Under a blood red sky, p.44

Under a Blood Red Sky, page 44

 

Under a Blood Red Sky
 



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  Without hope or expectation Mikhail examined each one, but none showed any sign of life. At one point he dropped to his knees on the soiled grass beside one boy’s body and held his hand. It felt warm to the touch and for one second he believed the soldier’s heart must still be beating, but it was only the sun warming from the outside what could never again be warmed from the inside. These poor young men were Russia’s lifeblood, like Pyotr would one day be, and the sight of them sickened Mikhail. He lowered his head in his hands. After a moment he was taken by surprise when a hand stroked the back of his neck with a tender touch.

  ‘Who would have done such a thing, Mikhail? Bandits? Subversives?’

  ‘No, it’s almost certainly horse thieves out here in this wild region.’ He shook his head in disgust. ‘Nine lives in exchange for nine horses and maybe a couple of pack animals as well. But they’ll have to move fast if they hope to get away with their miserable lives.’

  ‘Come quickly, my love, we must go.’

  She stooped to pick up a rifle that was lying at her feet.

  ‘No,’ Mikhail said quickly. ‘Don’t take anything. When these bodies are found, the army will sweep through this whole region like the plague. If you possess a single item belonging to this troop you’ll be . . .’

  He didn’t say the word. He didn’t need to.

  58

  Tivil July 1933

  ‘Is she there?’

  Rafik shook his head. ‘No.’

  ‘Is she close?’

  ‘She’s close to death.’

  ‘Can you save her?’

  ‘No.’

  A sigh like the moon’s breath whispered round the walls of the chamber. Three faces grew pale.

  ‘Save her.’

  ‘Save her.’

  ‘Save her.’

  ‘I cannot. I am losing her down a labyrinth.’

  Blood, like wine, was poured into a copper bowl.

  ‘She is too far from me. I cannot disentangle the shadows.’

  White flesh, like bread, was crumbled into the blood.

  ‘She is alone and beyond my reach.’

  Herbs, bitter as pain, were scattered on the glistening surface.

  ‘How can we protect her, tell us how?’

  ‘I need greater power.’

  ‘Drink the blood.’

  ‘Eat the flesh.’

  ‘Swallow the herbs.’

  Rafik drank and looked at the faces gazing at him. ‘It’s not enough.’

  ‘You’ve come.’

  The priest swept into the room, red hair ablaze, eyes bright with belief. His beard gleamed like a breastplate of fire.

  ‘I’ve come.’

  ‘Your strength is needed.’

  ‘My strength is the strength of the Lord God Almighty.’

  Rafik rose to his feet, ghostly in his white robe. ‘The girl is in an abyss.’

  ‘All are in peril of the Bottomless Pit, all who worship the image of the Beast. It is written in God’s Word.’

  ‘Help us, Priest.’

  ‘Gypsy, if what you are doing provides food for the Devil, the smoke of your torment will be never-ending and you shall have no rest by day or by night.’

  ‘We need her, I tell you this. She is rich in power.’

  ‘What are riches? God in His infinite wisdom tells us this: that it is when we think we are rich that we are at our most wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. And as surely as night follows day, His wrath shall come to smite the scorpions of this earth.’

  ‘Priest,’ Rafik’s voice rang out clearly, ‘this village knows too well that it is poor and wretched. Will you join with us?’

  ‘God will curse you, Rafik.’

  ‘Will you watch Tivil bleed to death?’

  ‘Sorcerers are condemned to dwell outside the City of God and you are a sorcerer.’

  ‘Rafik.’ It was the blacksmith, his darkened fingers pointing at the gypsy’s chest. ‘Tell the priest.’

  ‘Tell me what?’

  The light seemed to flicker and dart across the copper bowl as Rafik spoke slowly. ‘The girl has a stone, a White Stone. It has drawn help to her side already.’

  Priest Logvinov’s face grew pale as his long fingers sought the cross that hung on his chest and clung to it. ‘Do not blaspheme.’

  ‘I do not.’

  The priest shook his fiery locks. ‘The Lord says in the last Book of His Holy Word, “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna and will give him a white stone and in the stone a new name is written which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.”

  ‘She has the stone.’

  59

  Marshlands August 1933

  The light was so clear and so white that at times the land looked as if it was made of bone. As they journeyed north through the taiga, the forest of pine and spruce thinned, giving way to open marshland that left Sofia feeling exposed. They were waiting for the creeping gloom of night before they crossed the flat wetland that stretched ahead, but every delay drove Sofia to distraction.

  ‘Patience,’ Mikhail cautioned.

  He was adjusting the packs on the horses and picking burrs from their manes. The chestnut’s head hung low, its eyes half shut, and Sofia was shocked by how weary it looked and how its ribs poked through its hide. Was that how she and Mikhail looked too? She studied Mikhail as he tended the animals. She loved to see the skill with which his hands moved over them, soothing their twitchy skins the way he soothed hers. They didn’t talk much now, images of the dead patrol ousted words from their heads, and in silence her fingers ruffled the ears of the yellow dog that was resting its head against her thigh.

  ‘I’m not good at patience,’ she said.

  Mikhail’s grey eyes skimmed over the marshland. ‘You’re good at other things.’

  ‘Anna’s out there.’

  ‘So are the soldiers who are searching for that patrol.’

  A thickset old man sat half asleep in the afternoon sun, leaning back against the timber wall of his solitary izba, a picture of contentment in the middle of nowhere. He wore patched trousers and a threadbare shirt, a twist of smoke rising from the carved pipe in his mouth, keeping the mosquitoes at bay.

  Mikhail greeted him pleasantly. ‘Zdravstvuitye, comrade.’

  ‘What can I do for you, comrade?’

  ‘My saddle girth has snapped and I need—’

  ‘In there.’ The old man jerked a thumb at the barn beside the house, which was well built but slowly turning green with moss. ‘You’ll find plenty of tack hanging on the hooks. I’ve not much use for it now. Old Ivan is all I’ve got left to pull a plough.’ He scratched his beard, a long grey mat that looked much older than his blue eyes. ‘Who’s she?’ He smiled a welcome at Sofia.

  ‘My wife.’

  The man blew out an appreciative billow of fragrant smoke. ‘She can talk to me while you fix your girth. I don’t get much conversation these days, not since my Yulia died.’

  Mikhail took the reins from Sofia’s hand and headed for the barn.

  ‘What would you like to talk about?’ Sofia smiled and sat down on the bench beside him, stretching her legs out in the sunshine. The word wife had taken her by surprise and to her ears it sounded good. She laughed as a tiny kitten with spiky white fur scurried to safety under the man’s ankles when it saw the dog trailing across the clearing. Several scrawny chickens paused in their dust-baths to bob their heads at the intruders.

  ‘Do you know Moscow?’ the old man asked.

  ‘I’ve never been there, I’m afraid,’ she said.

  ‘Is it true Stalin dynamited the sacred Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer and is planning to build a Palace of the Soviets in its place?’

  ‘So I believe.’

  ‘And what about that Dutch Communist burning down the Reichstag in Germany?’ He chuckled into his beard and slapped his thigh with glee. ‘That’s one up the arse for that goose-stepping fascist monkey who has seized power over there
.’

  ‘You’re very well informed.’

  ‘Da. I read Pravda. My son comes to see me every three months and brings me all the newspapers I need.’ He nodded his head proudly and chewed at his tobacco-stained moustache. ‘He’s a good son to me.’

  They talked further, about bread rationing, the high prices in shops, the increase in educational places for girls and Kirov’s plans for Leningrad. None of it could touch the old man out here in the wilderness, yet he was passionate about seeing the rebirth of Russia. Alongside a steady flow of chatter, he provided a welcome meal of chicken, boiled potatoes, salted cabbage and cucumber with smetana, and in return Mikhail took an hour to split logs while Sofia stacked them up against the wall. It was almost like normal living again. Even the dog lay in a patch of shade and snored contentedly, its stomach sated with chicken scraps.

  ‘Time for us to leave,’ Mikhail finally announced. ‘Thank you for your hospitality. Spasibo.’

