Constructive criticism would be greatly appreciated. Preemptive apologies for any historical inaccuracies or other fail.
Contains violence and language, references to rape and torture, internalized homophobia and other values dissonance. On a lighter note, some bizarre but hopefully discreet shout-outs. Please note that the views of these characters certainly don’t always match my own.
Crossposted only to my own journal thus far. I may branch out.
Chapter One: White Death
Area of Ladoga-Karelia, Finland, February 1940
“A bear,” Kalle insisted back at camp while the motti was being mopped up, his hands still shaking around his coffee. “Great fucking hulk three meters high, white as the fucking snow, roaring away in my face. A fucking bear!”
“Didn’t know we had white bears hereabouts, city boy.”
“Sure it wasn’t maybe a runaway tank or something?”
“Sure it wasn’t a Russkie with a blanket on his head?”
“Fuck you, Mäkelä. You see it close as I did, you’d be singing another tune.”
“Huh, the bears are conked out roundabout now, I’d think. Especially with this winter as it is.”
“Yeah, well, you go say so to that bear.”
“You find it for me, I’ll do that.”
Hours later, Kalle fell asleep still trying to sort things out. There had been a Russian, or at least a Red Army man, one of the ones who’d managed to escape the motti, stumbling aimlessly in the woods with a rifle on his back, oblivious to Kalle getting into position and taking aim. When he’d fired the man had reeled, clapping his hands to his chest, and looked toward him. And then, he could remember, there’d been a bear, right there, all white fur and claws and snarls – where had it come from, and what had become of the Russkie? Hell if he knew – and then he’d spun and skied pell-mell until he flew into the camp, nearly bowling over a girl from the Lotta Svärd.
It had to have been a bear. What else could it have been?
Aleksandr would suppose later that he’d dreamed of the encirclement so much in the time immediately afterward because the deepest submerged parts of him refused to believe he’d finally left it.
In his dreams all over again the rations gave out and they started killing the horses. Horses whinnied and shied from him, so he hadn’t gotten the job. The job went to farm boys like Kuzin and Marchuk. He watched them get ready and he thought of shoving them aside, leaping on the horses and tearing out the throats (the horses’ throats, not Kuzin and Marchuk’s. He hoped) with his teeth. The twitching meat, the warm blood. It was a strange thought, to be sure, if not a completely insane one. He’d had many such strange thoughts of late. The horses were probably right to fear him.
Another strange thought was when he looked out at the thick Finnish forest, past the stalled tanks, and wondered what it would be like to run straight into it. In the same class of thought as an inexplicable but resistible impulse to stick his hand into a stove; in this cold it would be far more reasonable to hanker after the stove. He plagued himself with imagining what it would be like to flounder in the snowdrifts between the pines until caught by a cuckoo or worse.
Or worse: the whispers that passed among the huddled knots of men crouched and shivering. They didn’t whisper at him, mostly, but they didn’t exclude him from the knots. So he listened, his hands twisting around each other to work up the warmth his thin mittens didn’t give, and he heard about the frozen corpses the White Finns left propped up next to camp in the night, to be found when the dawn broke over another too-brief day. Never saw, didn’t try to see, but heard about the bodies without ears noses eyes tongues hands –
Some of them, pants at their ankles and cocks chopped –
Fuck is right. Fuck!
Fascists. Typical – Golubev stopped short, put his hand up near his mouth. Aleksandr shuddered. He was thinking, and maybe the others were too, thoughts like chain links: if the White Finns were fascists and the fascists fucked other men as part of their general depravity (don’t think of Lev Isayev, don’t, nothing happened), then what the White Finns might do to prisoners –
Malinovsky, their political officer, talked often about what the White Finns did to prisoners, though he never went there – stayed with mainstays like noses and ears, talked of how easily sharp Finnish knives could do those things. He talked about those things even more often as days and then weeks passed, reminding them there were worse ways to die. He’d frightened Aleksandr from the beginning, beyond his usual fears, with the sharp edges in his face and his voice. Near the end Aleksandr started to think Malinovsky might also be frightened. After all, he was as trapped as any of them. But what difference did it make if he was, beneath all his edges? It did nothing for Aleksandr’s fears.
In his dreams, too, there were also Golubev’s whispers in the long nights pressed together for warmth, the ones meant for him alone. Comrade? Am I bothering you?
Oh no, you’re not.
At first, before the encirclement, Golubev’s determined talking had made Aleksandr nervous and longing and guilty and then nervous twice over. If nothing else at least the heightened fear cut it off by crowding out any longings of that sort. Golubev had said all the main things by now, and gotten the main things out of Aleksandr, besides those main things like the encirclement that were so obvious that there was no point in talking about them anymore and crushing what little was left of morale – by now even the reassurances that reinforcements would break through just underlined how very much it hadn’t happened so far. Golubev realized this, so now it was down to subjects like, of all things, their favorite ice creams. Golubev liked chocolate, Aleksandr said cherry which was the only kind he’d had, and here there was a fracture in the dream because for a moment they were each holding a bar of it. Aleksandr took a bite and it melted tastelessly before it touched his tongue, especially ridiculous in this weather. He tried again and this time it tasted like meat broth when melted, nothing at all like cherry, but he wasn’t about to complain and broth was more nourishing anyway. Golubev licked at his ice cream and smiled like he had in those heady early days of the war.
