Under a blood red sky, p.48
Under a Blood Red Sky, page 48
‘This is not the end,’ he said.
‘Promise me,’ she breathed.
He gave his wife a smile and together they clung to the rough timbered wall of the cattle wagon that enclosed them, pressing their eyes to the slender gaps between the planks. All around them others did the same. Desperate eyes. Eyes that had already seen too much.
‘They mean to kill us,’ the bearded man on Valentina’s right stated in a flat voice. He spoke with a heavy Georgian accent and wore his astrakhan hat well down over his ears. ‘Why else would we stop in the middle of nowhere?’
‘Oh sweet Mary, mother of God, protect us.’
It was the wail of an old woman still huddled on the filthy floor and wrapped in so many shawls she looked like a fat little Buddha. But underneath the stinking rags was little more than skin and bone.
‘No, babushka,’ another male voice insisted. It came from the rear end of the carriage where the ice-ridden wind tore relentlessly through the slats, bringing the breath of Siberia into their lungs. ‘No, it’ll be General Kornilov. He knows we’re on this godforsaken cattle train starving to death. He won’t let us die. He’s a great commander.’
A murmur of approval ran around the clutch of gaunt faces, bringing a spark of belief to the dull eyes, and a young boy with dirty blond hair who had been lying listlessly in one corner leapt to his feet and started to cry with relief. It had been a long time since anyone had wasted energy on tears.
‘Dear God, I pray you are right,’ said a hollow-eyed man with a stained bandage on the stump of his arm. At night he groaned endlessly in his sleep, but by day he was silent and tense. ‘We’re at war,’ he said curtly. ‘General Lavr Kornilov cannot be everywhere. ’
‘But I tell you he’s here. You’ll see.’
‘Is he right, Jens?’ Valentina tilted her face up to her husband.
She was only twenty-four, small and fragile, but possessed sensuous dark eyes that could, with a glance, for a brief moment, make a man forget the cold and the hunger that gnawed at his insides or the weight of a child in his arms. Jens Friis was ten years older than his wife and fearful for her safety if the roving Bolshevik soldiers took one look at her beautiful face. He bent his head and brushed a kiss on her forehead.
‘We shall soon know,’ he said.
The red beard on his unshaven cheek was rough against Valentina’s cracked lips, but she welcomed the feel of it and the smell of his unwashed body. They reminded her that she had not died and gone to hell. Because hell was exactly what this felt like. The thought that this nightmare journey across thousands of miles of snow and ice might go on forever, through the whole of eternity, that this was her cruel damnation for defying her parents, was one that haunted her, awake and asleep.
Suddenly the great sliding door of the wagon was thrust open and fierce voices shouted, ‘Vse is vagona, bistro.’ Out of the wagons.
The light blinded Valentina. There was so much of it. After the perpetually twilit world inside the wagon, it rushed at her from the huge arc of sky, skidded off the snow, and robbed her of vision. She blinked hard and forced the scene around her into focus.
What she saw chilled her heart.
A row of rifles. All aimed directly at the ragged passengers as they scrambled off the train and huddled in anxious groups, their coats pulled tight to keep out the cold and the fear. Jens reached up to help the old woman down from their wagon, but before he could take her hand she was pushed from behind and landed facedown in the snow. She made no sound, no cry. But she was quickly yanked onto her feet by the soldier who had thrown open the wagon door and shaken as carelessly as a dog shakes a bone.
Valentina exchanged a look with her husband. Without a word they slid their child from Jens’s shoulder and stood her between them, hiding her in the folds of their long coats as they moved forward together.
‘Mama?’ It was a whisper. Though only five years old, the girl had already learned the need for silence. For stillness.
‘Hush, Lydia,’ Valentina murmured but could not resist a glance down at her daughter. All she saw was a pair of wide tawny eyes in a heart-shaped bone-white face and little booted feet swallowed up by the snow. She pressed closer against her husband and the face no longer existed. Only the small hand clutching her own told her otherwise.
