Chapter One

Wolf Mountain

Chapter 1

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.”

“Yes, Captain.”

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.”

The story begins! I’ve invented/adapted some words for use in this setting. You can mouse over the first instance of each to get a translation, or click it to visit the glossary, but I recommend NOT doing that and just working them out via context.

Let me know what you think 😊

Chapter Two

Wolf Mountain

Chapter 2

There’s meat on the table tonight. Kari is suspicious of this until Daggeir thanks Corporal Gloi for the gift, an apparent apology for the bother of changing billets. It is never explained to Kari why Gloi and his soldiers are here, and Kari does not need an explanation. Not really. He’s not simple, nor a fool. He sees the way Gloi looks at him, the soft smiles the soldier sends his way. Gloi turns to him again and again, asking questions of him, directing his observations, drawing Kari into the conversation no matter how Kari tries to remain unnoticed.

It is clear that Daggeir dislikes it. Gloi speaks warmly of Kari, and Daggeir’s mouth twists with the things he wants to say. But he holds them to himself, and Kari can only be glad of it.

Still, Kari doesn’t understand why. Daggeir is older than Gloi, with a great beard. Gloi is clean-shaven, his hair braided into two neat tails. Fussy, Daggeir might have said on any other day. Prissy, perhaps. Daggeir disdains men like Gloi and women like the two soldiers seated beside him, with their symmetrical braids and sharply tweezed brows, their nails filed flat and straight. Daggeir braids his own hair in a single tail, carves his brows into heavy lines, files his nails round–as befits a warrior, he says.

To see Daggeir hold his tongue now is…odd. Kari doesn’t know what to think.

It must be all their steel, the rattle of their chain and the weight of the swords they carry, their great spears. Daggeir’s spears hang above the hearth with his shield, but they have not come down since he gave up on a son of his own, and saw no use in keeping them in condition.

Kari has no spears of his own. He hasn’t quite ceased to resent that.

“Your son is a fine young man,” Gloi says, and Kari sees how Daggeir jerks around to glare.

“My son?”

“Kari,” Gloi says, smiling.

Daggeir’s mouth works for a moment as though he is chewing a slug. Then– “The boy is no son of mine.”

Gloi blinks. Then he says, with some censure, “It is kind of you then, to take Kari in.”

Daggeir grunts, neither argument nor agreement.

“Do you mean to apprentice him? Or enlist him in the service of our Jarl? My lord takes on any young person hale of body and spirit. I would be happy to speak for him,” Gloi says, all smiles again.

There is a long silence. Daggeir stares at Gloi, his eyes burning with something that could be anger, or something else.

Maybe Daggeir is afraid. Kari wonders at it and then, yes. Daggeir is afraid. Of Gloi.

“I have not thought on it,” Daggeir says at length.

Gloi hums, leaning back to regard Kari as if he were a sow at market. “He’s old enough. How old are you Kari? Sixteen? Seventeen?”

“Nineteen,” his mother says, the only thing she has said all evening.

“A man indeed!” Gloi gestures expansively with his cup. “Well, think on it. Kari may not have the build of a frontline soldier, but we have need of scouts, and knowledge of these hills and forests is worth much.”

It burns for a moment, that he should mention Kari’s height, but then … it is meant kindly enough and Kari turns his face away, unwilling to see pity on Gloi’s face or disdain on Daggeir’s.

The talk turns to the winter, matters down on the plain. Daggeir cares little for politics, but he has a taste for stories of adventure and Gloi has many, though never his own. He talks of heroes Kari has never heard of, battles won by cunning and deceit, and the sack of far off towns and cities, and Daggeir listens with an eager ear.

Kari listens, but not so much to the slaughter. He hears other things, the places Gloi glosses over. A war in Logilandi’s north, but he does not say with whom. People displaced, but not by what. Something called the Purge, only he distracts Daggeir from that with a flask of brandy.

“Kari?” Gloi lifts the flask, smiling again. He’s always smiling, and it makes him less unhandsome and more tolerable to look at but the flutter it stirs in Kari’s belly unsettles him and he does not know how to respond. “Will you?”

Kari ducks his head, and wishes Gloi would not look at him like that where anyone can see.

“You can try it from my cup,” Gloi says, offering the cup, and he’s impossible. Doesn’t he know what he’s doing? If he makes Kari feel like this, then Kari isn’t responsible for what happens next. He isn’t. He can’t be.

He takes the cup, his face flaming with humiliation, and sips from it. The brandy sears a line down his throat all the way to his belly. He licks the trace of it from his lip, and Gloi’s eyes are a pale, shallow blue, like the winter sky.

“Have another,” Gloi says, but Kari opens his mouth and the words just fall out.

“What’s the Purge?”

One of Gloi’s soldiers shifts, her knee thunking against the table. Gloi waggles a finger, his mouth curving into only the shadow of a smile this time. “You’re clever.” He presses the cup on Kari, so Kari drinks again, and then Gloi begins a new story. It’s long and convoluted, and in the end it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with any Purge at all, but Daggeir, at least, is captivated.

At the end Kari has learned nothing, he thinks, except for two things. First, that whatever the Purge is, Gloi does not want him to know about it.

And second? Now Kari won’t be able to rest until he does.

Two nights ago, when the Jarl’s soldiers first arrived in Palrunstadr, Kari had been exiled from the hearth to the loft. It was comfortable enough up there on a pad of blankets, but so far from the fire, and the chill winter air nipped in between the roof planks leaving Kari cold and shivering all night.

Tonight, however, Gloi declares it too beastly cold to sleep alone, and orders his soldiers to bunk in together.

“Kari,” he says, smiling over his cup. “You can bunk with me.”

Kari’s face goes hot. If he’d wondered what Gloi’s intentions were before, now he’s certain. He mumbles something insensible and tries not to see the look that passes between Daggeir and his mother.

“I should wash up.” Gloi directs it at no-one, but one of his soldiers stands up to ask Kari’s mother for a kettle, and sets about fetching and boiling the water.

When it’s ready, Gloi asks Kari to show him where the washroom is. No-one else says anything.

Kari takes Gloi and the kettle and a candle out to the wash house. It’s freezing, but Gloi strips out of his tunic. His shoulders are broad and heavy, and Kari watches the play of muscle across his back until he realises that he is watching. He mumbles an excuse and turns to go, but Gloi calls, “Don’t leave,” and Kari doesn’t leave.

Gloi wets a cloth and offers it to him, turning far enough that Kari can see the whole length of his chest and his hard belly. His body is a powerfully attractive thing, but oddly bare, all the hair removed. Or perhaps he simply does not grow hair. Kari’s own chest is as smooth as a girl’s, but Gloi is, well, a man in ways Kari isn’t.

There’s a scar across his chest. It’s old, healed, but it must have been painful when it was cut. Kari wants to touch it, the same way he touched the wolf today, but he doesn’t dare.

Gloi pushes the wet cloth into Kari’s hand. “You can wash my back.”

He turns away, soaping another cloth for his neck and chest and under his arms, and Kari does as he’s told.

He’s never touched anyone like this before, never the naked skin of someone’s back. The flickering candlelight makes mysteries of Gloi’s body, and Kari thinks, I’m touching him and he is allowing it, and, If I took off my tunic would he do the same for me? and, Is that a thing I want? I don’t know.

“You have good hands,” Gloi says, and it’s so unexpected Kari nearly drops the cloth. “Clever hands and a clever mind. I don’t think you lied today. But then again, I’m inclined to believe every word out of your mouth.”

Kari bites his lip, and tries not to tremble.

“You don’t know about the Purge, or the dire wolves, but you saw one. And it let you live. I don’t know what that means but I intend to find out.” He turns to grin at Kari over his shoulder. “You must understand the need to know things.”

