Horse Boy, Bee Girl , Bride Chapters 18, 19

Yakshah

The morning after Yasna disappeared, the Slaveni were in an uproar. They sent a party to search for her, but they did not find her. Morana said her disappearance was proof of her witchery, but most thought she had been taken by the spirits to live in the woods where she had been happiest, gathering her herbs to make medicines.

Yaroslav became an old man overnight, and shrived up and sat in front of the doorstop, day after day, useless, gazing up at nothing. Sometimes he wandered down by the river, looking into the water and one day he was found, drowned, though he had a peaceful expression on his face. People said he had gone mad looking for his daughter.

Mitar and the others sent me far from the Slaveni, to the grasslands, where one day is just like another, unchanging, with no relief on the horizon, save an occasional blackbird that rises on the wind and glides over the empty sky.

Morana found herself a good husband among them, but is unhappy still and spreads her mischief and lies. The people tolerate her, and she sits, fat and content among them, because it is their nature to love gossip and spread envy.

Mitar never let Yasna return to the Slaveni. He bound her with his love and desire, the way I bound the Bee Girl to me. I saw her put the crown of a bride on her head, and they were married, and some say his wounds were healed.

Yasna still tends to the sick. She walks in the woods, but she is no longer poor and barefoot, and Mitar seeks her wise council. I have heard that they are often seen walking, heads together, murmuring in their own special language, the way that lovers who are truly united often do, but perhaps that is a story, because true love never lasts but passes like the seasons.

I think about the Bee Girl’s love, sometimes with regret, before I remember that I am a solitary man, and that it will always be my nature and my curse to love the silence and the wind and the horses more than any other living being.

Vesna

I never left the space between worlds. The memories of that summer and all that had passed swirled in the air, became alive again, and bound me to Yakshah for the duration of his life on earth.

There is a puddle on the road. The rain has just stopped, and there is a freshness in the air. Everything is green and verdant. Clouds are moving rapidly and gather once again. He remembers a puddle, remembers rain drops beginning to hit it obliquely, remembers me running through the rain to meet him, remembers lifting me up onto his horse as we wait out the storm under a canopy of leaves, our skins wet, and feels the heat from our bodies as we turn to face each other.

He remembers the sultriness of the day, the song of the cicadas, the empty blue sky, the scorched grasses, the steam rising off the earth after a passing rain shower; remembers our bodies, ablaze, and then remembers the water, cool, murky, with unknown depths, mud squishing between our toes – green water, green trees, green marshes, blue skies.

He remembers the fall of my hair, the angle of my hip, the arch of my foot, the color of my skin; remembers when he doesn’t want to; remembers when he is alone.

He remembers the leaves swirling, falling off trees – straw and gold, falling in a spiral, remembers sending me away, watching my face fall, my smile fade, my head lower. And he remembers watching me get smaller and smaller, and disappear in the distance.

All this he remembers in the song of the earth, because I am part of it, forever, in the seasons, in the wind and the rain.

Horse Boy, Bee Girl, Bride Chapters 16, 17

Morana

Mitar did not believe me when I said that the truth must be known and thought I had accused Yasna because of my jealousy. He said it was clear to him that it was over the man, Vladimir.

‘If Yasna told you that then she is a fool and knows nothing of the human heart,’ I replied insolently, though I was frightened both of him and the one they called Yakshah.

Then he sat opposite me, and looked at me with those terrible yellow eyes, the eyes of a wolf, and said, ‘It’s terrible not be seen, isn’t it?

‘Yes, it is terrible. It was terrible how Yakshah did not see Vesna, nor how much love she had for him.’

Mitar started and then he understood all. Yakshah was mute, but his expression did not deny it, and I could see that he had steeled himself and would not make excuses.

‘We did not want trouble between our people, Yasna and I,’ was all he said.

Mitar considered this, and asked, ‘Do you still claim that Yasna enchanted Vesna in light of this, Morana?’

