Grat's deep-set eyes swept the field. The serfs had piled the grain even higher than usual. Grat's wide-knuckled fingers caressed the man-harness, not yet fully warmed by the pale sun. Chovek, standing beside Grat, softly swore about the quantity of grain they were to carry.
Before their transformation, neither Grat nor Chovek would have had their layers of callus about their necks. The callus, intended to shield them from the swords of the Nyemyets — the cold-eyed, flaxen-haired strangers from beyond the forest — now protected them from the crushing weights they carried. Before the transformation, neither had possessed the sensitive snouts they now did. Why, a single whiff told Grat that the lentils Chovek had eaten for his morning meal had been within two days of spoiling. Even more importantly, three of what Grat and Chovek had been could not have lifted the buckets of grain that balanced on their massive shoulders.
"You think anyone appreciates our labors?" Chovek asked. During the war, a halberd had missed Chovek's vulnerable stomach by a hand's breadth and caught his bristly chest. Chovek's thick, black fur had absorbed the force, but what grew back had come in as a silvery stripe.
A nightbird, unaccountably active during the day, called. "Who-cares-for-you? Who-cares-for-you?" it echoed.
Grat gave a sour chuckle. "The village of Gorsk doesn't give a dram of weasel snot for us. But the grain we bring will become bread. Part of that that will be fermented into kvass to drink. Gorsk cares a great deal about what is served in the tavern." The tavern, of course, had no name. Since Gorsk had but one tavern, none was needed.
Chovek grunted his displeasure. He and Grat hefted the grain onto their shoulders, and trudged toward the tavern, past the war-burned ruins of the stable where Grat had once worked.
Seeing the stable summoned unbidden memories for Grat. Once, Grat had been called Ivan Glebovich. Once, he had expected to make his way by shoeing horses, as had his father and his father's father. Once, Grat had prayed to the gods of his people. That was long ago, in a world that no longer existed. Grat, like Chovek, had had undergone the ritual that made him able to match the Nyemyets' Berserkmen, their equally modified warriors. Grat had, in a word, become a War-Pig.
Human names were forbidden to War-Pigs. War-Pigs were forbidden to work in trades other than manual labor. War-Pigs were required to live apart from those they had given their all to protect. After all, how could War-Pigs be trusted? Had, Grat sarcastically asked himself, the gods not transformed them into something more beast than human?
Grat glanced down. Odd hoofprints marked the mud. Grat scratched himself with his left tusk, the right having broken off on the war's very last day. Sweaty horses had recently passed. No Gorskman had shoed these horses. Might a strange horseman have been what disturbed the nightbird?
"Look," Grat told Chovek. He motioned toward the hoofprints.
Chovek glanced down. "So?"
Grat sighed. Before surrendering his old life, Chovek had been a weaver. It was so easy for Grat to forget that his friend knew as much of horses as he did of the nobles' elaborate dinners.
Grat's eyes trailed from the oblivious Chovek to the tavern's open shutters, painted with images of bright red tools to indicate welcome for all. Fewer than five hundred paces separated the tavern's larch-trunk walls from the nearest hoofmarks.
Could the Nyemyets have returned? Grat shook his head. Nyemyet merchants occasionally came to buy furs. But no Nyemyet warrior had crossed the forest since their old king had poisoned himself to avoid capture (or died heroically defending the Nyemyets' capitol, depending on which side of the forest the tale's teller came from). That was so long ago that most thought the war only a yarn for cold, dark winter nights. Still, the marks resembled hoofprints of war-horses. What might that indicate, besides trouble?
The village elders — even the nobles — should know of the hoofprints. But would they hear a War-Pig's words? Grat wrinkled his snout in worry. He might have found an escape from his dilemma, had not Egor Eltsovich, the tavern's round-bodied, almost hairless owner, chosen that moment to appear. "Why are you dawdling?" Egor Eltsovich shouted. "When you do nothing, you take coins from my purse."
"We meant no harm," Chovek replied, ducking his head as though dodging a Nyemyet arrow. Chovek's shambling feet obliterated the hoofprints. Grat gritted his teeth, but remained silent.
