“Shh,” Brynjar says, low and soft. “Go back to sleep.”
“There was something on the plain,” Kari mumbles, his tongue too thick and his thoughts a jumble. “Something with a thousand thousand legs.”
Brynjar grunts and settles himself along Kari’s side. “Don’t you worry about that, wolfchild,” he says, stroking a hand down Kari’s side to grip his hip. He squeezes, and lets Kari go. “No more wolf dreams tonight. Just rest.”
He says, as if it is possible to sleep on the heels of that dream. Kari is half awake and now comes fully to himself as his awareness grows; Brynjar is alongside him, his body a warm weight, his hand moving slowly over Kari’s hip. It is a comfort, nothing more sinister than that, and yet Kari can smell him, is aware of him in a way that overtakes his thoughts, flooding his mind with, Brynjar, Brynjar.
Kari rolls onto his side, eyes closed tight against the sight of Brynjar’s silver-flecked eyes in the dimness of the night, but Brynjar moves up behind him, laying out long and lean and musky beneath the furs.
“Will you not sleep?” he murmurs. His fingers find Kari’s hair, carding through his curls to pick at the knots. “Will you hear a story, instead?”
Kari breathes out, ruffling Fyrsti’s fur. He isn’t sleepy, his nerves singing with the proximity of the warrior lain along his spine. He wants something, though he doesn’t know what that something is. And Brynjar asks for nothing except to tell him a story. So. “Please, herra.”
“No, not herra.” Brynjar nuzzles his hair, nosing him like a dog.
Kari holds his breath for as long as he can before he must let it go. “Alpha,” he says at last, and Brynjar’s pleasure is almost palpable.
“Better. So. Do you know of Eir, and his travels amongst the stars?”
“Yes,” Kari admits, for he does. Every child knows those.
“He walked from house to house, along the celestial road,” Brynjar says, as if Kari had never spoken. “In the house of Lugh he was given the gift of fire. And in the house of Lana he was given the gift of water. But in the house of Logi he was given the gift of cunning. Do you know how he came by it?”
Kari does, so he says, “Logi gave it to him, in his seventh year of service.”
Brynjar is pleased, he can tell, even with his eyes shut. It is in Brynjar’s scent, perhaps, or in the motions of his hands, gentle now in this quiet place. “And do you know the service Eir did for Logi, in Logi’s house?”
“He kept Logi’s house for him, and tended his hearth.”
“And his bed,” Brynjar says quietly.
Kari opens his mouth but stops himself before a sound comes out. Was that part of the story? It seems unfamiliar and strange. Why would Eir keep Logi’s bed warm for him?
“Eir bore Logi seven childer,” Brynjar says, his fingers gentle in Kari’s hair. “Seven childer bore he, and for every son Logi gave him a gift of the flesh, and for every daughter a gift of the mind, and for the one that was both and neither, Logi gave him cunning, for it was the greatest gift he could give.”
Both and neither. “What does that mean?”
Brynjar understands, of course, though Kari cannot put it into words. “The seventh child was born like you. Fertile. Omega,” he says, his hand rubbing up over Kari’s hip and across his belly. “Bearer. Something precious, and worth all the cunning in the minds of humankind.”
“Omega.” Kari has not heard of it before, but it feels familiar. It settles into his skin with a rightness that makes no sense when he tries to follow it back to the source. But Brynjar chuckles and nuzzles him, stroking his belly low, above his hips. It fills him with warmth, his body gone hot and hard beneath his trews, but Brynjar does nothing more than pat him there and snuggle him in close.
“You are the other half of the light of the world,” Brynjar says, close and quiet, a secret for them to share. “Alpha to omega. The greatest magic. Here, we have it between us. It draws us close and holds us fast to one another. Can you not feel it within you?”
Kari doesn’t know. How could he? It makes no sense and yet…he is drawn to Brynjar. He trusts him. He wants, very much, to feel certain that he can trust him. He wants Brynjar’s approval and regard, wants Brynjar to be pleased with him and not beat him, to smile at him and ruffle his hair and nuzzle his throat, and so much more. If Brynjar were his father—
But Brynjar is not, and Kari’s father is long gone. Dead, they always said, before they spat in the dirt at Kari’s feet. Brynjar is very much alive, warm and solid and here.
