The Hunter from the Woods

Chapter 2

"Not just that. Troubled. Here." A hand pressed against a Russian heart. "Deep." "Hm," said the man from London: an emotionless comment. "The story I've heard is a little bit difficult to believe, you know." "Believe or not." This was delivered with a shrug. "What does it matter to you, anyway? I'm telling you he catches food for us, even in the snow. The rabbits have no thought of getting away. He brings down caribou...the wild boar...the stag...everything that moves in that forest over the hill. So believe or not, what does it matter to you?" "It matters. Or, that is to say, it might matter. I'd like to speak with him." "He doesn't accept visitors." "I'd like to find that out for myself." The chief abruptly stood up and advanced on the man from London, who held his ground as if rooted to the boards. A bulbous nose pressed up close to an Adam's apple. "This is my village. You don't come in here and tell me, I tell you. Now...I don't know what he is, and I have never seen what some people think he is...but I am telling you, Mr. Englishman, that he belongs to us and he will not be leaving here with the likes of you." "And I can't leave here without speaking to him." The voice was calm, collected, cool. But the icy blue daggers were very sharp. "I won't leave without speaking to him." He offered a boyish smile, his specialty. "Let's don't be unpleasant, when it's so terribly unnecessary. All right?" "Show him," croaked the wizened old woman. "He talks a storm of manure." "Well put, madam. I think this whole tale is a storm of manure." He daggered into the bull-man's eyes. "Show me." On the way through the village toward the ruins on the hill, a group of people got around them and followed. It was evident where the Englishman was headed. Suddenly a girl of about sixteen with warm brown eyes and curly golden hair beneath her woolen cap plucked at the man from London's coat sleeve. "Tell him Nena forgives him," she implored. "He won't speak to me anymore, but won't you tell him?" "I will," the man from London promised. He saw that the girl's right hand was heavily bandaged. The group of people fell back and stood watching. The bull-man took his charge up almost to the ruins and then he too stopped and held his position. The man from London continued on alone, climbing up snow-covered stone steps to the onion-domed shell of what remained. He entered the cold shadows, and listened to the silence. Stairs led down. He followed them. The light that lived in this stone chamber was blue, and he could smell woodsmoke. He went on, into deeper blue. His boots clattered on the floor. Noise enough to wake anything that could chase down a caribou. He paused for a moment, because suddenly he was not so calm, cool and collected. He could see a small fire burning beyond an archway. Not much more than a bundle of sticks and brush, it appeared to be. His heart was beating harder. "Hello?" he tried. There was no answer. He decided to use his English. "Hello? Can I come in?" Still, nothing. He could hear the fire pop and crack. He saw shadows scrawled upon the walls. "Anyone here?" he asked, in the King's tongue. "You are here," came the quiet reply, also in English, from beyond the archway. It carried a faint, menacing echo. "But you shouldn't be. I wouldn't be here, if I were you." The man from London cleared his throat. "Nena says she forgives you." There followed only the sound of the small fire burning. "I'm from London," said the man. "Originally, I mean. Today I came from Pruzhany. My name is William Bartlett." Again, there was no reply for a few seconds, and then the voice asked, "Is that your real name?" It seemed the right time to be truthful. "No. My real name is Valentine Vivian." "Oh. Well, then...I understand the need for an alias." "Actually, my name helped toughen me. I had to be tough, with a name like that. I had to learn to be quick and sharp. To think fast on my feet." He began to walk casually toward the archway. "You should see my father. His name is Mildred." "Stop," said the voice, and Valentine Vivian immediately obeyed. "I'd really like to see you," Vivian offered. His throat was tight. "Won't you let me come in?" A few seconds passed, during which Vivian wondered if the young man - if the young man was really so special - could hear his heartbeat. "Come in," said the voice. Vivian entered the chamber. The fire was indeed small and made up of little broken branches. Several skeletons of rabbits lay about. There was a jug of something, probably water. The young man did his business over in a far corner, and the smell wasn't very pleasant. Curled up in the opposite corner, close to the fire, was a bundle of dirty rags. Vivian saw