at winter's end Petyr was still alive. He accepted whatever food alekza gave him, and though he had the habit of changing to a wolf pup without warning and driving the rest of the pack crazy with his constant yapping, he stayed mostly within human bounds. By summer he had all his teeth, and Wiktor kept his fingers away from the baby's mouth.
Some nights, Mikhail sat on the ravine's edge and watched the train go past. He began counting the seconds off as it roared from the western tunnel into the eastern. Last year, he'd run the race halfheartedly with Nikita. It had never really mattered to him how fast he could change. He knew he was fairly quick about it, but he'd always lagged behind Nikita. Now, though, Nikita's bones lay in the Garden, and the train-an invincible thing-breathed its black breath and shone its gleaming eye through the night. Mikhail had often wondered what the crew had thought when they'd found blood and bits of black-haired flesh on the cowcatcher. We hit an animal, they'd probably thought if they considered it at all. an animal. Something that shouldn't have been in our way.
Toward the middle of summer, Mikhail began to lope along with the train as it burst from the tunnel. He wasn't racing it, just stretching his legs. The engine always left him in a whirl of sour black smoke, and cinders scorched his skin. and on those nights, after the train had disappeared into the tunnel, Mikhail crossed the tracks to where Nikita had died, and he sat in the weeds and thought, I could do it, if I wanted to. I could.
He would have to get a fast start. The tricky part was staying on your feet as your arms and legs changed. The way the backbone bowed your body over ruined your balance. and all the time your nerves and joints were shrieking, and if you tripped over your own paws, you could go into the side of the train, and a hundred other terrible things could happen. No, it wasn't worth the risk.
Mikhail always left telling himself he wouldn't come back. But he knew it was a lie. The idea of speed, of testing himself against the beast that had killed Nikita, lured him. He began to run faster, alongside the train; but still not racing it, not yet. His balance still wasn't good enough, and he fell every time he tried to change from human to wolf while running. It was a problem of timing, of keeping your footing until the front legs could come down and match the speed of the hind legs. Mikhail kept trying, and kept falling.
Renati returned from a hunt one afternoon with startling news: to the northwest, less than five miles from the white palace, men had started cutting down trees. They'd already made a clearing, and were building shacks out of raw timbers. a road was being plowed through the brush. The men had many wagons, saws, and axes. Renati said she'd crept in close, in her wolf form, to watch them working; one of the men had seen her, she said, and pointed her out to the others before she could get back into the woods. What did it meani she asked Wiktor.
The beginning of a logging camp, he thought. Under no circumstances, he told the pack, were any of them to go near the place again, in either human or wolf form. The men would probably work through the summer and leave. It was best to let them alone.
But from that point on, Mikhail noted that Wiktor became silent and brooding. He forbade anyone to hunt except at night. He was nervous, and paced back and forth in the chamber long after everyone else had settled down to rest. Soon, when the wind was right, Mikhail and the others could recline in the sun outside the white palace and hear the distant sound of axes and saws at work, gnawing the forest away.
and the day came.
Franco and Renati went out to hunt, as a crescent moon hung in the sky and the woods thrummed with the sound of crickets. Little more than an hour had passed before the noise of distant gunshots silenced the insects and echoed through the corridors of the white palace.
Mikhail counted four shots as he stood up from alekza's side. Petyr played with a rabbit bone on the floor. Wiktor dropped the book of Latin he'd been reading to Mikhail and rose to his feet. Two more shots were fired, and the sounds made Mikhail flinch; he remembered very well the noise of gunfire, and what a bullet could do.
as the last shot faded a howling began: Franco's hoarse voice, panicked and calling for help.
"Stay with Petyr," Wiktor told alekza, and as he strode toward the stone stairway he was already changing. Mikhail followed, and the two wolves left the white palace streaking through the darkness toward Franco's wall. They had gone not quite a mile when they smelled the gunsmoke and the odor of men: a bitter, frightened sweat smell. Lanterns glowed in the woods, and the men were calling to each other. Franco had begun making a high, frantic yipping noise, an aural beacon that led Wiktor and Mikhail directly to him. They found him crouched on a bluff, amid dense underbrush, and before them lay a circle of tents around a campfire. Wiktor rammed his shoulder into Franco's ribs to shut him up, and Franco lay on his belly in a submissive posture, his eyes glittering with terror-not of Wiktor, but of what now occurred in the firelit clearing.
