/ Language: English / Genre:sf,

Enchantment

Orson Card


Orson Scott Card

Enchantment

1

Leaves

"I'm ten years old, my whole life you've called me Vanya. My name is on the school records, on government papers as Ivan Petrovich Smetski. Now you tell me I'm really Itzak Shlomo. What am I, a Jewish secret agent?"

Vanya's father listened silently, his face as smooth, weathered, and blank as parchment. Vanya's mother, who was merely hovering near the conversation rather than taking part in it, seemed to be having a little trouble keeping herself from smiling. In amusement? If so, at what? At Vanya? At her husband's sudden discovery of their intense commitment to Judaism?

Whatever the cause of her almost-smile, Vanya did not want to be ridiculous. Even at the age often, dignity was important to him. He calmed himself, spoke in more measured tones. "We eat pork," he pointed out. "Rak. Caviar."

"I think Jews can eat caviar," offered his mother helpfully.

"I hear them whispering, calling me zhid, they say they only want to race with Russians, I can't even run with them," said Vanya. "I've always been the fastest runner, the best hurdler, and yesterday they wouldn't even let me keep time. And it's my stopwatch!"

"Mine, actually," said Father.

"The principal won't let me sit in class with the other children because I'm not a Russian or a Ukrainian, I'm a disloyal foreigner, a Jew. So why don't I know how to speak Hebrew? You change everything else, why not that?"

Father looked up toward the ceiling.

"What is that look, Father? Prayer? All these years, whenever I talk too much, you look at the ceiling—were you talking to God then?"

Father turned his gaze to Vanya. His eyes were heavy—scholar's eyes, baggy and soft from always peering through lenses at a thousand hectares of printed words. "I have listened to you," he said. "Ten years old, a boy who thinks he's so brilliant, he rails on and on, showing no respect for his father, no trust. I do it all for your sake."

"And for God's," offered Mother. Was she being ironic? Vanya had never been able to guess about Mother.

"For you I do this," said Father. "You think I did it for me? My work is here in Russia, the old manuscripts. What I need from other countries is sent to me because of the respect I've earned. I make a good living."

"Made," said Mother.

For the first time it occurred to Vanya that if he was cut out of school classes, Father's punishment might be even more dire. "You lost your place at the university?"

Father shrugged. "My students will still come to me."

"If they can find you," said Mother. Still that strange smile.

"They'll find me! Or not!" cried Father. "We'll eat or not! But we will get Vanya—Itzak—out of this country so he grows up in a place where this mouth of his, this disrespect for everyone that doesn't measure up to his lofty standards, where they will call it creativity or cleverness or rock and roll!"

"Rock and roll is music," said Vanya.

"Prokofiev is music, Stravinski is music, Tchaikovski and Borodin and Rimski-Korsakov and even Rachmaninov, they are music. Rock and roll is smart boys with no respect, you are rock and roll. All the trouble you get into at school, you will never get into university with this attitude. Why are you the only child in Russia who doesn't learn to bow his head to power?"

Father had asked this question at least a dozen times before, and this time as always, Vanya knew that his father was saying it more in pride than in consternation. Father liked the fact that Vanya spoke his mind. He encouraged it. So how did this become the reason for the family to declare itself Jewish and apply for a visa to Israel? "You make a decision without asking me, and it's my fault?"

"I have to get you out of here, let you grow up in a free land," said Father.

"Israel is a land of war and terrorism," said Vanya. "They'll make me a soldier and I'll have to shoot down Palestinians and burn their houses."

"None of that propaganda is true," said Father. "And besides, it won't matter. I can promise you that you will never be a soldier of Israel."

Vanya was scornful for a moment, until it dawned on him why Father was so certain he wouldn't be drafted into the Israeli military. "Once you get out of Russia, you aren't going to Israel at all."

Father sighed. "What you don't know, you can't tell."

There was a knock at the door. Mother went to answer.

"Maybe here in Russia you aren't in class for a while," said Father. "And this nonsense of running, you'll never be world champion, that's for Africans. But your mind will be quick long after your legs slow down, and there are countries where you will be valued."

"Which other countries?" asked Vanya.

Mother was letting somebody into the apartment.

"Maybe Germany. Maybe England. Canada, maybe."

"America," whispered Vanya.

"How do I know? It depends where there's a university that wants an aging scholar of ancient Slavic literature."

America. The enemy. The rival. The land of jeans and rock and roll, of crime and capitalism, of poverty and oppression. Of hope and freedom. All kinds of stories about America, from rumor, from the government press. It was 1975 and the Vietnam War had ended only a few years ago—America had bloody hands. But through all the propaganda, the rivalry, the envy, one message was constant: America was the most important country on earth. And that's where Father wanted him to grow up. That's why Mother's Jewish relatives were suddenly the only ones who counted, they and Father's grandmother on his mother's side. To get them to America.

For a moment, Vanya almost understood.

Then Mother came back into the room. "He's here."

"Who's here?" asked Vanya.

Father and Mother looked at him blankly.

"He's called a mohel," said Mother finally. Then they explained what this old Jewish man was going to do to Vanya's penis.

Ten seconds later, Vanya was down the stairs, out on the street, running for his life, running in despair. He was not going to let a man take hold of his member and cut bits of it off just so he could get on a plane and fly to the land of cowboys. By the time he came home, the mohel was gone, and his parents said nothing about his abrupt departure. He took no false hope from this. In Vanya's family, silence had never meant surrender, only tactical retreat.

Even without the mohel, though, Vanya continued to take solace in running. Isolated at school, resentful at home, cut off from romping with his friends, he took to the streets again and again, day after day, running, dodging, leaving behind him ever-grumpier mutters and shouts of Slow down! Watch your step! Show some respect! Crazy boy! To Vanya that was part of the music of the city.

Running was the way he dreamed. Having never been in control of his own life, his idea of freedom was simply to break free. He dreamed of being at the mercy of the wind, carried aloft and blown here and there, a life of true randomness instead of always being part of someone else's purpose. Father's earnest, inconvenient plans for him. Mother's ironic vision of life as one prank after another, in the midst of which you did what was needed. What I need, Mother, is to kite myself up in the air and cut the string and fly untethered. What I need, Father, when you're setting out the pieces for your living chess game, is to be left in the box.

Forget me!

But running couldn't save him from anyone's plans, in the end. Nor did it bring him freedom, for his parents, as always, took his little idiosyncrasies in stride. In fact they made it part of their story; he overheard them telling some of their new Jewish friends that they had to be patient with Itzak, he was between realities, having had the old one stolen from him and not yet ready to enter the new one. How did they think of these glib little encapsulations of his life?

Only when Father underwent the male ritual of obedience himself did Vanya realize that this Jewish business was not just something they were doing to their son. Father tried to go about his ordinary work but could not; though he said nothing, his pain and embarrassment at showing it made him almost silent.

Mother, ever supportive, said nothing even to refer to what the mohel had done to her husband, but Vanya thought he detected a slight smirk on her face when Father asked her to fetch him something that ordinarily he would get up and find for himself. He wondered briefly if this meant that Mother thought the whole enterprise of believing in God was amusing, but as Father's wound healed and life returned to what passed for normal these days, Vanya began to suspect that, despite her irony, it was Mother who was a believer.

Perhaps she had been a believer all along, despite slathering the tangy, bacony lard on her bread like any other Russian. Father's discovery of his Jewishness was part of an overall strategy; Mother simply knew who ran the universe. Father was forcing himself to act like a believer. Mother showed not a doubt that God really existed. She just wasn't on speaking terms with him. "Six million Jews died from the Fascists," she said to Father. "Your one voice, praying, is going to fill all that silence? When a child dies, do you comfort the parents by bringing them a puppy to take care of?"

Mother apparently believed not only in the idea of God, but also that he was the very same God who chose the Jews back when it was just Abraham carting his barren wife around with him, pretending she was his sister whenever some powerful man lusted after her.

That was a favorite story for Vanya, as Father insisted that they study Torah together, going over to the apartment of a rabbi and hearing him read the Hebrew and translate. As they walked home, they would talk about what they'd heard. "These guys are religious?" Vanya kept asking. "Judah sleeps with a prostitute on the road, only it turns out to be his daughter-in-law so it's all right with God?"

The story of the circumcision of Shechem was Vanya's turning point. Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, gets raped by the prince of Shechem. The prince wants to marry her and Jacob agrees that this would make everything all right, only Dinah's twelve brothers are more interested in repairing the family's wounded honor than in getting their sister married to a rich man with a throne in his future. So they tell the prince that he and all the men of his city have to be circumcised, and when the men are all lying there holding their handles and saying Ow, ow, ow, the sons of Jacob draw their swords and slaughter them all. At the end of that story, Vanya said to his father, "Maybe I'll let the mohel do it to me."

Father looked at him in utter consternation. "That story makes you want to be circumcised?"

Vanya shrugged.

"Is there any hope that you can explain to me why this makes sense?"

"I'm thinking about it, that's all," said Vanya. He would have explained it, if he could. Before the story he refused even to think about it; after the story, it became conceivable to him, and, once he could conceive of it, it soon became inevitable.

Later, running, he thought maybe he understood why that story changed his mind. Circumcision was a foolish, barbaric thing to do. But having the story of Shechem in Torah showed that God himself knew this. It's barbaric, God seemed to be saying, and it hurts like hell, but I want you to do it. Make yourself weak, so somebody could come in and kill you and you'd just say, Thank you, I don't want to live anyway because somebody cut off part of my privates.

He couldn't explain this to his father. He just knew that as long as God recognized that it was a ludicrous thing to do, he could do it.

So for a few days Vanya didn't run. And it turned out that by the time the circumcision healed so he could run again, they took the city out from under him. The American Congress had antagonized the Russian government by tying most-favored-nation status to Russia's upping the number of Jews getting visas, and in reply the Russians cut the emigration of Jews down to nothing and started harassing them more. To Vanya's family, this had very practical consequences. They lost their apartment.

For Father, it meant no more consultations with students, no more visits with his former colleagues at the university. It meant the shame of being utterly dependent on others for food and clothing for his family, for there was no job he could get.

Mother took it all in stride. "So we make bricks without straw," she said. All his life Vanya remembered her making enigmatic comments like that. Only now he was reading Exodus and he got the reference and realized: Mother really is a Jew! She's been talking to us as if we were all Jews my whole life, only I didn't get it. And for the first time Vanya wondered if maybe this whole thing might not be her plan, only she was so good at it that she had gotten Father to think of it himself, for his own very logical, unreligious reasons. Don't become a practicing Jew because God commands it, become one so you can get your son a good life in America. Could she possibly be that sneaky?

For a week, they camped in the homes of several Jews who had no room for them. It couldn't last for long, this life, partly because the crowding was so uncomfortable, and partly because it was so obvious that, compared to these lifelong followers of the Law, Vanya and his parents were dilettantes at Judaism. Father and Vanya hacked at Hebrew, struggled to keep up with the prayers, and looked blankly a hundred times a day when words and phrases were said that meant nothing to them.

Mother seemed untroubled by such problems, since she had lived for a couple of years with her mother's parents, who kept all the holidays, the two kitchens, the prayers, the differentiation of women and men. Yet Vanya saw that she, too, seemed more amused than involved in the life of these homes, and the women of these households seemed even more wary of her than the men were of Father.

Finally it wasn't a Jew at all, but a second cousin (grandson of Father's grandfather's brother, as they painstakingly explained to Vanya), who took them in for the potentially long wait for an exit visa. Cousin Marek had a dairy farm in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, in a region that had been part of Poland between the wars, and so escaped Stalin's savage collectivization of the freehold farmers of Ukraine. Because this hill country was remote, strategically unimportant, and thinly populated, Communism here was mostly window dressing. Technically Cousin Marek's dairy herd was merely a portion of the herd belonging to the farflung dairy collective; in actual practice, they were his cows, to be bred and cared for as he wished. A good portion of the milk and cheese they produced didn't quite make its way into the state-run dairy system. Instead, it was bartered here and there for goods and services, and now and then for hard Western currency. Cousin Marek had the room, the independent attitude, and enough surplus to take in a few hapless cousins who had decided to become Jews in order to get to the West.

"The country life will be good for you, Vanya," said Father, though the sour expression on his face suggested that he had not yet thought of a way that the country life would be good for him. What Cousin Marek did not have was a university within three hours' travel. If Father was to lecture, he'd have to find a subject matter interesting to cows.

As for Vanya, though, Father was right. The country life was good for him. The chores were hard, for though Cousin Marek was a pleasant man, he nevertheless expected that everyone on the farm would work every day, and give full measure. But Vanya got used to labor quickly enough, not to mention the country food, the whole milk, the coarser, crustier, more floury bread they made in this part of Ukraine. The farm was good; but what he came to love lay beyond the farm. For in this backwater, some remnant of the old forests of Europe still survived.

"This is the rodina, the original homeland," Father told him. "Where the old Slavs hid while the Goths passed through, and the Huns. And then they were gone and we fanned out into the plain and left these hills to the wolves and bears." Our land. Father still thought like a Russian, not like a Jew.

What did Vanya care, at his age, about the original Russia? All he knew was that the country roads went on forever without traffic, and with grass growing where the wheels didn't make their ruts; and the trees grew large and ancient in the steep-sided hollows of the hills where no one had bothered to cut them down; and birdsong didn't have to fight to be heard above honking cars and roaring engines. Someone had spilled a milkpail of stars across the sky, and at night when there was no moon it was so dark you could bump into walls just trying to find the door of the house. It wasn't really wild country, but to Vanya, a city boy, an apartment dweller, it was a place of magic and dreams, like the paintings of Shishkin; Vanya half-expected to see bear cubs in the trees.

This was the place where all the fairy tales of his childhood must have taken place—the land of Prince Ivan, the grey wolf, the firebird; of Koshchei the Deathless, of Mikola Mozhaiski, of Baba Yaga the witch. And, because he came here about the same time as his first reading of Torah, he also pictured the wanderings of Abraham and Jacob and the children of Israel in this green place. He knew it was absurd—Palestine was hot and dry, the Sinai was stone and sand. But couldn't he picture the sons of Jacob coming back from herding sheep in these hills, to show their father the torn and bloody many-colored coat? Wasn't it from these hills that Abraham charged forth to do battle for the cities of the plain?

He couldn't fly here, either, but he could run until he was so exhausted and lightheaded that it felt as if he had flown. And then he grew bolder, and left the roads and tracks, searching for the most ancient and lost parts of the forest. Hours he'd be gone, exploring, until Mother grew worried. "You fall down a slope, you break your leg, nobody knows where you are, you die out there alone, is that your plan?" But Father and Mother must have discussed it together and decided to trust in his good sense and perhaps in the watchfulness of God, for they continued to allow him his freedom. Maybe they were simply counting on the visa to come and get him back to some American city where they could hide in their apartment from the gangsters' bullets and the rioting Africans that they always heard about.

If the visa had come one day earlier, Vanya wouldn't have found the clearing, the lake of leaves.

He came upon it in the midst of a forest so old that there was little underbrush—the canopy of leaves overhead was so dense that it was perpetually dusk at ground level, and nothing but a few hardy grasses and vines could thrive. So it felt as if you could see forever between the tree trunks, until finally enough trunks blocked the way or it grew dark and murky enough that you could no longer see beyond. The ground was carpeted with leaves so thick that it made the forest floor almost like a trampoline. Vanya began loping along just to enjoy the bouncy feel of the ground. Like walking on the moon, if the Americans really had landed there. Leap, bounce, leap, bounce. Of course, on the moon there were no tree limbs, and when Vanya banged his head into one, it knocked him down and left him feeling weak and dizzy.

This is what Mother warned me about. I'll get a concussion, I'll fall down in convulsions, and my body won't be found until a dog drags some part of me onto somebody's farm. Probably the circumcised part of me, and they'll have to call in a mohel to identify it. Definitely the boy Itzak Shlomo—on your records as Ivan Petrovich Smetski. A good runner, but apparently not bright enough to look out for trees. Sorry, but he was too stupid to go on living. That's just the way natural selection works. And Father would shake his head and say, He should have been in Israel, where there are no trees.

After a while, though, his head cleared, and he went back to bounding through the forest. Now, though, he looked up, scouting for low limbs, and that's how he realized he had found a clearing—not because of the bright sunlight that made the place a sudden island of day in the midst of the forest twilight, but because suddenly there were no more branches.

He stopped short at the edge of the clearing and looked around. Shouldn't it be a meadow here, where the sun could shine? Tall grass and wildflowers, that's what it should be. But instead it was just like the forest floor, dead leaves thickly carpeting the undulating surface of the clearing. Nothing alive there.

What could be so poisonous in the ground here that neither trees nor grass could grow here? It had to be something artificial, because the clearing was so perfectly round.

A slight breeze stirred a few of the leaves in the clearing. A few blew away from the rise in the center of the clearing, and now it looked to Vanya as if it was not a rock or some machine, for the shape under the leaves undulated like the lines of a human body. And there, where the head should be, was that a human face just visible?

Another leaf drifted away. It had to be a face. A woman asleep. Had she gathered leaves around her, to cover her? Or was she injured, lying here so long that the leaves had gathered. Was she dead? Was the skin stretched taut across the cheekbones like a mummy? From this distance, he could not see. And a part of him did not want to see, wanted instead to run away and hide, because if she was dead then for the first time his dreams of tragedy would come true, and he did not want them to be true, he realized now. He did not want to clear the leaves away and find a dead woman who had merely been running through the woods and hit her head on a limb and managed to stagger into the midst of this clearing, hoping that she could signal some passing airplane, only she fell unconscious and died and...

He wanted to run away, but he also wanted to see her, to touch her; if she was dead, then to see death, to touch it.

He raised his foot to take a step into the clearing.

Though his movement was ordinary, the leaves swirled away from his foot as if he had stirred a whirlwind, and to his shock he realized that this clearing was not like the forest floor at all. For the leaves swirled deeper and deeper, clearing away from his feet to reveal that he was standing at the edge of a precipice.

This was no clearing, this was a deep basin, a round pit cut deeply into the earth. How deep it was, he couldn't guess, for the leaves still swirled away, deeper, deeper, and the wind that had arisen from the movement of his leg carried them up and away, twisting into the sky like a pillar of smoke.

If that was a woman lying there, then she must be lying on a pedestal arising from the center of this deep hollow. Women who bumped their heads into tree limbs did not climb down a precipice like this and climb up a tower in the middle. Something else was going on here, something darker. She must have been murdered.

He looked at her again, but now many of the leaves that had blown up from Vanya's feet were coming to rest, and he couldn't quite see her face. No, there it was, or where it should have been. But no face now, just leaves.

I imagined it, he thought. It was that leaf—I thought it was a nose. There's no woman there. Just a strange rock formation. And a pit in the middle of the forest that had filled with leaves. Maybe it was the crater from an old meteor strike. That would make sense.

As he stood there, imagining the impact of a stone from space, something moved on the far side of the clearing. Or rather, it moved under the far side of the clearing, for he saw only that the leaves began to churn in one particular place, and then the churning moved around the circle, heading toward him.

A creature that lived in this hollow, under the leaves like a sea serpent under the waves. A terrestrial octopus that will come near me and throw a tentacle up onto the shore and drag me down under the leaves and eat me, casting only my indigestible head up onto the center pedestal, where it would eventually lure some other wanderer to step off into the pit to be devoured in his turn.

The churning under the leaves came closer. In the battle between Vanya's curiosity and his morbid imagination, the imagination finally won. He turned and ran, no longer bounding over the forest floor, but trying to dig in and put on speed. Of course this meant that his feet kept losing purchase as leaves slipped under them, and he fell several times until he was covered with leafmold and dirt, with bits of old leaves in his hair.

Where was the road? Was the creature from the pit following him through the forest? He was lost, it would turn to night and the monster would find him by his smell and devour him slowly, from the feet up...

There was the road. Not that far, really. Or he had run faster and longer than he thought. On the familiar road, with the afternoon sun still shining on him, he felt safer. He jogged along, then walked the last bit to Cousin Marek's farm.

Vanya never got a chance to tell about his adventure. Mother took one look at him and ordered him to bathe immediately, they'd been searching high and low for him, there was almost no time at all to get ready, where had he been? The visas had come through suddenly, the flight would leave in two days, they had to drive tonight to get to the train station so they could get to Kiev in time to catch the airplane to Austria.

Eventually, when they had time to relax a little, sitting on the plane as it flew to Vienna, Vanya didn't bother to tell them about his childish scare in the woods. What would it matter? He'd never see those woods again. Once you left Russia there was no going back. Even if you had left a mystery behind you in the ancient forest. It would just have to live on in his memory, a question never to be answered. Or, more likely, the memory of a childish scare that he had worked himself into because he always imagined such dramatic things.

By the time the plane landed in Vienna and the reporters flashed their lightbulbs and pointed TV cameras at them and the officials inspected their visas and various people descended on them to insist that his parents go to Israel as they promised or to inform them that they had the right to do whatever they wanted, now that they were in the free world—by this point, Vanya had persuaded himself that there was never a human face in the clearing, the pit was not as deep as he imagined, and the churning of the leaves had been the wind or perhaps a rabbit burrowing its way through. No peril. No murder. No mystery. Nothing to wonder about.

No reason for it to keep cropping up in his dreams, haunting his childhood and adolescence. But dreams don't come from reason. And even as he told himself that nothing had happened in the woods that day, he knew that something had happened, and now he would never know what the clearing was, or what might have happened had he stayed.

2

True Love

So Father's plan had worked after all. When they arrived in Vienna, it was a matter of a few hours' paperwork to confirm his appointment as a professor of Slavic languages at Mohegan University in western New York, where he would join a distinguished language faculty, the Russian jewel in a polyglot crown. Soon the family was established in what seemed to them a spacious house with a wild garden that led down to the shore of Lake Olalaga—which quickly became the familiar Olya, the common nickname for Olga, and sometimes, in whimsical moods, Olya-Olen'ka, as if the lake were a character in a folktale.

Raised on stories of America—and especially New York—being a jumble of slums and pollution, Vanya found the woods and farms and rolling hills of western New York to be a miracle. But none of the woods was half so ancient or dangerous-seeming as the forest around Cousin Marek's farm, and Vanya soon found that America might be an exciting place to arrive, but living there could become, in time, as boring as anything else.

Yet his father was satisfied. Vanya reached America young enough to become truly bilingual, quickly learning to speak English without a foreign accent, and taking to the way Americans pronounced his name—Ívan instead of Iván—eye-vun instead of ee-vahn—so readily that it was soon the name he used for himself, with Vanya surviving only as his family's nickname for him.

His father and mother were not so linguistically fortunate—Father would never lose his guttural Russian accent, and Mother made no effort to progress beyond American money and the names of items at the grocery store. It meant that Mother's world barely reached beyond their house, and, though Father lectured at other colleges and enjoyed his students, he, too, centered his life around his son.

Ivan felt the pressure of his parents' sacrifice every day of his life. They did not speak of it; they didn't have to. Ivan did his best to take advantage of the opportunities his father and mother had given him, working hard at his schoolwork and studying many other things besides. They had no cause to complain of him. And when he was tempted to protest their sometimes heavy-handed regulation of his life, he remembered what they had given up for him. Friends, relatives, their native land.

Ivan's respite from his parents' expectations was the same one he had found in Russia: He ran. And when he got old enough for high school athletics, he not only continued with long-distance running, he also took up all the games of the decathlon. Javelin, hurdles, discus, sprints—he was sometimes the best at one or another, but what set him apart from the rest of the track team was his consistency: His combined score was always good, and he was always in contention at every meet. He lettered three years at Tantalus High, and when he began to attend Mohegan University, he made their track team easily.

His parents and their friends never understood his need for athletics. Some even seemed to think it was funny—a Jewish athlete?—until Ivan coldly pointed out that Israel didn't bring in Christians to fill out its Olympic team. Only once, near the end of Ivan's junior year in high school, did Father suggest that the time wasted on athletics would be better spent refining his mind. "The body goes by the time you're forty, but the mind continues—so why invest in the part that cannot last? It isn't possible to divide your interests this way and do well at anything." Ivan's reply was to skip a day of finals while he ran all the way around Lake Olya. He ended up having to do makeup work that summer to stay on track for graduation; Father never again suggested that he give up sports.

But Ivan was not really rejecting his father. During Ivan's years at the university, he gravitated to history, languages, and folklore; when he entered graduate school, he became his father's most apt pupil. Together they immersed themselves in the oldest dialects of Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Serbian. For one year they even conducted all their conversations in Old Church Slavonic, lapsing into Russian or English only when the vocabulary didn't allow a modern thought to be expressed.

Everyone could see how proud Father was at Ivan's exceptional performance—several papers published in first-rate journals even before he entered the graduate program—but what they never were was close. Not as Ivan imagined American fathers and sons were close. Ivan did not speak to his father about his dreams, his yearnings, his frustrations, his hopes. He certainly never mentioned that he still had nightmares about a circular chasm in the forest, where some unnameable creature stirred under the leaves.

Nor did Ivan speak much more readily to Mother—but Mother seemed to know most of his feelings anyway, or guess, or perhaps invent them. When he was in high school he would come home smitten with love for this or that girl, and Mother would know it even though he said nothing. "Who is she?" she'd ask. When he told her—and it was always easier just to tell—she would study his face and say, "It isn't love."

The first few times he insisted that it was too love, and what did she know, being old, with true love long since replaced by habit? But over time he learned to accept her assessment. Especially when, now and then, she would say, "Oh, poor boy, it is love this time, and she's going to hurt you." To his grief, she was never wrong.

"How do you know?" he demanded once.

"Your face is an open book to me."

"No, really."

"I'm a witch, I know these things."

"Mother, I'm serious."

"If you won't listen to my answers, why do you ask me questions?"

Then, when he was twenty-four, the Berlin Wall came down. The family watched everything on television. As he switched off the set, Father said, "Now you can go back to Russia to do your research for your dissertation."

"My dissertation doesn't require research with sources inside Russia."

"So change your topic," said Father. "Are you crazy? Don't you want to go back?"

Yes, he wanted to go back. But not for research. He wanted to go back because he still saw a certain leaf-covered clearing in his dreams, and the face of a woman, and a monster in a chasm; and for the same reason, he did not want to go, because he was afraid that the place didn't exist, and because he was afraid that maybe it did.

So he spent the rest of the year finishing up his classwork and passing his comprehensives. Then another year of groundwork research for his dissertation and it was late July of 1991, only six weeks before his ticket back to Kiev. Naturally, that was when he met Ruth Meyer.

She was the daughter of a doctor in Ithaca, a couple of lakes away in western New York. They met at a Presbyterian wedding—the groom was a friend of Ivan's from the track team in college, the bride a roommate of Ruth's. They reached for the same hors d'oeuvre on a plate and within a few minutes stood outside on the porch of the house, watching a thunderstorm come in from the southwest. By the time the rain came they were holding hands.

"Say something to me in Old Russian," she said.

Old Russian was too modern for him. In Old Church Slavonic, he said, "You are beautiful and wise and I intend to marry you."

She closed her eyes as if in ecstasy. "I love it that you speak a language to me that no other woman will ever hear from you."

"But you don't understand it," he pointed out.

"Yes I do," said Ruth, her eyes still closed.

He laughed; but what if she had understood? "What did I say?"

"You told me that you hoped I'd fall in love with you."

"No I didn't." But his embarrassed laugh was a confession that she had come rather close to the mark.

"Yes you did," she said, opening her eyes. "Everything you do says that."

After the wedding, Ivan came home to his mother and sat down across from her in the living room. After a few moments she looked up at him.

"Well?" he said. "Is it love, or is it nothing?"

Her expression solemn, Mother said, "It's definitely something."

"I'm going to marry her," he announced.

"Does she know this?"

"She knows everything," he said. "She knows what I think as I'm thinking it."

"If only she knew before you thought it, you'd never have to think again."

"I'm serious, Mother," he said.

"And I'm not?"

"Don't tease me. This is love."

By now Father was in the room; there's something about the mention of marriage that brings parents, no matter what they were doing. "What, you fall in love now, when you're about to leave the country for a year?"

"Maybe I can postpone the trip," said Ivan, knowing as he said it that it was a stupid idea.

"That's good, marry now when you don't have a doctor's degree," said Father. "Her father plans to support you?"

"I know, I have to go. But I hate waiting," said Ivan.

"Learn patience," said Father.

"In Russia you learn patience," said Ivan. "In America you learn action."

"So it's a good thing you're going to Russia," said Father. "Patience is useful much more often, and you especially need to learn it if you plan to have children."

Ivan laughed giddily at the idea. "I'm going to be such a good father!" he cried.

"And why not?" asked Mother. "You learned from the best."

"Of course I did," he said. "Both of you. You did the best you could with a strange kid like me."

"I'm glad you understand," said Mother. That wry smile. Was it possible she wasn't joking? That she had never been joking?

During the weeks before he flew to Kiev, he spent more time in Ithaca than in Tantalus. His mother seemed sad or worried whenever he saw her, which wasn't often. One time, concerned about her, he said, "You're not losing me, Mother. I'm in love."

"I never had you," she said, "not since you escaped from the womb." She looked away from him.

"What is it, then?"

"Have you told her your Jewish name?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Oh, right, Itzak Shlomo," he said. "It hasn't come up. Does it matter?"

"Don't do it," she said.

"Don't what? Tell her my Jewish name? Why would I? Why shouldn't I?"

She rolled her eyes. "I'm such a fool. Now you will, because I asked you not to."

"When would it come up? Why does it matter? I haven't used the name since we came here. Our synagogue is Conservative, so is theirs, nobody cares if I have a gentile name."

Mother gripped his arms and spoke fiercely, for once without a smile. "You can't marry her," she said.

"What are you talking about? We're definitely not first cousins, if that's what you're worried about."

"You remember the story of the Sky, the Rat, and the Well?"

Of course he did. It was a tale she had told him as a child, and he studied it again in folklore class. A not-so-nice rabbinical student rescues a young woman from a well, but only after she promises to sleep with him. Once she's out of the well, she insists that he promise to marry her, so that they are betrothed. Their only witnesses are the sky, the well, and a passing rat. Back home, he forgets his promise and marries someone else, while she turns down suitor after suitor until she finally pretends to go mad in order to make them go away. Then his first two children die, one bitten by a diseased rat, the other from falling down a well. He remembers the witnesses to his betrothal and confesses to his wife; she does not condemn him, but insists that they divorce peacefully so he can go and honor his promise to the young woman. So that's how it happens that he ends up keeping his word after all. The moral of the story was to keep your oaths because God is always your witness, but Ivan for the life of him couldn't figure out what she was getting at.

"I'm not betrothed to anyone else but Ruth," he said.

"You think I don't know that?" she said. "But there's something."

"Something what?"

"I dreamed about that story."

"This is about a dream?"

"You were the man and Ruth was the one he never should have married. Vanya, it won't work out. This is not the right girl for you."

"Mother, she is, you just have to trust me on this." Impulsively he bent down and kissed his mother's cheek. "I love you, Mother," he said.

When he stood straight again, he saw that tears dripped down her cheeks. He realized that it was the first time he had kissed his mother in years, the first time he told her he loved her since—maybe since he was eight or nine. Or younger.

But she wasn't crying because of his kiss. "Do what you do," said Mother softly. "When the time comes, you must trust me."

"What time? What is this, a game of riddles?"

She shook her head, turned away from him, and left the room.

Of course he told Ruth all about the conversation. "Why shouldn't I know your Jewish name?" asked Ruth, shaking her head, laughing.

"It's not like it was my real name," said Ivan. "I never even heard it until we were about to emigrate. We aren't very good Jews, you know."

"Oh, I know," she said. "As I recall, at Denise's wedding you were reaching for a shrimp."

"So were you," he said. "But I'm the one that got it."

She raised an eyebrow. "I was reaching for you," she said. "So I got mine, too."

He laughed with her, but he didn't really like the joke. Their meeting was pure chance, or so he had always thought. But now she had raised another possibility, and he didn't care for it. Was I set up? If she manipulated that, what else might she have plotted?

No, no, that was complete nonsense, he told himself. It was Mother's weird objection, that's what made him suspicious. And besides, what if she had plotted to meet him? He should be insulted? Beautiful, intelligent girl maneuvers to meet awkward, penniless grad student—how often did that happen? Oh, all the time—in grad students' dreams.

Mother was so eager for him to get out of New York—and away from Ruth—that for the last week he had to keep asking her for clothes each morning because she had already packed everything. "I don't need to take all my clothes with me," he said. "I'm a student. Everyone will expect me to wear shirts for several days between washings." She shrugged and gave him a shirt—but from her ironing, not from his luggage.

All of Ruth's family came to the airport at Rochester to see him off, and so did Father. But Mother wasn't there, and that made Ivan a little angry and a little sad. All these years, he had thought that Mother's amused smile was because she was secretly smarter than Ivan or Father. But now it turned out that she was superstitious, troubled by dreams and folktales. He felt cheated. He felt that Mother had been cheated, too, not to be educated better than that. Was that something she picked up from her Jewish grandparents? Or was it deeper than that? Not to see her son off on a trip that would take at least six months—it wasn't right.

But he had other things to worry about. Being jovial with Ruth's mother and father, saying good-bye in restrained and manly fashion to his father, and then prying Ruth away as she clung to him, weeping, kissing him again and again. "I feel like I've died or something," he said. She only cried harder. That had been a stupid thing to say, as he was about to board a plane.

After all her mother's remonstrances and her father's patient instructions to let the boy go, it was Ivan's father who was finally able to lead her away so Ivan could get on the plane. He loved Ruth, yes, and his family, and her parents, too, but as he walked down the tube to the plane, he felt a burden sliding off his shoulders. His step had a jaunty bounce to it.

Why should he feel like that, suddenly lighter, suddenly free? If anything, this journey was a burden. Whatever he was able to accomplish in his research would be the foundation of his career, his whole future. When he came back, he would become a graduate and a husband, which meant that his childhood was truly over. But he would still be hanging fire until he became a professor and a father. That was when his adulthood would begin. The real burdens of life. That's what I'm beginning with this trip to Russia.

Only when he was belted into his seat and the plane pulled back from the gate did it occur to him why he felt so free. Coming to America, all the burden of his parents' hopes and dreams had been put onto his shoulders. Now he was heading back to Russia, where he had not had such burdens, or at least had not been aware of them. Russia might have been a place of repression for most people, but for him, as a child, it was a place of freedom, as America had never been.

Before we are citizens, he thought, we are children, and it is as children that we come to understand freedom and authority, liberty and duty. I have done my duty. I have bowed to authority. Mostly. And now, like Russia, I can set aside those burdens for a little while and see what happens.

3

Chasm

In these heady days of revolutionary change, it was hard for Ivan to concentrate on his research. The manuscripts had been sitting for hundreds of years in the churches or museums, the transcripts and photocopies for decades in the libraries. They could wait, couldn't they? For there were cafes springing up everywhere, full of conversations, discussions, arguments about Ukrainian independence; about whether Russian nationals should be expelled, given full citizenship, or something in between; about the low quality of the foreign books that were glutting the market now that restrictions had eased; about what America would or would not do to help the new nation of Ukraine; whether prices should remain under strict control or be allowed to inflate until they stabilized at "natural" levels; and on and on.

In all these conversations Ivan was something of a celebrity—an American who spoke Russian fluently and even understood the Ukrainian language, which was patriotically being forced into duty even in intellectual discussions that used to be solely the province of Russian. He had the money to pay for coffee, and often paid for stronger drinks as well. He didn't drink alcohol himself, however—as an athlete, he had ostentatiously not acquired his father's vodka habit. But no one pushed it on him; he could drink or not drink as he pleased, especially when he was paying.

Not that these conversations were at a particularly high level. They were just neighborhood chats and gossip and rants and diatribes. But that was the point. At the university, he would still be his father's son; in the cafes, he was himself, listened to for his own sake.

Or was it for the sake of his money? Or his Americanness? Or just good manners? Did it even matter? After enough weeks of this, Ivan began to weary of the constant conversation. No one's opinions had changed, nothing important was being decided, and Ivan was sick of the sound of his own voice, pontificating as if being American or a graduate student gave him some special expertise.

He began to spend more time with the manuscripts, doing his research, laying the groundwork for his dissertation. It was a mad project, he soon realized—trying to reconstruct the earliest versions of the fairy tales described in the Afanasyev collection in order to determine whether Propp's theory that all fairy tales in Russian were, structurally, a single fairy tale was (1) true or false and, if true, (2) rooted in some inborn psychologically true ur-tale or in some exceptionally powerful story inherent in Russian culture. The project was mad because it was too large and included too much, because it was unprovable even if he found an answer, and because there probably was no answer to be found. Why hadn't anyone on his dissertation committee told him that the subject was impossible to deal with? Probably because they didn't realize it themselves. Or because, if it could be done, they wanted to see the results.

And then, in the midst of his despair, he began to see connections and make reconstructions. Of course his reconstructions might be merely a projection of Propp's thesis onto the material, in which case he was proving nothing; but he knew—he knew—that his reconstructions were not nonsensical, and they did tend to coalesce toward the pure structure Propp had devised. He was onto something, and so the research became interesting for its own sake.

Bleary-eyed, he would rise from the table when the library or museum closed, stuff his notebooks and notecards into his briefcase, and walk home through the dark streets, the gathering cold. He would collapse into bed in his tiny room, sublet from a professor of Chinese who never intruded on his privacy. Then he'd rise in the morning, his eyes still aching from the concentration of the day before, and, pausing only for a hunk of bread and a cup of coffee, return to the museum to resume again. The harder he worked, the sooner he'd be done.

That was how the autumn passed, and the winter. Shortages of coal and oil made the bitter cold even harder to bear, but, like Bob Cratchit, Ivan simply bundled up and scribbled away regardless of the chill in every building in Kiev. He was so immersed in his work that sometimes he didn't even read his mail from home—not from Mother, not from Father, not from Ruth. It would sit in a pile until finally, on a Sunday when the library opened later, he would realize how long he'd gone without contact from home and open all the letters in a binge of homesickness. Then he'd scribble hurried and unsatisfactory answers to all of them. What was there to say? His life was within walls, under artificial lights, with row on endless row of Cyrillic characters in old-fashioned handwriting shimmering in front of his eyes. What could he possibly tell them? Ate bread today. And cheese. Drank too much coffee. A dull headache all day. It was cold. The manuscript was indecipherable or trivial or not as old as they claimed. The librarian was friendly, icy, flirtatious, incompetent. The work will never end, I wish I could see you, thank you for writing to me even when I'm so unfaithful about writing back.

And then one day it wasn't cold. Leaves were budding on the trees. Ukrainians in shirtsleeves flooded the streets of Kiev, taking the sun, carrying sprigs of purple lilacs with them in celebration of spring. How ironic. Just when the season was about to make life in Kiev worth living again, Ivan realized he had accomplished all that he needed to do in Russia. Everything else could be worked out on his own, without further reference to the manuscripts. Time to go home.

Funny, though. As soon as he thought of going home, it wasn't Tantalus he thought of, or the shores of Lake Olya, or his mother's face, or sweet Ruth's embrace.

Instead he thought of a farm in the foothills of the Carpathians, with wild forest just beyond the cultivated fields. The face he saw was Cousin Marek's, and what his body yearned for was not the loving embrace of a woman, but rather to hold the tools of the farm and labor until sweat poured off him and he could fall into bed every night physically spent, and rise in the morning to face a day filled with a thousand kinds of life.

Even as memories of the place flooded back to him, Ivan realized that there was key information he had never known as a child. The name of the town where he would have to transfer from train to bus, and from bus to whatever ride he could get on the road to... what village? He had no idea how to tell a driver his destination. He didn't even know Cousin Marek's last name.

Oh well. It was just a whim.

But it was a whim that wouldn't go away. After months of barely writing to them, it was absurd to call his parents over this unscheduled side trip. But he picked up the phone and talked and waited his way through the half hour it took to make the connection.

"You want to go back there?" asked Father. "What for?"

"To see the place again," said Ivan. "I have fond memories."

"This must be a new meaning of the word fond. I still have backaches from that place. The calluses haven't healed yet."

"Mine have," said Ivan. "I wish they hadn't. Sometimes I think I was freer on that farm than... well, no, I guess not. Anyway, I haven't spent that much on food or whatever, so I've got plenty of money left for a trip. Does Marek have a phone?"

"Not that I know the number anymore," said Father.

"Then ask Mother, you know she'll have it squirreled away somewhere."

"Oh, yes, I'll love that conversation. 'So, Vanya is all done with his research but he's not coming home, he's going to visit his cousin while his mother languishes. What should I expect from a son who doesn't write to his parents? We can't force him to love us—' "

Ivan laughed. "Mother's not a whiner, Dad."

"Not to you," said Father. "I get a solo performance. And Ruth, she'll be glad to hear that you can wait to see her—because you have to say hello to some cows."

Ivan laughed again.

"You seem to think I'm joking."

"No, Father, I just think you and Mother are funny." Wrong thing to say. Father didn't like to think he was amusing. "Sometimes," Ivan added.

Unmollified, Father replied, "I'm glad to provide you with entertainment. Our ratings are low—one viewer—but the reviews of our performance are good enough maybe we'll be renewed for another season..."

"Come on, Father, I want to pay a call on Cousin Marek. He took us in when we needed help, should I be this close and not make the effort?"

"Close?" said Father. "As close as New York is to Miami."

"You've got the scale wrong," said Ivan. "More like from Buffalo to Syracuse."

"Tell me that again after four hours on the bus."

"Call me back when you have the information?"

"No, Mother has it right here in the book." Father gave him all the information and they said good-bye.

They refused to sell him a ticket at the train station until right before departure—inflation was too high to be able to lock in the price even the day before. Nor could they guarantee him that the bus would even be running. "Capitalism now," said the ticket agent. "They only run the bus if there are enough passengers to pay for the fuel."

That night, after half an hour of trying, he got through by telephone to Cousin Marek.

"Little Itzak?" Marek said.

"I use Ivan, mostly." Ivan was a little surprised. Cousin Marek had always called him Vanya. Ivan didn't remember that Marek had even known his Jewish name. But that was a long time ago, and perhaps the old farmer had been amused at this family of Russian intellectuals who suddenly decided to be Jews and then took up residence on a farm.

"You eating kosher?" asked Marek.

"No, not really," said Ivan. "I mean, I avoid pork, lard, things like that."

"No lard!" cried Marek. "What do you put on your bread?"

"Cheese, I hope," laughed Ivan.

"All right, we'll go out and pluck a few from the cheese tree." Marek laughed at his own joke. "Come ahead, we're glad to have you. I'll find out when the bus is coming in and I'll be there to meet you. I'm afraid all the cows you knew are long since knackered."

"They didn't like me anyway."

"You weren't much of a milker."

"I'll be no better now, I'm afraid, but I'll do whatever you need. I... pole vault rather well." It took him a moment to think of the Ukrainian word. Marek laughed.

That night, when Ivan was through packing, he was still too full of springtime to sleep. He went outside for a walk, but even that wasn't enough. He began to jog, to run, dodging through the streets as he used to do as a child. When he was a child he had never been allowed outside to run at this time of night, and it surprised him how many people were still out and about. But it might not have been like that, before. Had there been closing laws for drinking establishments? Or a curfew? He wouldn't have known, not at his age, or if he knew, he forgot.

In school in America he had picked up the American idea of life in the Soviet Union, even though he had lived there and knew it wasn't all terror and poverty. But his memories of life in Kiev had faded, or retreated out of sight, anyway, to be replaced by the American version. And it was true, partly—the high-rises were all hideously ugly slabs of concrete with only the most slapdash attempts at aesthetics, as if socialism required that beauty be expunged from public life.

But the older parts of the city still had grace to them. He headed for the Staryy Horod, the old part of the city, and stopped only when he reached the Golden Gate, built in 1037. He touched the stone and brick columns, which had once stood in ruins but now were restored to something like their original form. When the Golden Gate was first built, and the little church atop the arch was still sheathed in the gilded copper that gave the gate its name, it was the center of Kiev, and Kiev was the center of the largest, most powerful kingdom in Europe. He imagined what it must have looked like then, with the stink and noise of medieval commerce in these streets. The trumpets blaring, and Prince Vladimir the Baptizer or Yaroslav the Wise riding with their retainers through the cheering throngs.

Ivan had no romantic notions of chivalry, of course—Russian legends, history, and folklore had never had an "Arthurian" period of anachronistic dreaming. The people lived in squalor and filth, by modern standards. The difference between the aristocracy and the lower classes was entirely expressed in the quality of clothing and the quantity of food. By his clothes a man was known; wealth was worn on a man's body, and on the bodies of his womenfolk. So the cheering throngs would be wearing plainer colors, the traditional weave of these grasslands, while the prince and his people would be wearing silks from the East, looking for all the world like Oriental potentates—even though the princes were Scandinavians from the north, not Oriental at all. The wealth of Rus'—ancient Russia—was in trade, and the trade was in the fabrics and spices of the East.

So of course it would not be just the smell of dung and sweat and rotting fish and vegetables—there would be whiffs of the heady aromas of cinnamon, pepper, cumin, basil, savory, paprika. Ivan breathed deeply and almost believed that he could sense some lingering traces of the ancient days.

And with those breaths he was ready to move on. He ran down the hill into the Podil district, the area where he had grown up. Some old churches and monasteries remained, but most of the buildings dated from the 1800s. Running along these ever-more-familiar streets felt like coming home, and soon enough he found himself in the street where he had lived as a child. What came to him then was not history, but memory, and not memories of oppression or want, but rather of happiness with his parents, with his friends. Here was the postbox, here the spot where old Yuri Denisovich sat to take the sun every bright afternoon, and here was the place where Mother always came to bring treats to Baba Tila, an old Armenian or Georgian woman, somewhere foreign and mountainous and exotic, anyway. Every day or so, a little treat to the old lady. Did she still live here?

Ivan slowed, stopped in front of the building. His first thought was that he had no idea which room belonged to the old lady, since they had never gone inside. Baba Tila was always at the stoop, wasn't she? No. She sat at the window right beside the stoop, so Mother climbed three steps and then handed the treat to Baba Tila through the window. Treats, Mother called them, but as often as not they were just leaves. For tea, Mother said, so that was a treat. But once it was dirt. Mother only looked at him with disgust when he laughed about it. "Baba Tila grows plants in her window box," she said.

"But it's just dirt. That's not much of a treat, is it?"

He couldn't remember how Mother answered. Perhaps she hadn't. Perhaps she simply closed the box, took his hand, and went out for the walk. How old was he then? Three? Five? It was hard to remember. The visits to Baba Tila stopped when he went to school. Or no, probably they didn't—Mother simply went without him, while he was in school.

A man of perhaps forty came up the street, just a little ahead of himself in the night's drinking. He climbed the stoop, then paused at the door and looked back down at Ivan.

"You want somebody?" he said. "It's late."

"I used to know somebody who lived here," he said. "Baba Tila. An old lady. That apartment, right in front."

"Dead," said the man.

"You knew her?"

"No," he said. "But after she died nobody would rent the place. It was a pigsty, had a smell to it or something. It was empty when I moved in, but they didn't even show it to me. I asked, too. Ground floor front—I could have used that. Stuck me three flights up in back."

"Doesn't matter," said Ivan. "Childhood memory, that's all."

"Just so you're not one of those damned burglars. Cause if I catch you breaking in I'll shatter your bones, I hope you know that."

"I'm an American student," said Ivan. "No burglar."

"American," scoffed the man. "And I'm Chinese." He went inside.

Ivan was flattered. He hadn't lost his native accent, not a bit of it, if a suspicious man refused to believe he was a foreigner. Cool.

Ivan walked away, began to break into a jog, and then turned and went back and looked up again at Baba Tila's window. He remembered that a couple of times when Mother brought him here, Baba Tila had not been home. Those times, Mother had left her gift on the windowsill, and then had reached up and taken something—he never saw what—concealed in the stones on the near side of the window, just out of sight from the steps. Remembering this, he had to reach up and feel the place where things had been concealed, touch the stones his mother had touched. And yes, of course there was the faintest tinge of a hope, a thrill of possible discovery: What if there was something hidden there for Mother after all these years, that he could bring home to her?

Ridiculous; but he could not resist the impulse. He stood on the top step and leaned over. It was an easy-enough reach—he was taller than his mother, after all, and she had not had to strain. His fingers skimmed along the surface of the stones that rose up the left edge of the window, then probed again into the cracks, into the gap between wooden window frame and stone wall.

And there was something. In a gap between, about where Mother's hands had always reached, he felt a corner of something. He stroked it with his finger, once, twice, each time drawing the corner of it a little farther out. The third time, it emerged enough that he could grasp the corner, draw out the whole thing. A folded slip of paper. Damp, stained and weathered, mottled and rippled and warped by the reshaping of winters—how many of them? All the winters since Baba Tila died? Or all the winters since Mother had stopped coming to see her? Was this paper a message to Mother? Or to some other visitor who took Mother's place?

He opened it. The writing was unreadable in the faint light available to him. It might not be readable at all. He refolded it and put it in his pocket, then jogged away, heading for his apartment.

There, under the bright light in the kitchen, he opened the note again, and found he could read it well enough, despite the streaking and staining of the paper. It was simple enough:

Deliver this message.

Simple, but recursive to the point of meaninglessness. Nothing else was written on the paper, so the instruction to deliver the message apparently was the message. But to whom was he to deliver it? And was he the intended message-bearer, anyway? Hardly likely. Maybe the paper had been attached to some other paper that had slipped farther back into the crevice. Or maybe it was part of a larger message which had been removed long ago, this little instructional note having been overlooked. But even as he thought of this, he knew it wasn't true. If there was another message with this one, containing the message itself and the name of the person to whom it should be delivered, why would this cover note be needed? When one addresses an envelope and puts a stamp on it, one hardly needs to then attach a note to the envelope saying, "Deliver this letter." One gives it to the postman and he does his job.

Who was the postman? What was the message? One thing was certain: Whoever was meant to be the messenger, whoever it was who might have made sense of this recursive note, had not picked up the message for many years. Indeed, all meaning was now utterly lost, and all that remained was this brief writing which might as well have been in Minoan Linear A for all the luck he would ever have in deciphering it.

But it was found in the place where Baba Tila left things for Mother, and Mother would want to have it. Ivan took the note and tucked it into his luggage, an inside pocket of the carry-on bag. Even if he forgot it, it would be there when he got home, he'd find it again as he was unpacking, and he'd take it to Mother. Maybe she'd explain to him then who Baba Tila was and why she brought her gifts. Maybe she'd tell him what this message meant. Though, more than likely, Mother would simply go enigmatic on him, give him one of her inscrutable smiles, and tell him that if he didn't already understand, he never would.

Women always said things like that, and it made him crazy. It's as if every conversation with a woman was a test, and men always failed it, because they always lacked the key to the code and so they never quite understood what the conversation was really about. If, just once, the man could understand, really comprehend the whole of the conversation, then the perfect union between male and female would be possible. But instead men and women continued to cohabit, even to love each other, without ever quite crossing over the chasm of misunderstanding between them.

And I'm marrying Ruthie?

Well, why not? She loved him. He loved her. In the absence of understanding, that was as good a reason as any for living together and making babies and raising them up and throwing them out of the house and then going through the long slow decline together until one of them died and left the other alone again, understanding as little as ever about what their spouses really wanted, who they really were.

Was that tragedy? Or was that comedy?

Was there really any difference?

The semester had just ended, and Ruthie was over for a visit. Esther Smetski had liked her son's fiancée from the start, but she hadn't enjoyed spending time with her ever since she realized that Vanya mustn't marry the girl. It wasn't Ruthie's fault, was it? Something Vanya had done. Something that happened to him that the boy himself didn't understand, but he was encumbered, he wasn't free to marry, and here was this girl with his ring, with a right to come to the Smetski house and cluck her tongue over what a bad correspondent Vanya was.

"My mother keeps saying, 'He doesn't act like a young man in love,' and I have to keep explaining to her that he's doing research, he's buried, he spends all day writing and reading and he hardly wants to do more of it when the libraries close." Ruthie's voice sounded almost amused by the whole thing, but by now she had delivered this speech often enough that it no longer seemed to conceal wounded feelings. She really didn't mind that much that Vanya didn't write.

Piotr nodded and smiled mechanically. Esther knew from years of experience that Piotr only barely tolerated small talk, and when the small talk had already been said many times before, it was all he could do to keep from getting up and stalking out of the room and doing something productive. But for Vanya's sake he smiled. He nodded.

"But he must write to you, Piotr," said Ruthie. "About his research."

Piotr. What a name for a Jew. Of course he had his Jewish name, taken when he converted, but his academic reputation had been established under the name Piotr Smetski, and he wasn't about to make people switch to calling him Ruven Shlomo.

"No, not often," said Piotr. "I'll have plenty of time to hear about it when I look at drafts of his dissertation." He smiled wryly.

As they talked for a few minutes about the work Vanya would have to do when he came home, Esther tuned out their conversation and thought about Vanya, about how strange it was that this other woman, this girl-child, should speak of her son so possessively, should speak of his future as if it were her own future. When I held him in my arms, when I whispered his true name into his ear for only God and me to hear and understand, I did not do it just to hand him over, a scant two decades or so later, to this American girl, this doctor's daughter, this child of money, of imitation country clubs. There was majesty in the child, and only banality in this marriage.

