Transferring across from louisestanley.blog.com the story I posted a few weeks ago for the /r/fantasywriters writing challenge. It’s the prologue to my second book, Brother Wolf, set on Insula. This incident happens several years before the start of Ludlin, and explains why the Empire frowns on those with the ability to shapechange. Russian speakers will perhaps guess Medvedev’s totem animal — but please keep quiet and don’t spoil it for others!
Sergei Medvedev could see his three children, Lara, Foma and Mitya out of the window in the courtyard below, playing in the late spring evening, the sun low on the city’s horizon. The sun didn’t set until very late in the evening, so Medvedev could work late without having to light a lamp. Since the death of his wife Shura, Lara as the lady of the house now should really have been helping cook and clean, but she still wandered off to play too easily and forgetfully. If she was to go into service, Medvedev thought, he’d have to make sure she knew the basic household routine inside out; he’d have to start keeping her indoors.
Let them play, he thought. While they still have a chance.
He turned back to the pile of leather in front of him and began to cut out the new pair of shoes. The absence of his wife was still gnawing away; he wouldn’t deny that he had a temper on him of late. If he thought about it much, which he tried not to, he would have said that he missed Shura with sorrow that penetrated much of his current life. It didn’t affect his job, because he lost himself in his craft during the day, but he’d retreated into the house away from Lavrov and Petrov and the others. He wouldn’t take beer or vodka because he was afraid he’d drink too much.
Like most working men who lost their wives it was the day-to-day things that he missed. His shirts were never clean; his dinner was bland and tasteless, and even overcooked when Lara forgot to watch it. He was busy trying to make the shoes that kept the family fed, clothed and housed and needed someone else to keep an eye on the housework. He was proud of his work and was looking forward to the income from his dozy daughter’s first place as someone’s kitchenmaid. With one boy earning a factory wage and one boy helping him with his trade he could probably breath a bit easier and save towards Mitya’s premium, whilst Foma was apprenticed to him for nothing. He’d have to get better at cooking once his daughter left him or find another wife, but he could manage with her for now. Oleg Aksentiyev’s wife Vasilisa sent down her pelmeni once a week, and he always found a way to repay her using his own skills as a tailor and cobbler, and occasionally sent his daughter up to scrub their floors. Aksentiyev had two rooms and even a bath-tub, and was the only person in the entire building who still softened Medvedev’s anger with a few words of comfort and wisdom to lighten the gloom.
From outside came sudden shouts. Medvedev ran to the window to see his sons quarrelling with two of the other boys from another flat in the tenement building. It was just outside his window; they were on the ground floor. Foma was wrestling with little Anton Petrov and Mitya was trying to pull Tolik Shurichkin off him. Lara ran in to the room, anxious to warn her father about what was going on, but Medvedev was already rolling up his sleeves and telling her off for not coming in sooner to look at the pot, and that he couldn’t work and cook at the same time. The girl, not more than nine, scurried over to the range and looked in at the stew, while her angry father stormed out into the yard. The boys got into fights occasionally; both the elder Petrov and Shurichkin had told him off for not keeping a proper eye on his sons.
As a craftsman rather than a factory labourer he couldn’t manage everything at once; even if he sat facing his window he always had his eyes on his work. Other men could come home, have their dinner on the table and their wife smiling at them, and their children weren’t left to their own devices to get into scraps because their mothers were always out gossiping in the courtyard. It wasn’t easy for most of the men but they managed because their wives were there to handle it for them.
He gave his sons hell.
He dragged Foma in first, and then pulled Mitya off Tolik. In full view of the rest of the boys, he dragged his son inside by the ear. Little Shurichkin backed off, surprised at old Medvedev’s reaction to playful wrestling, and Petrov’s son ran back to his own family’s rooms crying when Medvedev boxed his ears for good measure, extracting a shout of anger out of his mother. “You should be doing that,” he growled at Lada, who wiped away her son’s tears with her pinnie and glared at him.
His own boys were unable to pacify him at all. Lara cowered back towards the range, hastily spooning through the stew. It was still actually underdone; over the past months she’d been able to judge the time when she needed to come in to pull it off by the nearby church clock. But her father was beyond sensible now. He was knocking the boys about outside their room, and then he dragged them through into the room and shut the door, taking off his belt. Lara paid attention to the stew and in a small voice she said, “It’s all right, pa, the meat isn’t cooked through yet and I’ve still got to cut up the cabbage.”
“Shut up,” Medvedev bellowed.
He struck both the boys with the belt. It wasn’t the carefully dealt out smacks that most parents gave their children. It was a ferocious whipping, which left Mitya trying to crawl under the table. Medvedev growled and grunted, angry. “When I tell you not to scrap, I mean it.”
“Pa, stop,” Lara said.
Medvedev turned on her. “I told you to keep an eye on them, but I bet you were gossiping with Sveta and Anya, weren’t you?”
Lara yelped as her father struck her on the face. Although a good clout from a man his size might well draw blood, he felt the rake of an animal’s paw, like a cat but bigger and more forceful. She looked at the hand he had raised to her and screamed – he had grown claws and those claws had scratched her face deeply. She ran for the door, but he blocked the way.
Mitya and Foma could see what had happened to their father too. He no longer felt human; he had turned into a giant brown bear, snarling and grunting. Trapped inside this body, blood, cloth, leather, tools and even stew were spilled and clawed at in the small room. Lara ended up pinned beneath her father’s paws, his claws tearing into more of her skin; he tried to tear himself away, but his rage had consumed him. Mitya got out of the door and called for help from the neighbours, before the were-bear dragged him back into the room. Foma scrambled underneath the table and escaped the terrible vengeance of the bewildered animal in the room, though he was only barely managing to hold it off by the time hurrying footsteps could be heard outside the door.
Petrov and Lavrov had just returned from work. Coming in the front door, they heard the frightened, bleeding Mitya. Medvedev had cornered Foma, and Lara was unconscious, bleeding from the bear’s claws and teeth and burnt by the stew. Petrov took up a poker and thrust it into the range, but the bear realised what they could do and he felt the shape fading in their angry gaze.
He sat there in the middle of the room, inconsolable. He begged his two friends to be merciful, telling them he hadn’t touched Tolik or Anton, only his own children. Lavrov ran to fetch a constable and a doctor, leaving Petrov to try and soothe the poor shoemaker, who cradled his daughter, the worst hurt, pleading with the heavens not to let her die.