Copyright © 2010 by Barbara Davies.
This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.
This is the sequel to The Flight of the Gryphon and A Hero of Arcadia.
A WINTER'S TALE
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Snow coated the guard's cap and the shoulders of his coat. By the glow from his paraffin lamp Mavra could see his lips moving, but his words were too muffled to make out. She got up and released the strap holding the grimy window closed. The pane jerked down into the door's base, allowing a rush of fresh air and swirling snowflakes into the compartment.
"You're letting the cold in!" objected the woman in the corner seat. She had done nothing but complain since the last station.
"...may be stuck here for some time," finished the guard, looking up at Mavra.
"What?" she called down.
"I said the snow's too deep for the wheels," he shouted. "We may be stuck here for a while."
He pulled a face. "As long as it takes. The driver and fireman are trying to dig the engine out. When I've notified the rest of the passengers, I'm going to help." He glanced towards the rear of the train and grimaced. "Pity this isn't a corridor train!"
Shoulders hunched against the falling snow, he set off along the track to the next compartment, wading rather than walking through the knee-level drifts.
"Can you close the window please, Miss?"
The request came from the middle-aged man in the other corner seat. The fresh air was clearing the thick tobacco fug his pipe had created, so Mavra was tempted to ignore him for a few more minutes. But the steam heating system was already fighting a losing battle against the cold, so she secured the window and resumed her place on the faded green seat.
"Born in a barn," muttered the woman, retying her headscarf. "Flipping foreigners!"
Mavra crossed her booted ankles and glanced at her watch. Eight o'clock already. She hoped she wouldn't arrive on Gwen's doorstep after midnight.
Though Mavra had sent a telegram to the Brookes' house in Maltington, as directed, she had been unable to provide an exact date and time of arrival-the severe ice and snow affecting Cheltain was making all modes of transport erratic.
"Worst winter for fifty years," a newsvendor had bawled from his stand outside the Arcadian embassy. It all depended on what you were used to, she supposed. Arcadian winters could be far worse, but people were better prepared and less likely to resort to desperate measures-she had heard a report of Cheltish soldiers tackling the ice with flame throwers and nearly coming to grief.
She glanced out the window. The snow was coming down so thick and fast now it was hard to see. That bobbing yellow light must be the guard returning to the engine. She flexed her toes to get the blood flowing and considered the bottle of vodka in her kitbag. It was a gift. It wouldn't do to open it.
"Gawd save us," said the woman in the headscarf. "We're never going to get there at this rate. It's turned into a blooming blizzard! What a way to spend a Saturday night."
"Knew I should have stayed at home," muttered the pipe smoker.
Staying home hadn't been an option for Mavra. She had promised to come once Gwen was demobilised, whatever the weather. The date when Gwen was supposed to turn in her ATA kit and collect her clearance chit had taken longer to materialise than Gwen expected, which had its advantages-Mavra had time to finish building their house. But when the official demob notification did finally arrive, it came at such short notice Mavra found herself racing against the clock.
Relations between Cheltain and Arcadia had cooled in recent months, though their alliance against the Vieden Empire would keep things friendly for a while. Unfortunately, the one opinion both countries' authorities shared was scepticism regarding a Cheltish woman wanting to live in Arcadia. Mavra had pulled in every favour owed to secure the necessary residence permits, but the red tape seemed endless. Then last week, the obstacles vanished like smoke-the Arcadians had at last concluded Gwen was not a spy, and the Cheltish had realised that Mavra was the Senior Lieutenant Vlasik of the 63rd Fighter Regiment who had brought them the Gryphon blueprints in their time of need. Which was fitting, she reflected. It had been on that mission, after all, that she had first met Gwen.
The bobbing light reappeared and halted outside their compartment. Mavra opened the window and peered down.
"No good," called up the guard. "As fast as we clear it, it settles again."
Rustling preceded a presence at Mavra's back. Without so much as an "Excuse me," the woman in the headscarf elbowed her aside.
"Well what are you going to do about it?" she bellowed down. "We can't sit here all night. There are no lavatories, for a start."
"We've signalled ahead." The guard batted snow from his eyelashes with a gloved hand. "They're sending a rescue engine."
The woman rolled her eyes. "And how long will that take?"
"As long as it takes, Mrs!" He looked nettled. "We're doing the best we can."
"And a fat lot of good that-" She squawked as Mavra shoved her aside. A glare silenced her protests and she retreated sulkily to her seat.
Mavra turned back to the waiting guard. "How far to Maltington?"
He cocked his head. "Ten miles, maybe? It's the next stop."
She tossed a mental coin, and dragged her kitbag from the luggage rack.
"Hey!" said the guard, as the bag thumped into a drift of snow next to him and Mavra jumped down after it. "What are you doing? You can't possibly-"
"Walk to Maltington?" Mavra buttoned the top button of her greatcoat and turned up her collar. "Why not?"
"It's against regulations. I can't have a passenger getting stuck in a snowdrift. Please, Miss. I have other passengers to deal with. Get back in the carriage where it's warm."
The compartment door thudded closed above them and the window slid shut. Mavra could see the pipe-smoker peering down at her through the grimy glass.
"Not your decision," she said. She delved inside the kitbag for her fur hat, and pulled it on, tugging down the snug-fitting earflaps.
The guard's eyes widened. "Are you Arcadian?"
Mavra nodded and settled the strap of the kitbag over one shoulder. "Used to snow. Be fine."
He opened his mouth to protest one last time then changed his mind. "All right. But on your own head be it, Miss."
"Expect nothing else." With a smile, she set off walking, the snow crunching under her boots.