Fool! she said to herself. Marriage is about banality. Its purpose is banality, to create an environment of surpassing safety and predictability for young children to grow up in, the foundation of life, the root of inner peace. What do I want for him, a troublesome, restless woman? A queen? She almost laughed at herself.

"Was that funny?" asked Ruthie, feigning perplexity.

"I'm sorry," said Esther. "My mind wandered for a moment, and I was thinking of something else. What are we talking about?"

"Whatever it is, it looks like what you were thinking was more entertaining," said Ruthie. "Tell us!"

"Yes, please," said Piotr, his irony only barely concealed; what he meant was, please save me from having to talk to this person. Was this girl so stupid she couldn't hear it? Piotr, you must not be snide in front of her. We'll be listening to her for many years, unless Vanya acquires a sudden rush of wisdom.

"It's hard for me sometimes," said Esther. "Listening to English. I have to work so hard."

"I wish my Russian were a little better," said Ruthie.

"You have no Russian," said Piotr, surprised. "Have you?"

"I can say palazhusta."

"Pozhalusta," Piotr corrected her. "Please."

Ruthie laughed. "See? Even that I can't get right. I'm afraid our children won't be bilingual."

But at the mention of children, she got a faraway look and glanced toward the window.

Something wrong with talking about children. Esther felt an alarm going off inside her. Suddenly the girl doesn't want children. This is how God orders things. In all the old stories, when a man married a woman he had no right to marry, the marriage was barren. In the old days, the woman tried but couldn't conceive or bear a child. These days, though, the woman can decide to be barren. But it amounts to the same thing, doesn't it? Vanya must not marry this girl. If only he would listen to his mother.

"The way children talk these days," said Piotr, "you'll be lucky if they're lingual at all."

Esther leaned forward a little in her chair. Ruthie at once focused on her. She might not realize it consciously, but the girl knew she had let something slip, and she knew Esther had picked up on it. That was the way communication was among women, most of the time; few women realized it, but they all depended on it. "Women's intuition" wasn't intuition at all, it was heightened observation, unconscious registration of subtle clues. Ruthie knew that her mother-in-law didn't want the marriage, and knew that somehow she had just given fuel to that cause; Ruthie knew this, but didn't realize that she knew it. She simply felt uncomfortable, on edge, and she noticed more when she was conversing with her future mother-in-law. Esther didn't need to be told any of this. She knew, because she had trained herself to know these things. It was a school at least as rigorous as any university, but there was no diploma, no extra title to add to her name. She simply knew things, and, unlike most women, knew exactly why and how she knew.

"Ruthie, you know you aren't planning on having a lot of children," said Esther. At once she softened the remark with a more general observation. "American girls don't want so many children these days."

"You only had the one," said Ruthie, still smiling, but definitely on the defensive, with a remark like that.

Esther let her own ancient sorrow rise to the surface a little; her eyes watered. "Not for lack of desire," she said. The emotion was real enough; choosing to show it at this moment, however, was entirely artificial. And it worked.

"Of course you wanted to fulfill your traditional role as a Jewish wife and mother," said Ruthie. "That's the religion of scarcity. You feel the obligation to produce sons to become rabbis, and daughters to give birth to more sons in the next generation."

"Oh, is that all it is?" asked Esther.

"Of course there's the biological imperative toward reproduction," said Ruthie.

"Such big words," murmured Esther. Piotr wasn't entirely unobservant. He caught the irony in Esther's voice and grew more alert to what Ruthie was saying.

"But in the feminine Judaism, in the loving Bible, you have only as many children as you need. Like Eve, with only two sons, and bearing a third only when one of the first two died. She was free, not cursed at all—the curse was from the other Bible."

"Other Bible?" asked Piotr.

"Two Bibles, conflated, one hidden inside the other," said Ruthie. "The Bible of scarcity is the book with the curses in it. Adam earns his living by the sweat of his face; Eve bears children in sorrow and is ruled over by her husband. A zero-sum game where it's all right to drive the original inhabitants out of Canaan and keep their land, where if a man can't pronounce the word shibboleth it's all right to kill him because he's an outsider. That's the Bible of killing and hatred and a jealous God who wants all idol-worshipers killed—struck by lightning at Elijah's bidding or slaughtered by the swords of the Levites when Moses gave the command."

"You're quite the scholar," said Piotr.

"Not me," said Ruthie. "But my class in Feminist Judaism this semester really opened my eyes."

"Ah," said Piotr.

"A woman's value doesn't come from childbearing and obedience. It comes from her boldly making decisions—like Eve's decision to eat the fruit and know something. It was Adam who followed her, she was the rebel, he was the follower. And yet what is it called, 'the Fall of Adam'!"

"That's what the Christians call it, anyway," said Piotr. His bemusement was growing.

"It's the Bible of scarcity that makes Jews think they have the right to displace the Palestinians. In the feminine Bible, the lamb lies down with the lion."

"Lions are always glad when lambs act like that," said Piotr. "Saves all that energy wasted in hunting and chasing."

"Now you're teasing me," said Ruthie, reverting from feminist lecturer to sweet little thing when the latter seemed like the best way to win. And sure enough, Piotr at once began to backpedal.

"Of course, I know you didn't mean it that way, I was joking," he said.

"You must think I'm some kind of radical or apostate or something," said Ruthie.

No, thought Esther. I just think you're a girl who has seized upon the philosophy that will allow you not to bear children to my son, whom you're not supposed to marry.

"Of course not," said Piotr.

"But Esther does," said Ruthie.

There it was, the gauntlet thrown down.

"I'm sure it was an interesting class," said Esther. "But you know how hard it is for me to follow English."

Ruthie got the faintest smirk on her face. "Ivan says you understand English fine except when you don't want to."

So the boy was more observant than she had thought. "Is that what Vanya says?" Esther answered, letting herself sound a little hurt. "Maybe he's right. When I'm upset, it's harder to concentrate on listening to English."

"So I did say something to upset you," said Ruthie.

"I'm upset that my boy should be so heartless as to postpone coming home to his fiancée. It must be breaking your poor heart. Not having your young man, now that's scarcity, nu?"

The conversation returned to safer ground, and after a few more minutes Ruthie announced she must head home to see her parents.

"You mean you came here first, before you saw your own mother?" asked Esther. "You're so sweet."

"She was hoping for word from our son the nonwriter of letters," said Piotr.

With a laugh and kisses all around, Ruthie left.

" 'Nu'? " asked Piotr as soon as Ruthie was gone. "Are you suddenly taking up Yiddish?"

"I hear it from women in the synagogue, I pick it up," said Esther.

Piotr switched to Russian. "And here I believed you when you told me your family had been Jews living in Russia even before the Goths came through, long before Yiddish was invented in Germany."

"You never believed that," said Esther mildly. "You read it in a history somewhere that Russian Jews all migrated in from Germany and so you know my family tradition can't be true."

"Why not?" he said. "Does it matter? What it means is that you keep your own set of rules. Jews so ancient that they don't think the Talmud deserves all the authority it gets. Jews who can make a sandwich of beef and cheese."

"But not ham and cheese," she said, smiling.

"That Ruthie," said Piotr. "Do you think she really believes that feminist nonsense about the nice feminine Bible hidden inside the nasty masculine Bible?"

"She does for now," said Esther. "But like most college feminists, she's not going to let the theory stop her from marrying."

"And you're an expert on this?"

"I hear the women at synagogue talking about their daughters." She imitated them in English. " 'Oy! The younger generation always knows more than the older! Two thousand years Jewish women have more rights than Christian women ever had, but suddenly we're oppressed, and it takes my daughter to tell me?' "

Piotr laughed at her take on the matrons of the synagogue. "You know what I was thinking? She got so excited when she was spouting this ahistorical countertextual nonsense, and I caught myself thinking, 'What an idiot her teacher must be,' and thinking about her teacher made me realize—the kind of excitement she was showing as she mindlessly spouted back the nonsense she learned in college, that's just like the excitement some of my own students show. And it occurred to me that what we professors think of as a 'brilliant student' is nothing but a student who is enthusiastically converted to whatever idiotic ideas we've been teaching them."

"Self-knowledge is a painful thing," said Esther. "To learn that your best students are parrots after all."

"Ah, but students who fill their heads with my ideas and spew them back on command, they are at least saying intelligent things, even if they all come from me."

"Especially if they all come from you."

"It's my mission in life." He kissed her. "Filling empty heads."

"And mine is filling empty stomachs," she said. "Now that she's gone, we can have supper. I only had two pork chops, I couldn't have shared with her."

He looked at her sharply for a moment, then realized she was joking. "Really, what's for dinner?"

"Soup," she said. "Can't you smell it?"

"The house always smells like good food," said Piotr. "It's the perfume of love."

Over supper, they talked of many things and, sometimes, talked not at all, enjoying the comfortable silence that comes from long friendship, from shared life. Only when she was rising from the table to carry dishes to the sink did Esther broach the subject that was most on her mind.

"Do you think there's any chance that Vanya's lack of letters to Ruthie means that he doesn't want to marry her after all?"

"No," said Piotr. "I think he isn't thinking about her. He's thinking about his work."

"And when you're working, you don't love me?" asked Esther.

"We're married," he said, "and you're here."

"And if you were in Russia like Vanya, you wouldn't write to me either?"

He thought for just a moment. "I wouldn't go without you," he finally said.

"Very carefully chosen words," she said.

"I wouldn't be without you," he repeated. "Without you, I wouldn't be."

She kissed him and then washed the dishes as he returned to reading and grading student papers.

Cousin Marek was as good as his word, sitting there in one of the village trucks waiting for him. "Everyone's glad you're back," he said. "All grown." Marek laughed. "A Jewish scholar is supposed to have glasses and clutch a book."

"I do my share of book clutching. Can't help it that my eyes are still good."

"I was teasing you. Because you have shoulders. Seeing you as a boy, who would have guessed?"

The pole vault, the discus, the javelin, putting the shot, that's what had given him shoulders like a blacksmith. Sprints and hurdles, those were the cause of his thighs. Mile after mile of endurance running, that was what kept him lithe and lean. And all of this would sound foolish, Ivan knew, to a man whose massive muscles all came from the labor of farming. Ivan's body had been shaped by competition and meditation, Marek's by making the earth produce something for other people to eat. It didn't feel right to Ivan, to talk much about athletics. So he turned the subject back onto Marek himself. "You must still be carrying that calf up the stairs."

Marek looked puzzled.

"American joke," said Ivan. "A tall tale. The story is, a farmer carried a calf up the stairs every day. His wife asked him why, he says, 'I want to be strong enough to carry him when he's a bull.' "

Marek thought for a moment. "Bull won't let you carry him up the stairs, even if he'd fit."

"That's why it's a joke."

Marek burst out laughing and punched Ivan heavily on the arm. "You think I don't get this joke? Only it's a Ukrainian joke, Ukrainians must have carried this joke to America!"

Ivan laughed and tried not to rub his arm. He might have muscles, but it wasn't as if he'd ever boxed or wrestled or anything. He wasn't used to getting punched. He wondered if Cousin Marek had punched Father a lot when he lived here. That would explain why Father wanted never to come back.

It was after dark when they got to the farm. The place seemed strange, until Marek explained the differences. "New henhouses over there," he said. "There's more of a market for eggs now, so we grow them, ship them straight to L'viv in refrigerator cars. Capitalism! And everything looks so bright because we have enough electricity that you can turn on the lights in every room in the house at once."

"But you never actually do that," said Ivan.

"No, no, of course not," said Marek. "There are two of us, so there should never be more than two lights on at once, and only one when we're in the same room. Now you're here, sometimes three lights!" He laughed again.

Marek's wife, Sophia, had incredible quantities of food waiting for Ivan—crepes filled with cottage cheese and topped with sour cream, meat-filled cabbage rolls, broth with beads of fat floating on the surface, dumplings filled with fruit, mushrooms stewed in sour cream. He knew enough to plunge in and eat until he felt sick. There was nothing else he could do, unless he wanted to offend them his first night. "I never eat this much at home," he explained. "You can't fix so much food for me in the future, I'll get sick."

"Look at you, all skin and bones, complaining about too much food," said Sophia. She pinched at his arm, expecting apparently to find it as slender as when he was a boy. Instead, she found herself having to use two hands to span his upper arm. Marek roared with laughter. "Not so skinny," said Marek.

"Hitch up the old oxplow," said Sophia. "As long as he's here to pull, we don't need to use the tractor."

They had prepared the same bed he had slept in as a boy, but everyone had to laugh when they realized that it was like trying to play a piano sonata on an accordion. He wasn't going to fit. So he ended up sleeping in the bed his parents had shared.

He didn't sleep well, however. The bed was softer than what he was used to, and it was a strange place; or maybe it's because it wasn't a strange place, but rather a familiar one from a time of great stress in his childhood, but whatever the cause, he kept waking up. Finally, just at dawn, he woke up needing to pee so badly that he couldn't lie in bed any longer. Tired as he still was, sore from tossing and turning, he had to wince his way out of bed and into some clothes. Here in the foothills, spring wasn't so far advanced, and it would be cold, heading for the outhouse.

Once he was outside, though, hugging himself against the cold and peering through a cloud of his own breath in the faint dawn light, he realized that the outhouse wasn't where he remembered. The henhouses were there now. He began to circle the house, looking for a well-worn path that would show where the outhouse was now. He made a complete circuit of the house, and then, thinking he must have overlooked the building in his weariness and the dim light, he began another circuit. It was only Cousin Marek on the porch, laughing at him, that made him realize his mistake.

"You never heard of indoor toilets, boy?" asked Marek. "Where did you pee last night?"

"I peed at the station," Ivan answered. "I ate and just fell into bed and slept when I got here."

Marek pointed out the add-on structure on the gable end of the house. "One bathroom upstairs, one downstairs, just like America," he said. "Cost me a whole year's profit plus half a beef each to the plumber and the electrician, but Sophia says it's worth it, not having to trudge outside all winter long."

"Lead me to it," said Ivan, "before I explode."

Breakfast threatened to be as heavy as dinner, from the sounds Sophia was making in the kitchen. Ivan couldn't keep eating at that pace. So before he went out for his morning run, he stopped in the kitchen and gave Sophia a hug and greeted her and then said, "I'll only stay until I've eaten enough food to equal twice my body weight. At the rate you're cooking, that means I'll be heading out sometime tomorrow afternoon."

She laughed as if it were a joke.

"Sophia, I beg you." He got down on his knees. "I'm an athlete, I run, I can't eat so much."

"Eat what you want, nobody's putting a gun to your head," she said.

"I'm afraid of seeing your frown, if I take small helpings. I'm afraid of hurting the feelings of the greatest cook in all Ukraine."

"What do I care about her?" she demanded. "You won't hurt my feelings, because I take no pride in my cooking, I know it's plain food, you must have much better food in America."

Ivan laughed and kissed her, but he knew he was doomed. If he didn't want to spend his whole visit hearing how much better American food must be compared to the miserable Ukrainian fare that she did such a bad job of cooking, he would eat copious helpings of everything.

So he'd better get in a good long run today, and plenty of work. Though what work there might be for him he couldn't guess—the farm must be fully mechanized by now, and Ivan had never driven a tractor in his life. He wouldn't know how to begin plowing or planting.

He jogged to the road, stretched against the stiffness of his joints and the cold of the morning, then took off at an easy loping pace that he knew he could keep up half the day, or longer. To survive Sophia's copious meals, he would have to have a good long run every day. Maybe two.

The roads had been improved a little, too. Not much, for these last few years hadn't been easy in the Soviet Union. Not a lot of money for capital expenditures or infrastructure maintenance. Yet the roads were smoothly graded. Maybe the locals got together and did it themselves, not waiting for government to come in with money. That's how government began, wasn't it? Collective labor. And then somebody got lazy and hired a substitute, and pretty soon it was all taxes instead of the sweat of your back. But it began here, on roads like these, villagers with axes cutting down trees, with picks and spades and prybars pulling out stumps, with sledges and scrapers leveling the road. That's work even I could do, thought Ivan. But it's already done.

Then, abruptly, he realized where he was. North through those trees, and then bearing a little to the northwest, he'd find the trees growing tall and massive, with a canopy so thick that no underbrush grew. And then a clearing in the middle, a circular chasm filled with leaves, and something moving within the leaves.

He couldn't understand his own fear, but there it was. He half-expected to see some huge creature, the guardian of the chasm, leap out of the woods and slap his head right off his shoulders, as if it had been waiting for him all these years to punish his intrusion. Irrational, he told himself. Pure foolishness. It never happened anyway, it was a dream born of my fears and anger in that time. No chasm, not even a clearing, and certainly no creature swimming in a lake of leaves, an airshark circling and circling, rustling the detritus of ancient trees as it kept watch for the next curious trespasser to topple down within reach.

Ivan shook his head and laughed at himself, his voice too loud in the suddenly bright light of sunrise, sounding a little forced. Whistling past a graveyard, wasn't that the saying? He ran on, staying with the road, another mile or two, pretending that he wasn't thinking any more about that childish nightmare, pretending that he wasn't remembering the face of a woman becoming visible, a woman lying on a bed on a pedestal surrounded by dangers.

Since Ivan was currently leaning toward the idea that fairy tales converged because they satisfied innate psychological hungers, he couldn't help but wonder what fairy tale he had constructed for himself, with this dream. What kind of inner hungers had stirred him as a child, to make him invent a place like that, a woman so beautiful, a danger so ineffable and dreamlike? Was he the hero, torn from his home, and so now he needed some goal for his quest? Or some monster hiding in the leafy deep to do battle with? All of it designed to give meaning to the meaninglessness of his parents' decision to uproot him, not just from his home, but from his name, his identity, his native language, his friends. Or maybe it was just a way of making concrete the nameless dread that all those changes caused in him. In that case it had served its purpose, this dream. All his fears could be placed under the leaves in that forest, and then be left behind when he boarded the airplane and left Russia behind him. Safe at last, the monster forever trapped under a distant bed.

Now that he was a happy, well-adjusted adult, he should have no more need for such a tale. Yet he could not stop thinking about the woman, the chasm, the guardian that stirred the leaves as it passed. So there was something else going on here, some hunger that was still unsatisfied. Ah, yes. It wasn't just the monster that made the dream haunt him. It was the woman on the island. He had been just the age for such inexplicable dreams when he first thought up this personal myth—the hormones of puberty were flowing, but no physical changes had yet begun, so he had all kinds of desires but no idea yet what the object of those desires might be. A chaste princess on an island in the forest! Dry leaves instead of water in the moat. The princess on a pedestal, covered by dead plants, which swirl away from his feet as soon as he tries to cross the meadow-chasm to save her.

Now, as an adult, he could laugh at his own fantasies, pretend to be amused at his younger self. But he was not good at fooling himself, not deliberately, anyway. He was still afraid. More afraid than ever. Coming back down the road he had to pass the same place, and tired as he was, he sprinted past it. Let nothing leap from the woods, except to find me already running as fast as the wind to get away from it.

Soon enough, he was home, sweating and hungry, to join Marek at the breakfast table. Only Marek wasn't there.

"Still milking?" asked Ivan.

"Oh, no, he's plowing," Sophia explained. "He takes bread and cheese and sausage with him. Can't waste a moment getting the ground ready for planting, once the soil thaws in the spring."

Ivan looked at the table, covered with bread, fritters, a bowl of kasha, open-faced sandwiches, canned peas. "So you and I have to eat this huge breakfast between us?"

She laughed again. "Oh, I don't even eat breakfast anymore, just tea and a nibble of bread."

"This is for me?"

"Only as much as you want. I know you eat so much better every day, fine hamburgers and milkshakes, but—"

"Don't talk about that vile American food when I have this to eat!" Faking gusto, he sat down and began to wolf it down. No doubt about it, he was going to have to get Marek to take him to the fields tomorrow. He might not be any good at plowing, but he couldn't take another breakfast like this.

After breakfast, Ivan tried to help with the housework, but was met with stubborn refusal. Sophia was not going to have a man doing women's work in her house. It was against nature. So, using his nonexistent woodman's skills, Ivan went out to the tractor shed and followed the trail of the heavy equipment until he found the field that Cousin Marek was plowing that day. Sure enough, there was the tractor, in the middle of a half-plowed field, and yonder was Marek in the shade of a tree, eating bread and cheese and sausage. Marek saw him and waved to him, called to him.

Ivan utterly refused the offer of food. "I just ate enough breakfast to feed Napoleon's army. If he'd run across your wife, Cousin Marek, he would have taken Moscow and history would have changed utterly."

Marek laughed. "You think Sophia cooks too much food? Wrong, my young friend. She cooks exactly the amount of food needed by a man who works himself to the point of exhaustion every day. The problem is not to get her to cook less. The problem is to work hard enough that her meals are exactly right for you!"

"There isn't that much work in all the world."

"You say that because you read so many books, so you think that thinking is work."

"I notice you didn't eat breakfast this morning."

"Because I was going to sit on a tractor and drive it around all day."

"So give me some job to do that will use up this food that sits like a lump in my belly!"

Which is why Ivan found himself repiling all the hay in the barn, miserably hot work with periodic stops for sneezing fits. At the end of the job, he was dripping with sweat and too filthy and itchy to stand it for another moment. Yet when he got to the back door of the house, Sophia wouldn't let him in. "You think I want all that hay in my house?" she said, looking him over. "Get those clothes off and leave them in the laundry shed. I'll run a bath for you. I remember you always came home filthy as a child, too. Sweating like a pig. And stinking like a goat!" But she said it all so cheerfully that Ivan could only smile his agreement and obey.

Just as Marek had predicted, the day's work really had earned out the breakfast Ivan had eaten. He wasn't terribly hungry at dinnertime, but at least he didn't still feel bloated from breakfast. And when he kept dozing off during the meal, he realized that he had finally earned the right to refuse to eat without giving offense. "You poor thing," said Sophia. "Get to bed before you fall asleep in your cabbage rolls."

He woke again at dawn, just like the day before, and even stiffer in his joints and muscles. His back ached from his labor with the hay fork. His hands were sore despite the work gloves he had worn. His first impulse was to roll over and go back to sleep. But he knew that would lead nowhere. He had to get up and work the stiffness out of his body.

He thought of running another way, down toward the village, perhaps, instead of toward the forest. But in the village he would have to talk to people—it wasn't Kiev, where strangers let strangers pass without a conversation. And at this hour of the day, he preferred solitude. Besides, was he going to let his own private myth keep him away from the most beautiful part of this countryside?

So he ran to the place where the path led into the woods, and passed it by without a second look. And when he came back, he didn't especially hurry, either. The place had lost its power over him.

Yeah, right. That night, despite an exhausting day spent at the filthy job of cleaning out chicken coops, he kept waking up from one long dream. The same dream as before. And when he woke up in the morning, he knew something that he hadn't understood before.

When Mother told him he mustn't marry Ruth because of her dream, he had thought it was just foolishness on her part. But now he wondered. She knew him better than anyone, didn't she? Maybe she knew something she couldn't put into words, something she didn't really understand. Maybe she understood what it was in his life that made this imaginary place so important to him. The Jewish folktale she had dreamed of was about encumbrances that made a marriage impossible. Well, couldn't Mother have understood, at some deep level, that Ivan was somehow encumbered in a way that kept him from being free to truly give himself in marriage? That's why she dreamed the dream she did, and why he dreamed his own dream of this woman who was definitely not Ruth, this woman who was unattainable, protected by a monster in a moat. Maybe he had to overcome this fear before it was right for him to marry Ruth. Maybe that was why he had conceived this impulsive desire to come back to Cousin Marek's farm. Precisely because he could not go home and become Ruth's husband as long as that monster still prowled in the chasm around the unattainable sleeping woman.

But if this was all psychological, how was he going to resolve it?

Maybe the first step was simply to go to the place and satisfy himself that it didn't exist. Oh, there might be a meadow, but it wouldn't be perfectly round, there wouldn't be a woman in the middle, and the leaves would lie on ordinary ground, and not a chasm at all. Maybe he had to see that his memory was false in order to begin the process of mending this tear in his psyche.

So on this morning, he headed straight for the path in the woods, and instead of hesitating, he boldly, fearlessly jogged into the forest and made his way among the trees.

The path was not clearly marked, and his memory of the whole journey through the woods wasn't all that clear. If the place didn't really exist at all, not even a meadow, then how would he know that he had found where it wasn't in order to prove to his unconscious mind that the monster wasn't real, that the imprisoned woman did not exist and therefore did not depend on him for rescue?

He needn't have worried. Though the run was long, he recognized the way the underbrush cleared and knew he was getting closer. The climax forest with its massive trunks and lack of underbrush, that turned out to be real, so that running here was like taking a jog through an endless Parthenon, column after massive column rising out of sight to some pale-green vault of unimaginable hugeness. He was getting closer, closer...

And then he was there. The clearing in the forest. Perfectly round, covered with leaves. Exactly as he had seen it for all these years in his dreams and memories.

Real.

But of course it was real. The meadow was real. But there was no woman in the middle, just a slight rise in the ground. And no chasm, either, for when he stepped closer the leaves did not swirl away from his feet and reveal a—

The leaves swirled away from his feet. He stood on the lip of a chasm, just like the one he had remembered so well. Not imaginary at all.

And there on the far side, movement under the leaves, churning it up like a gopher eating its way under the lawn, only faster, faster, heading right for him.

When he came here before, that movement had made him run away in blind panic. But he was older now, more confident of his own abilities. If he outran this thing as a child, then he could certainly outrun it now. And maybe there was no need to run. Maybe it was trapped in the chasm and could not get out.

So he stood and waited for it to come to him.

4

Kiss

The creature under the leaves came to the edge of the chasm and stopped. Then, slowly, the movement of the leaves showed that it was backing away.

For a moment, Ivan was relieved. He had half-expected it to bound out of the chasm and attack him. Instead, like a good watchdog, it was backing up to wait for him to make the next move.

A sudden rustling, as if the creature were furiously engaged in some task under the leaves. After a few moments of this, stillness.

What now? thought Ivan. He turned to take a few steps along the edge of the chasm.

The leaves churned and something flew out of the pit, narrowly missing Ivan's head. By reflex he recoiled from it and fell to his buttocks as he heard a loud thwack! He looked over and saw a stone about the size of a nine-pound shot embedded in the quivering trunk of an ancient tree. What was down there, a howitzer?

Another churning in the leaves. Ivan immediately fell flat and rolled. Another stone whistled out of the chasm. Ivan scurried around and stood behind a tree, peering around to look at the place the stones were coming from.

That's why the creature backed up toward the far side of the chasm—it wanted to get a clear shot at him. Apparently it could see through the leaves.

Ivan's first impulse was to head back for Cousin Marek's farm. Who needed this?

His second thought was that Cousin Marek would probably have some kind of gun. Not that Ivan knew how to shoot, but how hard could it be?

Only then did he realize that he must be out of his mind to think of any such thing. This place wasn't one he wanted to explain to Marek or anyone else. It was his own madness that made it so real.

No. Not madness. It was real. He had found this place as a child, had run from it. But he hadn't been able to forget it. It haunted him, and now that he was here as a man, it was time for him to do whatever needed doing. He would have to do it, and no one else. If this place was meant for Cousin Marek, he would have found it long ago. There was a woman on the pedestal surrounded by the chasm, and it was for her that he was brought here.

Brought here, yes, but to die? To have his head stove in by a stone?

He darted to another tree. The creature under the leaves moved to position itself directly between him and the woman. Ivan darted again, and this time only paused a moment and began to jog to the next tree. The creature followed. Ivan moved out from the trees and began to jog along the edge of the chasm, following the circle. He kept his eyes on the ground under his feet, as leaves scurried up and out of his way with every step. It wouldn't do to lose his footing and slip down into the chasm where the watcher would have him at its mercy. Either it had a very powerful stone-hurling weapon, or it had thrown that rock by hand. A creature who could put a shot with such force wasn't one he wanted to tangle with. So he jogged until he had made a full circuit. Only then did he dodge behind a tree and look to see what the creature was doing.

It had followed him, and at such a speed that the leaves churned up by its passage were being caught by the breeze and blown out of the chasm. In fact, the level of leaves in the moat had fallen by about a foot, so the edge of the chasm was clearly marked all the way around. Ivan wondered how many leaves could be blown out of the moat that way, and so, before the creature could draw even with him, Ivan took off running again—and it was a real run, not the jogging pace he had set before. He did not have to study the ground so carefully, since the leaves were mostly gone from the path he was running, and the lip of the chasm was clearly visible.

As he completed the circuit again, he didn't even pause, just kept running, for he could see that ahead of him the level of leaves was even lower. It was working, and sometime soon the creature was bound to become visible. When he could see it as well as it could see him, then he might have some idea of what to do next. So he kept running, even faster now. Around the chasm, again, again, again. The track wasn't that long, and he was only beginning to settle into his pace when he realized that he was leaving the creature far enough in back of him that he was coming up on it from behind. If he ran just a little faster, he'd be able to see it, especially now that the leaves were down from the edge by six feet. The creature had to be tall enough to be visible now above the leaves, or it wouldn't have been able to hurl a stone with such a low trajectory.

With a burst of speed he was able to catch a glimpse, then more than a glimpse of a broad expanse of fur, long arms churning as the creature lumbered on two legs, then fell to all fours and ran, stubby tail bobbing up. A bear. A huge bear, for when its arms were outstretched it seemed it could touch either wall of the chasm, just by lurching a little to the left or a little to the right. With walls at least twenty feet apart, that meant an arm-span of fifteen feet, maybe more. No chance of prevailing in a wrestling match. No Beowulfish battle was going to take place here, even if Ivan had fancied himself some kind of warrior.

Ivan stopped running as the bear continued rambling out of sight around the pedestal. Most of the leaves had now drifted from the pedestal, and he could clearly see that there was indeed a young woman lying on a low wooden bed, her hands clasped across her waist, her eyes closed.

From this distance, in this light, she seemed ethereal, at peace, an icon of beauty. How many tales had he read that recounted this moment? It was almost perfunctory, the way the tales had it. The hero sees the woman and from that moment his entire life is changed. Whatever she needs, he will obtain for her; whatever barrier stands between them, he will overcome. But never did the tales explain why.

Now Ivan knew. In fact, he had really known ever since he was ten, ever since he glimpsed that luminous face for a single moment and then never forgot it, so he had to come back. He had thought it was the creature under the leaves, his fear of it that haunted him. But seeing her face again, recognizing that profile, feeling how the sight of her stabbed him to the heart—now he knew why this place had haunted his dreams, why he hadn't been able to let the memory go. Not the bear. Not the strange place. Her. It was always her.

Apparently the bear had caught on to the fact that Ivan had lapped him, for now it emerged from behind the pedestal and immediately reared up on its hind legs, roaring and showing a formidable set of teeth. It had jaws like a crocodile, or so it seemed to Ivan.

The teeth weren't Ivan's primary danger at the moment, however, for the bear fell to all fours, then came up with a large stone between its forepaws. Balancing the stone on its left paw, it drew back its arm like a javelin thrower. This was no regular bear, that was for sure, and Ivan decided that it was time to run.

The stone must already have been in the air by the time Ivan got himself turned around, and the bear's aim was good, for even as Ivan launched himself to run the other way, the stone caught him high in the back, toward his left shoulder, and sent him spinning and sprawling right at the edge of the chasm, one arm hanging over into the pit.

The air was knocked clean out of him, and for a split second he blacked out. It took a moment for him to understand what had happened, and what the loud rushing, rustling sound might be. Oh, yes. A bear in the leaves. Running...

Toward me.

Ivan opened his eyes to see the bear not six feet away, one great arm already swinging toward him, claws ready to rake his arm and drag him down into the pit. He rolled away just as the bear's paw struck; he felt the wind of it, felt the ground shudder a little with the impact. He kept rolling, despite the pain in his back, then struggled to his feet. His left arm hung useless. Broken? No, but numb. As he ran among the trees, he tried to think what this meant. Nerve damage? Spinal injury? Permanent paralysis, or temporary trauma that would heal? His left arm, gone—the thought left him sick with dread. What was he thinking, toying with an animal like this? If it could be called an animal, a bear living fifteen years at least under the leaves protecting a woman who lay uncorrupted on a pedestal. And it wasn't just fifteen years, Ivan knew that. It had to be longer. Centuries.

After all the fairy tales he had read and studied, the one possibility he had never entertained was this: That they might be true, or have some basis in truth. That the world might actually admit such possibilities as giant magical bears that could throw stones, as enchanted women who could lie forever in a coma waiting for...

For a knight. That's what this woman needed, a knight in armor, preferably with a very long lance, suitable for killing bears from a distance. In all the tales, the hero had a magic sword, or a magic sack from which he could draw everything he needed, or a magic helper who would do the impossible task for him. All Ivan had to help him was the limited wit of a graduate student so foolish as to be pursuing studies in a field that guaranteed him a lifetime of genteel poverty, and whatever strength and agility remained in the body of a college decathlete three years out of shape. In other words, he had nothing, and she needed miracles.

"One-armed Ivan and the Magic Bear"—it didn't sound like fairy-tale material to him, especially the part about how Ivan hightailed it out of there, holding his useless left arm and wailing about how unfair it was, him against the bear, just him alone against a magic bear.

He stopped and leaned against a tree, then looked back toward the chasm. He could see leaves drifting through the air, settling like snowflakes down into the pit in the ground. He knew that not one of the leaves had been lost. They would all float back, and soon the moat would be filled again, the leaf-covered meadow smooth and level except for that one slight rise in the middle. That woman who lay waiting.

What is she to me? I don't know her. She clearly has enemies more powerful than I am, and why am I suddenly her friend, anyway? Why me?

But even as he wished to be free of this impossible task, the thought of someone else coming to this place, reaching that pedestal, bending over her, kissing her, waking her up—it was unbearable.

I'm here, now. I'm the one. No one but me.

And yet in the rational part of his mind: This is why so many knights have died. This is why Troy fell, for a woman like this.

He wiggled his left hand. His fingers moved.

OK. So it was temporary, the numbness. The soreness in his back, that would probably heal, too, though right now the pain wasn't sending any such message.

The woman was waiting. The leaves were coming back again. The bear thought it had won, with a single stone on the back of a would-be hero who was running away.

What if he ran the circuit again, only not so fast this time, so he wouldn't overtake the bear? Maybe he could keep the beast running around and around until it wore out.

Of course, it was quite possible that magical bears didn't get tired. But with a bear this big, how magical did it have to be? It used claws, not spells, to try to tear his flesh into bacon strips. Nor were the stones hurled in some magical way, either. Yes, the bear was smart—for a bear—able to figure out about stone-throwing—he had never seen that behavior on the Discovery Channel. But it hadn't cast a spell on him or anything. What did he remember about bears in the fairy tales, anyway? Eaters, all of them. And talkers, some of them. But spells were for devils and demons, witches like Baba Yaga and great wizards or godlings like Mikola Mozhaiski—though old Mikola was more likely just to give advice. Bears, however, even magic ones, were still bears.

He jogged back toward the chasm. The bouncing pace hurt his back, so he changed to a loping stride that took him much faster and felt smoother. Soon he stood again on the brink. The moat had already half refilled with leaves. He heard the rustling, saw leaves flying from the far side of the moat, where the bear had sensed his return. Ivan waited until it was in sight, then began to run again along the lip of the pit, this time checking to make sure the bear could always see him, that it was always chasing him from behind.

Around and around and around, circle after circle, until the moat was utterly empty of leaves, the last of them blown away. Now he could see that the base of the pedestal—the inner wall of the chasm—was smooth stone, sloping in and out a little, like an apple core. There would be no climbing that surface.

So why bother dealing with the bear, then, if he couldn't get up that wall to the woman anyway? Tests within tests, and he probably wasn't going to pass any of them.

The bear showed no sign of weariness, while Ivan's back and shoulder were getting sorer and sorer. No help for that. It was finish out the task right now, or he'd have to start again from the beginning another day, for he knew he could not walk away for another decade or so. He wasn't a child anymore, he was a man, and a man sees it through, if he can.

So far, I'm still doing what I can. No more, but no less either.

The sun was at full noon, a warm day. Ivan took off his sweater as he ran, tossed it aside, under the trees. A while later he unbuttoned his shirt. He wished for better shoes than these—he had left his best running shoes in America, not thinking he'd need them, and these were broken-down old shoes, good enough for light running in Kiev but not for a serious marathon like this.

One foot after another, just like a marathon, but not covering any ground. He began to know each tree trunk far too well, recognizing every feature on them until he stopped caring and they all became one tree whirring past on his left, again and again. Why hadn't he run counterclockwise, like any good racer? He wasn't used to turning right, right, right. He thought of stopping, hiding in the trees until the bear caught up, then running the other way, but he drove the thought from his mind. If he was going to tire out the bear, he had to use his one advantage—an athlete's endurance, the strength of a long-distance runner. Bears weren't horses. They weren't used to running all day.

And sure enough, by midafternoon the bear was beginning to tire. Shambling along on all fours, it was going slower and slower, and never stopped now to growl at him. Its head hung lower, too. It was unflagging in the relentlessness of its pursuit, but it was running out of stamina. It was not an omnipotent bear. Ivan smiled. So far so good. Except for the part about knowing what to do next.

On every circuit he had passed the tree that had been struck by the bear's first stone. He long since stopped noticing the round shape of it, stuck like a diadem about nine feet up. But now he remembered it, slowed to look at it when it came around again. Not deeply embedded. Probably easy enough to dislodge. On the next pass, Ivan put on a burst of speed, left the edge of the moat, and ran straight for the tree. Planting a foot low on the trunk, he let his momentum carry him up until the stone was in reach. It dislodged far more easily than he had expected, hitting him on the chin and chest as it fell. It was heavy and it hurt, but it was nothing like the injury to his back. His hand came away a little bloody when he touched his chin, but he could feel that it was just a scrape, not a cut, and he'd just have to live with it until he could get some disinfectant. He winced to remember the painful disinfectants of his childhood. None of that babyish American anesthetized stuff for tough Russian children!

As if he could count on even getting back to Cousin Marek's house, not with the foolish trick he planned to try.

He bent over and picked up the stone, then jogged to the lip of the chasm.

As he expected, the bear had caught up, was already getting a large rock between its paws. No sense in waiting, Ivan decided. He balanced the nine-pound stone on his right hand in best shot-putting style. This wasn't the standard competitive shot put, unfortunately. In track meets, the goal was to put the shot as far as you could, not to hit a target with it. Especially not a target that moved back and forth like the bear's head.

He'd just have to give it a try and see what happened. If he missed with this stone, the bear had thrown others; he'd just have to find those and try again.

He turned, spun, launched the stone. It sailed out over the chasm. He could see at once that he had overshot—it was going to hit the smooth stone wall behind the bear.

But at that moment, the bear rose to its feet, clutching a stone between its paws. It rose so quickly that it placed its own head directly in the trajectory of the stone Ivan had hurled at exactly the moment for it to catch the bear on its left eye, knocking it backward so its head struck forcefully against the stone of the pedestal.

With a whimper the bear slid down to sit like a curbside drunk, canted to one side, blood pouring from the empty socket of its left eye. The eye itself was smeared down its bloody cheek.

What have I done? thought Ivan, his heart immediately filled with pity for the injured animal.

What am I thinking! he demanded of himself, remembering his own injuries, the stones launched at his own head.

But I'm the intruder here, he thought, his sense of justice insisting on being heard.

But the woman is held captive here because of that bear, he reminded himself.

The woman. How long till the bear woke up, angrier than ever? How long did he have to figure out a way to get to the pedestal?

If he couldn't climb up the smooth stone wall, there was no point in climbing down into the chasm where even a one-eyed bear could make short work of him.

Many of the trees around the moat were tall enough that, if he had any way of felling them, they would easily span the chasm—indeed, some of them could have spanned the whole meadow. The trouble was that some limb of the tree would almost certainly strike the woman. He could easily imagine that between magical sleep and being crushed to death by a huge tree limb, the woman would undoubtedly vote for the coma.

How far was it across the moat to the pedestal? Twenty feet? He had long-jumped as much as twenty-four feet, not world's-record jumping but enough to win some meets. But he hadn't done any long-jumping since his undergraduate days. And what if it wasn't twenty feet? What if it was twenty-six feet? Or why not twenty-nine feet eleven inches? Just far enough to be a new world's record if he made it. Still, it wouldn't have to be a neat landing—there were no judges to disqualify the jump if a hand dangled or his butt swung in too low. On the other hand, if he missed and dropped into the chasm, the bear would kill him even if the fall didn't. And he wasn't going to do any world's-record jumping, not with his back injured as it was.

With his toe he drew a line representing the outside edge of the moat, then another line representing the distance of the pedestal. Had he made a good estimate of the distance? He paced it off. Twenty-two feet. But what did that prove? He had no way of knowing if he had been accurate at all in the way he drew the lines. Nor was pacing a distance all that accurate, either. He never got precisely the same count twice.

The bear gurgled and stirred.

No time for practice jumps. If he was going to get to the middle and waken the princess, he had to go now.

He walked back into the woods, pacing off a clear, straight path, making sure there were no obstructions. He gave himself one practice run-up—his life depended on his getting a good launch. He could hear the bear moaning in the pit as he began the real run, faster, faster. He planted his foot and pushed off, soaring over the chasm, remembering only in that moment that there was no room on the pedestal for any kind of run-up to make the jump back. Even if he made it to the pedestal, that's where he was going to be staying, unless there was some kind of instruction manual.

There were more immediate worries, however, because in midjump it also became clear to him that either it was a longer jump than twenty-two feet or his injury had weakened his jump, because his feet weren't going to land on top of the pedestal. He had time enough only to tuck his legs a little so he didn't rebound; then he sprawled onto the grass of the pedestal's crown, his trunk mostly on the pedestal, his legs dangling.

He began to slip downward, just as he heard the bear growl angrily. Gripping the grass with one hand, clawing for purchase with the other, he ignored the shooting pain in his left arm as he struggled to draw himself farther up out of the pit. He tried to swing his heels up, out of reach, as a searing pain in his left leg notified him that the bear was on its feet and quite able with only one eye to aim a raking blow at him. His fingers found purchase on the leg of the low wooden bed the woman was lying on. He dragged himself up, out of the bear's reach, his legs now safely up on the cool grass.

Grass. The leaves were gone now even from the pedestal.

He looked down at his leg. His left trouser leg was in tatters. The bear's claws had made two gaping tears in the side of his calf. They were bleeding copiously, but neither injury was pumping blood. No arteries had been torn. He pulled his pants off, tore the damaged leg into strips, and wrapped them around his calf to close the wound and keep it from bleeding so profusely. Now there was no hope at all of jumping back, or climbing either, or outrunning the bear, or any other foolish plan he might have thought of. He had reached the woman, but what good would that do if he woke her only for them to die here together?

The bear was still roaring down in the chasm. Ivan stood to look down at him, but the pain and loss of blood made him dizzy. He staggered; for a moment he thought he would fall down onto the waiting bear; he leaned the other way, stumbled back, fell against the bed, and found himself sprawled beside her, his hand on the cool but living flesh of her bare arm.

Now, at last, he could look at her. Dressed in the imported Oriental silk of a wealthy woman of the Rus', she had the high-cheeked features of a Slav; but he was not so American that this looked alien to him. Indeed, he could see that by any standard of beauty she was a lovely woman, young and smooth-skinned, her hair a lustrous brown with many lighter hairs that caught the waning sun of afternoon and shone like fine gold wires. Love poems had been written with less provocation.

But Ivan didn't love her. Ivan didn't even know her. Or rather, he didn't know her as a person, or even as a woman; he knew her as an icon, as the princess of the fairy tales. She was asleep because of some evil charm placed upon her by a jealous rival, a powerful witch who hated her. Had her finger been pricked by the sharp point of a spindle? Who knew which details of the old stories might be true? The only thing wrong with this was that apparently all the princes and knights had missed their chance. Maybe, upon examination, there'd be an array of rusted armor and old gnawed man-bones down in the bear's lair, but the fact was that the age of chivalry hadn't brought this woman back to life, and now here it was the 1990s, and far from being a prince or knight, her rescuer was a kid who liked to run and jump and throw things but who wasn't going to be much of a champion when it came time to fight the bear, which was how this tale must surely end. He would have to fight the bear, or distract it, anyway, long enough for Rapunzel here or whatever her name was to drop down to the bottom of the pit, preferably without breaking her legs, and then climb laboriously up the other side—for which task that lovely silk gown would be particularly slick, voluminous, and unhelpful.

I don't know you, ma'am, and apparently I'm expected to die for you.

He toyed with the idea of leaving her asleep and trying to figure out how to save himself.

Then the loss of blood and the exhaustion of running all day claimed him. He lay back on the grass beside her bed, closed his eyes, and as the sun dipped toward the horizon, he fell asleep.

He woke in the darkness to find something cold and dry on his face. A leaf. Leaves. He brushed them away. The faintest light of predawn was glowing in the east, beyond the trees. He remembered at once where he was. Had he slept the whole night here? Cousin Marek would be worried. Would be searching for him—he hadn't thought of that. Marek might find his trail, might find him.

Ivan sat up. The meadow was again smooth and covered with leaves. If Marek showed up now, he might fall into the chasm. At this moment he might be running through the trees, searching, shining a flashlight to left and right, never seeing until it was too late how the leaves swirled away from his feet and the pit yawned before him—

"Go back! Stop!"

Ivan's own voice shocked him, coming in the silence of morning. Of course Marek wasn't coming. If he were, Ivan would see the lights, would hear the footsteps.

Almost at his left hand there came a violent rustling in the leaves, which whirled away, revealing the bear clinging to the side of the pedestal, its paws clawing at the grass, its mouth silently open. Now that it was revealed, though, the silence ended. It roared, slavered, gnashed its teeth at Ivan. He sprang backward, tripping on the woman's bed. The bear reached farther up onto the grass. Those great arms were going to make it. The bear was going to join him here. And it would be no good jumping down into the chasm, for he'd never get out of there again. He had no choice but to prevent the bear from climbing up.

Don't kick at its head, he told himself. Those jaws are quick and they won't let go.

Instead he clambered up onto the bed and jumped with all his strength down onto the bear's arm.

It accomplished nothing except to send pain shooting up from his left leg as the wound reopened and blood seeped out onto his crusted ankle. He groaned in pain. The bear roared again, and got the other paw farther up onto the grass.

Ivan rolled down and knelt beside the bear's claw—was it this one that had torn open his leg?—and pulled to try to get the bear to fall backward into the pit. Instead, the bear lunged upward, snapping at his hand with its great teeth. He recoiled, bounded away, over the body of the woman.

What will the bear do to her? he wondered, filled with a new dread. But then he realized that if the bear were going to harm her, it would have made this climb long ago. She was safe enough. Only he was in danger.

Well, if he was going to die, she was going to watch him do it. There would have to be one witness, at least, to how much he gave for this woman who meant absolutely nothing to him except that she had haunted his dreams since he was a boy.

As the bear heaved its chest up onto the pedestal, Ivan knelt beside the bed, leaned down, and kissed the woman's lips.

They were soft and alive. She kissed him back.

Her eyes opened. Her lips parted. She gave a soft cry, drew her head away from him.

He knelt up to look at the bear. Its hind legs were now scrabbling for purchase on the pedestal.

She stammered something in some language. A Slavic language, but very oddly pronounced. He knew he should understand it.

After a moment, it registered on his brain. Though the accent was unfamiliar, she had to be speaking a dialect of proto-Slavonic, closely related to the Old Church Slavonic that he and his father had spoken together so often.

"What did you say?" he demanded in that language.

"What?" she asked back.

Speaking slowly, trying to emphasize the nasals and bend his pronunciation toward the accent he had heard from her, he repeated his question. "What did you say?"

"Prosi mene posagnõti za tebe," she said slowly, each word separated. He understood now—easily, in fact: Ask me to marry you.

This was hardly the time for romance, he thought.

But her gaze was fixed on the bear. It towered over them, its arms spread wide, its mouth open as it brayed out its triumphal cry. Ivan realized that she wasn't proposing a romantic relationship, she was telling him how to vanquish the bear.

"Proshõ tebe posagnõti za mene!" he shouted in Old Church Slavonic. Will you marry me!

For a moment she hesitated, her face a mask of anguish.

"Ei, posagnõ!" she answered.

The bear was gone, even as the last echo of its roar rang in the air.

Ivan rose to his feet, walked to the edge of the chasm. No sign of the animal. No sound of it, either, snuffling along the bottom. Nor were the leaves returning. They were gone, all the leaves that had filled the moat only moments before.

But there was something new in place. A bridge, a span of smooth white stone reaching across the chasm to the other side.

"Thank God," he whispered. He walked to the bridge, stepped on it, tested it. Firm and true. He took two more steps.

The woman cried out. He looked back at her. She gazed at him in awe, perhaps even in horror.

"You walk in air!" she cried.

"No, on a..." He wanted to say bridge but he didn't remember the Old Church Slavonic word. He tried it in Russian, Ukrainian. She only shook her head. Then she pointed to the opposite side of the chasm.

"This way," she said. "Here is the bridge."

He recognized the word at once when she said it, because it wasn't that far from the Russian word after all. So she must have understood him.

He watched in shock as she stepped off the edge of the chasm and walked three steps out into the middle of the air.

"Wait!" he cried. It was clear she was being held up by something—he just couldn't see it. Yet seeing her there, standing in midair, made him tremble to the groin in fear. She was falling, she had to be falling.

"Come," she said. "You are my betrothed, and I must take you home."

"I can't," he said. "You see a bridge, but I see nothing here. The only bridge I see is on the other side."

She took the few steps back to the pedestal, reached out her hand to him. "Though you are only a peasant," she said, "you are the one who broke the curse on me, and you are the one whose offer of marriage I accepted."

A peasant? He looked down at his clothes. Knights didn't dress like this, but peasants didn't, either.

"Or did the bear take your sword from you?" she asked. "Did you take off your mail to climb?"

"I never wore mail," he said. "Nor used a sword, I am a peasant." Smridu, that was the word he used. Worker. Commoner. But a free man, at least. She hadn't taken him for a slave. That was something.

"The bear had lost an eye," she said.

"I threw a stone at its head," he answered.

"Then you vanquished the bear. The only reason he didn't kill you as you bent over me was because he kept trying to see you through the missing eye."

"No, the only reason he didn't kill me was because you agreed to marry me."

"You talk so strangely," she said. "Are you a Roman?"

She must think he came from the Byzantine Empire, the lands still ruled by the last vestige of the empire of Rome.

"My parents live in a faraway country. Far over the sea."

She relaxed. "And you came to find me?"

"I flew here to study ancient manuscripts, actually, but—"

She had stopped cold on the word flew and was covering her mouth in fear.

"I don't mean that I can actually fly myself," he said.

"What are you? What kind of wizard?"

"No wizard," he said.

"You carry no weapon, you speak a strange language, yet you flew here, you threw a stone that blinded the Great Bear. What star will wink out now, because of your stone?"

"Oh, do you call that—" He meant to say, Oh, do you call that constellation the Great Bear, too? But he didn't know the word for constellation in Old Church Slavonic.

She was not going to wait for him to finish. "Whatever you are, you will be my husband," she said. "Even if you cannot see this bridge, hold my hand and I will take you across."

She reached out to him. He took her hand.

The moment they touched, he could see the bridge she was standing on. It was very different from the bridge he saw. Where his was like a natural formation of stone, hers was of wood, ornately carved and decorated, with gilding on the upper surfaces. He recognized the workmanship. From sometime before 1000 C.E. Like her clothing.

Where did her bridge lead? What would he find there?

"I'm betrothed to someone else," he murmured.

"Not now," she said, looking horrified that he could even think that such a thing might matter. "If you don't marry me now, then all is lost, and the Widow will devour all my people, all this land."

"The Widow?" he said.

"Even in your land you must know of her," she said. "The evil widow of old King Brat of Kiev, who was driven from his throne by the Rus' and ended up ruling a little kingdom called Pryava. Since he died, she brutally took over other lands until her kingdom borders ours. She claims to be the bride now of an even greater king. She consumes nations and spits out nothing but bones."

"And she's the one who put you here?"

" 'Until Katerina finds a husband,' she told my father, 'then I, Ya'—I mean, she said her name—'I am heir to all these lands.' Then she had the Great Bear pursue me. He drove me here, where I could run no farther. I fell asleep, and he guarded me, until you came and gave me your oath, setting me free of him. Now I must get home to my family."

" 'Ya,' " said Ivan, echoing her. "Ya-ga?" Was it possible that this evil queen was the witch of the fairy tales? "Baba Yaga?"

She gasped and put her hand over his mouth. Her hand was callused from work, and she was stronger than he expected. But he liked the feeling of her touching him, though there was only fear and annoyance in the gesture.

"Are you a fool, to say her name right out? Even here. Even in this place." So it was Baba Yaga. If unconsciously he was looking for fairy tales, he had stumbled onto the mother lode.

She took her hand away from his mouth.

"Sorry," he said. "For saying her name, and I'm sorry about your kingdom, too. But..."

"But what? We have no choice but to marry. Forget this other woman. Take her as a concubine after we are wed."

"But it's been a thousand years," he said. "More than a thousand years that you've been lying here."

She looked at him as if he were crazy. "No thousand years," she said. "It is today. This morning is today."

She pulled at his hand, drew him onto the bridge, and led him to the other side.

