THE LORD OF THE FOREST
Ural Mountains, Russia: 1825
As the last rays of sunlight streamed through the trees, the Lord of the Forest ran, searching for any sign of a disturbance in the woods. His strides were powerful, but his footsteps silent. His boots, woven from wild reeds and stems, made no noise across the snowy forest floor. Knowledge made him soundless. He knew which plants would soften his steps. He knew how to blend into the forest. To the naked eye, he of human form and woodland spirit could become invisible. It was old magic, but teachable magic, so he guarded his secrets well, sharing them only with those he deemed worthy.
The Lord of the Forest watched over nature like a father would a child. He was its keeper: That was his nature. Every plant's characteristics and uses rested safely in his memory. Those that were nameless, he named, and those that grew carelessly, he cared for. His was an earned title, for he cared for plants day and night. The work left bits of shrubs stuck in his long hair and beard, both of which had taken a greenish tone. It made his green cape dirty from swishing against the earth. Even in winter, the scent of pollen would ever cling to his skin. Such was the result of a lifetime spent under the canopy of trees.
Seeing a trail of trampled bramble, the man halted, and his green eyes turned fiery. He hated nothing more than the destruction of nature, and though these were the tracks of two humans, he knew there were creatures much more sinister than men in the dark parts of the forest. He advanced with caution. Blood, that ancient warning, lay splattered on the ground every few feet. Beads of it dripped from the tendrils of plants, or were smeared on frozen tree trunks. Wise to heed the warning, his fingertips brushed the handle of his weapon, a whip made of vines: One lash would break skin; his enemy's bloodstream would be poisoned with toxic weeds from the far corners of the world.
The blood trail and brush grew thicker. The Lord of the Forest was close. His bones knew it. Creeping around olden oaks, he stole a look into a clearing at the center of the thicket. No one was standing up at least, but were they crouched to attack? Scowling, he pulled out his whip and stalked forward. As he neared the center, he caught a clear view of the forest floor. His heart splintered in his chest. There, coddled in cold snow, was a pale, hooded woman, a still newborn babe in her arms.
Ever after, the Lord of the Forest regretted not walking away. He should have turned his back and been done with it, but he lingered. Old feelings rose up in him that had not been felt for an eternity. Some part of his heart held him there. He looked down at the woman curiously. She was beautiful, but was she sleeping, unconscious, or dead? It had been a long time since he had checked for signs of life in a human. For a plant, he had to but scratch a stem and find green, the color of life. A woman was different. She needed air, but his hand felt no warm breath. Her veins needed to pump blood, but he found no pulse. Instead a blue hue spread across her skin, turning it icy. Her limbs were stiff, her blue eyes glassy and forever distant. Yes, she was gone, he decided. But what of the babe?
Something snarled behind him. The Lord of the Forest turned his head. At the brink of the clearing crouched a shadowy gray-white wolf. He didn't fear or hate the beast. They shared a mutual respect for the forest. It didn't trample and snap plants as this woman did, though it was guilty of following her blood trail. Its kind could smell death from versts away. Soon there would be many. Perhaps that was why one set of footprints led away from this woman. Her companion had abandoned her, and if he left also, the creatures would surely devour the woman, and the child, too.
Against every commandment written into his core, he bent down and scooped the baby up into his arms. His business was rescuing plants, animals even, but not people. He had never cared for a child, nor did he want to learn …
The blanketed newborn was nearly dead. Its eyes were almost frozen shut, and its skin was cold. How long had it been lying still in the night air?
After another glance at the woman, he made a decision: It would be the river. Humans, like plants, were meant to return to the ground, but with wolves approaching, he could at least cast the woman and child into the water to save their bodies from gnashing teeth. So with the babe cocooned in one arm, he reached down with his other to sling the woman over his shoulder. Yet as he grasped her hand, he felt a piece of cloth. Curious again, he pulled it from her grip and let it fall open in his flat hand. Written on it, in blood, was one word—a name—Romulus.
