He sat up, and heard water dripping down a wall of ancient stones. His vision was fogged by sleep and brain fever, but a small fire of pine branches smoldered in the center of the chamber and by its ruddy glow Mikhail could see the figure of a man standing over him. He said the first thing that came to him: "Fatheri"
"I'm not your father, boy." It was the voice of Wiktor, speaking with a hint of rough agitation. "You'll not call me that again."
"My... father." Mikhail blinked, trying to focus. Wiktor towered over him, clad in his deerskin robe with its snow-hare collar, his gray beard trailing down his chest. "Where's... my motheri"
"Dead. all of them are dead. You already know that; why do you persist in calling to ghostsi"
The little boy pressed his hand against his face. He was sweating, but his insides felt cold, as if he were July on the skin and January in the blood. His bones were throbbing, like a dull axblade chopping an ironwood tree. Where was hei he wondered. His father, mother, and sister... where were theyi It began to come back to him, through the murk of memory: the picnic, the shootings in the meadow, the bodies lying on scarlet-spattered grass. and the men after him, the crash of horse hooves through the underbrush. The wolves. The wolves. Here his mind sheared away, and the memories fled like children past a graveyard. But deep down he knew where he was-the depths of the white palace-and he knew the man standing before him like a barbarian king was both more and less than human.
"You've been with us for six days," Wiktor said. "You're not eating anything, not even the berries. Do you want to diei"
"I want to go home," Mikhail answered, his voice weak. "I want to be with my mother and father."
"You are home," Wiktor said. Someone coughed violently, and Wiktor glanced over with his keen amber eyes to where the shape of andrei lay under a cover of cloaks. The coughing turned into a choking noise, and andrei's body lurched. When the sound of mortal illness faded away, Wiktor returned his attention to the little boy. "Listen to me," he commanded, and squatted down on his haunches before Mikhail. "You're going to be sick soon. Very soon. You'll need your strength, if you're going to live through it."
Mikhail held his stomach, which felt hot and swollen. "I'm sick now."
"Not nearly like you're going to be." Wiktor's eyes shone like copper coins in the low red light. "You're a thin whelp," he decided. "Didn't your parents feed you any meati" He didn't wait for an answer, but grasped Mikhail's chin with his gnarled fingers and lifted the boy's face so it caught most of the fire's glow. "Pale as milk pudding," Wiktor said. "You won't be able to stand it. I can tell."
"Stand what, siri"
"Stand the change. The sickness that's going to come over you." Wiktor released his chin. "Don't eat, then. It would be a waste of good food. You're finished, aren't youi"
"I don't know, sir," Mikhail admitted, and shivered as a chill passed through his bones.
"I know. I've learned to recognize strong reeds and weak ones. a lot of weak reeds lie in our garden." Wiktor motioned outward, beyond the chamber, and andrei suffered another spasm of coughing. "all of us are born weak," Wiktor told the boy. "We have to learn to be strong, or we perish. a simple fact of life and death."
Mikhail was tired. He thought of a mop he'd once watched Dimitri use to swab the carriage, and he felt the way that wet old mop had looked. He lay down again, on a pallet of grass and pine straw.
"Boyi" Wiktor asked. "Do you know anything about what's happening to youi"
"No sir." Mikhail closed his eyes and squeezed them tight. His face felt as if it were made of the candle wax he used to dip his finger in and watch harden.
"They never do," Wiktor said, mostly to himself. "Do you know anything about germsi" He was addressing the boy again.
"Germs. Bacteria. Virus. You know what those things arei" again, he didn't wait for a response. "Look at this." Wiktor spat in his hand, and put the spittle-pooled palm in front of Mikhail's face. The boy looked at it obediently, saw nothing but spit. "It's in there," Wiktor said. "The pestilence and the miracle. It's right there, in my hand." He pulled his hand away, and Mikhail watched him lick the saliva back into his mouth. "I'm full of it," Wiktor said. "In my blood and my insides. My heart and lungs, my guts, my brain." He tapped his bald skull. "I'm infested with it," he said, and he stared forcefully at Mikhail. "Just as you are, right now."