Kari tucks his face into the crook of his elbow and pretends to sleep. Brynjar chuckles softly, nipping at Kari’s ear with sharp, demanding teeth.
“You are not so cunning yet, wolfchild, to succeed in deceiving me.”
Because he knows. Kari scrunches his face, refusing to look at him. “Will you tell me another story?” he asks, and Brynjar hums softly before settling himself against Kari’s shoulder.
“Long before, when humankind was small, there were three sistren: Hela, Halle, and Hel. In their house at the heart of the great dark wood that spread from one horizon to the other they lived together, Hela, Halle, and Hel. Each dawn they woke together, and rose together, to break their fast together, Hela, Halle, and Hel. Each morn they went together, down to the river together, to fetch their water together, Hela, Halle, and Hel. Each day they laboured together, tended their crops together, in their garden together, Hela, Halle, and Hel. Each night they slept together, in their wide bed together, before the fire together, Hela, Halle, and Hel. And they loved one another, as well as any sistren or lover, they loved each other, Hela, Halle, and Hel. But then came the Wolf to their door with his eyes of silver, and they looked on him with pleasure, so doomed themselves forever, Hela, Halle, and Hel.”
The rhythm of the sleeping story steals over him, laid over his mind like a heavy wrap, sinking him under it. Brynjar’s voice follows him into dreams, and he dreams of a small house at the heart of a great wood, and a silver-eyed stranger, and the jealousy of his sisters, and betrayal. But it is soft—so soft here—and he is safe, and he goes under willingly, with Brynjar’s breath comforting on his skin.
It’s warm. Soft. Kari has never felt so warm nor so soft before, his skin yielding with sleep and his flesh as tender as a fresh-boiled dumpling. He is content to remain soft and warm, cocooned in it, until he remembers: he is not alone.
He opens his eyes. All he can see is the dim outline of something ragged and soft-edged, the first kiss of grey pre-dawn blurring his vision. He holds himself stiff and still, and reorders himself. It is soft because he is wrapped in furs, with a direwolf’s flank for a pillow. It is warm because he is pinned between them, Fyrsti beneath him and Brynjar stretched over him, caging him into a place that is safe, and yet as much a prison as a hole underground. He cannot move without waking one or both of them. He has no choice but to stay.
Breath gusts warm across his ear. “Restless, elskling?” Kari remains silent. Brynjar laughs, low and quiet. “I can smell your restlessness. Are you so eager to be up and about your business? Or shall we lie in our laziness a little longer?”
What is this? Kari does not know if he wants it, whatever it is, though the urge to stretch himself out alongside Brynjar and wallow in his warmth is compelling. Kari can smell him, rich and musky and oddly spiced, and he longs to roll over and bury his face in Brynjar’s throat, to inhale him deep and keep him in his lungs forever.
But. “I need to piss,” Kari says, and Brynjar lets him go.
Standing nearly fells him. He’d forgotten about his poor feet. The thought of boots this morning is sickening, so he totters painfully on his bandages through the snow, letting the cold take from him the stabbing agony of his weight on his welts. He is, he realises, effectively hobbled. Even if he wanted to run he could not. He has lamed himself, like a reckless fool. Ah, well. No-one has ever expected much of him, anyway.
He makes water behind a tree and when he returns, Fyrsti has vanished and Brynjar is sat up to poke at the fire. He jerks his head, directing Kari back into the furs. “Keep warm, wolfchild, until there is something to break your fast.”
“Why do you call me that?” Kari asks, too sleepy to be very cautious. Brynjar frowns at him. “Wolfcihld, I mean.”
“Because it is what you are. I don’t want you to forget. You’re not human, no matter how long you’ve believed yourself to be.” Brynjar’s smile is broad and smug. “You’re ours, Kari.”
“And that’s why you were going to take me from my village,” Kari says, unable to help his curiosity.
“Aye. You belong with us, not with their kind.”
“Because you hate them.”
Brynjar’s eyes glint with something hard. “Hate them? Should I not hate them? They trap wolves, tan the skins right out in the woods for all to smell it. Not even for food: they do it, just because they hate us worse than we hate them.”
“Wolves take livestock,” Kari says, feeling bold.