Piotr and Esther lay in bed at the end of the day, watching Johnny Carson because Piotr enjoyed the program; Esther barely understood it. Even when she caught the meaning of the English, she rarely knew why everyone was laughing. But she watched because Piotr wanted to watch. Carson was wearing a turban and holding envelopes to his head, then saying things that made people whoop and laugh.

Piotr also laughed. She could feel the bed shaking.

Then, suddenly, it was as if she were falling; her stomach lurched within her. No, it was as if a baby kicked in her womb. No, no, it was as if her baby did not kick. It was as if she were carrying a baby and suddenly knew that it was dead and would never kick again.

"He's gone," she whispered.

"What?" asked Piotr.

Esther began to cry.

Piotr turned off the television, concerned. "What is it, my love? Are you sick? What's wrong?"

"He's gone," she said. "My little boy. He's gone. He's left this world."

Piotr put his arms around her. "Hush, hush, my love, that can't be so, that can't be true. How would you know it, anyway, so far from him? You're just afraid for him, a mother's worry, but don't be afraid, he's with Cousin Marek, he's safe, he's safe."

His words, his tone, they were meant to be comforting, but she took no comfort from them, only from the arms he wrapped around her, only from the warmth of his body next to hers. We made only one baby out of our love, Piotr, only one baby, one little boy, and he is gone.

Baba Yaga

Yaga was busy when Bear came back. She was in the midst of a tricky extraction of the living eyes of a merchant who had failed to bring anything interesting to sell, but who had the most fascinating silver-tinted irises that might have some unpredictable effects in spells of vision and illusion. The fellow was trying to persuade her, in his halting foreign speech, that perhaps she could make do with only one of his eyes, while she concentrated on popping out the left eye without bursting it, when Bear gave a great roar just outside the room.

The merchant jumped in surprise, which of course caused him even more pain than he was already in, as the cords that bound him cut more deeply into his throat. Choking, he managed to croak out, "What was that?"

"My husband," sighed Yaga. She was grimly determined not to show how bitterly his return disappointed her. Not that she had really expected to keep him tied up guarding the princess forever—for one thing, there were some very useful spells that she could only cast when he was close at hand. Still, she had thought that by putting both Bear and the princess in a place cut loose from time she would gain more than the few months that had passed for her during the princess's enchantment.

The real disappointment, however, was the knowledge that the princess had somehow managed not only to wake up but also to get the person who woke her to propose marriage to her. The whole point of putting her there had been to make sure that whoever kissed her would be some stranger from another time and place who wouldn't speak a word that she could understand, so that Bear would have plenty of time to eat him from the head down before there was any betrothal possible. And here was Bear, showing that her plan hadn't been foolproof after all.

"Do hold still," she said irritably.

"Sorry," croaked the merchant.

Out popped the eye.

"Here we come," said Yaga.

The merchant sighed and whimpered.

Yaga reached back with her long, thin blade to sever the optic nerve and blood vessels as close to the back as possible—must get the maximum strength from this eye, considering how much the fellow who grew it for her was going to miss it. "There," she said. "Want to see it?"

The man groaned. Taking this for a yes, she held up the eye with its dangling cord. "Now your eye will see for me," said Yaga. "Which will give it a much more interesting career than it would ever have had in your head."

"Please," whispered the man. "Let me keep the other."

"Don't be stingy," said Yaga. "Didn't your mother teach you to share?"

The door flew open.

"My darling husband," said Yaga. "Didn't I tell you to knock first?"

The answer was a roar. Bear shambled into the room on all fours, then stood to his full height and roared again.

"Hungry?" asked Yaga. "I'm almost done with this head, if you want it."

"Who is that eye for?" demanded Bear.

"Why, do you want it?" Whereupon Yaga looked up and realized that yes, indeed, Bear could use an eye, for the very good reason that he had only the one, while his other socket was bleeding. "Did you save the eye?" she asked. "Did you think to bring it back to me?"

"It was crushed," said Bear savagely. "The bastard threw a boulder at me."

"Aren't gods like you supposed to be able to, I don't know, re-grow anything that falls off or out?"

"It didn't fall," said Bear. He sounded downright hostile. "And it wouldn't have happened if you hadn't trapped me there without any powers beyond the natural strength of a bear."

"I was using your powers here, my love," said Yaga. "I couldn't very well let everything fall apart at home just because you're out playing with some princess."

"I want to kill you," said Bear.

"No you don't," said Yaga. He couldn't possibly. The spells that bound him assured that his love for Yaga would be unflagging.

"Well then I want to want to kill you."

"Bear, meet... what's your name?"

The merchant murmured something.

"Do you have to play with your victims like that?" said Bear. "Why can't you kill them first and then take their parts?"

"Things start to corrupt when the body is dead. So I have to take the best parts when they're at their freshest." By now she had finished packing the first eye in clean white ashes. She closed and sealed the box, and set to prodding at the other eye. "You will be a dear and break open the head for me, won't you? I want to get the brain whole, if I can."

In answer, Bear lurched over, grabbed the man's head between his paws, and tore upward so violently that the cords cut right through his throat. With a twist, Bear pulled the head off the spine and dashed it to the stone floor. It split open with such force that the brain was splashed all over Yaga's feet and the rugs as well.

"You clumsy, insolent—"

"Don't start with me!" roared Bear.

For a moment she was afraid of him, for he still carried himself with the power of a god, and she wasn't completely sure that her binding spells would be utterly irresistible, if he got angry enough. Gods were dangerous creatures to enslave. Who knew how deviously they might manipulate the reality around them?

But in a moment, she could see that he really wasn't angry—anger being forbidden to him. The roaring and acting up were the result of pain, and after all, the poor dear had lost an eye. "I should scold you for killing him before I got the second eye out," said Yaga, "but I think your wound is making you cranky and I forgive you."

"Give me the eye you took from that man."

"It wouldn't fit," she said. "And you'd start seeing like a man, which would do you no good at all." She popped the second eye out of the head. Since it was already dead, it wasn't so important to pack it in ash. In fact, she might as well dry it to be powdered later—there were plenty of uses for it yet. "You did waste the brains, you know. I can't even tell which part is which."

Bear stepped in the midst of the pile of brains and twisted his paw.

"Don't be spiteful," said Yaga.

"Kill the girl and take the kingdom if you want it," said Bear. "Forget all this song and dance. You have the power. Or rather, I have the power."

Yaga sighed. "I don't want just to take it. I want to keep it. The high king at Kiev—"

"Is your sworn enemy. The Rus' drove your late husband from the throne of Kiev, didn't they? Stuck the two of you out here in this backwater kingdom of Pryava, didn't they? What do you care what the king of the Rus' thinks of your claim to the throne of Taina?"

"I don't want a war with the Rus'," said Yaga. "And you know why."

Bear roared in frustration.

"Ah, yes, my love. You thought you could trick me, didn't you? But I know that as god of this land and all its people, you're god of the Rus' as well, and if the high king went to war against me, it would weaken my hold on you. Everything must be done legitimately, my pet. Including my conquest of Taina. You're their god, too, aren't you?"

That was a sore point between them, since the king of Taina had converted to a religion that refused to recognize the power of Bear.

"We're really on the same side in this, my love, remember that," said Yaga. But as she looked at his matted fur, his blood-soaked muzzle and chest, she couldn't help but think: If this winter god, this walking rug, this one-eyed whining bear is the magical guardian of Russia, then Russia is going to have a very troubled future. "Tell me all about the knight who threw the rock at you."

"He wasn't a knight," said Bear. "He was practically naked."

"Come here and let your Baba Yaga put something on that wound."

He shambled over and put his head in her lap. She began to clean around the wound and apply a salve to it.

"He carried no weapon. He didn't really fight. He just ran and ran."

"How did he get to the princess?" asked Yaga. She had to know, because there was always the fear that somehow Bear had got himself free of her bindings enough to throw the contest against her.

"Jumped the chasm," said Bear. "Which you said no man could ever do. You said any man who tried would end up in the pit where I could take his head off." He scooped up a pawful of brain and ate it sloppily while she worked on his eyesocket.

Bear winced at the salve, as well he should, since she had deliberately left the pain-deadening herbs out of the mix.

"I can't be right about everything, can I?" said Yaga. "After all, I'm not a deity."

"Yaga, Yaga, Yaga," he said, as if she had made a foolish joke.

How she hated that nickname! And yet the name had stuck, until now it was the name she used for herself.

Her late husband King Brat had given her the name when he brought her to Kiev as his twelve-year-old bride. That was the pet name he murmured to her tenderly as he raped her immature body, and again as she pretended to weep over the grave of the first baby he sired on her. His dear Yaga, his sweet pet Yaga, Yaga the loving mother who pressed the face of his greedy slurping spawn into her breast long after it stopped struggling for breath and then, wailing, laid his firstborn son in the very lap that had forced it on her. It was a message, though Brat never understood it, dense heavy-armed warrior that he was, a message that people understood now, with him deposed from his throne and then dead of a withering disease, and his widow married to a husband who at last looked like what every human husband secretly was, a hairy stinking drooling beast. A simple message: If you make Yaga do what she doesn't want to do, you won't like the result.

And maybe the message had changed over the years, and now it was more along the lines of: If you try to stop Yaga from doing what she wants to do, you and everyone you ever liked will be destroyed. But in spirit, in origin, it was really the same message. If she had to leave the gloriously beautiful coastland of her childhood and then the bustling traders' town of Kiev to live in this crude woodland, at least she would control all the kingdoms around her and run things her way.

The only drawback was that she always had to have some husband with the title of king, or no one would take her seriously. Well, she showed all those suitors who pursued her after Brat died. They thought they could get her and her late husband's kingdom, too. But she wouldn't settle for any of these petty princes. Her consort would be a god.

So Brat's precious "Yaga" was Bear's wife now, and no one even remembered that she had once been Olga, a hopeful young princess in a lovely kingdom on the south shore of the Baltic Sea. And now that she happened to be getting on in years, they were starting to call her Baba Yaga—grandmother, of all things! Of course it was ironic. A term of endearment, used for someone they hated and feared so much? The accusation that she ate babies was so widespread that she was tempted to cook one up and taste it someday, just to see what all the fuss was about. Grandmother, indeed.

She got up from her place beside Bear and carried the dead eye to her dressing table, where she could see herself in the mirror. Of course she had marked the mirror with several wards, so no passing spirit could leap out of the mirror and harm her. There was so much envy of her power and beauty.

"I don't look like a grandmother," she said.

"Yes you do," said Bear. "You know those spells don't work on me."

"I don't care what you see," she said.

"I've never seen the point of using magic to fool yourself."

"I have to live surrounded by beauty," she said. "Even in the mirrors."

"So you're going to make me seem to have both eyes?" he murmured.

Yaga ignored his self-pity. "About the princess Katerina."

"You know the story. He kissed her, she woke up, and they walked over the bridge."

"Which bridge?"

"Her bridge. I thought you were so sensitive you'd feel it when she came back into the world."

"I did feel it," said Yaga. "I thought it was gas." Had she felt it? No. What went on at that place was undetectable to her. But as soon as Katerina left the place and returned to Taina, then Yaga would know her every movement.

"Well, now you've got Katerina awake and headed for Taina with a husband who runs very, very fast and hurls a mean stone."

"He's not a husband yet," said Yaga.

"You mean to cast a spell to make a eunuch of him? He fell in love like any dog when he saw her, lying there giving off her love smell like a bitch in permanent heat."

"Sometimes I regret having given you the power of speech."

"So take it away again," he said. "I'd never miss it. Not like an eye."

"I don't need a spell to make a man into a eunuch," said Yaga.

Bear murmured something.

"I heard that."

"No you didn't," he said.

"Well, I know what you meant to say, anyway, and it wasn't funny."

"We'll see what the servants say when I repeat it to them."

"Go ahead," she said. "I'll just have to kill every one of them you tell."

"You should only kill what you intend to eat," he said. "It catches up to you, in the end, all this murdering."

"It's not murdering, it's my life's work," she said. "Besides, you killed this fellow."

"Yaga, Yaga, Yaga," he said.

"Shut up," she murmured sweetly, and sat on his lap. "I'm glad to have you back, darling."

"Are you?" he said. "It occurred to me, as I was running around and around in the moat, trying to stay between the peasant and the princess, it occurred to me that your plan could only be for no one to ever kiss the girl, in which case your loving husband would be trapped in the chasm forever."

"Don't be silly. As soon as her father died I would have brought you home."

His huge claws caught at the cloth of her dress and delicately shredded it right off her body without so much as scratching her skin. Then his paws rested firmly, tightly, crushingly against her belly and chest, pulling her so closely against him that she could hardly breathe.

"I don't think you should send your loving husband on any more permanent errands," he whispered in her ear.

"Well, why would I, anyway?" she wheezed, struggling for breath. "Do remember how much you love me, my pet."

His arms relaxed. She sucked great gouts of air into her lungs.

"Not killing you," he said, "is just an old bear's way of saying I love you."

"I love you, too," she said.

If only she knew some way to break down the last barrier and take his magic whole, so she didn't need him at all. Take his immortality, his godly powers, and then be rid of him the way she was rid of Brat. But if there were spells for emptying and discarding a god, she hadn't found them yet. Maybe the Christians should be encouraged. Maybe if everyone stopped believing in these forest totems, they'd lose their power.

In the meantime, Bear was hungry and needed feeding. Then he'd void himself wherever he felt like it, all over the house. It had taken her all these months to get the stink out of the house while he guarded the sleeping princess. Now the odor would be back in force. If only she could...

If only, if only. No matter how much power she had, there was always something else to wish for.

5

Naked

Ivan stepped off the bridge onto the grassy meadow and his clothing disappeared.

Startled, he let go of Katerina's hand and tried to cover himself, then realized how pathetic he looked, clutching his genitals, and turned his back on her.

"What are you doing?" she asked. "Peeing?"

Since all his sphincters were firmly clamped down, that wasn't likely. "I'm naked," he said. "What happened to my clothing?"

"I don't know," said Katerina. "Your skin is very smooth. Like a baby's."

It bothered him that she didn't seem bothered by his nudity. He sidled toward the bridge. "Maybe if I cross over to the middle again, I'll get my clothes back."

"They'd just disappear again the minute you came back here," said Katerina impatiently.

If I come back, Ivan thought.

"Your skin is so smooth," she said again. "And white. Have you been sick?"

Her comment annoyed him. He was proud of having a decathlete's body. She was looking at him as if he were... what? Unmanly.

But there were worse things to worry about than her rude assessment of his body. The bridge was invisible again, and he couldn't remember quite where it had been.

"Take my hand again so I can see the bridge," he said.

"No," she said.

"I need my clothes."

"You can't have them," she said.

"I don't like being naked in front of you."

"I already saw," she said. "You don't have to hide your deformity."

Deformity?

It took him a moment to realize what she meant. In America practically everyone in the locker room had been circumcised. But to Katerina's people it would be rare. Nudity, however, must be common. Well, it wasn't common to him.

"I need to wear something," he said.

"I know, it's cold. Too bad you couldn't get the skin off that bear."

"Give me your..." He tried to think of the Old Church Slavonic word for hoose, but if he ever knew it, he didn't know it now. "Your clothing. Robe. Coat." That about exhausted the approximations he could think of.

No answer.

He looked over his shoulder at her. She was, finally, blushing.

"What, I can be naked and you can't part with one piece of clothing?"

"Are you trying to shame me?" she whispered.

"I'm trying not to shame us both," he said. "I can't walk into your parents' house naked."

"Better naked than wearing women's clothing," she said.

"I'm not going to wear it like a woman," he said. "Now give it to me before I freeze to death standing here."

Sullenly she dropped her hoose off her shoulders, then leaned down to pick it up from the ground. She looked away as she handed it to him.

True to his word, he didn't put it over his shoulders—since it was open-fronted, it would hardly have served his purpose that way. Instead he wrapped it around his waist and tucked it like a bath towel.

"Good," he said, facing her again. "I'm covered."

But she who had stared frankly at his nakedness would not look at him now.

"I'm wearing it like a soldier's kilt," he said.

"When people murmur that the husband of the queen once wore her clothing, I will be able to say, I never saw him wear any such thing, and I can swear to it by the Holy Virgin."

"Are you telling me that it's better for me to come to your parents' house naked?"

"It would be better for you to come to my parents' house dead than wearing women's clothing."

"Well, here's an idea. How about if I don't come to your parents' house at all? Give me your hand so I can see the bridge, and I'll be on my way."

She whirled around to face him, to clutch at his hands. "No, no, wear whatever you want. You can't leave, you must come to my house, you have to marry me or we lose it all. After everything, after you fought the bear, after you woke me, to leave now would be worse than if you had never come!"

He held her hands. "Listen, I understand that wearing women's clothing is a..." He struggled for a word for tabu. "A sin. When we get near the village, I'll wait in the woods until you can bring me men's clothing." Gingerly he removed the hoose and handed it back to her.

She looked at him with disgust, refusing to touch the garment. "Do you expect me to wear this now that it's been around your loins?"

"No," said Ivan. "No, I see that you can't wear it now." He reached out and dropped the hoose into the chasm. "It's gone."

Her disdain was undiminished. "Nothing is gone," she said. "You just gave the hoose to the Widow."

"I was just down there," he said. "She wasn't there."

"She makes the rules, not you," Katerina said. "I have to marry you, but you're a fool. She must have picked you out herself."

That really pissed him off. "Maybe you have to marry me, but I don't have to marry you."

"Naked in the woods, a deformed peasant who wears women's clothing and speaks like a stupid child, it's not as though you had a lot of choices."

Her taunt was so ridiculously myopic that he had to laugh. He thought of Ruth back in New York, waiting for him. All this magic, these dreams of childhood, the evil monster he had beaten, the princess he had kissed, what were they? Foolishness, he could see that now. He didn't belong here. The rules made no sense to him. Clearly she expected him to go through with a real marriage. Like the rules in a china shop: You break it, you bought it. Only in this case, you kiss her, you've married her.

Well, he didn't like the rules. He didn't like the idea of marrying someone who thought he was a deformed cross-dressing peon, and even less did he like the idea of getting caught up in some kind of struggle with a mythical witch from the nightmares of fifty generations of Russian children. He'd done his part. He woke her up and set her free. The prince didn't have to stay. Especially when he wasn't a prince.

"Look," he said.

"I've already seen enough," she said.

"I mean listen."

"If you mean listen, say listen," she said. "Why do you talk so funny? Twisting all the words around?"

"Because I'm not from here!" he said. "Your language isn't my language." To prove it, he burst into modern Russian. "You speak a language that is already dead, that is hinted at only in fragments of ancient manuscripts, so you're lucky I speak any language you can understand at all!"

She looked at him now with dread. "What kind of curse was that? You spoke of death. Did you curse me to die?"

"I didn't curse you," he said in Old Church Slavonic. "I spoke in my own language."

But then he wondered what language was his own. Russian was the language of his parents' home, but the language of his childhood was Ukrainian. But all these years of thinking, speaking, writing in English—didn't that make English his language, too? When he was married to Ruth, wouldn't English be the language of their children? For that matter, didn't Old Church Slavonic have as much claim to be one of his languages? However badly he might speak it, it had been the private language he and his father once shared. And now, could he really pass up the chance to learn a dialect of proto-Slavonic, the true spoken language, after all these years of knowing and using the shadow of it that had survived?

Yes, he could. He had a life, and this wasn't it. He had done what he came to do—he cleared away the leaves, defeated the beast, crossed the chasm, woke the princess. That was as far as the stories ever went. None of the stories included shivering naked between forest and pit, the princess scorning you as a peasant, sneering at the symbol of your childhood covenant with God and loathing you for daring to try to cover your nakedness.

Well, actually, that wasn't true. Western stories ended with getting married and living happily ever after. And Russian fairy tales went far beyond that—to betrayal, adultery, murder, all within that romantic marriage that the wanderer stumbled into. The old tale of Sleeping Beauty might end happily in French or English, but he was in Russia, and only a fool would want to live through the Russian version of any fairy tale.

Ivan dropped to his knees in the grass and crawled along the edge of the chasm, reaching out with his left arm to try to feel the invisible bridge.

"What are you doing?" she said.

"Going home," he said.

She sighed. "You won't find it."

He stopped probing for the bridge. "Yes I will."

"You've already put your hand through it several times," she said. "It isn't there for you."

"You mean it only exists when you're holding my hand?"

"It exists all the time," she said. "For me."

"So I can't get back home without your help."

"Why would you want to leave, anyway?" she said. "When you marry me, you'll be a prince. Heir to the throne. Someday you'll be king of Taina."

"I've never even heard of Taina," he said. "I don't want to be king of anything. I want a doctorate and tenure at a university and a wife and children who love me." Of course he used the modern Russian words for doctorate and university and the English word for tenure, since he'd never had to say it in Russian and wasn't sure how.

She was baffled by the strange vocabulary, of course, but tried to make sense of it. "So you're on a quest?" she said. "To find this... tenure?"

"Yes, exactly," said Ivan. "So if you'll be so kind as to help me back over the bridge, I'll find my own way home from there."

"No," she said.

"Listen, you owe me. I woke you up."

"Yes," she said, "and because of that there's no one else I can marry. After the wedding you can go search for your tenure."

"Listen," he said. "I'm betrothed to someone else."

"No you're not," she said coldly.

"I assure you that I am," he said.

"You are betrothed to me," she said. "If you were betrothed to someone else, I would not have woken up when you kissed me. The bear would not have gone away when I agreed to marry you."

"And how would the bear know?"

"The bear didn't know. The spell knew. The universe knows when an oath is being made, and when an oath is broken."

"Well, the universe just slipped up, because I was engaged to Ruth before I—" He heard his own words and stopped.

Before? What did before mean now? He was in her world—had been in her world since he reached the pedestal in the middle of the chasm. And by her clothing and her speech he was pretty sure her world was medieval, maybe 900 C.E., maybe earlier. So at the moment in time when he kissed her, he and Ruth hadn't even been born yet.

But that was ludicrous. Because he was there, as a man in his twenties who had definitely given his word, earlier in his life, to marry Ruth. Therefore it was a betrothed man who kissed the princess.

But he kissed her centuries before his betrothal.

Round and round it went. What good were the rules of time when the rules of magic contradicted them?

Mother had told him that there was something wrong, some impediment to his marriage with Ruth. Was it this? Even though he hadn't yet come here and fought his way to the princess, had this moment already happened centuries before? Did objective time—the flow of centuries—override subjective time, the flow of his own life?

There was no way he could even begin to discuss such concepts with Katerina. Even if he had enough Old Church Slavonic to speak these thoughts, he doubted she'd have the philosophical background to understand them. Just as he didn't have the background to grasp the way things worked here. Bridges that existed for one person and not for another. Bears that lived for centuries in leaf-filled pits. Witches who put spells on princesses. It was great to read about these things, but living with them wasn't half so entertaining. And he had a feeling that before he was done with all this, he'd like it even less.

"So I'm trapped," he said.

"Yes," she said coldly. "Poor you, a peasant boy trapped into marrying a princess so you can become a king."

"I don't want to be a king," he said. "And I'm not a peasant. Or a boy."

"You're certainly not a knight."

"I must be a knight," he said. "Or else how could I get past the bear?"

"You're too weak and soft and young to be a knight."

No one had ever called him weak and soft, and he was older than she was. Almost by reflex he tensed his muscles, feeling them bulge and move under his skin. "How can you call me weak?"

In reply she took hold of his right forearm between her hands. Her fingers overlapped considerably. "This arm has never raised a sword." She gripped his left upper arm. "Could this arm hold a shield for more than five minutes?"

"I've never needed to," said Ivan. "But I'm hardly a..." He struggled to think of a word that would mean weakling.

"Smridu," she said. Peasant.

"I'm not a smridu. I've never farmed in my life. I don't even know what farmers do."

"No, I can see that," she said. "You have the manners of a peasant, but those thighs would never get you through a plowing season. They'd break like twigs."

Her cold assessment of his naked body infuriated and shamed him. He had never tried to bulk up like a Schwarzenegger, he had tried for genuine all-around athleticism. Her scorn was so unfair, so culturally myopic—and yet he knew it would be pathetic to defend himself. "In my country I'm considered strong enough."

"Then your country will soon be conquered, when real men see their opportunity. What are you, a merchant?" She glanced down at his crotch, continuing her assessment of his body. And then, suddenly, her eyes grew wide.

"What?" he said, fighting the urge to cover himself or turn away.

"I heard about this. The Jews do this."

"Yes, that's right," he said. "I'm a Jew."

Her gaze grew stony and she muttered an epithet that he didn't understand.

Great, that was all he needed. Anti-Semitism, too.

"If you think you can sell the daughter of a king into slavery, think again," she said. "My father will ransom me, and then he'll come and hunt you down and kill you anyway."

"Slavery!" he cried. "What does my being a Jew have to do with slavery?"

Her fear eased. "If you're not a peasant and you're not a knight, then I thought you might be a trader, and then I thought of the Jews who traffic in slaves, carrying people west to sell them to the Franks."

Ivan remembered his history. In this era all the traders dealt in slaves.

"Traders don't steal slaves, they buy them. War captives. Debtors."

"But the bishop says that—"

Of course. No sooner are these people converted to Christianity than the Church starts in with the calumnies against Jews. "The only thing the bishop knows about Jews is the lies the Christians made up about us."

Her face flushed. "How dare you say that Christians are liars. I'm a Christian and I never lie."

"Well, I'm a Jew and I never captured a slave in my life. Or bought or sold one either. And I never met a Jew who did."

She glared at him. "What a lie," she said. "I have watched my father buy slaves from Jews himself!"

"Well, if you buy the slaves, what right do you have to criticize a Jew for selling them?"

"In my father's kingdom, Christian slaves earn their freedom by fifteen years of work."

"Oh, but Jewish slaves would stay slaves forever?"

"All our slaves convert to Christianity."

"Of course they do!" cried Ivan, exasperated. "If Christians are the only ones you set free!"

"But Jews sell Christians into slavery," she said.

"And who do you think they sell them to?" he demanded. "Christians like your father. I can't believe we're even having this conversation. Dealing in slaves is evil when Jews do it, but perfectly all right when Christians do it, is that the rule?"

"Why should I argue with a boy?" she said.

"You shouldn't argue. You should listen and learn the truth. I'm a Jew and I'm not a prince and I don't want to marry you, I want to go home and marry Ruth. According to you I also wore women's clothing. Nobody's going to want me to be king, so let's forget the whole thing. Let me go back across that bridge."

She was adamant. "The man who kissed me is the man I have to marry," she said, "or the Widow rules over the people of Taina."

"So you'd even marry a slave-stealing Jew?" he said.

"Now you admit it!" she cried triumphantly.

"No, I don't admit it!" he shouted back. "The only thing I admit is that I don't want to marry you!"

"You gave your word!"

"There was a bear!"

She squared on him like a trapped badger. "And there will be another bear, or worse. I will marry you for the sake of the people. Maybe you don't care about them, maybe you have no people, maybe you come from a land where other people's suffering means nothing. But in my land, even a peasant would die for his people, would stand against Hun or Saxon if it would save the life of even one child. Because in my land, even the peasants are men."

He looked at her, and remembered how she had looked to him before he kissed her, the ethereal beauty, the perfection of her. Well, that was gone. But there was a different kind of beauty now. Or perhaps it wasn't beauty at all. Nobility. She made him ashamed.

"They're not my people," he murmured.

"But they're my people, and if I'm to save them, I have to marry you, even a man who wears women's clothing and lies to my face."

"Is the Widow so terrible?" he asked.

"Terrible enough to choose you as the one she let past the bear to wake me."

"Hey," he said. "Nobody let me past that bear! I beat him."

"You hit him with a rock," she said scornfully.

"I set you free of that spell."

"Someone else would have eventually."

"When? It was already more than a thousand years from your time to mine." The language she spoke was at least that old.

She gasped. "A thousand years! But... in a thousand years... my people..."

She turned from him, gathered her skirt, and plunged into the woods.

He ran after her, which worked fine on the grass but immediately became quite uncomfortable in the forest, with harder ground and nuts and stones among the fallen leaves. "Wait!" he called out.

"They're all dead by now!" she cried.

"You don't know that!" he called after her. "In all the stories, the king and his people slept while the princess did!"

She heard him; she slowed, but not enough.

"Slow down, you have to wait for me! I don't know the way!"

She stopped and watched him pick his way gingerly along the broken ground. "You walk as if the ground were on fire."

"I usually wear shoes," he said. "My feet aren't used to this."

Another scornful look from her.

"Excuse me for not living up to your image of manhood."

"Jesus Christ is my image of manhood," she said coldly.

He realized that he had used the word for icon, for that was the word he and his father had adapted to mean image or concept. But to her it would still have only religious connotations. She had no idea of who he was and what his world was like. It was childish of him to be angry at her for her ignorance. He at least had studied her world; she could not possibly imagine his.

"The land I come from," he said, "leaves me ill-prepared to live in yours. I need your help."

Her expression softened. She was beautiful again. "I'll help you. Will you help me?"

"I'll do what you need," he said. "I've come this far. I might as well see it through."

The English idiom became a meaningless phrase in Old Church Slavonic. Ivan and his father had done a lot of that, translating idioms word for word as they developed their own version of the dead language. It began as an anachronistic joke, but then became a habit of speech that he would find hard to break.

"I don't understand you," she said.

"Nor do I understand you," he answered. "But I'll do my best to help you save your people from the witch. After that, I can't promise anything."

"After that," she said, "it doesn't matter what you do."

"You'll take me back here and let me go home?" he said.

"I'll lead you across the bridge," she said. "You have my word on it."

In the bottom of the chasm, the hoose rose from the ground as if a woman's body filled it, though it was empty. It turned around and around. Dancing. Then the spinning grew faster, faster. The skirt of the hoose spread wider, until the hoose lay flat in the air, rotating like a helicopter's blades. Leaves began to drift into the chasm, then get caught up in the whirling of the hoose, until a tornado of leaves rose up from the pit.

It lasted for a few moments, then dissipated, the leaves settling back down in the meadow around the chasm.

And down in the pit the hoose clung to the outside wall, hanging from a dozen knives that stabbed through the fabric into the earth. From each knifepoint a black oily liquid flowed. And out from behind the fabric, first one, then dozens of spiders scurried, spreading across the face of the wall.

The most important thing that Katerina had to figure out was whether this boy was her rescuer or just another vile trick from Baba Yaga. There was plenty of evidence for the latter. The strange clothing he was wearing when he kissed her—pantaloons like a rider from the deepest steppe, boots so low and flimsy he couldn't wade through a stream; yet a fine, tight weave and astonishingly expensive colors. His strange language—intelligible yet accented, and laced with new and foreign words whose meaning she couldn't begin to guess at; how could she tell conversation from incantation and spell casting? The chopped-up body of a Jew, though his head was uncovered. The smooth, white skin of a boy who had never worked or fought in his life, and yet a posture of utter boldness, as if he had never met an equal, let alone a superior. His face had the peace of someone who had never known hunger or fear, and though he hadn't the forearms of a warrior or the thighs of a plowman, he wasn't scrawny, either. And he was so strangely clean and odorless, except for the tang of sweat from his recent exertion. There was a beauty to him that for just a moment had stirred in her a kind of recognition, perhaps a desire; the thought passed through her mind, Is this how angels look, beneath their robes, shed of their wings? Certainly in the proud, commanding tone of his voice there might be the authority of an angel; it was plain he considered himself as regal as she. And yet he was so oblivious to shame that he would take clothing from her body and put it around his own.

It was possible to imagine him touching her, his clean young body possessing hers, yes, even with that strange maiming of a Jew. She would not shudder at that part of her wifely duty. But it was impossible to imagine such a man being king.

But he was just the kind of strange, perverse seducer Baba Yaga might try to force upon the kingdom of Taina.

Was he sent by the witch Baba Yaga? It seemed so unlikely, for hers was not the only power, or even the greatest one, in this shifting high-stakes chess game. If there were no governance upon her, Baba Yaga would simply have killed Father long ago—and Katerina, too, no doubt—or, failing simple assassination, she would have brought her army to Taina where her brutal slaves and vicious mercenaries would no doubt have brushed aside Father's army of ardent but relatively unskilled farmer-soldiers.

No, the witch was still bound by rules, such as they were. Some said that Mikola Mozhaiski still watched over the land and people of Taina, though he had not been seen in years, and that he would not permit Baba Yaga to violate the deep, underlying law. The person of the king was still sacred, and no magical spell could take a royal life or sever the kingdom from its rightful ruler unless he acted in such a way as to lose the right to rule. And since her father, King Matfei, had always acted honorably as king, taking nothing from his people but what he needed to bring about their own good, and giving to them all that was required for their safety and sustenance, his right to the crown was unassailable. Baba Yaga could not brush aside the natural order of the universe. Not yet, at least, although they said that she had harnessed to her will the terrible power of a god.

Father, however, was convinced that it was not Mikola Mozhaiski who kept Baba Yaga in check, but rather his conversion to Christianity and his ordination as king by Father Lukas. "The same authority by which the Great Imperator sits upon the throne of Constantinople," he often told her. She never spoke disrespectfully to her father, and so her answer remained unspoken: If Christian ordination had the power to keep a throne attached to a man's buttocks, so many Great Imperators would not have been deposed or killed in years past.

The Holy Trinity created the heavens and the earth, she believed this absolutely; but she knew that it was Mikola Mozhaiski to whom the power had been given to protect sailors from the dangers of voyaging and kings from the dangers of politics. And unlike God, you couldn't pray to Mikola Mozhaiski, you couldn't curry favor with him, he asked of you neither baptism nor mass. You either kept to the rules or you didn't. If you did, even a witch like Baba Yaga had no power to destroy you, and if you didn't, he had no help for you.

So if it wasn't Baba Yaga's little trick, how did Katerina end up with this naked bumbler crashing barefoot through the woods behind her? He had already managed to lose the path several times even with her leading the way—he had no sense of the forest at all. How did he survive childhood without falling in a pit or getting bitten by a snake? Why didn't some merciful wolf run across him as a lost child—he must surely have spent half his childhood hopelessly lost—and send him on to heaven? Well, not heaven. He was a Jew.

How in the world did a man like this get past the bear?

She asked him.

"I jumped across," he said.

Jumped across. A chasm that wide and deep?

That gave her pause. A magical bear was sure to stop an ordinary knight. But a man so light that his body was like a boy's, and yet so strong that he could leap over the bear's head, fly across the chasm like a bird, like an angel...

Was his very boyishness the reason he was chosen? In that case, was it not a virtue to be admired, and not a failing to be despised?

She stopped and looked at him again. After a few moments of pushing branches away so they wouldn't scrape him as he passed, he finally looked ahead and noticed that she wasn't moving. That she was looking at him.

He became shy again at once, turning his body sideways, as if that would hide his genitals instead of displaying them in profile. A biting fly distracted him—he slapped himself. The movement was very quick. The man was agile. His body was so tightly muscled that no part of him, not even his buttocks, quivered after the sudden movement. This was the only sort of body that could have overleapt the bear and woken her with a kiss. And in the marriage bed, wouldn't he lie more lightly upon her than any of the hulking knights who had looked at her with covert desire?

"What? "he said.

"I was waiting for you to catch up," she said. "We're almost there."

The main village—Taina itself—was unchanged. It surprised her a little. No new lands had been cleared because the old soil was worn out. Even the houses were all in the same places, with only a few new ones for couples who had been married since she pricked her finger on the spindle and fell into the dream in which the bear chased and chased her until she could run no more and fell exhausted on the stone, to lie there watching as the earth all around her collapsed and the bear leapt into the chasm, and then to sleep. A dream in which she fell asleep. And yet it was no dream, was it? For there was the chasm when she woke again, and there the bear. And here was the kingdom of her father, the land that she lived to serve.

She stood at the edge of the wood, surveying the familiar scene, when her newly promised bridegroom finally came to stand beside her. His baby-tender skin was scratched and raw from pushing through bushes and brambles. He could have used the protection that a length of cloth might have given him. She felt a pang of guilt for having shamed him into casting away the hoose—though such feelings were irrational, she knew. Better to have a thousand scratches than to offend God.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"A thousand years have passed, you said," she said scornfully. "But it's been no more than a few months. The same fields are still being planted, no new ones have been cleared. And so few new houses—Dimitri, Pashka, Yarosz—they were all betrothed when the Widow's curse caught up with me. And none of the old ones abandoned or burned."

"Those are houses?" asked the oaf.

"What do you think they are, hayricks?" How stupid was he?

"I just mean they're—small."

"Not everybody is as tall as you," she said. "I don't imagine you could even lie down straight in a regular house. Not without sticking your head out the door and your ass in the fire."

"You have such a pretty way of talking," he said. "Like a princess."

"Of course I talk like a princess," she said, baffled that he would say such an obvious thing. "Since I am one, however I talk is the way a princess talks."

He raised his eyebrows in obvious mockery. What right did he have to be so hateful? She couldn't help thinking back over the conversation to see what he could possibly have thought was unprincesslike in her words. Was it because she had spoken of a man lying down? She hadn't said anything about lying down with somebody, had she? Wherever he came from, they must be such prudes, to be so fussy about a man's nakedness and take offense at mere words.

She felt the warmth of exertion radiating from his body. His bare skin was so close to her, and yet he hardly smelled at all. And he was taller than she had realized. She was uncommonly tall for a woman, and she didn't even come up to his shoulder. In fact, she was almost eye-to-eye with the nipples on his chest. Which, she noticed, were shriveled with the cold. The breeze was picking up, too, and his skin was mottled and seemed to have a bluish cast. Again she thought of the clothing she had denied him.

She reached down, took hold of his hand, and started leading him into the village.

At once he pulled back, fighting her like a donkey that didn't want to carry its burden.

"What?" she demanded.

"I'm naked!" he said.

"Yes, you stone-skulled ninny, that's why I'm taking you to my father's house, so you can get out of the wind!"

"Can't you go fetch clothes for me?"

"Am I your servant? You're my betrothed—would you leave me to enter the village alone, with you cowering in the woods, not even seriously injured?" She yanked his arm and began dragging him on. She glanced over her shoulder and saw, to her shame, that he was cupping his genitals with his other hand like a toddler who had just learned to play with himself. Was he really that determined to make himself utterly ridiculous?

"Stop that!" she hissed at him. "Stop handling yourself!"

He rolled his eyes in obvious exasperation, but he obeyed and uncupped himself. But he also pulled his hand away from hers, and walked beside her, refusing to follow her or to be dragged along. Good—he was asserting his right as her husband to walk beside her, without claiming to be her lord and walk ahead.

As soon as she was recognized, women began coming out of their houses and children began to gather in the lane, shouting and cheering and jumping up and down. Some of the more eager boys and girls ran on ahead to her father's house, so her father was waiting for her at the door when she arrived.

Tears streaming down his face, King Matfei embraced and kissed her. Only after many such hugs and kisses did he finally give any notice to the naked man beside her.

"King Matfei, my father, here is the man who crossed the chasm and blinded the bear and kissed me to waken me from the spell."

If Father noticed that she had used the word mozhu instead of vitezman instead of knight—he gave no sign of it. He simply took the cloak from his own back and placed it over the man's shoulders.

Naturally, the oaf began shivering almost at once. Naked, he doesn't shiver; put a warm cloak on him, and he acts like it's snowing. Was he determined to look like a fool?

"Come inside, come inside," said the king. "The man who brings me my daughter from the Widow's power will always be honored in my house. But you must tell me your name before you come inside."

The man hesitated, as if he didn't even know his own name, before finally saying, "Ivan."

Ivan, the name of the Fourth Evangelist, the one beloved of the Lord. What was a Jew doing with a name like that?

"Ivan," said Father, "you have brought joy to my house and hope to my people here today. Come inside, for this is now your house and your kingdom; as God is my witness, you shall have nothing but good from me and mine."

"Thank you, sir," he said. Did he not know a guest-pledge was expected from him in return?

But Father paid no heed to the lapse in courtesy, and led the man inside.

Katerina paused for a moment at the threshold of her father's house, and turned to face the gathered crowd. "Soon I will have a husband," she said to them, "and then Taina will be safe from the Pretender."

A momentary hush fell over the crowd. Of course she had not said the name of Baba Yaga, but they all knew whom she meant.

Then they erupted in cheers. King Matfei and his daughter Katerina would keep them safe from the baby-eating monster who turned all men into slaves and was married to a bear. The witch's curse had been overcome. All was right with the world.

You get used to being naked, that's the first thing Ivan discovered. Crashing through thick brush with branches snagging at your bare skin, you stop worrying about who's looking and spend your time trying to keep yourself from being flayed alive. He got shy again when they entered the village, but once he decided simply to let the gawkers gawk, he found himself much more interested in what he was seeing than in what they were.

He hadn't realized it till now, but he came to this village with two sets of expectations. As a scholar, he had a very clear idea of what a medieval Russian village should look like, and what he saw was pretty much what he expected. The houses of skilled tradesmen attached to the king's household were bunched up like a town, close to each other and close to their work sheds. There were stables and pigpens with all the smells that one might expect. And just beyond the king's town the forest opened up into many stump-dotted fields, each with its little hut for the family that fanned there. Other plots were fallow, going back to woodland, with saplings rising among the ancient stumps, all trace of farming subsumed in the grasses being grazed by sheep and cows.

What Ivan hadn't expected was the sheer numbers. A village like this was supposed to have only a tenth of the population that this land obviously sustained. Ivan remembered the professor who scornfully dismissed the stories of vast armies ranged together for battle: "The whole population of Europe at that time could not have assembled an army that large." Well, if Taina was any guide, it was the medieval writer and not the modern professor who knew what he was talking about. The fields went on and on, and other villages and manor houses could be seen, or at least guessed at from the smoke rising from unseen cook fires. Taina was no Paris or London, but then, there were more students at Mohegan University than there were citizens of either Paris or London in the 800s C.E.

The king of Taina was no tribal chieftain. This was a settled land, and the king could field a sizeable army if he needed to—many dozens of knights, if each manor house supplied one or two, and hundreds of armed villagers for infantry. No wonder Baba Yaga was resorting to subterfuge instead of conquest. And with the land so bountiful, feeding such a large population, it was no wonder Baba Yaga coveted it. Ivan wondered if this land was so productive and well-populated even today.

Yet even as he recognized and admired the medieval village he had expected, Ivan had to wrestle with a completely different set of expectations, courtesy of Walt Disney. Wasn't it Sleeping Beauty he had kissed? Then where was the magnificent palace? Never mind that Disney's movie version of the story was set in some weird combination of the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries—Ivan couldn't help being let down at seeing—and hearing, and smelling—such a coarse reality instead of a magical dream.

The king didn't live in a palace at all, or even a castle. His house was made of timbers instead of sticks, and was large enough to enclose a banquet hall and many rooms, but it was all one story in height, thatch-roofed and completely unfortified.

For defense, there was a nearby hill-fort of pre-Roman design—earthworks with a palisade of wooden stakes at the top, designed with plenty of gaps for bowmen to shoot through. And in the middle of the fort, a tall watch tower arose, allowing several villagers to stand and watch out over the whole surrounding forest—but also allowing an approaching enemy an easily visible landmark to march for.

No palace, no castle, no stoneworks of any kind. Everything was built of wood, easily susceptible to fire. But why not? There were plenty of trees to rebuild anything that might burn. And defense came from the strength of arms and, Ivan supposed, whatever magic the local people might know how to wield. And since magic worked here, perhaps they could count on the protection of their gods.

Gods? Only at that thought did Ivan notice what he should have spotted first of all. Just down the slope from the king's house was a wooden chapel with an Orthodox cross above the door.

That's right, Katerina had spoken of Christ. Yet this land was so far north and west—there was no record of a missionary journey that resulted in the conversion of this kingdom in the foothills of the Carpathians.

The reason was obvious, of course. Such a missionary journey would only have been recorded if the kingdom itself had survived. The very fact that Ivan had never heard of the conversion of Taina—indeed, had never heard of Taina at all—suggested that it got swallowed up in a kingdom that was not Christian, its identity lost, its brief flirtation with Christianity forgotten. Whatever cultural influence the Byzantine priests might exercise here would amount to nothing. This place was doomed—the cross on the chapel was a sure indicator of that.

With that doleful thought in mind, Ivan stood behind Katerina as she embraced her weeping father and then introduced him, in all his splendid nudity, shivering from the cold and bleeding from a hundred scratches. When the king took the cloak from his own shoulders and wrapped it around Ivan, he was moved by more than the graciousness of the gesture. This man will lose his kingdom, Ivan was thinking. The story of the sleeping princess will survive and spread all over Europe, but the witch will have her way with this kingdom after all, and waking the princess from her slumber would turn out to be no blessing to these people. Ivan thought of this place in flames, and shivered, even though now, with the cloak around him, he was not so cold.

When King Matfei asked his name, Ivan almost blurted out "Itzak Shlomo." What was he thinking? It took a moment even to think of his Russian name. And then to decide against the familiar Vanya and use the formal Ivan. And then to remember to pronounce it the Russian way, instead of like an American. "Ivan," he finally said. He decided against giving a surname, since family surnames were not in use at this time, except for royal dynasties. Besides, Ivan was in a fairy tale now, wasn't he? And in the fairy tales, Ivan was always Ivan, just as in the English tales Jack was always Jack.

With a gracious speech and promise of hospitality, the king brought Ivan inside. Behind him, he heard Katerina address the crowd, but did not linger to listen to what she said. He was more interested in the room surrounding him. It was smoky from the large fire in the center; the hole in the center of the roof drew most of the smoke upward, but left enough behind that Ivan's eyes stung. A deer's carcass was sizzling and spitting over the fire as a servant lazily turned the spit.

King Matfei sat, not on a throne, but on a large chair at the head of the banquet table, while Ivan was shown to a seat at his right hand—the place of honor. Still, except for the cloak, no clothing had been offered to him, but as Ivan's eyes got used to the interior darkness he realized that he was not the only naked or nearly-naked man here. A goldsmith working at a second fire in one corner of the great room wore nothing but his apron, and now Ivan realized that most of the smoke that was irritating his eyes came from the goldsmith's hearth. It took only a moment for Ivan to understand why this craftsman was laboring in the king's house instead of his own work shed—this was the king's gold the man was working with, and it didn't leave the king's house. There were also two boys of perhaps eight or ten years who wore nothing at all as one of them swept the floor of old straw and the other strewed new straw behind him. Slaves—that's who went naked here.

The king had shouted instructions to his servants from the moment he entered the house, and Ivan was no sooner seated than bread and cheese and mead were set out in front of him. Moments later, a steaming bowl of borscht was added, and, lacking a spoon, he picked up the bowl and drank from it eagerly. It was a rich broth, beety and strong.

The crowd was cheering outside and shouting the names of Katerina and Matfei, as Katerina herself made her way into the great room and took her place at the king's left.

"So," said King Matfei. "You saved my daughter!"

"Yes, sir," said Ivan. He drank again from the soup bowl. Borscht dribbled from the sides of his mouth, down his chin and onto his chest. The bright red dripping broth would look for all the world as if he had bitten into the raw, warm heart of a fresh kill in the forest and let the hot blood run. For a moment he felt like a savage indeed, who had triumphantly brought back the prize from the teeth of the bear.

"He wants you to tell him the story," said Katerina. Her tone of voice added an unspoken epithet: idiot.

"It was nothing," said Ivan. "Really."

Matfei and Katerina looked at him as if he had just peed on the table.

"Saving my daughter was nothing?" asked King Matfei.

"No, no, Father," said Katerina, glaring at Ivan. "My beloved Ivan is merely waiting until your other knights have gathered, to tell the glorious tale of his triumph over the Widow's fiendish and hideous bear."

Ivan realized his mistake at once. He knew this from his studies. Modesty wasn't valued in this culture. A man boasted about his exploits and won extra points if he told the story well. What else was he forgetting?

Ivan tried to cover his faux pas by taking another draught of borscht, draining the bowl entirely.

"Then let's gather them all," said King Matfei. He called out to the naked boys who were sweeping and strawing. "Run and summon my boyars!"

The boys dropped broom and straw where they might fall, and took off for the door.

"Won't they be cold?" asked Ivan.

Katerina rolled her eyes. "You see how compassionate my rescuer is?" she said to her father. "He even cares for the comfort of slave boys, as if he were forgetting they would stay warm by running."

"You talk funny," said King Matfei to Ivan. "Are you a foreigner, or are you simple in the head?"

"Simple in the head," said Ivan at once.

Katerina glared at him. "He jokes."

"On the contrary," said Ivan. "Your daughter has made a great effort to tell me just how stupid I am."

King Matfei turned to face the princess, and for a moment she seemed to wither under his gaze. Then he laughed and smiled and hugged her close to him. "How can I think for a moment you would be ungracious to your rescuer!" he cried. "The man is jesting!"

"You'd be amazed at all the funny things he does," said Katerina. Her smile could freeze steam.

"I speak differently," Ivan explained to the king, "because I learned another dialect of your language as a child, and there are many words I don't know. I promise to learn as quickly as I can."

"Katerina will help you," said King Matfei. "She knows all the words!" With that he roared with laughter, and hugged Katerina even tighter.

She smiled and hugged her father back. Such a happy family, thought Ivan. What the hell am I doing here?

This is the first day of happily ever after, that's what I'm doing.

And, when he made the effort to see past his own fear and his resentment at the way Katerina had disdained him, he had to admit that Katerina and her father really did seem happy. King Matfei teased her, but treated her as someone to be proud of, someone to like as a person, not just as a property to be married off. Apparently women were not so oppressed as they would become in later centuries.

"I was so afraid for you, my daughter!" said the king. "I thought I might never see you again. All my boyars went in search of you, and found no track or trace or rumor. The dogs found no scent, and the prayers of Father Lukas went unanswered. I was going to set them all again to searching—or praying—but here you are, rescued, betrothed, and sooner than I could have hoped."

"I was enchanted only a few months," said Katerina. "Though Ivan thinks it was a thousand years."

"How could it be a thousand years?" asked King Matfei of Ivan.

"To you it seems only a few months," said Ivan, "but I assure you that in my land we know of a thousand years of history that passed while she slept. I think that your boyars couldn't find the princess Katerina because the Widow did not merely hide her in the forest, but hid her in the centuries as well."

"It makes no sense to me."

"Such are the ways of witches," said Ivan.

"I know nothing of the ways of witches," said King Matfei, "except they are of Satan and must be resisted with all our power."

"I am even more ignorant of them than you are," said Ivan, "for up till the day I fought the bear and freed your daughter, I did not believe that they existed."

"Well, that was stupid of you," said King Matfei.

"Yes," said Ivan. "I see that now."

"You weren't joking, then, when you said you were simple in the head."

"There are many things I don't understand," said Ivan. "I hope that you'll give me time to learn."

"Are you so clumsy that no one gave you any work to do?" asked the king. "Look at your arms and shoulders—I don't know if you could lift a basket of flowers."

"I lifted the stone that blinded the bear," said Ivan, getting a little annoyed.

Katerina looked concerned, "My father is teasing you," she said.

Ways of showing humor must have changed a lot over the centuries, then. It sounded to Ivan like he was being insulting.

"In my land," said Ivan, "I'm regarded as a..." He had no idea how to say athlete in Old Church Slavonic. It wasn't a concept likely to be useful in the liturgy or histories. "As a good runner."

The king's face went white. "They say this to your face? That you run?"

Ivan had to think frantically to guess at what he had said wrong. Then it dawned on him. "Not running from battle," he said. "Running races. Two men side by side, then they run and run and see who arrives first."

"We have slaves carry our messages," said the king.

"Then I suppose no one but the slaves will run races with me," Ivan said, chuckling. But he found himself chuckling alone. So much for humorous banter. Apparently the jokes would only go one way around here.

"I'll bet you're not Christian, either," said the king.

"No, sir," said Ivan. Was there any defect that he lacked? Whether he could father children had not yet been tested.

"He's a Jew," said Katerina. Trust the princess to come up with another flaw—though to her credit her lip didn't curl and her tone didn't curdle when she said it.

"Never mind," said King Matfei loudly. "Father Lukas will teach you of Christ and you can be baptized in plenty of time to marry my daughter."

"I'll be glad to speak with Father Lukas," said Ivan. "But if there's some way around this marriage idea—"

"What he means," said Katerina, "is that all of this is new to him and he will learn everything that is required of him." Her eyes made it clear to Ivan that this was not a good time to throw the marriage into question.

King Matfei whispered to his daughter again. He apparently believed that no one but she could hear him, though of course his harsh whisper was audible in every corner of the room. "How did somebody as stupid as this defeat the Pretender's bear?" And then, in a voice even softer, though still clearly audible: "Are you sure he isn't sent by her as a trick?"

"For the answer to that," said Katerina softly, "you'll have to ask Mikola Mozhaiski."

"Yes, well, he hasn't been by here in years. Not since you were little. I don't know if he even remembers I exist. After all, I'm only a king." Looking up into the beams of the thatched roof above his head, Matfei bellowed, "Does Mikola Mozhaiski talk to anyone but the gods?"

Ivan thought he was joking, and smiled a little. Matfei saw his expression and twisted in his chair to face him square on. "Is that funny to you?"

"I've never met Mikola Mozhaiski," said Ivan. "I don't know anybody here."

"You know my daughter," he said. It sounded like he wasn't pleased about it.

"She doesn't like me," Ivan said, determined that some of the truth, at least, would come out.

