In fact he had not seen another living soul all day. There were animals occasionally, mostly squirrels and birds. He saw an elk once, so close it was almost a pity to walk away from it, but he did not have the time to clean and prepare it if he killed it so he ignored it. He wanted to use the gun as little as possible. He might really need it later and he needed to conserve ammunition. Besides someone might hear the shots. He had enough rations to get to the border. He hoped.
As best as he had figured it back at the camp it was a little more than three hundred and twenty kilometers he had to travel, all told. Straight south for the most part, a little west. Of course some of that was pure guesswork, he did not really know how far he would have to go once he crossed over the border. He did not know what the exact situation was on the other side. You didn’t hear much if you were a regular. Vague rumors that the Germans were getting pushed back out of Greece had come through months ago. They were falling back voluntarily because they didn’t want to end up getting cut off, with the Red Army closing in from the north, from Romania, and the western Allies pushing up from the south. Bulgaria had pulled out earlier in the month. They had heard that in the camp in Stara Zagora and that was all he knew. You didn’t hear any details. He did not know how far the westerners had managed to come so he did not know how far he had to go to meet them. It meant he had to play it by ear and he had never liked doing that. He hated not knowing. Zuyeva probably knew but he did not want to think about Zuyeva.
When night came he rested for a little while, sitting with his back against the bole of a tree and keeping his new pistol close. He let himself have an hour and then he got up and started out again. He was not worrying about covering his tracks anymore, it took too much time and it was already slow going in the dark. After an hour of walking he stopped again and rested some more. He kept up like that all night, one hour walking, one hour resting. He wanted to get as much distance between himself and the camp as possible in as little time as possible. Still he did not really think they would follow him. Zuyeva had bigger prey now.
Dawn came late the next day because it was overcast and there was a thick mist lying in the valleys and there was the hint of rain in the air. He was not sure about the rain. Part of him wished it would rain and wash away the tracks he was not bothering to cover since last night but the rest of him felt that the rain would slow him down and speed was the most important thing right now. It rained anyway about midday. The rain fell in fat heavy drops at first, loud in the treetops, and then it settled down into a fine steady drizzle, the kind farmers are always hoping will fall on the crops, and it was cold and the wind drove the rain into his face. He walked with his head down and so he did not see the road until he was almost on top of it.
It was a narrow muddy road with the thick forest pressing in on both sides and it was heavily rutted so he figured it must be a logging road. Laki, he thought, it must be the Laki road. He could follow it south and west to Ustovo and the border. He had no intention of going into the town itself. He had not had time or the opportunity to change his uniform for civilian clothes and the uniform would invite questions in a rural mining town like Laki. The town was so small and it was nestled so deeply in the mountains that most of the war had probably passed it by unnoticed and a Red Army uniform would be too out-of-place. No, he would sidestep the town and then join the road again further on.
The rain kept up all that day and the next and he followed the Laki road the whole time. It was forty kilometers from Laki to Ustovo. It seemed longer because it was a miserable walk, he was constantly cold and wet now and he was sick of cold wet food. By late afternoon of that second rainy day he was getting close to Ustovo and he made the spontaneous decision to risk it and go into town. His last spontaneous decision had resulted in disaster but he was desperate this time. Ustovo was a bigger town than Laki and he had more of a chance of staying anonymous. Most likely there had been other Red Army uniforms in the town and his would not raise so many eyebrows. Still he went off the road and walked parallel to it in the safety of the forest until he was on the outskirts. Red Army soldiers in the town might not be so unusual but a wet muddy one walking in alone on the Laki road would be. And there was traffic on the road now, off and on: trucks and wagons, mostly; once or twice a car, straining its way through the mud. He kept out of sight.
It was evening when he went into the town. The rain had stopped finally but the sky was still blurry and blotched with runny purple clouds, like a bad watercolor, and the grass was thick with wetness and the road was ankle-deep black mud. Later on, past the first few cob-and-stone houses, the road was paved. He walked as quickly as he thought was possible without attracting attention. Around him the town was like something leftover from bygone days, narrow twisty cobbled streets between storied houses that were wider on top than they were below, the top stories hanging out precariously. There were stores, open-fronted whitewashed buildings that seemed to spill onto the streets. There were people milling everywhere and there was the steady pleasant hum of activity. Ustovo was a market town and dimly he realized this was Saturday, the biggest market day. That was good luck, the first he’d had so far. No one would pay much attention to a stranger today. He went to the first booth he saw and brought out the Bulgarian banknotes he’d saved back at the camp and bought a change of clothes. The shopkeeper was a small amiable heavyset man with a thick black mustache and he took one look at the uniform and started babbling ecstatically in Bulgarian so quickly that it was hard for Muryn to keep up. He offered his hand so Muryn could shake it and clapped him on the back, smiling broadly, and tried to refuse the money Muryn gave him. All of this was a little confusing and it made Muryn uneasy until slowly he realized the little man was excited about the good news, they were fighting the Germans together now, the Soviets and Bulgarians together, and he was just being companionable. They were in this together now. The Soviets were liberators, osvoboditel, the little man said. Muryn let the man shake his hand and relaxed a little bit but he did not smile. The irony was too heavy for him to smile.
