Winter, the cruel white lady, closed her fist around the forest, and sealed it in ice. Cold cracked trees, ponds were white slabs, and the sky glowered with low clouds and mist. For day upon day, the sun remained a stranger, and the whole world was a sea of snow and black, leafless trees. Even the crows, those ebony-gowned diplomats, froze where they perched, or fought to reach the sun on freezing wings. Only the snow hares scurried in the blank silence of the forest, and as the winds swept down from Siberia even the hares shivered in their burrows.
So, too, the pack shivered in the depths of the white palace. They crowded together, ghost-breathed, around the pine-knot flames. Mikhail's education, however, went on; Wiktor was a hard taskmaster, and he and the boy huddled close as Mikhail recited Shakespeare, the works of Dante, mathematics problems, and European history.
On a day in January, Pauli and Nikita went outside to find more firewood. Wiktor told them to stay close to the white palace and within sight of each other. The mist had descended, making visibility difficult, but the fire had to be tended. and not half an hour had passed before Nikita came back into the den, moving like a numb sleepwalker, his eyebrows and hair silvered with ice. He carried an armload of sticks, which fell to his feet as he continued on into the circle of the fire. His eyes were dazed. Wiktor stood up and said, "Where's Paulii"
She had been within twenty feet of him, Nikita said. Twenty feet. They had been talking, trying to warm each other with words. and then, quite suddenly, Pauli simply hadn't answered. There had been no cry for help, no sounds of a struggle in the mist. One moment Pauli had been there, the next...
Nikita took Wiktor and Franco up to show them. They found bright gouts of blood on the snow, less than forty yards from the ice-domed palace. Pauli's robe was nearby, also splattered with gore. On the ground lay a few sticks, like bleached bones. Pauli's footprints ended where the paw prints of the berserker came out of a thicket of thorns. In the snow was the furrow of a body being dragged, over a hillock and down into dense woods. They found some of Pauli's insides, purple as bruises on the snow. The berserker's tracks and the furrow of Pauli's dragged body went on, through the forest. Wiktor, Franco, and Nikita threw aside their robes and, shivering, changed shapes in the clinging mist. Three wolves-one gray, one pale brown, one black-loped through the drifts on the berserker's trail. a mile to the east they found one of Pauli's arms, blue as marble, wedged between two rocks. It had been ripped loose from the shoulder. They came to a place of cliffs, where the wind had swept the jagged rocks clean of snow, and the berserker's tracks ended as did all traces of Pauli's corpse.
For the next few hours, the trio of wolves searched in widening circles that took them farther and farther away from the white palace. Once Franco thought he saw a huge red shape standing on an outcropping of rock above them, but the blowing snow obscured his sight for a few seconds and when he could see clearly again the shape was gone. Nikita picked up Pauli's scent-a musky summer-grass smell-in the crosscurrent of wind, and they tracked it another half mile to the north before they found her head lying at the bottom of a ravine, her skull gnawed open and her brains gone.
The berserker's tracks led them to the edge of a rocky chasm, then they vanished on the stones. Caves pocked the chasm's sides; it would be a treacherous climb down, but it could be done. any of those caves might be the berserker's den. But if not, Wiktor, Nikita, and Franco might break their necks for naught. It was snowing harder; the iron smell of a blizzard grayed the air. Wiktor signaled with a snort and toss of his head, and they turned back for the long journey home.
all this Wiktor related as the pack crouched around the fire. When he finished he moved away, sitting in a corner by himself. He chewed on a warthog's bones and stared at the empty pallet where Pauli used to lie, his eyes burning in the cold gloom.
"I say we go out and hunt the bastard down!" Franco shouted as the blizzard roared beyond the walls. "We can't just sit here, like... like..."
"Like human beingsi" Wiktor asked quietly. He picked up a small twig from the fire and watched it burn.
"Like cowards!" Franco said. "First Belyi, then the Garden ransacked, now Pauli gone! It won't stop until it kills all of us!"
"We can't go out in this storm," Nikita observed, sitting on his haunches. "The berserker can't either."
"We've got to find it and kill it!" Franco paced in front of the fire, almost stepping on Mikhail. "If I could just get my claws in its damned throat, I'd-"
Renati snorted derisively. "You'd be its breakfast."
"You shut up, you old hag! Who asked you to speaki"
Renati was on her feet in an instant. She stepped toward him, and he whirled toward her. Russet hair rose and rippled on the backs of Renati's hands, her fingers starting to curve into claws.
