Ekaterina and the Firebird: A Tor.Com Original

Ekaterina and the Firebird: A Tor.Com Original

by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466861954
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 01/01/2014
Series: Tor.Com Original Series
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 32
File size: 768 KB

About the Author

Abra Staffin-Wiebe spent several years living abroad in India and Africa before marrying a mad scientist and settling down to live and write in Minneapolis, where she is currently a fiction writer, a freelance photographer, a part-time work-from-home employee, and a full-time mother. Her next project is learning to fold time and space to make this all physically possible.

Abra specializes in dark science fiction, cheerful horror, and modern fairy tales. She also maintains Aswiebe's Market List, a resource for science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers.


Abra Staffin-Wiebe spent several years living abroad in India and Africa before marrying a mad scientist and settling down to live and write in Minneapolis, where she is currently a fiction writer, a freelance photographer, a part-time work-from-home employee, and a full-time mother. Her next project is learning to fold time and space to make this all physically possible.
Abra specializes in dark science fiction, cheerful horror, and modern fairy tales. She also maintains Aswiebe's Market List, a resource for science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers. She is the author of the short story "Ekaterina and the Firebird," and the Circus of Brass and Bone, an online steampunk post-apocalyptic serial story.

Read an Excerpt

Ekaterina and the Firebird


By Abra Staffin-Wiebe, Anna Balbusso, Elena Balbusso

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2013 Abra Staffin-Wiebe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6195-4




CHAPTER 1

Ekaterina couldn't bear to go to sleep and miss the last moments of what had been a wondrous fourteenth birthday. She sat on the window seat in her bedroom and hugged her knees as the last minutes of the day melted away like spring snow. In the corner of the room, her maid Agafya snored softly.

Below them, the parlor clock began its midnight toll. Agafya startled awake with the first peal of the bell.

"Ekaterina —?" she mumbled blearily. Her eyes sharpened. "Why are you still awake? Have you taken your draught?"

"Must I? It's my birthday," Ekaterina protested.

The clock continued to chime. Agafya paled. "What time is it?"

"Midnight, I think."

Agafya sprang up and flew across the room to seize the goblet waiting beside Ekaterina's bed. "You must!"

"Oh, very well," Ekaterina grumbled. She took the cup and raised it to her lips. The clock finished tolling twelve as the last drops slid down her throat.

Agafya sighed, her shoulders untensing as she took the empty cup from Ekaterina's hand. "Why are you still awake, child? You should be tired after such a long day. And what a feast it was! So many guests came to see my little bird gloriously launched into the world! Even Councillor Nikitin said what a fine affair it was, and he has seen the splendors of the Tsar's court."

"Oh, it was wonderful, Agafya! Nothing so interesting will happen to me again for years!"

Agafya sniffed. "Be patient. Ordinary joys and sorrows will seem interesting enough, I promise you."

"I suppose." Ekaterina's cheeks warmed. "Nikolai Semyonevich Egorov was very attentive. So handsome, too. And the Egorovs have lived near us for centuries, and —"

"Do not pin your heart to an Egorov," Agafya interrupted.

"What? Why not?"

"That story is not mine to tell. You must ask your papa later. Now, it is well past the proper bedtime for young ladies, even young ladies of the great and advanced age of fourteen."

"Yes, Agafya. I'll go to sleep soon, I promise."

"See that you do." Agafya yawned, retired to her cot, and was soon snoring away.

Ekaterina returned to gazing out into the night, remembering the compliments that Nikolai had whispered to her before Agafya the ever-vigilant had interrupted their conversation.

Perhaps Agafya was making an elephant out of a fly? Ekaterina's papa had invited Nikolai. Would he have done that if things were so ill between their families? Agafya was often overprotective, shooing Ekaterina away from boys and even interrupting visits with other young ladies if the conversation strayed to topics she deemed not quite proper.

Ekaterina hugged her knees even tighter and glanced out at her father's apple orchard. She gasped as she saw fire leaping between the branches of the frontmost apple trees.

Ekaterina jumped to her feet to shout "Fire!" Her cry died of sheer astonishment in the next second, when the fire ... flew.

Her eyes widened. Even as a little girl, when her baba told her stories of the Firebird, Ekaterina had never imagined that she might someday see it herself. The good fortune brought by the touch of its shadow could make this the most important birthday of her life. If she hurried, she might reach the Firebird before it vanished.

She had no time to don proper attire. She seized the everyday sarafan that Agafya had worn earlier in the day and pulled it on over her light nightgown. Dress on, she stopped only to push her feet into the embroidered slippers beside her bed. She eased the door open slowly so as not to wake Agafya, and then she was off.

Downstairs, she swung her fur cloak around her shoulders, pushed the door open, and ran lightly out over the first snow. The guard dogs yipped inquisitively as she ran past.

Ekaterina's parents always scolded her for running — such an unladylike exertion — but she was an excellent runner. She could outrace all six of her older brothers, though they teased her that it was because of her large feet. Now she sprinted as fast as she could. The light blanket of snow muffled the snap and crack of twigs as she ran. Melting snow soaked her thin slippers, and the jagged ends of fallen twigs poked her feet.

Only a thin sickle moon hung in the sky, but the apple orchard was lit as if by a golden harvest moon. Ahead of her, dancing fire flitted through the trees, illuminating the last hanging remnants of the apple harvest.

She chased the Firebird through her father's orchard and across the bordering farmland. She had to slow down, or she would have turned her ankle as she ran over uneven fields of harvested rye, but cutting through the fields would get her there faster than taking the curving road.

The flickering flame vanished just before. Ekaterina stumbled to a halt in front of the village. Inside the homes, hearth fires would be banked for the night, as peasants huddled together under quilts to stay warm. Outside, picketed goats clustered close to each other for heat. She searched for any hint of light. Then the fire appeared again, rooftop-high, as the bird dodged between houses and out the other side of the village. Ekaterina broke back into a run.

At the edge of the village, she hesitated. Cold seeped through her fur cloak and froze perspiration to her body. Snow soaked her slippers and turned her feet to blocks of ice. In front of her lay Chyorniy Forest. Children weren't allowed to play near its edge, and even the women who picked mushrooms in the forest kept within sight of the village and stayed in groups.

The Firebird's wings flickered through the forest in front of Ekatarina. She thought of her family, gathered her bravery, and plunged into the darkness. The thin moon's light was too puny to illuminate the forest, and the deeper she went, the darker it became. She slowed to a walk, her hands in front of her to keep from running into a tree. The flickers of fire grew farther and farther away, and the forest grew darker and darker around her, until she knew she must be lost. She began to shiver and think about the stories her baba had told her of what happened to little girls who wandered into Chyorniy Forest.

She needed to figure out which way her home was. She could see nothing where she stood, so she felt around until she found a tree trunk so wide that her arms could not span it. With such a wide trunk, it must be a giant grandpapa of a tree.

Darkness spread itself around her. She could not tell tree branches from the night sky. She could not even see her own hands gripping the tree. Sometimes she thought she could see patches of lighter darkness where her hands ought to be; other times she was convinced that any difference was her imagination.

She climbed until the tree trunk split into branches with a girth no wider than her own. Then she strained her eyes looking for the glimmer of snow-covered fields in the moonlight, or the glow of a lamp in a village window. She saw nothing.

She stared up at the slim crescent moon. "God our Father," she prayed, "rescue me, for I am lost and do not know my way." Tears welled up in her eyes and she tried to blink them away.

When she could see again, she thought at first that the moon had grown brighter. Then the glow above her split, and the Firebird dove down toward her. Its light showed her that she sat in a towering wild apple tree. To her dazzled eyes, the tree branches appeared to be rimmed in fire.

The Firebird settled onto a branch just out of her reach and cocked its head to consider a wizened, twisted apple hanging nearby. Ekaterina smelled smoke, but although the Firebird's feathers were made of flame, the tree did not burn. Heat caressed her face like the summer sun.

The Firebird's shadow fell over the branches only a couple of feet away from Ekaterina. She shifted her weight and slowly inched towards the shadow and its promise of good fortune.

The Firebird's head snapped around, and it pinned her with its diamond-edged gaze. It fanned its wings at her. Furnace heat rolled over her, and she shielded her face with her arm. When she dared look again, the Firebird had retreated well away from any branches she could reach.

The Firebird swiveled its head as it studied the barren branches around it. When she saw it hunch as if it were about to spring into the air, Ekaterina cried, "Wait!" She plucked an apple near her and tossed it toward the Firebird.

It speared the fruit with its beak, then pinned it with a foot and pecked at it.

"Come back with me," Ekaterina said. "Even the worst apple left in my family's orchards will taste better than a wild one. We have more than what you saw tonight! Only one of our orchards is here; the other one is at our distillery. Our trees produce only the sweetest apples. I can show you where all the best ones are."

The Firebird's faceted crystal eyes gleamed with reflected light. "But we are in a wild forest," it said, "and your apple trees could not survive here. This tree is strong and right for where it is. It does not try to be an orchard apple tree. It knows what it is — and its fruit is more delicious for it. Have you even tasted it?"

To be polite, Ekaterina plucked a nearby apple and dubiously took a bite. The overwhelming sourness of it puckered her mouth. She was about to spit it out when its honey-sweet aftertaste rolled across her tongue. She chewed, swallowed, and thought for a few moments. "I like the apples my father makes brandy from better."

"It is always better to know than to assume."

"I don't know where I am," Ekaterina tried, hopefully.

"There is much you don't know, little apple-eater," the Firebird told her. "But you will find out." Its wings snapped open.

She fell back and shielded her eyes from the curtain of fire. "No, wait!" she cried, but the Firebird leaped up from the tree branch and took to the sky, a comet in reverse. Nearby, a wolf howled its appreciation.

The chorus of spine-tingling wolf calls that answered made Ekaterina grip the tree trunk tightly. One of the howls sounded as if it came from directly below her.

Feeling around the tree branches and trying to remember what she'd seen in the Firebird's light, she found her way to a natural cradle formed from three branches forking off the main trunk. She settled into that cradle, letting her legs dangle to either side of the trunk. A slight breeze on her bare ankles startled her, as she imagined a slavering wolf leaping to sink his fangs into her flesh and pull her down. Had she climbed high enough to be safe? She was certain she would not sleep a wink.

* * *

A cascade of birdsong woke her the next morning. She expected to see the Firebird, but instead a shchegol flirted its golden feathers at her as it warbled from a branch above her head.

"Oh! Dobraye utro, little one!" she greeted it.

She looked down and quickly shut her eyes. The only wolf that could reach that high would be a giant twice the size of Papa's prize stallion.

In daylight, she could see where the forest ended. The village lay twenty minutes' walk away, though at night it had seemed impossibly farther. Ekaterina climbed very carefully down from the tree. Her limbs ached from running and climbing, and she didn't trust them to hold her up.

She wished very much for a slice of wheaten bread and a glass of milk, and for Agafya to plait her hair, which was tangled and wrapped around twigs and leaves and bits of bark from her wild pursuit of the Firebird.

Sunlight filtered through the dark, crowded trees and birds sang high above her. Soon she would be home in front of the fire with a mug of kvass. She walked faster.

A masculine voice called, "Ekaterina!" It was Nikolai. Her family must have raised a search party. She thought again how bedraggled she must look.

She picked leaves and twigs out of her hair and twisted it into a rough braid. Then she called, "Here! I'm here!"

Her heart swelled when her rescuer — never mind that she no longer needed rescue — plunged out from between the trees. At the sight of Nikolai's handsome face and the way his eyes fixed on her, she felt stirrings lower down. She blushed and envied how magnificent he looked in his gray-embroidered overcoat and waistcoat. His breeches were immaculate, and his stockings didn't have a single snag. In comparison, she looked a bedraggled wretch.

"Ekaterina, I'm so glad to have found you."

She would have protested his familiarity, but he seized her and pulled her to his chest. She pushed at him, and he loosened his embrace just enough to kiss her.

It was — interesting. She'd often wondered what it would be like to be kissed. His lips were firm and dry. His scratchy face rubbed against hers, and she was fleetingly reminded of her baba, a wrinkled apple of a woman with bristles sticking out this way and that. It ran in the family; Ekaterina had to pluck downy hairs from her own cheeks and upper lip every few days. Then Nikolai tightened his grip. The faint scent of sweat and leather rose up around Ekaterina, and his strong arms held her firmly. For a moment, she could think of nothing else.

He released her with a smug, masculine grin. "Why did you run off into the forest?" he scolded. "You must not do such things once we are married."

"I was hunting the Firebird. But — married?"

"I spoke with your papa last night about the benefits to our families of joining together, and he did not tell me no."

She lifted her chin, remembering Agafya's warning. Nikolai was fine- looking, she admitted, and he had paid close attention to her at the feast, but he was no great conversationalist. He had seemed disturbed when she tried to discuss philosophy or the history she and her brothers had learned.

"Papa would never betroth me without my consent!" she flashed, angry at his presumption. "He's told me many times that I am too young to think about marrying. I am sure he only said he'd think on it, and that's because he did not wish to spoil the evening. Only last week, he assured me that I need not think of marrying for some time. As for benefits to our families, I see only the ones to yours."

His eyes darkened. "Then you will have to persuade him," he said.

Ekaterina was suddenly very conscious that they were still too deep in Chyorniy Forest for anyone to hear her if she screamed. She longed for Agafya, who had been there from her earliest childhood to ensure her virtue remained uncompromised.

Nikolai stepped forward.

She stepped back.

He lunged for her.

She turned to run, but her exhausted legs betrayed her. She stumbled and fell. He was on her in an instant.

"My father and brothers will kill you!" she spat.

"And who would have you then? No, a marriage will be in everyone's best interest."

She wriggled under him as he held her down and began to push her skirts up her legs. Desperate, she craned her neck — and saw a branch as thick as her arm that had fallen almost within reach. She scrabbled through the forest loam to grab it. As soon as she had the branch firmly in hand, she brought it whistling up at him, in a blow that would have split his skull if he hadn't recoiled and jumped off her in the very same instant.

"What witchcraft is this?" he demanded, staring at her bare legs and backing away. "You are a leshy, trying to trick me." He looked around wildly, as if he expected other spirits to coalesce from the forest's shadows and attack.

Ekaterina hurt. Tomorrow, she would have deep purple-black bruises where he'd gripped her. The remembered joy of flirting on her birthday died like a rabbit crushed between a wolf's jaws.

She braced the branch against the ground and pushed herself to her feet, swaying. Tightening her grasp on the branch, she took a step forward. Her throat was tight and her eyes stung, but a hot fire rose in her.

Nikolai turned and ran.

She threw the branch at him. It struck the back of his knees and knocked him down. Tree bark scraped his face as he fell. Blood seeped through his fingers where he pressed his hand to his cheek, but he picked himself up and fled.

Ekaterina circled around the village, keeping off the paths and sticking to the fields and trees. At the moment, wolves seemed safer than men.

When she saw her home, she ran toward it, despite her aching legs. She stumbled as she ran, but she could not stop herself. The guard dogs heard her first and bounded out, barking their welcome. Ekaterina collapsed to her knees and wrapped her arms around their necks, burying her face in Zaychik's ruff while Belka stood guard.

Her mama and her brothers Vasily and Oleg tumbled out of the house. When Ekaterina's mama saw her, she let out an inarticulate cry, hiked up her skirts, and ran to her. She pulled Ekaterina into a tight embrace as Vasily and Oleg stood awkwardly nearby.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Ekaterina and the Firebird by Abra Staffin-Wiebe, Anna Balbusso, Elena Balbusso. Copyright © 2013 Abra Staffin-Wiebe. 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.

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