All hope dissipated when she opened the door. There was someone already there, someone sleeping on the bed against the left hand wall of the tiny cabin. She stood there for a few seconds, frozen with cold and indecision but mostly with deep, deep disappointment, before she took a step inside and closed the door behind her. It was the only choice, really, even though the grey coat with the dark red stripe along the bottom could mean only one thing. He was one of them. All this way, all this desperate dreadful way, to find that she was back where she started. If there had been any tears left in her she would have cried. 

But she had to go in. There was a chance he was a deserter, or that the coat was not his. There was a chance he would not kill her when he woke up.  The cold outside, though, the relentless, sharp force that had already found its way beneath her thick clothing, that had already stiffened the scarf over her mouth and stolen all feeling in her hands and feet, was a killer for sure, and she was not quite ready to let it have its way with her yet. 

She slid down against the wall, exhaustion dulling her fear. She had been going for hours and hours, exactly how many she had no idea. It had been dark when she had left the city, when she had groped in the blackness for the gap in the fence that she had heard about in the last encoded resistance message and found to her amazement that it was really there. It was almost dark again now, even though that wasn't saying much. In winter up here the days were only brief interludes in the darkness, nothing more than vague reassurances that the world was still turning, that time was still passing. 

She looked around at the familiar table, the stool her father had made, the carved candle holder on the shelf beside the door. She knew every inch of this place, even if her memories were dulled with time and tiredness. Years had passed since she had been here with her father and brothers, since she had sat beside the tiny fireplace and feasted on roasted vension, since she had melted snow to wash the knives, rolled up in furs on the bed beside her father, slept soundly in the safety of his protection. And even now, even though her mad plan had placed her here alone with a sleeping enemy, the cold, empty fireplace was comforting in its familiarity. There was history, in this place – even if it was just a hunting cabin it was a kind of home. She had thought it was a secret, that no one else but she and the dead knew it even existed, and she had hoped, stupidly, that it might save her. 

But this person, his long hair filthy and ragged, his boots broken, the hateful coat pulled tight around him, had found it first. He had a pack, an equally filthy thing stuffed full, a long object wrapped in cloth sticking out of it. A spear, probably. She considered, briefly, taking it out. If it was indeed a spear she could stand over him and threaten him; she could demand to know who he was and what he was doing in her family’s cabin and force him to leave. She would not kill him. Killing was what the enemy did, as easily as if they did not fear it themselves. She had left killing behind in the city; she would not be part of bringing it here, to the woods that had nothing to do with that kind of death. And besides, she did not think she had the strength to lift a spear and threaten a man bigger and heavier than she was. Escaping, climbing the barricades, running and running in the dark all this way had taken all the strength she had. 

She woke, her back aching and stiff against the wall, her head wedged into the dusty corner, to warmth. She was aware of it before she opened her eyes, of a delicious creeping warmth against her face. The man was awake, his back to her, poking at a fire. 

She shifted, still too numb and sad for fear. He turned to face her, sitting down on the wooden floor, cross-legged. He wore one glove with a missing finger, and under the grey coat a woolen jersey that might once have been white. His long hair was stringy on his shoulders under a thin knitted hat, his face partially obscured by a full beard. She stared, thinking only that he did not look dangerous and that she urgently needed to get outside to relieve herself.

“Linka,” he said, softly. “I thought you were all dead.”

It jarred, to hear her own language from a man in that coat. Then something shifted into place, a memory, a face, something from a more innocent time. She blinked, then tried to get up, wincing at the surge of pain in her back and her legs. 

“You are hurt?” Only concern on his face, and he had shifted closer. 

She shook her head. The wave passed, and she stood up, holding onto the wall. He stood up too, his hand half held out towards her. “I need to … go outside.”

Afterwards, all she could think of was to get back in, to the warmth. He was waiting for her, the door opening as she approached. As soon as she was in, he closed it. They both stood still, silent. “Sit,” he said, eventually, pointing to the bed. She obeyed, the softness of the blankets under her hand making her want to weep. They were still here, after all this time. He had dirtied them. 

“How did you find it?” she asked, dully, not looking at him. “No one could ever find it but us.”

“A miracle,” he said. “I remembered your brothers and your father talking about hunting trips.”

“They are all dead.” Saying it felt so strange. There had never been anyone to tell, no one who would care. 

“I am so sorry.” 

She waited a moment before she spoke. “You are one of them.” She dropped her eyes to his coat and then raised them to his face. He was still standing, and she had to stretch her neck to do it. 

“Not any more.”

“They forced you?”

“They threatened my family. But they have killed them anyway. I fought for them for nothing.”

“So you escaped.”

“All this time I thought I had no choice. But I did, even if it wasn't much of one. I could stay in hell, or take my chances out here. And I couldn’t stay and do their bidding, not for another moment, not even if it meant death. I didn't even expect to make it out of the camp but somehow here I am.”

“Better to die here than as one of them. Or serving them.”

He frowned. “Is that why you are here? You came here to die?”

