Among the Wolves

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Black Moth (Historical Fiction, Writing Mentorship Award 2023)
Award Category
Logline or Premise
Carpathian village 1899: An icon painter gets murdered, his house burned. Lidka, a visiting city girl, joins forces with a young priest to decode a message he left in a trail of hidden paintings that leads deep into the mountains. Broken hearts, broken promises and a dark secret buried in the woods.
First 10 Pages


An icon is not just a painting. It is a mystery that flickers like a flame in the darkness or rolls like morning mist and seeps into you. It can embrace you like loving arms or pierce you like a knife, straight to the heart. He knows it, it has touched him many times. He knows that a small wooden board on which an icon is painted contains more that the whole universe.

Walking into the autumn woods this afternoon he feels that he is stepping into an icon. Nature always gets the colours right.

Beeches are red, the colour of life, love and resurrection. Hornbeams have turned yellow, which stands for truth. Firs have remained green, the colour of hope and eternal rebirth of all living things.

He walks slowly and without any purpose other than watching the world around him. A single buzzard is circling in the sky. The blue of the sky symbolises eternity and spiritual flight. Like in an icon, this blue and the red of the forest create the harmony that reflects the balance between Heaven and Earth.

There is balance to all things. God gives and God takes away.

Thin clouds drift above. White is the colour of holiness and simplicity. He is happy. But days so sunny and clear are becoming rarer. Soon eastern winds and early frosts will strip the woods, leaving them grey and black. Black is the colour of chaos and death.

The wind grows stronger and sends the leaves adrift. He picks one and turns it in his hands, admiring its delicate veins and amber hue. At the top of the hill, the trees get thinner, letting through more sunlight. Everything turns gold, the most sacred of colours. The light of God.

He is coming towards a big clearing. Where the tree line ends he glimpsed some rowan berries. Red is the colour of Christ’s martyrdom. Then some instinct makes him stop. Perhaps he senses a vibration in the air that tells him he is not alone. Peering through the branches of a hazel bush he sees two figures at the opposite edge of the clearing.

A young man. And a beast.

At first, he cannot make out what is going on. But then he understands.

In an icon the colours have their meaning and shouldn’t be mixed at random. But here there is red on the green, red on the yellow, red on the gold. All colours become tinted with red.

Red means blood.

Bieszczady Mountains, Eastern Galicia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire

June 1899

Chapter one

There was blood on her hand. Lying on a dusty track, Lidka watched the thin red trail progressing slowly to her wrist. She could see a small cut, just under her thumb. It didn’t hurt.

She had thrown her hand forward, instinctively, to break the fall and must have cut it on one of the sharp stones that littered the track. She pushed herself up, shook the dust off her skirt and, having fished a linen handkerchief out of her pocket, pressed it against the cut.

The blood seeped into the fabric. Lidka examined the stains for a moment, then pressed at her wound again. It was so hot that she could feel beads of sweat forming on her forehead. Her shoes pinched her feet. And she was very thirsty.

She knew she should go back to Zakole, grateful that no one had seen her tearing hatless down the lane. She heard her mother’s voice in her head, the only words she had spoken to Lidka that awful morning in May.

What an exhibition!

Yes, she was making an exhibition of herself, but there was nobody to see her, so what did it matter? She didn’t want to sit on the bench in the yard. She didn’t want to read or draw. So instead of going back, she pressed forward, following along the track that she had travelled on the day before.

At the foot of the hill, the track entered the woods. Waiting for her pulse to slow down, Lidka looked back. Apart from a couple of lazily grazing cows, she couldn’t see a soul. Then she turned to the forest that lied in front of her, mysterious and curiously quiet. Lidka closed her eyes and breathed in its aroma - a cloying odour of mushrooms and rotting leaves mixed with the sharp scent of conifers. For a moment Lidka felt uneasy, as if she was standing at the gate to a different world, shadowy and alien. Then one of the cows mooed loudly and Lidka gave a nervous laugh. She set off again, faster than was wise for someone unused to climbing steep hills. Soon she was panting, but at least it was less hot under the trees.

Once she got to the top of the hill, she stopped and rested her hands on her knees. Her breath was coming in great rasping gasps. It felt good, almost like crying.

The view that opened in front of her was magnificent. She had seen it the day before from the carriage and the vista of the meandering San river had taken her breath away. Today it looked even better. She wished she had brought her sketchbook and pencils. The river glittered in the bright sunshine of the early afternoon, weaving its way through the lush greenery of the fields and meadows where the peasants were cutting hay. The wooden houses of the village Solina nestled on both banks. Although the sky was cloudless, it seemed to be covered by a kind of haze.

