Before the Dawn

I confess. I didn’t know them, personally, at least. Like every school child, I learned of their dynasty’s achievements and what it meant for our nation. The Romanovs built the country as we know it with their bare hands. Long I had dreamed of meeting Nicholai II, but not under these circumstances. A few months ago, our revolutionaries surrounded his palace in Petrograd, forcing him to depose. He and the imperial family have been on house arrest since then. Who’s in power? Not even the leaders of the coup knew. They said that it was for the common folk. They said that it was the will of our people. They never asked me.

The son of a wheat farmer, I knew nothing of fighting, coups, or war. The news of the revolt had reached our village by way of a shouting convoy.

“The bloody regime has ended!” they had shouted. “The winds of change are blowing.”

Change, indeed. I and the rest of the young able-bodied men got rounded up and issued uniforms and weapons. Within a day, we were herded to Yekaterinburg and briefed on our first assignment.

Comrade Lieutenant strode back and forth before our ranks. “They will be arriving later this afternoon. You will guard the premises in three shifts. They are not to go anywhere without one of you.” His long black moustache twitched as he spoke. “When they piss in a pot you will be there. When at last they sleep you will post up outside their doors.” He passed in front of me. “Is that understood?”

We replied in unison. “Yes, Comrade Lieutenant!”

He walked up to me. “Your name.”

“Feodor Antonovich, Lieutenant.”

His tone was calm and decisive. “I want you to take a detail down to the train station and escort them back here. There are to be no stops or delays in between without my personal consent. Understood?”

“Yes, Comrade.”

“Very well,” he said, clasping his hands at the small of his back.

It didn’t take long for the imperial convoy to arrive. To say that it was elegant would have been a gross understatement. I had seen a few trains in my day. Mostly the sort that hauled livestock and supplies into town. This one was different. It stretched on into oblivion.

The tsar was the first to debark. His stern gaze studied all of us. A great amount of pride still remained in those eyes. He carried his young son, Alexei, in his stout arms. His lovely wife, Alexandra strode out behind him. She must have put all of her strength and trust in her husband. Fear and dread consumed her. Their oldest daughter, Olga, followed them. A pair of soldiers led these four into the back of the first waiting car.

What happened next would prove to be my undoing. Anastasia and Tatyana followed their guards into a horse drawn carriage. The last person out of the train was Maria. Once her angelic eyes met mine, I knew. Those long curls the color of mahogany. She stumbled on the lowest step and fell into my arms.

“Forgive me,” she said, resting an arm around my neck. “I don’t know what came over me.”

I assisted her back to her feet. “It was nothing, Grand Duchess.”

“Comrade Chilkin!” my superior exclaimed. “Stand at attention.”

Snapping to, I watched as she and her sisters entered the carriage. Maria took up a seat on the far side of the coach. One final glance from her smiling eyes and then she departed.

The Ipatiev House was nothing short of graceful. To call the former imperial family imprisoned would have been a stretch. The Lieutenant instructed us to place them on prisoner’s rations and afford them none of their prior comforts. They kept their family doctor, his wife, and one housekeeper. Their fates hung on their faces like foreboding omens. Despite this lingering cloud of misery, the Romanovs kept in high spirits. The family spent most of their days indoors. One several occasions, one of the girls played a tune on the piano upstairs. Their sweetness floated out on the warm summer breeze to where I sat with my fellow revolutionaries.

This afternoon – a lively waltz. One I’d heard before, but whose name evaded me. Maria’s sisters and brother took to spinning around the upper salon in great cheer. Round and round. All cares forgotten. My other cohorts joked and mocked them, how such things must have been their idea of hard work. Not me. Her performance carried me away. Once it had ended, I took up my balalaika and found a comfortable seat on a nearby chopping stump. Crossing one leg over the other, I echoed the waltz’s melody back up into the salon. Soon, my hopes were answered. Maria peeked her head out from behind the drapes. Her gleaming grin said it all. She disappeared from the tall window and offered up accompaniment on the piano. Our souls flew on the music to the places our mortal bodies couldn’t. If only for the span of a theme and variation, our spirits danced together.

