Sometime, somewhere, he heard a chorus of howls. They rang out through the darkness, over the forest and hills, over the lake and the meadow where corpses lay amid the dandelions. The wolf song soared, breaking into discordant notes and returning to harmony again. and Mikhail heard himself moan, in crude emulation of the howling, as pain racked his body. He felt sweat on his face, a savage burning in his wounds. He tried to open his eyes, but the lids were gummed shut by dried tears. In his nostrils was the odor of blood and meat, and he felt hot breath on his face. Something rumbled nearby, like a steady bellows.
The merciful darkness closed around him once more, and he slipped away in its velvet folds.
The high, sweet trilling of birds awakened him. He knew he was conscious, but he wondered for a moment if he were in heaven. If so, God hadn't healed his shoulder, nor had the angels kiss the sticky tears from his eyes. He had to almost rip the lids open.
Sunlight and shadow. Cold stones and the smell of ancient clay. He sat up, his shoulder shrieking.
No, not heaven, he realized. It was still the hell he'd fallen into yesterday. Or he thought a day must've passed, at least. This was a golden morning sun, glinting brightly in the tangle of trees and vines he could see through a large, glassless oval window. The vines had entered the window, and latched on to the wall where a mosaic of figures bearing candles had faded to shades.
He looked up, his neck muscles stiff and aching. above him was a high ceiling, crossed with wooden beams. He was sitting on the stone floor of a huge room, sunlight streaming through a series of windows, some of which still held fragments of dark red glass. Vines, drunk with the springtime sun, festooned the walls and dangled from the ceiling. The branch of an oak tree had entered one of the windows, and pigeons cooed in the rafters.
It occurred to him, quite simply, that he was a long way from home.
Mother, he thought. Father. alizia. His heart stuttered, and fresh tears ran down his cheeks. His eyes felt burned, as if scorched by sight. all dead. all gone. He rocked himself, staring at nothing. all dead. all gone. Bye-bye.
He sniffled once, and his nose drooled. and then he sat up straight again, his mind flaming with fear.
The wolves. Where were the wolvesi
He could sit here in this place, he decided. Sit right here until someone came for him. It wouldn't be long. Someone would surely come. Wouldn't theyi
He caught a metallic whiff, and looked to his right. On the mossy stone next to him was a piece of bloody meat that might have been a liver. Beside it lay a dozen or so blueberries.
Mikhail felt his lungs freeze. a scream hung in his bruised throat. He scrambled away from the gruesome offering, making an animalish moaning noise, and he found a corner and wedged himself into it. He shivered and retched, losing the remnants of his picnic lunch.
No one was going to come, he thought. Ever. He shook and moaned. The wolves had been here, and they might be back very soon. If he was going to live, he would have to find his way out of this place. He sat, huddled up and shivering, until he could force himself to stand. His legs were unsteady, and threatened to collapse. But then he got himself all the way up, one hand clamped to the throbbing fang wounds at his shoulder, and he lurched out of the room into a long corridor lined with more mosaics and moss-draped statues without heads or arms.
Mikhail saw an exit to his left and went through the portal. He found himself in what might have been, years-decades-ago, a garden. It was overgrown and choked with dead leaves and goldenrod, but here and there a sturdy flower had sprung from the soil. More statues stood about, gesturing like silent sentinels. In the midst of intersecting paths was a white stone fountain, full of rainwater. Mikhail paused at it, cupped his hands into the water, and drank. Then he splashed it on his face and over the shoulder wounds; the raw flesh burned, and made tears creep down his cheeks. But he bit his lower lip and hung on, then looked around to see exactly where he was.
The sun threw light and shadows upon the walls and turrets of a white palace. Its stones were the hue of bleached bone, and the roofs of its minarets and onion domes were the pale green of ancient bronze. The palace's turrets stretched up into the treetops. Stone stairways wound upward to observation platforms. Most of the windows had been broken, smashed by invading oak branches, but some of them remained; they were made of multipaned, multicolored glass, some dark red, others blue, emerald, ocher, and violet. The palace, a deserted kingdom, cast walls of white stone around the garden but had failed to keep out the forest. Oaks had burst upward through geometric walkways, shattering man's order with the brutal fist of nature. Vines had snaked through cracks in the walls, displacing hundred-pound stones. a thicket of black thorns had pushed out of the earth under the feet of a statue, thrown it over, and broken its neck, then embraced its victim. Mikhail walked through the green desolation and saw a crooked bronze gate ahead. He staggered to the gate and used all his strength to pull the heavy, ornate metal open. The hinges squealed. He faced another wall, this one formed of dense forest. In this wall there was no gate. No trails showed the way home. There was nothing but the woods, and Mikhail realized at once that it might go on for many miles and in each mile he might meet his death.
The birds sang, stupidly happy. Mikhail heard another sound as well; a fluttering noise, oddly familiar. He looked back at the palace, lifting his gaze toward the treetops. and there he saw it.
