My hand! Mikhail thought, panicked, as he sat up on his bed of hay. What's wrong with my handi
In the gloom of the white palace's depths, he could feel his right hand throb and burn, as if liquid fire ran through the veins instead of blood. The pain that had awakened him grew, running up his arm to his shoulder. His fingers were twisting, contorting, and Mikhail clenched his teeth to hold back a scream. He gripped his wrist as his fingers spasmed open and clenched closed; he heard little frail popping sounds, and each one drove a new dagger of agony into him. His face began to sweat. He dared not cry out, for the others would mock him. In another few torturous seconds his hand became gnarled and deformed, a freakish dark thing on the end of his white, pulsing wrist. He ached to shriek, but all his throat would allow was a whimper. Bands of black hair rose from his flesh, and they entwined around Mikhail's wrist and forearm like sleek ribbons. His fingers were retreating into their sockets, with crunching noises as the knuckles changed shape. Mikhail gasped, near fainting; his hand was covered with black hair, and where his fingers had been there were curved talons and soft, pink pads. The tide of black hair flowed up his forearm, lapped over his elbow, and Mikhail knew that in another instant he must get up and run screaming for Renati.
But the instant passed, and he didn't move. The black hair rippled, began to draw back into flesh with raw, needling pain, and his fingers cracked again and lengthened. The curved talons drew into his skin, leaving the remains of human fingernails. The hand resurfaced, moon pale, and his fingers hung like strange pieces of meat. The pain ebbed, then went away. all of it had lasted perhaps fifteen seconds.
Mikhail drew a breath, and almost sobbed.
"The change," Wiktor said, sitting on his haunches about seven feet to the boy's left. "It's coming on you." Two large hares, oozing blood, lay on the stones beside him.
Mikhail jumped, startled. Wiktor's voice instantly awakened Nikita, Franco, and alekza, who'd been curled up nearby. Pauli, her wits still sluggish from Belyi's death, stirred on her hay pallet and opened her eyes. Behind Wiktor stood Renati, who had been watching faithfully for him for three days, ever since he'd gone on the track of whatever had killed Pauli's brother. Wiktor stood up, regal in his snow-crusted robes, the weathered lines and cracks in his bearded face glistening with melted snow. The fire had burned very low, and was chewing on the last of the pine knots. "While you sleep," he told them, "death is in the forest."
Wiktor circled them, his breath ghosting in the chilly air. The hares' blood was already growing frost. "a berserker," he said.
"a whati" Franco stood up, reluctantly parting from alekza's pregnant warmth.
"a berserker," Wiktor repeated. "a wolf that kills for the love of killing. That's what slaughtered Belyi." He glanced at Pauli with his amber eyes; she was still drugged with sorrow, and quite useless. "a wolf who kills for the love of killing," he said. "I found his tracks, about two miles north of here. He's a big bastard, weighs maybe a hundred and eighty pounds. He was going north at a steady pace, so I followed him." Wiktor knelt down by the feeble fire and waned his hands. His face was washed with flickering crimson. "He's a smart one. Somehow he picked up my scent, and I was careful to keep the wind in my face, too. He wasn't about to let me find his den; he led through a swamp-and I almost fell through a place where he'd cracked the ice to go out from under me." He smiled faintly, watching the fire. "If I hadn't smelled his piss on the ice, I'd be dead by now. I know he's a red one; I found some of his hair snagged on thorns. That's as close as I got." He rubbed his hands together, massaging the bruised knuckles, and stood up. "His hunting ground's getting thin. He wants ours. He knows he'll have to kill us to get it." He swept his gaze around the circle of his pack. "From now on, no one goes out alone. Not even for a handful of snow. We'll hunt in pairs, and we'll make damned certain we stay in sight of each other. Understoodi" He waited until Nikita, Renati, Franco, and alekza had nodded. Pauli was still dazed, her long brown hair full of bits of hay. Wiktor looked at Mikhail. "Understoodi" he repeated.
"Yes, sir," Mikhail quickly answered.
Time, a dream of days and nights, passed. as alekza's belly swelled, Wiktor taught Mikhail from the dusty books in the lower chamber. Mikhail had no problem with Latin and German, but the English stuck in his throat. It, truly, was a foreign tongue. "Enunciate!" Wiktor thundered. "That's an 'ing'! Speak it!" The English language was a jungle of thorns, but slowly Mikhail began to cut his way through. "We're going to read some of this," Wiktor said one day as he opened a huge, illustrated manuscript written in an English that looked like scrolled woodcarvings. "Listen," Wiktor said, and began to read:
"Methinks I am a prophet new
and thus, expiring, do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder."
He looked up. "Do you know who wrote thati" Mikhail shook his head, and Wiktor told him the name. "Now repeat it," Wiktor said.
"Shak... Shaka... Shakaspir."
"Shakespeare," Wiktor enunciated. He read a few more lines, his voice reverent:
"This happy breed of men, this little world;
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this
He looked into Mikhail's face. "Now there's a country where they don't execute their teachers," he said. "at least not yet. I always wanted to see England; a man can live free there." His eyes had taken on the shiny glint of distant lights. "They don't burn your books in England, and they don't kill for the love of it." He brought himself abruptly back. "Well, I'll never see it. But you might. If you ever leave this place, go to England. You find out if it's such a blessed plot. all righti"
"Yes, sir," Mikhail agreed, without fully understanding what he was agreeing to.
and after the gray shadow of one last blizzard had swept across the forest, spring came to Russia; first a torrent of rain, then a green blaze. Mikhail's dreams became bizarre: he was running on all fours, his body hurtling through a dark realm. When he awakened from them, he was shivering and covered with sweat. Sometimes he caught a brief glimpse of black hair, rippling across his arms, chest, or legs. His bones throbbed, as if they had been broken and rejointed. When he heard the beautiful, echoing calls of Wiktor, Nikita, or Renati out on the hunt, his throat convulsed and his heart ached. The change was coming on him; slowly and surely, the change was taking him over.
On a night in early May, alekza contorted and screamed while Pauli and Nikita held her, the firelight capering, and Renati's bloody hands delivered two babies. Mikhail saw them, before Renati whispered to Wiktor and wrapped the bodies in rags; one of the limp things, a small human form, was missing its left arm and leg and was covered with bites. The second corpse, strangled by a gray cord, had claws and fangs. Renati tied the rags tightly around the dead things, before Franco or alekza could see them. alekza lifted her head, sweat glistening on her face, and whispered, "are they boysi are they boysi"
Mikhail got away before Renati told her. alekza's wail rushed past him, and he almost bumped into Franco in the corridor; the man shoved him roughly aside as he hurried by.
When the sun came up, they took the swaddled infants to a place a half mile to the south of the white palace: the Garden, Renati told Mikhail when he asked. The Garden, she said, where all the little ones lay.
It was a place surrounded by towering birches, and arrangements of stones lay on the soft, leaf-covered earth to mark the bodies. Franco and alekza got on their knees, and together began to dig the graves with their hands as Wiktor held the corpses. at first Mikhail thought this was a cruel thing, because alekza sobbed and the tears trickled down her face as she dug-but in another few moments her crying was finished, and she worked harder. He realized it was the pack's way of burying their dead: tears gave way to muscle, and fingers dug resolutely at the earth. Franco and alekza were allowed to dig as deeply as they wished, and then Wiktor placed the corpses in the graves and they were covered over again with dirt and leaves.
Mikhail looked around at all the small squares of stone. all infants in this section of the Garden; farther away, in the deeper shade, were larger squares. He knew andrei lay over there, as well as members of the pack who'd died before Mikhail had been bitten. He saw how many infants had died: more than thirty of them. It occurred to him that the pack kept trying to have children, but the babies died. Could there ever be a baby who was part human and part wolfi he wondered as the warm breeze stirred the branches. He didn't see how an infant's body could bear the pain; if any baby did survive that torment, it would have to be a very strong soul.
Franco and alekza found stones and placed them around the graves. Wiktor offered no words, either to them or to God; when the work was finished, he turned and walked away, his sandals crunching in the underbrush. Mikhail saw alekza reach for Franco's hand, but he pulled quickly away and walked on without her. She stood there for a moment looking after him, sunlight gleaming in her long golden hair. Mikhail saw her lips shiver, and he thought she was going to cry again. But then she stood up a little straighter, her eyes narrowed with cold disdain. He saw there was no love between her and Franco; with the babies buried, so was all affection. Or perhaps Franco thought less of her now. He watched her as she seemed to grow before his eyes. and then her head turned, and her ice-blue gaze locked on him. He stared at her without moving.
alekza said, "I'll have a boy. I will."
"Your body's tired," Renati told her, standing behind Mikhail. He realized alekza's stare was fixed on Renati. "Wait another year."
"I'll have a boy," she repeated firmly. Her gaze went to Mikhail, and lingered. He felt himself tremble, in a deep place. and then she abruptly turned and left the Garden, following Nikita and Pauli.
Renati stood over the fresh graves. She shook her head. "Little ones," she said softly. "Oh, little ones. I hope you'll be better brothers in heaven." She glanced back at Mikhail. "Do you hate mei" she asked.
"Hate youi" The question had shocked him. "No."
"I would understand if you did," she said. "after all, I brought you into this life. I hated the one who bit me. She lies over there, right at the edge." Renati nodded toward the shadows. "I was married to a shoemaker. We were on our way to my sister's wedding. I told Tiomki he'd taken a wrong turn; did he listeni Of course not." She motioned toward a larger square of stones. "Tiomki died during the change. That was... oh, twelve springs ago, I think. He was not a well man, anyway; he would've made a pitiful wolf. But I loved him." She smiled, but the smile wouldn't stick. "all these graves have their stories, but some of them are even before Wiktor's time. So I guess they're silent riddles, ehi"
"How long... has the pack been herei" Mikhail asked.
"Oh, I don't know. Wiktor says the old man who died the year after I joined had been here for over twenty years, and the old man knew of others going back twenty years more. Who knowsi" She shrugged.
"Has anybody ever been born herei and livedi"
"Wiktor says he's heard of seven or eight who were born and survived. They all died over the years, of course. But most of the babies are either born dead or they die within a few weeks. Pauli gave up trying. So did I. alekza's still young enough to be stubborn, and she's buried so many babies her heart must look like one of these stones by now. Well, I pity her." Renati looked around the Garden and up at the towering birches where the sun shone through. "I know your next question," she said, before Mikhail could ask it. "The answer is: no. No one of the pack has ever left these woods. This is our home; it will always be our home."
Mikhail, still wearing the tatters of last year's clothes, nodded. already the world that used to be-the human world-seemed hazy, like a distant memory. He heard birds singing in the trees, and he watched a few of them fluttering from branch to branch. They were beautiful birds, and Mikhail wondered if they were good to eat.
"Come on, let's get back." The ceremony-such as it was-had ended. Renati started walking in the direction of the white palace; and Mikhail followed. They hadn't gone very far when Mikhail heard a faraway, high-pitched whistle. Perhaps a mile to the southeast, he gauged it. He stopped, listening to the sound. Not a bird, but-
"ah," Renati said. "That's a sign of summer. The train's running. The tracks go through the woods not too far from here." She walked on, then paused when Mikhail hadn't moved. The whistle blew again, a short and shrill note. "Must be deer on the tracks," Renati observed. "Sometimes you can find a dead one there. It's not too bad if the sun and the vultures haven't worked on it." The train's whistle faded away. "Mikhaili" she urged.
He listened still; the whistle had made something yearn inside him, but he wasn't sure what it might be. Renati was waiting for him, and the berserker stalked the forest. It was time to go. Mikhail looked back once at the Garden, with its squares of stones, and he followed Renati home.