Let’s do our best, comrade, so the fascists never clap eyes on Leningrad.
Inside these dreams he dreamed, also, of what he’d dreamed then. He’d dreamed he was a wolf, at ease in the forest. He dreamed he was the one to howl his pursuit, part of a pack that rushed across the snow and ran down hapless prey. He dreamed of the meat in his mouth, the blood scattered in the snow.
The memory of his fears rose. The dreams transformed around them, dissolved into screams and shots. Then he ran, then he floundered between the pines after all, thinking that surely he wasn’t the only one to get through the Finnish cordon except it looked like it from here, then he was falling back against a trunk feeling like he’d been kicked in the chest – then, in what moonlight filtered through those pines, his mittens came away from his chest glistening with his own blood.
His hands bare, still sticky. On his knees, snow crunching beneath him. The wind, through the trees, slicing him to bone. The wolves howling. If only he had a wolf’s pelt.
Overhead, a bird circling among the trees. He stumbled after it.
Half-awake, Aleksandr at first took the warmth as a sign that he was done for.
He lay there a while longer, listening to his own breath, waiting for everything to dwindle. When it didn’t, he began to take stock, keeping his eyes closed.
He could feel fingers, toes, a soft weight over him, a similar softness below. A nest (he thought again of birds), or a cocoon, blankets, maybe furs. Beneath them, he could feel he was naked. Above them, his head was bare of everything but what hair had grown in since the last shearing. Where… and what…?
Bringing up a bloody hand, picking a swatch of fabric from his shoulder. Felt like it might be a bit of his uniform jacket. Another, another. Everything in fragments.
A soft scraping. The smell of smoke. Not very heavy, but close. Aleksandr inhaled and opened his eyes.
Through the haze of smoke near the rough, blackened wooden ceiling, he could make out a patch of sky. The walls were similarly rough. A peasant’s cottage, maybe.
He’d heard how over twenty years ago the Finnish peasants and workers had risen up and been crushed by the Whites and languished under redoubled oppression ever since. Now that they were coming in, he’d heard, the proletariat would rise up and meet them halfway with gratitude and jubilation. He hadn’t seen any grateful and jubilant proletariat – maybe they were somewhere else being crushed all over again. He hadn’t actually seen any White Finns, for that matter, but they left unmistakable signs of their presence.
A shape, between the trees, not in them, the glint of the rifle, and he lifted a hand in its bloody mitten, lifted it as though he could catch bullets, mouthed “No” as if he’d be heeded, as if it mattered if he was, but it didn’t matter twice over because all that came out was more blood, brief warmth against his chin and throat.
But was that dreaming?
Slowly, beneath the blankets, Aleksandr moved one hand to his bare chest. No bandage. No pain. He prodded – it wasn’t even tender.
He picked his way backward. The part where someone held his head up and poured something warm down his throat might or might not be a dream. The part before that where he was a wolf, running through the snow after a bird, howling for someone anyone – that was a dream, of course, a variation on an old theme. The part before that, when he stood bloodied and half-naked in the snow – a dream, too, even if it would do a little to explain why his clothes were entirely missing now, because why would he be so bloodied unless he’d been shot? Which couldn’t have happened unless he’d stayed dreaming, stayed mad even, for long enough for the wound to heal.
But he was out of the encirclement, that was for certain, unless these were the vivid dreams that came with freezing to death. Taken in by Finnish peasants, maybe. And he wasn’t tied up, that could be a good sign. And he was alive to breathe and think and be perplexed, like so many other men probably weren’t.
The scraping continued, to his right. He took the hand from his chest and put it outward to the left until his palm flattened against the wood of the wall. Then he turned his head to the right.
A heavy stone stove in the opposite corner fumed smoke. Someone crouched before it, back to him, wearing a hooded white coat Aleksandr envied, doing something with their hands. Carving, maybe. Aleksandr could make out the large sheath at the belt. When he craned his neck he could also make out the door on the wall between them.
Aleksandr lowered his head, watched, listened. Something more had to happen, eventually, but he didn’t want to provoke it, and even after however long asleep he was still tired. It wasn’t long before the scraping lulled him back into the dreams of wolves.
Footsteps echoed through the dreams, over the sound of the wolf’s paws in snow, and the next time he opened his eyes someone stood over him. The same person who’d been in front of the stove, he thought. The same coat. A half-carved block of wood in one hand, a vicious-looking knife to match the sheath in the other. Now Aleksandr saw how young he looked. Sixteen, maybe, which was Fyodor’s age.
Fyodor, and from there Mikhail. He tried to breathe steady.
The boy began to talk at him. Finnish? No idea. But then he began to grunt and growl and bark, which Aleksandr didn’t think could be Finnish, though it didn’t shake another strange feeling – that he ought to understand more of this dogs’ language than he did.
Eventually the boy snorted, looking contemptuous. He took a few steps back, threw open the door, yelled outside as Aleksandr turned to keep his eyes on him. The yelling turned into an exchange with someone out there, back and forth in what he thought was Finnish. The wood disappeared into a coat pocket for long enough for him to exchange it with something he threw at Aleksandr.
Aleksandr got a hand out of the blankets and picked it up where it had landed. It turned out to be a hunk of dense dark brown bread that looked like rye. “Thank you.” He wasn’t sure if he spoke too soft or too loud.
The boy snorted again as he retrieved the wood. He went back to the stove, sat down facing him, and resumed his carving.
Time passed. Aleksandr lay on his side eating the bread, cupping one hand to catch crumbs. The boy paid him little attention. Aleksandr finished the bread, nipped the crumbs from his hand, and kept lying there. He wanted to look back to the ceiling, but he had to watch for cues.
Another yell from outside. The boy stood, barked, a word this time – “Ivan!” – and beckoned him up with a peremptory gesture.
The bread had been encouraging; the demeanor wasn’t. Aleksandr sat up, holding the blankets up to his neck. Despite the stove, the air chilled his back. He pulled some of the blankets so that they wrapped around his shoulders and over his head, extricated his feet and swung them to the earthen floor. Then he pushed himself up with one hand, holding his makeshift cloak closed with the other.
The boy walked to the door and beckoned again. The wood went back into a pocket, the knife into the sheath, but he kept his hand on that knife. Aleksandr staggered toward him, rediscovering his gait as he went. He glanced around in case there was a pair of shoes he’d overlooked, his uniform folded in a corner, and found nothing besides what he’d already seen.
Outside snow was thick on the ground and shifted beneath Aleksandr’s bare feet. At least it wasn’t that far to walk through what Aleksandr saw now was a forest village of some kind. More of those old-fashioned log cottages tucked between the trees, and by the time they stopped at one with a railed wooden deck and a chimney three more boys had wandered over and were in involved conversation in probably-Finnish with the first. The first seemed to be the oldest and largest of them; the smallest looked maybe eleven, twelve. They all stared at him, but the stare of the smallest was different. Where the other two seemed as contemptuous as the first, this one seemed fascinated.
Were all the men at war then, Aleksandr wondered.
It was still a strange feeling, in a different way, to count himself as a man. They weren’t that many years younger, after all. And they were boys but in some way they cowed him nonetheless.
The first boy gestured again. He walked up the steps, crossed the deck, and was greeted by heat when he opened the door.
Inside, it turned out to be a steam bath, ready to use, not as up to date as the kind he’d been to at home but he hadn’t been in Leningrad for a long time, or for that matter to a banya. Another good sign? He shed the blankets onto the deck, feeding them through the half-open door, and closed the door behind him while his numbed feet and face stung with the warmth. Once seated, he looked down at himself and was surprised; he’d expected, even in the poor light, to look dirtier. Maybe they’d scrubbed him off when he was unconscious. There wasn’t a trace of blood. He leaned back, head falling to the side, and drifted. He didn’t sleep again, quite, but for a while he went slack. For a few seconds in this slackness and this warmth he could almost forget what had preceded this, and what might follow. Then he set about figuring out how things worked in this old style – ladling water onto the stones for steam and so on.
When he emerged, he saw two of the boys perched on the railing, facing away and continuing to talk. The blankets were gone; boots with socks stuffed in their tops and a stack of clothes sat in their place on the deck. Underwear on top, and was that a coat folded at the bottom? In the order he’d put them on. That was thoughtful. He reached for them, glanced down again, and stopped with his arm out.
In good light, cleaned off, he could see the scar on his chest, round and pink. He touched it with his fingertips; now that he knew where it was he could feel that it was smoother than the skin around it.
He was quite sure he hadn’t had it before. Where would he have gotten it?
It wasn’t a cuckoo in a tree, but still –
He ran a hand through his hair. It felt about as long (or short, really) as it had the last he remembered. Maybe a little longer, but he’d worn his hat nearly all the time, to catch the warmth. He couldn’t remember what the rate was supposed to be. Then he reviewed what growth there was on his chin and such – little difference there, either. But if he’d been unconscious long enough for a gunshot wound to scab over and heal…
It wasn’t getting any warmer. He snatched up the underwear – flannel, soft in his hand – and began to pull it on.
In short order he’d covered the scar with layers of shirt and undershirt and a baggy sweater. The clothes matched his height but not, for the most part, his breadth – or rather, his lack thereof. Like his father, he’d always been skinny, and his belt had tightened a notch or two more in the last few months. When only the coat seemed to be left, he turned his attention to the socks and the boots. The boots were a little large but the thickness of the socks helped; he determined after a few steps that they weren’t going to fall off. Once he picked up the coat, he saw the items below it. Gloves, a scarf, and – incongruous in its familiarity – his hat, the budenovka with the pointed tip and the large red star.
He slipped on the coat and picked up the hat. The earflaps were down; on closer examination, the buttons to fasten them up to the sides or under the chin were missing. Better than nothing. He pulled it on and started fastening the coat.
The boys had turned around on the railing. The smallest, and one of the ones in between. They watched him in the same ways they had before.
“Thank you,” he said again, and managed a smile.
The older boy frowned. The smallest smiled back. Aleksandr bent to pick up the gloves and slipped them on; when he picked up the scarf they pushed themselves off the railing and the older boy beckoned him onward. He followed, still winding the scarf.
