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Acerbus Erus

        Part 1

       Chapter 1

 Prologue 

        The Storyteller entered the Mead Hall leading an old woman behind him; he was young, with black hair, dark skin, and dark eyes. He spoke eloquently, with long words that flowed easily forth and graced the ears of his listeners. Indeed, his listeners came from far and wide in order to sit for a week in the borg of the Storyteller’s older brother, comfortable around the fire of the Mead Hall.

        As the Storyteller helped the old woman into her seat, he greeted those who heard him every night and he passed his eyes over those who had travelled from afar. The old woman smiled at him.

        “Are you comfortable, Mjoor?” he asked her politely, using the Norse word for mother even though she had not birthed him.

        The woman patted his cheek with her hand. “Very, Vita, thank you.” 

        The Storyteller settled also into his seat and rose his hand in greeting to the hundreds of his patrons. “Have we some far travellers this night?” he asked, his deep voice booming out over the audience.

        “We have a group from Rome!” cried a young man, a karl – or freeman – in the fortress.

        “Yes, and some from the Caliphate of Cordova,” added another karl.

        “Far travellers,” the Storyteller commented. “We are graced with your presence. The Caliphate of Cordova is far indeed. Now!” he continued, clapping together his hands. “What story shall I tell tonight?”

        One traveller from Rome stood and placed his fist on his chest. “If it please you, we have travelled very far and wish to hear the story of your father, of Vitenka of the Dark Eyes.”

        The old woman sputtered and coughed. “That story is long!” she cried, hitting her chest in the act of hacking. She gave a cackle and placed a hand on the Storyteller’s shoulder. “If mind you not to spend the entire night listening to the story of his father, then sit you down and let it be told.”

        “I will tell it, Mjoor, pray calm or you might choke to death,” the Storyteller intervened, placing his hand upon the old woman’s hand. Cackling again, the old woman fell silent and fixed the Roman with her one eye, the other just a scar running from her hairline to the bottom of her nose. “Fine then,” the Storyteller finished, “I shall tell you the story of my father, the famed Vitenka of the Dark Eyes, the Gypsy Jarl.”

 

Chapter One 

The prey was so close; he thought he could hear the thumping of its heart. Pounding, pounding, so incessant that it coursed through the boy’s veins. As he ran the land he had known since he was born whipped past him, the wind whistling in his ears as he jumped over a log blocking his path. Somewhere ahead of him, another man sprinted, following the prey as it crashed through the trees. The crescent moon lit the boy’s path, but not by much. His trained eyes could see in any light; he had to see in any light. A mound rising from the earth could be anything from a Norseman to a dead log. To him, it was a game. In his game he was running from the Norse because his sister and two brothers waited for him in a cave. The Arabs were in hot pursuit. To fight them would mean certain death. He had to be careful.

The prey stopped running and all sound ceased. The boy halted in his tracks and looked around, wary of everything. This beast they were hunting was much bigger than he was, so he should be able to see it. Or should he? With such lithe forest creatures, he could never tell.

He listened, tilting his head in all directions. There was no way a creature could see him, because his hair and skin was so dark. Black locks of wavy hair draped over his face, hiding the shine of his skin. He did not sweat like the other man sweat. In fact, he did not sweat at all. Why would he? He was too young to sweat.

A twig snapped and he held his breath, turning his head in the direction of the sound. Nothing, but wait…. Taking the boy by surprise, the beast dashed out of the brush, rearing its head and foaming at its mouth. As the boy watched the elk gallop across the path before him, time seemed to slow. The muscles under its coat were so slick, so firm and toned. Such a beautiful animal, and it brought tears to the boy’s eyes that he would be eating its meat for the next four or five days. Rippling in the moonlight, the muscles astounded the boy to the point that he could not even draw the dagger at his waist.

When the elk’s hooves crashed into the brush on the other side, the boy jumped to life. His dagger flew into his hand and he sprinted forward. He could still see the beast run ahead of him as he struggled to keep his pace. A man hopped out of he brush and ran beside him for a bit. “The elk will turn left,” he whispered into the boy’s ear. “Stop, then run the opposite direction when I leave.”  They pursued the beast side by side. As fast as he had appeared, the man disappeared into the brush to the boy’s left.

