Sofia was in the icy back yard of Mikhail’s izba when Priest Logvinov arrived. It was just as she was collecting logs from the woodpile that he appeared round the corner of the cottage and called her name.
Then louder. ‘Sofia!’
She’d always known this day would come. That this man would somehow be involved in the disaster that she could sense breathing, snarling, circling round the village of Tivil. The way a wolf nips and nudges at the heels of a moose before bringing it down, blood-streaked, in the snow.
She dropped the logs to the ground and turned to face him.
‘What is it, Priest?’
He was draped in a threadbare coat that reached down to his ankles and a black shapka with ear flaps, his green eyes flashing like summer lightning. He was breathless. He’d been running.
‘They’re coming!’ he gasped.
‘Who? Who are they?’
‘Where is he?’
The priest waved a long scarecrow arm. ‘Out there.’
She ran into the house and pulled on her coat. ‘Mikhail,’ she called urgently, ‘someone is coming. Rafik is waiting outside.’
Mikhail lifted his head from the intricate work of rebuilding the model bridge, his calm gaze immediately steadying her. One look at her face and he rose to his feet, two strides and his arms were around her.
‘You don’t have to go, Sofia.’
‘You have a choice.’
She nodded. ‘Yes. We could leave. You and I, with Pyotr. Right now. We could grab a few things and escape into the forest and head south like we planned and-’
‘Is that what you want, my love? Is that what you came back for?’
Their eyes held, then she leaned against him, her whole body moulding itself easily into his, her forehead resting on his cheekbone, and she felt the fear drain away.
‘Hurry, Sofia.’ It was the priest’s voice outside.
She tilted her head back to look up into Mikhail’s face. ‘Will you come?’ she asked.
‘You don’t have to ask.’
He kissed her, hard and protective.
‘We’ll do this together,’ she whispered.
A figure in a fur coat appeared at her side.
‘And me.’ It was Pyotr.
‘More horses are coming,’ Rafik’s black eyes closed as he searched for them inside his mind. ‘Four of them.’
The group was gathered on the packed snow. Above them spread the large cedar tree. Fingers of white fog wreathed its branches and crept down to the eight figures beneath it, brushing their chill cheeks and soaking their hair. By the time Priest Logvinov led Sofia and Mikhail, with Pyotr determinedly rushing ahead of them, to where Rafik and his daughter were staring out into the shapeless distance, the sky had slid down from the ridge and closed in around them. The fog had claimed the valley for itself.
Sofia was surprised to find Elizaveta Lishnikova and the blacksmith standing shoulder to shoulder beside the gypsies; Elizaveta in stern grey, Pokrovsky in menacing black. Their silent presence here meant only one thing: Rafik was going to need help. Sofia slipped her hand into her pocket and let her fingers fret at the white stone that lay there. The priest raised his arm in the cold air and painted the sign of the cross.
‘Four horsemen,’ he announced. ‘You understand what that means? May God have mercy on our souls.’
‘What does it mean, Sofia?’ Pyotr asked impatiently. ‘What does it mean? Who are the four horsemen?’
‘Hush, Pyotr,’ Zenia hissed.
‘They’re soldiers,’ Rafik said.
‘Why are soldiers coming to Tivil?’ Pyotr asked.
Instead of replying, Rafik fixed his gaze on Zenia and he asked her softly, ‘Is it you who brings them here?’
‘No, Rafik!’ she cried out. ‘I didn’t, I swear I didn’t.’ Her black eyes glittered and her hands stretched out to her father.
Gently he enfolded them in his.
‘I always knew it would happen.’ The sorrow in Rafik’s quiet voice melted the air around him. ‘I knew that betrayal would come, but…’ his lips smiled at her tenderly and he raised her hands to them, ‘but I could not see it would be you, my daughter. My love for you stood in the way of my Sight.’
‘Rafik, no. No.’
He pressed his lips to her cold forehead just as the jangle of horses’ bridles and the creak of stiff leather came upon them.
‘Rafik, forgive me. I meant no harm.’ Zenia clung to him. ‘A careless word to Vanya, that’s all it was, I didn’t mean it. You know how I love you. I even torched the barn last summer to distract the troops from ransacking Tivil and causing you pain. Please forgive me, I-’
‘Hush, my beloved daughter. There’s nothing to forgive.’ He opened his arms to her.
She folded into them and kissed his cheek.
Priest Logvinov lifted his stricken face to the heavens, stretched out his arms in the shape of a cross and roared, ‘See her give the kiss, oh Lord. See, here among us is the Sign of Judas.’
Four shapes emerged from the white confusion of the fog. Men on horseback, bulky in their greatcoats and high leather boots, determined men who knew their own power. They were OGPU. The officer in the lead was scanning the group standing in the snow with a hard, arrogant scrutiny, his collar turned up against the cold and a calming hand laid on the neck of his pale-coated horse. Sofia didn’t like the horse. It had small, wild eyes.
