Kari smells the wolf before he sees it. The scent is familiar in a way that it should not be, triggering an old ache inside him. For a moment he thinks it is his father, and he turns to look but instead of a man there is only a wolf, standing between the trees in the snow.
It is grey and white and it is almost upon him, he thinks, but then it takes a step forward and his perspective shifts. It isn’t as close as he thought. It is much farther away, and he realises the thing is huge. As big as a reindeer, perhaps, growing bigger as it slips between the trees toward him.
Kari is frozen still, watching it come down the hillside, its great paws breaking through the crust of snow and leaving a dark trail behind. The thought of running does not cross his mind–later he’ll be glad of this but in the moment all he can think is, It’s going to eat me, and, No, no it isn’t, and, It’s so big, how is that possible?
The wolf comes up to him, tall enough to have to bend its head to look Kari in the eye. He barely reaches the wolf’s shoulder, but for once the pang of ‘smallness’ does not bother him–he will never grow another inch in his life and right now he does not care because the wolf looks at him with great silver eyes, and huffs a rank breath in his face. Rank? It smells of meat and old blood, but there is something sweet in it, something comforting and familiar.
The wolf’s coat looks soft and warm, and Kari lifts a hand, wondering. The wolf tips its head to sniff Kari’s wrist, and then it yawns, its great red tongue lolling out and steaming in the frosty morning air. It’s so casually unthreatening that Kari feels bold, and he reaches out to touch the wolf’s ruff. It is soft, and warm when he pushes his fingers into it, thick and luxurious, and Kari wishes he could wrap himself up in it.
Then something cracks in the far distance, and the wolf jerks away, head turning to track the sound. Its ears go forward and it whuffs, glancing almost apologetically at Kari before swiping its tongue wet and hot against Kari’s wrist and twisting to streak away through the trees.
Kari stands there, still too shocked to move, until the cold sinks through his wrap and into his bones. He shakes himself, and it wasn’t real, was it? A hallucination, surely. There are no wolves that size, and no wolf would approach him so easily, would it?
But the tracks of wolf-paws in the snow are evidence that something was here, and when he lifts his wrist to his nose he can smell the wolf’s saliva on his skin, that particular doggy odour.
Why had it smelled like his father?
It was real. A wolf the size of a reindeer wandering the woods outside Kari’s village. He ought to tell someone. They set traps for wolves, after all. Those girls had gone missing, taken in the woods. Wolves, they said. But Kari doesn’t think that wolf would have taken a girl-child and eaten her up. Certainly, the wolf seemed capable of it. Big enough, with a mouth full of bone-crunching teeth, yes, but to take a child?
Why had it not taken Kari?
Maybe he’s too old. Maybe too big. He’s small for his age, small for a man, but he is a man now, despite what everyone says. Maybe the wolf doesn’t eat men, even small ones.
He should tell someone, and yet he knows already that they won’t listen. They never do.
Still, when Kari gets back to the village he finds Daggeir in the wood yard and tells him, “I saw a wolf in the woods up on the hill.”
Daggeir scowls at him. “What were you doing out there? I needed you here.”
“Getting rosehips for Palrun,” Kari tells him, honestly. “She said it was important.”
“I don’t care what that old baggage tells you,” Daggeir snaps. He straightens, propping his axe against the block and his hands on his hips. “You don’t eat her food, she don’t get your labour. The Jarl’s soldiers want fire more than rosehips. I need you here splitting kindling, not idling in the woods making up stories about wolves.”
“There was a wolf,” Kari insists, because there was, he saw it. “It was as big as a reindeer, and it–“
“Big as a reindeer?” Daggeir’s sneer curls his lip into a cruel shape. “With fire in its eyes, no doubt, and farting sulphur.”
“No! Just…I did see it. It came right up to me and licked my hand, here, you can smell it.”
“Get that filthy thing out of my face,” Daggeir snarls, and then he shoves Kari away hard enough Kari stumbles into the log pile. “I’m not smelling your poxy hand, you little creep. What’s wrong with you?”
And then he smacks Kari across the face for good measure.
“Get this lot split and stacked before I get back, or you’ll get worse than that, do you hear me?”
Kari nods, and doesn’t try to meet Daggeir’s eye. It’s not worth it to be defiant where anyone can see.
He splits the wood and stacks it, and remembers the wolf, how tall it was, how warm its fur. How it had looked at him as if he was worth looking at, as if he, Kari, had been as interesting to the wolf as the wolf had been to him.
Maybe the wolf isn’t real. Maybe Kari imagined it because…
…because he’s lonely and alone, and maybe cursed the way everyone says. Maybe he’s crazy. Or just a good liar, good enough even to convince himself.
But. He lifts his wrist and sniffs it, and there’s that same wet, doggy smell. Unmistakable.
There was a wolf. Nothing Daggeir says will change that. There was a wolf, and Kari decides that first chance he gets he’s going to find that wolf again. No matter what.
Of course, it’s one thing to choose a course of action and another to be able to enact it. Kari is stuck splitting kindling for Daggeir as the sun climbs up over its peak and begins the swift descent into night. It comes on fast this time of year, and Kari is resigned to losing what little light there is left today, when Daggeir returns.
“Not done yet? You worthless mutt.” He scowls, and holds out a hand for the axe. “Get an armload and deliver one to each of the billets. The Jarl’s soldiers won’t like waiting, so get a hurry on.”
Kari hesitates. There are thirty households in Palrunstadr, each of them now billeting a squad of soldiers come up from the plains. That’s thirty trips back and forth across the village, thirty armfuls of kindling. “Would it not be faster for them to come get their own?” Kari asks.
Immediately he knows he’s said the wrong thing. Daggeir fixes him with a fierce glare. “Skeeting off work, are you? Lazy son of a… get out of here before I beat that look off your face.”
Kari wants to protest–what look? It’s just his face–but then he remembers. It is just his face. Because Kari looks so like his father, they say, and no-one wants to remember him.
It gnaws at him, though, like a rat, as he lugs his armfuls of kindling across the muddy tracks of the village. He didn’t choose his father any more than he chose his mother. It isn’t his fault his father ran off at the sight of him. It isn’t his fault his mother took up with Daggeir. It isn’t his fault Daggeir never could put a babe in her, and neither could he lay the blame on her for it, not with Kari there before the world as proof of her belly.
But if it isn’t Kari’s fault then he doesn’t know whose it is, and he wishes he did because everyone blames him and he can’t help but think they’re right, sometimes.
Maybe he is cursed.
He dumps a load of kindling in the box outside Benna’s house, turns to get another, and nearly slams right into a wall of green.
“Soft, little brother!”
It’s not a wall at all but a man in a forest-green tabard and jangling chain, one of the Jarl’s soldiers, tall and broad-shouldered. He’s wearing the same egg-shaped helmet all the soldiers wear, a long steel tongue come down low over his nose distorting the lines of his face so it’s hard to tell him from the others. Kari stops dead in his tracks, ducking his head respectfully. He doesn’t want trouble. He doesn’t know if the soldiers are trouble, but in his experience everyone is, one way or another.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
Kari wets his lip, risking a glance up. The man doesn’t sound unfriendly. Kari’s good at recognising unfriendliness. “Just…delivering kindling, herra.”
“Herra, is it? My name’s Gloi. What’s yours?”
Kari looks up in shock. Why does he want to know?
“You don’t want to tell me? Here, let me,” and the soldier unbuckles his helmet, tugging it off and running a gauntlet through his sweaty hair. “There. Gloi Geirsson. At your service.”
It makes Kari’s stomach flutter, something hot in his chest lurching against his ribs. Gloi is older than Kari and not exactly handsome, but when he smiles Kari feels his face smile back all by itself, hears himself say, “Kari. My name’s Kari.”
“Just Kari?” Gloi cocks his head on one side, his eyes raking over Kari’s body in a familiar kind of way. Kari has seen it before but never has he been on the receiving end of it, and it makes his mouth dry, something shivering down his spine.
“Just Kari.” He does not give the other name they call him: Ueskilegt. It gives too much away.
Now what? Gloi seems to expect something of him, or maybe he’s just enjoying Kari’s discomfort–he keeps smiling and looking, and Kari can’t stand it.
“I have to…there’s chores.”
“Kindling? I’ll help you.”
“You can’t,” Kari protests, but the man has slung his helmet on his belt and now he gestures for Kari to show him the way.
“Please, let me. We’ll get it done in half the time and maybe you’ll have a moment to talk.”
Talk. Well, if that’s all he wants. Maybe he’s bored. And Kari wouldn’t mind someone to talk to. “All right,” he says.
Gloi beams at him, and follows him across the village.
Daggeir has finished the kindling and vanished, no doubt to find himself some mead, and Kari’s grateful for it because it means he doesn’t have to explain why a soldier is following him around. Gloi gathers up a double load of kindling and grins at him, and Kari finds himself smiling back despite himself.
And then Gloi starts talking to him and he doesn’t stop.
“You were born here, weren’t you? Here in Palrunstadr. Well, I’m from Breubyr, down on the river. It’s so cold here, how can you stand it? My blankets are like ice. And the woods! They’re dark, aren’t they? Not like the woods back home. These ones hold secrets. Like the trees could reach out and grab you, and keep you there in the snow, forever. Do they frighten you? Don’t worry, I’m here to protect you,” he says, grinning as if it’s all a joke.
But Kari, growing bold as he listens, dumps his load of kindling and turns to Gloi. “I saw a wolf in the woods today.”
Gloi stops at once. “A wolf? Do you get many wolves here?”
“Not so much. They used to take children, so Narfi and Aelgrid set traps for them. I haven’t seen one in years. But today,” Kari says, because Gloi is listening to him, the way no-one ever listens to him, “I saw a wolf as big as a reindeer.”
Gloi doesn’t scoff. He doesn’t look at Kari as though he’s mad or lying. Instead his eyes widen. If anything, he looks excited. “Then we need to tell the Captain.”
“You believe me?”
“Of course I do,” he says, as if it’s nothing, and Kari sags with relief. Someone, finally. “Come on,” Gloi says, hefting his armload of wood, and Kari follows him, hopeful for the first time in years.
The Captain of the Jarl’s soldiers has been billeted with Palrun, the village headwoman, and normally Kari would not dare knock on her door for any reason, but Gloi just marches up to it and says something to the soldier guarding the door. Then they’re inside, and Kari shudders in the sudden warmth. He’d forgotten he was cold outside, but now, in the banked heat of Palrun’s house, he can’t deny it.
Palrun’s house is warm because she is the headwoman, and because of the Captain billeted there. Kari has been inside Palrun’s house a few times, and remembers it a certain way, everything placed just so, balanced and orderly.
Now, it is…not exactly a mess. The Captain’s presence is palpable, however, and there are crates and sacks and rolls of things stacked against the walls. More pots on the hearth. Armour pieces piled up, and the scent of polish and oil. Leather. Old blood.
And mixed in with it the dried-herb sickly sweet scent of Palrun.
“Captain,” Gloi says, saluting crisply, but before he can get any further Palrun has marched across the room to grab Kari by the collar.
“What are you doing here?” she demands, giving him a shake. “I told you to leave the rosehips in the storehouse.”
“I did,” he says, but it doesn’t stop her from shaking him again.
“Then what do you want?”
“I brought him, herra,” Gloi says, uncertainty coloring his voice.
Palrun lets Kari go, turning her attention to Gloi, who stands a little taller under her regard. “Did you, now?”
“To see my Captain,” and Gloi turns from her to the woman in a soldier’s tabard sitting by the fire.
She’s older than Kari’s mother, but not as old as Palrun, handsome where Palrun is plain, her hair kinky and black beneath the rime of white. She’s watching Kari with a frown, and now she beckons. “What is it, corporal?”
“Kari tells me he saw a wolf in the woods today. ‘As big as a hreindyr‘ he said. I thought you’d want to know.”
The Captain regards Gloi levelly for a moment, and then– “Who else did you tell this tale to?”
She’s looking at Kari. “No-one, herra,” Kari says. “I mean, I told Daggeir but he didn’t believe me.”
“Because it’s a lie,” Palrun spits, and for a moment Kari thinks she’s going to slap him. “The boy is a liar. He makes up stories. We’ve tried to beat it out of him, but still he persists.”
“What kind of stories?” the Captain asks.
“Attention-seeking nonsense. Things only he can hear. Things he can smell. Wolves and ghosts.”
“Oh, he fancies his father come back for him. But his father’s dead and he’s the son of no-one.”
“He isn’t,” Kari mumbles, but when Palrun glares at him he ducks his head.
“Kari lies for attention he doesn’t deserve. I’ll have him punished for wasting your time, herra.”
“No. Come here.” The Captain beckons Kari closer, and Kari goes because he has no other choice. The Captain scrutinises him carefully, but seems to find him wanting. “Who told you about the wolves?”
“About…herra? I don’t understand.”
“Why a wolf, today? Why a dire wolf?”
“I…I just saw it. It came down the hill and sniffed my hand. And then it left.”
“It saw you and it left you alone? Why would it do that?”
“I don’t know, herra. It was strange.”
The Captain’s frown deepens. “Who put you up to this? Where did you hear about the dire wolf?”
Kari’s mouth goes dry. The Captain doesn’t believe him. And if the Captain doesn’t believe him then there’s no point in trying to convince her. He knows that only too well, which means he has two options. Stubbornly insist he’s telling the truth until they beat him for it, or tell them it was a lie and be beaten for that. The beatings for admitting he’s ‘lying’ are always easier than the beatings for insisting he’s not lying, but they hurt more because they hurt his pride. What little of that he has left, anyway.
He should never have trusted Gloi. He’s been a fool again and now he’ll suffer for it, and maybe this time he’ll learn.
“Well? No answer for me?” The Captain turns away. “Is he simpleminded?”
“He’s a fool and a liar,” Palrun says. “Just like his father. And my daughter was a fool to take up with him, so there you have it.”
Kari says nothing.
“Take him away, corporal. Next time, check your source’s credibility.”
Gloi takes Kari out, and the cold hits him like a fist. He huddles under his wrap, numbed by the chill wind and the ice in his chest. He catches himself hating Palrun, and for a wild wonderful moment he lets himself hate her, lets himself hate Daggeir and this whole village. What he’d give to leave it behind forever, and go somewhere no-one knew to distrust him.
If only it were possible.
But it isn’t, and he mustn’t hate Palrun. He knows he must not, though if asked he wouldn’t be able to say exactly why.
It’s Gloi. Kari braces himself for whatever Gloi is going to say to him. Blame, for embarrassing him in front of the Captain. Recrimination, for ‘lying’. Whatever it is, Kari can take it.
But Gloi says, “You didn’t make it up, did you?”
“No. I saw it. I don’t lie, I just…no-one ever believes me.” Like the boy in the story, lying about a wolf that never existed, but he’s not lying and it isn’t fair.
“I believe you.” Gloi smiles, confident again. He puts a hand on Kari’s shoulder, his gauntlet heavy. “Okay?”
“Why?” Kari asks, though…. Well, he thinks he knows why.
“You have an honest face,” Gloi says, squeezing him, and Kari can’t bear it any longer.
“I have to go,” he says, and tears himself away to race into the dusk. Gloi calls after him but Kari refuses to hear it. It’s not fair. No-one believes him, except for the one person who does, but for the wrong reasons.
Kari finishes his chores and doesn’t speak to anyone, wrapping the story of the wolf up tight in his chest where it can harden into amber. His own. Precious. Not for anyone else.
By the time he’s finished delivering kindling it’s full dark, the only light coming from the fat moon sailing overhead and the firelight glowing the shutters of the houses. Kari drags himself to Daggeir’s house, ready to take his stripes for tardiness.
But when he opens the door he stops. The soldiers billeted in Daggeir’s house are different, not the four familiar faces he’s been avoiding these last two days. Now there are three of them, and only one of them familiar.
Gloi lifts a hand, smiling up across Daggeir’s table. “Kari! You’re late. Come get some supper.”