"Follow the track but stay well clear of it," he shouted after her. "There's a rescue engine coming."
Without turning, she waved a hand in acknowledgement, and kept on walking.
Mavra trudged up the ramp onto the platform and paused to get her bearings. Some of the signs were hidden under a blanket of snow.
Ah. Exit that way.
She had thought Maltington station would be closed up for the night, but the crunch of her boots brought the stationmaster from his office. His puzzled gaze scanned the deserted platform, lingered on the single set of footprints, and returned to her face.
"Has the train been and gone? I didn't hear-"
"Still stuck." The driver and fireman, redfaced, panting, and leaning on their snow shovels, had gaped at her in astonishment as she trudged past the stranded engine, then, with wry expressions and a shake of the head, returned to their digging.
Mavra produced her return ticket. The stationmaster accepted, clipped, and returned it to her. "I don't understand. How did-"
He was about to continue his interrogation when a rhythmic chuffing noise, growing louder by the minute, made them both turn. A gleaming green-and-black steam engine was reversing along the track towards the station, heading in the direction from which Mavra had come. From its breakneck speed, it wasn't intending to stop. Out of habit, the stationmaster held out an arm to keep Mavra away from the platform edge.
As the engine sped past a wave of warm, moist air puffed against her cheeks and the acrid smell of coal-smoke filled her nostrils. A figure standing on the engine's footplate waved, then came a blast of the whistle, accompanied by a gout of steam. Then it was past and heading on down the track that would take it to the stranded train, the clattering, clanking, and puffing that marked its progress fading swiftly into the distance.
The stationmaster stared after the rescue engine, mouth open.
"Which way to town, please?" asked Mavra.
He closed his mouth and gave her a distracted look. "Sorry? Oh. When you exit the station, turn left. The town centre's about two miles.... No porters or taxis tonight, I'm afraid."
"Is OK." She switched her kitbag to her other shoulder. "Will manage."
At least the snow had stopped, thought Mavra, as she trudged up Milton Avenue, searching for the house that matched the description Gwen had given her.
It's number 44. Our house is detached-the only one in the avenue. There's a low brick wall out the front, and a privet hedge separating our front garden from next door's.
It wasn't much to go on, but just then Mavra spotted the house she was seeking. Number 44 was on the other side of the road and in spite of the lateness of the hour a light was visible through the glass front door. With a sense of relief she crossed the road and made her way up the path to the porch.
She stamped the worst of the snow from her boots and reached for the heavy brass, lion's head doorknocker. After rapping it twice, she waited. A few moments later the door cracked open and a middle-aged man with a neatly trimmed moustache and a razor-sharp hair parting peered round it. The eyes behind the horn-rimmed spectacles were wary.
"Yes?" he repeated, his eyes darting from her to the road and back again. "What do you want at this time of night?"
"Who is it, Dad?" came a familiar voice from behind him.
"Go back in the warm, dear, and let me deal with this."
Gwen's face peeked round his shoulder and did a double take. "Mavra!" her green eyes warmed. "Don't keep her waiting on the doorstep, Dad."
"This is your friend?" He swung wide the door and stepped back. "Sorry. We'd given up on you and were about to go to bed. Come in, Miss Vlasik. Come in."
"Is OK." Mavra wiped her boots on the doormat and stepped through into the hall.
While Mr Brooke locked and bolted the door, his daughter relieved Mavra of her hat and gloves and waited for her to unbutton her coat. Every time their glances caught, Gwen blushed. Mavra would have liked to take her in her arms, but she had agreed to behave circumspectly-Gwen's parents were unaware of the true nature of their relationship, and her father in particular was rather strict. She settled for a chaste peck on the cheek and a whispered, "You look wonderful," instead.
"Who is it, dear?" came a woman's voice from a back room.
"Gwen's friend," shouted Mr Brooke, taking Mavra's greatcoat from Gwen and hanging it on a coat hook in the little alcove.
"Never!" A door opened and a woman appeared. Her hair was curled in the latest fashion, but her two-piece tweed suit bore signs of much patching and alteration, as did the clothes of most Cheltish women these days.
She blinked at Gwen, who had donned Mavra's fur hat and was striking poses in front of the mirror. Gwen blushed and took it off.
"Pleased to meet you," said Mavra, shaking Mrs Brooke's hand.
"My goodness, your hands are like ice! Take off your boots and come into the warm, dear. Would you like a cup of tea? Or cocoa?"
"Whatever can spare."
Clearly pleased to have something to do, Gwen's mother disappeared through another door that must lead to the kitchen.
Mavra looked round for a place to sit while she took off her boots. Gwen pointed to the stairs, and Mavra nodded and sat on the third step. The boots were tight, and Gwen came to help, while Mr Brooke stood around, at a loss. One boot came free, and they started on the other.
"We'll be in in a minute, Dad," said Gwen.
With a relieved nod, he retreated into the back room. When the door had closed behind him, Gwen threw herself at Mavra and hugged her. After a startled moment, Mavra responded in kind.
"I'm so glad to see you," said Gwen.
"I also. You look strange out of uniform." Gwen was wearing a knee-length pleated skirt and a green woollen jumper that matched the colour of her eyes and showed off her curves to perfection.
"Good strange or bad strange?"
Mavra arched an eyebrow. "Good."
Gwen grinned at her then sobered. "I thought you might have got cold feet."
"Feet are cold, " agreed Mavra.
"No, silly. I thought you might have changed your mind."
"Oh." Mavra paused. "Not changed my mind. Have you changed yours?"
"Of course not."
Mavra relaxed. "Is OK then."
They grinned foolishly at one another.
