Home > Spinning Silver(13)

Spinning Silver(13)
Author: Naomi Novik

But when I looked into the courtyard, where the soldiers were going through their paces under his taskmaster voice, my father was bare-handed, though ordinarily he wore heavy gloves or sometimes metal gauntlets. His hands were clasped loosely behind his back, the left holding the right wrist. The silver band was shining as if in sunlight, though the sky was dark grey and snow was drifting, as far from my reach as another world.

* * *

The Staryk lord kept coming back into my head even after I was back home again. I didn’t remember him all the time; only in the moments when I was alone somewhere and in the middle of some other task. When I went outside behind the house to tend the chickens, I remembered his footprints there, and was glad to see the snow unmarked. In the shed, feeding the goats in the dim early-morning light, I looked into a corner where a rake stood in shadows and remembered him coming out of the dark trees with his white braids and his cruel smile. When I went out to get a little snow for water, to make tea, my hands grew cold and I thought, What if he comes back. It made me angry, because being angry was better than being afraid, but then I came in with the pail of snow and found myself standing before the fire angry for no reason, and my mother looking at me, puzzled.

She hadn’t asked me anything about the Staryk, only how my grandmother and my grandfather were, and if I’d had a good journey, as if she too had forgotten why I’d gone to Vysnia in the first place. I didn’t have any of the fairy silver left to fix it in my own head, not even the little white purse. I remembered going to the marketplace, and I remembered Isaac working, but I couldn’t see the ring he’d made in my mind’s eye.

But I remembered enough that every morning I went again to look behind the house, and on Monday, Wanda came out to feed the chickens while I was still there. She joined me and looked down at the smooth unbroken surface, and unexpectedly she said, “You paid him, then? He’s gone?”

For a moment I almost said, Whom do you mean, and then I remembered again, and my hands clenched. “I paid him,” I said, and Wanda nodded after a moment, one single jerk of her head, as though she understood that I was saying that was all I knew: he might come back, or he might not.

I had brought some aprons with me from Vysnia in the new embroidered pattern—aprons instead of dresses, so I could sell them for less than a zlotek without making it seem as though the dresses had been a cheat. All of them went quickly that market day, and the handkerchiefs I’d also bought. A woman from a farm out in the country even asked me if I was going back to Vysnia soon, and if I thought I could get a good price for her yarn there. No one had ever done business with me before, if they could help it, except to buy from me cheap and sell to me dear; usually she would have asked one of the carters instead, Oleg or Petrov, to take it to town if she couldn’t sell it herself at market. But these last few years all the sheep and goats were growing their coats so thick, in the long cold winters, that the price of wool was falling low, and they couldn’t have gotten her much.

Hers was better than the usual, soft and thick; I could tell she had combed it and washed it and spun it carefully. I rubbed a strand between my fingers and remembered that my grandfather had said he would be sending some goods south, down the river, when spring came: he had hired a barge. He meant to pack his goods with straw, but maybe he could pack them with wool instead, and we could sell it for more in the south, where it had not been so cold.

“Give me a sample and I’ll take it the next time I go, and I’ll tell you what I can get” was all that I told her. “How much of it do you have to sell?” She only had three bags, but I saw others listening as we spoke. There were many at the market who sold wool for a little income, or even their livelihood, and were being squeezed by the falling prices; I was sure if I came back to the market and told her where others could overhear that I could offer her a good price, many more would come quietly to see me.

By the time I went home from the market that day, it was settled in my head that I had gone to Vysnia for more goods to sell, to make more business for myself. There were three brand-new goats on a string behind me, bought cheap because of the falling price of wool, and even more plans in my head: I would ask my grandfather to take my profits from the wool and buy me some dresses from the south, in just a little bit of a foreign style, to sell in Vysnia and in the market here, too.

That night there was a brown roast chicken on the table and carrots glazed with fat, and for once my mother dished out the good food without looking as though every bite would poison her. We ate, and afterwards Wanda went home and we settled in together around the fire. My father was reading to himself, his lips moving silently, from the new Bible I had bought him in Vysnia; my mother was crocheting lace from some fine silk thread, a piece that could someday go into a wedding dress, maybe. The golden light shone in their faces, kind and worn, and for a moment I felt the whole world suspended in happiness, in peace, as though I had reached a place I had never been able even to imagine before.

