Reign of Winter: Monkey Monk and the Funky Bunch

A Caged Bird

Bella kneels beside her bed, screws her eyes tightly shut, and tries to ignore the constant grinding and clanking that assails her. It’s beginning to wear her down, like a pebble caught between the gears of some infernal machine.

“Everbloom,” she whispers into the darkness of her cell, “Everbloom save me. I cannot bear this.” As always, only silence responds. She fears that Milani can’t hear her in this place, or perhaps it’s the goddess’ voice that is drowned out by the incessant mechanisms. She climbs onto her bed and pulls a threadbare blanket over her.

Before long, she hears a new sound: the heavy thumping and scraping that signals his return. Logrovich. He’s just outside.

“Little bird,” goads a deep, gravelly voice from behind her door. “Little bird, I would have you sing for me.” Bella pulls the blanket up to her chin and tries to hold back tears.

“Little bird, do you hear me?” the voice continues. Bella remains silent.

“I know you’re in there,” Logrovich growls, “and I would have you sing for me.” Bella shivers, and whimpers.

“Don’t upset me, little bird. I’ll huff, and I’ll puff…” Little tendrils of frost snake under the door, blindly seeking.

O, Glory,” Bella finally croaks out, “o, glory of the sun…” It’s an insipid song, long since out of fashion in her native Kintargo. But, as she watches the frost slither into her room, it’s the only song she can think of. It seems to work: the tendrils pause, as if uncertain, and then sublimate into the chilly air.

O, golden waves of sunlight…” Her voice finds its strength, and she begins to sing.

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A Doom Deferred

The blow sets Sam’s head swimming. The chamber around him, only recently freed of the crushing gloom of despair, now spins in agony. He can see his ironclad opponent staggering, though, blood oozing between the plates of his armor. Somewhere behind him his fellows shout, and people scream and die.

Sam hauls his axe around for another swing, and it feels like he’s trying to drag a mountain. It slices the air, but too slow.

“Let us finish this,” his opponent snarls, flecks of pink foam escaping his helmet. He raises his sword above his head, spraying droplets of acid, and brings it crashing down. Sam can see the arc it describes through the air, knows which way he must move to avoid it… but he can’t. His strength is failing him. He can only watch it fall. Feel it part the skin of his forehead. Feel the bone beneath it crunch. Feel the blade sink into his brains with a sickening slushiness.

Pain explodes, and then it is dark and cold.

After an eternity, Sam opens his eyes. He is suffused with a cold that has impregnated his very bones, but he does not shiver. He is surrounded by never-ending blackness, but he does not struggle to see. He feels impossibly tall trees around him, knows there is a path beneath him, and he follows it.

He walks for a thousand years before he begins to see the tiniest pinpoint of light. It glows on the path ahead of him, grey and hazy. The path leads him toward it, and he follows.

There is a peal of thunder, the distant warning of a storm. Sam pauses; there is no weather in this place. A hand clutches him: hard and bony with skin like parchment, but so very strong. He is pulled from his feet, dragged from the path and beneath the impossibly tall trees.

Hot breath, rancid with rotten onion, washes over him. A voice hisses in his ear, “not yet.”

In the utter blackness, Sam feels his presence. He is tall and lanky, as impossibly tall as the trees but maybe just over six feet. Iron grey hair sprouts in patches on his pate, and a wild beard descends to his knees; it is the only thing that covers his manhood. A wicked-looking scimitar is in one hand.

“You have the stench of the crone on you,” the old man observes. Sam regards him mutely. “Don’t try to deny it, you oaf. There’s no hiding it: you’re her servant.” He smiles, revealing too few crooked teeth.

“That’s good,” he coos. “Yes, good. You can be of use to me.” He leans down, breathing his hot, rancid breath in Sam’s face. “You’re not going to die today, little toadie. I’m going to save you. And in return, you will do something for me. Yes?” As if compelled, Sam nods.

