Firebird (Mercedes Lackey's Fairy Tale Series #1)by Mercedes Lackey
An enchanting fantasy love story, Firebird is a retelling of a classic Russian fairy tale in by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Mercedes Lackey. After seeing the magical firebird, a young prince sets out on a quest. Along the way, he encSee more details below
An enchanting fantasy love story, Firebird is a retelling of a classic Russian fairy tale in by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Mercedes Lackey. After seeing the magical firebird, a young prince sets out on a quest. Along the way, he enc
Read an Excerpt
By Mercedes Lackey
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1996 Mercedes Lackey
All rights reserved.
ANOTHER SLIVER of silvery-pale wood joined the tiny pile at Ilya Ivanovitch's feet, and the rough shape in his hand became a little more foxlike. The wood rasped against the sword calluses on his palm as Ilya narrowed his focus to the lumpy head, turning the carving this way and that, frowning at it, oblivious to everything else. Sun-rays baked through the linen tunic on his back with the fever-heat of high summer; the sharp, resinous scent of the block of wood in his hands tickled his nostrils. Under that scent lay others: the green musk of herbs crushed under his feet, the sweet and heady fragrance of wild roses somewhere nearby, the tannin-rich breath of the forest all around him, the all-too-earthy scent of horse-dung. Birds vied with insects to fill his ears, but could not overwhelm the gentle rustling of the leaves as a fitful breeze floated by. Last year's leaves crunched and rattled under the hooves of one of his father's horses as it nosed through the grass between the trees, looking for something more succulent than the tough strands of a full summer's growth.
The horses had just been moved into the forest for fall grazing. They were fat and spoiled from a spring and summer of good clover and tasty grasses, but they might need that fat come the winter.
He set the sharp edge of his smallest knife against the wood; this would be a tricky cut, for the ear was one of the hardest bits to carve. He wanted it thin, so that the light would glow through it if he held it up to the sun.
Slowly, carefully, he shaved and shaped the nubbin of wood; with every sliver, it took on more delicacy, more life. His brows furrowed as he squinted, and he lost track of scent, sound, even the heat on his back. His world became the bit of wood and the blade that was sculpting it. From white wood, imperceptibly the blunted triangle transmuted to a thin sliver of white flesh and fur. In a moment, he would finish with it and move on to the other car—
Out of nowhere, a hand descended to thump him on the back, hard enough to knock the wind out of him. His arms jerked, and the blow sent him flying off his seat toward the ground. Helplessly, he watched as the knife soared off in one direction, the carving in another. Steel honed to astonishing sharpness glinted in the sun as it turned, end over end, moving with dreamlike slowness. Then time caught up with him again, and he landed on his knees in the grass, his chest tight as his lungs realized there was no air in them.
He struggled for a moment to catch his breath, his ribs aching, throat straining. Finally, after an eternity, a breath came, filling his lungs with welcome harshness. He took another; another—got himself under control. No point in getting angry, for that would only give his brother another excuse for boorish behavior.
"Hello, Pietor," Ilya said with resignation as soon as he could speak. He remained where he was and turned his head, but not with any haste, to look up at his older brother.
Pietor grinned whitely down at him, very pleased with himself, and shook his blond hair out of his eyes. "So, little brother, I find you at secrets. And what witchcraft were you up to, out here all alone in the forest? Consorting with the leshii?"
Ilya sighed. Every time he went off somewhere by himself, one or more of his brothers was convinced that Ilya was up to no good. Probably because every time one of Ilya's brothers went off alone, he was up to no good.
"No witchcraft," Ilya replied. "You don't believe in the forest spirits any more than Father does, I'm hardly alone with the horses all around, and it's not what I would call forest." Ilya rose slowly, dusted the grass off his knees, and looked for his knife and the carving where he thought he'd seen them land. The former he found quickly enough, and he thanked his stars that it was undamaged. It had taken a lot of work to get the blade that sharp, and he had not been looking forward to the hours he might have to spend smoothing a nick out of it. His luck couldn't hold, however, and he already anticipated that the carving would be ruined. He had a visceral memory of the blade biting savagely into the wood before both knife and carving flew off.
When Ilya picked the bit of wood up out of the grass, he saw with a sinking of spirit that his gloomy expectation was correct. The ear that had taken him so long to shape had sheared off under his blade, leaving a ragged stump behind.
"Are you contradicting me, little brother?" Pietor's grin turned malicious, and the ominous tone of his voice warned of a drubbing to come. But at this moment and place, Ilya wasn't terribly worried about the implied threat.
For one thing, Pietor was alone, and none of his brothers had been able to succeed in beating him alone, not for the last year or more. Two or more together, now, that was a different tale altogether, and Ilya would have to find a way to distract Pietor long enough so that he would forget the so-called "insult" so that he didn't manage to gather allies.
Pietor wasn't very bright, and he didn't have a terribly long attention span; however, it wouldn't take much to distract him. It always took Pietor a while to organize himself enough to collect a group to beat Ilya up, and during that time he was vulnerable to interference. With any luck, by the time Pietor got back to the palace to rouse one or more of the others, he would have forgotten why he had gone looking for them in the first place.
"What you wish, brother." Ilya shrugged and tossed the ruined carving out into the forest, sheathing his knife so casually that not even Pietor could take it as an insult. A dun marc grazing nearby looked up at the motion as the bit of ruined wood sailed past her nose, snorted, and went back to single-minded munching. "You'll make up your own mind about what I said no matter what I tell you. So it doesn't matter what I say now, does it?"
Pietor's white-blond brows furrowed together and his vacant blue eyes grew even vaguer as he tried to puzzle through that. Finally he gave up. "You think you're clever, smarter than all of us, don't you?" he challenged. "Too clever by half!"
Enough of this nonsense. I'm not in the mood. "I don't have to think anything, I only have to listen to you and I know what the answer is," Ilya replied, narrowing his own eyes and staring right at his brother with a challenge of his own. "What do you want, anyway? Why did you come sneaking out here, following me around like a thief or a gypsy? Do you covet my knife, or were you hoping I had somehow found a treasure you could steal?"
The abrupt change of subject and the unexpected challenge left Pietor floundering for a moment. "I—ah—" The young man backed up a step as he attempted to handle two thoughts at the same time and failed utterly. He stared into Ilya's face, and Ilya had to choke down the urge to say anything more. Pietor was thoroughly confused and briefly intimidated. Best leave well enough alone.
"Never mind." Ilya stalked off, startling two more horses into a brief canter before they settled again. He left Pietor standing dumbfounded in his wake, mouth hanging open stupidly.
Not that it's an unusual expression for dear Pietor, he thought savagely. A whole afternoon's work ruined in a heartbeat by that oaf! Ilya'd hoped to have the carving finished by supper as a surprise for Mother Galina; he was glad now that he hadn't promised her anything, as he often did when he planned to carve her something. The worst of it is, I think he knew exactly what he was doing. He might not be bright, but he's cunning. He probably saw me out in the forest- pasture and realized how caught up I was in what I was doing; saw his chance to sneak up and play me another rotten trick. That was altogether like Pietor. He was never happier than when he got a chance to spoil something of Ilya's as well as add another to Ilya's ongoing collection of bruises.
The day was still sunny and beautiful, but a dark cloud hung about Ilya's soul. He hated going back to Mother Galina empty-handed, even if he hadn't promised her anything; in his own heart, the promise had been made.
But a splash of pink in a patch of sun caught his eye, promising help with his predicament, and he made a brief detour toward the tangle of thorny branches. Roses! Of course! A bouquet won't last as long as a carving, but with any luck, it'll last long enough for me to carve her another little beast.
With great care for the thorns and one ear cocked for Pietor's approach, Ilya cut several branches bearing three or more of the flat-petaled pink blooms with their centers of molten gold. The soft petals trembled as he stripped blood-hued thorns from the fibrous green stems with the aid of his knife. It had always seemed appropriate to him, given the number of times the sturdy barbs had bitten into his flesh, that the thorns of the wild rose looked as if they had already tasted blood. When he had what he considered to be a sufficiently large bouquet in light of his failure to produce a carving, he resumed his journey back to the palace, home of his father the tsar and all of his brawling brothers.
Tsar! He's only a boyar, but he has to call himself a tsar to prove he's stronger and more important than his neighbors. Then what do his neighbors do? They call themselves tsars! Tsar Ivan actually ruled a little more land than most of the other neighboring "tsars." Part of it he had acquired by marriage, part by warring with his neighbors, both of which had been successful pursuits. All three of his wives had gotten substantial marriage-portions of land and beasts settled upon them by way of a dowry. Ilya's mother, the middle wife, had been the least successful in regard to land, having brought with her more horses than hectares, and Tsar Ivan still coupled Ekaterina's name with a certain degree of failure. She had failed him in two ways: She had borne him only one son before dying, and had brought him only a fraction of her own father's holdings.
Not that Father needed any more sons! Ilya thought sourly. He's quite surfeited with such blessings as it is!
As Ilya neared the palace, the sounds of a normal afternoon among Tsar Ivan's offspring met him long before the palace itself was in sight. Shouts of pain and triumph shook the leaves—the birds had long since scattered—and the clangor of metal on wood, wood on wood, and metal on metal punctuated the din. Arms practice or outright quarreling—it didn't much matter which was going on, they would sound the same, and none of Ilya's brothers ever held back in either.
When the tsar's numerous offspring and probable by-blows weren't battling one another, they were either preparing to battle a neighbor or, more rarely, drinking and carousing. Ivan encouraged them in all three pursuits; battle with a neighbor would probably add more land to his kingdom, while brawling and drinking were both activities that were hazardous in and of themselves. Tsar Ivan was in the peculiar position of having had all of his sons survive infancy and childhood, including the ones whose mothers had not survived the births. Ilya and Sasha had both survived the travail of their arrival and the scramble for a suitable wet-nurse afterward, even though both their mothers had been cooling in their coffins before a nurse could be located among the serfs and servants. While this strange circumstance of a plurality of male offspring was gratifying to Tsar Ivan's pride and implied certain things about his virility, it also created a difficult situation. Obviously only one son could inherit, but which should it be?
In most families there would be no question but that it would be the oldest; however, Ivan was a law unto himself. His steadfast unbelief in the spirits of forest, hearth, and field was no more than a reflection of his contrary nature. He had thus far declined to make a pronouncement that would render his choice official, leaving all the sons in a perpetual state of servile uncertainty.
Ilya suspected that he knew why. Father doesn't trust us. Not any of us. That fact was clear to anyone who had a reasonably acute mind. Tsar Ivan never went anywhere without his bodyguards, not even to bed, and the way he eyed his numerous offspring left no doubt in Ilya's heart that Ivan anticipated attempts by his loving sons to murder him as a matter of course. He was not about to shorten his own lifespan by giving one of them a real and tangible reason to want him out of the way.
I don't know why. He didn't have to murder Grandfather to inherit. But maybe he sees us as a wolf pack. One wolf is not necessarily dangerous, or even two—but a pack can kill your horse in its traces and have you before you've run more than a few steps.
So Tsar Ivan encouraged fighting among his sons for more reasons than one. He obviously wanted the kingdom to go to the heir that was the strongest; battling one another kept his offspring in outstanding physical shape for real warfare. And in addition, well, if one of them managed to kill one of his siblings, there would be one son less to make attempts to take the crown by force. Ivan had no intention of actually doing away with any of his dangerous offspring, for that would be murder—
Ah, but if one of us happens to eliminate another, it's hardly his problem, is it?
Ilya took a circuitous route through the trees around in back of the palace, by way of the kitchen-garden and the nearby pigsties. There wasn't much left in the garden by this time of year and the ground lay fallow, waiting for the seeds for next year's planting; what remained green was mostly the tops of carrots, turnips, onions, and beets in neat rows, ready for harvest before the earth froze. The rest had already been harvested and eaten, put into storage, or preserved; the earth had been turned under after a liberal application of pig- manure.
The pigs themselves were happily wallowing in mud in their sturdy sties, blissfully unaware that the date of their demise could not be far off. Once the nuts fell, they would be herded into the forest to gorge themselves and put on more weight, and that would be the end of their carefree existence. The first hard freeze would signal butchering-time, and both porkers and cattle would become future meals, safely preserved to provision the long winters. Ilya both anticipated and dreaded that freeze. Butchering the animals and feasting after would keep his brothers too busy to think of trouble, but the boredom of the long winters only gave them more time and opportunity to make his life miserable.
Ah well, worry about that when the snows lock us in. Maybe the wolves will eat Pietor this year when he goes out in his sled, and that will leave me one less idiot to contend with. Of course, they'd probably eat the horses first, unless Pietor was out with Alexi or Yuri, and one of them got thrown to the wolves so that the other could escape.
He entertained this pleasant thought while he walked down the dusty path to the kitchen. The heavy wooden door leading into the kitchen stood wide open, and no wonder: Heat from the bread-ovens came blasting out to meet Ilya, and the servants working inside were half-naked, bodies, arms, and faces streaming sweat. Ilya stood in the doorway for a moment, taken aback by the sight; the only light came from the ovens themselves, a red glow that brought to mind the fires of the Infernal Pit. It bathed the glistening faces and limbs of the laboring servants, bent over their tasks at the three huge wooden tables like so many dwarfish spirits in bondage, or tormented souls paying the price of their sins. For a moment, the kitchen appeared as haunted and unchancy as the bathhouse, which had its own resident spirit, the bannik, a creature known to kill those who offended it.
Quickly Ilya crossed himself to avert any inadvertent curses brought on by that thought, and backed hastily out of the doorway. Mother Galina wouldn't be in there; the place was hot enough to make an ox faint. So if she wasn't in the kitchen, she was probably in the dairy, overseeing the results of the afternoon milking.
Excerpted from Firebird by Mercedes Lackey. Copyright © 1996 Mercedes Lackey. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >