The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

In the third and final instalment of the Winternight Trilogy, Vasya finds herself caught in the middle of two worlds, the mortal and the magical, as she tries to protect not only the ones she loves, but all of Russia...

Dusk at the end of winter, and two men walked in 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 the two 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. A smear of soot blackened his cheek, blood crusted in his beard. “While we were busy saving our own skins.” 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 swathe 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.” His eyes were on the heap of black timber where his stable had been.

Behind them, the prince’s attendants stood off, still in their woolen caftans; the dooryard hummed with activity—carpenters and masons making hasty repairs in the last of the light. Slaves were lighting torches, set in sconces of bronze along the palace wall. But the two men—the Grand Prince and his nearest advisor—stood in a little pool of silence.

“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 inch.

“The city is unsettled,” said the monk. “There are dead to mourn; there are granaries lost, and animals and warehouses. There are folk who will starve without good management. Children cannot eat vengeance, Dmitrii Ivanovich.”

The monk had no more slept than the Grand Prince, and could not quite mask the edge in his own voice. His left arm was swathed in linen where an arrow had gone into the muscle below the shoulder, and been dragged through and out again.

Dmitrii did not trouble to keep the rage from his reply. “The Tatars attacked me in my own palace, after I had made them welcome in good faith. 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, who knew the truth of it, 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 swathe 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 with a coldness in his voice now to match the Grand Prince’s. Clear in his mind was his sister’s tearless mourning, worse than any weeping. “The people will only cry out if they are not fed. Men rebuilding their houses and planting their crops do not cry loud for anything.”

Dmitrii’s hand was on the hilt of his sword. “Will you lecture me now, priest?” and Sasha heard the breach between them, closed over but unhealed, in the prince’s voice.

Beyond them, men were chopping up the charred beams of the stable by torchlight, sweating despite the cold: the sound a persistent reminder of the agonies of the night.

“I will not,” said Sasha, and Dmitrii, with effort, let go the twining serpents of his sword-hilt.

“How do you mean to find Chelubey’s Tatars?” Sasha asked, forcing calm into his voice. “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 sharpened. “Did your sister survive the night?”

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

Dmitrii looked troubled. One of the men clearing away the wreckage dropped his end of a broken roof-beam, swearing, a splinter driven deep beneath his thumbnail.

“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. 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 in the forest. 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, and 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, mouth full of words he could not say. Yesterday she won a horse race, 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. Dmitrii must realize that; his unease betrayed him.

The Winter of the Witch

Do you think she will consent to disappear, for the price of a dowry—for any price?

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

One of the men found his tongue. “There, Gosudar,” he said, licking dry lips. 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, pinned between two timbers, gave back the torchlight. The Grand Prince and his cousin stared, dazzled, doubting.

“Gold?” said Dmitrii. “There?”

“Surely not,” said Sasha. Nothing in the dooryard had escaped the rain of soot when the stable burned, and gold would have melted to slag.

Three men were already hauling aside the posts that pinned the thing to the earth, scraping away the ash. A fourth plucked it out and handed it to the Grand Prince.

Gold it was: fine gold, forged in heavy at links and stiff bars, oddly jointed. The metal, though undimmed with soot, had an oily sheen; it threw an odd shimmer of white and blue 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 unlooked-for armful of gold did not go amiss for a prince whose coffers were shrunk by bandits and by fire.

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

“Well, this thing is a forfeit of war,” said Dmitrii, waving aside all question of bits. “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.” They 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 bestowed.”

“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. It is a miracle, 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.

A little way down the hill of the kremlin, the dusk came earlier, and the shadows fell cold and thick over another palace, smaller than the Grand Prince’s but quieter, more neatly kept. The fire had not touched it, except for singeing from falling sparks and the stains of smoke on the walls and gate.

The Winter of the Witch

A shriek from above cut her off, and then the sound of hurrying feet. All three women glared at the door with identical expressions. What now?

All Moscow roiled with rumors, with sobs, curses, arguments, questions, and yet a fragile order reigned within the walls of this palace. The lamps were lit; servants gathered what could be spared for the comfort of the impoverished. The horses drowsed in their stable; tidy smoke rose from the chimneys of bakehouse and cookhouse, brewhouse and the palace itself.

