Read The Stolen Online

Authors: T. S. Learner

The Stolen

Sphinx

The Map

COPYRIGHT

 

Published by Sphere

 

978-1-4055-2022-5

 

All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

Copyright © Tobsha Learner 2014

 

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.

 

The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

 

SPHERE

Little, Brown Book Group

100 Victoria Embankment

London, EC4Y 0DY

 

www.littlebrown.co.uk

www.hachette.co.uk

The Stolen

Dedicated to all the Roma who perished in the Holocaust

This is a work of fiction written to entertain, inspire and, to a degree, educate. Any similarity to a living person or actual institution is entirely coincidental. However, some of the historical characters and the back stories are factual; it is evident when this is the case.

I have always been haunted by the lack of coverage and general knowledge about the atrocities the Roma experienced under the Nazi regime. This and other more personal and complex emotions compelled me to create this narrative.

The central object the statuette itself is pure fiction, but the fact that Roma gold and valuables were stolen by the Nazis is not, neither is the ethnography described of the Romani peoples. This book is written with deep respect, and in a kind of fraternity.

 

Forest, Ukraine, 1943

The mist drifted up from the river into the forest. It crept like silence across the caravans clustered around a smouldering campfire, the painted wagons an oasis of colour against the dark lattice of the surrounding trees. In the small clearing the horses, corralled by a makeshift fence, waited, like ancient ghosts, for daybreak.

Curled up against her younger brother under the large goose-feather
dunha
spread beneath her family's
vurdon
, Keja shifted uneasily then returned to her dreaming.

The soldiers slipped quietly through the trees, the grey-green uniforms and black helmets blending with the moss-covered branches. The muzzled dogs pulling on the end of short leashes, eager to hunt.

SS officer Ulrich Vosshoffner watched his men fan out noiselessly as they sighted the caravans. He was proud of them; they had understood the need for surprise. Under his command no Nazi lives would be wasted on the
Untermensch
.

The monk's words echoed through his mind.
When you set eyes upon this Madonna of the night your soul is lost and as a man you cannot sleep
…
They had seared themselves into his memory ever since he first read them in an eighteenth-century book, one of over a thousand his taskforce had plundered from the Pskov fortress.
The gypsies have kept her hidden for so long she is now less than a rumour, but today I saw her for myself, in a camp of coppersmiths and my eyes are burned and my soul is ruined by the glistening of her strange metal. May the Good Lord save me from the Devil.

Until a week ago the only clue he had was the name of the Kalderash family the relic was said to belong to – Stiriovic. There had been false leads and raids that led to nothing. Then a priest involved with the local resistance broke under torture, giving up his comrades and information that a group of Kalderash gypsies known by the same name were hiding in the area. Yet every time Ulrich and his men arrived at the next possible location the gypsies had vanished. Until a farmer betrayed his neighbour, who he claimed had been sheltering the gypsies on his land.

It was the same farmer who had led the German officer through the undergrowth a few feet ahead, cap pulled low around his cauliflower ears, confident of his neighbour's terrain. Ulrich had no illusions of loyalty; the peasant was motivated by greed, territory and xenophobia – three components of human psychology that always rose to the fore in wartime. So, despite being thankful for the lead, Ulrich intended to have him executed after the raid.

At a small rise the farmer had dropped to the ground, indicating that the soldiers should stay back. Ulrich joined him, then looked through his binoculars. Beyond the thinning mist he could just make out the ring of caravans, and supine figures, children and men, still sleeping, the horses grazing peacefully. A frozen snapshot of tranquillity that Ulrich had the power to shatter with a wave of his hand. He was almost tumescent with excitement.

Just then a stallion caught wind of the dogs. Rearing, it whinnied nervously, eyes rolling back in fear. At the sound one of the men sat up. A caravan door swung open and a wizened old woman, dressed in a long black skirt and beaded red blouse, her ears and neck hung with gold coin jewellery, peered blindly in Ulrich's direction. For an uncanny moment he had the uncomfortable sensation she was staring directly at him.

With a sharp sweep of his arm he gestured:
Advance!
Immediately a dozen of the dogs were released and the world became a cacophony of stomping feet and barking animals. The woman, shocked, ran stumbling through the campsite, waving her arms as gypsies leaped to their feet, some half-dressed, reaching for horsewhips, shovels, pitchforks, anything that could be used as a weapon. Ulrich smiled. Today he was a God.

 

Keja woke to screaming, running feet, and the sound of neighing horses. Numb with sleep she looked around her. At the far edge of the camp a wall of soldiers appeared to be marching on them, pulled by snarling Alsatians. Zeleno, her little brother, clung to her waist in fright. Grabbing him, she crawled between the upturned buckets and boxes; hiding behind one of the caravan's large wooden wheels she peered through the struts, trying to make sense of the chaos. Gypsy men were everywhere: pulling up stakes, trying to control the panicking horses as they threw harnesses over them, several straddling the horses bare-backed. Two of the riders scrambled up the other side of the valley. Keja recognised her older brother Yojo from his bright yellow kerchief, and her cousin Zurka. A single gunshot rang out, and Zurka was jolted back and fell from his horse, a great red stain spreading out from the centre of his naked back.

