They looked at each other for a moment. And then Vasya’s brief courage was gone; she spun and bolted. The stranger made no attempt to follow. But he did turn to his horse when the mare came up beside him. The two exchanged a long look.
“He is getting stronger,” said the man.
The mare flicked an ear.
Her rider did not speak again, but glanced once more in the direction the child had taken.
OUT FROM THE SHADOW of the oak, Vasya was startled by how fast night had fallen. Beneath the tree, it had been indeterminate dusk, but now it was night, woolly night on the cusp of snow, the air all dour with it. The wood was full of torches and the desperate shouts of men. Vasya cared nothing for them; she recognized the trees again, and she wanted only Olga’s arms, and Dunya’s.
A horse came galloping out of the night, whose rider bore no torch. The mare saw the child an instant before her rider did, and skidded to a halt, rearing. Vasya tumbled to one side, skinning her hand. She thrust a fist into her mouth to muffle her cry. The rider muttered imprecations in a voice she knew, and the next instant, she was caught up in her brother’s arms. “Sashka,” sobbed Vasya, burying her face against his neck. “I was lost. There was a man in the forest. Two men. And a white horse, and a black tree, and I was afraid.”
“What men?” demanded Sasha. “Where, child? Are you hurt?” He put her away from him and felt her over.
“No,” quavered Vasya. “No—I am only cold.”
Sasha said nothing; she could tell he was angry, though he was gentle when he put her on his mare. He swung up behind and wrapped her in a fold of his cloak. Vasya, safe, with her cheek against the well-tended leather of his sword-belt, slowly ceased her weeping.
Ordinarily Sasha tolerated his small sister following him about, trying to lift his sword or pluck the string of his bow. He indulged her, even, giving her a stump of candle, or a handful of hazelnuts. But now fear had made him furious and he did not speak to her as they rode.
He shouted left and right, and slowly word of Vasya’s rescue passed among the men. If she had not been found before the snow came, she would have died in the night, and only been discovered when the spring came to loosen her shroud—if she was found at all.
“Dura,” growled Sasha at last, when he had done shouting, “little fool, what possessed you? Running from Olga, hiding in the woods? Did you think yourself a wood-sprite, or forget the season?”
Vasya shook her head. She was shivering in hard spurts now. Her teeth clattered together. “I wanted to eat my cake,” she said. “But I got lost. I couldn’t find the elm-stump. I met a man at the oak-tree. Two men. And a horse. And then it was dark.”
Sasha frowned over her head. “Tell me of this oak-tree,” he said.
“An old one,” said Vasya. “With roots about its knees. And one-eyed. The man, not the tree.” She shivered harder than ever.
“Well, do not think of it now,” said Sasha, and urged on his tired horse.
Olga and Dunya met him at the threshold. The good old lady had tears all over her face and Olga was white as a frost-maiden in a fairy tale. They had raked all the coals out of the oven, and they poured water on the hot stones to make steam. Vasya found herself unceremoniously stripped and shoved into the oven-mouth to warm.
The scolding began as soon as she was out.
“Stealing cakes,” said Dunya. “Running away from your sister. How could you frighten us so, Vasochka?” She wept as she said it.
Vasya, heavy-eyed and repentant, murmured, “I’m sorry, Dunya. Sorry, sorry.”
She was rubbed with horrible mustard-seed, and beaten with quick, whisking birch-branches, to liven her blood. They wrapped her in wool, bandaged her skinned hand, and poured soup down her throat.
“It was very wicked, Vasya,” Olga said. She smoothed her sister’s hair and cradled her on her lap. Vasya was already asleep.
“Enough for tonight, Dunya,” Olga added. “Tomorrow is soon enough for more talk.”
Vasya was put to bed atop the oven, and Dunya lay down beside her.
When at last her sister slept, Olga sank down limp beside the fire. Her father and brothers sat spooning up their stew in a corner, wearing identical thunderous expressions. “She’ll be all right,” said Olga. “I do not think she’ll take a chill.”
“But any man might, who was called from his hearth to look for her,” snapped Pyotr.
“Or I might,” said Kolya. “A man wants his dinner after a day of mending his father’s roof, not a night’s ride by torchlight. I’ll belt her tomorrow.”
“And so?” retorted Sasha coolly. “She’s been belted before. It is not the task of men to manage girl-children. It wants a woman. Dunya is old. Olya will marry soon, and then the old lady will be left alone to raise the child.”
Pyotr said nothing. Six years since he put his wife in the earth, and he had not thought of another, though there were many who would have heard his suit. But his daughter had frightened him.
When Kolya had sought his bed, and he and Sasha sat together in the dark, watching the candle burn low before the icon, Pyotr said, “Would you see your mother forgotten?”
“Vasya never knew her,” rejoined Sasha. “But a woman of sense—not a sister or a kindly old nurse—would do her good. She will soon be unmanageable, Father.”
A long pause.
“It is not Vasya’s fault Mother died,” added Sasha, lower.
Pyotr said nothing, and Sasha rose, bowed to his father, and blew out the candle.
Pyotr thrashed his daughter the next day, and she wept, though he was not cruel. She was forbidden to leave the village, but for once, that was no hardship. She had taken the threatened chill, and she had nightmares in which she revisited a one-eyed man, a horse, and a stranger in a clearing in the woods.
Sasha, though he told no one, ranged the forest to the west, looking for this one-eyed man, or an oak-tree with roots about its knees. But never man nor tree did he find, and then the snow fell for three days, straight and hard, so that none went out.
Their lives drew in, as always in the winter, a round of food and sleep and small drowsy chores. The snow mounded up outside, and on a bitter evening Pyotr sat on his own stool, smoothing a straight piece of ash for an ax-handle. His face was set like stone, for he was remembering what he had pleased to forget. Take care of her, Marina had said, so many years ago, as the tinge of mortal illness spread over her lovely face. I chose her, she is important. Petya, promise me.