a human shape in them. He saw dirty legs, dirty hands, a dirty mass of black hair and the smallest section of face with an eye peering out at him. The eye was bright and startlingly green. Its intensity made Valentine Vivian stop at the center of the room, because for all his experience and intelligence and bravado he was no damned fool. "May I ask your name?" Vivian inquired, keeping his voice light. "Mikhail." "Family name?" It was a long time coming. Then: "Gallatinov." "How old are you?" "How old are you?" came back at him. "Old," said Vivian. He tried for a smile that refused to stick. "Actually, I'm Major Valentine Vivian." "British Army?" "In a manner of speaking. And may I ask how you speak English so well?" "I had an excellent teacher," Mikhail replied. "Yes, you did." Vivian knelt down on the floor. A small skull lay next to his right boot. A rat's skull, perhaps? The young man was not a picky eater. "You never told me your age." "Old enough," the mouth behind the dirty rags said. And then decided to say, "Seventeen." "And your birthday is when?" There was a long pause of deliberation, or perhaps an attempt to jog a distant memory. "March. The seventh day." "Well," said Vivian, "now we're getting somewhere." The rags shifted and two green eyes stared at the major. "Are we? Getting where?" Vivian eased himself down to a sitting position. He was always aware of where the pistol was and how fast he could get to it. "I understand," the major said carefully, "that you have a very unique..." What would be the correct word here? "Gift," he said. "Gift," Mikhail repeated, hollowly. "I'm just saying what I've been told. The details are sketchy. But I understand you are hunter?" "I'm dedicated to not starving. Or letting my friends starve." "Yes, quite so. And admirable, too. the way, I know about the murder. That incident...was it last summer? Something to do with a wrestler in a circus?" Silence from the bundle of rags. "Could I ask...just a favor, you see. A small favor." Vivian's smile blinked on and off. "If you can. Really, anything you can. But...would you show me...something?" "This," said Mikhail, "is not the circus." "Of course not. No offense intended. But...really, I've been asked to come here and see to you...get a sense of who you are." Or what you are, he nearly said. "You were seen...last shall I put this? Oh, dear. You were seen...supposedly...changing your form," said Vivian. His smile this time was very tight. "The man who witnessed this does not drink. He is not given to visions of fantasy. He is what we call a drone. Drones do not embellish nor do they otherwise distort. They observe and they report. see...we're a bit curious about this." "We?" An eyebrow lifted. "We who?" "Oh, pardon me for not giving a complete introduction. I'm a major in the British Army, yes, but I am a fulltime field operative for the British Secret Service. Special Operations Branch. Which brings me to why I'm here. You see...I'm recruiting." The body shifted a little under the rags, but there was no comment. "Recruiting special branch operatives," Vivian continued. "We were wondering...if you were so inclined, and you were to show an interest and be educated, then...ah, but first I have to be shown something." "Shown what?" "Something amazing," said Vivian. He waited. Nothing happened. "I'm Russian," Mikhail said, behind the rags. "Why would I want to leave Russia and go to England?" Valentine Vivian drew his knees up to his chin. His eyes sparkled in the low firelight. "I can make you," he said, "into a citizen of the world. You could walk as a man in any country on earth. Walk as a gentleman. You could walk with honor and grace. You would have a purpose, you mind if I call you Mikhail?" Did the rags shrug? Maybe. "You would be trained and educated and fashioned into a...a very unique weapon, Mikhail. A very unique tool, if you will. You know there are great changes coming in this world, don't you? Well, you would be there to see them happen, and you would be there to make a difference in their happening. To prevent them from happening, if that's what was called for. "Now...if you wish to stay in this little fire-lit hole in Russia," Vivian went on, "that would be your future. Feeding these's very noble, but it's not much of a future. I can tell you that if you show me something, and I am amazed by what I witness, and you leave with me today for Warsaw - and I can get us across the border tonight, no doubt - then I am authorized to pay these villagers of yours enough money to rebuild this church many times over and buy an armored car or two to protect it. Then your future would be out there, in the world." Vivian let that hang for a few seconds. "I believe you're a very