1446: Curtea de Arges, Wallachia
During the height of the summer of Lada’s twelfth year, when plague descended with the insistent buzz of a thousand blue-black flies, Vlad took Lada and Radu out of the city. Mircea, their torment of an older brother, was in Transylvania soothing tensions. Lada felt gloriously visible riding by her father’s side. Radu and the nurse and Bogdan rode behind them, and her father’s contingent of guards farther back still. Her father pointed out various features of the countryside—a hidden trail up the side of a mountain, an ancient graveyard with long-forgotten people marked by smooth stones, the way the farmers carved out ditches to pull water from the river into their crops. She drank in his words with more thirst than the greedy soil.
Stopping briefly in the small green city of Curtea de Arges, they paid their respects at a church her father had bestowed his patronage on. Normally, Lada chafed under religious instruction. Though she attended church with her father, it was always a political duty of being seen, being observed, allowing one family or another to be closest to them as a matter of prestige. The priests sang soporifically, the air was cloying, and the light was dim, oppressively filtered through stained glass. They were Orthodox, but her father had political ties to the pope through the Order of the Dragon, so it was even more important that she stand up straight, listen to the priest, do everything exactly as it needed to look to others.
It was a performance that set Lada’s teeth on edge.
However, here, in this church, her father’s name was carved into the wall. It was covered in gold leaf and positioned next to a massive mosaic of Christ on the cross. It made her feel strong. As though God himself knew her family’s name.
One day she would build her own church, and God would see her, too.
They continued traveling along the Arges River, which sometimes was narrow and violently churning, sometimes as wide and smooth as glass. It snaked through the land until reaching the mountains. Everything was a green so deep it was nearly black. Dark gray stones and boulders jutted out of the steeply rising slopes, and beneath them the Arges wandered.
It was cooler here than in Tirgoviste, a chill that never quite burned away clinging to the rocks and moss. The looming mountains were so steep that the sun shone directly on the traveling company for only a few hours each day before shadows reclaimed the passes. It smelled of pine and wood and rot—but even the rot smelled rich and healthful, unlike the hidden rot of Tirgoviste.
Late one afternoon, near the end of their journey, their father reached up to an evergreen tree that was growing sideways off a boulder. He broke off a sprig, smelled it, then passed it to Lada with a smile. It was a smile that made her feel as full and dizzy as the mountain air did. A peaceful smile. She had never seen such a smile on her father’s face, and being the recipient of it made her heart beat with a frenzied happiness.
“We are that tree,” he said, then rode ahead.
Lada pulled on the reins to make her horse, a docile and dull-brown creature, pause. She studied the tree squeezing life out of stone. It was twisted and small but green, growing sideways in defiance of gravity. It lived where nothing had any business thriving.
Lada did not know whether her father meant the two of them, or whether he meant all of Wallachia. In her mind, the two had become indistinguishable. We are that tree, she thought, holding the richly scented sprig to her nose. We defy death, to grow.
That evening they came to a village snuggled between the river and the mountains. The homes were simple, spare, nothing compared with their castle. But children ran and played in the lanes, and bright bursts of flowers were nurtured in tiny plots. Chickens and sheep roamed freely.
“What about thieves?” Radu asked. In Tirgoviste, their animals were kept carefully penned, with someone assigned to watch them at all hours.
Their nurse made a sweeping motion with her arm to encompass the whole village. “Everyone knows everyone. Who would steal from their neighbor?”
“Yes, because they would be immediately found out and punished,” Lada said.
Radu gave her a frowning sort of smile. “Because they care about each other.”
They were served food—warm, round loaves of rough bread, chicken blackened on the outside and scalding hot on the inside. Perhaps it was the travel, or the smell of green things all around, but even the food here tasted richer and more real to Lada.
The next morning Lada woke early, the straw under her cot poking through her shift and into her back. With the nurse snoring, and Bogdan and Radu curled up in the corner like puppies, Lada slipped out the window.
The cottage—cozy and neat, the nicest in the village— was built against the tree line, and it took only a handful of steps before Lada was enveloped in a new, secret world, filled with green-filtered light and the constant droning of unseen insects. The ground beneath her bare feet was morning-damp and littered with striped slugs the size of her index finger. Mist clung to sections of the trees, greeting her with almost sentient tendrils. She climbed straight up, picking out a precarious path, winding her way with slow progress toward the top of the nearest jutting peak of solid gray stone.
There were ruins up there, an ancient fortress long since fallen. It teased her with glimpses through the fog, calling to her in a way she could not explain.
She had to get to it.
She climbed down a small ravine, and then straight up the face of the rocky peak. Her feet slipped, and she pressed her face against the stone, breathing hard. Hammered into the stone were the rusted remains of pegs that once must have held a bridge. Lada grabbed one, then another, until she heaved herself up and over the crumbling remains of a wall.
She crossed the foundation, jagged bits of brick and mortar digging into her feet. At the very edge, where even the wall had fallen away, nothing was left but a cobblestoned platform hanging over empty space. Her heart pounded as she looked down at the Arges, now a tiny stream, and the village, mere pebbles for homes. The sun crested the opposite peaks, falling directly on her. It turned the motes in the air to gold, and the mist into brilliant rainbow droplets. A spiky purple flower growing in the old foundation caught her eye. She plucked it, holding it to the light, then pressed it to her cheek.
A sort of rapture descended on her, a knowledge that this moment, this mountain, this sun, were designed for her. The closest she had come before to the exultant feeling—both a burning and a lightness in her chest—was when her father had been pleased with her. But this was new, bigger, overwhelming. It was Wallachia—her land, her mother—greeting her. This was how church was supposed to feel. She had never experienced the divine spirit within a church’s walls, but on this peak, in this countryside, she felt peace and purpose and belonging. This was the glory of God.
This was Wallachia.
This was hers.
After the sun had nearly crossed the canyon and was prepar R - ing to disappear behind the mountain, Lada made her way back down. It was harder than the climb up, her feet less sure, her purpose less driving.
When she walked back into the village, footsore and starving, it was to a severe scolding from her frantic nurse. Radu pouted that their whole day had been ruined, and even Bogdan scowled because she had not taken him with her.
She did not care about any of them—she wanted to tell her father how she had felt up on the mountain, how her mother Wallachia had embraced her and filled her with light and warmth. She was filled to bursting with it, and she knew her father would understand. Knew he would be proud.
But he had not even noticed her absence; and at dinner he was cross, complaining of a headache. Lada tucked the flower she had held on to all day beneath the table. Later that night, she pressed it into the small book of saints her nurse had packed for her, next to the sprig from the evergreen tree.
The next day her father left to attend to business elsewhere.
Still, that summer was the best of Lada’s life. With her father R gone, so, too, was her driving desperation to please him. She splashed in the river with Bogdan and Radu, climbed rocks and trees, tormented the village children and was tormented back. She and Bogdan created a secret language, a bastard version of their native tongue, with Latin, Hungarian, and Saxon mixed in. When Radu asked to play with them, they answered him in their garbled, intricate language. Oftentimes he cried in frustration, which only served to prove they were right to leave such a whining baby out of their games.
One day, high on the side of the mountain, Bogdan declared his intention to marry Lada. “Why would we marry?” Lada asked.
“Because no other girls are fun. I hate girls. Except for you.”
Already Lada understood, in a vague and fearful way, that her own future revolved around marriage. With her mother having long since returned to Moldavia—or fled there, depending on which gossip Lada was unable to avoid overhearing— there was no one she could ask about such things. Even the nurse simply clucked her tongue and told her sufficient unto the day was the evil thereof, from which Lada could only understand that marriage was evil.
Sometimes she imagined a shadowy figure standing at a stone altar. She would hold up her hand, and he would take everything she had for himself. She burned with hatred at the very idea of that man, waiting, waiting to make her crawl.
But this was Bogdan. She supposed if she had to marry anyone, it would be him. “Fine. But only if we agree that I am always in charge.”
Bogdan laughed. “How is that any different from now?”
After delivering a sharp punch to Bogdan’s shoulder, Lada was seized with a sudden and urgent need to eliminate the nightmare of the shadowy man. Here, on this mountain, everything was perfect. “We should marry right now.”
“Give me your hand.”
He obeyed, hissing with pain as she drew her knife across his palm. She did the same to her own hand, then grasped his in hers, the warm wetness mingling between their small, dirty “On this mountain, with my mother Wallachia as witness, I marry Bogdan forever and no other.”
He grinned, his big ears glowing red, backlit by the setting sun. “On this mountain, with Lada’s mother who is made of rocks and trees watching, I marry Lada forever and no other.”
She squeezed his hand harder. “And I am in charge.”
“And you are in charge.” They released each other and, with a puzzled and disappointed frown, Bogdan sat on the ground. “What now?”
“How should I know? I have never married anyone before.”
“We should kiss.”
Shrugging with indifference, Lada put her lips against Bogdan’s. His were soft and dry, warm against her own, and this close his features blurred, making it look as though he had three eyes. She laughed, and he did, too. They spent the rest of the afternoon with their noses smashed together, telling each other how monstrous they looked with one eye, or three, or whatever other tricks their vision played.
They never spoke of their marriage again, but it took weeks for their palms to heal.
When, after an infinite passage of golden and green days, they finally returned to Tirgoviste, it felt like the opposite of a homecoming. Lada ached for what they had left behind. Someday she would go back to the Arges and rebuild the fortress on that mountain, to live there with her father and Bogdan. Maybe even Radu.
It would be better than Tirgoviste. Anything would be better than Tirgoviste.