This time they came to a larger building. Inside, the logs of the walls were covered with carvings – repeated symbols that looked like they might be writing akin to Chinese. Aleksandr could comprehend it about as well as Chinese, but again there was the feeling that he ought to. One of those which appeared frequently along the lines looked like a curved cousin of the German swastika, but did that mean anything? He couldn’t stare at it too long – there were the people inside to consider.
If what he’d seen so far was a good sampling, most of the men were away. There was one man who looked to be in his forties or fifties, the yellow hair around his intense face lined with silver. His clothing was edged with fur and stitched with more of the symbols, including the swastika’s cousin. The same went for the sheath of the knife at his belt, and there was the hint of still more on its handle. A wolf stood at his side.
A wolf? His imagination was taking strange turns. Why would a wolf be in here? It was a dog, that was all. Dogs could look like wolves. After all, they could mate with wolves. The Finns could keep dogs like that for hunting and so on. And besides, the closest he’d come in Leningrad was pictures, and the closest he’d come after that was the howls in the forest night; what did he know about wolves?
Still, he watched it watching him and couldn’t really think of it as anything other than a wolf.
There was another such, wandering around behind the man and his companions – two women, dressed similarly down to the knives. They looked at him, then at each other.
The man stepped forward and talked at him as the boy had, for longer. Probably-Finnish, then the dogs’ language (the wolves’ language? The whatever-it-was beside the man seemed from the noises it made almost as though it was making its own contributions to the conversation), then two more sequences of words, with significant pauses in between. He thought he caught Deutsch? at one point, so the man was probably trying German then, but that knowledge was little help, and knowing that the man spoke German before he spoke Russian wasn’t a comfort. Aleksandr remembered some of the English from school but if the man spoke it himself, he thought, the man would try it himself, which he didn’t.
After the fourth try, the man let out a breath fast and sharp. He glanced between the women. One of them cleared her throat and said, “Russian.”
He wasn’t sure at first whether she wanted an answer. When no one said anything for a while he said, “Yes.”
This didn’t bring forth another series of words, ones he could understand. They only led to muttering among the three, with periodic additions from the wolves. When he looked along the lines of symbols again he saw the four boys assembled behind him, the same looks on their faces.
The same woman as before said, “You. Silver Fang?”
Should I know what that means? he thought, and was answered by another strange feeling that indeed he should. This time he voiced it. “I’m sorry.”
More conversation. The man spoke. “You. Garou?”
More mystifying chords struck. Had the man said that word before, Garou? “I’m sorry.”
The woman said, “Wolf. Man.” She gestured, up and down. “Man. Wolf. You change?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand.” He cast about. The only word of Finnish he knew was Suomi, their own name for it, like in the marching song: meet us, Suomi the beautiful, decorated with transparent lakes. Would he dare to sing at them and hope they understood the sentiment? Absolutely not. Instead he tried a bit of English, once again “I’m sorry. I don’t understand?” This got no more reaction than the Russian.
The man closed the distance between them in a blink. Without the flaps buttoned, the budenovka came off easily in the man’s hand. He put his other hand underneath Aleksandr’s chin, forcing his head up. This close, looking him in the face was like staring into an open furnace from five centimeters, or a wolf’s open maw from the same, and Aleksandr’s gaze soon dropped downward, to the side, as far as he could with the thick fingers curling in on his jaw.
Aleksandr didn’t understand any more of what the man snarled now than he had before, but it could be nothing good. Swastikas. Things had switched around last summer, but had they changed that much? He realized he was trembling when his tremors came up against the man’s tightening grip. His eyes shut. He wished himself in Leningrad. His mother and aunt coming in from the kitchen with the soup, cousin Yulia helping Fyodor with his homework, Mikhail making their day sound exciting even though Aleksandr could remember it perfectly well.
The man snarled another phrase and shoved him backward. He stumbled, barely kept his feet, and barely caught his budenovka when the man flung it at him. He clutched it, not daring to put it on, until the woman who spoke bits of Russian came up and led him out past the stares of the boys.
At least they still fed him: more bread and a thick soup with meat in it. The woman had given it to him in a wooden bowl and looked away when he said thank you. The women seemed less harsh with him than the man, but that wasn’t saying much. He trembled then with immense relief; if they were feeding him they weren’t going to kill him. At least, not yet.
He tilted the bowl to drink the soup, then used the bread to wipe up the traces that refused to flow downward. When he ran out of bread he tilted the bowl again and licked up what remained. The woman nodded at him and showed him to a latrine outside, as rough-hewn as the rest of the place but he wasn’t going to complain. Now he knew two words of Finnish: Suomi and what he supposed meant something like latrine. When she led him back to the cottage and shut him inside, he supposed she’d taught him the word so that he could tell his guard (too soon to assume jailer, he told himself) when he needed to go.
He took off the boots and lined them up next to the bed before climbing inside the nest. Another small luxury, that he could do this without courting frostbite. He could be grateful for that. He lay staring up at the ceiling, leaving the nest for intermittent exercises whenever the stillness started to bother him, and concentrated on how grateful he was.
