Main Arden, Katherine - Winternight 01 - The Bear and the Nightingale

Arden, Katherine - Winternight 01 - The Bear and the Nightingale

, ,
5.0 / 0
How much do you like this book?
What’s the quality of the file?
Download the book for quality assessment
What’s the quality of the downloaded files?
Year:
2017
Publisher:
Del Rey
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 5.15 MB
Download (epub, 5.15 MB)

You may be interested in Powered by Rec2Me

 

Most frequently terms

 
1 comment
 
Effat
Best series ever!!! I finished this book in a day and its sequel in the next. Now I'm on the third one and i cant get enough and i dont want it to end. The storytelling and the plot is amazing. Very refreshing and really recommend it
19 October 2021 (20:03) 

To post a review, please sign in or sign up
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.
1

Archer, Jeffrey - The Sins of the Father

年:
2012
言語:
english
ファイル:
EPUB, 321 KB
0 / 0
2

Archer, Alex - Rogue Angel 06

年:
2011
言語:
english
ファイル:
EPUB, 5.16 MB
0 / 0
The Bear and the Nightingale is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2017 by Katherine Arden

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

DEL REY and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

NAMES: Arden, Katherine, author. TITLE: The bear and the nightingale: a novel / Katherine Arden. DESCRIPTION: New York: Del Rey, 2017. IDENTIFIERS: LCCN 2016011345 (print) | LCCN 2016022241 (ebook) | ISBN 9781101885932 (hardback) | ISBN 9781101885949 (ebook) SUBJECTS: LCSH: Young women—Fiction. | Villages—Fiction. | Good and evil—Fiction. | Spirits—Fiction. | Magic—Fiction. | Russia—Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Fantasy / General. | FICTION / Literary. | GSAFD: Fantasy fiction. CLASSIFICATION: LCC PS3601.R42 B43 2017 (print) | LCC PS3601. R42 (ebook) | DDC 813/.6—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016011345

Hardcover ISBN 9781101885932

International edition ISBN 9780399593284

Ebook ISBN 9781101885949

randomhousebooks.com

Book design by Barbara M. Bachman, adapted for ebook

Cover design: David G. Stevenson

Cover illustration: © Robert Hunt

v4.1

ep





Contents


Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Epigraph



Part One

Chapter 1: Frost



Chapter 2: The Witch-Woman’s Granddaughter



Chapter 3: The Beggar and the Stranger



Chapter 4: The Grand Prince of Muscovy



Chapter 5: The Holy Man of Makovets Hill



Chapter 6: Demons



Chapter 7: The Meeting in the Marketplace



Chapter 8: The Word of Pyotr Vladimirovich



Chapter 9: The Madwoman in the Church



Chapter 10: The Princess of Serpukhov



Chapter 11: Domovoi





Part Two

Chapter 12: The Priest with the Golden Hair



Chapter 13: Wolves



Chapter 14: The Mous; e and the Maiden



Chapter 15: They Only Come for the Wild Maiden



Chapter 16: The Devil by Candlelight



Chapter 17: A Horse Called Fire



Chapter 18: A Guest for the Waning Year



Chapter 19: Nightmares



Chapter 20: A Gift from a Stranger



Chapter 21: The Hard-Hearted Child



Chapter 22: Snowdrops





Part Three

Chapter 23: The House That Was Not There



Chapter 24: I Have Seen Your Heart’s Desire



Chapter 25: The Bird That Loved a Maiden



Chapter 26: At the Thaw



Chapter 27: The Winter Bear



Chapter 28: At the End and at the Beginning





Author’s Note

Glossary

Dedication

Acknowledgments

About the Author





By the shore of the sea stands a green oak tree;

Upon the tree is a golden chain:

And day and night a learned cat

Walks around and around on the chain;

When he goes to the right he sings a song,

When he goes to the left he tells a tale.



—A. S. PUSHKIN





It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary gray of March, and the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and thin from six weeks’ fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage. But no one was thinking of chilblains or runny noses, or even, wistfully, of porridge and roast meats, for Dunya was to tell a story.

That evening, the old lady sat in the best place for talking: in the kitchen, on the wooden bench beside the oven. This oven was a massive affair built of fired clay, taller than a man and large enough that all four of Pyotr Vladimirovich’s children could have fit easily inside. The flat top served as a sleeping platform; its innards cooked their food, heated their kitchen, and made steam-baths for the sick.

“What tale will you have tonight?” Dunya inquired, enjoying the fire at her back. Pyotr’s children sat before her, perched on stools. They all loved stories, even the second son, Sasha, who was a self-consciously devout child, and would have insisted—had anyone asked him—that he preferred to pass the evening in prayer. But the church was cold, the sleet outside unrelenting. Sasha had thrust his head out-of-doors, gotten a faceful of wet, and retired, vanquished, to a stool a little apart from the others, where he sat affecting an expression of pious indifference.

The others set up a clamor on hearing Dunya’s question:

“Finist the Falcon!”

“Ivan and the Gray Wolf!”

“Firebird! Firebird!”

Little Alyosha stood on his stool and waved his arms, the better to be heard over his bigger siblings, and Pyotr’s boarhound raised its big, scarred head at the commotion.

But before Dunya could answer, the outer door clattered open and there came a roar from the storm without. A woman appeared in the doorway, shaking the wet from her long hair. Her face glowed with the chill, but she was thinner than even her children; the fire cast shadows in the hollows of cheek and throat and temple. Her deep-set eyes threw back the firelight. She stooped and seized Alyosha in her arms.

The child squealed in delight. “Mother!” he cried. “Matyushka!”

Marina Ivanovna sank onto her stool, drawing it nearer the blaze. Alyosha, still clasped in her arms, wound both fists around her braid. She trembled, though it was not obvious under her heavy clothes. “Pray the wretched ewe delivers tonight,” she said. “Otherwise I fear we shall never see your father again. Are you telling stories, Dunya?”

“If we might have quiet,” said the old lady tartly. She had been Marina’s nurse, too, long ago.

“I’ll have a story,” said Marina at once. Her tone was light, but her eyes were dark. Dunya gave her a sharp glance. The wind sobbed outside. “Tell the story of Frost, Dunyashka. Tell us of the frost-demon, the winter-king Karachun. He is abroad tonight, and angry at the thaw.”

Dunya hesitated. The elder children looked at each other. In Russian, Frost was called Morozko, the demon of winter. But long ago, the people called him Karachun, the death-god. Under that name, he was king of black midwinter who came for bad children and froze them in the night. It was an ill-omened word, and unlucky to speak it while he still held the land in his grip. Marina was holding her son very tightly. Alyosha squirmed and tugged his mother’s braid.

“Very well,” said Dunya after a moment’s hesitation. “I shall tell the story of Morozko, of his kindness and his cruelty.” She put a slight emphasis on this name: the safe name that could not bring them ill luck. Marina smiled sardonically and untangled her son’s hands. None of the others made any protest, though the story of Frost was an old tale, and they had all heard it many times before. In Dunya’s rich, precise voice it could not fail to delight.

“In a certain princedom—” began Dunya. She paused and fixed a quelling eye upon Alyosha, who was squealing like a bat and bouncing in his mother’s arms.

“Hush,” said Marina, and handed him the end of her braid again to play with.

“In a certain princedom,” the old lady repeated, with dignity, “there lived a peasant who had a beautiful daughter.”

“Whasser name?” mumbled Alyosha. He was old enough to test the authenticity of fairy tales by seeking precise details from the tellers.

“Her name was Marfa,” said the old lady. “Little Marfa. And she was beautiful as sunshine in June, and brave and good-hearted besides. But Marfa had no mother; her own had died when she was an infant. Although her father had remarried, Marfa was still as motherless as any orphan could be. For while Marfa’s stepmother was quite a handsome woman, they say, and she made delicious cakes, wove fine cloth, and brewed rich kvas, her heart was cold and cruel. She hated Marfa for the girl’s beauty and goodness, favoring instead her own ugly, lazy daughter in all things. First the woman tried to make Marfa ugly in turn by giving her all the hardest work in the house, so that her hands would be twisted, her back bent, and her face lined. But Marfa was a strong girl, and perhaps possessed a bit of magic, for she did all her work uncomplainingly and went on growing lovelier and lovelier as the years passed.

“So the stepmother—” seeing Alyosha’s open mouth, Dunya added, “—Darya Nikolaevna was her name—finding she could not make Marfa hard or ugly, schemed to rid herself of the girl once and for all. Thus, one day at midwinter, Darya turned to her husband and said, ‘Husband, I believe it is time for our Marfa to be wed.’

“Marfa was in the izba cooking pancakes. She looked at her stepmother with astonished joy, for the lady had never taken an interest in her, except to find fault. But her delight quickly turned to dismay.

“ ‘—And I have just the husband for her. Load her into the sledge and take her into the forest. We shall wed her to Morozko, the lord of winter. Can any maiden ask for a finer or richer bridegroom? Why, he is master of the white snow, the black firs, and the silver frost!’

“The husband—his name was Boris Borisovich—stared in horror at his wife. Boris loved his daughter, after all, and the cold embrace of the winter god is not for mortal maidens. But perhaps Darya had a bit of magic of her own, for her husband could refuse her nothing. Weeping, he loaded his daughter into the sledge, drove her deep into the forest, and left her at the foot of a fir tree.

“Long the girl sat alone, and she shivered and shook and grew colder and colder. At length, she heard a great clattering and snapping. She looked up to behold Frost himself coming toward her, leaping among the trees and snapping his fingers.”

“But what did he look like?” Olga demanded.

Dunya shrugged. “As to that, no two tellers agree. Some say he is naught but a cold, crackling breeze whispering among the firs. Others say he is an old man in a sledge, with bright eyes and cold hands. Others say he is like a warrior in his prime, but robed all in white, with weapons of ice. No one knows. But something came to Marfa as she sat there; an icy blast whipped around her face, and she grew colder than ever. And then Frost spoke to her, in the voice of the winter wind and the falling snow:

“ ‘Are you quite warm, my beauty?’

“Marfa was a well-brought-up girl who bore her troubles uncomplainingly, so she replied, ‘Quite warm, thank you, dear Lord Frost.’ At this, the demon laughed, and as he did, the wind blew harder than ever. All the trees groaned above their heads. Frost asked again, ‘And now? Warm enough, sweetheart?’ Marfa, though she could barely speak from the cold, again replied, ‘Warm, I am warm, thank you.’ Now it was a storm that raged overhead; the wind howled and gnashed its teeth until poor Marfa was certain it would tear the skin from her bones. But Frost was not laughing now, and when he asked a third time: ‘Warm, my darling?’ she answered, forcing the words between frozen lips as blackness danced before her eyes, ‘Yes…warm. I am warm, my Lord Frost.’

“Then he was filled with admiration for her courage and took pity on her plight. He wrapped her in his own robe of blue brocade and laid her in his sledge. When he drove out of the forest and left the girl by her own front door, she was still wrapped in the magnificent robe and bore also a chest of gems and gold and silver ornaments. Marfa’s father wept with joy to see the girl once more, but Darya and her daughter were furious to see Marfa so richly clad and radiant, with a prince’s ransom at her side. So Darya turned to her husband and said, ‘Husband, quickly! Take my daughter Liza up in your sledge. The gifts that Frost has given Marfa are nothing to what he will give my girl!’