"This doesn't feel real," said Gwen, after a moment.
Mavra tucked a strand of fair hair behind Gwen's ear. "Is real." Gwen's eyelids fluttered closed at her touch.
The kitchen door began to open. Mavra let her hand drop and Gwen hastily resumed tugging at Mavra's boot.
"Your friend's cocoa will be in the lounge when you're ready, Gwen," called Mrs Brooke, emerging with a tray on which sat a steaming cup.
"Thanks, Mum. We'll be in in a moment." Gwen waited for her to vanish into the lounge, then turned back to Mavra. "That was close."
"Don't worry," went on Gwen. "We'll have plenty of time alone together. You're to share my room. That's if you don't object."
Mavra laughed. "Of course object." Gwen pretended to be offended by her remark.
The remaining boot came free, and Gwen placed it with its mate under the coat rack. "Have you a pair of slippers?" She indicated the kitbag.
"Travel light. But socks are thick." Mavra wiggled her toes.
"Just as well. I don't think my slippers will fit you."
Mavra let Gwen lead her into the lounge, taking her bag with her. She sank into the comfortable easy chair indicated, and parked her bag next to her feet. Gwen brought her the cup of cocoa, and sat beside her mother on the settee. Silence fell. Mavra let it wash over her, sipped her cocoa, and studied her surroundings.
Family photographs and large, framed pictures of the Cheltish countryside adorned the lounge's surfaces and walls. A mahogany, dropped-leaf coffee table with a rather forlorn-looking pot plant on it occupied the space in front of the thickly curtained bay window.
Mr Brooke cleared his throat. "We heard the trains weren't running." He gestured at the wireless set standing within easy reach of his armchair. "But yours got through all right, I take it?"
"Engine got stuck," said Mavra. "Walked final stretch."
"Walked?" everyone exclaimed.
"Good gracious," said Mrs Brooke.
Silence resumed, broken by the ticking of the carriage clock on the mantelpiece and the coals shifting in the grate.
"I told you, didn't I, Dad," said Gwen, "where I first met Mavra? It was at the ATA Ferry Pool. And then again in Hauptburg."
"Nasty business, those war trials," said Mr Brooke.
Gwen caught Mavra's eye. "I hear they hanged Rahn in the end," she murmured.
Mavra nodded, drained the last of her cocoa, and set down the cup on the floor.
"So what have you been doing in the interim, Miss Vlasik?" continued Gwen's father.
"Mavra, please." Mavra considered his question. "Am still pilot," she said. "They disbanded regiment, though, so civilian pilot now. " She glanced at Gwen. "I carry passengers and parcels. Am sometimes courier too. Brought diplomatic pouch for Embassy."
Gwen leaned forward. "Does that mean you visited the Arcadian Embassy before coming here?"
Mavra nodded. "Collected permits and travel warrants OK."
Gwen looked relieved, but her parents frowned.
"Are those for Gwen's visit to Arcadia?" asked Mr Brooke.
It's more than a visit, thought Mavra. But Gwen's eyes held a silent plea so she restrained her reply to a nod.
Gwen's parents exchanged a glance. "I don't know what you want to go there for," muttered her mother. "Now the war's over, I was hoping you'd find some nice young man and settle down. Maybe even start a family. I know things got off to a bad start with Jack, but-"
"Oh, I'm leaving all that to Bob," interrupted Gwen. The airy reply didn't seem to please her mother.
"Bob?" asked Mavra.
"My brother." Gwen pointed to one of the photographs-a wedding photo judging by the couple's clothing. The groom had Gwen's nose and fair hair, and a smug expression that made Mavra take instantly against him. "His first child is due in June. Mum and Dad are overjoyed, of course."
Mr Brooke cleared his throat. "You should glad for your brother too, Gwen."
"I am. I'm just fed up of you always holding him Bob as an example."
"We just want you to be happy, dear," said Mrs Brooke.
Gwen sighed. "But I'm not Bob, Mum. I like going to new countries. Meeting new people. Having new experiences. It's... it's interesting."
Mavra smiled at her, and Gwen's cheeks pinked.
"Do you have a young man waiting for you, Mavra?" asked Mrs Brooke. Gwen shifted on the settee.
"No," said Mavra.
"Never mind. I'm sure you'll find someone one day."
I already have. And no one was more surprised than Mavra. After Lilya, she had resigned herself to living alone. Then she had met Gwen.
It was time to change the subject. She reached for her kitbag and undid the top. "I brought gifts," she announced.
"Really?" Gwen almost bounced in her seat.
"That wasn't necessary," said Mr Brooke, bringing a mortified expression to his daughter's face.
Mavra felt the cold hardness of glass under her fingers, and pulled out the heavy bottle. "For you," she told him. "Wild berry vodka. Is specialty of Kasholsk. Hope you like."
He accepted the bottle with a murmur of dubious thanks.
"And for you, Mrs Brooke." Mavra pulled out the huge bar of soap.
Gwen's mother took it with a genuine smile. "Lovely. I can't remember the last time I saw a bar of nice soap. " She held the bar to her nose and sniffed. "Lavender. My favourite."
"Is there a present for me?" prompted Gwen.
Mavra chuckled, reached in her whole arm, and pulled out the brown-paper parcel. "Brought this for all."
Gwen grabbed the parcel from her and untied the string. She blinked at the contents and wrinkled her nose. "A rabbit."
"Fresh this morning," agreed Mavra. She had come across the poacher near the aerodrome.
"You carried a rabbit all this way in your kitbag on the train?" said Gwen.
"Kept away from heating duct," protested Mavra. "Is fine. Can use rabbit for meal, yes?"