“Good,” the old man smiles again. “The crone has something of mine, and I would like it back. You are going to find it for me. Look for an iron chest—I don’t know where she keeps it, but it will be close to her. Inside this chest is a hare. Inside the hare is a duck. Inside the duck is an egg… a golden egg.” His eyes gleam with unholy light as he speaks: “The egg is mine and I want it back. Do you hear me? I want it back!” He lifts Sam from his feet, screams into his face, and then drops the barbarian back to the black soil. The old man breathes heavily for a moment.

“Bring me the egg,” he finally says, “and your debt to me is discharged. You will be richly rewarded, I promise.” He lifts Sam back to his feet, and then his impossibly strong, bony hands clamp around Sam’s shoulders.

He hurls Sam back into the forest. For a thousand years he flies, trees whizzing past him. The light vanishes, and the cold seeps into his lungs. Consciousness begins to slip away from him again, and the last thing he knows is the wail that follows him: “briiiiiing me the eggggggggg!”

Suddenly Sam is on fire. Light and sound assail him, and every inch of his body screams in agony. He begins clawing at his flesh. He coughs up blood. He opens his eyes—closes them again as they sting from the blood and sweat that drip into them—wipes his face. Opens his eyes again.

To see the stunned and confused expressions of his party members.

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Sam with a touch of acid?

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The Raven in the Well

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Vasilisa the Fair

A long time ago there lived a merchant and his wife; they had one child, a girl called Vasilisa. One day the mother placed a little doll in the child’s hands, she said, “My child, I am dying. Take this doll as my blessing. Always keep it with you and never show it to anybody. If anything bad happens to you, give the doll food and ask her for guidance.” Shortly afterwards the mother died.

The Merchant soon became lonely and decided to marry again. He married a widow he thought would be a good mother but both she and her two daughters were envious of Vasilisa’s beauty. They gave her heavy outdoor work to do, so she would grow thin and her face turn ugly in the wind and the sun.

Despite this, Vasilisa became more beautiful every day. For each day she gave her doll food and asked for advice. Having finished eating, the doll would help with the tasks and even bring Vasilisa herbs to prevent sunburn.

As the years passed, Vasilisa grew ever more beautiful as her stepmother’s hatred of her intensified.

Then, whilst Vasilisa’s father was away on business, the stepmother moved the family to the edge of a dense birch forest. This was not just any birch forest, for in this forest lived the terrifying witch, Baba-Yaga. A witch who ate people like others ate chicken.

Every day, the stepmother sent Vasilisa into the forest, but the girl always returned safe and sound with the guidance of her magic doll.

Then one night, the stepmother crept around the house and extinguished all the candles. As the last candle failed, she said in a loud voice.

“It’s impossible to finish our work in the darkness. Somebody must go to Baba-Yaga and ask for a light.”

“I’m not going,” said the first stepdaughter, who was stitching lace. “I can see my needle.”
“And I’m not going,” said the second stepdaughter, who was knitting stockings, “I can see my needle.”

So Vasilisa was thrown out into the dark forbidding forest. Despite her fear, she fed her magic doll and asked for its advice.

“Don’t be afraid, Vasilisa,” said the doll. “Go to Baba-Yaga and ask her to give you a light.”

All that night, Vasilisa walked nervously through the forest holding the doll who guided her path. Then suddenly, she saw a horseman rushing by. His face and clothes were white and he was riding a white horse. As he passed the first light of dawn appeared across the sky. Then, another horseman came by. His face and clothes were red and he was riding a red horse. As he passed the sun began to rise. Vasilisa had never seen such strange men and she was very surprised.

She walked all day, until at last she came to Baba-Yaga’s hut, which stood forbidding on its large chicken legs. A fence made of human bones surrounded the hut. It was crowned with human skulls. The gate had a sharp set of teeth that served as a lock. Vasilisa was terribly afraid.

Suddenly, another horseman galloped by. His face and clothes were black and he was riding a black horse. He rode through the gates and disappeared. As he passed, night descended.

As the sky darkened the eyes of the skulls began to glow. Their light illuminated the forest. Vasilisa trembled, she wanted to run but her legs would not move. Almost immediately she heard a hideous noise. The earth shook, the trees groaned and there was Baba-Yaga, riding in her mortar. She stopped and sniffed the air.