Night was falling when the smallest of the boys slipped inside, holding another wooden bowl. Aleksandr looked up, sat up. The boy tilted his head, frowned, tilted it back upright, smiled again, raised a hand. “Terve.”
With that smile it probably didn’t mean fuck you. “Terve,” he tried in return.
The boy smiled wider. He walked over and made as if to clamber onto the bed. Then he stopped, looked at the boots, set the bowl on the bed, and bent over to unlace his own. By the time he was done, Aleksandr had moved back to make room for him and gotten a look inside the bowl – water. Another smile as he leapt onto the bed, perched on his knees. He produced a small mirror and a razor blade and held them out.
Aleksandr took them. “Thank you.”
The boy sat watching with his head tilted; Aleksandr supposed this, at least, could be fascination with something he couldn’t do yet rather than fascination with the “Ivan.” He tried not to let it bother him while he shaved. He hadn’t for a while, to keep another thin shield against the cold, but he wouldn’t need that anymore, could he? The frame of the mirror had beautiful patterns worked into the wood; he could feel them beneath his fingers as he held on to it, and he spent a minute examining them after he finished. It seemed old, but as solid as a mirror could be.
He held the razor for another stretch of time. It looked pathetic compared to the knives, but it might conceivably make a weapon. But did he need a weapon? If he really had anything to fear from these people, why had they given it to him to begin with?
It was with this thought that he finally pushed the bowl and tools over to the boy. The boy nodded at them, frowned again in apparent concentration, and then looked up and jabbed his finger toward his own throat.
“Veikko,” he said now, slow and loud. “Veikko.” He pointed toward Aleksandr. “Ivan?”
He understood, almost smiled, and pointed at himself. “Aleksandr.” He pointed back. “Veikko?”
A broad grin. Pointing back and forth, “Veikko. Aleksandr.” Another tilt of the head. “Yes?”
Back and forth again, and again. When later one of the other boys yelled for Veikko, Aleksandr finished his handful of words with the Finnish for goodbye, or good night. One of those.
Heikki threw his arm out. The other one held his bundle of wood. It was much more wood than Smallest-Of-Litter carried; Heikki was the oldest, the largest, the strongest of their pack. Smallest-Of-Litter’s father said Smallest-Of-Litter would be bigger than that, someday. Smallest-Of-Litter thought Heikki would be bigger than that. “And Ivan in there –”
“His name,” said Smallest-Of-Litter, hurrying to keep up. “Aleksandr. Not Ivan. I asked him, he said Aleksandr. He said Ivan to you?”
Heikki stared at him and then started to laugh. He kept laughing as they neared where Kalevi and Olavi were taking apart their kills and putting them on fire that needed feeding. Smallest-Of-Litter was used to them laughing like that, about human things he still didn’t understand.
“You ask your dad,” said Heikki at last, and he was shaking his head like they did when he didn’t understand something humans always knew. “Ask Ilmari-rhya.”
When they were there Marita and Aili sat next to Smallest-Of-Litter’s father. Aili held a thin piece of paper. A little while ago Aili taught Smallest-Of-Litter another human way of saying Yes and No, the way Aleksandr knew. “This looks like the birthdate,” said Aili. “The fourth of some month in 1920.”
Smallest-Of-Litter’s father grunted and watched Smallest-Of-Litter’s rabbits on the fire.
“We can make up a chart,” she said, “and once Elias knows the month –”
“You do what you want,” said Smallest-Of-Litter’s father.
“As far as that, I could still at least send a message to the –”
“You know what they’ll say,” said Smallest-Of-Litter’s father. “They’ll be even worse than the Children of Gaia for it. Fuck that.” Which meant he probably didn’t want Aili to do exactly what she wanted. He turned to Smallest-Of-Litter, who was setting down his wood. “Veikko.”
Veikko Ruotsalainen was his name for humans. He’d remembered that, and used it. His father was human-born and liked it when he used it, and Smallest-Of-Litter liked it too, more than being Smallest. The Warder Wind-In-Trees had a name for humans too, Ritva: that was a kind of tree. Answers-Storm thought there was no sense in it so she didn’t have one.
He said, “Heikki says to ask…” Behind him he could hear Heikki starting to laugh again, and putting a hand over it.
He asked, and his father answered. He still didn’t understand, quite. But he did understand that something about Aleksandr Not-Ivan made his father angry. It was all mixed up with the Silver Fangs far away, he understood that a little bit too, and with human things-like-tribes, and with why Elias and Jalmari and Ilmari the Tireless (who wasn’t Smallest-Of-Litter’s father, who was Ilmari Cuts-Down-The-Wyrm) were away now. They were human-born and men and not too old so they were fighting a war, another one, where they didn’t cut down the Wyrm but humans. Though the Wyrm hid behind it all, his father said. Smallest-Of-Litter didn’t think he meant they hid behind Elias and Jalmari and Ilmari.
If the Wyrm hid behind Aleksandr, thought Smallest-Of-Litter, eating his share of rabbit the human way, by now his father would’ve cut him up and then cut up the Wyrm behind him too. So it couldn’t be that.
