In the murky gloom beneath an enormous, low-hanging fig tree, where an ancient retaining wall against a low hill abutted a freestanding one more recently built, a section of the older stonework separated along unmarked seams between the stones and swung back into stygian darkness. A figure, shapeless in generous skirts and hunched beneath a dark shawl, emerged and moved to the edge of the tree’s faint moon-shadow. There, at the edge of the churchyard, she waited until a cloud slid across the crescent moon, plunging the light-dappled scene into intense darkness. Carrying a basket held high, she stepped out in a shuffling gait that limited any jarring of its contents tucked beneath an un-dyed mantle of coarse weave. At the front corner of the church building, she paused and looked around, making certain even at this late hour that no one was about. She stole along the base of the wall on the street side to the wide crescent of steps fanning out before the church’s main doors. She crept up high enough to set the basket on the top step, turned and, with the re-emergence of the moon and as silent as the other shadows, retraced her steps. Without further pause she entered the darkness at the joining of the walls, and the secret portal closed.
The shadows cast by the moon had moved little by the time the priest’s slow footsteps echoing through the dark streets approached the tall front doors of his church. He had spent the hours since mid-afternoon giving what comfort he could to the family of one of his older parishioners after officiating at the funeral. The man had been a good husband and provider. He should have died peacefully in bed surrounded by those who loved him, not struck down in the street as a response to a claimed but non-existent insult. Life for his people under the heel of the Ottoman Turks was trying, indeed.
The priest yearned for his bed and the oblivion of sleep, but he was confident that a supper kept warm would be waiting for him even at this hour nearer to midnight than dusk. And, even though he had little appetite, he would do his best to eat most of it. The sisters did try.
Centuries old and grimy with encrusted soot, the granite blocks of the old gothic church’s outer walls, dark and shadowy even in daylight, seemed in the night to soak up the light of the waning moon like a sponge from the nearby sea sops spilled wine. Still, he had trod those worn steps so many times over the years that he would have noticed even a newly added pebble. As he began to climb, moonlight leached details from surrounding shadows, and the basket materialized out of the gloom on the top step.
Probably something left for the family. Not wanting to further disturb them, a thoughtful donor must have left it at the church rather than at their house. Or perhaps it was something for him and the three, aging religious sisters cloistered next door. A loaf of good bread would be a welcome change from the sincere but lamentable efforts of the sisters.
He was reaching to draw back the cloth covering the prize when the fabric moved. It could not have been caused by a breeze, for there was none. With a sour taste coming into his mouth at the prospect of what he now suspected, he closed his eyes and silently voiced a prayer that it was a loaf of bread with possibly a mouse gnawing at the crust, knowing all the while that it would not be so. Alas, such a gift, if it was what he now feared, was not all that rare in these days of oppression so blatant as to be laughable were the results less deadly. Too many times in the nearly fifty years he had served at the church, the responsibility of a young life had been left in his hands.
He pulled the cloth back and peered into the face of an infant whose age would be measured in weeks. Wide-open, dark eyes peered back at him, though the babe remained silent. He lowered the cloth back to block the chill air and picked up the basket. There was no note pleading that the church might care for the child in the place of its killed or disabled parents. Of course, such a supplication was unnecessary; although, it would have been helpful if he could at least provide a name to the child’s new family. But, then, perhaps going through a christening would better engender feelings of family with whomever he selected. He just hoped he could find a suitable family before he had to send the child over to the orphanage. They had too many already, and he was disturbed by the growing prospect of the church losing the building to the grasping clutches of the Ottomans.
Not ten steps inside the front door a sister relieved him of the basket. He asked her to determine the nature of this latest donation and headed for the rectory wing. A half hour later, the sister interrupted his night prayers to report a healthy and well-fed baby girl, happy in fresh swaddling and sleeping peacefully. She left him with a steaming bowl of stew that filled his room with the gamey aroma of mutton, and he sat fishing for pieces of meat while pondering potential solutions of equally scanty proportions.
After mass the following Sunday, the priest stood outside the front doors while his parishioners trickled out. As their priest and confessor, there was little he didn’t know about every one of them. As he watched Nikolai and Raina Vasov step into the sunlight with Nikolai’s older brother, Khristo, the pieces of the puzzle he had been wrestling with shifted, and it was as though a heavy load carried awkwardly on his shoulder settled into place. The load was no lighter, just more easily borne. Khristo’s wife, Katrina, came after them carrying her daughter, Ariana, now two years old. Ariana’s two brothers, Giorgio, six years, and Sergio, eight years, emerged from the church, tore off down the steps and disappeared around the corner of the building in whatever game seized them. The priest had officiated at the younger couple’s wedding three years earlier, and they were still childless. He knew they loved children from the way they doted on their niece and nephews. Khristo and Nicolai’s younger sister, Alexandrina, had recently married and was also childless, but she and her new husband, Miklos, had not yet had time enough to create a family. Nikolai was captain on one of the ships owned by Khristo, himself the oldest son and now patriarch of an old and prosperous merchant family in Varna, which was one of the largest seaports on the Black Sea. Nikolai and Raina, both good Christians, would be good parents. The priest had hopes that life as a Vasov might ensure the foundling of a good life.
