MOSCOW – It was an iconic image of hope in the death and chaos that ended the three-day Beslan (search) school siege — a girl's bloodied hand clutching a golden cross.
The girl shown in an Associated Press photo that ran on front pages worldwide is now recovering in a Moscow hospital, a piece of shrapnel embedded in her brain.
Viktoria Ktsoyeva (search), 14, said she prayed every day while held captive, not letting go of the cross even as she plunged into unconsciousness after being wounded in the violent climax of the siege that killed more than 330 hostages.
"I prayed that I would stay alive and that everything would be good again," Viktoria told the AP in her room at Children's City Clinical Hospital No. 9, sitting on her bed, barrettes holding back her long black hair.
When masked militants came to her school Sept. 1, Viktoria said she couldn't believe her eyes. "I never thought in my life I could be caught up in a terrorist attack."
After being herded into the school with more than 1,200 other hostages, Viktoria and her 9-year-old brother, Artur, found each other. He had been in the bathroom outside the school and probably could have run away, but Viktoria's mother, Tatyana Ktsoyeva, said he decided to stay with his sister.
Fearing the chain holding the cross around her neck might break, Viktoria took it off and wrapped it around her left hand when the siege began.
The cross was a gift from her Orthodox parents that replaced one from her baptism that somehow got lost. Viktoria said she wasn't very religious, but always wore the cross anyway -- even while sleeping.
During the siege, the tiny cross became her talisman of hope. "All three days I held it in my hand and prayed," Viktoria said.
Her mother was praying too, keeping vigil with other parents near the school. Other relatives went to church services daily and lit votive candles.
"Every day we had hope that our children would come home," Ktsoyeva said. "We knew if it went on longer, we'd only be able to carry our dead children out of there."
Viktoria and her brother were first held in the main gym — which was packed with explosives — and the teenager said she was certain she would die if they went off.
The siblings later moved to an adjacent room, and when Viktoria heard the first explosion Sept. 3, as the standoff spiraled to its violent end, a bomb planted near her didn't go off. She said a teacher quickly disconnected the wires to the device and threw it out the window.
As gunfire erupted, adults in the room told everyone to scream "Don't shoot!" to the forces outside. "Maybe they didn't understand or didn't know who was shooting, but they still all were firing — both our (troops) and also the terrorists," Viktoria said.
Viktoria ran. She remembers the horror of escaping through the gym and seeing the bodies there — some without arms or legs — including those of friends, parents and teachers.
At one point, Viktoria was hit in the head. As she lay wounded, Artur pleaded with her: "Don't die. Don't die. Open your eyes. Don't die." At one point, he even held her eyes open with his hands.
Soldiers later passed her out a window to safety, the cross still in her hand. Her picture was taken soon after at a nearby triage tent, a bandage around her head and her white blouse stained with blood. Artur suffered only scratches on his legs from broken glass.
Viktoria said as she was fading in and out of consciousness, she clung to hope, and to her cross.
"I felt that if I had that cross in my hand and if it was still there, then everything would be fine," she said.
Now, the only signs of her wound are three small stitches on the right side of her forehead. But X-rays show a half-inch piece of shrapnel in the center of her brain.
Dr. Maxim Vladimirov, her neurosurgeon, said the shrapnel could have hit a major artery or affected Viktoria's ability to move. "She's very lucky," Vladimirov said.
For now, doctors are planning to leave the shrapnel in place: They will only operate if complications develop.
After days of being confined to bed, Victoria took her first cautious steps Wednesday. She's expected to be hospitalized for about a month, and then to travel with her family to a sanatorium for further recuperation.
The cross is at her family's apartment in Beslan, still stained with blood; her father and brother plan will bring it to Moscow later.
These days, Viktoria wears a brown cross that was a gift from a priest at the hospital, where a few small religious icons rest on the windowsill alongside a small menagerie of stuffed animals.
Viktoria once wanted to be an economist, but now plans to become a pediatrician.
And from now on, Viktoria said, she will be in church every Sunday, her cross over her heart where it belongs.