Sofia was desperate. She couldn’t find the boy. She slipped between the izbas, hugging the darkness, avoiding the torches and the swaying lamps and the voices giving orders. She searched everywhere but he was gone.
In the chaos around her she seized the shoulder of a woman who was hurrying from her house, a scarf hiding her face from the troops that had fanned out through the village.
‘Have you seen Pyotr Pashin?’
But the woman scuttled past her, bent double over a sack clutched in her arms, and melted away into the forest. In the centre of the single street, blocking any movement, was a hefty truck, growling noisily and edging its way from house to house. At the back it had an uncovered flatbed that was already piled with more than a dozen sacks of various shapes and sizes, men in uniform hurling them up to a pair of young soldiers who were efficiently stacking them. Sofia tried to edge past it.
‘Dokumenti? Identity papers?’
Sofia swung round. Behind her a man was holding out his hand expectantly. He wore a long coat that flapped around his ankles, and on the bridge of his nose a rimless pair of spectacles were spattered with rain.
‘Dokumenti? ’ he repeated.
‘They’re in my house, just over there.’ Calm, keep calm.
‘Of course, comrade.’
Walk. Don’t run. Sofia made her way past the truck and down behind one of the houses. Everywhere voices were raised in anger and entreaty. She reached the gypsy’s house, breathless, but it was empty, though voices at the rear caught her attention and she crept over to find Zenia talking quietly with one of the Procurement Officers. Silently Sofia slipped away and doubled back into the street. Where now? Where was the boy? Where?
She dodged down an alleyway between izbas and immediately spotted Mikhail Pashin. She opened her mouth to call out, but swallowed the words. He was carrying a torch in one hand and his other arm was round the shoulders of a young woman, so that their heads were close. Sofia recognised her at once. The mother of the blond child, Misha, the one to whom she told the story.
It was like drowning. She felt her lungs fill with something that wasn’t air.
He was walking Lilya Dimentieva into her house as if he owned it; Mikhail Pashin was slinking to his lover’s bed. Sofia leaned against the wall behind her. A harsh moan escaped her. He had one son. Perhaps two. What chance did she and Anna have? She crouched down on the damp ground as the rain ceased, and hid her face.
It was Rafik.
‘What are you doing out here?’ His voice was faint.
‘Searching for Pyotr Pashin. Have you seen the boy?’
He shook his head. It was that movement, slow and heavy, that made Sofia peer through the night’s drizzle more closely. What she saw shocked her. His black eyes were dull, the colour of old coal dust. Sweat, not rain, glimmered on his forehead.
‘Rafik, are you wounded?’
‘Are you sick?’
‘No.’ It was little more than a breath.
‘Let me take you home.’ She lifted his hand in hers. It was ice cold. ‘You need-’
The crash of a rifle butt came from within the house closest to them. He withdrew his hand.
‘Thank you, Sofia, but I have work to do.’
He headed off with an uneven gait towards a group of approaching uniforms and her confidence in him was shaken. He was going to get himself killed if he interfered.
Pyotr was running up to the stables when Sofia stepped out of the darkness and caught him. Her fingers fastened round his wrist and he was astonished at the strength in them. One look at her face and it was clear she wasn’t going to let him go this time.
‘Privet,’ she said with no hint of annoyance that he’d run off before. ‘Hello again.’
‘I was just going to check on Zvezda,’ he said quickly. ‘Papa’s horse. To make sure he wasn’t taken by the troops.’
She paused, considered the idea, then nodded as if satisfied and led him up the rest of the narrow track to where the stable spread out round a courtyard. Once inside the stables she released his wrist and lit a kerosene lamp on the wall in a leisurely way, as if they’d just come up for a cosy chat instead of to escape from the soldiers. Pyotr wouldn’t admit it but he had been frightened by the savagery of what was tearing his village apart tonight. Her blue eyes followed his every move as he refilled Zvezda’s water bucket, the horse’s warm oaty breath on his neck, and for some reason her gaze made him feel clumsy.
‘Zvezda is growing restless,’ she said, lifting a hand to scratch the animal’s nose.
Pyotr wrapped an arm round the muscular neck and embedded his fingers in its thick black mane. The other horses were whinnying uneasily from their stalls and it dawned on Pyotr that something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t work out what. It must be because of Sofia, he told himself. But when he slid his eyes towards her, she didn’t look threatening at all, just soft and golden in the yellow lamplight. He was just beginning to wonder whether he’d got her all wrong when she all of a sudden put a finger to her lips, the way she did in the forest that time.
‘Listen,’ she whispered.
Pyotr listened. At first he heard nothing but the restless noises of the horses and the wind chasing over the corrugated iron roof. He listened harder and underneath those he caught another sound, a dull roar that set his teeth on edge.
‘What’s that?’ he demanded.
‘What do you think it is?’
‘It sounds like-’
‘Pyotr!’ The priest burst into the stables and instantly checked the dozen stalls to ensure the horses were not panicked. ‘Pyotr,’ he groaned, ‘it’s the barn, the one where the wagons are kept. It’s on fire!’
His windblown hair leapt and darted about him as if the fire were ablaze on his shoulders. His angular frame shuddered disjointedly while he moved from one horse to the other, patting their necks and soothing their twitching hides. He was wrapped in a horse blanket that was more holes than material.
‘I am a vengeful God, saith the Lord.’ His wild green eyes swung round to face Pyotr. ‘I tell you, this is the Hand of God at work. His punishment for the evil here tonight.’
His long finger started to uncurl in Pyotr’s direction. For one horrible moment Pyotr thought it was going to skewer right into the bones of his chest, but the slight figure of Sofia brushed it aside as she hurried to the door of the stable. She looked out into the night and called out. ‘Come here, Pyotr.’
Pyotr rushed to her side and gasped. The whole of the night sky was on fire. Flames scorching the stars. It sent Pyotr’s mind spinning. Once before he’d seen an inferno like this and it had changed his life. He made a move to dash towards it but Sofia’s hand descended firmly on his shoulder.
‘You’re needed here, Pyotr,’ she said in a steady voice. ‘To help calm the horses.’
Pyotr saw the priest and the fugitive exchange a look.
‘She’s right,’ Priest Logvinov said. He flung out both arms in appeal. ‘I’ll need as much help as I can get with the horses tonight. Right now they have the stink of smoke in their nostrils.’
‘But I want to find Papa.’
‘No, Pyotr, stay here,’ she ordered, but her eyes were on the flames and a crease of worry was deepening on her forehead. ‘I’ll make sure your papa is safe.’ Without another word she hurried away into the night.