Northern Russia, 1774
The first howl sang across the night void and trembled the frozen air, a sound thin as the starlight poised on the blue plains of snow, with no more presence than the memory of a vanished loved one, and just as inescapable across the face of the world; and as with a ghostly visage rising before me, I might have denied that the cry existed. But the horses plunged.
Sergei Gorlov, the friend and fellow mercenary who had mentored me for the last two years in the art of cavalry warfare and who guided me now into the vast mysteries of his homeland, sat beside me, bundled beneath blankets in the open sleigh. Opposite us huddled a fat merchant, his back to Gorlov's driver, Pyotr, an ageless Russian peasant whose expert hands upon the reins had kept the horses moving briskly through the long night. And I, Kieran Selkirk, shivered beneath the sizzling stars, five thousand miles from America, and the colony of Virginia, and the cottage where my father warmed himself beside his fire at home. Or so I hoped. I tried not to think too much about him; I had learned it is not wise to dream of comfort when you dwell with danger, and have just felt the fear of your horses at the sound of wolves.
Pyotr growled the horses' names deep in his throat, and with Russian words I did not know but understood, he told them they were stupid beasts and full of perversion, yet he had a sentimental weakness for them and would consent to tighten their reins and sweep the whip above their heads. The horses did settle, and trotted on.
Their hooves fell muffled on the snow-packed road, and the sleigh's runners whisked. The tops of the trees drifted between us and the sliver of moon. The night, except for the wind sailing past, lay dead still, and I thought then that only I and the horses had heard the howl, until Pantkin, the fat merchant across from me, pulled the cloak from around his mouth, as if untroubled by the cold, and chuckled, as if unafraid, and said in French, "How much farther?"
"Shut up," Gorlov answered, without unwrapping the flannel from his own mouth, "or we'll let you measure the distance on foot."
Pantkin looked away and covered again his frosted beard, and his nose, with the twin ice rivers set in the whiskers of his mustache from the nostrils to his mouth; he covered all but his eyes, staring at the passing trees. When he had joined us two days before in Riga, I had thought Gorlov was giving him the best seat -- back to the driver, screened against the wind -- but I learned quickly that a swirl invaded the open sleigh when the horses were at speed; Gorlov and I, our heads against the high curved backing, sat in a dead calm, while Pantkin watched the road vanishing behind us and faced the breeze. That morning I had offered to change seats with him. Gorlov had laughed; Pantkin had only stared at me. I was glad now that he had not accepted. I had had no feeling in my feet since sundown.
Another howl rose from the darkness. Pantkin glanced at me.
The horses lurched again and threw their hooves faster. This time Pyotr did not gather them back. The sleigh seemed to grow lighter; the runners sailed on the road. I said to Gorlov, "I don't know how much farther we must go to the next station, but -- "
"Twenty versts," Gorlov volunteered casually. Pantkin looked up into the treetops, as if he did not care.
I calculated the versts to be twelve miles. "I don't know your winter, or your wolves. But I know if he tries to run those horses the last twenty versts, he will kill them."
"They are Russian horses," Gorlov said. He did not uncover his mouth. He did not look at me.
When the master at the last station had shrugged and told us we could either stay or drive on with the horses we had used for eight hours already, because he had just turned out his last fresh pair, Gorlov had snatched him by the throat. The stationmaster had wept, and begged, and babbled something in Russian, repeating what I assumed to be the word for "early" -- we had driven hard since crossing the border. Gorlov had cast the man into a corner, shrugged, and gone outside to order Pyotr to trace the same horses back up. While I sat beside the fire, drinking hot beer, the stationmaster grinned, said something to Pantkin, and laughed uproariously. Pantkin had walked to me and said, "The stationmaster remarks that we may catch the other sleigh. We can pick up the horses then. He finds this very funny." Then Pantkin looked at me with the same expression that had been in his eyes ever since.
The horses ran on. I stomped my feet on the wooden floor of the sleigh and felt a comforting ache. I stomped three times, and a barking rose far off, as if in response. Pyotr gave the horses' backs the lash and let them out into full gallop.