“Whose livestock is it to take? Those goats were ours, once, roaming wild in the woods. Just because a human puts a fence around it, they think it theirs. Bah! As if such things can be claimed so easily.” Brynjar eyes Kari thoughtfully. “Those wolves would have starved to death if they had not taken a goat.”
And the villagers will starve if the wolves take too many. But Kari kept that thought to himself. Instead, he said, “There were girls, lost in the woods. Wolves, they said.”
“If they were small, maybe. Babes on their first legs, fat and naked in the snow. Then perhaps.” Brynjar fixes Kari with an implacable look. “But children? Unless they were already dying, wolves would leave them alone. Too hard to catch. Bad eating. Bony.”
Kari shudders. It’s an unpleasant thought, that the only thing keeping him safe from the wolves’ bellies is his boniness.
The rest of the camp has begun to stir. Fyrsti slinks out of the trees and drops a bloody rabbit at Brynjar’s feet. Kari watches Brynjar skin it and gut it with quick, deft motions of his hands. He is, Kari thinks, intimidating but also…also he takes care of Kari with a tenderness that is unexpected.
Big, broad-shouldered Brynjar, with his knotted locks and ragged beard. He has a wild, icewalker look to him, the tips of his hair burnished with white-gold but the roots deep red beside his scalp. And his eyes, when he looks up, as blue as the sky at the height of summer, as blue as the ice at the heart of the glacier, cold and sharp and flashing silver when his temper rises.
He makes Kari feel safe and terribly afraid, all at once. And then Brynjar turns to him with a cup of fresh-brewed tea, putting it in Kari’s hands before taking his own, and Kari inhales the sweet herbal steam and he thinks: He takes care of me. Fyrsti, too, takes care of me.
And he thinks: I am hearth family to them.
It is a slow bloom of realisation in his head. They have brought him into their small circle, to their fire, and they feed him and warm him, and he is theirs in every way that matters. Such a strange, unknown feeling, to feel secure in a place. A precious thing, one he does not wish to squander.
“Thank-you, Alpha,” Kari says meekly. “For the tea, and…”
Brynjar glances at him, blue eyes slanted sidelong above the rise of his wind-kissed cheek. His smile is secret in his beard but Kari sees it all the same. “You’re welcome, Kari. Always.”
They do not go up, deeper into the hills toward the glacier, but along, skirting the edge of them, with the sun behind. Amongst the trees their shadows are lost, but Kari sees them shift and knows they head west, curling slowly northward in a great long arc. He cannot recall what lies to the west-and-west-and-north, but he tries to make a picture of it in his head. There is a village, one Daggeir has visited, one with an alehouse and a trading post. What is the name of it? He cannot remember it now. It makes him think of bread, and his stomach rumbles. He wills it to be silent, not wishing to attract the attention of the others, and gives up his remembering to take in the breadth of the hillside.
Already they have gone farther from Palrunstadr than Kari has ever been in his life, and the landscape is changing. The hills become steeper but closely thicketted with trees. As they move down, the trunks of the trees grow likewise thick, and there is more undergrowth. The wolves pick through it easily, and the two-legged wolves among them move with a grace Kari envies, as if this is truly their land and they the masters of it.
He is himself sat up high on Fyrsti’s back, despite his protests that he could walk just fine.
Brynjar had ignored him and simply lifted him up, settled him there, and patted Fyrsti’s neck. “Take care of our Kari,” he said, and Fyrsti had whuffed, low down and dry as if to say, ‘You don’t have to tell me that.’
From his seat on top of the great wolf, Kari has an excellent view of the wolf raiders surrounding him. They are, he thinks, more familiar with each other than the villagers of Palrunstadr. Each goes to the others like a sibster, begging attention or play, or simply to be annoying to one another in a way that seems tolerated beyond anything Kari has known. And they do not have amongst them one they choose to tear into, to bully, one who bears their temper more than the others. None is singled out. Kari sees this, and it gnaws at him like a rat at a rind of cheese. None of them are treated as he was treated, as was his lot amongst the people he has known all his life.