The man from Georgia in the wagon was right. This was truly the middle of nowhere. A godforsaken landscape of nothing but snow and ice and the occasional windswept rock face glistening black. In the far distance a bank of skeletal trees stood like a reminder that life could exist here. But this was no place to live.
No place to die.
The men on horseback didn’t look much like an army. Nothing remotely like the smart officers Valentina was used to seeing in the ballrooms and troikas of St Petersburg or ice skating on the Neva, showing off their crisp uniforms and impeccable manners. These men were different. Alien to that elegant world she had left behind. These men were hostile. Dangerous. About fifty of them had spread out along the length of the train, alert and hungry as wolves. They wore an assortment of greatcoats against the cold, some grey, others black, and one a deep muddy green. But all cradled the same long-nosed rifle in their arms and had the same fanatical look of hatred in their eyes.
‘Bolsheviks,’ Jens murmured to Valentina, as they were herded into a group where the fragile sound of prayers trickled like tears. ‘Pull your hood over your head and hide your hands.’
‘Why my hands?’
‘Comrade Lenin likes to see them scarred and roughened by years of what he calls honest labour.’ He touched her arm protectively. ‘I don’t think piano playing counts, my love.’
Valentina nodded, slipped her hood over her head and her one free hand into her pocket. Her gloves, her once beautiful sable gloves, had been torn to shreds during the months in the forest, that time of travelling on foot by night, eating worms and lichen by day. It had taken its toll on more than just her gloves.
‘Jens,’ she said softly, ‘I don’t want to die.’
He shook his head vehemently and his free hand jabbed toward the tall soldier on horseback who was clearly in command. The one in the green greatcoat.
‘He’s the one who should die - for leading the peasants into this mass insanity that is tearing Russia apart. Men like him open up the floodgates of brutality and call it justice.’
At that moment the officer called out an order and more of his troops dismounted. Rifle barrels were thrust into faces, thudded against backs. As the train breathed heavily in the silent wilderness, the soldiers pushed and jostled its cargo of hundreds of displaced people into a tight circle fifty yards away from the rail track and then proceeded to strip the wagons of possessions.
‘No, please, don’t,’ shouted a man at Valentina’s elbow as an armful of tattered blankets and a tiny cooking stove were hurled out of one of the front wagons. Tears were running down his cheeks.
She put out a hand. Held his shoulder. No words could help. All around her, desperate faces were grey and taut.
In front of each wagon the meagre pile of possessions grew as the carefully hoarded objects were tossed into the snow and set on fire. Flames, fired by coal from the steam engine and a splash of vodka, devoured the last scraps of their self-respect. Their clothes, the blankets, photographs, a dozen treasured icons of the Virgin Mary and even a miniature painting of Tsar Nicholas II. All blackened, burned, and turned to ash.
‘You are traitors. All of you. Traitors to your country.’
The accusation came from the tall officer in the green greatcoat. Though he wore no insignia except a badge of crossed sabres on his peaked cap, there was no mistaking his position of authority. He sat upright on a large heavy-muscled horse, which he controlled effortlessly with an occasional flick of his heel. His eyes were dark and impatient, as if this cargo of White Russians presented him with a task he found distasteful.
‘None of you deserve to
A deep moan rose from the crowd. It seemed to sway with shock.
He raised his voice. ‘You exploited us. You maltreated us. You believed the time would never come when you would have to answer to us, the people of Russia. But you were wrong. You were blind. Where is all your wealth now? Where are your great houses and your fine horses now? The tsar is finished and I swear to you that—’
A single voice rose up from somewhere in the middle of the crowd. ‘God bless the tsar. God protect the Romanovs.’
A shot rang out. The officer’s rifle had bucked in his hands. A figure in the front row fell to the ground, a dark stain on the snow.
‘That man paid for your treachery.’ His hostile gaze swept over the stunned crowd with contempt. ‘You and your kind were parasites on the backs of the starving workers. You created a world of cruelty and tyranny where rich men turned their backs on the cries of the poor. And now you desert your country, like rats fleeing from a burning ship. And you dare to take the youth of Russia with you.’ He swung his horse to one side and moved away from the throng of gaunt faces. ‘Now you will hand over your valuables.’
