And guys? We are OBSESSED.
Drawing inspiration from Russian mythology, Through the White Wood follows Katya, a girl with terrifying powers who, in a fit of (justified, tbh) rage, kills half her village, shattering their bodies with the fearsome ice that fills her veins.
As a result, she’s banished to the mercy of the grand prince, a young man whose reputation is more deadly than Katya can imagine. Rumor has it, he’s building an army of people with powers, people he can use to take over the rest of the world.
Once she reaches Kiev, however, she is surprised to find that the prince is just like her—with the ability to summon fire. Together, Katya’s and Sasha’s powers are a fearsome weapon. But as their enemies draw nearer, will fire and frost be enough to save the world? Or will Katya and Sasha lose everything they hold dear?
Are you as pumped for this as we are?? We can’t WAIT for you to fall head over heels for this epic fantasy like we have—and you’re in luck! We’re giving you a sneak peek of the first three chapters of Through the White Wood. You’re welcome, book nerds, and happy reading!
There are countless monsters in this world. Some with fangs, some who skitter in the darkness just out of sight, some who wear human skin but whose hearts have turned dark as forest shadows.
And as my fellow villagers dragged me, bound by rough rope, from the cellar of the elder, I knew that these men and women I’d grown up with—they thought of me as a monster, too.
I wasn’t sure they were wrong.
“Haul her to her feet,” said Anatoly, the village elder, with arms crossed over his black fur coat.
Yury and Peter wrapped strong arms around me, and I tried to wrench out of their grasp, stumbling in the deep snow. “Her skin has turned to ice,” Yury answered, his lip curled in disgust.
“Then pull her by the rope,” Anatoly said, irritation clear in his gruff voice.
The rope grew taut as they forcibly brought me to a standing position. I was still exhausted from my long flight through the woods, but as the sleigh that would take me away suddenly came into view, pulled by magnificent white horses, I strained against my bonds. The ice, my only defense, spread all over my body.
A group of villagers had assembled to watch the sleigh arrive, and I made a pitiful sound low in my throat as I caught sight of Babushka.
“Babushka, please,” I cried out as I fought more wildly against the men who held me captive.
Her ruddy face was stern, the red-and-orange kerchief on her head colorful against the backdrop of the smoky wooden huts. Dedushka, who would normally be by her side, was painfully absent. The fact that it was entirely my fault he was missing tore through me, like a blade in my chest.
Though Babushka’s eyes weren’t as cruel as the others’, she did nothing to protest my treatment. Pain as sharp as ice pierced my heart. Did she condemn me to my fate?
A shriek above us drew our attention. An enormous golden eagle was swooping toward us, talons outstretched.
No, Elation, I thought desperately, and the bird banked and rose again to the sky. But her gaze remained on me as she circled above. I wouldn’t be the reason for more deaths or injury in this village—not even to save myself.
My attention returned to the sleigh, from which the driver had stepped down. Anatoly hurried to meet him.
“Please,” I begged again, and I wasn’t sure who my pleas were directed toward. Tears fell from my eyes and froze upon my cheeks.
All too soon, Anatoly beckoned for Yury and Peter to bring me forward. I fought them until I was half-dragged all the way to the side of the sleigh.
“She is kept bound?” the driver asked, his dark eyes narrowed.
“She has escaped once already,” Anatoly said, lip curled beneath his beard. It seemed now when anyone looked at me, it was with a sneer or a curled lip.
“That won’t be necessary,” the driver said, and he retrieved a small knife from within his coat. I tried to back away, but the men held me immobile before him. With one clean movement, he sliced through the rope binding my wrists. “Come,” he said as I stood trembling before him. “There is no other choice for
The men held tight to my arms, but I turned back toward Babushka, desperate to speak to her one last time. I didn’t think she would—didn’t think that I even deserved the chance—but to my surprise I saw she was making her way toward me, leaning more heavily on her gnarled walking stick than I’d ever seen her do.
“Babushka,” I said, and her name was breathed out of me like prayer and a plea, “forgive me.”
She shook her head as she came beside me. “We don’t have time for that now, devotchka.” I searched her familiar face, wrinkled and worn and stern, wondering if I’d ever see it again. “If you stay here, these men will kill you,” she said, her voice a desperate whisper, and I strained to hear her. “There is hope in Kiev. Sometimes the place we do not want to go is the best place for us after all.” I tried to puzzle out her meaning—I couldn’t imagine she thought my destination would be good for me by any stretch of the imagination. Was it an old proverb, then?
“Babushka,” I said, my voice breaking, “I don’t understand.”
She touched my face, her skin rough from years of hard work. I waited—whether for explanation or forgiveness, I didn’t know. But the village men would not wait for an old woman’s words, nor did she seem to want to offer any.
Before I could say anything else, Yury and Peter dragged me to the side of the sleigh and threw me into it, so that I stumbled and nearly fell. I glanced back at their faces, triumph and relief plain to see there, and I knew they felt glad to see me go.
Babushka stayed close to the sleigh, her lips pressed tight as though she was in pain.
“May the grand prince have better use for her,” Anatoly said, his gray beard now dotted with snow. “She has brought us nothing but misery and destruction.”
The driver nodded but didn’t offer any other response, merely turned back to the sleigh. To me, he said, “My name is Ivan Petrov, and I am to bring you to the grand prince.”
I thought of the sleigh’s eventual destination at the grand prince’s palace, and the frost on my skin turned to ice.
He waited as though expecting some sort of answer from me, and as I looked around my village—at those who had arranged all of this, who wanted me gone—I knew I had no other choice. Not right now—not unless I wanted to unleash something better left chained within me forever.
I settled for nodding once.
He grunted and leaned over to the driver’s seat. I tensed, expecting him to have changed his mind about keeping me bound. Perhaps he was retrieving his own length of rope. But when he straightened, he brought with him a long, crimson coat trimmed in fur. “The road will be cold.”
I hesitated, wondering why I was being given such a thing. What use did a prisoner have for fine clothing? But he only handed it to me more insistently, so I reluctantly pulled it on. The fine fabric would hide my rougher peasant clothes from view, but even its heavy wool would do nothing to keep the cold wind from biting deep.
Then, without another word, he climbed into the driver’s seat, gathered the reins, and pulled us away from the only home I’d ever known, to a prince they said was a monster.
But then, they said I was one, too.
I promised myself I wouldn’t look back, but I did it anyway, squinting through the snow at the thirty-seven villagers who silently watched me leave. It was easy to note the ones who were missing. While the ones who remained stared at me accusingly, I reached down to rub my wrists where the ropes had once
Babushka stood apart, looking frail and alone. I could still feel her hand on my cheek, her words in my ear—were they absolution?
I am not your babushka, she’d told me long ago, but you may call me by that name. My life with her had not been easy or warm, but at least it had been mine.
I turned to face the front of the sleigh and squeezed my eyes closed. I thought I’d known loneliness, but it was nothing compared to this . . . this utter exile. The cold seeped in, hardening my already icy skin, and I wrapped my arms tighter around myself. I tried desperately not to think of the one time I had felt warm, the only time I hadn’t felt as though I was carved from ice. But the memories surfaced anyway.
Screams echoed in my mind as the tingling reminder of the cold fire crept over my palms. That terrible power that was nothing like my usual ability.
I pinched my arm to keep the sensation from spreading, but it did nothing to stop the memory of how I’d felt that night. How I’d felt none of the nagging feelings of guilt . . . only blissful warmth.
I felt regret now.
Above me, my golden eagle let out a soft cry, and as I glanced up at her, my spirits lifted ever so slightly. Elation, I’d named her long ago, because she never failed to bring me joy. Now she followed the sleigh from the sky, and I suspected she was my only remaining friend and ally.