I shrugged and kept silent. When they saw I would not say more they left. I went o sleep and did not think about it any more. Fate had already decided what the morning would bring.

 

 

Yasna

 

I could see the Lords had no faith in my power, and did not believe in my word, and so I reconciled myself to my fate, whatever it might be. Both death and exile were unknown lands to me. But then I grew angry. Why should I give my life up? I wondered. There was nothing here but a malicious tongue and an unloving man, both of whom had set the wheels of fate in motion with their selfish deeds. I will speak the truth and let true justice be done, but again I grew afraid that there would be trouble between the two peoples, my own and that of the Outlanders, who could be violent, and who could know where the violence would end?

I could see the moon through the window, and thought I would climb out, past the sleeping guards, past the dogs who knew and trusted me, and make my way down the road before the village wakened.

I was thinking how far I could get when the Lord, Mitar, came to me. He placed his finger over his lips and led me out of the cell and out of the compound, and putting a mantle of fur around me, helped me onto his horse. He led it to the grove of trees where I had called Vesna back and asked if I could call his son, who had died last year.

‘I feel him around me. I know that he is here,’ Mitar said.

‘It is not the season of the moon, and I have no effigy,’ I replied. But Mitar gave me the boy’s horse bridle, and I held in my hands.

‘His name was Urosh.’

The night was dark; the air was clear and cold. I told the Lord to step back, and I circled around, widdershins, inside the grove of trees, faster and faster, holding the bridal up to the sky. I twirled about, until I felt that I was ready, and I called out to Urosh, son of Mitar, to appear. Lightning cracked and the trees shook. Mitar picked me up from where I had fallen, and stood with his arm about me, waiting. No form appeared, only a voice that boomed out of the darkness.

‘Go home, Father. It is not me that you feel around you, but your own thoughts, which are uneasy. I live well here and am eternal. Do not blame yourself for what was done, for I took the risk myself, heedless of your warnings, and drove the horses badly and thus broke my own neck.

‘The girl you will save, for she has done nothing, and it was Yakshah that loved the other, who drowned herself for sorrow.’

Mitar called out and asked for his dead, his wife and infant daughter, but there was no answer, and I could see he was broken. He fell to his knees and did not rise for a long time, and I stayed with him, comforting him. 

Horse Boy, Bee Girl , Bride chapter 15

Yaroslav

I tossed and turned on my pallet, unable to sleep. My wife had been coughing throughout the night and had woken me up. I looked at her thin yellowed face and I thought of Yasna, alone in that cell, and how she had looked throughout her trial. I rose to dress myself. It would be nothing, I thought, for me to free her, and she could slip away into the woods, and later I could pretend to have some business abroad, and I could take a horse and help her get to a far away village that we traded with where I had friends. But then wrong thoughts came upon me, and I began to think that I would stay with her and make her love me. I was a man among men, robust and vital still. I would give my house to my sons. It was time for them to step out of my shadow and grow into themselves, and my wife would not miss me. She had guilt enough for us both, and I was tired of living a half life.

I had begun to put on my leggings, but then a sudden weariness overtook me, and I fell back on the straw. Was she guilty of drowning my daughter, I wondered and has she enchanted me to see past her crimes and make me lust after her as I did? I closed my eyes and fell into that land between sleep and waking where strange dreams arise and mix with our daily lives.

I knew I was standing at the spot where Vesna had been pulled out of the water, but it all looked different somehow, blue and clear to the pebbles at the bottom. I looked into the water and saw a submerged woman, lying still.

‘Vesna!’ I called out, and she opened her eyes. She held out her arms to me, and I saw it was not my daughter, but another. Her skin was pale, her hair was green, an icy chill surrounded her. She opened her mouth to speak but only air bubbles escaped it.

