The Soldier Who Had No Soul
It all started in 1933, when a Russian witch fell passionately in love with a Yugoslavian member of the people’s army
She had lived for 200 years, but with the age progression of her kind she matched his maturity perfectly.
She found him while she was wandering through the woods looking for mandrake, and she found the shape of his body in the logs downstream. At first she thought he was dead. This didn’t depress her, in fact at first she thought of the possibilities, of what potions she hadn’t made in decades.
But as she reached out to touch him, his eyes burst open.
She found she could not kill him, not least of all because he was possessing of a gun, and cool dark eyes that didn’t dare underestimate her.
With the knowledge that she couldn’t exactly kill him, she took the soldier to her cottage in the woods. She touched him gently, but even as she helped him he never once trusted her. When they reached the house she searched until she found some clothes belonging to her late father.
Although the soldier was freezing, he regarded her with those same cool eyes and said ‘I will not wear them. They may be poisoned.’
Reluctantly she admitted that she had not had the foresight of a visitor and thus had not poisoned them. To prove it she touched it to his fingertips, promising that if it was poisoned she could amputate the finger.
And because he was dying from hypothermia, his lips cracked and bloody, he finally pulled it on.
After a bit of silence she finally managed to get him to reveal that he was an escapee, from a palace in the north of Siberia, where the sun had not shown for 20 years and where the crops had turned coal black. He had been captured in 1914 by a mysterious tsar of snow white eyes and fingertips stained blue with lack of love.
The witch listened, and although she didn’t exactly feel sympathy or a desire to keep him alive, she found herself curious at a man like this; frozen in time like herself. Upon further asking, she quietly realised that he too was frozen in an age that had passed him by, forgotten by anyone who might once have held him dear. Grieved by those who saw not his face.
And thus, when the man stood to make his leave, the witch stepped in front of the door. She didn’t know exactly what possessed her, but she asked for him to stay. He was too sickly to survive the winter, she said. When he gave her a look of suspicion, she said, ‘If I had wanted to kill you I would have’
And so he stayed.
The months passed, and the man’s body returned to him. He had evidently been strong and handsome before the tsar had captured him, and although he held some of it when she’d found him, he had clearly wasted away.
As his strength returned, so did his kindness. He began to trust her. But the witch found herself faced with a quiet unease whenever he talked to her in the quiet voice that sometimes possessed him, a voice that could only belong to the northern parts of the world where sunlight exists only in dreams. Whenever he looked at her with a silence that left the witch feeling odd.
It was on a quiet night that the young witch watched him. As he watched the fire, his voice was as dead and grey as gunpowder. It was when he looked at her that she realised what was wrong with him- he didn’t have a soul.
The witch didn’t know how to deal with this information. She had been on her own for years, had wandered among townships rarely, and had known the animals of the wood like she knew her own name. Still, the lack of soul felt toxic and ugly. She knew that he missed it, but didn’t know if he knew it himself.
Then just as she was beginning to wonder if it even mattered at all, the young soldier, now fit and young and handsome, keeled over into unconsciousness
He didn’t wake up, even after hours passed. The land of the frozen tsar had stolen his soul, but the land had filled that hole with ice and cold as a temporary seal. Now that he was free, the ice had thawed and left behind nothing.
With her friend on the verge of death, the witch found herself unable to stomach the concept of a world without him. Those long forgotten potions seemed now ugly and corrupted, and the witch knew that the only thing she could do was save him. In the dead of night, when the young soldier was tucked beneath the bedsheets, with hot coals burning hopefully by his body-their flame protected by a spell- the witch packed her bags and fled toward the dark.
It had been years since she had entered this world, and the world had long since changed. The hair and skirts were shorter, even in certain places in the countryside. The women were louder, although their hands still carried the weight of work
The witch avoided these women, for once holding a deep fear for that which she didn’t know. Instead she kept her mind on what she had to find. She didn’t stop walking until she reached a river between the towns. Ducked deep between two rocks, she came across a rusalka tucked beneath the river. ‘What are you doing out here, so far from the forest?’ the witch said, recognising her own.
