Viktor was hopelessly lost. The wild unblemished contours of snow before his eyes held no beauty. For him it was no more than an endless graveyard where every tree was a black headstone to mark where forgotten fools lay under a white sheet. He saw no delicate hint of mauve in a vista of sparkling diamonds. The sky had no fierce brushstrokes of lavender and violet, no vivid splashes of gold, amber and ruby. He saw only that it was getting late. He saw only the stark black and white of his clearly written fate. A sentence: Viktor of Krasnodar will die.
“You’re nothing but a spineless coward!” He recalled scorning his brother only last night. “Hiding behind your mother’s skirts and calling them robes of wisdom!” But here he was, dragging his lifeless toes through endless snow, thinking he would never chastise Pyotr again.
“But why not just leave her be, up there on the mountain?” Pyotr, with his unrealistic reasoning. He fails to see our responsibilities to our city, our need for complete respect and authority. And witches?! We can’t have some mad old crone holding sway over us! We are not free whilst a sword hangs over Krasnodar.
“But has she threatened to use it?” Pyotr’s endless questions! Always trying to avoid taking the necessary action. The notices had already been publicly posted in the province, and she had not complied. She had ignored the call for the immediate surrender of arms.
“Perhaps she has simply not seen them. I mean, who has ever seen the old woman?”
But he had heard enough. “Ignorance, Pyotr, is no excuse. My decision is made.” A cloud of fine dusty snow whipped around him as he staggered in the twilight.
“But our bravest men have climbed that mountain never to return.” Pyotr bleating on and on and on, when that was the very reason the old witch must be dealt with.
“The power to end all wars!” That was her legend. Whatever this weapon was, Viktor would have it.
But the sun was almost gone. It was too late to turn back now. Perhaps Viktor should have considered that when his horse fell from under him. His best mare! And then to come out here on foot! What madness drove him on? If he did not find shelter soon, the night would not be kind to him.
But then his heart jolted! Someone up ahead! A hooded figure, a strange hairy grey shape, making it’s way along the edge of the rise with a long wooden staff. It must be her! It must! And now he surely had her! His toil had paid off, as hard work always does! To Viktor, the spoils!
He quickened his pace, hoping the snow hushed his footsteps, desperately trying not to huff and puff loudly, as his clumsy, lifeless feet clambered after her. He was in luck! The deaf old hag was completely oblivious to him! He reached out to grab her hood and felt the sudden crack of the wooden staff at his temple.
His legs danced a schottische as snowflakes turned to stars. He staggered, slipped and tumbled. The world spun as he rolled into the blurred black trees below. The rugged body of a surly old pine came up hard against him, and the mountain steadied itself and was silent. Viktor tried to right himself. He flailed his arms clumsily at the bruised sky. And then he settled where he lay. He no longer felt cold. He felt a little sleepy. The sky was becoming quite dark at last, the land fell into muted shadows, and he could rest.
Viktor awoke to the cheery crackle of burning logs, the comforting smell of a stew cooking. He yawned and stretched, and opened his eyes to the primitively carved pine of a wall mere inches from his nose. He ran his fingers over the coarse woodgrain, then glanced up and saw a row of goat bells hanging along the wall.
He turned in the narrow bed to face the room, saw a black pot steaming over the fire, the golden glow warming the simple wooden furniture which sat in the dull blue light from a window of irregular pieces of glass. Just the one window, just the one door. A pair of wooden plates and bowls were set at the bare table. He saw his clothes hung to dry above the fire. He ran his hand under the blankets and down his naked body. Who undressed me?
He heard boots stamping off snow at the door, and a young woman, with coal black hair and skin so fair, entered with the sun, wrapped in a grey goathair cloak. Was that floating dust catching the light, or frost dancing around her?
She smiled warmly at him. “Ah, you’re awake.” She shook off her coarse, hairy cloak and let loose her raven hair. “Would you like something to eat?”
Viktor’s eyes wolfed her down greedily.
“You certainly look more lively! What big eyes you have,” said the girl. “How are your ears?” She came over to the bed and inspected them with her hands. “I thought the frost must have bitten them terribly.” She watched him study her breasts as she leaned over him. “They’re a bit hard nipped, but they’ll soon warm up.”
Viktor grinned carnivorously at her.
“My, what teeth you have! You look ravenous!” said the girl, her eyes as big as dinner plates. “Well you won’t have to wait long. I’m just about ready to eat!”
Viktor grabbed her wrist and she flinched. He held firm as she struggled to draw away, and he pulled her hand to his mouth. He looked into her silver blue eyes and kissed her palm tenderly. She stopped struggling, and he released his hold on her.
“You seem to have got your strength back,” she said, rubbing at her wrist. “After you’ve eaten, you need to leave my mountain. Do you understand me? Can you talk?”
Viktor licked his lips. “I understand you perfectly.” His eyes were galloping wildly across her meadowlands.
The girl leant over to take the pot from the hearth, and Viktor felt the mountain’s forests ablaze. Thrilled at his own nakedness, he threw aside the blankets and grasped at her hips, pulling her forcefully back onto him.
She did not resist as he clawed at her skirts. She fell limp, a stringless puppet. He rolled her onto her belly underneath him and flung up her skirts. And then he was on all fours above her. He breathed up close to her ear and whispered darkly, “Baaa!”
Viktor froze as the girl slowly turned to face him. He cleared his throat and looked down at the supine girl beneath him. “Baaa!” he cried. “Baaa!” Her wintry eyes were ablaze with scorn. He tried to push her away, but his little hooves were caught up in skirt and blanket.
She tucked her knees to her chest, pressed her goatskin boots into his woolly belly, and kicked him off the bed. He tumbled onto the floor, then sprang away from her onto the chair. Then he was up and trip-trapping around on the table, bleating madly and clattering about the wooden bowls and plates. “Baaa!” he said, “Baaa!” then sprang from the table and ran round the room three times. He headbutted the door, “Baaa!” then did it again.
The girl raised herself from the bed and straightened her skirts. She unhooked a bell from above her bed and hung it around his hairy neck. When she opened the door he darted out, and there he saw a vast herd of goats stood facing him.
When Pyotr set out into the mountains he held little hope of finding Viktor, but two powerful motives compelled him. He wished for his mother to stop fretting and crying, and he wished to avoid inheriting any civic responsibilities that his brother would be far happier with. It was not that Pyotr shied from hard work. He just had no ambition to influence others, no appetite for conflict. He was considered unambitious but, to him, these were the habits of the workshy.
The weather was bitterly cold when he saddled his horse at first light. The low sun behind him, Pyotr followed his long shadow across the frozen plain, listening to the soft crunch of the frosty grass under his mare’s steady advance. The white capped mountain which claimed so many souls looked proud and majestic against the pale pink clouds. For much of the morning it kept aloof from Pyotr, and he was much relieved when he arrived at the cabin of a small farm in the foothills.
He offered the couple who lived there money for a warm meal and the hire of a mule. They gave Pyotr the meal freely, but would not part with the mule for any money. “You are unlikely to return from the mountain,” they said, “and we need the mule to work.” When Pyotr offered them his fine horse as a trade, they graciously conceded to his offer, and joyfully packed the mule with all the supplies he might need. They also hung various charms of twigs and bones around the mule’s neck.
“Do be careful,” his mother had begged him, “the old witch has taken generations of brave men. It seems all the constant wars were not enough for her. When the wars were over she had to keep claiming our menfolk. And now – oh, Pyotr, I can’t bear to lose you too!”
Pyotr mounted the hill which led into the forest and up onto the snowy mountain, struggling in the face of an angry whipping sleet, but the mule was the sturdiest beast he had ever known, and he drew great hope from it’s strength and resilience.
“Viktor was so headstrong and determined, just like all the rest. Never settled. I suppose he was as doomed as those before him on that cursed mountain,” and yet his mother could not help but blame herself.
