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63

The pebble crouched in Sofias hand and she didnt move, didnt breathe.

Rafik, dont leave me.

The words trailed desperately out of her, but Rafik was gone. The pain of it pooled in her chest and she closed her eyes, but dark places had started to open up in her mind, lonely places she didnt want to visit. She shivered uncontrollably.

Then warm arms were around her and the air rushed back into her lungs. Mikhail was speaking to her. She didnt hear the words but she heard the love in them, felt the strength of them banish the loneliness.

Come, he said.

He led her to where Rafik lay in the snow. Zenia had turned over her fathers body so that his black eyes gazed sightlessly up at a crow that hovered overhead, its ragged wings whispering words only he could hear. The gypsy girl lay across Rafiks chest, her wild tangle of black hair writhing, dry sobs shaking her. Around her stood the teacher, blacksmith and priest, their faces grey with shock. Snowflakes had started to come spinning down in great white spirals, the first icy blast of a purga, a sudden snowstorm, and dimly Sofia became aware of angry voices behind her. She turned to see Aleksei Fomenko, a tall and broad figure in his fufaika coat, arguing with the OGPU officer. The wolfhound as always was at his side.

You had no right to come into my village to arrest a kolkhoz member without informing me first.

I am not answerable to a village Chairman.

It looks like youve more than done your job, Fomenko growled with fury. Now leave.

My men will search the gypsys house first.

No, Sofia whispered. The strange mystical contents that lay therein would condemn the whole village.

Mikhail stepped forward to stand beside Fomenko, eyes narrowed against the falling snow. Look, he was just a gypsy who was good with horses, nothing more; a man who understood their moods and could get a solid days work out of them. And now hes dead. Youll find nothing in his house except a few pots of stinking grease for softening bridles.

So you knew this Enemy of the People? the officer demanded with interest.

Sofias heart slid somewhere cold.

But Mikhail was careful. I knew him only as someone who lived in Tivil. We didnt share a glass of vodka together, if thats what you mean. He nodded at the officer and banged his hands on his arms in a noisy show of the shivers. Its cold, comrade. The coming storm will trap you here in Tivil if you dont hurry. Get back to Dagorsk with your men, this business is finished.

Sofia could feel an uneasy suspension of breath around her and, barely noticeable in the darkening of the light, she moved close and touched the officers pale horse on its big shoulder muscle. It bared its teeth but didnt bite, though the white threads of its tail twitched like serpents. Leave. Just leave. After a long thoughtful moment the officer swung his horses head and, hunched against the wind, cantered off through the snow at the head of his troop. The purga swallowed them.


The figures stood motionless in the moment of shock that followed, then Mikhail quickly wrapped one arm round Sofia, the other round Pyotr. We must get Rafiks body out of the storm.

But before they could move, Elizaveta spoke out in a voice that was powerful against the rising wind.

Listen to us, Sofia.

Four figures stood in a line, blocking the path into the village. Priest Logvinov, Elizaveta Lishnikova, Pokrovsky and the weeping gypsy girl. The blacksmith had lifted Rafiks limp body into his arms and Zenias hand rested on her fathers dark head.

Sofia, Elizaveta said, we ask you to take Rafiks place.

No.

Sofia, Pokrovsky said, you are needed.

You are needed. Rafiks words.

Sofia recoiled. No.

A sound, rustling, seemed to brush against her mind. She shook her head sharply. No.

Sofia. The priest raised a hand into the snow-laden air between them but carved no cross this time. God will grant you strength. You are the one who can help care for our village. Rafik knew it, he believed in you.

I have faith in you. His final words to her.

Nyet. No. She inhaled deeply, ice stinging her lungs. Mikhail, its dangerous. Tell them.

Fomenko was standing to one side, observing them in silence, his eyes intense and curious. But Sofias eyes were drawn to the road into Tivil and she felt it pull at her, as powerfully as the moon pulls the tide. Through the snow that was now falling fast, the village drifted into view, the izbas waiting.

Mikhail took her hand in his. My love, it has to be your decision. Yours alone.

I dont have the strength. Not like Rafik.

We will help you.

Sofia looked at the circle of people around her. With a rush she knew that the life shed been pretending she and Mikhail could lead elsewhere was never destined to happen.

Ill be with you, Mikhail said, his hand tightening on hers.

The sound of Tivil breathing came to her. She didnt want it to die, and somehow she sensed that the decision had been made long ago, before she was born. Was there any truth in what Rafik had told her, that she had inherited a special gift as the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter? She didnt know. She knew only that from him she had started to learn a way of applying her mind, a way of shifting sand. She looked around her in the swirling snow, at these people who believed in her and who cared so passionately for their village, and she felt for the first time a huge sense of belonging. Here was a place that pulled at her heart, a place that was home. And she owed it to Anna. My dear Anna, grow well and strong again. Its because of you that I am here, with this man at my side. Spasibo.

Ill stay, she said simply.


| Under a Blood Red Sky | c