Afterwards, people would speculate whether the Fort was prepared for the attack.
Smoke unfurled from the stables, set ablaze in a skirmish, and what was left of the building curled into black soot. The screams of the horses were uncharacteristically human, filling the compendium of chaos with a sound so strong it rattled teeth to those that listened. From high atop the battlements, the scene below appeared surreal, lost within a dream, like the happy slumber that had, without warning, been ripped into nightmare and brutality. Doll-like figures fled left and right, trying to escape into the forest surrounding them, and finding only further doom. The creatures creeping between the branches, their gait uneven, their limbs skeletal, were the fabric of children’s tales. The Leshii were spirits of the forest, thought to be peaceful until their dominion threatened, and rare. Anyone telling tales of a Leshii nowadays were often three cups of vodka deep, and one cup away from snoring on the table. And here, now, was not one Leshii, but what appeared to be hundreds.
The screaming of the horses bit deep into the night once more, and the Leshii roared in pain and anguish. They lurched, emerging from the trees, and met with a wall of flames.
The Fort was filled with koldun and koldunya: the most powerful mages in the kingdom.
The ambassador folded his arms into his sleeves, no longer fighting the cold that had plagued him since coming to this far into the damned north. His jaw chattered with a new feeling entirely, one that had arisen as soon as that stable had gone on fire, and the attacks had begun.
Fear ran through him, icy and hot, churning his stomach. Around him, archers with spelled arrows took aim, fired, groaned. The Leshii staggered with the hits, but kept moving.
The building beside the stables went up in flame, a burning pyre of destruction praying to the sky. The ambassador’s hands shook.
Was this my fault? The thought came to him, unbidden, and stuck. Again, the archers fired, and to no avail: the Leshii had now reached the gates, and were pushing hard against them, the hinges cracking under the strain. The men and women around the ambassador saw the Leshii advancing, and began to mutter and cry out and back away. Raised voices raised higher and higher, and all hope was just about lost, when a door slammed, and silence descended.
The woman that came into view was roughly six feet tall, with sweeping red hair and the mark of her clan, the Ermine, in three dark slashes across her cheek. Broad cheekbones framed bright and calculating eyes of steel, and below them sat lips that pursed in synchronisation with her disapproval. Her robes were golden, high necked, and appeared much more impractical than they were. The ambassador had learned this the hard way; he had remarked on the same woman’s attire only last week in the attempt at striking up a friendly conversation. His mark had sailed far from the bullseye, reaching a man who turned out to be the woman’s brother, who had given him the most withering look he’d ever received.
‘Good to meet you, Ambassador Alber,’ the man remarked, a dry biting note in his voice. ‘It would please you to understand that her cloak, though extravagant, is reinforced with the strongest magic of the Fort. My name is Aloysius. The woman you carelessly speak of is Tatiana, my sister, and the most powerful koldunya the fort has ever seen.’
If Aloysius had ever mentioned the incident to Tatiana, his sister, she did not react now, seeing Alber huddled by the sconce, where he’d thought to seek warmth. Her gaze was focused entirely on the scene unfolding below.
Her voice was quiet, the silence of the lion before it leaps to make the kill.
‘Set your arrows alight,’ she said. ‘Do not aim for the Leshii. Aiming for the trees will hit them harder.’
The archers did so. Alber, sidestepping the sudden storm of soldiers, stood back to watch the display. Coming from the western lands, koldun talent was something he rarely saw. To watch a display of koldun and koldunya casting spells…he wasn’t sure if he felt repulsed or intrigued. By default, westerners disliked the magic of the savage north.
And yet, here he was. In the middle of trouble.
The first line of koldun and koldunya drew symbols within the air, flickering flames from the ancient runes they cast. Several made movements with their hands, throwing fire like water jets down towards the forest. And some, Alber noticed, moved not one inch. Only the light that flashed within their irises made him notice the magic they cast: powerful, strong and direct.
The line of trees, standing as straight as the first line of soldiers in an eerily mirroring manner, caught alight.
The Leshii screamed in pain. Alber’s gut, clenched tight, eased a little. The koldun knew what they were doing, it seemed. Perhaps he would come out of this unscathed.