“Though in his heart Boris protested all this folly, he took Liza up in his sledge. The girl was wearing her finest gown and wrapped in heavy fur robes. Her father took her deep into the woods and left her beneath the same fir tree. Liza in turn sat a long time. She had begun to grow very cold, despite her furs, when at last Frost came through the trees, cracking his fingers and laughing to himself. He danced right up to Liza and breathed into her face, and his breath was the wind out of the north that freezes skin to bone. He smiled and asked, ‘Warm enough, darling?’ Liza, shuddering, answered, ‘Of course not, you fool! Can you not see that I am near perished with cold?’

“The wind blew harder than ever, howling about them in great, tearing gusts. Over the din he asked, ‘And now? Quite warm?’ The girl shrieked back, ‘But no, idiot! I am frozen! I have never been colder in my life! I am waiting for my bridegroom Frost, but the oaf hasn’t come.’ Hearing this, Frost’s eyes grew hard as adamant; he laid his fingers on her throat, leaned forward, and whispered into the girl’s ear, ‘Warm now, my pigeon?’ But the girl could not answer, for she had died when he touched her and lay frozen in the snow.

“At home, Darya waited, pacing back and forth. ‘Two chests of gold at least,’ she said, rubbing her hands. ‘A wedding-dress of silk velvet and bridal-blankets of the finest wool.’ Her husband said nothing. The shadows began to lengthen and there was still no sign of her daughter. At length, Darya sent her husband out to retrieve the girl, admonishing him to have care with the chests of treasure. But when Boris reached the tree where he had left his daughter that morning, there was no treasure at all: only the girl herself, lying dead in the snow.

“With a heavy heart, the man lifted her in his arms and bore her back home. The mother ran out to meet them. ‘Liza,’ she called. ‘My love!’

“Then she saw the corpse of her child, huddled up in the bottom of the sledge. At that moment, the finger of Frost touched Darya’s heart, too, and she fell dead on the spot.”

There was a small, appreciative silence.

Then Olga spoke up plaintively. “But what happened to Marfa? Did she marry him? King Frost?”

“Cold embrace, indeed,” Kolya muttered to no one in particular, grinning.

Dunya gave him an austere look, but did not deign to reply.

“Well, no, Olya,” she said to the girl. “I shouldn’t think so. What use does Winter have for a mortal maiden? More likely she married a rich peasant, and brought him the largest dowry in all Rus’.”

Olga looked ready to protest this unromantic conclusion, but Dunya had already risen with a creaking of bones, eager to retire. The top of the oven was large as a great bed, and the old and the young and the sick slept upon it. Dunya made her bed there with Alyosha.

The others kissed their mother and slipped away. At last Marina herself rose. Despite her winter clothes, Dunya saw anew how thin she had grown, and it smote the old lady’s heart. It will soon be spring, she comforted herself. The woods will turn green and the beasts give rich milk. I will make her pie with eggs and curds and pheasant, and the sun will make her well again.

But the look in Marina’s eyes filled the old nurse with foreboding.





The lamb came forth at last, draggled and spindly, black as a dead tree in the rain. The ewe began licking the little thing in a peremptory way, and before long the tiny creature stood, swaying on minute hooves. “Molodets,” said Pyotr Vladimirovich to the ewe, and stood up himself. His aching back protested when he drew it straight. “But you could have chosen a better night.” The wind outside ground its teeth. The sheep flapped her tail nonchalantly. Pyotr grinned and left them. A fine ram, born in the jaws of a late-winter storm. It was a good omen.

Pyotr Vladimirovich was a great lord: a boyar, with rich lands and many men to do his bidding. It was only by choice that he passed his nights with his laboring stock. But always he was present when a new creature came to enrich his herds, and often he drew it to the light with his own bloody hands.

The sleet had stopped and the night was clearing. A few valiant stars showed between the clouds when Pyotr came into the dooryard and pulled the barn door shut behind him. Despite the wet, his house was buried nearly to the eaves in a winter’s worth of snow. Only the pitched roof and chimneys had escaped, and the space around the door, which the men of Pyotr’s household laboriously kept clear.

The summer half of the great house had wide windows and an open hearth. But that wing was shut when winter came, and it had a deserted look now, entombed in snow and sealed up in frost. The winter half of the house boasted huge ovens and small, high windows. A perpetual smoke trickled from its chimneys, and at the first hard freeze, Pyotr fitted its window-frames with slabs of ice, to block the cold but let in the light. Now firelight from his wife’s room threw a flickering bar of gold onto the snow.

Pyotr thought of his wife and hurried on. Marina would be pleased about the lamb.

The walks between the outbuildings were roofed and floored with logs, defense against rain and snow and mud. But the sleet had come with the dawn, and the slanting wet had soaked the wood and frozen solid. The footing was treacherous, and the damp drifts loomed head-high, pockmarked with sleet. But Pyotr’s felt-and-fur boots were sure on the ice. He paused in the drowsing kitchen to ladle water over his slimy hands. Atop the oven, Alyosha turned over and whimpered in his sleep.

His wife’s room was small—in deference to the frost—but it was bright, and by the standards of the north, luxurious. Swaths of woven fabric covered the wooden walls. The beautiful carpet—part of Marina’s dowry—had come by long and circuitous roads from Tsargrad itself. Fantastic carving adorned the wooden stools, and blankets of wolf and rabbit skin lay scattered in downy heaps.

The small stove in the corner threw off a fiery glow. Marina had not gone to bed; she sat near the fire, wrapped in a robe of white wool, combing her hair. Even after four children, her hair was still thick and dark and fell nearly to her knee. In the forgiving firelight, she looked very like the bride that Pyotr had brought to his house so long ago.

“Is it done?” asked Marina. She laid her comb aside and began to plait her hair. Her eyes never left the oven.

“Yes,” said Pyotr, distractedly. He was stripping off his kaftan in the grateful warmth. “A handsome ram. And its mother is well, too—a good omen.”

Marina smiled.

“I am glad of it, for we shall need one,” she said. “I am with child.”

Pyotr started, caught with his shirt half off. He opened his mouth and closed it again. It was, of course, possible. She was old for it, though, and she had grown so thin that winter…

“Another one?” he asked. He straightened up and put his shirt aside.

Marina heard the distress in his tone, and a sad smile touched her mouth. She bound the end of her hair with a leather cord before replying. “Yes,” she said, flicking the plait over her shoulder. “A girl. She will be born in the autumn.”

“Marina…”

His wife heard the silent question. “I wanted her,” she said. “I want her still.” And then, lower: “I want a daughter like my mother was.”

Pyotr frowned. Marina never spoke of her mother. Dunya, who had been with Marina in Moscow, referred to her only rarely.

In the reign of Ivan I, or so said the stories, a ragged girl rode through the kremlin-gates, alone except for her tall gray horse. Despite filth and hunger and weariness, rumors dogged her footsteps. She had such grace, the people said, and eyes like the swan-maiden in a fairy tale. At length, the rumors reached the ear of the Grand Prince. “Bring her to me,” Ivan said, thinly amused. “I have never seen a swan-maiden.”

Ivan Kalita was a hard prince, eaten with ambition, cold and clever and grasping. He would not have survived otherwise: Moscow killed her princes quickly. And yet, the boyars said afterward, when Ivan first saw this girl, he sat unmoving for a full ten minutes. Some of the more fanciful swore that his eyes were wet when he went to her and took her hand.

Ivan was twice widowed by then, his eldest son older than his young lover, and yet a year later he married the mysterious girl. However, even the Grand Prince of Moscow could not silence the whispers. The princess would not say where she had come from: not then and not ever. The serving-women muttered that she could tame animals, dream the future, and summon rain.



PYOTR COLLECTED HIS OUTER CLOTHES and hung them near the oven. A practical man, he had always shrugged at rumors. But his wife sat so very still, looking into the fire. Only the flames moved, gilding her hand and throat. She made Pyotr uneasy. He paced the wooden floor.

Rus’ had been Christian ever since Vladimir baptized all of Kiev in the Dneiper and dragged the old gods through the streets. Still, the land was vast and changed slowly. Five hundred years after the monks came to Kiev, Rus’ still teemed with unknown powers, and some of them had lain reflected in the strange princess’s knowing eyes. The Church did not like it. At the bishops’ insistence, Marina, her only child, was married off to a boyar in the howling wilderness, many days’ travel from Moscow.

Pyotr often blessed his good fortune. His wife was wise as she was beautiful; he loved her and she him. But Marina never talked about her mother. Pyotr never asked. Their daughter, Olga, was an ordinary girl, pretty and obliging. They had no need for another, certainly not an heir to the rumored powers of a strange grandmother.

“You are sure you have the strength for it?” Pyotr said finally. “Even Alyosha was a surprise, and that was three years ago.”

“Yes,” said Marina, turning to look at him. Her hand clenched slowly into a fist, but he did not see. “I will see her born.”

There was a pause.

“Marina, what your mother was…”

His wife took his hand and stood. He wound an arm around her waist and felt her stiff under his touch.

“I do not know,” said Marina. “She had gifts that I have not; I remember how in Moscow the noblewomen whispered. But power is a birthright to the women of her bloodline. Olga is your daughter more than mine, but this one”—Marina’s free hand slipped up, shaping a cradle to hold a baby—“this one will be different.”

Pyotr drew his wife closer. She clung to him, suddenly fierce. Her heart beat against his breast. She was warm in his arms. He smelled the scent of her hair, washed clean in the bathhouse. It is late, Pyotr thought. Why borrow trouble? The work of women was to bear children. His wife had already given him four, but surely she would manage another. If the infant proved strange in some way—well, that bridge could be crossed when necessary.

“Bear her in good health, then, Marina Ivanovna,” he said. His wife smiled. Her back was to the fire, so he did not see her eyelashes wet. He tilted her chin up and kissed her. Her pulse beat in her throat. But she was so thin, fragile as a bird beneath her heavy robe. “Come to bed,” he said. “There will be milk tomorrow; the ewe can spare a little. Dunya will bake it for you. You must think of the babe.”

Marina pressed her body to his. He picked her up as in the days of their courting and spun her around. She laughed and wound her arms around his neck. But her eyes looked an instant past him, staring into the fire as though she could read the future in the flames.



“GET RID OF IT,” said Dunya the next day. “I don’t care if you’re carrying a girl or a prince or a prophet of old.” The sleet had crept back with the dawn and thundered again without. The two women huddled near the oven, for warmth and for its light on their mending. Dunya stabbed her needle home with particular vehemence. “The sooner the better. You’ve neither the weight nor the strength to carry a child, and if by a miracle you did, the bearing would kill you. You’ve given three sons to your husband, and you have your girl—what need of another?” Dunya had been Marina’s nurse in Moscow, had followed her to her husband’s house and nursed all of her four children in turn. She spoke as she pleased.

Marina smiled with a hint of mockery. “Such talk, Dunyashka,” she said. “What would Father Semyon say?”

“Father Semyon is not likely to die in childbed, is he? Whereas you, Marushka…”

Marina looked down at her work and said nothing. But when she met her nurse’s narrowed eyes, her face was pale as water, so that Dunya fancied she could see the blood creeping down her throat. Dunya felt a chill. “Child, what have you seen?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Marina.

“Get rid of it,” said Dunya, almost pleading.

“Dunya, I must have this one; she will be like my mother.”

“Your mother! The ragged maiden who rode alone out of the forest? Who faded to a dim shadow of herself because she could not bear to live her life behind Byzantine screens? Have you forgotten that gray crone she became? Stumbling veiled to church? Hiding in her rooms, eating until she was round and greasy with her eyes all blank? Your mother. Would you wish that on any child of yours?”