At a nod of his head, the soldiers started to move among the prisoners. Systematically they seized all jewellery, all watches, all silver cigar cases, anything that had any worth, including all forms of money. Insolent hands searched clothing, under arms, inside mouths, and even between breasts, seeking out the carefully hidden items that meant survival to their owners. Valentina lost the emerald ring secreted in the hem of her dress, while Jens was stripped of his last gold coin in his boot. When it was over, the crowd stood silent except for a dull sobbing. Robbed of hope, they had no voice.
But the officer was pleased. The look of distaste left his face. He turned and issued a sharp command to the man on horseback behind him. Instantly a handful of mounted soldiers began to weave through the crowd, dividing it, churning it into confusion. Valentina clung to the small hand hidden in hers and knew that Jens would die before he released the other one. A faint cry escaped from the child when a big bay horse swung into them and its iron-shod hooves trod dangerously close, but otherwise she hung on fiercely and made no sound.
‘What are they doing?’ Valentina whispered.
‘Taking the men. And the children.’
‘Oh God, no.’
But he was right. Only the old men and the women were ignored. The others were being separated out and herded away. Cries of anguish tore through the frozen wasteland and somewhere on the far side of the train a wolf crept forward on its belly, drawn by the scent of blood.
‘Jens, no, don’t let them take you. Or her,’ Valentina begged.
‘Papa?’ A small face emerged between them.
‘Hush, my love.’
A rifle butt thumped into Jens’s shoulder just as he flicked his coat back over his daughter’s head. He staggered but kept his feet.
‘You. Get over there.’ The soldier on horseback looked as if he were just longing for an excuse to pull the trigger. He was very young. Very nervous.
Jens stood his ground. ‘I am not Russian.’ He reached into his inside pocket, moving his hand slowly so as not to unsettle the soldier, and drew out his passport.
‘See,’ Valentina pointed out urgently. ‘My husband is Danish.’
The soldier frowned, uncertain what to do. But his commander had sharp eyes. He instantly spotted the hesitation. He kicked his horse forward into the panicking crowd and came up alongside the young private.
‘Grodensky, why are you wasting time here?’ he demanded.
But his attention was not on the soldier. It was on Valentina. Her face had tilted up to speak to the mounted soldat and her hood had fallen back, revealing a sweep of long dark hair and a high forehead with pale flawless skin. Months of starvation had heightened her cheekbones and made her eyes huge in her face.
The officer dismounted. Up close, they could see he was younger than he had appeared on horseback, probably still in his thirties, but with the eyes of a much older man. He took the passport and studied it briefly, his gaze flicking from Valentina to Jens and back again.
‘But you,’ he said roughly to Valentina, ‘you are Russian?’
Behind them shots were beginning to sound.
‘By birth, yes,’ she answered without turning her head to the noise. ‘But now I am Danish. By marriage.’ She wanted to edge closer to her husband, to hide the child more securely between them, but did not dare move. Only her fingers tightened on the tiny cold hand in hers.
Without warning, the officer’s rifle slammed into Jens’s stomach and he doubled over with a grunt of pain, but immediately another blow to the back of his head sent him sprawling onto the snow. Blood spattered its icy surface.
Instantly she felt the little hand pull free of her own and saw her daughter throw herself at the officer’s legs with the ferocity of a spitting wildcat, biting and scratching in a frenzy of rage. As if in slow motion, she watched the rifle butt start to descend toward the little head.
‘No,’ she shouted and snatched the child up into her arms before the blow could fall. But stronger hands tore the young body from her grasp.
‘No, no, no!’ she screamed. ‘She is a Danish child. She is not a Russian.’
‘She is Russian,’ the officer insisted and drew his revolver. ‘She fights like a Russian.’ Casually he placed the gun barrel at the centre of the child’s forehead.