Two men with rifles slung around their shoulders dragged something out of the woods and into the light. There were six other men, all armed with either pistols or rifles and carrying lanterns. They gathered around the form that sprawled in the dust, and thrust out their lanterns over it.
Mikhail felt Wiktor shiver. His own lungs seemed full of icy needles. There on the ground was the carcass of a wolf with russet fur, pierced by three bullet holes. Renati's blood looked black in the lamplight. and there, for all to see, was a dead wolf with one human arm and a human leg.
My God, Mikhail thought. Now they know.
One of the loggers began to pray-a coarse, ranting Russian voice-and as he reached the end of his prayer he put the barrel of his rifle against Renati's skull and blew it apart.
"We heard the men," Franco said when they'd gotten back to the chamber. He was shaking, and sweat gleamed on his skin. "They were laughing and talking around their fire. Making so much noise you'd have to be deaf not to hear them."
"You were stupid to go there!" Wiktor raged, spraying spittle. "Damn it to hell, they killed Renati!"
"She wanted to get closer," Franco went on dazedly. "I tried to turn her back, but... she wanted to see them. Wanted to get right up and hear what they were saying." He shook his head, fighting shock. "We stood at the edge of the clearing... so close we could hear their hearts beat. and I think... something about them, so close, hypnotized her. Like seeing creatures from another world. Even when one of the men looked up and saw her, she still didn't move. I think..." He blinked slowly, his brain gears sluggish. "I think... that for just one minute... she forgot she was a wolf."
"They'll leave now, won't theyi" alekza asked hopefully, holding the squirming child. "They'll go away, back to where they came from." No one answered her. "Won't theyi"
"Pah!" Wiktor spat into the fire. "Who knows what they'll doi Men are crazy!" He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Maybe they'll go. Maybe seeing Renati scared the shit out of them, and they're already packing up. Damn it, they know about us now! There's nothing more dangerous than a frightened Russian with a rifle!" He glanced quickly at Mikhail, then at the child in alekza's arms. "Maybe they'll go," Wiktor said, "but I won't count on it. From now on, we keep a constant watch up in the tower. I'll go first. Mikhail, will you take the second watchi" Mikhail nodded. "We'll have to divide it among us into six-hour shifts," Wiktor continued. He looked around at alekza, Petyr, Franco, and Mikhail: the surviving members of the pack. He didn't have to speak; his expression spoke for him, and Mikhail could read it. The pack was dying. Wiktor's gaze wandered around the chamber, as if in search for the lost ones. "Renati's dead," he whispered, and Mikhail saw tears bloom in his eyes. "I loved her," Wiktor said, to no one in particular. and then he gathered the folds of his deerskin robe about himself, abruptly turned away, and went up the stairs.
Three days passed. The sound of saws and axes at work had ceased. On the fourth night after Renati's death, Wiktor and Mikhail crept to the bluff that had overlooked the circle of tents. The tents were gone, and the campfire was cold. The stench of men was gone as well. Wiktor and Mikhail went northwest, following the swath of stumps, to find the loggers' main camp. It, too, had been cleared out. The shacks were empty, the wagons gone. But the road they'd cut into the forest remained, like a brown scar on the earth. There was no trace of Renati's carcass; the men had taken her with them, and what would happen when the eyes of the outside world saw the body of a wolf with a human arm and legi The road pointed the way to the white palace. From Wiktor's throat came a low groaning noise, and Mikhail understood what he meant: God help us.
The summer moved on, a trail of scorching days. The loggers didn't return, and no other wagons cut ruts on the forest road. Mikhail began to go out to the ravine at night again, and watched the train roar past. Its engineer seemed to be going even faster than before. He wondered if the man had heard about Renati, and the stories that would surely follow: in those woods live monsters.
He raced the train a few times, always pulling up short when his body began to change from human to wolf and his balance was in jeopardy. The iron wheels hissed at him, and left him behind.
The summer ended, the forest turned to gold and crimson, the sun's rays slanted across the earth and the morning mist turned chill and lingered, and the soldiers came.
