that simple act helped me to relax and rearrange my thoughts.
I focused first on Marianna and the boys. I touched the
on my wrist and prayed that they were not dead, as my worst fears tried to suggest, but that they were somehow safe and would stay that way until I reached them. I pictured each of them in my mind as best as I could. It was difficult, though, to hold an image of their faces in my thoughts. I focused instead on the quiet sound of Marianna’s understated laughter. I wrapped myself in the way I had felt the last time we had been together in our bed, her naked skin against mine. I remembered the way she scolded me for bringing dirty boots into the house and how I laughed when she broke up the boys’ squabbling by chasing them with a wooden spoon. I breathed deep and recalled the smell of Pavel’s hair, the smoothness of his cheeks, the brightness of his grin, the seriousness of Misha’s furrowed brow and the delight in my eldest son’s eyes when he first pulled a fish from the lake. I remembered my brother too, how he had been before the war, not as I had seen him this morning when throwing the cold dirt over his face. I remembered him as he was when we were boys and we ventured deeper into the forest than we were allowed, and the time when he was fifteen and stole vodka, which he drank until he was sick.
Then my thoughts turned to the darkness that had smothered this village.
For me, he was a shadow. Galina had called him Koschei the Deathless. She had put a knife in him and it had done him no harm, but the Deathless One was no more real than One-Eyed Likho, and no one is immune to the blade of a knife. She must have made a mistake.
Anyone can die. I had seen that often enough.
Even in the
, Koschei had a weakness. This one would have one too, and once I knew what had happened to my wife and sons, I would be sure to find it.
Kashtan was glad to see me. She’d been alone in the outbuilding for a while and she missed my company. She was a sociable animal and felt the loss of Alek’s horse. For days the two animals had shared the journey, walking side by side, and at night, they had been tethered close to one another. They had grazed and slept together.
When Alek died, there’d been no choice other than to cut his horse free. Navigating the dense forest and keeping out of sight was difficult enough without having to lead a second horse, and hard feed was not easy to find. Alek’s saddle now lay hidden in the forest, and I had salvaged all the kit and supplies before unbridling his horse and setting her free. The animal was valuable and there was a sense of cruelty in releasing her like that, leaving her in the forest, but at least she would have a chance. It was fair to give her that, rather than put a bullet in her. She had followed us for a while before she began to fall behind and then she was lost among the trees. If she was lucky, she’d make it out to the steppe and stumble upon someone who would take her in. If not, she’d have to face the winter alone, but she would survive, I was sure of that; our horses were hardy animals, as good for hard work as they were for riding long distances or taking in to battle. These animals could survive the cold, grazing on frozen grass two metres under the snow.
I saddled Kashtan and secured the blankets and other kit before leading her to the front of my house and mounting up. I took one last, long look at my home; then we moved away, leaving it behind.
There was a place beyond the bridge where the river widened and became shallow, a good spot to ford it and cross into the forest. Already the day was cold, and short as it was, it was now half gone and soon the feeble sun would drop behind the trees, dropping the temperature even further. I would be sleeping in the forest again tonight, and neither I nor Kashtan could afford to be wet. Yesterday, I had been in a hurry to get home, but today, I had to be more