Three more springs came and passed, and the summer of Mikhail's twelfth year scorched the forest. During that time, Renati had almost died with worms from an infected boar. Wiktor himself had nursed her to health and hunted for her, showing that granite could be tender. Pauli had given birth to a girl baby that Franco had sired; the baby had died in the night, her body contorting and rippling with light brown hair, when she was two months old. Nikita had seeded a child in alekza's belly, but the growth passed away in a rush of blood and tissue when it was less than four months along.
Mikhail wore a deerskin robe and sandals that Renati had made for him, his old clothes much too small and tattered. He was growing, getting gangly, his thick black hair hanging around his shoulders and down his back. His mind was growing, too, from the food of Wiktor's books: mathematics, Russian history, the languages, classical literature-all were the feast that Wiktor offered. Sometimes it went down easily, other times Mikhail all but choked on it, but Wiktor's thundering voice in the fire-lit chamber commanded his attention. Mikhail even enjoyed Shakespeare, particularly the gruesomeness and ghosts of Hamlet.
His senses grew as well. There was no longer any true darkness for him; the deepest night was a gray twilight, with flesh-and-blood forms outlined in an eerie pale blue. When he truly concentrated, cutting off all distractions, he could find any of the pack in the white palace by trailing the distinctive rhythm of their heartbeats: alekza's, for instance, always beat fast, like a little snare drum, while Wiktor's beat with slow and stately precision, a finely tuned instrument. Colors, sounds, aromas intensifed. In daylight he could see a deer running through the dense forest at a distance of a hundred yards. Mikhail learned the importance of speed: he caught rats, squirrels, and hares with ease, and added to the pack's food supply in a small way, but larger game eluded him. He often awakened from sleep to find an arm or leg covered with black hair and contorting into wolfish form, but the totality of the change still terrified him. Though his body may have been ready for it, his mind certainly was not. He marveled at how the others could slip back and forth between worlds, almost as if by wishing it. The fastest of them was Wiktor, of course; it took him less than forty seconds to complete the change from human flesh to gray wolf hide. The next quickest was Nikita, who made the transformation in a little over forty-five seconds. alekza ¡¤had the prettiest pelt, and Franco the loudest wail. Pauli was the shyest, and Renati the most merciful; she often let the smallest, most defenseless prey escape even when she'd run it to exhaustion. Wiktor scolded her for this frivolity, and Franco scowled at her, but she did as she pleased.
after the destruction of the Garden, a coldly furious Wiktor had taken Nikita and Franco out on a long, fruitless hunt for the berserker's den. In the three years since, the berserker had made himself known by leaving little piles of excrement around the white palace, and once the pack had heard him wailing in the night: a deep, hoarse taunt that changed direction as the berserker deftly shifted his position. It was a challenge to battle, but Wiktor declined; he chose not to run into the berserker's trap. Pauli had sworn she'd seen the berserker on a snowy night in early November, when she'd been running at Nikita's side on the trail of caribou. The red beast had come out of the snow at her, close enough for her to smell his rank madness, and his eyes had been cold black pits of hatred. He had opened slavering jaws to crush her throat-but then Nikita had swerved toward her, and the berserker disappeared into the snowfall. Pauli swore this, but Pauli sometimes mixed nightmares with reality, and Nikita didn't remember seeing anything but night and whirling flakes.
On a night in mid-July, there were no snowflakes, only the whirl of golden fireflies rising from the forest floor as Mikhail and Nikita, in human form, ran silently through the woods. The herds had been thinned by the drought weather, and hunting had been poor for the last month. Wiktor had ordered Mikhail and Nikita to bring back something-anything-and now Mikhail followed the older man as best he could, Nikita running about twenty feet ahead and breaking a trail. They were heading south at a steady pace, and in a short while Nikita slowed to a brisk walk.
"Where are we goingi" Mikhail asked in a whisper. He glanced around through the night's twilight, looking for anything alive. Not even a squirrel's eyes glinted with starlight.
"The railroad tracks," Nikita answered. "We'll see if we can't make this an easy hunt." Often the pack was able to find a dead deer, caribou, or smaller animal that had been hit by the train, which passed through the forest twice a day between May and august, going east in daylight and west at night.
Where the forest was stubbled with large boulders and cliffs fell off to the south, the tracks emerged from a rough-hewn tunnel, curved downhill along the bottom of a wooded gulley for at least six hundred yards, and then entered another tunnel to the west. Mikhail followed Nikita down the embankment, and they walked along the tracks, their eyes searching for the dark shape of a carcass and their nostrils sniffing the warm air for fresh blood. Tonight, no kills lay on the rails. They continued to the eastern tunnel-and then Nikita suddenly said, "Listen."
Mikhail did, and he heard it, too: a soft rumble of thunder. Except the sky was clear, the stars sparkling behind a gauze of hazy heat. The train was coming.
Nikita bent down, placing his hand against the iron. He could feel it vibrate as the train gathered power, heading into its long downhill run. In another moment it would burst out of the tunnel only a few yards distant.
"We'd better go," Mikhail told him.
Nikita stayed where he was, his hand on the rail. He stared at the tunnel's rocky opening, and then Mikhail saw him look toward the western tunnel's entrance, far away. "I used to come here alone," Nikita said quietly. "I used to watch the train roar past. That was before the berserker, damn him to hell. But I've seen the train go past many times. On its way to Minsk, I think. It comes out of that tunnel"-he nodded toward it-"and goes into that one there. Some nights, if the engineer's in a hurry to get home, it takes less than thirty seconds to make the distance. If he's drunk and riding the brake, it takes around thirty-five seconds from one tunnel to the next. I know; I've counted them off."
"Whyi" Mikhail asked. The train's thunder-a traveling storm-was getting closer.
"Because someday I'm going to beat it." Nikita stood up. "Do you know what, for me, the grandest thing in the world would bei" His almond-shaped, Mongol eyes stared through the darkness at Mikhail. The boy shook his head. "To be fast," Nikita went on, excitement mounting in his voice. "The fastest of all the pack. The fastest who ever lived. To will the change between the time the train comes out of the first tunnel and reaches the second. Do you seei"
Mikhail shook his head.
"Then watch," Nikita told him. The western tunnel had begun to lighten, and the rails were throbbing with a steam engine's mighty pulse. Nikita threw off his robe and stood naked to the world. and then, quite suddenly, the train burst from the tunnel like a snorting, black-mawed behemoth with a single yellow, cyclopean eyeball. Mikhail leaped backward as its hot breath enfolded him. Nikita, standing right at the edge of the tracks, didn't move a muscle. Freight cars rumbled past, red cinders spinning in the turbulence. Mikhail saw Nikita's body tense, saw his flesh ripple and begin to grow its sheen of fine black hair-and then Nikita started running along the tracks, his back and legs banded with wolf hair. He ran toward the eastern tunnel, his spine contorting in an instant, his legs and arms shivering and beginning to draw themselves upward into the torso. Mikhail saw the black hair cover Nikita's buttocks, a dark wartlike thing grew and burst at the base of the spine and the wolf's tail uncurled, twitching like a rudder. Nikita's backbone ratcheted down, and he ran low to the ground, his forearms thickening and his hands starting to twist into claws. He caught up with the engine, racing alongside it toward the mouth of the eastern tunnel. The engineer was riding the brake, but the furnace was still spouting sparks. Grinding wheels thundered two feet away from Nikita's legs. as he ran, his heart hammering, his feet contorted and threw him off balance, and he lost precious seconds as he struggled to right himself. The train's engine left him behind, black smoke and sparks swirling around him. He breathed the corruption of man, and his lungs felt poisoned. Mikhail lost sight of Nikita in the black maelstrom.
The train roared into the eastern tunnel, and continued its journey to Minsk. a single red lamp swung back and forth on the railing of its last freight car.
The smoke that had settled along the gulley had the sour tang of burned green timber. Mikhail walked into it, following the tracks, and he could feel the heat of the train's passage. Cinders still spun to earth, a night of dying stars. "Nikita!" he called. "Where are-"
a dark, powerful form leaped at him.
The black wolf planted its paws on Mikhail's shoulders and drove him down to the earth. Then the wolf stood astride his chest, its slanted eyes staring fixedly into his face, and its jaws opened to show clean white fangs.
"Stop it," Mikhail said. He grasped Nikita's muzzle and pushed the wolf's head astride. The wolf snarled, snapping at his face. "Will you stop iti" Mikhail demanded. "You're about to squash me!"
The wolf showed its fangs again, right in front of Mikhail's nose, and then a wet pink tongue came out and licked across Mikhail's face. Mikhail yelped and tried to shove the beast off, but Nikita's weight was solid. Finally, Nikita stepped off Mikhail's chest, and the boy sat up knowing he would find paw bruises on his flesh the next morning. Nikita ran in a circle, snapping at his tall just for the fun of it, and then he leaped into the high weeds on the gulley's side and rolled in them. "You're crazy!" Mikhail said, getting to his feet.
as Nikita rolled in the weeds, his body began to change again. There was a cracking sound of sinews lengthening, of bones being rejointed. Nikita gave a small mutter of pain, and Mikhail walked away a few yards to give him privacy. In another thirty seconds or so, Mikhail heard Nikita say quietly, "Damn."
