Ra-ra-ra. Raurau-ra… An extraordinary barking cry shattered the frosty air. A huge black eagle settled itself on an icy birch limb. Ruffling his feathers against the chill, he stretched his enormous wings one last time before settling them comfortably on his back. Respectfully, he cocked his head to meet the calm stare of the small copper animal before him, her sleek hide spotted like earth dappled with sunlight.
Dea had taken the form of a rare Amur leopard and was reclining in the peeling branches of a birch nearby. The Protectress’s draping tail swayed hypnotically as the sea eagle began his narration of the day’s events. Through a series of harsh barks and calls, he told Dea of an emperor from the neighboring land who had come to build a palace in the birch forest. He explained that all of the creatures would be forced to move into the barren tundra surrounding the tiny woods and would have to live like reindeer, serving humans forever. The entire time, Dea sat with her tail twitching, showing no emotion on her severe face. When the sea eagle was finished, the goddess sat up.
“I will take care of it,” she stated peacefully. “It will all work out in the end.”
The eagle cocked his head, preparing a question, but, when he blinked, the leopard was gone.
* * *
The emperor posed with his advisors on the barren hill outside the birch forest, surveying the wintry land which would soon be his.
“Your Highness?” a melodious voice echoed from behind the troop. The men turned slowly. Before them stood a petite young woman swallowed in a spotted fur parka. “I heard you have plans to build a palace in these woods, am I wrong?”
Surprised by the girl’s audacity, the emperor responded affirmatively.
“And who might you be?” he asked.
“I am called Dea,” the girl responded. “I have something to ask of you. Before you build in these woods, you must solve one riddle to prove your worth. As soon as you bring me the creature it is describing, you shall be free to do as you wish...”
The emperor glanced at his advisors, speechless.
“If you fail to do this, your palace shall never stand. Would you like to hear the riddle?¨ The trio of men started to speak, but were swiftly interrupted.
“All right! ‘Legs and nose both long and red, night-sky hands and snowy head.’ Would you like to hear it again?”
When no one answered, she repeated the riddle: “Legs and nose both long and red, night-sky hands and snowy head.” And, with that, Dea skipped down the glittering hill, the end of her spotted sash fluttering like a tail.
Still bewildered by the girl’s speech, the emperor watched the retreating figure curiously until she disappeared among the frozen birches.
Suddenly, both of his advisors burst out into cacophonous laughter, rolling in the frost-laced grass, and doubling over, slapping their knees. The emperor whipped around, his heavy furs slashing the bitter wind. He barked at his men to stop and ordered them to fetch him a plane back to the village, as it was too cold to walk. Though the rest of his fellow travelers laughed off the incident lightheartedly, the emperor remained in a sour mood, unable to push Dea’s riddle out of his mind.
The next morning dawned blinding white, a thin layer of fresh snow blanketing the birches.
Bang… bang… bang…
The emperor shouted for the visitor to enter. The heavy oak door creaked open, revealing three of the royal architects, panting and ruddy-cheeked from the cold. The emperor scowled, extremely annoyed at being interrupted.
“Well, what is it?” he barked. “This had better be important!”
The man in front stepped inside, backed by his shivering comrades. “Well, sire… you see…”
“GET ON WITH IT!”
“It’s the palace! Your Highness, we have been working with our entire team for a day and a night, but not a stick or a stone will remain where we have placed it. It’s as if the land is enchanted or―”
“ENCHANTED?” The emperor yelled, ignoring the voice in his head reminding him of Dea’s warning. “Of course it’s not enchanted! The forest is as plain as you are, you lazy, cheating fools! Off with you! Away! I have no more need for you… GENERAL? GENERAL! Come and take these filthy malingerers out of my sight, and hire me some new architects while you’re at it!”
“SILENCE! I will deal with you when you return!
The four men stumbled out of the house, the heavy door slamming behind them. Inside, the emperor paced the frigid floorboards anxiously. After this report, he had no doubts about the strange girl’s message. If all was as it seemed, the only way to break the curse was to solve the riddle…
That night, after the generals in the neighboring cottages were asleep, the emperor himself emerged onto the moonlit snow, pockmarked by the smudged footprints of the morning’s scuffle. Enveloped in layers of heavy fur, he made his way into the shadows among the birch trees.
Each crack of the ice-laced snow caused him to jump and glance around the shadowed forest. Every hoot from an owl or scuttle of a small animal sent a shiver down his spine. Over and over these noises haunted him, until he began to grow exhausted from the stress. The woods seemed innocent enough, and nothing bigger than a dormouse had scurried across his path. The emperor decided to sit against a tree and wait for his answers to arrive. After all, he couldn’t see much in the dark…
The emperor woke with a start. The dawn was just breaking in the frosty forest, and a strange humming sound was resonating very close to his head. Slowly, he sat up and looked around, his back and neck creaking from a night on the ground.
“AHH!” the emperor whipped around and came face-to-face with a huge swarm of beetles. They were crawling from beneath the birch bark, swarming all over his parka, his trousers, his pouch of food! More and more of them, forming a shimmering wave with thousands of long, clicking, jointed legs.
Unable to move, he let out a quiet whimper. How could he, the king of all he knew, be so disgraced by insects? Meanwhile, the beetles continued swarming from the tree. His fine fur coat was crawling with them. The emperor closed his eyes, swallowed hard, and did something he had never done before―he called for help.
“Someone, over here! I’m being attacked!
A strange, whining bleat resonated from behind the tree. The beetles all froze, then began scuttling away as fast as they could.
A large, furry animal lumbered out from the leaves and started snapping up insects with a short, tapered muzzle. Within seconds, the bugs were gone, and the emperor leapt up to leave.
As soon as he snatched his food sack, however, he stopped and turned slowly. Before him stood a medium-sized animal with long, gray fur and little, rounded ears. It looked a bit like a cross between a bear and a raccoon. The emperor cleared his throat.
“Well… um, I suppose I should… uh… thank you for that. It was very… very kind of you to… assist me. I shall forever be indebted to you and―”
“Oh, well, that’s fabulous! You know, that is exactly what I need right now!”
The emperor stared at the creature in shock, his mouth hanging open.
“What?” the animal asked. “Oh, of course! I am so sorry… I forgot to introduce myself! I am Raccoon Dog, and I need help. Since you are forever indebted to me, you can solve my problem! After all, no one ever helps Raccoon Dog. I was trying to fish in the river, but I can never catch any good fish. I heard your kind is good at this sort of thing, so… Will you help me?”
The emperor had really no other choice than to assent.
On the way to the river, the pair passed many exotic animals. They all spoke very politely to the emperor and Raccoon Dog, like friendly passersby on a street. The emperor wondered how it was that he was all of a sudden able to understand them.
Suddenly, before them was a great stretch of frozen land, split by an icy-blue swath which was the river. Raccoon Dog and the emperor sat on a large pile of sticks by the river to fish.
Clack, clack... Clakclakclak… Clack...
A loud clattering sound came from nearby. A large white bird with gangly red legs and inky-tipped wings was clacking its beak impatiently. Apparently, it seemed to consider the pile of sticks its nest. Just as Raccoon Dog was suggesting they both move over, the emperor recalled Dea’s riddle.
“Legs and nose both long and red, night-sky hands and snowy head.”
Of course! This bird had to be the answer to the riddle! It boasted long, red legs and a long, red beak, as well as wingtips black like the night sky and a strikingly white head. The emperor leaped up and, much to the shock of the stork, lifted it off the ground and danced along the river.
“Aha! Aha! I have found the answer to my riddle! I can now build my palace here and all will be well…” He stopped. All of the other animals along the river had abandoned their jobs and were now backing away slowly, murmuring amongst themselves in strange barks, hisses, and growls.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” The emperor looked around and finally located Raccoon Dog. “What are they saying, Raccoon Dog? What’s wrong with them?”
His new friend only let out a cautious bleat and bolted into the forest. The others followed him in a cloud of foliage, leaving only the emperor and the stork.
The emperor stood shocked for a second, then his eyes widened. Instantly, his kingly brain put together his recent past like a jigsaw puzzle. If he built his palace among the birches, he would lose the bond he felt with its resident animals. After all, he would be kicking them out of their home. He set down the bird. “I’m sorry, Stork. Will you forgive me? I promise no one will ever hurt another animal as long as I live.” The stork looked at him sadly, then darted away into the forest.
The emperor made his way back through the frigid birches. The sounds of construction resonated from the middle of the trees, and he plowed forward, determined to stop it at once. As soon as he reached the clearing, however, no one even looked up. Abandoned by all of his followers, he was instantaneously filled with aggression.
“STOP!” he bellowed. Very, very slowly, the work ground to a halt, and the emperor’s people turned to face him. For the first time, he felt uncomfortable standing before them. “You must cease all work immediately.” Shocked and angry protests rippled around the crowd, and the emperor could feel his influence quickly slipping away. He tried again. “If any of you threaten to harm another animal or clear any habitat… you… I shall…”
“He’s crazy!” called a voice from the crowd.
“Yeah! What’s wrong with him?”
All protests ceased as a huge menagerie of forest animals, led by the stork and Raccoon Dog, burst into the clearing and took their place behind the emperor.
“Way to go!” whispered Raccoon Dog.
“If anyone knowingly threatens an endangered animal, they shall be banished from the earth! Now, run, RUN and NEVER RETURN!!”
Completely startled by this, the people at the scene dropped their tools and dashed across the snowy ground as fast as their legs could carry them, chased by the horde of animals.
Finally alone in the clearing, the emperor looked up. Among the ice-laced branches, he thought he caught a glimpse of a spotted tail disappearing into the foliage.