The motion of Fyrsti beneath him is strange and unsettling. Kari clings to the wolf’s shoulders but he feels tossed about by its gait. He’s sorry for his full breakfast, his gut queasy. He closes his eyes to shake it off, hunching under his wrap. Fyrsti is warm, and Kari’s feet are protected from the hard ground. It’s pleasant. Except for the queasiness in his gut, and the knowledge that he is surrounded by people he does not know.
“Watch the horizon, if it bothers you.”
Brynjar. He knows it is Brynjar even before he opens his eyes. He can smell him, that heavy, savory scent. Like a meat meal. Or an old, comfortable blanket. Woodsmoke on a cold day. Home.
Kari opens his eyes. Brynjar is walking alongside him, watching Kari with interest. Kari shrinks under his wrap, uncertain of what Brynjar wants of him. Now Brynjar glances up at him with a devil in his smile, eyes bright and mischievous.
“Do you know the story of Mikka?” he asks.
Kari shakes his head. “No, Alpha.”
Brynjar tells it, and he tells it well. He is a good storyteller, and Kari wishes he could be himself so skillful, weaving words into a rhythm that catches in the memory, painting pictures with them in the mind. And in every story Kari feels there is something Brynjar is trying to tell him, though he cannot see the shape of it yet.
He tells of Dalur who beat out the passes of the mountains, Ennur who cut the channels of the great rivers, and Sada who sowed the saplings of the forests—all the while it nags at him, a greater story beneath it all, something Brynjar wants Kari to know.
“Why not tell him about the Jarl?” says one of the wolves: Yggi, Kari thinks it is. They have come to a brief halt. Brynjar has insisted Kari stay where he is, and has handed up to him a waterskin and some hard biscuit, which Kari is hungry enough to eat gratefully and gracelessly. (None of the wolvenkind seem overly fussed with table manners that Kari can tell.)
Now, Brynjar frowns, his smile sliding from his face like it’s been wiped away with a dishrag. “It’s not a tale to rouse the appetite.”
“He’s hungry enough already,” says someone else, eyeing Kari in a way that is not unkind but makes his face heat all the same. Kari wipes a hand over his mouth and tries not to look untidy, though it is difficult when he is, in all ways, so very untidy.
Brynjar’s mouth has vanished into his beard, and now he looks at Kari narrowly. “You must know of Helgi Runirsson.”
Kari nods, though he is uncertain. “He is the Jarl. He rules all of Logilandi.”
“And rightfully, as it is measured by men. His father was Jarl before him, his grandmother Jarl before them.” His expression has gone cold enough to make Kari shiver in his wrap. “But he is no just ruler. He wages war on us with all the ruthlessness of a man exterminating the rats in his barn, though we have done nothing against him. Before now.”
Kari takes this in, still uncertain of what Brynjar means him to understand. “He hunts wolves?”
“He hunts landvaitr,” Brynjar says in a voice as flat and cold as a frozen pond. “He wants us all destroyed.”
“Why does a man do anything? To protect himself. He fears us, and so he should.” Brynjar turns to look out over the trees dipping into the valley, at the snow blanketing the landscape all the way down. “He is not made for our world, nor we for his. We are not the rats in his barn, but the field in which it stands, no more his than the wind or the sky. He does not understand what he does, but that is no excuse. he has turned his steel against us, and we will not allow him to slaughter us in our beds. ” Brynjar glances back, baring his teeth in a savage smile. “I look forward to the day I tear out his throat.”
Kari cannot speak, nor breathe, nor even blink, not pinned like this under Brynjar’s icy stare.
“So you see,” Brynjar says, still cold and hard as stone, “why we cannot permit his Steelheads to linger in the villages, and why the villages that welcome them must be destroyed.”
Kari cannot help it. “We did not welcome them.”
It makes Brynjar’s brow draw into a knot. “They were amongst you as hearthmates.”
“It was by the order of the headwoman,” Kari says slowly, unsure if he should argue but unable to hold his tongue. “We were ordered, each household, to billet the Jarl’s soldiers. They ate our food, warmed themselves by our fires. Daggeir said they were a plague and pestilence upon us.” But then, Daggeir said the same thing of Kari. “They were forced guests, and if not for their steel…I do not think anyone welcomed them.”
Brynjar stares at him. It is discomforting. He seems uncertain now. Kari does not dare to wonder why, but he misses the cadence of Brynjar’s storytelling when the band is once more underway.