After the horror of what had happened in the village, it was almost difficult to be afraid of what awaited me with the prince. Almost, but not quite. Rumors hammered at my thoughts as the sleigh traveled farther and farther into the deep woods that surrounded my home.
People disappearing into his castle, never to return. People with abilities beyond human limits. People like me.
Worse still was the knowledge that I went to him having committed crimes whose punishment was death.
You deserve it, the nasty part of my mind said to me, the one that sounded like the village children I grew up with. It will be a fitting punishment for what you’ve done.
We will not execute you as you deserve, the village elder had said, dressed in his long black shuba—the bearskin coat he was so proud of. Instead, we will hand you over to the prince. He’s always searching for people with your abilities, he’d said with a look of disgust. Let him deal with you as he sees fit.
Standing in the elder’s own izba, the clay oven blazing with a warm fire that could do nothing to pierce my frozen skin, I had paled at the announcement.
But Babushka—I’d stuttered, trying to think of anyone who could save me.
She has agreed to it, Elder Anatoly had interrupted, his voice brooking no argument.
Beside me, Andrei, one of the men who held my ropes, leaned toward me. They say the prince will cut your heart out and eat it. I had looked at him, this man I’d seen walking cheerfully to work in the lumber mill every day of my life, with eyes wide with fear. He’d looked back at me with a terrible sneer instead
of a smile. And you will deserve it, Ice Witch.
While I swayed with the images of such violence, the man on the other side of me had added, I’ve heard he does it slow, cutting you and letting you bleed into a golden cup.
Either way, Andrei added, dark eyes flashing, you’ll be dead. Deserved punishment or not, I couldn’t contain the shudder of fear that wracked me as I was held captive in the prince’s sleigh.
I glanced at Ivan. He sat tall and straight, his steel-gray hair covered by a black fur hat. I stared at his broad back for a moment, an urge for contact moving me—to at least ask him why I’d been given the coat—but the wind was too strong, and the moment passed.
We traveled ever farther into the woods, the trees towering above us, snow clinging to their piney branches. I watched animals flee from the oncoming sleigh—birds flitting from tree to tree, squirrels chattering reproachfully, even a fox and hare interrupted from a deadly chase.
I imagined myself jumping down into the snow and escaping into those woods, and I went so far as to shift closer to the edge of my seat. I glanced down at the ground, moving so quickly beneath us. I could jump now, but would I manage to stay on my feet? If I stumbled, I risked serious injury. Still, wouldn’t it be worth it to try rather than be brought before the prince like a lamb to slaughter?
I moved still closer to the edge, gathering my skirt in one hand. I glanced at Ivan, but he continued to face forward.
I will jump, I thought, my gaze shifting to Elation in the sky. As always, she seemed to understand and flew lower to meet me.
My heart raced in my chest, pounding painfully against my ribs. I could see in my mind’s eye what would happen: I would jump, and run, and Ivan would stop the sleigh and follow. What would I do then?
A flash of the destruction my power had wrought on the village lit up in my mind, and I winced.
Again, I thought of being brought as a criminal before a prince everyone said was a cruel and heartless murderer, and I knew my mind was made up.
I gathered myself to jump as we rounded the next bend, my skin hardening at the anticipation of hitting the snow at such a speed.
And then a heavy hand landed on my arm. I yelped in surprise, jerking my head up to find Ivan’s eyes trained on mine. My mouth went dry.
With his other arm, he pulled the horses to a stop. The icy cold spread all over my skin, hardening it to marble.
He climbed down from the sleigh and came over to my side. I met his gaze from my lofty perch, the blood pounding in my ears.
“I didn’t want to have to do this,” he said, and I flinched in spite of myself when his hand moved.
He reached behind me and retrieved a length of rope. It was attached to the sleigh by a metal ring, and as he gathered the rope, I gritted my teeth.
Elation, I thought, and the eagle flew to my side.
Ivan watched the eagle impassively, as though it wasn’t a creature with talons and a beak sharp enough to tear him apart.
“There is a reason I was chosen to bring you to the prince,” he said, his face stern but not twisted with cruelty. “I alone am enough to stop you—even with your abilities. Even with your eagle.”
I held very still. I knew what he was implying: that he, too, had power. The idea of that sent a little shard of cold shock and fear through me. There had always been talk of others with abilities, though none like my own destructive power, but it was hard to know what to believe. The whispers of stories were traded
as often as furs, and as they traveled along the breeze to the far-flung villages, they couldn’t always be trusted to be accurately retold. I couldn’t know for sure what power he was gifted with, but it was the veiled threat to Elation that stopped me.
“Do you understand?” he asked.
After a moment, I nodded.
“Then I won’t have to restrain you,” he said with a terse nod to himself. He coiled the rope again and replaced it.
The sleigh dipped under his weight as he returned to the driver’s seat and urged the horses on again.
Elation stayed by my side on the seat, her gaze trained on Ivan, as though she’d like nothing better than to rip the flesh from his bones.
I held her back; Ivan’s threat weighed heavily upon me. What if his power was as terrible as mine? What if Elation was harmed—even killed? I shuddered to think of such an outcome. I never wanted to be responsible for the death of someone I loved again.
The trees slipped by endlessly as we traveled through the heavy fir and pine forest. I had been unlucky enough that this had happened in winter, when travel was even possible. If this had been late spring, there would be no means of journeying to Kiev due to the muck and lack of any decent roads. As it happened, though, the snow was thick and firm enough still in these few weeks before spring that a sleigh could travel easily. By the sun, I could see that we were heading roughly southeast,
the sleigh gliding smoothly over the snow. As I watched the dark forest on either side, far from any other village or town, my thoughts turned to my last failed escape attempt. The men in my village had hunted me like hounds and caught me just as easily.
I’d meant to stay awake that night as I fled, and I thought I’d almost succeeded, but I fell asleep near dawn. A single cry from Elation woke me, the light from the weak winter sun turning the sky a pale peach, my small cooking fire long since died out to ash.
I meant to get moving again, but then I heard the men crashing through the woods. I tried to run, which was foolish. I should have melded back into the trees while it was still
dark and found another place to hide, but I was as terrified as a flushed-out hare.
Elation had tried to help me. She had swooped down on them, talons outstretched like she meant to hurt them—maybe even kill them in my defense—but I’d cried out and stopped her.
My heart twisted in my chest as I remembered the looks in the villagers’ eyes: like I was a creature they’d thought docile, only to have it turn out to be a mad dog. As they knocked me to the ground, my skin had hardened defensively, but gone was any trace of the terrible power I’d unleashed on them only the night before.
Bound and physically weakened, I was dragged back to the village. I’d felt only relief that they hadn’t killed me then, but I feared now, as I sat in Ivan’s sleigh bound for a malevolent prince, that what they’d chosen instead might be far worse.
Because there was another rumor about the prince, one that was far more frightening than all the others: that he had murdered his own parents while they slept, naming himself grand prince before his father was even cold. And now he was gathering people with power, people who could help him take over the rest of our snowy-white world. I had no hope that such a cruel prince would pardon me for what I’d done. My crimes against the villagers were enough that I would surely be sentenced to death, but as I rubbed one hand across the thick wool of my coat, I wondered if the prince had a worse plan for me: To make me join his dark army.
I glanced down at my hardening skin—which was turning to ice at the darkness of my thoughts—and wondered just how long my natural defenses would hold out before I, too, was killed.
After traveling until the sun hung low in the sky and the chill in the air took on a vicious edge, Ivan finally slowed the sleigh. I sat up a little straighter, taking note of our surroundings. We were still deep in the forest, enormous pine and fir trees on either side of us, no hint of a city nearby.
Babushka taught me at a very young age not to ask stupid questions, so I didn’t ask whether we’d arrived at our final destination. It was clear that we had not.
Ivan slowed the horses to a plodding walk, and up ahead in a clearing, I saw the points of tents with small gold flags flying from their tops. The sounds of men and a large, crackling fire greeted us, and our horses perked up noticeably.
