Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
THEY WERE HALFWAY TO Moscow when they heard the wolves.
At first they were no more than a faint sound upon the wind, but as the droshky, in which Marina Radinefski sat wrapped in furs with Sergei beside her to handle the reins, ran farther out onto the great snow plain, they could distinguish the terrible howling. Marina shivered and wriggled deeper into her black sable robe. Sergei took a firmer grip on the leather reins and bit his lip. In the high-peaked saddle of the khalas stallion, Ivan sent his gaze ranging to left and right, waiting to see the gaunt gray shapes burst from the distant woods.
It would be a bitter end to this little jaunt of his if those timber beasts were to pull him and his mistress down into the snow and let out their blood. He who had such high hopes for the future, to die like an animal, groveling on the bloodstained snow! His heart raced faster. Almost by instinct his hand went to his sword hilt and he found himself holding the blade naked without any recollection of having drawn it.
“Look, Ivan—over there!”
Marina was half standing, pointing to where a second droshky had burst from the road through the pine forest and was fleeing, its driver flailing the backs of the straining horses. Behind him sat two dark, unmoving figures. A merchant and his wife bound for the river sale in Moscow? A boyar nobleman and a friend? No matter. They were his people, Russians, and they deserved the protection of his sword.
His heels kicked the horse to a mad gallop. Behind him, he could hear Marina cry out in frightened surprise. Even Sergei was shouting something; advice, no doubt; telling him to leave well enough alone, to give the wolves room to drag down their quarry and eat their bellies full so that they would not be threatened as they went on to Moscow.
“They don’t understand,” he growled between clenched teeth. “Nobody understands. If I’m to be Grand Prince of Rus, I owe a duty to my people.”
He had no way of knowing whether this need which motivated him was born of an instinctive desire to make himself important in his own eyes, he who had never been important, or whether it might be the outcome of his sudden realization that to rule meant also to protect. All he knew as he raced across the snow was that two Russians were in danger and there was a chance that he might save them.
His run would bring him within fifty yards of the fleeing droshky and even with the first thin line of wolves. The sword lifted in his hand. The khalas horse lengthened its stride, froth flecking its lips, eyes rolling in terror of the starving animals who ran like shadows on the snow.
The first wolf veered from the droshky, leaping upward with jaws gaping redly. Ivan swung his steel, felt the jar as its edge cut through fur and flesh. Another beast leaped, and then a third. The bloody sword rose and fell like a flail in the hand of a man harvesting grain. For one insane moment he was certain that those gleaming white fangs would hamstring his mount and bring horse and rider tumbling into the snow, to die together.
In the next moment he was alone, riding for the droshky, and behind him the starving timber beasts were ripping apart their fallen companions, feasting on their flesh.
To his amazement, he found two women bundled in fur boorkhas. One of them was in her middle age, her still pretty face turned white by stark terror. The second woman was young, as young or even younger than he was himself, and her eyes were so dark a blue they seemed almost black as they stared up at him. An edging of white fur covered the hood of her shuba, framing her oval face as if with hoarfrost.
Ivan gaped foolishly.
Between his legs the gray horse danced in the grip of its fright and a few hundred yards behind them the wolves were finishing their grisly feast, their hunger as yet unsated. Ivan was only dimly aware of the situation. His entire attention was caught and held by this girl whose eyes stared so widely up into his own. Her lips curved gently as she smiled, and then she laughed.
Ivan joined her laughter, giddy and triumphant.
“You saved my life,” she said softly.
“Why, so I did,” he marveled. “But you weren’t afraid.”
Her pale white hands lifted out from under the boorkha, clenched tightly about a wooden icon There was laughter on her tongue as she murmured, “I was so afraid I think I broke the crosspiece. I sat here with my hands holding this and with my eyes shut and I was praying.”
The older woman leaned across and covered her hands with a fold of the shuba, snapping, “Drive on, Gregor. We aren’t out of danger yet. And you, young man, the wolves are nearly done with their eating.”
Ivan said, “Yes, the wolves.”
He would have to kill them all, he decided. Nothing less than this would satisfy the wild surge of his pounding blood. He hungered to show himself off to this pretty divchina, to be like a hero out of a folktale in her eyes.
“Ride on,” he said. “I’ll stay behind and cover you.”
“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” snapped the older woman, moving in the wide seat. “You’ll get in here with us. Let the wolves have your horse. It will fill their bellies.”