“I smell a human!” she cried. “Who is here?”

Vasilisa stepped forward, trembling with fear. She said, “I am, Vasilisa. My stepmother sent me to you to ask for a light.”

“I know of her.” Baba-Yaga replied. “Stay with me for a while. If you work well, I will give you light. If you do not, I will cook you and eat you.”

Baba-Yaga commanded the gates to open and rode in. Vasilisa followed and the gates closed fast behind her.

As they entered the hut, Baba-Yaga ordered Vasilisa to bring her what was on the stove. There was enough food to feed ten men; then from the cupboard she collected kvas, mead, beer and wine. Baba-Yaga ate and drank everything. She left Vasilisa nothing but a crust of bread.

“I’m tired,” Baba-Yaga said. “Tomorrow, Vasilisa, you must clean the yard, sweep the hut, cook the supper and wash the linen.”

“Then,” she added, “You must go to the corn bin and separate seed by seed the mildewed corn from the good corn, and mind that you remove all the black bits. If you don’t complete these tasks I will eat you.”

Soon Baba-Yaga started snoring, her long nose rattled against the roof of the hut. Vasilisa took her doll out of her pocket, gave it a crust of bread and said, “Please help me. Baba-Yaga has given me an impossible task to do and if I fail she will eat me.”

The doll replied, “Don’t be afraid, Vasilisa, eat your supper and go to bed. Mornings are wiser than evenings.”

Although Vasilisa woke early the next morning, Baba-Yaga was already up. Vasilisa went to the corn bin and found the doll picking out the last black bits. The other tasks were also fulfilled. The doll said, “All you have to do now is prepare the supper and after that you can rest.” Vasilisa thanked the doll and went to prepare supper. She cooked the food, laid the table and waited.

As the skulls’ eyes began to shine, the trees groaned, the earth trembled, and there was Baba-Yaga.

“Have you done what I told you?” she asked Vasilisa.

“See for yourself,” replied the girl.

Baba-Yaga was very upset, for she wanted to eat the girl but the tasks were all completed. Hiding her anger, she said, “Very good,” and then cried loudly, “My faithful servants grind the wheat!”

From nowhere three pairs of hands appeared. They took the wheat and vanished.

Baba-Yaga ate the supper and said to Vasilisa, “Tomorrow you must do the same tasks and then you must go to the store room and sort out the dirt from the poppy seeds.”

The next morning Baba-Yaga again rode off in her mortar. Vasilisa, with the help of her doll, finished the tasks. In the evening the old woman came back and checked everything over. Three pairs of hands appeared. They took the bin of poppy seeds and vanished.

Baba-Yaga sat down to eat.

“Why,” she said, “do you sit there so quiet and still?”

“I’m afraid to speak,” said Vasilisa, “would you mind if I asked you some questions?”

“Ask if you want,” said Baba-Yaga, “but remember that not every question has a good answer.”

Vasilisa hesitated, “It’s just that on my way here I saw a white horseman. Who was he?”

“That was my White Morning,” answered Baba-Yaga.

Vasilisa continued, “Then I saw a red horseman. Who was he?”

“That was my Red Sun,” answered Baba-Yaga.

“And then a black horseman overtook me whilst I was standing outside your gate. Who was he?”

“That was my Black Midnight,” answered Baba-Yaga. “These horsemen are my faithful servants. Have you further questions?”

Vasilisa remembered the three pairs of hands but remained quiet.

“Now I have a question for you. How have you managed to carry out all the work so quickly?”

Vasilisa replied, “My mother’s blessing helped me.”

“I knew it,” said Baba-Yaga. “You’d better be gone. I will not have people with blessings in my home.”

With that, the old woman pushed Vasilisa out of the hut and through the gate.

Then she took one of the skulls, stuck it on the end of a stick and gave it to the girl, saying: “Here’s a light for your stepmother and her daughters. That’s what you came here for, isn’t it?”

She walked all day and by the evening she reached her home. As she approached the gates she was about to throw away the skull, but suddenly she heard a muffled voice say: “You must keep me, your stepmother and her daughters have need of me.”

The girl carried the skull into the house. As she entered, the skull fixed its eyes on the stepmother and her two daughters. Its eyes burnt them like fire. They tried to hide, but the piercing eyes followed them and never let them out of their sight. By morning nothing was left of the three women except three heaps of ash on the floor. Vasilisa was unharmed.

She buried the skull in the garden and went to find shelter in the nearest town. Here she lodged with an old woman.

One day the old woman gave Vasilisa some flax. With it Vasilisa spun the most beautiful thread, so fine it was like hair. Then she weaved the thread into the most exquisite cloth. It was brilliant white, soft and so beautiful. Vasilisa gave it to the old woman and said: “Grandmother, you have been so kind to me, sell this cloth and keep the money.”
The old woman looked at it and said, “My child, this is too fine to sell. I am going to take it to the Tsar.”

So she brought it to the Tsar as a gift. The Tsar thanked the old woman and gave her many presents before sending her home.

Impressed with the beautiful cloth, the Tsar tried to find someone who could make shirts from it. However all the tailors declined the work, as the cloth was too fine for them to handle. In the end the Tsar called the old woman and said, “You must also know how to sew the cloth as you made it.”

The old woman replied, “No your Majesty. It was not my work. It was done by a girl I took in.”
So the Tsar asked the old woman to see if Vasilisa would make the garments. Vasilisa made the shirts and the old woman took them to the Tsar.

As she waited for the old woman to return, one of the Tsar’s servants entered. He said loudly, “His Majesty wishes to see the needlewoman who has made his wonderful clothes.” So Vasilisa went to the palace.

Vasilisa and the Tsar were captivated by each other and eventually they married.

When Vasilisa’s father returned, they invited both him and the old woman to come and live at the palace. Also at the palace was the little doll, for Vasilisa carried it around in her pocket until the day she died.

Source: Myths and Legends: Baba-Yaga and Vasilisa the Fair

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Two Riders Were Approaching, Part Two

“I don’t understand!” White Morning shouts over the rhythmic twanging of her bow. “Why are you doing this?” The howling wind tears the question from her lips, and it never reaches its intended recipients: a band of trolls, ogres, and winter wolves picking through the leafless beech trees. One after another her arrows find their marks, but more assailants fill the spaces as soon as they’re vacated.

Morning’s quiver will soon run dry. Her mount fell bloody into the snow a mile back. She had hoped she’d have a plan by now, but she has nothing; she keeps shooting and trying to understand.

“We serve the same mistress!” she screams. It goes unnoticed.

She thinks of Midnight, then. Of the grim set of his jaw the last time they spoke, the haunt lurking in his eyes. He knew, she thinks. He knew something was amiss, and I laughed at him. She would give anything to have Midnight here with her now. It was rare that she’d seen him in battle, but every time she marveled at the beauty of it: at the graceful, shimmering arcs his sword cut through the air, and how when his opponents fell it looked more like a synchronized dance than death throes.

Her back thumps against something solid, unmoving. A downed tree, massive from the feel of it. She can’t retreat anymore. Three trolls are ahead of her, fangs glistening in the sunlight. To her left: a pack of wolves; to the right: ogres. She reaches back for another arrow and it rattles around her quiver. The last one. She draws it, pulls it back along the bowstring. She won’t walk away from this, but she’ll take one more with her.

There’s a flash of red. A sound like thunder. Without warning, Red Sun is among them. His axe head whistles in the winter air, and the massive hooves of his red charger thrash and batter. For the first time the attackers hesitate.

“Morning,” Red Sun grunts in between hacks, “glad I found you.”

“What’s going on?” White Morning replies, freeing her hunting knife from its sheath.

“Rebellion.” He brings his axe around in a heaving, two-handed stroke, and a troll collapses into the snow, its guts pouring out around it. “Move!”

“What do you mean?” Morning asks, scampering up onto the fallen tree trunk. The move saves her, as thick lances of ice erupts suddenly from the ground. Red Sun’s charger lets out a gurgle as one pierces its neck; Red Sun himself is thrown to the ground.

