It was late in the night and Mor knew she was going to get scolded by her nanny, the old woman called Viera, but she couldn’t resist sneaking out of her room and into the neatly trimmed palace gardens. Not that there was something to see in the gardens. It was winter and there was no enchanting flowers left in the gardens, the leaves have fallen and the tree branches were left barren, almost dead. There was really nothing to admire. Everything was, as Mor’s older sister Vesna liked to say, dead and ugly. Winter never brought anything good.
But Mor disagreed. Because right now, as she ran barefoot over the frozen dirt, she couldn’t hide the smile from her face as she looked up and opened her mouth, catching snowflakes with her tongue. It was snowing!
No one was as excited for the first snowfall as Mor. Actually, everyone complained about it. Her older brother, Dazh, complained he couldn’t do his combat training outside due to the heavy snow and cold. Vesna hated winter in general, claiming everything was dead and wet and cold. She longed for the spring to come and bring the first warm sunrays and colourful flowers. And Leila, Mor’s younger sister, was just a child who impersonated their older sister in everything, and with that, she detested the cold as well.
Mor loved it. She loved how the cold would make her pale cheeks rosy with colour. She loved the white snowflakes in her black, raven hair. She loved the winter and how everything seemed to slow down and rest. Flowers, trees, animals, even people. The days were shorter and nights were longer and somehow everything seemed more mysterious. But once the snow fell, it would illuminate everything, revealing everyone’s secrets. You couldn’t hide your tracks in the white, crispy snow.
Her happiness didn’t last long because as she predicted, her nanny Viera soon followed the little girl, bundled up in her usual coats and scarfs, a cane in her right hand and a scowl on her face.
“Morana Balmont,” the old woman puffed. “If I freeze to death chasing you around, you will have me on your conscious!”
“But it is snowing, Viera!” Mor said spreading her thin arms around and looking at the sky. She closed her eyes and spun around happily, her pale skin glimmering like silver in the dark night. Viera leaned against the wooden cane and observed the girl.
Morana was a reckless child. Not anything like her siblings. She was intelligent but could never focus on her studies. She was graceful, even as a twelve year old child, but she never cared about manners. She enjoyed books, fairytales, legends and stories of great heroes, but she was bored with poetry or handwork or anything else a young lady should be acquainted with if she was to be married one day. She enjoyed music and dancing but she couldn’t sit still through her piano and harp lessons.
Morana’s father, king Swarzen, often worried about his daughter. He loved her, adored her actually, probably more than his other daughters, Vesna and Leila, but he worried none the less. He thought he failed her as a father. He was much stricter with his other children, but with Morana, he could never be firm enough. She reminded him so much of her mother, his late wife, Lada. Lada died shortly after giving birth to their youngest daughter, Leila. She was always a frail woman. A happy and cheerful one, but also constantly sick. Having birthed four children, she exhausted herself, and the fire of her life burned out.
The king loved his wife very much and he never sought to get married again. He promised his wife to be a good man and a good king to his people and a good father to his children. And gods be his witnesses, he tried. He had watched his children grow up with pride.
Dazh was a fine young man of seventeen years, kind to his people and a great warrior and protector of his kingdom. He was going to make a fine king when his time comes. Vesna was fifteen and she was a perfect young woman with many courtiers across the seven kingdoms begging for her hand. Both her, and her younger sister, Leila, inherited their father’s light blond hair, vibrant green eyes and skin prone to tanning in the sun. Leila impersonated her older sister in everything, and just like Vesna, she was turning into quiet a respectable young lady, even though she was only nine years old.
But Morana… She was the spitting image of her mother. She wasn’t pretty in a classical, fair goddess kind of way, like her sisters. She was absolutely beautiful, even now at the age of twelve, with her fair skin, sharp cheekbones, red lips and long dark, almost black, hair. Perhaps because she took after her mother, the king always favoured her amongst his children. He knew she never liked standing still in her lessons in music, poetry and handwork, so he looked the other way when the tutors complained about the young princess. But he was worried now. Wasn’t his duty as a father to raise a young woman who would catch an eye of a wealthy suitor, a prince perhaps? And everyone knew, gods helped him, that no man wanted a woman who was more intelligent than him, who asked all the right questions, who could hold her own in a discussion. And Morana was all that and more and her father feared what would come in a few years when she would be of age to get married.
