It was late winter in northern Rus’, and the rain hurled itself down as though to punish the quivering earth. Before noon, a mass of boiling cloud had vanquished the daylight, and in a certain snow-shrouded village, every soul scurried for the shelter of huts and houses, of hot ovens and thin soup. At dusk nothing moved at all save the gleeful rain and the firelight beating at the peasants’ windows.
In the largest house of that village, a woman opened her wooden door and paused at the threshold. The cold rain was like hailstones, half-ice. The ground was slush and muck and water. But the woman firmed her lips and drew her cloak about her. Beyond the village’s wooden palisade lay a forest: a forest that had sheltered children and eaten armies. Shivering, the woman passed the palisade-gate and slipped beneath the trees. She wore linen and felt and fur, with a hood over her kerchief-wrapped head. Her dark hair stuck to her dripping face.
She stopped at the foot of an ancient oak. Its heavy limbs writhed and rattled above her. From her cloak she withdrew a tiny loaf of bread. She laid it in the snow. “For us both,” she said, clenching her callused hand. “Do not forget.”
But when she straightened, she gave a little choked gasp and stumbled backward. In the shadows stood a man. Behind him was a shining whiteness, wavering as though underwater. But the man did not seem to notice the rain. He took up the bread where she’d left it lying. “Is this to encourage me to go?”
The woman was white to the lips, but she had recovered her self-possession. “Twenty years and I have never seen you.”
The man shrugged. “You knew I was here. And you knew that one day you would see me.” He turned the bread over in his long fingers.
“Not now. Not yet.” Her voice was hoarse.
The man said nothing. The wind did not stir his hair or the hem of his robe. Day had given way to dark.
“Please.” She reached out a hand.
The man looked impatient. He slipped the bread into his sleeve. “I did not bid you see me. Go home, Marina Ivanovna. It is a wild night.”
The woman’s pulse beat in the hollow of her throat. “Not now.”
He raised a black eyebrow. “I do not choose the hour. You will summon me, and I must answer.”
“Never,” she said. She nerved herself to meet his eyes. “I will never summon you.”
He smiled sardonically. “You will beg,” he said. “You will turn your face from all else. I will come for you and you will reach out to me.”
The woman shrank away. The man was looking her up and down, though she could not see that in the murk. There was a strange light in his eyes. “You are not asking for yourself, are you?”
The woman shook her head.
“Well then,” said the man. His eyes were deep-set and his hair striped his face like shadow. “Marina Ivanovna, say that you summon me and I—delay.” The keenest observer could not have told whether he mocked or was in earnest. “Say I stay my coming. What price your days, lady?”
“Only a fool would bargain,” said the woman.
He stepped closer. “There are many fools. And there is always a price.”
“What do I have that you want?” said Marina.
Suddenly she had a knife in her hand. He laughed. “The blood will run true in her. Even now I can see it. Perhaps she will be an ordinary girl regardless; men and women are made of more than blood. But—perhaps she will not. And if that is true, she will have powerful enemies. Her cousin is the prisoner of a mad sorcerer and lives in torment.”
A line showed between the woman’s brows. The knife-blade drooped a fraction.
“I will protect her,” he added, more gently. “And if it comes to it, I will ease her dying.”
“I do not trust you,” said Marina.
“It does not matter if you trust me or not.” He had come nearer. Marina clenched her teeth. The knife was bravado; such as he could not be wounded with blades. His hand was an inch from her cheek. “I might delay my coming until your babe is born, but no longer. You will not be there to protect her. You will not see her grown, and there is no one else.” She could feel the cold of him on her skin, harsher than the night.
Marina said nothing. She sheathed her knife. She was beginning to shiver.
“Or you might die here,” said the man said, with mild disgust. “Talking to nightmares.” He unfastened his fur robe and flung it round her shoulders. Marina nerved herself, but he did not touch her. The heavy fur was dry despite the torrent.
“A child is not a horse; she cannot be given,” she said.
“There must be a link between her and I,” said the man. “Otherwise I cannot come to her—save at the last. But she is no good to me dead. I am not as men, who can go where they like by wishing. Give me leave now, while you and she are one flesh. That is enough.”
There was a small silence. His voice dropped and hardened. “Otherwise neither of you will see the summer.”
Marina’s face stilled. “Very well,” she said. Her knife was in her hand. She slashed it across her palm, and raised the blood between them, no longer flinching. “Swear to me that you will not speak her one word until she is grown. Swear to me that you will not seek her out, but wait for her to find you—if she does. And swear to protect her.”
The man’s eyes had narrowed. “You are brave.”
Marina said nothing.
Finally and surprisingly, the man laughed. He threw back his head, still laughing, and Marina stumbled backward. “As you like,” he said. He reached out and took her bleeding hand, pressing the palms together so that his skin was stained with her blood. “I can only hope the child is like its mother. And I swear it, Marina Ivanovna, on the ice and the snow and on a hundred lives of men.”
He bowed suddenly, laughing still. “Until the next time,” he said, and was gone. The fur robe slipped from Marina’s shoulders and fell at her feet with a splash, and it was not fur at all but only a little heap of half-melted snow.
“May it be long in coming,” the woman murmured, and turned back the way she had come.