The girl held her breath, when she heard the steps, and was trying to ignore a buzzing fly, that was stubbornly tangling into her hair. Hidden behind a long red velvet curtain she couldn't see what was going on in the room, and so she was listening to every sound very carefully. The steps were too heavy to belong to her elder sister, and they were soon gone. The girl breathed again freely. She heard a far-away whoop, signaling that someone had just lost in this hide-and-seek. Then there was another moment, when the curtain moved a little, and small fingers grasped her skirt. Maria breathed out with incredible relief, when she saw the fingers didn't belong to no one else than Anastasia.
"Tatya found Olya," whispered loudly the little girl with reddish hair. "Ella's trouble. She's in the fireplace." Maria – much against her will – had to smile. But suddenly the curtain moved again and she looked into Tatiana's slightly slanting eyes, as well as into Olga's blue ones: Olga, knowing she couldn't win this game anymore, had ganged up with Tatiana! Nastya with a cry threw herself against them, giving Maria a chance to escape. Mashka didn´t hesitate. They were running across the room, screaming and whooping. Four light-blue skirts and one that was black – Ella, leaving her hiding spot in the fireplace, joined the new game. Thanks to the dirt her face was almost as black as her shining raven hair.
She was lying on her side in a soft bed, little knees almost under her chin. The lamp had gone out a long time ago and the golden glints it had been drawing to her hair were gone as well. But huge blue eyes were wide-opened and slowly filling with fear. She'd never been affraid of dark, but tonight she sensed some hidden menace. She had been thinking about poor Ella, who was so very sick, the doctor had to be at her side through days and nights. And then it was there.
Something had to out there. Something was waiting, threatening to harm her, if she would only move. The panic in her was growing as she silently stared into the darkness, and it couldn´t be soothed not even by Nastya's regular breathing. Then she couldn´t go on any longer and called in a trembling voice: "Nastya!" The smaller girl – always being a light-sleeper – opened her eyes and blinked several times. Marie summoned all her courage. She threw away the blanket and got into the second bed, where she pressed her little body to even smaller sister.
"Something's going on," she whispered into her ear.
"I don't know," said Maria and looked around the room one more time.
Nastya looked upon her sister's face and didn't understand, why it was suddenly even paler than before. Horrified eyes, even larger than usual, were fixed on something. Anastasia looked the same way. And the room was suddenly filled with her screams. She pressed herself tighter to older sister, who unlike her was stiff and frozen. It was like a nightmare, when darkness takes a solid form. Just a step away from the bed there stood a man. He had no face or it wasn't to be seen. His body seemed weary and it was like all warmth was drawn away by his presence.
He made a step forward. Maria's horror reached its peak. Anastasia's frightened sobs were drowned in Maria's scream, which would no one expect from a little girl. The scream was grow-up, full of such terror, that even the Shadow quickly changed his mind and he hurriedly retreated to the far corner of the room. In another second the room was flooded by a yellow light, when the nanny run inside.
The relief was great, but the fear remained. Nontheless nanny's presence broke the wall of horror and Marie started sobbing like Anastasia. Between heavy sobs and hopeless crying the girls described what happened. Nanny took little Anastasia into her arms and sat near Marie to comfort them. She was saying something about a doctor and then a bad dream. And when the little Grand Duchess heard her strong, full voice, it really seemed they had been dreaming. And so she looked around. No. Not a dream. There he was right by the window. And he moved. "Oh no! He's going to cousin Ella's room! Poor princess Elisabeth!"
Was it her or was it Anastasia who had said that? She wasn't sure. Her eyes blackened and with a heavy sight she fell on the pillow uncouncious.
"Thank you." Her voice was flat, but she managed to smile. Olga, who had just combed her hair, smiled too and caressed her little shoulder, as she got up in a search of a pale-blue ribbon she wanted to bound Maria's hair with. Maria looked out of the windows. The rain was singing its wet and cold song and leave on the trees glistened in a dim light of the sun hidden behind the think clouds. She was thinking about Ella. Poor darling Ella. She died. And she wasn't old. Only very old people are dying. Or not? Olga returned without the ribbon. Her eyes were bright with joy.
"Papa's here!" she exclaimed and grabbed Maria's hand. Together they run and threw their hands around Nicholas, who was already in power of Tatiana and Anastasia. As soon as he bent down to his daughters, Maria wrapped her little arms around his neck and pressed her smooth face to his unshaven one.
"My darling angel, you're burning up!" he said worriedly, feeling the heat that radiated from her little fragile body.
"To bed with you," he added gently and took her in his arms.
"Papa?" whispered the girl, eyes closed.
"Promise me you'll never die, please."
"I can't promise you that, sweetheart," murmured Nicolas sadly. "Everyone must die one day."
"Yes," he said after a while, his fingers brushing her damp hair away from her forehead. "But that will happen a very long time from now. I can promise you that."
With those words he kissed her pale cheek and left the room. He asked the nanny to call doctor Botkin. And he also asked her to inform him about how Mashenka would be doing.