Home > The Bear and the Nightingale(6)

The Bear and the Nightingale(6)
Author: Katherine Arden

Sasha laughed. “Well, Vasya will come back when she gets hungry,” he said, and turned to more important matters. “Is that pike in the stew, Dunya?”

“Tench,” said Dunya shortly. “Oleg brought four at dawn. But that strange sister of yours is too small to linger in the woods.”

Sasha and Olga looked at each other, shrugged, and said nothing. Vasya had been disappearing into the forest ever since she could walk. She would come back in time for dinner, as always, bearing a handful of pine-nuts in apology, flushed and repentant, catlike on her booted feet.

But in this case they were wrong. The brittle sun slipped across the sky, and the shadows of the trees stretched monstrously long. At last Pyotr Vladimirovich himself came into the house, bearing a hen-pheasant by its broken neck. Still Vasya had not come back.

 

THE FOREST WAS QUIET on the cusp of winter, the snow thicker between the trees. Vasilisa Petrovna, half-ashamed and half-pleased with her freedom, ate her last half honeycake stretched out on the cold limb of a tree, listening to the soft noises of the drowsing forest. “I know you sleep when the snow comes,” she said aloud. “But couldn’t you wake up? See, I have cakes.”

She held out the evidence, now little more than crumbs, and paused as though expecting a reply. But none came, beyond a soft, rattling wind that stirred all the trees together.

So Vasya shrugged, dabbed up the crumbs of her honeycake, and ran about the wood awhile, looking for pine-nuts. The squirrels had eaten them all, though, and the forest was cold, even to a girl born to it. At last, Vasya brushed the ice and bark from her clothes and set her feet for home, finally feeling the pricking of conscience. The forest was thick with shade; the shortening days slid rapidly to night, and she hurried. She would get a thundering scold, but Dunya would have dinner waiting.

On and on she went, and then paused, frowning. Left at the gray alder, round the wicked old elm, and then she would see her father’s fields. She had walked that path a thousand times. But now there was no alder and no elm, only a cluster of black-needled spruces and a little snowy meadow. Vasya swung round, tried a new direction. No, here were slender beeches, standing white as maidens, naked with winter and trembling. Vasya was suddenly uneasy. She could not be lost; she was never lost. Might as well be lost in her own house as lost in the woods. A wind picked up that set all the trees to shaking, but now they were trees she did not know.

Lost, Vasya thought. She was lost in the dusk on the cusp of winter and it was going to snow. She turned again, tried another direction. But in that wavering wood, there was not one tree she knew. The tears welled suddenly in her eyes. Lost, I am lost. She wanted Olya or Dunya; she wanted her father and Sasha. She wanted her soup and her blanket and even her mending.

An oak-tree loomed in her way. The child stopped. This tree was not like the others. It was bigger and blacker and gnarled like a wicked old woman. The wind shook its great black branches.

Vasya, beginning to shiver, crept toward it. She laid a hand on the bark. It was like any other tree, rough and cold even through the fur of her mitten. Vasya stepped around it, craning up at the branches. Then she looked down and nearly tripped.

A man lay curled like a beast at the foot of this tree, fast asleep. She could not see his face; it was hidden between his arms. Through rents in his clothes, she glimpsed cold white skin. He did not stir at her approach.

Well, he could not lie there sleeping, not with snow coming out of the south. He would die. And perhaps he knew where her father’s house lay. Vasya reached out to shake him awake but thought better of it. Instead, she said, “Grandfather, wake up! There will be snow before moonrise. Wake up!”

For long moments, the man did not stir. But just when Vasya was nerving herself to lay a hand on his shoulder, there came a snuffling grunt, and the man raised his face and blinked one eye at her.

The child recoiled. One side of his face was fair, in a rough-hewn way. One eye was gray. But the other eye was missing, the socket sewn shut, and that side of his face a mass of bluish scars.

The good eye blinked sulkily at the girl, and the man sat back on his haunches as though to see her better. He was a thin creature, ragged and filthy. Vasya could see his ribs through the rents in his shirt. But when he spoke, his voice was strong and deep.

“Well,” he said. “It is a long time since I have seen a Russian girl.”

Vasya did not understand. “Do you know where we are?” she said. “I am lost. My father is Pyotr Vladimirovich. If you can take me home, he will see you fed, and give you a place beside the oven. It is going to snow.”

The one-eyed man smiled suddenly. He had two dog-teeth, longer than the rest, that dented his lip when he smiled. He came to his feet, and Vasya saw that he was a tall man with big, crude bones. “Do I know where we are?” he said. “Well, of course, devochka, little maiden. I’ll take you home. But you must come here and help me.”

Vasya, spoiled since she could remember, had no particular reason to be untrusting. Yet she did not stir.

The gray eye narrowed. “What manner of girl-child comes here, all alone?” And then, softer, “Such eyes. Almost I remember…Well, come here.” He made his voice coaxing. “Your father will be worried.”

He bent his gray eye upon her. Vasya, frowning, took a small step toward him. Then another. He put out a hand.

Suddenly there came the crunch of hooves in the snow, and the snorting breaths of a horse. The one-eyed man recoiled. The child stumbled backward, away from his outstretched hand, and the man fell to the earth, cringing. A horse and rider stepped into the clearing. The horse was white and strong; when her rider slid to the ground, Vasya saw that he was slender and bold-boned, the skin drawn tight over cheek and throat. He wore a rich robe of heavy fur, and his eyes gleamed blue.

“What is this?” he said.

The ragged man cringed. “No concern of yours,” he said. “She came to me—she is mine.”

The newcomer turned a clear, cold look on him. His voice filled the clearing. “Is she? Sleep, Medved, for it is winter.”

And even as the sleeper protested, he sank once more to his place between the oak-roots. The gray eye filmed over.

The rider turned on Vasya. The child edged backward, poised on the edge of flight. “How came you here, devochka?” said this man. He spoke with swift authority.

Tears of confusion spilled down Vasya’s cheeks. The one-eyed man’s avid face had frightened her, and this man’s fierce urgency frightened her, too. But something in his glance silenced her weeping. She lifted her eyes to his face. “I am Vasilisa Petrovna,” she said. “My father is lord of Lesnaya Zemlya.”

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