Following the man’s orders, the boy stopped, waited for three counts and flipped a finger with each number. He turned and ran the other direction. For a moment, he could hear nothing except the sound of his own breathing and the pounding of his blood in his ears.

A rumble took over the ground and the elk burst from the brush. The boy hurried his pace and they ran once again beside each other, the landscape of the Kieven forest rushing past them. Crouching down, his legs keeping the same pace, the boy jumped high into the air and landed on the elk’s back. It bucked and tossed the boy, but the boy was still able to slash the elk’s side with his dagger. Roaring in pain, it reared up and tried to smash the boy as he lay winded on the ground. The boy rolled to the side and hefted himself off the floor of the forest.

Before the boy had recovered the man had flown out of the brush and rushed to the elk, tackling the great beast to the ground. They wrestled and kicked and screamed and grunted, but the man managed to slash the elk across its neck. The prey lay dying on the ground.

Wiping sweat from his face, the man offered his hand to the boy and pulled him to his feet. “Do you feel ill?” the man asked, kneeling down beside him.

“No,” he replied, shaking his head. “Just a little winded, Father. How did you know the elk would change directions like that?”

The man smiled. “You have to watch the slant of their bodies, Vita. The slant was so slight, I don’t think the elk itself knew he was going to turn before he did. But there are such slight indications that could mean the difference between supper and none at all…. You did well, Vita. Shall we take the elk home for the women and children?”

The boy, Vitenka, nodded and smiled. Sheathing his dagger, he watched as his father decapitated the elk and took a horn from a string around his waist. His father put the horn to his lips and blew the horn twice. Kneeling beside the elk, he smiled at Vitenka and drew out an axe. He passed it to Vitenka, who began to hack at the elk’s limbs. Vitenka’s father drew the horn once more to his lips and blew twice. After letting the horn hang on his waist he withdrew another axe and joined Vitenka with the bloody task.

Many men appeared shortly with nets made of bark and complimented Vitenka’s father on the size of the elk.

“Konstantin, no man but you could have killed such a beast,” commented a fat man, Vladimir, who unsheathed his dagger and sliced a large hunk of meat, sliding it into his bag. “Why should we ask any other man to hunt when you do so well as to embarress us all?”

“Come,” Konstantin, Vitenka’s father, said. “The elk is not so big and Vita helped me.”

Another man, Andrei, opened his bag and grabbed the elk’s liver before any other man could. “Perhaps we should go to the steppes and hunt the deer. Elk is too heavy to carry from place to place.” He hefted a huge piece of meat onto a bark net and threw the liver on top before tying the ends together. “Deer would be much easier.”

The chatter continued until the elk was completely dismembered and passed out to the men that would carry their pieces home. Konstantin passed a leg to Vitenka and pulled a bag filled with meat over his shoulder. Another man, Kyryl, stayed to bury the head.

 

 

The sound of loud laughing awoke Cyrene from her deep sleep the next morning. Wondering who made the noise, she draped a heavy blanket across her shoulders, slid out of bed quietly so as not to disturb Konstantin, and tiptoed to the edge of the loft. Her second eldest son, Kosta rolled on the floor as his older sister, Olya tickled him and Vitenka lay collapsed on the ground, laughing so hard that tears dripped from his eyes. She lowered herself down the ladder to the floor, walked softly toward the three children, then lunged at them when they spotted her.

“Come now!” she shouted, fighting the children. “You can do better than this. I am but one woman against a woman and two men. Why am I winning?”

As if he appeared from the mist, Aleksy screamed at the top of his lungs and jumped on them. Olya’s fingers wiggled as she ran her hand up and down Aleksy’s sides and he rolled away giggling and holding his ribs.

Short of breath, Vitenka crawled from underneath his mother and brother and hid in the corner. He watched Kosta and Cyrene wrestle for a little, then turned his attention to Olya and Aleksy. There was no room for him anywhere. He had always been the outcast, the black-haired child, standing in the middle of three light-haired children. He was always the outsider.

A hand on his shoulder startled him and he looked up to see Konstantin smiling down at him. “Are you well?” he asked. Vitenka nodded and Konstantin sighed, “Well, Vita, why do you not join them?”

“There is no room for me,” Vitenka replied gesturing toward Cyrene and Kosta first, then Olya and Aleksy with his head. “They are all paired, but I am alone.”

Crouching beside Vitenka and sweeping his hair away from his face, Konstantin said, “I wasn’t supposed to tell you this, but I suppose you should know.” Vitenka looked at him confusedly and Konstantin turned his head to meet his eyes. They were so dark and intense, like Vita’s. “Your mother is going to have another child. She has a feeling this child will be a girl.”

A small smile curved the corners of Vitenka’s lips, but it vanished quickly. “Then I will be totally alone.”  He sighed and let his head rest on Konstantin’s arm. “You will have to start training Kosta, and Mother will be too busy with this child to take aside any time for me. Olya will care for Aleksy, and where will that leave me?”

Placing his arm around Vitenka’s shoulder, Konstantin sighed once more and bit his lip. “Actually, when your mother gives birth, Kosta will still have at least another year to go before he is ready for my training. Olya might be married, or engaged, and Aleksy…. Aleksy matures faster than you seem to realise. I was hoping you would be able to take Kosta under your wing, so to speak, and help him like Olya has been helping Aleksy. What do you say, my strong Gypsy boy?”

“I suppose,” Vitenka returned, shifting under Konstantin’s arm. “But what shall I do until then?”

“Well…. Your mother and I are going to need help. When the new child becomes a little bigger, it won’t be able to keep with Aleksy and Kosta. Besides, who’s to say Olya won’t have a suitor soon? We’re going to need you to help with Kosta and Aleksy; take them with you when Cyrene needs time to herself. You can show them the paths and ways of the forest. That way, when I get my hands on them, they’ll be ready for me to start hunting. And this will keep your skills refined while my hands are busy with the work in the village. How does that sound?”

Vitenka’s dark face beamed with a grin when Konstantin finished. “I like that idea,” he said, pulling his hair away from his face, then twisting it over his shoulder. “I think it’s about time you trusted me a little more.”

“It wasn’t a matter of trust, Vitenka. It was a matter of age, and I believe you have aged enough for you to be ready. Do we understand each other?” Vitenka nodded and Konstantin finished decisively, “How about if you come out and help me chop some wood so your mother can cook breakfast?”

Vitenka nodded again and stood with Konstantin, who led him out the door. Cyrene met Konstantin’s eyes, and she smiled at him before he disappeared.

 

                                    *                                   *                                   *

           

The marketplace was crowded, the streets filled to brimming with people of all races, from all places of the world. Cyrene led Olya through the streets, trying to keep her eyes off the Chinese merchants offering silk, the Arab merchants offering elaborate headpieces, and Roman merchants holding up beautiful shawls and scarves. It seemed that on every corner, a Gypsy danced to the music of strange, Hindu flutes.

A man with his head lowered ran into the women. When he looked up, they realised he was an Egyptian from the Caliphate if the Abbasids. After he apologised and disappeared into the crowd, Olya tilted her head at her mother. “What is an Egyptian doing this far north?” she asked.

Cyrene shrugged and tugged her hand. “Listen here. We need to split up because the streets are far too crowded for us to finish our errands together. You buy the vegetables we need, and I shall buy the fabric. Understand?”

Olya nodded, but before she could say anything else, Cyrene handed her a moneybag and vanished into the crowd.

Sighing, Olya worked her way to a stand full of food and began to buy what was needed. “I need a loaf of bread and two spice strings.” When the merchant nodded, she reached up and unhooked two long wires stringed through dried peppers and tomatoes. He handed her the bread and she gave him the money. Placing them deep in her bag, she tried to remember the long list of supplies her family needed, making her way softly through the crowd. She hated Kiev on days like this.

“Olya!” The voice rang across the rumble of men’s voices like a hawk’s cry. She turned and sighted the boy jumping up and down waving his hand. Impatiently, she waited for him to catch up to her before turning and continuing on her way. “Olya, I haven’t seen you in so long!”

