EIGHTEEN YEARS ago

 

ALL TALES have a beginning. Some have more than one.

 

EAST OF the sun and west of the moon, in the long-ago days when magick still filled the world, there lived in the trackless steppes great beasts with the power to assume the shapes of men at will. Even after the magick withdrew itself to its secret fastnesses, those beasts and their descendants carried the gift of the change in their blood. And the stories were passed down, from one generation to the next, until they became legends. Legends told by living legends, all unknowing….

 

“WALK WITH me, Volyk.”

Uncertain, the young wolf looked from his father to his mother, who lay drowsing in a hollow by the bank of a rushing stream, curled around her swollen belly. “Is it safe, Papa?”

“Stop worrying your mother, pup.” Maksim’s gray ruff bristled, adding a sharp note to the lazy tone otherwise appropriate to the eternal afternoon of early summer.

Ksenija lifted her head, jaw dropped in an affectionate smile. “Males. The only danger here is from the midges. I might inhale one. Go, before I sneeze.”

Volyk pawed at the ground, embarrassed, then padded off after his father.

Maksim did not go far, not even out of sight of his pregnant mate, before dropping to the ground and nodding to Volyk to sit beside him. “This is far enough. Unless you think your mother can still overhear you?”

Volyk whined softly in the back of his throat. Sometimes he wished he and his family were ordinary wolves, able to communicate only through posture, scent, movement, vocalizing. “If I were older, Papa….” And had better self-control. A young wolf’s Speech was as subtle as the bellow of a bear with his nose in a beehive, or so Papa had once told him.

Maksim’s ears flicked in amusement. “You are old enough. But she is your mother. If she wishes to hear you, she will hear you. I hope she will give us our private time, though, since I have asked.”

The great male turned his head to look toward the riverbank. And not for the first time, Volyk found himself short of breath witnessing the love in his father’s gaze, the power of his parents’ pair-bonding. Volyk knew little of the society of ordinary wolves, but he knew that even they mated for life. And even a barely adolescent oboroten’ such as himself understood that the bond between Maksim and Ksenija was more than anything any ordinary wolf could imagine. Or even he, himself.

Someday. He was careful to keep this thought to himself. Someday I will have that.

Someday, but not today. Today he was merely the youngest scion of a bloodline that had once known what it was to walk on two legs, and was still in obedience to his father and his mother, beta by courtesy of their small pack. “You wanted to speak with me, Papa?”

Maksim blew out a breath through his nose and shook his head, as if embarrassed at being observed. “I worry for your mother. She needs rest. And she is not eating as she should.” Ksenija was not due to give birth for another half-moon, but Volyk knew from his parents’ nuzzled conversations in the long summer twilights that she was in difficulty.

“Shall I hunt for her?” Volyk tried not to sound too eager at the prospect.

Not even Maksim’s best efforts could keep his ears from flicking. “Thank you, my son. But the hunting this close to the human lands is poor. I will go.”

Maksim’s ears stilled, then, and the sudden silence sobered young Volyk like the scent of bear. “Guard your mother while I am gone, Volyk. We are too close to human territory for my comfort.”

Equally sobering, to be taken into Papa’s confidence, to Mama’s exclusion. “I will.” Outcast from wolf society and hunted by humans, oboroten’ lived in the ever-shifting borderlands between the wild steppes and the tamed human lands, carefully keeping their distance from whomever seemed the greater threat. Ksenija should have retreated into a comfortable den at the beginning of her pregnancy, to be doted on by her mate and her nearly grown son. Instead, she made shift where she could, as they all did.

Maksim looked around Volyk a second time. “She is sleeping. Good.” He scrambled to his feet.

“Find her a rabbit, Papa, she loves them.”

“I know.” The great wolf bent his head, touched noses with the younger. “Go, watch over her.”

Obediently, Volyk trotted back to the riverbank as Maksim loped off toward the tree line. Ksenija stirred at his approach, raising her head. “Maksim?”

“Gone hunting, Mama. Go back to sleep.” He touched noses with her, knowing she would scent his father. “I will protect you. From the midges.”

His mother’s soft laughter made Volyk smile inside. Very mindful of his promise, he watched carefully as his mother’s moon-glowing eyes closed, listened as her breathing settled, catching occasionally as the new lives inside her tried to make themselves comfortable.

Only when he was satisfied that she was asleep did he let his gaze stray, to the stream and down its length until it disappeared into a birch wood. They were very near the edge of what Maksim considered their territory. It was a good place, if not as full of game waiting to be pursued and devoured as young Volyk might like. Streams cut through the territory on their way to a river; there was forest and steppe, shelter and freedom. A good place for Ksenija to give birth, his father had said. But humans lived near, too near—

A gunshot split the air, closer than Volyk had ever heard one before.

Run!” His father’s scream echoed in Volyk’s head.

His mother’s howl was the sound of his world being torn apart.

Volyk ran. Toward the sound of the shot. He could do nothing else. His mother was behind him, but she could not keep up. He ran. Toward the sound.

Toward the smell of blood.

Into the trees he ran, his mother falling farther behind. There were figures among the slender birch trunks. More than one. One tall, three small.

Volyk came to the edge of the shelter of the trees and froze.

Three juvenile human males surrounded an adult. The adult was bent over… something… in the grass. Blood. Thick in the air, like a mist. The two older juveniles watched the adult, fascinated. The youngest, smallest, sobbed, unheeded.

Paws twitched in the blood-slick grass.

“Papa….”

“Your mother….”

A knife sang from its sheath as the adult bent to skin his kill. So much blood.

Behind him, Ksenija howled.

“Mother. Stop.” Volyk wheeled around to face his mother. “Run!”

“Father, more wolves!”

“Can you get them too?”

“Mother, run!”

“No, not alone, my heart, you cannot leave me alone!”

Volyk’s heart broke as he bared his teeth and snarled at his mother. “He wants you to live. Run!”

Ksenija whined, a keening Volyk knew he would never be able to forget. But she obeyed. Obeyed her son, or her dying mate’s wishes. No matter. She obeyed. She turned, and they fled.

Another shot rang out. White heat creased Volyk’s thigh, but he did not fall. He chased his mother, drove her away from the scene of slaughter.

Drove her, blindly, until they both stumbled with exhaustion and collapsed where they fell, concealed only by the night.