Firebird

By Helen Fayle

One: Kastchei's Enchanted Garden and The Apparition of the Firebird

In a place below the great ice-rivers, beyond the ice forests and beneath the northern stars, dwelt the Tribe. These were the latter days of Winter, when Spring had not yet come to the land, and all lay still under the weight of the Great Baba's cloak of ice, awaiting the warm winds and the slow drip-drip from the craggy cliffs above the tents of the tribe. And in the long nights, the Grey Wolf howled.

Winter is long, on Skazki: years will turn and turn again before the seasons end: before the ice, as deep as an ocean in places, retreats behind the sheltering wall of the Black Mountains. And then, following hard on the heels of the thaw, comes the summer, and with it, the great herds of musk-bison, mammoth, and woolly rhinoceros making their way up from the winter grazing lands back to the highlands, where the snows last longest, and the sun is weaker.

 

With them, always with them, will go The Tribes.

To the first tribe of the northern icelands, this was a time of plenty: the russet furred herds of shaggy mammoths, skinny with their stores of winter fat fast vanishing were at least still plentiful. Called to their deaths by the greatest shaman of the tribes, they laid down their lives for the people as needed.

And in the darkness after the tribe had left the killing grounds, the wolves would descend, from the mountains to finish the scraps the people left for them. Tribute, or token, none could say.

 

Volkhvy, they called the shaman. (For none knew her name, and that is as it should be, for names have power, and none more so than the name of a woman who walks the worlds of the spirits.). And this shamanka had an apprentice, a child found on the soggy tundra many Long Counts of days before.

Volkhvy, after speaking with the spirits for four days and nights, called the child "Phoenix". And despite the winter hardships, the child grew strong, and tall and beautiful. Dark hair had Phoenix, like a raven's wing caught by sunlight. And eyes as blue as a noonday sky (not as bright perhaps as a summer day, but then, Phoenix was born in Winter, and Summer was still to come).

Yet for all this straight-limbed beauty, there were few in the tribe who would call Phoenix "friend", being afraid: some amongst them claimed that the child was born of the leshy, not of men, and wasn't the proof of that manifest in the strangeness of the youth? For Phoenix was neither man nor woman, when grown, yet somehow partook of the essence and form of both.

And for this reason, perhaps more than any, when the lots were cast in the twelfth Lesser Year after the child's finding, the name "Phoenix" was drawn from the otterskin first.

The Lottery had been held once in a generation since the Time of Isolation began, or so the shamans said: once in every season, the Great Dragon would come, to the Place of Choosing, there to find the offering.

The shamans usually found the remains, desiccated by cold, gnawed by wolves and other predators not too proud to eat carrion. Such things as were left were moved and discretely buried. Better for the tribe if it is believed that all are taken.

But the shamans whisper in the long dark nights. They know that sometimes, there is no body.

 

The Great Dragon takes them. That is the tale. The serpent of blue fire, Keeper of the Covenant. For this is the will of the dragon - that one will be brought, once in a great Cycle of seasons, to the spindle upon which the world turns, there to be left, until the next turning.

And for this reason, Phoenix was travelling with Volkhvy, and so found the stranger.

 

There was a storm coming: the clouds hung heavily over the icy plain, and the tundra here was devoid of any kind of shelter. Not a tree, not a bush in sight. Phoenix was having to pull the sled, as Volkhvy refused to refresh the levitation spells that usually powered it, and now perched upon their supplies, huddled deep within a mammoth-fur parka, like a wizened old bannik in a bath tent, lifting her head only to shout whenever the runners hit a tussock or rock buried under the deep cover of the snow. Head down, intent upon the treacherous footing, Phoenix didn't see the man until hir booted foot almost trod on his head. Phoenix came to an abrupt halt, shaking the shamanka from her reverie.

'Not enough to rattle my old bones, careless child, you now seek to have me fall and break my neck?' Volkhvy grumbled.

'You prefer I draw the sled over this man's head?' Phoenix asked, inspecting the creature at hir feet. Volkhvy snorted, and shrugged deeper into her furs.

'Why not? He's not one of us.' Her head poked out of the hood briefly, peering, although from where she sat she could see little of the fallen man. 'A trick of the leshy? To catch us off guard, eh?'

