The Snow MaidbyGlaze72©
This, he thought, will have to go. There was no sign of a safety razor anywhere in the room, but he did turn up an old straight razor, still sharp. Coating his face with the soft soap from the tub, he lathered his whiskers, then carefully shaved, scraping his face clean.
When he was finished, he examined his face, startled to see a reflection that reminded him of how he had looked in college, before a sedentary lifestyle as a weatherman had put too many pounds around his waist. His hand dropped to his ribs, feeling the prominent bones, then the solid muscles in his abs. His chest and arm muscles were also much bigger than they had ever been, he found to his pleasant surprise.
He snorted. You could make a mint off this. Want to lose weight and gain muscle definition, guys? Just survive a helicopter crash in the Russian Arctic, then haul a sledge made of a door mechanism fifty miles across a frozen sea. No problem. Supplies are limited, call now.
He cut off his giggles before they could mount to full-fledged hysteria. He took one last look in the mirror, then went in search of something to eat.
Mother Snegurochka was satisfied so far. A quick perusal of the kitchen had turned up some dried grain, which she was busily making into porridge. The icebox gave her bacon, which she was frying with potatoes from the pantry. There was even honey to sweeten the porridge.
She glared at the kitchen. It hadn't given her honey for nearly thirty years, and it had been at least ten since she had tasted bacon.
You know the rules. You are given food and clothing and resources that match the world's faith in you.
She decided to forgive the house, knowing it was bound to the same laws which governed her. She smiled slightly, running her tongue inside her mouth, delighting to feel all of her teeth back where they belonged. They felt slightly straighter than they had been just a few moments ago, when she had checked on the young man in her care.
He was a happy surprise so far, she thought. Too many of the sacrifices had been hulking brutes from the native tribes, rancid with the reindeer fat they wore to keep off the cold, angry with their fate and violent. Others were small children, left out to die when starvation and plague stalked the land, terrified of their new home. And far too often than she cared for, the sacrifice would be an unwilling one, a terrified young woman, bound and bleeding. Or dead.
She did the best she could for all of them, but not many survived for long here in the World Below. The children, torn away from all they knew, soon pined and died. The men, too often, went mad with hate, seeking to kill her or to take their pleasure on her unwillingly. None of the women had survived a season with her, their life force giving out against the opposing forces which bound Snegurochka here.
Every so often, one came who was able to survive. Usually a young man, inclined to poetry and music, with a supple mind that could learn to live apart from all that he had known. Snegurochka sighed as she remembered the last such, a young shaman who had given his life for his people in the years before the tsars had united the quarreling peoples of Rus into one nation.
She sighed at the memory of his touch, and one hand groped at her breast. She stopped and snarled, hating the thick dress, hating her sagging, useless udders even more, incapable of even the most rudimentary pleasure. She bit her lip, forcing back her fury.
He is here, and his spirit is strong, to lay down his life for his friends, without even blood ties to bind him. If he can accept what is now before him, perhaps...
Her thoughts were cut off as she heard the quick sound of bootsteps coming from the corridor. The sacrifice appeared, dressed in the clothes she had laid out for him.
He looked well, she thought. He looked very well indeed, especially without the mat of beard covering half of his face. His hair was a dark brown, matching the color of his eyes, which were the color of fertile earth. His skin was clear, though somewhat red and chapped from cold, wind, and exposure. His steps were light and quick, and he moved with an athlete's grace, matching his broad shoulders and narrow hips. She smiled slightly as she took in the clean lines of his face. Too thin with hunger now, but the high cheekbones and firm chin were attractive enough.
Not too tall, either, thank the High One, she thought. She had grown everlastingly weary of huge, bearded tribesmen who loomed over her as if she was a child. Too many had thought to dominate her with their strength in order to show their superiority to her.
Convincing them that violence upon her person was a bad idea was tiresome. And often messy.
She ladled porridge into a bowl and set it in front of him as he sat down. The platter of fried potatoes and bacon followed. She sat down across from him and filled her own plate as well, and for a short time they ate in companionable silence.
"So," the sacrifice said slowly, "I am not quite sure what is going on here. The last thing I clearly remember was sitting down by a tall stone, preparing to die. Then I woke up here, with my injuries magically healed. Who are you? What are you?"
"It would help," Snegurochka said, forking in a mouthful potatoes, "if you told me your name, child."
The young man gaped, then laughed softly. Her breast grew warm as she took in the rueful humor of the sound.
"OK then," he said. "My name is William Carter. My friends call me Bill."
"And how did you come to this place, Bill?"
He explained the circumstances which led him to try to kill himself. Polina's eyes narrowed angrily as he tod the story.
"Fools," she said when he had wound down to the death of three of his comrades on the brutal trip to the islands, and why he had decided that he would be wiser to die in service to his friends than to try to carry on a hopeless struggle. "To try to come to these islands at this time of the year, flying through the air like birds."
Bill nodded. "I tried to convince our leader otherwise. But he was greedy and saw money slipping away.
"Well," he sighed. "He paid. It's just sad that so many others paid for his mistake as well. Mark, Bridget, Harold, Jaroslav..." he trailed off, then a wild hope flared in his heart. He looked at Polina. "You can't..."
She shook her head sadly, knowing what he had been thinking. She leaned over and touched his hand gently.
"I'm sorry, child. I have power here. Sometimes, even great power. But that power has never been mine. Mine, or any of my kin. The dark gate only opens in one direction."
"But seven lived," Bill said. "That seems to be a pretty good return on my death." He smiled crookedly.
"But now, if you can tell me about you, about this place where we are..." he gestured at the kitchen, but seemed to take in the entirety of the World Below.
Mother Snegurochka nodded. She gathered her thoughts. This had not happened often. Usually the sacrifices knew the tales, and had some expectation of what lay on the other side of the stone.
"My name, as I told you, is Polina. I am sometimes called Mother or Grandmother Snegurochka."
Bill teased the meaning of the word apart in his rudimentary Russian.
She nodded. "I am a..a spirit of the place, I think you would say. And of the season. Of winter. I live here, in the World Below. I was created by the faith of those who live in the World Above. By men and women who believed in us and gave us characteristics to match their faith. So because men and women believed that the Snow Maid lived in a cold, beautiful house in a dark, snowy wood, so do I here in the World Below. But I also have power.
"Sometimes, when times are terrible in the World Above, a sacrifice is needed. They wait at the stone and lay down their lives to save their friends or kin. I take their lives. But they do not die. They live with me here."
She sighed. "It has been a long time since a sacrifice was made. I suppose that is a good thing, but I grow lonely. The last time was over seventy years ago, when the invaders who bore the hooked cross ground my land under their filthy feet," she said harshly.
Hooked cross? Bill's quick mind cast up a memory. Hakenkreuz. That's what they called it.
Polina nodded. "I brought winter down upon them and they died by the thousands." Bill shuddered as he caught a hint of bloodthirsty glare, as merciless as a hunting wolf, in her gaze. "But that was long ago.
"Few in the World Above believe in those such as I anymore. They give their faith to the Christ-child. A fisherman may use my name on a cold day, or a mother tell my tale to a child, but that is poor food for the spirit to live on. So I have aged. Aged terribly. My very existence depends on belief, and that belief is fading. Who knows how much longer I can survive?"
Don't tell him everything, foolish old woman. You can't force faith.
"But while you are here you will repay your debt. There are things a man can do that a woman alone cannot," she smiled. Wicked wanton, she thought with an inward giggle. She eyed Bill carefully, trying to judge how he would react. Would it be anger? Would he try to convince her otherwise, and beat his soul and body bloody trying to make an impossible escape?
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes as the enormity of his situation hit him. Opening them, he spread his hands in resignnation. "If I had not sat where I did, my body would be dead, frozen, and buried in a snow drift, and I do not think any of us would have survived. My life is yours. I hope you don't get tired of it.
"But what would happen if people stopped believing in you completely? Would you die?"
"No," she said steadily, "I would merely cease to exist. I wasn't born. I came into being full-grown, with powers to rival some of the smaller gods. Now I have little. Barely enough to save the lives of seven mortals.
"When faith in me dies entirely, I believe I will wink out like a candle. What would happen to you? I have no idea. But don't look so terrified," she said with a sympathetic smile. "I think that day is far in our future."
Bill nodded, then yawned. "I'm sorry," he said, "But I'm getting sleepy again."
Polina nodded and rose. "Your body is still tired, and your spirit and mind also need time to recover. Rest, young one. I will find plenty for you to do in the morning." She led him back down the hall to his room. She waited while he undressed, ignoring his blushes as he exposed his body to her eyes.
"How do I turn off the lights?" he asked. "They don't seem to work like the ones I am used to."
"With a thought," she said, and demonstrated. A moment of will, and the room was plunged into darkness. Another, and the light came back. "You try it. Wish the lights off."
She saw him frown as his mind accepted the difficult concept. Suddenly blackness fell, and then a soft gray light crept back in.
"I don't want it to be too dark," he explained. She bent and placed a chaste kiss on his cheek.
"I understand, young one. We all have our small comforts." She rose and left the room. Before the door closed softly behind her, a last whisper sounded from the hall.
"Dream sweetly, Bill."
The next morning, Polina rose early. She washed her face, then stalked over to the wardrobe, fearing what she would find there. Opening the door, gray gown after gray robe after gray shawl met her horrified eyes, the same as had for days beyond count. But wait! What was that in the back?
A mantle of midnight blue met her astonished gaze. She fell to her knees, grateful beyond words.
Color. I am getting color back in my life. Oh, thank you. Thank you, Bill.
Stripping off her night-clothes, she examined her body critically in the mirror, steel-framed glass reflecting her image, trying to see if any changes had been made while she slept.
Her legs were still thick and dumpy, the blue traceries of broken veins clear under her pale skin. Her stomach still pouched out unattractively over the gray thatch of her pubis. But her breasts...were they just a tiny bit firmer, less saggy than they had been last night?
The skin of her neck was still loose and covered with age-spots, but her teeth were now strong and straight, if a bit yellow. The ragged edge of her hair was now clipped neatly, and was the milky white of the cataract in her right eye just a little smaller today?
Closing her eyes, she opened herself to the world of the spirit. She saw her power as a deep lake, dark blue in the middle, shading to turquoise at the shallows. For years the levels had sunk, as the meager trickles of belief were insufficient to fight the tide of her age.
Now, a rushing torrent poured in. Bill's belief, his faith in her existence, made true by simply sitting and talking to her, fed her power like snowmelt feeds a river. Other streams fed the lake as well, and from nearby. Had one or two of Bill's friends known about the legend of the Snow Maid, and had chosen to believe it when their lives were so improbably saved?
It is happening. I will get it all back. Youth. Beauty. Power. He thinks he owes me a debt. When I am recovered, I will owe him a debt beyond paying.
And I will spend my life to prove it to him.
Smiling in anticipation, she dressed in the blue gown and headed for the kitchen. She found Bill already there. He had found some bread and cut it into slices, but was staring around the kitchen with a confused expression on his face.
"Good morning," she said cheerfully. "Did you sleep well?"
He nodded. "Yes, I did. I was going to make some breakfast," he continued, "but it looks like my people have resources that you don't. I don't know if I am going to be able to cook using what you have here."
"Why should you cook?" she asked. "I am the woman. I will cook for you."
His look turned stubborn. "I have cooked for myself for the last five years, and I am pretty darned good at it, if I say so myself. And I am not used to someone doing for me what I can do for myself. You are not my mother or my wife, so why should I expect you to cook for me?"
Polina smiled, mollified. "Well, you don't know how to do it here anyway, so what if I teach you?"
Together they managed to make a breakfast that was more than edible. Once taught, Bill was able to toast bread on a fork over the coals in the wood-burning stove. Polina made porridge, which they ate drizzled with honey and butter, with cool milk to drink.
Bill pushed his bowl away and sighed. "Hot food is a wonderful thing." His eyes twinkled mischievously as he looked at Polina. "I have to wonder, though. Why does a being created by the belief of others need to eat? Can't you survive on faith alone?"