Ivan was shocked. “Sacrifice the khalas? I couldn’t do that. I’ve had him since he was a colt.”
“It’s the horse or us.”
Ivan stood in the stirrups, finding the other droshky with his eyes. Sergei was making good time with the bays. He and Marina were almost at the far rim of the forest. In another moment they would be out of sight and safe along the river road which would bring them to Moscow.
Unburdened, the gray stallion might have a chance to outrun the wolves. Terror was a powerful goad in its belly, and it was a young, strong animal. Ivan dropped to the snow, took precious moments to unsnap, then cinch and remove the headstall. His palm went over the soft nostrils, caressingly.
“Run, little brother. Run as you’ve never run!”
His hand slapped the muscular flank. The horse whinnied and reared high, then came down running. The wind lashed its black mane and tail and it seemed no longer the tame mount it had always been, but a wild thing racing death across the barrens as its ancestors might have done centuries before.
“Get in, get in,” the older woman cried.
Ivan turned and jumped, a hand catching the sled, a foot on its mounting board. Then he was sliding onto the seat beside the girl as the driver snapped his whip and the horses threw their weight into the traces. The droshky picked up speed. In a few moments it was running free across the snow.
Behind them the wolves hesitated, watching the running horse and the racing droshky. One gaunt beast took off after the animal. The others held back a while, then followed.
Ivan watched the chase until the animals were out of sight. He said heavily, “I love that horse. If those wolves catch and eat it, I’ll order such a wolf hunt as Rus has never seen.”
“You must be a powerful boyar indeed,” the older woman said tartly, “if you can carry out such a threat.”
“Powerful enough,” he muttered.
“My name is Sophia Zakharin-Yuriev. This is my daughter, Anastasia. Her uncle is an important man in Moscow.”
“Oh, yes. I know him.” Gregory Zakharin was a grim, silent man who had thawed enough to give the young prince a curt, almost friendly, nod when chance brought them together. Ivan rather liked him, believing him to be a just man, even if somewhat cold and distant.
“And you? What’s your name?”
The woman started and leaned forward, craning around her daughter to stare at him with unwinking eyes. “Vasilovich? Why, that’s—I mean, it sounds like—” She was covered with confusion, and Ivan grinned.
“My father was the Grand Duke Vasili. I’m supposed to be grand duke myself, some day. If I live so long.”
“You must pardon my mother,” said a sweet voice at his side. “We are strangers to Moscow. We’re from the north, from the forest lands near Lake Onega. It’s quite a surprise to be saved from wolves by your own grand duke.”
The droshky was running freely along the icy forest road, the scrape of its runners whispering faintly in the cold air. An exhilaration was bubbling inside young Ivan, making him feel very much alive. He could not remember ever having felt quite so at ease with the world around him and wondered how much the pretty Anastasia might have to do with this confidence surging in his veins.
“You must not ask my pardon,” he told the girl, “for neither you nor your mother has done anything to offend me. On the contrary, I have taken you both under my protection.”
His cheeks flushed at his own presumption. If Yuri Glinski were here to listen to him say such words, he would howl with laughter. Neither Anastasia Zakharin-Yuriev nor her mother realized yet how ineffectual a person Ivan Vasilovich really was. They’d learn soon enough in Moscow, he supposed. Perhaps they’d even join in the mockery with which the boyars greeted him when he tried to act like a future grand duke.
His big hands tightened on his thighs. By the Holy Nails! He was determined to put an end to this contempt and ridicule. In one way or another he would teach the boyars he was no puppet to be drawn this way and that by their noble fingers. He sat, moody and morose, staring straight ahead as the sled ran on toward the Moskva river.
The city of Moscow was built of logs and clay along the banks of the great river which ran from the Valdai Hills through the heart of the black-earth country to join the Oka and eventually the mighty Volga. Founded close to four hundred years before by Yuri Dolgorku, it was a trading center for the riverboats bringing ironwork and silver coffers, furs, wax, turpentine, wine casks and cloth. Its roofs were steeply slanted, impaled with stone and brick chimneys from which black smoke poured skyward in great billows. An occasional church lifted its bulbous steeple, above the city walls.
