Sometime during the night, the storm snapped. It passed on leaving the forest covered with drifts eight feet high, the trees bent under arctic ice. a bone-throbbing cold followed the blizzard, and the day dawned white, the sun hidden behind clouds the color of wet cotton.
It was breakfast time. "God, it's cold!" Franco said as he and Mikhail struggled across a white desert where green thicket used to be. Mikhail didn't answer; it used up too much energy to speak, and his jaws felt frozen. He glanced back, about fifty yards, at the white palace; it was almost invisible against the blankness. "I curse this place!" Franco said. "Damn the whole country! Damn Wiktor, and damn Nikita, damn alekza, and damn that damned Renati. Who does she think she is, ordering me around like a servant boyi"
"We'll never find anything," Mikhail told him quietly, "if you make all that noise."
"Hell, there's nothing alive out here! How are we supposed to find foodi Create iti I'm not God, that's for sure!" He stopped, sniffing the air; his nose stung with cold, and his ability to smell was hampered. "If Renati's in charge, why doesn't she find us foodi answer me that!"
There was no need to answer. They had drawn lots-the shortest twigs from the fire-for the task of finding breakfast. actually Mikhail had drawn the shortest twig, and Franco the next shortest. "anything alive out here," Franco went on, "is buried in its hole, keeping warm. Like we ought to be doing. Smell the air. You seei Nothing."
as if to prove Franco wrong, a hare with gray-tipped fur suddenly shot across the snow in front of them, heading for a stand of half-buried trees. "There!" Mikhail said. "Look!"
"My eyes are freezing."
Mikhail stopped and turned toward Franco. "aren't you going to changei You can catch it if you change."
"To hell with it!" Franco's cheeks had grown red splotches. "It's too cold to change. My balls would freeze off, if they haven't already." He reached down and checked himself.
"If you don't change, we won't catch anything," Mikhail reminded him. "How hard would it be for you to chase down that rabbit if-"
"Oh, now you're giving orders, is that iti" Franco scowled at him. "You listen to me, you little shit: you drew the shortest twig. You change and catch us something. It's about time you pulled your weight around here!"
The question stung Mikhail, because he knew there was truth in it. He walked on ahead, his arms clasped around himself for warmth and his sandals crunching through the ice-crusted snow.
"Well, why don't you change, theni" Franco jabbed him, sensing blood. He strode after the boy. "Why don't you change so you can chase down rabbits and howl at the damned moon like a maniaci"
Mikhail didn't answer; he didn't know what to say. He looked for the hare, but it had disappeared in the whiteness. He glanced back at the white palace, which seemed to float like a distant mirage between earth and sky, all of them the same hue. Large flakes began to fall again, and if Mikhail hadn't felt so cold, miserable, and useless, he might have thought they were beautiful.
Franco stopped a few yards away from him and blew into his cupped hands. Snowflakes drifted into his hair and laced his eyelashes. "Maybe Wiktor enjoys this life," he said grimly, "and maybe Nikita does, too, but what were they to begin withi My father was a rich man, and I was a rich man's son." He shook his head, the snowflakes sliding down his ruddy face. "We were on our way by carriage, to visit my grandparents. a storm caught us; a storm very much like the one yesterday. My mother froze to death first. But my father, my little brother, and I found a cabin, not far from here. Well, it's gone now; the snow broke it down years ago." Franco looked up, searching for the sun. He couldn't find it. "My little brother died weeping," he said. "at the end he couldn't even open his eyes; the lids were frozen together. My father knew we couldn't stay there. If we were going to live, we had to find a village. So we started walking. I remember... we both wore our fur-lined coats and our expensive boots. My shirt had a monogram on it. My father wore a cashmere scarf. But none of it kept us warm enough, not with that wind shrieking into our faces. We found a hollow and tried to make a fire, but all the wood was icy." He looked at Mikhail. "Do you know what we burnedi all the money in my father's wallet. It burned very bright, but it gave off no heat. What we would've given for three lumps of coal! My father froze to death, sitting upright. I was a seventeen-year-old orphan, and I knew I was going to die if I didn't find shelter. So I started walking, wearing two coats. I didn't get very far before the wolves found me." He blew into his hands again and worked his knuckles. "One of them bit me, on the arm. I kicked him in the muzzle so hard I knocked three of his teeth out. That bastard-Josef was his name-was never right in the head after that. They tore my father to pieces and ate him. They probably ate my mother and little brother, too. I never asked." Franco surveyed the blank sky once more and watched the snow falling. "They took me into the pack to be a breeder. The same reason we took you in."
"To make babies," Franco explained. "The pack needs cubs, or it's going to die. But the babies don't live." He shrugged. "Maybe God knows what He's doing, after all." He looked toward the trees, where the snow hare hid. "You listen to Wiktor, and he'll go on about how noble this life is, and how we ought to be proud of what we are. I don't find anything noble in having hair on your ass and gnawing on bloody bones. Damn this life." He gathered saliva in his mouth and spat in the snow. "You change," he told Mikhail. "You go run on all fours and piss against a tree. I was born a man, by God, and that's what I am." He turned away and began trudging the seventy yards or so back to the walls of the white palace.
"Wait!" Mikhail called. "Franco, wait!" But Franco didn't wait.
He looked back over his shoulder at Mikhail. "Bring us back a nice juicy rabbit," he said acidly. "Or if you're lucky, maybe you can dig us up some fat grubs. I'm going back in and try to get wa-"
Franco didn't finish his sentence, for in the next instant what had appeared to be a mound of snow a few feet to his right burst open, and the huge red wolf lunged out, snapping its jaws shut on Franco's leg.
The bones broke like pistol shots as the berserker wrenched Franco off his feet, and its fangs tore the flesh into crimson ribbons. Franco opened his mouth to scream, but only a choke came out. Mikhail stood stunned, his brain reeling. The berserker had either been lying in wait under the snow, just its nostrils lifted up to catch air, or else it had burrowed beneath the drifts to ambush them. There was no time to wonder what had happened to Wiktor and Nikita there was only the reality of the berserker ripping Franco's leg apart, and blood steaming in the snow.
Mikhail started to shout for help, but by the time Renati and alekza got here-if they even heard him-Franco would be dead. The berserker released Franco's tattered leg, and closed its jaws on his shoulder as Franco desperately fought to keep the fangs away from his throat. Franco's face had gone death white, his eyes bulging with terror.
Mikhail looked up. a tree branch, coated with ice, was about three feet over his head. He leaped up for it, grasped the branch, and it cracked off in his hands. The berserker paid him no attention, its teeth deep in the muscle of Franco's shoulder. and then Mikhail sprang forward, dug his heels into the snow, and drove the stick's sharp end into one of the berserker's gray eyeballs.
The stick gouged the berserker's eye out, and the wolf released Franco's shoulder with a roar of pain and rage. as the berserker staggered back and shook its head to clear the agony, Franco tried to crawl away. He got about six feet before he shuddered and passed out, his leg and shoulder mangled. The berserker snapped wantonly at the air, and it's remaining eye found Mikhail Gallatinov.
Something passed between them: Mikhail could feel it, as strongly as the pounding of his heart and the blood rushing through his veins. Maybe it was a communion of hatred, of a primal recognition of impending violence; whatever it was Mikhail understood it fully, and he gripped the sharp stick like a spear as the berserker hurtled toward him across the snow.
The red wolf's jaws gaped open for him, its powerful legs preparing to leap. Mikhail stood his ground, his nerves tingling, every human instinct urging him to run but the wolf inside him waiting with cold judgment. The berserker made a feinting move to the left that Mikhail instantly saw was false, and then it left the ground and came at him.
Mikhail fell to his knees, under the big body and the flailing claws, and he drove the stick upward. It pierced the berserker's white-haired stomach as the beast went over him; the stick cracked in two, its point deep in the berserker's belly, and the wolf contorted in midair, one of its forelegs slamming across Mikhail's back and two talons ripping through the deerskin cloak. Mikhail felt as if a hammer had struck him; he was knocked onto his face in the snow, and he heard the berserker grunt as it landed on its stomach a few yards away. Mikhail twisted his body, his lungs seizing cold air, and he faced the berserker before it could leap onto his back. The one-eyed beast was on its feet, the spear driven so deep in its gut that it had almost disappeared. Mikhail stood up, his chest heaving, and he felt hot blood trickling down his back. The berserker danced to the right, positioning himself between Mikhail and the white palace. The stick clenched in Mikhail's right fist was about seven inches long, the length of a kitchen knife. The berserker snorted steam, feinted in and then out again, blocking Mikhail from fleeing home. "Help us!" he shouted toward the white palace. His voice was muffled by the snowfall. "Renati! Help-"
The beast lunged forward, and Mikhail stabbed at its other eye with the stick. But the berserker stopped and whirled aside, spraying snow up from under its paws, and the stick jabbed empty air. The berserker twisted its body, darting around to Mikhail's unprotected side, and it leaped at him before he could stab with the stick again.
