The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

The second book in The Bear and the Nightingale trilogy, taking us through medieval Russia as Vasya flees her home with her horse and takes off into the woods…

Days passed— a week— another. The road was hard, and very cold. Not all Vasya’s days— or her nights— were as well organized as the first. She saw no strangers and the midnight-demon did not come back, but she still bruised herself on branches, burned her fingers, scorched her dinner, and let herself grow chilled, so that she must huddle all night beside the fire, too cold to sleep. Then she actually caught a cold, so that she spent two days shivering and choking on her own breath. But the versts rushed beneath Solovey’s hooves and fell away behind them. South they went and south more, angling west, and when Vasya said, “Are you sure you know where you’re going?” the horse ignored her.

On the third day of Vasya’s cold, when she rode doggedly, head down, her nose a brilliant red, the trees ended.

Or rather, a great river thrust its way between them. The light on a vast stretch of snow dazzled Vasya’s swollen eyes when they came to the edge of the wood and looked out. “This must be the sledge-road,” she whispered, blinking at the expanse of snow-covered ice. “The Volga,” she added, remembering her eldest brother’s stories. A sloping snowbank, with trees half-buried in the deep drifts stretched down to the sledge-tracked snow.

 Faintly, Vasya heard the tinkling of bells, and then a line of sleighs piled high came around a bend. Bells hung on the bright harness of horses, and lumpish strangers, bundled to the eyes, came riding or running beside them, shouting back and forth.

Vasya watched them pass, entranced. The men’s faces— what she could see of them— were red and rough, with great bristling beards. Their mittened hands lay sure on the leads of their horses. The beasts were all smaller than Solovey, stocky and coarse-maned. 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.

Then Vasya raised her eyes, following the line of sledges. The haze of many fires showed over the trees. More fires than she had ever seen together. “Is that Moscow?” she asked Solovey, her breath coming short.

No, said the horse. Moscow is bigger.

 “How do you know?”

 The horse only tilted an ear in a superior fashion. Vasya sneezed. More people appeared on the sledge-road at her feet: riders this time, wearing scarlet caps, with embroidery on their boots. A great mass of smoke hung like clouds above the skeleton trees. “Let’s go closer,” Vasya said. After a week in the wilderness, she craved colour and motion, the sight of faces and the sound of a human voice.

We are safer in the forest, said Solovey, but his nostril crooked uncertainly.

“I mean to see the world,” Vasya retorted. “All the world is not forest.”

The horse shivered his skin.

Her voice dropped, coaxing. “We’ll be careful. If there is trouble, you can run away. Nothing can catch you; you are the fastest horse in the world. I want to see.”      When the horse still stood, undecided, she added, ingenuously, “Or are you afraid?”

Ignoble, perhaps, but it worked. Solovey tossed his head, and in two bounds he was on the ice. His hooves made a strange dull thud as they struck.

An hour and more they travelled the sledge-road while the smoke hovered tantalizingly ahead. Vasya, despite her bravado, was a little nervous to be seen by strangers, but she found herself ignored. Men lived too near the bone in winter to bother with things that did not concern them. One merchant, half-laughing, offered to buy her fine horse, but Vasya only shook her head and nudged Solovey on.

A clear sun hung high and remote in the winter-pale sky when they came around the last bend in the river and saw the town spread out before them.

As towns go, it was not a large one. A Tatar would have laughed and called it a village; even a Muscovite would have called it provincial. But it was far larger than any place Vasya had ever seen. Its wooden wall rose twice the height of Solovey’s shoulder, and its bell tower stood up proudly, painted blue and ringed with smoke. The great, deep tolling came clear to Vasya’s ears. “Stop a moment,” she said to Solovey. “I want to listen.” Her eyes shone. She had never heard a bell in her life.

“That is not Moscow?” she asked again. “Are you sure?” It seemed a city to swallow the world; she had not dreamed that so many people could share so little space.

No, said Solovey. It is small, I think, to the eyes of men.

Vasya could not believe it. The bells rang again. She smelled stables and wood-smoke and birds roasting, faint in the cold. “I want to go in,” she said.

The horse snorted. You have seen it. There it is. The forest is better.

“I have never seen a city before,” she retorted. “I want to see this one.”

The horse pawed the snow, irritable.

“Just a little while,” she added meekly. “Please.”

Better not, said the horse, but Vasya could tell he had weakened.

Her eyes went once more to the smoke wreathed towers. “Perhaps you should wait for me here. You’re a walking inducement to thieves.”

Solovey huffed. Absolutely not.

“I’m in much more danger with you than without you! What if someone decides to kill me so they can steal you?”

The horse put his head around angrily, biting at her ankle. Well, that was answer enough.

“Oh, very well,” Vasya said. She thought a moment more. “Let’s go; I have an idea.”

The Girl in the Tower

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. 

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