There was a hotel further into the town and he spent the last of his little Bulgarian money to rent a room for the night and buy a hot meal. It did not worry him, he would be across the border tomorrow. Xanthi was fifty kilometers. For the first time he let himself think ahead, let his imagination run on and on, pretending he had made it and everything he had to worry about was squarely behind him and he could forget about it. Xanthi tomorrow, then Kavala the next day or the day after that. Beyond that his plans were a little vague. It didn’t matter. After tomorrow it wouldn’t matter. They wouldn’t follow him across the border.
He had no money for breakfast in the morning but that did not bother him because he was too tense with excitement to eat. He went downstairs to return the room key wearing his new civilian clothes. He left the uniform in the closet in the room. He stood at the front counter waiting for the clerk and he saw there was a car pulling up at the curb outside. He watched while the driver got out. The driver was tall and he walked stiff and straight. He was obviously military, Muryn could see; he was dressed in civilian clothes but he looked about as comfortable in those clothes as Muryn had been in his rain-soaked uniform yesterday. He came around to the near side of the car and opened the door and a passenger got out. Muryn recognized right away that it was Zuyeva.
He did not take the time to be surprised or even to think about how on earth they had found him here. He ducked his head right away, put the key down and spun sharply away from the counter and looked for an exit. There was a door at the back of the lobby and he crossed over to it and pulled it open and went out and found himself in a narrow alley cutting north-and-south between the hotel and a row of tall houses. He closed the door behind him and ran south. It was dark, the only light came from the thin strip of gray sky high above between the buildings, and the alley was littered with junk, wooden crates and rusted bicycles and trash, and it reeked of rottenness and waste. He splashed through puddles as he ran. He could not hear any pursuit yet and he found himself wondering detachedly if Zuyeva spoke Bulgarian. If not that would buy him some time. But probably Zuyeva spoke Bulgarian. Probably there was not a language in Europe Zuyeva did not speak. People like Zuyeva, they knew things like that. They knew languages and currencies and table-manners for every country in Europe. And somehow they had known he was here.
He reached the end of the alley and came out onto a twisting side street lying perpendicular in his path, lined with rows and rows of those rickety top-heavy houses. He crossed the street and ran into another alley and followed it until it ended in the next street. He kept that up, zigzagging through the town, always heading generally south, until the houses started thinning out and the roads sank into mud again and the dark green forest stood in front of him offering shelter like welcoming arms. He ran into the forest and kept on running and somewhere off behind him he could hear a car’s engine roaring softly. He ran for a long time, up and down the gentle shoulders of small hills, threading through the trees. There were lots of tiny streams in his path, a whole network of them spider-webbing through the forest. Beautiful country, he thought, if someone wasn’t trying to kill you and you had time to enjoy it. Behind him, from the direction of the road, the sound of the engine never quite went away. When he had run for as long as he could, until he had a stitch in his side and was gasping for breath in the thin mountain air, he slowed to a stumbling hurried walk. The noise of the engine still hummed irritatingly in the back of his head. He walked, then ran again, and the day wore on towards midmorning.
He had to be close now, he thought; he had to be close to the border now. He looked around. Then he laughed at himself faintly. What was he expecting, a line in the earth? A fence? A sudden change in the landscape? He might have crossed the border already. There was no way of knowing. It didn’t matter. He had thought they wouldn’t follow him across the border and he had been wrong. Reaching the border didn’t matter now. He could still hear the engine growling softly behind him somewhere, and now he could hear voices, faint and far-off, and the sound of underbrush crackling. They were spreading out to look for him. He was not worried about that. He could slip through them, he was pretty sure. He kept running, going quickly from tree to tree, making little noise. Behind him the engine stopped. That puzzled him. It had not faded away, like the car had been driven out of earshot; it had stopped. He pushed himself harder. The engine did not start again. Instead of being relieved he was uneasy. He did not know what Zuyeva was doing and he was pretty sure he did not want to find out. He ran.
