20 Heroes: Love & Winter, Yelena’s Story II

Nineteenth in our Heroes series, by Robert Rhodes, this is part 2 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.

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Continued from part one

She slammed the palace doors behind her and threw herself against the seam. The wood shuddered, and snarls and barking echoed inside. Teeth snapped, then nothingness.

With her back to the doors, Yelena panted from the chase and squinted into the vale’s clouded light. The snowstorm had passed. Above her the white mountains loomed in silence. Her earlier tracks led away from the palace, toward a shape—

“O Ivanir — Ivanir, no!

Her boots sunk and burst through the snow. The shape resolved, shimmering, large as her hut, and she threw herself beside it, crushing fistfuls of snow. She howled at the sky and, in her heart, cursed the tsar to a grave of unquenchable fire.

A grave to match the tomb of solid ice in which Ivanir slept, imprisoned above the earth. His arms lay crossed upon his breast, and his cloak spread beneath him like the cloth of an invisible bier.

“You will be free,” she said and drew her knife. She thrust it seven times against the ice, imagining the tsar’s bare throat, yet the point blunted and left no mark. She shoved it into her belt and pawed through the snow for a stone. Her fingers pried one from the earth and drove it into the gray-white wall.

One crystal broke away from the tomb.

She screamed and raised the stone again and pounded it into the ice. Again — she grunted and clenched her teeth. Again, again, till sweat dampened her furs, and her arm fell like a flayed beast, the stone falling from her deadened hand.

Her fury had left a blot of roughened crystals, like the ghost of a raindrop on long-dried earth. She groaned and fell weeping to the snow. Soon she straightened to peel her crusted lashes apart. She laid her forearm against the tomb and shut her mind to the mountains encircling her like monstrous wolves. The sky was blackening to char and iron, and she feared to stay once the long night fell.

She faced the palace and spat into the snow. I will return.

*  *  *

When she saw smoke above her hut, she lengthened her stride. She whistled as she drew near, and Banoch, a wild and welcome shadow, burst from the doorway. Snow flew behind him, and Yelena crouched to hug him, rocking backward from his charge. But she had barely ruffled his fur before he sniffed and surged from her arms. He edged away, throat rumbling, hackles high and sharp.

“I know, my friend. I know.” She held out a bare hand, rubbed his muzzle and chest. “But they have not harmed me. Not so much.” She glanced up as Dmitri appeared in the doorway. The hearth-fire bronzed one side of his face and wove copper into his hair. He looked older now, standing between light and twilight, and she searched his fine-boned features for the ancient one who would bury her with stones.

She stood and walked toward him. “A fair evening, Dmitri.”

He shook his head. “You … came back.” He lowered his eyes and smiled. “I found your larder and cauldron. I don’t know if you like stew, but Banoch seemed to enjoy it.”

“Banoch ate his own dung when he was little. But I trust your own good taste.” She almost laughed at the widening of his eyes and lips, but her hand ached in the cold, and the image of Ivanir’s tomb returned. Her knees buckled, and she leaned against the doorway as firelight washed over her eyes.

“O gods, I’m a fool. Such a fool to think …” She swayed toward the light, but Dmitri caught her arm. He led her to the hearth, where birch logs crackled under the hanging cauldron. Steam wafted over the rim of tarnished copper — salt and garlic, barley and meat — and her mouth watered.

“You’re so pale,” Dmitri said. “Sit — please. There’s nothing to talk of till you’ve eaten.” He shut the door and, behind it, its flaps of hide. He ladled the stew into her largest wooden bowl and set it in her palms. It was as if he had given her the sun.

For a time, she simply let the warmth seep into her bones. She raised the bowl to her lips and drank it dry and, when she looked again, found beside her a plate of cheese and black bread. Dmitri took the bowl, filled it again, returned it to her hands. He removed a skin from his belt and poured its clear liquid into a cup, setting it beside her plate.

“Thank you,” she said.

He patted the skin. “I just hope my father doesn’t miss it.” He joined her near the hearth, and Banoch, sniffing, eased himself down beside them. Yelena cradled the bowl and stared into the flames as words of Ivanir, her promise to help him, and the sorcerer scattered like fallen leaves.

When she finished, her mouth was cold and dry. She sipped the stew and the vodka’s false fire as the hearth crackled and Dmitri drew up his knees, embracing them with his arms.

“Gods, Yelena … to do this, to set your face against the sorcerer …”

She looked into her emptied cup. “Surely there is a madness in the women of my family. Why else would my mother leave her forest? Why else would a rusalka become mortal and bind her life to a man’s?” She lifted her eyes and stared into the flames; she avoided the shadowed corner where the autumn-gold of her mother’s hair had faded to chaff in the season of her father’s death.

