The man named Wiktor sat, watching impassively, as the boy was brought into the ruddy light. Wiktor was draped in a deerskin cloak, the high collar sewn from the fur of snow hares. He wore deerskin sandals, and around his throat was a necklace of small, linked bones. Renati stopped, one hand on Mikhail's unwounded shoulder. "His name is Mikhail," she said. "His family name is-"
"We don't care about family names here," Wiktor interrupted, and the tone of his voice said he was used to being obeyed. His amber eyes glinted with reflected fire as he examined Mikhail from dirty boots to tousled black hair. Mikhail, at the same time, was inspecting what appeared to be a majesty of the underworld. Wiktor was a large man, with broad shoulders and a bull neck. His acorn-shaped skull was bald, and he had a gray beard that grew over his stocky chest to his lap. Mikhail saw that under the cloak the man wore no clothing. Wiktor's face was composed of bony ridges and hard lines, his nose sharp and the nostrils flared. His deep-set eyes stared at Mikhail without blinking.
"He's too little, Renati," someone else said. "Throw him back." There was jabbing laughter, and Mikhail looked at the other figures. The man who'd spoken-a boy himself, only about nineteen or twenty years old-had dusky red hair smoothed back from his youthful face, his hair allowed to grow long around his shoulders. He had no room to talk, because he was small-boned and fragile looking, almost swallowed up by his cloak. Beside him sat a thin young woman about the same age, with waves of dark brown hair and steady, iron-gray eyes. The blond-haired girl sat across the fire, watching Mikhail. Not far away crouched another man, this one perhaps in his late thirties or early forties, dark-haired and with the sharp, asiatic features of a Mongol. Beyond the fire, a figure lay huddled under a shroud of robes.
Wiktor leaned forward. "Tell us, Mikhail," he said, "who those men were, and how you came to be in our forest." Our forest, Mikhail thought. That was a strange thing to say. "My... mother and father," he whispered. "My sister. all of them... are..."
"Dead," Wiktor said flatly. "Murdered, from the looks of it. Do you have relativesi People who'll come searching for youi"
Dimitri, was his first thought. No, Dimitri had been there on the lakeshore, rifle in hand, and hadn't raised it against the killers. Therefore he must be a killer, too, though a silent one. Sophiei She wouldn't come here alone. Would Dimitri kill her, too, or was she also a silent murderessi "I don't..." His voice broke, but he steeled himself. "I don't think so, sir," he answered.
"Sir," the red-haired boy mocked, and laughed again.
Wiktor's gaze darted to one side, his eyes glinting like copper coins, and the laughter ceased. "Tell us your story, Mikhail," Wiktor invited.
"We..." This was a hard thing to do. The memories were as sharp as razors, and they slashed deep. "We... came on a picnic," he began. Then he told the tale of a drifting kite, gunshots, his flight into the forest, and the ravaging wolves. Tears trickled down his cheeks, and his empty stomach churned. "I woke up here," he said. "and... next to me... was something all bloody... I think it came out of one of those men."
"Damn it!" Wiktor scowled. "Belyi, I told you to cook it!"
"I've forgotten how," the red-haired young man replied with a helpless shrug.
"You pass it over a fire until it burns! It keeps the blood from running! Must I do everything myselfi" Wiktor regarded Mikhail again. "But you ate the berries, yesi"
The blueberries, Mikhail remembered. That was another strange thing; he hadn't mentioned the berries. How did Wiktor know about them, unless...
"You didn't touch them, did youi" The man lifted his thick gray brows. "Well, perhaps I don't blame you. Belyi here is a complete fool. But you must eat something, Mikhail. Eating is very important, for your strength."
Mikhail thought he gasped; maybe not.
"Take off your shirt," Wiktor commanded.
Before Mikhail's numbed fingers could find the little wooden buttons, Renati stepped forward and unhooked them. She gently drew the cloth away from the furrows in his shoulder and removed the shirt. Then she lifted the grimy garment to her nostrils and inhaled.