The child froze. Only her eyes betrayed her fear. Her little mouth was clamped shut.
‘Don’t kill her, I beg you,’ Valentina pleaded. ‘Please don’t kill her. I’ll do . . . anything . . . anything. If you let her live.’
A deep groan issued from the crumpled figure of her husband at her feet.
‘Please,’ she begged softly. She undid the top button of her coat, not taking her eyes from the officer’s face. ‘Anything.’
The Bolshevik commander reached out a hand and touched her hair, her cheek, her mouth. She held her breath. Willing him to want her. And for a fleeting moment she knew she had him. But when he glanced around at his watching men, all of them lusting for her, hoping their turn would be next, he shook his head.
‘No. You are not worth it. Not even for soft kisses from your beautiful lips. No. It would cause too much trouble among my troops.’ He shrugged. ‘A shame.’ His finger tightened on the trigger.
‘Let me buy her,’ Valentina said quickly.
When he turned his head to stare at her with a frown that brought his heavy eyebrows together, she said again, ‘Let me buy her. And my husband.’
He laughed. The soldiers echoed the harsh sound of it. ‘With what?’
‘With these.’ Valentina thrust two fingers down her throat and bent over as a gush of warm bile swept up from her empty stomach. In the center of the yellow smear of liquid that spread out on the snow’s crust lay two tiny cotton packages, each no bigger than a hazelnut. At a gesture from the officer, a bearded soldier scooped them up and handed them to him. They sat, dirty and damp, in the middle of his black glove.
Valentina stepped closer. ‘Diamonds,’ she said proudly.
He scraped off the cotton wraps, eagerness in every movement, until what looked like two nuggets of sparkling ice gleamed up at him.
Valentina saw the greed in his face. ‘One to buy my daughter. The other for my husband.’
‘I can take them anyway. You have already lost them.’
Suddenly he smiled. ‘Very well. We shall deal. Because I have the diamonds and because you are beautiful, you shall keep the brat.’ Lydia was thrust into Valentina’s arms and clung to her as if she would climb right inside her body.
‘And my husband,’ Valentina insisted.
‘Your husband we keep.’
‘No, no. Please God, I . . .’
But the horses came in force then. A solid wall of them that drove the women and old men back to the train.
Lydia screamed in Valentina’s arms, ‘Papa, Papa . . .,’ and tears flowed down her thin cheeks as she watched his body being dragged away.
Valentina could find no tears. Only the frozen emptiness within her, as bleak and lifeless as the wilderness that swept past outside. She sat on the foul-smelling floor of the cattle truck with her back against the slatted wall. Night was seeping in and the air was so cold it hurt to breathe, but she didn’t notice. Her head hung low and her eyes saw nothing. Around her the sound of grief filled the vacant spaces. The boy with dirty blond hair was gone, as well as the man who had been so certain the White Russian army had arrived to feed them. Women wept for the loss of their husbands and the theft of their sons and daughters, and stared with naked envy at the one child on the train.
Valentina had wrapped her coat tightly around Lydia and herself, but could feel her daughter shivering.
‘Mama,’ the girl whispered, ‘is Papa coming back?’
It was the twentieth time she had asked the same question, as if by continually repeating it she could make the answer change. In the gloom Valentina felt the little body shudder.
So she took her daughter’s cold face between her hands and said fiercely, ‘But we will survive, you and I. Survival is everything. ’
Look out for the sequel to Kate Furnivall’s breathtaking The Russian Concubine, out in autumn 2009.
China, 1933. For years Lydia Ivanova believed her father
was killed by the Bolsheviks. But when she learns he is
captive in Stalin-controlled Russia, the fiery-haired girl is
willing to leave everything behind - even her
Chinese lover, Chang An Lo.
Journeying with her half-brother Alexei, Lydia begins a
dangerous search. Tension grows between the two, for while
Alexei is searching for his past, Lydia is looking for her
future. Will that future include Chang An Lo? And will her
by Kate Furnivall / Historical Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes