even though it was still late summer, the nights required plentiful furs. It was a development that caused him much consternation–Ratten hated the cold. It made him tired, and even music became a chore, his teeth constantly chattering against the tune. Regardless, he continued his meandering, making the most of a well-deserved dose of freedom.
For Ratten, freedom always attracted the worst of trouble. Ahead on the desolate Rus road, a young farmer waved for his attention. Ratten’s silver dapple bucked and snorted, always suspicious of strangers, but he patted the horse’s neck and pulled up alongside the pilgrim. The man gave him a curious stare, before shaking off whatever troubled him about the motley rider.
“Don’t go that way, friend. Deep snows and a biting cold. Best to head home if you’d have my advice.” The farmer spoke with a strong conviction, surely aware of the absurdity of his statement.
“Snow?” Ratten asked, with a lopsided grin, “In mid-August?”
The man grimaced, a touch of fear in his eyes. “It’s the truth of the matter, sir. For days and days now, boundless snow. Something wicked lies in that direction. We’ve asked for the help of the Lord of Novgorod, but with the war… The best I can offer is advice—don’t go to Kimry.”
Ratten gazed further down the road, stroking at a stubbled chin. “The better the advice, the more rarely I take it,” he confessed to the farmer, shaking his head at the truth of his statement. He gave a small bow and clicked his tongue, pushing his horse to a slow walk.
“Death went that way!” the young man called after him, as if he had barely convinced himself to speak it. Ratten turned in his saddle and laughed. “Ah, a poet. But you needn’t worry, I’ll be fine!”
“No sir, I mean Death. Dressed as a woman. A few hours ago. Truth be told, I am more frightened of her than the weather.” He shrugged, surrendering to the lost cause. “I suppose you will do as you like. Gods protect you.” He turned and continued on his way.
The hours passed as Ratten hurried the stallion along, anxious for a peek at the anomaly. The sun began to dim in the sky as gray clouds crowded in from north, south, east and west. The area ahead had become a conflux of disparate winds. The air swirled—and the temperature dropped lower the further Ratten rode. The first hoarfrost gripped the dirt road a few leagues after, and dancing flakes followed beyond that. The only sound was the padded, crunching echoes of his lonely winter walk.
Then he realized his walk was not as lonely as he thought. Another set of large, booted prints led toward the town of Kimry. He could just make out a figure in the flurries ahead, tromping with militant efficiency. The path threaded into a shallow gully, and the figure disappeared amidst the pines. Eager for another witness, and unafraid to confront the unknown, he sped to a gallop until he was between the walls of the gully. Here the snow fell harder, and the trees made the dwindling sunlight even more sparse. The tracks were muddled—and worst of all he was getting cold. That would have to be remedied. He pulled his flute from his jerkin and tested the tuning. After a few expert adjustments, Ratten began to play.
The living song started with a disinterested snort, perhaps even the music was too chilled to put up its normal resistance, and he quickly pulled it into a warm waltz. The area around him began to rise in temperature and a sourceless light infused the gully.
“Better,” he complimented himself, “now let’s -”
A form blurred on the embankment, moving as fast as a squall. It smashed into his side like a battering ram and took him from his saddle before he could finish his thought.
“Mother,” Snegurochka asked in a serene monotone, “What is it called when you think of someone who is gone? Think of them all the time? It feels bad.”
“You miss them,” the old woman answered sympathetically, used to her adopted daughter’s struggle with emotion. She had long ago realized there must be more to the young girl her husband had brought home, but that mystery was lost and unanswerable. In the end it was unimportant, because she loved the child dearly. Snegurochka had grown into a young woman, and though she had her peculiarities, she was dutiful, attentive and even caring in her own way.
“Yes, that is it. I miss father.” Snegurochka decided. Her face betrayed none of that statement.
“So do I my dear, so do I.” The old woman nodded, turning back to the meal boiling on the fire to hide her distress. It had been almost two years since her husband had passed on. He battled illness and fatigue from the moment he had come home with Snegurochka in tow, and died a year to the day after. She was no fool, and she should have asked more questions at the time, but her joy at suddenly being a parent had silenced any reason. But the old woman had decided not to regret this blessing, not to dwell. If only the girl were a bit more…normal. Or at least had some friends.
