This was a golden time. as autumn passed into winter, Mikhail's continued dalliances with alekza resulted in the swelling of her belly. Wiktor demanded more and more of Mikhail's time as the days shortened and the frost bloomed; the lessons had advanced, and now involved higher mathematics, theories of civilization, religion, and philosophy. But Mikhail, amazingly even to himself, found his mind craving knowledge just as his body craved alekza. a double doorway had been opened: one to the mysteries of sex, one to the questions of life. Mikhail sat without fidgeting as Wiktor pushed him to think; and not only to think, but to make up his own mind about things. In their discussion of religion, Wiktor raised a question that had no answer: "What is the lycanthrope, in the eye of Godi a cursed beast, or a child of miraclei"
The winter was a rare animal: a comparatively mild few months in which there were only three blizzards and hunting was almost always easy. It passed, and spring came again, and the pack counted itself blessed. Renati came with news one morning in May: two travelers-a man and a woman-in a wagon on the forest road. Their horse would be good meat, and they might bring the travelers into the fold. Wiktor agreed; the pack, now numbering only five members, could stand some new blood.
It was done with military precision. Nikita and Mikhail stalked the wagon on either side of the road while Renati followed behind and Wiktor went ahead to choose the place of ambush. The signal was given: Wiktor's strong voice, calling out as the wagon rumbled along beneath the dense pines. at once Nikita and Mikhail struck from both sides, leaping from the underbrush, and Renati bounded in from the rear. Wiktor jumped out of his hiding place, making the horse scream and leap in its traces. Mikhail saw the panic-stricken faces of the travelers; the man was bearded and thin, the woman dressed in a peasant's sackcloth. Nikita went for the man, biting into the forearm and dragging him off the wagon. Mikhail started to strike for the woman's shoulder, as Wiktor had instructed him, but he paused with his fangs bared and the saliva drooling. He remembered his own agony, and he couldn't bear to put another human being through that torment. The woman screamed, her hands up before her face. and then Renati leaped up onto the wagon, sank her fangs into the woman's shoulder, and knocked her to the ground. Wiktor sprang for the horse's throat, hanging on as the horse began to run. The animal didn't get very far before Wiktor brought it down, but Wiktor came out of the encounter covered with scrapes and ugly blue bruises.
In the depths of the white palace, the man died during his rite of passage. The woman survived, at least in body. Her mind, however, did not. She spent all her time huddled up in a corner, her back against the wall, sobbing and praying. No one could get her to speak anything but gibberish, not even to say her name or where she was from. She prayed night and day for death, until finally Wiktor gave her what she asked for, and put her out of her misery. On that day the pack hardly spoke to each other; Mikhail went running far away and back, and one word kept repeating itself over and over in his mind: monster.
alekza gave birth, at the zenith of summer. Mikhail watched the infant emerge, and when alekza asked eagerly, "Is it a boyi Is it a boyi" Renati mopped her brow and answered, "Yes. a fine, healthy son."
The infant lived through its first week. alekza named him Petyr, after an uncle she remembered from her childhood. Petyr had strong lungs, and Mikhail liked to sing along with him. Even Franco-whose heart had been softened as he learned to get about on three legs-was entranced by the child, but it was Wiktor who spent the most time near the newborn, watching with his amber eyes as Petyr suckled. alekza giggled like a schoolgirl as she held the infant, but everyone knew what Wiktor was looking for: the first signs of the war between wolf and human in the child's body. Either it would survive that war, and the body would make a truce between its natures, or it would not. another week passed, then a month; Petyr still survived, still squalled and suckled.
Winds lashed the forest. a rainstorm was coming; the pack could smell its sweetness. But this was the night of the summer's last train, on its way east to be caged until next season. Both Nikita and Mikhail had come to see the train as a living thing, as night after night they raced it along the tracks, beginning in human form and trying to cross in front of it as wolves before it roared into the eastern tunnel. They both were getting faster, but it seemed that the train was getting faster, too. Possibly a new engineer, Nikita had said. This man doesn't know the meaning of brakes. Mikhail agreed; the train had begun to come out of the western tunnel like a hell-bent demon, racing to reach home before the dawn light turned its heart to iron. Twice Nikita had completed the change and almost made the leap that would carry him through the beam of the train's cyclopean eye, but the train had picked up speed with a gout of black smoke and a rain of cinders and at the last second Nikita's nerve had faltered. The red lamp on the train's last car swung as if in mockery, and the light glowed in Nikita's eyes until it faded away in the long tunnel.
as the pines and oaks swayed on either side of the ravine and all the world seemed in tumultuous motion, Mikhail and Nikita waited in the dark for the summer's last train. Both of them were naked, having run from the white palace as wolves. They sat on the edge of the tracks, near the western tunnel's opening, and every so often Nikita would reach out and touch the rails, expecting to feel a trembling. "He's late," Nikita said. "He'll be going faster than ever, trying to make up the time."
