Sleet stung his face. Brother Stefan tugged the rabbit-skin hat over his ears and turned up the collar of the worn fur coat—a gift to the monastery, no doubt, from some half-starved priest determined to secure prayers for his soul. Shivering, he squinted through ice-crusted eyelashes at an oval of red topped by a semicircle of bright blue. Against the white/gray Arctic landscape, the patch of color sufficed to identify the Lapp herder guiding his rickety sleigh across the tundra.
“Can’t that beast go faster?” Stefan kicked the front of the sleigh and chided himself for impatience—in vain. His demand for speed was irrational. He’d secured permission for his journey. No one would follow him in this blizzard. He had nothing to fear, yet his whole body urged him to press on, beat the reindeer—or the driver—if necessary. Whatever would increase the distance between himself and that godforsaken excuse for a monastery. He’d wasted months there already.
Getting out of the Arctic blast would be a blessing, but no hope of that for a few more weeks—unless this slug of a reindeer grew wings and took to the air. What a sight that would be!
Off to one side, through the driving sleet, he saw a small hut raised on logs, two of its chicken feet buried up to the ankles in snow, the front two swept bare by the circling winds. It looked like the home of the witch Baba Yaga, terror of his nursery days.
He shivered again—and not from the cold. How could one know, dashing past in a reindeer-drawn sleigh, whether a witch dwelled there?
The semicircle of bright blue swiveled toward him, then away. Stefan burrowed his nose in his collar. The Lapp riding the reindeer had not answered his question. He had not understood or, more likely, did not care what his passenger wanted. One more insult added to the long list Stefan had composed over the last eighteen months.
A year and a half in Hell. People described it as hot, but Stefan knew better. Hell was Pechenga in winter—a place where the sun never rose and a crackbrained abbot ordered noblemen to wield axes like peasants in the silent, frigid dark. Even in summer, Pechenga brought a nightmare of hungry insects, eternal prayers, and demands to till the earth. But summer also brought light, not to mention berries and salmon and Arctic hare to fill a man’s stomach as long as he stayed out of the abbot’s sight long enough to cook and consume them. Once in a while, even a willing Lapp daughter or wife. In winter, none of those boons lightened his burden.
Stefan pushed his hands deeper into the sleeves of the fur coat. To either side, he heard the shushing made by the runners of the sleighs pulling his two monastic companions. His jailers. Another reason why his demand for increased speed would not be met.
But his fellow monks would not confine him for long. Escape, and he would be free to pursue his real goal: vengeance against the relatives who had betrayed him. The thought had kept him alive these many months. They would pay, the lot of them—starting with that meddlesome Golden Lynx.
For a moment, Stefan allowed himself to dwell on the night of his capture. The Lynx’s hair gleaming in the darkness, the worthless Tatar brat freed by the Lynx’s arrow, the wound that collapsed Stefan and his plans in one searing moment. Oh, yes, the Lynx had much to answer for, and he would pay. He might think himself secure, but Stefan knew where to find him.