Spotting a flat boulder sheltered from the sun by lime trees, Lidka sat down and took off her shoes and stockings. One of her feet was raw where the hard leather had rubbed against her skin and there was a blister forming on her big toe. Bees were buzzing in the wild rose bushes that grew in the hedgerows. The air was sweet with the scent of flowers. Lidka half-closed her eyes. The world became a green and golden blur. She wished her body would melt away and blend with the colours and light.

And then, out of the blue, came the feeling that someone was watching her.

She sat straight and looked around. The woods seemed to have closed around her. With a growing sense of unease, she realised how helpless she was on her own – how exposed. Forcing herself to stay calm, she stood up and walk a few steps forward.

‘Hello?’ she called. ‘Is anyone there?’

There was a quick movement among the trees and the sound of breaking branches. Lidka caught a glimpse of a dark, furry shape. An animal? There were animals here, plenty of them. She must have scared it away.

There is nothing to be afraid of, she told herself. No animal would attack her unless provoked, so Hanna had assured her yesterday. But for once her reason was losing the battle with fear. She had no experience of the wilderness, only of the crowded streets of the city.

Then she noticed a rotting fence to her right with what looked like a neglected orchard behind it. There must be a house there. The house meant people, reassurance and water. Lidka walked as fast as she managed with no shoes on towards an old wooden gate and into an overgrown garden. She cast an uncertain look towards dense shrubs, half-expecting a wild beast to leap out. But all seemed quiet, too quiet.

Lidka had spent her journey to Solina the day before staring at the landscape and the villages. There had hardly been a house without a flock of chickens or geese in the yard. Dogs barked, cats slept in sunny spots, children and old people stood by the fences to stare at the passing carriage. Wherever she looked there was life and movement.

Here, everything was still. There were no signs of animals or people and the door of the wooden, thatched house was closed. The house had a neglected air and seemed to be sagging, like an old mushroom that had absorbed too much moisture. Lidka spotted some broken tools scattered near the wall next to a narrow bench. There was also a well and Lidka wondered if she could manage to draw water by herself. It was worth a try.

Although convinced that nobody was in, Lidka knocked on the door. Then, because she liked to be thorough, she gave the door a push and to her surprise, it opened.

‘Hello,’ she called and, gathering her skirts, she stepped over high threshold onto the hard earthen floor.

The small entry space was dark and gave out a strong musty smell. Immediately to her right, Lidka found another door and, after a moment of hesitation, she walked in.

The room she entered was like nothing Lidka had ever seen before.

Paintings covered every wall. They were all icons. There were also boards leaning against a wooden chest that stood by a table and against the side of a vast earthenware stove. Jars of pigments lined the shelves of a crooked dresser alongside brushes in different sizes. The only other piece of furniture was a bed covered with a threadbare woven throw.

Although it was dark inside, there was enough light coming through the small windows to illuminate a few paintings. Intrigued, Lidka stopped in front of an icon showing three angels gathered at a round table covered with white cloth. There were objects on the table that she could not recognise and a dish containing what looked like a tiny skinned lamb. Two of the angels were sitting in symmetrical poses. The third one was standing, his green and brown wings spread against the wonderfully rich golden background. The angels’ rosy cheeks and the portrayal of the sacrificial lamb were rather naïve, but the overall effect was very powerful.

Moving on, Lidka discovered paintings showing a Madonna with Child, Christ with an open book and a hand raised in blessing, and some saints she could not recognise. She didn’t know much about the Orthodox religion. She wished she could understand different components of the paintings. Why was Christ painted over a background of a red rhombus which was circled by a blue oval, which, in turn, looked as if it had another red rhombus stuck behind it? And all that framed with the omnipresent, splendid gold. The artist followed the canons unknown to Lidka. She knew enough about art, though, to tell that, although he had no formal training as could be expected with a village painter, he was very talented. A divine aura seemed to emanate from the icons, lending the modest room a sacred atmosphere of a church, but somewhat more intimate. Lidka surrendered to it, a growing sense of calm replacing her earlier disquietude.

One icon especially caught her attention. It was bigger than the others and showed the scene of Last Judgement. The top part was dominated by the figure of Christ surrounded by saints and angels. Underneath His throne, a hand of God held the scales on which men’s deeds were weighed. The bottom section showed the devils torturing the sinners. In the right corner, a great beast opened its mouth, its red tongue becoming the fiery river sweeping the damned to hell.

Lidka was immersed in the complex details of the icon when a shadow fell over the wall.

She turned round.

Someone was behind the house, looking in through the window. The glass was very thick and with the sun behind the figure, Lidka could only make out a silhouette.

There was something about the head that wasn’t quite right, something that made her shiver in the hot, still air.

Whoever was spying on her, moved and passed by the next window. Was he going away or aiming for the door? The fear she had fought to suppress earlier on the road now erupted with full force. What was she supposed to do? If she went out, she risked bumping into the intruder, but if she stayed inside, she would be trapped.

She was looking around for a place to hide when a male voice called:

‘Mykola, ty vdoma?’

Lidka could feel her legs shaking as relief washed over her.

‘I’m here.’ Her voice came out as a croak. She cleared her throat and called again. ‘Over here!’

A young man walked in. He was so tall that he had to tilt his head when he came through the door. His longish, ash-blond hair was dripping wet. He, too, must have found the heat of the afternoon oppressive and had clearly just refreshed himself with cold water. Noticing Lidka, he frowned, taken aback, and brushed his hair back self-consciously.

‘Who are you? Where is Mykola?’

Although he spoke in Ruthenian, it wasn’t difficult for Lidka to understand him.

‘I’m sorry,’ she stammered. ‘I didn’t mean to intrude, but I was so thirsty. I came here in search of water. The door was open.’

‘Yes, Mykola never locks it,’ he explained, switching to Polish.

‘Who is he? The paintings-‘

A shadow moved over the wall and Lidka turned to the window catching a glimpse of a movement. The man must have seen it too for he said: ‘There’s something behind the house. Wait here.’

He rushed outside. Ignoring his command, Lidka followed him into the sunlit yard. She stopped by the well. There was some water left in the wooden bucket. Using her hands as a cup Lidka took a drink and splashed some over her face.

A moment later the young man returned.

‘I was too late. I only saw this dark shape…’ His voice was hesitant. Frowning, he looked into the distance, then shook his head as if chasing away an outlandish thought. ‘Whatever it was, it must have run down the path towards the river.’

‘It was not an animal,’ Lidka said and, despite the afternoon sun beating down on her, she shivered.

The man regarded her curiously: ‘Are you alone here?’

Uncomfortably aware of her dishevelled hair and bare feet, Lidka felt foolish.

‘I’ve come up the hill for the view,’ she said as if that was a sufficient explanation of her wild appearance. ‘I’m staying in Zakole with the Gadomskis.’

The man pointed at her bare feet and said: ‘Do watch out for adders.’

Adders! Instinctively, Lidka curled her toes. For a moment neither of them spoke, the silence between them spiked with questions. Lidka was the first to volunteer an explanation.

‘I didn’t mean to intrude. I was resting by the road when something moved among the trees. It gave me a fright.’

‘It was probably a deer,’ he said in an uncertain voice.

‘I wouldn’t really know, maybe. I saw the house and I came here. I was thirsty. There was nobody around, but the door was open, and I went in.’

‘Mykola must still be away.’

‘Did he paint all the icons?’ Lidka asked and he nodded. ‘They are wonderful. I was admiring them and then suddenly someone was behind the house. Staring through the window.’

‘Could you make out who it was?’

‘No, but I got so scared. I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t come.’

His grey eyes lit up when he smiled. He had an open face that betrayed feelings and thoughts. The incredulity he had regarded her with had been replaced by friendliness.

‘Come,’ he said. ‘I’ll walk you home.’

Back on the road, Lidka stopped to retrieve her shoes. She decided against putting them on. It would only make the blisters worse.

‘I’m afraid I’ll have to walk very slowly.’

‘I’m not in a hurry.’

That was a strange remark for a young village man when everyone was out in the fields from dawn to dusk. Didn’t he have work to attend to? But then, he didn’t seem to be one of the peasants. He certainly didn’t speak like one. True, his Polish was accented and punctuated with local words, but she suspected that most people in the village would only speak the local dialect. She was tempted to ask him about it but couldn’t think of a way to do so without appearing ill-mannered. He seemed preoccupied and when he spoke it was about what had just happened.

‘When you saw someone through the window have you noticed anything unusual?’

‘Like what?’

‘I don’t know. You said it was not an animal. I suppose I’m wondering… Are you sure it was, you know… a human?’

Lidka stopped and regarded him in astonishment. Brought up by a professor of philosophy, she was well versed in the art of logic. The conclusion she was reaching now was absurd.

‘Is there an alternative?’

He didn’t answer but crossed himself and muttered some words Lidka couldn’t quite make out but took for a prayer.

‘When I run after it, I glimpsed a shape. It looked like….’ He shook his head in denial of a thought. ‘Haven’t you noticed anything unusual? Be honest.’

Lidka thought of the silhouette blocking the sun and the fear that had gripped her. Be honest!

‘The head. It was oddly shaped, but… I was looking at the icon of the Last Judgement with all those devils. It must have been a trick of the light and my imagination. An illusion.’ Her voice was forceful. He was trying to suggest that there had been something supernatural at play, but she refused to get unnerved. ‘We’ve probably surprised a vagrant. I’m sure he was more scared than us.’

The man tossed his head stubbornly: ‘Something just didn’t feel right about this… person lurking among the trees.’