So many others waiting for us made my shoulders tense. I’d become used to Ivan’s silence—at least enough that I no longer feared he would suddenly attack me—but I didn’t relish walking into a circle of strangers.
“The horses need rest,” Ivan said without turning around. “We will stop here for the night.”
I said nothing, only glanced at the sky to be sure Elation was still with me. It took me a moment to find her, but then I saw the gleam of her feathers against the green of the pine trees. I closed my eyes in relief. She had flown away on our journey once or twice—presumably to hunt or find water—and each time she returned I was nearly moved to tears.
Ivan guided the sleigh to the very center of the camp, so close I could feel the warmth from the fire, and then jumped down in a surprisingly agile way for his age. He held his hand out to me as a small company of men surrounded us.
I forced myself to meet their eyes unflinchingly even as memories of the last time I faced a contingent of men threatened to drag me under.
“The grand prince has ordered you to be escorted to Kiev with enough men to keep you safe should we encounter any raiders,” Ivan said. “The road to the city is not always secure.”
I nodded once even as my mind raced ahead. As frightening as they might be, raiders could provide the chaos I needed to get away. I had enough knowledge of the woods that I could keep myself alive; I could find food, at least, and shelter, and make a fire. I wasn’t helpless. And I had Elation.
I came back to myself only to find the men still staring at me, their air expectant. Only then did I realize that they had been asking questions I’d failed to respond to.
“Is she mute?” a man with a pointed sable beard asked with a sneer. “Is this the power we’ve sought? The only woman in Kievan Rus’ who does not speak?” His close-set eyes narrowed slyly as he laughed, making me think of Sergei and Rodya— brothers in my village who’d taken great joy in tormenting me.
Both dead now.
The other men joined in laughing, all save Ivan. He’d been so quiet that I’d almost forgotten he was there. He stepped forward now. “It is not for any of us to question what Katya’s powers are. We have our orders.”
“Right. I’ll take the girl to her tent,” the man with the pointed beard said, and I felt my heart sink.
Ivan nodded. “That’s fine, Grigory. I need to look after the horses.”
Grigory grabbed hold of my arm, but my skin immediately turned to ice, and even beneath my thick coat, I think he could feel the blast of cold. He dropped my arm like a hot coal. “Follow me,” he growled.
I kept my head held high even as my stomach quivered. Would they restrain me again, as my villagers had?
I hadn’t used that terrible fire again on my villagers, even when they’d captured me. The thought of using it here and now entered my mind, a little shudder of horror going through me. Never again did I want to be responsible for that much death and destruction.
We walked past the roaring central fire, and I noticed an iron pot steaming with some sort of stew. A few of the men sat around the fire while still others tended to the horses. Several tents were set up in a half-circle around the fire. But Grigory led me past all of these. My skin grew increasingly icy until my breath came out in plumes of cold air.
Soon we were well out of earshot of the other men, and Grigory whirled on me. “Your village made some wild claims about you, but I know they are lies.” His eyes flashed angrily at me, his bushy eyebrows drawn low. “The prince has searched the world for someone with that kind of power, and I can tell that someone isn’t you.”
I didn’t understand his anger, but it made me want to make a run for it and damn the consequences. Instead I faced him. “I wish it was a lie.”
He took a step toward me, and the cold within me spread, protecting my skin as though anticipating a blow. “Had I been there, I would have demanded you prove yourself. No doubt this is a waste of time—something the prince, with all his riches, has very little of. Even now, his enemies plot to move against him. Yet here we are, spending more than two days away from the palace, hunting a girl who will prove to be yet another charlatan.”
How I wished I was a fraud! I’d already spent countless hours begging God to turn back the hands of time, to take away this hateful power. And now, to stand accused of faking it for my own profit brought pinpricks of anger on the heels of my fear. “Then take me back to my village and fail to bring me before the grand prince. It makes no difference to me.”
Like a snake striking, his hand darted out and grabbed hold of me. This time, his grip was strong enough to hurt—if my arm hadn’t already been well protected by ice. He flinched in surprise, but soon his surprise turned to cruel amusement. “So, you do have power—your skin can turn to ice. How
impressive,” he added wryly. “Still not quite the talent that was promised. We were told you could wield an ability slightly more . . . destructive.”
I could, and I had. Faces of villagers frozen in death flashed before my eyes. The death that I had brought about. “Once my ice-cold skin was all the power I had, and I wish it was still true.”
“Prove it to me,” he said in a tone dripping with venom. “Prove that you aren’t another charlatan drawing interest from the prince only to trick him again.”
I swallowed hard. “I cannot.”
“You see!” he shouted, practically in my face. I tried to yank away, but he held me tenaciously.
Suddenly, a girl appeared beside us, and Grigory dropped my arm like it burned him. She watched us both, her eyes as dark as her hair, with her slender arms crossed over her chest. At first glance, I thought she was younger than I was, but as I took in the worldliness hidden in the depths of her gaze, I realized
she was probably older, though not by much. I wondered how I hadn’t noticed her approach.
“What are you doing, Grigory?” she asked, and her accent immediately identified her as from the steppes in the east. There was a traveling trader who sometimes visited our village who was from that far-off place. I remembered his face, wrinkled and kind.
Grigory’s mouth opened and closed several times, leading me to believe he was as surprised to see the girl as I had been.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Katya Alexeyevna is to be brought before the grand prince, unharmed.”
“I wanted to be sure this girl wasn’t another fraud,” Grigory said with an accusatory glare at me, like I’d somehow provoked him into acting this way. “And she told me herself she can’t demonstrate her power. The prince shouldn’t waste his time on her.”
Grigory’s unprovoked anger at me had been strange enough, but the fact that he seemed most upset about my supposed lack of powers both confused and worried me. As far as I knew, I was being brought before the grand prince for sentencing. But there had been no mention of that so far—only my power. Were the rumors about the prince seeking out people with abilities true?
The girl’s gaze shifted to me briefly, and I tilted my chin higher. Everything had been taken from me, but I refused to cower. “The prince can decide for himself,” the girl said. “But we must follow our orders.”
Grigory looked like he wanted to argue, but apparently the
invocation of the prince’s name was enough to dissuade him.
“Ivan needs your help with the sleigh,” she added.
Grigory turned to me, his face still dark with anger. “Come on, then.”
The girl let out a snort. “As if I’d let you lead her to her tent now. Of course I’ll do it. You should have fetched me the moment she arrived.”
Grigory shot me a look but thankfully relented. It wasn’t until he was well on his way back to the entrance of camp, though, that the ice on my skin receded.
“I’m afraid Grigory only has two moods: hostile and disgruntled,” the girl said with a faint look of disgust. “But he does have his uses.” She turned to me. “You aren’t hurt? He looked more hostile than disgruntled today.”
I thought of the way Grigory had grabbed my arm. If it weren’t for my defenses, I’d likely have nasty bruises. “No, he didn’t hurt me.”
“Good. I’ll show you where you can rest,” she said, gesturing for me to follow. “My name is Kharankhui, by the way,” she tossed over her shoulder at me with a smile, “but you can call me Kharan.”
“Katya,” I said.
Warily, I continued to follow her until we arrived at a round tent that could easily sleep five men comfortably.
“Here we are,” Kharan said, gesturing toward the enormous tent.
“I am to sleep here?” I asked, unable to keep the incredulity from my tone. “Alone?”
Kharan smiled. “The grand prince sent this tent to be used only by you.”
“It’s . . . beautiful,” I said truthfully, gazing up at its deepblue sides trimmed in gold. As I looked closer, I saw that gold stars had been embroidered throughout, so that the whole thing resembled the night sky.
