When the snow came, Mikhail and Wiktor had been living for more than ten days in one of the caves where Wiktor had hunted the berserker. There was room for two wolves, but not two humans. The wind grew bitter, raging from the north, and returning to human form would be suicide. Wiktor was lethargic, and slept day and night. Mikhail hunted for them both, grasping whatever he could from the forest's plate.
True winter sank its icy roots. Mikhail traveled to the soldiers' camp and found it empty. There was no trace of Petyr. The snow had filled in the wagon ruts and stolen all scent of men. Mikhail bypassed the large area of burned trees and the scorched ruin of stones where the white palace had been, and returned to the cave.
On clear nights, when the blue-rimmed moon shone down and the sky was ablaze with stars, Mikhail sang. His song was all pain and longing now; the joy had been seared out of him. Wiktor remained in the cave, a ball of white fur, and his ears twitched occasionally at the black wolf's song, but Mikhail sang alone. His voice echoed over the forest, carried by the roaming wind. There was no answer.
Over the weeks and months that followed, Mikhail felt himself drifting further and further away from humanity. He had no need of that frail white body; four legs, claws, and fangs suited him now. Shakespeare, Socrates, higher mathematics, the languages of German, English, and Latin, history, and the theories of religion: they belonged to another world. In the realm to which Mikhail now belonged, the subject was survival. To fail those lessons meant death.
The winter broke. Blizzards turned to rainstorms, and fresh green appeared across the forest. Mikhail returned from hunting one morning to find a naked old man with a white beard, sitting on his haunches on a pile of rocks at the highest point above the chasm. Wiktor squinted in the hard sunshine, his face wrinkled and pale, but he took his portion of the dead muskrat and ate it raw. He watched the sun climbing into the sky, his amber eyes devoid of light. His head tilted to one side, as if he'd heard a familiar sound. "Renatii" he called, his voice fragile. "Renatii"
Mikhail lay down on his belly nearby, the chasm below them, chewing his food and trying to shut out the quavering voice. after a while, Wiktor put his hands to his face and wept, and Mikhail felt his heart shatter.
Wiktor looked up, and seemed to see the black wolf for the first time. "Who are youi" he asked. "What are youi"
Mikhail kept eating. He knew what he was.
"Renatii" Wiktor called again. "ah, there you are." Mikhail saw Wiktor smile faintly, addressing thin air. "Renati, he thinks he's a wolf. He thinks he's going to stay here forever, and run on four legs. He's forgotten what the miracle really is, Renati: that he's human, inside that skin. and after I'm dust and gone where you are he thinks he'll still be here, catching muskrats for his dinner." He laughed a little bit, sharing a joke with a ghost. "To think what I put in his head, hour after hour!" His feeble fingers picked at the dark scar on his shoulder and pressed against the hard outline of the bullet that was still lodged there. Then he turned his attention to the black wolf. "Change back," he said.
Mikhail licked muskrat bones and paid him no mind.
"Change back," Wiktor repeated. "You're not a wolf. Change back."
Mikhail grasped the small skull, burst it open between his jaws, and ate the brains.
"Renati wants you to change back, too," Wiktor told him. "Hear heri She's speaking to you."
Mikhail heard the wind, and the voice of an insane man. He finished his meal and licked his paws.
"My God," Wiktor said softly. "I'm going crazy as hell." He stood up, peering down into the chasm. "But I'm not crazy enough to think I'm really a wolf. I'm a man. You are, too, Mikhail. Change back. Please."
Mikhail didn't. He lay on his belly, watching crows circle overhead, and he wished he could have a bite of one. He didn't care for Wiktor's odor; it reminded him too much of shadowy shapes with rifles.
Wiktor sighed, his head bowed. He slowly and carefully began to climb down the rocks, his body creaking at the joints. Mikhail got up, and followed him to keep him from falling. "I don't need your help!" Wiktor shouted. "I'm a man, I don't need your help!" He continued down the rocks to the cave, crawled into it, and lay curled up, staring at nothing. Mikhail crouched on the ledge in front of the cave, the breeze ruffling his fur. He watched the crows circling around like black kites, and his mouth watered.
The springtime sun made the forest bloom. Wiktor did not return to his wolf form, and Mikhail did not return to human flesh. Wiktor grew more feeble. On chilly nights, Mikhail entered the cave and lay next to him, warming the old man with his body heat, but Wiktor's sleep was fragile. He was constantly tormented by nightmares, and he sat up shouting for Renati, or Nikita, or another of the lost ones. On warm days he perched up on the rocks above the chasm and stared toward the hazy western horizon.
"You should go to England," Wiktor told the black wolf. "That's right. England." He nodded. "They're civilized in England. They don't kill their children." He shivered; even on the warmest day, his flesh was as cold as parchment. "Do you hear me, Mikhaili" he asked, and the wolf lifted his head and stared at him but did not answer.
"Renatii" Wiktor spoke to the air. "I was wrong. We lived as wolves, but we're not wolves. We were human beings, and we belonged to that world. I was wrong to keep us here. Wrong. and every time I look at him"-he motioned toward the black wolf-"I know I was wrong. It's too late for me. But it isn't for him. He could go, if he wanted to. He should go." He worked his skinny fingers together, as if tying and then untangling a problem. "I was afraid of the human world. I was afraid of pain. You were, too, weren't you, Renatii I think we all were. We could have gone, if we'd chosen. We could have learned to survive in that wilderness." He lifted his hand toward the west, toward the unseen villages and towns and cities beyond the horizon. "Oh, that's a terrible place," he said softly. "But it's where Mikhail belongs. Not here. Not anymore." He looked at the black wolf. "Renati says you have to go."
Mikhail didn't budge; he dozed in the heat, but he could hear what Wiktor was saying. His tall twitched a fly away, an involuntary reaction.
"I don't need you," Wiktor said, irritation in his voice. "Do you think you're keeping me alivei Ha! I can catch with my bare hands what your jaws would miss a hundred times over! You think this is loyaltyi It's stupidity! Change back. Son, do you hear mei"
The black wolf's green eyes opened, then drifted shut again.
"You're an idiot," Wiktor decided. "I wasted my time on an idiot. Oh, Renati, why did you bring him into the foldi He has a life before him, and he wants to throw away the miracle. I was wrong... so very wrong." He stood up, still muttering, and began to climb down to the cave again. at once Mikhail was up and following him, watching the old man's footing. Wiktor railed at him, as he always did, but Mikhail went with him anyway.
The days passed. Summer was on the rise. almost every day Wiktor went up to the rocks and talked to Renati, and Mikhail lay nearby, half listening, half dozing. On one of those days the sound of a distant train whistle drifted to them. Mikhail lifted his head and listened. The train's engineer was trying to scare an animal off the tracks. It might be worth a trip there tonight, to see if the train had hit anything. He laid his head back down, the sun warm on his spine.
"I have another lesson for you, Mikhail," Wiktor said softly, after the train's whistle had faded. "Maybe the most important lesson. Live free. That's all. Live free, even if your body is chained. Live free, here." He touched his skull, with a palsied hand. "This is the place where no man can chain you. This is the place where there are no walls. and maybe that's the hardest lesson to learn, Mikhail. all freedom has its price, but freedom of the mind is priceless." He squinted up at the sun, and Mikhail lifted his head and watched him. There was something different in Wiktor's voice. Something final. It frightened him, as he'd not been frightened since the soldiers had come. "You have to leave here," Wiktor said. "You're a human being, and you belong in that world. Renati agrees with me. You're staying here because of an old man who talks to ghosts." He turned his head toward the black wolf, and Wiktor's amber eyes glinted. "I don't want you to stay here, Mikhail. Your life is waiting for you, out there. Do you understandi"
Mikhail didn't move.
"I want you to go," Wiktor said. "Today. I want you to go into that world as a man. as a miracle." He stood up, and immediately Mikhail did, too. "If you don't go into that world... of what use were the things I taught youi" White hair rippled over his shoulders, over his chest, stomach, and arms. His beard twined around his throat, and his face began to change. "I was a good teacher, wasn't Ii" he asked, his voice deepening toward a growl. "I love you, son," he said. "Don't fail me."
His spine contorted. He came down on all fours, the white hairs scurrying over his frail body, and he blinked at the sun. His hind legs tensed, and Mikhail realized what he was about to do.
Mikhail leaped forward.
and so did the white wolf.
Wiktor went into the air, still changing. He fell, his body slowly twisting, toward the rocks at the chasm's bottom.
Mikhail tried to shout; it came out as a high, anguished yelp, but what he'd tried to shout was: "Father!"
Wiktor made no sound. Mikhail looked away, his eyes squeezed shut, and did not see the white wolf reach the rocks.
a full moon rose. Mikhail crouched above the chasm and stared fixedly at it. Every so often he shivered, though the air was sultry. He tried to sing, but nothing would come out. The forest was a silent place, and Mikhail was alone.
Hunger, a beast that knew no sorrow, gnawed at his belly. The train tracks, he thought; his brain was sluggish, unused to thinking. The train tracks. The train might have hit something today. There might be meat on the rails.
He went through the forest to the ravine, down through the weeds and dense vines to the tracks. Dazedly he began to search along them but there was no scent of blood. He would go back to the cave, he decided; that was his home now. Maybe he could find a mouse or a rabbit on the way.
He heard a distant thunder.