  ‘I’ve enjoyed the company.’ He smiled at Sofia and patted her hand, pulling a face at the scars on her two fingers. ‘Been in the wars, have you, girl?’

  ‘Something like that.’

  ‘You should take better care of your wife in future, young man.’

  Mikhail gave Sofia a pointed look. ‘She’s not the easiest of women to take care of.’

  Their gaze met and Sofia suddenly saw, for the first time, his fear for her, deep down, sharp and painful as a bayonet inside him. A rush of longing hit her. She wanted to rid this man she loved of those dark tense shadows, to make him as content and relaxed as the dog in the dust.

  ‘When this is over,’ she promised, and tipped him a crooked smile.

  He nodded and returned the smile. It was only a moment but it was one she would keep safe.

  She thanked the old man and Mikhail started to lead the horses forward, reins loose in his fingers. That was when she slid her hand into her pocket to tuck a couple of biscuits in there, provided by their host for the journey. One of her damaged fingers brushed against the white stone where it lay, warm from the heat of her body, and she felt something change. Startled, she looked around her, expecting to see something different, but still the silver birch branches shimmered gently in the breeze. A magpie spiralled down into the clearing to steal a chicken bone from the dirt. The izba looked as peaceful as ever, its windows blinking in the sun.

  But something had definitely changed. She didn’t know what, but she could sense it. Then slowly, like the echo of distant thunder, in the soles of her feet she felt the vibration of horses’ hooves. She stood totally still, listening. She could hear the nervous beating of hearts and whispers rustling the leaves.

  ‘Mikhail!’ she called, her voice louder than she intended. ‘They’re here.’

  ‘Who?’

  ‘The soldiers.’

  They prepared quickly, dismantled their packs and turned the horses into a field down by the river. Mikhail would be splitting logs in the front yard and the old man was to remain seated on his bench outside the house, this time with a wooden chess set at his side. Sofia was banished with a hoe to the vegetable patch at the other side of the barn.

  ‘Sofia, take no chances, do nothing . . . foolish. Promise me.’ Mikhail took her face between his hands. ‘Promise me,’ he said again.

  ‘We’re a happy peasant family just going about our chores.’ She smiled at him and touched her hand to his chest, but he didn’t smile back. His eyes were serious.

  ‘I promise,’ she said.

  ‘Don’t get involved,’ Mikhail told her fiercely. ‘I’ll deal with them. Just keep your head down and get on with weeding.’ He gave her a small shake that clicked her teeth together. ‘You’re not listening to me.’

  ‘Yes, I am.’

  But he knew her too well.

  The rattle of rifle bolts surrounded the house. Sofia felt the hairs rise on her neck.

  ‘Who’s in charge here?’

  The demand came from the soldier at the head of the troop, a lean figure with dark hair swept off his face and quick, intelligent eyes. Around him the troop fanned out, nervous and trigger-fingered, memories of the murdered patrol vivid in their minds.

  ‘This is my home,’ Mikhail said, polite but unwelcoming. He hung the axe from one hand and stood with legs wide and a thumb tucked into his belt.

  ‘And who are you?’

  ‘Mikhail Pashin.’

  ‘The others?’

  ‘My father-in-law and my wife. Why the interest in us?’

  ‘We’re searching for the killers who murdered a patrol.’

  ‘We’ve seen no strangers here.’

  ‘No one?’

  ‘No, but when I was out hunting a day or two back, I caught sight of a couple of men in soft hats and carrying rifles. Too far away to see anything more.’

  ‘Where?’

  ‘About twenty versts west of here in the forest. Near the river bend.’

  From where she stood beside the barn Sofia held her breath. Mikhail looked and sounded so convincing. The way his hand gripped the axe with familiar ease, his muscular frame containing just the right hint of territorial challenge, the manner in which his eyes returned a direct stare. Surely the soldiers would go and leave them in peace. Surely.

  A brush of fur on her leg made her look down. The yellow hound was pushing its shoulder against her knee, a faint whine in its throat. What was the matter with it?

  ‘Look what I’ve found.’

  The words came from one of the soldiers, a short, well-built man with a neck almost too thick for his shirt collar. He was leading the three horses into the yard and grinning broadly.

