The golden weave of days became tinged with silver. Frost gleamed in the forest, and the hardwoods stood naked before the bitter wind. It was going to be a bad winter, Renati had said as she watched the bark thicken on the trees. The first snow fell in early October, and covered the white palace with white.
as the winds of November shrieked and the snow blew like scattershot, the pack huddled together in the depths of the palace, around a fire that was never allowed to burn too high or completely extinguish. Mikhail's body felt sluggish, and he wanted to sleep a lot, though Wiktor kept his head filled with questions from the books; Mikhail had never known there were so many questions, and even in his sleep he dreamed of question marks. Before very long, he began to dream in foreign languages: German and English, in which Wiktor drilled him with merciless repetition. But Mikhail's mind had sharpened, as well as his instincts, and he was learning.
alekza's stomach swelled. She stayed curled up a lot, and the others always gave her extra portions of the kill. They never changed within sight of Mikhail; they always went up the stairway and into the corridors on two legs before they left the white palace to hunt on four. Sometimes they brought back fresh, dripping meat, sometimes they returned sullen and empty-handed. But there were a lot of rats around, drawn to the heat of the fire, and those were easily caught. Mikhail knew he was one of the pack now, and accepted as such, but he still felt like what he was: a cold, often miserably uncomfortable human boy. His bones and brain still sometimes ached with a ferocity that almost drove him to tears. almost. He sniffled in pain a few times, and the stares he received from Wiktor and Renati told him crying was not tolerated from someone who didn't suffer gut worms.
But the change remained a mystery to him. It was one thing to live with the pack, and quite something else to fully join them. How did they changei Mikhail wondered, adding to his burden of questions. Did they take a deep breath, as if about to leap into dark and icy wateri Did they stretch their bodies until the human skin split open and the wolves burst freei How did they do iti No one offered to tell him, and Mikhail-the runt of the pack-was too skittish to ask. He only knew that when he heard them howl after a kill, their voices echoing over the snowy woods, there was a burning in his blood.
a blizzard swept down from the north. as it raged beyond the walls Pauli sang in a high, frail voice a folk song about a bird who flew amid the stars, while her brother, red-haired Belyi, kept time with the clicking of sticks. The blizzard settled in, and roared its own music day after day. The fire lost its heat, and the food was gnawed away. Stomachs began to sing. Wiktor, Nikita, and Belyi had to go out into the blizzard to hunt. They were gone for three days and nights, and when Wiktor and Nikita returned, they brought back the half-frozen carcass of a stag. Belyi did not return; he'd gone after a caribou, and the last Wiktor and Nikita had seen of him he'd been zigzagging through the storm after his prey.
Pauli cried for a while, and the others left her alone. She didn't cry so much, though, that she didn't eat. She accepted the bloody meat with the same hunger as the others, including Mikhail. and Mikhail learned a new lesson: whatever tragedy might happen, whatever torment should befall, life went on.
Mikhail awakened one morning and listened to silence. The storm had ceased. He followed the others up the stairway and through the chambers, where snow lay in drifts on the stones and ice-covered tree limbs stretched overhead. The sun was shining outside, the sky azure over a world of dazzling white. Wiktor, Nikita, and Franco burrowed a path through the snow into the palace courtyard, and Mikhail walked outside with the others to feast on fresh, frosty air.
He breathed deeply until his lungs burned. The sun was fierce, but it made not a dent in the smooth snow. Mikhail was thoroughly enraptured by the beauty of the winter forest by the time a snowball blasted against the side of his head.
"Good shot!" Wiktor shouted. "Give him another one!" Nikita was smiling, already cupping more snow. Nikita reared his arm back to throw it, but at the last second he whirled and flung it into the face of Franco, standing about twenty feet away.
"You ass!" Franco yelled as he dug for a snowball. Renati flung one that grazed Nikita's head, and Pauli threw a snowball with deadly accuracy into alekza's face. alekza, laughing and sputtering snow, went down on her rear end, her hands pressed to her pregnant belly.
"You want a wari" Nikita hollered, grinning at Renati. "I'll give you a war!" He threw a snowball that clipped Renati's shoulder, and then Mikhail stood in Renati's shadow and threw one that burst between Franco's eyes and staggered him back. "You... little... beast!" Franco shouted, and Wiktor smiled and calmly dodged a snowball that sailed over his head. Renati was hit by two at once, from Franco and Pauli. Mikhail plunged his numb hands into the snow for another barrage. Nikita ducked Renati's salvo and scrambled to a place where the snow was fresh and unmarked. He dug both hands deeply into it for double snowballs.
and he came up with something quite different. Something frozen, red, and mangled.
Renati's laughter ended on a strangled note. a last snowball thrown by Franco exploded off her shoulder, but she stared at what Nikita held. Mikhail let the snow slither to the ground. Pauli gasped, her face and hair dripping.
Nikita had brought a severed, mutiliated hand up from the snow. It was as blue as polished marble, and two fingers had been torn away. The thumb and forefinger were shrunken and curved inward-the last vestiges of a paw-and fine red hair covered the back of the hand.
Pauli took a step forward. Then another, up to her knees in snow. She blinked, stunned, and then moaned the name: "Belyi..."
"Take her inside," Wiktor said to Renati. Instantly she took Pauli's arm and tried to guide her back to the palace, but Pauli jerked free. "Go inside," Wiktor told her, stepping in front of her so she couldn't see what Nikita and Franco were uncovering from the drift. "Now."