He lifted his paw, touched a rail, and felt the vibration. In a moment the train would burst out of the western tunnel, and it would roar along the ravine and into the eastern tunnel. The red lamp on the last car would swing back and forth, back and forth. Mikhail stared at the place where Nikita had died. There were ghosts in his mind, and he heard them speaking. One of them whispered, Don't fail me.
It came to him, very suddenly. He might beat the train, this time. If he really wanted to. He might beat the train by beginning the race as a wolf, and ending as a man.
and if he wasn't fast enough... well, did it matteri This was a forest of ghosts; why not join them, and sing new songsi
The train was coming. Mikhail walked to the entrance of the western tunnel and sat down beside the rails. Fireflies glowed in the warm air, insects chirred, a soft breeze blew, and Mikhail's muscles moved under his black-haired flesh.
Your life is waiting for you, out there, he thought. Don't fail me.
He smelled the acrid odor of steam. a light glinted in the tunnel. The thunder grew into the growl of a beast.
and then, in a glare of light and a rain of red cinders, the train exploded from the tunnel and raced toward the east.
Mikhail got up-too slow! too slow! he thought-and ran. already the engine was outpacing him, its iron wheels grinding less than three feet beside him. Faster! he told himself, and both sets of legs obeyed. He slung his body low, the train's turbulence whipping at him. His legs pumped against the earth, his heart pounding. Faster. Faster still. He was gaining on the engine... was level with it... was passing it. Cinders burned his back and spun past his face. He kept going, could smell his hair being scorched. and then he was past the engine by six feet... eight feet... ten feet. Faster! Faster! Freed of the train's wind, he surged forward, a body designed for speed and endurance. He could see the dark hole of the western tunnel. Not going to make it, he thought, but he cast that thought quickly aside before it hobbled him. He was past the engine by twenty feet, and then he began to change.
His skull and face started first, his four legs still hurtling him forward. The black hair on his shoulders and back retreated into the smoothing flesh. He felt pain at his backbone, the spine beginning to lengthen. His body was enveloped in agony, but still he kept running. His pace was slowing, his legs changing, losing their hair, his backbone straightening. The engine was gaining on him, and the eastern tunnel was in front of him. He staggered, caught his balance. Cinders hissed on the white flesh of his shoulders. His paws were changing, losing their traction as fingers and toes emerged. It was now or never.
Mikhail, half human and half wolf, lunged in front of the engine and leaped for the other side.
The headlamp's glare caught him in midair, and seemed to freeze him there for a precious second. The eye of God, Mikhail thought. He felt the hot breath of the engine, heard its crushing wheels, the cowcatcher about to slam into him and rip him to shreds.
He ducked his head into his chest, his eyes closed and his body braced for impact. He hurtled head over heels through the headlamp's glare, over the cowcatcher, and into the weeds. He landed on his back, the breath blasting from his lungs. The engine's heat washed over him, a fierce wind ruffled his hair, and cinders bit his bare chest. He sat up in time to see the red lamp swinging back and forth as the last car went into the tunnel.
and the train was gone.
Every bone in his body felt as if it had been wrenched from its socket. His back and ribs were bruised. His legs were sore, and his feet were cut. But he was in one piece, and he had crossed the tracks.
He sat there for a while, breathing hard, sweat glistening on his body. He didn't know if he could stand up or not; he couldn't remember what walking on two legs felt like.
His throat moved. He tried to make words. They emerged, with an effort. "I'm alive," he said, and the sound of his own voice-deeper than he remembered-was a shock.
Mikhail had never felt so naked. His first impulse was to change back, but he stopped himself. Maybe later, he thought. Not just yet. He lay in the weeds, gathering his strength and letting his mind wander. What lay beyond the foresti he wondered. What was out there, in that world that Wiktor said he belonged toi It must be a monstrous place, full of danger. It must be a wilderness where savagery knew no bounds. He was afraid of that world, afraid of what he would find in it... and afraid, as well, of what he might find in himself.
Your life is waiting for you, out there.
Mikhail sat up, and stared along the tracks that led west.
Don't fail me.
England-Shakespeare's land-lay in that direction. a civilized land, Wiktor had said.
Mikhail stood up. His knees buckled, and he went down again.
The second try was better. The third one got him up. He had forgotten he was so tall. He looked up at the full moon. It was the same moon, but not nearly so beautiful as in the wolf's sight. Moonlight glinted on the rails, and if there were ghosts here, they were singing.
Mikhail took the first, tentative step. His legs were clumsy things. How had he ever walked on them beforei
He would learn again. Wiktor had been right; there was no life for him here. But he loved this place, and leaving it would be hard. It was the world of his youth; another, more brutal world awaited.
Don't fail me, he thought.
He took the second step. Then the third. He still had difficulty, but he was walking.
Mikhail Gallatinov went on, a naked, pale figure in the summer moonlight, and he entered the western tunnel on two legs, as a man.