Monday 13 August 2012

Snowmaiden and Lionheart

Far to the north of all the Worlds, where it is winter all year long, is the Land of Ice.

A frigid and terrible Land it is, where the ice never melts and the snows lie heavy on the ground, and where the blizzards rage the year round. A terrible Land indeed, where the aurora glimmers in the sky and the rivers and seas cannot flow or rise in tides, and the trees are frozen iron-hard with the cold.

In the heart of the Land of Ice lived the Wizard Baraf. He lived in a castle whose walls were made of ice blocks, and whose windows were of ice sheets, and whose turrets were capped with cones of snow.

A cold and distant man was the Wizard Baraf. His hair and beard were the colour of the distant ice-fields, as was his skin, and his eyes were the blue of icicles; his robes were woven from the crystals of snow, and his shoes were made of the green ice of the glaciers. When he raised his hand, the ice sheets moved to obey his command, and the blizzard came down, and when he spoke, the icebergs moved out on the storm-tossed seas like live things, and made for routes where they could rip open the skins of passing ships.

The people of the Land of Ice brought the Wizard Baraf gifts, for such a great and terrible wizard must be kept happy. They brought him the frozen dew off the petals of iceflowers, and they brought him sealskin furs, and crystal ice of the utmost purity, clear as the air and beautiful as the stars. If the Wizard Baraf was pleased, he would spare them from disaster for the coming year, that was their hope. It was all they dared hope for.

Now this Wizard had a daughter, who was called Snowmaiden; a young woman as lovely as she was intelligent, as accomplished as she was gentle, and at the same time, as good as the nights of those northern lands are long. Snowmaiden’s gentle heart ached for the people, who lived in the prison of cold the Wizard her father had created for them, where it was winter all year round and the sun never shone. Snowmaiden’s tender mind brought her to tears, often, when she heard of the peoples’ hardships, and she asked her father to make things easier for the people, if only a little. But all the Wizard did was raise his ice-coloured eyebrows and tell her to stick to matters more suitable to her age and station. And Snowmaiden would go away sorrowfully, the pain of the people still in her heart.

Now the time had come for Snowmaiden to choose a husband; and the Wizard Baraf sent invitations all across the face of all the Worlds, that men might hear, and come for the Choosing, where the bride would select her mate. And one of those invites came to the Land of Summer, where the skies are like burnished brass.

Now the Wizard Baraf had no intention that his daughter should marry the son of the Lord of the Land of Summer, for Summer is the enemy of Ice, and there was no love lost between the rulers of the two lands. The invite came because Baraf wished to humiliate the son of the Lord of Summer. For if he should come to the Choosing, and Snowmaiden should – as she would, the Wizard Baraf would see to that – reject him, it would be a humiliation indeed.

But the fame of the beauty of Snowmaiden, and of her good nature, had spread to all parts of the Seven Lands; and though well the Lord of Summer knew the intention of the Wizard, and warned his son accordingly, it was to no avail. The Prince of Summer wished to go and see for himself, and win the hand of the maiden. And, because he was as headstrong as his Land was hot, he took leave of his parents, left his palace, and began on his journey across the Worlds to the Land of Ice.

The Prince of Summer was called Lionheart. He was lithe as the gazelle and strong as the rhinoceros, and headstrong as the wild boar. Dark as the midnight was his skin, and his eyes flashed like black diamonds when he raged, as he often did. Across his shoulder he bore his great broad-bladed assegai, and at his side his long oval shield of hide, on which the greatest magicians of his people had inscribed symbols to keep him from harm. He was brave and proud and arrogant, and he had a right to be, because never had any of the peoples of the Seven Lands produced such a hero before.

Since the calling of a Choosing also meant a Holy Truce across the Worlds, Lionheart went alone, striding through the Lands under the stars, and those who saw him marvelled, for he was a wondrous sight indeed.

Meanwhile the Wizard Baraf had, by his magical skills, caused a great palace to be constructed for the Choosing, a palace of ice and snow, where by marvellous skill the rooms were warm within for the comfort of those who would come to visit. In the palace were accommodation for all the candidates for the Choosing and more besides, and in the very centre was a vast Hall of incomparable beauty, with fluted pillars of ice and crystal chandeliers of snow, where the floor was carpeted with dream-soft snow plucked from the very clouds themselves; and this was where Snowmaiden received her suitors with all graciousness, and where she would, when the time came, choose which of them should be her mate.