He stared from the fabric to the babe, and back again. It had a name, the most ancient magic of all. In that moment, he knew he would not let the child drown. It was a he; he was Romulus, the boy of the forest. As the night descended, the Lord of the Forest made his way to the moonlit riverbank with the woman over his shoulder, the baby cradled in his arm, and the piece of cloth folded in his pocket. The ghostly wolf followed from a distance.
Fourteen Years Later … 1839
On a drizzly afternoon, a serf boy named Viktor jogged down Prospekt Street with a pocket of jingling coins. The cobblestone avenue was slippery underfoot, and the air was chilling, but Viktor didn't mind. He enjoyed visiting the heart of Aryk, even if it was just to buy loaves of bread.
As he often did, Viktor meandered through the endless streets until a shop sign caught his eye. This time it was "The Pushnoy Pastry Shop." Making his way over to the pink painted storefront, his eyes ate up the elaborate display of pies and tarts in the window. His stomach growled as the glazed cakes pulled his nose closer and closer to the glass.
Viktor recoiled in shock as something hit the window right where his nose had been pressed. He blinked away stars and looked up to see a heavy-set lady smirking from the other side of the window. Women in fur coats laughed while she knocked a giant ring against the glass. Her pudgy hand waved good-bye.
Stoppering a nosebleed, Viktor sprinted blindly away from the pastry shop, flushed from embarrassment. Yet no sooner had he begun to run than he knocked into a richly dressed group of men. They were stumbling out of a brick building with a golden sign reading "Royal Spirits Tavern." The leader of the group snarled and swung his silver cane. Viktor ducked the blow and hurried off into the crowd. Nobles, he cursed. His mother always warned him to stay out of their way, and it was easy to do so near his home in the peasant territories of Aryk, but Prospekt Street was swarming with the upper class. The shops drew in nobles like moths to a light.
The attractiveness of Viktor's freedom was beginning to wear off by the time he passed Barkov's Corner. His own shabby boots had come from the secondhand serf shop, and now water was leaking through them, chilling his feet and making his whole body cold. The rain picked up; the wind howled. Pulling his wool hat tighter over his short brown hair, Viktor remembered the real reason his mother had let him go to Prospekt Street alone: They were out of bread. Grandpap couldn't go out in the rain, his father was busy working in the mines, and his mother was working in the textile mill. Some freedom, Viktor thought, kicking a puddle. He sighed and jogged toward Daily Bread, the bakery as old as Aryk itself. At least the shop would get him out of the rain, and it did have warm brick ovens and a fresh aroma …
As the bakery came into view, movement out of the corner of his eye distracted Viktor. Far in the distance, it looked like people were congregating in Town Square. He paused. Youths weren't allowed at most meetings, but this was a chance to taste real freedom.
Without looking back, Viktor jogged toward Town Square, which was located at the west end of Prospekt Street. The Square served as the final boundary of the civilized world. Past it, a large green plain stretched all the way to the great forest that surrounded the entire town of Aryk. Town Square also served as the main venue for gatherings and performances. A large elevated wooden stage had been built in the middle of the cobblestone area, and it was perfect for speakers or shows. Viktor had seen the stage and courtyard when it was empty, but today it was packed, and so was the area around it. He did his best to weave in between laughing nobles, weepy serfs, and dirty-faced peasants without attracting too much attention to himself. It was odd, for even though it was working hours, many miners were present in the crowd. Viktor wondered if his father was included in their numbers. No doubt he would disapprove of his son sneaking into a town event. Still, a crowd this large meant something important was happening.
Viktor eyed the Square. He wouldn't be able to see the stage unless he moved closer. Unfortunately guards were posted all along the perimeter of the area. Besides maintaining the peace, they would have strict orders from Master Molotov to keep women and children away from the proceedings.
Don't be a coward after you've come this far, Viktor told himself, scanning down the border. He needed a means of getting in, but lying wouldn't work. When he lied, his old stutter came back, which shamed him as much as the lie itself. A much simpler solution popped into his head. Taking out a kopek, he silently swore to eat only half portions this week. This was his family's money, and he wouldn't make them suffer for his foolishness. But going hungry was worth being able to say he'd snuck into a Town Square meeting.