It’s true. Are they more alike than Kari thought? There is something about Gloi that makes him difficult to ignore. Kari isn’t sure if it’s the same thing Gloi apparently wants from Kari, but the need to know makes Kari restless, and he fidgets as Gloi scours his teeth and spits into the trough.

Now Gloi’s hands are busy at the waist of his trews, and he’s unfastening them, drawing them down. Kari jerks away from him, but all Gloi does is wash himself with the same fastidiousness he washed himself under the arms, now front and back, and then he washes his hands again, drying them on a cloth.

Kari tries not to stare at his bare arse but it’s almost impossible. Hard. Firm. Hairless, again — is he hairless all over?

Gloi tidies himself up, puts his clothes to rights, and turns around. He smiles. “You look alarmed.”

Any word Kari could say dries up in his throat. He stands there like a dullard, silent in his confusion. He feels too many things to say any of them and even if he could his tongue is against him.

Gloi closes the gap between them. “You don’t need to be afraid of me,” he says, his hands cupping Kari’s elbows. Kari wants to tear himself away, wants to fling himself against Gloi’s chest, wants to sink to the floor and…he doesn’t even know. He can barely breathe, and Gloi is waiting for something, so he wets his lip, quivering with…he has no idea what.

It must be enough. Gloi bends his head and takes Kari’s mouth. He tucks Kari’s lip between his own, his mouth dry and warm, and then a little damp, and he tastes of the herbs he used to scour his teeth. Kari feels it in every part of his body like a jolt of hot sunshine, and then it’s over. Gloi pulls away, his cheeks flushed, and this time his smile is sweet as honey.

“There’s water in the kettle if you want it,” he says, and then he walks out, leaving Kari with only the kettle and the candle for company.

Kari lets out all his breath at once, covering his face with his hands. His heart hammers unbearably, and he feels like all his blood is rushing about in his body, racing down his veins in a torrent.

No-one has ever kissed him like that, not at all. He thinks his mother had kissed him when he was small, but if she had it was nothing like the way Gloi had simply…how easily he’d done it, as if it was nothing, as if it wouldn’t leave Kari aching this way. All the flesh of his body feels enflamed, throbbing with his shuddering pulse.

He doesn’t know Gloi. He doesn’t know if he likes Gloi. Kari knows, though, that Gloi wants something from him, this friendly corporal, this hard-muscled soldier who smiles at him as if he’s worth smiling at.

If he hadn’t gone, then…then Kari doesn’t know what he would have done. What comes next? Something terrible, no doubt. Something he isn’t supposed to want.

He takes a deep breath and reaches for the kettle. It’s still half-full and Kari realises–Gloi left this for him, saved it for him as a kindness.

No-one treats him like this. And yes, Gloi wants something in exchange, but if it’s worth it? If Kari gets something better? Is that a bad thing?

He washes up from face to knee, and wonders. He’s wiping the water from his shoulders when he hears the scrape of a boot behind him. It must be Gloi. Kari feels like his chest might burst open.

But when he turns it isn’t Gloi after all. It’s Daggeir, and he’s angry.

Instinctively, Kari makes himself smaller, ducking his head and pulling in his shoulders. A smaller target, a smaller threat. If he’s pathetic enough Daggeir might take pity on him, though that’s rare.

But instead of a blow, Daggeir just stares at him for what feels like an age. Eventually, he says, “You don’t have to.”

It makes no sense. Kari grapples with it and comes up with nothing to fix on, no point at which to prise it apart for meaning. “Have to what?” he asks.

Daggeir’s face contorts with something like irritation. Or maybe shame. “The corporal. You don’t have to warm his bed. He can’t make you.”

And now Kari is speechless because… “Yes, he can,” he says, not thinking about it before the contradiction is out, and then it can’t be unsaid. “He’s stronger than me, he can make me do anything he wants.”

“No,” Daggeir insists.

Kari wonders if he just doesn’t understand. “He has a sword,” he says, but Daggeir shakes his head, growling in his throat.

No. I won’t let him. Not under my roof.”

It takes Kari’s breath away, which is just as well because his mind is reeling with things he should never say. You beat me for talking back but you draw the line at letting a stranger have his way with me?

And Daggeir is afraid of Gloi, but still he has said ‘no’.

Kari swallows, uncertain of what he’s supposed to do. “It’s all right,” he says. “I…don’t mind.”

“You don’t have to,” Daggeir insists and then, apparently at the end of himself, he rolls his shoulders. “Don’t waste that candle,” he snaps, and he’s gone.

When Kari takes the empty kettle back in, the soldiers are already bunked down on the floor. His mother is in her bed and Daggeir is sitting up on the end of it, whittling something with his belt knife. It’s a pointed and obvious threat, but Kari feels oddly warmed by it.

He blows out the candle, climbs the ladder to the loft, and fetches down his bedding.

Gloi, on the far side of the hearth, lifts the corner of his blankets and beckons him in.

It’s strange, slipping in beside him. He’s warm, a great warm mass, and he tucks Kari up against his chest, wrapping around him at once. Kari closes his eyes and lies very still. He hears Daggeir grunt, and then the tak of the knife laid aside, the rumple of blankets as he beds himself down.

It’s warm and largely quiet, besides the huff and wheeze of people drifting off to sleep and the crackle of the fire. Gloi’s breath warms the back of Kari’s ear, his lips tickling the edge of it, and his hand spread over Kari’s chest is warm and solid.

“I like you, Kari,” Gloi whispers in the dark, and his hand trails down, drawing swirls on Kari’s ribs. “I like you very much. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Kari doesn’t answer, pretends he’s asleep instead. Maybe if he’s convincing enough, Gloi will go ahead and do whatever he wants, and Kari won’t have to do anything back.

Gloi’s hand palms his belly, slips in under the edge of his tunic, and the moment he touches Kari’s bare skin it’s like a hot coal cracked open. Kari jerks, sucks in a gasp, and clamps his mouth shut. He’ll be still and he’ll be silent if it kills him, but Gloi’s fingers trail heat across his belly, and he wants something badly, wants more of this.

Of this? He doesn’t know. It’s too much, he can’t take it, and he turns his head to sob into his arm, muffling himself so Gloi won’t hear.

It takes him a handful of heartbeats to realise Gloi has stopped moving. Then. “Oh, Kari,” and the press of a kiss on his neck, and Gloi’s hand slides out of his tunic, coming up to stroke his cheek. “Shhh, it’s all right.”

Kari shakes. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with him.

Gloi folds him up in his arms, murmuring reassurances into his hair, and he feels like his chest is tearing open. He wants more, but he can’t stand more. He’s hot between his legs but if Gloi touches him there he feels like he might die. It’s an agony. And Gloi just holds onto him, humming something and stroking his shoulder until Kari feels…not better, but somehow less awful.

It’s shameful. He’s acting shamefully, like a child. But he’s a man, and Gloi expects him to know, and he does know what Gloi wants. All Kari has to do is spread his legs for it, right? Surely he can’t mess that up.

He tries to tell Gloi this, but he gets as far as, “You can…if you want,” before Gloi is hushing him again, tipping Kari’s jaw up to press a kiss to his mouth.

“You’re all right,” he whispers. “You’re lovely. Tomorrow.”

Tomorrow. It feels so far away. Kari doesn’t know how he can stand the anticipation, the tension of waiting. He wants to do it now, get it over with, find out for certain. But Gloi is firm, nestling Kari in his lap and simply holding him.

It’s nice. It’s the nicest thing he can remember.

He thinks he can’t sleep but he must, because he’s jerked awake by the gust of cold as Gloi pulls away from him.


But Gloi is already up, already pulling on his armour. One of his soldiers is at the threshold with a spear in hand, and the other is fastening Gloi’s boots for him, all in a rush.

Then Gloi is in the doorway with shield and sword, hissing at the others to hurry up.

