On the furthest edge of the coldest corner of the steppe, a herder lived in a yurt with his three
children. The herder’s wife had died years before, so it was just the four of them who huddled
around the great stove in the tent’s centre, faces blackened by soot. They were bored and
achy, for when the winter bit like this no-one could go outside. For days and days they had
had only each other for company and tempers, which had started out thick and mellow as yak
milk, were running thin.
“I wish I could check on the sheep,” fretted the youngest son, who loved the outdoors
and all that breathed there.
“I wish I could visit my friends,” sighed the oldest son, who enjoyed the village and
all who danced there.
“I wish I could trade for coffee,” grumbled the herder, who as a father thrice-over was
reliant on the stuff. “What good is a fire if you’ve nothing to brew on it?”
The daughter of the yurt, who was also the eldest child, opened her mouth to speak -
but before she could, a great flurry of snow blew down the narrow chimney and snuffed the
fire right out.! By a stroke of bad luck the father’s words had been whipped up by the north
wind and carried to the Fire Maiden, a goddess much revered in those wintery parts. The
herder’s thoughtless words badly offended her.
“Well!” she said, angry flames quivering at her nostrils. “If my fire isn’t good enough
for him, let us see how he fares without it!”
In the yurt chaos broke out, and a big cloud of smoke rose from the gutted hearth.
Though it was the father who had spoken imprudently, the daughter, Gerel, found herself
“You fool!” shouted her father, coughing and fanning himself. “Now look what
you’ve done! Women can never keep their mouths shut.”
Gerel, who was used to her father’s ways, rolled her eyes and fetched more coal to
restart the stove.
But the stove wouldn’t light.
“Oh, you’ve done it now!” cried the herder. “You’ve angered Fire Maiden and
doomed us all! Come summer, the rest of the village will stumble across our poor frozen
bones! Curse these goddesses and their melodrama!”
At this point the eldest brother, seeing a certain warning spark in his sister’s eyes,
sought to diffuse the situation by suggesting he go to reason with Fire Maiden.
“I will recite poems about her beauty and smooth things over,” he said, flashing his
trademark lopsided smile. “After all, what woman can resist flattery?”
Gerel ignored his suggestion in favour of complimenting her youngest brother’s
smoke-rings; he had been blowing them fretfully for a good five minutes and appeared
peeved that none of his family had noticed.
And so the eldest son set out, with a spring in his step and the finest furs on his back,
to find the goddess and charm back his family’s fire. The wind was fierce, the snow bit his
face and after a while he longed to stop and rest - but knowing that if he did his sweat would
cool, he trudged on. Presently the storm grew so thick that he could barely see, and he began
to call out:
“Darling Fire Maiden! Are you there? I come to make amends for my foolish sister’s
When only icy silence answered, he hastily added: “Or any words, in fact, that might
have happened to offend you! I would hate to put a frown on your beautiful face.” And he
gave his best lopsided smile, on the off-chance that the all-seeing Fire Maiden might enjoy it.
Enjoy it she did, for it gave her a good laugh.
“These people have me very wrong,” she said to herself, “if they think this louche
lothario will set my heart ablaze!” And with a snap of her fingers and a flick of her hair, she
sent a great surge of fire storming towards the eldest son.
It did not kill him, but it gave him quite a fright! His hair was singed, his face sooted
and sweaty, and his beautiful furs became quite scraggled with smoke. “What did I say?” he
cried out. “Can’t you take a compliment?”
“Oh, take this, you arrogant so-and-so!” said Fire Maiden, freeing a second stream of
fire to form a circle around the unfortunate youth. The hot flames melted the snow into a
river, which carried him downstream at great speed in a chaos of steam and swearwords. It
kept rushing and roaring until it reached a settlement some hours away, where the youth was
fished out of the river and taken in by a handsome village girl and her equally pretty husband.
Their stove still worked, and as he sat before it drinking bergenia tea, the youth decided that
this was a much better deal than any goddess could have offered him.
Miles back down the river, the herder’s family passed an uneasy night waiting for the
son’s return. When the sunrise brought no sign of him, nor any relief from the bitter cold, the
herder began loudly to despair.
“That wretched Fire Maiden has burned my boy to a crisp! Curse these goddesses and
their cold hearts. What are we to do now?”
At this point, the youngest boy suggested that he could appeal to Fire Maiden.
“After all,” he said, with a sweet smile, “I am only a child and will probably ignite her
maternal instincts. The ewes can never ignore a lamb’s bleats.”
“Yes,” cried his father. “Good thinking, boy! Persuade her with your tears! Everyone
knows how sensitive women are, even if they happen to be goddesses.”
Gerel, busy sewing a rug into warmer coats for the family, ignored him in favour of
testing her needle’s sharpness. When a bright bead of blood bloomed on her thumb, her father
went quite pale; she was obliged to feed him the last of their honey to revive him.