They arrived with the first frost. There were twenty-two of them, in four horse-drawn wagons, and Wiktor and Mikhail crouched in the underbrush and watched them setting up camp in the logging shacks. all of the soldiers had rifles and some carried pistols, too. One of the wagons was full of supplies, and along with crates marked Danger! Explosives! there was a bulky-looking gun mounted on wheels. Instantly a man who must have been in charge posted sentries around the camp, and the soldiers began to dig trenches and put sharpened wooden stakes at the bottom of them. They unrolled nets and hung them in the trees, with trip wires going in all directions. Of course they left their smell on all the traps, so those nets and wires were easily avoided-but then half of the soldiers took two wagons and went along the logging road to the place where the tents had been set up, and there they set up their own tents, dug new trenches, and strung up more nets. They took the crates of explosives and the wheeled gun off their wagon, and when they test-fired the gun it sounded like the end of the world and slashed thin pines down like the work of a dozen axes.
"a machine gun," Wiktor said when they were back in the white palace. "They brought a machine gun! To kill us!" He shook his head incredulously, his beard full of white. "My God, they must think there are hundreds of us in here!"
"I say we get out while we can," Franco urged. "Right now, before those bastards come hunting for us!"
"and where are we going to go, with winter comingi Maybe dig holes and live in themi We couldn't survive without shelter!"
"We can't survive where we are! They're going to start searching the woods, and sooner or later they'll find us!"
"So what shall we doi" Wiktor asked quietly, the firelight ruddy on his face. "Go to the soldiers and tell them we're not to be fearedi That we're human beings, just like they arei" He smiled bitterly. "You go first, Franco, and we'll see how they treat you." Franco scowled and hobbled away on his staff, much more proficient on three legs than he was on one. Wiktor sat on his haunches and thought. Mikhail could tell what was going through the man's mind: hunting was going to be much more difficult with the soldiers and their traps out in the woods; Franco was right, sooner or later the soldiers would find them; and what the soldiers might do to them when they were captured was unthinkable. Mikhail looked at alekza, who held the child close. The soldiers would either kill us or cage us, Mikhail thought. Death would be preferable to iron bars.
"The bastards chased me away from one home," Wiktor said. "They won't chase me from a second. I'm staying here, no matter what." He stood up, his decision made. "The rest of you can try to find somewhere else, if you like. Maybe you can use one of those caves where we hunted the berserker, but I'll be damned if I'll crouch and shiver in a cave like a beast. No. This is my home."
There was a long silence. alekza broke it, her voice thin and grasping false hope: "Maybe they'll get tired of looking for us and leave. They won't stay very long, not with winter almost here. They'll be gone with the first snow."
"Yes!" Franco agreed. "They won't stay when the weather turns cold, that's for sure!"
It was the first time the pack had ever longed for the icy breath of winter. One good snowfall would clear the soldiers out. But, though the air turned cold, the sky remained clear. Dead leaves fell from the trees, and from the underbrush Wiktor and Mikhail watched the soldiers as they roamed the woods, tight knots of men with rifles aimed in all directions. Once a group of them passed within a hundred yards of the white palace. They dug more trenches, put sharpened stakes at the bottom of them, and covered the trenches over with dirt and leaves. Wolf traps, Wiktor told Mikhail. The snares were of no consequence, but the soldiers were searching in expanding circles, and one terrible day Mikhail and Wiktor watched in agonized silence as the men stumbled upon the Garden. Hands and bayonets went to work, digging up the graves that had been repaired after the berserker's death. and as those hands pulled the wolf and human bones from the earth, Mikhail lowered his head and turned away, unable to bear the sight.
Snow dusted the forest. The northern wind promised brutality, but still the soldiers remained.
October waned. The sky darkened, burdened with clouds. and on one morning, as Mikhail returned from hunting with a freshly killed rabbit in his jaws, he found the enemy less than fifty yards from the white palace.
There were two of them, both carrying rifles. Mikhail darted into the brush and crouched, watching the soldiers approach. The men were talking to each other, something about Moscow; their voices were nervous, and their fingers clutched the triggers. Mikhail let the rabbit slide from his mouth. Please stop, he told the soldiers in his mind. Please go back. Please...
They didn't. Their boots crushed the foliage down, and every step took them closer to Wiktor, Franco, alekza, and the child. Mikhail's muscles tensed, his heart pounding. Please go back.
The soldiers stopped. One of them lit a cigarette, cupping the match from the wind. "We've gone too far," he said to the other man. "We'd better get back, or Novikov'll skin us."
