The Midnight Land, Part II (Sample)

The scroll ended there, just as the library-keeper returned to summon Slava to dinner.  She joined the others with her head in a whirl.  The interminable pre-dinner prayer passed before she could begin to feel bored, as images of her many-times great-grandmother swirled through her head.  She ate without noticing what was being served, and Vlastomila Serafimiyevna had to call on her several times before she realized she was being asked a question.

“Did you find anything of interest, sister?” Vlastomila Serafimiyevna asked, once she had gained Slava’s attention.

“Oh yes,” said Slava.

“And what will you do now, sister?” Vlastomila Serafimiyevna asked.

“I think I must…I think I must go out…” Slava had an intense desire to tell someone of all she had discovered, but when she looked at Vlastomila Serafimiyevna and the other sisters, she saw that her story would have no meaning to them.

“Oleg Svetoslavovich,” she said suddenly.  “Can I go see Oleg Svetoslavovich?  I have a great desire to go out in the fresh air, after my day in the library, and I must confide—I must consult…”

“Of course, sister, if he is willing to be disturbed,” said Vlastomila Serafimiyevna.  “Do you wish to go tonight?”

“Is it so late already?” asked Slava, crestfallen at the thought of putting off her outing until tomorrow.  After spending so many hours with the scrolls, she was tired but also restless, and the thought of returning to her room for the night was unwelcome.

“No, not so late at all, sister,” said Vlastomila Serafimiyevna.  “We eat dinner at sunset, but sunset is still early this time of year.  The path to the cabin is not hard to follow, even in the dark, and we will send a sister to guide you.”

“Thank you,” said Slava, relieved.  “When can we set out?”

“Immediately, if you wish, sister.”

“If it’s not too much trouble…”

“Of course not, sister,” said Vlastomila Serafimiyevna.  “Sister Alyona!  Are you ready to guide our sister to the cabin?  She must consult with our guest.”

The same woman who had driven them silently the day before nodded speechlessly and rose, evidently prepared to leave at once.  Slava jumped up too.

“Sister Alyona will escort you there and then come back,” Vlastomila Serafimiyevna told her. “Oleg Svetoslavovich can escort you back, whenever you are ready to return.”  She gave Slava a calm look that nonetheless seemed to contain some meaning Slava was embarrassed to read into it.

An icy snow was falling as Slava and Sister Alyona set off, making sleety, silvery sounds through the fir needles on its way to the ground.

“Spring snow,” said Sister Alyona, and then returned to her habitual silence for the rest of the walk.

Warm candlelanterns were glowing from inside the cabin when they arrived, and smoke was coming from the chimney, but no one answered when they climbed up onto the tiny porch and knocked at the door.  Slava called for Oleg Svetoslavovich, but her voice disappeared into the snowy woods.

“Do you want to go back, sister?” asked Sister Alyona.

“No…No, I think I’ll stay here,” Slava decided.  “He must be back soon, if the candles are burning.”

“Just don’t go out into the woods, sister,” said Sister Alyona.  “Stay in the cabin.”

“Why?” asked Slava.  “What dangers are out in the woods?”

“What dangers aren’t out in the woods, sister?” said Sister Alyona, giving her a funny look.  “Wolves, snow, bears, cold…and other things, too, of course.  This is the prayer wood.  Stay in the cabin.”

“I will,” promised Slava.  To show her good faith, she went inside and latched the door behind her.

“What about you, sister?” she called through the door.  “Will you be safe to walk back alone?”

“Safe enough, sister,” Sister Alyona called back.  “I am a sister of the sanctuary.  Don’t worry about me.  Just stay in the cabin.”

“I will,” Slava promised again.  This seemed to satisfy Sister Alyona, for she stepped off the porch and disappeared into the darkness.

The cabin was only one room, with a bed against one wall and a stove against the other, and a crude table and two chairs in the middle.  Slava first sat at the table, but that was both uncomfortable and boring, so when Oleg Svetoslavovich didn’t appear by the time the candles had burned down another half an inch, Slava lay down on the bed and soon fell asleep.

***

She was awakened by the sound of something tapping at the single window.

“Oleg?” Slava cried, remembering that she had latched the door, which meant he couldn’t come in unless she let him.

There was no answer.  Still half-asleep, Slava rose stiffly from the bed and went over to the window, but there was no one there.

“Oleg Svetoslavovich?” she called again.  Instead of a reply, though, all she heard was a faint cry from the door.

“Are you hurt?” she called, running to unlatch the door.  Somehow it was harder to open then she had expected, as if her hands weren’t quite working properly.  When she finally fumbled the latch free and wrenched the door open, there was no one there.

“Oleg Svetoslavovich?” she shouted into the darkness.  There was no answer.   The snow had stopped and the sky had cleared, and she thought she saw a flash of red hair in the trees.

“Are you hurt?” she asked again.

Something cried at her feet.  She looked down, and saw a baby in a basket.

“By all the gods!”  She snatched up the baby without even pausing to think.   “The cold!  You!  You out in the trees!  There’s no need to be afraid!  Is this your child?  There’s no need to be afraid!  I’ll help you!  I’ll help you take care of it!”

“You will?” said Vladislava.  “What about me?  You promised to take care of me.”

“Yes, of course, but I can do both,” said Slava.  “I can’t leave her!”

“I thought I was going to be your daughter,” said Vladislava tearfully.

“You will, you will,” Slava assured her.  “And she will be your sister.”

“Really?” said Vladislava, cheering up.  “A sister?  Better than Lisochka?”

“Yes,” promised Slava.  “The best sister ever.  You can help raise her.”

Vladislava gave the baby a kiss on the cheek, and then disappeared into the darkness.

“Do you really mean to take her?” asked the leshaya with the golden eyes.

“Yes, of course,” said Slava.  “How could I not?”

“It’s not too late,” said the leshaya.  “You could refuse, and she would disappear as if she had never been—which would be true.  She would have never been.  Do you really want to bring her into this world?”

This was a powerful argument, and Slava even tried to put the baby back in the basket, but her arms wouldn’t open.

“I can’t let go of her,” said Slava eventually.  “I think I have to have her.”

“Is that a promise, little woman?” said the cold wind.

“Yes,” said Slava.

“You are sure, little woman?” said the cold wind.

“Yes,” said Slava.

“No matter what?” asked the cold wind.

“Yes!” said Slava.

“You will not rethink your sacrifice, as you did the last time we offered it to you?”

“I offered my own blood then,” said Slava.  “It was you who refused to take it.  I will always be able to sacrifice my own blood.  It is the blood of others I will not spill.”

“Then so be it,” said the cold wind.  “Let it be your own blood.  Those are the terms.”

“Let me take you inside,” Slava said to the baby.  She carried her back into the cabin.  When she started to fuss, Slava put her to her breast, which was overflowing with milk.  The baby gazed up at her adoringly, and her eyes glowed gold.

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