Dmitri lifted his hand from Banoch’s side. “For love.”

She nodded. “I know.” The fire blurred as a small, warm tear slid from her eye. “I know well. Yet their love blossomed in the summer — when life was magical, when the world was green. But now … there is no love in winter.”

Dmitri shook his head. “You should sleep, Yelena. The morning is wiser than the evening. And come morning, I’ll help you as I can.”

No!” She blinked at the sharpness of her voice, his flinching away. “Dmitri, no. Even now he may be watching us in his mirror. You mustn’t earn his hatred, too.”

“But I—”

“No.” She set down the cup. “I won’t have you or your family in such danger.” In a trick of firelight gleamed the tsar’s circlet of ice and narrowing eyes. “Nor can I trust him, Dmitri. If you help me, he might say I broke our pact and then refuse to free Ivanir. Perhaps he’ll refuse even if I succeed alone, but I have to try. Alone, Dmitri. For Ivanir’s sake, if not yours.”

His jaw shifted as he stroked Banoch’s back. “I can stay here, though. I can tend your herd and cook for you? If I do nothing for Ivanir, only for you … at least I can do that much.”

She shook her head and smiled. “Your family and I are the most stubborn of a stubborn folk to live here still. Aye, stay if you like.”

He banked the fire, and they lay back to back on her pallet while the wind howled outside. Though Yelena ached, her ears strained for the cry of wolves, and she searched the shadows for the gleam of purple eyes.

I saw her, my lord. And myself. I watched us when we were children, running to the forest …

Tonight, shepherd girl, the moon begins its gentle dying. Touch him, merely touch him before it dies …

O child, your father is dead …

She breathed the scent of her home and clenched her fists. When they fell open, she dreamed of fire.

*  *  *

Five nights later, the moon had thinned to a sickle of bone. At dawn Yelena entered the vale with a torch crackling in her bruised and blistered hand. In the days before, she wept as her axe felled pines and birches—trees in whose shade her mother, as a spirit of the forest, had danced and sung. She vowed to weep no more.

But as she walked between the mountains, a wind roared from the North, driving gray clouds before it, battering her flame. She shielded it with her body and trudged backward through the snow. Smoke swirled into her face, and her eyes watered as she coughed.

At last Ivanir’s tomb appeared over her shoulder. The ice rose above the wood she had split and piled against two of its sides. Beyond it loomed the palace, and — she gasped — upon a balcony beneath a minaret stood the tsar, his pale hands raised. Above him the sky roiled like a cauldron of filthy water.

The wind howled, and her torch guttered. She neared the tomb and lurched toward the wood. She knelt and fumbled in her pouch for a flask of oil as the wind pounced, snuffing her flame.

“No!” She dropped the flask and drew a shard of flint from her pouch. But no sooner did she lift it than droplets of sleet pelted her cheek and fingers. She screamed as it soaked her hair and furs, glazed the logs and tomb. In moments all lay wet and glistening; in minutes all would freeze.

She stood and dashed water and ice from her eyes. On his balcony, the tsar turned and vanished into the stone.

*  *  *

Eight nights later, the moon had thinned to a shaving of wool. At dawn Yelena, with aid from Banoch, drove her reindeer to the far side of the forest. There, with leather and coils of rope fetched from the land’s northernmost fortress, at the price of her mother’s ring, she yoked the beasts together. To them she fastened a wide, crude sled of pines that no longer dreamed.

Her beasts shied as they neared the vale, but she drove them on, the logs rolling and sliding across the frozen ground. Beside Ivanir’s tomb she halted, saw the tsar again on his balcony, and fought to calm her mind.

She had cleared away the frozen logs from her first attempt. If she could move the tomb into the forest, its power would shelter her, she prayed, from the tsar’s storms. She could then kindle a fire to free Ivanir. No other course or time remained.

Yelena shut her eyes and let her thoughts sink like roots into the living earth. Gentle Mother, giver of life, please shun this thing of death. I beg you, my grandmother. I beg you …

Her reindeer stamped and snorted. A rock broke loose and tumbled from a mountainside above, but no warmth or power gathered within her. A cry of despair filled her throat but died at a nearby whisper from the snow. She opened her eyes.

As if the ice had become steam, Ivanir’s tomb began to rise. In moments, it hovered above the snow, lightly as a cloud.

Thank you, my grandmother, Yelena thought. She urged the reindeer forward until the sled waited underneath the ice. Thank you, she thought again, and the tomb descended onto the logs.

