Monday, 23 November 2020

Writing Blog 2- November 2020

 
Since writing the first part of my writing blog over two months ago, I have made almost no progress at all on The Obscurati Chronicles. I looked back at when I first began the novel draft and was stunned at how long it has taken me. It has literally been an entire year and all I've managed to write is the first four chapters. At this rate, how long will it take for me to complete the novel? The reason this project has so far been so slow is because I am so busy dealing with my other commitments, HPANWO Radio, Voice and TV; riding the tumultuous rollercoaster of current affairs. So much is going on in the real world, how can I turn my back on it and immerse myself in one of my imagination? Such immersion is essential for producing a good piece of fiction. I take time out every so often to research, revise or write new pieces; but the real world is always there, distracting me out of my creative reverie. To be fair, this year has been far more eventful than any other in my entire life. Writing just four chapters during 2020 is a significant achievement. Maybe things will calm down next year and I can free up some time and mental energy to continue Obscurati. If I cannot then I'm afraid I can't guarantee the novel will be finished within the decade, let alone a shorter schedule. I'll see how it goes. At the moment I am considering giving up on the idea of a book altogether and just serializing it online. I will be publishing the two chapters I have written since the last published sample. Time will tell. What I will pledge is that if I haven't finished Chapter Five by the end of February it will go on Ben's Bookcase as well. I'm really sorry to those of you who have been expecting a new book by next year or something. It's not the usual authors' excuses about "writers block" or a "lack of inspiration". It is literally a workload issue. I have my limits and there is only one of me. What I might do is take a hiatus altogether from Obscurati and try something else quicker and less ambitious to build my confidence. Ever since I wrote it, I have had a plan to adapt my novella Ouija into a stage play, see: https://hpanwo-bb.blogspot.com/2014/08/ouija.html and: https://hpanwo-tv.blogspot.com/2016/10/halloween-and-ouija.html. I have started doing that. I will not abandon the novel altogether, but I can't promise my rate of progress will increase. In the meantime, watch this page for the two extra samples.
See here for the existing samples. Chapter One: http://hpanwo-bb.blogspot.com/2019/12/the-obscurati-chronicles-sample-first.html.
And Chapter Two: https://hpanwo-bb.blogspot.com/2020/05/the-obscurati-chronicles-sample-second.html.
See here for the previous Writing Blog: https://hpanwo-bb.blogspot.com/2020/09/the-obscurati-chronicles-writing-blog-1.html.

Monday, 21 September 2020

Writing Blog 1- September 2020

 
I have decided to write a blog series about my experience of writing my new novel, The Obscurati Chronicles; this is the first. Writing is said to be the loneliest profession and so this blog will ease some of that. Based on my notes and the structure of the story so far, I think this new project is going to be very long, possibly on the scale of Evan's Land. Therefore it will take a long time to write; Evan's Land took me more than two years. I was shocked and dismayed when reviewing old Ben's Bookcase entries to see that I started the first draft in August 2019, over a year ago, see: https://hpanwo-bb.blogspot.com/2019/08/new-novel-2019.html. I published the first sample chapter just before New Year. I have currently just finished Chapter Four. So it's taken me thirteen months to write four chapters! How long then is it going to take me to write the whole book? Well, the good news is that my pace has speeded up. I published the second sample chapter on the 5th of May and since then have written two more chapters making up almost half the entire length of the draft up till now. I could probably write the entire book in a few months if I had to, but that would mean abandoning everything else I do on HPANWO for all that time. I can't do that. I have a commitment to research current affairs and the world does not stop for my convenience. Therefore my fictional work has always been something I have to squeeze alongside everything else I do. The lockdown has helped, ironically, because I'm still only working three to four hours a day, which might explain my acceleration. I'm glad I'm putting my extra free time to good use. (I am balancing my books financially because those three to four hours I do weekends as well. There's also not much to spend my money on right now apart from bills and groceries.)
 
I have enjoyed the The Obscurati Chronicles writing experience so far. I have had fun exploring new ideas for the story. I will try to avoid spoilers and at present do not intend to publish any more pre-publication sample texts, but I will reveal a few titbits. One of my favourite antagonists from the Roswell trilogy was Karl Dennison. Unfortunately Dennison was an unseen character who did not feature on-scene anywhere in the three books other than as a dead skull, and was only actively referred to in flashback. I always wished I could find a way to make him an active and seen character in the story. Now I have. I will not try to hide the fact that I have created a character for The Obscurati Chronicles called Cassius Dewlove who is virtually a carbon copy of Karl Dennison. Like Dennison he is an extreme and undeniable villain. I'm having great fun creating a role for him in this new novel. I've also been contemplating a fascinating question. What if somebody like QAnon existed in the early 1920's? What would he/she/they do? Obviously there was no 4Chan in those days for them to post on. I worked out that probably such an individual would place ads in newspapers. I've devised two already for the draft so far: G.W.A., dig your own grave and spare us the work. Signum. WYAGIGA. And: The time of change is coming soon. Signum. WYAGIGA. "Signum" is a Latin word that means "Sign". A synonym of "Sign" is "cue" which is of course a homophone of "Q", you see? "WYAGIGA" stands for "Where You All Go I Go Also". You will probably realize that this is the equivalent of the real life QAnon slogan "WWG1WGA- Where we go one we go all." I now have to start Chapter Five which, being an odd number, is narrated by Robin Ursall. I will post another blog article at some point; I'm not sure when. In the meantime, if you've not seen it already, I have posted two sample chapters on Ben's Bookcase.
See here for Chapter One: http://hpanwo-bb.blogspot.com/2019/12/the-obscurati-chronicles-sample-first.html.
See here for Chapter Two: https://hpanwo-bb.blogspot.com/2020/05/the-obscurati-chronicles-sample-second.html.

Sunday, 23 August 2020

One Star for Redeemed

The third part of the Roswell Trilogy, Roswell Redeemed, has been struck by review trolls.
Somebody on Amazon with a blank profile calling themselves only "Mr Bean" has rated it as one star, the lowest, and left a brief comment. The comment is entitled simply "Drivel" and the text reads: "Jones is undercover, spreading false information on YouTube." One person found it helpful, probably another member of the troll team that wrote it. Source: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Roswell-Redeemed-Humanity-After-Disclosure/dp/0954222997/ref=sr_1_5. As I explain in the background link above, this is a cowardly and spiteful unprovoked attack on my character and an attempt to sabotage my livelihood. The people doing it have not even read the book. I have put in a complaint with Amazon and hope to get the rating removed. In the meantime, could anybody who has read Redeemed please put their own review on it? Be honest; I'm confident that most people will rate it higher than the trolls. In this way the good reviews can outnumber the bad ones and improve the profile of the book. Thank you.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

The Obscurati Chronicles- Sample Second Chapter

I have now completed the draft for the second chapter of my new novel The Obscurati Chronicles. I have already published the first draft chapter as a sample, see: http://hpanwo-bb.blogspot.com/2019/12/the-obscurati-chronicles-sample-first.html. I originally planned to publish nothing else until the book was complete, something that will take many months or even years. However, on reflection, I have chosen to publish the draft for the second chapter on Ben's Bookcase. The main reason for this is that the novel's format could be described as two stories in one. I intend for the book to be narrated in the third person by the two main characters, Robin Ursall and Will Ursall. The sample of Chapter One was Robin's narration so I only thought it fair for Will to have the same chance. Therefore I am giving you Will's sample narrative introduction to the novel as well. Alternating chapters from now on will be narrated by each character, the odd numbers by Robin and the even numbers by Will. As usual, I am not entirely satisfied with what I have written here. This is merely a draft which I will revise. The final result may well be very different to what you are reading below. This has been a difficult piece of writing and it has taken me over four months. One of the issues I had to deal with was how to present the dialogue. This chapter is set mostly in Russia and the dialogue in real life therefore would be mostly in Russian. However I am, of course, writing in English. The late American thriller author Tom Clancy often did the same. Clancy filled his American and British English-speaking characters' dialogue with all sorts of colloquialisms and naturalisms that a native English-speaker would use; but when his characters who spoke Russian or other foreign languages were in scene, Clancy gave them a very stilted and toneless style. It was really just his way of indicating that the characters were speaking a different language that he had translated into English. I have taken a different route; I have chosen to make my Russian-speaking characters talk as if they were English-speakers using British English colloquialisms. This is, I am guessing, how Russian would actually sound to the ears of another Russian-speaker. I have also included expressions that only exist in today's world such as "go viral". This phrase did not exist among English speakers in 1918, when the story is set; but because of my policy I saw no harm in letting my Russian characters from that era use it. This sample chapter, like the first one, will hopefully give readers an idea of what the story is about and encourage them to purchase the complete book when I have finished it. This might take some time, but it also commits me morally to completing the work. I have included illustrations in this sample that will not be present in the finished work. Please watch this page for any future updates.


The Obscurati Chronicles
by Ben Emlyn-Jones
Sample Second Chapter

Wilfred Ursall fought back tears as he strode along Neal Street. This was far more difficult than he had expected it to be. He had invited his brother to accompany him as part of his logistics plan for delivering his letter to their mother. He could easily have simply posted the letter, but he had persuaded himself that the Royal Mail and Lancombe Pond Mail were not as efficient as they should be, so he was worried about his letter getting lost in the post. Getting his brother to take it back from London was safer; and the letter absolutely had to be delivered to his mother. Very early on, he had ruled out leaving it anywhere at home for her to find because she may well have found it sooner than he wanted her to, soon enough to chase after him and try and stop him; to implore him not to go. Now he understood that this had just been the excuse he gave himself. He saw the subconscious motives that had really driven him to spend his last day at home with his brother. Over the last three years Will had come to deride Robin for his immaturity, his ditsy fixation on superstitions, conspiracy theories and fantasy literature. His sixteen year old sibling had aged into a scatterbrained dreamer. Yet turning his back on Robin and walking away had made Will deeply sad. He felt the urge to turn around and run back to him. His pace slowed. He gritted his teeth and corralled his thoughts away from that and any other notions that might make him change his mind. He sped his pace again. He knew he had to move quickly and be careful in which direction he went because he had to make sure he did not bump into Robin while the latter was on his way home. His younger brother would probably travel from Covent Garden to St Pancras and so Will headed for Tottenham Court Road and took a train on a different line. It was just a few stops to Paddington Station where he rose to the surface, crossed Praed Street and entered the vaulted interior roofed by Brunel's elegant curves. The stench of coal, oil and soot met his nostrils. A train whistle sounded from a platform that made him jump. He looked over his shoulder, feeling he was being followed. Nobody was there except a thousand shuffling commuters. It was rush-hour and the crowds were thickening. He had to queue for quarter of an hour to buy his ticket and then he walked to the correct platform to board the train to Oxford. He chose a third class compartment and squeezed in between the other passengers. There was a rumble and the train began moving. Will had a window seat and gazed out at the west London urban sprawl. There were rows of roofs with black smoke seeping from a thousand chimneys. After ten minutes the city petered out and the green fields and woodland cruised past, dimmed to grey emerald by the failing light and low clouds. Hedgerows moved from the front to behind, shifted in parallax like the spokes of a wheel. He couldn't believe that this may well be the last time he would ever see the British landscape again. By the time the train approached Oxford it was dark. All Will could see out of the window were specks of lights rolling across the vista like stars in space. He walked out of the station and headed directly up Hythe Bridge Street and George Street to Balliol College. He kept his head low and his cap pulled down over his forehead. Although the Hilary Term had not yet started there was always the risk that somebody who would recognize him might be roaming around. The castle-like facade of the college loomed over Broad Street. Will passed through the entrance and went up to the porters' lodge. The porter on reception was an elderly man with greasy black hair and a sharp nose, typical of the Oxford porters. The porters were the staff who handled security, postage and managed maintenance in Oxford University. The man raised his eyebrows. "Mr Ursall, is that you?"
    "Yes, Kimber."
    "You're back a bit early, aren't you, sir? We weren't expecting anybody until the weekend."
    "I know, Kimber. I've returned early to sort out some business. Could you check my pigeonhole please?" Will was nervous, wondering if somehow it might not be there. Kimber went through a door behind the reception desk and came back a minute later with a stuffed manila envelope. It was addressed to Will with a neat printed sticker. Will sighed with relief. He took the package to his bedroom in the halls of residence. He was careful to shut the door behind him properly, then he sat on his bed and opened the package. Everything he needed was there, as arranged. He lay back on the mattress for a moment. "Right!" he murmured. There was nothing to stop him now. He carefully packed the envelope into his satchel, along with a few other belongings from his university life, and headed out of the college back to the railway station. He felt more relaxed now that he had the parcel and he took his time walking there. He took a detour through St Ebbes. It had been a long time since he had last explored this residential district of Oxford. He shivered as he recalled the moment he had entered this place; it was a moment that had changed his life. It was a hot steamy day in June of 1914 and he had been on a five-day tour of the University along with fifteen other boys from Greyguides who had applied for scholarships. He had managed to slip away from the others at lunchtime and went on a solitary stroll around the city. St Ebbes housed many of Oxford's proletarians. It was a tiny neighbourhood, just a few streets crammed in between the old Cotswold limestone walls of the Town Hall and Pembroke College; and the long straight rows of dons' accommodation leading south to the river. Will had turned off the main road and the first thing that struck him was the smell. It was something his nose had never experienced before. It was vaguely recognizable; the dustmen who cruised the streets of the Mansfields carried it upon their bodies where it was barely perceptible, almost subliminal. Here is was like a solid object, something that could be hammered with a mallet or cut with an axe. He couldn't begin to guess what caused the odour, but it was deeply unpleasant. It was everywhere, in every corner of every alleyway; a stench surrounding every rotting, lopsided house. It wafted from all the greasy discoloured windows that were open in this weather. Most of their panes were cracked or had segments missing. The principle sound was voices, especially the voices of children. The urchins ran around the streets playing games that only they could define. They were barefoot or had ragged shoes; even more ragged than the rest of their clothing. Moth-eaten wool caps adorned their heads and their overgrown matted hair pushed out from underneath them. They cavorted amongst broken glass and dog excrement; and the rubbish. Everywhere there was rubbish; overflowing sacks of it by front doors, scattered across the pavements and roads, old bottles, torn paper, decomposing food. Flies buzzed around it, competing with the pigeons for the best scraps. A few times Will saw rats scamper across the cobbles. He reached a small crossroads where a grocery shop stood. Here the usual stink was mixed with others, some even worse. A group of adults were loitering outside it. They glared at Will with analytic and dispassionate hostility, as if sensing instantly that he came from outside their dominions. One of the men in particular was branded on Will's memory; middle-aged and bearded, sneering like a mugger. Despite this, his eyes gleamed with intelligence. His bowler hat was ripped across the brim and up almost to the crown. Beside him was a young woman with a stained white blouse, perhaps his daughter. Her crinkled skirt led down to unshaved calves and leather sandals. Her expression was different to the man's; it was slightly sympathetic, as if sensing Will's unease. Will turned away hastily and made his way back towards the macadamized splendour of the main road. Before he left, he noticed the name of the street and couldn't suppress a guffaw of irony; it was called Paradise Square. He emerged into the familiar as if waking from a coma. He blinked and looked around himself. He staggered back to the college where his school friends were, in a daze. They ate lunch in the dining hall of Exeter College with the students. The college master sat at the top table beneath an array of oil paintings on the oak panelled walls. The boys were served with duck and asparagus in plum sauce and DorĂ© potatoes. "What's up with you, Will?" asked one of his friends. "You look like you're in a trance." Several times his schoolmates had commented on Will's sudden shift in demeanour.
    "Nothing." He replied. "I'm fine." He was not. In fact everything now looked different in his eyes. If was as if he had gone into St Ebbes and come out in another world, a parallel universe in which all the colour and vitality had been drained out of everything. He looked at the servants who walked obediently around the tables in their smart suits. They were all young men, about the same age as the students; groomed hair, smart suits, bow ties. All the diners ignored them, as if they were automata from a futuristic yarn. "Thank you." Will looked up at the man who presented him with his Pesca Melba dessert and smiled. The waiter glanced briefly back, but did not respond.
    That had been almost four years ago. In the intervening time, Will's life had transformed in ways he could never have predicted. It was a journey that had led to this moment. As Will walked through St Ebbes on this chilly January evening in 1918 he suddenly experienced a surge of liberation. The district now looked different to him. The horror that had infected every cell of his body for all that time was gone. He felt as if he had been carrying it around, like heavy weights, pulling him down into the ground; and now the weights had been lifted. He felt as if he could leap ten feet in the air and run at a hundred miles per hour. He looked in through one of the mud spattered downstairs windows of a house. Inside a family were sitting around a table eating what meagre scraps of junk food passed for their supper. "Not for much longer." Will spoke aloud in a voice too low for them to hear. "One day very soon, these slums will be torn to the ground and you shall have proper homes." His gaze settled on a girl of about four years old, almost too small to reach the table. She was spooning the revolting slop from a filthy bowl into her mouth. "And you, my dear, will be eating strawberries and cream." Will felt tears rising in his eyes. He had wept many times over spectacles like this, in rage, guilt and despair; but now his tears were of joy, hope and enthusiasm.
    The first thing he retrieved from the parcel when he returned to the railway station was a one-way train ticket to Liverpool. The train rocked and rolled through the darkness outside. It was less crowded than the one from London and he had a compartment to himself. A little way into the journey he looked at his watch and saw that it was almost eight PM. By now Robin would probably be home and his mother would have read the letter. Will gasped with a sudden and unexpected stab of anguish. It was the first time he had thought of his mother that evening. He put his face in his hands and stifled a groan. He realized that it was not too late; he could go back. He could catch an eastward train from Birmingham and be home before midnight. He felt himself rent in two as a part of him begged the rest of him to do so. He stomped on his entire person with his internal White fascist jackboot. "No!" he hissed at himself. "You must keep going! You promised!" What would his family be doing at that moment? Probably trying to stop him. They would frantically telephone Balliol, then all his friends and acquaintances. However, they wouldn't be able to find him. They would never guess where he was. At Birmingham he changed trains, but he did not take the train east; he took one north. He arrived at Liverpool Lime Street station at eleven-forty-five PM and headed through the dark city to the docks. Searchlights flickered back and forth across the sky at the army checked for Zeppelins. The ship Lahtka was exactly where his instructions told him it would be, tied up in the Canning Dock. It was a small short-sea freighter with a single funnel. Will felt nervous as he approached the gangplank. This would be the first time he had to speak Russian to a native in real-time; but the moment he met the skipper he relaxed. The man was Will's image of a stereotypical Russian, stocky, tall and with a huge black beard. He greeted Will warmly and escorted him aboard the ship, explaining to him in a jolly manner that he was pleased to have his passenger aboard, although the man had a strange accent and Will only comprehended about one word in three. The Bolshevik pin the captain wore proudly on his duffle coat was additionally reassuring. Will shook hands with some of the other crewmembers and was shown to his cabin, which he shared with another man. He had hardly slept the night before because of nerves so he dropped straight off into a deep sleep.
    Will was woken by the rumbling of the ship's engines and saw a slight blue glow in the porthole. His cabin mate was not in the room. He dressed hurriedly and ran up on deck. It was early morning twilight and the ship was cruising slowly along the River Mersey. To its starboard side was the distinctive twin tower roof of the Royal Liver Building. There were several other ships close by and when the captain saw him, he came over and explained to Will that they were joining a convoy. It suddenly struck Will that this voyage would be rather dangerous. He scolded himself for not realizing something so obvious. Ahead of the merchant ships were some Royal Navy submarine chasers. They would have to travel according to U-boat avoidance procedures. Will shrugged; he knew he would have to get used to danger. He did hope that he could at least reach Russia alive though. He looked up and saw the Russian flag flying from the Lahtka. Would the Germans leave them alone, seeing as there was a ceasefire and Lenin was currently negotiating a peace treaty? Even if they wanted to, it probably wouldn't be possible to pick them out seeing as the Russian vessel was sailing within a British convoy. The ships signalled to each other via a Morse light and the captain gave continuous orders to the manoeuvring watch to keep his vessel in formation. They sailed slowly on a course which zigzagged randomly every few minutes to make it harder for enemy ships and submarines to target them. The morning grew lighter as the file of ships headed away from the English coast. The clouds parted and patches of sunlight played across the brown winter sea. The icy blasting wind eventually drove Will below deck.
    The rate of advance across the Irish Sea was slow because of the defensive manoeuvres. It was not until mid-afternoon that the convoy reached the southern coast of the Isle of Man where it turned north. Lahtka cruised through The Minches as night fell. The evening meal was served in the ship's dirty mess and it consisted of herring and mixed vegetables. The captain told Will what the dish was called, but Will had never heard of it. To his dismay, most of the conversation at the table was not carried out in Russian. Will thought it might be Ukrainian or Belarusian. He picked the occasional Russian loanword or place name out of the conversation, but apart from that he had to nod his head and smile in polite incomprehension. When they addressed Will directly most of them spoke to him in Russian. Those who didn't Will suspected could probably not speak it and were confined to their own vernacular. None of them spoke a word of English. As the evening wore on Will found talking to the crew grew easier. He had previously only heard the language spoken on the gramophone discs that he had ordered of lectures by Lenin, Plekhanov and various other revolutionary leaders. His subconscious must have picked up more from them than he had hoped. He had met a few Russians at meetings since 1914, but they had all spoken in English. He felt seasick after dinner and threw up in the head. He retired to his bunk and slept. The weather grew rougher and he was disturbed in the middle of the night by the crewman he was sharing the cabin with coming in after his watch. By the following morning the ship was in the North Sea west of Orkney. The wind grew stronger and Will's seasickness returned. He spent the day in his bunk. At times he felt well enough to read one of his books. He had brought as many books with him as he could carry, books that had changed his life so much that they became a treasure. Their paper pages and cardboard covers developed a sanctity directly connected to the words they delivered. He read What Is to Be Done?-Burning Questions of Our Movement by Lenin for the hundredth time, dictations of various speeches by Lenin and Martov; and eventually he went back to the socialist roots by digging out the fantasies News From Nowhere by William Morris and What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky; he considered its original Russian edition far superior to the English translation, although he admitted that, seeing as he only spoke the language inexactly, this might be his sentimentality for Russia poking through. These texts were ones he returned to again and again, especially at times like this when he needed to be reminded of why he was doing what he was doing. At two AM lights appeared ahead of Lahtka around a pulsing sweep of a lighthouse. Will was awake and on deck as the ship crawled through the archipelago surrounding the port of Stavanger. Will's Norwegian contacts were waiting on the quay. Will bade the captain and crew of the Lahtka a heartfelt farewell and then got into the car.
    The contacts were two men and a woman and they quickly drove east away from Stavanger along narrow twisty roads. They didn't speak at all to Will, seeing as they spoke no English or Russian, and only talked quietly amongst themselves in their own language. Will knew that they were members of Arbeiderpartiet, the Norwegian labour party, from correspondence with the organization. Will looked out of the car window and saw the grey contours of snowy mountains against the starry night sky. The occasional glint of a village poked out of the gloom. Eventually an electric glow appeared on the overcast above them and they crested a pass to see the city of Oslo beneath them. At that hour, five AM, the streets were quiet and the streetlights illuminated the fine buildings. Will looked out at their facades, but there was no time to take in more of the city. The car pulled up by the station and Will stepped out into the bitterly cold night. His three Norwegian companions seemed in a hurry to drop him off and continually looked over their shoulders, as if they were concerned about somebody seeing them. They shook Will's hand and whispered goodbyes in their own language. "Much appreciated." Will smiled back at them. And then the car sped off, skidding slightly on the icy streets. The train was waiting; the locomotive was quietly hissing with little wafts steam issuing from the funnel. He was allowed to board straight away and found himself in a warm and cosy carriage full of young men like himself who were heading in the same direction and for the same purpose. Greetings were exchanged and introductions made; a few more arrived during the next half hour and then the train blew its whistle and clanked away into the night.
    The sun rose behind the cloud and Will saw Norway. The landscape was beautiful, upholstered with snow like he had never seen before. Mountains and hills scrolled past the moving train. His fellow travellers, in both meanings of the term, were from all over the world. There were Spaniards, Germans, Italians, Frenchmen, a Mexican, an Australian and a handful of Americans and Canadians. It was a relief for Will to be able to speak English to the latter three demographics. The others conversed amongst themselves in their native tongues. He spent a lot of time explaining to his companions that although he spoke English with a British accent he was in fact technically not British. "Lancombe Pond? What's that?" replied Nicky, a New Yorker sitting next to Will in the carriage. Clarifying this point caused much amusement and interest during the long journey north.
    It was dark again when the train drew to a halt in a station where they were told this was an all-change point. Will and the others stepped onto the platform and looked up at the signboard: Haparanda. He realized with a surge of passion and excitement that this was the same place that Vladimir Illych Ulyanov, the great Lenin himself, passed through ten months ago on his way home from his exile in Switzerland. The same revelation came to the others. There was a chatter of excitement in their different languages. They waited for a few minutes on the chilly platform until their guide arrived who led them along the night-time streets to a frozen river where they walked across. The plain of ice stretched away in front of them like an outdoor ice rink. The guide carried a lamp so they could see where they were going. They were close to the sea at the northern end of the Gulf of Bothnia and a cryogenic breeze washed through them from the south. Will was still wearing his British winter jacket and the wind penetrated it like needles. The ice under his feet felt as solid as rock and he found it hard to believe there was a river flowing beneath him. They eventually came to the far side of the river. Will was trembling from more than the cold as he lifted his foot off the clear flat ice and placed it on the upward slope of the river bank. He entered Finland, a new nation freed by the Bolsheviks just a few weeks earlier. When Lenin had planted his boot on the spot Will now did, it had been Russia. They had gone the long way round because it was not possible to travel direct due east from Western Europe because of the war. It was just a short walk to Tornio railway station where they boarded another train for the last stage of their journey. There was almost a party atmosphere on the train south from the Finnish border. Vodka was served to the passengers by suited stewards. Will's only experience so far of alcohol had been beer and cider in the various venues where he had attended meetings. His head spun from the powerful spirit and he sat back in his seat and recalled the process that had brought him here.
    Will had up till then never considered himself a soldier in the literal sense. He had joined several socialist clubs at Greyguides and Oxford; and SANoLLP- the Socialist Alliance of Nottingham, Leicester and Lancombe Pond two years earlier, but for the first year of his activism, he had not progressed beyond handing out leaflets on the street or pushing them through letterboxes, trying to sell the Alliance's journal Socialism Today to passers-by and occasionally heckling an MP at a public meeting. He walked for miles along city streets with the Suffragette protests, trades union protests and anti-war protests. Every Sunday the Alliance held a meeting in a cheap hired venue, often the Belgrave Masonic hall in Nottingham or a room above a pub in Leicester. Will dutifully attended every meeting when he was home from Greyguides or Oxford and the other members of SANoLLP were closer to him than friends. One day in April 1917 a guest speaker attended the meeting to give a "lead-off", a speech that was a prelude to a discussion among the members. He was a Russian who had just arrived in the country who called himself "Japarov". Will had been in the organization long enough to understand, without being told, that this was not his real name. He was a shifty young man with a thin face and darting suspicious eyes. Japarov began his lead-off in good English with a strong Russian accent: "Comrades, I have been sent here to talk to you by the great Lenin himself. You all know what is happening at the moment in Russia. Tsar Nicholas II has abdicated. Russia is in chaos!..." He went on to describe the situation. Revolution had erupted in Russia with the downfall of the Tsar. The mainstream media had been filled with official commentary about it for over a week. A situation of "dual power" reigned where workers' councils, known as soviety, controlled industry, many farmlands and the city streets, while at the same time the Duma, the Russian parliament, had been taken over by a new provisional government led by the flamboyant minister Alexander Kerensky. This Japarov regarded as false and reactionary. "The Bolsheviks are going to take power!" Japarov pointed at his audience emphatically. "When they do, there will be war!... Britain and many other nations will wage war on Russia. The conflict will spread to other nations. This future war could be as bad as the current one, or worse!..." A chilled silence descended on the room.