The Mongol walked past Mikhail, on his way uphill toward his cast-off robe. "I tripped over my own damned feet," he said. "They always get in the way."
Mikhail got in pace beside him. The black smoke was rising out of the gulley now, and the scorched iron smell of civilization was going with it. "I don't understand," he said. "What were you trying to doi"
"I told you. To be fast." He glanced back, in the direction the train had gone. "It'll be back, tomorrow night. and the night after that. I'll try again." He reached his robe, picked it up, and put it around his shoulders. Mikhail was watching him blankly, still not fully comprehending. "Wiktor will tell you a story, if you ask," Nikita said. "He says the old man who led the pack when Wiktor came in remembered someone who could will the change in twenty-four seconds. Can you imagine thati From human to wolf in twenty-four secondsi Wiktor himself can't beat half a minute! and I-well, I'm pathetic."
"No, you're not. You're fast."
"Not fast enough," Nikita said forcefully. "I'm not the quickest, I'm not the strongest, I'm not the smartest. and all my life, even when I was a boy your age breaking my ass in a coal mine, I wanted to be something special. You work at the bottom of a mine shaft long enough, you dream of being a bird. Maybe I still have that dream-only I want my legs to be wings."
"What does it matter, whether you're the quickest or-"
"It matters to me," he interrupted. "It gives me a purpose. Do you seei" He went on without waiting for the boy to respond. "I come here during the summer, but only at night. I don't want the engineer to see me. I am getting faster; it's just that my legs haven't figured out how to fly yet." He motioned down the tracks toward the distant eastern tunnel. "Some night I'm going to beat the train. I'm going to start right here, as a man, and before the train reaches the other tunnel I'm going to cross the tracks in front of the engine as a wolf."
"Cross the tracksi"
"Yes. On all fours," Nikita said. "Now we'd better find something for the pack to eat, or we'll be looking all night." He started walking away, downhill toward the east, and Mikhail followed him. a little more than a half mile from where Nikita had chased the train, they found a crushed rabbit lying on the tracks. It was a fresh kill, its eyes bulging as if still mesmerized by the glowing yellow orb of the monster that had passed over it. The rabbit was a small find, but it was a beginning. Nikita picked it up by the ears and carried it at his side, swinging it like a broken toy as they continued their search.
The smell of the rabbit's blood made Mikhail's mouth water. He could almost feel a bestial growl strain to leave his throat. He was becoming more like the pack every passing day. The change was waiting for him, like a dark friend. all he had to do was reach out for it, and embrace it; it was that close, and it was eager. But he didn't know how to control it. He had no idea how to "will the change," as the others seemed to. Was it like a command, or a dreami He feared losing the last of being a human; the full change would take him to a place where he dared not go. Not yet; not just yet.
He was salivating. There was a growl; not his throat, but his stomach. He was still more boy than wolf, after all.
On many nights during that long, drought-plagued summer, Mikhail hunted with Nikita along the railroad tracks. Once, in early august, they found a small deer suffering, two of its legs severed by the train's wheels. Nikita had bent down and looked into that deer's shock-silvered eyes, and Mikhail had watched him reach gentle hands out to stroke the animal's flanks. Nikita had spoken quietly to the deer, trying to calm it-and then he placed his hands on the deer's skull and gave it a sharp, violent twist. The deer had slumped, its neck broken, all suffering ended. and that, Nikita told him, was the meaning of mercy.
The train kept to its schedule. Some nights it roared down the hill, from tunnel to tunnel; other nights its brakes screamed and hurled sparks. Mikhail sat on the embankment, in the shelter of the pines, and watched as Nikita raced it along the rails, his body twisting, fighting for balance as the change swept over him. It always seemed to be his legs, the earth-rooted wings, that refused to let him fly. Nikita was getting faster, but never fast enough; the train invariably outpaced him, and left him in its smoke as it thundered into the eastern tunnel.
august ended, and the summer's final train rumbled away toward Minsk, its red lantern swinging on the last car like a scarlet grin. Nikita, his shoulders slumped, trotted back to where he'd left his robe, and Mikhail watched his body shed its glossy black hair. Nikita, man-shaped again, put on his robe and breathed the smoke's bitter odor as if breathing the sweat of a fierce and respected enemy. "Well," he said at last, "summer will come again."
They went home, walking toward autumn.