Polina smiled. At last, one with a brain! "Ah, but you forget something, young one. Creatures such as we are created and defined by faith. So if those who believe in us picture us as beings who need to eat to survive, then we do." She sighed. "Faith is pleasing, no doubt. You will never know, Bill, the ecstasy that comes when one of our believers gives themselves over to us completely. It is beyond your imagination. But eating is pleasurable as well, and I enjoy it.
"Now, it is time I put you to work."
Bill sighed and squared his shoulders. "What first, my lady?"
Ten hours later, Bill was limp, beaten and exhausted. He had never thought about how much damn work went into running even the smallest household in days prior to electricity and powered appliances.
First he had hauled in water to wash the dishes from breakfast. That itself had come as a shock, because when he went outside to the well for the first time with Polina, he was stunned to see that the exterior of the house was that of a ramshackle shack with gray, weathered boards with gaps large enough to stick his arm through.
He turned to her and she smiled at him.
"Belief?" he asked with a wry grin.
"Indeed," she said, with a matching smile of her own. "They believe that Grandmother Snegurochka lives in a tiny little hut, which at the same time is a large, comfortable house with many rooms. I am impressed, actually," she said. "Many men have fainted dead away the first time they have seen the outside. They can't seem to reconcile the paradox."
Bill thought of the TV shows he had used to watch. "Some of the...storytellers among my own people have told tales of a similar sort. A house which is bigger on the inside isn't such a terrible thing."
After he hauled water for the dishes, he had to do the same for the bathing room, filling a cistern that would be used to draw water for baths. The cistern, he understood, was usually filled by rain and snow-melt from the roof, but the seasons in the World Below matched those in the World Above, so there would not be rain for months, and it was far too cold for snowmelt.
And then it was time for cleaning. Bill, his arms shaking from hauling water, had thought that would be easier. Unfortunately he was wrong. He and Polina had hauled out every rug in the house, strung them over lines, and proceeded to beat the dust out of them with long sticks until his back ached. After that, they had swept down the floors, whether they be tiles, polished hardwood, or the cold stone flags of the kitchen. Then they had mopped the same. Then came the dusting of the wooden furniture, and then waxing it with sweet-smelling beeswax.
Bill shifted in his comfortable chair and sighed. They had eaten again for the evening meal, and now they were sitting in front of the fire. Polina was knitting something. Some sort of long gray garment, Bill thought. He hoped she found something more colorful to work on soon. She should not be dressed in drab colors.
She smiled as he caught her eye. It might be the light from the fire and the candles, he thought, but she looked younger than she had the previous night. The wrinkles in her cheek were much less deep, and the skin of her throat was tighter.
Maybe she is just less tired, he thought. I don't know what she did to pull me out of that blizzard, but it couldn't have been easy. He shifted restlessly again.
"Fidgety tonight, young one?"
Bill shrugged. "Yes, I am. I'm not used to sitting around, doing nothing."
I'll find something for you to do, soon enough, Polina thought wickedly. "What do you usually do of an evening?" she asked.
"Go out with friends, watch a ballgame on television, read..."
"Well, I don't have a "television" here, whatever that is," she said. "And your friends are beyond your reach. But if you want to read a book, get one out of our library."
"Library? I didn't see one when we cleaned."
"We didn't have one then. We do now."
"We do now?" his voice rose disbelievingly, then he sighed. "Right. Power. The same way you healed me."
"Exactly," Polina said approvingly. "I can make changes to the World Above, but it takes effort. The World Below is mine, and I can arrange it as I see fit. Within reason."
"So if, for example, I would like to have copies of all the books in my personal collection here in this library..."
"Done," she said.
Bill nodded slowly. "If you will excuse me for a second," he said shakily, then left the room.
A few moments later a scream came floating down the hallway. Polina cocked her eyebrow as she followed him with her mind, smiling as Bill walked into a room he would have sworn had not existed five minutes before.
"He's adjusting very well," she said to no one in particular, and bit off a stitch in her work.
Five days later, Bill could no longer ignore the obvious.
Polina was growing younger every day. When he first met her, he would have guessed her age to be over eighty years, maybe more. Now, on the sixth day since he had been rescued, she looked no older than his mother. Perhaps even a year or two younger. Her gray hair was showing streaks of pale blond, and her snow-white skin was firm and tight, no longer sagging loosely at her eyes or throat.