Mikhail wasn't sure he understood what the man was talking about. He sat up again, his head pounding. Chills and fever played through his body, malicious partners in torment.
"It was in Renati's spit." Wiktor touched Mikhail's shoulder, where a bandage of leaves and some kind of brown herbal paste Renati had mixed was pressed to the inflamed, pus-edged wound. It was no more than a glancing touch, but the pain made Mikhail wince and draw a breath. "It's in you now, and it's either going to kill you or..." He paused and shrugged. "Teach you the truth."
"The truthi" Mikhail shook his head, puzzled and hazy in the brain. "about whati"
"Life," Wiktor said. His breath wafted into the boy's face, and it smelled of blood and raw meat. Mikhail saw flecks of something red in his beard, which also held bits of leaves and grass. "a life beyond dreams-or nightmares-depending on your point of view. Some might call it an affliction, a disease, a curse." He had sneered that last word. "I call it nobility, and I would only live one other life, if I could be reborn: I would know the wolf's way from birth, and be ignorant of that beast called a human being. Do you understand what I'm saying, boyi"
One thought was paramount in Mikhail's mind. "I want to go home now," he said.
"My God, we've brought a simpleton into the pack!" Wiktor almost shouted. He stood up. "There is no home for you now but here, with us!" He nudged with his sandal an uneaten piece of meat that lay on the floor near the boy's pallet; it was rabbit flesh, and though Renati had passed it over a flame a few times, it still oozed a little blood. "Don't eat!" Wiktor thundered. "In fact, I command you not to eat! The sooner you die, the sooner we can tear you to pieces and eat you!" That sent a shiver of pure terror through Mikhail, but his face, glistening with sweat, remained impassive. "So you leave this alone, do you hear mei" He kicked the piece of rabbit meat a few inches closer to Mikhail's side. "We want you to get weak and die!" The coughing of andrei broke his tirade. Wiktor turned away from the boy to go across the chamber, and he knelt at andrei's side and lifted the blanket. Mikhail heard the breath hiss between Wiktor's teeth, and Wiktor grunted and said, "My poor andrei," in a quiet, subdued voice. Then, abruptly, Wiktor stood up, shot a dark glance at Mikhail, and stalked out of the chamber.
Mikhail lay very still, listening to the sound of Wiktor's sandals scrape on the stairs going up. The little fire popped and spat sparks, and andrei's breathing was like a rumble of freight cars on a distant track. Mikhail shivered, full of frost, and stared at the bloody piece of rabbit meat.
I command you not to eat, Wiktor had said. Mikhail stared at the meat, and watched a fly buzz slowly around it. The fly landed on the meat and crawled happily over it, as if searching for a tender place from which to draw the first sip of juice. I command you not to eat.
Mikhail looked away. andrei coughed raggedly, twitched, and then lay still again. What was wrong with himi Mikhail wondered. Why was he so sicki His gaze slid back to the rabbit flesh. He thought of wolf fangs, distended and dripping, and in his mind's eye he saw a big pile of bones licked clean and white as October snow. His stomach mewled like a kitten. He looked away from the meat again. It was so bloody, so... awful. Such a raw thing would never be found on the gilded plates of the Gallatinov dining table. When was he going home, and where were his mother and fatheri Oh, yes. Dead. all dead. Something gripped tight in his mind, like a fist around a secret, and he couldn't think about his parents or his sister anymore. He stared at the rabbit flesh, and his mouth watered.
One taste, he thought. Just one. Would it be so badi
Mikhail reached out and touched the flesh. The fly, startled, buzzed around his head until he swatted it away. Mikhail drew his fingers back and looked at the faint smears of scarlet on the fingertips. He sniffed them. The odor of metal, a memory of his father oiling a silver sword. Then Mikhail licked his fingers, and tasted blood. It was not a bad taste, nor a particularly good one. It was faintly smoky, and a little bitter. But even so, it made his stomach growl louder and his mouth water more. If he died, the wolves-and Wiktor was one of them-would rip him to pieces. So he had to live; that was a simple truth. and if he wanted to live, he would have to force down the bloody meat. He waved the persistent fly away again and picked up the rabbit flesh. It felt slick and slightly oily between his fingers. Maybe there was a little bit of fur on it, too, but he didn't look too closely. He squeezed his eyes shut, opened his mouth. His stomach lurched, but it needed to be filled before it could be emptied. He pushed the flesh into his mouth and bit down.