She held aside the front flap, and I found I didn’t even need to duck my head to enter. Once inside, my boots sank into plush silver fur. The inside of the tent was nearly as elaborate as the outside, with tapestries, a wide bed with richly brocaded blue-and-gold coverings and a midnight black fur, a small table with a bowl for washing, and two ornately carved chairs.
I hadn’t seen such finery in all my life; Babushka’s humble izba was furnished with far less.
“I don’t understand,” I said, and it was the confusion that made a prickle of unease trace down my spine. I was being brought before the prince as a criminal, yet I was given my own lavish tent?
“Did you think we would keep you chained like the cruel people of your village?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
“It’s clear you don’t know the value of your abilities,” she said with a side glance. “I can tell you that they make you worth more to the prince than any of the fine things found in this tent.”
Her answer so surprised me that I let out a quiet, self-deprecating laugh. “Does he value monsters so highly? Murderers, too?” Perhaps he did, if the rumors about him were to be believed.
She appeared unperturbed. “A dog may be kicked so many times before it turns around and bites. Are humans any different?”
Yes, but does a dog revel in it once he has bitten? “I should think humans would be held to a higher standard than animals, so yes.”
She looked at me appraisingly. “You have a very noble view of humanity.”
I tried to silence myself, but I was genuinely curious. “And you don’t?”
She shrugged. “It depends on which particular group of humans we’re discussing.”
My gaze continued to roam before finally landing on a chest big enough to hold a full-grown man.
Kharan must have followed my line of sight, for she walked over to it and threw open the lid. “The prince wanted to be sure you had clothing.”
Inside were garments that glittered like gemstones: deep carmine, sapphire, emerald, and lighter colors like jade, aquamarine, and topaz. I could tell from a few feet away that they were all heavily brocaded and embroidered, trimmed in fur and silk.
My chest at home contained two outfits, and I was wearing my nicest one—usually only worn for festivals. I thought of my own clothes now hidden under the fine robe Ivan had given me—my white linen rubakha, embroidered with carmine-colored thread that trimmed the neckline and wide sleeves, the
one I’d always been so proud of, now looked like what it was: peasant clothing. Even my lovely red wool skirt with what I had always thought of as intricate white embroidery might as well have been moth-eaten compared to the fine garments within that chest.
“Surely this is too much for someone like me,” I said, my eyes still on the chest. The gowns were lovely—lovelier than I’d ever seen, but they were intimidating in their beauty. All this for a prisoner? But I thought I knew the reason for such finery, and the whispers of worry in my mind intensified. Were the tent and the gowns bribes? Was the prince trying to entice the poor peasant girl to join his dark army with gifts of more value than she’d ever seen?
I also couldn’t help but fear, like Kharan’s kindness, that it was some terrible deception. Like the old tale of a witch in the woods feeding children all kinds of delicious treats . . . only to fatten them up and eat them.
“The prince can afford it, so why not take advantage of his generosity?”
Because these were clothes fit for a boyar’s wife, not a peasant like me, I responded in my head.
My expression must have still been one of dismay, for she arched an eyebrow and said, “Would you have been more comfortable with rags?”
“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but in my experience, people don’t usually do things for me out of the kindness of their hearts.”
“No one here is trying to trick you, Katya. You’re safe here with us. And not even Grigory would dare cross the prince. The prince said you’re to be protected.”
I didn’t know what to say, other than I knew it couldn’t simply be out of the goodness of his heart. He had to have a purpose for treating me so well. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to find out what it was.
A rustle at the flap of the tent drew our attention, and in the next instant, the flap was blown aside to reveal Elation swooping over our heads. Kharan took a step back, surprise and alarm clear on her face, but then Elation landed on the top of one of the chairs, perching there as though it was especially for her.
A moment passed, and the three of us stared at each other, one after the other. The strangest urge to laugh gripped me.
“I hope this eagle is yours and not some poor confused bird who has mistaken this tent for her tree,” Kharan said finally.
I smiled. “I wouldn’t say she’s mine, but I do know her.”
“You’re a falconer, then?”
I shook my head. “Not exactly. She’s more a friend and companion than anything.”
“It’s been too long since I saw someone who had such a close relationship with an eagle. There were many in my tribe who hunted with them, but I never had the affinity for it.” She watched Elation with a wistful look. “The prince enjoys falconry and keeps many birds of prey, but none so large as this.”
Finding that the prince and I had birds of prey in common did nothing to comfort me. I didn’t want to see him as human at all. Not with such a beastly reputation. I wanted, suddenly, to ask her opinion of Prince Alexander, but something stayed my tongue. Kharan might have been courteous, even friendly, but I also couldn’t forget to whom she owed her loyalty.
Keep your own counsel, Babushka always said, and so I did.
I said nothing, my hand gently stroking the soft feathers on Elation’s head.
“How long has the eagle been with you?” Kharan asked.
“For as long as I can remember.” The eagle had appeared one day in the woods just beyond the village, where I often gathered herbs, and had watched me, but I’d thought nothing of it. Until she was there the next day and the next, and then I’d find her watching from the trees closer to the village— her beautiful golden eyes interested and, to my lonely mind, friendly. It had seemed just a figment of my imagination, really. But soon I began to think of her as my friend.
I’d started talking to her then. First, only in my own head, but later, in whispered confessions.
It wasn’t until recently that she had shown any sign other than her constant vigilance that she cared for me at all.
I thought of that dark night in the woods, alone and hunted, terrified of not only my pursuers but of my own self—of what I’d done. The eagle had descended from the sky like the firebird of legend, her feathers illuminated by the glow of my small campfire. She’d brought me a hare. She kept me alive. But most of all, she offered me what I wanted most: companionship.
“An eagle is a good friend to have, falconer or not.” Kharan’s voice broke through my thoughts. She nodded to herself once, her gaze turning faraway again. After a moment, she gestured
toward the flap of the tent. “I’m sure you’re thirsty after that journey. I’d meant to have water waiting in a pitcher, but it took them longer than they expected to set up this tent—they only just finished before you arrived. I’ll return shortly with water and news of supper.”
“That’s kind of you—thank you.”
When she left, I took better note of my surroundings. I ran my hand over the softness of the fur on the bed, examined the comb made of bone upon the small table, and ultimately found myself drawn to the chest of beautiful clothing.
Whoever had packed the chest was clearly familiar with dressing wealthy ladies, for it was filled with not only the gowns but with glittering jewelry, embroidered and gemstone-studded belts, silky veils, and two woolen cloaks trimmed in fur. Three pairs of slippers were included, each more impractical than the next: two made of soft deerskin and one of gold silk. I glanced down at my leather boots lined with rabbit fur that, while not as pretty, were much more capable of handling a sleigh ride through the snow.
More important, it was Dedushka who had made them for me.
It’s usually the city dwellers who wear boots, he’d said one cold night when he’d returned home with doeskin and rabbit fur, but I thought you should have a pair to keep your feet warm when you’re in the woods.
You’ll spoil the girl, Babushka had said, eyes narrowing in disapproval. Get her used to a life she can never have.
Dedushka hadn’t responded for a moment, only continued to sharpen his skinning knife. It won’t hurt to give her something special for once.
Babushka shook her head but didn’t argue anymore. For her, that was as good as giving her blessing.
Thinking of them made me homesick, though I’d been gone only a few hours. Our village was small, only a derevnya with no church or even a place to buy supplies, but it was built around a lumber mill, and there was no shortage of work to be done. Dedushka had been a hunter as well as a logger, and Babushka was a weaver as well as an herbalist. I pictured her now: her hands moving quickly over the loom that sat in the
very center of our izba. Many times had I woken from my small cot by the window to find her already awake and weaving, her gnarled hands still agile enough to work the loom. It was the herbalism, though, that she’d passed on to me. We’d spent countless hours in the forest beyond our village, searching for everything from pine needles, which could bring down swelling in the body when brewed and drunk as a tea, to violets, which could be used to help relieve congestion in the chest. After gathering the herbs, we’d return home and spend hours categorizing. I didn’t have much skill in drawing, but I learned to draw and write well enough to keep a journal of medicinal herbs and their uses. Yet another thing that had been left behind when I’d been exiled.
I thought of our izba now. It was small, and nothing compared to this celestial tent, but it was beautiful in its own way. The eaves and window frames were carved with woodland scenes: deer and leaves, squirrels and nuts and berries. The elegant lines of a horse head watched over the many people coming and going from the ridgepole of the roof. Dedushka always said he’d carved it for good luck.
It hadn’t brought him luck in the end.
Elation made a little whistling sound, and I went to her side. She closed her eyes and leaned her head into me, and I did the same.
“The accommodations here are very fine,” I whispered to her, “but I’m afraid it may all be a gilded cage.”
Long after the sun had set and the candles had burned down nearly halfway, Kharan returned with water. I’d spent the entire time wondering about my fate and trying unsuccessfully to understand why I’d been thus far treated like I was a guest and not a captive, thoughts that left me anxious.
“My apologies for taking so long,” she said, setting the pitcher down on the small washing table. “I was coerced into helping prepare supper.”
She poured water into a copper cup and handed it to me.
“Thank you,” I said, immediately taking a drink.
“Supper is ready if you’re hungry,” she said. “It’s only hare stew, but Boris takes his stews very seriously.”
This seemed yet another example of being treated decently, which only served to put me further on edge. Though Kharan had told Grigory I wasn’t a prisoner, I couldn’t help but still feel like one. Did I have the freedom to leave if I chose? Ivan certainly made it clear that I didn’t. But then again, I knew a normal
captive wouldn’t have a tent like this one. “Supper would be lovely,” I said, “only, I’d like to ask you something first.”
She tilted her head. “Of course.”
“Why am I being treated this way? Can I expect the same treatment from the prince when we arrive in Kiev?”
She blinked at my questions as though surprised, but I didn’t regret my bluntness. I’d rather know my fate than wait for it to play out before my eyes. “The prince isn’t cruel like he is rumored to be,” Kharan said after a moment. “You have committed a grave crime, but yours is a rare ability.” She leaned closer as if imparting a secret. “I would use that to your advantage.”
“It’s a monstrous ability that I want nothing to do with.” My words seemed to fill the space around us, echoing like a declaration.
Silence followed, and then Kharan said gently, “Then we will speak no more of it tonight. Will you still eat?”
I hesitated, running my hand over my frigid arm. The hunger within my stomach roared to life, reminding me that it had been at least a day since I’d last eaten.
She walked over to the tent flap and held it aside. “Come, then. I can’t promise the company will be what you’re used to, but the food will be good.”
The moment I stepped outside, I took a deep, cleansing breath. The vastness of the sky above, dotted with countless bright stars, relaxed muscles I hadn’t even realized were tense. It was the same sky I’d seen from my izba, and from the forest beyond our village. As long as I can see the stars, I told myself, I won’t feel so far from home.
Kharan led me toward a blazing fire, toward the rich smell of food, toward the low sounds of men talking.
“Cold fire, they called it,” one of the men was saying just loud enough for me to hear. I stopped. He leaned toward the others and lowered his voice. “It was so cold it shattered anything it touched.”
Before he could say more, though, he caught sight of us and paled under his scruffy brown beard.
“I thought it would be best to have Katya enjoy her supper out here with us,” Kharan said, interrupting the heavy silence that had overtaken the camp. “Don’t make me regret my decision.”
Ivan stood and offered me his seat closest to the fire. “Sit. Join us.”
Not wishing to offend him, though the spot was in far too conspicuous a location, I took the proffered seat with a small smile. “Thank you.”
Kharan brought me a steaming bowl of the stew, a hunk of dark bread, and a mug of kvas. A bite of the stew revealed it to be just as flavorful as its smell suggested, with herbs and vegetables that made it both savory and aromatic. “This is delicious,” I said, and the man who was speaking when we first arrived smiled.
“I did the best I could with limited ingredients,” he said.
“Boris is just trying to impress you,” Ivan said beside me. “He brought an entire bag full of food for just this simple meal.”
I smiled and took a drink of my kvas, which was as good as the stew: both tangy and mildly sweet. “I’m impressed either way.”
The others turned back to their meals, and I quietly ate mine. Slowly, they grew used to my presence among them, and conversations cropped up around me. They talked of ordinary things, work and family and hunting, and mentioned nothing of fire—cold or otherwise. And I was able to relax and enjoy my meal, the feel of a full stomach, the lingering taste of the kvas on my tongue.
“Finish up,” Ivan said after the men’s bowls remained empty and no further trips to the kettle were made. “We leave at dawn.”
“How much farther to Kiev?” I asked.
“An easy day’s ride.”
Not much longer, then, to enjoy my relative freedom. What would the palace be like? And the prince? I glanced up again at the stars above me.
As though reading my mind, Grigory said, “Soon enough you’ll meet the prince.” It was the first he had said to me since the moment Kharan had interrupted his attempt to intimidate me. “Let’s hope he finds you worthy.”
The guard with the scruffy beard and love for cooking scoffed, “How could he not? Did you not hear my tale?”
I winced at this as the others shifted uncomfortably. In just those few words, the relative camaraderie I’d been enjoying around the campfire was shattered.
“I did hear it, and we’ve heard many tall tales like that before,” Grigory said, and again, the ice began to spread over my skin.
“Grigory, not again.” The warning came from Kharan, who shook her head in an attempt to silence him.
Grigory held up his hand in peace. “I have only an innocent question. If you’re so powerful, then why didn’t you save yourself when the villagers captured you?”
I stayed silent. Why answer? What was the point? I knew Grigory’s type: they trod on anyone they considered weaker than them just to inflate their own egos.
“Is that a tear I see shining in your eye? Did I touch on a sore spot, dearie?” Grigory continued with a laugh.
I lifted my gaze to meet his cruel smile, and for just a moment, I fantasized about releasing my power on him—just to see the expression wiped from his face. After what had happened in
the village, though, these thoughts so disturbed me that I came suddenly to my feet.
“By all the saints, that’s enough, Grigory,” Kharan snapped.
Eager to escape, I thrust my bowl at the cook and mumbled my thanks. My hands shook as the ice in my veins grew stronger, colder.
I turned on my heel and hurried back to my tent. As my mind produced image after image of the many ways I could take revenge on Grigory, deep down I knew the answer to his
Just because I had power didn’t mean I had to use it.
Elation turned her head toward me as I burst through the flap of the tent. She made a sound that could have been one of greeting or surprise—or both. I was too agitated to decode it. The cold had hardened my skin again, dropping the temperature of the air around me, and making the flames of the candles dim as I
passed by. The ice only appeared when I was upset in some way, and I was definitely upset now. My heart was pounding in my ears. I wanted to escape—could see myself turning around and fleeing the way I’d come, Elation by my side. But I wasn’t so foolish as to think that just because I had been given luxurious
accommodations and good food, I wasn’t being watched. The moment I set foot outside, they would track my every step.
There is one way I could escape, I thought, but then I shuddered violently and pushed such malevolent thoughts aside.
I couldn’t do that. Not even to save myself.
“Katya?” a voice called from the other side of the flap. It was Kharan. “May I enter?”
I answered by pulling aside the flap for her.
She held up two mugs of kvas and a piece of fine cloth. “Pryaniki?” she offered as she opened the cloth to reveal four glazed cookies. The sweet smell of honey and spices wafted up.
They were my favorite; I could practically taste the sweet gingerbread now. At home, they were a special treat that I only ever got to eat at Christmastime.
“This is kind of you,” I said, and stepped aside so she could enter.
Kharan came in and sat on one of the many furs carpeting the ground, folding her legs under her. I joined her, and she handed me one of the mugs.
