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The Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy #2)
Author:Katherine Arden

“Leave that,” Olga told her. “Go to the kitchens and see that the ovens are drawing. Make sure there is food ready. He will be hungry.”

Hastily, Olga’s women dressed the princess and her children, but before Olga was quite ready or her wine drunk, before Daniil and Marya had eaten their honey-drenched porridge, the footsteps sounded on the stairs.

Marya flew to her feet. Olga frowned. The child had a fey gaiety that belied her pallor. Perhaps the night was not forgotten after all. “Uncle Sasha is back!” Marya cried. “Uncle Sasha!”

“Bring him here,” Olga said. “Masha—”

Then a dark figure stood in the gap of the door, face shadowed by a hood.

“Uncle Sasha!” Marya cried again.

“No, Masha, it is not right, to address a holy man so!” cried her nurse, but Marya had already overset three stools and a wine-cup and run up to her uncle.

“God be with you, Masha,” said a warm, dry voice. “Back, child, I am all over snow.” He put his cloak and hood aside, flinging snow in all directions, made the sign of the cross over Marya’s head, and embraced her.

“God be with you, brother,” Olga said from the oven. Her voice was calm, but the light in her face stripped away her winters. She added, because she could not help it, “Wretch, I was afraid for you.”

“God be with you, sister,” the monk returned. “You must not be afraid. I go where the Father sends me.” He spoke gravely, but then smiled. “I am glad to see you, Olya.”

A cloak of fur hung clasped about his monk’s robe, and his hood, thrown back, revealed black hair, tonsured, and a black beard rattling with icicles. His own father would barely have recognized him; the proud boy had grown-up, broad-shouldered and calm, soft-footed as a wolf. Only his clear eyes—his mother’s eyes—had not changed since that day ten years ago when he rode away from Lesnaya Zemlya.

Olga’s women stared surreptitiously. None but a monk, a priest, a husband, a slave, or a child might come into the terems of Moscow. The former were generally old, never tall and gray-eyed with the smell of faraway on their skin.

One serving-woman, gawky and with an eye to romance, could be heard incautiously telling her neighbor, “That is Brother Aleksandr Peresvet, Aleksandr Lightbringer, you know, the one who—”

Varvara smacked the girl, and she bit her tongue. Olga glanced at her audience and said, “Come to the chapel, Sasha. We will give thanks for your return.”

“In a moment, Olya,” Sasha replied. He paused. “I brought a traveler with me out of the wild, and he is very ill. He is lying in your workroom.”

Olga frowned. “A traveler? Here? Very well, let us go see him. No, Masha. Finish your porridge, child, before you go racing about like a bug in a bottle.”

THE MAN LAY ON A FUR RUG near the stove, melting snow in all directions.

“Brother, who is he?” Olga could not kneel, vast as she was, but she tapped her teeth with a forefinger, and considered the pitiful scrap of humanity.

“A priest,” Sasha said, shaking water from his beard. “I do not know his name. I met him wandering the road, ill and raving, two days from Moscow. I built a fire, thawed him a little, and brought him with me. I had to dig a snow-cave yesterday, when the storm came, and would have stayed there today. But he grew worse; it seemed he would die in my arms. I thought it worth the risk of traveling, to get him out of the weather.”

Sasha bent deftly to the sick man and drew the wraps from his face. The priest’s eyes, a deep and startling blue, stared up blankly at the rafters. His bones pressed up beneath his skin, and his cheek burned with fever.

“Can you help him, Olya?” the monk asked. “He’ll get nothing but a cell and some bread in the monastery.”

“He’ll get better than that here,” Olga said, turning to give a rapid series of orders, “although his life is in God’s hands, and I cannot promise to save him. He is very ill. The men will take him to the bathhouse.” She surveyed her brother. “You ought to go as well.”

“Do I look as frozen as that?” the monk asked. Indeed, with the snow and ice melted away from his face, the alarming hollows of cheek and temple were evident. He shook the last of the snow from his hair. “Not yet, Olya,” he said, rousing himself. “We will pray, and I will eat something hot. Then I must go to the Grand Prince. He will be angry that I did not come to him first.”

THE WAY BETWEEN CHAPEL and palace was floored and roofed, so that Olga and her women could go to service in comfort. The chapel itself was carved like a jewel-box. Each icon had its gilded cover. Candlelight flashed on gold and pearls. Sasha’s clear voice set the flames shivering when he prayed. Olga knelt before the Mother of God and wept a few tears of painful joy, where none might see.

Afterward they retired to chairs by the oven in her chamber. The children had been led away, and Varvara had sent off the waiting-women. Soup came, steaming. Sasha swallowed it and asked for more.

“What news?” Olga demanded as he ate. “What kept you on the road? Do not put me off with mouthings about the work of God, brother. It is not like you to miss your hour.”

Despite the empty room, Olga kept her voice down. Private talk was almost impossible in the crowded terem.

“I rode to Sarai and back again,” said Sasha lightly. “Such things are not done in a day.”

Olga gave him a level glance.

He sighed.

She waited.

“Winter came early in the southern steppe,” he said, relenting. “I lost a horse at Kazan and had to go a week on foot. When I was five days, or a little more, from Moscow, I came across a burnt village.”

Olga crossed herself. “Accident?”

He shook his head slowly. “Bandits. Tatars. They had taken the girl-children, to sell south to the slave-market, and made a great slaughter among the rest. It took me days to bless and bury all the dead.”

Olga crossed herself again, slowly.

“I rode on when I could do no more,” Sasha went on. “But I came across another village in like case. And another.” The lines of cheek and jaw grew more marked as he spoke.

“God give them peace,” Olga whispered.

“They are organized, these bandits,” Sasha went on. “They have a stronghold, else they’d not be able to raid villages in January. They also have better horses than the usual, for they could strike quickly and ride away again.” Sasha’s hands flexed against his bowl, sloshing soup. “I searched. But I could find no sign of them, other than the burning and the tales of peasants, each worse than the last.”