Under a blood red sky, p.5

Under a Blood Red Sky, page 5

 

Under a Blood Red Sky
 



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  They came after her with dogs, of course. She knew they would. So she’d stuck to the marshes where, at this time of year, the land was water-logged and it was harder for the hounds to track down her scent. She raced through the boggy wastes with long bounding strides, water spraying out behind her, heart pounding and skin prickling with fear.

  Time and again she heard the dogs come close and threw herself down on her back in the stagnant water, her eyes closed tight, only her nose and mouth above the surface. She lay immobile like that for hours in the slime while the guards searched, telling herself it was better to be eaten alive by biting insects than by dogs.

  At first she had the stash of food scraps in the secret pockets that Anna had sewn inside her jacket, but they didn’t last long. After that she’d existed on worms and tree bark and thin air. Once she was lucky. She stumbled upon an emaciated moose dying from a broken jaw. She’d used her knife to finish off the poor creature and, for two whole days, she’d remained beside the carcass filling her belly with meat, until a wolf drove her to abandon it.

  As she travelled further through the taiga, mile after mile over brittle brown pine needles, seeking out the railway track that would lead her south, at times the loneliness was so bad that she shouted out at the top of her lungs, great whooping yells of sound, just to hear a human voice in the vast wilderness of pine trees. Nothing much lived there, barely any animals other than the occasional lumbering moose or solitary wolf, because there was almost nothing for them to eat. But in some odd kind of way the yelling and the shouting just made her feel worse: the silence that responded only left a hole in the world that she couldn’t fill.

  Eventually she found the railway track that she and Anna had talked about, its silver lines snaking into the distance. She followed it day and night, even sleeping beside it because she was afraid of getting lost, till eventually she came to a river. Was this the Ob? How was she to know? She knew the River Ob headed south towards the Ural Mountains but was this it? She felt a wave of panic. She was weak with hunger and couldn’t think straight. The grey coils of water below her appeared horribly inviting.

  She lost track of time. How long had she been wandering out here in this godforsaken wilderness? With an effort of will she forced her mind to focus and worked out that weeks must have passed, because the sun was higher in the sky now than when she had set out. As she tugged out her precious bent pin and twine that was wrapped in her pocket and started to trawl clumsily through the water, it occurred to her that the shoots on the birch trees had grown into full-size leaves and the warmth of the sun on her back made her skin come alive.

  The first time she came across habitation she almost wept with pleasure. It was a farm, a scrawny subsistence scrap of worthless land, and she crouched behind a birch trunk all day, observing the comings and goings of the peasant couple who worked the place. An emaciated black and white cow was tethered to a fence next to a shed and she watched with savage envy as the farmer’s wife coaxed milk from the animal.

  Could she go over there and beg a bowlful?

  She stood up and took one step forward.

  Her mouth filled with saliva and she felt her whole body ache with desire for it. Not just her stomach but the marrow in her bones and the few red cells left in her blood - even the small sacs inside her lungs. They all whimpered for one mouthful of that white liquid.

  But to come so far and now risk everything?

  She forced herself to sit again. To wait until dark. There was no moon, no stars, just another chill damp night inhabited only by bats, but Sofia was well used to it and moved easily through the darkness to the barn where the cow had been tucked away at the end of the day. She opened the lichen-covered door a crack and listened carefully. No sound, except the soft moist snoring of the cow. She slipped through the crack and felt a shiver of delight at being inside somewhere warm and protective at last, after so long outside facing the elements. Even the old cow was obliging, despite Sofia’s cold fingers, and allowed a few squirts of milk directly into her mouth. Never in her life had anything tasted so exquisite. That was when she made her mistake. The warmth, the smell of straw, the remnants of milk on her tongue, the sweet odour of the cow’s hide, it all melted the shield of ice she’d built around herself. Without stopping to think, she bundled the straw into a cosy nest, curled up in it and was instantly asleep. The night enveloped the barn.

  Something sharp in her ribs woke her. She opened her eyes. It was a finger, thick-knuckled and full of strength. Attached to it was a hand, the skin stretched over a spider’s web of blue veins. Sofia leapt to her feet.

