Copyright © 2010 by Barbara Davies.
Warnings -See part 1.
A WINTER'S TALE
PART 2 (CONCLUSION)
Mavra took the steps down from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs two at a time, and made for the tram stop. Now the receipt for the diplomatic bag was tucked safely in her pocket, she could focus on what was important: completing the final leg of their journey.
When she had left the airport, Pyotr was organising more fuel for the Cygnet, and Gwen was stretching her legs while Arcadian customs officers checked her luggage. Gwen had regretted not being able to come into the city centre with Mavra, but that would keep for another time and was probably just as well. If Mavra felt tired by the long flight, Gwen was clearly exhausted. Plus, Arcadia's capital city wasn't looking at its best, though the covering of snow and ice hid a multitude of sins. Things were getting better though. Each visit time she visited, Mavra noticed that more bomb craters had been filled in, and more new buildings had sprung up in place of those destroyed.
She boarded the next tram, and took the seat behind two old women smelling of garlic and cabbage. From their conversation, shelves were still poorly stocked, but hospitals and schools had resumed operation and there was to be a grand reopening of the ballet tomorrow night. Mavra had never quite understood what people saw in the ballet, but she had to acknowledge that its resumption would give morale a much-needed boost.
Her stop was approaching, so she made for the exit. She swung herself down while the tram was still moving and strode towards the barrier checkpoint outside the airport. The two guards gave her papers a cursory glance and waved her through.
Pyotr and Gwen were in the draughty barn that now served as a departure lounge, pacing up and down to keep warm. Gwen's face lit up when she saw Mavra, and Pyotr stubbed out his cigarette.
"That didn't take long!" said Gwen.
"Told you. Only ten minutes each way." Mavra halted next to her. "Any problems?"
"No, thank heavens. The customs officials are far nicer here than back home."
The Co-Presidents' signatures on Gwen's permits and travel documents had probably had something to do with that, thought Mavra. She arched an eyebrow in query at Pyotr.
"The plane's topped up and ready to go," he said.
"Then what we wait for?" Mavra took Gwen's elbow and urged her towards the exit.
It was dark when Pyotr taxied the Cygnet into its customary hangar at Kasholsk aerodrome. When he had turned off the engine, Mavra jumped down via the wing and turned to help Gwen do the same. While Gwen watched, she fielded the pieces of luggage Pyotr tossed down to her one by one.
"Almost home," she said.
"Thank heavens." Gwen let out a huge yawn.
Mavra set down the final piece of luggage: her kitbag. "Look after cases. I will fetch bike."
"Bike?" echoed Gwen in dismay. " I've never ridden pillion."
"No need to. Have sidecar."
The look of dismay deepened. "Side car?"
With a gesture to wait, Mavra jogged to the corner of the hangar where she had left her motorbike and sidecar rig. It took her a few moments to haul the tarpaulin off and wheel it back to Gwen. By then Pyotr was standing beside her, flying helmet dangling from one hand, logbook in the other.
He raised his eyebrows at her choice of transport. The bike's camouflage markings betrayed its Arcadian army origins-Mavra had got it dirt-cheap from a demob-happy soldier. Neglected, it was in a terrible state, but with some tinkering and tender loving care she had managed to get it running again. "How fast does it go?" he asked.
"Fast enough." She reached into the sidecar and pulled out the flying helmet, goggles, and scarf. "Here." She handed them to Gwen. "Journey not take long, but will be cold."
"Thanks." Gwen took them. "What about you?"
Mavra turned up her collar and pulled down her hat's earflaps. "I will be OK for short journey." She pulled off a glove and held out her hand to Pyotr. "Thanks for everything."
He smiled and shook it. "Glad I could help. Besides, a diplomatic mission to Cheltain will look good on my record."
"Yes, thank you," added Gwen, who had been following their conversation with a frown of concentration.
Pyotr gave Gwen a half bow. This time when he raised her hand to his lips, she merely threw Mavra a wry smile. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Gwen. Welcome to my country. I hope you enjoy your time here." He released her hand. "And now, if you will excuse me, I must report in." He brandished the logbook at Mavra and grimaced. "Paperwork. Always paperwork." With a wave, he headed off in the direction of the admin block.
Mavra watched him go, before turning her attention to the stowing of their luggage. If she strapped the kitbag on the back of the bike, one of Gwen's cases on the rear of the sidecar, and the other under Gwen's legs.... It was fortunate Gwen was on the short side.
"Is this thing safe?" Gwen tucked her hair inside the helmet and buckled the chinstrap.
"Of course." Mavra shoved the last suitcase into place and straightened. "Three wheels better than two on country roads. Especially under snow."
"If you say so." Gwen eased herself into the sidecar and made herself as comfortable as she could, given the luggage under her knees. She put on the goggles and tugged the scarf up over her chin.
Mavra undid the bottom buttons of her greatcoat so she could swing her leg over the bike's frame. With her left heel, she swung down the kick-starter and stamped on it to prime it, before turning on the ignition and stamping the lever again. For an anxious moment, the engine spluttered and coughed, then it roared into life. She gave the petrol tank an approving pat, and made herself comfortable astride the leather seat.
"Ready?" shouted Mavra above the engine noise. Gwen's goggles and scarf hid her expression, but Mavra detected a nod. "Chocks away."
She took it slow at first, getting the feel for road conditions-clear skies meant the top layer of snow had melted during the day and it was refreezing fast as the temperature plummeted-but soon, she had left the aerodrome's lights behind. It was a full moon, so visibility was good. Her breath plumed and frost crystals stung her cheeks as the bike streaked past snow-covered fields and along winding lanes bordered by frosted hedgerows. In the distance the river glittered, and on the road ahead a fox's eyes gleamed in the bike's headlamp and then were gone.
It wasn't long before they had reached the outskirts of Kasholsk. At the next crossroads, Mavra turned right and roared past Kiril and Ludmila's small dairy farm. After another fifty metres her house came into view and she slowed. She coasted onto the patch of concrete in front of it, and switched off the engine. The silence was deafening.
"Are we here?" The scarf muffled Gwen's voice.
"Yes." Mavra dismounted and went round to help her out of the sidecar. Gwen's movements were slow and clumsy, and Mavra heard her teeth chattering. She cursed and swung Gwen up into her arms.
"Must get you warm."
Mavra's boots clumped as she took the two steps up to the front door. She fumbled with the key, raised the latch with her elbow, and carried Gwen through to the kitchen. A loaf of black bread, a jug of milk, and a pot of soup was waiting for her on the table, and the huge brick oven-a staple of all Arcadian houses-was on its lowest setting, the basket of logs next to it refilled.
Mavra let out a pleased grunt. Kiril. Her neighbour was the only one with a key, and she had sent him a telegram, telling him when she was hoping to be back. He must have been in to get the place ready.
She sat Gwen on a chair and stripped off her goggle, helmet, and gloves. The hands between hers felt icy as she rubbed warmth back into them. She knelt, pulled off Gwen's boots, and set about doing the same for her feet. An anxious glance up at Gwen's face showed her that the colour was returning and the shivering lessening.
Gwen nodded and let out a breath. "That was cold!"
"Sorry." Mavra added more logs to the oven.
"Not your fault." Gwen cocked her head. "Hey! You carried me over the threshold." A smile played around her lips.
Mavra grinned in response.
"Was I heavy? No, don't answer that." Gwen watched her fill the samovar with water, add dry pinecones to its chimney, and light them. "Tea?" she asked hopefully.
Mavra nodded. "I'll just put the bike away."
By the time she had wheeled the bike into the purpose-built lean-to at the side of the house and brought the luggage in, the kitchen was comfortably warm and steam was spouting from the samovar. Gwen was half out of her seat, but Mavra waved to her to stay put. She capped the samovar's chimney, spooned tea leaves into a teapot, and added boiling water from the spigot.
While the tea brewed, Mavra stripped off her greatcoat and exchanged her boots for slippers, and helped Gwen to do the same. Then she made the tea.
They sat quietly at the kitchen table, hands clasped round the hot teacups, feeling the warmth slowly seeping back into their bones. Gwen's gaze began to roam her surroundings, a sure sign she was feeling better. Mavra was content merely to enjoy the sight of Gwen sitting in her kitchen.
After a moment Gwen's eyes met Mavra's. She looked as dumbfounded as Mavra felt. "Am I dreaming?"
Mavra reached across and poked her.
Gwen rubbed her arm. "I'll have a bruise there tomorrow."
Mavra smiled and resumed sipping her tea. After a moment, Gwen did the same.
When she had finished, Mavra put down her teacup and pulled the soup pot towards her. She inspected the contents. Kiril was a terrible cook; she hoped Ludmila had made the soup.
"You like Borscht?" she asked Gwen.
"Never had it."
Mavra pushed back the chair and got up. "Try and see."
While the metal pot was heating inside the oven, she fetched two bowls from the dresser and some spoons from a drawer, aware of Gwen's eyes following her every move.