The king roared with laughter. "What does it matter if she likes you! She's going to marry you! You're getting more than any other man will have!"

It was in that moment of surpassing banality, sitting at the dining table, surrounded by the stink and noise of a medieval hall, the king himself showing complete disregard for the fact that his daughter might not like the man who was supposed to marry her, when it dawned on Ivan that he wasn't going to be able to beg off the way he might have done back in Tantalus, politely turning down an invitation to have dinner with a new acquaintance or attend the Mormon pageant at Palmyra. If the king decided Ivan was going to marry his daughter, turning him down was going to be a little tricky. And as for getting baptized, well, history was littered with the bodies of people who didn't find quite the right way of saying no thanks to a fervent evangelist with a sword.

It was like the moment when a war correspondent realizes for the first time that the bullets whistling around him don't notice or care that he is a noncombatant with a notebook or a tape recorder or a steadycam. And, like that imaginary war correspondent, Ivan wanted nothing more than to hug the ground and shout to someone in a hovering chopper, "Get me out of here!"

But Ivan kept his poise and showed no sign of his moment of panic. He must concentrate on the details of the moment. Whatever else happened, he was still a scholar getting field experience like no other grad student in history. He must live in the moment and forget the future. He spread lard on his bread and ate it, smiling at the king. He didn't insist that he was already engaged to someone else. He didn't mention his disinclination to become a Christian. He didn't burst into tears and call for his mother. He just chewed and swallowed, hoping that the knot in his stomach wouldn't cause him to throw up.

He wasn't getting out of here without Katerina's help, which she wasn't likely to give. There'd be no ticket home. He wasn't even on standby.

Was this going to be his life? To marry this beautiful barbarian woman and spend his life eating pork and crossing himself? Sure, until the day he had to face some knight in combat using a sword he probably couldn't even lift. Or until the day Baba Yaga sent an extremely resentful one-eyed bear to do the job right this time.

Death was the least of his worries. Looking around, he realized that long before someone got around to killing him, he would have to deal with a thousand much more tedious afflictions. He was bound to be infested with fleas—he could almost see them hopping around in the straw on the floor. And what of the unsanitary water? He would definitely stick to alcoholic beverages here, trying to strike some balance between drunkenness and dysentery. And what would happen to him, living on a diet from the era before refrigeration and flavor? Already he was wishing for a simple chocolate-vanilla swirl from TCBY, with just one scoop of chocolate sprinkles.

Never again.

The boyars were gathering, and the knights of King Matfei's druzhina. There were women present, too, wives or relatives of these men of high station. The slaves brought out more and more food, and the guests ate with gusto. This was the king's table, and what he had to provide for the lords and knights who were loyal to him was a free lunch.

Of course their table manners were shocking—slabs of bread were their plates, knives and fingers their only utensils. The women ate with as much gusto—and as much splashing and dripping and dropping—as the men. Ivan noticed that even though they all conversed with each other, few could look at anything but him, sizing him up, wondering why he was naked except for the robe over his shoulders. No doubt they were as disappointed in his physique as Katerina and her father had been. If only he knew the local idiom for "beggars can't be choosers."

The king had been conversing with some of the boyars seated nearby, but now turned again to Ivan. "My future son seems distracted," said the king. "You can't be drunk on the little bit of mead you've had."

"I'm sorry," said Ivan. "I don't always understand what you're saying."

"Believe me, we don't always understand you, either!" said the king with a laugh.

But at that moment Ivan realized that one of the women on the other side of the room might be choking. She sat rigidly, her eyes wide with fright yet also glazing over, her fingers scrabbling at the table's surface as if she were trying to get a grip on it. No one around her noticed.

Ivan rose to his feet, toppling his stool, and would have rushed to her around the outside of the tables except that too many slaves and diners were crowded there. So he stepped up onto the table and jumped off the other side, the robe falling from his shoulders as he did. He strode through the open space in the midst of the tables until he stood opposite the choking woman. She didn't even see him, she was so far gone in her silent agony. He swung himself over the table, upsetting several cups. Ignoring the protests of those whose mead he had spilled, Ivan squatted down, reached his arms around the woman's waist and clasped his hands just under her sternum. There was no rigid underwear to interfere with the Heimlich maneuver, so he dragged her to her feet, held her body close to him, and gave one swift inward jab with his hands.

A piece of half-chewed meat flew out of her mouth and out into the middle of the floor. The woman gasped and sobbed for breath, leaning over the table as Ivan let go of her.

At once several rough hands seized her, and Ivan was surrounded by shouting men, one of whom gripped him by one arm, tore him away from the others, and flung him against the wall. His head spinning, vaguely aware of splinters in his face and his naked shoulder, Ivan had no idea who had attacked him or why, but it was clear from the iron grip on his arm that the business wasn't finished yet.

It would have ended badly if the king himself had not roared a command. "Stop, you fool! What are you doing to your future king!"

From the man who gripped his arm Ivan heard an answering growl. "No man, naked, may lay his hands upon my brother's wife in such a way as that!"

"He saved her life, you blithering fool!" cried the king. "Are you blind? She was choking, didn't you see it? And whatever he did—look, out in the middle of the floor, the bit of meat that was going to be your sister's death!"

The grip on Ivan's arm did not relax.

The woman, finally recovered enough to speak, turned around to face her brother. "Don't hurt the man, Dimitri," she said. "He held me only around the waist, as if we were dancing. And then he—popped the food out, and I could breathe again."

"But he's naked," said Dimitri.

Dizzy and frightened as he was, Ivan couldn't help but notice the irony that this was the first person who seemed to agree with him that his being naked was a very bad idea.

"He saved my life. While you, brother Dimitri, sat beside me making jokes. You would have kept joking until I dropped dead on the floor!"

"Why didn't you tell me you needed help?"

"Because I was choking, my wise brother!"

By now the king had made his way through the throng to stand beside Ivan. "Dimitri," said the king, "instead of ripping my guest's arm from its socket, would you please let go of him and thank him for saving your sister's life?"

It was couched as a request, but Dimitri interpreted it, correctly, as a command. "Sire," said the knight. "I serve you always." He let go of Ivan's arm—the blood rushed painfully through the too-long-constricted veins—and now Ivan could turn to see the man who had seized him and tossed him so easily into the wall. Dimitri was built like... like Popeye. Like Alley Oop. His forearms were unbelievably muscular, his shoulders as massive as a bull's. Was this what Katerina had been comparing him to? Was this what a "man" was to her? Ivan was taller than Dimitri, but in no physical way would he be a match for him. For the first time in his adult life, Ivan felt downright frail.

This man could snap my bones like twigs.

And it was clear that despite the king's words, Dimitri wasn't really mollified. His apology, while it sounded sincere enough—the king was watching, after all—clearly wasn't what he wanted to say. "O guest of the king, I'm sorry I threw you against the wall. I'm also sorry you laid hands upon my sister. If you had told me she was choking, I would have saved her."

Oh, sure, I'll bet you would, the Heimlich maneuver was done all the time in the ninth century or whenever this is.

But Ivan decided that it was best to pretend to accept the apology and avoid antagonizing this man any further. "Sir, I would have told you, but I'm a stranger here and I don't speak your language very well. I did not know how to say that she was choking. I only learned the word when it was said just now. So instead of speaking, as I should have, I thought it was better to act."

"Of course it was better," said King Matfei. "And you were fast—over the tables and across the room faster than a stooping hawk." He turned and addressed the whole company. "Have you ever seen a man bound over a table like that? By the Bear, if I only had a hound that could leap like you!" Then the king realized what he had said. "That is, not by the Bear, of course, but by the Lord's wounds."

"Amen," said a few of the more pious.

Katerina approached now, holding the robe she had picked up from where it fell. Not taking her eyes from Ivan's face until she moved behind him, she placed the robe onto his shoulders. Gratefully he gathered the cloth around his waist. Katerina took her place beside him. "Do you see what a man the Lord has brought to me? Two women he has saved this day, Lybed and me, but I am the fortunate one who will have him as my husband."

The hall rang with cheering.

"Lucky for you the princess got your promise first," said Dimitri's sister, Lybed, her eyes alight with something more than mead. "For I'm a widow, and I would gladly have thanked you well enough to wear you down to a stump."

The company whooped at the ribald boast, King Matfei among them. Even Katerina smiled.

But Dimitri did not smile. Instead he took his sister by the arm and pulled her away. "We've eaten enough," he said. "I'm taking you back to your children before you're too drunk to walk."

"I'm not drunk," Lybed protested, but allowed herself to be led away.

"Well, now," said the king. "We've seen with our own eyes that you're a worthy champion, even if you do seem a mere lad. What you lack in strength you'll make up for in liveliness, I'll swear! So come back to table and have whatever you want!"

Ivan saw the opportunity and took it. "King Matfei, forgive me, but what I want most is a bed. I ran with a bear all morning."

The king could take a hint. "What kind of host am I! The man rescues my daughter and brings her home, my kingdom will be saved from the great Bitch, he even saves the sister of my master-at-arms, and I don't even think to give the man a bed! In fact, I'll give him my bed!"

"No, no, please!" Ivan protested. "How could I sleep, lying in the bed of a king?"

King Matfei laughed. "So what? When you marry my daughter, you'll be sleeping in the bed of a princess."

Ivan glanced at Katerina. She showed no sign of noticing her father's reference to the presumed consummation of their marriage. But this was a woman who knew how to speak her mind. About the marriage, she had nothing to say. She would do her duty, but she didn't have to relish it.

He had always thought that he would marry for love. Instead, it looked like his bride was going to take him out of grim duty.

Please, yes, let me go to bed. If I sleep, perhaps I'll wake up back in Cousin Marek's house, or in Kiev, or back in Tantalus in my own room. That's how these mad dreams end, isn't it?

The bed, when they led him there, offered no redolence of home. It was clearly a place of honor, a bedstead a full three feet off the ground. But the mattress was straw in a tick, the room was cold and stank of old sweat and urine, and it wouldn't get him any closer to home. There might be magic in this world, but none of it was in this room, and none of it was Ivan's to command.

It took Esther a day of shopping, but she found it in a mall in Syracuse: a clay basin, made in Spain, plain dark blue inside, brightly decorated on the outside. She bought it and brought it home, arriving after dark. Piotr asked her where she had been, but she answered him in one-word sentences that let him know this was not a good night for chat.

Out in the back yard, she set up the basin on a lawn table, out in the open where moonlight fell directly on it. Then she took the garden hose and filled it to the brim with water. Using blades of grass and twigs from the lawn as shims, she finally got the bowl exactly level and perfectly full, so that the water in the basin was poised to brim over, held in place all the way around by surface tension alone. The last few drops she added with an eyedropper.

The water trembled from the last drop, shimmering for a long time as if to the echo of a distant drumbeat. She sat and watched, cupping her hand over her mouth and nose lest her breath disturb the water. The night was still, but she did not trust it. She murmured words to keep breezes away from this spot, ancient words in a language she didn't really understand, and for good measure included the incantation that would keep the eager insects of spring from seeking out this pool of water for egg-laying.

At last the water was perfectly still. Carefully, she rose to her feet. Holding her clothing close to her body, so nothing would touch the basin and disturb the water, she looked directly down into the deep dark blue of the pool, the water as expressionless as night, and whispered, over and over, the true name of her only child.

6

Newcomer

While Ivan slept, Katerina and her father took a walk up to the hill-fort. The sound of mock combat came from the yard within; because Katerina wanted to talk in privacy, she held back, and her father waited with her outside the gate.

Father knew what she wanted to talk about. "Well?" he asked. "What kind of king will he be?"

"King?" She shook her head ruefully. "He knows nothing of kingliness."

Father smiled slightly and looked off in the distance. "I'm sure you're right."

"Which means that you're not sure," she said, laughing.

"All through the dinner, I thought, the Pretender must be rejoicing to see this awful creature my daughter brought home. And then he saves a stranger from choking."

"And provokes Dimitri—"

"Oh, of course, he does everything wrong, Katerina. But he does have the heart of a king. When he sees someone in need, he does not hesitate to act. He does not measure the cost, he does not fear criticism—"

"But if there's anything you taught me, Father, it's that a king must measure the cost! And he must act in a way that will be above criticism."

"I did not say that this Ivan has the mind of a king. Only that he has the heart."

"What good is the heart without the mind?"

"Better than the mind without the heart," said Father.

"And what good are his personal qualities, if the people will not accept him? Look at him, Father. Who would follow him into battle?"

"You know, this whole idea of hereditary kingship has never sat well with me," said Father. "We always elected our kings, in the old days, to lead us in war."

"Yes, but that law of succession is the only thing holding the Widow back," said Katerina.

"No one would vote for her, either."

"If they feared her enough, they would," said Katerina. "So I have to succeed you, and my husband will be king, and I gave my word to Ivan, and he to me."

"We can fight the Widow," said Father. "Choose another man. I'm sorry for this good-hearted boy, and grateful to him for saving you from the Widow's curse, but choose another husband and we'll fight. Our men are courageous."

"One man with courage is no match for ten men with blood lust upon them."

"God will fight with us against the powers of darkness. He fought for Constantine, didn't he? 'In this sign, you will conquer!' "

"Maybe that story is true, and maybe it isn't."

Father looked at her in horror. "Do we not have the word of Father Lukas for it?"

"He wasn't there, Father."

"He wasn't at the resurrection, either."

"Father, I'm a Christian and you know it. But the armies of Rome have been defeated many times since they converted to Christianity. Maybe when God has some great purpose, like converting an empire, he gives victory to his followers. But Christians can die. I don't want Taina to be a nation of martyrs."

"So you marry him because that's what the Widow forced us to promise in order to get you back, and then we're so weak, having this man of twigs for a king—did you see his arms? I don't know if he can even lift a sword. If he were a tree he'd fall over in the first wind."

"But he has the heart of a king, you said. If there's time enough, can't he learn all the rest?"

"So you like him," said Father.

"He freed me. You didn't see the bear. He was the god of bears, I swear it, Father. Terrifying. But Ivan faced him. Stayed with me and didn't attempt to flee even as the bear climbed the pedestal. Did what I asked him to do to save us."

"Obedience is not a quality of kings."

"He did what was needed. In the moment of danger. Afterward... I don't know, perhaps he really does come from a land where everything is crazy and the sun shines at night. But if the people would follow him, I don't think he would disappoint them. Especially if he has time to learn."

"But he may not have time. And they may not follow him."

"They would not follow him," said Katerina. "Not now. Not yet."

"Maybe this is the man God brought us," said King Matfei. "In my heart I want to have faith. Father Lukas says that Christ said that God works through the weak things of the world to achieve his great purposes. But can I bet on this boy Ivan, when my people's lives are at stake?"

"More to the point," said Katerina, "do we have any other choice?"

"If only you could lead them in battle."

"Do you think I haven't thought of that, Father? But I am no soldier. I can govern, I can hold the kingdom together and give justice to the people, but who would follow me into battle?"

"Put Dimitri in charge, in your name—"

"Then Dimitri would be king," said Katerina. "The king is the war leader. The war leader is the king."

"Not if you're the one giving them the orders. Making the plans. You will be the king, Katerina, even though you can't lead them into the fray."

"No, Father. They have to see the king putting his life at risk, fighting alongside them. They have to see the king's arm fall upon the enemy and rise up soaked in blood and gore. There's no escaping that. You're a man of peace—you would have turned away from battle if you could. But you did what your kingdom required."

"Katerina, you're smarter than ten sons. You're right, though. You can't lead men into battle. You will stay home and have babies—lots of them, mostly sons, so our kingdom will never be left without a male heir again!"

"Ivan's sons," said Katerina.

"Your sons," said Father. "Maybe we'll be lucky. Maybe he'll marry you, get you pregnant with a boy, then take sick and die."

Katerina gripped her father's arm. "How can you say such a thing?" she whispered harshly. "It's the sin of David, to wish for the death of a loyal man."

"Get Father Lukas to read you the story again, Katerina."

"I can read it myself."

"King David's sin wasn't wishing, it was doing."

"Would you wish my child fatherless?"

"I would raise the baby as my own, if this Ivan were to die. But have no fear—the Pretender will probably use every spell she knows to keep him healthy. He's too useful to her and too destructive of all our hopes for her to let him come to harm."

"Don't despise him, Father," she said. "Teach him. Make a man of him."

"Of course I'll teach him," he said impatiently. "And I don't despise him, I told you that. I admire his heart. But those weak arms—what were his parents thinking?"

"I think they were raising him to be a cleric."

"Good for them. They should have taught him that when clerics see princesses lying enchanted in a place of power, with a huge bear as guardian, they should go away and let her be until a real man arrives to have a go at the task!"

"He is a real man, Father. In his heart."

Father put his arm around her, held her close. "Who am I to stand in the way of love?"

Katerina grimaced. Father kissed her forehead, then led her into the fort. In the yard, some of the older men were training boys with wooden practice swords. Katerina came up beside her father and added a parting shot to their argument. "If they can teach boys, they can teach Ivan."

Father rolled his eyes, but she knew he would try to make this betrothal work. He would do it because that was the only hope for the kingdom.

At the verge of the forest, Nadya was returning to her hut to get back to her weaving—so much work left to do, and never enough time, now that the days were getting so short. She had tried weaving in the dark, once, but nobody would have worn the cloth that resulted, so she pulled it out and did it over and never tried such a mad experiment again. Everything had to be done in the precious hours of daylight. Everything except make babies. Another reason to get done with her work as early as she could. Even though all but one of their babies had died after only a few days, it didn't stop her husband from trying. And with each pregnancy, Nadya had new hope.

But she was getting on in years now. More than thirty years old, and her body wearied of more pregnancies. Their only living child, a son, was a cripple, deformed from birth and then the same leg injured in childhood, so what was already withered became even more twisted and stumpy. Others muttered sometimes that there was a curse on Nadya and her family, but Nadya paid them no mind. She did no harm to anyone—who would put a curse on her? She did not want to start thinking of her neighbors that way.

Not even the strange little old lady who stood leaning against the wall of Nadya's hut. She came in from some distant, lonely forest hut. Nadya always shared food with her and treated her civilly, because you never knew who had the power to curse and because if her husband died before her, Nadya herself might be left on her own, hungry and alone, since her only living child was not likely to earn much bread—still less any to share with her, since her boy had given himself to the Christians and spent all his time with Father Lukas.

"Good evening to you," said Nadya.

"New and news!" cackled the crone.

"You have tales from abroad?" asked Nadya. "Come in, and I'll give you bread and cheese."

The old woman followed her into her hut. "News from Taina!" said the old lady. "The princess is back!"

"I know it," said Nadya. "I was there in the village when she returned with that naked fellow."

The old lady sniffed, clearly offended that Nadya didn't need her gossip.

"But I'm sure you know more about it than I do," said Nadya.

The old lady softened. She took a bite of dry black bread with a nibble of cheese. "I hope you have a bit of mead to keep my throat open."

Nadya handed her a pot of mead. The old lady quaffed it off like a man, then giggled in a way that made Nadya think of some chattering animal.

"He's not much of a fellow, this man she brought back to marry," said the old lady.

"He saved her from the Widow's evil trap. Isn't that enough?"

"You think so?" asked the old lady. "You really think that's all that matters?"

"He saved Lybed, too, they say. Though Dimitri beat him for it afterward. Isn't that a mean trick?"

The old lady smiled mysteriously. "He might have deserved the beating after all. For another reason."

"Why? What do you know about him?"

"I know he was wearing this," said the old lady. She reached into her bag and pulled out a tattered, stained hoose. Nadya recognized it at once as being of fine weave, with a delicate pattern woven into it. Her own work. She had given this hoose as a gift to the princess, and Katerina had been wearing it when she pricked her finger on the spindle and was carried away in her sleep.

"He wore it?"

"He demanded it from her. So he wouldn't get scratched up walking through the forest. But the cloth had no comfort for him—see how the fabric tore to let the branches through so they could scratch him anyway? That's why he cast it away. Because a Christian woman's clothing will not bear the insult."

"But—he put it on? He dressed in it?"

"Ask him. Ask Katerina if he had this girded about his loins, playing at being a girl. Ask them both, and see if they tell you the truth."

"How do you know this?"

"Didn't they walk right past me, not seeing me, overlooking me as folks always do?"

"I don't," Nadya reminded her.

"He cast it away, and I picked it up and brought it here. Because I think the people of Taina should know what kind of wickedness is in the heart of the man who thinks he can marry the dear princess."

"But... she wouldn't marry him if he were that kind of man," said Nadya.

"She would, if she thought that's what it took to keep Taina free of the great and powerful Pretender."

"May I—may I keep this? To show?"

"Go ahead," said the old woman. "I have no use for it." Her supper finished, she arose to go. "But I fear the vengeance of this stranger, if it's known who told his secret."

"I don't fear him," said Nadya. "He doesn't look strong enough to lead a dog on a leash."

"You're a brave one indeed," said the old lady. "You think that because you're virtuous and kind, and your son is a priest, and your husband a—"

"Sergei's only a scribe, not a priest," Nadya said.

"As if it matters."

"You were saying?"

"I was just telling you that you're not as safe as you think," said the old lady. "There are some people so malicious, so delighted in evildoing, that even when you treat them kindly, they answer with a curse."

"I hope I never meet such a wicked person." But Nadya entertained a moment's concern that perhaps the old lady was telling a secret about herself. Could this woman possibly have been the cause of the death of each of her babies? Of Sergei's crooked leg? Of the fall from a tree that ruined it further?

She searched her visitor's face. The old lady looked back at her, unblinking, bearing her gaze, showing no sign of guilt or shame—nor of malice or triumph. Only a look of genuine concern. Impossible to imagine that this woman had ever done her harm. It was wicked of Nadya even to have entertained the thought.

Nadya held up the tattered hoose. "Is it wrong of me to tell of this?"

"I don't know what's wrong or right," said the old lady. "The princess seems not to mind. But what of the men who might follow this... person into battle? Will God fight on their side, with such a man as king?"

Nadya thought of her husband. Of the vicious combat that stopped Baba Yaga's army when they first attacked. How defeat looked certain, until King Matfei cried out for his men to have courage, and then plunged headlong into the thick of the battle, beating down every sword raised against him. They could not let such a king risk his life for them, not without companions fighting with equal fervor at his side. It was the king who gave them heart.

What heart would this stranger give to anyone? How many lives would be lost, with him at the front of battle? God forbid there should ever be another war, of course, but if the choice was between war now, while Matfei still ruled, or war later, when this weakling was on the throne, better to fight it now. Let there be no marriage, and let Baba Yaga come in claiming to rule by right; the swords of the men of Taina, led by King Matfei, would show them what Baba Yaga's claims were worth.

"I might tell Father Lukas," said Nadya. "I might show this to my son."

"Might?"

If she did tell, Nadya knew, it would break Matfei's heart, and would shame Katerina. After all, if the princess chose not to tell it, then there must be good reason, mustn't there? Who was Nadya, to speak when the great ones kept silent?

"Maybe," said Nadya.

"Well, do what you will with it," said the old lady. "You've always done right by me. I imagine you'll do right by the people of Taina."

"I'll try," said Nadya.

Ivan woke to see a hooded face looming over him. He cried out and shrank into a corner of his bedstead. Almost at once, though, he realized that his visitor was a young priest. Or monk. Or something.

"Father Lukas?" asked Ivan.

"What?" answered the man.

Ivan realized that he had spoken in Russian. But proto-Slavonic wasn't that different. "Are you Father Lukas?"

"No," said the man. "I'm Brother Sergei. Not a priest at all."

That would explain his native-sounding speech. "I thought all priests came from Constantinople."

"I couldn't be a fighter or a farmer, not with this leg." Sergei lifted his gown to reveal a mismatched pair of legs, the one normal—or perhaps stronger than normal—and the other wizened, twisted, and several inches shorter. "Father Lukas made me his scribe."

"So you read and write? You have the Greek for that?"

Brother Sergei nodded vigorously. "He taught me the letters. Not Greek though, I can't read that."

Can't read Greek? "You mean you read in your own language?"

"Father Lukas taught me the letters."

"What letters? Can you show me?" It was impossible—nobody was writing in Old Church Slavonic, not this far north and west. The Cyrillic alphabet had either just been invented or was about to be, far away at the borders of the Byzantine Empire, and the Glagolitic alphabet was nearly as new and was never that widely used. So what alphabet was Father Lukas teaching?

Brother Sergei collapsed into a sitting position and began to write with his finger on the earthen floor. Impossible as it was, Ivan recognized the figures immediately as the earliest known form of the Cyrillic alphabet.

"A man named Kirill invented those letters," Ivan said.

"I know," said Sergei. "Father Lukas was his scribe." Sergei grinned. "I'm the scribe to the scribe of the great missionary Father Constantine—he only took the name Kirill a little while before he died. Father Lukas says that by serving him as he served Father Constantine, I am only two steps away from holiness."

"Closer than most men, then," said Ivan. But he trembled at the thought: The priest in this place was, or at least claimed to be, personally acquainted with Saint Kirill himself. Which meant that whatever writing was done in this place would be, if Ivan could only take it away from here back to his own time, the oldest Cyrillic writing any man of the twentieth century had ever seen. Not only that, but it was the definitive answer to the historical question of whether it was Kirill himself who invented that alphabet, or his followers who did it after he was dead.

If Ivan could take it back, so many questions could be answered. That was just one more unbearable irony.

"You speak our tongue much better than Father Lukas," said Sergei. "But you still pronounce it funny."

"I grew up speaking a different form of the same language." said Ivan. "Father Lukas grew up speaking Greek."

"So where are you from?"

"Kiev," said Ivan.

Brother Sergei laughed aloud. "I've heard traders from Kiev. They don't talk like that."

"Oh?"

"Most of them are Rus' and speak North-talk anyway, nothing like our language."

"There are a lot of people in Kiev," said Ivan, "and a lot of ways of speaking."

"It must be a wonderful thing, to live in a great city."

"The wonderful thing," said Ivan, "is to be here in Taina."

"Of course it's wonderful to you," said Sergei. "You're going to be king."

Ivan grimaced. "Not much of a king. I'm a poor choice for that."

Sergei shrugged. "There's some who say so. Though one never knows who'll be a good ruler until he wears the crown."

"Well, anyone who thinks I shouldn't be king is right."

Sergei got a sick look on his face. "So it's true, then?"

"What's true?"

"About you wearing Katerina's hoose?"

Ivan could hardly believe word of that had already spread. "Does she say that?"

"She says nothing," said Sergei. "But an old woman found this tattered hoose and showed it to my mother, and my mother recognized it as one that the princess had worn. She didn't feel right about telling anyone but me, not until you had a chance to deny it or admit it." Sergei laid the stained and tattered remnant of Katerina's hoose on the bed.

Ivan didn't know what to say. A flat lie might be the best course, but for all he knew Katerina was behind the story, telling it to discredit him so she would not be forced to go through with the marriage. It wouldn't do any good to deny the story outright; no one would believe Ivan over Katerina.

"Brother Sergei," said Ivan, "I come from a faraway land. I was born in Kiev, but I lived the past ten years in a place even stranger and farther off. And in that land, when a woman takes off her clothing, then it ceases to be women's clothing or men's clothing, it's just cloth. Whatever a man wears is men's clothing while he's wearing it, and whatever a woman wears is women's clothing while she's wearing it. Do you understand?"

Sergei thought for a moment, then shook his head. "You mean that this is a man's hoose?" His tone was scornful.

"I mean that it's nothing but a piece of cloth, stitched in certain ways, and now torn. Though it wasn't torn at all when I last saw it."

Sergei said nothing.

"Sergei," said Ivan, "if I reached out and tore that cross from your neck, that would be theft, wouldn't it? Stealing a cross! What kind of wicked fool would I have to be, to commit such a sin as that?"

Sergei waited, listening but not willing to concede anything.

"But what if I came upon the cross in the forest. Or under a stone. Then to find a cross would be... what, wouldn't it be a miracle? A gift from God?"

"Are you saying you found this hoose and didn't know what it was?" asked Sergei.

"I'm saying that if a man doesn't know something's a sin, and does it, and as soon as he finds out it's a sin, he stops doing it, then is he a sinner?"

Sergei leaned back against the timbered wall. "I'll have to think about that," said Brother Sergei. "I'll have to ask Father Lukas."

Ivan leaned down and wrote his own name in the dirt, in Cyrillic characters. Then he wrote: "never wanted to be king."

Sergei studied the writing for a moment. Then he rubbed out the name and wrote his own in its place, and erased "king" and replaced it with the word "scribe." He looked up at Ivan, and when he was sure Ivan was looking back at him, he touched his own crippled leg. "When the things you want are taken from you, then you do the things that are left for you to do."

"If you tell this story, of my wearing women's clothing, will it change things so I don't have to marry Katerina?"

Sergei shrugged. "If Jesus came tomorrow, would he heal my leg?"

"I think he would," said Ivan, "if he could."

"But I think he's not coming," said Sergei.

So, what did that mean? That Sergei wasn't going to tell about the hoose?

"Come with me," said Sergei. "Father Lukas wants to teach you in preparation for your baptism."

Ivan reached down and erased Sergei's name and the word "scribe," and replaced them with "Ivan" and the word "Christian."

Sergei grinned, erased "Ivan" yet again, and again replaced it with his own name. But he let the word "Christian" stand.

Ivan shook his head ruefully. "We don't get to choose the world we live in, do we?" he said to the scribe. Only later did he realize what a stupid thing he had said. For he had chosen this world. Not knowing the consequences, it's true, but still he took Katerina's hand and followed her across the invisible bridge to Taina, instead of returning home over the bridge that he alone could see. That was more choice than Sergei ever got. But this young man was making the best of it.

"Will you help me learn what you have learned?" asked Ivan.

"You already read and write," said Sergei. "Though you make some of the letters oddly."

There was no point in explaining further. "Take me to Father Lukas, then." He stood up to leave and only then remembered that his only clothing was the king's cloak. "Except that I'm naked," he said.

Sergei pointed to a pile of cloth at the foot of the bed. "They must have brought it in while you slept."

Ivan pulled the robe of a monk over his head. Not how he would have expected them to dress a future king, or the fiancé of a princess. But just right, if they thought of him as a cleric. Was the clothing an insult? Or merely the only thing they had that they could be sure would fit a man so much taller than any of the others in this place?

Father Lukas's church was not large, but it was solidly built, and there was room enough inside it for at least a hundred villagers—standing, for no space was wasted on benches in Orthodox churches—and a tiring-room behind and to the right of the altar. There were two old women kneeling before an icon on a side wall, but whether they were praying or whispering to each other Ivan could not begin to guess. Another thick peasant woman was lighting a candle before another icon. She was not the first—the place was aglow with the flames of faith. No sign of Father Lukas.

Brother Sergei motioned for Ivan to wait while he went in search of the priest. No sooner had Sergei disappeared into the tiring-room behind the altar, however, than the thick-bodied peasant woman turned away from the candle she had been lighting, glanced up at Ivan, and immediately ducked her head and hurried away.

Just as she was leaving, a middle-aged priest with a natural tonsure entered the church, noticing her hurry with amusement. Then he saw Ivan, and instead of looking away, the priest surveyed him coolly, looking him up and down as if trying to determine what he weighed. There was no question that he knew immediately exactly who this new parishioner was.

"I understand you're supposed to teach me to be a Christian," said Ivan.

"If it can be done, Christ can do it," said Father Lukas. His accent was very thick. It was hard enough for Ivan to catch all that the native speakers said; Father Lukas butchered the pronunciation enough that Ivan had to think a moment to be sure he had understood. And even when he knew he had parsed everything Father Lukas said, Ivan still wasn't sure what he meant. Was Christ supposed to teach him? Or was he talking about something besides teaching?

Father Lukas drew him toward the tiring-room; just before they got there, Brother Sergei burst through, almost crashing into them before he realized they were there. Sergei apologized profusely as Father Lukas put on an air of patient tolerance. Ivan could almost hear him saying, "These natives. What can you do?" Father Lukas's attitude immediately increased Ivan's sympathy for Brother Sergei, who doubtless had to put up with Lukas's thinly veiled sneer all the time. But it was more than sympathy for Sergei in particular. Seeing Father Lukas look down on the local Slavs made Ivan feel a powerful surge of solidarity with the people of this village. However dirty the place may be, however primitive, it was no more primitive than anywhere else in Europe, except for Constantinople itself, and for all the airs Father Lukas might put on, Ivan knew there was a day when Slavs would put men in space before the people of any other nation. Chew on that one, you decadent Greek.

So quickly does nationalism surface in the heart of a man who thought he was above such tribalism.

"Oh, you found each other," said Brother Sergei.

"Come, sit with us," said Father Lukas. "I might need you to interpret. This future king has trouble understanding my speech, though his own language also sounds rather strange to my ears."

They went in and sat down. Almost at once, Father Lukas opened a book, leaves of vellum bound at one edge between leather-wrapped wooden covers. The handwriting was in the Cyrillic alphabet, not the Greek that Ivan had half-expected.

"A Bible?" asked Ivan. "In this language? Not Greek?"

"The Gospels only," said Father Lukas. "But you are a man of letters, I think? To know which language the book is written in?"

"What year is this?"

Father Lukas seemed not to understand the question.

"Anno Domini?" asked Ivan.

The Latin surprised Lukas even more. But he was willing to try that language. In halting Church Latin the priest asked some question that Ivan could not begin to understand.

"No, no, I don't speak Latin, I only want to know what year it is. Since the birth of Christ."

"Eight hundred and ninety years have passed since the birth of the Blessed Savior," said Father Lukas.

A book of the Gospels written in Old Church Slavonic before 900 C.E. Ivan wanted to kiss the book. He walked to the table where it lay and gently, carefully turned the leaves. He read it easily enough, despite the lack of punctuation and the early form of the letters. So many speculations and hypotheses about the orthography and the grammar of Old Slavonic were answered by this precious book; nothing this early had survived to Ivan's own time.

"So Saint Kirill died only twenty-one years ago?"

"And his brother Methodius five years ago," said Father Lukas. "But you are too young to have known Father Kirill—Father Constantine, as I knew him." Then he realized what Ivan had actually said. "Saint Kirill? You presume what no man knows yet."

Ivan waved off the temporal faux pas. Of course Saint Kirill had not been canonized yet, but from what Sergei had said earlier, Father Lukas revered the missionary to the Slavs. "You were his scribe?"

"Only in the last year of his life," said Father Lukas. "I served Father Methodius for five years after that, and then was sent forth on my own mission among these people. Father Methodius gave me this copy of the Gospels. It was the one that Father Kirill made for him with his own hand, the last copywork he did before he died."

"Not Father Kirill's first copy, then."

"Of course not," said Father Lukas. "That was long since given to the Patriarch of Constantinople for safekeeping, so that more copies could be made from it, endlessly."

So it had been in safekeeping in the Hagia Sophia—no doubt until it was taken by the Turks in 1453.

"But this was copied from it? In Father Kirill's own hand?"

"Part of it," said Father Lukas, smiling a little sheepishly at the near-deception he had almost practiced. "I should have said that from the start. He gave it to Father Methodius to finish. I think half of Saint Mark and all of Saint John are actually in the brother's hand. I served them both well. That is why I was given this precious book."

Ivan thought, uncharitably, that perhaps Father Lukas protested too much. That perhaps after he left on his own missionary journey, Father Methodius spent the rest of his life wondering what in the world ever happened to that book of the Gospels that Constantine and he had copied out.

What has happened to me? Ivan wondered. Because I dislike his attitude toward Sergei, though it is hardly a surprise given the time and place, I immediately assume him capable of all sorts of perfidy. Why shouldn't the book have been a gift?

Ivan began to read on the page where the book had chanced to open. "Whoever says to his brother, I will kill you, is in danger of judgment, and whoever says, Thou fool, is in danger of hellfire."

Brother Sergei gasped in admiration. "Father Lukas, he is already a Christian."

"Being able to read the words of Christ doesn't make one a believer in the Word," said Father Lukas. There was scorn in his voice; or at least Ivan thought he heard scorn.

"Brother Sergei has never known a man who could read and write who was not Christian," said Ivan. "So his mistake is understandable."

Ignoring Ivan's defense of the scribe, Father Lukas looked at him shrewdly. "How many of us are there who know this alphabet?" he asked. "How did you learn it?"

"My father taught me," said Ivan. Though, when he thought about it, it was much more likely that his mother had given him his letters. He had entered school already able to read and write, and had no conscious memory of ever learning; but it was impossible to believe that his father would have had the patience to teach a toddler to read and write. Never mind; it would be hard enough for them to believe he learned from his father, let alone from a woman.

"Who is your father, then? He has to have learned it from someone I know."

Why evade, when his answer cannot possibly be checked anyway? "Piotr Smetski."

"His name is Piotr?" Father Lukas leapt to the obvious conclusion. "So he was baptized Christian, and took that name upon him. And yet you are a Jew."

"Whatever I am, I'm here now, to be taught by you," said Ivan.

"And what do you expect me to teach you?"

"How to be a Christian. So I can be baptized and marry Princess Katerina so that Taina can be saved from Ba—from the Widow. I think that's the whole story, isn't it?"

"That is not a reason to become a Christian. It is only a reason to go through the empty forms of conversion, with greed in your heart, lust in your loins, and a lie on your lips." Father Lukas leaned close. "I can't stop a man from lying to God, but I can at least make sure he has every chance to be telling the truth when he confesses the name of Christ."

"So this won't be quick and easy," said Ivan.

"The only books written in this barbarian tongue are the Gospels and liturgy," said Father Lukas. "Therefore you must have learned to read from the words of the evangelists, and yet they were not sufficient to convert you. What can I say more, that they have not said?"

"And how do you know that I was not converted?" asked Ivan, getting peeved at the thought of having to go through an exceptionally rigorous course of study in the Orthodox version of Christianity. He hadn't even decided he was going to accept conversion in the first place. Though a sophistry had already arisen in his mind to excuse it. Since he wasn't circumcised until the 1970s, and he would be baptized in the 890s, clearly his circumcision took place after his supposed baptism. Therefore whatever rite he went through here to become a Christian would be obliterated nearly eleven centuries later. So it was as if he never converted at all. Wasn't it?

"Were you converted?" asked Father Lukas.

"As much as Brother Sergei here," said Ivan.

Father Lukas snorted. "Brother Sergei has as much faith in Christ as I have in Brother Sergei."

Suddenly Lukas's disdain for Sergei had to be seen in a new light. Was it possible Lukas disliked Sergei because of his hypocrisy, and not because of his barbaric culture?

"Brother Sergei has never spoken false to me," said Ivan.

"He takes communion and eats damnation to his soul," said Father Lukas. "Nevertheless, he is the only man the village can spare, and he does read and write well enough, and does passable copywork. So... I make use of what God has given me."

"As do we all," said Ivan.

"I don't know why you say these things, Father Lukas," murmured Brother Sergei. "Christ has no stronger follower than me."

After the words escaped Sergei's mouth, they all realized what he had just said—that he, a cripple, was the strongest of Christ's followers. But instead of being offended, Father Lukas merely laughed. "At least your infirmities can be seen on the surface, Brother Sergei," he said. "As can your lack of faith. How many of these women piously pray and confess their sins every day, only to turn around and practice black magic in their own homes, inviting the devil to curse their neighbors and calling on heathen gods like Mikola Mozhaiski to bless them?"

"Old ways are hard to let go of," said Ivan.

"Especially when they work," murmured Sergei.

"What?" demanded Father Lukas.

"May I return now to my work?" said Sergei. "He reads better than either of us. You won't need me to interpret."

"Go, tend to your vegetable garden, or whatever work you have found to do. But make sure I see you at vespers! Do you hear me?"

Brother Sergei nodded, smiled, crossed himself, and left.

Father Lukas sank down onto his stool. Ivan took the other and sat beside him, where both could see the book easily.

"You touched the book with reverence," said Father Lukas. "Is Sergei right? Do you already love Christ?"

"I love this book," said Ivan. "With all my heart."

"Then perhaps the job of converting you is already half done," said Father Lukas. Then he drew a deep breath, as if gathering the courage to say what must next be said. "In confession, someone has spoken of a rumor so foul that I can scarcely believe it, but I must know the truth before I go on. Are you disposed to wearing the clothing of women?"

Ivan sighed. Apparently Sergei's decision to keep silent on the matter hadn't extended to others. How many knew about the damned hoose? It's not like he wore it for more than a few seconds. But he might as well have branded a scarlet letter on his chest.

"I did not dress after the manner of women," said Ivan, "or out of the desire to appear to be a woman. I was cold, and took up what would give me warmth."

"You did not know it was women's clothing, then?" asked Father Lukas sharply.

"I knew, but my thought was that it was nothing but cloth, when a woman wasn't wearing it, and when I put it on, that made it men's clothing, for a man was wearing it.''

Father Lukas rolled his eyes. "That's the best you can come up with? Even the Pharisees did better."

"Doesn't the blood of Christ wash away sin?" asked Ivan, struggling to remember the scraps of Christian doctrine he had picked up over the years. "If I sinned, it was only the once, and I'll never do it again. Won't the water of baptism cleanse me?"

"It will," said Father Lukas. But he seemed uneasy. "But once you are baptized, you must forgo such things, or the penalty is severe."

"As I told you," said Ivan, "I did as Adam and Eve did, when they covered their nakedness."

"A hoose is not a fig leaf."

"Both hoose and fig leaf were the nearest things at hand, to cover a man who was ashamed to be naked."

"Very well," said Father Lukas. "I see that you are a man torn between humble repentance and a desire to justify his sins. The former man must be encouraged, the latter one smothered to death as quickly as possible."

Ivan didn't like the imagery, but beggars couldn't be choosers. "First, though, may I ask you a question?"

Father Lukas waited.

"Do you believe in the power of the Widow?"

"You mean Baba Yaga? Oh, don't be surprised. There is nothing to fear from speaking the name of a witch in the house of God."

"But outside this church, you do believe she has power?"

"I've seen her soldiers in action. I've seen the tortured bodies of some she's punished. Oh, yes, she has power—the power of the jackal, to tear and kill and devour."

"I spoke of the power to enchant Princess Katerina, and leave her guarded by a huge bear for a thousand years."

"It was only a few months," said Father Lukas, "and I have no idea where Baba Yaga might have hidden her, or what poisons might have been used to keep her asleep. As for magic, if Baba Yaga has enlisted the devil into her cause, she will find that Christ is more than a match for him, and he will betray her at the final moment, as he betrays all who trust in him."

From this speech Ivan decided that Father Lukas wouldn't be a good one to trust with the truth about his problems. He didn't want to imagine what would have happened had he faced the bear armed with a cross instead of a large stone or Katerina's quick-witted fulfillment of the terms of the enchantment.

Too bad. But at least, in studying with the priest, Ivan would have a chance to get his hands on the oldest Cyrillic manuscript that anyone in the twentieth century had ever seen. In fact, anything that Ivan wrote while he was here, if it survived, would automatically be the oldest surviving Cyrillic manuscript.

Ivan imagined writing an account of his life here, using local inks and parchment, and hiding it up for future generations to find. What consternation it would cause, to have such an obvious modern forgery that was undeniably written on ancient parchment, which could be carbon-dated to the ninth century.

Consternation? It would be a disaster. Even if someone else saw Ivan writing in the modern, fully developed Cyrillic alphabet and changed the shape of their letters even slightly to adapt to his style, it would falsify the archaeological record and make nonsense out of scholarship forever. With a sinking feeling Ivan realized that the one thing he could never do while he was here in Taina was write with his own hand.

"What is it, my son? I saw your face filled with pain."

"It was my keen awareness of the awfulness of my sins."

Lukas searched his face. "Are you converted so quickly?"

"To know my sin is not the same as being converted," said Ivan. "Do those who suffer the torments of hell not know their sin? And yet the atonement of Christ has no power over them, because they rejected the works of righteousness."

How easily the words came to his lips. He wasn't sure if he was aping the radio and television preachings of Protestants or dredging up some half-remembered morsel of the rumors of Orthodox preaching that one could learn here and there in a Kievan neighborhood. Or was it some question on Jeopardy? Whatever the source of his Christian theology, translated into Old Church Slavonic it apparently sounded convincing enough to Father Lukas. Ivan thought that "works of righteousness" was a nice touch, because in European history in high school he remembered that the Protestants were big on grace, the Catholics on works, and presumably the Orthodox were in the works camp, too.

Why had he dodged the seminars dealing with the Church in Russia? Irrelevant, he had thought at the time. The Church was the influence that had made the chronicles of early Russian history so utterly useless, as every chronicler twisted the record to make it seem that Orthodoxy had prevailed at every point. Now he was going to have a crash course in Christianity whether he liked it or not, ending with baptism. The Orthodox didn't do it by immersion, did they? No, surely they were sprinklers.

If only he could get home again, he'd never have second thoughts about marrying Ruth again. The hoops she made him jump through were nothing compared to this.

And yet... he remembered Katerina's beauty as she lay asleep on the pedestal. And again, later, when she entered Taina with a bold, regal bearing. None of this highfalutin royal-wave nonsense like the Queen of England, dignified and aloof. No, she was a princess who knew her people and strode among them without pretense, the first among equals. Not like a politician, desperate to be liked, either. She was as untainted by pleading as by arrogance. She was a formidable woman, and he was supposed to get a baby into her as quickly as possible. It was an intimidating thought. But not an entirely unpleasant one.

That is, as long as he had no choice anyway. And as long as he could stay persuaded that he wasn't being false to Ruth, any more than he was being false to Judaism. It still felt like sophistry to him, to claim that his engagement to Ruth was a thousand years in the future.

"Your mind wanders," said Father Lukas.

"I'm tired from the journey," said Ivan.

"Then tomorrow we'll meet again."

Do we have to?

Ivan wisely kept the thought to himself. But then he thought of a way that perhaps he could avoid spending so much time in Father Lukas's company. "I hate to keep you from your ministry," said Ivan. "Perhaps if Brother Sergei could teach me the basics, and then I could come to you for examination."

"Sergei?" asked Lukas with obvious distaste. "Shall the blind lead the blind?"

"May a man, coming out of darkness, not spend a moment blinking until he is able to bear the light of the sun?"

"I have only the vaguest notion of what you mean, and even that vague notion smacks of Plato rather than Saint Paul. Nevertheless, since Brother Sergei performs his work at best sloppily and at worst not at all, I doubt you would be doing the work of the Church serious injury if you took him from his duties."

"You are very kind, sir."

"Call me Father," said Lukas.

"Father," said Ivan.

Esther saw her son in the still water. His was the only face the water could have shown her, for what other living person was linked to her by blood and love? My Itzak, my Vanya, what is happening to you?

He was dressed in the robe of a medieval monk, and behind him loomed the figure of an old man in priests' garb. Vanya moved his lips. In Russian he said the word Father.

Then an owl flew over the water, inches from her face. Such was Esther's concentration that she did not move, did not screech, though the startlement made her heart race. Nevertheless, the flapping of the owl's wings caused a momentary breeze over the water, rippling the surface. The image disappeared.

She wanted to weep in fury that his face was gone.

In a moment, though, she calmed herself. No need for anger. She knew that he was alive. Wasn't that the purpose of her search? He was not in this world, but he was in some world, and if he was in the hands of Christians, at least it did not seem he was being mistreated. And he was asking for his father. Almost as if he knew someone was watching him, and he wished to speak. She would look again tomorrow night.

7

Conspiracies

King Matfei had wished more than once that his father had not happened to be king when the edict came out of Kiev that from now on only a son of a king, or a grandson through a daughter, could inherit a throne among the East Slavs. He and his father knew this law for what it was, a means for the king of the Rus' to steal the thrones of their neighbors, one by one. They were patient, these Rus'. They had come out of the north, blond men with goods to sell and savage punishment to mete out on those who would not let them travel, buy, and sell as they would. Where the Rus' traded, they settled; where they settled, before long they ruled. And now they would wait, generation after generation, for a king to be childless or daughtered, and there they would be, ready to pounce, ready to claim that the high king of Kiev had the right to appoint a new king—invariably a kinsman of his own—or to succeed to the throne himself.

Matfei's father had been elected to lead his people in war, as kings always were in the old days among the Slavs. If someone else had been king when the law changed, then Matfei probably would not have been elected. Too many other men in Taina were stronger, bolder, wiser. When the new law made him king without election, at first he feared resentment. But the people had been oddly quiescent about the change. As if they were rather proud of having a hereditary king instead of an elected one. Then Father Lukas came along, proclaiming that God chose which men would be born to kings and which to peasants, and therefore it was God who made men kings, giving each king exactly the sons—or the lack of sons—that he deserved. Thus the matter was settled.

Or would have been, had Matfei's sons not died in infancy. Murdered, some claimed, through sorcery. But Matfei had seen their weak bodies, how small they were: one that turned blue and died, having never breathed; one with a twisted spine. Maybe they were killed by sorcery. Or maybe they were just born weak or deformed. Matfei didn't understand such things. It seemed to him that much of what was called sorcery was merely the working of nature. A cow died—did anyone think that cows would live forever?—yet the whispers invariably arose about some old woman gone simple with age who mumbled something that might have been a curse, or some jealous neighbor who might hold a grudge. And so there arose stories about his sons. Nothing was proved.

Though with Baba Yaga as an enemy, the rumors were not hard to believe. Ill things happened before she married King Brat and came to Kiev to infect the world with her malice. She could not be blamed for every bad thing that came along since Brat lost his kingdom and she ended up in Pryava, so perilously close to Taina. But once Baba Yaga had set her heart on getting Taina, the bad things that happened were dire indeed. The failure of the copper mine. Two years of drought. And then his daughter, ensorceled and spirited away, hidden from all eyes until she came home with...

If Matfei hadn't been king, he wouldn't be standing here now in the practice yard of the fortress, watching this long-limbed stranger make an ass of himself with sword and broadaxe alike, knowing that he was appointed by some cruel fate—or merciless enemy—to be the father of Matfei's grandchildren and the leader of his people in war.

O Jesus, what did I do to offend thee, that thou breathedst life into this pile of twigs and sentest it to me as a man? Mikola Mozhaiski, have you no better care for your land than this, to shame us before our enemies like this? Are the Slavic people so poor in the eyes of all the gods that they are not to be given the power to rule over themselves, but must have foreigners rule over them? Must all the old laws be done away? Must the trickery and nastiness of women become the power of this land, instead of the forthright strength of men?

And yet... it could be worse. At least the boy had a king's heart and felt responsibility keenly. Bad as he was at it, he was trying to learn to use these weapons. He would no doubt do his best. His pathetic, useless, doomed best.

He dressed in women's clothing without a second thought, and said that this was common in the land he came from. And this is what must be the father of my grandsons? Ah, Mikola Mozhaiski, my vanished friend. O Jesus, whom I have chosen as Savior of my people. And thou as well, Holy Mother, whose womb held and nurtured God. Why must I like him, this stranger whose very existence now endangers my people?

Dimitri Pavlovich, obedient to Matfei's request that he put aside his anger, was trying to teach Ivan how to absorb a broadaxe blow with his shield and twist the weapon out of the enemy's hands. But Ivan would have none of it. He kept leaping backward, dodging the axe entirely, then whacking Dimitri on the back with his practice sword. Oh, how clever it seemed to Ivan, this dancing. But what Ivan did not understand, could not grasp in his feeble foreign mind, was that in battle there would be a man to the left and right of his enemy, who would see the sudden gap in the line as Ivan leapt back, and he would never have a chance to leap forward again to make his clever blow. Instead, he would have to retreat farther yet, and if the men to either side of him did not fight his battle for him, soon the enemy would come pouring through the gap, and the day would be lost. A man had to stand his ground, giving no inch to the enemy, bearing his blows and striking back harder, forcing the other man to give way. This seemed beyond Ivan's comprehension.

Was this how Jesus Christ rewarded Matfei for letting Father Lukas set up his church and baptize all who wanted? For changing his own name to a Christian one? What kind of god was Jesus Christ, after all? A god who let himself be crucified, and his leading followers stoned to death or burned or crucified. And all those dead and tortured saints. It did not bode well for the future of his followers.

Crucifixion would look merciful compared to what Baba Yaga did to those who opposed her. Hadn't they seen it when, newly widowed, she had the leading men of the Drevlianians impaled or flayed alive as her way of answering their king's marriage proposal? The one survivor, blinded and castrated, was sent back to report what his eyes had last seen, and to give his own genitals to King Mal in a little box as her answer to his words of love. What would she do to Matfei's people when, with Ivan as the war leader, her troops easily overpowered them?

Something had to happen to free them of this burden. Some miraculous deliverance. For instance, Ivan's glorious martyrdom for the sake of Christ. Provided that he had first fathered a son on Katerina.

That was the most important matter. That Katerina be filled with a son, so the succession would be secure and Baba Yaga would lose her legal pretext. After that, Ivan would be quite expendable.

Not that Matfei would do anything himself to harm the man who would be, after all, his son-in-law. What kind of monster was he, even to think of such a thing? God forgive me, he murmured to himself. It is for thee alone, in thy infinite mercy, to deliver us from this burden.

Finally, Ivan understood the instructions and tried to stand his ground. But when Dimitri's blow landed on the twig-man's shield, it knocked him down, shield and all. In his fury at the man's utter inability, Dimitri took a step forward to offer the killing blow, though of course he would make it fall to the side. But Ivan chose that moment to bring his booted foot up under Dimitri's kilt and into his crotch, causing him to fall writhing on the ground.