His kite's string had wrapped itself around the thin spire atop an onion dome. The kite fluttered in the breeze like a white flag.
Something moved, down on the ground, to his right.
Mikhail gasped, took a backward step, and hit the wall.
a girl in a tawny robe stood about thirty feet away, on the far side of the fountain.
She was older than alizia had been, probably fifteen or sixteen. Her long blond hair hung over her shoulders, and she stared at Mikhail with ice-blue eyes for a few seconds; then, without speaking, she glided to the fountain's rim, bent down, and pressed her mouth to the water. Mikhail heard her tongue lapping. She glanced up again, warily, before she resumed her drinking. Then she wiped her mouth with her forearm, swept her golden tresses out of her face, and straightened up from the fountain. She turned away and began walking back to the portal Mikhail had come through.
"Wait!" he called. She didn't. She disappeared into the white palace.
Mikhail was alone again. He must still be asleep, he thought. a dream had just walked through his field of vision and returned into slumber. But the throbbing pain at his shoulder was real enough, and so was the deep ache of other bruises. His memories-those, too, were terribly real. and so, he decided, must be the girl.
He crossed the overgrown garden, careful step by step, and went back into the palace.
The girl was nowhere to be seen. "Hello!" he called, standing in a long corridor. "Where are youi" No answer. He walked away from the room in which he'd awakened. He found other rooms, high-ceiling vaults, most of them without furniture, some with crudely fashioned wooden tables and benches. One chamber seemed to be a huge dining hall, but lizards scampered over pewter plates and goblets that had lain long unused. "Hello!" he kept calling, his voice becoming feeble as his strength quickly gave out. "I won't hurt you!" he promised.
He turned into another hallway, this one dark and narrow, lying toward the center of the palace. Water dripped from the damp stones, and green moss had caught hold on the walls, floor, and ceiling. "Hello!" Mikhail shouted; his voice cracked. "Where are youi"
"Right here," came the reply, from behind him.
He whirled around, his heart slamming, and pressed himself against the wall.
The speaker was a slender man with pale brown, gray-streaked hair and a scraggly beard. He wore the same kind of tawny robe the blond girl had worn; an animal skin, scrubbed of its hair. "What's all this noise abouti" the man asked, with a hint of irritation.
"I... I don't know... where... I am."
"You're with us," he answered, as if that explained everything.
Someone came up behind the man and touched his shoulder. "This is the new child, Franco," a woman said. "Be gentle."
"It was your choice. You be gentle. How can a person sleep with this mewling racketi" Franco belched, and then he abruptly turned and walked away, leaving Mikhail facing a short, round-bodied woman with long reddish-brown hair. She was older than his mother, Mikhail decided. Her face was cut and lined with deep networks of wrinkles. and her stocky, peasant's body with its hefty arms and legs was vastly different from his mother's svelte figure. This woman had the memory of field dirt under her fingernails. She, also, wore a similar animal-skin robe.
"My name," the woman said, "is Renati. What's yoursi"
Mikhail couldn't answer. He pressed against the mossy wall, afraid to move.
"I won't bite you," Renati said. Her languid, brown-eyed gaze flickered quickly to the wounds in the child's shoulder, then back to his face. "How old are youi"
"Sev-" No, that wasn't right. "Eight," he remembered.
"Eight." She repeated it. "and what name would I use, if I were to sing you a birthday songi"
"Mikhail," he said. and lifted his chin slightly. "Mikhail Gallatinov."
"Oh, you're a proud little bastard, aren't youi" She smiled, showing uneven but very white teeth; her smile was reserved, though not unfriendly. "Well, Mikhail, someone wants to see you."
"Someone who'll answer your questions. You do want to know where you are, don't youi"
"am I... in heaveni" he managed to ask.
"I fear not." She stretched out her arm. "Come, child, let's walk together."
Mikhail hesitated. Her hand waited for his. The wolves! he thought. Where are the wolvesi and then he slid his hand into hers, and her rough palm gripped him. She led him deeper into the palace.
They came to a set of descending stone stairs, illuminated by rays of light through a glassless window. "Watch your step," Renati told him, and they went down. Below was a smoky gloom, a warren of corridors and rooms that smelled of grave dirt. Here and there a little pile of pine cones burned, marking a trail through the catacombs. Vaults stood on either side, the names of those entombed and the dates of birth and death blurred by time. and then the boy and woman came out from the catacombs into a larger chamber, where a fire of pinewood logs spat in a grate and its bitter smoke wafted through the air in search of vents.
"Here he is, Wiktor," Renati announced.
Figures were huddled on the earth around the fire, all of them wearing what appeared to be deerskin robes. They shifted, looked toward the archway, and Mikhail saw their eyes glint.
"Bring him closer," said a man in a chair, sitting at the edge of the firelight.
Renati felt the child shiver. "Be brave," she whispered, and guided him forward.