Wiktor stood up from his chair. He was tall, almost six feet two, and he came toward Mikhail like a giant. Mikhail took a retreating step, but Renati clasped his arm and held him in place. Wiktor grasped the wounded shoulder, none too easily, and looked at the blood-crusted, oozing slashes.
"Nasty," Wiktor said to the woman. "Going to be some infection. a little deeper and he would've lost the use of his arm. Did you know what you were doingi"
"No," she admitted. "He just looked good to eat."
"In that case, your aim is atrocious." He pressed the flesh, and Mikhail clenched his teeth to stifle a moan. Wiktor's eyes sparkled. "Look at him. He doesn't make a noise." again he pressed the wounds, and thick fluid spooled out. It smelled wild and rank. Mikhail blinked away tears. "So you don't mind a little pain, do youi" Wiktor asked. "That's a good thing." He released the boy's shoulder. "If you make friends with pain, you have a friend for life."
"Yes sir," Mikhail said hoarsely. He stared up at the man, and wavered on his feet. "When... when can I go home, pleasei"
Wiktor ignored the question. "I want you to meet the others, Mikhail. You know our fool, Belyi. Next to him is his sister Pauli." He nodded toward the thin young girl. "That's Nikita." The Mongol. "across the fire is alekza. Your teeth are showing, my dear." The blond girl smiled slightly, a hungry smile. "I think you've probably already met Franco. He prefers to sleep upstairs. You know Renati, and you know me." There was a hollow coughing, and Wiktor motioned to the figure lying under the cloaks. "andrei isn't feeling well today. Something he ate." The sick coughing continued, and both Nikita and Pauli went over to kneel beside the figure.
"I'd like to go home now, sir," Mikhail persisted.
"ah, yes." Wiktor nodded, and Mikhail saw his gaze cloud over. "The matter of home." He walked back to the fire, where he knelt down and offered his palms to the heat. "Mikhail," he said quietly as andrei's coughing faded, "very soon you're going to be..." He paused, searching for the correct words. "In need of comfort," was what he supplied. "In need of... shall we say... family."
"I... have a..." He trailed off. His family lay dead, out in the meadow. His shoulder wounds throbbed again.
Wiktor reached into the fire and pulled out a bit of fiery branch, holding it where the flames had not yet charred. "Truth is like fire, Mikhail," he said. "It either heals or it destroys. But it never-never-leaves what it touches unchanged." His head slowly swiveled, and he stared at the boy. "Can you stand the flames of truth, Mikhaili"
"I think you can," Wiktor said. "If not... then you were already dead."
He dropped the branch into the flames and stood up. He took off his sandals and drew his muscular arms out of the cloak to let it rest on his shoulders. He closed his eyes.
"Stand back." Renati pulled at Mikhail, tension in her voice. "Give him room."
across the fire alekza sat up on her haunches, the fine blond down on her legs glinting like spun gold. Nikita and Pauli watched, kneeling on either side of andrei. Belyi rubbed his hand across his lips, his pale face flushed and anxious.
Wiktor's eyes opened. They were dreamy, fixed on a far distance-a wilderness, perhaps, of the mind. Sweat sparkled on his face and chest, as if he were straining at some inner effort.
Mikhail said, "Wha-" but Renati quickly shushed him.
Wiktor closed his eyes once more. The muscles of his shoulders quivered, and the tawny robe with its snow-hare collar slid off to the floor. Then he bent his body forward, his spine bowing, and his fingertips touched the earth. He sighed deeply, followed by a quick intake of breath. His beard hung to the ground.
June one year ago, Mikhail and his sister had gone by train with their parents to see a circus in Minsk. There had been a performer whose bizarre talent had stayed with Mikhail. The Rubber Man had leaned over in the same position that Wiktor now assumed, and the Rubber Man's spine had stretched with brittle cracking noises like sticks being stepped on. Those sounds now came from Wiktor's backbone, but it was clear in another few seconds that instead of lengthening, his torso was compressing. Bands of muscle stood out around Wiktor's rib cage and ran down along his thighs like quivering bundles of piano wires. Sweat gleamed on the man's back and shoulders, and a darkness of fine hairs suddenly began to spread over the slick flesh like clouds moving across a summer field. His shoulders bowed forward, muscles straining upward under the skin. Bones popped, merry little sounds, and there was the noise of sinews bending and re-forming like squealing hinges.
