Her smile disappeared. “I liked to think so. But what would she think of me now? What about this damnable bird, Nikol?”
“There are more than four years until Grandmother is due to return. I see no way this woman–she is no bird–could survive for so long. From what I’ve heard, she means to play to the rabble. She can’t help showing herself and explaining to the people why she does what she does. As a stealthy bird she might elude us, but as a loud-mouthed human, it will be only a short time before she makes a fatal mistake.”
“And what of your companion, the wolf?” Elvanna teased me. “Does she enjoy the taste of poultry between her jaws?”
“She is my partner, tetya. And she is as loyal to you as I. She enjoys the taste of traitor between her jaws.”
“I am a fortunate queen, to have such a capable champion to protect me. And with such an impressive… ahem… partner.”
I rolled my eyes when she wasn’t looking. “We will keep you safe from all threats, my queen, be they the barbs of a treacherous mortal or the wrath of a demanding mother.”
She smiled at me again. Hers really is a beautiful smile, if you don’t think too much about what lies behind it.
* * * * *
In the weeks that followed, I rounded up the best archers in the city and set them to work patrolling the streets, the walls, and the surrounding countryside, with orders to shoot from the sky any gray tern they spotted, no matter how innocent-looking. Elvanna had authorized a bounty of one silver for each one brought in.
As if in response, the number of gray terns sighted around Whitethrone increased as never before. They seemed to be arriving in flocks, and the city’s nights and days soon became blighted by their screeching and their rasping, gobbling squawks. Soon, annoyed citizens were joining in the attempted massacre, with slings or hurled rocks or whatever else they could find at hand.
It did no good. For every bird brought down, it seemed three more arrived to take its place. One of my archers even swore he shot a tern, only to watch it split in midair into two terns, which flew away screeching in opposite directions.
The significance of this wasn’t lost on me, nor on Elvanna. Someone with great power was behind this, and we got the definite sense that we were being taunted.
The white witches could make no headway in trying to catch the guilty party, or even uncover his or her identity. Was it the woman who had transformed before us in the Blue Bottom, or was she merely a messenger? One of many enemies? Was she even real, or just an illusion sent to unsettle us?
All I could do was keep killing birds, and hope that more information would fall in front of me. Little did I know that would happen quite literally.
As I walked the streets on an evening even chillier than usual, I was beset by a particularly loud and irritating tern. It circled and swooped ten yards above my head, as if its aim were to trouble me in particular. I looked around, cursing the lazy archers who let this bird gad about so freely, and raised my crossbow to take it down myself.
I hit it squarely, and it fell. But instead of landing in the road with a solid thump, as dead birds are usually wont to do, it hit with a strange rustling sound, bounced a few times, and came to rest.
Curious, I walked over to examine it. With considerable surprise, I discovered that it was no true bird at all, but an artfully done simulacrum, made from thin paper.
As I nudged it with the toe of my boot, I noticed that its paper wings had writing on them.
To Nikol of the Jadwiga Anya, greetings. I have enjoyed our game, but
now the time has come for it to reach its grand finale. And what better place for
such a spectacle than a theater? You shall find me before the doors of the
Frosthall as the sun rises tomorrow morn. I trust you shall have the good taste
to hold your applause until the break between acts. With fondest regards,
White came trotting up to me as I stood there in the middle of the street, reading the note for the third time. There was a gray feather stuck in her jaws, which she was trying to dislodge, making funny pah noises. It did her no good, since wolves can’t spit. I plucked it out for her.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’ve come to hate the taste of tern more than I can ever tell.”
“As have I,” I agreed, and told her what the note said.
“Sunrise tomorrow, then,” she said darkly. “Poultry on the menu one last time?”
“So it seems,” I replied. But I knew that fanatics infused with such smug confidence are seldom good news. A great deal of preparation would need to be done before morning.
* * * * *
The sun rose to find me, White, and two dozen heavily armed city guards waiting in the small cobblestone square in front of the Frosthall, Whitethrone’s famous theater. Since the anonymous writer of the note¾she was universally called “the Gray Tern” by now¾hadn’t given any indication that a stealthy or secret meeting was intended, I figured her purpose was some sort of public spectacle or showdown. Two white witches, both daughters of Elvanna, stood on the steps of the theater, while two others waited at either end of the little plaza.
On the side of the square opposite the theater was a small area with several large, ancient larch trees standing in it. Like all the other trees in Irrisen, these larches had gone permanently dormant when Baba Yaga imposed the rule of winter on the land. They had dropped their needles at that time, and never grown them back.
The bare trees of Whitethrone were never cut down, it was said, because Baba Yaga wanted them to stand forever as a testament to her power¾to the fact that nature itself bowed before her might. She had not simply killed the trees in some show of brute force. She had forced them to live on, forever, on her terms.
Just as the first light of dawn struck the upper branches of the barren trees, the familiar screech of a tern rang out, and we all looked up to see it descend gracefully into the copse. A moment later, the mysterious woman stood in its place. The archers and the witches took aim at her. I’d instructed them to fire only on my command or upon an attack from her. If possible, I wanted to take her alive so that we could interrogate her and root out any conspiracy she might be a part of.
Smiling, the Gray Tern surveyed the forces I’d brought to bear against her.
“Why, kinsman,” she called, “all of this for me? You see I’m unarmed.”
“You’re a witch, or something close enough. You’re never unarmed,” I replied. “And who are you to call me your kinsman?”
She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I’m used to being a family embarrassment. So tell me, why do you trouble yourself so against one old witch in a land filled with them?”
“And why do you trade words with me when you know the answer as well as I? You’ve declared yourself an enemy of this land, in defiance of its lawful queen and her mother, Baba Yaga, who rules here by right of conquest and magic. I trouble myself because I love my land, and I love my queen.”
“You do love her, don’t you?” she asked with what seemed to be a positive sparkle in her eyes. “I think you would have been a fine match for her, if only these queens were allowed to take true husbands. It’s a cruel land you’ve created here, to deny an aunt the simple pleasures of a nice family wedding. So much needs to change.”
“Why do we talk?” White snarled to me. “Why do we not kill?”
“Be patient,” I told her. “She may have strong defenses. And we need to question her if we can.”
“Let the witches question her severed head. They can do that, I hear. I promise not to crush it. And if she has defenses, let us make her use them.”