Not fairy tales

Объем: 163 бумажных стр.

Формат: epub, fb2, pdfRead, mobi


Nothing in this world is eternal, not even he himself.

But perhaps because of the fickleness

miracles happen in him.

The forests are whispering about something

in the vastness of the planet.

It seems to be just from the wind, but listen —

voices in a language you don’t know

they talk about eternity.

The stars, just dots above your home,

are suns for someone.

Or if you meet a river rapid,

lo and behold — the staircase winds upward.

If at the beginning you can’t see the road,

still strive for the horizon.

Learn to look at life with a broader perspective,

and perhaps the universe itself will seem incredibly simple to you.

Know that every crumb of space-time in this world is not



The horse dragged along the road, barely moving legs. His hooves left almost no trace on the hard, dry ground.

The afternoon sun had no intention of hiding behind the sparse clouds.

Lendun has not met a single traveler in the last few hours, not since he left the borders of Martz district.

However, perhaps we should not be surprised: the people in the surrounding villages today indulge in idleness, resting after the Kakhnitz fair that ended the day before yesterday. Yesterday the road was no doubt crowded with wagons, mules and oxen, not to mention people on foot. After selling out their goods and filling up with other people’s goods, although there is already enough for someone, they hurry to go home, to put food in the stalls, to try on new clothes, to give the children toys and dainties.

He had missed the market himself, having been delayed at the shepherd’s home (or, to tell the truth, with his lovely daughter), so he was going to Kakhnitz, to the voivode, only now. But maybe it’s for the best: at least they will solve everything without fuss, without distraction.

A cool breeze blew in his face, which was unspeakably pleasant in such a sweltering heat. The boy perked up, cocking his dark-haired head, wiping the sweat from his forehead. Blue eyes picked up a faint glimmer beyond the nearby woods. Water…

A lake, perhaps, or a stream… …or a creek… Doesn’t matter.

He pulled the reins to get the horse off the beaten path and spurred him toward the trees. The animal snarled unhappily, his head jerking, but he obeyed.

In a couple of minutes, they were at the edge of the forest.

The shadows, rare at first, gradually thickened, bringing a welcome relief from the heat, if only for a short time: the beechwoods were a rather narrow grove, skirting, as he supposed, a small lake, five hundred feet across.

He literally jumped off his horse and rushed to the water, throwing off his clothes as he went: in a moment the worn pants, the sweaty linen shirt, the embroidered vest, and the boots lay on the shore in a slovenly heap. The traveler immediately dove headlong into the cool waves, confidently cutting the water with sweeping strokes, swam almost a third of the lake and came back. Reluctantly getting out on the ground, Lendun made sure that the horse was still there. He was a fine beast, no doubt: Zhimbar had taught him not to drink without a master. The boy came closer, stroked the steep black side. Firs snorted again, squinting dark blue eyes.

«Be patient, my friend. I’ll get you drunk later. We’ll be in Kahnitz for another hour. The voivode won’t spare the barley, will he? Baron has given us the full allowance. Not bad, what do you think?

An iridescent laugh that came suddenly from somewhere behind him made him shudder. His wet skin was covered in goosebumps.

Blaming himself for this indiscretion, Lendun turned sharply, snatching a long dagger from his satchel.

His eyes were fixed on a pile of boulders that jutted out into the lake. A girl’s giggles came from there.

Finding no one around to attack him, the young man, still looking around, quickly pulled on his clothes and cautiously, gazing round, headed toward the strangely inviting sound.

Behind the water-and time-honed stones, he saw an unexpected but wonderful picture.

A beautiful half-naked girl was sitting in the shallow water, splashing and laughing. Her long blond hair sparkled in the sunlight. Her skin, barely tanned, looked as smooth as a statue’s. Though no one would mistake her for a statue: she was too lively.

Lendun swallowed frantically, stopping dead in his tracks, unable to utter a word. He just stood there, watching the transparent droplets dripping down her young body, the straw strands fluttering in the breeze.

Suddenly the maiden turned around, staring straight at him. The laughter died down. He couldn’t tell the color or expression of her eyes from this distance, but she was surprised, that’s for sure.

So they stared at each other in utter silence for several minutes.

The beauty was the first to come to her senses.

«Oh! Greetings, traveler! I didn’t expect to see anyone on my property today.»

The guy twitched, mumbling uncertainly, turning away so he wouldn’t see her nakedness.

«My sincere apologies, lady. I didn’t know… I didn’t know anyone was here, or I wouldn’t have disturbed… I’m sorry!»

From the corner of his eye, he noticed that she dismissed his apology as unimportant, as if his impertinent appearance were not worth the words.

«What brings you here, traveler? You don’t meet many people here,» she smiled as she spread her hands over the water, which reached almost to her chest.

«I… hmm… I’m…» Lendun was never one for eloquence, but now he was embarrassed. «I just… wanted to cool off. It’s hot today, don’t you think?» he lowered his eyes again.

«Yeah, I guess so,» she shrugged. «So, what are you waiting for? Go for a swim.»

«I’m pretty much already,» the guy shook his head toward the boulders, «over there».

«Oh, I see. Are you coming from Kahnitz?»

«No, on the contrary, that way. Voivode…»

His words were interrupted by a loud splash somewhere in the middle of the lake. He looked up and saw the glint of scales on the back of a large fish.

«Wow! Wow! Did you see that?! A carp, I think, and an enormous one at that. It’s delicious… Mm…»

«Do you like fish, too?» the woman he was talking to asked him a little bit surprised. «Then wait, now…»

He will never forget the spectacle that followed.

Three long whip-like blue-green tentacles rose above the blue-reflecting waves, curved in the air, dived into the water, and after a moment rose back up, pulling out a silvery, scaly carcass.

There was soft laughter again, like the ringing of porcelain bells.

«Look,» the girl exclaimed cheerfully, «from the very first time…»

The tentacles reached out toward the shore. For a brief moment, the mermaid’s entire body appeared above the surface of the lake: wriggly, serpentine.

An unknowable force had blown him out of his place. Lendun couldn’t remember how he got over the rubble, how he climbed the horse, how he left the ominous grove.

He arrived at the voivode’s farmstead completely white, unable to string words together.

However, Lady Gemma’s — landlord’s wife — honey tincture had gotten him back on his feet in a couple of days. He tried never to think of swimming in the Maiden’s Pond, as the locals called it, though he was unable to exorcise the image of the beautiful golden-haired monster from his dreams.

Italannia pulled the fish closer, grasping the carcass with her delicate hands and sharp claws.

With a slight perplexity she looked after the guy who was running away.

What a weirdo! And he didn’t want to try. He must have remembered something important, so he rushed off.

With a chuckle, the girl immediately put him out of her mind.

The white fangs dug into the still twitching carp, slashing into its side. Watery fish blood dripped down her smooth chin and onto her chest.


The lock beeped approvingly at the key-card signal. The door to her parents’ apartment hissed to the side, revealing a long narrow hallway.

Una stepped inside and winced: the mixed smell of fried fish, baked goods, and cheap perfume hit her nose so hard it made her eyes water.

The girl walked lightly across the hallway, stopping on the threshold of the living room on the left.

As she might expect, they were home.