  The farmer’s wife was just visible, standing in front of her in the first wisps of early morning light. The woman said nothing but pressed a cloth bundle into Sofia’s hands. She quickly led the cow out of the barn, but not before giving Sofia a sharp shake of her grey head in warning. Outside, her husband could be heard whistling and stacking logs on to a cart.

  The barn door shut.

  ‘Spasibo,’ Sofia whispered into the emptiness.

  She longed to call the woman back and wrap her arms around her. Instead she ate the food in the bundle, kept an eye to a knot-hole in the door and, when the farmer had finished with his logs, she vanished back into the lonely forest.

  After that, things went wrong. Badly wrong. It was her own fault. She almost drowned when she was stupid enough to take a short cut by swimming across a tributary of the river where the currents were lethal, and five times she came close to being caught with her hand in a chicken coop or stealing from a washing line. She lived on her wits, but as the villages started to appear with more regularity, it grew too dangerous to move by day without identity papers, so she travelled only at night. It slowed her progress.

  Then disaster. For one whole insane week she headed in the wrong direction under starless skies, not realising the Ob had swung west.

  ‘Dura! Stupid fool!’

  She cursed her idiocy and slumped down in a slice of moonlight on the river bank, her blistered feet dangling in the dark waters. Closing her eyes, she forced her mind to picture the place she was aiming for. Tivil, it was called. She’d never been there, but she conjured up a picture of it with ease. It was no more than a small distant speck in a vast land, a sleepy village somewhere in a fold of the ancient Ural Mountains.

  ‘Oh Anna, how the hell am I going to find it?’

  Yet now, at last, she was here. In the clearing among the silver birches, the mossy cabin with its crooked roof warm at her back, the last of the sun’s rays on her face. Here, right in the heart of the Ural Mountains. But it seemed that just when she’d reached her goal, they were coming for her again. The hound was so close she could hear its whines.

  She darted back into the cabin, snatched up her knife and ran.

  Seconds later two men with rifles and a dog burst out of the tree line, but by then she had already put the hut between them and herself as she raced for the back of the clearing, hunched low, breathing hard. The dark trunks opened up and she fell into their cool protection. That was when she saw the boy. And in a hollow not three paces away from him crouched a wolf.

  6

  Pyotr Pashin felt his heart curl up in his chest. He didn’t move a muscle, not even to blink, just stared at the creature. Its mean yellow eyes were fixed on him and he didn’t dare breathe. Never before in his young life had he stood so close to a wolf.

  Dead ones, yes, he’d seen plenty of those outside Boris’s izba down in the village where their pelts were hung out on drying racks. Pyotr and his friend Yuri liked to trail the backs of their hands through the dense silky fur and even stuff a finger between the razor-edged teeth if they dared, but this was different. This wolf ’s black lips were pulled back in a silent snarl. The last thing in the whole world that Pyotr wanted to do now was stick a finger in its mouth.

  He’d jumped at the chance to come hunting when Boris asked him.

  ‘You’re a skinny runt,’ Boris had pointed out. ‘But you’
re good with the hound.’

  Which meant he wanted Pyotr to do all the running. But it hadn’t turned out to be a good day. Game was scarce and his other hunting companion, Igor, was tight-lipped as a lizard, so Boris had started in on the flask in his pocket which only sent the day tumbling from bad to worse. It ended up with Boris giving Pyotr a clout with his rifle for not keeping a tight enough hold on the leash, which made Pyotr scoot off among the trees in a sulk.

  ‘Pyotr! Come back here, you skinny little bastard,’ Boris yelled into the twilit world of forest shadows, ‘or I’ll skin the hide off you!’

  Pyotr ignored him. He knew that what he was doing was wrong - it broke the first rule of forest lore, which is that you must never lose contact with your companions. Children of the raion grew up bombarded with bedtime stories of how you must never, never roam alone in the forest, a place where you will be instantly devoured by goblins or wolves or even a fierce-eyed axeman who eats children for breakfast. The forest has a huge and hungry mouth of its own, they were told, and it will swallow you without a trace if you give it even half a chance.

