Home > The Bear and the Nightingale(17)

The Bear and the Nightingale(17)
Author: Katherine Arden

Once they were out of the city, Pyotr went to his wife’s bed with renewed eagerness, remembering her soft mouth and the silky grip of her young body. But each time she met him—not with anger or laments, which he might have managed—but with baffling silent weeping, tears sliding down her round cheeks. A week of this drove Pyotr away, half angry and half bewildered. He began to range further during the day, hunting on foot or taking Buran deep into the woods, until man and horse returned scratched and weary, and Pyotr was tired enough to think only of his bed. Even sleep was no respite, though, for in his dreams he saw a sapphire necklace and spidery white fingers against the neck of his firstborn. He would wake in the dark calling for Kolya to run.

He itched to be home, but they could not hurry. For all his efforts, Anna grew pale and feeble with journeying, and would beg them to halt earlier and earlier in the day, to set up tents and braziers, that the servants might serve her hot soup and warm her numb hands.

But they crossed the river at last. When Pyotr judged the party less than a day away from Lesnaya Zemlya, he set Buran’s feet on the snowy track and gave the stallion his head. The bulk of his men would follow with the sledges, but he and Kolya flew home like windblown ghosts. It was with inexpressible relief that Pyotr broke from the cover of the trees and saw his own house standing silvery and unharmed in the clear winter daylight.

 

EVERY DAY SINCE PYOTR and Sasha and Kolya had gone away, Vasya had slipped from the house whenever she could contrive it and run to climb her favorite tree: the one that stretched a great limb over the road to the south of Lesnaya Zemlya. Alyosha went with her sometimes, but he was heavier than she, and a clumsier climber. So Vasya was alone on the day she saw the flashing of hooves and harness. She slid down her tree like a cat and bolted on her short legs. By the time she reached the palisade-gate, she was shouting, “Father, Father, it is Father!”

By then it was no great news, for the two riders, coming on much faster than one small girl, were already crossing the fields at a great pace, and the villagers, from their little rise, could see them plainly. The people looked at each other, wondering where the others were, fearing for their kin. And then Pyotr and Kolya (Sasha had stayed with the sledges) swept into the village and reined their stamping horses. Dunya attempted to seize Vasya, who had stolen Alyosha’s clothes to climb her tree and was grubby to boot, but Vasya wriggled away and ran into the dooryard. “Father!” she cried. “Kolya!” and laughed when each caught her up in turn. “Father, you are back!”

“I have brought a mother for you, Vasochka,” said Pyotr, looking her over with a raised eyebrow. She was covered in bits of tree. “Though I did not tell her she was getting a wood-sprite instead of a little girl.” But he kissed her grubby cheek and she giggled.

“Oh—then where is Sasha?” cried Vasya, looking about her in sudden fear. “Where are the sledge-horses?”

“Never fear, they are on the road behind us,” said Pyotr, and he added louder, so all the assembled people could hear, “They will be here before nightfall; we must be ready to receive them. And you,” he added lower to Vasya, “get you into the kitchen and bid Dunya dress you. All else equal, I’d rather present a daughter to her stepmother and not a wood-sprite.” He put her down with a little push, and Olga hauled her sister into the kitchen.

The sledges came with the westering sun. They made their weary way over the fields and up through the village gate. The people cheered and exclaimed at the fine closed sleigh that contained the new wife of Pyotr Vladimirovich. Most of the village assembled to see her.

Anna Ivanovna came out of the sleigh tottering, stiff, pale as ice. Vasya thought that she looked scarcely older than Olya, and not nearly so old as her father. Well, all the better, the child thought. Perhaps she will play with me. She smiled her best smile. But Anna did not answer, by word or sign. She cringed at all the stares, and Pyotr remembered belatedly that women in Moscow lived apart from the men. “I am tired,” Anna Ivanovna whispered, and crept into the house clinging to Olga’s arm.

The people looked at each other, nonplussed. “Well, it was a long journey,” they said at last. “She will be well in time. She is a Grand Prince’s daughter, as Marina Ivanovna was.” And they were proud that such a woman had come to live among them. They returned to their huts to build up their fires against the dark and eat their watery soup.

But in the house of Pyotr Vladimirovich, they all feasted as best they could with Lent upon them and winter grown old and bony. They made decent shrift of it, with fish and porridge. Afterward, Pyotr and his sons told the tale of their journey while Alyosha leaped about, threatening the fingers of servants with his splendid new dagger.

Pyotr himself set the headdress on Olga’s black hair, and said, “I hope you will wear it on your wedding day, Olya.” Olga blushed and paled, while Vasya, wordless, turned her vast eyes onto her father. Pyotr raised his voice, so the room at large could hear. “She will be the Princess of Serpukhov,” he said. “The Grand Prince himself betrothed her.” And he kissed his daughter. Olga smiled with half-frightened delight. In the tumult of congratulation, Vasya’s thin, forlorn cry went unheard.

But the feast wound down, and Anna sought her bed early. Olga went to help her, and Vasya trotted after. Slowly the kitchen emptied.

Dusk deepened to night. The fire crumbled on a glowing core and the air in the kitchen chilled and sank. At last the winter kitchen was empty but for Pyotr and Dunya. The old lady sat weeping in her place near the fire. “I knew it must come, Pyotr Vladimirovich,” she said. “And if ever there was a girl who ought to be a princess, it is my Olya. But it is a hard thing. She will live in a palace in Moscow, like her grandmother, and I will never see her again. I am too old for journeys.”

Pyotr sat before the fire, fingering the jewel in his pocket. “It comes to all women,” he said.

Dunya said nothing.

“Here, Dunyashka,” said Pyotr, and his voice was so strange that the old nurse turned quickly to look at him. “I have a gift for Vasya.” He had already given her a length of fine green cloth, to make a good sarafan. Dunya frowned. “Another, Pyotr Vladimirovich?” she said. “She will be spoiled.”

“Even so,” said Pyotr. Dunya squinted at him in the dark, puzzled by the look on his face. Pyotr thrust the necklace at Dunya as though eager to be rid of it. “Give it to her yourself. You must see she keeps it always by her. Make her promise, Dunya.”

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