intelligent and capable young man. Whether you're what we're looking for is yet to be seen. But I can tell you - and you already know - that if you stay in this country it will eat you alive. If you come to England with me, and you have the right ability, you will have the chance to become one of the greatest hunters who ever lived. Is that a challenge you have any interest in taking?" Mikhail was silent and motionless. There is nothing here, Vivian suddenly thought. There is only a young man in rags, curled up on the floor. But how could the drone have been so wrong? "Shakespeare's country," Vivian heard Mikhail say quietly. "The blessed plot. Someone told me that. He was a great man. He was..." Something came up and choked him. "I feel...alone," he said, but now his voice was under firm control. "Did you know...that Nena used to come visit me...and bring me wild berries? Did you know that one day...she was feeding them to me...and I licked her fingers...and then...something came over me...a terrible thing...and I bit off the first joint of the little finger on her right hand?" Mikhail lowered the rags enough for Vivian to see his full, gaunt and haunted face. The green eyes glowed like spirit lamps. "And I crunched it between my teeth," Mikhail breathed, "and I swallowed it." Neither man said anything for awhile. Then Valentine Vivian stood up from the floor, more carefully than he'd planned, and he said, "But she forgives you." "I don't forgive myself," said the young man. "I hurt her. I will never forgive myself." "Then show me something," Vivian told him, nearly begging. "Show me! If you show me, we can walk out of here together, and you can work to make sure many, many people in this world are not hurt, and that those who are hurt find justice. Show me." Moving slowly and deliberately, Mikhail pulled the rags over his face and he was gone from sight. Vivian sighed. What a waste of time this had been! A certain journalist was going to get his ass scorched over a bed of charcoals. Damn, and now back to the jingle bells! He needed to get out of this stinking hole. Out of this ruin. Out of this village. Out of this country. At the archway, Vivian looked back at the motionless bundle. He said, "Goodbye..." And decided to use the English name: "Michael." He walked out through the blue light and ascended the stairs, and halfway up he heard the engines . He could see them coming across the snowscape. He knew who they were coming for. There were three of them. Three white-painted aerosans with red stars on the sides. They were wooden, box-shaped contraptions meant to carry three or four men in each enclosed cockpit. They travelled on four large, pontoon-like skis. On the rear of the vehicles were aircraft engines and a single pusher propeller shoving the aerosans forward at about seventy kilometers an hour. Behind them spun banners of snow. Atop each aerosan a soldier sat in a hatch manning a bolted-down machine gun on a swivel. The vehicles were almost to the village, and already the sleigh horses were panicked and running and all the driver could do was hang on. The aerosans came on with a noise like hornets from Hell. Oh my God, Vivian thought. Obviously all the loose ends had not been tied up after all. But still...he might be able to talk his way out of this. His charm knew no limits. He straightened his overcoat and walked down through the village to meet the aerosans as if taking a Sunday stroll in Piccadilly. But as the machines slid to a halt, the engines wound down and the exit doors were unbolted from within, Vivian suddenly found himself looking at the barrel of a Nagant revolver aimed at his stomach. "Valentine, my good friend!" said Varga Raznakov. He was wearing a black overcoat and a gray fur cap. He smiled, but it was an ugly smile. He had a long horse-like face with a thin nose and a small trim mustache that almost looked pencilled on. "What ever are you doing in this little piece of shit?" He fired a quick dark and mocking glance at the bull-man, who stood among a knot of other villagers. "Huh?" he asked Vivian, and he walked up to the major and pressed the barrel of his gun against the man's throat. "Talk to me!" At the same time, two soldiers from one of the aerosans began to frisk the major. They found the single-shot pistol and removed it, giving it to Raznakov. "This is a beautiful thing!" Raznakov said. His left eye had begun to twitch just a fraction, a sign of his agitation. A dangerous sign, Vivian thought. He had known this old and respected enemy long enough to recognize the sign of impending murder. "Is this what you used at the Hotel Fortitude? Really, Valentine! Are you slipping? Drinking too much? Pursuing too much of the lady's kitty? Did