Under a blood red sky, p.37

Under a Blood Red Sky, page 37

 

Under a Blood Red Sky
 



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  For one vivid second, Sofia wanted the world to stand still. Right here and now. With children at play and Mikhail safe in his bed, the sun shining and Sofia herself in the village street as if she belonged there. Just stop. Here and now in this small moment of happiness. To stay here for ever. But she drew in a deep shuddering breath and moved on to the next moment and the next after that. Because there was her promise to Anna.

  But what if Anna were already dead? What if all this was for nothing?

  ‘What happened last night?’

  Elizaveta gazed sternly at Sofia. ‘You were there,’ she said. ‘You have eyes in your head. You saw what happened yourself.’

  They were standing in the teacher’s elegantly furnished living room. Pictures lined the walls, old photographs of men in extravagant uniforms and formidable women in large dresses, with medals and jewellery hand-tinted to shine out. Sofia wanted to spend time examining them, seeking out Elizaveta Lishnikova’s strong features in their faces, but such curiosity would not be welcomed. Instead she asked the question again.

  ‘What happened last night? You are a rational person. I don’t believe you would take part in a ceremony that was . . . unhealthy.’

  ‘Is that what you think it was? Unhealthy?’

  ‘No.’ Sofia shook her head. ‘No, I don’t. But I’ve seen the damage it does to Rafik and the way it makes him ill.’

  Elizaveta frowned and ran a finger along the arch of one eyebrow, smoothing out the thoughts behind it. ‘Sit down,’ she said.

  Sofia chose a seat on a fragile chaise longue and to her surprise Elizaveta came and sat beside her, her back erect and her hands folded quietly on her lap. The pose made Sofia think immediately of the aristocratic women in the photographs.

  ‘Comrade Lishnikova, I want to understand more about what it is the gypsies do.’ Sofia looked into the other woman’s proud brown eyes. ‘Please. Help me.’

  The eyes didn’t change but the mouth opened a fraction and gave an involuntary smile. ‘I don’t know you, young woman, and this is a dangerous society we are living in, riddled with informers eager to earn a cheap rouble by making up lies about—’

  ‘I’m not an informer.’

  ‘You’ve been seen entering Deputy Stirkhov’s office.’

  ‘Word travels fast.’

  ‘This is Soviet Russia, so what do you expect? But tell me, if not to inform, why were you there?’ The older woman lifted her chin and peered down her long nose through half-closed eyes.

  ‘To protect Tivil.’

  ‘I think you mean, to protect Comrade Pashin.’

  ‘Both.’

  Elizaveta nodded and the firm lines of her face softened. ‘Love is not the best guide, my dear. It makes us do things that . . .’ She shrugged eloquently.

  Sofia laughed. ‘That are not always wise?’

  ‘Exactly.’

  ‘I’ll take that risk.’

  ‘Rafik has taken a risk trusting you, a stranger.’ She held up a hand impatiently. ‘No, don’t tell me you’re his niece because I don’t believe it. But . . .’ she paused and studied Sofia’s face, ‘Rafik has abilities that are beyond our understanding and I trust his instinct.’

  ‘Thank you.’

  ‘So I will tell you what I think happened last night, if you wish.’

  Sofia leaned closer. ‘Please,’ she said.

  ‘You have to understand that Rafik has an extraordinary mind. Whether the skills he possesses are self-taught or inherited from his gypsy ancestry, who’s to say?’

  ‘Is it hypnotism?’

  ‘It’s more than that, I believe. He has a power of mind that can transcend the thoughts of others and manipulate them, but it’s at a cost to himself. He once told me it causes haemorrhages inside his skull.’

  Sofia shivered. There was a brittle silence in the room. Outside, the sound of children’s laughter belonged to a different world.

  ‘So you help him, is that it?’ Sofia said quietly. ‘You and the blacksmith and Zenia, to lessen the damage he does to himself?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘So why choose me?’

  ‘I don’t know. You must ask Rafik that question. Each night he spins what he calls a thread of protection around the village, pacing out a circle. He says if he could pace round the whole of Russia, he would.’

  Sofia smiled. ‘He’s a good man, but has he really helped Tivil?’

