Chapter 3: Home Is
Tatiana felt even more of a stranger in Petrograd as she prowled the English Embankment in search for the address of the Ladovnas – no. 231 – and not just because she was, well, a sorceress.
She had cast of her disguise in an alley, ending the spell with a simple gesture, and now everybody who cared could see a 17-year old girl with long waving blonde hair, wrapped in a thick coat and hauling a big suitcase; see her searching up and down the fine old quarters of Petrograd, by the Bolshaya Neva river.
But nobody seemed to care.
In fact, it seemed as if nobody even lived in this part of Petrograd. The streets along the river were eerily still and devoid of people.
That feeling of suddenly being totally alone in a city that should be teeming – that made her feel like a stranger … or more unsettling: it made her feel unwanted. She couldn’t tell why. Only that it was so.
She looked across the river and saw a small armored car parked almost on the exact opposite side but no soldiers were there – or Red Guards. But rest assured it was a reminder that she had just crossed through a city that had reached a boiling point and now, in the streets behind her there were droves of Red Guards marching to and fro as if they were the only authority now. So the guards were there and thousands of people – mostly women – drifting through the streets like ghosts, crouched and nervous and looking for all the necessities that had become so scarce even in the city: firewood, bread …
Tatiana stopped and sat down on her suitcase. She shivered.
What was I thinking? Lara, Anushka and I used to talk all night long about Petrograd and all the wonderful things here … and I knew they would not be here. I knew there was the war – and now this … revolution. And yet, I feel sorry that the city isn’t like we dreamed of back in the village.
She kicked a stone into the grey water of the river and gritted her teeth.
I feel sorry that I am thinking like this … I am supposed to be on an important mission for the Council. I’d better get started. What would Oleg think if he knew I was sitting here, like this?
She got up and began the search again, still too aware of the eeriness of being the only soul in a part of Petrograd that should be a rich, lively part of the city. Yes, a part of the city that should have been like the fantasies which she had tried to exorcise completely from her mind before arriving at the Finland Station and then think only of the mission.
Of course she had failed, and fallen for the first temptation to stray and just play … tourist. And she had taken the rap for it. If that sailor had not been there who knows how much trouble the Red Guard would have given her?
But there had been too many long evenings in the village with no exciting things going on except trying to figure out how late you could go to bed and still be ready to get up and milk the cows at sunset.
And magic … well, she had thought it would change everything after that first wild thrill of discovering it and that she had been chosen for training. It was like being admitted to the most prestigious school you had always hoped existed and then suddenly it was real.
But so was several hours a day of studying arcane books and mumbling strange words over and over and practicing how to make the current in the stream behind the house turn this way or that or summoning a certain number of owls from the depths of the forest.
Day in and day out. Year after year.
Long days. Dreary days. Because you got up early to study and then milk the cows and there were no exceptions.
There were no days like that first fantastic day, when Oleg had taken her to the Secret City and she had met Baba Yaga and the Council and seen the talking giant tree of life and the arches that moved between the crystal houses and … so much!
But Oleg had said she could only go back once she had trained enough to graduate and become a fully fledged koldun’ya and only the Council decided when that was.
And only then could she go back to the Secret City and fly over the taiga and inspect the hidden caves of the salamanders deep below the grounds and … all the things she had seen that first day and all the things Oleg since had told her about. Only when she graduated could she do all that and get there.
That first day had been the day after her 7th birthday. 10 years ago …
So she knew she was special and she could do fantastic things, but it was kind of hard to feel when all you were allowed to do was train and train and stay in the village and do all the hard work, too. And you were not allowed to do anything else until some uncertain time when someone you hardly knew gave the word.
She wasn’t even sure this mission would make her graduate. But she had eagerly said yes when Oleg had told her about the Council’s wishes and given her the special necklace she was to wear at all times.
Anything to get out of Rovnoye. It was a nice village. It was her home. It was also like death sometimes …
But now she was here, in Petrograd, and she found herself longing briefly for the security of the wooden house and the knowledge she had so much ability in magic and nobody else – but Oleg – had that.
Tatiana gazed up at the grand old mansions and wondered why so many of the windows were blacked out. Some of the windows were completely dark, and it was impossible to tell if it was because they had been blinded by curtains or there was no light in there or both.
They look like skull eyes …
She shook the thought, irritated with herself. She was a koldun’ya. She was here because she wanted it.