“Snegurochka, it is sweet of you to spend so much time with your mother, but surely you should explore Kimry more often. A young girl should not stay cooped up, and I worry.”
“I am fine mother, there is nothing I need. Do not worry.”
“Nonsense,” the old woman tutted, “I know the other young people can be difficult, but you are beautiful and sweet. I want you to go out today, no arguments.” There would be none, but it was a force of habit. Snegurochka had always done as she was told.
“Of course mother. I will go now.” The old woman did not notice the flash of panic on her daughter’s face that was quickly quelled. Perhaps it had only been a twitch, but Snegurochka hesitated a moment longer. Then she turned and headed out the door and into town.
“Oh Lel! Kiss me Lel; I am yours.”
Lel pressed himself against Katrina and kissed her deeply, while their friends looked on, laughing at their dramatized romance and yelling encouragement. Their lips parted, Katrina holding on a bit longer with a playful bite. He considered her pretty face, full lips, and raven hair for an extra moment and realized how lucky—talented, he corrected himself—he must be.
“You’ve gotten better,” she smiled. Lel just winked and took a seat on the side of the well. He pulled forth his pipes and began to play a simple jig, quite pleased with himself.
“Don’t get too full of yourself!” Katrina warned, mock shoving him over the side of the pit. His notes squeaked in panic and the others laughed once again.
“Your song is very beautiful.”
Everyone turned to face the unexpected voice, which was as delicate as falling icicles. It was the strange, pale girl who lived with the old woman at the edge of the forest. Her hair sparkled in the noon sun, and her skin was as light as fresh milk, even more stark against her graying blue dress. “Will you play more?” She requested.
Lel gaped like a fish, but finally collected himself and brought the pipes back to his lips. Katrina frowned and stopped him with an elbow. “No free concerts for royalty,” Katrina said, “Surely the Ice Queen can afford to pay for her entertainment?”
“I’m sorry, I have no money,” Snegurochka said, ignoring or unaware of the other girl’s venom. She turned and walked away.
“Bitch,” Katrina snarled under her breath. Lel continued to stare for a long time.
“I think Lel has found a new love,” Elam, a tall boy with a nose broken from one of many fights, cackled. They had all seen their fair share of scrapping – the other teens of Kimry steered clear of Lel and his band, and even the adults tsked and fretted when he or is his friends were about.
Katrina scowled at Lel skeptically. “There’s something wrong with that one. Thinks she’s too good for anyone. You would have no chance with the Ice Queen.”
“No chance?” Lel balked, wounded. The others laughed again. “I could bed her by tomorrow if I wanted!” He boasted. Katrina just smiled.
“Is that so? I doubt you could get even a kiss…” She grabbed him again and their lips met once more.
“Bet me,” Lel mumbled into her mouth.
“What?” Katrina demanded, rocking back.
“Bet me. I won’t have the slightest problem.”
She frowned again, but it slowly reversed itself into an amused glower. “Sure, Lel. If I’m right, you write a song about my beauty.” Her sarcasm caused a round of snickering. “You get a kiss – just a kiss – and you win. And, well, you can name your prize. But don’t get too attached,” she threatened, “Remember who is. Waiting. For. You.” She punctuated each word with a peck on the neck, not noticing that the young man had returned to staring after the departing Snegurochka.
Ratten rolled, disoriented, expecting to see a bear or a tiger preparing to pounce. Then he felt a blade pressed against his throat. He ceased struggling and reached his arms out in capitulation.
A woman loomed over him, her tangled blonde hair hanging so close that it tickled his face. She was tall and muscular, and her storm-blue eyes spoke of death. Not in the mundane manner of the alley thugs, veteran soldiers or hanging-judges Ratten had seen countless times before. There was a dedication to quietus that went far beyond such amateur regard. He would have to be very careful.
“Get off of me, you deranged harpy,” he hissed with crushed lungs. He was answered by a prick of discomfort as the blade pierced skin.
“You are going to explain your magic—and explain why you were following me,” the woman growled in an accent Ratten placed to the northern peninsulas. “If I dislike any of your answers…” the blade worried, eliciting more pain.
“Ok, ok, just let me breathe a bit.” The knee at his chest let up slightly, “I am aware few would willingly venture into a storm such as this, but I was curious. As you’ve noticed, I have some magic with which to protect myself. Though my bardic skills pale in comparison to whatever holds sway over the weather here.”
She let him stand, though the sword remained pointed at his chest, and he brushed the sleet from his tunic.
“I would say my talents are closer in scale to a Chooser of the Dead such as yourself, Maer…” ‘Maer’ was the proper title for an unwed Northerner, by his recollection.
“Eir,” she sheathed her sword and half sighed, half chuckled, looking him over for a second time. The motley cloak of greys, the flute, and the ‘diplomatic flair’ must have finally tripped a memory. “The Rattenmensch, I take it?”
“At your service, Eir” he bowed, with aplomb, “Though it’s really Rattenfanger. I take it my legend has grown?”
“Mensch, Fanger. Legend, joke. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference.” She said, wholly unimpressed. “I have a job to do, Rattenmensch. One of my picks for Valhöll wound up dead somewhere around here, Ragnarok might be just around the corner—I have to decide whether he is still worthy. Maybe skewer whoever ruined my score.”
“Didn’t die well?”
Eir sneered. “In his sleep. The man fought the Huns on three different fields, hopeless battles. I thought he was a sure thing. An Einherjar through and through. Someone is going to pay up.”
“No doubt,” Ratten agreed too quickly, and Eir gave him a sideways glare. “Might I accompany you for the time being? I always prefer company.”
“Why?” Eir asked, turning back down the path and marching away. Ratten had to jump on his horse and kick it to action to keep up.
Ratten gave a lopsided smile. “Well, Eir, we both know there is something bigger than both of us ahead in Kimry. And it is rare that two of our type meet anywhere, let alone in a wintery hell that defies mid-summer. As a bard, I am not a believer in coincidence.”
“Whatever,” Eir told him, “Just make sure you stay out of my way and we’ll get along fine.”
“I think you’ll find I’m more than useful. I’ve -”
“Right, and just…just talk as little as possible.”
Ratten managed a personal best of six minutes without a word.
Lel saw Snegurochka ahead amidst the market stalls. Andrzy the butcher was hollering at her from across his counter.
“I’ll not sell anything to a mistake like you!” he declared, speaking with swishes of his large carving knife, “You are frightening away customers, thing. Get you gone.”
“I was merely looking.” She told him with downcast eyes.
“All the more reason for you to leave!”
“Of course,” she acquiesced. An emboldened child began to kick at her shins as she left, creating ripples of laughter amongst the shop owners. Pleased with the approval, the boy continued his work.
Seeing his opportunity, Lel rushed forward and wrapped his palm around the boy’s head.
“That’s enough now. I’ll bloody your nose, if you don’t stop.” The child knew better than to test Lel and ran off to hide behind his mother’s skirt.
“Lel, you trouble maker. Take her if you want, we don’t want either of you here!” Andrzy declared. Snegurochka kept walking without reply, and Lel walked by her side. They made their way to the edge of town, Snegurochka’s eyes flicking towards the young man from time to time.
“Why are you following me?” she finally asked, devoid of suspicion or anger. Lel gave a lopsided smile.
“You looked like you could use some company. What’s your name again?”
For the briefest instant she looked surprised, though her face quickly snapped back into its peaceful resting position.
“Snegurochka.” She told him.
“What a beautiful name,” he grasped her fingers, noting her missing pinky, and brushed his lips against the back of her hand. She cocked her head, perplexed. It was rather cute, Lel thought to himself. There was something about the girl that hypnotized him, and despite his best acting he realized he was now staring.
“Oh, yes. Well, I’m Lel.”
“So, why were you following me?” she asked again. The finality of it left him at a brief loss for words. Conversation was definitely not her strong suit.
“I wanted to give you something, actually,” Lel finally came up with, mentally kicking himself. He reached into his pocket and brought forth a smooth, blue stone. He had spent hours picking it out—only because it might increase his chances, he told himself. It was not expensive, but it shined handsomely. “I thought it would look nice on a necklace or something.”
Snegurochka took it with a disinterested “hmm.” It was not the reaction he expected.
“You don’t like it?”
“It is fine. But what I would like is for you to play again. Would you play more, please?”
Lel stared again. Then, shaking his head in bewilderment, he pulled the pipes from his pocket and began to play. Snegurochka watched, fascinated. Her eyes drank in every movement of his fingers. She even tried to hum along in a disastrous attempt at harmony, which made Lel laugh. He tried to teach her to carry the tune, and soon she was competent enough to sing along. They practiced together in the early summer heat. In what seemed only moments to Lel, he had exhausted his repertoire and the sun threatened to dip below the tree line.
“I should go home,” Snegurochka said.
“Sure,” Lel smiled, forgetting his mission.
“Oh, I should give you a gift as well.” Snegurochka clasped her hands together, and Lel furrowed his brow. When she opened them again, a tiny set of pipes made of clearest ice rested there. Lel’s eyes went as wide as a toad’s.
“How did you…?”
She placed the pipes in his hand. Sure enough, it was cold, slightly burning his palm.
“Thank you.” She told him, and with that she was gone, leaving him to stare after her as she disappeared back into the streets of Kimry.
It was so cold inside the town of Kimry that Ratten had to play at quick, regular intervals to keep Eir and himself from freezing solid. His horse had refused to continue a mile back and he had been forced to let it run free. The citizens they had seen were all dead, many frozen in their last living moments like statues out on the street. Others had simply fallen to the ground and perished, huddled and shivering. Even homes had offered little protection. Windows were smashed by the wind, and a lucky—or cursed—few that had managed to start fires found no sanctuary. One man had apparently lit himself ablaze trying to stay close enough to the hearth’s false hope, his corpse a twisted cinder.
“Damn it. This is him,” Eir growled, as they stood over the bed of one of the townsfolk. His eyes were closed in gentle repose; perhaps he had not even noticed the doom that came to Kimry. A bottle of vodka was tipped on its side by the nightstand, the remaining contents chilled solid. “Couldn’t you have cursed your fate a few times at least?” She complained to the body, though her sarcasm was betrayed by her tender touch upon the soldier’s cheek. “I’ll be back for you, soon.”
For a moment, she softened. Then her face twisted into a saddened scowl. “Get playing Rattenmensch, I can barely feel my fingers.”
“Yeah, I’ve had about enough of this as well,” Ratten said, as he began to play the waltz, creating a bubble of warmth.
Eir thought, then bobbed her head, her wild mane dancing around her face. “I have to figure out what caused this, Rattenfanger. Hopefully, there will be something to blame that can be gutted.”
Ratten nodded slowly in agreement, noting an odd change in her tone. A subtle search for accord perhaps? That was new, but welcome. “There is something here bigger than us.” He reasoned, “And a massive patch of impossible winter is just too damn obvious. Before long the Maltans will get word, and that’s never anything but trouble.”
“The Order?” Eir wondered, “They’re just a bunch of glorified eoten hunters.”
“But they hate us in full measure. That’s reason enough to be worried.”
Eir shrugged, unconvinced yet uninterested in arguing. “Either way, let’s go hurt something.”
Ratten was certainly not going to try and stand in the way of that sentiment.
The wind picked up when they returned to the streets, as if intent on hindering their progress. They lowered their shoulders to cut into the gusts, barely able to see ahead. But in the center of town, inside the largest building, lights still glowed behind the windows. Bodies had been piled and scattered in the yard.
“I think we should have a look inside,” Eir told Ratten, feeling at home amidst the bloodless battlefield..
The mansion’s interior was cool, but it felt like a furnace compared to the streets. Ratten and Eir could sense no danger within, but still they skulked and stayed to the shadows. In the ground floor parlor, they encounter the first living thing they had seen in Kimry. An old woman was cooking a stew over an ornate fireplace. She looked up when they entered the room, but seemed resigned to any danger the two intruders might pose.