A shrill moan came from somewhere -- the wood beside us, I thought; and then it seemed the cries were everywhere: before us, beneath us, over us. The whip whistled back above the sleigh, then cracked between the horses.
Gorlov sat up. He raised his head to the wind. I leaned forward with him, and when his face turned slowly toward me, I saw nothing of his black eyes except a glimmer -- not of snow, but of something hot.
Pyotr pulled back on the reins, and the sleigh stopped.
At first the noise danced -- cacophonous barks and growls from a legion of demons, as if someplace distant yet far too close to the earth had opened a fissure to hell. But as the breeze of our motion died, no longer twisting around us the sound of the passing plains, Gorlov and I stood, raising our heads into that troubled calm, and I said, "Not behind."
"No," Gorlov said. "Before."
A tallow lantern hung on either side of the driver's perch. Gorlov stepped up onto the seat beside Pantkin, unslung one of the lamps, and held it aloft.
Pyotr clucked, and the horses shambled forward. Gorlov steadied himself with his free hand, and the merchant slid into the middle of the seat as I stepped up into the corner opposite Gorlov and peered into the darkness of the road beyond. The gelding on the left jerked his snout into the shoulder of the bay mare, and she danced sideways. Pyotr tugged the left lead and urged them forward again. They went, slowly.
The mad voices grew louder, more numerous. Then they stopped. The horses halted. Gorlov raised the lantern higher and leaned forward into the night.
Circles of fire glowed ahead of us, a hundred pairs, all turned in our direction, all unblinking and still. Eyes.
A pistol boomed beside me, and the eye fires scattered, flowing across the drifts and through the ranks of fir trees. I turned and noted where beneath his cloak Gorlov replaced the pistol that I had not known he carried.
The report of the shot soaked into the hollow quiet, as if the whole dark world were an empty cathedral, and the black powder had shouted Death! -- for all around the trees and snow and the black clouds with the moonlit edges expelled the last breath of life, and held still.
"Yezdi," Gorlov whispered. The horses obeyed, feeling through the reins the wish in Pyotr's hands. Now we could hear the snow crush beneath each descent of hoof.
We came upon the rear of a sleigh; Pyotr, speaking in a reverent hush, guided the horses to the left and stopped when we were alongside the broken harnesses, where the other horses should have been standing. Pyotr lifted the lantern, the one on the right side, and I stepped out into the snow. Gorlov's boots banged across the floor behind me and crunched down at my side.
I cannot say I had any thought when seeing the clustered skeletons; in the way that I was speechless, I was thoughtless as well. The harness tracings grappled at the horses' bones and held them clustered, when no muscle or even gristle existed anymore to bind them into shape. The tongues of the sleigh led up to the box, and beyond that to the empty compartment. I knew there had been drivers, passengers, but somehow did not think of them; I realized, without reasoning, that some must have tried to run and had, like the horses, been pulled down. Others had been torn from the seats where they were clinging, stiffened already by cold and fear. Scraps clung everywhere -- clothes ripped and even chewed apart in frenzy. But most of all there was blood, frozen in red clouds in the snow and churned up by paws scrambling to brace for a larger bite. I cannot say I wondered then at the number and strength and hunger of the wolves that could pull down a team of horses in full flight and strip their bones so quickly; I cannot say I calculated. But suddenly I felt no cold at all, no fatigue, no darkness. I felt the great still nothingness of the Russian night.
We stared, all of us, even Pyotr's horses. And then a cry rent that silence, a shrill howl sharp on the air, and we were grabbing at the sides of the sleigh as Pyotr cracked the whip and the horses bit their hooves into the snow and staggered back onto the road, and we were flying.
I was sure there was nothing in heaven or hell that could catch us, but the clouds still followed us, lazily, as if we did not move, and the cries -- of many voices -- rose up behind.
Pyotr swung his whip; the crack was not in the open air, but against the back of the gelding. Gorlov sat very still in his corner, I sat in mine.
The merchant looked from one of us to the other. To me he said, "There are wolves in the streets of St. Petersburg."
"On two legs, or four?" I said. The merchant stared, then threw back his head and cackled. Gorlov snapped his gaze to the seat beside the merchant -- toward but not at him -- and I understood Gorlov's feeling, that if he were to look at Pantkin too closely, his own fear would make him want to snuff out the spark of panic already alight on the merchant's face.
The cries were drawing closer.
We sat, all of us still except for Pyotr, who leaned so far over the reins that we could see only his rounded back and not his head.
The barks were snarling, wet. Behind us. Almost beside us. I felt them at my shoulder. I looked into the merchant's eyes. They were wide, frozen open, staring straight at the road behind.
I threw off the robes, baring the uniform of the Sixth Prussian Light Horse, and ripped the saber from its scabbard. The sound of sharp steel ringing into the open air had always honed my fear, so that I had the teeth to fight, and thus the sound thrilled me now. Gorlov rose beside me, delved beneath his robes, and fumbled to reload a charge of ball into his weapon. I looked at Pantkin, tore open the bag I had carried beneath the seat, and withdrew a dagger.
"Take it!" I screamed in English. Then I yelled again in French. He stared at me, and I wanted to kill him. Fear is the fuel of fight, but panic is its poison, and when I saw it on Pantkin I turned away, desperate not to look at him again.
The sleigh flew so smoothly that the noise outside became unreal. But as I leaned out I saw a wolf gathering his legs and stretching them forward, leaping through the snow beside us, closing on the bay mare's withers. I held hard with my left hand, stretched my right, and cleaved him through the skull. He fell tumbling, spurting; the racing horde behind us flowed around his scattering form and chased on.
Gorlov swung his pistol over the back of the sleigh and fired into another bundle of screaming gray fur. The ball tore a forepaw off the wolf, and yet he did not cease running, sliding only for an instant on his snout through the snow, then scrambling forward on three legs and a shortened stump, still running but receding into the pack.
I leaned again from the side of the sleigh and began to hack.
Then there were no beasts close enough for me to reach, and the horde began to fall back. I raised my saber and shook it in the air, saw the blood frozen on the bare blade, and stared at the still-howling wolves. I looked forward. My triumph vanished. We had gained a long downslope that gave the horses speed; but now the road loomed ahead with a corresponding half mile of gentle climb.
At the bottom of the grade, the runners of the sleigh shuddered through deeper drifts of snow, and the horses' heads plunged and bobbed, and the brave animals bore on. Behind us, our pursuers howled with new lust.
I stood facing forward now, hearing the baying but looking no more, watching only the rippling backs of the mare and the gelding as they sprayed steaming lather against Pyotr's knotted form. He cracked the whip -- no more into their flesh, but in the air above them, to tell them that they had done their duty, but more than duty was required.
I looked toward heaven -- a habit I thought I had given up -- and we seemed to have stopped beneath the glory of the stars; yet the wind still rushed into my face, and the icy lashes of my eyes clung in their sweating sockets. The top of the rise came slowly nearer, and the horses gained it, staggered, and galloped on.
Before us, glowing with the blue opalescence of snow beneath stars, lay an endless flat plain.
Gorlov stood beside me, staring ahead. I do not remember looking at him; but I recall the realization, coming to me with absolute certainty, that the next few moments upon that plain would tell us whether we would live or die -- and that Gorlov, a man of battle, knew it, too.
The wolves poured over the rise behind us. I did not have to turn to look at them; I could hear them. And I could hear them gaining.
I did look at Gorlov then. He was staring at the bareness before us. And then he looked at the merchant.
Pantkin had not moved since I offered him the dagger, and had remained with his robes pulled tightly about him. I thought perhaps he had died that way, and frozen. But as Gorlov continued to stare at him, Pantkin's eyes quivered upward.
A sound came from within the merchant -- not from his lips, but rather like a screeching inside his head. When Gorlov grabbed at him he did not move, yet the sound from within the merchant grew louder and more shrill, and when Gorlov lifted him the merchant's arms stayed clutched to his body, his knees drawn up and rigid, as if he were still sitting, though Gorlov hoisted him high in the air, and with one full motion threw him out the back of the sleigh.
In the shadowy vista behind us, the body pitched along the road into the shrieking pack -- and the wolves swarmed about it, gnashing teeth into it and one another, pawing chunks of snow into the air.
And we sailed on, as away from a dream.
Pyotr cracked the whip no more and did not snap the reins, but let the horses run, knowing there was yet no real safety on the open plain, and that if he should allow the team to withdraw too soon from the frenzy of the first flight, there would be no hope of inspiring them again for a second. We bore swiftly across the powdered tract, then twisted through a section of wood, curling down at last upon what back in Virginia I would have called a hollow -- an open depression of ground, where stood a hovel of notched logs encircled by a broken fence. A lantern shone beside its door, and an inner fire cast orange light upon the paper of its windows. The horses wobbled through another patch of drifted snow, clattered upon the bridge crossing a frozen stream, slowed of their own accord, and halted beside the lantern.
Pyotr sprang from his box, pounded with his hands -- frozen to clubs within his mittens -- against the latch of the shed doors, and finally threw them wide. Just then the door of the main house opened, and a fat man with hair growing from his chin, nostrils, and inner ears -- but none from his head -- appeared. He gripped a blanket about himself, and clearly had retired to his bed with the blissful assurance that anyone traveling that night was already dead; he yawned, probed with his tongue around his foul teeth, and turned back inside, leaving the door ajar.
I leapt down into the snow and barely caught myself from falling when my knees gave way. I was weak with the urge to regurgitate, though my stomach was empty. Gorlov gazed across the broken fence and snowy pasture, stretched as though he had been sleeping, and stepped down. Pyotr instantly tugged the horses toward the door he had opened for them.
I retrieved my bag from beneath the seat before the sleigh should slide away. "Well," I said in French to Gorlov, "my feet feel as if they shall kill me, so I suppose I will not lose them tonight."
"No, not tonight," Gorlov said. "Tomorrow."
Still feeling the urge to vomit, and challenged by Gorlov's bravado, I said, "You pledged to see me through to St. Petersburg safely. If I lose a toe, then I swear you'll lose a finger. If I a foot, then you a hand."
Gorlov withdrew from beneath the seat his own bag and that of the late merchant Pantkin. "What need has a cavalryman of feet?" He shrugged.
I was formulating some rejoinder as we walked toward the open door when something in Pyotr's voice stopped me. The sleigh had not yet moved; he was speaking to the horses in words I did not know, yet I heard the begging there. Bracing his short bandy legs, reaching up with his hands on the harness, he gazed at the bay mare, sang to her, tugged at her rein. The mare did not resist, she simply did not respond. Then her left foreleg gave way. She stumbled against the gelding, who pitched in his traces beside her and cried out, then she swayed back the other way, curved her neck around as if to bite at her back, and fell dead.
Pyotr, still clinging to the leather of her collar, sagged into the snow; the gelding, pulled down in his own harness, struggled and kicked. I ran to the gelding, freed his traces, and trotted him into the barn. He pranced gladly to leave the dead mare, and if I had had Gorlov's pistol in my hand, I might have shot him; compared with hers, his chest was clean of froth and chafing. She had pulled us through.
And now we pulled her. With ropes around her neck and forehooves we tugged her into the barn, leaving no bait for the wolves. The stationmaster, despairing of ever getting any rest in this perpetual winter night, threw down his rope and trudged back into the lodge as soon as we reached the straw. Gorlov at least stood with me for a moment. "See?" he said, looking down at the carcass of the mare, already stiffening with cold. "A Russian horse. She dies only when her task is done." Then he, too, dropped his rope and walked out of the barn.
"Tankoo, Myaster!" Pyotr said, in the few words of English he knew. "Morrow -- go, go!" He sat down at the mare's head, and began to loosen the nooses from her.
"Yes, Pyotr," I said. "Thank you."
I wanted to put my hand upon Pyotr's head, but instead I patted the mare's. It served as well. When I walked from the barn, Pyotr was holding the mare's head in his lap, and was weeping.
Copyright © 2004 by Randall Wallace