Yelena smiled. But even as she lifted her thoughts from the earth, she sensed a trembling in the hoarfrost, low and terrible as thunder.

“No,” she whispered, but then Banoch was beside her, barking and snarling, his hackles like thorns. She screamed and drew her knife, hurried to cut her reindeer loose. She hacked one rope, then another—but already she could see the eyes of the tsar’s wolves, cruel as lightning, as they charged.

Yelena screamed like her beasts in the heart of the storm, for its rain on the snow fell red.

*  *  *

When Banoch was a pup, Yelena would sleep with him on her chest. Her neighbors had given him to her after her mother’s death, and in the night, she would stroke his fur and smell his new breath and know she was not alone.

Now his breath came in gasps of steam, and he whimpered as blood from his ravaged belly melted the snow. He lay on his side, staring drowsily, and Yelena ran her hand over his muzzle, his eyes, his ears. The wolves had evaded her and attacked only her reindeer before returning to the palace. Banoch had fought them nonetheless, and the black wolf had rewarded his valor with a slow and painful death.

“My friend, my friend,” Yelena whispered as she stroked his face, as she left her hand on his eyes, drew a stilling breath and plunged her knife into his throat. His body spasmed, then was still. She flung the knife away and sobbed into the darkness of his still-warm fur.

For a time, she knelt in the bloodied snow and prayed she would wake in her hut, with Banoch dreaming beside the hearth. But her reindeer lay brokenly, tangled in her foolish ropes, their throats torn out; and with their deaths, though Ivanir’s tomb now lay on her sled, it may as well have rested on a mountaintop.

On his balcony, the tsar turned and vanished into the stone.

Yelena bent and lifted Banoch’s body across her shoulders. It was so still, so heavy, and its weight — with the stench and slickness of entrails on her nape — buried her last embers of hope. When the moon vanished that night, Ivanir would be lost to the tsar, and more than ever she would be alone.

She had failed.

She left the ruin of her promise and trudged into the forest. The sky and snow were empty of life and color; skeletal branches creaked in the wind. Between two birches, beside a frozen streambed lined with rocks, she found a smooth place and laid Banoch’s body there. She gripped a large rock with her bloodstained hands, and setting it by his head, she wept.

Yet in the midst of building his cairn, the air trembled from a lamentation, and Yelena realized it had come unbidden from her lips. At first she chanted her village’s deep hymns of loss as she laid stone on stone — so many even for a shepherd’s dog — but soon found herself moving more quickly, more wisely, as if the stones themselves called her to arrange them. Then followed songs of her childhood from the village green — The White Sword of Morning, The Firebird’s Flight — and as she laid the last stone on Banoch’s cairn, she did not hold back her tears but raised her reddened hands like wings.

When life was magical, when the world was green.

And as she turned to the North, her song grew high and wordless, for she had left the dominion of words. Her song quickened, quickened her stride, making her bones like skirling pipes and her heart a war-maddened drum.

She broke from the forest at a hunter’s sprint, swift beyond dreaming. Her song rushed forth like a wild summer wind and lifted her as she leapt toward Ivanir’s tomb. She landed by one of its corners, striking it with her bare hands. Again. Again.

Her knuckles split open. The ice bit into the sides of her hands and palms, drawing her lifeblood. And Yelena sang — she sang! — as the stained tomb cracked and melted at its touch, for the gift of life was magical in the world’s green dawn. And still it was.

The ice became more jagged as she hammered it. It sliced open her fingers and wrists, only to dissolve more quickly from the outpouring of her blood. Her head grew light, her throat hot and parched. She no longer felt her hands, only an agony held at bay by her song.

Which suddenly echoed in the air of the vale, its spirit warped, so loud and harsh as to be music no longer. Yelena turned and beheld the tsar on his balcony, his arms writhing like serpents as he whipped the discordant sound between the mountainsides above her. She closed her lips and ended her song, then cried out at the pain in her hands. Black stars swarmed in her sight, but she was close to Ivanir now, so close, and lifted her hands again — just as the slopes above her cracked.

Plumes of frost erupted from the mountainsides like smoke. Vast sheets of snow and ice slid and fell like cataracts, melded into a frothing white wave that swept away boulders like pebbles and dust. It roared toward the floor of the vale, faster than a storm-angered stream.

She opened her lips, but the avalanche drowned out her cry. Her boots slipped on the remnant of the tomb underneath her. The edges of her sight dimmed, but with a last surge, Yelena lunged and slammed her hand onto a spike of ice over Ivanir’s face, gasping as the tip burst through the back of her hand.