‘I could ask the same of you,’ the rusalka said; gliding a comb of fish bone through her sea of black hair. ‘The men come here wondering at the sight of elusive flesh. You have missed much, my sister of the darker lives’
‘I seek to help a friend of mine. Have you heard the name of the white tsar?’
With that the rusalka’s eyes did change, flickering for a moment into viciousness. ‘What is in your bag, sister?’ the witch’s food was mostly eaten, replaced by only rusk and cheese. Aside from it lay a comb, a stocking and a piece of string. The rusalka took a moment before she smiled, a flash of all her sharp white teeth. ’I will help you, but those of our kind believe in payment. ‘Take the comb into the town and tell them that it is mine. They will know me’
If this were another story, perhaps the witch would have paused in face of the truth she knew. Perhaps she would have found a kinder way, a way of morals. But she was a witch of the darker life, and metal can only bend so far. Indeed, the witch didn’t even hesitate as she led a man from the village back to the place where he would perish. She watched from the woods as the rusalka satisfied her hunger, as she tore the man beneath the lake. She was clean as she worked, sharp gleams of red appearing and then disappearing beneath the riot of the stream
Finally the rusalka appeared, her eyes bright and friendly. ‘I am ready to help you, sister.’ The witch sat beside her kin.
‘Tell me of the white tsar. Tell me how to find him.’
The kindness in the rusalka’s eyes flickered as she thought of all the cold things in the world. ‘The white tsar lives in a country of ice. The crops bloom grey and lifeless. They say the rivers are thick and green with the sorrow of his people. They say he will consume the souls of those he takes into his possession’
‘Please,’ the witch said, ‘Tell me where to find him.’
The rusalka merely smiled sadly. ‘I am sorry, but you know I cannot do that. Travel, my sister, and you will find him’
The witch felt anger in her breast, but knew that she could not argue. These were creatures like her. They lived outside the kindness of our own, in a kindness of their own types of limitations. So the witch carried on. She carried on until she came across a marsh a way out from another small town. She knew before she arrived that she would find one of her own.
She came across a vodyanoi, a man with scales upon his body, his face bloated and frog-like, his hands webbed. But a deep sadness rested in his eyes. ‘Why do you cry, my brother of the waters? Why do you wander so close to those who are unlike us?’
The vodyanoi’s voice came, deep and unpredictable and terrible, ‘I have been alone a long time, my earthen kin. I seek for them and yet they fear me, my bloated face, my wretched hands. I have an empty ache in me, for a companion to keep me happy.’
The witch regarded him sadly. ‘Can you tell me about the white tsar?’
For a moment his sadness seemed to double, and the witch paused at the sharp burst of regret. ‘Open your bag, i will see if you can pay me.’
The witch did so and the creature picked up the single stocking. ‘I will help you, for your payment. Take the stocking to the town, and use it as a leash. Bring me anything, anything as company’
The witch did so, knowing that she could not give him just anything. To her luck, however, she came across an old woman with too many infants to love. She picked one up, and noted that it its lips were blue with cold and its cries quiet with starvation. The witch wrapped the stocking around the child and carried it back to the vodyanoy. The toadman’s eyes did dance with glee as he took the infant to his arms. ‘I cannot thank you enough,’ he said with tears building in his eyes. The witch smiled.
‘Tell me of the white tsar.’ It was enough to dampen his mood.
‘He spreads throughout us all now, that man with hollow chest. I bid, dear witch, follow to the south. Walk until the forest rises in wicked shapes, until the crops are black with grief. That is all I can tell you’
More satisfied than with the rusalka, the witch carried on toward the south, until her feed did near go red with blood. Her heart nearly gave out, until she was stopped by the sound of sobs.
Far out from civilisation, she walked until she came across a leshy, his hulking frame wrought with grief, his once- beautiful hair gone lank and streaked with soot. ‘Tell me why you wander, brother? Why do you cry, my brother and my friend?’
‘The world has stolen my song, sister of the darker life.’ And with that he extended a hand. She noted that his fingers were calloused and hard and nearly grey. ‘I used to summon tears with this.’
‘Do not cry,’ the witch said, ‘I will help you, if you can help me. If you can help me find the white tsar.’
The leshy closed his miserable eyes. ‘Open your bag.’ She did so, knowing there was only one thing in there. He picked up the piece of string. ‘Please,’ he said, his voice a whisper, ‘take this to the township over the next rise. Please give me my song again.’
The witch did so. She went to the township and found the first artisan she could. She had him carve a violin, and weave the string into the frame. She took the instrument back to her large friend. He nearly cried harder, but instead he held out a hand.
‘Please, I need to find the white tsar.’
‘You have given me more than I have ever taken. I cannot grant you every wish, but I will help you as much as I can.’ And with that he lifted the witch in a steady hand, and wandered ’cross the land. His footfall long and the world whipping angrily beneath them, he took them as far as he could go. Until they wandered unmistakably to the kingdom of the white tsar.
The white tsar’s kingdom had many names. Its trees were indeed of ice, and its crops rose high in streaks of grey, but it was not what the witch had imagined. In the years to come, the kingdom would grow many names within itself. It had outgrown some names already. St Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad. One day it would be St Petersburg, again.
The white tsar’s kingdom existed within it all. We cannot outrun the wilderness, nor can we outrun those to whom it belongs. In much the same way of foxes or of birds, the creatures of our fairytales lingered still, linger still, between the space between our eyes. They tuck beneath our noses, sprint beneath our footfall. The kingdom inside the kingdom; the tsar inside the echo. He was as real as you or I, a king of what we long not to acknowledge.
The leshy walked as far as he did dare, but finally it was too much. The witch would have to finish her journey alone. ‘They say there is a beast beneath the palace, guarding all his souls. I am sorry, I can go no further.’
‘Thank you. I can never display my gratitude.’ And so the witch carried on through the streets of St Petersburg or Petrograd or Leningrad. She walked until the icy trees dared freeze her ears, until the grey crops of buildings made her taste ash. But she did find it. Tucked between two buildings, a palace as fine as anything you or i have seen. Its frame was carved in splendid colours; spires of red and doors of green; windowsills of vibrant lilac.
The door opened, and the witch found herself staring at a dead eyed servant. ‘Show me to the tsar.’
He did so. Bigger on the inside, he led her through winding passages to the courtroom of the tsar. The words were true. Sitting on a deep blue throne, the tsar was thin and dry and cold. Even so, she could see his power. ‘I thought you were the white tsar,’ the witch said. ‘Everything here betrays that.’
The tsar lifted his head as though waking from a dream. He was lazy and his body dragged at every movement. ‘I thought the colours would make me happy. I thought those reds and blues would fill me,’ he said with a voice as low as death.
The witch watched him. ‘Sir, I need a place to stay tonight. Will you help me?’
‘What do you have as payment?’ the witch froze. She was quiet with dread, but she opened her bag to reveal only the rusk and cheese.
‘Give them to me,’ the tsar said. His voice sounded old and tired. ‘It will have to do’
So the witch got herself a bed for the night. But the witch didn’t sleep a wink. Indeed, she got up at midnight, and found her way through the palace. Creeping beneath shadow, she didn’t stop searching until she found a stairwell. Praying that it would be the right one, she crept deep into the cavern beneath the world. She found herself in a room as tall as a cathedral. It was elaborately carved, its walls covered in shelves. Most striking, however, was the emptiness, of books or wine or bodies. The only thing was a small rope in the bottom shelf. This was the only place the soul could be. Quietly, the witch started looking through the shelves.
There was a low growl in the hall behind her
The witch whipped around in time to see a shape spool from the shadows of the hallway. Its limbs moved precisely, quietly, but its body filled half the room. The leshy came only to its elbow. Its claws were long and sharp, lizard-like. This shape moved onto the torso of a gargantuan bull, its body thickly muscled. But it was the face that caught her. It was awful and awesome, terrible and sublime. Its mouth possessed a thousand teeth over a blood red tongue. Over its mouth lay over a thousand eyes.
The witch stared, and the beast let out a deafening yell. The cavern released rock from the ceiling, debris falling around her. But the witch could only stare at those thousand eyes. She knew what she was looking at. She knew that the soldier’s soul was in the creature’s eyes.
Then the creature started to run. The room was about the length of five streets, but every step took the creature closer and closer. The witch was pinned, and she looked around her desperately.
Finally she focused on the rope and yanked it from the ground. She climbed up the shelves, praying that they’d hold her weight; that she could get high enough before its awful mouth could find her.
She stopped at the top shelf and waited for the animal. The moment it was beneath her, it started to lift its great body backward onto its haunches; its length easily enough to touch the ceiling.
The only thing the witch could do was fall. And so fall she did. She jumped from the shelf and forced her eyes open as she plummeted toward the creature’s face. A thousand, tens of thousands of eyes watched her as she crashed into the creature’s face and held onto the hairs of its face, barely longer than a teaspoon. She stared into the thousand eyes, and felt the creature start to roar. She forced herself to climb over the creature’s face, looking desperately for the soul that had to belong to her soldier. The creature bucked and shrieked, but finally the witch stopped just over the creature’s nose. She could feel its massive breath against her feet. But it was enough- she was looking into the soldier’s soul.
Although it killed her to leave it, she forced herself to climb back up the angry monster’s face and grip the monster’s neck with her thighs. Then she picked up the rope, tying it into a lasso and throwing the opening wide. She didn’t stop until it passed the creature’s titan head, sliding down its throat. When it finally did, she crept up and tightened the lasso until the creature finally collapsed into unconsciousness
Exhausted and trembling, the witch crept down the monster’s face until she found her soldier’s missing soul. Then she lifted its eyelid, tired and dead, and tore the eye from its socket. And then the next eye. She tore the creature as blind as she could before sliding them into her sack.
As it were, there was no time to waste. By the time she was up the stairs, the palace staff were after her.
The sobs of the tsar echoed through the hall, until she nearly collided with him at the doorway. “Please,” the tsar sobbed a deathly note, “Please. They were going to make me happy.”
The witch wound around him and ran. Behind her she heard the tsar’s sobs turn into sounds of rage. She couldn’t turn and look; she knew that soon the beast would wake. She was nearly at the edge of the town when the beast tore free. She felt it beneath her feet, heard its shriek in the icy air. She heard the splitting of stone and wood as the tsar set him free.
She ran until she left the town, upon which she saw the leshy fast approaching. She gripped onto his pant leg. “Please help me!” the witch gasped, “I will do whatever I can.”
She felt something being thrust into her hand, and she looked to see a string.
“Throw it behind you when you have nothing left.” She began to run again, when she heard the beast roaring behind her. She ran until she thought she could hear its breath tearing through the broken wind. Finally she threw the thread back and heard the beast cry out. She knew then that it wouldn’t hold, that it would tear itself free.
So she ran until she came upon the marshland. She felt the beast break free miles away from her, but what were miles to a vicious need. She found herself tumbling into the vodyanoy’s arms. “Please!” she looked behind her, “The white tsar’s beast seeks me.” She could hear the sound of the vodyanoy’s baby in the background. Resistance trembled in his eyes. “Please,” she gasped one more time and yanked his wrist forward. She slipped a fistful of eyes into his palm. “Keep these and you will never be lonely again.”
Eyes gleaming with gratitude, the vodyanoy handed her the same stocking she had given him. And she was given the same advice; that she should throw it. She ran until she could hear the creature gaining once more, until she could see its reflection in flashes of the water in front of her. Finally she threw the stocking and heard it wrap tightly around the beast’s legs, until it collapsed in a pitiful yell.
The creature was done, but over the wind came the quiet but visceral scream of the white tsar. “They were meant to fill me! THEY WERE MEANT TO BE MINE!” Her stomach dropped as his anger pushed him forward on the northern wind. He raced forward with every step she took.
Finally she ended up at the rusalka’s river, colliding with her sister. “Please help me!” the witch did sob. “Please, I’m begging you to help me! The white tsar is on his way!” The rusalka nearly tore away from her but the witch grabbed for her wrist and poured eyes, poured souls into her hand. “Keep these and you will never be hungry!”
The rusalka only had time to shove the comb into her hand. There would be no throwing this time. The witch ran until the white tsar was above her. Then she heard his body dropping like a stone and his weight sending cataclysms through the world beneath them; throwing her to the ground and sending shockwaves through her body. She looked up, and the tsar was no longer the frail man that had accepted her rusk and cheese in exchange for a bed. He was as tall as a house, his hair white as snow and his fingers stretched into talons.
The witch pulled back as he started to attack her, his nails trying and tearing at her skin. She struck out with her limbs, but it was only when she struck out with the comb that he collapsed above her. She had struck his throat. Terror in her throat, the witch pushed him from her body and watched the white tsar’s body. Its limbs stark and blue. She had run so long already, but she forced herself to stand. She watched him, the steady silence empty and dead around her.
After a millennium the witch finally started to walk home. Finally, she arrived at the house, yanking open the door to her soldier. His lips were blue as ice, even though his body still looked fit. She sat beside him and pulled out of the souls. Then she made a cry, for his eye was not there
Bone-dead, the witch realised that she had to have given it to the rusalka or the vodyanoy. Frozen, she gripped the soldiers face in her hands and started to sob hard. With the tsar dead, the souls would be making their way back. Who knew if the rusalka would have eaten him already.
She leaned her head back and screamed out loud, tearing to her feet and scouring all the potion books, all the chests and all the drawers. It was no use looking for a life potion, as he was not dead. He needed a soul, and there was not a spell for that.
Slowly, the witch collapsed to her knees and started to sob. Steady cries that were near human in nature, broken and wet and messy as the best of us.
Then there was the sound of branches crushing outside. The witch froze, wondering if the beast had not been bound as tightly as she thought, if he was back for his revenge. The witch did the only thing she could and grabbed a poker from the fire, shoving the door open. She paused at the sight of a towering man. It was the leshy, his beard long.
‘I heard you,’ was all he said. The witch collapsed to her knees again, sobbing.
The leshy slowly moved to his own knees. He merely watched her, waiting until she fell silent. ‘Please look at me.’ She looked up and stopped dead. In the centre of his hand lay a single, unmistakable eye. ‘It fell from you while you ran. It was too close to your heart.’ The witch stared as he slipped it into her hands. It looked big, now, compared to on that beast’s face. She hadn’t had time to look at it properly.
Then she reached down and pulled a thread from her skirt, handing it to the leshy. He took it, and although he didn’t thank her his eyes held depths deeper than she’d ever seen. “I don’t want you to keep screaming,” the leshy said, interrupting her gratitude. ‘Now wake him up.’ The witch looked up at him. Then the leshy pressed a gentle kiss to the tip of his fingernail and tapped it to her forehead. ‘Goodbye, my little lonely friend,’ he said. Then he stood up. ‘May we meet again.’ And then he was gone.
The witch didn’t have time to dwell on such a large creature vanishing so effortlessly. She ran into the cottage and opened the soldier’s mouth, shoving the eye under his tongue. Then the witch just watched. The moments ticked by, longer than she had ever felt them. But then, finally, she heard stirring beneath the covers. She opened her eyes and found herself staring into the eyes of her young yugoslav. There was no unease, no quiet in the way he looked at her. And the witch threw herself into her human’s arms. And in that moment, she was human too.
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, rantcaseyWrite a Review