The berserker hit him. Mikhail had the image of the freight train, one eye blazing, as it roared on the downhill tracks. He was knocked off his feet like a rag doll, and would have broken his back if not for the snow. His breath whooshed out of him, and his brain was stunned by the impact. He smelled blood and animal saliva. a brutal weight crushed down on his shoulder, pinning his hand and the stick. He blinked, and in the haze of pain saw the berserker's maw above him, its fangs opening to seize his face and strip it away from the skull like flimsy cloth. His shoulder was trapped, the bones about to burst from their sockets. The berserker leaned forward, the muscles bunching along its flanks, and Mikhail smelled Franco's blood on its breath. The jaws stretched open to crush his skull.
Two human hands, streaked with brown hair, caught the berserker's jaws. Franco had roused himself and leaped atop the red beast. His brown-stubbled face a rictus of pain, Franco gasped, "Run," as he twisted the berserker's head with all his strength.
The berserker thrashed against him, but Franco held tight. The jaws snapped together, and teeth pierced Franco's palms. The weight was off Mikhail's shoulder; he lifted his arm, the bones throbbing, and drove the sharp stick up into the berserker's throat. It plunged in three inches before it met an obstruction and broke again. The berserker howled and shivered with agony, snorting a crimson mist, and Mikhail pushed himself out from under the wolf as it reared up and tried to throw Franco off its back. "Run!" Franco shouted, hanging on by his bloody fingernails.
Mikhail got up, snow all over him. He began running, the last few inches of the broken stick falling from his hand. Snowflakes whirled around him, like dancing angels. His shoulder throbbed, the muscles deeply bruised. He looked back, saw the berserker shake itself in a violent frenzy. Franco lost his grip and was flung off. The berserker tensed to leap on Franco's body and finish him, but Mikhail stopped. "Hey!" he shouted, and the berserker's head angled toward him, its single eye blazing.
Something blazed within Mikhail as well. He felt it, like a fire that had opened at his center, and to save Franco's life-and his own-he would have to reach into those white-hot flames, and grasp what had been forged.
I want it, he thought, and he fixed on the image of his hand twisting into a claw, the picture of it radiant in his mind. He thought he heard an inner wall, like wild winds unleashed. Pinpricks of pain swept up his spine. I want it. Steam drifted from his pores. He shivered, pressure squeezing his organs. His heart pounded. He felt pain in the muscles of his arms and legs, a terrible clenching pain around his skull. Something cracked in his jaw, and he heard himself moan.
The berserker watched him, transfixed by the sight, its jaws still open and ready to break Franco's neck.
Mikhail lifted his right hand. It was covered with sleek black hair, and the fingers had retracted into white claws. I want it. The black hair raced up his arm. His left hand was changing. His head felt as if it were caught in an iron vise, and his jaw was lengthening with brittle cracking sounds. I want it. There was no turning back now, no denying the change. Mikhail threw his deerskin cloak off, and it slithered to the snow. He fumbled with his sandals, barely got them off before his feet began to contort. He fell, off balance, and went down on his rump.
The berserker sniffed the air. It made a grunting noise, and watched the thing take shape.
Black hair scurried over Mikhail's chest and shoulders. It entwined his throat and covered his face. His jaw and nose were lengthening into a muzzle, and his fangs burst free with such force they slashed the inside of his mouth and made blood and saliva drool. His backbone bent, with stunning pain. His legs and arms shortened, grew thick with muscle. Sinews and cartilage popped and cracked. Mikhail shuddered, his body thrashing as if getting rid of the last human elements. His tail, slick with fluids, had thrust from the dark growth at the base of his spine, and now it twitched in the air as Mikhail got on all fours. His muscles continued to quiver like harp strings, his nerves aflame. Musky-smelling fluids oozed over his pelt. His testicles had drawn up like hard stones, and were covered with coarse hair. His right ear rippled with hair and began to change into a triangular cup, but the left ear malfunctioned; it simply remained the ear of a human boy. The pain intensified, bordering on the edge of pleasure, and then rapidly subsided. Mikhail started to call to Franco, to tell him to crawl away; he opened his mouth, and the high yip that came out scared him.
He thanked God he couldn't see himself, but the shock in the berserker's eye told him enough. He had willed the change, and it was on him.
Mikhail's bladder let go, streaking yellow across the white. He saw the berserker dismiss him, and start to lean over Franco again. Franco had passed out, was unable to defend himself. Mikhail bounded forward, got his forelegs and hind legs tangled up, and he went down on his belly. He got up once more, shaky as a newborn. He shouted at the berserker; it emerged as a thin growl that didn't even snag the red wolf's attention. Mikhail leaped clumsily over the snow, lost his footing, and fell again, but then he was right beside the wolf and he did it without thinking: he opened his jaws, and sank his fangs into the berserker's ear. as the animal roared and twisted away, Mikhail tore the ear off to its fleshy roots.
The berserker staggered, stunned by the fresh pain. Mikhail had the ear between his teeth; his throat convulsed, blood in his mouth, and he swallowed the wolf's ear. The berserker spun in a mad circle, snapping at the air. Mikhail turned, the twitching of his tail almost throwing him off his paws again, and he ran.
His legs betrayed him. The ground was right in his face, and all perspective was bizarre. He stumbled, slid over the snow on his stomach, scrambled up, and tried to flee, but matching the movement of four legs was a mystery. He heard the berserker's rumbled breath right behind him, and he knew it was about to leap; he feinted to the left and swerved to the right, skidding off balance once more. The berserker jumped past him, digging up a flurry of snow as it fought to change direction. Mikhail struggled up, the hair bristling along his back; he swerved violently again, his spine amazingly supple. He heard the click of fangs as the berserker's jaws narrowly missed his flank. and then Mikhail, his legs trembling, turned to face the red beast, snow whirling into the air between them. The berserker rushed at him, snorting steam and blood. Mikhail planted his paws, his legs splayed and his heart seemingly about to explode. The berserker, expecting his enemy to dodge to either side, suddenly checked his speed and dug his paws into the snow, and Mikhail reared up on his hind legs like a human being and lunged forward.
His jaws opened, an instinctual movement that Mikhail couldn't remember triggering. He clamped them on the berserker's muzzle and crunched his fangs down through hair and flesh into cartilage and bone. as he bit deeply, he brought his left claw up in a savage arc and raked the talons across the berserker's remaining eye.
The beast howled, blinded, and twisted his body to throw the small wolf off, but Mikhail held tight. The berserker lifted up, hesitated for only an instant, and then smashed down on Mikhail. He felt a rib snap, a crushing pain jabbing through him, but the snow again saved his spine. The berserker lifted up again, and as the beast rose to his full height Mikhail released his grip on the bleeding muzzle and scrambled away, the pain of his broken rib almost stealing his breath.
The berserker clawed the air with blind fury. He raced in a circle, trying to find Mikhail, and slammed his red skull against the trunk of an oak tree. Dazed, the beast whirled around, fangs snapping at nothing. Mikhail backed away from him, to give the thing plenty of room, and he stood near Franco, his shoulders slumped to ease the pain in his rib cage. The berserker gave an enraged series of grunts, snorting blood, and then he spun to right and left, the crushed nose seeking a scent.
a russet shape shot across the snow and crashed headlong into the berserker's side. Renati's claws flailed ribbons of red hair and flesh, and the berserker was thrown into a tangle of thorns. Before the berserker could grasp her, Renati darted away again and circled warily. another wolf-this one blond, with ice-blue eyes-leaped in from the berserker's other side, and alekza raked a claw along the berserker's flank. as he turned to snap at her, alekza bounded away and Renati darted in to seize one of the berserker's hind legs between her teeth. Her head twisted, and the berserker's leg snapped. Then Renati scrambled away as the red wolf staggered on three legs. alekza lunged forward, grasped the beast's remaining ear, and ripped it away. She danced back as the berserker clawed at her, but his movements were getting sluggish. He went a few paces in one direction, stopped and turned in another, and behind him he left bright splotches of crimson on the snow.
