"Keep an eye on the children, Ilya." Mara's voice was soft as she stood. "I have to go to work."
"I will keep them safe." Ilya tightened his grip on the rifle lying on the cot next to him. There were several were sleeping on the other side of the little room. "Mara?"
The woman paused. "Yes, Ilya?"
"How long until we get to Switzerland?"
"It depends on how many patrols we run into. We've taken a long time already." Mara frowned. "Why?"
"I don't like being here, Mara. It feels wrong." Ilya looked up at her, praying she would understand him. "There's something we don't know."
She frowned and looked at him uneasily. After a moment's hesitation she asked, "how long do you think we have?"
"Not long... tomorrow? Maybe the day after."
"Have you told Nico and Marco, Ilya?" She kept her voice low.
"It started after they left."
"I'll be back in an hour. If anyone else comes, take the girls and flee." Mara's face was cold, set with determination.
"Your duty now is to keep them safe." With a last look at the children in the room, she headed for the door. "I will be back soon."
Ilya waited patiently, eyes half closed as he listened to the sounds in the corridor. men were moving quickly back and forth, rushing. The voices were not ones he recognized. Suddenly the door flew open.
"Ilya?" Mara entered the room followed by several men. "We are leaving now."
The men spread out, each grabbing a blanket and wrapping it around a child. The sleepy children protested quietly and were hushed. Before he could do more than gape at the men, they and the children were gone.
"Mara?" Ilya was confused.
"We radioed the group that was supposed to meet us here tomorrow. They did not answer. Neither did the outer group of sentries."
"Papa?" He stood, shoving his feet into his boots.
"They are supposed to be here in four days with the British warriors." Mara grabbed Ilya's pack and the rifle. "We'll leave the trouble marker and they'll meet us at the safe holding."
"They'll meet us there?"
"Yes, Ilya." She grinned down at him, her hard features softening. "You saved us, little warrior, you and your feelings. Now we move."
Ilya raced silently through the trees. Ahead of him, barely visible in the light of the new moon, a man moved through the brush. His sister's eyes were staring at him, begging him to keep up with them. Neither girl had said a word, but Ilya knew their fear. Just ahead of the man carrying Katya, another raced on with Natasha.
It didn't take long before they were past the outer marker, far beyond the area that Ilya knew from his own stint at sentry duty. The trees were like ghostly sentries, slowing their progress at the same time that they hid them from the enemy that was on its way.
A sharp whistle came from ahead of them and everyone froze. One by one the men carrying children set them down, watching the trees as their small charges burrowed into the snow drifts. Then, still without speaking a word, the men vanished into the gloomy trees. Behind them the ten children curled up against tree trunks terrorized eyes watching for danger.
Ilya brought his rifle up, bracing it against his hip like Piotr had told him. He slid from tree to tree, heading away from the grove of children. He didn't want to bring the soldiers any closer to them than they already were.
Movement in front of him brought him to a standstill. Thumbing the hammer back, Ilya watched the brush moving, something or someone was approaching. He remembered Nico teaching him about hunting... wild animals did not approach large groups of men. That meant a man... soldier or resistance fighter? Partisan or enemy? His finger tightened on the trigger.
A faint haunting whistle called to Ilya. They were recalling him. Hesitantly, he turned and began to cautiously return to the grove. He followed his own tracks back, never noticing the red stains spreading on the nearby snow.
"Ilya? Tovarish? Gde vi?" Mara's soft call brought his head up. "Ilyusha? Gde Ilya? Videte on?"
"Nyet." "Ne." "Nie." Ilya heard all of the men and their negative answers. He also hear the silent gasp as he appeared out of the brush.
"Ilya?" Mara's voice brought the men around. Several leveled weapons at him only to point them away instantly. "Where is Anton? He went the same way as you did."
Ilya shook his head, unaware of the looks the men gave him. One reached for his rifle and he barred his teeth, fingers tightening on the weapon.
"Easy, boy. We're friends." One of the men spoke softly and motioned him to come forward. "We need to leave before any more soldiers come."
Ilya nodded, tilting the rifle away from them as he turned to where his sisters stood. Behind him, men quickly vanished into the trees, following his tracks.
"I don't care how old he is, the boy cannot go with us across the border."
"He's only a child." Mara argued.
"He is no child, you saw what he did to those soldiers. One shot each." The voice whispered eerily in the underground base. "He is no longer a child, woman. He is a warrior. His eyes are enough to tell you that."
"He just turned seven. Let him join the other children and go to safety."
"No. He is no longer a child."
"Please, Gregor. Take him with you."
"And what would you offer me to change my mind?"
"Take your hand off of me!"
Ilya walked into the alcove and looked up at the man arguing with Mara. He noted the hand on her shoulder, the fingers stroking her throat. "Mara, Marco is looking for you. He and the new men want to talk to you."
"Go away boy. Mara and I are busy." Dark eyes glared down at him.
Ilya silently turned his full attention to the man. For the first time the man saw the small weapon in his hand, barrel tilted up, close enough to rip through the body if fired. He felt nothing as he whispered to the man, "Mara said to let go."
"The boy stays here!" With a last glare at Ilya, the man released Mara and stalked away.
Ilya didn't quite understand the haunted look she shot at him. He was staying with the fighters. Marco had said so. Everyone knew that. "Mara?"
"I'm coming, Ilya." She took his free hand and they entered the main passageway. "When did my father give you the derringer?"
"When we left Lvev." Ilya answered. "Who are the men Papa brought? I don't understand them when they talk to themselves."
"They are British agents, Ilya. Important men. They have come to train us, to help us."
"Why? They are not from here... why are they helping us?"
"They are fighting the Germans too. They need our information and we need the supplies and help they bring." She explained. "Did they see you, Ilya? They don't like seeing children in the resistance."
"They speak worse than the Germans who came here." Ilya was unimpressed by the men's opinion.
Mara fought a smile. "Not everyone can pick up languages as fast as you do, Lyusha."
He grinned at her. Together they went into the main room. There they found the SOE (British Special Operations Executive) operative handing out the woolens and ammunition that they had smuggled in with them.
"Papa!" Ilya gasped as his father pulled him up into a tight hug. "I missed you!"
"And I missed you. How are your sisters?" Nico smiled happily at his son.
"Sleeping. They leave in the morning for Switzerland. They will be glad to see you." Ilya held tightly to his father, burying his face against his father's neck. It had been a long week waiting for the older Kuryakin. "I... Papa, I did something bad."
Above him, Nico Andreyevich exchanged looks with Mara. The older man had already heard rumors about the night flight from the Oder river. Ilya had fired one shot per soldier, not a single missed shot. Half of the group was uneasy around the boy, the rest of them wanted him to become a sniper, hunting the enemy.
"No, Ilya. You only protected your sisters and the other children." He whispered. The terror he'd felt upon hearing of the long flight his son and daughters had made returned. "You only did what you had to do, my son. I know that. God knows that."
"Come Ilya, Marco wants you to meet the English." Nico finally put the boy down. "You are going to be their interpreter while they are here."
"Really?" Ilya asked, eyes wide. "I get to work with them?"
"Really." Smiling at the joy on the his son's face, Nico led him farther into the room. "No one else in the group speaks so many languages so fluently."
For the first time in days, Ilya laughed. Around him several men looked at him in shock. They had all become familiar with the somber quiet boy who had flitted around their base like a ghost. The ready smile and the delighted eyes brought grins to their faces as they watched Ilya follow his father to the front of the room.