    SANoLLP members used to joke about Will a lot. These jokes were affectionate and his comrades respected him, despite his tender years. One of the things they used to laugh over was what they called "Will-fullness". Will himself understood this element of his own personality. Sometimes during meetings, almost without even knowing it, he would slip into a state of near ecstasy. During these phases he would giggle and cry as he tried to articulate himself. When he came down from this passion seizure he often would forget what had just taken place and wonder, like a man with a hangover, if he did or said anything embarrassing during these episodes. "We simply have to do something!" He yelled when the chairman called him to speak, his eyes blurred with tears. The thought of the revolution being destroyed was so unthinkable that it set his mental pot boiling to the point of ignition. He went on to rant about the necessity for action to match words so exactly that they were a mirror image of each other, the possibility of losing everything they had worked so hard to achieve, how the entire future of the world depended on this moment. When he sat down there was a reverent silence followed by a stocky round of applause. Smiling faces turned towards him. After the meeting as he walked to Leicester railway station through the evening gloom, Japarov caught up to walk beside him. He invited Will to join him for a cup of coffee before both men caught their trains to go home; Japarov was staying at a Bolshevik safe-house in London. "You were serious, back there at the meeting, weren't you?" asked Japarov rhetorically as he sat opposite Will in the station cafeteria.
    "Yes! Of course." said Will.
    "What would you be willing to do to defend the revolution?"
    "Anything!" Will replied almost before the older man had finished speaking.
    "Really?" he raised his eyebrows, almost in jest.
    "Why do you say that?"
    He paused. "Because there is a possibility that you might be able to do just that, Comrade Ursall."
    Will gasped. Nobody had ever called him that before. Members of SANoLLP usually just addressed each other by their first names.
    "You see, the people in your organization are good activists. We need outspoken foreigners in this revolution. In Germany in particular excellent progress has already been made. But it's one thing to come out into the streets in your own country, your own town; another entirely to travel a thousand miles and pick up a rifle to fight, to kill, to be harmed and possibly to die... Your comrades are too old for that; not just in terms of physical agility, but mentally, psychologically. You though, Comrade Ursall, I sense are ripe for battle."
    Will's mind churned. He felt he was on the edge of a precipice "What do you mean? What are you saying?"
    "I am asking you to come to Russia and fight; I mean really fight."
    "H... how?"
    "Never mind how. Will you?"
    "My God yes!" Will puffed.
    He smiled. "Good... Arrangements can be made. I know the right people who can get you what you'll need. We can take you to Russia. However, I will need money."
    "How much?"
    "Sixteen pounds."
    As Will rode home on the train that evening he could hardly sit still. Before he had left the station he had drafted a telegram cheque to Japarov's account together with a request for an emergency overdraft to his own bank manager. In return he had received a list of telephone numbers, nameless except for Japarov's. It never crossed his mind for a second to distrust the Russian, to question whether he might just be a conman who would disappear as soon as he had his hands on the cash. He could somehow sense that the man was sincere. A whirligig of thoughts and feelings orbited around his head; hopes, thrills, misgivings, doubts. He went to bed and lay staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep. He had jumped off the precipice and his entire previously projected life was left behind on the edge above him forever.
    They stopped for the night in Tampere. Outside the railway station a number of Finns had set up stalls in the freezing streets selling warm woollen and fur clothing. They must have known in advance that a convoy of newcomers was passing through, which sounded familiar. Will purchased a jacket, a hat and a pair of mittens, knowing he would need them in Russia at that time of year. The following morning just before dawn the train clanked into motion again for the last stage of the journey. On the train from Tampere Will and his colleagues ate a hefty meal. This might be the last time they would be able to eat a normal amount for a very long time. The war had caused massive food shortages and most of Russia was struck down by conditions of famine or semi-famine. The Russian staple diet at the moment was sunflower seeds. Will slowly devoured his three course railway dinner with reverent relish. The train crossed into Russia without any announcements, let alone stops. There appeared to be no active customs post. At one point Nicky was walking down the aisle on the way to the toilet and said: "Hey, Will. You know we're in Russia now?"
    "What? Seriously?"
    "You bet. We crossed the border a few minutes ago; the guard just told me."
    Will rushed to a window, cursing to himself. The countryside was flitting past just like it had been for the entire journey, not looking outwardly different. This was not how he had dreamed it would be like, entering Russia for the first time. He had been anticipating it to be a dramatic moment, playing over in his mind like a wonderful movie of the future. He felt deflated with disappointment, knowing that the opportunity would never return; but then remembered that far better was yet to come. As the train slowed down to enter Petrograd, Will deliberately averted his gaze from the outside world to maximize the occasion. The train finally screeched to a halt at its final destination. There was a chatter of excitement in the carriages. Will shrugged into his new winter jacket and stepped down onto the frozen platform. Bright cloudy sunlight filled his eyes. He was outdoors and ahead of him was a railway station building that was small and modest compared to the grand arches of Paddington or Birmingham, but for Will it held a hundred times their significance. He was at the Finland Station. Ten months ago Lenin had arrived here to a rapturous welcome. Thousands of people; workers, peasants, soldiers, sailors and representatives of the Duma parliament and soviety were lined up to greet him on his return from exile. A brass band played La Marseillaise. The great man had got to work immediately. Before he had even left the station he jumped up onto a high step and launched into an exalted speech about how terrible the Great War was and how it had to end as soon as possible. He implored the Russian people to let him lead them. "Long live the world socialist revolution!" he had yelled. "All power to the soviety! I promise you peace, bread and land!"
    There were no crowds to greet Will and his fellows, but there was the recruiter whom they had been told would be waiting. He stood in a matchboard kiosk in the station concourse. Will's enlistment into the Red Army was surprisingly quick and simple. He filled in a single paged form of his basic particulars and signed it. It took him five minutes. He was then told to report for duty to a soviet Military Commission officer in the Tauride Palace at four PM. That gave Will a few hours to wait. He and his new comrades stepped out of Finland Station onto the streets. Immediately they all gasped and looked up in awe. They wandered off in separate directions without saying a word, as solitary as zombies. Petrograd, formerly Sankt Pyetirborg, was a city of square stone canyons with broad boulevards lined by even terraces of tight, regular windows and arches. Facades were coloured in pastel shades of pink, yellow, blue and green. Carvings and rows of marble balusters paced alongside the windows and arches on all floors. Will felt as if his feet were not touching the ground. The solid objects around him seemed ethereal. The air was as cold as liquid gas. He could see a thin fog in the air which was the humidity freezing. Ice burrs covered the tram-wires suspended overhead making it look as if a giant spider had spun webs of ice over the city. Wooden planks had been placed across the compacted snow on the pavements to improve foot traction and on every street corner stood a wood brazier. It was the traditional motif of the striker, but also provided essential warmth. Each one had a cluster of people around it, including young women with their faces uncovered. They wore seductive smiles and were looking outwards, trying to catch the eyes of passers-by. Will knew that these were prostitutes. There were queues of people outside provision distribution points that snaked along entire streets and round corners. The staff inside from the Petrograd soviet dished out scoops of sunflower seeds, millet and buckwheat porridge. Everybody was given a single tiny dried fish fillet. The people were wrapped in whatever warm clothes that they could find. Short of clothing, they improvised blankets, sheets and pillowcases. These were crudely stitched together with packing cord making the wearer look like a walking pile of textile scrap. Colours were irrelevant as were styles. One tough-looking old man hobbled past him wearing a pink ladies' beanie. Will couldn't tell who was fat and who was thin. Everybody looked fat, encased as they were in fabric. A boy of about ten ran up to him and asked if he could buy Will's coat. He offered him five of something that went by a word Will didn't recognize; he guessed it was a nickname for a large number of what used to be single currency units, seeing as the Russian rouble had so badly crashed. "Apologies, citizen; but I need it myself." Will mumbled and walked swiftly on. One thing that every single figure had on them was a red ribbon on their chest, sometimes fixed with a decorative badge. A few had larger red cloths, tied round their neck like kerchiefs or slung over their shoulder like a sash. It was the symbol of support for "those of the majority", the Bolsheviks. There were health advice posters on every available surface warning people: AVOID CHOLERA! DO NOT DRINK UNTREATED WATER! and: HEADLICE SPREAD DISEASE! CUT YOUR HAIR SHORT! However, above them in places of more prominence were banners of blood red with golden text on them, the Cyrillic script of Russian looking almost like Greek or Egyptian hieroglyphs: THE DICTATORSHIP OF THE PROLETARIAT RULES!, a quote from Lenin: LET US BUILD THE NEW SOCIALIST ORDER! and: COMRADES, UNITE TO CREATE A NEW WORLD! These standards hung in pride of place in every street and every square; on the walls of the canals and from the windows of the cathedrals. The previous year these streets had been flooded by a tsunami of people; angry, hopeful, determined to put an end to evil.
    Will had no map, but he didn't need one. He knew the streets of Petrograd almost as well as if he had walked them before, as he was doing so now. He could find his way anywhere as easily as he could in Mansfield. He had studied endless street maps. He had read, re-read and re-read again descriptions of this city and everything else that had happened here during the last few years. He had listened to the voices of those who were there over and over on gramophone records. He had dreamed through many nights this very walk he was doing now; only this time it was real. The dark brown concave frontage of the Hotel Astoria was where a dramatic battle had raged last February between the Bolsheviks and officials loyal to the tsar. The bullet holes and broken windows had not yet been repaired. There was the cruiser Aurora, a crude grey warship topped by a headdress of funnels and ventilators. It was moored on the river Neva where it had fired a single blank round from its forecastle cannon back in October. This was a signal for the Bolsheviks to attack the Winter Palace and depose the provisional government, marking the start of the glorious revolution, which was the whole reason Will had come to Russia. The Winter Palace itself looked like an elaborately decorated cake. Its green walls and sculptured windowsills were like mint icing. It had been constructed in the early 1700's by Tsar Peter I "The Great" as a symbol of autocratic imperialist power. In January 1905, in the decorated forecourt of this building, hundreds of innocent people had been shot dead by the royal guards. All they had wanted was to speak to the previous and last tsar about the squalor of their living conditions and the suffering it caused. They had been unarmed and led by a priest; begging for mercy and sustenance. But the Palace had fallen with invigorating ease four months earlier as Lenin's men stormed into the building. Kerensky and his cohorts fled and the provisional government came to an end. The single rule of the soviety began. The iron gates of the palace were open and Will could see people wandering in and out of the former Romanov sanctuary as if it were just another part of the city's streets. The gilded double-headed eagle of the dynasty had been ripped off the top of them. Many of the people who wandered the Palace Square were armed. They wore sabres around their waists or rifles slung over their shoulders. Will's attention was drawn to a cluster of people crossing the Square. As he looked they passed beneath the Alexander Column. Even at that distance, Will could recognize the man striding along in the middle of the group. It was a face and stature he had come to know as well as any.
    Before he knew it, Will was running towards the group. His feet pounded through the intersections of spoors in the crushed snow. His eyes were fixated on the face ahead of him as it grew bigger and bigger in his vision. The high forehead, covered by a deerstalker, the neatly-trimmed black goatee, the sly oriental eyes. "Comrade Lenin!" Will shouted at the top of his voice. "Comrade Lenin!"
    The Russian leader looked around briefly as he heard Will's words and their eyes met for a moment; but then he was distracted by somebody else. A dozen people were talking to Lenin at the same time and he was trying to maintain all those conversations at once.
    "Comrade Lenin, I have come to fight for you! I've travelled all the way from England!" Will was panting as Lenin and his entourage moved away across the square and headed for the end of Nevksy Avenue. Will laughed with joy as he watched the departing back of the great man, his boots trudging through the crisp fall. Will was home, where he truly belonged. This was heaven on earth.
Dear Mother.
    It is Tuesday the eleventh of June, five months to the day since I arrived in Russia. I am near Samara. We had to leave the city a few days ago because the local soviets have decided to disaffiliate from the Bolshevik leadership. They have the Czech Legion on their side and they have ordered us out. We're not sure exactly where we can go. The Legion are controlling the station and this part of the railway and it's a long walk back to Moscow. So we are just sitting here and waiting, trying to make our rations last as long as we can. I have a feeling that we will soon receive orders to try and recapture the city. However we will need a lot of reinforcements to do that. There are only about sixty of us here at the camp and there are a couple of thousand Czechs spread out all along the city limits. It's such a happy thing that we no longer have to fight the Germans in the west of Europe. It means more Russian men are free to fight for the Bolsheviks where we're needed against our internal enemies, as I am. But from our point of view, little has changed. We still have the same manpower, the same resources, the same munitions expenditure. It's a very confusing situation. We get very little information from outside our own immediate theatre of action. I have no idea how the war is progressing. I feel a bit like a chessman; blind and mindless, being moved about the game-board by somebody I don't know and whose plans I have not been told.
    It is a pity because where I am right now is a lovely spot. I am writing this letter sitting on a log under some trees a few miles north Samara. Ahead of me is the river Volga which is gleaming in the sunlight. It is a huge river, so much bigger than the Thames in London. The opposite bank is about a mile away and that consists of hills covered in bright green forest. There are a few small wooded islands in the middle of the river too. They look to me like grandma's lettuce beds in her greenhouse. It all seems so natural and tranquil; it's hard to believe there is a war going on. I can hear church bells tinging somewhere; in a nearby village I think. It is very hot. I'm glad of the shade, in fact all the men have camped down under trees. It is strange when I remember the bitter cold I felt when I first came to Russia. Now I'm struggling to remember a summer's day in the Pond that was this roasting. Russia really is a land of extremes. I feel very greasy. I've not had a chance to bathe for a few weeks now. Also this petroleum jelly I've smeared on my face and arms is uncomfortable; but it keeps the mosquitoes away.
    I hope Father, Robin and Blanche are alright. I hope Harry and Mezzie are growing bigger every day. I really miss you, ALL of you; even Father and Blanche whom I never thought I would miss. Hopefully we are not long from the wonderful day when Russia is free and I can return home. I still truly believe I am fighting for something good here and I have no regrets about coming here. Despite this I once again apologize for all the hurt and worry I have caused you.
    Lots of love from your little comrade.
    Wilfred.
    Will checked the date in his pocket diary; it was hard to keep track now that the new calendar had been introduced. He wrote it at the top of the page, then he folded the letter and slid it inside the envelope. He wrote his address on the front of it in both Russian and English. He felt homesick whenever he wrote letters. There was no sealant available for the envelope so he just folded the flap inside and hoped the postmen were trustworthy enough not to open it before delivery. He stood up and looked across the forest glade. He was pleased to see that the logistics cart was still there, waiting on the track. The horse was quietly grazing while the driver chatted to the company commander. Will approached the back of the cart and waited for the driver to finish his conversation and notice him. "Yes?" he muttered with a bored sigh.