Matfei jumped to his feet, roaring. "It's a practice, you bone-headed fool!"

"Tell him that!" cried Ivan. "He was about to kill me!"

"It's a practice axe!" shouted Matfei. "It has no edge!"

"It's heavy! It would have crushed my head!"

"He wasn't going to hit you!"

"How was I supposed to know that?"

"Because he's a true knight and you're betrothed to the princess! That's why! Now look at what you've done."

"Isn't that what I should do to an enemy?"

"An enemy will be wearing a solid steel plate with a point, to catch and impale the shin of any man who tries such a maneuver in battle. What, you think you're the first to come up with the idea of kicking a man in the groin?"

"Nobody told me," said Ivan.

"Why should I have to tell you? Do you think your enemy is going to be as stupid as you?"

"You all grew up fighting and talking about fighting. In my homeland we used none of these things."

"Your homeland must be a nation of women!" cried Matfei.

Only after saying it did he realize that, apart from his voice, there was no sound on the practice field. Everyone had stopped to hear the argument. And now these words, this deadly insult, had shamed Ivan in front of all the men and given credence to the rumors that had been flying for the past week, about how readily Ivan had put on women's clothes. Rumors that Katerina had reluctantly confirmed to King Matfei in private.

"One soldier of my land," said Ivan icily, "could kill every man here in five minutes or less."

Keeping his voice down, Matfei nevertheless could not leave such an empty boast unanswered. "Then why don't you show us this amazing process?"

"Our soldiers use weapons that you don't have."

"Make one for us! Or show us how it's made, and we'll make our own!"

"It takes better iron than you have. No smith could make it here."

"Easy to brag about what you cannot show us."

"Easy for you to shame a man who comes from another land, with different customs. If you came to my land, you would be as unskilled as I am, in the things that matter to my people."

"Perhaps that's so," said Matfei, keeping his voice low but unable to hide the fury he felt. "But I am not in your land. You are in mine. You are engaged to my daughter. My people need you to lead them into war."

"I agree with Dimitri—I'll never make a soldier," said Ivan. "As for your daughter, I release her from—"

Matfei punched him in the mouth before he could utter the words that would have opened the door for Baba Yaga to come in. Ivan staggered backward, holding his face. Blood poured from his nose and his lip, which had torn against his teeth.

"What did you do that for?" the boy asked, gasping.

"Are you a fool?" said Matfei. "If you break off this engagement, then all is lost!"

"All of what is lost?" asked Ivan. "All my blood? How's that for a beginning?"

"Are you such a coward and a weakling?" Making no effort to hide his scorn, King Matfei turned to help Dimitri rise from the ground. Dimitri leaned on Matfei's shoulder and limped gingerly to a grassy place where he could lie down to recover.

"Father Matfei," said Dimitri—for he had earned the right in battle to address his king so familiarly—"I have borne many things for you, and will bear anything you ask, but I cannot teach this fool."

"For God's sake, try," whispered Matfei.

Dimitri spoke more quietly. "He goes to it with a will, but he hasn't the strength in him. Everyone has seen how badly he fights. No one would follow him."

"For my sake, try," said Matfei. He helped Dimitri stretch out on the grass. Their heads were very close together.

"You should have let me marry her," whispered Dimitri.

"The Widow's curse—"

"Hang the old bitch," said Dimitri. "If the people chose, they'd choose me."

"We face a witch," said Matfei. "She has powers your sword can't fight. Maybe God sent this boy to us for a reason."

"What can he possibly do that we can't do better? He knows nothing. He can do nothing."

How could Matfei argue with him? All he had was a faint hope—hope in a miracle. "Maybe we'll be lucky," said Matfei, speaking the thought that had crossed his mind earlier. "Maybe this boy will father a child and die."

He spoke wryly, meaning it as a joke. But the moment the words passed his lips, Matfei knew he had crossed a chasm, and there was no turning back. For Dimitri had heard the king speak of Ivan's death as a desirable thing and even name the time when it would be most convenient for it to occur. No matter how Matfei might protest in the future that he never meant it, he could not have found a clearer way to sentence young Ivan to death. If not Dimitri himself, some other man would find a way to rid the kingdom of this interloper. And his blood would be on Matfei's hands.

"I didn't mean it," Matfei said, knowing that Dimitri would not believe him.

"I know you were joking," said Dimitri. But it was in his eyes that he did not take it as a joke. "Still, we need an heir, and soon. There are ways to make sure that a child is conceived at once, and that it's a boy."

"And have the baby born ensorceled?" asked Matfei. "We might as well hand the baby over to the Widow herself. I don't want my grandsons to die as my sons did."

"I thought you didn't believe that it was magic killed your boys."

"I believed that seeking vengeance for it would do no good. Nor will killing this young man. He saved my daughter from the witch. He saved your sister."

"And no harm will come to him from me," said Dimitri. "You can be sure that if he dies, it will be an accident."

"An accident that you and I will do all in our power to prevent," said Matfei.

"Our vigilance will be marvelously complete," said Dimitri. "At least until we know the baby is a boy."

Matfei could see now that no matter how sincerely he might plead with Dimitri to spare the stranger's life, he and all the knights of the druzhina would know that Matfei's original reasoning was sound: Only with a child conceived and the father dead would the kingdom be better off than it was before Ivan rescued the princess.

Matfei rose to his feet and returned to where Ivan was whacking futilely against the wooden dummy with his practice axe. Oh, Lord Jesus, what have I done? thought Matfei. The boy has a king's heart. He's trying to learn. God brought him to us. And I have betrayed him and God.

Or have I? My people matter more than this one young man. It was my mouth that asked for him to die, and I am the one who will stand before the judgment bar of Christ to answer for it. Let the sin be on my head. If Jesus damns me for saving the life and freedom of my people at the cost of one life, then I'll damn him back. Let me burn in hell—I'll burn there knowing that I did what my people needed, and that is the duty of a king, however he might pay for it later. I, too, have a king's heart.

I'm no King David, killing a man so he can hide the shame of stealing his wife. When I kill, it is for the good of others.

But I'm still a murderer, Matfei told himself, refusing to hide from what he had done. I have killed with my mouth. There is no mercy in me. What difference now, between me and Baba Yaga?

There is a difference, something inside him shouted. Please, Jesus. Please, some god, some wise man, show me what it is.

Sergei didn't like the way people were talking about Ivan. Mother swore that she told no one but Father Lukas in confession, and Sergei knew that Father Lukas never betrayed the secrets he learned that way. Yet the rumor was abroad, that Ivan was a man who dressed in women's clothes. No one quite believed it, or something would have happened already. But no one completely disbelieved the story, either. Not even Sergei.

No, that wasn't so. Sergei knew that Ivan was strange—but it had nothing to do with him prancing around in the princess's hoose, as the old lady had told Mother. Ivan's strangeness was something else. He didn't care about the things that mortal men cared about. With Baba Yaga panting to invade Taina, with a wedding coming up with the beautiful Katerina, with Father Lukas trying to probe his soul, with all of Christianity to learn in a few days, Ivan acted like these things didn't even matter. All he wanted to do was study the manuscripts. And not the Gospels, either. Ivan insisted on studying the working papers, the lexicon that Father Lukas had brought with him, the one written by the hand of Kirill. It was as if Ivan thought Kirill was Christ, as if these papers were a sacred relic. He only touched them by the edges. He refused to let Sergei fold the parchments, or even roll them up. "Store them flat," he said, or tried to say, stammering in his strange language until Sergei finally got what he meant and taught him the right words. He was careful with the Gospels, too. But he wasn't any more careful with them, and they contained the words of Christ. It made no sense.

But nothing about Ivan made sense. When they were supposed to be studying Christian doctrine, Ivan would listen for a few minutes, then begin to ask Sergei to tell stories. And not stories about Jesus and the apostles, either. He wanted stories about witches and sorcerers. About Baba Yaga. About Mikola Mozhaiski. About kings and queens, about lost children and wolves in the woods. Stories that grandparents told to frighten children on winter nights. Stories that mothers told to frighten their children into staying indoors at night, or to keep them from wandering into the woods by day.

And now, in the middle of Sergei's feeble effort to tell him that bad rumors were being spread about him, Ivan interrupts as if he didn't even care, and he says, "I need you to write these down."

"Write what down?"

"These stories. The story you just told me. About Ilya of Murom."

"But... these stories aren't true. At least, not in the same way that the Gospels are true."

Ivan shook his head. "But the stories are important. In my land, these stories are different. Changed. Lots of things about Mongols and Cossacks and tsars."

These were words that Sergei didn't understand. Except tsar, which was the title of one of the high officials of the Roman Empire, but why would stories about tsars have anything to do with Ilya of Murom?

"So your version of the story, it's older," said Ivan. "It's... clean."

"But why write it down? Everybody knows this story."

"Not in my land."

"Then you write it down."

"I can't."

"You write faster than I do."

"Sergei, if I write it down, people in my land will think I made it up. But if it's in your hand—"

"Father Lukas says I have a bad hand. He won't let me copy anything on parchment, he says it's a waste of precious lambskin."

"But I say your handwriting is excellent for what I need. Not fine copywork like the Gospels. But a simple telling of the tale. It does need to be parchment, though."

"Where will I get parchment? I have no flock of sheep, and if I did, I'd need the skins for clothing, not for writing."

"If I get you the parchment, you'll write the stories?"

"If Father Lukas lets me."

"He won't let you," said Ivan.

"If you already know that, how can you ask me to do what my priest forbids?"

"He hasn't forbidden it."

"But you said—"

"I haven't asked him."

"Then he might allow me."

"Do you think he would?"

"No."

"Then why ask?"

"You mean... keep it secret from him?"

"Yes."

"Lie to him?"

"Has he ever asked you whether you write down the stories of the villagers?"

"No."

"Why would he now?"

"I can't think why he would."

"Then you'll never have to lie to him."

Sergei thought about this. "It doesn't feel honest."

"These aren't Father Lukas's stories," said Ivan. His voice grew intense now, though softer. "These are your stories, and the stories of your family, your neighbors, your friends."

"I don't have any friends," said Sergei. "They've never liked me."

"But it's your village."

Sergei shrugged.

"I can tell you, Sergei, that unless you write these stories down, the priests will have it all their way. Only the histories they want to write, and never the true histories, either. Always twisted to make every king look like a Christian, and every defeat look like a victory. Your people will be forgotten. No one will even know there was a land called Taina. But if you write these stories, I can promise you that your land will never be forgotten, these stories will live forever."

"But I'm with the Church now, Ivan," said Sergei. "You can't ask me to oppose the writings of the priests."

"Not oppose them, Sergei. What you write won't erase a single word of their chronicles."

"Where would you get parchment?"

Ivan laughed. "I'm betrothed to the princess. Do you think I can't get parchment if I want it?"

Sergei could hardly understand what he meant. "What difference would that make? Being betrothed to the princess?"

"I can ask the king for parchment. He won't deny me."

"But... where would he get parchment?"

Ivan looked as if he couldn't comprehend the idea. Yet the words were simple, weren't they?

"He's the king," said Ivan at last.

Sergei couldn't think of what this might mean.

"He can do what he wants," said Ivan, explaining.

"We can all do what we want," said Sergei. "But killing a lamb or a kid and using the skin for parchment—you have to have something very important to write."

"Even the king?"

Now it began to dawn on Sergei what Ivan was assuming. "Oh. In your land, kings can do whatever they want. Like the emperor in Constantinople."

"We don't have kings."

"Then why don't enemies invade your land and take it away?"

Ivan laughed, but there was no mirth in it. "We have armies. We just don't have kings."

"If you have armies," said Sergei, "why are you such a bad soldier?"

Ivan looked surprised.

"Well, that can't be kept secret," said Sergei. "Everyone sees how you can hardly swing a sword. How thin you are."

"I was never in the army," said Ivan. "There are many people in my land, and only some of them become soldiers. I was... one who reads."

"And that's all?"

"And sometimes I write about what I read."

"So you copy manuscripts?"

"No, I write about them. I describe them."

"Why would you do that? If someone can't read the manuscript, how can they read your description of the manuscript?"

"It doesn't matter what I did in my land. I can't go back, can I?"

"Which is why it makes no sense for me to write these stories. You can't take them to your land, so how will they get there?"

"We'll bury them."

"Bury them?"

"Bury them very carefully. In a way that will keep them dry. So that someone can dig them up in a thousand years."

"I don't understand anything you say," said Sergei. "Burying a parchment in my land won't get it any closer to yours."

"You'd be surprised."

"Unless your land is underground," said Sergei.

Ivan laughed. "No, Sergei, I'm not from hell."

"Then from where? Heaven?"

"I'm no angel, either."

"I wondered. Your skin is so smooth. You have hands like a baby."

Ivan looked at his hands as if for the first time. "I wish I could fly, though. That would be convenient."

"You're not a saint, either?"

Ivan rolled his eyes.

Sergei realized something, having seen Ivan look at his smooth hands. "You've never even helped with a harvest, have you?"

"No. In my land we... we have... I don't know the words. But very, very few people help with the harvest."

"It must take them forever to scythe the grain."

"No, no, you see, the scythes run by themselves."

"So you're a sorcerer!"

"No, it's not sorcery at all, it's more like... when you pull a cart, you don't have to pull each wheel, you pull the whole cart and the wheels come with it. We just have better carts. They pull themselves."

Sergei had to laugh. "Now you're just lying to me to make fun of me."

"No," said Ivan. "My land is strange, though, compared to here. But another way of looking at it is, Taina is strange to me. All the years I was growing up, it never occurred to me that there might come a day when my life might depend on how I handled a broadsword or a battleaxe."

"We're alike, though," said Sergei. "I'm a terrible soldier. All I'm good for is reading and writing. And washing up."

"And I can't even do that."

"You can, though. Write all you want."

"No," said Ivan. "I make my letters wrong."

"I saw you make some letters I'd never seen before. Like this one."

With his finger, Sergei drew the letter III on the table. At once Ivan seized his hands and held them tightly.

"Don't ever make that letter again," he said.

"How could I? I don't even know how it sounds."

"Just don't use it. You shouldn't. It would change everything. It would make the record unclean. Forget it. Put it out of your mind."

Sergei nodded his understanding. So... he had inadvertently learned a powerful rune from a land of sorcery. He would have to keep this in mind. Someday he might have to use this rune. For despite Ivan's warning, Sergei was not about to forget something that was so dangerous and disturbing. In all his life, Sergei had never known how to do anything that would frighten anyone. It was an interesting feeling. He liked it.

For a while, Katerina was able to fool herself into believing that things were going well—that Ivan was earning the respect of the knights and other men by his hard work on the practice field, and that Ivan's obvious decency and concern for others, as exemplified by saving Lybed from choking, had won the hearts, or at least the patience, of the women of Taina. But gradually she realized that the absence of negative comment about Ivan did not mean there was approval or even tolerance. Instead, it meant that no one was talking to her about Ivan. It was a bad sign, not a good one. People had never shut her out before. She had assumed that she could bring him into the community; instead, he might well be dragging her out.

But what point was there in discussing this with Ivan? She couldn't think of a thing he could do more than he was already doing. She knew he didn't want to become a Christian, but he was preparing to do it. She knew he had no interest in being king, let alone soldiering, but he was working hard at it every day. If she told him her fears, it would only discourage him, and she'd have to listen to more insistence that she take him back to the enchanted place and lead him across the bridge so he could go home.

She tried to imagine what it would be like to be in his place, cut off from family, trapped in a situation not of her devising. In fact, that's precisely what had happened to her when she was chased by the bear and ensorceled into sleeping for however many months or centuries it was. But of course she had slept through it, while Ivan had to be awake through his time of estrangement. And her exile had ended with return. Would his?

It was to avoid such a conversation with him that she found herself avoiding any conversation with him apart from dinnertime, when nothing private could be discussed. But this silence between them could not go on forever, she knew; she was not surprised when, one afternoon in her father's house, she heard him in the great room, asking a slave which bedchamber was hers.

The slave was no doubt trying to guess which would cause more trouble, to tell or not to tell, and then would have to decide whether to make trouble or not, which was probably the more difficult decision. Slaves were so untrustworthy. And yet life would be impossible if you had to do all that work yourself. When would she have time to look after the people, if she had to spend her time down at the river, washing clothes, or out in the kitchen, preparing dinner?

Anyway, she spared the slave the burden of making a choice. "In here," she called out to Ivan.

He actually stopped to thank the slave, as if the girl had done anything or even meant to do anything to help him. He was still a stranger, would always be a stranger.

Whatever it was he wanted to talk about, she knew she didn't want to discuss it with him. So she preempted him by leaping to a conclusion she knew was false. "I hope you're not thinking of claiming some privilege of intimacy because we're betrothed."

He did not rise to the bait. "Your purity is safe. I only came to ask how I could get some parchment."

Why would he come to her for a parchment? Did he think she had a secret hoard of lambskins and kidskins? "Why would you ask me? Father Lukas asks for the skin of a lamb when he needs something to write on. If he doesn't claim the skin, then it's used by others."

"I know that," said Ivan. "Sergei explained that."

"Then why did you come to me?"

"So you could tell me how I could go about getting a parchment. Or tell me who could teach me how to make parchment out of lambskin."

"And why would you waste time on something like that?" It would hardly raise the knights' opinion of him, if he spent hours parching lambskin.

"Because there's something I want to write down."

Was he serious? "Do you have any idea what you're talking about?" she asked.

"I know how to read and write, if that's what you mean."

"You weren't brought here to be a cleric! Father Lukas will find his own young men and teach them. Like Sergei, who has no other usefulness. But you... to spend your hours writing or making parchment..."

He had been ingratiating up to now, but his temper had apparently been stretched too thin. "What am I supposed to do, then?" he demanded. "Spend all day in the practice field, hearing Dimitri taunt me and watching all the others snicker behind their hands?"

"It takes time, I know."

"It takes years to put on that kind of muscle. I ache all over, and while I'm getting better, I'm a long way from good. It won't hurt anybody if I spend a little time doing things that I'm actually good at."

"But you aren't good at making parchment, if you don't even know how."

"I want to write something."

"Use birchbark. You just peel it off the trees and soak it and press it flat."

"Birchbark doesn't last."

"Neither will you, and neither will Taina, if you don't work at soldiering."

"I know how long it takes to train my body. I've been running all my life, but I was training for the decathlon—"

"The what?"

"A contest. Running, jumping, throwing the... spear. The discus. The... stone. It took years of training until I was competitive. Someday, a few years from now, I might be good enough with the sword to hold my own with the best of them. But not next week or next month."

"But they have to see you trying. They have to see you getting better at it."

"They refuse to see it," said Ivan. "No matter what I do, they laugh. Fine, that's their privilege. But if you think they're going to respect me more by watching me fail, day after day—"

"You're giving up?"

"I just want to write something down!"

She didn't like him speaking to her with such exasperation. As if she were an unreasonable child. "Don't shout at me."

"And what will you do to punish me? I'm already in hell."

"Taina is the most beautiful place, filled with good people!"

"They may be good to you, but all I get from them is resentment and scorn. I didn't ask to be here. You demanded that I stay, for your sake and for theirs. Well, I stayed, and I've tried to do what you asked—no, what you commanded—but now that it's clear that I'm not going to live up to your expectations, let's just agree it was a mistake and let me go home!"

"No," cried Katerina.

Calmly Ivan began removing his clothing.

"What are you doing!" she demanded. "I told you not to expect to claim any marital privileges—"

Ivan stopped. "I don't want your body, I want mine. I'm here as a slave, so I'm going to dress like one."

"You're not a slave! You're my fiancé."

"No, I'm sorry, that's simply a lie. A fiancé would be your equal, a man you loved, a man who was going to be your husband. But you don't even speak to me, you avoid me and everyone sees it. I'm shamed after every meal, when you go off and leave without a word to me. I'm not here because you want to marry me, I'm here because I'm the tool you need to hold on to your kingdom. I'm like a milk cow, only I'm not giving enough milk. So what do we call a man who is forced to work against his will at tasks he hates, to benefit someone else while he's treated with contempt by everyone around him? If he's a captive and he can't escape and has no hope of ever getting his freedom? What is he, but a slave?"

"I didn't choose you," said Katerina. "You chose yourself."

"So my mistake was saving you, is that it?" he said softly. "You'd rather have waited another thousand years asleep than be stuck with me, is that it?"

"We could have waited a few months more."

"You should have posted a sign," said Ivan. "Don't fight the bear and kiss the princess unless you're very good with sword and battleaxe. Oh, but wait, a sign would have been useless. The kind of man you want wouldn't know how to read anyway."

He said it with such scorn that she realized: He feels contempt for people who can't read.

"I know how to read," she said. "But I haven't yet thought of a way to make the Widow's army disappear by reading them to death."

"In my land, it is Taina that has disappeared. Utterly forgotten, because no one wrote a word about it. I want to write the story of this land, and hide it somewhere that someone will find it in the future, and read it, and know that this land existed, and who you were. I'm trying to save Taina from oblivion."

"You fool!" she said. "We don't want to be remembered! We want to survive."

"And I'm no help to you, am I," he said coldly. "So take me back. Let me cross that bridge to my own world."

She could see how miserable his situation was. And how little she had done to make it better. But she could not let him leave. Not yet. "As soon as we're married."

"How can I say this without breaking your heart, Fair Princess? I don't want to marry you."

This was the conversation she had been trying to avoid. These were the words which, if he acted on them, would ruin everything. She flailed about for some way to turn him away from this decision. "If you didn't want to marry me, you shouldn't have asked me."

"There was a bear," he reminded her. "And you told me to ask you."

"You asked me and I said yes. It was an oath. Are you a man of no honor?"

"Ask the knights who mock me, the women who laugh at me behind their hands. I have no honor here for keeping my word."

"A man like you has no word to keep," she said.

She regretted the words as soon as she said them. His face closed off, as if he had moved beyond anger. "You know nothing at all about men like me." He turned and left her room.

She wanted to call after him, to say, "There are no men like you!" But she would not shout like that in her father's house. Besides, she wasn't even sure what she meant by it. That he was not a man? No. He was a man, she knew that, a man to be admired in many ways—just not in the ways that mattered to the people, not when judging a man who might be their king.

What a stupid, miserable way to start a marriage. Where was the respect she owed to her husband? The slaves had heard the argument, and no doubt dozens of others as well. Word would pass through Taina and the people would scorn Ivan even more, for the princess had set the example of showing him disrespect under her father's roof.

Why had she behaved that way? All her life she had cultivated iron self-control, to keep silence when others shouted, to say nothing when others rattled on, to be content with stillness even when no one else was speaking, and all eyes turned to her. But this man provoked her beyond endurance.

And why is that? she wondered. Why does he have such power over me? I should despise him for being a weakling when I needed a kingly man. But instead I'm angry because he doesn't... because he doesn't love Taina as much as I do. Because he doesn't want to be king. Because he doesn't want to be my husband.

Because I want him to respect me and love me, and all he wants is to get away from me and my kingdom. The one man in the world who wouldn't like to be married to someone like me, and he's the one God brings to me. A husband who thinks he's being treated like a slave.

And he's right. He's a captive here, and instead of trying to win his heart, his loyalty, I've hidden from him. As a result, I have only his fear and resentment. I've worried because the people are not accepting him as their future king, but I haven't accepted him, and he has not accepted me. I've said the words of the promise, but haven't acted as if he were going to be my husband. But he has kept his word, doing his best to accomplish all the tasks I set for him.

Who is the one without honor?

Dimitri's scorn for Ivan on the practice field and her own disrespectful attitude were surely playing into Baba Yaga's hands. Indeed, that was the sort of thing that Baba Yaga loved to do—to sow seeds of discontent and dissension among her enemies, so no one trusted anyone, so people hated those they should follow and clung to those they should hate.

Katerina resolved that she would from this moment forward treat Ivan with respect. Where he was ignorant, she would simply teach him, without letting anyone see her surprise or dismay at what he did not know. And she would do her best to help others see his virtues.

She would talk to Dimitri, too, and persuade him to work more respectfully with Ivan. Though how she would soften that tough old bird, she had no idea. Dimitri had been a figure of awe in her life since her childhood. When her aunts had told her about Baba Yaga's curse, Katerina asked them, "Who will save me from my enchanted sleep?" and Tetka Retiva answered, "The strongest knight," and Tetka Moika said, "The wisest man," and Tetka Tila said, "The purest love." Katerina thought the purest love must have been her mother, who was dead, and the wisest man was her father the king, or perhaps Father Lukas, neither of whom, upon waking her, could wed her.

But the strongest knight, everyone knew, was Dimitri, and so she half-expected to find herself betrothed to him one day. That was the perspective from which she viewed him for many years, each year growing more sure that it would be a very hard thing to have Dimitri as a husband, for he acted bravely, and never delayed for such irrelevancies as thinking through the consequences or wondering if he had the right to decide. She had expected, when the bear chased her to the stone where she lay down weeping, knowing she would sleep either forever or until her future husband awoke her, that if she ever saw another human face again, it would be Dimitri's, bending over her, his lips still cool from the kiss that wakened her, ready to speak the question to which her answer had to be yes.

And in that moment, she had prayed, O Mikola, O Tetka Tila, O Lord Jesus, O Holy Mother, let the purest love awaken me, or the wisest man, but not the strongest knight. Then she realized that she had prayed to Jesus third, not first, and when she spoke to the Holy Mother, it was not so much the Blessed Virgin as her own dead mother to whom she prayed. No doubt this was damnation, and she sank down into sleep, into despair.

Then she awoke, and it was this strange boy bending over her, who was not a knight at all, and not terribly wise either, as far as she could tell. But perhaps his was the purest love.

But she did not have his love. She had only his promise, and that given under duress, and kept reluctantly. Lord Jesus, did I offend thee with my prayer? Forgive me, and let me have the husband who will save Taina from the witch. Even if it is Dimitri. I will do whatever my people need me to do.

And yet this thought also, this prayer at the back of her mind: Art thou not the God of miracles? Then is there not some miracle thou canst bring about to turn this boy Ivan into a knight, and somehow make him wise, and a man, and let him love me?

Ivan sat alone in the tiring-room. Father Lukas was out among the people, doing whatever it is that priests do. Sergei was cleaning out the priest's chamber pot and then washing the priest's clothes, hopefully not in the same water. Ah, how Ivan longed for the twentieth century at times like these. The lush melodies of a flushing toilet—the rush, the swish, the gurgle, the gulp, and then the lingering aftertones, the whispering hiss, and then... silence! The glorious rhythm of a washing machine with an out-of-balance load, knocking and pounding its way across a laundry-room floor! The bucolic life had lost its charms for him somewhere between the fleas and the itchy woolen clothing.

His little plan to record the stories of the people of Taina had come to nothing, foiled by the simple fact that cheap paper hadn't been invented yet, or at least hadn't yet reached Europe, while the birchbark they used for jotting notes on decayed about as quickly as toilet paper. Ivan wracked his brains to remember how and when papermaking had made its way west from China. Would it be three or four centuries he'd have to wait?

Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court, my ass. American ingenuity amounted to squat in this place. These people needed a very specific kind of man, and he wasn't it. Katerina was beautiful, but she hated him, which didn't bode well for the marriage. And Ivan simply wasn't interested in living the life that this time and place offered.

There must be other men of his temperament here. What did they do? The men who had no wish to do violence. The men who wanted to learn, to know the answers, to solve mysteries. The men who quickly lost interest in any physical activity that didn't let them think their own thoughts.

The men who hadn't yet grown up.

That's what Ivan had to face about himself. The life he had chosen was a cocoon. Surrounded by a web of old manuscripts and scholarly papers, he would achieve tenure, publish frequently, teach a group of carefully selected graduate students, be treated like a celebrity by the handful of people who had the faintest idea who he was, and go to his grave deluded into thinking he had achieved greatness while in fact he had stayed in school all his life. Where was the plunge into the unknown? Where was the man who would stand against all comers to protect his family, his people?

Easy to say that he was lucky enough to live in peaceful times, that he was never called to war. He was called now, wasn't he? And here he was slacking, avoiding practice with the weapons of this time and place. He was stronger than he let them see; finding himself unskilled when he was used to being a contender, resenting their scorn, he had backed off, had stopped trying. Like a kid who would only try when he knew he could win.

It wasn't childish to follow in the footsteps of a distinguished father, was it?

But his father hadn't stayed in the cocoon. Years before anyone guessed that the Soviet Union would collapse, Ivan's father had decided he had to get his family out. So he declared himself a religious man, let them slice him up, lost his home and his job, risked years of deprivation and harassment, and finally won, taking his family to a new land of freedom. But to do it, Father had given up the idea of ever teaching another class in his native tongue, of ever walking the streets of his native city. Afterward the world changed, so some of these things might be possible again—but Father hadn't known it would happen.

Compared to that kind of risk, what am I? I took the leap, yes, but I didn't like the ledge where I landed—I fought the bear, I kissed the princess, but now I don't want to be king. Well, where in the fairy tales did it ever say that Cinderella had to like being queen, or that Jack got to choose whether to marry the king's daughter or whatever it was that happened to him after he killed the dragon or the giant or whatever the hell he did? When Father got the family to Austria, he didn't say, "Never mind, too scary, let's go back."

OK, so Father couldn't turn back. Neither can I. I've got to do it, so maybe I should get my ass in gear and do it for real.

Ivan stood up, closed the book of the Gospels, and set it aside. Then he took the single parchment sheet of the lexicon and turned it over and set it on top of the other pages Father Lukas had been given by Saint Kirill... The lexicon was blank on the other side. And most of the other sheets also had at least some space on the back. Room for a lot of writing, if it were small enough. Room for Sergei to do all that Ivan wanted him to do.

Except for one small problem. How could Sergei hide it from Father Lukas, if it was written on Father Lukas's own papers?

By dinnertime, Ivan had come up with an answer. As usual, King Matfei listened carefully to the concerns of the boyars before giving the rest of the meal over to the singing of a minstrel slave who had recently been given to him as payment of a debt from another kingdom over the mountains to the west. Ordinarily, Ivan would have listened carefully to the song. But tonight, he leaned to the king and said, "I'm ready to be baptized."

King Matfei raised his eyebrows. "Father Lukas says not."

"Father Lukas judges that I'm not ready to be a priest, and he's right. But am I ready to take the covenant of baptism and confirmation as a Christian? I think so. What more is needed than that I believe in Christ?"

"That's precisely the point on which Father Lukas says you are lacking."

"And I say that I believe well enough for baptism," said Ivan. "Am I a liar, or is he mistaken? I am the only fit judge of what is in my heart, I think."

King Matfei looked off into space, bemused. "A complicated question, now that you put it that way."

"Until I'm married to Katerina," said Ivan, "the kingdom is in danger. What is to stop the Pretender from sending assassins?"

"The high king in Kiev would not allow her to take possession if it were known she had murdered to get the kingdom. More important, though, there are spells that my late wife's sisters added to the curse. If the witch raises a hand against the royal house of Taina, then the curse falls upon the witch herself."

"Until I'm married to Katerina, killing me would not be killing a member of the royal house."

"Then why aren't you already dead?" asked the king, reasonably enough.

"Because she knows what a terrible soldier I am, that no one would follow me into battle. She thinks the marriage would work to her advantage. When I'm discredited completely and married to Katerina, she'll be content."

King Matfei looked at him strangely. "You say this?"

"I am not going to be a terrible soldier forever. I'm going to work very hard until I can wield a sword and be useful in battle."

If King Matfei had an opinion of the likelihood of this ever happening, he kept it to himself.

"If the Widow gets word that I'm improving," Ivan continued, "then it will be in her interest to kill me. I want to be baptized and married. Let's get on with the journey and see where the road takes us."

"Father Lukas won't baptize you until he thinks you're ready."

"I will continue my studies," said Ivan. "In fact, I want to. But let it be here. Let Sergei bring the books and papers into your house and train my mind here, during meals and before bedtime, so I can spend all the daylight hours training my body to be a soldier."

"I'll think about it," said King Matfei.

The next day, Sergei showed up soon after dawn with a dozen parchments and the book of the Gospels in a basket. "Father Lukas is furious," said Sergei. "But your baptism will be day after tomorrow. And here I am, living in the king's house!"

Within moments, Ivan had shown him all the blank spaces on the parchments.

"Write on these? The very parchments written by the hand of Kirill?"

"And then we'll seal them all up and hide them to be found in a thousand years," said Ivan.

"You're serious about this," said Sergei.

"It's the second most important thing I'll ever do here in Taina."

"And what's the most important?"

"I have to learn to be a knight, so I can be a king, so I can be a husband." He did not add aloud the most important point: So I can go back home.

Baba Yaga

Yaga found her husband tearing at a human thigh. It was disgusting, the way he let blood drool onto his fur, making a mess of everything. On the other hand, the ligaments and tendons and veins stretched and popped in interesting ways. It made Yaga wish that Bear hadn't disassembled the body. She liked to see how everything connected with everything else. And Bear absolutely refused to eat humans while they were still alive, with the feeble excuse that when they weren't dead they made too much noise and moved around too much. To Yaga, that was just another proof of Bear's laziness. Godhood was assigned to the most unworthy people.

Still, he was pleasant company, much of the time, and he was more or less permanent—he was the only male she'd ever slept with that she couldn't kill no matter how much she sometimes wanted to. As a result, he stayed around long enough for them to develop something akin to friendship.

"How are you with the broadsword?" Yaga asked her husband. "Or has losing an eye made it impossible for you?"

"Having no thumb makes it impossible for me." He talked with his mouth full, of course. "I've never needed a sword. I knock swords out of men's hands. I bite off the ends of their spears. I roar at them and they shit themselves and run stinking into the woods."

"This bridegroom of Katerina's—you know, the fellow who put your eye out—he didn't shit himself, did he?"

Bear cocked his head to remember. "He ran."

"But not away. I distinctly recall that he ran around and around until he made you stupid. Oh, wait—you started that way."

"We're not in a good mood today, are we, my love?" said Bear.

"He's practicing with the sword. Doing exercises. Hours a day, till he staggers back to Matfei's squalid little hut of a palace and falls asleep. Lifting bags of stones on a yoke to make his thighs and back stronger, directing the fletchers to make light javelins with hard metal points and teaching the boys to throw them. He might make something like a king out of himself after all. He's becoming a nuisance."

"Poor Baba Yaga." Bear let the bone drop on the floor. Later, one of the servants would pick it up and give it to the cook to add to the stew for the prisoners and slaves. Still, it annoyed Yaga that he was so untidy. And sarcastic, too, as he added a little jab. "I thought you said that telling the people he wore a dress would undo him."

"It will," said Yaga, feeling surly but knowing that the dress thing hadn't worked out quite as she hoped. "It still might. But they seem to have let the rumor wash over them. Maybe they're waiting for him to make some stupid mistake, and then they'll say, We knew it all along, after all, he wore a dress."

"Is Queen Yaga learning a bit about human nature?"

"Bestial nature. They scarcely deserve the name of human."

"I'm sure they feel the same about you."

"Nobody thinks of you as human."

"To my enormous relief."

"If this unmanly foreigner becomes a real king, then he's lost his usefulness to me."

Bear finally got it through his head what she was asking. "If you think I'm going to go roaring into Taina and bite his head off, think again. I heard what you said about javelins. This fellow aims projectile weapons far too well."

"Are you a coward?"

"I lost an eye for you already. Must I die for you?"

"You can't die, you fool. You're immortal."

"Yes, well, I thought my eye would grow back, too, but it hasn't."

"You've lost faith in yourself! Isn't that rich? A god who has become a self-atheist!"

"You don't even know what it means to be a god. The burden of it."

"You should have remained a weather god like your father. Taking on a totem only subjected you to the pains of mortality. Without even the release of death."

"The whole father-son thing doesn't have the same meaning in my family," said Bear. "We don't breed true. Weather god was never my option. This people didn't need a sky god. They needed a god to keep winter under control. Like any good king, we respond to the needs of the people. We become what they need us to be."

She understood the thinly veiled criticism of her own kingship. "Did they need you to be a one-eyed cowardly old fart?" She poured him a dish of mead. "To help settle your meal."

He looked at the dish but didn't lap at it immediately. "I should never have let you seduce me," he said.

"I didn't seduce you, I enchanted you. There's a world of difference."

"Bears have no business marrying women. We're unfaithful by nature."

"But you kept your word, you sweet hunk of bear, you."

"Hera let Zeus dally."

"Hera was weak," said Yaga. "She deserved what she got. And in case you're thinking of going about betraying me with other women, I've put a charm on you. Try it and your balls fall off."

"If Hera couldn't do that to Zeus, I doubt you can do it to me. You're not even a goddess."

"Try it and see."

"Don't worry. I'm done with human women."

"Good. Stick to swans and heifers or whatever it was that Zeus had a taste for. Or she-bears. But as far as humans go, you're mine."

"Why this charade of marriage? You only want my power. You don't even think about me except when I come into your room."

"I think about you all the time, my love," she said, pretending to feel hurt.

"I'm not going to go kill that boy, not in the middle of Taina, surrounded by soldiers. He and I will have an accounting about this empty eyesocket of mine, but not now. Certainly not at your behest, my love, since you're the one who sent me into that pit to fight with him."

Yaga silently went back to combing her hair. They both knew, of course, that he would do whatever she told him to do, and if he tried to resist, she could make things very uncomfortable for him. A binding is a binding, and the one who is bound is bound. Anything else was just talk. When the time came, when she really meant it, Bear would kill whomever she wanted dead.

Apparently mistaking her silence for patience, Bear went on. "Do you have any idea how sad it is, to see you comb those few scraggly grey hairs of yours as if they were long luscious tresses? I can see your sallow scalp right through it, the hair's so thin. I've seen bald men with more hair."

She sighed. "I'm combing thick reddish hair tonight. Sorry if you don't love me enough to see that."

"And your dugs hang down to your knees."

"Only when I'm sitting and leaning forward to see into my mirror."

"I don't have eyes enough to waste them looking at lies."

"Since the truth can never be known," said Yaga, "a wise woman learns to become a connoisseur of lies, choosing only the best and most satisfying to surround herself with. I sink into my lies like featherbeds, and they keep me safe and warm." She got up and danced a little through the room.

"So you plan to kill the boy yourself?" asked Bear. "Won't that cost you any chance for the throne?"

She shrugged and kept on dancing. "I'll find other hands to do it for me. I always do."

She began to sing a melody. The rhythm of it had nothing to do with her twirling steps. Bear lost interest. He lay down on the floor and fell asleep.

"I've got to find a faster-acting spell," Yaga murmured. "It took you forever to fall asleep."

Bear opened his one eye. "I didn't take your damn potion," he growled. "The stuff stank so bad I could hardly tell that it was supposed to be mead in the dish. You can't poison a bear, you silly bitch."

"I'll try it again sometime when you have a cold!"

Bear snarled at her and went to sleep again. Or seemed to.

Living with a god is not what it's cracked up to be, thought Yaga. They think their women should be grateful just to have them around.

She looked into her mirror again, but this time she shook into her palm a bit of dust out of a bag made from a ram's scrotum. Then she blew across her hand. The dust flew toward the mirror, then clung to it as if it had been glued there.

"Bring me the sleeping warrior," she whispered to the mirror, careful not to blow any dust from the mirror's surface.

The face of King Matfei appeared in the mirror, shimmering.

"Not the king, the warrior. The mighty Dimitri."

Nothing happened; the mirror went blank.

He must not be asleep, the fool.

Quickly she pulled a small wooden carving of a man's head from a box near her dressing table. She anointed it with a dab of bearfat—a supply she replenished from time to time without particularly mentioning what it was to her husband—and then whispered the name of Dimitri over it, naming it so that whatever she did to it would be done to Dimitri. Then, laying it on the table, she poured out a thin trickle of sleeping sand onto the head.

Within only a few minutes—but it felt like tedious eternities—the mirror shimmered again, no longer empty. There lay Dimitri asleep. At this time of night he should have been asleep long ago. But perhaps he had lain awake with worry about the kingdom he served. Well he might.

Yaga reached out, her fingers extended toward the mirror. Then she plunged her hand into the glass. It hurt; it always hurt to have part of her body in one place, and part in another. But one had to endure many hard things in order to achieve great ends. With her hand she toyed with a lock of Dimitri's shaggy hair, then caressed his hairy cheek.

"Do not wake, O great one. Do not wake, O king who is yet to be. The interloper will marry thy bride, to fulfill the terms of the curse, but in the moment of the marriage, he is the heir. Therefore all is fulfilled. Wait thou not for the conception of a child, for such a child would be as weak as the father. Once wedded and bedded, Katerina will hold the kingdom by widow-right, as Baba Yaga did, and her new husband shall be king beside her, and the sons he makes in her body shall inherit after them. Be thou that man, O great one. Thy bright herald tells thee what the Winter God most surely desires of thee."

Then, grimacing, she rose from her stool and plunged her head through the glass. It felt to her as if she had been beheaded, or at least as she imagined such a thing might feel; but even so she managed to put a loving smile on her face and kiss the cheek of the sleeping man. Then, wincing from the pain, she pulled herself back through the mirror, first her head and then her hand.

Slumping down into her stool, she rested a moment, panting. Then she carefully wiped the precious powder from the mirror with a dry cloth. There was no retrieving the powder to use it again on glass, but the cloth was charged with it now, and thus had within it the power to carry any item, like a box and all its contents, across an infinite distance. Baba Yaga was very economical with her spells. Anything that could be reused in any way, she kept. It made for a cluttered house, but it was worth it.

She scooped the sleeping sand from the table and restored it to the little box in which she kept it. Then she took the wooden head, used a bit more of the bearfat, and named it as No Man, so it would be ready for the next use.

In the morning, Dimitri would wake up with a clear memory of a bright and terrible dream. A divine herald came to me, that's what he would whisper to himself. A bright messenger, so beautiful of face. The smell of the Winter Bear on her. And she kissed me.

Don't laugh at what my mirror shows, Bear, until you understand just how and when I do the showing.

8

Wedding

Dimitri awoke trembling from his dream. He felt as if he had not slept at all that night, though the sky was already grey with dawn. Over and over again he felt the caress on his cheek, heard the words of the herald, then shook with ecstasy as the kiss came, again, again, again. I am meant to be king through widow-right. The Winter Bear has conceived of such a plan for me!

Though why God should choose him, Dimitri had no idea. He had never converted to Christianity, having accepted baptism only as a courtesy to his king. He still did all the old rites, including calling the Bear back to the world in the spring, which Father Lukas had expressly forbidden. But they couldn't very well let the world languish in winter, could they? The soil had to thaw so they could plow. And now he had learned that apparently the Christian God had not replaced the old gods. Father Lukas was full of lies. And the Winter Bear was full of promises.

Dimitri had loved Katerina ever since she was old enough to draw the eye of a good man. Everyone knew that he was the one who, had the old laws prevailed, would have been elected king, and then any girl would have been proud to be his bride, or even a concubine, just for the hope of having the strength of a king in her babies. Yet the new laws were in force, and so only by marrying this one girl could he claim what would have been given to him freely had the people chosen. Thus he knew his destiny: to marry Katerina. She grew up pretty and clever and good—marrying her would not be a hard price to pay.

But even of that he had already been cheated without knowing it, by Baba Yaga's curse and the efforts of Katerina's aunts to weaken it. When Katerina pricked her finger and ran off and disappeared, a grieving King Matfei told everyone about the terms of the curse. Dimitri went forth the moment that he understood, searching high and low for her. But he never found her, though he taught three dogs to search only for the scent of her from her clothing. It was as if she was no longer in the world. That was what he told the king, though he meant to keep searching.

Then, as he was about to set out again, she came back with this weakling fool who insulted his sister and couldn't lift a sword. Dimitri despaired then, bowing to the humiliation of having to try to teach this mutilated woman-dressing half-man how to wield the sword of a knight. His only consolation was how slowly the fool progressed at it. Easier to teach a pig to sing or an ass to dance. But that was his fate. The gods hated him. And hated Taina, for that matter, to serve them up so ripely to the witch.

Now, after this dream, he wondered: How could he have lost hope? The Winter Bear loved the people of Taina after all, and would give them the king they needed despite the curses of Baba Yaga.

When the word spread through Taina that the wedding would be hastened, Dimitri smiled and rejoiced more than anyone. They thought he showed good spirits and true loyalty—and so he did. The sooner she was married, the sooner he could help Ivan to his accidental demise and so liberate the kingdom from Baba Yaga's interference. He would marry the widow and become king of Taina after Matfei died. He would be a good king, too, especially if the messenger came to him again and taught him how to please the Bear. Then just as the great Emperor Constantine became a champion of Christ after seeing the cross in the heavens promising him victory, so would Dimitri make sure that in his kingdom and in every other kingdom where he might have influence, the name of Bear would be on every man's lips, and every knee would bow to the Lord of Snow.

On Thursday Ivan was baptized. It was a simple ceremony at the river. Father Lukas was annoyed and showed it. King Matfei, Katerina, and Sergei were the only witnesses. It took all of ten minutes, including immediate confirmation, and there he was, soaking wet and a Christian.

Sort of a Christian. A Christian who knew that almost eleven hundred years later he would be circumcised to fulfill the covenant of Abraham. But for now, Christian enough to marry Katerina.

King Matfei embraced him and kissed him after the ceremony. Then he took Katerina's hand in one of his and Ivan's in the other, and beamed. "Well, now, there's nothing more to wait for. Let's have the wedding!"

Katerina smiled—but it wasn't heartfelt, or so Ivan imagined. He kept a grave demeanor himself, and nodded. "As you wish, Your Majesty," he said.

"It will take a couple of days for preparation. Shall we say Sunday at nones?"

"This Sunday?" asked Ivan.

"I think it would be unfair to ask the seamstresses to have the dress ready for Saturday," said Katerina. "But if my bridegroom is impatient, I can forgo the dress." From her tone of voice, it was clear she had no intention of forgoing anything.

"No, no," said Ivan. "Sunday will be fine."

The preparations for the wedding were both more and less than Ivan had expected. Certainly the event was the only thing that mattered in the village during the two days of preparation. And yet, when all was ready, it wasn't that much. Katerina's dress was extravagant, by local standards, but there were no jewels, real or fake, and apart from her dress and the paraphernalia surrounding the priest, there were no decorations. Fresh straw on the floor; a huge feast waiting for the guests so that Ivan's memory of the wedding would always be redolent of roast boar and stewing cabbage and beets; a crowd of people inside and outside the king's house; and Katerina's dress.

By now he knew to keep his comments to himself. The feast was a considerable portion of the year's calories. The dress was prepared in record time, considering it was hand sewn; later he would learn that it was really a remake of a dress that had belonged to her mother, or it would have been impossible to complete it. The food, the dress: that was labor enough to account for the frantic busyness of the two days between the decision to go ahead and the wedding itself.

So Ivan's new program of working hard at improving his fighting skills didn't have enough time to show any meaningful results, except that he ached all over. The days of agonizing repetitions led to nights of exhaustion and soreness and mornings so stiff he could hardly rise out of his bed. Marathoner and sprinter he might be, but he had never used his body so brutally. He knew that a certain amount of muscle tearing was necessary for the bulking up he needed, but since he had done little in the way of weight training and nothing of swordplay, he had no experience of his body under this kind of stress. He wasn't sure whether he was doing too much, whether he should back off.

Dimitri was downright cheerful in all Ivan's practices, praising him now, telling him he was going to be a wonderful soldier. But Ivan was pretty sure that the king must have told him to be more encouraging, because Ivan could see for himself that he was no more skillful with a sword now than he had been before, or, if he was making progress, it was almost imperceptible. Nothing happened by reflex yet. There was always a time lag while he thought of the next move. Dimitri could have chopped him to bits. But instead, he moved more slowly and never laid a blow on Ivan. He was almost... nice.

He smiled way too much.

Well, fine. Dimitri was a resource, a teacher—what mattered was what Ivan did, and the only judge Ivan needed to please was himself. As when he was an athlete in college, he had his own standard of excellence, his own goals to meet. Let Dimitri think it all had to do with the pace he set; Ivan would learn as quickly as possible. His life—and perhaps more lives—depended on it, and he was determined to disappoint nobody, least of all himself.

Meanwhile, every night Sergei showed him what he had written on the backs of Saint Kirill's parchments. Ivan cared nothing about the quality of the prose or of the penmanship, but it happened that in language and in lettering Sergei was simple and clear. Indeed, the first thought Ivan had upon reading what Sergei wrote was: How authentic!

Authentic, and yet he felt more than a little unease about the project. Sergei would never have written this document if Ivan had not virtually bullied him into it; Sergei didn't even see the sense in it. Ivan almost had to shake him to get Sergei to refrain from writing some introductory apology for presuming to deface these precious documents by writing stories of the silly country folk upon them, his only excuse being that Prince Ivan forced him to do it. Then Sergei wanted to have his first story be that of Ivan and Katerina and the fight with the bear. Even worse! It would have spoiled everything! No introductions, no explanations, no references to Ivan's existence. Certainly nothing to show that this was a directed project. Let it be itself.

For even though Ivan had caused Sergei's accounts to exist, they were still genuine. The stories were untainted by Ivan's expectations. Sergei's language was all his own. Not a letter shaped by Ivan's hand would appear on the page. It was real.

The trouble was that Ivan had no idea how to preserve these manuscripts so they would be found. If he buried them, the parchment would rot away. If he left them out to be preserved in the church, like all the other ancient manuscripts, some cleric would think it was nothing but working papers or scrap and would throw it away. No one would think of recopying it. There was almost no reasonable chance of it reaching the tenth century, let alone the twentieth. He had to hide it in such a way that it would be preserved... but what if he hid it too well? Even if it didn't rot, it would do no good unless someone found it someday.

If only he could carry the manuscripts across the bridge with him. But he couldn't even be sure the bridge would ever be there for him. The problems of this little kingdom were real. Why would Katerina ever let him go back home? When would it ever be convenient?

Besides, carrying it home would do no good at all. The manuscript had to pass through the eleven intervening centuries. If he crossed the bridge and presented it to the world in 1992, scholars and scientists would look at it and say, What a wonderful replica, how cleverly done, but please don't ask us to believe that something so obviously new is a genuine product of the ninth century.

To put it in its simplest terms, there had to be eleven hundred years of radioactive decay of the carbon-14 molecules in the parchment. And the only way to get that was for it to sit somewhere for eleven hundred years.

If only he had a nice big Ziploc bag.

Wrap it up in cloth inside a box of sand to keep it dry, inside tightly stitched leather, inside another layer of sand, inside another box, inside a case of stone; hide it all in a hole in the side of a hill where there'd be good drainage and the hillside would erode away at exactly the rate to make a corner of the box appear in 1992...

And then find some way to be back in his own time so he and no one else could discover this most precious find. Not because it would make him famous and be the foundation of a brilliant career. Or not just because of that, but also because these stories were truer of this time than anything that had passed through the centuries of illiteracy to be written down only during the folktale movement of the 1800s. Too many more-recent events and cultures had impinged on the tales since then.

Even now, studying what Sergei wrote, Ivan began to recognize even older tales underlying these. What would eventually be fairy tales still had redolences of god-stories and myths. Traces of the god who leaves and must be called back—the tale of the Winter Bear was clearly such a one. And in the Winter Bear were echoes of the Weather-god of the Hittites, of Zeus, of Jovis-pater, of Woden. The ancient Indo-European ancestors were still whispering in these tales. Priests once shed blood to make the tales come true. What Sergei could not guess, what Father Lukas would utterly deny, what Ivan himself had not been sure of until now was this: These tales were also a kind of holy book and deserved to be treated as such by scholars. People once lived by these tales as surely as they lived by the tale of Moses and the burning bush, of Abraham and the ram in the thicket that took the place of his beloved son, of the loaves and fishes that fed a multitude, of the God who put his blood into a cup and his flesh into bread and served them to those who loved and followed him.

These stories must survive to a time that is sorely in need of them. If I could only bring them forth and lay them before the people—not the scholars, they'll study them and argue and equivocate—but the people, the Russian and Ukrainian and Moldovan and Belorussian people, who have lost their way because for seventy-two years they were in thrall to a religion that gave them gods and priests who killed and imprisoned and cheated and betrayed them, the people then found that when this nightmare religion fell, the only new religions offered to them were the old Christian one that had been a tool of tsars for centuries and a whimpering dog kicked around by the Communists for another and the religion of brutal free-market capitalism, the worship of money, which the Americans insisted had to be the established church of all the newly freed countries, even though they did not really practice it themselves. Let the East Slavs, the freed slaves, find their ancient soul in the Ivan tales and the tales of Mikola Mozhaiski and Ilya of Murom and Sadka the minstrel and the Winter Bear. Before the great Saint Kirill gave you your state religion, before the Scandinavian Rus' put their name on your nation and your language, before the Tatars got you used to the yoke and a foot on your neck, before envy and admiration of the West led you to remake yourselves over and over again in their image, you had a soul of your own. The root of it is here.

He laughed at himself, thinking these thoughts. What have I become? A prophet of some ancient druidlike Slavic religion? I give too much weight to this. But my people have lost their way, and this is a small, faint whisper of a memory of ancient dreams that once bound us together.

My people? Am I not an American boy? I thought I was. Even during these months of my return to Kiev, I still thought of myself as an American visiting in a land that used to be my own. But now that I've lost Ukraine again, I think of it as my homeland, my people; now that I have no one whom I can speak Russian to, I think of it as my own tongue. I have lost them, perhaps forever, and these manuscripts are the only gift I can send to them, and I can't even be sure of doing that.