Dunya’s voice creaked like a calling raven, for she remembered, to her grief, the girl who had come to Ivan Kalita’s halls, lost and frail and achingly beautiful, trailing miracles behind her. Ivan was besotted. The princess—well, perhaps she had found peace with him, at least for a little. But they housed her in the women’s quarters, dressed her in heavy brocades, gave her icons and servants and rich meats. Little by little that fiery glow, the light to take one’s breath, had faded. Dunya had mourned her passing long before they put her in the ground.

Marina smiled bitterly and shook her head. “No. But remember before? You used to tell me stories.”

“A lot of good magic or miracles did her,” growled Dunya.

“I have only a little of her gift,” Marina went on, ignoring her old nurse. Dunya knew her lady well enough to hear the regret. “But my daughter will have more.”

“And that is reason enough to leave the other four motherless?”

Marina looked at her lap. “I—no. Yes. If need be.” Her voice was barely audible. “But I might live.” She raised her head. “You will give me your word to care for them, will you not?”

“Marushka, I am old. I can give my promise, but when I die…”

“They will be all right. They—they will have to be. Dunya, I cannot see the future, but I will live to see her born.”

Dunya crossed herself and said no more.





The first screaming winds of November rattled the bare trees on the day Marina’s pains came on her, and the child’s first cry mingled with their howl. Marina laughed to see her daughter born. “Her name is Vasilisa,” she said to Pyotr. “My Vasya.”

The wind dropped at dawn. In the silence, Marina breathed out once, gently, and died.

The snow hurried down like tears the day a stone-faced Pyotr laid his wife in the earth. His infant daughter screamed all through the funeral: a demon wail like the absent wind.

All that winter, the house echoed with the child’s cries. More than once, Dunya and Olga despaired of her, for she was a scrawny, pallid infant, all eyes and flailing limbs. More than once Kolya threatened, half in earnest, to pitch her out of the house.

But the winter passed and the child lived. She ceased screaming and throve on the milk of peasant women.

The years slipped by like leaves.

On a day much like the one that brought her into the world, on the steely cusp of winter, Marina’s black-haired girl-child crept into the winter kitchen. She put her hands on the hearthstone and craned to see over the edge. Her eyes glistened. Dunya was scooping cakes from the ashes. The whole house smelled of honey. “Are the cakes ready, Dunyashka?” she said, poking her head into the oven.

“Nearly,” said Dunya, hauling the child back before she could set her hair on fire. “If you will sit quiet on your stool, Vasochka, and mend your blouse, then you will have one all to yourself.”

Vasya, thinking of cakes, went meekly to her stool. There was a heap of them already cooling on the table, brown on the outside and flecked with ash. A corner of one cake crumbled as the child watched. Its insides were midsummer-gold, and a little curl of steam rose up. Vasya swallowed. Her morning porridge seemed a year ago.

Dunya shot her a warning look. Vasya pursed her lips virtuously and set to sewing. But the rip in her blouse was large, her hunger vast, and her patience negligible even under better circumstances. Her stitches grew larger and larger, like gaps in an old man’s teeth. At last Vasya could stand it no more. She put the blouse aside and crept nearer that steaming plate, on the table just out of reach. Dunya had her back to it, stooping over the oven.

Closer still the girl crept, stealthy as a kitten after grasshoppers. Then she pounced. Three cakes vanished into her linen sleeve. Dunya spun round, caught a glimpse of the child’s face. “Vasya—” she began sternly, but Vasya, frightened and laughing all at once, was already over the threshold and out into the sullen day.

The season was just turning, the drab fields full of shaved stubble and dusted with snow. Vasya, chewing her honeycake and contemplating hiding-places, ran across the dooryard, down among the peasants’ huts, and thence through the palisade-gate. It was cold, but Vasya did not think of it. She had been born to cold.

Vasilisa Petrovna was an ugly little girl: skinny as a reed-stem with long-fingered hands and enormous feet. Her eyes and mouth were too big for the rest of her. Olga called her frog, and thought nothing of it. But the child’s eyes were the color of the forest during a summer thunderstorm, and her wide mouth was sweet. She could be sensible when she wished—and clever—so much so that her family looked at each other, bewildered, each time she abandoned sense and took yet another madcap idea into her head.

A mound of disturbed earth showed raw against the patchy snow, just at the edge of the harvested rye-field. It had not been there the day before. Vasya went to investigate. She smelled the wind as she scampered and knew it would snow in the night. The clouds lay like wet wool above the trees.

A small boy, nine years old and Pyotr Vladimirovich in miniature, stood at the bottom of a respectable hole, digging at the frosty earth. Vasya came to the edge and peered down.

“What’s that, Lyoshka?” she said, around a mouthful.

Her brother leaned on his spade, squinting up at her. “What’s it to you?” Alyosha quite liked Vasya, who was up for anything—nearly as good as a younger brother—but he was almost three years older and had to keep her in her place.

“Don’t know,” said Vasya, chewing. “Cake?” She held out half of her last one with a little regret; it was the fattest and least ashy.

“Give,” said Alyosha, dropping his shovel and holding out a filthy hand. But Vasya put herself out of range.

“Tell me what you’re doing,” she said. Alyosha glared, but Vasya narrowed her eyes and made to eat the cake. Her brother relented.

“It’s a fort to live in,” he said. “For when the Tatars come. So I can hide in here and shoot them full of arrows.”

Vasya had never seen a Tatar, and she did not have a clear notion of what size fort would be required to protect oneself from one. Nonetheless she looked doubtfully at the hole. “It’s not very big.”

Alyosha rolled his eyes. “That’s why I’m digging, you rabbit,” he said. “To make it bigger. Now will you give?”

Vasya started to hold out the honeycake but then she hesitated. “I want to dig the hole and shoot the Tatars, too.”

“Well, you can’t. You don’t have a bow or a shovel.”

Vasya scowled. Alyosha had gotten his own knife and a bow for his seventh name-day, but a year’s worth of pleading had borne no fruit as far as weapons for her were concerned. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I can dig with a stick, and Father will give me a bow later.”

“No, he won’t.” But Alyosha made no objection when Vasya handed over half the cake and went to find a stick. They worked for some minutes in companionable silence.

But digging with a stick soon palls, even if one is jumping up every few moments to look about for the wicked Tatars. Vasya was beginning to wonder whether Alyosha might be persuaded to leave off fort-building and go climb trees, when suddenly a shadow loomed over them both: their sister, Olga, breathless and furious, roused from a place by the fire to uncover her truant siblings. She glared down at them. “Mud to the eyebrows, what will Dunya say? And Father—” Here Olga broke off to make a fortuitous lunge, seizing the clumsier Alyosha by the back of his jacket just as the children broke cover like a pair of frightened quail.

Vasilisa was long-limbed for a girl, quick in her movements, and it was well worth a scolding to eat her last crumbs in peace. So she did not look back but ran like a hare over the empty field, dodging stumps with whoops of glee, until she was swallowed by the afternoon forest. Olga was left panting, holding on to Alyosha by his collar.

“Why don’t you ever catch her?” said Alyosha, with some resentment, as Olga towed him back to the house. “She’s only six.”

“Because I am not Kaschei the Deathless,” said Olga with some asperity. “And I have no horse to outrun the wind.”

They stepped into the kitchen. Olga deposited Alyosha beside the oven. “I couldn’t catch Vasya,” she said to Dunya. The old lady raised her eyes heavenward. Vasya was extremely hard to catch when she did not wish to be caught. Only Sasha could do it with any regularity. Dunya turned her wrath on a shrinking Alyosha. She stripped the child beside the oven, sponged him with a cloth that, thought Alyosha, must have been made of nettles, and dressed him in a clean shirt.

“Such goings-on,” muttered Dunya while she scrubbed. “I’ll tell your father, you know, next time. He’ll have you carting and chopping and mucking for the rest of the winter. Such goings-on. Filth and digging holes—”

But she was interrupted in her tirade. Alyosha’s two tall brothers came stamping into the winter kitchen, smelling of smoke and livestock. Unlike Vasya, they did not resort to subterfuge; they made straight for the cakes, and each shoved one whole into his mouth. “A wind from the south,” said Nikolai Petrovich—called Kolya—the eldest, to his sister, his voice indistinct from chewing. Olga had regained her wonted composure and sat knitting beside the oven. “It will snow in the night. A good job the beasts are in and the roof is finished.” Kolya dropped his sopping winter boots near the fire and flung himself onto a stool, seizing another cake in passing.

Olga and Dunya eyed the boots with identical expressions of disapproval. Frozen mud had spattered the clean hearth. Olga crossed herself. “If the weather is changing, then half the village will be ill tomorrow,” she said. “I hope Father comes in before the snow.” She frowned as she counted stitches.

The second young man did not speak, but deposited his armload of firewood, swallowed his cake, and went to kneel before the icons in the corner opposite the door. Now he crossed himself, stood, and kissed the image of the Virgin. “Praying again, Sasha?” said Kolya with cheerful malice. “Pray the snow comes gently, and Father not catch cold.”

The young man shrugged slim shoulders. He had wide, grave eyes, thick-lashed as a girl’s. “I do pray, Kolya,” he said. “You might try it yourself.” He padded to the oven and peeled off his damp stockings. The pungent stink of wet wool joined the general smell of mud and cabbage and animals. Sasha had spent his day with the horses. Olga wrinkled her nose.

Kolya did not rise to the jab. He was examining one of his sopping winter boots, where the fur had separated at the stitching. He grunted with disgust and let it drop next to its fellow. Both boots began to steam. The oven towered over the four of them. Dunya had already put in the stew for dinner, and Alyosha watched the pot like a cat at a mouse-hole.

“What goings-on, Dunya?” Sasha inquired. He had come into the kitchen in time to hear the tirade.

“Vasya,” said Olga succinctly, and told the story of the honeycakes and her sister’s escape into the forest. As she talked, she knitted. The faintest of rueful smiles dimpled her mouth. She was still fat with summer’s bounty, round-faced and lovely.

Sasha laughed. “Well, Vasya will come back when she gets hungry,” he said, and turned to more important matters. “Is that pike in the stew, Dunya?”

“Tench,” said Dunya shortly. “Oleg brought four at dawn. But that strange sister of yours is too small to linger in the woods.”

Sasha and Olga looked at each other, shrugged, and said nothing. Vasya had been disappearing into the forest ever since she could walk. She would come back in time for dinner, as always, bearing a handful of pine-nuts in apology, flushed and repentant, catlike on her booted feet.

But in this case they were wrong. The brittle sun slipped across the sky, and the shadows of the trees stretched monstrously long. At last Pyotr Vladimirovich himself came into the house, bearing a hen-pheasant by its broken neck. Still Vasya had not come back.



THE FOREST WAS QUIET on the cusp of winter, the snow thicker between the trees. Vasilisa Petrovna, half-ashamed and half-pleased with her freedom, ate her last half honeycake stretched out on the cold limb of a tree, listening to the soft noises of the drowsing forest. “I know you sleep when the snow comes,” she said aloud. “But couldn’t you wake up? See, I have cakes.”

She held out the evidence, now little more than crumbs, and paused as though expecting a reply. But none came, beyond a soft, rattling wind that stirred all the trees together.

