The Radomysl Principality has had a dreadful harvest, and famine is likely a few short months away. Most of the livestock has been slaughtered to prepare for the long winter, and hunters have been active in procuring game to balance out the shortfall in grain. But owing to the bad weather, the game itself is not plentiful, and overhunting increases the danger of hungry predators prowling around human settlements. In the village of Lazarevo, rumor has it that the monks of the Lazar and Liudmila abbey, located on an island in the Vydra river, just north of the village, have stockpiled enough grain for the village to last out the winter. But any family requesting the monks’ aid must pledge its members to become the monastery’s dependents, or to extend their term of servitude if already under its control.
The only bright spot on the horizon is the upcoming feast of Stepanidki – the last holiday before the Redeemer’s Fast. The feast is held in honor of the married saints Sergei and Stepanida – two ancient healers who are the patrons of marriage and domestic harmony. On this day, young people take over the running of the household, and invite prospective mates to share a meal with them. By custom, if you are invited to the Stepanidki feast, you must steal a fowl from your neighbors, and bring it for a prospective spouse to cook. Normally, such behavior is tolerated on this day. But in view of the circumstances, Hegumen Yaakov has prohibited any theft from neighbors – given the scarcity of food, this practice can easily escalate conflict in the village. In any case, the practice is tinged with paganism. As it happens, however, Sergei and Stepanida are also patrons of blacksmiths, who initiate new apprentices on this day, and the roots of the blacksmith’s feast certainly derive from the Old Faith.
Unexpectedly, three outsiders to the Lazarevo community receive invitations to attend the feast. Chonkorchuk the hermit – a long-term exile, who has lived in the woods north of the Vydra river, Plamen – a Changeling who alternates between the village and a nearby meadow, and Raskel – a traveling mountebank who is merely passing through are all invited – by the same young woman! She is Katerina – the daughter of the village smith, and by far the most beautiful girl in the village. All three accept – flattered by the consideration and curious about why they are being afforded attention by Lazarevo’s most eligible bachelorette. All begin looking for gifts to bring along. Raskel disregards the Hegumen’s prohibition, and, changing himself magically to appear as Shamash Danilovich – a dependent of the monastery, and a tavern proprietor, orders a servant to procure a chicken from the tavern barn. Chonkorchuk uses his magic to bring down a wild partridge. And Plamen – young and least informed about village customs, creates a wreath out of wild grasses, berries and nuts.
As the three suitors make their way to the smithy, on the outskirts of town, they see a group of young people on the porch of a nearby house, watching the entrance to the smithy intently. Already concerned about being seen, Chonkorchuk quickly heads inside without further ado with his unplucked partridge. Raskel steps beyond the edge of the village and uses magic to pluck his chicken before heading inside. He thinks the joke may be on him, but wants to see it through nevertheless. Plamen arrives last with his wreath, and, unconcerned, heads inside.
|Katarina - an enterprising potential bride|
In the house, the suitors are surprised to find Katarina present, and unchaperoned, though they are also surprised to find that there are three suitors – not a normal practice for Stepanidki. Katarina sits them down at the bench in the main room, and proceeds to boil the poultry, as she plies the company with beer. The suitors question her about why she invited the three of them there, and whether the whole feast is an elaborate joke. In the course of the conversation, she reveals that she is serious, because she is unwilling to settle for normal village life, like her mates, and sought the three suitors out because she is aware that they all possess magical powers. She states that, unlike some of the village youths who are watching the house from the outside because they think they have some sort of claim on her, all three of the men present really have something to offer – Chonkorchuk possesses deep knowledge, Raskel is well-traveled and resourceful, and Plamen is young and empathetic. She will decide between them on the basis of who brought the best gift (she seems to prefer the initially-plucked chicken), who is the best eater and drinker (as a husband should be), and, most importantly, who can locate pieces of an artifact called the Alatyr Stone – used as an anvil by the Creator-Smith Svarog when he fashioned the universe. A door slams somewhere in the house the middle of this conversation, but no one appears. Plamen tries to open the door to the “bright room” used to receive company, but it is locked.
Raskel smells something fishy, and demands to know who really summoned them here, and where Zhitko – the mysterious blacksmith who is a guest of Katarina’s father – is. Katarina stalls and distributes more beer, which now makes Chonkorchuk – unused to drink – tipsy. Raskel persists in demanding to negotiate with Zhitko, since it seems they’re not really talking about marriage anymore. Finally, the huge, dark-haired, mustached smith emerges from the bright room. Though he claims that Katarina’s marriage offer is genuine, and originates with her, he does admit that it was his idea to draw the trio in using Katarina’s beauty as bait. He says he knows all three are aware of secret places in the world, and asks whether they would join in on the quest to find shards of the Stone. Chonkorchuk in particular claims to know such a place, though he offers that it is the realm of Baba Yaga, the real creator, and the weaver of the world tapestry. Raskel presses Zhitko about what his role in the enterprise will be. The smith says that he will offer his expertise and support, but his role is to be that of the facilitator and coordinator of the quest, and that for the time being, he will remain in the village. He then presses the trio to agree to the terms, or to leave. All agree, though Raskel, being old, takes himself out of the running as Katarina’s groom. Plamen and Chonkorchuk are still interested.
|Zhitko - the mystery man behind the woman|
The three suitors leave the smith’s house, and begin to discuss their next move. The village is dark, and the young people have moved on somewhere. Some screams and barking in the distance alert the group that something may be amiss. Suddenly, half a dozen shapes are seen moving through the shadows on the side of the road…