Home > Spinning Silver(16)

Spinning Silver(16)
Author: Naomi Novik

“Did you hear something?” I said, my voice hushed, and then he climbed down and took out a knife from under his coat as he came towards me, and I realized I’d forgotten to worry about anything else but magic. I shoved the heaped blankets and straw towards him as a too-fragile barricade as I scrambled out the other side of the sledge. “Don’t,” I blurted. “Oleg, don’t,” my heavy skirts dragging in the snow as he came around for me. “Oleg, please,” but his face was clenched down, cold deeper than any winter. “It’s not my gold!” I cried in desperation, holding the purse out between us. “It’s not mine, I have to pay it back—”

He didn’t stop. “None of it’s yours,” he snarled. “None of it’s yours, little grubbing vulture, taking money out of the hands of honest working men,” every word out of his mouth familiar as a knife: it was the story again, only a little different; a story Oleg had found to persuade himself he wasn’t doing wrong, that he had a right to what he’d take or cheat, and I knew he wouldn’t listen to me. He would leave my body for the wolves, and go home with the gold hidden under his coat, and say I had been lost in the woods.

I dropped the purse and gripped two big handfuls of my skirts and struggled back, floundering through the deep snow, higher than my thighs. He lunged, and I flung myself away, falling backwards. The crust atop the snow gave beneath my weight, and branches out of the underbrush clawed my cheek. I couldn’t get up. He was standing over me, his knife in one hand and the other reaching down to grab me, and then he halted; his arms sank down to his sides.

He wasn’t showing me mercy. A deeper cold was coming into his face, stealing blue over his lips, and white frost was climbing over his thick brown beard. I struggled back to my feet, shivering. The Staryk was standing behind him, a hand laid upon the back of his neck like a master taking hold of a dog.

After a moment he dropped his hand. Oleg stood blank between us, bloodless as frostbite. He turned and slowly went back to the sledge and climbed into the driver’s seat. The Staryk didn’t watch him go, as if he cared nothing for what he had done; he only looked at me with his eyes as gleaming as Oleg’s blade. I was shaking and queasy. There were tears freezing on my eyelashes, making them stick together. I blinked my eyes open and held my hands tight until they stopped trembling, and then I bent down and picked up the purse out of the deep snow, and held it out.

The Staryk came closer and took it from me. He didn’t pour the purse out: it was too full for that. Instead he dipped his hand inside and lifted out a handful of gold to tumble ringing back into the bag through his fingers, until there was only one last coin held between his white-gloved fingers, shining like sunlight. He frowned at it, and me.

“It’s there, all sixty,” I said. My heart had slowed, because I suppose it was that or burst.

“As it must be,” he said. “For fail me, and to ice you shall go, though my hand and crown you shall win if you succeed.” He said it as if he meant it, and also angrily, although he had set the terms himself: I felt he would almost have preferred to freeze me than get his gold. “Now go home, mortal maiden, until I call on you again.”

I looked over helplessly at the sledge: Oleg was sitting in the driver’s seat, staring with his frozen face out into the winter, and the last thing I wanted was to get in with him. But I couldn’t walk home from here, or even to some village where I could hire another driver. Oleg had turned off the road to bring us here: I had no idea where we were. I turned to argue, but the Staryk was already gone. I stood alone under pine boughs heavy with snow, with only silence and footprints around me, and the deep crushed hollow where I had fallen, the shape of a girl outlined in the drift, like a child playing might have made.

It began to snow even while I stood there, a thick steady snow that forced my hand. I picked my way gingerly to the sledge and climbed back inside. Oleg shook the reins silently, and the mare started trotting again. He turned her head towards the trees, away from the road, and drove deeper into the forest. I tried to decide whether I was more afraid to call out to him and be answered, or to get no reply, and if I should try to jump from the sledge. And then suddenly we came through a narrow gap between trees onto a different road: a road whose surface was pale and smooth as a sheet of ice, gleaming white. The rails of the sledge rattled once, coming onto the road, and then fell perfectly silent. The horse’s heavy-shod hooves went quickly on the ice, the sledge skating along behind her. Around us, trees stretched tall and birch-white, full of rustling leaves; trees that didn’t grow in our forest, and should have been bare with winter. I saw white birds and white squirrels darting between the branches, and the sleigh bells made a strange kind of music, high and bright and cold.

I didn’t look behind me, to see where the road came from. I huddled back into the blankets and squeezed my eyes shut and kept them so, until suddenly there was a crunching of snow beneath us again, and the sledge was already standing outside the gate of my own yard. I all but leapt out, and darted through the gate and all the way to my door before I glanced around. But I needn’t have run. Oleg drove away without ever looking back at me.

Chapter 8

“Wanda,” Miryem said to me, the morning after she came back, “will you take this to Oleg’s house? I forgave him a kopek for waiting for me, in Vysnia.” She gave me a written receipt, but she didn’t meet my eyes as she asked. There were red scratches across the back of her jaw and cheek, as though a branch had caught her there, or something with claws.

I said, “Yes, I will go.” I put on my shawl and took the note, but when I came to Oleg’s house, down the lane and around a corner, I stopped across the street and stood watching. Two men were carrying away his body to the church. I saw his face for a moment. His eyes were open and staring, and his mouth was blue. His wife was sitting huddled near the stables. The neighbors were converging on the house with covered dishes. One of them stopped in front of me. I had met Varda: she had still owed a small sum when I had started collecting, and she had paid the balance off with three young, laying chickens. She said to me sharply, “Well? What do you want in this house? The flesh of the dead?”

Kajus was coming to the house too with his wife and son, carrying a big steaming jug of krupnik. “Come now, Panova Kubilius, it is Sunday. Surely Wanda is not collecting,” he said.

“He earned a kopek off his debt for driving Miryem to Vysnia,” I answered. “I came to bring the receipt.”

“There, you see,” Kajus said to Varda, who scowled back at him and me both.

“A kopek!” she said. “One less for his poor wife to take out of her children’s mouths to fatten the Jew’s purse. Give it to me! I will take it to her, not you.”

“All right, Panova,” I said, and gave her the paper. Then I went back to Miryem and told her that Oleg was dead, outside his own stables, found lying frozen and staring blindly upwards, his horse and sledge put away.

She heard me out silently, and said nothing. I stood with her a few moments, and then because I could think of nothing else to do, I said, “I will go and feed the goats,” and she nodded.

The next day I was collecting out of town, down the east road. Everyone had heard by then. They asked me if it was true and were sorry when I said it was. Oleg had been a big cheerful man who would buy beer and vodka for friends in the roundhouse during winter, and he would bring a widow a load of firewood when he was driving one for himself. Even my father, when I came home and told him, exclaimed in regret. When they buried him on Tuesday, his widow was the only one of the mourners who came back from the churchyard with dry eyes.

Everyone spoke of it, but not as a thing that the Staryk had done. His heart had burst, they said, shaking their heads. It was sad when such a thing happened to a strong man, a big healthy man. But it was not strange to anyone that he had frozen to a block during a deep winter night.

I did not say anything about it to anyone, except to Sergey, when we stood in the road together, with the woods silent and bright in moonlight. He was on his way to stay the night again. Miryem hadn’t told him to stop coming, even though he couldn’t do anything to stop the Staryk. She hadn’t stopped paying us our pennies, either. Most of the time we were able to forget, to convince ourselves he was only coming to look after the goats. So he kept going, and ate two meals a day in their house, and we buried the pennies by the white tree on our way home.

“Do you remember?” I asked him, and he went still. We had never spoken of what had happened to him in the wood, never.

He did not want to talk of it, I could tell, but I stood with him, my silence asking for me, and at last he said, “I was cleaning a rabbit. He rode out of the trees. He told me the woods were his and I was a thief. Then he said…” Sergey stopped, gone strange and hollow-faced, and shook his head. He did not remember, and he did not want to remember.

“Did he ride a thing with claws on its hooves? And wear shoes with a long toe?” I asked, and Sergey nodded once.

So it was the same one: not only a Staryk, but a Staryk lord, and if he had not lied, he was lord of the whole forest. I had heard people say in the market that it went all the way to the shores of the northern sea. A great lord of the Staryk was coming to Miryem for gold, and if she could not give it to him, I knew we would find her dead in her yard, with curled-toe boot prints around her.

And then there would be no more debt to pay. As soon as he heard she was dead, my father would tell me I was done with payments. He would be ready to shout away Miryem’s father, but he wouldn’t even have to. Her mother would have eyes red with weeping, but even in her grief she would think of me. The next time I came, she would tell me that the debt was paid, that I had done enough. To keep working, I would have to tell my father they were paying me, and then he would take the coin. Every day he would come home from town drunk, and take my penny, and hit me to go and get his dinner. And it would be like that every day after, forever.

“We could tell him we were being paid, but less,” I said to Sergey, but he looked doubtful, and I understood. Our father suspected nothing now. Why would anyone pay us, when he was sending us for free, and they did not have to? But if we told him we were being paid, so he would let us keep going, then he would become suspicious. He would go and demand of Miryem’s father how much we were being paid, and Panov Mandelstam would answer him honestly. We could not ask him to lie for us. He would only look at us with distress, that we wanted to lie to our father, and be sorry he could not help us.

   
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