"Do I not put a roof over your head?" Egor Eltsovich continued. His red face became even redder. Egor Eltsovich pointed to the triangular log buildings that were Grat and Chovek's meager shelters. "Do my unsold potages not provide your rations?" He gestured toward the kitchen behind the tavern, separated by a dozen paces so a fire might not spread. Egor Eltsovich glanced up at the sun, three hand-spans above the horizon. "Already, morning is half gone. Take the grain there, and be quick about it. You think Elena is a witch who can make bread by magic?"
At her name's mention, Elena Egorovna, the tavern owner's flame-haired daughter, appeared on the kitchen's porch. Her slender limbs were as perfectly proportioned as a forest larch. Even stained with smoke and grease, one look at Elena's delicate features made Grat's heart skip a beat. Why, Grat told himself, even covered with a kerchief, her flaming red hair surpassed the sun at the start of a perfect day. "Do not be too hard on them," she told Egor Eltsovich. "The granary is far, and they carry much."
Egor Eltsovich snorted and vanished back into the tavern. Grat and Chovek carried the grain to the kitchen and set it down on the porch.
Elena smiled at the War-Pigs. "Here," she whispered, slipping each a slice of freshly baked bread. "You have earned this."
Grat took the crust from her hand, watching her slip back into the kitchen. Chovek, not having Grat's patience, greedily chewed his bread. Grat cradled his in his hand, warmth seeping through his fingers and up his arm.
"Work to do!" Egor Eltsovich's demanding voice rang out. Grat, still cradling the bread, turned toward the tavern. Another day — of cleaning spills, of replacing the tavern floor rushes — had begun. Grat plodded toward the tavern, stepping aside for those who milled about its door. What choice was there? When War-Pig and full human quarreled, there was little doubt to whom the nobles listened.
Grat paused by the tavern door. Already, a half dozen old men, and a handful of younger ones, were there. Gray bearded Tbisil Ivanovich, his right leg lost to a Berserkman's bare-handed fury, stared into the fire-pit. Wrinkled Dmitri Vitalovich perched atop a barrel, playing absently with a wooden bear that danced on a paddle and softly whispering to himself. Dmitri Vitalovich rarely spoke aloud. Rumor had it that he once knew the secret words that call the dead from their tombs. If so, he kept the words to himself.
Grat turned from the older men. About a three-legged table sat a knot of men too young to remember the war. The perfect-featured, dark-haired Nikita Gregorovich dealt cards. The gaming markers said that Nikita Gregorovich had already claimed most of the others' money. An opened jug of linden wine sat on the gamblers' table. The wine's sharp odor pierced even the scents of the tavern's smoke, sweat, and the rushes that covered the floor.
Elena appeared with a wooden tray of bread. She placed it down, with a nod to Nikita Gregorovich. Nikita Gregorovich winked back, his lips twisting lasciviously. Elena Egorovna laughed and retreated, her eyes strangely locked on the forest.
Grat sighed and carefully placed the crust of bread that he held in his mouth. Despite being baked from coarse rye, it tasted like Grat imagined that the nobles' twice milled wheat bread, flavored with sugar from the deep south, must taste.
Chovek shook his head. "Grat, Grat," Chovek sighed. "She only has eyes for Nikita. Even if you wore the body you were born with, you are too old."
Grat opened his mouth to reply. Before he could, an arrow arched from the forest into Chovek's side, just above his vulnerable stomach. Chovek squealed. Grat turned. Something struck his forehead with the force an axe felling a larch.
Dazed, Grat stood in place, thinking that the sling-stone that stunned a War-Pig would have shattered an ordinary man's skull. Before he could complete the thought, a black-maned horse appeared, carrying a tall stranger who swung a sling above his head. The stranger's tight fitting blouse, as much as his piercing blue eyes and thin hair, marked him as Nyemyet. His posture, his proud thin face, his icy stare locked on some invisible vista — all declared him leader. Grat had seen too many Nyemyet war-chiefs to not recognize one on sight.
"My name is Aldus," the stranger shouted. He spoke clearly, with a light accent. "Aldus. Remember. You will tell your children's children of this day." He raised his sling hand. Dozens of Nyemyets boiled from the forest.
Two footmen, armed with iron-headed maces, charged Grat and Chovek. Their weapons arced into the War-Pigs' heads. Chovek squealed and went down. Grat, dazed, managed to stay on his feet. Around him, frightened people scattered. Dmitri Vitalovich, still muttering to himself, staggered out and was cut down by a sword-stroke. A piercing scream sounded. Elena! Grat tried to go to her. He was met with the sight of Aldus, the Nyemyets' leader, riding away with her slung across his horse like a sack of grain. Grat shouted her name. Then another mace struck him, and all was black.