Kari can hear it now, the sound of yelling and the clash of weapons. He can smell smoke, thick and heavy, and something else, something familiar.

Musk. Old blood. Wolf.

Gloi turns back, seeking Kari. “Stay safe,” he says. “Hide. Barricade the door. I’ll come for you when it’s over.”

Then he’s gone, and it’s just Kari, his mother, and Daggeir.

Chapter Three

Wolf Mountain

Chapter 3

“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.”

“Did what?”

“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.

Chapter Four

Wolf Mountain

Chapter 4

This wolf is big, as big as a reindeer. The scent of it floods Kari’s nose, and with it comes recognition.

This is his wolf, the dire wolf, the one from today.

It doesn’t attack him.

Kari holds still, too terrified to move. The wolf is as big as he remembers, a great grey thing with eyes that stare into his soul, but all it does is stare and Kari stares back, frozen in place beneath that silvery gaze.

He’s transfixed by the glimmer of light in the wolf’s eyes, the shifting luminescence that speaks to him on the edge of understanding. There is something greater than himself here, something bigger and broader and older than his whole village, as old as the woods, and in the eyes of the wolf he can almost see it.

It is as if the wolf is more real than anything else around it, more than the houses, more than the soldier who left Kari behind. Like a ghost only its opposite, solid in a way that only the woods and the snow and the stars are truly solid, unchanging inexorable things, permanent in a way that humans can never be.

The wolf is the realest thing Kari has ever seen, and Kari knows what it is.


When Kari was small, Old Ori—now shrivelled up and gone away—would tell them stories when Palrun could not overhear and put an end to it. The stories, Palrun said, were too much for little ears, but Old Ori had told them anyway. It was a mark of bravery to hear one of Old Ori’s tales and not piss yourself in your blankets at night.

Old Ori had never minded Kari, had let him creep up alongside and lay down on the floor. He never told Kari to get away, never hit him or threw anything at him. He would meet Kari’s eye and nod, and turn to the other children with a tale worse than usual because Ori knew Kari was not afraid.

Or maybe Old Ori simply wanted to find out what Kari was afraid of.

“Long ago,” Old Ori would say, “before humankind was born, the land was peopled only by the spirits of forest and stream, the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky and the fish and the wurms.”

(What about bugs? Kari had wanted to know. And spiders? He had never dared to ask.)

“When the gods gave birth to humankind,” Old Ori said, “they saw that humankind was weak and new, and needed time to grow. So they called the beasts of earth, the birds of sky, the fish in the rivers and the wurms together, and asked who would watch over humankind in its infancy.

“And all manner of creature said, ‘I will,’ and the gods chose for each place a guardian, and granted that guardian the understanding of the speech of humankind, and diverse magics, and bade them to watch over humankind as guard and guardian. And they were called landvaitr.

“So humankind grew strong, and thought much of itself. And eventually the gods bid farewell to the land, leaving the landvaitr and humankind to rule themselves, and for a time all was well.

“But one day the thought came into the mind of a great Jarl that the landvaitr were too powerful to be allowed to roam free. So the Jarl summoned all the landvaitr to a fine banquet in their honour, and once they were feasted and feted, he had his soldiers slaughter as many as they could lay hands upon.

“But he could not kill them all.

“They live now in the secret, hidden places of the land. And many are no longer guardians for humankind, but hunters of us.

“So beware, when you go alone into the dark places, to the hidden caves and lonely streams, the deep valleys and great peaks. The landvaitr are dangerous, and no certain friend of humankind.”

That is what is before Kari now, a beast as old and merciless as the glacier.

If it tries to eat him, Kari doesn’t know if he’ll fight. Perhaps it would be better to be eaten by one of the landvaitr than to live another day in this village. It would be an honour, would it not? To feed the belly of a guardian of Logilandi? What greater honour could a boy like him ask for?

But he doesn’t want to die, not even so nobly, and his teeth chatter with fear to see the wolf’s tongue swipe red and hot and hungry from its mouth, its fangs flashing white behind its lip. He wonders how it will feel when those fangs go into him, tearing him to pieces.

Will anyone care? Daggeir, no; Palrun, never; but Kari’s mother…she might. He wonders, his heart thudding heavy against his ribs. Would she? Would she weep? Or would it be a relief, the constant reminder of his father gone forever?

When the wolf steps forward, Kari feels its breath on his cheek, hot and meaty, and he braces himself.

But all it does is lick his face, a long wet stripe the length of his jaw.

“Faugh!” Kari scrubs his cheek with the back of his hand, or he tries to—he’s still holding the spear. He had forgotten about it completely, and now that he draws it up the wolf steps back, baring its teeth. Kari drops his hand, pulls it back to turn the edge of the spear away, and the wolf huffs, that lip coming down to hide its teeth again.

Such great, terrifying teeth. Kari swallows hard, his heart beating fast and heavy.

What should he do? He can’t attack the wolf—his mind reels from that, he cannot do it—but should he simply stand still? Wait for the wolf to eat him?

The wolf makes a rolling sound in its throat, and comes up to push its muzzle into his shoulder.

Kari does not breathe. He tries even not to think, in case his thoughts are enough to prompt the beast to devour him. But…it doesn’t threaten him, does nothing more than rub up on his shoulder, nuzzling along the line of it to bury its face in his neck and then…it breathes in, rumbles in its throat, and then scuffs its cheek up against his own.

Kari turns his head into the wolf’s ruff and inhales the scent of it—of him, he thinks, though he doesn’t know why.

Why did he do that? Why isn’t he pissing himself in fear? Why does he think, though his brain screams at him to be afraid, that this wolf means him no harm at all?

It huffs again, and its breath is warm and welcome. Kari drops his spear to put his hands up, running them into the warmth of the wolf’s throat.

The wolf rumbles again, shoving his head into Kari’s shoulder, and Kari laughs out loud. He wants to be petted. Kari pets him, scratching his hands up to the wolf’s head, running his fingers over the fur-clad bones of the wolf’s skull and wondering. Such a great beast, and he lets Kari pet him so easily, pushing into the touch as though welcoming it wholeheartedly.

“Soft,” Kari murmurs, his nerves singing high and strange with the scent of this wolf in his nose. “Softly, now.”

The wolf huffs and pushes his muzzle up along Kari’s jaw, and he could so easily open his mouth only to close it on Kari’s throat and tear the life from him but he doesn’t, just licks at him, pressing close enough that Kari steps back against a wall, his hands full of wolf-fur and his heart just…he doesn’t even know. There’s power here, something magic. He can sense it under his palms, and he curls his fingers into the wolf’s ruff, feeling something otherworldly tingle against his skin.

Maybe he grips too tight, but the wolf makes a sound of displeasure, knocking his head into Kari’s skull. Not to injure, just a warning, and Kari lets go.

“Sorry,” he whispers. “Did I hurt you?”

A rumble and the wet swipe of a doggy tongue over his jaw. It’s so real. Is it truly landvaitr? But what else can it be? Wolves don’t grow so big, and they do not tolerate humankind to pet them like dogs. Except…for a legend, the wolf is remarkably friendly.

The only warning Kari gets is the crunch of snow nearby, and then the wolf’s head comes down, a hard growl reverberating up its throat. Then—”Dire wolf!” and the hiss of steel drawn from a sheath.

Kari spins, pressing his back against the wolf’s shoulder. Three soldiers have come around the corner of Geir’s house. One of them has a torch, casting pale flickers across the snow churned underfoot. The soldiers are ragged. Dark stuff paints their tabards, and Kari can smell blood all over them. They are all of them armed, and in their egg-shaped helmets he does not know them.

The wolf’s growl deepens, like the rumble of warning thunder.

“It’s all right! Step away from the wolf and we’ll take care of it.”

She sounds concerned for him. But that’s not right. What does she mean? But the wolf shifts its weight, tensing to spring, and Kari has to do something.

“Please!” he holds out a hand, and only realises it’s the one with the spear in it when the nearest soldier’s own comes up in answer. Kari lifts his free hand, fingers spread in honesty. “Please, don’t come any closer.”

“It’s all right to be frightened,” she says. “But I need you to be brave. I need you to move away from the wolf.”

“No, I—”

“Get away from it, boy,” one of the others snaps. “Before it tears out your throat!”

“You don’t understand! It’s not a wolf, it’s landvaitr!”

But they’re not listening. One of them is circling out, around, trying to pin the wolf up against the house. They’ll try to kill it, he knows. This wild, ancient thing as old as ice, sacred to the moon and the earth and the wind. They’d kill it as easily as slaughtering a rabid dog, and never even know what they have done.

This creature, who has been kinder to Kari than almost anyone in the world.

He knows he can’t let that happen. So he steps in front of the wolf, baring the back of his neck to its teeth, and says, “No!”

For a moment, it’s as if the world has frozen still. And then the first soldier calls back. “What?”

She sounds incredulous. Kari supposes it is ridiculous, someone as slight and small as he, trying to protect a great wolf from three soldiers armed to the teeth. It’s a joke. But Kari is used to being the butt of jokes far more cruel than this, so he holds his spear in front of him like a barrier. “I won’t let you hurt him.”

There’s a pause, and then—”What in the frost is he doing?” one of them mutters, not too quiet to carry. “Is he crazy?”

The one that has circled around takes a step closer, and the wolf moves, twisting its head toward the soldier as its terrifying growl goes up like the groan of hornets. Kari’s heart is in his mouth because…he cannot let them kill the wolf. He cannot let the wolf kill them. He has to stop this before something terrible happens, and it feels like time is blowing through his fingers like dry leaves in the wind.

“I’m not crazy. It’s not a wolf. It’s landvaitr,” he tries again, pushing himself in front of the wolf. It sidesteps, forcing him to follow it. He reaches for the thing’s ruff but it snaps at him, and he snatches his hand back, heart pounding. But. It hadn’t hurt him. Just a warning. Like the growl. Stay back, before you get hurt. Don’t make me do it.

“Those are stories,” someone says. “Aren’t you too old to believe in grimms and fairies?”

“They’re not,” someone else argues. “They’re real enough!”

“And that’s one of them?”

“No, but—”

“Listen to me,” the first soldier says, her voice gone hard as steel. “That beast killed five of my warriors. I won’t let it kill any more. Now, you’re going to get out of my way or I’m going to go through you, do you understand, boy?”

Kari doesn’t answer, just spreads his arms in a silent protest, making a wall of himself. It’s flimsy. He’s nothing to them, and they could cut through him like butter, but it’s all he can do, and he’s stubborn enough to refuse to know when to back down.

But the wolf seems set against him. It ducks out from behind Kari’s outstretched hand, buffeting him aside like he’s made of straw. Kari tries to get between it and the soldiers, but it paces out from behind him again, huge and terrifying, and Kari feels keenly the weight of his hubris in thinking he could protect something so much greater than he.

He thinks for a moment that the soldiers will attack, or that the wolf will attack them, but all it does is put itself between Kari and the flash of their steel, still growling, head down low and ears flattened back against its skull.

It’s almost like the wolf is protecting Kari.

But it can’t be. That’s too ridiculous for words.

Except it crowds him back against the wall, pacing in front of him with its great jaw cracked to show the hellish points of its teeth, and Kari feels…sheltered.

It’s a new feeling. He doesn’t quite know what to do with it, too stunned by the thought to process it properly.

He wants to haul the wolf back, wants to put his arms around its neck, but he can’t move, too shocked to think that it might…what? Is it territorial? Does it think Kari belongs to it now, with its scent rubbed over Kari’s skin?

A great rush of feeling overwhelms him, and with it the sudden, hot realisation that he would do anything to protect this wolf, anything at all, but he doesn’t know what or how, and his tongue feels dried to the roof of his mouth, useless to him.

Which is the moment that the soldier who has circled sidelong darts forward to grab Kari’s arm.

Kari yells. Immediately, the wolf whirls around, lunging for the soldier’s face and clanging its great teeth against that egg helmet. Someone screams. The wolf snarls, sharp and furious, and then there’s a sound like something tearing, something distressingly wet, and blood blooms like smoke in the air.

The soldier goes down. Kari just stares at the dark hump in the snow. Everything seems very far away, the sound of yelling, of snarling, the snap of teeth and an angry yelp. A scream, cut off. The torch, sizzling out in the snow.

He blinks into the dark. It’s grey, but he can see the edges of things. He’s always been good at that, and now he knows it’s almost dawn.

The wolf pads up to him, its breath heavy with fresh blood, mouth covered in it. It scuffs its face in the snow but that does nothing to dull the scent of it. Kari feels…not as sick as he should.

There’s blood on the wolf’s shoulder, fresh and inhuman, and Kari reaches out to touch it but stops short when the wolf rumbles at him.

“You’re hurt,” he says.

He knows the soldiers are dead, knows it’s his fault, but he can’t quite make his brain bend around it. It’s like all the feeling has been dulled by snow, numbed away like his toes. And what’s left is a pale relief that the wolf is all right, except for its bloodied shoulder.

The wolf licks his face again, and this time Kari can smell the death in its mouth, but he doesn’t flinch away.

The wolf protected him. Or it thought it had. It killed for him.

And Kari knows, deep down, that he would have done the same.

Chapter Five

Wolf Mountain

Chapter 5

Kari has seen a man die before. Old Ori, at the end of his life. And Boga, when the sickness came upon them. Boga was infirm already and the sickness brought him to the precipice of death. He coughed and hacked and spat. Palrun said he could not be left alone or he might choke on his own fluids, so turns were taken with him, to sit and listen to him wheeze, and the worst turn was between moonset and sunrise.

This turn was given to Kari. Kari sat for three nights in the dark, listening to Boga’s ragged sighs, and on the last night those sighs ran low, thin, until they were almost nothing. Kari had lit a candle and lowered it to look at Boga’s face.

The old man sighed, blinking gummy eyes into the light, and opened his mouth. Kari had thought he wanted for something, so he bent his head to listen.

“To the depths with you, Ueskilegt,” Boga said, and then he died.

They’d blamed Kari for it. Palrun spat at his feet, cursed him into the dawn. Kari had felt it unfair, but then, wasn’t it all?

That death had been long and slow, and much anticipated. But these soldiers lying in the bloody snow had been vitally alive only heartbeats before, and Kari can’t put his head around it, that they are now-dead once-alive and that it is, as always, his fault.

And the wolf whuffs in his face, nudging him with a muzzle all over ice-melt and blood. Kari shivers, colder now than he has ever been, and he turns his face away.

The wolf pushes him. Then again, hard. Kari stumbles, comes back up, but the wolf lowers its head to shove him with the flat top of its skull, making him slide on the wet ground.

“What do you want?”

The wolf rumbles in its throat, blinking those great eyes. It twists its head, snapping at his waist, but before he can flinch, it him caught by the cloth of his tunic and is tugging him along.

It wants him to go with it and will not take ‘no’ for an answer.

Kari does as it wants because he has no choice.

He can’t stop his brain from churning: those soldiers are dead because of me. He is cursed, and now at the mercy of a wolf that is more than a wolf.

The dark has turned, light coming on grey and gloomy over the village. It does not look like his village anymore. Smoke hangs over everything, choking the air, and the snow beneath his feet is churned and dark. Someone is wailing in the distance. He tastes blood in his mouth. He’s so cold it feels like he is slowly dying.

Now that the sun lingers on the cusp of the horizon, Kari can see the other wolves. They are smaller than his wolf, darting in amongst the houses like dogs looking for something to eat. He shudders. Maybe they are, at that. Maybe they’re hungry.