So Vasya shrugged, dabbed up the crumbs of her honeycake, and ran about the wood awhile, looking for pine-nuts. The squirrels had eaten them all, though, and the forest was cold, even to a girl born to it. At last, Vasya brushed the ice and bark from her clothes and set her feet for home, finally feeling the pricking of conscience. The forest was thick with shade; the shortening days slid rapidly to night, and she hurried. She would get a thundering scold, but Dunya would have dinner waiting.

On and on she went, and then paused, frowning. Left at the gray alder, round the wicked old elm, and then she would see her father’s fields. She had walked that path a thousand times. But now there was no alder and no elm, only a cluster of black-needled spruces and a little snowy meadow. Vasya swung round, tried a new direction. No, here were slender beeches, standing white as maidens, naked with winter and trembling. Vasya was suddenly uneasy. She could not be lost; she was never lost. Might as well be lost in her own house as lost in the woods. A wind picked up that set all the trees to shaking, but now they were trees she did not know.

Lost, Vasya thought. She was lost in the dusk on the cusp of winter and it was going to snow. She turned again, tried another direction. But in that wavering wood, there was not one tree she knew. The tears welled suddenly in her eyes. Lost, I am lost. She wanted Olya or Dunya; she wanted her father and Sasha. She wanted her soup and her blanket and even her mending.

An oak-tree loomed in her way. The child stopped. This tree was not like the others. It was bigger and blacker and gnarled like a wicked old woman. The wind shook its great black branches.

Vasya, beginning to shiver, crept toward it. She laid a hand on the bark. It was like any other tree, rough and cold even through the fur of her mitten. Vasya stepped around it, craning up at the branches. Then she looked down and nearly tripped.

A man lay curled like a beast at the foot of this tree, fast asleep. She could not see his face; it was hidden between his arms. Through rents in his clothes, she glimpsed cold white skin. He did not stir at her approach.

Well, he could not lie there sleeping, not with snow coming out of the south. He would die. And perhaps he knew where her father’s house lay. Vasya reached out to shake him awake but thought better of it. Instead, she said, “Grandfather, wake up! There will be snow before moonrise. Wake up!”

For long moments, the man did not stir. But just when Vasya was nerving herself to lay a hand on his shoulder, there came a snuffling grunt, and the man raised his face and blinked one eye at her.

The child recoiled. One side of his face was fair, in a rough-hewn way. One eye was gray. But the other eye was missing, the socket sewn shut, and that side of his face a mass of bluish scars.

The good eye blinked sulkily at the girl, and the man sat back on his haunches as though to see her better. He was a thin creature, ragged and filthy. Vasya could see his ribs through the rents in his shirt. But when he spoke, his voice was strong and deep.

“Well,” he said. “It is a long time since I have seen a Russian girl.”

Vasya did not understand. “Do you know where we are?” she said. “I am lost. My father is Pyotr Vladimirovich. If you can take me home, he will see you fed, and give you a place beside the oven. It is going to snow.”

The one-eyed man smiled suddenly. He had two dog-teeth, longer than the rest, that dented his lip when he smiled. He came to his feet, and Vasya saw that he was a tall man with big, crude bones. “Do I know where we are?” he said. “Well, of course, devochka, little maiden. I’ll take you home. But you must come here and help me.”

Vasya, spoiled since she could remember, had no particular reason to be untrusting. Yet she did not stir.

The gray eye narrowed. “What manner of girl-child comes here, all alone?” And then, softer, “Such eyes. Almost I remember…Well, come here.” He made his voice coaxing. “Your father will be worried.”

He bent his gray eye upon her. Vasya, frowning, took a small step toward him. Then another. He put out a hand.

Suddenly there came the crunch of hooves in the snow, and the snorting breaths of a horse. The one-eyed man recoiled. The child stumbled backward, away from his outstretched hand, and the man fell to the earth, cringing. A horse and rider stepped into the clearing. The horse was white and strong; when her rider slid to the ground, Vasya saw that he was slender and bold-boned, the skin drawn tight over cheek and throat. He wore a rich robe of heavy fur, and his eyes gleamed blue.

“What is this?” he said.

The ragged man cringed. “No concern of yours,” he said. “She came to me—she is mine.”

The newcomer turned a clear, cold look on him. His voice filled the clearing. “Is she? Sleep, Medved, for it is winter.”

And even as the sleeper protested, he sank once more to his place between the oak-roots. The gray eye filmed over.

The rider turned on Vasya. The child edged backward, poised on the edge of flight. “How came you here, devochka?” said this man. He spoke with swift authority.

Tears of confusion spilled down Vasya’s cheeks. The one-eyed man’s avid face had frightened her, and this man’s fierce urgency frightened her, too. But something in his glance silenced her weeping. She lifted her eyes to his face. “I am Vasilisa Petrovna,” she said. “My father is lord of Lesnaya Zemlya.”

They looked at each other for a moment. And then Vasya’s brief courage was gone; she spun and bolted. The stranger made no attempt to follow. But he did turn to his horse when the mare came up beside him. The two exchanged a long look.

“He is getting stronger,” said the man.

The mare flicked an ear.

Her rider did not speak again, but glanced once more in the direction the child had taken.



OUT FROM THE SHADOW of the oak, Vasya was startled by how fast night had fallen. Beneath the tree, it had been indeterminate dusk, but now it was night, woolly night on the cusp of snow, the air all dour with it. The wood was full of torches and the desperate shouts of men. Vasya cared nothing for them; she recognized the trees again, and she wanted only Olga’s arms, and Dunya’s.

A horse came galloping out of the night, whose rider bore no torch. The mare saw the child an instant before her rider did, and skidded to a halt, rearing. Vasya tumbled to one side, skinning her hand. She thrust a fist into her mouth to muffle her cry. The rider muttered imprecations in a voice she knew, and the next instant, she was caught up in her brother’s arms. “Sashka,” sobbed Vasya, burying her face against his neck. “I was lost. There was a man in the forest. Two men. And a white horse, and a black tree, and I was afraid.”

“What men?” demanded Sasha. “Where, child? Are you hurt?” He put her away from him and felt her over.

“No,” quavered Vasya. “No—I am only cold.”

Sasha said nothing; she could tell he was angry, though he was gentle when he put her on his mare. He swung up behind and wrapped her in a fold of his cloak. Vasya, safe, with her cheek against the well-tended leather of his sword-belt, slowly ceased her weeping.

Ordinarily Sasha tolerated his small sister following him about, trying to lift his sword or pluck the string of his bow. He indulged her, even, giving her a stump of candle, or a handful of hazelnuts. But now fear had made him furious and he did not speak to her as they rode.

He shouted left and right, and slowly word of Vasya’s rescue passed among the men. If she had not been found before the snow came, she would have died in the night, and only been discovered when the spring came to loosen her shroud—if she was found at all.

“Dura,” growled Sasha at last, when he had done shouting, “little fool, what possessed you? Running from Olga, hiding in the woods? Did you think yourself a wood-sprite, or forget the season?”

Vasya shook her head. She was shivering in hard spurts now. Her teeth clattered together. “I wanted to eat my cake,” she said. “But I got lost. I couldn’t find the elm-stump. I met a man at the oak-tree. Two men. And a horse. And then it was dark.”

Sasha frowned over her head. “Tell me of this oak-tree,” he said.

“An old one,” said Vasya. “With roots about its knees. And one-eyed. The man, not the tree.” She shivered harder than ever.

“Well, do not think of it now,” said Sasha, and urged on his tired horse.

Olga and Dunya met him at the threshold. The good old lady had tears all over her face and Olga was white as a frost-maiden in a fairy tale. They had raked all the coals out of the oven, and they poured water on the hot stones to make steam. Vasya found herself unceremoniously stripped and shoved into the oven-mouth to warm.

The scolding began as soon as she was out.

“Stealing cakes,” said Dunya. “Running away from your sister. How could you frighten us so, Vasochka?” She wept as she said it.

Vasya, heavy-eyed and repentant, murmured, “I’m sorry, Dunya. Sorry, sorry.”

She was rubbed with horrible mustard-seed, and beaten with quick, whisking birch-branches, to liven her blood. They wrapped her in wool, bandaged her skinned hand, and poured soup down her throat.

“It was very wicked, Vasya,” Olga said. She smoothed her sister’s hair and cradled her on her lap. Vasya was already asleep.

“Enough for tonight, Dunya,” Olga added. “Tomorrow is soon enough for more talk.”

Vasya was put to bed atop the oven, and Dunya lay down beside her.

When at last her sister slept, Olga sank down limp beside the fire. Her father and brothers sat spooning up their stew in a corner, wearing identical thunderous expressions. “She’ll be all right,” said Olga. “I do not think she’ll take a chill.”

“But any man might, who was called from his hearth to look for her,” snapped Pyotr.

“Or I might,” said Kolya. “A man wants his dinner after a day of mending his father’s roof, not a night’s ride by torchlight. I’ll belt her tomorrow.”

“And so?” retorted Sasha coolly. “She’s been belted before. It is not the task of men to manage girl-children. It wants a woman. Dunya is old. Olya will marry soon, and then the old lady will be left alone to raise the child.”

Pyotr said nothing. Six years since he put his wife in the earth, and he had not thought of another, though there were many who would have heard his suit. But his daughter had frightened him.

When Kolya had sought his bed, and he and Sasha sat together in the dark, watching the candle burn low before the icon, Pyotr said, “Would you see your mother forgotten?”

“Vasya never knew her,” rejoined Sasha. “But a woman of sense—not a sister or a kindly old nurse—would do her good. She will soon be unmanageable, Father.”

A long pause.

“It is not Vasya’s fault Mother died,” added Sasha, lower.

Pyotr said nothing, and Sasha rose, bowed to his father, and blew out the candle.





Pyotr thrashed his daughter the next day, and she wept, though he was not cruel. She was forbidden to leave the village, but for once, that was no hardship. She had taken the threatened chill, and she had nightmares in which she revisited a one-eyed man, a horse, and a stranger in a clearing in the woods.

Sasha, though he told no one, ranged the forest to the west, looking for this one-eyed man, or an oak-tree with roots about its knees. But never man nor tree did he find, and then the snow fell for three days, straight and hard, so that none went out.

Their lives drew in, as always in the winter, a round of food and sleep and small drowsy chores. The snow mounded up outside, and on a bitter evening Pyotr sat on his own stool, smoothing a straight piece of ash for an ax-handle. His face was set like stone, for he was remembering what he had pleased to forget. Take care of her, Marina had said, so many years ago, as the tinge of mortal illness spread over her lovely face. I chose her, she is important. Petya, promise me.

Pyotr, grieving, had promised. But then his wife had let go his hand, had lain back in her bed, and her eyes had looked beyond him. She smiled once, soft and joyful, but Pyotr did not think the look was for him. She did not speak again and died in the gray hour before dawn.

And then, Pyotr thought. They made ready a hole to receive her, and I bellowed at the women who tried to bar me from the death-chamber. I myself—I wrapped her cold flesh, that stank still of blood, and with my own two hands put her in the ground.

All that winter his infant daughter had screamed, and he could not bear to look the baby in the face, because her mother had chosen the child and not him.

Well, now he must make amends.

Pyotr squinted at his ax-handle. “I am going to Moscow when the rivers freeze,” he said into the silence.

The room erupted in exclamations. Vasya, who had been drowsing, heavy with fever and hot honey-wine, squeaked and poked her head over the side of the oven.