He let his father’s words sit in his head like the rabbit sat in his stomach. He began with the least of his questions. “Like a tribe. I am Finnish too?”
“You’re my son,” said his father. “Of course.”
Elias Laukkanen had left bait for incoming dove-spirits in a pocket of his coat so as to keep any messages from the sept from materializing in his hand in front of humans; he knew one had come in when the weight of the bait vanished while he was on night patrol. Together with Tapio he made the usual circuit around the motti – no signs of attempted escape – and shot an officer in the head. Tapio noted another kill.
Back at camp, sitting between Kustaa and Tapio in the dugout, he extracted the folded vellum and refreshed his spirit-bait while dreaming up cover stories.
Aili’s handwriting: We have a stray Russian, probably a lost cub, will send him over. Found just inside the bawn, no mark, no High Tongue. The boys have details, will howl in a few days. Use your discretion. Veikko says his name is Aleksandr.
“Perkele,” breathed Elias. A nice feature of his native language, side effect of the long-ago proselytizing efforts of the White Christ, that he could readily invoke the Old Man of the sky with no one the wiser. Not like in, say, Sweden, Germany even with that “ethnic revival” the Fenrir there were keeping an eye on (some were saying it was revived the same way a leech was revived), where swearing by Thor would stick out if anyone happened to listen. Wouldn’t blow the Veil to tatters, nothing like that, but it might set people wondering, and enough of that wondering might set off something more, and that something might set off something else, and…
Kustaa stirred. He’d been slumped against the skin-lined wall, glassy-eyed but nevertheless taking everything in – like his father did, though Ilmari Cuts-Down-The-Wyrm had long ago lost all glassiness except what came in shards. “What is it?”
“Yeah,” Tapio whispered, “what?” He was in the steady and perpetual process of emptying and reorganizing his pockets. Tapio’s pockets were always filled with miscellany, ranging from handkerchiefs to extra gun oil to pennies, though on patrols and sniping runs he forewent the clinkables.
They were both Kin (and Tapio his cousin to boot), and he’d probably have to ask for their help, so he told them while methodically shredding the vellum. “Explains that noise,” he added. He remembered the distant demented howls from an unknown throat a couple nights back. He thought he might have heard hints of the Garou language, more than one would find with a regular wolf, but mostly it came off as garbled, lunatic. Maybe just completely lost.
“Don’t you have a cousin called that?” said Tapio, a cousin from the opposite side of the family. Tapio’s sister Marita was his packmate. Before Elias’s own sister got married and moved west they’d made a nice matched quartet.
“Right,” said Elias. Aleksandr, Alexander, Aleksanteri. His American cousin Alex, the son of his father’s brother. Alex wrote letters in painstaking amateur German; so far Finnish daunted him. Ideally, he supposed with some idleness, Fenrir should be daunted by nothing, but Alex was Kin and fifteen so he could have a little slack and it wasn’t like most of their tribemates in neighboring countries (like Russia, ouch) made much more of an effort. Anyway, Elias’s German wasn’t much better, so he wrote back with it and they muddled along all right. Coincidence, but there might be some kind of angle there. He stood. “Off to Captain.”
Captain Jokela received him in the evacuated house commandeered as headquarters. The captain was Kin too, of the Children of Gaia, plenty of guts, so favored by his own Garou cousins that he even knew a watered-down healing Gift, so he knew enough for Elias to explain they’d be expecting a prisoner of war soon.
Because with things how they were, the war on and everything, and Elias in if not the thick of it (that would be southward, he thought, at the Isthmus) in the middling of it, what else could they pass off a Russian cub as?
Back in the dugout he used a lantern, the light carefully directed, to review the crumpled little sketches he kept in the sleeve of his sweater. Toivo Järvinen had done them when Elias visited Tampere last summer, ever the opportunist, in exchange for the spare markka in his pockets. Other soldiers might carry photographs, but Elias liked being different. And in case he ran into any sticklers, ink drawings had less of the Weaver and were more permissible to dedicate. Heads and torsos. Marita, looking up at unseen sky – back at the sept. Their packmate Ilmari, concentrating on an unseen project – stationed at another motti. His sister Helena, holding an indeterminate bundle of typically-indeterminate baby – out west. Kolya Rybalkin, looking up from a book of indeterminate purpose – some interpreting job behind the lines. Toivo himself, quite an honest self-portrait – where was he now? They’d had to have found something to do with his reserves unit.
He shuffled them and wondered what made them think the Russian, this Aleksandr, was a cub, a Garou at all. This wasn’t a priority in Aili’s limited space. Not that he doubted, but it was a matter of curiosity. Maybe he’d turned up with his clothes in a familiar pattern of shreds, having abruptly outgrown them with his Firsting. Maybe he might have, if not High Tongue, some precaution – say, a piece of paper with a few glyphs scrawled on. With things in Europe as they were, more Garou were teaching their Kin and cubs pieces of the written language – we might be at war, such a paper might say held high in the face of Crinos, but there’s a bigger war where we’re on the same side. Maybe he had the look of one tribe or another, a look so burned into his blood by centuries of breeding that even before his Rite of Passage other Garou could see it. If so, it was probably Fenrir blood. Otherwise he’d surely have been shunted off by moon bridge to the tribe in question; Shadow Lords and Silver Fangs and Children of Gaia all had Russians in Scandinavian exile, Elias knew. Other tribes, not quite as easy to get hold of, but they could surely send him to the Children of Gaia anyway; the Children of Gaia would readily trawl for Fianna or whatnot.
Though maybe it was the look of the Black Furies? That’d be hilarious. The Furies had been in Russia in some numbers and their Kin wouldn’t have been in as much of an eggs-in-one-basket situation as the Silver Fangs’ were. The Furies wouldn’t have wanted him anyway, him being a him, so Cuts-Down-The-Wyrm might have taken it into his head to do some poaching. Elias liked this idea too much and tried not to convince himself of it, otherwise he could imagine his own disappointment if Aleksandr’s coat turned out to be solid Fenris-gray instead of Fury-black – and realize how stupid that disappointment would be.
The descendants of the Varangian Guard, he remembered. Scattered to the winds with the revolutions there, fighting in the civil war and being pushed to the borders while the Silver Fang Kin were running like rabbits, being rounded up and shot.
Likely this Aleksandr was old, for a cub. Aili hadn’t said how old, for whatever reason including not knowing or not enough space. But if he was Russian he’d probably come into Finland with the Red Army, and the Red Army probably wasn’t yet recruiting as young as Elias himself had been when he Firsted.
Not far away great clusters of Red Army starved and froze in mottis, refusing surrender, fighting to the last bullet and then to their bayonets, and now one was dropped right into his hands to keep safe and educate and blah-de-blah-dah. He could appreciate the conjunction.
When he slept, near morning, Elias dreamed of Kolya. He was more inclined than most people to search for substance in his dreams, had been ever since the dreams leading up to his Firsting, but this was simple enough an association to figure out – one Russian and another, and the Rybalkins had taught him things which led to this cub Aleksandr being sent to him now – and he thought little of it afterward, once his fish-gasping stopped.
Aleksandr dreamed of birds, all kinds of birds. Cuckoos, that was an obvious one, the term for Finnish snipers up in trees chirping bullets. Then pigeons and doves – that was easy to figure out too. Golubev, whose name had “pigeon” in it, who’d tried to be his friend as well as his comrade. They were both from Leningrad, Golubev a little older, but Golubev had volunteered out of university, wanted to do his part to free the Finns. Aleksandr hadn’t not wanted to help free the Finns, but by the time that started he’d already been called up so he supposed it didn’t matter whether or not he wanted to. Golubev’s mother and father were believers from the start; this was why Golubev’s given name was Vladimir.
Then ravens, picking at the bodies.
Then birds of prey. Eagles, buzzards, falcons? He couldn’t get them straight. In his dreams he ran as a wolf or rode after them on a horse. He’d never been on a horse in his life (hard enough to get near one) but his dreams readily conjured the sensation. He rode through the snow and he noticed his clothes were ridiculous, extravagant. Furs and wool were reasonable enough in these winters, but jewels? Silk and velvet embroidered in silver and gold? He’d never felt material like that before but again he had no trouble imagining it.
As a wolf he howled and somehow he said something in the howls. As a human in the too-rich clothes (he thought in these dreams he might also be a woman, something else he had no idea about) he spoke to a gathering of Finnish soldiers, men and women, who carried not rifles but swords and spears and axes and bows (and those same vicious knives at their belts). Tried Russian, that didn’t work, tried French (why French? That was another thing), that didn’t work either, and so barked at them in the wolves’ language.
Child, someone called after him, child!
He wanted to scream back, scream for his mother like the child they called him, but even in his dreams he held his tongue.
Come home, called his mother.
When awake, he gathered more names. Aili-rhya, the woman with pieces of Russian. Sofia-rhya, the other woman who’d been with the man whose name he still didn’t know. Marita-rhya, a younger woman (but still older than him, he thought) who tended to be with Aili and knew a little English, but not enough to tell him much. The other three boys: Heikki-rhya the first and oldest, Kalevi-rhya and Olavi-rhya in between. There was a lot of rhya, he noticed, which seemed like a suffix of some kind, because Veikko always called the other boys without it. Veikko introduced them when they came to take watch, but when he tried to use their names with them (keeping the rhyas, he didn’t feel safe discarding them) they laughed at him and he didn’t know why. At least when they laughed they weren’t angry.
Veikko taught him the Finnish for up and down, left and right, the bread, the meat, the soup, even the bowls. It was only his third day awake in the village and he was already feeling stronger. They let him eat more on the second and third days. On the second day he was almost sick with how much he ate.
Water, too, in abundance, and Veikko taught him the Finnish for that and for the cups that held it. In the encirclement he wouldn’t have thought water would be a problem with all the snow to melt, but some of them had tried that and a few hours later were writhing in the rest of the snow, clutching their stomachs, trying not to throw up what little they’d had.
It was still dark on the fourth day when the boys came in and shook him awake. He put on the boots and they pushed a familiar shape into his hands – his field bag, he found, how long had they had it? – gesturing, he thought, for him to put it on. He’d barely slung it over his shoulder before the one he thought was Kalevi held out a strip of cloth. He said something to Veikko, readily identified as the smallest shape.
“Down,” said Veikko, and leaned slightly forward to demonstrate. Aleksandr guessed why: Kalevi was considerably shorter than him, and with him standing upright it would be difficult for Kalevi to reach his face and behind his head to tie on the –
No. They couldn’t now be…?
He stumbled back against the bed. The boys were silent for a moment before breaking into a clamor. He felt himself shake his head, so frantic his eyes nearly rattled in their sockets. Pathetic – why should they terrify him? If he really thought they were taking him to his death why didn’t he fight? There might be four of them but they were all younger than him, he was taller than even Heikki, and if he just got hold of one of their knives then he could well –
But now that he thought of it, did he think that? If they were going to blindfold him to kill him why did they give him his bag beforehand? Just to carry it out to his grave, if there would be a grave? He couldn’t be sure. And he couldn’t set on them, these boys younger than Fyodor, when he didn’t know that they meant any such thing.
Maybe that was why they gave him the bag, to confuse him. Maybe they were counting on that.
They’d pressed closer and he was still shaking his head when Veikko elbowed his way between two of them. “No,” said Veikko, “no.” And something else, words he didn’t know. Veikko grabbed the strip of cloth and came closer, holding it up as far as he could, saying those words. The others fell silent, looking on.
Eventually Aleksandr stopped shaking his head. He stayed where he was for a while, leaning backward, his hands out behind him curling into the blankets. Veikko waited, hands high, repeating himself.
If they killed him now, Aleksandr thought, it would be an especially pathetic death. But he straightened, closed his hands, and bent forward. His limited sight vanished. He felt Veikko knot the cloth at the back of his head. Then one of Veikko’s small hands closed around his wrist and tugged him forward. He began to walk.
At the bottom of the blindfold, things lightened with the day. They walked through snow, turning often. Sometimes he bumped into a tree. Two of the boys had fallen away from the group while they were still in the village, with what he supposed were goodbyes. Veikko still held his hand, guiding him, saying “left” and “right.” He thought the other boy was Heikki, but he wasn’t quite sure.
At some point suddenly everything seemed louder – the snow beneath their boots, Veikko’s directions, the calling of birds. Not long after that, they stopped. Veikko’s other hand took the small loose end of the scarf (he’d wound it over his head, under the budenovka, for a little more warmth) and tugged. Aleksandr bent his head again, hope squirming in his gut. Veikko undid the blindfold.
When it came off he saw that he’d guessed right that the other boy was Heikki. Then he saw his rifle, or one very much like it, its bayonet attached, in its sling on Heikki’s back. Heikki carried a bag, too, with a canteen tied to it, and Aleksandr was reminded that he hadn’t had a chance to look in his own. He didn’t get a chance now, either; even while he blinked in the light, Heikki directed them onward.
Not so many twists and turns now. Just the thick forest, and the snow, and the cold. It wasn’t as bad as it might have been, not with all the thick winter clothes he had now. The boys seemed completely unbothered. They stopped a few times during the day – to break the ice and draw water from a small stream, to eat, to piss against trees. Aleksandr drank the water and ate the bread they gave him. He told himself once again that if they were expending food on him, Heikki was hardly about to shoot him with his own rifle. They just hadn’t wanted him to know the way back to the village, though why he couldn’t fathom.
Maybe, he thought, they were going to set him loose, and if the White Finns caught him and tortured him he wouldn’t be able to lead them back to his helpers. This was a nice idea to think of. He liked to try to believe it. Liked thinking that they were sympathizers after all, that the man who’d grabbed him that day had been angry with something else entirely that, not knowing Finnish, he hadn’t understood. And maybe it wasn’t his rifle after all, just one like it, it wasn’t as if the Mosin-Nagant was rare – a perfectly good reason why they hadn’t given it back.
They stopped again after nightfall. Aleksandr began to sort through his bag by feel. There was still no sign of the rest of his uniform. He couldn’t find his papers, either. But there was his cartridge belt, alongside the cartridges still in their boxes. What other miscellany he’d picked up. And in addition to this there was a blanket, tightly folded. He took it out at first so he could better search for his papers, and when he still couldn’t find them he wound himself in it while wondering if he could fold it that small again. He kept the boots on.
Heikki and Veikko argued briefly, glancing at him throughout. Finally, Veikko indicated that he should stay, shouldn’t wander. Aleksandr had no problem not wandering. The next moment, it seemed, a wolf rushed off into the dark beyond his sight.
He stared after it, then at Heikki, leaning against a tree, whose face betrayed no clue. All the while he tried to convince himself he hadn’t seen that. He was very willing to believe it, but it remained a struggle. Maybe he was touched in the head. Cracked it on something, the night the encirclement broke. Seeing wolves everywhere, in hunting dogs, in young boys –
He could probably overpower Heikki, take the rifle, take the bag, run – he’d seen the sun set, knew the way east – but how far would that get him?
He curled up inside the blanket, pulling it over his head, and tried not to imagine it wouldn’t be enough against the cold. After all, if it wasn’t enough, the boys would be as bad off. They lived here. They ought to know what they were doing.
He did his best to ignore the howling; again it followed him into his dreams. It really was getting to him.