She paced the stones, her feet separated from the chill by sable-lined slippers. She was cold despite them, cold from her toes to her crown. Perhaps it was the vengeance of the fire, that she had not joined her husband in its embrace. Long ago, he had decided that he wished to be immolated in the manner of their ancestors. The Christ-folk had gawked and fled, horrified by what they saw as desecration to the body, but when Yvor’s corpse was at last returned to her by the treacherous vassals who had killed him, she had done as he had asked. Better, yes, to send a soul instantly unto the gods, rather than bury the flesh in the ground for the worms to feed upon.
She could think of many Drevlianian souls she would see denied the flames and devoured by worms. They were the souls of murderers who had taken a father from his son, a prince from his people.
A husband from his wife . . . no, for that she cared not at all.
As she passed through the stone corridors, she was vaguely aware of the slaves and warriors and druzhina, her personal attendants, all bowing to her, their Grand Princess. So empty, the obeisances; meant for the woman others had made of her. Daughter of one Grand Prince, wife—widow now—of another, mother of yet a third. A boy of five, she thought, her frozen fingers twisting around each other as she walked unseeingly through her dead husband’s stronghold on her way to she knew not where.
A boy of five. She had been twice his age when her father died and Yvor took dead Helgi’s golden earring and golden daughter for his own. They had the jewels now, her husband’s killers: two huge white lumps of pearl and a clot of blood-crimson ruby, the earring handed down since her people had come from the Dane-land to rule over the fractious Rus. The pearls: Tears of Freya. The ruby: a drop of Woden’s Blood. These sanctified the Grand Princes of Kyiv. The Drevlianians had sent back Yvor’s body but kept his symbol of power. Soon they would have more than the symbol. Those who had killed her husband would choose who would next wear the Tears and the Blood. It would not be her son.
Or perhaps it would be a son of her body—though certainly not the little boy now playing safely in his chamber. She was no longer young, but she was not yet too old for bearing. And suddenly through the frozen numbness of her fear there came fire’s heat. She would sink her father’s dagger into her own heart before any of the assassins took her to his bed to seed her body with a Grand Prince of Kyiv. Her son, her Sviatoslav, was the Grand Prince.
But they had the jewels. They would soon have her. Unless—
Grand Princess Olga swore loudly and violently, in words that would have made her father roar with laughter.
“Ah, I perceive you have awakened,” murmured a soft, oddly-cadenced voice.
Awakened, most certainly; she looked around and found she was in her own chambers, with no idea how she had arrived there. A fire blazed in the hearth, thick carpets softened her steps on the stone floor, and patterned woolen weavings flung bright colors across the walls. She strode to the bed and flung her sable cloak upon it, casting a sideways glance at the strange little man who had spoken from the shadows.
After all these years she was still unused to the angle of his eyes and the odd duskiness of his skin. In his youth, in his homeland, had this wizened creature been deemed handsome? Perhaps. She had no way of knowing if all the peoples of Serica looked like Master Cheng. She only felt his strangeness, down to her blood and bones. He was the only man allowed solitary speech with her—but only because he was not wholly a man.
“What do you recommend?” she asked bitterly. “They intend that before the summer I shall be either dead or wedded and bedded.”
“This is undoubtedly in their minds, Most Gracious One.” He preened himself like a tidy little bird, smoothing the heavily embroidered silk of his sleeves. His only concession to the climate was the sable lining of his boots.
“And?” she asked impatiently. She hated him when he breathed his cleverness at her.
“They will come. You know they will come. And you must be ready for them. May this unworthy one suggest . . . ?”
She swore again in her own language, then returned to the Greek that was the only tongue she and the sage shared. “Tell me!”
“They deserve to die for what they have done. They know it. They will expect you to—”
“—to huddle in my bed, weeping and wailing, frightened and helpless—” She began to pace again, knowing how close she had come to doing exactly those things. Forever. “So I must do as they will not expect, Cheng. That is what you mean, yes? They will come as conquerors, and as men guilty of murder, to claim their prize—me.” She choked to say the words, but knew they must be said. “And I am compelled to welcome them as honored and honorable guests.”
“Excellent.” Thin lips stretched in a smile. “A large feast is poor nourishment for suspicion.”
