Kari doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do, so he just stands there, shivering in the growing morning light as the raiders mill around him. He has a wrap, a moth-eaten, threadbare thing, but he doesn’t dare go looking for it. Instead he stays, shivering under the eye of the great wolf.
In the growing daylight it seems even bigger, almost too huge to comprehend, and Kari watches it right back as it licks its chops clean and settles onto its haunches. The sight of it in the light is a terror-making thing, reaching into his gut and clenching like a fist, but also…the scent of it is something else. Not welcoming. Familiar in a way. Like something he should remember.
The wolf yawns at him, its tongue lolling out red and steaming, and Kari thinks, ‘Him’ not ‘it’. He’s certain though he can’t say why, in the same way that he’s certain the wolf is Brynjar’s and that Brynjar is the leader of this band of raiders.
And Kari is Brynjar’s too, that much is obvious. The raiders leave him alone, moving around him in a bustle, but they all cast looks his way. Some of them offer wolfish smiles. Kari tries not to see it but it keeps happening, and his nerves have wound tight inside him by the time Brynjar comes back.
“Where are your things?”
Kari shrugs, shivering. “I don’t have much.”
“Valy,” Brynjar snaps, turning to jerk his chin at a buff raider in dark leathers. “Take him to get what he needs.”
The raider nods and glances at Kari, who ducks his head to avoid their eye. Her eye, he guesses, from the shape of her chin beneath her hood. He does not look at her again as he picks his way between the buildings to Daggeir’s house with a raider dogging his heels.
And a wolf, because the great wolf has decided to come with them.
At the door he hesitates. Daggeir is in there. His mother is in there. He does not want to go in.
Valy grunts and taps him with the butt of her spear. “Wolfchild,” she says.
“I don’t have anything worth taking,” Kari lies. Then again, it is not a lie. He owns nothing. There is nothing inside this house that he would miss if he never saw it again.
Valy has an ugly twist to her mouth, clearly dissatisfied.”That won’t do.”
“It is what it is,” Kari snaps, refusing to be ashamed of his poverty.
She shakes her head and turns away, and before he knows where she’s going she’s halfway across the village round. It’s Palrun’s house she walks up to, the grandest in the village, and she slams open the door as if it’s nothing. Kari scampers after and finds her pulling a thick fur from a bed. “Here,” she says, tossing it to him.
“This isn’t mine,” he says, though she must know.
She shrugs. “It is now. Take whatever you need from here.”
It’s stealing. But then again. If not for me, Palrun would be feeding the wolves even now. Perhaps he deserves something.
He takes a knife, a cup, and a bowl. He is tempted by the packets of herbs and powders Palrun keeps on her medicine table, but he is no herbalist. When he turns to Valy she shakes her head, and pulls a couple of tunics and trews from a clothes chest, a handful of smallclothes and a grooming kit, and bids him roll them in a blanket to tie across his back.
“Better,” she says.
She cocks her head, eyeing him thoughtfully as he struggles to settle the fur around his shoulders under the bulk of his bundle. She bends to lift the lid of a treasure box. It has sat there on Palrun’s table all Kari’s life, and he has wondered what lies in it but never been permitted to look. Now,Valy takes from it a cloak-pin, a silver thing with a red stone in it, and hands it to Kari.
“Fasten your wrap.” When he hesitates, she frowns. “Come on. Alpha won’t like waiting.”
Her eyes catch his, too bright in the shadows of Palrun’s house. “Brynjar. The alpha.” When it’s clear he doesn’t understand she snorts and pushes past him. “Come on.”
Brynjar is waiting, surveying his band of warriors with a grim look. “Let’s be gone,” he snaps, and then he turns to catch Kari’s shoulder and squeeze it. “Where are your shoes, Kari?”
Kari shakes his head, unable to admit that he’d been too reluctant to find them.
Brynjar snorts. “Find a pair that fit,” he says, jerking his chin at the pile beside the fire.
They are all sizes, all good, strong leather. Kari has never owned boots like these, and they fit strangely. Another man’s boots. Maybe Gloi’s. Kari refuses to think of him.
When he’s done, Brynjar catches him by the arm to haul him to his feet. “You’ll walk with Fyrsti,” he says.
But Brynjar is already tugging him forward, to where the great wolf is sitting on its great haunches. He has Kari’s hand and he offers it to the wolf like a treat. Kari stiffens, his heart jolting, but as before the wolf simply lowers his head and sniffs at the exposed skin of Kari’s wrist. Then he licks it, his tongue hot and wet, and Kari can smell his breath, rich with blood.
Human blood. Kari swallows, weak and dizzy.
“This is Fyrsti. Fyrsti, this is Kari. Take care of him for me.”
The wolf shakes his head, a fast ruffle of fur, and pushes forward on all fours, ducking to sniff Brynjar’s cheek, then buffeting Kari with his head.
“Good boy,” Brynjar says, and Kari thinks he means the wolf, but Brynjar ruffles Kari’s hair and walks away, calling to his raiders.
The wolf—Fyrsti—turns his head. He whuffs and moves forward. When Kari does not follow, Fyrsti stops, turning to look at him. It seems patient, as implacable as ice, as if it could wait forever for him to follow.
He has known since the moment he first laid eyes on the wolf that this was his fate—to be eaten by it or whisked away. The landvaitr live between mortals and the gods, guarding the gateway between worlds. If he follows now it is the first step to whatever will come next. Or perhaps he took that step when he first put a hand to the wolf’s ruff.
Fyrsti rumbles at him. Kari makes himself move, latching a hand in the wolf’s fur. He falls in beside. Fyrsti adapts his stride to match Kari’s, awkward in these boots that are not his. Kari leans his head on the wolf’s shoulder, closing his eyes and breathing in the muskiness of fur. He trusts Fyrsti not to lead him wrong. He can’t say why, only that it is the truth.
When he opens his eyes again all he sees is snow and trees, and the raiders ranged around, laughing and talking amongst themselves. He turns his head to look back. Palrunstadr is a dark smudge between the trees, but then it is gone.
He breathes out, gusting a white cloud on the chill air. When he looks ahead there are only trees and unbroken snow.
And Brynjar’s broad back, cut against the white like a beacon.
The wolf raiders number more than two dozen, wild warriors with high-braided hair and tattooed faces. Some have painted themselves blue and red on their bare arms, their cheeks, and brows. They look like the kind of people who would slaughter a whole village for the crime of…what? Sheltering the soldiers of the Jarl? How is that a crime?
They are a boisterous lot, talking and laughing amongst themselves as they go. Someone has got hold of a branch and is terrorising another with it. One circles from cluster to cluster, teasing and ducking out of reach when the others retaliate. And amongst them all, the wolves. One wolf for every two raiders. A pack of them, sleek and grey and deadly.
Kari’s feet are beginning to hurt. These boots are solid work, protecting his ankles and calves from the snow, but they are not made to fit him and he has no stockings beneath to cushion the rub of them.
The blood on Fyrsti’s breath has turned sour, and it makes Kari queasy. He closes his eyes to shake it off, hunching under the wrap Valy stole from Palrun’s house, and is glad she did. Kari’s neck and chest are warmer than he has any right to expect. It’s pleasant. Except for the queasiness in his gut, the ache of his feet, and the knowledge that he is surrounded by violent criminals.
“Take some water.”
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 has come back to walk alongside him, watching Kari with interest. Kari shrinks under his wrap, uncertain of what Brynjar wants of him. There are usually only two things. But Brynjar doesn’t need him to work right now, and does not seem to hate him. Kari wonders.
(There is a third thing, but Kari does not think of that. Poor Gloi.)
He’s been staring at Brynjar, and now Brynjar bares his teeth in a sharp smile. “If you are tired, water will help.” He offers Kari a skin, and Kari takes it because he does not know what else to do.
He swallows a mouthful and hands it back, twisting his gaze away to fix on the horizon through the trees. “Thank-you, herra.”
“You’re quiet. Not like this lot.” Brynjar sounds strangely fond of his ragtag gang of raiders. “You’ve been alone.”
“My mother,” Kari says, uncertain, but Brynjar shakes his head.
“She birthed you. Doesn’t seem to me she did much mothering.”