"Stop it," Wiktor said. Renati glanced at him, her facial bones already beginning to warp. "Renati, please stop it," he repeated.
"Let her kill him," alekza said, her ice-blue eyes cold in her beautiful face. "He deserves to die."
"Renatii" Wiktor stood up. Renati's spine had begun to bow over.
"Come on, come on!" Franco sneered. He held up his right hand, which was covered with light brown hair and had already grown talons. "I'm ready for you!"
"Stop it!" Wiktor shouted, and the sound of his voice made Mikhail jump; it was his schoolmaster's thunder. The voice echoed between the walls. "If we kill each other, the berserker wins. He can come right in here and take our den if we're lying dead. So stop it, both of you. We've got to think like humans, not act like beasts."
Renati blinked, her mouth and jaw misshapen. a little ooze of saliva trickled over her lower lip, down her russet-haired chin, and hung for a second before it dripped off. and then her face began to return to its human side again, the muscles writhing under the flesh, the fangs retreating with wet clicking sounds. The wolf hair dissolved to a stubble and went away. Renati scratched the backs of her hands as the last of the hair irritated her flesh. "You little bastard," she said, her stare still directed at Franco. "You show me respect, do you understandi"
Franco grunted and gave her a chilly smile. He motioned disdainfully at her with his right hand, now human and pale once more, and he walked away from the fire's heat. The musky smell of enraged animals lingered in the chamber.
Wiktor stood between Renati and Franco; he waited until their tempers had cooled, and then he said, "We're a family, not enemies. The berserker would like for us to turn on each other; it would make his task so much easier." He tossed the burning twig into the fire. "But Franco's right. We've got to find the berserker and kill it. If we don't, it'll kill us, one by one."
"You seei" Franco said to Renati. "He agrees with me!"
"I agree with the law of logic," Wiktor corrected. "Which, unfortunately, you don't always obey." He paused for a moment, listening to the high wail of the storm through the broken windows on the level above. "I think the berserker lives in one of those caves we found," he went on. "Nikita's right: the berserker won't go out in this storm. But we could."
"You can't see your hand in front of your face out there!" Renati said. "Listen to that wind!"
"I hear it." Wiktor circled the fire, rubbing his hands together. "When the storm breaks, the berserker will go out on the hunt again. We don't know his patterns, and once he smells us in his cave he'll find another den. But... what if we found his cave, and him in it, while the storm's still blowingi"
"It can't be done!" Nikita shook his head. "You saw that chasm. We'd kill ourselves trying to get down in there."
"The berserker can do it. If he can, so can we." Wiktor paused to let that point sink in. "The greatest problem would be finding his cave. If I were he, I would've marked every one of them with my scent. But maybe he hasn't; maybe, once we get down into that chasm, we can pick up his scent and follow it right to him. He might be sleeping; that's what I'd do, if I had a full belly and I thought I was safe."
"Yes, that's it!" Franco said excitedly. "Kill the bastard in his sleep!"
"No. The berserker's big and very strong, and none of us would do so well against it claw to claw. First we find the berserker's cave, and then we seal him in with rocks. We make it good and tight, so he can't dig himself out. If we're fast, we can get the cave sealed before he knows what's happening."
"and provided he doesn't have a back way out," Renati said.
"I didn't say the plan was foolproof. No plan ever is. But the berserker's insane; he doesn't think like an ordinary wolf. Why should he worry about running when he thinks he can destroy anything on four legs or twoi I'd say he's found a nice warm cave with no back door, where he can curl up, chew on bones, and brood about how to kill the next one of us. I believe it's worth the risk."
"I don't," Renati told him. Her brow furrowed. "The storm's too strong. It would be hard enough getting from here to there, much less finding the right cave. No. The risk is too high."
"and what's the alternative, theni" Wiktor asked. "Walt for the storm to pass and the berserker to hunt us againi We should take advantage of the fact that he's just had a feast; he'll be sluggish, with all that meat in his belly. I say we go now, or we risk the destruction of the pack."
"Yes!" Franco agreed. "Hunt him now, while he thinks he's safe!"
"I've decided. I'm going." Wiktor looked around at the others. His gaze lingered for a few seconds on Mikhail, then moved away. "Franco, will you go with mei"
"Mei" His eyes had widened. "Yes. Of course I will." His voice was unsteady. "I just hope I... don't hold you up."