‘Do any of you know the man named Rafik Ilyan?’ the officer demanded.
‘I am Rafik Ilyan.’
The other three horsemen dismounted. Sofia saw the teacher immediately link hands with the blacksmith and with the priest. Zenia joined them and they stood facing outward in a circle around Rafik.
‘We are here to arrest you, Rafik Ilyan.’
‘No!’ The word tore out of Pyotr’s mouth before Mikhail could stop him.
The officer glanced at him with irritation. ‘Get home to your mother, boy, if you don’t want a thrashing.’
‘I have no mother.’
‘You have Mother Russia.’
‘Comrade,’ Elizaveta spoke calmly, ‘I think there has been some mistake. Rafik Ilyan is a loyal member of our village.’
‘Why is he under arrest?’ Pokrovsky demanded.
‘My father has done nothing wrong.’ Tears were running down Zenia’s cheeks.
The priest glared at the intruders, his lips moving in silent prayer.
The officer smiled, satisfied, and nodded at his men. ‘Arrest the gypsy, then search his house.’
They came for him, and it was Zenia who broke the circle first. She threw herself towards the officer, clung to his horse’s bridle and begged.
‘Please don’t. This is all wrong, a mistake. I didn’t mean to tell Vanya anything-’
The horse tossed its head viciously, sending Zenia flying on to the trampled snow. Sofia ran to her, crouched down and put an arm round her shoulders, despite the sharp hooves dancing close.
‘This isn’t right,’ she accused.
‘Not right?’ The officer chuckled, his expression so amiable she thought for a moment he was agreeing with her, but the chuckle ceased abruptly. ‘We have information that Rafik Ilyan has been conducting anti-Soviet activities. Arrest him.’
‘What exactly is he accused of?’ Mikhail demanded.
‘I have already said. Anti-Soviet activities.’
‘That’s nonsense,’ Sofia said sharply. But she turned in a swift movement away from the officer, closing the gap between herself and the gypsy. Her eyes pleaded with him.
‘Rafik, help yourself,’ she murmured.
He shook his head. ‘I have no power to help myself, Child of the Stone. I can only help others.’
Sofia reached quickly into her coat and drew out the white stone.
‘Help me to help you,’ she begged.
His eyes locked on the pebble. Its milky surface seemed to pull at him so that he stumbled towards it, but suddenly the uniforms surrounded him. With a bellow of rage the big blacksmith charged forward, Zenia at his side.
‘If you take one more step, it will be your last.’ The officer’s voice rang out through the bleak landscape. A solitary crow drifted overhead, folded its wings and sank down on to the white fields in silence.
Rafik shook his head. He laid a gentle hand on each of his companions in turn; on Pokrovsky’s barrel chest, on Elizaveta Lishnikova’s proud shoulder, on Zenia’s pale damp cheek. He caught hold of the priest’s hand for a moment, staring deep into his eyes, then released him in a mute farewell. When finally he stepped away from them, the three uniforms moved with him.
‘Comrade,’ he called to the officer, ‘leave my friends in peace. I am the one you-’
Before he’d finished speaking Sofia stepped forward, her hands on the wrists of two of the OGPU men. She was pressing their flesh and murmuring to them. Time hung lifeless in the white fog. The metallic click of a rifle bolt sounded loud in the silence.
‘Get away from her. Come over here.’ The officer was gazing fixedly at Sofia but he was speaking to Rafik.
‘Sofia, don’t.’ It was Mikhail. ‘I love you, Sofia.’ His voice was urgent. ‘Don’t risk it all. You are needed.’
The two men were standing slumped, their jaws slack, their spines soft. Rafik was smiling strangely at Sofia.
‘Mikhail is right,’ he said. ‘You are needed.’ He placed his thumb in the centre of her forehead. ‘I have faith in you, Daughter of my Soul.’
‘I’ll say it only once more. Come here,’ the officer snapped.
Instead of obeying the order, Rafik turned and walked in the opposite direction towards the village.
‘Rafik!’ It was Zenia’s desolate cry.
‘I cannot leave Tivil.’ His voice carried to them through the fog and Sofia heard the gypsy’s words echo, resounding in her head, a split second before the shot rang out in the still air. Rafik’s wiry frame jerked. His arms flew out like wings, then he crumpled to the snow and a stain spread from under him.
‘Run, Pyotr, run! Fetch Chairman Fomenko.’ Mikhail’s voice sliced quick and decisive through the heavy air.
Pyotr ran. Sofia couldn’t feel the ice freezing her cheeks or the snow treacherous under her feet – all she could feel was the huge hole in her heart.