An answering frost curled along the ground. Cracks of ice appeared along the pathway up to the fort, turning glittering and innocent to mask the death and destruction it foreboded. Alber’s breath quickened as he began to exhale visible air. Flakes of snow fell, dusting the surface of the granite walls and crystallising. The flames died away.
The noise left the surroundings. The Fort, surrounded by a thick forest land, turned silent. The thundering of his heart reminded Alber of the horses dying below, their hooves stampeding in gleeful revenge.
A figure stepped onto the path amidst the snow.
He looked young, young enough to be Alber’s son, and not yet twenty-five. He had the arrogant stance of youth, the strength of vitality, and the roundness of skin that hadn’t weathered yet. The young man stood tall— skeletally tall rose to mind— and with long, slender fingers that flexed at his sides. He wore black robes, as if in answer to the koldun’s gaudy colours. Pale and wiry, the man towered even as he looked up at them, his long dark hair ruffled by the wind.
If the young man had aged anywhere, it would be his eyes. The cold eyes that glared up at the Fort were the muses for conjurors of nightmares, for the gothic poets and the composers haunting, discordant music. Alber thought that the catlike eyes of the man would plague him for the remainder of his life, so ancient and angry they seemed.
Afterwards, the survivors would say that the most powerful koldunya made the most human sound when the man looked up at them, watching from the comfort of their stone walls. Tatiana inhaled so sharply that it might have been a sob.
Down the way, a murmur echoed.
’It’s Koschei the Immortal.’
And Alber wondered what the last thing he’d said to his wife was. Had he remarked on how happy she seemed of late? Had he hugged his children goodbye?
He dimly recognised his own impending doom, and his teeth chattered harder. He did not stop to ask why Koschei the Immortal, the figure of legends and the embodiment of children’s scare stories, had decided not only to pay a visit to the Fort of the Koldun, but to bring an army of Leshii and lay siege to it.
‘Ready your arrows,’ Tatiana said. ‘On my count. We don’t give him a chance to get past our gates and our barriers.’
Nobody needed to ask what would happen if he got inside. With a shaky fervour, the koldun nocked their arrows once more. Others began chants, their flowing rhythms soothing as they conjured sparks and shadows.
‘One…’ Tatiana said. On the ground, Koschei’s eyes narrowed. Magic stirred. Alber thought he must be the type that didn’t need to move to cast magic, and took an involuntary step back.
The archers straightened with purpose.
Before she could say three, the front gates flew open.
It might have been him.
He was too busy wondering who, how, their main defence had been opened to the world. He missed Tatiana’s eyes of hard steel, her clenching fist. He missed the archers lower their arrows. All eyes were on what was coming out of the Fort. A brave koldun, Alber guessed.
Brave…or foolish, he thought to himself.
But the figure that emerged opposite the great Immortal Koschei, the Koschei that had lived for innumerable years because, as his namesake suggested, he could not die, was no koldun. Heavens above, the figure wasn’t even an adult.
A tiny koldunya took many slow steps to face down the tall man. Alber’s own experience with having children of his own put his estimate that she was no older than seven. Her red cloak hood was drawn up to maximum height, and the furs enclosed her tightly. A small, pinched face frowned at the god before her, as if he were a puzzling toy and not a murderous being.
Alber imagined this girl as his own daughter. His heart blanched. Surely someone— anyone— would be rushing to help her.
Someone. Surely. But he didn’t need to look around to know that none of the koldun were rushing to help her. The sick feeling rose. He couldn’t stomach this. If he had to watch a child die—
A strangled cry came from within the Fort; a woman tried to rush out after the little girl.
’Marya!’ she screamed. ’Marya, come back here this instant!’
She ran towards the child, her arms flailing. Her mother? Alber wondered. The woman hit an invisible wall, however, and proceed to throw herself at the boundary, pounding with her fists.
’Marya, let me out!’
Alber watched the mother in pity. Her sobs filled the silence that the horses and the Leshii had left, and the fire that guzzled, and the frost that froze. Her sobs filled the meaning of battle, and wiped clean the smugness of the archers’ faces.
‘Tia!’ a hoarse voice echoed across the courtyard. Alber recognised the man from the other day— the koldunya Tatiana’s brother, Aloysius— rushing towards her. His breathing was ragged as he looked from the scene below, to the scene beside him.
