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Author: R. Garcia y Robertson
Publisher: Tor, 2006

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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In the fantastic land of Markovy east of Europe, in the Iron Wood filled with werewolves and other unpleasant creatures, in the house of the dreaded Bone Witch, lives a young orphan girl named Aria. Her life is changed forever when a foreign knight, Sir Roye de Roye, enters the forest pursued by enemies, carrying with him the most precious artifact of the kingdom, the egg of the Firebird. Aria saves him and falls in love with him, and it becomes her mission in life to restore the egg to the firebird's nest. And so she and her knight set out on a wonderful quest, filled with spectacle, romance, and hairs-breadth escapes, to save the land and find a life together.


Chapter One

Prince Sergey and the Witch-Girl

Once upon a time, deep in the north woods that circle the world, a witch-girl gathered fungus for the Bone Witch's supper, when she heard the fire jay call her name. "Ahrr-ee-haa, ahrr-ee-haa, ahrr-ee-haa..."

Brushing tangled black hair from sea-green eyes, Aria searched for the bird, seeing only tall pine trunks and blue bars of sky. Somewhere in her teens, Aria knew neither her age nor her birthday, but was otherwise quick-witted, as well as lithe and strong from living in the woods. Her strange name was given her by her mother, and it meant "song" in the forbidden language of the opera. Aria called back to the fire jay, "Here I am, silly bird. Come tell what you see."

She listened. Insects hummed in hot pine-scented air. Farther off, Aria heard a woodpecker knocking. Her bright homespun dress had the red-orange firebird embroidered on the bodice, done in silk from Black Cathay and the Barbary cloth called crimson. Aria had stitched it herself on sunless winter days, sitting by the Bone Witch's cold hearth with just the sleeping rats to warm her bare toes.

Now that she was fully grown, Aria never feared the woods by daylight. Leopards, troll-bears, lycanthropes, and forest sprites lurked among the trees, waiting to make a meal of the unwary. But by day, the boreal woods had a hundred eyes alert for any suspicious movement. No lynx or leopard could stir a foot without birds calling and squirrels chattering. All Aria need do was listen.

Night was another matter. But the Bone Witch never let Aria out at night. Nor could she leave the hut without her slave collar and protective rune, showing she was valuable property. Each morning, the Bone Witch made Aria repeat her invisibility spell, saying, "I have not raised you to feed a hungry troll-bear. Not when you are finally becoming useful."

Aria did not argue, though she had found every moment of her short life thoroughly useful--no matter what others might think. She began as a girl-child thrown away in time of civil war and famine, but she had lived to become a prized slave of the Bone Witch. Survival taught Aria to make the best of today, for tomorrow was often worse, and not to shit where she meant to sleep, and never to tell the truth unless under duress. Most of all, it taught her to trust to her luck, which had saved her when hundreds of girls like her were taken by the Killer of Children. Lady Death had ample chance to find her, yet Aria was happily gathering fungus in the forest, making her think the Killer of Children had spared her for something special.

At puberty she was given to the Bone Witch for two handfuls of salt and a cattle pox cure. Her foster family figured they were doing everyone a favor. "The witch can better provide for you. We are poor," the father informed her--as if Aria had not noticed, sleeping between the hearth and the hogs, "while you are stubborn and willful."

His wife hastily agreed. "Making you obey is like trying to teach a cat to fetch." Had Aria been a boy, it would have been different, but she was a girl, naturally wanton, unruly, frivolous, and amoral, a growing threat to their son's virtue. They were duty-bound to keep her chaste and ignorant, then give her to some man in marriage--a dead loss to the family. Better by far to give her to the Bone Witch.

Only their lazy son objected. Not the least threatened, he wanted Aria around. Without her, who would do his chores? Who would he spy on in the bath? He had promised to rape her when they got bigger.

Aria herself had said nothing. Raised as a slave to serfs, she retained a stubborn sense of self-worth that regularly got her whipped. People called her changeling and worse, with her pert ways and wicked green eyes--a girl switched at birth for a defiant demon-child. Bundling up her straw doll and wooden spoon, she took a seat in the father's cart, and they lurched off, crossing the Dys at Byeli Zamak, headed for the Iron Wood. All she could think was that she was to become a witch-girl. And witches were burned.

That was years ago, and she had not been burnt--not yet. By now Aria had spent half her life in the woods, and she knew which mushrooms were food, and which were for flights of fancy, what berries were sweet, and which herbs cured, and which ones killed. Having nothing of her own, Aria happily appropriated all of nature. These were her trees, her flowers, her birds and beasts in the branches above. Every screech and cry in the foliage spoke to her. When it was safe, she spoke back.

"Aarr-ee-haa, aar-ee-ha, aar-ee-ha..." The call came closer. Like her, the fire jay was a curious soul, and could be coaxed with low, soft calls. Nothing could happen in his woods without him telling the world about it.

Picking up her bark basket, Aria set out after the sound, fording a shallow stream to enter a fern-choked glade ringed by stands of slim silver birch. Birches loved the light and fought to fill any sort of clearing. At the far end of the glade was a pond frequented by red deer and herons, and on the bare bank Aria saw pugmarks.

She knelt amid the bracken, feeling the tracks, finding the claw prints worn and splayed with age. Three nights ago, after the rain when the moon was full, an old female leopard came from the same direction she had, stopped to drink, and then headed up the ridge, aiming for the thickly wooded crest separating the woods from the settled lands beyond. Any leopard with business beyond the ridge could easily be a stock thief or man-eater.

Not a cat Aria cared to meet. Stomach tensing, she looked about. Mossy patches shone like polished jade. The protective rune on her armlet shielded Aria from magic--but not from fang or claw. Straightening up, she set out again, keeping the breeze at her back. Leopards did not know humans have no sense of smell, and so they never stalked from upwind--she need only worry about what lay ahead. These were her woods. Let some old leopard scare her, and she would never go out at all.

"Arr-ee-ah, arr-ee-ah..." She spotted a flash of orange among the pine trunks. The bird awaited her at the crest of the ridge.

And not just the fire jay, but a fire as well. Black oily smoke billowed from beyond the ridge crest, smearing the clear blue sky. Hairs rose at the nape of Aria's neck. She had not smelled the smoke, because the wind was behind her--but she knew where it came from. Byeli Zamak was burning.

Topping the ridge, Aria stared in awe. This was as far as the slave collar let her go. Below her the forest ended, and rolling steppe spread out from the foot of the ridge, broken by loops of river, dark patches of fallow, and the onion domes of village churches. Between her and the plowlands, guarding the fords of the Dys, stood a round white-stone tower seven stories tall, with walls twenty feet thick--Byeli Zamak, the White Castle. Smoke poured from the tower. Aria pictured the inferno inside, fed by grain and oil stored in the basement, burning up through the wooden floors, feeding on gilt furniture, Barbary tapestries, Italian paintings, and canopied beds. A cornerstone of Aria's world was consumed in flames.

She came from these settled lands. Somewhere out there, Aria had been born. Somewhere out there, her family was slaughtered--for the black earth beyond the woods was sown with bones and watered by blood. Constant strife consumed her family, and almost made an end to her. She had begged in those villages, and slept in the painted doorways of those churches, waking to find crows and ravens hoping to make a meal of her.

When she was given to the Bone Witch, all that changed. Her slave collar kept her penned in the woods--where the worst she need fear was leopards and troll-bears. Even when old King Demitri died, Byeli Zamak remained, towering over the fords of the Dys--the gatehouse to the Iron Wood. King Demitri and gold-domed Markov were the stuff of faerie tales, but Byeli Zamak was a solid part of Aria's landscape, built by earth giants from native stone. And now it burned. Her first thought was to tell the Bone Witch.

"Arr-ee-aah... ," the fire jay called again, this time from right overhead. Looking up, she saw the flame-colored jay perched on the limb of a tall larch, scoffing and chuckling. Clown prince of the bird clan, the fire-orange jay was a wicked trickster, a merciless nest-robber and accomplished mimic. Aria had heard him perfectly imitate the screaming whistle of a hawk, just to see what havoc he could wreak.

"Is this what you saw?" Aria tilted her head toward the inferno below. How like a jay to revel in someone else's misfortune. He squawked back at her, this time giving the man call. Jays greeted every predator with a different call, since warnings were useless if you did not know whether to look out for a leopard or a hawk. The man call was totally distinct--jays never used it for her or the Bone Witch.

Hearing brush rattle, Aria turned to see a roe deer bound up the slope and disappear over the ridge. Something alarming was coming, startling enough to flush a doe from cover. The fire jay flew off, still making the man call.

From below came the weighty clump of slow hoofbeats climbing the ridge. A horse was coming up from the fords, carrying something heavy and clanking. Aria whispered her invisibility spell. So long as she remained still and silent, no one could see her. Or so the Bone Witch said. So far, it had never failed.

Aria watched the armored rider top the ridge. Bareheaded, he rode slumped forward, eyes half-shut, his soot-stained blue-and-white surcoat covering fire-blackened steel--a dark-haired man-at-arms, maybe even a knight, just managing to stay atop a big gray charger. Her heart went out to him. He looked so hurt and handsome, his long elegant eyelashes wet with tears. Bloody clots in his fashionable pudding-basin haircut dripped red streaks past proud cheekbones. His beardless face made him look young, marking him as a foreigner. Or a eunuch.

Here was her storm petrel, strong and beautiful, but a sure sign of the whirlwind to come. So long as Byeli Zamak had held for the King, only unarmed serfs crossed the fords into the forest, to gather sticks and snare squirrels, stripping bark for their shoes and stealing honey from the bees. On May Day they came singing, their arms full of flowers, celebrating the return of spring, slipping off in pairs to make love upon the forest floor--while Aria watched, invisible and intrigued. In summer the forest rang with their axes--the nearest thing they had to weapons. It was a flogging offense for a serf to have a bow, or a boar spear. Death to be caught with a sword.

But this stranger had a huge sword slung across his back, and his torn surcoat bore the embattled blue bend of the King's horse guards. His crested helm hung from his saddle bow, alongside an ugly sawtooth war ax, topped by a wicked spike. Hunched forward, he carried something heavy in the crook of his shield arm, wrapped in silk embroidery, tucked against his armored breast. She stood stock-still, letting him rattle past, just out of reach.

When he had gotten far enough ahead of her, she set off after him, slipping silently from tree to tree, following the birdcalls down the ridge and onto the forest floor. Tiny red flecks of blood shone on green fern fronds, marking his trail for her.

Now the breeze was full in her face, which Aria did not like. A leopard could come up behind her, stalking her as easily as she trailed this knight. Worse yet, the breeze brought the foul scent of a troll-bear's lair, faint but growing stronger. The rotting-corpse smell of discarded carcasses mixed with the rank odor of the troll-bear's droppings was unmistakable, like smelling a long-dead lizard on a hot day. Only the image of the knight's hurt face and elegant curved lips kept her going.

She caught up with her knight beneath a cool coppice of oaks. Leaves rustled like water overhead, and the rattle of armor had ceased--but the smell of horse droppings, and a nervous whinny, warned her she was getting too close. Sinking to all fours, she wriggled through the undergrowth, curious to see why he had stopped. Had he smelled the troll-bear?

Her knight had dismounted. Kneeling in the bracken, he attacked the ground with a big saxe knife, digging a hole in the dark earth. She watched patiently. When he had dug down the length of his arm, he sheathed the knife and picked up an embroidered bundle from the ground beside him. Gently he lowered the bundle into the hole. It had to be something precious from the way he handled it. A gold icon perhaps. Or a great crystal goblet. Or a dead baby.

He covered over the hole, hiding his work with fallen leaves. Then he looked up, straight at her, sensing he was watched. Aria stayed still as a fawn, and the spell held.

Drained by the simple act of digging, her knight heaved himself back onto his horse, no mean feat in plate and mail. Then he lurched off upwind, headed for the troll-bear's lair. Unless Aria did something, the troll-bear would savage both horse and rider, cracking her knight's armor like a badger breaking open a snail.

When the carrion odor got unbearable, his horse stopped again, refusing to go on. Aria waited for her knight to turn or dismount, but he stayed slumped in his saddle, eyes closed, his handsome gray mount nervously cropping the bracken.

Warning calls died away, and the woods grew still. A good sign. Either the troll-bear was gorged senseless, or away from the den.