"Indeed we can." From the gleam in Mr Brooke's eyes, this was more to his liking than the vodka. "It'll make a welcome change from corned beef, won't it dear?" His wife nodded.
"Black market, I take it?" said Gwen.
"Thought so." She grinned, rewrapped the rabbit and handed it to her mother. Then she poked out her lower lip. "Haven't you brought anything for me?"
"Gwen!" said Mrs Brooke.
For the final time, Mavra delved into the kit bag. "Afraid only these." She managed to brandish the silk stockings for all of a second before Gwen snatched them.
"Real silk!" crowed Gwen. "Two pairs too. Joan will be so jealous."
Satisfied with her reaction, Mavra retied the kitbag and sat back. "You still keep in touch with Joan?" she asked, remembering Gwen's red-haired friend from the ATA.
"Yes," said Gwen absently-she was smoothing one of the stocking over her hand and admiring it. "She married her 'dreamy' air force officer. Lives in Westria now. We write often though." A thought occurred to her. "I'll still be able to write to her from Kasholsk, won't I?"
"Of course," said Mavra. "Have post office." A yawn threatened to overtake her.
"You must be tired after your long journey," said Gwen's mother. "And we've almost sat out the fire." She turned to her daughter. "Gwen, will you show Mavra where she's to sleep? " Her expression became apologetic. "I'm afraid you'll have to share Gwen's room. The other bedroom is full of furniture. My cousin was killed in an air raid, you see, and we haven't decided what to do with her things yet. But anyway, you should be comfortable enough in the camp bed."
"Is OK." Mavra got to her feet and waited for Gwen to do likewise. She grabbed her kitbag and padded after the younger woman. At the door she stopped and turned back to Gwen's parents. "See you in morning."
"Sleep well," said Mrs Brooke with a smile.
It was cold enough upstairs to see her breath. Mavra hurried back from the bathroom in her underwear, closed the bedroom door behind her, switched off the light, and slipped into bed.
Gwen let out a squeak. "Your feet are freezing!"
"Soon warm up." Mavra wrapped herself around Gwen, who was wearing flannel pyjamas. "Remind me to rumple camp bed sheets in morning." They had pushed the temporary bed against the wall.
Gwen turned to face her. It was a tight squeeze in the single bed, but it had its compensations. Mavra found Gwen's lips and began a gentle reacquaintance that soon became more ardent. She caressed a breast through the pyjamas and whispered in Gwen's ear, "Want to make love?"
"Of course. But not here," said Gwen. "Remember how your friend-What was her name, the one with the eyebrows? Orlenda, that's it.-walked in on us in that room in Hauptburg?"
"There's no lock on this door. And it just doesn't feel right. Not under my parents' roof. Sorry."
As if to underline Gwen's words, light spilled under the door from the landing, and they heard the noises that were Gwen's parents getting ready for bed.
Mavra rolled onto her back. "No worry. Make up for it another time."
"Promise." One good thing-all that kissing had warmed her.
"Whatever happened to Orlenda?" asked Gwen.
Mavra stretched the stiffness from her shoulders before answering. "Went home when regiment broke up. Is helping run family construction business now."
"Really? She's going to be busy, with all the reconstruction that's needed."
"And bored," said Mavra. Somehow she couldn't picture the adventure-loving Orlenda doing a desk job for long. She rolled towards Gwen and draped an arm over her stomach. "Why you not mention your brother before?"
Gwen sighed. "Truth is, we don't like each other much. Never have."
"Can choose friends but not family," said Mavra.
"I certainly wouldn't have chosen him!" Gwen paused. "Jack was my brother's best friend," she said, referring to her belligerent ex-fiancé. "That should have put me on my guard." She changed the subject. "Did you really walk ten miles, Mavra?"
"Mm." She yawned.
"Carrying a rabbit in your kitbag." Gwen's body shook with suppressed laughter then she sobered. "This weather! Suppose it's still snowing on Monday and we can't travel."
"Plane will wait at Corin Hill for week. Pilot good friend of mine."
Gwen stiffened. "How good?"
The jealous note in her voice made Mavra smile. "Friend only." Not that he hadn't tried it on when they first met. "I needed larger plane. Pyotr flies 4-seater."
"So he flew you here?" She relaxed and yawned. "But seriously. What if we don't make it to the aerodrome in time?"
"Do not worry. Will make other arrangements. Boat. Train.... Find a way somehow."
The light from the landing winked out, and Mr and Mrs Brooke's bedroom door closed with a loud click.
"Goodnight, sweetheart." Gwen's voice was thick with sleep.
Mavra closed her eyes and let her muscles go slack, and hoped that Gwen didn't snore. "Goodnight."
"Are you sure you won't come to church with us, Gwen?" A thick scarf muffled Mr Brooke's voice. Though it had stopped snowing, he wasn't taking any chances.
"I'll stay and keep Mavra company," said Gwen. "I have my packing to finish and besides, I took communion last week."
"Last chance before you go."
"I asked Reverend Laing about that," said Gwen round a mouthful of toast, "and he said, as long as I keep up my prayers I don't need to go to an actual church."
"Just as well, since there aren't any in Arcadia," muttered her disgruntled father.
The kitchen door opened and Mrs Brooke put her head round it. Like her husband, she was armoured against the Artic conditions in a warm hat, a thick coat with the collar turned up, and rubber boots. "Hurry up, Donald. It'll take longer to walk there this morning. If you don't get your skates on, we're going to be late."
She turned to her daughter. "That hotpot will need a couple of hours in the oven, Gwen. You remember where the recipe books are, don't you, dear?"
