The wolfs hour, p.12
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       The Wolfs Hour, p.12

         Part #1 of Michael Gallatin series by Robert McCammon
 
Part II - The White Palace Chapter 2

 

  Fyodor Gallatinov awakened as three shadows fell across him. He blinked, saw the horses and riders, and as he sat up Elana awakened, too. alizia looked up, rubbing her eyes.

  "Good afternoon, General Gallatinov," the lead rider, a man with a long thin face and bushy red eyebrows, said. "I haven't seen you since Kowel. "

  "Koweli Who. . . who are youi"

  "I was Lieutenant Sergei Schedrin. The Guards army. You may not remember me, but surely you remember Kowel. "

  "Of course I do. Every day of my life. " Gallatinov struggled to his feet, balancing on his cane. His face had become mottled with angry red. "What's the meaning of this, Lieutenant Schedrini"

  "Oh, no. " The other man extended a finger and wagged it back and forth. "I'm simply Comrade Schedrin now. My friends anton and Danalov were also at Kowel. " Gallatinov's gaze flickered to the two faces; anton's was broad and heavy-jowled, and Danalov's bore a bayonet scar from his left eyebrow up to his hairline. Their eyes were cold and only slightly curious, as if they were examining an insect under a magnifying glass. "We've brought the rest of our company with us as well," Schedrin said.

  "The rest of your companyi" Gallatinov shook his head, not comprehending.

  "Listen!" Schedrin cocked his head as the breeze keened through the woods. "There they are, whispering. Listen to what they say: 'Justice. Justice. ' Do you hear them, Generali"

  "We're having a picnic," Gallatinov said firmly. "I'd like for you gentlemen to leave. "

  "Yes," Schedrin said. "I'm sure you would. What a lovely family you have. "

  "Dimitri!" the general shouted. "Dimitri, fire a warning shot above their-" He turned toward Dimitri, and what he saw closed an iron claw around his heart.

  Dimitri stood about fifteen yards away, and hadn't even cocked the rifle or lifted it to a firing position. He stared at the ground, his shoulders stooped. "Dimitri!" Gallatinov shouted again, but he knew he would not be answered. His throat was dry, and he grasped Elana's chilly hand.

  "Thank you for bringing them here, Comrade Dimitri," Schedrin told him. "Your service will be noted and rewarded. "

  Mikhail, moving swiftly through the forest in pursuit of his kite, thought he heard his father shouting. His heart hammered; his father had probably awakened and was calling for him. There was going to be a switching in Mikhail's immediate future. But the kite was falling now, the string snagging in the top of an oak tree. Then the wind kicked it loose, and the kite rose again. Mikhail pushed through dense brush, soft spongy masses of dead leaves and moss, and kept following. Ten more feet; twenty more; thirty more. Thorns grabbed his hair; he pulled free, ducked his head under the thorn branches, and dropped another stone to the ground to mark his way back.

  The kite dipped, fell into the arms of an evergreen, and teasingly floated free once more. Then it was rising sharply into the blue sky, and as Mikhail watched it go his face was dappled with sun and shadow.

  Something moved in the underbrush, less than a dozen feet to Mikhail's left.

  He stood very still as the kite picked up speed and floated away. Whatever had moved was silent now. Waiting.

  There was another movement, to the boy's right. The soft crackle of weight settling on dry leaves.

  Mikhail swallowed. He started to call for his mother, but she was too far away to hear him, and he wanted no loud noises.

  Silence, but for the wind hissing in the trees.

  Mikhail smelled the aroma of an animal: a rank, bestial smell, the odor of a creature that had decayed meat on its breath. He felt something-two somethings-watching him from opposite sides, and he thought that if he ran they would leap on him from behind. His impulse was to scream and turn and flee headlong through the woods, but he struck it down; he could not get away by running. No, no. a Gallatinov never runs, his father had once told him. Mikhail felt a droplet of sweat trickling down the center of his back. The beasts were waiting for his decision, and they were very close.