A great stone wall ran about the fortified triangle of the Kremlin, for it was in the Kremlin that the ducal palaces were located. Originally there had been a log palisade, but Ivan III had shipped hewn stone upriver from the Black Sea and rebuilt the citadel of the Kremlin and the city walls. Now that fortress held paved courtyards, splendid palaces, great stables and armories, churches and bell towers. As the sled ran in close to the towering wall, the great brass bell of Uspenskiy cathedral was tolling the sunset hour.
Ivan saw that Anastasia was filled with a mounting excitement. She half stood in order to see the height of the walls, her ripe red mouth a little open. When she saw him watching her, she flushed.
“I’ve never been to a big city before,” she confessed shyly. “There’s so much to see, it will take me forever to get to know it all.”
“It isn’t so big,” he smiled. “Maybe some day it will be, but not now. Just the same, it is exciting. I’d like to show you around, if I might. The river markets, the Kitai Gorod, the wall forts where the people fought the Mongols.”
Her mother was sitting very stiff in her fur shuba, Ivan realized. It amused him to think her afraid of him. So few people were afraid of Ivan Vasilovich; in fact, when he stopped to think about it, he could not remember any other person who thought him worth the compliment of fear. And so he must take advantage of her emotion now, before she had a chance to speak to her brother.
“It will be all right, boyarina,” he said confidently. “I’ll take very good care of your daughter.”
A sniff was his only answer, but Anastasia slipped her hand out from under the fur robe and closed its fingers around his own. He found himself surprised at their warmth, and in sudden zeal he bent to kiss their softness. Then he was out of the droshky and standing close to the palisade, watching the sled run on toward the wooden bridge which would take it over the river and into the town itself.
A guard hailed him from a wall-walk, leaning over the stone merlons and cupping a hand to his mouth. “Hey, you down there. The Metropolitan’s been looking all over for you. You’d best get a move on.”
Ivan jerked as if a lash had been laid across his back. His head went up and he stared hard at the bearded face above him. “You dog! I am the great prince of Rus, as you shall soon learn to your sorrow. From this moment on, if you ever speak to me like that again I’ll have your skin flayed from your body by experts.”
The guardsman was puzzled. The boyars all made fun of this redheaded youth standing down there on the trampled snow and staring up through the late afternoon haze at him. He had heard the streltsi guards calling out obscene words and allusions to him. Nothing ever happened to them. Why should this addlepated youngling turn on him all of a sudden? He grumbled in his beard but he ducked his head back out of sight. A man was never sure of himself with these noblemen. Better to walk softly than not to walk at all.
Ivan made his way through the great gate and across the inner courtyard of the Kremlin, walking slowly and with down-bent head. He was seventeen years old, almost a fully grown man. It was past time for him to step up to the throne of his father and his father before him. Always before, when he broached the subject of his crowning as grand duke of Rus, there had been only laughter and a wave of the hand.
“No more,” he said to the wooden walls around him. “If the power belongs to me, I want to hold it in my hands.”
As he had held Marina Radinefski, as he’d held his sword when he killed the wolves, as he’d held the soft white hands of Anastasia Zakharin-Yuriev when he kissed them. He lifted his big hands and studied them, knowing with a queer insight that they were strong enough to hold this power for
which he suddenly hungered.
And so he stretched them out before him as he came into the tower room where the Metropolitan of Moscow, Makary, was seated in a high-backed chair, reading his office from a hand-illumined psalter. Makary was an old man with a long white beard which covered the front of his brocade caftan. He had been Metropolitan of Moscow for many years. He had seen Basil III come and go, and after him, Helen his wife—mother of this redheaded youngster advancing toward him so threateningly—when she died of the sudden cramps which so much resembled a death by poison.
Makary gathered wisdom about him like a farmer binding grain, but he guarded what he knew jealously, as a miser his gold.
“Ivan,” he said in greeting, leaning his tired head back against the cushioned rest.
“I came to see you,” said the youth clearly. “I wanted to see you because the time has come for me to be ruler of Rus.”
Makary did not betray his surprise. He nodded slowly, murmuring, “Yes, I sent for you. But not to talk about the grand dukedom. To speak instead of your coming marriage.”
Ivan had not the wisdom which comes with years. He let the Metropolitan see his dismay. “Marriage? I’m not ready to be married yet.”
“I think you are. I am sure Marina Radinefski must think so too. Eh?”
Ivan bit his lip. He always felt lost and helpless before this shrewd old man. The self-satisfaction he had wrapped about himself like a cloak all the way from the khoromy at Ostruka was being dissipated before the bright eyes and calm demeanor of the priest.