Perhaps she was not able to cast fireballs yet and summon hellcats but she could make herself invisible and fly away and she could do all sorts of things that would protect her.
A lot more than those poor people looking for bread …
Tatiana looked across the river again. The armored car had not moved. Perhaps it had been part of the provisional government’s arsenal and had just been abandoned as the loyal soldiers abandoned their loyalties and fled, before Red Guards.
Tatiana studied the mansions again. There was no. 229. So she was close now.
Could they all have fled? It was no secret that the richer people lived here. Oleg had not spoken much about his cousin, only that he and his family were servants of one of the wealthy old aristocrats of Petrograd.
And Oleg had also told her that the Bolsheviks planned to take all the property of the wealthy people and give to the workers. Not that Tatiana had seen many signs of redistribution as she stood in that line for bread and was chased away by the Red Guard …
And then, she reached the Nikolaevsky Bridge and suddenly there was no. 231 right in front of her.
Tatiana was about to run up to the big main door of no. 231, when she stopped in her tracks. There was a soldier sitting on the stairs.
Or rather: a man who had been a soldier. He sat there like a sack of potatoes thrown off from a cart going by, crouched and heavy, wrapped in something resembling bags.
Then Tatiana saw it:
The “bags” were what went for uniforms these days in the remnants of the Tsar’s army.
She had seen such bags before and she never wanted to see them again – torn and shredded, patched with stolen boots or jackets from dead German soldiers – or comrades.
No, she never wanted to see such a bag again – especially with a man inside.
But here I am … what do I do now?
It was too late to turn back. The man had looked up, wearily, and his bloodshot stare made her freeze.
Like that day in September last year:
They had brought Yakov home on a cart, because he could not walk himself, or ride. He would never be able to do any of these things again.
There were already stings of winter in the air as the other soldiers lifted Yakov down and into the arms of Oleg, his real father.
Oleg trembled, but not because of the weight of his only son in his embrace. Not just that …
“My son … ” Oleg’s voice was hoarse, and then he held Yakov tight. And he was not alone. Yakov’s friends had come down from the cart, and helped support Yakov.
And there she stood, the foster-daughter who was now part and parcel of the family. But at that moment felt apart from everything. Tatiana had been mesmerized by Yakov’s legs – or rather what was not his legs: both were gone. Amputated near the knee. One of them replaced by a wooden stump – the other nothing.
She then felt the tears, and how that dreadful feeling of fear and shock made her unable to move, although she wanted to run to him – to her brother. For he had always been her brother, even if he was not by birth. They had always been brother and sister. They had said that to each other so often it had become real … And he would expect her to come to embrace him, just like their mother – her foster-mother – did at that moment, along with Oleg. Yakov would expect Tatiana to be there for him.
But as her brother looked over Oleg’s shoulder and directly at her she saw nothing in his eyes. And she remained frozen.
“Shell … ” one of the men from the cart said to Oleg.
Oleg nodded. Their mother began weeping quietly.
The adults helped Yakov inside into the cottage and Tatiana followed without a word.
She had sworn then and there that she would study even harder.
For there were also spells that could grow back limbs and more. Oleg said he could do some of that but not enough to help Yakov. Not even grow back his legs.
However, when she had asked him about it, Oleg had admitted that he might be able to do … something. But –
“It is necromancy to create new limbs, new blood … ” Oleg had said. “You are very quickly tempted to do more than just heal once you concentrate on that school of magic.”
“But – ” she had begun. And he had silenced her with his stern look:
“You will not learn necromancy from me. After official graduation, you are allowed to use your abilities outside of the village without guidance from me or the Council. Then you are old enough to decide yourself, and I cannot stop you.”
“But that may take years. Yakov may die before that! Or go crazy because his body is wrecked … ” she had pleaded.
Oleg had just looked at her darkly as if he wanted to say something to that particular concern. But he said nothing. And he refused ever to talk about these possibilities again.
So in the days and weeks to come Tatiana washed her brother’s wounds. She helped him with his clothes. She helped him with his crutches. She fed him.
And at the same time she worked in the fields, and cooked and cleaned and collected firewood and in the early morning hours she had studied and memorized and memorized.
She had worked like she had never worked before. She studied like she had never studied before.
Until she knew every word, and every way of pronouncing every word in that little leather-bound book with the strange rune that Oleg had given her on her 7th birthday – right before they flew over the taiga to the Secret City for the first and only time.