Juices flooded over his tongue; they were sweet and gamy, a taste of wildness. Mikhail's head pounded and his spine ached, but his teeth worked as if they were the masters and everything else was servant to them. He tore hunks of flesh off and chewed them; it was a tough old rabbit, thickly muscled, and it didn't want to be swallowed without a struggle. Blood and juice trickled over his chin as he ate, and Mikhail Gallatinov-six days and a world away from the boy he used to be-tore the flesh between his teeth and swallowed it with famished relish. When he came to the bones, he scraped them clean and tried to crack them open to get at the marrow. One of the smaller bones burst apart, red marrow exposed. He thrust his tongue into the broken bone and dug out the congealed blood. He ate as if it were the grandest meal ever served on a gold plate.
Sometime later, the hollowed-out bones fell from his bloody fingers, and Mikhail sat on his haunches over the little pile and licked his lips.
It hit him with a frightening force: he'd liked the bloody meat. He'd liked it very much. and that was not all. He wanted more.
andrei suffered another fit of coughing that ended on a strangled note. The body stirred, and andrei called out weakly: "Wiktori Wiktori"
"He's gone," Mikhail said, but andrei kept calling for Wiktor in a voice that rose and fell. There was terror in that voice, and an awful weariness, too. Mikhail crawled across the stones to andrei's side. There was a bad smell over here, a sour and decayed odor. "Wiktori" andrei whispered, his face hidden in the folds of the cloaks, only his pale brown, sweat-damp hair showing. "Wiktor... please... help me."
Mikhail reached down and pulled the cloak away from andrei's face.
andrei was perhaps eighteen or nineteen years old, and his face-gleaming with sweat-was as gray as a well-used dishrag. He looked up at Mikhail with sunken brown eyes and gripped Mikhail's arm with skinny fingers. "Wiktor," andrei whispered. He tried to lift his head, but his neck wasn't strong enough. "Wiktor... don't let me die."
"Wiktor's not here." Mikhail tried to pull away, but the fingers clenched tighter.
"Don't let me die. Don't let me die," the young man pleaded, his eyes glassy. He coughed once, softly, and Mikhail saw his thin, sallow chest lurch. The next cough was stronger, and the one after that made andrei's body shake. andrei's coughing turned into strangling, and Mikhail tried to work his arm loose but andrei wouldn't let him go. There was a terrible rattling deep in andrei's chest, a wet, thick, sliding noise. andrei's mouth opened wide, and he coughed violently with tears streaming from his eyes.
Something oozed out of andrei's mouth. Something long and white and wriggling.
Mikhail blinked, and felt the blood drain out of his face as he watched the worm writhe on the stones beside andrei's head.