Across the the span of my forehead, I heard everything she said clearly: Yaroslav, you hounded me, though I did not want you. You were betrothed to another and I was already a mother, but you thought that because I had no man to protect me that you could have me. You caught me in the woods that day, and though you did not mean to, you killed me. I ran from you, and when you felled me, you saw the blood that poured from my head. You were afraid, and you laid me in the water, and thought that no one saw you. I saw and knew, and what I could not forgive is that you let my child grow up wild as she did, without once extending your hand to help her. And now you want justice for your own, while my child, innocent and humble, will suffer for it.

I was moaning and shaking when my wife woke me.

Hose Boy Bee Girl, Bride chapter 14

Yakshah

Mitar called me to him and said he and I would go to the girl’s house and see what was what for ourselves. He was expressionless and it was impossible to know what was on his mind. I thought, I’ll tell him about the Bee Girl now and have done with it, but then I will be censured for letting things go this far. I knew him to be a temperamental man, and decided perhaps it would be best to wait until it was certain the girl was doomed. It was just as likely he would come to his own conclusions.

But when we entered the poor hut where she lived, we saw an old woman sitting, nearly frozen, under a pile of leaves near a hearth that had burned out. She was half starved, and Mitar reached under his cloak and gave her a loaf of bread he had with him. She looked at him through milky eyes, and moved her toothless gums to speak, but had lost the words. I looked at the hut and the aromatic herbs and dried flowers that hung from the rafters, and it was as sweet smelling as any meadow in spring. The old woman reached for Mitar’s hand and made to kiss it, but he took pity on her and taking off his cloak put it around her. It was fine, and I was sorry to see it go though he had many such.

‘Where is your child, Old Mother?’ he asked. But the woman was too old and weak to speak. In my mind, I saw a series of images that passed through her memory and if she had been speaking, she would have said the following:

‘She drowned long ago, fine sir. They say the Rusalke saw her beauty and pulled her down to live with them under the waters. But my girl was pure of heart and as filled with light as any that walked this earth. Nay, they would not want her. Someone put her there; someone who saw that light and wanted it for himself.

‘I raised the girl, her daughter, to be a sturdier kind. But her heart is pure as well, and when evil falls on the people, they will seek to snuff out the light, as that girl, Morana, who has none of her own, chose to do. The others will turn their heads away, they will speak with lying tongues and feel righteous and pure, and all the while, they know they are doing wrong, as they did when they let the death of my daughter go unpunished.’

The Lord Mitar heard her as well, and clicked his tongue, but he did not say what he was thinking, save to order me to see the old woman was looked after. But as we were leaving, we saw someone standing in the shadows, and Mitar called him out. It was the man they called Vladimir, the one who had been the lover of Yasna.

‘I’ve brought the old woman some food,’ he said, holding up a bundle for us to see. Mitar nodded and asked, ‘You believe in the innocence of the woman. You seem to care for her still, but you gave her up for the one who is dead. Why is that I wonder?’

Vladimir looked at Mitar straight in the eyes. ‘It is said that I am greedy for riches, and the patronage of Yaroslav, but that is not the reason why. Yasna is a free woman and will never never be able to settle into a domestic life. There is too much of her to contain, and though I loved her and care for her still, I would never make her my wife. I did not understand this at the beginning, but only later did the idea grow in me.’

I could see Mitar was intrigued by this though he remained silent. He mounted his horse and we rode away. I thought we would retire for the night, but he said we had one more stop to make.

Horse Boy, Bee Girl , Bride chapters 12, 13

Yasna

‘Morana, how could you accuse me of this, when you know the story?’ I ask, grabbing her arm.

‘I know nothing for sure,’ she says innocently. ‘If you are blameless, you will have no cause for worry.’

‘We’ve been friends our whole life.’

‘Hunh, friends. Yasna, the good and pure. She thinks little of herself, yet she tells everyone else what to do.’

‘Is this about Vladimir? I know you think you love him, but love is not something to be gotten by trickery.’

‘Yasna, you’re so wise. But men fall for women’s tricks and can’t tell goodness and nobility from evil as long as a pretty face and a plump figure is presented before them.’

‘You can make choices how to live your life,’ I say.

‘Can I? We all have our natures and mine is such.’

‘To be malicious?’

‘We’ll see who will win, ‘ she says, shaking off my grip and flouncing away.

Morana

The trial was set. Yasna was taken and held in the pens. The Outlanders arrived, great Lords on their fine horses, clad in mantles of sable and fox and armor made from silver filigree and pared horses hooves.

Yasna wore her only fine dress, the one that Tsveta had given her, and though she was dirty and her hair matted, a hush came over the men when she walked in the room.

She said nothing when the charges were read. She looked at me with frank contempt and refused to look at the Outlander, the one they call Yakshah.

The Lords asked her if she had a hand in Vesna’s death, and she said, no, she had neither cursed her, nor pulled her into the water.

They say there are tribes who subject the guilty to trials by fire or water, but there is no such thing here. We swear our oath which is considered holy. She swore to her innocence and said nothing more.

The chief of the Outlanders, the one with the ferocious yellow eyes they called Mitar, called me to testify, and I said I had found the doll and knew Yasna had the powers and could have easily willed Vesna into the water where she was drowned.

‘Why would Yasna do that?’ Mitar asked.

I replied, it was all for the sake of Vladimir. But Vladimir stood and shouted, ‘Yasna would never do such a thing.’ And all the Lords could see that he still loved the woman, and it made the case against her stronger. The one called Mitar said they would take time to discuss this.

When they retired, Vladimir caught me by the arm and called me a little bitch. ‘Everyone knows what you have done.’

‘Then why doesn’t everyone stand against me, ‘I replied. ‘No. It is you and Yasna they suspect,’ for now I could see he loathed me, and I would never have him.

When the Lords returned, they called Yasna and asked her about the doll, and she said, ‘I called Vesna back from the dead to hear her story. She told me she died of grief for one unnamed, whom she loved deeply. Yet he did not return her love.’

The Lords exchanged looks, and Mitar said, ‘This is a great power to have, one like no other. Can you call Vesna forth again so that she may tell her story?’

Yasna said, it only worked if the dead chose to return, and Vesna had chosen to go to the light and would not come back now.

I could see the Lords did not believe her now, and she was taken back to her cell.

Horse Boy, Bee Girl, Bride chapters 10, 11

Yakshah

 

Frost is on the grasses and makes the tree branches creak and break. Fierce winds have begun to blow. My horse shifts, and to warm ourselves, we ride around the perimeter of the borderlands. I’m wearing thick felt boots and a fur jacket and hat, but I still feel the chill.

A white haired youth appears out of the woods and standing on the path, waves me down.

‘I am the son of Yaroslav. If you are Yakshah, I have a message for you.’

‘I am he.’

‘My father wishes to speak to you.’

‘Concerning?’

‘The matter of my sister’s death.’

I freeze, wondering what is known. ‘What about it?’ I manage to say.

‘Come to see him. It’s important.’

I take a chance. ‘You people should settle your own affairs.’

The youth shrugs, kicks the dirt with his toe and saunters away, spitting to the wind. If anything was known about the Bee Girl and me, he would have said so, I reckon.

 

 

Yaroslav

 

The people are divided in their opinion. Some think Yasna is guilty and some think she is not. The Outlanders provide the law here, and I have sent informal word to the one of the guards, but have not heard a thing. Now, I will have to go above him to receive justice. Yasna claims she only wanted to send Vesna’s soul to rest, but why would she need to if she didn’t suspect something was amiss? She seems to know something but is not telling.

Morana, with her yapping tongue, has turned the women against her. No one asks for Yasna’s help any more. Morana whispers that Yasna and Vladimir meet in the woods, but Vladimir denies it, and I believe him.

I would believe that Morana has designs on Vladimir herself, but it is known that he will now wait for my small daughter. What purpose could she have, unless she believes her cause is just?

