With Brynjar walking silently alongside, Kari finds himself restless. The roll of Fyrsti’s gait beneath him is nauseating. If he closes his eyes he feels too sick to think, so he keeps his gaze fixed on the snow up ahead between the trees, gripping the haft of his stolen spear.
They move through thickly wooded terrain, the sun obscured by clouds and the clouds obscured by the overarching branches of trees. They are leafless in the winter snow, spindly fingers clutching at the heavens. Kari is not afraid of the trees. He has lived all his life in the mountains, and his only fear has been wolves and bandits, and now he is amongst them they are, he thinks, no longer so frightening.
Brynjar, for instance. He is in awe of Brynjar, such a big, muscular man with his spears slung across his shoulders and the furs piled high at his throat. Brynjar is too big, too real, and when Kari looks at him he feels something inside him quiver. Brynjar draws him like a moth to a flame. Kari misses his attention now it is distracted, and wishes he could have it back.
How could he gain it, though? To make Brynjar look at him, to summon his regard and keep it—it seems impossible. Kari is only Kari, insignificant and unwanted, and Brynjar is like the sun, or a raging bonfire, and Kari wants badly to fling himself into it.
And be burned up? Perhaps that is what would happen. Something, in any case, better than this nameless yearning that has worked talons into his chest and pulls him toward a man who ignores him now.
He should say something. Anything. Ask of Brynjar a question, or volunteer something about himself. There is nothing interesting about Kari, though, nothing besides his father, a man who hated him enough on sight to leave and never return. It is too pathetic to mention this to Brynjar. Perhaps something else. A compliment, maybe. But the thought of venturing a compliment to a man like Brynjar is intimidating. Kari cannot, does not dare. But a compliment to Fyrsti…yes, that he can do.
“Fyrsti is very fine,” he says, his neck grown hot beneath his wrap.
Brynjar glances at him with those ice-blue eyes. His smile is fond. “He is, the finest of his kind.” And when Fyrsti huffs, Brynjar lets out a chuckle that makes the warmth at Kari’s throat spill all the way down the front of him. “Fyrsti disagrees. There is one finer, he thinks.”
Kari is about to ask what wolf could possibly be finer, but they are interrupted by one of the wolvenkind come back to them, a woman whose arms are bare to the snow.
It is the woman he had seen bare-breasted at Brynjar’s fire the night before. She is pretty, in a rough way, and Kari hates her instantly.
“Alpha, there’s steel below the ridge. A camp. Two dozen of them. They set no cookfires.”
“They expect us,” Brynjar says, his brow drawing down. He gestures for Valy to come to him and she does, and another warrior, his hair braided into a single tail. “A camp of Steelheads, below the ridge. Do they have defences set?”
“Stakewalls,” says the woman with her arms bared. “But they are nothing to our friends.”
“Then, we must ask our friends to sneak between them and soften up our enemies for us.”
He grins, and there, something savage and bloodthirsty blooms in his face. Kari hunches beneath his wrap, clinging to the fur of Fyrsti’s ruff. This is the Brynjar Kari had first met, before his confusing kindness turned Kari’s head around. This is the bandit captain who had meant to slaughter Kari’s village down to the last child. He would have killed Kari too if Kari wasn’t…whatever Kari was. Like them. A wolf, Brynjar said, though Kari does not really believe it. He is just Kari, after all.
“Let’s go take a look, eh?” Brynjar says, and Fyrsti whuffs, his fur prickling upward in excitement.
Kari crouches low on Fyrsti’s neck as the wolves move along the ridge, slinking through the snow like silent shadows. It is deathly quiet, far too quiet for comfort. Kari wonders how the Steelheads do not sense the danger lurking above them, silent death ready to flow down upon them in a torrent.
The camp is small enough, a few tents and no cookfires. There are several horses tied up together in a picket. A few soldiers sit on their packs in the snow, eating cold rations. It must be unpleasant for them. They are on the trail between villages. Which way are they going? Perhaps toward Palrunstadr, to meet with their companions there.