  But Pyotr was eleven now and he reckoned he was able to look out for himself, and anyway, he was angry at Boris for the clout with the rifle butt. Also, though he wasn’t sure exactly why and he felt stupid even thinking this, in this part of the forest the air was different. It seemed to lick his cheek as daylight began to fade. Somehow, it drew him to this quiet circle of light that was the small clearing in the trees.

  He caught sight of the back of the cabin, covered in bright green moss, and the fallen mess of branches sprawled lazily in the sun on the soft earth. His interest was roused. He took one more step and immediately heard a low-throated sound at his feet that made the hairs rise on the back of his neck. He swung round, and that was when he saw the wolf and his heart folded in his chest.

  He didn’t dare breathe. Slowly, so slowly he wasn’t sure it was happening at all, he started to move his left hand towards the whistle that hung on a green cord round his neck.

  Then, abruptly, a blur of moonlight-pale hair and long golden limbs hurtled into the stillness. A young woman was churning up the air around him, her breath so loud he wanted to shout at her, to warn her, but he could feel a wild pulse thudding in his throat that prevented it. She stopped, blue eyes wide with surprise, but instead of screaming at the sight of the wolf, she gave it no more than a quick glance. Instead she smiled at Pyotr. It was a slow, slanting smile, small at first, then broadening into a wide conspiratorial grin.

  ‘Hello,’ she mouthed. ‘Privet.’

  She raised a finger to her lips and held it there as a signal to him to stay quiet, her mouth twitching as if in fun, but when he looked into her eyes, they weren’t laughing. There was something in them that Pyotr recognised. A quivering. A sort of drawing down deep into herself, the same as he’d seen in the eyes of one of the boys at school when the bigger boys started picking on him. She was scared.

  At that moment it dawned on Pyotr what she was. She was a fugitive. An Enemy of the State on the run. They’d been warned about them in the weekly meetings in the hall. A sudden confusion tightened his chest. No normal person behaved so oddly - did they? So he made his decision. He raised the whistle to his mouth. Later he would recall the feel of the cold hard metal on his lips and remember the hammering in his heart as the two of them stood, saying nothing, in front of those mean yellow eyes in the shade of the big pine.

  The young woman shook her head, urgent and forceful, and her eyes grew darker, their pale summer-blue colour changing as if someone had spilled a droplet of ink into each one. Just as the whistle touched his lips she gave a strange little shudder and moved her hand quickly. He thought at first it was to snatch the whistle from him, but instead it went to the blouse buttons at her throat and started to undo them. Pyotr watched. As each button revealed more, he felt the blood rush to his face, burning his cheeks.

  Her skin was like milk. White and unused below the golden triangle at her neck where the sun had crept in. The blouse was shapeless, collarless, with short embroidered sleeves and, though it may once have possessed colour, now it was bleached to the grey of ash. As she slid the blouse open, he caught the flash of a knife at her waistband. It gave him a shock. Underneath the blouse she was wearing only a flimsy garment of threadbare material that clung to her thin body. The sight of her fragile collarbones made him forget the whistle, but it was her breasts he stared at, where the cloth outlined them clearly. His brain told him he should look away but his eyes took no notice.

  Then once more she pressed a finger to her lips and gave him a smile that, in a strange way he didn’t understand, seemed to steal something from inside him. It left a hole in a secret place, which previously only his mother had touched - and that was when he was just a child. His chest stung so badly he had to crush his hand against his ribs to stop the hurt, and by the time he looked back, she was gone. A faint movement of the branches and a shimmer of leaves, that was all that remained. Even the wolf had disappeared.

  He stayed there with the whistle in his hand for what felt like for ever but which must have been no more than a minute, and gradually the sounds around him started to return. The dog whining; the hunters calling and cursing him. A magpie rattled out its annoyance. He knew he should shout to them, it was his duty as a Soviet citizen to alert them. Quick, there’s a fugitive running down to the river. Bring your rifle. But something stubborn hardened inside his young chest when he thought of the moonlight hair, and the words wouldn’t come to his lips.

  7

  Sofia stood without moving, concentrating on the sounds of the night: the rustle of some small creature as it skittered over a tree stump; a faint plop in the water, most likely a toad. Above her the sky was as black as she could wish for, a warm summer night with the air moist on her skin and no sign of the wolf. She’d seen the animal skulking around yesterday, its festering paw thick with summer flies, so she knew it posed no threat to her or the boy. It just wanted somewhere to hide and lick its wound. No sign of the dog or the men either.

  Were they listening for her, as silently as she was listening for them? Here among the whisper of the trees. The silence a trap for me?

  But no, OGPU troops didn’t possess that kind of patience. They liked to storm in at night and yank you from your bed when you were soft and vulnerable and at your weakest. Not this silent soulless stalking. No. Whoever the men with the rifles were, they weren’t the secret police.

  She felt her pulse drop a notch and began to breathe more easily. Her feet made no sound as she wove between the trees, heading for the cabin, the pine needles releasing their fragrance under her feet. Hunters, that’s what they must have been, with their hound on the scent of . . . what? The wolf, probably. Already back in their village with a glass of kvass and a hand groping the skirts of a willing wife while—

  Someone was in the clearing.

  A dim light spilled from the hut and cut a yellow wedge out of the darkness, revealing a horse tethered outside. Sofia’s heart stopped. She shrank back into the trees and merged with one of the black pine trunks, the length of her body tight against its rough bark. It smelled strongly of resin. She wanted to smell of resin too, to hide her scent in the skin of the tree. The light went out and instantly the cabin door opened, figures emerged. The horse whinnied a welcome and she heard two male voices speak in low whispers. Then came the excited bark of a hound and the creak of saddle leather as one of the men swung up on to the horse. There was the shake of a bridle, the impatient stamp of hooves.

  ‘Thank you, my friend,’ one man said, his voice unsteady with some strong emotion. ‘I . . . can say no more . . . but spasibo. Thank you.’

  Sofia caught the flat sound of two hands being clasped, then the horse cantered away across the clearing, heading west. It was in a hurry. She listened for the other man and his dog but they seemed to have vanished into the night. She told herself that whoever he was, he was nothing to her, just a temporary di
sturbance of her own night’s plans. She could still make it down to Tivil village before dawn.

  She released her hold on the tree and felt a tremor of anticipation tighten her skin. With a stealth and sureness that were gained from months of travelling by night, she slid away into the blackness.

  She had picked her time well. Still a couple of hours till dawn, the villagers had not yet begun to stir from the warmth of their beds.

  The village of Tivil lay silent in the darkness. It looked crumpled and lifeless, yet Sofia’s heart lifted at the sight of it. This was the place she’d spent months searching for. She’d pictured it a thousand times in her mind, sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller, but always with one person standing at the heart of it.

  Vasily. Now she had to find him.

  Her pulse quickened as she stared down into the valley from the forest ridge. Again into her mind sprang the question that had plagued her steps each time she’d risked her life sneaking into barns or thieving chicken eggs to survive. Was Tivil the right place? Or had she come all this way for nothing? She shivered at the thought and pushed it away out of reach, because she had staked everything on one woman’s word. That woman was Maria, Anna’s childhood governess.

  How good was her word?

  Maria had whispered to Anna when she was arrested that Vasily had fled from Petrograd after the 1917 Revolution and turned up on the other side of Russia in Tivil, living under the name of Mikhail Pashin.

  But how good was her word?

  Sofia had to believe he was here, had to know he was close.

  ‘Vasily,’ she whispered aloud into the wind so that it would carry the word down to the houses below, ‘I need your help.’

  She slid down from the ridge with a soundless tread. The only movements along Tivil’s dirt road were the brief flickers of shadow as clouds traced a path across the face of the moon, emerging now from its sleep. She had observed the izbas carefully, the rough single-storey houses that clung to the edge of the road, with their intricate shutters and precious patches of land staked out behind them in long rectangles. She watched till her eyes ached, trying to prise dark shapes out of a dark landscape. But nothing ruffled the stillness.

 

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