Mavra turned to look at her. "Will eat soup with bread then go to bed. OK?"
"OK," said Gwen, smiling.
Bright sunlight peeking between the shutters told Mavra that she had overslept. But she felt neither guilt nor urgency given the arduousness of the past few days and the fact she had no appointments this morning. She rubbed the scar on her thigh, which had a tendency to itch, and, with a fond glance at the still sleeping Gwen, eased back the covers and put on her dressing gown.
A visit to the adjoining bathroom came first, then she opened the shutters and attended to the fire in the grate. Though she tried to be quiet, some noise was inevitable, but Gwen slept through the raking of the ashes and the adding of crumpled newspaper and logs from the basket without stirring. When the flames were licking hungrily once more, Mavra went downstairs in search of breakfast.
While the samovar heated, she searched the kitchen cupboards, cursing when she remembered she had used the last egg before leaving for Cheltain. It would have to be buckwheat porridge-she hoped Gwen would like it. If she didn't, there was bread left from last night, and honey.
The aroma of toasted buckwheat had filled the kitchen and hearty helpings of the grainy porridge steamed in two bowls, when Mavra added cups of tea to the tray.
This time when she pushed open the bedroom door, a pair of sleepy green eyes regarded her.
"Morning." Gwen yawned. "How long have you been up?"
Mavra kicked the door closed behind her and made her way over to the bed. "Not long."
She set down the tray on the chair beside the bed, and leaned over to kiss Gwen. The shadows beneath Gwen's eyes had faded but were not completely gone. "I didn't want to wake you."
Gwen stretched her arms. "Must be the bed," she said. "It's so comfy I could sleep for a week."
"Good," said Mavra. "Intend to spend much time in it making love to you."
"Mavra!" Gwen's cheeks pinked, but her eyes shone.
Cheltish women, thought Mavra with an inward chuckle. On the surface so shy, yet underneath.... Her thoughts turned to the curves beneath Gwen's pyjamas. Ah, underneath.
"Is that breakfast?" Gwen pointed to the tray.
Mavra nodded. "No eggs. Sorry. I must go shopping later. Is buckwheat porridge. Very warming on cold day." She helped Gwen to sit up, stacking the pillows behind her, and handed her a bowl and a spoon.
Gwen tasted the porridge, gingerly at first then more willingly. "It's strange. Rather chewy, but not bad," was her verdict.
Mavra stripped off her dressing gown and slid beneath the sheets. It was strange eating breakfast in bed with someone, she reflected, reaching for her own porridge. She hadn't done it since she and Lilya-She stopped that thought in its tracks. Strange but nice.
Gwen's lips curved as she caught Mavra watching her. Seconds later, a foot rubbed Mavra's ankle. She returned the favour. What did the Cheltish call it? 'Playing footsie.' With a smile, she leaned back against her own pillow. They ate breakfast in companionable silence.
"Did you say we need to go shopping?" Gwen set aside her empty bowl and reached for her tea.
"I go. You get more rest. Were exhausted last night. You must not catch cold or something worse."
Gwen gave her a peaceful smile. "All right." Her gaze travelled round the bedroom, taking in the furnishings. "You don't have many knick-knacks, Mavra."
"Ornaments. Souvenirs. Personal things you've acquired over the years."
Mavra remembered the shelves in Gwen's bedroom, crammed with odds and ends, some cute, some peculiar, all gathering dust.
"Have no knick-knacks. When house was bombed, all destroyed."
"Was that when Lilya was killed?"
Mavra nodded. "Was home on leave with her when bombers came. Shrapnel fragment got her." Those final frightening moments when Lilya had bled to death in her arms still haunted her dreams. Less often, though, she realised with a sense of gratitude, when Gwen slept beside her.
"How awful. I'm sorry, Mavra. I didn't mean to bring up painful memories."
"Viedens to blame, not you," said Mavra. She reached for Gwen's hand. "I want to share memories. May be painful, but will get less so in time. You have helped already."
A sudden realisation of what date tomorrow was struck her, followed by an idea. She opened her mouth then closed it again, unsure how Gwen would take her request. But there was only one way to find out. She took a deep breath and let the words out in a rush.
"Tomorrow would have been Lilya's birthday. Always visit grave that day. Will you come with me?"
"Me?" Gwen's eyes widened. "But surely...." She trailed off.
"Is always difficult," said Mavra, trying to explain. Last year's visit had been a particularly desolate one, for some reason. But with Gwen beside her.... "Would help, I think."
"Really?" Gwen didn't sound convinced.
"And after," Mavra went on, "I visit Lilya's Great Aunt Doroteya."
Gwen winced. "I don't know about that!"
"She like to meet you. Has sometimes sharp tongue but big heart." Mavra held Gwen's gaze and willed her to accept. Lilya would have approved; she was sure of it. "Will you come?"
Gwen swallowed before answering. "Of course."
Mavra turned off the motorbike's ignition and frowned at the bicycle resting against the steps to the front door. She had expected no visitors this afternoon. Whoever it was, she hoped they hadn't given Gwen too much of a shock.
Gwen had been sleeping when Mavra left to go shopping and to send a telegram to Gwen's parents about their safe arrival in Kasholsk. This time Gwen's tiredness had a far more pleasurable cause. With a mixture of shyness and eagerness, she had reminded Mavra of the promise made in the little bedroom in Milton Avenue, and Mavra had gladly set about making love to her.
Grumbling under her breath, Mavra unpacked the groceries from the sidecar and carried them to the front door. She grabbed one of the boxes, lifted the latch with her elbow, and went in.
The sitting room was empty-hardly surprising as it had no furniture in it yet-so Mavra strode through to the kitchen. She halted in the doorway and eyed the two women sitting at her kitchen table: Gwen, wearing Mavra's dressing gown, and a freckled young woman with a severe haircut and unflattering spectacles, whose trousers were tucked into her boots.
Mavra shifted her grip on the box of groceries. "Who are you?"
The stranger kicked back her chair and sprang to her feet. "Nadia Varvarinskia. From the Kasholsk Evening Gazette. You must be Mavra Vlasik I've heard so much about you." She held out a hand.
Mavra ignored it and turned to Gwen. "Is reporter for local paper. Don't speak to her. Will only twist words and make scandal."
"It's not like that, Mavra...." began Gwen.
Nadia waved her to silence, a presumption that annoyed Mavra. She was about to remonstrate when Gwen's put a hand on her forearm and shook her head.
"Let me explain," said Nadia. "I am here at the mayor of Kasholsk's request."
"The mayor?" To give herself time to think, Mavra carried the box over to the cupboard and began to unpack.
"He's heard about the circumstances of your return, Lieutenant-"
"I'm a civilian now," said Mavra.
Nadia ignored the interruption. "-and he thinks it would show the country, and more importantly Kasholsk, in a good light if we were to run an article about you and your Cheltish partner. And as the mayor's a good friend of my editor...." Her shrug was eloquent. "You're a war hero, Miss Vlasik. Naturally, people are interested in your comings and goings."
"The war is over." Mavra stooped to put away the eggs.
"People are still interested. If we don't run the article, another paper will. Far better to tell your story to someone favourably disposed, don't you agree?"
"She's right, Mavra," chimed in Gwen. "What harm can it do?"
Plenty. Mavra was used to reading half-truths, if not outright lies, about herself. She had learned to shrug them off-those who knew her knew the truth, and they were the only ones that mattered. But it would be different if Gwen were the target.
"With me, you can set the ground rules," went on Nadia. "If you don't want to talk about something, we won't." She waited, her face expectant.
Mavra pursed her lips. "What about what Gwen's already told you?"
"We'd only just started," said Gwen. "Don't worry. I haven't said anything we'll regret. At least I don't think so."
"So far-" Nadia glanced down at her notes. "-Miss Brooke has expressed her admiration for you, for the Arcadian people, and for the beauty of the Arcadian countryside. Oh, and for the warming properties of buckwheat porridge." She gave a dry smile.
Mavra stood behind Gwen's chair and rested her hands on Gwen's shoulders. "Are you sure?" she asked softly. "Article could get back to Cheltain eventually. Your parents-"
"Have to find out I intend to live here with you sooner or later." Gwen twisted round to meet her gaze. "Let's do it."
Mavra sighed. "Very well." She looked at the reporter. "Ask your questions. But be warned, Miss Varvarinskia." She gave Nadia her most wolfish smile. "If you print anything that hurts Gwen in any way I will rip off both your arms."
Snow crunched beneath their boots as Mavra and Gwen made their way along the path between the headstones. After Nadia had gone, they had spent the rest of yesterday in bed. Gwen looked a lot better for it, thought Mavra, glancing at her.
Gwen nodded. The clump of snowdrops in her hands had spilled soil down the front of her coat.
"Vlasik family plot is over there." Mavra, pointing to the eastern part of the cemetery where she had buried her parents and two brothers. "Will show you another time, when warmer."
