This wolf is big, as big as a reindeer. The scent of it floods Kari’s nose, and with it comes recognition.
This is his wolf, the dire wolf, the one from today.
It doesn’t attack him.
Kari holds still, too terrified to move. The wolf is as big as he remembers, a great grey thing with eyes that stare into his soul, but all it does is stare and Kari stares back, frozen in place beneath that silvery gaze.
He’s transfixed by the glimmer of light in the wolf’s eyes, the shifting luminescence that speaks to him on the edge of understanding. There is something greater than himself here, something bigger and broader and older than his whole village, as old as the woods, and in the eyes of the wolf he can almost see it.
It is as if the wolf is more real than anything else around it, more than the houses, more than the soldier who left Kari behind. Like a ghost only its opposite, solid in a way that only the woods and the snow and the stars are truly solid, unchanging inexorable things, permanent in a way that humans can never be.
The wolf is the realest thing Kari has ever seen, and Kari knows what it is.
When Kari was small, Old Ori—now shrivelled up and gone away—would tell them stories when Palrun could not overhear and put an end to it. The stories, Palrun said, were too much for little ears, but Old Ori had told them anyway. It was a mark of bravery to hear one of Old Ori’s tales and not piss yourself in your blankets at night.
Old Ori had never minded Kari, had let him creep up alongside and lay down on the floor. He never told Kari to get away, never hit him or threw anything at him. He would meet Kari’s eye and nod, and turn to the other children with a tale worse than usual because Ori knew Kari was not afraid.
Or maybe Old Ori simply wanted to find out what Kari was afraid of.
“Long ago,” Old Ori would say, “before humankind was born, the land was peopled only by the spirits of forest and stream, the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky and the fish and the wurms.”
(What about bugs? Kari had wanted to know. And spiders? He had never dared to ask.)
“When the gods gave birth to humankind,” Old Ori said, “they saw that humankind was weak and new, and needed time to grow. So they called the beasts of earth, the birds of sky, the fish in the rivers and the wurms together, and asked who would watch over humankind in its infancy.
“And all manner of creature said, ‘I will,’ and the gods chose for each place a guardian, and granted that guardian the understanding of the speech of humankind, and diverse magics, and bade them to watch over humankind as guard and guardian. And they were called landvaitr.
“So humankind grew strong, and thought much of itself. And eventually the gods bid farewell to the land, leaving the landvaitr and humankind to rule themselves, and for a time all was well.
“But one day the thought came into the mind of a great Jarl that the landvaitr were too powerful to be allowed to roam free. So the Jarl summoned all the landvaitr to a fine banquet in their honour, and once they were feasted and feted, he had his soldiers slaughter as many as they could lay hands upon.
“But he could not kill them all.
“They live now in the secret, hidden places of the land. And many are no longer guardians for humankind, but hunters of us.
“So beware, when you go alone into the dark places, to the hidden caves and lonely streams, the deep valleys and great peaks. The landvaitr are dangerous, and no certain friend of humankind.”
That is what is before Kari now, a beast as old and merciless as the glacier.
If it tries to eat him, Kari doesn’t know if he’ll fight. Perhaps it would be better to be eaten by one of the landvaitr than to live another day in this village. It would be an honour, would it not? To feed the belly of a guardian of Logilandi? What greater honour could a boy like him ask for?
But he doesn’t want to die, not even so nobly, and his teeth chatter with fear to see the wolf’s tongue swipe red and hot and hungry from its mouth, its fangs flashing white behind its lip. He wonders how it will feel when those fangs go into him, tearing him to pieces.
Will anyone care? Daggeir, no; Palrun, never; but Kari’s mother…she might. He wonders, his heart thudding heavy against his ribs. Would she? Would she weep? Or would it be a relief, the constant reminder of his father gone forever?
When the wolf steps forward, Kari feels its breath on his cheek, hot and meaty, and he braces himself.
But all it does is lick his face, a long wet stripe the length of his jaw.
“Faugh!” Kari scrubs his cheek with the back of his hand, or he tries to—he’s still holding the spear. He had forgotten about it completely, and now that he draws it up the wolf steps back, baring its teeth. Kari drops his hand, pulls it back to turn the edge of the spear away, and the wolf huffs, that lip coming down to hide its teeth again.
