In a certain kingdom in a certain land there lived two brothers and two sisters, and they ruled as kings and queens together. One day the two queens went riding near the sea when a firebird swooped down like a burning star and seized the younger queen into the air. Her sister shot a hundred arrows, but they burst into flames and the bird flew off unharmed.
The firebird carried the younger queen away to the northwest. It flew past the great cliff that marked the edge of the kingdom, past the hills of the Western Wild, past the dark forest, the stone mountain, and the nine rivers until it reached the land of Vinyedvyeri that lay at the foot of the Wall Around the World.
Queen Lucy drew her dagger and struck at the bird's feet until it cried out and let her fall. She fell down through the clouds, through the open air, through the tops of trees, until she struck the ground and lay senseless. After some time, a long time or a short time, she awoke and drank three drops of her magic cordial to heal her wounds. Then she looked around to see where she had come.
A road wound away through the forest, narrow and faint as if no one had passed that way for years. But any direction is better than no direction, so Queen Lucy began to walk.
She came to a fork in the road where a tall stone stood. On it was carved this message:
"Whoever takes the left-hand path will be cold and hungry. Whoever takes the middle path will have his horse killed but he will live in comfort. Whoever takes the right-hand path will be killed but his horse will live."
Queen Lucy said to herself, "I do not wish to die, and anything that would kill a horse might turn on me since I have no horse to satisfy it." So she took the left-hand path. She walked all day and all night, and by morning she was cold and hungry indeed.
As the sun rose, she came upon a wooden bridge where a girl sat washing her feet in the river. "The glory of the morning be upon you," said Lucy. "I am lost in this forest. What is the name of this land and how can I return to Narnia?"
The girl sprang to her feet, curtsied, and made the sign of a star. "The blessing of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Stars be upon you. This is Vinyedvyeri, the land beyond the door. Narnia is leagues and leagues to the southeast. How did you come so far from your home?"
"A firebird seized and carried me away," said Queen Lucy.
The girl made the sign of a star again. "This is a happy chance! My name is Elena and I am the daughter of the High Count. My eldest brother Ivan and my second brother Pierre both went in search of the firebird, which has been carrying away noble daughters from all across the land. But they were lost on their journeys so now I have come to rescue them."
"Well then, I will help you," said Queen Lucy, and she and Princess Elena continued along the narrow road.
They passed a fox with her paw caught in a trap and lying exhausted on the ground. By now they were very hungry and Queen Lucy drew her dagger, thinking that fox was not good to eat but better than nothing.
"Spare me, sisters," said the fox, opening her dark eyes. "I have kits at home in my den and it may be I can do you a favor someday."
Elena freed her from the trap, Lucy poured a drop of cordial to heal the wound, and they let the fox run free.
Later they passed a falcon with a broken wing, caught in a tangle of branches. Again Lucy drew her dagger, thinking that falcon was not much to eat but better than nothing.
"Spare me, sisters," said the falcon, raising her proud head. "I have chicks at home in my nest and it may be I can do you a favor someday."
Elena freed her from the branches, Lucy poured a drop of cordial to heal the wing, and they let the falcon fly free.
Later they passed a turtle with her leg caught in a weir, thrashing in the stream. Again Lucy drew her dagger, thinking that turtle was difficult to eat but better than nothing.
"Spare me, sisters," said the turtle, drawing her neck into her shell. "I have eggs at home in the bank and it may be I can do you a favor someday."
Elena freed her from the weir, Lucy poured a drop of cordial to heal the scrape, and they let the turtle swim free.
As the day grew old, a black rider on a black horse galloped past bringing night in his wake. Lucy and Elena blinked in the sudden darkness until they saw a faint light in the distance, shining through the forest.
"We should seek shelter there for the night," said Queen Lucy.
"But we must be careful, for anyone who lives in this forest may well be dangerous. You must be polite and do exactly what I say," said Princess Elena, and Lucy agreed.