Pauli wavered on her feet. alekza caught her other arm, and between them she and Renati led Pauli into the palace like a hollow-eyed sleepwalker.
Mikhail started to follow them, but Wiktor's voice lashed him: "Where do you think you're goingi Come here and help us with this!" Wiktor knelt down to push aside the snow with Nikita and Franco, and Mikhail came over to add his shivering strength.
It was a mass of crimson, blood-crusted bones. Most of the meat had been ripped off, but a few shreds of muscle remained. Some of the bones were human and some were wolf, Wiktor quickly saw; Belyi's body, in death, had warred between its poles. "Look at this," Franco said, and held up part of a shoulder blade. across it were deep scrapes.
Wiktor nodded. "Fangs." There was more evidence of powerful jaws at work: furrows on an arm bone, the jagged edges of the broken spine.
and then, at last, Nikita brushed away some hard-crusted snow and found the head.
The scalp was gone, the skull crushed and the brains scooped out, but Belyi's face remained. Minus the lower jaw, which had been torn away. The tongue, too, had been wrenched from its roots. Belyi's eyes were open, and the red hairs covered his cheeks and forehead. The eyes were directed for a few seconds right at Mikhail, until Nikita moved the head again, and in them Mikhail saw a glassy shine of pure terror. He looked away, shivering but not with the cold this time, and retreated a few paces. Franco picked up a leg bone that still held a few fragments of frozen red muscle, and examined the bone's splintered edges. "Great strength in the bite," Franco said quietly. "The leg was broken with a single crunch."
"So were both the arms," Nikita said. He sat on his haunches, looking at the bones arranged around him in the snow. a patchwork of shadows and sunlight lay on Belyi's face, and the ice in the single remaining eyelid was beginning to melt. Mikhail watched with dreadful fascination as a drop of water trickled down Belyi's blue cheek like a tear.
Wiktor stood up, his eyes blazing, and slowly turned his gaze through all points of the compass. His fists clenched at his sides. Mikhail knew what he must be thinking: they were no longer the only killers in the forest. Something had been watching them, and knew where their den was. It had crushed Belyi's bones, torn out his tongue, and scooped the brains from his skull. Then it had brought the broken skeleton back here like a taunt. Or a challenge.
"Wrap him in this." Wiktor removed his deerskin cloak and gave it to Franco. "Don't let Pauli see him." He began to walk, naked and with a purposeful stride, away from the white palace.
"Where're you goingi" Nikita asked him.
"Tracking," Wiktor answered, his feet crunching in the snow. Then he began to run, casting a long shadow. Mikhail watched him weave through the tangle of surrounding trees and spiky undergrowth; he saw gray hair ripple across Wiktor's broad white back, saw his spine start to contort, and then Wiktor vanished into the forest.
Nikita and Franco put Belyi's bones in the robe. The head, with its silent jawless shriek, was the last to go in. Franco stood up, the folded robe clutched in his arms and his face gaunt and gray. He looked at Mikhail, and his lip curled. "You carry them, rabbit," he said in a tone of derision, and he put the sack of remains in Mikhail's arms. Their weight instantly dropped the boy to his knees.
Nikita started to help him, but Franco caught the Mongol's arm. "Let the rabbit do it alone, if he wants to be one of us so much!"
Mikhail stared into Franco's eyes; they laughed at him, and wanted him to fail. He felt a spark leap inside him. It exploded into incandescent fire, and the heat of anger made Mikhail strain to stand with the sack of bones in his arms. He got halfway up before his feet slipped out from under him. Franco walked on a few paces. "Come on!" he said impatiently, and Nikita reluctantly followed. Mikhail struggled, his teeth gritted and his arms aching. But he had known pain before, and this was nothing. He would not let Franco see him beaten; he would let no one see him beaten, not ever. He got all the way up, and then walked with unsteady steps, his arms full of what used to be Belyi.
"a good rabbit always does as he's told," Franco said. Nikita reached out to carry the bones the rest of the way, but Mikhail said, "No," and carried his burden toward the white palace. He smelled the coppery aroma of icy blood from Belyi's remains. The deerskin had its own smell-higher, sweeter-and Wiktor's sweat smelled of salt and musk. But there was another odor in the chill air, and it drifted past Mikhail's nostrils as he reached the doorway. This odor was wild and rank, a smell of brutality and cunning. The smell of an animal, and as different from the odors of Mikhail's pack as black differs from red. It was wafting, he realized, from Belyi's bones: the spoor of the beast that had slaughtered him. The same odor that Wiktor was now tracking across the smooth, blizzard-sculpted snow.
The promise of violence hung in the air. Mikhail felt it like the slide of claws down his spine. Franco and Nikita felt it, too, as they gazed around through the forest, their senses questing, collecting, evaluating with a speed that was now their second nature. Belyi had not been the strongest of the pack, but he'd been very quick and smart. Whatever had torn him to pieces had been quicker and smarter. It was out there now, somewhere in the forest, waiting and watching to see what would be the response to its gift of death.
Mikhail staggered across the threshold into the palace and saw Pauli standing there with Renati and alekza, her mouth gasping wordlessly as she stared at the folded robe in his arms. Renati quickly stepped forward and took the robe from him, carrying it away.
The sun went down. The stars emerged, shimmering against the blackness. a small fire crackled in the depths of the white palace as Mikhail and the rest of his pack huddled in the circle of its heat. They waited as the wind began to rise outside and shrill through the corridors. and waited. But Wiktor did not come home.