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Dusk in Kalevia: Chapter 8

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #014 back issue.

“Did he pass out?”

The voice was muffled by the sackcloth around his head, but Vesa could have sworn he’d heard it before. It was a boy’s voice–too high to be a grown man’s, but breaking low into a husky whisper.

“Nah, I think he’s just tired.” The man carrying him shifted him roughly to his other shoulder. “Tired of struggling, eh, you little git?”

The blood gathered in Vesa’s head as he hung upside down across his captor’s back, and he tried to bear in silence the hard shoulder that jabbed into his solar plexus with every step. When a low-hanging branch snapped back to catch him sharply across his spine, however, he couldn’t help but let out a yelp of pain.

“See? He’s awake,” said the man, and Vesa heard a few nasty laughs spring up in the air around him.

“Careful!” the higher voice hissed.

“Calm down–just having some fun.” There was more sniggering, and then the gang settled down, leaving Vesa to listen to the steady crunch of their boots through the snow.

He tried to get his bearings with the few unhindered senses he had left, seeking to take in every bit of information he could in case it proved helpful later. They were in the woods now–he could tell at least that much. The periodic brush of twigs against his body, the distant birdsong, and the uneven ground along which his kidnappers walked all pointed to a retreat through the forest. He tried to count his captors’ footsteps and gauge their numbers, but was forced to give up with only a vague inference that they numbered more than three.

Vesa hadn’t been in a position to observe much during the whole ordeal. The masked men had thrown him, bound and gagged, into the trunk of their car, and driven roughly through city streets where every sharp turn slammed him against the confines of his oil-dank prison. They had stopped–there was a short burst of cold air and daylight through the cloth of his blindfold–and dragged him into a bigger space, where he was laid out on a metal floor and covered in dusty blankets that stank of smoke and grain. Whenever he had tried to move, the toe of a large boot dug at his ribs–sharp kicks that quickly convinced him to lie still and ponder the mess he was in.

At least he was still breathing; that was a good sign. If their aim had just been to kill him, he would be dead already–shot just like his bodyguard. It had been the man’s first day… Vesa flashed back to his glimpse of the bloody mess in the front seat of the car, and felt ill.

At least it wasn’t Mika, he thought, grimly trying to find something to soften the blow.

Vesa steered his thoughts back to the mystery of the young rebel’s voice. It was driving him mad, trying to place it with the blood throbbing thick in his ears, piecing it together from snatches of words he caught during the trek through the woods. There was something about it that surprised him–an uncomfortable jolt of familiarity. He began to wonder if it didn’t belong to a boy, but a woman amongst his captors.

It can’t be her. It just can’t.

Before he could dwell on the subject for too long, he heard the creak of a door and was jostled as they descended a flight of stairs. He heard a clamor of voices and a shout of triumph, and felt a sweaty, warm stillness in the air around him. As the man who carried him spun carelessly to greet someone, Vesa’s head struck something hard enough to send stars shooting through the darkness. He howled like an injured animal.

“What, you trying to kill him now?” the feminine rebel said. “Give him here.”

He was shifted into other arms, and his heart stung at the sympathetic touch. He felt fingers working around his neck, pulling the ties loose.

“What are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m taking the bag off.”

“Are you crazy? He’ll see our faces!”

“Then cover them. He’s no use if he asphyxiates.” Vesa thought that he could hear a slight quiver in the voice, like a hint of restrained emotion.

Please, please don’t be…

He drew a deep breath through his nose as the sack was pulled away.

There she was–Kai, the girl who had read to him, his friend–staring down at him, surrounded by a hostile crowd of men. She wore an expression of regret and shook her head, ever so slightly. He screamed through the rag between his lips.

He was instantly pulled away, passed from hand to hand and shoved unceremoniously into the space behind the wooden stairs–a storage cupboard for provisions hollowed out of the frozen ground. Someone blocked the opening with a board, leaving only a line of light bleeding around the edges like an eclipse.

As he lay face down, the knobby lumps of a sack of potatoes digging into his stomach and the damp, cold smell of soil leaching through the walls, claustrophobia set in. He squeezed his eyes shut.

He might as well have been buried alive, betrayed by the first girl he’d ever truly loved.

**

Kaija huddled on the edge of the narrow bunk, taut as a bowstring. She looked around for anything to draw her mind off the current situation, but the little room under the earth offered little in the way of diversions. The entire structure was made from rough-hewn logs, the papery birch bark peeling off and getting pale dust on her hands whenever she touched the walls. She tore a strip off the bed frame and began to shred it, fidgeting to distract herself from her guilt.

It was hopeless. The rest of the men in the bunker weren’t much better off; some were whittling or cleaning their guns, full of busy, nervous energy. Even Martin, who was usually so talkative, sat with his coat drawn tightly around him, quietly jabbing his finger into a hole in the straw pallet. The steady rasp of the leader Klaus sharpening his hunting knife against a whetstone cut through the silence, ratcheting up the tension in the air one grating stroke at a time.

Martin released a breathy whine that quickly built into a full-throated cry of desperation. Kaija looked up with the other men as Martin buried his head in his hands.

“Keep your voice down!” Klaus snapped.

“I can’t any more of take this,” Martin gasped through his fingers.

“I’m warning you, kid…”

“You’re all thinking the same thing, aren’t you?!” Martin cast his eyes around the bunker, his voice high with terror. “We’re screwed. Finished. Done for.”

Kaija felt a rumble of unease sweep through the room.

“After this, every soldier in Kalevia is going to be looking for us! It’s only a matter of time–”

In three swift steps, Klaus reached Martin’s bed. He grabbed the boy’s hair and yanked his head back, exposing the fish-belly white of his throat.

