A Circle of Salt: sample
It seemed like nothing at the time: a simple moment of carelessness. But that single moment led to exile from my homeland, and everything else that came to pass. Great evils may be forgiven because they were done in service of a great end, but the great evils that are done without thought are unforgivable. If one notices that one has done wrong, it may be mended, but what if one cannot see the wrong?
I am Vasilissa, and I am the last true child of the Summer Realm. I have been an exile, a madwoman, a queen, and many other things. I have seen my land destroyed in the fires of the Dragon and lived to see a spring that I feared would never come again.
The Summer Realm goes by many names in the world of men: I have heard it called Avalon, Faerie, Hyperborea, and a host of others. It is a land of vast meadows, perilous mountains, and clear cold rivers. During the spring, the grass was cool and green, and it grew thicker than the most luxurious carpet. The fall was mild and pleasant, with warm days and cool nights. Winter never touched us, except to dust the tops of the mountains with snow. And summer…oh, the summers sometimes lasted a hundred years, with each night more perfect than the last. The days were bright and golden, with the heat of the sun glinting off the rivers, and the leaves almost glowing green. The nights in summer were warm, and we often slept under the stars instead of in our own flowery bowers. Ribbons of colored light streamed down from the north, and covered the sky with luminescence.
Much of what my land is like cannot be told here: there are no words in human language for the worlds beyond Man’s. To men, who could not enter our realm uninvited, the land was harsh, rocky, and bitterly cold. In the far north of their world, it was locked in almost perpetual winter, and the inhabitants had to scramble for a mere existence. I saw them often, when I was young: peasants, working themselves into exhaustion to provide for their children, grubbing a bare existence out of the ground.
I was merely curious about them when I was very young, but as I grew I came to despise them. The sight of their dirt-stained faces, even from a distance, disgusted me. My robes were always clean and bright, and suited to our warm climate, while they bundled themselves in rags and scraps.
Many of us, especially the younger ones, enjoyed playing tricks on them: tugging at their rags when they couldn’t see us, or hiding a sack of grain. Harmless, for the most part—not kind, but harmless. Most grew out of such pranks, and the peasants cursed us for a moment but considered us simply a part of the pattern of life: a nuisance, but little more.
It is so easy, with mostly harmless things, to take them too far. A slip of the tongue, meant in jest, becomes a knife in the heart of a friend. A little rip, left too long, ruins a gown. And a little trick, pushed too hard, destroys a man.
He was beautiful: a peasant boy newly grown to manhood, and hard of body from laboring in the fields. His hair was almost as golden as mine, and he could often be heard singing a tune as he worked. Many of my people would stop to listen as he sang, for his voice almost matched the beauty of our best singers.
I was also young and beautiful, though I had been so for hundreds of years, and would be so for hundreds or thousands more. The confidence that is natural to my kind began to turn to arrogance.
I became more and more daring in my trips into the world of men; I no longer bothered to hide myself, wore my most dazzling gowns, and sang without bothering to glamour it into the sound of bird song. My companions were amused at first, but as I dared more and more, they grew bored with my actions.
One day I walked down by the river, one of the few green spots for versts around. It was spring in the human world, and though the trees and grass were beginning to show green sprouts again, the air was cold and the wind sharp. The young man had come to the river with a barrow, filling it with stones for the repair of a wall.
Even when my kind wear no disguise, we are not easily seen. We are so much a part of the land that we can be indistinguishable from it. But I very much wanted to be seen.
I heard his voice before I saw him. He was singing a song that had no melody, apart from what he chose to give it at any given moment. It was tuneless, but not unpleasant. He came into view through the trees, and began loading the rocks into the barrow. For a moment, he did not notice me, until he saw my wavering reflection in the water of the river.
His song stopped, and he looked up. It must have been the first time he saw a child of the Summer Realm fully; the look on his face was one of sheer astonishment. I let a smile play across my lips and turned back through the woods, throwing him a glance over my shoulder. He was hesitant to follow, but when my song reached him, he stepped forward.
My people have the gift of words: men call it magic, but we have no such term. I wove my words and my will into the song, calling him ever forward, and deepening his enchantment. In an hour’s time, we had come to the stone archway that was the gate into my home; I quickly spoke the words to open the gate, and the rich air of the Realm poured through. I could feel the warm sun, and almost taste the juice of the apples ripening on the trees in the orchards.
