How it begins
Anatoly took a card from the pile, sighed, and laid it back down on the table. “They have trampled a road all the way across the lower slopes and up to their infernal workings,” he said. “Once the river ran cold and clear. Now it is bitter with sulphur. The Rusalkas have been driven from their home. It is bad, my friends, bad indeed.”
“But what’s to be done?” asked Leshy, picking fretfully at the dried leaves caught in his beard.
The North Wind puffed out his ruddy cheeks, and roared, “They need teaching a lesson! They’re getting too big for their boots.”
“Another dozen trees felled today. That makes-” Leshy paused, bringing short, hairy toes up to the table to assist his counting. Finding himself still far short of the necessary digits, he threw his hands up in the air. “Too many. Too many of my trees hacked down and burned. And not a single token or sacrifice left in exchange. My time is done. I may as well lie down and die right now.”
Leshy’s gloom made the North Wind chuckle, his wheezy gusts scattering playing cards onto the floor. Leshy complained that he’d just built a good hand, but it was now lost – as all his endeavours seemed doomed to failure and insignificance.
Anatoly drummed his long fingers on the table top. It was dark with grease, and splashed with tallow drips from countless candles. The squalor of it irked him all of a sudden. He found himself imagining Yevgenia’s pretty nose wrinkling in distaste, and he determined that tomorrow he would take the time to clean the kitchen – perhaps the entire cottage. And then he fell to thinking about all the other parts of Yevgenia, just as pretty as her nose. For a time he forgot all about the problem of the mine, and the men and the road and the town.
“Life is too easy,” said the North Wind. “That’s the problem. They have no real hardships, and so they’re free to poke and meddle and delve and steal. In the olden times-” Anatoly rolled his eyes, and Leshy gave a discreet little sigh. “In the olden times, they had no time for such nonsense. They were too busy fending off lions, finding bison to hunt, discovering which berries were good to eat and which would turn their guts to slop – all the time fearing the sky might fall on their heads. I had only to whip up a little thunderstorm, and they ran whimpering to their caves. Now many of them are idle. That’s the nub of it. They’re bored, and so they breed mischief.”
“You’re saying they need a distraction? If some calamity were to befall them, they might be too busy to come plundering the forest?” Anatoly drained his glass thoughtfully, only grimacing a little at the harsh taste of the vodka. He distilled it himself from turnip peelings and bog myrtle, and the flavour was highly distinctive.
“But I have set traps. I have raised fires. I have confounded and befuddled them. Still they come back – more and more of them, like ants from a woodpile.” He glanced at the North Wind, a little fearfully, a little hopefully. “Perhaps if you were to-?”
The North Wind’s sigh rattled the pans hanging in the pantry. “I would love to help, of course. But my time is barely my own. You know how hard it is for me to even find the leisure for our card game each month. There is not a town in the world I don’t visit. Not an hour of the day I can rest. My duties are endless.”
“Then it is over,” said Leshy. “Before long we’ll be driven from our homes, just like the poor Rusalkas.”
“You are not without talents, though?” The North Wind’s voice was soft now, but still it sent a cold breeze down the back of Anatoly’s neck.
“I have studied the moon, the sun and the stars,” said Anatoly. “I have studied the movements of beasts, and the flights of birds. I have learned the language of flowing water and what the trees whisper to one another through the hard, frozen winters.”
“Tell me, when the men come to fell your trees, what do they use?”
“An axe,” said Leshy unhappily.
“And when you want to turn a field, ready for planting, what do you use?”
“An iron plough,” said Anatoly.
“And when you distil your vodka, what do you use then?”
Anatoly gestured to the large brass kettle hanging from the rafters.
“You use a tool appropriate to the task. So, finding yourselves unequal to the task of driving the men from your mountain, what tool do you suppose might assist you?”
Anatoly thought for a moment. A brightness flared in his eyes, and he met the North Wind’s gaze. “A monster. We need a monster to do what we cannot.”
The North Wind nodded thoughtfully. “I expect someone of your learning could create a monster the like of which had never before been seen or imagined.” His voice dropped lower, but it whistled around the eaves of the house, quick and cold as a knife. “Cold, unforgiving, incorruptible. Such a monster could drive these men far from your mountain, and from Leshy’s forest. The Rusalkas could return to their pools, and you could resume your studies, undisturbed by their endless hammering, blasting and grinding.”
Anatoly glanced at Leshy, who nodded encouragingly.
When his guests had departed, he shut himself in his study with a samovar of tea, and didn’t come out until morning. He studied the treatise of a Persian necromancer. He read an incomplete fragment of ancient Arabic concerning the nature of evil. He cross referenced works by monks and astronomers, alchemists and scholars. He scribbled notes, drew diagrams, and performed complex calculations. He consulted nine different almanacs, and identified an auspicious day to set his plans in motion.
In the dead of night he climbed through a blizzard to the lair of an ice wyvern. Silently, so as not to wake the slumbering creature, he captured its breath in a bell jar. Hoar frost formed on his fingers, cracking and falling to the cave floor in tinkling, diamond drops. The wyvern stirred and groaned; it might have woken, but Anatoly conjured a lullaby of howling winds and scouring hail, and it sighed and rolled over, returning to its decades-long sleep.