    "I wonder if you could take this for me."
    The driver looked at the letter. He was a cheery-faced old man with a black peasant's cap and a dirty beard. "It'll be a while before I get back to the depot, even if I get there at all; and you know how the trains are running these days. Even if they allow me to leave some cargo, there may not be a train to carry it for weeks."
    "Even so, I'd like you to try."
    "Young man, I am unlikely to succeed and it will not be cheap."
    "How much?"
    "Twenty K."
    Will reached into his pocket and pulled out an emergency treasury certificate; these had replaced normal banknotes as inflation had risen. "I've got ten."
    The driver rolled his eyes, but there was a glint of sympathy in them. "Alright."
    "Thank you, comrade." He took the ten thousand rouble certificate and Will gratefully handed him the envelope. The driver tucked it into a cloth sack that was squeezed between the boxes of ammunition and canned food on the back of the cart.
    Will walked back down the hill to the river. His fellow soldiers were all reclined in the grass feasting on cans of cold rations. Some were reading letters from home or newspapers. They paid Will no attention as he walked past. Will looked away from them. He could hear them chattering amongst themselves in their own impenetrable languages and dialects about trivial matters. This had been a huge disappointment for Will. He had no idea it would be this way. He now realized that he was naive to have assumed otherwise; but back at home, learning about the glories and dreams of the revolution, he imagined Russia being filled with people just like him. Once immersed into the reality of the Russian Civil War he discovered that almost nobody was. The literature and recordings by the leaders of the revolution had been printed and produced by educated urban Russians for educated urban Russians. These were the people whose language and customs Will had spent every free moment learning about. The moment he had reported in at the Tauride Palace in Petrograd the day he had arrived, he had been issued with a kit which consisted of nothing but a woollen cap with a crudely embroidered Bolshevik emblem on and a rifle. There was no uniform or other soldier's tools. The rifle was long and light; and it looked similar to the ones Will had fired at Greyguides during Combined Cadet Force skirmishes. It was a Mosin-Nagant bolt-action weapon. Although it was fitted with a five-round magazine, this was empty. Its wooden stock was chipped and had a few woodworm holes in. The leather sling was worn to tatters. In a two places it had snapped and a previous owner had tied the two broken ends together in a knot. This inevitably made it shorter than it should have been. A rusty bayonet was fixed to the muzzle. Will was then led into the grounds of the palace where he was made to march up and down with a few squads of other men, including some of the foreigners who had joined him on the train. They were also taught the basic functioning of their weapons as much as possible short of actually firing them. A drill sergeant yelled at them to correct any mistakes they made. So began Will's career in the Red Army, marching back and forth in the ice rink courtyard of a grand Russian palace. After the introductory parade, all the men were issued with an order sheet. The way the clerk handed these out, Will suspected it was random and which assignment you got depended on where you were standing in the queue. Will's directed him to join an infantry unit at a base in the Penza Oblast; Will had no idea where that was or any map available to look. He was driven to the station and put on a train. At that point he was then separated from Nicky and his other companions; he had never seen any of them since. When he arrived at the base in Penza three days later he was finally allowed to fire his Mosin-Nagant; just three live rounds were permitted. The three holes he made in a cardboard target were the extent of his military training. When he was introduced to the other men in his platoon they greeted Will in a reasonably friendly manner, but it soon became clear that they had so little in common with Will that interaction became almost impossible. Only about half of them spoke Russian as their first language; the others were a collection of Finns, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Georgians, Armenians, Tartars and several other ethnicities Will never identified. When speaking Russian, their language was so polluted with foreign accents and regional dialects that Will had a more difficult job of talking to them than he had on the Lahtka. He eventually managed to engage one man in a conversation about Lenin and asked what his fellow soldier thought about the April Thesis. The man nodded his head politely with a bewildered frown. He had never read Lenin's April Thesis; in fact Will later learned that he had never read anything at all because he was illiterate. It turned out that about half the soldiers in his unit could not read. They had come from isolated communities in the rural heartland of Russia and its surrounding nations. They were all farmhands by trade and had had at best a basic education. Most wore a religious emblem of some kind. When Will had made the decision to go to Russia, he had been eagerly expecting to find himself surrounded by millions of fellow aficionados for socialism, the kind of people he had had detailed and passionate discussions with at SANoLLP meetings. He had felt lonely and detached from most people in his everyday life and enjoyed those meetings so much for that reason. Now in Russia he once more found himself among people who knew nothing about socialism and had no interest in it. Few of them had even heard of Karl Marx. For them, this was simply one more war that they had been ordered to fight by a government they knew nothing about. One of them stunned Will with his ignorance when he even referred to Lenin "the new tsar."
    Will reached the water's edge and leaned down to fill his drinking canteen from the Volga. Then he returned it to his kitbag and strode back up the hill to the encampment. "Comrade Ursall." The company commander beckoned him over to where he was sitting by a tree with his legs crossed on the ground reading a sheaf of papers.
    Will approached him. "Yes, comrade commander?"
    "You're to report immediately to Commissar Zhlavuts at battalion HQ with all your kit. I'm afraid we have no transport available so you'll have to walk."
    Will's breath caught in his throat. "Can you tell me what it's about comrade commander?"
    He shook his head as he flicked through his briefing documents. "It doesn't say."
    Will quivered as he left the camp and set off north along the main road. The battalion's headquarters was in Stavropol-on-Volga about twenty miles away so it would be quite a trek. Luckily Will had become very fit over the last few months. His body was light and lean, and his lungs powerful. Despite this he sweated, and not just from the heat. "What does Zhlavuts want with me?" he muttered out loud as he paced along the road. In fact he could make fairly a good guess. Dmitri Zhlavuts was their zampolit, a political commissar governing their unit. All units in the Red Army had a zampolit, whose job it was to ensure loyalty to the Bolshevik party and its cause among the rank and file of the armed forces. As Will had noted, political awareness was a rare commodity among the troops, as was cultural and linguistic uniformity. The zampolity were there to indoctrinate and inspire everybody behind a common idea, that of Bolshevism and the need to defend it. Every so often Zhlavuts would pay a visit to their company and give the soldiers a pep talk. He was a big bald man with a tone of forced conviviality and bonhomie; and an unmilitary demeanour, very typical of a zampolit. This talk would consist of a lecture about Bolshevik theory, a tiny amount of news from the ongoing war in other areas of Russia and a question and answer session. The last part made the men rather nervous because they knew one of Zhlavuts' jobs was to locate dissent in the ranks. He would be making notes of any individuals he believed were not ideologically committed enough. Every so often men who asked or answered in a certain way... "went on leave". What this entailed was not entirely clear, but rumours circulated about "re-education centres" which involved hard labour and various other punishment duties. Of course Will's fate would be much worse than that.
    Back in April his unit had been in the flat country near Tsaritsyn as part of a defence force to repel the advance of General Krasnov and his Cossack legion. The counterrevolutionary leader had been determined to capture the city. It was here that Will had first experienced real combat. It was not as bad as he thought it would be. He had been concentrating so much that he had no time to feel any emotion, including fear. He just recalled running, shooting and hiding in response to orders while the sound of gunshots and flashes of light broke out around him; until they stopped, marking the end of the fight. After their victorious battle the company had withdrawn to a quiet glade in some woods near the river Volga. This was a baptism of fire for all of them and they were overcome by their achievement. They whooped for joy, exhilaration and relief; but also for sadness at the four comrades who had not come back. There was a lot of concern for the five who had survived, but were wounded and were currently being cared for at a field hospital. The battle had been led by a charismatic and dark moustachioed Georgian known as "Kolba" although others called him "Stalin". Halfway through the celebrations Commissar Zhlavuts had dropped by. He was brisk in his manner, as always, and came straight to the point. "Alright, chaps. I'm glad you're happy; we should be, but it's not over yet. We've got a problem."
    The soldiers all stopped carousing and gulping vodka to listen. "What is it, comrade zampolit?" they asked.
    "A mass mutiny. Every member of the local Red militia has defected to the Cossacks."
    "How does that concern us?" asked Will.
    "You know the rules, Comrade Ursall. If a man betrays the Bolsheviks then his family pay the price. The militia was mostly from the village of Zitkoor; it's about a dozen miles from here. Our company has been given the task of exacting revolutionary justice. The village has been listed for disposal. You are to attack tomorrow morning and leave nobody alive. And please remember, comrades; bullets are expensive and these are just women, children and old folk you're going after, so try to stick to bayonets and daggers if you don't mind..." He carried on giving them instructions for a few minutes and then left.
    The men got to work planning the raid with cold efficiency. Will stood with them, listening attentively and poker-faced as the company commander pointed at a map and talked about the operation as dispassionately as if he were organizing an exercise. He then ordered the men to their tents to sleep. Will lay awake and listened to his comrades snoring. He had been concealing his horror and disgust all evening. He knew that to express his feelings in any way might be fatal for him. He eventually sat up and made a decision. He listened intently for a few minutes to make sure everybody was asleep, then he gingerly crawled over his fellows he was sharing the tent with and stepped out into the open air. The map was inside a satchel that was lying on the ground outside the commander's tent. The commander himself was snoring like everybody else. Will took the map out and then fetched himself a lamp. He did not light it until he was well clear of the camp. It was a cold and crisp spring night as he jogged along the road. He ran as fast as he could, pacing himself for the distance. The landscape was as flat at a billiard table and covered with coarse grass which rustled in the light breeze. It reminded Will of Holland. It took him about an hour to reach his destination. Zitkoor was a small farming community typical of the lower Volga valley. It consisted of a circle of low huts with a small wooden chapel in the middle. The triple-barred Russian crucifix above its entrance was silhouetted against the star-studded sky. The smell of manure filled the air as did the sound of chickens clucking sleepily in the barnyards. There was a light on in one of the houses. Will bolted up to that one and hammered on the ancient wooden door. It was opened by an old woman with a peasant's shawl wrapped round her head. "Who are you?" she slurred with her toothless mouth. "What do you want at this hour? Don't you know what time it is?"
    "Listen! You've got to get out of here! All of you!?"
    "What are you talking about? Are you pissed up or something?"
    "Get everybody awake and flee!" he shouted. "NOW!" His voice has alerted other people in the village because he saw more lights appear in other windows. Will ran around the village, spinning like a dervish, yelling at the top of his voice and trying to explain what fate was about to descend onto their community. Eventually enough of them understood. Mothers roused children from their beds, old ladies were lifted onto the backs of carts, horses were harnessed, lamps were lit and over the space of about half an hour, the population of Zitkoor began moving. "Go to your friends and families!" said Will. "Go as far away as you can! Don't come home for at least a week."
    The villagers slowly trundled away into the darkness of the night, a few muttering confused words of thanks; and Will was halfway through a sigh of relief at saving their lives when he realized that he now had to act very quickly otherwise he would lose his own. He ran back to the road and headed for the camp, hoping desperately that he could find his way before reveille just after daybreak. The sound of snoring in the tents as he approached was as sweet as music in Will's ears. He relaxed and paused a hundred years away, waiting for his breath to come back. If anybody caught him that close to the camp it wouldn't be a problem; he could just tell them he was going to the toilet. He could explain the presence of the map in his possession as him simply revising the plan for tomorrow's operation while he was awake. He put the map back, returned to his tent and lay down feeling happy. He was certain he had done a good thing. Then he began thinking about this situation and how it related to the revolution. How could something as glorious and essential for the world as the socialist revolution be turned to such a horrific purpose? How could the quest for freedom and equality involve such crimes? Obviously in war soldiers kill each other; there was even a justifiable case for violent military discipline. However their targets tomorrow were not soldiers, they were defenceless civilians. These were the ultimate in vulnerable people; the elderly, women, children. What disturbed Will even more was the total indifference of his fellow soldiers to the atrocity they were about to commit. A few were even smiling as if looking forward to it. Will had heard a few of the men talking about their lives in their home villages in the Russian countryside and noticed that they had a fairly primitive and barbaric attitude to women. They seemed to regard rape as a normal part of somebody's sex life. No doubt they had intentions along these lines tomorrow with the women of Zitkoor, before slaughtering them; possibly even the little girls too. Will trembled as he lay in his sleeping bag.
    They were ordered awake in the morning twilight, breakfasted and then organized into single file for the march to Zitkoor. Will went along with them totally, showing as much eagerness and ruthlessness as any other man, not indicating the tiniest difference in behaviour. When they reached the empty village they stumbled around in confusion and indignation which Will also feigned with great aplomb. The commander ordered that they set fire to the houses. There was no way Will could escape this action. The cows lowed and the chickens squawked in fear as fires broke out. As he ignited the straw thatch of one of the houses and watched the flames spread he felt sad and guilty, but at least he had saved the people.
    Will ran through these events in his mind from two months ago as he strode along the main road towards Stavropol-on-Volga. Had the authorities found out what he had done? If so, what would happen to him? There was no question; he would be summarily executed by firing squad. The internal discipline of the Red Army had gone to every extreme deemed necessary by the expediency of war. The Cheka, the military intelligence outfit which also organized the zampolit corps, ran a force of "punitive brigades" whose purpose was to place a barrier on the rearguard in a battle and any solider or unit that retreated without permission would be attacked by these brigades. Any survivors would be shot. The same went for surrendered prisoners-of-war. The commander-in-chief of the Red Army often toured the front line personally to preside over trouble in the ranks. He was an infamous figure in the soldiers' community, a bookish-looking Jew called Comrade Trotsky. He travelled on a private train that was armoured like a tank on rails. He strutted around arrogantly in his long leather trench-coat and budenovka hat ordering decimations and floggings in his calm intellectual voice. Will had admired Leon Trotsky back in Lancombe Pond when he used to read his literature along with Lenin and the others. Trotsky was one of the founders and chairmen of the original Petrograd soviet. Today, he had learned to regard Trotsky as a figure of fear like all his colleagues did. Nobody defied Comrade Trotsky and lived to tell the tale. By warning the citizens of Zitkoor in advance of their extermination, Will had perverted revolutionary justice and colluded with the enemy. He could expect no mercy. He wondered if he should try and escape, disappear into the countryside and make his way home; but where could he go? He was more than a thousand miles from the border in any direction; and if he were caught at any time, which he almost certainly would be in the heightened surveillance state of war, he would be treated as a deserter which also carried the death sentence. He decided that the only viable option in this dilemma was to keep his appointment with the zampolit and hope for the best. He wondered if Zhlavuts was certain of Will's treason or was just suspicious. He began rehearsing what he would say in his head to talk himself out of the situation, should it be possible.
