The Birth of Kastchei the Deathless.

By Helen Fayle

In the days when winters were not so long as they are today, but many years after the stars were moved, it is told that in the far north, when Grandmother Winter had only just taken hold, a fiery serpent streaked across the night sky, shrieking its death-song as it fell. In those days, the northern lands were still free of the glass mountains, and sorcerers in many great cities watched and waited, and plotted. For such a thing would bring great power to those who could control it.

But they laid their plans in vain, for the dragon was found instead by the khoziaika lesa, the Mistress of the Forest, and she had the leshii bring the dying creature to her cottage, deep in the heart of the forest, for hers was the power to command the spirits of the wood and forest, leshii and vili. At her command they brought the wounded dragon to the little spinning hut on hens legs, deep in the forest. Behind the boundary of her realm, her fierce fence of bones and skulls, the little hut spun on its four chicken legs. The leader of the leshii drew himself up to his full height, so that his head brushed the tops of the tallest trees, and he called out:

"Little hut, little hut

Stand the way thy mother placed thee,

Turn thy back to the forest and thy face to me!"

Straight away the hut stopped spinning, and the khoziaika lesa, none other than Baba Yaga herself, called out:

'Who calls, disturbing me at this hour?'

'We do, Great Lady,' said the leader of the leshii. 'We bring the dragon, but we cannot pass the fence of skulls!'

The khoziaika lesa commanded the gates to open, and the leshii brought the dragon to her, and laid it at her feet.

'Ah,' said the Baba Yaga, mostly to herself. 'So rare, very rare for one of your kind to travel so far, these days. Long, long ages have passed since I beheld one of your kind.'

The dragon tapped the floor once, twice, three times, and took the form of a young woman, silver haired, dressed all in blue. She stared up at the crone and begged for help.

'I have nothing to offer for my life,' she said. 'But aid me and should you need it, I will always answer your call' Her words rang with the Song of the Universe, and the Baba smiled to hear its beauty.

'Power enough of my own, I have,' said the Baba Yaga. 'I need not take your life. Indeed, I may not have to.'

For the dragon was fearfully injured, even unto the gates of death.

'What aid I can give, you shall have,' the Baba Yaga told the dragon. And so it was that she tended the wounds, in her way, and the dragon lived, although she was much weakened.

'I will heal, given time, and for that I thank you,' said the woman. 'But there is another, one whom I would have safe, should I prove not to be strong enough for the tasks ahead. And I must leave, for others seek this place, to steal my power whilst I am still helpless.'

With that, she delivered of herself a great egg, the size of a man crouched and curled around himself. Glorious was this egg, its shell marbled with silver, blue gold and green - yet its surface was a black as dark as Night.

'For your song, and for the covenant I keep, it shall be as you say, ' said the Baba. And with that, she tended the dragon's wounds for ninety days and nights, at the end of which the creature departed, never to be seen again.

But the black egg remained, safe in the corner of the Hut on Hens legs, and the Baba watched it, wondering what manner of creature would emerge from its dark beauty. And one day, when she returned from tending her 40 mares, she heard a loud *crack*, as she stirred the day's mash for her steeds. The black egg rocked once-twice-thrice and split asunder, revealing the form of a man.

Tall, he was. Hair the colour of dark red-gold, brushing his bare shoulders. A finely made body, the Baba noted (for not even crones are so old they forget such things!) his form. And his eyes were the glittering green of a serpent's - a sorcerer's eyes. His face was not bearded, but he was neither young nor old.

Many a witch or sorcerer would have been astonished by this, but this was the Mistress of Forests and Dragons, the Keeper of the Golden Book of Fate, and she kept right on stirring, not allowing the meal to burn in the pan.

'Dragon-born or not,' she said rather testily (or so it is told), 'At least put some clothes on, young man!' Somewhat chastened, he obeyed. But in doing so he caught his hand on a nail, and tore the flesh to the bone. Before she could offer to bind the wound, the cut was healed as if it had never been.

Baba Yaga kept right on stirring that pot, as if she had not noticed. But she remembered. Oh yes. She forgets nothing that those sharp eyes see.

'Have you a name?' the Baba asked, once her task was done and the newly-hatched man-creature was more modestly attired, as becomes a young man of breeding.

'Kastchei,' he told her. Well there is a power in names, and he was foolish perhaps to have told her, for it is said that she bound him to her service for one hundred years and a day, for that one lapse.

But that is another story.

© May 2001.


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