Shrugging off her spell, Aria stepped out from between the trees, walking warily toward her knight. His horse saw her first, snorting and shying. Speaking softly, she reached out and took the reins. "Have no fear. I will take you to good grass and water."

Her knight opened his eyes, which were blue and alert. He smiled at her, saying, "Mon Dieu, I am dead." He did not look very dead, clinging stubbornly to his saddle. "And here is an angel to bear me to Heaven."

"I am no angel," she told him. She was a witch-child--willful, disobedient, and hopelessly damned.

His smile widened. "Then a forest sprite, young and beautiful. The perfect Valkyrie for a vagabond." He spoke with a funny foreign accent, but his tone told her he was friendly. Gently turning the tired horse's head, she led him slowly downwind, away from the troll-bear's lair. Her knight swayed alarmingly in the saddle. "Fair nymph," he called down to her. "Where are you taking us?"

Aria grinned over her shoulder. "To water." He was by far the most marvelous thing she had ever found in the woods, and she wanted to see him with his face washed.

After leading the horse back to the base of the ridge--to where a spring burst from beneath tall triangular rocks--she helped her knight dismount. Sitting him down, Aria wet a cloth and wiped his wincing face, noting he cleaned up very nicely. His handsome, beardless face felt firm and manly, yet smooth to the touch. His head wound was bloody, though not deep, and it merely needed to be cleaned, then sewn shut. Luckily, she had been gathering bitter herbs for the Bone Witch, natural poisons used to cleanse wounds.

He watched as she worked, smiling ruefully. "Just when you wonder what you are fighting for, Heaven sends a reminder."

"What reminder is that?" She searched through her bark basket for the right leaves.

His smile widened. "You really do not know, do you?"

"No. That is why I asked." Her knight had a funny way of talking, even for a foreigner. She crushed the leaves with a rock, mixing them with water from the spring.

"I have had a most damnable day," he told her, "trying to hold Byeli Zamak for your infant Prince Ivan. Besieged by the boy's own uncle, upholding the honor of your dead king, and being badly beaten for my pains. Just when I think I cannot go on--that there is nothing in this benighted land worth saving--you come along. Proving me completely wrong."

"This will hurt," she warned him, parting his hair to expose the wound.

"Certainement. So far today, everything has." Taking that as assent, Aria poured her makeshift potion onto the bloody gash. He shouted in protest, raising a steel-gloved hand to shield his head. "Merde! Does Mademoiselle mean to murder me too?"

She grabbed his gauntlet to keep it away from the wound. "Do not worry--it is just poison."

He grimaced. "That I can tell."

"No. This will clean the wound, I swear." She found her embroidery needle with her free hand.

Her knight relaxed. "C'est bien, c'est bien. Mademoiselle merely took me by surprise." He sat stoically while she poured more potion on the needle, then began sewing his scalp back together, wincing when Aria tightened a stitch, but otherwise acting as if she were clipping his curls. He asked, "What may I call Mademoiselle?"

"Aria," she replied shyly, resisting the impulse to invent. She wanted him to know her name.

"Enchanté. Sir Roye de Roye, Chevalier de l'Étoile, et le Baron de Roye. At your service." He winced again as her needle went in. "What does Mademoiselle do when not torturing wounded gentlemen?"

She pulled the stitch tight, saying softly, "I serve the Bone Witch."

"A witch? But of course. And a wicked one too, from the way that potion burned..."

"But she is merely my foster mother. My real mother was a queen. And I am a princess." Not knowing who her parents were, Aria felt free to invent royal ones.

Baron de Roye arched an eyebrow. "Princess in disguise, I presume?"

"Of course," she replied scornfully. "Why else would I be dressed like a peasant?"

"Your Majesty carries off her masquerade effortlessly."

"Shush!" she whispered. From atop the ridge came the fire jay's man call. She listened harder. The call came again, fading as the bright orange bird took flight. Someone was coming. She asked, "Are there men after you?"

"There are," he admitted. "Though not for any good reason."

She hastily finished her stitching, saying, "I must hide you." Aria had no fear for herself, but the thought of seeing her newfound knight hurt or killed was too much to bear. Helping him to his feet, she guided him up the rocks to a protruding shelf, where two boulders formed a tiny cave between them, too high up to be seen from the spring. She shoved him inside, saying, "Stay here."

"Only if Your Majesty promises to come for me," he replied.

"I will." She truly wanted to see more of him, only not right now. Not with more men coming.


"I swear." She pushed him farther into the cave, where her knight would not be seen from below.

"Bring food," he begged.

"I will," she agreed hastily.

"And wine."

Aria did not bother to answer, scrambling back down the rocks to the spring. Taking his mount's reins, she turned the horse away from the spring.

"Good wine. If Your Highness has it."

Still thirsty, the horse balked at being led off by a stranger. Aria had to heave on the reins to get him pointed back the way she must go. Her knight called down to her, "And what about my horse?"

"I will hide him too," she promised, pulling harder, hauling the unwilling animal away from the spring.

"Au revoir," he called out.

"Silence, please!" she shouted back, mortified to be making so much noise with strangers in the woods. Dragging the weary charger away from rest and water, she doubled back on their tracks. Anyone seeing the return prints would have no reason to search out the cave, and would follow her trail instead.

When she had put distance between herself and the spring, Aria found a swift brook leading into Long Lake and splashed along it, letting running water hide their trail. Spotting a good place to leave the stream--a rock shelf that would not take hoofprints--she deliberately passed it by. Downstream from the rock shelf, she let the horse stray, making tracks on the bank, then leading him back into the water and up onto the opposite bank. When she was satisfied with her false trail, she carefully retreated upstream, leading the horse out over the rocks, trying her utmost not to leave tracks.

She stayed on hard ground until she was well out of sight of the stream and could no longer hear its rippling. Then she tied the horse to a tree and went back alone. Walking as lightly as she could, Aria covered up any sign of the horse's passing, smoothing over stray prints and sprinkling dust where they had wet the rocks. When she reached the stream, she whispered her spell, lying down to watch.

Aria waited, her heart beating against hard stone. Stretching on the far side of the stream was a splendid spiderweb, shot with rainbows, well worth returning for when things were not so busy. In the meantime, she thought about her knight, with his funny foreign way of talking, and his warm smile. He had a good heart as well; Aria could tell by the way he laughed and joked about his troubles. He even seemed to like her too, though that was a lot to hope for.

