The winter was cold as it is wont to be in the east, but Prince Cyril was girded up in mink furs against the chill and frost. A days’ trudge from Perm the forest was vast and green and silent. No more than a few dozen men dared to make their living and stake their claim in this forest. Prince Cyril was one of these men, his great estate the Blue Palace took up the land to the North of the deepest wood. Cyril claimed as his hunting grounds all he could survey from the mighty Kama river on to the foothills of the mighty Urals. He prowled his domain like a feral cat looking for mice in the loft of a barn. There was deer, mink, rabbit, bear, fox and peasant in these woods, a rich bounty for any man intrepid enough to venture into its depths and take his share. The Prince was known to ride out from his estate with 500 men at arms and 1000 horse. He would take them all on hunts the likes of which had not been seen since the days of the Tatar Khans of the Far East. A great ring they would form around a stand of forest, and bronze horns would be sounded and half- starved dogs would be loosed. From the east, the west, the south, the north the hunters would march inward towards the darkest center of the forest, horns louder than the winter wind, beating stretched skin drums that sounded out louder than the thunder over the steppe. Animals from the lowliest mouse to the mightiest elk were startled and ran towards the edge of the forest, falling unexpectedly into the waiting nets and arrows of the hunters.
Each man would get his share of the bounty, but Prince Cyril always reserved the proudest stag for himself, and he would forbid any of the hunters to keep him trapped in a net or entangled in ropes. He would salute the beautiful beast and allow it to run away into the wild as fast as its legs could carry it before spurring his white stallion Ghost into a gallop. He would set an arrow into his Tatar bow, a gift from a barbarian General captured at the siege of Kazan, and grip the flanks of his horse with his long legs. As soon as the stag was visible against the setting sun on the horizon he would let fly the arrow into the neck of the noble creature. Dismounting he would whisper a quiet blessing and dispatch the animal with his pearl handled hunting knife. He was a master of the chase, a severe but fair leader of men, and chivalrous in victory even over a beast. At the end of the hunt a feast would be held out in the open around bonfires as large in circumference as the base of an ancient elm. The wives and mistresses of the men would arrive and the group would feast, dance, and carouse for hours and hours until the sun rose and fell over three days. Such was usually the case when Prince Cyril took to the hunt. He was a proud Lord, but he was lonely in his glorious surroundings. No man can live on the adoration (and fear) of his servants and serfs alone. He must have a peer, a companion in love, someone with whom to share the bounty and riches that surrounds him. All the treasure in the world is worthless when you are alone. It is one thing to realize this, but it is quite another to live your life in the pursuit of true happiness. Prince Cyril had a more ephemeral pursuit in mind for this day however, a new trophy to add to his lonely halls, and this time he would hunt this new quarry alone.
She was the wolf-maid Rani Svetlana, the mistress of the Eastern forest, and she had stolen the heart of the Prince. He had seen her from the balcony of his private quarters. He spied her baying at the icy moon, shockingly white fur blending with the fresh evening snow. Her eyes red like dying coals in an ancient samovar, and her fangs as sharp as the peaks of the Urals. Hot breath billowed from her flared nostrils like jets of steam, and as she howled every other creature took notice and paused where they stood. She was beautiful beyond earthly estimation, and Prince Cyril would have her at any cost. For the Prince could not be satisfied to behold the beast, he must possess it as a trophy, for in its worth he saw his own reflected back. Rani Svetlana’s hide would be the prize of his collection, and he would make from it a coat that would set the Czar’s heart ablaze with envy. It would not be an easy task though; many brave men had set forth in hopes of claiming her pelt, but none had as yet succeeded. Not a few had met their end in the attempt. Rani Svetlana was a huntress without peer, and she knew the forest like a baby knows his mother’s breast. No man of weak constitution or feeble mind had ever attempted to best her without catastrophe befalling him, but Prince Cyril was not weak, and feebleness of mind was a condition he was quite unfamiliar with. His mind was as sharp as the Tatar arrows he meant to pierce into the gorgeous flank of the wolf-maid. No beast, no matter how proud or celebrated, would best him while he drew breath. The sun rose over the snow laden land, and Prince Cyril harnessed his horse and rode off towards the wolf-maid’s domain. The snow was up to Ghost’s knees by the time the Prince caught the first sign of Rani Svetlana: her elegant paw prints leading towards the safety of the hills. He jumped down from Ghost into the snow so he could take a closer look. The tracks were fresh so she had been here no more than an hour or so before, but for a wolf like Rani Svetlana an hours head start was enough time to disappear forever into the trees and underbrush. He grabbed the reins of his horse and followed the tracks up to the edge of hills. Now these hills were known for their many caves and alcoves, well stocked with small game animals and a small fresh water spring, a place where a beast could rest safe and secure for days and days without having to venture forth into danger. A hunter could be five meters from his prey and never see hide nor hair of the creature. This disheartened the Prince a little because as good a tracker as he was, even he would have a hard time in the hills, and it was growing dark out. But his brief bout of doubt soon passed away with the setting sun, and he lit a torch he had brought with him, hitched ghost to a sapling and plodded onward into the hills. The torchlight did its level best to pierce the darkness of the newly born night, but to no avail. The forest was the abode of the black and formless dark, and most of the creatures liked it that way. Man is not a nocturnal creature; he likes his sun, and his moon and stars, and even more his lamps and roaring fires. Like moths to a flame man is drawn to light if only so that it may illuminate the things that he otherwise would fear for not seeing them. He could see no more than a few steps to the left, right, or forward. The rest was a mystery, and in every shadow or dark corner a lupine trap could be set and ready. He did not fear the possibility of death or grievous injury, only the possibility that he may fail in his quest brought a hint of terror to his otherwise tranquil nerves. The snow laden boughs of the pine trees brushed his face, which was covered in nearly a weeks worth of beard. The hunt had been a long one and he was tired, but not defeated. He knew he was close to his mistress, close enough to smell the blood on her fur from her latest kill. He had found a mangled deer less than an hours trot from from this very spot. It had all the hallmarks of a wolf kill and it was not yet frozen so it was recently deceased. He knew that an alpha hunter like Rani Svetlana would not abandon such a fresh kill. She would be around and waiting for her chance to go back and pick at the remains. She would not do that while Prince Cyril was around though.
Cyril heard the sound of a grouse or a rabbit darting through the fallen pines boughs and the brush. He paused for a moment and knelt to the ground. The world returned to silence and the air picked up a bit from the north. He pulled his ermine collar up against the rising chill and rose slowly to his exhausted feet. Things do not move in a forest unless they are compelled to, by hunger, by need for a mate, or by fear. He walked back to Ghost, careful to make sure each footstep fell upon snow only and not on a branch or a pile of leaves. He came to his horse and reached into the leather satchel hanging from his side. He pulled out his bow, a powerful weapon purchased from a Tartar princeling for 100 fox pelts. It was worth the steep price; the bow was accurate up to 200 yards and could bring down a bear with a single well placed shot. If he got within range of Rani Svetlana he knew he could end her wild reign in this forest.