And so the suitors came from all over the Seven Lands and perhaps from the Dark Worlds beyond the Rim as well, came with retinues laden with gifts meant to gladden the heart of Snowmaiden and win her hand. Snowmaiden met them all with the same reserved graciousness, and smiled at them with a beauty set to break all hearts, and conducted them to their quarters, which she had prepared with her own two hands; and then she went back to the Hall to await the next comer. And so it went.

And meanwhile the Wizard Baraf learned of the coming of the Prince of Summer, Lionheart, and rejoiced exceedingly. For plain he saw that the youth had not even come bearing gifts to charm his daughter, and he knew then that it would be a simple matter to humble him before the throng on the day. And so he went with happy heart to prepare the magical spells that would ensure Snowmaiden would reject the son of his enemy and instead Choose the one he wished her to take as mate, the tenebrous scion of the Land of Eternal Night.

And meanwhile, tall and proud as a young palm tree, bearing his great assegai and his invulnerable shield, Lionheart strode through the Lands, and at last he arrived at the doors of the palace the Wizard Baraf had set up, in the heart of the Land of Ice.

And when he came, the ice-lightning flashed and the aurora glowed overhead in curtains of green and blue, and the doors of the palace opened wider than they had ever opened before to other suitors. So it was that the hero Lionheart strode through the majestic corridors of ice, until at last he stood in the great Hall, with its fluted ice pillars and its carpet of snow, where ice-blue light rained down from the crystal chandeliers overhead.

There it was, then, that the daughter of the Wizard Baraf saw for the first time the son of the Lord of Summer; and across the great Hall they stared at each other, and from the face of the beauteous maiden the welcoming smile fell away.

How long they looked at each other it is impossible for mere measurement; for it was in another Time, set apart from the Worlds, that they stood silent, devouring each other with their eyes, and in that Time an instant may stretch over aeons that might see empires rise and fall.

And it was in that Time apart that Snowmaiden knew whom she would and must take as mate; and into the heart of the heroic warrior entered, like the shaft of an arrow, knowledge that his life had hitherto been incomplete.

So it was that Snowmaiden conducted Lionheart to his chamber, which the Wizard Baraf had made so as to be the smallest, least appointed and coldest of all, without a word, and left him without a gesture there; and the Prince of Summer watched her go, in her robes of iceberg green, without a trace of expression on his face.

And later that night, while the Wizard Baraf set his familiars on guard and laboured over his spells, readying them for the Choosing set for the morrow, Snowmaiden crept silently to the chamber where Lionheart waited, and took him by the hand; for she knew what her father’s plans were, and she knew she had to do as she were bid if ever the spells were cast over her. And she drew Lionheart after her, through narrow secret passages in the walls of ice, safely past the doorways guarded by the brooding familiars.

And out they came into the open, where the blizzard blew snow like a curtain across the Land. Journeying like wraiths under the stars, without word spoken to each other and with only the touch of their hands to keep them joined, they came out of the Land of Ice before the dawn of the day.

Meanwhile the Wizard Baraf had woven his spells and his magic, and went to his daughter’s rooms to cast them on her even as she woke, for magic is the strongest when the lonely soul ceases its wanderings and returns to the body which holds it prison. He went to her bed and reached to wake her, but found her not; and because he was a great and powerful wizard, he divined in a moment what she had done, and went in a fury to his chambers and set to work to find her. So he raised and sent forth seekers to track her down, and the Prince of Summer with her, but the questing spirits found but the trace of their shadow, for they had already passed beyond the Wizard’s realm. And when the Wizard knew this, he burned with impotent fury, and swore a great and terrible Curse on his daughter, that she should never be happy in the Land of Summer, where she was bound.

And so, journeying by night and day, across the Seven Lands and the Worlds between, Lionheart and his bride, Snowmaiden, came to the Land of Summer, where the sun blazes down, and the earth is hot as the blood of those who dwell there and consider themselves the most blessed of all the people in all the worlds.

So it was that Lionheart, before the Lord his father and before his people, took Snowmaiden daughter of Baraf for wife, and dwelt with her in a palace of sandstone, where the breezes of evening blew cool after the burning heat of the day. And they learned about each other there, the Prince and his wife, and as time passed they grew so close they could hardly tell, even among themselves, who was who.