“I thought they were all dead,” she told them. Her voice was without affect. She went on stirring like a golem.
“They are,” Eir said, and took a purposeful step forward, but Ratten stopped her. She shrugged his hand off, but held her ground, hand white on her sword hilt. “Why did you do this?”
The question snapped the woman out of her trance, and she looked at them again for the first time. Tears welled in her eyes and she began to weep softly.
“I’m sorry,” she told them, “I’m so sorry. It’s my fault, I was not the mother I should have been.” She had to steady herself against the wall, falling to her knees.
“What happened here? What did you do?” Ratten almost whispered. Eir still seemed anxious for violence.
“Snegurochka! My daughter! Are you here for her?” the old woman locked eyes with Eir, sensing on some animal level the woman’s terrible rank. “She didn’t know what she was doing; she wasn’t raised as she should have been. It is my fault, please don’t hurt her!”
Neither Ratten nor Eir answered, sending the old woman into hysterics. “Please I can’t give up my daughter. She is the only thing I have in this world, she -”
“She killed hundreds of people!” Eir spat, “And if we don’t do something then thousands more will probably die. Tell us where she is or those thousands will start with you, I promise.” The old woman became stoic, and for a moment Ratten thought she might defy the ultimatum. Finally, the facts of the matter must have dawned on her.
“She moved me to this home as an apology, I think,” the old woman told them, forlorn. A wry smile battled with her miserable eyes. “I wanted a daughter so very badly. I don’t know what my husband did, but he must have brought home a witch—or a demon. You will find her by the well, to the west. She is with Lel, I believe.” This grand betrayal drove the old woman into a fit of pitiful wailing, her face buried into her hands, curled upon the floor. Eir again made a move, but Ratten stopped her.
“Our answers aren’t here,” he said firmly, but softly. She considered his words for a moment and gave a nod of agreement. They left the old woman to her torment.
Tiny snowflakes danced within Snegurochka’s home, bandied about by a cold but refreshing breeze. The old woman held a hand to her mouth, trying to keep her dismay in check.
“Snegurochka, I told you, you must never, ever do this. If someone were to see…”
“I am sorry, mother,” she said, “I don’t want it to happen, but it just does.” There was an effervescence to the girl that the old woman had never seen before. She seemed to walk on air, and she hummed directionless songs to herself as she went about her chores.
“I’m glad you are happy, Snegurochka. But people will talk, they might even take you away.” The old woman grabbed Snegurochka and held her to her chest. “Please try your best.” A moment later the flakes dispersed, and the muggy August air overtook the cottage once again. “Thank you, my darling.”
“I am happy, mother,” Snegurochka looked up at the old woman from their hug. There was revelation on her face. “That is it. Every day I cannot wait to see Lel. I feel nice when I am around him. What does it mean?”
“You have been talking about Lel for near to three months now, Snegurochka,” her mother laughed, releasing her from the embrace, “You must care for this boy quite a bit, that is all.”
Snegurochka smiled, something which the old woman would have thought impossible not long ago. It warmed her heart, and filled her with a great pride.
“Go on,” the old woman shooed, “I will finish up the chores. Go see your precious Lel before it gets too late.”
Snegurochka gave her a quick peck on the cheek and rushed out the door, wending her way to the glade where she would meet her heart’s minstrel.
Lel paced the clearing, hounded by questions and doubt. Had the trees sung a chorus and the sun fallen from the sky, he would not have noticed, so intent he was upon his thoughts. How was he going to get out of this? He had promised to meet both Snegurochka and Katrina today, and now the time had come to tell the truth. The solution was clear to him, but executing it frightened him more than anything. He felt terrible for what he had done. He had made many mistakes, some he might never live down.
“Lel, there you are!”
Snegurochka ran to him, her gaiety sinking his stomach. He did his best to put on a smile. She was so beautiful, and she must trust him entirely. Knowing that gave him some small comfort that he could do this right.
“I have something to tell you,” Lel warned her, as soon as she drew near. Certainly she could see him sweating, he imagined. In his mind’s eye he saw himself an awkward wreck, and it only increased his apprehension. However, she seemed oblivious to his fretting.