She nodded, looking down again, holding her hands together. They had begun to shake. “I would rather die of cold and hunger than give in to their evil,” she said. “Here I can die in quiet. When I know the time is near I will go into the snow and let that be the end. I cannot fight them, and I will not serve them.”

“Oh, Linka.” She still was not looking at him, but his voice cracked as if he was tearful. “Is that how it is in the villages? Has no one any hope?”

“Only hope of one death over another, Dima.”

“Listen,” he said, gently placing a hand on her arm. “There is a resistance unit near here. They have been massing across the border and have been making their way towards the capital. They can help us get across the border. That’s why I came this way.”

“In winter?” She had heard this and not believed it. “No one can survive out here. It’s a story, Dima, just a rumour.”

“No.” He shook his head. “It’s true.”

“We are going to starve here,” she said, twisting away from him angrily. “There is nothing up here, no animals left, nothing growing at all. There is nothing here but peace, Dima. To hope for more is pointless, and I can't do it. I can’t!”

She began to weep then, her body doubling over with sobs that hurt her chest so badly that she curled up on the bed, clutching her knees to herself, abandoning herself to grief. It wasn’t fair, that her life had to be over. It wasn’t fair, to have found Dima here, Dima of all people, the sweet friend of her oldest brother who had always been so kind to her, who had once in another lifetime given her a flower and asked if he could kiss her cheek. She didn't want more dashed hope, more rumours of help. She wanted to rest, to be done with the life she had loved and already lost. 

She slept again, curled up on the bed, waking to the noise of the door opening. Dima had wrapped up his head in her scarf, and he was leaving. His eyes met hers as he paused, and then he disappeared into the snow. She closed her eyes again, too tired to think about what it meant. 

When she woke up she was still alone, so desperately thirsty now that it was difficult to open her mouth. She sat up, realising slowly that the fire was still burning, a pile of sticks beside it. And on the table a wooden bowl of water. 

She had not really expected to feel anything much again. But as she drank the water, careful not to spill a drop, something felt new, for the first time in so long: a tiny wish that Dima would come back, an almost imperceptible desire to keep living. She had spent months slaving, obeying, submitting to the cruel rule of the invaders. She had been beaten, starved, worked harder than she had ever thought possible in their bakery, shoveling out loaves made from stolen grain, shrinking with hunger as she slaved to feed their insatiable stomachs. She had been made to stand in the cold for hours for a sullen look, been called names and insulted. She had watched her mother die in the hovel that had replaced their home, and woken up one morning to find her sister gone, simply disappeared. There had not been, for years, anything in her life that had suggested that there was any hope of a better future. And she had finally decided that to risk escape, to take the slim chance that she could make her way to the cabin to die there alone on her own terms was better than to remain as she was, doing nothing but perpetuating their oppression. 

Clarity returned to her mind slowly. She dipped her finger into what was left in the bowl, marveling at its power to prolong her life. With no way to make a fire, she might be dead already. But Dima had got here first. He had made a fire somehow, must have fetched snow and melted it for her. She would not, after all, die of thirst or cold, both of which she had fully expected. It would have to be hunger then, she thought, feeling the familiar gnawing. She had no way to find anything to eat up here in this wasteland, and neither did he. Perhaps he had gone out to do what she had planned to do – surrender himself to the snow. 

She knelt on the floor by the fire, feeding it some of the sticks. He must have gathered these, especially for her, to keep her warm for a while. But he was gone now. She sat quietly, her stomach aching after being woken by the water. It was such a lonely, desperate thing to be hungry. Perhaps it would have been better to succumb to the cold.

But then he was back, something big and hairy over his shoulder. Cold blasted in as the door opened, as he staggered into the tiny space between the door and where she sat at the fire, dropping his burden down onto the floor. She got up, lethargy dragging at her limbs, and forced the door shut behind him. He was bent over, heaving breaths, clawing at the scarf on his face. 

“Linka,” he said, his voice small between gasps. “Today is not our day to die.”

It felt almost religious, to do what needed to be done after that, to move her stiff limbs to help him take off his gloves and warm up by the fire, then to get out his huge knife. They ate small pieces of the goat’s liver, and Linka savoured the saltiness on her tongue, confused at her ambivalent feelings. Thanks to Dima she had food, fire, company – life! Surely she was not disappointed to be alive? But it took courage to face life again, knowing what it could be, knowing that this could be just a short respite, that death and suffering may yet be waiting close by. 

“Another miracle,” Dima said, as he cut away meat from the animal’s leg. “I didn't have much hope, Linka, but I had to try. It’s as if this beast was waiting for me, to give his life for us.”

“Miracles,” she said, softly. “Or just luck.”

He stopped cutting. “Miracles,” he said again, his pale eyes bright in the flickering light of the fire. “Have some faith, Linka. Keep it alive, so we can pass it on.”

She did not reply, only thought with pleasure of the stash of salt and spices she was certain was still in a recess under the floorboards, where her father had always hidden it. 

Pleasure. Such a strange sensation. Almost as strange as the smile she felt growing on her face, as she looked at Dima and tried to remember what he had looked like before the horrible beard, as she felt something flickering, as if something that had died was being reborn.  