The next morning, Maria came down with her brother Alexei to help their father with the woodcutting. I watched her all morning. I had the watch, not that I minded it at all. She had her flowing hair tied up at the nape of her neck in a simple blue ribbon. The blazing summer sun played on her locks each time she swung the small axe down. When she stacked her split timber for the third time, she leaped back with a jolt.

My protective instincts took over as I rushed to her side. “What is it?”

She held up her hand and chuckled. “Just a splinter, I think.”

“Let me see.” I took her soft hand in mine.

“You clearly know my name, but I—”

I removed my knife from its sheath on my belt. “Feodor Antonovich.”

Her frail digits trembled as I drew them in for a closer look. “I don’t think my injury requires amputation.”

That got a laugh out of me. “Relax and be still.”

I sat her hand flat in my left. It was a big splinter, but it hadn’t punctured the pad of her finger that deep. Taking the blade between my right fingers and thumb, I scraped it along the embedded scrap of wood. When at last the majority of her malady had been forced out, I sheathed my knife.

“Do you trust me, Maria?”

She nodded.

I took her injured finger and put in in my mouth. I grabbed the end of the splinter between my teeth and plucked it free.

“Better?” I turned my head and spat the wood into the grass.

She nodded again. “Thank you, Feodor.”

Both hands cupped either side of my face and drew me closer. I still remember that innumerable elation that followed. The taste of honey. The fragrance of the pollen in her hair. That intoxication haunts me still. A loud grumble from her father broke our kiss.

“I – I.” I couldn’t find the words.

She scurried back under the guard’s watchful eye. “I know.”

The next morning, my Lieutenant permitted the royals to stroll through the fields under our close supervision. Nicholai hauled his son up on his broad shoulders while his daughters huddled around Alexandra. The light wind whistled among the knee-high weeds, carrying the occasional orange or yellow butterfly along in its wake.

I walked along, conversing with my compatriot. As much as we could, Maria and I exchanged endearing glances. My troubles dissolved within the solace of those big brown eyes.

“Serves them right,” Pyotr said at my left.

I slid my rifle strap farther up my shoulder. “In what way?”

“They sent our people to the slaughterhouse in Japan,” he said, “and for what?” Pyotr spat into the grass at his side. “The lucky ones came home from the war to poverty and starvation.”

I stole another gaze from my angel. “He couldn’t have known that was going to happen.”

Pyotr tossed up his free hand. “He was the tsar! How could he not know?”

I shrugged. I supposed the tsar was human, too. His Highness only proved my point in his interactions with his family. The adoration that shone for his wife. The way his children looked up to him. It needed no verbal defense on my feeble behalf.

“Now, they scurry through the meadows,” he said, “no better than any of the rest of us.”

He reminded me of so many of the other Russians. They based their judgments off what they read, or worse, what they heard. These same people refused to take the time to get to know the Romanovs.

Pyotr and I slowed as Nicholai settled his son onto a large white blanket on a soft patch of grass.

“Will you be –?” their father began.

Alexei waved him off, pencil in hand. “I’ll be fine. I have to concentrate if I’m going to finish these sketches, father.”

Chuckling, Nicholai turned to face his smiling wife. “All right, then. I’ll be off helping your sisters gather mushrooms and berries.”

I turned to Pyotr, my heart pounding. “You keep watch on Nicholai. I’ll follow Maria and Anastasia.”

My partner nodded and plodded off after his assignment. I soon found myself a few paces behind the two younger sisters, tromping deeper into a thicket.

The dense blanket of dew had lifted into a low-lying haze over the valley. I trailed them up a narrow winding deer path that vanished once inside the forest’s shade.

