The day was cold and crisp, with the clouds overhead threatening a heavy snowfall. For one of the two figures on the otherwise empty clifftop the chill of winter no longer held any discomfort. It never would again.
Illya slithered down the slippery paths to get back to Napoleon waiting at the bottom.
“He was alone. I hid his body, so, if anyone comes to relieve him, they won’t know for a while.”
“Right. Let’s move.”
“Better get into the white camouflage, first. Less weight to carry, too.” Illya had left his backpack to climb the cliff, and its bulk was now daunting after the strenuous exercise.
The great forest loomed ahead, ancient and, with its dense undergrowth, all but impenetrable. Even with the help of the trails of small animals, and occasionally the wider path of larger beasts, their progress wasn’t going to be fast, and it was snowing heavily.
The forest had provided some protection during the afternoon, but the snow was now thick and badly impeded movement, though it at least provided a certain light in the gathering darkness. A compass was their only guide.
Napoleon sniffed the air. “Do I smell a thaw?” he said.
“Maybe,” grunted his companion. “It won’t help, though. At least this snow is powdery. A thaw will just make things wetter. It’ll freeze again, too.”
“There speaks the eternal pessimist.”
“Realist.” Illya was carrying most of the explosives and was pretty sure his pack was heavier than Napoleon’s, so he was terse.
“Let’s have a rest and something to eat,” said Napoleon; his partner’s irritation probably meant his blood sugar level was low.
They sat on one of the many fallen trees in this primeval forest. The wood was rotting, and had grown whiskers of lichen, and offered little comfort.
“I was never in such a wild forest before,” said Napoleon as they drank hot soup from their flasks.
“No. It’s the stuff of folk tales,” agreed Illya. “We’re in the right part of the world for Ded Moróz and Snegúrochka – Father Frost and the Snow Maiden” he added.
“Yeah? I’ve heard of them.”
“Of course. I’m not as ignorant as you often think.”
“No? Anyway, we’re more likely to meet something less friendly. How far do you think we are from the Thrush bunker?”
“Hard to say; can’t be far distance-wise, but at the rate we’re going, maybe an hour or more.”
It was a good deal more than an hour before they found it. A concrete structure, not very large, with a domed, glazed roof but only a few slit-like windows in its walls. Beyond it, and leading away from it in the opposite direction, there was a narrow forest road and lines of electric wires. They lay flat on their packs to keep out of the snow and well enough camouflaged, watched men in similar gear on guard outside the bunker. It was very cold. From time to time, the guards walked up and down and stamped their feet.
Napoleon and Illya watched for 35 minutes, before making a move. It seemed there was a change of the guard at fifteen-minute intervals in the cold, when the wicket gate in the big doors would open for other guards to emerge and take over. After the second change, the two UNCLE agents silently rose and crept round to take the unfortunate and unsuspecting men by surprise.
At the next change, a few minutes later, they dealt with the unfortunate and unsuspecting replacements and went inside.
It was well lit and felt blessedly warm after the arctic temperature outside. There was no-one around, but they walked purposefully, looking for whatever the place was being used for. At the end of the corridor they came to a windowed door, and visible through it, in a large circular locked space, were plants being grown on an industrial scale under lamps.
“What are they?” whispered Napoleon.
“Castor oil plants,” Illya whispered back. “For making ricin.”
“Ricin – jeez.”
“It will be made elsewhere – this facility isn’t big enough, and we couldn’t safely blow it up if it were – we’d get a snootful ourselves and there’s no antidote.” He sighed. “I shouldn’t think it’s being grown to find an antidote, anyway.”
It was the work of only minutes to lay explosives all round the outside of the growing area.
“The next lot of guards will be coming in a couple of minutes, let’s get out of here.”
They ran the length of the corridor and out through the little door, ignoring the four unfortunates still lying where they had left them, into the forest to fling themselves down behind a large oak tree.
The blast was deafening; chunks of masonry and concrete were flung everywhere. They could hear it bouncing off trees, and pattering down all around them. There was no sign of life; it was unlikely, if there had been other men inside, that any could have survived. As the fallout ceased, they stood up, intending to head back the way they had come.
“One of your better efforts, I’d say,” remarked Napoleon, feeling in his pockets. “Oh… Where’s the compass?”
“Haven’t you got it?”
“I don’t seem to have it. Which way did we come?”
With the destruction of the bunker, the landscape had changed, and in the dark, in the slender beam of the torch, it was impossible to see which direction to take.
“We should have left a blaze on a tree.”
“I did,” said Illya. “But they’ve all been blasted by the explosion – I can’t tell which tree it was.”
“Let’s try this way. It looks familiar.”
Illya looked sceptically at his partner and sighed at his optimism. Then he looked up, feeling a spot of rain on his face, and sighed again.
“Maybe we’ll see better without the snow,” said Napoleon.
“Don’t be absurd. We’ll see even less – it’s dark. We’ve been too long over this. We ought to find somewhere for the night.”
And with that, they became aware of a sudden change. The rain, super-cooled in the freezing air, had turned to ice immediately it touched twigs, branches, berries, undergrowth – and also their clothes. Illya touched his partner, “This is serious,” he said. “It’s an ice storm. We need to get into shelter quickly or we’ll freeze to death.”
“Use a groundsheet over one of the lower branches of that little tree, over there. Cover it with snow, it’ll keep the cold out.”
Huddled close together, wrapped in sleeping bags to share what warmth they could, they sat on their packs under the groundsheet, and prepared to wait it out.
“Try not to go to sleep, Napoleon. You might not wake up.”
“Tell me a story. That’ll keep us both awake.”
“All right. Do you know the story of Ded Moróz and Snegúrochka?”
“No, not really.”
“There are lots of versions. This is the one I know – are you sitting comfortably?”