“To Moscow, Father?” asked Kolya. “Again?”

Pyotr’s lips thinned. He had gone to Moscow in that first, bitter winter after Marina’s death. Ivan Ivanovich, Marina’s half brother, was Grand Prince, and for his family’s sake, Pyotr had salvaged what he could of their connection. But he had taken no woman, then or later.

“You mean to marry this time,” said Sasha.

Pyotr nodded curtly, feeling the weight of his family’s stare. There were women enough in the provinces, but a Muscovite lady would bring alliances and money. Ivan’s indulgence for the husband of his dead sister would not last forever. And, for his small daughter’s sake, he needed a new wife. But…Marina, what a fool I am, to think I cannot bear it.

“Sasha and Kolya, you will come with me,” Pyotr said.

Delight quite overspread the censure on his sons’ faces. “To Moscow, Father?” asked Kolya.

“It is two weeks’ riding if all goes well,” said Pyotr. “I will need you on the road. And you have never been to court. The Grand Prince ought to know your faces.”

There was chaos in the kitchen then, as the boys exchanged delighted exclamations. Vasya and Alyosha both clamored to go. Olga begged for jewels and good cloth. The elder boys retorted gloatingly, and in arguing, pleading, and speculation, the evening passed.



THE SNOW FELL THRICE, deep and solid, after midwinter, and after the last snowfall came a great blue frost, when men felt their breath stop in their nostrils and weak things grew apt to die in the night. That meant the sledge-roads were open, the roads that ran down snow-covered rivers smooth as glass and sparkled over dirt tracks that in summer were a misery of ruts and broken axles. The boys watched the sky and felt of the frost and took to pacing the house, oiling their greasy boots and scraping the hair-fine edges of their spears.

At last the day came. Pyotr and his sons rose in the dark and spilled into the dooryard as soon as it grew light. The men were gathered already. The keen dawn reddened their faces; their beasts stamped and snorted clouds of steam. A man had saddled Buran, Pyotr’s evil-tempered Mongol stallion, and was clinging, white-knuckled, to the beast’s headstall. Pyotr slapped his waiting mount, dodged the snapping teeth, and swung into the saddle. His grateful attendant fell back, gasping.

Pyotr kept half an eye on his unpredictable stallion; the rest was for the seeming chaos around him.

The stable-yard seethed with bodies, with beasts, with sledges. Furs lay mounded beside boxes of beeswax and candles. The jars of mead and honey jostled for room with bundles of dried provisions. Kolya was directing the loading of the last sledge, his nose red in the morning chill. He had his mother’s black eyes; the serving-girls giggled as he passed.

A basket fell with a thud and a puff of dry snow, almost under the feet of a sledge-horse. The beast shied forward and sideways. Kolya sprang out of the way, and Pyotr started forward, but Sasha was before them. He was off his mare like a cat, and next instant had caught the horse by its headstall, talking into its ear. The horse stilled, looking abashed. Pyotr watched as Sasha pointed, said something. The men hurried to take the horse’s rein and seize the offending basket. Sasha said something else, grinning, and they all laughed. The boy remounted his mare. His seat was better than his brother’s; he had an affinity for horses, and he bore his sword with grace. A warrior born, thought Pyotr, and a leader of men; Marina, I am fortunate in my sons.

Olga ran out the kitchen door, Vasya trotting in her footsteps. The girls’ embroidered sarafans stood out against the snow. Olga held her apron in both hands; piled within were dark, tender loaves, hot from the oven. Kolya and Sasha were already converging. Vasya tugged on her second brother’s cloak while he ate his loaf. “But why may I not come, Sashka?” she said. “I will cook your supper for you. Dunya showed me how. I can ride your horse with you; I am small enough.” She clung to his cloak with both hands.

“Not this year, little frog,” Sasha said. “You are small—too small.” Seeing her eyes sad, he knelt in the snow beside her and pressed the remainder of his bread into her hand. “Eat and grow strong, little sister,” he said, “so that you are fitted for journeys. God keep you.” He put a hand on her head, then sprang again to the back of his brown Mysh. “Sashka!” cried Vasya, but he was away, calling swift orders to the men loading the last wagon.

Olga took her sister’s hand and tugged. “Come on, Vasochka,” she said when the child dragged her feet. The girls ran up to Pyotr. The last loaf was cooling in Olga’s hand.

“Safe journey, Father,” Olga said.

How little my Olya is like her mother, Pyotr thought, for all she has her face. Just as well—Marina was like a hawk in a cage. Olga is gentler. I will make her a fine marriage. He smiled down at his daughters. “God keep you both,” he said. “Perhaps I will bring you a husband, Olya.” Vasya made a sound like a muted growl. Olga blushed and laughed, and almost dropped the bread. Pyotr stooped in time to seize it and was glad he had; she had slit the crust and spooned honey inside, to melt in the heat. He tore off a great hunk—his teeth were still good—and paused, blissfully chewing.

“And you, Vasya,” he added, stern. “Mind your sister, and stay near the house.”

“Yes, Father,” said Vasya, but she looked longingly at the riding-horses.

Pyotr wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The mob had come to something resembling order. “Farewell, my daughters,” he said. “We are going; mind the sledges.” Olga nodded, a little wistful. Vasya did not nod at all; she looked mutinous. There was a chorus of shouting, the cracking of whips, and then they were away.

Behind them Olga and Vasilisa stood alone in the dooryard, listening to the bells on the wagons until they were swallowed up by the morning.



TWO WEEKS AFTER SETTING OUT, with plenty of delay but no disaster, Pyotr and his sons passed the outer rings of Moscow, that seething, jumped-up trading post on a hill beside the Moskva River. They smelled the city long before they saw it, hazed as it was with the smoke of ten thousand fires, and then the brilliant domes—green and scarlet and cobalt—showed dimly through the vapor. At last they saw the city itself, lusty and squalid, like a fair woman with feet caked in filth. The high golden towers rose proudly above the desperate poor, and the gold-fretted icons watched, inscrutable, while princes and farmers’ wives came to kiss their stiff faces and pray.

The streets were all snowy mud, churned by innumerable feet. Beggars, their noses winter-blackened, clutched at the boys’ stirrups. Kolya kicked them off, but Sasha clasped their grimy hands. The red winter sun was tilting west when at last they came, weary and mud-splattered, to a massive wooden gate, bound in bronze and topped with towers. A dozen spearmen watched the road, with archers on the wall.

They looked coldly at Pyotr, his sledges and his sons, but Pyotr passed their captain a jar of good mead, and instantly the hard faces softened. Pyotr bowed, first to the captain and then to his men, and the guards waved them through in a chorus of compliments.

The kremlin was a town in itself: palaces, huts, stables, smithies, and countless half-built churches. Though the original walls had been built with a double thickness of oak, the years had rotted the timber to matchwood. Marina’s half brother, the Grand Prince Ivan Ivanovich, had commissioned their replacement with walls more massive still. The air reeked of the clay that had been caked on the timber, meager protection against fire. Everywhere carpenters called back and forth, shaking sawdust from their beards. Servants, priests, boyars, guardsmen, and merchants milled about, bickering. Tatars riding fine horses rubbed shoulders with Russian merchants directing laden sledges. Each broke out shouting at the other on the slightest pretext. Kolya gawked at the crush, masking nervousness with a high head. His horse jerked at its rider’s touch on the reins.

Pyotr had been to Moscow before. A few peremptory words unearthed stabling for their horses and a place for their wagons. “See to the horses,” he said to Oleg, the steadiest of his men. “Do not leave them.” There were idle servants on all sides, narrow-eyed merchants, and boyars in barbaric finery. A horse would disappear in an instant and be forever lost. Oleg nodded, and one rough fingertip grazed the hilt of his long knife.

They had sent word of their coming. Their messenger met them outside the stable. “You are summoned, my lord,” he said to Pyotr. “The Grand Prince is at table, and greets his brother from the north.”

The road from Lesnaya Zemlya had been long; Pyotr was grimed, bruised, cold, and weary. “Very well,” he said curtly. “We are coming. Leave that.” The last was to Sasha, who was digging balled-up ice out of his horse’s hoof.

They splashed frigid water on their grimy faces, drew on kaftans of thick wool and hats of shining sable, and laid aside their swords. The fortress-town was a warren of churches and wooden palaces, the ground churned to muck, the air smarting with smoke. Pyotr followed the messenger with a quick step. Behind him Sasha gazed narrow-eyed at the gilded domes and painted towers. Kolya was scarcely less circumspect, though he stared more at the fine horses and the weapons of the men who rode them.

They came to a double door of oak that opened onto a hall packed full of men and crawling with dogs. The great tables groaned with good things. On the far end of the hall, on a high carven seat, sat a man with bright hair, eating slices off the joint that lay dripping before him.

Ivan II was styled Ivan Krasnii, or Ivan the Fair. He was no longer young—perhaps thirty. His elder brother Semyon had ruled before him, but Semyon and his issue had all died of plague in one bitter summer.

The Grand Prince of Moscow was indeed very fair. His hair gleamed like palest honey. Women swarmed around this prince’s golden beauty. He was also a skilled hunter and a master of hounds and horses. His table creaked under a great roast boar, crusted with herbs.

Pyotr’s sons swallowed. They were all hungry after two weeks on the wintry road.

Pyotr strode across the vast hall, his sons behind. The prince did not look up from his dinner, though calculating or merely curious stares assailed them from all sides. A fireplace large enough to roast an ox burned behind the prince’s dais, throwing Ivan’s face into shadow and gilding the faces of guests. Pyotr and his sons came before the dais, halted, and bowed.

Ivan speared a gobbet of pork with the tip of his knife. Blood stained his yellow beard. “Pyotr Vladimirovich, is it not?” he said slowly, chewing. His shadowed gaze swept them from hat to boots. “The one that married my half sister?” He took a swallow of honey-wine and added, “May she rest in peace.”

“Yes, Ivan Ivanovich,” said Pyotr.

“Well met, brother,” said the prince. He tossed a bone to the cur beneath his chair. “What brings you so far?”

“I wished to present you my sons, gosudar,” said Pyotr. “Your nephews. They are men soon to wed. And if God wills, I desire also to find a woman of my own, so my youngest children need no longer go motherless.”

“A worthy aim,” said Ivan. “Are these your sons?” His gaze flicked out to the boys behind Pyotr.

“Yes—Nikolai Petrovich, my eldest, and my second son, Aleksandr.” Kolya and Sasha stepped forward.

The Grand Prince gave them the same sweeping look he’d given Pyotr. His glance lingered on Sasha. The boy had the merest scrapings of a beard and the jutting bones of a boy half-grown. But he was light on his feet and the gray eyes did not waver.

“We are well met, kinsmen,” said Ivan, not taking his eyes off Pyotr’s younger son. “You, boy—you are like your mother.” Sasha, taken aback, bowed and said nothing. There was a moment’s silence. Then, louder, Ivan added, “Pyotr Vladimirovich, you are welcome in my house, and at my table, until your business is done.”

The prince inclined his head abruptly and returned to his roast. Dismissed, the three were left to take three hastily cleared places at the high table. Kolya needed no encouragement; hot juices were still running down the roast pig’s sides. The pie oozed with cheese and dried mushrooms. The round guest-loaf lay in the middle of the table, beside the prince’s good gray salt. Kolya fell to at once, but Sasha paused. “Such a look the Grand Prince gave me, Father,” he said. “As though he knew my thoughts better than I do.”