andrei coughed once more, and there was a sound of a heavy mass breaking apart in his lungs. and then they flooded out of his mouth. The white worms tangled and entwined around each other, the first hundred or so clean and ghost white, but then the next ones dappled with crimson lung blood. andrei shivered and retched, his eyes staring at the shock-frozen boy, but he couldn't open his mouth wide enough for all the worms to get out. They began to ooze through his nostrils as well, and andrei strangled and choked as his body expelled its cargo. and still they surged out, now dark scarlet and sluggish, and as they spilled onto the stones Mikhail screamed and wrenched his arm loose, leaving bits of his skin under andrei's fingernails. Mikhail tried to rise, stumbled over his own feet and fell backward to the floor, landing hard on the base of his spine. andrei reached for him, trying to find his hand, and lifting up out of his bed of cloaks, with blood-black worms frothing from his mouth. Mikhail began to choke, too, and as he scuttled away across the stones he felt the rabbit meat rising; he swallowed it down again, thinking of wolf fangs tearing him to shreds. andrei got to his knees, and then with a terrible lung-ripping cough he expelled a black knot of worms the size of a man's fist. They streamed from his mouth and down his chest, and were followed by dark ribbons of pure blood. andrei fell onto his face. He was naked, his body already the yellowish-gray of a corpse. His wiry muscles jittered, his flesh rippling and seething under a sheen of sweat. Mikhail saw darkness spreading across andrei's back: brown hairs, bursting from the pores. In a matter of seconds hairs covered andrei's back and shoulders and were creeping down his buttocks and thighs, darkening his arms, bursting from his hands and fingers. andrei lifted his face, and Mikhail saw it caught in the change, blood still drooling over the lengthening jaw. His eyes had retreated further under a protruding brow, his scalp hair sleek and shining, his throat banded with dark hair. andrei shivered as his spine began to crack and contort, and he opened his fanged mouth to shriek-a hideous commingling of animal and human anguish.
a hand gripped Mikhail by the scruff of the neck and lifted him off the floor. another hand-the fingers rough and purposeful-twisted his face away from the grisly spectacle. He was pressed into a shoulder, and he smelled the musky odor of deerskin. "Don't look." It was Renati's voice. "Don't look, little one," she said, and put her hand firmly against the back of his head.
He could still hear, and that was bad enough. The half-human, half-wolf shrieking went on, coupled with the noise of bones popping. Someone else entered the chamber, and Renati shouted, "Get out!" Whoever it was quickly retreated. The shrieking turned into a high, thin howling that made Mikhail's skin crawl and drove him to the edge of madness, and he squeezed his eyes shut as Renati gripped the back of his skull. Mikhail realized then that he had put his arms around her neck. The agonized howling echoed through the chamber.
and then there was a choking whine, like a machine losing power and dying down. a last few fits of raspy breathing, and silence.
Renati put Mikhail down. He kept his face averted as she walked to the corpse's side and knelt down. Nikita, the almond-eyed Mongol with coal-black hair, came into the chamber, glanced quickly at Mikhail and then at the woman. "andrei's dead," he said, a statement of fact.
Renati nodded. "Where's Wiktori"
"Gone hunting. For him." He jerked a thumb at Mikhail.
"Just as well, then." Renati reached down, scooped up a handful of bloody worms and tossed them on the fire. They writhed and crisped. "Wiktor didn't want to watch him die." Nikita came forward to stand beside Renati, and as they talked-something about a garden-Mikhail's curiosity pulled him across the chamber. He stood between Nikita and Renati and peered down at andrei's corpse.
It was the carcass of a wolf with brown fur and dark, sightless eyes. Its tongue lolled in a little pool of blood. Its right leg was the leg of a human being, and at the end of its wiry forelegs were two human hands, the fingers gripping at the stones of the floor as if trying to wrench them apart. Instead of horror, Mikhail felt a stab of pain in his heart. The fingers were pale and skinny, and they were the same fingers that only a few moments ago had been clutching his arm. The absolute power of death hit him with full force, somewhere between the chin and the crown of his head. But it was a blow that cleared his vision, and he saw at that instant that his mother, father, and sister were gone forever, and so were his days of dreaming on the end of a kite.
Renati looked at him and snapped, "Get back!" Mikhail obeyed, and only then did he realize he'd been standing on worms.
Nikita and Renati wrapped the carcass in a deerskin cloak, lifted it between them, and took it away, into a part of the white palace where shadows reigned. Mikhail sat on his haunches next to the fire, his blood moving in his veins like ice-clogged rivers. He stared at andrei's dark blood on the stone. Mikhail shivered and held his palms toward the fire glow. You're going to be sick soon, he remembered Wiktor saying. Very soon.
Mikhail couldn't get warm. He sat closer to the fire, but even its heat on his face didn't thaw his bones. There was a tickling in his chest, and he coughed, the noise as explosive as a gunshot between the damp stone walls.