  ‘They were down by the river and there’s another old wheezer in the barn, but he’s not worth bothering with.’

  ‘Four horses,’ the officer said sourly. ‘That makes you a rich kulak.’

  Sofia’s throat closed.

  Mikhail laughed easily. ‘No, comrade, I’m no kulak.’ He waved a dismissive hand around the primitive home and barn. ‘Do I look like one of the wealthy bourgeoisie?’

  Sofia’s fingers found the white pebble and drew it from her pocket. In her head she pictured the officer’s thoughts as grains of sand, then she left the barn and the hoe, and stepped forward. Immediately came the metallic ring of the axe as Mikhail barked it against a log in warning, but still she fixed her eyes on the officer.

  ‘Comrade, my husband is no kulak.’

  ‘We shoot kulaks.’

  ‘So there is no reason to shoot my husband.’

  She kept moving closer till she was only two paces from the officer, where he was leaning forward in the saddle. Tightening her grip on the pebble, she took a breath, reached out her hand and touched his boot in the stirrup. She shifted the sand.

  ‘No reason at all, is there?’ she asked in a soft, persuasive voice.

  His eyelids quivered, thick and greasy, then settled. ‘No,’ he muttered. ‘I’m not here to hunt out kulaks anyway, but the horses will come in useful. We need them to replace the ones that were stolen.’

  ‘Not this one.’ Sofia entwined her hand in the grey’s thick mane. Without a horse, Anna cannot travel.

  ‘Get your hand off it.’

  ‘No.’

  The soldier leading the horses raised his rifle. ‘You heard. Let go.’

  From nowhere a fist slammed into the side of Sofia’s face, sending her sprawling to the ground.

  ‘How many times have I told you to do as you’re told?’

  It was Mikhail’s voice. He was standing over her, silhouetted against the pale sky. For a moment she couldn’t believe Mikhail had hit her and she stared up at him in dismay, but his eyes remained harsh. Abruptly the heat drained from the day.

  ‘Mikhail . . .’ she whispered.

  ‘Get in the house.’

  She gave a moan, and a soft warm tongue licked her cheek. She shivered, struggled to her knees and on to her feet, her head stinging. As she touched the dog’s coat, she had an odd sense of Rafik b
eing at her side. She thought she heard his voice whispering in the clearing.

  ‘Don’t die for nothing, Sofia. You are needed.’

  She hesitated.

  You are needed.

  The grey horse was moving away, its tail twitching.

  Needed.

  The word pounded in her mind.

  Anna needs me. Anna needs the horse.

  She reached out and seized the tail. The horse reared, the metal edge of its front hoof clipping the soldier’s shoulder. He cursed fiercely. Without hesitation the officer aimed his rifle straight at Sofia and fired.

  60

  Davinsky Camp August 1933

  Anna’s lungs were worse today. She breathed carefully and coughed carefully, and made a point of swinging her hand axe carefully, but still the blade bit into the green wood and stuck.

  ‘You’re useless.’

  It was a guard, the older one with curly grey hair that was thinning on his scalp but thickening in his ears. Anna nodded agreement, she had no intention of wasting precious breath on words. She tugged at the axe but this time she couldn’t release it.

  Sofia, where are you?

  A hand reached over and yanked it out of the wood for her with ease. It was Lara, the young fair-haired girl who was working the next felled tree. She put the haft back in Anna’s hand, just as the morning smoke break was called. ‘Spasibo,’ Anna whispered, crumpling to her knees on the bark-strewn earth without the energy to join the others. She leaned against the rough russet trunk for support and scanned the tree line of the forest.

  ‘She won’t come,’ Lara said.

  ‘She will.’

  Lara shrugged and walked off to find a light for her makhorka, but Anna was glad to be left alone. A hollow feeling crept up on her as she sat amongst the flakes of bark, a sense of something going wrong. At first she thought it might be the beginning of death creeping up on her, but now that Lara had gone and she could examine the emptiness of the feeling, she thought otherwise. It was the beginning of someone else’s death. How she knew this, she had no idea. It was all too strange and set cold fingers trailing up her spine and into her skull.

 

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