"OK," said Gwen.
Mavra tried to picture her surroundings through Gwen's eyes. No steepled church adjoined this cemetery, and there were few if any crosses amongst the headstones. The boundary wall was falling to pieces and some bars had gone missing from the rusted entrance gate where she had parked the motorbike and sidecar. It was a question of money and priorities. Only the modern parts of Kasholsk's graveyard were maintained-they contained a shockingly high number of recent graves, thanks to the War.
Lilya's headstone came into view-a simple black slab of granite, on which were chiselled Lilya's name and dates. A jolt of fresh grief made Mavra catch her breath, and she slowed, waiting for it to settle back to the more manageable ache she had grown used to.
"Go on," said Gwen. "I'll wait here."
Mavra closed the remaining distance, dropping to her knees in front of the headstone, careless of the snow. She removed a glove and rested her palm against the cold black stone.
The urge to speak to Lilya, even though she couldn't hear Mavra, was strong, so Mavra gave into it.
Happy birthday, sweetheart. As you can see, I haven't forgotten you. There isn't a day that I don't think about you. And miss you. She took a breath and let it out.
There's something important I have to say to you. She glanced back to where Gwen was standing, her gaze introspective. Her name is Gwen. I think you would have liked her. What can I say, except that... I have to move on. She struggled to find the words. I didn't plan this, Lilya. Didn't expect this. But the truth is, she makes me happy. Happier than I've been for a long time.
Her hand was freezing, so she put on her glove.
These past few years, I've been marking time. When those Vieden bastards took you, they took all my hopes and dreams too. She looked down at her hands then up again. I feel guilty as hell, Lilya. As if I'm betraying your memory. But this chance at happiness has come my way, and I'm going to grab it. I hope you can understand. I hope you can forgive me.
There, the words ran out, so Mavra knelt, head bent, for she didn't know how long, until the gentle pressure of Gwen's hand on her shoulder brought her back to her surroundings. Snow had soaked through her coat and the knees of her trousers.
"She's gone to a better place, Mavra," said Gwen, her eyes compassionate.
Mavra got stiffly to her feet. She didn't believe in an afterlife. But Lilya was no longer suffering-that was enough.
"Can I plant these now?" Gwen indicated the snowdrops.
Mavra nodded and stood back, and found herself smiling when Gwen pulled a spoon from her pocket, dropped onto all fours, and set about digging a hole for the delicate white flowers.
When Gwen had finished patting down the disturbed soil and admiring the result-the snowdrops looked beautiful against the jet-black stone-Mavra heard her murmur, "Thank you for giving her to me. I'll take good care of her. I promise."
Touched, she looked away until she had regained control.
"May I say a prayer for her?"
Gwen was looking a query at her. Mavra cleared her throat. "Lilya not believe in all that."
Gwen's mouth curved into a smile. ""I don't think God will mind."
Gwen closed her eyes and bowed her head, and Mavra waited, wondering what she was saying to the Almighty. After a few minutes, Gwen's shoulders relaxed and she opened her eyes and sat back on her heels.
Mavra stretched out a hand and Gwen used it to pull herself to her feet.
"Brr! The ground's too cold for kneeling." Gwen rubbed her damp knees.
"Let's go and get warm."
Doroteya's housekeeper and cook hung Mavra's coat on a hook and turned to accept Gwen's from her with work-roughened hands.
"How is she, Agafia?" Mavra took off her snow-spattered boots and slid her feet into the house slippers provided for guests-Doroteya adhered to the old customs. After a moment, Gwen followed suit.
"In good spirits. She's been looking forward to your visit." Agafia placed their boots out of the way. "But she tires easily these days." Her voice held a note of warning.
"We'll try not to outstay our welcome," promised Mavra.
The housekeeper's frown eased and she gestured. "She's in the sitting room."
She led them through to the cluttered room at the back of the house, where Doroteya was sitting in her ancient armchair, a rug over her knees, and a walking stick close to hand. Two chairs had been put ready for her guests beside a low table on which sat a steaming samovar amid plates laden with cakes.
The décor hadn't changed since the day Lilya had first brought Mavra to see her great aunt. Situated on the outskirts and as far from the aerodrome as it was possible to get, Doroteya's house had been one of the fortunate few in Kasholsk to escape serious bomb damage.
Doroteya's eyes brightened as her visitors entered and a welcoming smile curved her lips. "Mavra, my dear." She held out her hands and Mavra crossed to take them, then bent to kiss her cheek, which felt paper thin.
"You look well," she said, bending the truth. Doroteya was 70, and though she had once been as strong as an ox, time, arthritis, and grief at the loss of her family had worn her down.
"And you look cold." Doroteya sighed. "So, another birthday, eh? Time flies. Was it hard for you at the cemetery?"
Mavra nodded, and glanced back to where Gwen was waiting to be introduced. "Gwen made it easier. She planted snowdrops on Lilya's grave." She beckoned Gwen forward.
"That was kind." Doroteya massaged her knees through the rug. "This ice and snow makes visiting the cemetery impossible. Is Lilya's grave being cared for?"
Mavra assured her that it was.
"Good." Doroteya turned her attention to Gwen. Before Mavra could make a formal introduction, she said, "So you're Mavra's Cheltish lover."
Gwen blinked. "Excuse me. But my Arcadian is poor," she said in careful Arcadian. "Could you speak more slowly, please?"
"Don't worry, I'll translate." Mavra told Gwen what Doroteya had said.
Gwen blushed and gave Doroteya a shy nod. "My name is Gwen Brooke," she said. "And I'm very pleased to meet you."
Doroteya held out a hand. When Gwen took it, she pulled Gwen closer. With eyes less keen than they had been but still sharp, the old woman studied her. "You must love Mavra very much, child, to have come all this way. And to a country where you know not a single soul and don't even speak the language."
"I do," said Gwen, after Mavra had translated. "And my Arcadian is improving. Slowly, I admit. But it is getting better, isn't it, Mavra?"
After a final searching look, Doroteya let go of Gwen's hand. "You'll do." She sat back in her chair. An inner tension Mavra had been unaware of until then eased.
Gwen returned to Mavra's side.
"But what are my guests doing, standing around, when there is tea to be drunk, and food to be eaten?" asked Doroteya, raising her voice and clapping her hands to summon her housekeeper. "Sit."
While Agafia poured tea and distributed the cakes-Mavra took a honey cake, and Doroteya smiled at her and teased, "See, I remembered your sweet tooth."- the conversation rambled, returning often to Lilya. Such conversation was bittersweet, but Mavra couldn't blame Gwen for wanting to know more about her predecessor, or Doroteya for needing to talk about her niece. Mavra's gaze skimmed her surroundings, picturing previous visits. At least the memories that this room and Doroteya's reminiscences evoked were happy ones.
The conversation turned to the progress of her house, and Mavra explained that the living room still needed furniture, but apart from that, it was finished. Gwen felt at ease enough to ask Doroteya what Mavra had been like when she was younger, and Mavra sighed and let the old woman tell outrageous stories about her.
The conversation paused while Agafia came in, refilled their teacups from the samovar, and offered yet more cakes. Mavra declined, but Gwen accepted another piece of apple cake.
"Now, tell me all about when and how you two first met," Doroteya ordered. "Oh, I know you've already told me about it." She waved aside Mavra's protests, "but I'm sure you left out the good bits."
"It was at the ferry pool during the war," said Gwen, while Mavra translated. " In Cheltain, women aren't allowed to be combat pilots, you see, but we are allowed to ferry planes from the aircraft factory. Anyway... There was a spare bunk in my room. And Mavra was billeted there."
Doroteya sipped her tea. "And was it love at first sight?"
"Not on Jack's part," muttered Mavra. Gwen threw her a glance.
"And who is Jack?" asked Doroteya.
"He was Gwen's fiancé. But not for long," added Mavra, with great satisfaction.
"You seem to make a habit of that, dear."
"What?" asked Mavra and Gwen in unison.
Doroteya tutted. "I thought I was the one whose memory is failing. Wasn't Lilya engaged when you two got together? To that strange boy Yuri?"
"No," said Mavra, indignant. The memory of Yuri's ugly, rather moonlike face surfaced. "They were never engaged. Lilya agreed to go out with him once, out of pity, but it was such a disaster, she refused to go out with him ever again. And," she added, "that was several months before I got up the courage to ask her out."
"Really?" Doroteya looked surprised. "That's not what his mother said."
Mavra rolled her eyes. "She's not right in the head. Especially since Yuri died."
"True," said Doroteya. "Did you know she's back in Kasholsk?"
"Nessa Balakireva?" Mavra sighed. "I thought her sister was looking after her."
"She was. But even she must have had enough of her erratic behaviour."
"Excuse me." Gwen had been following their conversation with some difficulty. "Who are Nessa and Yuri?"
