An extract from The Jewel of St Petersburg
Tesovo, Russia, June 1910
Valentina Ivanova did not intend to die. Not here. Not now. Not like this.With dirty feet and tangled hair and her life barely started. She looked down at her fingers in the fuzzy green gloom of the forest and was surprised to see them so steady. Inside she was shaking.
She always paid attention to fingers rather than faces because they told so much more. People remembered to guard their faces. They forgot their hands. Her own were small, though strong and supple from all the hours of piano playing – but what use was that now? For the first time she understood what real danger does to the human mind, as flat white fear froze the coils of her brain.
She could run. Or she could hide. Or she could stay where she was, moulded to the trunk of a silver birch, and let them find her. Dark figures were flitting silently from tree to tree, swallowed by the sullen vastness of the forest around her. She couldn’t see them now, couldn’t hear them, yet she knew they were there. They seemed to vanish like beetles into the bark, invisible and untraceable,
but each time she flicked her head suddenly to one side or the other, she caught their movement at the corner of her eye. A trail of air, thin and secretive. A shift of light. A break in the twilight of the forest floor.
Who were these people? They carried rifles, but they didn’t look like hunters. What hunters wore black hoods? What hunters had face masks with narrow slits for eyes and a jagged hole for a mouth?
She shivered. She wasn’t willing to die.
Her feet were bare. She’d kicked off her shoes after the long gallop up the slope through the fields. The sky was still dark when she’d crept out of bed. She’d ignored the hairpins and the buckles,
the gloves and the hat, all the paraphernalia that her mother insisted a young lady must wear at all times outdoors. At seventeen, she was old enough now to make her own choices. So she’d pulled
a light sleeveless dress over her head, sneaked out of the house, saddled up Dasha and come up here to her favourite spot on her father’s country estate. She’d plunged into the dark sombre fringe of the forest from where she loved to watch the dawn rise over Tesovo.
Her bare toes relished the black earth, moist as treacle. The wind had whipped her long dark hair in a fan across her cheeks and twined it round her neck. There was a freedom up here that loosened something inside her, something that had been wound too tight. It was always the same when the family left St Petersburg and arrived in Tesovo for the drowsy months of summer and the long white nights when the sun scarcely bothered to drop below the horizon.
That was until she saw the rifles.
Men in hoods. All in black and moving with stealth through the shadowy world of the forest. Sweat pooled in the hollow of her back as she dodged behind a tree. She heard a murmur of blurred voices, nothing more, and for a while she waited, willing them to leave. But only when the crimson dawn drew a line like a trail of blood between the trees did the men suddenly spread out, vanishing completely, and Valentina felt her heart thump in panic. A whisper? Was that a whisper behind her?
She spun round. Peered into the shadows but could see no one. A moment later a shape flickered. Dark and quick, off to one side. Another directly ahead. They were circling her. How many? She sank down into the dense mist that rose from the ground and, crouching low, she started to scramble through the thick undergrowth.
Thin grey ropes of mist coiled around her ankles and fronds reached for her face, but she didn’t stop until she almost crashed into a pair of legs crossing an animal trail in front of her. She froze. In her leafy cavern under the ferns she didn’t breathe. The legs paused, her terrified gaze fixed on a cloth patch that was badly sewn on to the knee of the trousers, but then they moved on. She jinked to her left and scuttled further. If she could find the edge of the forest where her horse was tethered, she could—
The blow came from nowhere. Knocked her flat on her back. She lay sprawled on the damp earth, striking out at the hand that seized her shoulder, sinking teeth into its wrist. Bone jarred on her teeth but she bit harder and tasted blood. The hand abruptly released its grip with a curse and she bounded to her feet, but a heavy swinging slap cracked against her jaw and sent her crashing into a tree, cheek first.
‘She’s over here!’ a deep voice yelled.
Valentina tried to run. Her head was spinning but she saw the second slap coming and dropped to one knee. She heard her attacker’s hand snap as it smacked into the trunk instead and a bellow of rage. Her feet were up and moving but the earth wouldn’t keep still. It was swaying under her, merging with the grey mist and flaring into flames each time she crossed a streak of sunlight.
‘Shit! Dermo! Put a bullet in her!’
The sound of lead rattling into the breech of a rifle ripped into her mind. She jerked behind a tree and saw her hands quivering uncontrollably on the peeling bark.
‘Wait!’ she called out.
Silence. The noise of bodies crashing through the forest ceased.
‘Wait!’ she called again.
‘Get out here where we can see you.’
A voice laughed at her, an angry sound. ‘No bullets.’
They hadn’t fired at her yet. Maybe they couldn’t risk the noise of shots – in the countryside, sound travels far. She tried to swallow but her throat was raw. These men weren’t playing games.
Whatever it was they were doing, she had disturbed them at it and they weren’t going to let her just walk away. She had to talk to them.
‘Hurry up! Bistro! ’ the angry voice shouted.
Valentina’s heart stopped in her chest as she stepped clear of the tree.
There were five of them. Five men, five rifles. Only one, the tallest figure, had his rifle slung loosely over his shoulder as if he didn’t expect to use it. The black masked faces stared blankly back at her and her skin crawled at the sight of them.
They didn’t put a bullet in her. That was a start.
‘It’s just a girl,’ one scoffed.
‘Quick as a bloody rabbit though.’
Three of them moved nearer. She tensed, up on her toes, ready to run.
‘Don’t look so fierce, girl, we’re just—’
‘Get away from me.’
‘No need to be unfriendly.’
‘You’re trespassing on my father’s land,’ she said. Her voice didn’t sound like hers.
‘The land of Russia,’ one of the hoods growled, ‘belongs to the people of Russia. You stole it from us.’
Chyort! Revolutionaries. The word swelled in her head, crushing all other thoughts. Stories circulated throughout the salons of St Petersburg about men like this, about how they intended to seize control of Russia and kill off all the ruling classes. She would be just the beginning.
‘What are you doing here?’ she demanded.
A loose lecherous chuckle came from the one closest to her. ‘Enjoying the view.’
She felt her cheeks flush. Her thin muslin dress was plastered to her body where sweat and sodden foliage had streaked the material. Defensively she looped her arms in front of her, but shook her hair back from her face in a gesture of defiance. The three loomed closer and one moved behind her to cut off her retreat. Caging her. She breathed warily. She couldn’t see their faces behind their black hoods but she could tell by the speed of their rangy limbs and the eagerness in their voices that they were young. The other two men seemed slightly older, more solidly built, and kept themselves further away across the break in the trees, murmuring to each other in low tones. She couldn’t tell from their masks whether they watched her or not but the taller of them was clearly the one in authority.
Why were they here in Tesovo? What were they planning? She had to get away, had to warn her father. But two of the young men started shouldering each other, jostling like jackals for the spoils.
‘Who are you?’ she asked in an attempt to divert them.
‘We are the true voice of Russia.’
‘If that is so, your voices should be heard in the Duma, our parliament, not by me in a forest clearing. What use is that?’
‘I can think of one use,’ the stockiest of the three responded. He touched her breast with the tip of his rifle.
She knocked it fiercely to one side. ‘You may claim the land,’ she hissed, ‘but do not think you can claim me.’
His two companions burst out into coarse laughter but he yanked the belt from his waist and wound one end around his fist, swinging the buckle threateningly.
Valentina’s heart slid into her throat. She could smell his anger on him, sour in the fresh morning air.
‘Please.’ She addressed the tall man among the trees. There was a stillness about him that rightened her even more than the unfocused energy of his men. ‘Please,’ she said, ‘control them.’
The man stared back at her from within the dark folds of his hood, slowly shook his head and walked away into the forest. For a moment she panicked, her hands clenched together to stop them shaking. Yet it seemed that he’d left instructions because the man to whom he’d been talking pointed abruptly to the one standing behind her.
‘You,’ he said, ‘deal with her. The rest of you, follow me.’
Deal with her.
They were well trained, she’d give them that. The angry one with his belt in his fist strutted away at once with no comment, the other alongside him. Behind her the solitary figure shifted his rifle purposefully and shuffled his handmade boots in the damp earth.
‘Sit,’ he ordered.
She thought about it.
‘Sit,’ he said again, ‘or I will make you.’
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