As the sun rose he flew from town to town until he heard a certain distinctive sound. To an untrained ear the inconsolable cries might seem those of any other grieving parent. But Anatoly heard the edge of drama, of extravagance, and knew the cries to be insincere. It was no trouble at all for him to collect the child-killer’s discarded handkerchief and harvest her crocodile tears.
As evening fell, he tracked an ill-omened comet across the sky. Debris from its wake fell screaming to earth, crashing into a vast, uninhabited desert. From its steaming surface he gathered fragments of rocks and metals unknown to man.
With these ingredients Anatoly returned to his forest home. There he collected the final piece he needed, and he worked through the night, spinning his baleful creation. When at last it was done, and the creature lay on his table, kicking its thin legs and gazing at him from large, solemn eyes, he invited Leshy and the North Wind to witness it.
“I thought it would be… bigger,” said the North Wind after a moment.
Anatoly explained that it would grow. He’d created an infant, so that he could teach it everything it needed to know to perform its duty.
“How long will that take?”
Anatoly wasn’t sure. “It will grow faster than a human, but it may take a year or two.”
The North Wind nodded. A year was nothing to him, who had been roaring around the earth since the first mountains rose from the sea.
Anatoly glanced at Leshy. He was less patient than the North Wind, and likely to object to such a long term plan. But Leshy gazed at the creature with an odd, foolish look on his face. “It’s a girl,” he said, and gently tickled the creature’s tummy. The infant kicked its legs more fiercely, and gave a little gurgle.
“Look at her fingers,” Leshy said. “Thin as a piece of straw, but each one perfect.” As he spoke, the creature closed its fist over his huge, hairy thumb, holding on with surprising force.
“How will you raise it?”
Anatoly said he would teach it terror and cruelty; he would teach it to show no mercy, to be single-minded, incorruptible…
The infant whooped as Leshy swung it up in the air and onto his chest. It burrowed into his warm fur, falling instantly asleep, a thumb stuck in its tiny mouth. “What will you call her?” he asked, gently rocking from side to side.
Anatoly hadn’t yet considered a name for the creature. He searched his memory for something suitably baleful. “Medusa? Lilith? Agrippina?”
“What about Kikimora?” The infant mumbled in her sleep, and gave a little sigh. “There, she likes that. You’re going to frighten the men, and drive them far away,” Leshy whispered to her. “Then the forest will grow again, and the streams will run clear. The Rusalkas will come home, and everything will be as it was before. You’re going to save us all, Kikimora.”
After Leshy had returned to the forest, and the still sleeping monster was tucked into a makeshift cot in a kitchen drawer, the North Wind took Anatoly to one side. “Are you sure you have the stomach for this?”
“Of course. The difficulty with any kind of monster is always controlling it. This method, though a little more long term, ensures it will truly be our monster – biddable, obedient…”
“As well as cruel, heartless, incorruptible, etc?”
Full of excitement for his creation, Anatoly didn’t hear the irony in the North Wind’s tone. “It will be whatever we raise it to be. That is the beauty of it.”
“Indeed it will. You have experience with infants, I suppose?” He supposed nothing of the sort.
“Every creature on earth manages to raise young,” said Anatoly lightly. “I would like to think I too am equal to the challenge. How hard can it be?”
The North Wind only smiled. His travels took him to many homes in many lands. He had some idea of how hard it could be. “And when do you propose to begin its instruction in cruelty?”
“It is only hours old! I think we must first master the basics of walking, speaking, reading and writing-”
“Your monster will write?”
Anatoly was astonished by the question. “What kind of education would neglect writing?”
“Your monster requires an education?”
“Of course! It will be no crude, simple beast. She will be subtle, intelligent, able to wield her cruelty as a sharpened blade.”
“I see. So this cruelty will begin to manifest some time after she perfects a fair copyist’s hand and once she has completed rudimentary deportment? Or will she need courtly dancing first?”
Anatoly frowned, realising his achievement was not garnering the praise it deserved, and wondering why not.
Seeing his friend’s hurt and confusion, the North Wind spoke more gently, “Just how do you suppose cruelty is taught?”
“Well,” said Anatoly, picking a book from the shelf. “There are conflicting treatises-”
“I have circled the world almost as many times as the moon,” interrupted the North Wind. “I have watched men live and fight and bleed and die. I have seen civilisations grow, break apart and fall back into dust. Do you allow that I might have a certain amount of experience in this matter?”
Anatoly nodded cautiously.
“Cruelty is taught by example.” The North Wind allowed a moment for that to sink in. “I ask again, do you have the stomach for this? Does Leshy? You saw how taken he already is with your creature.”
“It is in his nature to comfort and cherish-”
Anatoly’s frown deepened. “But it could be an advantage? We build up the creature’s love and obedience to us-”
“While instilling its hatred of everything else?”
“Well, I see you have it all worked out. I shall watch with interest as these events unfold over the coming year or two.” With a last smile, the North Wind took to the air, roaring his way through the night sky.
The draught from the open door caused the infant to stir and utter a thin cry. Anatoly crossed to the kitchen drawer, gazing down at her. His pride stung; he had anticipated awe and praise for his creation. Instead, the North Wind’s doubts troubled him, stirring up his own.
“Hush now,” he told her. But the creature began to thrash, beating her tiny fists. Her mouth drew open in an ominous dark square.
“Hush, I say.”
Kikimora began to howl.
Kikimora will be published at the end of October 2015