Mikhail nodded thoughtfully and chewed on a weed. He looked up, watching the clouds move like plates of metal in the sky. Then he touched the rails; they were silent. "Maybe he broke down."
"Maybe he did," Nikita agreed. Then, frowning: "No, no! It's the final run! They'll get that train home tonight if they have to push it!" He tore up a clump of grass and, getting impatient, watched it fly before the wind. "The train will be here," he said.
They were silent for a few moments, listening to the noise of the trees. Mikhail asked, "Do you think he'll livei"
That question had never been very far from all their minds. Nikita shrugged. "I don't know. He seems healthy enough, but... it's hard to tell." He felt the rail again; no train. "You must have something strong inside you. Something very special."
"Like whati" That puzzled Mikhail, because he'd never thought of himself as any different from the rest of the pack.
"Well, look how many times I've tried to father a child. Or Franco. Or even Wiktor. My God, you'd think Wiktor could pop them out right and left. But the babies usually died within a few days, and those that lasted any longer were in such pain it was a horror to behold. Now here you are-fifteen years old-and you father a child who's lasted a month and seems all right. and the way you endured your own change, too; you just held on, long after the rest of us had given you up. Oh, Renati says she always knew you'd live, but she thought of the Garden every time she looked at you. Franco was betting scraps of food that you'd die within a week-and now he thanks God every day that you didn't!" He tilted his head slightly, listening for the sound of wheels. "Wiktor knows," he said.
"He knows what I do. What we all do. You're different, somehow. Stronger. Smarter. Why do you think Wiktor spends so much time going through those books with youi"
"He enjoys teaching."
"Oh, is that what he's told youi" Nikita grunted. "Well, why didn't he want to teach mei Or Franco, or alekzai Or any of the othersi Did he think we had rocks in our headsi" He answered his question himself: "No. He spends his time teaching you because he thinks you're worth the effort. and why is thati Because you want to know." He nodded when Mikhail scoffed. "It's true! I've heard Wiktor say it: he believes there's a future for you."
"a futurei There's a future for all of us, isn't therei"
"That's not what I mean. a future beyond this." He made an expansive gesture that enfolded the forest. "Where we are now."
"You mean..." Mikhail leaned forward. "Leave herei"
"That's right. Or, at least, that's what Wiktor believes. He thinks that someday you might leave the forest, and that you could even take care of yourself out there."
"alonei Without the packi"
Nikita nodded. "Yes. alone."
It was too incredible to consider. How could any member of the pack survive, alonei No, no; it was unthinkable! Mikhail was going to stay here forever, with the pack. There would always be a pack. Wouldn't therei "If I left the forest, who would take care of alekza and Petyri"
"That I don't know. But alekza has what she's been living for: a boy child. The way she smiles... well, she doesn't even look like the same person anymore. alekza wouldn't survive out there"-he jerked a finger toward the west-"and Wiktor knows it. alekza knows it, too. She'll live out the rest of her life here. and so will I, Wiktor, Franco, and Renati. We're old, hairy relics, aren't wei" He grinned broadly, but there was a little sadness in his smile. His grin faded. "Who knows about Petyri Who knows if he'll even live another week, or what his mind will be like when he gets olderi He might be like that woman who cried in the corner all day long. Or..." He glanced at Mikhail. "Or he might be like you. Who knowsi" Nikita cocked his head again, listening. His eyes narrowed. He put a finger on the rail, and Mikhail saw him smile faintly. "The train's coming. Fast, too. He's running late!"
Mikhail touched the rail and felt the distant train's power vibrating in it. Drops of rain began to fall, pocking up little puffs of dust from along the tracks. Nikita stood up and moved into the shelter of some trees next to the tunnel opening. Mikhail went with him, and they crouched down like sprinters ready for bursts of speed. The rain was falling harder. In another moment it was coming down in sheets, and the rails were drenched. also, the ground was rapidly turning to mud. Mikhail didn't like this; their footing would be unstable. He pushed his wet hair out of his eyes. Now they could hear the thunder of the train, fast approaching. Mikhail said, "I don't think we should go tonight."
"Why noti Because of a little raini" Nikita shook his head, his body tensed for the race. "I've run in rain worse than this!"
"The ground... there's too much mud."
"I'm not afraid!" Nikita snapped. "Oh, I've had dreams about that red lamp on the last car! Winking at me like Satan's eye! I'm going to beat the train tonight! I feel it, Mikhail! I can do it if I run just a little faster! Just a little bit-"
The train's headlamp exploded from the tunnel, the long black engine and the boxcars following. The new engineer had no fear of wet tracks. Rain and wind gusted into Mikhail's face, and he yelled, "No!" and reached for Nikita but Nikita was already gone, a white blur running alongside the rails. Mikhail sprinted after him, trying to stop him; the rain and wind were too strong, the train going too fast. His feet slid in the mud, and he almost fell against the speeding train. He could hear the rain hissing off the hot engine like a chorus of snakes. He kept going, trying to run Nikita down, and he saw that Nikita's footprints in the mud were changing to the paws of a wolf.