‘Tia, you know Marya’s out there—’ he began.
Tatiana fixed him with a careful expression. ‘I have eyes, Al.’
Pleading, Aloysius’s face morphed into desperation, eyebrows turned up, mouth turned down. ’She’s just a child, Tia. You have to let down the wards to bring her back inside.’
Tatiana’s gaze moved back to the child below. ’I would, Al, if it were me casting that ward.’
Aloysius swallowed. ’You mean— she’s keeping us all in?’
There was a small smile on Tatiana’s face when she nodded.
‘But this is a risk, Tanya…’ Aloysius breathed. ‘She’s not our weapon yet— she’s still in training.’
Alber frowned at this odd exchange, and the way Koschei’s eyes roamed upwards, as if he too were listening to the words of brother and sister regarding the strange child.
‘Just watch, Al,’ Tatiana smiled easily, as if she were betting on her favourite horse in a race. ‘No daughter of mine will lose.’
Daughter. Alber hid his shock, trying to see features of the little girl in the koldunya’s own face. With her hood up, the little girl could have been anyone’s. She was mostly in shadow, and moving now.
His focus switched back to watching her. She walked across the snow, leaving tiny patterns of boot prints behind her. Koschei seemed reluctant to attack a child— he hung back, as if uncertain of what to do. Perhaps there was something in all his years alive that could still surprise him.
Alber didn’t realise how correct he was in that statement.
The little girl— Marya— put out a hand, and Alber thought she was reaching for Koschei. To make friends, to ask for help. Something sweet little girls might do.
She blasted him off his feet.
One moment, he was upright. Then, a devastating bang resounded across the clearing, and the girl’s palms smoked. Koschei was flung backwards, leaving a stream of dust and ice.
He snarled, sensing a worthy opponent, and waved a hand.
Whoosh. A tree branch, heavy and twisted and dislodged from its owner in the fires, rose from its position on the floor and swung hard at Marya. Her palms reached for it a second before it smacked her hard, and the wood splintered into pieces. She spun, her palms flinging the thousand shards of sharpened wood back at Koschei. He vanished and reappeared in an instant, behind her, and she whirled. His movement knocked her over as he threw himself at her, cracking the earth below them. She rolled, using the upturned stones to fire like missiles back at him.
He vanished and reappeared once more— next to her. Her hands plunged to the earth and pulled out vines that wrapped around Koschei’s feet, binding him to his place. The thundering answer of an earthquake split the vines in two, and blew back the hood from Marya’s face. Bright, silvery hair streamed out and down her back.
The hair was an odd colour. Like an old woman in a child’s body, young clashing against old. The girl crouched low, and Alber thought she was giving up, until he realised that her white hair was spreading. No, not spreading— she was changing. Her legs became soft paws, her back stretched and grew, her bulk became feline. A blur of white, grey and black emerged from the transformation, and swept towards Koschei.
A white tiger. The most coveted and rare of all magical creatures, Alber could hear his late tutor say. Now he couldn’t remember why or how about the white tigers. He knew enough to realise this was no ordinary child.
Weapon, they’d called her. Daughter, they’d said.
The tiger roared, and leaped at Koschei with an unbound fierceness. Koschei howled in pain, scrabbling for purchase against the ice he’d created, as the tiger swiped at him. He aimed spells at the white tiger, but the tiger appeared impervious to them all: flames and bullet-like spells vanished with a singular poof as they crossed over a shield. Tatiana smiled as she descended the steps and her daughter, battling Koschei, kept him busy. Busy enough that when Tatiana conjured the chains, he was in no state to watch his back. As Marya dealt a gruesome blow to his midriff, and he lurched over in pain, great cuffs of silver wrapped around his hands, feet and neck, and the great immortal god pitched to the ground, trapped but very much alive.
Koschei the Immortal was beaten that night. Downed by a white tiger that took the form of a little girl. Alber had witnessed the entire thing, and was still baffled by it all. He returned to the western king with news of tigers and magic and weapons.
And, naturally, the king took his advice and went against it.
The north had created a weapon, he decreed, capable of defeating even Koschei the Immortal. A weapon, he reasoned, that could be used against the crown.
By the time this story begins, the Fort, once filled with the nation’s best koldun and koldunyas, was an empty husk.