She placed the cloth with the cookies closest to me, and I took one and bit into it.
“I didn’t want you to miss out on the pryaniki,” she said, taking a bite of one herself. “I thought it would be too cruel of a punishment.”
“They’re very good,” I said with a small smile.
She watched me take a sip of the kvas. “Grigory can be a miserable little snake, but I hope you won’t judge us all by his actions.”
It wasn’t Grigory I was concerned about. Not when I thought about the person such a man was guardsman for. “Grigory is no different from many I’ve met before. But the prince . . . how would you describe him?”
She looked at me pointedly. “You are asking, I’m sure, if the rumors about him are true.”
She shrugged one shoulder. “It depends on the rumor. Is he searching for those of us with abilities? Yes. Is he drinking our blood? Not that I know of.”
I looked at her in surprise. “You, too, have an ability like mine?”
“Not as strong as yours, but yes.”
It was rather shocking to find out that not only Ivan had power, but Kharan, too.
“What is your ability?” I asked as she took a sip of kvas.
“I’d have to give you a demonstration,” she said with a glitter in her eye. “Not here, though. Perhaps when we return to the palace.”
I was almost afraid to find out. I didn’t wish my own ability on anyone else. Once, it had only made me the object of derision, but then it had manifested in such horrible destruction that the villagers had no choice but to turn me out. To me, abilities had always been something to be feared. It was odd to hear Kharan speaking of her own ability so lightly.
“One thing I will say about the prince,” she said, “he is driven to protect his people. Some find him aloof, even cold, but that’s because he is always focused on his goal.”
“And what is his goal for me?”
Her eyes danced a bit, but not in a mean way. “We’ll have to wait and see.” She brushed off crumbs from her skirt as she finished the last bite of her gingerbread. “Have you ever been to Kiev?”
I shook my head. “I’ve barely been farther than the woods surrounding my village.”
“It’s one of the greatest cities in the world,” she said fondly. “Traders come from all over, bringing cloth and food and furs. Almost anything you could want to buy is right there in the marketplace. The palace serves meals like every day is a feast day, and the fires and braziers burn brightly all day and night.”
“It does sound exciting.”
She nodded. “You’ll be safe there.”
Safe from what? I wanted to ask, but at that moment, Elation flapped her wings. I turned to look at her and could tell she wanted to fly. “She wants to hunt,” I told Kharan, coming to my feet.
She looked at me curiously. “An eagle that hunts at night?”
I pulled aside the flap for her and she flew through gracefully. “I’m not sure what she does, honestly. She always returns, though, which is all I care about.”
She stood, too. “I should let you rest. Ivan will be barking orders for us to pack up before the sun has even made it past the horizon.”
“Thank you for the pryaniki.”
“I hope it allowed me to make amends for supper,” Kharan said with a smile.
I let myself smile back. “That wasn’t your fault, but I’m glad you came anyway.”
Kharan might have been loyal to the prince, but I found myself thinking of her as someone I could talk to. I’d never had someone I could confide in, not really, and especially no one close to my own age. There was something about her that put me at ease—not enough that I could confide everything; I didn’t think I’d ever feel that close to anyone—but at least enough that I wouldn’t fear for my life tonight.
But tomorrow . . . tomorrow I would face the prince.
I awoke before dawn, and for one blissful moment, I thought I was back in the izba with Babushka and Dedushka. But then I remembered.
And once the memories began to flow, they were so painful that I pressed my eyelids closed with my fingers. Desperate to distract myself, I threw aside my bedding and fumbled around for the candle in its little golden holder. I’d left one candle burning, which was possibly foolish considering I was sleeping in a flammable tent, but I couldn’t bear to sleep in total darkness among men I didn’t trust. Besides, I knew Elation wouldn’t let me burn to death. She’d flown in again sometime after I’d gone to bed and perched on the back of the chair. Even now I could just make out the shimmer of her eyes in the gloom.
I carried the smaller candle by my bedside over to the one on the table and lit it. As I cast my gaze around the tent, the clothes chest seemed to call out to me again. I walked over and stared at the beautifully embossed lid before finally opening it. The fine clothing waited there, even more lovely in the soft light. I glanced down at my rubhaka, now hopelessly wrinkled. Still, as I looked at the gowns, with all their many colors, I wondered which would be appropriate for travel. Would the gown look ridiculous over my boots? Should I wear a veil and the jewelry? What about the belt?
With a sound of disgust, I slammed the lid closed. I had been raised a peasant. What did I know of fine clothing? Kharan said I was being summoned, but it was clear that I was a captive— at least until I stood before the prince. To dress as a princess seemed ridiculous at worst and presumptuous at best—no matter
that the prince himself had sent the garments. Perhaps it was merely to play a cruel trick on me, to have me arrive dressed in such finery only to be laughed and mocked.
A rustle came at the entrance of my tent then, followed by a soft voice calling my name. Elation ruffled her feathers and turned her gaze toward the entrance. I walked over and held aside the flap.
There, Kharan waited in the early morning light, dressed for travel in a beautiful long coat, tied at the waist with a golden sash and trimmed in fur. It was as midnight black as her hair,
with golden threads embroidered throughout. She wore boots like mine of rough leather.
“The others are already striking the tents. Would you like to eat with me while they take yours down?”
I nodded. “Let me just get my coat.”
After I’d retrieved it and returned to her, I nodded toward her beautiful clothing. “Your coat is lovely.”
She held out part of the wool fabric. “Thank you. This is a deel. I have two that I was able to bring with me from my village—this one, made of wool, and another, made of satin.” She held out a hand and touched the rough fabric of my red skirt. “Yours is beautiful, too.” She leaned close. “I think it’s a better choice for travel than anything the prince sent.”
I gave her a relieved smile. “Thank you. This is one of the only outfits I brought with me from home, but it’s my favorite.”
“Did you do the embroidery yourself?”
“Yes, only I had the help of Babushka . . .” I trailed off as pain shot through my chest. I remembered her last words to me, and it made me desperate to go back, to speak to her again . . . to ask for the forgiveness I hadn’t received.
“There were many people I loved who I left behind, too,” Kharan said, and I knew my expression revealed how distraught I was. She reached out and touched my arm. “Would you like hot tea and kasha? It won’t make the pain go away, but it will at least fill your belly.”
Not trusting my voice with my throat closing on unshed tears, I nodded and managed a small smile.
She led me to the campfire that hadn’t been stamped out yet, and as I ate and drank, I watched the men pack up the tents and various supplies on a wagon pulled by wide, shaggy ponies. My enormous tent was rolled and stored, the bed broken down, the chest hefted onto the wagon. Elation disliked the newly chaotic environment and took flight, perhaps to seek out something to eat, or to simply escape because she could.
At one point Kharan left and went to the line of horses tied to low tree branches. When she returned, she was leading a wheat-colored pony. I watched with some surprise as she fed him some of her own kasha.
“Is this one yours?” I asked.
She smiled at him proudly. “Yes, this is Daichin. He came with me all the way from the steppes and isn’t as magnificent, perhaps, as some of the desert-bred horses the prince has, but Daichin is the one thing I can call my own.”
I thought of Elation, and though she wasn’t mine by any means, I could still sympathize with Kharan. “If he made the long journey here with you, then I understand your attachment.”
She petted him and I did the same, marveling at his thick coat. “He’s a hardy thing,” I said, and I could tell just from his flinty hooves that he was tough and reliable.
“He is,” she agreed, scratching beneath his forelock. “Strong enough to bring me all the way here without a moment’s lameness. Though he has grown fat in the prince’s stables. He’s not used to being pampered in a stall. At home on the steppes he’d be digging through thick snow for his food like every other horse. I ride him every day to keep him from becoming too sedentary, but it’s not enough.”
“It takes skill to be fat even in winter,” I said with a smile.
