Under a blood red sky, p.6

Under a Blood Red Sky, page 6

 

Under a Blood Red Sky
 



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  That’s when she drew the knife from the rawhide pouch on her hip and finally, after so many months of effort, set foot in Tivil. It gave her a quick and unexpected surge of joy and she felt her damaged fingertips tingle. The village was made up of a straggle of houses each side of a single central street, mixed up with an untidy jumble of barns and stables and patched fences. It lay at the head of the Tiva valley which, further down, shook itself loose and broadened into a wide plain protected by steep wooded ridges where hawks cruised by day.

  At the centre of the village stood the church. Now that in itself was strange. Throughout Russia most village churches had been blown up by order of the Politburo or were being used as storage for grain or manure - the ultimate insult. This one had escaped such shame but, judging by the abundance of notices pinned outside, it had been turned into a general assembly hall for the compulsory political meetings. The brick building loomed deeper black against the black sky, almost as much a presence as the forest itself, and it gave Sofia hope.

  Maybe Maria was as good as her word. It could be true - all of it. But just because the church was here, she told herself, that didn’t mean Vasily was, or that he’d be crazy enough to want to risk his life on the word of a stranger.

  She moved with the shadows into the doorway of the church. Chyort! The lock was a big old-fashioned iron contraption that would shrug off any attempts she made with her knife. With another muttered oath she skirted round the side of the building, all the time scanning for any movement in the darkness. At the back, where the fields crept close to a scrubby yard, she found a small door, its lock flimsier. Immediately she set about it with the tip of her blade.

  Sofia worked quickly, concentrating hard, careful to keep the sound low, but her pulse missed a beat when the shadows abruptly grew paler around her. A light must have been turned on somewhere close. She edged stealthily back to the corner of the building, her body becoming part of its solid mass, and holding her breath she peered into the street.

  The solitary light gleamed out at her like a warning. It came from the window of a nearby izba. And as she watched, a man crossed inside the rectangle of yellow lamplight, a tall figure moving in a hurry, and then he was gone. A moment later the izba was plunged once more into darkness and the sound of a front door shutting reached her ears.

  What was he doing out so early? She hadn’t bargained on the village coming to life before dawn. Didn’t he sleep? A bat darted across her line of vision, making her jerk away awkwardly. Her hair felt slick on the back of her neck. The man’s footfalls sounded as clear as her own heartbeat in her ears and, watching from her hiding spot, she saw the figure pass. His determined stride and speed of movement made Sofia nervous, but still she crept forward to see more.

  He was heading away from her down the street, picked out in detail by a brief trick of the moon. It allowed her to make out that his hair was clipped short and he was wearing a rough workman’s shirt, which struck her as odd because he moved with the easy assurance and confidence of someone who was used to a position of command. Sofia’s hand relaxed on the knife.

  Could it be Vasily?

  She almost stepped out into the street and called his name. Except of course it wouldn’t be the name she knew, it would be Mikhail Pashin, the name Anna had said he was using. ‘Mikhail Pashin,’ she whispered, but too softly for anything but the moon to hear. She struggled to subdue a wave of excitement and reined in an unruly surge of hope. Surely she couldn’t be so lucky? She scuttled along the front of the church and, as she peered out into the shadows that were wrapped round the village, her luck held and the moon gave up its flirting behind the clouds and emerged white and full, bathing the street in solid silver.

  He was there, ahead of her, clearly outlined, moonlight robbing him of colour, so that he could have been a ghost. A ghost from the past. Is that what you are, Mikhail Pashin?

  She saw him turn off the street up a steep rutted track that clung to the hillside, leading up to the vague outline of a long dark building, a form she could only just make out. She was tempted to follow his footsteps but something about him made her certain she would be discovered. There was an alertness about him that, even in the dim light, came off him like sparks.