It is true, Kari supposes. His mother had never treated him the way other mothers did, rarely held him close to her bosom nor saved treats for him. She had taught him numbers, though, on days when Daggeir was away and the chores were done. Numbers and letters. Those afternoons by the fire with a belly full of sop, sitting near her and the warmth of her stale dress, those had been some of the best hours in his lifetime.
And then there had been Gloi. Kind to him when he had no reason to do so.
“I should not speak so of your mother,” Brynjar says. It yanks Kari out of his thoughts, back to the present moment. Brynjar sounds almost apologetic, but he goes on too quickly for Kari to do or say anything in response. “Is that your father’s spear?”
Kari still holds it clutched tight by his side. The raiders had not tried to take it from him. Now he stares down at the haft of it, and his gut churns for a new reason.
“No,” he says, but that is all he says.
Brynjar nods. “Do you like Fyrsti?”
Kari glances at him. “Your wolf?”
It makes Brynjar laugh, a wild sound in the snowy woods. “Mine? Never! I am his, more like it. He chose me, when I was too young to choose for myself.”
“Then,” Kari ventures, emboldened, “he is landvaitr.”
Brynjar’s gaze is sharp. “That’s an old story,” he says, but he doesn’t deny it. “When the land was young, there were given to it guardians, servants of the gods.” It has the cadence of rote to it, a truth-story. “They took the forms of the land, of beast and bird, and kept troth with their masters. And some took their mates from croft and farm, man and woman among them. They were landvaitr, guardians of the land, protectors of humankind.” He grinned. “And you believe in landvaitr, wolfchild?”
“Yes,” Kari says, because it’s true.
“Good lad.” Brynjar pats Kari’s shoulder. “My people believe in landvaitr, because we are landvaitr.” He grins that sharp, dangerous grin, and Kari believes him. “Our ancestors lay with spirits, and we are all to some degree…changed by it.” He rests his tongue on his lip, watching Kari carefully. “And you too, little brother. Your people, whoever they are, are the same. There’s a wolf in your blood.”
“Is that why—” Kari begins but he can’t finish.
Brynjar, though, nods very slowly. “Ueskilegt,” he says. He says it with none of the familiar disgust. He sounds sad. “They did not know how to treasure you.”
Kari’s mouth dries to dust. He cannot look at Brynjar now, not with something like this in his head. That perhaps it was not acceptable, not right. Perhaps all of Kari’s life has been wrong.
He cannot swallow it. He needs to think of something else. “Can you turn into a wolf?” he asks, and it’s a terrible question. Too rude, but also, what if Brynjar says yes?”
“Yes,” Brynjar says, and Kari cannot tell if he’s lying.
“And you are the leader,” Kari asks, his hand shaking in Fyrsti’s fur.
“Yes,” Brynjar says, but this time there’s a twist to his mouth that suggests this is not the whole truth. “I am alpha.”
“What does that mean?”
But Brynjar turns his smile away, into the trees. “You’ll find out soon enough,” he says, and whether it’s a promise or a threat, Kari has no way of knowing.
They travel all day without resting. Kari is exhausted by afternoon, and his feet stab at him like he’s been walking barefoot on sharp-cut rocks. He’s trying not to think of it, but it is all he can think of, the whole of his attention caught on the motion of lifting his foot and placing it down in a way that does not hurt him too badly, though it grows worse with every step.
He realises they’ve stopped only when Fyrsti sits down, knocking Kari off balance. It’s a gentle fall, but it takes Kari by surprise, and he ends up sprawled on his knees in the snow.
Someone laughs. Kari grits his teeth against the humiliation, but it’s hard to hold on to when Fyrsti shoves his head into Kari’s neck and licks him.
It is also hard to be afraid of him. Kari loops an arm around the wolf’s neck and hauls himself up. Fyrsti tolerates this and does not tear out his throat. Instead, he shoves Kari with his head and trots off into the trees.
Probably to take care of some pressing business. Kari has business of his own, but he’s uncertain if he supposed to stay.
Brynjar appears silently at his side. He hands Kari his waterskin. “Drink up. They need filling.”
Kari takes a mouthful and tries to hand the skin back, but Brynjar just pushes it on him again.
“Finish it.” There is no room in his tone for argument.
Kari accepts the water gratefully, and then Brynjar shows him where the water source is, a trickle through the rock beyond their campsite.
“You can make waste down there,” Brynjar tells him, indicating a stand of trees.
They are high up in the mountains now, and Kari can see the lower slopes grading down to the cloud-wreathed plains below. The air is cool and crisp and so clean that Kari can smell Brynjar’s warm, welcome scent much more strongly. It varies, Kari notes, sometimes warmer, sometimes sharp. Kari wonders if he smells, himself, if he is unpleasantly dirty after last night and a day of travel.
Brynjar is watching him. There is something savage in the shape of his mouth, something hungry in the weight of his eyes.
He turns away, leaving Kari with some privacy. Kari takes advantage of it, hobbling into the trees, and when he comes back to the camp he hovers on the outskirts, watching the raiders at their business.
They have made camp under an overhang, against the flat of a rock-face. There are several fires, shielded from below by screens, and behind they have made themselves nests of blankets and furs. Dens, Kari supposes, if Brynjar was telling the truth about the wolves. In any case, each den seems to have but two or three beds, and the raiders and wolves are piled up on these together. For warmth, Kari supposes, and companionship.
Kari hangs back, unsure where he is supposed to go.
He sees Brynjar lying on a bedroll with Fyrsti alongside. A woman is knelt down beside him. She is naked from the waist up, seems to be bathing herself with a cloth as they talk. Her breasts are bare and brown in the light of the fire, gleaming like polished wood.
Kari feels something heavy in his gut, and guilt for it, though he doesn’t really know why.
He stares at her, that weight filling him. Should he go? Should he curl up here in his stolen fur? He doesn’t know his place, but he is certain it is at the very bottom.
And Brynjar is at the top. Alpha.
“Wolfchild,” someone calls. “Come eat something.”
It isn’t Brynjar. It’s the woman who stole the fur for him—Valy—and she waves from her place by a fire.
He goes to her because he has no other choice.
She does not smile at him, but she taps the bedding by her side. “Sit,” she says. She hands him a cup of hot, wet grains seasoned with salt, and a piece of fire-cooked rabbit. He eats the meat, and then the grains, and then Valy gives him a slab of hard biscuit and some jerky. “For tomorrow,” she says.
Kari thanks her and tucks it away.
“You’re pretty,” one of the other women says. There are four women, two men, and three wolves around this fire, and they are all as wild and dangerous as one another. This woman leans forward, gesturing with a knife. “What curls!”
“Need to braid them out of his eyes,” another says.
The one with the knife shakes her head. “That would be a shame. Hey, pretty boy. What’s your name?”
“It’s Kari,” Valy tells them.
“Don’t ask him that.”
“Just Kari,” Kari says, feeling his face heat.
“Just Kari,” the woman repeats, as if it’s his full name. She has a wizened apple in her lap, stolen from Palrunstadr’s stores. Now she cuts a slice from it and hands it to him. “Here. You’re too thin, Just Kari. Eat something more.”
One of the men laughs. “If you’re not careful, Brynjar will cut your fingers right off. Best keep your hands to yourself.”
“I’m just being kind!”
“Horny, more like.”
The woman with the knife makes a rough sound in her throat, but Valy holds up a hand. “Settle. It doesn’t matter.”
The woman with the knife hands Kari another slice of fruit off the blade. “It’s a pity Brynjar saw you first, Just Kari. I’d have taken you to bed in a heartbeat.”
Kari stares at her. She is, he thinks, about twice his age, with the flat, broad features of an ice-walker. Much like Brynjar, only missing something. Brynjar’s presence is a huge, unmistakable thing. This woman is intimidating, but she isn’t Brynjar. Kari drops his gaze, tucking his arms around his knees. It’s too close here by the fire, too many people. Too many scents, and none of them the right one.
Kari turns to look. Brynjar is alone by his fire, except for Fyrsti who has lain out like a great grey log alongside. The woman with her bared breasts is gone. Brynjar lifts a hand, summoning Kari to him.
“Better not keep him waiting, Just Kari,” one of the women teases.
Kari has no choice but to go. He stands up, each foot stabbing at him like he walks on shattered stone. “Thank you for the food,” he says, before limping out of the circle of their firelight to where Brynjar is waiting.