Fantasy

The Snow Maid

The dying man got dressed.

Not that dying was going to be very hard, Bill Carter thought with a weak thread of his old humor. Easier than dressing, at least. Pain hampering every move in his hands and wrists, he managed to zip and button his heavy parka. A thick wool cap was forced over his head and ears, and he pulled the hood of his coat over it all. He eyed his boots with a malevolent glare, then bent down to force them over his numb feet.

Lastly, the gloves. Using his teeth to aid his clumsy, frozen fingers, he pulled them on, grateful that the weak light from the electric lamp did not show him the ruin of his once-healthy body. Breath steaming in the brutally cold air, he shuffled over to Olaf and nudged him with his foot. Once, then again. Outside, the raging wind howled inland from the Kara Sea, shrieking its fury at anyone who was stupid or foolish enough to dare to challenge it.

Olaf’s eyes blinked open. The large Swede looked up, frost crystals in his beard.

“I am just going outside, Olaf,” Bill said shakily, keeping his voice low so he didn’t wake the others. “And I may be some time. Make sure you close and tie the door flap behind me. I can’t do much with these anymore,” he said with a weak wave of his hands.

“My friend,” Olaf said, his voice weak, “Are you sure?”

Bill did not trust himself enough to speak. Instead, he nodded. Olaf slowly crawled out of his sleeping bag and staggered over to the front of the tent. Silently, he gripped Bill’s shoulder. Frozen tears formed on his cheeks as he wept.

“May the good God bring you home safe, my friend.”

“And you,” Bill replied, though he had given up his belief in the almighty on this hellish journey. “Get back safe to that pretty wife of yours, and give her a child or two.”

“If I do, one of them will share your name. Go now, before my heart breaks.” He knelt on the frozen canvas and unzipped the front flap.

Bill Carter took one last deep breath, and committed suicide.

%%%

It was easier than he thought. The powdery snow did not hamper his movements much, and he was able to set a good pace. It was only a matter of moments before he had left the ragged, windswept camp which was all that remained of the once proud Russian-American Novaya Zemlya Expedition.

A tribute, Bill thought bitterly, to American arrogance and Russian incompetence and corruption. The expedition had been the brainchild of a consortium of oil and mining firms, who were convinced that vast amounts of precious metals and petroleum could be found and extracted along the hostile coast of Arctic Russia. They had underwritten the costs, and forty men and women had been chosen to take part in an expedition to Novaya Zemlya, a pair of islands off the northwest Russian mainland.

However, the expedition had been grounded for weeks by foul weather. With the narrow window to do fieldwork closing, the lead American, a geologist for the petroleum industry, had insisted that they fly in on a huge Chinook helicopter, and wait for the supporting water craft to meet them where their base was to be established. He had ignored the advice of the mission meteorologist, a bright young man from St. Paul, Minnesota, named William Carter.

Well, I showed him, didn’t I? Bill thought morbidly, stumbling through a drift. McKenzie had died when the helicopter crashed, gale force winds throwing it down onto the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean like a wad of paper. Only eleven of them had survived the crash and the terrible days that followed, when they realized that most of the emergency supplies and medical equipment had been stolen or sold on the black market, and that the electronics and radio had been irreparably damaged.

And that for some crazy reason, no one had bothered putting in cell phone service at the top of the world.

Despairing, the survivors had made a grim bid for life. Using whatever tools they could scavenge or make, the had peeled away part of the hull of the helicopter to use as a sledge to pull their supplies across the ice in a desperate attempt to reach civilization. But they didn’t have enough food or fuel or anything else, and three of them had already died of exposure and malnutrition.

Four, thought Bill. He looked for a sheltered spot.

They had made it to the southern of the two islands, but the food situation was growing desperate. Bill had come down with severe frostbite in the fingers of his right hand and in both feet. When the wounds turned gangrenous he knew his time had come.

Simple math, really. If I’m gone, there will be more food for everyone else. Maybe Olaf and Ludmilla can get them to Belushya Guba. I doubt it, though.

Better chance than you do, Carter, he snickered.

God, I’m tired.

The sun must have come up behind the clouds, for the thin light was growing stroner. Through the veils of blowing snow, Bill saw a finger of stone jutting up from the arctic plain. It was at least fifteen feet tall, and four or five feet wide. At its base, on the side away from the wind, a small patch of bare ground was in view.

That’ll do.

With fading strength, he lurched into the lee of the stone. He sat down and curled his legs up into his body and crossed his arms across his chest. For a moment, his shivers eased and he felt almost warm. He looked up into the sky. The storm must have been breaking, because he could see thin streaks of blue between the ragged gray clouds.

He felt oddly calm. Does it hurt to die? he thought. I don’t think so. Remember when you had the lower GI a few years back? One second you were on the gurney, waiting for a doctor to shove a camera up your butt. The next you were awake in the recovery room putting on your clothes.

I hope it’s like that. God, I would have liked to see my folks again. And Jim and Nancy. And sit out at night with a beer and watch the sun set.

I wish…

The last thing that Bill Carter felt, before Death came walking up to take him, was the false warmth of hypothermia.

He smiled.

%%%

Grandmother Snegurochka sat listlessly in her old rocking chair by the pale fire. Her head drooped, and the bone needles nearly fell from her grasp. The gray shawl she was knitting sat uselessly in her lap.

So tired, she thought despairingly. I am so tired. So long without someone to talk to. No one to share a cup of tea with in the evening. No one to play with in bed.

She snorted indelicately. As if anyone would want to engage in bed-sport with her now. Old, wrinkled, gray and spotted. She was missing teeth, and her fading vision told her that soon she would be blind as well.

Give it up, her mind taunted her. The old ways are gone, and you are a relic whose time is past. Give it up. Go to sleep with the rest of your kin.

“No,” she said. Her voice quavered, but the will behind it was firm. “I am the daughter of Winter, in Winter’s mightiest stronghold. I will not bid this earth farewell. There is still time.”

Time for what, old woman? The globe grows warmer every year. Men defile it with smoke and poison. In time, endless summer will come even here. Snow melts, and even the mightiest glaciers can fall.

“No,” she whispered. Tears rose in her eyes and traced wandering paths down her wrinkled cheeks, “I won’t let that happen, I…”

From above came a brazen tone, as if a brass gong had been struck by a stone club.

“Sun and steam!” she swore. She shook her mind free of the web of deceit her wandering thoughts had woven about her and cast it upwards into the World Above.

A man; fragile, frozen, and exhausted, he sat huddled at the Gate.

A sacrifice. After all these years, a sacrifice.

Ignoring her screaming hip and aching back, Snegurochka leaped out of her chair and dashed for the exit of the House Below. Hobbled by her age, she ignored the cloaks and coats in the hall, pausing only to grab the long-forgotten carry-all by the door, which contained what she needed to bring a mortal into her home. All the while, her thought clung to the fading life above her. So fragile a flame, so close to being blown out by the elements.

With a chanted spell that was half a scream, she stepped across the threshold into the mortal realm.

%%%

Bill opened his eyes. Then he frowned and blinked. He was, it seemed, alive.

Which was, in a small way, a disappointment, considering how nobly he had acted to save his friends, he thought with a small smile.

He was lying on his back on a small bed that was almost sinfully comfortable. Fat pillows were propped behind his head, and soft cotton sheets caressed his body. A thick comforter, merrily decorated with warm designs in red and orange, brought needed color to the hospital room.

It has to be a hospital room, right? he thought foggily. Flogging his memory, he could only catch glimpses of the time from when he had sat by the standing stone and when he woke up. The clearest was that of a pale face hovering over him, and a voice asking if he was “the sacrifice”, and his mumbled answer that yes, he was, and could she stop hurting his feet, since they would have to be amputated anyway?

If it was a hospital room, it was decidedly strange. Despite the clear white light that filled the room, he could not see any sign of light fixtures. And the walls, though colored in pleasant pastel shades of blue and green, were oddly curved where they met the floor and the high ceiling, without sharp corners, giving the room the feel of a tiny cathedral.

Bill shuddered, remembering how he had resigned himself to death. Any room, however strange, was preferable to that. He wiggled deeper into the thick blankets, reveling in the feeling of warmth that he thought he had lost forever.

Why are hospital rooms always so cold? he thought sleepily, then drifted off again.

%%%

When he woke for the second time, he felt far more alert. Either the drugs were wearing off, or he was recovering from his ordeal.

Probably the first, he thought. He had seen pictures of arctic explorers in the old days, those who had not been careful enough, or lucky enough, to avoid frostbite. The photos of fingers and toes, black and hideously swollen, had warned him of the danger. But warning had not been enough. The unending, brutal cold had taken its toll on his body, and by the start of the second week on the ice Bill had seen the first traces of frostbite pop up. He had done his best to contain the damage, but by the time he left the tent he knew that even if by some miracle he survived, he would be missing both feet and at least three fingers of his right hand.

Remembering that, he steeled himself as he moved his right arm into view.

And saw a perfectly ordinary hand, completely unblemished.

He was still pale-faced and white with shock when she came into the room.

