A stranger with white hair and a patchwork overcoat stands on the banks of the Vydra River. He has a spear and a scythe strapped to his back, a drum hanging off his belt, and a large raven on his shoulder. The raven’s voice resounds in his head, urging him to follow the river eastward. But the stranger is drawn to the opposite bank. There, three fur-clad riders are trotting toward a village about a verst from the opposite bank. The man exhales a cloud of cold air, drowns out the raven’s voice in his head, and walks across the ice. The villagers fishing through holes in the ice cast askance glances at him, but he follows the riders toward the village.
At the waystation in Yelizarovka, the host informs four guests just rousing themselves on a frigid Gruden’ morning that his lord has come to call on them. Boyar Yurii Yelizarov and his two sons – Yulii and Lev, clad in coats with sable collars and cuffs, and with sabers hanging on their belts, stride inside the shed. Yelizarov says he heard about a commotion in the village the previous night. He then questions Dmitri about the previous days’ goings on, and inquires as to why he didn’t return to the fort. In response, Dmitri tells him of his travails, and indicates that he came upon a body in the woods that crows had begun to feast on. He left it in some confusion, and, rather than continuing to search for the dead man’s companions, or their hideout, he decided to head back before running afoul of the wood’s guardians. He encountered Chonkorchuk, Plamen, and Rodion somewhat later, and followed them back to the waystation to inquire into what they were doing in the woods. Chonkorchuk adds that the companions – students of local lore from Lazarevo – were combing through the woods to learn about the cairn, the crow swarm, and other landmarks. Rodion says the party was resting when Dmitri suddenly came upon it, and then engaged its members in conversation that lasted deep into the night.
To all appearances, Yelizarov does not believe these stories. As Dmitri is still in his employ, he tells him to retrieve the body, and to continue his search for the other smugglers, and their base. He agrees to have Chonkorchuk accompany him, though the hermit first wants to look for Lionia. Yelizarov stares at Rodion intently throughout the conversation, and then insists that while the other two are off in the woods, that the redhead remains at his keep as his guest. Rodion consents, and convinces Plamen to accompany him as well.
|Yuri Yelizarov lays down the law in his domains|
As the group is in the process of departing the waystation, it encounters the stranger coming into the compound. The host crosses himself in the stranger’s presence, while Yelizarov gives him, and his raven, a long, parting glance. At the shed, Chonkorchuk exchanges a few words with the laconic stranger, indicating that his friend Rodion also has a crow, before being informed that ravens are different. He gathers his things, and goes off in search of Lionia. From the villagers, he learns that Lionia actually lives in the village of Medunitsa two versts away. He follows the northwest trail, and soon arrives at what locals say is Lionia’s abode. Behind the hut, the owner keeps a large number of beehives (the village as a whole is apparently famed for its apiaries). But no one is home, and after knocking, Chonkorchuk leaves to meet the rest of his party at the Yelizarov keep.
While the rest of the group is traveling to the keep, the boyar points out that the stranger’s raven is following them. He invites Dmitri to a shooting competition: both draw their bows, and launch arrows at the raven, but fail to hit their target. The raven flies off toward Yelizarovka, back to the waystation, where its master is setting himself up for the day. Having paid the host, and setting aside bulky equipment such as his fishing gear, he awaits the raven’s story about what he saw. He then proceeds to follow the group into the woods.
At the Yelizarov keep, the boyar gives Dmitri a sack for bringing back the body. Along with the hermit Chonkorchuk, the trailseeker treads the previous day’s path. The crow flock is acting more aggressively now that Plamen is not there to placate them. Without aggravating the birds or troubling the cairn, the duo progresses until arriving at the clearing with the freshly dug grave. On top of the grave, they discover the body, though, with most of its face pecked off, it’s barely recognizable. It’s not clear why it's there – this is not where yesterday’s combat took place. Dmitri finds tracks leading in the direction of that altercation – clearly, the body was brought here, perhaps as a warning, perhaps as a way to keep people away from the smugglers’ compound. But that search should commence later – it is now time to get the body back to the keep in one piece.
Meanwhile, the stranger enters the woods after skirting the keep. After being set upon by crows, he tries to frighten them away, but after the birds draws back, he blasts them with cold magic. The crows fly at him, trying to beat him down with their beaks and wings, and the stranger barely gets away with his life. As he approaches the cairn, he meets Chonkorchuk and Dmitri, carrying a body. Formal introductions are finally exchanged. The stranger is named Druvvaldis, and he hails from the coast of the Western Sea. Long ago, invaders destroyed his home and killed his people, and he has been wandering the earth in search of what remains of the old world. He is a speaker to spirits, and a seeker of wisdom beyond the visible realm. His companion spirit has pressed him to seek a place called the Crows’ Meadow, where his fate awaits him. Chonkorchuk indicates that he knows the place, and that he and his companions are heading there as well, in search of a treasure.
As they begin to make their way back, they suddenly meet Lionia, who in typical fashion comes up behind them. The old man is fully armed, with a sabre at this side, and demands to know why they are still hanging around his territory. Dmitri explains that they were forced to collect the body, and asks why it was moved onto the grave. Lionia indicates that it was put there to make it easy to collect, and to keep people away from the base. Learning about Rodion’s detention, and expressing exasperation at the party’s failure to mislead Yelizarov, he says that he will have to handle matters with the boyar himself. He then attempts to engage Druvvaldis, and to learn who he is, but the newcomer stays tight-lipped. Chonkorchuk tells Lionia that the spirit-seeker may be useful to the group’s plan to recover the treasure. The Old Fox reminds him that he warned about more people learning about the treasure. He is willing to bring the newcomer along, but insists that the original deal, whereby he gets a quarter of the proceeds, is honored. After some wrangling, Chonkorchuk acquiesces. Lionia then parts ways from the rest – he heads to the Yelizarov keep, they – back to the waystation.
|Druvvaldis - another corvid bearer|
In the night, Chonkorchuk’s extremities become frostbitten, and he catches cold. Managing to rouse himself, he meets his companions down by the river. The attempts to ice fish are less than successful, but by mid-morning, Lionia reappears. He has succeeded in placating Yelizarov, he says, and Dmitri, and the rest of the group are now off the hook, and free to proceed back to Crows’ Meadow unimpeded. Dmitri ask if Yelizarov would be willing to give them supplies – winter clothes, torches, sacks, a net, a shovel, and a bit of food. Lionia indicates that the boyar should be in a good mood, and amenable. He returns with the requested supplies, and with Rodion in tow – Plamen has been conveniently “forgotten” at the keep. He then calls on the rest of the group to lose no more time in attending to business.