  She sank to the ground, waiting, invisible in the black overhang of the church, her back pressed firmly against the wall to keep her still. Her patience was rewarded ten minutes later when she heard the sound of a horse descending the track, its hooves lively on the dry earth. She exhaled with relief because the rider was the same man. He’d obviously been up to a stable and saddled his horse for an early morning start, his cropped hair and broad shoulders painted silver by the moonlight once again.

  But to her surprise, behind him a man on foot was also trotting down the track, a small slight figure, middle-aged but very light on his feet. They were talking in low voices but there was a certain curtness in their manner towards each other that spoke of ill feeling. Sofia’s gaze remained fixed on the rider.

  Anna. Her lips didn’t move but the words sounded sharp as ice in her head. I think I’ve found Mikhail Pashin.

  Just then the two men reached the point where the rutted track joined the road, and the rider turned abruptly to the left without a word. The second man, the small one, turned right, but not before he had run the palm of his hand lovingly down the massive curve of the horse’s rump as it swung away from him. Then, with his shoulders lifting and falling repeatedly, as if he was trying to uncage a painful tension in his neck, he stood staring after the horse and man.

  The only sound in the night was the clink of a bridle and the soft shuffle of hooves in the dirt.

  ‘Comrade Chairman Fomenko,’ the small man called out sharply, ‘don’t push the horse too hard today. His leg is still sore and needs—’

  In response the rider shortened the reins and pushed the animal into a canter and then a gallop. Steadily, man and horse disappeared towards the far end of the village until their outline merged with the night and they were gone.

  ‘Comrade Chairman Fomenko,’ the small man growled once more, and spat fiercely into the dust. Alone in the street and with the lightness stolen from his step, he headed up the road towards where Sofia was hiding.

  By now she was shaking. She slid away into the blackness behind the church and rested her burning cheek against its cool bricks. The rider wasn’t Vasily - or Mikhail Pashin - after all, but someone called Fomenko. Fomenko! Damn the man! And damn her own stupidity! She’d got it wrong. As she wrapped her arms round herself, disappointment lay like a cold lead coffin in her stomach.

  What else had she got wrong?

  8

  ‘The stranger is here. I can feel it. She’s close.’

  The words vibrated in the dark room and stirred the night air inside the small izba at the far end of Tivil, where two dark-haired figures leaned close across a table within an uncertain circle of light. A measured sprinkle of aromatic powder sent a spiral of flashes swirling out from the single candle flame that burned before them. Together they inhaled its delicate fragrance.

  ‘I’ve drawn her close,’ Rafik murmured. ‘So close I can hear her heartbeat in Tivil.’

  His hand hovered over a black cloth, on which lay a heavy crystal sphere. It gleamed, shimmered and seemed to pulse in the darkness as the gypsy’s hand circled above it, slow and attentive, listening to its voice.

  ‘What do you hear?’ whispered the olive-skinned girl.

  ‘I hear her heart tearing. I hear blood spilling, drop by drop, and yet . . . I hear her laughing.’ The sound was sweet as birdsong in his ears. ‘Now tell me, Zenia, what you see.’

  The girl swirled the copper goblet that stood in front of her, so that the dark damp leaves inside it caught a glimmer of the wavering light. Rafik loved to watch his daughter at work, to observe the passion for it that burned in her black eyes as she bent close. Though her gypsy skills differed greatly from his own, they seemed to bring her greater joy than his ever brought to h
im. He could feel her excitement burst forth, filling the drab little room with life, yet at the same time she was as fragile as blossom in springtime. It pleased his soul and he gave thanks once more to the spirit of her long-dead mother. His own skills lay more like a heavy weight in his mind, like a meal that was too rich for the stomach and which had left it glutted and uncomfortable, churning over on itself on the edge of pain. That’s how his mind felt now.

  ‘Zenia, what do you see?’

  ‘I see danger, a dark grey coat of danger, trailing behind her as she comes to Tivil.’

  Silence, cold as moonlight, settled in the room.

  ‘More?’ Rafik demanded.

  The girl shook her tangle of wild black curls and shifted the goblet. She touched her lips to its rim and closed her eyes.

  ‘It’s wreathed in smoke,’ she breathed, but her eyelids fluttered, fast and fretful. ‘Behind the veil of smoke I see something else, something that sparkles brighter than the sun itself.’ She pursed her full red lips and shook her head to clear the image. ‘She seeks it, but it carries a shadow on it. It is the shadow of death.’

  ‘Does she understand why she is here?’

  ‘She understands so little . . .’

  Her hand was starting to tremble and Rafik could sense the layers of darkness descending on her mind. Quickly he reached out, removed the warm goblet from her fingers and silently touched a finger to his daughter’s wide forehead. Her eyes brightened.

  ‘She must choose,’ he said. ‘A fork in the road. One path to life, one path to death.’

  He rested his head in his hands, tracing with a fingertip the dull ache that ran like a scar between his eyes, and pondered his words. ‘It is so - for all of us.’

  9

  Sofia was standing outside the kuznitsa, the smithy.

  The old weather-beaten door was locked and she worked fast, digging the point of her blade into the dried-out wood around the lock. In less than two minutes she was inside the kuznitsa.

  It was a long time since she’d been in any kind of smithy but instantly the smell of scorched iron enveloped her, stinging her mind with childhood memories as it crept out of the heavy beams. She fumbled in the rawhide pouch that hung from her waist - damn it, what was wrong with her? She was still shaken by her experience tonight, by her unguarded eagerness to claim any man who looked roughly the right age as Vasily. It had shocked her. She wouldn’t make the same mistake again. More caution. She pushed a strand of fair hair out of her eyes and at last found her precious box of matches, took one out and struck it.

  In the sudden flare the darkness edged backwards and Sofia felt better. She licked her dry lips and looked around. The smithy was narrow. Above her she could just make out that the roof was made of sods of turf packed down on blackened laths. One wall was hung neatly with the tools of the trade: tongs and hammers; bellows and pincers; all kinds of blades and chisels. This smith was a tidy man. Just as the flame burned down to her fingers, Sofia reached out into the darkness and her hand closed round the haft of a small axe. The church lock wouldn’t stand a chance against it.

  Moving fast, she emerged into the street and retraced her steps to the church. But as she approached it, she was aware of feeling light-headed. She hadn’t eaten all day, and only a handful of berries had passed her lips yesterday. This was her opportunity to fill her stomach. As the night breeze drifted up from the river that threaded through the valley, carrying with it the warning scent of woodsmoke, she crept on past the church and chose the last izba before the tangle of rocks and forest. From there escape into the trees would be easy if she was disturbed. She ducked low and slipped round to its vegetable plot at the back.

  She peered through the blackness at the shabby wooden walls, patched in places with rough timber, a big fat water butt and a roof line as knobbly as a goat’s back, but everything looked quiet. Searching among the rows of vegetables she yanked up a couple of cabbages and thrust them into her pouch, then dug down with the axe and scrabbled from the earth whatever came to hand: a young beetroot, an onion, a radish. She glanced in the direction of the house, nerves taut, but the black shape of the izba remained solid and silent. She rubbed the radish against her sleeve and opened her mouth to bite off the end.

  But before her teeth could close, a blow to the back of her head lifted her off her knees and sent her spiralling into blackness.

  Sofia shuddered. Where the hell was she? For one appalling moment she believed she was back in the iron grip of the labour camp. Maybe a crack on her head from one of the bastard guards amusing himself with a rifle butt. But no, she could hear a young goat bleating and stamping its feet somewhere nearby, and she knew for a fact there were no goats in the Zone. Besides, she was lying on a bed, not a bunk. Her hands brushed against soft cotton sheets under her and she knew the camp Commandant would not be so obliging. So. Not Davinsky Camp then.

  But where?

  She tried opening her eyes, surprised she hadn’t thought of it before. But the light stabbed spear points straight into her brain and she heard a voice cry out in pain. Instantly a spoon touched her lips, a male voice murmured soft words she couldn’t understand and a sickly sweet liquid trickled down her throat. Seconds later, she felt herself sliding backwards, skimming over fields as agile as a dipping swallow, and coming to rest in the warm black pool of the Neva at low tide.

  She slept.

  Sofia struggled to the surface.

  Time. It floated from her grasp.

  Faces drifted in and out.

  Once a voice cursed, a female voice. Sofia found herself telling it all about the wolf and the boy with the tawny eyes in the forest, and about the long dangerous journey from the northern taiga all the way to Tivil. She told how her feet bled until she stole a pair of valenki and how at one time when she was starving in the forest, she could actually hear music in the form of bright flashes. A Rachmaninov symphony, like lights in the dark green world that had devoured her.

  It was only when she’d finished that she realised she’d forgotten to open her mouth to say any of these things, but by then she was too tired. So she slept.

  A noise. A scratching sound that scraped on the empty cavern of her mind. Remembrance came quickly. She lay still and opened her eyes just the faintest of cracks. The effort it took astonished her, but the thin strip of light that flickered between her lashes brought reality tumbling into focus and it didn’t look so bad. She began to hope.

  A mass of wild dark hair, that’s what she saw first, around a young female face. A wide forehead and strong red lips. The person was sitting in a stiff-backed chair beside Sofia’s bed, bent over something on her lap. That’s where the noise was coming from. Without moving her head Sofia tried to take in her surroundings, lifting her eyelids a fraction more, but the sight of the room set her sluggish heart racing.

  It was like no room she’d ever seen. The low ceiling was plastered and painted midnight blue, a hundred stars glittering and shimmering across it and a pale ethereal moon in each corner. Strange coloured planets with rings of white ice seemed to swirl among them, creating a blur that Sofia knew was not just in her unsteady head. And at the centre of this strange ceiling lay a huge painted eye at least a metre across. It was shaped like a diamond, its pupil as black as tar and it stared down at her on the bed. It gave her the shudders. She looked away. The movement was slight, but instantly the dark head lifted and large black eyes fixed on hers. They were suspicious.

  ‘You’re awake.’ It wasn’t a question.

  Sofia tried to nod but the thundering pain at the back of her skull burrowed deeper, so instead she blinked. Her mouth was bone dry and her tongue too heavy to use.

  ‘You must sleep.’

  Her guardian stood up and Sofia could see the objects in her hand. They were a pestle and mortar. She caught a glimpse of small shiny black seeds, some ground to a powder.

  ‘No,’ Sofia mouthed.

  The faintest of smiles touched the full red lips, but didn’t reach
her eyes. ‘Yes.’

  Sofia felt a sharpening of her senses. She’d been wrong in thinking this person a full-grown woman. Despite the abundant curves of her breasts and hips, which were clothed in a delicately embroidered black dress with colourful stitching, glossy birds and butterflies peeping out between the folds of her skirt, she was little more than a girl. Sixteen or seventeen years old, she had a young girl’s translucent skin and long unruly curls that sprang to life at every turn of her head.

  Across the room she started to pour liquid out of a dark brown bottle into a spoon. It smelled of musty earth and damp forests. Wary of what was going on, Sofia took a deep breath and sat up. Instantly the room and the girl cartwheeled in a blaze of colour that set Sofia’s teeth on edge. Slowly she forced everything back into place, but not before she leaned over the edge of the bed and vomited, nothing more than a dribble of saliva on to the hessian matting that covered the floor.

  ‘Who are you?’ she managed to ask the girl.

  ‘I am Zenia Ilyan.’ Her voice was low and full of a kind of heat, as if her blood flowed fast.

  ‘Why am I here?’

  The girl came over to the bed, reached out a hand and touched the nape of Sofia’s neck. Gently the fingers started to massage it.

  ‘You’re here because you needed help. Now lie back.’

  The girl eased Sofia’s shoulders down on to the pillow, one hand wiping the sweat from Sofia’s forehead while the other nudged a spoon against her lips.

 
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