It was a good thing, he thought later, when he had time to consider such things, that he had been so surprised by the continued existence of his hand that the appearance of Svetlana caused no more than mild confusion.

She was dressed in the colors of an unhappy winter. She wore a heavy, shapeless dress, the color of dirty snow. Below the low hem, he could glimpse dark gray stockings and slippers made from the dark fur of some animal, possibly a wolf. She wore silver at her wrists and her ears, and a thin chain of pale gold around her throat.

She was very old. Old enough, Bill thought, to be his grandmother. Her long gray hair was long and straight, but raggedly cut around her pale, lined face. Years of wrinkles were in the corners of her eyes and her mouth. One eye was cloudy, as if a cataract was forming there. The other was as gray as her dress, and disturbingly alert and direct.

One of the old Soviets, Bill thought. A doctor or nurse who left her hospital or lost her job when the old system collapsed back in the nineties. He had read that there were many of them on the fringes of society in Putin’s Russia, former professionals making do as best they could, living on the remains of their pensions and helping people when they needed it. Could she have seen our tent and called in a rescue for us?

She walked quickly up to the bed and threw back the covers, exposing him to the waist. She laid one hand on his forehead, and the other on the inside of his elbow. They were both frigidly cold, and he flinched away.

“What…”

“Hush,” she said in a distracted tone. “You’ll make me lose count.”

Confused, he held his tongue, even as he blushed in embarrassment. After a few moments, she removed her hands and smiled at him, displaying slightly crooked teeth in a careworn face.

“Well, the fever is gone, and your pulse is steady. The hand is well?”

He held it up and wiggled the fingers experimentally. “It seems to be…Doctor…”

“I am Polina,” she said. She pulled the covers the rest of the way down, ignoring both his startled yelp and his nudity. His feet, he saw, were as undamaged as his hand. She tested them briefly with her hands, then nodded, satisfied.

“Your feet are recovered as well.” Her cold hand dropped briefly to the inside of his thigh, and she examined his groin. “No damage there, thanks be to the High One.” To Bill’s intense relief his cock lay limp and flaccid against his leg. Despite the fantasies of young men, he knew enough to know that women nurses and doctors did not fall madly in lust as soon as one of their patients displayed an erect penis.

It would be even worse to do it in front of a woman who was obviously long past such recreational thoughts.

Polina tsked irritably. “Well, I suppose that will need some time to recover. You have had an intense trauma, after all.” her voice was slightly accented, but she spoke English well. She looked at his torso critically, counting the ribs in his too-thin chest.

“Excuse me,” Bill said. “I don’t quite understand. Are you a nurse? A doctor? Where am I? What happened to my friends?

“Your friends?” she asked. “That would be the men and women in the cloth hut a short distance from where you collapsed? Seven of them?”

“Yes!” Bill said eagerly. “Are they still there? Why didn’t you rescue them, too?”

Polina’s voice was confused. “Why should I save them? You are the sacrifice. You were at the stone pillar. I saved you. They are the ones you gave your life for. Their lives are in your hands now. What would you have happen to them?”

Something is very wrong, Bill thought. Either I am going crazy, or we are speaking the same language with entirely different meanings.

Think, Carter.

He had been dying of malnutrition and exposure, and had medical issues which modern science could not cure. He was now lying in a bed, warm and safe, with all his wounds healed.

Reason said this was impossible.

Reason could go fuck itself, Bill decided. Either I am still dying, and all this is a hallucination before I slip away entirely, or this is reality. Either way, I have to try to help my friends.

“Let me make sure I have this right,” he said slowly. “The place you found me means that I am a sacrifice. Which means that you now have an obligation to aid those I choose. Is that correct?”

Polina shrugged, displaying an appalling lack of concern for his companions. “Within limits. I cannot summon a boat to take them off dry land, or cause them to fly.”

“They need food. Shelter. Warmth. A chance to survive until they can reach more of our kind.”

Our kind? Why did I say that?

Polina nodded. “Let me think.” After a moment she nodded and smiled, satisfied. “A very stupid bear has eaten a rotting seal carcass not far from where your friends are. He is going to collapse and die. I have made sure he does it within a few yards of your friends’ tent.

“They will also be astonished to find an abandoned stone hut only a few hundred yards away from where they camped. Doubtless they missed it in the snow and wind the night before. It has, amazingly enough, a large supply of driftwood stacked outside. The fire, food, and shelter should be enough to keep them safe until the men searching for them can find them.”

Bill bowed his head in gratitude. Tears formed in his eyes and dripped down his cheeks. Normally not an emotional man, he found himself overcome by the thought that the people with whom he had shared the most terrible of journeys would survive, even though he might never see them again.

“I am in your debt,” he said softly.

“Yes, you are,” she agreed frankly. She patted his hand where it lay on the coverlet. “Luckily enough, you will spend the rest of your life paying it off.

“Now, child, how would you like something to eat?” She sniffed the air disapprovingly. “Or maybe a bath first?”

Bill agreed eagerly. He had not bathed or washed since the night before the crash. Sweat, grime, and the stink of gangrene had suffused every stitch of his clothing until his own smell nauseated him. Though his clothes had been removed, the foul smell wafting up from his skin was far from pleasant.

He swung his legs out of the bed and stood up, staggering only a little. He tried to cover his nudity with his hands, and heard Polina sniff disparagingly.

“Don’t be silly, young one. You don’t have anything down there that could possibly offend me.”

He walked behind her as she led him down the hall, and was startled to find that she was much smaller than her strong personality would indicate. Bill was not a large man, but the top of Polina’s head would barely reach his chin.

Child’s height, adult’s will, he thought with amusement.

The floor of the hall was tiled in colors of pink and pale blue, and was frigid against the bare skin of his feet. Somehow, though, neither the freezing tiles or the cold air of the hall made him cold. It was as if the temperature was a fact which had nothing to do with his body.

Wouldn’t even have to worry about “shrinkage”, if there was anyone around who could possibly appreciate it, he thought.

She led him into a large room, which in contrast to the hall, was filled with warmth. Wisps of steam rose from a huge copper tub in the middle of the room, filled to within inches of the brim with water. Towels and soap lay nearby.

“Clean yourself. When you are done, come and find me, and I will feed you. To find the kitchen, go past the room that you woke in, then take the right-hand turning.” She smiled, the expression surprisingly young on her seamed face.

“Or simply follow your nose.”

%%%

Bathing was an unimaginable luxury. After weeks where the sweat of hauling the makeshift sledge had mingled with the acrid smell of desperation and fear, the sinful pleasure of washing (In hot water! With soap!) seemed to be the height of decadence.

He washed himself all over, rinsed, then did it again. He dunked his greasy hair repeatedly, and scrubbed it until his fingertips were raw and his scalp tingling. When he was done, he dried himself in a wonderfully warm and fluffy towel, then looked for his clothes.

They were nowhere to be found, which did not surprise him in the least. If Polina had any sense at all, she would have had them burned. Instead, he found a heavy pair of dark trousers, which fastened at the waist with metal buttons rather than a zipper. A bright red shirt with bone buttons followed, overlaid by a vest embroidered with intricate patterns of green and blue. Thick wool stockings and a pair of light boots lined with fleece were set on one side, ready for his feet. He put them on and grinned. He had thought he would never walk without pain again.

He took care of his hair with a wooden comb he found laying on a tray, then brushed his chin with his fingers, feeling the ragged growth of two weeks’ worth of beard.

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.

“Snow Maid?”

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.

“The Nazis?”

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.

He had dared the subject the previous evening at supper. She had laughed as he spoke, tongue-tied and stuttering, trying to ask the question without giving offense.

“Of course I’m growing younger, silly child. With your faith to sustain me, how can it be otherwise?” At his shell-shocked look, she had explained.

“Until I met and rescued you, it was the faith and belief of others which gave me existence, poor and weak though it was at the time. But now I have you, wonderful man.” She brushed his cheek with her cold fingers. “You may not believe in Mother Snegurochka, or the Snow Maid herself, who dances in the winter wind and wears clothes made out of snow and jewels of ice. But you do believe in Polina, because you see and talk and eat with her every day.

“And that is a far more mighty thing that what I have had for these many years. The last sacrifice was an old man, who had heard the tales and who had lain down at the stone when my land was invaded by those who bore the hooked cross.” She made a spitting noise at odds with her matronly appearance. “He passed the dark gate only a few years after he had come to the World Below.

“And then for many years I dwindled. I do not know how much longer I would have been able to carry on. But then you came, beautiful man.” One finger softly stroked his cheek, and Bill forced himself to not lean into the frigid caress.

“I now have power to spare. And it is reversing the aging process. Grandmother is gone. In a few more days, Mother will also be no more, not for a long count of years. In her place the Snow Maid, Polina of the Frosts, will sit where I do.”

“Do you lose who you were?” Bill asked. Polina cocked her head in puzzlement. He tried to explain. “Does another personality come when your body changes?”

Polina’s eyes widened. “You are really most amazingly perceptive for one so young. No one has ever asked me that. To answer your question, the answer is no. Or at least, not really.

