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

“I am Brother Aleksandr,” Sasha called. “I am no bandit and no Tatar. I will help you if I can.”

Silence behind the door, then a skittering of conversation. The door flew open. The woman inside had an ax in her hand and a bruised face. Beside her stood a priest, streaked with blood and soot. When these two saw Sasha, tonsured, indubitably a monk, their makeshift weapons dropped a fraction.

“May the Lord bless you,” said Sasha, although the words stuck in his throat. “Can you tell me what happened here?”

“What matter?” said the priest, full of wild-eyed laughter. “You have come too late.”

IN THE END, IT was the woman who spoke, and she could tell them little. The bandits had come at daybreak, fine snow flying from their horses’ hooves. There had been a hundred at least—or it seemed so. They were everywhere. Nearly all the men and women died under their swords. Then they went for the children. “They took the girl-children away,” the woman said. “Not all—but many. One man looked into each of our girls’ faces and seized the ones he wanted.” In the woman’s hand lay a small, bright kerchief that had clearly belonged to a child. Her wavering gaze rose, found Sasha’s. “I beg you will pray for them.”

“I will pray for them,” said Sasha. “We will find these bandits if we can.”

The riders shared what food could be spared and helped make a pyre for the half-burned bodies. Sasha took some fat and linen and eased the burns of the survivors, although there were those who would have benefited more from the mercy-stroke.

At dawn they rode away.

The Grand Prince threw the burnt village a look of dislike as it disappeared into the forest. “We will be a season on the road, cousin, if you must bless every corpse and feed every mouth we meet. As it is, we have lost a day. Not one of those people will last the winter where they are—not with their grain all burned—and it did the horses no good to stop.”

Dmitrii was still white to the lips.

Sasha made no answer.

IN THE THREE DAYS after their first burnt village, they came upon two more. In the first, the villagers had succeeded in slaying a bandit’s horse, but the raiders had retaliated with great slaughter before firing the chapel. Their iconostasis was splinters and blowing ash, and the survivors stood around it, staring. “God has abandoned us,” they told Sasha. “They took the girls. We await judgment.”

Sasha blessed the villagers; they returned only empty stares, and he left them.

The trail was very cold. Or perhaps there had never been a trail.

The third village was simply deserted. Everyone had gone: men, and women, babes and grandmothers, down to the stock and the hens, their tracks muffled in new snowfall.

“Tatars!” Dmitrii spat, standing in this final village, with the smell of stock and smoke lingering. “Tatars indeed. And you say I will not have my war, Sasha, and take God’s vengeance on these infidels?”

“The men we seek are bandits,” Sasha retorted, breaking off the icicles that had gathered in Tuman’s whiskers. “You cannot take vengeance on a whole people because of the doings of a few wicked men.”

Kasyan said nothing. The next day he announced that he and his men meant to leave them.

Dmitrii returned coldly, “Are you afraid, Kasyan Lutovich?”

Another man would have bristled; Kasyan looked thoughtful. By then the men were all pallid with cold, with swipes of color across nose and cheeks. The distinction between lord and monk and guardsman had quite vanished. They all resembled irascible bears, huddled as they were in layers of felt and fur. Kasyan was the exception: composed and pale as he had been in the start, his eyes still quick and bright.

“I am not afraid,” said Kasyan coolly. The red-haired boyar spoke little, but listened much, and his steady hand on bow and spear had won Dmitrii’s grudging respect. “Though these bandits are more like demons than men. But I must be home. I have stayed away too long.” A pause. Kasyan added, “I will return with fresh hunters. I ask only a few days, Dmitrii Ivanovich.”

Dmitrii considered, absently clearing the rime of frost from his beard. “We are not far from the Lavra,” he said at last. “It will do my people good to sleep behind walls. Meet us there. I can give you a week.”

“Very well,” said Kasyan equably. “I will go back by the river; I will ask in the towns there—for these ghosts must eat like other men. Then I will gather strong men, and I will meet you at the monastery.”

Dmitrii nodded once. He gave little outward sign of weariness, but even he was wearing down with the smoke and uncertainty, the long, unrelenting frost.

“Very well,” the prince said. “But do not forsake your word.”

KASYAN AND HIS MEN left in a steaming, bitter dawn, while a glorious fall of sunlight made their campfires into streamers of scarlet, gold, and gray. Sasha and Dmitrii and the rest were left silent, and strangely forsaken, when their comrades rode away.

“Come,” said the Grand Prince, gathering himself. “We will keep good watch. Not far to the Lavra now.”

So they went along, dogged, nerves stretched thin. Though they dug trenches beneath their sleeping places and piled the coals from their fires, the nights were long, and the day full of sharp wind and blowing snow. Long riding in bitter weather had stripped the flesh from the horses’ ribs. No sign of pursuit did they have, only a creeping sense of being watched.

But at dawn, two weeks after setting out, they heard a bell.

Morning came slowly in the deep winter, and the sun lay behind a thick white haze, so that sunrise had been only a series of shifts: black to blue to gray. At the first hint of color in the eastern sky, the bell sounded above the trees.

More than one haggard face lightened. They all crossed themselves. “That is the Lavra,” one man told another. “That is the dwelling of holy Sergius, and no god-damned bandits—demons—will we have in there.”

The horses’ heads hung low, and the column passed through the forest with a keener watch than usual. There was a sense—unspoken, but shared—that today, so near shelter, when the horses were stumbling from weariness, these phantoms might finally attack.

But nothing stirred in the wood, and they soon broke out of the trees into a clearing that contained a walled monastery.

The challenge met them before their horses were well clear of the wood, cried by a monk keeping watch on the wall-top. In answer, Sasha put back his hood. “Brother Rodion!” he bellowed.

The monk’s stolid face broke into a smile. “Brother Aleksandr!” he cried, and spun to shout orders. There came a clamor from the yard below, a creaking, and the gates swung ponderously out.

An old man, clear-eyed, with a snowy tumble of beard, stood waiting for them in the gap, leaning on a stick. Despite his weariness, Sasha was off his horse in an instant, Dmitrii only a step behind him. The snow crunched beneath their booted feet when they bent together and kissed the old man’s hand.