Four feverish days thus passed, in exhaustion on the practice field, exhilaration as he read over Sergei's work, and then lying sleepless and aching in his flea-ridden bed, pinching the damned insects between his thumbnails so he could burst their miserable tough carapaces and thinking grandiose thoughts of accomplishments that would remain forever out of reach.

So he was not in the best of shape when the day of his wedding began, and the king himself rousted him out of bed and insisted on the two of them going down to the river together to swim in the bitterly cold water. No doubt this, too, had its roots in some ancient, culturally potent ritual, but when it came to swimming, Ivan was a great believer in heated and chlorinated pools.

But when he and the king came out of the water, shriveled and shivering and stamping their feet, while dozens of men stood by laughing and making obscene catcalls about how disappointed Katerina was going to be when she saw her husband's cold-withered hilt, for the first time it dawned on him that this was the day of the irreversible steps. To marry Katerina was not just a show, not just a courtesy, a favor to a pretty woman who was in a bit of trouble the other day. If he made these vows, he was promising to be her husband. She was promising to be his wife. She would bear his children. They would raise them together.

He wasn't ready.

It didn't matter. Ready or not, he realized, here I come.

Sergei sat in Ivan's room, trying to remember all the details of the tale of the Bear's gold ring before committing any words to paper—there was no room for errors on the remaining parchment. Ivan was somewhere, probably with the king, getting dressed out in garments fit for a boyar's wedding; it would not be right for him to dress as a prince until after the wedding, and even then modesty suggested he might wear slightly humbler clothing. Only when he became king would the distinction disappear. To jump from peasant garb to boyar's clothing was shock enough.

Sergei valued such solitary time at a writing desk. Father Lukas so disdained Sergei's copywork that he rarely gave the young man much of anything to do that used his skill with letters. Until now, Sergei had not thought he had any. But over these days of furious writing, he could see how his hand had become smoother, tighter, more regular. He could also see how much more fluidly the language came from him. Looking over the first tales he wrote down, he saw that not only were the letters too large and ill-shaped, but also the language was awkward and sometimes confusing. What he was writing now, however, was in letters much smaller and yet more, not less, legible.

The trouble was, all the blank space on the backs of the parchments was nearly full. Sergei hated to see the project end. Though he had chosen the best stories to write down first, there were so many more yet to write; and when the work ended, what would there be for Sergei then, except more slavelike labor at the church? Father Lukas would not know how Sergei's hand had improved. He would have him hobbling about emptying slops, sweeping up, carrying things. Sergei had never understood why, if his malformed body made him so unfit for the physical labor of the village, they determined to give him to the priest—to perform his physical labor. Perhaps they felt that Father Lukas did not need to have his menial work performed quickly or well. Or perhaps they expected him to be more patient with Sergei's slowness and clumsiness. If so, they were mistaken. Well, not entirely. Father Lukas did not yell at him to hurry, or curse him when he spilled or broke something. But the look of beatific patience in Father Lukas's eyes as he mumbled a prayer—of course it was a prayer, he was a priest, wasn't he?—could stab deeper than the shouts of the village men and women ever had.

A message to a faraway land, to be wrapped and double wrapped and saved for a thousand years in the earth. It was surely an age of miracles, that such things were possible. Christ himself never buried a message.

Thinking of Christ in the context of stories made Sergei remember the parable of the stewards with their talents. It occurred to him that he, Sergei, was the steward with the single talent, and he was indeed planning to bury his talent in the earth. But how could he do otherwise? These stories were already had among his people—he could hardly show them his writings, for they would say, "We all know the story, Sergei, why would you write it down?" There was nothing to do but bury it. Still, it made him uneasy, to know that he was like the foolish steward in this way. But perhaps he was misinterpreting the parable. Or at least misapplying it. If only he could ask Father Lukas about it.

Out in the corridor, Sergei heard voices for a few moments before they came near enough for him to make out what they were saying. Two men.

"Of course she'll try to disrupt the wedding. This is a disaster for her."

"It's the child she'll go after, when a boy is conceived. What's the wedding to her?"

''The wedding is everything. She must respect widow-right, even without children, because she herself holds her kingdom by widow-right alone."

"Less widow-right than sheer terror. Who in her benighted land would dare stand against her? Only a few of them have even enough courage to flee."

"She will move against the wedding, and we must be prepared."

"If you say so. It costs nothing to be vigilant. Katerina and Ivana will have our protection."

The use of the female form of the name Ivan struck Sergei hard. He had not heard anyone speak so offensively against Ivan. Or perhaps he had, but now he knew Ivan better and so it bothered him more.

"As for the twig-man, the vigilance ends after he's bedded her."

The other chuckled. "I see now why you care so much for widow-right."

"Let's just say that it's to the Pretender's benefit to kill him before the wedding; afterward, we're the ones with the most to lose if he stays alive."

"He's such a clumsy fellow. Everyone knows it."

"He might fall into the river and get swept away."

"Or he might tumble from a cliff."

"He might even fall on his own sword."

"That's as clumsy as you can get."

Chuckling grimly, the two men parted.

If Sergei had ever been permitted at the practice field, he might have known the voices. Neither could possibly be the king—that was a voice he knew. He could also rule out Father Lukas and Ivan himself. But most of the other voices Sergei knew well were those of the women who came to pray and confess at the church.

A plot to kill Ivan, but the plotters were not known. Still, they were men who felt responsible for vigilance during the wedding. Not common peasants, then, but men of soldiering age and with the responsibility of boyars or of the king's own druzhina, the knights who stayed always under arms and under the orders of the king. If the king's own druzhina were plotting against Ivan, what did that mean? Either they were not obedient to the king, or they were. If they were, then the king was a murderer like King David of old; if not, then the king's authority was in danger, for his men were contemplating a great crime against the king's will.

Sergei must tell someone. But whom? Ivan, even if he knew, would be powerless to protect himself—he was the only man of such an age in Taina who handled the sword as feebly as Sergei himself. The king? Well and good if the king were not in the plot, but if he was, then what good would it do to tell him? Who is wise? Who can tell me what to do?

Father Lukas had grave misgivings about the marriage, just as he had had about the baptism. But as Kirill had told him more than once, a priest has no right to withhold the rites of the Church, even when the person receiving them is clearly unworthy. Let God damn whom he damns; it is our business to try to save all who come before us. Especially the marriage, Father Lukas knew, for there was no law requiring that a Christian priest give his blessing to a marriage. The old customs still had full force, and if he declined to marry this foreign pretender to the Christian princess, the marriage would happen anyway, but the priest would be seen by all as the enemy of the king and the people in their effort to stay free of Baba Yaga.

Thus did the compromises begin. He had seen a thousand such compromises with political power during his years in Adrianople, where bishops constantly had to bend to the will of the political and social leaders of the city. In Lukas's opinion, as a young cleric, bending to political pressure had become so habitual as to be automatic, even in cases where a good Christian should have resisted. Yet now that he himself had to weigh the needs of the Church in this place, where the foothold was yet so fragile, he could clearly see that it was more important to preserve the kingdom that preserved the Church, than to insist on utter rectitude when it might put the survival of the Church in danger.

So he put the best face on it, even refraining from complaint that Ivan had appropriated his one assistant. Truth to tell, he rather hoped Ivan would keep Sergei, thus putting King Matfei in a position where he would have to give Father Lukas a new assistant—preferably one who wasn't clumsy and stupid, and who wasn't deformed in mockery of the creation of God. How could anyone be expected to keep their minds on worship and holiness with the clump clump clump of Sergei's passage from room to room? A little boy would be preferable—they never talked back, or if they did, you could whack them a couple of times and get them in line. You could beat Sergei, too, of course, but it did little good. Sergei had never changed his mind through beatings—the man was stubborn beyond belief. A stump would respond better to teaching. At least stumps never talked back to their master.

Father Lukas went outside to greet the people gathering at the bower. Old pagan custom, this collection of greenery and flowers. Homage to some god whose name Lukas did not even wish to know. Well, the technique for dealing with that nonsense was well known to every priest. He would declare the flowers to be in homage of the Word of God, the ineffable Son, who made all things that grow upon the earth, and for whom palm fronds were laid down to cover the ground at his coming.

Oh, of course. Now that all the work is done, here comes Sergei. Father Lukas refrained from turning away in distaste. Let the man come. He was no worse a burden than the horsehair shirt Lukas wore under his tunic, where other men wore linen. The constant rashes and raw patches from the horsehair kept his flesh mortified before God; if God then chose to mortify the spirit as well, that was his holy business.

As he held still, waiting for Brother Sergei, the women who had been working on the bower came up to ask him for approval.

"Yes, lovely, lovely. God will be pleased that you did such work in his holy honor."

There. Now even the unbaptized among you have served God, without even meaning to.

"Oh, look, there's my boy."

It was Sergei's mother who spoke; but she was not speaking to Father Lukas. Instead, she was half-dragging a bent-over old lady along with her to intercept Sergei as he headed for Lukas. "Sergei, look who's come to the wedding!"

Sergei greeted the old lady with deference but without recognition. "You know, Sergei," said his mother. "The one who gave me the..." Her voice fell to a whisper. But Lukas knew what she was saying: The old woman who gave her the hoose that Ivan had supposedly worn. A troublemaker and a gossip, thought Father Lukas. A king by his conversion and example could create a church; old women with their gossip and nastiness could destroy one.

It was just as well that the old biddy was ignoring Father Lukas. Indeed, she ignored Sergei, too, after a perfunctory greeting. Apparently she wanted to talk only to her sisters in crime, the gossips of the bower.

Sergei quickly got away from his mother and closed the rest of the distance between him and Father Lukas. "Father, I need your counsel."

"Really? I thought only Ivan was your teacher now."

"I'm his teacher," said Sergei, somewhat resentfully.

"Let's not argue about who is teaching whom," said Father Lukas. "What did you want my foolish counsel for?"

"I overheard something in the king's house. Two men speaking, plotting to..." Sergei looked around.

So did Lukas. The old woman who had come with Sergei's mother was still loitering nearby. Listening? Lukas took Sergei's arm and led him into the church. He could see the old woman wandering off, around the church in the other direction. Well, let her listen. What could an old woman hear through walls?

"Speak quietly, we have an eavesdropper," Lukas murmured.

"A plot to kill Ivan, Father," said Sergei. "Two men in the corridor. Speaking of how there should be an accident after the wedding."

"More fools they," said Father Lukas. "They'd better await the birth of a son."

"Widow-right," said Sergei. "Have you heard that word before?"

"In whispers, lately," said Father Lukas. "But there is no widow-right. That's Baba Yaga's invention, to justify her continuing to hold her late husband's throne and forbidding a new election to replace him. Baba Yaga's law will never work to the benefit of Taina."

"Then perhaps at the wedding, if you say something to that effect..."

"There's no part of the ceremony where the priest, acting in the place of God, warns the guests not to murder the bridegroom because it might jeopardize the succession."

"You'll do nothing?"

"I'll do what I can. But to pollute the wedding with charges and accusations, especially when they're only vague ones about two men overheard and perhaps misunderstood through walls and doors, that I will not do, because it would do no good."

"That's why I came to you for counsel, Father. Because you would know what to do."

Cheerful now, Sergei bustled out of the church.

Father Lukas sat down on a bench and thought about what Sergei had told him. A plot to kill the bridegroom. It should have been foreseen. Indeed, Lukas had foreseen it—but not so early. Someone had lied to these conspirators and told them that there was no need to wait beyond the wedding night.

A great tumult arose outside. Cheers and laughter. The arrival of the bride.

Lukas went out to greet Katerina and bring her and the ladies who had sewn the dress onto her into the church.

"One last confession before the wedding," said Katerina.

Father Lukas led her to the one bench at the front of the church. In most churches it would have been reserved for the king and his family, but King Matfei insisted that old men and women use it while he stood during mass. Now, though, it was available for hearing confession. He seated her so that she would be facing the icon of Christ the Judge on the wall. "Keep your voice low," he reminded her.

Her confession was simple and rather sweet, as always. Father Lukas did his best to remain dispassionate during confessions, but it was hard to keep from being judgmental. The people whose confessions were always lies made him tired; others, though, made him seethe with the small-mindedness of their view of sin, or with their ignorance of their real sins. Some even spent their confessional time confessing the sins of others—always couched, though, as confessing the sin of "wrath" at this or that person, followed by a recital of all the awful things the person did to provoke their poor victim to sin. Wake up! he wanted to shout.

But never with Katerina. Her confessions were pure, laying no blame on anyone but herself. For instance, Father Lukas was well aware of how annoying—nay, disturbing—this Ivan fellow could be, yet not a word of complaint from Katerina. Rather she confessed to having neglected him, and failed to help him; by the time she was through Father Lukas was persuaded that indeed she could have done better. This was disturbing to him because he was quite aware that he himself had done much worse. It wasn't a pleasant thing, when the priest was guiltier of a sin than the parishioner who confessed it to him.

Which is perhaps why, when he had absolved her with advice about how to do better—but no further penance—he then unburdened himself to her. He told her what Sergei had overheard, and the obvious danger that Ivan was in.

"But that's so foolish," said Katerina. "There is no widow-right under the new law. If they're looking to the Widow to behave consistently with her own situation, it's in vain. If they kill Ivan before I have his child in me, they will have done the witch's work. It will give her the pretext she needs."

"Perhaps Sergei misheard them."

"Perhaps," she said. "He truly has no idea who the plotters are?"

"It could be anyone, though it's likely to be knights of the druzhina, or perhaps a few boyars." A conspiracy among boyars was less likely, if only because they were scattered on their manors throughout the kingdom, while the druzhinniks were always together in such a manner that conspiracies could grow like mushrooms, overnight.

"What can we do?" she asked. "If I ask men to guard him, then in all likelihood I'll be inviting at least one of the conspirators to protect against himself."

"I foresee the real danger on the practice field," said Father Lukas. "I hear that Ivan is working very hard now—but accidents can happen during practice, and who could prove it was anything else, should a passing blow inadvertently pass through his throat."

She was about to come up with something else, but at that moment the shouting began outside.

"Fire! Fire!"

Father Lukas rose to his feet and walked toward the door. "What a time for one of the kitchen fires to get out of hand," he said. "I hope it's not at your father's house."

"No," said Katerina. "I think it's here."

Sure enough, the flames were already licking in at the windows and crackling along the ceiling. The church was entirely of timber, with almost no daub in it at all, and it was bone-dry. The fire might have started only two or three minutes ago, and already it was almost too late to get out of the church.

"Run!" shouted Father Lukas as he headed for the door. By the time he got to it and held it open, Katerina had her skirt hitched up and was ushering toward him the old ladies who had been praying in the church. The slowest of them she finally picked up and bodily carried out the door. Only when they were all outside did Father Lukas remember that the precious books and parchments were all in the tiring-room. "O God, help me!" he cried as he headed back into the church.

"No!" cried Katerina. "It's too late! Come out! I command it in the name of the king!"

What was the king's word at a time like this? thought Father Lukas. It was the authority of the fire itself that stopped him, for he wasn't two steps inside the church when the roof collapsed over the altar. The tiring-room was gone. Father Lukas barely made it back to the door before the rest of the roof gave way, and as it was, flames shot out the door after him so fiercely that his robes caught on fire. He fell to the ground and several of the people fell upon him, to smother the fire with their own clothing and bodies. Except for the singeing of his hair, he wasn't even burned. But the church was gone, his books and papers were gone, even his robe was in ruins.

There was no kitchen fire close to the church. There was no lightning to spark a flame. It had to have been set. Who would set a fire?

As if in answer to his unspoken question, Sergei's mother let out a wail. "She's dead, she's dead, she's dead!"

Who? The old lady, Father Lukas soon learned, the one who lived out in the forest, the one who had brought the hoose to her, which she had so carefully related to him in confession—another of the ones who so gladly confessed other people's sins. Lukas expected to see a corpse, though the old woman was so dried-up that it was just as likely she had burned instantly to a single sheet of grey ash that wafted up into the breeze and was gone.

Gone, that was where she was. There was no body.

"I say she set the fire," said one of the men. Father Lukas looked around. It was Dimitri, the master-at-arms. "Who else? She's not here, she didn't burn, this fire was set."

"Why would she do it?" asked Sergei's mother.

"Are you that stupid, not to see it?" said Dimitri. "No wonder your son's such a dunce. This old woman from the woods, who else is it but the Widow herself? And you took her into your house!"

Father Lukas sighed inwardly at the way Dimitri refused to say Baba Yaga's name outright.

"She ate at my table," said Sergei's mother. "Would an evil witch do that?"

"She'd do it if it got her close enough to burn down a church," said Dimitri.

"It's no use arguing about this," said Father Lukas. "The building may be gone, but the Church itself cannot be destroyed by fire. If it could, the devil would be laying fires all over Christendom. What was taken by fire can be built again by sweat."

"Well said, Father Lukas!" cried Sergei. But Father Lukas was under no illusions about the reason for his enthusiasm. Anything to ease the blame that was bound to come to Sergei's mother for having brought the old woman here—especially if it really was Baba Yaga in disguise.

"Father Lukas," said Katerina, "what matters now is this: Shall we postpone the wedding?"

"Whatever you wish," said Father Lukas. "We could easily postpone the marriage to another day."

"No!" roared Dimitri. "Every day that passes brings more danger! Don't you see that the fire was set with Princess Katerina inside? This wedding must go on, so that the curse is swept away at last and Taina can be free of the Widow's claims!"

"If only it were that easy," replied King Matfei as he strode toward the group, Ivan jogging along behind him. They both went directly to Katerina, and Father Lukas was pleased to see that Ivan did look genuinely concerned for his bride, taking her hand and looking her up and down to make sure that she had not suffered harm from the fire.

"My lord," said Dimitri, "every moment we delay plays into the Widow's hands. I say we proceed with the wedding without delay!"

"Your kind suggestion is well meant, and I thank you for it," said King Matfei. "But let us take at least a moment to assess the damage that was done here."

Flames still burned hotly in the nuns of the church. There was no approaching it, the heat was so intense. King Matfei walked around it, Father Lukas following close behind. Only when they reached the end where the tiring-room had been did Lukas realize that not all the books and papers would have been destroyed. "Sergei!" he cried out. "Sergei, the book of the Gospels that you took up to the king's house! The manuscripts you were using to teach Ivan!"

Sergei's face brightened, but then almost at once he grew sad, and then began to weep. "Ah, Father Lukas! This morning Ivan told me to bring the parchments back here to the church, and I did it."

Father Lukas whirled on Ivan. It could not possibly have been his fault, and yet Father Lukas was filled with an entirely unjustified rage against him. "Could you not have studied for one more day!"

Ivan blushed. "Father Lukas, what study would I do on my wedding day? We thought to bring them here as the safest place to store them."

Father Lukas had not wept in the aftermath of the fire, but to have his hopes raised and then dashed again was too much for him. "Ah, God, I have been an unworthy servant, to let thy Gospels perish in the flames of hell."

"Not the Gospels," said Sergei. "I left the Gospels there in Ivan's room, because he was still reading them. It was all the parchments that I brought back."

"The book is saved?" Impulsively Father Lukas embraced the cripple. "God bless you, my son."

"A happy day, then, after all," said King Matfei.

"Let all see the wisdom in this," said Katerina, "that the priest cried, not for the wood of the church, but for the words of the Gospels. The Church is in the words, not in the wood!"

A cheer went up at those words. Most were cheering for the heartening sentiment; Father Lukas, who was now going to have to go back to working out of a peasant hut, at least for a while, joined in the cheering, but his approbation was for Katerina's cleverness in making a homily out of a church burning, and a lesson out of his own tears. She was very, very good at leading the people. A shame she had to have a husband at all.

"I wish I had been a more dedicated student," said Ivan sadly, "and had not caused Sergei to return the parchments." He turned to Sergei. "Go at once to my room and make sure the book of the Gospels is secure."

"No need," said King Matfei. "After the wedding is soon enough. Dimitri is right! Let there be no more delay. If this was the work of the Widow's hand, then let her get no satisfaction from it! Father Lukas, to the bower we go!"

After all the tumult, the wedding was an anticlimax. With the bonfire still crackling and popping its way through the timber of the church, there was a sense of the end of the world in the ceremony, as if they were getting married in the midst of the ruin of civilization. Which is not far from the truth, thought Ivan. These people wouldn't live to see it, but in historical terms, they would not have long to unite under the king of the Rus' in Kiev before the Mongols would burst across the steppe, toppling kingdoms and bringing all under the sway of the Golden Horde. The soul of Russia would be fatally compromised then, with no king able to survive in resistance. When all rulers must be quislings, cooperating with the conquerors to wring taxes and tribute out of the people, then the people have no reason to regard any government as legitimate. Here, though, Ivan could see what the Golden Horde stripped away from the Eastern Slavs. In the way the people revered King Matfei and adored Princess Katerina, in the way these two royals lived right among the people, serving readily and leading boldly, without pomp and pretension, Ivan could see how it used to be, what was lost. A government with true legitimacy. Rulers that the people know and, more important, that know the people. What tsar ever went out and sweated through the harvest with the smerdy? What princess ever called all her subjects by name, and laughingly bore their wedding-night jests?

In this moment, Ivan loved these people and this place. Not the way Katerina loved them, because she knew each one and all their stories from childhood on; Ivan loved them as a whole, as a group, as a community. Maybe Cousin Marek had such a sense of belonging, but no one had it in Kiev, not even among the Jews, who did a better job than most of holding themselves together. And if this is community, he thought, then America has no communities, or none that I have ever seen.

Was it smalltown life, then, that made the difference? Perhaps. But we could have kept it, had we valued it, this feeling of belonging, of being known. Instead we have a century and a half of American literature harping on the evils of smalltown life. How everyone is always in your face and knows your business, about how the guardians of virtue are imperfect themselves and so have no right to judge. Those poor elitist fools—they hated community but had no idea of the emptiness of life after community had been killed. Here it was, the people in each other's faces, the gossip as vicious as ever when the knives came out, no doubt the average number of plots and intrigues, hypocrisies and self-righteousness. But all that paled in the face of the great power of the place: that everyone knew who everyone else was.

Even Sergei. Everyone knows what he is and it's not a good thing to be. Yet where else could he go? Who would he be in another place? Americans love to pick up, move on, start over. But instead of being somebody fresh and new, they become somebody lonely and lost, or, far too often these days, they become nobody at all, a machine for satisfying hunger, without loyalty or honor or duty. And with the death of Communism, that's what my own people in Russia are becoming, too.

There it was again, that thought of the Russian people being his own.

The Orthodox ritual was strange to him. He had been too young to be aware of religion when he left Ukraine—if, indeed, his family had known anybody who would seek out a church wedding under the Communist regime. And since returning to Kiev, he had not known anyone who was getting married. He knew the American and English Protestant services through watching old movies now and then. The showy Catholic wedding in The Sound of Music. Greek Orthodox services didn't show up much.

Father Lukas said his parts; Ivan and Katerina said their parts, with some prompting, at least for Ivan. Then they drank wine from the same cup, and it was done. The crowd cheered. Father Lukas beamed upon them. His smile was only skin-deep, though. He was not happy. And, if Ivan was any judge of character, neither was Katerina.

Relieved, yes, she seemed to be relieved. As if one great hurdle had been passed. But Ivan knew that this was nothing to her but a marriage for reasons of state. She had grown up knowing such a thing would be needed. He had not. He always expected to marry for love, or at least by his own choice. He had hoped for a bride who would be proud to say the vows with him. This was dismal indeed, to know that she was merely doing her duty to king and country, to God and Daddy.

And tonight. Oh, that was going to be the scene from his dreams. To bed a woman who was only doing it because her people were being held hostage. How is this going to be distinguishable from rape? Ivan had tried reading Ian Fleming once; a friend had lent him You Only Live Twice. In one of the early chapters, Fleming had written that "all women love semi-rape." Ivan was only fourteen at the time, and still not sure that he understood all the nuances of English. But the idea seemed so loathsome to him that even if it were true, he did not want to know it. He gave the book back to his friend unread. To sleep with an unwilling woman—Ivan was not even sure he would be able to perform. That was one difference between the sexes that women never really understood: A woman could just lie there, and the job would get done. But if the man was put off his mettle, so to speak, there was no way to sleepwalk through it.

Can't wait for tonight.

He just hoped that Sergei had the sense to head for Ivan's room the moment the wedding was over, and get those parchments hidden. Fortunately, King Matfei was conferring privately with Father Lukas, so if Sergei hurried, he could come back with the book of the Gospels before the priest thought of going to Ivan's room to get it himself.

It had been clever of Sergei, to think of using the fire as a means of convincing Father Lukas not to look for the parchments. Now Ivan and Sergei had more time to conceal them, and would never have to hear Father Lukas raging at their having defaced the precious manuscripts he was given by Kirill himself.

The surprise was how readily and convincingly Sergei was able to lie. He had to be a practiced liar, to do it so naturally, without a breath of embarrassment. It was a good thing to know about Sergei.

Of course, come to think of it, Ivan had not hesitated to join him in the lie. So much for their being Christians. Though, come to think of it, there was a good long tradition of Christians lying when the need arose, and often when it didn't. Ivan couldn't think of a religion that was any damn good at making utter truthtellers out of its practitioners. Maybe the Quakers were truly plainspoken at one time, but even they managed to squeeze out a Richard Nixon after a few hundred years of suppressing their human propinquity for untruth.

Sergei, if you're going to lie, I'm just glad you're on my side, and good at it, and smart about which lies are worth telling.

Then it occurred to Ivan: Who told the bigger lie today? Sergei, when he said that the parchments burned up in the fire? Or Ivan and Katerina, when they spoke as if what they were doing was actually a marriage?

He still held her hand in his. Her skin was cool. One of them was sweating so much that their hands were slippery against each other. Ivan was reasonably sure that it wasn't her.

9

Honeymoon

Nowhere was the difference between the ninth century and the twentieth century clearer to Ivan than when it came to the little matter of the wedding night. Americans in the eighties and nineties had prided themselves on their openness about sex, but to Ivan those open-minded Americans seemed like prudes compared to the ribald—or downright lewd—comments, gestures, and charades that surrounded him and Katerina as they led a huge troop of villagers to the king's house.

Nor did an R or PG-13 rating seem to be much in evidence, for seven-year-old boys were making obscene suggestions and movements right along with their elders. There was so much of it that after a few minutes Ivan couldn't even bring himself to be shocked. He was numb.

Numb—that's just the feeling you hope for on your wedding night.

With all the discussion of his and Katerina's marriage as an antidote for Baba Yaga's curse or as a strategic move in the struggle to keep Taina free of the witch's rule, it all came down to this: Ivan was supposed to perform. But perform what? How? Like any other male American of even minimal alertness, Ivan knew that he was expected to be both masterful and sensitive, that the worst sin he could commit would be to finish before starting—in all the comedies people acted as if it were only slightly less awful than throwing up on the salad—and the second-worst sin would be to find himself unable to start at all.

Or maybe the worst sin of all was this: Ivan had no idea how it was supposed to go. Beyond what you got in health class and dirty jokes and bad movies, he simply had no serious hands-on experience.

All the statistics suggested that the only males who hadn't had sex by age sixteen were either quadriplegics or insufferable geeks. Ivan was neither—in fact, he was an athlete who had dated a normal amount in high school. And with the time he spent in locker rooms, he had heard all the boastful talk about how often and how manfully all the other guys performed. Only a few, like Ivan, didn't join in the locker-room brag; but Ivan suspected that the difference between the talkers and the quiet ones wasn't experience, it was honesty. If these clowns had really treated the girls they dated the way they claimed, why did women not fall over themselves clamoring for more of the miraculous pleasure that these love gods supposedly provided?

Not that nobody was getting any in high school. But the statistics in those social-science surveys were such hoke. If those "scientific" results came from teenage boys telling the truth about their sex lives, the scientists should be doing horoscopes or reading palms—they were more reliable. Or so Ivan had said to Ruth once, and Ruth laughingly agreed. She was a virgin, too, and didn't know any girls who admitted to anything else. There were girls with reputations as mattresses and guys whose reputations as cocksmen Ivan believed, but they were a lowlife fringe that didn't touch Ivan's life.

All this he had concluded years before; but there was one complication. About half the time, he didn't believe it. About half the time, he looked at the people around him and thought, They all know the secret, they've all done it. Any girl I marry will have slept with enough men to have some serious expectations, and I won't know what I'm doing. I'll fumble around, I'll give her no pleasure at all, she'll hate sex with me and within days she'll have an annulment going, if not a lawsuit for infliction of emotional distress. Or assault and battery.

So it didn't help one bit that every single person in Taina above the age of six seemed to know all about sex and have inflated ideas about exactly what Ivan's sexual prowess would be like. The crude comments about how he was going to keep the princess turning on the spit longer than a suckling pig gave him a new appreciation for the Jewish ban on pork. And the children who asked if they could come play in the tent that his erection would make of the bedcovers left him speechless.

It's all jokes, he told himself. It's a celebration of life. It's a holdover from pagan fertility rites.

One thing was sure, though. If somebody talked like this coming out of a wedding in upstate New York, they'd better be drunk or they'd never get another invitation anywhere in their lives.

Through it all, Katerina seemed not to hear a thing. At first Ivan thought she was as embarrassed as he was. But of course that could not be so—she must have attended other weddings in Taina. For all he knew, as a child she had invented some of the ribald jokes now being retold at top volume along the path to the king's house. Her grim silence had another cause entirely, he was sure. For to her, marrying him was a vile duty forced on her by the needs of her country.

And to him, she was a woman far more magnificent than he would ever have selected for himself.

A thought which made him feel utterly disloyal to Ruth, as if he hadn't already. Ruth was a pleasant, attractive young woman, but Katerina was heartbreakingly beautiful, translucent with inner glory. Men like Ivan didn't imagine for a moment that they were worthy of approaching such a woman. In fact, the only men who tried to date such women were the arrogant assholes who thought every woman wanted them to drop trou and let the poor bitch have a glimpse of Dr. Love. Even if Ivan hadn't known his script from the fairy tales, he certainly would have known that the only way he could ever kiss such a woman was in her sleep.

At long last—and yet far too soon—they reached Katerina's flower-strewn room and waited while the charivari continued for another few minutes. Ivan even submitted to letting the teenage boys strip off his outer clothing and throw it out the window to the amusement of those who hadn't been able to fit inside the house.

There were limits. No one laid a hand on Katerina. Indeed, she was surrounded by women primping her and whispering to her and glancing pointedly at Ivan from time to time, as if to make last-minute assessments of just how badly he was going to treat her and how to keep herself from screaming her way out of the room. He could imagine them saying, "Just lie there and endure it. It's the burden of a woman."

Then the rest were gone. The door closed.

The singing and hand-clapping continued outside their window. The people were waiting. Ivan had vague memories of some culture or other in which the people would expect to be shown bloodstained sheets. But surely that wasn't ninth-century Russia, was it?

He just wasn't getting into the spirit of this. Standing there in his linen tunic, he was keenly aware of how unready he was for any kind of sexual performance. He was so utterly unaroused that for the first time in his life, he actually wondered: Am I gay? After all, I did wear women's clothing.

She looked at him, her face hard-set. Still beautiful, of course.

But grim.

"Ivan," she said. "Come closer so I can talk softly."

Stiffly he walked toward her. To his horror, the very act of approaching her changed everything. Instantly he became aroused, a fact which his simple linen tunic did nothing to disguise. She glanced down and then looked away—in disgust?

"I'm sorry," he apologized feebly, wondering what he was apologizing for. When he wasn't aroused, he had felt the need to apologize for that, too.

She put her hand up to silence him.

Her voice was soft. "There's a plot to kill you as soon as our marriage is consummated."

It was amazing how fast his poor libido went slack again.

"We aren't sure who," she said. "Sergei overheard the plotters and told Father Lukas, and he warned me, and I've been wracking my brain trying to think of what we can do about it."

The obvious answer, he saw at once, was never to consummate this marriage. He offered the suggestion.

She rolled her eyes. "Oh, excellent plan. Then the Widow gets her way, and everybody is convinced you really do belong in women's garb."

"All right, then, we hop on the bed and do the deed and then I go out and have them stand in line for the privilege of killing me. It will end the suspense."

"All the way up here from the wedding," she said—ignoring him as if he hadn't spoken—"I've been thinking, and I finally reached a conclusion."

He thought she meant she had reached a solution to the problem. But it was nothing so helpful.

"My father has condoned this. The druzhina would not do this unless they believed they were doing his will. And that means I don't dare ask for his help in getting you away."

"Getting me away?" asked Ivan.

"If you and I don't consummate this marriage, you can't stay here. Don't you see? If they've decided to kill you after we're married, but before we know I'm with child, it means they've decided to defy the witch's curse. They have just as much reason to get you out of the way if you don't become my husband. I have to get you back to your own world."

"Oh, now you decide it's time."

Her eyes burned through him. "I didn't choose you. I've done my best to help you. I know you've done your best as well, but it wasn't enough, was it? We've both failed, and now my people are going to pay the price of our failure. There's no reason for you to go down with the rest of us. You didn't know what you were setting in motion when you woke me. You thought you were saving a woman trapped by a bear. You don't deserve to die for it, even if you aren't the stuff that kings are made of."

Ivan had never felt more worthless in his life. But he was going home.

Sergei was glad he had rushed straight to Ivan's room after the wedding and tucked the parchments under his robe. Thank heaven that Ivan had finally started rolling them up to store them. He was leaving the room when Father Lukas arrived with King Matfei. "Ivan won't be needing this room now, so you're welcome to use it until a new church can be built."

"You're very kind," said Father Lukas. "Sergei, there you are. Where is that book of Gospels? It's the only treasure left to me."

Sergei felt a pang of guilt over the lie that was causing the priest such grief. But compared to the rage Father Lukas would feel if he knew the truth—that Sergei had written all over the parchments and that he and Ivan had both lied—it seemed preferable to go to hell for these sins later.

Whom would Sergei ever be able to confess these sins to? There was no hope for him, none at all. And now Ivan would be killed and...

"Sergei? Are you deaf?"

"Father Lukas, the book of Gospels is on the table. I have to go outside."

"No, come in with me and help me arrange the room for the two of us to share."

"Father, it's already arranged for two."

King Matfei became irritated. "Sergei, your master told you to—"

Sergei almost obeyed; but the idea of keeping the manuscripts tucked inside his robe while trying to serve Father Lukas was intolerable. Something would happen to reveal the secret. He could not do it. Besides, Father Lukas was not his master.

"Your Majesty," said Sergei, "I did not know that I, who was born a free man, had become a slave."

The king's face flushed with embarrassment, "I did not mean that you were his..."

"My master is Jesus Christ our Lord," said Sergei. "And in the infinite wisdom of God, I find that I am desperate to get outside to void my bowels."

Father Lukas waved him out. "By all means, go, go."

Sergei rushed away.

Outside, he looked around. Where could he possibly hide the manuscripts? He thought of hurrying home to his mother's house, but no, his mother, the poor trusting soul, had apparently befriended Baba Yaga unawares. She could hardly be relied on to keep such a secret as this—she'd confess it first thing to Father Lukas himself.

Is there time to bury it?

There was no place where Sergei had any privacy, no place where he could conceal something and hope that it would remain undisturbed. Should he leave the parchments under a rock in the woods and hope they would still be there when he had a chance to get back to them? He might as well have really put the parchments in the fire as to leave them exposed to the elements like that.

This was all Ivan's fault, thinking of this mad project in the first place Now Sergei was going to go to hell for another man's sin.

Be honest, he told himself. You thought it was crazy but you went along with it. And once you started writing, you warmed to it right enough. It's not for Ivan's sake anymore that you want to keep these parchments safe. It's because you love the way you wrote the stories on them.

Could there be a clearer case of loving your own sins?

Still, Ivan started it. Sergei might have no place to call his own, but Ivan was the husband of the princess. Let him deal with it.

Sergei headed back inside the king's house. In the corridor, he could hear the voices of Father Lukas and the king; they were still inside Ivan's old room. If they came out, Sergei would be right back where he started.

The revelers were still chanting and singing and laughing outside the house, but there was no one in the corridor. If Sergei knocked loudly enough to be heard over the noise outside the window, Father Lukas and the king would also hear, and would no doubt come out into the corridor to see who was knocking.

Sergei had no choice. He reached down, pulled the latch of the door, and slipped inside the bridal chamber, closing the door silently after himself. He was careful to keep his eyes to the wall as he fumbled inside his robe to pull out the parchments.

He had half-expected a screech from the startled bride or an exclamation from Ivan, but there was not a sound. Then he heard a chuckle from Katerina.

"Look what God has sent us," she said.

"You can turn around," said Ivan.

There stood the princess, fully clothed. And Ivan, in his linen tunic. Nobody naked, thank God. They were standing side by side, looking at him, the princess with amusement, Ivan with consternation.

"Sorry to interrupt," said Sergei. He held out the parchments.

Ivan strode to him, took them. "This isn't the moment I would have chosen."

"I didn't choose the moment," said Sergei. "The king has given Father Lukas the room you were using. Since you won't need it now."

"What sort of conspiracy is this?" asked the princess. "I thought these parchments burned."

Ivan unrolled them and showed her the back of one. He knew that she was literate; she had studied for her baptism far more rigorously than he had. In the ninth century it was not yet shocking for a woman to read—it was shocking for anyone to read.

She scanned Sergei's writing quickly, just a few sentences. "The story of I-Know-Not-What? Why would you write this down?" Then she shook her head. "It was for this that you wanted parchment, Ivan?"

"These stories have all been changed in my time. No one understands how old they are, and how they used to be."

"But they're just stories." Katerina shook her head. "Never mind. I have no hope of understanding you. I feel sorry for the trouble you'll get Sergei in, when this comes out."

"Why would it come out?" asked Ivan, looking her in the eye.

"I see," she said. "All right, I'll keep these in my room. The secret won't come out."

"Thank you," said Sergei. He laid his hand upon the latch, ready to leave again. But Katerina's voice stopped him.

"Not so fast," she said. "I need something from you in return."

"What?" asked Sergei. "Anything."

"I need you to go fetch Father Lukas. Tell him that I wish him to come into this room, just him and you, to shrive us both again and to pray for us that we will conceive at once, and a boy child."

"But you were already shriven in the—"

"Tell him in these words," said Katerina. "Say that I say that since the fire in the church prevented me from completing my confession, I would like him to come and do it now. And then the rest, about the prayer. And Ivan wants you to come with him, Sergei. Do it."

Sergei nodded, glancing at Ivan, who only raised his eyebrows, as if to say he had no idea what was going on, but don't question the motives of women. Since to Sergei women were all an unplumbable mystery, most especially Katerina, whose beauty made it impossible for men to think around her, he had no intention of trying to understand anything except what his errand was supposed to be.

When Sergei returned to the room that was now Father Lukas's, the king was still there.

"Took you long enough," said the king.

"I was thinking that he returned rather quickly," said Father Lukas.

"As I passed along the corridor," said Sergei, keeping his eyes down, hoping that the appearance of humility would mask his second calculated lie of the day, "the door to the bridal chamber opened, and the princess said, 'Go to Father Lukas, and tell him that since the fire in the church prevented him from hearing my confession this morning, I would like him to come now, and bring you with him, and shrive both me and my husband, and bless us that we will conceive a boychild from our first union."

It took all his self-discipline, but Sergei did not look up to see how Father Lukas took this message. For Father Lukas would know at once that it was a lie. What mattered was, would he think it was Katerina's lie or Sergei's?

"Your Majesty," said Father Lukas, "let me go and ease your daughter's troubled heart. The burden of responsibility weighs on her, and perhaps with God's help that burden can be eased on this day that should be happy for a woman."

"Go, go," said the king, "though it sounds like pious nonsense to me. You already blessed her during the wedding, didn't you? And why would you need Sergei?"

"I believe," said Sergei softly, "that it was Ivan who wanted to see me. Perhaps he, too, has an errand for me."

"It just seems strange to me," said the king, "that a bridegroom should ask for a young man to visit him in the bridal chamber, especially the young man with whom he has been sharing a room."

"You must be careful about giving voice to such thoughts," said Father Lukas. "What to you sounds like idle wondering will sound to another like an accusation."

"Who would hear?" said the king.

"Anyone standing in the corridor would hear words spoken in this room," said Father Lukas. "Just as anyone in this room would hear words spoken in the corridor."

For a moment, Sergei was afraid that Father Lukas meant to tell the king what he had overheard just that morning in this very room. But to his relief, Father Lukas merely bade the king good-bye for the moment and then glided from the room, Sergei bobbing along behind him in his wake.

Father Lukas slipped into the room and, as Sergei closed the door, looked at Katerina with annoyance and amusement. "Interesting, to use a lie to send me a message. We finished your confession."

"The message you understood was true. I needed you to come here, and needed you to have a reasonable excuse for doing it."

"Why does a princess need an old priest in her bridal chamber?" Father Lukas looked at Ivan. "Or is it you who needs help? Surely you don't expect me to give you lessons on this subject."

"I need to get Ivan out of here and safely away from the house."

"Because the marriage has been consummated? Or because it has not?"

"Let's leave everyone wondering about that," said Katerina.

"What's your plan?"

"Have Sergei and Ivan trade clothes. Ivan leaves limping, his face hooded, following close behind you. Who will look at him?"

"And then what?"

"Sergei and I wait for a little while. You bring back more of his proper clothing for Sergei to wear. While Ivan runs away, Sergei and I emerge, asking what happened to Ivan, he disappeared suddenly."

Father Lukas frowned. "Which is only slightly true."

"They have to believe the Pretender spirited him away, or they'll start to search too soon."

"And you consent to this?" Father Lukas asked Ivan. "Running away on your wedding night?"

"It seems more prudent than bloodshed," said Ivan.

"We have to hurry," said Katerina. "You can be sure several people have cast spells to see if I am still a virgin. The longer we take, the more impatient the plotters will become."

Father Lukas turned to Sergei. "Does that robe come off, or weren't you listening?"

Sergei doffed his robe at once. He and Ivan exchanged a glance: What if Father Lukas had ordered this while Sergei still had the parchments tucked under the robe?

Ivan pulled it on over his head. Then he put up the hood.

"Thank you, Father," said Katerina.

"I don't like lying."

"To save a life, is it a sin?" she asked.

"Perhaps just a venial one."

Ivan turned to Katerina. "I can't get over the bridge without you there."

"I'll get there as soon as I can. You simply have to hide till then."

"I'm not sure I know the way."

"Follow the trail of broken branches you left behind you as you came through."

Ivan shook his head. "I'm no hunter, I don't know how to follow signs like that."

She seemed to make an effort to be patient. "Can you figure out where west is?"

"As long as the sun's up."

"And uphill, do you know that one?"

Ivan glared at her.

"I wasn't being nasty," she said. "You don't always understand every word I say, I just wanted to make sure you knew. I have to be able to find you out there."

"You have to find me, and they mustn't find me, and it's the same trail."

She reached up and pulled three or four strands of her hair out of her head. "Tie these around your wrist," she said. "I'll find you."

Ivan couldn't do it one-handed. Sergei helped him.

"Now go," said Katerina. "We have to play the scene out before dark."

Ivan took a few steps, trying to get Sergei's limp right.

"No, no," said Sergei. "You look like you're trying to limp. I try not to limp."

Ivan tried again. It wasn't good, but it was better.

"Come on," said Father Lukas. "I'll give you something heavy to carry, and that will explain the change in your gait."

Father Lukas led the way out of the room. Ivan followed close behind. Limping, his foot twisted.

Sergei rushed to the door and latched it behind him. There he stood in his tattered linen undergarment, so full of holes it was like wearing a fishing net. Katerina was not looking at him, which meant she had looked at him and now was looking away so as not to cause him shame.

"Thank you for keeping the secret of the parchments," he said to her.

"A lot of secrets are being kept tonight," she said softly.

"I don't belong in this room."

"Neither of us does. But sometimes we're put in a place and we have to do our best."

Sergei appreciated her modesty, but knew that even if she believed it, her statement wasn't true. "You'd be a princess no matter where you were."

"We'll soon see," said Katerina.

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing," she said. "Don't be afraid of me. I've seen men bathing, I have no particular fear of seeing through the holes in your tunic."

"I'm not afraid, I just... I'm not the one who should be here."

"Oh, now I understand you. Well, Ivan didn't belong here either. Just bad luck, him finding me."

"Not luck, I don't think," said Sergei. "He's your husband now."

"An oath, but it can be annulled if it isn't acted on."

"I think," said Sergei, "that he's a better man than you believe he is."

"I believe he's a very good man," said Katerina. "Not a king, though."

"A bird can't pull a plow."

"I needed God to send me a plowhorse. I tried to make do with what he sent instead. I failed."

"Maybe God's message is that you don't need plowing." Then Sergei realized the double meaning of what he said. "Not to say he's the plow and you're the—I mean, I—"

"I understood you," she said.

There was a soft knock on the door. Sergei opened it. A hand thrust another robe through the door. Sergei took it, then closed the door again. He pulled a priestly robe over his head. It had fresh burn holes on the back. Of course—Father Lukas couldn't continue wearing a damaged garment.

"Imagine," said Katerina. "A Slavic priest."

"I do imagine it," said Sergei. "But it will not be me."

"Why not?"

"Never me."

"And I say, why not?"

Sergei laughed bitterly. "How convincing will I be, talking about how Jesus healed all the sick and the crippled? What more proof does anyone need that I'm not a man of faith?"

"Jesus isn't here."

"Jesus is everywhere. And as he often said, 'Your faith has made you whole.' "

"So don't be a priest," said Katerina. "But if you aren't that, what are you?"

"Is that how priestly vocation comes?" asked Sergei. "Because my foot was born twisted, I must be God's chosen servant?"

"We are all called to be servants of God in whatever way we can. Perhaps I can serve him as a princess. Perhaps you as a priest."

"Do you think I served God when I wrote down those old stories?"

Katerina shrugged. "That's beyond my judging."

"I'll tell you what I think. I think God made all men, including the people who told these stories. So these things are the creations of God. Or the creations of his creations, but it amounts to the same thing. And if God created the people who would make up these stories and tell them, then by saving them I'm also honoring God."

"God made the murderers and adulterers, too."

"I think these stories are good. I think they teach us to love goodness."

"Or to wish for the power to do great deeds," she answered. "But we've given them time enough. We need to give the alarm."

Sergei winced. "You do all the talking, would you?"

"Yes," she said. "I'm good at talking, I suppose." Then, without warning, she gave a shriek.

They could hear the crowd outside the window fall silent, then set to murmuring. Who screeched? Was it the princess? Is he hurting her?

Katerina rushed to the window, flung open the shutters. "Did he come out here? Did you see him pass?"

"Who?" asked the people.

"My husband! We were new-shriven, Father Lukas left, Ivan and I were talking, and suddenly he wasn't there!"

The people took only a moment to digest the tale before they reached the only conclusion that made sense. "The Widow took him! Another curse! Another spell!"

Katerina burst into tears. "Am I never to be free of the witch's plots?"

Even as she wept, however, she was scanning the crowd, watching to see who reacted. A couple of druzhinniks started walking briskly around the crowd, heading for what? Some rendezvous. If only she could see more clearly at such a distance. Who was it? Which of the king's knights? She would know who the plotters were by seeing who began first to search for Ivan.

"Were you bedded?" asked an elderly peasant woman.

Katerina bowed her head. "We had the blessing of the priest. How could I guess the devil could reach us through that wall of glory?"

From the walk, Katerina recognized one of them. Dimitri. A part of her said, No, not Dimitri, not the hero, the man who should be king. Another part of her said, Of course Dimitri. Who else? If he was in the plot, then it was his plot. Even if he didn't begin it, once in he would lead it. Ivan's danger was worse than she had feared. For in the back of her mind, she had counted on Dimitri being on the king's side.

Unless by plotting to kill Ivan he was on the king's side. Or thought he was.

Katerina began crying harder, but pretending less. She reached out and drew the shutter closed. The moment the crowd could no longer see her, her tears stopped. "I have to get out of here now, with no one following me."

"Good luck," said Sergei. "Dressed like that, you can hide just about as easily as you can stuff a rainbow into a pot."

"Almost I wish I could wear your clothes."

"Men's clothing?"

"It wouldn't work," said Katerina. "There's only one priest in Taina, and there's no way I can pass for Father Lukas."

"So what will you do?"

"Ask you to turn your back, while I change into something less becoming."

Sergei complied, trying not to imagine what the rustling sounds he was hearing might mean, or what the sight of her might be at any given moment. Katerina was not and never could be for him; there was no point in thinking thoughts that would excite desires that could never be satisfied. It would only make his life taste more bitter, to dwell on the sweetness that could not be his.

"Thank you," she said. "We can go now."

Sergei turned and saw her in her simplest dress, the one she wore when she helped with the harvest. Every year she bound sheaves with the best of them, her fingers as deft as any woman's at tying them off, and Sergei had often seen this dress covered in straw and dust. No matter. She was as beautiful in this simple clothing as she ever was in the more royal finery.

She opened the door for him.

"But it's my place to open the latch for you, princess," he said.

"I'm on my way to help my lord escape from this land," she said. "What do I care about courtesy?"

Sergei followed her out the door. "Then the marriage," he said softly. "It's real, despite all?"

"I'll have no other," she said. "My word is given."

At that moment, they heard a tumult outside. Shouting. Much running.

"I think perhaps I heard someone shout your husband's name," said Sergei.

Katerina stopped, crossed herself. "Holy Mother, make me fleet of foot," she said. Then, hiking up her skirts, she scampered down the corridor, into the great room, and out the door.

Ivan thought everything was going so well. Father Lukas might be humorless and rigid about religion, but when it came to politics, he knew how to be flexible. Why was Ivan surprised? There was a reason why Christianity thrived in the barbarian kingdoms of Europe, and this was it: The missionary priests knew how to make themselves useful, how to put royalty into their debt. Katerina wanted to save the life of this preposterous husband she acquired through witchcraft? Very well, Father Lukas would do his part.

They headed westward through the village, toward the gap in the woods where Katerina had first shown him the village. A few children ran along, chattering to the priest, calling out to him. Many people waved a greeting. But one little girl, snot-lipped and covered with dirt, paid no attention to Father Lukas. She came right up to Ivan, tugged at his robe, tagged along beside him.

"What's wrong with your foot?" she demanded.

Ivan did not want to speak. He didn't want anybody hearing that his voice was not Sergei's. Ivan's accent wasn't bad—but it wasn't native, either, not in proto-Slavonic.

"I said, what's wrong with your foot!"

Father Lukas came to his rescue. "His foot has been twisted from birth."

"Sergei's foot is twisted, but this one's just pretending!" cried the little girl at top volume.

"That is Sergei. Now hush and go away."

"That's not Sergei," said the little girl. "Sergei always calls me dewdrop and warns the fairies not to switch me for a changeling."

Ivan cursed silently. There was no way he could have prepared himself for this.

"He did not speak to you because he has taken a vow of silence," said Father Lukas.

Ivan welcomed the lie. Everyone was probably going to hell, now—who was left who hadn't lied today?—but it was decent of Father Lukas to do it.

"He did not!" said the girl. She began running around, shouting at any villager who might listen. "The new man is wearing Sergei's clothes! The new man is wearing Sergei's clothes!"

People began paying attention. People weren't the problem, though. It was the knights of the druzhina they were trying to avoid. Ivan had not seen any along the way, though with his head in a hood and his face downcast, it's not as though he had much of a view.

Father Lukas quickened his pace. Ivan could hear adults now, asking questions. "Is it Katerina's husband? Is it the new man? What's he doing? Where's he going?" Some even called out to Father Lukas. "Who's that with you, Father Lukas?" In answer, Father Lukas walked even more quickly.

And then, abruptly, he stopped. Ivan bumped into him.

Father Lukas's voice was so soft that it took a moment for Ivan to realize he was speaking. "Now would be a good time to run."

"What?" asked Ivan.

Father Lukas's answer was much louder this time. "Cast off the hood, hitch up the skirts, and run, you fool!"

Ivan cast off the hood and saw Dimitri and two other druzhinniks jogging toward him, weapons in hand.

"It is the interloper!" said one of them.

"Running away!"

"Deserting King Matfei and Princess Katerina."

Ivan recognized this as an attempt to justify in advance the unfortunate necessity of killing the traitorous Ivan. He started to run for the woods, but his legs got caught up in the skirts and he fell on his face in the grass. He might have got right up, but Father Lukas was trying to help him by gripping his robe and pulling in the wrong direction. Ivan couldn't get purchase with his hands to push himself up, and Lukas hadn't the strength to stand him up by main strength.

Finally, with the pounding of the knights' feet almost upon them, Ivan simply raised his arms straight above his head and slipped out of the robe, the linen undergarment and all. Once again, he was as naked as the day he arrived there. Only this time he didn't give a damn about that. At least he was leathershod—he'd be able to run much better this time without every pebble or twig slicing at the bottoms of his feet.

"Look at the coward!" said one man.

"Father Lukas has plucked his feathers—now to get him on the spit for roasting!" cried Dimitri.

But their good cheer evaporated quickly when they realized that Ivan was twice as fast as any of them, laden as they were with weapons, and untrained for speed. He reached the woods long before they were even close. Good thing none of them has a bow, he thought.