Horse Boy, Bee Girl, Bride Chapters 8, 9

Yakshah

The green world dies unto itself. The leaves turn russet and gold, red and deep brown. There’s a mist in the mornings now, wafting over the land like spirits of the dead. Things are a bit more silent, a bit more still. The horse knows the cold is coming and is slower in the mornings, less eager to go abroad.

I’ve waited for the harvest to pass, waited to see Yasna again. We let these people settle their own affairs, but I was anxious to hear if anything is yet known. I see her one day, on the road in early morning. I’ve asked around and know she is their healer. She is in a hurry, chin held high, thinly dressed despite the cold.

I emerge from the woods and maneuver my horse in front of her.

‘Step aside, Yakshah. I have a woman in childbirth to see to,’ she says.

‘I’ll step aside Yasna, but tell me what is known among your people.’

‘Yaroslav is still asking questions. But he does not suspect Vladimir any longer, nor that there was such a one as you. His wife now believes the Rusalke dragged Vesna into the water. A virgin bride, to live among them.’

‘The wicked one has not spoken?’

She shakes her head no.

‘And how goes it with you?’

She seems surprised that I have asked. ‘Everything is the same as it was and always will be,’ she replies, walking past me.

I’ll keep my eye out for her just the same.

 

Morana

 

The truth must be told and justice be done. Yasna is my friend but she cannot be spared, for she has done wrong. I have certainty now, though I did not want to accept it. I take my proof and walk to Yaroslav’s compound, through the large timber gates, and the courtyard, where his pigs bask in the mud and sun, and chickens peck at the ground for grain.

‘I’m here to see Yaroslav,’ I tell his son Kreshimir, a towheaded, chinless youth, who gazes at me, slack jawed, wondering what business I could have.

‘Go on, then,’ I say, and he enters Yaroslav’s fine house that is large and airy, and roofed with thatch and girdled with mortar that is white washed. Clouds gather overhead, thickly. Soon the cold will be coming.

Kreshimir signals me to come in. Yaroslav is waiting, tall and broad as an oak. He plants his legs in front of me, waiting.

I take the doll out of my pocket, and he stares at it grimly.

‘Where did you find this?’ he asks, looking at the doll which is so like Vesna.

‘Only one person has the skill to make a doll like that. I found it in her house.’ I say. A dark shadow passes over his face. He has seen Yasna’s work before. She fashions our effigies.

‘And you her loyal friend,’ he says.

‘Justice comes before loyalty,’ I say.

He has a hard look. ‘Get out,’ he says. But he keeps the doll.

Horse Boy, Bee Girl, Bride Chapters 6, 7

Yakshah

The breeze is gentle, the sun has returned, one last tease, a flicker of summer before the leaves turn. My horse executes a few fancy steps, crossing one leg over the other. Man and horse, joined in purpose, of one mind, become one being. He snorts, and smells of himself: of earth and musk and grasses and hay. His scent is part of me, within my very self.

‘Yakshah!’ I hear my name being called and start. From the tree line, a nut brown girl emerges and moves easily through the grasses towards me. She knows who I am.

The horse nickers when she approaches. She puts her hand on his neck, and he exhales with pleasure.

‘I came to tell you, if you haven’t heard already.’

‘What is it?’

‘Vesna drowned in the river.’

The Bee Girl. She was so sweet. The Nut Brown Girl looks directly into my eyes to gage my reaction. She is somber, a flicker of her head, the question is unasked. She knows at once it was a summer dalliance, nothing more. She exhales heavily.

‘You knew she was betrothed?’

‘She told me only afterward.’

She seems to be thinking.

‘What is it?’

‘I am certain she loved you. Yet, she wasn’t unhappy.’

I know what she is getting at. ‘I told her no more than the usual lover’s lies.’

‘Tsk,’ she says. ‘I wonder if she knew that.’

‘I made it very clear the last time we met.’ Our eyes meet, and we both know at once the Bee Girl drowned herself for sorrow.