When Grat regained consciousness, a half dozen bodies lay in a two-wheeled cart, shrouded and silent. Chovek stood ready to pull the cart to the burial house. Grat sat up.
The tavern had been looted. Egor Eltsovich stared into its shattered interior and trembled like a larch. Nikita Gregorovich and the other young men wandered about aimlessly.
Tbisil Ivanovich, gait more off-center than usual, lurched into view. "The Nyemyets have returned," he shouted. "Killed, robbed, and kidnapped. Are we sheaves of wheat before the storm of this 'Aldus'? Or are we the wind that blows him away?" He raised his frail arms in defiance. "Take back what is ours!"
Grat's eyes widened. He had never known that old Tbisil Ivanovich was made of such stern stuff. He would like to have served with him during the war. Grat turned to see how the people reacted.
"Well?" Tbisil Ivanovich shouted.
Nikita Gregorovich stumbled forward. His eyes still did not quite focus, but at least he now moved with purpose. "The Nyemyets have weapons. We have farm tools. Going after them would be suicide. They have war horses."
Grat rose to his feet. He did not intend to, but he did. "And you have a War-Pig." Grat cut his eyes at Chovek. Chovek had pulled the cart with the dead perhaps five paces. Chovek paused. He lowered the cart, still favoring his injured side. "Two War-Pigs," Chovek added.
The crowd stood silent. Nikita Gregorovich flushed. He glanced back toward the tavern, as though imagining Elena there. The he stepped forward. He no longer seemed dazed. "I will go," he shouted. His eyes swept the crowd. "Who else?" An embarrassed silence followed. "Very well," he said. He turned to away. "At least Gorsk contains one man."
Preparations were hastily made. An axe, better suited to forestry than fighting, and an old rusty, chain coif were found for Nikita Gregorovich. Grat, Chovek, and Nikita Gregorovich alone followed the trail through the forest.
The trio tracked the Nyemyets, Grat and Chovek's noses picking up the horses whenever the trail faded. Just when Grat had decided that Nikita Gregorovich could not possibly make any more noise as he stumbled through the forest, the sun reached the western horizon. "We are within Nyemyet territory?" Nikita Gregorovich, having declared himself leader, asked.
Grat shrugged. "The forest is the forest. Only madmen and outcasts claim this land of wild bears and forest ghosts." Grat glanced downward. Tiny bell-shaped flowers poked from the forest duff. The flowers were rare near Gorsk, but common in the west. "I suppose this land is more the Nyemyets' than ours."
"We camp in this clearing," Nikita Gregorovich declared. He turned to Grat and Chovek. "Gather wood for a fire."
"A fire will warn our quarry that someone follows," Grat sputtered.
"Night approaches," Nikita Gregorovich, eyes searching the forest. "There are wolves."
"Wolves avoid War-Pigs," Grat replied. "We frighten them."
Nikita Gregorovich pulled his tunic about himself as though the air were freezing chill. "You expect me to die of cold?"
Chovek elbowed Grat's side. "He is too young to understand war's hardship," he whispered.
Grat nodded in agreement. He did not expect Nikita Gregorovich to die of the cold. Grat expected Nikita Gregorovich — and possibly all of them — to die in a Nyemyet ambush. But Nikita Gregorovich was human, so there was little doubt about whose decisions held. Grat and Chovek turned to go.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Chovek turned to Grat. "He will get us all killed."
Chovek spat on the ground. "Elena Egorovna might be very grateful to her rescuer," Chovek told Grat. "Who knows what might happen?"
Grat froze. What Chovek implied could never happen ... never ... and yet ... what would happen if Grat rescued her? Would Nikita Gregorovich get the credit?
Grat had barely completed the thought before the breeze brought a scent that Grat had not encountered in years. Grat's heart filled his throat. He cut his eyes toward Chovek. Chovek's rigid stance said that he recognized it too.
"Return to the clearing," Grat whispered. "Protect Nikita Gregorovich." That was what duty demanded that Chovek do. Grat motioned toward the hills from which the scent came. "I will learn what I can."