Viera understood king Swarzen’s worries. She sometimes shared those concerns. But as she stood in the middle of the royal gardens, freezing to death and watching the little raven haired girl laugh and dance as the first winter snow covered the grounds, a sudden feeling of calm washed over her. No, Morana wasn’t a typical princess. Everything about her, her looks, her intelligence and her wit, was so much more different than any other girl her age. But the girl was strong. The girl was powerful. The girl was focused. And when Mor opened her dark eyes to look at Viera, a smile forming on her face, Viera knew that this girl was meant to be more than just a pretty little princess.
“Will you hold still, you absolute insufferable child?” Viera cried out loud as she tried to get Mor to sit still while the old lady was trying to tame the girl’s long raven hair into something decent for the wedding.
“It is too hot!” Mor complained loudly again, trying to open the large window in her bedroom and let the air in.
“Ne!” Viera smacked her little hands when Mor reached towards the window. “Propuh!” Viera cried out loudly combing through Mor’s shiny hair. “The draft will kill us all!”
Mor rolled her eyes at her nanny’s words. “A little bit of fresh air won’t kill us.” She protested as Viera started twisting her hair into an elegant braid on top of her head.
“When you get as old as I am, you will eat those words.” The old woman said and Mor turneds to look at her, furrowing her brows.
“How old are you exactly, Viera?” she asked and Viera turned her head back around annoyingly, continuing to do her hair.
“Old enough to know that the draft will kill you!” she said grumpily and Mor rolled her eyes again.
“But really, Viera,” she started stubbornly. “When were you born? And where? I have known you my whole life and you never once mentioned it.”
The old lady chuckled and shook her head. “I am old. Too old.” She said with a small smile. “That’s all you need to know.”
“But-“ Mor started to turn her head again and Viera once again forced her to look straight ahead so she could finish doing her hair.
“Stop with the questions girl, or I will never finish your hair in time for your sister’s wedding!” she said and Mor gave up with the questions. For now. But she was curious about Viera.
Viera was her mother’s nanny before she was Mor’s. And when her mother married king Swarzen, Viera came to live here at the palace as well. Her mother was born as the second daughter of the duke and duchess of Novak, on the south of the kingdom of Vyraj, her father’s kingdom. No one expected for the youngest daughter of the duke to catch the eye of a king, but when Mor’s mother and father met, they instantly fell in love. Viera always described the story as sudbina, destiny. And the story really was something from a fairytale.
Twenty years ago, Swarzen, who was but a prince at a time, was travelling the kingdom, getting to know the land and the people before he inherited the crown. He was passing through the duchy of Novak where he was supposed to be staying with the duke and duchess who were preparing their oldest daughter to impress the prince, and maybe, if they were lucky enough, marry him.
Lada was supposed to be helping her sister with the preparations, but her sister was so annoying, Lada snuck out of the mansion, grabbed her favourite horse from the stables and went for a run in the woods. As fortune would have it, or sudbina like Viera claimed, Lada’s horse was spooked by a snake in the woods, throwing her off of him. But just in that moment, prince Swarzen of Vyraj was passing through these parts and saved the poor maiden. It was love at first sight. Not a month later, the happy couple got married. Lada moved to the palace and Viera with her. She took care of her through her first two pregnancies and then, when the third child was born, an unusually quiet, raven haired baby girl, Viera asked to be the girl’s nanny.
Mor often asked her mother about Viera. How old was she? Where did she come from? But Lada never knew the answer herself, or if she did, she never told her daughter. She only said Viera has been with her all her life, looking like she does today, an old woman with a sharp tongue and enormous heart.