“Marina? Has she run to you already?”
“Why, no. There was no need for that. I knew where she went before she left the Kremlin. I did not interfere because I thought your experience with her might be of some good to you. It was, wasn’t it?”
“I suppose so.”
“She put ambition in your veins.”
Ivan smiled faintly. “I need no woman to teach me ambition.” He thought suddenly of Anastasia, and scowled. “I won’t marry until I’m made ruler of all Rus. The woman I marry will rule at my side. And— I’ll pick my own bride.”
Makary frowned. “She must be of a boyar family. No commoner. You know that much, I trust?”
“She is. Or will be.” He was standing before the Metropolitan like a schoolboy reciting his lessons. The role annoyed him, suddenly, so he crossed the rush-strewn floor to stand at the recessed window and stare across the river at the city rooftops. “To slight no boyar family, there will be a great contest. All the marriageable girls of Rus shall enter it. One by one, they’ll be eliminated by a list of boyar judges. In that way, none shall be offended.”
“Why, that shows rare shrewdness,” Makary complimented him.
“One of the judges shall be Gregory Zakharin.”
Makary pursed his lips, seeking to follow the thoughts of this youngling who was proving himself to be far shrewder than he had suspected. “Now what’s the purpose of that? Gregory Zakharin isn’t an important man. True, he’s not exactly a nothing, but—”
Ivan was facing the window, so he felt himself at liberty to smile, being certain that Makary could not see him. To fool this wise old priest! By the holy shapka! This was proof indeed that his wits were sharp enough to sting the boyars who had mocked him for so long.
Aloud he said, “Consider it a whim, holy father. As such, indulge it. Indulge also, if you will, a further bit of whimsy. No longer am I to be crowned only grand duke of Rus—but its tsar.”
“Tsar? Caesar? Now, what’s this?”
Completely astounded, the archimandrite swung around in his cathedra, one hand on its armrest, bushy white eyebrows raised. His gaze raked the tall redhead, studying his breadth of shoulder and depth of chest, long legs and slim middle. Still clad in his sheepskin kozhukh and woolen trousers tucked into green leather boots, Ivan seemed no more than any other strong young man the Metropolitan might pass on a Moscow street. Yet the priest felt something of the fierce determination beating through his charge.
Ivan spread his hands. “Is it so much to ask, this name of tsar? Explain it as a fancy of mine. God knows the boyars think me nitwit enough as it is. It will be further proof of my simplicity. ‘He calls himself a Caesar,’ they’ll say, and laugh. Well, why not?”
Makary sank back into his cushioned chair chewing on his underlip. Why not, indeed? What harm can a mere name do? His fingertips beat against the carven arm of his chair. Tsar of all the Russias. The words had a royal ring to them, as when the brass bell of the Uspenskiy cathedral was sending out its rolling peals.
“All right,” he nodded. “Tsar it shall be, if it’s your wish.”
Elation rose into his throat as Ivan asked, “And my coronation? How soon can it be arranged?”
“A year. Perhaps two. It will take time to—”
“A month,” the youth said harshly. “No more. I have no time to waste. Within the month you’ll put Vladimir’s cap on my head. You understand?”
“Are you mad? You know the boyars’ power. Even I—”
“Ah, yes. The boyars. The proud nobles of Rus. They divide my country among themselves, taking what they like or whatever catches their fancy. My people they grind under their boot-heels like grain under the mill wheel. By the Cross! They ruin Rus.”
He was panting in his hot, wild anger, striding back and forth across the floor, hitting the palm of a hand against a heavy silver candle-stand, banging his fist on the bronze finial of an amillary. His red hair was unkempt, dangling almost to his shoulders, and there was a reddish beard stubble above his hard jaw and full lips. To the staring archimandrite he seemed like some figure out of the Bible, Elijah summoning fire from heaven, or an angry Moses confronting the golden calf.
“In what other country do the nobles rule? England? Not with Henry the Eighth on the throne. France? Pah! Francis the First would send his comtes and ducs to the headsman’s ax But then England had its three Edwards and Henry Tudor. Strong monarchs, all of them. And France, its Louis eleventh.”
“Before God, boy! You astound me.” The cry was ripped from his throat before Makary realized he was betraying emotion. “Where’d you get such learning?”
Ivan whirled. “I’m not so ignorant as I’ve let you believe, holy father. Or as I want the boyars to go on believing. Father Sylvester smuggled psalters to me at night. I read them by candlelight shielded with a blanket. When my eyes ached with strain I blew out the candle and lay there staring into the darkness thinking, thinking!
“Most men dream at night. I’m no exception. Do you know what I dreamed? Of a united Rus. A single land from the frozen tundras of the Samoyeds as far south as the Caspian Sea. A world which stretches from Poland to the Urals.”
The Metropolitan beat his open hand on the arm of his chair. “Ivan, Ivan. Control yourself. If you were overheard—”
Shock ran through the red madness thudding in his veins. Ivan came up short before the prie-dieu on which the illumined psalter lay open. He stood rigid, forcing himself to calmness by taking long, slow breaths, letting this terrible anger seep away.
“You’re right, holy father. I ask forgiveness—and understanding. I’ve never told anyone but you this dream of mine. I’ve always been afraid of laughter.”
“I shall not laugh. Instead of mirth you bring me mortification. I never suspected you ran so deep. I must have been blind! And this changes my way of thinking. I need time, time.”
“Why?” Ivan challenged, head thrown back.
“To consider consequences. If I crown you grand du—oh, all right. Tsar, then. If I crown you tsar, how will the boyars react? It may be I’d only be giving you a martyr’s crown, a quick path to the grave.”
“A risk I’ll gladly assume.”
“What? And have Yuri named ruler in your place?”
His younger brother Yuri was a good sort, big and hulking and strong as an Iceland bear, but there wasn’t much brain under his poll of thick yellow hair. At hunting or a sword fight, he was almost without a peer. The boyars would prefer Yuri to himself. They could sway Yuri with words,
with strong red wine, with women.
Ivan said glumly, “You remind me how thin a cord it is which keeps me from the grave. I thank you. It shall teach me to enjoy life more.”
“This dream of yours: how much does it mean to you?”
“Everything. Or—almost everything.”
“A single land from north to south,” the Metropolitan muttered, head sunken on his chest, dark eyes brooding. “No Tatars in the east around Kazan.”
Ivan considered the mumbled words of the holy man. His thoughts ran with the ideas tumbling around under the high-crowned Greek hat which the archimandrite wore. Excitement made him tremble as he made a wild guess.
“There would be a holy war, once I was tsar. Like the Crusades of which Daniel Sylvester has told me. To drive the Tatars beyond the Urals into Sibir.”
“If only it could be,” sighed Makary. Then he shook himself from his broodings to stare sharply at this youth who had become such a stranger in one afternoon. A tiny glow of fear—like a votive candle in the empty blackness of the Cathedral of the Assumption—came to pulsing life inside him.
Always he had suspected Ivan of being something of a simpleton, like his brother Yuri. Now he was discovering that he must revise his past thinking. Ivan had permitted him to see something of the real person behind those gray eyes. How much of the real Ivan lay hidden still, invisible to his glance? The thought worried Makary, who liked to consider himself well versed in human character.
“Make me tsar and I’ll make a holy war for you.”
“I need time to think,” the archimandrite replied, passing a hand across his troubled brow.
“I shall come to see you tomorrow evening just after the Kremlin bell rings out the sunset,” Ivan told him. “I would like you to have your answer for me then.”
Long after the redheaded youth had left the chamber, Makary sat huddled in his brocade svita, frowning. It occurred to him that for the first time in their relations it had been Ivan who set the time of the next appointment.
Makary was an old man, and old men relish power. He was not inclined to let young Ivan wrest the reins of government from him. And yet, try as he might, he could see no other course open to him. True, he could delay the crowning almost indefinitely, but would that gain him any advantage? Ivan was the hereditary grand duke. Even the boyars accepted that fact. He would need a good excuse for a delay.
The trouble was, he had none.
Ivan walked through the crisp winter morning with a heart pounding in excitement. He had dressed himself in his finest clothes, red leather thigh-boots from Cordova and Astrakhan wool breeches, a sleeved kozhukh tight to his waist and over that a fine mantle trimmed with marten. From a jeweled belt which had been a gift from the Sultan Suleiman Khan of Constantinople on his last birthday—the Turks had been arranging trade agreements at the time—hung a long dagger.