The author of this order sat in her workroom, upright, impeccable, starkly pale. Sweeping lines of strain framed her mouth, and the dark streaks beneath her eyes rivaled Dmitrii’s. She looked old, though she was not yet thirty. She had gone into the bathhouse in the night, and delivered her third child, dead. In that same hour, her firstborn had been stolen from her chamber, and nearly lost in the ugliness of the night.

But despite all that, Olga Vladimirova would not rest. There was too much to be done. A steady stream of people came to her, where she sat by the workroom oven: steward and cook, carpenter, baker and washerwoman. Each one was dispatched with brisk orders, some words of thanks.

A brief pause came between petitioners, and Olga slumped back in her chair, arms wrapped around her belly, where her lost child had been. Her face was paler than ever, a deep line of pain between her brows. She had dismissed her own women hours ago; they were asleep, higher in the terem, sleeping off the shocks of the night.

But one person would not go.

“You ought to go to bed, Olga. The household can manage without you for a few hours.” The speaker was a girl sitting stiff and watchful on a bench beside the oven. She and the proud princess of Serpukhov both had long black hair, the plaits wrist-thick, and an elusive similarity of feature. They were very obviously kin. But the princess was delicate where the girl was tall and long-fingered, her wide eyes arresting in the rough-hewn bones of her face.

“You should indeed,” said another woman, backing into the room bearing a platter of bread and cabbage stew. It was Lent; they could not eat fat meat. This woman looked as weary as the other two: sleep- less, pale, drawn. Her plait was yellow, threaded with white and her eyes were wide and light and wary. “The palace will not fall down in the next hour. Eat this, both of you.” The yellow-haired woman began briskly ladling out soup. “And go to bed.”

Olga said, sharp with exhaustion, “The palace will not fall down. But what of the city? Do you think Dmitrii Ivanovich or his poor fool of a wife are sending servants out with bread to give the children that this night has orphaned?”

The girl sitting on the oven-bench was already pale. But at the reminder, all vestiges of color drained from her face. Her teeth sank into her lower lip. She said, with an effort, “I am sure Dmitrii Ivanovich is making clever plans to take vengeance on the Tatars, and the impoverished will just have to wait. But that does not mean—”

A shriek from above cut her off, and then the sound of hurrying feet. All three women glared at the door with identical expressions. What now?

The nurse burst into the room, quivering, two waiting-women panting in her wake, and they burst out all three together: “Gosudaryna.”

“Olga Vladimirova—”
“Yes,” said Olga, silencing all of them. “I am she, you might recall.” Olga’s patience was nearly at an end. She turned an astringent eye to the nurse. “Well?”

“It is Masha,” the nurse gasped. “Masha—she is missing.”

At that Olga started up. Masha was her only daughter, the one who had been stolen from her bed the night before. “Call the men,” Olga snapped. “Send word to the Grand Prince—”

But the younger girl had turned with a frown to the oven. She tilted her head, as though she were listening. “No,” said the girl aloud. Every head in the room whipped round. The waiting-women and the nurse exchanged dark glances. The girl didn’t seem to notice. “She wasn’t stolen. She’s gone outside herself.”

“Then that—” Olga began, but her sister interrupted, “I know where she is. Let me go and get her.”

Olga gave her sister a long look, which the younger girl returned, steadily. The day before, Olga would have said that she’d never trust this mad sister with one of her children.

“Where?” Olga asked.
 “The stable.”
 “Very well,” said Olga slowly. “But bring Masha back before the lamps are lit. And if she is not there you are to come back and tell me at once and not to undertake any harebrained searching.”

The girl nodded, looking rueful, and got to her feet. Only when she moved could one see that she moved stiffly, that in fact she was favoring a broken rib.

Vasilisa Petrovna found Marya where she’d expected, curled up asleep in the straw of a bay stallion’s stall. Vasya let herself in—indeed the stall door was open though the stallion was not tied. But she did not wake the child. Instead she leaned wordless against the great horse’s shoulder, pressing her cheek to the silky skin.

The bay stallion put his head around and began to nose irrepressibly at her pockets. She smiled, the first real smile of that long day, drew a crust of bread from her sleeve and fed it to him.

“Olga will not rest,” she said. “She puts us all to shame.”
 You have not rested either, returned the horse, blowing warm air onto her face. Vasya, inching, pushed him away; her scalp and cheek were burned and the heat pained her. “I do not deserve to rest,” she said, more sharply than she’d meant. “I caused the fire; I must make what amends I can.”
 No, said Solovey, and stamped. The zhar ptitsa caused the re, although you should have listened to me before setting her loose. The set of his ears was reproving. She was maddened with imprisonment.

“Where did she come from?” Vasya asked. “How did Kasyan, of all people, put a bridle on a creature like that?”

Solovey looked troubled. His ears tilted forward and back, and his tail lashed his flanks. I do not know. I remember someone shouting, and someone weeping. I remember flight, and blood in blue water. He stamped, shaking his mane. Nothing more.

He looked so troubled that Vasya scratched the stallion’s withers comfortingly and said, “Never mind. Kasyan is dead and his horse is gone.” She changed the subject. “The domovoi said Masha was here.”

Of course she’s here, returned the horse, looking superior. Even if she doesn’t know how to speak to me yet, she knows I will kick anyone who tries to hurt her.

This was not an idle threat coming from seventeen hands of stallion.

“I cannot blame her for coming,” Vasya said. She scratched the horse’s withers again, and the stallion’s ears flopped with delight. “When I was small, I always ran to the stable at the first sign of trouble. But this is not Lesnaya Zemlya, and her mother was frightened when they found her gone. I must take her back.”

The little girl in the straw stirred and whimpered. Vasya dropped gingerly to her knees beside the child, trying not to jar her rib, just as Marya came awake, thrashing. Vasya caught the ailing limbs, but Marya’s head escaped her, butting hard into her broken side. Vasya narrowly avoided a scream; her vision went black around the edges.

“Hush, Masha,” she said, when she could speak again. “Hush. It’s me. It’s all right. You’re all right. You’re safe.”

The child subsided, rigid in the older girl’s arms. The big horse put down his head and nosed her hair. She looked up. He lipped her nose very gently, and Marya squeaked out a tiny giggle. Then she buried her face in the older girl’s shoulder and cried.

“Vasochka, Vasochka, I don’t remember anything,” she whispered between sobs. “I just remember being scared—”

Vasya remembered being scared, too. At the child ’s words, images from the night before crossed her mind like flung darts. A horse of fire, rearing up. The sorcerer withered, crumpling to the floor. Marya ensorcelled, blank-faced, obedient.

And his voice. As I could, I loved you.

Vasya shook her head, as though motion could dispel memory. “You don’t have to remember; not yet,” she said gently. “You are safe now; it is over.”

“It doesn’t feel like it is over,” whispered the child. “I can’t remember! How do I know if it’s over or not?”

Vasya said, “Trust me, or if you will not, trust your mother or your uncle. No more harm will come to you. Now, come, we must get back to the house. Your mother is worried.”

Marya immediately wrenched away from Vasya, who had little strength to stop her, and wrapped all four limbs around Solovey’s foreleg. “No!” Marya shouted, face pressed to the horse’s coat. “You can’t make me!”

An ordinary horse would have reared at such antics, or shied, or at the very least hit Marya in the face with his knee. Solovey only stood there, looking dubious. Gingerly, he put his head down to Marya. You can stay here if you like, he said, although the child did not understand him. She was crying again: the thin exhausted wail of a child at the end of endurance.

Vasya, sick with pity and anger on the girl’s behalf, could see why Marya did not want to go back to the house. The night before, she had been taken from that house, subjected to half-remembered horrors.

Solovey’s large and self-confident presence was nothing if not reassuring.

“I have been dreaming,” the little girl mumbled into the stallion’s foreleg. “I can’t remember anything—except for the dreaming. There was a skeleton that laughed at me, and I kept eating cakes—more and more—even though they made me sick. I don’t want to dream anymore. And I’m not going back to the house. I am going to live here in the stable with Solovey.” She took a renewed grip on the stallion.

Vasya could see that, short of prying Marya off and dragging her away—a procedure that her bones wouldn’t bear and Solovey would heartily disapprove of—she wasn’t going anywhere.

Well, let someone else explain to an irascible stallion why Marya could not stay where she was. In the meantime—“Very well,” Vasya said, and made her voice cheerful, “no need to go back to the house unless you wish it. Shall I tell you a story?”

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