A dull-looking guard at the corner of the Square's perimeter was doing more storm watching than crowd watching. There were guards on either side of the man, but one was dealing with a drunken beggar, and the other was engaged in a conversation with a merchant. Moving closer to the unbothered guard, Viktor took one last remorseful glance at the kopek. Then he flicked it forward into the air. It landed with a clink, and the guard watched it roll a few meters forward. His greedy eyes turned larger than kopeks as he glanced both ways at his occupied comrades. With a gulp, the guard broke the most basic rules of his training and scuttled over to grab the coin.
It was all Viktor needed. He slipped past the perimeter without the slightest hiccup. He was young, but already he knew what men were distracted by. The Square was so packed that none of the adults seemed to notice Viktor. He was able to squeeze through small gaps and find a spot with a good view of the stage. Around him, people were busy whispering to one another. Conversations died off as a large man in decorative military dress strode across the stage. The heavy gray uniform could not hide the man's muscles, and a thick black-brown beard only made him look stronger. Behind him, a long line of guards stood motionless against the backdrop of a gloomy sky.
A short man next to Viktor nudged his friend. "I told you, that's him—Captain Ulfrik. See his epaulettes?" he hissed, gesturing at the metal ornaments on his shoulder. "Molotov's made him head guard."
Everything about the officer was polished—from his gold shoulder tassels to his black leather boots. His gloved hand held a thick leash, and when Viktor saw the creature it attached to, his heart leapt into his throat. The beast was ferocious. Its head was gigantic, its chest as big as a barrel. As if it needed more volume, the great animal was shielded in thick black-and-tan fur and had a bushy curled tail.
"Is that a dog?" Viktor murmured to himself.
"Caucasian mountain dog," answered the short man to his side. "The captain calls it Major Canis. Why the blast would he give his dog a higher rank than himself?"
"I don't know …" Viktor muttered, glancing at the man who was obviously fond of gossip.
Enjoying the attention, the man continued. "Wicked dogs, those. They'll never stop a charge once they start. I hear the brutes guard the worst prisons in Russia. The captain imported his when it was just a pup—all the way from Armenia. Armenia … Can you imagine such a distance?"
"Not really," Viktor answered, having absolutely no idea where Armenia was.
The trader shot him a skeptical look and did a double take. "Hey, what are you doing here anyway? You're too young to be here. Who let you in?"
"Oh, I'm meeting my father," Viktor said, slipping away.
He didn't hear anyone trying to follow him, and Captain Ulfrik had begun to speak, which diverted everyone's attention. He safely found a new spot where he could watch the stage.
"'GOD IS FAR UP HIGH, THE TSAR IS FAR AWAY!'" boomed Captain Ulfrik's deep voice. "Isn't that how the saying goes?"
The crowd was silent.
Ordering Major Canis to stay put, Captain Ulfrik paced slowly across the front edge of the stage. "Here we are again, and I cannot say I am surprised. Some people will never learn. If it is written, it is not read. If it is read, it is not understood. And if it is understood, then in the wrong way. THERE IS NO LAW FOR FOOLS!"
Major Canis let out a vicious bark at the sound of his master's shout, causing everyone to flinch. The dog's long hair stood up on its back, silhouetted against the dim sky.
Captain Ulfrik silenced the beast with a snap of his fingers. He peered out into the crowd. "BRING OUT THE PRISONER!"
Viktor frowned. A prisoner? Was this a criminal trial, not a meeting? An eerie sensation crept over him as he glanced around at faces in the crowd. Most of the men looked haunted and leaden, as though they feared what was to come. Others wore satisfied smirks; some, murderous scowls.
Viktor watched in terror as two guards escorted the prisoner onto the stage. The man's hands and legs were chained, and he wore the grimy clothing of a criminal. Greasy hair hung over his face, and under it, his skin was waxy and pale, looking too thin and tight over his features. Who knew how long he had sat in a dark cell. The guards led the prisoner to a wooden structure. Viktor studied the beams—and then it dawned on him. These were gallows. He had heard about them before, but he had never seen them set up. Why were they here now? They were only used for hangings. This wasn't … It couldn't be a …
People broke into frantic whispers as the man was forced to face the crowd. His eyes were sunken deep into his face; they looked off in the distance. As a guard fit a noose over his neck, the man's shirt waved partially open, revealing a chest covered with scars from cuts and burns. Hisses ran through the crowd. The guards edged forward on the stage.