The wolf—the landvaitr—jerks him along and he goes, trying not to stumble on feet gone numb. He glances between the houses, and it takes him a moment to realise what he is seeing.

Two warriors stand side by side, looking down at a third who is crouched to slit the throat of a soldier on the ground. When the warrior is done they catch a hand in the soldier’s collar and begin dragging the body through the muddied snow. One of the others stoops to take up the soldier’s feet. They are all three dressed in leathers and furs, their hair braided back into tails and crests, bound with coloured thread and beads like the people of the glacier.

They are not of Kari’s village. They are not soldiers of the Jarl.

Are they bandits? Raiders? Kari cannot comprehend it. Raiders and wolves. The coincidence is unfathomable.

As he watches, a wolf runs up to nip at the hand of the third warrior. She laughs and pats the beast on the head, and the wolf lolls out its tongue like it is laughing too.

Wolves and raiders. What can it mean?

The great wolf, Kari’s wolf, makes an impatient noise, and Kari stumbles on alongside it, too bewildered to think anymore.

At the mouth of the village, where the path leads down to the pass, Kari finds the raiders have built a fire, and even now they are building it high. It stinks. Kari tries not to think about what it burns.

Alongside, the bodies of soldiers have been piled up, and now a few of the fur-and-leather-clad raiders are going through the belongings of the dead. Rummaging through their lives. Many of the soldiers are without boots, their feet small and vulnerable in the snow. Kari tries not to think about his own poor feet, nor to look at the mound of leather boots beside the fire.

There are more than a dozen raiders here, a handful of wolves weaving in and out of their paths. Not underfoot, somehow welcomed as part of the group. None of the wolves are as big as Kari’s wolf. Kari’s wolf towers over them all.

Kari’s wolf lets him go, and then pushes him along when he stops. A smaller wolf runs up to them, making a noise like a question, but the landvaitr simply rumbles at it until it bounces away. More than one of the raiders looks at Kari with interest, but it is fleeting.

Kari does not look at the bodies and wonder if Gloi is among them. He can barely think. He has no room in him for anything but ‘now’.

Later he will regret this, but in this now it is all he has.

There is a ripple amongst the warriors and wolves. A man walks through, and he is like any of them, wild and furred and hairy. But as he moves between them they all turn to him, one after the other, just to look or to nod, or to give way. He moves through them with a self-assurance Kari has never seen in his life, completely and utterly unafraid.

And he walks right up to Kari, glancing over him with interest.

“Well, Fyrsti. What is this you’ve brought me?”

The man is tall, his hair so pale it is like it’s rimed with snow. He has it braided up on his crown, a heavy crest of it running down the back of his neck like the mane of a horse. He wears leather armour, a fur tied around his neck and shoulders, but his arms are bare to the winds, thick with muscle and hairy from the elbows to the cuffs of his handwraps. The hair is red-gold, soft as a pelt. He regards Kari with eyes like frozen sky, blue chips in a flat, broad face rubbed red by the wind. An ice-walker’s face.

The swirl of blue inked over one eye confirms it. He’s come down from the glacier for this. Kari cannot be terrified when he is so curious. Why is this man here? Why are there wolves with him? Who are his warriors and what do they want?

The wind shifts and throws the man’s scent in Kari’s face, and his knees buckle.

What is that? It’s like a blow to the head. Rich and earthy, thick like pollen, meat-warm and somehow terrifying. He wants to put his nose in that scent, wants to run from it as far as he can.

The ice-walker reaches up to scuff his hand over the brow of the great wolf, but his eyes are on Kari.

“A wolfchild. Alone in this still-village. What do they call you, wolfchild?”

“Ueskilegt,” Kari says, because it’s true.

The ice-walker bares his teeth, and is it a smile or a threat? “That’s old, and cruel. Your mother never named you so.”

No. “She called me Kari.”

This time it is a smile. “For your curls.” He ruffles Kari’s hair as if they have known one another all their lives. “I’m Brynjar. You’re alone here.”

It’s nonsensical. In a village of thirty families he’s hardly alone.

Kari casts his eye over the wreckage of his village—it is not so bad as he feared. It will take work to rebuild but not so much they’ll starve out the winter. That is, if the raiders haven’t yet found the dry stores.

But there are the wolves. The dry stores won’t stay hidden for long.

When he looks back, Brynjar’s eyes are fixed on him, uncannily bright, his mouth bent with amusement. “I mean you’re a lone wolf among stills,” he clarifies, watching Kari’s face. “You know what you are, don’t you?”

Ueskilegt, he almost says again. Unwanted. A mistake.

Brynjar’s eyes narrow. “Wolfchild. Born of wolves, or maybe just one. Which one of them left you behind? Your mother or father?”

“My father.” Kari’s throat burns but he swallows his shame. “My father left when I was born.”

“A wolf, then. And your mother?”

“She took a husband.”

“So you were left out in the cold. To die.” For a moment Kari thinks the ice-walker makes mock of him, but the twist of his mouth is a rueful thing. “But you’re, what, nineteen? Twenty? You survived, wolfchild. Alone, but strong.”

Born of wolves. Kari tries on the thought for size, fits it over old hurts and gaps he has long given up pondering. A wolf. Savage and ruthless and untrustworthy. A danger to his village. Unwanted. It would explain so much.

“They didn’t leave me in the cold,” Kari says, unsure why it is important. Daggeir could have, but he did not. Kari feels he owes that much to the man who fed him, even if all Daggeir fed him were scraps and blows.

“You really don’t know.” Brynjar sounds sorry, and Kari looks up to find the man pitying him. “You’re thin, wolfchild. I should take you home with me and fatten you up.”

Go with him? The thought hits him like a wet sack of laundry, unexpected and staggering, but before Kari can do more than think it, Brynjar turns away from him to his raiders, who are dragging a body between them.

Not a body. It’s Palrun, alive and kicking. Kari ducks his head, turning away from her instinctively and (instinctively?) toward Brynjar. It strikes him how strange that is, to be more afraid of an old woman’s wicked tongue than of a raider with a great bloody wolf leaning over his shoulder.

“They say she’s the leader,” one of the raiders ventures, and Brynjar tsks like a village elder.

“Stand her on her feet, then.” When she’s been stood up, Brynjar props his hands on his hips, regarding her narrowly. “You’ve fucked up,” he says.

Unsurprisingly, Palrun spits at him. “Filth! Murderers! To the depths with you all!”

Brynjar growls in his throat, scuffing a wrist over his cheek. “Give her to the wolves,” he says, turning away, and Palrun screeches like a wild cat.

Someone has her by the hair, is dragging her through the mud as she kicks and screams, and Kari can’t stand it. “Please,” he says.

Brynjar stops. He fixes Kari with a look he cannot fathom, something deep and heavy. “You want me to spare her?”

“Please, herra,” Kari begs, because he must. “Don’t feed her to the wolves.”

“Was she kind to you?”


It’s only the truth. She was as bad as most, though not the worst of them. Still. To be eaten alive. Kari clears his throat, aware that they are all looking at him now: Brynjar; the other raiders; the great grey wolf with its eyes that see into Kari’s soul.

But. “She’s my mother’s mother. I must.”

“She hates you.” Brynjar catches Kari by the chin and forces him to look at her. Her hair has come loose of its braids, tangling around her face in white-streaked shanks, and her mouth writhes with curses. “She wishes you dead along with every last one of us.”

“All the same.”

For a moment, Brynjar says nothing. Then he pats Kari on the chest. “Loyalty. Bring her back,” he says. “On her knees this time.”

They shove Palrun down in the mud and ash, holding her there at Brynjar’s feet. And Kari’s feet, though it seems an accident.

“There was a boy you called Ueskilegt,” Brynjar says, almost cheerfully. “I know you mistreated him. But the man he has become has begged me to spare you. Show him how grateful you are.”

Palrun’s outrage is palpable. “That boy is a curse. Filth, like the rest of you.”

“And you will say, ‘Thank-you, Kari, for your mercy,’ or I will drag your villagers before you one by one and tear out their throats with my teeth until you do.”

He sounds so reasonable. He has to be bluffing, surely.

Kari looks at Brynjar in his leathers and fur, his shoulders bare to the chill wind, blood soaked into his handwraps and boots and that wolf by his side, and he knows. Brynjar isn’t bluffing.

Palrun must come to the same conclusion—she bares her teeth in a rictus but she grinds out, “Thank-you, Kari. For your mercy.”

It doesn’t feel good. It feels savage, vengeful. He has feared Palrun for so long, another rough hand in a crowd of them, and yet. She’s family. Isn’t she? Isn’t that important? Even if she has never thought so.

“You brought this upon yourselves,” Brynjar says, matter-of-fact as if he isn’t speaking nonsense. “You stole this land. You trapped wolves on the forest side. You left the carcasses for carrion eaters.”

“The wolves took children.”

“No, they didn’t. That was a human crime.” Brynjar rocks back on one heel, contemplating the dawn-kissed clouds overhead. “And then you harboured Steelheads in your midst, as if we wouldn’t know. We could have forgiven the rest, perhaps. But the stink of Steelheads, that’s something we can’t abide.”

“The Jarl’s soldiers didn’t give us a choice,” Palrun argues.

Brynjar shrugs. “You fed them. You sheltered them. We came for them. And now I find you’ve been mistreating a wolfchild. If not for that, I would have let you live.”

“You mean to kill me because of that creature?”

“His name is Kari,” Brynjar snarls, and between one blink and the next he’s down in Palrun’s face, her throat in his hand. “And no, not just you. All of you.”

He means the whole village. Kari’s heart leaps into his throat. “Herra, please!”

Brynjar stiffens, but he does not look up. “Kari,” he says softly. “Don’t you want revenge?”

“No.” Kari can see the strain in Brynjar’s arm, his muscles bunched, thumb pressed to the pulse of Palrun’s throat. If he kills her Kari will carry the guilt of it forever. He steps forward, reaching out to touch the center of Brynjar’s back.

This close his scent is heady and overwhelming, and Kari breathes it in. He feels Brynjar shudder beneath his fingers.

“Please,” he says. “Don’t.”

“I’m going to kill them all anyway,” Brynjar says, as if it is foregone. “Why do you care if she goes first?”

“Please don’t kill them.” He presses down, fingers smoothing through the fur of Brynjar’s wrap to feel his spine beneath. “Herra. Brynjar.”

Brynjar is on his feet in a heartbeat, twisting like a cat, catching Kari’s shoulders and carrying him back a step with the force of his lunge. His eyes are wide, so blue, and there’s something wild in his face, in his bare white teeth. “Kari,” he growls, and Kari thinks Brynjar means to tear out his throat instead, but all he does is press his face into the curve of Kari’s neck and breathe him in.

Oh. His scent fills Kari’s nose, his mouth, heady and thick, and Kari shudders like he’s sick, something squirming low in his gut, something shameful and wonderful.

Then Brynjar releases him, and Kari staggers back, breathing hard, his mouth open and wet. He can’t get Brynjar out of his lungs, and every breath makes something tighten in him like a knot under tension.

“And if I don’t?” It takes a heartbeat for Kari to realise the question is for him. If I don’t kill everyone in your village. Brynjar spreads his hands, like they’re dickering over a tin pot, but his breath is ragged too, his eyes bright and dangerous. “What then?”

“I’ll come with you.” The moment the words are out of his mouth they are suddenly heavy as boulders, pressing down on his chest to smother him. It’s nonsense; it’s impossible. Kari’s losing his mind, that must be it, and yet…

And yet.

Brynjar smiles, more cruel this time than kind. “Oh, Kari. I was going to take you anyway.”

“But if you spare them, I’ll come willingly.” Kari wets his lip, uncertain now. He has nothing to bargain with but this, and he needs to make it good or—

Or Brynjar will slaughter everyone he’s ever known, and Kari will have to live with it.

“I’ll do anything you want,” Kari says. “Anything.”

Brynjar’s smile is sharp enough to slice flesh. “Anything?” He draws a blade, flips it, and offers up the hilt. “Will you cut her throat? To save the rest,” he says, so simply it leaves no room for misunderstanding.

One life against a dozen dozen. A test, to see what he’s made of. A cruel one, and Kari feels the prick of heat behind his eyes. Not for Palrun but for himself. It’s selfish, he thinks, when he’s not even the one who’s going to die.

“Promise me,” Kari says.

Brynjar’s grin is a feral thing. “You have my word, wolfchild.”

So Kari takes the knife. One of Brynjar’s raiders holds Palrun’s head back, a hand hard over her mouth. Her eyes are wide and wet above that hand. She tries to tear herself away and Kari must look, because if he is to kill her then she deserves that someone see. He doesn’t tell her he’s sorry, and he isn’t, not really. Not for her.

Kari holds the knife to her throat. Best to make it quick. He feels like he’s going to vomit; he will vomit; he must do this. He tightens his grip and steels himself.

But before he can draw the blade across, a hand closes on his wrist, the warmth of Brynjar curling around him, wreathing him in that scent. “No, Kari. That’s enough. This should not be your first kill.”

Kari lets him take the knife, his hands shaking now where they had not before, and relief courses through him hard enough to stagger but— “Then who will do it?”

“No-one. I’ll spare your village, and even this old bitch.” He tucks his face into Kari’s hair and inhales. “Holy Mother, you’re a find.”

When he lets go, he orders Palrun released, and for his raiders to strip the village of supplies.

Kari can’t help it. “Herra, please. You promised.”

Brynjar stares at him. “Have I not spared your village?” he says, incredulous. “What more can you ask of me?”

“If you take the food they won’t last the winter. You’ll still have killed them, only slow and merciless.”

For a moment Kari thinks Brynjar will backhand him across the face. But instead he throws back his head and laughs. “You’re brave and crazy,” he says at last. “Razaan is going to love you. Fine,” and he turns to his raiders. “Take a third of the supplies. Fair-ish,” he says, eyeballing Kari like he’s mad. “There. Happy?”

Kari breathes out, shivering. “Thank-you.”

Brynjar snorts and turns away. “Just be worth it, wolfchild.”

Chapter Six

Wolf Mountain

Chapter 6

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.

“Kari what?”

“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.

Chapter Seven

Wolf Mountain

Chapter 7

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.

“You’re limping.”

Oh. Kari stands up as straight as he can, trying to look hale and hearty. “It’s nothing.”

“You’re limping.”

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.

Chapter Eight

Wolf Mountain

Chapter 8

“Shh,” Brynjar says, low and soft. “Go back to sleep.”

“There was something on the plain,” Kari mumbles, his tongue too thick and his thoughts a jumble. “Something with a thousand thousand legs.”

Brynjar grunts and settles himself along Kari’s side. “Don’t you worry about that, wolfchild,” he says, stroking a hand down Kari’s side to grip his hip. He squeezes, and lets Kari go. “No more wolf dreams tonight. Just rest.”

He says, as if it is possible to sleep on the heels of that dream. Kari is half awake and now comes fully to himself as his awareness grows; Brynjar is alongside him, his body a warm weight, his hand moving slowly over Kari’s hip. It is a comfort, nothing more sinister than that, and yet Kari can smell him, is aware of him in a way that overtakes his thoughts, flooding his mind with, Brynjar, Brynjar.

Kari rolls onto his side, eyes closed tight against the sight of Brynjar’s silver-flecked eyes in the dimness of the night, but Brynjar moves up behind him, laying out long and lean and musky beneath the furs.

