Saturday 10 January 2015

A few words on writing

I am a writer.

I’m not a professional writer. I haven’t earned anything from my writing, including from my two published novels. I am not one of those celebrity writers who are featured on magazines and have fan clubs and people getting them to autograph their books.

But I’m still a writer.

What does this mean? I’ll try and explain.

There’s this thing about being a writer, and that is that you can’t help it.  You don’t write because you want to, you write because you have to. You don’t make a penny out of it. You sacrifice all hint of a social life, spend all your spare time, and often sacrifice relationships, relaxation and peace of mind because of the devil on your back driving you on to write.

 Yes, it is a devil, a cruel and unscrupulous one, which it’s impossible to shake off. I don’t know how many times in my life I’ve resolved to stop writing, completely and forever. And for a couple of days, each time I do it – I’m excluding my phases of acute depression here, during which I also sometimes stop writing simply because I can’t concentrate – I feel great. I feel liberated. And then I begin to get uneasy, a process which rapidly escalates, until in a maximum of two weeks or thereabouts I find myself putting the chains on my hands again.

Ask any writer if he or she really enjoys writing, and I’ll wager the response will be a confused look. “What,” this look will say, “are you asking? Do you enjoy breathing?” You do it because you have to.

In fact, writing is bloody hard work if you’re a writer and not just a casual dilettante. You have to be a cruel critic of your own work, plotting out storylines, ruthlessly excising things which you’d like to say but which wouldn’t fit, keeping it all within the boundaries of suspension of disbelief, to make sure you don’t repeat yourself (recycled plots are the worst thing in the writing world) and all the rest of it. If you’ve ever written a story you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Sometimes – very rarely – it comes easy. Sometimes five thousand words can flow out of your fingers onto the keyboard in one evening. Mostly it comes very, very hard, and that devil keeps flogging, flogging away, until you finish it with a sigh of relief.

The strange thing is, in my experience, the easy stories often don’t go down nearly as well as the really hard ones, the ones you finished and then never wanted to reread again, the ones you would gladly banish from your memory.  Those are the ones the readers fall in love with, while the ones you love, the ones which came from the core of your being, drop away forgotten into the mists.

Such, apparently, is life.

If I could stop writing, I would. But I can’t.

So you will all have to suffer me a little longer.


Frankly, this article was written because the devil on my back was flogging me on. I’m ill and would rather rest, but I couldn’t without writing something. Normal service will be resumed, hopefully, tomorrow.

But, before I go, I’ve something to tell you.

1. I live in India, which is in Asia.
2. North Korea is in Asia.
3. Syria is also in Asia.
4. Kim Jong Un is in charge of North Korea.
5. Bashar Assad is in charge of Syria.
6. Russia's Putin is friendly to both Assad and Kim, and the West likes none of them. 
7. The Western nations are the natural guardians and owners of the world. 
8. Logically, therefore, Kim, Assad and Putin, being the Enemies of the World, are united in the Axis of Evil II.
9. There is a North Korean player in the local Football League.
10. I saw two planes flying over the day before yesterday trailing contrails.


                      11. I have a terrible cold.

Is this merely a coincidence? I think not!

The Axis of Evil II must have sent sneezetrails to do this to me!


Trite as it sounds, this is true. Sadly. [Source]

Friday 9 January 2015


“A plague a' both your houses!” ~ Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 1 (William Shakespeare)

By now, with the deluge in the media, everyone and his or her uncle, dog and pet rat knows that the office of the so-called satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked in Paris a couple of days ago, and twelve people (as of this writing) killed. 

Didn't someone see these guys dressed like that and get suspicious?

The perpetrators, we are told, were a trio of “Islamists”, of whom one has since “surrendered” (he claims to have an alibi) while the other two, alleged brothers, are, also allegedly, as of this writing, holed up in a building somewhere.

Why do I say “alleged”? It’s because as of this writing there’s still no proof that the people who committed the crime are “Islamists” (whatever that term means). They allegedly helpfully identified themselves and even more helpfully left behind a car full of flags, Islamic “literature” and an identity card. Well, they might have. It happens. But it’s also – only just – possible that they might be someone else pretending to be Muslim terrorists. This hypothesis has got some traction online, with a lot of people accusing various actors, from the French government to the Zionists, of being behind the murders. Some people even posit that there were no murders, and everyone was an actor, just like “at Sandy Hook”.

This isn’t the place to go into a discussion of why people are so reluctant to believe the obvious, and spin incredibly detailed, and increasingly fantastical, conspiracy theories to justify their viewpoints. But the simple fact is that they do, and the more evidence emerges to counter their viewpoint, the more obstinately they cling to it.

I suppose there is a chance – a very, very slight chance – that the Zionist murder organisation Mossad attacked the Charlie Hebdo office in order to sabotage France’s rapprochement with the Palestinians. (I’d want to know, though, why they didn’t set off a...truck bomb in a shopping district or something in that case. It would be much more effective.) I suppose it might be that the French government either had its own secret service attack the office, or faked the whole thing, in order to, I don’t know, clamp down on its own people’s domestic rights. I suppose Osama bin Laden’s ghost might have summoned zombies to do it as well. But, unless evidence is presented, I do not believe it.

Therefore, for the purposes of this article, I will take it as fact that a small group of jihadist Muslims attacked the Charlie Hebdo office. They may or may not be Cherif and Said Kouachi, the alleged “terror brothers”, and they may or may not have acted alone. But, as I will shortly discuss, it hardly matters if they did – the current situation in France, and the actions of the French government, made this kind of attack inevitable.

But why would “Islamists” want to attack Charlie Hebdo in particular? Well, this so-called satirical magazine (which has a humongous circulation of all of 60,000 from what I’ve been told) has made a career out of insulting, among other things, the Prophet Muhammad, the Koran, and Islam in general. It’s also racist, homophobic, anti-Jewish, and, in the words of this article, “no...decent person...could react with anything other than revulsionat some of the material passed off as “satire” in its pages.

For instance, and I’m deliberately choosing something which is not gratuitously offensive to any religion, here’s Charlie Hebdo on the schoolgirls Boko Haram kidnapped in Nigeria. Remember those kids, about whom such an outcry was made a few months ago before mysteriously sinking without a trace once the Nigerian government turned down foreign troops? According to Charlie Hebdo, those poor schoolgirls turned sex slaves are, wait for it, welfare queens.

[There are more Hebdo "cartoons" on that site for your consideration, and I strongly recommend that you check out the commentary, which I endorse completely and unreservedly.]


This isn’t an expression of free speech. To borrow an inelegant American word, it’s douchebaggery.

Nor is this, by any means, the first time Charlie Hebdo was targeted, either. In 2011, after another cartoon targeting Muhammad, its office was fire-bombed, though nobody was, fortunately, killed or wounded at the time.

Whoever attacked Charlie Hebdo knew what they were doing, incidentally. They picked a Wednesday, the day of the week when the staff actually turned up at the office for a meeting, and they knew whom they wanted, apparently, since they asked for them by name. Their intelligence was very good, as was their armaments, and their training.