“The Snow Maid is Mother Snegurochka. And Grandmother as well. She will know what I know. She does not forget anything. But she has…facets…of her personality that are more pronounced, the younger she gets. For example, Grandmother was a cranky old lady, though she was fond of you.

“Mother…” she trailed off. “How odd to speak of myself as if I were a person who is going away. Mother is a mid-point. She is less cross than Grandmother, and she shares some of the same…appetite for life…as the Snow Maid. But she is more restrained. Think of her as a well-to-do lady who only unveils herself to her most trusted friends.

“The Snow Maid?” she smiled. “You will learn about her soon enough.” She stood and held out her hand. “Sit with me for a time?”

%%%

The time they sat together was the most enjoyable part of the day, Bill thought the next night. Polina sewed or carded wool, or occasionally carved tiny wooden figurines with a wickedly sharp knife. While she did that, he read or talked to her, the flames of the fire merrily melding with the candles, bathing the room in a warm glow. The work they had done on the rugs and the furniture had paid immediate dividends, as years of accumulated dust had been removed. The deep colors of the rugs contrasted beautifully with the rich, dark depth of the maple and oak furnishings.

Polina glowed as well. Rather than the sack-like dresses she had worn when they first met (perhaps, Bill had thought in a moment of snide bad temper, because her body was shaped like a sack as well) her clothing had grown more and more lovely as she had grown younger. This evening she wore a gown in various shades of red, from the palest pink at her shoulders to blood red at the hem. It was belted with a white sash at the waist, and the hems of the sleeves were the deep green of pine trees in deepest winter. The wolf-skin slippers were gone, and in their place were delicate shoes trimmed with the whitest of rabbit fur, which left a length of attractive calf open to his view.

He swallowed and turned away. As his body recovered, so had his sex drive, and he had woken up the previous morning hard and aching. His last relationship had ended several months before their ill-fated expedition, and his body was reminding him that it wanted a woman.

Badly.

He had relieved himself when he took his morning bath, but Polina’s slender calves and firming bust were having an effect that he couldn’t ignore. She was now a strikingly attractive middle-aged woman, and his thoughts wandered whenever he shared a room with her.

Don’t even think about it, Carter. The woman created an entire library out of thin air and stocked it with every book you have ever read. Or wanted to read. She could cut you into giblets if she wanted to.

He turned a page in his book, and chuckled. Dave Barry had never failed to cheer him up.

“What are you laughing at?” Polina asked. Her voice had changed as well as the days went by, becoming higher and clearer, the rasp of the Grandmother left behind.

“A humorist. A man who tells funny stories. His name is Dave Barry, and he points out how ridiculous people are.”

“In what way?” Polina asked, interested.

Bill quickly leafed through the book. Much of the humor was topical, and involved concepts that Polina would not understand, unfamiliar as she was to modern technology. He grinned as he found one of his favorites and read it to her.

The story of the beach crew who had decided to blow up a dead whale with dynamite had her smiling in a few minutes. By the time he came to the end, she had slid off her chair and was rolling around on the ground, clutching her stomach with laughter.

Encouraged, he started to tell her the silly, terrible jokes which he loved.

“What’s blue and smells like red paint?”

“What?” she asked, eyes sparkling.

“Blue paint,” he replied, and was rewarded with more laughter.

“What’s green and has wheels?”

“What?”

“Grass,” he said. “I lied about the wheels.”

Polina laughed harder, tears rolling down her cheeks.

“What did the farmer say when he lost his plow?”

“What?”

“Where’s my plow?”

“Stop it stop it stop it!” she gasped, still giggling, barely able to get he words out. She slowly got control of herself. She stood up, Bill helping her. Then he stood back, looking at her with astonishment.

She was visibly growing younger before his very eyes. As he watched, the last remnants of crow’s feet vanished from her eyes and the corners of her mouth. Faint age spots disappeared from her throat. Pale gold hair flowed like a molten river down her back, without even the slightest trace of gray. Her stomach shrank, the last remnants of her belly disappearing as her waist drew inwards over the curved swell of her hips. Her bosom tightened, breasts rising round, high and firm from her chest, with not the faintest hint of a sag. Even through the fabric of her dress, he could see the firm outlines of her nipples pressing into the cloth.

She was amazingly, radiantly, incandescently beautiful, as awe-inspiring and terrible as a blizzard on the plains.

She caught his shocked gaze. Her hand flew to her face and a sudden inward look came over her as she delved deep into the spirit world.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh my! Oh!” Her eyes grew wide and soft, the pupils dilating with desire. She ran her hands down her body, gently wondering, mouth curving in a smile as she felt the loose fit of her dress over her belly, took in the place where the fabric of her bodice strained to contain her newly restored breasts. Her thighs shifted, rubbing against each other, and she made a pleased sound low in her throat as warmth grew in her womanly core.

She looked up again, glorious eyes shifting hues even as he looked, from ice gray to wintry blue to pale green. He flinched back in fear from her hungry gaze and she took a step away from him, eyes closing as she fought for control.

“She’s here. I’m not…Bill, I’m not ready. I didn’t think she would come so soon.

“My friend, please forgive me. I must leave you tonight. I must…I will see you tomorrow.”

A trifle unsteadily, she walked out of the room.

%%%

She felt like howling her triumph to the heavens. She felt like weeping in despair.

She was the Snow Maid again. After decades of forced celibacy and crushing loneliness, she had it all back. Power. Youth. Beauty.

And it would all be dust in her mouth if she didn’t have the love of the small, strong, impossibly courageous young man who had captured her heart with his silent bravery, in the face of challenges that would have driven most men mad.

She could take him, she knew. Overpower his mind with the strength of hers. Use his body to slake her lust and break him to her will.

She shuddered in revulsion. No. He had done every task she set him to with a willing heart. She would not betray him that way. He was fond of her, she knew. He had been courteously polite with Grandmother, and she thought that his relationship with Mother was deepening into real friendship.

If he hadn’t made me laugh…

The joy she had taken in his silly, stupid jokes had torn through the barriers in the spirit world. The power that flowed from him to her had become a flood, raging through her, reversing decades of aging in an eyeblink.

Slowly, she took off her gown, taking sensual delight in the feel of the cold air on her skin. Her hands dipped low, stroking the flat planes of her stomach. She caught sight of her image in the mirror and frowned. Grabbing a small pair of scissors off her bedside table, she leaned against the headboard of her bed, spreading her legs and exposing herself to the mirror’s view.

Working quickly, she quickly trimmed the golden nest of hair away from her pubis, leaving only a small patch, a grace note to accent the beauty of her vulva. She lay back on the down comforter, luxuriating in the candle-kissed glory of her body, supple skin like velvet over her flesh. So long, she thought. It has been so long. A finger traced the petals of her sex, and they opened like a flower, moist with dew. Her other hand cupped her breast, turgid nipple rising of its own accord.

It wouldn’t take much. Just a nudge with your mind. He was thinking of you in the bath this morning while he took his pleasure. You felt it. He wouldn’t even know. He would serve you willingly for the rest of his days.

No. I would know. And Bill could not love a person who would do that to him. And I could not live with myself.

Firmly she took her hands off her body, shaking with unfulfilled need. Slowly, how slowly, the tide of desire receded. Crawling into bed, she willed the lights off, and fell into a restless, hungry sleep.

%%%

She had to fight the same battle the next morning. A part of her, too much a part of her for her liking, wanted to simply walk into his room before he woke and to use his body for her pleasure. A somewhat saner part of her mind suggested that she show up in the kitchen for breakfast nude, and demand that he work off his debt by pleasing her.

Polina ruthlessly bludgeoned down both ideas, then opened the wardrobe.

It was all there. Every outfit, every dress and gown, every cloak and mantle, every single item a woman could use to make herself beautiful.

Slowly, carefully, Polina began to dress

%%%

Bill was standing in front of the stove, eating a toasted cheese sandwich for breakfast, when a goddess entered the room.

She was dressed all in white and silver, her feet shoeless as they whispered across the flagstones. Her gown left her shoulders and upper arms bare, and her torso rose from a froth of white lace like she was emerging, half nude, from a snowbank. Her breasts were lifted and held by the shimmering cloth, and their snow-white swells drew the eye and held it, daring any onlooker to yield to temptation and gaze into her cleavage. Below her breasts, the cloth turned silver and drew in tight, accentuating the slimness of her waist, diamonds glittering in the cloth, before dropping in sheer folds to below her knees. There it stopped, in a hem that was so stiffly embroidered in silver thread it seemed a miracle she could walk.

Polina walked up to Bill and looped her arms around his neck, smiling up at him shyly. “Good morning,” she said huskily.

Swallowing through the lump in his throat and trying to ignore the rising fire in his groin, Bill smiled back shakily. “Good morning to you. Would you like a cheese sandwich for breakfast? Or I can fry up some bacon and eggs for you, if you’d like.” Disengaging her gently, he turned back to the stove and cracked an egg in an iron skillet.

Polina’s eyes went wide with hurt. “Damn you,” she whispered.

“What?”

“I dress for you. I come to you. I practically lay down on the floor and spread my legs for you. And you ask me what I want for breakfast?” she shouted. “Are you any sort of man at all? Or do you prefer boys, and my presence is repellant to you? Or are you forgetting what you owe me?”

As soon as she spoke the words, she regretted them. She flinched as the blood drained out of Bill’s face and his eyes widened with pain and anger.

“And how the hell should I know what you want?!” he yelled back, patience worn to a ragged thread by the events of the last three weeks. “For all I know, you are dressed like this because this is how you prefer to be seen as the Snow Maid. It’s not as if I talked to her for more than a minute before she ran out on me last night. And now you come in here, looking like a woman out of my wildest dreams and acting like I am the answer to yours. So pardon the hell out of me if I am a little confused.

“I know you have power, and can kill me as easily as look at me. If I have offended you so badly, kill me now and get it over with. As you have reminded me, my life is in your hands, and has been ever since you pulled me out of that storm.”

Shaking with anger, fear, and loneliness, he turned back to the stove. Very carefully he flipped over the egg. Polina stayed silent, waiting for him to continue.

When he spoke again, it was softer. “Listen to me, Polina,” he said without turning. “You can’t get angry with me for not acting the way you want, especially when I have no idea why you are acting the way you are. What works for me among my own people might not work with you. And I am not going to risk your anger by taking liberties I don’t deserve.

“Is this some sort of bizarre fertility ritual you didn’t mention? Or are you one of those nature spirits which takes a human lover and then discards him?

“Or do you actually have feelings for me, and this was your way of making that known? If you do…” his voice broke. “If you do…” He took a deep breath and turned to her, meeting her wide gaze. “If you do, I return them.

“I love you. I love you so much it hurts. And I would never, ever hurt you. Among my people…” he swallowed, then forged on. “I was taught by my mother and father that a decent man always waits to be asked by a woman if he wishes to go to bed with her.”

He smiled crookedly, anger gone, his dear sweet face so earnest her heart broke for love of him. “Now, if you were a human woman, what you just did would make me think that is exactly what you wanted. But like I said, you are an immortal nature spirit, and I can’t take chances. My life is yours, which means I have to be even more careful with it.”

He slid the fried egg onto her plate. “And what would you do?” she asked carefully, “if I were a human woman and you desired me?”

“Well,” said Bill, stuttering a little, “I might ask you on a date.”

“And what would happen on this date?”

“We might go out to a restaurant to eat. But that won’t be an option for us, the World Below having a distressing lack of fine dining establishments,” he said. “Instead, I might invite you to where I live and cook a meal for you. We would talk, get to know each other better. If the woman was willing and expressed an interest, and if I desired her as well, we might end up going to bed.”

“And having sex, yes?” Polina asked, her eyes bright with amusement.

“Yes,” Bill blushed.

“Why do you go red? Sex is very enjoyable. When I am the Snow Maid, I have it as often as I can.” She flipped a hand dismissively. “This is what we will do. You will make a meal for us, and we will have a date.”

She walked up to him until her breasts brushed his chest. She laid her cold hands on the sides of his head and drew his head down until she could gently kiss the corner of his mouth.

“You see, Bill, I love you too,” she whispered into his ear.

She sat down and began to eat her breakfast.

%%%

Five hours later, Bill walked in on her while she was sitting in her study. She was reading a book. One of hers, Bill thought, seeing the Cyrillic lettering on the cover.

“How does the food thing work?” he asked.

“Ah,” she smiled. “I was wondering when you would figure that out.”

“Didn’t take too long. There’s always food in the pantry, even though there’s no stores to buy food at, you don’t keep any livestock, and this place you live in only gets above freezing for about three months every year. Is it like the library?”

“In its own way,” she replied, closing the book on a finger. “It is more like my clothing.” She had changed out of the sex-goddess dress she was wearing earlier, Bill was pleased to note, and was wearing a much more sensible blue gown, but even that couldn’t disguise her extraordinary beauty.

“What was I wearing when I first met you?” she asked.

“Ugly old gray dress. Looked like it had been mended and patched about a thousand times.”

“And what did I feed you at first?”

“Porridge. Lots of porridge. Potatoes. Beans. Some bacon. Peas.” A light went off in his head. “The basics. Just like the dress. But as you grew younger, the menu expanded. And you wore nicer and nicer things. Until this morning, when you wore a dress that would cost a king’s ransom.

“So if I need a certain thing to make the meal tonight?”

“You will probably find it. Not everything,” she warned. “Food made by this technology of yours will probably be impossible for the house to create. But everything that people grow or herd or catch can be acquired.”

“Got it,” he replied, “Be ready to eat in about four hours. Me and Betty Crocker will be ready to serve you dinner by then,” he said, waving a fat book in the air.

“Who the hell is Betty Crocker?” she asked, but he was already gone.

%%%

Four hours later, they sat down to eat.

Bill was almost sick with nervousness. The meal, made with natural ingredients, had been almost as easy to make here as it was back home. The only trick was keeping the stove the right temperature. But he could sense how much this meant to Polina, and he wanted to make her as happy as possible.

He had run back to his room to dress when he pulled the meal off the stove, and he wore a pair of soft trousers made of deerskin, almost sinfully tight around his thighs and calves. Above was a white shirt made of undyed cotton. Over that, one of the embroidered vests which she had given to him in the first days of his stay here in the World Below.

Polina wore a dress that was almost stark in its simplicity, pure white from her neck to her knees. But delicate embroidery in silver and ivory graced the hems at throat, wrist, and knee, giving it a vaguely Celtic feel.

She was also, Bill noted idly, not wearing a bra. He wondered if he should introduce her to the garment. Mother Snegurochka might thank him later.

He pulled out her chair and seated her, then sat down opposite her in the small dining room. Working carefully, he poured a quantity of wine into a crystal glass, then spooned her meal onto her plate.

She frowned and looked at it suspiciously. “What is this?” she asked, poking one portion.

“Rice,” he said, “It is a grain gown far to the south of here.”

“And this?” she said, prodding another part.

“That is shrimp. It lives in the ocean.”

“Ah!” she said triumphantly, “This I know!” She waved a bit of meat on her fork. “This is pork!” She bit down and chewed happily, then her eyes widened. She took a quick sip of wine. “Spicy!”

Bill grinned. “It is a meal called jambalaya. People in the south of my country make it. I learned how from a friend of mine who I went to school with. Do you like it?”

Polina took another small bite and nodded. “It is very nice. It just takes a bit of getting used to.”

“Sounds a lot like my life right now,” Bill grinned, and Polina laughed.

Bill relaxed more and more as the meal went on. He was relieved to see that the astonishing changes in Polina’s appearance were not reflected in her personality. She was the same person who had saved him from death and who had soothed his fears when he woke, lonely and terrified. Although she appeared to be only a year or two younger than himself, at times he caught glimpses of the deep wisdom and sadness of a being who had lived for centuries.

%%%

The meal was finished, the wine drunk. Bill carried the dishes to the sink to wash up later. When he returned to the dining room Polina was standing. Her eyes were bright and eager, her lips parted.

“Bill, can we go to bed? I would like to make love to you,” she said.

Well, at least she is trying to do it right, he thought, over the scream of terror and joy that sounded in his brain.

“Polina, are you sure?” his foolish mouth asked.

She stepped into his arms. She was trembling. With fear or desire, he couldn’t tell. He put his arms around her for comfort and held her, astonished as always to find how small she was. Her breasts were firm against his chest. She spoke softly, cool breath raising goosebumps on his chest.

“I forgot what it was like. My creators, bless and damn them, couldn’t imagine a young woman who wasn’t also governed by lust. So the Snow Maid is like a mare who is perpetually in heat. The maid who is also a wanton. Do you understand?” she asked, pulling away to look up at his face. For the first time in his memory, her pale face was flushed.

“I have no choice in the matter. Damn them all, I don’t really want a choice. Not when she is upon me and you are here. The Snow Maid wants a man. I want a man. I need a man. I want you. I need you, Bill Carter. Thank the High One he brought you to me.” She raised herself on her toes, cold lips brushing his.

“Make love to me, please?”

Without words, Bill took her hands in his and brought them to his lips. Hand in hand, they walked out of the kitchen, and Polina led him to the one place in the house he had never gone.

Her bedroom.

As soon as they were across the threshold she leaped into his arms. Her arms wrapped tightly around his neck and the firm globes of her breasts pressed against his chest as her hungry mouth descended on his.

And her mouth was hot. So hot. The cold flesh of her body was matched only by the exquisite heat of her passion. Her tongue darted into his mouth, the narrow tip seeking out his, wrapping around it with almost frightening strength. Her hands plunged into his hair as they kissed furiously, the dams of their unwilling chastity breaking before the onslaught of their love. His hands were busy at the hem of her dress, pulling it up, the garment bunching around her waist. Finally. Finally. Finally he had what he sought and his hands cupped the sweet curves of her buttocks, strong fingers squeezing her firm flesh as she ground her groin into his.

Supported now by his hands, she relaxed her grip, hands free to run over the strong muscles of his back, delighting in their lean strength through the thick cloth of his shirt and vest.

Too thick. It had to come off. It all has to come off, she thought through the fog of lust which had descended upon her. Drawing back the merest amount, her quick, clever fingers undid the buttons of his vest and shirt. She tried to pull them off, but was defeated when she discovered that he could not hold her up and take them off at the same time.

Mewling softly in frustration, she wiggled in his hands impatiently until he set her down on the floor, her dress falling in ragged folds below her waist. He shrugged off the vest and shirt, now wearing only his breeches and soft leather boots.

Her eyes drank him in. He was as splendid as a hunter in his prime, his arms ropy with muscle. His brown hair was long and fell in deep waves to the line of his strong shoulders. His chest, by contrast, was all but hairless, clean pale skin drawing the eye downward to the dimple of his navel, which was surrounded by a thick patch of down, narrowing as it disappeared under the band of his trousers.

He has no idea how beautiful he is to me, she thought. No idea at all.

This time, he came to her, his hands gentle on her waist as he bent down to taste her mouth. The first desperate rush of passion gone, she lifted her face to his and met his lips, smiling as her tongue caused him utter a low moan of need. He stroked her sides, rumpled cloth under his fingers, until his hands found the swells of her breasts. He cupped them in his palms lovingly, testing their firm weight in his hands.

“Take it off. Take my dress off, my love,” she breathed.

He tried. Honestly, he did. But his searching fingers found no zipper or tie or anything else that made any sense to him. Finally, with an irritated huff of breath, she turned around and held her hair away from her back. “Do you see it now?”

“Yes,” he said ruefully. A line of tiny buttons ran from the small of her back to just below her shoulder blades. Quickly he worked to undo them. Soon the wings of the garment gaped wide, and he planted delicate kisses on the line of her spine, his tongue tracing loving patterns on her skin.

Oh, he is skilled! She shuddered with longing under his touch. The front of the dress fell away from her chest, and her breasts were finally exposed, firm round globes with the nipples gloriously erect, thrusting proudly into the chill air.

The last button was loosened and the dress puddled around her feet. She crouched quickly and stepped out of her shoes, then turned around to face him, blessing him with the sight of her nudity.

Everything which he had known unwillingly was now exposed to him as a wonder and a delight. Her calves were more slender than he had imagined; her thighs, more deftly carved. The gold hair of her pubis drew the eye to the glory of her sex. Her stomach was flat and firm with muscle, and he could just see the outlines of her ribs under her pale skin. Her breasts were a revelation, challenging his gaze, demanding that he worship them. They stood almost straight out from the wall of her chest, pale globes capped with areolae that began as the palest shade of blue and deepened until they were almost purple where her nipples, thick and long, jutted towards him.

“Oh, God. You are so beautiful,” he breathed, love and longing in his voice.

“So are you,” she smiled, and came to him, her hands soon busy at his waist. She undid the buttons of his flies with alarming skill and pushed his trousers down to the floor. She hissed as they met the resistance of his boots, and pulled them off urgently until he was as naked as she was.

Finally then, they embraced, his skin warm against her cold flesh. She pushed him backwards until he fell back onto the bed, his happy eyes laughing up at her. Smiling in turn, she draped her body over his and plundered his mouth with hers, delighting in the feel of his lean length against her body, especially the part of him which she most wished to embrace within her. It pulsed against her belly in time to his heartbeat, thick and hard. Moaning softly, she ground herself against it, the rise of her mons pushing against its base, hair scraping roughly against the sensitive glans.

Bill’s breath caught in pleasure, and he had to restrain himself from returning her motions. No. Too soon. “Gently, Snow Maid,” he said, kissing her cheek, “or I’ll be finished before we’ve begun.”

Puzzled, she looked into his eyes for a moment, then smiled as she caught his meeting. He pushed her up slightly and moved his lips to her breasts, kissing first one, then the other. She sighed under his touch, then caught her breath as his lips embraced her aching nipple. He kissed it, licked it, stroked it with his tongue, drew on it like a nursing child. At the same time, his fingers performed the same tasks on her other breast, mimicking his motions exactly.

“By the High One, you are wonderful!” she whispered, as his hands kneaded her globes, setting a fire in her flesh. They left her mounds and stroked her back, raising goosebumps, then darted daringly into the cleft of her buttocks, long, clever fingers probing at her slick nether-lips. Keening, she thrust back into his touch, then dropped down to kiss him once more, her groin on fire with need.

She rose up and straddled him, her knees on either side of his waist. He moved his hands back to her breasts and raised his head until he could trace the delicate skin over her breastbone with his lips. With a slight nudge, she positioned his phallus properly, then stroked him with her cleft, her lips opening to coat his cock with her dew.

Bill fell back onto the pillows with a strangled moan. Nothing could have prepared him for the exquisite sensations she was arousing him. And I thought Cassidy was good in bed, he thought with a smile. Her motions were slow and gentle, teasing him until he wanted to throw her on her back and rut with her, mindless as a stallion and his mare.

Even as the thought crossed his mind, he heard her breath catch. Looking up at her he could see her face bright with excitement and feel her fingers tremble on his chest.

“Would you do that, Bill? Take me like an animal, thrusting hard into me, make me scream like a wanton?” Her strokes sped on his cock and she bent over him, kissing him roughly, sharp teeth nibbling on his lips.

Catching her mood, he gripped the firm curves of her ass in his hands, nails scoring the pale flesh. She moaned into his mouth as he clutched her, and the motion of her hips stopped, the head of his cock poised at her gateway.

“Tell me,” she said, her eyes intent on his.

Somehow, without asking, he knew what she wanted. He spoke with all the love in his heart.

“I love you, Snow Maid. I have loved you since I first met you. I am yours.”

With a sigh, she kissed him. Slowly, how slowly, she opened her innermost self to him. Her nether lips parted and his cock slowly slipped into her tight silky depths, their heated flesh finally joining. She paused for a moment, then knelt up on the bed, splendid in her beauty. Her hips rose, and he marveled at the sight of his cock sliding in and out of her folds.

Polina drove toward her orgasm, as confident in her journey as a migrating bird. Below her, Bill’s hands and tongue and lips danced on her skin, awakening sensations in her flesh she had thought gone and lost forever. He was back at her breasts, now, and she smiled as he nursed at her nipple. His free hand squeezed the other nipple, and she gasped as her inner muscles clamped down on him.

Eyes wide, she looked down on him. “Do that again,” she asked.

His fingers tightened on her nipple, and she groaned ecstatically as a surge of delicious pleasure lanced from her breast to her innermost core. She fell across his chest, kissing his face frantically as his hands continued to pleasure her heaving orbs. Polina rose and fell on his shaft, hips pumping lewdly, as the feeling in her belly tightened and tightened and tightened and

High One!

Her climax hit her like a wave, thunderous and prolonged. Her inner muscles rippled with release and her breasts heaved as she screamed her ecstasy to the heavens. Tears of joy streaming down her face, she watched as Bill’s face changed, looking inward toward where his own pleasure lay. Slowly she picked up the rhythm of their lovemaking again, rejoicing as she felt the muscles of his cock twitch and spasm, pumping into her, flooding the walls of her womb with his seed.

%%%

“You gave me my life back,” she said softly, as they lay entwined in the aftermath of their coupling. Her head was on his shoulder, and his hand was stroking her hair and back, making her shudder in sensual pleasure.

“You gave me mine,” he replied. He kissed the top of her head. “You can read minds?” he asked.

“What? Oh, that,” she said, dimpling as she remembered her reaction to his passion. “Sometimes, yes. If I wish. Not usually. Only if the emotions are very strong and the mind was open. Which yours was,” she said, kissing his nipple, tongue stroking the sensitive bud. She rolled onto her side and placed a cold hand on his thigh.

“Snow Maid,” he said, laughing softly. “You act like no maid I have ever heard of.”

“The term doesn’t quite translate properly into your language,” she said, hand rising to cuddle his cock. “Are you familiar with the legend of the Triple Goddess?”

Bill nodded. “Maid, Mother, and Crone,” he said. “I studied it in a folklore class when I was in school.”

“Well, my creators had their own interpretation of that legend. Mother and Grandmother are obviously the Mother and the Crone. But the Maid,” she said with a twinkle in her eye, “is not quite the virginal maiden other peoples tell of. The Maid could be better described as an unmarried, sexually active young woman of child-bearing years. But that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? When they made me with their faith, they imagined a young woman like many they knew in their own tribes; blond-haired and blue eyed, small but strong, merry and serious by turns, and with a lusty capacity for sex that would make any man who was lucky enough to win her the envy of his fellows.

“Of course, they idealized me as well. More beautiful than any woman they had seen; more power than they had, poor, simple things; and with a sex drive that was almost frightening in its intensity.”

“So that is why you ran from me last night,” Bill said, understanding now.

Polina nodded. “When the Snow Maid rose up inside me, after so many years…” she trailed off and shifted languidly, nipples peaking with arousal, blatantly sensual. “By the High One! It was like having lived in a dark room for decades, and then being brought into the light. If I hadn’t run, I would have raped you then and there.”

“I might have enjoyed that,” Bill said with a smirk.

“I would not have,” replied Polina firmly. “We were friends then, but our relationship was not between equals. How could it be, when I am so much more powerful than you? To take what I wanted, without asking, without respecting your wishes? That would be a terrible betrayal.

“And there is self-preservation at stake. If I had hurt you, or frightened you, or caused you to turn away from me in anger and hate? How long would I last as the Snow Maid if the power of your faith was stripped from me? So in that way, my love, you have a dreadful power over me as well.

“Truth be told, Mother Snegurochka enjoys sex as much as any woman alive. How not, when she has born so many children? But the feeling when she was…subsumed was indescribable. Frightening. What had happened in a week as I transitioned from Grandmother to Mother was accomplished in an instant. The Mother was gone and the Snow Maid was in her place.”

“What was it like?” Bill asked. “You told me earlier that you are not three separate personalities, but one. But that as you grew younger different parts of your personality grew stronger or weaker.”

Polina wrinkled her brow, searching for the right term. “It was like…like finding a book you thought had been long lost, but as soon as you saw it, you remembered every word within. Like a prisoner being released from a cell in my mind, rampaging through my brain, and taking up the reins of my will.” She slid her hand from his groin to his shoulder, a long lingering caress which made him shudder with pleasure. “I was no longer Mother Snegurochka. I was the Snow Maid.

“But she is not gone, Bill,” she said, noticing his look of dismay. “She is merely subsumed. She did not die. When we need her, she will give me her strength. And when we need Grandmother’s wisdom, it will be there for us.

“If it makes you easier, think of us as three women sharing one body, two of whom are in deep slumber, but who may be roused if need demands it.”

“And what should I call you?” Bill said, laying his hand over hers. “Snow Maid seems a little awkward.”

“I am Polina,” she said firmly, raising her face to his and kissing him deeply. “Always and forever Polina. And you are my love.”

Their kiss deepened, and by some magic Bill found himself on top of Polina as her hands stroked his sides and flanks. His cock, which had been hanging limp only moments before, stiffened in an instant as Polina rubbed it with the soft firm flesh of her thigh.

He propped himself above her on his elbows, smiling down at her beloved face. A thought struck him, and he withdrew for an instant. Before she could voice her protest, he had turned her over on her back and his mouth was dropping kisses on the sensitive flesh of her buttocks. She squealed with glee and canted her hips higher to allow him easier access as he spread her thighs and licked at her delicate folds. Finding the angle awkward, he turned her over yet again, and heard a hiss of exasperation.

“Choose a side, child. I am not a rug, to be tossed to and fro!”

“Really, love? You may change your mind when you see what I have to offer.” He bent his head to the junction of her thighs and dove into the sweet flesh of her vulva.

He shuddered as he tasted her nectar for the first time, the warm, salty tang of her innermost fluid contrasting strangely with the cold flesh of her lips. Above him she gasped, hips rolling, yearning towards him as his tongue dove down into her depths, then licked up wickedly, sweeping the full length of her slit in one long stroke. Her petals opened under his questing mouth, shyly unfurling in answer to an unspoken question, and his tongue aimed itself unerringly at her bud.

His tongue circled it hesitantly, teasing her, until her hips thrust up into his face and she voiced hoarse commands, demanding that he pleasure her. Smiling broadly, he bid his tongue dance upon her sensitive clit, lips pulling and suckling at her button until her hands were locked on his scalp, her heels beating a frantic tattoo on his back.

Suddenly she arched upward, her panting voice lost in a keening wail as she thrashed beneath him, trembling with the force with her release.

Quick as a flash he had turned her back over onto her chest. His hands slid under her belly, reaching up to cup her breasts, fondling her as he split her sheath with one sure plunge.

If she thought that she had known pleasure before, it was nothing compared to this. He spread her thighs wide, the hard muscles of his belly slapping into the firm flesh of her ass as he thrust into her. Still trembling with the aftermath of her first orgasm, she was stunned to find herself approaching a second within moments.

“Oh, by the High One,” she moaned. “What are you doing to me?”

“Exactly what you want,” he said, hands busy on her magnificent breasts, fingers pulling her nipples until they were rigid. “I am taking you like a stallion takes a mare.”

Even in the throes of her passion, she giggled like the young woman she so resembled. “Stallions don’t have hands, and you…oh!…do.”

Dipping his head, he plunged into her, hips bucking as his restraint gave way at last and he drove toward his own climax. His lips, gentler than the rest of him, caressed her shoulders and neck, and then her cheek and lips as she turned her head to meet his. Overcome by passion, love, and desire, he lost control and thrust mindlessly, the thick length of his cock plunging into her innermost core.

Polina gasped, her muscles aching, clenching, spasming, gripping his member as her release bore down upon her. At the same time, Bill felt his cock stiffen and grow, rigid with lust.

Their orgasms hit them at once, a thundering crescendo of pleasure, and Bill shouted hoarsely as he felt his cock pump Polina full of his essence. At the same time, she writhed in his grasp, shaking as the force of her climax swept over her, leaving her limp and boneless with joy.

He collapsed on her back, then slowly slid off, overcome by the rapture that their lovemaking had brought upon them. Her eyes were bright and her lips curled in a smile.

“Thank you,” he said, kissing her softly.

“Thank you.” she said, returning it. She sighed and closed her eyes, snuggling into his embrace. With one arm he brought up the blankets to cover them, closed his eyes, and wished the lights off.

They were both asleep within moments.

%%%

Polina woke before Bill did, her head pillowed on his shoulder, brown hair tickling her nose. Safe within the circle of his arms, she studied his face. The marks of his terrible journey had been erased, the raw red skin of windburn healed, and the gaunt angles of his body slowly filling out with good food and rest.

Stretching sensuously, she reveled in his warmth, so different from her body’s eternal chill. Almost without thinking, one hand crept down to cradle his cock, softly teasing, breath quickening as it stirred and filled her hand.

A quick glance told her that he was still asleep. Moving quietly, she pulled the blankets off them, so that his small lean body was completely exposed to her view. She leaned over his shaft, and gave it a soft lick, enjoying the taste, reminiscent of their love-making the previous night.

Her lips and tongue danced on him, encouraging his growth, until he was hard under her touch. With a wide smile, she opened her mouth and let the first portion of his manhood slip between her lips, humming happily as his heated flesh invaded her mouth. Her head bobbed gently as her lips stroked him, tongue softly licking the bulbous head, wickedly grazing the so-sensitive slit from whence his seed came.

The thought set up an echo in her mind. A child? The idea made her womb spasm longingly, and Mother Snegurochka blinked awake for a moment. Although legend said that the Mother had many children, Polina had found that to be true only in the abstract, and had never borne a child of her own.

I would though, with him, she thought. For him I would dare anything. A girl-child with my face and his sweet temper? Or maybe a little boy with his dark eyes and my pale skin?

A moan from above cut off her thoughts. Bill stirred, blinked, and woke, taking in the scene with a startled smile.

“Good morning, Snow Maid. I was going to ask you what you would like for breakfast, but it seems that you have found something to eat already.”

Polina giggled as she let Bill’s phallus slip out of her mouth. Her hand caught it and pumped it gently in one spit-slickened fist.. “Wicked boy. Yes, I found something to my liking. But it would be rude for me to dine alone.” She turned on the bed and crouched. Taking the hint, he wiggled down the bed to meet her until she could lower her cleft to his face. Bending down once more, she took his throbbing head back into her, the tips of her breasts brushing the trembling skin of his belly.

From behind her, she heard him say, “I’ll try, but I was never terribly good at this. Working upside down, I mean.”

She smiled around his cock, tongue circling the glans. “Just do your best ,darling. You have plenty of time to learn. And I’m afraid I’m not getting out of this bed until you have made me come.”

“Wonderful,” he breathed happily, and drew her down to him again. She felt his tongue hesitantly touch her folds, and moved slightly, opening the way for him, shuddering with pleasure as he traced a path back and forth among the creases of her sex. At the same time, he grasped her breasts and fondled them lovingly, fingertips softly teasing her nipples until they stiffened, twin testaments to her desire.

Polina kissed his shaft, taking it into her mouth, making love to his hot length. Her fingers tickled his testes, marveling at the way they drew up in the hairy sac of his scrotum. She wet a finger and ran it from his sack down the cleft of his cheeks, taking pleasure as he moaned and twisted under her.

There! At last he had found the spot he sought, and her guttural moan of bliss proved that he was where she desired him. Lapping with his tongue, he fought for control as her head bobbed more urgently on his pole.

Too soon, God, it is too soon. “Polina, I…ohhh!!” he gasped as he lost his battle and his cock spurted into her mouth. He heard her moan happily as he filled her with his essence. Even through his spasms, her mouth continued its joyful work, and he clutched the mattress in his hands and shook as his sensitized body learned the true meaning of pleasure.

At last he was done, and she let his limp cock fall out of her mouth, striking his thigh with an obscene slap. She looked over one shoulder at him, golden hair framing her face. The slightest trace of semen dotted one lip as she swallowed. She raised her eyebrows at his stunned expression and wiggled her hips in reminder.

“Your meal isn’t finished, child. Clean up your plate, or there is no desert for you.”

Bill laughed and raised his head again, mouth unerringly finding her bud of pleasure, hands reaching up to cup her breasts in loving hands. She sighed in his grasp.

“You really do love my titties, don’t you, Bill?” she asked. Mouth filled, he grunted assent. “I love them too. But especially when you play with them. Your hands are so soft, but they make me burn inside.” One of her hands cupped a breast, joining his, tweaking the erect nipple. The other stole down to her mons, flat palm pushing urgently at the rise of her pubis.

Her orgasm came upon her, slow and sure and inevitable. Her hips rolled back and forth under the loving strokes of Bill’s tongue, thrusting gently as he found her clit and pulled it between his lips, the tip of his tongue flicking the bud. Her nipples caught fire, her hands reached down and locked around Bill’s legs as she whimpered and shook, thighs and belly shaking under the force of her climax, her ears full of Bill’s words, telling her how beautiful she was, how much he loved her.

She staggered out of bed and looked at herself in the mirror. Her hair was a tangled rats-nest, her face flushed, wide eyes dilated with passion. She was smeared with the traces of their lovemaking from her hips to her belly to her groin, and her pubic thatch was matted to her skin by the sticky residue of both of their bodies.

Absolutely wonderful. She grinned at her reflection and turned to her lover.

“Now that we’ve eaten, let’s have breakfast.”

%%%

The next several weeks were the happiest of Polina’s life. Drawn out of her gray, miserable existence, she gave herself to her lover with happy abandon. Appetites which she thought had been dulled or lost forever surged back into her body, and Bill indulged her every request, seemingly as happy as she.

Not all of their time was spent exploring the delights of carnal knowledge. There were still chores to do; water to haul and wood to cut; meals to prepare and dishes to wash; floors to clean and windows to scrub, as she refused to surrender to the temptation to let her power do all their tasks for them. It did one no good at all, she said, to sit around idle when there was a task that needed doing. And as Bill noted one afternoon while they cleaned cobwebs from the corners, the anticipation that built throughout a days’ hard work gave extra zest to their periods of passionate, mind-bending sex.

The short winter days sped by, and Yule was nearly upon them. A chance remark she made one morning led to a three-day effort to celebrate the holiday properly. Polina raided the pantry to make cookies, cakes, and sweets for their celebration, while Bill spent an entire furious afternoon trying to convince the house to produce the ingredients for a strange drink he called “eggnog”.

During those days Polina thought she sensed a darkening of Bill’s mood. He was as sweet and loving to her as he had ever been, but his expression grew somber, even sad at times, as the holiday approached. She asked him several times if anything was wrong, but he simply smiled, or kissed her, or changed the subject.

The day came, and it was as splendid a success as could have been wished. After a last-minute spate of cleaning, they began the afternoon by sampling the treats that Polina had made, and by drinking large mugs of Bill’s eggnog and hot cider. Supper was a mighty meal of ham, potatoes with gravy, peas with onions and peppers, and biscuits, all washed down with goblets of wine or bottles of beer, which Bill had managed to wheedle out of the cold-cellar.

Afterward, they retired to the sitting room, armed with plates of cake and cookies to nibble on before bed, which Polina was looking forward to very much indeed.

Bill smiled at her. “This has been a lovely day, sweetheart. Thank you.”

She smiled back at him, wondering again at how dear his face had become to her in just a few months. “It was my pleasure, darling. Tell me,” she continued. “What would this day be like back at your home? In Minnesota?”

Bill smiled in fond remembrance. “Well, I would probably spend the day with my parents. My sister and her husband would drive in from Rapid City, and our day would be a lot like it is here. We would eat and drink and talk and just enjoy each others’ company. And in the evening, before we all went to bed, we would sing.” His look turned wistful. “You don’t happen to play an instrument, do you?”

“Of course I do!” she exclaimed. “What proper woman does not know how to provide entertainment at a gathering?” She stood and marched out of the room. In a few minutes she returned, carrying a wooden instrument with three strings and a triangular body.

“It is a balalaika,” she said in response to Bill’s inquiring look. “Now. You sing. And when I have the tune I will join you.”

Bill began tentatively. He had never been a strong singer and was only able to carry a tune, his sister had once said, if he had a basket. But he had always loved Christmas carols. He started slowly with the songs he remembered best. Some were religious, others not.

Silent Night. Holy Night.

Memories came back to him. Decorating the tree with his family. Sledding down the hill behind the bank with Frank and Edgar and Mary.

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Steven.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas. A Charlie Brown Christmas. A Christmas Story.

There’s a white Christmas in my home town; there the streets are snowy shining bright.

Grandma and Grandpa Schuler. Aunt Esther. Nancy, his little sister, and her husband Jim, her high-school sweetheart.

His throat choked with pain.

Santa, make her my bride for Christmas. Santa, it wouldn’t cost very much.

Bill’s voice broke and he gave a strangled sob. He looked at Polina, such despair in his face that she rocked back in her chair, the balalaika falling from numb fingers. He opened his mouth helplessly, then turned and ran out of the room.

%%%

She found him in the library, the tracks of his tears on his face, staring hopelessly into the depths of the fire. She sat beside him and took his hand. When he spoke, his voice was a sad murmur.

“My father used to sing that to my mother every year. It made her horribly embarrassed, but he didn’t care. They had married on Christmas Day, you see? And every Christmas he would ask everyone to be quiet and he would sing that song. And by the end of the first verse, she was singing the woman’s part to him. And they finished as a duet

“I can’t even describe their faces when they sang to each other. It was like they were the only two people in the world. It made you feel like you were an intruder to see a love so pure.

“I miss them so terribly, Polina. I thought I had made my peace with this. I would wake up and I might think of my friends, my sister, my family. And then I would remind myself that if it weren’t for you, I would be dead. And I would count my blessings. You, as my lover. This house. Shelter. Safety. Love.

“But it isn’t enough. It isn’t enough.”

Polina listened to him, her heart breaking. When she spoke, it felt like she was forcing jagged glass out of her throat.

“You must leave.”

He looked up, eyes blazing. “I must not. Don’t you think I have thought of it, these last few days? What would happen to you if I left? How long before you began to age again, before the last crumbs of faith in this terrible land were snuffed out, and you ceased to exist? I love you, Polina Snegurochka. I will not abandon you.”

“And what will happen to you, if I keep you here, foolish boy?” she cried. “Do you not think that this happened before? I have seen it too many times to count.

“Usually it is the small ones, the children. They were left at the stone when there were too many mouths to feed, and I took them in. But they wilted and died like flowers cut off from the sun. I will not have you share the same fate.”

“And what makes you think that the same thing won’t happen if I leave?” he shouted, driven wild with despair. “That I could live without you? I love you, dammit! How could I live with myself knowing that I had left you to a slow death? Do you think my faith in you could sustain you from half a world away? And what would happen if I changed my mind, and came back to the stone? I wouldn’t be a sacrifice then.

He stood and glared furiously into the fire. “I couldn’t come back. That would kill me dead on the spot.”

“You can’t stay with me. You can’t leave without me. And I can’t leave at all.” Polina’s voice was leaden and tears ran silently down her face.

“You can’t leave at all,” breathed Bill. He shook himself and smiled tiredly at his lover. “Well, we’ve identified the problem, at least. Now we have to work at solving it.” He bent and took her hands in his. “Come to bed with me?”

Even now, after the storm of emotion, her blood heated at his touch, and she felt her pulse quicken in her thighs. “Yes,” she snarled, hating the trap they found themselves in, and pledging herself to defeating it.

In the bedroom he sensed her need, and one who was ordinarily the most gentle of lovers turned violent, his anger matching hers. As soon as they entered the room he swept the door closed with a harsh bang, then bore her down onto the bed, hands hard upon her as he tore the dress from her body.

“Wicked tramp,” he breathed in her ear, his hot breath sending delicious shivers through her. “You’re not wearing any underwear. Again. I’ll bet you were just waiting for me to stick my cock into you. Weren’t you?”

“Oh, by the High One, yes,” she sighed, writhing under his touch. “I’m a horny little strumpet and I need your cock. I need it so bad. Please take me. Take me hard!”

One hand pressing into the small of her back, he undid the flies of his trousers with the other. Damn this place. Why couldn’t it figure out zippers? He shoved them down to his knees, briefly considered pulling off his boots, then shook his head. To hell with it.

Polina’s ass was arched off the bed, a lovely curve that begged for his touch, the lips of her sex peeking coyly up at him. With a stinging slap, he struck one pale cheek.

“Down on the bed, girl. I’ll take you when I am ready, not before.”

God, he was hard. He moved up between her thighs and kicked his boots off. He ran his cock tauntingly up the cleft of her buttocks, smearing her with his juice, laughing mockingly as she clenched her muscles, trying to trap him. He grabbed her shoulders, forcing her head down and to the side, and kissed her harshly, his teeth nipping at her lips, enjoying her moans of longing.

He was distracted by a rocking motion beneath him, and glanced down to see her legs spread lewdly open, her hips urgently pushing her groin into the bed. One of her hands had snuck down between her legs while he wasn’t watching, and he could see the muscles in her arm jerking as she frantically fingered herself.