“There!” Viera said proudly, finishing Mor’s hair. She picked up the mirror and put it in front of the little girl. “You look beautiful. If it wasn’t your sister who was getting married, all eyes would be on you.”
Mor rolled her eyes in annoyance. “All eyes are always on Vesna.” Or Leila, as a matter of fact. Never on Mor.
“Don’t be jealous of your sister!” Viera scolded her. “When you get married one of these days, all eyes will be on you.”
“Urgh, I don’t want to be married.” Mor protested. “Especially not to a man like prince Casimir.”
“Prince Casimir is a great man. He will inherit his father’s throne and become the king of Lukomorye.” Viera explained wisely. “Your sister will be a queen one day. You should be happy for her.”
“I am happy for her.” Mor said turning to look at her nanny. “But Prince Casimir is still a-“
“A what?” Viera challenged, with her hands on her hips and Mor grinned at her teasingly.
“A krelac.” She said and Viera couldn’t help but laugh. He was an idiot. The word krelac was a word Viera often used. And although it was an insult, Viera had to admit the girl was right. Prince Casimir was a bit on the slow side, completely disinterested in all things in life, except for hunting and drinking. But he was a good match for Vesna. And more importantly, a good match for Vyraj. The marriage between Casimir and Vesna meant an alliance between the two kingdoms.
“You’re too smart for your own good, you know that?” Viera said gently to the little girl and Mor shrugged.
“So you keep telling me.”
“You do know that marriages between princes and princesses usually aren’t based on love?” Viera said as she headed towards the closet to bring a dress out for Mor.
“Mother and father married for love.” Mor pointed out and Viera nodded.
“They were one of the lucky ones.” She said with a small smile as she picked out the rich purple gown for Mor and laid it carefully on the bed. “But your mother was still a duke’s daughter. The marriage to your father has brought her family a lot of advantage. That is why nobles get married. To form alliances and bonds.”
“Isn’t it sad that we can have everything we want in this world, but we can’t have love?” Mor asked wisely and Viera looked at her.
“And who says you won’t have love?” she asked with a smile. “Maybe you’ll meet a prince or a king someday and you will fall madly in love with him and be his queen.”
“I don’t know if I want to be a queen.” Mor said picking up the mirror and checking her hair again.
“Every girl wants to be a queen.” Viera said and Mor shrugged.
“I don’t know.” She shrugged again. “It seems like a lot of work. Planning balls, buying dresses, handling the palace staff. It seems boring.”
Viera looked at the girl and sighed. She grabbed her cane and slowly approached Mor. She gently took the mirror away from her forcing Mor to look at her nanny.
“That is not all that queens do.” She protested and Mor rolled her eyes.
“Vesna brags about how she will do all that.” She pointed out and Viera smiled and gently patted the girl’s pale cheeks.
“Yes, queens do plan balls. Queens try out dresses and dance all night.” She nodded and then looked sternly at the girl with her misty grey eyes. “But queens can also fight. Queens can rule. Queens can be stronger than kings.”
“They can?” Mor asked and Viera picked up the mirror again and put it in front of the little girl.
“You look at that young woman in here and tell me she was made just for dancing and giving birth to children.” She said and Mor smiled widely looking at her reflection.
“No.” Viera said with a nod. “You are made for more, girl. If you’re a farmer’s wife or a queen, you will be something more. You will shatter worlds.”
“You make me sound like a destroyer.” Mor said, smile vanishing from her face.
“You have to destroy to create something better.” Viera concluded and turned around. “Now, come on! We have to get you dressed! We still have to help your sister get ready for her wedding and her wedding night.”
“What happens in a wedding night?” Mor asked curiously and Viera smacked her hands again.
“That’s none of your concern!”
“Ouch!” Mor said rubbing her fingers painfully. “But how will I know when I get married?”
“All in right time, you curious little beast!”
“Does that have something to do with how babies are made?” Mor asked with a sly smile as she got up from her chair and Viera lightly smacked her with a cane.
“You shouldn’t be asking those kinds of questions!” she scolded her. “It’s inappropriate!”
“Keep your secrets, Viera!” Mor said mischievously. “I will find the answers on my own!”
“I bet you will, you little Vila!”
“Vila?” Mor asked with a smile. “Are you saying I’m delightful like a fairy?”
“Fairies can be twisted and dark and mischievous!” Viera pointed out. “They can wreck and cause havoc.” She said and then added with a smile of her own. “Just like you!”
“Then it’s a good thing fairies don’t exist!”
“And who told you that?” Viera asked as Mor took off her sleeping gown and put on the purple one for the wedding.
“Magic isn’t real, everyone knows that.” Mor rolled her eyes and Viera smiled as she put the dress over Mor’s head, careful not to ruin her hair.
“Magic is real, little girl.” She said with a mischievous smile. “It’s just hiding.”
Mor was used to Viera’s cryptic sentences and old people banter, so she just nodded at her words and patiently stood still while Viera expertly handled the ties on the back of her dress.
“You should go see your sister before the wedding starts.” Viera instructed once the princess was ready. “She’s probably nervous.”
Mor snorted in a highly un-ladylike fashion. “Have you met Vesna?” Her sister wasn’t nervous about anything and let alone her wedding. If anything, she couldn’t stop talking about it. Or, better said, bragging about it. I don’t think it would matter to Vesna if Prince Casimir was a frog prince. The only thing that mattered was that she was going to be a queen.
Honestly, Mor didn’t see the appeal. In being a queen. In Casimir. In marrying. She dreaded the day she would have to be married. She dreaded the day she would have to kiss her father goodbye and move to another home.
Because she loved living here. She loved the palace and she loved Vyraj. She loved its people and they loved their king and his children. Vyraj was a small kingdom. Its kings, Mor’s father, grandfather and his father before, were never greedy enough to expend its territory. They didn’t have the need to expand Vyraj’s borders because the land was rich enough as it is. And the land owned its wealth to the maze of mines filled with silver, gold and all kinds of jewels beyond anyone’s imagination. So in Vyraj the people were happy. Their bellies were full, their children happy and healthy and there were no wars threatening to burn down their lands and houses. They felt grateful that they had a kind king Swarzen on the throne. They celebrated the king and his children and they mourned after his wife, the lovely queen Lada, passed away. The people loved their prince and princesses. The girls around the kingdom dreamed of handsome prince Dazh, poets wrote songs about the beauty of princess Vesna and mothers raised their daughters to be as merciful as princess Leila. Dazh, Vesna and Leila were beloved by their people, all three of them with golden hair and emerald green eyes like their father, were praised at homes all over Vyraj.
And then there was princess Morana who was so unlike the rest of her siblings. She has never caused harm to anyone, but people would always say there was something odd about the girl. No one could describe it, but they all felt a little scared by this little princess. She was just… too cold.
But Mor didn’t live for the praise of her people. She didn’t live to be loved. She lived for… well, she still didn’t know what she lived for.
As instructed by Viera, the raven haired princess left her quarters and headed to see how her sister was doing. She made her way through the bustling corridors to her sister’s room and when she turned the corner, she almost ran into a young soldier, a member of the King’s guard and a boy Mor grew up with and had a crush on ever since she remembered.
“Careful there, Your Highness!” Arron Kazlow said with a smile as he bowed to the girl. Mor instantly smiled and couldn’t help the rush of blood into her pale cheeks at the sight of him. Arron was an orphan who the king and queen took in about the same time Dazh was born. Arron was a year or so older, but the two boys grew up as brothers even though one was destined to be a king and the other was an orphan. But Arron grew up big and strong. He was handy with the weapons and he was a champion in the art of combat. As soon as he turned sixteen, the king send him to a war camp in the north of Vyraj where he trained with soldiers for two years. He came back just a few weeks ago and was appointed a spot in King’s personal guard, which was an immense honour considering how young and, truth be told, inexperienced he was. But he was loyal to the king and his children and Mor’s father knew that whatever threat they may face, Arron would gladly lay his life for the royal family.