I’ll get back to that armaments and training in a moment.

Now, I’ll take a minute to make a point: it is utterly unacceptable, completely wrong, to kill anyone, or hurt them, or imprison them, for expressing an opinion or point of view. It does not matter what that opinion or point of view is; as long as nobody is harmed by said expression of opinion, everyone has the right to say what they want. And they also have the responsibility for the fallout of that expression of opinion.

If Mr X makes a racist, crude, vulgar remark in public, and Ms Y criticises him and calls him a vulgar, crass, racist pig, there’s nothing X can do about it. If X makes libellous accusations against Y, he can’t hide behind “freedom of speech” when she drags him to court. And if he urges someone else, say Z, to take a gun and shoot Y, she will entirely be in her rights to get him done for incitement to murder.

Let me emphasise again what I’ve said many times, and what I explicitly stated here, writing on the Danish Muhammad cartoons:

“...the newspaper had no intention of promoting a free discussion as it claimed. As I said, its only purpose was to offend as many Muslims as much as possible.

By any logical definition, an action designed to offend another person comes under hate speech. Freedom of speech is not absolute anywhere in the world; you can’t go into a crowded theatre, yell “fire” and then claim that you’re innocent of the resultant stampede because you were merely expressing your freedom of speech. Similarly, if you go to scream racial epithets at someone, and that person reacts with anger, you can’t get away from the responsibility for knowingly and deliberately provoking that anger. That’s why hate speech laws exist.”

But of course the whole Charlie Hebdo “freedom of speech” thing had nothing at all to do with freedom of speech. It was, as the blog the Vineyard of the Saker says,

“...when Charlie Hebdo published their caricatures of the Prophet and when they ridiculed him the a deliberately rude and provocative manner, they knew what they were doing: they were very deliberately deeply offending 1.6 billion Muslims world wide... I am disgusted beyond words with the obscene display of doubleplusgoodthinking "solidarity" for a group of "caviar-lefties" who made their money spitting in the souls of billions of people and then dared them to do something about it.”

Isn’t that the very basis of Western Islamomisia? Aren’t people like Jyllands-Posten (of the Danish Muhammad cartoons) and Charlie Hebdo basically telling the Muslims of the world, “This is what we’re doing, we’re spitting in your face, and you can do nothing about it, any more than you can do about our drones blowing away your kids and wedding parties. And up yours too”? They are.

If Charlie Hebdo et al had been bloviating in a vacuum, things might have been different. But the situation is far from a vacuum. In the last twenty years, the West has bombed, invaded, occupied and destroyed numerous Muslim nations, every single time on false pretences. The cages of Guantanamo have been crammed with Muslim prisoners who were never charged with any crime and tortured in a fashion which in a just world would end with the torturers in a war crimes dock. Muslims are routinely discriminated against in every way, their rights as human beings trampled on, and racist rhetoric against them not just tolerated but encouraged by media networks, not to speak of antitheist fascists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Also, France is one of the most racist nations in the world, to the point that brown-skinned people on forced airport layovers aren’t even provided the free hotel accommodation that their privileged white co-passengers receive. It isn’t surprising under these circumstances that a backlash occurred. If anything, it’s surprising that it took so long.

I am, as anyone who’s been reading me for a while knows, a somewhat opinionated person. And I don’t usually keep my opinions secret. This not keeping my opinions secret has got me many, many death threats over the years – I’d estimate a hundred or so at the very least, and that’s not counting the threats of mere physical violence. That basically means that if anyone should be on Charlie Hebdo’s side in this imbroglio, I ought to be. But I am not. I refuse in any manner or fashion to share the online stage with this virulent, racist, sexist, homophobic, hypocritical specimen of gutter “journalism”.

Hypocritical, did I say? Why, yes. This same Charlie Hebdo, which insinuates that it is a martyr in the battle for free speech, tried to get the National Front party in France banned a while back. The National Front is another set of racist right wing fascists – but it, too, is non-violent, and its views ought to be as protected as Charlie Hebdo’s own. But that idea didn’t go down well with the magazine, apparently.

No, I am definitely not Charlie Hebdo. Unlike the people who unthinkingly hashtag themselves #jesuischarlie or whatever, because they are, like it or not, identifying themselves with the racist bullying of this piece of gutter journalism posing as a satirical magazine.

One can definitely be against both sides in a dispute, you see. Just because one side is wrong doesn’t make the other right by default, whatever Hollywood and the crude Western thinking process want to pretend.

Now just suppose, in my personal example, that one of the charming people who have so eloquently threatened to murder me with everything from a drone to a baseball bat actually carried out their intentions. Would that mean, just because they killed me, that my ideas were automatically vindicated? Of course not. Ideas stand on their own merit, independent of who holds them.  

Let this clearly be understood: though Charlie Hebdo was attacked, and its staff murdered, that doesn’t mean that its ideas are post-facto rehabilitated. It remains a racist, repugnant rag, and the cartoonists and editorial staff killed are still people whose opinions have no place in civilised society.

I find it rich, too, that the people who suddenly discovered the virtues of free speech are the same people who bombed a Serbian TV station in 1999, who repeatedly and deliberately targeted Al Jazeera journalists during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and who consider Wikileaks “terrorism”. These are the same people who criminalise “glorification of terrorism”, whatever that might mean.

Some free speech, apparently, is freer than others.

Now let’s look at the other lot. Let’s assume Charlie Hebdo – whose humongous circulation, as I said, is an astonishing sixty thousand – was known to all the 1600 million Muslims in the world, and angered all of them equally, and all of them wanted to kill the cartoonists and editorial staff. Even if that was so, those 1600 million Muslims didn’t lift a finger to attack anyone on the magazine. It was a team of three, even according to the authorities, who attacked the magazine office. And they had automatic weapons and military training and a measure of discipline.

Now where do ordinary people get their hands on automatic weapons, if not military training and discipline?

Answer: they don’t.

But if they’re prospective Islamic terrorists, they jolly well do. France (like its NATO ally Britain and lord and master USA) has been, as anyone who has been following recent history can’t but be aware, up to its nose in promoting Islamic terrorism. In 2011, it openly armed, financed and trained Islamic terrorists against the government of Libya. Its planes acted as Al Qaeda’s air force, destroying the army of the (strongly anti-Islamic terrorism) Colonel Gaddafi. 

French planes bombing Benghazi [Source]

Even as the victorious Islamist militias then turned on each other, France et al were rushing to arm and train and finance Islamic jihadist terrorists in Syria. If France had had its way – it was even more eager than the US – Syria would have been bombed into ruins in 2013, and the Islamic jihadist gangs would have been massacring people there with impunity, just as black Libyans were massacred in 2011 after the “revolution” “triumphed”. At this very moment, even as you read this, France et al are still helping arm, train and finance Obama’s cannibal headhunters vetted moderate Syrian rebels in camps in Jordan, and making absolutely no secret of the fact.

And let’s not even go into French, as well as other Western, support for Nazis in Ukraine.

If there is anything we ought to have learnt since the CIA-assisted anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it’s that cosseting jihadists always leads to blowback. Nor do jihadists keep their Western-provided arms and training to themselves. Even according to the French claims, one of the two “Islamist” brothers claimed to have been trained by Al Qaeda in Yemen, while the other had gone to Syria to take part in the French-sponsored war against the secular Assad government there.

Meanwhile, the most unsavoury, not to say criminal, elements in the West are eager to take advantage of this attack in every way possible – including demands to destroy

The perpetrators. Their enablers. Their ideologues. Their fellow travelers (sic)” [Source]

Any intelligent person ought to be able to comprehend that these terms are (deliberately) so vague as to be stretched to justify attacking anyone and anything. And people who never heard of Charlie Hebdo until three days ago are eager to shed blood, exactly as the warmongers on both sides desire.

I’ll end this with an observation. On the very day when alleged Yemen-trained Islamic jihadists murdered the staff of Charlie Hebdo, a jihadist bomb killed over forty people in Yemen. Did you come across that bit of information in the media?

No, I didn’t think so.

Thursday 8 January 2015


Note: This is a sequel to Retribution. If you haven't read that story I suggest you do so first.


In the dim light filtering through the heavy clouds, the far side of the river was a line of shadows pricked out with trees, and the water a flow of darkness between the grey mud that made up the banks.

Alyosha hated the mud. He hated it with an intensity that he could hardly believe himself capable of, the mud that got into everything, that clogged the tracks, that spattered up through the driver’s hatch into his face, so that he could taste it in his mouth when he ran his tongue around his teeth. The track leading down to the river was so thick with mud that as the tank headed down it, the hull front seemed to ride on a tide of the  glutinous material, and it crept up the glacis and into the tank itself.

“Napoleon called this mud a fifth element,” Tereshchenko had said earlier in the week. “You’re in good company.”

Akhmetov, the Kazakh loader, had stated in clear terms what Napoleon could go and do with himself.

“I can’t even keep the shells clean,” he’d grumbled, wiping the cases with an oily rag. “At this rate, we’ll have the gun rifling fouled.”

It wasn’t just the mud, of course, it was the cold. Everything was damp and freezing, and when Alyosha touched the glacis plate next to the driver’s hatch, it was crawling with condensed moisture from their bodies.

At least earlier they’d been with the rest of the battalion, among others who had shared their misery. But at dawn the Kombat had summoned Tereshchenko with new orders.

“We’re to go out in front as reconnaissance,” the senior sergeant had said when he returned. His face had been grim, the lines etched with mud and stubble. “Get ready and we’ll head out.”

Everyone had paused a moment to take that in. “How far?” Alyosha had asked at last.

Tereshchenko had shrugged. “Up to the river, if we haven’t encountered anything till then.”

The river was a blue squiggle on the page torn out of an old Polish atlas which was the only map they had. It had an unpronounceable name, the unfamiliar Latin characters further complicated by diacritical marks which meant nothing to any of them. Now, looking at it, Alyosha thought it should be called Chyornaya Reka, Black River. It was as good a name as any.

There was a straggle of buildings on both sides of the track, and Sasha turned the turret to cover them as the tank slowly churned by. But they seemed to be deserted, the windows broken, doors open to the rain and wind, and nobody to be seen.

“What I wouldn’t do for some vodka,” Fyodor said.

“Wouldn’t we all,” Sasha, the gunner, said. “But none for you, fishling. We don’t need a drunk driver. You’d get us in the river.”

“We don’t need a drunk gunner either,” Alyosha snapped. “You couldn’t shoot straight.”

With a sudden roar of engines, a flight of planes flew by overhead and towards the river.

“Are they ours?” Alyosha asked.

“Better hope they aren’t,” Tereshchenko said. “This far ahead of the main advance, if they’re our planes, they’ll bomb first and ask questions after.” But the planes turned away and disappeared, like a line of migrating birds.

“What do we do now, tovarish Starshina?” Akhmetov asked. “We’re at the river, so do we go back, or – ”

The next moment something smashed into the rim of the driver’s hatch and ricocheted away. Before Alyosha’s brain had consciously formulated the word “sniper”, his hand had already yanked on the lever that brought the hatch cover clanging down into place. His vision narrowed to two tiny slots of light. It was like becoming half-blind in an instant.

“Driver,” Tereshchenko snapped. “Reverse up the slope.”

Alyosha’s cold, muddy grip slipped on the gearshift, so that he had to use both hands to yank back on the clumsy transmission. He barely noticed the hammering as Fyodor fired the bow machine gun at some invisible target.

“Faster,” Tereshchenko said.

From across the river a heavy machine gun lashed at them, bullets spanging on the armour like hail, so loudly that they could hear them over the racing engine. Through the vision blocks in the hatch cover it was impossible to see where the fire was coming from. The far shore lay thick with murk.

“Stop,” Tereshchenko ordered over the intercom. A few seconds later the entire tank recoiled as Sasha fired the main gun, the muzzle flash briefly lighting the scene with orange. The fighting compartment filled with smoke as Akhmetov reloaded.

“Gunner, traverse left, thirty degrees,” Alyosha heard Tereshchenko say. “Range, four hundred.” The gun roared again.

As always when in combat, Alyosha felt peculiarly useless. Sitting behind the steering tillers, he could only smell the smoke filling the tank, feel the heat of the spent casings rolling on the floor, and wait for orders. He felt the sweat trickle down his spine, cold as the mud itself, and clenched his teeth tight, willing the wave of nausea that filled him to go away.

The machine gun across the river fell silent, whether destroyed or lying low it was impossible to tell. A couple of shots from the sniper, wherever he was, and the skirmish was over. But Alyosha kept his hatch cover down just the same.

Tereshchenko had been on the radio to the battalion. “The Kombat says we should stay here and keep watch,” he said. “The battalion won’t be here till tomorrow morning though.”

“I’m not surprised, with this mud,” Sasha said. “The trucks can’t keep up. We can’t stay inside the tank all the while, Starshina.”

“No, we can’t.” Tereshchenko paused. “We’d better set up an observation post in one of the buildings,” he said finally. “Driver, reverse a hundred metres, then left. We’ll park the tank between the two houses there. We’d still have a good field of fire if we need it.”

“We’ll need it all right,” Fyodor said, fitting a fresh magazine on the bow machine gun. “It never rains but it pours, rebyata.”

Rotating his neck and shoulders to get rid of the dull ache the tension of combat had brought to them, Alyosha reached for the gearshift again.

The building Tereshchenko chose had once been a small school. Peeling charts still hung askew from the walls, and some of the furniture was still in place, dark benches looking far too gloomy for anyone sitting on them to want to learn anything. Most of the blackboards were gone, though, and the windows were open moths set with jagged teeth of glass.

While Tereshchenko took the first watch, sitting at a window with the submachine gun and grenades from the turret bin, the other four broke up a few of the benches, piled the pieces in a corridor, and tried to make a fire. But the heavy old wood would not catch, until Alyosha fetched a bottle of diesel from the tank. Even then, it burned slowly and reluctantly, as if in sympathy with the cold.

“Just as well,” Akhmetov said. “Or it might have set the whole place on fire.”

“We could toast some of the bread in this.” Fyodor poked at the fire with another piece of wood, sending a shower of sparks floating towards the ceiling. “That’s about all we have to eat.”

The bread was hard and almost black, and it burned rather than toasted. But it was still food, and Alyosha’s stomach grumbled as he watched Sasha gingerly turn a loaf over and over in the fire.

“What’s that?” Fyodor snapped suddenly.


“Something moved – in that doorway.” Fyodor had turned away from the fire, tense, listening. “I saw it from the corner of my eye.”

“You’re imagining things,” Akhmetov said. “We searched the building when we came in.”

“We even looked in that room,” Alyosha agreed. “Nobody there.”

“I saw something, I tell you.” Fyodor bent forward, looking intently into the darkness. “Someone is in there.”

“Can’t be the sniper,” Sasha said. “He’d have shot us by now.”

Fyodor wasn’t listening. “Come out,” he called. “We know you’re there. Come out with your hands up or we’ll throw a grenade in. Come on.”

Nothing happened, but Alyosha fancied he could see movement, a shifting of shadows. “Come out,” Fyodor shouted again.

Both Akhmetov and Sasha had now realised he was serious, and they, too were listening intently. Quietly, the loader slipped a grenade out of his belt and hefted it.

“Get ready to duck,” he said calmly.

“Wait!” Fyodor looked back at him. “There’s no danger.”

“You just said...”

Fyodor didn’t reply. He was looking back into the room, and said something Alyosha didn’t understand. It sounded as though he was saying “Nadezhda”. But that was ridiculous. He couldn’t possibly have said that.

“Who’s Nad –“

Fyodor wasn’t listening. Slowly, he stepped forward, two steps, three, and then darted into the room. There was a brief scuffle, a shrill cry, and he emerged, pulling along someone by the arm.

“Look what I found,” he said.

It was a child, a little girl. She was appallingly thin, her hair hanging in bedraggled strings round her face. All she wore was a muddy cotton dress and a pair of tattered shoes without socks. Her bare arms and legs were blue with cold. And she was still struggling, hard, trying to pull away from the big machine-gunner.

“Where on earth did she come from?” Alyosha asked blankly.

“She was hiding under the benches,” Fyodor replied. “That’s why we couldn’t see her before.”

“She must have come out because of the fire,” Sasha said. “And maybe she smelt the bread.”

The girl gabbled something, squirming in Fyodor’s grip.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he told her. “ Stop fighting. Do you understand Russian?”

The girl twisted desperately, trying to tear herself loose. Her dress ripped suddenly, she ducked under Alyosha’s grabbing hand and rushed off down the corridor.

“Get her!” Fyodor shouted. “If she gets out in the mud we’ll never find her again.”

“What’s going on?” Tereshchenko shouted from upstairs. Alyosha was already running after the girl, whom he could just make out in the darkness. Her short thin legs carried her along amazingly fast, so that she managed to evade him long enough to throw herself out of the building’s back door. But she wasn’t quite fast enough for him not to see her duck into a house to the right.

“Where’s the kid?” Fyodor came up behind him, panting. “Don’t tell me you lost her.”

“She’s in there,” Alyosha pointed. “We’d better cover all sides, though, so she can’t run again.”

So that was what they did, Tereshchenko joining them as Sasha explained what had happened. Only Fyodor entered the house, carrying a torch from the tank. In a few minutes, he came out again, white-faced.

“I think you need to come in here,” he said.

“What’s in there?” Tereshchenko asked.

Fyodor shook his head. “You need to see it for yourself, Starshina. No wonder she was so desperate to get back in there. She was taking care of her mother, you see.”


The woman’s name was Malga. That much they could get out of her, and that she and her daughter had been hiding there for many days. How many, she could not say – she was in any case too weak to sit up, let alone talk coherently, her body burning with fever. Finally, they wrapped her in blankets and carried her across to the school. The girl ran beside them, staring anxiously up at her mother.

After she’d warmed up and eaten some of the bread and drunk a little water, she spoke a little more, her voice a rough whisper. She spoke in a mixture of Polish and very bad Russian, and in her fever she stumbled over words, so they had to guess at a lot of the things she said. And when she’d finished they looked at each other.

“I’ve heard of what the Poles and Germans did to the Jews,” Tereshchenko said softly. “But not that it was like this.”

“Threatened to turn the kid into soap,” Akhmetov responded blankly. “They threatened to turn her kid into soap. What?”

“But she isn’t even a Jew,” Alyosha objected. “She only married one.”

“That’s even worse,” Sasha told them. “That means she’s a race traitor, you see.”

“And she got away,” Tereshchenko added. “Both of them escaped. Think of what happened to those who didn’t. Her husband, for instance.”

They looked at the woman. She had fallen asleep, her breathing harsh in the silence. Fever spots burned bright on her high cheekbones. The girl sat by her mother, fiercely possessive. Her torn dress flapped from her shoulder.

“I’ll be getting back on watch,” Tereshchenko said. “Keep them warm. Get the girl a sheet from the tank so she doesn’t freeze.”

“What do we do with them?” Akhmetov asked.

“When the battalion comes in the morning we’ll hand them over to the medics.” Sasha shook his head. “I’ll tell you straight, I don’t like Jews all that much, myself, but nobody deserves to be treated like that.”

Alyosha looked at Fyodor curiously. “You know, I’ve known you for a while now,” he said. “But I’ve never seen you so worked up about anyone as you were about that kid when you chased after her. Why? She was obviously not a spy, was she?”

Fyodor glowered into the fire and put on another piece of broken desk. “I knew she wasn’t,” he said. “She just reminded me of another kid.”

“A kid? What kid?”

“Nadezhda.” Fyodor looked round at them. “Her name was Nadezhda.”

All three of them looked at him. “Who’s Nadezhda?” Akhmetov asked. “A niece? I didn’t know you had any family.”

Fyodor shook his head. “I don’t. Forget it.”

“No,” Alyosha said. “We’re not going to forget it. Tell us.”

Fyodor looked up at him, nodded to himself, and began.


This all happened over three years ago (Fyodor said). It was just after the invasion. Yes, I’ve been in this war right from the start.

Back then I was a loader on a Betushka. I don’t know if any of you have even seen one, but three years ago we were still using them, though they were no good, really. They would almost catch fire by themselves, and we’d say that even a sharp stone could poke a hole in the armour. And, of course, the unit commanders were under the direct control of the commissars, the politrooks.

These days you don’t know what it is like to be commanded by a politrook. They used to love to throw their weight around, just to show that they knew as much or more than the commanders, and they screwed up everything. Some were worse than others, and ours was one of the worst in the army. His name was Kazakov.

Those were bad days, when the war started. Our planes had pretty much all been wiped out on the ground, and the Nazis ruled the skies. We couldn’t even move without being bombed and shelled to pieces. But our politrooks always knew better than anyone else, and Kazakov decided that we ought to attack the Germans.

We knew it was going to be a disaster, but it was even worse than we’d expected. We never even got anywhere near the Germans before being blasted to pieces by their artillery. The few tanks which survived – mine among them – managed to withdraw. And then Kazakov decided he would lead us through a forest to safety.

Can you guess what happened? He led us straight into a swamp. Every single tank we had was stuck. We had to abandon them all.

By that time the Nazis were on all sides, and we were surrounded. Those of us who were left split up, and tried to get through the enemy lines back to our own side.  I started off with a small group – the two others from my tank, and a few more – but as we went we got separated, and sometime during that first evening I found myself alone.

I can’t tell you now how I spent the next couple of days. I ate leaves of plants and things I dug out of the ground – roots and tubers – with the only tool I had, a knife. I drank out of puddles. I slept only when I had to, dozing off leaning against a tree trunk until I forced myself to my feet and carried on again. And all this time the Germans were flying over the forest, and lobbing shells at random into it, because they knew we were there.

I think it was the third day when I walked, mostly in a daze, into a village whose name I don’t remember now – if I ever knew it. And, because I was half-starved and totally exhausted, I stumbled into the place hardly looking to see where I was going.

It was early morning, I remember, and the sun was a swollen red ball hanging in the east, colouring everything the tint of blood. It wasn’t a large village, basically a line of houses on either side of an unpaved street, with kitchen gardens and cow sheds round the back. If you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.

The street was narrow, unpaved and deeply rutted by cart wheels – generations of carts, all of the same axle size, had worn ruts like twin drainage channels – in the earth; but it was quite wide enough for the German half tracks. I saw the first one just in time, parked in the centre of the village, the crew still in the act of disembarking. If I’d arrived only a minute later, or if I’d come along the track instead of through the forest, they couldn’t have failed to see me.

I was between two houses, standing beside a sagging fence with a creeper growing on it, afraid that the least movement would give me away. In fact, it was probably my blue uniform merging with the blue morning shadows which concealed me for the moment. Still, I couldn’t remain undiscovered forever, and I was beginning to edge slowly back when I felt a tug on my tunic. I was almost too petrified to turn around and look, but finally I forced myself.

It was a girl, a small girl, just about the same age and size as that one over there. She pulled on my sleeve again.

“What?” I whispered, but she shook her head and put a finger to her lips. Then she beckoned me to follow her.

I thought – well, I can’t really say at this distance of time what I did think, but I might have imagined she was playing a game. But I had no alternative but to follow her, because as we came out from between the houses I saw more German soldiers walking along the border of the forest, between me and safety.

She led me through a back garden, past another house and into a third. It was the usual peasant home, nothing fancy, the kind where you stepped right into the kitchen because that was the most important room in the house. A woman was standing at the window, looking out at the street. She turned eagerly when the girl entered. And then she saw me.

“Oh,” she said. Just that. “Oh.”

“Mama,” the girl said. “I saw him hiding from the soldiers, so I brought him.”

The woman’s eyes were filled with fear – whether of me, or of what would happen if the Germans found me, I don’t know. But the fear made me uneasy.

“It’s all right,” I said. “I’ll go away.”

The girl spoke even before I saw the flash of relief in the woman’s eyes. “No, you can’t go away like that. Papa told me to help anyone who needs help, and the Germans will hurt you if they catch you.”

“But I can’t stay,” I tried to explain. “If they find me here, they’ll punish your Mama and you.”

“He’s right,” the woman said. “He has to...”

“Mama,” the girl said, and even though she was such a little girl she had real steel in her voice. “Remember what Papa said before he went off to the war.”

The woman sighed, her shoulders slumping. “All right,” she muttered. “But I can’t keep you here, whatever your name is. I’ll give you a suit of my husband’s, and then you’ll have to go.”

So that was what she did. Her husband and I were about a height, luckily, and though he must have been quite a bit fatter the clothes didn’t fit too badly. When I was done changing, I went back into the kitchen carrying the uniform and my tank helmet.

“I’d better be going,” I said. “Thank you very much for the clothes. I’ll be on my way.”

“Wait,” the girl said, and took the uniform and helmet from my hands. “I’ll hide these for you in a haystack somewhere.” Before I could say anything more she disappeared through the door.

The woman gave me an embarrassed smile. “You’d better sit down and have some breakfast before you go,” she said. Without giving me a chance to protest she poured out a bowl of borscht and a cup of tea. “My daughter will be right back, and you can leave then.”

I’ll tell you, that even after these years I still haven’t ever tasted anything better than that bowl of soup. It was the first real food I’d had in days, and the warmth flooded through me as I spooned it into my mouth. The woman sat opposite me, watching, sipping at her tea and not saying a word.

I’d almost finished the soup when she looked up over my shoulder at the door, and there was an expression on her face that told me it was bad news even before I turned.

Two German soldiers stood at the door, and there was a collaborator along with them. Back then, we hadn’t become familiar with those turncoats, since there weren’t that many of them, and they were mostly émigrés who had joined the Nazis before the invasion. This particular one was a short, stocky individual in a German helmet and a brown uniform. We were lucky that he wasn’t from the village, or I wouldn’t have had a chance. And we were also lucky that the Nazis didn’t summon the whole village to gather together before examining us, like they began doing later. Someone would certainly have given me away.

“So,” the collaborator said. “Who have we here?”

“I’m Maria Safonova,” the woman said. “And this is my husband, Viktor.”

“Your husband, is it?” The traitor peered at me. “Why aren’t you speaking for yourself? Lost your tongue?”

“I’m eating,” I said, swallowing the borscht in my mouth. “I don’t speak with my mouth full.”

That gave him a laugh. He looked over his shoulder at the Germans and said something in their language, and both of them grinned. “A civilised Russian villager, yet,” he said to me. “Why aren’t you in the army?”

I shrugged. “My call up papers didn’t come.”

“I see. Well, we’ll have a look in the house. Stay right where you are.”

One of the Germans stayed in the kitchen, watching us, while the traitor and the other one went through the place. I could hear things being thrown on the floor in the bedroom where I’d changed. If my uniform had still been there I’d have been toast.

Finally they came back. The traitor had a disappointed look on his face. “You,” he said to me. “We’ll ask you some questions.”

“What about?”

“To make sure you are who you say you are, and not another of the Ivans trying to get away. We’ve caught a good number of those. Now, what’s your –“

Before he could finish what he was saying, the German at the door was pushed aside. The girl ran in. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Who are these people?”

The traitor pointed a thick finger at her. “Who are you?”

“Nadezhda,” the girl said. Not Nadya, like any other kid, but the full name, Nadezhda. “Who are you?”

“Nadezhda,” the woman told her, “come here and be quiet.”

Instead she ran to me and threw her arms around my neck, which she could since I was still sitting down. “Papa. Who are these people? I’m scared.”

One of the Germans said something to the other. They looked together at the traitor.

“Is this your father?” he asked.

“Of course he’s my Papa,” she replied, putting her head on my shoulder. “And this is my Mama.”

The traitor made a disgusted sound. “Right then,” he said. “We don’t have any more time to waste, so we’ll be going. But we’ll be back if you put so much as a toe wrong.”

For many minutes after they’d gone nobody said anything. Then the girl smiled at me. “I think it’s safe now,” she said.

“You’re a remarkable young lady.” I listened to the sound of the half-tracks’ engines revving as  they readied to move out. “Quite the actress.”

The mother’s eyes held an expression I couldn’t name. “You’ll be leaving now, soldier?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. Somehow I couldn’t call her citizeness. There was some kind of barrier between us, like a glass wall. “Thank you for everything.”

“I’ll go with you till the next village,” the girl said. “I know these woods well, I can take you by the quickest path.”

I looked at the mother. She nodded.

“Nadezhda will go with you,” she said.

Nadezhda stayed with me till that afternoon,” Fyodor continued. “She took me past the next village, and the one beyond that. We saw it from inside the forest. It was a smoking ruin, every house destroyed. The Germans had been less kind to it than they had been to us.

“ ‘You go back to the army,’ Nadezhda said when we parted in the forest, after she’d shown me which way to go. She’d wanted to come further, to stay with me all the way, but I’d insisted she return to her mother. ‘And you beat the enemy, these Germans. Throw them away.’

“She said it with such earnestness that if the situation had been different I might have wanted to laugh. ‘Your papa is there too,’ I said. ‘He’s fighting the Germans too.’

“She looked at me and after a pause shook her head. ‘He’s dead. One of his friends wrote. We got the letter yesterday.’ She touched my arm. ‘He was a tanker just like you. I recognised your uniform at once, you see.’

“And I remembered the strange expression on the woman’s face. Even today, I can’t imagine the control she must have forced on herself. ‘Your Papa must have been a very good man,’ I said inadequately.

“She smiled. After all she’d gone through, the girl smiled. ‘You’ll have to do his bit as well as your own,’ she said. And then she rose on tiptoe, kissed me on the cheek, and was gone.”

Everyone watched in silence as Fyodor poked the fire and added some more broken wood. “I walked for another day before I found one of our patrols. I got back to our side with them, and luckily nobody asked questions about why I’d come back in civilian clothes. They might have, but they needed tank crew so badly that all they wanted to know was how fast it was possible to put me back in a tank.

“I don’t know what happened afterwards to the village. The Germans destroyed a great number of them later, and deported many people, women and girls, back home as slave labour. But each time I see a small girl, all I see is Nadezhda. After the war is over, I’m going to go back there, and I’m going to see if I can find her again.”

“What will you do if you do find her?” Alyosha asked.

“Tell her I did as she told me,” Fyodor said. He rose from beside the fire. “Is there a toilet in this dump? I need to pee.” Turning, he stalked away. They all watched him go in silence.

As he went, in the flickering light of the fire, Alyosha could have sworn he could see Fyodor’s shoulders shaking.

But that was really too ridiculous for words, he thought, and turned back to the fire.

“Who takes the next watch?” Tereshchenko asked, coming down the stairs.

Nobody said anything.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015

Part Three: A Rotten Bloody War

[Image source]

Wednesday 7 January 2015

The Question

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, there was a witch.

She was a young witch, still unsure of herself and learning her way. Like all young witches, she spent her time trying out various spells, and variations of those spells, and sometimes they worked. Mostly they didn’t. And sometimes, once in a long while, they worked, but in completely unexpected ways.

Late one night – she did all her witching at night, because that was the time when magic has power, and besides everyone else is asleep –  the witch was working at a new spell, with which she intended to summon a demon familiar from the nether world. The spells which do such things are closely guarded secrets, and each witch has to discover them for herself, unless of course she comes from a family of witches and has a mother to teach her. But this witch had no family at all, and she had to try and do it all by herself.

So she bent over a steaming cauldron, peering through the vapour at a tattered of parchment on which she had scribbled her incantations. Her eyes smarted from the vapours, and she wasn’t by any means certain anything would happen, but she was young enough to be willing to start all over again if she failed.

Before her, in a cleared space on the earthen floor of her little hut, she had drawn a complicated design, whorls like the petals of a flower interspersed with angles and circles. In the very centre of that design was a bare spot, directly underneath an oil lamp which hung from the ceiling. It was the only illumination in the hut.

Finishing her chanting, the witch dropped some red powder from a vial into the cauldron. It began to bubble ominously and the vapour turned thick and purple. Scooping up a little of the liquid with a ladle, she tossed it into the centre of the design and stood back, already knowing nothing would happen.

She was wrong. Something did happen. There was a huge flash and a blinding flash of light, and for a moment she feared she’d gone blind. When she could see again, something was in the middle of the circle.

It wasn’t a demon familiar. It was something tiny, which moved slowly and mewled piteously, like a kitten.

At first she thought it was a kitten, or perhaps a puppy, and because she was a kind-hearted girl, she rushed to pick it up, and cuddle it, and see if it were hurt.

It was not a puppy, nor was it a kitten. But it was tiny, and very far from home, so she kept it anyway.

Aeons passed.


Konika,” her aunt said, ”you’re not to go to the old ruin on the hill.”

Konika frowned, but not too much, because her aunt didn’t like her frowning. “Why not?”

“Because I said so.” Her aunt’s face softened a little. “There are snakes and scorpions up in that old ruin. And it’s all crumbling away. You might fall and break a leg.”

“OK,” Konika said unhappily. “I won’t go up there, then.”

Her aunt smiled. “I’m sure you’ll find plenty to do while we’re gone,” she said. “It’s just for today, after all. You could get your things ready for packing tomorrow morning.”

“Tomorrow morning?” Konika said numbly.

“Yes,” her aunt said brightly. “Your uncle and I. we’ve got your ticket for tomorrow on the afternoon train. It must be boring for a young girl like you here. By dinnertime you’ll be in the city.”

“But,” Konika said, feeling the tightness in her throat. “But I don’t want to go.”

“Well, you can’t stay here,” her aunt said bluntly. “I thought we’d explained clearly when you came that it would only be for a while.” She smiled, the corners of her lips just lifting. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ve found a good place for you in the city. It’s not a bad job, for someone who’s not finished school.”

“What...?” Konika began.

Her aunt looked at her watch. “We’ve got to go. I’ll explain everything when we get back. Your lunch and dinner are in the fridge. Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.”

Konika didn’t say anything. Her aunt looked at her a minute before going away, shaking her head. Konika heard her muttering something about the girl being ungrateful. The car’s engine started up and the sound disappeared into the distance.

Left to herself, Konika wiped away an angry tear. She hadn’t cried in a long time, and didn’t want to start blubbering, even though nobody was there to see. But the anger that rose in her was so great that it needed a release.

“Damn them,” she muttered. “Damn them.”

She decided to go up to the old ruin anyway. It topped the low hill behind the house, a formless mass picked out with a few half-standing walls. What it had once been, Konika had no idea. Perhaps it had been a fortress, or a monastery, or a castle or something. She’d never heard her aunt and uncle talk of it, not that she’d ever asked them, though she’d been drawn to it the first time she’d seen it, weeks ago. It was only when she’d mentioned it after breakfast that her aunt had ordered her not to go.

Without waiting any longer, lest she get second thoughts – she was always getting second thoughts – she set out at once. The hill, though low, was a very broad one, and the slope was dotted with scrub forest that grew over what passed for a path. Also, the day was hot, and getting hotter. She began to wish she’d brought along some water, and probably an umbrella for the sun.

Well, it was too late to go back for them now. She was too far away, and if she went back she’d take too long to come back up all this way again. Maybe she’d get sunstroke, or faint from dehydration, she thought. And she remembered her aunt’s warnings.

“I don’t care,” she muttered fiercely. “I don’t care if I go fall and break a leg. Or even bitten by a snake. Maybe they’ll be sorry.”

But they wouldn’t, she knew. They wouldn’t be sorry at all.

She must have said something of this aloud, because something happened that made her jump.

“Who won’t be sorry?” a voice asked at her elbow.

She turned. Someone was sitting on a rock next to her, staring up with watery eyes. It was a man, an old man with a straggling beard, wearing clothes which so closely matched the dusty earth and scrub that it wasn’t surprising that she hadn’t noticed him.

“Who won’t be sorry?” he repeated. Despite his age, his voice was quite firm.

“Nobody,” Konika said, and made to continue up the slope.

“Wait.” The man’s tone was imperious. “Wait and listen to me a minute.”

Konika turned back to him. “What?”

“You’re going up there,” the old man said. It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes,” Konika nodded. “Shouldn’t I?”

“Do you want to?” The old man’s eyes were no longer watery. They bored into her like knives.

“Yes,” Konika repeated. “I do.”

The old man nodded. He patted a rock next to him with a surprisingly large hand. Konika realised that he was probably a very big man, or at least had been. “Sit down here so I don’t have to strain my neck looking up at you.”

Gingerly, Konika sat. “You have come a long way,” the old man told her. “A very long way.”

“From the house down there,” Konika said. “Only from there.”

“And before that?”

Konika said nothing. Words trembled on her lips and fell away, to wherever unspoken words go.

The old man looked at her. “Why are you going up there?” he asked at last.

“I just wanted to visit the ruins,” Konika said.

“But,” the old man told her, “someone asked you not to. Who was it?”

“My aunt.” Konika said. And then the words began spilling out, faster and faster, but she could no longer control them. “Only she’s not my aunt, not really, and her husband, he’s not really my uncle, either. She’s just my mother’s sister. But then my mother wasn’t my mother either, was she?”

“She wasn’t?”

Konika shook her head so hard that her hair whipped round her shoulders. “I didn’t find out till after they died,” she said. “My mother and...father. Only they weren’t, not really, though they never told me. Maybe they might have, I don’t know. But they’re dead, in a car accident.”

“You were adopted?”

“I can’t even say that – not really. I was found, they told me, my...aunt and uncle. Right there at the funeral. They said nobody knew where I came from, and of course they couldn’t give me a home. But I could stay with them, for a while.

“So I came here. I thought I would hate it. But when I saw this hill, those ruins, I felt that this place at least might give me peace. For a while. But tomorrow they’re sending me away.”

The old man didn’t ask where. He stared at her so long that she began to fidget uncomfortably. “And they asked you not to go up there. Why?”

“She said there were snakes and scorpions, and the place was crumbling, so I might fall and break a leg.”

“But you’re still going up there. Is it to spite them, or because you want to?”

Konika opened her mouth, but the easy answer, the one that she’d automatically begun making, died on her lips. “I’m not sure,” she said at last. “A little of both, I think.”

The old man nodded slowly. “There are no snakes in the ruins,” he said.


“No scorpions either. There are lots of both on the hill, and in the countryside, but none in the ruins.”

“But –“

“The ruins are crumbling, sure enough,” the old man continued, as though she hadn’t spoken. “But they’ve held together for a long time. They’ve seen more centuries than you imagine.” He peered at Konika. “They have a story. One you need to hear.”

Konika had wanted to start up the mountain again, but the tone of his voice, and the look in his eyes, fixed her to the spot, She couldn’t move or speak.

“Once,” said the old man, “long, long ago, and far from here, there was a young witch who wanted to cast a spell to summon a demon familiar...”


The witch crouched down and rubbed the huge horned head. “They’re coming,” she said.

The vast beast sprawling on the stone floor peered up at her. “Are you going to flee?” it rumbled.

“Flee where?” the witch asked. Her young voice was filled with despair. “We’ve been fleeing for years now, and there’s nowhere left to run. At least I thought we’d be safe here, far away from anywhere. But even here we aren’t safe.”

The dragon raised its head with difficulty. It had been regenerating its energies, and that always takes a very long time for a dragon. “I can feel them,” it agreed.

“You too?” The witch’s face was a mask of misery. “If you can feel it too, they must be closer than I thought.”

The dragon turned one eye up at the high window on a wall. Through it, the night sky held a single star. “They will be here before the star moves away from that window,” it said. “But there is still time for you to escape.”

“But not for you.” The witch’s hand stroked one huge horn. “You won’t be able to get away.”

“I can barely move,” the dragon agreed. “But then I’m not important. I can’t help you in any way. If I were a demon familiar, the one you’d wanted to summon, I could have saved you. But I’m useless. It’s time for you to go.”

The witch shook her head. “I won’t leave you.” Now she could feel the threat, oozing up the stone of the outer walls, a tide of living darkness. “I won’t give you to them.”

“They don’t want me,” the dragon said. “They want only you.”

“We’re talking in circles,” the witch said. Her hand kept rubbing the dragon’s brow plates. “I haven’t had much to show for all my spells, have I?” she asked. “All I’ve ever managed to do is drag you away from your family, and bring you here. And I didn’t even intend to do that.”

The dragon heaved with its head, pushing her hand away. “Go on,” it urged. “Leave while you can.”

“I won’t,” said the witch. “So don’t talk about it anymore.” She put her hand back on the dragon’s head and continued stroking its brow.

Slowly, her head drooped on her chest and her eyes closed. Her lips moved, murmuring words nobody could hear. Perhaps she, too, was unaware of what she said.

And that is how the things of darkness found her, when they oozed over the tall window and down into the chamber, her head drooping, unresisting. And they carried her away, back to where they came from, to those who had sent them.

Lying on the stone floor, helpless to intervene, the dragon watched them go.  

And then, at last, it moved again. Its head rose, slow and ponderous. It had made up its mind.

What it was going to do would hurt it terribly, beyond the point of all agony, but it had no alternative.

Its beak opened, and it began uttering words and phrases in a language unknown to anyone but its own folk. At first it was hesitant, unsure. But in a little while the words came faster and faster, until they merged into a stream.

And time passed, and passed, and the dragon was silent once more.


That’s a sad story,” Konika said. “What happened to the witch?”

The old man looked away across the slope. “That isn’t the question you should be asking,” he said softly.

“What question should I ask?” Konika said, confused. “Is it about the ruins? But it’s just a story, isn’t it?”

“That’s not the question either,” the old man said. “But you will know the question when you come across it. And when you know the question, you will know the answer too.”

Konika frowned. “Why should I find this question anyway?”

But the old man did not say a word in reply. Konika waited and waited, but he seemed to have forgotten her presence. At last, she got up from the rock and continued up the hill. After a little bit, she turned back to look, but she couldn’t see the old man anywhere.

It was probably just that his clothes merged into the background so well, she thought, and continued up the hill.

It was still a startlingly long way. Long before she reached the ruin, she knew she could never get back down before dark. But now she was filled with a mutinous resolve. She would get up there and see what there was to see, and take her own time about going down again, and if the people who were not her aunt and uncle didn’t like it, that was just too bad.

The sun was hammering down, but her thirst and tiredness seemed to have vanished. She hadn’t realised just how much she’d resented her “aunt” and “uncle” until she’d spilled it out to the old man. And instead of making her feel relieved, she felt the anger shiver through her all the way down to her toes.

When she finally reached the ruin the sun was beginning to sink down to the west. In its light the remnants of the walls were a rich buttery yellow, the shadows deepening to amber. It might have been beautiful if only there had been some more form left to the structure.

It had been huge once. Even now, though it was collapsed on itself and much of it had merged back into the hillside, she could tell that it had once been spectacular. Statues, so eroded that it was impossible to tell what they had once been like, still clung to the remnants of columns. Broad staircases disappeared into mounds of earth and masonry. Each turning seemed to bring her to new things of wonder; carvings that seemed once to have spelt out intricate messages, now all but effaced; windows in pieces of standing wall which seemed as though they would have opened on to worlds so different from the one she knew that she would never be able to find their way back again.

It felt so good to her, so right,  that she didn’t wonder that she’d wanted to come up here since the first time she had seen it.

She never realised just when the sun set. The walls had turned from butter yellow to orange, and then to a deep blushing rose, before a tide of shadow blotted out everything around her. The sky was still light, but the night had already come.

At first she wasn’t worried. She could find her way back down, easily enough. All she had to do was get out of the ruins and...

...and she couldn’t get out of the ruins. She set out confidently in one direction, only to find herself lost among the walls, each familiar-looking turn bringing her back to another. In the gathering darkness, she soon could not even see where to put her feet safely.

“It’s all right,” she muttered to herself. “I’ll sit here somewhere and in the morning I’ll go back. And if they don’t like it, that’s just too bad.”

She’d only just thought this when she saw a light among the ruins. It was coming steadily closer, and she heard voices.

Her first impulse was to rush towards the light, and she very nearly did. It was only at the last moment that she hesitated, and that was because she heard voices.

There was something very familiar about the voices.

Crouching behind a wall, she watched the light move closer. It was a powerful flashlight, but in these ruins its beam looked pale and washed out, like an eye grown watery with age. She was reminded of the old man’s eyes.

The voices came closer. Though she couldn’t hear the words, now she could tell clearly who they were: the man and woman she called her aunt and uncle. At first she thought they had come up to look for her, but that couldn’t be. They’d said they wouldn’t be back home till midnight, and it had only just gone dark.

A little distance from her, they stopped, their flashlight on a slab of stone.

Very cautiously, she raised her head over the edge of the wall. The two of them were looking at the stone, her aunt leaning forward to trace a carving with her fingertip. There was something peculiarly repellent about the pose. Konika leaned forward slightly, to get a better look.

And then she realised that her aunt’s features were blurring and shifting. One moment she looked like her aunt, and then like something else.

Her uncle put the flashlight down and bent too, for a better look. One moment he looked like her uncle, and then he looked like something else.

Konika must have made some involuntary noise then. The heads of both of them snapped up, looking in her direction. But the faces she saw were not those of people.

Seconds later Konika was running frantically through the ruins, stumbling and falling, trying her hardest not to scream with fear. She could hear them coming behind her, going faster than she was, faster than they ought to have been able to move. She could hear their excited panting, closer and closer, and at any moment expected to feel their fingers reaching out to grab her –

The ground opened beneath her feet, and she fell.

It was a long fall. It was a long and very painful fall, down a rocky shaft, being bounced from side to side, and then something struck her head hard and everything was dark and silent.

She could not have been unconscious long. When she opened her eyes something was looming over her. She would have shrunk back in fear, if she could have moved, but she couldn’t.

The gigantic horned head lowered, eyes glowing green in the darkness. The beak opened. “I have been waiting,” the dragon rumbled. “I knew you would come.”

Konika tried to open her mouth and say something. Her lips would not obey her.

“You’re hurt,” the dragon said. “Don’t try to move.” Its wing swept over her from her feet to her head, once, twice. Warmth and pain flowed back into her body.

“They’re coming,” the dragon said. “You will need your strength to fight them.”

“I don’t...” Konika whispered. “I don’t know what you’re saying.”

“But you do,” the dragon said. “I knew you would return someday, because I took them from you. It cost me thousands of years of life, but I did it. And I knew you would come back. And they will, too.” It cocked its huge head. “Can you feel them?”

And now she could feel them, slipping down the shaft behind her, no longer even remotely human, living tides of darkness. She could feel their excitement, their desire to get to her.

But why did they want her?

“Who am I?” she whispered. And, in that moment, she knew that it was the question – and she knew the answer.

“Rise up,” the dragon said, and she rose up from the floor, and turned as the living dark seeped into the ordinary dark of the chamber, and pooled on the floor.

And then the words came unbidden to her lips, words she did not know how to say, words she must have drawn from somewhere deep in the aeons that had passed between now and then, and the darkness on the floor twitched and turned and tried to crawl away. And she said more words, and flames rose from the floor, and the oily pools of dark on the floor were gone.

Then the memories came, so that she bent over, hugging herself with the anguish of them, the pain shaking her and the tears springing unbidden from her eyes. And there was the dragon’s great head, gently rubbing her side, and she howled with the memories, the time gone so long ago, the time that had gone and would never come again.

“It’s over,” the dragon said at last. “Come with me.”

“Where?” she asked, the girl who had once been called Konika.

“Anywhere,” it said. “There are a billion futures, and we can choose any of them that we want.”

She nodded, holding on to its horn, and together they walked through the wall of the chamber and away into the infinity of futures.

And, as she walked, at long, long last, she smiled.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015