And she finally decided to take the family name of her true father, much to Oleg’s chagrin.
She assured him it was not to hurt anyone, and that she would always hide it in public. But she wasn’t so sure about the first part as winter became a cold, nervous spring and the first marches shook Petrograd and the Tsar stepped down.
But one thing was for sure, though: Tatiana Olegovna Rasputina did not care about necromancy.
She cared about healing her brother. Before anything else.
With a determination that surprised even herself, Tatiana took all of those memories and packed them into a small needle of ice that she left somewhere deep inside her heart.
And stepped forward.
The bag-man soldier held out two dirty, bloody fingers sticking out from beneath bandages:
“Do you have some money, honey?” he asked in a gravelly voice.
“I have 5 rubles … ” Tatiana said and held them out.
That was a lot of money, even for a war cripple beggar. In fact, it was all the money she had in her purse. But with everything she remembered about another war cripple who was her brother, there was really no hesitation in finding the money.
“Come closer … ” the man said.
She did and gave him the money, right into the bloodied, bandaged hand. It clasped quickly around the coins and hid them in the bags that went for clothes. Then their eyes met.
The man’s face was scarred and partially hidden by a hat and a woollen scarf that had once been white. But his eyes were very clear and blue. She had no idea about his age, though. It could be 25 or 35 … or 45 …
“So you are part of the family, then?” he asked.
“I am here to live with the Ladovnas, yes.”
“Too bad … ” he muttered.
“They have been out since before everything went to hell. I don’t know when they will be back but I was hoping you were the wife, when I first saw you.”
“Natasha,” said Tatiana, remembering well the names that Oleg had told her over and over.
“Yes, that’s her,” said the cripple. “She gives me food – one of the only ones here.”
Tatiana eyed the ghostly emptiness of the English Embankment, supposedly one of the poshest neighborhoods of Petrograd …
“Even if people were still here, I doubt they would give much,” she said earnestly. “If the Bolsheviks are right, rich people are mostly concerned with themselves.”
“Well, good that the wife here is not rich, then, eh?” The man coughed and started to smile, but then stopped. She briefly saw rotten teeth …
“But,” he added, “she is the servant, like the man and their son, of a rich family. So she has access to more food than the poorer folks, you see?”
“Well …” the man muttered and tried to move around a bit, and she saw that he – like Yakov – also had a wooden stump for a leg, underneath the big baggy coat.
“Well … ” he said again, and tried to get up, “it is a pity that some of the poor workers are downright assholes, too, you know? You never know how much they will give even if they have hoarded some bread. Natasha is a seldom kind … ”
“Here – ” she said and held out her hand ” – let me help you up.”
“Yes,” the man said, his hoarse voice sounding far away suddenly ” … you can help me a lot more … ”
With a speed that belied his broken body, the man was up and had grabbed Tatiana and pulled her close.
She was so surprised that she did not have time to react before he flung her around and slammed her against the wall beside the door to the silent Ladovna house.
Then she heard – and smelled – the man up close. Very close.
He twisted her arm with his good arm and used his weight to press her against the wall.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had me some … ” the man panted and his bloody, stump hand tore at her dress. But because he had fewer fingers the work was slow and he cursed and pressed himself harder against her to be able to hold her while trying to get the dress off.
“Yes, it’s been so long … ” he said again, voice guttural.
Tatiana felt fought to keep panic down, and she fought him. But he was incredibly strong …
That was the one vulnerability of koldun’yas – sorcerers. She had to have her hands free and be able to concentrate to cast spells. And that was why Oleg had taught her again and again:
“If you ever have to use your power to defend yourself, do it from a distance. Never up close – never.”
Now that was too late. And he was too strong to break free from.
But panic gave her strength, too. She kicked fiercely for his wooden leg, and in the end managed to get her boot behind it and then she pulled her leg back and half-way tripped the man. It was clumsy and did not really make him fall, but it gave her an opening to tear herself free.
As she stumbled back onto the street, she saw the gun in the man’s good hand and he humped down the stairs towards her. She might easily have outrun him now, if it had not been for that.
“Fucking c*nt … ” the main spat. “This is a little souvenir I took from a dead German. And you know what, it still shoots really well, because I fired it into his fucking face, once I had taken it from him … ”
The crippled man continued to rant as he humped forward, with surprising balance since he did not use a crutch. And his gun hand was not shaking at all. But she saw he clenched the weapon really hard as if he would crush it …
“Wonderful what you can do, when you jump into a trench that has just been leveled by mortar – and how quickly. How quickly you know that since your fucking government hasn’t given you a rifle or even a bayonet you just have to get kick the other guy while he is still reeling from that explosion. Kick him. Take his gun. And do him in. And then all the rest … ”
“Get away from me … ” Tatiana heard herself say, but the man only moved closer while his voice rose to a high pitch:
“I sacrificed everything. I have a right to a little sweetness from a daughter of Russia. Why don’t you show me some sweetness – bitch?!”
“Get away from me!” she yelled and then her words knotted themselves into ancient, arcane twists and hums, and she reached forward, her fingers clawing at the air in just the right position …
And then it was there: The cascade, as she had begun to call it. Like she had torn down an invisible dike to a flood of raw energy that just exploded through the air, searing like heat from a hundred ovens and yet cold as the ice on the Neva.
It all coalesced in 10 single points through her fingers and changed into what she wanted.
And that was fire.
The man did not even have time to mutter an oath before two jets of flame shot out from Tatiana’s hands and engulfed him.
But he did scream … as he tumbled past her, and then fell to the ground. He rolled around, screaming while he burned and Tatiana was shaken from her own shock.
It was the only attack spell she had memorized. The only one …
“No!” she cried and tore off her coat and tried to get to the man and cover him with it, extinguish the flames.
“No – no – no!”
But the man rolled away from her before she could get to him and then right over the edge – of the English Embankment promenade. And into the river …
Tatiana felt something else swim over the panic now – pure unadulterated terror.
Terror about herself.
She had never thought she would use this spell … like this.
But … she had not … she had … just reacted.
The dark waters were semi-frozen but as she understood what she had done, even though it was probably to save herself – maybe even her life – Tatiana did not hesitate. She moved towards the river and began to pull off her dress so she could jump in. Even though it would mean at least a good bout of pneumonia this time of year.
If she made it up again. And with that heavy man …
But she never got the chance to try that.
The armored car from the other side had driven across the bridge as she struggled with her clothes and two Red Guards jumped out as the car reached her.
“What is going on?” the one Guard shouted.
“He – he – ” Tatiana began.
“What’s with that fire?” the other Guard began. “Did he get burned by one of the lamps?” He eyed the two oil lamps across the door to the mansion where the Ladovnas lived and worked. Only one of them were lit.
“I – yes – ” Tatiana started ” … he got burned, yes. But we have to save him – he fell in!”
The first Guard looked at her with sympathy, and she realized she was standing there in the cold autumn with no coat and her dress half down her legs.
“Looks like he got what he deserved, before it was too late,” he said. “We won’t do anymore about this.”
“B-but … ” Tatiana tried and went to the promenade edge and pointed down at the man who was still struggling in the water, even though the fire had now gone out. “We have to get him up”
The second guard found the gun now and inspected it carefully.
“War booty,” he then said and eyed his comrade. “I think we have what we need.”
“Yes,” the other man agreed. And then he pulled out his rifle and … shot the man in the water.
Tatiana threw herself at him: “What are you doing? Are you crazy?!”
The Guard tore himself loose: “Look, little lady – I don’t know what has gotten into you, but I know soldiers who come back and start to beg and steal and rape. We don’t need them. He could have joined us and fought for justice.”
“J-justice … ?” Tatiana was speechless, and then she felt the tears well up. She wanted to flee – to go back home. Right now. But all she could do was stand her, in the cold morning and gather her clothes and try to stop shaking.
“Be glad that you go justice, girl,” the other Guard said. “There will soon be a lot more of it – in this city and in this country.”
And then they left her … alone.
And Tatiana Rasputina limped back to the stair where the cripple had been and slumped down on it herself and began to cry as she had never cried before.
She felt that she had been sitting there for hours, while the cold got ever more under her skin and into her body, but she refused to move.
I will just sit here now … and die for what I have done … I should have been more in control … I should have …
A thought flickered in her, as these thoughts always do, when something terrible has happened … that maybe if she was sitting here long enough somebody would come. Somebody, like her mother … pick her up, tell her everything was all right.
It was only a flicker, though. And nobody came.
The chilly autumn sun rose higher over Petrograd and she could hear more gunfire in the streets on the other side of the English Embankment and in the streets behind her.
Justice was spreading in the city.