Grat and Chovek set off, Chovek toward the clearing and Grat toward the scent. Nightbirds seemed to mock Grat's every step. Grat ignored them. A sliver of moon had just risen before Grat reached the first sign of human activity, a weathered log building.
Grat studied the building. The roofs that his people built ended in high, angular peaks. This building's was almost flat. Windows in Gorsk were spaced catch-as-catch-can, and were shuttered the moment the sun set, if not before. These windows were as perfectly proportioned as Elena Egorovna's features. And shutters? If the windows had any, they hung open.
The building was of Nyemyet construction. Grat's nose told him that Berserkmen occupied the structure. Grat could not only smell their inhuman sweat, but he could hear them speak in the Nyemyets' throaty language. One even sang a strange and haunting song, with others joining in ragged unison in every third line.
Grat frowned. During the war, Berserkmen sang of bloody death, if anything at all. Although he understood little, the song he now heard sounded more like a lament, bemoaning what could have been.
Driven by curiosity, Grat silently made his way to the building and peered in the open window.
The interior reminded Grat, more than anything, of the tavern back in Gorsk. Stoneware jugs covered split-log shelves pegged to the walls. A stone firepit belched greasy soot onto the ceiling. Barrels and crates served as tables and chairs.
The Berserkmen within were as tall as Grat. Bony ridges shadowed their brows. Their chests bulged. Their fingers curved into claws. But there was a fundamental difference between these Berserkmen and those that Grat remembered. During the war, Berserkmen had peered out at you with red wolves' eyes. These people's eyes contained more pale disillusionment than predatory desire.
Grat was about to leave when he heard a Bersekman speak the name 'Aldus'. Grat knew little of the Nyemyet language ... enough to make listening worthwhile, though.
Grat caught several phrases. 'Start another war' and 'Aldus, that young fool' appeared repeatedly. There were also mentions of 'doesn't know what he's doing', 'Aldus' foreign bitch', and 'camped by the river ford'. The last phrase made his efforts worthwhile. If Aldus camped by the ford, he could reach it before morning.
"Who-cares-for-you?" a nightbird called. Grat paid no attention. He turned around and headed back toward the clearing.
Grat found Nikita Gregorovich shivering beside a small fire. Nikita Gregorovich clutched his axe as though he were a drowning man and it a thrown rope. Chovek stood guard, tusks glistening in the firelight. Grat shared the news about Aldus' likely campground.
"You were a leader in the war. I only did as I was told," Chovek answered. "What do you think we should do?"
"We'll make for the river." Grat glanced at Nikita Gregorovich, imagining the noise the young man would make as he tramped through the forest. "When we are close, I will break off and look around. You and he," Grat said, nodding toward Nikita Gregorovich, "stay a bit behind, until we have a plan."
"But what do I do?" Chovek asked.
"I think we will only fight normal humans. Still, the Nyemyets will outnumber us at least five to one," Grat replied. He glanced at Nikita Gregorovich, as fragile appearing as a new-hatched may-fly. "Protect him, as best you can."
Chovek nodded. After a few moments of convincing Nikita Gregorovich that it was all his plan, the trio set off. By the time Grat broke off from the others, the pale moon hung directly overhead.
Just as the Berserkmen had said, Aldus' raiders camped by the ford. This far in western lands, Aldus had posted few guards. Since most of those he had posed were asleep, Grat easily slipped past. The raiders sat about campfires, drinking and gambling. Most tents were canvas lean-tos. One outshone the others as nobles' homes outshone the peasants' dwellings. Grat had no doubt that this was Aldus' tent.
A plan began to form. Grat could probably enter the camp without being caught. He could easily send the horses, corralled together between two ancient larches, running into the night. Many Nyemyets would go after them, if they didn't realize what had caused the horses' panic. He and Chovek could probably hold their own against the others. If Nikita Gregorovich could be persuaded that War-Pigs' fists were more effective weapons than his axe, he could wait until the right moment and make for Aldus' tent. If Elena were there .... Grat's hands clenched. If, if, if ... he needed something better.
Grat turned his brain over and over. Before he could construct a better plan, two figures emerged from Aldus' tent. One was Aldus. The other was Elena — and no captive, by the way she held Aldus' arm. Aldus shouted something that Grat didn't understand, then threw his arms around Elena and kissed her. She returned his passion.
Grat stood dumbfounded. Victims sometimes sided with their kidnappers ... after weeks, not hours, of captivity. Grat shook his head in sorrow. There was only one explanation. Elena Egorovna's responses to Nikita Gregorovich's attention had been simple flirtatiousness. The tracks near the tavern could only mean that Elena and her Nyemyet lover — for surely that is what Aldus was, given the Berserkmen's mention of 'Aldus' foreign bitch' — had planned the raid for some time.
Before Grat regained his composure, a shout sounded from the far side of the camp. Nikita Gregorovich, axe dripping with the blood of a Nyemyet guard, charged into camp. Behind him came a grim-looking Chovek.
"The idiot," Grat whispered. "So in love with Elena Egorovna that he didn't wait. Chovek followed orders to guard him."
Two Nyemyet raiders charged. Chovek stepped in front of Nikita Gregorovich. Chovek grabbed the two charging raiders. The angry squeal of the War-Pig emerged from his lips as he lifted them, one with each hand, and smashed their heads together like ripe melons. Already, Nyemyet slingers pelted Chovek with stones. So far, they bounced off his thick hide.
Grat heard a familiar voice — Elena. "Aldus," she shouted. "Their stomachs are their weak points."
Aldus nodded. He repeated the information in Nyemyet. Then he shouted something else. As far as Grat's understanding of the Nyemyet language let him understand, what Aldus said was, "Show the nobles that men — not Berserkmen — win battles."
So Aldus had no use for Berserkmen? Grat had not time to consider this new information. A raider with a leaf-bladed spear charged Chovek. Chovek tried to brush the spear aside but, reflexes dulled by years of inaction, missed. The spear sank into Chovek's gut. Squealing, Chovek charged up the spear's shaft. The terrorized spearman screamed, but did not release the weapon. Chovek's hands closed around his throat. The spearman and Chovek both fell.
Grat cursed. His duty was clear. He charged, screaming. Before he reached Nikita Gregorovich, a Nyemyet mace descended, splitting Nikita Gregorovich's head.
A dozen raiders were on Grat, swords stabbing at his midsection. Grat screamed in rage and snapped a raider's back. Something struck his stomach. Grat's world spun around. Then all was black.
When Grat woke, every portion of him ached. A ferocious thirst burned within him. The trackless forest surrounded him. Grat glanced at the darkened sky. Stars said that a day had passed, and that night had only recently fallen.
Grat sniffed for Chovek. Then he remembered Chovek impaling himself.
Why was he alive, Grat asked himself? Where were the Nyemyets? Grat guessed that he had fought his way free and then collapsed here. But he did not know what had happened. He only knew that Chovek, his only friend, was dead ... and that Elena Egorovna, the bright morning sun, was a traitor and a whore. Grat rose and began to walk. Since he did not know where he was, one direction was as good as another.
Grat wandered for some time. A nightbird landed on a tree, just above him. "Who-cares-for-you?" it called.
"Who indeed?" Grat asked himself. What point in returning to Gorsk, even if he could? What point in anything? Grat just wanted his pain to end.
Then the scent hit him. He had wandered to within a short distance of the Berserkmen. Grat smiled. A battered War-Pig against a dozen Berserkmen? What surer end for his pain?
After a few moments, Grat found the flat-roofed building. He stumbled to the door and announced himself with the War-Pig's furious squeal.
Instead of the angry charge he expected, the Berserkmen simply stared. Their faces contained no anger, no fear, no lust for combat — only emptiness.
A one-eyed Berserkman stood up and motioned Grat into the building. He spoke. His command of Grat's language was poor, but Grat thought he understood. "No one us want," the Berserkman sai. "Tired fight. You?"
Grat frowned. Had the Berserkman meant 'we are unwanted by our own people ... we are weary of fighting ... are you the same'? Grat cautiously entered the building. It was, indeed, much like the tavern back in Gorsk ... except for one crucial difference. Here, eyes looked at him with something other than disgust or pity.
A Berserkman offered Grat a mug of the Nyemyets' yellow, foaming drink and motioned toward an unoccupied barrel. Grat took the mug and sat down. Another Berserkman began a strange, haunting song. The more Grat listened, the more he liked it.
When other Berserkmen joined in the song, singing in an unsteady unison, Grat sang with them.
Grat tasted the Berserkmen's drink. It was not the old, familiar kvass. But it was not bad, he told himself. In fact, he could get used to it.