We’re the military elite here; the Slaveni yield to us. The Brown Girl knows there will be trouble if the truth comes out, either way.

‘They’ll hear nothing from me,’ she says. She’ll protect her people.

‘Who else knows?’

‘One other, who is malicious and attributes her ways to the ways of the world. But I will take care of her myself.’

‘All right. Shall I give you a ride back?’

‘I have my own two legs,’ she looks at me darkly and disappears through the grasses as silently as she came.

‘What’s your name?’ I shout after her.

‘Yasna!’ is carried on the wind.

 

Yasna

 

Vesna’s hair, a doll made from clay, her effigy, herbs for burning, the full moon. In a grove, I burn the herbs and chant spells, calling for Vesna’s spirit to return.

‘Come and tell me the tale for I have not heard it, and your parents have had no peace since they took you from the water.’

A cold wind blows all around me and my hair rises on end. A pale apparition floats in the blue distance and grows near.

‘Oh my dearest dear, I’m so cold and alone,’ it says.

‘You’re lost, but you’ll find your way when your sorrow has been laid to rest.’

‘I was so deceived.’

‘By the Outlander?’

She is silent and holds her hands out to me imploringly. I reach for her and touch the air around me.

‘I deceived myself. He made no promises, told no lies. I thought he loved me as I loved him. But he didn’t. Every day he loved me, he bound me to himself more and more. I thought he’d take me to his people, and you and Vladimir, too, would be free…’

‘Vladimir and your father have come to an understanding. He will wait for your small sister, Mila, now,’ I say.

‘He loves riches more than he could love any woman. I could not live with him after this summer. And the Outlander did not want me.’

‘Oh Vesna, but to take your own life!’

‘There is nothing more terrible than rejection, to know that you have loved in vain, and to realize that you are not loved in return. I wept for him and could not staunch my tears. There was a hole in my heart that grew bigger and bigger, until it was a physical pain. I thought the stories of the Ruslake might be true, but here, I see nothing other than spirits, lost like lights in a fog. I was a fool.’

‘Forgive yourself. ‘ I say. Forgive yourself for being young, for believing in love, for ending life too soon.

‘What will you do, now that Vladimir belongs to another?’ she asks.

‘I will continue healing the people as my mother and grandmother and those before her have done.’

‘The Outlander said his people worship the light that is behind all things that are apparent to us.’

‘Then go toward the light, if you can see it, and if there is none, then bind your spirit to the green trees, and the waters, and all the good things that grow on earth, our great mother, but do not remain lost in the fog.’

I feel love emanating from her before she disappears like a white wisp in the night, and I fall asleep in the grove under starlight

Horse Boy, Bee Girl, Bride chapter 6

Yaroslav

There need be a reckoning and justice must be done. I’ll hear the people and all they have to say. I call my wife, Tsveta, into the room first. She has not been well since Mila was born. She takes cures from the girl Yasna and her old grandmother.

Tsveta is thin and almost transparent. Every step is a hardship for her. She’s walking on knives she tells me, but most of the time, she lays abed, not complaining. It’s hard for me, I am still vigorous, but I take hold of myself and keep my temper in check.

‘She was happy,’ Tsveta says. ‘She had that look that young brides have. She was singing on her way to gather honey each day and happy when she came back. Could she have slipped and fallen into the water?’

But we both know our daughter was a strong swimmer and would have removed her cloths on the banks of the river. She looks down.

‘What is it?’

‘The girl, Morana, let it be known that Vladimir and Yasna were together many times.’

I think about this and ask her to bring Yasna to me.

 

Yasna quickens my pulse, but many men look at her with lust. Her eyes are like amber and her hair is the color of nuts. She’s brown from the sun, long legged and full figured.

‘Sit down, my child,’ I say. ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of.’ I put my hand on her shoulder to reassure her, but she can feel my heat burning her and shrinks away from me.

‘It’s true, I loved Valdimir, but I knew that after he was betrothed that he was not mine, and so I gave up all thought of him,’ she says.