He caught Raina’s eye when the young woman glanced in his direction. With a smile, he beckoned for her to bring Nikolai and to join him.
Khristo Vasov walked into the room where his wife sat at a table with Raina. On the floor nearby four-year-old Ariana played with her adopted cousin, Sofia, now a toddler. When Khristo locked eyes momentarily with Kristina, their hushed conversation stopped and they both sat silent while he pulled out a chair and sat. Even Ariana could tell all was not right, and she went to her mother to cling to her skirts. As she gazed up at him, he had to tell himself it was not condemnation he could see in her large brown eyes. Raina picked up Sofia and sat back at the table. He turned from them and raised the purse in his hand, comfortably heavy if not for what it represented, and set it on the table.
Turning back to face his small family, he forced his mouth into a smile his eyes denied and muttered, “I could not refuse.”
Kristina reached a hand across to touch his. “But, my love, Vasov has long been a name of importance in Varna. Is it to mean so little now?”
Khristo fingered the purse, working loose its tightly drawn cord. “Little enough to the Turk. He is an uncle of the Sultan’s newest wife, and he has much influence. He wants the wealth he thinks my ships and docks will give him.”
“But, if you refuse –”
“If I refuse, he will take it, anyway, and probably my head, as well. The Turk would still become a merchant, and you would not even have this.” He brushed his hand over the top of the bag causing it to flop over, spilling some of the coins onto the table. “Barely the price of even one of the ships. I don’t know why they even pretend. It is like a game for them to see how many ways they can make our people squirm. If they don’t take it with taxes, they just take what they want, anyway. Christians are expected to be grateful for simply being allowed to live. It is too often we are not.” His words were becoming harsh.
Ariana began to cry, and Katrina helped her climb up onto her lap. “Shush, little one. Your father is not angry with us.”
Khristo laid his hand across the velvet purse and peered at it for a moment before resuming, his voice once again the soft blanket his family knew. “There should be enough gold if I use it wisely. We must leave Varna and this house that is no longer ours. …Yes,” he added at Katrina’s sudden intake of breath. “He included the house and storehouses in the purchase. We must leave Bulgaria.” Turning his eyes to Raina, he said, “All of us. There is time to get word to Nikolai before he sails. You must come with us…Alexandrina and Miklos, too. The Turk will, no doubt, place his own captains on the ships, and it would amuse them to throw their predecessors into the sea. I just wish I could take all my captains. I should be able to get word to those that are still in port. I might be able to save at least some from a long swim.”
Katrina’s eyes grew wide and fearful. “But – but where...?”
He turned his eyes from hers after a moment to gaze out the window and beyond the wall of the courtyard. “We will go to America. They say Christians in America are free, freer than we have been under the Ottomans for more than four hundred years. I will make a new life there for you and…” He reached out for his daughter to climb onto his lap and wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. “…and for you, my little flower – you and your brothers, and, yes, for you, too, Sofia.”
Katrina reached out and touched his arm, “But…but, Khristo, Nikolai and Alexandrina, too? What if –”
“Nikolai is my brother. Alexandrina is my sister. Family takes care of family, no matter what. It has always been our way – family takes care of family.”
The following day, pre-dawn
Midway down a hallway gaped the yawning hole of a secret passage lit from within by a flickering torch in a sconce. Nikolai shifted Sofia, wide-eyed but silent, to his other arm as he watched Raina helping Ariana down a steep flight of steps just beyond the portal. Ahead of them, Miklos waited at the bottom with a torch while Alexandrina went on past him, herding Ariana’s brothers ahead of her. The tunnel beyond him flickered with the light of his torch. Katrina took Sofia from her father and held her adopted niece tight as she shared a nervous smile with Khristo, who gripped the secret door from just inside and to one side. They gazed a final time back out into the grand, old mansion they had shared and called home.
Sounds of hollow pounding echoed through the rooms and halls, and her forced smile lost all but its anxiety.
With a humorless grin that reflected the disdain glinting in his eyes, Khristo said, “The soldiers of the new merchant of Varna seem impatient.”
“How long will the door hold them out?” his brother asked.
“No more than minutes once they get their ram – but days, at least, before they find this door once I close it.”
“Years ago, when your father first had this tunnel dug, did you ever think it would actually be used.”
He paused long enough to reflect on the years. “I don’t know if my despair ever truly got that low. But it is a foolish rabbit not have a back door from his warren if he must live among wolves.”
Following Nikolai, Katrina slipped past Khristo, and down the steps. Khristo pulled the door closed, confident that its seams blending with the tiled mosaic on the other side would sufficiently conceal its existence. He took only a moment to set the heavy locking bars in place, and then, taking the torch from its sconce, he descended to join the others in the long-unused burrow.
When he caught up to Katrina, her words quivered with fear as well as the exertion of running with Sofia in her arms. “Are you certain we must flee? Perhaps they only mean to ask questions about the running of the business.”
Khristo eased her burden by taking his niece into his own arms. “If only it were so,” he said. “But, if such a thing could be, our people would not have suffered as we have through the years. I know the Turk. He let me have yesterday merely as a tease. Now he would have his gold back along with my head for having the effrontery of taking it in the first place. Quickly, now – the boat cannot wait long.”