Note: Anyone who notices a historical goof on my part, please, please, tell me. I tried to get rid of them all, but I'm not perfect..
Following Orders Series.
"But Father, he is too young to go through there!" Mara's voice woke Ilya from his exhausted sleep. Warily the boy opened his eyes, keeping them mere slits. "We should take another route."
"No. It would take too long and he should know what happens." Marco's voice was firm.
"I agree with your father." Nico Kuryakin spoke softly as he walked over to Ilya's sleeping roll and knelt beside him. "Come, moi cin, it is time to open your eyes and get up."
Ilya opened his eyes to meet his father's. Somehow, as always, Nico knew when his son was awake. It was something the older Kuryakin had always been able to do, the fact that his father could still 'know' made Ilya more comfortable. His father smiled, a faint mimicry of the smiles he once shared with the world, but it was enough.
"He's awake?" Marco asked curiously, his eyes moving from one Kuryakin to the other. Ilya could see the questions the old man was fighting to hold back.
Ilya silently stood, straitening his clothes. A bowl of soup and a heavy chunk of bread were thrust into his hands. "Eat, little man. It is almost time to go."
He was used to it. They rode the horses all night, Ilya and the men in wide spread curve escorting the packed group of women and children. They rode until they could no longer continue, the youngest children carefully tied to the backs of adults so they wouldn't fall. Every night they got farther from the little village with its unburied dead. His father promised him they would go back and dig graves after the babies were safely hidden away. Deep in Ilya's soul a voice whispered that it would be too late, the dead would have to bury the dead because no one would be alive to do it for them.
Quickly finishing his meal, Ilya pulled on his coat and followed Marco into the makeshift stable. Once it had been a church, now it was a set of burned out walls. The horses didn't mind as it sheltered them from the cold arctic winds that were sweeping the area. Marco said that God wouldn't mind them using the ruined building for the horses, because all creatures belonged to God. Ilya didn't quite understand that statement. He wasn't sure that the soldiers were God's creatures. The devil's... yes. they had to be the devil's creatures. But Marco only shook his head at Ilya's idea.
"All men, Ilyuska, are part good and part evil. A good man stops the evil ones. Even soldiers are not good or evil. They just are. If they work for good, then they are good men and good soldiers. If they work for evil, they are evil men." Marco tightened a saddle girth as he spoke. "The German army has good men and evil men. Right now the evil ones are in control, so we fight them."
"I will always fight evil, Marco." Ilya spoke the words defiantly.
Tired black eyes turned to him and the old gypsy stared at him thoughtfully. "Yes, I believe you will, but sometimes even you will have no choice but to bow to the evil men that control your destiny."
Ilya frowned. He did not like that idea. "I am a fighter. I am good. So, I must stop the evil."
"Yes, but if you fight and die, Ilya, what then? If you had stood up to the soldiers, who would have saved your sisters?" Marco turned his attention back to the horse he was currying. He kept his words soothing and calm, partly to settle the horse and partly, Ilya knew, to force him to listen. "Sometimes good men have no choice but to pick and choose their moments. Hiding themselves until it is possible for them to fight. Sometimes we have no choice but to watch in silence, because if we fight and die, we loose and so do the innocent."
Ilya thought about his sisters. Neither of them had laughed since that night. Every day they asked Father where Mother was. Every night he hugged them tight, silently rocking them to sleep. No one had to say what Ilya already knew. The others were dead. Babushka with her great smile and her way of knowing what was about to happen before it did. Why else had she insisted he and babies sleep with their clothes on, ready to run? Mama with her worn blue eyes that always smiled at him. Piotr with his constant teasing.
"Piotr said to run was not to be a coward. It was the only way to be brave." Ilya finally admitted. "But why didn't they run too?"
Marco sighed and turned back to face Ilya. "Because they knew how fast the little ones could run. Someone had to slow the soldiers. Your babushka was old, too old to run, too old to slow them down. Your mother... she was also unable to run fast enough or fight the soldiers. Piotr was the only fighter there. If he could slow the soldiers down, they knew that you would get the little ones to safety."
"I miss them." Ilya felt the tears begin to rain down on his cheeks. For six long, hard nights he had fought them, holding them at bay.
"Of course you miss them, little warrior. So does your father." Marco gently pulled Ilya close. "Weep for them, Ilya, because soon you will not be able to do so."
With those words it was as if a dam broke and Ilya found himself sobbing, his hands twisting fistfuls of the heavy work shirt the old man wore. He ignored the sounds of men speaking softly to their horses all around him. Slowly, the pain in his chest eased and when it did he found that he and Marco were the only ones left in the church.
"Here, drink." Marco placed a flask to Ilya's lips. Cool water eased the raw ache of his throat. "Is the pain eased?"
"Yes." Ilya croaked. It was. For the first time in days he saw the world around him without feeling ache of loss. "Papa? Natasha? Katya?"
"Everyone else went on. We will catch up with them if we ride like the winds." Marco smiled at him and stood. "Ilya, stay close to me through the valley. Do not stray."
"Yes, Marco." Ilya watched, eyes widening as Marco pulled out a small weapon and carefully showed it to him.
"This is a derringer. It has two bullets. If anyone tries to stop us, no matter what they say, flee. If I go down, use this to get away, Ilya." Marco's voice was firm as he placed the derringer in Ilya's hand. "Hold it like this. Move this lever and it is ready. Lift it, point like this and pull the trigger."
"You will follow orders like a good little warrior." Marco waited for a moment until Ilya nodded. "Mount your horse. We have a long way to go."
They kept their horses at a slow canter as they rode through the semi dark of the forest. The moonlight gleamed on snow as they passed through empty clearings. The burned out remnants of villages haunted the forests. Occasionally, Ilya thought he saw shadows run at their approach.
"What happened here?" He finally asked, curiosity getting the better of him.
"They would not stop resisting the invaders." Marco's voice was impassive.
"The people? Were they...?" Ilya didn't finish the question. The slight winter breeze brought the stench of decay to them. The horses snorted nervously and only Marco's quick grab at Ilya's reins kept his horse from running away with him.
"Wrap your scarf around your face, boy." Marco's voice had turned cold. A quick glance at the old man revealed fear, resignation, and determination. He tied a heavy leather strap from Ilya's bridle and wrapped it around his fist. "I did not know they had been here so recently, little warrior. We ride west. If I let go... Do not stop, no matter what you see. Do you understand?"
"It's a battlefield?"
"A battlefield? Yes and no, Ilyushka." The old man sighed. He handed Ilya a set of thinner leather straps and waited until the boy tied himself to the saddle. It was not normal, but Ilya listened, knowing somehow that this was not the time to argue. "We ride west. Follow the ridge line, but do not ride on the top, do not allow yourself to be seen. When we come to the river, cross it and turn north. Mara and the others will be at the bend of the river at dawn."
Ilya looked up at the stars and guessed they had several hours before their meeting with the rest of the group. "Where will you be?"
"Riding at your side, if God wills it." Marco's broad palm slapped across his horse's rump.
The rest of the ride was dim blur to Ilya. He got the impression of discolored snow, tire tracks, a huge pile of burning logs gave off an odd, heavy smoke, someone weeping... a high pitched wail in a language he didn't recognize, and through it all, Marco riding at his side. Smoke blew in his face and Ilya could barely see. The stench of the smoke made him gag and his horse fought its lead. For a moment he was tempted to cut the leather binding him to the saddle. The snow looked so cool, so clean... only the heavy hand that grabbed his and the sad look in Marco's eyes stopped him.
Ilya didn't fight when he was plucked from the saddle and cradled in the gypsy's arms. He heard but did not understand the words the old man whispered into his hair. He only wrapped his thin arms around the man and buried his face in his chest. The sound of Marco's heart beat, the quiet thrum of life under his ear reassured him, reminding him that they were alive. Ilya quickly lost track of time.
A firm hand brought his face around. Ilya kept his eyes closed. The scarf was pulled from his face and the edge of a tin cup was pressed to his lips. He drank greedily, only to choke on the fierce burn of liquor hitting the back of his throat.
"Slowly, Ilyushka." Marco urged him, holding him tightly as he fought for breath.
It took several long minutes before Ilya felt able to breathe normally. It was then he realized they were at the river. A damp cloth gently stroked his face, wiping away the ash and tears that had coated his cheeks. He looked at the water longingly. It slid past them, whispering to him as it eddied against the rocks nearby.
"Can you ride?" Marco's voice was soft, almost as soft as his babushka's when she crooned to the babies. "Ilya?"
Slowly, Ilya turned his face up to see Marco watching him. The dark eyes were sad, tracks of tears also marked his cheeks. The fact that the old man had cried too helped, but not much. Finally, Ilya nodded. He released the painful grip his hand had on the old man's coat. His fingers were numb from the pressure and he stared at them, without any understanding of what had happened.
"I will lead your horse."
Ilya nodded, silently allowing himself to be seated on the saddle again. His hands curled around the edge of the saddle, reins looped casually through his numb fingers. If anything went wrong, he would have to jump. He knew he couldn't hold the horse, not now. He noted in wonder that the snow on this side of the river was white, clean. Only the tracks of the others marred its surface. But it was still clean compared to... His mind shied away from the image.
Dawn found them riding into a tattered, silent camp. None of the children Ilya usually saw were in evidence. He looked around, noting the weary, worn faces on the adults. Each and every one looked away, their eyes were haunted by what they had seen.
"Go into the tent, Ilya. I will care for the horse tonight." Marco said as he dismounted.
Before he could disagree, Ilya was alone in front of the tent. He entered it warily. He never noticed that his hand strayed to the derringer in his pocket. Inside, his father sat beside his sisters, watching them sleep. At the sound of his footsteps, the elder Kuryakin looked up. Instantly he spread his arms, welcoming Ilya's silent approach.
"Did they see?" Ilya's voice cracked as his fingers ghosted over Katya's white-blond braid.
"No. We had just enough poppy juice to keep the children from seeing." Nico's voice cracked with pain and horror. "You should not have seen it, moi cin. You should have dreamed through that ride."
"No. I am a warrior." Ilya's voice was expressionless, only his eyes showed his inner pain. He understood what his father had not said. If there had been just enough of the sleeping draught, by giving some to Ilya one of others, all younger than him, would have woken during the journey. "They are children and should not see such evil."
"Then it is time you learned to fight, my little warrior." Nico Kuryakin's voice was resigned. "Tomorrow we send them to the group in the mountains. There is too much danger for them. We cannot fight and protect them too."
Ilya looked at the sleeping girls, nodding. They were not safe. Not in a resistance camp. He studied their faces, knowing he would not see them again for a very long time. Beside him, Nico Kuryakin did the same.