And so the youngest brother set off, with a timorous tread and a new rug-coat on his
back, to find Fire Maiden and plead back his family’s fire. The snow numbed his hands, the
wind blew into his face like knives, and soon he wanted nothing more than to lie down and
sleep - but fearing if he did he would not wake up again, he struggled on. Presently the snow
grew so deep that he couldn’t push forward, and he began to cry:
“Fire Maiden, please help me! I am just a child and not very strong. Give my family
back our fire, or we will all die of cold!”
Watching him through her scrying ball, Fire Maiden rolled her eyes.
“Do these people respect me so little that they send this baby as an emissary? They
have me very wrong if they think this cow-eyed cherub will melt my heart.” And with an arch
of her eyebrows and crack of her neck, she opened up a geyser around the youngest son and
immersed him in steaming water.
It wasn’t hot enough to hurt the boy, but he was upset to have got his new coat so wet.
“Fire Maiden,” he called, “have I offended you? Like my sister, I don’t always mark my
words, but please forgive me! I am just a poor motherless child and she is full-grown!”
“Do spare me the sob story,” muttered Fire Maiden, and, arching her brows again,
sent a great blast of water out of the geyser, shooting the boy high into the air on its crest. The
plume of water sent him tumbling into a bale of hay many miles from his home. He lay dazed
for a while, until a curious herd of sheep roused him with their bleats and brought their
shepherd running. Sitting snug before the fire that evening while the shepherds told their
stories, he reflected that he much preferred the company of sheep to deities.
Back in their ice-specked yurt, the father and his daughter spent another anxious
night. When dawn brought no sign of his youngest child, the father was disconsolate.
“Doomed!” he wailed, beating his frozen mittens against the floor. “We are all
doomed! How will I tell your poor mother that I let our children die? How could she not have
raised you to think before speaking?”
Gerel, who by this point was swaddled in every item of fur available to her, moved
her hand; through all the layers it was impossible to distinguish the gesture she made. Her
father, busy catastrophising, did not even notice the movement (which was probably for the
“There’s nothing for it,” the father eventually declared. “Come morning, I must
journey towards certain death to save my children. Don’t talk me out of it, child -” this to
Gerel, who had been going to do no such thing. “When you have children of your own, you
will understand. Make me a good meal for tonight, for it is likely the last one I will ever eat.”
So Gerel dutifully prepared her father a meagre supper of the last of their dried meat
and several dried berries with soporific qualities. And once her father had eaten his fill and
was snoring loudly, Gerel spread all of her furs over him, wrapped up in her canvas coat and
hat, and crept out into the night.
And so Gerel set off, through blizzardous snow and cloying darkness, to see Fire
Maiden and win back her family’s fire. The ice slipped under her thin shoes, her skin prickled
into gooseflesh beneath her canvas coat, and soon her feet were so cold each step felt like the
stab of a knife. But Gerel knew that she had to keep going, so she said to herself:
“One step forwards, one foot at a time. Nothing good comes easily.”
Watching through her magical fire, Fire Maiden clicked her tongue.
“Now they send me this - a strange girl who talks to herself in riddles! These humans
have really lost all respect for me.” And with a click of her thumb and a twitch of her nose,
she sent fire up to the heavens to warn Gerel off.
To Gerel, journeying in the dark, the flavescent light was a beacon. Her lips were
snow-burned, her face was numb, and her eyelids drooped under the weight of her frozen
eyelashes. But when she saw the flames blaze up, she heartened, and said to herself:
“One step forwards, one foot at a time. The only way to is through.”
“Stop talking nonsense girl!” exclaimed Fire Maiden. “Don’t you know you’re
dealing with a goddess?” Twitching her nose again, she set the ground around her home
alight, with flames so hot that they burned blue instead of orange. “This will scare her away,”
But Gerel, who was blue herself at this point, was thrilled to feel the heat emanating
from the fire. She couldn’t walk any faster on her poor swollen feet, but with each painful
step her hands grew warmer and the ice melted from her eyelashes so that she could see
clearly. And when she did, what a sight greeted her!
Fire Maiden’s castle stood on the only hill in the steppe. Its turrets flickered with
torchlight, the moat was full of liquid flame, and the castle itself was carved of marble and
glass and other stones that had to burn before they sparkled. Gerel just squinched her mouth,
and this was the only outward sign that she was at all impressed.
Looking directly at the icy path (which Fire Maiden had been using all this time as a
mirrored conduit for her scrying ball), she said, “I hope it’s warm in there, Fire Maiden. I’m
freezing to my marrow.”
Then, before Fire Maiden could muster any response other than outraged spluttering,
Gerel brought her moccasined foot directly down on the ice, cracking it. Thus, her first step
taken, she began to trudge steadily up the slick path, towards the looming castle.
One foot forward. One step at a time.
No wall of fire came barrelling towards her. No flame melted the snow into a tsunami
and swept her away. The snow kept falling, the wind kept howling, and Gerel, stubborn and
silent as winter itself, kept on walking.
Fire Maiden, half-intrigued, half-infuriated by the latest supplicant at her door,
watched from her highest parapet as Gerel approached. It was a very high parapet, for it had
to be tall enough to attract lightning when the summer storms rolled in; Fire Maiden liked to
catch the lightning spikes in jars and eat them as snacks when she fancied something zingy. It
was so high in fact, and so absorbed did Fire Maiden become in watching Gerel approach
(her pinked cheeks! her soft hair!) that she had to run back down the steps to ensure that she
could fling open the front door as Gerel reached it.
There was nothing Fire Maiden liked more than a dramatic entrance.
And indeed, Gerel quite lost her breath the minute she saw her. This was in part
because she had spent the best part of the last twenty minutes labouring up a slope with snow
driving into her face. But the other part was because Fire Maiden made an astonishing sight.
She was all in red, from top to toe: ankle-length scarlet skirt, crimson bodice, ruby
hat, rubicund veil. Her eyes were embers and her hair was the colour of banked ash.
Gerel, not unreasonably, stared. Fire Maiden was extremely beautiful. And, she
reminded herself, extremely dangerous. Plus, she had something that Gerel needed.
“So,” intoned Fire Maiden, and her voice was like the crackle of sparks in a bonfire.
“Little daughter of a heedless herder. What on earth have you come to ask me?”
Gerel shook herself. Of course, the question! The one she had journeyed through the
night for, through snow and ice. The question both her brothers hadn’t returned from
Before she could think, she blurted: “Are my brothers safe?”
Fire Maiden blinked. “That’s what you’ve come to ask me?”
“Well,” said Gerel, “no. But they set off to find you and they’re nowhere to be seen,
so I have to ask. Are they safe?”
She didn’t know what she was expecting, but it wasn’t for Fire Maiden to laugh, long
and loud. It sounded like the rustle of flames over dry grass.
“Oh, quiet sister of boorish brothers, think more of yourself! For you are in my
clutches, while your brother drinks tea beside one of my hearths. You are half-frozen from
the storm, while your brother trades stories with shepherds before my bonfire. Yes, they are
“Good,” breathed Gerel, and a weight fell from her shoulders. “I’m glad.”
Fire Maiden was eyeing her the way an eagle eyes a rabbit. “Won’t you come inside?”
she said finally. “You must be frozen.”
Although Gerel was so cold her fingers felt like needle-pricks, she shook her head.
“I came here to beg one thing of you: will you restore my father’s fire? He didn’t
mean to insult you. He is just old, and crotchety, and misses my mother. Warmth is the one
comfort he has, and without it he will die.”
Tiny flames sprang out at Fire Maiden’s nostrils. “You really plead leniency for him,
little daughter? He, who would have blamed you for his folly?”
Gerel wanted to tremble but, being too cold to, she stayed steady.
“Yes. He is foolish, but he’s my father. I do not want him to die.”
For a moment, Fire Maiden said nothing. Then, slowly, like a stalking cat, she
approached Gerel, only stopping when she was a handspan away.
“If I return your foolish father’s fire,” she hissed, “what will you give me in return?”
Gerel, being studiously inclined, knew this was the part of the story when she was
meant to say, Whatever you want, and doom herself. Instead, she thought quickly.
“I will give you,” she said slowly, “company.”
Fire Maiden snorted in disbelief. “Company? I am a goddess! I want for nothing!”
“Maybe not,” agreed Gerel. “But even goddesses get lonely. And I am a very good
By this point, speaking was an effort; she felt almost dead from the cold. Fire Maiden
cast her eyes over her and said, again, “Come inside.”
Oh! How Gerel wanted to! But she stood firm and said, “Not until you return my
Fire Maiden wasn’t pleased at being manipulated like this - she was, after all, a
GODDESS - but she also wasn’t thrilled at the idea of Gerel dying on her doorstep. So with a
shrug of her shoulders and a snort of disgust, she sent a grudging flicker of flame to the
father’s yurt. It sparked into the spent grate, where it simmered, then sizzled, then slowly
grew into a good little fire that warmed the whole tent through. Cosy under his daughter’s
gifted furs, the father grunted in his sleep and cast them off him. “Too hot,” he mumbled,
before falling back into dreams of sunny days on the steppe with his wife and their children.
Fire Maiden turned back to Gerel, who was blue around the lips.
“Now you will come inside,” she said gently, drawing Gerel into her arms and
shutting the heavy castle doors behind her. And so it was that Gerel, quiet daughter of a
heedless herder, sister of boorish brothers, patient stepper of the steppes, came to live in Fire
Maiden’s castle and entertain the goddess with her stories through the cold winter nights.
When summer came again, she journeyed over the steppe to visit her brothers, both in their
rightful places, then her father, finally happy now that the sun shone once more. But she
spent the darker half of the year with Fire Maiden, feeding her lightning and stories and
keeping her temper in check. She never had to hold her tongue. She never had to hide her
spark. And, for all I know, she is living there still.
Mary Stella Scott is a writer based in Manchester, where she TAs by day and writes weird fiction by night, often in the company of her elderly cat. Her work has been published in Flashback Fiction, Synaesthesia Magazine and Clavmag, among others.