“Move!” he screams. The trolls and ogres and wolves lunge forward before he can collect his feet. Morning leaps off the log and begins to run, closing her ears to the snarling and howling and snapping and chomping that follows her. Barren branches whip at her face, twisted roots jut up through the snow to entangle her ankles. The howling wind sometimes pushes against her, sometimes urges her along. The sound fades behind her. She continues to run.

She’s not sure when she becomes aware of it, the new sound. At first it could just be a shift in the pervasive wind. But at some point it resolves. Cackling. She throws a glance over her shoulder and she sees them: three women gliding and slicing through the air, weaving between and among the leafless beech trees.

One is young and beautiful, with gleaming white hair and smooth white skin: she is jadwiga, no doubt. One is round and sagging, with an unkempt mop of hair and watery red eyes. The last is old, impossibly old, with skin like wind-ravaged bark and teeth like tombstones.

Witches.

White Morning turns back to her running, only to find the hag standing in her path, grinning an impossibly wide grin.

“Good evening, dearie,” she croaks.

Morning comes up short. Snow crunches behind her. “It… it’s only lunchtime…” It’s the only thing she can think to say.

“Oh, little dearie,” the crone clucks. “Don’t you know? It’s always midnight somewhere.”

A searing pain erupts in White Morning’s spine.

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Ringeirr's Plan

After you’ve had a chance to hunker down in Ringeirr’s hut, get some hot food in you, and warm up by the fire, he presents to you his plan for entering Whitethrone.

“Is difficult of late to sneak into Whitethrone,” he begins. “When Queen Elvanna rebelled against Baba Yaga—” he pauses to make the briefest of protective signs, "—she put city under martial law. Disbanded her grandmother’s Iron Guard and replaced them with her own Winter Guard. Many are stopped and inspected, asked to show papers. At random this is, anyone is subject; foreigners are under most suspicion.

“If you wish to move freely in city, there are two things that we need. First, we must get for you papers. These are hard: official Whitethrone documents have magical seals, hidden sigils. I know of man who can forge for you. He owes me favors, but he lives within Whitethrone. Getting to him will not be easy.

“The second thing we need is for you to look like you belong. Here will fashion save us—ha ha!—and idle youth. As the queen clamps down on foreign influences, the youth must rebel too. Those with means and desire to anger parents have of late taken to emulating the foreigners in dress and manner. Stilyagi they are called. Many dislike them, but they are rich and there is little to do. Some even hire foreigners, bring them to the city, to instruct them in the ways of foreign lands. This is your cover: you must be stilyagi and their attendant consultants.

“All of this presumes, of course, that we can even get past gate. Here the Howlings on western edge of city is our plan. By ancient pact with the Grandmother, Howlings is populated by Winter Wolves, and by same pact the wolves can assume human shape within the Howlings, and act as humans. They are not human, though, and have little of human cares. Here martial law is most lax and entry is easiest. If we approach gate without arms or armor, maybe we can pass with only cursory inspection. Also, my forger friend lives in Howlings, not far from gate.

“This, then, is plan I propose. We enter quietly through Howlings gate, avoid trouble. We pass carefully—this is hardest part—to Mortin’s home. He can make for us papers. Once we have papers, we can move through city as stilyagi and should be relatively safe. Then you can search for Dancing Hut.”

He sits back in his chair and begins lighting a pipe. “What say you?”

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The Chant of Haunted Ulsgaard
A traditional northern song

By the belly of the glacier in Irrisen minstrels say,
“There are tales you tell at nighttime, there are stories for the day.
But the only tale you never tell—not story, song, or play—
Is the tale of haunted Ulsgaard and the curse upon it lay.”

All the birds and mice and white-tailed deer avoid it in the day,
Only Sister Silence slinks betwixt the thatch and clay.
For the souls that stalk its ruined streets and houses once so gay
Can no longer bear to hear their names; they’ll steal your breath away.

In the summer years, long lost to snow, before the Witch’s day
The children of the village romped from courtyard down to quay.
What happened there to still their laughs no living man can say,
But unquiet bones can point toward the feet at which it lay.

Have you ever seen a restless soul, when night consumes the day,
Adopt a seeming semblance of the life it threw away?
Have you ever seen the broken damned a wretched pageant play?
Have you heard it speak? Or seen it sweep? Or genuflect to pray?

One might surmise from such a guise how Ulsgaard lost its way.
It’s said that in a courtyard there, beneath the gaze of day,
Two holy men in holy works consume their time today,
Until the silver of the moon rips the breath of life away.

These holy men, unholy now, with fevered laughing say,
“O children, gentle children, come out to the yard to play!”
And the children in the courtyard as they wail are whisked away
By the shadows of the armies that advanced on Witch’s Day.

Some say that you might come upon the cursed town today,
And that when the stars gaze down you still can hear the children cry.

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Can't Sleep

Galina knows she won’t sleep again. She watches the shadows from the thin, tall window stretch like grasping fingers across the floor; knows that in the moonlight they’ll look like the fingers of skeletons. And she won’t sleep.

She rolls her wooden prayer beads between her fingers. She can no longer remember the words to say, so instead as she rolls each one she whispers, “save me.” No one ever does, but she guesses it can’t hurt. One of the others is crying. She can’t tell them apart when they cry, it’s just a mewling like sick cats.

She thinks that Yegor snuck out to find food. She can’t remember if he came back, and she wonders if he will. She wonders about all of them: Ignat, Ulyana, straw-haired Marat. Did they run away? Were they caught? Or maybe they lie black and bloated beneath the snow.

She passes another bead between her fingers, and figures she’ll never know. And knows she won’t sleep.

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Two Riders Were Approaching, Part 1

The wind shrieks across the hilltop, sweeping the rounded crest to bare stone. Thick furs flap and bat against metal plates, and Black Midnight tries to remember what cold feels like. Instead, as he watches the eddies of snow twirl out into the open air, he only feels… stretched thin, and tired.

He doesn’t turn at the soft crunching of snow behind him: over the centuries he’s learned every distinctive characteristic of his companions’ unique gaits. He only grunts through his thick mustache as an antlered figure with a shock of red hair appears beside him.

“Black Midnight,” the figure says by way of greeting.

“Red Sun,” Midnight returns.

“Where’s Morning?”

“Late.” Red Sun nods mutely, folds his arms across his broad, bare chest. Together, they wait.

Before long, more hooves can be heard in the snow. “I’m here!” shouts a light voice over the wind. “Here I am!” A lithe, pale woman hurries to their side, breathless. “Sorry I’m late.”

“How stands the count?” Midnight asks.

“Oh, splendid!” White Morning says. “Just yesterday I had tea and honey biscuits in this little village just by the woods there, and I counted thirty and seven villagers, eighteen children, twenty three goats, and many squirrels.”

Midnight sighs. “Will you be done soon?”

“Oh, I hope so. Our mistress will be abroad before long, will she not?”

Midnight’s eyebrows stitch together, shadowing his eyes. “Red Sun: how long?”

“Three days at most,” Red Sun replies. “And you?”

“I’ll finish the last of my counts today.”

“See then?” White Morning says brightly. “All done in plenty of time! Our mistress will be pleased.” She beams a smile at Midnight, then at Red Sun. Both remain stoic. Slowly, her smile fades.

“You two are more grim than usual,” she finally states. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“I…” Midnight starts, but pauses. “I smell a foulness. It pervades the air. I… fear for our mistress.”

Red Sun lets out a sudden, booming laugh. “Oh please, Midnight. There isn’t a single thing on this wretched rock that Baba Yaga has to fear. Kings piss themselves at the mere mention of her name.”

“That’s true!” Morning interjects. “Do you remember that one time, just before the Summer Court—”

“Something is wrong.” Midnight fixes his companions with his gaze. “I do not know what. I fear our mistress’ return will not proceed as smoothly as she expects. Be watchful. Be wary.”

“As you say, brother,” Red Run replies. White Morning sighs and nods.

“Go then. Finish your counts. Find me when you’re done.”

Without another word, the three riders start down the hill in different directions.

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