Nikita was contorted forward, almost running on all fours. His body was no longer white. Rain whirled around him-and then Mikhail lost his balance, falling forward and sliding in the mud. Rain crashed down on his shoulders and mud blinded him. He tried to scramble up, fell again, and lay there as the train roared along its track and into the eastern tunnel. It vanished, leaving a scrawl of red light on the tunnel's rock; then that, too, was gone.
Mikhail sat up in the downpour, rain streaming over his face. "Nikita!" he shouted. Neither human nor wolf replied. Mikhail stood up and began walking through the mud toward the eastern tunnel. "Nikita! Where are youi"
He couldn't see Nikita. The rain was still slamming down. Whirling cinders hissed out long before they touched the ground. The air smelled of scorched iron and wet heat.
"Nikitai" There was no sign of him on this side of the tracks. He made it! Mikhail thought, and felt a burst of joy. He made it! He made-
Something lay over on the other side of the tracks. a shapeless, trembling form.
Steam rose from the rails. On the tunnel's floor, cinders still glowed. and about eight feet from its entrance, lying sprawled in the weeds, was Nikita.
The wolf had leaped in front of the train, but the train had won. Its cowcatcher had torn Nikita's hindquarters away. His back legs were gone, and what remained of Nikita made Mikhail gasp and fall to his knees. He couldn't help it; he was sick, and that mingled with the blood washing along the railroad tracks.
Nikita made a noise: a soft, terrible moan.
Mikhail lifted his face to the sky, and let the rain beat it. He heard Nikita's moan again, ending in a whimper. He forced himself to look at his friend, and saw Nikita's eyes staring back at him, the noble head twisted like a frail flower on a dark stalk. The mouth opened, and emitted that awful noise again. The eyes were dimmed, but they fixed on Mikhail and held him, and he read their message.
Nikita's body trembled in agony. The front legs tried to pull the rest of the ruined body away from the tracks, but there was no power left in them. The head thrashed, then fell back into the mud. With a mighty effort, Nikita lifted his head and stared once more, imploringly, at the boy who sat on his knees in the downpour.
Nikita was dying, of course. But not fast enough. Not nearly fast enough.
Mikhail lowered his face and stared into the mud. Pieces of Nikita's body, stippled with wolf hair and human flesh, lay around him like tattered pieces of a magnificent puzzle. Mikhail heard Nikita groan and closed his eyes; in his mind he saw a dying deer beside the tracks, and Nikita's hands gripping the animal's skull. He remembered the sharp twist Nikita had given the deer's neck, followed by a noise of cracking bones. It had been an act of mercy, pure and simple. and it was no less than what Nikita now asked for.
Mikhail stood up, staggered and almost went down again. He felt dreamlike, floating; in this sea of rain there were no edges. Nikita shivered and stared at him and waited. at last Mikhail moved. The mud caught his feet, but he pulled free and he knelt down beside his friend.
Nikita lifted his head, offering his neck.
Mikhail grasped the sides of the wolf's skull. Nikita's eyes closed, and the low moan continued in his throat.
We could fix him, Mikhail thought. I don't have to kill him. We could fix him. Wiktor would know how. We fixed Franco, didn't wei
But in his heart he knew this was far worse than Franco's mangled leg. Nikita was near death, and he was only asking for deliverance from pain. It had all happened so quickly: the downpour, the train, the steaming tracks... so quickly, so quickly.
Mikhail's hands gripped tighter. He was shaking as hard as Nikita. He would have to do this right the first time. a dark haze was falling over his vision, and his eyes were filling up with rain. It would have to be done mercifully. Mikhail braced himself. One of Nikita's forelegs lifted up, and the paw rested against Mikhail's arm.
"I'm sorry," Mikhail whispered. He took a breath, and twisted as sharply as he could. He heard the cracking noise, and Nikita's body twitched. Then Mikhail crawled frantically away through the rain and mud. He burrowed into the weeds and high grass, and curled up there as the torrent continued to beat down on him. When he dared to look at Nikita again, he saw the motionless, cleaved torso of a wolf with one human arm and hand. Mikhail sat on his haunches, his knees pulled up to his chin, and rocked himself. He stared at the carcass with its white-fleshed arm. It would have to be moved off the tracks, before the vultures found it in the morning. It would have to be buried deep.
Nikita was gone. To wherei Mikhail wondered. and Wiktor's question came to him: what is the lycanthrope, in the eye of Godi
He felt something fall away from him. Perhaps it was youth's last flower. What lay beneath it felt hard-edged and raw, like a seething wound. To get through this life, he thought, a man needed a heart that was plated with metal and pumped cinders. He would have to grow one, if he was going to survive.
He stayed beside Nikita's body until the rain ceased. The wind had gone, and the woods were peaceful. Then Mikhail ran home, through the dripping dark, to take Wiktor the news.