  He turned, his legs trembling, and began to walk slowly back, following the trail of lakeshore stones.

  a Gallatinov never runs, Fyodor thought. His gaze swept the meadow. Mikhail. Where was Mikhaili

  "Our company was slaughtered at Kowel. " Schedrin leaned forward, hands clenching the saddle horn. "Slaughtered," he repeated. "We were commanded to run headlong across a swamp into a nest of barbed wire and machine guns. Of course you remember that. "

  "I remember a war," Gallatinov answered. "I remember one tragedy tripping on the heels of another. "

  "For you, tragedy. For us, slaughter. Of course we obeyed orders. We were good soldiers of the czar. How could we not obeyi"

  "We all obeyed the same orders that day. "

  "Yes, we did," Schedrin agreed. "But some obeyed them with the blood of innocent men. Your hands are still red, General. I can see the blood dripping off them. "

  "Look closer. " Gallatinov stepped defiantly toward the man, though Elana tried to hold him back. "My own blood is on there, too!"

  "ah. " Schedrin nodded. "So it is. But not enough, I think. "

  Elana gasped. anton had withdrawn his pistol from his holster and cocked it. "Make them go away!" alizia said, tears in her eyes. "Please make them go away!" Danalov pulled his pistol out and eased the hammer back.

  Gallatinov stepped in front of his wife and daughter, his eyes black with fury. "How dare you raise a gun to me and my family!" He lifted his cane. "Damn you to hell. Put down those pistols!"

  "We have a proclamation to read," Schedrin said, undaunted. He removed a rolled-up piece of paper from his saddlebag and opened it. "To General Fyodor Gallatinov, in service to Czar Nicholas the Second, hero"-he smiled thinly-"of Kowel and commander of the Guards army. From the survivors of the Guards army, who suffered and were slaughtered by the ineptitude of Czar Nicholas and his imperial court. Since we cannot have the czar, we will have you. and so the case will be closed to our satisfaction. "

  an execution squad, Gallatinov realized. God only knew how long they'd been tracking him. He glanced quickly around; no way out. Mikhail. Where was the boyi His heart was beating hard, and his palms were sweating. alizia began to sob, but Elana was silent. Gallatinov looked at the guns and the eyes of the men who aimed them. There was no way out. "You'll let my family go," he demanded.

  "No Gallatinov will leave this place alive," Schedrin replied. "We understand the importance of a task well done, Comrade. Consider this. . . your private Kowel. " He unstrapped his rifle and pulled back the bolt to chamber a shell.

  "You goddamned dogs!" General Gallatinov said, and stepped forward to strike the man's face with his cane.

  anton shot him in the chest before the cane was swung. The pistol's crack made Elana and her daughter jump, and the noise echoed across the meadow like strange thunder. a brooding of ravens leaped from a treetop and winged for safety.

  Gallatinov was hurled backward by the force of the bullet, and fell to his knees in the grass. Crimson was spreading across the front of his uniform. He gasped, could not find the strength to stand. Elana screamed and fell down beside her husband, her arms around him as if she could protect him from the next bullet. alizia turned, began to run toward the lake, and Danalov shot her twice in the back before she'd gotten ten feet away. She tumbled, a sack of bloody flesh and broken bones.

  "No!" Gallatinov said, and got his good leg under him. Blood was creeping from his mouth, and his eyes glinted with terror. He started to rise, Elana still clinging to him.

  Schedrin pulled the rifle's trigger, and the bullet hit Gallatinov in the face. Bits of bone and brain splattered over Elana's dress. The jittering body fell backward, carrying Elana with it, and they fell over the picnic baskets, bottles of wine and crumb-flecked platters. Danalov shot Gallatinov in the stomach, and anton fired two more bullets into the man's head as Elana continued to shriek.

  "Oh dear God," Dimitri said, choking
, and he ran down to the lake's edge to be violently sick.

  Mikhail heard a series of high cracking noises, followed by a scream. He stopped, and the beasts that were tracking him also halted. His mother's voice, he realized. His face tightened with fear, and he began to run through the forest heedless of the danger at his back.

  Vines gripped his shirt and tried to trip him. He followed the trail of stones through the underbrush, his boots slipping on moss-covered rocks and sinking into ankle-deep pools of dead leaves. and then he burst out of the forest into the meadow and saw three men on horseback and bodies lying sprawled. Red gleamed on green grass. His stomach knotted, his knees seized up, and he saw one of the men pull back the bolt of his rifle and aim at his. . .

  "Mother!" he shouted, his voice echoing horror across the meadow.

  anton and Danalov looked toward the boy. Elana Gallatinov, on her knees with her white dress dripping blood, saw him standing there, and she screamed, "Run, Mikhail! Ru-"

  The rifle bullet hit her below the hairline. Mikhail saw his mother's head explode.

  "Get the boy!" Schedrin commanded, and anton lifted his smoking pistol.

  He stared, transfixed, at the black eye of the gun barrel. a Gallatinov never runs, he thought. He saw the man's finger twitch on the trigger. a gout of fire leaped from the black-eyed barrel, and he heard a waspish whine and felt heat on his left cheek. a branch snapped beyond his shoulder.

  "Kill him, damn it!" Schedrin yelled as he chambered another bullet into his rifle and wheeled his horse around. Danalov was taking aim at Mikhail, and anton was about to squeeze off a second shot.

  a Gallatinov ran.

  He twisted around, his mother's scream ringing in his mind, and fled into the forest as a bullet thunked into a tree to his right and showered his hair with splinters. He tripped over a vine, staggered, and almost fell. There was the hoarser crack of a rifle shot, and the bullet passed over Mikhail's skull as he struggled for balance.

  Then he was picking up speed, tearing into the underbrush, sliding on dead leaves, and fighting through tangles of thorns. He toppled into a gulley, got up, and scrambled out, heading deeper into the wilderness.

  "Come on!" Schedrin told the others. "We can't let the little bastard get away!" He dug his heels into his mount's flanks and entered the forest with anton and Danalov riding just behind him.

  Mikhail heard the thunder of hooves. He clambered up a rocky hillside and half ran, half slid down the descending side. "Over there!" he heard one of the men shout. "I saw him! This way!"

  Thorns whipped Mikhail in the face and tore across his shirt. He blinked back tears, his legs pumping. a shot rang out, and hit a tree trunk five feet away. "Save your bullets, idiot!" Schedrin commanded, getting a quick glimpse of the boy's back before the branches covered his flight.

  Mikhail ran on, his shoulders hunched against the expected impact of a lead slug. His lungs were burning, his heart hammering through his chest. He dared to glance back. The horses and men raced after him, dead leaves flying up in their wake. He looked ahead again, angled to the left, and ran into thick green undergrowth laced with creepers.

  anton's horse stepped into a gopher hole. The animal bellowed and fell, and anton's right knee burst open like an overripe fruit as he landed on a sharp-edged rock. He screamed in agony, the horse writhing and trying to get up, but both Schedrin and Danalov kept up their pursuit.

  Mikhail fought through the undergrowth, slanting down into a valley cloaked with green. He knew full well what would happen if the killers caught him, and fear gave him wings. His feet slipped out from beneath him on a bed of pine needles, and he slid through a place where the shadows had grown crimson mushrooms. Then he was up and running again, and behind him he heard a horse's whinny and a man shouting, "He's over here! Going downhill!"

  ahead was dense forest, close-packed evergreens and thick coils of thorn bushes and stands of wild red berries. He headed for the thickest of it, hoping to leap into the coils and fight his way to the bottom, to a place where the horsemen couldn't follow. He reached out, parted the emerald growth with bleeding hands-and came face to muzzle with the beast.

  It was a wolf, with dark brown eyes and sleek russet fur. Mikhail fell backward, his mouth open but the scream shocked out of him.

  The wolf leaped.

  Its jaws opened, and the teeth gouged furrows across Mikhail's left shoulder as it slammed him to the earth. The breath was knocked out of him, as was all sense. The wolf's teeth clamped on his shoulder, about to tear through the I flesh and crush the bones; and then the horse bearing Sergei Schedrin burst through the brush and reared, its eyes flaring with terror. Schedrin lost his rifle, and he cried out, clinging I to the horse's neck as he saw the wolf beneath his boots.

  The animal released Mikhail's shoulder, spun around in a smooth, graceful motion, and bit deeply into the horse's stomach. The horse made a strangled moan, kicked wildly, and fell onto its side, trapping Schedrin's legs beneath.

  "Holy Jesus!" Danalov shouted, reining in his horse on the hillside. Two seconds after he'd spoken, the large gray wolf that had been tracking him leaped onto the horse's flank, clawed up over it into the saddle, and clamped its fangs into the back of Danalov's neck. It shook Danalov like a rag doll, snapping his spine and driving him out of the saddle to the ground. The horse thrashed and tumbled, rolling down the hillside in a flurry of dead leaves and pine needles.

  a third wolf, this one blond with ice-blue eyes, darted in and grasped Danalov's flailing right arm. With a savage twist, the beast broke it at the elbow and the splintered bones tore through the man's flesh. Danalov's body jerked and writhed. The gray wolf that had knocked him out of the saddle closed its jaws on Danalov's throat and crushed the windpipe with a casual squeeze.

  as Schedrin struggled to free his legs the russet wolf finished tearing the horse's stomach open. Coils of steaming intestines slid from the gaping wound, and the horse shrieked. another beast, pale brown streaked with gray, leaped from the brush and landed on the horse's throat, tearing it open with teeth and claws. Schedrin was screaming-a high, thin scream-and digging his fingers into the earth to try to pull loose. Only a few feet away Mikhail sat up, stunned and half conscious, with blood and wolf saliva drooling from the wounds in his shoulder.

  Over the hilltop anton heard the sounds of violence and gripped his ruined knee. He tried to crawl through the thicket, his horse struggling to rise on a broken ankle. He crawled perhaps eight feet-far enough to drive agony through every nerve of his body-when two smaller wolves, one dark brown and the other a dusky red, came together from the underbrush and each clenched a wrist, breaking the bones with quick snaps of their heads. anton cried out for God, but in this wilderness God had fangs.

  The two wolves, working in concert, broke anton's shoulders and rib cage. Then the red one seized anton's throat while the dark brown beast clamped its jaws to the sides of the man's head. as anton trembled and moaned, reduced to a mindless husk, the animals crushed his throat and broke open his skull like a clay pot.

  Schedrin, his hands clawing the earth, had pulled himself partway free from the shuddering weight atop him. Tears of terror streamed from his eyes, and he grasped hold of a small sapling and kept pulling. The sapling cracked. He smelled the coppery reek of blood, felt sickening heat wash across his face, and he looked around into the maw of the pale brown beast.

  Blood dripped from its mouth. It stared into his eyes for maybe three terrible seconds, and Schedrin sobbed, "Please. . . "

  The wolf lunged forward, gripped the flesh of his face between its fangs, and ripped it off the skull, as if peeling away a mask. Raw red muscles danced underneath, and the grinning skull's teeth chattered. The wolf planted its paws on Schedrin's shoulders and gulped the man's shredded face down with a shiver of excitement. Schedrin's lidless eyes stared from the bloody skull. The gray wolf, large-shouldered and rippling with muscle, came in and broke Schedrin's neck
. The russet animal snapped Schedrin's lower jaw away and tore the hanging tongue out. Then the pale brown beast seized the dead man's skull, cracked it open, and began to feast.

  Mikhail moaned softly, fighting to stay conscious, his senses brutalized.

  The russet wolf that had bitten his shoulder turned toward him, and began to advance.

  It got within four feet and halted, sniffing the air to catch Mikhail's scent. Its dark eyes stared into Mikhail's face and held his gaze. Seconds passed. Mikhail, near fainting, stared back, and in his delirium of pain and shock he thought the beast was asking him a question, and that question might have been: Do you want to diei

  Mikhail, holding the animal's penetrating stare, reached out to one side and picked up a piece of branch. He lifted it, his hand trembling, to strike the wolf's skull when it lunged.

  The wolf paused. Motionless, its eyes like fathomless dark whirlpools.

  and then the gray animal roughly nudged the other wolf's ribs, and the death trance broke. The russet wolf blinked, gave a snorted whuff-a sound of acknowledgment-and turned away to continue its feast on the ruins of Sergei Schedrin. The gray one shattered Schedrin's breastbone and gnawed in after the heart.

  Mikhail held the stick with a white-knuckled grip. Over the hilltop one of the animals feasting on anton's corpse gave a low howl that rapidly built in intensity, echoing through the forest and scaring birds out of the trees. The blond, blue-eyed wolf paused in its chewing of Danalov's shredded torso and lifted its head to the breeze, replying with a howl that made a shiver course up Mikhail's spine and cleared the misty pain from his head. The pale brown animal began to howl, then the russet wolf, singing in eerie harmony with blood-smeared muzzles. Finally the gray wolf lifted its head and sang a wailing, discordant note that silenced the others. The note wavered, grew in power and volume, changed pitch, and slid upward. Then the gray wolf abruptly ceased its singing, and all the wolves returned to their horsemeat and human flesh.

  From the distance came a howling that lasted maybe fifteen seconds, faded, and died.

  Dark motes spun across Mikhail's vision. He pressed his hand to his shoulder. In the wounds muscle tissue showed bright pink. He almost shouted for his mother and father, but then the images of corpses and murder slammed into his brain again and knocked him witless.

  Not witless enough, however, to realize that sooner or later the wolf pack would tear him to pieces.

  This was not a game. This was not a fairy tale told to him by his mother in the golden glow of lamplight. This was not Hans Christian andersen or aesop's fables; this was life and death.

  He shook his head to force back the twilight. Run, he thought. a Gallatinov never runs. Got to run. . . got to. . .

  The pale brown, gray-streaked wolf and the blond one I snapped at each other over the red chunks of Danalov's liver. Then the blond beast backed off, allowing the dominant animal to gobble up the bits of meat. The large-shouldered gray wolf was ripping pieces out of the horse's flanks.

  Mikhail crawled away from them, pushing himself backward with his boots. He kept watching them, expecting an attack: the blond wolf stared at him for a second, blue eyes glittering, then began to feed on the horse's entrails. Mikhail pushed himself into the thicket, the breath rasping from his lungs, and at the center of thorns and green creepers he lost consciousness and fell into night.

  The afternoon passed. The sun began to sink. Blue shadows laced the forest, and chill pockets formed. The corpses shrank, being whittled down to their foundations. Bones cracked, the ghosts of pistol shots, and the red marrow lay exposed.

  The wolves ate their fill, then lodged chunks of meat in their gullets to be regurgitated. Their bellies swollen, they began to drift off into the gathering shadows.

  Except for one. The large gray wolf sniffed the air and stood near the little boy's body. It nosed around the oozing wounds on Mikhail's shoulder, and smelled the tang of blood mingled with wolf saliva. The beast stood staring down into Mikhail's face for a long time without moving, as if in solemn contemplation.

  It sighed.

  The sun was almost gone. Faint specks of stars appeared over the forest in the darkening east. a crescent moon hung above Russia.

  The wolf leaned forward, pushing the boy over on his stomach with its blood-caked muzzle. Mikhail groaned softly, stirred, then lapsed again into unconsciousness. The wolf clamped its jaws gently but firmly around the back of the child's neck, lifting the limp body off the ground with muscular ease. The beast began to stride through the forest, its amber-eyed gaze ticking to right and left, its senses questing for the enemy. Behind it, the child's boots dragged on the ground, and plowed furrows in the leaves.

 
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