“Where’s Michal?” Dorie asked, too loudly, her voice billowing across the field. “Hush, Dorie.” Where indeed? Helena wondered how swiftly Ruth was going, and how she would know which path to choose when the road forked. “You know how he’s always dawdling,” Helena whispered, trying to make her voice light. “Ruth’s gone to hurry him along and then they’ll meet us.” She held her breath, not expecting the answer to satisfy ever-curious Dorie. Helena shifted Karolina higher up on her hip. Sam held out his free arm. “Do you want me to take her?” Helena shook her head, not wanting to wake the now-sleeping child. Beside her, Dorie’s awkward gait crunched loudly against the frozen snow, every second step seeming to reverberate through the air. Helena cringed, not wanting to rebuke the child for something she could not help. With each second, she felt the cold more intensely. Though she had been walking through the forest for months, it was somehow different trudging through the unbroken expanse of white fields. A dull ache seeped through her boots, clutching at her feet like iron bands. It was a sensation she remembered from playing in the snow as a child. But then, there was a fire to come inside to, Mama’s hands to rub her feet and warm milk for her insides. Now there were only miles of cold stretching endlessly before them. Soon her feet went numb and it was as if she were walking on nothing at all. When they finally reached the trees on the far side of the field, Helena looked back, half expecting to see someone coming after them. But the frigid expanse was empty. Taking in the edge of the still-sleeping village, she remembered what Alek had said about the war ending someday. What would this place look like a hundred years from now? Time and life would go on here, but they would not be here to see it. They pressed forward through the birch forest. At least the route to the railway was mercifully flat, Helena reflected. But as they took cover in the trees, she almost wished for the hills. Here there was no worn path and lifting her feet from the soft, sodden earth required great effort. The tangle of roots and brush, obscured by the snow, threatened to trip them with every step. The trees were thinner, too, narrow rods of birch, their bare branches offering scant cover compared to the lush pines in the hills above. Helena pulled away from Sam and took Dorie’s hand to make sure the child did not fall. She looked over her shoulder hopefully, as though Ruth and Michal might magically appear. But the trees had closed in, eclipsing the life that they had left behind. “This way,” she said, trying to make her voice sound confident once more as she led them through the low brush. Though she struggled to see in the near-darkness, the terrain was familiar to her, letting her guide them in a way that Sam, even with all his military training, could not.
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