“Yes, Sergei, I know. How has life been on the streets?”

Shrugging, the boy grabbed a long loaf of bread from a stand and slipped it in Olya’s basket until the stand was out of sight. He drew it out and broke it in half,  offering one part to Olya, who turned it down, and bit into the second part. “Crowded. Each day the streets harness more people and I hardly know what to think of it.” Spotting a moneybag, he unsheathed a small knife, cut the strings on the bag, and let it fall in his hands. The person to whom the bag belonged did not suspect a thing. “I’ve been hearing a lot of rumours lately.”

“About what?” Olya turned sharply and made her way hurriedly to a stand with fruits almost falling off the top. “Twelve figs,” she said, then paid the man as he handed her twelve figs. She slid them into her bag and rejoined Sergei as he waited on the streets. “What are the rumours about?”

He shrugged again, and took a huge bite out of the bread. Without swallowing or even chewing, he answered, “Northmen. I’ve heard from more than one source that an army of Northmen are moving south.”

“Are they coming in this direction?” gasped Olya.

“It’s hard to tell,” Sergei replied, pausing to swallow some bread. “I think they’re actually travelling more southeaster than toward Kiev, but it’s strange. You know how unpredictable Northmen are.” Olya nodded. Sergei suggested, “You might want to tell your father this little piece of information. The commander of this group of Northman is brand new and supposedly very young.”

“How old?” asked Olya.

“I’ve heard eighteen, seventeen, nineteen, and twenty-one. Well, eighteen the most often.” Sergei whistled through his teeth. “Think about that! I hear he’s really good at battle strategy as well. Real sneaky, hiding in forests and brush, then striking at unsuspecting warriors. Goes in, pulls out, goes in, pulls out. Just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Say he’s like a ghost. Amazing, isn’t it?”

“Just eighteen?” Olya shook her head, then hopped up to find the stand that was supposed to be full with dried herbs. “How much has he taken control already?”

“He’s pretty far inland, but they say he started near the Russan coast, then worked inward. He’s taken over most of middle Rus, and all the other fortresses support him. Can you believe that?”

Olya shook her head and zipped through a bunch of people to reach the stand of herbs. Taking a small basket, she placed some basil, rosemary, thyme and mint, paid for it, and returned to Sergei’s side. “Are you worried?”

“Not really.” He took one last bite of the bread, then threw it to a small child huddling against a wall. Winking at the girl, he blew her a little kiss and smiled as she giggled and picked up the remainder of the loaf, happy now that she would at least have a meal that day. “They seem to be going pretty strongly inland, toward the Mongolian and Chinese Empires more than Kiev. Good thing, too. Our army isn’t even close to being strong enough to hold them at bay for very long. And no doubt, if the Northmen began to come toward Kiev, the Arabs would be making a shift north as well. I’ve heard no rumours that Arabs are moving north, only west. I have no worries.”

“Good.” Olya nodded her head in a farewell manner, then turned and blended herself into the crowd.

Sergei watched her bobbing head as she made her way down the streets and licked his lips. “I’ll get you eventually, Olya,” he whispered to himself. A soft hand took him by surprise, and a girl slid onto his arm. “Hello, Alona. Can I do something for you?” he wondered.

“Take me to get some wine,” she replied.

Looking down at the girl grinning up at him, he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled back her head. “Why not?” he said, and kissed her neck. “Come, let’s go to the tavern over there.” They walked softly toward the tavern to which he pointed, and the darkness of the tavern hid them from the eyes of the streets.

 

That night Konstantin led Vitenka outside, as he did every night, and trained Vitenka in his weapon of choice, throwing knives. The blacksmith in Kiev had made more than a hundred throwing knives for Vitenka’s use, very rough but working well anyway.

“You know what I’ve taught you,” Konstantin whispered, “use my instructions.”

Vitenka watched his father nail a Norse leather strap into a wooden wall he had constructed to train knife throwers and bowmen. “Now, Father?” Vitenka asked.

