As he climbed the sheer face of the cliff ahead of her, he indicated, with a pointing of his foot, where she should next place her hand. In this manner, slowly but surely, they finally reached the summit. It was the first time that she had managed to achieve the full climb and she collapsed, exhausted, the bitter wind lashing her face.
“We go back”, he said, quietly.
She knew that she could not argue with him; his word was law. Yet, the combination of cold, fatigue and the daunting task of descending this rocky outcrop so soon, was just too much for her and her eyes started to stream.
“Why? What has climbing this mountain got to do with training me for my task?”
He looked at her briefly, snapped two words, and began his downward climb.
She had no choice other than to follow him; her only hope of making her descent safely, knowing full well that going down the rock face was far more hazardous.
Her hands cut in many places, her entire body stretched to the limit of endurance, she breathed a great sigh of relief to feel her feet touch solid ground once more but she had no time to bask in her achievement for he was already striding off into the forest through the thick snow. The fitness of this man, twenty years her senior, was incredible.
It had been like this ever since she had been dropped in this wilderness. Each day would begin with a series of sprints up a steep incline, walk back down, repeat, over and over. At first, he would lead the way and she would follow in his wake, gasping for breath but, as the weeks passed and her stamina improved, it was she who ran ahead and he that followed.
Back in their cabin, she would have to make their breakfast, the same thing every morning: kasha, a buckwheat porridge that she had come to loathe.
Then, they would walk out in snow shoes to inspect the many traps that they depended on for their source of protein. Sometimes, a large animal, finding itself encaged, would thrash furiously and repeatedly, eventually breaking down the wooden walls of a trap and escaping. This meant that she would have to repair the trap as part of her evening chores.
All of these onerous tasks that, to her mind, had nothing at all to do with the reason she was here.
When they found an animal in a trap, it fell to her to end its life and, though, at first, this had repulsed her, she soon became impervious to the grisly task, knowing that their sustenance depended on it plus it allowed for a release of her pent up anger at this man forcing her to undertake these ridiculous jobs.
Sometimes, the snow was so deep that, despite snow shoes, it was exhausting to walk through it. This, combined with her daily sprints, sent her aerobic endurance to heights that she had never known and the climbing of the craggy cliff had been introduced only after he had witnessed her improved lung capacity. Initially, she had struggled to reach halfway but, she knew, now that she had finally made it to the top, she would be expected to do this daily.
In the evenings, while their catch simmered on the pot belly stove of the hut, she would have to grapple with him on the floor, a combination of jiu jitsu, sambo and wrestling. Although he was twice her size, he never took liberties, teaching her escapes and counters to all of his attacks. This was her third favourite part of the day, delighting in trying to think several moves ahead and often coming close to outwitting him but always failing. How she longed to really hurt him. Sometimes, in sheer frustration, she would cry, only to be be admonished by the usual refrain.
Her second favourite part of her strenuous day was the evening meal. Both he and she would be ravenous after their exertions and they would devour their meat, occasionally flavoured with herbs if they had been fortunate enough to find any.
Following her meal, bleary eyed, she would have to wash the pots and other utensils, repair any broken traps, bring in enough firewood to fuel the stove through the night and ensure their clothing, especially their boots, was laid out to dry properly by the stove in readiness for the following day. Only then could she retire to her bunk, her favourite part of the day without question, collapsing in a heap and falling into a sound sleep almost immediately.
For eight months this was the only life that she knew but, as the summer months arrived for an all too brief sojourn and the snow faded temporarily, her routine began to change with the introduction of hand to hand combat on the grass outside the cabin, her first encounter with knives and, eventually, small arms.
Though her endurance training continued, it was greatly streamlined with the emphasis on maintaining a high cardio threshold but, now, more focused on actual fighting skills as well as weapons training. This was more like it, she thought.
Her marksmanship improved dramatically along with her knife fighting skills. In the evenings now she was expected to clean and oil her Glock 17, taking each piece apart and rebuilding it while wearing a blindfold.
The reprieve from constant snow and ice meant that he also allowed her to wander on her own at last through the forest and, in this way, she came to see, for the first time, what the country looked like without its usual covering of white and she realised that it was really quite beautiful.
For two, rigorous years, this was her life and her intense training schedule became second nature to her. Then, one day, in a summer month, she heard the sound of a helicopter and looked at him questioningly. He turned away, unwilling to meet her gaze, and she knew that their time together was at an end.
Unable to face her, he simply said:
“Your training is at an end. You need to go”.