The goat lasted for days, and after that there were a few birds. Dima had an army-issued bow, and more than once he grinned over the meat they ate, thanking the invaders for teaching him the skills and providing him with the tools to resist them. There was a blizzard that lasted three nights, then sunshine, a slight easing of the cold. She washed herself and her underclothes, then turned her back while Dima did the same. Then they sat close together on the bed, watching the scrappy pieces of fabric steam before the fire. It felt domestic, homely, safe. 

Then one morning Dima said it was time to go, as she had known he would. She did not share in his hope that the resistance was out there somewhere, sheltering in a cave that she did not believe existed in a mountain she had never heard of. But she did not really mind. They packed the few scraps of food they had, and the blankets, put on every piece of clothing they could and filled Dima’s tin water bottle to the brim with melted snow. They stepped out into the frozen dawn, and Dima closed the door. She did not look back. She only reached up onto her tiptoes and kissed him, cradling his face in his hands, wishing he had a razor so she could see him properly. 

“Thank you, Dima,” she said, as he stared down at her, a look of happy bemusement on his face. “This is better than last time. I am not alone.”

“They are out there, Linka,” he said, pulling her close. “I know it.”

“Another miracle, then,” she said, into the grey jacket, the red stripe of which they had ripped off and burned in the fire. “Let us hope they come in threes.”

There was no way to escape more cold, more hunger and thirst and more suffering, before it came. There was exhaustion, and there were tears of pain and frustration and despair. Sometimes he lost his hope, sometimes she did, but they prodded each other awake, pushed each other on, and kept going. And when at last the forest ended, when through her swollen eyes she saw a group of people on the horizon, the mountains rising behind them like a city, she could not at first take in the colours. 

“What are they, Dima?” she asked, her voice barely audible, her cracked lips forming the words as she hung on to his arm. “Grey?”

“Blue, Linka,” he whispered, falling to his knees. “And brown, and green, and everything. No grey.”

And then blue was scooping her up, blue, like the sky, like freedom. Arms carried her away, brown hands offered water, and she closed her eyes and slept, dreaming of miracles. When she woke there was more – soft earth beneath her, the green of tall pines above her, the golden warmth of a fire and soup that tasted like light. And Dima: eyes red and tired, cheeks cracked and bleeding, still beside her, clasping her hand. 

January 20, 2021 14:49

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R. B. Leyland
18:26 Mar 22, 2021

Please tell me this is part of a longer series, like the other ones are with Kalathan? Every story I read of yours just makes me wanna read more, short stories just don't cut it! Great work.


Kate Le Roux
06:03 Mar 23, 2021

Thank you so much! Why don't you send me a message via Facebook or my blog and I can send you more to read. This one in particular isn't part of a series yet. I am always happy to find more readers because I suck at marketing my books!


R. B. Leyland
08:32 Mar 23, 2021

Great, i will do! I'm not currently on Facebook but I will go onto your blog if that's OK? Too much scrolling during lockdown sucked for productivity 😂 Have you tried going direct to a publisher?


Kate Le Roux
08:43 Mar 23, 2021

it's kateleroux@blogspot.com Not much of a blog! But send me a mail from the contact page and I'll send you the Kalathan books to read if you like


R. B. Leyland
12:47 Apr 04, 2021

I've just bought your book off Amazon, excited to read!


Kate Le Roux
20:02 Apr 05, 2021

Cool :)


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Kate Le Roux
08:44 Mar 23, 2021

it's kateleroux@blogspot.com Not much of a blog! But send me a mail from the contact page and I'll send you the Kalathan books to read if you like. Long story about publishers. My books have a Christian focus and I am South African which makes it complicated :)


R. B. Leyland
08:49 Mar 23, 2021

Oh I couldn't do that! I'll buy them off Amazon. Ah I see, any possibly way of going further afield? Using publishers outside of where you live maybe?


Kate Le Roux
15:54 Mar 23, 2021

Yeah maybe one day. For now I am content to be a hobby writer and be master of my own time and deadlines seeing I have 4 kids :)


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George Davis
16:04 Jan 30, 2021

I enjoyed this story. It was a spell-binder from the start. I only wish I knew who the antagonists were. Great story, Kate.


Kate Le Roux
18:20 Jan 30, 2021

Thanks! I guess I don't know who they are either. I think I had WW2, Siege of Leningrad kind of images in my mind, or perhaps something more fantasy/Game of Thrones ish. (Although I have never watched it) No time to explain in a short story!


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K. Antonio
02:20 Jan 21, 2021

The beginning of the story was very gripping. The entire story up to the first inicial dialogue felt very speculative (which I enjoyed). I did actually think that the dialogue revealed a bit too much, which got me thinking that this tale could actually be part of a longer body of work, which is why maybe it feels like the story could be a lot longer. I thought the beginning was great and the story itself to be very thrilling and interesting. I do think that some paragraphs had a lot of "showing" and maybe you could have just done some "tell...


Kate Le Roux
07:51 Jan 26, 2021

Thanks for the detailed comment! Appreciate it :)


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