    The battalion headquarters was a series of prefabricated huts and large tents sitting by the left riverbank on the northern end of a prominent thirty mile wide meander in the river Volga. This location was good for geographical strategy because no boat could approach Samara from either direction without people at the camp knowing. There was one hut with a tall antenna sticking out of the top of it where regular wireless communication traffic passed to and from Moscow, the new Bolshevik capital, along with other places in Russia. Telegraph wires emerged from the same hut and were looped over posts leading off into the woods. Will approached the gate sentry and identified himself. He was ordered to wait in the camp grounds and did so under the nearest tree, grateful to be out of the sun. Another solider approached him. "Comrade Ursall, the commissar will see you now." Will took a deep breath and followed him.
    Commissar Zhlavuts smiled as Will entered his crude office in one of the huts. "Ah, Comrade Ursall. Thank you for coming." He reached out and shook Will's hand.
    "What can I do for you, comrade zampolit?" Will was taken aback at Zhlavuts' upbeat and informal manner and wondered what it implied. Over-exuberance to compensate for bad news?
    "I've had orders to supply a man from the battalion for a special operation in Yekaterinburg and I think you'd fit the bill perfectly... comrade?"
    Will had not replied when Zhlavuts had prompted him to. This was because Will had been momentarily struck dumb with relief. This was not going to be an interrogation about the Zitkoor affair. "Erm... Why me, comrade zampolit?"
    "You're a foreigner. Which country are you from?"
    "Lancombe Pond."
    He frowned. "Where's that?"
    "Great Britain."
    "So do you speak English?"
    "Yes, it's my native language."
    "Good... It has also not escaped my attention that you appear to be far better endowed in the brain department than your fellow troopers. This is an operation that requires intelligence and education. You come across as learned. Are you?"
    "I was a student at Oxford, comrade."
    "The famous Oxford?"
    He nodded.
    "Excellent... You see, and you must have also noticed, most men who are fighting this war are just a bunch of yokels. They can hardly count the fingers on their hands. Cultured intellectuals are in short supply and they are sometimes needed more than they are available. I think you are wasted in the infantry, Wilfred Francheskovich."
    "What does this special operation involve, comrade?" He was surprised that Zhlavuts had just addressed him with the patronymic, the traditional Russian formal manner used between equals.
    "I can't tell you that right now; it is highly classified. We're arranging transport to take you to Yekaterinburg and as soon as it's ready you'll be leaving."
    "Yes, comrade."
    "You'll be quite close to the eastern front. Kolchak's legion is advancing hard at the moment."
    "Yes, comrade."
    "There's one more thing." He paused and looked at Will with a subtle frown. "The region around Yekaterinburg is under the jurisdiction of the Ural soviet. They were among the best comrades of the revolution. However... sometimes there are... misunderstandings between their executive and that of Moscow."
    Travelling from Samara to Yekaterinburg would not be quick or easy. It was five hundred miles away as the crow flies, but Will had to take a roundabout route because of the direct railways being controlled by the Czech Legion. He waited under a tree in the encampment until a boat departed from Stavropol heading north upstream. The riverboat was an old rusty hulk that was overloaded with troops and other travellers. It chugged slowly against the current belching huge clouds of black smoke from its funnel. The only place Will could ride was on a few squares of cloth on the deck. In the middle of the night he had to take cover along with everybody else topside because unidentified snipers on the western bank opened fire on the boat. One man was shot in the arm. Unable to sleep, Will watched the lights of Simbirsk sweep past on the boat's port side. There was no time for it, but otherwise he would have liked to have stopped here and done a bit of sightseeing because this was the birthplace of Lenin. The following morning the boat reached the Tartar port of Naberezhnye Chelny where Will disembarked. It was then just a three-hour wait at the station until he finally boarded a train for Yekaterinburg. The wooden bench in the passenger compartment had a ragged horsehair cushion, but it felt like eiderdown to Will and he slept almost non-stop until the train pulled into Yekaterinburg Station Number Two at three AM the next morning. He staggered sleepily off the train and into the waiting room at the end of the damp platform. His instructions told him nothing except that somebody called Commander Alexander Ardeev would meet him at the station, but they did not say when. Ardeev turned up at dawn. Will was intrigued at his appearance because he was clearly in the throes of a major hangover, yet he was dressed in a proper Red Army officer's uniform, the first time Will had seen anybody wearing one since he left Petrograd. It made Will feel very shabby in his woollen cap and threadbare civvies. He saluted. "Comrade commander!"
    "Yeah yeah yeah." Ardeev waved his salute away in a bored tone. "You must be Comrade Ursall. Welcome." He muttered the last word sulkily and insincerely. He led Will to an automobile and they drove through the city streets which were full of people engaged in their morning bustle. "This assignment involves guarding some prisoners. We've got them holed up in a house down by the river."
    "Not in the gaol?"
    "No, these prisoners are special."
    "Why?"
   He smiled and shrugged. Ardeev was a peculiar contradiction. His uniform was fairly clean and neat, but his face was blotched and unshaven. His eyes were bloated and baggy; his hair unkempt. His hands were greasy and there was black dirt underneath his fingernails as he moved the steering wheel. He gave off a powerful stench of stale vodka. They came to a house which had been recently and hastily converted into a small military outpost and Will was issued with a new kit, including his own proper uniform. As he entered Ardeev's office to check himself in, he was surprised and delighted to see that the commandant had copies of books and pamphlets on his shelf by Lenin, Trotsky and other great theorists. Some were editions that Will had read too. He even had a copy of The Communist Manifesto and other writings by Marx and Engels. Will pointed to another pamphlet that he recognized. It was lying on Ardeev's desk as if he had just been reading it. "I see you have a copy of Lenin's April Thesis, comrade commander. What did you think of it?" There followed over the next fifteen minutes exactly the kind of discussion Will had been longing for since he arrived in Russia. There was a spring in his step and warmth in his heart for the alcoholic commander as they walked out to begin Will's orientation. It was a cool overcast day, but the air was dry.
    The spring soon left his step as Will and Ardeev rounded a corner and saw ahead a wooden wall. A crude palisade had been erected using mouldy planks of different lengths. A sentry box stood outside a gap in the palisade and half a dozen Red Army soldiers loitered beside it. Above the palisade Will could make out the roof of a house. The architectural style was traditional for the region and the gable was low with a pair of arched superstructures that looked like eyes peering over the top of the wooden blockade. Nothing was visible below roof level. The road outside was broken up and muddy. "What is this place?" asked Will.
    "The house of special purpose." Ardeev replied in a grim tone.
    "What purpose?"
    Ardeev shrugged again.
    "Move along there!" yelled one of the guards at a group of passers-by who had slowed their pace and were staring at the building. They frowned at the guards and muttered to each other, as if they knew a secret about the place they had been staring at.
    "This is Comrade Wilfred Ursall." said Ardeev to the same guard. "He's the new leader of two-watch."
    "Comrade." The guard stood to attention.
    Will nodded. He had been told beforehand, but had not had the chance to prepare himself for the fact that he now had some authority. All he had ever done before was obey orders from his unit commander and other senior officers. He and Ardeev passed through the gate which led to a second inner barrier built just like the first along which they had to walk to find the second entrance staggered from the first. Beyond that Will was shocked and embarrassed to see that the inner wall of the palisade had been covered with graffiti which consisted of lewd statements and obscene drawings. Ahead of them was an entrance door; the dark energy that he had detected outside fell heavier. The interior of the house was warm and looked dim after the watery sunlight of the outdoors. The first thing Will noticed was that the windows were obscured by what looked like newspapers taped over the panes. Ardeev led him along a corridor; ahead was the sound of multiple voices and the aroma of food. They walked into the room. A family were sitting at a dining table. "Nikolai Alexandrovich." said Ardeev. "Apologies for interrupting your breakfast, but I'd like to introduce a new member of the household, Comrade Wilfred Ursall."
    "Who is that, Papa?" asked a teenage girl sitting at a table.
    Will almost fell over in astonishment. The girl had spoken in English. Will had not heard his native tongue spoken, nor had he spoken it except in letter-writing, for more than five months. This explained Zhlavuts' question about his language abilities.
    A man stood up. He was short and middle aged, but carried himself with authority. To his left sat a woman of similar age; beside her were four younger women. On the other edge of the table was a man dressed in a naval sailor's uniform from the imperial fleet and on his lap was sitting a thin and pale young boy. "Good morning to you, sir." said the standing man to Will in Russian. "You are most welcome in our home."
    Will took a step back. His head was reeling. There was no mistaking this man standing in front of him. Even without his royal tunic with military epaulets he was instantly recognisable. The neat beard and wide blue eyes were engrained in Will's memory from numerous photographs and descriptions. "What!?... Aren't you...?"
    The man nodded. "Yes, although as you can see my family's circumstances have changed somewhat." He gave an amused half-smile at his ownunderstatement.
    Will was standing face-to-face, not ten feet apart, from Nicholas Romanov, until recently Tsar Nicholas II.
"Excuse me." The brash man strode over to intercept Will as he walked down the road to work. Will knew him, had seen him before. He was always hanging round the area, trying to engage people in conversation. He was short and round with small beady eyes. His clothes made Will think that he was probably Jewish. "I was wondering when I'm going to be allowed to have my house back."
    "What house is that, citizen?"
    The man jerked his thumb at the double palisade. "That's my home! I was very rudely turfed out on my arse by a bunch of Red Army thugs back in April. I've been living at the Americanskaya Hotel; do you know how much that place costs!?"
    Will sighed and replied with a frustrated grimace: "Why don't you just join the Ural Soviet? Their headquarters are kept there for free."
    "Not funny!" the man snapped.
    "Alright, citizen; but we are trying to fight a war here. Needs must."
    "Yes, but we all need homes!"
    Will took out his notebook and pencil. "What's your name?"
    "Nicholas Ipatiev."
    "Like the monastery?"
    He nodded.
    "I'll see what I can do."
    The man chuckled scornfully. "Do you think we don't know whom you've got in there? Did you really think you could keep it a secret?... The whole city knows!"
    Will looked around himself uncomfortably. A few other people were standing randomly along the street, half looking at him. One of them, a young man, was carrying a handheld camera. Will walked quickly on towards the gate. A nun was waiting by the sentry box as usual, chatting casually to the guard. She smiled at Will as he approached, knowing that he was about to take over the watch. "Good morning, Leader Ursall."
    "Good morning, Sister Augustina." replied Will. He pointed at the linen sack in her hand. "The usual?"
    "Just a little something for the family." She blushed and glanced briefly at the other guard.
    Will nodded and took the bag from her. He returned her gaze knowingly. The last time the nuns from the Novo-Tikhvin Convent had brought gifts for the family, Ardeev and the men of three-watch had taken it all for themselves. The num caught on and smiled back at Will gratefully. He hid the bag on top of a cabinet in the watch leaders' office and then went out into the entrance hall to attend the guard mount. He signed his name on the calendar as he organized the soldiers into their duty sections; it was Thursday July the fourth. "American Independence Day." Will whispered to himself. The whole world outside his own day-to-day experience seemed like a dream; non-existent. He marvelled that he had only been at the "house of special purpose" for three weeks. It felt like longer than that. The sense of notional time passing very slowly had happened to him once before, but this had been a school holiday he had gone on in France three years earlier. He poked his head into the commandant's office, but Ardeev was not there. "He's up at the soviet again." said Alapyutov, the leader of the departing one-watch, when he saw Will looking in.
    Will groaned. "What do they want with him this time?"
    "Gawd knows." He picked up his bag. "Have a good day, Will."
    "You too, Mishka. Sleep well." When all the men had left to take up their posts, Will went and retrieved the bag from the leaders' office. He tiptoed to the stairs and treaded gently up to the first floor. As usual, the family was in the salon. Will skulked outside in the passageway as the guards changed shift. As he expected they paused to chat for a few minutes. He walked in and saw the family looking up at him expectantly. Will grinned playfully and put the sack in the middle of the coffee table.
    The daughters clasped their hands with glee. Anastasia, the youngest, gave a barely suppressed squeal of delight. The mother Alexandra gave her characteristically regal smile and young Alexei lifted his head in his a lethargic way from where he sat, as usual, leaning on Seaman Nagorny's shoulder. Nicholas and Dr Botkin stood up. "Wilfred." whispered the former. "I don't know how to thank you."
    "You're welcome, Nicholas Alexandrovich. It was easy to do. I intercepted the sister from the convent before the other staff could get to her. You must hide these things quickly; put them under your bed. Smirnov and Petrov will be doing their rounds soon."
    "I wish there was some way I could speak to the sisters."
    "I'll pass on your greetings as always."
    "Wilfred." said Dr Botkin. "This food makes all the difference for us; for the Tsarevich it could..." He lowered his voice. "It could mean the difference between life and death."
    Will knew what the sack contained; milk, butter, cheese, eggs and other basic foodstuffs. It supplemented the prisoners' meagre rations. The former Tsarevich, the crown prince, in particular looked like he needed feeding. Even after all this time, Will pulled himself up short for thinking in those terms. Right here and now that child was merely Alexei Romanov, a poorly young boy, a haemophiliac, aged thirteen. The monarchy had been abolished and nobody supported that abolition more than Comrade Wilfred Ursall. The family ate breakfast and then went back to the Salon where they played board games, read newspapers and books or chatted. This was all they could do. The routine for the guards was almost as monotonous. The watch was divided into perimeter and interior corps. The perimeter corps patrolled the outside of the house, watching passing members of the public for threats and checking the palisade for any breaches. There were machine guns set up that were manned at all times pointing outwards from the attic windows of the house. The house itself was constantly in the sights of another machine gunner sitting in the belfry of the nearby Voznesensky Cathedral, the only place outside the house that could be seen from ground level. The gunners' instructions were to open fire if the former tsar appeared outside the compound, even if it meant shooting some of his fellow soldiers as collateral damage. The interior corps kept an eye on the family themselves, strolling along the corridors and peering into the rooms, all of which had their doors removed. The newspaper had gone from the windows and had been replaced with more permanent white paint. This allowed in a translucent glow of sunshine, but blocked any view.