Last night he had sent a palace guard officer into the city to make inquiries about Anastasia Zakharin-Yuriev. Yes, she was staying at the home of her uncle, Gregory Zakharin, the streltsi officer reported. Yes, she would be pleased to meet with Ivan Vasilovich on the morrow and go walking with him along the riverbank. It had taken a little while to fall asleep after that good news.
Now it was morning and the wooden building where Gregory Zakharin made his home was before him. Now he would see again that lovely face which had come to him last night in his dreams. A song burst from his lips, then, forgetting the words, he whistled.
A footman opened the courtyard gate and escorted him across the slushy pavement, up a flight of brightly painted wooden steps and into the long hall where he was to wait. He had little time in which to let his boot-heels cool. Almost instantly a red door opened and Sophia Zakharin-Yuriev came toward him followed by her daughter. Ten feet away, they curtsied.
Ivan pursed his lips, eyes running from handsome mother to pretty daughter. In their silken dalmatics, modeled after the Byzantine fashion, they were remarkably alike. The mother had a more mature figure, of course—that was to be expected—yet Anastasia herself was pleasantly slim of waist and seemingly abundantly endowed with bosom. Ivan was delighted. He had a weakness for female breasts.
He held the heavily furred coat while Anastasia slipped into it with a side-wise glance of bright brown eyes and a ready smile, permitting his hands to caress her shoulders an instant. There was a musky perfume about her which he enjoyed, too.
They had little to say to one another as they strolled toward the great marketplace bordering the Moskva river. Ivan felt tongue-tied, so great was his pleasure in her company. From time to time he ran his eyes over her pert profile, studying the curve of full lips, the tilt of her little nose, the dimpled chin.
“Well, my Lord Ivan? Do I please you?”
Her words were so sudden in the silence, so unexpected, that he found himself flushing. Her soft laughter rang out as she turned to face him.
“You aren’t at all what I thought you’d be, you know. Seeing you killing all those wolves, I fancied you were some kind of fierce bogatyr. I was almost afraid to come walking with you for fear you might snatch me up and run off with me.”
“And now you’re disappointed because I won’t?”
She smiled secretly, eyes downcast. “You may yet do that. I think if I gave you permission, you would.”
“Why should I need permission? I’m going to be grand duke of all Rus very shortly. Then I can do just about anything I want.”
“I think you want to please me, that’s why.”
“So I do,” he admitted, surprised at her perception, “though how you know it is beyond me.”
“A woman sees things a man can’t see. There’s a kind of flame in you, Ivan Vasilovich. It blows this way and that, according to what wind most disturbs you at the moment.”
He considered that as they came into the huge Kitai Gorod where the merchants had set up their stalls, where huge wagons had been unpiled so that sable and beaver pelts
might be displayed for the wives of wealthy boyars. Fine brass-ware from Novgorod was flanked by urns of wax and honey from Kiev and bolts of silk and brocades from distant China. Life flowed all around them in a high tide of enterprise. There were so many things to see, neither knew where to look first.
Riverboats were tied to wooden pilings and bored stones. From their decks the boatmen were bringing trade goods: Astrakhan wool, sopel flutes and bubny drums from Kursk, fine swords and shields from the renowned forges of Spain and Italy, wheat from the plains of the Volga and rye from Sudalia in the north. They came in a steady stream, muscles bunching under the weight of crates and bales, big men with yellow hair and clad in sheepskin jerkins and cross-gartered breeches as their forefathers had worn before them.
“I’ve never seen so many things at once,” Anastasia gasped, staring at a number of fine svitas handmade by artisans of Yuroslav. “All the world must send its goods here to be sold.”
“All our world, at any rate,” Ivan told her.
“All your world, you mean.”
“It’s yours too,” he told her brusquely. “You’re as much a Russian as I am.” His hand moved through the air. “All of us are Russians, not just Khazars or Moscovites or Riazans.”
“Why, you’re a dreamer, too,” she exclaimed, swinging about to look
up at him. “You surprise me more and more. You don’t look like a dreamer.”
“Why must it be a dream?”
Her full red mouth curved roguishly. “A dreamer who’s also a man of action must be very ambitious.”
“Does ambition frighten you?”
“Why, no. At least, I don’t think it does.”
“If you were grand duchess of Rus, would it?”
She was silent for so long that he began to think she had not heard him. A score of boyars’ daughters he knew would have simpered and giggled at what was tantamount to a proposal of marriage, and so embarrassed him. Anastasia stood looking down-river at the moving oars of an approaching Cossack chiaka, breathing slowly, steadily.