“I am not.”
“Never mind …” Illya’s voice became soft, “Once upon a time, Frost and Spring became the parents of a daughter made of snow, whom they called Snow Maiden – Snegúrochka. But when she was born, her parents were too busy to care for her and they left her with a long-childless couple, a woodsman and his wife, to bring up in the forest. They also left fur-lined garments for her, blue and white, with fur boots and a blue fur-lined hat.” He turned to Napoleon, “This is tradition of course – very fancy, warm enough but not practical for forestry.”
Napoleon laughed. “And I thought you were just beginning to develop a romantic soul.”
Illya took a deep and meaningful breath. Napoleon nudged him, “Keep going, I love it.”
“Very well, then. Be quiet… She grew up to be beautiful; slender and white like a young birch tree, and with eyes the bright blue of a winter sky, and hair like the primroses of spring.”
Napoleon chuckled, “Relative of yours?”
“Do you want this story, or don’t you?”
“Yes please, papa.”
“– But Snegúrochka the beautiful snow maiden was unable to show love …” He shoved a sharp elbow into Napoleon’s ribs which turned his snort of amusement into a grunt.
“… and her mother, Spring, seeing this, took pity on her and gave her the gift of love. But Snegúrochka returned to the deep forests to assist her father, Frost – Ded Moróz – to keep the winter. One cold night, however, she found a handsome young man lost in the forest and nearly dead with the cold.”
“And she fell in love with him.”
“Who’s telling this story?” Illya glared at his partner again, but went on in a still dreamy voice, “She took him to her dwelling to warm him back to life, and when he awoke, he looked into her eyes and fell in love. He kissed her, and as their lips touched, her heart warmed with love, and, being made of snow, she began to die – and as she died, so began the spring thaw; the ice and snow began to melt, the streams began to flow, the forest paths reappeared… the sun brought back the spring.”
He stopped speaking, and sat silent.
“She died! Oh, hey, that’s a sad story!”
“Not at all – except for the young man, perhaps. For him it was just a beautiful dream.” Illya now spoke in his ordinary practical (and didactic) tones. “It’s about lost love – a little – but it’s really about rebirth. If she continued to live, there would be no spring – everything would die… But like all such traditions, it has got a little lost. Ded Moróz and Snegúrochka are now mostly a part of New Year celebrations. They bring presents for children; things like that.”
“Sort of Santa Claus.”
“Ded Rozhdéstvenskii – Grandfather Christmas, yes.”
They were silent for a while, and in the extreme cold, began to fall, not quite asleep, not quite conscious; dreaming, unresponsive. And, without reacting, they heard the crunch of footsteps in the frozen snow outside their makeshift tent, they felt the change of air as the tent flap was lifted. They felt arms lift them, the soft fur of a robe against their faces. They were aware of being laid on beds and wrapped in skins.
“The young men are nearly frozen to death. I am Frost, I cannot warm them, daughter.”
“I am Snow, I will insulate them, and warm them.”
“Have a care, daughter. Half dead from cold they may be, but they’re young and strong; good men, but dangerous. Be careful when they wake.”
She first warmed the colder of the two, who, seemingly from a southern clime, was the more likely to die. Then she turned to the other and in the lamp light she saw his face. She had not been warned about her own awakening. She held him close. He grew warm, and woke, and looked into her eyes, and smiled.
“Snegúrochka?” he whispered. “It was you keeping us from death? Lyubov moya, thank you.” He kissed her, and she melted into his arms.
Illya woke with a start; water was dripping on his hood and on his face.
“Napoleon!” He shook him, “Napoleon, wake up!”
There was a snort and Napoleon jerked awake. “What? What time is it?”
“Time for breakfast,” Illya jeered. “Wake up, the roof’s leaking – we need to move.”
They staggered out from under the cover and looked around in the growing light at a magical scene. Everything glittered in its sheath of ice. Icicles hung from the branches of larch trees; evergreen leaves were outlined in frost, their berries encased in globes of clear ice; seed heads and grasses, standing stiff, gleamed with a diamond brilliance and cracked under their feet; whole trees bent over with the weight of ice.
“Don’t go near or touch those,” Illya warned his partner, “they’ll snap – explode – it could kill you.” And indeed, the sounds of snapping branches and exploding trees could be heard through the forest.
“My God, it’s so beautiful. Like the Snow Queen has been here.”
“No, no – this forest is not her world, it’s the Snow Maiden’s. And now, Ded Moróz has been here.”
“Oh, look,” said Napoleon, staring, “dead birds – fallen out of the trees. And a squirrel – don’t they know to hide?”
“They were too late. That’s what would have happened to us.”
“And it’s thanks to you, my friend, that it didn’t,” said Napoleon. “I’ve never been in an ice storm before.” The forest was dropping diamonds. “It’s starting to melt,” he said, “– I think your little Snow Maiden has met someone.”
Illya, staring into the forest and lost in a dream, made no reply.
Napoleon thrust his hands into his pockets, looking around, then said suddenly, “Here’s the compass – I had it all along,” and pulled it out of his pocket.
“That’s good,” said Illya, absently.
Napoleon looked at him. “There should be some soup left, and some chocolate. Better eat first, hmm?” Getting no response, he said, “Illya? Food?”
Illya jumped. “What? Oh, yes. Food. Yes.”
Napoleon opened one of their packs and handed a flask to Illya. “Drink it!” he said, “and wake up.”
“I was awake,” Illya said half to himself, “… and then… I woke up, and she’d gone.”
Napoleon was rummaging for his own flask. “You’re talking to yourself, you know that? … first sign of madness.” He stood up and ran a comradely hand over Illya’s shoulder, and noticed that his hood and collar were damp. “How did you get so wet?”
“It’s snow melt, that’s all.”