    Will walked along the corridor to see what the guards were doing. He walked into the bathroom where there was a toilet and washbasin. The guards used it as well as the family. Along with the usual mindless smut, somebody had scrawled a caricature on the wall of Grigori Rasputin, the "mad monk", having sexual intercourse with Alexandra. The artist clearly had far more talent than the average squaddie and the picture was quite well rendered. Will stuck his head out of the door. "Smirnov!"
    The guard walked up to him with a look of childlike innocence on his face. "Yes, comrade leader?"
    Will pointed. "What's this?"
    "I don't know anything about it, comrade leader."
    "Don't give me that, Smirnov! Only you can draw that well."
    Smirnov shrugged. "It was just a bit of fun, comrade leader. Taking the Mickey out of that bourgeois aristocratic cow."
    "Wash it off!"
    "Must I?"
    "Yes! Quickly now before the ladies see it."
    Will was secretly referring to one lady in particular, Maria.
    At ten o'clock in the morning the family and their servants were allowed half an hour's exercise in the garden, one of only two such sessions per day. Nicholas Ipatiev's house had about half an acre of elegant grounds although it had clearly suffered from neglect after the property had been commandeered. The lawn was overgrown and the flowerbeds full of weeds. The weather was fine and the sky was a deep blue without any clouds. The former tsar jogged in circles while the four girls Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia sat on a wide swing, rocking back and forth. Alexandra was having trouble walking and stayed in a wheelchair making a tapestry. Alexei took a few feeble steps, holding the hand of his carer Nagorny. Dr Botkin, the court physician, was close by to monitor his health. Will was watching the former Grand Duchess Maria. She was half a year older than him and stunningly beautiful. She had a pleasant personality too. Her hair had been quite short when Will had first arrived, due to it being cut off when she had measles, but it was growing out again. There had been no girls or women at Will's school and there were only a handful of female students at Oxford. Unlike many boys in his educational system he had never succumbed to homosexuality, whether temporary or permanent. He had never had a girlfriend; but, unlike most of the other guards, had always declined to use the services of the local prostitutes. He often imagined to himself, with great relish, what sex might be like; but he knew he had no idea. He just sat quietly outside the office where the prostitutes plied their trade, sipping vodka in a civilized manner while the raucous drunken laughter mixed with puffing and panting went on behind the door. He had not thought about girls at all since he arrived in Russia, not until he met Maria. He flicked his vision away when he spotted her father looking at him; he clearly had noticed. He walked up to Will. "Wilfred Francheskovich, will grant me a favour?"
    "If I can, sir."
    He lowered his voice, so that his family could not overhear, and switched to English, knowing that Will alone among the guards spoke it. "Take care of my family after..."
    "After what?"
    "It's only a matter of time before I am sent to Moscow to be put on trial. That trial can only have one verdict... and only one sentence."
    Will felt surprisingly sad. "I'll do what I can, Nicholas Alexandrovich."
    "Thank you." He sighed.
    Will paused. "It's strange you know. I have always considered you evil. 'Bloody Nicholas', that's what you were known as; because of Bloody Sunday."
    "I never ordered that attack. I wasn't even in the Winter Palace when those people were shot. You know Father Gapon was actually a Bolshevik mole?... You know I was a great reformer. 'Nicholas the peacemaker' was my previous nickname. I tried to keep Russia out of needless wars. The one with Japan was unfortunate, but not needless. I lowered the working week decades before Lenin did. I abolished nightshifts for women and boys less than seventeen years of age..."
    Will shook his head. "I can't think about the rights and wrongs of all that when I'm in this place. It's just that right here, right now, you're just a bloke. A bloke with a wife and kids. You're good company actually; I have to admit it... My God!" Will lurched back two whole steps.
    "Are you alright, Wilfred?"
    Will struggled to calm himself down. His heart was pounding; his breath came in gasps. "Yes... yes." They were speaking Russian again now. "Sorry, Nicholas; it's just that... your face..."
    "Did I just shape-shift? I do apologize if it alarmed you. It happens every so often."
    "Oi!" yelled Osolin, the internal corps leader, Will's deputy. "That's it! Your time's up. All of you, get inside!" Will realized that Osolin had been watching Will and Nicholas' conversation; albeit from a distance and unable to understand.
    "You're right, Wilfred." said Nicholas, looking at him sincerely. "I am just an ordinary man, one with a family. I know what I am. I know my people are different to yours. We are not really the same as you; but in another way we really are. The bodies we inhabit are human flesh and blood. I love my wife and my children. I worship God. Don't read too much into what you just witnessed." As the family reluctantly traipsed in through the backdoor, the deputy approached Will. Osolin was a Latvian in his early fifties with a sulky manner and untidy grey hair. Like many of the guards, he had a penchant for vodka and prostitutes; although his appetite for both surpassed that of most of the others. "Comrade leader." he began in an ingratiating tone. "May I remind you that the guards are not permitted to engage the prisoners in casual conversation; and that the prisoners are not permitted to speak in foreign languages? It makes it worse when you, in your position of supervision, encourage them by breaking those rules too."
    "Why don't you let me worry about my record, Maris? Perhaps you should just concern yourself with your own job and let me do mine, eh?" Will patted him on the shoulder sarcastically. He was glad of dealing with something normal to help him recover his nerves. What had caused his shock was that he had seen Nicholas Romanov's face change. For an instant, his skin had turned light green and rough, almost scaly, and his eyes had become bright yellow with vertical slits as pupils. It looked like a cross between a human and a snake. Will sat down on the garden bench and rubbed his face. "A hallucination. I must be getting stressed out." he murmured to himself.
    After their morning outdoor exercise session there was not much for the family to do except read, talk and play games until luncheon. The guards paced along the corridors keeping an eye on them. "Wilfred, Francheskovich, something you might be interested in." Dr Botkin was reading a newspaper and he pointed to a back page column.
    Will took the paper from him and read: Foreign news from agency correspondents in London. Last month British press reported that something very strange happened in the little duchy of Lancombe Pond. An airship came down in some woods which appears not to be of any kind known to be manufactured in any nation of the world. There were four occupants none of whom survived the crash. They were described as being small and with no hair. The witness was a doctor living close to the scene and working for the government of that small country; and so he wishes to remain anonymous. He said that the eyes and other facial features of the four men were so strange that at first he thought that they were some kind of mannequin. They had no pupils, irises or any other biological structure to them. The prevailing view among his colleagues in government is that these men came from the planets Mars or Venus. The airship they were flying in is of a most unusual kind. It has no engine, wings or envelope; in fact no obvious means of function at all. The agency addressed a spokesman for the Lancine authorities, but he declined to comment. It remains a lead that can neither be confirmed nor denied at the present time..." How unusual." said Will.
    "I've heard of such things before, Wilfred. Strange things seen in the sky. Sometimes weird aircraft landing with unearthly people climbing out and walking around. Right here in Russia."
    Will chuckled, remembering his brother Robin talking about spaceships months ago back in Mansfield; it felt like another world now, or a fantasy no more real than one of Robin's. "The only news I've heard that has got through to me from home since I left six months ago, and it is something from a novelty column." Will folded the paper until he found the front page. "Dr Botkin, did you see the date? This newspaper is from February!"
    Botkin took the paper from him and looked. "Damn! Can't we get any of today's papers? Surely Commandant Ardeev can manage that!"
    "I can ask..." At that moment a gunshot rang out. It came from the bedroom occupied by the former princesses. Everybody ran along the corridor to the room and found Anastasia crouched on the bed crying with fear. Her parents comforted her while Will dashed outside from where the shot had come. Vilyukin, a young guardsman on the perimeter corps was standing in front of the palisade under the window. Will shouted down to him: "Comrade, Vilyukin! What's going on!?"
    "Somebody stuck their head out of the window, comrade leader. Orders from the commandant say we must fire immediately when that happens."
    A second guard spoke up: "We'd better seal that window too, like all the others."
    Will shrugged. "It's hot weather; the prisoners need fresh air... I'll see if the engineers can put some kind of grille over it. Luckily the girl was not hurt. She's just a bit shaken."
    The shift changed at seven PM and the personnel of three-watch turned up in the usual way the guards did for a night shift, with a case of vodka and a handful of pretty young women who were obviously prostitutes. Still there was no sign of Ardeev or his deputy. Then, just before Will was about to hand over the shift and leave the house, he heard the sound of car engines outside the gate. "ATTENTION!" barked a voice he had not heard before. A group of a dozen men marched along the palisade passage and up to the front door as if they were wrestlers heading for the ring. They were all dressed in dark greatcoats and hats. Behind them trailed Ardeev and his staff. They're faces were masks, avoiding eye-contact, looking down at the ground. "Halt!" shouted Will, feeling intimidated. "Who goes there!?" The door guard next to him held his rifle up horizontally to act as a barrier. "Somebody who is taking over!" snapped the leader of the procession, a man with watery brown eyes and a thick moustache that spread across his face like the barrier in front of him held by the guard. He seized the rifle violently and thrust it aside. "ATTENTION!" he yelled.
    "Who are you!?" demanded Will.
    The man reached into the inside pocket of his coat, casually drew out identity papers and held them up. "Yakov Yurovsky, Internal Security. I am taking command so stand aside!"
    The door guard was deflated and stood back. The newcomer strode past him as if he wasn't there. Will was stunned. "Did he say 'Internal Security'?"
    "Yes, comrade leader."
    "The Cheka!" Will almost whispered, as if the word itself were a black magic spell.
    The moment he was inside the house, Yurovsky immediately began laying out orders as if he had been in command for years. He strutted up and down with his nose in the air and a sneer under his moustache. "I want all of two and three-watch assembled in the downstairs hallway NOW! Send for the off duty men immediately! Nobody must leave the building." His henchmen began circulating around the offices like a wolf pack. Will spotted Ardeev entering the commandant's office and followed him in after checking nobody was looking his way. Ardeev was pulling open draws and moving his personal possessions into his leather satchel. "Alexander, what's going on?" Will whispered.
    Ardeev's face was blanched and downbeat. "I've been relieved, so has Ukrainstev." Constantin Ukrainstev was the deputy commandant. "I expect the same is about to happen to you and the rest of the unit. The Cheka are taking over this entire operation."
    "ATTENTION!" Yurovsky roared again.
    "Go on!" hissed Ardeev. "Before he cans you!... Goodbye Wilfred. Take care of yourself." He forced a thin smile.
    Will waved feebly as he bolted from the room.
    All of the three watches lined up in neat military rows in the corridor. One-watch were on a day off, but had been summoned with all dispatch from the barrack houses. Yurovsky paced up and down slowly, inspecting them as if he were a general. He was carrying a clipboard which he lifted and began to read. "Right, Comrade Petrov, Comrade Vasily Smirnov, Comrade Nikolai Smirnov, Comrade Osolin, Comrade Ursall, Comrade Urotskin, Comrade Alapyutov. Advance one step now!"
    Will obeyed, along with all the other men named.
    "The rest of you, you're relived of all your duties; be out of this house in five minutes." The bulk of the unit almost tripped over themselves in their haste to obey, remembering all the horror stories they had heard about the Cheka secret police. When they were gone, Yurovsky examined each of the seven remaining soldiers in turn. "Right, you lot. From now on you are on an indefinite secondment to Internal Security. I am the new commandant here, the 'house of special purpose' in henceforth under the jurisdiction of Internal Security and you will obey all my orders; understood?"
    "Yes, comrade commandant." they all replied in unison.
    Will was still standing at attention with eyes front, but he could see in his peripheral vision more dark suited men marching in through the front door, in regular gaps and one at a time, as if there were an infinite row of them outside. Yurovsky was still lecturing them on obedience and discipline when there was a piercing scream from the prisoners' accommodation upstairs. Will recognized the voice as that of the Alexei, the former crown prince. A figure in a sailor's uniform was frogmarched down the stairs, as roughly as if he were being arrested for violent disorder. It was Seaman Nagorny. "Please!" He was weeping. "I need to stay! I need to look after Alexei!"
    "Move it!" retorted the Chekist grabbing his right arm. Another man following him, although he was quieter and didn't resist. Will couldn't tell without looking straight at him or hearing his voice, but guessed that he was Sednev the princesses' footman.
There was a sound like thunder in the early morning sky. The rising sun washed the underside of the high cloud in a rosy glow, promising a fine day ahead. The thunder came in pops and bursts, but there was no lightning or any heavy cloud to indicate an approaching storm. Will strolled down the road from the barracks house to the "house of special purpose". He felt the usual sense of gloom as he turned off Voznesensky Lane and approached the stark wooden barrier surrounding the property. The dormers and roof gables poking above it looked lifeless, as if the house were a strangely shaped natural rock outcrop. The whitewash on the windows made them look like cataracts in a blind man's eyes. He walked up to the door guard's post and saw that it was occupied by a Cheka officer, so he just walked by and said nothing. The man glared at him, but did not speak. He recognized Will and so did not prevent him entering. Will couldn't even remember his name. If one of the few remaining Red Army personnel had been at the post, Will would have muttered a brief greeting, but they would not have talked for as long or as cheerfully as they used to. Will entered the house and stood in the corridor for the guard mount. He exchanged glances with Smirnov and Petrov and forced a pained smile. Commandant Yurovsky wasted no time. He read out the shift allocations as a monotone litany and then returned to his office, shutting the door with a bang. Will walked up the stairs to the prisoners' apartment and relieved his three-watch counterpart. These days there were so few Red Army guards that he was never alone with any of his former colleagues and the Romanov family together. One or more Chekists were always present. He had also been demoted and was no longer the watch leader; in fact all senior roles in the operation were occupied by Cheka operatives. The original rules laid down by the Ural Soviet had not changed, but they were far more strictly enforced. Will had not been able to converse with any of the family since Yurovsky had taken control. There was a bell on the salon sideboard and if any of the prisoners wanted to use the toilet they had to ring it; then a guard would escort them for the twenty foot walk to the toilet and stand outside until they had finished for the walk back. It was as if the prisoners were small children. All dialogue between guards and prisoners had to be functional and in Russian. The guards were kept under a much tighter regime. The vodka and whores were now banned. Will had learned to enjoy his guard duty in the house for the first two weeks he had been there, but the second half of the month since he arrived stripped him of that. He now dreaded coming to work. A pall of misery and tension had fallen over Nicholas Ipatiev's residence during the last fortnight. Will felt a sense of foreboding; something dreadful was about to happen, he was sure of it. Every time he came on duty he expected to find Nicholas gone, shipped off to court in Moscow, followed inevitably by a firing squad; and seeing the family devastated by his loss.