Mavra threw Gwen a look of apology. "You not know them. Sorry." She frowned at Doroteya, who shrugged. "You were saying, Gwen?"
Gwen gathered her thoughts. "As I was saying," she resumed, "Mavra was billeted in my room at the Ferry Pool and I was told to look after her. At first I was a bit scared of her." She ignored Mavra's snort. "That vicious propaganda the Viedens spread was everywhere and widely believed, I'm afraid." She saw Doroteya's puzzlement and explained, "That all Arcadians are brutes and degenerates."
Doroteya and Mavra exchanged a glance.
"But as I got to know her better, I realised it was a lie. And that I liked her. In fact, it was more than that. I realised I was attracted to her." Gwen's forehead wrinkled in remembered consternation. "That was a shock, to be honest. And I wasn't quite sure what to do about it." She looked at Doroteya. "Things are... a bit different in my country."
"Two women in love. So it's probably just as well we didn't see one another for a while," said Gwen. "I had a lot of thinking to do." Doroteya gave an understanding nod. "But eventually, we did meet again. In Hauptburg."
"I'm glad you two found each other." Doroteya glanced at Mavra. "Mavra's been lonely. Oh, I know you've had your share of 'romances', dear, but I also know they didn't mean anything."
A little warmth. A little comfort. Mavra wondered if the revelation of her flings would hurt Gwen, but Gwen gave her a reassuring smile.
"Remember," Doroteya continued, "how Lilya used to flare up whenever she thought someone was making eyes at you?"
Lilya had liked to throw plates when she was angry, Mavra remembered. They had got through an entire dinner service when they first lived together. "She never had cause to be jealous."
"I know, dear. And deep down, she knew it too."
Doroteya's gaze returned to Gwen. "I'm certain that my niece wouldn't have wanted Mavra to mourn her endlessly. She would have wanted her to get on with her life. To make a home with someone who can make her happy. Someone like you, Gwen."
Gwen blushed and dropped her gaze.
"Thank you," Mavra told Doroteya, meaning it.
Doroteya hid a yawn and Mavra became aware Agafia was standing just inside the sitting room door, arms folded. She gave the housekeeper a nod. Satisfied, Agafia turned and exited.
Mavra made a show of looking at her watch. "We really should be going. These roads are treacherous after dark."
"Of course, dear. If you must."
Mavra got to her feet, and so did Gwen.
"Thank you so much for the tea and cakes," said Gwen.
Doroteya gave her an indulgent smile. "It's been a pleasure meeting you. You must get Mavra to bring you for another visit, soon."
Mavra bent down and gave the old woman a kiss. "If you need anything," she said, as she always did, "you have my address. You only have to ask."
"Yes, yes." Doroteya waved a hand in dismissal, which didn't concern Mavra unduly. She and Agafia had an understanding, and if Doroteya's pride would not let her ask for help, Agafia had fewer scruples.
They made their way back into the hall, exchanged slippers for boots, put on their coats and hats, and made their farewells to the housekeeper. Then they tramped through the snow in the fast fading light to where the motorbike and sidecar were parked.
A folded newspaper was protruding from Mavra's letterbox when they got back home: the latest edition of the Kasholsk Evening Gazette.
"From Nadia?" asked Gwen. "That was quick."
Mavra took it through to the kitchen. She drew the curtains, and sat down at the table without taking off her coat. As she began to leaf through the paper, Gwen leaned over her shoulder. They weren't on the front page, at least.
"There." Gwen's forefinger stabbed at page five.
Three photographs accompanied the article headlined, 'From Cheltain, With Love.' Mavra dismissed the picture of her receiving her Crimson Star from the Co-Presidents, preferring to look at the snapshot of Gwen standing in this very kitchen. The third photograph made her frown. Their house, taken from across the road.
"When did Nadia take that?"
Gwen shrugged. "Must have been before the interview. What does the article say?"
"Wait a minute." The heat from the oven was making Mavra sweat. She stood up, stripped off her coat, and sat down. Gwen took off hers too, and leaned over Mavra's shoulder again.
"Well," prompted Gwen.
Gwen Brooke has come a long way for love, read Mavra, translating aloud as she went. Two and a half thousand kilometres, in fact. And she has given up everything she holds dear for the woman of her dreams.
She rolled her eyes at the overdramatic tone
It was love at first sight when the pretty young Cheltish woman met brave Arcadian war hero Mavra Vlasik. But war is no respecter of lovers, and all too soon it had forced them apart.
"'Pretty'." Gwen sounded pleased.
It looked like Peace was going to treat the lovelorn couple no more kindly. They were stranded in different countries on separate continents. Until our beloved Co-Presidents took an interest in their plight.
With their assistance, permission was granted for Miss Brooke to live and work in Arcadia. And last week, strenuous efforts on the couple's behalf came to fruition as the two lovebirds were finally reunited in Cheltain. Two days ago they completed their epic flight back to Arcadia.
The couple have now set up house in Kasholsk. " We haven't got much furniture," laughed Miss Brooke, "but I don't mind. I'm with Mavra, and that's all that matters."
"I didn't say that," said Gwen.
"I'm not all that matters?"
Gwen mimed giving Mavra a slap. "Nadia makes me sound like a nincompoop."
"Birdbrain. Idiot. What else does it say?"
Mavra scanned the article to its end. "Only that is sure all readers of the Gazette will want to wish us happy and bright future together."
"Phew!" said Gwen. "Not too bad then."
"No." Mavra refolded the newspaper and stood up. "Except for that photo of house. At least was no road name or number."
"You're not going to burn it, are you?"
Mavra halted her progress towards the oven and turned round. "I was. Why?"
Gwen held out a hand. "I'd like it for my scrapbook."
"You have scrapbook?"
"Not yet. But I'm going to start one."
"Thought you said it make you sound like birdbrain."
"It does. But I like that picture of you." Gwen cocked her head. "Do you realise, I don't have one?"
Mavra handed over the Gazette, and Gwen clutched it to her chest. "Can get photo taken, if you want."
Gwen nodded. "I want. One of you. And of us together, perhaps."
Gwen laughed. "Do people really speak like that?"
"Only in Gazette."
Mavra retrieved their coats and hung them up, then replaced her boots with slippers. It wasn't time for supper yet, and besides, the ample tea Doroteya had provided had blunted her appetite. There were other appetites though, and she gave Gwen an assessing glance.
"Want to go to bed?"
Gwen finished putting on her own slippers and looked up, surprised. "Already?" She caught the gleam in Mavra's eye, and responded with a knowing smile. "Why not?" she said, "After all, I did come all this way for love."
It was the next morning, and Mavra was about to return upstairs with the breakfast tray when something white and out of place, lying on the mat inside the front door, caught the corner of her eye. It was too early for the postman. Frowning, she set down the tray and went to investigate.
The single sheet of paper had been folded twice. She opened it and read the contents, printed in pencil in capital letters in a rather childish hand:
Call yourself a hero? Bitch! You're not fit to tie the bootlaces of our realwar heroes. If you think you can play Happy Families with your Cheltish slut, think again.
Mavra crumpled the letter into a ball.
I knew that article was a mistake. Hopefully the writer, having vented their spleen, would be content to let matters rest. And if not? She'd have to stay vigilant. In the meantime, it would only upset Gwen to know someone wished them ill.
She carried the crumpled letter through to the kitchen and watched the oven's flames consume its poisonous message. Then she picked up the breakfast tray and resumed her journey upstairs.
"Can we have one of Mavra on her own, with her eyebrow raised?"
Mavra translated Gwen's request. The portrait photographer grunted but acquiesced-they were paying customers, after all.
They had stopped off at his studio expecting to have to make an appointment, but trade was slack, so he had been able to spare them an hour of his time there and then. Unfortunately, his idea of poses suitable for couples hadn't quite meshed with Gwen's. She had sniffed at the formal, rather stiff portraits he had produced as examples of his work, and suggested something more... relaxed. To his credit, once he understood what she wanted-to capture both the appearance and the essence of his subjects-he had been more than willing to accommodate her.
He had hummed under his breath as he bustled around the little studio, positioning and repositioning powerful lights (it was a gloomy day) and unrolling a plain grey backdrop that would not draw attention away from his subject. When he was ready, they took their places, and Gwen directed Mavra to stand like this and look like that. Meekly she obeyed.
Now, as requested, Mavra arched one eyebrow and waited for the photographer to take the picture.
The flash bulb popped. "All done."
Gwen clapped her hands. "I'm going to send a copy of that last one to Joan."
"In that case we'd better have two prints of everything," Mavra told the photographer, as she blinked away the afterimages. "No. Make it three. She might want to send one to her parents."
He looked pleased at that and made a note. "If you'll leave me your address, I'll drop you a note when the prints are ready for collection."
Mavra nodded, jotted down her details, and paid him a small deposit against the eventual bill.
They put on their coats and emerged into the cold once more, the tinkle from the bell above the studio's door sounding in their ears.
Gwen turned up her collar. "Where now?"
"Furniture." Mavra linked elbows with Gwen and urged her along the snowy pavement toward the furniture maker's.
"For the living room?"
"Need two comfy chairs. A coffee table. Sideboard. Bureau maybe?" Mavra glanced at Gwen, who had bent her head against the wind, which carried with it the promise of more snow. "You choose."
"Me?" Gwen looked daunted. "Suppose we don't share the same taste?"
"Is OK as long as I can live with it."
Gwen looked at her. "You'll tell me if you can't? Promise?"
Mavra smiled. "Promise."
They had reached the furniture maker's, and Mavra pushed open the shop door and waited for Gwen to enter before joining her. A pleasant tang of sawdust and furniture polish met her nostrils.
"Can I help you?" A young man in a carpenter's apron looked up from the cabinet he was polishing. From an open doorway behind him came sounds of sawing, planing, and sanding.
"We need some new furniture," said Mavra. "Have you a catalogue?"
He crossed to the counter and rummaged underneath. "It's somewhere... Ah." He produced a small, well-thumbed booklet. "This is our current range. All made to order on the premises, of course."
"Of course. How long does it take you to make a piece of furniture?"
"Depends." He handed her the booklet. "It can vary from two weeks to eight, depending on what you want."
"Thanks." Mavra handed the catalogue to Gwen. "See if anything you like."
Gwen began to turn the pages. Soon, as Mavra had known they would, the drawings and photographs of pieces available had captured her attention, and she was making appreciative 'oohs' and 'ahs'.
The man exchanged an amused glance with Mavra and returned to his polishing, while she inspected the furniture on display. She liked the curve of the legs on that mahogany dressing table. And the coffee table's marquetry was exquisite.
"What's our budget, Mavra?" called Gwen.
"Not most expensive. But not cheapest either. Have been saving up. Can afford something decent."
"Oh good." A few minutes later, Gwen had turned the last page. She came to join Mavra, her expression thoughtful.
"Well there's this." Gwen pointed to the picture of an armchair. "And this." She leafed through until she had found the drawing she wanted: a matching table and sideboard.
"What do you think?" Gwen studied Mavra's face, eyes anxious.
The pieces did not have the simple, clean lines that she would have chosen, but they weren't too fussy either. And Gwen liked them. "Can live with it."
At her pronouncement, Gwen let out a loud sigh of relief. The man in the carpenter's apron smiled and came to take their order....
There was a little café on the corner, and Gwen seized on Mavra's suggestion of a cup of coffee and a sit down with alacrity. Eyes followed them as they made their way to an empty table. The waitress took their order and Mavra treated Gwen to the pastry of her choice.
"It is just me," asked Gwen, after the waitress had departed to fill their order, "or is everyone staring at us?"
"Not just you." Must be that article.
A chair scraped back and a grey-haired man on crutches came over. His left leg had been amputated below the knee; a legacy of the war, no doubt. "Are you the two from the Gazette?" he asked.
Mavra recognised the medal pinned to his shabby jacket; she had one like it at home. At close quarters, he was younger than she had thought; the pain from his wounds must have aged him prematurely. They sized one another up and exchanged a nod, one veteran to another.
"That's us," said Mavra.
His face broke into a smile and he held out a calloused hand. "I'd like to be the first to greet an ally," he said in halting Cheltish. "Welcome to Arcadia, Miss. Hope you happy here."
Gwen blinked up at him in surprise. "Thank you."
As they shook hands, a ripple of applause spread round the room. The waitress came out of a rear room to see what was going on and joined in. That the feeling towards them was positive was a relief, Mavra realised. That poison pen letter must have unnerved her more than she thought.
After the man had limped back to his table, the waitress brought them their coffee and pastries, and left them to enjoy them in peace. It didn't last long.
"Can I have your autograph, Miss?" This time the visitor was a boy of about ten.
As Mavra put down her cup, accepted his pen and piece of paper (the back of an old receipt), and prepared to sign her name, he became flustered.
"You are the Lt. Vlasik, aren't you? The inventor of the Vlasik turn?"
"Oh good." His frown eased.
"I hope all this attention wears off soon," said Gwen, when the now beaming boy was safely back at his table, showing off Mavra's autograph to his mother. "Still, at least they're being nice." She sampled her pastry and made a sound of appreciation.
Mavra put down her coffee cup. "Forgot to tell you," she said. "Before going to Cheltain, I put out feelers."
"Feelers?" Gwen looked puzzled.
"For job for you. And there is possible pilot's job at Kasholsk aerodrome. They are interested, but you would need to retrain. Layout of Arcadian instrument panels and protocol is different."
"You've applied for a job for me already?"
Mavra winced at Gwen's tone. "Don't have to take it," she said. "Thought you'd be pleased. Don't want you bored when I go back to work. Would miss independence and having own money too-" Gwen's hand on hers halted her mid flow.
" I'm not mad at you," said Gwen. "You just took me off guard, that's all. The pilot job sounds perfect. Right up my street, in fact. It's just-" She paused, as if undecided whether to continue.
"Just?" prompted Mavra.
Gwen grimaced. "Don't take this the wrong way, Mavra, but since the day I got demobbed you seem to have been doing everything for me. I wanted to do something for myself for a change."
"Oh." Mavra fiddled with a loose thread in the tablecloth and tried not to feel rejected.
"I'm sorry." Gwen studied Mavra's face. "I didn't mean to sound ungrateful. But I'm used to being on my own, you see. To making my own decisions. You are too." She covered Mavra's hand with hers. "It's going to take time for us to adjust to being a couple. But that's OK, isn't it? As long as we tell each other how we are feeling about things?" She cocked her head and waited.
After a moment, Mavra nodded. "Are right. Is OK. Am sorry I not ask you first about job, Gwen."
Gwen gave her a fond glance. "You were just looking out for me, I know. And as I said, it sounds perfect."
"Can find different job if you want," Mavra went on. "Lilya worked in parachute factory. Not much fun though," she admitted.
Gwen laughed. "I'll sort something out. Don't worry. And now. Let's change the subject, shall we?"
A relieved Mavra nodded and picked up her cup. As she sipped the now tepid coffee, she let her gaze roam around the café, halting at a poster stuck to the wall.
"The festival!" she said, in pleased surprise. She had been so preoccupied making arrangements to bring Gwen to Arcadia, she had forgotten all about it.
"What festival?" asked Gwen.
"Spring Festival. Is on Sunday. We must go."
Another poison pen letter arrived the next morning. This time it was addressed to Gwen, and written in ungrammatical Cheltish.
Go home, Cheltish whore. Not welcome here. Go back where belonging.
Mavra's first instinct was to destroy it. Then she remembered the conversation with Gwen in the café. This wasn't just a matter for Mavra to handle. It affected both of them. Sighing, she smoothed out the now crumpled sheet of paper and carried it upstairs.
"What is it?" Gwen blinked at Mavra's grim expression and sat up in bed. Mavra handed her the letter.
Gwen read its contents through twice, her expression one of hurt. "Who sent this?"
"Don't know. Must live local though. Was hand-delivered. They probably located us from picture of house in Gazette."
Gwen pinched the bridge of her nose. "Why don't they like me?"
"Not just you," said Mavra. "Letter yesterday was aimed at me."
Gwen let her hand drop. "There was another letter?"
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"What did it say?"
"Called me a bitch. Said I not hero. Not fit to tie real war hero's bootlaces." Mavra shrugged. She knew she could be a bitch at times. And she had never thought of herself as a hero anyway.
"Sounds like they have a personal axe to grind." Gwen frowned. "As if they know someone they think should have received a medal."
"Oh Lord!" exclaimed Gwen, as a thought struck her. "They could have been sitting in the café, pretending to applaud along with everyone else."
"Most likely not." Mavra held Gwen's gaze. "Must face it: will always be some do not accept us, but they are -what you say? -exception not rule."
"I wish I could believe that." Gwen sounded forlorn.
"Is true," said Mavra. "Permits prove it."
The reminder that she had official permission to be here lightened Gwen's mood, as Mavra had hoped it would. "Sorry," she said. "It's just.... Well, I've never received a poison pen letter before." She looked at Mavra. "What are we going to do about it?"
"Ignore it. What do you say: 'Sticks and stones-'? And hope writer gets bored writing letters."
"What if they don't? Or what if it escalates?"
Mavra scratched her nose. "Will keep letters as evidence. In meantime, I will ask if anyone has seen person lurking."
"Lurking?" Gwen's eyes twinkled.
Mavra smiled. "Lurking," she repeated. Gwen must be feeling better if she was picking holes in Mavra's Cheltish. "Once have identity, can decide what to do."
"All right." Gwen handed her back the letter. "In the meantime, put this foul thing somewhere I can't see it, will you?"
Mavra pocketed it.
"So," said Gwen, after a long pause. "What are our plans for today?"