Phoenix turned the man over, and the stranger groaned softly. His face had the reddened look of wind-chill, despite the thick beard he bore. His hair and beard both were of a shade of red unknown to the tribe. His eyes were tight closed, and rimmed with ice, and ice also dusted his beard and hair. His clothes, nowhere near thick enough for the Winter, were of a woven cloth, and black under a light covering of snow. Phoenix pulled a hand away suddenly from hir examination, grimacing. The mitten was covered in blood. A closer look revealed a deep wound in his side, bleeding sluggishly.

'He's hurt, Elder.' Phoenix placed hands under his shoulders and dragged him to the sled, puffing at the effort of lifting him to a place next to the shaman.

'No care of ours, child. Put him back where you found him!'

'I'll take responsibility for him, Elder. You just heal him.' Phoenix took hir place back at the front of the sled, slipping slim arms back into the harness. The toe of a boot caught something on the ground and she bent to pick it up: a large sealed case of a strange, iridescent leather, with, in one corner, the embossed design of two ravens in flight. This was placed next to the stranger, who stirred and reached for it, sighing as his hand touched it. Phoenix caught sight of Volkhvy's face as she stared at this item.

'You recognise this?' Phoenix pointed to the device. The shaman shrugged.

'Maybe.' She turned her attention to the injured man. 'Maybe this one is worth saving after all.' She pulled her hands free of her mittens and began probing the man's wound. Several heartbeats later, she looked up and stared at Phoenix, who still watched him. 'Child, shall we never get to your death before the advent of Summer?'

Phoenix picked up the harness again and threw hir weight into it, noticing that the weight was once again being taken up by the shaman's incantations.

'My death?' Phoenix muttered as the sled glided behind. 'You're such a comfort, Elder.'

'Thank you,' Volkvhy said, without a trace of irony.

 

~~~

 

'...there's something wrong, the controls won't respond. I'm going to bring it down...'

'Tal? Tal?'

The comlink hissed only static at her, before going dead. One by one, the lights on the instrument panel went out, ans she thumped it in a mix of despair and anger. Outside, a blizzard raged, and now she had no choice but to brave it, hoping that the settlement they'd seen from the air wasn't too far away...

...stupid, stupid, never fall asleep in snow, never set out on your own, on a strange world... lost, lostlost, Tal gone, where? Crashed?

So tired... ... howling on the wind... Red eyes glowing in the night and a dark shape, not human, wearing a hart's horns bending over her, and it's all wrong, it's white, it should go...

Black.

 

~~~

 

Winter raged outside the high walls; she knew this. But in the quiet peace of the gardens, this was hard to accept. Here, it was perpetually spring, the season maintained by deep sorceries. A demonstration of casual power that was not lost upon the short, slender young woman who walked carefully tended paths with her hostess at her side.

'You seem distant today, Vivienne.'

Vivienne ventured a reserved smile. 'I'm sorry, your majesty. But I still worry about Tal.' She didn't mention the nightmare that she'd woken up from that morning.

'Call me Alianora.' The Queen of Winter smiled, and flicked red hair off her shoulders with a studied gesture. She wore her straight hair parted simply in the centre, and no crown adorned her brow. Yet she did indeed comport herself like a queen. Vivienne had the impression that the lack of ornamentation was as deliberate a statement as the presence of it would have been in another: A statement that this woman wielded so much power that she needed no symbols of it. The only jewellery she wore was a large ornate bracelet in the shape of a serpent eating its own tail, with a single glittering green eye.

In a way this excess of restraint was also true for the man who now approached them, his forest-green cloak sweeping the short grass of the carefully cultured lawn. Like Alianora, this man was red-haired, although his was so dark in some lights as to approach Vivienne's chestnut tones. In the sunlight, however, it burned like fire. Like Alianora he radiated power in every mannerism and gesture, and he had the height and build to carry it well.

 

Kastchei bowed as he reached the two women, taking and kissing Vivienne's hand, before taking his queen's in his own and drawing her closer, tucking her arm under his own. He smiled, his wide generous mouth not hidden by a neatly trimmed beard. He had reminded her painfully of Taliesin, at first.

'It is well that you are feeling better, my dear. Aleschka and I were rather worried at first.' Alianora smiled briefly, and untangled her arm from his.