An arrow twanged into the trunk of a tree ten feet from his head.

All right, so they had a bowman. Just not a good one.

Ivan dodged among the trees, taking care to put as many trunks as possible between himself and his pursuers.

"He won't get far in the woods!" shouted Dimitri. "Where are the dogs!"

The tumult continued, and Ivan heard some crashing in the underbrush far behind him, but he couldn't make out any more words.

Maybe the king would call off the search before it got too far, Ivan thought as the branches again whipped and sliced his skin. He couldn't go full speed in the woods. Worse yet, he had no idea where he was going. Katerina had not led him on a straight path coming here, and everything looked different in this direction, anyway. It was uphill, too—but Ivan was used to that on his daily runs back in Tantalus. In the future, to train for this, he'd have to run naked with two assistants alongside, whipping him with wands and switches every few seconds. He wondered if there was any chance of making that an Olympic event.

Katerina came outside the house to find the village in an uproar, everybody running toward the west, calling out that Katerina's husband was running away. Katerina did not join the general pursuit. Instead, she took a circuitous route among the houses, entering the woods well to the south of where Ivan had gone in.

Sergei watched her go, unable to keep up, and not particularly interested in trying. It was all out of his hands.

Still, he was curious, so he limped along the grassy main street until he came upon Father Lukas, who was grumpily coming the other way. "Foolish business anyway," he said. "That snot-faced little girl you call 'dewdrop' caught on that it wasn't you in the robe and wouldn't shut up about it."

"Dewdrop?" said Sergei. "Dewdrop is dead. She died when I was only nine years old."

Father Lukas glared at him for a moment; then the expression gave way to something else. Fear? Not Father Lukas, surely.

"Never mind," said Sergei. "We know the Widow uses us like sheep, shearing us or skinning us at her pleasure."

"A girl about this tall?" asked Father Lukas, still trying to make sense of things.

"Yes, yes," said Sergei. "But it wasn't her. There's been no resurrection, Father Lukas. It was the Widow, as I said."

"Making us see a little girl?"

"Why not? She showed herself as an old woman before she burned down the church this morning," said Sergei. "She wants this Ivan dead, and she's going to keep trying till he's filleted and roasted."

"Not those stories of her eating her captives again," said Father Lukas.

"They say she does."

"Who says?" said Father Lukas. "Who is it who saw her eating, but she didn't eat them!" He held out the robe and undergarment Ivan had been wearing. "Now you can have these back."

"What's Ivan wearing?" asked Sergei.

"What Adam wore in the garden," said Father Lukas. "What Noah wore when he was drunk in his tent after the flood. What David wore when he danced in triumph in the streets after his victory."

"Naked come we into the world," said Sergei, getting into the spirit of things, "and naked we go out of it."

"Well," said Father Lukas, "naked except for boots."

Sergei took the clothing. "The robe is mine, all right," he said. "But the linen is his."

"He's running at full speed through the woods," said Father Lukas. "You're welcome to follow him and return it." With that, Father Lukas passed him and headed back toward the king's house.

Father Lukas had been joking, but Sergei liked the idea better the more he thought of it. But there was no point in following Ivan—he'd be running, and dodging all pursuers. The princess, however, would be dodging no one—if a druzhinnik met her in the woods they'd do her no harm, and she was still under the protection of the spells that had counteracted Baba Yaga's curse in the first place, so she had nothing to fear from that source, either.

Sergei left the street and wandered among the houses till he found the place where Katerina had gone into the woods. It was a plain enough path; she had not departed from it. Nor was she moving all that quickly. When she stopped at the rendezvous place, Sergei wouldn't be all that far behind her.

It was near dark, and though the moon was almost full, not that much light penetrated to the lower reaches of the forest. Ivan was hopelessly lost, but it had been a couple of hours since he last heard dogs barking or men calling out to each other. So he was safe enough. Unless Baba Yaga sent the bear back for a second try. Or he fell off a cliff in the darkness. Or he sprained his ankle and died of exposure trying to crawl back to civilization.

Civilization? Yes, that's what Taina was, by contemporary standards. Men with swords who had no qualms about killing a man and expected to have no punishment for it—it was civilization in the same sense that some drug dealer's turf was civilized. What was the difference between Dimitri and some thug with an Uzi?

Not fair. Dimitri lived in a different time. If he were in the U.S. in 1992 and wanted Ivan out of the way, he'd hire a lawyer and sue. Had he been in Kiev in 1970, he'd have whispered a hint to the KGB. He wielded a sword here in Taina because that's what men used to settle quarrels.

Why am I giving the man who wants to kill me the benefit of the doubt? Screw him. Let him break his ankle and fall off a cliff and get eaten by a bear. Let him marry the princess and become the king. Come to think of it, that's probably what Dimitri had in mind. He'd make the better husband. It should have been him all along. If I died right now it would be better for everybody.

The hell it would. It would be worse for me, and selfish as it might be, I want to live. I even want to go home.

The path, such as it was, went straight, but Ivan turned to the left and slid down a rather steep slope. Why did I do that? he wondered. Why did I choose that way? It came to him that for the past hour, he had been following, not the line of least resistance, as he had before, but a fairly straight line toward...

Toward Katerina. The hairs tied around his wrist. She was calling him. He should have known that she'd anticipate his lack of skill in the woods.

It wasn't long after that before he followed his "intuition" into a wide, moon-washed clearing, perfectly round, with a pit in the middle of it, and a pedestal rising in the middle of the pit. Katerina was waiting for him in the moonlight.

Ivan looked around to see if anyone else was there.

"No one," she said. "The place is hidden from anyone but us, because the bridges are ours. Even the Widow can't see, though she put me here, and her bear to guard me. If she couldn't see here, who else would ever find me?"

Ivan hardly listened. He was trying not to be shy of his nakedness. Then he laughed at the impulse. He had nothing to hide from her now. Not only had she seen him before, she was now his wife.

He had almost reached her when he saw movement behind her, at the edge of the woods. "If this place is hidden," he said, "who's that?"

She turned, startled, afraid. "Come out!" she said. "Show yourself!"

A shadow emerged from the wood, moving with a strange, rolling gait. When it reached the moonlight, it turned into Sergei.

Ivan called out in greeting, but Katerina was annoyed. "How did you find this place?"

"I followed you," he said.

Ivan laughed. "So much for this place being hidden."

"It is. Sergei must have a right to be here."

Ivan shrugged. "I don't know how these things work."

"I'll be gone soon enough," said Sergei. "I only brought these for Ivan." He held out the wool robe and linen tunic Ivan had been wearing.

"But that's your robe," Ivan said.

"I'm not naked."

"Trade me, at least," said Ivan. "Your own proper robe for you, and I'll wear the one that Father Lukas burned holes in today." He pulled the tunic on over his head. The cloth snagged on the rough and broken skin of his chest and thighs, and his wounds stung as the linen brushed them. But it was good to be dressed again. "Thank you, Sergei," he said.

In the meantime, Sergei had doffed Father Lukas's castoff clothing, and Ivan pulled it on. It smelled of smoke. Burnt wool—a nasty odor. Wool and fire and something else, too. Horsehair. Was there horsehair woven into the robe?

No, of course not. Father Lukas wears a hair shirt. The private penance of those who feared they were not humble enough. Ivan rather liked the fact that at least Father Lukas knew his own primary sin and was trying to deal with it.

Sergei wriggled inside his own clothes, clearly pleased to have them back.

The comedy was over. Everybody was going to be back where they belonged. Ivan had no idea what he would tell people back in America about this. Or even what he'd tell Cousin Marek. I went for a run in the woods, and I got lost for a few weeks, and here I am...

A few weeks? Eleven hundred years had passed while Katerina lay on that pedestal, and yet it had taken only a few months in Taina. If that proportion held true, even the weeks he had spent here could be a century or more. His family might be gone, the world might be so changed that he'd be unable to function in it...

Get a grip. Don't borrow trouble. The pedestal is one thing, a magic place. The rules of time might be identical, or time might flow in unpredictable ways. There was nothing he could do about it.

Katerina took him by the hand. At once he could see the bridge to the pedestal—her bridge. She led him across. Sergei stood, watching them, mesmerized.

"How do you do it?" he said. "Walking through the air?"

"There's a bridge," said Ivan. "But only Katerina can see it. Katerina and whomever she holds by the hand."

"Where will you go?" asked Sergei.

"Home," said Ivan. "I'll go home, and Katerina will return to you, and—"

"I'll do no such thing," she said.

They reached the pedestal. She did not let go of his hand.

"What do you mean?" asked Ivan.

"I'm coming with you," she said.

"You can't do that."

"Why can't I? Hold my hand and lead me across your bridge."

"But your people need you."

"If I stay, then I'm a bride abandoned by her husband with the marriage unconsummated. The Pretender will be down our throats in a few days. But if I go with you, then I'm a bride off on a journey with her new husband. Let the old hag wonder whether or when the marriage becomes complete."

"I can't hear you!" Sergei called. "Are you talking about leaving us, princess?"

"I'm traveling with my husband, to visit his parents," said Katerina.

"What will I tell the others?"

"Tell them that. It's no secret. Tell everyone."

"What about this place? Can I show them this place?"

"No," said Katerina. "Tell them it's enchanted and you can't find it again without me to guide you."

"But I could find it quite easily," he said.

"I have no doubt you could," said Katerina. "But if you tell them it's enchanted, they'll believe you and won't press you to say more."

"You mean... lie?"

Katerina burst out laughing. So did Ivan. Sergei smiled shyly. They had liked his joke.

"You've been a good friend to me," said Ivan.

"And you to me," said Sergei. "But what will happen to the parchments? Where did you hide them, princess?"

"In my room. In the rag chest, where no man would touch it."

Sergei didn't like thinking about what women used those rags for.

"But as soon as you can," Katerina said, "you must get them and bring them here. To this enchanted place."

Sergei winced at the thought of actually rummaging through her intimate things. But there was a hopeful meaning to the assignment as well.

"So you will come back. Won't you?" Sergei asked.

"Yes," said Katerina. "If I can."

"And you, Ivan?"

"What for?" asked Ivan. "I'm no good at living here."

Sergei couldn't argue with him. Neither could Katerina.

"All the same," said Sergei. "I hope you do come back."

"Maybe," said Ivan. "Maybe long enough to find out where those manuscripts will be hidden. So I can discover them in my own land."

It still made no sense to Sergei. He shook his head and watched as Ivan walked to the edge of the pedestal and seemed to step off into nothing.

Ivan disappeared. All at once, the moment he set foot on the invisible bridge, he was gone. And a moment later, as the princess followed him, she was gone, too.

Sergei stood there for a few moments, gazing at the place where they had been. This was serious magic here. Not like the spells and curses that were commonplace in the village, and which didn't work half the time anyway. To make two people disappear in the moonlight—it made Sergei wonder. If I had magic power like this, it wouldn't matter that I have a crippled foot. And for a moment he imagined himself standing before Baba Yaga, the two of them on a great stone between two mighty armies, facing each other, five feet apart. She would raise her hand and cast a spell at him, chanting unspeakable words, and he would laugh, wave off her pathetic powers, and utter a single word of power. No, not a word, even. He would trace the shape of a rune in the air, and she would turn into a goose and rise honking into the air, terrified, confused, filled with a sudden inexplicable longing to fly south forever...

Just a dream, and a foolish one at that. Sergei was God's servant now, with no powers of his own, only the power to obey. But for a few moments he had been part of great events. Grand adventures. None of the boys who had grown up with him, with their two equal feet, their smooth walk, their level stance, none of them had been trusted to stand here with the princess and her husband. None of them had been given the task of writing down all the old stories, so they could live on in another time and place.

The future will be full of men like Ivan. Someday, a thousand years from now, that's what Ivan said. A world where men can live by reading and writing, by talking and thinking. A world where a man like me could be something other than a slops boy for a foreign priest.

He turned and walked away from the pit, back along the path he had taken. The night was chilly, and he was tired. When he got back there would be questions. There would be no concealing his own involvement in the escape—Ivan had been wearing his clothes, and now Sergei was returning with those same clothes on his back. But Dimitri would not lift a hand against him. There was no honor in hitting a cripple. And Sergei was not his own man. What could he do but obey? There would be no blame for him. And some would think him something of a hero, in his own small way. He was the one that Ivan and Katerina had trusted to see them fly away into another world.

Baba Yaga

She came home in a foul temper. Bear had expected it, so he knew to be away for the first few hours. When he finally figured it was safe—the howling had stopped, the birds were flying normally, and the wolves weren't whimpering anymore—he shambled back into the castle and on into his wife's fine warm house, which was all the warmer now, since she had broken up a considerable amount of furniture and thrown it on the fire.

"That's very wasteful," he said.

"Shut up."

"You were an old woman today and started a fire, and you were a little girl and started a manhunt in the forest, and it all came to nothing."

"She's gone!" cried Baba Yaga. "Out of my power! What did those bitches do to my curse? They left a bridge to his world. They left a bridge behind, and she crossed over!"

"So what will you do? She's gone. What's stopping you now from having Taina?"

"She's not dead, that's what's stopping me. She's not dead and everyone knows she's not dead. They'll go off and make a baby where I can't reach them, and come home with an heir, and then if I attack the whole Kievan league will come down on me and you will betray me and it's not fair!"

Baba Yaga always said that it wasn't fair, but to Bear it looked like things had worked out pretty evenly. Nobody had what they wanted. Baba Yaga didn't have Taina, but neither did Katerina. Equality of suffering—what could be more fair than that?

"Well, they can't get away from me that easily," said Baba Yaga.

"Oh?"

"I'll follow them. I'll go into wherever the hell he came from, and I'll tear it apart till I find them."

"Be careful," said Bear. "You don't know what wizards might be waiting for you there."

"If he's a sample of what they've got in that world, then I have nothing to fear."

"If you can get there."

"If those meddling do-gooders can make a pathway to his world, so can I. It will take a little research, but I'll find my way. Besides, I know her scent. I can follow her anywhere. Through time and space, wherever she is—I have the taste of her in my mouth. I'll eat the little bitch for breakfast."

Bear yawned. He had heard all this before.

"I will! Don't think I won't!"

"Whatever," said Bear. "Unfortunately, I'll no doubt be here when you get back."

"It won't take me long," she muttered. "I'll figure out where they went, I'll find a way to get there, and I'll have her back here in a week. Then you can feast on womanflesh! How's that, my beautiful Bear?"

"Fish are better. But I never interfere with my wife in the kitchen."

"Very funny," said Baba Yaga. "As if I cooked."

"As if I would ever trust anything you gave me to eat," said Bear.

"Sometimes you do," she said.

"You always poison me, though."

"If I poisoned you, you'd never know it, because you'd be dead."

"Just a little poison. Every damn time, it's some new potion or powder. I never know if it's going to be dysentery or a headache or impotence or priapism."

"You sound as if I did nothing but abuse you."

"What else?" said the Bear. "You think I don't know why you haven't killed me? Why I'm still around for you to do these things to? Making me run around that pit for a thousand years, for instance! Losing an eye, for instance!"

"He did that. I'll serve him for your supper, too."

"The only reason you didn't kill me long ago is because you can't."

"It's because I love you. And my enchantment of you isn't all bad. You like having the power of speech well enough."

"Gods don't need to speak. They only need to desire, and they have it."

"You wish."

"You've harnessed me and you're using my power somehow and I can't even hate you for it, because whenever I think of how much rage I ought to feel, my whole being is suffused with warmth and passion and lust for your miserable wizened old body."

"You should be a poet, the way you bandy words of love."

"I just thought you'd be interested to know that I've figured it all out."

"It took you long enough, but you are a bear, after all."

"I think I've figured it out before, and then you give me something to make me forget."

"Memory is so fickle," said Baba Yaga. "Just keep loving me, my pet."

"Oh, I do," said Bear. "With all my bitter heart, I love you."

"And you promise that you'll miss me when I'm gone to that place where Ivan and Katerina are hiding from me?"

"I'll smell your scent on the bedclothes and go mad from missing you."

"Give me a kiss then. And come to bed with me. You notice I didn't burn the bed. So you see I do love you."

Bear shook his great head back and forth. "Bed's not burnt, no."

"Then let's burn it now. A bonfire of passion. Many a woman has had her triumphs under the bedclothes, but I... I have tamed a bear! I have slept with Winter and I have made him warm!"

Bear growled a little, but he did as he was bidden.

10

Old Gods

There is always a symmetry in magical things, a balance, so Katerina well knew what to expect when she stepped off the invisible bridge into the land of Ivan's birth. Nothing could be carried across the bridge; only what you already had would be restored to you. So yes, of course, the fire-holed priestly robe disappeared from Ivan's body and was replaced by the clothing he had been wearing on that fateful day when he fought his way to the place of her enchantment and kissed her awake. And yes, she felt the cool breeze of evening all over her body, for her own clothing had vanished, to be replaced by nothing, for she had never been in this place and had no vestment here.

The shame of it made her breathless for a moment. True, Ivan was her husband; but since he did not love her and would never come to her as husband now, she felt no stirring of anticipation to soften the shock of being exposed before a man. A woman's nakedness was a precious thing, to be protected until it was given as a gift to her husband. Or, in this case, to her people, for was it not for their sake that she had done all these things? Made a vow to this stranger, and crossed this bridge, and now exposed herself to any eye?

Ivan laughed.

In that moment she hated him, that he would laugh at her.

"Oh, you're angry?" he said.

She did not like the taunting tone of his voice, and turned her back on him.

"I wasn't laughing at you," said Ivan, "I was laughing at fate. The—" He searched for a word. "—malice of fate."

No, she was not going to hide from him, as if she had cause for shame. She turned to face him, though she could not stop herself from covering her breasts with her arms. "I'm naked and you're laughing," she said.

"I'm not laughing now," he said. "But it's childish of you to be angry at me. You laughed at my nakedness."

"I did not," she said. Though the moment she said it, she could not remember if she had or not. But why shouldn't she? "You're a man. Men are naked whenever they want."

"Not in my world," said Ivan. "In my world, it's women who are more often naked. But I'm sorry that I laughed."

He began unfastening his shirt. What, did he think she'd feel better if he joined her in nakedness? Or did he think this was a good moment to consummate their marriage vows?

Neither. He shrugged the shirt off his shoulders, pulled the sleeves over his wrists, and then offered the thing to her.

"And what would I do with this?"

"Wear it," he said.

Was he insane? Had he learned nothing? "I'm a Christian woman," she said. "What you suggest is too wicked to imagine."

He rolled his eyes, as if she were an annoying child. "In your world, you were right, and I was wrong to wear women's clothing. It was better to be naked."

"Then why are you offering me this?"

"Because this isn't your world. And here, it's no sin for a woman to wear men's clothing. In fact, it's done all the time, and it means nothing. Christian women do it and no one thinks ill of them. A woman puts on her husband's shirt and we think it's charming. That it shows love and intimacy between them."

She was horrified to think that Christianity had come to such a pass. "And does the husband put on his wife's dress?"

He looked embarrassed. "Well, actually, no. I mean, some do, but we think of that as... strange."

"The world may be insane, but I am not," she said. She turned her back on him again. "Wherever we're going, let's go. The day is late, and I'll be cold if I spend the night in the forest."

"Katerina," he said. His tone of voice was one she hadn't heard from him before. Angry. No, masterful.

"What?" she said.

"Look at me," he said.

She turned to face him, letting her own anger show. "What is this? Are you claiming the right of a husband? Or do you forget that even as your wife, I'm the princess of Taina?"

"I'm forgetting nothing. I'm claiming nothing." But his tone did not become meek again. "You're the one forgetting something. This is not your world. There is no Taina here, and no princesses. Only a naked woman and a man with clothing on. And in this world, people will suspect only two possible explanations. One is that he has raped her. The other is that she's a whore."

The insult was unbearable. Without even thinking, she slapped him.

"Oh, good," he said, not even seeming to register the sting of the slap, though his cheek turned red. "So you've decided to make them think I've raped you. What will happen, of course, is that I'll be taken to... I'll be taken away and punished. And since you don't speak the language here, and can't prove who you are, and if they do understand you you'll have these wild stories about being an enchanted princess, I can bet you'll be put in a... pen for crazy people. And that's the end of the story."

She had no idea what he was talking about. A pen for crazy people? A man taken away for rape? Either he married the woman or was killed for it by the woman's family.

She hadn't really thought of it before—though she should have, she saw that now. His bizarre behavior when he arrived in Taina wasn't a private madness of his own. He came from a mad world, and by crossing the bridge, she had entered into madness. The rules were different here; that's why he came to Taina with strange expectations.

But how much did a Christian woman have to compromise just because she was in a strange place? Her first instinct was: Compromise nothing. God's law is not changed, just because a woman travels from one place to another. It is still a shame for a woman to be naked, still a worse shame for her to put a man's clothing upon her.

And yet... if he told the truth, what then? She was not a whore; should she behave in a way that made people think that she was? That was a kind of lying, wasn't it? And he had not raped her—indeed, he could not rape her, for the vows had been said, and it was his right to use her body as he saw fit. So he was the opposite of a rapist, he was a kind husband who had not forced his reluctant wife, and he even now respected her decency by not eyeing her naked body even though it was on plain display for him. Instead, he was offering her a way to cover herself.

"Adam and Eve covered themselves with leaves," said Ivan.

"That would keep us warm for a night," she said. "But we couldn't walk far."

"They covered themselves to hide their nakedness," said Ivan. "They covered themselves with whatever they had available. Here is a piece of cloth with sleeves for your arms and a way to fasten it closed across your body. It may once have been used as clothing by another person, but that person renounces it. It is not his clothing. It is not clothing at all. Here... it's garbage." He dropped the shirt on the ground. "Look!" he said. "A piece of cloth! I wonder what it could be? Look, Katerina, maybe you could use it as a kind of gown."

Was he mocking her with this childish pretense? "Do you think I'm so stupid as to be deceived?"

His face flashed again with anger, but he controlled it, kept his voice calm and measured. "Listen, Katerina. To me, the idea of walking naked into your village was the most shameful, humiliating thing I could imagine. You could not have found a better way of debasing me, in my own eyes. But you told me that this is how it had to be done, in your world, and I obeyed, no matter how hard it was for me. I trusted you."

"This is how the devil talks," she said coldly. "I didn't tell you that you couldn't wear my hoose 'in my world,' I said a decent man wouldn't even try to wear a hoose at all!"

"In your world," he said again, insisting, his voice angrier. "In my world, a decent man would not let his wife—no, any woman that he respected—stand naked before others. It would be the most shameful thing you could do to me—again. Again, because you're always right and nobody else knows anything, again you are determined to shame me."

The vehemence of his tone shook her. "Do you, as my husband, command me to defile myself by wearing this shirt?"

He seemed to despair at this. "In my world a man doesn't command his wife, he persuades her. If he can."

"Then why are you raising your voice to me, if not to command?"

"I obeyed you, when you told me what to do in your world," he said. His voice was soft now, but no less intense.

"Of course you did. I'm the princess of Taina."

"In my world, princesses can stamp their pretty little feet and issue commands to their heart's content, but the only people who obey them are their paid servants. Common people like me pay no attention at all."

These words frightened her even more than his immoral claims about women wearing men's clothing. "Is the world turned upside down, then?"

"At least in our world we don't have witches threatening to take over a kingdom unless the princess marries a complete stranger who fights a bear and jumps a moat and kisses her awake."

She didn't understand how a world could even exist where people had no respect for authority, where women wore men's clothing and husbands did not command their wives. And she was cold. The sun was behind the trees now, and in the shade the breeze began to have teeth to it.

She bent over and picked up the shirt. She tried not to weep, but could not contain the tears of shame that came to her eyes. She put it on like a hoose. The sleeves hung longer than her arms. She did not know how to fasten the big heavy buttons, and couldn't keep the sleeves from falling over her fingers as she tried.

He came to her then and buttoned the shirt, his hands awkward between her breasts, at her belly; but he was gentle, and he seemed genuinely sorry for her tears. He tried once to wipe them away with his hand, but by reflex she shied away from him. He withdrew his hand at once, as if she had slapped him again.

"It's all right," she said. "You can touch me. It's your right."

"It's my right," he said, "to touch a woman who loves me and trusts me and gives herself to me freely, and not just because of some ancient witch's curse or her duty to her country."

She could not help thinking: This is not the way Dimitri would have acted, if he were my husband. She honored Ivan for the difference.

He fastened the last button, his hands brushing against her groin, but only incidentally, without any intimate intent; but that very detachment on his part, that lack of interest, made his touch all the more disturbing. She shuddered.

"Sorry," he murmured. "I've never dressed a woman before."

When he stood up, he was blushing. Now she saw that it wasn't weakness in him, to be so sensitive to shame. It was kindness. He cared about her, about how she was feeling. Just as he had cared for Lybed. Just as he had tried his best to do his duty and become a soldier for her sake. Katerina tried to imagine a druzhinnik blushing for any reason. The only time their faces turned red was when they were full of drink, or when they had worked themselves into a sweat on the practice field.

Ivan began to roll up her sleeves. He did this more deftly than he had done the buttoning. Soon her hands were free.

"If you had done this first," she said, "I could have—"

"I know," he said. "But I didn't think of it till after. Let's just add it to the long list of stupid mistakes I've made."

The job done, he stepped away from her. He looked at her face for a moment, but what he saw there must have displeased him, for he turned his back and walked to the edge of the pit and looked down.

What had he seen in her face? All she felt was fear, uncertainty. She was wearing a shameful thing and trying not to act ashamed. Was that what made him turn away?

She could see that Ivan was trying to be a good man. He was not a devil, nor a servant of Satan. She had seen his actions long enough to know that he was almost priestlike in his gentleness. He had never used a sword. He was peaceable as a lamb. Wasn't that more Christian than to be a druzhinnik, spending his days preparing to kill other men?

How could she, a Christian, have failed to see such Christlike attributes in this stranger? Jesus said to judge not, lest ye be judged. How unjustly have I judged him, again and again?

"Ivan," she said softly.

He did not turn to face her. "What," he said, his voice dispirited.

She had to know if he really was the man of peace she had just imagined him to be. "When you fought the bear—had you ever fought an enemy before?"

He did not answer.

She asked again. "Was it the first time you ever used a weapon, when you flung that stone and put out the bear's eye?"

He turned on her, and to her shock there were tears on his cheeks. He made no effort to brush them away, and he sounded, not sad, but angry when he answered her. "You're right," he said, "I'm a contemptible weakling, I'm not strong and brave like the men in your father's druzhina, you're right to despise me."

She would have interrupted him, told him that her question had not implied criticism of him; but he gave her no chance to speak.

"I never fought an enemy," he said. "I never held a weapon in my hands, and I never intended to, and I still never intend to, now that I'm not in Taina anymore. And if, for some reason, I ever did have to take up a weapon and use it against an enemy, there is one thing I can promise: I would not be doing it to impress you with how manly I am, because I don't give a rat's ass what you think of me."

She had never heard anyone curse by referring to the anus of a rat before. It was a loathsome thought, and her face showed her disgust.

"Whatever you may think of me," he said, "and however you may hate wearing that shirt, I know where there's a warm house and a clean bed, and plenty of food and water, so I'd suggest you follow me. Princess."

And to think that for a moment there, I was actually imagining him to be a little bit like Jesus.

But he knew the way to the house and the fire, to the food and the drink. And he was her husband, and she knew her duty. He had dressed her in rags of shame, and now she would come and bear her shame among his people. She stepped toward him. He turned his back on her and strode off into the woods. She followed him. Only now and then did he glance back to make sure she was with him. She always was.

Katerina's nakedness might be somewhat covered, but her appearance would certainly excite comment if she were seen. Besides, her feet were bare, and the road, so smooth to the tires of a car or the soles of Ivan's American running shoes, would be rough to feet more accustomed to meadows or the leafmeal forest floor. So they stayed in the woods, within sight of the road, except where they had to cross a stream or avoid a steep hill.

Katerina said nothing—never asked for help, and her breath never grew labored—so he had to glance back to be sure she was still with him. Only now, when her body was covered, did he allow himself to think of the sight of her body, of the electric moments when his hand brushed against her. My wife, he thought. By right, the woman whose body I should know, the woman who should know me. Each glance at her, dressed loosely in his shirt, the cloth sliding across her skin as she moved, filled his imagination and fed his desire for her.

It also fed the bitterness in his heart. Of course she was being unfair to him. What difference did that make? In games of love there is no umpire to call foul. By twentieth-century standards he wasn't a bad guy, but Katerina had no way of knowing that. He could see her beauty and wit and nobility, while easily forgiving the flaws that came from her culture; but she could see only his flaws and forgave nothing, and that was that.

He had no business loving her in the first place. It was Ruth he was engaged to, Ruth he should have married. How was he going to explain this to Ruth? Something came up when I was vacationing in the ninth century, and I married this girl who hates me. In 1992 we'll celebrate our eleven-hundred-and-second anniversary. Oh, and she doesn't speak any language now spoken on earth, and I had to become a Christian to marry her, and... you understand, don't you, Ruth?

The marriage hadn't been consummated. It could still be annulled, couldn't it?

Of course it couldn't. Baba Yaga still threatened Taina, and was held at bay only by the fact that Ivan was married to Katerina.

Only now, walking alongside this modern road, Taina already seemed less real. How could something he did now in the twentieth century have any effect on the distant past?

He glanced back again. She was still behind him. Still beautiful. Still the woman whom he had come to admire and love. Without him, whom would she speak to? Where would she go? The only merciful thing would be to annul the marriage and take her back to the pedestal and leave her where he found her. You cross your bridge, baby, and I'll cross mine. Status quo ante. Have a nice life.

Only it wouldn't be a nice life, if she went back to Taina without a husband.

I'm stuck.

He heard a truck engine, the indescribable rattling noises that can only be produced by Soviet-made vehicles. It was coming up the road toward them, the wrong direction for him to ask for a lift.

He glanced back again and, for the first time since he had known her, saw Katerina frozen with fear.

"She's coming for us," said Katerina.

"What?"

"The Pretender," she said.

"She can't make a noise like that. It's only a... truck." He had no choice but to use the modern Russian word, gruzovik; there was no proto-Slavonic equivalent.

His use of a strange word didn't help much, but his utter lack of apprehension did seem to have a calming affect. He took her shoulder and led her off into the brush by the side of the road. By the time the truck came along, they were invisible to the driver. Ivan kept his arm around Katerina, and she stayed close to him. It was sweet to have her body beside his, to feel her—well, technically, his—shirt pressed against his bare chest. He wondered fleetingly if Dimitri would stand so calmly in the face of the hideous monster now coming up the road. But that was a cheap thought, and he despised himself for thinking it. He was not brave to face the coming of the truck. He knew there was no danger. But a druzhinnik showed courage in the face of enemies that Ivan could never dream of fighting off.

When the truck rattled by, she put an arm around his waist and retreated deeper into the crook of his arm. Let there be a hundred such trucks, he thought.

"You saw the man inside," he said. "It's like a wagon, but instead of horses or oxen to pull it, there's a... fire inside. An oven. Not for cooking. An oven that makes the wagon roll."

"It was rolling uphill, and nothing pulled," she said. "Why did you lie to me?"

"Lie? When did I lie?"

"You said there was no magic in your world."

"This isn't magic. This is... a tool. Like a scythe or a basket. A tool for doing work. The truck carries the man and whatever load he needs to bear. Just like a wagon. Only faster, and bigger loads, and the truck doesn't need to rest as often as a horse."

She put her free hand to her face, the fingers touching her forehead. Not covering her eyes, really. Just... hiding.

"It's gone now," he said. "There's nothing to fear."

She shook her head. "I'm ashamed," she said.

"Of what?"

"You were so foolish in our world," she said. "But now I see that I'm a fool in yours."

Well. This is progress. "Not a fool," he answered. "I learned as quickly as I could, and you'll do the same."

"I know of no spell to make a wagon move by itself. It would take the Widow herself to do such a thing."

"The Widow wouldn't want to make a truck like that" he said, even though he knew she wouldn't understand the joke.

"Gruzovik," she said, using the Russian word he had used for the truck.

"That's good," he said. "A new word."

"How many new words are there?" she asked.

"A lot," he answered.

"A hundred?"

Let's see, he thought. Toilet, vaccine, magazine, movie, television, bank, automatic teller machine—a triple threat!—hamburger, ice cream, pizza, shampoo, tampon... No, it was not his job to explain that to her.

Whose job was it, then? What woman who spoke proto-Slavonic would be able to instruct her on how to unwrap it and insert it and...

If he had to explain it, she was going to learn about sanitary napkins. It's not like she was going to wear a bikini anytime soon.

What am I doing? What am I in for?

She stirred under his arm. "We should go on before it gets dark," she said.

"Yes, of course," he replied. "I'm sorry, I... I don't know how to begin teaching you the new words. I'm not even sure I should try, because if you go home with me to my family's house, most people don't speak Russian."

She snorted at the mention of the Scandinavian Rus'.

"I mean the language of the word gruzovik. They speak another language there, and a gruzovik is called 'truck.' "

"Truck," she said. She could not shape the English word very well.

"Never mind," he said. "Plenty of time."

But as they continued to walk toward Cousin Marek's house, he began to realize how impossible everything was going to be. He couldn't take her to America for the simple reason that she had no passport and no way to get one. There were no birth certificates in the ninth century, and it wouldn't matter if there were, no one would believe the date on it anyway. She did not exist, in fact. And the moment she opened her mouth, she would be branded as foreign, from some unidentifiable Slavic country, definitely in Ukraine illegally. However people in Taina might have regarded him with suspicion, they didn't assume he was a criminal because he talked strangely and arrived naked. It helped that it was the daughter of the head of state who led him into the village, of course, but... modern life was complicated.

If she couldn't go to America, neither could he stay here. His visa was not forever.

His visa.

How long had he been in Taina? Weeks, anyway. But when Katerina was asleep on that pedestal, a few months in Taina were eleven hundred years on this side of the chasm. Had he just pulled a Rip van Winkle stunt? Gone for a walk in the woods, and when he came back, twenty years had passed? A hundred?

No way could a Soviet-made gruzovik still be running after twenty years, let alone a hundred.

But even if he had disappeared for only the weeks that he was aware of having lived through, it must have caused terrible consternation here. Cousin Marek would have become alarmed by nightfall, and the next day there would have been a search. By now the search would be over, everyone convinced that he was dead somewhere in the forest. Mother and Father must be grieving, and Ruth. Would Ruth grieve? Of course she would, what a thing to doubt!

I have to explain. Gone for weeks, and when I come back, I have a girl with me who happens to be wearing nothing but my shirt.

Don't borrow trouble, he told himself. We have no choice but to go to Cousin Marek's house, and once we're there, with clothing, food, shelter, we'll figure out what to do next.

The sun was setting red behind them when they made the last turn and Cousin Marek's farm spread out before them like a Grant Wood painting. Ivan stopped for a moment, drinking in the familiar view. It had not been twenty years, that was certain, for nothing was changed.

"Taina," whispered Katerina.

She misses her home, thought Ivan.

"What have they done to Taina?"

"Taina is another time and place," he started to explain.

Then he looked again, as if with her eyes, and realized what had never crossed his mind until now: Cousin Marek's farm was on exactly the site of the village of Taina. His house was on the same spot as King Matfei's house.

In fact, estimating the positions of the two houses, Ivan realized that he had slept in about the same place in both. How could that happen? Mere coincidence? No one in Taina could have known where he slept in Cousin Marek's house. And yet they led him to the very spot.

It could not be. Impossible. And even if it was true, it was meaningless.

Ivan looked around for the high ground where the fort had been, with the practice field where he had been trained—or was it tortured?—by Dimitri. No building stood there now; it was a stand of trees, newish growth with lots of underbrush. But amid the clutter, were the outlines of the walls still there?

"Taina is gone," she said. "We failed. My people are destroyed." She was weeping.

"No, no," he said, pulling her to him and comforting her like a child, letting her cry against his chest. "Eleven centuries have passed. Cities rise and fall, and villages come and go, but it doesn't mean that the Pretender defeated your father, I promise you. If we went back and crossed the bridges, we'd see that nothing was changed. When I went to Taina, all of this disappeared and was replaced by your village. But it was still here when I crossed the bridge. Do you understand?"

She nodded, pulled away from him. "You understand these things," she said. "But to see the land with my father's house gone, replaced by this great castle."

"It's not a castle, it's just a house. We build taller houses in our time. Warmer ones, too. Let's go inside."

"This is your house?"

"My cousin's house. But Marek and Sophia have always made me as welcome as if I had been born here."

"Where is the village?"

"A long way from here, if you're walking. But not far by gruzovik."

"The servants live there?" She pointed.

"No, they keep birds there." Chicken wasn't part of the regular diet in Taina, and Ivan had never learned the word, if they even had one. "Like geese, only they don't roam free."

"To keep them safe from the foxes?"

"Yes," said Ivan. It occurred to him that the new henhouse Marek had shown him so proudly stood exactly where the church had been until it burned down yesterday.

No, it wasn't yesterday, it was this morning. His wedding morning. All of this in a single day? No wonder he was tired and hungry.

They came to the door and Ivan knocked.

The door was flung open so immediately that Ivan was momentarily frightened. Had Marek been watching at the window?

No, it was Sophia. "Vanya's back!" she called over her shoulder. Then she turned back to face Ivan, radiant with joy at seeing him. She opened her arms and was about to embrace him when she saw Katerina.

"What's this? What are you wearing? You must be freezing! And Itzak, you foolish boy, where is your—oh, she's wearing it. What was she wearing before she was wearing your—never mind, come in, get warm, get warm, time for stories in the kitchen, are you hungry? I have a big soup, I made plenty of borscht today, as if I knew you were coming, and cold, come in, don't dawdle."

Laughing, relieved at the welcome, Ivan ushered Katerina into the house. How much of Sophia's torrent of words did Katerina understand? She stayed close to him, her arm around him, as she looked around her at the wonders of the house.

He tried to see the room through her eyes. Dimly lighted by the setting sun through the windows, it was a mass of shadowy shapes, hummocky furniture, and vaguely reflective frames on the walls. A fireplace. A rug on the wooden floor. How did that feel on her bare feet, the varnished wood? Or maybe she was merely looking for the fire that was keeping this room so warm.

They came into the kitchen, and Katerina blinked against the brightness of the electric light.

"You keep a fire on the air," she said in awe.

Sophia stopped cold. "What accent is that?" she asked. "I can't place it."

"It's not an accent," said Ivan. "It's another language... you understood her?"

Sophia ignored his question. "It's not a fire, child, it's an electric light," she said to Katerina.

The word made no sense to the princess. She reached up toward the dangling light.

"Don't touch it," said Ivan. "It can burn your hand."

"But it's not a fire," said Katerina. "It's like a single drop of water, alive with light, and larger than any water droplet ever was."

Ivan could not resist impressing her further. He reached for the light switch, toggled it off. The room went almost fully dark, for the kitchen window faced east, the direction of darkness in the evening.

"Turn it on, foolish boy," said Sophia.

Ivan obeyed.

Katerina turned to him, her eyes full of wonder and consternation. "Why did you not do this in Taina, if you had this power?"

"I told you," said Ivan, "it's not my power. It's a tool." He showed her the switch, made her touch it, then turn the light off and on again.

"So the magic is here on the wall, for anyone to use," she said. "Who ever heard of witches sharing their power so readily?"

Ivan might have tried to explain more, though he was acutely aware of Sophia watching them, her eyes sharp with curiosity; but the conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Cousin Marek, freshly bathed after the day's work. "Vanya, you young fool, do you know how worried Sophia and I have been these three days since you went off in the woods and didn't come home?"

So it was only three days that he was gone?

He might have pondered more about the differing flow of time between Taina and the modern world, but he was distracted by Katerina. For upon seeing Cousin Marek's face, she sank to her knees and hid her face in her hands. "What's wrong?" Ivan asked her.

"You have brought me to the land of the gods," she said. "Are you a god yourself?"

"Gods?" asked Ivan. "What do you mean?"

"Does Jesus live here, too," she asked, "or is there another land where Christ and Mary live?"

"This is my cousin Marek," Ivan said. "He has a big voice and a big heart, and he's strong as an ox, but that doesn't make a god of him."

She looked at him as if he were an idiot. "You are his cousin? Why didn't you tell me?"

Ivan looked from Marek to Sophia. "She's saying that she thinks Cousin Marek is a god. I have no idea why she—"

But neither Marek nor Sophia was looking at Ivan or listening to his explanation. Instead they were looking at each other, with a very serious look on their faces. Without letting her gaze leave her husband's face, Sophia said, "Where did you find this girl, Vanya?"

"Lying asleep on a stone in the woods," Ivan said, not sure whether this was a good moment to tell the whole story.

"What's your name, child?" Cousin Marek asked Katerina. It took a moment for Ivan to realize that he was speaking to her in fluent, unaccented proto-Slavonic.

"Katerina," she said. "Daughter of King Matfei of Taina."

"Taina," said Marek. His face grew wistful. "I loved that place. But I stayed away too long." He took a step toward Katerina, reached out a hand to her. She took it, let him raise her up. "Matfei had a daughter. I saw her last when she was two years old, clinging to her father's leg when she met me. But she let go of him, and did me a courtesy such as the one you offer now, and I raised her up like this."

"I was the little girl," said Katerina. "I remember. My earliest memory, the sight of you. When you reached out to me, I stopped being afraid."

"Of course," said Marek. "I didn't want you to be afraid of me. I'm no enemy to such a one as you, Princess."

Ivan could hardly grasp what they were saying. "You've met each other? You knew her as a child?" Ivan laughed. "She was a child a thousand years ago, Cousin Marek."

At his words, Marek again looked at Sophia; one of them was asking something with a look, and the other answering, but Ivan had no idea what the question was, or who was questioning.

It was Katerina who answered him, after his words hung unanswered through a long silence. "Ivan, is it possible that you don't know?"

"Know what?"

"You call him Cousin Marek," she said, "but in Taina every child knows his name." She turned to face Marek. "Mikola Mozhaiski," she said. "You said you were my father's friend. Where were you when he needed you? And now you live where his house used to be, and he is gone, and the whole village, and only I am here." She burst into tears.

Ivan moved to comfort her, but Sophia was nearer and quicker. So Ivan watched as Cousin Marek strode to Sophia and also put his arms around the weeping girl. Ivan saw that, and yet he also saw quite another thing: He saw Mikola Mozhaiski, protector of sailors, ancient but unforgotten god, enfold the enchanted princess of Taina in his arms. It was the stuff of great legends; it was a charming farmhouse scene.

One thing was obvious: When Ivan told Katerina that there was no magic in his world, he had no idea what he was talking about.

Esther had never been much for reading, especially in English, a language which could not be spelled correctly even if you managed to remember that when you see R it means P and not backwards R, P means ∏, B means 6, C sometimes means K, and never mind about Y and H and N. Hopeless. But she had to do something to pass the time. Piotr didn't want her to interrupt him; he didn't take it seriously, her worry about Vanya. "If something was wrong, you think Cousin Marek wouldn't call us?"

She had no answer for that. Cousin Marek should have called. The fact that he hadn't meant that he thought everything was all right. Certainly Esther knew that Vanya was alive, wherever he was. She would bide her time.

But how was time supposed to be bided, when every moment was filled with urgency for which there was no action? So she opened books and magazines. She looked at the faces in People and didn't recognize anybody, even though she had known all the faces only last week. It was as if all the time she had been in America was a mistake. If she had stayed in Kiev, then Vanya would not have been without her, she might have been able to follow him into this place, whatever it was.

Can't think about that. Close American Heritage and open National Geographic. More pictures of people who mean nothing to her. Find a book on the shelf. One in Cyrillic this time. The letters string across the page like kites, bobbing here and there in random patterns. Very pretty. Close the book, find another. Hebrew. Dots like measles surrounding the letters. Nothing held her.

She got up and went outside, touched the basin where it sat on its pedestal, already covered with the dander of the sky—dust, a feather, tiny twigs, several leaves, and dead insects, enough to portend a massacre if she were doing omens, which she was definitely not, there was nothing to read in this thing. She tipped the bowl to spill a little, then picked it up and dashed the fouled water onto the lawn. Then she put the basin back onto its pedestal and looked down into the blackness. A few insect bodies clung to the inner surface; one was alive, beginning to dry out, moving a frail wing. She thought of crushing it to vent her fury. Instead she blew lightly, drying it faster. In moments, it began to crawl along the basin. Then it flew, or rather staggered, into the air. Some bird would eat the sluggish thing before too long. It had survived the basin only to die in the air. There was no tragedy in that, only cliché. Each day every man and woman and child on earth either died or didn't, and if they didn't, then they'd die another day.

Yet it made all the difference to her, if it was her husband or her child. For that moment's flight out of the basin, she would give her life.

Or take someone else's. That, too, in case anyone cared. If once she got Vanya safely home again, then whatever enchanter wanted him would have to reckon with her. After leaving Kiev, she had thought never to use the wardings and curses that she learned from Baba Tila, for now there was no danger, no more KGB, no more gulag, no more fear of someone getting rousted in the night.

The trouble was, what Baba Tila taught her was for use against those with no such powers of their own. The old lady had said that Esther had a talent for it, that there must be some Hebrew magic of her own that she was adding to the spells. But would that be enough, if she had to have it out with an enemy who knew as much as Baba Tila, or more?

If only she knew who her enemy was.

O God of Israel, wilt thou not suffer a witch's son to live? I've never called on Satan, or spoken to the dead like the cursed witch of Endor. I've sought to use this power for the good of good people, and if it's a sin, then let the sin be upon my head, but not my child, not my son.

Can't think like this. There's no point in praying. I long since chose another road, consigned myself to Sheol, there's no looking back from that, Baba Tila was plain about it, you can have what your grandmother had, but only if you choose what your grandmother chose.

Esther picked up the basin and started back to the house.

Then gasped and dropped the basin, caring not a bit if it chipped or broke, for she had felt him step back into the world, just as she had felt him go; as, before, she had lost the sense of him and felt desolation in its place, so now she felt the desolation leave her like a toothache suddenly cured. The world was right again. Vanya was in it.

Didst thou, O God, save him?

She hesitated before bending over to pick up the basin. If God did it, would he then see it as a repudiation of his gift, if she tried to save a tool of her witchery?

It might as easily be that God cares not at all whether I do spells or not, that the rabbis are all wrong about it, and...

And it might also be that God had nothing to do with it, that it was just the moment that it would have happened anyway, whether she prayed or not.

Indeed, over the past three days, when might it have happened that would not have been within an hour of a prayer?

She reached down; the sore place in her back pained her, but she felt no fresh pull of muscle, there was no new stab of pain. Her fingers went under the basin rim, for it had fallen facedown; when she pulled it up, torn grass came with it. Small deaths, for one life saved.

If I offend thee, O God, forgive me, but I know not whether it was thy hand that brought him back, or not, and if not, I can't take the chance of giving up what small powers I have to protect my family. If thou wouldst have me cease this work, then speak, or show me by some simple sign, and I'll obey, and trust in thee, O God of Israel.

She waited. She looked around her, searching for something that might have been sent from God to speak to her. She listened in her own mind, for the still small voice that Elijah heard. But all was silent, except for that sweet presence of Vanya in her heart.

Cousin Marek tried to be gentle in answering Katerina's questions, and when he grew impatient, Sophia shushed him, calmed him down. Finally the princess seemed to see that Mikola Mozhaiski was not omnipotent, like the Christians claimed their God to be, nor omniscient either, and he was away on business. In one of his testier moments, he snapped, "It wasn't my job to look out for Taina, you know, it was your father's. And yours!" But that set Katerina to crying again, and Sophia gave Cousin Marek such a look as would freeze the heart of a mortal man.

Ivan watched and listened, waiting with his own set of questions, but also ready for sleep. It had been a long day, full of surprise but also of disappointment. He had thought Katerina would need him in the modern world, but no, she comes straight to a place where everyone speaks proto-Slavonic better than Ivan. Well, maybe this would let Ivan off the hook. Now that Mikola Mozhaiski was in the picture, Ivan was free to move on. Deus ex machina. The god had just popped out of the sky—the second-story bedroom, actually—and he'd take care of the damsel in distress. Ivan's whole purpose had been nothing more than to bring Katerina here. That was done. He was ready to sleep.

No sooner thought of than done. He woke to Sophia shaking his shoulder. "Wake up so you can sleep in your bed," she said to him. "Poor boy, so many centuries, all in a few days."

Sleepily he asked her, as he might have in a dream, "Are you a goddess?"

"Oh my no," she said. "Immortal by association."

It sounded like a dream answer, too. But then she tousled his hair and he decided he was awake after all. Katerina and Cousin Marek were gone. Well, of course. Maybe they already went back to Taina. Ivan was too tired to care. He walked up the stairs to his room and barely remembered to take his shoes and pants off before sliding under the covers.

My wedding night, he thought. You lucky bridegroom, you. Got away from the people who wanted you dead, didn't you? Greedy to wish for more.

In the morning, though, waking at first light of dawn, he had a different attitude. He'd been jerked around by fate, and every decent impulse had led him into ever deeper trouble. Now the game had finally moved to the part of the field where the referees were standing around having coffee. Time to get them back on the job. Put Baba Yaga in her place, get this marriage annulled, send Katerina back home, and let me get on the plane to America. I've got a dissertation to write, parents who miss me, and a wedding—a real one this time, with a bride who doesn't think I'm a geek.

When he came downstairs, Katerina was learning the workings of a modern stove—well, what passed for one in rural Ukraine. She was wearing an old dress of Sophia's—a very old one, apparently, because, though it fit her loosely, it wasn't as voluminous as it ought to be. Sophia greeted Ivan with a cheery smile, but Katerina didn't look up. True, she was involved with the complicated business of cooking, which was pretty unfamiliar to her even without the modern conveniences. But to Ivan, it was just one more reminder that she was no wife of his, and never would be.

"Where's Cousin Marek?" asked Ivan.

Thoughtlessly, he had spoken in modern Ukrainian, but the question wasn't hard to grasp for Katerina, and before Sophia could answer, she laughed rather nastily and said, "You still call him that?"

Ivan didn't want a fight with her, though he thought it might have been more appropriate if she had remembered just a little of how she clung to him yesterday as the truck passed by.

"Don't be annoyed, Vanya," said Sophia—could she read his mind? "The princess is angry with my husband, not with you."

"What good does it do to be angry with an immortal?" asked Katerina.

"None at all," said Sophia cheerfully. "But there's no accounting for tempers. I'm surprised you slept through all the shouting last night, Vanya."

"Nobody was shouting at me, I figure, so I didn't care," said Ivan. "Still don't."

"Well, you will," said Sophia.

"No he won't," said Katerina. "He never cared about anything. Long ago he wished he had never fought the bear and kissed me awake."

Well, that was true enough. Though there had also been moments where he was glad of it, too. No need to mention that right now, however.

"That business with the bear," said Sophia. "We always wondered how that happened, and we weren't about to ask."

"What happened?"

"How Bear lost his eye, of course. Never would have imagined it was our little Vanya."

"That bear is still around?"

"He's not laying for you, if that's what you're wondering. He stays well to the north and east of here these last few centuries. It's Moscow where he has his den, where the winter still is his. But he mostly lies low. Came out to give a hard blow to Napoleon, and again to stop Hitler. Armies wake him up, but otherwise, he doesn't much care about the doings of human beings."

"So her bear is still alive," said Ivan. "Does that mean she is, too?"

"Thank you for not saying her name in this house," said Sophia. "And I have no idea where the old bat might be. Not a trace of her in many a year. But my husband has some idea that she might have followed you here. That's why he's out looking over the land."

"Did he do that when I disappeared?" asked Ivan.

"He knew where you were going—into the enchanted place where he couldn't see."

Ivan snorted. "Are all the immortals around here half-blind?"

Sophia looked at him sharply. Katerina seemed not to breathe.

"Oh, I see, now that I know who he really is, I can't tease."

Sophia laughed. "Marek sees as well as ever. But into a strange place like that, no one sees."

"Except me."

"You walked in there."

"So what stops him?"

"He can't, that's all. He walks straight toward it, then finds he's walked past it, and his path was straight, but still it bent."

Ivan shook his head. "And yet I walked in as easy as could be."

"You walked in because wherever you ran, it was always nearby," said Sophia. "It was calling to you."

"It," echoed Ivan. "What is the it that was calling me?"

"The place."

"Someone made the place. Or made it what it is. Didn't they?"

Katerina spoke up. "Maybe no one made the place, Ivan. It follows no plan. The enemy cursed me to die; my aunts cast spells to leave me somewhere short of death, and set rules by which I could be saved again, but where the place was, they couldn't choose and didn't know."

"And the Widow, she didn't choose, either?"

"Maybe she did," said Sophia. "But she didn't make the place. She only used it."

"So who made the chasm? Who built the bridges?"

"The chasm is how the Widow's curse expressed itself," said Sophia. "Bear ended up trapped in it, because it was by his power that her original curse of killing was made. By her plan, Bear was supposed to appear and tear Katerina cruelly apart. But instead he went round and round under the leaves. Katerina and Marek and I talked this out this morning, before you were awake."

"I see I wasn't important enough to include," said Ivan, unable to keep a nasty edge out of his voice.

"What did you know about it?" asked Katerina. Perhaps she meant no insult by it, but all he heard was scorn.