Kharan laughed. “This is true, but when the horses are dining on kasha as delicious as any that would be prepared for us, then they can’t help but grow rounded bellies.” She glanced down at the bowl of kasha she was even now sharing with him sheepishly. “I suppose I’m partly to blame, too.”
After a much shorter length of time than I would have thought possible—I had only just finished my tea and porridge—the contents of the camp were loaded. Ivan walked over to us, his steps quiet on the fresh snow.
“Ready to travel to Kiev?”
As if I have a choice, I thought, but nodded.
Ivan had the sleigh ready, and he offered me his hand, roughened by cold winters and hard work, to help me into it. I settled down and drew my coat tight, nerves and fear churning unpleasantly inside me. Despite my treatment here, I knew I wouldn’t avoid facing the prince’s judgment. The punishment for death and destruction caused in my own village would be unavoidable. I steeled myself for what lay at the end of today’s journey.
Kharan mounted Daichin beside me, and Ivan settled in to drive the sleigh, the two white horses stamping their hooves as if eager to be off. The other men formed pairs in front of and behind us without having to be told. Their horses were heavy battle chargers, and I thought uneasily of what Ivan had said about the road to Kiev not always being safe.
Ivan signaled the lead guards to go on ahead, and then our sleigh was gliding over the snow, the sounds of jingling harnesses and horse hooves filling the woods. The sound was cheerful, but it made me think of chains. I couldn’t shake my apprehension, however amiable most of the guards had been to me.
It was almost more frightening to be treated with compassion than to have been greeted with aggression. At least then I would have known where I stood. The luxurious tent and even Kharan’s kindness made me fear a trick—something I was no stranger to.
I watched the snow-laden trees as we passed by, and it felt as though ice crystals were slowly forming over my skin. I had learned that kindness was usually cruelty in disguise, that those who grew more powerful from the belittling of others usually liked to provide their victims with something they could take away. As a prisoner who had been exiled by her village, I had so very little else that could be taken away from me.
Only a month had passed since I’d lost control. It had never happened before. My power—if it could even be called by such a name—had only ever subjected me to mockery. Sometimes, I could do simple things with it, like freeze water into ice—not a particularly useful skill in winters as brutal as ours. And the village children I’d grown up with found it endlessly amusing to put me in situations they knew would result in me becoming as stiff as a corpse—anything from simple teasing to hitting me with sticks to see if I’d flinch.
But that day was different. For one thing, I’d never been pushed that far before.
Ironically, when I lost control, I wasn’t the one being targeted—the victim was the one person other than Babushka who treated me with any kindness: Dedushka.
His given name was Lev, and he had once been as strong and respected as the lion he was named for. That was before he became a world traveler—long before he took me in. He and Babushka had wandered across the snowy world, making trade and accruing vast amounts of knowledge, particularly in the healing arts. But when they finally returned to the tiny village where they had first settled, they were treated with suspicion and disdain. The other villagers wrongly believed that because Lev and his wife had traveled far and wide, they then thought of themselves as superior to the humble people of the village. It didn’t help when they took in a babe left for dead in the cold winter woods—a girl with strange powers. Me.
In the end, my adoptive grandparents were only tolerated because of Babushka’s gift of healing and Dedushka’s hard work as a logger. But as Dedushka grew older, his strength failed him,
and eventually he could no longer work as he once had. Then it was his wood carving and stories that provided an occupation of sorts. He spun tales of far-off places we could never hope to see, of magic and monsters and creatures of legend, which held us all enthralled long into the night.
On this particular evening, he’d sat by a fire, surrounded by young and old from the village. He told us of warriors who rode animals several times larger than a horse—war elephants, they called them. Enormous and intelligent, with more brute strength than a warhorse. He told of golden books detailing the strategy of using such animals, of how the Persians had once used them to terrify and destroy whole Rus’ military units.
The melodic tone of his voice, the way he used his entire body to paint a picture of his tales—these traits made it impossible not to listen once he started talking.
Though I could feel myself being drawn in, I had remained a safe distance away from the others, hovering just outside the warmth of the fire. Dedushka’s sharp eyes had landed on mine, and he grinned and beckoned to me welcomingly.
“Come, join us, dear girl,” he said.
Several eyes landed on me and narrowed warningly. The men were in a dark mood that evening already. At the mill, one of the chains holding the logs in place had rusted and broken, spilling many weeks’ worth of work. They would be picking up logs for days. “I’m fine where I am,” I answered, skin prickling.
Dedushka’s smile widened in spite of the tension around the fire. “Nonsense. You cannot be comfortable hovering in the shadows. Come sit by me—surely these fine men will move.”
“Not for her,” Sergei said, the scar above his lip twisting cruelly with his sneer. Rodya, his brother and his friend, as always, followed his lead.
“Not for the Ice Witch,” he said.
Dedushka watched me for a moment, judging my reaction. It had been a long time since I’d come crying to Babushka and Dedushka after being taunted by others, and I’d done my best to hide it from them once I was old enough to stifle my cries. I remained as still as a statue. “An accusation of power and magic
is not one to take lightly,” he said finally. “It seems foolish to taunt such a person.”
“He has a valid point,” Yury, one of the few men of sense in the village, said. “What does it matter to you if she sits here with us?”
“I don’t want her to think she’s anything other than a burden on this village,” Sergei said, his small eyes shifting to mine.
“Katya is no burden,” Dedushka said in his calm but firm way. “She has never asked for anything from anyone in this village, and especially not from you, Sergei.”
Sergei’s hand tightened into a fist at his side, for he was well known for his volatility. “You’ve always thought you were better than us, haven’t you, Lev?” He jerked his chin in my direction. “That you could even force us to accept that Ice Witch no one wanted. Well, you were wrong.”
“Go home, witch!” Rodya said, eyes flashing just like his brother’s.
“You’re letting the misfortune of our work today anger you,” Yury said, exasperation creeping into his tone. “If you cannot be at peace, then go home. Leave the rest of us to enjoy the evening.”
Dmitri, one of Sergei’s friends, glared at Yury. “Why are you defending the witch?”
“Because we only want a bit of peace,” Viktor, Yury’s cousin, added with a shake of his head.
The others were treating this casually, as though it was only a tantrum being thrown by a child, but I could read the danger in the air. It charged the space around us like the threat of lightning.
And then Dedushka came slowly to his feet, aided by his beautifully carved walking stick. “Take my seat, then. I won’t continue until you do.”
I hesitated, but I didn’t want to leave him standing there alone. As I walked closer, Sergei leaped to his feet and grabbed me.
“Let go,” I said as ice spread over my body.
Sergei only grinned, knowing there was little I could do.
“Enough of this, Sergei,” Dedushka said, his voice deep with warning, but we all knew he was no longer strong enough to be a threat.
But then Dedushka surprised us both by reaching for Sergei’s arm. Sergei jerked it out of his reach, but in doing so he lost his hold on me. I spun away.
The other men shouted as Sergei began to grapple with Dedushka. He knocked Dedushka down, and Dedushka fell painfully to the logs they’d been sitting on with an audible thump.
I screamed, and something ignited within me. A rush of cold escaped from my outstretched hand, dousing the fire instantly.
Everyone, including me, was stunned. Never before had my power done anything more than turn my skin cold and hard or freeze small buckets of water.
A flicker of fear passed across Sergei’s face, and he reacted as he always had—by lashing out. “You see? He has brought a witch into our midst, just as I said!” He yanked Dedushka roughly to his feet before catching his brother’s eye. Rodya and Peter grasped Dedushka under each arm. Dedushka struggled to escape their hold, but he was no match for their strength.
“Anatoly will never stand for this,” Dedushka said. “Unhand me. Now.”
“What are you doing?” Yury demanded of Rodya and Boris. They ignored him and pushed past him unheedingly. “Then I will go to Anatoly.” And Yury left to find the village elder.
When Yury left, it was as though the one voice of reason left, too. Even Viktor, who had spoken up before, said nothing now. The others who had been sitting around the circle, though they had stood when I’d doused the fire, did not speak. I couldn’t tell then if their silence meant they agreed with Sergei.
“We’ll leave now,” I said, desperation clawing at my throat as I caught hold of Rodya’s arm. “Only let him go.”
But he backhanded me, the blow strong enough to send me flying to the ground, though the ice of my skin prevented it from causing me any real harm.
“It’s too late for that,” Sergei said. “We’ve tolerated him for too long.” He stared at me. “He should have never taken in a stray witch.”
“Stop,” I shouted. “Please.”
They dragged him toward the trees at the very edge of the village, and I lurched forward to follow. The threat of violence hovered, a dark cloud infusing the men with cruel power.
When someone produced the length of rope, I knew the threat would become a promise of murder. Dedushka fought them, wildly, but he could not escape their grasp. I pushed through the crowd of men, each of them flinching away the moment my hand made contact with them. I was radiating cold, so much that frost hovered in the air around me like an aura.
“Let him go!” I yelled, snatching at Sergei’s arm.
He shoved me away. “Shut up, or we will hang you both, witch.”
They made a noose and wrapped it around the old man’s neck. Dedushka cried out. Rodya wrenched my arms behind my back, and then it was difficult to say what happened next.
I remember the ice in my veins spreading outward. I remember encouraging it instead of trying to stop it.
The power bubbled up from within me like a geyser, cold and ruthless. As the men threw the rope over the branch, the cold fire burst forth in an explosion that illuminated the night sky. Blue in color, blindingly blue—brighter than the sky. My skin was hard as marble, shielding me from its cold.
The men scattered with terrified shouts, but the blue fire clung to them, spreading over their bodies and consuming them faster than the hottest blaze. They shattered when they hit the ground.
Some made it as far as the village, and the fire spread to the huts and buildings. It froze the carefully built structures instantly, and then the people living inside the izby shattered like shards of glass. Half the village was destroyed in an instant.
But the worst of it was that Dedushka had been consumed just as Sergei and Rodya had been. I found his small body, broken in several pieces as though he was a statue instead of a once living, breathing man.
I’d killed him as surely as if I’d fastened the rope around his neck.
It was the suddenly increased pace of the men and Kharan on horseback and Ivan in our sleigh that dragged me from my dark thoughts. As the trees blurred by, and the horses’ nostrils flared, both with the effort to pull the heavy sleigh and to carry the men at such a fast clip, a sense of foreboding gripped me. If we were so close to Kiev—an easy day’s ride, as Ivan had told me— then why was such a pace necessary?
The rush of wings close enough to ruffle the fur on my hood drew my attention. Elation had finally returned. She let out a low whistle and ascended rapidly into the sky, far above us. There, she banked, making a wide circle around us, one golden eye on me at all times.
She had found something.
“Ivan,” I shouted, but my voice was swallowed by the wind. Still, his back and shoulders tensed noticeably, and he reached for his sword.
Up ahead, a bend in the road revealed the reason for Elation’s agitation and the men’s breakneck pace.
Armed raiders were pouring from the trees, a wave of men in ragged clothing with unkempt beards, their archers firing arrow after arrow over us as men on foot attacked our guards. The state of their dress and their dirty, unwashed faces made me think they were acting out of desperation. And desperate men were dangerous.
Before long, we were forced to a jarring stop.
Kharan was to the rear of the sleigh on her hardy little pony, and I feared for them both. The prince’s men surrounded the sleigh, shielding me with their bodies.
An arrow zipped through the air, perilously close to the hood of my coat. Tension rippled over me, and my skin hardened into impenetrable ice, leaving me with a grim stoniness.
The guards sprang into action around me, cutting down the raiders closest to them. The battle was loud and chaotic, the shouts of men and the twang of metal meeting metal. In the chaos, I lost track of Kharan.
I resisted the urge to shout at the guardsmen to move away, to engage the raiders and not worry about me, but of course it was their job to deliver me to the prince in one piece. My earlier plan to escape during the confusion of the battle flitted through my mind, but as I looked around at the flying arrows and the flashing swords, I realized I hadn’t truly expected us to be attacked. Nor had I realized just how terrible a battle would be.
From atop his perch on the sleigh, Ivan cut down one of the raiders—the horses plunging and rearing as raiders attempted to break them free from their harnesses. One nearly succeeded in pulling Ivan, and I fought the warring desire within me to come to Ivan’s aid.
Not that way, I thought. Not when it could mean his death along with the raiders’.
Boris wielded his sword like a knight out of a fairy tale, but even with his obvious prowess, more and more men surrounded him until I feared he’d be overtaken.
Grigory fought raiders at the base of a tall pine tree, his blade somehow parrying the many that flew at him. Then something unexpected happened. Grigory raised his other arm, and the tree itself groaned, bending and swaying as if under a powerful wind. Next I saw the boughs smashed into the raiders closest to Grigory, sending them flying into crumpled heaps in the snow. I remembered then that Kharan had said others had abilities like mine, and I realized Grigory must be able to control the trees.
Another arrow pulled my attention away from Grigory as it whistled past me and nearly hit its mark: Daichin. At some point he had lost his rider, and as he galloped out of the line of fire, I scanned the battle for Kharan. Finally, I saw her, not far from Grigory. She held a dagger to the throat of the raider who’d fired the arrow that narrowly missed her horse. In the next instant, he was dead, blood pouring from his throat. She turned to another threat: two more raiders, who circled around her with jagged blades. I thought of how kind Kharan had been to me, and the ice on my skin spread; the palms of my hands tingling with the temptation to destroy the raiders the only way I knew how. I shook with the effort to hold myself back.
But then I remembered I had another option. I held out my arm, and Elation, though she had stayed far above the skirmish, dived at my call.
The loud clash of swords still rang out, but Elation didn’t flinch. She glanced at me, her tawny eyes predatory. Waiting.
“Blind them,” I said, and sent thoughts of her daggerlike talons tearing into the raiders.
I lifted my arm in the air as she took off, her powerful wings carrying her toward the nearest cluster of enemies. Bloodcurdling screams greeted her outstretched talons as she tore into a man with a curved sword. As he dropped his weapon to cradle his face, she took off only to circle around again for another victim.
Just then, something crashed into the sleigh, distracting me from Elation’s battle. I turned to find Ivan slashing the throat of one of the raiders who had managed to almost climb aboard. The raider slumped off the sleigh, the smell of blood coppery in the air. And then another raider succeeded in pulling Ivan from the sleigh. A group of four swarmed him. He took down the first man easily—a quick thrust with his sword, but as he parried the weapons of two at once, the third smashed him with his hilt. Stunned, Ivan fell back against the sleigh, dazed and unsteady. Several times he tried to regain his footing and failed. The raider grinned, and to my horror, continued forward, as though he would finish Ivan off.
All around us, the other guards were being overwhelmed by the raiders.
Time seemed to slow as the blood pounded in my ears. I could see the choices before me:
I could summon Elation again to come to Ivan’s aid, but it wouldn’t be fast enough.
I could help him myself, possibly injuring him or even killing him in the process.
Or I could do nothing.
I shook my head—the last was not an option.
I jumped from the sleigh. The raider nearest me was caught off guard. It gave Ivan some room, and he kicked free of the men. “Katya, no!” he yelled as I inserted myself between him and the men. He wrenched at my shoulder weakly, shouting for me to move out of the way, but I ignored him.
Just do it, I thought. These are bad men—men who will kill you if the guards fall. I thought of my promise to myself: to never release the full extent of my power again.
But it was our only chance. Surely it was necessary.
I outstretched my arms and willed my hands to stop shaking.
Burn, I thought, as the cold fire poured out of my palms.