Gwen nodded. "Go to church, Mum. We'll be fine."
"All right, dear. We'll see you later."
The kitchen door closed behind Gwen's parents, then came the bang of the front door shutting and the crunch of footsteps receding down the front path.
Gwen let out a heartfelt sigh of relief. "Thank goodness for that! I wish they wouldn't fuss. They treat me like I'm still a child."
"Is natural," said Mavra.
"I know. But I'm not used to being cooped up with them like this. I've only been home a week and already it's driving me doolally."
Mavra reached for another slice of toast. "Even so, will miss them."
Gwen pushed the dish of margarine across the kitchen table. Mavra shook her head and spread a thin film of marmalade on her toast instead.
"You never talk about your family." Gwen poured herself another cup of tea and topped up Mavra's cup without asking.
Mavra nodded her thanks. "Dead," she said matter-of-factly.
"What, all of them?"
"Only relative left is Lilya's Great Aunt." Mavra sipped her tea. "Lives in Kasholsk also. Will take you to meet her."
Gwen looked dubious. "I doubt she's going to want to meet the woman who took her niece's place, Mavra."
"Lilya will always be in heart," said Mavra, Gwen's expression making her add quickly, "and you have place too."
"Of course." Mavra gave her an indulgent smile and changed the topic. "Have much packing to do?"
"Not really. The ATA taught us to travel light."
"I travel light too."
"Hardly! Your kitbag was full of vodka, soaps, stockings, and a rabbit." Gwen shook her head in disbelief. "No wonder there was no room for slippers."
"Always take gifts when I visit," protested Mavra.
Gwen's expression softened. "I'm looking forward to having rabbit for dinner." She wrinkled her nose. "But I'm not looking forward to skinning and jointing it."
"I will do it," said Mavra.
Gwen looked relieved. "I told Mum I know where she keeps her recipe book, but...." She shoved back her chair and stood up. There was a drawer in the kitchen dresser. She pulled it open and rifled through it. After a moment she let out a triumphant "Tada!" and held up a scrapbook.
She brought the book back to the table. "Now where is it?" She turned the pages, which were pasted with recipes snipped from magazines. "Ah. Rabbit hotpot. Hm. Potatoes and onions." She frowned. "I think we've got both." She threw Mavra an apologetic glance. "Everything's in such short supply. I thought things would get better once the war ended, but they're worse. Even if you have the coupons, you just can't get the stuff. Are things as bad in Arcadia?"
"Depends. Can be difficult, but farmers are producing again. And fewer mouths to feed than before war." Gwen's rueful smile acknowledged the understatement. It was common knowledge that the Viedens had killed millions of Arcadians, civilians and combatants alike. "Will not starve, though. Have planted apple trees out back," went on Mavra. "And will plant vegetables too."
Gwen's face lit up. "There's a garden?"
"Of sorts. Wish I had photos to show you. But will see for self soon."
"I still can't quite believe I'm going through with it," murmured Gwen.
"Running off with an Arcadian woman." Gwen's gaze turned inwards. "Lord only knows what Mum and Dad, or Bob for that matter, will say when they learn the truth!"
"Will get used to idea," said Mavra.
"I hope so." Gwen looked forlorn.
"What about hotpot?" reminded Mavra, hoping to snap Gwen out of her melancholy.
Gwen disappeared into the larder, returning moments later with some onions and potatoes that were rather wizened. While Mavra skinned and jointed the rabbit with deft strokes of a sharp kitchen knife, and coated them with flour, Gwen found a cooking pot large enough, and diced the vegetables.
Once the hotpot was in the oven, Gwen took off her apron and folded it. "There. In two and a half hours, that should be done."
Mavra brushed a smudge of flour off the tip of Gwen's nose before kissing it. "What we do now?"
"I suppose I should finish that packing."
They went upstairs, and Mavra watched Gwen try to cram things into a two small suitcases.
"Tell me about the house," ordered Gwen, tiring of the jokes Mavra had begun to make at her expense.
"Will see it soon."
"Tell me anyway."
"Is log house. You like smell of fresh cut pine?"
"Is cellar, for storing root vegetables. And living room and kitchen. Upstairs, bedroom and bathroom-even have indoor plumbing. Shutters will keep out wind in winter. Balcony for sitting on in summer."
"A balcony? I can't wait to tell Joan."
Mavra laughed. "Joan is city girl. Will think you doolally."
"True. I hope the bed is larger than mine." Gwen seemed to have forgotten she was meant to be packing.
"Is big," confirmed Mavra, who had made the bed herself. "Has thick mattress and extra furs for cold nights."
"Wonderful! I wish we were sleeping in it tonight."
"Soon," consoled Mavra, wishing the same thing.
Gwen resumed her packing, adding the emerald brooch Mavra had given her in Hauptburg to one suitcase. Mavra crossed to the window and gazed out over the front garden. Children further up the avenue were throwing snowballs at one another.
"In Arcadia," she said, "we carve animals from snow." She felt a presence behind her then Gwen's arms were around her waist, her head resting against Mavra's shoulder blade.
"What kind of animals?" Gwen's voice was muffled.
Mavra shrugged. "Any."
"Do you want to do that?"
Mavra glanced back at her and grinned. "All right."
"Mm. Something smells nice," said Mr Brooke. A delicious aroma of rabbit pervaded the kitchen and he inhaled appreciatively before glancing to where Mavra and Gwen were playing 'Noughts and Crosses'.
"The Reverend Laing asked after you, Gwen," he said.
"Nice of him. Aha! I win."