First she heard warning calls--the indignant chatter of a red squirrel, the rasping cry of a frightened pine tit. Followed by the voices of men and the neighing of their horses. They came slowly downstream, searching both banks, looking for the spot where she left the water.

One huge fellow in half-armor and big bucket-topped riding boots urged his mount up onto the rock shelf, coming so close, she could count the flanges on the heavy steel mace hanging from his saddle bow. Matted hair and flecks of blood clung to the sharp steel. He wore his sallet tipped back, searching the ground for tracks, and his hard bearded face could not compare to the clean elegant features of Sir Roye de Roye, Chevalier de l'Étoile. But his surcoat bore the same embattled blue bend as her knight's--charged with the lightning-strike badge of Prince Sergey Mikhailovich, Grand Duke of Ikstra. Crown Prince Ivan's belligerent uncle, who had burned Byeli Zamak and was now hunting her.

She held her breath as he studied the spot where she led the charger out of the stream. Did he see something? A crushed leaf or overturned stone? The scrape mark of a steel shoe?

Calls came from downstream. They had found her false trail. Prince Sergey's ugly hulking man-at-arms turned his horse about, splashing back into the stream.

As the calls faded into the forest, Aria slid back off the rocks and carefully made her way back to the tethered horse. The Bone Witch would scold her if she did not return soon with her bark basket full of herbs and fungus.

As she set out, clouds of little white butterflies whirled up from patches of sunlight, fluttering among the horse's legs and then darting off into the trees. The deeper she went into the woods, the less she worried about hiding her trail. The only warning calls were for her. At the head of Long Lake, she saw wild swans swimming on clear water fringed by pines.

Beyond the lake, the pine wood ended. On the far side stood a forest of black iron trunks with stark metal branches--the Iron Wood--a cold dark barrier reeking of magic, stretching over the hills to the east, lifeless and forbidding. She led the reluctant horse into the black leafless wood. Spiked branches closed around her, and forest sounds faded. No woodpeckers beat at the hard metal bark. No squirrels ran along bladelike limbs. No living beasts made their home in the Iron Wood--just trolls and siren spirits, witches and the walking dead.

Happy to be nearly home, Aria threaded through the thorny metal maze. Finally a clearing appeared ahead, a white patch amid the black tangle. She led the big warhorse up to a tall white hut made entirely of bones, long white thighbones as big as a man, stacked one atop the other like grisly logs. Serfs called them dragon bones, but Aria knew better. They came from a long-haired elephant-trunked monster that once roamed the tundra, bigger by far than any Barbary elephant. She had seen their great curved tusks in a forest bone pit, along with bits of hairy hide.

Huge antlers from an ancient giant elk hung above the Bone Hut's leather door. Swallows nested in nooks beneath the eaves. Little chestnut-throated birds peered out of the mud nests at her. Their parents flew back and forth, chattering together, then streaking off in the direction of Long Lake, coming back with ants, gnats, wasps, and assassin bugs to feed their young.

Slowly the skin door swung open, and the Bone Witch emerged. Older than sin, and grim as death, the witch wore a necklace of child bones and a linen winding sheet. White hair hung down to her bare skeletal feet. Around her thin waist was a wormwood belt, supporting her thief-skin charm bag.

Sir Roye's gray stallion backed and snorted at the sight of the witch, but the Bone Witch muttered a charm and the shying charger relaxed. "A beautiful beast," the witch declared. "Where did you find him?"

"In the woods." Aria had always brought lost or stray animals out of the woods. Fallen eagle chicks. Little lame squirrels. Orphaned leopard cubs. This tall stallion was by far her most impressive find. She made no mention of his master, for the Bone Witch had warned her not to bring men into the Iron Wood. Abandoned cubs and a warhorse were one thing--but no stray knights, no matter how handsome and helpless.

Aria held out her basket to show she had not wasted the whole morning, saying, "Byeli Zamak has been burned."

The crone nodded. "I smelled it on the wind." It was impossible to surprise the Bone Witch.

"And a leopard drank from the pond beneath the ridge."

The witch nodded again. "Three nights ago, when the moon was full." Accepting the fungus, the witch told Aria to give the gray charger a rubdown. "And see he has grass and water. You cannot bring things home unless you care for them."

"I will, I will," she assured her mistress, taking the horse around to the paddock behind the Bone Hut, rubbing him down, giving him water and barley. After filling a bark basket with food, Aria got out the witch's steel sickle, saying she would go cut grass at Long Lake. Nothing a horse could live on grew in the Iron Wood.

The Bone Witch sniffed her basket. "And you will take food to the knight hiding in the cave by the spring?"

She gave a guilty nod.

"You are free to play with whatever you find in the woods, so long as your chores do not go wanting."

"Oh, no!" Aria protested. "I gathered more fungus, and spied webs for spinning. See, I am taking my spindle."

The old witch shook her head. "You will be the death of me. Always rushing life along."

"No! Never." Aria kissed the crone's cold wrinkled lips. "You will always be here." The Bone Witch had been in the Iron Wood forever.

"Of course, but what has that to do with it?" The witch shooed her out of the hut.

As the witch predicted, Aria went straight to the cave, fearing she would find it empty, and that she would never see her knight again. Nearing the spring, she stopped to listen. And heard nothing. Maybe he had obeyed her and stayed in the cave. More likely, he was long gone.

She was thrilled to find herself wrong. "Bonjour," he greeted her with a grin when she stuck her head into the cave. Wearing just his suit of mail, wool hose, and padded arming doublet, Sir Roye heaved himself upright, peering into her basket. "What is this? Food, how wonderful! Did you bring wine as well?" She admitted she had not, having never so much as seen a grape. "Alas, too bad. But this is magic enough. Is there meat?"

"Kolbasa." She doled out a length of smoked sausage.

"Excellent, good old kolbasa, and bread too. What a wonderful wood sprite." He gave her a happy pat on the hip, asking, "Would there be caviar to go with it?"

"There is." She liked the firm feel of his hand on her, and wished she had the nerve to kiss him. Instead she showed her knight the gleaming fish roe wrapped in a cool leaf. Long Lake teemed with sturgeon.

"Caviar! Fantastic. What a feast!"

"And myot also." Aria handed him the comb.

"Honey. How delightful." He gave her another pat, this time on the thigh.

"And yogurt." She shifted closer, enjoying the feel of his big strong body beside her.

"Ah yes." He looked in the little pot she held up. "Markovy's answer to sour milk."

"And diynya," Aria added.

"Diynya?" He looked puzzled.

She lifted the melon from the bottom of the basket, holding it out to him. "Diynya."

"Of course. Diynya. How utterly delicious." Taking the melon, he kissed her in gratitude. "Merci beaucoup, Mademoiselle Wood Sprite."

Her lips tingled from her first kiss by a grown man. The lumpish son from her foster family once held her down and tried to kiss her, but she bit his tongue. This was utterly different. Delicious shivers shot through her, raising goose bumps from nipples to groin. That he kissed her quickly and casually did not matter. Nor did it matter that he had clearly forgotten her name. It was enough that she remembered his: Sir Roye de Roye, Chevalier de l'Étoile, et le Baron de Roye. She felt utterly ecstatic, having her first real kiss come from someone so special--not just a knight, but a foreign lord. All hers to feed and care for, and hopefully kiss again.

Which made her worry even more for him. "Why do those men aim to harm you?"

"Rank prejudice," Sir Roye de Roye replied, spreading caviar with his thumb. "Silly baseless superstition."

She broke open the melon, sipped the juice, and passed it to him. "But why would Prince Ivan's own uncle attack Byeli Zamak?"

Sir Roye heaved a sigh. "Mademoiselle does not live in a nation. Markovy is a patchwork of family quarrels with disputed boundaries, ruled by civil war. Being a foreign heretic, I give not a lead sou who wins--but I swore an oath to your King Demitri to uphold his honor and his heir. Not that noble oaths mean much when your head is being beaten in."

Still beset by goose bumps, Aria took out her spindle and started spinning spider's silk, relaxing her nervous fingers--all the while wondering how to get him to kiss her again.

"Markovites are the most superstitious folk in creation," Sir Roye complained between bites. "Believing in all manner of faeries, imps, djinn, witches, and whatnot. Byeli Zamak supposedly held a secret treasure--the Firebird's Egg, a marvelous magic egg that will hatch a huge fire-breathing phoenix. Your Prince Sergey is a grotesquely gullible grand duke, who thinks this mythical egg will make him master of Markovy--but I held Byeli Zamak for Prince Ivan, and King Demitri before him. As castellan, I would know if Byeli Zamak held such an egg, and it certainly does not."

Aria herself absolutely believed in the Firebird's Egg. King Demitri had stolen the Egg from the Firebird's Nest atop Burning Mountain, deep in the Iron Wood, and kept it locked in a cool deep vault beneath Byeli Zamak--where it would not hatch and would always be his. It had been King Demitri's greatest treasure, and his greatest curse, making his life tragic and miserable. The curse cost him both his wives and all his children, except for Ivan, his heir. Why Ivan's uncle would ever want the ill-fated Egg was totally beyond Aria--but that did not make it a myth.

Her knight told more stories, of far-off Gascony, where he was born, and how he had lost everything and ended up in exile. "I possess an astounding ability to choose the losing side. Counting this latest debacle at Byeli Zamak, I have been in half a dozen pitched fights--and have always come out a loser. A remarkable record, not easily achieved. When I sided with the English, they lost to the King of France. When I switched my allegiance to the King, he lost to the English. Scots in the French service call me Tyneman, in tribute to my many defeats. An honor, really. Any lout with a bit of ability can run off a string of victories. But to lose every time--that requires not just talent, but uncanny luck as well."

"I cannot believe your luck could be so bad." She did not want to think anything bad about Sir Roye. His stories were amusing, and she ached to have him take her in his arms and kiss and talk to her all day, and on into the night.

"Bad luck?" Sir Roye de Roye laughed. "Not in the least--my luck is excellent. Could not be better."

"Really? But is it not better to win than lose?"

"Better, perhaps--but not always easier. Anyone can survive a victory: just stay to the back and shout loudly. But surviving six defeats is a rare feat. Requiring more than a swift horse. Twice, I was the only one on the losing side not killed or captured. That takes phenomenal luck."

"I mean, I do not believe you must always lose."

He scoffed at her innocence. "Tell it to the Swiss, who were near unbeatable until I sided with them."

By now, dusk was settling outside the cave. Shafts of golden light slanted between the trees, slicing deep into the forest. Having seen her knight fed and cared for, Aria needed to get back and cut grass for his horse, then see to the witch's supper, making the most of the spring twilight. Sadly she took her leave, fairly sure he would not wander off, and meaning to be back by morning.

Sir Roye declared himself devastated to see her go, cheering Aria immensely. She finally had her knight in armor. Who cared if he was a foreigner, and somewhat the worse for wear--a footloose loser from some far-off land? He was the most wonderful thing she had ever found in the woods, and Aria could feel herself falling hopelessly in love.

His kiss good-bye made her ache between the legs. Only fear of the Bone Witch kept Aria from giving in totally to her feelings.

Before returning to the Iron Wood, Aria gathered more bitter herbs and spider's silk; then she sneaked up on the troll-bear's lair, hoping her own scent would be hidden by the carrion stink. When she found the spot she sought, Aria dug down into the deep forest loam, using the witch's steel sickle. She glanced repeatedly over her shoulder, uncomfortably aware that she had watched her knight dig in this exact spot without him knowing it.

Setting aside the sickle, she dug the last few inches with her hands, not wanting to harm what lay hidden in the hole. Finally she felt something soft and warm beneath her fingers. Brushing aside the last of the dirt, Aria recognized the embroidered tapestry her knight had kept next to his armored breast. Unwrapping the tapestry, she felt the smooth hard surface underneath, the warm living Firebird's Egg.

She folded the tapestry back over the Egg, then refilled the hole, happy her knight had not lied to her. He claimed that as castellan, he would have known if Byeli Zamak held such a magical egg--and it did not. But that was because he had escaped Byeli Zamak with it, and buried it here by the troll-bear's lair. Being a born romancer herself, Aria took such truthful misdirection as a sign of true love.

That night, the Bone Witch tucked Aria into her spider's-silk hammock and told her a tale from Far Barbary, about Sindbad the Sailor's second voyage, when the Muslim mariner was marooned on Roc Island, but made his escape by tying his turban to the leg of a giant roc. He flew off to the Diamond Wadi, "which swarmed with vipers and pythons as thick as a palm trunk, able to swallow an elephant whole."

"That sounds worse than rocs." Aria had never seen a python or a palm tree, but she lived in a hut made of elephant bones, and greatly feared any snake that could gulp it down.

"Much worse," the Bone Witch agreed, "but the serpents only came out at night, for fear that the rocs and eagles would eat them. That night Sindbad hid in a hole, and at dawn he was giddy from hunger and thirst, thinking that he had doomed himself to a hideous death. Then thanks to Allah, he remembered hearing that gem merchants harvested diamonds from this wadi, by slaughtering sheep and tossing their bloody carcasses into the valley, so that jewels would stick to the meat. Rocs and eagles would seize the meat, carrying the diamonds out of the deep canyon to their nests, where the merchants would gather up the gems...."

The Bone Witch's stories of Far Barbary all ended the same way, with the witch saying, "Then Shahrazad saw the first light of day break over the edge of the world, and ceased her story, saying her husband could hear the rest of the tale the next night--if he did not cut off her head. Thus ended the Five Hundred and Forty-fourth Night, in the Tale of the Thousand Nights and a Night."

Shahrazad was an empress of Persia, whose husband so despised the sinfulness of women that he executed his brides after their wedding night to keep them from ever being unfaithful--until Shahrazad reformed her bloodthirsty spouse by telling an endless string of entertaining stories.

That night, Aria dreamed of flying off with her knight on the back of a huge roc, to honeymoon in Far Barbary. They flew south and east together, landing in the high harem of an exotic fortress-palace set on an island in a flat blue sea. Finding the harem empty and a warm perfumed bath already drawn for them, Sir Roye turned to her with a smile, saying, "May I assist Mademoiselle?"

Without giving her a chance to answer, he started undoing the ties on her dress. Forgetting that this was a dream, Aria thrilled to the feel of his fingers against her skin, stripping off her embroidered bodice and then dropping her skirts. Aria stood before her knight wearing only a linen shift and knowing she would soon be naked. Sir Roye's hands were bare, and he smiled at her, but his body was still encased in steel, coldly powerful and immune to her touch. His disembodied hands seized her shift at the waist, pulling the fabric up over her head.

Now she was totally bare. Her knight's smile widened as he told her, "Mademoiselle is most fetching, indeed. Now if she will allow--"

Sir Roye's big strong hands closed around her ribs, thumbs pressing against her breasts. He lifted her up, kissed her lovingly on the lips, then lowered her into the bath. A flood of warm wet sensation flowed up from her toes, through her ankles and calves, then finally immersing her thighs in hot wetness, making her squirm in her sleep.

And Sir Roye was in the water with her, his armor magically gone, replaced by firm thrilling flesh. Aria moaned aloud, and the Bone Witch visited her dream to get a better look at this Baron de Roye. Liking what she saw, the Bone Witch left Aria alone, just removing any unnecessary fears and an inhibition or two, replacing them with eager anticipation, and some unusual new desires.

Which Aria instantly acted on, twisting her legs around a pillow and rocking gently until she climaxed in her sleep. The Bone Witch closed the dream with pleasant thoughts about death.

Aria awoke excited and happy, laughing aloud at the sunlight streaming into the Bone Hut. She meant to see her knight again right after morning chores, before he could wander away from the cave--but the Bone Witch had a dozen extra things for her to do today. For no apparent reason, the witch wanted the swallows' nests taken from under the eaves and her pet rats turned loose, then her favorite fetishes hung on branches in the Iron Wood. So many pointless tasks that Aria suspected the old woman of trying to keep her from seeing Baron de Roye. The Bone Witch's motives were always as obscure as her methods.

The rats were at best moderately happy to be set free, and the swallows complained bitterly, chattering shrilly and darting at her head. It was useless to tell them that the Bone Witch ordered the mass removal. While she battled indignant swallows, the Bone Witch sat at her rib cage table, writing on thin strips of Cathayan paper in her little cramped script. After tying these tiny messages to the feet of her carrier pigeons, the crone released the pigeons one by one, sending them off into the broad blue sky.

Aria asked what was so important that they must tell the world. The Bone Witch shushed her. "Be patient, child. Time makes all things clear."

So the Bone Witch always said. Aria returned to her tasks, working until the Bone Hut looked positively bare. Since the day she arrived, her new home's chaos had fascinated her--fetishes decorated white rafters, swallows darted in and out, pigeons cooed in the eaves, rats peered from wicker cages, while rib-bone shelves held seashells, raven's claws, bloodred rubies, and big tulip-shaped paper lanterns. Such amazing clutter had taken her mind off the terror of belonging to Death's grandmother--fully expecting to be cooked and eaten, unless the witch preferred her raw. Aria soon discovered that she had to do the cooking, as well as feed the rats and dust off the Bone Hut's treasures.

Now it chilled Aria to see her home so neat. All the animals were gone, except for her knight's horse in the paddock out back. She hoped this latest mad impulse did not last.

Finally the Bone Witch let her go. "There is nothing else for you to do here. Now go and make your way in the world. Be smart. Be brave. Live in the moment, but think of me now and again. And if you ever need help, call on me. No matter how far you go or what you become, I will be with you."

Aria rolled her eyes in protest, explaining that she was only taking breakfast to her knight, not running off to France. Her slave collar kept her from leaving the woods--but the Bone Witch had a way of seeing grand drama in mundane things, like the song of a lark or the first buds of spring. "Fear not," Aria assured her. "I will be back by afternoon."

"No, you won't." The Bone Witch shook her head at such a childish notion. "Remember, I tried to care for you and teach you trollcraft. Now recite your spell." Aria recited her invisibility spell, grabbed up her basket, and headed for the Iron Wood, happy to be free of the old witch--if only for a while.

She did not get far. There are no warning cries in the Iron Wood. No birds or squirrels to keep watch. Aria was winding her way through metal trunks when she caught a whiff of horses on the wind. That meant men were coming, since no horse would be silly enough to come here on its own. She froze, whispered her spell, and waited--hoping her heart was not banging too loud.

Hearing the clip-clop of iron-shod hooves on flinty rock, Aria realized that horsemen were riding down the crooked trail toward the Bone Witch's hut--in column of twos, to save getting slashed by spiked branches. In a moment they would be riding right over her, invisible or not.

She turned and dashed back the way she had come. Byeli Zamak had been gone for only a day, and already men were coming farther than she ever thought possible. At the clearing in the metal wood, the Bone Witch stood waiting by her skin door, a grim smile on her wrinkled face.

Aria told the sorceress she had heard horsemen coming, but the crone merely nodded. Had the Bone Witch known about these horsemen? Probably. The Bone Witch had sent her off with her basket and spell, knowing full well that Aria would not get far.

Hoofbeats grew louder as the column of riders neared the clearing. Aria stood close to the witch, curious to see what sort of horsemen dared come into the Iron Wood. But the first figure to appear was not on horseback--and was only half a man. Man-shaped and naked, he strolled lithely into the clearing, covered head to foot with soft brown hair. His eyes were wolf's eyes. Canine fangs protruded from thin smiling lips.

Lycanthrope. Aria had never seen one like this before--few had and lived. He was not the harmless sort who totally shed human form to run with the wolves and mate with the bitches. He was a soulless demon from deep in the Iron Wood--the absolute worst of wolf and man. Or so the Bone Witch always told her.

Behind him rode an incongruous pair. The taller of the two was a steel-helmeted horse archer wearing a blue horse guard's brigandine studded with silver nailheads. He had a huge dead swan hanging from his high saddle. Riding at his side was a dwarf mounted on a pony, wearing a particolored tunic and a foolscap.

More horsemen filed into the clearing behind the mismatched pair, spreading out from their column of twos--horse archers, knights, and men-at-arms, followed by squires and valets, even a steward and a butler in their uniforms of office. And an ensign, holding up a grand duke's banner, bearing the silver lightning stroke of Ikstra.

Beneath the banner rode Grand Duke Sergey himself, a prince of the blood from the bootheels up, wearing silver-chased armor and a gold coronet on his old-fashioned great helmet. He had his visor tipped back, and Aria could see the hard cold sheen in his pale blue eyes, glinting like dangerous ice in the spring.

He stared evenly at the aged witch--two of the most feared people in Markovy were meeting for the first time. Totally different, yet each in their own way absolutely terrifying. Crown Prince Sergey, Grand Duke of Ikstra, broke the frosty silence. "Good morrow, Grandmother. We are trailing a mounted knight, riding a gray warhorse and wearing a blue-and-white surcoat. He is most likely wounded. Have you seen him?"

"No, my lord," replied the Bone Witch. "Not him, nor anyone like him." Aria did her best to seen totally mute, and deaf as well.

"Strange," mused Prince Sergey, "our wolfman trailed his horse straight to this clearing." The lycanthrope stood waiting, a hideous look on his fanged face, clearly hoping to make a meal out of someone. "He was Castellan of Byeli Zamak, and claims to be a baron from a foreign land."

"And yet I have not seen him," the Bone Witch insisted. Aria gave a feebleminded smile of agreement, letting the witch speak for both of them.

Prince Sergey looked to the dwarf sitting on his pony. Rising in his saddle, the dwarf took a deep breath through his nose. Two more sniffs, and the dwarf settled back in the saddle, saying, "She is telling the truth."

Prince Sergey nodded. Then his gaze turned to Aria, staring at her like she had failed to pay her squirrel tax. "What about the girl? Has she seen him?"

The "girl" gulped, then shook her head vigorously, shrinking back against the Bone Witch.

Prince Sergey looked again at the dwarf. This time the little man swung off his pony and walked over to her. His head came up to Aria's waist. Lifting his nose, he sniffed her belly and then ran his nostrils down her thigh. He stepped back, saying, "She is lying."

Sergey raised an eyebrow. "Has she seen the castellan?" His dwarf shrugged. The little man was a lie sniffer, not a mind reader. His Majesty turned back to her. "Have you seen a knight wearing blue and white?"

Aria had no good answer, caught between her need to lie, and knowing the dwarf would sniff her out. Anything she said would put her at the mercy of these men. The wolfman leered at her. He was the one who had found her. Without him, this clumsy crowd of horsemen could not have trailed her from the stream--but a lycanthrope can track a mouse on a moonless night.

"Well, have you seen him?" the Grand Duke demanded.

Before she could think of some truthful misdirection, a shout of triumph came from the back of the Bone Hut. A couple of squires came around the corner, proudly leading her knight's horse. Someone called out, "That's him, the castellan's big gray."

Prince Sergey looked hard at the horse, then back at her. "Have you seen the knight who rode this charger?"

Aria nodded dumbly, unable to come up with anything but the truth, though she knew it would doom her.

"Good," the Grand Duke concluded, "we are finally getting somewhere. Do you know where he is?"

"Not for certain." He could be long gone from the cave. In fact, she fervently hoped he was.

Prince Sergey smiled, a chilling and terrible sight. "Nothing in life is certain--but I wager you can find him." He turned to his ensign, saying, "Pay the crone for the girl."

Taking his reins in his banner hand, the ensign fished a gold coin out of his purse, tossing it at the naked feet of the Bone Witch, who made no move to pick up the coin. "That is for the girl," the ensign explained.

"She is not for sale," the witch replied, as Aria shrank back, putting the Bone Witch between her and the men.

"Give her the whole purse," the Grand Duke ordered impatiently. His ensign tossed the purse down beside the coin--but the crone ignored it as well.

"What do you want, Grandmother?" Grand Duke Sergey seemed astonished that the old woman refused his generosity.

"For you to leave." There was a hint of warning in the witch's answer.

"We will," Sergey agreed, "when we have the girl."

"She is under my protection," the Bone Witch insisted.

Grand Duke Sergey glared at her. Tension filled the clearing. Two dozen armed men sat loafing in the saddle, backed by valets, pages, a steward and butler. Horses looked on with equine curiosity. The lycanthrope stood waiting, aching to use his fangs and claws. "By rights, I could have you burned," Prince Sergey pointed out.

"Do it if you dare," replied the Bone Witch, unworried by the prince's power.

Sergey motioned for his archers to dismount, saying, "Seize the girl."

Horrified, Aria stepped back toward the skin door. This was all her fault. She had brought the horse to the Bone Hut. She had assumed she could easily lose a score of armed men.

A bowman tried to brush past the old woman, but the Bone Witch shoved him sideways, landing him in a heap. He did not get up.

Two wary archers seized the witch's arms, but she whirled about, faster than the eye could follow, sending the armored pair flying to opposite ends of the clearing.

Another archer tried to draw his sword, but the crone reached out and grabbed his wrist, twisting it until it snapped. His blade dropped from limp fingers. Bowmen fell back, hardened professional murderers looking completely appalled by the old woman's strength. The lycanthrope dropped to a crouch, prepared to spring.

Prince Sergey rose in the saddle, shouting, "Use your bows--but do not hit the girl. I will flay the man that misses."

A half-dozen arrows leaped from their bows, striking the Bone Witch in the chest and hip. She hardly even winced, standing stiff and tall between Aria and the men. Aria clung to the skin door, her fist jammed in her mouth, stifling a scream, aghast at what she had done.

More arrows thudded into the Bone Witch. Painfully the crone turned to face Aria, her chest looking like a bloody pincushion. Arrows continued to hit the Bone Witch from behind. Staggering from the impact, the old woman opened her mouth to speak. All that came out was a horrible gargling sound, followed by a great gout of blood. Shocked and sickened, Aria watched the witch sink slowly to her knees.

"Stop shooting! Stop shooting!" Prince Sergey cried. "You will hit the girl."

Silence settled over the clearing as tears poured down Aria's cheeks. Half a dozen bows were pointed at her, arrows nocked and ready. She could see their gleaming chiseled steel points aimed at her chest. The Bone Witch lay at her feet, feathered with arrows. Aria too expected to die--if not now, then soon.

Prince Sergey broke the silence, spurring his mount to put himself between her and the archers, shouting, "Down bows! Damn you! Down bows!"

Hurriedly his men obeyed. Wiping her tears away, Aria seized the prince's stirrup. "Why did you kill her?" she wailed. "I am the one who lied."

Startled, Prince Sergey stared down in disbelief, as if astonished she could speak. "The witch did not know where he was. You did." So the witch died, and Aria lived--for now. "You do know where the castellan is?" Sergey wanted to be sure.

Aria nodded. Any other answer would be her death warrant.

"And you can take us to him?"

She nodded again.

"Good." Prince Sergey pulled his boot from his stirrup, planted the heel on her shoulder, and shoved, sending her sprawling. He waved to his men. "Burn the place. Burn the witch's body. Burn it all."

Prince Sergey cantered off. For a moment Aria lay looking up at a blue sky framed by iron treetops. Her breath came in long ragged gasps, as if the whole weight of the Heavens rested on her breast.

Without warning, a big bearded archer took the prince's place. Looking down at her, he laughed. "Here's a cute little case of the clap. Already flat on her back."

"Give your middle leg a rest," another archer advised.

"What do you mean?" the man asked indignantly. "I've not been fucked in a fortnight."

"Small wonder." The second archer helped her to her feet, brushing the dirt off her dress, which was spattered with the Bone Witch's blood.

Someone called out, "Does she have a name?"

"Do you?" asked the archer.

Of course, she thought--but all she said was, "Aria."

"She calls herself Aria." The horse archer was speaking to a huge man in an oversize suit of plate armor. Mounted on a big black Friesian, he towered over everything, seeming to reach right to the ridgepole of the Bone Hut. He wore the same blue-and-white surcoat as her knight, but many times bigger, and marked with the sword-and-shield badge of a master-at-arms. Tipping back the visor on his German sallet, he asked her in a big booming voice, "Where do you come from, girl?"

Scared senseless, Aria still had the presence of mind to lie. "I am the daughter of a Kazakh hetman, Kaffa Khan. Harm me, and he will come with a toman of horse archers to hunt you all to death."

He laughed, saying, "Have Knee-High give her a sniff."

She had forgotten about the dwarf. Too much had happened since Aria last saw the little man. He walked over and took a deep sniff, then turned to the master-at-arms. "She lies."

The master-at-arms did not look surprised, her lie being feeble at best. "Come, my cute young khanum, give us the truth. Or I will see you suffer."

Aria admitted she did not know who her parents were, saying, "I was raised here, by the witch." Mentioning the Bone Witch made her want to cry, but she stopped herself.

"Are you virtuous?" asked the master-at-arms.

She stared dumbly up at him. What a stupid question to ask a witch-child. How could anyone be both damned and virtuous?

"There's your answer," the lecherous horse archer chuckled. "She does not even know what you are asking."

The master-at-arms grinned. "Well, it is bad luck to execute a virgin...."

"Especially for the virgin," a horse archer added, getting a chuckle from his fellow troopers.

The master-at-arms signaled for silence. "But in your case, we will risk it. Stop your lying, and lead us to the castellan. Otherwise we will have you flayed and left to fry in the sun. Unlucky or not. Do you understand?"

She understood.

He turned to the squires and archers, telling them to get busy. "Drag the witch into the hut, and set it on fire." None too happy with their task, archers dragged the witch's body into the Bone Hut. Aria watched them pile the straw beds atop the dead crone, then throw on firewood, furniture, and the contents of the clothes chests. Dousing the pile with cooking oil, they set it alight. Soon the Bone Hut was blazing away. Aria saw her life going up in smoke and flames--just like Byeli Zamak.

"Mount up," the master-at-arms ordered. Squires hoisted her aboard de Roye's gray charger. One of them handed her the reins, and something to go with them. Looking down, she saw it was her straw doll--the one she had brought with her when she first came to live with the witch. The young squire who had given it to her looked embarrassed. Of all these men--from Grand Duke Sergey down to the lowest valet--this boy alone seemed ashamed for what they had done.

The master-at-arms gave her a grin that was all beard and teeth, saying, "Now lead us to the castellan."

She nodded, clutching the straw doll to her belly. Somehow, some way, Aria meant to come out of this alive and whole. But how that would happen, Heaven alone knew.

Copyright © 2006 by R. Garcia y Robertson


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