"We're including you now," said Sophia, soothingly.

"Look, I've never had any power," said Ivan, "so I don't even want to know. Cousin Marek can fix things now, have it out with the old witch. Then Katerina can have the marriage annulled and go back and marry somebody appropriate. And I can go home and marry Ruthie."

It was Katerina's turn to recoil as if slapped. "You repudiate me?"

"We aren't really married," said Ivan. "You never wanted me, and I'm engaged to someone else, so it'll all work out nicely for everyone."

Katerina looked to Sophia, but the older woman simply looked away. She was not going to be part of this.

So Katerina looked at Ivan. For a long time she looked, till he squirmed like a first-grader caught in a lie. "There is no divorce in Christ," she finally said.

"There's no marriage until I've bedded you," he answered, using a harsh proto-Slavonic term for it.

"Aren't we the polite one," said Sophia.

"Did I use too crude a word?" asked Ivan. "It's the one used by the men out in the practice field."

"It's not the word," said Sophia, "it's the heartlessness of what you said."

"Heartless?" said Ivan. "My supposed wife has never felt anything but contempt for me. How tender am I supposed to feel in return? My supposed father-in-law plotted to kill me. Exactly how seriously should I take their religion?"

"He didn't plot," said Katerina.

"You said yourself that Dimitri would never have attempted my murder if he didn't have your father's consent."

"If he didn't think he had my father's—"

"Don't hurt each other any more, children," said Sophia.

"How could I hurt her?" said Ivan. "She'd have to love me before I could do that. All I am to her or anybody in Taina is either a tool or an obstacle. I was the tool that woke her from her enchantment and got her home safely. Of course, I can't claim credit for that, either, since you tell me I was forced into it."

"Led up to it." Then Sophia switched to modern Ukrainian. "Don't you love her? This beauty, this bright and powerful woman?"

"She understands Ukrainian well enough," said Ivan, "so this won't let us have a private conversation in front of her."

True enough, Katerina was blushing at Sophia's praise—or perhaps at the bluntness of her question.

"What does it matter what language I speak, then?" said Sophia. "Everybody understands everything, and nobody understands anything."

"I think it's all very clear," said Ivan.

"So do I," said Katerina. She looked Ivan in the eye. "I release you now. We'll get the annulment. You were already betrothed to another woman, so you could not enter into the vow."

"He wasn't engaged to anyone," said Sophia. "He married you a thousand years before he ever met Ruthie."

"It's his own life that he'll be judged by, and, in his life, before he said he'd marry me, he said he'd marry her." Katerina looked at Ivan scornfully. "Not much of a king you'd make after all, to be so easily forsworn."

"It was agree to marry you or get killed by a bear," said Ivan.

"I'd rather die than break an oath."

"That always seems to be my choice," said Ivan, "but where would you be if I had chosen your way?"

"Still enchanted," she said, "waiting for a man of honor."

"Stop it!" shouted Sophia. "Enough, you two! These are terrible things that you'll be a long time wishing you could unsay."

She was right. Ivan already wished it. When he offered to annul the marriage, he realized now, he had been half-hoping that she'd refuse, that she'd insist that she wanted to be his wife. That she loved him, or might love him, or wanted to love him. Instead, he had provoked this outburst, in which she had exposed the full measure of her contempt for him. Because of his engagement to Ruthie, Katerina didn't even regard herself as sworn to him now. So his last hope with her was gone—if there had ever been a hope.

"What a shame you didn't let Dimitri kill me," said Ivan. "Having me alive is inconvenient to everyone. Me not least." He got up and left the table. No one said anything to call him back.

Katerina was so angry she could hardly eat, though the food was good and she didn't wish to offend Sophia.

Sophia, for her part, ate with gusto, while smiling in amusement at Katerina's lack of appetite. "He really makes you angry, doesn't he."

"I hate a man whose oath is worthless."

"Men and women these days break off engagements whenever they want. No one thinks of it as oath breaking."

"And you approve of this?"

"Approve or not, that's the world in which Ivan and his Ruthie agreed to marry. Either one of them is free to break the engagement, without cause. So you can give up this nonsense about despising him for breaking his engagement with her."

"So was his engagement to me just as worthless?"

"He married you, didn't he?"

"And annulled it the first chance he had."

"He offered to annul it, if that's what you wanted."

"When did he give me any choice? When a man says he wants to annul—"

"You have to understand, Katerina, customs have changed. A woman in this world is as free to make choices as a man is. So maybe when he offered to annul the marriage, he thought he was giving you what you wanted."

"Why would I want to be shamed in such a way?"

Sophia sighed. "Katerina, are you trying to be slow of understanding?"

Katerina flushed with anger, but she contained it. Sophia was the wife of a god.

"Vanya—your Ivan—is a good man," said Sophia. "And he was a good boy, when he first came here. I don't know why he was drawn to you, when even my husband couldn't enter your prison in the woods. Was it someone's plan? I don't think so. I think that the spell that bound you could only be opened by one who was... extraordinary in some way."

Since Katerina had already thought of this, she was a little resentful at the reminder. "You think I haven't tried to think of something praiseworthy about him?"

"Oh, and you're going to tell me now that you haven't ever seen anything to honor in this man?"

Katerina shook her head. "I won't tell you that. He seemed to be trying, back in Taina, to be a decent man. My father said that Ivan seemed to have a king's heart. But the moment he crossed the bridge into this place, he began acting foully. Making me wear his shirt!"

"He was correct and you were wrong."

Katerina was stunned. "You! Does the wife of Mikola—"

"No names, no names," said Sophia. "Call him Marek, now, please, as all do in this place."

"Does the wife of such a man as Marek think that it's right for a woman to wear a man's clothing?"

"No one would have mistaken you for a man. Men generally wear pants with their shirts."

"It's not about being mistaken, it's about—"

"About being decent," said Sophia. "And I tell you that decency changes from year to year, from land to land, and you have to learn the customs of the place you're in. Vanya did things for your sake that felt shameful to him—and you, for his sake, did things that were shameful to you. I think that's a good beginning to your marriage."

"Shame?"

"Bending."

"It's hardly a beginning to our marriage, is it, when he's about to annul it?"

"Do you want him to? Is there a man back in Taina that you love?"

Katerina wasn't sure what she meant. "Whom would I have loved? It was not for me to choose." She thought of Dimitri. She certainly didn't love him, nor he her.

"There you have it," said Sophia. "In Vanya's world, young people marry for their own reasons—usually for love, or desire that they think is love. The parents barely get a chance to give advice. Vanya's mother thought his engagement to Ruth was deeply wrong, but he hardly listened to her."

"So everyone marries like peasants? A wink and a nod and a hop over the broom?"

"Vanya keeps looking for a sign that you love him."

Katerina was completely flustered by this. "How would I love him? I barely know him."

"Nonsense," said Sophia. "You've had ample opportunity to see the kind of man he is. But all you ever show him is your disapproval."

"Because I disapprove of what he does!"

"Yes, you're honest enough, child. But he has, quite logically, come to the conclusion that you find him loathsome and, being a decent man, he has offered you your freedom from your marriage vow, so you don't have to be married to someone you find so distasteful."

"What does any of that matter? I married him to save my kingdom. My kingdom still needs saving."

"He thinks my husband can save it. So with that reason gone..."

It was a strange way of looking at the situation. Katerina tried to understand. "So he would give up the right to be my father's heir, because he thinks it would make me..."

"Happy? Yes."

Katerina tried to digest this thought. In all her life, she had never been aware of a man doing something solely because it would make a woman happy. Well, not true; she knew several henpecked peasants who watched every word they said, so as to avoid getting a tongue-lashing or worse from a shrewish wife. But such men were despised, and... and Ivan was nothing like them. "Why does he care whether I'm happy?"

"That's a very good question," said Sophia. "And it's one you need to answer, because he's been trying to make you happy for quite a while. From what you told me this morning, he walked naked through the woods, getting whipped by branches, because he wanted to make you happy."

Her memory of this event now looked different to her. She thought of the shrewish peasant wives and realized that this might well be the reason Ivan had complied with her. Having betrothed himself to her, he found himself subject to a woman who spoke scornfully and he meekly bowed to her will.

She was not such a woman. He was not such a man. "I don't understand it," she said. "I thought he had simply come to see what was right and wrong, and chose the right."

"Maybe that was it," said Sophia, but amusement still played around the corners of her lips. Katerina would have probed more, for the conversation was teaching her to see events in a new way, and she felt herself to be on the verge of acquiring a bit of wisdom, but at that moment the door opened and Mikola Mozhaiski—no, Marek—strode into the room, the floor booming like a drum under his bold steps.

"I'm hungry," he announced as he came into the kitchen. "What, is Vanya still asleep?"

"He isn't hungry," said Sophia dryly.

Apparently some communication passed between them without words, for now Katerina saw the same half-hidden smile lurking on Marek's face. Sophia laid a plate before him, and piled it with bread and lard, cheese and fruit. He ate with such gusto that the food seemed to melt from the plate like fog. Marek saw the wonder on her face and misunderstood her thoughts. "Of course I eat. I'm immortal, but my body still wants food. I wouldn't die if I never ate—but I'd get very, very hungry."

"What did you find on your search?" asked Sophia.

"She's here," said Marek simply.

Katerina felt her heart begin to race. "She followed us!"

"She didn't come through in the same place," he said. "If she had, I wouldn't have seen her spoor. But there was a trace of stink in the rocky hills south of the road, overlooking that Armenian fellow's farm."

"The Arkanians," said Sophia. "And his father bought the farm before he was born. You act as if he were a recent immigrant."

"I just don't bother learning the family name till they've been here for a few centuries." Marek grinned.

"You seem cheerful enough, with her here."

"She didn't bring Bear with her," said Marek, "or much of his power, if any. There was no scent of him at all."

"Without him, she could never have made such a crossing," said Sophia. "So she does have his power."

"Not ready to hand," Marek insisted. "I know what I'm talking about. She left footprints, that's what I mean."

Everyone knew that Baba Yaga did not leave footprints on the ground or reflections in water. Katerina was astonished. "Is she weak, then? Is this our chance to kill her?"

"Don't even think of that," said Marek. "Even at a quarter of her normal strength, she's more than a match for any weapon in this world or yours. No, you must avoid her."

"I meant you could stop her... permanently."

Marek shook his head. "Don't you understand? That's not how my powers run. Sailors call on me because I have an affinity for wind and rain. Snow in the north. Sometimes a little lightning. Drought, if I'm angry enough, though it takes constant vigilance to maintain a good long one, and I rarely have the temper for it. I'm not much for war. And assassination is out of my league entirely. That's a matter for Petun, and those who put their trust in him are usually sorry, I can promise that. He's not good at clean killings. There are always some unintended targets that fall whenever he tries to bring down an enemy."

Katerina sank back in her chair. "So Ivan doesn't get his wish," she said.

"What wish?" asked Marek, looking from Katerina to Sophia and back again.

Sophia finally answered. "Vanya offered to annul the marriage as soon as you finish off the old bat."

"Why would he do something as stupid as that?" asked Marek.

Katerina felt a moment's triumph.

Then Marek rolled his eyes knowingly. "Being noble, wasn't he. You know he cares for the girl."

"Everyone knows it but him," said Sophia. "And the girl, of course."

Marek thought that Ivan cared for her? He seemed to say it as if it mattered, too. But why would it? Did even an immortal change to fit the world he lived in? She had always thought that one of the attributes of the immortals was their changelessness. Didn't Father Lukas say that God was the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow? Was there anything that she had believed in before that was still true now?

"What should we do?" asked Katerina. "Go back to Taina?"

"Oh, what a clever idea, you lure the most dangerous woman I've ever heard of into this world, and then you want to go right back and leave her here for other people to deal with. People who are singularly ill-equipped, I might add. You have your bits of spells, I assume, even if your mother didn't live long enough to teach you. But there are precious few here like Vanya's mother, seeking out the old lore and putting it into practice. What every woman used to know, hardly any even imagine in these benighted times. No, she'd create havoc here."

"How am I to prevent that?"

"I don't know if you can. She knows this land too well. Your best hope is for her to lose you here, and then give up and go home without finding you."

"Can we hide here?" asked Katerina.

"If I stayed in the house with you, yes. If I left all my lands unwatched-over, yes, you could stay. But I think it's better if you go somewhere else entirely. To a land where she doesn't speak the language, where she'll constantly be getting into trouble with the authorities." Marek grinned. "I'd love to see her come up against an American assault force. I wonder if they'd beat her as easily as they beat the vast military of Grenada."

Katerina had no idea what he was talking about, but Sophia chuckled. "Don't have much use for America, do you?"

"Arrogant newcomers who think they're smarter than everybody just because they can make a machine that washes dishes."

"In other words, no one there remembers your name."

Marek's temper flashed across his face. But he calmed himself. Katerina wondered what would happen to Sophia if Marek ever grew uncontrollably angry at her. But then she dismissed the thought—Marek wasn't the kind of man to lose control.

Man? How did she know what kind of man a god might be?

"This America you speak of—this is Ivan's birthplace?"

"No, no, he first went there when he was a child. But his parents live there. It's his home now."

"And we'll be safe there?"

"How should I know?" said Marek. "Safer than here, though, I imagine."

At that moment Ivan spoke up from the doorway leading to the stairs. "Safer, but I can't get her out of the country without a passport."

Katerina had no idea what a passport was, nor was she wondering. What occupied her mind was a different question: When did Ivan come back down the stairs? For that matter, had she ever heard him go up the stairs? Had he stood outside the kitchen door, listening to her entire conversation with Sophia? Monstrous thought!

"Passport," said Marek dismissively. "I'll have one of those drawn up, of course."

"You can't fight the witch, but you can conjure a passport?" asked Ivan.

"I won't conjure anything. I have a few friends left in this world. I can get her a legitimate legal passport. And an American entry visa—false ones are expensive on the black market, but we can probably get you a real one, since you're Ivan's wife. We'll get a certificate drawn up for that, too."

"You're taking me with you?" she asked Ivan.

"I took an oath, didn't I?" said Ivan. "That I'd protect you, right? I'm not a fighter, but I'm famous for running away."

His tone was so bitter and ironic that she ordinarily would have thought he was furious at her, that he hated her. But thinking of what Sophia had said, Katerina heard something different now. His ironic nastiness was because he thought that she scorned him.

Well, he wasn't a fighter. She couldn't help that, could she? And she didn't scorn him. She needed him. Taina needed him. And if it took pretending to love him, as Sophia had suggested, then she'd try to act as if she did. Nobody could expect more of her than that.

"Whither thou goest, I will go," she said, quoting a passage she had learned from the Book of Ruth—an unfortunate name indeed, she realized as she spoke. "Where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God..."

Her voice trailed off. He seemed not to recognize the words.

"Your family aren't Christian, are they?" she asked.

"If you refer to the Christian habit of plotting to murder their in-laws, then no, they don't qualify as Christian."

"Vanya," said Sophia sharply.

He did not apologize, though he did wither under her stare.

And why should he apologize, thought Katerina. His complaint was not unjustified.

"I'll follow you to your parents' home," said Katerina. "As you followed me to mine."

"Naked?" asked Ivan.

"Young man!" cried Sophia.

But Katerina only laughed. "I thought you told me I didn't have that option."

"I'll take you," said Ivan. "It's up to you whether I introduce you as a friend of mine, or as my wife."

"As you choose," said Katerina.

"That's not my decision," said Ivan.

"Yes it is," said Katerina.

"No it isn't," he said in a firmer voice. "If you are only calling yourself my wife out of duty to Taina, then I don't want to make such a claim. My parents will see at once how you feel about me, or, more to the point, how you don't feel about me. It will worry my mother. So you can only come as my wife if you promise to pretend to my parents that you think I'm a good catch."

"A good what?" asked Katerina.

"A good husband," he explained. "That you think you did well to choose to be my wife. If you can't pretend to believe that, then it's better to introduce you as nothing more than a friend of mine."

"Coward," said Sophia softly.

"Taina still needs us married, as much as ever," said Katerina. Beyond that, she did not know what to say, or even what he wanted her to say.

Ivan searched her face—for what, she didn't know. Nor did he find what he was looking for. She knew this because of the way he sagged a little, then nodded. "All right then. I'll tell them you're my wife. Let them believe what they believe."

I hurt him again, thought Katerina. I meant to pretend to love him, but in the moment I simply told the truth, which is my habit. And I don't know that I want to change that habit. You can tell a lie now and then, but what happens to you when you try to live your whole life inside a lie?

Still, he had chosen to keep her, even though he clearly wasn't all that happy about it. Could Sophia be right? Did he truly care for her? Or was he agreeing to stay married solely out of duty?

More to the point, Katerina wondered, am I?

Baba Yaga

Long ago she had found this still pool in the darkness of the cave, deep in a subterranean chamber. By torchlight she had come here from time to time, to draw upon the majesty of the place. But she had never used the water to travel, for until now there was nowhere she wanted to go that she could not reach more easily another way.

The surface of the water was absolutely still. That was important; unfortunately, it meant that she could not douse the torch in the water, for then she could not see when the surface became still again. She tried stubbing it out in the dirt, but that did nothing; she beat it on the ground, but it only burned more hotly. Finally, she smothered it with her own skirts, singeing them badly but what did she care? People would see her as she chose to be seen.

In the darkness, she was momentarily disoriented. She had to find the water by the smell of it, and by feeling forward with one dainty foot until she was near the brink. Then, in a loud voice, she proclaimed the words of the spell that would turn this vast empty mirror into a gateway. She could not see, but she could feel the surface trembling with her voice—that was the only disturbance that could be permitted here.

Last of all she proclaimed the name of the princess, which had been stated so openly at her baptism, so that all comers knew the name by which the gods knew her. Fool. She could never hide from Baba Yaga once her name was known.

The name still echoed in the chamber as Baba Yaga leaned forward, toppling off the brink like a cup off a table. The spell worked: She never touched water. Instead, the surface carried her like strong hands into the place she asked for.

She found herself lying on something hard and rough.

A loud, roaring, rattling sound was getting louder and louder. What could it be?

She raised her head from the ground, opening her eyes into the twilight.

A new noise at once was added, something screeching, metal on metal. She rose to her feet, looking for the source of the noise.

A big, awkward-looking house made all of tin sat on four black feet, like a crippled animal, in the middle of the hard surface where she had been lying. The surface itself was of miraculous smoothness, as if someone had scythed the earth itself. Then she realized—this was a road, like the ones the Romans built, only wider and less finished on the top. And this house must be capable of movement.

A man leaned out the window of the house, shouting at her in some barbarous dialect. She only caught a few words of what he said, and didn't care. She waved him to silence.

It didn't work. He didn't even pause.

Terror thrilled through her. Had she taken herself to a place where her powers didn't work?

She tried a much stronger spell of silence, murmuring the words and making the signs behind her back—no need to anger him, if she turned out to be utterly powerless.

This spell should have silenced him for weeks; instead, it merely calmed him down. He mumbled a little more—unthinkable that he should have a voice at all!—and then, without so much as making a single pass through the air or dusting his house with powder, he caused it to move forward, moving around her and passing her, leaving her behind in a cloud of dust.

She couldn't be sure it was her spell that calmed him down or simply that he had run out of wrath. This was an urgent question that had to be settled right away.

She sniffed the air, turning in all directions. Her sense of power was weakened, but it was not gone. She caught faint traces of the princess—she had walked near this very road, and not long ago—but her smell was all but lost in another one that left her stunned. Mikola Mozhaiski! After all her pains to cast spells to make him neglect his beloved land of Taina and his friends there, she had ended up coming to the very place that was now the center of his power. No wonder her powers were so sharply suppressed here! And no wonder that awful boy had caused her so many problems—he came from Mikola Mozhaiski, and when he led the princess out of this world, of course he brought her back to his master.

Well, there are more gods in this world. She had the power of Bear, didn't she? And Bear was more than a match for Mozhaiski.

Except that the source of her power was far off, and she had to draw on it across time and space, while Mozhaiski was powerful here, in the present moment.

She sniffed the air more deeply. Yes, masked by the heavy scent of Mozhaiski's benign, summery air, there was still a trace of winter in the air. Bear was still in this world.

She raised her hand to summon him, but then caught herself in time: In this world, Bear was not necessarily under her spell. The Bear whose power she controlled was the Bear of another time and place; here he might well be free, or under the power of a great wizard with whom she dared not do battle in her weakened state.

Tread softly, she told herself. Plenty of time to watch and wait, see how the land lies here, find out who makes the magic of tin houses on rolling feet. Not Mozhaiski—this was not the sort of thing he did, generally confining himself to meddlesome rescues of sailors and gifts of rain to farmers' fields. No, a greater wizardry was at work in the world, or some god only just now coming into his own.

Let the princess lead her through this world. Baba Yaga could afford to wait. Though she was bound not to lay hands on the princess directly, that boy was still with her. She'd find some way to kill him through some other hand, or at least rend them apart, breaking the spell.

She thought back to yesterday's burning of the church. Such a fine idea! She raised no hand against the princess, but rather simply ignited the dried wood of that ugly magicless sanctuary for the untalented devotees of a distant and disinterested god. Of course the princess got out—whether because of a spell or simply because she was a clever and lucky woman, Baba Yaga could not guess. But even if the church-burning failed to kill the girl and solve Baba Yaga's problems all in one blow, the thing had been worth doing for its own sake.

She'd find other ways in this world; there would be other tools to use. Even if her powers were weaker here, even if there were strong rivals that she dared not provoke, she'd make do, she'd find a way to win.

Or if she couldn't, or if her life was in danger, she'd simply cover herself with the cloth she had soaked with the oil from Bear's fur, speak a single word, and all that was encompassed by the cloth would be carried back home in a moment. If that included the princess or her lackey ur-husband, or both, so much the better. For them to come back to Baba Yaga's house under her power would be sweet indeed.

11

Airports

If Ivan had doubted Cousin Marek's magical power, he would have been convinced by this: A genuine passport and visa for Katerina, in her name, and only a day after telephoning a friend in the new passport office in Kiev.

"The independent government of Ukraine is only a few months old, and already you have connections?"

"My connections are older than the government," said Marek.

Katerina looked through the pages of the book. "So much paper, and almost nothing written in it. And these letters—" She pointed to a word in the Roman alphabet. "—I don't know some of them."

"The letters Kirill gave to your language," said Ivan, "are not the only letters in the world."

"And you know all the letters?" she asked.

"All the letters in that book," he said.

"But there aren't very many here," as if his achievement were not so remarkable after all. Was she teasing him, or scorning him? How could he hope to tell?

"I know two alphabets," said Ivan. "The one that's used here, in the land of my birth—the one Kirill invented. And the one that's used in America, where my family lives."

"And which of these lands do you call your own?" asked Cousin Marek. "I'm curious, is all."

"I'm at home in both places," said Ivan. "But more a stranger here, I think, than there. Maybe I'm foreign in every land."

Marek chuckled. "Aren't we all."

Katerina was studying her own passport photo. "This seems a remarkably faithful likeness of the woman," she said. "Who is she, and why is her portrait in this book?"

It took Ivan a moment to realize she wasn't joking. But then, how would she recognize herself? The shining metal of a sword was the only mirror in King Matfei's court, and before modern times no one in Russia had much use for mirrors, since they believed a spirit from another world could leap from a mirror to possess them or attack. She had probably seen her own face in a pool—rippling, distorted, with fish darting between her eyes.

"The portrait is of you," said Ivan.

"When did the painter spy on me?" she said.

"It's not painted," said Ivan. "The man yesterday, who made the light flash—"

"That's what that spell was for? To take my picture from me?"

"Not a spell, a tool, like the light switch and the running water in the kitchen."

"You keep insisting on this, but isn't it time you explained to me why spells aren't also tools?"

Ivan shook his head. "You are being obstinate," he said. "You know the difference perfectly well yourself. You've handled a scythe—it cuts because the blade shears the stalks of grain. But a spell has no such contact between one thing and another."

"Then you've proved my point," she said. She walked to the light switch and turned it on and off. "There—what connection did my action have with that light? And this portrait—the light flashed, but nothing touched me."

"The light touched you."

She laughed. "And when I wave my hands in the air to cast a spell, there's no doubt a wind, too."

Ivan despaired. "Why do you have to argue with me? You're not stupid. This is my world, not yours, and if I tell you that magic is different from tools and the difference matters, then you should spend your time trying to understand the difference, not arguing with me."

She seemed about to answer with another argument, but then stopped herself. "The difference really is important?"

"Yes."

"Then explain it to me, and I'll try to understand."

The result was a painful hour of explaining electricity and wires and circuits, along with a vague explanation of cameras. And by the end, Ivan wasn't altogether sure that she understood anything. Except the one most important thing: That she not use magic in this world, not in front of other people, nor even speak of it.

"They don't believe in it?" she said. "Even though it works?"

"It takes talent and training to use magic," said Cousin Marek, who had listened to Ivan's explanations without helping once. "While any fool can use a machine."

"Any fool who can afford to buy one," said Ivan.

"And any fool who can afford to hire a wizard has magical power at his command, too," said Cousin Marek. "And now who's arguing for the sake of argument?"

The next day, the tickets arrived for Katerina's flight, and Ivan changed his reservations so they could sit together. "You can conjure money out of thin air?" Ivan asked Cousin Marek.

"Of course not," he answered.

"Then what magic did you use to buy her ticket?"

"American Express," said Marek.

"An immortal carries American Express?"

"Not my American Express," said Marek. "What use would I have for such a thing? When I want to travel, I walk. No, the card belongs to a friend. Your family are not the only folk to leave this land and go across the sea. And not all who leave this place forget their Cousin Marek."

For the first time, Ivan realized that this might have happened before. "Did you help us get our visas to leave the Soviet Union, back when Mother and Father and I lived here with you?"

"I tried."

"Then why did it take all those months?"

"I didn't have such good connections in Moscow," said Marek. "And I wasn't all that eager for you to leave."

With passport and ticket, and a decent selection of clothes that more or less fit her, Katerina was ready to go. Ivan was not, for when he returned to America he would have to face Ruthie and Father and Mother and somehow explain Katerina to them all. But there were no more reasons for delay, and many reasons to move quickly, not least of which was that Baba Yaga was still hovering nearby, plotting who-knew-what nastiness.

They bade good-bye to Sophia and rode with Cousin Marek to the train station. Ivan noticed that Katerina showed no fear of climbing inside Marek's truck. Perhaps that was because her trust in Mikola Mozhaiski overrode any fear. Or perhaps she had believed him when he told her it was simply a tool. Though, given the number of people who died each year in auto accidents, it might have been wiser for Ivan to warn her not to get into any kind of car.

When they got to the train station, Katerina immediately grasped the idea of many cars being pulled along a track by a single engine. "The locomotive is the ox," she said, "and it pulls these houses like sledges across snow." Close enough, thought Ivan.

Cousin Marek walked the length of the train. Only when he was assured that Baba Yaga wasn't aboard did he let Ivan and Katerina get on. "Be alert," he said to them both. "Watch for her, and don't let her talk to you. She can persuade the sun it's a pudding."

"She can't outrun a train, can she?" said Ivan. "Or outfly a jet? So we're safe."

Marek scowled at him. "Don't wear the hide until the bear is dead," he said.

"How will we know her if we see her?" said Katerina. "We might have seen her yesterday, but she can seem to be whatever she pleases."

"Look at her eyes," said Marek, "and you'll know. She can't change those, not without being blind."

"Look at the eyes and see what?" asked Ivan.

"The enemy."

Ivan had long since learned that when Cousin Marek didn't want to give a straight answer, he went in circles, and they were circling now. Rather the way Ivan had led the bear around the chasm till it gave up.

As the train pulled out of the station, Ivan felt a thrill of fear. Cousin Marek was no longer with them—as he said, why leave a trail fifty feet wide for the old hag to follow—and now it was up to him, Ivan the nonfighter, Ivan the scholar with his nose in a book, to keep Katerina safe and guide her through this dangerous world.

What if she gets airsick and throws up on the plane? Did Sophia explain to her about how to deal with her period here, or is Mother going to have to explain that in America? What if there's some disease she isn't immune to? He thought of War of the Worlds, when the alien invader is felled by the common cold.

Katerina was hardly the alien invader, and as for Baba Yaga, he knew better than to count on some microbe-ex-machina to save them from her. For all he knew, the witch had gotten on the train at the first stop, making Marek's check of the train useless. How far did her powers of illusion go, anyway? Could she be on board disguised as a suitcase? How did he know what was possible? The world that only a few days ago had seemed, if not safe, then at least comprehensible, was now fraught with new dangers and possibilities. It made everything new again. New and frightening, the way America was when Ivan first arrived, and everything he said and did seemed foolish, not only to the other children in school, but to himself. Add to this Katerina's insistence on making her own decisions, whether she understood all the consequences or not, and Ivan knew he'd get very little rest, on the train, in the air, or at home.

Katerina tried her best to remain as calm and brave as Ivan had when he came to Taina. She would not be shamed in front of him by showing cowardice. Now she understood how baffling and frightening it was to be in a strange place where the old rules no longer applied and no one knew how to value her. In Mikola Mozhaiski's house, she hadn't really grasped it yet, for she was among people whose language she understood; indeed, it was Ivan who still sounded like the accented stranger. But now in the cacophony of the station and the train, where everything was unexpected and she only understood one word in fifty, she was nauseated with fear. She found herself wanting to cling to Ivan's arm and beg him to come back to Taina with her. Better the known danger than the unknown! But she couldn't ask that, for in Taina it was his life that was in danger, while here, as far as she knew, neither of them was threatened. Her fear was foolish. Ivan would protect her, and if he couldn't, she might be able to help herself with a little magic. And if that didn't work, well, her life was in the hands of God, wasn't it? If he wanted her dead here, then nothing could save her; if he wanted her to live, then nothing could harm her.

The airport was a nightmare, though Ivan assured her that all was normal and safe. The customs official who looked at her with no respect whatsoever, as if she were a peasant with an unpleasant stink, and then rattled off a stream of the strange language that they spoke here—she barely kept herself from bursting into tears. Then Ivan interposed himself between her and the official, said a few words, showed the little book, and the man's demeanor softened. She was just about to smile at him when he suddenly picked up something heavy and slammed it down on a pad of wet blue cloth and then on her blank book, staining it and making a brutal pounding noise. She jumped back and screeched inadvertently before regaining her composure. The official laughed in her face, the swine. She felt humiliated, though Ivan simply hurried her along and spoke soothingly to her that this was a common thing, he should have warned her, he was so sorry, they always stamp the passport.

She wondered how many things in her kingdom might have surprised or frightened him, and she had never thought to warn him or prepare him for anything. Instead she had scorned him for not already knowing what any child knew. But now she knew a bit of wisdom: Whoever travels to a new land is always a child.

She thought back to when Mikola Mozhaiski woke up the gruzovik and made it go forward, controlling it effortlessly with a wheel in his hands and with devices he pushed with his feet. She had imagined herself trying to control this moving house. Impossible. Yet hadn't she expected Ivan to pick up a sword and know how to use it instantly? She wanted to tell him she was sorry for not understanding what he was going through. But as she was about to do it, she wondered whether he really had felt the same fear as she. After all, he had traveled from land to land before, and even learned a new language, so he was used to new experiences. She didn't remember him showing fear in any obvious way, either, except reluctance to do certain things. So to say anything about fear right now would merely be a confession of her own.

As the airplane lumbered over the runway and then rose into the air, she wanted to scream in terror—and in delight, both at once. She was flying! She wanted to look out the window; but when she did, it made her want to throw up, to see the ground fall away like that, everything becoming small. And when the airplane made a sharp turn in the air soon after takeoff, she did throw up.

Oh, the unspeakable humiliation of it! Ivan was there at once with a little bag in case she vomited more, but it was too late, wasn't it? Her blouse was smeared with vomit, and even after the attendant led her to the bathroom and helped her rinse that part of the blouse, the smell lingered on the cloth and she had a cold wet spot that was quite uncomfortable. She had thought that the bra Sophia had bought for her in the village could not possibly be any more uncomfortable, but now she knew better. She could be cold, wet, humiliated, and smell like vomit.

When she got back to her seat, she looked out the window to hide her face from Ivan. By now the airplane was so high that all she could see was clouds below her, and she pretended it was only snow, and this was a huge sleigh gliding along, occasionally hitting an inexplicable bump—no doubt a bird or a particularly thick cloud. I don't want to be here, she thought. I want to go home, where I'm not humiliated every moment, where I can speak and be spoken to, where people know that I'm Princess Katerina and treat me with respect instead of contempt or pity.

Mustn't think this way, she told herself. Keep control. No crying.

Then she felt Ivan's hand gently but firmly take hold of hers, and he leaned close to her and whispered in her ear, "You're doing very well, and many people get sick in airplanes, so don't be ashamed of it." Then he kissed her cheek the way her father might have, when she was a little girl, and it was too much for her. She burst into tears. Or rather, burst out with a single sob, and then wept in silence, turning her face toward him, hiding her tears against his chest as he held her. Oh, if only it were my father here with me! she cried silently, but then rebuked herself. This is what a husband should do for his wife, and he is doing it. A wife should not wish that she were still with her father. That was undutiful and childish.

And yet she did wish it, as she made his shirt almost as wet as her own. Did a man forget his mother just because he had a wife? She should hope not. So why would it be wrong for a woman to remember her father, even if she had a husband?

The flight went on for hours and hours, broken only by a landing in Vienna, where they stayed on the plane. It was miserable, trying to sleep sitting upright, but at least the chairs were the softest she had ever sat in, and the clever little pillow was unbelievably soft and yet held its shape much better than feather pillows. And when she and Ivan were both awake, he tried to teach her to read the modern Russian printed in a magazine. When it was written down, it was easier for her to see how it was related to the language she spoke, and to find patterns in the differences. She was feeling pretty good about it, until he reminded her that in America very few people spoke this language, either.

"But my mother and father do, and that's what counts at first, that you be able to talk with them. My father speaks your language, too, after a fashion, and my mother will do her best. You'll see. They're gracious people."

"So that's how you learned," she said softly.

If he heard her, he said nothing. She hoped, at least a little, that he hadn't heard, because it would shame her to be kind, if he despised her kindness. Then it would feel like surrender. But she also hoped, perhaps a little more, that he had heard, for they were also words of apology. She regretted her arrogance and criticism, how she had hurt his feelings in her own world and when they first arrived in his. Everything he told her had turned out to be true. For instance, many women dressed just like the men. In fact they all dressed in clothing that she found appalling at first, but was now getting used to. The shoes were amazing, shaped differently for the right and left feet, and even at that, Ivan and Sophia both assured her that they'd find her shoes that fit much better once they got to America, where there was no shortage of shoes the way there were in Ukraine that year.

The officials in the airport in America were even ruder than the ones in Kiev had been, barking orders and shouting in a jumpy, harsh-sounding language that was offensive to hear. To her relief, when Ivan spoke the same language back to them it was not as jumpy and strident, and his calm voice seemed to calm them down as well. More stamping—this time she didn't flinch—and Ivan had to open his bags for them to look through what he brought with him, but soon they were out of the lines and into a crush of people holding up signs in the strange alphabet and calling out to people and hugging them. For a moment she feared that someone would grab her and hug her, too, but then realized they were hugging people they already knew. And here, she knew no one.

But Ivan knew someone. A man and two women.

"God hates me," said Ivan softly in her language. "I told my mother on the phone not to bring Ruthie."

"Your betrothed," murmured Katerina.

Ivan said nothing to that.

Katerina sized up the younger of the women—her confident bearing, her easy grace as she embraced Ivan and then embraced Katerina—and realized that what seemed so familiar about her was that Ruthie felt herself to be a princess as surely as Katerina did. She murmured this to Ivan, who smiled and translated her remark, or some version of it, for the others. Ruthie blushed and smiled, then leaned over and kissed Katerina's cheek.

"I've told them," Ivan murmured, "that the language you speak is an obscure dialect from the Carpathians. And that you're a friend I brought with me. I'll tell them the truth very quickly, but not here in the airport, because it would be wrong to embarrass Ruthie in a public place like this."

Katerina noticed that Ivan's father was listening as best he could to what they were saying. His eyes narrowed, and he began looking back and forth between her and Ivan. But Ivan's mother only embraced her and said something softly in her ear—so softly that she couldn't hear the words, though she'd probably not have been able to understand them even if she'd heard.

"What did your mother say?"

Ivan asked his mother, and, blushing, she whispered the same words to him. He turned red, but then leaned down to translate for Katerina. "Mother says that you are the woman she always hoped I would marry."

Katerina smiled at Mother, even as she murmured back to him, "I thought you didn't tell them we're married."

"I didn't," said Ivan. "My mother is simply a little strange."

"Or very wise," said Katerina.

"That's what she thinks," said Ivan. Then he translated some version of their conversation and the others laughed and nodded. She had no idea what Ivan told them that she'd said, but she nodded and smiled right back at them. Language wasn't going to be a problem after all, because apparently it didn't matter what she said—Ivan would turn it into the right thing when he interpreted.

Katerina looked away from Ivan's mother and saw that Ruthie was staring at her with cold rage in her eyes. There would be no need to tell her that her engagement with Ivan was off. Obviously, she already knew.

If only Mikola had learned to read and write back when it was a new idea. Instead he had only picked it up during the past fifty years, when literacy became universal in the Soviet Union and you had to be able to read signs and newspapers in order to function in society. Even then he still thought of it as something of a fad, until now, when he realized that his shortsightedness might cost him dearly.

Back in the old days the stories inscribed in the priests' books seemed trivial and distant to him. He had his own life, his own duties, his own powers. Why learn to read about their god, who ministered to another people in a faraway land, when he had his own business to attend to?

Only once in those early days of literacy did it occur to him that he might learn to read and write. He was telling his wife at that time—Hilda? Bruna?—the story of the time when Bear first wandered across the Urals, thinking that whatever land he came to would be his alone. Bear was wilder then, ignorant, barbarian—but dangerous, volatile, full of powers that Mikola had never faced before. He had to be inventive, combine spells and incantations, devise clever invisible fences across time. He laughingly told his wife about the time he inadvertently put every bear in the forest to sleep for three days before he figured out how to make his new spell more selective. And his wife asked him—Hilda, definitely, the one who ran off with Loki when the Norsemen first started raiding down the rivers—Hilda asked him what he did to make all the bears sleep. And Mikola couldn't remember.

He had sat there thinking, and then took a walk and thought some more, and still he could not remember. Only late that night, lying awake in his bed, did he remember the simple and obvious mistake that had put the bears to sleep. He almost woke Hilda right then, to tell her, but she was tired and he didn't like annoying her because she had the most amazing temper. And as he lay there listening to her snore he realized that remembering that old spell wasn't what mattered. The important discovery was the fact that Mikola Mozhaiski was capable of forgetting a spell. He hadn't known that could happen.

I should write them all down, he thought as he lay awake that night. I should get some priest to teach me to write, and then I could record all my spells so I don't have to try to remember them. Commands to the waves and the wind, those I remember because I use them so often. The flow of the great sky river, that I could direct in my sleep. But the commands to each plant to wake up in the spring, I barely remember those, because they generally do it well enough without my help. And the spells to control insects in their flight, and the song to calm the birds—how did those go? He definitely should learn this new alphabet and all the words so he could write it all down and never have to worry about remembering.

But then he thought some more, and decided that it was a bad idea, for two reasons: What if he came to rely on the book, and then lost it? He'd be worse off than now. And—even more dire—what if someone stole the book and used the spells against him? Better to keep his memory sharp, so he would never need a book that might empower an enemy. That was when he began his long custom of rehearsing every spell he knew at least once a year.

He kept it up, too, for several centuries, until his people grew so rational that he had no more rivals, no enemies disrupting the right order with their local spells. Witchcraft and wizardry had so effectively been denied that his own powers began to weaken, for there were few who contributed to his strength by invoking his name. He could cast all the old spells, of course, but it cost him more, wore him out, and he stopped doing any spells but the essential ones, and began to look out for less and less of the old lands, until most of his effort was spent caring for this area that was sometimes Poland, sometimes Russia, sometimes Ukraine and Belarus, even bits of Slovakia. Names could change, armies could pass by, but they concerned him little. He steered them around his little godhold, or made sure they passed lightly over the land and interfered little with the people. Beyond that, he simply tended to the weather.

Until now. Until Baba Yaga brought her stink into the land. And now he had no book to remind him of the spells of combat, techniques he hadn't used since the early days, when his people first separated from the main tribe in the hills of Iran and woke a new god to be their protector. He still had vague memories of childhood, of an idyllic life playing on the slopes of a mountain, the animals all talking to him, the plants making a constant music to which he often sang along. And then they woke him, called him by a name that he knew at once was his own, though it had never been spoken before. It filled him with vigor and he leapt down from the mountain as eager as any adolescent boy, ready to take on all comers. Oh, he fought his battles then, putting others in their place—or getting put down himself, from time to time. Zeus especially loved to torment him, until Mikola finally learned all the weathers of the sky and matched him bolt for bolt.

The time of battles was over, though, long since. Even that arrogant sex fiend Zeus had retired from public life, though he still had a sort of fame that kept wakening him from his lazy philandering and henpecked domesticity—but to no purpose. It was just the sound of his name being murmured in a thousand classrooms; it had no strength in it. Mikola looked at Zeus these days and saw his own future, when his people had at last forgotten him. But until then, he was still guardian. And now a great danger had come into the land, and he could hardly remember how to aim lightning. If only, if only I had written it down.

So he struggled to remember as he trailed after Baba Yaga, following the odor of her passage through the land, cleaning up after her, casting little spells to make people forget her visit, removing the vile little curses she always left on any house that let her in or gave her anything to eat or a place to sleep. It took a great deal of ingenuity on his part, because she was so maliciously clever, laying traps for him, so that when he released one curse, a worse one would slip into place, unless he took precautions in advance.

Most important, he kept renewing the spell that kept Bear and Baba Yaga from finding each other. They both smelled each other, but whenever Baba Yaga thought of seeking him out, or Bear stirred in his somnolence, Mikola filled the air between them with so much of the forgetful haze of summer that they'd become distracted and think of something else, with only a feeling of fitfulness and ennui to remind them of their forgotten desire.

Mikola was no fool. He recognized that Baba Yaga was following the children's trail toward Kiev, even though she must have thought the twisting and turning of her path would deceive him. But he knew what she did not—that in Kiev, their trail took to the air and soared at thirty-five thousand feet across Europe and the Atlantic, heights and distances that would be utterly incomprehensible to a woman who, powerful as she might be, was still only a mortal who had never followed the flow of the great sky river around the world. She might make it to the airport and see the great planes lumber into the sky and figure out that Vanya and Katerina had flown off in one of them. But that wouldn't tell her where they went, and it wouldn't help her follow them. She would stand there, baffled, helpless, and gradually realize that they were out of her grasp.

Mikola imagined her going into one of her tantrums. The authorities wouldn't stand for it, of course. He could imagine the antiterrorist police surrounding her as she madly screamed and sprayed fiery spells through the airport, finally getting a good shot and taking her out just as in those American movies that had taught police all over the world how to walk with the swagger that made them ridiculous and frightening, both at once. Baba Yaga would see the silliness; not knowing the accuracy and range of rifles with scopes, she would not have sense enough to fear them, too. The bloom of a bullet in her head, spraying blood and brains in a fan-shaped pattern on the airport floor—the mere thought of it brought back feelings that Mikola had not let himself feel in years. He could smell battle. And even though he would not strike the blow himself, it made him feel no less triumphant to know that Baba Yaga would never survive in a world where he had managed to preserve a niche for himself and his beloved Sophia.

The whole drive to the airport had been awkward. Ruth just didn't have that much to say to Ivan's parents. During Ivan's long absence in Russia, Ruth had tried to keep in close contact with her future in-laws, and at first it seemed to work, but as the months went by, she got more and more of a sense that they entertained her only out of a sense of duty. In fact, Ivan's father was always distracted—nice, almost too nice, for a few minutes, then anxious to get back to his work. Back to his books. How terrible, for the husband to work at home. Much better the way her parents were—leave the job at the office, come home and really be home. Of course, Ivan would probably expect to live like his father, since they were both pursuing the same career. And that would be fine, Ruth would learn to live with it, that distraction, that there-but-not-there coolness. Besides, unlike Mrs. Smetski, Ruth would have a job. A career of her own.

Mrs. Smetski. She was the problem. Ruth suspected from the start that Mrs. Smetski thought that Ivan could have found a better girl to marry. She wasn't distracted like Professor Smetski. On the contrary, she focused completely, almost smotheringly, on Ruth. But there was this sense of amusement in everything she said. A sense of irony. I know something you don't know.

Ruth had tried to point it out to Ivan, but he never saw it. "That's just Mom," he'd say. "She's always having an out-of-body experience. Looking down on everything from the ceiling. Never part of it. It's nothing to do with you."

But Ruth knew better. A woman knows these things—though of course she didn't say that to Ivan, he got quite testy when Ruth asserted her female power, as if her womanliness threatened him. Of course, he tried to sound like a doctrinaire feminist about it. "Either the only differences between men and women are cultural, or they're innate," Ivan would say. "So if you go for the women's intuition thing, then you have to take that whole package, pedestal and all. And if you want equality, then you have to give up that idea that women have secret ways of knowing."

As if.

But, for the sake of harmony, she allowed his threatened male ego to have its protected space, and didn't push the point. She simply knew, that's all, that Mrs. Smetski disdained her for some reason.

And during the months while Ivan was gone, it became more obvious. Ivan's dad had work to do; Mrs. Smetski had no such excuse. She would wander out of a room sometimes when Ruth was talking. And it wasn't an accident, either. Because when she came back in, she'd resume the conversation with a bland, "You were saying, Ruthie?" in that thickly accented English.

To her, I don't exist. Ruthie could reach no other conclusion.

Come home, Ivan, before your parents make me have second thoughts.

Well, the time had finally come. Of course Mrs. Smetski had hinted that maybe Ruthie should drive her own car, but Professor Smetski put the kibosh on that immediately. "We have to go together, it would be cruel to make Vanya choose between his parents and his bride-to-be. You know he would choose the bride, and then wouldn't we feel foolish!"

"I just thought it might be crowded on the ride home," said Mrs. Smetski.

Crowded? It wasn't as though their car was tiny. Like so many Russians, the Smetskis luxuriated in the American sense of scale. A big old Crown Victoria was their choice—cheap, for a big car; or was it big for a cheap one? Plenty of room.

Too much room. Professor Smetski tried to get Mrs. Smetski to sit in back with Ruth on the way there, "to keep her company," but Mrs. Smetski just laughed and said, "You know I get sick in the back seat," and that was that. And when Ruth tried to engage them in conversation, Professor Smetski was the only one who seemed to be paying attention, and not very much at that. Mrs. Smetski just looked at the scenery. Trees were trees. Ruth knew that Mrs. Smetski was looking at them just so she didn't have to talk to Ruth.

Ivan, we have to have a talk. Your parents don't like me, or at least your mother doesn't, and that's a problem. Then he would kiss her and reassure her that it would never be a problem, Mom likes you just fine, yadda yadda.

Maybe the whole thing was a mistake. Maybe Mrs. Smetski was right, Ivan was charming, smart, fascinating with his sultry foreignness, that fragility hidden within the muscular, lithe runner's body, the sensitive eyes in a sculpted face. But charm, intelligence, and good looks, did they add up to love? As Ruth's own mother kept saying, What kind of boy is it asks a girl to marry him, then he runs off to Russia for long enough to get a girl pregnant and watch it be born before he comes home to his fiancée?

She didn't even want to think about that. Ivan wasn't that kind of boy, damn his shyness. It was so embarrassing to tell the girls at college that no, they hadn't slept together, Ivan believed in waiting—the whooping and laughing! "He's gay," they all said at once, and when she assured them that she had ample reason to believe that he was not, they treated her like she was in love with a cripple. "Did he have a childhood injury?" one of them asked, and then it became a joke. Ruth's fiancé's tragic childhood injury. They kept thinking up some new malady to explain his lack of sexual drive. "He has elephantiasis of the testicles"—that was a favorite—"his balls weigh thirty pounds each." Or "he was just one of those kids who slides down every banister, even the ones with those cruel little spikes every few feet." Or "his parents left him alone with the cat and without a diaper, and you know how cats are when they find something to play with."

The thing is, some of their joking was genuinely funny. Ruth felt disloyal to laugh at such crude talk about her future husband's private parts, but wasn't it his own fault? She had done everything but strip naked and hide in his bed, and he just laughed and kissed her and said, "Plenty of time for that when we're married."

Here's a news flash, Ivan. The reason I wanted to sleep with you was not because I thought we were going to run out of time later!

But it was also kind of sweet. After all the boys who had tried to get into her pants from the time she was eleven, or at least so it seemed in retrospect, Ivan was an entirely different creature.

No, he couldn't be gay. Damn them for making her wonder.

If Mrs. Smetski had only been willing to talk, Ruth wouldn't have been thinking about all these negatives. About how Ivan's letters grew rarer and rarer as the months went by. How he wrote romantically at first, but more perfunctorily later. You'd think he'd be getting hornier, wouldn't you? Unless he found somebody else.

Somebody Russian. Somebody from his childhood. Some woman who'd set her cap for him the moment he arrived, since he represented a ticket to the States. Long walks along the river—there was a river in Kiev, wasn't there?—talking in his beloved Russian, discussing Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy or—who was that poet? Eugene Onegin? No, that was the name of the poem. Pushcart? Pushpin?

Pushkin!

Or maybe he was just into his research and there was no woman. This was Ivan, after all. Not the ordinary man. She wouldn't have fallen in love with him if he were the kind of man who couldn't keep his word to the woman he loved. Not that he'd actually given his word. Ruth could imagine that conversation. "No getting laid in Ukraine, my love." "Oh, really? That would bother you? All right, my pet." "No kissing either." "But in Russia, we kiss for greeting!" "No tongue." "Definitely no tongue. Thank you for providing me with moral guidelines for traveling fiancés! You think of everything!"

"Good flying weather," said Professor Smetski as they got out of the car at the airport.

"A clear day," said Ruth.

"I mean, no wind," said the professor. "Safer for landing."

"The USAir terminal is this way," said Mrs. Smetski. Then she took off, and Ruth and Professor Smetski had to make their way as best they could.

So there they stood, making small talk—smaller even than usual—watching the gate to see him the moment he appeared. Like a contest—I caught first glimpse of him, so I love him more! And then he appears, bearded, suntanned—definitely a scholarly look! Oh, he was hard at the books, wasn't he!—and he was helping a woman up the ramp, wasn't he? How nice.

Only she didn't leave him when they reached the door. In fact, his arm was around her waist, guiding her along. She was... she was with him.

Ruth felt sick. The woman was Russian, but not in that exaggerated wide-faced almost-Mongolian way that gave you a pretty good idea what the Golden Horde was doing all those years they ruled the steppe. She wasn't Nordic, either. Something else. But one thing was certain: Definitely not Jewish. Not that Ruthie was politically incorrect, of course; it was her duty to pretend that you couldn't tell a Russian Jew just by looking. But in this case, you could certainly tell that she was not a Jew. In fact, if she had been born to a Jewish mother, this girl would constitute proof of adultery.

Someone he met. That's all. Some scholarly woman who was coming to America anyway and he accompanied her because... because... her English wasn't good!

Surely he wouldn't bring her home, though, as a guest. Well, what if he did? This stranger wasn't Ivan's fiancée, Ruth was—and Ruth would make sure that Ivan had very little time to lounge around home with this shiksa princess. If the girl wanted to speak Russian, Ivan's parents would be excellent company for her. While Ruth would make sure that she was Ivan's constant companion.

They came closer, and there was something in the way that Ivan looked. A shiftiness. He saw Ruth, smiled at her sheepishly, but then he looked down, looked away. Looked at his mother and father. Anywhere but at the girl. Pretending that he didn't know she was there. But still, his arm around her waist. Ushering, sheltering, protecting. That is not her place, you bastard. You let somebody else into my place.

Don't get angry. You don't know yet.

Yes you do.

Katerina? Oh, what a pleasure, says Professor Smetski.

And back comes a string of Russian.

Only it isn't Russian, is it? Or if it is, it's some weird accent, anyway, because Professor Smetski asks her to repeat what she said, and when he answers her it's with a different tone from the way he usually speaks. And his eyes are wide and he's absolutely fascinated with her language.

But Mrs. Smetski, she's completely wacked out. Smiling. Like a kid who won the prize. Doesn't try to talk to the shiksa, but just loves her. Hug hug, kiss kiss kiss, hug again. Can't take her eyes off this goyishe princess.

And princess is right. The way the girl holds herself. As if the space around her for about six blocks belongs to her. As if Ivan belongs to her. And not like a man, either, but like a... servant. She thinks she owns him. Like Nancy Reagan, that's what she looks like, beaming because this man is hers. Defiant, arrogant.

And all the time Ruth was thinking this, Ivan was talking. "I met her near Cousin Marek's place. She wanted to visit in America, but she never studied English, so I volunteered."

Ruth wanted to scream at him, "That's a lie, you moron! She's obviously more than some neighbor girl you're doing a favor for! Tell the truth, tell it right away, and have done with it!"

Instead, Ruth went hug hug, kiss kiss kiss, and hug again. "What a lovely girl," she said. "Are you Ivan's niece?"

Ivan laughed