    As Will strolled around the salon he heard Dr Botkin whisper at him: "Pssst! Take a look, Wilfred." Will turned round and saw the former court physician handing him a newspaper.
    "What do you think you're doing!?" bellowed another voice, and one of the Cheka guards came pounding over to investigate. "Where did you get that!?" He pointed at the paper in Will's hand. "Botkin, you know very well that you are no longer permitted newspapers!"
    "It's an old one, Comrade Medvedev." put in Will. "Look at the date; the tenth of March. It must have been left here before Dr Botkin arrived."
    "Get rid of it!" snapped Medvedev before he strutted away.
    Will glanced at Botkin apologetically and plodded slowly to the stairs down to the offices. When he was in the corridor outside Yurovsky's office he looked at the page Dr Botkin was pointing at: Foreign news from agency correspondents in London. An update on our report from the tiny state of Lancombe Pond beset with the rumour that an airship from another world had landed in the countryside. Our spokesman in the Lancine government has now told our agent that no such incident occurred. He stated that people were confused by an accident involving a cart carrying a large canister of explosive gas. The British army corps of special engineering helped their Lancine fellows to neutralize the threat by safely retrieving the canister and taking it to a place where it could be disposed of. The Duke Bellswill, leader of Lancombe Pond, wished to express his gratitude to Mr David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, for his people's assistance and in return will...
    The door to the office was flung open and Yurovsky stomped out into the corridor with typical abruptness. "Comrade Ursall, what are you doing down here?" He demanded.
    "Just disposing of some rubbish, comrade commandant." Will tossed the journal into the waste paper basket.
    "Well then get on with it and get back to your post!" He stormed off down the corridor.
    "Yes, comrade commandant." Will muttered at his departing back. He was about to head back to the staircase when he heard the telephone ringing in the commandant's office. He looked in through the open door, wondering if he should answer it. He looked over his shoulder, but Yurovsky was in deep conversation with the Chekist watch leader. Will walked into the office and picked up the receiver. "Hello, house of special purpose. Comrade Ursall speaking."
    "Good morning, I'd like to speak to Commandant Yurovsky?" The voice was a mellow tenor one that Will sensed was familiar.
    "Who is speaking please?"
    "It's Comrade Lenin."
    Will's head spun. "Wh... what... Who!?"
     A hand like a steel hook seized Will's shoulder and wrenched him back. "Give me that 'phone!" Yurovsky shouted. He snatched the instrument from Will's hand and spoke into it with a nervous smile. "Comrade Lenin. Good morning." He waved his hand at Will for him to leave. Will obeyed and shut the door.
    "What's up with you? You look like you've seen a ghost?" Osolin and he were sitting in the rest room on the lower floor eating their midday meal, one of the few times personnel were permitted to speak to each other freely. Will's relationship with the older Latvian had improved since Will had stopped being his superior and so no longer had to supervise him.
    "You're not going to believe this, Maris; but we had a telephone call earlier from Comrade Lenin."
    "You're kidding!... The Lenin!?"
    Will nodded.
    "What was he doing 'phoning here?"
    "Don't know. He just wanted to talk to Yurovsky."
    Osolin whistled and shook his head. "It must have been very important for Vladimir Illych himself to call personally."
    Will looked up when he heard the sound of more thunderclaps outside. "What's going on with all this thunder?" he asked. "It's been booming all morning, yet there's not been a drop of rain."
    Osolin laughed. "I can't believe an ex-infantryman like you didn't recognize that sound. It's not thunder, Wilfred; it's artillery."
    "Really?"
    "Yes. I'm astonished you've not heard the news! It was all over the barracks last night."
    "I went out for a walk and then went to bed."
    Osolin laughed. "Lightweight!... Anyway, Kolchak is advancing west into the trans-Ural area. The Czech Legion is in control of almost all the railways. They're running Chelyabinsk; they executed the entire sub-soviet there. These guys mean business! They want every Bolshevik dead! The factory battalions from Petrograd have been trying to hold them back."
    Will shivered, remembering the battle for Tsaritsyn. "So are they coming for us now?"
    Osolin nodded. "Yekaterinburg would be the jewel in their vulgar White crown."
    "What about the prisoners?"
    He shrugged. "I suppose we'll have to move them somewhere else."
The following day was a Sunday, the fourteenth of July. Yurovsky left the house after a team from the local Red militia showed up at the door. They went off together on an errand nobody could fathom. This was such unusual behaviour that the Red Army guards broke their vow of silence to talk about it for the brief period when the Cheka were conferring amongst themselves about the provisional management. Habitually, the commandant hardly ever left the Ipatiev house, virtually living permanently in the offices of the ground floor. They only stopped talking when the Cheka officers ordered them to. In the afternoon Yurovsky returned with soil on his clothes and hands, as if he had been a child playing around in a garden. He used his entire water ration to clean himself up when a priest turned up. The priest and his deacon were from the local church. They held a Divine Liturgy for the family and their companions in the salon. The guards all kept a respectful distance, even the Cheka ones; if only subconsciously. Yurovsky himself obtrusively supervised the service, standing in a corner with his leather pistol holster on full display as the family knelt on the floor and chanted. Will stood around the corner by the bedrooms listening. He recalled the conversations he'd had with Nicholas and the family, Dr Botkin and the other court servants; and he felt sad at how things had changed.
    At seven PM Will was scheduled to go off duty. Along with his demotion, he had been moved to one-watch when the Cheka took over. Three-watch was due to take over and guard the house until seven AM the following morning. He was relieved and looked forward to a quiet drink in a tavern, dinner and a peaceful sleep in his bunk at the barracks. He went to take his place at the guard mount, but today the procedures were different. Yurovsky ordered one-watch back to their posts while three-watch all went to the main guards' office. The door was shut and nobody else was allowed in. "I hope this briefing won't last long." muttered Petrov. "I need a bloody beer."
    "What does he want to brief them about?" replied Will.
    "Something simple and unimportant I hope."
    The secret briefing in the office took two hours. Then three-watch were ordered to take over the guard, but before one-watch could go off duty they themselves were ordered into the office, presumably to have the same briefing. However when he was following the line of men in through the door, Yurovsky put out his hand to stop him. "Not you, Comrade Ursall."
    "Why not, comrade commandant?"
    "You're not cleared for this information. Go off duty." He slammed the door without another word. Will alone out of the entire watch was excluded from this briefing. He walked out of the Ipatiev house. Before he left, he stopped and looked over his shoulder at the lighted window of the office. He said goodnight to the Red Army gate guards and headed back to the barracks.
    The following morning he walked back from his barracks house as usual. He saw Grigory Nikulin, another of the one-watch guards, walking along the lane and caught him up. "Hey, Grigory; wait up."
    The guard looked over his shoulder briefly and kept walking at the usual pace.
    "Grigory, wait!"
    "What is it, Wilfred?" He muttered, not looking at him.
    "What was that briefing about last night?"
    Nikulin shrugged and tittered. "Bah! A bit of this and a bit of that. Nothing important."
    "What do you mean 'nothing important'? It took two hours. The other guys didn't get back to the digs till midnight... And why was I left out of it if it was nothing important?"
    "Maybe you're too important for it, Wilfred." He chuckled evasively.
    "Don't mess about, Grigory. Come on! What did you lot talk about?"
    Nikulin stopped walking and turned suddenly to stare at him. His cheeks trembled and there was fear in his eyes. "Wilfred... please!... Just don't ask. Believe me, you don't want to know." He walked on as quickly as he could, keen to end the conversation with Will. Will stood and stared at him. In the distance, the rumble of distant artillery fire continued.
After Monday's shift, one-watch doubled back. This meant they were off duty until the following evening, giving them twenty-four hours free time. This only happened once every nine days and normally it was a day of celebration, involving a pub crawl and social dinner or, for the guards who liked that sort of thing, a trip to the brothel. This time nobody was partying. The men hung around the barracks, sitting silently on their bunks, staring at the floor as if hypnotized. Will eventually gave up asking them for an explanation. It was like being at a funeral where everybody knew who the deceased was except him, and they didn't want to tell him. On the twenty minute walk to the Ipatiev house that evening Will noticed that the tense and secretive atmosphere was not confined to his unit. There were far more soldiers on the street than usual. A curfew was in force; something which occasionally happened in Yekaterinburg, but there hadn't been one for over two weeks. No explanation was given to the people for the curfew. When he arrived at the house he realized with a jolt that something exceptional was going on. The entire unit was waiting there; all three watches. Some were loitering outside to save space indoors. There was no formal guard mount tonight. The men chattered about irrelevant subjects as if afraid to say what they were actually doing. Will pushed his way inside and approached Yurovsky. "Comrade commandant, what's going on?"
    "Ah, Comrade Ursall." Yurovsky smiled at him. "We're moving the prisoners tonight. It's all happening later on. Nothing must be said to them until just beforehand." He held his finger up to his lips. "They're all eating dinner at the moment. We should let them enjoy it... We're going to need some vehicles. Go to the motor-pool in Listvennyy and pick up a truck. They've got one waiting for you."
    "Yes, comrade commandant." Will headed off with raised eyebrows. He had never seen Yakov Yurovsky smile before, in fact the man's general persona had suddenly and completely changed.
    Listvennyy was a few miles away and the walk was made longer because the bridge one would normally cross over the river was damaged and closed. The streets were dark and silent with most streetlamps unlit. Nobody walked the pavements and roads except soldiers. They left Will alone when they saw his uniform. There was a long dark lane that linked the district with the rest of Yekaterinburg which was completely unlit. The road was of comparatively good quality, with no danger of tripping over, and Will strode along it in total darkness, feeling as if he were not moving and walking on the spot, or on a treadmill. The meagre specks of light that signified the location of the suburb slowly came closer until he arrived. He had only a rough idea where the Red Army motor-pool was and it took him a while to find it. The truck was a sixty horsepower Fiat four-wheeler. Will had never officially learned to drive and there was no licensing agency or formal process in Russia for qualifying drivers. He had picked it up in stages from a member of his former unit. He lurched and swerved a bit with this unfamiliar vehicle until he got used to it. When he pulled up beside the Ipatiev house, the Cheka guards instructed him to park outside for a moment while the large double gates to the garden were opened; the first time Will had seen them opened. The area was well lit and there was a lot of activity. Some of the Chekists were ones he hadn't seen before. "Okay, comrade. Pull up in the side driveway. Switch off the engine and wait here." one of them instructed him. Will looked at his wristwatch; it was half past eleven. He looked in the rear-view mirror, but saw no other vehicles. The gates leaned shut behind him. There would not be enough room to transport the entire family in this one truck. Did they expect him to make multiple journeys? In which case the new hideaway for the Romanovs could not be very distant.
    Will dozed in the driver's seat and only woke when Yurovsky leaned in through the passenger's window. "Comrade Ursall, switch on your engine. We're about to bring out the prisoners."
    "Yes, comrade commandant." The ignition rolled and the engine caught.
    "Now, keep your engine running, no matter what. Understood?"
    "Yes, comrade commandant."
    Outside the vehicle, the house's two side doors to the driveway were open and lights glared from them. A cluster of silhouettes appeared in the front doorway and a row of people walked out into the driveway escorted by the Cheka guards. Will recognized them as Nicholas Romanov and his family. A few of his loyal staff were with them too. They were all dressed warmly for the journey. Some of them carried pillows to make themselves more comfortable, which was understandable if they would be riding in the rear of the truck. To his surprise, they were led past the truck and into the other set of doors. This puzzled Will because the corridor beyond only led to some storerooms and an empty chamber on the northwest side of the Ipatiev house. The double doors to that corridor were shut from the inside. He sat back in his seat and stretched his legs, but because of his orders he kept the engine running. He dreamily watched the mouth of a nearby drainpipe dripping slightly from a period of rain a few hours ago...
    Will jumped out of the truck as a series of pistol shots rang out from inside the house. He ran up to the doors and turned the handle, drawing his own weapon with his other hand. As he pushed the door open, a rough pair of hands pushed against him. "No! Shut the door! Stay outside! Stay outside!" a voice bellowed from within. The gunshots continued.
    "What's happening!?" yelled Will. "Who's shooting!?"
    "Stay outside!" repeated the voice from within. The gunshots continued for a few minutes, bursting out in random salvoes; they slowly grew less frequent. Loud voices shouted in between the pistol volleys. Suddenly the loud voices transformed into screams of terror. There was a cascade of footsteps and Will just had time to step back before the door was wrenched open and a dozen men poured out into the courtyard blubbering in panic. Their faces were red and their eyes as wide as lanterns. Some of the non-Russians were sobbing in their native languages. The others were swearing and gasping for breath.  "What's wrong?" demanded Will. He stepped inside and walked down the corridor. "What's going on? Where are the family?
    "DON'T GO IN THERE!" one yelled at him.
    The corridor was foggy with propellant fumes from the guns. Will began coughing and his eyes stung. The passageway ran the entire length of the house. At the end Will turned left into a room with an arched ceiling. A small window was set high up on the right-hand wall. The fumes were mixed with plaster dust making it difficult to see what was within it. The single light bulb on the ceiling had a halo around it caused by the miasma. There was a second set of double doors on the far side of the chamber. The far wall appeared to be partly demolished with numerous bullet holes. The floor was covered in a liquid that Will at first thought was tar, but then realized was blood. Then he did a double take. He jerked back with a yelp and ran back down the corridor. Lying on the floor of the room was a pile of corpses, a few were human, but the others looked like dead crocodiles. When he reached the entrance door to the driveway he saw somebody had locked them shut, probably out of fear. He hammered on them until they were opened and ran out into the fresh air. "How... how the hell did they get in there!?... What the fuck are they!?"
    "It's them!" one man wept. "It's them! The prisoners! They changed into them!"
   "Come now!" barked Yurovsky. The Cheka commandant had recovered his wits before the others. "We need to go back inside and remove the bodies."
    "I'm never going back near those things again!" shouted a guard.
    "There's nothing in there!" retorted Yurovsky. "Nothing except the prisoners... Look, comrades; we were all inhaling the fumes. We've been seeing things. Fumes can have that effect on people... Now get the sheets together and we'll go back inside."
    Despite their commanding officer's reassurances, the guards tiptoed cautiously down the corridor, close together for support, pistols still drawn. They peeped round the frame of the door to the chamber. The fumes had cleared slightly, but the intoxication must still have been in effect, because some of the bodies still looked like crocodiles; although not quite. The green scaly skin of their heads did not taper to a crocodile's long snout, but instead the front of their heads were rounded like a constrictor snake. Some of them had died with their mouths open and the double rows of their even white teeth glinted in electric light. The beasts were squeezed into clothes that looked like the ones the family had been wearing. They were bigger than their human forms and the fabric was stretched tight or torn. One of them was wearing Nicholas' cavalry tunic and its shoulder seam had burst, displaying the patchy emerald hide beneath. "Alright." said Yurovsky in a voice that was meant to sound calm and authoritative, but was stuttering and quivering. "I don't know about you gents, but I am still a bit smashed. I see what I saw before. But we mustn't let our broken minds fool us. We know what's here and we need to get on with our duties!... Ermakov! Get the sheets ready! We must wrap the bodies and carry them..."
    Then one of the reptilian forms began moving. The men shrieked. One of them fired his pistol and missed. The creature rose up from where it had been lying. Blood gushed like tap from a bullet wound on its forelimb. Its eyes opened; they were a sickly yellow in colour with a deep black pupil that was a vertical vesica piscis, like a cat or lizard. Its mouth opened wide displaying a dry brown palate and it let out a deafening warbling roar; a sound Will had never heard come from any animal before. Grigory Nikulin dove forward with his rifle raised, hollering uncontrollably, and the bayonet plunged deep into the lizard's neck. The monster reared up slightly, silenced by the blow, and then collapsed to the ground with an impact vibration that Will felt through his feet. The reptilian's body was constricted by a textile that he recognized as Anastasia's dress.
    The soldiers fled again. This time they collapsed to the cement paving of the driveway, panting and moaning. Will recalled the time he saw Nicholas' face change in a similar way two weeks ago. "I've been working here too long!" He laughed, hardly believing that he was able to do so. Adrenalin and endorphins were waltzing through his bloodstream, altering his perceptions almost as much as the gunpowder smoke had. Eventually one of them dared to return to the death chamber and reported back that nothing lay on the floor except human bodies, the bodies of the family and their four devoted retainers. "That was scary." sighed Yurovsky. "Next time we do something like this it must be in the open air."
    The men wrapped the bodies in bed sheets from the prisoners' apartments. Will picked up one; he guessed that it was Alexandra by its size. A great patch of red gore seeped into it and dripped onto the ground. Will was at the rear and he trod carefully along to corridor so as not to get his boots soaked in the gore. They were piled up in the back of the truck along with bags of the family's belongings from the upper floor and then Will got back behind the steering wheel. Yurovsky sat beside him to give him directions. A larger personnel lorry had turned up in the street outside and it carried the rest of the execution squad. The streets of Yekaterinburg were as quiet as a cemetery as the grisly convoy slowly crawled along, not wanting to wake up any of the population. Will did not turn on his headlights until they were outside town. They were heading on the road to the village of Koptyaki. Yurovsky gave him directions to their destination and they soon left the main road and started bumping along a pitch back forest track; trees passed by on each side and grotesque shadows loomed on either side of the vehicles. The weight of the eleven dead people behind them dragged the truck down like lead blocks and its suspension strained. Will forced his mind away from his gruesome cargo and focused on the patch of white ahead cast by the headlights. The truck suddenly jerked to a halt. Before Will had a chance to brake or turn aside, the left front wheel had sunk into a patch of mud. "Oh shit!" cursed Yurovsky. It took almost half an hour to free the truck from the mud pit. Will stood on the accelerator while the others pushed at the back. Steam rose from the radiator.
    Eventually they came to a clearing where some fires had been lit to provide warmth and light. A group of about twenty militiamen were waiting there. "Oh, for crying out loud! They've only brought one bloody spade!" growled Yurovsky. He leaped out of the truck before it had stopped and he confronted the men. A blazing row broke out. While it was going on Will and his colleagues pulled the bodies out of the truck and laid them on the ground. Fifty feet away on the edge of the clearing was a huge square hole in the ground.
    Will managed to escape; not physically, but within his own mind. He watched his own hands at work as if they belonged to somebody else. The manifested stranger's hands tugged the clothes off the pale slabs of blood-caked flesh that a few days before he had been talking to and had watched kneeling to worship a God that had revealed Himself to be a frivolous fantasy in the starkest way possible, by forsaking them. The clothes were thrown onto the fires, but not before the gravediggers made a discovery. The family's underwear was loaded with jewellery sewn into it between layers of cloth and rows of stitching. The Romanov family fortune had been hidden in the only place the family thought that they might remain safe. Yurovsky and the other leaders watched the men like hawks in case any of them succumbed to temptation by trying to steal a diamond or other gem. The stripped and dispossessed bodies were thrown into the pit; it was an old mine shaft. Terracotta jars of liquid were poured in after them. They contained sulphuric acid and the acrid stench of it rose out of the square gap in the ground. By then the sun was rising through the trees. Will was physically exhausted, but not at all sleepy. A fresh argument broke out among the men when they realized that the shaft was only about nine feet deep and full of water. Will had to drive back to Yekaterinburg and report to the Ural Soviet about what was going on. He was made to wait in the lobby of the Americanskaya Hotel and left alone. Drowsiness then overcame him. He took advantage of the break to sleep for a few hours, upright in the chair he was sitting in. Impromptu naps in odd locations was a skill Will had learned during his six months fighting the Russian Civil War. The bustle of the hotel around him did not disturb him at all. He was awoken only when a soviet clerk awoke him. He drove to a warehouse and the truck was loaded down with more jars of acid and cans of petrol which he then took back to the forest where the makeshift grave was being prepared. He was surprised to see that the bodies had all been pulled out of the pit and were back on the grass in the clearing. Coils of rope lay around on the ground beside them; presumably they had been used to hoist the cadavers back to ground level. "What's going on?" asked Will.
    "It's no good." Yurovsky looked grey-faced with exhaustion. "We've been trying to fill in the hole and we can't. We even tried to blow the thing up with hand grenades. We've been told about another place we can ditch these stiffs. It's closer to town, but the ground is softer. It shouldn't take so long this time and will be easier to cover up." The location was two miles away and when they arrived Will was thankfully spared mortician duties this time. He was posted to stand by the side of a nearby road with a rifle to discourage any passers-by from curiosity about what was taking place a short distance away in the forest. It was a more populated area than the place of the first attempted burial, but only a handful of people walked past during the night. They paid little heed, even when there were large fires obviously burning in the woods just a few dozen yards away. Will could feel their radiated heat on his back. The war had taught people to look the other way and not even notice it. As the night wore on, tiredness seeped into Will's body again. He leaned against a tree and entered a state of half-sleep even as his legs were still supporting him. He was roused with a jolt as he felt a hand clap down on his shoulder. He yelped as he awakened fully. He swung round and saw Yakov Yurovsky standing beside him. "It is done, Comrade Ursall."
    "What?" His head spun in confusion.
    "The burial. We have just one more task. Seeing as you can drive that Fiat like nobody else... can you get it through these woods? It's only a short distance."
    Will took the truck away from the road through the thick summer undergrowth to the site of the burial. The soldiers had laid a row of railway sleepers over the place where the bodies had been interred. Will drove the truck backwards and forwards over the sleepers until they had been deeply embedded into the ground, making it look like they had been there for a long time. "Nine of them are under there." said one of the guards pointing downwards. "We buried one of the girls and the little boy over there." He pointed to a second grave site under some trees about fifty feet away.
    Will gulped as he heard those words. He thought of the beautiful Maria, the sweet young Alexei. He saw their eyes looking at his. He heard their voices in his years; their lips moving in his mind's eye. They were people; people who could have lived a hundred years.
    "Alright, comrades." said Yurovsky. "Good work, all of you. We're now going back into town to get some food and some rest."
    The men cheered feebly. Some of them were staggering, close to collapse.
    Yurovsky rode in the passenger seat of the Fiat truck beside Will as they traversed the road into Yekaterinburg. Will wasn't sure where to go. In his energetically depleted state he automatically parked outside the "house of special purpose". Some Red Army men Will did not know were hastily disassembling the palisade. Nicholas Ipatiev was standing confidently outside the gate talking to them.
    "We need to get that place back to normal as soon as possible." Yurovsky spoke.
    His words made Will jump. Tiredness had given his ears a low threshold of alarm. "Because of the Czechs?"
    "Yes, Wilfred."
    Will was startled that Yurovsky had addressed him so informally. In fact Yurovsky had generally been exhibiting a totally different personality since the shooting had begun. "Will they take the town?"
    He nodded. "Come with me." The two men got out of the truck and walked into the still open garden gates. They entered the rear door and headed down that infamous corridor. The death chamber looked different with daylight washing in from the small window. Four people were hard at work. Two of them had mops and buckets and were swabbing the floor. Two others were cutting square holes in the vertical stripped wallpaper with builders' tools. "These Cheka operatives are collecting all the bullets we discharged the other night and removing the bloodstains." said Yurovsky. "When the Whites get here, as far as they will be concerned, Nicholas Romanov and his family were no more present in this place than the fairies. They must never find the bodies; they will never find the bodies." He beckoned and the two men walked back out of the house and returned to sit in the truck.
    Will grasped the steering wheel and sighed. "That was an execution, wasn't it?"
    Yurovsky nodded again. "Not very well performed, but successful in the end."
    "Why did you kill them?"
    Yurovsky snorted. "I'm surprised you need to ask! Isn't it obvious?... What were we supposed to do? Let General Kolchak rescue them? Allow him to parade the Tsar and his family in front of the world's media, the 'rightful ruler of Russia!', still alive?... Even if they just unearthed the corpses, the story would go viral! It would be enough to boost international sympathy for the Whites through the roof!... Imagine if your average Russian saw that! Good old God-fearing Vlad and Eva in their Podolsk maisonette! That family we just disposed of have a spiritual power over the people! The church regards them as demigods! They were the ultimate reactionary focus. They had to disappear, Comrade Ursall! Don't you understand? Not merely die; disappear!"
    "Couldn't we have just moved them to the west?"
    "How? By train?" Yurovsky snorted sarcastically. "The Czechs now control the entire railway."
    There was a long silence. "Why did you leave me out of that briefing?"
    "Because I noticed that you had a special relationship with Nicholas Romanov and his family that the others in your unit did not experience... What would you have done if you had heard that we were planning their execution?"
    Will opened his mouth to answer, but no words came out.
    Yurovsky turned to face him, leaning one elbow on the back of the front passenger seat. "Wilfred, you must realize that what we have just done was a kindness. The Red militia we enlisted to help with their disposal were promised that the prisoners would be alive when we delivered them for burial. They were hoping to toy with the women before killing them... Maybe the young boy too. We saved the prisoners from that ordeal."
    Will looked down at his lap, blinking furiously.
    "I've read your file, Comrade Ursall; and I've been in touch with Zampolit Zhlavuts. He speaks very highly of you; he says you have a brilliant mind."
    "You've done your homework on me, comrade commandant." Will gave the last two words what he gauged was just the perfect weight of sarcasm.
    "Did you think I wouldn't? It takes a special kind of individual to carry out the duty you just performed. Mission accomplished, eh?" He winked and chuckled.
    "This mission. Of course there are more."
    "If you want them?"
    Will started at him in shock. When he made his last statement, he had been referring to the inevitable upcoming battle to defend Yekaterinburg. Such an eventuality went without saying at that point. Yurovsky's tone suggested something else. "Comrade Yurovsky... What do you mean?"
    He leaned close and almost whispered very slowly: "You really think we don't know what you did at Zitkoor?"
    Will's body stiffened. His hand reached for the truck door handle, as if he hoped to flee.
    Yurovsky chuckled amiably. "Relax, Wilfred Francheskovich. You're not in any trouble. I'm merely interested in your personality. You're an intelligent young man, an Oxford scholar. And you're a foreigner. You've travelled a heck of a long way and you've sacrificed an awful lot to be where you are today. You are a true revolutionary, in a way that very few of the comrades you know could possibly understand." As he said those words he looked at Will with a gaze of sincere affection. "You really are committed to the ideals of socialist revolution... aren't you?"
    Will nodded.
    "The compassion you showed the Romanovs, like that you showed the Zitkoor peasants, does not diminish your ideological purity. In a paradoxical way that only a genuinely deep Marxist theoretician could fully understand...in the long term... it confirms it." He glimpsed sideways at him. "It's not just from the zampoliti we gain our intelligence. We have our observers in other countries, scouting for talent."
    Will gasped in shock. "What!?... Do you mean?..."
    "Did you think western socialist movements are an island far away from our influence and awareness?... Yes, we knew all about you before you even landed in Russia. Your contact 'Mr Japarov' was told all about you before he appraoched your organization."
   Will shook his head and laughed ironically, and with nerves. He saw another precipice approaching ahead.
    "There may be a new mission for you after the war, if you choose to accept it.
    Will cleared his throat. "After the war? Are you so sure we will win it?"
    "Yes. One day very soon, the Soviet Union will be born. A union that will spread across the world like a brushfire." Yurovsky spoke with such assurance that Will could almost catch a glimpse of the real future, as if able to time travel. "Wilfred, you are a very unusual kind of activist. You are both committed to the cause of revolution... but you also understand how the bourgeois counterrevolutionary mind thinks and how their heart feels in a way that very few others do. Do you realize how unique this makes you?"
    Will hesitated, unsure of how to respond. "What's your point, Comrade Yurovsky?"
    He gave a half-smile. "When this war is won, we could merely thank you for your service and send you home to Lancombe Pond to live out the rest of your life in an ordinary way... Or..."
    Will joined in with his pause. "Or what?"
    "You could be very valuable to the revolution in the years and decades ahead."
    "In what way?" Will was looking out of the windscreen. It was now fully daylight. The sun was peeking between the rooftops of Yekaterinburg. The operation to return the Ipatiev house to normal was nearly complete. The palisade had almost been dismantled apart from a few stray planks that were being rocked back and forth to uproot them at that very moment.
    Yurovsky followed his gaze. "I can't tell you that... but I shall put you in touch with a man who can."