The caravan dazzled Vasya with its speed and its bells and the faces of strangers. She had been born in a small village, where strangers were vanishingly rare, and every soul was known to her
Half an hour later, the captain of the small, sleepy gate-guard of the town of Chudovo saw a boy coming toward him, dressed like a merchant’s lad and leading a big boned young stallion.
The horse wore naught but a rope halter, and despite his long limbed beauty he came ungainly up the ice, tripping over his own hooves. “Hey, boy!” called the captain. “What are you doing with that horse?”
“He is my father’s horse,” called the boy, a little shyly, with a rough, country accent. “I am to sell him.”
“You won’t get any price for that fumble-foot, this late in the day,” said the captain, just as the horse tripped again, nearly going to its knees. But even as he said it, he ran an automatic eye over the horse, noted the fine head, the short back, the long, clean limbs. A stallion. Perhaps he was only lame and would sire strong offspring. “I would buy him from you; save you some trouble,” he added, more slowly.
The merchant’s boy shook his head. He was slender and not above medium height: no hint of a beard. “Father would be angry,” said the boy. “I am to sell him in the city; that were his orders.”
The captain laughed to hear Chudovo referred to so earnestly as a city by this rustic. Perhaps not a merchant’s son but a boyar’s, the country-bred child of some minor lord. The captain shrugged. His glance had already leaped past the boy and his nag, out to a caravan of fur-merchants pushing their horses to reach the walls before dark.
“Well, get along, boy,” he said irritably. “What are you waiting for?”
The boy nodded stiffly and nudged his horse through the gate. Strange, the captain thought. A stallion as docile as that and wearing nothing but a halter. Well, the beast is lame, what do you expect?
Then the fur-merchants were there, shoving and shouting, and he put the boy from his mind.
The streets wound forward and back, stranger than the trackless forest. Vasya kept a negligent hold on the irritated Solovey’s leadrope, trying (and mostly failing) to look unimpressed. Even the deadening effect of her cold could not erase the stink of hundreds of people. The smell of blood and beasts, offal and worse things, made her eyes water. Here were goats; there the church soared above her, its bell still ringing. Hurrying women jostled her, their bright heads wrapped in kerchiefs; sellers of pies thrust their good-smelling wares toward passers-by. A forge steamed, its hammer beating counterpoint to the bell overhead while two men brawled in the snow, onlookers cheering them on.
Vasya pushed through it all, frightened and intrigued. People gave her space, mostly for Solovey, who appeared ready to kick anything that so much as brushed them in passing. “You are making people nervous,” she told him.
That is good, said the horse. I am nervous as well.
Vasya shrugged and resumed gawping. The roads were paved with split logs: a welcome innovation, the footing pleasantly firm. The street wound on, past potters and forges, inns and izby, until it came to a central square.
Vasya’s stare turned to outright delight, for in this square was a market, the first she had ever seen. Merchants shouted their wares on all sides. Cloth and furs and copper ornaments, wax and pies and smoked fish . . . “Stay here,” Vasya said to Solovey, finding a post and looping the rope around it. “Don’t get stolen.”
A mare with a blue harness slanted an ear at the stallion and squealed. Vasya added, thoughtfully, “Try not to entice any mares, either, although perhaps you can’t help it.” Vasya—
She narrowed her eyes. “I would have left you in the woods,” she said. “Stay here.”
The horse glared, but she was already gone, lost in delight, smelling the fine beeswax, hefting the copper bowls.
And the faces— so many faces, and not one she knew. The novelty dizzied her. Pies and porridge, cloth and leathers, beggars and prelates and artisans’ wives passed under her delighted gaze. This, she thought, is what it means to be a traveller.
Vasya was beside a fur-merchant’s stall, a reverent fingertip stroking a pelt of sable, when she realized that one of those faces was staring back at her.
A man stood across the width of the square, broad-shouldered and taller than any of her brothers. His kaftan dazzled with embroidery— what she could see of it beneath a cloak of white wolfskin. A careless sword-hilt thrust up over his shoulder, molded at the tang in the shape of a horse’s head. His beard was short and red as fire, and when he saw her looking back, he inclined his head.
Vasya frowned. What would a country boy do, beneath a lord’s thoughtful look? Not blush, surely. Even if his eyes were large and liquid and drowning-dark.