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All people and events depicted in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.





PROLOGUE


Crack. A pistol shot echoed around the snow-capped peaks. Startled jackdaws rose from their nests. Night had begun to fall, and with it came the all-pervading cold made all the more merciless by a gusting wind.

Down amongst the twenty or so dwellings huddled together on a narrow ledge high in the Caucasus Mountains, a group of women redoubled their ululating as they prepared a funereal supper. The men began to chant salaams, which carried to the tiny group of mourners clustered around the freshly dug graves.

Sergei, in his long grey overcoat and wide-topped sheepskin hat, gazed down at the two bodies lying at his feet in open rough pine coffins, and bowed his head in respectful silence. ‘So young, so very young,’ he sighed, ‘yet their lives are over. They died for the cause. They are heroes.’

Then he stared thoughtfully at the lights of two distant villages, the one where he was born perched high above the other, under a towering rock peak which protected it from the worst rigors of the winter blizzards. These were his people, his mountains – range after range stretching into the mists.

Somehow, they seemed to give him the courage to glance across at Alexei, the local partisan leader, a giant of a man with an ugly scar on his right cheek which his black beard could not conceal. Their eyes did not meet and neither spoke.

A voice growled: ‘Good men, Comrade Sergei. This is Captain Yusuf’s work – not many can shoot like that.’

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