When they came to the lighted clearing, they saw a little hut on chicken legs spinning and spinning around within a ring of spiked posts. Elena used a hairpin to unlock the gate and the girls slipped inside the fence. "Little hut, little hut, turn your back to the wood and your front to me," said Elena, and the hut obeyed.
The door slammed open and an old woman glared down at her guests. "Who comes to Baba Yaga's house? If you waste my time I'll bake you in the oven and put your skulls on my fence."
"We are searching for the firebird that seizes and carries away noble daughters, and for my brothers who went to stop it," said Elena.
Baba Yaga laughed and said, "The firebird is sent by Koschei the Deathless, a great magician who lives in a stone castle high in the mountains. He has set the noble daughters to be his maids and your brothers are turned into trees along with the other heroes who went to fight him. How do you mean to defeat a man who cannot die?"
"Nobody is truly deathless," said Lucy. "I have seen the White Witch of Narnia meet her end, and even gods can die. Please tell us how to defeat this Koschei and break his spells."
"What will you give me in return?" asked Baba Yaga.
"I will bring you blue roses from Koschei's garden, to make your special tea," said Elena.
"And I will give you nine drops of my cordial, which heals any hurt but death," said Lucy.
"That is a fair price," said Baba Yaga. "Now listen. There are two ways to gain immortality. Koschei the Deathless is rash but not a fool, so he did not steal an apple from the forbidden garden in the utmost west. Instead he hid his death in a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in a chest that lies buried under the World Ash Tree. If you touch the needle to his head all his spells will shatter. If you break the needle he will die."
The girls thanked Baba Yaga and spent the night in her hut, sleeping on the stove. In the morning Baba Yaga kicked the oven to wake them and threw them out the door. She said, "A white rider on a white horse will pass heading west, then a red rider on a red horse. The first is the dawn and the second is the sun. If you are fast and clever, you can follow them to the World Ash Tree." Then Baba Yaga slammed the door and the little hut spun and spun until it spun right up into the air and flew away.
As dawn broke a white rider on a white horse galloped along the narrow road. As the sun began to rise, a red rider on a red horse followed him. Lucy and Elena seized hold of his saddle and clung to the stirrups as the horse flashed over the land. The saddle grew hotter and hotter until touching it was like touching fire itself, but still they held on.
Finally the rider stopped by a tall green hill at the end of a lake as blue as the sky. "Here is the World Ash Tree," he said, and his horse shivered and shook until the girls were flung to the ground.
There was a walled garden at the top of the hill, but when the girls climbed up they saw words written on the gates:
"Come in by the gold gates or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forbear.
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart's desire and find despair."
So they went down the hill on the other side, where there was a little stream as blue as the sky, and beyond that the World Ash Tree. They crossed the stream and dug between the roots of the tree until they found a little chest all wrapped in iron. Elena unlocked it with her hairpin and a hare jumped out and ran away.
"If only we had a friend to chase the hare!" said Elena, and suddenly a fox ran up with the hare in her mouth.
"Now I have repaid your favor," said the fox.
Lucy cut open the hare and a duck sprang out and flew away. "If only we had a friend to chase the duck!" said Elena, and suddenly a falcon flew up with the duck in her claws.
"Now I have repaid your favor," said the falcon.
Lucy cut open the duck and an egg rolled out and fell into the stream. "If only we had a friend to fetch the egg!" said Elena, and suddenly a turtle swam up with the egg on her back.
"Now I have repaid your favor," said the turtle.
Lucy broke open the egg and handed the needle to Elena. "Now we must find Koschei's castle," said Lucy.
"That is easy," said the fox. "Wait here while I, the falcon, and the turtle return to Vinyedvyeri. We will spread word that two noble daughters are alone in the utmost west. Soon Koschei the Deathless will send the firebird to seize and carry you away."
So they did and after some time, a long time or a short time, the firebird swooped down like a burning star. It seized Princess Elena in one claw and Queen Lucy in the other and carried them away to Koschei's stone castle in the mountains.