“Will you not sleep?” he murmurs. His fingers find Kari’s hair, carding through his curls to pick at the knots. “Will you hear a story, instead?”

Kari breathes out, ruffling Fyrsti’s fur. He isn’t sleepy, his nerves singing with the proximity of the warrior lain along his spine. He wants something, though he doesn’t know what that something is. And Brynjar asks for nothing except to tell him a story. So. “Please, herra.”

“No, not herra.” Brynjar nuzzles his hair, nosing him like a dog.

Kari holds his breath for as long as he can before he must let it go. “Alpha,” he says at last, and Brynjar’s pleasure is almost palpable.

“Better. So. Do you know of Eir, and his travels amongst the stars?”

“Yes,” Kari admits, for he does. Every child knows those.

“He walked from house to house, along the celestial road,” Brynjar says, as if Kari had never spoken. “In the house of Lugh he was given the gift of fire. And in the house of Lana he was given the gift of water. But in the house of Logi he was given the gift of cunning. Do you know how he came by it?”

Kari does, so he says, “Logi gave it to him, in his seventh year of service.”

Brynjar is pleased, he can tell, even with his eyes shut. It is in Brynjar’s scent, perhaps, or in the motions of his hands, gentle now in this quiet place. “And do you know the service Eir did for Logi, in Logi’s house?”

“He kept Logi’s house for him, and tended his hearth.”

“And his bed,” Brynjar says quietly.

Kari opens his mouth but stops himself before a sound comes out. Was that part of the story? It seems unfamiliar and strange. Why would Eir keep Logi’s bed warm for him?

“Eir bore Logi seven childer,” Brynjar says, his fingers gentle in Kari’s hair. “Seven childer bore he, and for every son Logi gave him a gift of the flesh, and for every daughter a gift of the mind, and for the one that was both and neither, Logi gave him cunning, for it was the greatest gift he could give.”

Both and neither. “What does that mean?”

Brynjar understands, of course, though Kari cannot put it into words. “The seventh child was born like you. Fertile. Omega,” he says, his hand rubbing up over Kari’s hip and across his belly. “Bearer. Something precious, and worth all the cunning in the minds of humankind.”

“Omega.” Kari has not heard of it before, but it feels familiar. It settles into his skin with a rightness that makes no sense when he tries to follow it back to the source. But Brynjar chuckles and nuzzles him, stroking his belly low, above his hips. It fills him with warmth, his body gone hot and hard beneath his trews, but Brynjar does nothing more than pat him there and snuggle him in close.

“You are the other half of the light of the world,” Brynjar says, close and quiet, a secret for them to share. “Alpha to omega. The greatest magic. Here, we have it between us. It draws us close and holds us fast to one another. Can you not feel it within you?”

Kari doesn’t know. How could he? It makes no sense and yet…he is drawn to Brynjar. He trusts him. He wants, very much, to feel certain that he can trust him. He wants Brynjar’s approval and regard, wants Brynjar to be pleased with him and not beat him, to smile at him and ruffle his hair and nuzzle his throat, and so much more. If Brynjar were his father—

But Brynjar is not, and Kari’s father is long gone. Dead, they always said, before they spat in the dirt at Kari’s feet. Brynjar is very much alive, warm and solid and here.

Kari tucks his face into the crook of his elbow and pretends to sleep. Brynjar chuckles softly, nipping at Kari’s ear with sharp, demanding teeth.

“You are not so cunning yet, wolfchild, to succeed in deceiving me.”

Because he knows. Kari scrunches his face, refusing to look at him. “Will you tell me another story?” he asks, and Brynjar hums softly before settling himself against Kari’s shoulder.

“Long before, when humankind was small, there were three sistren: Hela, Halle, and Hel. In their house at the heart of the great dark wood that spread from one horizon to the other they lived together, Hela, Halle, and Hel. Each dawn they woke together, and rose together, to break their fast together, Hela, Halle, and Hel. Each morn they went together, down to the river together, to fetch their water together, Hela, Halle, and Hel. Each day they laboured together, tended their crops together, in their garden together, Hela, Halle, and Hel. Each night they slept together, in their wide bed together, before the fire together, Hela, Halle, and Hel. And they loved one another, as well as any sistren or lover, they loved each other, Hela, Halle, and Hel. But then came the Wolf to their door with his eyes of silver, and they looked on him with pleasure, so doomed themselves forever, Hela, Halle, and Hel.”

The rhythm of the sleeping story steals over him, laid over his mind like a heavy wrap, sinking him under it. Brynjar’s voice follows him into dreams, and he dreams of a small house at the heart of a great wood, and a silver-eyed stranger, and the jealousy of his sisters, and betrayal. But it is soft—so soft here—and he is safe, and he goes under willingly, with Brynjar’s breath comforting on his skin.

It’s warm. Soft. Kari has never felt so warm nor so soft before, his skin yielding with sleep and his flesh as tender as a fresh-boiled dumpling. He is content to remain soft and warm, cocooned in it, until he remembers: he is not alone.

He opens his eyes. All he can see is the dim outline of something ragged and soft-edged, the first kiss of grey pre-dawn blurring his vision. He holds himself stiff and still, and reorders himself. It is soft because he is wrapped in furs, with a direwolf’s flank for a pillow. It is warm because he is pinned between them, Fyrsti beneath him and Brynjar stretched over him, caging him into a place that is safe, and yet as much a prison as a hole underground. He cannot move without waking one or both of them. He has no choice but to stay.

Breath gusts warm across his ear. “Restless, elskling?” Kari remains silent. Brynjar laughs, low and quiet. “I can smell your restlessness. Are you so eager to be up and about your business? Or shall we lie in our laziness a little longer?”

What is this? Kari does not know if he wants it, whatever it is, though the urge to stretch himself out alongside Brynjar and wallow in his warmth is compelling. Kari can smell him, rich and musky and oddly spiced, and he longs to roll over and bury his face in Brynjar’s throat, to inhale him deep and keep him in his lungs forever.

But. “I need to piss,” Kari says, and Brynjar lets him go.

Standing nearly fells him. He’d forgotten about his poor feet. The thought of boots this morning is sickening, so he totters painfully on his bandages through the snow, letting the cold take from him the stabbing agony of his weight on his welts. He is, he realises, effectively hobbled. Even if he wanted to run he could not. He has lamed himself, like a reckless fool. Ah, well. No-one has ever expected much of him, anyway.

He makes water behind a tree and when he returns, Fyrsti has vanished and Brynjar is sat up to poke at the fire. He jerks his head, directing Kari back into the furs. “Keep warm, wolfchild, until there is something to break your fast.”

“Why do you call me that?” Kari asks, too sleepy to be very cautious. Brynjar frowns at him. “Wolfcihld, I mean.”

“Because it is what you are. I don’t want you to forget. You’re not human, no matter how long you’ve believed yourself to be.” Brynjar’s smile is broad and smug. “You’re ours, Kari.”

“And that’s why you were going to take me from my village,” Kari says, unable to help his curiosity.

“Aye. You belong with us, not with their kind.”

“Because you hate them.”

Brynjar’s eyes glint with something hard. “Hate them? Should I not hate them? They trap wolves, tan the skins right out in the woods for all to smell it. Not even for food: they do it, just because they hate us worse than we hate them.”

“Wolves take livestock,” Kari says, feeling bold.

“Whose livestock is it to take? Those goats were ours, once, roaming wild in the woods. Just because a human puts a fence around it, they think it theirs. Bah! As if such things can be claimed so easily.” Brynjar eyes Kari thoughtfully. “Those wolves would have starved to death if they had not taken a goat.”

And the villagers will starve if the wolves take too many. But Kari kept that thought to himself. Instead, he said, “There were girls, lost in the woods. Wolves, they said.”

