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.
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.
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.
‘No,’ Sofia whispered.
‘Yes. It will help you.’
‘No, I’m not sick.’
‘You don’t know what you are.’ Then very slowly, as if speaking to a particularly stupid child, she said, ‘You will heal faster if you sleep. When you are well, we will wake you.’
Sofia’s eyelids started to grow heavy, but she jerked them wide open when she noticed a row of candles burning on a shelf, sending shadows and the smell of tallow swirling through the air. Only then did it occur to her that the room had no windows. Like a cellar. Or a prison. The pain in her head ricocheted round her skull.
‘Sleep,’ the girl murmured.
‘Sleep,’ Sofia echoed and opened her mouth.