Except the soldiers in Palrunstadr are all dead, and now Brynjar and his wolves plan to kill these too.
It goes through Kari like a gust of ice, chilling his bones. They will die. It will not be Kari’s fault and yet he cannot help the feeling that he could stop this, if he only spoke up now, alerting the soldiers to the danger.
And if he did? Brynjar’s wolves might run and hide but also they might still fall on the camp, and then perhaps they would die. It is all death, in the end, no other way out of this.
Why, though? Because Kari’s village killed a few wolves? Because wolves killed a few children? Because the Jarl’s soldiers are killing landvaitr all across Logilandi, and Brynjar has resolved to kill them first? There will only be more soldiers, more killing. Kari hates it, as it winds tight in him like a cord ready to snap.
He wants to tell Brynjar ‘No’. But he cannot, his hands caught in Fyrsti’s ruff, his tongue heavy as a stone. He cannot speak for his fear, his uncertainty of what will happen to him should he give them away.
And then— “Go,” Brynjar says, and the wolves flow down the hill in a silent wave of death.
Kari does not think Fyrsti will follow them until he is already in motion. The great wolf slinks between the trees as silent as a breeze, and Kari folds down along his neck, hands clutching into the great hump of his ruff. He expects Brynjar to call them back but Brynjar does not, and Kari is committed, then, to riding Fyrsti down into whatever carnage the wolves and wolvenkind mean to wreak upon this unsuspecting encampment of the Jarl’s soldiers.
If he had not met their kind before. If he did not know they were human, the same as any. If he felt more akin to Brynjar and his wolves than to them, the Jarl’s warriors in their acorn helmets and green tabards. If he could have closed his heart to it—then, perhaps, it would be easy.
It is not. Fyrsti hangs back long enough to allow the smaller wolves to sneak in amongst the defences—they are spikes of wood stuck into the ground in a defensive ring around the camp, and the wolves move easily between them. There are a dozen or so wolves, mostly the size Kari expects a wolf to be and some more, but none as big and fine as Fyrsti. It is odd, then, that Fyrsti holds back. Fyrsti patters his paws restlessly in the snow, shrugging under Kari’s weight, and Kari thinks: Ah! Am I what holds him back?
And then it begins. A snap of teeth and a sharp yell, a yelp and a hiss. A man cries out, “Wolves! They are upon us!” and the encampment boils over like ants from a hill.
Into this, Brynjar’s warriors flow in a torrent. The soldiers, alarmed and disoriented by the wolves, are unprepared for the steel that follows them. They seem too confused to know what to do. Kari watches with wide eyes, unable to follow the sequence of battle, until a man in heavy armour, a fur wrapped about his shoulders, comes crashing around a corner with his spears at the ready and a great shield upon his arm.
“To me, Jarlsmen! To your Captain!” he bellows, and like magic the soldiers flow together.
Fyrsti darts forward as if he means to go in, but then he stops, head flicking around to roll one great eye in Kari’s direction as if to say: If not for you. He howls instead, a great ululating cry that turns Kari’s knees to water, his bowels quivering. It is Fyrsti he tells himself, only Fyrsti and not some monster of the mountain.
Yet, is it not both? Fyrsti is a monster of the mountain, and Kari must never forget that, no matter how Fyrsti cradles him against his pelt at night, nor tolerates Kari’s presence upon his person.
Fyrsti, who holds himself back from the fighting because of Kari, who must resent him now for his inconvenience.
And then— “To me, pack!” Brynjar’s voice rings out across the camp, preternaturally strident, and Fyrsti bolts into motion to follow it. He does not dodge the soldiers that are between him and his alpha, instead he hurls himself at one, catching them in his jaws and shaking them like a rabbit before tossing the body aside and adarting onward.
Kari locks his teeth against the scream rising in his throat. That one is dead. Dead. Fyrsti killed them.
And Fyrsti has not stopped yet. He takes another easily, dodges the thrust of a spear and comes around to snarl in a soldier’s face. She is young, not much older than Kari, and Kari thinks, No! but he cannot say it, can only wail it in the confines of his head.
He cannot watch this. He tells himself he has no choice but to unlatch his hands and slide from Fyrsti’s back, but the moment his aching feet hit the ground, he knows in his bones he has made a terrible mistake.
Where can he go? He is in the midst of the affray, clutching a spear he does not know how to use, and around him there is only death, death, death. He cannot fight and he cannot run. The only path left for him is to hide.
He uses the spear as a staff, leaning on it to hobble out of the way as best he can. The wolves and wolvenkind ignore him, moving around him as though he isn’t even there. His heart shakes. It isn’t safe. He needs to get away.
But there is nowhere to go. The camp is all over the slush of trodden snow, tents half-pitched and torn, sacks and crates broken underfoot to spill their contents in the mud. Kari slips, catches himself, and clambers over a hill of sacking to tuck himself into the shadow of a crt.
Not safe. Not safe at all. He can hear the fighting still. It has been only a dozen dozen heartbeats since the wolves poured themselves down the mountainside, and people are dying. There is ripe blood in the snow only paces away. He could die himself, right now.
And what then? Will you go to the Summerlands as your eternal reward? Or are you condemned to the ice for your curse? Ueskilegt. You’ve never done anything in your life worth rewarding. Useless, unwanted—
The shadow that falls over him casts his heart in ice. The shape of it is familiar. Acorn helmet. He cannot see the tabard nor the soldier’s face, silhouetted as he is against the sky, but he knows what he is.
“A little one,” the soldier spits. He lifts his hand, the spear in it glinting in the afternoon light. “Best do you quick then.”
It takes a breath for Kari to scramble up, and the spear-point thunks harmlessly into the snow. He’s on his feet now, his own spear held out in front of him, but like a broom, almost useless.
The solder scowls, his face turned into the light. “Then I guess we’ll do it the hard way.”
Kari hurls himself backwards, out of reach of the soldier’s spear, but the soldier only chuckles low in his throat and comes after him, lumbering heavy through the slush. He is weighed down by armor, by his spear, by the shield hanging heavy on his arm, but Kari is hobbled by his ruined feet, and his fear. The soldier is armed and armored, a man who had been trained in his spear, and Kari is nearly naked before him, harmless as a child. The soldier outstripps him by inches and pounds. Kari…is afraid.
“Make it easy, boy,” the soldier says. He does not sound in a hurry.
“Please, herra,” Kari protests, but the soldier does not stop coming.
“Need I lure you with a bit of bread?” the soldier asks, as if of no-one. “Or meat? For your kind? Meat, I think.”
Kari slips around the end of the cart. The soldier comes on slowly, almost calm, and Kari can barely hear past the hammering of his heart.
“Soft, little one,” the soldier says. His tone has gone gentle, as if he hadn’t just hinted he meant to end Kari’s life. Now he makes his voice sweet, alluring. Soft and friendly, and Kari could have believed him if he wasn’t himself bristling all over with fear. “Hey, there. I’ll not harm you.”
Lies. Kari feels his lip curl, baring his teeth, and shakes himself. No.
“I’ll keep you nice and safe,” the soldier promises, his voice such a soft soothe. “Come on, wolf-boy. Or are you a girl? You’re pretty enough. We won’t hurt you. Just want to ask you some questions.”
It sounds…like a lie. Kari doesn’t know how he knows, but he does. The sound of it, the edge to the words, the shape of the Soldier’s body and the tick of his heart. Now Kari listens, he can tell. This is a lie. They will hurt him. The soldier wants to capture him and then, then they will hurt him very much.
He keeps his mouth shut, backing up to a still-standing tent and slinking along it. The soldier thinks Kari is a wolf, like the others. Kari understands why but he does not understand how the soldier can believe it—him, Kari, a wolf? And yet, had not Brynjar said the same thing? Was this not what the villagers of Palrunstadr had been saying to him all his life?
Too much of your father in you, they’d say, and, hardly half human at all.
He doesn’t feel like a wolf. He feels like a boy—barely a man—scared and sore, and around him monsters in the skins of men and wolves are fighting the Jarl’s soldiers and Kari…
He wants to go home. There is no home for him to go to. He wants someone to come for him, just carry him up and away from this, but there is no escape, nowhere to go.
But that isn’t going to happen.
“I’m not a wolf,” Kari says.
He must say it too quietly because the soldier does not so much as flinch. “Come on, little fang. Come here and let me get ahold of you.”
Kari has his spear. He holds it up. “I’m not what you think,” he says, louder this time. “Don’t come any closer.”
“Now, give me that,” the soldier says, reaching for the spear; Kari jabs the point at him to warn him away. The head of it grazes the soldier’s upper sleeve, inside his arm beneath the shoulder. He curses, jerking away from it. Something dark blooms on the cloth. Kari can smell the blood spill into the air like smoke.
He jabs with the spear again, but this time the soldier just grabs the haft below the head and uses it to yank Kari in. “There,” he says in triumph, getting a hand on Kari’s arm and holding on too tight. “Got you.” Kari yells, twisting away from him. He slips out of his furs and the soldier’s grip, but then there’s a shaft of wood between his legs, and he goes down in the snow. “Settle down!” The soldier has him by the hair now, and he’s yanked back against an armoured chest. “Hush, hush, don’t make this worse,” the soldier says, gripping his chin.
Kari snarls at him, frantic to get away. He bares his teeth, and when the soldier’s hand loosens on his face, Kari bites him hard on the exposed skin where the thumb of his glove does not meet the palm.
The soldier swears and drops him; Kari crashes to his knees with a hard thud, but he’s already scrabbling to get away. Something hits him in the back of the head. The world goes to dizzying sparks. Then he’s kicked hard in the spine, and the force of it knocks him prone. It takes an effort to push himself up, but something has dropped heavy on his back, pinning him down, and all he can do is snarl into the slushy mud beneath his cheek.
“Give it up, wolf boy. Before I tan your hide for boot leather.”
For a moment it means nothing, but then Kari thinks—they skin wolves. Why not peel the skin from a wolf boy, if that’s what they think they have caught?
“Mercy,” he says, and it earns him a cuff across the back of the head. “Mercy, herra,” he tries again. “Please. I’m not a, a wolf. I’m just a boy.”
“Oh, aye. That’s why you run with them, is it? Eyes like them, too.” Kari’s world lurches as he’s hauled onto his back. The soldier kneels on his chest, one hand wrapped tight around his throat and his weight braced on it. Kari can barely breathe. He stares up into the soldier’s face, and thinks: he looks so normal. Average. A dull face, neither handsome nor ugly, old nor young. A soldier’s face, like dozens of his kind. Like Gloi, only…
“Please, herra,” Kari says, trying to sound as sweet as he can. “Have mercy.”
The soldier’s eyes narrow. He shakes Kari a little. “None of your tricks, wolf boy.”
“I’m just a boy,” Kari insists. He widens his eyes, his best innocent look that no-one has ever believed for a moment. “Please, herra, be kind to me. I’ll do anything you want.”
The soldier hesitates. His expression shifts into doubt, and something else Kari cannot parse. The pressure of his thumb lifts, and his fingers skate up Kari’s throat to bracket his jaw. “Anything?” he asks.
Kari opens his mouth, but that is the moment Brynjar appears over the soldier’s shoulder, hands already reaching up to snap his neck.
The body slumps, a very dead weight in its armour. Kari’s breath is knocked from his lungs. He lies there gasping in the snow with the soldier’s weight on him, until Brynjar hauls the body away and offers his hand.
“Come, wolfchild,” he says. Kari lets himself be pulled to his feet, and does not look down at the corpse on the ground.