1447: Tirgoviste, Wallachia
Radu, eleven years old and still small for his age, kicked at the hard-crusted snow. He was cold and bored and angry. Lada and Bogdan screamed joyfully as they flew past him, the old metal shield barely holding the two of them. They tumbled off at the bottom of the hill, careering to a stop on the banks of the river. It had taken them ages to hike out here, with the heavy, stolen shield dragged behind them. Even though Radu had helped bring it, they would not give him a turn.
As Lada and Bogdan carried the shield back up the hill for another round, they jabbered in their secret language. The one they still thought Radu could not understand.
“Look at him.” Bogdan laughed, his doltish ears violently red in the cold. “I think he will cry.”
“He always cries,” Lada answered, not even bothering to look at Radu.
This, of course, made Radu’s eyes sting with tears. He hated Bogdan. If that stupid oaf were not here, it would be Radu going down the hill with Lada, Radu who shared her secrets.
He stomped off through the snow, the reflected sun dazzlingly bright. If they caught him with tears in his eyes, he would claim it was the light. They would know the truth, though. On the banks of the river, the water was frozen for as far as he could see. Several children played nearby, some around his age. He edged closer to them, trying to appear as though he were merely going in that direction anyway.
He wanted them to ask him to join.
He wanted it so badly it hurt more than his frozen fingers.
“I have a honey cake for whoever dares go to the middle of the river,” the oldest boy declared. His shoeless feet were wrapped in cloth, but he held himself as straight as any boyar child.
“Liar,” answered a little girl with long braids trailing from the shawl clutched around her head. “You never have any food, Costin.”
The boy lifted his chin, pride and anger visible in the set of his mouth. “I can go farther out than any of you. I dare you. Who is brave enough?”
“I am,” Radu said. He immediately regretted it. Cautious by nature, ever fearful of being hurt, Radu shied away from risk. It was part of what Bogdan and Lada mocked him most for. Going out onto a frozen river was not something he would ever choose to do.
He nearly backed away when he heard Bodgan’s loud whoop of joy behind him. He stepped forward instead.
The group looked over, only now noticing him. Costin’s eyes narrowed as he took in Radu’s fine clothes, lingering on his leather boots. Radu wanted to be his friend. More than that, in a way Radu did not even understand, he wanted to be Costin. He wanted to look others full in the face, unafraid, unashamed, even with nothing to his name.
Costin’s upper lip pulled back, and Radu was seized with a sudden fear, worse than that of facing the frozen river. He was afraid Costin would ignore him, or tell him to leave. He was afraid these children would look at him and know he was not worth their time.
“If you go farther than I do, you can have my boots,” Radu said, his words tumbling out in desperation.
Costin’s eyebrows rose, and his expression grew sly. “Do you swear?”
“On all the saints.”
The children looked equal parts aghast and impressed with Radu’s brash and inappropriate declaration. It was a very big swear, as there were more saints than Radu could ever remember. And he knew he was not supposed to invoke them for something like this. Radu stood straighter, mimicking Costin’s aggressive stance.
“And what if you go farther than me?” Costin’s tone indicated he thought it impossible.
Radu smiled, going along with Costin’s obvious lie. “The honey cake.”
Costin nodded, and they stepped from the bank to the river. This close to shore, the ice was an opaque white and littered with small pebbles. Radu shifted his feet hesitantly, trying to get a feel for how his boots might slip.
Laughing, Costin glided forward, sliding his cloth-wrapped feet along as though he had done this a hundred times before. He probably had.
Studying Costin, Radu continued to slide forward. He began making better progress, though he still lagged far behind. That was fine. Radu did not actually want to beat the boy, since he was certain Costin had no honey cake to offer. When people could not meet expectations, they got either ashamed or angry, Radu had found. He suspected Costin would be the type to get angry, and he wanted to be his friend, not his enemy.
He had another pair of boots at home, anyway. Nurse would scold him, but she would not tell his father. And she was always kind and gentle to him after a good scolding.
They had gotten several body lengths from the riverbank when a loud crack echoed around them. Radu froze.
Costin looked back, dark eyes flashing, chin lifted. “The middle is this way, coward.” He took another few steps and, with a shattering sound, fell through the ice.
“Costin!” Radu shouted, edging toward the break. The boy bobbed back up, scrambling for a grip on the ice. Radu dropped to his belly and scooted forward. He could nearly reach Costin’s hands, but he heard the ice beneath him weakening.
Someone grabbed his ankle, yanking him back.
“Wait!” he screamed, holding out his hands to Costin, who had leveraged himself onto his belly but could not get the rest of his body out of the water. He reached for Radu, but it was too late. Costin’s eyes widened in terror, his face as white as the ice, as Radu was pulled away.
“Wait, wait, we have to help him!” Radu tried to scramble to his feet, but another hand took hold of his other ankle and slammed him down. His chin bounced against the ice, teeth biting into his tongue and drawing blood. Then he was thrown onto the bank of the river, with Lada slapping his face.
“What were you thinking?” she screamed.
“We have to help him!”
“He will drown! Let me go!”
She picked him up by his collar, shaking him. “You could have died!”
“He will die!”
“He is nothing! Your life is worth a hundred of his, you understand? Never, ever risk it again for someone else.”
She was still shaking him, jarring his head, so he could not see the river, could not see whether or not Costin had made it. He could hear the other children shouting, but they sounded far away and indistinct over the pounding of his pulse. Radu finally looked at Lada, expecting to see fury, but instead she looked . . . unfamiliar. Her eyes were brimming with tears she would have mocked him for.
“Never do that again.” She stood and pulled him up beside her. Bogdan took his other arm, and they dragged him away. Radu tried to look back, but Lada grabbed his neck and forced him to keep his gaze forward. He expected her to walk ahead of him on the long, cold trek home, or to yell at him. Instead, she stayed at his side, silent.
“He was fine,” she finally said, after several minutes of listening to Radu sniffle. “He climbed out.”
“He did?” Radu shivered with hope, trembling all over. Lada pointed to the shield. “Sit.” She made Bogdan pull Radu on it. She called Bogdan so many terms for an ass that Radu forgot Costin’s face and fell over laughing. That night, she sat close to him while they ate supper in front of the fire, picking at him, fussing over him in her way.
When she thought he was sleeping, she crept into his room. Radu did not sleep much, always awake and worrying over something. But he lay as still as possible, keeping his breathing even, curious as to what she would do.
She sat beside his bed for a long while. Finally, she put a hand on his shoulder and whispered, “You are mine.”
Radu had been thinking about the way Lada sounded when she told him that Costin had escaped the river. The tone of her voice, the lack of an edge. He was almost certain she had lied. He fell asleep, wrapped in the secure warmth of her next to him and nagged by guilt over how happy the day had made him.
Still made him.