Of three parts is every story woven: the warp, the weft, and the fabric they make together.

The warp is Constant Ivan, strong and steady. The weft is Clever Natalya, darting here and there. As for the fabric they make, listen and you shall hear.

In the days before now a fisherman lived on the banks of the River Dežera who had a son called Ivan.

Ivan was a son like every man should hope for, strong and hardworking and kind. Every day he helped his father bait the hooks and pull the nets, and while rarely they had quite as much as they would have liked, usually they had enough. But Ivan had one flaw, which was his virtue also: when he said he would do a thing, he did.

This was good when he said he would help his father mend the nets or when he promised to dig someone a fishpond. Though it took him days to dig, no help would he accept, for he had said he would do it himself. But sometimes Ivan would say a careless thing, like “If a pike you want for your dinner, then I will catch you one,” and then days he would journey until he reached a part of the river where pikes were found. It was great sport for people in his village to challenge him to silly things, and then at the crossroads Ivan would stand for a week because he’d said he would not leave until it rained. To those who admired this he was Constant Ivan, but to others he was Stubborn Ivan or Ivan the Stone-Headed.

In his village lived a young woman who was very beautiful, and like many of the youths in that place, Constant Ivan fell in love. To gain her hand in marriage, the other young men boasted of the gifts they would bring and the great deeds they would accomplish. “I will give you a talking bird from the southlands,” said one, while another said, “I will climb the mountain that lies to our west and proclaim my love to the skies.” But Constant Ivan said, “I will capture the Moon Turtle and bring back its prophecy to you, and then we will be wed.”

Now, this was foolishness in paper shoes. As big as a hill and as old as the world was the Moon Turtle said to be, and anyone who caught it would hear a prophecy. Although many people had caught many turtles, and some claimed what they caught was the Moon Turtle, none had received word of their fate. Constant Ivan had promised an impossible thing. But he was true to his name, and so he set off.

From one end to the other he searched the River Dežera, chasing word of the Moon Turtle. Many he found who said they had seen it, and some he found who actually had. But of those latter, half said it made its home in the north and half said in the south. And so Constant Ivan stood in the waters of the middle and thought.

Reckless in his promises Ivan might be, and constant beyond the point of reason, but a fool he was not. He said to himself, “There are two moons in the sky, Orin and Orasz. Why should there be only one Moon Turtle? Surely there is one for each moon. I will look first for the one in the south.”

So south went Ivan, to where the river descends from the mountains and the turtles are small, like the smaller of the two moons. In the shallows of the Dežera a turtle he caught whose shell was Orasz’s copper-green. To Ivan the turtle said, “I suppose you will ask for a prophecy.”

Constant Ivan said, “If you offer, I will not say no. But first I should ask if you would like to go north to visit your sister, because I think the two of you have not seen each other in a very long time.”

“I would like that,” the first Moon Turtle said.

So north went Ivan, to where the river spreads out to embrace the sea and the turtles are large, like the larger of the two moons. In the delta of the Dežera a turtle he caught whose shell was Orin’s silver-blue. To Ivan the turtle said, “I suppose you will ask for a prophecy.”

Ivan said, “If you offer, I will not say no. But first I should tell you that I have brought your brother Orasz to visit you, because I think the two of you have not seen each other in a very long time.”

“I would like that,” the second Moon Turtle said.

An eclipse there was that night, as the two siblings embraced for the first time in many years. When they parted, Orin said, “Of all those who seek us, only you have been kind enough to consider what we might want.” And Orasz said, “We would like to give you a prophecy in thanks.” But Orin added, “Be warned that prophecies are not always what people want to hear.”

Constant Ivan said, “I promised the young woman in my village that I would capture the Moon Turtle and bring back a prophecy. It breaks not my promise for me to capture two, but to have no prophecy cannot be borne.”

As for Constant Ivan’s fate, that needs the weft, and so you shall hear in time.

In the days before now a kureç traveled the Dawn and Dusk Roads, and their leader the kureniç had a daughter called Natalya.