Her father was sprawled out on the shabby brown couch, spreading his flabby body on the greasy cushions, staring at the projection on the holovisor. It was brand-new, the latest model, with gleaming blue sides and a clear picture, but the packaging tape had not been removed yet. It was just another show about some kind of outside intervention. It wasn’t interesting, though…

In the far corner, by the lacquered white truffle decorated with gold monograms and scrolls, her mother sat, enthusiastically sorting out another pile of purchases that had been delivered. Countless vials, jars and tubes of cosmetics piled up on the small tabletop like a fragrant pink mountain. Overlapping blouses and skirts, fur coats and kerchiefs, jackets and lace panties hung on the back of a chair and on a movable coat rack. Against this motley mass the delicate, perhaps even haggard figure of the golden-haired woman was almost invisible. At her feet and around her were also crowded bags and boxes: shoes, dishes, gadgets, and other «fun» junk from the TV store; with any luck a couple of books might be found. And there are wrappers and ribbons, paper, cellophane, pieces of fiber and foam, receipts and labels everywhere.

Una shook her head disapprovingly: how do they manage to litter everything so much in just a couple of days?

«Mom, Dad, hi! You’re all sitting here like owls.»

Mammy turned around briskly on her brightly decorated perch — just like a bird, smiled exaggeratedly and waved her hand.

«Hello, hello, hello!» and then she stared in the mirror again.

The father muttered something under his breath, but didn’t even look at his daughter, continuing to fill his mouth with fish sticks from a deep bowl on his lap.

«You’re sitting there,» the girl continued without embarrassment, «and, by the way, it’s so beautiful outside Treboyn today, you don’t even need breathing apparatus,» she put the mask from hermosuit on the chest of drawers. «Oh, look at that, you can see…»

Behind the long window hole, she could see a wide strip of pale blue sky about six miles to the east, just beyond the first cordon. The ribbon cut through the usual reddish-gray haze and wound all the way to the horizon, merging there with the sea.

Not a single head turned.

With a sigh, Una set to work, rolled out a holder from the pantry, hooked a huge acid-orange garbage bag onto it, and began to clean up. Crumpled packages and half-eaten pieces of food poured into the orange belly.

The lock clicked again.

Through the corridor, without looking into the living room, her sister walked hurriedly, hiding in the kitchen.

Una frowned. Bending down, she picked up another cardboard box, tossed it into the bag, then suddenly froze in thought, glancing suspiciously at the kitchen door. Leaving her work for the moment, she went to look at Poly.

The older girl sat at the table hunched over, her blond hair hiding her bowed face. Thin, motherlike hands shook as she uncorked a jar.

«Hi! Poly, what are you…»

The girl didn’t finish: she came closer and immediately saw what her sister was holding. In the flat round container was a thick greenish-blue gel.

Without a second’s hesitation, Una snatched the jar from her trembling hands and carried it to the garbage bag.

«You won’t eat it again. Never again. We talked about this…»

The response was some kind of inhuman howl or moan. Poly clutched at her sister’s hair as she stepped into the living room.

Una tried to break free, turned around, and stumbled from another jolt. The can flew out of her fingers and hit the wall, spilling its contents all over it. Her sister forgot about the offender, rushing to the spilled puddle. Instinctively stepping back, Una suddenly bumped into something and fell awkwardly, hit the back of the holovisor.

The device wobbled on a thin leg and collapsed; the projector cone extinguished.

Moaning and rubbing her bruises, the girl rose to her feet.

Her father’s beastly roar shook the room.

A shiny bat of blond wood sank on Una’s head.

Her black hair soared, her skull crumpled under the impact and burst: bloody bits of bone scattered in all directions.

The girl collapsed to the floor. Dead gray eyes stared up at the ceiling, glowing with dots of diodes.

The man, no longer paying any attention to her, tossed the bat aside and fiddled with his holovisor. Straightening the base, he flicked the remote. A vague intermittent picture apparently satisfied him. Back at his rookery, the fat man plopped down on it again, froze, almost unblinking, stared at the screen.

Poly giggled against the wall, licking up the slime-like slurry. When she’d finished, she looked around the room with completely glassy eyes, stumbled over her sister’s body, and hiccupped.

The mother only turned around at her direct address, as if she had not heard the preceding noise.


Staggering, the girl stood up and walked closer to the corpse. The mother came up too, fluttering her eyes incomprehensibly. Her aged mouth, with its bright lipstick smeared over it, formed into a mannishly surprised «O».

«Where… where we should put her now,» Poly hiccupped again, «lying here… I wanted to take her away… I earned it didn’t I?» she grinned crookedly. «Yes, I did»

«Well done, my daughter, well done,» the mother chirped like a sparrow. «I guess… I guess… I don’t know… Boo, tell me,» she turned to her husband.

He squinted, snorted, scratched his belly, smearing bits of gray-pink brain matter all over his light-colored T-shirt, and waved it off briefly.

The mother sighed, turned away, chewed her lips, then noticed the orange stain.

«Here,» she pointed her finger at the bag, «there’ll be pickers today, really.»

Still swaying, Poly looked back and forth between her sister and the garbage bag, then she mumbled, swallowing the interfering saliva, and nodded.

When they lowered the holder, the two of them shoved the body upside down into the sack, and straightened it: they couldn’t even fit her legs in the bent position. After twisting them this way and that, they looked at each other, shrugged and tied the ties as they were, with a bow on the protruding ankles. Then they took the trash pack out into the corridor, the mother returned to her interrupted rummaging, and the daughter plopped down next to her father, also clinging to the hologram.

About an hour later, the front door opened.

In the outer gallery stood an austere woman in a dark gray jumpsuit. At her knees, like a service

dog, a compact robot-carrier was frozen.

The visitor’s gaze traveled over the huge orange bag. Small feet in high blue sneakers peeking out of its throat could not go unnoticed. The attendant blinked, raised an eyebrow, curled her lips, but almost immediately her face took on its former aloof expression.

The scanner in her hand beeped the report: «90% organic substance».

«Biological garbage. Take it away,» she commanded the robot. «Furnace number 6.»


The brew in the cauldron bubbled and gurgled. Strangely dark steam rose upward and puffed across the ceiling, forming little manmade clouds. But these walls have seen more than that.

The old house, built of gray rough-hewn stone, with oak beams in the ceilings and a dirty plank floor, did not give the impression of a permanent dwelling at all. It was more like a cave, a burrow into which one had to crawl out of necessity.

The tiny mica windows let almost no light through, and now, in the twilight, they looked like cracks in the walls. Weapons hung here and there — bows, axes, clubs, short spears, a couple of crappy swords — drew crooked shadows under the dancing candle lights. In the fuzzy glare the gray, shaggy coat by the door looked like a beast, clawing at the stonework for some reason.

Wolfe stirred the stew with a wooden spoon on a long carved handle, added herbs, stirred again, and sniffed. Yes, he thought, it’s ready.

He pulled a deep clay bowl out of a pile of dishes piled beside the stove — a black one with a red rune pattern, looked closely, spat on it, and wiped the cracked glaze with his shirt sleeve. Then he filled the plate to the brim with chunks of stew.

After extinguishing the overhead fire in the crooked stove, Wolfe set the bowl on the unexpectedly good-for-life striped wood table, sat down on a three-legged stool, and began to eat, occasionally burning and snorting.

A knock on the door made him raise his head.

«Go ahead, come in,» his voice sounded hoarser than usual. He craned his neck and coughed.

Two men entered the house: sheriff Hunter and his eldest son. The heir and his shift are dragging him everywhere. Wolfe smirked, baring strong white teeth.

«Greetings, Mage-Commissar,» the visitors bowed, not too flatteringly, though.

Wolfe only gave a brief nod in response.

«There’s a rumor going around,» the sheriff hesitated, «you know. We’d like to know if it’s true.»

«I don’t know what people are talking about,» the man muttered between spoonfuls of food. «Ask me straight out, Hunter, don’t be a pussy. I don’t like it.»

«Ahem. Ahem. Mage-Commissar Wolfe, is it true that you destroyed two witches who were plaguing the surrounding villages?» he swallowed and stared expectantly at his inhospitable host.

«Ha!» Wolfe smirked again, his face creased so that it looked like crumpled paper — his deep wrinkles had long been his companions, only his yellow eyes still looked young. «See for yourself,» he nodded to the far corner of the room, hidden by the shadows.

The sheriff went to the table, picked up the dirty candlestick with the lit candle, and stepped toward the place. Immediately he recoiled, unable to contain his trembling. His son suddenly turned strangely green, covered his mouth with his hands and, unsuccessfully struggling with gagging, jumped out into the street. A disgusting uterine sound was heard.

«Ugh, he ruined my bushes, the devil takes it,» magician cursed. «You’re taking him with you too soon for duty.»

«It’s all right,» Hunter said, «let him get used to it. We don’t live in the capital.»

He shined the light in the corner again, examining more carefully the two female corpses lying there, an old one and a very young one, brutally chopped up and mangled.

The sheriff shuddered with disgust, but to give him credit, he managed to hold himself together.

«So that’s all?!» there was more fear in the question than in reaction to what he saw. There was also hope.

«Everything is over. Everything.»

«And they won’t… well, they won’t… rise again?»

«No,» Wolfe squinted and lifted a bowl of leftover brew. «Here. Just the way it should be. Hearts and livers. I’ll eat it all and be done with it. Well, maybe I’ll have a tummy ache. Would you like a piece?»

Hunter almost twisted.

«No. Thank you,» he managed to squeeze out and spat the thick saliva that had accumulated: it smelled surprisingly good.

«Anyway, all you have to do is clean up. Burn the trash and bury it somewhere far away,» the magician waved his hand at the remnants of the bodies. «They won’t come up again, I give you my word.»

«Thank you, Mage-Commissar, from our whole village and district. You have saved many lives with this.»

«Yeah, yeah…» Wolfe ruminated again, taking a sip of gravy over the stew, he was no longer interested in the sheriff.

Hunter staggered for a while, then made up his mind.

«Uh… Wolfe, but how did you get them?»

The man reluctantly pulled himself away from his food and sighed.

«How? As it should be. Look,» he looked toward the door where a long-handled axe stood propped against the wall, under the cape, its ragged surface darkened against the sharp, glistening blade. «Locks? They messed up there, of course, notably. Like real spiders. But if you pull the right string…»

«I see. And the evidence?»

«And who needs them? Those mothers whose sons and daughters have been kidnapped by these monsters? They already know. And they got their retribution. However,» the mage gritted his teeth, «there is something. The Protector should have enough…»

The sheriff followed Wolfe’s gaze with his eyes.

On an antique dresser was a basket full of pies. Some of the cakes were broken, and he could make out the gruesome stuffing — the baby’s severed fingers. Nearby lay a tattered cotton cap, scarlet as the dawn.


«We’re screwed,» Gafarro lowered the spyglass and shook his head hopelessly.

Down below the castle walls, it was quiet now: his army had managed to beat off two attacks with almost no casualties. The attackers had not yet been able to get within a hundred yards of the moat surrounding the citadel, and each time they retreated. Now they were preparing to lay out one last trump card. And what one!

«No, sorcerer, not even you can handle it,» he glanced sadly at his advisor, who was looking around. «My kingdom will not stand. Where did they find him from? I thought they’d all been wiped out long ago, and here we are.»

The old mage didn’t seem to pay any attention to his words. He was staring intently and tirelessly into the horizon, where a new gray wave was beginning to creep on: the duke was determined to make another run. The enemy infantry, though badly shabby during the previous few days, was still astonishingly plentiful.

But that wasn’t too frightening: Krumland recruited his warriors from the rabble, with no regard for their strength or skill, as long as they could move forward and hold their weapons, and Barbeza’s potion would give them courage and spite. What a bitch! The witch really went over to the enemy. She must have brought that monster. Ugh!

Dorrenoi averted his eyes from the little flashes that ripped through the grayness of the dense morning fog. Damn you!

«I would not fall into despair, Your Majesty. There is always a way to fight.»

«But it’s a dragon!» Gafarro couldn’t hide his horror. «A stone-skinned, fire-breathing creature. What soldier could resist the flames, eh? The horses are snoring, you hear them? They smell that foul stench… Thank goodness it’s not flying.»

«Exactly!» the wizard held up his finger meaningfully. «It’s not flying. You noticed it too, my lord. So my eyes were right. Hmm. What else do you see?»

The king squinted at his companion with suspicion, but didn’t rant. He raised his spyglass and stared at the dark spot in the center of the approaching army.

«The dragon… not young, crawling slowly, but it seems to me that this does not affect his breathing: he’s puffing fire… Greenish, with a streak of yellow along his backbone… He’s about fifteen yards long. Oh, wait a minute… he’s got wings, but they’re tiny and rudimentary.»

The mage hummed so loudly that the king flinched and turned around abruptly.

«What?! Did you think of something?»

«Yes, I have a thought,» nodded Dorrenoi. «Tell me, Your Majesty, what is our food supply? Or rather, what fruit do we have?»

«From the fruit?!» the ruler’s eyebrows rose almost to the border of his hair. «You picked your time…» he paused, looking at the stern, serious face of his advisor, «well… if that’s what it takes… what do we have? Fruit… you know, not much. Except maybe five bags of apples. Dried plums, a dozen bundles. Grapes have all been crushed for brew. Hmm… There’s plenty of jam, though. Oh, here’s a couple more cases of oranges: they brought them just before the first attack and I forgot.»

The wizard smiled.

«Oranges, you say? Just in time. Oh, just in time! Get everything to the trebuchet!»

The king opened his mouth in amazement, twisted his head, glanced at the already discernible monster without the magnifying glasses, and turned to the wizard again.

«Are you out of your mind?! What oranges?»

«Bring it, I say! Don’t waste any time. We’ve got to get there before they get too close.»

After giving his orders in a few short phrases, Gafarro set the spyglass aside and sat down heavily on a sandbag, leaning against the battlements of the tower. Covering his face with his hands, he sighed sorrowfully.

«Take it easy, Your Majesty. Maybe the battle will be over in a few minutes, yeah,» Dorrenoi rubbed his hands together. «Listen to me… It’s important, vitally important, that as many oranges as possible hit the dragon, you hear. The more the better. How to do that is not up to me. You’re the best in the business. You can mix it with rocks, you can mix it as is… it doesn’t matter. It’s up to you. Just make sure you hit him before he gets within a hundred and thirty or a hundred and forty yards. He’s got a thirty-yard flame. And here already our soldiers are standing. That’s so they don’t get hooked, you know?»

The king’s eyes lit up with interest and, more importantly, hope.

«But what will this shelling do for us?»

«Uh, I’ll explain later. „If you’re not sure, don’t promise,“ as my teacher used to say, bless his bones. If it works, then it works.»

Gafarro stood up and clapped the mage on the shoulder.

«All right, I’ll trust your knowledge, my friend. Besides, what else can we do? So, you say, hit the dragon?»

«Yeah, in the muzzle, in the eyes — the best.»

From behind a narrow door in the wall, a panting soldier ran out, carrying a crate of sweetsmelling orange fruits like the sun. He was followed by another.

«Here, Your Majesty, your wisdom, is all there is.»

«Over there,» the king waved toward the two tall trebuchets that occupied most of the third tier below the observation tower. «Mix it with the gravel. I’ll be right back,» he glanced around. «May your wiles work, wizard,» and he hurried toward the stairway that led straight down.

Dorrenoi, grunting and barely moving his legs — knees, be damned — headed out the same way, but bypassing the inner galleries and passageways. When he finally reached the vast and terrifyingly large, crane-like, overgrown killing machines, they were all ready. It was just a matter of waiting until the target was at a calculated distance.

These few minutes passed in silence, only to the anxious sighs reverberating in the back of their heads.

The monster was very close: even the carved scales on its thick flanks could be seen. The smell was nasty: rotten, musty, and lifeless, and it made the horses in the vanguard roar and sprang to their feet. Nauseating. Well, on the plus side, they hadn’t all eaten in twenty-four hours.

Around the monster, the Duke of Krumland’s mercenaries and bandits stomped in close lines. Pitchforks, spears, and axes were what this filthy rabble carried as weapons. Yes, their combat was not intended to be noble, so…

But the instigator himself is nowhere to be seen. He probably keeps his witch to himself, too.

Ugh, what a mess! What a mess!

The dragon panted, releasing a jet of swampy yellow fire from its ajar mouth: two hundred yards away from the ranks of the palace and the kingdom’s defenders, ready to attack. A little more… and a little more…

The trebuchets surged forward, sending a small citrus cloud that seemed incapable of even tickling the skin of the creature crawling at them.

A few small stones hit the enemy fighters, bruising them and causing them to laugh maliciously. But they could not make fun of the weakness of the blow.

The oranges clattered against the dragon’s hard shell, scattering in bits. The acrid, fragrant juice tickled the beast’s eyes and nostrils. He shook his head, hissed, puffing gray smoke, and then suddenly reared up and spun, sneezing and coughing like a man on fire.

Each «Aa-pchhhh’ was accompanied by a burst of flame, wiping out all those who, by an evil stroke of fate, happened to be in the vicinity. The heart-rending screams of the burning people, the shrieks, the hubbub, and the jostling of those who tried to dodge and escape from the fiery death filled the clearing.

The duke’s army was spreading like worn fabric, ripping in the most inopportune places. Panic washed over the rebels.

The dragon, still sneezing and wiggling and tearing at its throat with its forelegs, darted back toward the lake a few miles away.

A few almost demonstrative raids by the king’s cavalry completed the job: a wide swath of land was strewn with corpses, and the rest fled in terror.

Sniffing at the strangely pleasant smell of roast meat in the air, despite its actual origin, Gafarro stepped away from the trebuchet and approached the mage.

«How?! What kind of magic did you stuff them with if such a small thing could turn a real dragon into a fugitive? Oranges… who would have guessed…»

Dorrenoi averted his eyes. He looked up at the king with embarrassment and explained:

«You see, Your Majesty, long ago, even before I entered Your Majesty’s service, I had to do all sorts of things to survive, you know, to get food. I was a healer, in general. I lived there, in Ilfania, almost at the border of the Marshlands. Whoever came to me for medical help, yeah. He was young then. A teenager, in fact. Did me no harm, either. I helped him as much as I could, so I know…»

«What do you know? Who did you help? Speak clearly…»

«So, who… the dragon, yes. He can’t stand citrus fruits. He’s been allergic since childhood.»

Thing called spring

Once there was a thing called spring…

Spring is here!

Why doesn’t my heart go dancing?

Spring is here!

Why isn’t the waltz entrancing?

No desire, no ambition leads me

Maybe it’s because nobody needs me?

Frank Sinatra

The monumental bulk of the Tengwang Pavilion stands out clearly against the background of the river at this sunset time.

The lanterns circling the tower are about to flash, echoing the color of the brick-red walls and the emerald-green roofs. Actually, the pavilion could be called a pagoda, but it lacks the usual elegance of these traditional structures. However, it makes a remarkable impression: yes, it is new, but something so ancient, some spirit of place, no doubt, lives in these stones. And surrounded by dozens, hundreds of skyscrapers, each year more and more squeezing their arms — both on this coast and on the opposite one — scratching the clouds with their claws, the Tengwang can seem like a pillar, piercing and linking the past and the present.

The rain that had fallen since this morning had washed everything away, making the colors more vivid. The wide stone staircase leading up to the pavilion now looked more like a rock than a human creation.

Two young men — obviously out-of-towners, tourists — stop right at the Yin-Yang symbol — the Great Limit sign — take their eyes off their smartphone screens, and look up.

«Hmm, there it is. Well, not bad, huh? We didn’t go here for nothing.»

«Impressive. It’s not a small thing,» the guy sips his iced tea from his cup, smacks his lips. «You know, it’s not bad. I don’t really like herbs, but it’s nice and refreshing.»

His buddy sips his drink too, nods.

«Yeah, it is good. Well, shall we go?» he waves his hand in the direction of the rise.

«Soon, give me a couple of minutes. Let me catch my breath: you’ve been dragging me around all day… didn’t even take a taxi.

«Taxi… You’re such a sissy. We never even left the neighborhood. And dragging… like I made you do it.»

«All right, all right, it’s about work, I agree. But it’s time to rest now, isn’t it? So, what’s the hurry? This tower isn’t going anywhere,» he looks at the Tengwang again. «Look, what’s that up there?»

At the corner of the curved roof, remotely resembling a dragon’s spine, stood a strange figure. It wasn’t easy to make out the silhouette in the twilight: not human, but certainly someone alive.

«Wait a minute, I think that’s one of them. He’s going to jump, look! Oh, that’ll be a sight to see! Come on! Jump!»


He is standing on the very edge.

In general, the weather today is windless, but not here, not up there. However, the wind is a friend, one of the few: violent, uncontrollable, necessary.

Now any gust threatens to rip him off the roof. Rip him off, throw, spin… no, not now… a little more later…

Down below, behind him, a dark ribbon of river winds, lazily rolling its still-cool waters into the distance: a few weeks, and the heat will take over. A heat from which he must get away. Is it worth it?

For what now?

Why should he go back to his homeland now? Alone… without her…

What’s driving him back?!

Spring...it’s all her, part of the eternal cycle of this world. The law of the universe, if you will. A law demanding and inexorable, embedded in the very depths of the subconscious. To go back…

He thought they would go home together. Together from this seemingly benevolent place to which they were strangers.

Aliens. Incomers.

Scarlet faces, scarlet feet, white covers.

They are different.

No, they haven’t been harassed here for a long time. They’re even protected. People take care of them, you could say. But people care more about themselves and their well-being.

What about them? They’re not from around here. Valuable, but different.

They will never understand each other. And people are stronger. Stronger, more insolent, more demanding.

And they take the water. They limit themselves, but still inexorably take away space for life. Not here, but there, just to the north — here he came by chance, circling and circling, and here — but the city will soon approach there as well. It would come and take new lives, as it had taken his beloved. Would kill others as it had killed her.