"Hold me upi Howi"
"Well... I didn't mention it before. It's nothing, of course, but... I have a stone bruise on my foot. You seei" He slipped off his deerskin sandal and showed the blue bruise. "My ankle's a little swollen, too. I'm not sure when it happened, exactly." He pressed the bruise, and winced a fraction too much. "But I can still go," he said. "I won't be as fast as usual, but you can count on me."
"To be an utter ass," Renati finished for him. "Forget Franco and his poor feet. I'll go with you."
"I need you to stay here. To take care of Mikhail and alekza."
"They can take care of themselves!"
Wiktor had already dismissed her. He looked at Nikita. "any stone bruises on your feeti"
"Dozens," Nikita said, and stood up. "When do we goi"
"It's my ankle that's giving me the trouble!" Franco protested. "Seei It's swollen! I must've stepped down wrong when we were-"
"I understand," Wiktor told him, and Franco was silent. "Nikita and I will go. You can stay here, if that's what you want." Franco started to speak again, but he thought better of it and closed his mouth. "The sooner we go, the sooner we can get back," Wiktor said to Nikita. "I'm ready now." Nikita nodded, and Wiktor turned his attention to Renati. "If we're able to find the berserker's cave, and seal him in, we'll want to stay long enough to make certain he doesn't dig out. We'll try to be back within forty-eight hours. If the storm gets too bad, we'll find a place to sleep. You'll take care of everything, yesi"
"Yes," Renati said glumly.
"and you and Franco will stay away from each other's throats." It was a command. Wiktor looked at Mikhail. "You'll keep them from killing each other, won't youi"
"Yes, sir," Mikhail answered, though what he could do if Renati and Franco clashed he didn't know.
"When I get back, I want you to have finished the lesson we started yesterday." It was a reading about the destruction of the Roman Empire. "I'll ask you questions about it."
Mikhail nodded. Wiktor stripped off his robe and removed his sandals, and Nikita did the same. The two men stood naked, their breath coming out in misty plumes. Nikita began to change first, the black hair twining over his flesh like strange vines. Wiktor's eyes glinted in the low light as he stared at Renati. "Listen to me," he said. "If for any reason... we don't come back after three days, you'll be in charge of the pack."
"a womani" Franco yelped. "In charge of mei"
"In charge of the pack," Wiktor repeated. a gray tide of wolf hair was sliding over his shoulders and streaking down his arms. His flesh looked slick and oily, and sweat glistened on his forehead as his eyebrows merged. Steam wafted around his body. "Do you have any objection to thati" His voice was getting hoarse, and his facial bones were shifting. Fangs pushed out between his lips.
"No," Franco answered quickly. "No objection."
"Wish us luck." The voice was a guttural rasp. Wiktor's flesh shivered, growing its thick, gray-haired hide. Most of Nikita's head and face had already changed, the snout spewing a blast of steam as it lengthened with popping sounds that Mikhail had once thought hideous. Now the sounds of transformation were as beautiful as music played on exotic instruments. The two bodies contorted, flesh giving way to wolf hair, fingers and toes to claws, teeth to fangs, noses to long black muzzles; all accompanied by the music of bones, sinews, and muscles changing shape, rearranging themselves into canine form, and an occasional grunt from either Wiktor or Nikita. and then Wiktor gave a harsh whuff and he loped out of the chamber toward the stairway, with Nikita a few strides behind. Within seconds, the two wolves were gone.
"My ankle is swollen!" Franco showed Renati again. "Seei I couldn't get very far on it, could Ii"
She ignored him. "We'll need some fresh water, I think." She picked up a clay bowl that had been left by the monks the water, filmed with dirty ice, was almost gone. "Mikhail will you and alekza get us some more snow, pleasei" She handed the bowl to Mikhail. all they would have to do was climb the stairs and scoop up snow that was blowing in the windows. "Franco, will you take the first watch, or shall Ii"
"You're in charge," he said. "Do as you please."
"all right. You take the first watch. I'll relieve you when it's time." Renati sat down before the fire, newly regal.
Franco muttered a curse under his breath; it wouldn't be pleasant to go up into the tower, with all those glassless windows and the cold whirling in, but keeping watch was an important duty that everyone shared. He stalked away. Mikhail and alekza went to scoop up a bowlful of snow, and Renati rested her chin on her hand to worry about the man she loved.