“What’s happening?” Daggeir is on his feet, stomping barefoot across the floor.
He reaches for the door, and Kari yells, “No!”
Daggeir rounds on him, his face twisted in a scowl. “No?”
“He said to barricade it.” Kari shoves himself out of his blankets and onto his feet, his body thrumming. He’s already at the table, ready to drag, when Daggeir’s hand comes down on his shoulder.
“So you listen to him now, is that it?” He shakes Kari hard enough to rattle his teeth. “Is that what it takes?”
Kari tears himself away, staggering against the table, but when he shoves himself back up, Daggeir’s knuckles catch him in the mouth. Light bursts in his head, a bright flash of pain. There’s blood on his tongue, and his face aches, and Daggeir is in front of him, and he can smell wolves…
“What’s wrong with you?” Kari snarls. “There’s wolves outside and…can’t you hear them?”
The sounds of battle are unmistakable, a cacophony of clashing weapons and screams, the howls and snarls of beasts. Daggeir turns to squint at the door, and when he turns back his mouth is thin. “You with your hearing things. Wolves.”
“You tell me, then, why they rushed out of here,” Kari demands, ducking out of reach when Daggeir makes a grab for him. “He said to barricade the door. He didn’t just say that to scare us.”
“Are you calling me a coward?” Daggeir growls, and Kari shakes his head but it makes dizzying sparks behind his eyes. “Just because you’re frightened of some noises in the night.”
Is he deaf as well as stupid? Kari stares at him, sparks occluding his vision in the coal-lit dark. But of course–Daggeir can’t hear them. Not properly. The house is on the outskirts of Palrunstadr. Kari’s hearing has always been better than anyone else’s, and if Daggeir hears anything at all it is not enough to make him afraid.
But he is afraid of Gloi. “The corporal said to barricade it. What do you think he’ll do if we don’t?”
There. Daggeir flinches away, his face shuttering. Why does he fear Gloi so much? Surely it should be Kari who fears him, and Kari does not.
“It doesn’t concern you what that prick wants,” Daggeir growls, and Kari feels like his bones might snap with his frustration. “You don’t belong to him. You’re mine. I feed you, I clothe you–“
“I know,” Kari says, sick of this old litany of guilty obligation. “You do. I’m grateful. But–“
“You’re ungrateful,” Daggeir says, his voice rising.
Kari edges toward the door, conscious of the latch unthrown, the bar up on its hook. If Daggeir would only bar the door then Kari might feel safe but now? With whatever is out there, wolves or not and that door unlatched, he feels like his skin is crawling to get away.
And Daggeir is practically frothing at the mouth. “You sass me and your mother. You never say your thanks for what I give you. Never once a respectful word from you, and then, this prissy plucked northerner shakes his dick at you and you’re all, ‘Please, herra,’ and, ‘by your leave, herra’!”
“Because he’s a soldier and he has a sword!” Is Daggeir jealous? Kari can’t fathom it. “Because the Jarl’s soldiers could run us out of our own village and take anything they want! Isn’t that why we’re all bowing and scraping to them?”
“I never bowed to them,” Daggeri howls, and Kari lunges for the door in the same moment Daggeir lunges for him. He dodges out of the way, catches the bar and slams it down into the bracket, and then a hand closes on the back of his neck, and he’s tugged down onto the floor.
This is familiar; a beating, for whatever reason Daggeir has decided he merits one, while his mother covers her face with her sleeves and does nothing.
Except this time, Daggeir just throws him down and kicks him once, savagely in the gut. “You think you’re so clever, you little freak. Think you understand things no-one else can see or hear or know? Well, you’re wrong about that one. He’s a snake, and if you don’t know it then more fool you when he stings you good and proper.”
Kari lies still, knowing better than to get up, but his thoughts are a blur. If Gloi’s a snake, he thinks, what does that make you? And the ridiculousness of this–of Daggeir beating him out of some sense of, of responsibility for him, of protection–makes his face ache.
“Are you laughing at me, boy?”
“No,” Kari gasps, hysterical in this moment when he needs to be calm. “No, herra.”
Daggeir pauses and steps back, fixing Kari with a dark look. “You sicken me.”
Kari nods, his head aching, but he knows what Daggeir means. He sickens himself, sometimes. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re a fool and an ingrate,” Daggeir goes on, and it doesn’t hurt, not now, because it could be so much worse. “I should sell you to him, see how far that gets you.”
Maybe I should run away with him, Kari thinks, the idea bright and too hot to hold for long. Maybe he’d take me with him when he goes.
If any of them survive the night, of course.
Because his head is ringing, but he can hear them, the snap and snarl of wolves, and then, loud enough it jerks Daggeir’s head around, the unmistakable sound of a scream.
“What was that?”
Kari licks his lips and risks pushing himself to his feet. “Wolves,” he says, and when Daggeir lifts a hand ready to knuckle him across the face, Kari holds up his own, fingers spread in entreaty. “Or bandits. But there’s fighting out there. I swear to you.”
Daggeir stares at him for a long moment, his mouth writhing with contained anger. Then–“Woman, stop your sniveling and get in the root cellar,” he snaps, and Kari’s mother startles, her hands going to her waist in a hard knot. Daggeir turns to Kari, his eyes hard as flint. “Not you,” he says in a tone that turns Kari’s gut to ice. “You stay.”
Daggeir’s face is a mask of cold anger. Normally his anger burns hot, a smouldering thing that flames up and dies down just as quickly, but this? Kari shudders, unable to tear his eyes away from the stark planes of Daggeir’s face, the hard slash of his mouth within his beard.
“I told you to get in the root cellar,” Daggeir snaps over his shoulder, and Kari sees his mother hesitate, bending over the hinged panel in the floor. “Mind me, woman!”
Kari lifts a hand, tries to signal for her to go, because what else can he do? Whatever Daggeir means next, Kari’s mother can only be hurt by it. Best if she hides from Daggeir and the wolves and everything else.
So he tells himself. Still, when the clunk of wood on wood signals her exit, he can’t help his flash of bitterness. She never does anything to stop it.
Kari takes a step back across the floor, watching Daggeir intently.
Daggeir turns his back on Kari, reaching up above the hearth. He takes down his spears, his shield. He eyes Kari sidelong, his expression grim as frost. “You think you’re so clever, but I know better, boy. I’ve watched you grow, strange and twisted. None of your mother in your face for all she bore you. Your father’s mark on you, stark as daybreak. You’re of the same kind. Something fey in you. Something wild left behind.”
He ties on his shield with sure, deft motions of his hands, and Kari has always known Daggeir was a warrior once, a long time ago, but it has never occurred to him before to think that maybe Daggeir still is, in a way.
“Ueskilegt,” Daggeir says, that one word writhing in his mouth like a curse.
And it is, Kari knows. Unwanted. But more than that: Unloved. Belonging to no-one.
“Never like the other bairns, never content to play at sticks or stones, always listening to things. Seeing things. Ghosts and goblins and wolves. Never could make you shut your fool mouth about it, always drawing attention to yourself. Always making up stories to sound important. Too stupid to learn.”
But they weren’t stories. Kari doesn’t bother explaining himself again. Daggeir won’t listen to him now, never would. Always, ‘Kari, you’re a liar, don’t lie, Kari’. No-one ever believed him.
“I tried to beat it out of you,” Daggeir says, low and colorless. “I tried my best, but you’re your father’s son and no son of mine. You made that clear.”
Kari opens his mouth–I could have been–but the words won’t come. He knows, anyway, that Daggeir doesn’t want to hear it.
“I knew you’d go wrong. I knew you’d curse us all with your strangeness one day. Fields blighted, harvest withering on the vine. Soured milk, and all. But I kept you, and I fed you, and I let no-one slit your throat, and now what have you done?”
“You did this.”
“Brought the wolves on us!”
It’s like every accusation levelled against him, every blame laid at his feet. Kari, you brought this on yourself; you brought this on your mother; you brought this on your village; it’s your fault Kari; you’re a curse, boy; you’re cursed! Except it’s not true. It can’t be true. If it was true then Gloi–
But Gloi is out there with his sword, and Kari is in here with Daggeir, and he can hear his mother weeping in the root-cellar.
“Then I’ll go out to them, shall I?” Kari spreads his arms wide, feeling every bit of frustration in him boil up to the surface. “Maybe I should go to them, if I’m so cursed? If I’m the reason they’re here?”
“You’ll feed their bellies,” Daggair snaps. “They don’t want you any more than I do.”
“Then maybe I should let them!”
It isn’t until Daggeir’s eyes widen that Kari realises he’s stepped forward, his hands curled into fists. He’s angry, more angry than he’s ever been in his life, because Daggeir has never wanted him, and he makes it sound like Kari should be grateful to him for not slaughtering him like a mongrel, and it’s not fair. Kari owes him everything, and hates it because it’s true. But he doesn’t owe Daggeir a shred of respect, and Daggeir has always known that, too.
“Don’t be a fool,” Daggeir snaps, but Kari’s on fire, fury spilling through him in a torrent.
“Maybe you should have let them slit my throat,” he says. “You’d treat a dog better than you ever treated me.”
“A dog has some use,” Daggeir snarls back.
Kari shakes his head. “I have use! You never let me do anything a man might do. Just chores for a boy-thrall.”
This gets to Dagger’s temper. “You’re no thrall. I cared for you well enough.”
He says, with the bruises on Kari’s ribs still yellow and his jaw throbbing with the imprint of Daggeir’s fist. “You hate me,” Kari spits, hot and shaking with rage.
“You hated me first,” Daggeir says. Now he sets his feet, his brow come down heavy over his eyes. “If you come at me, boy, I’ll kill you myself.”
Like he’s been longing to, no doubt. Kari feels it like a knife-cut, a sharp slash at the stuff that makes up his self. He’s torn between this–Daggeir’s house and his mother and Daggeir’s predictable disgust–and what’s outside that door in the night. But he can’t live like this any longer, and Gloi is out there, and Kari wants to go with him, whatever that means. So he has to choose.
He chooses the spear.
In a moment he’s snatched up the spear Daggeir left propped against the table, and then he’s at the door, heaving the bar up and himself through it into the night. Daggeir shouts after him, a great angry roar, but Kari concentrates on squeezing his eyes shut to clear the last of the firelight from them and turning his ears toward the sounds on the other side of the village.
Battle. Of course it is. Steel on steel and the snarling of the wolves. Outside, the icy air is full of them, the scent of wolf billowing in the night beside the smoke of something burning hot in the depths of the village.
Kari has to go toward it. He can’t help it, he’s compelled.
But he’s barefoot in the snow, and the foolishness of that strikes him hard. He’s barely dressed. The cold cuts into him like talons clawing at his skin. Darkness wraps around him in an icy cloak, and he’s been a fool, and maybe Daggeir’s right about him.
Whatever Daggeir thinks, Kari’s not going back in there to be beaten and ignored. If he dies tonight he’ll die a man and not a crawling, snivelling thing.
He doesn’t believe he’s going to die, though, can’t really comprehend it. Death wouldn’t come for him now, when he’s armed and ready. Surely not. But the spear is unwieldy in his hands, weighted differently to a broom or a hoe or an axe, and he isn’t sure how to hold it without tangling it in his legs.
But. He must go toward the sound of fighting, and perhaps he has an advantage over the wolves and the soldiers both. This is his village. He knows it like he knows his own feet, and he lets them lead him now, down the dark paths between houses, hugging the walls as he goes.
He passes Geir’s house, and Benna’s, and creeps up between the smithy and the storehouse to peer out. Dark, still, but he can hear them. The sounds of fighting move back and forth in the shadows, and Kari’s heart rises in his throat, beating savagely. He can smell them, in amongst the choking smoke . Wolves. And there, one trots past him, a streak of grey against the black, sleek and deadly.
Kari thinks, I should throw the spear. But he cannot bring himself to do it. The wolf is just there, not as big as the one he saw today, just a normal wolf, and then it slips away, and Kari’s breath comes back to him.
He’d frozen. Why would he freeze like that? He berates himself, calls himself every name Daggeir ever threw his way: useless, cursed, foolish, idiot.
If he can’t throw a spear at a wolf that hasn’t seen him, what good is he to anyone out here?
He should go back. Even if Daggeir beats him, even if he kills him. Kari can’t bear the failure of it. He tried. He didn’t try hard enough.
A shadow shifts between houses. For a moment Kari’s heart judders up his throat into his mouth, but then he sees the steel egg helmet and knows–that’s one of the Jarl’s soldiers.
Should he call out? Is that too dangerous? Indecision freezes him against the wall, and he watches the shadow of the soldier stagger forward into the light. They’re moving oddly. They’re wounded. Kari makes up his mind in that moment, darting out of his shadow and up alongside.
“Soft,” he calls. “Let me help you.”
The soldier reels back, sword flashing up, but then they sag. “What? Who are you?”
“Kari. From the village.” He switches his spear out to his left hand and ducks up under the soldier’s shoulder. “Here, let me.”
For a moment, the soldier leans on him, and then she yelps, staggering away to bring her sword up again.
Something darts out of the shadows and hits the soldier in the chest, and they both go down.
Everything happens at once. Kari tries to roll up to his feet but something rakes hard down his back and he cries out. There’s a terrible snarling, the scent of wolf and blood, and the soldier’s breath, ragged and gasping. A yelp. More blood. Kari pushes himself up, blinking into the murky pre-dawn.
The soldier is on her back beside the path, the wolf on her chest. The thing snaps at her, snarling with a mouth full of slavering fangs, but the soldier has it at arm’s length, is keeping it out of her face.
Kari glances down. Where is his spear? It must have rolled–there. He crawls to it, picks it up in both hands, and forces himself to his feet.
“Get away!” he hisses, jabbing at the wolf. The wolf yelps and darts back, turning on its heel to fix an awful yellow glare on him.
He stares into its eyes, great lambent things as bright as the moon, and sees his own death.
The wolf huffs and runs off into the night.
Kari takes a shuddering breath and collapses to his knees.
The soldier is bleeding badly, but she’s already pushing herself upright.
“Are you all right?” Kari asks.
“What in the frost is wrong with you?” She grabs him by the shirt and shakes him, as rough as any of the villagers. She smells of piss and sweat and fear, and Kari can only gape at her.
“I saved your life,” he says, and she shoves him away.
“You’ve never even held a spear before,” she hisses. “Even a fool knows the pointy end goes first.”
Heat floods his face. Did he just poke a wolf with the blunt end of a spear?
Looking down he finds she’s right. Mercy, that’s…that’s pathetic.
“Get back inside where you can’t endanger anyone else, or yourself,” she snaps, leaning on the wall for balance.
Kari digs in his heels, stubborn even in his humiliation. “I can help you.”
“You can’t help anyone.” She spits at his feet and turns away, limping along the wall.
Kari stands there in the dark, feeling more foolish than he ever has in his life.
Stars, what’s wrong with him? Is he cursed?
If he is…then he is. He takes a deep breath and breathes out the stink of piss and blood and fear the soldier left behind.
If he’s cursed, then…then he’ll just have to get himself uncursed.
He isn’t sure how to do that, but it’s something, gives him a little backbone for the cold walk back to Daggeir’s house. Daggeir will be angry, but Kari doesn’t care. If Daggeir tries to kill him then…then he’ll kill Daggeir right back, and run away, down into the valley. North, toward–where did Gloi say he was from? Breubyr. Find a witch, labour for nine years to have his curse lifted, or whatever he must.
There. He has a goal, a fixed point to aim for. It makes him feel a little better, even as his limbs shudder and his teeth chatter and he’s gone clumsy from the cold, staggering along on ice-numbed feet. But for once he knows what he wants, and thinks maybe there’s a way to get it.
Which is when he rounds the corner of Benna’s house, and finds himself face to face with the wolf.