In the high forest, the snow fattened up and engaged a merry dance as Pyotr and the mule pressed on. The tall trees, in their white coats, looked down on Pyotr as he wondered if there really were a witch at all, or if the mountain was just littered with the bones of deluded fools. Perhaps some uncharted ravine swallowed every one of them whole. This snow might settle smoothly over any hidden hazard. But the mule showed no fear, and from this Pyotr drew courage, and they pressed on along a rocky ridge. But the mountain seemed to hear Pyotr’s thoughts. The mule slipped in loose snow and the ground fell from under them.
The mule skipped confidently onto firmer ground. Pyotr clung to it’s neck grimly. Below him, he saw a petrified tree root ball, black and wet, turning slowly in the tumbling snow. He watched as it became the belly and legs of his brother’s horse.
Pyotr looked down at the horse’s twisted frozen limbs protruding from the broken snow and he said a prayer. If this is where Viktor fell, then he was surely dead, frozen in a shallow grave.
Pyotr cast his eyes around him for some sign of his brother. The way ahead was an unmade bed of snow on snow on snow, undisturbed by foot or hoof or claw. He considered turning back, but found he could not – there was still plenty of daylight to continue his search. And then Pyotr thought of his return journey home. Snowfall might again cover this hazard before he came back this way. He took out his knife to make a mark on the nearest tree, but already found one there. A large V recently cut into the bark, with big proud serifs, like a Roman numeral. Then Viktor might still be alive! Pyotr forged on with new hope.
As the two climbed higher, the weather danced itself out until, in the thick of the tall pines, there fell only a delicate dream of glittering frost. It was then that Pyotr saw, through the trees, his brother’s hand in the snow ahead.
He scrambled to the spot only to find it was not his brother’s hand at all. He looked down upon the figure of a beautiful young woman in a peasant dress, covered in a thin dusting of snow. She looked lifeless, but she could not have been lying there long.
Pyotr could see no blood, and no tracks of wolves. He knelt by the girl and studied her. Her raven hair in full flight across the snow. The long shadows her eyelashes drew upon her pale cheeks. Her blue lips awaiting a prince’s kiss to stir her into life.
He placed his hand on her belly but, if she was breathing, it was too shallow to detect through her clothes. He felt for a pulse at her neck, but his fingers were too numb to sense anything. Perhaps a kiss would awaken her.
He leaned in closer to her innocent face, until he could smell her skin, her hair – delicate hints of edelweiss and woodsmoke and goat. Her lips, pinched with cold, we’re still plump and welcoming. Lips parted, he fell towards her, then stopped short. ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ he thought. ‘This isn’t a fairytale!’
Her eyes opened.
“Oh,” she gasped. “What are you doing?”
He recoiled. “Ah. I – I thought you were dead!”
“And you have a thing for making out with corpses?” She propped herself up on her elbows.
“Well – I’d not really -”
“- stopped to consider it before?” Her eyebrows arched at him. “Well, at least while I’m breathing I’m safe!” She shook the snow from her hair.
“No! Not at all!”
“I’m not safe?” She mocked him with a fearful sideways look.
“No, you’re not. In these mountains lives an old witch. She never lets anyone return home.”
“On this mountain?” She glanced about her and shivered. Her teeth chattered.
“You’re cold. We need to get you warm!” Pyotr wrapped her up in his coat.
“I live just over the rise.”
“Can you walk?” Pyotr offered her his hand and helped her to her feet.
“I think I’ll be okay,” she said, wiping her cold hands over her wet face.
They were soon in the shelter of her little rough hewn cabin. Pyotr sat the girl down on her bed. He poked the embers in the hearth, cooed and coaxed until a little flame answered him. “You live out here all by yourself?” He lit a stick of straw and he took it to a lantern hooked on the roofbeam.
“You see more stars up here,” she said.
“I came looking for my brother.” Pyotr set the lamp aglow and cast his eyes about the cabin as the shadows retreated. “He came up the mountain in search of the old witch.”
“Did he find her?” the girl picked a little twig from her clothes.
“I don’t know. I came searching when he didn’t return. He’s probably back in Krasnodar right now, toasting his big feet by the fire.” Pyotr returned to the hearth and started some kindling burning.