At last she whispered, “If I were grand duchess of Rus, I would be ambitious myself. I would be able to help these people working all around us, to make their tasks easier.”
Ivan was honestly surprised. “Help them? How?”
“What is Rus, Ivan?”
He scowled. “I am Rus. Or I will be when I’m crowned.”
She shook her golden head and laughed a little. “I shouldn’t have expected any other answer, I suppose. But you’ll die eventually. Will Rus die at your burial?”
His gesture told her she was being ridiculous. She was very sober as she seized that waving hand and held it. “Forgive me, Ivan. I must say what I believe. Even if—even if it means that you’ll take back the words you’ve said to me.”
“I hope you’ll always say what you believe. To me, at least.” His hand caught her elbow, steering her past the merchant stalls toward a little path which wound along the riverbank. “I want to know these things about you, Anastasia. There are never to be any secrets between us, you understand? I need someone to talk to, someone in whom I can put all my trust. I think you can be that person.”
Her heart heard the loneliness of his voice, his desperate searching for love and affection. Her eyes smarted as tears sprang up in them. Her white fingers squeezed his hand. A cold wind was moving off the water to ruffle a strand of the thick yellow hair peeping out from under the fur kokoshnik on her head. She let the hair blow, being too intent on choosing the right words with which to convince Ivan Vasilovich of the truth of her beliefs.
“The people are Rus, Ivan. Each man and woman of them go to make up the whole. You can be no stronger than they, no matter how wonderful a ruler you make.”
“A palace guardsman? A wool weaver in Astrakhan? A farm girl from the steppes?” he asked.
“Are you making fun of me?” she asked.
“I’m thinking out loud. The guard protects Rus. The wool weaver clothes it. The farm girl feeds it. Is that what you mean?”
Teeth holding her lower lip and eyes shining, she nodded. “Mother calls me an addle-pate Uncle Gregory gets mad when I tell him these things. He says the boyars are the power of Rus.”
“The boyars,” Ivan snorted in quick anger, “are only greedy-guts born by some fortunate happenstance into money and power. They’re leeches, draining Rus of strength and pride. I hate them.”
She drew him toward a little wooden bench from which the snow had been swept. With a rustle of brocade she seated herself and drew him down beside her. “You must never let anyone guess you hate them, Ivan. They’ll know soon enough after you become grand duke. Don’t reveal your antagonism until you’re strong enough to defend yourself from them.”
He chuckled, “How old are you, divchina?”
She flushed and whispered, “Sixteen.”
“You talk like a woman of sixty.”
“Now I know you’re making fun!” Anger made her eyes snap, her cheeks turn a dull crimson. She would have moved away except that his arm had clamped about her middle and held her motionless.
“I meant it as a compliment,” he told her seriously. “Old head, young shoulders—and other things.”
She saw his eyes touching her rounded bodice and laughed suddenly, restored to good humor. “I guess I do talk a little wildly at times. Mother says it will get me into trouble some day.”
“Not from me.” Ivan got to his feet and drew her up with him, turning her once again along the river path. “There’s a little copse around the bend. Sometimes in the summertime I bring fruit there to eat. I’d like you to see it.”
Snow hung on the trees. The sky was gray overhead, filled with an approaching storm. Already the wind was sharper, biting into their clothes with a penetrating chill.
“We haven’t much farther to go,” he told her. “Just a little more and we’ll be there.”
He brought her beside him under branches low-hanging with icicles. His hand lifted a limb, scattering snow as they bent under it. Then the copse was all about them, walled in and roofed in white with only the dark clouds to see them.
“It’s like being all alone in the world,” Anastasia breathed.
“Just you and I,” he agreed.
“You must think very deep thoughts in this place while you’re eating your fruit,” she said hurriedly, aware that his arm about her middle was tightening its grip, bringing her in against him. Her blue eyes lifted to search his face, hunting for some indication of his feelings.
Anastasia Zakharin-Yuriev was well aware that Ivan Vasilovich intended to kiss her. Not that she minded being kissed. It was his heart she sought with her probing gaze, searching as if it lay just behind his eyes. This tall youth had an uncanny way about him. His mere touch caused her to tremble and sent living fire all along her veins. She wanted desperately to feel his mouth take her lips, yet just as desperately she wanted to be something more to him than a casual flirtation.