you not know you were being followed all the time you were in Minsk? Did you think I'd not know you were there? Not that we care about the wretch you killed - he was worthless - but if it meant getting you, my fine English asshole, then that is a golden trophy!" He pushed the revolver's barrel hard enough into Vivian's left cheek to leave a ring. "Okay, then! Let's go!" "I think I'd rather stay here, if you don't mind," said Vivian. "I don't think you'll kill me in front of all these - " Varga Raznakov turned smoothly and fired a bullet into the bull-man's bald skull. The village chief toppled into the red-spattered snow. The wizened old woman screamed and fell to her knees at the man's side. "Witnesses?" Raznakov asked. "You know I won't kill you here, Valentine. We have much to talk about first. But all these peasants in this little shit of a town...who are they to me? Now come along like a good boy, or I'll have to waste another bullet on a feeble brain." When Vivivan hesitated, Raznakov turned his pistol on the young blonde girl with the bandaged hand. She shrank back and her mother shrieked, but a soldier stepped forward to grasp the girl's shoulders. "Don't," the major said. He held his hands palm out. "I'll come with you." "Yes, you will!" Raznakov agreed, and motioned toward the aerosans with his gun. The soldiers returned to their vehicles. The machine guns were manned and the safeties clicked off. The drivers took their places. Raznakov sat behind Vivian with the gun ready. The engines were started with a burst of noise and black smoke, the propellers began to turn faster and faster and then one by one the aerosans shot forward, gaining speed as they were guided again on their pontoon skis to the east. The noise was terrific. Wind whipped through the compartments from the open hatches. Vivian tried to close his eyes and think, but he knew he was done for. No way to even get a message out. Back in London they wouldn't know how he died. Missing In Action would be on his dossier. But maybe they wouldn't kill him. After he was beaten for the information they wanted, maybe he would go to a jail cell. Oh, a filthy vermin-infested Russian jail cell would be a fine end to a man like himself! He thought he would prefer to be - The soldier up in the hatch began firing his machine gun, two short bursts. "What the hell are you shooting at?" Raznakov shouted. The soldier looked down. He had a fleshy, thick-cheeked face and cruel blue eyes. "There's a black wolf coming up fast on the right side!" he shouted back. Valentine Vivian sat up straighter. He leaned over toward a viewslit, and there he saw the beast approaching. It was not a large animal. It was a little on the thin side, a little shaggy, but the damned thing could move. The soldier began firing again. Vivian saw the wolf veer to one side and leap across the snow as bullets marched along its previous path. Then it righted itself and came on faster, and now Vivian could see that it had luminous green eyes. He couldn't help himself. He shouted it: "Oh, Jesus!" The gunner in one of the other aerosans started firing. It was all great sport. Bullets zigzagged along the snow, but the wolf had already zagzigged. The third aerosan's machine gunner began shooting, squeezing off long and deadly bursts. Vivian saw snow spray fly into the wolf's face. God, that had been close! The animal put its head down, veered away, and headed straight for the aerosan that carried the eager gunner. Then...the amazing thing happened. As Vivian watched, his heart hammering, the black wolf streaked across the snow on a diagonal to intersect the third aerosan. It bounded toward one of the pontoon skis, and when it clambered against the vehicle's wooden side and gripped hold of a viewslit it had fingers instead of claws. Within seconds, the black animal shape had become the white naked body of a seventeen-year-old boy. "Oh my Christ! My Christ!" the gunner in Vivian's aerosan shouted raggedly, proving that a Communist who saw a lycanthrope - because that was the proper word - immediately regained his castaway religion. The first aerosan, in the lead, turned to the right and made a wild circle. Vivian reasoned they too, had seen this awesome miracle. But Mikhail Gallatinov was now climbing up the side of the third aerosan, and when he got up on the top at the gunner's hatch he hit the astounded and dumb-struck soldier in the face so hard the teeth flew out like river pebbles. The soldier slid back in, and then as the aerosan careened across the snow Vivian's jaw dropped again as the white body rippled with bands of black hair, the spine contorted, the skull changed, a tail burst free and twitched like a rudder and the wolf leaped down into the