Petyr was crying. It was the dead of winter, the wind howled outside the white palace, and Wiktor crouched over the child, now seven months old, as Petyr lay on a bed of dried grass. a small fire flickered nearby; the child was swaddled in deerskin and a blanket Renati had made from the travelers' clothes. Petyr's crying was a shrill quaver, but cold was not the child's complaint. Wiktor, whose beard had started to show streaks of white amid the gray, touched Petyr's forehead. The child's skin was burning. Wiktor looked up at the others. "It's begun," he said, his voice grim.
alekza, too, started to cry. Wiktor snapped, "Hush that!" and alekza crawled away to be by herself.
"What can we doi" Mikhail asked, but he already knew the answer: nothing. Petyr was about to go through the trial of agony, and no one could help the child through that passage. Mikhail leaned over Petyr, his fingers busy at the blanket, folding it closer simply because his fingers wanted something to do. Petyr's face was flushed, the ice-blue eyes rimmed with red. a small amount of dark hair was scattered over the child's scalp. alekza's eyes, Mikhail thought. My hair. and within that frail body, the first battle of a long war was beginning.
"He's strong," Franco said. "He'll make it." But his voice had no conviction. How could an infant survive such paini Franco stood up, on his single leg, and used his pinewood staff to guide himself to his sleeping pallet.
Wiktor, Renati, and Mikhail slept in a circle around the child. alekza came back, and slept touching Mikhail. Petyr's crying swelled and ebbed, became hoarse and still continued. So did the wail of the wind, beyond the walls.
as the days went on, Petyr's pain increased. They could tell, by the way he shivered and writhed, by the way he clenched his fists and seemed to be striking the air. They huddled around him; Petyr was hotter than the fire. Sometimes he screamed with silence, his mouth open and his eyes squeezed tightly shut. Other times his voice filled the chamber, and it was a sound that ripped Mikhail's heart and made alekza weep. In periods when the worst of the pain seemed to ebb, alekza tried to feed Petyr bloody meat she'd already chewed into a soft paste; he accepted most of it, but he was getting weaker, shriveling up like an old man before their eyes. Still, Petyr clung to life. When the child's crying would become so terrible that Mikhail thought God must surely end this suffering, the pain would break for perhaps three or four hours. Then it would come back, and the screaming would start again. Mikhail knew alekza was nearing a crisis as well; her eyes looked like hollowed-out holes, and her hands trembled so much she could hardly guide food into her own mouth. She, too, was becoming older by the day.
after a long and exhausting hunt, Mikhail was awakened one night by a hideous gasping sound. He sat up, started to move toward Petyr, but Wiktor pushed him aside in his haste to get to the baby. Renati said, "What is iti What's wrongi" and Franco hobbled on his stick into the light. alekza just stared, her eyes blank pools of shock. Wiktor knelt beside the child, and his face was ashen. The baby was silent. "He's swallowed his tongue," Wiktor said. "Mikhail, hold him from thrashing!"
Mikhail gripped Petyr's body; it was like touching a hot coal. "Hold him steady!" Wiktor shouted as he forced open the mouth and tried to hook the tongue with his finger. He couldn't get it out. Petyr's face had taken on a tinge of blue, and the lungs were heaving. The little hands clutched at the air. Wiktor's finger explored the child's mouth, found the tongue, and then he got a second finger clamped around it. He pulled; the tongue was caught in Petyr's throat. "Get it out!" Renati yelled. "Wiktor, get it out!"
Wiktor pulled again, harder. There was a popping noise as the tongue unjammed, but Petyr's face was still turning blue. The lungs hitched, couldn't draw in air. Sweat sparkled on Wiktor's face, though his breath came out in a gray plume. He lifted Petyr up, held the baby by the heels, and whacked him on the back with the flat of his hand. Mikhail winced at the sound of the blow. Petyr still made no noise. again Wiktor struck him on the back, harder. and a third time. There was a whoosh of rushing air, and a plume of it exploded from the child's mouth. It was followed by a wail of pain and fury that made the storm's voice sound feeble. alekza held her arms out to take the baby. Wiktor gave him to her. She rocked the child, grateful tears creeping down her cheeks, and she lifted one of his little hands and pressed it against her lips.
She pulled her head back, her eyes wide.
Dark hairs had risen from the white infant flesh. The body in her arms was already contorting, and Petyr opened his mouth to make a mewling noise. alekza looked up at Mikhail, then at Wiktor; he sat on his haunches, his chin resting on his clasped hands, and his amber eyes glinted in the firelight as he watched.
Petyr's face was changing, the muzzle beginning to form, the eyes sinking back into the dark-haired skull. Mikhail heard Renati gasp beside him, a sound of wonder. Petyr's ears lengthened, edged with soft white hairs. The fingers of both hands and the toes of both feet were retracting, becoming claws with small hooked nails. Little popping noises chimed the shifting of bones and joints, and Petyr made grunting noises, but his crying seemed to be done. The change took perhaps a minute. Wiktor said quietly, "Put him down."
alekza obeyed. The blue-eyed wolf pup, its sinewy body covered with fine black hairs, struggled to stand on all fours. Petyr made it up, fell, struggled to stand, and then fell again. Mikhail started to help him, but Wiktor said, "No. Let him do it on his own."
Petyr found his legs and was able to stand, the little body shivering, the blue eyes blinking with amazement. The stub of a tall wriggled, and the wolfen ears twitched. He took one step, then a second; his hind legs tangled and he went down once more. Petyr gave a short whuff of frustration, steam curling from his nostrils. Wiktor leaned forward, held out a finger, and ticked it back and forth in front of Petyr's muzzle. The blue eyes followed it-and then Petyr's head lunged out, the jaws opened, and clamped down on Wiktor's finger.
Wiktor worked his finger out of the pup's jaws and held it up. a little drop of blood had appeared. "Congratulations," he said to Mikhail and alekza. "Your son has a new tooth."
Petyr, at least for the time being, had given up the battle with gravity. He squirmed across the floor, sniffing at the stones. a roach burst from a crack under Petyr's nose and ran for its life, and Petyr gave a high yip of surprise, then continued his explorations.
"He'll turn back, won't hei" alekza asked Wiktor. "Won't hei"
"We'll see," Wiktor told her, and that was all he could offer.
about halfway across the chamber Petyr stubbed his nose on a stone's edge. He began yelping with pain, and as he rolled on the floor his body started changing back to human form again. The fine dark hair retreated into the flesh, the muzzle flattened into a nose-one of the nostrils bloody-and the paws became hands and feet. The yelping was now a steady, full-throated cry, and alekza rushed to the baby and picked him up. She rocked him and cooed to him, and finally Petyr hiccuped a few times and ceased crying. He remained a human infant.
"Well," Wiktor said after a pause, "if our new addition survives the winter, he should be very interesting to watch."
"He'll survive," alekza promised. The glint of life had returned to her eyes. "I'll make him survive."
Wiktor admired his bitten finger. "My dear, I doubt if you'll ever be able to make him do anything." He glanced at Mikhail, and smiled slightly. "You've done well, son," he said, and motioned alekza and the baby back into the fire's warmth.
Son, Mikhail realized he'd said. Son. No man had ever called him son before, and something about that sounded like music. He would sleep that night, listening to alekza crooning to Petyr, and he would dream of a tall, lean man in a military uniform who stood with a woman Mikhail had all but forgotten, and that man would have Wiktor's face.