So, anyone who is familiar with Russian Folk/Fairytales will recognize this one:
Is there anything worse than a blizzard?
Yes, Anna knew…. There were many things worse than a blizzard. And her stepmother had somehow managed to think of all of them.
Blizzards, Anna reflected, are perfectly fine things – quite lovely, even, when witnessed from the warmth of one’s own home, cuddled up by the fire with a nice warm mug of tea.
They are considerably less lovely when one finds oneself trudging through twelve inches of snow, when the snow is coming down so thick and fast it looks like a crosshatch of white and you can barely see the path.
And particularly when you don’t have proper boots. Or hat. Or gloves.
Stepmother might not be a good cook. Or a good housekeeper. Or a good anything, really. But she was an expert on misery. Or, more specifically, how to inflict it.
The snow was coming down so quickly that Anna’s hair was already so wet it looked like she’d just taken a bath. Truth be told, she looked a bit like a half-drowned puppy, although she was trying very hard not to focus on that.
She rubbed chapped, red hands against each other, blowing on them in the effort to keep them warm, and rubbing them against the threadbare coat she’d been given – a castoff from her stepsister, which wasn’t doing a good deal to keep her warm.
She trudged through the woods – because really, reader, when the snow hits a certain depth, trudging is all you can manage to do – there’s certainly no hopping or skipping or sauntering. Trudging is basically your only option.
Anna knew it was foolish, the mission she’d been sent on. Stepmother’s voice was clear as a bell in her mind, and the words kept ringing.
“I want fresh strawberries,” she said, in that affected accent of hers. “You will find fresh strawberries and bring them to me or you won’t be allowed back into this house.”
Foolish nonsense. Fresh strawberries in January? Where was she supposed to find them – under the snow?
But she knew she was going to be kicked out of the house one way or another… At least by agreeing to this stupid quest she was allowed the small comfort of a coat.
Anna was no fool…. She knew why she was really there. Stepmother had decided to get rid of her, once and for all. And having her freeze to death in the snow – well, that was just an expedient way to do it.
She understood her real mission quite well and it was simply to survive. Not to succumb to the cold. And not to be eaten by wild animals – quite frankly, of the two options, death by cold seemed the more preferable.
Perhaps, she thought hopefully, as she trudged uphill through the woods, she would find some nice woodcutter, who would be kind enough to take her in until she could figure out what else to do. Even an abandoned hut would be nice.
At least the trees cut down on the wind, somewhat, now that she was in the woods proper. Now, instead of bearing the brunt of the wind, it was just a mild whistle through the trees. At least that was a little better.
Actually, now that she came to truly listen to it, it sounded less of a whistle and more of a song….. Maybe the cold was addling her brain, but she could almost make out the words…. It sounded like voices, blended together, almost like a choir, except when she listened close, she could make out each individual voice. The music echoed through the wood.
Anna shook her head at her silly thought. No way it was singing, right? What morons would go around singing in the woods at night? And in this weather?
No… She was the only one foolish enough to venture through the woods on a night like this, and it was because she didn’t have a choice.
Still, the almost-music was vaguely comforting, as she fought her way up the hill, through the cold and the wind and the snow. It was almost lulling – soothing, even, which she had to be wary of, because she knew in this kind of weather, when you stop and sit for a few minutes, it’s just as likely you’ll never get up again.
So she kept fighting, upward and onward.
She had no proper boots, but she’d been allowed to wrap woolen scarves around her ratty old shoes for some protection from the elements. Those scarves were now soaked-through with snow and her feet were growing numb, but she soldiered on.
Every now and then, through the trees, she could swear she saw a glint of bright, golden light. She could almost convince herself that there was someone at the top of the hill, with a warm, toasty fire.
For again, what fool would willingly be out in this weather?
She kept her eyes on the ground, watching her steps, knowing that a trip or a fall could be fatal.
And she felt a sense of accomplishment when she finally got to the top of the hill, even though it didn’t mean much. She had far to go if she was going to find a place to rest, but she allowed herself to stop for a moment, and catch her breath, however unwise that might be.
And to her surprise, she saw the light.
It was real – and better yet – it was a big, strong roaring campfire, not far off through the woods. Forgetting her soaked and numb feet, she ran for it, fighting through the snow as best she could, with only one hope: to get warm.
She broke through the tree line to a large clearing, where the fire danced and glowed in the center. Overjoyed, she ran right to the fire and immediately began warming her hands. She was just starting to get the feeling back in her fingers when a voice behind her made her jump.
“Hello, little girl,” said the strong male voice.
She leapt about a foot into the air and turned around sheepishly. She’d been so focused on the light and the warmth that she hadn’t noticed the people sitting around the fire. Now that she looked, she realized it was twelve men, all different ages and complexions, seated around the fire and looking at her curiously.
It was the oldest who had spoken, a tall man with a long, white grizzled beard.
It was best, she thought, to be respectful, and she dropped a curtsy as best she could, and faced him.
“I’m so sorry, sir,” she said. “For barging in…. It’s just that it’s so very cold and I saw your fire through the trees.”
“It’s quite all right, child,” he said. “You’re welcome to share our fire.”
It was just then that she realized the wind was no longer whistling through the trees… The whistling, or what she had taken as whistling, had been these men, singing. And their harmonious tones had guided her through the woods… had brought her here.
She looked around at the group warily. There are many who would have been frightened in her position – in the middle of the woods on a dark, snowy winter’s night, surrounded by a group of strange men. Anna was not scared. Anna knew better than to be scared… she knew that whatever was waiting for her at home was certainly worse than whatever could happen here.
And so she smiled at them.
“Thank you,” she said.
350-500 words * female character * ripe strawberries
(obviously went over word count again… took a bit more space than I thought it would)
Writing Prompt Courtesy of: