для читателей старше 18 лет
The Beekeepers Daughter is the first of five books in the Kingdom of Meridian Series. The story begins with Maria, a young woman struggling to survive in medieval Russia. Through a series of tragic events, she must travel across Northwestern Russia to find safety with relatives in a distant city. Along the way, her conservative life in a village fades as she navigates a new world filled with danger. Her experience becomes a personal journey in trust, adventure, love and destiny.
You are about to be taken on an exciting journey filled with folklore, Russian history, and romantic encounters. The pace is fast as Maria travels North on the Volga River trying to evade Tatar soldiers seeking to return her to Rostov. Armed only with a handful of items and the knowledge her parents gave her; she must trust her life to complete strangers while learning to survive in a world where nothing is as it seems. Her story unfolds with chaotic twists that drive her to a destiny far greater than she ever imagined.
A word about Russian culture, you’ll notice the names shifting a bit during the dialogue between characters. This shift is intentional and is a key element in how conversations take place, beginning with full formal names and then as the familiarity grows the names «soften’. For example «Maria’ becomes «Masha’ or «Manya’. Mikhail becomes Misha, Svetlana becomes Sveta and Natalya becomes Natasha or Natalie. This trend continues throughout the book and reveals when the characters are formal, friendly, serious or playful.
It was my wish to make this a historically and geographically accurate tale, but there were some points where a fact had to be sacrificed for the greater good of the story. I hope you can embrace the fictional detours as a means to further enjoy the book.
— Shiån Serei
Language Notes: The story is replete with anglicized words, meant to capture the color of Russian and other languages. These words are written in the way they are pronounced, as a benefit to the reader. You’ll find an index at the end of the book with the complete translation of each phrase.
One Night in Rostov
It is the year 1290 in the city of Rostov. Russia has changed dramatically after being conquered by the Tatar horde. Within months of the invasion, many of the local people had been forced out of their homes or were killed for resisting the army. The autumn sun is setting on a small farm at the edge of the city, where the local beekeeper, Alex, and his family, live.
Alex loaded the last barrel of Mead onto his small cart. His back ached from loading so many barrels, but the order for all his mead and honey was too good to pass up. The Tatars had destroyed so many of his hives and fields during the invasion, leaving him with limited means to pay for safe passage out of Rostov. He walked into his small farm house to bid his wife and daughter farewell.
The room was clad in hand-cut boards, cinched with mud to fill the cracks. A large clay oven filled one corner, warming the house and providing a space for cooking. A small bed fit snugly between the ceiling and top of the oven with just enough space to slide in and survive the coldest nights. A small piece of wood pivoting a single nail held the doors to an angled closet where preserves, potatoes, and onions were kept. A rear door gave exit to the garden behind the house. Wicks dipped in beeswax were cooling by the oven, as completed candles were stacked and prepared for market.
«Lena, I’m off to deliver the mead and honey to those Tatar bastards,» he said. «This should bring us enough to get out of here, finally, and move to Neva.»
«Ladno, be careful Alex. I don’t trust those monsters!» she said as she brushed her daughter Maria’s long blonde hair.
Maria was reading aloud in Latin from an illuminated script her Mother insisted she memorize by practice each night. Maria hated learning Latin and paused to respond to her father.
«I will go with you Papa,» said Maria. «It will go faster with two people,» she said setting the scroll aside and standing to don her coat.
«Net Masha, the Tatar court is not a place for young girls!» Alex said in a determined voice. He turned and walked out the door without another word.
Maria’s disappointment was obvious.
Her mother guided Maria to return to her seat, «Nice try, now let’s start from the beginning shall we?» said Lena.
«In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram» Maria began sarcastically, without looking at the script.
Lena was the town’s school teacher and the only woman who could read and write in 3 languages. Her insistence on developing Maria’s mind had been a daily ritual since Maria was five years old. Now at the age of nineteen, Maria was very skilled in linguistics and sciences though her father insisted that she keep her abilities a secret.
As the sound of Alex’s cart pulled away, Lena placed her hand on Maria’s shoulder. «Your father just wants to keep you safe; he isn’t upset with you,» Lena said calmly
Then Maria noticed that her father had left his gloves by the door.
«He forgot his gloves!» She gasped. «I’ll catch up to him and give these to him!»
She quickly ran out the door before her mother could voice her objection.
Lena sighed in frustration as she picked up the scroll that had fallen to the floor. She carefully brushed the dust from it with her hands. The scroll was sacred to their family; it had been blessed by a priest who regarded it as an icon of the church. She walked to the corner of the house, rolling the scroll and setting it on a shelf Alex had built to keep it safe. Here it could radiate its power over the entire home. Lena turned and began to pack their few belongings in anticipation of their journey the next day.
Maria’s freshly brushed hair streamed like ribbons of gold as she ran as fast as she could to catch up to her father’s cart, shouting for him to stop. The cart came to a halt as Alex turned and understood what she was doing. «Spacibo Manya» Alex said,» You may as well ride along now, it’s too dark on the streets.»
The cart slowly rode through the decimated town of Rostov, a once proud city now under the Rule of the Tatars. Each day a new rule or tax was imposed by Alchiday the warlord who had declared himself their new king.
«Papa, why did they ask for so much mead tonight?» Maria asked.
«They’re having a wedding for Alchiday and some unfortunate local girls,» Alex replied. «They breed with the conquered to stop the rebellions against his army. But marriage to these people is nothing more than buying cattle. They take wives and concubines whenever it suits them, but the women are just prisoners for breeding.»
«Why don’t the women run away then or become nuns?» Marias asked in a naive tone.
«Because they will be executed!» Alex replied harshly.
Maria’s eyes grew wide in astonishment, and she realized how dangerous and dismal such a situation would be.
«Have you not seen how they butcher anyone that defies them? Alex continued, «So many families are gone now, and for what? To rule over what remains of our little town? That’s why we are finally leaving here in the morning; this is no longer our home!»
Maria rubbed her hand over her father’s back consoling him, «Da Papa» she said in agreement.
They rode in silence the rest of the way. Each house and shop they passed showed damage or marking as a witness to the brutality that had come upon Rostov when the Tatars invaded months before. Alex’s mind flashed through the memories of his childhood in Rostov and the now empty shell that remained under Tatar rule.
The church in the center of the city became the headquarters of the warlord, Alchiday. His soldiers killed many of the town’s people while occupying the adjacent homes and shops. The local residents had been scattered to find shelter where they could, though many died defending their homes. Those, like Alex, who worked on the outer part of the city were permitted to keep their farms to serve the army’s needs.
Maria was sad to see the town she had been born in become so dark and dangerous. For nineteen years she had believed she would grow up and live a simple life of farming or perhaps meet a handsome man from a big city and raise a family there. Now, every young man in the town, every classmate or friend she knew was now gone. Only her cousin Dmitri had survived the invasion of the Tatars, and his life, like her father’s, was spared because he could provide a service to the army, hauling freight on a river boat.
As they drew closer to the large stone-built church, the horse’s hooves were the only sound on the street as they clacked on the hard clay and rocks. Alex pulled the reigns slightly, stopping the cart near the door of the church. They both began to leave the cart, but Alex stopped Maria before her feet reached the ground.
«You stay in the cart, ponimayesh?» Alex said firmly.
Maria did not reply she simply nodded and remained in her seat. Alex knocked at the large heavy door of the church and began putting his gloves on as he waited for an answer. The sound of music and shouting grew much louder as the door opened.
«Ah, Ermolenko is here.» Said the guard.
A few words were exchanged with the guard before Alex returned to the cart and began unloading it.
The horse blustered as Maria sat in the cart listening to men cheering, sounds of laughter and drunkenness and the clang of iron swords. It sounded like someone was pretending to fight in sport. Her fingers traced through her hair as she sat patiently waiting for her father to return.
Alex carried each barrel of mead inside; each trip seemed harder as he grew tired and winced at the weight of them. Finally, he finished and walked inside to collect his payment. Several minutes went by, and Maria wondered how long he would be.
Her curiosity became unbearable as she began to wonder what was happening inside the brightly lit church. The sounds and smells of food felt like an invitation to explore what a Tatar wedding looked like; she quickly stepped off the cart and walked to the door, peeking inside, hoping not to be spotted by her father.
She embraced the side of the door and carefully tilted her head just enough to see inside. There were soldiers everywhere, drinking, shouting, some pretended to fight with their swords while others ate like hungry dogs.
The middle of the room boasted a large feast of food and her father’s familiar barrels of mead were neatly stacked alongside. Toward the back of the room, several women were adorned in veils. Maria struggled to recognize them but could not make out their faces. They were all undoubtedly sad. Some were crying, and others simply sat with their heads down. It became obvious that these were the future wives of Alchiday. Not just one bride but many!
The wind from the street blew unexpectedly through the passageways and lifted Maria’s long blonde strands. As she stood in the door, her hair became dancing threads of light that dared to undulate into view. A soldier glanced toward the door and saw the young maiden with big grey eyes peering into the festivities. Within moments the soldier began walking towards her and took her by the arm. She feverishly looked around for her father, terrified of what would happen.
The soldier spoke to her in Turkic, a language she didn’t understand as he roughly pushed her through the crowd toward the rear of the room. «What is happening?» She wondered as she felt a cold fear washing over her.
It was surreal; she was in the same church she stood and listened to her priest says prayers every week. Now her feet nervously were shuffling across the dirty floor as other soldiers looked at her as if she was the best catch of a hunt.
Suddenly she recognized her father; he was standing in front of Alchiday as the warlord’s treasurer handed Alex several gold pieces for the mead and honey. Alex smiled nodded as his hand closed around the gold. He took a step back from the treasurer and turned to exit at the same moment his daughter arrived in the hands of the soldier.
Maria watched Alex’s eyes grow wide as fear transformed his familiar face. The soldier held on to Maria’s arm as he and Alchiday exchanged words in Turkic. The noise of the room created a backdrop to conceal the conversation of Alex as he spoke quickly to his daughter.
«I told you to stay in the cart!» He said with his voice cracking from fear.
«I’m sorry Papa, I don’t know what happened, I just looked for a second!» she said as tears ran down her face.
«I’m going to get you out of here!» Alex said reassuringly.
Alchiday motioned to the soldier to place Maria with the veiled women, and instantly Alex understood what would happen.
Alex snatched Maria out of the soldier’s hand and quickly slapped her face hard enough to knock her to her knees. Maria did not understand what he was doing; she only felt the burning pain of his strong hand on her cheek as she dared not to stand up. Her father had never hit her; this was beyond comprehension as she felt her body shaking in fear.
«My apologies my Lord,» Alex said quickly standing between Alchiday and Maria. «This one is a disobedient young child, not yet old enough to honor you in marriage. But I have another daughter far more beautiful and respectful. Let me punish this one at home and I’ll bring my other daughter to you this very night!»
Maria was confused; she was an only child. «Who was this other daughter? What was he saying?» she thought.
As her father spoke with Alchiday, she looked at the future brides sitting a few feet away. The veiled women were watching her, she could see them more clearly now and recognized their faces.
«Lilia… Nadia… Katya?» She whispered in shock as they acknowledged her through their tears.
These were her classmates, the girls she had grown up with and here they were like prisoners, sentenced to a life of service to the man that had invaded their town and killed their families. In a single breath, everything had been revealed, and Maria understood she was about to added to their sorrow. Suddenly the reality of the situation rushed over Maria, like a burning rain of fear.
Ya Ne Boyus
Alex abruptly grabbed Maria’s arm, pulling her to her feet as she continued looking at her veiled friends. He pulled her faster than she could walk as she struggled to keep up with his pace. The men in the room calmed and watched as Alex pushed and nudged Maria closer to the door while he spoke loud enough for Alchiday to hear him.
«And let me leave my payment for the mead as a token of good will to Lord Alchiday,» Alex said, as he nervously took the gold and poured it loosely over the hand of the soldier guarding the door. The coins chimed as they bounced off the paved church floor, flipping and rolling in all directions.
Alex knew the soldiers were obsessed with gold; He watched all eyes in the room train to the coin’s movement giving him a moment’s distraction. He reached and unlatched the large door, opening it just enough to push Maria back into the street.
Alchiday stood up in objection, shouting in Turkic as the door opened. He pointed at the door, instructing the guards to react.
«Masha, Run!» Her father yelled, as several soldiers suddenly converged toward the door.
Maria stumbled and fell back. She struggled to get back on her feet as she watched her father swing the large door closed with a thunderous bang as it latched against the frame.
Alex knew how barbaric the Tatars were. To deny them anything would mean his death, but he could not bear the thought of them touching his precious daughter. He had only hoped to buy enough time to get Maria out of the church.
Maria hesitated for a moment, then heard the shouts of them coming toward the door. Now she understood her father’s intentions; she bolted down the street with life over death determination. She could hardly see, as the tears poured from her eyes. Her hands nervously wiped them as she ran harder and farther away.
Then she heard her father’s voice, shouting indistinctly in the street. She ducked behind a large tree to look for him. In the distance, she could still see the dim lit street leading to the church. A wounded man was running, limping while being chased by soldiers. It was her father!
He ran directly toward her, surely he could see her hiding ahead, behind the tree, then she saw him stop and turn toward the soldiers.
He shouted and taunted them as they slowed to engage him. «Ya ne boyus!» he screamed as they pulled their swords and came closer to him.
Maria watched in horror as one of the soldiers impaled her father in the abdomen. Her father grunted then fell to the ground. He kneeled forward, holding his hands over the wound as blood ran from his body.
«Idi! Idi» he shouted as his body collapsed on the street.
Then there was silence. It was her father’s last effort to help her get away.
Maria was horrified by seeing her father killed; she couldn’t move, she felt terrified. It was like someone had bound every part of her body and no matter what she did, she was trapped, frozen in her place. She felt guilt, shame, and fear binding her without mercy.
She struggled to breathe as the terror took her breath. She stayed behind the tree’s generous silhouette as the soldiers kept looking along the path toward her.
Then, she realized, the soldiers knew where she lived. Her father was the town beekeeper everyone knew their farm, and soon the soldiers would arrive to take their land and her mother.
The immobilizing fear left her at that moment, she burst into action, running harder than she had ever tried. She had to get to her mother before the Tatars!
She ran like a rabbit darting down the streets where moments ago she and her father has just ridden quietly on their way to the church. Finally, she reached the edge of town and saw the light in the window of their farm. The distance home never seemed so far. She consumed each step toward the door, running harder and thinking what to say when she arrived. Finally, she felt the clasp of the door to their home in her hand.
She pushed through the door still running and panting, «Mama, we have to go,… now!» Maria said as she began to grab the packed items her mother had assembled for their trip the next day. Her mother slid down from the top of the oven, dressed in bed clothes.
«Masha, what’s happened?» Lena said, «Where is your father?»
Maria couldn’t bear to say the words, «They tried to take me, Mama, it’s all my fault, and Papa protected me so I could get away… they’re coming! …we have to go!» Maria said as her voice cracked from the horror she was describing.
Lena, put her hands on Maria’s shoulders to get her to slow down, «Masha, where is your father?» she asked, fearing the answer.
«They killed him!» Maria said as she collapsed into her mother’s arms crying.
The two of them held each other sobbing, terrified, and lost. Lena now understood the look on her neighbor’s faces when their husbands had been killed. How no words could ever comfort such a loss.
«Why?» Lena cried, «Why my Alex?»
Maria felt remorse overwhelm her body and soul. If she had just stayed in the cart, if she had just listened to her father, he would be alive now.
The dogs that lived on the farm began to bark as soldiers approached the farm house.
«We have to go!» Maria insisted as she carried as much as she could hold and opened the back door. Lena followed in shock, quietly behind Maria’s lead as she tried to understand what had happened. They walked through the rows of the garden and bee hives to conceal their escape.
The air had grown colder outside as Maria suddenly remembered her mother’s coat was still inside. She looked at her mother, following her in bare feet and only a nightgown on as they stood in the damp soil of the garden.
«Your coat, your shoes!» Maria exclaimed, as her mother looked at the ground unaware of anything but the loss of her husband.
Lena looked up at Maria, and as their eyes met, she spoke in a tone Maria had never heard. It terrified her to hear her Mother talk this way. «I won’t need them,» her mother announced. «Let them come.»
Maria started back toward the house to get her mother’s things, but Lena grabbed her arm and stopped her. Maria looked and saw that her mother had no intention of escaping with her.