“Krasnodar? That’s a fair trek,” said she.
“Apparently, she has a weapon. To end all wars, or so they say.”
“That sounds terrifying. What kind of a weapon?”
“Nobody seems to know. She was ordered to surrender it to the proper authorities. But nobody has ever seen her, and nobody knows what the weapon is. Have you ever seen her?” Pyotr watched the girl pick at the bark of the twig, then continued to build up the fire. “You’ve not seen her?”
“Who?” said the girl.
“The old witch,” said Pyotr. He rose and went to the window to look at the weather.
“I can’t say I have.” The girl was stripping the twig into strands.
Then Pyotr noticed the windowsill was lined with a collection of beautiful ornate snuffboxes. “You’ve never seen men come by?”
“This is a big mountain.” She threw the twig into the hearth.
Pyotr picked up a silver snuffbox and traced his fingers over two delicately engraved birds. He opened the lid and it began to play a tune. It was not a local melody, but it was familiar to him. From behind him on the bed, the girl began to sing.
“Take me in the meadow
Take me on the mountain
Take me for your true love
On the mountain
On the mountain”
Pyotr remembered the second verse…
“I see you a wagtail
You see me a starling
We gaily sing together
Be my darling
Be my darling”
He turned to her, and she took the final verse.
“Skip me ‘cross a river
Make a wish forever
Take me for your true love
In the heather
In the heather.”
The girl stared into the dancing flames. “You’re not like the others.”
“The others?” Pyotr snapped closed the snuffbox. He came closer to the fire and perched himself back against the table.
“Other men, I mean.” She played with the hem of her dress at her knee.
“Oh, I don’t know. Men are much the same all over, I expect. We’re all cut from the same wood. We are all diplomats these days!”
“And carpenters. There’s been no war in my lifetime. We have an army, but it’s mostly conscripts. After parade drills and such, they mainly sit around carving toy soldiers for the orphanage.”
“But all I’ve met are brutes! My mother said the wars would never end! They just keep coming!”
The girl sobbed and she shook, and glistening sleety tears fell upon her skirts. Poor Pyotr’s heart was broken. “Whatever is the matter?” He took her sad little face in his hands and kissed her forehead. And then he kissed her sparkling wet cheeks.
“Get off me!” she pushed at him violently. “Get away! Get away!”
Pyotr jumped back from the bed. “What have I done?!”
“You haven’t done anything!”
“Did I say something wrong?”
“That’s the problem – you haven’t done anything wrong!” she sobbed.
“Then why did you push me away?” For the first time in his life, Pyotr felt desperately alone.
“Because you’re sweet and kind and tender and I don’t want to hurt you!”
Pyotr’s eyes were so full of tears they swelled at the brim.
“Go,” she said. “Please go.”
Pyotr stepped towards her. “But – ”
“GO!” she roared, and the mountain rumbled.
Pyotr froze in his boots and still somehow found himself at the door.
“No, wait!” She dried her tears and smeared the sleet down her dress. “There is something you came for, and I mean for you to have it.” She took a length of rope from behind the door and led him outside to an enclosure where a very large herd of goats stood. She walked amongst them and picked the one that was headbutting a tree trunk. She tied the rope around the goat’s neck and handed it to Pyotr.
Pyotr looked down at the hairy animal. “But what is this?!”
“I don’t understand.” Pyotr took a closer look at the goat.
“I am your old witch of the mountain.” She studied Pyotr’s dumbstruck face. “Through countless wars the soldiers took our land, and the soldiers took our bodies, and the soldiers took our souls – my mother’s, my grandmother’s. I am not old. I am the clearly the same age as you. I am no witch! This is no weapon – I live with a curse! Handed down through generations of war! From my mother and hers.”
“And these goats are all -?”
“Your kinsmen. Proud warriors from your village, your town, your city. And you must go.”
“Won’t you come with me? Make an end to this curse?” Pyotr had no idea how to break a curse, but hope was speaking for him.
“And how do you propose that? I’m sure your townsfolk would accept me warmly!” she laughed scornfully.
“They would have to. You would be mine.”
She eyed him with suspicion.
“Or let me stay here with you,” said Pyotr. “We could build a home for two – with room for a couple of kids.”
“I don’t think I’d like you very much as a goat. You’re really not the goat type.” She looked away at the late afternoon sun. “You still have light. Please go.”
“I don’t know your name. Mine’s Pyotr.”
“Mine is Katerina.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Goodbye, Pyotr.”
Katerina slowly stepped back into her little house and closed the door. She ran to the bed and flung herself down and sorrow poured down her face.
When Pyotr arrived home, he made his brother comfortable in the stables. He did not tell his story to anyone. It was assumed that Pyotr had failed, that he had not gone up the mountain. His mother was relieved to have him back, but was also a little disappointed in him. Though they would not say it to his face, the townsfolk believed him to be a coward.
Pyotr was so broken-hearted that folk hardly ever saw him, and assumed he was hiding in shame.
Then, one bright blue morning, a dull roll of thunder was heard. People on their way to church stopped in the street and looked at the big open sky. There was not the ghost of a cloud. But the thunder did not cease. It kept grumbling louder and louder. Eyes asked questions of other eyes, but nobody spoke. Every ear was keened to the loudening rumble. And then a shiver of panic struck every heart. A stampede was almost upon them. But from where?! Everybody was on their way to church!
The people took refuge in shop, house, tavern and chapel as the roar brought a thousand goats hurtling into the city. The goats gathered in the town square and all the adjoining streets. They chewed at municipal lawns and window boxes and entertained themselves clambering on walls and window sills and headbutting trees. And then The Witch Of Krasnodar appeared in the square and announced herself. “I am come for Pyotr!”
The townsfolk opened their doors and windows. Some tentatively stepped out of their homes, and more people nervously followed them. Then Pyotr stepped into the square, and all eyes turned to him.
He saw before him not the tearful peasant girl who fled into her little house. Here was the Imperial Commander of a great goat army, regal in her goathair cloak, her black hair adorned with birch twigs and winter berries, her face radiant as snow. In one hand, her wooden staff of office, in the other a little wooden cage.
He pushed his way through endless woolly bodies towards her, and his heart braced and kicked and pulled at the bridle. Every step settled on uncertain ground towards his unknown fate. He stopped three goat lengths from her.
“Katerina,” he breathed.
“Pyotr,” her eyes of frozen lake, her smile of rowan berry, her voice of frozen teardrops falling on stone.
She stepped close to him. She handed him the staff and placed the little cage on the ground. She took his face warmly in her soft white cashmere mittens. She studied the constellations of freckles on his nose, the aurora of his green eyes, the red evening glow of his hair. Pyotr watched her eyes once again glitter with watery pearls afloat with tiny frozen shards. She nodded at him and smiled her rowan smile. He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed the breath from her. Her feet left the ground and she gasped and laughed and struggled playfully in his arms. Then she stopped, and looked him in the eyes. “I have something for you,” she whispered.
Pyotr nodded and set her back down. She picked up the little cage and held it before Pyotr and said, “Open it.”
Pyotr undid the tiny catch and out flew a little wagtail and a starling. Pyotr and Katerina watched as the little birds twirled about in the air, gaily singing, and disappeared into the blue sky. Pyotr took Katerina’s hand in his, their fingers entwined, and he raised them aloft. “There will be a wedding!” announced Pyotr to all assembled.
Katerina smiled at him, then spoke to the crowd. “Fire up your ovens! I bring you a feast!”
Pyotr turned to Katerina and spoke low.
“But, Katerina! These are my kinsmen!”
“And one of them is my father,” said Katerina. “But my lands were taken. I have no dowry. I have nothing else to bring!”
“Could you not change them back into men?”
“Pyotr, could they undo all the harm they have done?” There was only the slightest breeze of frostiness in her reply.
“No. But you could – couldn’t you?”
“Shhh, Pyotr,” she smiled, and she kissed him.