She paused in her restless stalking about the carpeted room. Cold again; she felt so cold. Feasting put her in mind of—“Poison?” she enquired sharply. “So that they all die at the same time, and only they die? Or do you suggest I sacrifice a few spare members of my druzhina to make it all look reasonable? As if such a thing could look reasonable! I am not a fool, Cheng.”
“No, Most High,” he agreed. “Poison is a woman’s weapon, in any case.” A musing smile crossed his face. “Have I ever shared with you the tale of Livia, Empress of Rome, who—”
She interrupted impatiently. “Another time. But if in your learnings of history there is example for me to follow, tell me at once.”
“Your situation is not unique—though you yourself are most certainly so. As I say, poison is a woman’s weapon. Something they will expect. They will have guards, so the weapon cannot be a man’s weapon of blade or cudgel, either. And all must die at the same time, in such a fashion as—”
“—as to encourage belief that it was an accident. Yes, I see. But how?”
He said nothing. He merely watched her, waiting for her to be clever.
“The weapon of neither woman nor man,” she said slowly, “but of one who is neither.”
Master Cheng bowed low. “Your husband, may your gods grant him glory, forbade my magic.”
“Perhaps if he hadn’t, he might have lived longer,” she snapped. “But Yvor had greater faith in his own strength.” Yvor, of course, had been a fool. She shrugged. “I will have you use your magic, then. By the snake that killed my father, I swear—” And she broke off, only to repeat more softly, “Snake.” Memory took her back to that horrible day of her childhood, when her nurse had told her that her father was dead. Tall, golden, magnificent Grand Prince Helgi, who had hung his shield on the gates of mighty Mikligardur, who was clever and invincible, had been bitten by a deadly snake.
A soothsayer had told Helgi many years earlier that a certain horse would be the cause of his death. He had known instantly which horse the man had in mind. The stallion was a noble animal, fine in form and regal in manner, and Helgi loved him—so much that he could not order him killed. Instead, he commanded that the horse be properly fed and looked after, but never led into his presence. Occasionally, though, he would be out walking, or riding another horse, and glimpse the stallion at a distance, and after a few moments’ sorrowful gazing would turn and move swiftly away. But eventually, after living many years and siring many foals almost—but not quite—as splendid as he, the horse died. Upon Helgi’s return from another victory in battle, he went to the place where the skull and bare bones lay. He walked about in great distress, regretting the magnificent stallion, and by accident his boot crunched the whitened skull. It so happened that the skull lay atop the entrance to a snake’s lair. The snake crawled forth from underground and sank its fangs into his flesh. And Helgi died.
Olga remembered imagining the snake in its lair deep in the earth, slithering out to strike down a noble prince. She had for years afterward dreamed of snakes, and been unable to enter the homes of any of her people: the wood dwellings were built above pits twice a man’s height, and she was sure snakes waited there to kill her. Gradually she had conquered her dread of visiting her people’s houses, but she had never overcome her terror of snakes.
Yet as she thought of the dreams, and of the houses, all at once she smiled. “Make me a magic, Master Cheng of Serica, as lethal and as cunning as a snake,” she murmured almost sweetly. “The Drevlianians will come here, and die.”
He looked puzzled—him, the great sage from the silk-lands where all other countries were sneered at and all other peoples were considered savages. She laughed softly, pleased that she had finally managed to out-think him.
“The history of the land that has become our land,” said her father, “begins with three brothers and a sister.”
“What was her name?” she asked. “Was it Olga, like me?”
“No, but that’s no reason not to listen.” He softened the reproof with a smile. He always did; he was always gentle with her, this fierce and fearsome warrior. She was ferociously proud of him, and of herself for being the only one who ever saw that particular smile.
“The first brother’s name was Kyi, the second was Shchek, and the third was Khoriv.” Her father paused, arching one heavy blond brow. She knew from his look that he was expecting, not another interruption, but instead some sign that she recognized the names. She did not. She hated it when she disappointed him. “And their sister, who was very beautiful—as all sisters in such tales must be—was named Lybyd. Their parents and all their folk had been killed by invaders from the East, and they were seeking a new place to live, safe from war.”
Olga could not help but frown. Lybyd’s desire to escape, she could understand; it was not a woman’s business to make war. But war was the thing that all men who were true men lived for, the only way a man became rich and great and powerful. Her father was a perfect example. Yet here he was, telling her a story about three brothers who did not want to go to war—not even for vengeance against those who had murdered their parents and kindred.