But the heart of the young woman grew weary in that land of eternal heat and dust, where the sun glared down always from a brazen sky; and she began to wilt away like a flower that has been cut too long from the stem that gave it birth. Yes, she wilted away, and the mages and doctors of the Land of Summer came, and examined her, and discussed among themselves, and at last they went in a body to the Lord of Summer.

“The lady is ill indeed, your lordship,” they told him, “ill with an illness of the heart, for she is withering away in our climes. And if she cannot be returned to her own –“

“She cannot,” interrupted Lionheart, who was standing at his father’s right hand, “for the wizard her father has decreed a fate far worse than mere death if he should be able to have her within reach ever again.”

“Then, sire,” said the doctors and magicians, bowing, “the Lady shall surely die.”

But then, into the throne room of the Lord of the Summer, entered a strange and ancient figure, a sage so old that he looked like a statue of gnarled wood and dark leather, with hair like woven white silk and eyes that could no longer see. But he saw all things with his mind, the people said, for they knew him well, and feared him and revered him, this sage whom they called the Old Man of the Desert. And so fearsome was his countenance and so piercing the glance of his blind dead eyes that the court fell silent and the mages and doctors abashed themselves.

And the Lord of Summer rose from his carved throne of wood, and, with his crown of feathers on his head, came down to kneel before the Old Man of the Desert, and paid him proper obeisance; and even Lionheart the proud and arrogant Prince slapped his shield with his assegai in salute. But the Old Man of the Desert paid the homage no heed.

“There is a way to save the woman’s life,” he said.

“Which is that?” Lionheart leaned forward eagerly, and the members of the court as well. “How may we save her life, Old Father?”

“In the Land of Ice where she was born,” said the Old Man of the Desert, “there is, in a hidden valley, the Cave of Ice. If you pass through the five chambers of that Cave you will come to a crystal plain, and there on that plain grows the Snow Flower, whose leaves are icicles and whose petals are of driven snow. In the centre of the flowers lie ice crystals like glittering jewels, which gather the light of the aurora and turn it into rainbows the like of which the world has never seen. Gather the Snow Flower and bring it here to the woman your wife, prince, and as long as the Snow Flower shall endure, its power will keep her in health and beauty.”

“I shall set out immediately,” said the Prince Lionheart.

“Wait!” snapped the Old Man of the Desert. “The way is full of dangers beyond your comprehension, dangers of a kind you have never faced. For the Snow Flower is guarded by creatures of the Wizard Baraf, who treasures the Flower as a source of great and precious magical energy. And if you should get by the creatures and the Wizard’s own power, if you should be able to gather the Flower and make it yours, you still have to bring it back here to the Land of Summer without melting away, and you shall have to keep it here so that it will endure.”

“I shall do it,” promised the Prince of Summer. “For the Lady Snowmaiden is worth all the dangers and tribulations in all the Worlds that ever were or shall ever be.”

“Well then, young man,” said the Old Man of the Desert, “go, and return with the Flower, and she will be all right. But before you go, take this, and keep it on your person, and it shall protect you from harm and help you in your quest.”

Then Lionheart took the snakeskin amulet the Old Man of the Desert was holding out to him, and tied it round his upper arm, and before the eyes of everyone the amulet flowed and rippled and merged into his night-dark skin.

So Lionheart took up his assegai and his great oval shield, and dressed himself in war attire, and went out of his father’s palace without taking leave of Snowmaiden. He strode across the faces of the Worlds, passing like the wind from Land to Land, and those who saw him stayed far out of his way, for his countenance was grim as death and violence rode like a grinning skull on his shoulder. And so, leaving the various Lands behind him, he came alone and armed into the Land of Ice, where, in his palace, the Wizard Baraf waited.

But Lionheart did not seek the Wizard Baraf; leaving the palace to one side, he went on until the stars had revolved overhead in the night, went on until the Wizard’s palace had been left far behind and at last – following the directions given him by the Old Man of the Desert – he reached the hidden valley, and found the portals of the Cave of Ice.

And great were the portals of the Cave of Ice, strong enough to resist all the efforts of mere man, but the assegai of Lionheart tapped on them lightly, and those portals fell away and crashed on the valley floor, breaking into a billion pieces; and the warrior prince entered the Cave of Ice.

And it was when he entered the Cave of Ice that the familiars of the Wizard Baraf knew of his coming, and they roused from their slumbers the guardians of the Cave. And scarce had the Prince of Summer taken twenty paces into the first chamber of the Cave that the first of the guardians came, howling their wrath, with their fangs of icicles and their bodies of the substance of glaciers.

But the warrior prince reached out with his assegai and struck them, and they shivered to fragments at the touch, and fell to the floor, one of them and all; and Lionheart walked unmolested into the second chamber of the Cave.

And here in the Cave waited the Ice Serpent himself, rising in coils even as high as the roof, and moving his great heavy head back and forth as he waited for Lionheart’s coming, with hate burning in him. For the Ice Serpent was immured in walls of ice, so that he could never break free, and he hated those who could still walk abroad and breathe free air. And his head was large as an elephant from the prince’s own country, and his fangs, which dripped a venom the touch of which would melt flesh from bone, were each as large as one of the creature’s tusks. A formidable opponent indeed was he, and perhaps he might have been too much even for so great a warrior as Lionheart. But Lionheart struck the ice wall of the Cave with his assegai, and cut a passage for himself through it, and bypassed the Ice Serpent, who could only hiss in fury.

And in the third chamber of the Cave the roof and floor were hung with spears of ice, sharp as lances and hard as iron; and as the prince entered, they broke off and rained down on him from above and thrust at him from below. But Lionheart held his shield over his head and the ice spears that fell from above shivered to pieces on the mage-inscribed hide; while with broad sweeps of his assegai he cut off the spears of ice that thrust up at him from below, and unharmed passed he into the fourth chamber.

In the fourth chamber waited winged ice-demons, which flew down from their roosts on the vaulted roof and came at him from all directions and slashed at him with their claws and sharp hooked teeth. But Lionheart held them away with his shield and stabbed them through and through with his assegai, so that they fell broken to the floor, and flapped weakly there, unable to fly again. And one by one were they all thus destroyed, and came Lionheart to the fifth chamber.

And here in the fifth chamber he saw a cavern of surpassing loveliness, set forth with tinkling fountains and thrones and couches all of ice, covered with cushions of snow soft as the finest down, and there were tables too, set with dishes containing the finest viands anyone of the Seven Lands could ever have imagined. And into the chamber came women of loveliness far surpassing that of any mortal, dressed in nothing but their beauty; and they sang songs that brought delight to the warrior’s weary heart, and fed him wine and fruits with their own delicate hands. And then they drew him gently to the waiting couches, where they kissed and caressed him, and proceeded to undress him, promising him meanwhile all the carnal pleasures he could ever imagine, and more.

But then the amulet merged into the skin of Lionheart’s arm opened red snake’s eyes and spoke a warning, and the Prince of Summer saw the women for what they were, saw their burning eyes and sharp teeth; and he took up his assegai and cut off their heads before they could run. And then the beautiful chamber crumbled away to broken shards of ice, and the far wall dissolved, and before Lionheart was the crystal plain.

And there on the crystal plain grew the Snow Flower, singly and in clusters, grew in such numbers that the plain seemed to be covered in them; and their leaves were of icicles and their petals of driven snow, and in the centre of each flower were ice crystals that took in the colour of the aurora flickering overhead and turned it into rainbows unknown to mortal man.

So Lionheart the Prince of the Land of Summer bent low and with the tip of his assegai dug up a Snow Flower plant, roots and all; and putting it into a loop at the back of his shield, he turned to leave.

But there was no Cave of Ice behind him, only a wall of frozen rock; and there on the crystal plain, cold and terrible and majestic, stood the Wizard Baraf himself.

And the Wizard Baraf held out a hand, pointing; and the cold swarmed into Lionheart’s blood, and set his bones to freezing.

And then the Prince of Summer’s eyes grew dim and the breath froze in his lungs, and he felt his strength drain away, and he began to fall.

But the amulet in his arm glowed, like fire, red and orange with the heat of the Land of Summer; and the warmth flooded back into his bones, and his blood flowed again, and he recovered himself and raised his assegai, ready to strike. And when he saw this the Wizard Baraf began to spin, and in a moment was a pillar of ice, turning and turning where he stood, bridging earth and heaven. And Lionheart knew that even his assegai would not be able to cut through the roots of this pillar.

