Through the White Wood – Jessica Leake

THERE ARE COUNTLESS MONSTERS IN THIS world. Some with fangs, some who skitter in the darkness just out of sight, some who wear human skin but whose hearts have turned dark as forest shadows. And as my fellow villagers dragged me, bound by rough rope, from the cellar of the elder, I knew that these men and women I’d grown up with—they thought of me as a monster, too. I wasn’t sure they were wrong. “Haul her to her feet,” said Anatoly, the village elder, with arms crossed over his black fur coat. Yury and Peter wrapped strong arms around me, and I tried to wrench out of their grasp, stumbling in the deep snow. “Her skin has turned to ice,” Yury answered, his lip curled in disgust. “Then pull her by the rope,” Anatoly said, irritation clear in his gruff voice. The rope grew taut as they forcibly brought me to a standing position. I was still exhausted from my long flight through the woods, but as the sleigh that would take me away suddenly came into view, pulled by magnificent white horses, I strained against my bonds. The ice, my only defense, spread all over my body. A group of villagers had assembled to watch the sleigh arrive, and I made a pitiful sound low in my throat as I caught sight of Babushka. “Babushka, please,” I cried out as I fought more wildly against the men who held me captive. Her ruddy face was stern, the red-and-orange kerchief on her head colorful against the backdrop of the smoky wooden huts. Dedushka, who would normally be by her side, was painfully absent.

The fact that it was entirely my fault he was missing tore through me, like a blade in my chest. Though Babushka’s eyes weren’t as cruel as the others’, she did nothing to protest my treatment. Pain as sharp as ice pierced my heart. Did she condemn me to my fate? A shriek above us drew our attention. An enormous golden eagle was swooping toward us, talons outstretched. No, Elation, I thought desperately, and the bird banked and rose again to the sky. But her gaze remained on me as she circled above. I wouldn’t be the reason for more deaths or injury in this village—not even to save myself. My attention returned to the sleigh, from which the driver had stepped down. Anatoly hurried to meet him.

“Please,” I begged again, and I wasn’t sure who my pleas were directed toward. Tears fell from my eyes and froze upon my cheeks. All too soon, Anatoly beckoned for Yury and Peter to bring me forward. I fought them until I was half-dragged all the way to the side of the sleigh. “She is kept bound?” the driver asked, his dark eyes narrowed. “She has escaped once already,” Anatoly said, lip curled beneath his beard. It seemed now when anyone looked at me, it was with a sneer or a curled lip. “That won’t be necessary,” the driver said, and he retrieved a small knife from within his coat. I tried to back away, but the men held me immobile before him. With one clean movement, he sliced through the rope binding my wrists.

“Come,” he said as I stood trembling before him. “There is no other choice for you now.” The men held tight to my arms, but I turned back toward Babushka, desperate to speak to her one last time. I didn’t think she would—didn’t think that I even deserved the chance—but to my surprise I saw she was making her way toward me, leaning more heavily on her gnarled walking stick than I’d ever seen her do. “Babushka,” I said, and her name was breathed out of me like prayer and a plea, “forgive me.” She shook her head as she came beside me. “We don’t have time for that now, devotchka.” I searched her familiar face, wrinkled and worn and stern, wondering if I’d ever see it again. “If you stay here, these men will kill you,” she said, her voice a desperate whisper, and I strained to hear her. “There is hope in Kiev.

Sometimes the place we do not want to go is the best place for us after all.” I tried to puzzle out her meaning—I couldn’t imagine she thought my destination would be good for me by any stretch of the imagination. Was it an old proverb, then? “Babushka,” I said, my voice breaking, “I don’t understand.” She touched my face, her skin rough from years of hard work. I waited—whether for explanation or forgiveness, I didn’t know. But the village men would not wait for an old woman’s words, nor did she seem to want to offer any. Before I could say anything else, Yury and Peter dragged me to the side of the sleigh and threw me into it, so that I stumbled and nearly fell. I glanced back at their faces, triumph and relief plain to see there, and I knew they felt glad to see me go. Babushka stayed close to the sleigh, her lips pressed tight as though she was in pain. “May the grand prince have better use for her,” Anatoly said, his gray beard now dotted with snow.

