1637 The Volga Rules – Snippet 01

1637: The Volga Rules

By Eric Flint, Gorg Huff and Paula Goodlett


Go East, Young Man

February, 1636

Factory in Poltz, Russia

Stefan Andreevich wiped off the sweat, then motioned for Nestor to turn the crank. While Nestor cranked and the weight lifted, Stefan checked the irons in the fire. He had plenty of time. It was a stone forge with a leather bellows, newly made last year with little regard to appearance. The stones were quarried, but not shaped, and the mortar was not of good quality. The sparks flew up as Stefan used the tongs to check the color of the wrought iron globs in the glowing charcoal, while Nestor cranked away.

Once the hammer was up, Stefan used the tongs to pull the plate out of the stamp forge and set it on a scorched wooden shelf. Then he pulled the mop from the bucket and ran it over the bottom and top molds. The molds steamed and hissed with the water, but it was an important step. They couldn’t be allowed to get too hot or they would start to deform. He turned back to the fire and pulled another blob of wrought iron. It was yellow hot and would take off a limb if he allowed it to touch him. He placed it in the mold and signaled Nestor, who pulled the lever that dropped the weight.

Over five tons of lead-weighted stamp dropped almost six feet. Wham!

Torn between admiring the efficiency of the system and resenting the labor, Stefan repeated the process. Then he repeated it again. There was little discussion. The men at the bellows were from Poltz, where he and about half the men of Ruzuka had been sent to work. It made things much harder, because if they were here stamping out plates they couldn’t be back home weaving cloth, which was the main winter craft of Ruzuka. After a long day, the men were given a poor meal and sent to bed in a barn. Just as had happened yesterday and would happen again tomorrow and the day after, six days a week for the last three months and another to come.

Stefan wouldn’t be making cloth if he were in Ruzuka. He would be making iron parts for the looms and the plows and other needs of the village. He looked back into the fire of the forge and checked the color of the blobs, then waved for more pumping. Then he thought about how fast he could stamp out various parts if he had a drop hammer.

Nestor would be making cloth if he were in Ruzuka. Like most of the villagers in Ruzuka — and like most of the peasants in Mother Russia — Nestor had two professions. Farmer in spring, summer, and fall, but in winter he was a weaver and made cloth.

Stefan was an exception. A blacksmith was needed all year round, as much in winter as in summer. He was here because, as a blacksmith, he was a skilled craftsman. Colonel Ivan Nikolayevich Utkin, the man who held Ruzuka as pomestie from Czar Mikhail, would get paid more when he rented Stefan out.

Ruzuka, Russia

March, 1636

Vera pulled Stefan to her and kissed him vigorously, then pulled back and looked into his eyes. “Was it bad?” she asked, her greenish-brown eyes shining.

“No worse than usual,” he told her stoically.

She hugged him again. “The women have been working at the weaving, but we don’t have nearly as much cloth as last year. Still, the colonel insists that we owe him the same amount of cloth, in spite of the extra work you’re doing. And Kiril Ivanovich has told him how much we made, so we can’t hide any away. The colonel is going to take almost all of it.” Vera’s usually pleasant tone was harsh and angry. Then she hugged him again, as though trying to use his strength to hold away the world.

Stefan wished he could hold away the world, but they were serfs and Colonel Ivan Nikolayevich Utkin controlled their lives. The colonel was a deti boiarskie, which literally meant “child of boyars,” but really meant a retainer of one of the great houses. Someone who served a member of one of the great houses or who owed their position in the bureaus or the army to the influence of a great house. The colonel was both. He was a retainer of Director-General Sheremetev himself and had gotten his position in the army due to Sheremetev influence. The village of Ruzuka was part of the colonel’s pomestie, payment in land with serfs. As a serf in Ruzuka, Stefan had little say in how his life or the lives of his wife and children would unfold.

A thought that had been slipping around in the back corners of his mind for the last couple of years came to the fore. We should run. He had his wife and children to think about, and though he wasn’t over fond of Father Yulian, the priest had said some things in his sermons that struck Stefan as worthwhile. That God and the angels had intended men to be free, but men, in their weakness and fear, had given over their liberty to the strong and the vicious, in hopes of protection. Well, the strong and the vicious had taken the liberty, but they didn’t seem overly concerned with protecting Stefan’s wife and child from hunger and want. Maybe it was time to try a little freedom. But for now Stefan kept the thought from his lips, even with Vera.

They sat down to a meal of stewed beets with just enough grease to make you think there might be some ham in there somewhere, and talked about the goings-on in the village. Vera’s friendly manner made her everyone’s confidant and mostly she didn’t share what she was told. Except with Stefan, but Stefan was a taciturn man. He didn’t talk much, being the sort who thought of just the right thing to say . . . a day or two after the conversation.


That night, with Vera snuggled against his chest, Stefan looked around the small room and thought about what they would need to take if they ran, and how they would carry it. Their house was next to the smithy and not in great repair. Stefan was good with metal, not so good with wood. But small as the house was and as little as they had, they would have to leave a lot. If they went. And if they went, where would they go? Vera hugged him in her sleep and he hugged her back.


Izabella smiled like a cat as she saw her mother leaving Father Yulian’s cabin. She knew what was going on there and she decided that if Mother could do it, she could too.

Three days later, she sat in the quiet room that Father Yulian used to take confession. “I have these urges, Father Yulian. Even while in church, I feel these strange new feelings.” Izabella was five foot three with golden blond hair, blue eyes, and a curvaceous figure. She knew she was desirable. She only needed Yulian to notice. And she paid attention in church and understood the doctrine. Besides, she had seen him with Mother and heard what he said. “They distract me from the contemplation of faith.” She considered mentioning that she had seen him and her mother. Perhaps confessing her snooping would be a good way, but she held that in reserve. She really wanted Yulian to want her, not to be forced into her bed.

Father Yulian was most understanding and instructed her that the best cure for lustful thoughts was satiating them. Then the mind was left clear for the deeper concerns of the faith. “Also,” he said, “the realization that our desires can distract us from the worship of God makes us humble and more willing to welcome the Holy Spirit.”

By the time he had finished ministering to her, Izabella felt so calm as to be called languid.