"This game fixed," grumbled Mavra. "Result always same." She pushed back her chair. "I have pack of cards in kitbag. Will get-"
"No cards on a Sunday," said Mr Brooke.
Mavra shrugged and resumed her seat. Gwen threw her a look of apology.
The kitchen door opened and Mrs Brooke bustled in, patting dishevelled hair back into place. "It's nice to be back in the warm. Church was like ice. Gwen, did you find-" She stopped and sniffed. "Mm. Smells like you did. Church was packed. Everyone was there, in spite of the weather. Even the stationmaster." She turned to Mavra. "Your train didn't arrive until midnight."
Gwen's eyebrows rose. "Midnight? You were right to get out and walk."
Mavra wondered how her fellow passengers had coped, cooped up for so long in that stuffy compartment without access to a lavatory.
Mrs Brooke went on, "The stationmaster also said that, all being well, trains should be running normally again tomorrow."
"That's good news," said Gwen. "Thanks, Mum."
Her mother crossed to the sink, glanced out the window at the back garden, and did a double take. "Goodness gracious. What are those?"
Mavra followed the direction of her gaze. "Snow animals. Wolf. Bear." She pursed her lips. "Snow tiger not quite right."
"I told you it was the ears," said Gwen.
Mavra chuckled. She had enjoyed carving the snow with Gwen. And after they had tired of that, they had thrown snowballs at one another until they were breathless, coats spattered with snow. Tired and suddenly cold, they had traipsed indoors, and stood in front of the oven, sipping cups of hot tea and waiting for the feeling to return to fingers and toes. Their footprints had left the back garden in a bit of a state, but they would disappear when the thaw came.
Mr Brooke joined his wife by the sink. His brows creased as he stared out. "On a Sunday? What will the neighbours think?"
"Were watching from bedroom window," said Mavra, before Gwen could shush her. "Wanted to join in." In fact the neighbours had looked disapproving, but it wasn't any of their business so Mavra had encouraged Gwen to ignore them.
"We weren't the only ones playing in the snow," protested Gwen. "Some children down the road had a snowball fight."
"Their parents should have stopped them," said her father sternly.
His wife caught the exchange of glances between Mavra and Gwen. "It's only a bit of snow, dear. And it's Gwen's last day. Let's not quarrel."
She grabbed an oven glove and a carving fork, and tested the hotpot's contents. "Almost done." She closed the oven door. "It was very thoughtful of you to bring us the rabbit, Mavra. I'm sure we're all going to enjoy a delicious dinner. Aren't we, Donald?" She gave her husband a pointed look.
He sighed. "Yes, dear," he said, forcing a smile. "I'm sure we are."
The shrill of the guard's whistle and the slam of carriage doors were still ringing in Mavra's ears as she made her way along the corridor.
Gwen trod on her heel. "Sorry."
It had been a mad rush at Stamborough, and they had almost missed their connection. At least it was a corridor train this time.
Mavra peered through a window into the first 3rd Class compartment they came to. It had four occupants and she didn't like the look of the man in the far corner, so she continued on to the next. This time there was only one occupant, an elderly woman in fox furs that had seen better days.
Mavra slid open the door and made her way inside.
As she heaved her kitbag up onto the overhead luggage rack and turned to accept the first of Gwen's two small suitcases from her, the woman looked up from her open paperback, her glance apprehensive.
Gwen smiled at her. "Good morning."
"Good morning." The woman buried her head back in her book.
Mavra stowed the second suitcase and unbuttoned her coat. She let Gwen to squeeze past her and take the window seat, then sank onto the upholstered seat next to her.
"That was a bit hectic, wasn't it?" said Gwen. "We'd have had to wait two hours for the next train if we'd missed this one."
"Would have found teashop," said Mavra.
Her accent drew a frowning glance from the woman in the fox furs. She caught Mavra looking at her and looked away.
"How long until we get to the capital?" asked Gwen.
"Should think there by three."
Gwen crossed her ankles. The snowy landscape on the other side of the glass was enchanting but Mavra preferred to gaze at Gwen. Pinking prettily, Gwen murmured, "Stop it." Mavra smiled.
The train picked up speed before settling into a steady chug. Gwen unbuttoned her coat and pulled out the battered Arcadian/Cheltish dictionary that Mavra had given her in Maltington.
It had served its purpose, which was distraction. This journey was a big step, the culmination of what was probably the most momentous decision of her Gwen's life to date. She wasn't just embarking on a brief sortie across the Channel, and Mavra had caught the moment when it dawned on Gwen just what she was leaving behind.
The train was steaming out of Maltington station when Gwen's eyes suddenly filled with tears. The compartment was packed with other passengers, so she had had to content herself with squeezing Gwen's hand and whispering that they could return to Cheltain whenever Gwen wanted. It had been enough. Gwen's demeanour had steadied and she only needed to blow her nose once. It was then Mavra produced the dictionary.
"I have lost my passport," said Gwen now in badly accented Arcadian. "Can you help me?"
"No," said Mavra. "You are a stupid, decadent, foreigner and for your own safety and that of my countrymen, you must be deported from Arcadia at once."
"What?" Gwen puzzled over Mavra's answer, then gave her an exasperated roll of her eyes. "Deported?"
"On the other hand.... I will be glad to help you with your passport. For you are very pretty." Mavra winked. "And in exchange, you must have sex with me."
Gwen turned the pages, running her index finger down the words until she reached the ones she wanted. She reddened and elbowed Mavra in the ribs.
Mavra rubbed her side. "No sex?"
Gwen glanced warningly at the woman in the fox furs. Mavra sighed but stopped her teasing.
Gwen turned the page. After a moment, she asked, "Where can I sell summer berries?"