“They are all like that, the princes that live,” said Pyotr. He took a steaming slice of pie. “They all have too many brothers, and all are eager for the next city, the richer prize. Either they are good judges of men, or they are dead. Go wary of the living ones, synok, because they are dangerous.” Then he gave his full attention to the pastry.

Sasha furrowed his brow, but he let his plate be filled. Their journey had been an endless round of strange stews and hard flat cakes, broken once or twice by their neighbors’ hospitality. The Grand Prince kept a good table, and they all feasted until they could hold no more.

After, the party was given three rooms for their use: chilly and crawling with vermin, but they were too tired to care. Pyotr saw to the settling of the wagons, and of his men for the night, then collapsed on the high bed and surrendered to a dreamless sleep.





“Father,” said Sasha, vibrating with excitement. “The priest says there is a holy man north of Moscow, on Makovets Hill. He has founded a monastery and gathered already eleven disciples. They say he talks with angels. Every day many go to seek his blessing.”

Pyotr grunted. He had been in Moscow a week already, enduring the business of currying favor. His latest effort—only just concluded—had been a visit to the Tatar emissary, the baskak. No man from Sarai, that jewel-box city built by the conquering Horde, would deign to be impressed by the paltry offerings of a northern lord, but Pyotr had doggedly pressed furs upon him. Heaps of fox and ermine, rabbit and sable passed beneath the emissary’s calculating gaze until at last he looked less condescending and thanked Pyotr with every appearance of goodwill. Such furs fetched much gold in the court of the Khan, and further south, among the princes of Byzantium. It was worth it, thought Pyotr. I might be glad one day, to have a friend among the conquerors.

Pyotr was weary and sweating in his gold-threaded finery. But he could not rest, for here was his second son on fire with eagerness, bearing a tale of holy men and miracles.

“There are always holy men,” Pyotr said to Sasha. He knew a sudden longing for quiet and for plain food; the Muscovites were fond of Byzantine cookery, and the resulting collision with Russian ingredients did his stomach no favors. Tonight there was to be more feasting—and more intrigue; he still sought a wife for himself, and a husband for Olga.

“Father,” said Sasha, “I should like to go to this monastery, if I may.”

“Sashka, you cannot cast a stone without hitting a church in this city,” said Pyotr. “Why waste three days’ riding on another?”

Sasha’s lip curled. “In Moscow, priests are in love with their standing. They eat fat meat and preach poverty to the miserable.”

This was true. But Pyotr, though a good lord to his people, lacked an abstract sense of justice. He shrugged. “Your holy man might be the same.”

“Nonetheless, I should like to see. Please, Father.” Sasha, though gray-eyed, had his mother’s jet brows and long lashes. They swept down, oddly delicate against his thin face.

Pyotr considered. Roads were dangerous, but the well-traveled road running north from Moscow was not markedly so. He had no desire to raise a timid son. “Take five men. And two dozen candles—that should ensure your reception.”

A light came into the boy’s face. Pyotr’s mouth tightened. Marina was bone in the unyielding earth, but he had seen her look just that way, when her soul lit her face like firelight.

“Thank you, Father,” the boy said. He dashed out the door and away, lithe as a weasel. Pyotr heard him in the dvor before the palace, calling the men, calling for his horse.

“Marina,” said Pyotr, low, “thank you for my sons.”



THE TRINITY LAVRA HAD been carved out of the wilderness. Though the feet of passing pilgrims had beaten a path through the snowy forest, the trees still pressed close on either side, dwarfing the bell-tower of the plain wooden church. Sasha was reminded of his own village at Lesnaya Zemlya. A sturdy palisade surrounded the monastery, which was composed mostly of small, wooden buildings. The air smelled of smoke and baking bread.

Oleg had ridden with him, the head of his attendants. “We can’t all go in,” said Sasha, reining his horse.

Oleg nodded. The whole party dismounted, bits jingling. “You, and you,” Oleg said. “Watch the road.”

The men chosen settled beside the path, loosened the horses’ girths, and began searching for firewood. The others passed between the two uprights of a narrow unbarred gate. Great trees threw sooty shadows onto the raw wood of the little church.

A slim man ducked out of a doorway, wiping floury hands. He was not very tall, and not very old. His broad nose was set between large, liquid eyes, the green-brown of a forest pool. He wore the coarse robe of a monk, splattered with flour.

Sasha knew him. The monk might have been wearing the rags of a beggar or the robes of a bishop and Sasha would still have known him. The boy dropped to his knees in the snow.

The monk pulled up short. “What brings you here, my son?”

Sasha could barely bring himself to look up. “I would ask your blessing, Batyushka,” he managed.

The monk raised a brow. “You needn’t call me so; I am not ordained. We are all children of God.”

“We brought candles for the altar,” Sasha stammered, still on his knees.

A thin, brown, work-hardened hand thrust itself under Sasha’s elbow and raised him to his feet. The two were nearly of a height, though the boy was broader of shoulder and not yet full-grown, gangly as a colt. “We kneel to God alone here,” said the monk. He studied Sasha’s face a moment. “I am making the altar-bread for services tonight,” he added abruptly. “Come and help me.”

Sasha nodded, wordless, and waved his men off.

The kitchen was rude, and hot from the oven. The flour and water and salt lay to hand, to be mixed, kneaded, and baked in the ashes. The two worked in silence for a time, but it was an easy silence. Peace lay thick on that place. The monk’s questions were so mild that the boy hardly noticed he was being questioned, but, a little clumsy with the unaccustomed task, he rolled out dough and related his history: his father’s rank, his mother’s death, their journey to Moscow.

“And you came here,” the monk finished for him. “What are you seeking, my son?”

Sasha opened his mouth and closed it again. “I—I do not know,” he admitted, shamefaced. “Something.”

To his surprise, the monk laughed. “Do you wish to stay, then?”

Sasha could only stare.

“It is a hard life we lead here,” the monk went on more seriously. “You would build your own cell, plant your garden, bake your bread, aid your brothers as necessary. But there is peace here, peace beyond anything. I see you have felt it.” Seeing Sasha still dumbfounded, he said, “Yes, yes, many pilgrims come here, and many of them ask to stay. But we take only the seekers who do not know what they are looking for.”

“Yes,” Sasha said at last, slowly. “Yes, I would like to stay, very much.”

“Very well,” said Sergei Radonezhsky, and turned back to his baking.



THEY PRESSED THE HORSES hard on the road back to Moscow. Oleg mistrusted the fiery look on his young lord’s face. He rode close to Sasha’s stirrup and resolved to speak to Pyotr. But the young lord reached his father first.

They rode into the city in the midst of the brief, burning sunset, with the towers of church and palace silhouetted against a violet sky. Sasha left his horse steaming in the dvor and ran at once up the stairs to his father’s rooms. He found both father and brother dressing.

“Well met, little brother,” said Kolya when Sasha came in. “Have you done with churches yet?” He threw Sasha a quick, tolerant glance and returned his attention to his clothes. Tongue between his lips, he settled a hat of black sable rakishly on his black hair. “Well, you are in good time. Wash off the stink. We are feasting tonight, and it may be the family will show us the woman Father is to marry. She has all her teeth—I have it on good authority—and a pleasant…what, Sasha?”

“Sergei Radonezhsky has asked me to join his monastery on Makovets Hill,” repeated Sasha, louder.

Kolya looked blank.

“I wish to be a monk,” Sasha said. That got their attention. Pyotr was drawing on his red-heeled boots. He slewed round to stare at his son and nearly tripped.

“Why?” cried Kolya, in tones of deep horror. Sasha clamped his teeth on several uncharitable remarks; his brother had already cut a large swath through the palace serving-women.

“To dedicate my life to God,” he informed Kolya, with a touch of superiority.

“I see your holy man made quite an impression,” Pyotr said, before the astonished Kolya had recovered. He had regained his balance and was drawing his second boot on, with perhaps a bit more vim than necessary.

“I—yes, he did, Father.”

“Very well, you may,” said Pyotr.

Kolya gaped. Pyotr put his foot down and stood. His kaftan was ocher and rust; the gold rings on his hands caught the candlelight. His hair and beard had been combed with scented oil; he looked both imposing and uncomfortable.

Sasha, who had been expecting a drawn-out battle, stared at his father.

“On two conditions,” Pyotr added.

“What are they?”

“One, you may not visit this holy man again until you go to join his order. That will only be after next year’s harvest, when you will have had a year to reflect. Two, you must remember that as a monk, your inheritance will go to your brothers, and you will have naught but your prayers to sustain you.”

Sasha swallowed hard.

“But, Father, if I might only see him again—”

“No.” Pyotr cut him off in a tone that brooked no argument. “You may turn monk if you will, but you will do it with your eyes open, not enthralled by the words of a hermit.”

Sasha nodded reluctantly.

“Very well, Father,” he said.

Pyotr, his face a little grimmer than usual, turned without another word and strode down the stairs to where the horses waited, drowsing in the faded evening light.





Ivan Krasnii had only one son: the small blond wildcat Dmitrii Ivanovich. Aleksei, Metropolitan of Moscow, the highest prelate in Rus’, ordained by the Patriarch of Constantinople himself, was charged with teaching the boy letters and statecraft. Some days, Aleksei thought the job was beyond anyone short of a wonder-worker.

Three hours already the boys had labored over the birchbark: Dmitrii with his elder cousin, Vladimir Andreevich, the young Prince of Serpukhov. They scuffled; they spilled things. Might as well ask the palace cats, thought Aleksei, despairing, to sit and attend.

“Father!” cried Dmitrii. “Father!”

Ivan Ivanovich came through the door. Both boys sprang off their stools and bowed, pushing each other. “Get you gone, my sons,” said Ivan. “I would speak with the holy father.”

The boys disappeared on the instant. Aleksei sank into a chair by the oven and poured out a large measure of mead.

“How is my son?” said Ivan, drawing up the chair opposite. The prince and the Metropolitan had known each other a long time. Aleksei had been loyal even before the death of Semyon assured Ivan the throne.

“Bold, fair, charming, flighty as a butterfly,” said Aleksei. “He will be a good prince, if he lives so long. Why have you come to me, Ivan Ivanovich?”

“Anna,” said Ivan succinctly.

The Metropolitan frowned. “Is she getting worse?”

“No, but she’ll never be any better. She is growing too old to lurk around the palace and make folk nervous.” Anna Ivanovna was the only child of Ivan’s first marriage. The girl’s mother was dead, and her stepmother hated the sight of her. The people muttered when she passed, and crossed themselves.

“There are convents enough,” returned Aleksei. “It is a simple matter.”

“No convent in Moscow,” said Ivan. “My wife won’t have it. She says the girl will cause talk if she stays near. Madness is a shameful thing in a line of princes. She must be sent away.”

“I will arrange it if you like,” said Aleksei, wearily. Already he arranged many things for this prince. “She can go south. Give an abbess enough gold, and she will take Anna and hide her lineage in the bargain.”

“My thanks, Father,” said Ivan, and poured more wine.

“However, I think you have a larger problem,” added Aleksei.

“Numerous ones,” said the Grand Prince, gulping his wine. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Which were you referring to?”

The Metropolitan jerked his chin in the direction of the door, where the two princes had gone. “Young Vladimir Andreevich,” he said. “The Prince of Serpukhov. His family wants him married.”

Ivan was unimpressed. “Plenty of time for that; he is only thirteen.”