"That bastard's crazy," the second man observed, leaning on his rifle. "I say we set the whole damned woods on fire, and be done with it. Why the hell does he want to set up a new camp in this messi" He looked around at the forest, with the awe and fear that told Mikhail the man was a city dweller. "Burn it to the ground and go home, that's what I say."
The first man blew plumes of smoke from his nostrils. "That's why we're not officers, Stefan," he said. "We're too smart to wear stars. I'll tell you, if I have to dig another damned trench, I'm going to let Novikov know where he can stick his-" He stopped, smoke whirling past his head, and stared through the trees. "What's thati" he asked, his voice hushed.
"What's whati" Stefan looked around.
"There." The first man took two more steps forward and pointed. "Right there. See iti"
Mikhail closed his eyes.
"It's a building," the first man said. "Seei There's a minaret."
"My God, you're right!" Stefan agreed. He instantly picked up his rifle and cocked it.
The noise made Mikhail open his eyes again. The two soldiers stood not fifteen feet from him. "We'd better tell Novikov about this," Stefan said. "I'll be damned if I'm going any closer." He turned away, hurriedly striding through the woods. The first man flicked his cigarette butt aside and followed his companion.
Mikhail rose up from his crouch. He could not let them get back to their camp. Could not; must not. He thought of bones being wrenched from the Garden like fragile roots, of Renati's skull being blown to pieces, of what these men would do to alekza and Petyr once they returned with their guns and explosives.
Rage burned in him, and a low growl started in his throat. The soldiers were crashing through the woods, almost running. Blood was still in Mikhail's mouth from the dead rabbit; his body darted after the soldiers, a black streak through the gray forest. He ran silently, with the tight grace of a killer. and even as he closed on the two men and judged the point to begin his leap, he knew a simple fact: a wolf's tears were no different from a human's.
He sprang up and forward, his hind legs like iron springs, and he landed on the cigarette smoker's back before the man even knew he was there.
Mikhail drove the man down, into the dead leaves, and clamped his jaws on the back of his neck. He wrenched the head violently left and right, heard the sound of bones splintering. The man thrashed, but it was the death throes of nerves and muscle. Mikhail finished breaking his neck, and the man died without a sound.
There was a shuddered gasp. Mikhail looked up, his green eyes glittering.
Stefan had turned, and was lifting his rifle.
Mikhail saw the soldier's finger tightening on the trigger. an instant before the bullet left the rifle Mikhail leaped aside, diving into the underbrush, and Russian lead kicked up a gout of Russian dust. a second shot rang out, the bullet passing over Mikhail's shoulder and thunking into an oak tree. Mikhail swerved left and right, sliding to a sudden halt on a carpet of dead leaves, and heard the soldier running. The man bellowed for help, and Mikhail went after him like silent judgment.
The soldier tripped over his own boots, scrambled up, and kept going. "Help me! Help me!" he screamed, and spun around to fire a shot at what he thought was coming up behind him. Mikhail, however, was circling around to cut him off from his camp. The soldier kept running and screaming, dead leaves in his hair, and Mikhail burst out of the underbrush and started to leap but in the next second there was no need to waste the energy.
The ground opened under the soldier's feet, and the man went down into the dirt and leaves. His screaming stopped, on a strangled note. Mikhail stood carefully on the trench's edge and looked down. The soldier's body twitched, even with seven or eight sharpened stakes piercing him. The smell of blood was very strong, and that coupled with Mikhail's rage, caused him to spin around and around, snapping at his tail.
In another moment he heard shouts: more soldiers, rapidly approaching. Mikhail turned and sped back to where the first man lay dead. He gripped the corpse's neck between his jaws and struggled to haul the body into the brush. The body was heavy, and the flesh tore; it was a messy job. From the corner of his eye he saw a flash of white; Wiktor came to his side and helped him drag the corpse into the darkness beneath a thick stand of pines. Then Wiktor snapped at Mikhail's muzzle, a signal for him to retreat. Mikhail hesitated, but Wiktor roughly shoved him with a shoulder and he obeyed. Wiktor crouched down in the leaves, listening to the sounds of the soldiers. There were eight of them, and as four pulled the dead man off the stakes the other four began to stalk through the forest, their rifles cocked and ready.
The beasts had come, as Wiktor had always known they someday would. The beasts had come, and they would not be denied their bloody flesh.
Wiktor stood up, a ghost amid the trees, and ran back to the white palace with the foul scent of the beasts in his nostrils.