Before Kari has gone three steps Brynjar uncoils to his feet. It’s a smooth and graceful motion, like seeing a bird fling itself from a branch into the air, and so lovely that Kari stops, marvelling at it.
But then Brynjar has crossed the small gap between the fires and caught Kari by the arm. “Kari. Are you injured?”
“No,” Kari says, but it turns up at the end like a question and Brynjar’s scowl is fierce.
Oh. Kari stands up as straight as he can, trying to look hale and hearty. “It’s nothing.”
Before Kari can answer that, Brynjar has pulled Kari’s arm up over his shoulder, and bent to tuck a hand behind his knees. He lifts Kari easily off the ground. Kari is too shocked to be embarrassed, and then too embarrassed to say a word.
Brynjar carries him toward his fire, where Fyrsti is soaking up the warmth like a great fur bolster. Brynjar lays him down against Fyrsti’s side. Fyrsti is hot, soft, and curls his head to lick Kari’s ear. It distracts Kari from the realisation that Brynjar is taking off his boots.
That hurts. Kari doesn’t want to look at the ruin of his flesh beneath the leather, but the sharp sound Brynjar makes with his tongue is angry. “You fool. You should have told me.”
Should he? How was he supposed to know that?
Brynjar mutters something as he rummages in a pack. “They need to be cleaned.” He fixes Kari with a frown, and Kari shrinks into Fyrsti’s flank, making himself a smaller target. He’s startled by the wet shove of a doggy nose under his jaw and the damp huff of meaty breath against his throat. Fyrsti’s comforting him? Is that what this is?
Brynjar leaves him there, comes back with snow scooped in his palms, and has knelt down to apply it to the soles of Kari’s feet before Kari realises what is happening. It’s cold, numbing the pain down to nothing, and when it is done, Brynjar’s hands move slow and dull across his skin.
“How did you let yourself get like this, Kari?” Brynjar chides.
Kari shrinks against Fyrsti’s side in shame. Fyrsti whuffs, almost like a rebuke, and Brynjar lets out a huff of laughter.
“Of course he’s embarrassed. He should be embarrassed. Walking his feet to ragged meat.”
Kari swallows, conscious of Brynjar’s grip on his poor foot. “I’m sorry, herra. Forgive me for being a burden on you.”
Brynjar snorts, glancing at him over his shoulder. In the firelight his eyes are silvery, the blue glowing pale and dangerous. His smile is another thing entirely. “You’ve been a fool, Kari, but you’re no burden. Let’s get you well again, eh?”
He doesn’t seem even a little cross anymore. Kari wonders if it is a trick, but if so he can’t understand it. Surely if he were angry, Brynjar would simply cuff Kari across the face and be done with it.
Instead, Brynjar opens up his pack and takes out a wooden box about the size of a large turnip. He opens it up and tips some dust into his palm, mixing it with a little snow until it forms a paste, which he smears on Kari’s raw feet. Then he binds the whole lot up in clean cloth, and tugs some fat-knitted stockings over the lot. “There,” he says, scrubbing his hands with snow. “Good enough for now.”
He isn’t angry. He isn’t even a bit. He seems pleased with himself, patting Kari’s hip with satisfaction, and smiling at him.
Kari smiles back, tentative. Brynjar does not mock him for it, instead his smile softens.
“I mean you no harm, wolfchild. You’re ours, now, and we’ll take care of you, Fyrsti and I.”
Something hot swells heavy in Kari’s throat and he turns his face away so Brynjar can’t see him disgrace himself. What does it mean? What does he want?
Because he must want something and Kari doesn’t know how to give it to him but…if that is what he must do then he will.
Find out what Brynjar wants. Give him anything to keep him pleased with Kari and soft with him.
“Thank-you, herra,” Kari says.
“Not herra,” Brynjar tells him. He waves a hand. “Alpha, if you must.”
Kari licks his lip, the word strange on his tongue. “Alpha,” he says, and Brynjar seems pleased by it. “Thank-you for your kindness. I will…if I may be of service to you, in any way.”
This makes Brynjar’s brow crinkle up like the skin on porridge. “No, no,” he says softly. “Not like that. You’ll come to me when you’re ready, and time enough for it. Now you must rest and grow strong. You’ve much growing to do, Kari. Your wolf is small and fearful, but give it time.” He grins. “We’ll make a warrior of you yet.”
Kari wants to know more, but Brynjar has come up on his knees and moved closer, reaching down to cup Kari’s head in his palms. He traces his thumbs over the bones beneath Kari’s eyes, looking down at him, and for a moment Kari thinks Brynjar might kiss him. Instead he tilts Kari’s head to one side, his hand tugging Kari’s collar away from his throat, and Brynjar bends his head to press his nose to Kari’s skin.
He inhales, a great long breath, and Kari gulps for air because this close the rich scent of Brynjar’s body is overwhelming. He smells of musk and heat, and it grips Kari somewhere deep in his gut, clawing at him from the inside like something desperate to be free.
Something in him. Something small and fearful. Something that wants.
Brynjar straightens, his eyes gone to lazy silver slivers. “Rest, Kari,” he orders, wrapping a fur around Kari like a blanket. “I’ll be here in the morning.”