“She has brought us nothing but misery and destruction.” The driver nodded but didn’t offer any other response, merely turned back to the sleigh. To me, he said, “My name is Ivan Petrov, and I am to bring you to the grand prince.” I thought of the sleigh’s eventual destination at the grand prince’s palace, and the frost on my skin turned to ice. He waited as though expecting some sort of answer from me, and as I looked around my village— at those who had arranged all of this, who wanted me gone—I knew I had no other choice. Not right now—not unless I wanted to unleash something better left chained within me forever. I settled for nodding once. He grunted and leaned over to the driver’s seat. I tensed, expecting him to have changed his mind about keeping me bound. Perhaps he was retrieving his own length of rope.

But when he straightened, he brought with him a long, crimson coat trimmed in fur. “The road will be cold.” I hesitated, wondering why I was being given such a thing. What use did a prisoner have for fine clothing? But he only handed it to me more insistently, so I reluctantly pulled it on. The fine fabric would hide my rougher peasant clothes from view, but even its heavy wool would do nothing to keep the cold wind from biting deep. Then, without another word, he climbed into the driver’s seat, gathered the reins, and pulled us away from the only home I’d ever known, to a prince they said was a monster. But then, they said I was one, too. I promised myself I wouldn’t look back, but I did it anyway, squinting through the snow at the thirtyseven villagers who silently watched me leave. It was easy to note the ones who were missing. While the ones who remained stared at me accusingly, I reached down to rub my wrists where the ropes had once bound them.

Babushka stood apart, looking frail and alone. I could still feel her hand on my cheek, her words in my ear—were they absolution? I am not your babushka, she’d told me long ago, but you may call me by that name. My life with her had not been easy or warm, but at least it had been mine. I turned to face the front of the sleigh and squeezed my eyes closed. I thought I’d known loneliness, but it was nothing compared to this . this utter exile. The cold seeped in, hardening my already icy skin, and I wrapped my arms tighter around myself. I tried desperately not to think of the one time I had felt warm, the only time I hadn’t felt as though I was carved from ice. But the memories surfaced anyway. Screams echoed in my mind as the tingling reminder of the cold fire crept over my palms.

That terrible power that was nothing like my usual ability. I pinched my arm to keep the sensation from spreading, but it did nothing to stop the memory of how I’d felt that night. How I’d felt none of the nagging feelings of guilt . only blissful warmth. I felt regret now. Above me, my golden eagle let out a soft cry, and as I glanced up at her, my spirits lifted ever so slightly. Elation, I’d named her long ago, because she never failed to bring me joy. Now she followed the sleigh from the sky, and I suspected she was my only remaining friend and ally. After the horror of what had happened in the village, it was almost difficult to be afraid of what awaited me with the prince. Almost, but not quite.

Rumors hammered at my thoughts as the sleigh traveled farther and farther into the deep woods that surrounded my home. People disappearing into his castle, never to return. People with abilities beyond human limits. People like me. Worse still was the knowledge that I went to him having committed crimes whose punishment was death. You deserve it, the nasty part of my mind said to me, the one that sounded like the village children I grew up with. It will be a fitting punishment for what you’ve done. We will not execute you as you deserve, the village elder had said, dressed in his long black shuba—the bearskin coat he was so proud of. Instead, we will hand you over to the prince. He’s always searching for people with your abilities, he’d said with a look of disgust.

Let him deal with you as he sees fit. Standing in the elder’s own izba, the clay oven blazing with a warm fire that could do nothing to pierce my frozen skin, I had paled at the announcement. But Babushka—I’d stuttered, trying to think of anyone who could save me. She has agreed to it, Elder Anatoly had interrupted, his voice brooking no argument. Beside me, Andrei, one of the men who held my ropes, leaned toward me. They say the prince will cut your heart out and eat it. I had looked at him, this man I’d seen walking cheerfully to work in the lumber mill every day of my life, with eyes wide with fear. He’d looked back at me with a terrible sneer instead of a smile. And you will deserve it, Ice Witch. While I swayed with the images of such violence, the man on the other side of me had added, I’ve heard he does it slow, cutting you and letting you bleed into a golden cup.

Either way, Andrei added, dark eyes flashing, you’ll be dead. Deserved punishment or not, I couldn’t contain the shudder of fear that wracked me as I was held captive in the prince’s sleigh. I glanced at Ivan. He sat tall and straight, his steel-gray hair covered by a black fur hat. I stared at his broad back for a moment, an urge for contact moving me—to at least ask him why I’d been given the coat—but the wind was too strong, and the moment passed. We traveled ever farther into the woods, the trees towering above us, snow clinging to their piney branches. I watched animals flee from the oncoming sleigh—birds flitting from tree to tree, squirrels chattering reproachfully, even a fox and hare interrupted from a deadly chase. I imagined myself jumping down into the snow and escaping into those woods, and I went so far as to shift closer to the edge of my seat. I glanced down at the ground, moving so quickly beneath us. I could jump now, but would I manage to stay on my feet? If I stumbled, I risked serious injury.

Still, wouldn’t it be worth it to try rather than be brought before the prince like a lamb to slaughter? I moved still closer to the edge, gathering my skirt in one hand. I glanced at Ivan, but he continued to face forward. I will jump, I thought, my gaze shifting to Elation in the sky. As always, she seemed to understand and flew lower to meet me. My heart raced in my chest, pounding painfully against my ribs. I could see in my mind’s eye what would happen: I would jump, and run, and Ivan would stop the sleigh and follow. What would I do then? A flash of the destruction my power had wrought on the village lit up in my mind, and I winced. Again, I thought of being brought as a criminal before a prince everyone said was a cruel and heartless murderer, and I knew my mind was made up. I gathered myself to jump as we rounded the next bend, my skin hardening at the anticipation of hitting the snow at such a speed. And then a heavy hand landed on my arm.

I yelped in surprise, jerking my head up to find Ivan’s eyes trained on mine. My mouth went dry. With his other arm, he pulled the horses to a stop. The icy cold spread all over my skin, hardening it to marble. He climbed down from the sleigh and came over to my side. I met his gaze from my lofty perch, the blood pounding in my ears. “I didn’t want to have to do this,” he said, and I flinched in spite of myself when his hand moved. He reached behind me and retrieved a length of rope. It was attached to the sleigh by a metal ring, and as he gathered the rope, I gritted my teeth. Elation, I thought, and the eagle flew to my side.

Ivan watched the eagle impassively, as though it wasn’t a creature with talons and a beak sharp enough to tear him apart. “There is a reason I was chosen to bring you to the prince,” he said, his face stern but not twisted with cruelty. “I alone am enough to stop you—even with your abilities. Even with your eagle.” I held very still. I knew what he was implying: that he, too, had power. The idea of that sent a little shard of cold shock and fear through me. There had always been talk of others with abilities, though none like my own destructive power, but it was hard to know what to believe. The whispers of stories were traded as often as furs, and as they traveled along the breeze to the far-flung villages, they couldn’t always be trusted to be accurately retold. I couldn’t know for sure what power he was gifted with, but it was the veiled threat to Elation that stopped me.

“Do you understand?” he asked. After a moment, I nodded. “Then I won’t have to restrain you,” he said with a terse nod to himself. He coiled the rope again and replaced it. The sleigh dipped under his weight as he returned to the driver’s seat and urged the horses on again. Elation stayed by my side on the seat, her gaze trained on Ivan, as though she’d like nothing better than to rip the flesh from his bones. I held her back; Ivan’s threat weighed heavily upon me. What if his power was as terrible as mine? What if Elation was harmed—even killed? I shuddered to think of such an outcome. I never wanted to be responsible for the death of someone I loved again. The trees slipped by endlessly as we traveled through the heavy fir and pine forest.

I had been unlucky enough that this had happened in winter, when travel was even possible. If this had been late spring, there would be no means of journeying to Kiev due to the muck and lack of any decent roads. As it happened, though, the snow was thick and firm enough still in these few weeks before spring that a sleigh could travel easily. By the sun, I could see that we were heading roughly southeast, the sleigh gliding smoothly over the snow. As I watched the dark forest on either side, far from any other village or town, my thoughts turned to my last failed escape attempt. The men in my village had hunted me like hounds and caught me just as easily. I’d meant to stay awake that night as I fled, and I thought I’d almost succeeded, but I fell asleep near dawn. A single cry from Elation woke me, the light from the weak winter sun turning the sky a pale peach, my small cooking fire long since died out to ash. I meant to get moving again, but then I heard the men crashing through the woods. I tried to run, which was foolish.