Aleksei shook his head. “They have a princess of Litva in mind—the duke’s second daughter. Remember, Vladimir is also a grandson of Ivan Kalita, and he is older than your Dmitrii. Well-married and full-grown he would have a better claim to Moscow than your own son, should you die untimely.”

Ivan grew pale with anger. “They dare not. I am the Grand Prince and Dmitrii is my son.”

“And so?” said Aleksei, unmoved. “The Khan heeds the claims of princes only as long as they suit his ends. The strongest prince gets the patent; that is how the Horde assures peace in its territories.”

Ivan reflected. “What then?”

“See Vladimir wed to another woman,” said Aleksei at once. “Not a princess, but not one so lowborn as to cause insult. If she is beautiful, the boy is young enough to swallow it.”

Ivan reflected, sipping his wine and biting his fingers.

“Pyotr Vladimirovich is lord of rich lands,” he said at last. “His daughter is my own niece and she will have a great dowry. She cannot fail to be a beauty. My sister was very beautiful, and her mother charmed my father into marriage, though she came to Moscow a beggar.”

Aleksei’s eyes sparked. He tugged his brown beard. “Yes,” he said. “I had heard that Pyotr Vladimirovich was in Moscow in search of a wife for himself as well.”

“Yes,” said Ivan. “He surprised everyone. It is seven years since my sister died. No one thought he would marry again.”

“Well, then,” said Aleksei. “If he is looking for a wife, what if you gave him your daughter?”

Ivan put down his cup in some surprise.

“Anna will be well hidden in the northern woods,” Aleksei continued. “And will Vladimir Andreevich dare refuse Pyotr’s daughter then? A girl so closely connected to the throne? It would be an insult to you.”

Ivan frowned. “Anna wants, most particularly, to go to a convent.”

Aleksei shrugged. “And so? Pyotr Vladimirovich is not a cruel man. She will be happy enough. Think of your son, Ivan Ivanovich.”



A DEMON SAT SEWING in the corner, and she was the only one who saw. Anna Ivanovna clutched at the cross between her breasts. Eyes shut, she whispered, “Go away, go away, please go away.”

She opened her eyes. The demon was still there, but now two of her women were staring at her. Everyone else was looking with studied interest at the sewing in their laps. Anna tried not to let her eyes dart again to the corner, but she couldn’t help it. The demon sat on its stool, oblivious. Anna shuddered. The heavy linen shirt lay on her lap like a dead thing. She thrust her hands into its sleek folds to hide her trembling.

A serving-woman slipped into the room. Anna hastily took up her needle and was surprised when the worn bast shoes stopped in front of her. “Anna Ivanovna, you are summoned to your father.”

Anna stared. Her father had not summoned her for the better part of a year. She sat a moment bewildered, then jumped to her feet. Swiftly she changed her plain sarafan to one of crimson and ocher, drawing it over her grimy skin, trying to ignore the stink of her long chestnut braid.

The Rus’ liked to be clean. In winter, scarce a week went by when her half sisters did not visit the bathhouses, but there was a little potbellied devil in there that grinned at them through the steam. Anna tried to point him out, but her sisters saw nothing. At first they took it for her imagination, later for foolishness, and at last just looked at her sideways and didn’t say anything at all. So Anna had learned not to mention the eyes in the bathhouse, just as she never mentioned the bald creature sewing in the corner. But she would look sometimes; she couldn’t help it, and she never went to the bathhouse unless her stepmother dragged or shamed her into it.

Anna unraveled and replaited her greasy hair and touched the cross over her breast. She was the most devout of all her sisters. Everyone said so. What they didn’t know was that in church there were only the unearthly faces of the icons. No demons haunted her there, and she’d have lived in a church if she could, shielded by incense and painted eyes.

The oven was hot in her stepmother’s workroom, and the Grand Prince stood beside it, sweating in winter finery. He wore his usual acerbic expression, though his eyes sparkled. His wife sat beside the fire, her thin plait straggling out from beneath her high headdress. Her needles lay forgotten in her lap. Anna halted a few paces away and bent her head. Husband and wife looked her over in silence. Finally her father spoke to her stepmother:

“Glory of God, woman,” he said, sounding annoyed. “Can you not get the girl to bathe? She looks as though she’s been living with pigs.”

“It doesn’t matter,” her mother replied, “if she is already promised.”

Anna had been staring at her toes like a well-bred maiden, but now her head shot up. “Promised?” she whispered, hating the way her voice rose and squeaked.

“You are to be married,” her father said. “To Pyotr Vladimirovich, one of those northern boyars. He is a rich man, and he will be kind to you.”

“Married? But I thought—I hoped—I meant to go to a convent. I would—I would pray for your soul, Father. I wish that above all things.” Anna twisted her hands together.

“Nonsense,” said Ivan, brisk. “You will like having sons, and Pyotr Vladimirovich is a good man. A convent is a cold place for a girl.”

Cold? No, a convent was safe. Safe, blessed, a respite from her madness. Since she could remember, Anna had wanted to take vows. Now her skin blanched in terror; she flung herself forward and caught her father’s feet. “No, Father!” she cried. “No please! I don’t want to marry.”

Ivan picked her up, not unkindly, and set her on her feet. “Enough of that,” he said. “I have decided, and it is for the best. You will be well dowered, of course, and you will make me strong grandsons.”

Anna was small and scrawny, and her stepmother’s expression indicated doubt on that score.

“But—please,” whispered Anna. “What is he like?”

“Ask your women,” said Ivan indulgently. “I’m sure they’ll have rumors. Wife, see that her things are in order, and for God’s sake make her bathe before the wedding.”

Dismissed, Anna trudged back to her sewing, biting back sobs. Married! Not to retreat, but to be the mistress of a lord’s domain; not to be safe in a convent, but to live as some lord’s breeding sow. And the northern boyars were lusty men, the serving-girls said, who dressed in skins and had hundreds of children. They were rough and warlike and—some liked to say—spurned Christ and worshiped the devil.

Anna pulled her pretty sarafan off over her head, shivering. If her sinful imagination conjured demons in the relative security of Moscow, what would it be like alone on the estate of a wild lord? The northern forests were haunted, the women said, and the winter lasted eight months in twelve. It did not bear thinking of. When the girl sat down again to her sewing, her hands trembled so that she could not set her stitches straight, and for all her efforts, the linen was blotched with silent tears.





Pyotr Vladimirovich, unaware that his future had been agreed upon between the Grand Prince and the Metropolitan of Moscow, rose early the next morning and went to the market in Moscow’s main square. His mouth tasted of old mushrooms, and his head throbbed with talk and drink. And—foolish old man to let the boy run wild—his son wished to turn monk. Pyotr had high hopes for Sasha. The boy was cooler-headed and cleverer than his older brother, better with horses, defter with weapons. Pyotr could imagine no greater waste than to have him disappear into a hovel, to cultivate a garden to the glory of God.

Well, he consoled himself. Fifteen is very young. Sasha would come round. Piety was one thing, quite another to give up family and inheritance for deprivation and a cold bed.

The din of many voices penetrated his reverie. Pyotr shook himself. The cold air reeked of horses and fires, soot and honey-wine. Men with mugs dangling from their belts proclaimed the virtues of the latter beside their sticky barrels. The pasty-sellers were out with their steaming trays, and the sellers of cloth and gems, wax and rare wood, honey and copper, worked bronze and golden trinkets jostled for room. Their voices thundered up to fright the morning sun.

And Moscow has only a little market, Pyotr thought.

Sarai was the seat of the Khan. It was there the great merchants went, to sell marvels to a court jaded by three hundred years of plunder. Even the markets further south, in Vladimir, or west, in Novgorod, were bigger than the one in Moscow. But merchants still trickled north from Byzantium and further east, tempted by the prices their wares fetched among the barbarians—and tempted even more by the prices the princes paid in Tsargrad for furs from the north.

Pyotr could not go home empty-handed. Olga’s gift was easy enough; he bought her a headdress of pearl-strewn silk, to glow against her dark hair. For his three sons he bought daggers, short but heavy, with inlaid hilts. However, try as he might, he could find nothing to give Vasilisa. She was not a girl for trinkets, for beads or headdresses. But he could not very well give her a dagger. Frowning, Pyotr persevered, and was testing the heft of gold brooches when he caught sight of a strange man.

Pyotr could not have said, exactly, what about this man was strange, except that he had a sort of—stillness, striking amid the bustle. His clothes were fit for a prince, his boots richly embroidered. A knife hung at his belt, white gems sparkling at the hilt. His black curls were uncovered, odd for any man, and more so as it was white winter—brilliant sky and snow groaning underfoot. He was clean-shaven—something all but unheard-of among the Rus’—and Pyotr, from a distance, could not tell if he was old or young.

Pyotr realized he was staring, and turned away. But he was curious. The jewel-merchant said confidingly:

“You are curious about that man? You are not alone. He comes sometimes, to the market, but no one knows who his people are.”

Pyotr was skeptical. The merchant smirked. “Truly, gospodin. He is never seen in church, and the bishop wants him stoned for idolatry. But he is rich, and he always brings the most marvelous things to trade. So the prince keeps the Church quiet, and the man comes and goes away again. Perhaps he is a devil.” This was tossed off, half-laughing, but then the merchant frowned. “Never once have I seen him in the springtime. Always, always he comes in winter, at the turning of the year.”

Pyotr grunted. He himself was quite open to the possibility of devils, but he was not convinced that they would stroll about markets—summer or winter—dressed in princely raiment. He shook his head, indicated a bracelet, and said, “This is rotten stuff; already the silver is green round the edges.” The merchant protested, and the two settled to chaffering in earnest, forgetting all about the black-haired stranger.



THE STRANGER IN QUESTION halted before a market-stall, not more than ten paces from where Pyotr stood. He ran thin fingers over a heap of silk brocade. His hands alone could tell him the quality of the wares; he paid only cursory attention to the cloth before him. His pale eyes flicked here and there, about the crowded market.

The cloth-seller watched the stranger with a sort of obsequious wariness. The merchants knew him; a few thought he was one of them. He had brought marvels to Moscow before: weapons from Byzantium, porcelain light as morning air. The merchants remembered. But this time the stranger had another purpose; else he’d never have come south. He did not like cities, and it was a risk to cross the Volga.

The flashing colors and voluptuous weight of the fabric suddenly seemed tedious, and after a moment, the stranger abandoned the cloth and strode across the square. His horse stood on the south side, chewing wisps of hay. A rheumy old man stood at her head, pale and thin and oddly insubstantial, though the white mare was magnificent as a rearing mountain, and her harness was tooled and chased with silver. Men stared at her with admiration as they passed. She flicked her ears like a coquette, drawing a faint smile from her rider.

But suddenly a big man with cracked fingernails appeared out of the crowd and snatched the horse’s rein. Her rider’s face darkened. Though his pace did not quicken—there was no need—a cold wind rippled across the square. Men snatched for hats and loosened garments. The would-be thief flung himself into the mare’s saddle and dug in his heels.

But the mare did not move. Neither did her groom, oddly enough; he neither shouted nor raised a hand. He merely watched, an unreadable look in his sunken eyes.

The thief lashed the mare’s shoulder. She did not stir a hoof, only swished her tail. The thief hesitated a bewildered instant, and then it was too late. The mare’s rider strode up and wrenched him out of the saddle. The thief might have screamed, but found his throat frozen. Gasping, he groped for the wooden cross at his throat.