Vivienne smiled weakly, but met his piercing gaze. His emerald green eyes had a glitter to them that she found quite unnerving. Despite his superficial resemblance to Taliesin, she didn't feel as though she would ever shake the need for caution around this man.

'My thanks, Lord Kastchei. I understand I have you to thank for my life?'

He brushed aside her thanks with a gesture of his gloved hand. 'You were fortunate to be found when you were, my dear. Your injuries were severe. But now that you are well, perhaps I can take you back to your craft. I must confess, I'm fascinated by your story. I'd like to take a close look at the ship.'

I just bet you would, Vivienne thought. She took care to let no trace show on her face, and schooled herself to smile brightly. 'Thank you, I'd appreciate it,' she told them.

The Queen of Winter and the Lord of the Summer Country... Without Tal she had only the vaguest idea of the stories behind those titles, and these names were not associated with them in the fragments they'd uncovered prior to coming here.

But Kastchei... that name she knew from the mythology of her own world. In spite of the warmth over the sheltered garden, she shivered slightly. There is a lesson in names, Tal always said. Never ignore them.

Kastchei Bess-Mertny. Kastchei the Undying.

Watch your step, Viv, she told herself sternly, silently as she allowed Alianora to lead her inside, Kastchei looming quietly at her side. There's a lesson in names. She stared up at the clear blue sky before stepping over the threshold of the palace. If only Tal was here he'd be able to make sense of it all.

If he were still alive...

 

~~~

 

On the third day after the finding of the red-haired stranger, they arrived at the Place of Choosing, and the stranger's eyes opened.

They were green, Phoenix saw, but were not the eyes of sorcerers always so? But pale, like agates, not the deep green of jade or emerald.

'Hah.' The Grey Wolf said, sitting up on his haunches and scratching an ear with his back leg. 'I see my dinner will have to wait.'

The stranger looked nervous at this, and Phoenix hushed the Grey Wolf. 'Hold your tongue, old friend. You would not have eaten this one.'

The Grey Wolf sniffed. 'Perhaps. He is a little on the scrawny side.' His cold wet nose touched the man's cheek. With all credit to the stranger, Phoenix thought, the man did not flinch. 'I like them fatter.'

With that he padded over to the fire and flopped beside it, his head on his paws, staring at the makeshift litter they'd laid the man on earlier.

There was a noise, and Phoenix realised the man was trying to speak, clearing a throat too long unused.

'Be at ease,' Phoenix said. 'You are safe.'

The Grey Wolf gave a barking cough at this. 'Safe. Yes. Very safe. Maybe the Dragon will not get you, eh? Maybe I will not get you?'

Volkhvy laughed at this, and Phoenix saw the stranger attempt a smile.

'Where do you hail from?' The shamanka asked. 'To be out so far from the lowlands, garbed for Summer? Are you some kind of fool?'

The man smiled and tried to sit up, aided by Phoenix. Really, Phoenix thought, he was quite handsome, in his strange way.

'Our dromond - ' he hesitated. 'Our flying machine-'

Volkhvy interrupted him. 'I do know what a dromond is, boy. Do you think us ignorant, out here in the steppes, hmm?'

The man blushed to the roots of his hair, a peculiar sight, Phoenix thought.

'My apologies. I have become used to travelling in places where such things are unknown.'

'Hmm,' said the shaman, un-mollified. 'You crashed, eh? How did you manage that? It's not as if the ground is difficult to spot!' She laughed at her own joke, but only the Grey Wolf, gnawing on a bone by the fire, did likewise.

The man smiled gravely. 'My name is Taliesin,' he said softly. 'And my tale is this...'

Phoenix sat at the foot of the sled, crossed hir legs, and began to listen.

 

~~~

 

'There isn't a great deal to tell,' Vivienne accepted Kastchei's unspoken offer of a refill and held out her goblet for him to top up with the wine. 'Our craft malfunctioned, soon after we entered the atmosphere. Taliesin - that's my -' she paused, looking for the right term.

'You spoke of him whilst you were feverish, my dear.' Alianora leaned forwards, her chin resting on her hands. 'Quite fondly, I might add. Is he your husband?'

'Oh good grief no! We're both far too independent and stubborn for that to work.' She caught and amused smile on Kastchei's face, which was quickly veiled. 'We work well together, and we're good friends.'

'Lovers?' His face was a study in impassivity but Vivienne caught again a trace of amusement in the Lord of Summer's voice.