“They came upon a beautiful river, and on its western banks saw seven green hills, lush with kashtan trees and carpeted with flowers. Kyi, Shchek, and Khoriv made for themselves a boat to cross the great river. Lybyd waited on the eastern shore, anxious for her brothers’ safety. And what do you think happened? I’ll tell you what happened. The boat—for it was not a mighty longship like ours, but a boat smaller than a lodya—it was caught in dangerous rapids. The three brothers fought bravely against the currents as water foamed all around them. What they did not know was that within the river lived spirits who enjoyed more than anything else playing with whatever boat might dare to cross. And because the local people knew of them, and avoided the river, they had not had anything to play with in a long, long time. These spirits were called Vesuppi, who warns the traveler ‘do not sleep,’ and Gjallandi, who warns by loudly ringing, and Eiforr ever-fierce, and Hlaejandi who is always laughing—or maybe that spirit’s name was Leandi who is always seething—”
“I think there must have been two of them—one laughing while the other seethed. Just like when Heirleif sees Ylwa talking to another man, and she giggles when he looks all daggery at her!”
“Entirely possible. And I am glad to know that even at your little age you can recognize a look that flashes daggers.” Her father nodded his approval, and she glowed from the inside out. She could feel it, warmer than sables, brighter than summer sunlight. It was a vast thing, to have this man’s praise.
“Where was I? Ah, yes. The three brothers in their little boat were tossed from one to the other like the toys the spirits considered them to be. Lybyd, back on shore, loudly wailed, sure that her brothers would be lost to her forever. But Kyi and Shchek and Khoriv fought back, for to them their lives were not toys to be played with by river spirits. Shchek and Khoriv wielded their oars as weapons, and though they were brave and strong, after a time they began to tire. Kyi struggled with the tiller, steering as best he could while his brothers battled the river spirits. He knew that if he let go, the little boat would veer even more madly and they would certainly all be killed. Finally, seeing that his brothers were exhausted, Kyi summoned the last of his strength and was able to swerve the boat away from the river spirits. It fetched up onto shore, and the three brothers dragged themselves out and onto dry land—soaked to the skin, tired unto death, but alive.”
She waited, knowing there must be more, but at length could contain herself no longer. “What about Lybyd?”
“They called to her from the western bank of the river, and she left off her fear and weeping and called back joyously.”
“But—how did she get across?”
“Because the three brothers had fought so long and valiantly, the river spirits were tired and so the waters were quiet. They went back across, picked up Lybyd, and soon all were safe on the western shore.”
“But didn’t she do anything? She only wept and waited for them to come back, and didn’t do anything?”
“What was there to be done?”
Olga twisted her mouth to one side so her front teeth could chew on the inside of her cheek. It was a deplorable habit, according to her nurse, but it helped her to think. Once or twice she had gnawed hard enough to taste blood. “I don’t know—she could have made another boat, couldn’t she? If the river spirits were tired, then she could have gone across on her own.”
“So it’s your belief that there is always something to be done?” her father asked, grinning widely. “I believe the same! I have yet to encounter circumstances where there was absolutely nothing to be done. And I hope I never do!” He laughed his sharp, loud laugh and swung her up off his knees, holding her high in the air with his big hands strong and gentle around her shoulder bones. Olga giggled, and grabbed at the ends of her long golden braids to tickle her father’s cheeks and nose. It was an old game with them, going back to her earliest memories, before her mother had died. He shook his head and twitched his face around in terrible contortions, which only made her laugh harder.
At length, exhausted with laughing, she settled back into his lap and asked, “What happened to the brothers—and their sister who didn’t do anything?”
Another burst of laughter told her she had chosen exactly the right thing to say. “You don’t approve of Lybyd, do you? I think that you would not weep and wail on the riverbank. As for Lybyd, she and Kyi and Shchek and Khoriv made a great city on the banks of the river. A smaller river that ran through the city was named for her. Each of the brothers chose a hill to live on, and so named them Shchekovitza, Khorivitza, and—ah, I see you have guessed!”
“The whole city was named for Kyi! Are you going there? Are you going to Kyiv? Will you take me with you?”
“One day. One day. For now, you must stay here at home in Novgorod, attend to your lessons, and be very good, for there is a place waiting for you in Kyiv, and to take it with honor you must become accomplished and wise.” He kissed her forehead in blessing, and set her onto her feet. “And I do not think you will cower on the shore and wait to be rescued, the way Lybyd did.”
Five years later, she took the place her father had promised.
She made the long journey from Novgorod to Kyiv in winter—for to travel at any other time was to risk becoming hopelessly mired in mud on roads that barely existed; the ice and snow stayed solid beneath the hooves of the horses and the runners of the sleighs. She went to Kyiv and married Yvor, grandson of the great Rurik, and if it had been many, many years before she gave Yvor a son, it was the fault of Yvor and no one else. Had he spent more time in Kyiv instead of progressing through the tributary lands; had he stayed to rule instead of venturing out to battle the Pechenegs, the Khazars, the Greeks, the Drevlianians . . .
And, of course, if he had not beaten her bloody many, many times for being the daughter of a greater warrior than he, perhaps she would have borne more sons.
There was only the one little boy. Five years old. And the Drevlianians would kill him.
They came to Kyiv, the triumphant Drevlianians, but only twenty of them. She hid her furious disappointment and received them in the great hall. They were uneasy with the stone all around them—they who lived within wood and wattle, with packed dirt for flooring. Yet they understood the wealth that all this stone implied.
With great ceremony, they gave her the Tears and the Blood. She was surprised by this, and allowed it to show. She had expected one of them to be wearing the earring. Yet it seemed they had something else in mind.
“The Grand Prince Yvor,” one of them said, their warchief, his darkness suiting the rain-clogged day as her own golden fairness did not, “while a great man in some ways, was unwise. This year he came as he always came each year to our city of Iskorosten. We presented him with our tribute. He demanded double. We spoke among ourselves, and decided thus: If a wolf comes among the sheep, he will take away the whole flock one by one, unless he be killed.”
He paused, as if waiting for her to say something. To acknowledge his tribe’s cumulative wisdom in murdering their Grand Prince, perhaps? She clamped her jaws shut over exclamations of outrage as he reviewed the events that had brought them all here. One did not shout at someone who merely told the truth, insulting as that truth might be. She kept her gaze on the sprays of flowers thickly embroidered on her silk-covered sleeve, and resisted the impulse to chew at her cheek.
“Now you are a woman without a husband, and a woman alone cannot rule. As Yvor, grandson of Rurik, married you and became Grand Prince in your father’s stead, so now a Drevlianian will become your husband, and Grand Prince, and rule long and wisely, and provide sons for the future glory and wealth of Russiya.”
Stiff and formal in her crimson silk robes and heavy crown and looped necklaces of gold and amber, she said nothing.
“We invite you to choose among us,” their warchief continued with an oily smile. “I have brought with me twelve fine, strong, proud young warriors. The best our land can offer.” The promised twelve came forward; she did not even glance at them. “Only consider, good Lady, that with a Drevlianian as your husband, and a Drevlianian as your son, this land will be ruled by those who have belonged here since time began.”
She stayed silent, not trusting herself to speak, for what she was thinking would have ruined all. Those who “belong” here—by which you mean those descended of the three brothers who ran away from taking vengeance for their people’s destruction! And let us not forget the sister who cringed and shivered on the riverbank! It is no wonderment to me that you pleaded with great Rurik to rule over you and give you laws and safety from your enemies, for you are all cowards and fools.
It was her late husband’s warchief, Sveneld, who spoke, taking one long stride from near the silk-draped chair that was her throne. “Dare you forget,” Sveneld rumbled from deep within a chest the size of a wine cask, “that it was you who asked of us a prince to rule over you? We Varangians wanted only a secure route to Mikligardur, to the Silk Road of Serica, to the trading of sables. Prince Rurik you invited—begged!—to become your leader and your salvation from invaders. Prince Helgi made you great, proclaimed Kyiv the Mother of All Russiya—”
“Enough,” Olga said softly. All eyes, wide with shock, were upon her. She would apologize to Sveneld later—and thank him for saying what she must not. Rising from her chair, she smoothed her robes and looked down on the Drevlianian warchief. “You must understand the disquiet of my spirit since—since—” She stopped and stared down at her hands again, as if unable to go on. Spies had reported to them, she was certain, about her pacing and her sleeplessness and her cold turmoil. She could not present them with a woman completely in control of herself and her emotions. If they thought her grief-stricken and terrified, so much the better. “You have given me a difficult choice, for all the young men you propose are worthy, I am sure, of the Tears and the Blood.” Her fingers clenched around the earring in her palm. “Please, forgive me if I am unable to choose at this exact moment—”
“We never intended you to, gentle Lady,” soothed the Drevlianian. “You may take as long as you like. We will wait.”
Later, to Master Cheng, she gave voice to her fury. “Yes, wait! And while they do so they will devour my food, drown themselves in my drink, despoil my maids—”
“Peace, Most Gracious,” the old man murmured. “Did we not hope for exactly this? They are here, and think you unbalanced by sorrow for the past and fear of the future. While they believe you to be wringing your hands in private over this choice, they will not think to see what is truly there to be seen.”
Calming herself with an effort, she began removing the heavy amber jewelry from her neck. The crown she had taken off upon entering her rooms; it had given her a headache with the weight of its gold.
“All is prepared?” she asked.
A chain snagged on silken embroidery. She yanked at it, abruptly furious again. “Why did Yvor do it? Why did he demand double the tribute? Did he think himself so powerful that none would dare refuse? How rich did these Drevlianians appear, that Yvor demanded double?”
“Who can say what was in his mind?” Master Cheng folded his hands inside his sleeves. “Traveling to each vassal, collecting tribute, being feasted and entertained for a month or more—he considered the expense to them sufficient to deplete their resources, so that no armies might be raised against him. And indeed, you will note that a mere twenty men and their servitors have come to you. They are not the ones with an army. You are.”
Finally freed of the offending necklace, she threw it onto the carpets. It was the hour when she went to see her son, and did not wish to frighten him by appearing in all her glittering golden finery. “An army,” she observed, “is a man’s weapon, Master Cheng.”
“Of a certainty. And there are no men here.” He smiled.
Only a mother, and one who could never be a father. It hovered on her lips to ask why he had lingered in Kyiv these many years; surely after experiencing the marvels of stately Athens and proud Rome and mighty Mikligardur in his travels with the silk trade, her city was pitiful in contrast. Those places blazed brighter than the sun; Kyiv was nothing more than a hearthfire by comparison—a fire likely to sputter and die if she did not guard it against the Drevlianians.
Yvor had asked Cheng once if he did not desire to go home to Serica. The old man shrugged, smiled, and replied that he feared he was too decrepit to survive the journey, and even if he did reach the Silk Lands, he had been hopelessly corrupted by his years in the vulgar West. Besides, he added with a twinkle in his tilting black eyes, he enjoyed looking at golden-haired women far too much never to look at one again.
“Tribute and armies,” Cheng sighed, startling her from her thoughts. “An inconvenient and wasteful method of governing, if I may say so, Most Gracious. Building a nation from twigs and twine, when stone is required.”
She shrugged. “It was always done that way. Is there a better?”
He only looked at her, amusement dancing in his black eyes. He had taken to watching her this way in the weeks since Yvor had been killed: watching her, waiting for her to be clever.
She thought of her first effort at such cleverness, and how he had actually laughed with glee and approval of her plan, and all at once tribute and armies and wood and stone came together and made elegant sense.
“From now on, keep them here,” she heard herself say. “Let them go back to their own lands rarely, so they cannot make mischief. Root in them the desire to live as a prince does: in a house of stone, in a city encircled by stone, not cramped in a village of wood. They will build a city of stone for me, Cheng. They will spend their substance on that, and on pretty things to put inside their new houses, not on armies.”
“The Most Gracious One is wise.” He bowed to her, and once more she marveled at the satisfaction it gave her to earn his admiration. It was, she thought suddenly, even better than her father’s smile.
She finished twisting her thick fair braids atop her head and secured them with a dragon-headed pin that had belonged to her husband’s kinswoman, the Queen of Denmark. She composed her face into lines that spoke of happiness and humor, not anger and anxiety. “Come,” she said to Master Cheng, “we’ll go upset the nurses by keeping Sviatoslav awake late into the night. And you shall show him another magic.” The prospect cheered her, and she wagged a finger playfully at the old man. “But not the one with the pigeons again!”
“They’d just fed,” he protested, eyes dancing, “or they would not have messed the carpets.”
“Your own master should have taught you how to make manure vanish,” she teased. Then, grimly: “It would have been useful right now.”
The fourth evening of the Drevlianians’ stay, a feast was given. She had ordered constructed a large wooden hall, caparisoned in bright bolts of silk and warmed by iron braziers, and so thickly strewn with carpets that the floor of pine planks was completely covered. Sumptuous food was served by the prettiest of her pretty blonde slaves. Strong liquor flowed like spring snowmelt into immense silver-mounted drinking horns, and down the throats of her guests.
She had inspected the hall that morning. For so hasty a project, it was all quite beautifully built and decorated. She said this, exchanging glances with Master Cheng, and smiled.
As the guests feasted, she stayed upstairs watching her son wear himself out shrieking with delight as Master Cheng wielded magics complex enough to entertain a shrewd, clever child. At length the old man excused himself, much to the boy’s dismay. She sat up late with Sviatoslav, soothing him to sleep in her lap, listening to the crackle of the hearthfire. There was a peace about it, despite the dread hovering nearby, for in these hours she was nothing grander or more elaborate than the mother of a beloved son. Other mothers sat near other fires tonight, rocking children to sleep throughout great Kyiv. And it seemed to her that she had been correct in her imaginings, and that the city was a hearthfire in itself, warmly glowing, as welcoming as a mother’s gentle arms.
Mother Of All Russiya.
Gazing into the flames that defended her from cold and darkness, she turned her mind to the new wooden hall beyond her windows, and heard the music change from the old heroic ballads that always accompanied feasting to tunes suitable for dancing. The slaves would now be departing one by one, until only Drevlianians remained. They roared out drinking songs, fists pounding on tables, making plates and bowls skitter. Boots stomped on the pine planks beneath those tables and in the cleared spaces where agile young men danced off the excess energy of plenteous horns of wine. In her mind she saw it all. Saw, as well, just outside the wooden hall, an old man with strangely tilting black eyes making a gesture, and muttering a few words, and reaching most delicately with magic always young.
From her son’s rooms she heard the screams begin. She heard the crack and splinter of a million flimsy kindling twigs beneath heavy boots as the flooring beneath the carpets lost its bewitchment and became what it truly was. She heard the crash of bodies and tables and benches and iron braziers as they all fell into a pit twice as tall as a man. She heard the hissing of ripped silks, the cracking of white skulls, and the final great sound like thunder as the walls woven of switches as slender as snakes collapsed atop the pit, smothering all within, burying them alive.
She smiled then, and nodded, and stared into the hearthfire, rocking her son in her arms.
But that night she dreamed of snakes.
“They are not all dead,” she told Master Cheng the next day. “Some of those who killed my husband yet live.”
He took some moments to respond to her words. “Short of attacking Iskorosten—”
“If I must.” She paced, fingers fidgeting with the ends of her long golden braids. She did not feel clever. She could not command her brain to brilliance. She only knew that she could not use a man’s weapons; she was no warleader to general an army. They would expect her to use a woman’s weapon, and she was no Empress of Rome to wield poison. Magic stood before her in the shape of an old man—but she must be clever, and tell him how it ought to be done.
She stood before the hearthfire and stared into it, seeking among the identities others had provided her: daughter, wife, mother, Grand Princess. And she found her answers in all of them. In the fire.
There was only one way to be sure that a snake was dead.
Some weeks later, her envoy stood among the shocked and grieving Drevlianians and told them: “The Grand Princess is afraid, my lords. This horrible tragedy, this terrifying accident that took so many strong, proud lives—she is only a woman, my lords. Pity her in her solitude! Her father of glorious name is dead, her brave husband also, and her son is a child of but five summers. Therefore she begs that you send to her all your wisest men, the best men who govern Drevliania, for she is in dire need of your learned counsel.”
They came. They actually came. She watched and hid her delight as they marched grimly into the stone-walled courtyard, fully a hundred of them, all in armor and all warriors. They were dark and stocky and full-bearded, and each possessed an axe, a sword, and a knife that never left him, not even when he slept. And they were angry. Gods, so angry.
Their new warchief, son of the old, stalked up to her on the steps of her residence where she stood ready to receive them. “We will stay here,” he told her without preamble, “within stone walls. Your hall is large enough to house us. There will be no more accidents. We will stay here.”
The clamor of their armor and weapons as they milled around her hall throbbed daily, nightly, in her brain. And in her dreams, while she slept and was vulnerable, their axes and swords and knives became yet more snakes, with iron fangs that sank into her son’s small body.
“Highness,” said Sveneld on the fifth afternoon, just before another session of “counsel” with her guests, “it has not escaped my notice that these assassins yet live.”
She rounded on him furiously, ready to tear out his eyes with her fingernails. Nearby, Master Cheng folded his hands meekly within his sleeves and bent his head. She knew he was hiding a smile.
When she spoke, her voice emerged gentle as swansdown. “They will not be living much longer. They will pay tribute, Sveneld, believe me—and after this, the days of tribute are over.” This one last tribute that would rid her of snakes.
For she had discovered a new weapon—not a man’s or a woman’s or a magician’s, but the weapon of a mother. Master Cheng had done more than smile when she had told him of her plan. He had done something he had never done before, not even in her husband’s honor: he went down on his knees, arms in their green silk sleeves spread wide as wings, and touched his forehead to the cold stone floor.
The great lodya in which her father had sailed to Mikligardur was brought by her command from its place of honor by the river. Made from the hollowed-out trunk of a single mighty oak, the lodya’s planking was as fresh as the day Grand Prince Helgi had stood among its oarsmen on his triumphant return home. The lodya had seemed huge to her when she was a little girl; she realized as she watched it being dragged carefully into the stone courtyard that it would of course appear smaller to her now, for she was a woman grown, with a whole country to worry over.
The mast was raised, the square sail unfurled. As the men worked, they sang the song of Grand Prince Helgi’s great victory over proud Mikligardur, and how he had forced Emperors to pay for the food and shelter of every merchant of Russiya who came to the city thereafter. She waited, smiling, for her favorite part: The Emperors also had to provide as many baths as the Rus wished. It was always the hardest part to sing, for no one could keep from laughing: the lyric described hundreds of Greeks sweating and cursing as they hauled and heated water day and night for the gleefully fastidious Rus.
That night she stood on the steps of her home, arrayed in her finest silken robes and every jewel she owned, watching the commotion in the courtyard as all was readied for a celebration. Forty years it had been since Grand Prince Helgi’s triumph over proud Mikligardur, and she intended to commemorate the occasion most impressively. These Drevlianians would be reminded that it had been a Varangian who had won such a great victory. They would remember why they had begged a Varangian to come and rule over them.
They were encouraged to climb onto the lodya, every one of them, and the pretty blonde slaves made sure each had a brimming horn of liquor. Sveneld had not been happy about allowing them access to the ship, but she merely shook her head and told him to have patience. He was especially disturbed that she gave orders for all the Kyivan soldiers to leave their weapons in their barracks. Again she was adamant. She was the Grand Princess, and it was her people’s duty to obey.
She stood on the highest step, watching the Drevlianians drink and laugh. Master Cheng glided silently to her side. She glanced at him, and he smiled at her, and made a subtle gesture with his long, thin fingers.
Below them, every one of a hundred torches ranged about the courtyard sprang to fiery life.
And everyone in the courtyard gasped like a child taking its first breath.
She had seen Cheng do this before, but never on such a scale as this. The courtyard blazed bright as noonday. The Drevlianians’ hands went to their sword hilts. She eyed Master Cheng sidelong. He gave her an innocent smile.
As she had planned, with the darkening of the sky and the lighting of the torches, a powerful male voice began to chant. On the gray stone walls of the courtyard, shadows began to flicker. They might have been cast by the torches. The dancers filed in and the warriors calmed down, leaning on the ship’s railing to enjoy the show.
Prince Helgi, mighty in name, eternal in glory, forty springs are gone,
Yet we remember, will always remember, the splendor of your triumph.
It was difficult to watch Master Cheng at the same time she watched the courtyard. She felt rather than really saw his fingers twitch periodically, sensed rather than truly heard his voice whisper strange words.
Two thousand lodya he sailed, only to find the harbor of Mikligardur
Blocked by vast chains; the cunning Greeks thought victory theirs.
Yet Grand Prince Helgi was of a cunning even greater than the Greeks’.
The fire-lit dancers swarmed about the courtyard. The shadows on the walls outlined brick towers bristling with warriors. No one believed the shadows torch-flung now. Fear rippled through the arrogant Drevlianians who had murdered a Grand Prince. But the fascination of it held all who watched in silent thrall.
The warriors leaped from their lodya like wolves leap from their lairs,
Within sight of proud Mikligardur, beneath its very walls.
The Greeks came forth, soft sheep in their thousands,
To be slaughtered, devoured, only white bones left on the shore.