“Please tell me, dear.”
And he realized that he could not. He needed more time; it was too punishing, too unfair. Instead, for the first time, he brought her close and kissed her tenderly.
Snegurochka melted into his arms, her feet tilted to her tiptoes. For so long he had avoided this. The silly bet had always been on his mind, tainting the very idea of the act. Katrina probably didn’t even remember the off-handed wager, but it stuck to Lel’s soul as a shameful stain. If only he had never said something so stupid. This kiss was absolution. A genuine expression of his feelings, he poured himself into the moment and the two became lost in each other for a long time.
When they parted, Snegurochka’s cheeks were flushed and she looked at the ground. Lel wondered if she were embarrassed.
“Lel, I think I love you,” She confessed, glancing up through her eyelashes. Lel nearly dropped dead on the spot. This wouldn’t work. Why had he been so damned stupid?
“Snegurochka,” he told her, “There is something I have to do. I’m so sorry, I have to go to the well very quickly. Wait here, I will be back soon. Will you do that for me?”
She seemed stunned, but it drifted to a puzzled neutral. “Of course, Lel…”
He frowned, holding her hands between his, then turned and walked away. He glanced back one time, as if to make sure the dream hadn’t evaporated, and then ran off into town.
Snegurochka waited amidst the trees for what might have been a long time, though perhaps it was only anxiety that created the illusion. She felt confused, and perhaps a bit betrayed, though the identity of that emotion escaped her. Had she done something wrong by telling Lel she loved him? Was it love that she felt? Her mother had explained it to her before, but it was always hard to be sure, like trying to see by smell. Yet this time she had been so sure; it almost came to her on its own. No, she decided, this couldn’t wait any longer.
She made her way to the well, and spotted Lel from a great distance. Her sight and hearing were far beyond those of a normal person. She noted he was with another girl with raven hair. It was Katrina, one of the more vicious of Snegurochka’s myriad of tormentors.
“I said I’d come, Katrina,” she heard Lel say across the silent distance. Katrina drew close to him and placed a hand on his chest. Snegurochka felt something worming in her throat. It was uncomfortable and unexpected.
“Finally done with the Ice Queen,” Katrina smiled, looking victorious, “I was getting tired of you fooling around with that mistake.” And then she pulled Lel to her and kissed him violently.
Snegurochka spun as if she had been punched, almost dizzy. She didn’t know why, but it felt as if her stomach had become empty and it was slowly expanding, filling her up with night. It felt very wrong. Something terrible was happening. She had to speak with her mother.
Snegurochka rushed home, running as fast as her feet could carry her, a sense of foreboding dogging her steps. She burst inside and saw her mother there, sitting and stitching a damaged hem. The emptiness in Snegurochka had filled her entirely, and taken on a frigidness that shivered even her. Lel had been kind to her, when no one else had. They had played music together, and talked for hours, and shared, and Lel had kissed her. It was not right that he kiss Katrina, was it?
“Mother,” she asked with her serene diction, “What is it when you feel a terrible coldness. When there is a darkness in your throat that wants to burst out and hurt. After someone has done something to attack you. It feels bad.”
The old woman looked at Snegurochka, concerned for her daughter, and a bit apprehensive.
“That sounds like…rage? Are you angry, my dear?”
Snegurochka cocked her head, considering. “Yes. Yes that is it.”
Unbidden, her eyes flashed and the clouds above Kimry grew dark. The townsfolk wondered how it had suddenly become so very, very cold.
“I’m not sure the old woman has to worry about her ‘daughter,’” Ratten told Eir as they approached the west side of town. They could both see the well ahead, though most everything was obscured by sleet as thick as the feathers on a swan. “I had hoped this was all caused by some idiot warlock’s mistake. A weather calling gone wrong. If it is a concerted effort by someone like us…”
Eir’s jaw was set; she didn’t seem to notice anything but her destination, though she responded. “We have to try to do something. All of these people are dead.”
She had finally articulated what they had danced around until now. There was a duty here beyond curiosity or a job. If they didn’t stop this Snegurochka, more would surely die. Ratten was glad his companion felt the same way.
“I’m happy to have your help,” he replied. She jerked her head to the side and watched him warily. Appreciation was foreign to her. Finally she ‘humphed’ her own assent
The area around the well had been cleared of snow, leaving a circular, pale green crater. In the center was a statue of a young man. He was locked in a shivering pose, a set of pipes tucked in his grip, skin and clothes covered in frost and ice. A pale girl stood by his side, gazing into his face as if expecting some great miracle. She whispered quietly to the boy, who was far beyond the reach of any words. They could hear her promises and arguments to Lel even in the raging wind.
Eir and Ratten stepped close, but Snegurochka made no move, continuing her vigil.
“What do you want?” She demanded, a touch of anger crackling in her voice. Eir asked permission to strike with a gesture of her blade, but Ratten held up a finger for a moment.
“Snegurochka. You have to stop this now.” He brought his instrument to his lips and played one of his simpler tunes, meant to make her more agreeable. Snegurochka brushed the enchantment off, whirled about and glared, eyes almost feral. Just as quickly her gaze became one of bewilderment.
“Lel?” she wondered aloud, focusing on Ratten. The intensity of her attention made the bard’s skin crawl. He and Eir exchanged a glance, Eir flicking her eyes to the rime-ensconced stranger. There was a similarity there, Ratten figured, but not enough for such a mistake. That complicated things.
“Who is this?” Snegurochka demanded, attention shifting to Eir. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped further. Eir began to shiver. A thin layer of ice covered her and she lost her strength, falling to the ground. Her sword clattered to the earth before she could think to use it.
“No! No.” Ratten lowered his voice. The chance of a peaceful resolution seemed to be fading fast, and they were on the losing side. “She is no one, Snegurochka, why don’t you talk with me?”
Snegurochka lost her focus on the woman and turned back to him. “How can I know Lel? Why did you leave me? Why did you kiss Katrina?” Now the temperature dropped around Ratten as well, and on instinct he played his warming song. The shift slowed, but it was only a matter of time before Snegurochka won out. Hopefully it could speed Eir’s recovery. He risked a quick look in her direction, but she was still.
“Uh, that was a mistake?” Ratten went with that, “I…love you.” Snegurochka beamed and the winter assault dwindled.
“I forgive you, Lel. I’m sorry this happened, but I forgive you.” She leapt into Ratten and wrapped her arms around him. She was warm and fragile. He placed his chin on the top of her head and did his best not to recoil.
“That is wonderful, dearest. But why don’t you stop this? It could be like it was before…”
Snegurochka extricated herself from his grasp, holding him at arms length. Her face was a mask of frustration.
“These people hurt me, Lel. They always hurt me. Wouldn’t it be better, just you and me?” It sounded as if she were trying to convince herself. “I didn’t mean to do it, Lel. But maybe…maybe it turned out for the best? I’m happier alone, and now I have you again! Won’t you play your music for me?”
Ratten shook his head. “It’s no way to live, Snegurochka. Come with me, and let’s put an end to this…”
Snegurochka looked like a chastised child, but she was still defiant. Perhaps admitting the truth of things would crumble the lies she had told herself. “No. No Lel, I don’t want t -”
A blade burst through the front of Snegurochka’s dress like a breaching whale. She looked down at the bloodless blade in mute shock. Eir grabbed her around the neck and held on tight, pulling the blade out and crushing it back through again.
“Do something, Fanger,” Eir yelled. Ratten shook off his surprise and played the flute. The music howled and whinnied—almost frightened—but he threw it upon Snegurochka. The notes held her paralyzed and the ice girl became still.
Eir and Ratten locked eyes again, unwilling to believe it was over. Just then, Eir’s sword made a sound like a thawing river. Cracks began to play up it’s length and it crumbled like a dry leaf, the steel becoming dust on the wind.
“Wait…!” Ratten tried, but before he could blink, Eir was armored in ice and snow, leaving not a detail visible. The solid prison tipped and fell to the ground with a vibrating thud.
“You aren’t Lel,” Snegurochka said, disappointment overshadowing the serenity on her face. Then the sadness turned to rage. “You are all the same. I will bury the world in ice,” she spat.
