Pyotr, grieving, had promised. But then his wife had let go his hand, had lain back in her bed, and her eyes had looked beyond him. She smiled once, soft and joyful, but Pyotr did not think the look was for him. She did not speak again and died in the gray hour before dawn.
And then, Pyotr thought. They made ready a hole to receive her, and I bellowed at the women who tried to bar me from the death-chamber. I myself—I wrapped her cold flesh, that stank still of blood, and with my own two hands put her in the ground.
All that winter his infant daughter had screamed, and he could not bear to look the baby in the face, because her mother had chosen the child and not him.
Well, now he must make amends.
Pyotr squinted at his ax-handle. “I am going to Moscow when the rivers freeze,” he said into the silence.
The room erupted in exclamations. Vasya, who had been drowsing, heavy with fever and hot honey-wine, squeaked and poked her head over the side of the oven.
“To Moscow, Father?” asked Kolya. “Again?”
Pyotr’s lips thinned. He had gone to Moscow in that first, bitter winter after Marina’s death. Ivan Ivanovich, Marina’s half brother, was Grand Prince, and for his family’s sake, Pyotr had salvaged what he could of their connection. But he had taken no woman, then or later.
“You mean to marry this time,” said Sasha.
Pyotr nodded curtly, feeling the weight of his family’s stare. There were women enough in the provinces, but a Muscovite lady would bring alliances and money. Ivan’s indulgence for the husband of his dead sister would not last forever. And, for his small daughter’s sake, he needed a new wife. But…Marina, what a fool I am, to think I cannot bear it.
“Sasha and Kolya, you will come with me,” Pyotr said.
Delight quite overspread the censure on his sons’ faces. “To Moscow, Father?” asked Kolya.
“It is two weeks’ riding if all goes well,” said Pyotr. “I will need you on the road. And you have never been to court. The Grand Prince ought to know your faces.”
There was chaos in the kitchen then, as the boys exchanged delighted exclamations. Vasya and Alyosha both clamored to go. Olga begged for jewels and good cloth. The elder boys retorted gloatingly, and in arguing, pleading, and speculation, the evening passed.
THE SNOW FELL THRICE, deep and solid, after midwinter, and after the last snowfall came a great blue frost, when men felt their breath stop in their nostrils and weak things grew apt to die in the night. That meant the sledge-roads were open, the roads that ran down snow-covered rivers smooth as glass and sparkled over dirt tracks that in summer were a misery of ruts and broken axles. The boys watched the sky and felt of the frost and took to pacing the house, oiling their greasy boots and scraping the hair-fine edges of their spears.
At last the day came. Pyotr and his sons rose in the dark and spilled into the dooryard as soon as it grew light. The men were gathered already. The keen dawn reddened their faces; their beasts stamped and snorted clouds of steam. A man had saddled Buran, Pyotr’s evil-tempered Mongol stallion, and was clinging, white-knuckled, to the beast’s headstall. Pyotr slapped his waiting mount, dodged the snapping teeth, and swung into the saddle. His grateful attendant fell back, gasping.
Pyotr kept half an eye on his unpredictable stallion; the rest was for the seeming chaos around him.
The stable-yard seethed with bodies, with beasts, with sledges. Furs lay mounded beside boxes of beeswax and candles. The jars of mead and honey jostled for room with bundles of dried provisions. Kolya was directing the loading of the last sledge, his nose red in the morning chill. He had his mother’s black eyes; the serving-girls giggled as he passed.
A basket fell with a thud and a puff of dry snow, almost under the feet of a sledge-horse. The beast shied forward and sideways. Kolya sprang out of the way, and Pyotr started forward, but Sasha was before them. He was off his mare like a cat, and next instant had caught the horse by its headstall, talking into its ear. The horse stilled, looking abashed. Pyotr watched as Sasha pointed, said something. The men hurried to take the horse’s rein and seize the offending basket. Sasha said something else, grinning, and they all laughed. The boy remounted his mare. His seat was better than his brother’s; he had an affinity for horses, and he bore his sword with grace. A warrior born, thought Pyotr, and a leader of men; Marina, I am fortunate in my sons.
Olga ran out the kitchen door, Vasya trotting in her footsteps. The girls’ embroidered sarafans stood out against the snow. Olga held her apron in both hands; piled within were dark, tender loaves, hot from the oven. Kolya and Sasha were already converging. Vasya tugged on her second brother’s cloak while he ate his loaf. “But why may I not come, Sashka?” she said. “I will cook your supper for you. Dunya showed me how. I can ride your horse with you; I am small enough.” She clung to his cloak with both hands.
“Not this year, little frog,” Sasha said. “You are small—too small.” Seeing her eyes sad, he knelt in the snow beside her and pressed the remainder of his bread into her hand. “Eat and grow strong, little sister,” he said, “so that you are fitted for journeys. God keep you.” He put a hand on her head, then sprang again to the back of his brown Mysh. “Sashka!” cried Vasya, but he was away, calling swift orders to the men loading the last wagon.
Olga took her sister’s hand and tugged. “Come on, Vasochka,” she said when the child dragged her feet. The girls ran up to Pyotr. The last loaf was cooling in Olga’s hand.
“Safe journey, Father,” Olga said.
How little my Olya is like her mother, Pyotr thought, for all she has her face. Just as well—Marina was like a hawk in a cage. Olga is gentler. I will make her a fine marriage. He smiled down at his daughters. “God keep you both,” he said. “Perhaps I will bring you a husband, Olya.” Vasya made a sound like a muted growl. Olga blushed and laughed, and almost dropped the bread. Pyotr stooped in time to seize it and was glad he had; she had slit the crust and spooned honey inside, to melt in the heat. He tore off a great hunk—his teeth were still good—and paused, blissfully chewing.
“And you, Vasya,” he added, stern. “Mind your sister, and stay near the house.”
“Yes, Father,” said Vasya, but she looked longingly at the riding-horses.
Pyotr wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The mob had come to something resembling order. “Farewell, my daughters,” he said. “We are going; mind the sledges.” Olga nodded, a little wistful. Vasya did not nod at all; she looked mutinous. There was a chorus of shouting, the cracking of whips, and then they were away.