The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3)

The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3)

Katherine Arden



The sea is fair in the storm-shadow

     The sky wondrous without its blue

     But trust me; on the rock, the girl

     Excels the wave, the sky, and the storm



          —A. S. PUSHKIN





1.


    Marya Morevna




DUSK AT THE END OF winter, and two men crossed the dooryard of a palace scarred by fire. The dooryard was a snowless waste of water and trampled earth; the men sank to their ankles in the muck. But they were speaking intently, heads close together, and did not heed the wet. Behind them lay a palace full of broken furniture, smoke-stained; the screen-work smashed on the staircases. Before them lay a charred ruin that had been a stable.

“Chelubey disappeared in the confusion,” said the first man bitterly. “We were busy saving our own skins.” A smear of soot blackened his cheek, blood crusted in his beard. Weary hollows, like blue thumbprints, marred the flesh beneath his gray eyes. He was barrel-chested, young, with the fey energy of a man who has driven himself past exhaustion to a surreal and persistent wakefulness. Every eye in the dooryard followed him. He was the Grand Prince of Moscow.

“Our skins, and a little more,” said the other man—a monk—with a touch of grim humor. For, against all hope, the city was mostly intact, and still theirs. The night before, the Grand Prince had come close to being deposed and murdered, though few people knew that. His city had nearly burned to ash; only a miraculous snowstorm had saved them. Everyone knew that. A swath of black gashed the heart of the city, as though the hand of God had fallen in the night, dripping fire from its nails.

“It was not enough,” said the Grand Prince. “We may have saved ourselves, but we made no answer for the treachery.” All that bitter day, the prince had reassuring words for every man who caught his eye, had calm orders for the men wrangling his surviving horses and hauling away the charred beams of the stable. But the monk, who knew him well, could see the exhaustion and the rage just beneath the surface. “I am going out myself, tomorrow, with all that can be spared,” the prince said. “We will find the Tatars and we will kill them.”

    “Leave Moscow now, Dmitrii Ivanovich?” asked the monk, with a touch of disquiet.

A night and a day without sleep had done nothing for Dmitrii’s temper. “Are you going to tell me otherwise, Brother Aleksandr?” he asked, in a voice that made his attendants flinch.

“The city cannot do without you,” said the monk. “There are dead to mourn; there are granaries lost, and animals and warehouses. Children cannot eat vengeance, Dmitrii Ivanovich.” The monk had no more slept than the Grand Prince; he could not quite mask the edge in his own voice. His left arm was wrapped in linen where an arrow had gone into the muscle below the shoulder, and been dragged through and out again.

“The Tatars attacked me in my own palace, after I had made them welcome in good faith,” retorted Dmitrii, not troubling to keep the rage from his reply. “They conspired with a usurper, they fired my city. Is all that to go unavenged, Brother?”

The Tatars had not, in fact, fired the city. But Brother Aleksandr did not say so. Let that—mistake—be forgotten; it could not be mended now.

Coldly, the Grand Prince added, “Did not your own sister give birth to a dead child in the chaos? A royal infant dead, a swath of the city in ashes—the people will cry out if there is not justice.”

“No amount of spilled blood will bring back my sister’s child,” said Sasha, sharper than he meant. Clear in his mind was his sister’s tearless mourning, worse than any weeping.

Dmitrii’s hand was on the hilt of his sword. “Will you lecture me now, priest?”

Sasha heard the breach between them, scabbed over but unhealed, in the prince’s voice. “I will not,” said Sasha.

    Dmitrii, with effort, let go the twining serpents of his sword-hilt.

“How do you mean to find Chelubey’s Tatars?” Sasha asked, trying for reason. “We have pursued them once already, and rode a fortnight without a glimpse, though that was in deepest winter, when the snow took good tracks.”

“But we found them, then,” said Dmitrii, and his gray eyes narrowed. “Did your younger sister survive the night?”

“Yes,” said Sasha warily. “Burns on her face, and a broken rib, Olga says. But she is alive.”

Now Dmitrii looked troubled. Behind him, one of the men clearing away the wreckage dropped the end of a broken roof-beam, swearing. “I would not have come to you in time, if it weren’t for her,” Sasha said to his cousin’s grim profile. “Her blood saved your throne.”

“The blood of many men saved my throne,” snapped Dmitrii without looking round. “She is a liar, and she made a liar of you, the most upright of men.”

Sasha said nothing.

“Ask her,” said Dmitrii, turning. “Ask her how she did it—found the Tatars. It can’t be only sharp eyes; I have dozens of sharp-eyed men. Ask her how she did it, and I will have her rewarded. I do not think any man in Moscow would marry her, but a country boyar might be persuaded. Or enough gold would bribe a convent to take her.” Dmitrii was talking faster and faster, his face uneasy, the words spilling out. “Or she may be sent home in safety—or stay in the terem with her sister. I will see she has enough gold to keep her comfortable. Ask her how she did it, and I will make all straight for her.”

Sasha stared, full of words he could not say. Yesterday she saved your life, slew a wicked magician, set fire to Moscow and then saved it all in a single night. Do you think she will consent to disappear, for the price of a dowry—for any price? Do you know my sister?

But of course, Dmitrii did not. He only knew Vasilii Petrovich, the boy she had pretended to be. They are one and the same. Beneath his bluster Dmitrii must realize that; his unease betrayed him.

A cry from the men around the stable spared Sasha from answering. Dmitrii turned with relief. “Here,” he said, striding over. Sasha trailed, grim-faced, in his wake. A crowd was gathering where two burned roof-beams crossed. “Stand aside—Mother of God, are you sheep at the spring grass? What is it?” The crowd shrank away from the steel in his voice. “Well?” said Dmitrii.

    One of the men found his tongue. “There, Gosudar,” he said. He pointed at a gap between two fallen posts, and someone thrust down a torch. An echoing gleam came from below where a shining thing gave back the torchlight. The Grand Prince and his cousin stared, dazzled, doubting.

“Gold?” said Dmitrii. “There?”

“Surely not,” said Sasha. “It would have melted.”

Three men were already hauling aside the timbers that pinned the thing to the earth. A fourth plucked it out and handed it to the Grand Prince.

Gold it was: fine gold, and not melted. It had been forged into heavy links and stiff bars, oddly jointed. The metal had an oily sheen; it threw a shimmer of white and scarlet onto the ring of peering faces and made Sasha uneasy.

Dmitrii held it this way and that, then said, “Ah,” and switched his grip so that he held it by the crownpiece, reins over his wrist. The thing was a bridle. “I have seen this before,” said Dmitrii, eyes alight. An armful of gold was very welcome to a prince whose coffers had been shrunk by bandits and by fire.

“Kasyan Lutovich had it on his mare yesterday,” said Sasha, disliking the reminder of the day before. His eye dwelled with disfavor on the spiked bit. “I would not have blamed her for throwing him.”

“Well, this thing is a forfeit of war,” said Dmitrii. “If only that fine mare herself had not vanished—damn those Tatars for horse-thieves. A hot meal and wine for all you men; well done.” The men cheered raggedly. Dmitrii handed off the bridle to his steward. “Clean it,” the Grand Prince said. “Show it to my wife. It might cheer her. Then see it safely locked away.”

“Is it not strange,” Sasha said warily when the reverent steward had departed, the golden thing in his arms, “that this bridle should have lain in the stable as it burned and yet show no hurt?”

“No,” said Dmitrii, giving his cousin a hard look. “Not odd. Miraculous, coming on the heels of that other miracle: the snowstorm that delivered us. You are to tell anyone who asks exactly that. God spared this golden thing, because he knew our need was great.” The difference between uncanny happenings of the benevolent and the wicked sort was no thicker than rumor, and Dmitrii knew it. “Gold is gold. Now, Brother—” But he fell silent. Sasha had stilled, his head lifted.

    “What is that noise?”

A confused murmuring was rising from the city outside: a roar and snap, like water on a rocky shore. Dmitrii frowned. “It sounds like—”

A shout from the gate-guard cut him off.



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