Her eyes closed as his arms tightened. Then his lips were over hers, spreading them as a kind of convulsion gripped her loins. Almost without volition her hips slumped toward him. Her hand clung to the thick sleeve of his koch, bunching the material between tightening fingers. She held the sleeve like that a long time, until the muscles of her hand grew cramped and she could not have stood without his support.
“I have to pick a wife shortly,” he whispered between her open lips as they clung together. “She’ll be the grand duchess of Rus. Or rather, the tsarina.” He told her a little of his recent meeting with the Metropolitan.
“You’ll have your choice of every noblewoman in the land,” she murmured, eyes downcast, wishing he would stop talking and kiss her again, feeling very much the hussy and enjoying the sensation.
He laughed and touched the tip of her nose with his mouth. “Little silly. The contest is only to hoodwink the boyars. I already know who my wife will be.”
She stirred, whispering, “You do?”
“And so do you, divchina,” he teased.
“I’m not a little girl,” she retorted.
“Aren’t you? Well, I’ll have to take your word for that, I suppose, since you’re wearing so many clothes.”
There was a little silence. Then she murmured, “My kozhukh opens in front. And you have two hands.” Aware that her cheeks were covered with a deep flush, she tossed her head almost angrily. “It seems to me an enterprising man would think of that by himself.”
“The thought had occurred to me,” he grinned. “I was trying to think up an excuse. It’s a little trite to say my hands are cold and—”
She caught the laughter in his voice and giggled as she felt her furred coat opening. His hands were gentle as they touched the rich brocade of her dalmatic, discovering its row of buttons and undoing them slowly. She felt excitement crawl along her skin and became aware of the fact that her breasts were swelling, growing hard, nipples jutting forward as if unable to wait for his fingertips to find them. Anastasia closed her eyes convulsively, squeezing them tightly, biting down on her lower lip.
Now the dalmatic was open to her navel and his palms were slipping inside, touching the thin linen undergarment, catching it and tearing it. The jagged sound scratched at her nerves and she opened her eyes to find his face filled with tender hunger. She swayed and moaned as his hands came to cup her breasts, holding them firmly yet gently.
“Am I so—little?”
“They are perfect. I would want them no different. See how they fill my palms?”
“Ssssh!” she hissed, and laughed. They were alone in their private world within the copse. No one could hear what they said. She murmured, “Do you think they’re too big? Mama says I’m like a cow.”
“Your mother is a jealous woman. No, no. You must be proud of them, darling. They will nurse our children some day.”
“How you talk! And how shameless I am to stand here letting you—”
His lips cut off her speech. She clung to him with both hands clasping the thick overcoat, urging herself more firmly into his hands. She wondered wildly how she could ever wait until a search had been made of all Russia to satisfy the pride of the boyars before being made his wife.
With tenderness he did up the buttons of her dalmatic and closed her heavy fur coat. “If it were summertime I’d drag you down on the grass, little heifer. I’m tempted to do it now but the snow would be too cold. You drive me crazy, you know. I want to do all sorts of things with you.”
“I’m glad,” she whispered. “I want you to.”
“I don’t frighten you?”
“You make me know I’m a woman. God made a woman this way so her man would be a little crazy with needing her.”
“If I had to decide between you and Rus, I’d choose you.”
Her nose crinkled. “You wouldn’t be sorry, Ivan Vasilovich.”
His arm at her waist turned her and brought her beside him under the snow covered branches along the way they had come. Their boots kicked snow-puffs at every stride. After a moment, Ivan realized they were walking in step and that his arm was still about her middle. The knowledge was symbolic to him, as if it were an omen for the future.
Five days later, a hunter out of the vast Okov forest brought a gaunt gray horse to the Kitai Gorod where he offered it for sale at ten silver grivnas. The merchants and the stall-keepers hooted at him. Every man and man-child in Moscow knew that stallion. It belonged to red Ivan, the prince. Take it to him, he was advised, before he was hung for stealing it.
Ivan wept when he saw the animal. He gave a velvet purse to the astounded hunter—it contained a thousand times ten silver grivnas, in gold ducats—and with his own hands he fed the horse and curried it.
The khalas stallion had saved the life of his Anastasia. From this moment on, it would have only the very best of food and shelter. It would be used only to carry Ivan in state affairs, or to war. Like his little heifer, it would become a part of his future family.