The wolfs hour, p.32
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       The Wolfs Hour, p.32

         Part #1 of Michael Gallatin series by Robert McCammon
 
Part VI - Berserker Chapter 2

 

  On the afternoon of the second day after the babies had been buried, Franco grasped Mikhail's arm as Mikhail was on his knees outside the white palace, searching in the soft dirt for grubs. Franco pulled him up. "Come on," he said. "We've got somewhere to go. "

  They started off, heading south through the woods. Franco glanced back. No one had seen them; that was good. "Where are we goingi" Mikhail asked him as Franco pulled him along.

  "The Garden," he answered. "I want to see my children. "

  Mikhail tried to pull free of Franco's grip, but Franco held his arm tighter. He thought of crying out, for no particular reason other than he didn't care for Franco, but the pack wouldn't like that. Wiktor wouldn't like it; it was up to him to fight his own battles. "What do you need me fori"

  "To dig," Franco said. "Now shut your mouth and walk faster. "

  as they left the white palace behind and the forest closed its green gates behind them, Mikhail realized Franco wasn't supposed to be doing this. Maybe the pack's laws didn't want the graves opened after the babies were buried; maybe the father was forbidden to see the dead infants. He wasn't sure why, but he knew Franco was using him to do something that Wiktor wouldn't like. He dragged his feet across the earth, but Franco wrenched his arm and pulled him on.

  Keeping up with Franco was difficult; the man had a stride that soon made the breath rasp in Mikhail's lungs. "You're weak as water!" Franco growled at him. "Walk faster, I said!"

  Mikhail stumbled over a root and fell to his knees. Franco yanked him up, and they kept going. There was a ferocity in Franco's pallid, brown-eyed face; even in his human mask, the wolf's face shone through. Maybe digging up the graves was bad luck, Mikhail thought. That's why the Garden was laid so far from the white palace. But Franco's humanity had taken over; like any human father, he burned to see the results of his seed. "Come on, come on!" he told Mikhail, both of them now racing through the woods.

  In another few minutes they burst into the clearing where the squares of stones were, and Franco suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. Mikhail bumped into him, but the collision didn't jar Franco. The man gave a soft, strengthless gasp.

  "Dear God," Franco whispered.

  Mikhail saw it: the Garden's graves had been torn open, and bones were scattered across the ground. Skulls small and large, some human, some bestial, and some a commingling of both, lay broken around Mikhail's feet. Franco walked deeper into the Garden, his hands curled into claws at his sides. almost all of the graves had been dug up, their contents pulled out, broken to pieces and wildly strewn. Mikhail stared down at a grinning skull, its teeth sharpened into fangs and gray streamers of hair on its scalp. Nearby lay the bones of a hand, and over there an arm bone. a small, twisted spinal cord caught Mikhail's gaze, then an infant's skull that had been crunched with tremendous force. Franco walked on, drawn toward the place where the fresh corpses had been buried. He stepped over old bones and stepped on a skull whose lower jaw snapped off like a piece of yellowed wood. He stopped, wavering on his feet, and stared at the gouged holes where the infants had been laid two days before. a ripped rag lay on the ground. Franco picked it up-and something torn and red and swarming with flies oozed out and fell into the leaves.

  The infant had been cleaved in half. Franco could see the marks of the large fangs. The top half, including the head and the brains, was gone. Flies spun around Franco's face, and with them the coppery aroma of blood and decay. He looked to his right, at another smear of red in the dirt. a small leg, covered with fine brown hair. He made a soft, terrible moaning sound, and old bones crunched under his feet as he stepped back from the crimson remains.

  "The berserker," Mikhail heard him whisper. The birds sang in the treetops, happy and unaware. all around were uncovered graves and fragments of skeletons, both infant and adult, human and wolf. Franco spun toward Mikhail, and the boy saw his face-the flesh drawn tight around the bones, the eyes glassy and bulging. The pungent reek of rot wafted past Mikhail's nostrils. "The berserker," Franco repeated, his voice thin and quavering. The man looked around, his nostrils flared and sweat gleaming on his face. "Where are youi" Franco shouted; the bird song instantly ceased. "Where are you, you bastardi" He took a step in one direction, then a step in another; his legs seemed to want to pull him in two halves. "Come out!" he shrieked, his teeth bared and his chest heaving. "I'll fight you!" He picked up a wolf's skull and hurled it against a tree trunk, where it shattered with a noise like a gunshot. "God damn you to hell, come out!"

  Flies battered into Mikhail's face and spun away, disturbed by Franco's turbulence. The man seethed, bright spots of red in his sallow cheeks and his body trembling like a taut and dangerous spring. He screamed, "Come out and fight!" and his voice sent the birds flying from their branches.

  Nothing responded to Franco's challenge. The grinning skulls lay like mute witnesses to a massacre, and the dark curtains of flies closed over the red infant flesh. Before Mikhail could move to defend himself, Franco rushed him. The man lifted him up off his feet and shoved his back against a tree so hard the breath whooshed from Mikhail's lungs. "You're nothing!" Franco raged. "Do you hear mei" He shook Mikhail. "You're nothing!"

  There were tears of pain in Mikhail's eyes, but he didn't let them fall. Franco wanted to destroy something, as the berserker had destroyed the bodies of his children. He shoved Mikhail's back against the tree again, harder. "We don't need you!" he shouted. "You little piece of weak-willed shi-"

  It happened very fast. Mikhail wasn't sure exactly when it happened, because it was a blur. a pit of flame opened within him, and seared his insides; there was a second of blinding pain, and then Mikhail's right hand-a wolf's claw covered with sleek black hair that entwined his arm almost to the elbow-streaked up and across Franco's cheek. The man's head snapped back, bloody furrows where the nails had slashed. Franco was stunned, and his eyes glinted with fear. He released Mikhail and jerked back, the blood trickling in crimson lines down his face. Mikhail settled to his feet, his heart slamming; he was as surprised as Franco, and he stared at his wolf's claw, bright red blood and bits of Franco's skin on the tips of the white nails. The black hair advanced past his elbow, and he felt pressure in his bones as they began to change their shape. There was a hollow pop! as the elbow went out of joint, and his arm shortened, the bones thickening under the moist, black-haired flesh. The hair advanced up his arm, toward his shoulder, and shone with dark blue highlights where the sun touched it. Mikhail felt throbbing pain in his jaws and forehead, as if an iron vise had begun to tighten around his skull. The tears broke from his eyes and ran down his cheeks. His left hand was changing now, the fingers snapping and shortening, growing hair and young white claws. Something was happening to his teeth; they crowded his tongue, and his gums felt ripped. He tasted blood in his mouth. He was terrified, and he looked desperately at Franco for help; Franco just stared at him, glassy-eyed, the blood dripping from his chin. It smelled to Mikhail like the red wine he remembered his father and mother drinking from crystal goblets, in another life. His muscles tensed and shivered, thickening across his shoulders and down his back. Black hair burst wild at his groin, under his dirty clothes.

  "No," Mikhail heard himself groan, the harsh rasping of a frightened animal. "Please. . . no. " He didn't want this; he couldn't stand it, not yet, and he fell to his knees in the leaves as the bending bones and thickening muscles freighted him down.

  an instant later the black hair that had coiled over his right shoulder began to reverse itself, receding back down his arm. The claws of his fingers cracked and lengthened into fingers once more. His bones straightened, and his muscles thinned to those of a human boy again. His jaw and facial bones made little popping noises as they rearranged. He felt his teeth slide back into their sockets, and that was perhaps the worst of the pain. and less than forty seconds after the change had begun, it had completely reversed; Mikhail blinked, tears burning his eyes,
and looked at his human, hairless hands. Blood was oozing from beneath the fingernails. The unaccustomed heaviness of new muscle was gone. His tongue felt human teeth, and blood tanged his saliva.

  It was over.

  "You little bastard," Franco said, but most of the steam had gone out of him. He looked deflated. "Couldn't do it, could youi" He touched his furrowed cheek and stared at his red-smeared palm. "I ought to kill you," he said. "You marked me. I ought to tear you to pieces, you little shit. "

  Mikhail struggled to rise. His legs were weak, and wouldn't allow it.

  "You're not even worth killing," Franco decided. "You're still too much of a human. I ought to leave you out here, and you'd never even find your way back, would youi" He wiped blood from his oozing wounds and looked at his palm again. "Shit!" he said, disgusted.

  "Why. . . do you hate me so muchi" Mikhail managed to ask. "I've never done anything to you. "

  Franco didn't reply for a moment, and Mikhail thought he wasn't going to. Then Franco said, his voice acidic, "Wiktor thinks you're special. " He slurred the word, as if it were something nasty. "He says he's never seen anyone fight to live as much as you did. Oh, he has high hopes for you. " He snorted bitterly. "I say you're a weak whelp, but I'll give you this: you're lucky. Wiktor never hunted for anyone else before. He does it for you, because he says you're not ready for the change. I say either you become one of the pack, all the way, or we eat you. and I'll be the one who cracks open your skull and chews your brains. What do you think about thati"

  "I. . . think. . . " Mikhail tried to stand again. Sweat was on his face. He started up, on willpower and bruised muscles. His legs almost went out from under him again, but then he was up, breathing raggedly, and he faced Franco. "I think. . . someday. . . I'll have to kill you," he said.

  Franco gaped at him. The silence stretched; distant crows called to each other. and then Franco laughed-more of a grunt, actually-and the laugh made him wince and press his fingers against his slashed cheek. "Youi Kill mei" He laughed again, winced again. His eyes were cold, and they promised cruelty. "I'm going to let you live today," he said, as if from the grace of his heart; Mikhail guessed that it was because he feared Wiktor. "Like I said, you're lucky. " He looked around, his eyes narrowed and his senses questing. There was no sign of the berserker except the uncovered graves and the broken bones: the scarred dirt and masses of leaves showed no tracks, there were no hanks of hair caught in the underbrush, and the berserker had rolled in the rotting flesh to mask his scent. This sacrilege against the pack had been done perhaps six or seven hours ago, Franco thought. The berserker was long gone. Franco walked away a few feet, bent down, and brushed flies away. He picked up a small, ripped arm, the hand still attached, and rose to his full height. He gently touched the fingers, exploring them like the petals of a strange flower. "This was mine," Mikhail heard him say in a quiet voice.

  Franco bent down again, scooped away a handful of earth, put the chewed arm into it, and carefully replaced the dirt. He patted it down and covered it over with brown leaves. He sat on his haunches for a long time as flies buzzed around his head in search of the lost flesh. Several of them landed on Franco's bleeding cheek and feasted there, but he didn't move. He stared, motionlessly, at the patchwork of earth and leaves before him.

  and then, abruptly, he stood up. He turned his back on the ruined Garden, and quickly strode away into the forest without glancing at Mikhail.

  Mikhail let him go; he knew the way home. anyway, if he lost his bearings he could follow the smell of Franco's blood. His strength was coming back, and his skull and heart had stopped pounding. He looked at the garden of scattered skeletons, wondering exactly where his own bones would lie, and who would cover them. He turned away, shunting those thoughts aside, and trailed Franco by following his tracks on the bruised earth.

 
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