“The bottom of the strap is free. This is the Northman’s heart. If you can pin the strap, you can kill the Northman.” He backed away from Vitenka and held out his hand to continue.

Vitenka crouched down, his eyes intent on the leather strap hanging on the wall. He felt the wind blowing back his hair, a western wind, and he balanced the knife on his fingers like Konstantin had taught him. He brought back his arm, let his muscles take it forward, his wrist coming after his elbow, and the knife leaving last. The knife flew through the air at an amazing speed and stuck to the wood a handwidth away from the strap.

“Vita,” Konstantin called, “you always throw to the right of your target. Did I not tell you to aim left?”

“The wind was coming from the west, Father, I did not want it to take my knife too far.” Vitenka ran his fingers through his hair and sighed.

“How strong was the wind, Vita?”

“Perhaps a breeze.”

“Aim to the left, your shot still curved and you missed because you did not think. Besides, Vita, the blade would have stuck deeper if you snapped your wrist more. Throw again.”

Vitenka sighed and drew a second knife from the belt that held perhaps twenty around his waist. He repeated his motions, aiming to the left of the strap despite the western breeze, took his arm through the motions and snapped his wrist more than before. The knife pierced the wood barely left of the strap.

“Vita, where did you aim?” Konstantin cried. “Now you are too far left.” Vitenka pointed to where he aimed with a third knife and Konstantin removed the second knife from the wood. “Aim here,” he ordered, slamming the blade into the wood slightly left and above the bottom of the strap. “You shall strike the Northman if you aim here.”

Taking the third knife and balancing it easily on his fingers, Vitenka crouched down and shifted his weight from foot to foot. Again going through the motions, he aimed for the knife he had previously thrown and let his elbow take his wrist. He released the knife and it pierced the bottom of the strap.

“Better, Vita!” Konstantin shouted, his eyes focusing on something behind Vitenka.

Vitenka whipped around and frowned at Cyrene standing in the grass, writhing her hands together.

“Konstantin, I beg you come and hear what Olya has told me,” she called.

Before joining Cyrene, Konstantin ordered, “Snap your wrist harder, Vita, bone is harder to pierce than wood and the knife only penetrated halfway. I shall be back shortly.” He followed Cyrene into the house and Vitenka picked up the knife Konstantin had tossed to him.

Vitenka had thrown four knives before the shouting reached his ears and he hurried to the window to watch the scene.

“You really believe all this?” Konstantin was demanding as Vitenka lifted himself onto his toes to watch through the window.

“Why shouldn’t I?” Olya returned angrily. “The rumours have been circulating Kiev for quite some time, now.” Olya shifted her shoulders. “Have you been in the marketplace lately, Father? Many people are talking about this young jarl that will not stop attacking.” Olya caught herself momentarily, doubting if she should have used that word, but that is what they were called. The Northmen did not have kings, or freemen, or slaves. Instead they had jarls that were kings, karls that were freemen, thralls that were male slaves, and ambatts that were femal slaves. The names were strange, she would have to admit, but they were that all the same.

Konstantin placed his fists on his hips and glared at his daughter. “Olya, did you hear this from random people or from your dear friend Sergei?” She lowered her eyes, and Konstantin sighed in agitation. “I’ve told you too many times, Olya, I do not want you talking to Sergei. He is a cad who is out to have one night with you, then be done with you!”

“He is not!” she countered, angry that her father would accuse her friend of being such a horrible person.

“Olya, please!” Cyrene pleaded, stepping from behind Konstantin and placing a hand on her arm. “We do have a little more experience than you and we know how to handle these things.”

“You don’t,” Olya snapped at her mother. “You married Father at thirteen years of age. You don’t know how to deal with these things. You never had to deal with such confrontations!”

Enraged that Olya would take such a tone with her mother, Konstantin slapped her across the face then grabbed her upper arm. “If you act as a six year old, we shall treat you as a six year old!” He pulled her to a corner and threw her onto the ground, regardless of her struggling. “You sit there until you come to your senses, and if more slaps are needed, do not think I shall hesitate to impart them upon you!” Finished, he spun and raged out the door. With tears in her eyes, Olya watched the front door with anger. Cyrene tossed her the cape Olya had been finishing for Aleksy, then shook her finger. “You will sit in this corner until you finish that cape, and you will not move nor talk to any of the other children, am I understood Olya?”