The hole in her chest had vanished and even Ratten’s most dangerous melodies were failing him. Ice began to skitter up his legs and waist, holding him in place. She turned away from him and touched Lel’s frozen face, mumbling nothings to the corpse. In the end they had failed, Ratten realized, incredulously.
Ratten would never be sure what possessed him at that moment. But as a tribute to himself, something to carry him into whatever waited beyond, Ratten began to play a bittersweet lament. It was a celebration of life and an acceptance of death, and it carried a timelessness borne of supreme passion and skill. There was no magic in it, but as his vision began to dim he believed it just might have been the finest piece he had ever composed.
Just at the precipice, some small warmth returned to his body. He opened his eyes and saw Snegurochka standing beside Lel—but looking at him. Her hand touched her face, where two tears had trailed down her cheeks, leaving rivulet troughs in her skin. She held the drops on the edge of her finger, disbelieving.
“Why do I cry?” Snegurochka asked.
She gazed lovingly at Lel for a remorseful second as Ratten played on, then wrapped her arms around the dead boy, her hot tears dissolving his crystal chest. “I’m so sorry, Lel. I’m so sorry,” she begged, “Please forgive me. You forgive me don’t you? I didn’t mean for it to happen!” She diminished in size, faster and faster, as if starving, until without transition she was simply no longer there. As she was born, so she had gone. The punishing cold let up almost immediately.
Ratten wormed out of his rapidly melting bindings and rushed to Eir, smashing his flute to pieces to break through the thick covering. It’s master gone, the snow yielded and Eir sifted out, gasping for breath.
“Is it?” she choked.
“Over.” Ratten said. The first rays of sunlight lanced through the lazily departing clouds.
“You aren’t so bad, Rattenfanger.” Eir admitted, sitting atop Ratten’s silver dapple. They had discovered the beast along the road, grazing as if nothing had happened. Ratten had gifted it to the woman; he always found new horses anyway. “Thank you for the help,” she half-mumbled.
He bowed, accepting her hesitance with grace. Both were used to being alone. For Ratten it was a choice, but for Eir it had become an identity. It was hard to say which was the greater burden. “I’m glad you could see your friend to rest,” he said. There was a sadness but an appreciation on Eir’s face at that.
“He fought for the right reasons, when I was there by his side. Family, friends, home.“ she mused, “Not all valkyrie are so…careful – a warrior is a warrior. But to me it matters. I don’t know why, maybe I’m foolish.”
“I don’t think so,” Ratten countered, “such a duty could leave one jaded.” The horse snorted impatiently as they tried to decide what to say next. “Are you sure you can’t travel with me for a time? I have quite a few stories to share.”
The horror on Eir’s face was probably only an act. “There are always wars somewhere, Fanger. But if you find yourself around death on this scale often, I’m sure we’ll meet again.
She kicked her horse to a gallop, and sped down the road. Ratten was left with her final comment, which troubled him for reasons he couldn’t place.
The kiss lasted only an instant. Lel pulled Katrina away softly and held her by the shoulders.
“I should be direct, Katrina,” he said, shaking his head. She had tears in her eyes, already knowing the answer. “I love Snegurochka. I was sure of that as the weeks passed. I love her and I won’t ever leave her.”
Katrina had to avert her eyes, wounded by the conviction of his profession. Her false bravado was now fully shed. “I know,” she lamented.
He pulled a ring from his pocket and showed it to the raven-haired girl. “I couldn’t tell her of this until it was completely cleared between you and I,” he admitted. “I’m sorry, Katrina. I’ll always be sorry.” She nodded but never looked up. The tears continued.
Lel hated to see pain. He gave her an unfamiliar hug.
“Go,” Katrina said.
Lel stepped aside, but knew he couldn’t tarry. He left her there and never looked back. With each step a weight was lifted from his shoulders – everything was now so clear. Smiling wistfully, he pulled forth his pipes and played a few notes of the proposal he had been writing for days. It was growing dark and there was an unseasonable chill to the air, but he would hurry to the clearing, certain Snegurochka would be waiting for him.