“I said, shut it.” The blade glittered under Martin’s Adam’s apple, pressed gently into the skin of his young neck. From where she was sitting, Kaija could see the pulse pounding in Martin’s jugular. A soft and vulnerable membrane was all that stood between the knife’s edge and the boy’s life.

“Now’s not the time to lose your nerve,” Klaus growled. “Got it?”

Despite the man’s grip on his hair, Martin managed the barest nod.

Klaus’s eyes were fixed on Martin, but he seemed to be addressing all of them. “Anyone else object to the way we’ve been operating?”

No one made a sound.

“Good.”

A sudden knock came at the hatch–a short, uneven series of rapid taps. All eyes snapped to the ceiling.

Although the signal was correct, no one seemed to trust their ears; predators no longer, they had become the hunted, hiding in their burrow from the perilous world above. Only Klaus relaxed. He released Martin, who collapsed backward into a trembling mess on his pallet.

“That’s just Taisto,” Klaus said with a shrug. “I sent him out for reconnaissance.”

Klaus climbed the stairs and struck out a rhythm in reply. At the answering knock, he threw open the scuttle hole; his lieutenant dropped through, shaking the snow from his head and shoulders. Taisto’s scar stood out against his wind-burned skin.

“Ah, finally!” he said, rubbing his hands vigorously against his cheeks. “There’s a real gale out there.”

“Snowing?”

“Plenty. Not a footprint to be seen.”

“And thank God for that! I thought you were a long time getting back.”

Klaus slapped him roughly on the back and smiled, the violence of a few minutes prior stored away for later use.

The room relaxed. Someone poured moonshine into chipped mugs, and they settled themselves around the sawhorse table, trying to forget the unpleasantness that had taken place. There was no backing out of this mission, and it was far from over.

“Now that we’re all here, let’s get down to business,” said Klaus. “I have here a copy of the demands we’ve sent to the Chairman’s office, complete with the public statement he’ll read on the air. The people of Kalevia have to know that the fight to free our nation has begun.”

Kaija half-listened as he read the letter aloud, her eyes drifting to the stairs. She hadn’t heard a sound from the crawl space since they’d shut Vesa in there, and she was growing more anxious by the minute. She needed an excuse to check on him, but the bunker offered little in the way of privacy, and she was terrified of arousing the suspicions of her cohorts.

“Second, the finalized list of the political prisoners for release.” Klaus slammed a typewritten page on the table, and the men poured over it with murmurs and nods of recognition.

“Hey, what about Nooa Jaakkola?” interrupteda youth with dark circles under his eyes. “They got him for distributing contraband last year. I heard he’s still alive.”

“He’s not particularly notable…”

“He’s my friend!”

“The chairman’s not going to empty the gulags for us even if we do have his son. This is the list we need to start with.”

“What? I thought that if we tell him to jump, he’ll ask how high!”

“Drop it! Moving on…”

Seeing the rest of the partisans distracted, Kaija took a piece of bread from the table and ladled water into a ceramic mug from the pot of melted snow on the stove.

“I’m going to feed the prisoner,” she said, to no one in particular. Her brothers ignored her, still in the middle of their debate.

She pulled the board from the entrance to the crawl space, and a band of light fell across Vesa’s body. The way he lay so still with his face turned toward the wall drove a spike of fear through her heart, but then he stirred, curling into a ball as though preparing himself for further abuse.

“Hey.”

He didn’t respond directly, but Kaija saw him cringe slightly at the sound of her voice. She ducked into the crawl space and pulled the board back over the entrance, allowing them some privacy.

“Hey,” she said, quieter this time. “I brought you some food.” She rolled him toward her, over the sacks of oats and potatoes.

The gag still filled his mouth, but his eyes were eloquent in their bitter accusations. She tried to stroke his hair, to soothe him as she had done what seemed like an eternity ago, and he shrank from her touch.

“Vesa.” She removed the spit-soaked cloth from between his teeth, and the ropes that bound his hands and feet. “Oh, Vesa, I’m so, so sorry.”

He didn’t answer; he just avoided her eyes and worked his tongue around his mouth. As she squeezed in beside him, her shoulder brushed against his, and he pressed himself against the raw wood of the underside of the stairs, risking splinters in a desperate attempt to avoid contact with her body.

“I tried to tell you, but I was too late. Please,” she begged in a hushed voice, listening to men arguing back and forth over the supper table. “Forgive me.”

“Was this your plan all along?” Vesa’s words came out thick and slurred, his tongue blunted by hours of immobility. “Pretend to be all sweet and shit, and then…”

“Vesa, I swear I didn’t lie to you. I didn’t have any idea who you were.”

“I didn’t have any idea you were a damned traitor!”

“Sssh! They’ll hear!”

Vesa dropped his voice to a whisper. “So when we were together…?”

Kaija could feel him shivering.

“That was just between us.” She laid a hand lightly on his arm. Although she felt him flinch, he didn’t shake her off. “All true.”

They sat side by side, neither saying a word, until Vesa stopped trembling and began to tear mouthfuls off of his hunk of bread.

“All right,” he said at length, when he had finished his meager meal. “I believe you.”

She felt a protective impulse stirring within her, along with a fierce desire to recapture the circumstances of their meeting, back when–once upon a time–a mad dash through a Vainola alleyway had felt like it could save them both.

“Vesa, I–”

A raised voice from the room cut her off. “Kai!” someone called.

“I’ll be back, just sit tight for now.” She gave Vesa’s hand a quick squeeze, and was glad to feel it returned.

“I won’t let them hurt you,” she assured him as she scrambled out from under the stairs.

As she replaced the board over the entrance to the crawlspace, she saw him mouth his reply.

Too late.

Proceed to Chapter 8, page 2–>