"You wish to 'sell' berries?" asked Mavra, puzzled.
Gwen checked the dictionary again. "Sorry. Where can I pick summer berries?"
"On the banks of the Kasholsk river. It is beautiful there. I will enjoy taking you there when the berries are ripe."
A smile warmed Gwen's eyes. "Thank you. I will enjoy going there with you."
The woman opposite let out a small sound of irritation. Their language lesson must be interrupting her reading. Gwen and Mavra exchanged a glance, and Mavra shrugged. "Go on."
"I have a head pain," said Gwen.
"Head ache," corrected Mavra. She frowned. Was Gwen being serious? "Is bad? If so, I have painkiller in-"
"No, silly. I'm still practicing my Arcadian."
Mavra relaxed and reverted to Arcadian. "I am sorry to hear that. If it gets worse you must tell me and I will take you to see the doctor."
"Doctor?" repeated Gwen.
"That is correct. I will introduce you to my doctor. She-" Mavra glanced out of the window as the train began to slow.
"Must be the next stop," said Gwen.
The woman in the fox furs slid her paperback into her handbag and got up. The train's motion made her gait unsteady as she closed the compartment door behind her, and disappeared down the corridor.
"Alone at last," said Gwen.
With a hiss of steam and screech of brakes, the train shuddered to a halt. A couple of minutes later a stout-looking man in city clothes, his umbrella looped over one arm, a newspaper in his other hand, entered the compartment and sat down.
He gave them a polite nod, shook open the folds of his newspaper, its front page devoted to the cold snap, and began to read. Outside, doors slammed, the guard blew his whistle, and the train chugged into motion once more.
Gwen closed the dictionary and laid it on her lap. "Are they expecting us at the Embassy?"
Mavra nodded. She had made a telephone call from the phone box outside the station. The Embassy receptionist assured her that the diplomatic pouch was ready and awaiting collection.
"What's it like?" asked Gwen.
"The Embassy? Will see for self."
"They won't make me wait outside, will they?" continued Gwen.
Mavra shook her head. "Papers permit entry to Arcadian territory. Embassy is Arcadian."
"Oh." Gwen looked thoughtful. "That's all right then."
They watched the snowscape speeding by for a while. Then Mavra indicated the dictionary and with a grimace Gwen picked it up.
"Where can I find a toilet?"
"At the end of the corridor," answered Mavra.
"At the end of the corridor," repeated Mavra, enunciating slowly and clearly. Before Gwen could reply, Mavra went on, "Important phrases to remember are-" She switched to Arcadian. "-'Excuse me. My Arcadian is poor. Could you speak more slowly, please? Or do you speak Cheltish??"
Gwen looked up the phrases. Her frown cleared. "Do most Arcadians speak Cheltish?"
"After war, many have some words. Enough, with gestures, for you to be understood."
"That's a relief."
"Lessons not wasted though. And Arcadians will appreciate effort. Just... not urgent. Can take time learning language."
Gwen returned her smile. "All right then. I will."
Matching portraits of the Co-Presidents in their state finery, radiating confidence and power, hung above the reception desk at the Arcadian Embassy, their gazes benign. Mavra wondered whether the artist had been requested to flatter his subjects or whether he had merely thought it prudent. When the joint heads of state had pinned The Crimson Star on her uniform jacket and thanked her for her services to the republic, she had been able to study them at close quarters. The War had left its mark on everyone, and they were no exception-the once luminous Zenya Babin looked tired and had put on weight, and though Maks Chapaev held himself as erect as ever, he had the bloodshot eyes and rosy nose of the habitual drinker.
"Are you sure it's all right for me to be here?" hissed Gwen.
"Guards let you in, yes?" After checking both sets of papers-they recognised Mavra from her earlier visit, but had to follow procedure-the sentries had given both women a crisp salute.
The young woman sitting behind the reception looked up, her face breaking into a welcoming smile.
"Lieutenant Vlasik. Nice to see you again." Her gaze strayed to Gwen. Mavra wondered if the news of her choice of partner had spread. "Have you come to collect the diplomatic pouch?"
Mavra nodded. "My papers." She handed across her courier's credentials.
The receptionist gave them a cursory glance and handed them back. "That all seems to be in order."
While Mavra tucked the credentials back in her pocket, the woman reached down and from somewhere produced an attaché case. It bore the seal of the Arcadian Republic, and the lettering, in both Cheltish and Arcadian: 'Diplomatic Bag. Property of Arcadian Embassy. Only to be opened by authorised personnel.' It was a lot less bulky than the diplomatic bag she had brought with her to Cheltain, Mavra was relieved to see.
"Sign here, please." The woman produced a receipt book.
Mavra scrawled her signature.
"Thank you." The pen and receipt disappeared into the drawer from which they had come. "The Ambassador will be sorry he missed you. But he has been called away to a reception at the Palace. He asked me to give you this."
She placed a sealed envelope on top of the attaché case. It was addressed to Mavra in bold, flowing script.
Mavra tore the end off the envelope and pulled out the single sheet of Embassy notepaper.
"What is it?" asked Gwen.
Mavra held up a hand and began to read, picturing the jovial countenance of the balding ambassador as she did so.
My dear Lt. Vlasik,
It was an honour to meet you the other day. It's not often so celebrated a figure graces our establishment.
Your heroic actions during the war against the Viedens made my efforts to build diplomatic ties between Cheltain and Arcadia far easier than they might otherwise have been. And they continue to do so. The fact that a young Cheltish woman has chosen to make her home with you in our beloved Republic can only be taken as an indication of the continuing depth and warmth of feeling that exists between our two peoples.