I looked back to see what effect the breath of summer had on the young man. The breeze from the orchard ruffled his hair, and I saw his nostrils flare to catch the scent, like a horse near fresh water. His eyes were wide, and full of the light of the summer sun. I stepped through the gate, continuing my song, calling him forward. He paused, glancing over his shoulder to the familiar woods he had come from. I am sure that he had heard the stories all of his life: men and women lured into the Other Realm, and disappearing forever. Such things had not happened in a very long time; but it had happened, and the stories of old women have carried a kernel of the truth down through the years.
I wove the song again, singing of warm nights, sun-ripened fruit ready for the plucking, and a summer that lasted a lifetime. He stepped forward again, slowly at first, but moving more surely until both feet were over the border. He turned to look up at the sun that now shone on his face, bringing color to his wind-nipped cheeks.
He turned to me, as if seeing me for the first time. And truly, it must have been a sight, for I was not only beautiful, but aware of my own beauty. In the years since then, I have learned to appreciate the plain honest faces of the peasant women in the villages, but when I was not so tired of my mirrors as I have become, I despised them for their sun-burned cheeks and roughly plaited hair. I stood before the young man in robes of silk and fine linen, crimson and blue, with gold braided into the garments which gleamed in the sunshine. My hair fell like a shining curtain around my knees, my skin as pale and smooth as milk.
He followed where I led, and we spent the summer in the orchards, listening to the song of the women who sang at the palace, and dancing under the stars at night when the curtains of color were drawn rippling across the sky.
Everywhere I went there were whispers; I could hear them talking about me, and my arrogance in luring my young man into the Summer Realm, but I chose not to listen. I was not the first to do so, and he would have had no such life of ease with his own people. I even persuaded myself that I had done him a grand favor, bringing him out of the hard world of men into such a beautiful place.
But slowly I began to tire of him. He was out of time, out of the rhythm by which our life moved. He began to long for a season other than summer; he only wanted to talk about snow, and the warmth of a fire in a cold cabin, and the winter festivals. He no longer appreciated the taste of the summer fruit or the dances under the stars or the songs of the palace.
Finally, I decided I no longer wished to see him. One day, while walking in the orchard, he began again to speak of the joys of winter, and while he was thus engrossed, I began weaving our path closer and closer to the gate. Then, with a quick push, he was through into the human world; without me at his side, he had no way back to the Summer Realm. For a moment, he looked around in surprise, trying to understand what had happened; he could not see me, though I watched through the gate. Then the cold hit him; it was winter in the world of men, and he was still dressed for summer. He began to shiver and wrapped his arms around himself to keep the cold at bay.
He opened his mouth and began to call for me, but I was no longer listening; my attention had been caught by something in the woods beyond him. At first it was just a sound, much like any other sound in the forest. But in a moment I knew it, for every member of my race knows the sound by heart.
Scrape. Scrape. Brush. Crack. Scrape.
It was the sound of an iron mortar being driven rapidly through the woods, driven onward by a pestle the size of a tree.
The Baba Yaga was coming.
I strengthened the charms holding shut the gate between the worlds, and stepped back quickly so that the grandmother of all witches would not sense my presence. She had never been able to enter our world, but she had tried. She had roamed the forest for time beyond memory, perhaps since the beginning of the world. Some said she was the first wife of the first man, furious that she had been replaced after defying the god who created her. I have no knowledge of these matters, but she was a dark and twisted thing, purely malevolent, with no drop of kindness or compassion in her heart. Though she had never set foot in our Realm, we knew that she might someday find the key to the door, and our happiness would be gone forever. The Baba Yaga brings nothing but death and madness.
I heard the scraping continue faintly through the shielding charm, and held my breath until all was silent again. When I was sure the Baba Yaga was no longer near, I ran quickly back to my own garden, and walked among my flowers until my heart ceased to pound.
It is difficult to be worried for long in the heart of the Summer Realm, and my mind soon returned to its usual calm. But this was not to last.
I woke the next morning, not quite at peace. In my mind, I could still hear the scraping of the Yaga’s pestle, and I went to check the Gate again. The morning was like almost every morning in the Summer Realm: cool, green, the air lightly scented with night-blooming flowers, and dew dripping from every blade of grass.
No-one else was awake yet, and I moved silently through the gardens. I reached the Gate, and reassured myself that all was as it should be. I turned to go, and found my way barred by two tall figures. I knew them instantly, though I had never seen either one.
Tales had been told about the Lawkeepers. They were rarely needed, but when one of our number did some evil or wrong, they would appear, and settle the matter. Their word was irrevocable. I do not know where they come from, or who sends them, but their power to enact their pronouncements has always been inescapable. They wore long robes of crimson, and wings of fire covered their eyes, though they were not blind.
They motioned to me to step through the Gate and though I still feared the Baba Yaga, I obeyed instantly, wondering what had brought them to me. I had wronged none of my people, and I myself had scarcely seen anyone during the summer season, much less caused harm.
My foot touched the cold snows of the human world, and I hoped that the Lawgivers would not take long. My favorite flower vine was blooming and I wished to be back in my own garden soon to pluck a few of the best blossoms.
One of the Lawkeepers pointed a shining hand into the woods and I followed his gesture. There, huddled under a tree, was a pathetic figure. Hunched and grey, it looked like a man, but only just. His arms and legs were gnarled and twisted by age, and there was no light of reason in his eyes. His beard hung low upon his chest, matted with mud, twigs, and saliva. His fingers were rough and the nails looked as though he’d been rooting in the ground for his food.
The eyes, I heard a whisper behind me, look into his eyes, Vasilissa.
I took a step closer and looked into the depths of his madness. And then I saw it. Deep down, past the years and the suffering he had endured, was the remnant of a man, a vigorous young man with eyes as blue as the flowers in my garden.
“But…” I found myself saying, “He was just a young man yesterday. Has so much time passed in one night of the Summer Realm?”
It is not age which has done this to him, one of the Lawkeepers said, though several human years have indeed passed since you cast him from the Realm. When you first found him, he was a man, suited to his own place and time. But after a long summer in the Realm, he grew soft: it is not a place for the children of men to live, and you knew this. Yet you tired of him and cast him out in the middle of winter. More, when you heard the Grandmother of Witches coming, you did nothing to help him but left him to her mercy, and she has none. She took him as her servant for three days and his mind was shattered. His village could not stand his ravings and let him go back out to wander the woods, always looking for the Gate into the eternal warmth that he once knew.
I was repulsed; the handsome young man was entirely replaced by this creature of madness and filth.
This is your doing, daughter of the earth, it continued. You might have had compassion on him and restrained yourself to the pranks and tricks allowed to your kind. You might have had pity on him and returned him to his own world after a single night in yours. You might even have had enough thought to send him back during a more amenable season of his own world, that he might have had time to find his own place again. Barring even that, you might have offered him protection from the Yaga: such is the sort of thing all forms of life owe each other in the face of that which destroys. But you would not lift a finger to do even this.
I felt the biting cold of the human world for the first time as they made their pronouncement.
For this, daughter of the earth, they intoned, raising their hands to lay the doom on me, you are banished from your home. You must learn to live by the labor of your hands, learn what it is to fear cold and starvation and death. You may find your home again when you have learned these things, but not before. Feel cold, feel pain, feel hunger and want. Feel the hard earth beneath your feet.
At that moment, the cold sank deep into my bones, and I cried out in surprise, anger, and pain, dropping to my knees in the snow. When I looked up, they were gone, and I was alone with the madman.
Stumbling, I ran back toward the Gate, but I could not find it. In the clearing where I knew it had stood, I found only a single white tree, barren and dead.
I was overwhelmed by all of the sensations I had never known before: the sharpness of sticks pricking my bare feet, the cold of winter, and the wetness of my gown where I had fallen to my knees in the snow. My mind whirled with confusion, but though I could no longer find the Gate, I could still feel magic deep within me. It came to me with no ease, ripping its way out of my soul, but I summoned it with every ounce of strength I had.
In a moment, I ran from the forest in the form of a horse: a strong, powerful body, fast as the wind. I ran for as long as I could, leaving only a trail of hoof prints behind me.