Mikhail stepped backward, colliding with Renati. She held his arm, and he stood watching a demon from Hades struggle with the flesh of a man.
Short gray hairs emerged from Wiktor's scalp, from the back of his neck, from his arms and buttocks, thighs and calves. His cheeks and forehead rippled with hair, and his beard had clutched hold of his throat and chest like a phantasmagoric vine. Beads of sweat dripped from Wiktor's nose; it cracked, bringing a grunt from him, and began to change its shape. He lifted his hands to his face, and Mikhail saw the flesh writhe beneath his gray-haired fingers.
Mikhail tried to turn and run, but Renati said, "No!" and held him tighter. He couldn't bear to watch any more of this; he felt as if his brain were about to burst open in his head, and what would ooze out would be black as swamp slime. He lifted his hand, put his fingers over his eyes-but he left himself a narrow crack, and through it he watched Wiktor's shadow contort on the wall in the leaping firelight.
The shadow was still that of a man, but it was rapidly becoming both more and less. Mikhail couldn't shut his ears; the cracking of bones and squealing of sinews were about to drive him mad, and the smoky air smelled of rank wildness, like the inside of a beast's cage. He saw the contorted shadow lift its arms, as if in supplication.
There was a fast, shallow breathing. Mikhail closed the gap between his fingers. The breathing began to slow and deepen, becoming a husky rasp. Then, finally, a smooth bellows rumble.
"Look at him," Renati said.
Tears of terror streaked from his eyes. He whispered, "No... please... don't make me!"
"I won't make you." Renati released his arm. "Look if you choose. If not... then not."
Mikhail kept his hand over his eyes. The bellows breath neared him. Heat brushed his fingers. Then the noise of breathing faded as the thing backed away. Mikhail shuddered, choking down a sob. Truth is like fire, he thought. already he felt like a pile of ashes, burned beyond all recognition of what had been before.
"I told you he was too small." Belyi sneered from across the chamber.
The sound of that mocking voice caused a flame to spark at the center of ashes. There was still something left, after all, to burn. Mikhail drew a deep breath and held it, his body trembling. Then he released it, and dropped his hand from his face.
Not ten feet away, the amber-eyed wolf with sleek gray fur sat on its haunches, watching him with intense attention.
"Oh," Mikhail whispered, and his knees buckled. He fell to the floor, his head spinning. Renati started to help him up, but the wolf made a low grunt deep in its throat and she retreated.
Mikhail was left to stand on his own. The wolf watched, head cocked slightly to one side, as Mikhail struggled up to his knees, and that was as far as he could get for now. His shoulder was a mass of pain, and his mind spun like a kite seeking a balancing tether.
"Look at him!" Belyi said. "He doesn't know whether to scream or shit."
The wolf spun toward Belyi and snapped its jaws shut about two inches in front of the young man's nose. Belyi's sardonic grin fractured.
Mikhail stood up.
Wiktor turned back to him and advanced. Mikhail took a single step in retreat, then halted. If he was going to die, he would join his parents and sister in heaven, a long way from here. He waited for what was to be.
Wiktor came on toward him, stopped-and sniffed Mikhail's hand. Mikhail dared not move. Then, satisfied with what he smelled, the wolf lifted his hind leg and sprayed a stream of urine onto Mikhail's left boot. The warm, acidic-odored liquid got on Mikhail's trousers and soaked through to his skin.
The wolf finished its task and stepped back. He opened his mouth wide, fangs gleaming, and lifted his head toward the ceiling.
Mikhail, fighting on the edge of another faint, felt Renati's strong hand grip his arm. "Come on," she urged. "He wants you to eat something. We'll try the berries first."
Mikhail allowed her to guide him out of the chamber, his legs wooden. "It's going to be fine now," she said, sounding relieved. "He's marked you. That means you're under his protection."
Before they got very far beyond the archway, Mikhail looked back. On the wall he saw a fire-scrawled shadow, lurching to its feet.
Renati took his hand, and they ascended the stone stairs.