“If they were small, maybe. Babes on their first legs, fat and naked in the snow. Then perhaps.” Brynjar fixes Kari with an implacable look. “But children? Unless they were already dying, wolves would leave them alone. Too hard to catch. Bad eating. Bony.”

Kari shudders. It’s an unpleasant thought, that the only thing keeping him safe from the wolves’ bellies is his boniness.

The rest of the camp has begun to stir. Fyrsti slinks out of the trees and drops a bloody rabbit at Brynjar’s feet. Kari watches Brynjar skin it and gut it with quick, deft motions of his hands. He is, Kari thinks, intimidating but also…also he takes care of Kari with a tenderness that is unexpected.

Big, broad-shouldered Brynjar, with his knotted locks and ragged beard. He has a wild, icewalker look to him, the tips of his hair burnished with white-gold but the roots deep red beside his scalp. And his eyes, when he looks up, as blue as the sky at the height of summer, as blue as the ice at the heart of the glacier, cold and sharp and flashing silver when his temper rises.

He makes Kari feel safe and terribly afraid, all at once. And then Brynjar turns to him with a cup of fresh-brewed tea, putting it in Kari’s hands before taking his own, and Kari inhales the sweet herbal steam and he thinks: He takes care of me. Fyrsti, too, takes care of me.

And he thinks: I am hearth family to them.

It is a slow bloom of realisation in his head. They have brought him into their small circle, to their fire, and they feed him and warm him, and he is theirs in every way that matters. Such a strange, unknown feeling, to feel secure in a place. A precious thing, one he does not wish to squander.

“Thank-you, Alpha,” Kari says meekly. “For the tea, and…”

Brynjar glances at him, blue eyes slanted sidelong above the rise of his wind-kissed cheek. His smile is secret in his beard but Kari sees it all the same. “You’re welcome, Kari. Always.”

They do not go up, deeper into the hills toward the glacier, but along, skirting the edge of them, with the sun behind. Amongst the trees their shadows are lost, but Kari sees them shift and knows they head west, curling slowly northward in a great long arc. He cannot recall what lies to the west-and-west-and-north, but he tries to make a picture of it in his head. There is a village, one Daggeir has visited, one with an alehouse and a trading post. What is the name of it? He cannot remember it now. It makes him think of bread, and his stomach rumbles. He wills it to be silent, not wishing to attract the attention of the others, and gives up his remembering to take in the breadth of the hillside.

Already they have gone farther from Palrunstadr than Kari has ever been in his life, and the landscape is changing. The hills become steeper but closely thicketted with trees. As they move down, the trunks of the trees grow likewise thick, and there is more undergrowth. The wolves pick through it easily, and the two-legged wolves among them move with a grace Kari envies, as if this is truly their land and they the masters of it.

He is himself sat up high on Fyrsti’s back, despite his protests that he could walk just fine.

Brynjar had ignored him and simply lifted him up, settled him there, and patted Fyrsti’s neck. “Take care of our Kari,” he said, and Fyrsti had whuffed, low down and dry as if to say, ‘You don’t have to tell me that.’

From his seat on top of the great wolf, Kari has an excellent view of the wolf raiders surrounding him. They are, he thinks, more familiar with each other than the villagers of Palrunstadr. Each goes to the others like a sibster, begging attention or play, or simply to be annoying to one another in a way that seems tolerated beyond anything Kari has known. And they do not have amongst them one they choose to tear into, to bully, one who bears their temper more than the others. None is singled out. Kari sees this, and it gnaws at him like a rat at a rind of cheese. None of them are treated as he was treated, as was his lot amongst the people he has known all his life.

The motion of Fyrsti beneath him is strange and unsettling. Kari clings to the wolf’s shoulders but he feels tossed about by its gait. He’s sorry for his full breakfast, his gut queasy. He closes his eyes to shake it off, hunching under his wrap. Fyrsti is warm, and Kari’s feet are protected from the hard ground. It’s pleasant. Except for the queasiness in his gut, and the knowledge that he is surrounded by people he does not know.

“Watch the horizon, if it bothers you.”

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 is walking alongside him, watching Kari with interest. Kari shrinks under his wrap, uncertain of what Brynjar wants of him. Now Brynjar glances up at him with a devil in his smile, eyes bright and mischievous.

“Do you know the story of Mikka?” he asks.

Kari shakes his head. “No, Alpha.”

Brynjar tells it, and he tells it well. He is a good storyteller, and Kari wishes he could be himself so skillful, weaving words into a rhythm that catches in the memory, painting pictures with them in the mind. And in every story Kari feels there is something Brynjar is trying to tell him, though he cannot see the shape of it yet.

He tells of Dalur who beat out the passes of the mountains, Ennur who cut the channels of the great rivers, and Sada who sowed the saplings of the forests—all the while it nags at him, a greater story beneath it all, something Brynjar wants Kari to know.

“Why not tell him about the Jarl?” says one of the wolves: Yggi, Kari thinks it is. They have come to a brief halt. Brynjar has insisted Kari stay where he is, and has handed up to him a waterskin and some hard biscuit, which Kari is hungry enough to eat gratefully and gracelessly. (None of the wolvenkind seem overly fussed with table manners that Kari can tell.)

Now, Brynjar frowns, his smile sliding from his face like it’s been wiped away with a dishrag. “It’s not a tale to rouse the appetite.”

“He’s hungry enough already,” says someone else, eyeing Kari in a way that is not unkind but makes his face heat all the same. Kari wipes a hand over his mouth and tries not to look untidy, though it is difficult when he is, in all ways, so very untidy.

Brynjar’s mouth has vanished into his beard, and now he looks at Kari narrowly. “You must know of Helgi Runirsson.”

Kari nods, though he is uncertain. “He is the Jarl. He rules all of Logilandi.”

“And rightfully, as it is measured by men. His father was Jarl before him, his grandmother Jarl before them.” His expression has gone cold enough to make Kari shiver in his wrap. “But he is no just ruler. He wages war on us with all the ruthlessness of a man exterminating the rats in his barn, though we have done nothing against him. Before now.”

Kari takes this in, still uncertain of what Brynjar means him to understand. “He hunts wolves?”

“He hunts landvaitr,” Brynjar says in a voice as flat and cold as a frozen pond. “He wants us all destroyed.”


“Why does a man do anything? To protect himself. He fears us, and so he should.” Brynjar turns to look out over the trees dipping into the valley, at the snow blanketing the landscape all the way down. “He is not made for our world, nor we for his. We are not the rats in his barn, but the field in which it stands, no more his than the wind or the sky. He does not understand what he does, but that is no excuse. he has turned his steel against us, and we will not allow him to slaughter us in our beds. ” Brynjar glances back, baring his teeth in a savage smile. “I look forward to the day I tear out his throat.”

Kari cannot speak, nor breathe, nor even blink, not pinned like this under Brynjar’s icy stare.

“So you see,” Brynjar says, still cold and hard as stone, “why we cannot permit his Steelheads to linger in the villages, and why the villages that welcome them must be destroyed.”

Kari cannot help it. “We did not welcome them.”

It makes Brynjar’s brow draw into a knot. “They were amongst you as hearthmates.”

“It was by the order of the headwoman,” Kari says slowly, unsure if he should argue but unable to hold his tongue. “We were ordered, each household, to billet the Jarl’s soldiers. They ate our food, warmed themselves by our fires. Daggeir said they were a plague and pestilence upon us.” But then, Daggeir said the same thing of Kari. “They were forced guests, and if not for their steel…I do not think anyone welcomed them.”

Brynjar stares at him. It is discomforting. He seems uncertain now. Kari does not dare to wonder why, but he misses the cadence of Brynjar’s storytelling when the band is once more underway.

Chapter Nine

Wolf Mountain

Chapter 9

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.