The other smiled, without humor. “You have trespassed on what is mine; do you think faith will save you?”

“Gosudar,” the thief stammered, “I did not know—I thought—”

“That such as I do not walk in the places of men? Well, I go where I will.”

“Please,” choked the thief. “Gosudar, I beg—”

“Don’t mewl,” said the stranger, with cool humor. “And I will leave you awhile, to walk free in the sun. However”—the quiet voice dropped lower and the laughter drained out of it like water from a smashed cup—“you are marked, you are mine, and one day I shall touch you again. You will die.” The thief choked out a sobbing breath, then found himself suddenly alone, a stinging like fire in his arm and throat.

Already in the saddle, though no one had seen him mount, the stranger wheeled and sent his horse through the crush. The horse’s groom bowed once and melted into the crowd.

The mare was light and swift and sure. Her rider’s anger quieted as he rode.

“The signs led me here,” said the man to his horse. “Here, to this stinking city, when I should not have left my own lands.” He had been in Moscow a month already, searching, tireless, face after face. “Well, signs are not infallible,” he said. “The witch’s daughter is hidden from me, and her child is long gone. The hour might have passed; the hour might never come.”

The mare slanted an ear back at her rider. His lips firmed. “No,” he said. “Am I so easily defeated?”

The mare went on at a steady canter. The man shook his head. He was not yet beaten; he held the magic trembling in his throat, in the hollow of his hand, ready. His answer lay somewhere in this miserable wooden city, and he would find it.

He turned the mare west, urging her into a long-striding gallop. The coolness among the trees would clear his head. He was not defeated.

Not yet.



THE REEK OF MEAD and dogs, dust and humanity, greeted the stranger when he arrived at the Grand Prince’s feast. Ivan’s boyars were big men used to battle, and to carving life out of the land of frost. The stranger was not so large as even the smallest. But no one, not even the bravest—or the drunkest—could meet his eyes, and no one offered him challenge. The stranger took a place at the high table and drank his honey-wine unmolested. The silver embroidery on his kaftan shone in the torchlight. One of the princess’s waiting-women sat beside him, gazing up through her long lashes.

Lent was near and the feasting was raucous. But—It is all the same here, thought the stranger. All these dim, busy faces. Sitting amid the din and the stink, he felt, for the first time—not despair, perhaps, but the beginning of resignation.

It was then that a man walked into the hall with two grown boys. The three took places at the high table. The older man was quite ordinary, his clothes of good quality. His elder son swaggered and the younger walked softly, his glance cool and grave. Perfectly ordinary.

And yet.

The stranger’s gaze shifted. With the three came a curling breath of wind, a wind out of the north. In the space between one breath and the next, the wind told him a tale: of life and death together, of a child born with the failing year.

“The blood holds, brother,” he whispered. “She lives, and I was not mistaken.” His face was triumphant. He returned to the table (though indeed he had never moved), and smiled with sudden delight into the eyes of the woman beside him.



PYOTR HAD ALL BUT forgotten the stranger in the market. But when he came that night to the Grand Prince’s table, he was quickly reminded, for the same stranger was sitting among the boyars, beside one of the princess’s waiting-women. She was staring up at him, her painted eyelids trembling like wounded birds.

Pyotr, Sasha, and Kolya found themselves sitting to the left of the lady. Though she was one Kolya himself had been courting, she did not so much as glance in his direction. Furious, the young man neglected eating in favor of glaring (ignored), fingering his belt-knife (likewise), and declaiming to his brother the beauties of a certain merchant’s daughter (which the entranced lady did not hear). Sasha remained as expressionless as possible, as though feigning deafness would make the impious talk go away.

There came a cough from behind. Pyotr looked up from this interesting scene to find a servant at his elbow. “The Grand Prince would speak to you.”

Pyotr frowned and nodded. He had barely seen his erstwhile brother-in-law since that first night. He had talked with innumerable dvoryanye, dispensed his bribes liberally, and had in return been assured that—so long as he paid tribute—he would go unmolested by the tax collectors. Furthermore, he was deep in negotiations for the hand of a modest, decent woman who would tend his household and mother his children. All was proceeding in order. So what could the prince want?

Pyotr made his way along the table, catching the gleam of teeth in the firelight from the dogs at Ivan’s feet. The prince was not slow in coming to the point. “My young nephew, Vladimir Andreevich of Serpukhov, wishes to take your daughter to wife,” he said.

Had the prince informed him that his nephew wished to become a minstrel and wander the streets playing a guzla, Pyotr could not have been more astonished. His eyes flicked sideways to the prince in question, who sat drinking, a few places down the table. Ivan’s nephew was thirteen years old, a boy on the cusp of manhood, loose-limbed and spotty. He was also the grandson of Ivan Kalita, the old Grand Prince. Surely he could aspire to a more exalted match? All the ambitious families at court were pushing their virgin daughters at him, under the blithe assumption that one must eventually stick. Why waste the position on the daughter of a man, even a rich man, of modest lineage, a girl whom the boy had never seen and who moreover lived at a considerable distance from Moscow?

Oh. Pyotr shook off his surprise. Olga came from far away. Ivan would be wary of girls who came armed with tribes of relations; an alliance between great families tended to give the descendants royal ambitions. Young Dmitrii’s claim was not much stronger than his cousin’s, and Vladimir was three years older than the heir. Princes inherited at the Khan’s pleasure. Pyotr’s daughter would have a large dowry, but that was all. Ivan was doing his best to muzzle the Muscovite boyars, to Pyotr’s benefit.

Pyotr was pleased. “Ivan Ivanovich,” he began.

But the prince was not finished. “If you will yield up your daughter to my cousin, I am prepared to give you my own daughter, Anna Ivanovna, in marriage. She is a fine girl, yielding as a dove, and can surely give you more sons.”

Pyotr was startled for the second time, and somewhat less pleased. He had three boys already, among whom he must divide his property, and was in no need of more. Why would the prince waste a virginal daughter on a man of no enormous consequence who wanted only a woman of sense to run his house?

The prince raised an eyebrow. Still Pyotr hesitated.

Well, she was Marina’s niece, a Grand Prince’s daughter, cousin to his own children, and he could not very well ask what was wrong with her. Even if she were diseased, a drunkard, or a harlot, or—well, even so, the benefit of accepting the match would be considerable. “How could I refuse, Ivan Ivanovich?” Pyotr said.

The prince nodded gravely. “A man will come to you tomorrow to negotiate the bridal contract,” he said, turning back to his goblet and his dogs.

Pyotr, dismissed, was left to make his way back to his place at the long table and tell his sons the news. He found Kolya sulking into his cup. The dark-haired stranger had left, and the woman was staring in the direction he had gone, with a look of such terror and agonized longing on her pale face that Pyotr, for all his troubles, found his hand darting almost involuntarily for the sword he was not wearing.





Pyotr Vladimirovich took his bride’s cold hand, squinted at her small, clenched face, and wondered if he could have been mistaken. It had taken a headlong week to negotiate the details of his marriage (so that it might be celebrated before Lent began). Kolya had spent the interval dallying with half the serving-women in the kremlin, looking for word on his father’s prospective bride. Consensus eluded him. Some said she was pretty. Others said that she had a wart on her chin and only half her teeth. They said that her father kept her locked up, or that she hid in her rooms and never came out. They said she was ill, or mad, or sorrowful, or merely timid, and at last Pyotr decided that whatever the problem was, it was worse than he had feared.

But now, facing his unveiled bride, he wondered. She was very small, about the same age as Kolya, though her demeanor made her seem younger. Her voice was soft and breathless, her manner submissive, her lips pleasingly full. There was nothing in her of Marina, though they had the same grandfather, and for that Pyotr was grateful. A warm chestnut braid framed her round face. Seen up close, there was also a suggestion of tightness about her eyes, as though her face would fall into lines like a closed fist as she got older. She wore a cross that she fingered constantly, and she kept her eyes lowered, even when Pyotr sought to look her in the face. Try as he might, Pyotr could not see anything manifestly wrong with her, except perhaps incipient ill temper. She certainly did not seem drunk, or leprous, or mad. Perhaps the girl was just shy and retiring. Perhaps the prince really did propose this marriage as a mark of favor.

Pyotr touched the sweet outline of his bride’s lips and wished he could believe it.

They feasted in her father’s hall after the wedding. The table groaned under the weight of fish and bread, pie and cheeses. Pyotr’s men shouted and sang and drank his health. The Grand Prince and his family smiled, more or less sincerely, and wished them many children. Kolya and Sasha said little and looked with some resentment at their new stepmother, a cousin scarce older than they.

Pyotr plied his wife with mead and tried to set her at ease. He did his best not to think of Marina, sixteen when he married her, who had stared him full in the face as she said her vows, and laughed and sung and eaten heartily at her wedding feast, tossing him sidewise glances as though daring him to frighten her. Pyotr had taken her to bed half-crazed with desire, and kissed her until defiance turned to passion; they had risen the next morning drunk with languor and shared delight. But this creature did not seem capable of defiance, perhaps not even of passion. She drooped under her headdress, answering his questions in monosyllables and shredding a bit of bread in her fingers. Finally, Pyotr turned away from her, sighing, and let his thoughts race along the winding track through the winter-dark forest, to the snows of Lesnaya Zemlya and the simplicities of hunting and mending, away from this city of smiling enemies and barbed favors.



SIX WEEKS LATER, PYOTR and his retinue prepared to take their leave. The days were lengthening, and the snow in the capital had begun to soften. Pyotr and his sons eyed the snow and hastened their preparations. If the ice thinned before they crossed the Volga, they must exchange their sledges for wagons and wait an eternity before the river was passable by raft.

Pyotr was worried for his lands and eager to get back to his hunting and husbandry. He also thought, vaguely, that the clean northern air might calm whatever was frightening his wife. Anna, though quiet and compliant, never stopped gazing around her, wide-eyed, fingering the cross between her breasts. Sometimes she muttered disconcertingly into empty corners. Pyotr had taken her to bed every night since their wedding, more for duty than for pleasure, true, but she had yet to look him in the face. He heard her weeping when she thought he slept.

The party’s numbers had increased significantly with the addition of Anna Ivanovna’s belongings and retinue. Their sledges filled the courtyard, and many of the servants had packhorses on leading reins. Both Pyotr’s sons were mounted. Sasha’s mare picked up one foot, then another, and flung her dark head. Kolya’s horse stood still and Kolya himself drooped in the saddle, bloodshot eyes slitted against the morning sun. Kolya had known great success among the boyars’ sons in Moscow. He’d bested them all at wrestling and many of them at archery; he had drunk nearly all of them under the table; and he had dallied with any number of palace women. He had, in short, enjoyed himself, and he was not relishing the prospect of a long journey, with nothing but hard labor at the end of it.

For his part, Pyotr was satisfied with their expedition. Olga was betrothed to a man—well, boy—of far more consequence than he would have dreamed. He himself had remarried, and if the lady was rather strange, at least she was not promiscuous, or diseased, and she was another Grand Prince’s daughter. So it was with high good humor that Pyotr saw all in readiness for their departure. He looked around for his gray stallion, that they might mount and be gone.

A stranger was standing at his horse’s head: the man from the market, who had also supped in the Grand Prince’s hall. Pyotr had forgotten the stranger in the haste surrounding his wedding, but now there he was, stroking Buran’s nose and looking at the stallion appraisingly. Pyotr waited—not without a certain anticipation—for the stranger to have