«Maria, go and find Dima, he can get you out of town. Go to my sister in Neva, tell her what has happened.» Lena said in a disturbingly calm voice.
«What about you?!» Maria asked in shock.
«Two of us could never outrun them, but you can if you go… now!» Lena said as she reached and took a thick support stick from the nearby row of green beans.
The sound of soldiers kicking in the front door echoed in the air. Their voices shouted as they quickly shuffled into the house looking for Maria.
«Go now! I’ll join you later!» Lena said as she walked back toward the house, stopping in the middle of the bee hives.
Maria, set the bag of their belongings down, preparing to fight with her mother. She reached for an equally sized stick, but her Mother turned and stopped her. «No! You run!» Lena said.
Masha was reluctant but obeyed her mother’s wishes, she grabbed the bag and ran toward the nearby woods, hiding in the shadows. She watched as her mother walked into the midst of the bee hives and waited for the soldiers to emerge. Suddenly the back door flew open as the soldiers shuffled out, with swords drawn. They saw Lena standing calmly and began to charge toward her.
Maria’s hands squeezed the bark of the tree she stood behind, fearing her mother would be killed just as her father. Then she heard her mother, shouting in anguish as she struck the bee hives, breaking them open, sending thousands of angry bees into the air just as the soldiers got close to her mother. Lena lowered herself into a small ball on the ground as the soldiers stepped into the swarms. She knew very well how to remain calm in the presence of bees and had baited the soldiers toward her.
Suddenly the sound of terror filled the air as the soldiers were defenseless against the bee stings that easily penetrated their clothing and armor. Their bare hands and faces began to swell from venomous punctures until they could no longer hold a sword or see anything around them. They only knew to back away and try to escape the endless assault of the bee’s wrath.
Lena was spared the wrath of the bees although she was stung a few times, she kept still and waited for the soldier’s retreat. The clever farmer’s wife had bought her daughter an escape, but she knew Maria would not go without her. She looked toward the woods, suspecting Maria was there watching, then ran in the opposite direction, leading the remaining soldiers away from Maria.
Maria watched until her mother disappeared with soldiers chasing behind her. She continued with their plan to meet and made her way along the edge of the nearby woods until she arrived at the river. She knew this place well as she often played here as a child. She was undetected by the soldiers as it was quite dark that night and she could make her way easily on the familiar path leading to the dock where her cousin Dmitri worked.
Hours passed as she walked in the cold night air, her mind was a blur of everything in her world changing in an instant. The sun would come up soon, and she knew she had to keep hidden for fear of being caught. Her arms soon exhausted from carrying the heavy bag. She tied a belt around her waist and put as much as would fit inside the top of her dress to keep warm and free her arms from carrying. She reluctantly left behind things that would not fit in her dress but kept the illuminated the scroll, so dear to her mother, as she knew this would have to remain in her possession. She slipped it carefully inside her dress and continued on her way along the river.
She arrived at the ship dock just before sunrise. She knew guards would be at the dock and slowly stepped along the outer wall of the dock, to remain undetected from their surveillance of the main street. Her eyes searched the piers for the ship where her cousin worked. She couldn’t remember the name of it, but knew it was a cargo transport with a wide deck and yellow trim along the sides. She began to fear it may not be there and wondered what she would do if she couldn’t find it.
She heard footsteps on the adjoining pier and saw soldiers making a check of the ships tied to their posts. A soldier walked to the end of his pier, looking around as he stopped and paused. Maria knelt down and moved to keep out of view, ducking between the ships that blocked the soldier’s view of her. She knew if he turned down her pier, he would see her immediately. She held tightly to a post, hoping it would conceal her in the dim light.
The soldier stood still for a moment; it appeared he was trying to listen for any noise as he glanced in both directions. Maria held her breath, wishing to be invisible at that moment.
A distant trickle echoed in the water as the soldier began looking down. Within moments Maria realized, the noise was from the soldier, urinating off the pier into the river.
She nervously turned to see the familiar yellow trimmed ship at the end of her pier. She knew this would be her only chance to escape as she crawled to the end of the pier in clear view of the distracted soldier. She looked back to make she was undetected by the soldier before jumping from the dock to the deck of the ship.
Her feet thudded lightly on landing as she quickly scurried aboard the fully loaded vessel. The soldier heard the noise and finished his business before straightening his armor and walking down the pier. Maria heard his heavy footsteps and rushed toward a tarp, covering a stack of cargo.
The tarp was tucked in tightly, making it difficult to pull out and give her a place to hide. The corner of the tarp slowly unpeeled from the edge as she yanked desperately to get under it before the soldier arrived. She put her foot against the cargo and pulled harder to force it open, making it tear slightly before giving way.
Maria dashed underneath the cover, pulling its’ corner back inside. She knew if the soldier saw it moving she would be revealed. She could hear his footsteps coming closer, slowing as he looked around. The tiny amount of space was barely big enough to conceal her as she took the corner and sat on it, with her back to the outside, making the cargo look as it was before.
All was quiet; she tried to keep her panting breath from giving her location away. Then the deck shook as the soldier stepped onto the ship. The boards beneath her vibrated like a hammer against a nail as the soldier stepped in her direction. She held her breath as he came near, fearing he knew exactly where she was. The sound of his sword pinged as he drew it and stepped closer. Maria tightened her back in anticipation of being stabbed by his sword.
«Got ya!» Shouted the soldier as he thrust his blade toward a raccoon, hiding on the pallet next to hers.
The raccoon shrieked and hissed at the soldier as it evaded him and ran off the ship. The soldier quickly followed in pursuit, with each step shaking the boards of the deck as he jumped to the pier and ran toward the road.
Maria’s heart raced as she slowly realized she was safe and undetected. She released her grip on the net that wrapped around the cargo. She felt her way in the dark, finding enough room to slip from the deck onto the softer sacks of grain and cotton that were inside. The hidden place felt warm compared to the open air of the river bank, calming her shivering body as she fell asleep from exhaustion.
Passage to Yaroslavl
The sounds of footsteps and men’s voices woke Maria; it seemed she had only slept for a minute, but the daylight peering through the edges of the cargo cover assured her it was now morning. Maria carefully looked through the stitching holes of the cover to see if her cousin was in sight.
She saw unfamiliar faces and realized how dangerous it would be if she were discovered by someone loyal to the Tatars. Then she recognized her cousin Dima’s voice; he was speaking with someone else as he walked onboard the boat. As he turned in her direction, she started to move off the grain sacks, but then she saw he was walking with two of Alchiday’s soldiers. They were asking him questions and looking around at the cargo holds. Maria could just overhear the conversation.
«Of course, if I see either of them I will alert you, but I doubt they would come here. They’re just simple farmers, have you checked the woods?» Dima said confidently.
As he spoke, one of the soldiers stepped on board and went below to look around. The other soldier took out his sword and began lifting the covers off the cargo. Dima began to explain what was in each one, his voice was casual but annoyed at the soldier’s presence.
«This is cotton, be careful with the sword, if you cut the bailing it will blow everywhere!» Dima said cautiously to the soldier.
Maria panicked, if Dima didn’t know she was there, he wouldn’t know to conceal her beneath the tarp.
Step by step, the soldier flipped the covers, as if he would strike the moment he saw anyone underneath.
Maria could feel her breath growing faster; the fear was like hands around her neck. She couldn’t get enough air as the sound of her breathing seemed so loud that everyone on board could hear her. The edge of the soldier’s sword jabbed beneath the cover, and she knew her life was about to end. Her lip quivered as her body began to shake uncontrollably. She held her breath and then heard the voice of the other soldier shouting as he appeared back on the top deck.
The guard was distracted and turned to speak with him as his sword slid away, leaving the cover in place.
The seconds that went by seemed like a lifetime as she waited for him to turn back and uncover her there. But then the other soldier, who appeared to be in charge, motioned for them to leave and continue searching elsewhere.
Maria could not believe her eyes, just as her life was surely about to end, the soldiers walked away.
Dima returned to tie down each of the cargo covers, his hands quickly lashing them with ropes. He came to the place where Maria was hiding, and as his hands reached to tie it down tighter, she whispered to him, «Dima!»
Dima’s hand nervously pulled back, as if he had seen a snake. Some of the other shipmates looked for a moment then returned to their work. He kneeled down, pretending to work on the rope, and slid the cover carefully aside just enough to look inside.
«Masha? Are you and Tetya Lena in there?» he said in a relieved voice.
«Tolka ya» her young voice sighed.
«I heard what happened, sorry about Dyadya Alex, he was a good man,» Dima said as he tried to keep his voice from others ears. «They put a reward on your heads where is Tetya Lena?» Dima asked.
«I don’t know where she is, but we are too meet in Neva, at your mother’s house» Maria replied, wondering if she could trust anyone with these details.
«We are setting sail today for Yaroslavl, can you stay in there until nightfall? No one can know you are here, that reward is too tempting for even my friends to turn down.» Dima said as he tied the rope in place. «I’ll bring you some food and water, just stay in there.
«Alright, I’ll stay here, please see if you can find my mother before we leave?» Maria asked.
«I’ll see what I can find out,» Dima said, in a doubtful voice.
Dima was an experienced sailor and knew how the Tatars worked. What they could not buy, they took through force. «If Lena hadn’t already been captured, she would surely be dead,» He thought. He stepped off the boat and walked toward town, looking for answers about his aunt’s location.
The deck of the ship was made of rough splintered boards that were filthy from endless cargo storage and dirt. Maria shifted her position often, quietly trying to relieve the growing discomfort of laying across thick, coarse ropes and sacks. There were noises and rumblings on the deck as the last of the cargo was placed on board. Maria fell asleep at times, sleeping only from exhaustion, as her mind tried to understand the events in the last few hours. From the moment she stepped off her father’s cart to peer inside the church, her entire life had changed forever.
Flashes of the scene haunted her mind. The chilling fear returned as she pulled through the crowd of soldiers in the church. Her father’s gentle hands turning to iron when he struck her face to create an escape; the scene of him turning to face the soldiers, unafraid and determined for her to get away; Her mother so calmly doing the same at the farm house.
She had always known her parents love, but seeing them step in the way of death to protect her, made her shake with a sense of unworthiness. She could hardly swallow from crying and running in the damp night air. She tried to silence her despair by thinking of reuniting with her mother.
The men began to come from below deck with bowls of food. They sat on the deck and talked as they ate and drank.
Dima finally appeared, carrying a bowl of borscht and a cup of water. The captain spoke to him as he walked across the deck.
«Ah Dima, missing all morning for the loading but made it in time for lunch?» he said sarcastically.
«Da Captain, I had an urgent family matter to attend to before pulling out, I apologize for my absence,» Dima said respectfully.
«I heard, Sorry to hear about your uncle. Any news on your aunt or cousin?» The captain asked.
Maria feared Dima could give information about her or her mother and listened carefully.
«Net, they vanished into the woods. That’s all I know.» Dima said sadly.
«Hopefully, they will find safety.» The captain replied, patting Dima on the back, «Can you handle first watch tonight?» he asked.
Dima nodded and walked toward the place where Maria was hiding. He sat with his back to her and slid his soup under the cover for her, pretending to have the cup still in his hand to avoid suspicion.
«Masha, eat this!» he whispered.
Her delicate, shaking hands slid from beneath the cover and pulled the bowl inside. Dima could hear her gulping it and wondered if anyone else might notice. He coughed to mask the sound and alert Maria to be quieter.
Dima reached inside his coat and carefully lowered a quarter loaf of bread to the deck and tucked it behind him. «Masha,» he said in a whisper.
Maria’s hand appeared again, just long enough to pull the bread out of sight. It was just bread and soup, but at the time it was a feast. She felt less tense now; her hands stopped shaking, and she focused on finding her mother.
«Dima» she whispered. «Did you find my mother?»
«No» he whispered as he reached to take the cup back into his hand, noticing it was empty.
«Do you want water?» he asked, wondering how he would give it to her without drawing attention.
«Net, spacibo» Maria whispered, «I’ll need to pee if I drink anything.»
«We are leaving soon. Your mother must have found another way out of town so you should go with me!»
Dima waited for an answer but then realized Maria had fallen asleep now that she had a meal.
The ship cast off, taking the strength of the northward wind into its sail. A cool breeze slid beneath the covers as the boards of the deck creaked from the ships movements along the river. Maria awakened as the sun was setting, and realized the ship was now well on its way to Yaroslavl.
From her limited view, she could see Dima talking to the man who was steering the ship. Dima then came and sat in front of her as before. He slipped more bread to her and told her they would arrive early in the morning.
«I’ll have to get you off the ship before the crew wakes up to unload. There won’t be much time, but I can make arrangements to get you to my mother’s home in Neva.» He said quietly.
«I’m going back to Rostov tomorrow to see if your mother is still there,» he said confidently.
«Thank you Dima, she is a clever woman; I’m sure she is already in Yaroslavl,» Maria said hoping her wishes were true.
«Just be ready when I come for you!» Dima said as he quickly stood up.
Footsteps of the captain echoed on the deck as he walked over to Dima.
«Enjoying your rest while on watch, young Petrov?» the captain snapped.
«Just tightening my shoes, sir, all is well,» Dima said in a nervous tone.
«Indeed. Keep an eye out for stowaways. Those Tatar soldiers will be searching every ship coming in or out of port now.» said the captain as he walked below deck.
Dima hoped Maria didn’t hear the captain’s words. He was more like her brother than a cousin and was determined to save her.
Maria began to see her life change from dreams of the future to an unknown existence with each passing moment. The helplessness of her situation crushed her spirit, but her resolve to survive was never stronger. Her parents sacrificed everything for her, and she wanted to deserve the selfless bravery of their deeds, even though she felt responsible for setting those acts in motion.
«If only I had stayed in the cart» her thoughts tormented. «If I could just go back and change that one decision, my Father would be alive, and we would be on our way to Neva as a family.»
The remorse and guilt swam around her like a heavy breeze until she could not bear the weight of it. A depressive mood guided her eyes to close as she slept concealed under the cargo tarp as if an invisible hand closed her eyes to sleep, avoiding the pain of her conscious reality.
«Masha! Wake Up! We have to go!» Dima whispered.
Maria woke and felt the cold early morning air swirling around her. The ship was tethered to the dock with a town dimly lit in the distance. Dima pulled her to her feet while the crew continued sleeping. She was weak and stiff as she tried to stand after being still for so long.
«I can’t walk,» she said faintly as she fumbled to stand.
«You have to!» Dima insisted as he looked around to ensure their stealth. He pulled her by the hand and her feet began to step one by one. Her clothes still packed inside her dress, she shifted and adjusted as best she could to keep up with Dima’s quick pace.
They made their way down the gangplank and quickly walked toward large stacks of freight, stored at the port.
«Where are we going?» asked Maria
«To see a friend,» Dima said mysteriously
Maria had never been outside of Rostov, and all the new surroundings were curious and strange to her. She read the signs above the shops as they walked, Tobak, Producti, Bar. Reading had never been so useful as now with so much unfamiliar space around her. The two of them wove between freight and piles of fishing nets, avoiding lighted areas. They reached the main street and then walked along an alley until they arrived at a strange looking tavern.
Dima knocked at the door, it took a while but soon a woman with short blonde hair and brown eyes appeared at the door. She clearly had been sleeping and was groggy but instantly recognized Dima and let them in.
«Dima? Shto takoe?» She asked in an unpleasant tone as she pointed at Maria.
Dima placed several coins in the woman’s hand, telling her to hide Maria from everyone until someone came for her later.
The woman looked at the coins and hesitantly accepted, inviting them inside as she looked up and down the street to see if anyone was watching.
«This is Oxana, you can trust her, she runs this place and will help you. I have to return to the ship before they see I am gone!» Dima said as he hugged Maria. «My friend will come for you tomorrow and take you to Neva. Kiss my mother for me!» Dima said sweetly.
«Spacibo Oxana!» Dima said as he kissed Oxana firmly on the lips, surprising her and Maria as he made his way to the door, quickly exiting.
Oxana watched looking favorably as the sound of Dima’s steps could be heard running down the alley. It was clear that she liked him or knew him well. She closed the door and looked back at Maria. She studied her for a moment, a slim girl covered in dirt, wearing a dress stuffed with clothing, summarizing her predicament and thought Maria must be family or slave on the run.