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By FERN MICHAELS
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 1978 First Draft, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneKaterina Vaschenko led the last of the horses from the underground paddock and secured them for the night in their roomy stalls. She walked among the animals, counting silently as she patted and stroked the horses' flanks. "Mikhailo!" she shouted. "Where is Wildflower?"
Mikhailo Kornilo lumbered into the stable and eyed the young Cossack girl with fear in his eyes. "I thought she was with the other mares."
"Wildflower has been skittish these past days, so I allowed Stepan to work with her alone. He wouldn't be foolish enough to take her outside for air, would he?" she asked the wizened old man anxiously.
Mikhailo ran gnarled old hands through his sparse white hair and made his own quick count of the noble animals. "Stepan may be foolish, but not that foolish. He knows the mares are not to be taken outdoors until the last of the snows are gone and the temperature rises. No doubt he's walking her around the arena for exercise. The Kat will be happy with the price this particular foal will bring," he said confidently.
"Mikhailo, I checked the arena on my way here and it was empty. Fetch my father and have the others make a search. The mare has to be found."
Her face a mask of concern, Katerina drew the sable cape closer about her slim shoulders and fastened the hood over her coppery hair. Stroking the muzzle of the closest mare, she crooned soft words to the quiet animal.
The sweet, pungent smell of the horses stayed with her as she made her way down the damp corridor to the stone stairway.
Quickly, before she could change her mind, she thrust open the heavy pine doors and ran outside. Biting snow lashed against her as she fought her way to the outdoor stables, instinctively skirting a deformed clump of brush.
The wind drove the breath from her body as Katerina flung herself against the stable doors. "Stepan, are you in there?" she shouted breathlessly. "Is Wildflower with you? Stepan, answer me!" she screamed as she shut the weighty panels behind her. Her only reply was a skittering noise to the left of her foot. One of the cats. In her heart she had known Wildflower and Stepan were not there even before she had come inside. God, what had the boy done with the horse?
Shivering, not with cold, but with a fear so deep her blood seemed to freeze in her veins, Katerina whimpered silently as she pushed open the door and trudged back to the House of the Kat. Of all the horses to be gone, why did it have to be Wildflower?
The moment she entered the house, harsh curses from the men met her ears. She had been right-her father was livid.
"I don't know how it happened, Father. Stepan was exercising the mare because she was skittish," she said to the man advancing on her, his dark eyes spewing fire. "I just came from the outdoor stable and the boy's not there."
"We have searched every inch of this house and Stepan and the mare are gone. If the mare managed to find her way outdoors, it will be the end of her and the foal she carries. How could you have been so lax, Katerina, you know the mares are your responsibility."
"Father," she said, laying her hand gently on his shoulder, "don't be angry with me. I'll search them out and bring both of them home. As you said, the mares are my responsibility."
"The boy is not capable of making a decision concerning Wildflower, he has the mind of a ten-year-old child!" her father shouted furiously, his black eyes snapping.
"I only have one set of eyes, and there has never been cause to worry over Stepan's care of the mares before. There must be an explanation."
"I only agreed to allow the boy to help you because you said he could be trusted. I see now that I was wrong."
Katerina listened to her father's harsh tones and felt bewildered. He had never spoken to her in such a manner. Eyes downcast, she knew she had failed him. Her large amber eyes widened in shock and her body felt numb with the realization. "I'll bring them back."
"There's nothing you can do now. Don't act as foolish as the boy. Where will you go? Where will you look for them? You just returned from the outdoor stables, didn't you feel the wind and snow? Women!" He spat venomously.
Katerina stared into her father's eyes, her back stiffening at what she read. "And while you're blaming me, ask yourself where Mikhailo was," she defended herself. "Women are only as foolish as men allow them to be." The large eyes were pinpoints of flame, threatening to burst into a raging bonfire. Her cheeks were flushed with anger as she retied the hood of her cape securely. "Since the mares are my responsibility," she said coldly, "I'll find the boy and the horse and bring them both back."
"Fool! How long do you think you can survive in that blizzard? I tell you, it's too late!" he shouted, his broad chest constricting in fury.
"It's only too late when I see their dead bodies or ... when you see mine. And I have no intention of allowing that to happen."
"I forbid you to go out in the storm, Katerina. What horse did you plan on riding? Ah, I see by your expression that Bluefire is your choice. Another foolish mistake. You would endanger still another horse, is that it? Women!" He spat again.
"So I'm a foolish woman. At least I'll try, which is more than I can say for you and the other men. How do you know it's too late? How can you say the boy isn't secluded in some cave, safe, along with the mare?"
Katlof Vaschenko looked at the amber eyes and at the grim, angry set of her narrow jaw. He knew he couldn't stop his daughter, and he had no wish to see her lash out at him for trying. An unfamiliar feeling settled between his shoulders as he watched Katerina pull on heavy woolen gloves. His shoulders slumping, he made his way to the warm kitchen, where his ailing father waited. "I'll pray for your safety, little one," he whispered silently.
Katerina placed a heavy blanket over the gelding, Bluefire, and she was ready to go. Was the snow falling faster or was she so petrified she couldn't see straight? All that brave talk in front of her father was just that-brave talk. How could she live with the others and have them think she was unfit for her duties? She was her father's daughter, and so she had to prove herself time and time again. No Cossack was shown favoritism. Each stood on his merits. Each was proud of his heritage and would die to protect it. She was no different. She would find the mare or die trying.
Within moments Katerina was smothered by the stinging, rice-sized pellets and could not see the reins she held.
She worked the sable hood down over her forehead till it resembled a shroud. The grisly thought made her clench her teeth in frustration at her position.
I'll freeze, she thought as her hands sought for and found the horse's thick mane. Already the reins were crusted with ice and slipping out of her grasp. If only she weren't riding into the storm with the full force of the wind in her face, she might have a chance.
Hunching her shoulders, she rode with her face pressed into the horse's warm neck. From time to time, Katerina feebly called out for Stepan.
The slim figure astride the white gelding battled the elements for over an hour. She raised her head when she felt the snow and the wind slacken off. "Good boy," she said, thumping Bluefire on his side. "I knew you would get me into the forest. Easy, boy, slow and easy," Katerina said softly as she rubbed her snow-crusted hands over the horse's neck. "Just get us down the mountain and out to the steppe. That's where we'll find Stepan and Wildflower. You can do it," she continued to croon to the magnificent animal. Stepan just wanted to take the mare back to Volin to be with his family. He meant no harm, she reasoned.
Bluefire trod lightly, aware of the girl on his back, sensing her fear and agitation as he picked his way through the quickly building drifts.
It was so cold, so very cold. If she could just sleep. The thick, sooty lashes lowered, and she dozed, unaware of the huge overhanging fir branches that seemed to move with a will of their own as the horse made his way carefully down the mountain.
An inner voice needled Katerina's subconscious: you can't sleep, you have to stay awake. Suddenly, she was jolted in her saddle. She forced her eyes open and looked around. The snow was too deep for the horse to carry her. She would have to walk.
She slid from Bluefire's back, grasped the reins in her hands, and trudged alongside the gelding. She lurched to the right and then to the left. Forcing her mind to concentrate on walking, she counted-one, two, three, four. Over and over Katerina repeated the words till her throat was dry and harsh. Her legs were getting heavier and harder to move. Bluefire was having as much difficulty as she was; she could tell from the tightening of the reins that the gelding was tired. She had to stop or they would both die. No, they had to keep moving. If she stopped, she would sleep and never wake up.
Think about the men back at the House of the Kat, sitting in the warm kitchen, drinking vodka. Think about that, she told herself. Through clenched teeth, she muttered, "Do they care if I freeze to death? Do they care if Bluefire freezes, too? All any of them cares about is Wildflower and the foal she carries. Horses! That is all they care about. Men are bastards, all men are bastards!" she seethed.
The anger that raced through her like raging fire was all the impetus Katerina needed to make her pick up her feet and plod through the deep snow. Her mind and body gained a new will, a searing urgency to win, to prove she could do what the men did. She would find Stepan and Wildflower and bring them, safe and sound, to the House of the Kat. Just pray, she told herself, that Stepan left before the snow began and is safe in Volin. He is safe! She could feel it in her bones.
The gelding reared back on his hind legs, whinnying softly. Katerina raised her head and looked about, the low-limbed fir trees with their coverlets of sparkling crystals blinding her momentarily.
Bluefire waited placidly while Katerina made up her mind. The snow wasn't as heavy here as at home, and the falling flakes seemed to be abating. Sighing deeply, she rubbed her eyes, forcing them to stay open. She had to go on. The gelding would find his way across the steppe without any help from her.
One more day and she would be at the Cossack camp. It was twilight now, her favorite time of day. She would be in Volin tomorrow, and then she would see for herself that Stepan and Wildflower were safe.
Her spirits lifted at the thought, and Bluefire sensed her mood. His legs lifted a little higher and he snorted, mist billowing out of his mouth in the cold, bracing air.
"Good boy," Katerina purred into the horse's ear. "I knew you could do it," she said, remounting her horse.
She rode steadily, the blinding whiteness all around her. So vast, so endless-like time. No sound permeated the air save the horse's breaths as he carried the beautiful young woman forward.
Katerina shook her head to free it of the warm sable hood and reined in. "Stepan is right, this is where we belong. This great, endless plain is ours, our heritage. Not that godforsaken stone fortress in the Carpathians. This is home. This is where we belong. It belongs to every Cossack who lives and breathes. Stepan knew this, and that's why he brought Wildflower here."
The gelding whinnied softly and pawed the snow, a sign that he was anxious to be traveling again. Intent on her thoughts, Katerina failed to see a small spiral of bluish smoke to her left.
Katerina dug her heels into Bluefire's flanks, and the horse reared again and danced his way through the great whiteness toward Volin.
The small campfire blazed brightly as one of the men threw on some extra brush. Another added some grease from his saddlebag, and the fire hissed and spurted. The men laughed uproariously as still another of the men raised a jug of vodka to his lips and passed it around to the others. One man, however, stood aloof, observing the merrymaking men that rode with him. They were good soldiers, dedicated to their cause and what they believed in. They served him well, and he had no complaints. Someday soon, with the proper training, they would all take their place in the Khan's army and do whatever was expected of them. For days they had ridden into the vicious storm with no respite from the elements, their only food dry bread and moldy cheese. They deserved their carousing and the three freshly killed rabbits that turned on the spit.
Banyen Amur stared into the openness around him, his indigo eyes narrowed to ward off the harsh glare. He hated this plain, and he hated the Cossacks that could and did live on it.
He was cold and hungry, and he needed a woman. If he had his choice, he would take the woman first, for she would warm his blood and be food for his soul. His belly could wait for another time and another place.
He was tall and muscular, with a broad chest and a loose-limbed stride. His hair was the color of a raven's wing in bright sunlight, and while his forehead was broad, his nose was chiseled and sharp, adding character to his strong, square chin.
His men called him an arrogant son of a bitch, but admitted he was a fair and just man to serve under. Women jostled each other and swooned when he favored them with one of his rare smiles. One look out of the agate eyes and a woman turned to what he called mush, and brought a smile to his sensual mouth. He chose his women with cool, calculating deliberation, the dark eyes measuring the curve of their breasts and the length of their thighs. If the return look was coy or vapid, he would go to the next woman, until he found a match for his own measured look. He liked fire in his bed, not warmed-over mush. One day he would find a woman that suited him, and he would give her the supreme pleasure of bearing him a son. He would rebuild his estates and get married and keep his wife pregnant nine months out of every year. He would have a mistress in his house, and one in town for the awkward months. Women belonged in bedrooms and kitchens. What else could they do ... He smiled to himself. Thoughts of love never entered his mind. Love was for fools and old men who didn't know what to do with their loins in their advancing years. He would never be caught in that trap. Women had their place so far as he was concerned, and he planned to keep it that way.
Men made fools of themselves over women. Men fought and died for women. Men lost empires because of women. The only thing he would give a woman was the honor of bearing his child and his name.
Banyen patted the black Arabian stallion fondly and slouched nonchalantly against the animal's hard belly. He straightened his shoulders and shrugged the sable burnoose he wore to a more comfortable position. The soft leather boots that caressed his sinewy legs were due to be changed to fur and warm socks for his feet. He might as well do it now so he could eat his portion of rabbit in comfort.
A small sound suddenly caught his ear, and immediately his hand went to his saber. A horse out here in this godforsaken emptiness! Who? What?
He looked at his men and motioned for silence. Weapons were drawn and the roasting rabbits forgotten as tired eyes became keen and alert. Banyen raised one finger to show that it was a lone rider who approached. "Where there is one, there could be more," he said softly to his men.
Katerina stared intently in the last rays of the evening light. A camp with a fire. Food! Which Cossack tribe was it camped in the middle of the plain, and why? An uneasy feeling settled over her as the horse trotted closer and closer. Her eyes widened at the garb on the tall figure standing near a horse and the campfire, surrounded by men. Mongols! What would they do? Would they let her pass? Would they believe her when she told them she had Mongol blood in her veins? Not likely. She looked like a Cossack. Her shoulders straightened imperceptibly as she advanced to the camp. Deftly she reined in Bluefire and watched the man who appeared to be the group's leader admiring her gelding.
Neither spoke. Katerina waited. Banyen waited. The men waited. A worm of fear found its way into Katerina's stomach and worked its way up to her chest. She swallowed and looked at the tall man, who was staring at her with bold, arrogant, lustful eyes.
White teeth glistened in the dimness of twilight as Banyen smiled. "Prince Banyen at your service," he said, bowing low with a flourish. His tone was cool, mocking, as he walked over to her placid horse. Katerina dug her heels into Bluefire's flanks, and the gelding slowly backed away from the advancing Mongol.
Katerina nodded. "What are you doing here? This is Don Cossack land."
Excerpted from Whitefire by FERN MICHAELS Copyright © 1978 by First Draft, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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