'None of your damn business,' she told him brusquely. His smile, which several times veered from feral to playful, widened with genuine amusement. He popped a piece of meat into his mouth and sat back in his chair, as if pleased he'd finally got the reaction he wanted.

'For shame, my lord,' Alianora chided him, so obviously insincere that Vivienne thought the woman could have given Solange a run for her money - and Taliesin's deputy was frequently as subtle as a brick, even on a good day. 'I think my husband simply meant that we're just concerned, my dear - the loss of a loved one is always more distressing than that of a colleague.'

'Oh I think I know exactly what Lord Kastchei meant,' Vivienne said. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him raise his glass very slightly in salute, and had to take a hurried sip to hide her laugh. Really, the man was impossible. 'I lost contact with Tal about six hours after we landed. I stayed to look at the dromond, then I'd planned to check out a habitat we'd seen to the south - I assume it was this palace?' When Alianora nodded, she continued. 'Tal headed north, in our ornithopter.'

'You mentioned earlier that you were looking for someone?' Kastchei placed his goblet on the table and leaned towards her. 'Just what could possibly bring emissaries from the Alliance this far out?'

'There was an incident, a few months ago - one of the Rose Legion's druids, still loyal to the old order, went to a great deal of trouble to find the co-ordinates for this world.'

Alianora arose from her seat, with a peculiar look on her face. Vivienne flashed her attention to Kastchei, although the sorcerer's inhumanly green eyes made his face difficult to read at best. Whereas Alianora looked a little agitated, his mien was merely curious.

'Go on,' he told her. Vivienne amended the rest of her story hastily.

'That's it, really. We don't know what they want with this planet - it's isolated and uncharted, as best we could ascertain. The High King simply asked us to take a look, and so we came.'

Under the pretext of taking a drink, Kastchei lifted his goblet to his lip, but Vivienne saw him raise his finger, masked from Alianora's sight, and make a shushing motion so small, she wasn't at all sure she'd even seen it, until he spoke.

'Perhaps you would like to ride out to your craft tomorrow, Vivienne? There might be some hope either of contacting your companion, and at the very least, the exercise would do you good.'

'Kastchei, she's only just been healed from some terrible injuries, let her rest a while.' Alianora was the voice of reason, but after three weeks of inactivity, Vivienne wouldn't have felt like listening, even if she had trusted the woman.

'Actually I'd be delighted to accept Lord Kastchei's offer, your majesty,' she said, as lightly as she could. She pushed herself away from the table and stood up. 'If you'll both excuse me, however, I'd like to get a little air before retiring?' The Queen nodded her assent, and she left the room with more than a little relief. The tension between Queen and Lord was starting to get to her, she thought, leaning against the panelled hall wall for support. That, and the fact that she was worried sick about Tal. With a heartfelt sigh she pushed herself upright, and wandered out to the garden.

 

The walled garden had been laid out in the shape of a grassy lemniscate - a familiar stylised hourglass bounded by a circle, the neatly trimmed lawns interspersed with gravel paths - although at times it could be difficult to decide whether it was the paths, or the grass, that provided the maze. Tonight, her path lit by the flickering torches that cast pools of ruddy light over the ground, Vivienne chose the paths, hopping over a narrow strip of grass when it intersected her course.

'That could be called cheating.' She jumped, her heart pounding with fright, as she heard the voice behind her, whispering in her ear. The Lord of Summer, making no concession to Winter in his dress - his white shirt was coloured a pale red by the torchlight, and was open as usual to the waist, displaying his lean but muscular chest to the best advantage. His dark hair also caught the light, and flamed in the torchlight, curling onto the top of his collar. I'm surprised they didn't call him "Kastchei the Vain..." she thought, and immediately chided herself mentally for being uncharitable.

'Lord Kastchei, you startled me.' He offered her his arm, and with a slight hesitation, she took it.

'I'm sorry, you were just so lost in thought I couldn't resist.' He led her over to a stone seat, and sat her down, taking his place beside her. 'And please, dispense with the formality, Vivienne. On Skazki it is customary to use a more familiar form of a name amongst friends. Call me Kastya, if you wish.'

'Can you make anything of "Vivienne"?' she asked, with a laugh. 'Not even Tal shortens it.'

He looked thoughtful for a moment, a small smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. 'Would you allow "Nina"?'

'Could I stop you?'

He laughed. 'Probably not. Names are so important, don't you think?' She froze, hearing that: The very words Taliesin had said to her upon their first meeting. Kastchei's expression softened. 'I struck a nerve it seems, I'm sorry.'

'No. It's just... an old memory.'

'This Taliesin of yours?'

She smiled, bringing his face to mind easily. 'Yes.'

'Ah,' he said. Just that, nothing more. He took her arm and walked beside her, almost imperceptibly steering her towards the palace and inside. At the door of her room he kissed her hand and bowed deeply. 'Until tomorrow,' he said, and strode away, leaving her more than a little baffled. However she couldn't help noticing that he bypassed the partly-open door to Alianora's rooms, and instead made his way back downstairs. For a moment she was tempted to follow, but the lateness of the hour and her recent exertions had caught up with her. She yawned deeply and opted for a warm bed instead.

~~~

 

Alianora awoke alone in her bed, though not for the first time. Of late, Kastchei had taken to spending less time with her overall. Avoiding her, she knew. It made life easier, of late, but still, it rankled that the choice had been his, not hers.

What lay between them had never been love, although it had been, for a time, intense. A perfect performance, frequently enjoyable, yet ultimately souless. And yet she missed him, at times. Flesh was after all so demanding, and like everything else, he attended to that task with meticulous efficiency.

She found him eventually, as she might have known she would, in the kennels, grooming the great albino cybrorse that he rode to the Hunt - Sivushka. She contented herself with watching him as he worked, stripped to the waist in total disregard for the chill air of the early morning. Whilst she could never understand his insistence upon performing such menial tasks himself, she could at least appreciate the effect: the rippling play of hard muscle under perfect skin, the way his dark auburn hair, allowed to fall freely, brushed his shoulders. She twisted the serpent bracelet on her arm, for a moment almost regretting her choices. Then he turned, and the moment was gone. There was no emotion in his face or voice when he spoke.

'My queen,' he bowed, low enough to be just this side of perfunctory, yet not quite. Not quite. Yet she did not miss the implied slight.

They knew each other too well.

'You still plan on riding out with our guest?' Alianora asked. She moved aside as Kastchei pushed past her to place the brushes in their rack, casually slung over the bar that blocked the stable door.

'Am I supposed to let her ride out there alone?' he asked. Sivushka swung his quarters into his path, and he slapped the stallion's rump and pushed him back over. 'Or is this sudden concern jealousy?' His hand touched her cheek briefly, almost tenderly. But she met his gaze with her own and saw the flicker of something else in those emerald depths. She pulled away, and saw his brief smile as he turned away from her.

So, he still enjoyed provoking a response? Annoyed, she turned on her heel and walked away.

'Don't wait up,' he called out after her. She could hear the amusement in the tone of his voice. Her shoulders, already tense, stiffened still further. That he found his little stray attractive she could live with. She wouldn't be the first to warm his bed. But that he could still manipulate her so well... That, as it had always been, was unforgivable.

'I won't,' she muttered under her breath. She drew her fur-trimmed cloak closer, even though she didn't feel the cold.

'Aleschka-'

She almost turned then, at his use of the familiar. She could picture him standing there quite clearly in her mind's eye: even down to the look of concern on his normally shuttered face. Almost, but the impulse was fleeting. She straightened her back and walked on, head held high.

She didn't bother to answer Vivienne's smiled "good morning" as the smaller woman passed her.

 

 ~~~

 

Vivienne reined in her mount at the top of the hill, and leaned over its neck, patting it as a pretext while she got her breath back. Ahead of her, she saw Kastchei's steed, black on white against the snow, pause in its gallop, and turn, guided back to her side by its master. All in white, he was: his shirt open to the waist in defiance of the Winter air that held a bitter chill. All in white, but for the boots, which were a polished black, and his coat, which was a deep blue. One of the massive hounds frisked at his feet, and her cybrid steed had to dodge a whipping tail. His hounds were white, almost lost against the snow but for their red eyes and ears: huge cybrid mastiffs the size of a small pony.