"When will this end?" Captain Ulfrik shouted. "When will the cards finally be forgotten? Some of you have forgotten. I applaud you. Yet there are rumors still. Fools cling to their precious cards, believing in false hope. Let this hanging dash those foolish thoughts. Let it be a warning. But how many more men will need to be hanged? How many more cards will we find lurking in the pockets of fools? It has been one year since our last hanging. Two before that. Another before that. When will this folly end? How many more men will die?"
Captain Ulfrik pointed at the prisoner. "This man is guilty of breaking the first law of Aryk. A playing card was found in his possession. He knew the law, he broke the law, and he shall receive the punishment of the law: Death by hanging!"
Viktor's jaw dropped. He wiped the rain away from his face. What had the captain said? The man had a playing card? Viktor knew playing cards were illegal, but surely the punishment wasn't death. People didn't die for this. This was a mistake or some type of twisted performance. This man wouldn't be hanged … he couldn't be hanged.
"God marks the crook, and for this man, the mark is a two of spades! A pathetic card, but a Kamdrac all the same!"
A murmur of disagreement ran through the crowd. Captain Ulfrik pulled the playing card out of the prisoner's pants pocket and held it up for all to see. With a snarl, he yanked a dagger out of his boot and pinned the card against the side of the gallows. Major Canis growled and hunched his gigantic front shoulders down as if he would leap into the crowd. Lightning struck in the forest beyond, and thunder rolled over the plain toward them.
"Who can object to such evidence?" the captain called.
Voices quieted. The people stood like statues. Viktor felt his heart beating against his ribcage. His nerves were on fire and refused to be doused by the oncoming rain. His mind told him this was all a dream. This couldn't be happening.
"Who can object to such clear proof?" bellowed the captain.
The silence rang in Viktor's ears. It was deafening. He felt weight push down his shoulders. Raindrops dug into his back. The stage seemed blurry. What could he do? What could anyone do? Everything was happening so fast!
"Alea iacta est!" Captain Ulfrik bellowed, yanking the lever of the trapdoor.
Lightning cracked, illuminating the sky in a brilliant flash.
"STOP!" Viktor screamed, but it was too late.
The prisoner's eyes flashed to Viktor, and a smile broke across his face for a sliver of time, but he was already falling through the stage. It seemed like a long time before the rope went taut and he jerked to a violent stop. Then the prisoner dangled, twitching involuntarily. Seconds later, he was dead.
Viktor blinked away tears and rain, burying his face in his jacket sleeve. Just like that, a man had died! The entire crowd had watched it happen … and no one had said anything! They just watched him fall. What did he die for—a playing card? He died for having a piece of paper? Nobody came to his aid. Viktor had been the only one to speak up. He alone had yelled out.
I yelled out, Viktor told himself. I yelled out! They must have heard me.
He looked up and felt a wave of fear. A sea of stormy faces was staring at him. Up on stage, Captain Ulfrik was looking right at him. His teeth were gritted together in anger, the hanged man swinging behind him. Everything was deathly quiet.
"Seize that child!" the captain roared.
Without thinking, Viktor tore off through the crowd, desperate to escape his surroundings. Guards along the border of the Square were closing in on the area, but Viktor managed to fight his way to the perimeter of the condensed crowd. Spotting a gap in between guards, he broke into open space and shot off toward Prospekt Street. Behind him, Captain Ulfrik bellowed orders at his oblivious guards.
When Viktor reached the heart of Aryk, he hid in an alleyway and waited, yet he soon lamented the choice. Within a matter of minutes, the world of Prospekt Street had transformed into a place of nightmares. New figures, who were neither guards nor soldiers, prowled the streets. They wore colored robes and had animalistic masks over their faces—masks Viktor recognized from the masquerade balls that nobles attended. Some masks had long beaks that pointed down at cowering citizens. Others had fangs or were of Venetian design, decorated with leaves and feathers. A few figures wore white jester masks and had on striped hats. Whatever the outfit, each invader caused chaos, assaulting serfs and tradesmen, tearing their pockets out or holding them captive while comrades patted down their clothing.
Viktor could only assume they were searching for playing cards, and the ones that ran by his hiding spot could only be looking for one other thing: Him. Yes, he was sure that the hanging was not meant for his eyes. What he had seen, he had to keep secret. Who knew what the punishment might be for his actions.
As he glimpsed three invaders with fox, rabbit, and owl masks beat a miner into submission, he couldn't stand to stay put any longer. With a swollen heart, he dashed into an abandoned side street and ran through a series of twisting alleys. The cold made his head ache. His brain felt hazy. He put as much distance between himself and the masked figures as he could, and once he felt faint, he ran into another adjacent alley and slunk down against one of the gray brick walls.
Thankful for a moment of rest—and for the rain finally letting up—he tilted his head back, trying to gain control of his breathing. The moon was now visible in the dusky sky. He sat there staring at the orb, because each time he shut his eyes, an image of the hanged man burned in his mind. He tried to close off his fearful thoughts, but it was no use. He felt like nothing he'd ever see would shock him more than the strange and horrific death sentence he had witnessed, and he might have been right about that, had he not glanced down at what was written on the alleyway wall in front of him.
Timeworn graffiti covered the gray brick alley, but these were no ordinary markings. This was Brass Art, and Viktor knew its name because every child in Aryk knew its name. They whispered it, used it in their stories, and made up rumors about its history. And who wouldn't? Nicknamed for its shiny, bold, and brave characteristics, the Brass Art covered the town of Aryk and made every wall into a mystery. It could be found in side streets and scribbled on signs and etched into doors, but here, in this alley, was the masterpiece of the entire town. And just like all Brass Art, each drawing and message was centered on one concept: Playing cards.
A mix of fear and wonder lifted Viktor to his feet. Could this be real? To make sure he wasn't dreaming, he reached out and touched the wall slick with raindrops. Yes, it was solid, and there was far too much detail for this to be a figment of his imagination. For everywhere he looked, drawings of spades and diamonds and hearts and clubs gleamed in the moonlight. Secret messages about playing cards glinted all along the sides of the alley, which narrowed as he walked slowly through it. Somehow he knew that the alleys nearby were covered, too. He also knew, like everyone in Aryk knew, that the Brass Art was far more than simple playing-card graffiti. In truth, it was a complex, buried mystery revolving around the history of playing cards in Aryk.
Viktor glanced both ways. How long did he have before one of the masked raiders stumbled down the alley? A minute? An hour? He should leave now. That was the rational thing to do … but half of him could not help but wonder what he might find if he stayed. After all, wasn't this graffiti the reason cards were banned in Aryk? Couldn't it explain why that prisoner gasped for his last breath while dangling from a rope?
Viktor winced at the image and refocused on the walls. He took a deep breath and started reading the messages in the moonlight. "Show your true colors," read one scribble with an arrow through the middle. A black spade above the arrow mirrored a red heart below it. "The cards alone know the way to their house," read another message. "Keep cards closer than your medals," and "Hail King David," other messages read. "Diamonds are formed under pressure." "Keep the card up your sleeve." "Cards mean nothing if not the right maker." "All men are clubbed by Alexander the Great." On and on the writing went, seemingly without end. It was so easy to become entranced … to lose yourself in the bottomless riddles …
Time passed—but how much, Viktor could not say. There were so many phrases and illustrations to sort though, and as he read, he felt the secret draw closer and closer, but it was as if an invisible barrier would never let him actually reach it. In vain, he read another message. It said, "Shadow the vines," and it was next to the drawing of a winding vine that ran along cracks in the wall. Viktor traced his finger along the stalk, which twisted into a stem and ran downward. He crouched down to make out the faded writing near the base, but the noise of something shifting behind him made him freeze. A shiver of terror ran down his spine. Slowly he craned his neck to see what rested on his shoulder: A bony hand with long fingernails.