Such great, terrifying teeth. Kari swallows hard, his heart beating fast and heavy.
What should he do? He can’t attack the wolf—his mind reels from that, he cannot do it—but should he simply stand still? Wait for the wolf to eat him?
The wolf makes a rolling sound in its throat, and comes up to push its muzzle into his shoulder.
Kari does not breathe. He tries even not to think, in case his thoughts are enough to prompt the beast to devour him. But…it doesn’t threaten him, does nothing more than rub up on his shoulder, nuzzling along the line of it to bury its face in his neck and then…it breathes in, rumbles in its throat, and then scuffs its cheek up against his own.
Kari turns his head into the wolf’s ruff and inhales the scent of it—of him, he thinks, though he doesn’t know why.
Why did he do that? Why isn’t he pissing himself in fear? Why does he think, though his brain screams at him to be afraid, that this wolf means him no harm at all?
It huffs again, and its breath is warm and welcome. Kari drops his spear to put his hands up, running them into the warmth of the wolf’s throat.
The wolf rumbles again, shoving his head into Kari’s shoulder, and Kari laughs out loud. He wants to be petted. Kari pets him, scratching his hands up to the wolf’s head, running his fingers over the fur-clad bones of the wolf’s skull and wondering. Such a great beast, and he lets Kari pet him so easily, pushing into the touch as though welcoming it wholeheartedly.
“Soft,” Kari murmurs, his nerves singing high and strange with the scent of this wolf in his nose. “Softly, now.”
The wolf huffs and pushes his muzzle up along Kari’s jaw, and he could so easily open his mouth only to close it on Kari’s throat and tear the life from him but he doesn’t, just licks at him, pressing close enough that Kari steps back against a wall, his hands full of wolf-fur and his heart just…he doesn’t even know. There’s power here, something magic. He can sense it under his palms, and he curls his fingers into the wolf’s ruff, feeling something otherworldly tingle against his skin.
Maybe he grips too tight, but the wolf makes a sound of displeasure, knocking his head into Kari’s skull. Not to injure, just a warning, and Kari lets go.
“Sorry,” he whispers. “Did I hurt you?”
A rumble and the wet swipe of a doggy tongue over his jaw. It’s so real. Is it truly landvaitr? But what else can it be? Wolves don’t grow so big, and they do not tolerate humankind to pet them like dogs. Except…for a legend, the wolf is remarkably friendly.
The only warning Kari gets is the crunch of snow nearby, and then the wolf’s head comes down, a hard growl reverberating up its throat. Then—”Dire wolf!” and the hiss of steel drawn from a sheath.
Kari spins, pressing his back against the wolf’s shoulder. Three soldiers have come around the corner of Geir’s house. One of them has a torch, casting pale flickers across the snow churned underfoot. The soldiers are ragged. Dark stuff paints their tabards, and Kari can smell blood all over them. They are all of them armed, and in their egg-shaped helmets he does not know them.
The wolf’s growl deepens, like the rumble of warning thunder.
“It’s all right! Step away from the wolf and we’ll take care of it.”
She sounds concerned for him. But that’s not right. What does she mean? But the wolf shifts its weight, tensing to spring, and Kari has to do something.
“Please!” he holds out a hand, and only realises it’s the one with the spear in it when the nearest soldier’s own comes up in answer. Kari lifts his free hand, fingers spread in honesty. “Please, don’t come any closer.”
“It’s all right to be frightened,” she says. “But I need you to be brave. I need you to move away from the wolf.”
“Get away from it, boy,” one of the others snaps. “Before it tears out your throat!”
“You don’t understand! It’s not a wolf, it’s landvaitr!”
But they’re not listening. One of them is circling out, around, trying to pin the wolf up against the house. They’ll try to kill it, he knows. This wild, ancient thing as old as ice, sacred to the moon and the earth and the wind. They’d kill it as easily as slaughtering a rabid dog, and never even know what they have done.
This creature, who has been kinder to Kari than almost anyone in the world.
He knows he can’t let that happen. So he steps in front of the wolf, baring the back of his neck to its teeth, and says, “No!”
For a moment, it’s as if the world has frozen still. And then the first soldier calls back. “What?”
She sounds incredulous. Kari supposes it is ridiculous, someone as slight and small as he, trying to protect a great wolf from three soldiers armed to the teeth. It’s a joke. But Kari is used to being the butt of jokes far more cruel than this, so he holds his spear in front of him like a barrier. “I won’t let you hurt him.”
There’s a pause, and then—”What in the frost is he doing?” one of them mutters, not too quiet to carry. “Is he crazy?”
The one that has circled around takes a step closer, and the wolf moves, twisting its head toward the soldier as its terrifying growl goes up like the groan of hornets. Kari’s heart is in his mouth because…he cannot let them kill the wolf. He cannot let the wolf kill them. He has to stop this before something terrible happens, and it feels like time is blowing through his fingers like dry leaves in the wind.
“I’m not crazy. It’s not a wolf. It’s landvaitr,” he tries again, pushing himself in front of the wolf. It sidesteps, forcing him to follow it. He reaches for the thing’s ruff but it snaps at him, and he snatches his hand back, heart pounding. But. It hadn’t hurt him. Just a warning. Like the growl. Stay back, before you get hurt. Don’t make me do it.
“Those are stories,” someone says. “Aren’t you too old to believe in grimms and fairies?”
“They’re not,” someone else argues. “They’re real enough!”
“And that’s one of them?”
“Listen to me,” the first soldier says, her voice gone hard as steel. “That beast killed five of my warriors. I won’t let it kill any more. Now, you’re going to get out of my way or I’m going to go through you, do you understand, boy?”
Kari doesn’t answer, just spreads his arms in a silent protest, making a wall of himself. It’s flimsy. He’s nothing to them, and they could cut through him like butter, but it’s all he can do, and he’s stubborn enough to refuse to know when to back down.
But the wolf seems set against him. It ducks out from behind Kari’s outstretched hand, buffeting him aside like he’s made of straw. Kari tries to get between it and the soldiers, but it paces out from behind him again, huge and terrifying, and Kari feels keenly the weight of his hubris in thinking he could protect something so much greater than he.
He thinks for a moment that the soldiers will attack, or that the wolf will attack them, but all it does is put itself between Kari and the flash of their steel, still growling, head down low and ears flattened back against its skull.
It’s almost like the wolf is protecting Kari.
But it can’t be. That’s too ridiculous for words.
Except it crowds him back against the wall, pacing in front of him with its great jaw cracked to show the hellish points of its teeth, and Kari feels…sheltered.
It’s a new feeling. He doesn’t quite know what to do with it, too stunned by the thought to process it properly.
He wants to haul the wolf back, wants to put his arms around its neck, but he can’t move, too shocked to think that it might…what? Is it territorial? Does it think Kari belongs to it now, with its scent rubbed over Kari’s skin?
A great rush of feeling overwhelms him, and with it the sudden, hot realisation that he would do anything to protect this wolf, anything at all, but he doesn’t know what or how, and his tongue feels dried to the roof of his mouth, useless to him.
Which is the moment that the soldier who has circled sidelong darts forward to grab Kari’s arm.
Kari yells. Immediately, the wolf whirls around, lunging for the soldier’s face and clanging its great teeth against that egg helmet. Someone screams. The wolf snarls, sharp and furious, and then there’s a sound like something tearing, something distressingly wet, and blood blooms like smoke in the air.
The soldier goes down. Kari just stares at the dark hump in the snow. Everything seems very far away, the sound of yelling, of snarling, the snap of teeth and an angry yelp. A scream, cut off. The torch, sizzling out in the snow.
He blinks into the dark. It’s grey, but he can see the edges of things. He’s always been good at that, and now he knows it’s almost dawn.
The wolf pads up to him, its breath heavy with fresh blood, mouth covered in it. It scuffs its face in the snow but that does nothing to dull the scent of it. Kari feels…not as sick as he should.
There’s blood on the wolf’s shoulder, fresh and inhuman, and Kari reaches out to touch it but stops short when the wolf rumbles at him.
“You’re hurt,” he says.
He knows the soldiers are dead, knows it’s his fault, but he can’t quite make his brain bend around it. It’s like all the feeling has been dulled by snow, numbed away like his toes. And what’s left is a pale relief that the wolf is all right, except for its bloodied shoulder.
The wolf licks his face again, and this time Kari can smell the death in its mouth, but he doesn’t flinch away.
The wolf protected him. Or it thought it had. It killed for him.
And Kari knows, deep down, that he would have done the same.