I should have melded back into the trees while it was still dark and found another place to hide, but I was as terrified as a flushed-out hare. Elation had tried to help me. She had swooped down on them, talons outstretched like she meant to hurt them—maybe even kill them in my defense—but I’d cried out and stopped her. My heart twisted in my chest as I remembered the looks in the villagers’ eyes: like I was a creature they’d thought docile, only to have it turn out to be a mad dog. As they knocked me to the ground, my skin had hardened defensively, but gone was any trace of the terrible power I’d unleashed on them only the night before. Bound and physically weakened, I was dragged back to the village. I’d felt only relief that they hadn’t killed me then, but I feared now, as I sat in Ivan’s sleigh bound for a malevolent prince, that what they’d chosen instead might be far worse. Because there was another rumor about the prince, one that was far more frightening than all the others: that he had murdered his own parents while they slept, naming himself grand prince before his father was even cold. And now he was gathering people with power, people who could help him take over the rest of our snowy-white world. I had no hope that such a cruel prince would pardon me for what I’d done.

My crimes against the villagers were enough that I would surely be sentenced to death, but as I rubbed one hand across the thick wool of my coat, I wondered if the prince had a worse plan for me: To make me join his dark army. I glanced down at my hardening skin—which was turning to ice at the darkness of my thoughts— and wondered just how long my natural defenses would hold out before I, too, was killed. After traveling until the sun hung low in the sky and the chill in the air took on a vicious edge, Ivan finally slowed the sleigh. I sat up a little straighter, taking note of our surroundings. We were still deep in the forest, enormous pine and fir trees on either side of us, no hint of a city nearby. Babushka taught me at a very young age not to ask stupid questions, so I didn’t ask whether we’d arrived at our final destination. It was clear that we had not. Ivan slowed the horses to a plodding walk, and up ahead in a clearing, I saw the points of tents with small gold flags flying from their tops. The sounds of men and a large, crackling fire greeted us, and our horses perked up noticeably. So many others waiting for us made my shoulders tense.

I’d become used to Ivan’s silence—at least enough that I no longer feared he would suddenly attack me—but I didn’t relish walking into a circle of strangers. “The horses need rest,” Ivan said without turning around. “We will stop here for the night.” I said nothing, only glanced at the sky to be sure Elation was still with me. It took me a moment to find her, but then I saw the gleam of her feathers against the green of the pine trees. I closed my eyes in relief. She had flown away on our journey once or twice—presumably to hunt or find water—and each time she returned I was nearly moved to tears. Ivan guided the sleigh to the very center of the camp, so close I could feel the warmth from the fire, and then jumped down in a surprisingly agile way for his age. He held his hand out to me as a small company of men surrounded us. I forced myself to meet their eyes unflinchingly even as memories of the last time I faced a contingent of men threatened to drag me under.

“The grand prince has ordered you to be escorted to Kiev with enough men to keep you safe should we encounter any raiders,” Ivan said. “The road to the city is not always secure.” I nodded once even as my mind raced ahead. As frightening as they might be, raiders could provide the chaos I needed to get away. I had enough knowledge of the woods that I could keep myself alive; I could find food, at least, and shelter, and make a fire. I wasn’t helpless. And I had Elation. I came back to myself only to find the men still staring at me, their air expectant. Only then did I realize that they had been asking questions I’d failed to respond to. “Is she mute?” a man with a pointed sable beard asked with a sneer.

“Is this the power we’ve sought? The only woman in Kievan Rus’ who does not speak?” His close-set eyes narrowed slyly as he laughed, making me think of Sergei and Rodya—brothers in my village who’d taken great joy in tormenting me. Both dead now. The other men joined in laughing, all save Ivan. He’d been so quiet that I’d almost forgotten he was there. He stepped forward now. “It is not for any of us to question what Katya’s powers are. We have our orders.” “Right. I’ll take the girl to her tent,” the man with the pointed beard said, and I felt my heart sink. Ivan nodded.

“That’s fine, Grigory. I need to look after the horses.” Grigory grabbed hold of my arm, but my skin immediately turned to ice, and even beneath my thick coat, I think he could feel the blast of cold. He dropped my arm like a hot coal. “Follow me,” he growled. I kept my head held high even as my stomach quivered. Would they restrain me again, as my villagers had?

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