  ‘Good God, yes. We’re still alive, aren’t we? Other villages all around us have been decimated by famine and sucked dry by troops enforcing quotas, until sometimes no children at all have survived. Listen to ours.’ The shouts of the Young Pioneers at play made them both smile. ‘Tivil is still standing,’ Elizaveta said proudly.

  ‘With your help.’

  ‘I have no idea whether the input of someone like myself, a dethroned tsarist, or of that godless reprobate Pokrovsky provides any help or not in those ceremonies. But . . .’ she paused and rubbed two fingertips against her temples, ‘sometimes I feel things. In here.’ Her long fingers traced circles on her transparent skin. ‘When I’m with Rafik, I do believe.’ She shook her head and her voice grew stronger, more certain. ‘I hope that helps.’

  ‘So you believe the strange ceremony last night with all five of us might have created enough power of . . . some mysterious kind . . . to cause Mikhail’s release?’

  ‘It might. Oh, call it a miracle or call it a freak coincidence if you prefer, but the point is that Comrade Pashin was released.’

  She rose to her feet and Sofia understood that the conversation was over.

  ‘One last thing,’ Sofia said quickly. ‘Tell me, please . . .’ she hesitated, as a roll-top desk in the corner caught her eye. It was made of exquisite satinwood and the top wasn’t quite closed. Just visible were a square inkpad, an ink stamp and what looked like a large magnifying glass. ‘Tell me whether you know anything about a hut in the forest that—’

  ‘There are many huts up there that hunters use,’ Elizaveta interrupted brusquely. She walked over to the desk and pushed it shut. ‘I know nothing about huts. Ask the blacksmith, he’s the one who’s often roaming around up there - when he’s out hunting, I mean.’

  Sofia watched her and noted the teacher’s unease. Was it the desk? Had she seen something she shouldn’t?

  ‘In that case I’ll speak to Pokrovsky,’ Sofia said, moving towards the door. ‘Thank you for your time, comrade.’

  They smiled at each other. Enough had been said.

  The smithy looked like the Devil’s workshop. Great sparks leapt and twisted through the air that rang with the thunder of hammer blows on metal. As Sofia entered the dim interior she felt her bones vibrate and her teeth ache with it, but the blacksmith was grinning from ear to ear, relishing every swing of his massive hammer like Thor himself. He was working on a thick iron pole. It glowed scarlet at one end where it was being flattened to a point.

  ‘Comrade Pokrovsky,’ she called out. She squeezed it in between blows.

  He paused mid-swing, hammer head poised high above his shoulder in a position that would have sent most people toppling over backwards. The smith was wearing a thick leather apron over a sleeveless tunic and his naked shaven scalp glistened with sweat. The sight of him made Sofia smile. Here was a man who loved his work. Now that the reverberations had stopped, she realised he was singing an old army marching song and wielding his hammer to its rhythm.

  He lowered it easily on to the anvil and stared at Sofia with surprise. ‘To what do I owe this pleasure?’ He wiped the sweat from his upper lip with the back of his beefy hand. His teeth were as big as the rest of him but so white that Sofia wondered if they might be false.

  ‘Comrade Lishnikova suggested I speak with you.’

  His dark eyes sparked with interest. ‘About last night?’

  ‘No. About a hut.’

  The change in him was instant and the easy manner vanished. ‘What hut?’

  ‘A hut I found up in the forest.’ She added ca
utiously, ‘In a clearing a few versts north-west of here. I was—’

  ‘Stay away from huts, comrade.’ He stepped towards her, his tree-trunk arms swinging loose. ‘I’m warning you.’

  ‘Warning me of what?’

  ‘Of not sticking your nose in places that—’

  ‘Comrade Pokrovsky, I already know what’s in that hut and who goes there.’

  He dragged air noisily through his teeth and his barrel chest swelled. She took a step away from him, before she could stop herself. His intimidating presence acted like a physical pressure on her, even though he hadn’t actually touched her.

  ‘Stay away from the hut,’ he growled.

  ‘Chairman Fomenko goes up there to . . .’

  ‘Stay away from our Comrade Chairman.’

  ‘I thought you were trying to help this village, as part of Rafik’s circle. So why . . .?’