But then another idea came to his mind, and he walked through the crystal plain, smashing the Snow Flowers with his spear, and crushing them under his feet, cutting a swathe of destruction. And the pillar cried out in agony, and a moment later the Wizard Baraf stood before him once more.

“Let me go back unharmed to my Land,” Lionheart told him, raising his assegai, “or I shall kill you.”

“Kill me,” said the Wizard Baraf, “and you shall be trapped here till the end of time.” As he spoke, his words froze the air and sent it showering down as tiny crystals.

“In that case,” Lionheart said, “I shall continue to destroy the Flowers, until there are none left.”

For a long moment they stood silent and looked at each other.

“You stole my daughter,” said the Wizard Baraf.

“She was not yours to steal; and she came with me of her own free will.”

“That’s as may be, but it was still an evil.” The Wizard Baraf looked at Lionheart and then down at the shattered Flowers, and sighed. “Go,” he said.

And a cavern opened in the wall of frozen rock, rimed with frost; and on the far side of the cavern glimmered the open night, and the stars.

“Go,” said the Wizard again, “and take my curse with you. For you shall never walk again without my hate at your shoulder.” And he blurred and was gone.

And so the Prince of the Land of Summer strode over the chasms between the Worlds and came back to his own Land and his own people; and the Snow Flower still glimmered behind his shield.

And he went straight to the room where Snowmaiden his wife lay still as death itself, and he kissed her lips and spoke to her of his coming, and put the Snow Flower into her hands.

And straight the eyes of Snowmaiden opened, with wonder and delight, and she looked at the Flower, and felt her strength flow back into her wasted limbs; and the heart of the Prince brimmed with joy.

So they planted the Snow Flower in a special room, where the arts of the mages kept cold as ice, and the Flower lived; and each day Snowmaiden would go and renew herself, and she loved Lionheart all the more.

But times change and magic drains away, and the day came when the mages could no longer sustain the cold chamber in that land of eternal Summer; and the flower melted to a puddle and vanished in a wisp of evaporating mist; and Lionheart heard the Wizard chuckle with glee, and his heart knew despair.

And while he was still despairing, Snowmaiden put off her royal raiment and went forth in common garments, through the heat of the day; and she walked through the desert until she came to a kraal of dried mud bricks, where she knew dwelt the Old Man of the Desert.

And long they talked there, the ancient sage and the woman of the Land of Ice; and none but the two of them knew what was spoken, what talks passed between them. And there were strange lights and sounds there all through the night, in that kraal.

In the morning, when, still despairing, the Prince Lionheart went to his wife’s chambers, he was by no means sure that she still lived; but when he opened the door, she stood before him, smiling, and his jaw dropped with amazement.

For Snowmaiden was bright and beautiful as ever, and glowing with health and joy; but she was now as black as the night, and from the hair on her head to the soles of her feet was as much of the Land of Summer as the Prince ever had been. And she smiled and bade him rejoice, for the Wizard’s curse could harm her no longer, and when Lionheart turned away a moment, she quickly brushed away a tear.

And in that palace in the land of Summer they still dwell together, the warrior and his lady; but the Lady Snowmaiden no longer goes by that name.

Dark Rose they call her now, in all the Seven Lands and in the Worlds beyond the Rim.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2010/12


  1. I read it twice and then again. This story is like a poem. So beautiful. Your imagery is as clear as a photograph.

    1. Thanks, Benni, but rereading it now I find it derivative. The influence of Lord Dunsany is too obvious to ignore.

  2. Shoveling the snow off the roof I encountered a squirrel, his fur sprinkled with snow. "It's cold", he said, "It's cold". "There, there" I said and put out another big jar of peanut butter for him and his family who live in a house nailed to an ancient oak.

  3. A very delightful reading.... Awesome imagery and as Benni already mentioned above, it's as clear as a photograph. I fully agree with her words. Thanks again for your kindness...


Full comment moderation is enabled on this site, which means that your comment will only be visible after the blog administrator (in other words, yours truly) approves it. The purpose of this is not to censor dissenting viewpoints; in fact, such viewpoints are welcome, though it may lead to challenges to provide sources and/or acerbic replies (I do not tolerate stupidity).

The purpose of this moderation is to eliminate spam, of which this blog attracts an inordinate amount. Spammers, be warned: it takes me less time to delete your garbage than it takes for you to post it.