She was glad to change the subject. "Breakfast first. Then, must sort out transport. Don't want you stranded while I am at work."
Gwen sat up straighter. "What about that bike I saw in your lean to? Can't I use that?"
Mavra frowned. "Was Lilya's. Is old, rusty." It had survived the War when everything else that belonged to Lilya perished-Mavra hadn't had the heart to dispose of it.
"Nothing a little work won't fix, surely?" Gwen eyed her. "It goes, doesn't it?"
"Did last time I used."
"Was going to buy you new one."
"But you've already spent a small fortune on me, Mavra. What's the point of spending yet more money when Lilya's old bike will do perfectly well?"
"Like spending money on you," grumbled Mavra. "Like taking care of you."
Gwen's face lit up with delight. "You're pouting!"
"Yes you are." Gwen got out of bed and hugged Mavra. "I like you taking care of me too," she mumbled into Mavra's shoulder before looking up. "You know that, don't you? What I told you yesterday doesn't change that, you know."
Mavra regarded the other woman fondly. "I know," she said. "Is OK."
"Good," said Gwen. "In that case, kiss me then bring me some breakfast, will you? I'm starving."
Mavra opened the front door, intending to fetch the bike from the lean to, and stopped, foot raised. Something brown had been smeared all over the top step. Disgusted, she stepped back, and collided with Gwen
"Why've you stopped? What's wr-"
"Dog shit. All over step."
Gwen peered round her shoulder. "Charming! The letter writer?"
Mavra nodded. "Real dog would make less mess."
She returned to the kitchen, filled a bucket with warm soapy water, grabbed a brush, and carried it back to the step. Gwen watched Mavra work, until the last of the excrement had swirled away down a drain, and Mavra had rinsed out the bucket and brush.
"That would count as an escalation, wouldn't it?"
Mavra nodded. "Still don't know who, though."
"Whoever it is isn't right in the head."
Gwen's words jarred a memory loose, and Mavra pursued it. Not right in the head. Aggrieved about an unrecognised war hero. Trying to mess up my private life....
"What are you thinking?"
She came back to herself with a start. "Nessa."
"Yuri's mother. Remember? At Doroteya's, she talked about Nessa, said had returned to Kasholsk."
"Will tell while I work on bike. OK?"
Gwen let out a soft growl of frustration, but acquiesced.
Soon Mavra's old bicycle was inverted on its saddle in the middle of the kitchen floor, with her oilcan and toolbox beside it. Mavra knelt and began her inspection. Gwen squatted comfortably next to her.
"Yuri went to same school as me," began Mavra, examining the chain. "Was older, year or so above. Not nice boy. Bullied weaker children. I blacked his eye." She reached for a spanner. "After that, he left me alone."
"I know the type." Gwen's tone was full of feeling.
Mavra finished tightening the nut and glanced at her. "Were bullied at school?"
Gwen nodded. "He would try to bar our way unless we gave him our dinner money. One day-I suppose I'd had enough-I went for him."
"'Went for'?" The brake pads were a bit worn, she decided, but they should still be safe.
"Took a swing at him." Gwen's laugh was rueful. "I couldn't land a punch to save my life, Mavra. Still can't, come to that."
"I missed by a mile, of course."
Mavra oiled the pedals until they turned freely than rubbed a spoke with a handful of wire wool-the rust was superficial, thankfully. "Did he hit you back?"
"No. And after that, well-" Gwen's cheeks reddened, "-he used to try to stand next to me in the dinner queue. And give me his marbles."
Mavra let out a bark of laughter and set down the wire wool. "Had not much to do with Yuri after black eye," she said. "Until Lilya. He was like bad smell-hard to get rid of."
"Did he believe you'd stolen her from him?"
"Think so." The front tyre was flat. She reached for the bicycle pump and crossed her fingers that there wasn't a puncture.
"What happened to him in the end?"
"Died on Eastern front. Rumour is he shot himself."
"Oh." Gwen frowned. "Do you think his mother blames you for his death?"
"Is possible." The front tyre pressure remained steady. Good. Mavra turned her attention to the back one. "In her view, I was rival. Won Lilya. Became combat pilot." She saw Gwen's puzzlement. "Yuri applied to be pilot too. Not good enough."
"That's hardly your fault." Gwen scratched her chin. "There's usually a reason a boy becomes a bully."
Mavra remembered the belt buckle scars on the young Yuri's legs, the fear that filled his eyes as the time neared to go home. "Think Nessa beat him."
"So now he's dead, she has guilt to deal with as well as grief." Gwen's brows drew together. "Even so, it's not right to take it out on us."
"Have no evidence it is Nessa," reminded Mavra.
She stood up and turned the bicycle the right way up. "Try for size, Gwen." She pointed to the saddle. "Height will need adjusting."
Gwen was still out on the bicycle, giving it a trial run, when Mavra heard Kiril's milk van drawing up outside. She grabbed an empty milk jug and reached the front door at the same time he did.
With his thick beard and his fur cap's earflaps turned down against the cold, his face was barely visibly. He gave her a friendly nod. "Got back safely then."
"Thanks for getting the place ready. And for the soup. I really appreciate it." Mavra held out the jug.
"It was Ludmila's idea." He filled the jug with fresh milk from his churn and grinned. "Saw your picture in the Evening Gazette. You're famous."
"Don't you start!" She cradled the jug against her stomach. "We're getting poison pen letters." He blinked at her, shocked. "Have you seen any strangers hanging around?"
He scratched his beard while he thought, then shook his head.
"It would probably be in the early hours."
"I'm out milking then. Ludmila might have seen someone, though. I'll ask."
They heard the swish of bicycle tyres and turned as Gwen rode into view, face red from the effort and the cold. She coasted towards the house, dismounting before the bike had come to a halt, and pushed it the remaining few metres.
"How does it handle?" asked Mavra.
"Good. Though the seat is still a little high," panted Gwen. "I couldn't reach the pedals comfortably." She turned her attention to Kiril. "Hello," she said in Arcadian. "I'm Gwen." She held out a hand.
His large hand engulfed hers. "Welcome to Arcadia. I hope you'll be happy here. I'm Kiril. Your neighbour from down the road."
"From the farm?" Gwen fanned her face. "I just cycled past there. Someone waved."
"My wife, Ludmila."
"I was just asking Kiril is he'd seen anyone strange hanging around," said Mavra.
Kiril nodded. "I'll let you know what Ludmila says. Now, I must get on. Milk to deliver." He nodded at Gwen, and lifted the heavy churn. "Nice to meet you."
"You too.... He seems nice," added Gwen, as he stacked the churn with the others in the back of his van and drove away.
"He is." Mavra glanced at the bike. "Want me to adjust that saddle?"
"Later. I've had enough of bikes for now." Gwen wheeled the bicycle into the lean to, before returning, wiping her hands on her coat.
"So you couldn't reach the pedals comfortably, eh?" teased Mavra, as they retreated into the warmth.
"I said no short jokes." Gwen gave Mavra's side a warning prod.
Mavra took the offending forefinger prisoner. "Not even little one?"
Sunday morning dawned bright and clear. Looks like it's going to be a good day for the festival, thought Mavra. Day by day the mercury was rising, and Winter was slowly releasing its stranglehold on Kasholsk. For today, though, they would still need to wrap up warm.
She was cooking pancakes for breakfast-they were a Spring Festival tradition and by the day's end they would probably be sick of them-when there was a knock at the front door. It was Kiril.
He opened his mouth, then stopped and sniffed. "Can I smell pancakes?"
"Breakfast," said Mavra. "What can I do for you?"
He gathered his thoughts. "Are you still getting those letters?"
Mavra nodded. That morning's letter had been aimed at both of them. And two straw figures, meant to represent Mavra and Gwen, had been pinned to the door, the pins piercing their hearts.
Less messy than the dog shit, but just as unpleasant.
Gwen had burned the figures, but they had kept the letter for evidence.
"Ludmila saw someone," said Kiril "Around five o'clock this morning. Cycling in this direction on a rusty old bike. And then ten minutes later, cycling back again. She thinks it was a woman, but the cyclist was so wrapped up against the cold, she can't be sure."
"What did the woman look like?" asked Mavra, as Gwen appeared from the kitchen.
"Short and stout," said Kiril. "Though that could have been due to several layers of clothing." Mavra translated for Gwen. "She was wearing a fur hood, and what might have been a brown army coat. Ludmila couldn't see the woman's face, but she got the impression she was talking to herself."
Gwen's brows drew together. "Does that sound like Nessa?" she asked Mavra.
"Wearing one of Yuri's coats? Perhaps. But could be almost anyone."
"Sorry I couldn't be more help," said Kiril. He paused. "Are you two going to the festival this afternoon?"
"We might see you there later, then." He turned to go, then stopped and turned back. "I nearly forgot. Ludmila said the cyclist was wearing a long knitted scarf. Dark blue."
"Thanks, Kiril. I owe you one."
Mavra watched the van drive away, before turning back to Gwen. "Now, what about those pancakes?"
Chattering Arcadians, many in family groups, some clutching baskets of provisions and tugging sleds, streamed past the motorbike as Mavra turned off the ignition.
"They must be going to the festival too," said Gwen.
Mavra dismounted and helped her out of the sidecar. "Is only few minutes walk from here. Come." She held out a gloved hand, and Gwen took it.
They followed the other festival goers across the snow-covered fields and joined the crowd gathered at the foot of Kasholsk's tallest hill where stalls selling food and souvenirs were doing a roaring trade. Toboggans careered down the hill, their riders whooping with glee and terror. Mavra shaded her eyes and peered up at the unlit bonfire on its crown.
"Who are they?" Gwen pointed to a group of singers, clad in identical folk costume, standing in a semicircle nearby while one of their number conducted.
"Local choir. Will see more before festival ends. There is singing competition." Mavra recognised the song and mentally joined in. She glanced at Gwen. "All Arcadians love to sing. Met Lilya in choir."
"I've heard you humming around the house."
"I do that when happy."
Gwen gave her a pleased smiled.
The last note died away and the onlookers applauded. A man and a woman who had been listening with identical expressions of intense concentration conferred before jotting something in a notebook. Competition judges?
"I wish I could sing," said Gwen, her tone wistful.
It was Mavra's turn to be surprised. "You can't?"
Gwen shook her head.
Singing was one of life's great pleasures. Mavra dropped a comforting arm around Gwen's shoulders. "But you are musical, yes? Can play instrument?"
A rueful smile curved Gwen's lips. "Does the recorder count?"
Gwen was about to continue when something distracted her. "Is that the portrait photographer?" Her hand shot out.
Mavra followed the pointing finger. "Yes." He was standing next to a food stall, buying pancakes for an attractive young woman and two small children. "Shall we ask him-"
At Gwen's nod, they made their way over. The photographer smiled when he saw them.
"That saves me a letter," he said before Mavra could speak. "Your prints are ready for collection."
After making arrangements to call at the studio sometime the next day, they left him and his family to eat in peace.
A pair of stilt walkers stalked past. Gwen gaped up at the towering figures.
"Would have no trouble reaching pedals with those," said Mavra.
Gwen pretended to scowl. "I thought we agreed: no short jokes."
Mavra grinned. Grunts and sounds of effort made her turn her head. Gwen followed her gaze. "Is tug of war."
They watched the combatants from the sidelines, and when the battle was over, and the cheers of the winners were still ringing in their ears, they set off once more. The brilliant flash of a flashbulb made them halt.
Nadia lowered her camera as they swung round. "Enjoying the festival?"
"You're not going to print that, are you?" said Mavra.
"I was." Nadia's smile faltered. "I'm doing a piece on the festival. With pictures."
"I'd rather you didn't." Mavra gave her a hard stare that made it clear there was no choice in the matter.
"Me too," chimed in Gwen. "All this attention makes me uncomfortable." Her Arcadian accent was improving.
Nadia cocked her head. "Don't you like being famous?"
When Gwen didn't answer, Mavra said, "There's fame and then there's fame."
"Very profound." Nadia shrugged. "OK. I won't include it. Damned shame, though. Our readers would like to hear that our most famous couple attended the festival."
"Tell them we came," said Mavra. "Just don't print the picture."
"Done." Nadia grinned. "Now, I must get on." She gauged the sky. "The light's beginning to go. It can't be long until the procession." With a wave, she vanished into the crowd.
"Who else are we going to bump into?" wondered Gwen, hooking her arm through Mavra's. After a few more paces, she stopped and pointed at the small straw dolls on sale at a souvenir stall.
"Is that meant to be her?" She swung round and pointed at the larger-than-life effigy of a woman overseeing the proceedings. Supported by a pole jammed into the earth, she was clad in colourful, ceremonial garb, and flowers studded her 'hair'.
Mavra nodded. "Is Winter Queen. Will parade her at head of procession then burn her. Those who can't stay for real thing buy replicas to take home."
"They're going to burn her?" Gwen wrinkled her nose in distaste.
"And bury her ashes," said Mavra. "Ensures fertility. Don't do same thing in your country?"
"I suppose we used to. The Church wouldn't permit it now, though."
Mavra shrugged. "Is only symbol. Of end of Winter."
Mavra saw Pyotr and his latest girlfriend, a leggy blonde named Ekatarina, in the distance. They waved at one another and exchanged smiles. Then Gwen noticed Kiril and Ludmila coming towards them.
"All of Kasholsk seems to be here today," she said, pointing.
"Of course," said Mavra. "Is Spring Festival."
They chatted to the farmer and his wife for a short time, then went their separate ways.
A man in a top hat was swinging a boot on the end of the rope. Other men had gathered in a circle around him, and every few seconds, one darted forward and tried to snatch the hat.
"Why are they doing that?" whispered Gwen, stopping to watch.
"Is festival game. Those who steal hat take his place."
Gwen considered. "I suppose it's no more strange than our Whack a Rat."
"We don't drop real rats down the drainpipe, of course. They're made out of newspaper and-"Gwen laughed at Mavra's expression and shook her head. "Never mind. Come on."
The light was failing fast, and festival stewards began to light torches. Mavra guided Gwen up the hill a little way, to where the procession was forming. Snatches of music wafted from all directions: here, a choir singing, there, someone playing the balalaika.
Gwen grabbed her arm. "Is that Agafia?"
Mavra squinted. Doroteya's housekeeper coming towards them, a straw doll clutched in one hand. Mavra asked after Doroteya-she was well, but attending the festival was too much for her these days. They said their farewells and Agafia hurried away.
Two of the stronger festival stewards now uprooted the pole supporting the Winter Queen and bore her towards the head of the procession.
"Almost time," said Mavra, as a woman eating a pancake at a nearby stall caught her eye. She was short and stout, the shabby brown army coat she wore straining to contain a broad bosom and wide hips. She had pushed back her fur hood so she could eat more easily, and even after all this time Mavra recognised that grim profile, that hawklike nose, that metal front tooth.
She rested a hand on Gwen's shoulder and murmured,"Nessa Balakireva."
Gwen's head whipped round. "Where?"
Mavra pointed. The object of their interest was unaware of them as yet.
Gwen's eyes widened. "Mavra, she's wearing a dark blue scarf!"
"I'm going to talk to her." She started towards Nessa, taking Mavra by surprise.
"Wait." Mavra hurried to catch up. Nessa could be nasty when riled; Gwen had no idea what she was getting into. But though Gwen's legs were short they were powerful, and she put on a surprising burst of speed.
Nessa looked round just as Gwen reached her and dropped her pancake. She swore, bent to retrieve it, and thought better of it.
"We know you've been sending us anonymous letters," Gwen told her, speaking slowly and clearly in Cheltish. "I'm sure you have your reasons, misguided though they are. But if you promise to stop, we'll say no more about it."
Nessa stared at her. "See what you made me do." She pointed at the half eaten pancake lying in the dirty snow. As they watched, a stray dog appeared, wolfed it down, and trotted away.
Gwen's gaze followed the dog, before returning to Nessa. "I'm sorry. I'll buy you another one. Please. Will you just stop sending us those letters and... other things?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. Crazy woman! I've never seen you before in my life."
Gwen greeted Mavra's appearance beside her with relief. Nessa was not so welcoming; her eyes narrowed. "What is she saying, Mavra? Does she understand Cheltish? Oh I wish my Arcadian was better."
For a moment, Mavra was tempted to tell Gwen to leave Nessa to her. But it was Gwen's battle too. Shoving her misgivings aside, she said simply, "I translate for you."
"It's a lie," Nessa told Gwen, when Mavra had finished. "I sent no letters. It must have been someone else."
Gwen blinked. "But you were seen."
"How can I have been seen when I didn't write them?" Nessa's face hardened and she folded her arms. "Whoever says they saw me is a liar."
"Look." Frustration brought a flush to Gwen's cheeks. "I'm trying to make this easy for you. Do you want me to report you to police? We kept the letters. They can compare your handwriting, you know."
Nessa curled her lip. "I should be the one bringing charges against you. For false accusations. Dirty foreigner!"
The last words were a mutter, but Mavra heard them. Her fingernails dug into her palms as she translated what Nessa had said.
"Dirty, am I?" Gwen's eyes flashed and she thrust her face into Nessa's-they were about the same height. "I'm not the one smearing dog excrement on doorsteps and sending foul letters I haven't had the guts to sign."
"I told you. You have the wrong person." Nessa turned away.
"Hey!" said Gwen. "I'm talking to you." She grasped Nessa's arm and turned the other woman back to face her.
Nessa's eyes filled with malice. "Get off me!"
"I was prepared to make excuses," said Gwen hotly. "To pity you. You've lost your son, after all."
The pancake stallholder threw them a nervous glance. The altercation was attracting attention. Heads were beginning to turn and fingers to point.
"That for your pity!" Nessa hawked and spat on the snowy ground.
Gwen's breathing grew faster. "You're right," she said, face reddening. Mavra had never see her this angry before. "You don't deserve my pity. You're unpleasant and twisted and ignorant. And you blame others for your own actions."
Nessa's face darkened. "What do you know about anything? Shacking up with her, of all people?" She spat-at Mavra this time. If it hadn't been for quick reflexes, it would have landed on Mavra's boot. "To think Lilya preferred you to my son!" She went on. "I hope she is turning in her grave."
Rage boiled up inside Mavra and her hands bunched into fists. "Don't you even mention her name." Only Gwen's hand on her arm stopped her from lashing out.
"Think, Nessa," said Gwen, struggling to remain calm. "Whose side do you think the police will take when I report you? That of a decorated war hero and a Cheltish woman in Arcadia with the full knowledge and permission of its Co-Presidents... or yours?"
For the first time, fear filled Nessa's eyes. But she was as stubborn as her son. "I don't believe you."
"Try me." Gwen's chin jutted. "Because I give you fair warning. I'm fed up to the back teeth of you making Mavra's life a misery. She's been through enough. I won't have it."
Mavra's eyebrows rose at Gwen's words. This is about me not her. She's trying to protect me. The realisation brought a warm inner glow.
Something of Gwen's implacability must at last have registered, because Nessa turned to Mavra in appeal. "Surely, even you wouldn't turn in a fellow Arcadian?"
But it was her turn to fold her arms. "If Gwen wants to report you, I won't stop her."
At her words, Nessa seemed to shrink.
"What's it to be?" asked Gwen. "Will you leave us alone?"
After a long tense moment, Nessa gave a sullen nod.
"Do you swear it? Because if we start getting letters again, God help me I'll-"
"I said yes, damn you!" bellowed Nessa. "Now get the fuck out of my way."
For a moment, Gwen stood frozen, then she stepped aside and Nessa barged past her and scurried away. Soon she had disappeared into the crowd. Show over, the onlookers faded away.
Gwen broke it. "So much for good intentions." She avoided Mavra's eyes. "I planned to reason calmly with her, appeal to her sense of fair play, but...." She put a hand over her eyes and grimaced.
"Lost temper on my behalf," soothed Mavra. She pulled Gwen close and hugged her. "Was very sweet."
"Sweet?" Gwen looked up at her, incredulous.
Mavra nodded and smiled. "Long time since someone try to protect me. Think I like it."
"Really?" The angry flush faded from Gwen's cheeks. "I wouldn't have reported her, you know."
"I know." But I would.
Gwen leaned into Mavra's embrace. "Do you think she'll keep her word?"
Mavra nodded. "You-how you say?-really put wind up her."
"I did, didn't I?" Gwen pulled a face. "And now my stomach's all tied in knots." She let out a plaintive sigh. "Why did we have to run into her here, of all places?"
"All of Kasholsk is here. Remember?" Mavra hugged Gwen one last time and let her go. "Forget Nessa. Does not deserve concern." The line of torches had nearly reached the summit. "Come." She grabbed Gwen's hand and tugged her up the hill. "Must not miss highlight of day."
"What highlight?" said Gwen, hurrying to keep up.
"Burning of Winter Queen, of course."
The bonfire's branches had been stacked to head height. Jammed into the top layer was the pole supporting the Winter Queen. She'd been stripped of her ceremonial garb-it would be needed for future festivals. Those who had escorted her to her place of execution stood to one side, torches flaring in the evening breeze, and choirs that had been rivals sang together, voices raised in harmony.
Mavra translated the lyrics for Gwen. "At last days grow longer. Ice begins to melt and snow to thaw. Dark veil of Winter lifts. Spring is on its way. We have honoured the Winter Queen, made her welcome among us, but now is time to bid her farewell. Make crops fruitful, O Winter Queen. Bring good things for year ahead. Next Winter we will bid you welcome once more, with open arms and sincere gratitude."
The song came to an end and a cheer went up.
"It's very pagan," said Gwen.
Mavra rested her hands on Gwen's shoulders. She had found them a spot at the front of the crowd, so Gwen could see. "Some say ceremony dates from time when real woman was sacrificed." She shrugged. "No proof, though."
Several of Kasholsk's dignitaries, amongst them the mayor, were making their way to the front. As they took their places, chests puffing out with self-importance, Mavra whispered apologetically, "Are speeches now."
The speeches went on too long, as they invariably do, dimming the mood of the crowd. As the dignitaries boasted of past efforts and achievements on Kasholsk's behalf and plans for its future, there was muttering and shuffling of feet. The Winter Queen surveyed the proceedings; her straw face lacked expression, but Mavra imagined it would be one of icy hauteur. She wrapped her arms around Gwen, pleased when the smaller woman relaxed against her, the last of her upset from the confrontation with Nessa draining away.
At last the speeches finished and the dignitaries filed back into the crowd. Mavra released Gwen and straightened. Faces brightened and a buzz of excitement swept through the onlookers as the procession leader, torch in one hand, made a precarious ascent up the stacked branches with the surefootedness of a mountain goat. At the top he waved his torch from side to side, and applied it to the effigy. The straw was tinder-dry and caught alight at once. As he scrambled to safety, the crowd let out a great cheer and the Winter Queen turned into a column of flame.
"Do you believe all that ashes for fertility stuff?" shouted Gwen above the hubbub.
"No," said Mavra. "But Winter lasts long time here. Is good excuse for party."
Gwen pulled Mavra's arms tighter around her. "Not that I'm complaining," she said, "but my feet are like ice, and my back is aching from all this standing around. How long before we can go somewhere warm and sit down?"
"Not long," said Mavra. "Can manage a little longer?"
Gwen gave her a grudging nod. "All right."
A loud whoosh startled them, and was followed almost immediately by a bang. Above the crowd a green and red starburst unfolded-the first firework of many. Gwen gazed up at the unfolding display, mouth open. Mavra hid a grin.
A quarter of an hour later, the Winter Queen flared up in one final burst of brilliance that rivalled the fireworks and collapsed, the night breeze quickly dispersing the cloud of sparks that was all that remained. The firework display finished soon after. A few people stayed to watched the bonfire burn down, but most began to drift away.
"Winter is officially over," said Mavra. She hugged Gwen. "We can go get warm now. You want to eat? Can go to café."
Gwen considered. "I want a hot meal and then," she lowered her voice and leaned closer, a gleam in her eyes that Mavra was beginning to recognise, "I want you."
"All right," said Mavra, smiling. "I take you home."
"Now that was the highlight of the day," said Gwen, once she had got her breath back.
Mavra chuckled. "Saw fireworks?"
"Stars, more like." She flung an arm across Mavra's stomach. Mavra clasped her hand and kissed it.
They basked in the afterglow for a while, then Mavra fetched their pyjamas from the chair in front of the fire. When they were warmly clad once more, Mavra pulled Gwen into her arms and tugged the sheets up over them both.
She yawned. "Warm enough?"
Outside it was snowing-a fine snow, this time though, indicative of Winter's ebbing grip-but the shutters, the fire crackling in the bedroom grate, and the heavy fur coverlet would keep them both snug.
Gwen nodded, her smile lazy. "Six months ago," she said, "I would never have imagined I'd be lying in bed with you, ready to start our new life together."
"I promised to fetch you, yes?"
"I know." Gwen shrugged. "I suppose it seemed too good to be true."
Mavra brushed a strand of fair hair out of Gwen's face. "But here you are."
"Yes. And I'm glad."
"I also." She played with her Gwen's fingers. "Will be tough for a while," she warned. "You tell me if unhappy?"
Gwen gave her a fond glance. "Of course I will. You'll get so sick of all my nagging and complaining you'll want to send me back to Cheltain."
Mavra snorted. "Never!"
"I'm going to hold you to that." Gwen paused. "You'll tell me if you're unhappy too, won't you, Mavra?"
Gwen yawned and snuggled closer. "I'll write to Mum and Dad tomorrow. Tell them all about it."
Mavra's eyebrows shot up. "About this?" She indicated their embrace.
Gwen laughed. "Of course not, silly. About the Spring festival."
"I'm sure Dad will have something to say about 'pagan rituals'."
"Can say what he want," said Mavra. "He's there, we're here." Gwen chuckled. An idea struck Mavra. "You could include photo if we call at portrait studio on way to post office."
"That's not a bad idea," said Gwen.
"Am full of good ideas."
"You're certainly full of something," said Gwen, amused by Mavra's complacent manner. "So what else shall we do tomorrow, hm?"
They had a few more days before Mavra was due to return to work. The future stretched out ahead, unknown and brimming with possibility, and a wave of contentment swept over her. She pressed a kiss against Gwen's cheek.
"Anything we like."