Natalya was a daughter like every man should hope for, graceful and quick-witted and deft. In the travels of her kureç she helped her father strike deals for saffron and salt and delicate things of glass, and while not every trade made them wealthy, usually they came out well. But Natalya had one flaw, which was her virtue also: always must she win.

This was good when she bartered with people in distant lands, or when the clans came together for contests of skill and wit. For when Natalya solved a riddle or sold a thing for an unheard-of price, the fame of the kureç her father led grew and grew. But sometimes Natalya would get into arguments with someone within the kureç, and then she would not let the matter rest until she won. Which was very tedious for those around her, and sometimes they would nod and say yes simply to end it. To those who admired her she was Clever Natalya, but to others she was Arrogant Natalya or Natalya the Insufferable.

Then came a time when her father the kureniç grew old, and he had no sons to take his place and lead the kureç after him. Into his caravan he called his daughter and asked if she would become a son for him.

Clever Natalya touched her heart and said, “Father, no.” For some born as daughters take the role of men eagerly, while others do so willingly, but that was not her path.

Her father said, “Then I must adopt someone to be kureniç after me.”

But Clever Natalya touched her heart again and said, “Father, let me choose. Always I have struck good bargains for our people, and this should be no different.”

And so her father said, “Very well.”

Along the Dusk Road, along the Dawn Road, and even up and down the Dežera, word went out that a kureç of a certain clan sought a leader. From east and west and north and south they came, young men both born and made. To them Clever Natalya posed a challenge: that if they could bring her four horses strong enough to pull her caravan, they would be kureniç after her father.

Now Natalya’s caravan was a very splendid one. It was no larger than most and smaller than some, but so cunningly fitted that it held all the comforts you could want tucked away neat as you please. Men from all over Vraszan came and saw it, and each thought his horses could pull it with ease—but no matter how they strained, not an inch would that caravan budge.

Nor size nor weight held that caravan fast but the cleverness of Natalya. In its rim each wheel had a hole, and in the dark of night she hammered pegs through those holes. With these pegs in place, no horses could pull it so much as an inch. The next night those pegs she would remove, so no one might find them. The test was not of horses but of minds, her suitors’ cleverness against her own; and one by one, her suitors lost.

Men from her kureç came; men from elsewhere in her clan came; men from all the clans of Vraszan came, and some say even foreigners from beyond the lands watered by the Dežera. Her father the kureniç fretted to himself, for Clever Natalya had given them a year and a day—and if no one passed her test, who would lead his people after him? But to his daughter he had given his word, that she should be the one to choose, and Natalya disliked losing.

As for how this was resolved, now the warp meets the weft, and so you shall hear at last.

Word came to Ivan, as it came to all men, of Clever Natalya’s challenge. But rumor is a thread whose color changes as it goes, and so he heard only that she needed four horses strong enough to pull her caravan.

“Very large must her caravan be,” Ivan said to himself, “if she cannot find horses to pull it. But now I understand what the Moon Turtles said to me.” For they had told him that his fate was to move that which cannot be moved.

Now, Ivan’s promise was to capture a Moon Turtle and bring back a prophecy, and after that he would be wed. Part was complete, but not yet all, and never would he leave a task half-done. And though he knew little of horses, being a man of the river instead of the Dawn and Dusk Roads, such difficulties concerned him not. He therefore set out to fulfill his fate.

Since he was in the north, he looked there first for a horse. Many horses there were in the markets and villages, but others had brought such creatures to Clever Natalya; those would not suffice. Ivan looked out over the water and saw the horses of the sea tossing their manes as they came in to shore, and he said, “I will get one of those for Clever Natalya.” And so he was bound.

But the horses of the sea are not easily caught. Again and again he tried, throwing ropes and nets and hooks, but each time the fierce waves battered him down. At last Ivan sat exhausted on the shore and said, “I am not strong enough to catch you. And if I cannot do this, how can I hope to get three more? Yet I have said I will do it. No lesser horse will pull the caravan of Clever Natalya, who has traveled from the farthest edge of dawn to the farthest end of dusk.”

And so he sat in despair. But though stubborn, Ivan was no fool, and he realized a very important thing: that the Moon Turtles had said only that he would move that which cannot be moved. They never said by what means that would be done.

Constant Ivan stood, and to the sea he spoke. He told it the story of Clever Natalya and her caravan that needed to be pulled, and he asked if there were any horses who would consent to help. At the end of his speech, from the waters galloped a horse as white as the foam. For those who try to master the sea will be crushed by its power, but those who bend may find in it a friend.

Next he went east, traveling to meet the sun as she begins her journey. She rides across the sky on young horses as swift and spirited as the wind itself, and Constant Ivan said, “I will get one of those for Clever Natalya.” And so he was bound.

But the horses of the dawn are not easily caught. Again and again he tried, chasing after them on foot and on the horse of the sea, but each time they outran him. Too swift were they to hear when he told them of Clever Natalya’s need, for they left even his words behind. So at last Ivan sat exhausted on the grass and said, “Nor speed nor pleas will catch you, no matter what promises I have made. Yet only a horse such as this can pull the caravan of Clever Natalya, who has traveled from the farthest edge of dawn to the farthest end of dusk.”

But stubborn though he was, Ivan was no fool, and he knew from his time as a fisherman that sometimes one must rise early for a good catch. He got up well before sunrise and prepared the bridles and traces for the horses of the sun, setting out hay and grain for them to eat, so that everything was ready by the time dawn arrived. When the horses came over the horizon, gleaming with the pure gold of the newborn day, they saw that he understood hard work. And so one agreed to stay by his side.

Next he went west, traveling to greet the sun where she ends her journey. Her horses when they arrive are strong, mature beasts, and Constant Ivan said, “I will get one of those for Clever Natalya.” And so he was bound.

But the horses of the dusk are not easily caught. Again and again he tried, taking hold of their bridles and their manes and inviting them to stop, but past him they plodded with their heads bent low, carrying the sun to her rest. Too tired were they to hear his pleas. At last Ivan sat discouraged on the ground and said, “I am not persuasive enough to stop you. And even after this, I will still need one more; but each horse is more difficult than the last. Yet this is the only way to pull the caravan of Clever Natalya, who has traveled from the farthest edge of dawn to the farthest end of dusk.”

No fool was Ivan, and beyond question he had a good heart. The next day there were clouds to tangle the tired feet of the horses, and they stumbled as they trudged toward the horizon. Constant Ivan stepped forward and took the sun onto his own back, as if she were his grandmother, carrying her the remainder of the way. In gratitude for his aid, one of the horses consented to join him, as red as sunset’s last light.

Now many days had passed since Ivan began his search. Three horses he had; a fourth he still sought, and from where should it come except the south? But a year and a day Clever Natalya had given for her challenge, and that time was running short.

To the south Ivan hurried and began his search. Only there are no horses to be found in the mountains of the south, where the slopes are steep and hold countless rocks to bruise their hooves. Many horses make their homes in the broad valley of the Dežera, but not in the crags where the river’s waters have their birth. Again and again he tried to find some, looking in the meadows and dells, clicking his tongue as he had learned to do with the three that followed him, but not so much as a hoofprint marked the ground. At last Ivan sat defeated on the stone and said, “To a land without horses I have come, and the year and a day is nearly up. My fate it may be to move that which cannot be moved... but the Moon Turtles never said I would do so within the time Clever Natalya has set.”

And here Ivan hesitated, in a way he had never done. Then to the stone he whispered, “And I have no wish to go home. In seeking these horses I have traveled from dawn to dusk, from the mouth of the Dežera to its source. A whole world I have seen beyond my village, and I find I can hardly remember the face of the young woman for whom I promised I would capture the Moon Turtles and bring her a prophecy. All my thoughts are of Clever Natalya, who needs horses to pull her caravan, and yet it seems no one can help her—not even me.”

Under his hand, the stone stirred and rose up, into the form of a mare as black as a night without moons. For this is a secret the mountains keep, that they have horses of their own, whose hooves drum down the rocks upon travelers’ heads. But for the secrets Ivan had shared, this one nudged his thigh with her soft nose, telling him to get up and ride.

A man riding one horse may tire it out, but a man switching between four travels as fast as thought itself—when the horses are such as Constant Ivan had. On the last day of Clever Natalya’s challenge he arrived, leading the white horse of the sea, the golden horse of dawn, the red horse of dusk, and the black horse of the mountains.

He spoke not of the Moon Turtles and what they had said, for in his travels he found that people usually thought him a liar or a fool. Instead to Natalya he said, “I have brought you four horses. I know not if they are strong enough to pull your caravan, but if they are not, I hope they may still be good companions to you. The gold will help you with your work, rising early each day. The red will carry your burdens, with never a complaint. Into the ear of the black you may whisper your secrets, and never will she betray them. As for the white, she is the fiercest, and into battle you may ride her, for I am sure you face many dangers along the Dawn and Dusk Roads.”

“But you,” said Clever Natalya, “hope these horses will pull my caravan, making you the leader of my kureč?”

This astonished Constant Ivan. “That is the purpose of your challenge? I heard only that you needed horses. I am constant, not clever, and I am the son of a fisherman. Little enough I know of travel and trade, or how to lead a kureč. To my own home I must go, because I told a young woman there that I would capture the Moon Turtle and bring her a prophecy, and always I keep my promises—though there were two turtles, and fair it would not be to say I captured them, and the prophecy was not for her anyway. Oh, how tangled this has become!”

For a moment he stood in silence. Then he said, “Back to my village I will go—but not to wed that woman. I am the wrong husband for her, and always have been. Even though it means breaking my promise, from me she deserves to hear that truth.”

“Will you return when that is done?” Natalya asked, and Ivan said, “Yes.”

Now, some will tell you Clever Natalya was so awed by the magnificence of the four horses or so flustered by the oddity of Ivan’s speech that she forgot to hammer in the pegs that would hold her caravan still. But I say no one earns the name “clever” who would so easily forget. No, she sat beside her caravan, and had she spoken her thoughts aloud, this is what she would have said:

“Always it has been a satisfaction to me when I win. For I am famed from the far end of the Dusk Road to the far end of the Dawn for my cleverness and wit, and if I have not that, then I am only an ordinary Natalya. This challenge I made to ensure our next kureniç would be more clever than I—but if such a man were to come, then I would be made less by it.

“But if I win, what then? No leader at all will my kureç have. And no man more clever than me has appeared. Instead there is this Ivan, who brings me a gift and asks nothing in return. I will hitch these four horses to my caravan and give them a fair test, and if they consent to pull it, then I will know my answer.” For just as Constant Ivan had come to see that keeping every promise sometimes does more harm than good, Clever Natalya had come to see that sometimes winning can be a loss.

To her caravan she hitched the horses, murmuring gentle words and stroking them with an expert hand, and in the last light of the final day they pulled it as if it weighed no more than a feather. The people of Clever Natalya’s kureç cheered to see they would have a leader in the days to come. And when Ivan returned, as he had promised, Natalya took his hand and smiled.

So the next day they married, and where Ivan lacked in wit his wife made up for it, and where Natalya lacked in patience her husband steadied her. When she might have abandoned a deal for one better, he persuaded her to remain true, which earned them allies; when he would have kept to familiar ways, she convinced him to take risks, which opened new paths. Ever since, a tradition of their kureç it has been to pair the constant with the clever, whichever place each of those may hold. For although a warp thread on its own may break, and a weft thread may not be where it is needed, together Ivan and Natalya made a fine, sturdy fabric, and their kureč prospers to this day.

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M.A. Carrick is the joint pen name of BCS authors Marie Brennan (author of the Memoirs of Lady Trent) and Alyc Helms (author of the Adventures of Mr. Mystic), who together are the authors of the Rook and Rose epic fantasy trilogy, beginning with The Mask of Mirrors and continuing with The Liar's Knot. The two met in 2000 on an archaeological dig in Wales and Ireland--including a stint in the town of Carrickmacross--and have built their friendship through two decades of anthropology, writing, and gaming. They live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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