The bed of Fyrsti’s body is warm and soft. The furs tugged around Kari’s chest and legs are soft too, his feet tucked into the hollow of Fyrsti’s belly. Now and again the great wolf nuzzles him, nosing into his hair and whuffing gently. His breath is warm, and Kari finds he does not mind the smell of blood on it so much now.
He is warm and safe, belly full, thirst slaked. He feels content in a way he has never before, or so long ago it has faded now into a memory—his mother’s arms and warmth and softness.
But his mother is far away, and Kari is here, under the watch of a great and terrible wolf, an eater of men.
He cannot find it in him to be alarmed by that, not here, cradled against Fyrsti’s side. The fire casts warm light over them both and beyond it Kari can see the shape of Brynjar and his raiders, talking quietly in the night.
There are three of them leaned in to Brynjar, sharing between them the bright shreds of elf caps. Kari knows one of them—Valy. She was kind to him, if cold. She does not look at him now, too intent on what is being said.
“They will send more. That village should have been burned.”
“There were children.”
“Children who will grow into our enemies. I say we send the wolves to them now, in the night. Tear out their throats.”
They are speaking of Palrunstadr. Kari stiffens, suddenly wide awake. Are they going to kill everyone in the village, as Brynjar had wanted? But he’d promised, he’d promised Kari, and—
“I gave the boy my word.” Brynjar’s voice is low, firm and final.
Valy nods. “It’s a bad business, slaying children. Even if they do grow into our enemies.”
“Then we make battles for ourselves in years to come.” The speaker is gruff, masculine, and displeased. Kari shrinks into his furs, listening hard.
“Then so we do,” Brynjar says briskly. “Now, shall we go on to the town on the hill or the one in the pass? The first is closer, the second a richer prize.”
“It would be easier to hold the pass, should we capture it.”
“Why capture it? Why not take what we want and leave it in ashes?”
“There are children in that pass, as in any village. And they do not trap wolves there,” Brynjar says.
“They might be allies,” Valy adds.
“They harbour steelheads,” someone says with disgust. “They bring this on themselves.”
“And on the hill? Do they welcome our kind amongst them?”
Brynjar laughs, low and bitter. “No. They do not. Last winter they staked a wolfgirl out for the birds to pick her ribs. Or perhaps she was not a wolfgirl, but some poor outcast given to the gods to beg mercy from the snow.”
Someone spits into the fire. It bursts with a hot sizzle. “Then they will die.”
“Yes,” Brynjar says. “We will go to the hill and kill their steelheads, and then offer amnesty to those who beg forgiveness for the wolf-girl’s death. If they should betray us, we will come back, and finish them.”
Valy nods. “Aye, so it should be.”
The others murmur agreement.
“Now, if we take the hill then we have a good angle to move down into the valley,” Brynjar says, sketching something on the ground with a stick. “It takes us far from Isheima, but they will not expect such a raid so deep in their territory.”
A raid. Because that is what this is, raiding. Because the wolfenkind are raiders, bandits, murderers. They tear villages apart and threatened with death every person Kari has ever known. They killed Gloi and his soldiers for the crime of…what? Being warriors of the Jarl? And what had Kari’s village done to deserve destruction?
They trapped wolves on the mountain. They hurt you. That was the crime for which Brynjar condemned them to death.
Is that crime enough to murder a whole village?
Something inside him cries out, Yes! but he cannot bear the thought.
Are these his people? Palrunstadr had been an uneasy home, one that did not want him, one that called him ueskilegt and beat him down and kicked him when he was on his knees. Brynjar’s raiders feed him and warm him by their fires, and Brynjar wants something but Kari does not know for certain that it is something he does not want to give him.
These plans they make will lead to death and destruction, and for what? The poor treatment of one child? A girl given to the gods who may or may not have been herself wolvenkind?
For trapping wolves on the mountain?
Fyrsti shifts beneath him, and he thinks: If they had hurt him, and I were Brynjar, who loves him, what would I have done to them?
The answer comes easily: whatever it took.
Kari’s head swims. Is it exhaustion or confusion? Or simply the warmth of the fire and furs, and Fyrsti beneath him?
He tries to listen, but his eyes drift shut. The words come in fragments, and he cannot piece them together. “Fire,” and, “roust them out,” and “relief from above,” and “Razaan would be wroth.”
Sleep pulls over him like a blanket, drawing him down into it with a gentle hand. Kari sinks into warm darkness, and his thoughts drift to the snow beyond the circle of firelight, to a dark night studded with stars. A world washed in grey, but not so cold, except where it kisses his nose and the bare soles of his feet. Uninjured, now, they are strong and sure, and Kari runs, kicking up snow as he goes, breathing in the rich haze of ice and tree and sap and the trails of game.
Someone laughs, a rough doggy rumble, and between him and the stars looms the great grey head of a wolf. Not just any wolf. Fyrsti, alongside him, his eyes bright and silver beneath the moon hanging huge overhead.
Fyrsti, Kari thinks, and then, You’re smaller now.
No. You are bigger, Fyrsti says, and Kari does not find it strange. Come, we must run.
So they do, and Kari takes joy in it, and does not wonder why.
They run with the snow in their faces, up the hillside and into the dark trees. Fyrsti leaps gracefully over the crystalline snowfall, and Kari goes with him, his feet sure in the snow now beyond anything he had felt before. He runs like the wind, with the sensation of the landscape slipping by him too fast, blurring in the corners of his vision
The world is strange to behold, obscured along the edges but crisp and clear before him. There is a shimmer to it, roiling colours that gleam off every surface like oil on the face of water, like ink in the pot. He breathes in and he can taste it on the back of his throat: ice, pine-needles, a rabbit ghostly underfoot.
Fyrsti nudges him along, nosing into his thigh. Come. See.
They run on. Kari keeps up easily, and his legs feel longer here, his stride deeper, skimming over the surface of the snow. That can’t be right. No, he sinks into it, but somehow it isn’t cold, parting easily before him. It is there and he is in it, but it does not slow him down.
And then they have crested the hill, and the world drops away beneath them.
They are high up above the plains. Below the world spreads out dim and distant, blurred by miles. Kari can make out a long river and another, the green of forest and dark purple swathes that could be anything. It unrolls beneath them like a blanket in patchwork, and he wonders. What are those smudges along the horizon? Does the world end there? But it’s so close!
There, Fyrsti tells him, bunting him with his skull. look.
Kari looks. There is something on the plain below, something heavy. That is how it feels to him, a heavy weight on the earth, dragging it down like a sinkhole. Kari cannot fathom it. It feels…old. Strange. Dim, like a night without stars. It smells of decay.
And as he is watching, it shifts, shuddering grotesquely along in thin, squirming veins that radiate out from a knot of bile at its center. The whole of it throbs, and the questing tendrils of it turn, inexorably, toward the mountains. As Kari watches, it shudders again, growing a fraction larger or, he realises with a sick jolt, coming closer.
“What is it?”
Fyrsti leans into him, a comforting weight. Destruction, he says, warm in Kari’s head. The end of all things.
“But it isn’t…it isn’t real?” Kari asks, because none of this can be real, can it?
It’s a dream. The thought comes clear, sharp as mouthful of pine needles. This isn’t real, he is only dreaming of it. Otherwise Fyrsti would be bigger, and Kari’s feet would pain him, and the snow would slow him down.
And that thing on the plain would not be there, lurking and leering at them.
It is as real as you or I, Fyrsti tells him, but Fyrsti isn’t real either, so what reassurance is that?
As Kari watches, the thing below distends itself, one long thread thickening and then fragmenting, bits of itself coming off it in droplets that stream out from the center to run along the ground, rushing south toward the hills. Kari shudders, his gut curdling, though he reasons that something that is not real is not a thing of which he must be afraid.
They’re coming, Fyrsti tells him, his thoughts quick and urgent. We must go.
“But they can’t hurt us,” Kari argues. “And they’re so far away.”
Distances work differently here. They can.
Fyrsti is already shoving at him, pushing him into a stumble, and the sting of fear that goes through Kari’s chest makes him turn obediently into the hills. They go up, but where before the snow parted for him, now it feels thick and heavy, like millet-meal weighing down his tread, and his limbs are sapped of strength. He labours uphill, breath coming rough as Fyrsti urges him on with nips and nudges.
Faster, he insists, and Kari minds him because he must.
He hears it far behind, the chitter and gnash of something awful, a buzzing sound that he can feel more than he can hear it. It throbs in his jaw, in the bones of his skull. Fyrsti’s ears are pressed back, his whole expression thinned down to the savage baring of teeth and eyes in cruel slits. Kari is afraid of him now, where before he had been a comfort. Now he looks fierce, and Kari does not know him.
Faster, Fyrsti snarls. To the stones, now!
Kari stumbles on. his heart hammers in his chest, his breath coming harsh in his throat. He can smell rot and something strange and sharp, something like the air in a lightning-storm, ominous and heavy. The back of his head fills with chittering, and then he can feel it, crawling up his spine, the pinpricks of a thousand thousand tiny clacking legs skittering over his skin.
He stumbles. But the shadows of standing stones loom over him like guardians and he’s falling into the circle of them, the snow gone soft and welcoming beneath his hands.
Except it isn’t snow. It’s too soft, too warm, and as his eyes blink open he realises his hands are full of fur.
The air is smokey and chill, but Kari is warm. He lies along Fyrsti’s flank, with his wrap beneath and Brynjar’s fur pulled over. The fire has been banked, the coals a low glow in their sheltered ring of stones.
Just a dream, he tells himself. A dream that left him shaking but a dream nonetheless. It matters not. He has no need to be afraid of it, and yet he cannot close his eyes again, can only stare up at the stars and think, That thing on the plain would have eaten me alive.
It would have, he knows it. He’s still thinking of it when the stars shift and the shadow of Brynjar’s great shaggy head falls over him.
“Still awake, wolfchild?” He grins and lifts the corner of Kari’s blanket, slipping in alongside him. “You’re not waiting for me, are you?”
Was he? Kari doesn’t know, but with Brynjar there the thing on the plain seems a very long way away.