It was the trees that saved his life. All he heard was the short dull thud of metal in wood but that was enough, he knew that sound and he knew to drop. He hit the ground flat and slid as quick as he could through the black mud and into the shallow bed of the stream that had been lying directly across his path, east-to-west. Maybe the Reds have outlawed God now, he thought, but thank God for the streams. He kept well below the bank, half-submerged in the icy water. From his cover he could see the shattered bark where Zuyeva’s bullet had grazed the tree just to the right of where he had been standing a moment ago. He allowed himself to smile to himself a little wryly. Well, he knew now. He knew what Zuyeva was up to and he knew what he had to do.
He kept his head down and made his way down the streambed west.
That thought was the last straw. There was more honor in deserting, he thought, than there was in fighting Stalin’s war.
His original plan was to travel cross-country to Greece. Stara Zagora was at the southern tip of the Soviet offensive in Bulgaria and it was not so far to the Greek border, he figured maybe three hundred and twenty kilometers, a little more. He would be traveling through friendly country all the way now that Bulgaria had come over to the Allied side — sparsely-populated mountain country, most of it, so it would be easy to shake off any pursuit — and once he reached Greece he could start working his way south towards the western Allies. They were moving in to take Athens the last he had heard. It was a long way to Athens but he figured he could take a ship from a port like Kavala for most of that. He knew his Greek geography because years ago when things were not so bad in the Ukraine he would go on fishing trips with his father, down the Dnieper to Odessa on the Black Sea, and there were many Greeks in Odessa.
He had to figure out how to broach the subject to Rudy because whatever he did it would affect Rudy almost as much as it affected him and consequently Rudy deserved to know. He could trust Rudy as much as he could trust anybody, Rudy was a fellow Ukrainian and Muryn had known him from the beginning, almost three years now. For two years of that, ever since he had finished training, Rudy had been his spotter. Most of the other snipers in the company did not use spotters — it was a Western idea — but Muryn did. It was the best way, he had been sure of that since training. It was one thing to have sniping skills but those didn’t help you when the fighting got too close. Without a spotter you were blind. He had tried explaining that to Zuyeva once but he didn’t do it very well. It was difficult to explain. If you were a sniper working alone you were so focused on your target that you could not pay attention to your surroundings. But with a spotter you always knew what was going on around you. Zuyeva had laughed at him. Like most every other sniper Zuyeva worked alone. He didn’t mind that she had laughed. He figured she would find out someday. Anyway Rudy was a good spotter, the two of them made a good team. He himself had always been quiet and careful, a little bit too careful sometimes maybe, and Rudy was the exact opposite, fiery and reckless, but in spite of their differences they had always understood each other.
Still he was not exactly sure how Rudy would react. No matter how much you trusted someone you had to be careful when it came to politics. A small part of him figured it was possible Rudy could call the commissar over right away, not because he particularly disapproved but just to save his own skin. Even someone good-naturedly overconfident like Rudy could lose his nerve just like that where politics were involved. So he waited until he and Rudy were out alone on the shooting range to talk to him. The command had opened the ranges to keep everyone’s marksmanship from getting rusty while they waited. There was no one to fight within three hundred kilometers of Stara Zagora and they had been camped here for weeks with nothing to do while they waited for orders. It was possible, Muryn thought, they might be in Stara Zagora until the war ended.
He had the gun mounted on a bipod and he rested the stock against his shoulder and closed one eye and sighted and made adjustments. He did it without really thinking about it because he was preoccupied trying to come up with a good way of telling Rudy what he was planning to do. Rudy was sitting a little behind him cleaning the lenses for the sights and whistling tunelessly.
“Rudy?” he said finally.
“What?” said Rudy without looking up from what he was doing.
Now he had to figure out what exactly to say. What do you say? Well, Rudy, I’ve decided to desert. It was all right to think and theorize about it in your head but it was something different to say it aloud, set it down as fact. His momentary nerve ebbed away. He focused on the target again. His mouth was a little dry.
“Never mind,” he said.
It was a mistake to have said anything at all because Rudy was nothing if not persistent.
“What? What was it?”
“Nothing, right. Can’t you trust me?”
“I don’t know,” he said seriously. “Can I trust you, Rudy?”
Rudy looked at him for a moment like he was putting something together in his head and when he spoke again it was barely more than a whisper.
“Is it political?”
He hesitated, wavered back and forth, decided it was now or never.
“Yes,” he said.
Rudy put the scope lenses down and glanced around casually. They were still alone on the field.
“You can trust me,” he said.
The words came out in a rush because he was afraid he would not get them out at all otherwise.
“Rudy, I’m going to desert.”
“Ah,” said Rudy.
“That’s all you have to say?”
“Well, what do you want me to say?”
“I thought at least it would surprise you a little bit. If you didn’t go to the commissar.”
“I’m not surprised, no. I know you, Muryn. The only thing that surprises me is that you’ve stayed so long.”
He was a little bewildered.
“If you know — if it’s that obvious –”
“No, no one else knows, you don’t have to worry about that. Unless you’ve told somebody else.”
“You asked yourself, why fight Stalin’s war?”
“Yes,” he admitted.
“So. Why are you fighting Stalin’s war?”
He did not say anything.
“He is doing the same thing here, now, that he did twenty years ago in the Ukraine. More land and more people for the Reds to experiment on. The same thing he did in the Ukraine. All this ideology about fighting the Germans–” Rudy shook his head. “Doesn’t mean a thing. Look at what they did in Poland. We were allies in Poland. The only reason we are not allies still is because Stalin and Hitler realized they were both plotting the same thing, plotting to steal all of eastern Europe from under the other’s nose.”
“I’ve told myself all of that.”
“So you see. I understand.”
“But you are still here. You are fighting his war just like I am.”
Rudy grinned again.
“No, you see, Muryn. I might be wearing his uniform but I am not fighting his war.”
He said, “I don’t understand,” though suddenly he was a little afraid that he did.
Rudy said, “How much do you know about the UPA?”
“You are part of the UPA?”
“I joined them a year ago.”
“We haven’t been back home in almost two years.”
“There are cells of the UPA in Czechoslovakia, Romania; even a few here in Bulgaria now. I joined in Romania.”
“And you spy for them?”
“They need the information I can give them about numbers, troop movements, timetables–”
“I don’t think you should be telling me this,” Muryn said a little irritatedly.
Rudy was amused.
“You are saying I can’t trust you?”
“No. No, I am saying that now I am involved. I don’t want to be involved.”
“But you should get involved. This is what we need, Muryn. The UPA is exactly what we need. We are fighting for an independent Ukraine.”
“Fighting with the Germans.”
Rudy shrugged carefully.
“Some among us,” he said. “Not all.”
“Hitler has caused as much misery in the Ukraine as Stalin.”
Rudy was a little riled now.
“I said not all of us think we should be fighting with the Germans. Still, as the means to the end–”
“And everyone knows about Volhynia,” Muryn said. “You can’t ignore that.”
“Volhynia was a terrible mistake.”
“No different from what Hitler’s SS or the NKVD would have done. It’s not worth it, Rudy.”
“An independent Ukraine is not worth it?”
He only hesitated a little bit.
Neither of them spoke again for a while. They had been speaking the whole time in low voices but even so Muryn was a little afraid they had been too loud, their voices might have carried too much across the silence of the empty shooting range. He had forgotten about the gun. He shouldered it again and sighted for the target and let off a shot and it tore through the air with a crack.
“I was hoping you would join,” Rudy said from behind him. “I could have arranged it.”
“I am sorry.”
“When are you planning on–going?”
“I don’t know.” He had not really thought about the intricate details of his plan yet. He would need a couple days at least, time to get some rations, and more money, and some weapon besides a sniper rifle. He couldn’t take a sniper rifle on the run. It was a pity, he thought. He had used this rifle for two years now.
“The UPA could still help you,” Rudy said. “You wouldn’t have to join. We could–”
Out of the corner of his eye Muryn saw someone approaching from the direction of the camp. It was Zuyeva. He motioned for Rudy to stop talking. Of course he intended to tell Zuyeva about his plans, it wasn’t that, but certainly it was better if no one else knew about Rudy and the UPA and sometimes Rudy did not know when to keep his mouth shut. But this time Rudy subsided and picked up the scope lenses and started on them again. Muryn got off another shot by the time Zuyeva reached them.
He let Rudy and Zuyeva take care of the small talk because he had never been comfortable just making small talk with Zuyeva. Rudy was better at it, he was always at his ease and he knew how to make Zuyeva laugh. Try as he might somehow Muryn could only think about the serious things and that never made good conversation, he hated burdening Zuyeva with it so he had learned just to keep his mouth shut. It was easier that way anyway because his tongue always found itself in knots whenever Zuyeva was around.
Rudy was joking as usual, he had slid back into his usual careless self, but Muryn must have had uneasiness plain on his face because after a moment Zuyeva stopped laughing at whatever Rudy had said and she looked at him and said, “Is something wrong?”
“No,” he said right away.
“You have never been a good liar, Muryn,” Zuyeva said.
He tried to think of something to say to that and couldn’t. He shrugged instead. His tongue was in knots again. What he wouldn’t give to be more like Rudy right now, he thought. He took down the bipod and folded it and then he picked the gun up and put it in its case. He looked at Rudy who was still holding the scope lenses. Rudy held out his hand.
“Give me the gun,” he said. “I’ll walk ahead.”
He was grateful that Rudy understood without the need to say anything but still he was nervous about explaining things to Zuyeva alone. He waited until Rudy had walked a little ways away towards the camp. Zuyeva waited too, her arms crossed, facing him. She looked very stern and he had always found it a little bit funny when she looked like that because she only came up to about his chest and she had to tilt her head back a little bit to look at him squarely. He had never dared to say anything about it aloud though because she had a dangerous temper that was not affected in the least by her size. Rudy usually just laughed at her whenever she got really mad. Muryn had never been that brave.
When Rudy had gone they started walking slowly and he was digging furiously in his mind for how to begin. It wasn’t like with Rudy when he could just spill it out in a rush. Zuyeva was different. He wanted to take his time explaining it to her. The only thing was there was no time. It was not a long walk from the shooting range to the camp and there would be other ears before long.
Zuyeva was the one who finally broke the miserable silence.
“What is this all about, Muryn?” she said. “I was watching you and Rudy on the range. You were out there for a long time.”
“We were talking. Politics.”
“Oh,” said Zuyeva in a voice that was carefully bland.
He glanced at her.
“I trust you,” he said. “I trust you like I trust Rudy, you know–”
“Yes. It’s all right.” She smiled at him.
“The westerners — the British mostly — they are close to taking Athens now. I have been following it as much as I can.”
“I am going to go to Athens,” he said.
She looked at him once. Then she turned her head and looked down at the ground. They kept walking. She did not say anything. He did not say anything either. Her reaction was as bad as Rudy’s. His heart was suddenly in his throat. What if he was wrong, he thought. What if he had been wrong to trust her, what if she went to the commissar. He shouldn’t have said anything to her. Shouldn’t have said anything to Rudy either. Stupid of him to say anything. Stupid to think of deserting in the first place.
Finally Zuyeva said, “What did Rudy say?”
“He tried to convince me not to do it.”
Zuyeva looked at him again.
“I said you could trust me, Muryn. I also said you were a bad liar.”
He said, “Oh.”
“When are you going?”
“I don’t know.”
She laughed suddenly.
“The two of you planning something like this, it will end in disaster.”
“Probably,” he said seriously.
“You might have the nerve but you don’t have any practical sense. Neither of you.”
He was a little offended at that. He had thought everything out very carefully. He did not say anything though because he knew better than to argue with her.
They were coming down into the camp now and he could see Rudy standing there waiting for them. Zuyeva said, “We can meet on the range again tomorrow.”
He shook his head.
“I don’t want you to help,” he said. “They might find out you were involved. I wouldn’t have told you if I thought you would want to be involved.”
“It’s nothing to worry about,” she said dismissively. She was walking away from him. “On the range tomorrow, both of you.”
He was not happy about getting Zuyeva involved. He had been angry with Rudy for telling him about the UPA and now he had gone himself and done the exact same thing to Zuyeva. Only with Zuyeva it was worse because she was stubborn, there was no stopping her once she put her mind to something.
They met on the range again the next afternoon. He told them about his plan to travel overland through the mountains to Greece, he figured he could make the border in five days, then another day or two to Kavala and he could find a ship to take him south, but Rudy shook his head. There was a better way. Overland to Greece it was friendly country all the way, now that Bulgaria had come over, and you would have the NKVD right behind you every step. No, there was a better way. It was half the distance to go to Burgas on the Black Sea and then he could cross over to Turkey.
He had to admit it was not a bad plan. It meant only three days at most of dangerous traveling through Bulgaria instead of five. The only thing was the Burgas route was less mountainous and more populated along the way and it would be harder to keep out of sight.
“That wouldn’t be a problem,” Rudy said. “I have UPA contacts here in Stara Zagora. They could get you through to the cell in Burgas.”
He was startled. He glanced over at Zuyeva. She smiled at him.
“He told me,” she said.
Privately he thought Rudy had been stupid to do that but he didn’t say that aloud.
“They could supply you with money and a weapon too,” Rudy said.
“It’s a good idea, Muryn,” Zuyeva said.
“All right,” he said. He was reluctant, he didn’t know why. Certainly he hadn’t the faintest idea where he was going to get money on his own, he had nothing besides a few Bulgarian banknotes. Maybe it was because this was all very sudden and he had never liked going into something without a lot of planning ahead. “When?”
“Tonight,” said Rudy.
“I’ve already arranged a meeting.”
By now he knew better than to be surprised.
“Outside the city. I’ll show you.”
They talked and made plans for a while and when they had settled everything that could be settled right then they went back to the camp. He spent the rest of the day pacing around in the barracks restlessly with a tight feeling in the pit of his stomach. It was a good plan Rudy had come up with, better than his own original plan; he was not worried about that. He didn’t really know what he was worried about. At least it was overcast today, he thought, it would be a dark night. He was not sure where Rudy had gone. At six the call for evening mess came and he went out. Rudy fell in beside him at the door of the mess hall.
“Afterwards,” was all he said.
They had arranged to meet up with Zuyeva beyond the eastern edge of the camp. He was not sure why Zuyeva had to come, she was just risking herself unnecessarily, but he knew it was no good telling her that so he had not even tried. It was dark by the time he and Rudy got to the appointed meeting-place, a stand of old linden trees above the river, and it took a moment of quiet searching around before they found Zuyeva. She stepped out from where she had been waiting behind one of the trees and joined them without a word. Then Rudy went ahead and Muryn and Zuyeva followed. They came out of the trees and crossed the cobbled road that led into the city and walked south and east in an arc around the city. They were walking parallel to the river and the city lights were sparkling on the black water and it gave them light enough to walk by. They walked for a while, maybe twenty minutes. He was starting to get a little afraid that Rudy and Zuyeva would be missed back at the camp but finally Rudy stopped and said, “Here.”
They were on the back slope of a small wooded hill that rose up out of the linden trees like a crowned head. The front slope went down towards the river and the city stood beyond that and the city lights were still twinkling cheerfully, reassuringly. There were other smaller hills all around and Muryn supposed that kept this hill from being too conspicuous. They all stood for a moment and looked around. They were alone, the only sound was the slight rustling of wind in the trees. The tight feeling in his stomach came back. Maybe something had gone wrong. But Rudy did not seem too concerned, he sat down against one of the trees to wait.
“They won’t be long,” he said quietly.
They waited. The minutes dragged by and Muryn was sure someone in the camp must have noticed they were gone by now and it was on the tip of his tongue to suggest that they should all three just make a run for it now. But finally there was the sound of crackling underbrush drifting up from the other side of the hill and he relaxed just a little bit and felt foolish for automatically assuming the worst had happened. Still the wait had probably cost them. Rudy stood up and started walking up the hill through the trees to meet the newcomers. Muryn followed him, hanging back a little so Rudy could handle the first part, and he expected Zuyeva was right behind him but when he turned to look she was not there.
He stopped walking. Just like that all of the uneasiness came rushing back and the inside of his mouth went dry as dust. He searched frantically with his eyes through the trees but he could not see anything. She had been right there a minute ago, he had not seen or heard her go. He did not dare start calling her name aloud. There was no point in doing that anyway because instinctively he knew why she had gone. Instead after a moment he went running up the hill after Rudy. He caught up to him just as the newcomers, two of them, came into sight out of the trees on the far side of the hill.
“Rudy,” he said. “Zuyeva is gone.”
Rudy stopped and looked at him and there was a sudden flash of understanding in his eyes but he did not say anything, instead he started towards the two newcomers again, at a run this time. Muryn went after him. The two newcomers stood and waited for them. They were not in uniforms of any sort and that surprised Muryn a little bit because he had been vaguely expecting they would be; but he supposed it was because they were not regular soldiers. They were in plain civilian clothes but they were carrying weapons, he recognized it was m/38s they had slung across their backs. One was tall and one was short but that was all he really noticed because out of the darkness right then came the hollow hammering of a machine gun and there was white light flickering like lightning all around the hill and he dove to the ground and took shelter behind the wide bole of the nearest linden tree. He saw the others going for cover too and one of the UPA troops sent a rifle skidding over to him through the grass and he picked it up and tried to follow the line of machine-gun fire back to wherever the gunner was.
He studied the tracers, followed them with his eyes down the slope of the hill, but he could not see the gunner in the dark and he did not want to give his position away by just firing randomly. After a moment another machine gun picked up from the other side of the hill, the front slope. They were closing in all around the hill. After that he did not wait any more, if they waited they would just be caught in the crossfire. He let off a few rounds towards the first gunner and he was thinking, they are going to cut us off entirely if we stay on this hill much longer. Then he realized Rudy was standing up, shouting something, waving his arm wildly: Go. The two UPA troops were already running, keeping low and laying down fire as they went. He climbed to his feet behind the tree and waited until the nearest machine gun fell silent for a moment, then he threw himself into a run downhill, the hardest he had ever run. Rudy was behind him for the first dozen meters or so and then the machine gun started up again and out of the corner of his eye he saw Rudy go down. He almost stopped, without thinking, his steps slowed and his legs suddenly refused to keep moving forward, he wavered for a second, maybe he should go back. But he regained his senses as quickly as they had gone and he made himself go on. He pounded on down the hill still carrying the m/38 in his hands and finally he reached the foot of the hill, the ground leveled out and the forest was thicker and darker around him. Another shot, a rifle shot, rang out close by, a voice shouted a command. He turned sharply and lifted the rifle, all he saw was a vague uniformed shape, and he fired and the shooter went down in a heap. Immediately there was someone else coming up behind the downed man and after a moment Muryn saw that it was Zuyeva, and he saw that she was wearing the olive tunic of an NKVD officer, and the crimson NKVD patch was on her sleeve.
For a split second he was frozen, just staring at her while she looked back at him, but more gunfire burst out close by and he pulled himself away and started running. He thought she shouted something after him, or maybe she was just shouting orders, he didn’t know. He kept running, blindly. For a while there were gunshots ringing out behind him but slowly those faded away and he couldn’t hear anything but his own rushed footfalls. There was no sign of the UPA troops and no time to wonder or worry about where they had gone. For now he just ran, weaving back and forth through the trees. There would be time to think later. He glanced up once to see if the sky had cleared, if he could use the stars as a compass, but the clouds were still hanging heavy overhead, there would be no stars tonight. It was not a bad thing. He would rather have the cover of darkness right now than a clear night and a sharp-eyed pursuer able to pick him off from a distance.
When he had run for a while and it was still all silence and darkness around him, no sign of pursuit, he slowed to a half-walk, half-run to catch his breath and he began to think. First of all he thought about Rudy. He hadn’t had time to really think about it when it first happened, it hadn’t really registered because there had been too many other things going on, but now all at once it came crashing down on him heavily. Rudy was dead. Just like that Rudy was dead. He was more stunned than anything else, the thoughts were all jumbled and disordered in his head, he could not think about anything except those last frantic moments when he was running down the hill with Rudy behind him and the machine gun hammering off in the darkness. Rudy was a good friend, he should not have gone like that. Then slowly the cold quiet anger set in and he could think a little less numbly though the thoughts were still not very rational. If Rudy had not been so careless, he thought bitterly, he would probably not be dead. It was a sorry thing that Rudy was dead but really it was all you could expect, you could not be careless in Stalin’s army and realistically expect nothing to come of it. He was angry at Rudy for being so careless. But deep down he was more angry at himself because he knew Rudy was not the only one to blame. He had trusted Zuyeva too.
There was Zuyeva. She must have been working on this for a while, he thought. Not all the little details, the plans he and she and Rudy had come up with for his desertion over the past few days — though those had all played into her hand nicely — but generally. This was all about the UPA, he thought, it had never been about him, he had just been coincidental. Zuyeva and the NKVD must have generally been planning a strike against the UPA for a while. What had Rudy said? He had joined the UPA in Romania a year ago. And Zuyeva had joined up with their company in Romania, it was ten months ago now. So it made sense. She had been working against the UPA from the beginning, since Romania, and Rudy had been her link.
That made him feel colder inside than Rudy’s death had done. Zuyeva had used both of them, him and Rudy both. There had never been anything more to it than that. There had never been anything more to them.
Well, that was done now, he was not going to think about Zuyeva. There were other things to think about now. He slung the m/38 over his shoulder and started running again, south. It was thirty kilometers to Laki and then there would be a road that would take him to the border.
He reached the crest of the hill and he saw Zuyeva right away, she had her back to him with the rifle propped up on a bipod next to a tree, and she was shouldering it and moving it slowly and steadily back and forth, searching through the scope. It was satisfactory, almost funny in a way, and some other time he would have smiled at how it worked out, but not this time. The price had been too high. He just stood and watched her for a minute and then he took a step forward.
“Viktoriya,” he said.
If she was startled she did not show it. Slowly she put the rifle down and turned to look at him. There was the faintest hint of a smile on her face but it was thin and ghostly, obviously forced, and her face was very pale. She sat there with her hands straight down at her sides and looked at him without saying anything.
He went to the gun where she had put it down and he picked it up and knelt and started searching himself, trying to pick out the hunters down below in the trees. She just sat there and watched him. After a moment he found what he was looking for, there were three of them, they had picked up the footprints he had left leading towards the stream. He took them one at a time, three quick careful shots, and they were down and he and Zuyeva were alone. He put the gun down again. Zuyeva was still looking at him. Her eyes were slightly widened and he supposed she looked a little bit afraid.
“How did you know I would come this way?” he said.
She spoke right away, mechanically. He was surprised her voice was so steady.
“It was the least likely way — the most dangerous. Logically you should have gone to Burgas, to Turkey, like Rudy said. So this was also the most likely way. I knew you would know better than to take the Burgas route — the obvious route.”
“Why did you follow me at all? I thought this was between you and the UPA.”
Her mouth tightened.
“This was my first real assignment. A test, more than anything else. The first one should always be a success. The greatest success. If I had left any loose ends it would not have been a success.”
For some strange reason he was amused.
“That’s what I am, a loose end?”
She did not say anything. Her eyelids flickered a little bit.
“Was I ever anything more than that?”
She opened her mouth to say something, shut it again, then she shook her head tightly.
“No,” she said. “No. Never anything more than that.”
He broke the gun down, folded the bipod and got to his feet. She watched him blankly.
“Goodbye, Zuyeva,” he said.
He left her sitting there and walked down the hill carrying the rifle across his shoulder. Before he had gone too far he stopped and turned around, he remembered something.
“I tried to tell you once,” he said. “You make yourself blind to your surroundings when you work alone, that was why you could not see me coming up behind you. If you had listened to me maybe I would not be a loose end now.”
After that he went on down the hill and followed the road south. He turned off once to leave the rifle under the bank of the stream, then he joined the road again and kept walking, unhurriedly. It was midmorning. He figured he would be in Xanthi by nightfall.
There were curious glances his way every so often but he did not mind because none of them were unfriendly. He stopped at one of the docks where a sun-browned leathery old man was repairing a net. The old man’s boat was tied up at the dock behind him, it was painted sunny yellow with the name “Perseis” printed carefully on the bow. There was a little boy, as brown as the old man, sitting at the end of the dock with a fishing rod.
“Good morning,” said Muryn in Greek.
The old man looked up at him. He smiled and the smile made creases appear at the corners of his eyes. Sharp shrewd eyes, but not hostile.
“You speak Greek,” he said.
“A little,” said Muryn. “I picked it up in Odessa when I was young.”
The old man nodded.
“I know Odessa,” he said. “You are from Ukraine then?”
“I have seen you wandering around all morning,” the old man said. “You seem lost. I can’t think of another reason a stranger would come to Porto Lago except that he is lost. We are far from the cities.”
“No, not lost,” Muryn said. “But I am stuck. I am looking for passage to Athens.”
“It is a long way to Athens,” the old man said.
“And I have no money to pay for that passage. But I am willing to work.”
The old man studied him.
“What kind of work?”
“I know fishing. I fished with my father on the Dnieper and the Black Sea.”
The old man nodded again.
“I would not mind help,” he said. He nodded towards the little boy. “The boy’s father, my son, he used to help. But he is gone in the war.”
“I am sorry,” Muryn said.
“The war is bad for fishing,” the old man said philosophically. He put the net aside and stood up and stuck out a brown calloused hand. “Yes, I could use your help. What is your name?”
“Muryn,” said Muryn, and shook his hand.
“So you will fish with me and I will take you to Athens.” The old man bobbed his head. “Good.”
So he sat down on the dock and worked with the old man on the nets. Tomorrow, the old man said, they would take the boat out. If the weather held it was five days’ sailing to Athens.