'My apology, Lady.' If a man could bow on horseback, he somehow managed it. 'I should remember that few steeds even in my stable can keep pace with Voronushka.' The black cybrid stallion pawed the snow as if recognising his name - and somehow, given the nature of these beasts, it would not surprise her. Cybrids were not engineered to be intelligent as a rule, but this - this was Skazki, once called Breceliande, and the rules were different, here. She detected a more than animal intelligence in the eyes of both pack and steeds, and couldn't shake the feeling that that was exactly the way things were supposed to be, around here. She wouldn't have been surprised to hear the horse talk.

'I needed the rest myself,' she said eventually, still a little breathless. She looked skywards, as the light faded suddenly, a cloud obscuring the sun. More hovered on the horizon, dark and heavy. 'But perhaps we should return?'

'Perhaps.' His smile was amused. 'But your craft lies just over the next rise - you did still wish to see it?' he paused, dramatically poised. 'Or do you fear to be alone with me?'

'A little,' Vivienne replied, caught off guard. Something, a sense honed by years of putting herself in the line of fire, warned her not to lie to this man - she felt that he would see through any subterfuge. But there were ways of avoiding an outright lie.

'You are in no danger from me, Vivienne. You have my word on that.' He offered his hand, the black stallion neatly moving over until it stood flank to flank with her bay mare.

It brought her leg into contact with his, seemingly by chance, and she tried to ignore it. His offered hand took hers, turned it palm upwards, kissed the gloved palm. A simple gesture, but she didn't miss the meaning. The sombre forest green of her cloak flapped against the pristine white of his shirt - and then, like a flurry of snow in a storm, he was gone, riding for the next rise in the landscape, the black stallion plunging through the deep snow, his eerie white hounds baying at its heels.

She followed, at a slower pace, wary of the landscape, and even more so of her situation. She thought of the red-haired woman who ruled this winter world, and shivered. There were many things here to be afraid of, she cautioned herself sternly.

She resisted the temptation to look behind, even knowing that the palace was too far to see. The dromond lay ahead, and with it, perhaps, some answers. If she could only keep Kastchei from looking too closely.

 

~~~

 

The Grey Wolf stared at the stranger for some time after he had finished his peculiar tale. Phoenix pondered the stranger - Taliesin's face as he watched them from his side of the fire, his red hair catching the firelight and seeming to glow in the night. Phoenix could indeed believe that this man came from another world, seeing him thus.

'Your friend,' Volkhvy said, 'is in the Summer Country?'

'Vivienne and I separated - she to speak to those in the southlands, where we detected some traces of civilisation...'

The Grey Wolf snorted, and scratched his nose. 'Heh. Then the Queen of Winter and her lap-dog will have her.' The wolf fixed Taliesin with a piercing stare. 'Beware those who bear the mark of the sleepers, Singer of Songs. And have a care too for the perfidies of female kind.'

Phoenix smiled. 'Maybe I should take care of him, then, Old One?' Taliesin bowed his head, a carefully studied gesture, Phoenix saw. He left the haven of the fire, and stood for a while alone, on the edge of their small camp, staring at the mountains. Volkhvy and the wolf, seasoned travellers of the tundra, ignored him and curled around themselves to sleep. Phoenix, less inclined to such rest, grabbed a srela-fur blanket and wandered over with feigned casualness to the solitary man.

'You are far from home and friends,' Phoenix whispered. 'But I am sure, when our business here is done, the Elders will see you to your quest.'

Phoenix began to place the blanket over his shoulders, but he instead placed it around Phoenix's shoulders. 'I do not feel the cold so much.' His eyes, even in the darkness, Phoenix felt hold hir own. 'Why are you here?'

An owl glided overhead on soft wings, visible against the night sky, white on black. Phoenix shivered at the ill omen. 'For the choosing.' At his puzzled look, Phoenix continued. 'Every generation, one is Chosen from the tribes - the Great Serpent will take those found at the Place of Choosing, and if worthy, they vanish, never to be seen again. It is an honour...'

'A sacrifice,' he said, bluntly.

'It is destiny. None may evade their fate.'

'No fate is irrevocable,' he said, softly. Phoenix could almost feel that he wanted this to be true. Strange man, chasing strange beings to prevent - what? He didn't even know, just followed a riddling message to this place, in search of solutions to questions he didn't even know to ask.

And the questions he did ask led to places Phoenix could not allow him to follow. How to tell him what it was like to be forever the outsider, neither one thing nor another? That maybe in the Choosing there would be a place, or at least, finally, peace.

Instead, Phoenix walked back to the fire, and knelt beside it. Sensing, rather than seeing the bard do likewise. And for a long time, there was silence.

'Can you tell me of the Queen of Winter?' Taliesin asked, softly, eventually. Phoenix placed another chip on the fire and smiled at him. Really, he was rather pretty...

'What would you know?' Phoenix asked, moving to sit beside him. It being a cold night, Phoenix huddled closer to him. He shifted slightly to make room closer to the fire, but did not pull away. 'Would you have me tell of how the mighty sorcerer Kastchei Bes-mertney was born from the egg of a fiery serpent? Of how the Queen of Winter, Alianora Marevna used her arts to ensnare him? I could tell of how Kastchei the Undying challenged the Master of the Hunt in combat, and became Lord of the Summer Country. Ask, and of what I know, hide nothing I will...'

'Tell me,' he asked, staring into Phoenix's eyes. Phoenix blushed, glad that the nearness of the fire would hide it. So, not so naive as thought, then? Phoenix took refuge in the cadence of the tale.

'On the further side of the highest mountains, beyond the forests of ice...' Phoenix began. Taliesin leaned closer, drinking in every word.

 

 ~~~

 

The snows had already covered the dromond in a deep drift. If not for the uncanny tracking abilities of Kastchei's two lymers, they might have ridden straight past it, taking it for another rise in the landscape, that already undulated like a still white sea. Vivienne stared at the twenty foot high drift in dismay, however.

'Should we come back with men and tools?' she asked. Kastchei dismounted, landing so lightly in the snow he left only the slightest trace. He walked to stand in front of the drift, where the larger of the two hounds sniffed and pawed at the snow, before looking up at her master and whining. He ignored the hound, and stretched out his hand.

'There is no need of labour. Winter may still reign, but Summer magics do not fade completely.' She watched as his took a deep breath, the only outward sign of concentration. As he let it out slowly, the snow and ice covering the ship simply melted away, forming a short lived rill that made its way past her feet, and down the larger valley, steaming slightly in the chill air. Where there had been a large drift, the dromond now squatted as they had left it, a big fat bug crouched on ungainly limbs above the frozen ground. Kastchei circled the hollow in which it lay warily.

'Incredible. You say this device is space-capable?'

'Like your hounds and cybrorses, dromonds are mostly organic. I sat through a lecture once on how they can directly manipulate dynamic-field lattices to move between worlds, but don't ask me to explain it - I'm no tech-mage.' Vivienne joined him and then jumped down beside the hatch of the craft. 'I just fly the damn thing.' Her hand traced the rune of opening beside the hatch, and it open slowly, revealing a valve-like structure, currently closed. 'Vivienne of Caer Tagel,' she said sharply. The valve opened, revealing the inner workings of the vessel. 'I'd really prefer to do this alone, if you don't mind?' she asked. Kastchei nodded absently.

'I'll take a look around outside, my dear. If there's any sign of your friend, perhaps the hounds will find it.'

Not wholly believing him, Vivienne ducked inside the vessel, and headed for the control room. The familiar corridor of the ship curved above her head claustrophobically, dead to the touch, instead of humming with life. Her hand left resting on the wall did eventually detect the vessel's pulse, but it was faint. The cybrid was almost completely dormant. She found the same problem in the control room - the sensor arrays and instruments told her nothing. A quick investigation of the cybridised grafts soon found the reason. She struggled out from under the flight controls and looked around the room. The comlink was destroyed, so she had no way of reaching Tal. Worse than that, however, was the damage to the dromond's systems: both the propulsion systems - flight and interstellar - were damaged, and would require cauldron-grown replacements. They were trapped on this world.

But by whom…? Kastchei? Alia? She couldn't tell if the damage was recent, or had been done... She thought of the sudden systems malfunction Tal had reported from the 'thopter, before she'd lost contact. Someone back home? A traitor? Had the Calaitin been aware that they were being followed after all?

 

'Night comes on swift wings, Vivienne, and the storm follows. We must leave.'

Kastchei's voice: deep, husky yet melodic, and holding a genuine concern. She looked up from her study of the broken flight console, and wiped the sticky ichor of its trailing innards off her hands. He was standing behind her, in the doorway of the cockpit.

His gaze held an unbridled curiosity as he stared. 'Come. Not even I can protect you from all of Winter's Night.' His hand was extended, the only brightness in the gathering gloom his pristine white shirt sleeve. With only a slight hesitation she followed him from the craft. She shivered in the sudden gust of cold air - sheltered in the wreckage, she had not felt the full force of Winter. Kastchei threw his coat around her shoulders and drew her close. 'Follow me, the horses are not far. If the storm holds off for just a short while, we can reach one of my hunting lodges before it strikes.'

 

~~~

 

The Queen of Winter glided through the halls of the Summer Palace as if it were her own. Truth be told, she regards it as such - for was it not she who placed this current Lord of Summer in his place?

Alianora had a room, within the sprawl of the summer court: at the top of the eastern tower, overlooking the foothills of the mountains. It was here that she made her way, ignoring the servants who scurried along the labyrinthine corridors. It had been her room for centuries, and she held the only key.

The door opened easily, and she entered, careful to lock the door behind her. This was after all, her place. Not even Kastchei could intrude here.

Especially, she thought, Kastchei.

Ignoring the room's contents, she picked her way to the window, and opened the shutters. Sunlight glinted off the coiled jade eye of the serpent on her wrist, and she toyed with the bracelet idly, staring into the distance. If she'd cared to, she could have used a spell to locate and see Kastchei and the woman.

He grows rebellious, she thought. A hound kept too long on the leash.

Outside the influence of the spell-warmed gardens of the palace, her eyes could see the green shoots of new life peeking through the snow.

 

Summer was coming, finally.

His power will grow, whispered the inner voice. What needs to be done must be done soon.

Soon... She looked around the small room, and bit her lip in nervous anticipation. It must be soon...

Her gaze lingered on the window for a long time, as she stared out onto her realm, lost in thought. Making her decision, she strode briskly to the casement, and flung it open. 'Show me the Master of the Hunt,' she commanded the winds.

Snow whirled and tumbled in front of her, the random flurries beginning to form a recognisable image. She stared into the dancing flakes of snow, a look of irritation marring her normally impassive features.

 

~~~

 

It seemed to Vivienne that the snowstorm grew in intensity as they entered the forest. The snow whipped around her face, lashing her skin with pinpricks of ice. She drew her hand away once expecting to see blood on her gloved fingers. But there was only the fast-melting ice, dripping from the leather. Kastchei, like his hounds, and the cybrorses they both rode, didn't seem to feel the force of the storm at all. He sent her inside the welcome walls of the lodge, whilst he tended the beasts. Grateful for the respite, she didn't argue, and knelt in front of the fire, which looked as though it had burned all day, so warm was the room. It burned more brightly as Kastchei entered, bringing a flurry of snow over the threshold with him, before he could shut the door, closing out the howling winter, and the ever-gathering darkness. The shadows were banished to the corners of the room as he approached, the lights on the wall brightening as a casual gesture of his black-gloved hand waved them to life. The two hounds padded at his feet, claws click-clacking on the wooden floor, before they settled full length in front of the fire, their red eyes glinting almost malevolently in the firelight.

Vivienne unclasped her cloak and draped the heavy fabric over the back of a chair. Water dripped from the slick fabric, pooling on the floor. A shutter banged from somewhere in the lodge, startling her, and she jumped, only to find Kastchei's arms around her. Despite the atrocious weather he'd just ridden through, he was perfectly dry. As she opened her mouth to protest at his embrace, he tightened his grip, and placed a finger lightly on her lips, before bending down and kissing her.

She struggled, alarmed, but her slight frame was no match for the sorcerer's strength. And yet somehow part of her didn't want to fight him...

 

We are watched. Indulge me.

Like a bucket of cold water thrown over her, the shock of the sudden mental contact was enough to pull her senses back from the precipice. She pulled away slightly, until she could see his face. Those bright green eyes held amusement, but no passion. His finger touched his own lips, once again cautioning silence, before reaching out to brush the fabric of her shirt, and trace the length of her throat, her cheek. He pulled her closer again, and this time she allowed the contact, melting into him until his mouth rested next to her ear. 'Will you trust me?'

It wasn't the question she'd been expecting, and one she didn't know how to answer, even as he kissed her again and she twined her arms around his neck, burying her fingers in his dark hair.

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