No, no one hunts them on purpose: the local governments have long forbidden such things. But man stains everything around him with his presence: everything he has created can bring death. Many things are not her weapons at all, but almost every grain can suddenly summon this cold, empty-eyed lady.

Simple fuel for people’s boats is poison for the likes of him.

Dirty death. Accidental death.

They were found too late.

He called out to people, calling desperately, trying to lead them to her, dying in that muddy puddle, but people didn’t understand. They shouted in admiration, pointed their fingers at him, smiled, wished each other happiness. As if he had come to them to show off. As if they couldn’t hear the hopelessness and grief in his cry.

People sat in their cells scattered over the ground, stacked one on another, formed the tall ant towers like the ones across the river. People sat there thinking only of themselves.

Sometimes they remembered creatures like him, too.

Not everyone: only the most understanding or those who could benefit most from it.

Then they decided to surround the strangers with care.

For now, all care is the bracelet draped around his leg. Yes, they had put a tag on him — trying not to hurt him, but still against his will — a tag that could be used to track his life.

But what does it matter to him?

His sweetheart also had a tag, a shiny little thing wrapped around her shin.

Did it help when the wearer was convulsing? That’s right.

They also gave him a name. A strange name, similar to their own.

Heng Chun. The Permanent Spring. The Eternal Spring.


There is nothing eternal in this world, only the stars that light up in the blackness of the nights.

But they are there, far away, leading with their radiance to home — that’s all.

And there is no spring in his soul.

Her breath is all around… everywhere… everywhere…

Everything is blooming, everything is alive… Only it is as if he died inside on that shore, where she let out her last breath.

One step, one more step, and then crash down.

No, that’s something only they, the humans, can do. And they are horrified by it. And they marvel at it!

See, and now they’re looking up at him with all their eyes.

They’re watching, discussing something, gesticulating wildly. Waiting.

Yeah, it’s like they’re waiting for something…

The wind brings unlocal music. That is, their music, human music, just not typical of this place: jagged, rough, sharp-cutting with the edges of the words.

He doesn’t understand the meaning, but the rhythm is hammered into every bone in him.

…Und der Mob fängt an zu toben

Sie wollen seine Innereien

Und schreien


A piercing cold and scalding heat. The blood roars. Painful and… cleansing. As if spring had washed over him with rain.

He shifts from foot to foot, swaying, then freezes again on the ridge of green-painted wood. The bow-curved corner of the roof is designed to prevent demons from sneaking into the house, to make them roll down this arc like a springboard and fly off into the sky, falling apart. Now the words roll down the curve.

Jetzt fängt der Mann zu weinen an

Fragt sich was hab ich getan

Ich wollte nur zur Aussicht gehen

Und in den Abendhimmel sehen

Und sie schreien


Down below, people are waving and shouting something. Hundreds of sparks are flashed by the cameras: they are trying to capture him. Why? Or maybe it’s not about him? Maybe it’s the building, burrowed into the ground like a giant tree, that catches their attention. Maybe no one notices him at all.

He looks around, looking at the rugged silhouette of the city, illuminated by the setting sun. It looks like the forest he encountered on his way back home. It is distantly similar, because the forest is much larger, more majestic, because the forest spreads so wide that at times it seems insurmountable.

And now he doesn’t even want to overcome it.

Although… it’s all his own. Maybe he could find solace there.

Many people there almost worship them like gods. They call them sacred. They celebrate approaching happiness if they see them.

There are no cities there that look like a bunch of needles poking into the sky. Everything and everyone are closer to nature there, at least if you get to the right place.

So why did they come here? What called them to this distant land?

They came for warmth and sustenance. They came because they are used to coming. Because they didn’t know how to change, didn’t know how to seize new territory like humans. They came to the only place they knew.

On the shore of a beautiful lake they found their shelter, as they had always found it. The place was still there. Worse was the food.

That’s why the two of them went on their way. That’s why they came here: to the city, to the man.

That’s why she died.

Randomness: life is a chain of accidents.

Regularity: people trying to help in small things do not notice how they hurt in big things.

They cried when they found her. Dead. They cried. But do tears change anything?

Their fault.

Their fault!

Why does this world put up with what they do to it?!

The same song cuts through the crowd’s clamor again.

…tausend Sonnen brennen nur für dich…


Erlöse dich***

He’ll have to go, even if it’s without her.

Make their usual way for both of them. To worship the flourishing of that land as bequeathed by their nature.

It’s time. It’s time.

He opens towards the wind, clinging to its flow.

The fall… and the rise.

He makes a sharp turn and crosses the river and heads north, away from the city, into the night that engulfs its silhouette.


«Will he jump or not? Do you think he will?» the guy tosses the empty cup into the trash. «It should come out beautifully, I think.»

«I guess. They’re rare around here. I mean, in the city. Usually they stick to the park, the lakes. They say it’s good luck to see one. Have you heard of it?»

He nods.

«Yes. It’s full of these symbols: posters, magnets, stamps,» he points the camera phone again at the green and red lights illuminated on the pavilion, the silhouette standing almost motionless on this man-made cliff. «They are weird, really: the proportions, the colors.»

«But beautiful,» objected his buddy. «White always looks great.»

«It’s a pity he’s alone. I think they usually travel in pairs. I’d love to see them dance! Oh! Look, look! He jumped!»

Above their heads, spreading its snowy wings, the Siberian Crane plummets from the roof and, with a long cooing sound that resonates throughout the neighborhood, flies north to catch up with the spring coming to its homeland.

* Here is an approximate translation. With great gratitude and respect:

* Rammstein, Spring

The crowd begins to rage,

They want his insides.

And they shout.


** Rammstein, Spring

The man begins to cry

He asks: «What did I do?»

I just wanted to look at the view

And the evening sky.

And they shout.


*** Rammstein, Spring

…a thousand suns burn only for you…


Spare yourself


Two pairs of eyes watched through the narrow pupil of the porthole as the thin cable unfolded in the darkness, stretching more and more, almost indistinguishable against the ghostly blue glow of Earth’s atmosphere. The graphite-gray strand emerging from the A-11 airlock had already gained full length, and the platform attached from below must have already reached the South American stratospheric port, flying a dozen kilometers above the planet’s surface. So, it would be no more than an hour or two before we descended.

«Has the guy changed his mind? Still want to risk it?» an elderly trembling voice cut through the quiet hum of the thirty-third compartment’s walkway zone.

«No. You can’t talk him out of it once he’s made up his mind,» the respondent said, not hiding a bit of regret. «You know… that’s why he’s here, if you think about it.»

«Yeah… What if… what if he makes it? After all, they do work on those costumes, Ars.»

His friend shrugged his shoulders. His cheekbone face, riddled with a mesh of wrinkles — the evidence of a tumultuous life — twisted into a grimace of doubt.

«Well, so far, none of them have been successful with that option. And anyway… Tell me, Charlie, how many people have gone back down? In your memory? Not just like that, almost directly, but through other experiments? How many have won their freedom?»

The old man scratched his bald head, sighed, and hunched over more than usual.


«Yeah! And how many people have tried? Two dozen? Three? Five? I’ve lost count.»

«Actually, this guy seems to be on his game.»

«Yep… But I don’t understand why he’s so eager to go back. What’s pulling him there? I mean, he’s struggled with this new system himself.»

«And he’s got it, isn’t he?» Ars grinned wryly, «no one chip here. Consider it the freedom he wanted.»

«Freedom?!» his interlocutor rounded his eyes, smiled, and laughed, clucking. «Freedom… oh, I can’t… Here on the „Daisy“? Hey! Freedom!»

Continuing to cheer, Charlie took a dozen steps to the right, bumped into a silvery wall, turned around, shuffling in an attempt to imitate running, and moved back. Another thirty steps and another obstacle in the way. The laughter broke off. The old man slammed his palm on the metal surface:

«Here it is, our freedom. Thirty meters across, and that’s it. Is this cage better than that one?»


The Experimental Correctional Station, or, to put it simply, the orbital prison, has been circling the Earth for almost half a century.

The inmates affectionately and ironically called it «Daisy» because of its resemblance to a multi-petal flower. The visual resemblance, however, was the end of the story.

The multilayered disk with its petal compartments was spinning nonstop around the control module sphere, which also served as an intake and distribution point for new arrivals. However, the West Space Elevator’s delivery pods came no more than once a week, or even less frequently, so the central sector was not under much strain. The fully automated system coped with its task perfectly.

The most dangerous criminals on the planet were kept here: maniacs, terrorists, and also political opponents who were not successful but posed a threat. «The risk of undermining social foundations, the welfare of the population,» as they called it, those who managed to exile their enemies who created obstacles on their way to power here. Or perhaps the prisoners here were indeed monsters?

They kept three of them per unit and never all of them were seated at the same time. Old-timers and newcomers were regularly swapped places: one by one they were transferred to other cells or to newly-joined cells. Occasionally, prisoners were given the opportunity to communicate not only with their cellmates, but also with other residents of the prison through the internal communication system, but few became buddies or even friends in such an environment. The majority suffered from loneliness.

And the owners of the station turned it to their advantage.

Maintaining a prison in orbit was not cheap, even with stably operating space elevators and available energy. Therefore, the ECS became a base for experiments: they were always well paid, especially the extreme ones. And where to find test subjects for this, if not among criminals? A longstanding practice, in general.

And if you turn everything into a show… A show, with stakes on the outcome of each experience. A show with stakes on someone else’s life. Will the subject survive chemical blood modification? Will the subject remain sane after exposure to infrasound? Will the bones withstand the wave blows? Will a person be able to descend into the atmosphere without a capsule, only in a spacesuit?

The ECS program has long rivaled the profitability of the best casinos on Earth: the chances of winning are so slim — prisoners almost always go to waste — but the sweeter the desired prize.

Only in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to understand the true meaning of the station’s existence: the isolation of scoundrels from society plus scientific achievements or, all the same, the spectacle.

Well, anyway, he’s already made up his mind. He can be a lab rat, a clown, a buffoon for a while, if the final result is what they promise. If he wins.

Christophe heard bursts of laughter behind the thin bulkhead of his room: the old buddies managed to have fun even here in the cage.

At first, when he just arrived here, the other people, the other inhabitants of this enclosed piece of space, seemed a boon. You might say they helped him get used to it. But now the cellmates only got in the way. For three days now — since the announcement of his participation in the descent experiment — they had dissuaded him as best they could. They assured him that it was a lost cause, that no one could manage it, that there was too much unpredictability in the case.

By the devil, he’ll manage to get through the suit and make it all the way down. He’ll go all the way and come back down. And then… then we’ll see.

Yes, everyone on Earth considers him a monster, perhaps even his former comrades-in-arms, his friends. But he would explain it to them, prove it to them. He was right, no matter what. It was worth it.

It was worth it!


In the experimental sector A, work was in full swing.

Preparing for the descent. The experience was to be the seventy-third, unless a participant dropped out at the last minute. This was the year that about half of the applicants withdrew from the experiment before launch. Fear, and justifiably so.

Flying down from the station to the stratospheric port, without pods or anything like that, just in a spacesuit — it was scary for her too. Of course, there was a rope, but it was rather for the cameras — so that the participant of the experience did not fly out of sight. And this thin string is not too reliable: even thick webs of space-lift systems sometimes break, but here is only a triple tape of the twentieth order.

Eight to ten hours total, if the wearable engines work properly. Eight to ten hours of uncertainty and stress for the participant. All for the purpose of testing a new suit. Or was it for the show?

A successful descent will give the prisoner his freedom, so one can understand his motives. But why return someone so dangerous to Earth? Take this one, the current one…

A middle-aged woman in a thick, light-colored jumpsuit was scrutinizing the file on the holoscreen.

«Christophe Jes. Thirty-two years old. White.

Born in Spain. Parents unknown.

Boarding School…


Technical University… Included among the most promising graduates.

«Cyclone» Corporation, Development Department

Dismissal. Participation in protests against the new intrachip.

Video: «The installation of the sixth generation of Cyclone subdural chip is to enslave you! Your habitual assistant will become your controller, your overseer, your judge and executioner! Don’t switch to upgraded programs! Refuse to modify for your children! Our designs are stolen and corrected.

The possibility of total external control is real, and you may even suffer physically: reactions to stimulation are not well studied. There are victims in experimental groups who are hidden from you.

Get rid of the chip…»

First detentions. Litigation with «Cyclone» Corporation and the International Modification Agency.

Involvement in the explosion at the «Cyclone» plant in Monterey. Destruction of three million intrachips. Casualties: thirty killed (five terrorists), fifteen wounded. Damage…»

Yeah, and this guy could end up on the outside, back downstairs! How can you give such a guy a chance? So many people have suffered, died, and he calls them «accidental, but justified victims»! Does trying to save millions — supposedly save millions — justify the death of even one person? «The factory workers were involved...they knew who they were working for...the costs...It’s hard to conduct such an operation without getting dirty.» Jes’s words came up again and again in her brain, making her wrinkle in pain.

Is it possible to return such madman?

But it’s not up to her to decide. The corporation expects a super-successful edition of the show: the culprit has managed to become recognizable in the farthest corners of the Earth. The stakes almost broke the record of the biomodeling experience before last (ugh, creepy critter came out then).

The woman turned off the projection, turned around. Through the half-glass door of the A-11 airlock she could clearly see the manipulators being operated by her assistants. Metal arms, hoses and visors were completing the final assembly of the descent suit, checking seams, joints, fuel cells, and oxygen cylinders.

In ten minutes, the prisoner will be brought in. In twenty, he will enter outer space and slowly fly toward his desired freedom.

But it’s not up to her, is it?


It took him minutes to get into his spacesuit, but it seemed unbearably long. However, he was too impatient, and there were still ten hours of one-on-one time with the space. But when every moment brings you closer to Earth, it is difficult to remain calm.

His heart was pounding more than usual, but Christophe managed to pull himself together: the art of meditation was doing its job even now, when silence and solitude were out of the question.

The suite fit him perfectly — at least the prisoners had learned not to tamper with the cut — and, at first glance, should have done its job. The air conditioning, the humidity and temperature control, the lightweight exoskeleton with reinforcements at the neck, lumbar and joints, the water and nutrient supply tubes-all seemed smartly made, with clear plans to use the suit in the future.

The engine, despite its compactness, weighed on his shoulders and back, pinning Jes to the floor, but in a second the exoskeleton worked at full power, taking and redistributing the weight so that the entire suit began to feel no heavier than a simple city backpack. Yes, not a bad technique.

For some reason he felt truly protected. So much so that he didn’t hesitate to step into the void behind the open mouth of the airlock as soon as the signal sounded.

His palms touched the rope, attaching the last hold, then unfastened the carabiners still holding Christophe to the «Daisy», and began the glide into the void, toward the beckoning blue ball. He moved slowly at first, adjusting to the position of his body in space, recovering his momentarily disrupted breath, but after three hundred meters from the station Jes was fully assembled and, giving the command, started the engine.

Home… High, bright skies and waves lapping on the shore… See you soon…


Charlie took a decent bite of the lunch sandwich, unleavened, like cardboard or sawdust. No, he hadn’t lost his taste from worry; it was just that good food was never here. Well, munching on it while you gawk at the descent would do.

They were lucky this time: the petal of their compartment was pointed almost in the center today, so that there was a good view of the descent string — compared to the outer sectors, which would see nothing at all.

Ars came over and looked out the window as well.

«So, we haven’t started yet?»

«That’s right, you’re just in time. Look, the airlock is already opening.»

The buddies clung to the glass.

A man rolled out of the airlock membrane and quickly crawled along the cable. Though in his experimental spacesuit he looked more like an insect — a snow-white mixture of a grasshopper and a crunch larva. Slightly flaring engines behind him enveloped crimson glow the frail figure against the background of the huge planet.

«Look how fast he is! It’s as if he’s been preparing somewhere.»

«Hmm… indeed. Maybe he can do it.»

The man was hurtling downward faster and faster. Soon he was nothing but a gleaming blob flowing down a gray vein.

«I think it’s… it’s lower now, like…» Charlie didn’t finish.

A carmine-yellow flash pierced the darkness. The rope, torn by the explosion, was thrown in the direction of the station. A moment — and nothing more reminded of the failed attempt to return.

«I knew it!» Ars huffed. «I told you they were shooting them with garbage on purpose, and you’re an „accident is an accident.“ Scientists, my ass! A little debris — there’s not many of them flying around, huh? Just bad luck. Boom! Ratings!»

«Why didn’t you tell him?» Charlie sighed and shook his head.

«How could I not?! I warned him. But do they listen? They’re all drawn back… there’s nothing you can do to stop that power…»


Purrer woke up earlier than usual today. Softly, but perceptibly, all the nearby compartments vibrated, following the uterine grunt of gears, pumps, filters, and ducts.

«Purrer» is how the stationers nicknamed the orbital gravity drill — a huge structure that occupied almost half of the cruiser, not counting the storage facilities.

Tamor felt the floor shake as he sat down at the communal table. He was on time: he hadn’t even spilled his vitamin shake. The boys, on the other hand, were a little late.

It’s to be expected, though. They’re always sleeping when they get a day off.

It’s all right, they’ll all get a real rest soon enough, and they should just go home.

Rechce stumbled into the canteen, rattling, hooking the doorjamb with his shoulder, as usual.

Yes, the engineers had somehow failed to take into account the fact that new races were involved in the missions. That’s why the golut didn’t fit in half of the aisles. True, we should not forget the natural clumsiness of this snow-white hulk.

Several new threads were added to the cobwebs of small cracks in the light green panels of the hall’s panelling. Rechce, naturally, paid no attention to this.

«Hey, Brigadier!» he shouted loudly as he made his way over to Tamor. «They’re early today, ain’t they? In a hurry. Good, ’cause I’m sick and tired of being stuck here eating this crap… What are they serving, by the way?»

Golut looked at his companion’s plate, grinned dismissively, and rushed to the food counter. The android scurried about, fulfilling his ever-increasing order. In the end, Rechce sat down next to his friend, taking up most of the table with his tray of piled food. Tamor only smiled as he watched the big chunks of meat, bowls of salad, and a whole box of donuts disappear into his friend’s mouth. He himself contented with a couple of sandwiches and two cups of coffee and milk: he was just savoring the last sips.

Golut burped when he ate, spoiling all the fun of breakfast with the stench that came out. It wasn’t the first time, though, and the station men were used to more than that.

«Hey, Tam, do you think, if this is the way things are going, when do you think we’ll be done?»

«Well, if the commander doesn’t change the schedule, three or four days at the most,» he looked out the wide window, behind which a dusty red-brown ball was slowly spinning. «Yeah, that’s about right.»

«I wish,» Rechce patted himself on his hairy belly. «I want to go to my mom’s house to get a decent meal, huh?»

The foreman indefinitely shrugged his shoulders: no one was waiting for him at Tsimfei.

«To be honest, though,» his comrade continued, «I don’t understand why we’re hanging around here at all. Everything important has been taken out long ago, so what else are they looking for? There’s only stone.»

In a sense, he was right: every living thing had been moved years ago — every animal, fish or bird, every bacterium, every tree or seed. Next came water, then metals, and now, really, only ancient rocks and a lukewarm core remained.

«I don’t know… the consul knows best.»

«The Consul, oh, please! No,» golut shook his finger, «it’s his henchman that’s inducing him. Search and dig! More for me, more for me! What’s a man need so much for, I ask you? The capital swindler!»

Behind them rumbled a pot that had fallen: the mechanical dispenser had become loose lately, often dropping dishes. The sound echoed through the dining room. A rattling sounded sick to the ears, and then faded away.

Rechce snorted.

«Oh, yeah! He grabs and saves on equipment. Although… Did I hear the „Purrer“ is going to be decommissioned after this mission?»

Tamor nodded.

«Most likely. Some parts are useless to fix, you know. It’s even a bit of a pity: it was a good station.»

«Aha! Deserved to be here, didn’t it?»

«More than any other,» the foreman agreed, looking around the shabby room, the tired colleagues eating lunch, the view outside the window. «And I’m glad I’m here, even though it’s sad.»

«Yes, unfortunately,» golut shook his hairy head, «but it’s inevitable. This star has just a little bit left, and after… poof! It’s all done in time.»

«Just in time… But it still shrinks inside: the cradle of humanity, after all.»

Behind the transparent glasses, against the background of a huge scarlet ball, a stony blob, once known as Earth, swirled into the gut of the «Purrer».

Witches don’t belong here

To think how it worked out!

Here she is again in Ilfania in her old age. And again, she huddles in the little hut on the Marshlands, just like in her youth, when no one knew the novice witch yet.

Then they found out, of course. Of course, they did.

And now… they’ve forgotten. She should to remind, but her strength is not the same, and the desire, to be honest, almost no more.

Is that too much to ask?

Just not to live in the damp, where old bones break so much. Just a little memory, a little respect.

No, no one needs an ancient sorceress either there or here.

Barbeza sighed, grunted, stepped over the high threshold, climbed out onto the porch, and sat down in the shabby, creaky rocking chair, exposing her wrinkled face to the spring sun.

Below, on a large boulder on a path winding through the woods, a grass snake was basking in the warm rays, its black, resinous scales gleaming.

Heh… here she is, like a snake, crawling out of its den-lodge, to fry her bones. As if her own heat is no longer enough, as if the body is gradually taken over by a cold grave mist.

Oh, no! She’s not going to die like that, in the middle of nowhere and oblivion. She must, she must leave something behind… Only, what?

Lost in her thoughts, the witch, soaking in the sun, soon fell asleep. The lullaby of the wind rustling the young leaves and the chirping of the countless birds that inhabited the thickets near the marsh lulled her into a deeper and deeper reverie of her past.