  Riddled with informers eager to earn a cheap rouble. Elizaveta’s words slid like slime into her mind and she felt suddenly sick with disappointment as she realised what this man was up to.

  ‘You’re working for both sides, aren’t you, Comrade Pokrovsky?’ she said hoarsely.

  He moved so close she had to tip her head right back to look him in the eyes. This time she didn’t step away.

  ‘Leave Fomenko alone,’ he warned.

  ‘Why? What is he to you?’

  The blacksmith lowered his bull neck till his eyes were on a level with hers. The sparks were there inside them now. ‘Leave Fomenko alone. Because I say so.’

  She spun on her heel and strode out of the forge.

  ‘Comrade Morozova, shouldn’t you be out with your brigade in the fields?’

  Sofia would have ignored him if she could, but Aleksei Fomenko and his lean-limbed hound had stepped right into her path before she was aware of them. Her mind was churning with fears about what Pokrovsky would say to his rouble-paymasters, and all she wanted was to reach Mikhail’s izba as quickly as possible. Now this rebuke. She couldn’t bring herself to look at the Chairman, so she stared at the gentle brown eyes of his dog.

  ‘Did you tell them?’ she demanded.

  ‘Tell who?’

  ‘Tell the interrogators to release Comrade Pashin.’

  He laughed, a harsh bark that could almost have come from the dog. ‘Don’t be absurd, comrade. I don’t have that kind of power.’

  She looked up at him for the first time. His jaw was set in a stern line but today his eyes were as gentle as his dog’s. She’d learned not to trust gentle eyes.

  ‘Don’t you?’ she asked.

  ‘No.’

  ‘I see.’

  She did see. She saw that Rafik’s binding together of Tivil’s strengths last night did produce some kind of force. Unless Fomenko was lying to her and he was the one who organised Mikhail’s release. But why would he do that?

  His gaze fixed on her and the strong sunlight bleached the creases from his skin, so that for a moment his face looked as smooth as a boy’s. Sofia could picture him, rifle in his hand, the boy who shot Anna’s father.

  ‘Don’t miss your shift in the fields,’ he reminded her.

  She shook her head and walked on.

  She slipped into the bedroom where Mikhail was sleeping. One arm was thrown out in a wide gesture of abandon as if letting go in his sleep of what he couldn’t release when awake. Sofia moved silently to the bed. There were signs of his having been up and about, an empty cup by the bed and his shirt hanging on the rack of hooks in the corner, instead of thrown on the floor when she slid it from his shoulders last night.

  She stood there quietly and studied him, watched him breathe, the slow even rhythm, the soft tiny movements of his lips. She absorbed every detail of him, not just into her mind but into her body, deep into her blood and her bones. The fineness of him, the line of his cheekbone, the thick fan of his dark lashes, even the black and swollen bruise around his eye. His chin was dark with stubble that she longed to kiss. She imagined him laughing in the snow, building a sleigh of ice. Skating on the lake and smiling with contentment as he roasted potatoes on the fire. All these things she knew he’d done, and many more when he was Vasily. But then he stuck a knife in the throat of his father’s killer and Vasily died. Mikhail was born. It made no difference to her.

  Vasily.

  Mikhail.

  She loved them both. Her body ached with loving him, but it was nothing compared with the desperate ache at the knowledge that she was about to lose him. So softly that he didn’t break the rhythm of his dreams, Sofia dropped her clothes to the floor and slid in beside him between the sheets. His naked body smelled warm and musky. Her lips touched his skin. She curled her body around his and lay like that for an hour, maybe two. When eventually his hand found her in his sleep, she smiled. Slowly, without opening his eyes, he started to caress her breasts till a moan crept from between her lips and she heard his breath quicken.

  ‘Ssh,’ she whispered, ‘you need sleep.’

  ‘No, I need you.’

  He opened his eyes and grinned at her on the pillow. Gently she kissed his split lip and drew it into her own mouth where her tongue soothed it. His groan vibrated through her own lungs and together they started to explore each other’s bodies once more. It was leisurely this time as their hands moved or lingered and teased desire to breaking point - until he was inside her.