Struggling to comprehend, she wanted to protest but could find no words. Looking around her at this cabin that she had once detested, now her home, she gazed upon her bunk, her meagre clothing, her knife, her gun, even the detested kasha pot and she could feel the tears forming. Never once had he been anything but professional with her, pushing her physically and mentally to improve her fitness and skills but, now, faced with parting, she felt that she wanted to...what? Embrace him? Thank him? Plead to be allowed to stay?
Seemingly understanding her confusion, he turned to her once more, before striding out of the cabin and into the forest. She thought that she saw a glimmer of a tear in his eyes but it could have been the light.
“ Cry baby”.
His last words as he left the cabin.
In Moscow, she joined the elite team of the 13th Department of the KGB, the squad of assassins that terrorised Europe eliminating any known enemy of the Soviet state. There were many that excelled in this role but none more so than she for, she now realised, she had been taught by the best, not just to kill efficiently but to cope with any kind of weather conditions and to function under extreme stress. Her stamina was far superior to all of her colleagues, including her male counterparts; her grip strength, from clinging to that cursed mountain, unbreakable. In time, she became accepted as the greatest liquidator of all and was spoken of in hushed tones within the Kremlin.
Though she traversed the continent, staying in major capitals, being able to partake of the finest foods and wines and buy the latest fashions in her undercover disguise, her mind always returned to that unknown place, that training school in the forest where she had learnt her craft.
As the years passed and new people joined their ranks, she could always recognise any that had shared her own training regimen under her mentor; their fitness and skills always surpassing those of other recruits.
More and more she found herself reflecting on those years, deep in that wilderness, unknown to most of the world. Her thoughts lingered on her mentor, the man whose life she had shared for so long. Why? What drew her back to that place, that man, when she now had the pick of locations in which to work?
She missed the snow, the cold of those Siberian winters but, also, the isolation and real beauty of that land in summer. But, she realised with a start, what she missed most was that man for he was a father to her, a brother, a friend; the only friend she had ever really known.
Sometimes, late at night, she would recall certain things that had lain buried deep in the recesses of her mind. How, sometimes, in summer, after dishing up breakfast, as she replaced the kasha pot upon the stove, she would turn back to the table to find that he had placed a blackberry or a wild strawberry on top of her porridge.
How, after shredding her fingers on the ragged cliff, he would bathe her hands in hot water before crushing the plant, arctium lappa, and kneading it into her wounds.
She recalled his refusal to use the cruel, steel jawed traps they had been provided with to catch food, preferring to make his own, less harmful, from branches. How, one day, they had come upon a fine sized leveret in a trap but had spotted the doe and baby hares scurrying away upon their approach and he had released the buck, not wishing to deprive the family of a father. His only words to her as he walked away:
“Kasha for dinner, tonight”.
She thought of this older man’s gentleness despite his refined, murderous skills. She pictured his brilliant, white teeth, untainted by tobacco, tea, sugar or coffee, contrasting dramatically against his sunburnt, weather beaten face.
Then, out of nowhere, in 1985, Gorbachev came to power and talked of perestroika, restructuring. His party slogan was glasnost, transparency and everything began to change, even within the KGB. Department 13 was disbanded and she found herself out of work. The training camps, scattered throughout the Siberian wastelands, were discontinued. What, she wondered, would become of her mentor now as he grew older, alone?
She studied maps, co-ordinates, rail schedules, determined to return to that place though she did not know where it was located. She thought about nothing else. Becoming consumed, she talked to people who had spent time in those regions constructing roads and railroads. She conferred with returning political prisoners; all the time, eliminating, defining and pinpointing the area she longed to return to.
Eventually, she set off on her quest, crossing the vast lands as far as possible by slow moving trains, spending nights in deserted railway stations. The snows had begun to fall by the time, many weeks after she had commenced her journey, that she climbed down from the last train, at the final terminal, Yagodnoye, 10,000 kilometres from Moscow, and began her trek on foot across the tundra.
For the first time in several years, she was forced to put her basic survival skills to use as she crossed that frozen land, catching her food, building ice shelters each night. It was the cliff face, that craggy promontory that she had once found so daunting but now found so welcoming that confirmed her research had been correct and she stared up at it as it rose, majestically, out of the ground, the sun glinting upon the summit, announcing that she was almost home.
Hurrying on through the thick snow, her heart beating wildly within her reindeer skin coat, she first spotted the smoke, rising above the trees, before she caught sight of the cabin itself. He was outside, on the timber verandah, scraping off his boots and, instinctively, he turned, startled. Recognising his old pupil from afar as she pulled down the hood of her coat, he stepped out into the snow towards her, holding out his arms in welcome. She rushed, sobbing, into his embrace. Looking up at his tanned, lined face, she could see the tears as they ran down his high boned cheeks. Laughing, she said: