Sunday, April 26, 2015

An Assassination In Tsarist Russia

     It was with this heightened sense of distrust that he left with Ashavan to board the Trans-Siberian Railway on a week-long journey. The streets of Moscow were a little more accommodating than when they had arrived, due to some unusually warm weather for late February. The streets were crowded with people anxious to experience weather that was approaching the thaw mark. It was a few blocks to the station, which they chose to walk for the exercise, anticipating long-days of sitting aboard a train.
     Everything that moved did so against a background of white. Doug’s senses were keen as he walked along, noting a man whose face he thought he recognized from the hotel. He tried to look away, tried to look inconspicuous, but Doug could sense that he was on their trail. He glanced at Ashavan, noticed that he too was aware of the man. Ashavan glanced to his right, and Doug followed his gaze, noticing another familiar face. They did their best to blend in with the crowd, but Ashavan stood as tall as any, even in the semi-slouch he assumed to de-emphasize his height.
     The street they were on was approaching a frozen river that wound its way up from their left. Doug noticed horse-drawn sleds being loaded with large blocks of ice that were being harvested from the river for use in summer months. Another horse was dragging behind it a saw as if it were a plow, cutting the ice into blocks large enough as to be suitable for constructing an ice castle. Beyond the bridge that spanned the frozen river, Doug could see the train station that he had almost mistaken for a church, so elaborate was its design. Once aboard the train, they could be relatively sure of relief from the observation of the Okhrana: the secret police would not much care what anyone did east of Moscow. It was in the major metropolises where political mischief could cause real damage.
     The closer they approached to the bridge, the more heightened Doug’s senses became and the greater the sense of urgency he felt. The two men they had recognized from the hotel had not disappeared, and now there was a group of regular police in front of them to the right side of the bridge. They appeared to be staring directly at him and Ashavan. His heart seemed to double its pace and intensity until the throb of it pushed hard against his eardrums, muting sounds around him. But his vision was sharp, benefiting from the generous supply of oxygen his heart was pumping, his eyes registering every perception that came through the crisp air. There was a man walking across the bridge carrying a brightly wrapped package in his hands. Behind the group of police, to their left, stood a young woman with a swaddled bundle in her hand which she gently rocked back and forth. From the other side of the bridge came a man astride a horse. As he approached, Doug recognized him from pictures he had seen as a Cossack. He wore a wooly hat and a soldier’s long-jacket, and as he neared Doug could see a cold look of pride in his eyes. But he was merely a herald for the carriage that drove behind him. It was an ornate and anachronistic carriage for the Twentieth Century, a bit of ostentation to display the importance of whomever it conveyed. But the Cossack was not merely there as a part of that ostentation, Doug knew. He was there as protection in a place and time where political power was being contested by more than a few factions.
     As the carriage drew even with the man with the brightly wrapped package, Doug’s attention was drawn to his sudden movement. The package in his hand he threw at the carriage, where it landed immediately in front of it. Doug anticipated an explosion but none was forthcoming. He was witnessing an assassination attempt gone wrong. The driver, seeing what was happening, urged his team of horses on.
     It was only when the carriage approached the end of the bridge, its driver now whipping the horses into a frenzy, that the young woman sprang into action. She threw what Doug had mistaken for an infant at the window of the carriage and an explosion of flames and shattered glass flew from the center of the carriage. An instant later the thunderous sound caught up to what he had witnessed, distracting the attention of the police at the bridge. One of them went down, a victim of flying debris, as did the woman who had thrown the bomb.
     There was a brief moment of inaction, as the scene registered upon passerby and police alike. And then everything sprung back to life again. The carriage was still moving, an inferno on wheels. The horses ran wildly trying to escape the touch of the flames and the nameless terror behind them. Their shuttered eyes did not permit them to see their predicament, and so mad flight was the only option open to them. Something managed to keep the driver in his place, but it was no life within him that did so. He was like a doll which bounced with each bump but did not spill from his perch.
     Doug stared as if a detached observer at the scene until the reality that the horses were coming straight at him dawned. Even as he lurched into motion, he felt the hand of Ashavan pulling him out of the way. It was a mad dash, a last second plunge that saved him from the wheels of the carriage. He heard it speed past him, the noise of snorting, fear-mad horses and the steel of the wheels on the cobblestone street moving the maelstrom beyond his immediate zone of danger.

     He felt the fear-numbed throbs of pain in his forearms and elbows from him hitting the road, tried to assess the damage done through an adrenaline surge intent on more immediate issues. He was still trying to gather his wits when he again felt Ashavan’s hand tugging him, this time upwards. He looked at him, and more from reading his lips than by being able to hear him, he knew that Ashavan was urging him to hurry on towards the station. Here in the chaos of the moment was their opportunity to escape the eyes of the Okhrana and make their escape. Doug tried to move and felt the shakiness in his legs, the result of an excess of adrenaline. He walked as one might walk in a dream, his legs working as if in quicksand to propel him over the bridge and towards the station. Somewhere behind him the horses still ran with their fiery load, but there was no time for him to worry about it. They needed to get aboard the train, put as much distance as they could between themselves and the eyes of the Okhrana.

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