The breeze is gentle, the sun has returned, one last tease, a flicker of summer before the leaves turn. My horse executes a few fancy steps, crossing one leg over the other. Man and horse, joined in purpose, of one mind, become one being. He snorts, and smells of himself: of earth and musk and grasses and hay. His scent is part of me, within my very self.
‘Yakshah!’ I hear my name being called and start. From the tree line, a nut brown girl emerges and moves easily through the grasses towards me. She knows who I am.
The horse nickers when she approaches. She puts her hand on his neck, and he exhales with pleasure.
‘I came to tell you, if you haven’t heard already.’
‘What is it?’
‘Vesna drowned in the river.’
The Bee Girl. She was so sweet. The Nut Brown Girl looks directly into my eyes to gage my reaction. She is somber, a flicker of her head, the question is unasked. She knows at once it was a summer dalliance, nothing more. She exhales heavily.
‘You knew she was betrothed?’
‘She told me only afterward.’
She seems to be thinking.
‘What is it?’
‘I am certain she loved you. Yet, she wasn’t unhappy.’
I know what she is getting at. ‘I told her no more than the usual lover’s lies.’
‘Tsk,’ she says. ‘I wonder if she knew that.’
‘I made it very clear the last time we met.’ Our eyes meet, and we both know at once the Bee Girl drowned herself for sorrow.
We’re the military elite here; the Slaveni yield to us. The Brown Girl knows there will be trouble if the truth comes out, either way.
‘They’ll hear nothing from me,’ she says. She’ll protect her people.
‘Who else knows?’
‘One other, who is malicious and attributes her ways to the ways of the world. But I will take care of her myself.’
‘All right. Shall I give you a ride back?’
‘I have my own two legs,’ she looks at me darkly and disappears through the grasses as silently as she came.
‘What’s your name?’ I shout after her.
‘Yasna!’ is carried on the wind.
Vesna’s hair, a doll made from clay, her effigy, herbs for burning, the full moon. In a grove, I burn the herbs and chant spells, calling for Vesna’s spirit to return.
‘Come and tell me the tale for I have not heard it, and your parents have had no peace since they took you from the water.’
A cold wind blows all around me and my hair rises on end. A pale apparition floats in the blue distance and grows near.
‘Oh my dearest dear, I’m so cold and alone,’ it says.
‘You’re lost, but you’ll find your way when your sorrow has been laid to rest.’
‘I was so deceived.’
‘By the Outlander?’
She is silent and holds her hands out to me imploringly. I reach for her and touch the air around me.
‘I deceived myself. He made no promises, told no lies. I thought he loved me as I loved him. But he didn’t. Every day he loved me, he bound me to himself more and more. I thought he’d take me to his people, and you and Vladimir, too, would be free…’
‘Vladimir and your father have come to an understanding. He will wait for your small sister, Mila, now,’ I say.
‘He loves riches more than he could love any woman. I could not live with him after this summer. And the Outlander did not want me.’
‘Oh Vesna, but to take your own life!’
‘There is nothing more terrible than rejection, to know that you have loved in vain, and to realize that you are not loved in return. I wept for him and could not staunch my tears. There was a hole in my heart that grew bigger and bigger, until it was a physical pain. I thought the stories of the Ruslake might be true, but here, I see nothing other than spirits, lost like lights in a fog. I was a fool.’
‘Forgive yourself. ‘ I say. Forgive yourself for being young, for believing in love, for ending life too soon.
‘What will you do, now that Vladimir belongs to another?’ she asks.
‘I will continue healing the people as my mother and grandmother and those before her have done.’
‘The Outlander said his people worship the light that is behind all things that are apparent to us.’
‘Then go toward the light, if you can see it, and if there is none, then bind your spirit to the green trees, and the waters, and all the good things that grow on earth, our great mother, but do not remain lost in the fog.’
I feel love emanating from her before she disappears like a white wisp in the night, and I fall asleep in the grove under starlight