Yojo paused, looking back, then turned and galloped beyond the trees. The camp abruptly fell silent before a huge wail sounded out from the women, some of whom had been rounded up. Keja tried not to scream with them. The dogs were close. She could smell their damp fur, their hot breath. She huddled against the wheel terrified, her hand clamped over four-year-old Zeleno's mouth. They both watched the soldiers haul the remaining families from their caravans. Suddenly there was the sound of someone being dragged down the steps above her. Horrified, she watched as the commanding officer, a young man in control with his crisp uniform, with sharp, barked orders, marched Arpad, her half-dressed father, over to the others.

‘You are the
capo
,
non
?' the officer barked at him, his gun pointed at her father's head.

Arpad looked him in the eye. ‘Yes, I am the
Rom baro
.'

Ulrich smiled and lifted his gun to her father's temple. ‘Then you can tell me where the statuette is hidden, can't you?'

‘What statuette?' he replied, his voice steady.

Furious, Ulrich hit the gypsy's head with the butt of his gun. Arpad staggered, but stayed on his feet, a streak of blood running down his temple.

Pressed against the wheel, Keja clutched the amulet she wore, the amulet her
baba
had given her.

Ulrich stood over her father, oblivious to her existence.

‘Don't fool with me! Gypsies always have treasure!'

Arpad stared defiantly at the officer, refusing to say anything.

‘I will kill your wife and then your children one by one in front of you,' the officer said coldly.

The leader
remained silent.

Ulrich glanced back at the caravan, at a painted panel above the door of a Madonna figure set against a night sky. Around her head in an arc floated four symbols: a cross, a nail, a hand pointing up and another pointing down.

Madonna of the night
.

He gestured to one of the soldiers, who climbed up the steps and prised open the panel with his bayonet. It splintered with a loud cracking noise as the soldier reached up and pulled the last of the wood free, revealing a recess in which was a small, ornate trunk. He brought it to Ulrich. It was padlocked with a heavy brass lock.

‘Open it!' Ulrich demanded.

The gypsy didn't move.

Calmly, Ulrich shot him in the head and Arpad's body jerked back and thudded heavily on the ground.

Beneath the caravan, Keja turned her brother's face away from the sight of her father staring blindly at them from the ground, blood welling from the large hole in his forehead. Standing among the huddled onlookers, her mother began screaming but was silenced by the butt of a rifle. Shaking with horror, the girl started mouthing a curse she had learned from her grandmother. It was the curse of all curses, the most terrible of all deaths to wish on a living soul: an invocation that condemned a man to die by the hand of his own child and for his soul to wander without rest for ever. A curse so secret and powerful that her
baba
had taken her out to the middle of a field, a place they could see was empty for miles around, before teaching it to her. Now Keja's breath etched a cobweb spell against the chilly air, her determination a razor-sharp knife that she willed into the young officer's body. She would kill this man with her
baba
's curse – either now or later. She would avenge her father.

The curse slipped across the grass like an invisible snake to wind itself around the officer's neck. Oblivious, Ulrich turned back to the chest and shot the lock off the trunk.

Inside, a large object covered with a woven cloth lay on top of a pile of old Ottoman gold coins, a gold necklace and earrings. He reached in and lifted it out, incredulous that at last he might have found the actual statuette, the weight and hidden shape of it painfully tantalising as his fingers, clumsy with excitement, unwrapped it.

The statuette was of a four-armed woman: in her top-left hand she held a golden cross, in her lower left what appeared to be a large iron nail; while with her top-right hand she held up a curved sword triumphantly as the lower right hand pointed down to hell. Wrought from a metal Ulrich had never seen before, its surface a glittery blue-grey, it was exactly as he had read, the expression on the statuette's face both serene and disturbingly sinister. This was it, the prize he'd been tracking for months.

Peeling off his leather gloves, he ran his fingers across the statuette, fascinated. Immediately he felt an unpleasant tingling extending down his hands and wrists. He recoiled in surprise and looked up. Around the camp the mist had lifted and in the sunlight the metal sparkled and glinted, as if tiny diamonds lay buried in its curious surface. He carefully placed it back into the trunk, noticing several of the gypsies shielding their eyes as if looking upon the relic might be a sacrilege or harmful.

So this is the real artefact
, he observed, trying to conceal his excitement.

As he knelt to close the lid of the trunk, he heard a faint whimper from beneath the caravan. He peered under it. Staring back at him was a young girl, about twelve years old and she was astonishingly beautiful. It was then that he decided she alone would live.

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