Arron was lean and strong even before the war camp, but he was only just a boy. Now, after he returned, he was a man. A tall man, lean with muscles that were visible even through his guard uniform, with chestnut brown hair and sparkling blue eyes. He enjoyed quiet a reputation amongst the female part of the staff and he was humbly aware that every unmarried girl, and some married ones, were batting their eyelashes at him everywhere he went.
And Mor was no exception. Of course, she was just a twelve year old girl and he was a man, but young as she was, she still wasn’t immune to his charms. Not that he noticed Mor, of course. To him, she was like a younger sister. And a princess none the less. But in the end, she was just a child. Arron couldn’t help but steal glances at other girls, pretty girls like Vesna, and every time he did, a small part of Mor’s heart crumbled, but it didn’t matter. She was happy when he would just talk to her, smile at her, look at her…
“Arron!” Mor exclaimed loudly. “Busy day?”
“The busiest.” Arron rolled his eyes and grinned at the little girl. “The King wants the guards on high alert today. Nothing can spoil this wedding and with the threats we’ve been hearing about-“
This was news to Mor. Not that anyone ever talked to her about what was happening outside the borders of Vyraj, but she learned to watch and listen. She learned to stay silent until, eventually, she would become invisible, and would overhear words whispered between her father’s emissaries after couple of glasses of wine too many. But those were only small things, like breaking of a trade route with the kingdom of Open or the fact that their king himself wanted Vesna’s hand in marriage. But she never heard anything about threats.
“What threats?” she asked and Arron stiffened for a second, suddenly aware he revealed too much. But he grinned in the next moment and waved his hand nonchalantly.
“Oh, it’s nothing!” he said with a grin. “Look at you! You look beautiful! Be careful, in a dress like that, you might outshine the bride.”
“No one can outshine Vesna.” Mor said, taking a step towards Arron. “What threats, Arron?”
“Gods, there’s no out-manoeuvring you, is there?” he asked with a grin but when Mor continued to stare at him waiting for an answer, he rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably. “You can’t tell anyone because the King will throw me out on my ass if he finds out I told you anything.”
“I promise.” Mor nodded. “Now, do tell!”
“The king of Open, king Rod, he-“ Arron sighed. “He’s not happy with your father. His Majesty broke the agreement about the trade routes through Open. He also refused king Rod’s attempts to marry Vesna, as he should, of course, but-“
“And you think he’s planning to attack us?!” Mor said and Arron shushed her, looking around in case someone heard them.
“No, I-“ he said and then sighed. “We don’t think so, but king Rod- he has made some threats.” When he saw the look of worry on Mor’s face he quickly tried to reassure her everything would be fine. “Don’t worry. Open is on the brick of a bankrupt. They don’t have the means to start a war. Plus, king Rod would be stupid to start something over a declined marriage proposal.” He sighed again and then placed a reassuring smile on his face. “I have to go take my position, but you shouldn’t worry.” He winked at her as he walked by. “Open has nothing. They’re desperate!” he added on his way downstairs, leaving Mor alone in the corridor.
“That only means they have nothing to lose.” Mor said quietly, her hands squeezing into fists. She suddenly felt a cold gust of wind that caused the servants to stop rushing around. Mor looked at the window and her brows furrowed in confusion at the sight. The window right next to her was completely frozen. She gasped quietly, trying not to focus attention to her. How was this possible? It was the middle of August and it was absolutely hot outside. She took a step towards the window, her hand reaching to touch the ice-
“Morana!” Vesna’s loud voice echoed the halls and Mor dropped her hand and turned to the sound of her sister’s voice. “Where is she?!” Mor sighed loudly and started walking towards Vesna’s quarters. But before she turned the corridor, she turned around to look at the window again. The ice has melted and there were only a couple of drops of water left on the surface, convincing Mor it didn’t all happen in her head.
Ne – No
Propuh - Draft
Sudbina - Destiny
Krelac – A fool, an idiot
Vila – A fairy; in Slavic mythology those were the types of fairies that caused havoc and mischief