"What does it say?" asked Gwen.
"Nothing bad," murmured Mavra, reading on.
As travel conditions in the capital are currently so dire, and as a small token of my appreciation, I have placed an embassy car and its driver at your disposal. It will take you to Corin Hill-just inform the receptionist when you are ready to depart and she will have it brought round.
May I take this opportunity to wish you and Miss Brooke a safe, swift, and pleasant flight? And to also wish you both every happiness and good fortune in your new life together.
Grigori Petrov, Ambassador
A poke in her ribs brought her back to her surroundings. "Mavra," said Gwen,
"Is fine." She folded the letter and put it in her inside pocket. "Embassy car is at our disposal."
Green eyes goggled. "We're going to the aerodrome in a limousine?"
"Could be old banger," she cautioned. Then she grinned. "But either way, is better than bus."
A snowplough rumbled past the two women, its driver casting a curious glance in their direction, before turning and headed towards the far end of the airstrip. He would soon be busy, thought Mavra. She could taste fresh snow in the air, and to the north of the aerodrome ominous dark clouds were massing. If they were to be airborne before it arrived, they were cutting it fine.
"Is that our plane?" asked Gwen.
Mavra followed the pointing finger and saw the distinctive twin-engined silhouette of a Cygnet, bearing Arcadian markings. It was parked on the concrete apron in front of a hangar, and a dashing, moustachioed figure in a flying suit and helmet was pacing up and down in front of it.
"Yes." She grabbed her kitbag and attaché case and started towards it. "Come on."
"Is that pilot smoking?"
Gwen was struggling to keep up. Mavra shortened her stride.
"Would not surprise me." Pyotr had a blithe disregard for rules and regulations, no matter how justified they might be.
His head came up as they drew closer and he saw them. He took a last drag on his cigarette, ground it beneath his boot heel, and hurried to meet them.
"What took you so long?" He turned and gestured at the gathering clouds. "The weather's closing in."
"Customs," said Mavra. The attentions of an overzealous official had lost them the time gained by coming to Corin Hill by car.
Pyotr's eyebrows shot up. "But you're a diplomatic courier. You have immunity."
The customs man had taken his apparent dislike of Arcadians out on Mavra's travelling companion, and insisted on searching every inch of her bags and their contents. Once neatly folded clothes now lay crumpled inside the two small suitcases and would need ironing before Gwen could wear them.
Pyotr donned his trademark charm. "Pyotr Kimko, at your service, Miss Brooke," he said in perfect Cheltish. "Enchanted to meet you." He gave a formal half bow, reached for Gwen's gloved hand, and raised it to his lips.
"You too, I'm sure," said Gwen, snatching back her hand.
"Mavra always did have good taste in women," continued Pyotr.
"Leave her alone, Pyotr," said Mavra. "She's taken, and I thought you were in a hurry." She strode past him towards the aircraft.
"Tsk, Mavra! Good manners don't cost anything." He snatched Gwen's suitcases from her and hurried after Mavra. After a moment, Gwen followed them.
"To reach cabin you must climb on wing," Mavra instructed Gwen, pointing up to the Cygnet's cabin door, which was ajar.
"It's a good job I didn't wear a tight skirt," complained Gwen, scrambling up onto the sloping surface. "I'd have worn my flying suit, but the demob centre demanded it back-ATA property." She steadied herself while she opened the cabin door more fully. Mavra took the opportunity to admire Gwen's curvaceous rear before it vanished into the interior.
Leaving her kitbag and attaché case on the concrete, Mavra scrambled up onto the now empty wing. She turned back to Pyotr and gestured. He passed up the items of luggage, and she handed them inside to Gwen.
"Room under seats," she called, seeing Gwen searching for somewhere to put them. "Can put on front passenger seat too."
Soon the luggage had been safely stowed.
"Get in," ordered Pyotr, clambering up and making an impatient shooing gesture.
Mavra ducked through the tight doorframe, banging her head once and her elbow twice. Gwen was smoothing her coat over her buttocks prior to taking one of the rear seats, when Mavra sank into the seat next to her.
"OK?" Mavra reached for the safety strap and buckled it. The greatcoat was bulkier than a flying suit would have been, but she would need the warmth on this journey.
"I didn't realise it would be quite so cramped."
"Be glad are smaller than me."
Gwen saw what Mavra was doing with the strap and copied her.
A shadow blocked out the light and Pyotr flopped into the pilot's seat. He reached over and tugged the door closed behind him. He started the engine, and as it coughed into life began to go through his flight checks.
Gwen settled back in her seat. She looked tense, so Mavra reached over and took her hand. As Pyotr radioed the control tower for a weather report and permission to taxi, Gwen's grip tightened.
"I'm not used to being in the passenger seat," she murmured.
"Will be OK. Pyotr knows his stuff." At least Mavra hoped so.
The plane lurched forward. Soon they had left the shelter of the hangar apron and were taxiing out onto the runway. The light had dimmed even further, Mavra saw, and the first flakes of snow were beginning to fall.
Concrete flashed past them, faster and faster, the engine noise increasing as Pyotr pushed forward the throttle. "Here we go," he called.
Then the ground dropped away and they were airborne.
As he banked steeply, and turned the plane's nose southeast, Mavra heard the loud clunks that were the undercarriage retracting.
Her eyes moist once more, Gwen peered down at the snow-covered landscape that might be her last view of Cheltain.
Mavra squeezed her hand. "Will come back some day. I promise."
Gwen nodded and returned the squeeze.
"Next stop is a refuelling stop," shouted Pyotr. "After that... Arcadia."