“Oh, no you don’t.” Ignoring her pleas, he pulled her hand away from her slick center and rolled her over onto her back. She glared at him through the curtain of her hair as her thighs sagged open, cold blue lips unfurling for him. Moving to her side, he took both of her wrists in one hand and pinned them over her head and with the other grazed the length of her cleft, coating his finger with her moistness.

Her hips bucked with an almost audible snap, surging upward to meet his hand, desperate for attention in the place she needed it most. Gentle now, he teased her, now approaching, now backing away from her sensitive nub. Her breasts thrust high into the air as well, firm and proud, round globes that demanded his attention. His head dropped down to suckle them, teeth scraping the tender nipples.

“Oh, Bill. Oh, my love. I need it. I need your beautiful thick cock inside me. Please, fuck me. Fuck me with your hot body.”

Her need drove him over the edge. With his trousers still limply hanging around his ankles, he nudged her thighs apart with his knees. He paused for a splintered instant to coat the head of his cock in her slippery fluid, then shoved inside her with one long thrust.

Polina’s mouth opened in a breathless scream as he pumped into her, hard and urgent. He let go of her wrists at last, and she clawed his shoulders with her nails, almost deep enough to draw blood, as her legs rose and locked over his, trapping him within her fierce embrace. He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her, mouth, eyes, cheeks, mouth again, trying to crawl within her, to make him one with her.

He felt his climax approach. His seed surged up the length of his cock, his testes drawn up in their sac. With one final stroke, he erupted inside her, spending his essence within her willing sheath as her body shook with her own orgasm beneath him.

%%%

They lay together, his warm body against her cold one. His eyes were closed, but she sensed he was not asleep.

I’m going to lose him, she thought bleakly. Whether by the slow decay of time as his spirit crumbles, or by a last parting at the stone. It makes no difference. I will lose him.

But not tonight. The grim notion was oddly comforting. Tonight he is mine.

With that thought uppermost in her mind, she drifted off to sleep.

%%%

Bill lay motionless. He did not stir until he felt Polina finally relax into sleep.

I can’t leave at all.”

Her sad voice echoed in his thoughts, and with it, the wild hope that arisen when she said those words earlier, hope that he had ruthlessly beaten down before it could show in his face.

Why can’t she leave?

Because of the belief that created her. He was almost sure of it. She had lived with that belief for so long that it was a shackle around her soul, locking her into a cage.

But the blade of belief could cut two ways.

How can I test it?

He gently untangled himself from his lover, and pulled on a robe. Sitting in a chair, he started to think.

%%%

Polina woke late, groggy and muzzy-headed from a night too full of food, drink, shouting, and sex. She grunted a greeting to Bill, sitting hollow-eyed in a chair near the bed. Unconcerned with the cold, she made her way naked to the bathroom, barely catching a glimpse of herself in the bedroom mirror.

Poor dear. He looks like he hasn’t slept all night.

As she urinated, a niggling thought crossed her mind. There had been something…off… about her reflection. What was it?

Her head snapped upright, and ten seconds later she was in her bedroom, looking in the mirror, horrified.

Rather than the long, straight river of gold which had been hers since the moment she had first come into existence, her hair was fire-red, tumbling about her head in a mass of riotous curls. She looked wildly from the mirror to Bill, her hands shaking as she clawed at her head frantically.

Suddenly, she knew.

“You!” she shouted, hurling herself across the room to catch him by the collar of his robe and shake him furiously. “What have you done? What did you do to me? Make it stop!” she wailed, shaken to the core by the sudden change in her appearance.

“Gladly,” Bill groaned, and sagged as the tense muscles of his face and back relaxed. Instantly, her hair changed back, the crimson hue running out like water from a pitcher, curls disappearing into the field of fallow gold. Polina grabbed a handful and examined it suspiciously, making sure no trace of red sullied her tresses.

Once satisfied, she crossed her arms across her chest and glared at him, but her expression was defeated by his triumphant grin.

“Well?” she asked, the corners of her mouth twitching. “What do you have to say for yourself, young one? What foolishness is this? And how the hell did you do it?”

With a shout of joy he caught her up by the waist and spun in place, laughing as her feet kicked his shins. He put her down and kissed her thoroughly, emerging flushed and gasping.

“I’ve saved us,” he said.

“What?”

“I’ve saved us. We can leave this place. Together.”

“Don’t be stupid. I can’t leave.”

“Why not?” he asked reasonably.

She opened her mouth to answer him, then stopped. Because I’ve always been here, she had been about to say. The Snow Maid lives in the World Below. That is what the legends told. That is what others believed.

But if the one who was the prime source of her belief chose to believe otherwise…

She gasped, and he nodded, following her thought.

“If I believe that the Snow Maid can leave the World Below and journey and live in the World Above, she can. You can. If you wish.”

Her eyes welled with tears. “And the hair?”

“A test,” he shrugged. “I needed to be sure. And I had to change a part of you that was so fundamental that there could be no doubt that I could make other changes as well. The hair seemed to be the best thing to try.

“God, it was hard,” he said. “I couldn’t relax for an instant. As soon as I did it went blond again. I tried other colors, too,” he said, eyes twinkling. “You looked very nice with black hair. Kind of like Morticia Addams.”

Polina’s eyes narrowed. She fisted her hands in his hair and used the grip to firmly thump the back of his head against the wall.”I don’t give a tinker’s damn how cute you thought I was, or who More-tisha Addams is. If you touch my hair with your mind again, I will feed you to the crows.”

Bill nodded. “And the rest?” he asked gently.

She raised her head to the heavens and gave a scream of primal triumph.

“Yes! Yes, I will leave this place. Yes, I will come with you. Yes, I will share my life with yours.”

He dropped to a knee and took her hand in his.

“Snow Maid. Polina of the Frosts. Will you be my wife? Will you marry me?”

She cupped his face in her hands.

“Yes.”

%%%

They stood by the stone, each shaking; Bill in memory, Polina in fear.

They had spent weeks planning and re-planning their journey. Their intent was to walk to Belushya Guba, the only settlement of any size on this forsaken spit of land. From there, they would barter for a boat to take them to the mainland. Polina had brought precious metals and jewelry, the treasure of centuries of sacrifices, for that very purpose. Once in Russia proper, they would buy, beg, borrow, or steal any transportation necessary to get them to Archangel’sk or St. Petersburg. Bill was confident that once his name and story was known to the western media, the American government would fall all over itself arranging for transportation back to the States.

In the meantime, however…

He sighed and hoisted his pack higher on his shoulders. Polina bore one nearly as large. At their feet was a sledge, the wooden runners polished, piled high with supplies for the trek. They were each dressed as warmly as they were able, for the feeble summer that this place enjoyed was still weeks away. But for today at least, the April sun was bright on the snow, and he and Polina stepped into the harnesses which they had painstakingly crafted.

“What I wouldn’t give for a good set of sled dogs,” he grunted, as he buckled the straps. Polina slanted a nervous smile at him as she did the same on her side.

“Do you really think that your people will accept me?”

“My mother has been pestering me to give her a grandchild for the last three years. She will be so happy that I am alive that I could marry a seal and she wouldn’t say a thing,” he said as she laughed.

“I have had a thought, my husband,” she said, voice low and loving.

“Which is?”

“That we have made ourselves effectively immortal, as long as our love holds true. With your faith to sustain me, and my power to keep you young, who knows now much longer we will live.”

Bill laughed. “Now that would be the gods’ own joke. That a man who intended suicide ended up living forever.

“But immortality would be cold comfort indeed, if I did not have you by my side.

“Now pull!”

Epilogue

“…So you see that tonight we will be seeing some pretty heavy snow coming in from the northwest. The NWS is calling for four to six inches, but I talked to the Snow Maid before I came to the studio, and she says we will be getting about seven inches here in the city, and almost eight in areas east of town.

“Tomorrow the clouds will break up, though we still might see some flurries until about noon. After that, it is going to get cold, with a high on Saturday of eleven degrees, and a low Saturday night of four below.

“The rest of the weekend looks to be about normal for mid-February in Iowa. The high will reach into the mid-twenties Sunday afternoon, and the low Monday morning will be about fifteen degrees. No snow in the extended forecast, and we will be at seasonal temperatures, with a lot of sun on Tuesday.

“Rick and Janet, back to you.”

Bill smiled as he walked out of the studio of KRNL is Des Moines and hugged his wife, who had been watching behind the cameras.

“How did you like it?”

“It still seems silly to me. All you did was stand in front of a green wall and talk!”

“But just think of how many children heard me talk about you,” he said as they walked towards the exit. He stroked her belly, where their child lay sleeping. “If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, you and the baby will be safe.”

“Hmph,” she said, somewhat mollified, but gripped his hand hard. Her fingers were chilly around his, but he had grown so used to it he didn’t even notice.

“Ready to go home? Or would you like to get something to eat first?”

She perked up at the mention of food. “There is a new Mexican restaurant in town, near Chamberlain’s Antiques. How about we call Abby and Sara and meet them there?”

Hand in hand, they opened the door and walked into the falling snow.

The End

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