The floor of the vale shuddered as the avalanche struck. Against its devouring whiteness, a ruby droplet of her blood fell onto Ivanir’s cheek.

His eyes opened. His hands left his breast, scattering shards of ice. The world faded to twilight before her and then, whether in the maw of the avalanche or the shelter of Ivanir’s cloak, the blackest of nights.

In the cold and silence, in the lightless heart of winter, she drifted.

Alone.

*  *  *

Shadows and firelight danced above her, above her on the thatched roof of her hut. Dmitri and Ivanir sat near the glowing hearth, talking softly. But Banoch was gone.

Grief touched Yelena’s throat like a knife of smoke, and she drew a sharp breath that deepened at the aching and strange moistness of her hands. She thought to lift them, but the lush blackness of Ivanir’s cloak covered her, and by then he and Dmitri were kneeling beside her pallet.

“Stubborn, stubborn woman,” Ivanir said. “Had a snow tigress lost as much blood as you …” He shook his head and let a gentle smile end his words.

“How?” she whispered. “Why aren’t we dead?” Her temples throbbed, and she shut her eyes. Her tongue felt like a dried leaf, and she did not voice the remainder of her thought. I should not be here. I chose to free you and die.

“When my master — no, his name is Yoris. He imprisoned my body, but I remained free. I solved the thirtieth riddle and am a true sorcerer now.” With her eyes closed, Yelena heard both the pride and anger in Ivanir’s voice. “That is how — but better to ask why we are alive. And as to that, the answer, bright heart, is you.” His lips brushed her forehead, and he murmured words that wove themselves together like flowering vines … vines that parted before her hands to reveal a forest in high summer, its branches laden with ripe red fruit and its streams running sweet and cool.

Yelena woke and ate and dreamed again, and the cold days passed. Each dawn and dusk, Ivanir rubbed a fragrant green ointment into her hands, murmuring as he worked. They would bear scars, he told her, and ache when storms approached, but they would serve her well. With his hands and power, he also built larger pens for her longhaired sheep, cleansed and deepened the village well, and stacked rows of firewood beside her hut.

Dmitri, for his part, cared for both her and her sheep and, when Ivanir left from time to time, asked her more than once to tell him of the tsar’s palace and how she freed Ivanir. As they sat by the hearth, she shared with him her memories of Banoch and, later, her mother and father.

One morning Ivanir hurried into the hut with a handful of raw gold. “The ice of the stream spoke of it,” he said. “I’ll tell you where …” In the evening he returned with jars of salt and honey and a gray stallion whose hooves did not sink into the snow. He wore a new cloak of rich sky-blue wool, and from its folds he lifted a white-furred pup and laid her in Yelena’s arms.

They sat together that night while the pup nibbled Yelena’s fingers, and Ivanir said at last, “My friends, I fear I must go in the morning. There are three others like Yoris in the world, and three apprentices who are as I was. I do not know if I can free them” — he bowed his head to Yelena — “but I must try.”

At daybreak Yelena embraced him, and he and Dmitri clasped forearms like brothers. He leapt onto his stallion, which climbed as if the air were a gently sloping hill and soon galloped across the windswept sky. As Ivanir faded from her sight, Yelena looked down and saw she had taken Dmitri’s hand. A startling warmth rushed through her, and she met his eyes.

Dmitri blushed but did not look away. “You were wrong, I think. There is love in winter, but it cloaks itself in courage. Yelena … how brave you are.”

She smiled, taking his other hand, and kissed his beautiful cheek. The sun was rising, each day growing longer than the last.

Despite all, hers would be a glorious spring.

*  *  *

One-and-twenty years later, they gathered in the iron tower once more, though none had returned with an apprentice. “It matters not,” said the sorcerer, thin and pale as frost, who had flown to the mountains of the North, “for the people of this land are unworthy of our power.”

But the one who had flown to the East had listened well to the living woodland, and his eyes shone with the green of its trees and the gold of the rising sun. “Nay, brother,” said he. “Say rather that, until this time, our power has been unworthy of them.” And for his answer, he was named the greatest of the four …

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


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ROB RHODES was graduated from The University of the South and The Tulane University School of Law and currently works as a government attorney. He has published several short stories and is a co-author of the essay “Sword and Sorcery Fiction,” published in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. In 2008, Rob was named a Finalist in The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Rob retired from FanLit in September 2010 after more than 3 years at FanLit. He still reviews books and conducts interviews for us occasionally. You can read his latest news at Rob's blog.

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2 comments

  1. That was beautiful. Thanks, Rob.

  2. Thank you for the lovely story, Rob!

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