When Koschei the Deathless came home from hunting, he ordered his new captives brought to the hall where he sat at his table, crunching bones and sucking the marrow. "You will be my maids," said Koschei to Queen Lucy and Princess Elena. "You will cook and clean along with the other noble daughters and if you can sing or dance, you will entertain me. If you run away, I will turn you into a tree in the courtyard as I've done to many girls and heroes before you."
"I can dance," said Lucy.
"And I can sing," said Elena. She began to clap her hands and sing an old song about how humans came to Vinyedvyeri through an enchanted door, fleeing the demons with painted faces and their terrible magic that destroyed whole cities with one blow. Lucy spun and spun and stamped her feet until Koschei stood from his table to join her, unable to resist the spell of the music and the dance.
Elena hid the needle that held Koschei's death in her hair as a pin and when he crossed near her, leaping and spinning and stamping his feet, she ran forward with it in her hand. Lucy seized his arms from behind and Elena pressed the needle against his forehead.
All the magician's power drained away. Suddenly a great noise rose from the courtyard as dozens of noble daughters and all the heroes who had come to save them changed from wood back into flesh.
Koschei the Deathless knew his power was gone, but he feared death more than anything in the world and that fear gave him strength. He wrenched his hands from Lucy's grip and seized the needle from Elena's fingers. But as he ran from the hall, the fire in the hearth blazed up in the shape of a bird and flew at him like a burning star.
The needle snapped from the heat and Koschei the Deathless fell to the floor, stone dead.
"Free, free, free!" sang the firebird in a voice like a trumpet. Then it flew away into the utmost east and was never seen again.
Princess Elena and Queen Lucy went into the courtyard and found Elena's brothers. "We have been sleeping for a long time, little sister!" said Ivan and Pierre.
"You would have slept forever if not for me and my friends," said Elena. Then the brothers and sister embraced, and all the noble daughters embraced their heroes, and they set off down the mountain toward the city of Vashnoi where the High Count lived, except for one hero who agreed to carry blue roses to Baba Yaga.
When they arrived in Vashnoi they found that Queen Lucy's brothers had come with an army in search of their sister, but when they saw her safe and sound they sheathed their swords and made merry. There was a great feast and all the kingdom was invited, and if they have not died they may still be feasting today.
"And that is how they tell stories in Vinyedvyeri," Lucy finished triumphantly.
Peter and Edmund exchanged an unreadable look, before the corner of Edmund's mouth quirked up in a reluctant smile. "I take it you learned from Princess Elena during those times you skipped over," he said, leaning against the closed door of the room they'd snuck into. Outside the feast roared on without them, music and laughter sifting around the edge of the doorway in tantalizing swirls.
Lucy shrugged, tapping her feet to the rhythm she could only faintly hear. "What else was there to do? Besides, nobody wants to hear how we made camp and fished for a week, or how Darya, Natalie, and Vasilissa got from Vinyedvyeri to the utmost west. Those are the boring parts."
"I still say it was irresponsible of you to join Princess Elena's quest instead of finding a village and sending word to Narnia," Peter said sternly, his arms still crossed in disapproval. "We only defeated the Witch with an army and Aslan's help. What did you think two people could do against a magician strong enough to control a phoenix?"
"But we weren't only two people," Lucy said. "We had help from Baba Yaga, from our three friends, from the red rider, and even from the firebird. And I'm sure Aslan wouldn't want us to turn away from people in need."
"Point for Lu," Edmund murmured. He winked at her with his left eye, the one Peter couldn't see.
"Also, now we have an alliance with Vinyedvyeri," Lucy said. "They have as much trouble with the giants as we do -- maybe more, since the ones in Harfang sound smarter than the ones in Ettinsmoor -- and now we can strike from the south and west at the same time."
Finally Peter sighed and uncrossed his arms. "What's done is done, and I suppose I would have done the same in your place. But if this ever happens again, use your dagger before the phoenix carries you out of the country. You have no idea how much trouble it was to track you through the woods and the Wild."
"But you did, and I did, and here we all are safe and sound," Lucy said, springing forward to hug her oldest brother. "It's a happy ending, Peter. Let's go enjoy it."
And so they did.