The knocking came on the door, heavy and vigorous. “I’ll get it,” I said, putting my sewing aside. But when I stood, my parents hadn’t even glanced up. I held there frozen in place a moment, but they still didn’t look; my mother was humming softly, her hook swinging in and out of the thread. Slowly I went to the door and opened it, and the Staryk was on the stoop with all of winter behind him, a whirling cloud of snow that wasn’t falling past the windows.

He held another purse out to me, clinking like chains, and spoke with a high thin voice like wind whistling through the eaves. “Three days you may have, this time, before I come to have my own back again,” he said.

I stared at the purse. It was large and heavy with coin, more silver there than I had in gold even if I emptied my vault; far more. Snow was drifting in to melt cold against my cheeks, flecking my shawl. I thought of accepting it in silence, of keeping my head bowed and afraid. I was afraid. He wore spurs on his heels and jewels on his fingers like enormous chips of ice, and the voices of all the souls lost in blizzards howled behind him. Of course I was afraid.

But I had learned to fear other things more: being despised, whittled down one small piece of myself at a time, smirked at and taken advantage of. I put my chin up and said, as cold as I could be in answer, “And what will you give me in return?”

His eyes widened and all the color went out of them. The storm shrieked behind him, and a lance of cold air full of snow and ice blew into my bare face, a stinging prickle of pins-and-needles on my cheeks. I expected him to strike me, and he looked as though he wanted to; but instead he said to me, “Thrice, mortal maiden,” in a rhythm almost like a song, “Thrice you shall turn silver to gold for me, or be changed to ice yourself.”

I felt half ice already, my hands so cold that I imagined I could feel my finger bones aching under the numb flesh. At least I was too cold even to shiver. “And then?” I said, and my voice didn’t shake.

He laughed at me, high and savage, and said, “And then, if you manage it, I will make you my queen,” mockingly, and threw the purse down at my feet, jingling loud. When I looked back up from it, he was gone, and my mother behind me said, slow and struggling, as if it was an effort to speak, “Miryem, why are you keeping the door open? The cold’s coming in.”

Chapter 7

The purse that the Staryk had left was ten times as heavy as before, full of shining coins. I counted them out into smooth-sided towers, trying to put my mind into order along with them. “We’ll leave,” my mother said, watching me build them. I hadn’t told her what the Staryk had promised, or threatened, but she didn’t like it anyway: a fairy lord coming to demand I give him gold. “We’ll go to my father, or somewhere else away,” but I felt sure that wasn’t any good. How far would we have to go to run from winter? Even if there were some country a thousand miles away beyond his reach, it would mean bribes to cross each border, and a new home wherever we found ourselves in the end, and who knew how they’d treat us when we got there. We’d heard enough stories of what happened to our people in other countries, under kings and bishops who wanted their debts forgiven, and to fill their purses with confiscated wealth. One of my great-uncles had come from a summer country, from a house with orange trees inside a walled garden; someone else now picked those oranges, that his family had carefully planted and tended, and they were lucky to have made it here.

And even in a summer country, I didn’t think I could escape forever. One day the wind would blow and the temperature would drop, and in the middle of the night a frost would creep over my threshold. He would come to keep his promise, a final revenge after I’d spent my life running around the world breathless and afraid, and he’d leave me frozen on a desert stoop.

So I put the six towers of coins, ten in each, back into the purse. Sergey had come by then; I sent him to Oleg, to ask him to come round with his sledge and drive me to Vysnia that very night. “Tell him I’ll clear a kopek from his debt, if he’ll take me and bring me back on Saturday night,” I said grimly: that was twice what the cost of the drive should have been, but I needed to go at once. The Staryk might have given me three days, but I had only until sundown on Friday to get the work done; I didn’t think he would take Shabbat as an excuse.

I was in the market at first light the next day, and the instant Isaac saw me in front of his stall, he demanded eagerly, “Do you have any more of the silver?” Then he flushed and said, “That is, welcome back,” remembering he had manners.

“Yes, I have more,” I said, and spilled the heavy purse out in a shining swath on his black velvet cloth; he hadn’t even put out his goods for the day yet. “I need to give back sixty gold this time,” I told him.

He was already turning the coins over with his hands, his face alight with hunger. “I couldn’t remember,” he said, half to himself, and then he heard what I’d said and gawked at me. “I need a little profit for the work that this will take!”

“There’s enough to make ten rings, at ten gold each,” I said.

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