The summer half of the great house had wide windows and an open hearth. But that wing was shut when winter came, and it had a deserted look now, entombed in snow and sealed up in frost. The winter half of the house boasted huge ovens and small, high windows. A perpetual smoke trickled from its chimneys, and at the first hard freeze, Pyotr fitted its window-frames with slabs of ice, to block the cold but let in the light. Now firelight from his wife’s room threw a flickering bar of gold onto the snow.
Pyotr thought of his wife and hurried on. Marina would be pleased about the lamb.
The walks between the outbuildings were roofed and floored with logs, defense against rain and snow and mud. But the sleet had come with the dawn, and the slanting wet had soaked the wood and frozen solid. The footing was treacherous, and the damp drifts loomed head-high, pockmarked with sleet. But Pyotr’s felt-and-fur boots were sure on the ice. He paused in the drowsing kitchen to ladle water over his slimy hands. Atop the oven, Alyosha turned over and whimpered in his sleep.
His wife’s room was small—in deference to the frost—but it was bright, and by the standards of the north, luxurious. Swaths of woven fabric covered the wooden walls. The beautiful carpet—part of Marina’s dowry—had come by long and circuitous roads from Tsargrad itself. Fantastic carving adorned the wooden stools, and blankets of wolf and rabbit skin lay scattered in downy heaps.
The small stove in the corner threw off a fiery glow. Marina had not gone to bed; she sat near the fire, wrapped in a robe of white wool, combing her hair. Even after four children, her hair was still thick and dark and fell nearly to her knee. In the forgiving firelight, she looked very like the bride that Pyotr had brought to his house so long ago.
“Is it done?” asked Marina. She laid her comb aside and began to plait her hair. Her eyes never left the oven.
“Yes,” said Pyotr, distractedly. He was stripping off his kaftan in the grateful warmth. “A handsome ram. And its mother is well, too—a good omen.”
“I am glad of it, for we shall need one,” she said. “I am with child.”
Pyotr started, caught with his shirt half off. He opened his mouth and closed it again. It was, of course, possible. She was old for it, though, and she had grown so thin that winter…
“Another one?” he asked. He straightened up and put his shirt aside.
Marina heard the distress in his tone, and a sad smile touched her mouth. She bound the end of her hair with a leather cord before replying. “Yes,” she said, flicking the plait over her shoulder. “A girl. She will be born in the autumn.”
His wife heard the silent question. “I wanted her,” she said. “I want her still.” And then, lower: “I want a daughter like my mother was.”
Pyotr frowned. Marina never spoke of her mother. Dunya, who had been with Marina in Moscow, referred to her only rarely.
In the reign of Ivan I, or so said the stories, a ragged girl rode through the kremlin-gates, alone except for her tall gray horse. Despite filth and hunger and weariness, rumors dogged her footsteps. She had such grace, the people said, and eyes like the swan-maiden in a fairy tale. At length, the rumors reached the ear of the Grand Prince. “Bring her to me,” Ivan said, thinly amused. “I have never seen a swan-maiden.”
Ivan Kalita was a hard prince, eaten with ambition, cold and clever and grasping. He would not have survived otherwise: Moscow killed her princes quickly. And yet, the boyars said afterward, when Ivan first saw this girl, he sat unmoving for a full ten minutes. Some of the more fanciful swore that his eyes were wet when he went to her and took her hand.
Ivan was twice widowed by then, his eldest son older than his young lover, and yet a year later he married the mysterious girl. However, even the Grand Prince of Moscow could not silence the whispers. The princess would not say where she had come from: not then and not ever. The serving-women muttered that she could tame animals, dream the future, and summon rain.
PYOTR COLLECTED HIS OUTER CLOTHES and hung them near the oven. A practical man, he had always shrugged at rumors. But his wife sat so very still, looking into the fire. Only the flames moved, gilding her hand and throat. She made Pyotr uneasy. He paced the wooden floor.
Rus’ had been Christian ever since Vladimir baptized all of Kiev in the Dneiper and dragged the old gods through the streets. Still, the land was vast and changed slowly. Five hundred years after the monks came to Kiev, Rus’ still teemed with unknown powers, and some of them had lain reflected in the strange princess’s knowing eyes. The Church did not like it. At the bishops’ insistence, Marina, her only child, was married off to a boyar in the howling wilderness, many days’ travel from Moscow.
Pyotr often blessed his good fortune. His wife was wise as she was beautiful; he loved her and she him. But Marina never talked about her mother. Pyotr never asked. Their daughter, Olga, was an ordinary girl, pretty and obliging. They had no need for another, certainly not an heir to the rumored powers of a strange grandmother.
“You are sure you have the strength for it?” Pyotr said finally. “Even Alyosha was a surprise, and that was three years ago.”
“Yes,” said Marina, turning to look at him. Her hand clenched slowly into a fist, but he did not see. “I will see her born.”
There was a pause.
“Marina, what your mother was…”
His wife took his hand and stood. He wound an arm around her waist and felt her stiff under his touch.
“I do not know,” said Marina. “She had gifts that I have not; I remember how in Moscow the noblewomen whispered. But power is a birthright to the women of her bloodline. Olga is your daughter more than mine, but this one”—Marina’s free hand slipped up, shaping a cradle to hold a baby—“this one will be different.”
Pyotr drew his wife closer. She clung to him, suddenly fierce. Her heart beat against his breast. She was warm in his arms. He smelled the scent of her hair, washed clean in the bathhouse. It is late, Pyotr thought. Why borrow trouble? The work of women was to bear children. His wife had already given him four, but surely she would manage another. If the infant proved strange in some way—well, that bridge could be crossed when necessary.
“Bear her in good health, then, Marina Ivanovna,” he said. His wife smiled. Her back was to the fire, so he did not see her eyelashes wet. He tilted her chin up and kissed her. Her pulse beat in her throat. But she was so thin, fragile as a bird beneath her heavy robe. “Come to bed,” he said. “There will be milk tomorrow; the ewe can spare a little. Dunya will bake it for you. You must think of the babe.”