passenger and driver's compartment. Within seconds, the exit door crashed open and three men came flying out. The aerosan turned to the left and headed to intersect the vehicle carrying Vivian and Raznakov. The major realized Gallatinov must be manning the wheel, and the lycanthrope's intent was to ram. "Shoot it!" Raznakov screamed. "Shoot the thing!" The machine gunner started firing. Bullets slashed across the snow and holes pocked the aerosan's side. It was then that Vivian decided he could sit still no longer; he twisted around in the narrow compartment, grabbed Raznakov's gun wrist and jabbed for the man's eyes with the outstretched fingers of his other hand. Blinded, Raznakov got off a shot that scorched past Vivian's side and put a hole through the aerosan's roof. Then Vivian headbutted the bastard, and though it was neither cricket nor gentlemanly the move was successful because Raznaskov's thin nose exploded and suddenly Major Vivian had the pistol. The first aerosan's gunner got off burst after burst at the vehicle Mikhail was piloting. Splinters flew into the air. The bullets hissed past Mikhail's face, his shoulders and chest as he twisted the wheel back and forth. Then, at the same time as Vivian put the pistol against the chest of Varga Raznakov and shot him somewhere north of the heart, Mikhail left his wheel, climbed through the hatch and swivelled the machine gun to take aim at the aerosan that roared down his throat. He fired two bursts not at the gunner but at the front of the vehicle where the driver sat, and then he jumped. And as he jumped, he once again summoned the pain and the power. The two aerosans, both runaways, slammed together. Wood crashed and crumpled. One of the huge propellers flew, still spinning, into the air. Gasoline and oil ignited on a spark. First one aerosan exploded and then the second blew, and the one with the remaining prop began to spin around and around in a mad circle throwing flaming fluids in all directions. Burning men rolled frantically in the snow. The black wolf took quick note of the carnage and then sped toward the last aerosan. Within it, Major Valentine Vivian had taken charge. He saw the gunner squaring aim at the wolf that bounded ever closer, and with no hesitation he fired into the man's groin. That caused all machine gunning to cease. The gunner crawled out, leaving a bloody trail, and flung himself off the top of the aerosan into the snow where he thrashed in agony. The wolf passed him, close enough to touch, and then went on. Then there was only the driver. Vivian pressed the pistol against the man's head and shouted, "Stop this damned thing!" The driver, a sensible and long-suffering soldier with a wife and six children, decided he did wish to live. He cut the engine and guided the aerosan to a halt. A moment or so later, a naked young man walked up alongside the vehicle and peered through a viewslit. Mikhail Gallatinov wasn't even breathing hard. Vivian couldn't speak for awhile. But someone had to speak, eventually. "You!" he told the driver. "Get out and take off your clothes!" Then, to Mikhail: "For God's sake, cover yourself! We don't do things like this in London!" Vivian dragged Raznakov's body out to lighten the load. When Mikhail was dressed in the uniform, which was far too big for him but would have to do, he entered the aerosan through the door and took a seat. The naked driver, induced by pistol, started the aircraft engine again. The prop began to spin faster and faster. "Are you all right?" Vivian asked the young man, as the aerosan turned toward the west and gained speed. Mikhail nodded, but his eyes were hollow and his face grim. "Listen to me," Vivian said. What he wanted to say tangled up in his mind and in his mouth, and he had to wait for his English composure to return to him as best it could. "You are a miracle." His voice cracked. "Do you understand that? You are...very, very fortunate." "Am I?" Mikhail asked. "I hope you're correct. But I suppose we'll find out, won't we?" Vivian couldn't help it. He put his hand on the young man's shoulder and gave him a fatherly pat. Or maybe it was a pat one might give an exceptional animal. A stop must be made first, to arrange the delivery of gold coins to a village in Russia where the ruins of a church sat atop a hill. After that, the aerosan would be crossing the border into Poland. Once there, the driver would be thrown out, naked and wiser to the ways of things he could never understand and that no amount of babbling could ever explain. Then the two men would be going home, to the land of Shakespeare. To the land of the blessed plot. To the land where stands the city of London.

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