A hundred and fifty years ago, Ilfania was a veritable haven for magic.

Who hasn’t met in its forest thickets, high mountains, and cool lakes? And there is no need to talk about the Marshlands.

Mermaids and woodsmen, goblins and dwarves, trolls, faeries and even dragons.

And there was no shortage of mages and witches. Well, not so many that their art ceased to amaze, but many. And their skills were valued: they could heal a cow, help a woman in labor, or help a king in battle. Oh, well, yes, they could also send rot on the neighbor’s field or boils on the old miller’s ass. Yes, it happened. But for the cause! Yes, yes!

To say that all the wizards were like cheese in butter, no. But they lived decently: they didn’t have to worry about food and shelter. And when a monster came out of the woods, they had to get some gold: what better way to smoke a stinking grisna out of a barn than with witches’ candles? Who else but a magician could drive away a dragon?

Everyone bowed to them when they met, invited them for tea and coffee, invited them to weddings, and to funerals to weep, to light a fire for spirits. Beautiful!

They were called to serve from neighboring lands too: the local wizards were always in short supply, and they also often went to Ilfania, to the roots, for training.

She herself was born there. Lucky. She had been under Gartanda’s wing, and she’d been in cromlech — magic circle — all her childhood. And how she learned to make potions was astonishing. For love, for battle, for health, and for sickness. Sweet as honey or the cries of lovers, and bitter as wormwood or heartbreak.

With her potions and brews she traveled halfway around the world. She had seen such wonders. She saw the wild seas with flying ships-like-birds on them (she never sailed herself, though — she was terribly nauseated, until she turned green and warts popped out), and rocks, high and smooth, like heavenly fortresses, rivers and deserts, hills and valleys…

…swirling in a dreamlike circle, the states and cities, forbidden lands passed by… thousands of faces… and the sky, always the sky. Formidable and dark, with bluish-purple clouds bringing downpour; blue, bright like periwinkles, with flocks of lamb-like clouds; almost white, sultry, dazzling, like death itself… the sky…

It was the potions that ruined her. Or rather, not the potions, but the dragons.

She found common ground… ha! With those creatures! No, some really worked: barrels of her brew were bought off from scaly monsters in Ilfania, and Pranezh, and in Sukhumet. Ugh! She had to shake in roads with all these travels.

Then they called her to Gizel. She stayed there for a long time… she could have stayed there forever, but she was too brainless. She wanted power. Old fool! She’s been around a long time; she’s seen it all.

And then there was this dragon…

Ugh… a stone-skinned lizard… it will be damned… it was bad lucky thing to get in touch, to get herself hopes up…

It was not her fault, though. It was him, Dorrenoi. What a geezer! How could he have known?

How could it not occur to her that the royal advisor knew all the ins and outs of the swamp creatures? They had worked side by side for so long.

Eh! Krumland’s promises clouded her head. If it were money — Gaffaro paid good money, too. After all, he promised the entire Zhemyr Grove, the bastard, along with the stone ringland, yes, yes. She was so glad that the idiot didn’t know what he was promising. She should have wondered if he knew what he was getting into at all, but she was blinded by greed.

With the main ring of the entire kingdom of Gisel, she would have gathered her conclave: among the ancients of that time, she was still considered a young girl. And she was a young girl compared to the walking relics that led the Ilfania coven and Hutumet, she was. It would take a long time to wait, and then there had to be a choice… there were always plenty of applicants.

And here was an unoccupied prime circle for nothing, and in a place like this…

Ah! Such a chance she missed!

And she did everything she was supposed to do. She made potions for the Krumland rabble, and spells, and handed out a whole bag of rune stones (she’d been poring over them for months, by the way). And still, it didn’t work.

And it could not come out… if you look at it now… Too hot and reckless was the Duke, so he burned, figuratively speaking.

And Gaffaro had done well. Gisel is still in full bloom, and soon his grandson will be on the throne.

Only the old witch can’t go there. They called her a traitor. A traitor! Thank gods, not tarred and feathered, not executed, but simply kicked out. It would have been nice for her to be in the south: no winter, no dampness, and a house not like these shambles here.

…a single tear rolled down the wrinkled cheek of the slumbering old woman…

For a while she was able to settle down in Pranezh, near Kakhnitz, in the district of Martz. She collected herbs and cured the sick. She lived with a farmer who gave her a nice, bright room with windows overlooking the brook and the birches. She ate sweet: fresh milk, fresh butter, bread only from the oven. She went to take care of his cattle, in case of illness or a calf going wrong during calving. She taught his little daughter witchcraft wisdoms: not seriously — the little girl had no abilities, but to distinguish herbs and roots, not to take poisonous berries, and to understand when to wait for rain, yes.

In general, lived a good life, without honors and power, but well-fed and quiet.

The only trouble was, there was a rumor that there were evil spirits in all the nearest lakes, mermaids, dragging and devouring the occasional traveler. Nonsense, of course: there were only two or three water maidens in all Pranezh, not to mention Martz, and only one nearby, in the Maiden’s Pond. And they didn’t eat humans at all: fish, mostly, and small animals and birds that happened to be near the shore, close to their clinging tentacles.

In short, foolishness and fear, grown on gossip passed on to one another. She’d be surprised if anyone actually managed to see a water maiden: they live in too secluded a place to be seen by accident.

But foolishness is foolishness, and who do you think was blamed for it? Yeah, her, Barbeza, who didn’t know anything about it. Well, they blamed her. They looked at her and whispered, and stopped ordering her potions. And then her landlord hinted that it would be a good idea to think about changing places. Kicked her out, what else can you say. He gave her, however, a donkey and a cart, so she could take her belongings with her. Didn’t deprive her with provisions and water either. A good man, but a coward, like all of them.

She herself had never had a reason to be afraid.

So, she wandered back to her sweet home, hah. She hoped that witches in Ilfania were still understood and appreciated. She was wrong. It wasn’t surprising: a hundred years had passed since she’d left there to seek her fortune.

And here, oh, how things have changed.

Magic came to be considered almost an old fairy tale. And even if they were suspicious, they often just scoffed. They dismissed spells and runes, and didn’t take potions. There were now medics and apothecaries, agronomists and chemists. Scientists. They turned their noses up at her mere appearance, except occasionally they bought herbs and roots on the cheap.

She would have shown them all before! Now there was almost no strength left, just occasional bursts. Only the recipes were firmly fixed in her head, but the formerly boiling energy had gone somewhere, as if absorbed in the sand. In the sand, which is what is pouring out of her, she must admit.

She couldn’t afford a decent place to live, and couldn’t find anyone willing to shelter the old woman (and it wasn’t because of her stubborn, mule-like character, right), so she had to go back to where it started.

The Ilfania coven had long since disintegrated, the witches almost extinct after the destruction of their ring (less than a dozen white stones sticking out of the ground like broken teeth, overgrown with bindweed and hemlock), so there was no place for their fellow witches either.

But her home hut still stood at the border with the Marshlands, just beyond the bright forest edge, in a clearing overgrown by raspberry bushes over the years of neglect. Well, it was only for the best: one could squeeze through the path, no casual passers-by would get in, and the raspberries were tasty.


Книга предназначена
для читателей старше 18 лет

Бесплатный фрагмент закончился.

Купите книгу, чтобы продолжить чтение.