This week Chuck Wendig called us out on fairytales and subgenres. I chose a little Russian fairytale called The Firebird and Princess Vasilisa, written with a little dystopian flair. It came in with a bit over 1300 words, but I don’t think I can cut it without losing the thread of the storyline. I also think I might write another one; this is a fun challenge!
“All that glitters is not gold.” Konflikt snorted, pawing at the ground.
Both he and the Royal Huntsman Nikolai stared at the feather that shimmered like the dying light of coal.
Konflikt turned his great grey head, looking at Nikolai with one dark brown eye. His ear twitched irritably. “You cannot take that back to the Tzar. You know what the tyrant would do.”
Nikolai shushed the horse. “You know that he has ears everywhere. There is no shadow without a raven.”
Dismounting, the huntsman bent to pick up the quarry. As it shimmered in his hand, he whispered, “Firebird.”
Konflikt trotted beside the Huntsman as he scattered corn on the Tsar’s fields. “What did I tell you?” he huffed. “Don’t tell the Tsar.”
“Hush!” Nikolai started stroking the nose of his friend, surreptitiously glancing around. “If anyone were to hear you, you’d become just another rarity.”
Konflikt’s nose flared haughtily as he snorted. He tossed his head, swinging his mane up and over the smooth curve of his neck, before falling into a slow plod beside the man.
Together they sat against an empty water fountain and waited. As the light began to fail, the fluttering movements at the edge of the field caught the eye. It was liquid, flowing and fluttering over the scattered kernels, darting and bobbing. The bird was truly beautiful to behold. It hovered at the darkest edges, flitting back and forth. It entered into the open field with cautious footsteps.
With more courage, it unknowingly followed the trail to the centre of the garden, to the fountain. The trail led into a small space, laden with foliage, and the safety of darkness. It was too late when it realised the safety was a disguised golden cage. The door shut tight with a clang.
The Huntsman looked in on it, and the bright blue eye looking mournfully our at him. The gold bars reflected the shifting spectrum of the bird. It opened its golden beak and let out a piteous wail.
Nikolai’s mouth twisted with remorse. “I’m sorry.” He dropped a cover on the cage and picked it up to deliver to the Tsar.
“What more can he ask of me?” Nikolai waited at the door to a golden tent, laid with fresh delicacies and tempting wines.
Konflikt lowered his head to Nikolai’s shoulder. “I know that you are doing all this to protect me, and others like me, but there has to be a limit. We have to have a plan.”
A voice behind them, fresh and sweet as a tinkling stream interjected. “That, gentlemen, I think I can help you with.”
Princess Vasilisa stood, resplendent in her gown of silver moonlight, her pure gold tresses twisted into intricate plaits. With a smirk in her golden eyes, she stood holding the point of a sword on them. “You were waiting for me, weren’t you?”
Nikolai had to admit, she had played her part beautifully. Damsel-in-distress, she’d let loose a flood of tears. Her first stroke of genius was to call for the firebird to keep her company in her apartments. It allowed them to meet secretly, so he could care for the bird. She’d demanded the wedding dress from the bottom of the sea. No guesses who had been tasked with delivering that. Luckily for him, the crab kingdom owed her a favour. But this latest task, to bathe in boiling water was ingenious. Until she pointed at him and said that the Huntsman would do it if the Tsar was afraid.
This was not part of the plan. When he slammed the door to her apartments, the Princess looked up from the chaise and her book, her eyebrow raised. “My, my. You are in a temper.”
“You are going to boil me alive,” Nikolai hissed. “This was not part of our plan.”
“It was, but I needed to know you trusted me before I told you.” The Princess sighed, closing her book. “You will not be boiled alive.”
She lead him across to the cage. “Did you know of the firebird’s magic?” Her fingers curled against the cheek of the bird, stroking it as its eyes shut in contentment. “It can provide protection from the fires.”
Princess Vasilisa turned back to Nikolai. “If you give it a few drops of your blood, the bird will turn into you, and it will go into the boiling water, and no harm will come to either of you.”
“My blood?” Nikolai cleared his throat.
“Yes,” Vasilisa smiled. “It needs a piece of you to reproduce you. I thought a few drops of blood might be a part you were the least attached to.”
“How do you know this?”
“A witch,” Vasilisa replied calmly. “I have met many in my travels.”
Boots tramped up to the door. “Huntsman!”
“Quickly,” Vasilisa hissed, darting to her embroidery. “Use this!”
The shining point glittered dangerously in her hand. Nikolai considered, looking back at the door. She was right, this would be their only chance.
With a quick jab at his finger, the needle did the job. Blood welled and he offered it to the bird. Cocking its head at him, the bird stared at him with its dancing blue eyes. When he didn’t move, it bent its head neatly and the drop of blood was gone.
The door shuddered as a huge fist pounded against it. “Huntsman. The Tsar wants to see you now.”
Nikolai exchanged a long look with the Princess and left to accompany His Highness to inspect the tub for the boiling water.
Nikolai looked on as the body double dipped into the water. He hid where Vasilisa had directed him, snuck in behind an ornate armchair, wrapped in the lightest of wraps. He could see through a gap, saw a young man descending into the steaming copper kettle. The man emerged untouched, and left the room. Beyond, he could hear Vasilisa encouraging the blustering Tsar to be as much of a man as his manservant. Nikolai bristled, a prickling along his back.
He seemed to be getting closer to the floor as the Tsar hovered at the edge. He seemed to teeter, before he turned away. But as he went to step down, he slipped, on what Nikolai could not tell. He tried to call out, but all that came out was a squeak. Nikolai panicked, and tried to get up, but was surrounded by a buffeting as he slipped about.
Vasilisa scooped him up, scrambling with his new body. She held him tightly but gently. “Hush now.” She walked him through the castle, tears cascading down her cheeks, not disturbing the perfect picture of the wedding dress and intricate hair dressings. She took him through to the garden, out to the fountains, as if to cry over the disaster.
She sat on the fountain’s edge and released Nikolai. He strutted away, his feathers fluffed and ruffled. As she released her hair from its bounds, she watched him. “You’re clearly not familiar blood magic.”
The beady gaze was piercing. She shrugged. “Never give up your blood. Ever.” She ran her fingers through her hair with a joyous sigh. “Especially not when blood magic has been used to trap my twin brother.”
“But I’m not heartless,” she iterated, collecting Nikolai, and walking towards the stables. “You will have your freedom, which is more than the kingdom was willing to give me. Abduct me…”
Vasilisa strode to Konflikt’s stable, and opened the gate. The horse lifted his head, eyed the bird, dropping the head to shake it mournfully.
Vasilisa smiled and turned to leave. “But don’t test my patience. I don’t want to see you two casting your shadow on my ascendence to the throne.”
Konflikt snorted. He looked at Nikolai, and nickered. “What did I tell you? All that glitters…”
With an indignant squawk, Nikolai hefted his wings and lifted unsteadily into the air, and the horse came trotting happily after.