Suddenly a deafening roar went up from her own people, a bellow of proud victory as Grand Prince Helgi’s army destroyed the shadows of the Greek host. At her side, Cheng trembled and whispered.
The warriors of Russiya knew not defeat, nor weariness, nor pain.
Prince Helgi hung his mighty shield on the gates of vanquished Mikligardur,
Then sailed him home with golden treasure and silver plunder
And gems enough to make a mountain; see them now,
Gracing his daughter’s sweet white throat, her slender supple arms.
The shadows vanished, and all the torches save one were extinguished—and that one lit only her as she stood on the steps, alone now. From her neck and wrists and ears and fingers and body shimmered jewels of a hundred different colors, set in gold or silver or stitched into her robes. She stood unmoving, unsmiling. Nearby, out of the bright torchlight, Master Cheng was breathing heavily with effort.
All glory to Grand Prince Helgi, he of the cunning and courage and might,
His word-fame will live forever among the hearthfires of Kyiv, Mother of All Russiya!
Helgi’s ship flared to light, spitting fire. Sparks caught and clung to Drevlianian clothing. Thick dark hair burned. The wooden handles of axes ignited; leather sword-sheaths blazed; embroidered sashes that held long knives turned to searing belts of flame. All the fire in the world devoured the screaming men in the lodya. The stench of charring flesh was horrible. Olga watched, thinking that in their agony the men were very like snakes—writhing, wicked snakes, burning alive. It was the only way to make sure they were really dead. Soon all that was left of Drevlianian strength and pride was the scorched metal of their axes, swords, and knives. Men’s weapons, useless against the power of her fire. Great Mother Kyiv’s warm hearth had become an inferno.
Master Cheng sank to the stones at her side. She knelt, taking his frail shoulders in her hands, and whispered his name. He smiled slightly, fingers daring to touch her hair.
“Living gold,” he murmured.
And all at once she knew why the old man had lingered in Kyiv all these years. She knew, and suddenly his strange, wizened face with its tilting black eyes was beautiful.
By dawn the ship and the men trapped on it were ashes, and Master Cheng was dead.
For him, she used her army to destroy the Drevlianian city of Iskorosten. Her little son Sviatoslav accompanied her, guarded closely by the warchief Sveneld and the steward Asmund, who loved the boy dearly and together made a wiser and better father than Yvor could have been. Sviatoslav was allowed to cast the first spear against the enemy. The weapon of a man, wielded by a valiant little boy, put such fierce heart into the warriors that they forgot that it was a woman who had ordered them into battle.
Iskorosten was taken. Most of its citizens were killed, and the rest were handed over to Olga’s druzhina as slaves. On the day Iskorosten fell, Olga put upon her ear the Tears and the Blood, and relinquished the jewels only when her son came of age. Sviatoslav then set out on his own wars of conquest, while his mother continued to rule. She was a wise and clever Grand Princess who reorganized the state and abolished the annual tribute. To Kyiv came the highest nobles of all the tribes, and until they built their own stone dwellings they slept in wooden houses—and flinched violently at sudden flames, at cracking twigs. She laughed to herself each time she heard of this, but she made sure that Kyiv became a city made more of stone than of wood: Mother of All Russiya, her hearthfire warm and welcoming.
Olga died in July of the year 969, having been twelve years baptized into the Christian faith—which, for her motherly care of her country and her guidance of her people to the Church, made of her the beloved Saint Olga of Kiev.
She never dreamed of snakes again.
Although Olga’s methods are of my invention, she really did avenge her husband and protect her son by having the Drevlianian emissaries buried alive and burned alive. The detail of the trench beneath the houses is accurate, as is the description of the boat and the conquest of “Mikligardur”—Constantinople—by Olga’s father. He died after stepping on a poisonous snake. The tale of the founding of Kyiv is one of the oldest historical legends of Russia. It probably stems from the mingling of three settlements, for which there is much archaeological evidence, that existed within the present-day city. At Iskorosten, Sviatoslav did throw the first spear. A contemporary account by an Arab chronicler made note of the earring he wore as an adult: pearls and a ruby. His son became the most celebrated of the Grand Princes of Kyiv: Saint Vladimir the Great. Through him, Olga was the ancestor of the kings of Poland, Hungary, France, Spain, and England.
© 2012 Melanie Rawn.
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