So easily, I wonder. ‘You’ll not find many the likes of him,’ I say for Vladimir is the best of our young man, and often I had wished my own sons were like him in beauty and in strength.

‘I loved him, but life holds no hardship for me. You pity me my rags and herbs, but I am free and have no wish to marry another.’

‘You only wanted him?’

‘Yes.’

‘And you were prepared to drown my daughter to get him?’

‘No.’ She says this quietly and evenly. There is authority in her tone.

‘You can have him now that he is free again.’

‘Perhaps. Perhaps our time is over.’

‘And Vladimir, what was he prepared to do to keep you?’

‘I believe he found it more of an honor to be the son-in-law of a rich man than to keep the love of a poor girl.’

I see. This girl is different. She is stronger than the rest. I need time to think.

‘We will speak more on it,’ I say. Rising, she slides out of the room soundlessly.

Horse Boy, Bee Girl, Bride chapters 4&5

Yaroslav

 

Chickens are squawking in the yard. There’s a great commotion; heated male voices, shouting and confusion, then, the wailing of women. As the headman, I must calm them, but as I step outside I see my sons, Cheslav and Kreshimir, running out of the compound, followed by our men and a slew of girls. I wipe my hands on my apron and follow. They’re headed toward the river.

I’m running now. My small daughter, Mila, runs alongside me. She senses something is wrong and is wide-eyed with fear. A crowd is gathered at the banks, I push my way through them, and see Cheslav wading through the reeds and motioning to his brother, who rushes to help him. They haul a sodden body out, and as they carry it, water pours off in rivulets, like rain. Everything slows down. It is as if I am deaf, and all I can hear is the throbbing of my own pulse as it quickens. Vladimir stands next to me, struck dumb. It is Vesna, my daughter, his bride. I close her eyes and pick her up. The crowd parts, and I carry her down the long road back home.

I swear by Rod and Crnobog that whoever has done this will pay the price.

 

Yasna

 

A watery death, peaceful and clean; Vesna is asleep among the grasses and weeds.

‘Did you tell Vladimir what you saw?’ I ask, but Morana denies it. She’s lying, of course. I see it in her eyes. We’re picking berries in the thicket, and she won’t meet my gaze.

‘You must never tell. Yaroslav will think the deed was done as revenge. He will blame Vladimir.’

‘What if it was the Outlander?’ Morana asks.

‘He had no reason.’

‘Vladimir had reason besides revenge. He wants you,’ she says, stuffing the berries in her mouth, until her lips turn purple. ‘He had you on the summer solstice. He wants you again.’

I don’t answer her. How does she know these things? But she was always like that, from her smallest steps, always busy, always watching other people.

‘On Yarilo, this spring, we walked next to each other,’ I say. I carried wildflowers, and he carried green fronds. I had a new dress, a gift from Vesna’s mother for helping ease her pains this winter when she was ill. I had embroidered the white linen with red thread. When Vladimir looked at me, I could see what he was thinking, and a bolt of pleasure shot through my body. We followed the procession and went from house to house, singing songs of spring and reawakening. We gave each other pisanke: goose eggs, colored red and white, as gifts.

‘On Kresh, we sat together at the bonfires, drinking and feasting. I danced with you and the other girls around the fire, and he leaped over it and danced; jumping and twirling, just for me.’ We ran away, like other couples, and fell to the ground under the stars. Our union blessed the fields and the animals. Afterward we went to the river to bathe. I’m dreamy, remembering. The seventh month came and passed. He was betrothed to Vesna then, and then after Perunovo, the holy days of thunder, we saw each other no more.

‘He can be yours by Bozhich. The old year will die and the new year will be reborn, and you and he with it,’ she says.

I wonder what’s in it for her, my faithful friend. ‘Don’t tell anyone Vladimir knew about Vesna and the Outlander. Promise me you’ll keep him safe.’

She looks straight at me with those empty blue eyes and says, ‘I promise.’