She touched the fabric with her fingers, then slowly met her mother’s eyes. “Yes, Mother,” she whispered, then swore under her breath at her parents when she turned around.

Vitenka hurried to his place before the wood and waited for Konstantin to return. “Father,” he said, “I can stab the strap every time.”

“You heard everything,” Konstantin commented. “You should know about the politics right now. You do not know when you will need them.”

“Father, if I hit the strap once more, may we finish for the night?” Vitenka asked, uninterested about politics. He wanted to curl up next to the fire in the house, warm and safe within the walls.

Konstantin nodded and Vitenka picked up another knife, aimed and went through the motions, snapped his wrist, and pierced the bottom of the leather strap, the blade being sheathed all the way to the hilt. Smiling, Konstantin pulled out the knives on the wood and handed them to Vitenka before wrapping his arm around Vitenka’s shoulder. “Vita, you must promise me one thing,” he said thoughtfully. “It is possible that the Norse might come here and take Kiev. It is also possible that the Arabs may come, though I very much doubt that. We have the threat of the Mongols and the Ottomans. Vita, you must swear to maintain your skills in order to better protect your siblings, no matter what. Do you swear it?”

“I swear it, Father,” Vitenka replied, smiling up at him. “I will have to protect my brothers, after all.”

Grinning, Konstantin entered the house with Vitenka by his side.

 

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Sergei was not worried, but as the rumours reached the outlying areas of Kiev, where Konstantin lived with his family, distrust amongst their neighbours increased. Rumours said there was a traitor in Kiev somewhere, giving hints on how to defeat Kiev to this jarl. The jarl was, indeed, quite young and had a very unique style to fighting. Instead of fighting himself, he sent an Arab to conduct his bloody business, safe from any damage. Many times he would ambush a merchant’s caravan. In the ambushes he joined the fighters. Supposedly, his skills in sword fighting were remarkable, unmatched by even the greatest Samurai or Mongolian fighter. This young jarl was rumoured to be irresistable to women, with dusty blonde hair cut short and wild with curls, and large brown eyes that were softer than a babe’s.

Weeks passed and Cyrene’s stomach grew. As she was five lunar cycles along, the raids along north Kiev began. She neared her sixth lunar cycle, and refugees from northern towns and villages poured into central Kiev, prophesising the wrath of the “Angel Jarl”.

One night, as Cyrene sat weaving an engagement blanket for Olya and Konstantin lounged puffing from a pipe and teaching Vitenka how to properly string a bow, a loud pounding came at the door. All the children in the room jumped, and Konstantin handed the bow to Vitenka as he stood slowly and made his way to the oak.

“Who knocks?” he asked, drawing his dagger from his waist. Olya peered down from the steps to watch the scene.

“Vladimir,” the man behind the door answered.

Sighing with relief, Konstantin opened the door to the many men outside. “What is this?” he demanded. “Why do you and Andrei and Kryryl and so many others stand at my door?”

The man named Vladimir stepped forward. He was a round man, with a red face and black hair streaked with grey. “We are evacuating the countryside of Kiev,” he said simply. “The Northmen have drawn too close for comfort. The women and children must go. You may accompany them, or stay behind and defend your home. The choice is yours. This area of Kiev shall be empty in three days time, and we are moving northwestern into the woods. There is a small town called Mishnacov that we believe will be safe.”

Konstantin stared at Vladimir in disbelief. After an uncomfortable silence, he began to laugh. “Y- you’re joking, you’re joking. This is all some joke to laugh at me, am I correct?” The faces of the men did not change from their blank expressions. Konstantin became suddenly very angry. “Do you know how incredibly stupid you all are!” he shouted, making the children in the house jump again in surprise. “The Northmen are coming from the north, yet you want to move us north? You are aware that the Northmen come from the northwestern, are you not?”

“We are aware of this fact, but – “

“But you think this would be the last thing they’d expect.” Vladimir nodded and Konstantin laughed in disbelief. “You think that this young jarl is too stupid to know enough military strategy, so you don’t believe he would split his army in half to give us a surprise?”

“That’s not what we mean….”

“But that’s what you’re saying. This jarl – Canute is his name? – is very intelligent, gentlemen. More so than you. He knows strategy, and he has split his army. How else do you think he is able to play ghost while pillaging another town at the same time? If anything, we should be moving south.”

“The Arabs – “

“Are moving west, toward Rome and the Caliphate of Cordova, thank you, gentlemen. We are not going.” Konstantin moved to close the door, but Vladimir stuck his foot in the way.

“We have decided to move northwester to Mishnacov, and your family must come.”

Clenching his fists, Konstantin grabbed Vladimir’s shirt and pulled him into the house. “Look at my wife, Vlad!” he cried, pointing at Cyrene. “She is pregnant, and in no condition to travel.” Taking a deep breath, Konstatin released Vladimir and pushed him out the door. “Leave if you must, but we shall not.” With that last comment, he slammed the door in Vladimir’s face and made his way back to Vitenka.

 

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Within the next few weeks, the evacuation started. Some people followed Kostantin’s example, staying behind and defying all orders. The majority, however, packed their bags and moved with Vladimir to Mishnacov. When those who wanted to leave had left, the remaining Kievens raided the households, taking whatever food and blankets and clothes the former inhabitants had left behind. Soon life returned to normal, just a little empty.

It was not long before frightening reports met the ears of Konstantin, and Olya and Sergei passed them to their fellow neighbours. Canute was on the move, they said, and he moved toward Kiev. He had his eyes set on the centre of trade in Kieven Rus. Why should the reports not be true? He was making his way into the region of Kieven Rus already.

When Cyrene was eight months into her pregnancy, Canute suddenly changed directions and made his way back north. No one knew why. He just… disappeared. Konstantin listened to the reports from northwestern Kieven Rus very closely, trying to pick out any possibility of deceit, but he could find none. Canute had returned to Rus, and left Kieven Rus to its own devices once more.

Cyrene went into labour. The date was near Midsummer, the summer’s solstice, when her screams of pain rang through the settlement of Kiev. The midwife ran to the house as quickly as her old legs could carry her, and Olya held Vitenka and his two brothers in the kitchen while Cyrene cried and moaned through childbirth. Konstantin was outside, chopping wood to relieve him of the stress. After three hours he returned to the house and sat in a chair, nervously tapping his foot. It was so dangerous for Cyrene, a draw for survival with every child. What if she did not survive?

Finally, the screaming stopped. There was a little moaning, some talking, and a bump on the wooden floor. Konstantin jumped up from the chair and whispered to the midwife. When the sound of dripping water met Olya’s ears and she rose to investigate, Konstantin was holding Cyrene’s hand and speaking to her quietly.

“Father?” Olya called, laying a sleeping Vitenka softly on the ground so as not to wake him and tiptoeing to the bottom of the ladder. “Father… is Mama well?”

Konstantin appeared in the doorframe holding a bundle in his arms. Descending the ladder carefully, he smiled and nodded. “She is better than ever. And look who has joined us.” He lifted back the fold of cloth to reveal a small baby with a full head of black hair.

“Is it a girl?”

“Yes, Olya, a girl. And we have named her Masha.” Konstantin swept past her and sat in the centre of the three boys. “Vitenka, awake. Kosta, Aleksy, send your greetings to your new little sister, Masha.”

Olya watched them silently before making her way up the ladder to see her mother. Vitenka leaned over Konstantin’s shoulder and touched Masha’s face. Slowly, her little eyes opened to unveil pupils that were green and blue and black all at the same time.

“She looks like Mama,” Vitenka whispered, touching her soft cheek with his finger.

“She does, doesn’t she?” Konstantin agreed.

Masha gurgled and grabbed Vitenka’s finger with her small hand. Before he could pull away, she shoved his finger in her mouth and fell asleep, sucking on the fingertip. Vitenka smiled.


 
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© Copyright 2009, Kora Stoynova

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