But he was strong. Mikhail stood back and watched as Renati and alekza wore him down, the death of a thousand bites and scratches. The berserker at last tried to run, dragging the broken leg behind him. Renati slammed into his side, knocking him to the ground, and crushed a foreleg between her jaws as alekza gripped his tail. The berserker struggled to rise, and Renati drove her talons into his belly and ripped him open with a grace that was almost beautiful. The berserker shivered, and lay writhing on the bloody white. Renati leaned forward, seizing the red wolf's unprotected throat between her fangs. The berserker made no effort to fight back. Mikhail saw Renati's sleek muscles tense-and then she released the throat and stepped away. She and alekza both looked at Mikhail.
He didn't understand at first. Why hadn't Renati torn the throat outi But then it dawned on him as the two wolves stared impassively: they were offering the kill to him.
"Go on," Franco said, a raspy whisper. He was sitting up, his torn hands clenched to his shoulder. Mikhail was amazed on a new level; he'd understood the human voice as clearly as ever. "Take the kill," Franco told him. "It's yours."
Renati and alekza waited as the snowflakes drifted to earth. Mikhail saw it in their eyes: this was expected of him. He walked forward, his legs slipping and ungainly, and he stood over the conquered red wolf.
The berserker was more than twice his size. He was an old wolf, some of his hair gone gray. His muscles were thick, carved from struggle. The red skull lifted, as if listening to Mikhail's heartbeat. Blood oozed from the holes where the eyes had been, and a crushed paw feebly scarred the snow.
He's asking for death, Mikhail realized. He's lying there, pleading for it.
The berserker made a deep groaning noise, the sound of a caged soul. Mikhail felt it leap within him: not savagery, but mercy.
He leaned his head down, sank his fangs into the throat, and bit deep. The berserker didn't move. and then Mikhail braced his paws against the berserker's body, and ripped upward. He didn't know his own strength; the throat tore open like a Christmas package, and its bright gift spilled out. The berserker shuddered and clawed the air, perhaps fighting not death, but life. Mikhail stumbled back, flesh between his teeth and his eyes glazed with shock. He had seen the others tear the throats of prey, but never until this moment had he understood its sensation of supreme power.
Renati lifted her head to the sky, and sang. alekza added her higher, younger voice in harmony, and the music soared over the snow. Mikhail thought he knew what the song was about: an enemy had been killed, the pack was victorious, and a new wolf had been born. He spat the berserker's flesh from his mouth, but the taste of blood had ignited his senses. Everything was so much clearer: all colors, all sounds, all aromas were heightened to an intensity that both thrilled and scared him. He realized that up until the moment of his change he had been living only a shadow life; now he felt real, gorged with strength, and this form of black hair and muscle must be his true body, not that weak pale husk of a human boy.
Dazed with the blood fever, Mikhail danced and capered as the two wolves sang their arias. and then he, too, lifted his head and opened his jaws; what came out was more of a croak than music, but he had time to learn to sing. all the time in the world. and then the song faded, its last notes echoed away, and Renati began to change back to human form. It took her perhaps forty-five seconds to alter from a sleek wolf to a naked woman with sagging breasts, and then she knelt down beside Franco. alekza changed as well, and Mikhail watched her, fascinated. Her limbs lengthened, the blond fur re-formed into the long blond hair on her head and the golden down between her legs and on her forearms and thighs, and then she stood up, naked and glorious, her nipples hardened by the cold. She went to Franco's side, too, and Mikhail stood on all fours, aware that something had grown hard at his groin.
Renati inspected Franco's mangled leg and scowled. "Not good, is iti" Franco asked her, his voice groggy, and Renati said, "Quiet." She shivered, her bare flesh covered with goose bumps; they were going to have to get Franco inside before all of them froze. She looked at Mikhail, the wolf. "Change back," she told him. "Now we need hands more than teeth."
Change backi he thought. Now that he was here, he had to go back therei
"Help me lift him," Renati said to alekza, and they struggled to get Franco up. "Come on, help us!" she told Mikhail.
He didn't want to change. He dreaded going back, to that weak, hairless body. But he knew it had to be, and even as the knowledge sank into him he felt the change taking him in the other direction, away from the wolf toward the boy again. The change, he realized, always began first in the mind. He saw his skin, smooth and white, his hands ending in fingers instead of claws, his body supported upright on long stalks. and so it began to happen, just as the images were held in his mind, and his black hair, claws, and fangs left him. There was a moment of searing pain that drove him to his knees; his broken rib was returning to the rib of a boy, but it remained broken, and for an instant the jagged edges ground against each other. Mikhail grasped his white side with human fingers, and when the pain had cleared, he stood up. His legs were shaky, threatening collapse. His jawbones clicked back into their sockets, the last of the dark hair itched fiercely as it retreated into the pores, and Mikhail stood in a mist of steam.
He heard alekza laugh.
He looked down, and saw that neither pain nor cold had unstiffened him. He covered himself, his face reddening. Renati said, "No time for that. Help us!" She and alekza were trying to cradle Franco between them, and Mikhail stumbled forward to add his dwindling strength.
They carried Franco to the white palace, and on the way Mikhail retrieved his robe and hurriedly put it around himself. Renati and alekza's robes lay on the snow, just outside the palace wall. They let them lie until they'd gotten Franco down the stairs, a treacherous trip, and had put him down near the fire. Then Renati went up to get the cloaks, and while she was gone Franco opened his bloodshot eyes and gripped the front of Mikhail's robe. He drew the boy's face close.
"Thank you," Franco said. His hand slipped away, and he'd passed out again. Which was fortunate, because his leg had been all but severed.
Mikhail sensed a movement behind him. He smelled her, fresh as morning. He looked back, over his shoulder, and found his face almost pressed into the golden hair between alekza's thighs.
She stared down at him, her eyes glinting in the ruddy light. "Do you like what you seei" she asked him quietly.
"I..." again, his groin brittled. "I... don't know."
She nodded, and gave him a hint of a smile. "You'll know, soon enough. When you do, I'll be waiting."
"Oh, get out of the boy's face, alekza!" Renati came into the chamber. "He's still a child!" She threw alekza her robe.
"No," alekza answered, still staring down at him. "No, he's not." She slid her cloak on, a sensuous movement, but she didn't draw its folds together. Mikhail looked at her eyes and then, his face flaming, looked to the other place again.
"In my youth you'd be burned at the stake for what you're thinking," Renati told the girl. Then she pushed Mikhail aside and bent over Franco again, pressing a handful of snow against his shattered leg bones. alekza drew her cloak shut with nimble fingers, and then she touched the two bloody furrows on Mikhail's back; she regarded the smear of red on her fingertips before she licked it off.
almost four hours later Wiktor and Nikita came home. They had intended to tell the others how their search had failed, because the berserker had marked every one of the caves with his spoor and Wiktor and Nikita had been caught by the winds on a narrow ledge overnight. They'd intended to tell them this, until they saw the huge red wolf lying dead in the snow and the crimson carnage all around. Wiktor listened intently as Renati told him how she and alekza had heard the berserker howl and had gone out to find Mikhail locked in combat. Wiktor said nothing, but his eyes shone with pride, and from that day on he no longer looked at Mikhail and saw a helpless boy.
In the firelight Franco offered his right leg to the sharp edge of a piece of flint. The bones were already broken, so it was only a matter of cutting through torn muscle and a few tatters of flesh. His body oozing sweat, Franco gripped Renati's hands and clenched a stick between his teeth as Wiktor did the work. Mikhail helped hold Franco down. The leg came off, and lay on the stones. The pack sat around it, deliberating, as the smell of blood perfumed the chamber.
The wind had begun to scream outside again. another blizzard was sweeping across Russia, the land of winter. Wiktor drew his knees up to his chin, and he said softly, "What is the lycanthrope, in the eye of Godi"
No one answered. No one could.
after a while, Mikhail got up and, pressing his hand against his wounded side, went up the stairs. He stood in a large chamber and let the wind flail him as it shrieked through the broken windows. Snow whitened his hair and gathered on his shoulders, making him appear aged in a matter of seconds. He looked up at the ceiling, where faded angels dwelled, and wiped blood from his lips.