Baffled and annoyed, Pyotr took a long step toward them, but Kolya was before him. The boy had found a target upon which to vent his wrath, headache, and general dissatisfaction. Spurring his gelding, he pulled up not more than a long step away from the stranger, near enough for his horse’s hooves to splatter filthy snow all over the man’s blue robe. The gelding curvetted, eyes rolling. A sweat broke out on its brown flanks.
“What are you doing here?” Kolya demanded, curbing the gelding with hard hands. “How dare you touch my father’s horse?”
The stranger wiped a splatter off one cheek. “He is a very fine horse,” he replied, tranquil. “I thought to buy him.”
“Well, you can’t.” Kolya sprang to the ground. Pyotr’s eldest son was as broad and heavily built as a Siberian ox. The other, who was both shorter and more slender, ought to have looked frail beside him, but he didn’t. Perhaps it was the look in his eyes. With a thrill of unease, Pyotr quickened his pace. Kolya was maybe still drunk, maybe just unwary, but he mistook the stranger’s mildness for yielding. “And how do you propose to manage a horse like that, little man?” he added scornfully. “Run back to your lover and leave riding war-horses to men of strength!” He pressed forward until the two were nose to nose, fingering his dagger.
The stranger smiled, with a wry, self-deprecating twist of the lips. Pyotr wanted to shout a warning, but the words froze in his throat. For a moment the stranger was perfectly still.
And then he moved.
At least, Pyotr assumed that he moved. He did not see it. He saw nothing but a flicker, like light on a bird’s wing. Kolya cried out, clutching his wrist, and then the man stood behind him, an arm around his neck and a dagger pressed to his throat. It had happened so fast even the horses hadn’t had time to startle. Pyotr sprang forward, hand on his sword, but stopped when the man looked up. The stranger had the oddest eyes Pyotr had ever seen, a pale, pale blue, like a clear sky on a cold day. His hands were supple and steady.
“Your son has insulted me, Pyotr Vladimirovich,” he said. “Shall I demand his life?” The knife moved, just the tiniest motion. A thin line of red opened on Kolya’s neck, soaking his new beard. The boy drew a sobbing breath. Pyotr did not spare him a glance.
“It is your right,” he said. “But I beg you—allow my son to make amends.”
The man threw Kolya a scornful glance. “A drunken boy,” he said, and tightened his hand again on the knife.
“No!” rasped Pyotr. “Perhaps I might make amends. We have some gold. Or—if you wish—my horse.” Pyotr did his best not to glance at his beautiful gray stallion. A faint—very faint—amusement appeared in the stranger’s frozen eyes.
“Generous,” he said drily. “But no. I will give you your son’s life, Pyotr Vladimirovich, in exchange for a service.”
“Have you daughters?”
That was unexpected.
“Yes,” Pyotr answered warily, “But…” The stranger’s look of amusement deepened.
“No, I will not take one as a concubine or ravish her in a snowbank. You are bringing gifts for your children, are you not? Well, I have a gift for your younger daughter. You shall make her swear to keep it by her always. You shall also swear never to recount to any living soul the circumstances of our meeting. Under these, and only these, conditions will I spare your son his life.”
Pyotr considered for an instant. A gift? What gift must be given with threats to my son? “I will not put my daughter in danger,” he said. “Even for my son. Vasya is a only a little girl-child, my wife’s lastborn.” But he swallowed hard. Kolya’s blood was seeping down in a slow scarlet stream.
The man looked at Pyotr through narrowed eyes, and for a long moment there was silence. Then the stranger said, “No harm will come to her. I swear it. On the ice and the snow and a thousand lives of men.”
“What is this gift, then?” said Pyotr.
The stranger let go of Kolya, who stood like a sleepwalker, his eyes curiously blank. The stranger strode over to Pyotr and withdrew an object from a belt-pouch.
In his wildest imaginings, never would Pyotr have dreamed of the bauble the man held out to him: a single jewel, of a brilliant silver-blue, nestled in tangle of pale metal, like a star or a snowflake and dangling from a chain as fine as silk thread.
Pyotr looked up, questions on his lips, but the stranger forestalled him. “There it is,” he said. “A trinket, no more. Now, your promise. You will give that to your daughter, and you will tell no one of our meeting. If you break your word, I shall come and kill your son.”
Pyotr looked to his men. They stood blank-eyed; even Sasha on his horse nodded a heavy head. Pyotr’s blood chilled. He feared no man, but this uncanny stranger had bewitched his folk; even his brave sons stood helpless. The necklace hung icy cold and heavy in his hand.
“I swear it,” Pyotr said in his turn. The man nodded once, turned, and strode away across the muddy yard. As soon as he was out of sight, Pyotr’s men stirred around him. Pyotr hastily thrust the shining object into his belt-pouch.
“Father?” said Kolya. “Father, what is wrong? Everything is ready; it wants only your word and we shall go.” Pyotr, staring incredulously at his son, was silent, for the bloodstains had gone and Kolya blinked at him with a placid bloodshot gaze unclouded by his recent encounter.
“But…” he began, and then hesitated, remembering his promise.
“Father, what is wrong?”
“Nothing,” said Pyotr.
He strode over to Buran, mounted, and urged the horse forward, resolving to put the strange meeting out of his mind. But two circumstances conspired against him. For one, when they made camp that night, Kolya found five white oblong marks on his throat, as though he had taken frostbite, though his beard was heavy, his throat well wrapped. For another, listen as he might, Pyotr heard not a single word of discussion among his servants about the strange events in the courtyard and was forced, reluctantly, to conclude that he was the only one who remembered them at all.
The road home seemed longer than it had when they set out. Anna was unused to travel, and they went at little more than foot pace, with frequent halts for rest. Despite their slowness, the journey was not as tedious as it might have been; they had left Moscow heavy-laden with provisions, and took also the hospitality of villages and boyars’ houses, as they came upon them.