Beside him, Nika stirred, as if she, too, had been released from the grip of some unspeakable glamour. He shivered, as the wind had shifted again and its breath was fiercely cold once more.
“Did you see . . .?” he asked, reluctant to put into words the vision he had witnessed.
“Aye,” Nika said, her voice as unsteady as his. “I saw the ghosts of my fallen sisters.”
“No,” Illarion said. “There were men, carrying heavy shields, like the Greek infantry once did. And . . . and there was an old woman.”
Nika stood close enough to him that he could make out her features in the starlit night. There was still a trace of fear in her face, but mostly Illarion saw a fierce determination in the Shield-Maiden’s eyes. “I only saw the faces of dead Skjalddis,” Nika said. Her throat worked and her eyes widened slightly.
“You have been keeping a vigil,” he whispered, realizing she had been lying to him earlier. “You’ve seen them before.”
“Every month,” she admitted. “When there is no moon.” Her eyes were bright now, tears reflecting starlight. “But I never saw the old woman,” she said. “Not until tonight.”
“Who is she?” Illarion asked.
Nika let loose a short bray of laughter, a cruel sound that was quickly swallowed by the night. “She showed herself because you were here,” Nika said. “You’re the one who summoned her.”
“Aye,” Nika said. “You stayed when the others left. You had family here. You are part of Rus. You have been down into the crypts and seen the grave of Saint Ilya. You know the stories.”
“They’re just stories,” Illarion protested.
Nika stepped closer to Illarion and peered into his eyes as if she were trying to see some flicker of light hidden deep within. “You know who she was,” she said softly. “From the stories. The witch with the leg of stone. The witch who knows what must be done.”
Illarion’s heart was pounding. He looked at Nika, and though he already knew the answer, he could not stop himself from asking, desperate that she should tell him otherwise.
“Nika,” he whispered, “what is it that must be done?”
“You must go north,” she replied. “That is where Baba Yaga has instructed you to go, and wherever you go, my sisters and I will follow.”