The siblings’ mutterings soon changed to a more energetic matter. Anastasia’s body language took on a defensive posture as she stopped ahead. Maria rubbed her sister’s shoulders in soothing strokes. My angel glanced back to me.

“It’s all right, Ana. We can trust him.”

I closed the gap between us and made quick survey of the area to ensure that our secrecy hadn’t been compromised. “Trust me with what?”

“Our escape plan,” Maria said. Her youngest sister continued to protest. “Feodor is a friend, Ana.”

I felt Maria’s slender arm snake around my hips. “I have no intention on telling the others. You have my word.”

Ana’s expression stiffened. “How do I know you’ll keep your word?”

My eyes locked with Maria’s. “Because I love your sister. I give you my word and stake her life on it.”

At this, Maria’s round cheeks reddened. The softness of her lips found mine in a moment. I was complete again for the span of that incredible instant.

Ana coughed. “We really should start gathering the berries and mushrooms while we still have the time.”

Maria broke our intimate bond. “Of course.”

They spent the rest of the morning collecting their finds in the fronts of their dresses. By midday, we had all made our way back to the manor. The carefree mood evaporated once Comrade Lieutenant stormed upon us.

“What have we here?” The Lieutenant sampled a blackberry from Olga’s sagging dress. His leering eyes undressed her. “Very nice. Just leave them here on the boxes.”

Tatyana’s vexation flared. We spent all morning gathering those!”

The Lieutenant awarded her insolence with a backhand that sent her to the ground. Alexandra gasped as Nicholai charged his child’s aggressor. Several rifles snapped up in an instant, forcing the dethroned emperor to stand down.

“You would be wise to teach your children some respect, Mr. Romanov.” The cold and calculated words seeped from the Lieutenant’s sly grin.

A part of me wanted more than anything to teach this officer a lesson of my own. Common sense overpowered my emotions. It would bring more suffering on my beloved, and I wanted no part in that.

“Escort the prisoners back to their quarters,” he snapped. “Bread and water only for their lunch.”

They sat around the table in silence. The insubordinate daughter’s left eye had swollen a bit. Hopelessness smothered any other feeling in the humid space. They spent the rest of their afternoon reading books, sketching landscapes, and doing their best to remember better times. When their dinner arrived, they all tore into the roasted quail and eggs as if none had eaten a morsel in days. When my relief came at eight, I retired to my quarters in the nearby barn.

I lay there, staring off into the rafters high above me. No matter how many times I closed my eyes, the sleep never came. The image of Tatyana getting slapped reapeated itself over and over. About the time I drifted off –

“Chilkin!”

I snapped upright at my waist. “Yes, sir?”

“Change of plans,” my Lieutenant said. “Meet us down in the basement in five minutes.”

I stood at once, brushing off the loose strands of hay. “Of course, sir.”

Our entire patrol had assembled in the lowest floor of the manor. From the mutterings I heard, no one knew for certain what was happening. Several speculations flew, but the truth remained concealed.

“Good morning, gentlemen.” Comrade Lieutenant strode in, telegram in hand. “I received word yesterday of what must happen.”

We looked to one another more confused than before.

“The prisoners, by order of the newly appointed authority, are to be executed immediately.”

Our group buzzed with discontent. Arrest was one thing, but murder? My heart leaped into my throat. Maria! I had to find a way to tell her. My mind spun in dizzying circles.

“Enough,” Lieutenant said, crumpling the telegram and tossing it to the dirt floor. “We’ll bring them down here and carry out the orders.” He examined each of us with a stern eye.

“Lemski,” he said at last.

The tall lean man stepped forward. “Sir?”

“You will train your weapon on the boy.”

Lemski stuffed his hands into his pockets. His mouth soured. “I refuse to kill an innocent crippled child.”

The Lieutenant stomped over into his personal space. “You’re refusing a direct order. Am I hearing you correctly, Comrade Lemski?”

The beanpole held his ground.

“Relinquish your weapon, Lemski.” The man did as instructed. “I’ll see you shipped to the farthest labor camp from here! Any others?”

None of us dared utter a word.

“Very well,” he said. “They will be down in a few minutes. I’ll address them. Follow my lead.”

Maria would be here soon. I had to say something to her.

One by one, the Romanov family filed into the cramped space in the basement corner. My love cleared her vision with her hands as she shuffled past me. I wanted to tell her to run. With my superior at my left shoulder, it was impossible.

“Right, everyone,” the Lieutenant said in an unusually cheerful tone. “This photo shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. The European press should be put at ease with it.” He motioned to the members of the party as we waited on either side of him.

“That’s it. Olga?” He fluttered a ghostlike digit. “A little more to your right. And Nicholai, we’ll have you up front and center, please.”

The Romanov patriarch smoothed out his coat and stepped to the front of the group. The others huddled in around the last of our great and powerful dynasty. Maria stood beside Ana in her best white dress. Its stones shimmered in the light of the room’s lamp. Her troubled eyes locked with mine, but I couldn’t bear it. I lowered my eyes to the dust under my boots where I, too, belonged.

The Lieutenant produced another long form from his pocket. “As a duly appointed representative of the new Russian authority, I am to carry out their orders set forth in the following: You are to be executed by firing squad, and this sentence is to be carried out post haste.”

Nicholai stepped forward. “This is preposterous!”

“Weapons!” the Lieutenant exclaimed.

I pulled my pistol and trained its bead on Maria’s quaking bosom.

“Feodor, please.” Though my welling eyes couldn’t see her, her words stung my ears. “I beg you, my love.”

“Fire!”

Nicholai staggered back from the multiple impacts. Shrill screams! My skin crawls still when I recount the memory. Alexandra fell next with four slugs in her chest. The doctor and his wife didn’t stand a chance. I fired a shot into the ceiling over Maria’s head. I snapped my head to my left to see if my superior had witnessed my act. I froze as he released three shots into Alexei’s chest. The boy’s hands went limp to the sides of his chair. His head slumped to one side, life speeding out of him.

The rain of bullets slung Olga and Tatyana against the far wall. Both slipped down the wall on their own blood and collapsed lifeless on the floor. Lieutenant marched to my side and lowered his pistol to Ana. One shot, then another. The youngest girl in their family crumpled over, groaning in the dirt. I stood motionless.

“Chilkin!” He spat my name onto my face.

I raised my weapon toward Maria’s chest.

“Kill the prisoner, Chilkin.”

My teeth clenched so tight I thought they would snap. I trained the weapon’s bead on the meaty part of her right shoulder. “Forgive me, my love.”

“Feodor!”

My shot rang out in the slaughterhouse. I heard her whimper as her body hit the dirt. I couldn’t look. I had to preserve her the way I remembered her in my dreams. The sound of Lieutenant’s boots shuffled across the floor and prodded the side of a dead body. Maria continued to moan on the floor. A few more paces from his boots and then I flinched. The final shot quieted my Maria for good.

Comrade Lieutenant gave us orders to bag the bodies and drive them to a remote location outside of town. There, we were to dig a trench and drop them in. I rode with the team to the outskirts and helped dig the huge hole in the ground. Several of the others stacked broken branches and dead leaves at the center of the pit and lit them.

Numbness had consumed me. My fight was gone. My life had no meaning. One after the other, we lowered the bags onto the flames. Once the final sack had been tossed onto the pile, my colleagues wandered off into the meadow toward the growing dawn. Me? I sat on the ground before the bonfire, curled my knees to my chest, and wept. Sparks ascended like spirits from their tortured logs, burning for a brief moment, then gone.

 

Joshua Dyer writes in several different genres and styles including horror, fantasy, science fiction, and mainstream fiction. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, where some of his fiction won their “Reader’s Choice Award” for best story of the year. When he’s not writing, Dyer likes to read, study languages, play video games, and bake stuff.

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