  As he thrust deep within her, his lips hard on hers, she kept her eyes open, fixed on his, so close they were almost a part of her. His gaze never wavered from hers. And suddenly the terrible ache and the fear left Sofia. The ache of loving. The fear of losing. There was just this, just him, just her. Together.

  49

  ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’

  Rafik was seated at the table in his izba, his hands flat on its rough planks. He was wearing the white band round his head, stark against his thick black hair, and a soft white shirt with loose sleeves and, on its front, a strange geometric design picked out in intricate white embroidery. He indicated the two chairs opposite him.

  Sofia and Mikhail sat down. Sofia’s eyes focused immediately on the white stone that lay on the surface of the table.

  ‘Sofia,’ Rafik said and smiled at her. ‘It is time for you to know more. But first,’ his gaze shifted to Mikhail, ‘what is it you want of me, Comrade Pashin?’

  Mikhail gave the stone no more than a cursory glance, but he draped a protective arm along the back of Sofia’s chair. ‘Rafik,’ he said, ‘yesterday I was incarcerated in a filthy cell looking at a future in a labour camp - at best. Today I am here in Tivil, a free man.’ He leaned forward, searching the gypsy’s face. ‘It’s a miracle, and I don’t believe in miracles.’

  ‘No, it’s not a miracle. You were saved by Sofia.’

  Mikhail thumped a hand on the table, making the stone leap from its place. Rafik flinched but didn’t touch it.

  ‘Rafik, you say Sofia saved me but she claims that you did. I need to know what is going on here. People have always whispered that you have strange mystic powers but I dismissed it as village tittle-tattle, the fantasies of idle minds, but now . . .’ He drew a deep breath and Sofia could see a pulse beating below his ear.

  ‘Mikhail,’ Rafik said in a soothing tone, ‘I’m going to tell you a history.’ With his words the thoughts in Sofia’s head seemed to grow heavy. ‘For centuries,’ he continued, ‘generations of my family were advisers and astrologers to the Kings of Persia. Their knowledge and intimacy with the Spirits made them a force that guided one of the greatest Empires in history through times of war and times of peace. But nothing . . .’ he brushed a finger over the stone and eased it back into its position, ‘nothing lasts for ever - not even Communism.’

  He frowned, drawing his heavy black brows together. ‘My ancestors were driven from their Land of Honey and fled throughout the known world, some escaping to Europe, others to India and further into the Orient, as the Empire crumbled.’

  Sofia closed her eyes for a momen
t. ‘I feel it,’ she murmured.

  Mikhail’s solemn gaze scrutinised her face, then he passed a hand in a gentle caress over her forehead and through the silky threads of her white-blonde hair.

  ‘What does she mean?’

  Rafik took Sofia’s hands between his own, palms together as in prayer.

  ‘She is like me,’ he said.

  ‘She’s not a gypsy.’

  ‘No. I am the seventh son of a seventh son, going back through generations of seventh sons all the way to Persia. That’s where my power comes from, passed on in a mystic connection of blood. Sofia is the same.’

  ‘What do you mean? Is she the daughter of a seventh son?’

  ‘No. She is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, going back through generations. Because her mother died when Sofia was so young, she never learned from her mother what she should have been told about the power that is centred in her, drawn from the strength and the knowledge of others before her.’ He pressed Sofia’s hands tight together. ‘My will is strong, and so is hers. But together,’ Rafik continued, his black eyes searching hers, ‘we are stronger.’

  ‘But my father was a priest of the Russian Orthodox church,’ she pointed out. ‘Surely his faith would have clashed with my mother’s . . . if what you say is true.’

  ‘Faiths can work together. The bond they create can be a powerful force.’

  She nodded. ‘Have you ever spoken to Priest Logvinov here in Tivil? About working together?’

  ‘He’s not ready. Until he is, I protect him.’

  Mikhail leaned forward, intent on Rafik. ‘That explains why the crazy fool still has his life in one piece. I’ve never been able to understand why he wasn’t shot or exiled long ago by the authorities. He takes risks, big risks.’

  Rafik looked at Mikhail. ‘So do you.’

  Mikhail’s mouth closed into a hard line and he sat back in his chair, eyes narrowed. ‘What is it you know, Rafik?’

 

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