The Girl in the Tower (The Winternight Trilogy, #2)

The Girl in the Tower (The Winternight Trilogy, #2)

Katherine Arden

The storm haze shrouds the sky

Spinning snowy whirlwinds

Now it howls like a beast

Now cries like a child

Suddenly rustles the rotten thatch

On our run-down roof

Now like a late traveler

It knocks at our window.



A girl rode a bay horse through a forest late at night. This forest had no name. It lay far from Moscow—far from anything—and the only sound was the snow’s silence and the rattle of frozen trees.

Almost midnight—that wicked, magic hour—on a night menaced by ice and storm and the abyss of the featureless sky. And yet this girl and her horse went on through the wood, dogged.

Ice coated the fine hairs about the horse’s jaw; the snow mounded on his flanks. But his eye was kind beneath his snow-covered forelock, and his ears moved cheerfully, forward and back.

Their tracks stretched far into the forest, half-swallowed by new snow.

Suddenly the horse halted and raised his head. Among the rattling trees in front of them lay a fir-grove. The firs’ feathery boughs twined together, their trunks bent like old men.

The snow fell faster, catching in the girl’s eyelashes and in the gray fur of her hood. There was no sound but the wind.

Then—“I can’t see it,” she said to the horse.

The horse slanted an ear and shook off snow.

“Perhaps he is not at home,” the girl added, doubtfully. Whispers on the edge of speech seemed to fill the darkness beneath the fir-trees.

But as though her words were a summoning, a door among the firs—a door she hadn’t seen—opened with the crack of breaking ice. A swath of firelight bloodied the virgin snow. Now, quite plainly, a house stood in this fir-grove. Long, curling eaves capped its wooden walls, and in the snow-torn firelight, the house seemed to lie breathing, crouched in the thicket.

The figure of a man appeared in the gap. The horse’s ears shot forward; the girl stiffened.

“Come in, Vasya,” the man said. “It is cold.”


The Death of the Snow-Maiden

Moscow, just past midwinter, and the haze of ten thousand fires rose to meet a smothering sky. To the west a little light lingered, but in the east the clouds mounded up, bruise-colored in the livid dusk, buckling with unfallen snow.

Two rivers gashed the skin of the Russian forest, and Moscow lay at their joining, atop a pine-clad hill. Her squat, white walls enclosed a jumble of hovels and churches; her palaces’ ice-streaked towers splayed like desperate fingers against the sky. As the daylight faded, lights kindled in the towers’ high windows.

A woman, magnificently dressed, stood at one of these windows, watching the firelight mingle with the stormy dusk. Behind her, two other women sat beside an oven, sewing.

“That is the third time Olga has gone to the window this hour,” whispered one of the women. Her ringed hands flashed in the dim light; her dazzling headdress drew the eye from boils on her nose.

Waiting-women clustered nearby, nodding like blossoms. Slaves stood near the chilly walls, their lank hair wrapped in kerchiefs.

“Well, of course, Darinka!” returned the second woman. “She is waiting for her brother, the madcap monk. How long has it been since Brother Aleksandr left for Sarai? My husband has been waiting for him since the first snow. Now poor Olga is pining at her window. Well, good luck to her. Brother Aleksandr is probably dead in a snowbank.” The speaker was Eudokhia Dmitreeva, Grand Princess of Moscow. Her robe was sewn with gems; her rosebud mouth concealed the stumps of three blackened teeth. She raised her voice shrilly. “You will kill yourself standing in this wind, Olya. If Brother Aleksandr were coming, he would have been here by now.”

“As you say,” Olga replied coolly from the window. “I am glad you are here to teach me patience. Perhaps my daughter will learn from you how a princess behaves.”

Eudokhia’s lips thinned. She had no children. Olga had two, and was expecting a third before Easter.

“What is that?” said Darinka suddenly. “I heard a noise. Did you hear that?”

Outside, the storm was rising. “It was the wind,” said Eudokhia. “Only the wind. What a fool you are, Darinka.” But she shivered. “Olga, send for more wine; it is cold in this drafty room.”

In truth, the workroom was warm—windowless, save for the single slit—heated with a stove and many bodies. But—“Very well,” said Olga. She nodded at her servant, and the woman went out, down the steps into the freezing night.

“I hate nights like this,” said Darinka. She clutched her robe about her and scratched a scab on her nose. Her eyes darted from candle to shadow and back. “She comes on nights like this.”

“She?” asked Eudokhia sourly. “Who is she?”

“Who is she?” repeated Darinka. “You mean you don’t know?” Darinka looked superior. “She is the ghost.”

Olga’s two children, who had been arguing beside the oven, stopped screeching. Eudokhia sniffed. From her place by the window, Olga frowned.

“There is no ghost,” Eudokhia said. She reached for a plum preserved in honey, bit and chewed daintily, then licked the sweetness from her fingers. Her tone implied that this palace was not quite worthy of a ghost.

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